Why I Write The Things I Do – A blast from the past from October 2007


*The point of two posts today is to write a post on Muses and other afflictions, tomorrow – SAH*

Why I Write The Things I Do – A blast from the past from October 2007

(You should read the post previous to this to know what the rant is all about.)

I’ve been accused — in fact, I’ve been accused recently and by someone who should know better — of writing to market.  This is not true, though it might not be immediately obvious.  What I choose to write — what I have to say in each short story or novel — I want to write.  Often desperately enough to do it — often — for the drawer.   And, hell, if I wrote to market, I’d write a lot more thrillers, romances and women in peril.

With one exception — my one write for hire book — I write a story when it chases me down, pins me to the desk and makes me type.  I write it because I must.

This doesn’t mean I’m writing Real Politik stories — all message no fun.  When I was a little kid I DESPISED the “goody-two-shoes” books that pushed the moral or religious POV.  There are no words for the level of bile and hatred I had for those so unsubtle as to have at the end something like — Moral: Good always wins and evil always loses.  Being who I am it immediately made me want to go out and write a story “proving” the opposite.

I feel exactly the same way about the politically correct pap the kids get assigned in school and half of what’s being cranked out by publishing houses, too.  It’s not, my friends, that I disagree with their contentions — I do indeed qualify a lot of them, like the whole men versus women thing, and others are so a-historical it’s not even funny, but in general — it’s that most of them are only repeating received wisdom and, furthermore, received wisdom that, disagree with it or not, no one will oppose.  Just like “Good always wins and evil always loses” is a load of patooey in real life.  BUT it is the way we all wish it were.  And at the same time it is a message repeated from all the churches and institutions catering to the young since there have been churches and institutions.

In the same way the tenthousandth Empowered Woman Defeats Evil Males saga might posibly contribute to the self-esteem of some severely battered woman who SOMEHOW managed to avoid all other identical tomes rolling off the presses for the last twenty years at least.  For me they are just a “oh, heck, yeah.  Go sisterrrr.  YAWN” as I toss the book aside.  (This should not be interpreted to mean that all empowered women characters are a bad thing.  Or that you can’t have evil males.  In my upcoming DarkShip Thieves I have both.  In spades.  I mean a black-and-white dichotomy of women-good-because-they’re-women/men-bad-because-they’re-men.  And don’t even get me started on the men-as-supervillain school of same.  That’s where men are amazing beings who have kept all women enslaved for six thousand years, change history, suppress thought AND in their spare time display amazing mind-control powers.  “It was date rape.  He TALKED me into having sex, officer.  What could a poor woman do against his male mind-rays.”  {again this can’t be taken to disparage all cases of date rape}  But that’s a rant for another time.)  Most of them, these days, don’t even get me mad enough to want to write the exact opposite.  It’s just all too much of a muchness.

So, no, my books don’t have an obvious message.  They have messages, of course.  Usually several.  All of which fits into an overarching view of the world.  Mine.  I’m not preaching at people — there are things I just have to say and that I think are more likely to make an impact if you absorb them subconsciously through fiction.  Things like “Yes, you’re oppressed.  That doesn’t give you an excuse not to TRY.”  Things like “You’ll be much happier if you love others as well as yourself.”  And I’m sure quite a few more, if you look carefully…

All that said, and granted I’ve written things “for the drawer” which will not see the light of day till I’m dead or the kids put me in a mental institution and get custody of my work, whichever comes first, writing is essentially communication.  You write to be read.  Otherwise you’re just murdering a bunch of innocent Pixels and — if you print it — dirtying paper on one side.

So when I write I try to maximize the chances that the books or stories will be accepted.  Much of this — at this point — takes place at a level I’m not even aware of.  Also — though it might not look like it — a lot of my writing planning is sub-conscious in the real sense.  Take Draw One In the Dark (advisable, really.  There will be a new cover for the paperback and that hard cover will be a collectible.  TRUST me.)  The characters — both main characters and Rafiel — came to me fully formed.  I have clue zero why Tom is short.  I just know I can’t change it.  I have no idea why Kyrie is KYRIE of all things.  (Not only does it mean Lord in Greek — apparently — but Kyrie Grace is the name of my friend Alyson’s daughter, which i did not want to steal.  The poor girl will grow up expecting to change into a panther.)  However, when I first vividly saw her in my mind I kept thinking that Kr was in there somewhere and and “i” sound too.  I tried Kris and Carissa and… you don’t want to know.  Finally it was borne upon me her name was Kyrie.  And from that moment on, I KNEW her.

Beyond characters, I often lack control over “voice.”  Each of my novels has a voice it wants to be told in.  Books in the same series have a slightly different voice.  Until I find the voice I can’t write the book.  This is responsible for 90% of my late deliveries.  (Health is responsible for the rest.)  I’ll find myself cleaning toilets, raking the yard and/or petting cats while I look for the voice.  Once it pops in my head — once the story starts speaking in its own voice, I’m home free, pretty much.

Given that, there are things I can control.  Above all, there are things I SHOULD control.  And those involve removing as many obstacles between story and reader as possible.

This is why I don’t write stories set in Portugal.  Without going into the other instances of it, let me point to you what “Portugal” conveys to the average American.

The first, and because of previous conditioning is “oppressed.”  If I’m not writing a story of someone (usually the US for these stories) oppressing Portugal, then I will have to consider very carefully whether to set it there.  (For those of you confused by this — every American has been conditioned by previous books to expect a book set in a small country to be a book of US oppression.  The editor who reads the book will expect it too.  If it’s not I’ll get a rejection telling me I dance around the point.  Or that they don’t understand what I’m getting at, or…)

Second, Latin country — and by this I mean that a lot of Americans — those not in the North East of the US at least — will assume Portugal is in South America.  Or that Portuguese speak Spanish.  Or that Portuguese are Hispanics.  This means that a book set in Portugal will NEED to be about Latin culture.  It will almost for sure have to feature a woman overcoming patriarchal society.  Or perhaps a book about the beauties of the Spanish language.  I simply haven’t felt like writing the type of book that would require this.  (Patriarchal society can be as well served by setting book in Victorian England.  And, oh, by the way, if I ever feel like writing a book about the beauties of the Spanish language, I’ll tell you. Don’t wait with sandwiches by the phone.)

[And here I pause to inform all those intending to deplore American ignorance to take a chill pill.  WHY should America know about Portugal?  Oh, the discoveries, you say?  yes, they should.  And the way the discoveries are taught in American schools is laughable, giving most of the credit to England.  That said, it’s still HOW it’s taught, and I can’t change it.  As for the rest, how much do my Portuguese readers know of small countries with which we haven’t had a war in forever?  If I say Outer Slovenia — without looking up in google, do you know if it exists?  And where would you place it mentally?  Requiring Americans to know geography impeccably is stupid.  It’s the corolary of men-as-super-villains.  As a proud American I’ll admit to many virtues.  But contrary to what you might expect, we’re not all assigned eidetic memories at birth or naturalization.]

Third, What do you mean, they’re not just like us? — The assumption in the US (and in the rest of the world, though Europeans travel more to other cultures by virtue of living in a geographical space where you can’t swing a cat* without hitting some poor peasant’s head in Outer Slovenia.  What Europeans don’t know about America and the American mind and way of life, otoh, could fill several books.)  Any book set in Portugal is immediately rowing against the current to get into an editor’s accept pile.  This is true of any book in an unusual location.  You can choose to beg exceptions in your characters lives to make them “almost American”, to stay “on the surface” so that the true differences don’t appear” (both of which negate the point of setting it in another country) or you’re going to have to explain every single thing, every step of the way.  And if you don’t, you risk giving the wrong impression of how you feel about some of these differences too.  One of my early stories set in Portugal got me a rejection accusing me of being a xenophobic American who’d never been out of the country.  This was based on one paragraph describing pastries kept not-under-refrigeration, but in glass domes on the counter top, in a deli in Portugal, which was normal in the early eighties.  (Though probably not now.)  It’s the small things, too.  I am sometimes still tripped up by this, as my own mind is still set for “what do you mean they’re not like us?” and my childhood and early adulthood was spent in Portugal.  At a workshop I almost came to cuffs with other writers over a scene in which someone makes a big bonfire with the photographs and letters of someone who just died.  “But why would anyone burn antique stuff,” was their thing.  And they couldn’t believe anyone did it without a special reason.  (The special reason is, of course, that in Portugal, if you don’t do that to the vast majority of such “inheritances” they’d be wading through old letters and papers, having had those since at least Roman colonization onwards.)

Because of all of those, if you set a novel in Portugal — PARTICULARLY if you grew up there and know the real country, not the image in people’s minds — you’re going to have a hard time selling it.  Unless you’re working on one of the themes above and intend to do the work necessary to heinlein in all the odd details without slowing the narrative down.

To me, what this means is that half of my Portuguese short stories never sell.  The other half take a long time to sell.  And most of them I have to distort in some way to make them ‘acceptable’.

The game is not worth the candle.  I can write the same story and set it in a time with the same characteristics and which American editors and readers are familiar with — the history of the English speaking world provides a lot of places and situations — and avoid the hassle.

This doesn’t mean I won’t ever write a novel set in Portugal, just that I have yet to find a compelling reason to do so.  And there are other reasons NOT to.  Those, I’ll deal with in the next few days.

And now, back to the real work.


*I am required here– by Miranda who is glaring at me — to say that the cat swung is entirely metaphorical and that anyone attempting to swing an actual animal will have to deal with Miranda aka cat princess of infinite power.  Cats should be carried, cuddled and petted.  Not swung.  Or she will pee on your books.

40 thoughts on “Why I Write The Things I Do – A blast from the past from October 2007

  1. I would read your Portuguese stories. Stories like that would give insight to a different culture.

  2. The Portuguese colonial experience with such places as Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia was something different from either the British or the Spanish. But it also seems rather remotely detached from village life.

  3. Cats, in my experience, don’t care for Swing, preferring the far more dignified Waltz.

    1. I once had a cat whose favorite activity was “Cat in a sack” — he’d climb into a plastic grocery bag, then I’d whirl the bag around my head until I grew either bored or dizzy, then hang it on a doorknob, where he’d lounge in blissful contentment for some time after. Rinse and repeat until we ran out of intact bags.

          1. Maybe? I know that if you had an angry rooster, you picked them up, forcefully tucked their head under their wing then drew circles in the air with them for about a minute to calm them the hell down.

            Or made them very very dizzy.

            Gotta watch out for those spurs though.

  4. This was based on one paragraph describing pastries kept not-under-refrigeration, but in glass domes on the counter top, in a deli in Portugal, which was normal in the early eighties.

    IIRC you could see something like that in American Bakeries until recent times (or even now). 😀

    1. Now that coffee shops are trendy, the same editor may think you’re obviously supposed to have them in glass display cases, not individual domes, but not bat an eye at the lack of refrigeration… because that’s what lots of coffee shops do now. What a difference a couple decades makes, eh?

  5. Why should Americans know about Portugal? Um, how about Vasco da Gama? You know, finding a sea route from Europe to India via the Cape of Good Hope? Or his predecessor, Prince Henry the Navigator? How about Bartolomeu Dias? These guys are pretty much responsible for why Brazil got colonized by the Portuguese instead of Spain; providing justification for a treaty that basically split the world between them, for a while.

    1. I learned about Vasco de Gama and Magellan in school. But after the treaty, Portugal sort of fell off the radar. They didn’t do anything after that, and it was all about the Spanish and the things they did. And the French explorers, too, of course.

      I mean, Portugal and Spain are pretty much the same thing anyway, to most Americans. That aren’t us, of course.

  6. The only real experience I have with Portugal in literature doesn’t really track with that – but then again, they’re pretty old novels written by Madeleine L’Engle (The later Murry-O’Keefe novels)

  7. What’s wrong with “writing to market?” Conan Doyle, Tolkein, Spillane, King, Pratchett, and L’Amour did…

  8. Ishtar the 6 pound terror used to get on top of the bookcase, then proceed to upchuck. Mercifully, there was top-of-bookcase between kitty and books, but I had some interesting cleaning jobs at times.

    Sara (AKA The sweetest Lab-Aussie we know) reserves her indoor piddling for her crate, especially when Angie the Border Collie decides that once she’s awake, the rest of the household needs to wake up, too.

  9. Just like “Good always wins and evil always loses” is a load of patooey in real life.

    Nah, it’s a mismatch of timeframes.

    If good won every time, right now, then there flatly wouldn’t BE an evil. It wouldn’t manage to swipe so much as a lolliepop.

  10. Written 12 years ago, still relevant.

    Fess up, Sarah: where are you hiding your time machine?

  11. I feel like the bonfire thing — much though I might flinch, after tales of people (re)discovering family history in old letters, and reading one rather startling one from my grandfather — might get more acceptance during the fame of Marie Kondo.

  12. Things like ‘Yes, you’re oppressed. That doesn’t give you an excuse not to TRY.’

    Isn’t being taught you shouldn’t try, you should just whinge about your victimhood, worse?

  13. Otherwise you’re just murdering a bunch of innocent Pixels

    Believe me, there was nothing innocent about those Pixels.

  14. Don’t wait with sandwiches by the phone.

    Bu- but I’ve already cut the crusts off! What’ll I do with all these cucumber slices?

  15. you know, I actually have read a recent(ish) book set in Portugal. Fantasy Portugal, and I didn’t really believe in the worldbuilding… I forget why, if I ever did pin down specifics. If the moon is blue and your number comes up, I guess a book set there sells in modern day. ARE there Portugese specific mermaid legends?

    There were also Brits who’d write books with Brits visiting Portugal on holiday and having adventures, but those were from (thinks) the 50s?

    I did and do know about the historical stuff, to a degree, but more from years of gobbling historical novels than from official teaching anywhere.

    1. I quite enjoyed some novels about a Brit on holiday in Portugal. Chap named Sharpe. …

  16. Being denounced (or praised) for the background of a novel set in a remote time or place can get weird.

    ISTR reading a comment by SF/horror/thriller writer Dean Koontz about a novel he’d written that was set in “noir” Tokyo. He got fan mail later, from people in Japan, complimenting him on the authenticity of his Tokyo setting – and he’d never set foot in Japan in his life.

  17. I have a somewhat hard time believing that other authors would almost fight you over a scene in which someone makes a big bonfire with the photographs and letters of someone who just died. It’s kindof odd that we are supposed to respect the traditions of other cultures, but when something like this is brought up, people argue over it!

    Sure, it’s weird to us Americans, but it’s also a bittersweet farewell for the person. And when you put it in context — that several lifetimes’ worth of material really adds up — it kindof makes sense, too. And I’m the type of person who cringes at the loss of family history — but I also respect traditions of different places.

    Perhaps the time will come when you can write a story set in Portugal, and fix or explain some of the weird cultural questions that we have about it, and then publish it Indie. If you could stop being a xenophobic American, and get out of the country for once, of course! 🙂

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