Here’s How Fiction Can Make a Difference in People’s Lives

My last post is long-winded and deals with a subject that seems kind of trivial, when I think about it. This group or that “demographic” (what a dehumanizing word that is) feels underrepresented in fictional stories, and rather than writing tales to their own liking, the warriors of social justice shame authors and assassinate their character, basically saying fiction is empty unless you meet a politically correct quota.

What if fiction could make a difference in other people’s lives? I don’t mean them feeling more connected to a character because that character is more like them in a superficial way. I’m talking about people halfway across the world running for their lives. What if you could do some small part to help give people comfort after they’ve been forced out of their homes?

That’s what has happened thanks to ISIS kicking Christians out of Iraqi cities, even killing them. For religious differences. But an organization called Voice of the Martyrs is providing those Christians with material aid. (Here’s their page on financial accountability)

I was asked to join an event on Facebook called Authors in Solidarity, where authors are donating royalties from the month of September to Voice of the Martyrs to help these Christians fleeing for their lives in Iraq. You just buy our books, and we’ll take care of the rest. Head over to the group’s page and see what books are being offered! It’s a month-long event.

All of my Kindle stories on Amazon are being turned toward this effort. And when it’s published (SOON), the fourth entry in the Arrivers serial will also be part of this fundraising. From today until September 30, 100% of my royalties will be donated to this cause. You don’t have to buy any of my books, but please consider helping out these other authors, if any of their stories strike your interest.

Thank you for your time, and God bless.

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Kicking the Hornet’s Nest and Standing Up for Myself: PC and Worthwhile Stories

[This post has been saved for a while. For a “rainy day,” you might say. I didn’t exactly expect this topic to come back around again. I would rather keep my head down. I don’t want to pick a fight. But after Damien Walter falsely accused me of some vile things at the end of this talk on Twitter, it’s time to finally stand up for myself. I have taken a fair amount of hurtful and false accusation from unscrupulous people in the last few years, and it’s about time I start holding them accountable. I will only be a doormat for so long.]

If the thing I’m aiming to one day accomplish and make a living with — telling worthwhile stories — is threatened, then I will speak up. And when someone misconstrues my stance, then receive comments like, “Well, I won’t read that guy’s fiction, that’s for sure,” I consider that a threat to my future living.

I took a “creative” writing course at UCCS in 2008 (I put quotes around creative because the teacher stated that she wanted us to write literary fiction, as opposed to “low,” “crass” genre fiction; that’s another rant, though). One of the stories I wrote for that course got a compliment from a classmate which was roughly as follows: “I really appreciate [character’s name] being a strong female, and not a helpless milkmaid needing to be rescued by the hero. Us feminists really need characters like that.”

I appreciated the compliment, but my inner reaction to the last sentence would best be described as Uh, sure. I guess that’s all right. It was nice to hear, but I just wanted the character to be well-rounded and able to take care of herself.

I do love strong female characters…indeed, strong characters of either sex are good to have. They’re vital to a worthwhile story. I just wasn’t trying to serve The Cause, as it were. Just telling a story.

How does it help diversity if we demand that certain types of characters and themes must occupy your story? Telling worthwhile stories gets unnecessarily harder when the definition of “worthwhile” is changed to placate the ranks of the perpetually offended. If a sci-fi or fantasy book doesn’t have a perfect balance between male and female characters and all skin colors (except for white people; they’re “annoying,” “generic,” and more or less dispensable), the story is no longer considered “worthy” of time, honor, celebration, or being taken seriously.

I don’t think that stories are terrible if their characters are more diverse. Far from it. I’m just saying diversity is not the point. An important phrase to keep in mind for what makes a worthwhile story: Quality before message.

The perpetually offended and propagandists seem to be the only people on this Earth who value fiction for its message above everything else, and shame anyone who doesn’t look at stories from their viewpoint. They lack the versatility or the maturity to put aside a cherished cause; even when “escaping” into fiction that takes place in another world, their heart is still firmly planted in whatever they’ve decided is a Big Deal in our world.

They’re choosing to not escape. Fiction is treated like an essay or editorial or biography, which are entirely about the world we live in and primarily relate to issues we can face now.

Fiction by nature is supposed to be about going somewhere else. “Escaping,” if you like. Even if/when it can be used to deal with real-life issues, that’s not the point of writing a fictional story.

Last time I kicked this nest of fire ants, I got a comment whose author unintentionally illustrated my point:

No really. I used to say the same thing. “Who cares what color/gender if the story is good?”

Look, the reason people call it out, make noise about it, and generally say “hey, this isn’t ok.” is because the story should be good regardless of skin color. That the story is good should be a GIVEN. If the story isn’t good, you shouldn’t be writing it (exception:beginning writers). Period.

The rest of the comment is a rant on how the option of learning about other cultures/peoples is now suddenly an obligation for writers, because apparently a human being cannot connect to a character unless they share skin color, cultural background, sexual orientation, etc.

Did you notice that the quality of the story was a “given”? As if a story being “good” is akin to a gear in a pocket watch, a step to the really important work: spreading the Message. That’s the problem I have with modern Political Correctness tracts disguised as “fiction.” The quality of the storytelling is taken for granted. It’s treated like a support for the really important thing: the all-important Message.

As a lover of great stories, I’m calling this out for the destructive foolishness that it is. When the book becomes all about the issues going on in our society right now, what’s the point of writing science fiction or fantasy?

I’d like to keep my head down. I’d like to be popular, approved of, and respected. But if being those things means I have to soapbox about the social justice cause of the week, I’ll break apart the soapbox and use it as firewood, that I may comfortably write and read good books by the hearth.

And I’m not apologizing for it.

More Art, Plans for the Blog, Cameroon Voyage

I’ve been painting a good deal more than I have been writing, to my regret. But the writing is coming back to me, thanks to some writers groups I have been a part of or leading for years.

At least I'm enjoying the artistic results.

At least I’m enjoying the results of painting.

The blog is going to have more musings, sharings, rants, and oddjob add-ons in general. A little bit of everything. Which might sound eccentric, but I’m a painter now and like Bob Ross said, “Us painters are supposed to be a little weird.”

That goes for writers, too. Oh, terrific. Now I’m doubly crazy.

Crazy like a Triceratops. Who writes.

Crazy like a Triceratops. Who writes.

Additionally, I have set a goal to voyage to Cameroon sometime in the near future. Ideally, I will be ready to travel within one year. It would be partially for researching a novel, partially for exploration, and partially for missionary/material aid efforts. Not looking forward to the humidity and heat of Central Africa, but there’s a lot that’s drawing me to that country in particular. I’ll comment more on that in a future post.

Fiction: Finals Week

[A quick bit of fiction I wrote in a workshop a few weeks back.]

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For the normal astrophysics grad student, finals week is a special breed of hell, purgatory, medieval torture, and bad karma pressed into a few dozen sheets of paper. The multiple choice questions give new meaning to the phrase “pick your poison.” The essay questions give a sensation of one’s brain being dropped into a rusty food processor.

And then there’s me.

Forget the old cliche of sleeping through the wake up call. My alarm clock woke me up when it was supposed to. It’s me that’s the problem.

I wonder why my shaving cream smells like hazelnut, until it dawns on me that my coffee had a distinct odor of Barbasol. I drank it anyway, being too preoccupied with the umpteenth special relativity equation, after which I could only spare half an hour to review my notes on the properties of super-heated plasma jets accelerated by black holes. The fact that I stirred the cocktail of coffee and the wrong kind of cream with a mechanical pencil is a mere footnote in my mental process. But not the kind of footnote I need to memorize for The Exam.

My roommate, before prancing off to his art appreciation final (where, as I understand it, finger painting can be done for extra credit), tells me, “No pressure, dude.”

I’ve never wished so dearly that I could show him what “no pressure” looks like. In the vacuum of space.

No, no, I berate myself as he skulks out the door. Space isn’t a total vacuum! There are still a few particles drifting around out there. Wayward, serving no particular function, just like me if I don’t pass The Exam.

15 minutes later…

Terrific. Notes are piled into my satchel, I’m leaving with three minutes to spare. And now of course is the day my car gives me the silent treatment, until it’s placated with a new battery.

Okay. Okay. Fine. I’ll walk. Or awkwardly jog/hurry with a satchel slapping me in the flank. Whichever works.

I arrive at the imposing silhouette of the university building, and the exam’s beginning in less than five minutes.

Brilliant. How can this day get any —

NO! No. I didn’t finish it. You can’t be jinxed if you didn’t complete it, right?

It’s raining.

Deep breaths. Go to your happy place.

That’s okay. I forgot my shower anyway. Or maybe I did and just forgot to rinse. Why do I smell shampoo?

My eyes are stinging. Yep, definitely forgot to rinse.

New Painting, New Articles

"A Tree to Write Under." Acrylic, painted on 8 x 10 inch canvas.

“A Tree to Write Under.” Acrylic, painted on 8 x 10 inch canvas.

Good evening, everyone. Here’s another one of the paintings I’ve done recently. It was auctioned off by the Pikes Peak Writers Conference last week. I wasn’t able to attend the conference itself due to insufficient finances, but learned a lot from a “pre-conference workshop” the day before. Especially about query letters, and how painfully uninformed I am in writing them.

This is meant to be one of those relaxing scenes you can visit in your mind to forget about the cares of life. Maybe it will put whomever took it home in a good writing mood, like they’re relaxing under that tree with a notebook and a glass of lemonade.

If anyone would like to buy a similar “relaxation” painting, let me know! You can find my email address to the right. I am also doing cards with smaller versions of landscapes like this painted on the front.

I’ve also been branching out with more articles spreading out across the web. An interview about my paintings showed up in the New Falcon Herald.

There’s also a new blog post I contributed to Pikes Peak Writers, about how picking up a creative hobby may help you get past writer’s block. This may not work for every writer, but give it a shot if your muse is getting cold feet.

Catch you later, and God bless!

Writing Process Blog Tour

Yesterday, author Robert Mullin kindly tagged me in a blog tour going by the name of The Writing Process. I got to know him over Facebook, and he has become a close friend of mine. A writer and adventurer, he is the author of Bid the Gods Arise, an excellent novel that deftly blends science fiction and fantasy. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m very enthusiastic to read more of his work.

So, here are the tour’s questions:

What am I working on?

My writing projects are currently twofold.

One, of course, is The Wolfglen Legacy, the epic fantasy series I’ve been working on for the better part of a decade. I’ve pitched it, edited it, had friends read parts of it…but then I realized it hadn’t matured quite enough. I need to finally write books 2, 3, and 4 (pieces of each do exist already), so I’ll see if I can finish the first book by summer this year.

My second project is the serialized science fiction thriller Arrivers. The first three installments are on Amazon Kindle for a buck each, and a fourth entry is underway. I’d love to see where this story goes and get a chance to spend more time with Sergeant Tobias, Reverend Rousseau, and the strange woman who calls herself Jezebel.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Apart from games like World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons, I don’t know of any epic fantasy that includes dinosaurs. Or elves who wield flintlock pistols, and treat them with the same deep honor and reverence as Samurai treat the katana. Or a villain who appoints himself as rescuer of mankind, who feels going to war is a necessary step to rescuing us from our own flaws and mistakes.

More than that, however, many new fantasy novels wade in moral ambiguity, Game of Thrones style. It makes for frustrating tales that don’t really celebrate or condemn anything. I want to tell stories that have moral complexity. There’s still a difference between right and wrong, even if they can tie knots around each other.

When it came to the Arrivers stories, I grew weary from seeing one science fiction story after another that was overtly materialistic. You know, the stories told by the likes of Ben Bova and Isaac Asimov, that go out of their way to say religious people are morons, science eradicates miracles, and God no longer has a place in the cosmos. So I wanted to write a science fiction story that wasn’t “religious,” but still admitted there’s more to the universe than particles and natural laws.

Why do I write what I do?

If someone tells me I take my writing too seriously, I’ll take it as a complement. 🙂 My goal is to make someone feel like they are peeking through an interdimensional portal, witnessing events in a universe just as real as ours. Neither characters, nor story, nor world will be ready until it seems they’re entirely real. It’s not quite enough for me to try telling “a good story.” That’s the house’s foundation, so to speak.

How does my writing process work?

A few things help the writing process. Coffee with hazelnut creamer, concept art from movies, reading other novels, peace and quiet, and successfully resisting the siren call of Facebook. Still working on that last one….

I’ll often start with an idea and a paragraph or two, and build it up from there. Normally half of my edits happen as I’m writing the “first draft”. Supposedly this is a big no-no for writers, but it’s ended up helping me more and more with my own work.

Tagging Other Authors

For passing along this blog tour, I’d like to tag “Zombie Rob” Killam, another close friend of mine with an incredible talent for humor and witty dialogue. His upcoming zombie novel is called Apocalypse Springs.

The second writer I wanted to tag is my friend Joe Dorris, starring on the show Prospectors on the Weather Channel and fellow novelist who just released Salmon River Kid. He even paints his own cover art! How cool is that?

And here’s a third: mother, duchess and epic sci-fi author Ashley Hodges Bazer. I’m grinning at the prospect of reading her tales that encompass many worlds and have the kind of big-scale stories that deserve a movie or TV series. Here’s to much success, Ashley!

The Joy of Writing: Robbed and Regained

Like many fantasy writers, I get a ton of inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien. The more I read his work, the more quotable he becomes. He has left quite an impression on my work and imagination, even in the reasons I write stories.

This will just be a brief instance of that procrastination known as “writing about writing,” before I finally return to the long-neglected bliss of rewriting that fantasy novel and bringing out what I pray will be the story it was meant to tell.

When people began trying to equate his stories of Middle Earth with contemporary events or themes or hot button topics, Tolkien bristled at the notion that he was writing commentary. He was fine with applicability, but current events were not the point. Tolkien had what he described as a cordial dislike for allegory. “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”

That’s largely my perspective as well. He weaved together this world of Elves and Hobbits and noble Men, and made his stories about the characters and their situations. Not about “the dangers of power” or “relationships” or “self-sacrifice” or the other themes some writers will obsess over. Fiction loses something important when it angsts more about theme/meaning than what its particular characters go through. You can’t quite escape from this world when that happens. Fiction loses its intended illusion of reality.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but the fact is my jaw sets, and my enthusiasm and imagination begin to shrivel, when fellow readers and writers spend more time discussing the “themes” or “meaning” of a story than they do discussing the tale itself. I had far too much of that in college, where nearly every professor read ideologies into the text, coldly dissecting it and scrutinizing it like a crowd of microbes in a petri dish.

And then I fell into the creative deathtrap again with too much time on my hands after graduation, taking to the blogosphere and reading deconstructions of movies that only served to rob my enjoyment of the movies themselves. I got fixated on the themes and elements and meanings and cinematography techniques when I wanted to focus on the story. Maybe it’s a side effect of ADD. I don’t know.

Thank God this doesn’t happen to everyone, however! One of my friends told me about how this same practice of dissection and examination can enrich his enjoyment of a story. And more power to him for that!

Being a writer, I still have the responsibility to study the craft of storytelling, and knowing how to tell good tales in satisfying ways. For some reason I enjoy that part of the process.

When I’m learning how to improve my own stories, and when my reading of fiction is done not to scrutinize but to enjoy, I get inspired rather than frustrated. That diminished capacity for joy begins to regain its life and color, and its roots plunge deeper. That frame of mind reminds me how much I love creating new worlds and characters.

Don’t ignore the components of a great story, though. If you are a writer, don’t skimp on technique or think that inspiration is all you need. That’s not what I mean to convey. I only mean to say this: Don’t forget the joy of escaping into another world and making new friends through the pages of a book.