Getting Started: The Journey of a Thousand Pages Begins with a Single Word—And the Delete Key

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I got a pleading e-mail from someone who is beginning her first novel and who—despite having known me for a long time and having read my work—imagined that I could help her. This is what she wrote:

“I suddenly realize that I don’t understand how to write fiction. If I put in all the details, it could be boring. If I gloss over everything, it’s a plot summary. There’s something in between the two extremes, but if I write the whole story in the in-between way, I think it’ll still be at least be 10x longer than it should be. So what do I leave out? Which parts should I write long, and which short?

“I’m not sure how to pick what order things should go in either. Is straight chronological too boring? Are flashbacks too artificial?

“Also, I don’t have a name for my protagonist.

“I haven’t started writing because I’m still debating with myself about these things. I also haven’t started writing because I don’t know how to start writing.

“The only advice I can find anywhere is ‘don’t do X’; but what should I do?”

Let me be perfectly up-front here: I don’t know the answers to these questions.

I can’t even say, “I only know what answers work for me,” because, honestly, I have no actual system that I use to decide long or short, detailed or spare, chronological or not. I don’t even have a system for picking names for my protagonists (although I wish I did).

But I do have this one little bit of advice:

If you have something written down—however unsatisfactory—you have something you can work on and revise into something you like better. You can revise it forever, in fact; though I don’t recommend this. (Sometimes you just have to move on and resolve to do better on your next book.) But you can’t revise what you haven’t written, so forget everything else and just get some sort of story down on paper. Make it as long as you like.  10x what it “should be” is actually just about right (every manuscript reads better after a thorough pruning, I find); but if the only way you can get the story down on paper is as a plot summary, then write a plot summary, and plan on gradually fleshing it out. Chronologies can always be changed; flashbacks introduced or eliminated; whole episodes and characters put in or taken out ad libitum. Just write. Do it; don’t think about it. Then re-write and re-write and re-write.

That’s almost all the advice I have.

I also have one handy writing tip, but it’s not actually my own. It’s something I got from my husband, the biochemist. He says that when a cell is about to synthesize a protein, it first secretes a “leader peptide,” whose function is to tell the cell where to direct the protein it’s about to make. A leader peptide is absolutely essential, but once its job is done, it’s immediately destroyed. By analogy, he destroys the “leader peptide” of every scientific paper he writes.

Having tried this in my own work, I can confirm that this tip works for fiction, too. Once you’ve begun writing in earnest, go back and delete the first paragraph you wrote—if not the first page or even the whole first chapter. This is the secret to a punchy beginning.

But mainly—just write. Just sit down and write. Do it now; today.

Tomorrow you can figure out what to name the protagonist.

Some Useful Information If You Plan to Set Your Novel in the Nineteen-Fifties

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When I was thirteen years old, I read Pride and Prejudice, which taught me a lot about writing in general, and especially about the value of small, period details in historical fiction. Not that Jane Austen wrote P&P as historical fiction, of course. As far as she was concerned, it was just regular fiction; and I personally like the way that means that she didn’t feel any need to describe every detail of what everybody wore. Some people love costume-descriptions, and there’s a lot of historical fiction that’s almost more historical than fiction that caters to those very people. Myself, I treasure the tiny, just-right particular, such as—in the case of Pride and Prejudice—the line “…the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy…”

Apparently I’m not the only person whose attention was caught by this sentence. A quick Google-search (not possible when I was thirteen) reveals that not only is it widely known and quoted, but that there are websites whose specific purpose is to teach Jane Austen fans how to make shoe-roses. To get that information in my day, I had to spend a lot of time in used bookstores, poring through old books of housekeeping advice. I ended up buying a lot of these books, despite the fact that most were mildewed and I am allergic to mildew. (You can kill mildew in a microwave oven—try not to set the book on fire—but home microwaves are another thing that did not exist back in the Pleistocene, when I was thirteen.) I treasure the book in which I finally found an explicit definition of “shoe-roses” (it includes the advice that “if the shoes be very worn, make the roses large, to cover them”); but I have to admit that the jewel of my housekeeping-book collection is the one containing directions for doing something Jane Austen probably never even considered: gilding a live fish. Yes, gilding; and yes, live. The idea was that if you were giving a party, and if you had a fish-pond or bowl (and, presumably, if the fish in the bowl wasn’t already a goldfish), you could dazzle your guests by gussying the little fellow up with a few sheets of gold-leaf. Best line in the whole book: “The fish does not mind this.” I have never found a literary use for this nugget of information, but I’m working on it.

Anyway, what this is all leading up to is that for some reason that I cannot begin to imagine, the 1950s are hot. This means that people who weren’t actually there are suddenly writing books about the fifties, throwing in—willy-nilly in some cases—factoids of the Fifties Experience that, while true, are sometimes a little too obviously culled from history texts and fashion magazines.

Consider this: Does your house/wardrobe/menu resemble those in today’s fashion magazines? I thought not. So in case you’re thinking of writing something about the fifties, here are some particulars you can put in it, guaranteed genuine, to supply what we will call “corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”*

First and foremost, not everything in the fifties was from the fifties! The people who make movies are the worst for forgetting this. People mostly still drove forties cars; and due to the shortage of new cars during WWII, some of them drove thirties cars. A big shiny thing with lots of chrome and fins was rare enough to turn heads in a middle-class neighborhood. People’s houses were filled with forties stuff, too. If you think the ubiquitous aqua/burnt orange/grayish pink fifties color schemes looked good with an off-white naugahyde sofa—you’re right. The combination was pretty cool, actually. But imagine it instead with an overstuffed davenport—in a color somewhere between brown and purple—left over from 1946. For most people, that was the reality of 50s decorating.

What became the “walk-in closet” was often referred to as a “Hollywood closet” in the fifties, because unless you lived in Hollywood, the closet in your bedroom was small. Which was fine. You didn’t have many clothes to put in it anyway. Also, all shoes were uncomfortable until the day before they were totally worn out. My family was poor and I wore cheap shoes, but I have to assume from the speed with which rich people adopted lovely, soft, comfortable running shoes when they were finally invented that expensive shoes were stiff and caused blisters, too. Good line for a fifties party scene: “Jeepers, my feet are killing me!”

Big Brother, aka your neighbors, was watching. Big Brother gossiped, too.

Racism and sexism were pervasive. Throw in a joke about what bad drivers women are and if no one in your book challenges it—even though insurance companies knew women were better drivers than men, and charged them less for insurance—and you will have created a genuine fifties moment. Racist “humor” will also set an authentic tone, but by today’s standards, even the mildest will rightly be considered highly offensive. Risk it only in works of a particularly “gritty” nature.

In the fifties, if your mom was a terrible cook, you were screwed. Fast food was a very new concept, and resorted to only occasionally. Restaurants were expensive, and not child-friendly. If your mom was the kind to boil pork-chops and believed canned peas—also boiled—were good enough for anybody, you had no alternative but to eat boiled pork-chops and canned peas. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) Also in the fifties, lots of foods that didn’t belong there were made “interesting” by being suspended in lime jello. These foods included Vienna Sausages. Really.

Men had jobs. Women had children. And hobbies. Your average lower-middle-class house was filled with ugly ceramics, hideous needlepoint, or crocheted everything. On the other hand, toilet-paper rolls “disguised” by a crocheted lady in a flared skirt were better than a mom with that other fifties hobby, which was heavy drinking.

I lived through the fifties. I lived through the sixties. At no time in either decade did I ever hear one single adult admit to liking rock and roll music. Ever.

There you have it. Make what use of you will of these gems. Or, on the other hand, don’t. Write about the sixties, instead. Trust me: The sixties were better.


*W.S. Gilbert; The Mikado. I am a HUGE fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.

How to Become a National Merit Scholar in One Easy Lesson

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Unless you count words like “groovy”, which has been of limited use to me since the mid-1960s, I personally do not have an enormous vocabulary. But I know someone who does, and I know where she got it, so I’m passing the information along to anyone else who might be interested. (And yes, she was a National Merit Scholar.) When you sit down to write, you can never have too many words to work with. The right one, in the right place, makes all the difference.

And by the “right” one, I do mean right, and not merely close, or right-sounding— as in “complacent” for “complaisant”, for instance, which I encountered just yesterday in a letter from somebody who really knows better. Trust me: The thesaurus provided by Word can be a useful jog to the memory, but its assertion that this or that word totally unfamiliar to you is an exact synonym for the one you do know should not be relied upon.

My secret method for acquiring a powerful and versatile vocabulary not only works better than lists to memorize, anything offered by Microsoft, or even a Word-a-Day calendar; it’s lots more fun, too. My secret is reading nineteenth century literature. Tons of it.

Sure, you can pick up new vocabulary from the literature of any century, including our own. But there’s never been a time in the history of the English language when writers were more determined to stuff even the most trivial matter full of words like “lucubration”, and “pulchritudinous” than they were in the nineteenth century. Even in adventure books—intended for the masses and young people who had not yet been to University—“gloamings” were “crepuscular”, and storms “illumed” by “coruscating” flashes of lightning.

And that’s the great thing about my method. With it, instead of battering your brain with some dull scholarly tome in an attempt to force in new words, you get to read Mark Twain; Bret Harte; Lewis Carroll; or something—anything—by Jane Austin. –And don’t neglect H. Rider Haggard, whose She, I believe, at one point enjoys an empyrean feast.

What could be easier or more fun? Read cool stuff: learn new words. Win/win.

Also, you will learn a lot of grammar from long nineteenth-century sentences that you will never pick up from, say, Ernest Hemingway, who thought he was going overboard if he put two dependent clauses in the same paragraph.

Still, if you happen to get that Word-a-Day calendar for Christmas, you should totally go for that, too.

Yesterday’s Future

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After attempting a few books (well, first chapters of books, actually) about non-human races and societies, I’ve decided that genre’s not for me. I love writing for the chance it gives me to throw off the constraints of reality and flat-out make stuff up; but, as turns out, there are limits to just how unconstrained I want to be. After just a few pages of having to make everything up—the psychologies of the individual beings; the sociological parameters of their culture; the biology of my non-human creatures, and whether they had mommies and hearts and fingers and if they did, how many of each; and, most of all, whether any of it actually needed to be in the book—I was exhausted.

So I decided to go back to writing about humans again—not my very favorite species, but one with which I am at least somewhat familiar—and mess around with my projected book’s temporal setting instead. I decided I’d send my characters to live in one of those predicted futures that somehow never came, and see what they would do.

There are hundreds of these “futures” to choose from, of course. The one of my young years was mostly a post-nuclear moonscape in which the mutated remnants of humanity fought each other for scraps, but that would be depressing to write about. I decided instead to appropriate the “world of tomorrow” that giant corporations like GE and Ford were selling to the American public in the two decades after World War II. It’s consistent and well-documented; and it’s also the vision of the future that probably most influenced the generation just before mine; a generation whose values and beliefs—as I was recently sharply reminded—I have never understood.

—Also I picked Giant American Corporation Future because I thought it would be easy to research. All I’d have to do was watch a few of the many, many short films Corporate America produced to promote merchandise they did not yet manufacture* (!) and I’d be ready to go. I remember watching these films on rainy days at school in the 1960s, when my teachers, at least, thought the “tomorrow” they depicted, though delayed, might still on the way.

I think my personal favorite was the one in which, after making herself comfy in bed, a modestly night-gowned young lady pushed a button (everything was done by pushing a button) and the head of her bed slid through a suddenly-appearing portal in the wall, half-way out into the— The what? The back-yard? The alley the garbage-truck was going to trundle down early next morning? A void in the air twenty floors above Manhattan? The idea was that you could sleep breathing God’s fresh air; but did the engineers who conceived this marvel never hear of smog; stray cats; sleepwalkers? Despite unanswered questions like this one, I enjoyed the first half-dozen flickers (all except Wink Martindale as an astrophysicist, which I found highly unconvincing); and then I began to feel very sad. It wasn’t appliances these little movies were selling, it was a bill of goods.

The Future of these films was very, very clean; and all the wives (no women but wives appeared) were submissive and content. When not pushing buttons, they entertained the bridge club. Children were scrubbed and happy; all men were gainfully employed and played golf. Culture was entirely homogeneous—core values; music; fashion; everything. By the 1960s, a few African Americans had begun to appear in them, but any implied threat was neutralized by carefully pairing every black male with a black female. There were no Asians. Presumably they all lived in Asia. Hispanics lived in—Mexico City. Where there were nice golf-courses. Everything was peaceful (no nuclear moonscapes here, folks!); uniform; and, from my point of view, very boring.

And all this cultural homogeneity was made possible through the miracle of technology! According to the films, technology was going to solve everything. Every need was met, every disease cured by the push of a button. An automatic dishwasher would cure Mother’s restless striving to have something meaningful in her life; and technological Plenty meant that there would be enough of everything even for “Those People” (you know the ones); who would, under the influence of this Plenty, become happy, non-threatening replicas of “Us”. All of Middle America’s worst fears, in fact, would (according to the films produced by Corporate America) be met and conquered by technology. All without a shot being fired; and all, the films implied, by the year 1999.

My own generation was too despairing about the future (moonscape!), which was bad—but at least it means that we have been happily surprised all through our lives to find ourselves not only still not bombed to radioactive atoms, but living to grow old. In contrast, those members of the generation before mine who believed in Corporate America’s vision of the future have suffered disappointment after disappointment as knotty social problems were not, in fact, solved with better household appliances.

And if they passed their exaggerated hopes and outsized disappointments along to their children—and one assumes many did—it might explain a few things about recent history.


*(Whirlpool is still trying to predict the “Kitchen of the Future“, by the way.)

Welcome to My World That I Just Made Up

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I made up a new maxim. It is, “Those who don’t learn from the mistakes they make in picking what kind of book to write are condemned to keep writing the same kind of book.” It’s not very catchy, it’s grammatically a little obscure, and it probably won’t catch on generally; but I hope that pinning it up over my desk and looking at it every day will stop me from making another literary foray into applied sociology.

Like most writers, I think, one of the reasons I started writing stories in the first place is because I’m interested in human psychology. I try to figure out the answers to my questions about how people’s minds work by making up characters and moving them through the various life situations that constitute my plot. But outside of people, my greatest love is history, and I keep seeking insights into history by creating whole societies, and moving them through the various historical situations that constitute my plot. For me at least, this is really tough.

In my experience, it’s relatively easy to write an original—and yet believable—character, because individual personalities vary so much. Any being with opposable thumbs is plausibly human. Ever known a Heathcliff or a Cathy? Me neither—but I’m perfectly able to believe they might exist. And to write an original society is pretty easy, too—but not to make it convincingly stable, or lasting.

This is because societies are like dogs. Breeders can work hard and create animals as different as Great Danes and Chihuahuas; but let them relax their vigilance and in a few generations they find themselves with a bunch of very similar medium-sized, flop-eared, saber-tailed mutts. (–Nothing against mutts, by the way. Mutts are my favorite breed.)

Similarly, put a bunch of humans together, and however they initially conceive their society, eventually they evolve one that has similar rules; norms; authority groups; social, familial and religious structures and institutions; and exhibit the same degrees of cooperation and conflict as every other human society.

I won’t say that I’m a contrarian, but the fact that this homogenization is so general annoys me. So I keep writing fantasies in which the characters are human, but the societies they have evolved are different. Then I spend the whole book trying to figure out why, and how to keep them that way.

It’s hard work. I’m crazy to do it. One of the societies in Ant-lands was a bit on the utopian side, and what with all the extra research I had to do on how utopias are created (and why they never last long), the damn book took me at least an extra year to write. And now I’m writing about the first encounters between different societies, and researching how long, in general, it takes people to realize how superficial their differences, and how deep and innate their similarities are. Do you realize how many books have been written on this topic? And I have to read a bunch of them.

Hence the un-catchy little aphorism pinned up over my desk. If I read it daily and take it to heart, my next protagonist will be a loner, an outcast from all societies. –And not the kind of loner who goes around making friends with the little woodland creatures, either. It wouldn’t be an improvement for me to have to research woodland creatures.

NaNoWriMo: Fifty Thousand Words Containing an Infinity of Possibilities

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I have my own National Novel Writing Month project going this year—one just a little outside the official parameters of NaNoWriMo. I know. Shame on me. But I hope I can be forgiven for playing fast and loose with a few rules on the basis of the fact that I write novels every month of the year, not just in November.

Forgivable or not, instead of attempting a whole book this time, I’m allowing myself the treat of writing as many first chapters of books as add up to the requisite 50,000 words. I love writing (and reading) first chapters, and I’ve always resented the fact that under ordinary circumstances, I’m limited to just one at a time.

I love the way that, when I begin the first chapter of a new book, all the possibilities are still open. Oh, sure; I have an outline, and I know generally how the story is going to go. But nothing is certain until I actually write it down. Before I start typing, the protagonist can still be either fair or dark; rich or poor; wearing a crinoline or jeans or a space-suit. After that, over the sound of the keyboard clicking, I can hear doors slamming shut. By the end of chapter one, the protagonist is immutably tall, white, jeans-clad, and has three kids and a job from hell. What makes it even worse is that a lot of the former “choices” that I have now petrified into “facts” aren’t even things I care about. The job from hell is a plot-point, and I need it to be that way; but the jeans were an option. —Only now she’s wearing them and I can’t suddenly say they’re a cocktail-dress.

(Or at least, I can’t without some rewriting. Some things are worth rewriting, and when they are, I think I may brag that I do not shirk. I was well into my latest book when I realized that an immutable plot-point just had to mutate. Out of 148 pages of work, I was able to save exactly 36. But this—though necessary—was very painful; and I can’t imagine doing it for jeans.)

So to get back to NaNoWriMo, it’s a great thing in which everyone should definitely participate, and do so with a due regard for the rules. Except me. This year I’m breaking them. I’ve been hard at work for a long time, writing within increasingly restricted parameters, and now I’m going to let go and have some fun. The first chapters I write seem to vary an amazing amount from one to the next in length, but as nearly as I can calculate, 50,000 words works out to about six of them. Six whole new worlds, full of almost infinite possibilities, to play in for a month…

Or, since I’ve already finished the first one—five new worlds. Paradise!

And next year, I promise to play fair again.

NaNoWriMo

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It’s November again, National Novel Writing Month; the time when those who subscribe to the Holy Truth that anyone can write a novel must dust off the old keyboard, lay in a supply of snacks, and call me up in a state of either panic or despair (other states also acceptable) to ask me for a plot. Go ahead: Do it. You won’t be the first to call; you won’t be the last to call; and honestly, I don’t mind.

Not that I really understand why anybody would need help my help to come up with a plot. Plots are the easiest thing in the world. For starters, there are books full of them (the classic is Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations); and if the ones in the books are too bare-bones to stimulate your imagination—and some people have complained to me that they are—there’s always your own life and the lives of those around you to draw on for inspiration.

In fact, there’s everything around you to draw on for inspiration. I may have mentioned that as a child in school, I failed to learn much arithmetic. One reason for this was the distracting quality of so-called story problems. Set up a situation like, “Janie’s mother gave her seven apples. She gave Janie’s brother Ted nine apples,” and my mind was off and running. “Mother always gives me fewer apples than she gives Ted,” thought Janie resentfully. “It’s because he’s a boy. Mother says it’s a Man’s World, and I must just get used to it. Well, I’m not going to get used to it, Mother. Someday I’m going to take this Man’s World of yours and make it my oyster!” (I was big into food imagery as a child.) By the time that, in my mind, Janie had grown up, extracted herself from the stifling influences of both Mother and an unsuitable marriage, and become the rich and powerful founder and CEO of a company that produced women’s shoes that were somehow both stylish and comfortable, arithmetic period was over, and I wasn’t any closer to figuring out how many apples were left in the barrel for cousin Ann than I’d been in the first place.

So—trust me. If the reason you hesitate to participate in National Novel Writing Month is because you can’t think of a plot, you need hesitate no longer. That bad date? Novelize it. Setup: The protagonist’s life as it is before the date—happy, sad, boring, lonely; your choice. For convenience, make it your own life; or your own as you wish it were. Easy-peasy stuff. Just description. Rising action: He/She asks protagonist out! Yay! Or, not yay: you only said yes because your mother made you. (Extend this part, if necessary, by detailing some of the preparation for said date. For NaNoWriMo, you’re supposed to write at least 50,000 words.) Conflict: It’s the date from hell!/it’s paradise! Put in some stuff about that. S/he’s everything you ever wanted! S/he’s a crushing disappointment! S/he’s a psycho who locks you in a room and tortures you mercilessly. –Okay, that wouldn’t be my thing; but maybe it’s yours. I won’t judge you. Resolution: Happy—you’re right for each other. Sad—other. Grotesque—your tale emanates from the afterlife, where his/her tortures sent you. (Don’t ask me to read Grotesque.)

See? Nothing to it. Now just pick a setting—city; suburbia; seventh moon of Jupiter—and you’re ready to write.

Almost ready to write. You’ll also need some characters. Don’t ask me for any characters. Plot–yes. Setting–not my specialty, but okay. But not characters. Mine are all personal friends, and I won’t share.

The New New Math

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A lot of people enjoy surprises. I don’t. Consequently, one of the things I like best about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer surprises left for me in life. The present election aside, almost everything I see these days looks an awful lot like something I’ve seen before, and as a person who reads the ends of books first so that I know what’s coming, “more of the same” always suits me just fine.

Right now there’s much breathless discussion in the local newspaper about the degree to which the STEM curriculum—which the paper characterizes as “new”—should be implemented in our local schools. From my point of view, STEM isn’t new at all. In fact, I myself am the product of an earlier, equally impassioned attempt to “make American students competitive world-wide in math and science” which resulted when our great rivals of the time, the Soviet Union, put a beeping stainless-steel beachball called Sputnik into low earth orbit. On the whole, I think the STEM curriculum is all well and good (and STEAM, which incorporates art into the program, sounds even better), but knowing how the whole Sputnik thing eventually played out has made me just a little bit cynical about the transformative power on students of one curricula over another.

As far as I’m concerned, anything that persuades the American taxpayer to invest money in education is great, be it a useless beeping space-ball or the creeping realization that high-paying but low-tech jobs are becoming scarce. But one thing I don’t like seeing included along with the extra dollars for STEM is the same mood of national paranoia that was issued to me and my classmates along with our books. This time the “threat” seems to be a generalized fear that people in other countries are taking over what we regard as “our” jobs; in my day it was the Commies. Long before I could reliably have pointed out Russia on a map, I already “knew” that the schoolchildren there studied harder, were far more disciplined, and just generally knew more about everything than I did. This wasn’t, in fact, the case (as we now know); but my friends and I were convinced that it was our patriotic duty to catch up with the Russian children because in some mysterious way this might prevent The Bomb from one day being dropped in the middle of our playground. (I don’t think anybody told us this in so many words, but we believed it with all our young hearts.) Overall, a vague sense that we might be learning math for our very lives wasn’t very good for us.  I wouldn’t like to see that mistake repeated.

I’d also like to know for certain that the STEM curriculum is a little better thought-out and more widely tested than the so-called “Enrichment Education” of post-Sputnik days. “Enrichment Education” was responsible for (among other things) the two years I spent (NOT) learning “New Math,” a scheme for teaching arithmetic that emphasized concepts over actual problem-solving. There were students in my class who loved New Math, and did well in it; but they were the kind of kids who, provided with nothing more than a small box of rocks, a piece of string, and the formula a2 + b2 = c2 would probably have independently re-invented calculus. The rest of us started middle school unprepared to do long division, far less algebra.  Luckily for me, calculators were invented soon after; but honestly, rather than a calculator I’d have rather had a firm grasp of the algorithms necessary to solve simple math problems for myself.

I also think the educators of today should keep in mind that, at least as far as I could tell, by the time I went to college, beat-the-commies Enrichment Education had produced just about the usual ratio of mathematicians and engineers to liberal arts majors. I suspect it will be the just the same with STEM. Don’t get me wrong:  I actually think that–with a few caveats–STEM classes are probably a wonderful idea; and as I said, I’m in favor of anything at all that puts dollars into schools. I even think that most of those extra dollars should be spent teaching on science and technology, since STEM subjects, which require laboratory work, are more expensive than the liberal arts to teach. But money is one thing, and classroom hours are another. STEM or no, I don’t want to see the liberal arts neglected.

I feel very strongly about this not because I personally love the liberal arts (though I do), but because I work in the Biochemistry Department of a major university, and I talk to scientists and science students all day long. And all of them tell me—laughing, but a little rueful, too—that everything that they presently know or are learning about science and technology will be out of date in ten years. On the other hand, new discoveries and ideas will never render the knowledge and values imparted to them in their liberal arts classes irrelevant or obsolete. Their whole lives long, any historical fact they pick up, or book they read, will add to–not negate or replace–what they already know.

They could even read a book about New Math.  Hey, better them, than me!

And by the way, on election day, be sure to vote.  If there’s a bond issue for the schools on your ballot, at least consider voting “yes” on it.  Democracies work best when the electorate is educated and informed.

 

I’m Casting My Vote for Better Characters

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I know I’m not the first to observe that the current campaign for president is the most polarizing and divisive in memory; but I may be the first to find a good use for the fact that it is. I’ve decided that it will make me a better writer if I keep reminding myself that supporters of the candidate I don’t plan to vote for (and never mind which one that is) live in the same country I do, eat the same food, watch the same television, speak the same language, and are presumably cognizant of the same facts as I am, and yet hold completely different opinions and support completely different policies from me. Completely different. In fact, this election cycle has made me realize the degree to which I previously underestimated how much people can have in common and still end up in some ways totally unalike.

Sometimes when I write, I forget this. I put in characters who are “different” from the ones with which I personally identify, but I make them villains, or damaged in some way—even crazy. Or I don’t put characters like that in at all. I write exclusively about people who are like me. This election cycle, stressful though it has been, has at least been useful for reminding me that I personally do not define what is rightly human, and should include other kinds of people among my characters.

Otherwise, I’ll just end up writing another Looking Backward.

…And speaking of Looking Backward—which I’d rather do, because it’s a much more fun topic than the election—did anyone else have the same reaction to it as I did, that it was meant as a post-apocalyptic thriller?

No one warned me ahead of time that the book’s utopian future (the year 2000;  Looking Backward was written in 1888) was intended to be taken seriously. I kept waiting for the protagonist, the time-traveling Julian West, to realize that the citizens of the future he’d stumbled into were just waaaaaaay too content with their creepily bland and uniform culture. I waited for him to react with mounting horror to the growing realization that it was unnatural for everyone in this brave new world to be perfectly satisfied with a life spent doing nothing more exciting than listening to music (albeit right in their own houses, on their “telephonic devices”—Bellamy was a much better futurist than novelist); and never minding that the music they listened to was always someone else’s choice; or bragging to a stranger that they could eat all their meals “in any public kitchen they chose,” without ever wishing that they could select their own menu. Were all the citizens really so peacefully inclined that no one ever even wanted to watch a prize-fight, WrestleMania, or a hockey game?

And what was with the eerie degree of satisfaction the women—who were supposed to enjoy equal opportunities with men, by the way—derived from being able to buy any kind of fabric they wanted at one store? I’ve shopped for fabric. Even with a great selection, it’s not that fun. And furthermore, why were they shopping for fabric at all when Bellamy eventually reveals that in actual fact, clothing in this paradise is made of sturdy paper, to be discarded when soiled?

—Okay, the part about the paper clothes was actually in Equality, the sequel to Looking Backward—but that’s all right, because my point is that all the characters in both books were all identical to each other in outlook and attitudes*, and I mustn’t do that when I write. The guy on my street, the one with the sign for that other candidate for president, is a pretty nice fellow, really; and in a non-election year, I actually like him. I must try to remember to put people like him—not insane, and not evil—in my next book.

In the meantime, here’s an article on the subject of election-season stress that concludes with the useful recommendation to cope with anxiety by cuddling a puppy. Go visit your local Humane Society. They have puppies who will gladly exchange cuddles for calm with you.


*That is, they’re identical to each other except for a misguided few—briefly alluded to—who persist in committing unspecified “crimes.” Crime in the never-never land of Looking Backward is a “medical disorder,” and treated as such. Don’t eat the food in the public kitchens, Julian West! The public kitchens are obvious delivery-points for whatever substance the citizens are being secretly dosed with to engender all that exaggerated “calm.”

Creative, or Just Crazy?

creative-crazy

Before I started writing semi-seriously myself, I wondered why so many writers seemed to have come from “difficult” backgrounds. And by “difficult,” I mean specifically family situations with some seriously mentally ill people in them. It seemed like a lot of writers had also been poor; but in fact being poor and having mentally ill relatives—especially close ones—are not unrelated. It’s expensive to have mental illness. Seriously mentally ill people can’t keep good jobs, they make bad financial decisions, and even a brief stay for someone in a locked ward will cost the family a bundle.

Eventually I figured out (I think) why mental illness and writers are so often linked—and it’s not in the way that some of my literature professors said it was. They thought that having some crazy (their word) relatives meant that the authors themselves were probably also crazy; and that for the authors to be a little crazy helped them to write.

This is confusing “crazy” with “imaginative,” I think. Writing’s actually pretty hard work; and unless you think being self-motivated and disciplined is a sickness—okay; you might be right at that—crazy is the last thing a writer should be.

But if you know any mentally ill people, you know that they are often unpredictable. Furthermore, a lot of mentally ill people act more or less unpredictably depending upon how the people around them respond to them. Ergo—and you can believe me on this, because I know what I’m talking about—people who live with or close to mentally ill people often become hyper-vigilant to the thought-processes—however subtly expressed—of other people. They learn know that if they misread the mental state of a person with mental illness, their mistake may engender worse and more unpredictable behavior.  And since it’s hard, sometimes, to tell just who and who isn’t mentally ill, it’s best to be alert to everyone else’s mental state.

Okay, very sad. On the other hand, could there be better training in the world for people who want to create believable characters with credible motivations than to grow up hyper-vigilant to the way other people think and act?

Nope.

So the lesson here is that if you want to write and you have no known crazy family members—and after checking first to be sure that you’re not the one who’s mentally ill—you must, for the sake of your writing, drive at least one close relative around the bend immediately. Don’t hesitate: After all, it’s for art.