True Things

A wise writer (@saladinahmed) once tweeted something to the effect that the plot of any story will fall apart if you look at it closely enough, because it was a story, not real life. What wasn’t said, naturally, is that the difference between a story and real life is that a story, at least within the confines of its internal logic, has to make sense. Real life, as Mark Twain once famously observed, suffers no such limitations.

So we’re automatically at a disadvantage at least in that regard, trying to write a story where the reader, at least for the space of time they’re reading it, can forget that they’re not really living a story but reading words on a page or screen. We like to talk about something called “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief,” which is the ability to do just that. We like to talk about it because, to a fiction writer trying to reach a fiction reader, it’s beyond important—it’s absolutely necessary. All fiction readers have it or they wouldn’t be reading stories. Some people, I’ve discovered, have this ability to lesser degrees or even not at all. I vividly remember doing a signing where an older lady approached and asked if my books were about “True Things.” It took me a while to realize she wasn’t talking about non-fiction. She was talking about stories that mirrored and reflected, to a greater or lesser degree, the sort of things she saw and experienced every day. Give such a reader a story by, say, Ray Bradbury or Octavia Butler and the immediate reaction would be something along the lines of “This isn’t real!”

Of course not. It’s a story. If it’s a good one there’s Truth in it, but real? No. Then again, the “True Things” which she enjoyed weren’t real either, but try to explain that? No thanks. I’ve seen that lack go even further, and those readers only read news stories or biographies or, well, words on a page which claim to mirror actual events. Nothing speculated, nothing made up. It’s not their fault, but for whatever reason, they lack the toolset for anything else. I’ve tried to imagine what that’s like and the closest I can get is to picture a situation where you hear people talking about different shades of red when you’ve been colorblind all your life. You’d think they were talking nonsense, and from your perspective, you’d be right.

Anyway, to get back to my colleague’s point, no plot is perfect. There’s always a hole somewhere. If we do our job right it’s a little one, hardly noticeable or missed completely if the narrative pulls the reader along as it should. There’s a reason it’s called The Willing Suspension of Disbelief. It’s primarily our job not to muck with it as we spin our stories. Anything that throws the reader out of the story, even for an instant, makes them less inclined to trust you next time, if there even is a “next time.”

There will be holes, and inconsistencies, and whatnot. That’s inevitable. What’s not inevitable is that they will ruin the story. If the story works, the question on the reader’s mind will be “What happens next?” rather than “WTF was that?”

It’s our job to make sure the reader’s concern is the former and not the latter. If anyone ever said this was easy, that was not a “True Thing.”

Heroes: R.A. MacAvoy

TeaWithTheBlackDragonWriting heroes attain that status in my very subjective opinion for various reasons. Sometimes it’s for a body of work, but just as often it is for a very specific work, a work that shows you something you didn’t understand before, or even shows you something you didn’t know existed before. Last time I talked about Andre Norton’s influence in general, but specifically about Perilous Dreams and how its tone and approach informed A Warrior of Dreams. I use the term “informed” rather than simply “influenced,” to make a subtle but very real distinction. Lots of things influence a writer from time to time and day to day. I’ve read books—or in some cases attempted to read books—as I’m sure you have as well, whose main effect was to make you swear to never, ever publish anything that lame with your name on it. So in that sense they were important influences. No, “inform” is another level altogether. While anyone who reads both would know one is not a pastiche of the other, I have no trouble admitting that AWOD would have been a very different book, indeed may never have been written in the first place, if I hadn’t read Perilous Dreams first.

The very same dynamic exists between R(Roberta). A(Ann). MacAvoy’s classic Tea With the Black Dragon and what is one of my favorites of my own books, All the Gates of Hell. Continue reading



I’m learning about snow. In Mississippi, snow was a fleeting acquaintance at most. In all my childhood I can only remember two really significant snows, that is, accumulations great enough to scrape together a half-way decent snowman. One weird winter we had the local equivalent of a blizzard. Nine inches. Us kids had a ball, though I don’t remember the grownups being too keen on it.

So far this January it has snowed more here in NY than it did in the last five years in Mississippi. Yet snow is different here. In MS the snow was damper and tended to stick to itself. Easy to make snowballs and snowmen on the rare occasions when there was enough of it. Here in central NY there’s plenty, only it’s mostly what I think is referred to as “powder.” Very light and fluffy. Doesn’t stick together worth a darn, or at all, really. Good for shoveling. Good, apparently, for skiing, since there are several ski resorts in the area that were really bummed at the mild December. Not enough snow then. Mother Nature’s making up for it now. I am learning how to shovel snow. I can’t say it’s a skill I had ever aspired to, but it’s part of the deal. Fortunately, the snow is light and fluffy. It’s not that hard to move.

Another odd thing: when small animals make tracks, the snow is compressed in the middle and pushed up on the outside. When it partially melts, the pushed up area melts last, leaving these almost perfectly round “snownuts” along the animal’s path. They look like a trail of frosted doughnuts, just left there on the ground. Doubt they would taste as good, though.

The Emperor in Shadow proceeds. I have a long way to go, but I still think I can finish in time. I’m still in the section which I refer to usually as the “churning” section. Plot elements are being created, characters introduced, and the writing itself shows how they all fit together. Eventually. For the moment, it churns. Soon the pace will pick up when, well, I won’t say when I figure it all out, because that’s not quite how it works. Ray Bradbury is alleged to have said, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” That makes sense to me, but as for the actual day to day writing part, I say rather that the story triggers some sort of self-organization principle which is one of the keynotes of life in general. Life wants to happen, and so does story. For a book to live, it has to do something similar. At those times I feel more like a photojournalist than a writer, just trying to record the life as it happens. In this case, it just happens to be a novel.

If it’s not alive, well, there’s nothing to record. Just words. Like empty holes in the snow where maybe a living thing should have been.


Posterity Can Kiss My Posterior

Yoshino-1Lately it’s felt as if the sf/f field is under a curse. Within the space of a few months we’ve lost Lucius Shepard, Iain Banks, Jay Lake, Graham Joyce, and just this week, Eugie Foster. Nor was it that long ago that Kathy Wentworth left us. I think it was Kathy’s passing that hit me the hardest. Even though we’d been drifting in and out of touch as geography and our separate directions pulled on us, I considered her a friend. Then she was gone before I even knew she was sick. Cancer, like most of the above. All of them gone too soon no matter their ages, but Eugie especially in that regard. She was only forty-two (And for anyone out there who considers forty-two old, all I can say is—wait a while). Continue reading

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On

Epi Les Paul Special IIWhen a kid picks up the guitar at twelve they might be dreaming of being the next Buddy Guy or Jimmy Page or Bonnie Raitt or Rosie Flores. When one of us starts writing seriously, we might be dreaming of being the next Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner or Ursula Le Guin or Stephen King or Arthur C. Clarke or…well, pick your own poison. Those are what I tend to think of as “flash paper” dreams. Doesn’t take much to turn them into smoke and vapor. Usually a couple of years of working hard and getting nowhere will do it. The interesting thing about the whole process is not that most people quit at this point but rather that some people don’t. I mean, “You can’t have what you wanted, so forget it.” is a pretty powerful disincentive for staying the course. So why hang around when that fact become all too clear?

I think those who don’t quit are the ones who get new dreams. Not “settling for less,” but rather discovering something you didn’t know about in the first place. Something you didn’t even know you wanted, because you didn’t know it existed. In which case your original dream has done its job. It got you started, pointed in the direction you needed to go, even if that place you’re searching for wasn’t where you thought it was. J.R.R. Tolkien made me want to be a writer, but I figured out pretty much immediately that I wasn’t going to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien. For one thing, he was pretty much sui generis and there wasn’t going to BE a next J.R.R. Tolkien. Any more than there was going to be—more of my heroes–another Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin or Fritz Leiber. They’re them and you’re you. Once I got clear on that, then it became okay to figure out who I was and what I really wanted.

I’m still working on that and don’t expect to ever sort it out because the bar keeps moving, and for what little it may be worth, I wish as much for you. You work, you live,  and who you are and what you want to accomplish keeps moving, keeps evolving. That’s better than okay—it’s crucial. As time goes on you’ll know more. If you’re lucky, you’ll understand more. And what you think is important won’t stay the same, at least not entirely.

Getting started is what some dreams are for, but odds are they won’t be the ones that keep you going. And as for who you’re eventually going to be as a writer, that’s not really your problem. Anyone who cares to can sort that out after you’re gone. Maybe you’ll be someone else’s dream, for a while. Maybe not, but either way what matters is that you, when the choice was there, was able to grow and evolve along with those dreams and almost but never quite–a blessing on you–keep up.