Writing Relationship: on loving your story (and other things)

Let me ask you a very pointed question: Are you in love with your story?

So, what if you answered yes? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, I wouldn’t want you to hate your story. That’s probably a bad thing. But a head-over-heals, my-love-can-do-no-wrong kind of love is definitely too much of a good thing. Which is true in human relationships as well. Take it from a veteran (and beneficiary) of thirty-five years (and counting) of successful marriage: a lasting positive relationship with a fellow human being requires maturity and commitment. You have to get past that starry-eyed stage, because let’s face it, nobody is that perfect! And the same goes for you, and for your manuscript.

You’ve heard about being willing to kill your darlings? Yes, you have to do that sometimes – and whatever else it takes to make the manuscript work well enough to achieve what you decide you want it to achieve. That’s where maturity comes in. You have to be able to see things clearly and you have to be willing to make adjustments – revise your wording or your plans – in order to balance conflicting needs. It’s taken me years to get there with respect to my fantasy series, but I’m finally at a point where I can be quite calm and matter-of-fact about doing significant surgery on the manuscripts. The glamor of first love has worn off. The combined weight of all the advice I’ve read, and heard, and personally been given has certainly contributed to this change. That, and time: As I ready the manuscript of book 1, Gift of Chance, for publication, I’m working with passages that I originally wrote literally years ago. I find that over time I’ve gained the benefit of perspective.

Now for the bit about commitment. You see, one thing that hasn’t changed is my determination to put my work before readers. I still love my story, just with a more mature kind of love. Commitment to me means having a deep sense of the value of what you’re doing, from which springs the determination to follow through with what you’ve started. The love that sparks commitment has an element of vision in it that both acknowledges and transcends the level-headed logic of maturity. When it comes to a marriage, this is the slow-burning fire that starry-eyed love hopefully turns into – that causes you to deliberately put what you feel ahead of what is most expedient in solving some issue that has arisen in your lives. Because you can see, clearly and maturely, that what you feel is what is really important. When it comes to your manuscript, it’s what leads you to reject some suggested change that would have made your project more “commercial” at the cost of it ceasing to be the story you want to tell. It’s not that your vision can’t undergo some adjustments in the cold light of mature analysis; it’s just that there are limits beyond which it would be wrong to go.

There’s a limit to how far you can stretch any analogy, and this one feels about to snap. I don’t know, maybe you think it already did a while ago. As always, please feel free to tell me what you think.

Does Genre Fiction Need a Theme?

I’ve read and heard a lot of advice to writers over the years, and the word “theme” has cropped up a number of times. It was listed, for example, among the things that should be found in the first two pages of your story. Really? I mean, I’ve always associate the idea of having a theme with fiction of the more literary sort, but I write genre fiction. I kept wondering; does genre fiction need to have a theme?

I think the short answer is no. All genre fiction has to do to be successful with readers is to meet the expectations of the sub-group of readers who read books of that particular genre. And if those readers don’t expect a theme, then you don’t need to have one. A mystery is a story-puzzle wrapped around some hopefully interesting characters. Theme needed? No. A romance doesn’t need any other theme besides the obvious one of romantic love that defines the genre. Fantasy readers expect to be transported beyond the boundaries of their mundane existence, and science fiction readers are looking for a provocative “what if” to bend their minds. Conclusion? Genre stories don’t need no stinkin’ theme!

So why am I writing this? Because I’m a natural-born worry-wart and my brain wouldn’t put the idea down. And the thing is, when I took a hard look at my seven-book fantasy series, The Nagaro Chronicle, with the theme-idea in mind, darned if I didn’t find some! This, even though I hadn’t set out to put one in. The Chronicle follows its main character, Nagaro, across ten years of his life, and he’s a man with a destiny who doesn’t know it. Something had to drive the character, so I made sure there were things that mattered to him – things like honor and using his gifts to do good in the world – and these concepts became threads that are now integral to the character and his story. They run throughout the entire series. And I think the series is the better for it.

I’m not saying that having a theme turns my work into great literature, but it does provide a cohesiveness, perhaps a little more depth, and a feeling of enhanced meaning. It also contributes to the work’s unique flavor and finally gives me a nut-shell description that could help potential target readers identify with my work. When I tell them the series has themes of honor and altruism, I know it will resonate with some readers and I hope they’ll be more likely to buy that first book. Readers who don’t care for heroes who are too “nice” may also be motivated to steer clear – which reduces my risk of getting unenthusiastic reviews from folks who just aren’t part of my target audience.

I don’t think you can just slap a theme on top of an existing manuscript, or poke a few holes and try to insert one. Themes have to be organically part of the story. But if you see the seeds of a theme in your work as you’re writing it – or find one trying to emerge while doing revisions – I’m suggesting that you nurture it. And also that you find a way to work it into your cover blurb.

What do you think? Am I onto something, or off-base? Any genre works with themes that you can point to? Do they benefit from having one? How about your own work?

Fear in Fiction

Fear is often treated in fiction as if it were just a weakness — a deficiency of the thing we call “courage” – and something that should be overcome at all costs. This overcoming of fear is an extremely frequent theme in all forms of storytelling, and the approach to overcoming fear that is depicted is almost always one in which the character confronts his or her fear, beats it, and is never troubled by it again. This is a convenient and compelling scenario which allows a rapid, dramatic solution to a problem. It has the further attraction that the hero or heroine must use courage to arrive at the solution.

This cliché is so ubiquitous that most people don’t realize it is a cliché. They think it’s an accurate representation of how fear works and how fear should be dealt with. Psychologists have a name for this confrontational approach: It’s called “flooding,” and they don’t recommend it. They don’t, for the simple reason that it’s all too possible for the fear to “win” the confrontation, making the person’s problem worse, not better. The recommended approach for overcoming inappropriate fears is called “desensitization” and consists of approaching the fear in a series of small incremental steps that can take quite a long time to achieve their goal. It’s pretty easy to see why that approach isn’t popular with fiction writers. You do see it used occasionally in fiction, usually when the fearful person is depicted as inherently weak, such as a small child or a traumatized person. Heroes don’t do it this way, however. To be a fictional hero one must take the plunge.

Everything I know about fear indicates that the view of it as a weakness or a deficiency of courage is fundamentally inaccurate. Fear is functional. It’s a protective mechanism that evolved to help keep us safe and frequently serves us well. Fear undoubtedly saves countless lives every day as it motivates people to avoid dangerous situations and behaviors. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, reacting naturally to that motivation was probably beneficial most of the time, or at worst, harmless. Our modern world differs vastly from the one we evolved to inhabit, however, and some of our fears have become inappropriate as a result. There are also a number of recognized disorders involving the fear mechanism, ranging from free-floating anxiety to simple phobias, to panic attacks – some of which may be exacerbated by the complex demands of our modern society.

Fear is known to have a biological mechanism involving specific brain regions and neurotransmitters. The same cannot be said for courage. It’s difficult, in fact, to say what “courage” actually is. Much of what passes for courage is really fearlessness. Real life “heroes” who rescue other people from danger frequently report that they didn’t think, but “just did it.” In that moment of impulse it’s doubtful they were experiencing fear. Daredevils and thrill-seekers routinely take on dangerous feats because it gives them a “rush,” which I can only assume is not the same thing as what I call fear.

According to my best understanding, the fear-overcoming type of courage consists of the ability, in a specific situation, to marshal mental motivators of sufficient number and potency to outweigh the power of the fear response that the brain is experiencing. And there is simply no guarantee that any particular person will be able to do that in any given situation. I conclude that we are far too free with the “coward” label, especially when anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 20% of the population.

We’ve probably all heard the adage, “to be brave one must first be afraid.” Yet fear has such a negative perception in our culture that we continue to admire fearlessness and look down on those who show fear. Further, the adage implicitly assumes that being “brave” is the desirable response. Writers of fiction (and nonfiction) frequently contribute to this bias. They love to make antagonistic characters ultimately turn out to be “cowards,” even as the protagonist turns out to be “brave.” It’s often assumed that we will judge characters negatively or positively based on how they respond to danger – and that we are right to do so.

If we truly wish to help people who suffer from inappropriate fears, an excellent place to start would be to resist this cultural bias that automatically dumps on fear and on the people who experience it or are overcome by it. We can counter the inaccurate assumption that one must always face fear head-on and the cavalier notion that a “courageous” person can always will it away. Fiction writers can help by seeking to portray fear more realistically. Readers can take writers to task for failing to do so.

I invite your comments.

Dona Nobis Pacem

On this day, and every day:

Listen to what others say.

Pause to think before you speak.

Speak truth with kindness.

And maybe, just maybe, there will be a little more peace in the world.

One can hope.

In defense of fantasy

As writers go, fantasy writers don’t get a lot of respect in this world. Genre fiction in general doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the circles of those who read it or write it—unless of course someone manages to write a bestseller and make a lot of money. That always seems to be okay with people.

I think fantasy in particular just seems frivolous to many people. There’s also the sense that it’s a form of escapism, which some people see as a weakness. I could defend the escapist aspect of fantasy on the grounds that it exercises the imagination. You may or may not think imagination is an important thing to exercise, but that’s not actually where I want to go with this post. (I already explained in a previous post that I believe storytelling developed in humans because it’s useful, and that exercising the imagination is part of that.)

I have a more fundamental point to make here: There’s an element of fantasy in all fiction. Otherwise, it would be nonfiction. In order to create a work of fiction, a writer has to reach beyond what exists or has existed in terms of characters and events. What fantasy writers—and also science fiction writers—do that sets them apart most from other fiction writers is they also venture beyond the known in terms of setting. Characters and events can also be fantastic, of course, but for writers in the fantasy and sci-fi genres setting is fair game and often a large part of the fun. (Fantasy and science fiction tend to grade into each other and are often lumped together, so I don’t particularly try to separate them here.)

Now, I’m sure a lot of the fantasy and sci-fi fans out there are saying, wait a minute! Just because our writers make up a lot of stuff doesn’t mean they don’t have to worry about making things be true to life. Characters still have to be believable in their reactions to those fantastic events. Outside the boundaries of any magic involved, the laws of physics still have to apply. And of course this is the other half of my point. There has to be something in the story that is congruent with the reader’s experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing for him or her to relate to and no reason to be interested in the story.

So, my point is: All types of fiction must contain both elements that are novel (that’s why it’s called a “novel”) and elements that are familiar. Fantasy is just one end of a continuum, one that allows the mind a particularly free rein—at least potentially. Fantasy, like any genre or class of fiction, has its own conventions and tropes. There are in fact sub-genres within fantasy, and within science fiction, each with its own conventions which may be unfamiliar or even distracting or annoying to other readers. But the best of fantasy, like the best of any type of fiction, is not blandly conventional. Rather, it stretches that envelope. It gives us visions either strange or wonderful, because it is fantasy, but it also provides us a glimpse of uncompromising truth.

This post appeared first on my WordPress blog, ConversationalWordsmith.wordpress.com

Tor Submission

The first volume of the Nagaro Chronicle, provisionally titled The Idiot Prince, has been submitted to Tor, a longstanding publisher of fantasy and science fiction. The submission consisted of a brief cover letter, a synopsis, and the first 10,000 words of the manuscript. Tor’s promise is that a member of the editorial staff will read every submission. I have put all other plans for this work on hold until I hear one way or the other from Tor.

My dream…

This is my dream: to bring Nagaro’s story to readers who will enjoy it as much as I have. It’s a story that has held my imagination in thrall for what amounts now to most of my life.

Many writers say their characters tend to develop a life of their own. This certainly happened to me with Nagaro. As I went along, I found there were things I intended to do with him that he simply wouldn’t let me do. I had to follow his lead instead.

I believe it was J. R. R.Tolkien who said “the tale grew in the telling,” in reference to his archetypal work, The Lord of the Rings. Again, I had the same experience.