Keeping It Real
As everyone (!) knows, I’m both an addicted reader and cheap.
No, this does not mean I can read highly complex books all the time, much less books for critique, because those require brain space and thought. So if I say I haven’t had time to read this or that (and that some of my favorite authors) it’s because it takes more brain space than what I call Popcorn reads: stuff I read while writing intensively
These reads are rather like pacifiers, something to calm the impulse to read when no brain space is available, and I often fill-in with re-reads. Or I read inoccuous, simple stuff.
The thing about the simple stuff, lost in publishing’s obsession with “big reads” and “blockbusters” over the last couple of decades, is that it’s not necessarily bad. In fact, that sort of stuff that is successful is often quite good, and a display of the best in craft. But it is to an extent formulaic and/or short and lacking in subplots. It also often has continuing characters a “repeat feel”. Examples of the greats of this used to be midlist are Rex Stout, Earle Stanley Gardner, and the various authors of episodic fiction. In the same vein, there is say Time Wars by Simon Hawk. These were not isolated “great fiction” examples that could be pushed to one-time success, but reliable reads, which, once you were into the series, split the difference between new reads and comfort reads.
(A digression: Entire careers used to be made this way. In fact, it was what the so called midlist was supposed to be, before it became “books we’re not going to bother promoting because we don’t think they’ll make a million dollars.” And properly managed the midlist is the backbone of a publishing business. Make no mistake, part of the reason publishing is in trouble is because it neglected the vital business of feeding the addicts. This is important because those of us who are super-readers are ultimately self-medicating for something and if we can’t find enough fodder for our “medication” in books we start looking elsewhere. I find that nature and historical documentaries can achieve the same result, and other people go to games. Once they make that their main form of palliative for whatever drives them to do it, they’re not going to come back to read the “big, overly promoted blockbuster.” They have found other forms of entertainment. So when you stopped publishing a quality mid list and viewed the midlist as a place to dump books aiming for blockbuster that you didn’t think deserved the same push, you failed.)
Anyway, after this lengthy digression: what had me thinking about making fiction “real” is that I’ve been reading so much of it that just falls short.
Now, we’ve agreed fiction isn’t the real world, and I’ve taught you guys to try not to strive for “real” because real life is eternities of boredom interspersed with moments of utter panic. And that doesn’t make for very good reads. Also the plot of real life is chaotic and there are way too many subplots to make sense.
But that doesn’t mean that your books should at no point impress the reader as being real. In fact, your challenge is to convince the reader that your made up world, your made up characters and your out-of-whole-cloth story is real enough to affect the emotions. That which our backbrain doesn’t see as real, it won’t care about.
Which brings us to the books I’ve been devouring back to back, between writing jags. Most of them are the opposite of what you should be doing. I’ve found that Regency Romance is truly the place where that big dump of bad the traditionals expected when indie opened has gone to die. When reading science fiction or mystery I often can’t tell if the book is traditionally published, except that there’s more diversity of world view in indie. In Romance I usually can tell, but the caveat here is that one of the very worst things I’ve read is reissued indie after being published traditionally and is published by a “NYT bestseller”. So, you heard it here first: Romance is so big it supports even bad writing.
However, imagine how much better it could be if you wrote well. How many more people you could reach.
So, to begin with, what are the elements of “real.”
1 -The first one is easy: do your fargin research. There are books out there that will bullet proof your book to anything but experts (nothing will bullet proof it to experts. No seriously. Most of them don’t agree with each other.)
This is important for historical and science fiction, of course, but DO NOT think this means your near future or even present story doesn’t need research. One of the questions that took me the longest to resolve, for a book, was “Does an oxygen tank need to explode when pierced.” (I outsourced it, but it took my researcher a while to figure that out.)
Yes, it’s more “fun” to build your book with no regard to objective reality. It will also cause you to lose readers not just of that book but of all future ones. (Except me. I have lousy memory for names, unless I LOVED your book, and even then usually only by the second or third. So you get near infinite chances with me.)
2 – Do not obscure the writing with a lot of your opinions, philosophies and views of life. Save that for the blogs. Okay, this is not true. You can do it, if it fits the character voice, which is what I try to do in DST and Earth Revolution, and which Heinlein did pretty well. BUT do not do it as an omnipresent, omniscient, not-in-the-story narrator. The more you do go on, the more we get tired of reading unmoored stories.
This is not even just for politics, morals, etc. I’ve found the main difference between Heyer and modern regency writers is that Heyer never felt the need to talk at LENGTH about how her characters felt about each other every minute. Yeah, sure, she gave us hints, but most of it was showing not telling.
We’ll discuss how you can be fooled into thinking telling is showing, how to port-in your telling when absolutely needed, etc.
3- Those touches of grace that make a completely unlikely story sound real are mostly grounded on empathy and things we know to be true about ourselves, and therefore will know to be true about others.
But, say you, how can I write planet conquering, or death of a baby, or… when I’ve not experienced that? Part is research. Part is method acting. I’ll try to give you tips and tricks and, in this case, there might be homework.
So – Next week: Researching to the Book, or the techniques of targeted research.
*I do not charge for these mini courses. You are of course free to sashay over to my blog and send me $5 on paypal, for kitty kibble. Or, if you enjoy my other writing, you can buy something of mine.
Recently I removed all my short stories from sale on Amazon. I had probably 50 individual stories (which don’t sell very well) and I thought my timeline would be too clogged for people to find the novels, which meant I was underperforming my friends with less stuff out. My experiment proved right, because my income about doubled. However, I don’t believe in having stuff in the drawer and not earning. SO I’m assembling those into collections, and putting them out. Every collection contains a “new” story at least — meaning stories that might have been published in an anthology or a magazine, but which I personally haven’t put out — and it collects them all in a convenient place, without the distraction of dozens of titles. This weekend I assembled the one below (and there will be a paper book as soon as I stop arguing with Createspace. The same for the other books I put out without a paper version. And because I keep getting this question: Yes, I made the cover. The main woman, the background and the wings are different images that I got for free (I THINK Pixabay, though the wings might have been renderosity.) I then ran it through filter forge.*