The Directorate
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At long last, here is the novel I’ve been talking about for the last few months. I started writing this back in August, and polished off the first draft some time in October. I’ve wanted to do a Space Opera/Science-Fantasy military adventure for some years now, because those were the sorts of books, movies, and games I liked best as a kid and teenager. Some elements of this story have been kicking around in my head since I was 12 years old. (Others, of course, are as old as science fiction itself.)

It’s definitely slower-paced than The Start of the Majestic World—there’s a lot of backstory, world-building and political machinations in this one, but I enjoyed being able to set the scene a little more compared to the deliberately vague setting of Majestic World.

I wrote several posts about my process as I was working on this book:

Here you can read my concerns about how there is one scene and character who is similar to one in Majestic World, and why I decided it’s OK.

Here you can read my musings on “Mary Sues”, whether my protagonist is one, and why they are so popular.

Here is where I addressed whether it had enough words, too many words, or not enough words.

Here is where I considered whether it was funny enough

On most of these questions, I decided that what I was doing was probably right, or at least that any other approach I could think of wouldn’t have been as good. That’s not to say that another author might not have been able to tell the story better, but only that I didn’t know how to tell the story any better. Your mileage may vary.

The thing I’ve enjoyed most about this whole process has been the comments I’ve gotten from readers, both here on the blog and on Twitter. It’s been a lot of fun, posting about various aspects of the book and hearing what other folks think. So, many thanks to Carrie Rubin, Phillip McCollum, Eileen Stephenson, Barb Knowles, Mark Paxson, Pat Prescott, Thingy, and all the other readers who stop by here. I appreciate all of you!

Maybe you’ve heard the term “experimental fiction”. It’s usually used to mean some form of fiction that is very unusual in form, as opposed to “literary” or “genre” fiction. Experimental fiction typically means fiction that breaks all the established rules of literature.

As with everything, breaking the rules often means you crash and burn. The rules are there for a reason. But once in a while, it leads to great discoveries and innovations that alter the entire field.

I’ll be honest: I have never much liked these divisions of “literary” and “genre” and “experimental” fiction. To me, there are only two kinds of books — good ones and bad ones.

The truth is, all fiction is an experiment. The writer puts together the tale as best he or she can, and then there is a process — similar to a chemical reaction —  that determines how it plays in the readers’ minds. Every reader brings their own experience and perspective to a book, and there’s no knowing what their perception of it will be.

Now it’s true, there are certain types of stories that each individual will tend to like or dislike. I like sci-fi and horror in general, and am usually not much for fantasy or murder mysteries. But there are always exceptions. There are horror stories I hate and murder mysteries I love.

Every writer, regardless of whether they are classified as literary, experimental, or in some genre or other, is writing because they feel they have something to say that no one else can. Maybe there are those who write so-called “potboilers” and are just in it for the money, but even they have to try to bring something at least somewhat new to the table — otherwise their work won’t sell.

But it’s always an experiment, even for the most famous authors. I could name works by my favorite authors that I don’t think are very good, and one-hit wonders by authors who never again wrote anything I liked.

Many moons ago, when I was in college, I had to take what they called a “writing course”, which was a class designed specifically to teach writing, but about subjects in our chosen major. (Mine was Econ.) I think the point was to prevent a bunch of mathematics geniuses from taking over the field with equations and graphs strung together by incoherent babble.

It doesn’t seem to have worked.

Anyway, the section I was in was unpopular, because the professor assigned not one, not two, not three, but four books. Now, they were all short books, and one of them (The Ghost Map) actually became one of my favorites. But that’s not the one I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the first one we had to read: The Doctors’ Plague.

The book is about Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who, in the 1840s, tried to reduce the so-called “childbed fever” then prevalent in the hospital where he worked. Germ theory was not widely understood at the time, and Semmelweis’s radical proposal was that doctors and nurses who treated infants and mothers should wash their hands.

This sounds absurdly obvious to us modern readers, but at the time it was heretical, and indeed, Semmelweis wasn’t taken seriously by the medical establishment. Whether due to his difficult temper, some unknown mental disorder, or possibly a language barrier, Semmelweis failed to prevail upon the medical community to adopt hand-washing as a regular practice. He died in an insane asylum, and his work was not recognized until long after his death.

Naturally, we Econ students were all puzzled by this. (Those of us that read it, that is. I suspect a quarter of the class just looked up the book’s synopsis online, and another quarter didn’t even do that.) What on God’s Green Earth does this have to do with Supply and Demand?

After the week or whatever our allotted time to read the book was, the professor started the class by giving his summary of the book–I assume for the benefit of the ones who didn’t read it. He finished up by raising the question we were asking ourselves: why did he assign this?

The point of the book, he said, was that Semmelweis couldn’t communicate his ideas to his colleagues. “So,” he concluded, “You have to learn to write well! It doesn’t matter if you discover something great if no one can understand you.”

I think he intended this as a carpe diem moment, but most of the class felt like they’d just been told the world’s longest shaggy dog story. But he was right; you do have to be able to write well, no matter how good your underlying point is.

I’m not even sure if that was really the main lesson of the Semmelweis story, but nevertheless, it’s true. And regardless of whether writing well has anything to do with Semmelweis or not, the professor created a helpful mnemonic: writing well is as important as good hygiene in a hospital.

[The other day I came across this unfinished humor novel I wrote when I was sixteen. I hadn’t looked at it for over a decade. Parts of it are funny. Most of it is stupid.  What follows are a few of the highlights–I left out the really lame bits. For background: it was intended as a satire of spy/thriller  stories, as well as poking fun at my favorite target, government bureaucracies. Teen-aged me was an ardent libertarian, so take all of it with a generous helping of salt. Also don’t miss my juvenile attempt at Gilbertian wordplay at the end. Enjoy!–BG]

NOTICE FROM THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF STORIES

The following story is true.

(Note: This story is not actually true. That was a literary device.)

The following story is in compliance with section V, article xii of the drama treaty of English-speaking nations. By reading this story, you certify that you are (a) literate and (b) not visually impaired in any way that would prevent reading. If you are found to be in violation of either or both of these conditions you may or may not be penalized. Before reading the story that follows, you must take out all your identification and read it aloud. If any or all of your identification papers are expired, you must renew them before reading this story. Reading of this story without proper and up to date identification is punishable by fine or imprisonment under article xii, section V of the California—Maine Fiction Code. No person or persons under the age of 21 may take away a moral from this story without filling out a moral-requisition form in compliance with article xvii of the Alaska state constitution. If multiple morals are taken away, a requisition form must be filled out for each moral. Any and all themes, motifs, etc. in this story are in compliance with article cvvxxi, section C of the American Motif Code. The character(s) in this story is/are certified and in compliance with all regulations regarding character(s) in English fiction. (English fiction referring to all fiction written in English by persons of any nationality.)

Reading of this story out loud is strictly prohibited.

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“They don’t blame you — so long as you’re funny!” –Jack Point, in The Yeomen of the Guard, by W.S. Gilbert.

One of the most interesting beta reader comments on my new novel was “Why don’t you make it funnier?”

This one stuck with me, because I already had a sneaking suspicion that the book was too humorless. Paul Graham’s point about good design sticks in my head: “Good design may not have to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine something that could be called humorless also being good design.”

I’ve struggled with this quite a bit. The book isn’t a comedy by any means—it deals with some very dark subjects. And yet… that doesn’t seem like a valid excuse. For example, racism, murder, and rape are all major elements in the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet it still has plenty of extremely humorous moments as well.

I read somewhere that a novel is supposed to capture “the totality of life”. If so, then it makes sense that it needs to have both the dark and the light moments—after all, real life has both.

But how do you put humor into a serious story? You can’t just put in a slapstick comedy routine for characters who are struggling with matters of life and death. It would seem out of place.

This is the problem that so-called “comic relief” characters were created to solve. And sometimes, that can work. But it’s easy for it to go wrong, and then you get something like Jar Jar Binks—a character whose antics clash with the main narrative and annoy the audience.

A better route is to have characters who are well-rounded enough to be both funny and serious. And actually, having funny characters is probably helpful in terms of the larger goal of making the reader care about them. Funny characters are more likeable.

One of the complaints I got about The Start of the Majestic World was the lack of banter between the two protagonists. This was because I just generally don’t like banter—it comes across as too forced to me. But I wonder now if this was really about an overall lack of humor in the book. (I did try to make some of the supporting characters entertaining, if not exactly comic.)

It’s tricky to find the right point to insert humor in a non-humor book.  At any given moment, the characters are dealing with serious problems, and so there never seems to be any specific point where it makes sense to insert comedy, even though the overall vibe is that the book needs more of it.

Another way is to put humor in the descriptions. The difficulty here is that my book is set in the distant future, and as such requires a fair amount of world-building and information about how the futuristic society works. And it’s tough to give the reader that information, much of which will ultimately be relevant to the plot, and be funny at the same time.

Even more importantly, humor relies on a shared frame of reference, so it’s hard to come up with really funny things to say in a futuristic society. Humor also involves playing with social norms, and when dealing with unfamiliar social norms, it doesn’t seem funny when they get violated. It just seems confusing.

This still doesn’t justify a lack of humor, though. Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke infused their science fiction stories with wit. What it comes down to is being able to write plausibly human and relatable characters in a futuristic and/or alien setting.  That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway—write characters with both serious and silly sides to them, and then put them in situations where the different aspects of their personalities can appear.

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Need extra words? Here are some random ones!

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I’ve been working on a new novel for the last two months. My goal at the outset was 100,000 words, and I’ve been keeping a running update of my progress. Here’s my latest:

I re-read it, and I think the story has a pretty decent pace overall. It may be a little too brisk (it turns out these things seem much faster when you’re reading them than when you’re writing them), but I think I have the central plot arc in place. And there’s just no way to pad it out to 100,000 words, which is bad, because it’s a sci-fi novel, and those are generally “supposed” to be at least 80,000 words.

I can and probably will throw in some additional world-building detail and “local flavor”, tie up a few minor loose ends in the plot, and add some more description of scenes and characters. (Description, as long-time readers know, has always been my weak point.) But even all that will probably bring it to around 60,000 words, at the maximum.

Personally, I have never been a fan of arbitrary word counts for a genre. A story should be told in the number of words that make it most powerful for the reader–no more, no less. Too many words, and they get bored. Too few, and they won’t get drawn into it.

But of course, the publishers don’t see it that way. They have certain rules for word count by genre. In my opinion, this “quantity over quality” approach encourages overly-long books, but then again, when you have to review thousands of manuscripts, it helps to have some rules that let you automatically eliminate some of them. (This article summarizes it well.)

The key question here is; what do readers like? Assuming the two books are equal in price, does the typical reader prefer to have a longer one to a shorter one? Do they want to maximize the number of words they get for their money? Or do other considerations take precedence?

For myself, I generally make decisions based on other factors. I read the synopsis to see if it sounds like an interesting premise, then I flip through the book a little and see if I like the author’s style. Cover art also makes a difference to me, even though we all know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

What about you? What factors most heavily influence your book-buying decisions? How much do you care about the length of a book?

[You can make a case for any of these characters being “Mary Sues”. From left: Robert Pattinson as Edward from Twilight, Miranda Lawson from Mass Effect 2, Sean Connery as James Bond, and Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. All images via respective Wiki pages and re-used under ‘fair use”]

First, let me begin by defining terms. Or more accurately, letting Wikipedia do it for me:

A Mary Sue (if female) or Marty Stu (if male) is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character…

The term “Mary Sue” comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973… The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”), and satirized unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction.

“Mary Sue” is now a shorthand for an unrealistically capable character, with no flaws or foibles. It’s the mark of an amateurish writer, too lazy to flesh out their characters.

Naturally, there’s a discussion to be had here about the use of the term’s sexist connotations, and whether the pejorative “Mary Sue” is now used by lazy critics to put down any female protagonist. It’s a very interesting issue, but it’s not the thing about Mary Sues I want to discuss here.

What I want to address is the motivation for creating such characters in the first place. Often, critics assume that the reason is wish-fulfillment; that authors imagine themselves to be these characters, and make them perfect as a result. (Critics usually assume that everyone is as conceited as they are.)

But perfect–or at least, incredibly highly-skilled–characters are actually very tempting for reasons of plot, especially in a science-fiction or fantasy setting. Simply put; when your plot takes place in a big, complicated universe, you want your character to be able to participate in every aspect of that universe.

If I’m writing a sprawling epic with, say, a league of heroic knights who go around fighting dragons, it’s a bit of a letdown if I say “But sadly, Bob the protagonist was an archer who knew nothing about horsemanship or swordsmanship, and so could never be a knight.” By the same token, if Bob is a knight, then it’s a real shame if he can’t be in any archery attacks.

When you’re writing a story, you generally want your protagonist to be able to participate in most of the action. Having them figure out and solve the central conflict makes a better story than: “Bob found out a lot of interesting information about dragons. So he gave it to the experts who handle that sort of thing. 8 months later, he read in the newspaper about how the dragon issue had been solved. ‘Huh,’ he said. ‘So that’s how that all played out.’ The End.”

Now sure, you can have lots of characters with different skill sets, and still have the protagonist be involved in every step. This is relatively easy to do if your setting is the present day or recent past. For example, in a mystery novel, Ted the Brooding Detective With The Dark Past can take the evidence to Jill the Wisecracking Forensics Expert With The Rebellious Streak. (And if they fall in love, then you’ve almost got all the characterization you need.)

But this gets harder to do the more exotic your setting is, because then you have to make up a bunch of skill sets for people This is especially true in science fiction. So, there’s the girl who flies the ships, there’s the guy who fixes the ships, there’s the other guy who fixes the robots, there’s some alien who mines the raw materials for building both the ships and the robots…

It can be done, don’t get me wrong. But it’s tough to do it, and very, very tempting to the novice writer to just say, “We need to get this plot moving! We haven’t got time to meet the guy who waxes the floors. It’s faster to just make the protagonist do it.”

i can do better

I’m working on a new novel. It’s an idea I’ve had for a while, but I just recently started writing it down. (I’ve hinted about it a few times already on Twitter.)

I’m about 19,000 words in, and I recently wrote a scene that bothered me a little because it reminded me of a passage in my novella The Start of the Majestic World.

There’s a scene in Majestic World where Agent Maynard has a verbal confrontation with the main villain, Colonel Preston, a handsome army colonel who tries to intimidate her into following his orders even though she’s not under his command.

Here’s a bit of it:

The Colonel stood up, and walked around the desk so that he was very close to Maynard—so close, and in such a posture, that Maynard felt he was trying to brush aside the barriers of rank and agency, and underscore primarily the difference in sex between them. 

I don’t want to give away too much about the new book, but the scene in it has some very similar elements. The female protagonist is in a meeting with a handsome male colonel, and he is trying to get her to do something that may violate protocol. (It’s deliberately ambiguous in the scene, but she feels uneasy about it.) And there’s some uncomfortable sexual tension–it’s less overt than in the above, but there’s some suggestion he might be trying to seduce her.

Now, there are also some big differences, involving both the setting and the characters. But as I was sketching out the scene in my mind, I was thinking, Gosh that’s awfully similar to the Maynard/Preston scene.

So, right now you’re thinking: “Well, dummy; you’re the writer–don’t write it that way, then!”

True, that’s one option. But there are a couple reasons I hate to remove or alter the scene. First, it’s a very natural way for things to play out in the story–it works well in context, both in terms of plot pacing and characterization. I hate to lose scenes like that.

And second, it’s a much better execution of the concept than in Majestic World. The dialogue is more natural, the characters are more nuanced and less caricatured. This is encouraging to me–it’s good to know I’ve improved as a writer since writing the Maynard/Preston scene over three years ago.

The great film director John Huston once said about movie remakes: “There is a wilful, lemming-like persistence in remaking past successes time after time… Why don’t we remake some of our bad pictures… and make them good?” That’s sort of how I feel about this–sure, I tried this basic concept once, but now that I’ve improved as a writer, why not prove that I can do it better?

At the same time, I could see somebody who read Majestic World reading the new book and saying “Yawn! Another Colonel behaving inappropriately towards the protagonist. Give us something new, Berthold!”

But I can guarantee it won’t be the same thing over again. Trust me.

What do you think? Should an author revisit a concept similar to one they’ve written before, if they feel like they can write it better this time, or is it best to try to break new ground?

“Now if you make a pilgrimage, I hope you find your Grail.
Be loyal to the ones you leave with, even if you fail.
And be chivalrous to strangers you meet along the road
As you take that Holy Ride yourselves to know.”

–Warren Zevon, “Ourselves to Know”

Inspired partly by this post by Phillip McCollum, and partly because it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, here’s a list of some of the wonderful folks I’ve met on social media over the years.

Andrew Crowther: The Secretary of the W.S. Gilbert society and an expert on all things Gilbert, as well as P.G. Wodehouse and plenty of other writers, Andrew is also quite the quick wit in his own right.

Eurobrat: A modern-day Jonathan Swift, with a real knack for very dark satire. Also a delightfully friendly and funny blogger, when not conjuring bleak and all-too-plausible dystopian scenarios. Her writing talent is undeniable, whether you agree with her politics or not.

Barb Knowles: Barb’s blog is funny, moving and thoughtful. What I admire most is how she can write about very personal subjects in an emotional and yet detached way. The way she can document even normal day-today events and make them funny or interesting is also wonderful.

Patrick Prescott: Sadly, Patrick no longer blogs. He was one of my first readers, back in the days when I was on Blogger, and he taught me a ton about both writing and history. Too many things to list, really, but here are two examples: I’d never heard of the Peterloo massacre till he told me about it. And second, whenever I write one of my rushed, description-light first drafts, I can imagine him telling me “nice skeleton, but there is no meat to this.” Then I go back and add some.

Carrie Rubin: Carrie is awesome. She’s a doctor, a novelist, a first-rate writing and health blogger… and also, she posts some really funny home life anecdotes on Twitter.  I am grateful to her for so many things, including kindly and thoughtfully answering my rambling questions for an interview.

Eileen Stephenson: Before reading her book, I could not have told you the first thing about the Byzantines. Now, between her book and her blog, I’ve learned a ton about a whole period of history I previously knew nothing about.

Maggie Swanson AKA “Thingy”: Along with Patrick, I’ve known her since the Blogger days, when she would provide encouragement by commenting on my poetry, giving me some reassurance that I was, perhaps, not simply a lunatic mumbling nonsense into the void. Her work ranges from poetry to artwork to novellas, and her blog includes delightful commentary on politics, culture, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.

Russ Sype: Another Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and a very funny blogger for many years. But rather than talk him up too much, I’ll just let this video speak for itself. It gets better every day.

Ben Trube: Ben wrote the book I always wanted to write, but never could–a neo-noir, cyberpunk-y thriller set in our own hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He also shares my love of fractals–but he knows a lot more of the hard math stuff behind them.

I’m sure there are others, and so apologies in advance to anyone I’ve left off the list.

51lvbVGJfzLThe Seneca Scourge is a medical thriller with science-fiction elements.  It follows Dr. Sydney McKnight as she finds herself in the midst of a seemingly incurable influenza pandemic. Aiding the staff at her hospital is the mysterious Dr. Casper Jones. As the pandemic spreads, Dr. McKnight notices Dr. Jones behaving oddly.

As she investigates in between treating the ever-growing patient population, Dr. McKnight gradually uncovers the shocking truth about Dr. Jones.

That’s the spoiler-free synopsis. If you don’t want to know the plot twist, don’t read after the asterisks below. My spoiler-free review is that it is a very well-paced thriller that successfully combines fairly plausible depictions of medicine and viruses in the first half with science-fiction elements in the second half. If you like either medical thrillers or science-fiction (and especially if you like both) I recommend it highly.

Now, if you want to know more detail, with spoilers, read on.

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