My teacher and award-winning collaborator Mike Resnick is right: I’m having a damned good rookie year. I broke in with the top break-in market in the genre — Writers of the Future — and I went on to publish in and sell repeatedly to one of the top professional markets of all-time: Analog Science Fiction and Fact.
More than that, though, I managed to earn the appreciation and respect of the Analog readers, as confirmed by my getting the Analog ‘AnLab’ Readers’ Choice award for my novelette, “Outbound,” a story which continues to surprise me in all kinds of unexpected ways — from stirring up interest in Hollywood, to generating some of the nicest fan mail I may ever get as a writer.
Which is why I found myself quite troubled today when I stumbled across a link on Facebook that pointed to a guest blog by a writer who seems to have made it his business to look down upon not only the venues he sells in, but also the editors who edit those venues, and the readership that reads those venues.
I won’t link back to the article or name the writer — because I’ve long considered this person to be a shabby fellow with shabby pretensions, who is the way he is precisely because he seeks the attention it gets him. Suffice it to say that his apparent contempt for his entire audience — markets, editors, and readers — dripped from the article. I wasn’t surprised. I’d seen that contempt before. Contempt — distilled, purified — is what this particular writer hangs his hat on. So I wasn’t particularly put off if only because I expect nothing less from this guy.
I was bothered, however, because I knew there would be other writers — aspiring and established — who would look at the article and say to themselves, “Yeah, yeah, that’s ballsy! That’s the kind of writer I want to be!”
Allow me to propose to you that contempt of this sort is cheap. Any idiot can color vigorously and loudly “outside the lines” and then pretend to despise the very eyes that view his artwork. When you sneer at your audience like that you are breaking what I consider to be an implicit contract between fiction writers and fiction readers: that we the writers are obligated to provide an emotional and mental experience that is provoking, yes, but that also has positive, redeeming value, told truly.
Let me emphasize the words positive, redeeming value, told truly here, because this is very often what separates explosively popular fiction like the Harry Potter franchise from, say, the brilliantly-written yet obscure works foisted upon MFA grad students. The academic, critical and literary communities — in a centuries-long effort to refine their tastes — have more or less abandoned the simple knowledge that in order for a story to have life, it has to have positive meaning for the readership.
Bestseller and fellow Utah writer and teacher Tracy Hickman is quite emphatic about this. That story must have meaning and that this meaning will impact and change lives. Tracy has the war medals from a wounded veteran to prove it — that veteran saved the lives of his squad-mates precisely because a story by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis inspired the veteran to action in the heat of battle. A fact that Tracy finds humbling to the point of tears, but which he points out to illustrate to his students that this stuff we’re all typing away at on our word processors — these tales we tell — aren’t just bullshit. They’re potentially going to be read and pondered by people long after we’re dead. A ripple effect of unimaginable proportion.
Such potential should not be handled lightly, nor should it be handled with cynicism.
It doesn’t matter what you write. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror. Westerns, Techno-Thrillers, Spy, or Mystery. When you set out to put your stories in front of other people, you are making a promise to them that the stories will have meaning and value. That you take this promise seriously. That your fingers are not crossed behind your back. You might not succeed in being entertaining — which is a whole other Oprah, and requires a synergy of craft, writer taste, and reader taste together — but you’ve at least made an honest effort to acknowledge that your readers — and the editors, and the venues to which you sell — are themselves deserving of respect. As the consumers, if nothing else. But more, I think, as kindred souls: because all writers must be readers first, and all writers should be able to remember the days when books and stories were truly magic that enthralled, enraptured, and ultimately uplifted.
Thus it is forbidden to cheat on your audience. And by “cheat” I mean it’s grossly unprofessional to at any time move your hand out from behind your back and reveal your crossed fingers, and say, “Ha ha, just kidding!” As a reader, I’ve had that happen to me a time or two. There are still dents in the drywall under the putty and paint I’ve had to use to cover up for how furiously-hard I’ve flung such books across the room. This is a cheat. A falsehood. You might be a fiction writer — perhaps, even a brilliant fiction writer — but there can be nothing positive said about a story that is told strictly for the sake of putting off, putting down, duping, fooling, or insulting the audience. You’re lying to your readers when you do that, and lying to your readers is just about the worst sin there is in the creation of fiction.
I know that sounds oxymoronic, but I am not sure how else to put it.
As a fiction writer, your job is to tell the truth.
This applies to award-winners and the famous, just as much as it applies to brand-new people just beginning on their very first original stories.
You will occasionally run across “boundary-breaker” writers who gloat that they deliberately set out to write a certain story which “broke the rules,” precisely because they wanted to see if they could sneak it past a certain editor, a certain market, a certain readership — and then pat themselves on the back for such literary sleight-of-hand. I say to you without reservation that this kind of literary burglary is a gross violation of the contract. It’s dirty pool! Your job is not to evade the sniff-test and then, having successfully published, point and laugh at your editor or your audience and say, “Ha ha, I did it, you rubes!”
I sometimes suspect that the only reason we have writers who keep attempting this, and think it fun, is because such writers are not required to physically stand on-stage and take the cat-calls, cries of anger, and the splattery of rotten fruit that would surely ensue. Being a literary scamp is easy because you never have to face up to your actions in public. Especially in the era of the Internet, where being a literary scamp has been elevated to a very high platform indeed. Whole blogging careers are made on this stuff.
Which probably explains why I am not a terribly voracious consumer of such blogs. Snark and cynicism being the chief tools of the scamp.
I think there are better ways. Certainly I’ve tried very hard — so far — to tell the truth. Not every story I write is clean, with clean language, but I like to think every story I write is “true” in that the tale is told honestly, with a whole-hearted desire to provide both positivity and value to the readership. I did it with “Outbound” when I originally wrote it in late 2008, and I continue to do it with stories like, “Ray of Light,” which I am told will be forthcoming as the showpiece in a future issue of Analog — with a Bob Eggleton cover no less(!!)
Had I kept my fingers crossed behind my back when I wrote “Outbound,” had I viewed my editor Dr. Schmidt or his venue with contempt, I am sure I’d have written a very, very different story. One that I am 99% certain would not have passed Dr. Schmidt’s discerning sniff-test, and even if it had, I am sure the readership would have balked. Or simply flipped past the story, upon detecting that the writer doing the story-telling was grinning and snickering like an 8 year old who’s just slipped something nasty into his friend’s school lunch when the friend isn’t looking.
The bottom line is that most people don’t like putting up with jerks. When you’re sitting down to do your stories, resist the urge to have any fun at the expense of the audience. Treat them with the respect they deserve. Give them something that will stick with them long after they’ve read the words, THE END, and which will provide for them — as it did for Tracy Hickman’s veteran reader — moments of inspiration wherein the story truly grows beyond the story, and becomes something altogether new, more meaningful, and more alive than might otherwise be.
That’s your job, as plainly as I can put it — and without bursting into four-lettered tirades.
ETA: Hat tip to my friend and associate Eric James Stone for suggesting the word “cheat” as opposed to “trick.” The article has been modified accordingly, as “cheat” fits so much more nicely.