25 August 2013

Is it Sci-Fi Romance or Romantic Sci-Fi? (I'll never tell.)

When I first awoke to life, I checked out books of science-fiction stories from the library: Ben Bova, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Andre Norton, Clifford Simak, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Silverberg's multi-author anthologies--and through them pursuing other stories by the authors in them. Mostly they involved space exploration, the problems of spacecraft in space or the dangers or delights of the surface of newly discovered worlds beyond Earth. (My first sci-fi story was called "Pseudospace"--basically a rip-off of the psychedelic ending of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey--two astronauts go insane because of their stressful experience in deep space.)

Nothing I read in those days dealt much with Earth or its future and certainly not much with the psychological and sociological impacts on the characters because of their line of work. (Some dealt with political issues by using a non-contemporary setting, I know; hence the point of the story was to illustrate a political conundrum, a what-if situation as warning not to go down that path, rather than a story, say, purely as entertainment.) There was seldom a romantic angle to the stories, and if even a hint of romance were to be detected by me, it was something innocent like the love of one scientist for the work of another scientist who happened to be of the opposite sex. I was, of course, an adolescent.

Then came the second awakening: Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, Damon Knight, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, and more serious Robert Silverberg. These authors wrote more along the traditional line of what might be called fantasy rather than the more science-oriented sci-fi genre (in my opinion; don't get feisty now). They still evoked for me worlds of fascinating possibilities. I also liked sci-fi's ancient cousin: the Conan the Barbarian subgenre, as well as "sword and sorcery" books and films in general. Sure, they rescued the girl, but not really for love in most cases but simply to get a reward from her father, the king.

My own writing began as imitations of these authors. My protagonists were copies of Zelazny's Prince Corwin from Nine Princes in Amber and the rest of the Amber series, or with not much redressing Sam from Lord of Light. Little by little, I injected some of my own personality. (And still later, well into adulthood and hammered into submission in an MFA program, I allowed my protagonists to diverge from being mere clones of myself, acting as I would, speaking and thinking and moralizing as I would, to be their own independent entities.)

One thing that these later stories and novels had was more of what I might call here "romance," for lack of a better word. Romance is a problematic word because of its multiple uses. With a capital R it properly refers to those geographical areas of Europe (mostly) that were influenced by Roman civilization, including the language of Latin. Romance languages are those which emerged from Latin. In common parlance, if we speak of "romance" or something being "romantic" most of us will be meaning that it has aspects of or connections to something amorous, something of the heart, something related to relationships between people. A "romance" is a love affair, right?

Actually "romance" in the literary sense is a type of story in which a hero goes on a journey of some kind, seeking the ever unobtainable treasure (whether gold or wisdom)--sometimes intending to bring it back to impress his love-interest, sometimes keeping it for himself, for its own intrinsic worth. It's easy to see how this form lent itself to "modern" romance by the way the hero sacrifices himself for his lady, brings her something of value, and receives for it her love or other precious things [sexy details omitted]. Chivalry!

The Romance genre is one that celebrates stories about relationships. Boy meets girl, stuff happens, more stuff happens and, as the genre goes, they live happily ever after. (I've been told that if they do not live happily ever after, it cannot be Romance, as far as the genre is concerned; hence, I have coined the term, or am trying to, anti-romance: just like a romance but things do not work out in the end. In that sense of not working out, we have the Classic definition of a tragedy: the hero falls...or at least fails to get the treasure. In one of my favorite anti-romances, A Beautiful Chill, the girl grows throughout the novel and moves on to a better life, leaving the guy back where he started with not so much as a lesson learned.)

In my so-called MFA program, a university curriculum I entered with the idea of becoming a better writer (and, in a practical sense, to become "licensed" to teach creative writing), characterization trumped plot. In my reading of science-fiction and fantasy, the story line was most important, the characters secondary, just fleshy bits to carry along the action--and I wrote my stories that way: cardboard characters whose purpose was not to be interesting in themselves but to move the interesting sequence of action along. The one thing I did learn in this program was the significance of creating and developing interesting characters; that is, fully-fleshed out people with their own quirks and foibles, ambitions and fears, motivations based on psychological complexes and subject to the vagaries of their environment; in other words, a virtual person as real as you or me. A well-crafted character will often disagree with the author and sometimes refuse to go on with what the character might deem a silly plot turn.

Yes, I am coming full circle. There is method to my madness. I wrote stories that developed characters. I wrote novels of relationships. None of them had settings of other worlds or outer space or the far future. Then I did. Because I thought to myself one day, feet up, sipping a mint julep, pondering the meaning of fictional life: why can't there be serious relationships banging around inside a story of people traveling to another planet? or living in the future? or acting in a utopian or dystopian setting? I was intrigued by the relationship in 1984 as much as the political memes. What would it be like if I were Winston Smith and I met Julia? In Lord of Light, Sam has several affairs, an aspect of his persona which impacts what he does or what he tries to do. Especially in films, the recent John Carter ["Princess of Mars"] film being a handy example, producers must have a relationship in the story to attract viewers. If John Carter, Earthman, were saving an old king instead of a beautiful princess, I dare say the film wouldn't have been made.

Perhaps this is a simplistic explanation, but it is only a blog-length dissertation, after all. I do not intend to cover the whole of the history of the genre. Plenty of those out there already. However, I am about to argue for acceptance of good ol' relationship stories within the settings of good ol' sci-fi or fantasy stories--rather than the separation of the two. It's already occurred, some may rebut. And yet, it still seems to me that "science-fiction" and "fantasy" mean the story is about the strange, unusual, or exotic setting and all the wondrous things that happen as a result of the story being set there, more so than what the people there are doing with each other.

So...here it comes...the advertisement.... Not really, but it makes a convenient example with which to close this commentary:

In THE DREAM LAND trilogy, the relationship between high school sweethearts Sebastian and Gina, a couple of science geeks who discover an invisible doorway to another world, is always front and center. They cross paths often, keeping tabs on each other, discussing relationships each has with third parties, yet they still remain "soul mates" throughout their lives. Oh, did I mention much of these novels are set on another planet accessed through an interdimensional doorway located in an abandoned quarry on the east side of Kansas City, Missouri, USA? Probably not; but did I need to? The story is, after all, what happens to these two people--not so much how wonderful this other world is.

So is this trilogy a romance set in a strange locale or a sci-fi story with a central romance? Does it matter? I think it matters--but only for marketing purposes because, like it or not, readers will choose it based on this question: Is it a sci-fi tale or a romance story? Readers need clarity, it seems, godlove'em.

That is the "beauty" of The Dream Land trilogy: it works equally well as either, and yet genre-mashing makes it better! Thanks for reading to the end. I wish you a fabulous rest of the day and a better than average week ahead. Read something out of your usual genre this week; an author somewhere will thank you.

I. Long Distance Voyager - available now as ebook; coming soon in paperback
II. Dreams of Future's Past - available now as ebook; will be in paperback 
III. Diaspora - completed; coming soon as ebook, later as paperback

(C) Copyright 2010-2013 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

17 August 2013

Last Sentences are Doomed!

Last time, I discussed the greater importance of the second and third sentences in writing a story or novel, especially how it was necessary for them to work together. Then I went off on an editing binge and nearly forgot I had a blog to tend to. So, as promised, in today's blog I shall discuss the last sentence of a story or novel.

It is quite well enough to write (or read) through a novel, absorbing all of the plot points, enjoying the characters and their foibles, and riding Freytag's pyramid to a believable yet strangely unexpected climax. The denouement brings us down rather gently as we come to understand everything that has transpired and the final piece of the puzzle is put in place. Done. What more is there to write/read? THE END works well.

But wait! Back up. What about the final sentence? How about the final paragraph?

In my reading experience, I find the novel actually ends about a page or so before that last paragraph. All the threads are wrapped up, the action is done, everybody is happy--except the butler who did it and was found out. Then the writer has an incredible urge to explain it all. The usual method is to try to put a hashtag on the theme of the novel, accentuating how the plot points supported that theme. Or, the writer might elect to go big time and shoot for universal truth between the end of the action and the The End.

Secret: When I browse for books, I check the back blurb, then the first page, then the last page. It's not that I want to see how it ends (what the action is). Rather, I want to see how the writer ends the novel. Does he/she simply cut off the action and leave characters and readers with a shock? Does he/she suggest what will happen next, after you close the book? Is there a pretense to universal truth?

Universal truth endings are the ones we tend to remember years later, of course, but they are so difficult to pull off well. It's worth trying, of course. The thing to remember is that last sentences, indeed final paragraphs, depend on everything that has come before; they do not carry much meaning as solitary sentences.

Here's a short list from a "top 10" best last sentences list:

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
One of the most famous last lines, this definitely ventures into universal truth status. The novel itself becomes in hindsight a long illustration of this single idea. It's almost as though Scott thought of the universal truth first and sought to create a story that would illustrate how we strive so hard to return to the pleasantries of the past and fool ourselves that we can...and so on. (If I knew nothing of the author or novel, reading that last sentence would compel me to buy the book.)
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
"He loved Big Brother."
By this point in the novel, I have no doubt that Winston Smith did love Big Brother. It is a summary statement, which acts as punctuation on the idea. The implication is that everyone will love Big Brother; it's only a matter of time. Universal truth? Given our society today, it may be considered such. (If I knew nothing about this novel, that final line would have me wondering 'Who is Big Brother?'--which could push me to buy the book.)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
"I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be."
Quite a plain sentence, and one that makes little impression without having read everything that came before. The effect, however, is a trailing off into "whatever" the next phase would be. Considering that the novel revolves around a group of friends whose lives are destined to end as organ donors and death, the lovely protagonist can only ponder when her time comes. (Again, if I knew nothing of the novel, that final sentence would not likely cause me to buy the book; I did buy the book, but only after seeing the film version--in which that final scene was so evocatively portrayed.)
(If you crave more, check out this list from the American Book Review. Beware, there is a Swedish film by the name The Last Sentence, too. Plenty of examples in your nearest bookstore or library.)

A lot of books end with a sentence that makes me go "Hmmph! That's it?" Others, however, leave me contemplating the idea for a long time after. As a writer, I work hard to create the perfect final sentence--or paragraph. I want to strive for universal truth but often settle for a "story" truth: the grand vision that we arrive at by the end of the novel.

The universal truth ending seems more appropriate, and therefore more often used, in literary fiction. Those of us who write science-fiction or other genre would beg to differ as we believe there are universal truths to be found in everything we do: even in the more comedic or farcical writing.

For example, in my literary anti-romance, A BEAUTIFUL CHILL (coming soon), a kind of boy meets girl, they try to make it work, girl leaves boy story, the last sentence is meant to suggest how the boy will perceive of this adventure long after the novel has ended:

Her image was already branded into his brain. Like a tattoo, he decided. Like a tattoo that would never be finished.

In my other literary novel, AFTER ILIUM, which follows the misadventures of a young man obsessed with the Trojan War, the ending comes from the works of Homer--which I though a clever method for concluding the tale:

Alex stood on the balcony, leaning against the railing, just like he once had done on the cruise ship crossing the Aegean Sea. This time, instead of a wine-dark sea, he surveyed the dry California chaparral on the distant yellow slopes. He held his jaw steady, as tears crept down his cheek, recalling the torn hills of Ilium, and all of the days that fell after—remembering, whispering: Sing to me of the man, O Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy....

There are two exceptions to the final sentence pattern:

1. When a book ends with an epilogue, the final sentence/paragraph "rules" don't apply. Instead, the whole epilogue, often chapter-length, acts as an extended last sentence. However, given its length, it usually falls short of being a great ending. (I am guilty of using epilogues in THE DREAM LAND Trilogy, but mostly because I am setting up the subsequent book.)

2. When a book is in a series, the final sentence/paragraph lends itself less to leaving a reader with a greater sense of truth than setting up the next book (see #1 above). As such, that final sentence becomes a bridge, and serves as a bridge rather than a full stop, here we are at last, now what do you think kind of ending.

Here are the final sentences for each book in THE DREAM LAND Trilogy, just for your amusement and in the interest of full disclosure:

THE DREAM LAND Book I: Long Distance Voyager (in the epilogue)

After that restful pause he would realize that living in a gilded cage was better than having no cage at all.

THE DREAM LAND Book II: Dreams of Future's Past (in the epilogue)

Then she smiled warmly and said in perfect, beautiful English: “You should never have killed me.”

THE DREAM LAND Book III: Diaspora (not a true epilogue but an "addendum"; read it and you'll see how it fits)

[9.9] Someone will hear this. Maybe someday. Until then, let me say I love you. I love you all. Be good to each other. It’s a long journey we have to take. [end of transmission]

So how will you end your book? What universal truth will you share? How does your story illustrate that universal truth? Or is it simply the end of the action and that's that. Give readers a little more: a hint of what lies beyond; a smudge of delight; a slow burn that creeps us for the next few weeks; a clever or humorous remark that leaves us laughing (not good for tragedies, of course); or a preponderance of pontification that pounds us into a proper pose...and probably will produce a pestilence upon thy posterior.

Ok, that last sentence is not a good example of how to end a novel. But this is a blog post, so I can end it however I wish. There are no rules. So I shall end this post by wishing you a marvelous week!

(C) Copyright 2010-2013 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

05 August 2013

Second to None! On subsequent sentences and where they go when ignored.

I actually hate the number 8. A couple birthdays aside, August is my least favorite month. I'm not fond of "L8R" either. There's just something about that smugness it carries. Round at the top, round at the bottom, perfectly even, 4+4, or its "oh so" clever 2+2+2+2 business. So here it is, that dreaded month: the end of summer, the start back to school, the hottest time of the year, the days when dogs eat grass (I've heard it said). At this point, there is no more "endless summer".

And all I can think to do as my first August blog is to share some sentences of no particular import. On a recent trip, I had hours of driving to contemplate the opening sentences of THE DREAM LAND trilogy. Now that Book III is complete and being edited, I must return to that weak spot I've always had: the opening sentence.

Countless author blogs have reported on the necessity of a great first sentence, as though that alone tells potential readers (bookstore browsers, etc.) all they need to know about the book. Alternatively, an old literature professor--the one who actually taught me something useful (as a writer, not as an English professor)--said that a good author will teach the reader how to read the text in the first few pages. Pages! Not one all-important sentence. (Also, note the word 'teach'; thus, it's not 'You stay in your world and try to understand this text'; 'No, you must come into my world, the world of the text, but fear not for I shall guide you....')

Well, I subscribe to the latter notion. If a potential reader will not read the second sentence or others beyond the first, perhaps that reader should stick to graphic novels or Twitter. Not to be disrespectful to a majority of our finer readers, for an opening sentence is still important to setting the story in many ways; however, like much of literature, an opening sentence is intended not to stand alone but to lead to the next sentence, and that second sentence to lead to the third, and so on. It's a whole industry, not a sample bite in a grocery store. Have some patience, dear reader!

To that end (er...beginning, whatever), I look strongly at the second and third sentences and note how they proceed from the opening sentence. That shows me flow. More often than not, there will be a joke or some clever juxtaposition that strikes interest in the reader...several sentences down from that first word of that first sentence. The images, the word play, the introduction of a character or setting...the accumulation of ideas...is what catches the interest of the reader [I suggest].

By way of example, I offer the opening paragraph of each of the three volumes of THE DREAM LAND Trilogy, for your amusement today:

“I was face up in a vast snowfield, sun on my face, and all around me were hundreds of half-buried skeletons. The yellow sun was glaring off the snow, blinding me, and the blue sun was winking at me from the horizon, but all I could think of was ‘I’m freezing to death!’ They took my greatcoat, and I didn’t have any boots. In fact, I couldn’t feel my legs below the knees. I wanted to check them, but I was too frozen to move. I wanted to cry out for help but I was afraid of calling the ones who did this to me. I kept thinking ‘It’s all a mistake’ and ‘I don’t belong here.’ Then I looked up at a small branch stretching over me. I followed the branch to its end and there was a single drop of thaw hovering there. It was about to fall. I watched it for a moment—then it fell! Straight down to my legs! It hit my legs—which were frozen solid—and they shattered into a million splinters! There was nothing left but stumps! And I cried my brains out in pain—but there was no pain because everything was frozen! And I was wondering how the hell I was going to get home without my legs.”

This monologue is intended to come out all in a rush to create a tossing of imagery fast and furious, to create a composite image of a scene...a dire, wintry situation...which may or may not be resolved in the next paragraph.

The yellow sun was beginning to warm the room, the misty, frayed globe high enough that he knew dawn was coming to an end. The blue sun was still below the horizon.

One paragraph, short and sweet. All seems fine in the first sentence. The second, however, adds a twist which is scientifically designed to pique a reader's curiosity.

THE DREAM LAND Book III “Diaspora”

He felt the sand scratching his face before he opened his eyes. A faint dream hovered wallflower-like at the edge of his dance card, afraid to let itself go and twirl about the floor no matter who might be watching. Letting the image sail away on a breeze, he pushed out his legs, stretched his arms up, bent his neck—and in every movement felt pain shoot through his body like lightning, like fire and ice. He stopped, grimacing against Fate once more, like some old habit his mother had scolded him for. When his eyes opened he saw what he had expected to see, yet the sight of the desert landscape, red and brown below the emerald sky, seemed to catch him by surprise.

Textures is the theme of this opening paragraph: imagine yourself waking up in the desert. And realizing your Fate is not quite as you expected it to be. You are in trouble!

So there you have it: examples of second (and third, etc.) sentences flowing from first sentences. I hope now that everyone will henceforth pay more attention to those sentences who do not come in first but still try so very hard!

Next time: The importance of a mind-blowing final sentence.

(C) Copyright 2010-2013 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.