Panic at the…Err…Story!

So, I was working on a scene this morning. I was working on a scene and I screwed myself…I screwed myself because, while I was writing, I wasn’t thinking. The particulars of the scene in question aren’t important, not nearly so important as what I failed to think about when I was writing: panic.

With all due deference to love and hate, panic — pure, blind, incapacitating panic — is pretty much the strongest emotion we humans have. As someone who has seen and done things that many folks simply read about, I can honestly say that panic has killed far more people than stupidity and hate combined.

When someone is flailing and thrashing in the water, it is not the lack of skill at swimming that drowns them, it is the panic — they waste all their strength and energy, not to mention whatever opportunities for salvation may come, in that panic. When folks get lost in the backwoods, it is not the unfamiliarity that kills them, it is the panic — they wander and run, they make bad decisions and do stupid things, all because of panic.

That list of examples could go on and on, by the way. From the fields of combat to wandering city streets at night, from facing down other humans to dealing with wild predators, the one who stays calm can survive, where the one who panics will die. It has nothing (really) to do with fear — fear is a healthy, natural response to dangerous situations — but has everything to do with control.*

*I once wrote a smaller example of this, in a post about “navigating small.”

Now, the reason I had to think about panic while writing is that, for all my planning and envisioning of the scene in question, I had left no room for that particular failing. And it needed to be there.

Oh boy, did it need to be there.

My characters were in a situation where 99% of humanity would suffer at least a bit of panic…a situation both strange and terrifying. As usual, when I finished writing, I did a quick read-through to check what I had come up with. That read-through left me with a sense of wrongness that I just couldn’t shake. Hell, I couldn’t even figure out what was wrong, at first…

4FD5CD32-00DA-4791-84F0-145E8ACDD7B8…until I put myself into the scene. I would’ve panicked, I decided. Shit, I would’ve skipped Go, and gone straight into holy-shit-I’m-fucked blind panic.

Now, look…I’ve faced bears and wolves in the wild. I’ve been lost among hills and valleys with no sign of a trail or another human for fifty miles. I’ve had scuba diving accidents a hundred feet down. I’ve jumped out of airplanes.  And, with everything I’ve seen and done, still I would’ve panicked in the particular situation I was writing about.

But, as the writer, I didn’t think about that. No…instead, my characters all stayed calm. My characters all kept their heads. My characters all did what they were supposed to. And my scene had no urgency or sense of danger. In the end, it had no reality or authenticity.

Even when we plan and build our characters with all the depth in the world, even when we take into account faults and problems and weaknesses to go with their strengths and triumphs, it is FAR too easy to forget that they have to be people first. Confining the “reality” of a character to a good backstory and a set of parameters for personality and skills doesn’t give you a true character, it just gives you words on a page.

No, to move beyond mere words…to move beyond the flat, two-dimensional characters that plague so many stories, you have to get to reality: your characters have to be people. They have to eat and sleep. They have to piss and shit. They have to have bad breath from time to time. When you get right down to it, they have to panic.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to Square One with my scene…

The Book I Want to Read

brain1-e1312872869675-281x300I thought about a couple of topics for today. I even had a couple of posts worked up in my mind. Then my brain turned into old cheese, and…well…there ain’t much left in there at this point in time.


Okay, so instead of trying to dredge up those sparkling, all-star, award-winning — and lost — ideas, I’ll just go with what I was thinking about as I drove to the coffee shop this morning: a book I wish had been written.

This whole train of thought came about after reading some interviews with Robert Jordan from a few years ago. Now, Jordan* is most famous for passing away with 3 books remaining in his 14-volume magnum opus, The Wheel of Time, but he was a man who most definitely was far more than “just” a massively successful fantasy writer. More on that later.

*A pen name, by the way, but I’ll stick with it as that is how he is best known. Yay for all us pen-name users!

WoT is a great series, by the way, even if it can be infuriating as hell, even frustrating at times. Jordan’s talent as a writer puts him solidly among the very few at the top of the mountain. It also happens to be a favorite of mine; I’ve read those 4+ million words several times, in fact…

But the story of the Dragon Reborn and the White Tower (and all the dozens of other subplots) is NOT the story Jordan set out originally to write. No, the original vision of the story was about an old soldier returning home from his final war. It was a story intended to be about his efforts to rebuild a life, and a spirit, all-but destroyed by war…only to be forced to take part in yet one more fight.

I want to read that story. I want to read about that old soldier.* I want to read Jordan’s insights and emotions on that topic. I want to read it not because of his undeniable talent as a writer, but because he lived it. Jordan’s take on the end of his time in Vietnam is chillingly honest and impactful, especially to those of us with friends and loved ones who have their own demons and memories of combat. Those words, and the wisdom behind them, get to the heart of who Jordan is as a man, and as a writer…and to the heart of the book I wish I could have read.

*Rand’s father, Tam, if you’re familiar at all with the Wheel of Time series.

Here is part of the passage about his time in Vietnam that I found so powerful:

I have, or used to have, a photo of a young man sitting on a log eating C-rations with a pair of chopsticks. There are three dead NVA laid out in a line just beside him. He didn’t kill them. He didn’t chose to sit there because of the bodies. It was just the most convenient place to sit. The bodies don’t bother him. He doesn’t care. They’re just part of the landscape. The young man is glancing at the camera, and you know in one look that you aren’t going to take this guy home to meet your parents. Back in the world, you wouldn’t want him in your neighborhood, because he is cold, cold, cold. I strangled that SOB, drove a stake through his heart, and buried him face down under a crossroad outside Saigon before coming home, because I knew that guy wasn’t made to survive in a civilian environment. I think he’s gone. All of him. I hope so.

I didn’t originally plan this post to be solely about Robert Jordan, and about Tam’s unwritten story, but the man has had a profound effect on me as both reader and writer…too great an effect, in fact, to shortchange. He is a major part of the reason — alongside Zelazny, Eddings, Cherryh, LeGuin, Feist, Tolkien and Heinlein — why I write sci-fi and fantasy. For that reason, among others, I owe him a debt I can never repay…

216D3D4C-DEC0-4D48-ACF1-622DAA638CCEPost Script:

This post, by the way, did touch off some thinking about a (necessary) follow-up. A follow-up that will take a great deal more thought, and more time, however, than I generally give to these posts. It’s going to be a post for which I will actually have to do research: the impact of (real) war on sci-fi and fantasy. Jordan wasn’t alone in having his battlefield experiences profoundly affect his writing: from Tolkien in the trenches in WWI, to Haldeman and Jordan (and a host of others) in Vietnam, the realities of combat have shaped some of the best works we have in the field…and that’s without touching on the all-time greats that I love, writers like Graves and Tolstoy and Wouk…

Updated: because I suck at editing.

Update #2: I didn’t think I had to explain — mostly because I buy into the writing theory that you explain only what you have to — but I’ve had a couple of private questions on the passage above, so here is the explanation I avoided before: the photo in question is of Jordan himself, and the “man” he killed is what he had become during the war…

Genre Squirreling

There was a story in Wired the other day that caught my eye. Now, I don’t normally read Wired, but it was a story about ”why sci-if is the most important genre,” so of course I had to have a go at reading it.

I’m not going to rehash that story here, instead I figured I would touch a bit more thoroughly on that question I get so often from friends and acquaintances: “why sci-fi?”

One thing to keep is mind is that that question, whether intentionally or not, comes loaded with all kinds of hints of disdain and criticism. It also comes with a need — an imperative, almost — to defend the genre, and the decision to write within it.

So…why sci-fi?

Because I want to.

Alright, there is more to it than that…

moonbeerOne of my all-time favorite writing quotes comes from sci-fi writer John Scalzi — “They say write what you know. I write what no one knows.” Writing what no one knows, writing what you can imagine, writing where you think the paths of dream and thought and time will lead…well…that’s just plain fun.

It is also, by the way, challenging. It’s challenging to think and explore. It’s challenging to dwell on — and write about — the tension between what will be and what could be.

One thing to keep in mind is that I, as a sci-fi writer, try not to make stuff up out of whole cloth. Okay…I try to not to make everything up out of whole cloth. Rather, I like to take tends and developments and problems I see today, and play them out in my mind to see where they will lead. That those all seem to lead to places dark and depressing isn’t because I want them to … nosirree … they lead there because humanity could (and very likely will) fuck up a pillow fight in a whorehouse.*

*Okay, so maybe I’m just a tad cynical…

I once said, in an old IWSG post, that sci-fi isn’t a petri dish, it’s a still. It’s not for looking at plots & characters in isolation, it’s for taking everything you think and know and believe, mashing it all together, and seeing what you can brew out of it…

In those terms, sci-fi is a tool rather than a defining characteristic. It lets the writer take current or historic trends and problems and play with them. It lets the writer shine a light on the world of today through the lens of the world of tomorrow. Walt Disney got that one wrong, by the way — the world of tomorrow isn’t a place of innocence and fresh starts, the world of tomorrow is the place where the bill comes due for all of the fuck-ups of today. Our children and grandchildren will pay that bill, just as we are paying the one from our parents and grandparents.

Ahem. I think I broke the off-switch on my cynicism-gland…

Sci-fi also lets you explore and play with themes more than any other genre. As a story about two abused, exploited street kids, Somewhere Peaceful could’ve been set in any modern port city. BUT…by setting it on a space station, a few centuries in the future, I gave myself the ability to, err, compress a world of problems (our world of problems) into one small society. I also gave myself the ability to play with languages and cultures and social dynamics in ways I never would have been able to had I set the story in modern New York, or Boston, or Marseilles…

W84BtfOPlus…aliens. Wait…I mean ALIENS!

And lasers…and spaceships…and drugs, rape, robbery and all those pesky deadly sins that ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The fantasy story I’m working up, by the way, is a different ball of wax. Oh, the deadly sins are still there, but the thematic issues I have in the back of my mind are more internal and personal than societal.

Plus, swords…and horseys…and MAGIC!

IMG_0155Never mind — I think all the caffeine is starting to get to me…

Shit, maybe next time I should try to explore a genre I don’t write in — how ‘bout “why romance?”

So…why sci-fi?

That question gets the same answer as many other questions in my life: why not?4F8598FB-B6BD-4B58-9BF6-5BD0BFDBF159

Wait, What? My Paper is Due Today?!

IMG_0163So there is an IWSG Question o’ the Day for today, but…well…I’m gonna go my own way on this one. Not because the question is bad, but because…

Well, honestly, just because.

Something I’ve mentioned in passing in previous posts is bringing yourself into your stories. Not yourself as a person, but your passions and interests and knowledge. How can you not, in all candor, bring yourself into what you create? You are who you are; you are the sum — and more — of your experiences and your knowledge and your psyche. That sum can, and arguably must, come through in everything you create…every story, painting, photo, quilt, cake, what-have-you.

Now, for me, that puts a number of things in play — it brings history and astronomy, it brings photography and music, it brings both the untracked wilds and foreign cities, it brings different languages and cultures and the love of not knowing where you will be or what you will do from one day to the next…

It’s easy to talk about all of that in general, philosophic terms, by the way. It’s harder to get into the concrete, real terms of how all that actually comes into play in writing, but I’ll give it a try.

I’ve mentioned before that I am currently writing sci-fi. One thing to keep in mind is that my current series — and the original “trunk novels” that gave rise to it — were based heavily on my work in naval history. The DockRat series is about as far from that origin as you can get, however.  Rather than being based on the hopes, courage and self-sacrifice of a few, it draws instead on the depravity, crime and exploitation of an entire society…

When you get right down to it, DockRat is a series that comes from where I grew up (Los Angeles) as much as it does from my experience and knowledge of history and modern society. I am still in there, however. In the music, in the visualization and contrasts, and in the (intentional) cognitive dissonance that is a key part of my protagonist, and his society.

Now, I mentioned those first stories not to lead into DockRat, but to make a point about bringing yourself in.  I love astronomy.  I get all geeked up about astronomy, so of course I spent huge amounts of time working out the physics of the speeds and distances and travel times of the various ships involved. I spent even longer working up a 3-D simulation of every single star within 50 lightyears of Earth*, then figuring out all the shipping lanes and traffic patterns and the like.

*That’s a LOT of stars, by the way…

Erm…I seriously nerded out on all that, actually.

When I wrote a story, way back when, about a gunslinger? Yeah, I spent months training on the mechanics and realities of quickly drawing and firing a pistol. It is — ahem — a hell of a lot harder than it looks.

Now, the point of those examples wasn’t that we all should do the writerly-equivalent of method acting. No, the point was that your own interests and hobbies and knowledge, as the creator, very much should run through what you write.

To give a negative example: I once read a (to-remain-unnamed) novel set in Samarkhand. I’ve never actually been to Samarkhand*, but it was pretty damned apparent that neither had the author. If you’re going to write about an exotic locale, you better have at least been there! Colleen McCullough, for instance, accumulated several years in Rome before writing her outstanding Masters of Rome series.

*It’s on my list of places to go.

I had, I’ve mentioned before, two stints in college — one studying linguistics, and the other history. I love history. I love the cut-and-thrust of the politics, and the intrigue, and the back-stabbing, and all the wheeling-and-dealing. But just as much do I love languages. Just as much do I love the differences in culture and behavior and thinking that lie at the heart of different languages. I, honestly, think differently when I speak Japanese, or French, or Czech, or any of the other languages in which I can make my way*.

*Yes, I’m fairly fluent several…they come easy to me. Unlike math. Math is evil.

Those twin loves — those obsessions, really — enter into every story I write. They give depth to the settings and plots, yes, but even more do they give depth to the characters. They also give me a pool of knowledge and expertise from which I can draw as I write.

Oh, and they let me geek-out on stuff I like while I’m writing!

Addendum — By the way, the other part of me that comes into my writing is procrastination; if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m trying desperately to bang this post out on the morning it’s “due.”  It’s nice to know SOME things haven’t changed since college!