51DGPn2xuTLI’ve seen the name Kevin Brennan praised for years by many authors I admire. Carrie Rubin, Audrey Driscoll, Phillip McCollum, and after this post by Mark Paxson, I realized I could postpone it no longer: I had to read one of his books. The testimony of the four listed above cannot be ignored.

Fascination lived up to the hype. 

Brennan’s prose is something to behold; I noticed it from page one. It’s witty, elegant, and incredibly easy to read. It has a rhythm to it; almost poetic in its way. Quite honestly, I felt a bit jealous reading it. I wish I could write like this.

The story Brennan tells in Fascination is a strange one, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Sally Speck, née Pavlou, is distraught when her husband Mason apparently commits suicide. She can’t quite bring herself to believe it and, it soon develops, with good reason: Mason hasn’t really committed suicide, but simply faked his death and run away. Sally hires the services of private investigator Clive Bridle to track Mason down, and from there, the two embark on a wild, funny, often sublimely weird road trip through the American southwest.

Along the journey of “self realization and vengeance”—to use a phrase that repeats like a leitmotif throughout—Sally and Clive meet a cast of oddballs with various perspectives on life. From a mystical shaman to more than one cult, their path brings them in contact with all kinds of colorful folks.

I could very easily imagine this being adapted into one of those quirky dramedy road trip movies. Brennan writes so well that I could picture the vignettes clearly, and it makes for a pleasing mind-movie. Granted, I don’t see a lot of quirky dramedies, but I kept thinking of the movie Garden State while reading this book. (In case it’s not clear, that’s a compliment. Garden State is like a cultural touchstone for my generation.)

It all ends up with a very satisfying conclusion. Brennan provides just the right amount of closure, while still leaving some things open-ended and up to the reader to decide. I really liked that. Too many books either leave too much unresolved, or else wrap things up too neatly. Fascination gets the balance just right. 

By the way, you might be asking: what is Fascination? Why is the book named that? The easy answer is that it’s an arcade game Sally likes to play. But I think it’s fair to say there’s more to it than that. “Fascination” is a state of mind, to use an old chestnut.

I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. The last book I read that could be said to be in the same vein as Fascination was Swimming with Bridgeport Girls by Anthony Tambakis. That book was also about a journey to find a former spouse (and also, like Fascination, involved quite a few gambling scenes). I enjoyed Bridgeport Girls a lot, but honestly, I think I liked Fascination more. The ending of the latter, in particular, was much stronger.

Did I have any problems at all with Fascination? Well, one. But it’s such a subjective thing I hesitate to bring it up. It’s also fairly late in the book, but I think I can describe it without spoilers. It’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things, so don’t let it deter you from getting this book, okay? You have to promise me now!

At one point, one of the cultish outfits that Clive and Sally encounter forces them into an uncomfortable situation—nothing violent or illegal, mind, just very awkward. And they do so by pressuring Clive into doing something I felt he wouldn’t do.

Now, as I said part of this is just my personality. I’ve played tons of video games where situations like this arise—a cult or other sinister group railroads the “player” character into doing something. In such games, I inevitably try to fight my way out. If I’m ever in such a situation in real life, I’m going to wind up like Sean Connery at the end of The Man Who Would Be King.

So, that’s probably why Clive’s behavior in that scene didn’t sit right with me. Purely a subjective thing. You should read the book and see whether you agree with me or not. 

One more thing before I wrap this up: Mark Paxson did a three-part interview with Kevin Brennan on his blog around the time Fascination was published. It’s a great, wide-ranging discussion that every indie author ought to check out, but one of the points that they raised was that indie literary fiction rarely gets much attention from readers. And that’s a real shame, because there are gems like Fascination out there. Even I, one who doesn’t read much literary fiction, whether from big names or indie, has read enough to know that Fascination can hold its own against the big name lit fic books that win awards and get talked about by fancy people. The fact that it only has nine reviews on Amazon is really a pity. It deserves to be read by all lovers of good writing.

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Photo by Inge Wallumrød on Pexels.com

I love ship names. I don’t know why, but I get a real kick out of it when writers name their fictional ships. My favorite example is in Robert W. Chambers’s The Repairer of Reputations, when the characters all go out for a walk and see the ships in the harbor of fictional future New York, and Louis rattles off the names of the vessels. I loved that.

I think the reason I’m so fascinated is that every ship name has a story behind it. You see a ship name, and you automatically wonder why it was given that particular name. It’s an implied story all in itself.

This goes for spaceships in science fiction too, by the way. In fact, I might even enjoy those more, because there’s more room for unusual names. I’m working on a story now that has a spaceship in it, and I’ve been struggling to come up with just the right name. It’s an important consideration–the story that the name suggests to the reader will color their perception of the characters who fly it.

Some fictional ship names I like:

  • Alert–from H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu 
  • Nostromo–Ripley’s ship in Alien
  • Invisible Hand–General Grievous’s flagship in Star Wars: Episode III
  • Tempest–Pathfinder Ryder’s ship in Mass Effect Andromeda
  • PRCS Wall Cloud–a ship carrying a virus in Deus Ex
  • Pillar of Autumn–one of the first ships in Halo

Wikipedia has a list of more fictional ships. Frankly, from skimming it, I think writers aren’t being bold enough with names. The U.S. Navy names ships after famous battles–we need more of that in fiction. Also, more named after obscure historical figures, please.

bobI don’t often review widely-read books, as you may have noticed. I like seeking out hidden indie gems. This book has over 2000 reviews on Amazon, so it’s not really hidden. But it came recommended to me by not one, but two friends whose tastes run along the same lines as my own, so I had to give it a try. And am I ever glad I did.

The titular “Bob” is Bob Johansson, a software developer and science-fiction fan who signs up to have his brain preserved after his death, to be revived in some distant future. He little expects that a freak accident will cause that death shortly after he does so.

Bob wakes up in the distant future to find himself the subject of a study conducted under the auspices of a religious extremist government called FAITH. The ultimate objective of the operation is to place one of the revived minds aboard a deep-space probe, to be sent out to explore the galaxy. While Bob only gets limited information from the scientists conducting the operation, it soon becomes clear that political tensions on Earth—both within FAITH and elsewhere—are reaching a boiling point, and Bob is fortunate to have his mind sent off into the cosmos just as disaster strikes and full-scale nuclear war erupts.

From there, Bob begins creating a virtual reality interface for himself, just to feel more human, as well as countless “copies” of his mind, using the powerful autofactories at his disposal to deploy more “Bobs” to other parts of the galaxy.

The Bobs begin to develop their own names and personalities, and become different characters in their own right. Some return to Earth, to help what remains of humanity recover from the aftermath of the war, while others venture to new worlds, and encounter new forms of life, including one, the Deltans, who resemble primitive humans in ways that lead to some of the Bobs taking them under their care.

This book is a marvelous exercise in hard sci-fi—Mr. Taylor clearly did his research on every aspect, from space stations to interstellar travel to artificial intelligences. The Bobs make a few derisive references to “hand-waving about nanomachines” in sci-fi, which made me smile since I have been guilty of just that. While obviously any science-fiction work is bound to have some unexplained elements—it has to, otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction—the amount of research and scientific knowledge that went into We Are Legion is impressive.

But despite the technological elements, and the occasionally very abstract scenes where Bob exists as a consciousness with no apparent physical form, the book is written with a light, relatable touch. The tone is humorous, and all the Bobs share a sarcastic sense of humor, a penchant for references to classic sci-fi, and a fundamentally good nature.

I do have a few small criticisms. There is a brief period in the book, when Bob is first sent out into the universe, where things are so abstract it was hard for me to visualize what was happening. But this ends quickly when Bob creates the VR interface.

The religious fanatic government mentioned in the early chapters felt a bit over the top to me, but just as I was feeling this, Bob headed into space, and it became a relatively small part of the plot.

The lack of a large cast of characters might be a problem for some readers. Indeed, there’s really only one true “character”, albeit with multiple versions. For me, this worked–more on that shortly–but I can see that if you don’t like the basic Bob character, the whole book would be less appealing. It’s pretty much all Bob, all the time.

Finally, the ending felt a little abrupt–but then, it’s only the first installment in a series, so leaving the reader wanting more is really a good thing. There are certainly plenty of interesting themes here.

We Are Legion touches on a number of sensitive matters like politics, religion and philosophy. From the fundamentalist rulers of the former United States, to the struggles of humans in the post-war fight for resources, to the arguments among the Deltans on a distant world, the book explores both how political discord occurs and how it can be resolved. There are elements of satire here, but only rarely does it get too heavy-handed.

Religion too is handled in a very interesting way, quite apart from the FAITH government. By the end of the book, one of the Bobs is essentially playing God to an alien race. Again, Taylor is subtle about it, but the theological and philosophical ideas this raises are absolutely fascinating. It reminded me a little of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic, Childhood’s End.

But what I liked most of all is how the book plays with the concept of “self”—as I mentioned, most of the major characters are all copies of the original Bob, but they each evolve in distinct ways. The more senior “Bobs” liken this to having children, and that might be true. What it reminded me of was the experience of writing—as a writer, you create these characters who all have little facets of yourself in them. At least, that’s how it is for me. I can recognize aspects of me in every character I write, even the bad ones or the ones I consciously based on other people. 

This examination of multiple aspects of the same personality by spreading it across different characters is really interesting to me. It reminded me of the different incarnations of the Nameless One in Planescape: Torment. And I think you all know what high praise that is, coming from me.

I can’t say too much more without spoiling major plot points, but you get the idea by now: this is a really fun science-fiction novel, and I recommend it. It’s the first in a series, and I am looking forward to reading the next one. 

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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) 

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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)

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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.

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.

One year ago today, I began work on a sci-fi novel. The day before, I had gone to interview for a job I really wanted. I resolved that I’d either get the job or write a novel, and I figured I’d have about a week to start on the novel before I got a call back.

At the start, I called the file for my novel “SFN” for “Science-Fiction Novel”, because I had no clue what the title ought to be.  I’d been wanting to write a science fiction adventure with a space elevator in it since I was 12 years old, and had tried several times before, but never got anywhere with it. And at first, it didn’t seem like this time would work out any better. I remember sitting at my computer, wondering how I was ever going to do this, when inspiration struck.

As a junior in college, I’d had an idea for a completely unrelated story about a soldier named Theresa Gannon. It was set in the present day, and followed Gannon as she tried to cope with some sort of traumatic battle in her past. But again, I never got much beyond an outline of the story and a sketch of the main character. I hadn’t thought about it in years.

And as I sat there, staring at the blank page, I decided to put Gannon in the space elevator story. (Previous drafts had been written from various perspectives, including that of the character who would eventually become Chairman Wilson, as well as various denizens of the space station connected to the elevator.)

Making Gannon the protagonist turned out to be the spark I needed: after that, the story came together relatively quickly. I finished the first draft by early October, and from there started revising based on beta readers’ and editors’ comments. There were a few moments of frustration, but for the most part, it was exhilarating. During those few times when I felt the creeping shadow of discouragement, I reminded myself that Chris Avellone had written Planescape: Torment when he was my age. If he could manage that, surely I could do this.

The end result was The Directorate.  That it took pulling together multiple threads of story ideas from my past makes me all the prouder of it. And the fact that I’ve met so many wonderful authors along the way has just made it even sweeter. Thanks to all of you wonderful folks who read the book, follow my work, and provide such terrific feedback and support. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you guys are the best!

 

Oh… and that job I mentioned interviewing for? I didn’t get it. But I’m not sorry–in fact, I’m glad, because if I had, I would not have finished the book. And you know what? My 12-year-old self would not be remotely impressed if he knew that I got some slightly higher-paying office job. But if I could go back and tell him that yes, we finally did write that story about the space elevator, he’d be absolutely thrilled.

***

To hear me read an excerpt from The Directorate, click here.

To read reviews of The Directorate on GoodReads, click here.

To read Pat Prescott’s review, click here.

Finally, to get it on Amazon, click here.

The Directorate

mlI blogged about Mark Paxson’s story The Marfa Lights a while back. This week I finally got around to reading the rest of the stories in the collection, and I enjoyed them tremendously. I think my favorites were the post-apocalyptic poem (bonus points to Mark for his use of the excellent word “gloaming”) and the sci-fi tale laced with David Bowie references. All the stories are quite good.

Some of the stories have a bit of a Twilight Zone-like feel to them, which I liked quite a lot. Like Phillip McCollum, Mark has a knack for setting the reader up for a surprising ending in a subtle and economical way.

Branded-Book-Cover-e1531246444684Speaking of Phillip, I blogged about him recently as well, and since then he’s just kept on putting out more terrific stories. Branded and Halfway are two of his most recent works that I’ve enjoyed lately.

Both Phillip and Mark are very adventurous in their writing. While there are certain themes that recur, they are always experimenting–trying on different voices, styles and genres, and it never fails to make for an engaging read.

Ever since I first started dabbling in the writing business, I’ve read numerous people claiming that short stories aren’t read much outside of schools and small literary circles. If you want wide acclaim as an author, goes the conventional wisdom, you’ve got to write novels.

Halfway-Book-CoverThis has always baffled me. Modern audiences are famous for their short attention spans. If anything, you’d think they would be more interested in a short tale that can be finished in a few minutes or an hour than a long, drawn-out novel. (Or, as is even more popular, series of novels.)

Think about it: when it comes to other entertainment, most people watch sit-coms or hour-long episodic dramas. A sizable but somewhat smaller audience goes to two-hour movies. And only hardcore artsy types go to sit through really long movies or, for the truly committed, operas. Why is this situation reversed when it comes to literature?

Maybe in the past you could have said it was because novels were all that was widely available, but the internet changed that dynamic in two ways. The first is simple economics–you can get a good short story collection like The Marfa Lights for ninety-nine cents on Kindle. Phillip publishes his work on his blog. You can get good writing while spending less of your time and money than a novel requires.

The second thing is that the internet makes it easy to discover authors that big publishing outfits haven’t taken yet because they are too risk-averse. I would never have read the work of Mark, Phillip, and other terrific indie authors if not for the internet.

So why aren’t the short, independently-published stories flourishing? Talented writers are all around us and easier to find than ever. The big publishers’ stranglehold has been broken, just as the major traditional news outlets have lost out to bloggers and independent, specialized news services. What is holding so many readers back?

In a way, novels from big-name authors and publishers are like major Hollywood movie franchises, in that they are a relatively safe investment. Audiences go to them because they know pretty much what to expect. Similarly, when it comes to novels, people feel like they can be confident about what they’re getting–especially once they know a certain genre or author. And moreover, once you get into a novel, you (usually) don’t have to worry about changing gears and getting reintroduced to a new situation and set of characters with every new chapter.¹

Short story collections, by definition, can’t be like this. There has to be variation in them, or reading the collection will be a slog. For that matter, writing such a collection would be a slog. Almost every writer likes to try out different things now and then.²

So consumers are still playing it close to the vest with their entertainment choices. Most of them would rather invest in novels from major authors and publishers, from which they think they know what to expect. (Ironically, consumers of news couldn’t wait to jump at any excuse to ignore the traditional news outlets. They’re more careful with how they invest their entertainment budgets than who they trust to tell them the news.)

Don’t be like typical consumers. Give independent authors and short stories a shot. Reading is like anything else in life–if you want better than average return, you can’t just do what everyone else is doing and hope someone will give you exactly what you want. You have to be willing to be different if you want the best.

Footnotes

1. Lest anybody misinterpret what I’m saying here, I’m not claiming that novels are somehow intrinsically inferior to short stories. Some stories really do need to be 40,000 words or more in order to be told well. My point is just that I can’t see why novels should attract more readers than short stories. A satisfying story is a satisfying story, regardless of its length.

2. The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers, which contains one of my all-time favorite short stories, “The Repairer of Reputations”, is a good example. Chambers loosely tied the first four stories together using the sinister title character and some other elements, but the later stories gradually turn away from the weird and more to the romantic. But all the stories contain elements of weird horror and fin de siecle romance, so the reader is always a little uncertain of what’s going to happen next. That’s what makes it good.

 

 

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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?”