The Shepherd Has Arrived/Rules, Rules, Rules

Hi all — it’s been a mad couple of weeks and I have not had a chance to catch up here, though I’ve certainly had my moments on Facebook and elsewhere. Social media is kind of a necessary evil these days — I can’t say that I’m especially fond of it, but unfortunately it’s become vital for our survival. In any event, The Shepherd Book One: She Who Watches has arrived through the good offices of Permuted Press and is available in e-book and trade paperback formats. We sold through all available copies for the first couple of days (and Amazon and B&N no doubt noted that most of the copies were being bought in Portland, Oregon, but that’s okay), and I’ve gone through the usual stages of the new author — exhilaration, crushing self-doubt, joy, sadness, reflection, self-criticism, more crushing self-doubt, more exhilaration, and so on. My interview on SFFworld.com went well and I’m going to try to hit people up for more, and I also got a very good review on nerdsonearth.com, for which I am enormously grateful.

I’m still dithering about what the next project should be. I’ve got a “weird western” (a term I don’t like that much, but I guess I’m stuck with it) in the can, and I’m wondering about trying to sell it or just going the hybrid self-pub route, but as I waste my time trying to improve my slap bass (I really suck, but I am getting better) and playing Fallout 4 (probably grist for the mill of a future blog entry), I’m trying to decide whether to finish a long novel set in a world where D&D tropes actually exist, or maybe do a gothic fantasy about a half-demon detective and his wild elf companion that’s based on a game I ran for Rhiannon years ago, or maybe do that vampires vs. werewolves story we also came up with during an old World of Darkness game, but then again vamps and werewolves are so fucking cliched these days, just like frakin’ zombies, and by god I’m glad my agent made me take all the zombies out of She Who Watches, since it encouraged me to start experimenting with different monsters and focus on stuff that hadn’t already been done 1,000,000,000 times by fanfic writers who get seven-figure contracts to write their pathetic sparkly vampire pastiches with the serial numbers filed off, with some BDSM added, and then they get to hang around on the set of the multimillion dollar production of their fucking piece of crap fanfic movie adaptation and tell the director what to fucking do…

Sorry, I digress.

Anyway I wanted to write an entry so that this blog stays current and doesn’t drift off for months like it tends to sometimes, since I’m now promoting a novel and trying to get some attention. I probably won’t end up doing too many posts of that pretentious “how I write” and “how I create memorable fiction for the ages, unlike you sad little peasants” type of entries that can be so irritating. I guess if I do I’m going to try to do some “anti-how to write” entries since so much advice that’s been given to me over the years has been really bad advice. I don’t think there is any one way to write, and if you produce good stuff that people enjoy and want to read, that’s the right way to do it.

Not that I don’t have my pet peeves. I think that writers should be at least conversant with the language that they’re writing in, have a grasp of basic grammar and know where to put apostrophes. On the other hand, a lot of silly arguments we have — the current foofaraw over the Oxford comma being only the most recent — are just that — silly. I use an Oxford comma when it’s necessary to clarify the meaning of a sentence. Otherwise I don’t. It’s that simple.

(And that stupid example that I’ve seen so often on Facebook “We invited the strippers, Lenin, and Stalin” versus “We invited the strippers, Lenin and Stalin” is so fucking stupid anyway, since neither sentence is good English, and the entire problem could be solved if the sentence read “We invited Lenin, Stalin and the strippers” without resorting to the fucking Oxford comma, so there, you punctuation snobs…)

I’ve had a lot of discussions with my best friend and fellow writer Dale over this one. I think that in recent years we’ve both grown quite suspicious of most writing rules that begin “Always…” and “Never…” unless they’re of the most basic nature such as “Always spell your words correctly” or “Never submit a manuscript written in crayon.” Other rules are less useful.

That’s not to say that they’re all false, or even that they’re not true most of the time, but “Always” and “Never” rules bring to mind Emerson’s quote that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

When Dale and I were at a con several years ago, a very good and articulate writer on a panel about writing flatly told us “Never write in first person” and (at the same panel, mind you) “Never open a story with dialog.”

Okay, we’ll deal with dictum number two later, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what the hell is wrong with writing in first person. I do it a lot and I think I’m pretty successful at it. To me first person flows much more easily and I like doing it. Not that I do it all the time, but it’s my favored mode. Yes, it has its problems, and it may not always be recommended, but to have a supposedly knowledgeably author who has a bunch of stories and novels under his belt be so utterly dismissive of this particular way of doing things is unbelievable. Had he said “Avoid writing in first person” I’d have disagreed but understood. To say “Never” is simply to display what a limited imagination you have.

A short parenthetical here, by the way — while researching first lines I came across this blog, which is on the Writers Digest site and has a lot of good material, but in this short article contains a huge howler that I’m surprised the author didn’t catch. He claims that the phrase “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” is the opening line to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, when of course we know that it’s the opening line of The Call of Cthulhu by my man HP Lovecraft. Marquez’s actual opening line, “Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” is damnably powerful, but god damn I wish people would attribute correctly.

So should you never, ever, ever open with dialog? Of course not. Just as “Never write in first person” would have horrified Herman Melville and James Joyce (among many others), telling a writer never to open with dialog would elicit a laugh from George RR Martin who opened a certain little-known and poor-selling novel called Game of Thrones with “‘We should start back,’ Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them,” and from the obscure Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, whose opening to a minor work titled War and Peace reads “‘Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes….'”

Sure, most stories don’t open with dialog. Sure, there are good reasons not to open with dialog. But for god’s sake, never say “Never”, especially when it comes to writing, because there will always, always be such exceptions as to render your entire point moot.

Another hill that some people have chosen to make a stand on is prologues. Oh, don’t ever write prologues, they say. Readers just skip them. They’re unnecessary, they include backstory that can be in the main story, etc., etc., etc. One blog asks readers “Do YOU read the prologues?” Well, yes as a matter of fact I do. As a reader I like them. I think that when they’re well-written and relevant they enhance the story and make me want to keep reading. And yeah — I suspect that many prologues are unnecessary. In fact I’m a little dubious about my use of one in the third volume of my upcoming trilogy (see how I managed to work a little self-promotion into this post? Learn from the master, kids…), but I like both prologue and epilogue in the second and feel that they both enhance the story. There are very few story elements where the providers of sage advice differ more radically from the people actually doing the writing than when it comes to prologues.

I’ve seen similar advice as well — once I recall discussing a writer’s advice that “every scene has to contain conflict.” Again, conflict is (using another cliche here, folks) the essence of drama. Without conflict you’ve got people sitting in a room talking about the weather. But every scene? Come on. Here’s an illustration, as well as me raving about a TV show I’m really enjoying.

The “SyFy” Channel series The Expanse is based on the series by James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), of which the first volume is Leviathan Wakes (is that a kickass title or what?). The TV series covers about half of the first novel, ending at a pretty suspenseful moment in the story.

Here’s a minimal spoiler description of events in the novel:

Our hero James Holden, XO of the ice freighter Canterbury receives a distress call from a lost ship called the Scopuli. The Canterbury diverts course to go rescue the stricken ship. There’s no question that they need to reply to the distress call and the crew all cooperates with each other. Very effective and interesting, moves the story along and makes you want to read more.

In the TV series however:

Our hero James Holden is offered the position of XO on the Canterbury when its previous XO goes space happy. He turns down the promotion because he doesn’t want the authority and because he’s having an affair with the Canterbury’s astrogator. The captain tells him to take the job temporarily to see if he likes it. Then the Scopuli’s distress call arrives, but the captain and crew don’t want to respond because doing so will lose them their berth and on-time bonus, so they delete the log and pretend that they never got the signal. Consumed with guilt Holden then goes back and secretly undeletes the log and acknowledges the distress call but doesn’t admit it was him. The crew blames Holden’s lover the astrogator, but he keeps the truth to himself.

Okay, what’s the difference? The novel has all that stuff happening, but there’s no interpersonal conflict (that comes later). Holden is XO at the beginning of the story — there’s never a refused promotion. He isn’t banging the astrogator, and when the distress call comes there is no question that the ship has to respond — everyone immediately snaps to and heads off to save the Scopuli. There’s no mention that I can recall of lost bonuses or docking berths.

Which one’s better? Frankly, neither. They both work fine. While the novel doesn’t have the series’ interpersonal conflicts, it initially focuses more on story than on character, while the series piles conflict on conflict on conflict, mirroring the bigger conflicts that are developing elsewhere and moving the story along at breakneck pace. Which is also awesome, by the way — it is a fascinating example of telling the same story in two very different ways, both of which are compelling and exciting.

So no — I would argue that conflict is not necessary in every scene. It certainly can help, and it certainly is necessary in many scenes, particularly pivotal moments in a story. But not every single scene — what is needed is purpose — a scene has to get the story somewhere, or else it’s more weather discussion and navel-gazing. Rather than “scenes must always have conflict” I’d say “scenes must always have direction.” I know it’s an “always” statement, but I think it’s such a fundamental matter that it’s as obvious as “scenes must always be written in a language known to the reader.” I think the only real “always” rules are just the most basic common sense.

As (to use yet another cliche) some rules are made to be broken, maybe it’s good to have “always” and “never” rules around just so we can screw with them and find ways of subverting them. While I do agree that “always” usually should translate to “try to do this” and “never” can be presented as “avoid this thing”, I’d challenge anyone who wants to write to look at those statements more as challenges than rules carved in stone and handed down by the elder writing gods.

My other “sage advice” to people who want to know how to write (and have the lack of good taste to actually think I know what I’m talking about) I tell them to copy the hell out of other writers. More on that in a future discussion.

Peace out… More to come… Check out The Shepherd, Book One: She Who Watches, available at major online retails everywhere, in bookstores (and if your local bookstore doesn’t stock it, then have them order a copy!) and from Permuted Press! And if you’ve bought it and enjoyed it, please feel free to leave a review! See? More self-promotion. And so very, very subtle of me…

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