Fiction is Fictitious

Permit me to rant: fiction consists of lies that a writer makes up.

The characters don’t really exist. The things they do aren’t real. To quote the usual boilerplate, “All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.”

Of course, real people and events are occasionally depicted in fiction, especially historical fiction…but even then, it’s a trick.

It’s like when a stage magician lets a random member of the audience examine a deck of cards to make sure the cards are ordinary. It helps make the act more convincing. When a piece of fiction includes people who actually existed and events that really truly happened, it’s a psychological ploy to make readers more likely to swallow the stuff that’s complete make-believe.

It’s a good trick that writers use all the time. In my most recent books, I use actual everyday things like Wikipedia and mobile phones to create a setting that seems real and convincing…so that when I introduce vampires and superheroes, the world still retains a modicum of believability.

But it’s all made up.

I’m writing this rant because I read an essay on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The Turn of the Screw may or may not be a ghost story. Perhaps the ghosts are real; perhaps they’re just delusions in the mind of an unreliable narrator. The essay I was reading spent a great deal of time on this question, even though there’s a blatantly obvious answer.

Spoiler alert: the ghosts weren’t real. Neither was the unreliable narrator. Neither was anyone else in the story. It’s fiction. It’s all made up.

Henry James clearly wanted to create ambiguity. He positioned the story right on the boundary line between yes and no. He did a good job of splitting the difference, and we can admire the skill that he shows.

But to me, asking if the ghosts are real is like asking if Penn and Teller can really catch bullets in their teeth.

They can’t. It’s a trick. It can be an engaging trick, skillfully done and winningly performed. While it’s happening, you can let yourself believe it’s real…the same way you can let yourself believe a good story is real while you’re reading it. You can even let yourself get carried away by a story, getting caught up with the characters and coming away with deep emotions or even lessons from the tale.

But it’s still a trick. If a writer is good, it’s a meaningful and affecting trick. But fiction is still fictitious. Let’s not lose sight of that.

Not a Spectator Sport

Writing sucks as a spectator sport, which is why I often struggle to find anything to blog about. If things go well, I produce at least 1000 words a day…but what that looks like is me sitting at my dining-room table, either writing longhand or tapping out words on my iPad. Not an engrossing sight.

However, in the interests of upping my engagement with readers, I’m going to try to report more on what I’m doing. So here we go: I’m simultaneously working on three novels which I’ll call Project MoonProject Tech-Bro, and Project Angel of Death. (Hey, if I’m going to make up names, I may as well amuse myself.)

Juggling three projects takes a fair bit of concentration. Most days I can’t handle all of them; if I manage two out of the three, I consider it a good day. Ideally, that will be 1000 words on each project I work on. Bit by bit, the word count grows, and eventually, I get to the end.

Mostly I write. But research and planning are also important. For major research, I get books from the library, but for passing tidbits, Wikipedia will do just fine. What kind of things do I look up? Occasionally on my Twitter (@jamesagard), I note topics I’ve looked at recently. Here are some for Project Tech-Bro:

  • The Haunted Mansion
  • Stepin Fetchit
  • Navajo Nation
  • Erich von Daniken
  • Photoshop

For Project Angel of Death:

  • A. J. Raffles
  • Kitty Pryde
  • Puff Adders

For Project Moon:

  • Rapier
  • Decibel
  • Frank Frazetta

And no, I’m not going to explain how any of these fit in. But I’m always amused where writing takes me.

Book Birthday: ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS

Today is the official publication date for All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault.  You can get it in all the usual places in hardcopy, ebook, and audiobook.

It’s been several years since my last book came out. Heck, it’s been several years since I actually finished writing ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS. For those who are interested in behind-the-scene details about publishing, I initially sent the manuscript to my agent in February 2015. Since then, I’ve done some editing in response to (excellent) editorial feedback, but the book has been more or less finished for more than two years.

So on one hand, it’s a brand new book. On the other, it feels like an old one. I’ve written two full novels since I finished ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS (including the sequel, THEY PROMISED THE GUN WASN’T LOADED). I also wrote several short stories and a novella. Recently, I even began writing Book 3 in the series, with the working title NOBODY TOLD ME YOU COULD BREAK THE MOON. Still, it’s exciting to see the book finally reach the public. I hope you all like it!

By the way, I have to offer deep and sincere thanks to my agent, Lucienne Diver, who supported the book from Day One…to my editor Greg Cox, for similar support and insightful feedback…to Kat Howard, who provided feedback even before I sent the manuscript out…to Melanie Sanders for excellent copy-editing…to the many people who provided blurbs and kind words about the book…and to all the friends and fellow writers who have believed in me over the years. Thanks, folks; it meant a lot.

Sharing: Third-Person to First

I’ve been reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, in which he suggests that writers and artists should share information about their creative process.

I’ve decided to do just that. At the end of every day, I intend to tweet about what writing I did. From time to time, I’ll also write blog posts. So consider this the first installment of an ongoing feature.

First, some background. On November 7, my next novel comes out: ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS WERE SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT. In it, four students at the University of Waterloo gain superpowers. My plan has always been to make a four-book series, with each book centering on one of the students.

The first book is told by Kim Lam in first-person, past tense. The second book, THEY PROMISED THE GUN WASN’T LOADED, is told by Jools Walsh in first-person, present tense. I turned in that book to my editor in August. Afterward, I took some time to work on short stories and other projects, but I started Book 3 around the start of October.

My original plan was to write Book 3 in third-person past tense, and Book 4 in third-person present tense. That way, each of the four books would have a very different feel. So I started Book 3 and wrote about 2000 words. Then I started again with a different approach and wrote about 4000 words. Then I started again and got to 8000. Each version described the same events but with a different flavor and tone of voice.

This is standard procedure for me. I try different ways to get into a story, with different tones of voice and ways of opening up the action. Sooner or later, something clicks and I can proceed to get into the meat of the story.

But my attempts to use third-person, past tense just weren’t working. They were too distant. I originally thought this would be okay, because Book 3 centers on the character of Miranda, and she’s quite a private person. In fact, I could easily believe that if Miranda sat down to tell this story herself, she’d write it in the third-person to impose a sense of separation.

But I didn’t like the effect. For one thing, it wasn’t as funny as the first two books; third-person wasn’t personal enough to allow wry comments and turns of phrase. It also wasn’t as energetic as Miranda herself. She’s a strong quirky character. That wasn’t coming across.

So a few days ago, I decided to start again. A phrase popped into my head: Dear [Redacted]…. (I’ve omitted the name because I think there’s a good chance I’ll change my mind on who it is, and I don’t want to set up false expectations.) The idea is that Miranda is writing a letter to someone she met in the course of the adventure, and telling them how everything worked out.

I find this idea interesting; I think it will work. So I’ve started another iteration, this time writing in first-person past tense, the way you’d write a letter. I think this will make the voice sufficiently different from the first two books that Book 3 will sound like it comes from a brand new narrator. The epistolary format also justifies certain kinds of exposition: the person Redacted isn’t familiar with a lot of the world’s background, so there’s an excuse for Miranda to fill in backstory while she’s telling the tale.

I have high hopes for this approach. So far I like the chemistry. I’ve got about 4000 words in the new tone of voice and another 4000 to go before I match what I’ve already got. After that, we’ll see what happens when I finish revising existing material and start something new. Wish me luck!

Doing PR

Because ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS comes out very soon, I’ve spent the past few days working on publicity: writing guest-blog posts, doing email interviews, and arranging a number of events. Since that’s where my mind is right now, let me share a bit about the PR experience.

First of all, it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve been persuaded by this article by Havi Brooks that the phrase “shameless self-promotion” is pernicious. If you’re promoting something that you think others might enjoy, how does “shame” enter into it? Telling people about it is doing them a favor. I totally agree with that. However, as a self-effacing Canadian introvert, I have a lot of reticence to overcome. So I’m working on it. Self-promotion is a useful and learnable skill; with practice, I’ll get better at it.

Second, things have changed since my older books came out. Back then, book tours were a primary means of promotion. The beginnings of the web existed when my first book was published, but the full potential hadn’t been tapped. A few web sites posted book reviews, but even the best of them only did it sporadically. As for book ratings from regular readers, the term “social media” hadn’t even been invented.

Now, of course, there are many forums that can help your book get noticed. I’m happy to say that ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS will be covered on several sites that have a large number of readers. I’ve written guest-blog posts for a few of those, and have done a couple of email interviews too.

What will this mean for sales of the book? I have no idea, because something else has changed since my first book came out: the entire publishing industry. Sales of hardcopy books have declined over the years, and the ebook market isn’t big enough to compensate. Bestsellers still happen, and some books hit the jackpot; but many don’t.

Furthermore, being in the middle of the pack isn’t as lucrative as it once was. Thirty years ago, a mid-list writer could make a reasonable living. Now, it’s harder. If you aren’t near the top, you need a supplementary source of income. (Lots of writers teach part-time, get grants, or have a significant-other who helps pay the bills. Since none of those applies to me, I’m trying to make extra money by editing other people’s writing. Think of me if you want feedback!)

In the meantime, I’ve spent a week away from writing fiction and instead have been writing PR pieces. I’ve also been arranging events: book signings and the like. My publisher (Tor) has assigned me a PR person (hi Lauren!) who’s been very helpful in setting up guest-blogging opportunities. However, I’m on my own for local book launches; publishers simply don’t have the resources or contacts to set such things up.

I’ve arranged for a launch at the University of Waterloo (where ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS is set) and another in Toronto at Bakka-Phoenix Books, the best sf specialty store within driving distance of my home. I’ll also be signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio, Nov 2-5. Finally, I’ll be doing an event in January at the Kitchener Public Library. For details on any of these, see my list of appearances.

I wish I could do more, but there are cost-benefit considerations. If I drive someplace far from home, will the event increase sales enough to cover the gas money? At the moment, I’ve decided to err on the side of thrift. If ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS does well, maybe I’ll have enough seed money for more promotion on the sequel.

We’ll see. As I’ve said, I’m learning. Check back here in a month or two, and I’ll pass on any lessons I’ve picked up.