unpublishablesThe first thing to know about The Unpublishables is that when you open it in the Kindle reader, you need to make sure and scroll back to see the epigraph. At least for me, Kindle wants to launch right into Chapter 1 without showing this important front matter. But you don’t want to miss this epigraph; it really sets the tone.

Now then…

The Unpublishables is narrated by a man named Daniel, who is the only person in America immune to a virus sweeping the country. This virus attacks the mind, and causes its victims to become obsessed with writing novels.

Everywhere Daniel goes, people ask him, “What’s your novel about?” He gradually learns that the best way of deflecting this question is to ask them about theirs—which of course they’re only too happy to tell him about. 

But one day, Daniel meets a young woman named Abigail at lunch, and the two of them instantly connect over their shared love of books—reading them, rather than writing them. In a desperate effort to impress Abigail—and if nothing else, have a reason to talk to her again despite her pretentious, arrogant boyfriend, Chadwick—Daniel realizes he must write a novel. On the spur of the moment, he chooses  life among the homeless of San Francisco as his subject

The best way to write about the homeless, Daniel soon decides, is to become one of them. And so he becomes a vagrant, living with nothing but the clothes on his back and begging for food and money. And in doing so, he encounters a wide variety of strange characters, from a woman who resembles a witch to a sinister figure known simply as “The Knifeman,” who has a penchant for telling gruesome historical stories with a curious sci-fi twist.

The Unpublishables is, of course, a comic novel, and as in his previous efforts, Goats shows first-rate skill at writing lines that make you laugh out loud. Early dialogues are Wodehousian, in more ways than one. The descriptions are vivid and memorable. And the books–oh, the books! The way he writes about books is beautiful. I’ll talk more about this later, but if you’re in a hurry and have to make a purchase decision by the end of this paragraph, know that you can buy The Unpublishables for the descriptions of books alone and you’ll be a happy customer. 

And although it’s mainly comic, The Unpublishables has some emotionally powerful moments that are not played for laughs. Some of the passages about the homeless are truly moving. In particular, one section where Daniel ponders why so many homeless people talk to themselves. It’s a moment of genuine compassion and empathy, as well as being a really surprising idea that I had never considered before. But you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.

The descriptions of life on the street are properly gritty. Goats is never afraid to go into detail to describe every facet of what it means to live without money, food, or shelter; no matter how unpleasant it may be. It’s raw and tough to read at times, but the grit balances the wit, and it makes the whole thing feel real, instead of just a simple comedic puppet show.

Does Daniel succeed in his quest to write a novel and win Abigail away from her obnoxious partner? Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! This book is hot off the presses (figuratively speaking; it’s on Kindle) and hardly anyone has had a chance to write about it yet. I know I typically spoil things, with appropriate warnings, but in this case I’m just not going to talk about the ending. It’s one thing to spoil a Hollywood film or a novel by a famous author—when I do that, I know that there are probably dozens if not hundreds of spoiler-free reviews out there that people could read instead. But as of this writing, if you want to read about The Unpublishables, you pretty much have to read this review.  In fact… well, never mind, I’ll come back to that.

The book is, by the author’s own admission, a bit weird. If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that “weird” is not considered a bad thing here. In fact, as often as not, it’s a compliment. So yes, the book is decidedly weird; but in all the right ways. 

Also, there are a handful of typos—but way fewer than in many indie books. And their existence is even lampshaded by the narrator, who asks us to “pretend” they are stylistic choices, and not simply the result of him being a sloppy writer.   This is one of the things I love about the Daniel character; he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator, but he tells you so up front.  This sums him up pretty well. Oh, and one other technical note: there’s a formatting issue in the form of a completely blank page between two chapters. (This might be a result of reading in landscape mode, which seems to do odd things to the ereader.)

All right, now let’s get to the heart of things.  I promised on Twitter that I was going to break one of my own rules of writing reviews. What did I mean by that? 

Once in a while, when you read about fiction, you’ll see something referred to as “significant” or “important.”  For instance, Wikipedia informs us that James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the “most important works of modernist literature.”

Anytime I see words like “important” or “significant” used in regards to fiction, it sends up a major red flag. Why, I ask, are people describing this thing as “important” when the word “good” is shorter to write and easier to say? If somebody wants me to read a book, they had better tell me “It’s good,” and if instead they come and tell me, “Read this book, it’s important,” it seems to me like they are hiding something. They may be trying to induce me to read a book that is not good for some nefarious reason. Thus, I try never to say something is “important” when “good” will do just as well.

But that isn’t to say that a book can’t be both “important” and “good.” In my opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird is both important, due to its relationship to the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and also just generally good as a story that is enjoyable to read. (In my opinion, if it had been bad, it would never have been widely-read enough to become important.)

So, first and foremost I want, to make it very clear that The Unpublishables is a good book. It’s a fun story, with memorable characters and witty descriptions. That’s really all a book needs to be to be good, in my opinion.

But I also feel that it is an important book as well—and not because of its depiction of homelessness, even though that is another very strong element of the novel.

As I said above, throughout his travels, Daniel meets all kinds of odd characters, all of whom have written or are writing a book. Each of them is an example of some aspect of indie publishing. The Unpublishables is a fine title, but the book might as easily have been called The People You Meet in Indie Publishing; because so many different quirks of the world of independent writers are covered, from ham-fisted author-insertion to blatant plagiarism. At one point, Daniel comments that more people are writing books than have read one.

Daniel finds fragments of manuscripts of historical fiction, hears summaries of wild science fiction and fantasy adventures, and meets shameless self-promoters.  Some of the aspiring writers he meets are ground into despair after all the rejections, while others are still brimming with optimism. One of them even hides his own novel in the shelves at a used bookstore, in the hopes someone will find it and read it.

The book pokes a lot of fun at indie authors, and at times, Daniel makes some biting commentaries about the whole process of writing and publishing. I was quite amused by it, and at the same time, as Jack Point from The Yeomen of the Guard would say, “My laughter had an echo that was grim,” because, like the targets of Point’s jokes, I recognized a little of myself in the figure being roasted.

Now, you might say, “How could he make fun of indie authors?!? What a rotten thing to do; kicking a person when they’re down like that!” Well, that’s the thing: Goats isn’t laughing at us; he’s laughing at himself—obviously; because he’s an indie author, too. And it is so abundantly clear that all of the jokes in this book are born of affection, rather than malice, that it’s impossible to be offended by them. 

Paul Graham once wrote that “To have a sense of humor is to be strong.”  The humor of The Unpublishables is the humor of strength, the humor that comes from people who can laugh at themselves because, to be blunt, they know they’re doing something important. After all, Goats wrote a whole book that made fun of the process of writing books. One assumes he must have really believed in what he was doing to essentially be half-laughing at himself while doing it.

And that’s what I mean when I say The Unpublishables is an “important” book: it’s important to the indie author community.  To us. I say “us” because I am an indie author, and I know that nearly everyone who reads this blog is as well. 

The appreciation Daniel (and by extension, Goats) has for books is evident throughout The Unpublishables–both books in physical form and as a medium for telling stories, for capturing some part of a person’s life. Underlying all the friendly ribbing about the oddities of the indie author world is a deep love for the written word. Plenty of all-time great authors and books are referenced throughout, and indeed, one of them is used as the catalyst for bringing the hero and the heroine together at the beginning.

That’s what I ultimately got out of The Unpublishables: at its core, it’s about the power of books—reading them, discussing them, and writing them—to bring people together; to let people share a bit of themselves with someone else. A book is a hard thing to create, but when it is done out of love, something magical happens. 

And this is where you come in. Again, I know most of you reading this are indie authors, and many of you have blogs of your own. I highly encourage you to read this book, and to write about it. Partially, I’m doing this for selfish reasons: there are things in here I want to talk about with other people—including some alternate interpretations of certain elements, as well as how different parts all tie into the theme. But it’s hard to talk about that when I don’t know anyone else who has read the book.

But apart from my own self-interested reasons, I think this book is important for indie authors. Because it’s by an indie author, and it’s about an indie author, and in some sense, it tells the story of all indie authors. 

Hardly anybody likes H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Dreams in the Witch House. Even H.P. Lovecraft didn’t like it, and subsequent readers have generally considered it one of his worst.

And, by pretty much any objective measure, it’s  a bad story. For one thing, there’s no surprise or subtlety to it—Lovecraft beats the reader over the head with the legend of Keziah Mason, and her rat-like familiar, Brown Jenkin. I think he was trying for ambiguity, but he was failing spectacularly at it. Walter Gilman, the doomed protagonist of the tale, should be able to see what’s coming a mile away; the reader certainly can. 

In a good weird tale, there should be some question as to whether the supernatural doings are real, or simply a hallucination by the protagonist. Lovecraft was trying to do this, but he didn’t. The evidence favoring the supernatural explanation is simply overwhelming. And needlessly drawn out. When an author tells you on page one that a witch and a rat-like monster are up to no good, the final page should contain a bigger pay-off than “a witch and a rat-like monster were up to no good.”

Lovecraft, I’ve come to realize, had no idea how to hint or imply something. This is a problem when writing horror, because it is a genre that depends heavily on subtle hinting. And Lovecraft kind of knew this, but he couldn’t do it. So what he would do instead is write this:

“Eventually there had been a hint of vast, leaping shadows, of a monstrous, half-acoustic pulsing, and of the thin, monotonous piping of an unseen flute—but that was all. Gilman decided he had picked up that last conception from what he had read in the Necronomicon about the mindless entity Azathoth, which rules all time and space from a black throne at the centre of Chaos.”

He seems to have believed that by prefacing an outright statement with “A hint of…” that it would count as an actual hint.

Also, there are a number of lines that just sound downright silly. Like:

“What made the students shake their heads was his sober theory that a man might—given mathematical knowledge admittedly beyond all likelihood of human acquirement—step deliberately from the earth to any other celestial body which might lie at one of an infinity of specific points in the cosmic pattern.

Such a step, he said, would require only two stages; first, a passage out of the three-dimensional sphere we know, and second, a passage back to the three-dimensional sphere at another point, perhaps one of infinite remoteness.”

It sounds so easy! And then we have this masterful bit of understatement:

“May Eve was Walpurgis Night, when hell’s blackest evil roamed the earth and all the slaves of Satan gathered for nameless rites and deeds. It was always a very bad time in Arkham…”

In addition to these technical flaws, Witch House is one of Lovecraft’s nastiest tales. The sacrifice scene at the end is grotesque, and of course, it wouldn’t be Lovecraft without casual racial bigotry. What’s truly odd is that Lovecraft creates a story in which the poor, un-educated, and superstitious immigrants are clearly right in their beliefs, and the WASP upper-class is demonstrably wrong, and yet Lovecraft likes the WASPs better anyway.

It’s a badly-constructed, badly-written, and badly-paced tale, with a heavy emphasis on gore and none of the subtlety that Lovecraft at his best was capable of. And it comes with a side-serving of class arrogance and racial hatred. (BTW, I am a descendant of Eastern-European immigrants to the northeast United States, rather like the ones Lovecraft treats with utter contempt in this tale. Who are you calling “clod-like,” HPL?)

So, why do I re-read this horrible little tale every April?

Part of it is, I read it for the first time as a college student during spring term, and so I had some instant sympathy for poor Walter Gilman. Studying for exams is stressful enough without being abducted by long-dead witches and taken into other dimensions.

Also, Gilman is, in his own way, kind of heroic. He does ultimately fight back against the evil cosmic forces, and to some extent succeeds in thwarting them—even if it doesn’t work out well for him. Unusually for a Lovecraft character, he doesn’t just observe the horror and go mad, but takes some sort of corrective action. I kind of like that, even though the scene itself is six different kinds of ugly. (Also: why does the witch recoil from the crucifix? Oops, did someone have to undercut his entire atheistic literary philosophy in order to make his plot resolve itself?) 

And finally, this book introduced me to Walpurgis Night, which is a great way for a Halloween-obsessed lunatic such as myself to get a mid-year fix. It’s not the really strong stuff, but it can keep me going for those long six months.

In his essay Good Bad Books, George Orwell defined same as “The kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished… They form pleasant patches in one’s memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life.”

This is what Lovecraft and a lot of the “pulp” writers of the era were doing. There aren’t any pretensions about these kinds of stories. (Indeed, since Lovecraft never intended to publish Witch House, he had no reason to be pretentious.) 

That’s probably why stories like Witch House, that suck by standard measures, still have this quality of being re-readable. They’re authentic—when you read Lovecraft, you’re not getting what editors and publishers thought was a good book. You’re getting undiluted “Yog-Sothothery,” as Lovecraft called his peculiar style, straight from the bottle. 

It’s almost like Lovecraft, in spite of his prejudices and unwillingness to curb his own bad writing habits, was able to tap in to some core principles that make for a good horror story.

Describing Keziah Mason, Lovecraft wrote:

[S]ome circumstance had more or less suddenly given a mediocre old woman of the Seventeenth Century an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter.

Similarly, it seems as if some circumstance gave a mediocre man of the 20th century an insight into writing horror that is perhaps beyond many modern practitioners of the genre.

This is just a video of a bonfire I had on April 30 a couple years ago. Not really related, but do you know how hard it is to find free images associated with Walpurgis Night?

First thing’s first: who recognizes this thing?

random weird picture

 

If you got it immediately, congrats! This was the icon I used when this blog first began, back on Blogger. (The old url is written at the top, in barely-visible red.) I got the idea from the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, and then I made it yellow, because… I dunno; the King in Yellow, probably.

When I started this whole thing, I had no idea where it would lead. I was on break from college, and felt like I should be doing something at least vaguely productive. So, I started a blog, and posted about whatever random things struck my fancy.

I don’t know if I’ve ever written about this before, but I almost quit blogging in 2012. I came very close to it. I had my farewell post written and everything.  But then I thought, nah, maybe a change of scenery is all I need. So I switched to WordPress, and here we are today.

I looked back at some of my old posts while I was writing this, and I noticed something: many of them–perhaps most of them–suck. I cringe while rereading them: Why did I ever write that? I ask myself.

But that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing–it means I’ve gotten better. Far worse would be if I looked back and wished I could write as well now as in the past.

I was able to pick out a few of my personal favorite posts, though:

For a long time, at the top of the site, I had a motto:  Quis leget haec? which is Latin for “Who will read this?” Originally, this was just a joke. But over time, I have received an answer to that question: writers will read this.

I’m incredibly lucky to have so many writers who read and comment on this blog. That’s the main reason I’ve improved: I’ve gotten to know all of you wonderful folks offering feedback, as well as serving as great examples with your own work. It’s been invaluable to me, as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. And thanks for writing.

Here’s to many more years.

mini red hearts wallpaper
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

[Thanks to Lydia Schoch for inspiring me to write this. Be sure to check out her post on fictional romances.]

You’ll notice I don’t often write romantic sub-plots in my stories. I was feeling pretty bold with 1NG4 and included one, but it’s largely implied and in the background of the larger story. 

Romance is hard to write. You need characters who work on their own, and also complement one another. It’s about balance. If you get unbalanced characters, it doesn’t work—or at best, it only works as wish-fulfillment for people who want to imagine their perfectly ordinary self being married to a demigod or goddess. 

And if you’re writing a story where the romance is the plot, then you also have to come up with some reason why two characters who clearly belong together aren’t. Usually social expectations are the best mechanism for doing this, to the point that it’s a cliché—A can’t marry B because it would violate all of their society’s most sacred traditions!

The problem with these sorts of stories is that too often, it becomes more about the pursuit, and in the process, one character gets reduced to nothing more than a McGuffin that the other character is trying to get. I hate that.

Here are some fictional romances I consider effective. You’ll notice that they are generally sub-plots, or at least not the sole focus of the story.

Evie Carnahan and Rick O’Connell (The Mummy) 

Image result for rick and evie o'connell
Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) The Mummy. Universal Pictures. Re-used under Fair Use

This works because it’s pretty well-balanced—Evie’s brains and Rick’s adventuring skills make them a natural team. This is what I mean—if Evie were always a helpless damsel in distress, or Rick were always a big stupid lug, it would be dopey. But as it is, you can see why they would gravitate to one another, apart from “It’s a movie and we need a romance.”

Thomasin Yeobright and Diggory Venn (The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy)

When you read about Return of the Native, 90% of what you hear about is Eustacia Vye this, Damon Wildeve that. I love the book, but as far as I’m concerned, both of them can go soak their heads. Oh, wait—I guess they do. Sorry if I spoiled this 141-year-old book. Anyway, what I like about the book is Venn’s loyalty to Thomasin, and his (admittedly credulity-straining) adventures as the almost super-human “Reddleman” looking out for her.) 

Miranda Lawson and Commander Shepard (Mass Effect 2-3)

Image result for miranda lawson shepard
Commander Shepard (voiced by Mark Meer) and Miranda Lawson (voiced and modeled on Yvonne Strahovski) Mass Effect 3. Electronic Arts. Re-used under Fair Use.

Am I the only person who doesn’t hate Miranda? I might well be. Most players find her stuck-up, but I like her. Maybe part of it is that because ME 2/3 built up Commander Shepard as this awesome hero, and Miranda seems like the nearest thing to his equal in a universe that otherwise regards him as something close to a God. She saved his life, and she’s genetically engineered to be perfect, so she  can meet him on even ground. I like that. I don’t see an equivalent romantic interest for female Shepard.

But maybe it’s just my fondness for Australian accents that’s making me biased here.

Honorable Mentions: Unrequited Romances

I started out to make a list of good requited romances, because those are harder for me to write than unrequited ones. But that’s not to say that an unrequited romance can’t make for a good story, because it absolutely can. In fact, the advantage of these stories is that they have conflict inherent in them, as opposed to having to be introduced externally. So, here are some good ones:

-The Carlo/Corelli sub-plot in Corelli’s Mandolin. One of the most interesting things about the disastrous movie adaptation was that this was the only romantic sub-plot that even remotely made sense. 

– The Atris/Jedi Exile relationship in Knights of the Old Republic II. I talk a little about that here. Actually, KotOR II is brimming with tons of unfulfilled or outright doomed romances. Chris Avellone is great at writing those.

-Elsie Maynard and Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. Just listen to this.

And now, for my favorite fictional romance…

Jane Ballard and Dan Frost (Jane Got a Gun)

Jane and Dan
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) and Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) Jane Got a Gun. The Weinstein Co. Re-used under Fair Use.

Come on, you all knew this would be here. I love this movie, and a big reason why is the relationship between the two leads. The way they gradually rekindle their relationship under brutal circumstances makes for a great story, and the carefree romance of their past contrasted with the grim present is very powerful. True, a lot of what makes it work is the acting as much as anything—the same lines with lesser actors wouldn’t work as well.

I suppose that writing romance for the screen or the stage is easier than writing it in a novel. In a visual medium, putting two attractive people with great chemistry together gets you at least halfway to making the audience to buy in. On the page, though, you have to do a lot more work.

[This started out as a comment on this post by Phillip McCollum. Then I couldn’t post it for some reason, and I realized it was really too long to work as a comment anyway. But you should read Phillip’s post before reading this.]

The big mistake I initially made when I started writing fiction was not doing enough description. I’ve talked about this before, and how it took my friend Pat Prescott repeatedly encouraging me to do more description before I finally got the message.

In my arrogance, I thought that description was boring and a waste of time, and that I was a genius for not doing it. But description isn’t boring—only bad description is boring. Done well, it seems like an integral part of the story.

There are probably other ways that I’ve gotten better at writing over the years, but this is the one that comes immediately to mind. And I want to stress that it was only because I was lucky enough to have a reader like Pat who would tell me (more than once; kudos to him for his patience) that I needed more description. If not for that, I would probably still be blithely bumbling along, writing stuff that contained no description, and thinking I was brilliant for doing so.

The real point here is less about description than about listening. Listen to what your readers tell you. A reader who is willing to comment honestly on your work is the most valuable thing a writer can have.

kreia
Kreia, from Chris Avellone’s “Knights of the Old Republic II”. Possibly my favorite fictional character, and a great example of a well-written female character.

A.C. Flory wrote a brought up a good point about Theresa Gannon, the protagonist of my book, The Directorate:

“I couldn’t relate to the main character… I simply don’t see her as female… to me, Gannon could be a he just as easily as a she.”

I know exactly what she means. Honestly, I’m surprised more readers don’t mention this, because I feel the same way. There was never much of anything distinctively female about Gannon.

“Well, you’re the one who wrote it!” you are no doubt thinking. “Why didn’t you fix that, dummy?”

Good question. As a male, writing a good female character is something I find difficult, for a number of reasons.

Stereotypes

The lazy, quick-fix approach to make a character seem distinctively gendered is to resort to stereotypes. I could have made Gannon interested in things like clothes, or shoes, or something like that. That would be stereotypically feminine.

But I hate stereotypes. It’s not that there isn’t any truth to them; most people are stereotypical in one way or another. That’s why stereotypes exist, after all. But the point of writing fiction is to give people something new and surprising. Stereotypes are, by their nature, not new and surprising but old and familiar. So in general, I think it’s good to avoid them whenever possible when you’re writing stories.

This is another way of saying that it would just feel ham-handed and rather disrespectful to have my space soldier run off to go shoe shopping. Other, more skilled writers probably could pull that off, but I couldn’t.

Writing From A Female Perspective

You don’t have to resort to stereotypes to write plausibly feminine characters, though. You can write plausible, relatable, well-rounded characters who are also distinctly women.

The big problem I see in a lot of female characters written by men is that they tend to be distinctly women first, and characters second. Usually this manifests itself in female characters being preoccupied with sex in one way or another, or else being described largely in sexual terms. I’ve read way too many female characters who seem to exist solely as sexual beings, and it gets tiresome. With Gannon, I consciously strove to avoid this. In doing so, I think I made her too non-sexual, and that makes it hard to relate to her.

The Miranda Lawson Problem

Making a character sexy is a risky proposition. If done right, it can make a character that much more memorable. But more often than not, I feel like the risk outweighs the reward, and you can end ruining a character by trying to sex them up.

Miranda Lawson is one of my favorite characters in the Mass Effect video game series. Part of it is Yvonne Strahovski’s performance (I love Australian accents, OK?), but she’s also a pretty well-written character. She’s been genetically engineered to be the “perfect woman”, and as a result, she feels a lot of pressure to be the best–pressure that sometimes makes her do morally questionable things. All in all, a really good character.

But! There’ s a major “but” here (pun not intended): for some reason, BioWare designed many of the game’s dialogue and cinematic scenes to focus, ridiculously, on her backside. Miranda wears a white catsuit, and the animators missed no opportunity to show her from the back, the most egregious example being a dialogue scene where the view “pauses” there for as long as the player wants until they choose to advance in the conversation.

BioWare defended this by saying it’s part of Miranda’s “character” that she’s genetically-engineered to be beautiful, and supposedly all this was to underscore just how sexualized she was, and how that impacts her personality.

Maybe that was the idea, but it totally didn’t come across that way. It became a running joke by Mass Effect 3 that if Miranda was around, the “camera” had to be positioned behind her. It made her seem less like a character and more like a sex object–which was too bad, because she actually is a good character, and it’s a shame she became the butt of jokes instead.

This is something that’s always bothered me, and what I took away from how Miranda is perceived is that making a character sexy is a very dangerous thing to attempt. It can very easily turn your well-crafted character into a ridiculous figure. I think this is especially true for men writing women.

Mary Sues vs. Competent Men

There’s another common criticism that I’m surprised no one has yet leveled at Gannon, but which I fully expect I’ll hear someday: that she’s a “Mary Sue”. “Mary Sues” are “idealized and seemingly perfect” characters, as Wikipedia puts it. Characters who exhibit preternatural skill in a variety of areas. Such characters seem too good to be true, and as such are hard to relate to.

The term “Mary Sue” comes from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, so this is an issue for sci-fi writers especially. And the original Mary Sue was even a lieutenant, just like Gannon is! So, I probably am guilty of this.

Here’s my defense: there’s another stock character in fiction, referred to as the “Competent Man“. This character archetype is strongly associated with the work of science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who wrote a passage extolling the virtues of having many skills, concluding with the famous phrase, “Specialization is for insects.His heroes tend to have a wide variety of skills.

And indeed, having many skills is rather key to becoming a hero. Incompetent characters would not be terribly effective at having heroic adventures.

As a few readers noticed, many elements of The Directorate are intended as an homage to exactly the kind of military science fiction that Heinlein pioneered. I think such stories lend themselves to having competent protagonists–after all, usually people who are or have been in military service possess a lot of training in a wide variety of skills.

Have Female Editors

One piece of advice for any men who are writing female characters: make sure you have female editors and/or beta readers. I would never have attempted to publish a novel with a female protagonist if I hadn’t known women who could critique it first. And am I ever glad they did, because their feedback improved Gannon tremendously from the first draft to the one I ultimately published.

That said, there were still times when I would overrule their objections and refuse to modify something. Because, first and foremost, Gannon had to be somebody I understood. If I didn’t do that, I would have no chance of writing her plausibly. So when somebody suggested changing the character in a way that didn’t sit right with me, I would stick with the way I wanted her. I feel it had to be this way, but it’s quite possible this made her less-relatable to everyone else.

“Everywoman”

As I’ve discussed before, my early writing has been rightly criticized for having too little description. I tried to correct this in The Directorate, and not just in describing the setting–which is essential in sci-fi–but also in how I described the appearance of the characters.

The exception is Gannon. I was deliberately vague about how she looked, because I wanted the reader to project their own image of Gannon. For most of the book, she is the proxy for the reader, and they experience the world through her eyes. My idea was that by leaving her description largely to the reader, they could create their own image of a character they found relatable. (This is something I picked up writing horror: what the reader imagines for themselves is usually way better than whatever you as the author create.)

It’s possible I made her too vaguely-defined, however; and this could make her difficult to relate to.

Conclusion

Creating convincing female characters is one of the biggest challenges of writing fiction for me. I try to avoid obvious pitfalls that I’ve seen a lot of male writers fall into–lengthy descriptions of their anatomy, character traits that are nothing more than clichéd stereotypes–but I’m still not entirely satisfied with what I’ve done so far. The good news is that I can tell I’m improving, and the more I write, the more I feel emboldened to experiment with characterizations, which hopefully will lead to better and more relatable characters.

iwI saw this book after reading Jersey Ghost Stories, which Goats co-authored with Erren Michaels. One of the reviews of Incomplete Works likened it to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which in my opinion is one of the greatest comic novels ever written. I decided to give it a try, although I doubted very much that it could live up to such billing.

Within a page, I was hooked. The protagonist of Incomplete Works reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly, the twisted but unforgettable lead of Dunces. I knew then that I was in for a treat.

Thornton Mordecai Lathrop is a student at Snaketree College in Buffalo Wallow, Wyoming. Coming from San Francisco, he is uncomfortable with life in the small, rural community, with it hard-drinking, bull-riding cowboy ways. Thornton is a bit of a snobbish dandy, whose letters home combine references to classic literature with pleas for money.

These letters are mixed with chapters of a book Thornton is writing—a fictionalized account of his own life, in which he has named his surrogate “Larry Lambert”. Larry’s exploits echo Thornton’s, though with various alterations. This ingenious device establishes him as an unreliable narrator early on, which I loved.

There are all sorts of humorous episodes and memorably over-the-top characters, most of which feel distinctly Wodehousian, from a zealously vegan love interest to a drunken ride on a mechanical bull. One dream sequence in the novel-within-a-novel, wherein Larry attempts to sell his soul to a demonic car salesman, felt like something from a Russian satire.

In addition to the hilarious setting and characters, Incomplete Works is brimming with clever turns of phrase, again very much in the spirit of Wodehouse. I rarely laugh out loud, even when I’m reading something funny, but there were a few lines of this that got me audibly chuckling. Goats has an immensely enjoyable wit.

I don’t want to give away too many plot details. Indeed, this book seems not to have much of a plot at first, but gradually the disparate zany characters and situations do tie together to a degree. It’s not as intricate as Wodehouse’s novels or the incredibly layered plot of Dunces, but it works pretty well.

I had a few nits to pick here and there—sometimes the structure of the novel-within-a-novel makes it a little difficult to keep track of who’s who. (Thornton changes the names of his roommate and his girlfriend, so names alternate between his letters and his novel.)

There were also a few typos here and there—mostly of the sort where it was obvious the spellchecker had automatically altered something (e.g. “dues ex machina”) I am always very sympathetic to this sort of thing in indie books—it’s something I’ve struggled with myself. This is why I so love the easily-correctable format of ebooks.

Despite the modern setting, Incomplete Works—like Thornton himself—feels like a throwback to an earlier era of writing. The abundant wit often relies on references to literary works that are hardly read anymore, and Thornton more than once uses expressions that sound like something Bertie Wooster would say.

To be clear, this is one of the most wonderful things about the book—its timeless quality. It feels like it could take place at almost any point in the past century, give or take a few passing references. And that was what made Wodehouse great, and what made Toole great as well. Anyone who enjoys those classics will likely appreciate this novel.

It’s a short read; only a few hours, and well worth the time. Incomplete Works is a delightful tale, ingeniously told. It was a pleasure to discover that people are still writing books like this—now if only more people would read them.

I hate writing summaries of my books. I’m not sure why it’s so painful, given that, you know, I already wrote the book. The description should just be a condensed version of what I already have. No big deal, right?

Except it’s absolutely excruciating. I’ve often thought I should try to trick beta readers (the ones who like the book, anyway) into writing it for me. Then I can just tweak their descriptions of it, and voila! I’ll have a ready-made blurb.

It’s actually not only for my books, but anything, that I hate writing a summary. For me, the worst part of writing a review is recapping the story. I guess it’s because when you write it, you are just regurgitating stuff you already know. It doesn’t feel productive. It’s like writing a book report in school.

Writing most things is a loose art–you start putting down words and gradually see where they take you. But writing a summary is more like carving something out of marble. You know where you need to go and it’s just a matter of chipping away until you get there. Which feels tedious when you are used to writing in a more natural way.

The most fun ones to write are casual, even humorous ones, where you’re not taking things too seriously. These are most easily done when you don’t like the subject, and want to poke fun at it. That makes this difficult, since authors generally write these things specifically to get people to buy our books–we don’t want to be making fun of them.

But it occurred to me that maybe that is a good clue. For your first draft at writing the summary blurb, try deliberately writing in a super-casual, almost comedic style.

As an experiment, I tried rewriting the description of The Directorate this way. (What I’ve got now kind of makes me wince, even though it was the best I could do at the time) If it were somebody else’s book, and I were describing it to a friend, here’s what I’d say:

“So there’s this woman who’s in the space army, and she’s a big fan of this guy who won this huge war in the past and established the current government where Earth, the Moon and Mars are united. But there are these pro-Earth  traitors who are trying to topple the government, and she gets sent to work on a remote station where the government is running secret projects.”

That’s obviously way too informal. But without much effort, I turned it into:

“Lt. Theresa Gannon is a loyal soldier, even as she gradually discovers that there are traitors in the ranks. But when she is sent to a remote station on the edge of Directorate-controlled space, she begins to learn the full scope of what the traitors are planning, and uncover troubling secrets about the Directorate itself.”

I think the latter is better than what I originally had. So I think one good way of writing a blurb is to write it as casually as if you were telling your best friend about the book, and refine from there.

abstract beach bright clouds
This white-hot sun symbolizes the rage with which overuse of symbolism fills me. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

The other day I went to look up the quote about angel food cake from the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the search results, I saw a bunch of study-aid/cliffs-notes style sites addressing the question, “What does the angel food cake symbolize?”

The passage in question is this, when the sheriff is explaining to Atticus why he won’t tell the town what Boo Radley did:

I never heard tell that it’s against the law for a citizen to do his utmost to prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did, but maybe you’ll say it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what’d happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin’ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes.

The answer the study aids give as to what the cakes symbolize is usually something like this: “the cake symbolizes the townspeople’s compassion.”

This isn’t technically wrong, but it’s way too fancy for my taste. Saying that’s “symbolism” is really over-thinking matters. It’s no more a symbol than any other gift is.

I always hated this “what does [x] symbolize?” question, and I think that nine times out of ten, it’s just a subtle way of asking “Did you actually read the book?”

Well, in English Lit class, that’s something the teachers have to establish, so it’s hard to blame them for asking it. But I wish they could find a different way to do it, because symbolism is an actual thing in literature–but it’s not near as commonplace as English classes would lead you to believe.

True symbolism is subtle, and you have to be alert to notice it. The angel food cake in Mockingbird doesn’t “symbolize” compassion, it’s just an instance of it. Any five-year-old kid could tell you that bringing somebody a cake means you want to show your appreciation for them.

Actually, this is not a bad test for deciding whether something is literary symbolism. If a kid could immediately tell you what something “symbolizes” out of context, then it’s not really a symbol.

In Richard Armour’s hilarious satire of literary analysis, The Classics Reclassified, there’s a note on symbolism in Moby Dick (I’m paraphrasing from memory):The book is full of symbols and allegories. The whale stands for something. The sea stands for something. The reader has to stand for quite a bit, too.” I think this nicely sums up the way most readers feel about books that rely too heavily on symbolism.

Based on this, you’re probably thinking that I hate symbolism. I don’t. I’ve written stories that used symbolism. I just object to the lazy style of literary analysis where everything is a symbol, and a symbol of the most obvious things to boot.

I think we need a better term than “symbolism”. My suggestion is “reinforcement”.

In my opinion, the best use of symbolism in a story is to reinforce the core thematic elements of that story. For example: say you have a story about a guy who goes insane. You might reinforce this by having him look in a cracked mirror that distorts his reflection. It represents his figurative “cracking up” by having him (well, his reflection) literally “crack up”.

That’s just one example. You can use all sorts of things to reinforce a theme—if you write romance, have a rose bush that blooms when the lovers are together and dies when they’re apart. (Yes, I know that’s awfully hackneyed. Now you see why I don’t write romance.)

The point is, all this sort of stuff gets called “symbolism” by authors, literary critics, and academics. But that name is misleading, because it starts artists off thinking about the wrong problem—i.e. “What symbols can I create?”, instead of “How can I reinforce my theme?”

This can lead to pretentious, incoherent art where lots of stuff symbolizes other stuff, but none of it makes much sense or seems meaningful. So instead of asking “What does this symbolize”, lit critics and academics ought to be asking “How does this reinforce the theme?”

Pumpkin Pie
I like pumpkin pie. I still would probably never think to write about one, though.

Lydia Schoch tweeted this the other day:

…and it reminded me that this is one of my big weak points as a writer. I can’t describe food very well.

Partially, this might be related to my well-documented issues with describing anything. But only partially. If I buckle down and get in the right frame of mind, I can describe a landscape or a building or even a piece of clothing. But food really is the hardest one for me.

Part of it is that I don’t think much about food. My mind pretty much checks out after I ask the following questions about food:

  • Is it good for me?
  • What side effects will it have?
  • How does it taste?

The answer to the last question is either “good” or “bad”. I’m not someone who can write at length about how something tastes. I’m always baffled by people who can describe food or drink in complicated terms.

In all my time writing this blog, I’ve covered quite a few subjects. I think I’ve done three posts about food, and one of those was about Doritos, which barely qualify.

I’m a bit better about having characters in my stories drink stuff. I think that’s because I once wrote a story where a character drinks something with poison in it, and in order to keep that scene from standing out, I had to constantly (it felt like) make references to what people were drinking in other scenes.

There’s a scene in The Directorate where two characters have lunch together. That was at the suggestion of a beta reader who specifically complained about people never eating anything. I think I even specified that they ate sandwiches. That’s about as much detail as I could stomach. (pun intended.)

I know plenty of authors who do a great job describing food, though. Two  came to mind when I read Lydia’s tweet: food is a key thematic element in Carrie Rubin’s Eating Bull, and so she is careful to describe what characters eat, and why. In Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes, there are vivid descriptions of the meals that characters eat while on a scientific cruise.

Later, I thought of a couple more examples of the use of food in fiction I’ve read recently: in Mark Paxson’s One Night in Bridgeport, there’s a running joke (for lack of a better term) that the protagonist keeps craving a cheeseburger. (Mark himself is a skilled cook, as he documents on his blog.) There’s a similar idea in Ben Trube’s Surreality, where the detective is always hankering for a Reuben sandwich.

I’m currently reading Eileen Stephenson’s Imperial Passions, and I happened to be reading a chapter in which the characters are having dinner. It occurred to me that it is very important for historical fiction to describe what people are eating, not only by conveying authenticity to the reader, but by helping to describe the structure of the society they live in.

This is why food is a key part of world-building generally. One of the famous questions asked by (good) designers of fantasy worlds is “what do the people here eat?” Because if you can answer that question, you end up answering a lot of other questions about the society you’re creating. When you write historical fiction, that information already exists for you, but you have to research to get it right. (e.g. “in the 1800s, Americans founded cities and towns along bodies of water over which agricultural products could be shipped…” etc.)

So food is a very important part of any story. (Well, any story about biological life, anyway.) I need to do a better job keeping that in mind. But I still don’t see myself writing an extended paragraph about the texture and aroma of a meal anytime soon.