Posted tagged ‘creativity’

A Personal List of the 20 Best Science-Fiction Novels

October 7, 2022

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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Recently Found Tools For Writing Novels

July 14, 2022

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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The Quest to Write with Meaning

May 22, 2020

In my long quest to write with meaning, always approaching but never quite reaching, I’ve written one science-fiction novel, and now I’m almost ready to start the draft of a second one.

I’m trying to flog the completed sci-fi novel, without success so far, to agents and publishers.  But I can’t wait around, as I am not all that junior, except maybe in ability.  I’ve started the second and again I’m puzzling about theme.

I should say that this second novel situated 20 years or so in the future is well along in terms of character and plot development.  Still I feel the lack of a central cohesion.

(For a sampling of my previous self-imposed torture about what theme means, check out Thinking About Theme in Writing A Novel. I concluded then that the theme had to emerge from the struggle with the writing and, for that novel, it had most to do with freedom.)

Oh, the craft books I consume!  Many of my books on the craft of writing extol the benefit of knowing the theme of the story you are about to embark on.  Although it doesn’t seem to be much of a selling point in a query letter.

Maundering about theme

Theme is what the story is about, what the reader can take home.  It encapsulates the meaning of the story, its reason for being, really.  I feel silly to be so foggy about what should be clear.  The theme could be a statement about love or corruption or goodness or deceit or honesty.  On that kind of abstract level.

But it is not that clear cut to me, what the meaning of the story I’m starting to write now will be in the end.  Oh, I can say in a tentative way now that it is about guilt, or freedom, or redemption, but those words are pro forma at this stage, without resonance.  Except, partially, the idea of “freedom” which to me is kind of an ur-theme which other thematic notions resolve to.

At the suggestion of one craft book (The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson), I’ve resorted to diagramming my first stabs at thematic ideas, arranged in small ellipses overlapping at the edges of a large empty ellipse.

This visually-oriented strategy appealed to me: reserve the big ellipse for a statement that feels like something.

In those smaller ellipses I’ve placed words like “anger”, “shame”, “repentance”, “redemption”, “transcendence”, “struggle”.  The big empty ellipse just sits there, aloof.

This brings me to a phone conversation I had with my wife recently, stuck as she is in Shanghai in these Covid times, looking after her dying father in his nineties.

Getting older

We are both older, and sometimes we discuss the end of life, and probable feebleness of some sort eventually.  My wife, as a doctor and given her situation with her father, is occasionally given to stories of what can happen to people which might strike some as morbid.  Although she is actually a woman of considerable positivity.

She told me of one older colleague of her father, a doctor too, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness.  This colleague, she said, decided to spare himself and his relatives the pain of his suffering.  He ended it all by one day walking into the ocean.

I didn’t want the conversation to rest there, so I said, “I’d rather walk out of the ocean.”  There was a moment of silence on the phone line, and then we both laughed.

Off-hand remark though this was, it continues to reverberate for me.  It’s become a strangely deep metaphor on a lot of levels.

I have this image of a man emerging from the ocean buffeted, then released, by the clear salty water, finding his feet as he lurches forward onto the beach.  He is unencumbered, sopping wet, and headed towards he knows not what, but he is free.

Conversely, he emerges from the miasma of our culture and our times, out of the detritus of life mistakes and character flaws, onto a shore of the possible.  Sea gulls dip and squawk overhead.

This reminds me how this will to write is unavoidably a spiritual impulse, a religious one, even, in its original meaning re-ligare, to tie together again, to re-connect.

Several of the better books on the craft of writing allude to this.

Alderson in her book writes, “The Universal Story is the story of life.  The energy of the Universal Story flows through three phases: Comfort and Separation. Resistance and Struggle. Transformation and Return.”

John Truby in The Anatomy of Story says simply at the end of that book: “Let me end with one final reveal: you are the never-ending story.”

I sit back and then write my theme phrase in the waiting empty ellipse.

Walk out of the ocean.

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Note:  Here is the best short description of theme I just found in an older book from 20 years ago by Philip Gerard, Writing A Book That Makes A Difference:

“What the book is thinking about.”

Later Gerard describes it this way: “It’s the unconscious of the story.”  I like that.

Working On A New Novel — Obsessed with Character

February 13, 2020

“Characterization is a complex and elusive art and cannot be reduced to exact rules or to a comprehensive statement. The more we talk about it, the more we feel has been left out….”
Leon Surmelian, Techniques of Fiction Writing

“Human beings are the religion of the angels….”
— from the movie Cell

Both these quotes speak to the difficulty of discovering and creating characters who come alive for us, both as writer and reader, in a piece of fiction.  The one from a famous text on writing and the other an evocative and ultimately mysterious quote from an otherwise unmemorable film.  They both allude to the imaginative challenge.

I managed to finish writing a science fiction novel last year, and I’ve been submitting it to literary agents and to publishers, so far unsuccessfully.  Although I think it’s good, and I have high hopes for it, you never know.  Maybe it will go nowhere.  It’s tough at the best of times to get published, and with all the technological turmoil….

But in the meantime, I’ve started working on a second novel.  As part of that I’ve been obsessing about how better to develop the characters that will inhabit it.

The now completed science fiction novel was set many hundreds of years in the future on a failing Earth struggling to recover its potential.  This new one is intended to be more of the present day thriller variety, although situated perhaps five years in the future to give myself as much latitude as possible in creating dark situations.

Before I write about the useful advice and books I’ve come across, I want to describe my working theory about imaginative psychology, simplistic as it is.  Maybe it will help provide context for my preoccupation about developing characters.

The discovery model

I have become convinced of the discovery model of fiction writing.  We are creating, making stuff up, this is true, but the best material for that creation is what we discover in the surprising backwaters of ourselves as we write, or what comes illumined to us at the edge of sleep.  For others these riches may come wholly dressed and dancing, but for me they are fragmentary and usually wrapped in fog.  Yet there is something there.

The rest of my pet theory is that there is a deep layer of our being where reside all the archetypes and our collective unconscious in the Jungian sense.  The archetypes are forces, not things.  There too the spiralling currents and tidal streams of our personal shadow slowly circulate.  I have no idea, for the most part, about whatever the heck is going on in there.  But I’m sure it’s all homeostatic!

The next layer up, I postulate, is at the subliminal, subconscious level, at the edge of conscious realization.  The level where a whisper comes through out of nowhere about a character’s motivation, or the shape of the plot, or where appears a fleeting image of oranges on a truck.  I’ve found that you have to pay attention to these transitory strays, get them down in a notebook or on the page right now.  It’s a matter of respect for that entire submerged ocean that feeds the subconscious level, that supports you.  If you want more to come, you must not have it avoid you for your negligence.  These morsels won’t always make sense or be useful, but much more often than not they provide sustenance.

And then there’s the mundane, everyday level where I struggle to make sense with words, just as I am doing now.

Helpful books on characterization

I want to mention several books that have provided insight in my quest about characterization.  I may have a “felt sense” or intuition about a character which provides the irritating sand for the pearl I hope for, but often that intuition stays static for quite a while.  I want to learn how to nudge it along.

The first couple of books are off the beaten path of the mainstream industry of providing craft help for would-be writers.  They are Verbalize — Bring Stories to Life and Life to Stories by Damon Suede and Unmasking Arkhelogy by Jennifer Van Bergen.  Interestingly, both authors come out of an acting background.  That gives a different take on characterization which I found valuable.

Verbalize? What’s that about? Of course we’re verbalizing our stories.  But that’s not what Suede is referring to.  He’s using “verbalize” as shorthand for the process of finding (discovering?) the most precise verb to describe the character we’re working on.  I found this very insightful.

Characteristics aren’t character

Characteristics are not character, he points out, despite all the standard list of things you’re supposed to know about your main characters before writing.  (This kind of list I’ve always found sterile and mostly meaningless.)

“Words don’t create characters, emotions do,” says Suede. “… The first step for a writer is to nail down the foundation that aligns and supports all the emotion that makes books worth reading.”

The way to do that, he says, is to understand that the character who makes choices drives the scene and steers the story.  And where do these choices come from, you may ask?

A character is not a face, but a force.  The character’s choices arise from that force, and that can be symbolized as the most fitting and exact verb for that character.  This gives you a lot to play around and experiment with.  Get out the best thesaurus and dictionary you know.  Once you find a ballpark verb, check all the synonyms and even antonyms to zero in on that intuitive character shape you may already sense.

The richness of the English language is your ally.  Your character is all the shades of meanings of the chosen verb.  They embody the activity of your character, with the exceptions and focus you choose.   The energy of this “verbalization” can be elaborated into all the actions which the character takes and which bounce off the other characters.  This is Suede’s counsel.  There is a lot more to the book, and I found it fruitful.

Arkhelogy?

Van Bergen’s book, Unmasking Arkhelogy, is a slightly updated 2011 book originally published as Archetypes for Writers: Using the Power of Your Subconscious. She’s arrived at a terminology for the process of bringing out one’s own character archetypes.  “Arkhelogy” is an example, and it means doing this work investigating archetypes useful for your characters.  She feels it necessary to have her own jargon in order to be clear about what she’s describing.  The reader may only find it puzzling.  The book is also rather chaotically organized.

But despite that, I found her ideas intriguing.

“This approach has little to do with how to ‘create’ characters or plot stories.  Rather, it is more about how to find your character and story archetypes, or even how to have them find you. Underlying this approach is the premise that each person carries within them a given set of character and story archetypes.”

You can see how this fits in with my own biases.  So what is her method?

Elsewhere budding writers are advised to use archetypes such as The Lover, The Hero, The Magician, The Sage, The Ruler, etc., to provide a basis for characters.  Such archetypes are said to be “notably recurrent across the human experience.”  Unfortunately, for me, these give no real clue about developing a specific, interesting character.  They’ve become another form of fixed and simplified stereotypes.

Van Bergen wants to develop a capability of finding character archetypes from our own experience, imagination and subconscious.  In essence we want to discover the secret lives of the characters.

A series of skills

In order to develop the skills needed to do this, she prescribes a set of exercises.  These include among others:

— Establishing character facts for the character.  These are purely factual statements.  They include no judgements or personal opinions about who this character may be.  Try to avoid any adjectives which give our slant on who this person is.  For example: “He comes to the office exactly on time.  He wears a navy suit that is a little too snug.”

— Discerning the character’s “universal drive.”  This is the most basic type of drive such as survival, or the need to love or be loved.  Most other drives collapse into these, Van Bergen says.  She might also include the drive to protect and nurture, the drive for sex, the drive to realize “the Core Self” and very few others.  Interestingly, she doesn’t see freedom as a basic urge, which is a universal drive to me.

— Elucidating discrepancies. A discrepancy is an incongruity or inconsistency in a person’s behavior that reveals something significant about the person.  Example: “He calls her his girlfriend but he makes no effort to visit or spend time with her.”

Van Bergen points out that a goal for us as writers must be to find the things that bother us most.  And understand where they come from.  That’s where the juice is.

There is much more but this gives you the flavour of her approach.  I found it thought provoking, although it remains to be seen how able I am to use it.

The Art of Characterization

Another very good book about characterization is the deservedly popular The Art of Characterization by David Corbett.  I’m giving it short shrift here, but it is mightily worth it if you are interested in this subject.  He writes:

“Just as you must untether your characters from predictability by granting them the freedom to contradict themselves, to grow, to change, so you must grant yourself a similar freedom to play the trickster, shift at will, embrace the unexpected, be free.”

But the best single piece of advice for characterization I’ve found to date is this nugget panned from David Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, which I will paraphrase:

Determine the conscious goal of a main character and then constantly ask “Why?” until the true answer reveals itself.  This should pull out backstory, history, internal beliefs, future hopes and dreams and fears, and more….

That advice is written on a yellow sticky attached to the side of my computer monitor.

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Rock Music I Listen To At 68 – Oct. 20, 2019

October 20, 2019

Now that I’m retired, I play more music and actually listen to it.

We have a 5-CD player that shuffles the CDs and the tracks.  I dig through my collection and find five that I think I’ll want to listen to for awhile.

Then I sit back and listen to the random gifts from the player, and think why I like them.

(This may be an occasional, if I feel like it, series of blog posts.)

This time we have:

1) “Southern Accents” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
2) “House of Ill Fame” by The Trews
3) “Action Pact” by Sloan
4) “The Singles Collection” by The Kinks
5) “The Very Best of the Electric Light Orchestra”

1) Southern Accents

This is a CD that I hadn’t heard much about, and just got recently.  Recorded 1985.

From the first track Rebels on through It Ain’t Nothing to Me to The Best of Everything, to me it’s the sound of a band creating and playing music for themselves, most of all.  That is, there is no second-guessing about what they’re playing.

Southern AccentsIn It Ain’t Nothing to Me I think we find Tom Petty’s operational philosophy.  It’s about “spare me the bullshit.”

He’s not impressed, dazzled, enthused, thrilled, chilled or chuffed by what you say.  “Might mean something to you. It ain’t nothing to me.”  It’s the sound of a necessary self-defence, making his way in the music business.

I like the Best of Everything, the last song of lost love, about a girl he knew so well and whatever happened to her:

“Yeah and it’s over before you know it / it all goes by so fast.”

The best known song on the album of course is Don’t Come Around Here No More.

2) House of Ill Fame

TrewsThis was the first album by the Trews, recorded in 2003.  They were so ambitious, so fired-up, this Canadian rock band.  Some might call them hard rock, I just hear them as an incredibly talented rock quartet.

Not Ready to Go is a favorite.  Nothing too deep in the lyrics, just going-for-it rock ‘n’ roll.  More often than not I’ll start boppin’ around when it comes on.

Likewise with When You Leave and Black Halo, catchy tunes with a lot of energy behind them make me glad the band is still around.  They’ve just released a new album, “Civilianaires.”  I’ve listened to some tracks on YouTube.  More sedate, and mature probably, after 15-16 years.

3) Action Pact

To me, Sloan is the Canadian rock band.  Based in eastern Canada, we don’t hear them as much on the west coast as we should.  They are as tuneful, hard-rocking, melodic and often thoughtful as the Beatles, the Kinks or even Cheap Trick.  One reviewer in 2004 wrote,  “Sloan has written better songs than anything The Rolling Stones have put out in 20 years.”

SloanThe band was only formed in 1991, and to date they’ve put out 12 albums.  With the same personnel!

According to Wikipedia, this 2003 album was a serious effort by the band to break into the US market, which apparently it didn’t do, although it was well-received in Canada.  The band is well-known for vowing to keep Canada as their home base.

Usually all four members share at least some of the writing. On this album the primary drummer’s input was lacking, and some reviewers claim this hurt it.  Others cite the album’s “incredibly tight vocals” and “arena-rocking songs.”

Not necessarily my favorite Sloan album, it’s a pleasure to listen to (as are all the other Sloan albums I’ve accumulated).  The tracks Gimme That, The Rest of My Life, and False Alarm stand out for me.

4) The Singles Collection

The Kinks have to be one of the most versatile sounding bands in rock history.  They moved from covering Little Richard classics and getting Motown influence from Earl Van Dyke’s band, to gritty singles like You Really Got Me to melodic pop songs like Set Me Free.

KinksMy favorites though tend to be the satirical songs like Dedicated Follower of Fashion and A Well Respected Man.  The songs in this collection date from 1964 to 1970.  They of course went on to more success after that period.

They had so many good songs, but my favorite, strangely enough, is Victoria.  When I first heard it, I was attending the University of Victoria, here in British Columbia.  The song is all about Queen Victoria, I guess, but the wonderful rhythm, singing and driving down tree-lined streets in my old red MGA convertible conflated it into the memorable tune it is for me.

The 1960s and 1970s really do seem like a different era and the Kinks exemplify that in many ways.

5) The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra

Jeff Lynne is an underrated (in some quarters) musical genius, and the Electric Light Orchestra has been his vehicle.  Formed in 1970, Lynne became the band leader in 1972, and he and ELO are still making music until the present day.  However, ELO did disband for a time in the eighties.

ELOUntil you listen to a collection like this (on Playlist from the Epic/Legacy label in 2008), you don’t fully realize how many hits ELO have had.  (And add to that Lynne’s participation in the Travelling Wilburys, his solo albums, and all his producing credits.)

Many of the songs on this CD are nostalgic reminders of the seventies and eighties.  There are often classically influenced strings present, and rock ‘n’ roll rings out in every song.  There is often a sense of elegance and musical creativity.  Some of my favorites are Do Ya, Can’t Get It Out of My Head, Mr. Blue Sky, Hold On Tight, and of course Roll Over Beethoven.

If I ever go to an elderly sock hop, this would be the music I’d like to hear….

I always feel better after listening to ELO.

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