I’m giving away 100 e-copies of my new short story, “Pokerface,” for Kindle. The giveaway began this morning, and it was a delight to wake up and see that so many people have already entered for a chance to win! [Update: Entries closed on June 27, 2018.]
If you are excited to read it and don’t want to wait a week for the outcome of what promises to be a competition for the available copies, it’s only 99 cents on Amazon (and free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers). Thanks for your support.
Story description: Jack, a private eye in New York City in 1940, searches for a missing ruby after he is hired by a Brooklyn man who dabbles in ancient Egyptian magic. It might take multiple detectives to solve this one. A short story with a touch of the supernatural.
All people have a robust inner monologue. For some, it is strong enough to take the form of a “mental illness.” Regardless of whether a character’s inner voices seem to fall within a normal range, the message of that voice is still about who the character is as a person.
“In the past few years I have been working with some colleagues at the Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai, India, to compare the voice-hearing experience of people with schizophrenia in the United States and India….in our sample of 20 comparable cases from each country, the voices heard by patients in Chennai are considerably less violent…”
He quoted one American as describing what his voices said to him: “Usually it’s like torturing people to take their eyes out with a fork, or cut off someone’s head and drink the blood, that kind of stuff.” Whereas the Indians’ voices told them “to do domestic chores — to cook, clean, eat, bathe, to ‘go to the kitchen, prepare food.'”
In this sentence in his 2006 book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins similarly implied that the content of our hallucinations depends on our cultural assumptions:
“If we are gullible, we don’t recognize hallucination or lucid dreaming for what it is and we claim to have seen or heard a ghost; or an angel; or God; or — especially if we happen to be young, female and Catholic — the Virgin Mary.”
In other words, no one who did not have some prior cultural exposure to a particular god would hallucinate that god.
This observation applies to characters who are “mentally ill” and those who are not. A character’s inner monologue tells you more about who that character is than about their illness or about any figment of their imagination. Less obviously, the lessons a character takes away from their inner monologue tell you more about who that person is than about any “objective truth.”
And you may know this:
The characters you hallucinate tell you about you.
Fiction works by connecting with readers’ existing beliefs and leading them to new beliefs (even if those new beliefs only apply within the fictional world). Writers need to be aware of the scope of their ability to touch their readers’ beliefs. Here, I mention a couple ways that we shape entire worldviews and another way just to have fun with how our assumptions inevitably limit our perceptions.
Nellie Smith recently wrote that someone’s worldview—which was formerly, for her, evangelical Christianity—is “your gauge for what is true in the world” and “is not a collection of facts. It is an entire reality, based not on logic but on a web of ideas, all of which must be wholeheartedly accepted for any of it to work.” That means that any doubt carries the threat of undermining everything else you believe to be true. Thus, when arguing with someone, be aware that “you’re asking them to punch a hole in the fabric of their reality, to begin the process of destroying their world.” Let them come to it on their own:
“Realities shift when ideas bloom and ideas are slow and patient, creeping in through unguarded portals and establishing themselves without much fanfare. However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.”
Meanwhile, give them “empathy, honest conversation, and a whole lot of patience,” and be one of those people who Smith remembers as having
“respected me, who accepted me unconditionally, and who stayed in dialogue, never shaming me even when I said things that were ill-informed or demonstrably false….everyday human kindness can absolutely be the catalyst for change. Misconceptions can be worn down by the substantive grit of a real story. But know that it takes time. It takes lots of time.”
What’s the opposite of letting someone come to the realization on their own? Propaganda, I suppose. Cynthia Boaz, in her 2011 article for TruthOut.org, described Fox News techniques for swaying viewers. First it is important to recognize that their worldview—”what I’d call a ‘meta-frame’ (a deeply held belief),” as she puts it—identifies violence with nobility, morality, patriotism, piety, and power. They appeal to their audience’s Christian beliefs. They claim that they are on the side of the common people and that there’s an elite class that opposes them. They reject expertise and educational credentials. There’s character assassination, guilt by association, and scapegoating/othering. They engage in flipping (“taking whatever underhanded tactic you’re using and then accusing your opponent of doing it to you first”), bullying interlocutors into verbal submission, confusing the audience (by “insist[ing] that the logic is airtight and imply that anyone who disagrees is either too dumb or too fanatical to follow along,” or what I might call an Emperor’s New Clothes trick), or, when all else fails, changing the topic. All this serves the goals of panic mongering and revisionist history. Then they repeat the message over and over until it starts to sound real.
The above are two ways (there are surely more) to form a worldview: give the audience enough material so that they eventually tell themselves a story, or craft the story in a way that does not allow dissenting views and force feed it to them.
Once you have a worldview, you can play games with its boundaries without breaking it. One such approach was described in Jonah Weiner’s 2017 New York Times article on magic that explored the performances of Derek DelGaudio. DelGaudio believes that the idea behind a good magic show is to display reality in a way that gives it an aura of unreality the audience can’t resolve. The magic show succeeds insofar as the audience knows their worldview doesn’t account for what they’re seeing and they enjoy being challenged, seeing it as a playful interaction, not an assault on their ignorance.
All of this describes how fiction can work. At one extreme end of the spectrum (hands-off), the writer just gives empathy, honesty, and patience and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. At the other end (hands-on), the writer manipulates the reader into coming along for the ride with a violence-is-power metaframe by making them feel judged, stupid, or wrong for disagreeing or for having different preferences or interpretations on how the story ought to work. And, perhaps somewhere in the middle, the writer can just acknowledge that the reader has existing assumptions and preferences and can boldly play off them, hopefully to the reader’s amusement.
How does a novelist begin a new tale? Here’s a couple ideas.
In On Writing, Stephen King says that his books
“tend to be based on situation rather than story….I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.
The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way.”
King’s method intimidates many writers. Here’s a blank page. Put down a situation, some characters…and then? Without planning, many writers feel lost.
It may alleviate some pressure to remember that there are different levels of creativity. Not every creative act needs to be expertly executed or lead directly toward a goal, and not every completed work will display eminence, genius, or commercial success.
“1. Big Cs represent eminent creativity.
2. Pro Cs are experts in the field who have put in a great deal of time (think Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell) to master their crafts.
3. Little Cs represent the creativity that everyone can access, from using fun ingredients in recipes, to editing pictures on mobile phones, to doodling while listening to a conference call.
4. Mini Cs are personally meaningful insights that are gathered from trying something new and learning about it along with yourself. For example, when you hear something and process it in a unique way, channeling it into something that only you can feel, believe, and own.”
Much of the writing process falls into the “Mini” category, constituted of little sparks that have personal meaning to you but might be hard to explain to someone else. Once you reach the place where you can share these creative bursts and they make sense to others, you’ve reached the “Little” category. After years of practice, you’re a “Pro.” Only a very few people are ever “Big,” so don’t sweat it. Sweat probably doesn’t get you there anyway.
Where I’m going with this: When you sit down to write a story and the blank page feels unmanageable, it may not be for lack of advance plotting. Maybe your internal creative process, not your story, needs to be broken down and made more visible. When you have a clearer command of how your imagination works and brings ideas to life, King’s model of writing might seem easier. Start with a situation and some characters. Let yourself have a series of creative explorations in private until you are ready to share what you’ve written. Keep practicing. Practice will get you to the pros. With luck, you, or your story, will go big.
When there is floor coffee, it’s a sign that my writing is fruitful. This is the day when I am working on at least three books at the same time. If you were to hear me speak this phrase “floor coffee” aloud, you might assume me to be using a romantic metaphor such as la flor del café, but this is not the case; I would be referring instead, quite literally, to el café del floor. When I am multi-tasking my writing, there is no room on the desk for my coffee mug, in which case I must place it on the floor. My coffee mug tells you that my desk is full, and, therefore, so am I. Thank you for your understanding. I wish you all creatively productive days with as much floor coffee as you can handle.