Saturday, December 26, 2015

Can You Make Your Readers Cry?

Sentimental -- what does the word mean?
I found this picture at  North American Victorian Studies Assoc.
No artist was given or further credit,
but it certainly sums up Victorian sentimentality
       According to, sentimental means "expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia [as] a sentimental song."  But the entry goes on to give another meaning: "weakly emotional; mawkishly susceptible or tender [as] the sentimental Victorians." It's that latter meaning that critics commonly employ when they condemn a book as sentimental.  I was always taught as an English major to avoid sentimentality at all costs.
       Yet as a writer I agree with that only up to a point.  I certainly believe that excessive, unjustified emotion should be avoided.  The story that dwells on the "tragedy" of a dead kitten or emotes for pages about how much a mother loves her dying child is not my cup of tea.  And of course I think many stories don't require any sentiment -- for example, murder mysteries or crime stories, especially the kind where the fun part is solving the mystery; or straightforward adventure tales, like the Indiana Jones movies; or a lot of science fiction, particularly the space opera variety.
       But any story that focuses on character needs to bring the reader to tears at some point, because that demonstrates that the author succeeded in making the reader care about the character.  If you read straight through and close the book and say, "That's an OK story, but now I'm done at last and I can forget about it" -- or worse, if the reader abandons reading halfway through, saying, "Ho hum, I just can't get involved emotionally with these characters," then I fear the writer has failed.
       Can you believe that a number of people who have read my series The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head, and also its precursor, my novel The Termite Queen, have told me they have teared up or even wept at certain points of the stories?  I take that as a great compliment.  My characters are mostly giant extraterrestrial termites (called the Shshi) -- bristly, rather stinky bugs with no facial expressions beyond what their antennae can convey and strange habits like eating their primary dung in order to extract all the nutrients and also recycling their dead by eating them and thus conserving the protein.  How can you cry over such repulsive creatures?
       The fact that you can proves that I made them "human" -- I made them relatable to the human  psyche.  I read a SF book once (and frankly I can't remember the name of the book or its author now) that had an extraterrestrial race that was amphibious -- big frog-like creatures that spawned in water.  It was narrated from the point of view of the humans who had made first contact with that race, and I never could feel any relationship to them -- they remained remote and just too "alien."
       I think mine is successful partly because I tell the story from the point of view of the Shshi.  In The Termite Queen the point of view switches between the human anthropological team and the Shshi with whom first contact is being made, but the Ki'shto'ba series is narrated entirely from the Shshi perspective, allowing the reader to delve into their essence.  The reader can identify with creatures who have moral principles (or lack them, or are misguided), who care deeply about each other and the foundations of their way of life, who work together, rejoice when something good happens and grieve over loss.  They live full, realistic lives, which means not everything can always work out the way the reader might like.  That can make the reader say, "Not this character!  How could the author do that to this innocent character?" and that can bring on tears.
       I consider tears of that sort to be genuine emotion, and genuine emotion cannot be characterized as sentimentality.  Just killing off a character does not make me weep -- you've got to care about the character that was killed.  That's why we have "red shirts" -- because we need a surrogate for the main characters in whom we have a lot invested.  I can't give anybody instructions on how to make the reader care -- I'm not much of a teacher of writing skills -- but I seem to have succeeded with everybody who has read the entire Ki'shto'ba series.  Heck, I even succeeded with myself -- if I read some of the painful parts after being away from them for a while, I end up weeping over them every time!

       Why don't you give my books a try and see for yourselves if I succeeded?

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

A 28th-Century Christmas in Ireland

Wearing his "Mairin and Jaysus"
medal.  The drawing could use a
little retouching, I think.
I'm preparing my WIP, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Part 1, for publication. Some of you may remember that it's a fictionalized biography of Robbin Haysus Nikalishin, the starship Captain who made the first contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life in the 28th century  As a child attending the Epping Science Academy in the Islands of Britan, he became close friends with a fellow student,  who hailed from Eira, as Ireland is called in that period.  Kolm's home is an agricultural co-op not far from Wicklo, and when Robbie was 17 years old, he went home with his Eirish friend Kolm MaGilligoody, to spend the Midwinter Holiday on his family's farm near Wicklo.  I published this excerpt once before, but I thought it would be appropriate to republish the post.  (I've added a drawing of Kolm MaGilligoody that I made a long time ago.  I don't think I've published it before.)
       Some of you may also remember that in my future history, Earth has banned the open practice of religion because of the evils that dogmatic religious institutions have perpetrated over the millennia.  However, remnant groups of several different ancient religions have persisted and are tolerated as long as they keep a low profile, do not proselytize, and do not form organized entities dedicated to the promotion of their beliefs.  The Remnant Romishers in Eira are one such group.  Parenthetically, Robbie's middle name, Haysus, is an anglification of the Spainish Jesus, so he is always curious about the linking of the name to a god.
       Here is the excerpt from Chapter 9: Robbie's First Visit to Eira.
       Robbie had never heard of anything like the Eirish Midwinter festivity; his knowledge of the Romish religion came solely from a brief exposition in one of Prf. Doone’s classes.  Kolm’s father explained that the celebration took place on the solstice and incorporated elements from what ancient Romish worshipers had called “Krismess.”  The MaGilligoodys set up an array of little figurines in a cave-like setting; they called it a “kraytch.”  There was a woman in a blue gown with sparkly trim on it, a baby lying in a cradle, and a man standing beside them.  From the top of the cave projected a wire with a star on it, something like the star on Robbie’s space plane. Sheep and donkeys and (mystifyingly) a camel were arrayed around, and winged fairies were stuck up on the wall behind.  Facing this tableau were two men dressed in bright robes, holding out a box and a vial. 
       Kolm said, “There are supposed to be three of those, but last year one of ’em disappeared.  I think maybe one of the cats got holt of it and carried it off.”
       “What’s it represent?” asked Robbie, watching Kolm’s Grammy lighting fat beeswax candles at each end of the scene.
       “It’s the birth of that god-man Jaysus that’s on me medal,” said Kolm.  “That’s his mother Mairin watchin’ over him.  He was supposed to have been born this time of the year – that’s what we’re celebratin’.”
       “Who’s the man?  I thought you said he didn’t have a father.”
       “It’s his foster father, name of Josef.  Mairin was married to him, ’cause that was back in the days when women had to have men to look after them.”
       “What’s the star for?”
       “They say it burst out bright in the sky at Jaysus’s birth.  Probably a supernova, you know, if it ever really happened a-tall.  And the family was so poor that the babby was birthed in a barn, and yet this star set up right atop it.  Those chaps in the robes – they call ’em Wise Men – Professors, most likely … they got its coordinates and brought fancy gifts to Jaysus to show they recognized he was a god.  It’s supposed to have happened somewhere at the east end of the Mediterrian, where it’s all a Devastation Zone now.  A pretty tale, it is.”
       “And you Eirish really worship this god?” asked Robbie, looking at Kolm’s father.
       “Oh, I don’t know that I’d call it worship, lad,” Mat MaGilligoody said.  “But we Eirish tend to be a superstitious lot.  If it’s not gods, it’s fairies, ye know.  Two of those even got hooked up in this tale, ye can see there.  It’s just part of our tradition to do these here things at Midwinter – a nice, peaceful way of celebratin’.”
       Robbie found it totally bizarre, but nevertheless he stood looking at the baby and at the mother and at the star, unable to interpret the emotions stirring within him.
       On the solstice they had a big feast (the main course was goose, which made Robbie a little uncomfortable, afraid he was eating the one whose acquaintance he had made) and then they sang traditional songs.  Some were in an ancient tongue whose meaning was unknown even to the MaGilligoodys, but one was in an archaic dialect of Inge. 
Silent night, holy night ...
All is calm, and all is bright
Around the virgin mother and child –
oly infant, all tender, all mild …
May they sleep in a haven of peace …
Sleep in a haven of peace …
 Robbie thought he had never heard a song so tranquil and so moving.  “That mother and child – that’s your Mairin and Jaysus?” he asked.
       “Right.  The same as is in the kraytch,” said Mat.
       “I can’t help being a little surprised.  I thought the ancient religions were supposed to be violent and evil.  This doesn’t seem that way.”
       And Kolm’s mother said, “I’ve an idea, friend of me son, that none of them was violent in its heart.  I think it’s the hearts of humans that misunderstood the Right Way and made ’em so.”
       Later in the evening, Kolm played a tin whistle, a talent Robbie hadn’t known he possessed, and Kolm’s father played a grotesque musical instrument where the air was forced through a bag.  They told ancient Eirish stories that included tragic romances between humans and fairy folk, and they drank mulled ale; it was not Robbie’s first taste of alcohol, but it was his first time to drink a little more than was wise.  The next morning he was privileged to experience his first hangover.
       When the time came to return to school, the boys treated themselves to a sea journey – taking an excursion boat across Sainjorge’s Channel instead of catching a wing hopper.  The craft was operated by Gwidian Tours, the enterprise of an old family of seafarers from Kardif.  It was yet another first for Robbie – his first time to bob on the waters of the sea.  He got a bit queasy, but it excited him tremendously, and he hated to see the trip end.
       “Ye’re kinda quiet, lad,” said Kolm, as they neared the harbor.  “What are ye thinking about?”
       “I’m thinking that I envy you, Goody,” Robbie replied.  “I didn’t know – I couldn’t have realized – how happy people could be … with a family like yours … ”
       Kolm clapped him on the shoulder.  “Well, ye do seem to have had a bit of a rough time in yer life, friend of mine.  But ye’re welcome in my family.  Ye’re welcome to come back and soil yer boots in the goose shit as often as ye like!”