All the Forks in the Roads

Raffles_croppedI’m not particularly superstitious, but when my daughter asked me one day whether I had ever read any of E.W. Hornung’s stories about the gentleman thief Raffles on the very day after I had picked up a copy of Raffles:  The Amateur Cracksman in a used bookstore and read it cover-to-cover, it seemed significant.  Not so significant that I should have agreed shortly afterward to her suggestion that we give up a year or so of our lives to annotating the entire Raffles canon—but you know how it is.  I had never in all my (too) many years before read any Raffles stories at all; and then, answering to a sudden impulse, I had done so just in time to maintain my undeserved reputation as “mom-who-has-read-everything.”  I felt like I owed something to Fate.

Raffles and his somewhat thick sidekick Bunny (in case you’ve never read about him, or seen one of the myriad movies or British TV series featuring the character), are dark twins to their exact contemporaries, the Victorian/Edwardian gentleman detective Sherlock Holmes, and stodgy Dr. John Watson.

The creation of Raffles was, I think, both E.W. Hornung’s tribute to, and retaliation against, his overbearing brother-in-law Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for what must have been (judging by Conan Doyle’s surviving correspondence) a lot of pretty nasty jibes around the family dinner-table concerning Hornung’s habits, talents, and background.  Both men were novelists, and several of Hornung’s early novels were either set in, or featured, Australia—a country in which Hornung had lived for several years and of which he had fond memories.  Conan Doyle made no bones about the fact that he considered the place barely civilized.  Hornung’s father was a Hungarian immigrant; Conan Doyle (who was, um, Irish) prided himself on his thoroughgoing Englishness.  Perhaps worst of all, Hornung loved the game of cricket more than he loved breathing; but, short-sighted and asthmatic, he was terrible at it, while Conan Doyle was a very good player.  It must have stung.

By coincidence, after I had finished my part in annotating the Raffles stories, I read a brief biography of one of my favorite writers, John Fowles, who is best known, perhaps, for The French Lieutenant’s Woman* (though I personally preferred A Maggot).  While reading, I was struck by some uncanny parallels between Fowles’s life, and the life of the fictional jewel-thief, Arthur Raffles.  Both had little family, and lots of education.  Both were Head-Boy and stand-out athletes at their prep schools, and captains of their school cricket teams, for which both were bowlers.  Both made the decision, in their early adulthood, to eschew being what Fowles termed “a British Establishment young hopeful,” and follow an unconventional path in life.  Offered two jobs—one a good one at Winchester, the other a poor one at “a ratty school in Greece,” Fowles of course took the one in Greece, and turned soon after to writing novels, a disreputable profession if there ever was one.  At a similar turning-point in his life, Raffles decided to play amateur cricket and rob his social peers.

My familiarity with Raffles coupled with my admiration for John Fowles makes me the ideal candidate to write Fowles’s biography, I think.  One of The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s most interesting stylistic points is that it offers readers a choice of possible endings to the story.  In writing Fowles’s biography, I’m going to do the same.  Does John Fowles become a novelist, or does he become a jewel-thief?  Knowing, as I do, how Arthur Raffles’s life played out, I can make either choice seem perfectly plausible—except for one detail.  John Fowles the novelist became rich, while Raffles the thief died penniless.  I think we all know that it usually works out the other way.

*The only novel I have ever enjoyed for its extensive footnotes.

Happily Ever After?


I admit to a strong preference for happy endings in books.  A really strong preference, in fact; as in, I read the ends of books first to find out whether I’m going to get one.  I don’t necessarily reject all books with sad endings, but I like to have the option of rejecting them.  This is probably because when I was still young and impressionable, having seen and loved the movie version of The African Queen, I read the C.S. Forester book on which it was based.

This was a mistake.

(There’s a spoiler coming next, but if you haven’t already read The African Queen and think you might ever want to, don’t skip the spoiler.  Read on.  This is something you’ll want to know.)

I’m not shy about mentally re-writing books that I feel have let me down a little

In the book, Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnutt don’t almost get hanged, the German captain doesn’t marry them, and they don’t manage to blow up the Königin Luise; a British gunboat does.  Instead, the two lovers ride off into separate sunsets (Charlie is going to join the British Army!) with no more than a vague and unromantically-phrased “agreement” between them; and (in the author’s words) “whether they lived happily ever after or not, is not easily ascertained.”

What the hell kind of an ending is that?

And the answer to that question is—a better one than the ending to that great American classic, Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn is, by nearly everybody’s reckoning, one of the greatest novels ever written, right up to the point where Aunt Sally says, “Why, it’s Tom Sawyer!”  Then it turns into one of the world’s greatest disappointments.

Now, I’m not shy about mentally re-writing books that I feel have let me down a little.  Just recently, The Martian got a mental re-write in which the Mars base was relocated underground.  Until I’d satisfied myself that poor Watney wasn’t going to be rescued only to die of cancer five years later, I couldn’t relax and enjoy the rest of the story.

But until just a few weeks ago, I never considered another ending to Huckleberry Finn.

This is probably because in the first English class in which I studied it (middle school, as I recall), the teacher announced, in a manner that brooked no argument, that Huckleberry Finn lapsed into silliness at the end because Mark Twain couldn’t bear to write the tragic ending that the story must inevitably otherwise have had.  There was no third choice, apparently.  It was slapstick or heartbreak.

Friends, this is a lie.  It took fifty years and more than a touch of senility to free up my brain enough to see it, but there are actually at least seven million possible alternate endings to Huckleberry Finn.  One jumps straight out at me.  Huck has his share of the treasure from Injun Joe’s cave:  Why doesn’t he buy Jim (and then, presumably, free him)?  If Miss Watson is willing to sell, why not to Huck?  Possibly Twain could even have had the Widow Douglas facilitate the sale in return for Huck’s promise to return and bear meekly with being “civilized.”  That kind of arrangement would have provided all sorts of opportunities for him to include a lot of pathos and soul-searching on Huck’s part, as he voluntarily relinquishes—not his fortune, which clearly isn’t important to him—but his freedom.

Which still leaves 6,999,999 other possible endings.  I’d love to hear some of them, if anyone will share.

The Once & Future Character


I’ve read a lot of stories with fantastical elements—magic, time-travel, telepathy, kindly mothers-in-law—and I’ve been dissatisfied with so many of them that I’m about to give up on the genre entirely.  It’s not the fact that they can’t be taken seriously that annoys me, although most of them can’t.  Carefully examined, time-travel (just as an example) doesn’t make sense unless there’s no such thing as causality in the universe, but that’s all right.  I’m willing to believe in time-travel for the sake of a good read.  What annoys me is that, the fantasy elements aside, so many of the stories don’t meet my usual criteria for a “good read.”

Making an incompletely-drawn character a warlock or time-traveler doesn’t complete him.  If a witch is depicted as altering present realities by means of spells and hexes, I still think the author has an obligation to provide (or ideally, to inspire the reader with) insights as to how being able to alter reality has impacted—possibly defined—the witch’s character.  Does she revel in her powers, or does she take them for granted?  And if she’s all “Bwoohahaha-die-my-pretty,” then—why?  A flat character is a flat character.  Even one who has a magic wand, a time-machine, or the ability to read minds needs a good backstory and convincing motivation.

I don’t always want to be reading so-called “literary” fiction.  For one thing, there’s less and less of it being published; and for another, there’s usually not a lot of action in a work of literary fiction.  Mostly, somebody realizes that something isn’t quite as simple and straightforward as they imagined it would be, and though they’ve already spent more than half the pages of the book thinking, they end it by resolving to think some more—only in a new, more mature way.  But please, will somebody recommend something with some real action—a battle or two; maybe a dragon or some werewolves; but not vampires.  I’m sick of vampires—in which the characters have, but are not obsessed with, an actual interior life?  Because so far all I’ve got is T. S. White’s The Once and Future King, and my copy is just about worn out.

Life-Blights, Elves, and Al Capone

al-caponeMy mother had a cousin I’ll call Ann, and Ann was very odd.  Many of my mother’s relatives were odd, in fact, and some of them were flat-out crazy; but since Ann’s principal peculiarity was that she was habitually silent and withdrawn, she was actually one of the easier family members to have around and as a child I saw quite a lot of her.  In a time when successful day-to-day living required a certain amount of interaction with other human beings, Ann couldn’t live alone (today she’d probably do everything online and be just fine), but she knew how to sew and made a modest living doing alterations in a tailor shop, so she moved from house to house among her relatives, staying with each for as long as they could bear her brooding presence hovering at the edges of the family circle.  Ann never, that I saw, actually looked directly at anyone; but if you happened to look at her, you could see that she hated you.

My mother said all the hate was because Ann had suffered a Life-Blighting Disappointment in her formative years.  According to Mom, a spirit-crushing blow often caused a sensitive soul (Ann was a sensitive soul) to go straight around the bend.

I was afraid for years to find out what Ann’s disappointment had actually been.  I thought that just hearing about it might crush my soul, too.  But eventually I asked, and my mother gravely explained that as a very young girl, Ann had entered a magazine-sponsored story-writing contest—which she won.  The judges were impressed with her work, and said nice things; and Ann and her mother took the train to Chicago to have her picture taken with them.

Unfortunately, when the judges saw how young Ann was, they refused to believe that she could really have written the story herself.  They gave the prize to the runner-up story instead, and published it in their magazine.

A sad, sad tale—with a sequel.

The sequel is that years later, my mother showed me Ann’s story, found among her things when she died.  I was impressed by Ann’s wonderful penmanship, which was like lace; but by the story—not so much.  It concerned a wedding among the adorable little elfs in Elf-land (this was before Tolkien gave us the plural elves), and was sugary enough to cause tooth decay.

It was also not original, as I discovered ten years or so later when I was leafing through some turn-of-the-20th-century magazines.  I came across a children’s story—charmingly illustrated—about a wedding among the adorable little fairies in Fairy-land.

Yep.  Same story.

In what may have been the first game of Mad-Libs ever played, Ann had gone through “The Fairy’s Wedding” and changed fairies to elves, moonbeams to sunbeams, nouns to other nouns, and verbs to other verbs.  If the fairies wore pink, the elves wore blue.  If they frolicked, the elves skipped.  If they ate fairy-cake and drank dew, Ann’s more adventurous elves ate ice-cream and drank hop-beer.  The judges had presumably rescinded Ann’s prize not because of her age, but because somewhere between the announcement of the contest winner and Ann’s arrival in Chicago, they became aware that “The Elf’s Wedding” had been cribbed from a story published only three years before in a rival magazine.

After I finished laughing my ass off, the story of Ann’s Great Disappointment suggested to me—yes—a plot for a novel.

I’ve been thinking for years of writing about the struggles of another relative of mine—another distant cousin—during the Great Depression.  I know a lot about the Great Depression.  Both of my parents graduated from high school in 1929, and for the rest of their lives, they talked about the Great Depression all the time.  As a kid, I got very sick of the topic (“Eat your vegetables.  Why, in the 30s we couldn’t afford nice vegetables like that!”), but it provided me with a wealth of potential material.

And I always had an interest in this particular cousin anyway, because aside from the unfortunate Ann, she was the only member of the family besides me who ever wanted to be a writer.  Actually, what Relative wanted was to be solvent.  Writing articles for local publications helped with that.

Relative and her husband had a new baby and a new house when the Depression hit—a house they could no longer afford, but that Relative was determined not to lose.  In 1931, when her husband left for parts unknown (so that, with no man in the house, Relative could qualify for what was known as “Relief”), she moved with the baby into the house’s unfinished attic and rented out the rooms below to boarders.  She cooked and cleaned for them (and herself and the baby, of course), and the work was hard and not always safe (a drunken boarder once attempted to break through the attic door in the night), but she’d have done anything, my mother told me, to keep her house.


Would she have written—porn?

So here’s my plot:  Armed with a volume of 1930s porn—left by a lodger, perhaps—Relative plays Ann’s Mad-lib game, churning out pornography full of exotic new euphemisms (1930s porn was all euphemisms) that titillate a jaded readership.

So far so good.  But would she have told her husband, I wonder?  Confided in her mother?  Would she have been introduced through her work into strange—and perhaps, broadening—new social circles?  How about my own mother’s brief, innocent brush with Al Capone?  She had no idea who the “chubby Italian man” she’d been speaking to was until afterward.  Can I use that?

Of course, then—as now—to play the Mad-Libs game with somebody else’s work was illegal, unethical, and a just plain rotten thing to do.  But I’m guessing that a nice suburban lady who finds herself writing pornography at a time when pornography is not only illegal but deeply, deeply sinful would have things beyond the ethical niceties of the situation on her mind.

I can’t wait to see how the story turns out.

A Rant

dollI’m about half-through with the novel I’m working on, so I figure it’s time I started thinking about a plot for the next.  This time, I’m going to write a serious work.  A very serious work.  You get no love from the critics, I find, if you’re not deadly, deadly serious.

It’s going to be about a marriage.

I’m a bit of an authority on marriage, having personally been married for many years myself; but the marriage in my book isn’t going to be like mine, because the woman in my book isn’t going to be like me.  She’s going to be pretty, for one thing.  And she’s going to be one of those people-pleasing types.  The kind who greases the axles of society and make the wheels of the world go ‘round—sometimes for everybody but themselves.

The person she wants to please most, of course, is her husband, because she loves him.  (I’m unsure as to whether I should include a few of the men she loved and wanted to please before she got married, or whether I should just start with the husband.  I’ll think about that.)  He’s not easy to please, either—though of course, like everybody, he thinks he is.  He’s picky about his food and his clothes and how often, and under what circumstances, he visits his mother; but these are all things with which my protagonist (I’ll call her Eve) can deal.

The matter of Eve’s personal appearance—in which Hubby demonstrates a consuming interest—is more problematic.

Hubby expects her to shave her legs and armpits, of course.  Hair grows there naturally, we assume for some good reason, on Hubby as well as Eve; but Eve must shave hers in order to be desirable.  Shaving results in stubble, however; and Hubby doesn’t like stubble, unless it’s his own—which, every day after about 5pm, it usually is.  Eventually she has her legs and arms waxed, instead—a process which causes her considerable pain.  It is also expensive.  Eve’s pubic hair, too, must be carefully groomed.  Hubby likes this.

He also likes Eve to be thin.  Quite thin.  Diet-all-the-time thin.  The kind of thin that makes lush breasts unlikely.  Hubby likes lush breasts.  Clever Eve has false ones implanted.

She also speaks in well-modulated tones, so as not to threaten Hubby’s sense of manly dominance, and strives to walk gracefully in shoes that hurt her feet, but make her legs look good.  She is careful to sit properly in dresses that, were she careless, would show off body parts that are for Hubby’s private viewing.

All the waxing and the implants and the hurty shoes (also the hair and the make-up and the juice cleanses and so on and so forth forever and ever amen) are expensive; and Eve wishes she were paid more at her job.  Unfortunately, no one takes a woman who has shaved and dieted and dressed herself to look like a child with large breasts seriously, and she is passed over for several promotions.

Then comes the story’s big finish.

I’m of two minds about the finish.  One part of me wants a sad, message-y ending:  One day Eve gets old, and all the primping and shaving in the world can’t make her look like a girl again.  Hubby’s eye—and other parts—wander, and the marriage ends in divorce.

The other part of me wants a happy, message-y ending:  One day Eve says, “You know what?  That’s enough.”  She goes feral—or anyway as feral as Hubby, whom everyone regards as a perfectly normal member of civilized society despite having hair and a certain amount of body-fat—and to her surprise, Hubby says, “But you’ll still sleep with me, right?  You will?  Okay; cool!”

And they live happily ever after.

Plotting to Have a Life


It has been pointed out to me that I’m not the most ambitious human being in the world.  Aside from my powerful and unaccountable drive to produce and perfect unpublishable novels (I get up early and stay up late to write them), “good enough” is always good enough for me.  Ask me where I see myself in five years, and I’m prone to blurt idiotically, “Why?  What’ve you got in mind?” because other than to spend as many hours as possible per day writing, I have no clear-cut goal in life beyond a general desire to enjoy it.  In consequence of my lackadaisical attitude, my lifetime accomplishments so far can be numbered on the fingers of one hand—fewer, if you don’t count the time I qualified for a First Aid badge by accident because I was too embarrassed to admit that I’d wandered into the wrong room at Red Cross headquarters.

My daughter says I may need a Life Coach.

Other than to spend as many hours as possible per day writing, I have no clear-cut goal in life beyond a general desire to enjoy it

As I have hinted, I’m old, and frankly a little out of things.  The concept of requiring coaching to be able eat, sleep, breathe and, occasionally, to think—the activities, as I see it, that distinguish the living from the dead—is a new  one to me.  But I asked around, and sure enough, it turned out that one of my friends actually had a Life Coach at one time.  She told me all about it.

Coaching sessions, she says, began with her coach spritzing the room with a perfume mist chosen from a selection with names like “impetus” and “inspiration.”  This was to stimulate dormant or underperforming parts of her brain, which are, apparently, very susceptible to perfume.  The spritzing accomplished, the coach would then carefully question my friend to determine what her life goals were, and exactly what she would and would not be willing to give up to achieve them.  After six weeks of this exploration, Life Coach and Friend together drew up a Life Plan, a road-map that would guide her by the least-objectionable route her to her goals.  The whole process cost $1200.

“Worth every penny,” Friend assures me.

And I’m sure it was.  She’s been very successful.

I don’t have $1200 that I care to spend on a Life Coach, but I do love to plot novels, so I came up with an alternate idea and I like it so well that I’m going to recommend it to everyone.  I think we should all write ourselves—not Life Plans—but Life Plots.

I’ll start mine by summarizing my life story so far.  After all, what has already transpired has significance for what is still to come.  And I’ll be honest about it all, too—but brief.  This doesn’t need to be like one of those Russian novels with six hundred characters.

That done, I’ll get to the good part—the part of the story that hasn’t happened yet.  What will my protagonist (i.e., me) do next?  No cheating on this, either:  I won’t allow myself to write that I one day play the cello to a sell-out crowd in Carnegie Hall unless I also write my honest plan to take a lot of cello lessons and practice really, really hard first—both of which, frankly, I know in my heart  I’m not going to do.  But I could come up with a plausible story about how I learned to do some new thing.  Or I could mellow a little.  Not only—given my nature—would my mellowing constitute quite a plot-twist, but George Eliot already demonstrated with Silas Marner that having a character mellow is commercial, too.   I could also meet some interesting new people.  Of course, in order to meet new people, I’d have to get out more; so I’ll have to write that I start getting out more.  Whether the people I meet are interesting or not may depend upon where I get out to, so I’d better give that some consideration.

Also, maybe I should dress better.

I’ll write my life’s plot, and then I’ll live it—right down (I hope) to the scene where I die peacefully in my bed surrounded by my loved ones who are happy that I mellowed and got out more and dressed better, and also at least occasionally practiced playing the cello.  It’ll be great.  A literary masterpiece.

First, though, I’m going to spritz the room with perfume.  I can afford to.  I just saved myself $1200.



If you’re looking for a plot, there are lots of lists you can consult for ideas.  The lists contain various numbers of elements, from one to thirty-six (and possibly more), but most of them have it in common that they don’t make any value judgements.  They’re just lists.  If you decide you want to write—just as an example—a Polti number four, “vengeance taken for kin upon kin,” that’s your business.  What the compilers of the lists aimed for was completeness, with the underlying assumption that what made a plot good was how it was handled.

Then there’s Christopher Booker’s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots:  Why We Tell Stories.

Mr. Booker maintains (through 700 pages) not that there are only seven plots; but that there are only seven good ones.  Any work with a plot falling outside of his list is, by definition, a bad work.  On the good list are Crocodile Dundee and Brewster’s Millions; on the bad side, The Cherry Orchard, everything by Proust, and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Also Rigoletto, no matter who sings the part of Gilda.

Um…pretty sure I heard different.

there’s no arguing with the fact that the meta-plot is the plot that sells

Mr. Booker has reasons for judging literary works as he does, and the reason isn’t because he’s a contrarian.  He is a contrarian, as a matter of fact.  Among other things, he passionately maintains that global warming is a sham; evolution is false; and neither asbestos nor tobacco causes cancer.  –And don’t even get him started on the British Family Court System, or Social Services.  But in the case of literature, Mr. Booker feels that the worth of a work depends entirely on how well it serves the specific purpose of providing Jungian-style therapy for the reader.  A work’s plot, Booker feels, should parallel the human journey from total dependence in infancy; through adolescent efforts to break away from family (life’s greatest trauma); to establishment in the world as a mature individual.  Life itself has a plot, the Meta-plot, and through repeated exposure to literature that mirrors this meta-plot, we come to terms with life.

First in the meta-plot story is the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to an adventure (as the child wishes to be an adult).  Then comes the dream stage.  The hero has some success, and imagines that he is invincible (“I got an A on my math quiz!”).  This is followed by the frustration stage, when life slaps the hero around a little (we all remember that stage, right?), and he discovers that he’s not invincible after all.

Then things get really bad.  It’s the nightmare stage.  The plot’s peak.  Hope is lost, everyone hates you; everything sucks.  Then—and not a moment too soon for most of us—comes the resolution, where the hero overcomes the odds.  Life’s not so bad after all, and we learned plenty along the way.

That’s the meta-plot, the one, single, really good, wholly acceptable, therapeutic One Plot to Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings is, predictably, on Booker’s approved list).  The Seven Basic Plots of Booker’s title are encompassed by the meta-plot—subsets of the meta-plot, so to speak—and have names like Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf; Shrek); The Quest (The Pilgrim’s Progress; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle); and Rebirth (Peer Gynt; Machine Gun Preacher).

As a matter of fact, I like Kafka, and Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence—all Booker bads.  I like them a lot and I think they’re not only good, but great.   I personally don’t believe that people need all the books they read to conform to the meta-plot to provide them with continual therapy.

But on the other hand, there’s no arguing with the fact that the meta-plot is the plot that sellsThe Hunger Games outsold Women in LovePeter Rabbit outsold The MetamorphosisHarry Potter outsold everything.

So for my next book, I’m sticking with THE META-PLOT.  Art aside, I could use the bucks.

Blurbed to Death


By now, probably everyone knows Rick Polito’s brilliant summary of The Wizard of Oz: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”  Did you laugh when you first read it?  If so, you’ve never had to compose a Kindle “short blurb,” for which one is limited to 400 characters.  The first reaction to Mr. Polito’s work for those of us who’ve written a short blurb is to say, “My God, only 143 characters!  Including spaces!  The man’s a genius.”

All the books I write are long; and some (like Ant-Lands) are very long indeed.  In fact, when I finish a book, the first thing I have to do is put it on a strict reducing diet, shedding incidents; characters; sometimes whole sub-plots; in order to make it fit into that pretty prom-dress I have picked out for it—a salable-length manuscript.  I love long.  Long is easy for me.

Fitting it into four hundred characters, on the other hand, is a total bitch.

It honestly took me more time to write my “short blurb” for Ant-Lands than my first chapter.  Every attempt I made to summarize the plot, was, like Polito’s summary of The Wizard of Oz, accurate in its essentials, but terribly, terribly misleading (not to mention longer than 400 characters).  My first effort made Ant-Lands sound like one long battle; and a second was a string of clichés about can’t we all just get along, please.  I don’t even want to talk about versions three, four or five.

Happily, I finally figured out the secret of short, and it is:  Forget the plot.

I know:  Heresy, right?

Much as I love plotting, I have to admit that every time I try to recount one, I end up sounding like a four-year-old retelling a Road Runner cartoon

Forget plot, and not just for 400-character blurbs.  Forget the plot any time anybody says, “What’s that book about?”  No good plot can be related in a few words, because a good plot is a complex thing.  It’s made up not only of that super, easily-stated plot idea you had in the first place, but also of all the twists and turns in it introduced by your characters, with their complex personalities and backstories (right?).  Much as I love plotting, I have to admit that every time I try to recount one, I end up sounding like a four-year-old retelling a Road Runner cartoon:  “So then the coyote paints this tunnel, see?  –Wait; I forgot to mention that he got this tunnel-paint from a company called Acme, which is kind of a running gag.  Anyway, so he paints this tunnel—or, a thing that looks like a tunnel, anyway, and…”

For short, stick to theme.  Theme can be done short—sometimes in one word:  Love; redemption; courage; forgiveness…  Heck, you can put a shovel-full of themes into a short blurb and still have two or three hundred characters left for other business.

Also, theme is flexible.  I intend to take advantage of this.

Currently on Smashwords, which requires that an author pick categories under which to list his book, Ant-Lands, with its blurb emphasizing its post-apocalyptic, redemptive aspects, appears as science fiction and fantasy.  If it doesn’t sell that way, I’m going to change the blurb.  I’m going to write, “An allegory of the reintegration of a shattered human psyche, in which the raw but unregulated potency of the Id (represented by the so-called ‘Ants’) is subdued and civilized by the Ego (the ‘Men’) and the Superego (the ‘Foresters’)”, and list it under Psychology.

Perfectly accurate—in its way—and only 232 characters!  I’m getting good at short.

My Favorite Rule: Write What You Know

type-1161949_640I grew up in an undistinguished, lower-middle-class family, and was “the quiet one” in school.  I learned to type, and put myself through college doing clerical work in furtherance of business aims that I cared not one rat’s ass about.  Within a month of graduating with a degree in classics that proved that I had acquired the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue a more advanced degree in classics, I landed my dream job, gestating an embryo.  The embryo project was successful; and after a mere nine-month probationary period I was advanced—somewhat unadvisedly, perhaps—to the rank of household Mother-in-Chief.  This is a position I still hold, although in a massive corporate reshuffle that began on the day my male counterpart and I dropped the former embryo off at college, reporting lines have been rearranged, and my title is now an empty one, I’m afraid.  I live in the suburbs, enjoy classical music, and am still married to my original husband.

I actually have a point in telling all this; and the point is that it’s boring.  I have a nice, normal, boring life.  So how is it that I make so bold as to write books about people who don’t?  Isn’t there a rule that says You Must Write What You Know?

Yes, there is.  It’s a very good rule.  And I am happy to report that it does not apply to plots.

loss is loss, and suffering is suffering, and fear is fear, whether among the Suburb People of Middle America or the Slime Beings of Delta Vega

It’s true that if you haven’t known loss, you can’t—or rather, shouldn’t—write a book with great loss as its focus.  I’ve seen it done, and it never rings true.  And you shouldn’t write about battle, or space-travel, or riding in a Roman taxi if you’ve never been afraid.  But loss is loss, and suffering is suffering, and fear is fear, whether among the Suburb People of Middle America or the Slime Beings of Delta Vega, so go ahead and write that novel you keep telling me you’re going to get around to one of these days and in the matter of plotting, don’t hold back.  Really.  Go crazy with it.  But if you want to write that your protagonist, young Slime B. Ing, is radicalized when his pet mutant is killed before his very eyes by the evil Cephalopod general, you’d better have lost a loved pet of your own if you want the scene to really work.

And speaking of plots, as I always am:  I recently read a very bad story, set in a future in which weapons—they seemed to involve lasers, although this wasn’t entirely clear—were sentient.  This fact was a little throw-away.  I think it could make a whole plot.  Several plots, in fact.  How were these weapons developed?  Were weapons somehow modified so that they achieved sentience?  Or were sentient beings turned into weapons?  Are many “objects” in this future world sentient?  What would it be like, living in a world of sentient objects?  What would it be like trying to kill somebody with a weapon that was apt to want to discuss the situation with you first?  In a future world, do the sentient “objects” revolt, subjugate the “Irrationals” (our race), and try running the world by logic for a change?  Does it work?

I could write this, if I only had time.  I’d be writing what I know.  All day long, my computer goes out of its way to remind me that it is much smarter than I am. At least, anything programmed by Microsoft thinks it is.

One, or None, or Seven, or Thirty-six Dramatic Situations

Back when I was in school, girls wore dresses, boys wore collared shirts tucked into their pants, and in Creative Writing class, we studied Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.

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Polti was a Frenchman who, sometime in the late nineteenth century (I forget exactly when) compiled a list of what he said was every “dramatic situation”—otherwise known as a plot—that ever had been, or could be, devised.

The translation of Polti’s work that we used in school was simplified from the original; and the examples supplied for the situations were not from the classics, as in Polti (his exemplar for number 10, the slaying of a kinsman, unrecognized, was, of course, Oedipus), but from the popular, youth-oriented American literature of the day.  Unfortunately “the day” was about 1915, because that was when our textbook had been published, and my classmates and I had never even heard of most of the literature cited.  But that was all right with us, because we preferred to find our own examples—from life.  A number one (supplication) with a teacher for a better grade on a quiz might become a seventeen (fatal imprudence) or a twenty-nine (an enemy loved), depending on the outcome; and at that age (approximately 13), number thirty-threes (erroneous judgement) were pretty much the order of the day.

I was a slow thinker, I guess.  It wasn’t until the text was reintroduced in a class in my senior year of high school that it occurred to me while it was very complete in its explication of topics like number twenty (self-sacrifice for an ideal, in this case a code phrase for “study harder”), it was a little vague on numbers like twenty-two and twenty-five (all sacrificed for passion, and adultery, respectively).  I don’t recall number fifteen, murderous adultery, being in the list at all—though how they smoked that one by us, I really don’t know.  Some of my school-mates, as I recall, were much better at math than I was, and could reliably have counted all the way to thirty-five, thereby detecting the fraud.

I can still never read (or write) a book or watch a movie without trying to identify which of the thirty-six plots are featured in it

Even after all these years (many, many of them), I can still never read (or write) a book or watch a movie without trying to identify which of the thirty-six plots are featured in it, or admiring the strength of ego that permitted Mr. Polti to imagine that his list was the definitive one. Because there are other lists, of course.  In fact, for many years it was my own contention that a list of plots should contain only one element:  A conflict, resolved.  Then I got (briefly) into Post-Modernism, where I learned that it was possible to write quite a long piece—novel length, even—with a plot-list of exactly zero.  The length of your list really just depends on how precisely you want to define a plot.

Polti’s list is interesting, and if you haven’t read it, you might want to have a look.  Here’s a good place:

The important lesson about Polti’s—or any—list, is that it should remind you not be too concerned, when you plot, with originality.  If Polti’s right (he convinced Goethe and Schiller, and who am I to argue with them?) your plot can’t be original anyway.  Every one of the thirty-six possibilities has already been used by somebody else!  So pick a plot (one main, and a couple sub, maybe) and expend your creativity on its exposition.

Write a science fiction novel about the governor of an off-world colony.  He’s admired by his superiors for managing, in spite of difficulties, to build a thriving settlement; but he’s not a nice man.  The rules don’t apply to him.  He fools around on his wife.  He ignores fair-labor practices, and engineers massive cover-ups.  Especially he scorns the planet’s indigenous population, who are, in his opinion, mere dirty savages, and less than human.

His kind have enemies.  These orchestrate an “accident” which leaves the colony CEO far from home, at the mercy of the elements.  He is dependent for survival upon—yep—a member of the strange, savage native species.  They become friends.  They have adventures together.  CEO mellows; savage learns to bathe.

All is good until, sadly, the native becomes ill.  Earth-based medicine cannot save him.  He dies; but fortunately not until the CEO is entirely reformed.  He returns to rule the space-colony in peace and justice.

The end.

You can call the friends “Gilgamesh” and “Enkidu” if you want—or not.  But however much futuristic detail and technology you insert, the plot itself has been old for six thousand years.

Or consider this one:  Two friends, both runners.  One, popular and talented; but undisciplined.  The other, the “slow and steady” type.  Which one will (after adventures comprising at least four or five elements from Polti’s list) triumph in the big race?  Training and discipline; or native talent?

There must be a genre of “Runner fiction”, right?  Properly done, your story of Bill Tortoise and Steve Hare could linger for weeks at the top of the “Runner fiction” best seller list.

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