Thursday, September 25, 2014

Can a Humanist Write Fantasy in Good Conscience?

The Goddess Durga
The Highest-Mother-Who-Has-No-Name
with her star nurseries

When I first started this self-publishing effort, I happened to make the acquaintance of an indie author who was a convinced atheist.  This writer abjured fantasy in all forms because of the underlying premise of magic, which assumes a spiritual foundation not grounded in science.  This writer would read science fiction, but  only if it omitted all non-material assumptions.  Since then, I've encountered other atheists who seem to feel the same way.  The most convinced atheist is a fullblown materialist and simply can't allow for anything unexplainable by science.
        Those of you who may have followed this blog since its early days will remember that I'm a humanist. Humanists are by definition supposed to be atheists, but I reject that appellation because my view is more that of the agnostic -- I reject the notion that it's possible to know anything about god or gods, but I leave the possibility open that something beyond the explanatory ability of science might exist.  
       So how does one define belief?  I define it as conviction without proof.  A convinced religionist "believes" that he/she knows the truth, but the fact is that there is no way to prove if that person is right.  A convinced atheist "believes" there is nothing spiritual anywhere, but he/she has no proof, either.  That's why I reject dogmatism (of either the religious or the atheistic variety) and view it as the source of countable wars and evil acts committed against the best principles of right behavior (what I call the Right Way) that are embedded (along with the capacity for evil) in the human consciousness.
       I see humanity as having the capacity to fix things on their own without the intervention of gods, and that is what I mean by humanist. However, while many humanists are atheists, I call myself a spiritual humanist.  I simply state that you cannot know the truth about what might be beyond the ken of science.  Therefore, I have no problem with belief in itself.  My problem is  with those who believe so strongly in their rectitude that they want to force their belief on the whole world,  either through conversion (under corecion if necessary) or by  eliminating those damned recalcitrant sinners, individually or through warfare.
       Consequently, I can enjoy fantasy -- stories with spiritual or magic elements in them -- and I can write such stories.  (And I want to add parenthetically that I realize not all atheists reject fantasy; some simply accept the role of the imagination in human endeavors, suspend disbelief, and enjoy themselves.)  All of my books include some spiritual elements.  I can write in The Termite Queen about a future history of Earth that has rejected religion and lives by the humanist Mythmaker principles, but in the same book I can write about a termite planet that has Seers who are in touch with a Mother Goddess who lives among the stars.  And I can conclude that book with references to Christianity, which I think not everybody who has read the book has recognized.  Kwi'ga'ga'tei the Seer takes the sins of the universe on herself (TheWound That Will Not Heal) and atones for them.  The myths of all religions can be adapted for many purposes.
       Similarly, in the series The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head, I retell (among other epics) the Song of Roland.  When I was rereading it in preparation for adapting it, I was struck by how in medieval times both the Christians and the Saracens called each other infidel and how we're still fighting that useless war today -- a war over disparate "truths" neither of which can ever be proven.  So I made the Marcher Shshi and the People of the Cave to be at war with each other over the "truth" of whether the Highest Mother lives in the sky or in the ground.  In the beginning Di'fa'kro'mi the Remembrancer is rather shocked, because he has never encountered any form of worship other than of the Sky Mother, but as time passes, he comes to realize that it doesn't matter which way you perceive the Goddess -- what matters is the way you behave toward your fellow "humans" and how you honor the principle for which the Goddess stands -- in a termite context, the rare and beautiful procreative principle.  I think all this is quite pertinent to our own sad times. 
       My WIP The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars is much more a work of literary science fiction than it is a fantasy and it explores the nature of the humanist future of Earth more fully than I had space to do in The Termite Queen.  But even in MWFB there are elements of fantasy.  We see how religion has evolved into remnant communities that are sanctioned by EarthGov as long as they keep their worship private and don't proselytize.  In some cases Enclaves are chartered by EarthGov, in which communities of religionist believers can operate openly, again as long as they remain within the Enclave boundaries and keep the rules established in their charters. 
       However, I also investigate what might exist in the unexplored reaches of space.  Could there be something unexplainable out there, something that might not want us entering its domain?  Or is the entity only a figment of a disturbed mind?  This is mostly developed much later in the book, but I do have one reader of my unfinished opus who really likes the book but who, as an atheist, has complained that he would perfer I stuck to the scientific, no matter how fanciful my science is, and omit anything spiritual.  Well, I can't do that.  The concept of the spiritual is deeply embedded in the psychology of the intelligent being, and much of the wonder that exists in our lives comes from things we can't explain. 
       I constructed my future history around a group of 20 ethical precepts called the Mythmaker Precepts.  You can read my earlier posts on the topic here under the label Mythmakers in the sidebar, but it's best to start with the first one, Who Are the Mythmakers and Why Do They Matter? and then proceed through the series. The instinctive impulse toward belief  is embodied in the myths that humans devised to explain the world in a time less versed in scientific methodology.  I see fantasy as modern myth (I've stated elsewhere that most significant fiction has an element of fantasy within it [see Defining Fantasy according to TermiteWriter]).  Those myths become metaphors for important moral and ethical considerations; they clothe the deepest insights of modern man in wonder and give those insights a psychological and emotional foundation.  They can teach us and move us and appeal to our deepest selves.

Virgin Mary, Folk Art, Peru
19th century

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Curmudgeonly Pontification on Editors and Self-Promotion

       I'm plenty old enough to be called a curmudgeon and I've occasionally written a post where I assume that appellation. A couple of observations have occurred to me lately that fall under that category.
Editors and Editing

Thanks to
       I'm probably the only person around who prefers to indulge in that tremendous no-no, the violation of which shocks and horrifies!  I prefer to edit my own books.
       I have recently encountered someone who knew her book needed editing, so she hired an editor and paid good money, and then everybody who reviewed the book talked about how poorly edited it was (including me).  I am not about to waste money for somebody to do what I can do better, and I have no desire to be patronized by somebody who just assumes that if you're looking for an editor, you yourself are an uneducated simpleton.   (To be fair, I should insert a disclaimer here: I realize that not all editors are like that.)
       I have a sufficient academic background in English and language that I think I know how to write English using correct grammar and usage.  And I certainly know how to look things up, not only in the dictionary but in other tools.  I was a librarian, for goodness sake!  And when I first started writing when I was 29, I had my mother right there.  She was an English teacher and she's the one who taught me most of what I know about grammar and usage.  She and I proofread my early writing together, in the proper way -- with one person following the manuscript and the other reading in a slow, detailed way -- one word at a time, with all the punctuation verbalized.  Somewhere along the line I was taught that method, but it doesn't seem to be something anybody knows about these days.
       Now my mother is gone and I don't have anybody to proofread with, and I'm aware that when you proofread by yourself, you can miss a lot of typos.  So I apologize if a few typos slip through, or possibly the occasional small grammatical error.  Still, I trust myself to catch, for example, misuses of  homophones like "horde" and "hoard," a couple of words I always check out in every book so I don't have the Shshi sending out a "hoard" to found a new fortress.
       I think the reason people need editors so badly (apart from dyslexia, which can't be helped) is inferior education (and also poor typing skills, but that's a different problem).  Where were they during their high school English language classes?  Off in some adolescent haze, I guess, because it was obvious they ain't never gonna have no use for what the teacher was trying to larn 'em.  I think that's always been true to a considerable extent.  I'm quite sure many people who sat in my mother's classes back in the '30s, '40s, and '50s didn't learn grammar any better than the kids do today.
Thanks to
       We indie authors beat our brains out trying to get people to buy our books.  I list all my special prices on Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, Google+, and in special forums and listings. I post them on my blog and I get promos on websites like The Story Reading Ape (bless his furry hide!)  I've been interviewed, and I thank all those interviewers.   I belong to several book promo groups on Facebook and Google+.  You put your posts on those and immediately they sink like a stone in the sea. 
       So I've decided all this is based on a false premise:  that people are actually out there trolling all these sites, looking for books to gobble up in order to fill their cavernous maws that hunger for reading matter. 
       I don't think this is true at all -- I don't think anybody is looking for books to read.  I'm basing this on myself.  I admit I hardly ever pay any attention to the myriad of books posted on these sites (not cites, you notice).  That's probably a flaw -- I should pay more attention, especially if I want them to pay attention back.  First off, who has time to investigate every book that's just been published?  Secondly, most of these books are in genres I have absolutely no interest in.  Erotic romance? Forget it!  Vampires?  Likewise (I have read one or two with vampires).  Zombies?  tha'sask|>|| as my Shshi would say.  Paranormal in general?  Nope!  I realize that my interests and the books that I write are literary in style and trends don't attract me.  I've even quit reading most high fantasy (dragons and elves and magic don't seem to appeal much to me these days).  I read tons of it in the '70s and '80s, as well as a good bit of more traditional science fiction.  Ursula K. LeGuin was my favorite, however, and I think everybody realizes her stuff is pretty literary in tone -- carefully crafted, with deeply dimensioned characters.   That's what I like, and I hope that's what I write, whether it's laid in the real world of the future or on a distant planet.
       There are many books that I would like to read before I die and unfortunately most of them were written years ago -- standards that I never got around to reading earlier, like The Great Gatsby or The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende.  I cannot possibly check out every book that crops up on a promo listing no matter how much I want to support indie authors. When I do, sadly, the books often turn out to be a waste of time.  It's not only poor editing -- it's that the authors think they can toss off a book in a week or a month and publish it immediately and have a masterpiece that sells a million copies.  They need to write ... and write ... and write ... and put the manuscript away and let it cook and then go back to it months or years later after they've gained more knowledge and experience, and then judge if it was really any good.  Perspective -- authors need to gain perspective on their own works by coming to them as if they were new.  I have no intention of ever publishing anything I wrote in the first eight years of my writing life.  I rewrote it so many times that the beginning became nothing but a jumble.  I do have a couple of manuscripts from the late '70s or early '80s (the period around the writing of "The Blessing of Krozem," my free novelette on Smashwords) that I may resurrect someday, but much as I loved the really early stuff when I wrote it, I think it's consigned to oblivion.  Juvenilia, they call it -- only I was in my thirties at the time! 
       So I apologize if I cannot pay attention to every indie-published book out there, and I understand why mine get ignored.  If I don't like to read erotic romances, the writers of erotic romances surely don't want to read character studies of giant termite people.  But somebody out there does want to, and that's why I don't give up.  You just have to find your readership.  That is what is important, and probably the hardest thing you have to do!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How Do My Books Fit an Agent's Criteria?

Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head
Stands Guard
In the foreground (from left):
A'zhu'lo (Ki'shto'ba's twin),
Wei'tu and Twa'sei
(the smallest Worker),
Di'fa'kro'mi the Remembrancer
(a Star-Winged Alate)
       On his excellent blog Nicholas Rossis recently published a post entitled The Worst Way to Begin a Novel. His criteria are excerpted from The Write Life and enumerate complaints of agents that can cause rejection.  I decided it would be interesting to consider some of my own books in relation to these criteria, so here goes!
"Prologues: not so much! Agents find them boring and think that it’s much better to include the description of the prologue in the actual story plot."
       I have only one book with an addition called "Prologue" at the beginning.  It's my WIP entitled The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars.  I extracted this and published it in the first Read for Animals book (proceeds going to support animal shelters) because it deals with a wounded eagle.    I'm thinking if I ever publish that humongous novel, I might retitle the Prologue as Chapter 1, because it relates directly to something that happens early on in the book and also to the book's broader theme of the eponymous Captain as a wounded man.  Furthermore, it's quite absorbing in itself.  I wouldn't want to omit it.
       However, all of my Ki'shto'ba books have introductory matter, specifically, a Translator's Foreword, because I've set up a scholarly framework.  These are tales written by an extraterrestrial and they require scholarly explanations. 
"No dreams in the first chapter: it makes readers identify with a story plot and/or a character/situation and then realize there was no point it, since it was not real. This can make them feel cheated."
       Not sure I agree with this premise, because dreams can be quite revelatory of a character's psychological state, so they can enrich the reader's understanding.  Why would that make you feel cheated?  That said, I've never written a dream in a first chapter.

"Too many descriptive adjectives: 'overwriting' is considered the mark of amateurish writing, as is language that’s too rich for its good.  As I always say, don’t let your writing get in the way of your story."
       I think Nicholas and I agree on this one.  I may occasionally violate it, although I'm not going to dig for an example.  You'll just have to read my books and decide for yourselves.

"No long descriptions: it’s all a question of balance between plot and description. You want to create a setting, but describing the colour of the flower in the vase for three paragraph could be dull."
       I think I deal with that pretty well, most of the time.  In Chapter 2 ("In the Nu'wiv'mi Marsh") of the second volume of the Ki'shto'ba series, there is quite a lot of description of the Companions' surroundings, including the plants and animals. I think any conworlder would appreciate that -- how can you construct a world and then not describe it?  And this watery environment is new to the characters in the story as well, so it fascinates them.
"Action: literary agents want action in the first chapter so that they -- and the readers -- get hooked."
       I sometimes violate this one.  I think I handled it OK in The Termite Queen, v.1, because the first short chapter is an internal monologue of the captive termite, and the second chapter introduces some characters in a way that doesn't explain everything (Who is this strange being on the other end of the com link?  Why does he talk in musical notes?  I want more!)  However, I confess that in the Ki'shto'ba series, I sometimes open with a chapter where Di'fa'kro'mi is simply talking with his scribe about his present life, his old age, how he happened to invent writing, etc.  The books often don't have much action until the second chapter or even later because that's where our narrator begins the actual story.  But when you get to that point, things pop. 
       Here are some sample openings of the main part of the text:
       Vol. 2: The Storm-Wing:
“We are lost.  I mean, we are quite lost!  Yes, I have to admit it.  I am not at all sure of the way!”
Ra’fa’kat’wei’s confession did nothing to improve my mood.  I was covered with mud, my wings were encrusted with drying shreds of water-weed, and I was sprawled on my belly huffing with fatigue.  So my rejoinder was tart.
“A fine guide you have turned out to be!  You said you knew all the paths!”
Vol. 3: The Valley of Thorns (this sets a tone of nostalgia, an anticipation of something that will be lost, including a bit of foreshadowing):
As travel-weary as they were, the Marcher Commander Gri’a’ein’zei’a disdained to rest its company long, saying that the situation demanded speed.  The following day we spoke our final farewells to our good friend Sa’ti’a’i’a, girded on our gear, and regretfully allowed No’sta’pan’cha to slip into our past.  When we came to the Ya’ur’akh’on, I looked down the valley toward the land where that river had another name.  My home fortress of Lo’ro’ra lay somewhere out there, past the distant haze that eternally hung upon the swamp Nu’wiv’mi, down the river called Rim’pol’bu, between the volcanoes, beyond Za’dut’s home fortress of Kwai’kwai’za.  I would not come even that close to the place of my hatching again in many season-cycles … so many …
Vol. 4: Beneath the Mountain of Heavy Fear (where  the Companions first encounter Bu'gan'zei, the Orpheus character):
       A wind had sprung up – the tree limbs seemed to be dancing and from a nearby overhang some stones broke loose and skittered down …
       Is’a’pai’a was the first to receive the sending and it stopped so abruptly that Wei’tu and Za’dut bumped into its posterior.  Then we all took the sensation – an antenna-buzz at once penetrating and delicate, so unusual that we were all entranced.  Simultaneously there was the smell of a male At’ein’zei Alate, along with the rank odor of reptiles and the feather-stench of birds!
       “Holy Nameless!  What can that be?” Ra’fa’kat’wei exclaimed.
       And then we detected words in the sending …
Finally, my latest publication, v.5: The Wood Where the Two Moons Shine (also an example of my description):
       After safely negotiating the daunting bridge that crossed the Sho’gwai’grin at the Great Waterfall, we found ourselves descending an ancient zigzag path that had been hollowed out by the scraping of countless claws.  Off to our right, the escarpment, an impassable precipice layered with gray and white and brown stone, stretched westward until it vanished into the distance.  To the southeast, beyond the end of the spur, we could see the glinting line of the river, with cliffs continuing to abut it on the east.  If we were to follow the west bank of that river, it would bring us into Gwai’sho’zei country and lead us quickly to the sea.
       Our immediate destination lay southwest, however.  In that direction we could see stubby hills thickly covered with dark trees and hung about with mist.  I always associate mist with these lands in which we would spend the final days of Ki’shto’ba’s quest. 
Personally, I think those are pretty good opening paragraphs, but I could be prejudiced!

"Make the reader want to learn more: the literary agent wants to see something captivating about the character, something that will make her read more in order to discover the plot and how the character unwinds."  And I'm combining with this: "Characters that are too perfect."
       Character is all, in my opinion!  Well, not all, of course -- a good tale needs many layers and aspects -- but still, if the characters are crudely drawn, cliched and commonplace, the whole story falls flat.  The good guys and the heroines need to have flaws and quirks that make them human (even if they are alien termites! -- "human" is in the eye of the beholder!)  And the villains ...  well, it's nice to have a villain that has redeeming qualities -- whose motivations are comprehensible -- although I confess to finding few redeeming qualities in Mo'gri'ta'tu (the villain who wreaks such havoc in The Termite Queen).  But then I based Mo'gri'ta'tu on Iago in Othello, who is frequently criticized for having unclear motivations.  The villain in The Wood Where the Two Moons Shine is possibly a little easier to understand, although he is even more devious and evil than Mo'gri'ta'tu, if that's possible.

"Don’t describe your characters fully in the first chapter: a), it’s boring, b) you really need to leave mystery for the rest of the book."
       My characters never emerge all at once; after all I've written some 600,000 words in the Ki'shto'ba series (averaging about 100,000 words per volume).  If they all emerged in the first chapter, nothing would be left to write!  They change and grow as the series progresses -- every single one of them.

"Unrealistic situations: literary agents feel that however inventive and imaginative a book can be, some things have to remain genuine and authentic, especially when it comes to human reactions."
       So how do you remain "genuine and authentic" when you're writing about giant alien termites?  You do it just as I said above -- you make them as close to human as you can.  You show that extraterrestrials -- aliens, if we must call them that -- may very well share the human qualities of compassion, caring, loyalty, self-sacrifice, adventurousness, joy, grief, and humor.  They also share characteristics  like intelligence, stupidity, anger, betrayal, sibling rivalry, a desire for revenge, and the ability to forgive.  It doesn't matter if they have three Castes and all of them are deaf and two Castes are blind.  It doesn't matter if they can only speak through their antennae, if they breathe through the sides of their bellies, if the Warriors can't feed themselves, if some of the species eat their own dung, or if all of them are necrophages.  What really matters is what is in their guts, or as humans might prefer to say, in their hearts -- their several hearts.  That is what makes them "genuine and authentic" and I'm egocentric enough to think I achieve that.  Whether a literary agent would ever think so is irrelevant.

Thanks again to Nicholas Rossis for giving me the idea for this blog post.