A Personal List of the 20 Best Science-Fiction Novels

Posted October 7, 2022 by fencer
Categories: Art, Book Review, Culture, fiction, Novel, psychology, Remembering, Science Fiction, Transcendentalists, Writing

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Often the internet seems like a collection of lists: the 100 best pop-songs, the 15 worst scams, and all the rest.  People seem to respond to numbered compilations.

In the science-fiction realm, I’ve read quite a few lists about some aspect of “best”, whether of this year, or by women authors, or the most technologically significant.

In the end, they are all personal lists – usually one person’s idea and often displaying whatever social correctness we are supposed to elevate.

This is my list, based on an admittedly incomplete sampling, although over quite a few decades.  Many of them were written in the 1950s through 1960s, which to me is the bedrock of modern science-fiction.  You can’t really understand where science-fiction is today without recognizing the immense talent that preceded the current flowering of the genre and its many brilliant authors.

If you were to read the novels mentioned here, I feel you could only come away with a deep appreciation for the wonder and otherness that science-fiction seeks to portray.

Such is the depth of the field that many variations of this list are possible.  This particular one though has stories that touched me on many different levels, and I think still could for anyone who reads them anew.

As I went through these titles, I was struck hard again by the sweep of imagination of the authors.  The daring.

A few of the entries below are trilogies or series, but in my mind those are one big novel.

I will go through them chronologically.

1. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

I was hard-pressed whether to select this dystopian novel, published in 1932, or George Orwell’s later take on the same theme, 1984.  I read them both in a log cabin in northern British Columbia in the 1960s as an impressionable boy.  They served to make me deeply suspicious of all forms of authority.

BNWIn the end, Huxley’s novel is the more menacing of the two.  While 1984 portrays overwhelming brutality against the individual by the state, in Brave New World people are effectively seduced to accept their utter servitude. As Huxley stated in a letter to Orwell:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

2. Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov

Set against a backdrop of galactic empire, the psychohistorian Hari Seldon founds a secretive branch of mathematical sociology.  It enables him to predict the future of large populations, and through it, he predicts the fall of the empire.  He foresees a new Dark Age lasting 30,000 years, but through his new discipline, he endeavours to slightly deflect for the better the onrushing series of events.  In later millenia he appears as a kind of hologram, although long dead, to help guide what happens, due to his calculations.

FoundationI still remember holding the hard-back volumes of this intriguing story by Isaac Asimov which began with the trilogy from 1951 onward, eventually extending to more volumes in the 1980s.  I read it several times during my teenage years.  Hari Seldon was an amazing character to me.  Foundation won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966.

Of course Isaac Asimov was one of the most famous of science-fiction writers, with work ranging from the I, Robot series to the novel The Caves of Steel.

3. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke

The human race is about to enter a new phase.  At the end of this poignant story, published in 1953, we come to understand that children are undergoing a transformation.  They are metamorphosing into something that transcends human existence.  The facilitators of this change are a tragic alien race who peacefully invaded Earth.

CEThe aliens are only caretakers of the human race while it undergoes the transformation into something spiritually superior.  What has been the human race will be no more.

The English author, Arthur C. Clarke was a writer, futurist and inventor who also wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other novels such as Rendezvous with Rama.  He was a well-known proponent of space travel. 

I remember him also for short stories such as The Nine Billion Names of God, where Tibetan monks strive to encode all the possible names of God.  They believe the universe was created for this purpose.  They need modern technology to complete their task, and enlist the expertise of two Westerners.  As the monks complete their long mission, “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” 

4. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon

A novel about six misfits, each with a strange power, who come together after many tribulations to form a new kind of human being, homo gestalt, a whole of combined consciousness.

MoreThe story, published in 1953, was praised by some reviewers for “its crystal-clear prose, its intense human warmth and its depth of psychological probing.”

Others said the novel “transcends its own terms and becomes Sturgeon’s greatest statement of one of his obsessive themes, loneliness and how to cure it.”

Sturgeon also coined “Sturgeons Law”: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.”

5. The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham

Another novel from 1953, this apocalyptic story begins with a journalist and his wife observing the fall of mysterious objects into the ocean.

Kraken

The story has three sections: the first where the aliens arrive and do mysterious underwater things, the second when the aliens attack in “sea tanks” that send out sticky tentacles and drag people into the water, and the third where the aliens raise the sea level and change the climate, and civilization collapses. This all takes place over many years.

A professorial third character with considerable insight tries to warn everyone about what may happen, but is widely ignored due to his alienating manner.

Even by the end of the novel, nobody ever sees the aliens.

Reviewers praised the novel as “a solid and admirable story of small-scale human reactions to vast terror.”

John Wyndham, a British author, also wrote The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids, among other notable works.

6. A Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Published in 1959 and winning the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel in 1961, this story covers a post-apocalyptic period of thousands of years. The apocalypse was occasioned by nuclear holocaust.

In the 26th century, Brother Francis Gerard of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz of the Catholic Church is on a vigil in the Utah desert. Brother Francis discovers the entrance to an ancient fallout shelter containing “relics”, such as a 20th-century shopping list which becomes sanctified as a holy remnant of an ancient world. The Church persists as the preserver of civilization.

Canticle

The novel has been subject to considerable literary and critical analysis. In other words, it came to be treated with respect outside the science-fiction genre.

The novel is structured in three parts separated by six hundred years. This book was my first exposure to any model of cultural history. In Miller’s own words from another work: “All societies go through three phases…. First there is the struggle to integrate in a hostile environment. Then, after integration, comes an explosive expansion of the culture-conquest…. Then a withering of the mother culture, and the rebellious rise of young cultures.”

In the end, this cyclical process catches up, in a tragic way, to all that humanity hopes to accomplish.

7. The High Crusade, Poul Anderson

When an extraterrestrial scout ship lands in medieval England, it is encountered by a knight recruiting a force to help Edward III in the Hundred Years War against France. It seems the aliens have forgotten how to do hand-to-hand combat, and Sir Roger and his men capture the ship.

High

The whole set-up still makes me grin. Sir Roger and company think the ship is a French trick. The local villagers finish off the rest of the alien force, except for one, and join the soldiers in the ship. Sir Roger determines to go to France to win the war and then liberate the Holy Land.

With the grudging aid of the last alien, representing a tyrannical empire bent on invading Earth, they take off. The alien misleads the Englishmen and the ship actually heads off towards another of the alien empire’s worlds. Adventures ensue.

The prolific Poul Anderson was one of the great science fiction authors. His books were nominated for seven Hugo and three Nebula awards. The High Crusade was published in 1960. Anderson also wrote such novels as There Will Be Time (1972) and The Boat of A Million Years (1989).

8. Dark Universe, Daniel Galouye

Another post-nuclear-apocalypse novel, Dark Universe from 1961 finds survivors retreated underground, where they live in total darkness.

Dark UniSince the survivors have no visual ideas of Light and Darkness, the concepts become religious. They believe that the Light Almighty banished humankind from Paradise during a conflict with the demon, Radiation, and his two lieutenants, Cobalt and Strontium.

Jared is the son of the leader of the survivors who use click-stones and echoes to navigate the darkness. Jared goes on a quest for Darkness and Light and encounters another clan of survivors who use infrared to get around.

Galouye creates an ingenious world, which in the end is redeemed by the Light. Many have noted the resemblance of the story to Plato’s allegory of the cave.

The novel was nominated for a Hugo in 1962, but lost out to the next novel in this list.

9. Stranger in A Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

This is the story of Michael Valentine Smith, born on Mars and raised by Martians, who comes to Earth and encounters the United States after World War III, where religions are powerful.

He becomes a celebrity and his presence begins to transform human society. He exhibits psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence, while having a kind of open-minded innocence.

However, his appearance and actions on Earth shake the political and cultural balance and his life becomes in danger.

According to Wikipedia, Heinlein named his main character “Smith” because of a speech he made at a science fiction convention regarding the unpronounceable names assigned to extraterrestrials.

Stranger

He also was to write about the novel, “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines.”

It became the first science-fiction novel to enter The New York Times Book Review‘s best-seller list.

During the 1960s, the book became a countercultural favorite, not least for the word “grok” which took on the meaning of a coming together of subject and object that can’t always be articulated. When you grok something, you not only understand it, you become, in some sense, a part of it, and it, a part of you.

10. The Immortals, James Gunn

Published in 1962 and incorporating several previously published stories, this is the chronicle of a small group of immortals surviving on the edge of a dystopian society which is striving to hunt them down.

Immortals

They are living fountains-of-youth, due to a genetic mutation, whose blood can make others immortal too (if replenished every month).

As one reviewer on Goodreads notes: “…The Immortals opens with scenes that could almost come from a crime novel rather than a science fiction story. Private detectives are hired, people are on the run, evil rich men will do anything to get what they want, no one can be trusted.”

I remember it for its thriller-like excitement and the tense pacing of its writing.

James Gunn, who only recently died in 2020, was a well-known professor of English and promoter of science-fiction as a humanistic endeavour at the University of Kansas.

11. Cities In Flight series, James Blish

This four book series was published from 1950 to 1962, but the one that sticks with me most was A Life For the Stars from 1962.

The premise is that entire cities from Earth fly among the stars using an anti-gravity device called the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator, or spindizzy for short.

Cities_in_Flight

The spindizzy allowed some cities to escape the oppression of a tyrannical regime on Earth and look for work among the other denizens of the galaxy.

The 1962 book describes the rise of 16-year-old Chris Deford who eventually becomes the city manager of New York City as it wanders through the cosmos.

These are stories for which the term “space opera” was invented.

The American writer James Blish also wrote a series of Star Trek novelizations and the Hugo Award winning A Case of Conscience in 1959.

12. Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

As a lonely teenager, there was something about this story of a young man managing a way station for time travelers that resonated with me. The young man, Enoch, stays the same age while those in the normal world around him get older, and this gets difficult to explain after a while. Originally he is a Civil War veteran.

Way

Eventually after a hundred years or so, the US Government takes an interest and a CIA agent is sent to investigate him. This is the beginning of many adventures.

Published in 1963, the book went on to win the 1964 Hugo Award for best novel.

Clifford Simak had an unique, warm style of writing.

He once stated:

“Overall, I have written in a quiet manner; there is little violence in my work. My focus has been on people, not on events. More often than not I have struck a hopeful note… I have, on occasions, tried to speak out for decency and compassion, for understanding, not only in the human, but in the cosmic sense. I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned where we, as a race, may be going, and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme….”

In 2019, Netflix announced plans, so far unfulfilled, to make a movie based on the book.

13. White Lotus, John Hersey

Here is a writer from the literary mainstream who created one of the best alternative history novels that I’ve come across. Some might call it speculative fiction, or other terms to make it more respectable, but it is still science-fiction to me.

In this 1965 novel, white Americans have become enslaved by the Chinese and are now a subservient race. The story follows a young Arizona girl renamed White Lotus.

White Lotus

In the memorable prologue of the story, White Lotus raises one knee and stands on the other foot to take the posture of a sleeping bird, in an effort to shame the Chinese governor as a non-violent protest against tyrannical treatment.

Her simple act of standing before her captors on one leg, head bowed like a sleeping bird becomes an often repeated act of nonviolent civil disobedience, an unconventional act in the spirit of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

John Hersey was born in China, the son of Protestant missionaries, and learned to speak Chinese before he learned English.

As a journalist, his account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, celebrated for its thoughtful and horrified humanity, was judged the finest piece of journalism of the 20th Century by a 36-person panel associated with New York University.

Hersey’s first novel, A Bell for Adano, about the Allied occupation of a Sicilian town during World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1945.

14. Ubik, Phillip K. Dick

Phillip Dick was a strange and volatile man. He is now celebrated for the movie adaptations of such writings as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner) and The Minority Report (Minority Report).

He had a hallucinogenic view of reality fed in part by actual hallucinogens.

But as Wikipedia points out:

Ubik

“His fiction explored varied philosophical and social questions such as the nature of reality, perception, human nature, and identity, and commonly featured characters struggling against elements such as alternate realities, illusory environments, monopolistic corporations, drug abuse, authoritarian governments, and altered states of consciousness.”

His 1969 novel Ubik illustrates much of this. In it psychic powers are used by corporations for business espionage, and cryonic technology preserves recently deceased people in hibernation.

It follows Joe Chip, a technician at a psychic agency who, after an assassination attempt, begins to experience strange alterations in reality that can be temporarily reversed by a mysterious store-bought substance called Ubik.

15. The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin

In this 1971 novel, a man wakes up one morning and discovers that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. 

From this simple and imaginative premise, Le Guin devises a tale about a man who goes to a psychiatrist about his problem. The psychiatrist understands immediately the power his patient wields.

Lathe

At one point the protagonist dreams of aliens who become a reality.

The patient finally understands that he must preserve reality itself as the psychiatrist becomes adept at manipulating the man’s dreams for his own purposes.

Of course Le Guin is famous for many of her thoughtful, culturally significant novels, including The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea trilogy. She also wrote much non-fiction, including essays about her craft, which I found quite inspiring (Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story).

16. The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner

This novel from 1972 is the third in what has been called British author Brunner’s near future “Club of Rome Quartet.” The Sheep Look Up concerned itself with consumerism and rampant pollution. Stand On Zanzibar was about overpopulation, The Jagged Orbit concerned itself with racial tension and violence, and the later The Shockwave Rider dealt with technology and future shock.

Sheep

As much as I admire these books and Brunner, they often now seem outdated, surpassed by actual events. But his prescience in many cases was spot-on. In Shockwave Rider from 1975, for instance, he created a computer hacker hero before anyone even heard of such a thing.

In The Sheep Look Up, water pollution is so severe that “don’t drink” notices are frequently issued. Household water filters are popular items. Air pollution has reached the point that people in urban areas can’t go outside without wearing masks. The fumes left behind by aircraft are such that it causes air sickness in planes trailing behind. California is blanketed by a thick layer of smog that prevents the sun from shining through. Acid rain forces people to cover themselves in plastic so that their clothes don’t get ruined. The sea has become so polluted and the beaches so strewn with garbage, that people now vacation in the mountains. (Not so far-fetched, no?)

It follows several characters over the course of a year as their paths intertwine while they struggle to cope with the drastic changes in the environment, and as the United States starts to collapse under the weight of pollution. It is a pessimistic novel redeemed for me by its somewhat experimental structure, and the density of its ideas and insights about our world’s problems.

17. Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg is one of my favorite science-fiction authors for the excellence of his writing, the philosophical cast of his mind, and his tendency towards themes of transcendence.

He is more celebrated for earlier novels such as A Time of Changes, The World Inside, and Downward to the Earth, deservedly so, but for some reason this novel sticks with me more.

Lord Val

Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980), part of what is known as the Majipoor Series, incorporates aliens, galactic empire, descendants of colonists, lords, castles and wizards to become that odd genre creature, science fantasy.

The story takes place on the gigantic planet Majipoor. It is about ten times the size of Earth, with cities often housing as many as 10-20 billion citizens. We follow a young man named Valentine who suffers from amnesia and who joins a troupe of jugglers during celebrations for the ascension of a new Coronal, the emperor of this planet, also named Valentine (which is said to be a very common name).

Gradually, we learn that the juggling Valentine has been robbed of most of his memories, and has had his true body stolen from him. He is the rightful Coronal of Majipoor.

The planet of Majipoor becomes another character in the narrative. It is full of people, creatures, machines, alien races and interesting locations.

This straightforward, in many ways, adventure story exhibits Silverberg’s wonderful writing craftsmanship.

18. Plague Year Trilogy, Jeff Carlson

Microscopic machines designed to fight cancer instead go awry and begin to disassemble warm-blooded tissue to make more of themselves. Eventually the human body succumbs to the onslaught of the spore-like machines. They spread like a virus by way of bodily fluids and through the air.

Plague

Either on purpose or as a design flaw, the nanovirus is limited by altitude, namely 10,000 feet. All warm-blooded animals are killed below that elevation, while humanity retreats to high places.

With thriller-like pacing, the Plague Year trilogy (begun in 2007) portrays humanity in extremis with two key characters struggling to survive and turn the tide. Over the three volumes, with Plague War in 2008, and Plague Zone in 2009, we are taken on a remarkable adventure. Cam, a ski bum with full emergency medical training and an impressive talent for survival, and Ruth, a genius capable of manipulating and designing nanotech together fight to save the world.

In 2008, Plague War was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Sadly, Jeff Carlson died in 2017 of cancer at only 48 years old.

19. The Passage Trilogy, Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin, another author from the literary mainstream, wrote The Passage, 2010, The Twelve, 2012, and The City of Mirrors, 2016, after his daughter asked him to write a book about a “girl who saves the world.”

Passage

These are books slightly hard to define in that they straddle the intersection of the science-fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Some blithely describe them as novels about vampires, which are a major element, but this categorization does an injustice to the depth of the writing, characterizations and story.

I was swept away by the quality of the writing. One reviewer said of the trilogy, “There is a sense as you read this series that you are witnessing the creation of a modern classic.”

Colonies of humans attempt to live in a world filled with superhuman creatures who are continually on the hunt for fresh blood. It all starts when an abandoned young girl named Amy becomes an unwitting test subject in an attempt to use an ancient Bolivian virus that may be the source of the vampire myth to create a perfect super soldier. That young girl goes on eventually after many harrowing adventures to eventually fulfill Cronin’s daughter’s wish.

The reviewer quoted above also writes: “The scope of the trilogy is staggering at times. We see characters grow from scared kids to brave heroes, going on to become parents, then grandparents, then legends.”

20. The Nexus Trilogy, Ramez Naam

This trilogy has been described as a “postcyberpunk thriller”. The three volumes, Nexus, Crux, and Apex were written by their American author (born in Egypt) from 2012-15.

Set in 2040, the hero Kaden Lane is a scientist who works on an experimental nano-drug, Nexus, which allows the brain to be programmed and networked, connecting human minds together. As he pursues his work, governments and corporations take an interest and begin to threaten.

Nexus

Near the beginning of the trilogy genetically enhanced supersoldiers become vegetarians and pacifists after being dosed with Nexus and realizing first-hand the suffering caused by their actions. At the same time, sociopaths dose with Nexus so they can feel the pain they inflict on others.

At the climax of the final book a distributed intelligence made up of thousands of Nexus-linked humans tries to save the world by healing a posthuman AI goddess who was tortured into madness by her near-sighted human captors.

I was enthralled by the books. The pacing and events are definitely that of a thriller, while the wild possibilities of computer-brain interfaces, and linked human consciousness, are explored in depth.

In Conclusion

This was a sentimental journey back to considering many of these novels, although their worth is much more, I would argue, than pure nostalgia.

I did realize one insight as a result of doing this. The force of thinking and feeling realized in Emerson’s and Thoreau’s transcendentalism, that quest for the true and transcendent in our lives, has gone largely dormant in our culture. But I believe that in not a few of the science-fiction novels noted here, that quest reappears to evocatively light up the minds of talented writers. It has been expressed through narratives which include aliens and galactic empires, and stories about dreams and reality and the nature of consciousness.

It is amusing to reflect on the possibility that the best of Emerson and Thoreau lives on through science-fiction.

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Beta Reader Exchange?

Posted July 21, 2022 by fencer
Categories: Culture, Environment, fiction, Novel, publishing, Science Fiction, Writing

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I’ve finished a second science-fiction novel. This one is set just ahead of us in the middle of this century, which is rather daring given the speed of change.

I like to put characters in science-fictionish environments and explore what might happen with them. This second novel is part of a trilogy I’m calling The Three Eras. The first was set way in the future, in the Third Era. This one is in the First Era, and the next is in the Second. The stories are all in the same universe but each stands alone with only historical connections.

You might think that it would make sense to write them in chronological order, but my mind has worked itself out differently. It may have something to do with ease of writing. The third novel, of the Second Era, promises to be the most difficult. I’m going to have to do a lot of research, which I’ve already started, on such matters as space elevators and genetic manipulation.

But for the just completed novel set in the relatively near future (third draft or so) let me give you the pitch for it:

“What if an intellectual, even spiritual genius, like a young combined Einstein and Simone Weil, appeared as a young girl? In the middle of the 21st century, in the midst of societal decay, climate disruption and technological change, a young investigator searches for a brilliant girl who has gone missing. This is a novel about a young man still suffering from the suicidal death of his sister who makes it his mission to rescue a genius girl who wants to save humanity. He must overcome an international crime cartel, local corruption, and social and environmental disruption, to find her and keep her safe.”

Voluntary first readers?

Before I get serious with sending it out to literary agents, I would like a beta-reader or two to give it the once over. For those unfamiliar with the term, a beta-reader is a voluntary first reader who gives the writer their reactions.

I propose that if anyone has their own novel work-in-progress who also needs a beta-reader then we could exchange first chapters or synopses to see if we still want to proceed. My throw-away email for this is: 5cfstkof5osg@opayq.com .

There are beta-reader groups and services available on-line. One I’ve found which I’ve signed up for is the Critters Writers Workshop. It is “home to several on-line critique groups (aka workshops) for professional and professionally aspiring writers, artists, and creators in any endeavor.” It is free (donations welcome) and one pays for being read by reading others and writing critiques. Originally it was set up as a science-fiction and fantasy workshop, but now there are groups for all types of writing.

It is a hangover from the old internet when coming together in creative ways was the prime mover rather than the exciting possibilities of monetization, branding and Meta. The interface is a little old-fashioned, run by a guy who hearkens back to the old days. It can be hard sometimes to find the exact information you’re looking for, but I like the atmosphere of it.

So we’ll see how this goes….

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Recently Found Tools For Writing Novels

Posted July 14, 2022 by fencer
Categories: Art, Book Review, Culture, fiction, Internet, Novel, psychology, publishing, Science Fiction, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’ve just finished writing a second novel. I wanted to share a few of the tools I’ve found that helped me get it done, and will aid me in the future as I start on the third one.

By ‘tools’ I mean books on the craft of writing, and software.

There is a large industry devoted to selling advice on how to write novels to would-be authors. Not just books of course, but websites and software of all description. It’s hard to lift out the nutritious kernels from the dirt and leaves.

As time goes on, and I slowly become more experienced, I’m much less enamoured of those books which pretend to offer a surefire scheme based on arbitrary models of how novels should be structured. I’m thinking particularly of those books and authors who insist you must figure out three acts with certain obligatory ‘beats’. It all comes to seem so artificial and destined to bleed the life out of one’s writing. (And editors supposedly can spot the artificiality right away.)

Monetization and writing advice

I’ve understood that these models are a means to sell how-to books and for monetization in general. If you’ve got yourself set up as a writing authority online, such as for just one example, the writer K.M. Weiland, then promoting a lot of questionable technique becomes necessary. It’s about the continual need for specific “knowledge” to sell. (I don’t mean to pick on Weiland too much, it’s just I find her attitude about these matters annoying. She does have good instructive information on some topics.)

So I find myself better informed by books like Steven James’ Story Trumps Structure or John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story or Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Ensouling Language. But I’ve written about those books here before. I will come back with some new (to me) titles that I found helpful recently.

Obsidian

But first to the software end of things. I am becoming a fan of the free note-taking and personal information management (PIM) program called Obsidian. I’ve just discovered it in the last few months and it is becoming an important part of my note-taking and thinking about the novels I’m writing.

I’ve always been on the look-out for note-taking applications that can accept my helter-skelter thoughts and intuitions, and later help me use them in the writing. Previously I found NoteStormTW which I still think useful, but Obsidian seems more comprehensive.

Obsidian is a Markdown file reader. It sits on top of any relevant files in a designated folder or vault and enables users to write, edit and interlink their notes. I don’t know much about Markdown or PIM but apparently, these features make it an object of near cult-like reverence in some quarters. (You can find in-depth discussions for instance of Obsidian’s relevance for Zettelkästen and other esoteric matters.)

I like it because it’s not online, you don’t have to sign up for an account, and it seems incredibly flexible. You download it, install, review a YouTube video or two, maybe a written tutorial, and you’re away.

It’s even promoted as a ‘second brain.’ You build systems of bi-directional links between your notes, and there are even graphical plug-ins that enable you to better visualize what you’ve got. The exciting part is to perhaps discover links you haven’t noticed before. (An excellent overview of the application is at Sitepoint.)

The writer Vanessa Glau gives a good description of how she applies Obsidian in her fiction writing. She’s much more organized than I am, but she outlines an interesting process.

Freewriting

I’ve decided to come back to more freewriting as a method to incubate or brainstorm ideas for the next science fiction novel I plan to write. (I’ve previously written about freewriting in About Freewriting: Notes of a Pencil Sharpener, Part II.)

Freewriting, to return to originator Peter Elbow’s insightful thoughts on the practice is about “… a transaction with words whereby you free yourself from what you presently think, feel and perceive.”

The process can be something like this: Set aside 10 minutes. Start writing. Don’t stop for anything. Don’t rush but don’t stop. Never look back, do not cross out, do not muse about word choice, just go. If you get stuck, it’s fine to write things like, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write,” or repeat the last word over and over until something catches. The only requirement is that you do not stop until time is up.

A useful application which allows you to work with this is the simple writing program Q10 . It provides a distraction free writing environment with a timer. It only produces .txt files though, so you may have to open and save in some other program to get a format you want.

Now on to several books. After I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on, I ran into my usual issue of not quite having a handle on how to revise.

Story Grid… Eh

Initially I found Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne to be a reasonable guide for my revision. There are a lot of useful insights into the state of the publishing business. But he starts to spend too much time on this for my taste before he gets to his method.

The heart of it are six questions one needs to keep asking about the novel. These include what are the protagonist’s objects of desire and what are the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and Ending Payoff? Worthwhile questions for a draft. But then he goes on to elaborate the beginning simplicity into increasingly complex and prescriptive spreadsheets and templates. If you go online, you see the method turned into another one of these writing craft merchandising schemes. Here’s the secret sauce you need!

Book Architecture

Then I found the book Blueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horwitz which became my guide this time for the overall revision of my manuscript. For the first novel, I’d done an Excel spreadsheet of all my scenes, with columns trying to incorporate the best advice about important points and characters.

Horwitz’s book laid out a similar method, which he calls Book Architecture, without the spreadsheet. As he puts it: “The basic premise of the Book Architecture Method is this: Your book has ninety-nine scenes. If you find your scenes and put them in the right order, you will be all set.” Well, it could be seventy-nine or a hundred-and-nine, but you get the idea. Finding and ordering scenes, and connecting them to the tentative theme you find in the work is the gist of it.

Once found each scene is named in a brief informative way and then listed without looking at the manuscript(!). This helps to understand what stands out for you about what you’ve written. (Presumably by this time you will have read your draft a few times.)

I won’t go on with all the details, but one concept he introduces I found unusual and interesting is that of series. A series can be seen as integrating a narrative element across a number of scenes.

Using the fable of The Ugly Duckling to show what he means, he picks out a series of scenes about “ugliness” and outlines their variations and how their sequence builds.

Another book I’ve been reading is Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters. She’s a science-fiction author who writes very well about the craft of writing, especially characterization and plotting. For instance: “Leaving out description results in characters subtly unconnected to their surroundings.” Of course, it is easy to put in too much. A fine line.

And finally, I’ve been reading an old book on writing by Dean R. Koontz, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, which dates back to those prehistoric times before the internet. He’s a good, even great, fiction writer, although sometimes for me his writing is too over-wrought and jam-packed with dramatic crises and emotions.

A universal plot?

But I was struck by this description (mostly in his words) of what might be described as the ‘universal plot.’

1) A hero (or heroine) is introduced who has just been or is about to be plunged into terrible trouble.

2) The hero attempts to solve his problem but only slips into deeper trouble.

3) As the hero works to climb out of the hole he’s in, complications arise, each more terrible than the one before. It seems as if his situation could not possibly be blacker or more hopeless than it is — and then one final, unthinkable complication makes matters even worse. In most cases, these complications arise from mistakes or misjudgments the hero makes while struggling to solve his problems, which result from the interaction of the faults and virtues that make him a unique character.

4) At last, deeply affected and changed by his awful experiences and by his intolerable circumstances, the hero learns something about himself or about the human condition in general, a Truth of which he was previously ignorant. Having learned this lesson, he understands what he must do to get out of the dangerous situation in which he has wound up.

Perhaps a little simplistic for all circumstances, but this is a pattern which many great writers have used.

And, finally, one bit of I writing advice which I actually did this time: reading out loud the entire novel. This was a later stage effort after already doing a lot of line to line revision.

Reading the words out loud lets you find awkward rhythms and phrasing, or sentences that go on way too long for one breath. Although a really long sentence might be alright once in awhile, I tend to write sentences that should often be broken up. And reading out loud informs you of other subtleties that make a difference.

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Writing Lessons From The Walking Dead

Posted June 12, 2022 by fencer
Categories: Art, Awareness, Culture, fiction, psychology, Writing

Tags: , , , ,

There’s a lot of dark shit on television, and I’m not talking just about the news.

Many of us choose to entertain ourselves watching all manner of unpleasant fictional situations and people, many of them quite horrific. That’s curious to me, and yet I am in that group.

After I recently, for example, finished watching the penultimate season of the long-running TV series The Walking Dead, I cast about for another series that might be equally gripping on Canadian Netflix. It didn’t have to be a horror show. Ozark and Dark were two series that came highly recommended.

Ozark, a crime drama, began with the main character watching porn while he’s at work talking to customers. In Dark, more in the science fiction vein apparently, the series opens with some major characters treating each other poorly in the midst of sexual betrayal.

Give Me Characters I Can Admire

I realized that I didn’t want to spend even a few minutes with these people. Give me a character I can admire or at least respect, and I will go along with the show for a long time. (I did finally settle on Prison Break, where at least the lead character is trying to save his innocent brother from execution. Lots of dark events in that show too, though.)

There’s the first lesson about writing before I even get to The Walking Dead. Give the reader characters he or she can feel sympathy or respect for.

walking_dead_poster-296458221

I’m not a horror movie buff nor one normally interested in zombies or other such boogeymen. I’ve even written about my bemusement at the entire notion of zombies (see Why Zombies?).

Yet I have found The Walking Dead (TWD), an apocalyptic story about zombies and a few survivors, utterly compelling.

It’s definitely not a show for the squeamish. Its depiction of zombies in all their mutilated and tattered glory, the necessity of killing them for keeps by piercing their nasty-looking skulls, the slavering gore of their successful attacks upon the living… well, at times the show overdoes it. But it does put into high relief the dire straits the survivors find themselves in.

The premise, for those few who haven’t encountered the show, is that a worldwide apocalypse of zombie infection has destroyed civilization. The zombies, known as ‘walkers’ to the core group of survivors we become invested in, shuffle around looking for fresh meat. Easily dispatched singly, as they become attracted by noise and commotion, hordes of them show up, and you really want to have an exit plan. An added dimension to the terror for the characters is that anyone who dies for any reason automatically becomes a zombie too, and must be put out of their misery before they take a bite out of the living.

Intensity

This was the popular television series in the early 2010s before Game of Thrones came into full prominence. It has been discussed a lot. People become very involved with the ensemble cast of characters, as I have been. The unpredictable and usually awful deaths of the occasional major character somehow adds to the involvement, a mechanism the Game of Thrones also utilized. And the show is still going on, with the final season to be completed this year.

The writing, the production, the actors have uncannily combined to launch the viewer into a world where everything is broken. With the rise of nasty living villains in the chaos, the characters are often forced to decide whether keeping alive will still allow them their humanity and a sense of hope. It’s a believable world, once you accept the admittedly way-out-there premise of zombies.

I don’t want so much to explore individual characters and the meaning they have for the plot. What fascinates me is how compelling the characters are made to be. What is the craft behind this, from the very talented bunch of writers? (I will tend to speak of this from the point of view of readers, rather than saying ‘viewers’ always but it is the same thing usually.)

High Stakes

One part of this are the stakes. A zombie apocalypse allows the writers to heighten this factor, but even if we write about less extreme situations, there is a lesson. Make the stakes crucial for the characters, and they become so by extension for the reader.

By stakes, I mean obstacles to overcome that matter. If they aren’t overcome, then somebody will die or lose love forever or life’s meaning will flee. High stakes mean reader involvement with the characters, and that is a lot of what makes TWD so enthralling. We care about what happens to these people.

The ensemble nature of the characters is also important. People react so differently to the same stresses and events. To make the situation come alive for the reader, we need to see a variety of characters, acting well and badly, and ideally in conflict, on many different levels, with each other.

Some of the people lose their sanity, some become stronger, others give up. In these dire situations, the reader or viewer is constantly, without necessarily realizing it, asking themselves: What would I do in these circumstances? If you can get this to happen in the mind of the reader, than you are well along the road of success for your story.

Suffering

Tied to the matter of stakes is that of suffering. Although we may be gentle souls in our daily life, if we want to tell an involving story, we must make our characters suffer. The type of suffering can be psychologically nuanced or physically damaging, but it must be there. And the suffering, to be successful in delineating the character, cannot be merely the occasional conflicts that the plot might logically throw up now and again. No, the suffering must be great, and tailored to the stakes and the fibre of that particular character. Craft books recommend devising severe specific trouble that puts the character’s future and desires at ultimate risk. This can be tough to do.

To briefly return to Prison Break, this is done with great skill for the main character striving to escape from prison with his brother. Time after time, the worst possible turn of events arises to challenge him, and the writers fearlessly put him through that, and somehow find a way forward for him and the story.

In The Walking Dead this is also skillfully done, but often on a larger scale for the community of survivors led by the former sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes. Whenever they find themselves almost secure for a time, then the next terrible turn of events can be expected to arrive. We become entrained with the survivors as they singly and together strive to meet the disasters that befall them. They don’t always succeed, and that too is a lesson for the would-be story writer.

Community

Commentators on TWD have often noted that, in the show and probably real life, communities are the source of survival after the apocalypse. In these circumstances of murderous fellow survivors and implacable blood-thirsty zombies, it is clear that rugged individualists will not last long. You can only survive in a group, and that group needs a direction after the most basic survival needs are met.

Eventually Rick’s group aspires to a re-kindling of civilization, in the midst of more vicious collections of people only aspiring to dominate each other or to create a cult around some strong, sick personality.

The reality of the need for community, and the other assemblages of people also fighting off the zombies, provides another layer of interaction and conflict in the background world going through its cycles, while in the foreground we live through what Rick’s community has to deal with. In James Bonnet’s book about writing, Stealing Fire from the Gods, he says:

“The study of the Golden Paradigm is the study of the structures, dimensions, and dynamics of this larger, whole story (frame or backstory) while the study of the story focus is the study of the structures, dimensions, and dynamics of the smaller, foreground story itself. … A single value has been isolated and is being examined in great detail which adds enormous clarity, meaning and power to the story and makes this value an important unifying force.”

He also goes on to say about the parallels between community and individual:

“Because the human group shares these similarities in organization and function with the human psyche, the human group is an excellent metaphor for the human psyche. You can see this important pattern operating in many great stories and successful films.”

So in Rick’s group we find characters embodying different functions, of cowardice, fear, boldness, loyalty, caring, ruthlessness and so on.

And as writer Tonya Thompson says in a post about TWD, audiences respond to weak characters becoming strong. For instance, in Rick’s motley crew of survivors, Carol early in the series is a submissive, abused housewife, who eventually grows into one of the show’s strongest and most complex characters.

A Moral Dimension

There is a moral dimension to TWD highlighted by the depraved actions of some of its humans, who can be far more wicked than the mindless zombies. This is especially notable in the darkness of some of the later seasons’ episodes, where any shred of kindness and compassion is proclaimed and shown to be weakness. The characters of Rick’s community must struggle with this, as do we all in lesser or greater ways. But in the end (as of season 10), most want to live by values that allow them to work towards a better life for their children and their community.

I would argue that The Walking Dead, at its best, takes on the virtues of real art. In novelist John Gardner’s book, On Moral Fiction, he writes:

“True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values. … Moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.”

The show definitely does that.


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Three Books for the Writer Self – 3) Ensouling Language

Posted February 6, 2022 by fencer
Categories: Art, Awareness, Book Review, fiction, mystery, psychology, Writing

Tags: , , , , ,

It was feeling that brought you to writing, you know. Something in the books you read touched you, something in you wants to create writing that will touch others similarly, some deep feeling has driven you on.
— Stephen Harrod Buhner

A couple of the more popular posts on this site are the two I wrote way back in 2007 about Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler’s book of lectures on fiction writing, From Where You Dream. Butler is adamant that real writing, true writing can only come from the unconscious, from our intuition and our capacity to “induce” a writerly “trance.” This seems to mean making line to line contact with sensual imagery which makes up the voice of the unconscious and of your fictional characters.

And although he describes some of the ways that he uses to get to that place where the truth of what you are writing wells up, I’ve always been left with questions about that process. Oh, I’ve come up with my own haphazard ways of trying to get at that for writing of novels. But I’m always on the lookout, as many other writers must also be, for a clearer way of understanding how to do that.

In the third of this series about books that the writer self can plumb for meaning, Stephen Harrod Buhner provides that clarity, in Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life (Inner Traditions, 2010).

Buhner has written a wide range of non-fiction books on plants, herbalism and environmental philosophy, including The Lost Language of Plants, a BBC Environmental Book of the Year. This explains the reference to nonfiction in the subtitle, and he does include sections about that. However all kinds of writing come within his scope.

My primary interest, as an unpublished novelist of course, is fiction, and much of what he says about writing hits home there just as much.

A Current of Feeling

There is a current of feeling within us which often willy-nilly determines the direction of our lives, and, often unrecognized, is the core of ourselves. Part of it is a faculty of feeling which is capable of perceiving extreme subtleties, a kind of perception we are not used to developing or putting into words.

Buhner writes: “One of the tasks that lies before us as writers is this reclamation of ourselves, this ecological restoration of our interior world, this restoration of our capacity to feel.”

People use the word “feeling” to mean different things. Buhner wants to focus not so much on emotional perception, although that can be a result, but on what he calls environmental perception.

He calls it a non-physical form of kinesthetic touching. A physical form would be touching a hot stove; a non-physical form would be the sensation of coming home to an empty house. “How does it feel?” That is his repeated catchphrase for taking in the world, and people, around us.

“It is your passions and your deep feelings that are the key to your writing ensouled communication, to inhabited language. As Garcia Lorca put it, you ‘must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood.’ This can only occur if you reclaim your capacity to feel deeply and keenly.”

Duende

‘Duende’ means those unusual moments, big or small, when something is deeply recognized and makes one tremble. Buhner goes to considerable lengths to try to give the quality of this experience. He quotes the poet Robert Bly about a long floating leap at the heart of the most moving work, “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

It is one thing to describe these leaps, and another to do them. Sorry to say, I am not always a-tremble with the ecstasy of life, able to delve at will into the well of the unconscious. I wish I was more often.

Fortunately, Buhner takes up the challenge of trying to tell us what the process of feeling deeply through our writing could be. He calls it following the “golden threads,” a term he borrows from William Blake.

Taking hold of a golden thread means to be attentive in our feeling to any meaning we may encounter, and focus on it entirely so that we may follow where it goes. This is what happens with writing capable of catching the heart of the reader. This can be a very delicate and tentative pursuit, easily fumbled, so we must bring our complete focus.

A Golden Thread

Buhner explains: “To the alert person, a golden thread may emerge from any ordinary thing and open a doorway into the imaginal, and through it, the mythic. Because no one can know when or where or from what it will emerge, the writer remains attentive to everything that is encountered, always paying close attention to how everything, even the tiniest little thing, feels.”

Stephen Harrod Buhner

He goes on: “You can begin to follow it then, if you wish, by simply writing down, as concretely as you can what you are experiencing, what you are feeling, what you are seeing, hearing, sensing. Bly describes this, brilliantly, as ‘following the tiny impulses through the meadow of language.’ It must be done slowly. Carefully. Feeling your way. Tiny movement by tiny movement. It is the feeling equivalent of catching the hint of an elusive scent. … You write a line, perhaps several, then you stop and begin to compare what you have written to the feeling that has demanded your attention.”

He provides some simple exercises to illustrate and develop this, and he takes it to the point of asking “How does it feel” of even inanimate objects, which I found particularly interesting. To me, the book is worth it just for this discussion of “golden threads” which is considerably more detailed than what I’m able to recount here.

But think of poetry which is particularly meaningful to you. Poetry is the most concentrated form of this way of approaching writing. As an example, he quotes the following from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

It is good knowing that glasses
are to drink from;
the bad thing


is to not know what thirst is for.

This is a duende, a long floating leap, as Buhner says: “The long trembling moment, and then the silence.”

Buhner writes:

“Mostly we feel only what we have been taught to feel, not what we truly feel. With the attentive noticing of the soul, we step away from our programming and what we think we know. We feel something and then we stop and genuinely look, identifying what has caught our attention. Then we begin to really see it, noticing whatever it is as if for the first time. The senses begin to bring us tidings of invisible things, all of them filled with meaning.”

He is careful to point out that these experiences are not only for those of us who write and feel compelled to describe our experience, but for all who want to live an “inhabited life.”

I would encourage anyone who is interested in these matters to read Buhner’s book, whether or not you accept all that he says. The essence of it is inspiring. And there is much more to it than I have recounted here, especially in a large section called “Dreaming and the Journey to the Imaginal.”

In conclusion, I keep returning to a quote attributed to the poet Paul Eluard. It’s one you take in with intuitive feeling right away, and then you’re not sure whether it makes any sense, and then you realize that maybe it does, and your mind makes that leap back and forth:

“There is another world but it is this one.”

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Notes

This is the last book considered in a series of posts:

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

Three Books for the Writer Self – 2) The Winged Life