Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Finishing Things

     Readers of my fiction have asked me on several occasions why there are significant gaps between my issuances of new books. I received another such query just yesterday. It’s an uncomfortable question to face, not because I don’t know the answer, but because I do.

     Many writers enjoy the process of composition: the actual writing, as opposed to the conceptualization that precedes it. I’m fairly sure that some of those writers “make it up as they go:” they start with a couple of Marquee characters and a plot embryo, and let the characters tell the story to them. I know from experience that it’s an entirely valid approach that offers considerable positive feedback while the process runs. The late Georges Simenon made it his method in composing his Inspector Maigret novels; he actually told an interviewer that it was what made his stories interesting to him.

     However, in these latter years I find that I need a much fuller concept of the plot and cast of characters before I can even begin a new novel. The embryonic plot that matured into On Broken Wings would not suffice to get me into motion today. The reason is that I’ve become afraid that I won’t finish what I start.

     Yes, Gentle Reader: writers have their own special fears. This is mine.

     With one exception, each of my novels is prefixed with a dedication that includes:

And to the greater glory of God.

     Of course, I’m a believer: a Catholic Christian. If I were a nonbeliever, I would hardly include that phrase. More to the point, my faith is an important element in my fictional undertakings: not because I intend them as polemics for Christianity, but because the act of artistic creation – in my opinion, the only human act that can justify being called “creation” – is itself an act of worship. You might even call it a form of prayer. I dislike having a prayer interrupted; there’s no guarantee that I’ll pick it back up where I left off.

     I write fiction for several reasons, but that one, if memory serves, is one I haven’t previously disclosed. Well, now you know.

     It’s all of a piece, really. I write:

  • To depict genuine heroism;
  • To explore difficult moral and ethical conundra;
  • To extend the range of thought about important “secular” subjects;
  • To show readers Christians and our clerics doing what we should be doing;
  • And as a prayer of thankfulness to Him who equipped me to tell stories of that kind.

     One of the saddening things about our milieu is how dismissively most good storytellers treat religion. The typical well-received novel makes no room for faith whatsoever, even though here in the U.S., complete nonbelief – atheism – is a view held by a small minority. The most recent Gallup poll (December 2015) reported that 75% of Americans self-identify as Christians of one or another denomination. Another 15% are distributed among other religions. Only about 10% profess complete nonbelief. So why does contemporary fiction fail to depict churchgoing, behavior animated by sincere religious conviction, or the typical religious practices of an American believer?

     Actually, it’s even worse than that: when religious belief plays a part in a plot, it’s almost always in a negative way: e.g., clerics who practice pedophilia or the antics of highly intolerant sects such as the Westboro Baptist congregation.

     To make it worse yet, most writers who allow religious elements into their stories in a positive way surrender to the desire to preach. Unless you’re C. S. Lewis, you should leave preaching to the preachers. Readers of fiction want to be entertained, and perhaps to learn a little something along the way. They don’t want to be hammered with religious doctrine.

     So I take a special interest in allowing the majority of my protagonists to be religious and to do good things out of religious conviction and / or affiliation. I see it around me often enough that I know it to be the way ordinary people really behave. However, that approach also charges me with a special responsibility: to finish what I start.

     There are a few fiction writers today who treat religion as an important positive component of their stories. Theodore “Vox Day” Beale is one. John Conroe is another. Declan Finn is a third. Tom Kratman is a fourth. But the tendency among the great majority of writers is to exclude it. It’s possible that that’s not a conscious decision. It’s also possible that it’s motivated by that greatest bugaboo of our time, the fear of offending someone.

     (Funny that the writers who reflexively treat religion as evil and destructive don’t share that fear, isn’t it?)

     Anything one writes is guaranteed to offend someone. There are seven billion people alive today. Every last one of them finds some range of things offensive. A significant fraction of them seem to go out of their way looking for reasons to be offended. The probability is damned near 100% that one of those, at least, would be offended by any arbitrarily chosen novel. So I don’t let it bother me.

     However, I do concern myself with God’s opinion of my crap. If there’s a Christian element in something I’ve begun, I feel I must finish it or face His disapproval. So In recognition of my failing energies and dwindling years, I don’t begin unless I can clearly see the end...and given the sort of story I tend to write, seeing the end is often very tough.

     Here’s an admission for you. If you’ve read Shadow Of A Sword, which concludes the Realm of Essences trilogy, would you have imagined that until I actually wrote the climactic scene, I had no idea how to end the story? Three quarters of the way through the book, I still didn’t know:

  • How to contrive the face-off between Malcolm / Franz and Zlugy / Tiran;
  • How to tie off reform developments within the Onteora police;
  • What to do with Aaron Randall / Anatoly Rodionov;
  • Who the ultimate hero would be.

     There were days I sat down to work on that manuscript almost paralyzed by my fear. I had to finish it. Leaving aside my personal convictions, I’d promised it to a large number of readers – people all over the world who had written me personally to plead for a conclusion to the story arc. But how could I write something without knowing what I would be writing about?

     I got lucky. I was inspired exactly when I needed to be. The inspirations covered all my needs, including the proper treatment of several Supporting Cast characters who really deserved more closure than I’d originally intended for them. But it was a harrowing experience and one I’ve grown reluctant to chance again.

     There’s a possibly apocryphal anecdote about an exchange between Winston Churchill and his air defense commander, shortly before the Battle of Britain during World War II. Churchill asked the commander what his plans were founded on. The commander replied that he was “counting on radar and trusting to God.” At that time radar was a relatively new, barely tested technology. That caused Churchill to reply that “It sounds as if you’re counting on God and trusting to radar.”

     Though I believe that God does give us what we need, I’m reluctant to assume that He’ll tap me on the shoulder with a perfect plot resolution while I’m sitting at the keyboard, staring at a blank screen frozen with terror. It just seems sort of...presumptuous.

     And that, Gentle Reader, is why my novels are taking longer to produce!

     (Cross-posted at my fiction-promotion site.)


Unknown said...

I copy/pasted this whole thing in my "frequent reading" folder. So much of what you say motivates you, also motivates me. Our difference is having the story's end in mind before beginning to write. I want my ending to be elusive right up until I suddenly spring the trap, or reveal the key scientific item that relates to an element or concept found in scripture. Possibly the pivot point of our respective goals when we sit down to the machine, is: I never expect to publish the work. I'm happy with my creation, and happy being a sub-creator, a definition I first encountered as used by Tolkien.

I loved your statement: "However, I do concern myself with God’s opinion of my crap," Yeah, me too.

Ron Olson said...

Getting comfortable with being presumptuous with my Lord has been the most challenging and rewarding part of life. It doesn't relieve me of doing all I can but somehow guides my actions when no clear path is present. I build staircases though and they all have to go up and down.