Don’t be shabby, be inspiring instead!

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.

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16 thoughts on “Don’t be shabby, be inspiring instead!

  1. Now that’s what I’m talking about. A couple of days ago I posted “Play for the Five” on my blog*. The phrase refer’s to a story Don Lancaster repeated more than once in some of his columns and books, and it essentially means to perform your best, for those (possibly as few as five) members of the audience who will appreciate that you go above and beyond what’s merely “good enough”. (But see my post for Don’s story and my take on it.) When writing “hard” SF — even flash pieces for Analog’s Probability Zero, which aren’t what most people think of as hard SF — I strive for the attention to detail that marks that sub-genre. Just so long as that detail doesn’t get in the way of the story.

    Same for other writers in other genres — I appreciate the attention to detail and the thinking through the logical consequences of different aspects of the story. Award-winning stories — like yours, Brad — come from playing (writing) for the most demanding of your audience, not just the average.

    (* New blog site; my http://www.alastairmayer.com is experiencing technical difficulties, I’ll probably end up re-hosting it.)

  2. Al, I was wondering about the new URL. Bummer about the host problems at the old site!

    As for, “Play for Five,” that’s interesting because I’d never really looked at it like that. I’ve often thought that I was aiming for the ‘average’ with my stories, because I am greatly concerned about accessibility and I don’t want to be writing only to a niche — I want to try to write to as large of an audience as I can, within reasonable expectation.

    But, if I go back and look at the stuff Stan has purchased from me so far, I think I can spot a lot of ‘easter eggs’ in there — little things that the ‘average’ reader might not catch, but I know I’d catch if I was reading the story. So perhaps it’s a bit like writing an animated film or even a cartoon, where you’re aiming at one demographic, but the really successful ones always manage to grab a one or more different demographics too; because at the same time a thing is entertaining for youngsters, teens and adults find it delightful too.

    The movie WALL-E was like that for me. When it came out in theaters I didn’t really expect much. I generally grasped the tree-hugger preaching and the anti-consumerist thwap-you-on-the-head message, but while my daughter was just generally enthralled with the spectacle and with the adorable romance between the two robots, I found myself enthralled with how well they managed to keep me glued to the movie without any dialogue — often for minutes on end. Just the visuals and the music, and they carried the story gorgeously. And, yes, I admit it, the romance between EVE and WALL-E was contagiously cute. Which made the enviro-preachiness bearable.

    Anyway, your article’s given me some definite food for thought, in regards to layering and transparency. I wonder if it’s not possible to successfully do both? Play for the few who will expect — demand? — a certain level of technical sophistication, but keep it subtle and/or accessible so that a more general audience can still read and enjoy? That seems like a challenge worth taking on. Orson Scott Card seems like a prime example, given how he’s managed to blend hard SF elements with YA and also some very adult themes, and wrap it all up in a tasty package that’s thrilled and wowed readers for decades.

  3. I’m pretty sure I know which blog post you’re referring to, and if you finished reading it you have a higher tolerance than I do for smugness.

    For the most part, I agree with what you say here, but I’m not sure whether I agree with you that it’s never okay to play tricks on your audience. It may just be a matter of differing definitions. For example, in mystery novels it’s quite traditional to plant red herrings in order to trick the reader into believing someone is the murderer when it’s actually someone else. Readers expect that sort of thing in that genre. And stories with twist endings generally rely on tricking the audience into believing one thing and then putting a whole new spin on it at the end.

    It’s like with stage magicians: people actually do want to be tricked. They are satisfied by a good trick.

    I don’t think you’re arguing against that sort of trick. Perhaps a better word for what shouldn’t be done would be “cheat”: it’s never okay to cheat your audience.

  4. He he he, yeah the “smug” on the article was dialed up rather high, wasn’t it? But then, that’s par for the course with the guy who wrote it. He’s trying to corner the market on smug, I think.

    I fear I’ve been incomplete in my definition of “tricks,” so I might have to go back and address this further, because you are of course correct: with some forms, you simply have to have tricks because that’s part of the “magic show” of the story, and readers — especially experienced ones — will be looking for them and/or expect them, as part of the overall puzzle.

    I like your use of the word cheat, very much. I think I will go back and change the text to reflect this. Thank you, Eric.

  5. Funny you should mention stage magicians; I make a similar reference in my “Play for the five” post. Yes, any competent magician can entertain a lay audience. A really good magician will fool (and entertain) other magicians. Penn and Teller do a version of the ancient cup-and-balls trick with transparent cups, while explaining to the audience what they’re doing. Very quickly. And with a surprise ending.

    And agreed, it’s never okay to cheat your audience.

  6. Oh, absolutely. I don’t want to write for just the five, the story has to work for a large audience first. (That’s perhaps the problem with some “litrachure”; it’s written for just a handful of the author’s peer group.)

    I like your example of WALL-E, and I’m reminded of some of the classic Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny (and other) cartoons. I remember watching some of them many times as a kid … and yet got a whole different level of meaning out of them when seeing them again as an adult. The best kids’ entertainment — that which becomes classic — has to work on both those levels. That’s probably also true of entertainment in general. It has to entertain first, but to become classic it has to stand up to repeated readings/viewings, and give the audience something new each time.

    Easy to say. Not so easy to do.

  7. Any chance you can e-mail me the link to this sour-puss? I’m a man who likes his empirical data. For the record, I think it’s a least Bad Faith Level 1 not to provide the link in the first place, since you’re talking about hiding the truth from your readers; but, I understand the urge not to go crowing people’s names on your blog in an age when everyone has Google Alerts.

    But, yeah, I love me some jackassery, so if you feel like forwarding the details to beniliusbob[at]gmail[dot]com… you would be providing the services of a capital-p Pal! (I need some inciting reading material, honestly.)

  8. Because the person who did the guest blog makes a living attracting attention to himself through being rude and pompously obnoxious, I’m afraid I’ll just have to leave you guessing, Ben. You’re right, it is somewhat bad faith to not link back to the original piece, but it’s the decision I’ve made. I’m not going to feed this particular (bloated) ego any more than it already gets fed.

  9. Curses! Well, you’re probably making the right choice. At least, you would be feeding my ego if you allowed me the opportunity to attempt to deflate another’s… 😉

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  11. Brad,

    I have to agree with Ben’s comment on naming the writer. Or at least linking to them. It just seems cowardly not to, which is especially weird since this person can have zero net effect on your career, aligned as you two are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

    In any case, much of modern art “spits” on its customers. You don’t remember “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp? And that was back in 1917! The fact is that this particular writer caters to a particular niche, and that’s okay. He’s not really hurting anyone, simply playing to his audience much like Duchamp or any number of other artists do.

    I feel like the editors who publish him know this. Their job is to provide entertainment to their customers, and a certain segment of that base consists of literary snobs who like to occasionally be on the receiving end of some contempt.

    I’ve never read that writer’s longer works, so perhaps I’m in no position to comment on their work. Let me merely say that sneering contempt by an artist for their audience is the “in” things these days. If that’s the case with their writer, he could simply be importing that to the literary world.

  12. We’ve been down this road before. For me, it’s about not feeding the guy’s ego. So far as I can tell he is the way he is precisely because it gets attention. Nope, I’m not linking over or mentioning him by name. Just like I’ve not linked back to or named one or two other attention-mongering trouble-making writers, who seem to feed on controversy. In the end, my article isn’t even about him, it’s about the atttudes he displays. An attitude that rubs me wrong in the worst way possible.

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  14. Yes, much of modern art spits on its customers. Very few art enthusiasts, however, are crazy enough to stand still and be spat upon — at least not for long.

    The Dadaists thought they were being clever — and occasionally they were, in the same sense a graffiti scrawler occasionally comes up with something witty. But Duchamp’s “Fountain” was a potent symbol of the modus operandi of too many modern artists, which mostly involves crapping all over the notion that art ought to be about beauty, truth, honor, love, etc. Oh, and that — quelle horreur! — it ought to honor its patrons.

    Michelangelo worked for patrons. So did most of the great artists throughout history. They had to be beholden to the people who paid the bills, and under such strictures they created luminous, awe-inspiring works that will live on as long as human memory holds. Why modern artists, with such sad pencil shavings of talent compared to so many artistic geniuses of the past, should think it is beneath them to respect and write for their audiences is frankly beyond me.

  15. Well said, Soozcat! Well said. When I lived in Tacoma, I used to take the trolley and/or bus from down town, enroute to Seattle. There was a window space there which had rotating displays by local “modern” artists. Only one in three of those displays attempted to do anything I’d recognize as truly creative, or something pleasing to the eye. The majority of those displays were raw trash. No talent displayed, usually something offensive or otherwise bizarre and/or strange-looking. A little slot in the side let passers-by thrust notes into the display. On the truly ugly and/or strange displays, there was always a small mountain of notes piled near the slot inside the glass, some with four-lettered exclamations of disgust. I can only assume the artists took it as a matter of pride that they’d managed to upset so many people. A truly strange mentality for any creative person, if you ask me.

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