Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Current Project: The First King of Montana (On Fiction: Part II)

Last week, I explained how some ideas can be very difficult to express, comparing them to the fictional butterfly, Americanus Exoticus, elusive and dead once you pin it down. We looked at some data on bestsellers and found that neither popularity nor critical acclaim -- nor both together -- will guarantee that a work has lasting value.

Writing good fiction is hard. I've been working at it seriously for four years, and I've tried a number of different approaches: make-it-up-as-you-write, experimental, minimalist, outline-based, hero's-journey-based, etc. I'm not enough of an authority to tell you the best way. In my make-it-up-as-you-write phase, I let a short story I was trying to write grow into a novel. The premise? It was probably too obscure: Europe of the 52nd century is descending into its third dark age, and a ecology-defending order of knights is slipping into civil war as their leading Council of Sages is split by philosophical disagreements that cannot be rationally worked-out.

I think it turned out like most first novels or novel-attempts: a story that meanders superficially from one colorful idea to the next. The unifying theme was weak and too-easily forgotten as I wrote. I fell in love with my characters and setting, and lost my objective view of the story, to the point where everything I wrote seemed interesting.

When I would describe this 52nd-century knighthood to people, with its devotion to ecology, political freedom, and logic, and the way its warriors rode in giant, self-replicating machines called "steeds," they tended to say, "I'm excited to read the novel!" But after reading my draft they tended to say, "I'm sure there are people out there who will like it."

The setting was too complex for the theme. It was too difficult to convey in a way that could move people. I don't think there is anything wrong with a complex setting: Dune is the bestselling science fiction novel of all time, and probably one of the most intricate. But Dune delves deeply into universal philosophical themes: the nature of knowledge and wisdom, courage, heroism, power, corruption, decadence, and the two-sided nature of civilization itself.

My theme was that some disagreements can't be decided rationally. It was too weak. There is no reason to set a story 3000 years in the future to make this point. Dune is set 10,000 years in the future, but that's because Frank Herbert had no other choice. He was asking, "What if human beings developed their physical and mental capabilities to the farthest imaginable limit? What kinds of tyrants and heroes might you see in such a world?"

In my case, I had a bunch of knights who were well-trained, and heroic enough. They were the type of warriors you might encounter in your typical fantasy novel. The exceptional things about them was that they cared about the environment, they had sworn off wealth and power, and they rode around in giant spider-like machines. Kind of cool, right?

With the number of books being published today, fiction should never settle for kind of cool. It's fiction. You're making it up. You have the freedom to make it extraordinarily cool, so cool it goes off the charts into deep. Why the hell else are you writing? You might as well tell about your experience working in a cubicle today and cross your fingers that some critic will praise your story for "accurately portraying the real America."

By the time I set aside my first novel (this was late 2012) I had read or re-read a good number of classic sci-fi novels: Asimov's Foundation series, 1984, Childhood's End, K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Cat's Cradle, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Glass Bees. I also started becoming familiar with in-house authorities like Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, and Larry Niven. I decided to do what most science fictions writers traditionally do to get their start: publish short stories. Almost no one reads sci-fi shorts except sci-fi writers. It is a sort of professional club.

The problem with seasoned sci-fi professionals is that they are bored of sci fi. Let me explain. I've read a lot of sci-fi short stories. The best thing about the ones being published today is that each one is utterly unique. One's about the member of a race of genetically-enhanced space-faring soldiers with a pacifistic streak and family issues that lead him to commit suicide. Another is about an astrologer who settles a distant planet to find that all the constellations she relies on have changed. Another is about a man who is working with his ex-wife to understand an alien race that is landing, and as the dark skeletons of his past infidelities and alcoholism are exhumed, so is the terrible truth about the aliens: they have already conquered earth, uploaded the human race, and the two of them are merely reliving the events the led up to the conquest. Thus the protagonist is doomed to be, eternally, a cheat and a drunkard.

Maybe you understand already the worst thing about contemporary sci fi short stories: each one is utterly unique. The only thing unifying them is the craft. And with all the experimentation going on with plot & character (and experimentation is only getting more flamboyant as sci-fi editors get more bored) even the craft itself maintains only the barest of unity. The problem isn't that there aren't good writers out there, the problem is that if you take the sum total of a million brilliant, disharmonious visions, it is merely chaos. I'm not talking the healthy, complex chaos of a jungle ecosystem. I'm talking about a massive compost heap that's on the edge of spontaneous combustion -- a place where dreams and values go to die.

Nobody reads sci-fi shorts but sci-fi authors. I've submitted a couple of stories about cultures where machines do all the work and humans spend their days in virtual reality, where the humans' values, and eventually their bodies are absorbed into the giant mechanism and you have nothing but self-replicating machines. "It's been done a million times," I'm told. To me my idea is a world apart from the Matrix movies, for example, where machines took over by violence rather than human choice. But the Matrix movies aren't even on the radar when you're talking to a seasoned sci-fi professional: they will have the name of a Heinlein novel at the ready that parodies the subgenre of science fiction based on the idea that you thought was unique.

I will admit that my craft is still being perfected -- I do not grudge my dozen rejections from magazines like Analog and Asimov's. They get more submissions that than they do subscriptions; they're gateways to an exclusive club.

Almost all professional sci fi authors were rejected dozens of times at first. Only Heinlein, it is said, an ex-military intelligence agent, sold his first submission and never looked back. He's most famous for the story of a hermaphrodite who had a sex change and went back in time to sleep with herself and become her/his very own father/mother.

Be that as it may. Last Christmas Emily and I stayed up late with a couple beers and watched the Lord of the Rings movies. (This has been our little Christmas tradition.) I realized that here we have a story written by an author who overcame all cliche by overcoming his fear of cliche. Contrary to popular opinion, fantasy had been thriving as a genre for over a hundred years by the time the Fellowship of the Ring was published. Tolkien never avoided cliche, instead he researched each cliche, found its roots in ancient, classic, or romantic literature, saw its value, sharpened it, and made it into a theme. Fairies become the ancient and nature-loving races of Elves and Ents, the everyman hero becomes the Hobbit, the wise sage becomes Gandalf, the magical item becomes the One Ring to Rule them All.

So I went back to my original inspiration for writing: an apocalypse where stale values fall away, and out of the chaos comes a hero who must fight to put virtue back in its place. None of the stories I had written so far had had a central hero (except my future-version of Perceval, which had avoided making Perceval the view-point character out of fear of cliche). I decided to write a story with a hero, and thus the character of Jack Young was born, an elite soldier who returns from defeat at Washington D.C. to find his home state, Montana, under the rule of neo-fascist militias.

It's a cliche that in the apocalypse neo-fascist militias will take over. So instead of avoiding neo-fascists militias I put together the most atrocious one I can imagine. It is a cliche that a hero with a gun will rise to defeat them, so instead of avoiding it I make Jack the most daring, most heroic bastard you'll ever meet.

Tolkien makes his cliches themes by making them real. Gandalf is more like a grandfather than a wizard, the Ring is a nondescript band of metal, and the elves are good with a bow but are a little more arrogant, petty, and sometimes also more cowardly than your typical immortal.

So I took my ideal of Jack and made him flawed. He wants a peaceful solution, but he's perhaps too idealistic and too daring and it gets him in trouble. He has a tendency to fall for the wrong women. As long as I give him the basic premise that makes Jack Jack -- a desire and ability to protect the weak from violence -- he can be flawed in other ways, and he will be forced to overcome himself again and again on his way to the throne.

It's important that Jack doesn't want to be King. He just wants peace. He hates politics and soldiering and wants to go back to farming. But the land is being ravaged by nihilists and -- what is worse -- violent idealists who will fight each other to the death for money, power, glory, democracy, truth, or justice. And out of this chaos and violence, the partisans of ideology and politics will meet their appropriate tragic fates, and the one leader who is willing to remain faithful friends with anyone -- nihilists, religious fundamentalists, and hippie-ecologists alike -- will have the most allies and will be the last one standing when the dust settles.

This is a basic idea. There's also a love story, central to the plot, not only because it's cliche, but because it's my favorite way to deepen the human aspect of a story, to sharpen the tragedy and sweeten the adventure. It's time-tested: the modern romantic aesthetic has its roots in the Shakespearean tradition. I figure that if I spend as much time developing romantic tensions as I do politics and war, I might save my story from becoming as hopelessly grim, hollow, or dark as your average fictional apocalypse.

Which brings me to another cliche: post-apocalyptic settings. Typically you've got a vast desert almost void of life, and some grungy humans with guns duking it out. It's nonsense. If there's no farmland, what do they eat? If they're all fighting, how's anyone still alive? Where do they get their guns and bullets? Realistically, most of the survivors of the apocalypse won't be violent idiots. They will be people who are equipped to grow their own food without any help from technology. But is there anyone out there like that? Sure there are: in the U.S. you've got the Amish, and in Mexico you've got millions of Mayans. These ethnic groups have managed to preserve traditional ways of self-sustaining agriculture, and their birth rates are high enough than in 200 years you could see them spread throughout North America. So now I also had a unique post-apocalyptic setting: pacifistic Amish and traditional Mayans struggling to cultivate a depleted landscape, in need of a leader who can protect them from the wealthy ex-military men who've become tyrants.

I'm almost 200 pages into my first draft, and I'm currently refining a complete, scene-by-scene outline. I probably have another couple of years before I have any sort of presentable draft. Unlike my previous stories, the title of this one was easy to come up with: "The First King of Montana." 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Storytelling as the Art of the Hard-to-Express (On Fiction: Part I)

My 2011 blog posts describe how I discovered my philosophical question, and how I searched for and found answers to that question. But they fail to really express those answers, to convey the essence of my philosophy of life. My struggle over the last 4 years has been trying to find a way to do so.

How do I explain my struggle to express my philosophy without first expressing my philosophy? Let me try a metaphor. My wife has finally made me watch "The Fall," and I highly recommend it. Most critics rave about its imagery. I think its strong point is the touching friendship between the two hospital patients, a stuntman and a little girl, a friendship based around a silly fantasy story they make up together, a story which carries so much more meaning for them than it could possibly convey on its own, even with the best special effects in the world. Within this fantasy story you've got manifold symbolic elements charged with wonder and possibility. One of the characters is a heavily stylized version of Charles Darwin, who wears a colorful fur coat and in an emergency consults his pet monkey. He's searching for an extremely rare butterfly called "Americanus Exoticus" -- it is his life's dream.

When he finally finds the butterfly, it's dead and pinned, and he grieves. It's a silly scene, filmed comically, but it's got the essence of the tragedy of storytelling.

Let's think about what this butterfly must have been like when it was alive. To behold it is to experience a kind of beauty that is impossible to fully describe. For someone like our fictional Darwin -- who's been chasing it his entire life, and understands how it weaves its cocoon, how it drinks only from the purply-orange orchid "Fragilus Exquisitus", how it lays its eggs only by the sweetest of spring pools, how it's broadly tapered and trailing wings have unique aerodynamic properties -- the experience of beauty multiplies with one's scientific knowledge. On the other hand, if you were merely to describe its diet, habits, size, color, shape in coldly quantitative terms, the beauty is lost. Seeing it dead bears no comparison to observing it as it flits among the jungle ferns.

If you could film it as it flies, you might capture a good part of its aesthetic beauty. But even if Darwin had access to a movie camera, he still needs to somehow explain what the butterfly has taught him about ecology, evolution, and life itself.

The philosophical answers that I found are like Americanus Exoticus. Their significance can't be explained by art or science alone, but only by both together. If I were to explain myself scientifically, the meaning is lost, it becomes too technical. Expressing beauty is very difficult. All you can do about a lovely sunset is say, "Come look!" If you must describe it you might name the colors and talk about the shapes of the clouds, but how do you capture the subtlety and emotional impact?

So I've been trying my hand at painting the butterfly, that is, writing fiction that illustrates my philosophy. Since reading Chretien de Troyes's medieval romance "Perceval," I've been inspired by an alternate vision of the Apocalypse, one where it is the darkness and struggle for survival itself that must shape the seed of virtue for a new Golden Age. Since late 2008 -- for 6 years in fact -- I've been attempting to write a more romantic, more hopeful, more evolutionary kind of apocalyptic science fiction.

I am trying to write stories with a meaning and a message. Modern literary critics will tell you that this is a very bad idea.

These days, most fiction avoids having a meaning or a message, because modern writers are terrified of being too preachy. That's why most bestsellers are thrill rides and spectacles of sex or violence, and why most critically-acclaimed novels are obscure, unnecessarily complex, or hip and superficial. Whether high- or low-brow, modern novel writers are seeking to evoke pure pleasure, because that's what critics ask for. And critics ask for pure pleasure because they've grown tired of resisting a publishing industry that chases profits above all else. And because critics themselves want their readers to agree with everything they say, and it is much easier to agree that, "This novel is a thrill ride, a fast-paced page-turner that will keep you up at night," than to agree, "This novel is a thrill ride, a fast-paced page-turner that will keep you up at night, but ultimately promotes a set of values that will damage the moral conscience of this nation."

Besides, it's the first part of the quote that will be printed on the dust-jacket.

Don't get me wrong. I want people to take pleasure in my stories. It's essential. But the craft of writing must enhance the meaning of a work, not obscure it. If you look at the classics that have stood the test of time, they all speak with a clear voice and a solid meaning that is powerfully there but cannot be easily or fully explained without telling the story. You can say this about Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien, Jane Austen, H.G. Wells -- and almost any writer famous for more than 50 years. If all James Joyce had written was Finnegan's Wake or even Ulysses, no one today would know who he was. It's the clear, philosophical prose of Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man that makes Joyce worth knowing.

If you look at bestseller lists from more than 50 years ago, you'll see that instant popularity does not ensure any kind of lasting value. Here are the U.S. bestselling novels according to Publisher's Weekly from 1932:

  1. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
  2. The Fountain by Charles Langbridge Morgan
  3. Sons by Pearl S. Buck
  4. Magnolia Street by Louis Golding
  5. The Sheltered Life by Ellen Glasgow
  6. Old Wine and New by Warwick Deeping
  7. Mary's Neck by Booth Tarkington
  8. Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas
  9. Inheritance by Phyllis Bentley
  10. Three Loves by A. J. Cronin

Do you recognize any of those? Let's look at the number 1 bestseller for each year in the 1920s:

1920: The Man of the Forest by Zane Grey
1921: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
1922: If Winter Comes by A.S.M. Hutchinson
1923: Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1924: So Big by Edna Ferber
1925: Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs
1926: The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine
1927: Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
1929: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

We all know "All Quiet on the Western Front," not because many of us have read it, but because we've all at least heard of the movie. If you recognize any others, you're probably in a university literature department. I'm guessing that even your best read literature professor will know nothing of these in another hundred years.

Neither critical acclaim nor bestselling status will guarantee immortality. Nor both together! Sinclair Lewis's 1922 "Babbit" was the 9th bestselling novel in 1922 and perhaps his most critically acclaimed work. You'll notice that Sinclair Lewis wrote two #1 bestsellers during the 20s, and he also won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. From this data alone you might conclude he was the most important novelist of the 1920s. But most people today have never read any of his books. I remember picking up Babbit at the library five or six years ago -- it failed to hold my interest.

For a novel to be great it must explore timeless values. Sinclair Lewis was too hip. Most of his novels were satires of the middle-class American life. But middle-class America of the 1920s was full of superficialities that are rare in any other time and place. In Main Street he wrote about a woman who was "too educated" and "too liberal." He didn't realize that feminism was a trend that would grow immeasurably in our culture. And, on the other hand, it's a trend that's been special to Western culture and is not as common in other places and times.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby satirizes the same time and place as much of Lewis's work. But because it develops more eternal themes -- obsession, love, materialism -- Fitzgerald's work has lasted.

It is worth noting that The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, received mixed reviews, and that Fitzgerald was deeply disappointed by its meager sales. One of the most famous critics, H.L. Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore," called it "no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that." Of the bestselling Babbitt, the same critic wrote, “I know of no American novel that more accurately presents the real America."

Not to conclude that genius is always misunderstood, either! Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) was critically acclaimed, the #6 bestseller, and has been famous now for over 100 years. It's possible to speak both to the present and to the future, though it is very rare.

My point is, novels like The Jungle or The Great Gatsby that have clear allegorical meaning, meaning that could not easily be expressed in nonfiction, meaning that touches on our eternal values: these are the novels that become a lasting part of a culture and make it what it is.

We need to stop being afraid of "having a message."

(Next week, I'll talk science fiction and tell how I came to write my novel-in-progress: The First King of Montana.)