WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 4)

Near the end of 2014 I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. Though there was a period of time taken up by one immense book, I’m delighted to report that I have continued to draw books from the box, one after another. As I said in the first part of this now, apparently, ongoing feature after finishing the first random book that came out of the box, The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read for fun more, but my editor’s brain won’t allow me to read a book “just because.” I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on.

Though I didn’t do that with every random science fiction book I’ve read since then, I did with the last one I just finished: a 1969 Ace Science Fiction Classics edition of The Lord of Death and the Queen of Life by Homer Eon Flint, which looks exactly like this (I scanned my own copy):

Now easy to find for free, in the public domain.

Now easy to find for free, in the public domain.

Pulp author Homer Eon Flint might be best known for the strange circumstances surrounding his death in 1924, but for fans of classic science fiction it’s as the co-author (with Austin Hall) of The Blind Spot that he’s known and loved. It’s not strange that I picked up a book that’s actually a combination of two novellas first published in the old SF pulps. I’ve been reading a lot of pulp lately, teaching an ongoing online pulp fiction workshop, and writing some pulp-inspired stuff of my own, so this jumped off the shelves of a used bookstore and into my grab-bag box with lots of cousins from that era.

The Lord of Death was first published in the magazine Argosy All Story Weekly in May 1919, followed by The Queen of Life in the August 1919 issue of the same. That makes it the 97th anniversary of the first publication, so sort of a bit of bonus timing there.

I have a copy of this July 1940 issue of Fantastic Novels featuring a reprint of The Blind Spot in my personal collection!

I have a copy of this July 1940 issue of Fantastic Novels featuring a reprint of The Blind Spot in my personal collection!

One of the things I confront right away in my pulp fiction workshop is the obvious sexism and racism on display in any image search for pulp magazines. It was clear that the publishers back then thought their predominantly white male audience would respond favorably to women in bondage and stereotypical caricatures of non-white villains. I guess they were right because these magazines sold like crazy.

It’s interesting, though, how often, or more accurately, how rarely the stories printed under those covers actually matched the racist, sexist packaging.

It was with this, and other pulp thoughts in mind that I made my way through The Lord of Death and the Queen of Life.

Though the subject of race doesn’t really come up, there was at least this cringe worthy line late in the book when the earthmen are puzzling over the appearance of the Venusians: “Like a lot of Chinamen,” said Van Emmon in an undertone, “can’t tell one from another.”

Okay.

Keeping in mind that very nearly a century has passed, how does Mr. Flint approach gender, circa 1919? In The Lord of Death we meet Mercury’s despotic emperor Strokor, who has this to say about the only woman mentioned in that novella:

She was in no way like any woman I had seen. All of them had been much like the men: brawny and close-knit, as well fitted for their work as are men for war. But this chit was all but slender; not skinny, but prettily rounded out, and soft like. I cannot say that I admired her at first glance; she seemed fit only to look at, not to live. I was minded of some of the ancient carvings, which show delicate, lightly built animals that have long since been killed off; graceful trifles that rested the eye.

Later, when the “chit” in question offers herself up to mighty Strokor for marriage:

Many women had looked like that at me before. But I had always been a man’s man, and had ever heeded my father’s warning to have naught whatever to do with women. “They are the worst trick of all,” he told me; and I had never forgot. Belike I owe much of my power to just this.

“I will have naught to do with ye,” I told her, civilly enough. “When I am ready to take a woman, I shall take her; not before.”

Granted, “man’s man” Strokor is the villain of the piece, and this passage is meant to further paint him as an unfeeling brute, but here we see a female character serving only to further illuminate the male. We’re also left to ponder the gay subtext rich throughout this, which might still have been at least partly intentional almost a century ago.

But what makes The Lord of Death interesting isn’t the sexual politics but the more overtly political message at the heart of the story.

We begin with a team of scientists and intellectuals from Earth who travel to the planet Mercury in a spacecraft of their own invention. Their theory that Mercury once orbited farther from the sun and was the home of an intelligent species is confirmed—but only by the ruins the natives have left behind. In the ruins they find recording devices that tell them the story of Strokor, a brutish despot who (spoiler alert) goes on to wipe out the entire population of Mercury (including himself) in his effort to achieve world domination.

World War I, the War to End All Wars, came to an end six months before the first publication of The Lord of Death.

Surely the horrors of mechanized warfare were top of mind for pretty much everyone at that time, and the fact that science fiction was used as a warning for just how mad the madness of war can get shouldn’t come as too big a surprise. If anything here we have a science fiction author warning of the genocidal war to come. And though Strokor’s doomsday weapon depends on magnetism, Flint is eerily prescient in terms of the potentially world-ending weapons yet to be invented.

In that context the fact that he seems to see women—or anyway, his villain tends to see women as sex objects at best or irritants at worse is secondary to the idea of a war that results in complete mass extinction.

So much for The Lord of Death. What about The Queen of Life?

In the second installment our intrepid explorers once more venture out into interplanetary space, this time with their sights set on the planet Venus. And this time, they’ve recruited a new member of their team, someone they know by reputation only and who, heaven forefend, turns out to be . . . a woman!

Gasp!

But this is a man’s job, with danger and the necessity for rational thought, and all the other reasons a woman couldn’t possibly be expected to be brought along.

But then, strangely, especially so in light of Strokor’s feelings on the subject and the otherwise complete lack of any female voice in The Lord of Death, in The Queen of Life the earthmen get over the fact that their new teammate is a woman surprisingly quickly. There are a few clunky passages early on where the forward-thinking Mr. Flint grapples with the reality of the day’s sexual politics. His male characters struggle to be genteel and not condescending, and though for the most part they fail, the effort flies directly in the face of pulp magazines that much more often looked like this:

I know, right?

I know, right?

The female lead of The Queen of Life is E. (Edna) Williams Jackson, known as Billie, and though she’s happy to help with the cooking and washing up, she is seen as a valued member of the team by the end of Chapter 2, in which we learn that she’s wont to wear trousers and doesn’t care who knows it. It goes from retrograde to quaint in odd little baby steps and though there’s a certain amount of what might now be described as “mansplaining” we see in The Queen of Life the direct opposite of Strokor’s macho warmongering. Instead, the much more civilized—and very much still alive—citizens of Venus are in the process of genetically engineering women to fertilize their own eggs, thereby rendering the male gender obsolete.

Though male Venusians stage a sort of riot in response, I got the feeling that Flint left it for the women of Venus to move into a peaceful and productive future unencumbered by the warlike brutes with penises that have done nothing but fuck up everything they’ve ever touched.

World War I ended six months before the publication of The Lord of Death, and American women voted for the first time fifteen months after the publication of The Queen of Life.

So this concept that men are warmongering assholes and women might fix everything if given the chance, was certainly in the air while Homer Eon Flint was writing his pulp science fiction mini epics.

Pretty forward thinking, but like the best science fiction, it was much more about what was going on while it was being written than it was any real attempt to guess at the actual cultures of Mercury and Venus.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

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WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU BOUGHT A BOOK?

I hope you can answer that question, and I hope it wasn’t too long ago.

We’re all writers here, aren’t we?

We all either depend on book royalties or hope to depend on book royalties for at least some portion of our income, don’t we?

Though we do get royalties when libraries buy our books, we need actual individual people to do the same if we’re hoping to cover more than a trip to the grocery store every year.

We’re all readers, too, aren’t we?

We better be. Though I’ve also said you shouldn’t limit yourself to only books, I’ve joined any number of other authors and editors (including Stephen King in his book On Writing) who’ll tell you that if you want to write, you better damn well be reading, too.

My daughter is finishing up her last few weeks of college, which has been a drain on our finances over the last few years—believe me—and for a few other reasons I’ve been trying to be more frugal lately, trying not to overspend, trying to manage my personal finances in smart ways, and so on.

For a while there I was spending as much as $100 a week—at least $50—on books. Yes, you heard that right. Going to bookstores, browsing, and buying, was my number one hobby. Until, that is, I started tracking my spending better and realized, yeah, while we transition from full time employee to full time freelancer/consultant, we can’t really keep doing that.

The good news for my reading time is that during that period I collected a crap-ton of books. I have at least a couple thousand at home that I have not yet read. With time for anything in short supply these days, I read for pleasure as much as I can but still might read only, maybe, thirty books a year or so, which means during those careless, wild book-buying spree years I socked away a 67-year supply of reading material. I should be good until the age of 118.

Hmm.

I need to read more. If I can get that to an average of a book a week, I can get through my library just before my 90th birthday.

Yeah.

You don’t have to own that many books, even if you read more in a year than I manage.

Still, though that $50-$100/week in books has trickled away, I still buy books and have a huge Amazon whish list. I hang out at bookstores, just not nearly as often as I used to, and frankly, not often enough.

A little while ago I mused over the fact that I’m not keeping current, and gave myself a challenge to read more recently-published books along with the classics and obscure old science fiction, and this is also a challenge to buy books a little more often.

There has to be a sweet spot somewhere between $100/week and never.

How much can you afford to spend?

If your budget is tight, borrow books from the library or from friends. I shop at used bookstores and don’t get the slightest bit upset when I see one of my own books there. My kids ran across a copy of Annihilation in a Half Price Books store that had been stamped DISCARDED across the cover for some reason. They thought that was hilarious. But hopefully someone rescued it for half price and enjoyed it.

Can’t wait for the new book by your favorite author and need to shell out full price for the hardcover? Great. Like eBooks and have it shot right from Amazon (or wherever) to your favorite device? Fantastic.

But come on, us. If we don’t buy books, who the heck will? And how can we ask other people to do the same?

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I tried valiantly to get National Buy a Book Day up and running but just couldn’t manage the commitment. Let’s say that any day you have the money to spend and a book you find interesting is International Buy a Book Day. But if you like the idea of a community like that, I’ll remind you that April 30th is Independent Bookstore Day. I genuinely hope you can find an independent bookstore in your area. If you can, go there and buy a book or you will very soon find yourself among the increasing population of people who can’t find an independent bookstore in their area.

Then please venture back out on May 7 for Free Comic Book Day. And while you’re there, buy a comic book.

Comic books are cool, too.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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I HAD ENCOUNTERED PAST PERFECT TENSE FAR TOO MANY TIMES BEFORE WRITING THIS POST

The past perfect tense is used to indicate an action that has been completed (perfected) before some other action was completed. It can be spotted, most of the time, by looking for the word had:

I had lived on Mars for three years before leaving for Venus.

First, I lived on Mars for three years then I left for Venus: two actions in one sentence, in which the order of those actions matters—this happened first, the other thing happened next.

There is no law against the past perfect tense. In the above example it makes sense and gives clarity to this character’s past experiences. As such, please don’t take this post as some kind of blanket condemnation of the past perfect tense—just a mostly blanket condemnation of the past perfect tense.

Though there has been a bit of a trendy inclination toward present tense, which I still believe comes from screenplays—which everyone wants to write on the off chance that they’ll sell for a quick million bucks—the overwhelming majority of genre fiction, at least, is still written in the reader-friendly simple past tense. This means you’re describing, either through the direct experience of one point of view (POV) character (first person) or through an unspecified narrator (third person), events that transpired in the undefined past. Where writers get in trouble is in the conflation of simple past tense and past perfect tense.

Going back to that example of past perfect:

I had lived on Mars for three years before leaving for Venus.

This is the same idea rendered in simple past tense:

I lived on Mars for three years, then I moved to Venus.

The same information is conveyed, but in this specific example I still think the past perfect reads better, so then what’s the beef against past perfect?

Like anything from alcohol to gambling, anything in excess is bad.

Past perfect goes bad when it’s used too much.

For instance, as an editor I often see versions of a sustained past perfect flashback. Start with the basic idea that in this past tense narrative everything we see described has already happened in the past, but now I want to show something that happened before the past tense “now” of the A-line narrative.

The creature gnashed its poisoned fangs at him and he stepped back.

Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle. They had come up from the ground, snarling and clawing. Their skin had glistened in the sunlight as though it had been covered by a thick layer of slime. The castle guards had fought bravely that day, but the creatures had killed a dozen men before having been driven back into the cold ground. That had been a day Galen had never forgotten.

The creature lunged at him and Galen swiped his sword in front of him to fend it off.

In that example, the first one-sentence paragraph is in the story’s A-line “now,” and is written in simple past tense. The first verb, gnashed, is the past tense form of “to gnash” and immediately follows the subject: “the creature,” so we know who gnashed. This continues as we see that Galen stepped back (again, past tense). The last one-sentence paragraph is there to show us going back to the A-line “now” and simple past tense. The creature (subject) lunged (past tense verb), etc.

In the second, longer paragraph I wanted to make it clear to my readers that Galen had encountered these same creatures once before, and why not show some of that action, so what follows is a brief flashback. In the first sentence of that paragraph:

Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle.

we see the past perfect tense in all its glory. This is back in time from the story’s A-line “now,” indicated by the word had and we see one action (seen) happen before another (fled) in which the order matters: he saw them first then he ran away. The rest of the paragraph, as written, continues in either the past perfect tense or in some stilted version of the past perfect tense, and this is where things go wrong.

Since the first sentence in that paragraph—Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle.—establishes that we’ve gone back in time from the A-line “now,” most of the rest of the paragraph can then drop back into simple past tense. We’ve entered the B-line “now.” In other words, in context, my readers understand that we’ve taken a short detour into Galen’s past and are seeing more of his first encounter with these monsters.

That being the case, look at how the past perfect tense can be used to establish a new “now” while still leaving the rest of the paragraph in a much more readable state, without all these reminders of “this is the past’s past,” or worse, each new sentence dragging us farther back in time:

Galen had seen these things once, just before he fled the castle. They came up from the ground, snarling and clawing. Their skin glistened in the sunlight as though covered by a thick layer of slime. The castle guards fought bravely that day, but the creatures killed a dozen men before they were driven back into the cold ground. That was a day Galen had never forgotten.

Note that the last sentence serves as a cue to say that we’re wrapping up our quick jaunt into the past’s past and transitioning back into the A-line “now.”

This is a small example, but I hope you’ll take it to heart. I’ve seen whole stories written in some strange hybrid version of past perfect tense, and they’re difficult to read. This is another example of the kind of writing mistake that the majority of readers won’t necessarily be able to describe in detail, but after reading a story that had happened, believe me, they will feel that something wasn’t quite right. This is another case of what I keep going back to, and that’s unnecessary emotional distance. By putting everything in the past’s past, you’re putting another layer between your readers and your story, and trust me, they will detect that even if they can’t name it. And they won’t like it.

The first easy step is to search for the word “had.” The second, much more difficult but essential step is to think about what that word is indicating. Had is not a bad word and doesn’t belong on any kind of “banned word list,” but like, let’s face it, every other word, it should be used carefully and with clear intent.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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NAVIGATING THE EIGHT EMOTIONS, PART 8: JOY

Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. I’ve seen similar lists from experts as varied as Donald Maass and Tony Robbins. Some are a little longer, include a few other emotions, but looking at this list . . . I can see it. This makes sense to me, and anyway it gives us a place to start to talk about the emotions that motivate or drive our characters. In this series of posts we’ll get into each of these eight emotions and how they can help drive your narrative forward and infuse it with the humanity your characters need to connect with readers.

If you haven’t been following along you can click here to start at the beginning.

This week we end up with . . .

JOY

“I have drunken deep of joy,

And I will taste no other wine tonight.”

―Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

“Happiness” has become quite the fashionable buzzword in the past decade or so, but that was not always the case. Trish Hall opened her 1998 New York Times article “Seeking a Focus on Joy in the Field of Psychology” with the paragraph:

Psychologists rarely think much about what makes people happy. They focus on what makes them sad, on what makes them anxious. That is why psychology journals have published 45,000 articles in the last 30 years on depression, but only 400 on joy.

I can’t speak for the psychology journals but there’s a GoodReads list of “Best Happiness Books” in which 284 voters managed to rank a list of 172 books on the subject of happiness ranging from the Dalai Lama’s best selling The Art of Happiness to Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country. I wonder if she found any joy in being at the bottom of the list?

I have actually read this and it was very interesting.

I have actually read this and it was very interesting.

At least by 2014 there were whole web sites devoted only to this subject, including Ingrid Fetell Lee’s blog Aesthetics of Joy in which we find that we have “A Universal Right to Joy.” In that post is a terrific definition of “joy” and how it’s separate from the more transitory and external “happiness”:

We don’t have to think about it—we just feel it. We feel it in our bodies, warm and light, and we can see it in the bodies and on the faces of others. Darwin documented people and animals in states of joy, and found it easy to identify people experiencing joy by their bright eyes, smiles, and laughter, as well as their upright and open posture. Joy has a universal language, because the emotion itself is universal. We can come into a moment of joy by encountering something delightful, or we can conjure it in the mind, through memories or imagination. But we can’t fake it. And in fact research shows that we can all discern a fake smile, because the muscles that contract around our eyes in a real smile are not under our conscious control. Joy is visceral and automatic. We’re hardwired to feel it—it is a primal sense that tells us in a moment that life is good.

Of course authors of fiction have tapped into the eternal wellspring of pure joy, as we see in this clip from The Call of the Wild by Jack London:

He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars.

Shawn Actor and Michelle Gielan, in their livehappy.com post “The New Definition of Happiness,” build on the deeper meaning of joy as opposed to the more transitory experience of happiness:

Joy is something we can experience in the ups and downs of life, even when things are not pleasurable. A long run can be tiring and painful, but you can feel joy and happiness as you use the body you’ve been given to explore your potential. Childbirth is one of the most painful things humans can endure, but, as our baby doctor told us, there is a difference between pathological pain, like breaking your arm, and meaningful pain. There is a joy throughout pregnancy, childbirth and parenting that, while not always pleasurable, is linked to us achieving our potential as parents, lovers and contributors to this world.

Think about this dichotomy in your own characters. What makes them happy (that pizza sure does taste great) and what brings them joy (I understand my place in the universe . . . or something like that)?

By way of a literary example, I give you the complete text of the short story “Joy” by Anton Chekhov, written in 1883 and as translated by Constance Garnett for her 1921 collection The Schoolmaster and Other Stories:

JOY

It was twelve o’clock at night.

Mitya Kuldarov, with excited face and ruffled hair, flew into his parents’ flat, and hurriedly ran through all the rooms. His parents had already gone to bed. His sister was in bed, finishing the last page of a novel. His schoolboy brothers were asleep.

“Where have you come from?” cried his parents in amazement. “What is the matter with you?

“Oh, don’t ask! I never expected it; no, I never expected it! It’s . . . it’s positively incredible!”

Mitya laughed and sank into an armchair, so overcome by happiness that he could not stand on his legs.

“It’s incredible! You can’t imagine! Look!”

His sister jumped out of bed and, throwing a quilt round her, went in to her brother. The schoolboys woke up.

“What’s the matter? You don’t look like yourself!”

“It’s because I am so delighted, Mamma! Do you know, now all Russia knows of me! All Russia! Till now only you knew that there was a registration clerk called Dmitry Kuldarov, and now all Russia knows it! Mamma! Oh, Lord!”

Mitya jumped up, ran up and down all the rooms, and then sat down again.

“Why, what has happened? Tell us sensibly!”

“You live like wild beasts, you don’t read the newspapers and take no notice of what’s published, and there’s so much that is interesting in the papers. If anything happens it’s all known at once, nothing is hidden! How happy I am! Oh, Lord! You know it’s only celebrated people whose names are published in the papers, and now they have gone and published mine!”

“What do you mean? Where?”

The papa turned pale. The mamma glanced at the holy image and crossed herself. The schoolboys jumped out of bed and, just as they were, in short nightshirts, went up to their brother.

“Yes! My name has been published! Now all Russia knows of me! Keep the paper, mamma, in memory of it! We will read it sometimes! Look!”

Mitya pulled out of his pocket a copy of the paper, gave it to his father, and pointed with his finger to a passage marked with blue pencil.

“Read it!”

The father put on his spectacles.

“Do read it!”

The mamma glanced at the holy image and crossed herself. The papa cleared his throat and began to read: “At eleven o’clock on the evening of the 29th of December, a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov . . .”

“You see, you see! Go on!”

“. . . a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov, coming from the beershop in Kozihin’s buildings in Little Bronnaia in an intoxicated condition . . .”

“That’s me and Semyon Petrovitch . . . It’s all described exactly! Go on! Listen!”

“. . . intoxicated condition, slipped and fell under a horse belonging to a sledge-driver, a peasant of the village of Durikino in the Yuhnovsky district, called Ivan Drotov. The frightened horse, stepping over Kuldarov and drawing the sledge over him, together with a Moscow merchant of the second guild called Stepan Lukov, who was in it, dashed along the street and was caught by some house-porters. Kuldarov, at first in an unconscious condition, was taken to the police station and there examined by the doctor. The blow he had received on the back of his head . . .”

“It was from the shaft, papa. Go on! Read the rest!”

“. . . he had received on the back of his head turned out not to be serious. The incident was duly reported. Medical aid was given to the injured man . . .”

“They told me to foment the back of my head with cold water. You have read it now? Ah! So you see. Now it’s all over Russia! Give it here!”

Mitya seized the paper, folded it up and put it into his pocket.

“I’ll run round to the Makarovs and show it to them . . . I must show it to the Ivanitskys too, Natasya Ivanovna, and Anisim Vassilyitch . . . I’ll run! Good-bye!”

Mitya put on his cap with its cockade and, joyful and triumphant, ran into the street.

###

Thank you, Mr. Chekhov, for not just capturing the human quality of joy, but for anticipating, by some 124 years, Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

 

—Philip Athans

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TRAGIC WRITING INJURIES

I’m writing this in excruciating pain.

Which is why I’ll try to keep it short.

For the last year I’ve been experiencing sometimes severe upper back pain, mostly just under my left shoulder blade, and on bad days (like today) creeping up into my neck. And before you start telling me I’m having a heart attack, ask yourself (because you know I have!): Can you have a heart attack a little at a time four to seven days a week for a year? Also, can you stretch and make a heart attack feel better? Do heart attacks respond to Icy Hot?

The fact that I’m still alive seems to indicate I have some kind of muscle problem, which has been sort of confirmed by two doctors.

There are a few possible causes for this, but I think I may have narrowed down one of the biggest reasons—at least the biggest reason it hasn’t gotten any better.

This is me, sitting at my desk, a photo taken literally minutes ago:

What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

First, note the furrowed brow. This is what someone who’s been in pain long enough to just be angry about it looks like. Remember that face for a character who’s been experiencing chronic pain for a year so you can show us that rather than tell us!

But really what we’re looking at here is my left shoulder. See how it’s significantly higher than my right shoulder? I’m leaning most of my (considerable) weight on my left elbow, resting on the slightly too-low arm of my cheap desk chair. I will sit like this for hours at a time, not the slightest bit conscious of how that’s curving my spine.

Lately I’ve been trying to sit more like this:

Looking happier already!

Looking happier already!

But even as I was tying that last paragraph I realized I was slumped to the left.

Okay, so writing isn’t exactly Alaskan crab fishing in terms of risk of injury, but here I am, wading through multiple deadlines, and seriously considering taking the rest of the afternoon off because it literally hurts to do what is, physically speaking, the least strenuous job any human can have . . . unless there’s such a thing as a professional sleeper.

Take care of yourselves, writers (and editors)! If not, you might end up with a half-assed blog post like this right after hearing that Writer’s Digest magazine just named you one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers.

That would be poor timing.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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NAVIGATING THE EIGHT EMOTIONS, PART 7: TRUST

Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. I’ve seen similar lists from experts as varied as Donald Maass and Tony Robbins. Some are a little longer, include a few other emotions, but looking at this list . . . I can see it. This makes sense to me, and anyway it gives us a place to start to talk about the emotions that motivate or drive our characters. In this series of posts we’ll get into each of these eight emotions and how they can help drive your narrative forward and infuse it with the humanity your characters need to connect with readers.

If you haven’t been following along you can click here to start at the beginning.

This week . . .

TRUST

All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.

― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

 

Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

 

Well, there are a couple of conflicting views from rather well-known fantasy novels.

Or are they conflicting?

This week’s emotion, trust, puzzled me at first. I admit I had some trouble defining trust as an emotion—as a feeling. To me, emotions come largely unbidden, where trust is more of a social compact or ethical decision. You choose whether or not to trust someone, but can’t necessarily choose to be afraid or not be afraid of something.

But with a little research it became clear to me that Professor Plutchik isn’t the only one who sees trust as an emotion, so let’s dive right in.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on trust begins with the sentence: “Trust is important, but it is also dangerous.”

And from that single sentence we can start to see, as fiction writers, a whole lot of story potential.

“Trusting,” the article goes on to say, “requires that we can, 1) be vulnerable to others (vulnerable to betrayal in particular); 2) think well of others, at least in certain domains; and 3) be optimistic that they are, or at least will be, competent in certain respects.”

This strikes home to me.

I read this older edition.

I read this older edition.

Years ago, I went through a period where aviophobia (fear of flying) was starting to negatively impact my life. I was starting to try to get out of travelling for work, which I could see was starting to piss off my bosses; I was a basket case, eventually going into panic attacks if a plane flew overhead. Actually getting on a plane was an ordeal of pure terror, with all the physical symptoms of a panic disorder. It was not good. I was really suffering.

But, as I tend to do with all aspects of my life, I finally found a book that I hoped (trusted?) would get me out of it. The one I chose was pretty good, Flying Without Fear by pilot Duane Brown at least made me feel a bit less like a big old baby. I recommend it if you’re struggling with this problem—it’s a big part of how I managed to get through that so now I fly, let’s say, 90% fear free, which is huge improvement, believe me.

What got me thinking, which then got me through it, was this passage on the causes of aviophobia:

The common denominator for people who don’t learn to trust themselves or others is “control.” They want to control various aspects of their lives because it is the only way they can be sure of the outcome. It is this lack of trust, based on fear that manifests itself in numerous ways, including the fear of flying. Flying involves trusting a series of people you do not know and, in fact, cannot know. That is too big a leap of faith for people with a need to control events.

Boy, is that ever me. It’s not that I think the plane is going to crash, it’s that I think I’m the better choice to pilot the thing. The fact that I have no idea how to fly a plane is irrelevant. Sitting strapped into the cargo section, with a window that can’t see forward—it’s torture. Pure torture. I can’t see where we’re going, can’t “backseat drive,” have no idea what’s coming, and so on. And no, I don’t trust a team of perfect strangers to handle that. I’ve always said: I start worrying the second someone tells me not to worry.

Having read that, embraced it, I was able to do something about it, and managed to work through a bunch of stuff that brought my rational brain back into (at least mostly anyway) control of my own thinking. Now I fly without anticipatory anxiety, sleepless nights, sweaty palms, and so on—just the normal leg cramps and irritation. You can’t read a book and cure being tall, so I remain a first class-sized traveler on a coach budget.

Anyway, that’s a personal example of trust—or a failure to trust—fueling some really negative behavior, and I needed a trusted stranger in a book to help me identify that in myself.

Right away I start thinking about similarly motivated villains: “I want to be World Emperor because I don’t think anyone else is capable of doing it.” Or: “I feel that the world is out of control with all these people in it, so let’s get rid of all the people and everything will be fine,” said the evil super-computer.

I’m not the first to come up with that, obviously.

So then what makes trust so difficult for people like me (and there are lots of us evil geniuses bent on world domination out here) to trust people? And is trusting someone the same as relying on someone? Maybe if I could just see out the front windscreen of the plane, listen in on what the flight crew is saying in the cockpit, review the flight plan and maintenance history of the aircraft . . .

Going back to that Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article:

Although people who monitor and constrain other people’s behavior and do not allow them to prove their own trustworthiness may rely on others, they do not trust them. For, while their reliance could be disappointed, it could not be betrayed. Consider that one can rely on inanimate objects, such as alarm clocks; but when they break, one is not betrayed, although one may be disappointed. Reliance without the possibility of betrayal is not trust. Thus, people who rely on one another in a way that makes betrayal impossible do not trust one another.

The article goes on to say:

Paradigmatically, trust involves being optimistic, rather than pessimistic, that the trustee will do something for us (or for others perhaps), which is in part what makes us vulnerable by trusting.

All this comes down to either the fear of, or the reality of betrayal:

People can trust too much or too little; and either way, their trust can be harmful since it can deprive them of the goods that go along with justified trust. Too much trust in particular leaves people open to betrayal, abuse, terror, and deception. And since there are people who tend to elicit too much trust from others, the question, “Why be distrusting?” is as legitimate as “Why be trusting?”

Here’s an example, from the cyberpunk classic Neuromancer by William Gibson, of a character grappling with just this question:

“Wintermute killed Armitage. Blew him out in a lifeboat with a hatch open.”

“Tough shit,” the Flatline said. “Weren’t exactly asshole buddies, were you?”

“He knew how to unbond the toxin sacs.”

“So Wintermute knows too. Count on it.”

“I don’t exactly trust Wintermute to give it to me.”

The construct’s hideous approximation of laughter scraped Case’s nerves like a dull blade. “Maybe that means you’re gettin’ smart.”

Eventually, we have to be proven trustworthy. Back to my own trust issues and fear of flying, I embarked, starting with Flying Without Fear, on a program of self-education. This is how I cope with stuff, your mileage may differ. I study up. Though I won’t dare say I actually could fly a plane I know a lot more about the commercial air system than the average layman, and at least in this one case, the statistics really don’t support my lack of trust.

Or as that Stanford article said:

. . . we could purposefully try to focus our attention on what makes other people trustworthy, and in doing so cultivate trust in them. Our goal could simply be self-improvement: that is, becoming more trusting, hopefully in a good way, so that we reap the benefits of justified trust. Alternatively, we might strive for the improvement of others: that is, making them more trustworthy.

By now I’m sure you’re thinking back to any number of books and stories you’ve read in which the question of who is trustworthy and how is that proven is a central plot point. While a lack of trustworthiness can define a villain, proven trustworthiness can define a hero, as in this passage from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs:

“John Carter, if ever a real man walked the cold, dead bosom of Barsoom you are one. I know that I can trust you, and because the knowledge may someday help you or him or Dejah Thoris or myself, I am going to tell you the name of my father, nor place any restrictions or conditions upon your tongue. When the time comes, speak the truth if it seems best to you. I trust you because I know that you are not cursed with the terrible trait of absolute and unswerving truthfulness, that you could lie like one of your own Virginia gentlemen if a lie would save others from sorrow or suffering. My father’s name is Tars Tarkas.”

I read this book club edition in high school!

I read this book club edition in high school!

And whether or not that trustworthiness has been pre-established, the betrayal of trust makes for conflict, which makes for story. It goes to the heart of storytelling, in fact.

If everyone is perfectly trustworthy, and everyone trusts each other implicitly, then where is the story? Instead we’re getting a report on that one time everything went perfectly right—and the fact is, we like stories for just the opposite reason. Fiction lets us explore those times when everything (or seemingly everything) goes terribly wrong, and our hero has to work his or her way out of it.

In The People of the Black Circle, Robert E. Howard’s femme fatale seduces the would-be villain into a story-changing act of betrayal, with a classic pulp sensibility:

“I love you!” she cried fiercely, writhing her body against his, almost strangling him in her wild embrace, shaking him in her abandon. “I will make a king of you! For love of you I betrayed my mistress; for love of me betray your masters! Why fear the Black Seers? By your love for me you have broken one of their laws already! Break the rest! You are as strong as they!”

A man of ice could not have withstood the searing heat of her passion and fury. With an inarticulate cry he crushed her to him, bending her backward and showering gasping kisses on her eyes, face and lips.

“I’ll do it!” His voice was thick with laboring emotions. He staggered like a drunken man. “The arts they have taught me shall work for me, not for my masters. We shall be rulers of the world—of the world—”

Sounds like a story is brewing . . .

 

—Philip Athans

Part 8: Joy

 

 

 

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PUNCH, PUSH, EXPLAIN

In my online Pulp Fiction Workshop, I gave the following advice to one of my students:

Think of it this way: You have to punch your readers in the face as hard as you can in the first sentence, push them to the floor in the first paragraph, then you can tell them why you just did that in the next few pages. But it has to be in that order: punch, push, explain.

That just kinda came off the top of my head—articulating it in that way—and when I sat back and read it before sending the feedback, I patted myself on the back a bit and knew this would make a good blog post.

So, here’s that blog post.

This is about how to start a story, and though the online course focuses on the short story, the same is true for the first chapter of a novel. I’ve said before—and I’m hardly the first to say it in one form or another—but you just have to start strong.

I know you might have a favorite book that other people seem to hate. Have you ever said, “Just make it through the first hundred pages then it gets really good!”

I’ve had people say that to me about all sorts of books, none of which I’ve then gone and read.

I don’t have that many books left in me. If it’s work to get to the good part—forget it.

Honestly, as an author, I never, ever want anyone to say that about anything I’ve written, either. Your first sentence and first paragraph is your readers’ first impression of you as an author, and you only get one chance at that.

So then how do you start?

Let’s break it down:

Punch Your Readers in the Face

Also known as “start with a bang,” or as I’ve advised before, start in media res. Not only should you not be afraid of starting in the middle of an action beat but you just really should. I’ll qualify that only in so much as to broaden the definition of “action.” I’m not saying every story has to begin with violence, or physical action/fighting, but try this longer version:

Start with a character in the process of doing something interesting.

“Blind Date With the Devil” by John Bender

“Blind Date With the Devil” by John Bender

Where it might feel like a punch in the face is that we (your readers) are not warned ahead of time that this interesting thing is going to happen. We’re not told in any detail where this thing is happening. We know very little if anything about who this character is and whether or not it’s at all weird that he or she is doing this thing.

Whatever it is, it’s happening right now.

For a good example, we’ll look at the short story “Blind Date With the Devil” by John Bender from Dime Mystery Magazine, Vol. 33, No. 4, September 1946.

Here’s John Bender’s first sentence punch:

She came alert abruptly, not knowing what had awakened her, her eyes wide and searching in the darkness.

Though I’ve cautioned against the word “abruptly,” still Bender starts right in with a woman waking up . . . somewhere. She doesn’t know, and neither do we, and anyway in the first sentence it doesn’t matter yet—she’s awake suddenly and it’s dark and the fact that her eyes are wide means she’s . . . what? Worried? Scared? Confused? All those things? But in that one single sentence we’re already in the middle of an experience.

Push Them to the Floor in the First Paragraph

Here’s the rest of the first paragraph from “Blind Date With the Devil”:

For long moments she lay, staring intently at the lighter patch of darkness which was the ceiling, then she turned slowly to face the clock beside her bed. She could hear its rhythmic ticking, but could not see the time.

The only details we see is what she’s experiencing, and her experience is limited by what seems to be some kind of physical trauma, or the aftereffects of some trauma—I don’t know.

And I don’t need to know—yet. John Bender just dives right in, dragging us along for the ride. Notice we don’t even know “her” name yet. It’s just the immediate details of what she’s experiencing—and that’s all. No explanation, no “setting the scene,” no worldbuilding (well, we know there are clocks!), nothing but what’s happening right now.

Then Tell Them Why

As “Blind Date With the Devil” goes on, we start to get more detail, more background, etc., as the POV character’s experience widens out to include more details of her current environment, and as she regains her wits—but only as she regains her wits, however slowly.

The movement, slight as it was, tumbled her brain into the cloying whirlpool, and she thought with a quick despair, “No. . . !”

She buried her face in the pillow, afraid, sobbing slightly and the sickness in her relented. But the clock began ticking more and more stridently. Her fear grew less. She flung back the covers and pushed her legs out over tile floor.

Her eyes, she found, could now distinguish more clearly the outlines of the room, though she thought vaguely that she could discern a light fog touching everything. All at once the heat of the narrow bedroom clamped down on her, and she struggled into her robe, shaking her long black hair back over the collar.

From far off, as in a dream, she heard the low, long, mournful note of the fog horn on the Point. She stood there, shivering despite the first few flecks of perspiration that beaded her upper lip. And as the note of the fog horn slipped into the heavy silence of the night, she knew what she must do . . .

The clock ticked slowly, monotonously. And yet it screamed her thought:

Destroy yourself . . . destroy yourself . . . destroy yourself!

She laughed silently, lips bared wolfishly over her teeth. If she were very silent, oh so very silent, she could get down the long stairs, she could race across the hill to the little bridge. In grateful anticipation she could see even now the dark and friendly waters of the river beckoning to her . . .

And you can read the rest of the story online.

Remember: Punch, Push, Explain.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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