I posted about this on Twitter yesterday, but I want to make sure the word gets out to my blog-only followers, as I’m sure they will enjoy these stories as well. Phillip is currently in the middle of a 52 stories in 52 weeks challenge. That’s right; he’s writing one short story per week, for an entire year.
Phillip writes in a variety of genres and styles, and does great work in all of them, but if you asked me to concisely label his work, I’d say his “signature” style lies in sci-fi/fantasy tales, often with ironic twists or unexpected endings. There’s a very Twilight Zone-ish flavor to many of his stories, which I love.
I’ve enjoyed reading his stories from the first in the series on, and he just keeps getting better. Part of the fun of following his work is seeing him challenge himself and grow more ambitious with his writing. His latest, Drafted, is one of my personal favorites because it works on multiple levels—first as a dialogue-driven dark comedy, secondly as an exercise in military sci-fi world-building, and finally as a satire on professional sports.
Another cool thing about Phillip’s work is that for each story, he posts a follow-up detailing his process of writing, the elements that influenced the story, and notes made as he created it. This is a great educational tool for other writers.
And to top it all off, his stories are published on his blog and on Wattpad, so you can read them for free. I don’t know Phillip’s intentions, but my hope is that when this is done, he’ll publish them in book or ebook form. Regardless, his work deserves your attention. So go check out his blog, and join him on this adventure as he creates this eclectic mix of tales.
Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.
This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.
This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1
Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.
What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.
Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:
- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
- Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
- Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
- Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)
KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.
Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.
I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.
Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3
But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.
- To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
- It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
- I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.
[I recently read The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll, the first installment in her Herbert West series. I absolutely loved it, and sent Ms. Driscoll a few questions about the book, her other works, and her thoughts on writing in general, which she kindly and thoughtfully answered. One note: there are a few minor spoilers for the first book below. Enjoy!]
BG: What was it about Lovecraft’s original Herbert West story that first inspired you to write this series?
AD: I was aware of the story for years before I was able to track down a copy. Its reputation as HPL’s worst story intrigued me. How bad could it be? After I read it, I found myself wondering why Herbert West is so interested in reanimating corpses, especially considering how badly his attempts turn out. HPL calls him a totally rational type, but some of his activities, especially in the later chapters, seem pretty irrational. In other words, I thought Herbert was interesting enough to need a backstory, so I wrote one, incorporating other elements from Lovecraft – the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, Arkham, Kingsport, and a few others. Not Cthulhu, though.
BG: How did you manage to write the romance scenes and still keep in the Lovecraftian style? Were there any other sources that you looked to for inspiration on that, or to help with writing the early 20th-century setting in general?
AD: As you know, since you’ve read both HPL’s original story and my book, both are narrated by Herbert West’s friend and accomplice. Lovecraft doesn’t give him a name, but I called him Charles Milburn. I pictured him as a lonely, middle-aged librarian (and I’ll just add here that I worked as a librarian for 35 years), telling the story many years later. His somewhat obsessive, confessional style was perfect for the tale, as though the time has come to tell his long-kept secrets, and he can’t wait to pour them out. The romance element lent itself well to this, because Charles’s affair with Alma must be kept secret from their colleagues, and Charles’s romantic impulses toward Herbert are pretty much unacknowledged by him. Once I discovered/decided that Herbert was gay, I read quite a few works by and about gay writers, which helped me to shape the characters.
BG: There are lots of themes in The Friendship of Mortals, but the main one seems to be the narrator’s romanticism vs. West’s materialism. Did you consciously want to explore this conflict, or did it arise organically in telling the story? And do you think the reader should come away favoring one viewpoint or the other, or is it more of a “in the eye of the beholder” sort of thing?
AD: West’s materialism was emphasized by Lovecraft in his original story, so I must have organically decided to make my narrator, Charles Milburn, a Romantic. A certain amount of conflict developed naturally after that, which was a good thing. And since Herbert undergoes a transformation analogous to the process of alchemy, I suppose I expect the reader to follow along and experience that along with him.
BG: There are a few passages in the book that have to do with music. Can you talk a little about how music influences your writing? Do you listen to music while you write?
AD: Yes, definitely! I actually worked some pieces of music I listened to at the time, such as J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the Allegri Miserere, into the plot of The Friendship of Mortals. Another CD I listened to during that writing was The Mask and the Mirror by Loreena McKennitt. Her setting of “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross had a profound influence on the novel, sending it in a direction I certainly never intended.
The most musically-influenced of my works is a literary novel entitled Winter Journeys, about Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise. It’s not historical; the action takes place in the years of its writing, the winter of 2007-2008. I haven’t published it myself as yet, because I still have an idea I might try to get it traditionally published. But I’ve been so taken up with publishing the Herbert West books and writing my current work in progress that I no longer have the mindset necessary for submitting to publishers.
BG: What other authors, besides Lovecraft, have influenced or inspired you?
AD: Stephen King, of course. Both his novels and On Writing, which inspired me to start actually writing, instead of thinking I couldn’t possibly. Peter Straub as well; his approach to horror is more subtle than King’s. The most elegant horror story I’ve ever read, though, is Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” Nothing I’ve written even comes close. Otherwise, among the authors whose works I hold dear are Mary Renault, Elizabeth Goudge, Mervyn Peake and J.R.R. Tolkien. And Leo Tolstoy. And the garden writer Henry Mitchell, whose style I found most appealing.
BG: Besides your literary work, you also blog about gardening. Are there similarities between the two activities? Any gardening wisdom that helps you in writing?
AD: Well, there’s nothing fictional about gardening. It’s as real as can be. That helps to reset my perspective. It’s done outdoors, which means I spend time away from the desk and computer, and it’s physical. Digging up tree roots is extremely physical. So is pruning, especially huge old climbing roses and prickly hollies. I have the scars to prove it. Noticing, observing, and visualizing are necessary in gardening, and are helpful habits for writers to cultivate as well.
BG: Would you be willing to discuss any new literary project(s) that you have in the works?
AD: I have just finished the first draft of a novel which is a sort of sequel to the Herbert West Series. It features a descendant of Herbert’s (and you have to read the entire series to see how that comes about!) The title is She Who Comes Forth. It’s set in Luxor, Egypt and the Theban Necropolis in the autumn of 1962. It will come forth, I hope, later this year.
BG: What has surprised you most about writing/publishing? Was it easier or harder than you expected when you first started?
AD: When I started writing The Friendship of Mortals in November 2000, I was blown away by the experience. That book pretty much wrote itself. I was obsessed with it. The obsession lasted through 2005 and three more books, although each one took longer to finish than its predecessor. Of course, I was trying to get traditionally published during those years, which introduced an element of harsh reality. Maybe that slowed me down. In 2010, I discovered self-publishing via Smashwords and eventually Amazon, and began my blog. I was taken up with those activities for the next seven years, so didn’t start writing another novel until 2017. A year later, I’m still at the raw first draft stage. Of course, I do my own editing and my own formatting — even for print, which is more challenging than ebook formatting. Altogether, though, I like the degree of control I have over the look and feel of my finished books. And as an indie, I can take whatever approach I like to marketing, as long as I adjust my expectations accordingly.
BG: Any advice that you would like to pass on to other aspiring authors?
AD: Writing and publishing are two completely different, although related, operations. Writers should ask themselves why they write, and what they expect from that process. Same for publishing. What constitutes success in each area? Each author has their own answers to these questions.
How much time, effort and money are they prepared to spend in writing and bringing their works to the world’s attention? It is possible to publish well with relatively little monetary expenditure, but that means doing a lot of it oneself. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go into debt as a first-time self-publisher. Indie authors are a huge market for products and services; there are many hands ready to take one’s money, and not all of them are helping hands. Like so many other endeavours, self-publishing might be summed up this way: good, fast, cheap; pick two.
Writing is a solitary activity, even when done in coffee shops, but it’s immensely helpful to be part of a writing community. The internet is a good place to meet and communicate with other writers, both trad- and self-pubbed. I recommend finding a niche there. WordPress has dozens, if not hundreds, of writers’ blogs. Not every piece of writing/publishing advice you see is relevant or useful, so it helps to exercise one’s critical thinking abilities, and to keep asking the questions I mentioned earlier.
Thank you very much for the thought-provoking questions, Berthold. And for giving me space on your blog.
BG: It was my pleasure! Thank you for your thoughtful answers, and for writing such wonderful books.
<SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!>
I read Carrie Rubin’s first two books last year and enjoyed them tremendously, so I was very eager to read her latest effort, The Bone Curse. It tells the story of Benjamin Oris, a young medical student who injures his hand on an ancient bone in the Paris catacombs. Soon after, his loved ones begin to succumb to a mysterious illness. Oris, as one would expect of a med student, is a rational and logical sort of person, dismissive of supernatural explanations for the affliction.
But gradually, as more bizarre events begin to occur all around him, Oris discovers that he is descended from a cruel plantation owner who raped the daughter of a powerful Vodou mambo (female High Priest). To avenge her daughter, the mambo placed a curse upon the plantation owner’s bloodline.
Oris stubbornly continues, in spite of his friend Laurette’s urging, to maintain his faith in medical science and reject supernatural explanations, but as more and more of his loved ones begin to fall ill—and as events in his personal and professional life begin to spiral increasingly out of control–he finally has to admit the possibility that there is something beyond a normal illness at work. This leads him into a desperate effort to end the curse through extreme measures, and brings him into conflict with an ancient Vodou conspiracy.
I’ve never read anyone who can write a page-turner like Rubin can, and Bone Curse is similar to her previous books in that it quickly becomes impossible to put down. The last line of one chapter late in the book was an absolute gut-punch, and I just had to keep going to find out what happened. She has a real talent for writing lengthy but well-paced action scenes that hold the reader’s attention. (I’m probably unusual in this regard, but I often start to skim when I read fights or chase sequences in thrillers—but never in Rubin’s books.)
While Bone Curse, like her other books, has many medical elements—including a possible alternate scientific explanation for the mysterious illness afflicting Oris and those he cares about—the book struck me as primarily a supernatural thriller, and it’s clear the author did her research on Haitian Vodou. Many of the eerie rituals are described in some detail, and she does a great job of differentiating between true spiritual practices and the “Hollywood” caricature that the word conjures up for most people.
All in all, The Bone Curse is a gripping and fast-paced thriller. And as it is the first in a series, I must say I’ve been looking forward to reading the next installment ever since I finished it.
[The Bone Curse releases on March 27, 2018. This review is based on an ARC of this book I received from the publisher through NetGalley.]
One Night in Bridgeport is a legal thriller that follows Jack McGee, a law student who is sent to Bridgeport, California to deliver some papers concerning the purchase of some land by a large corporation. While there, he decides to have a one-night stand with a local woman, Lea Rogers. (Who, though McGee doesn’t realize it at the time, is the daughter of the property owner.)
The next morning, McGee wakes up feeling overwhelmed with guilt and regret over cheating on his fianceé and leaves without speaking to the still-sleeping Rogers. She wakes up in time to see McGee’s car pulling out of the parking lot, and immediately feels angered and hurt by his caddish behavior.
Later, she discovers that McGee is handling the purchase of her mother’s property, and her anger only increases further. In a conversation with her friend and local lawyer, Butkus Sweet, she mentions sleeping with McGee and Sweet decides that it must have been rape. After he pressures her to do so, Rogers presses charges against McGee.
From this point, things go from bad to worse for McGee, beginning with his initial decision to tell the investigators he has never met Rogers, and continuing through his trial, where many other questionable aspects of his past come to light.
The book has an almost Rashomon-like quality to it, in that we see things from different characters’ points-of-view. In addition to McGee, Paxson also shows the perspectives of Rogers, Sweet, and the Judge. (Personally, I found the Judge and McGee’s determined-but-overworked defense attorney, Tammy, to be the most sympathetic characters in the story.)
The plot is well-paced, and the final twist that resolves the story is both set up well enough that it doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere, but hidden well enough that you don’t see it coming. I also enjoyed the descriptions of McGee’s walks in the snow. At one point, Paxson alludes to the eerie, muffled silence that accompanies a new snowfall–I loved that, because to me it’s one of the most interesting things about snow, and not enough writers make mention of it.
My only real problem with the book was how unlikable McGee is, but I suspect that this is a pretty realistic depiction of this kind of case. Some readers might be alienated by his personality, but if you’re the type who needs someone to root for to feel engaged with a story, be patient–in the second half of the book, the Judge emerges as a very well-written, sympathetic and interesting character.
It’s the sort of book that I think can be perceived very differently by different readers, so before you read my last bit of analysis, I recommend you read it yourself and make up your own mind. I’m not only going to spoil some plot points below, but also say some subjective stuff that could color your perception of the characters. So, now’s your chance to bail if you don’t want spoilers.
[I want to reexamine a topic I first wrote about here—I’ve given it some more thought, and come up with a few new points.]
When you look for writing advice, sooner or later you see tips like “Avoid lengthy descriptions” and “Cut all unnecessary words.” (These are two of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing, but lots of other people have said similar things.)
Well, I’m here to tell you that having fewer words isn’t always better. And sometimes, it’s worthwhile to describe characters and things in detail.
I know this because I once believed these nuggets of advice wholeheartedly. I think I subconsciously always thought wordy descriptions were for pretentious twits who wanted to sound fancy. Reading this advice just validated what I already wanted to believe.
It wasn’t until I started writing fiction and my readers started asking “Why don’t you describe stuff?” that I began to think I was mistaken. (It took embarrassingly long for me to become willing to admit this.)
I started thinking about the work of other writers I regularly read. Did they describe stuff? Well, yes, they did. Did they always use the minimum number of words needed to say what they wanted to say? Not really.
Here’s the opening paragraph from H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tale, The Call of Cthulhu:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
This could be much more simply rendered as:
“It’s better not to know some things.”
Same point, fewer and shorter words. Must be better, right?
Here’s another example, this from P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves:
“Contenting myself, accordingly, with a gesture of loving sympathy, I left the room. Whether she did or did not throw a handsomely bound volume of the Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, at me, I am not in a position to say. I had seen it lying on the table beside her, and as I closed the door I remember receiving the impression that some blunt instrument had crashed against the woodwork, but I was feeling too pre-occupied to note and observe.”
He could have just written:
“I left the room, and I think she threw a large book at me, but I was pre-occupied with other matters.”
Much shorter! And yet… that doesn’t seem as good, does it? It’s still funny, but Wodehouse’s more thorough description is more amusing.
As for description: we can argue over how much is too much—it’s true that you don’t want a multi-paragraph description of somebody’s eye color. But few people would even think of writing that in the first place
Readers want to form a coherent picture in their mind’s eye, and reading physical characteristics helps them to remember people and things; just as when you meet someone in real life, you tend to remember them by certain physical attributes. Anyone who has ever read Harry Potter can instantly tell you what color Ron Weasley’s hair is.
Another good example of why it’s sometimes worthwhile to dwell on descriptions is the opening of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces:
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.”
This is some pretty detailed description, but it does more than just tell us what Reilly looks like. It also gives us an idea of his personality. From this point on, we have an impression of him to file away and call up whenever his name appears on the page. The cap, the moustache, the oddly –colored eyes—all these things paint a vivid picture of the character.
Could you trim this down a bit? Sure. Just say:
“A mustachioed man in a green hunting cap looked around disapprovingly at the crowd.”
But that doesn’t linger long enough to make an impression in the reader’s mind. They’ve passed it before their brains are even fully engaged, and as a result, have formed no mental picture of the character.
To be clear: I’m not saying I favor describing every detail you can think of. In horror especially, there are some things you should leave to the reader’s imagination. But you don’t want to leave too much, or else you don’t have a book. You just have a very sophisticated outline. Many of my early stories fall into this trap.
So, why do legendary writers like Leonard say to avoid lengthy passages and detailed descriptions, when that isn’t what readers want? Even more confusing: why do many authors preach that while not practicing it?
My guess is that a skilled writer becomes so adept at translating their vision to the page that it ceases to feel like description at all. The descriptive passages, the dialogue, and the action scenes are all so woven together it becomes difficult to separate one piece from the whole.
Moreover, this is also the reader’s impression of good writing. Well-written description doesn’t even register as separate from dialogue or plot—it’s all part of the world that the reader becomes immersed in.
Note the all-important qualifier “well-written”. If your description is badly-written, you’re in trouble. But that’s true of anything in any book. And if someone asks for advice on writing, saying “write well” seems like a useless thing to tell them. The question is, how do you write well?
The answer is not to minimize description and word counts. I think the real answer is something like “Make the description integral to the overall story”. As in the example from Dunces, you want your descriptive passages to be tied in with the characters and the world.
In other words, don’t just tell the reader that “This jerk had light-brown hair and glasses”. Tell them that “The sandy-haired man peered at him through his spectacles, as though he were some type of revolting insect.”
This tells the reader both how the character looks and how he behaves, allowing them to quickly make a mental note:
Brown-haired glasses guy = jerk
This is what readers want—the ability to quickly and easily understand characters, places and things.
“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.
Sometimes you have story ideas that don’t work out. They seem like brilliant ideas at first, but then they just slowly die. It can take a while to even realize your story has died–I know I’ve kept working on some long after they’ve passed on.
Last month, the Economic Security Project had a contest to write a short story about Universal Basic Income. I tried my hand at it, but didn’t get far. I thought readers might be interested in seeing an example of a story that died.