Focus–Finding My Flow

I’ve always been too lazy to be successful.  My ambitions have always been greater than my ability to focus, so I’ve lived a life of quiet desperation (for those of you who remember your Thoreau).  The constant rationalization throughout my adult life was I had to work and thus didn’t have the time and energy to pursue those ambitions.  Of course that’s bullshit.  Successful people always find the time to pursue their dreams no matter what situation they find themselves.  And now that I’m retired and have all my time free, I have no rationalization to protect myself from my own crapola.

A song to play in background while reading this essay.

What’s required to be successful at any goal is focus.  People who can concentrate to the point of getting into the zone and finding their flow have a much better chance at being successful.  However, relentless focus isn’t the only answer, many people on the autistic spectrum can focus obsessively, and just ordinary people with decent hobbies can find flow for escaping reality.  Success is focus, 10,000 hours of practice, and a creative awareness of the past with the ability to imagine something new and different.  Of these three qualities, I believe I have little of the first, a fair amount of the second, and quite a bit of the third. 

My will is flabby, but my ego is buffed.  (I’m sure all us Walter Mittys can say the same.)

An astrologer once told me that there are two kinds of people – those who create and those who consume.  I’ve spent my life consuming thousands and thousands of books, documentaries, essays, stories, songs, movies, television shows, and so on.  This is my 765th essay for this WordPress blog.  In my life I’m sure I’ve written over a thousand essays.  That’s a long way towards my ten thousand hours of practice.  I’ve been working on both fiction and nonfiction books, but I can’t focus enough to stick with them.  I can write these little short blog essays, but that’s about as far as my mind can focus.  To break through my concentration barrier will require changing myself quite a bit.  I don’t even know if that’s possible.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I’ve written this essay before.  I write essays like this one to talk myself into changing, but I never do.  At age 62, change does not come easy.  I’m a man who loves his rut, so it’s odd for me to even desire change.  But I’ve known all my life that if I want to succeed with my writing goals I have to change.  I assume I never will, because I never have, but the desire to write a book never changes either.  It’s an odd Catch-22.  And the funny thing is I know exactly what I must do.  I must give up all my distractions and focus on a single goal.

Like many times before, I have to tell about the parable of Destination Moon, a movie made in 1950 about the first trip to the Moon.  Like Neil Armstrong nineteen years later, these movie astronauts had to do some last minute maneuvering when they went to land, but unfortunately they used too much of their fuel.  They landed okay, but didn’t have enough propellant to take off.  Eventually one of the scientists figures out if they jettison enough weight they’d have enough fuel for the return trip.  They had to throw out all their collected samples, their scientific equipment, their radio, all the unnecessary rocket control instruments, even their space suits.  Getting back to Earth was an all or nothing gamble.  That’s how it is with ambition – you have to jettison all the extra weight to be light enough to take off.

There are writers who published bestsellers by getting up two hours early and writing before they have to hit their nine-to-five job.  I never could do that.  I never could eat just two cookies.  It was always all or nothing with me.  When I read books like The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin that took seven years to write, or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson which took ten, I realize what it means to be a writer, you have to be dedicated in a way that most normal people never can be.  Wilkerson interviewed 1,200 people.  And the source material Goodwin had to read would have taken me more than seven years just to read.

It’s easy to fantasize about doing something, it’s hard to actually do it.  That’s because success takes unswerving focus.  Last night instead of watching Nature, Survivor, Nova, Nashville and part of The Glass Bottom Boat with Doris Day, I should have been writing, or at least researching.  Yesterday afternoon instead of reading News360 and listening to music, I should have been writing.  Instead of reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, I should have been researching.

Sometimes I wish I could just commit to four hours of dedicated work, say from 9am to 1pm.  But I can point to two of my recent blog posts that show you how distracted I am:  “Reading: A Compulsion, An Addiction, Or Obsession?” and  “Too Many Distractions While Running in a Thousand Different Directions.”

Now that I’m retired, and have all my time free, it’s all too obvious just how little discipline I have.  The momentum of my life feels like I’m the Titanic and I see the iceberg, but to change course with all this momentum behind me is impossible.  If I could ever write my first book in my sixties, I’d be the poster geezer for late bloomers.  I still have hope though.  Even the tiniest course changes can affect the destination of a big ship hundreds of miles out.

I  figure if I keep writing these essays nagging myself to change, I just might.

[By the way, did you get the ironic humor of the song?]

JWH – 3/27/14

2014–The Year of the Short Story

Now that I’m retired, I have time to do everything I dreamed of doing, like writing a novel.  Well, novel writing hasn’t worked out like I fantasized.  I keep cranking out thousands of words that go nowhere.  My problem, is I’m building a crappy home before acquiring the skills to even build a good dog house. 

I need to become talented at constructing 1,000 word stories before engineering  a 100,000 word story.

w11_regisboi

The trouble is short stories are a dying art.  Few people read them.  If it wasn’t for would-be writers, I doubt if they’d exist at all.  That’s a shame because short stories are a wonderful art form.

My Zen Habits guru recommends focusing on one goal, and learning how to jettison all the extra weight that keeps my rocket from gaining orbital velocity.  Writing short stories will become my Walden Pond of fiction.

This morning, waking before dawn, I grabbed my Nexus 7 and read “The Ghosts of Christmas” by Paul Cornell, from Year’s Best SF 18, edited by David Hartwell, and was inspired by this science fictional retelling of Dickens’ classic tale.  In ancient days, mystical monks were known for finding revelation in the wee hours studying sacred scrolls.  Reading in the dark by the glow of my Android tablet, I realized I wanted to immerse myself into short stories, and put my mind into a 10,000 word reality.

Goal for 2014:  Develop the habit of reading and writing short stories every day.

JWH – 1/16/14

Learning to Write Science Fiction By Studying Temporal POV

My goal is to write a science fiction novel, but I don’t have the skill or discipline to finish one now.  I write scenes and chapters, and then rewrite them.  I spend much of my time thinking about fiction and how it’s created.  I also spend a lot of time thinking and reading about the past and how we learn about it in fiction and nonfiction, films and documentaries, television shows, and even poems and songs.

When we read science fiction we read it imagining the scenes are happening in the future.

All art is communication from the past.  Even when artists are creating their artwork in the present, they are inspired by the past in creating their communiqué to the future.  Yet, when we experience art, we experience it in the present.  Writing science fiction is hard because I’m writing a message to the future, about the future, but it’s really about their past, and my past, but perceived in some future present.

Once you start thinking about artistic temporal POV it gets as twisted as a time travel paradox.

Most readers will be thinking I’m overthinking this and say, “Quit procrastinating and go write a story about spaceships and robots.”  I can crank out bad fiction all day long.  Fiction is like a stage magic – full of illusions and sleight of hand.  It’s easy enough to fool readers with crude make believe, but it’s damn hard to create a slick piece of storytelling magic.

My retired life is divided into three modes.  The first, I spend living in the present, cooking, cleaning, having friends over for dinner, getting the hot water heater replaced, shopping for books, paying bills, etc.  The second, and what I spend most of my time doing, is decoding messages from the past.  The second mode happens in the present, so reading a book – the act of sitting in a chair and looking at pages – I’m still living in the first mode.  In my head though, I’m decoding messages from the past.  Most people never think about this, and reading a book or watching a movie is the present.  It’s only when you examine how art is created that you start decoding the message from the past.  My third mode of existence, which I’m working to expand, is spent coding messages to the future.

This morning I woke up at 4:09 am. I sat in the dark (I sleep in a chair) thinking about all this.

Crosby, Stills & Nash 

I put on Crosby, Stills & Nash, CSN’s first album.  Listening to an album on headphones in the dark before dawn is a great time to focus on music and stimulate thinking.  I remember buying this album the week it was released in 1969 and how excited I was to discover it.  The Byrds were my favorite group in the 1960s, and Buffalo Springfield was another favorite band, so the names David Crosby and Stephen Stills jumped out.  The album blew me away back then.  And as I listened to it now, I admire it greatly for its artistic construction, and find it beautiful to hear.  However, the songs are fascinating.  They are histories themselves, many about famous girlfriends.  Or the songs have a history themselves, like “Wooden Ships” which months later appeared on the Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers album.

Why am I talking about music when I promised to talk about science fiction?  I’m working on a story that I want to be about legendary people.  When you read it, these people will be from the future, but the narrative will make you feel they are from the past, but the scene will be set in their present.  What details from fifty years ago about ordinary people living their present survive to make legends?

Like I said, all artwork is a communication from the past.  But even my urge to hear this album this morning comes from an earlier communication.

legends_of_the_canyon

The other night I watched Legends of the Canyon about many famous musicians, songwriters and groups that lived in Laurel Canyon in the 1960s, including The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.  Because David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Dallas Taylor were prominently interviewed, the film almost seemed to be about the birth of CSN.  Now I want to find time to listen to Joni Mitchell and The Mamas and Papas albums.  I don’t think I’m an old guy that dwells on the past, at least not my personal past, but much of my retired time is spent listening to music, reading books, watching television and going to the movies.  These people who lived in Laurel Canyon lived lives that are still being written about again and again.  Imagine writing about such people who live in the future.  How do you capture their essence in the fewest words?

One thing that struck me was the memories of Crosby, Stills and Nash had of the first time they played together.  Crosby and Nash insist it was at Joni Mitchell’s house, Stills adamantly insists it wasn’t.  Reading science fiction often feels like science fiction writers are predicting the future, but they are not.  They never try to predict the future.  We remember the past imperfectly, but we constantly mine it for value.  Don’t we also mine speculation about the future for value even though we know those stories are completely untrue?  Doesn’t fiction create truth out of lies?  

I’m consuming the past.  Part of that is being in the present moment just enjoying the art, but more and more, I’m thinking about where and how the art was produced.  I have read many books and articles about these bands, albums and songs.  As interpreters of art we do not have to know the history connected to them.  You can listen to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” without ever knowing that Stephen Stills was writing about Judy Collins.  However, if you do study it’s history, the nature of how you appreciate the song changes.  The more you know how the song was recorded, and how the band was formed to record it, the more you realize the song is history, part of the past, and not part of the present.  Won’t the same be true about science fiction?  The more you know about science and the present will enhance the art of painting imaginary futures?

hemingway 

Am I studying art, or studying history?  Yesterday I cooked lentil soup while listening to The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway Volume One.  The stories are exquisite.  They are wonderful read by Stacy Keach (who Judy Collins left Stephen Stills for) on the Audible edition, making them dramatic, and the intent of Hemingway’s writing clear and obvious.

For my retirement years my goal is to write a novel, and I’m working on it sporadically.  I’m not a very good writer, so I’m spending part of my days studying fiction and writing styles.  When I listen to Hemingway I realize two very important things.  One, Hemingway wrote as if he witness these events first hand.  Some of his stories, like the Nick Adams tales, are autobiographical, but others like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” are obviously fiction, but the details are so vivid, that I believe many of them are autobiographical too.  Second, Hemingway wrote in a style that describes much with few words.  His scenes are vivid and dramatic, with dialog so pitch perfect that they feel ultra realistic, like everything he writes is a documentary film.  It has tremendous impact.

For example, just a few lines of dialog paints a vivid picture of the mother in “Soldier’s Home.”  How did Hemingway create her?  Was she like his mother, or did one of his friends tell him a story about their mother, or did Hemingway make it up whole?  Like a poet, Hemingway uses very few words to capture this woman.  The scene reminded me of conflicts with my mother when I was young.  No matter where Hemingway got his idea, it feels like it had actually happened.

Most fiction is made up in the head of the writer.  It’s not based or inspired by anything that really happened.  Great fiction either captures real events, or fakes them so well they feel real.  Good writing is about pulling off this trick.

I spend my days experimenting with writing science fiction, but I want to use the Hemingway style.  How do I write about a future that will never exist as if I’m chronicling something I experienced for real?  It’s only possible if I can visualize it completely, as if each scene really happened.  I’m working on a scene where a man and women meet for the first time – how can I convey it to readers who can’t see what I’m seeing in my mind, and for me to make them feel they are experiencing something that really happened?

Philomena

After I cooked the soup, I went to see Philomena with my friends Janis and Anne.  It’s a movie based on real life events, which was also published as a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith.  We all loved this quiet little movie because it was so real.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how real life is turned into fiction, or how completely fictional characters are made to seem real.  It often seems to me that the fiction with the most impact is either based on real events, or at least written by people who have been to the times and places where the stories took place. 

That means science fiction and fantasy have a very real handicap.  If everything comes out of the author’s mind then the story is limited by the author’s imagination.  That’s why the Harry Potter books are so impressive.  J. K. Rowling spent years imagining her characters and scenes.  She even drew detailed pictures of them.  And that might be why movie science fiction and fantasy is so much more popular than book SF&F.  Movies have to create all the visuals and that makes the stories more real.

Science fiction and fantasy stories must spend a lot of time painting the scenery and explaining the cultural background, but don’t you think the Harry Potter books feel like the events actually happened?  Isn’t that why they succeeded and other books about schools for wizards don’t?

from-lark-rise-to-candleford

Sometimes history is so distant that we must recreate it from imagined details.  After the movie last night, Janis and I watched Alpha House, and then I watched an episode of Lark Rise To Candleford.  Flora Thompson wrote a trilogy of books that were autobiographical sketches of growing up in rural England in the late Victorian times.  As much as I love the TV series, it’s full of anachronistic thinking.  I’ve read a little bit of the original book and it’s absolutely wonderful in providing period details.

Writing science fiction is like producing a television show over a century after the events – only a strange stylized view comes through.  I wished I had the skill to write about the future with the details of Flora Thompson’s written observations.  Since that’s impossible, I’d have to make up the details with that level of realism.  I don’t know if that’s possible.

distrust

I’m currently listening to Distrust That Particular Flavor, a nonfiction book by William Gibson, where he talks about learning to write science fiction, but also deals with understanding the past, present and future.  Gibson also admits to not knowing how to write when he started writing but taught himself.  Listening to his essays I get the feeling he’s also obsessed with time and science fiction too, but maybe in a different way.  He talks about writing about the net before the net caught on, and writing about future technology that we have no words to describe, especially verbs that explain its impact.

1984_pulp3

I’ve also reading Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.  It is a book written in the late 1940s about 1984 but about a future that has never happened but is all too real, that is now part of our past.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is a brilliant piece of science fiction, absolutely stunning, among the best examples of the literary technique ever produced.

So, what makes Orwell’s great novel great?  To me it’s the temporal POV.  It reads like the events have already taken place, like the details given were facts of memory, like the characters actually lived through these events.  It feels like Orwell lived through this time like Hemingway lived through the events in his stories.  That’s a neat trick for a science fiction book.  It’s a trick of literature.  It’s a writing trick that distinguishes literature from genre.  And it’s one very hard act to pull off.

In struggling to write my scenes, which I do over and over again, at best I can produce pulp fiction.  I’m not being critical.  There’s nothing wrong with pulp fiction.  Hell, my writing isn’t even good pulp fiction.

But what all of this exploration of time and science fiction has taught me is I want to write as if I’ve already experienced what I’m writing.  In other words, I want to write about the future as if I’ve already lived it, instead of imagining a future I might could live in.

JWH – 12/18/13

Science Fiction: Nostalgic Past v. Dystopian Future

I am sixty-two years old and I want to write and publish my first science fiction story.  I started reading science fiction in 1962.  What science fiction was to me then, and what science fiction means to me today, are vastly different literary forms.  On Tuesday, SF Signal ran “How to Escape the Legacy of Science Fiction’s Pulp Roots” by Gareth L. Powell, which triggered a lively discussion in the comments section.  Many readers took it as an attack on classic science fiction, but I don’t think that was the point, but the real point is rather complicated because of various viewpoint perspectives.

  • For many people science fiction equals the Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov era
  • Some of these people are older fans that grew up with those stories and have tremendous nostalgia for them
  • Some of these people are younger fans that have discovered this classic era and love it
  • Some of these people are non-SF readers who rejected SF because of this era’s lack of literary quality
  • Some of these people are current SF fans who have no interest in past SF and feel it’s irreverent to contemporary SF
  • Then there are general readers that have read a few of the classic SF stories and now they narrowly define SF by these old classics
  • Then there are many readers, young and old, that are completely ignorant of SF, classic or modern, and the phrase science fiction equals movies and television shows, and book SF and its history are invisible to them

saturn

Powell, a science fiction writer, was talking to a book club that obviously wasn’t a SF book club and said of them:

I noticed this recently, when I spent an enjoyable evening being quizzed by members of a local book group about one of my novels, which they had been reading. They were a nice group of people but, when they spoke of the science fiction books they had tried previously, not one of them mentioned anything less than fifty years old! In their youths, they’d tried reading Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, but had been put off by, as they saw it, a concentration on ideas at the expense of characterization or literary merit.

I’ve known lots of people like this in my lifetime.  Over there years in the general literary press, writers like John Updike and others, have expressed this view about science fiction.  Basically they say it’s poorly written kid’s stuff, and they are referring to the classic Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov era of SF.  SF fans have always reacted badly to this – especially the old fans who grew up reading and loving classic SF, and the younger fans who have rediscovered it.

Gareth L. Powell is a writer of new science fiction and feels, “As science fiction writers and fans, we are rightly proud of our genre’s origins and heritage. Yet sometimes, those same origins can be a millstone around our necks, dragging us down.” 

Powell goes on to admit an influence and admiration for classic science fiction but suggests that the literary past can be a burden to contemporary writers. 

That is my conflict too, but for other reasons that don’t pertain to literary style.  Powell, as a writer is trying to discover new territory to write his science fiction and says,

But, can we really blame them? Those early classics (and the million derivative works they inspired) helped establish and reinforce the popular perception of science fiction as a pulpy and poorly written backwater of literature. For modern non-SF audiences, they have little appeal. Readers are more sophisticated now. The only way we’ll escape the legacy of our pulp roots is to promote the innovation, literary merit, and relevance of the best modern genre writing.

Some fans will always cling to the ‘golden age’ works of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and I can understand why. They provide a magic door back to the simple pleasures of a simpler world – a world before global warming, oil shortages, terrorism, and economic uncertainty; relics of a world where the future was easily understood, and (largely) American, middle class and white in outlook, origin and ethnicity.

My reading world of 1962 is so much different than my reading world at age 62.  I still read and love 1950s and 1960s science fiction, but I’m willing to admit that it was poorly written, but that’s not an essential complaint, at least by me, no, my problem with classic science fiction is it’s dated.  It’s wrong.  It’s about futures that will never be.  Classic science fiction futures have become my nostalgic past.  I read old SF to relish how I felt when I was young and the future was full of fantastic possibilities.

When science fiction writers like Robert Silverberg  admit that interstellar travel is probably impossible, and I’m starting to doubt that even interplanetary travel and colonization will happen, then it’s time we need to completely reevaluate science fiction.  But isn’t that what new SF writers do?  If I have any criticism of Gareth Powell, it’s not over his criticisms of classic science fiction, but rather, over how he’s reimagining science fiction.

If science fiction fans want the respect of the literary world at large they need to take their genre more seriously.  Doctor Who and Star Trek reboots are just recycling a nostalgic past.  So is the new space opera.  Science fiction has become horribly incestuous.

I’m 62 and want to write science fiction.  I’m inspired by the science fiction I discovered in 1962 – but I don’t want to live and write in a nostalgic past.  I don’t think Powell went far enough in suggesting that classic science fiction is a millstone around the neck of new science fiction writers.  Most science fiction, and I’m talking 98-99%, is recursive science fiction fantasies. 

Real science fiction is about writing about possible futures.  You can’t do that by writing about impossible pasts.  You can’t be the next H. G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov by recycling their ideas about the future.  The thing about science fiction is it always gets the future wrong, but it’s fabulously right when it’s inventing new possible futures.

Right now dystopian science fiction is very popular, very exciting to young people.  Their instincts tell them the futures of science fiction pasts are nostalgic pap.  Sure, there’s a large segment of the young and the old that want to cling to the futures of classic science fiction, but they need to either accept their fantasies are fantasy and not true science fiction, or go read some science books.  On the other hand, we need new writers that can imagine some possible non-dystopian futures.  And do you know the definition of non-dystopian?  It’s utopian. 

That’s why so many readers love classic science fiction.  For all the scary aspects of alien invasions, collapsing civilizations, nuclear wars, there was a sense of utopian dreams in that fiction, of interplanetary and interstellar travel, life extension, new civilizations, immortality, intelligent machines, brain uploading, etc.  The reason why teens love dystopian fiction is not because they want to dwell on the horrible, but because the characters are free to fight for a new way of living, invent new societies, to rebel against authority, to live without parents and rules. 

Readers are attracted to the positive, even if the setting is a nightmare.

Classic science fiction is both inherently positive and now nostalgic.  But the futures it predicted aren’t going to happen.  Powell is right, the challenge of new science fiction writers is not to be burden by past science fiction.  Not just because it has the reputation for being poorly written, but because its now dated and wrong.  I know why so many people love classic science fiction and defend it so passionately.  I’m sure Powell knows too.  But lovers of classic science fiction shouldn’t be offended when we criticize classic science fiction.  The goal of this criticism is to write better science fiction.  It’s called evolution.

JWH 12/7/13

Models for Writing the Great American Science Fiction Novel

Decades ago ambitious young writers hoping to take the literary world by storm would attempt to write The Great American Novel.  The phrase “writing the great American novel” has fallen out of fashion.  Well, I’ve retired and want to write a novel, but I want to write a science fiction novel.  Science fiction has fallen out of fashion too.  Oh sure, there’s a healthy little genre for hardcore science fiction readers, but they aren’t many compared to the legions of bookworms at large.  Science fiction might be an extremely popular movie genre, but for some strange reason its success does not translate into frequently seeing science fiction books on the New York Times best sellers lists.

Frankenstein

If I’m going to delude myself into thinking I can be a late bloomer in the novel writing business, I might as well be ambitious about it, so I’ve gotten the idea of trying to write the great American science fiction novel.  I picture my would-be novel being a literary novel set 40-50 years in the future, thus making it science fiction.  The goal for writing the great American novel was to capture an essential defining moment in America life.  Examples are such books as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man, On the Road, To Kill a Mockingbird – novels that defined an era and place.

HG-Wells-The-Time-Machine

Because science fiction is generally about the future and is often set in space or other exotic locales, it almost never attempts to be The Great American Novel.  There are a damn few exceptions, most notably Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein.  Some people think of it as the counter-culture novel of the 1960s because when they think of the 1960s they think of all the weirdness and Stranger in a Strange Land is one weird-ass novel.  The trouble is Stranger captures a late 1940s to somewhat mid-1950s weirdo mentality about America, and not the hippie weirdness of the 1960s.  If I wrote a SF novel set in the 2050s it’s going to be damn hard for it not to feel like the 2010s.  That would be like F. Scott Fitzgerald imagining the 1960s.  I’m not sure if that will work, but it won’t keep me from trying.

the-war-of-the-worlds

For my novel writing ambition I feel the need to find models to study, from both American literature and science fiction.  Now I don’t want to start a flame war about what are the absolute best science fiction novels, but I’ve decided to pick those that are most remembered and read by non-SF fans.  I wrote a whole essay on this topic:  The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century.  It’s been the most popular essay I’ve written – at least in terms of hits, but not with what it says.  Few science fiction books are well known with the literary world at large, and most of them were written by writers not from the genre.

  1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  2. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  3. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
  4. Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley
  5. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell
  6. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
  7. A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
  8. Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert
  9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick
  10. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
  11. Ender’s Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card
  12. The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi

brave-new-world1

Now I know that regular science fiction readers are going to be outraged by this list, but the huge world outside of their little genre seldom thinks about science fiction, and the books that do pop into their collective memory are the ones they were made to read in school.  I wanted to include Stranger in a Strange Land, not because I admire it, but because it was once a cult classic, however I think it’s mostly forgotten now.  If a book isn’t taught in school or gets the movie treatment every generation, they are usually forgotten by the following generations.

1984_pulp3

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? wasn’t PKD’s best novel, not by a long shot, but because of Blade Runner, it’s remembered, but even Blade Runner is fading from collective memory.  I keep Androids on the list because there’s talk of making a new version of it.  The controversial Ender’s Game is on the list because it is often taught in schools, often loved by teachers, and was recently made into a movie.

fahrenheit-451

There are many science fiction books that have legions of fans that love them, but most never have enough fans to make them well known in pop culture at large.  Notice that I didn’t include Jules Verne, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, authors who are known for writing great classic novels within the SF genre.  Their books are very big fish in a very little pond.  The twelve above titles aren’t even the biggest fish in the big literary ocean, but they are big enough.

clockwork-orange

In terms of memorable novels, science fiction seldom gets remembered.  So why have an ambition to write science fiction?  Well, it’s what I like to read.  However, if an ambitious science fiction writer wanted to get remembered, studying the above novels for clues is a start.  But also studying mainstream popular novels for why they are remembered is another lesson of study.

dune

I watch a lot of old movies and I’m always surprised to see films based on hit novels of their day that are now completely forgotten.  Dune has attracted a lot of cinematic attention, but so far I don’t think moviemakers have captured the novel.   However, their attempts have made the novel very famous.  There is a weird symbiotic relationship between books and movies.  So far, none of the model SF books I’ve listed has been created into a cinematic masterpiece except Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  None of them have achieved that immense status of being routinely made into new film versions every generation like A Christmas Carol, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations.

DoAndroidsDreamOfElectricSheep1stEd

Evidently, the real key to writing a great science fiction book is having something startling or profound to say.  Now regular science fiction fans will claim all their favorite SF books have something startling or profound to say.  I think that’s the general appeal of science fiction – the ideas.  However, the public at large seems to embrace some science fictional ideas as iconic pop culture concepts, and ignores the rest.  The public at large seems to care little for reading about space travel, time travel, robots, galactic civilizations, and so on.  In fact, the most popular science fictional concepts that appeal to the public appear to be on the morbid side of things – they love a good dystopian tale.  Evidently, if you can imagine a scary future that will scare the bejesus out of them then you’ve struck gold. 

slaughterhousefive

If I’m going to write the great American science fiction novel it will need to capture an era and place in America where dystopian feelings are strongest.  You’d think bookworms would embrace upbeat views of the future, ones that promise scientific successes and thrilling times.  But I’ve got to admit, that these books listed here, with all their bleakness, were powerful stories, with impressive memorable concepts.  When you read them they feel heavy-duty.

enders-game-novel-cover

I don’t think any of these books are particularly well-written, not in the literary sense.  Their narrative style gets the job done, but I’m not sure how often their writing is quoted for being beautiful.  Today I started collecting copies of these novels to study.  I’m using my retirement to be like Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, to contemplate life carefully.  However, I have no interest in going outside to study plants and animals.  Instead I’m observing my reactions to fiction.  Thoreau really wanted to get to know his deepest self, his most real self, and he felt getting away from it all and observing nature would reveal his true self to is contemplative mind.  I’m hoping my true self will be revealed by studying fiction.

the-windup-girl-shopped

I’m selecting ambitious novels, in particularly, science fiction, to see what they reveal about me, and how I tick.  Why do we respond to their ideas, characters, plots and settings?  Many people claim to love science fiction, but they are generally referring to science fiction in the movies and on television – fluff Sci-Fi.  That kind of science fiction is very different from book science fiction.  And a lot of modern science fiction book fans love particular authors because of their series – they love the setting and characters because they’re fun and even within the SF book genre, serious SF is avoided.  I’m not sure many SF readers have a deep understanding of what draws them into science fiction, and the type of stories their minds resonate with.

Other than winning awards and being selected by Time Magazine as being one of the best novels of 2009, The Windup Girl doesn’t have much validation as the kind of SF classic that the rest of these novels represent.  But The Windup Girl feels like them, and I responded to it in the same way.  I admired its sheer intellectual speculation about the future.  It’s also a novel that I’ve recommend to my bookworm friends who don’t read science fiction and they’ve liked it very well.

Ender’s Game seems like an oddball on this list because on the surface it seems like just another alien invasion adventure story, but down deep it has a disturbing core.  In fact, to some people it’s as disturbing as A Clockwork Orange.  Strangely, many readers see it as a fun romp, like it was a video game.  But like video games, we need to question our thirst for violence, and our constant justification of violence.

None of these science fiction books represent my sentimental favorites, books hardcore science fiction fans would pick as their favorites.  There’s no need to list such books, we all know have our own classics of science fiction lists.  The twelve books I list here are the science fiction titles that go up against literary classics read by people who normally never read science fiction.  They’re the books taught in school, the ones teachers torture kids with test questions because they supposedly deal with important themes.

It’s sad that the literary world chooses to ignore fun science fiction.  Evidently they feel sense-of-wonder is for adolescents.  Sometimes there’s a crossover, like The Hunger Games series, that fans love for the adventure, but still have the dystopian seriousness to evaluate.  Another good example is The Giver by Lois Lowry.  If I included YA novels, my list would be much longer.  Science fiction is taken seriously at the YA level by teachers.  And that might be why so many ambitious young writers are working the YA field.  Winning the Newberry Award will keep your book around a lot longer than the Hugo Award.  Take for instance 50 years ago, 1963, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle has had far more success with the public at large than The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, even though I much prefer PKD’s novel.

I guess another way to express what I’m saying is to talk about your targeted audience.  To create a hit of the year in the science fiction sub-culture of books, you need to make just a few thousand people happy.  To create a hit in the YA world, you’ll need to make tens of thousands of readers happy.  To write a standout best seller of the year, you’ll need to write a book that maybe a hundred thousand or more people will choose to love.  But to get into Nineteen Eighty-Four’s territory, you’ll need to impress millions of people, even tens of millions.  That’s not easy!

Now it’s extremely presumptuous of me to even think of trying to write such a novel.  At this stage, I’m just trying to understand how such novels work.  Now that I have the contemplative time to explore such issues I think I need to do it.  If you move to Walden Pond and just goof off, isn’t that just tragic?  Or pathetic?  Like the philosopher said, an unexamined life is not worth living.  Well, I want to examine my fictional life.  And then I want to play the game by writing my own novel from what I’ve learned.  

JWH – 11/5/13  

How To Write a Sermon to Inspire Thousands

Most people are used to getting jokes, cute pictures and funny videos forwarded to them in emails, tweets or posted on Facebook by their friends.  But there’s another type of forwarded message that’s not as popular, the inspirational message.  These internet homilies usually involve a moving story and sometimes a bonus list of lessons, just like a sermon you’d hear in church.  Sometimes they mean to be religious, or at least worshipful of God, but usually they are just heartwarming anecdotes that intend to inspire goodwill and positive thinking.

Inspiration-cropped

I’ve sometimes fantasized about writing a joke and sending it to all my friends and hoping that one day years later it would come back to me in some anonymous way after being spread all over the internet.  But since I’m terrible at telling jokes I doubt I would write a popular one.  I assume internet inspirational messages are from people who would love to write a good sermon themselves, or at least enjoy inspiring others.  It’s an interesting writing challenge to think about.

I got this message overnight and I’ve decided to analyze it as a model for writing internet sermons.

BANK ACCOUNT!!!

This is AWESOME … something we should all remember.

A 92-year-old, petite, well-poised and proud man, who is fully dressed each morning by eight o’clock, with his hair fashionably combed and shaved perfectly, even though he is legally blind, moved to a nursing home today.

His wife of 70 years recently passed away, making the move necessary. After many hours of waiting patiently in the lobby of the nursing home, he smiled sweetly when told his room was ready.

As he maneuvered his walker to the elevator, I provided a visual description of his tiny room, including the eyelet sheets that had been hung on his window.

‘I love it,’ he stated with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old having just been presented with a new puppy.

‘Mr. Jones, you haven’t seen the room; just wait..’

‘That doesn’t have anything to do with it,’ he replied.

Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time.

Whether I like my room or not doesn’t depend on how the furniture is arranged .. it’s how I arrange my mind. I already decided to love it.

‘It’s a decision I make every morning when I wake up. I have a choice;

I can spend the day in bed recounting the difficulty I have with the parts of my body that no longer work, or get out of bed and be thankful for the ones that do.

Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open, I’ll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I’ve stored away.. Just for this time in my life..

Old age is like a bank account. You withdraw from what you’ve put in.

So, my advice to you would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories!

Thank you for your part in filling my Memory Bank.

I am still depositing.

Remember the five simple rules to be happy:

  1. Free your heart from hatred.
  2. Free your mind from worries.
  3. Live simply.
  4. Give Thanks to God for your Blessings.
  5. Expect less.

Pass this message to 7 people except me. You will receive a miracle tomorrow.

Now, STOP! Did you hear what I just said. You WILL receive a miracle

Tomorrow.. So send it right now!

Have a nice day, unless you already have other plans.

I believe my friend Linda sent this message because I wrote about whether or not I should get up early or sleep late in my retirement.  This is a story about a 92 year-old legally blind man who gets up, shaves, dresses and is ready to start his day by 8 am.

Now I’m fascinated by the story process here.  How did it come about?  Is it true?  Or is it made up?  Do people sit around thinking up inspirational stories like other people sit around thinking up jokes to tell?  I’m going to guess that this story has a kernel of truth, and the rest is added by a writer or writers, maybe a blogger like me.  There’s even a chance that as it’s been passed around, the story could have been altered or added to.

Most of the inspirational stories I get by email are about old people, or people overcoming adversity.  I suppose that’s because of my age and the age of the people sending me messages.  I suppose if I was younger and had children, I’d receive a lot of children inspired stories.  Or if I was a young divorced woman I’d see a lot of stories about meeting guys who weren’t dickheads.  So the first lesson of writing an internet sermon is to target your audience carefully.  The message above is aimed at people getting older, especially those fearing nursing homes and living with less in life.

However, I’m afraid I’m going to be cynical here and deconstruct this message.  This mini-sermon makes several philosophical statements.  I think the story can be divided into three sections.  First, the green, is an incident with an old man, probably inspired by a real event.  The second, blue, is another lesson, about memories, maybe inspired by the first story, or maybe just an additional lesson.  Third, in red, additional commentary and advice.  All three could have been from one person, but it feels to me like they were from three different people.  I don’t think the old man and writers 1 and 2 are expressing the same philosophical points.

The old man who has just lost his wife of 70 years, needs a walker, and is nearly blind, is assigned to a nursing home.  The old man is very positive, well groomed, and agreeable.  The story as written has the old man imparting two pieces of wisdom, first about deciding to be positive and second, banking good memories for bad times.  Those are two totally different solutions for finding happiness in old age.  That’s why I think it’s from two different writers.

The first lesson is about mental attitude.  Decide to stay positive – be in control.  Like the British who dress for dinner in the middle of a jungle, this old man dresses up for each day of old age.

The second lesson is actually wimpier, but still a great coping mechanism.  It advices us to have a great life so we can live off those memories when we get old.  Many people do this.  It’s not a lesson I like.  I prefer number one.

The third lesson is really just an addendum of extra advice that doesn’t really relate to the first two lessons.  They break down to love, don’t hate.  Don’t worry.  Live simply, be thankful and don’t want to much.  “Expect less” is a very odd piece of advice unless you think about it carefully.  All five are very Buddhist, especially number five, which is the heart of Buddhism, desire is the cause of all unhappiness.  This is why I think three different people wrote this message, or one person used three different philosophies in their sermon.  They are:  keep a stiff upper lip, hide in good fantasies, and third, accept what you get, be thankful and don’t want too much.

It would have been a much better sermon if it had one consistent message.  The best of the messages, the green one from the old man, inspires the most, because it appears to be based on a real person.  In other words, find real life people and events for the heart of sermons. 

Whole libraries could be written about these lessons.  Thousands of books have been written about the concept of happiness.  Unfortunately, it appears happiness is a condition that most people have or don’t have.  I’ve been lucky, and have always been a happy person.  I don’t think its due to any belief I’ve learned or acquired.  Some people go through years of analysis trying to be shown how to be happy, but I’m not sure its something that can be revealed.  I think some people become happier with drugs, either legal or illegal.  And I think some people become happier through behavioral conditioning, either gained intentionally, or unintentionally.  Sometimes happiness comes with age and wisdom.

I really doubt people can find permanent happiness in a sermon, but we love to try.  Don’t we? 

Decades ago I met this guy who had a lesson about happiness that I found wise.  He said there were three goals in life that we had to accomplished before we could relax and be happy with our lives.  First, we had to finish our education.  By this he meant, we had to get to a place in our life where we no longer felt the need to go back to school.  Second, we had to find the job that we were going to keep and one we didn’t consider a shit job.  Third, we had to find our mate for life.  I thought this a wise story because much of what makes people unhappy is caused by the normal stresses of life – frustrations over incompleteness.  And these three factors are what causes most people a lot of unhappiness.

Like the old man, some people naturally learn from an early age that happiness is knowing how to make lemonade from lemons.  Not everyone can do that.  But can we teach others that lesson?  How many people getting this email today will change from unhappy to happy by doing what the old man does, just deciding to be happy?

Now for the second part of the old man’s wisdom – bank good times when you’re young and withdraw them when you’re old.  I’m not sure this philosophy would have come from that old man.  It’s a totally different philosophy to live by, a different psychological coping mechanism.  Instead of deciding ahead of time to always make the best with whatever is given to you, this advice tells us to make great memories now to live off of when we get old.  A lot of old people do this of course, spend their days dwelling on the past.  Of course there’s lots unhappy guys in their thirties living off their high school glory days.  As a coping mechanism it’s not a particularly good one.

As a whole inspirational story, the last part, the tacked on five point lesson detracts from the original real life story because it sounds too abstract.  And the first two lessons contradict each other.  One is an example by doing, and the second is a made up solution.  Like the golden rule of writing advice, show don’t tell, this story works best when it’s showing and least when it’s telling.

My guess is someone actually met this old man and wrote his story up.  Then the same person or another person, thought it wasn’t enough, and created the idea of a memory bank to fill it out, even though it’s a contradictory message.  Then another person decided the story needed some explicit lessons to take away and added their five bits of wisdom.  This happens in The Bible all the time.  Sermonizers love to add their own bits.  Read Misquoting Jesus or Forged by Bart D. Ehrman.

My conclusion for sermon writers is to only tell the parable and let the reader generate their own lessons.  Make sure nothing in the story contradicts itself.  Make sure the voice stays consistent.  Make sure the philosophy stays consistent.

JWH – 11/1/13

I’m Retired–Do I Throw Away My Alarm Clock?

Which is better:  Following disciplined habits or natural cycles?

Having to get up and get to work on time used to provide discipline in my life.  When I was off for weekends or vacation days, the time I was ready to start my day got later and later.  Every morning I need to shower, exercise, dress, eat breakfast, floss and brush teeth before I’m ready to start my day.  If I get up at 6 AM I can be ready to go by 7:30.  But if I snooze until 7 or 8 AM, my day might not start until 9:30.  This morning, I got up later, and didn’t hit the computer until 9:36.

Now that I’m retired I have a choice to make.  Do I live by the clock or my biology?

clock-stethoscope 
[Living against the clock: does loss of daily rhythms cause obesity?]

Sleeping in seems so wasteful.  But is that a false assumption?  Now that I’m retired, does it matter what time I start writing each day?  Would I be more productive if I lived by the clock or learned to adapt to my natural rhythms?

I’ve always assumed discipline is a major virtue.  That we each seek to conquer nature by using willpower to bend our bodies and environment into our control.  Isn’t it everyone’s assumption that we must overcome our animal urges?  However, studies on health and stress show that might not be the best way to live, and that going with the natural flow of things might be healthier.

If you look across the Earth, have we conquered nature, or merely destroyed it?  That’s getting awful philosophical as to whether I should sleep in or get up early.  Can’t I just accept that the early bird gets the worm?  Now that I’m thinking about this question I realize I’m living by a lot of assumptions.  My 9 to 5 work years forced me to get up early, but now I’m free to follow a different path.

Since my health is in decline, it’s more important that I listen to my body than the Clock app on my iPod touch.  Just writing these words shows me I need to do a lot of rethinking of my commonly held assumptions.  And what other assumptions do I need to question about my other daily habits?

How many meals should I eat and when?  Do I need to shower every day?  Does it have to be in the morning?  What time is best to do my exercises?  When is the best time to write, clean house, socialize, watch TV, etc?  What if I follow my circadian rhythms and I no longer track a 24 hour clock?  How do I adapt my freeform schedule to my friends who follow a work schedule? 

There is something to be said for natural sleep . I notice this morning when I woke up at 7:30 that it was just getting light.  I’m wondering if my natural alarm clock is set by the amount of light outside.  The room in which I sleep faces east, and has one long window without curtains  across the east wall.  Maybe I should do a scientific experiment and note when I wake up and when sunrise is for that day, and see if in the course of the year if I follow a natural cycle.

As I’ve been sleeping later, I’ve been wanting to stay up later.  I’ve been retired just six days but I’m already having a hard time remembering what day it is, and I’ve stopped following the clock.  Also, I’m now eating at different times.  I even nap later.

My retirement goal is to write a novel.  I assumed before I retired I needed to stick to a disciplined schedule and work at novel writing just like I worked as a computer programmer.  Now I’m thinking that was a false assumption.  Or is that just a rationalization to sleep later?

The western world changed after the invention of the clock.  Now that I’m retired I realize I’ve left clock time.  Because I don’t have cable TV, I don’t even watch TV to a schedule anymore.  I’m on Netflix time.  Does this mean I’ve been a Morlock all my life and now I’ve become an Eloi?  That might not be good.  Modern sequels recognized the virtues of the hideous Morlocks – they got things done, while noting the Eloi were lazy and wimpy.

Living by the clock is mechanical.  Living by nature is undisciplined.  There’s got to be a happy medium – or is that another false assumption? 

JWH – 10/28/13

A Failure to Express Myself

How often in life do you get an idea that you can’t express verbally or in writing?  Often a flash of insight will feel whole and obvious, but like dreams, when you try to explain them their logic falls apart.  Expressing one’s thoughts is hard.  Finding words to explain how you feel is even harder.  Whether talking with your soul mate, best friend, or writing an essay for a bunch of unknown and unseen strangers, putting the exact words together is major work.  It takes persistence.

How often have you not said anything rather than struggle to find the words?  How often have you seen a fantastic movie that moved you at a very deep level, but when your friends asked you about it, all you could say was, “I loved it.”

That happens to me all the time.  And since I blog I’m always trying to express an idea that feels obvious to me but one I fail to give whole to my readers, or even to myself when I read what I’ve written months later, after I’ve forgotten the original inspiration.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, as a line in an old movie goes.

Friday I read a series of articles in Scientific American about new educational techniques and my initial feeling was a kind of revulsion.  I immediately jotted down some notes, and yesterday I wrote an essay about how I felt.  The results aren’t what I intended.  That essay was too generalized.  If I tried again, how could I approach it differently?

The first essay doesn’t convey the revulsion of my initial reaction.  I had A Clockwork Orange kind of image of educators forcing kids to learn.  I imagined teaching machines that literally forced data into children’s minds, overstuffing their little heads until they were ready to puke words.  At what point does K-12 education become cruel and unusual punishment, or even brainwashing?

Part of my initial reaction was to ask:  Are we requiring kids to learn too much?

The secondary reaction to that initial reaction is:  What is enough education?  What information should everyone have at immediate recall to make them a good and useful citizen?

Another part of my reaction is personal experience.  I read a lot of books.  I’ve read thousands of books, and tens of thousands of essays and watched thousands of documentaries, and one of the things I feel at 61 is I haven’t processed that information very efficiently, and maybe learning about reality could be more systematic and concise.

We can never know everything there is to know.  Not even close.  But K-12 and undergraduate curriculums try awful hard to give students a good approximation of all knowledge.  And part of my gut reaction to those articles in Scientific American was a criticism of not how we teach, but what we teach.  But to get into that topic would require writing a book.

I guess the feeling I wanted to communicate whole about my reaction to what I read was this:  Can our education system teach more by teaching less?  Can’t we teach kids to be self-educators, to become highly efficient autodidactics that are hungry to learn on their own?  Shouldn’t we reevaluate what the standard curriculum should be so that it’s a toolkit for learning and not a vast database?

JWH – 7/24/13

Why Blog?

This will be my 671st post.  I must be approaching or just passing my millionth word written, so I think it’s time to evaluate why I blog.  When I started I wrote whatever I felt like and didn’t worry if anyone read what I wrote.  Sometimes I’d ask my wife Susan or a friend to read something, but for the most part I considered my blog a diary that I left around opened.  I’m interested in a lot of things my friends aren’t, so I used blogging as an outlet for discussing various topics I had no one to talk about with.  I guess that might mean I use blogging as kind of therapy.  Blogging is also a great way to practice writing, organize thoughts, and learn to research – sort of junior journalism.  All of these various purposes are great so long as I don’t think too much about being read.

During the last year I’ve been getting more readers.  Mostly by accident.  Sometimes I write about a subject that people are researching on Google, like encrypting files for Dropbox, or science fiction books from the 1950s.  I have a few friends that actually follow what I write, but you can count them on one hand.  I do have 468 followers on WordPress, but I think that’s mostly due other bloggers wanting to attract readership themselves.  But it does make me think about what I write.  If I hit the publish button and hundreds of people get an email then what I write can be an annoyance or entertainment.  That thought has made me delete most of the posts I’ve written lately.

My friend Annie has even been critiquing my posts, with comments like, that one rambled on for far too long, or you didn’t stick to your point, or that topic was boring.  I don’t disagree with her assessments either.  If I’m going to write something people will be reading then I have a responsibility to make it worth reading.  And this presents some problems.

There are three kind of readers on the internet:  browsers, subscribers and searchers.   Some people get to my pages because writers link to me, others subscribe and get everything I write, but most people read what I’ve written because it’s something they Googled or Binged.  Just look at my stats.  (You might need to click on the image to make it large enough to read.)

stats

I get the most  hits for writing about something specific, like a Toshiba netbook or LG Blu-ray player.  But I also write about a lot of topics few people are interested in.

stats2

Most of my favorite essays I’ve written get few readers.  That’s because they are personal and personal essays don’t get hits.

If I want lots of readers then I’d need to write about something that lots of people want to read about.  Well, that doesn’t actually work either.  Writing about what everyone else is writing about gets damn few hits.  The key to getting search engine hits is to write about something few people have written about, but enough people want to read about.

The key to get subscriber hits is to always write about a specific topic and find fans for that topic.

I don’t do ether.  I write about whatever interests me at the moment.  That’s good for me but bad for regular readers, and gets few search engine hits.

What I need to do is decide what kind of writer I want to be – at least when it comes to blogging.

JWH – 6/25/13

Novel Ambitions

When we were young we’d all dream of growing up to be in the movies, or rocking out on stage, or flying F-16s, or writing great novels, or rocketing to Mars – the kind of careers that look exciting when we don’t know much about how the world works.  Few kids achieve their childhood ambitions.  Most of us get regular nine-to-five jobs, and just daydream about the ways we’d really like to be spending our hours.

I always wanted to be a science fiction novelist.  Because I loved reading science fiction books I assumed I’d love writing them.  As a teen I didn’t know just how wrong that logic was.  I should have wished to grow up and become a professional reader.  Even as a teen I knew kids who compulsively wrote stories.  I didn’t, but I assumed one day I’d get an urge and start.  I should have known better – the only time I wrote was when I took a creative writing class in high school or college and deadlines forced me to write.

Around 1971 or 72 I went to my first science fiction convention in Kansas City, The Mid-America Con.  I was about 20 at the time and I met a lot of writers there.  But the one that impressed me the most was this kid who looked about my age who told me he had just sold his second story.  He was George R. R. Martin.  I was so impressed and jealous at this very young writer.  I felt like Comet Jo from Empire Star by Samuel R. Delaney, when he first met Ni Ti.  Comet Jo was a naïve rube with dreams that met a guy that had already done everything Comet Jo’s dreamed of doing. 

That was a revelation at that convention – writers write.  And if you want to grow up to write giant bestsellers you’ve got to start young and practice.  Delany was also a writing prodigy, and he dealt with the subject somewhat in Empire Star.

empire-star 

Those early experiences meeting writers should have convinced me to stop daydreaming about writing, but fantasy ambitions aren’t that easily destroyed.  And wanting to be a novelist is different.  Some people don’t start writing until late in life, so I figured I had plenty of time.  If I had wanted to be a football player, fire fighter or astronaut, I’d have known I was over the hill when I turned thirty.  Now that I hope to retire next year, my old fantasy ambition is returning.  I’ll finally have the time.  Probably lack of time wasn’t the real reason I never wrote, and it will be brutally revealed to me soon.  I have to be self-aware enough to recognize that wanting to write and not might be my natural state for my whole life.  But not giving up also seems to be a trait that never goes away either.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a novelist, the grittily specific job details.  I came across “Good Writing vs. Talented Writing” by Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings.  She quotes About Writing by Samuel R. Delany,

Either in content or in style, in subject matter or in rhetorical approach, fiction that is too much like other fiction is bad by definition. However paradoxical it sounds, good writing as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction. On one level or another, the realization of this is finally what turns most writers away from writing.

Talented writing is, however, something else. You need talent to write fiction.

Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.

This is very telling. The obvious reason why I’m not a writer is the lack the talent.  But what is talent?  Is it a gene?  Is it being born with a muse?  I am reminded of a book, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin.  Talent is mostly hard work.  If I lack talent its because I’m lazy.  But we also know that some people work very hard and never succeed, even if they put in their 10,000 hours of practice.

But even this isn’t the issue I want to explore.  What skills are really required to write a novel?  Every time I try to write fiction I hit a brick wall.  Writing fiction requires having imagination the size of Jupiter.  I don’t know if you have ever wanted to write novels, plays or movies, but have you ever thought about what goes into creating a great story?   I’ll use movies and television shows for example over books because they are more familiar to people.

Let’s think about of some of the poplar shows on TV like Breaking Bad or The Game of Thrones and dissect how they are put together, and what makes them successful.  Both stories are incredibly addictive.  I believe each has all the elements that make for great fiction.  Maybe not Shakespeare great, but great for seducing people into their story worlds.

Story World

The first aspect of great fiction is creating the story world.  This goes way beyond setting.  And I’m not talking about the world building of fantasy and science fiction, but the creating of a whole fictional reality.  Even when a story is realistic like Breaking Bad, or To Kill a Mockingbird, its creating a whole story world, time and place, with endless defining details.  As much as we’d like to believe that To Kill a Mockingbird is an accurate portrayal of the past, it isn’t.  Every written story involves two imaginations, the writer and the reader.  With movies and television shows, the director, the actors, set designers, cinematographers, costume makers, special effects wizards, also add their imaginations to creating the story world.  But with novels and short stories, the author suggests everything in words, and the readers bring their own imaginations to decode their version of the story world.  Watching The Game of Thrones, meanings most everything has been envisioned for the audience, but readers of the book all imagine something different.

The reason why the Harry Potter books are so great is because of the complete story world that J. K. Rowling created.

If you ever think about becoming a writer, do this experiment.  Each time you read a book or watch a movie, try and list everything that had to be invented by the imagination of the writer.  Most stories involves thousands of imaginative decisions, and stories like The Game of Thrones or the Harry Potter books, involve tens of thousands of mental creations, maybe even hundreds of thousands.  These novels run 100,000-200,000 words, or more.  Thinking tunic or sword are small decisions, but thinking up the details of Quidditch takes some real work.

Characters

It’s hard to say which comes first, characters or story world.  Often writers create characters that generate their story worlds.  Other writers start with the story world first and then create the characters that belong in that story world.  Either way, creating characters is very hard work.  And the best stories seem to have lots of characters.  Would The Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad stories be so compelling if they only followed a handful of main characters?  Walter White is a tremendous creation, but the depth of his character works because of his relationship with Skyler, Jesse, Hank, Walter Jr., Saul, Gus, and so on.  Think about every detail that went into creating Gustavo Fring?  Does thinking up those kinds of character details come from genes, muses or what?  Most great writers are great observers of people.

One of the hardest things to create for your characters is their dialog.  Bad writers make all their characters talk like themselves.  Great writers make all their characters sound like diverse people from all over the world.  Listen to audio books, especially the ones that have narrators who do voices for each character.  It’s not just the sound of the voice, or the accent, but how each character phrases their words.

Each character has to have their own background and history, but more important than that, each character has to have their own motivations and desires.  When we read novels generally they are driven by one or two people’s stories.  But every character that walks into a scene has their own agenda.  Bad writers create minor characters to show off the main characters, but great writers create minor characters that want to make the story their own.  Every character should be trying to steal the scene for themselves, because in reality, every person thinks they are the center of the universe.  Nobody wants to be a red shirt.

Plot

Plot is what drives the story forward.  Will Walter make enough money to leave his family secure before he dies of cancer?  Who will take the Iron Throne from Joffrey Baratheon?

Writing a plot requires imagining a beginning, middle and end.  However, modern binge worthy TV shows have no end, but are sophisticated soap operas.  Readers want a satisfying conclusion at the end of the book, even if its part of a series.  Readers love feeling the need to keep turning pages hoping to find out what happens next. 

Standalone stories, like non-series novels, and movies, have plots that lead to a satisfactory resolution of a problem revealed at the beginning of a story.  Soap opera like stories depend on a series of conflicts that get resolved from time to time.  Great stories will bring the story to a climax, and present an epiphany. 

I saw Star Trek Into Darkness yesterday.  It has the same plot every time.  Kirk and Spock play out their now famously cliché character traits while battling a almost impossible-to-beat foe, with all the minor characters also getting to reinforce their now standardize character traits.  And we love this because it reinforces the familiar and nostalgic essence of what we think of as Star Trek.  Sometimes plots involving giving the audience exactly what they want.

On the other hand, new stories must give readers and audiences something they never seen before.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Big Love, Deadwood, Shameless, Girls, etc. find ways to present new and very different plots.  Let’s face it, some of us are very old and have been consuming fiction for a very long time, and getting jaded to routine plotting is all too easy.

Conflict

Even though I greatly admire The Song of Fire and Ice for its story world, I have to nick it for stretching to the story out too long.  It’s one giant potboiler, generating a steady stream of conflicts and cliffhangers.  My favorite character is Arya Stark, who gets involved in one misadventure after the next.  She never seems to get anywhere, but she always has something life threatening to deal with.  But that’s how you keep readers and watches involved.  Characters need conflict to drive them forward in the story, and creating imaginative conflicts is another trait of a good writer.

To me, the masters of fictional conflict are the creators and writers of Breaking Bad.  Not only do they keep their characters busy, but they create original, unpredictable conflicts that we never see coming.  When I think Jesse is going to have a standard shootout with a villain, Walter shows up at the last second and runs the villain over with his car.  The cliché feeling is to want Jessie to kill the guy.  We the audience are aching for Jessie to kill the guy.  And then out of nowhere Walter runs him over.  That’s great plotting and creative conflict resolution.

Summing Up

I don’t know if creating imaginative story worlds, great characters, compelling plots and satisfying conflicts requires an innate talent.   Is it an ability that can be acquired through long study and practice?  Most books are not that creative.  Thousands of novels are published every year that don’t sell or find fans.  Many of them are competently written.  Delany might be right, that good writing is common, but bad, and talented writing is special.  Or it could be all those mundane story tellers just didn’t work hard enough to be distinctive.   Maybe creativity comes after ten rewrites, or twenty.

I feel all the stories I’ve written so far fail because I didn’t push myself hard to enough to be more creative.  I would like to know if I could push myself to work harder would I be more creative?  I have a novel I’m working on now and I feel it doesn’t even achieve 1% of what it should do.  And I have a sick feeling that even if I worked a hundred times harder it might only succeed at the 10% level.  Maybe if I had a natural talent for story telling I could achieve 90% success with far less work.  But I tend to think talented people are just people who wrote dozens of practice novels and earned their skills at faster creativity.

I have two challenges to test.  First, can I learn to write after I retire, when I have more time to work harder?  And second, is it possible for someone in their sixties to become creative late in life?  I’m not delusional, I know I’m in physical and mental decline.  I’ve already decided that writing a novel is too ambitious for this test, and that I should aim for success with short stories.

Since 2002 I’ve had a renaissance with my love of fiction because of Audible.com and audiobooks.  I have discovered that listening is the best way for me to study great writing.  Listening is like having a powerful magnifying glass for studying fiction.  And in the past year, I’ve gone back to studying fiction with eye ball reading.  What I learned from hearing lets me see words in a new way.  The more I study, the more I realize how little I knew about how fiction is put together.  I might have discovered that in my teens if I had actually tried to write fifty or a hundred stories back then.  You can’t understand fiction completely until you write it.

I don’t know if having all my time free is enough to find success at writing fiction.  Whether I succeed or not, the attempt will be a great learning experience.

JWH – 5/27/13

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