Friday, February 25, 2011

More on writing literature

The other day I was talking about our responsibility to reform the public image of our genres by producing quality literature rather than mindless, intelligence-draining, formulaic drivel (I'll talk about formula in another post because they do have their uses). I mentioned that one of my criteria for good literature is that it has to contain or be based on some sort of moral or personal value. I've been thinking a lot about that idea recently and here are some of the conclusions I've drawn.

Morals/values really are the heart of a story because they are the core of all good characters (and without some good characters, the book is going precisely nowhere). A character's personal moral/value system directly influences his or her view of the world and informs every decision the character makes. In other words, a character's morals form the basis for the character's motivations.

Of course, there are characters whom we all know and love that are conspicuous because of their complete lack of morals (one of my favorites being Han Solo, who ends up developing his morals as the movies progress), but these are a different case all together. Those characters' amorality is a moral code unto itself; it still informs their world-view and influences their decisions (these tend to be the devil-may-care mercenary types who are motivated by their own profit and preservation). It's important to note that even these characters were written that way intentionally; the author made a decision about what kind of morals they would/should have.

Authors who fail to give their characters a moral foundation of some sort are creating flat, colorless characters that no one can relate to, sympathize with, or even understand. SOAPBOX: I think writers who write these kinds of characters are simply projecting themselves into their story and onto their readers. Since they know exactly what they would do and why in a given situation, they assume everyone does—characters and readers included; they assume the reader knows what he/she is thinking and agrees. This is a symptom of a small mind and puerile understanding (or lack thereof) of people and the world. I hate getting into discussions with these kinds of people because they can't even comprehend that there is another point of view to the issue.

On an interesting note, I've found that sometimes my characters' values change as I'm writing the story. When that happens, I have to take a good hard look at the character and the events that are shaping him or her. The question is, are the changes in the character's morals understandable and realistic under the circumstances? It takes an awful lot to get someone to change what they believe about the world, about people, and about what's right or wrong; if my character is changing, there had better be a pretty darn convincing reason for it. Convenience to me, the author, isn't one of them, and I've had to rewrite many a scene because of that.

So, to writers everywhere, take a long look at your characters—old or new—and make sure you've given them a good, solid moral foundation. Even if they're the most depraved, perverted, morally bereft characters in the history of literature, make sure their actions match their values and motivations!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Tipping Point

So, I've been slowly but surely getting into the writing blogosphere for the past eighteen months (that's a conservative estimation, it may well be even longer than that). One of the first blogs I started following is Pub Rants, written by literary agent Kristen Nelson. This morning I read this entry and it kind of made me wonder. I'm not quite the purist my wife is (she swears the only time she will ever use an ereader is if she goes back to school and can get her text books cheaper as ebooks); I have not problem with ebooks, in fact I've found the ereader apps on my iPhone are really nice when I'm on the train or the bus or something. I still enjoy reading an actual book and I don't think they'll ever disappear entirely, but I kind of wonder how ebooks are going to change our culture in the not-too-distant future. I'd love to hear what you all think!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Embarrassing Books

I had a really interesting—if somewhat upsetting—conversation with my wife the other day. FYI, my wife loves books more than anyone I know. She has an English degree, positively drools over literary criticism, and is never more happy than when she's reading or organizing our bookshelves. That being said, imagine how I felt when she mentioned the other day that, if she had her way, she'd rather not have my science fiction and fantasy books on the shelves in our living room (our front door opens right into the living room of our apartment). Apparently she's embarrassed to have mass-market paperback sci-fi and fantasy novels out there for the world to see.

Needless to say, I was mortified! It felt like she had literally slapped me across the face. However, this whole debacle led to a really good discussion. What my wife has a problem with is the stigma that still manages to cling to the science fiction and fantasy genres: she perceives the genres to be mostly filled with second-rate writing; far-fetched or overly-contrived ideas; and flat, cliched characters—the sort of stuff you expect to find on unsanctioned fan-fic websites and things like that. (I have to admit that her opinion isn't entirely baseless, even if she is casting her net a bit too wide; given the sheer volume of science fiction literature, there is an awful lot of sub-par writing out there.) Anyways, throughout the course of our discussion, I managed (I think) to help her understand that science fiction and fantasy are just like any other genre: there is some serious literature and there's a lot of brain-candy. The problem is that our brain-candy is much more conspicuous than other genres'.

So, as science fiction and fantasy writers, I think it's clear that we have a responsibility to disabuse the world of its stereotyped preconception of our genre by producing quality literature. And by quality literature, I mean good writing, well thought-out ideas, well-developed sympathetic characters, and strong underlying values. SOAPBOX: a story written for the story's own sake, no matter how well planned and executed, is nothing but brain-candy; good literature provides an opportunity for the reader to learn and evaluate either life, the world, or his or her self. My friend Shallee McArthur (who is a wonderful writer, by the way) talked about one way to do this in a recent blog post. Besides, a story won't be exciting or engaging if it doesn't have some sort of moral foundation anyway.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Entry the First

Hi there, everybody! Well, I've finally gotten around to starting up my very own blog. I know, nothing to write home about these days, but better late than never!

I came into writing for a very simple reason: I love stories! It is not only safe, but also completely accurate to say that I love stories more than almost everything else in the world. As a child I would staple printer paper together to make "books" in which I would write my favorite stories, complete with my own illustrations. On more than one occasion my passion for stories has nearly become hazardous to my own well-being (most of you probably know how inconvenient and down right bothersome things like food and sleep can be when you're in the middle of a good story). Eventually, however, my overactive imagination decided it wasn't content to merely relive other people's stories; it struck out on its own and started weaving plots and characters of its own devising.

This blog is dedicated to those experiences, thoughts, and insights I see as particularly noteworthy as I write, read, rewrite, and try to publish the stories I've developed. I hope you enjoy my ruminations!