Friday, March 20, 2015

On Writing: Knowing Why They’re There

We interrupt this series of hyper-sententious “Mishnory Road” pieces because I haven’t thought through the next one yet, and anyway, my attention is currently on matters fictional. Never fear: I’ll be back to boring you about metaphysics and its relation to politics in due course.


Today’s subject was inspired by two stimuli. First, there’s Stacy McCain’s tribute to the late Jack Vance, from which I quote:

For what my opinion is worth, Vance has no equals in his mastery of both description and action. His books are filled with desperate deeds and heroic acts done in strange landscapes and bizarre societies, and all of them excellently described.

I concur...but let’s not stop there. Vance’s gifts go beyond those two admitted strengths. His heroes are unique and inspiring. His prose style is incomparably rich and vivid. Like Heinlein, his devotion to human excellence and the sort of milieu in which it flourishes is consistent across all his works. even his semisatirical “Dying Earth” tales exhibit those strengths, albeit in many cases by counterexample and contrast. Readers unfamiliar with Vance should savor his short novel The Blue World for a concise example of his strengths.

If I have an idol among fiction writers, it’s Jack Vance.

Which got me to thinking: Do I read and love Vance’s stuff because his strengths are so many? Or do I seek out his books for some particular aspect that he does better than all the others...and better than other writers as well?

I can’t answer the question – but questions one can’t answer are the best imaginable prods to continuing hard thought.


The second impetus to today’s subject is a letter I recently received from a reader who sensed from this piece that I might be a bit disheartened about my fiction:

I know that Louis Redmond is imaginary, and that the Planet called Hope is made solely of fairy dust, yet Louis's story never fails to make me want to be a better man. That if I wished to live in a place like Morelon House, I must be as they are: Honest, hardworking, generous, kind, and loyal. If we wish that the President was Stephen Sumner, We must act like him first, and a man of his Character will naturally rise out of a people like those of Onteora County.

I am reading my children the Hobbit, because Bilbo Baggins is a better role model for them than anyone in the newspapers in the last 30 years. When the time comes, I will let them read about Todd Iverson, & Kevin Conway, & Louis Redmond. I would rather my children wish themselves alongside Louis Redmond, lost in the Land of make believe, than wish to be a celebrity, which is equally as likely, and not nearly so edifying. Britain conquered the world with Macaulay's lines on their lips

"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods."

...Your stories, Fran, can give men Hope, and strengthen their Faith, and help them fall in Love. Please do not be discouraged, you have already given a greater gift to the world than you know, and I eagerly await more of your stories. God Bless you and have a blessed rest of Lent and a Joyous Easter.

No writer could ask for – or receive – a higher tribute than that. I hardly deserve it. But the praise is really the lesser of the bounties my correspondent had bestowed upon me. The greater one is this: he told me explicitly what he values in my books.

A writer who discovers why his audience reads his work has been given the keys to the kingdom.


Writers all yearn to find an audience. It doesn’t matter whether we write fiction or non-fiction; what we desperately need to know is what we do that most appeals to those who’ve happened upon us, have loved what they’ve found, and continue to seek our stuff.

The contemporary fiction market offers writers the possibility of easy, non-threatening feedback from our readers, via email and interactive websites (e.g., blogs). Thus, discovering why your readers like your stuff is easier than in previous decades. But once you know, what should you do with the knowledge?

One response is to strengthen one’s weak areas. Do your fans love your actions scenes? So practice description and scene-setting. Do your fans love your evocation of emotions? Maybe you should try writing more active stories. This isn’t exactly wrong, but it can lead one astray. For example, at a time when I lamented what I thought was a weakness in my powers of description, I started forcing descriptive passages into stories that couldn’t carry them. It took feedback from a candid test reader to nudge me off that track.

The opposite response, to concentrate wholly upon one’s strengths and slough all other considerations, can be just as treacherous. No one can write “pure” action, or “pure” description, or “pure” anything else, for reasons beyond the scope of this tirade. Even Shakespeare, who concentrated upon depicting the great emotions, had to say something about what the backdrop should look like. Yes, his stage directions are classically brief, but they’re there. Fortunately for him (and us), the brilliance of his characterizations and dialogue makes more ornate descriptions of setting irrelevant.

All the same, one direction is the better of the two. Just as with a good field commander, a smart writer who knows why his fans like his stuff tries principally to reinforce his successes: i.e., to do what he does well better still, albeit without neglecting the other essentials of his craft.

It’s not a hard balance to strike. Acquiring the necessary insight is the hard part...and only your readers can give you that.


After I’d taken a few days to reflect upon my correspondent’s thoughts, I wrote back (in part) as follows:

I’ve let this much time elapse before replying because your note had a large effect upon me. To be brief (which I seldom am, so savor this occasion!), you’ve reminded me of why I write fiction: because when done well, fiction conveys ideas and moral themes better by far than the best nonfiction opinion writing.

I consciously set out to create heroes: men and women in the vein of Macaulay’s Horatius. Readers are more affected by a convincing hero than by the finest, most involute of arguments. A good hero evokes precisely the response of which you wrote. But heroic fiction has a problem these days: plausibility. Contemporary readers all too often greet a genuinely good, genuinely heroic character with “Oh, come on! There aren’t any people like that.”

The cynicism of our age can make life difficult for a writer whose stories have a polemic tilt. When C. S. Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy, the world was a much different place. The West actually had behaved somewhat heroically in the recent past. I doubt his protagonist Elwin Ransom (whom he modeled on his close friend J. R. R. Tolkien) was greeted with the cynicism that Louis Redmond, or Armand Morelon, or Todd Iverson, or the siblings of The Sledgehammer Concerto often arouse.

My goal in writing fiction has always been, in the words of a writer friend, “to illuminate eternal verities:” the truths that envelop all human experience. I do that by creating heroes – and if I may judge by the feedback I’ve received, it’s my heroes that such fans as I’ve acquired value most. Note the causal sequence: the eternal verities aren’t a mere spinoff of the heroes; the heroes exist to actuate the verities. Lewis’s Ransom didn’t create the importance of faith and courage; he depicted them through his adventures. Tolkien’s Frodo didn’t create the importance of dedication and self-subordination to a higher cause; his journey merely illustrated it. Yet the characters are essential, for no quality of men can be depicted at all, much less strikingly or persuasively, without men to depict it.

I’ve said before, and more than once, that good fiction is a more powerful polemic vehicle than any other. Yet the polemic cannot be overt. It’s the heroes who persuade, even if they do so without argument. The verities themselves just sit there waiting for someone to illustrate them, whether by conforming to them or attempting to deny them.


If you write, the most precious knowledge you can obtain is why others read you. Stacy McCain and my unnamed correspondent have helped me to remember that. I wasn’t in any real danger of ceasing to write, but now and then every writer gets mired in his darker thoughts and needs a little goose in the caboose to get back into motion. I’m no exception.

But how does one ferret out the pool of readers who’d love your work as your existing readers do, but haven’t yet happened upon it? That, Watson, is a three-pipe problem!

4 comments:

  1. I think part of the problem you perceive, wherein "Contemporary readers all too often greet a genuinely good, genuinely heroic character with 'Oh, come on! There aren’t any people like that.'" is that a proper hero needs flaws. Some of yours occasionally seem to lack them. (Todd? Christine? Sumner? Oh, heavens no! And anyone who'd level that accusation at the heroes of "Sledgehammer" must have been reading some entirely different novel than the one I read. But both Armand Morelon and Louis Redmond, especially in their earliest portrayals, could credibly have been called _too_ good to serve as viable aspirational images...which is of course the role of the hero in the first place.)

    "Go forth, and do likewise" is the implicit message of the heroic story. Any of us could _be_ Stephen Sumner (for example), in all the ways relevant to our lives here in Fiction Zero, if we but summoned the will to display his consistent integrity. But we could no more be Louis Redmond than we could be Jesus of Nazareth. In the case of Jesus, there's a convenient explanation...He's _God_, and we're _not_. Louis? No such escape...just the lingering sense that, no matter what you do, you can't possibly measure up.

    Of course, this is also a problem you seem to have already gotten over. Even with Louis, as portrayed in "Polymath", he seems to have weaknesses beyond the simple "technically, mortal" of "On Broken Wings".

    Courage doesn't mean you aren't afraid...courage means that you _are_ afraid, but you do your duty anyway, in spite of the fear. Likewise, heroism doesn't consist in being free of weaknesses, but in transcending one's weaknesses, to be a good person, improve the world, and set an example for others, in spite of them.

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  2. "...But both Armand Morelon and Louis Redmond, especially in their earliest portrayals, could credibly have been called _too_ good to serve as viable aspirational images..."
    Really, Matt?

    -- Louis: Terrible temper, extremely judgmental and not at all tactful, and distrustful of pleasure.

    -- Armand: Regards other people's problems as not his, which is why he flees to Hopeless peninsula, and becomes all too comfortable with being a "king."

    Besides, I *did* kill both of them!

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  3. Shit, Francis, if I could trade my current set of talents and faults for Louis' talents plus his temper, judgementalism and distrust of pleasure, I'd take that trade in a NY minute. I'm impatient that way. One of my faults.

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  4. And, as you showed us in _Polymath_, Todd Iverson needed some serious prodding from Louis to become the moral man into which he finally matured.

    One of the most important things garnered from your heroes is not their heroic actions, but the way they lead by moral example. Although their heroic actions _are_ fun to read :-)

    One of your most moving - for me, at least - stories was the one (forgive me for not recalling its name) where a woman wishes to have a closer relationship with louis, but chooses an abortion over the moral choice of bringing her baby into the world. His response to her action might seem a stretch to believe in our "modern and progressive" word, but again, he leads by moral example, and terminates the relationship.

    Such examples are why I keep re-reading your stories, Fran. I haven't measured up to the strength of your characters, but they make me wish - and try - to be a better man. Even at my "advanced" age.

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