Monthly Archives: June 2019

605. My Life as a Beaver

First I thought, this is too much about me. Then I thought, it’s a blog, stupid, go for it.

I am not a hoarder. Hoarders buy and store things they don’t need. I’m a beaver. I build things, and they accumulate. The tools also accumulate. Also the raw material for the next project, and there is always a next project.

Normally I keep my home life out of this blog, but I have to admit that my wife is also a beaver. It’s a good thing, really, or we couldn’t have had all these happy years together.

I always wanted to be a craftsman, but I grew up as a farmer’s son instead. Farming is a make-do profession. If a nail will do the job, don’t use a screw, and certainly don’t cut a mortise and tenon. We built a few barns when I was home, but the test of a barn isn’t how well it is built. If It doesn’t leak or fall down, it’s good enough. But it wasn’t good enough for me.

I took a semester of shop in high school, where I built a mahogany gun case for an aunt and a maple book case for a family friend. It was quite satisfying, but I needed all the rest of my time to prepare for college.

Once in college, I started a classical guitar, working where and when I could find space. I didn’t have the skills to do it right, but attempting it taught me skills I still use today. It sits, half completed in a closet; maybe someday I’ll complete it. Every successful craftsman has a few failures along the way, which is all right if he learns from them. Some years later I completed a dulcimer and later still the expanded range guitar shown here. I have a few more instruments in pieces waiting their turn.

That seems to be a pattern. I’ve finished quite a few novels, but I have at least as many more in pieces, waiting their turn.

Over the years I’ve built bookcases, tables, workbenches, cupboards, a bed, a couple of sheds, and all the other wood-based things a person on a teacher’s salary or a writer’s non-salary can’t afford to buy. I’ve also built for fun — fancy canoe paddles as family gifts, a cold-molded rowboat for the frustrated sailor that lives inside me, and other things too numerous to mention — or even remember.

Beavers gotta build stuff.

My wife lends a hand sometimes, and sometimes we build projects as a team. We spent a year of spare minutes building an arch to commemorate our (redacted) wedding anniversary. Her father and mother were both craftsmen, and she learned well before I ever met her.

Sometime in the eighties, we discovered quilting, and that’s something we do as a team. We design and build both together and individually. Over quite a few years, we designed better than a hundred quilts, most of which were built by a charity group in her guild to be donated. We built the three shown here ourselves; the designs are one each of hers, mine, and ours.

Beavers gotta design stuff.

The image at the head of the post is another project of ours. We built portable stands that carry 24 of these mini-quilts, and provide them for display in rest homes. We designed and built the stands; the mini-quilts come from guild members, including us.

In 2015 I decided my scheduled novel Cyan needed some support so I started this blog. A thousand plus posts later, I’m still at it.

Beavers gotta keep busy. Life can be boring if you’re standing still.

604. Changeable?

They proclaim it in every “How to Write” book: your character should change and grow. Truthfully, it almost never happens in genre fiction. The fact is, it’s really hard to get that kind of story published, and for a very simple reason. The reader won’t read it.

If the final condition of the character is the goal, the starting point has to be in some way unsavory. Let’s make up an example. Let’s let Sibrov (that’s a name taken from Small Gods, but spelled backwards) begin as a wild-eyed hunter of heretics. That’s a fairly standard villain. If our hero is a heretic, running from Sibrov, we have a whole sheaf of stories open to us, none of which pose any structural problems. And none of which will call for our hero to undergo any real change in his character. 

However, suppose we want Sibrov as hero. He will have to have a change of heart; at the extreme end of the change he might end up the picture of peace and love. This creates a problem. How do we get our reader through the first three-quarters of the book — the part where our hero-to-be is a dirty sewer rat?

It’s tough.

It’s also not something I’m normally interested in. I don’t like super heroic characters; even the gods I’ve written are flawed. Nevertheless, I do expect my heroes to be at least staunch and reliable. Another word for that would be unchanging. Readers like that, too. That is why genre fiction is able to have so many series — the main characters remain largely unchanged despite all the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune puts in their paths.

Hamlet, part two, back from the dead. Nope, it just doesn’t work.

There are ways of making a character change in genre fiction without losing the reader. Terry Pratchett does a masterful job in Small Gods, although his method is not a template many writers could borrow. He introduces dozens of characters, gives us a flurry of sound and fury, and doesn’t make it clear at first who is or is not going to be alive a few chapters later. While we are distracted by all the interesting bastards and losers, our main character — who is a complete cypher at the beginning — starts changing slowly. By the time that he has become the focus of the novel, he has already begun to become interesting.

I like my page-people to be fully formed when we encounter them, and then to have their characters tested by the universe. I have only tried to make them undergo fundamental changes in two novels. Of course, this ignores the growth from youth to adulthood. That is a different kind of change, suitable for a different post.

In my latest book, Like Clockwork, two of my forgetful characters discover who they used to be and integrate those memories. Another discovers feelings she had suppressed and cures herself of them. Those aren’t real changes; they are simply cases of regaining a previous state.

Another character, Hemmings, actually changes. He is pretty much a nobody at the outset — an emotionless creature who follows all the rules because he has no strong feelings about how things ought to be. Over a thousand years — or the length of the novel — he “grows a soul”.

I enjoyed that, but I only got away with it because Hemmings was one of a cast of eight characters. I got to show him in short bits while he was still dull, and then could bring him on stage for longer incidents as the universe slapped him silly and he fought back, becoming interesting in the process.

If that sounds familiar, let me clarify:  I wrote Like Clockwork at least six months before I read Small Gods. If I had to pull the Hemmings story out of the larger novel to stand alone, no one would read it because it would be too dull at the outset.

The other time I made one of my characters really change was in the novel Who Once Were Kin. It is a follow-on to a fantasy series, and the title comes from a local proverb, “There are no enemies like those who once were kin.” If this were a cowboy story, the proverb would be, “Ain’t nobody who can hurt you like kinfolks”, which is a true statement, in my personal experience.

For my taste, this is the best book I’ve written, but from the viewpoint of publication, it won’t fly. The hero is a fine upstanding member of his community, but his community has some foul notions of sexual morality. We spend the first half of the book getting to know him, and coming to like him for all his positive qualities, while slowly coming to understand and hate his culture. Then things happen to destroy his serenity and to show him that his life so far has been a tragic mistake.

Anyone who would enjoy the manly, military, self-assured first half of the book would absolutely hate the second half. Anyone who would appreciate the second half, would never get through the first half.

Real change is a bitch.

The ms. resides in my hard drive, mocking me. I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to figure out how to change it without losing the qualities it has now. Maybe I should just put a disclaimer at the top:

Be warned, this book may give you moral and emotional whiplash.

603.1 Who Escaped From New York?

Okay, I confess. I haven’t seen the movie Escape From New York. If you are a fan, I apologize for what follows. It’s just that right after doing a post on full-fledged characters, I took a break, switched on the TV and the credits from that movie were running. The juxtaposition cracked me up.

Below are the “names” of Escape From New York‘s “characters”. It probably fits this movie just fine, but it made me think . . .

If you write literature with a capital L, you tell us way more about your characters than I want to know.

If you write good genre fiction, you tell just enough to do the job.

If only eight out of forty of your characters even have names . . .

Never mind, it just struck me funny.

Cast, Escape From New York:
(names of actors not given here)

Snake Plissken
Hauk
President
The Duke
Girl in Chock Full O’Nuts
Brain
Maggie
Rehme
Secretary of State
Romero
Cronenberg
Gypsy #1
Gypsy #2
Gypsy Guard
Gypsy #3
Gypsy #4
First Indian
Second Indian
Third Indian
Stewardess
Secret Service #1
Secret Service #2
Secret Service #3
Red Bandana Gypsy
Helicopter Pilot #1
Helicopter Pilot #2
Duty Sergeant
Controller
Computer Operator
Trooper
Police Sergeant
Theater Manager
Theater Assistant
Punk
Bum
Drunk
Helicopter Pilot #3
Helicopter Pilot #4
Slag
Dancers (there were several)

603. Small Gods, Big Result

Small Gods, Big Result
also known as
Full-Fledged Characters, Where Are You?

I have a colleague, JM Williams, who is a great fan of Terry Pratchett. On his suggestion, I checked one of his novels out of the library, read five pages, and tossed it.  Yech.

A month or so later I mentioned the fact to him. He suggested that I might prefer to start on a different novel, and suggested Small Gods.

I was hooked by page two. The scene, or was it an allegory, of the eagle and the tortoise was wonderful, and I was ready to believe that Terry Pratchett might be all JM said he was.

By page 38, I wasn’t so sure again, and I found myself trying to analyze exactly what was missing — for me — in the novel. I do that a lot. If you write, I’m sure you know what I mean.

Roughly by page 200, I was back on board again.

I had came to a conclusion, and since it bears on writing in general, I’m going to expound. As with the responses I got from 601. Home Court Advantage, feel free to disagree.

At page 38 of Small Gods, there was no character I liked well enough to care if he lived or died. Still, interesting  things were happening and I wanted to know how they were going to come out. That is a positive mark for a writer who knows what he is doing, but it isn’t really enough.

By about page 200, I wanted Om to make it and I really wanted Brutha to make it. From that time on, I had a vested interest that kept me going with enthusiasm. If I read another Pratchett (and I probably will) that enthusiasm will be there from the start, now that I trust the author.

I had needed characters I could care about.

This is not the same as full-fledged characters. There is no such thing. Robert Caro just wrote a four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, and I’m sure he didn’t tell everything there was to tell. I read both parts of Patterson‘s bio of Heinlein and I still have questions.

If biographers who spend massive chunks of years don’t get it all, how can a fiction writer expect to have a “full-fledged” character. What does the phrase mean, anyway?

Om, Brutha, Vorbis, Simony, Urn, and Didactylos are all characters in Small Gods who are well thought out, powerful, and exactly sufficient to the task at hand. Not one of them is a “full-fledged” character, but they are each fledged exactly enough.

If you want to write full-fledged characters, maybe you should give up novels and write LITERATURE instead. (If WordPress allowed multiple fonts in one post, I would put LITERATURE in all curlicues.) Then you can out-Joyce Joyce if you want to, and still have readers.

They will have to read. There is a paper due next week, called for by the professor at the front of the room. He wants company in the misery of having been forced to read LITERATURE in order to get his degree.

In point of fact, there are powerful characters in literature and in genre fiction as well. The difference is in the expectations and tolerance of the reader. Powerful does not mean turning a microscope on his backstory and telling every detail.

Ursula LeGuin told us that science fiction is too small for Mrs. Brown, meaning there weren’t enough full-fledged characters. I listened. I respect LeGuin too much to ignore her, but after decades of considering her argument, it’s just smoke and mirrors.

I could (over)state in response, science fiction isn’t too small for Mrs. Brown; Mrs. Brown is too dull for science fiction.

Fiction, however humble or pretentious, is too small to contain any actual living human being. That isn’t what fiction is all about. Writers of fiction give a précis, a starting point, a few brief actions and emotions, and the reader fills in the rest. The reader draws on a full life of looking at other people, and at him or herself.

The real issue between literature and genre fiction is how many (and how dull) are the details the reader will tolerate.

Take Spenser (the detective, not the poet) for example. He has been around for almost fifty novels and, like Bond, has outlived his creator. After all this time we know a bit about him — actually, we may know all there is to know about him, and it isn’t much. Except for the interminable descriptions of food, all the details provided about him also move each story forward.

Recently I have worn out Spenser, Nero Wolfe and Archie, Judge Dee, Bony, Travis McGee and a dozen others, and have started Anne Cleves’s Shetland series. In my first attempt, I am having to get used to masses of detail about the lives of very ordinary people. I like it, but it is hard sledding; if I hadn’t visited Shetland and enjoyed the place, it would be even harder.

Cleves is a fine writer. My problem is a matter of expectations. Any detective writer in the list above would have finished Cleves’s novel in half as many pages, and the details left out would be the dull ones.

I like what I’m reading, really I do, but anything with this much detail about ordinary life has to be LITERATURE.

There will be more to say about all this on Monday.

HOLD IT – – – STOP THE PRESSES.

Something just came up as I was putting this to bed to wait for the 19th of June. It’s peripheral, but it struck me funny enough to put in a mini-post tomorrow. I will still say more about the main subject on Monday.

602. What Story Next

Every writer writes about writing eventually, and Balfour is my way of doing that. As his name might suggest, he both is and is not Robert Louis Stevenson. In what follows from my novel Like Clockwork, Balfour has just had a vision, and now he is seeking privacy to think about it. The vision was sparked by his visit to Snap’s toy shop, where he has met Snap’s wife Pilar for the first time.

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With the fog and the waning of the day, the streets had become dark. There were lighted windows here and there. Occasionally there were beckoning gaslighted rooms of grog shops, where warmth and noise spilled out into the street, but these were few and widely spaced.

When he walked with Snap through Inner London, Balfour found himself surrounded by friendly faces. Now that he was alone in the fog and dark the pedestrians around him drew back from him. Their movements seemed furtive and the shadows seemed full of danger.

All the things which passed before his outer eye were noted and flagged for memory — peering faces, vendors shouting their wares, signs plastered everywhere with messages like “Now is Forever” and “You Can Turn Back the Clock.” But mostly his mind was full of an inner vision of Pilar which, if nurtured, might become a story.

It was not of the real Pilar which he saw, but a Pilar whom his mind had abstracted and made symbolic. She stood tied between two coarse ropes, fighting both of them. It was not an image of sexual bondage. These ropes were forces, made manifest in his mind, which were tearing her in opposite directions.

Balfour knew from experience that if he could hold the image now, without understanding, it would morph and change over the coming weeks. Pilar herself would probably disappear. Someone else would a take her place, and the forces would be manifested in new ways. When the process had ended, and the story was completed, Pilar would be gone; yet without her the story would never have been triggered.

He walked far and long, mind racing, lost in thought, but eventually the world outside his mind reclaimed him — violently.

A ragged ruffian stepped up to block Balfour’s way.

Balfour had moved on past most of the light, and the few pedestrians who remained nearby were all scurrying for cover as if they knew and feared this man.

Balfour gripped his cane loosely, ready to parry or thrust, and felt a rush of adrenaline that washed away the picture of Pilar.

The man was massive, short, and angry. It wasn’t a transitory anger that could be avoided or worked around. This anger came from deep in his past and now encompassed his entire being. His heavy brows were furrowed above deep-set eyes and his mouth was set in a permanent snarl.

Balfour did not notice those details in the moment, but an internal photograph of the man was burned into his memory. He had a few coins, and he would have gladly have given them up, but robbery was not the reason for this encounter. Robbery was the excuse. The reason lay much deeper, and no amount of money would assuage the hatred in those eyes.

The mouth came open; words came out. Balfour only heard the roaring in his ears and his eyes focused on the man’s right hand as he reached beneath his loose coat and withdrew a blade.

It was a moment of deja vu. Balfour had known that the blade would be there. He was already moving when it emerged.

Balfour was no physical match for the man, but he was well trained in the use of a gentleman’s cane, and he had that momentary advantage conferred by precognition. He did not try to strike at the man’s wrist, but brought the cane across in a swinging, two-handed blow to the temple. The loaded head did the rest. There was a wet crunch of crushed bone as his assailant crumpled to the cobblestones. The blade clattered from his hand.

Balfour was already backing away, but the attack was over.

This man had been too full of wrath to have companions, and the dark street was empty of witnesses. Balfour turned away and walked back toward the gate to Outer London. There would be no outcry. There would be no inquest. Some time in the night, the body would mysteriously disappear.

Balfour knew all this because it had all happened before.

And it would all happen again.

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It’s perversely comforting to find that I am not the only one struggling to find the best next story to tell. If this seems a bit familiar, it is a precursor to my Halloween post last year, October 29 and 31.

601. Home Court Advantage

Jandrax was the second novel I wrote, and the first that was published, back in the late seventies. You can still find it in used bookstores everywhere. If you were to read it, you would never know that I wrote it twice.

The first time through, I wrote it in first person. It didn’t work for me. I agonized a bit about what was wrong, then bit the bullet and rewrote it from start to finish in third person.

By the way, this was before computers . No cut and paste, no spell check. Just an electric typewriter and gallons of correction fluid — that thin white paint that came in a small bottle with built in brush, and was a lifesaver for poor typists.

Also, I cheated. Two chapters sounded just fine in first person, so I left them that way. One is a main character reminiscing about his childhood, and the other is another main character, alone in a boat, talking to himself as he undergoes experiences that may or may not be real.

I have written fifteen novels, and only that lost iteration of Jandrax was in first person. I could give you good plot-based reasons for that, but the reality is that I like the distance third person put between the author and the work. That may be a mistake.

Recently, I have been analyzing what makes books readable and re-readable, and that has led me to my favorite SF writers, Heinlein and Zelazny. For all their differences, they share a few authorial traits, including the fact that both are masters of first person.

Each author has a stock character that recurs with variations. For Heinlein, it is complicated by the fact that his stock character often comes as a matched pair. There is an older, seasoned man of the world, cynical, with no apparent respect for authority. He will, nevertheless, hurl himself into danger for his own people while pretending that he is doing it for selfish reasons. He reads like your crazy uncle. The matching character is a young smart-ass in training, studying up to become like the oldster. But don’t accuse him of that. He would punch you in the nose if you did. Or at least, threaten to.

Zelazny didn’t limit himself to one stock character, but he did have one that recurred frequently. He was part way between the halves of the paired Heinlein character. He was young, but fully formed. He had the attitude of a smart-ass college student, an upper class-man who had already learned the ropes. The kind who knew which professors had something worth listening to and which ones were dopes. (There are a lot of dopes in academia.) There was a brightness, a newness, about his attitude. He seemed to take nothing seriously on the surface, but underneath he took everything very seriously. And he expected the reader to see this for themselves.

In the Amber series, Merlin was such a character. Corwin was similar, but older and more damaged by time. His responsibilities had risen to the surface, and he got a lot less enjoyment out of life. Consequently the second half of the Amber series is a lot more fun to read (and re-read) than the first half.

Merlin and his clones, and the Heinlein character whatever gender or age he/she happened to be, are what every American youth pretends to be. And what American oldsters claim they once were.

All these characters speak directly to the reader, but not honestly. They hide their nobility under a guise of selfishness, but they expect the reader to know that it is all a sham. They speak in first person. They say “I”, not “he”, and it works.

One suspects that Heinlein and Zelazny — the actual people — said “I” a lot, too. As Harlan Ellison put it, “The thing every writer has to have is arrogance.” And by any definition, Heinlein and Zelazny were writers.

When a writer chooses first person, she/he is giving him/her-self a tremendous home court advantage. If his character if full of sadness and self-pity, there will be readers to say, “That’s just how I feel.” If his character appears to have no fear, there will be readers who share the same pretense.

If the character is a smart-ass, that’s even better. We all have those cutting remarks we don’t make, in order to keep peace with family and friends. We are all smart-asses under the skin.

600. Christmas in Paradise?

Back in November I finished Like Clockwork and made mention of the next novel in line. I’m still looking for it. I have nearly a dozen in the pipeline; some have fully developed characters, some have well developed worlds, but not one of them has a solid story. Yet.

Story isn’t everything, but if you don’t have one, you can write for a long time without ever getting anywhere.

A few days ago, I took time to reread The Cost of Empire, and now I’ve started rereading Like Clockwork. It is a way of jumpstarting a balky imagination. This morning I ran across a piece of writing from Like Clockwork, chapter 25 — which is actually the sixth chapter in a somewhat twisted book — and decided to show it to you.

And despite the title, this post — like the novel itself — is only a tiny bit about Christmas.

====================

Across Division Street, in the half of Outer London where the factories are, everyone was hard at work. They always were, but with more energy now than any other time of the year. It was late November and Christmas was only a month away.

Christmas Day is the most important day in Outer London. It’s odd that this should be so, in a place so aggressively secular, but it is true. On that day all the millions of candle sticks, and candles, and candied fruit cakes, and all the perfect white faced dolls in their perfect pinafores with their perfect pink ribbons in their perfect blonde hair, pass from the warehouses where they have been stored to all the Captains of Industry to be given to their perfect children. Their boys get toys, too, and the children of the workers get lesser toys, appropriate to their station.

The toys are played with ecstatically for a month, but by the end of January, most of them have magically and mysteriously disappeared. Those which remain are carefully programmed to degrade. By October, they are tattered. By November they become fodder for the ashcan. Thus want is artificially introduced. There arises a hunger for toys and games to fill the children’s empty hours. From want, comes anticipation, and on Christmas Day, want is relieved.

It is a beautiful system, a kind of circle of life. And by this late in November, want was keenly felt.

The day after Christmas every warehouse stands empty, but then the stream of merchandise begins again. Chairs and beds and blankets, dresses and trousers and coats, toys and games and diversions, fill every space as the year winds on. Everything is planned for. Every need is anticipated. Everything will be ready for that one day when all dreams are fulfilled.

It gives the workers a reason to work. It gives the Captains of Industry a reason to watch. It gives the Masters of Accountancy a reason to record what the Great Babbage calculates.

Just watch the flow of raw materials into the factories, watch the coal move down to the basements where it becomes steam, watch the steam engines turn it into motion, watch the motion flow from shaft to pulley to belt to shaft to belt.

Watch the lathes and spinners and looms and cutters and sewers as they produce the goods. Watch the painters and polishers and packers and finishers as they store it all away for the glorious coming of Christmas.

In every block east of Division Street there is a factory with vast spaces for workers to work, and near every factory there are tenements with small rooms where the workers live. Above every factory are boardrooms where the Captains of Industry oversee it all, and across town the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy keeps track of every tool, product, planner, and worker.

Every morning workers arrive, in their brown trousers and blue shirts, folded back to the forearm, all as alike as the bricks in the walls of the factory. Every morning the planners and counters arrive, as alike as all the zeroes in a million. With frock coats and waistcoats; with white shirts and blue ties and hard, flat-topped hats of silk.

They go in each morning at 7 by the Great Clock and leave in the evening at 6 by the Great Clock. They march in by the thousand every morning and leave again every evening like bats coming out of a cave. No matter how long the line becomes coming and going, they all check in at exactly 7:00:00 AM and out at 6:00:00 PM. A youngster named Albert manages this miracle, utilizing a fine point of difference between the mathematics of Newton and Leibniz.

And somewhere a man named Adam Smith smokes his pipe, rocks his chair, and smiles in contentment. Over his head is a framed sign that says, “Today is the Perfect Day.”

Perfection? From human hands?

Human hands pull the handles of the drill presses, but jigs and fixtures assure that every hole goes where it is needed. A human hand pull the lever that frees the stamp, that the steam drives down onto plaint clay, and every doll’s head comes out wearing the same smile.

Humanity and machinery and a Babbage to oversee it all. Perfection.

that’s all, for now