What is Not Spoken

Stories are said to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and they tend to have a main character and an adversary. This adversary (which can be another person, a natural phenomenon or personal hardships or challenges) must be overcome and the character must learn or gain something.

There are a number of genres that are very popular, which I suspect has to do with the security the writer promises the reader about the outcome.

Action stories, for example, tend to have a hero and the adversary tends to either be another human or a dangerous beast of some sort, and from the very start, no matter how many chase scenes and dangers, we know the hero will come out the winner. The narrative tends to follow the characters that are active and describe the moves they make and the words they say.

Likewise, romance, one of the most popular genres ever, provides that same sense of security to its readers. Romance stories always has a happy ending (otherwise it is a love story), and the narrative follows the feelings and observations, the expectations and disappointments of the main characters as they respond to each other. To start with, they tend to despise each other before they feel attracted and get together. Sometimes there is a third person involved, sometimes the adversary is their own prejudice, as in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but the reader does not have to worry about the outcome.

Mystery and detective stories also give the reader the security that the crime will be solved. The reader engages because of the puzzle or the tension, but, even if they do not know the exact details, they know the puzzle will be solved in the end, and many, myself included, read to think along and see if we got it right.

In hard science fiction, it tends to be about the technology and the descriptions of the futuristic or alien life, and although the reader does not know exactly what to expect, because the situation is new, the characters have to overcome either technological or environmental hardships, and they usually succeed.

Some other genres have similar securities, even horror and some fantasies and adventure.

In all those stories, even if the characters are well developed and realistic, which is not always the case, their focus tends to be on the one issue: the puzzle or crime, the danger or adventure, or the love interest. The conversation, the narrative and the actions focus on the scenes that move those parts of the story forward.

Drama, however, cannot promise the reader that all will end well for their characters; like real people, they do not always win or survive. Whether contemporary, science fiction or fantasy, the characters tend to face multiple adversaries, usually an important one in their own personality, and several in other people and events, often with conflicting demands. Problems between characters come from their different likes and dislikes, flaws and strengths, wishes and dreams.

They tend to have many facets, some of them negative, and more often than not, they do not say what they really mean or what bothers them, or they think something different than they say outwardly. More often than not, there is no one adversary and every character has a point, so there is never the security of one winner.

It is those complexities that allow the reader to feel for them, to love them or hate them, and different readers will feel akin to different characters.

The trick for the writer of this genre is to allow the reader these insights, to convey all those motivations and interactions that are going on under the surface, from subliminal messages to unspoken intent, without creating a bias toward one or the other.

For example, I have one character who, like many introverted people, have entire conversations in their head, and even if somebody asks them a question, they think more than they actually speak. In one scene, I have somebody ask her questions, using the all-important quotation marks that tell the reader this is a spoken sentence, but the reply comes without those marks. After a number of those, the questioning character gets upset because they feel ignored.

Similarly, I play with abstract words, because those are words that do not and cannot mean the same to all people, so they confuse each other, get angry or sad, when the other person never meant to convey the message that was received.

It is not always easy to decide how to write those scenes. The tense and point of view of the story help make these insights possible. Obviously, when writing from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, you can tell the reader what goes on in each person’s head, but without this narrator, a writer needs to decide which scenes go with which character (if there are more than one point of view character) and always keep in mind what each of them can or cannot know. Something that is not spoken or acted in public cannot be known by other characters.

I find that it makes less difference whether I write close third or first person, as long as I make sure that the reader is in only one head at the time. I use scene breaks or chapter breaks to change point of view character.

Although the present tense automatically gives a story more momentum, I find I can raise the tension by changing point of view more often, so that as many as possible angles on an important event are portrayed.

In movies it is possible to show the viewer multiple happenings at the same time, by zooming out and showing different characters acting simultaneously, but in a book, they need to be described, each in their own turn.

In short, it is the subliminal interactions and messages that I love to play with in my stories, because they not only keep things complex and rich, but they keep he reader in suspense, because you never know what will happen next. And hopefully, the reader might recognize in one of the characters somebody they know and get an insight in what could be playing.

That is the goal of my writing – writing for a positive future – to help people understand each other.

Thank you for reading.

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How Some Publishers Discriminate Against Introverted Writers

Of course, I know that we live in a society that favours extraversion. That is simple psychology.

Despite introversion becoming more talked about and many people seeking groups that try to get equal respect for introverts, it remains the case that the vast majority of people do not even really know what those words mean – except for some vague references to outward behaviour, like talking a lot or going to parties. That misconception implies that it is a choice people make, or that it is learned behaviour, and, therefore, introverts should try and get over it.

That attitude is nothing new; schools have always berated introverts for being shy, for not speaking up in class, for not wanting to be in the sports team or drama club. Even if extraverts are more often told off for talking in class, teachers do not associate that with being flawed as a person as they do introversion.

Offices may have in the past been too focused on quiet work, and extraverts, no doubt, had trouble with that, but the recent fashion of open area offices, where people are expected to change desks every day to “be social”, and where brain storming sessions or meetings are the order of the day, is proving detrimental for introverts. They are forced to take many more sick days that they have, just to get over the poisonous atmosphere, never mind the decline in the quality or amount of work.

Then there are the countless recruiters who have joined the idea that a person who is not on Facebook must be antisocial and therefore not employable, without understanding that it is often exactly those who have been discriminated against or bullied who shy away from those networks, while bullies tend have huge amounts of ‘friends’.

But now, book publishers are joining the party, despite writing being very much an introverted activity. I am not saying that extraverts are not writers or cannot write, but they also have many other ways to tell their stories; just look at Twitter and You Tube.

Introverts often have no other way to express than to write. They made up the majority of writers in the past. Today, however, many publishers want evidence of followers on social media before offering somebody a book deal, or they force the writers to do their own marketing. This blatant misunderstanding of writers comes from an industry that claims to exist to support the art of writing.

Equally ignorant, writers of marketing advice endorse this practice by threatening writers that they will never get a deal if they do not follow the trend. They make it sound as if there are no decent publishers around at all anymore, but that is not quite true.

Although it is often exactly those publishers who shout “equal opportunity” on their websites, who judge the writers rather than concentrate on the contents of the stories, there are still some respectable publishers around (both for books and magazines), who read content before asking the writer for personal information. They often state this on their websites.

This practice was started to prevent discrimination for reasons of ethnicity and gender, but it can help introverted writers as well, and I would strongly advice all serious writers to seek out those publishers.

If a publisher won’t accept you until you have a certain number of social media followers, they are not in it for the writing, but for the money. They are hurting the writing community more than they help it and I would say, boycott them. We need equal opportunity for all people and we should finally stop judging books by their covers – whatever form that cover might take.

Thank you for reading.

You do not choose to become a writer; the writing chooses you.

The other day, I came across a person, who said she wanted to write a book, but had no idea where to start. On asking, it turned out that it wasn’t the case that she had an idea, bit did not quite know how to start her story, but she simply had no ideas for stories; she just wanted to be a writer, because other people were writers and it seemed a nice idea.

Now, this person was extreme, of course, yet there are countless people who pick creative writing courses at university, usually because they have no clue what else to do, and believe they can become writers that way.

Another recent notion I came across was people who believe that having an idea for a story makes them a writer, but they’d like to hire a ghost writer to write it for them. That would be the same as me having the idea that I would like my son’s portrait painted, but ask somebody else to do the painting, so I can call myself a painter, or that I would be a doctor, because I send somebody to the GP when I think they have a cold.

Having ideas is the simple part. One idea might turn into a story or book, but most natural born writers have so many ideas they cannot hope to ever turn them all into stories. Natural born writers don’t need to ask somebody to help them find something to write about; they have no choice but to write, just like natural composers get tunes in their head and they have to play them.

On a similar note, ghost writers can probably write, but as long as you have to trade on somebody else’s already famous name to make it, it is questionable whether it is the quality of the writing that did it. On the other hand, all writers need help getting noticed, regardless of the quality of writing. But very often a famous author gets old or dies and their books keep being published, usually with a significant quality drop or else with a different style. However, because ghostwriters do not have to do any world or character building, which is one of the most important things of fiction writing, it is more like being a fan fiction writer, because with as the only difference that you have permission of the original author, usually for financial motivations.

Of course, not everybody who has ideas needs to be a writer, either. There are plenty of people with fantastic stories to tell, who do this better in film or as story tellers of another kind. In other cultures and other times, the latter were more accepted.

And, of course, you can be a non-fiction writer, which many people can do about their own topic of interest, although the research and follow through also requires a lot of commitment.

What I am saying is this: Most people accept that being a painter or musician is a talent people are born with, even if others can also learn the basics. So it is with writing, and with all non-artistic jobs as well, because each person has certain natural inclinations they are born with and which help them notice things (like ideas for stories), but writing is more than just having the idea; it is creating the setting, the characters and the plot and letting the characters lead you in telling the story. It is hours and hours of editing and rewriting, and it is something you become totally immersed in and cannot do quickly on the side.

Today, everybody can create a book, but most are just repeating what has been done a million times; everybody can record music, and I am sure natural born musicians have the same issue with the invasion of their skill set by this ease of access. But creating a book is not being a writer unless you actually created the story as well.

What I am saying, is that you do not choose to be a writer (or painter or musician), but it chooses you. You have no choice; you probably did it since you were young, even as a hobby, and it won’t stop, even if you try to. It comes naturally; you don’t have to ask others for ideas – but only for technical advice – and you don’t become a writer because it is popular, but because you already are a writer, a story-teller, from the moment you were born.

Thank you for reading.

No Space for Science Fiction

Not every story set in space is science fiction and science fiction does not need to be set in the future.

Genres of writing have changed over time, and currently “science fiction” tends to be grouped with “fantasy” and “cosmic horror” under the heading “speculative fiction”.

Of course, fiction tends to be speculation and it speculates a reality that never was or might never be, but which the writer (and reader) will accept as possible, at least for the duration of the book.

The term “suspension of disbelief” is very accurate for the science fiction genre, especially, because the word “science” is heavily laden with the expectation of fact and truth. Of course, every scientist knows that what is true today might be proven wrong in the future, so they, too, suspend disbelief when speculating, but theirs is not called science fiction, because they posit their scenarios as possible facts without the addition of fictitious people (characters).

Some science fiction stories, just like non-fiction books, get outdated, for example when their novel inventions are no longer novel speculations. When Star Trek was launched, their communication devices were totally alien to us, and yet, today, everybody walks around with a cell phone that can do more than the machines of the Enterprise crew.

Yet Star Trek did not get less popular, exactly because their stories deal with the human interaction with these technologies and the ethical relations between the races. Human stories do not get old.

I love science fiction, exactly because it allows me to invent a world that is totally fictitious, and yet based in an accepted understanding of our understanding of human psychology, so that my characters must ‘deal’ with a situation that is totally possible, and they must deal with it in a manner that real people could and would.

I love being able to immerse in such a totally different world, that is nonetheless very ‘real’.

Yet, despite science changing and definitions changing, and certainly our attitude to what genders are expected to do, when I mention that I write science fiction – which is not the only genre I write – the reactions I get are peculiarly outdated.

First of all, it is not uncommon for somebody to assume that I am male, unless I specifically point out that mine is social science fiction. Apparently, it is still not acceptable for women to deal with technology.

Secondly, the question most often asked is,  “When in the future is it set?” or “What planet is it on?”

The assumption is that science fiction must be set in space, and in the future, and generally the two are treated as self-evidently related.

Even in the minds of the younger generations, which (unlike mine) has grown up with space travel as an accepted technology, it seems that the ingrained idea from the sixties (the boom of science fiction) has taken a permanent hold.

That same assumption also underlies the idea that every story that is set in space must be science fiction, which is not true. Many stories set in space are simply that, an adventure story that could have been set anywhere, but they picked space; known as “space opera”, like soap opera – and I really don’t know why, because “opera” refers to a tragic (love) story set to music.

What makes a story science fiction, is that it is based in scientific facts and uses fiction to animate a scientific speculation, regardless of which science it is based in, so that the popular book of Jean Auel, Clan of the Cave Bear, for example, is in every sense a science fiction, because it was based on our scientific understanding of the relation between Homo Sapiens and the Neanderthals, for which the science was archaeology.

In other words, the belief that science fiction is about the future and that any story set in space is science fiction, is nonsense.

However, if you want to create an entirely new world, then your options are limited: You can create an “alternate Earth history”, you can set it in a futuristic world or in our own solar system (which automatically leads you to a future setting), or you can totally make up a place and time.

That last choice is what I did for my big science fiction novel (Of a Note in  a Cosmic Song), which is not set in the future, but in an era in the history of this fictitious planetary system. However, the possibilities and technologies of this planet are in line with our current scientific understanding of what is possible in geology, in space travel, in technology, in  ecology, and even in what constitutes a habitable planet, so that it qualifies as science fiction.

That I question some of those established scientific assumptions and give alternative possibilities later on in the book, is equivalent to a non-fiction scientist posing a new theory.

My science fiction story, which was published in 2010, is by no means out-dated, although some technological features already are. However, it was a people story; a story that shows how people might or might not survive the challenge of colonization of another planet; a story about how they would deal with each other and the challenges of making new rules: Would they make the same mistakes as those who came before them; those who ruled the planet they are wanting to leave? Is it possible for people to start over without regrets? Is it possible to create a totally different society, or will they always fall back on fighting and politics?

That story has a non-fiction partner, my philosophy book Homological Composition, which basically poses the exact same theories and speculations, but without the human aspect.

And now, almost ten years after I finished that enormous science fiction project (which took me about ten years to write), I am ready to start another science fiction. But this time, I will not set it in the future or in space. This time, I will create an entirely different fictional possibility, based in our current understanding of Earth science.

And I cannot wait to start.

Thank you for reading.

Retrospection and Diversity

The other day I was going through my old papers, diplomas and photos and I came across a series of assessments from when I just started training as a nurse. Those assessments came from the registered nurses in the hospitals I was an apprentice – my nurses education was then a new approach in that we did not sign on as students in a particular hospital, but with an independent school, from which we did practical experience in many places (general, psychiatric, community, paediatric and geriatric nursing and the care for the intellectually challenged). Most of my early assessments were not very good. The practicing nurses considered me not suited for the job, not practical enough, not outspoken enough, not outgoing enough and so on. They expected people like them, people they had always worked with. It took me four years to get through a 3-year nurses training and it is a wonder I did not quit.

In retrospect, this was the best school I could have gotten into, because until then I had never even considered that you could be a nurse for anything but general medical care, which was the area most of those negative assessments came from. During my training I learned that the care for those with mental and emotional problems suited me much better, even if, at that point, I did not yet understand why, because I had no knowledge of the psychological types.

Similarly, in general medicine, aspiring doctors do their training in many different fields, so that they might find the niche that suits them best. We all know that surgeons and dentists tend to be of a completely different personality type than internists and general practitioners. The former like the technical aspect and tend to be less capable of bedside manners, while the latter prefer the human interaction.

Likewise, in every field, there will be different niches that attract different types of people – although some fields, like mathematics, the hard sciences, but also childcare, tend to be populated by many of the same types of people.

And so for writers (and readers). We do not all like the same books and we do not all write the same genres and that is a good thing.

We all have a habit of judging by our own (often unconscious) standards, and talk about “a good book” or something “is realistic or fascinating”, but we don’t realize that such a statement reflects our personal perspective and cannot be objectively the same for everybody.

Of course, there are a few objective standards, like whether grammar and punctuation are used accurately and whether there is cohesion in the plot, but most of what we desire in a book and what we write ourselves depends on our personality, so that readers and writers have to match.

I am not saying that readers will only enjoy books written by people of their own personality type, but they have to be close enough to be open to their ideas. A writer brings in new viewpoints; sometimes, they bring in multiple viewpoints, expressed in different characters, but in any case, their job is to broaden the general perspective and to allow people to find out new things – whether they do that in non-fiction or in fiction.

We all accept or dismiss books based on what we already believe, but we all have our thinner boundaries, where we are willing to learn more. This is how information spreads through a population and this is what enriches our lives.

People are not all alike – they are not all unique either – but come in inborn types, which are like genres in books or styles of music. Our attraction to certain topics, certain genres of reading and writing is a direct result of our inborn personality types.

For example, those types who gravitate toward the hard sciences and mathematics tend to stick with non-fiction or speculative narratives in philosophy and science (like Walking with Dinosaurs), and if they write (science) fiction, they are often told that their concepts and settings are amazing, but their characters are stereotyped or ‘cardboard’.

Those people who gravitate toward the humanities and naturally empathize with people, jump into their shoes and therefore write much deeper and motivated characters, but their technical descriptions can be simple. Nevertheless, they, too, might speculate about the future, but their focus will be on future societies and how they function. Fiction, after all, is like a thought experiment that tries out human scenarios.

These speculative writers can therefore be ‘data-people’ or ‘people-people’. The other speculative genres, fantasy and horror, follow a similar divide, but they seem to attract more people-people, because it is our fears and wishes that are explored there.

But speculative people are not the only writers. Practically inclined people write and read practical literature about what is here and now, instead of what could be, and which can range from biographies, historical novels, animal and family stories and non-fictional guides for daily life to more academic science, history and technology, and adventure stories. In other words, practical people also can be subdivided in those who like people topics and those who prefer data and facts.

This makes for an immediate division into four totally different types of readers and writers, and within those, we could be more specific. However, the main message here is that we are all different and we all have to find our niche, in our chosen field as well as in reading and writing. That does not mean we should stick with what we feel comfortable with; it is okay to try new things, and nothing better than a book to try that with, because you can do it from the safety of your arm chair. We can learn from each other, exactly because we are not all alike.

In short, reviewers might dismiss books, assuming theirs is an objective viewpoint, which might influence potential readers, especially those who also believe there is an objective measure, and put them off reading something they might have really enjoyed.

Therefore, be aware that people come in different ‘genres’ as much as books do, and we do not all have to be alike.

If the nurses in the hospitals I apprenticed had been aware that people are okay to be different, I might have enjoyed my work there more, and so, if we all expect these natural differences, we might help today’s young people appreciate themselves earlier.

Diversity is a wonder of nature; not just physical diversity, but psychological diversity. That is why we have so many libraries and book shops.

Let’s celebrate our differences.

Thank you for reading.

Fictional people are CHARACTERS

Fiction, apart from in literature departments, tends to be dismissed by academia as “non-scientific”, without being able to see its importance as a means for people to understand each other.

Philosophers pride themselves on doing “though experiments”, in which they consistently assume people to be psychological clones of each other, while most academic psychology departments treat people as an expression of their physical brain and nothing more.

One of today’s buzz words is “personality” and it is usually wrongly used to mean a person’s outward and observable habitual behaviour only – implying that their behaviour is all there is to a person – so that, the moment a person behaves differently than the group, they are labelled with a “personality disorder” (and possibly medicated), despite the fashionable claim that “we are all unique”.

But we need to keep in mind that people are not two-dimensional beings; they have aspects that cannot be observed or understood by others, because our mind is immaterial and so is the information it communicates to others.

Just for clarity’s sake, let me define the words before we talk about fiction. A person is an individual human being (body and mind). This person has an inner life that is their personality, their inner Self, which uses four information filters to communicate with the world around them. All people have these filters, because without them we could not survive. But that does not mean that we all use those filters in the exact same manner, and this is where the dismissal comes in, because these differences cannot be observed from outside. Personality types indicate those who use their filters in the same fashion, and, since there are four filters, there are sixteen different types.

Additionally, different situations require different behaviour – you cannot behave at work the way you do at home – so that each person has a ‘wardrobe’ of behavioural masks they can use in different situations. This is our outward behaviour (persona) over which we have a measure of control.

However, because the world consists of many people who use their personality filters differently and therefore don’t always understand each other, each person experiences judgments and reactions from the moment they are born, which influence how they learn to feel about themselves and others. For example, if one person grew up in an environment where they were constantly criticized and the other in a supportive environment, then two identical personality types will habitually behave differently in response to the same situation.

In other words, outward behaviour is motivated from who we are inside (our personality or Self), augmented or hindered by a lifetime of environmental experiences, as well as the requirements of that particular situation. Habitual behaviour is therefore neither the persona nor the personality of a person, but their character: that which they have learned to respond to the environment with, based on their experiences. Although there are only sixteen personality types, there are an infinite number of characters, which is what people mean when they say “we are all unique”.

In literature, we talk about “characters” to indicate the portrayal of the people in stories. In well written stories, these are fully developed people with a personality – which is the inner life the writer allows the reader to become part of by describing the character’s thoughts and feelings – a social and cultural background and personal history, all of which influence their outward behaviour.

In other words, a well-rounded character in a book is a person with a personality, who behaves in certain ways as a result of their life’s experiences, no differently than a real person does, and the reader, who is well aware that their own behaviour is not all there is to them, is also aware that the way a character behaves is not all they are, which is why they feel for them.

That raises the question why so many people understand fictional characters as holistic, but label real-life people according to their superficial behaviour only.

The answer lies in the power of fiction; the power to allow the reader to crawl into other people’s perspectives (their thoughts, feelings, senses), which we cannot do with the people around us.

In some cultures, fiction is the only accepted way of handing down moral beliefs and truths, but even in our western society, story telling is much more powerful than any study or counselling session in learning to understand our inner differences. I have used this example before, but homosexuality, for example, did not become acceptable to most people until writers and filmmakers started showing us real people with feelings and beliefs.

Fiction writing is the “thought experiment” of the social sciences, because it is the only way we can experiment with holistic people in social situations, by showing the diverse personality types, characters and situational behaviours all in response to each other.

People, after all, are not the impersonal data or inanimate objects scientists and most philosophers like to deal with because they can be reduced to their simple elements. People are holistic, complex, endlessly diverse and living in situations with endless variables. That is the nature of “being unique”.

In short, despite all the confusion in word usage among psychological theories, the world of literature had it right from the start: fictional people are characters, and the challenge and joy of writing fiction is to make their world as complex as our real world is.

 

A New Quality in the Book Market

Recent conversations and experiences brought my attention back to the deterioration of quality in published books. Most people think that the eBook market is to blame for the lack of care for quality or authorship. However, I do not think that this means that the quality will keep going down or that this trend will continue.

Originally being a facilitator for writers by offering services, publishers became the dominant force, telling writers what to write, because the market demanded it – thus sticking with the tried and true, which had proven to make money. As a result, the moment it became technologically possible, writers tried to escape from those shackles, and get back to writing what they considered valuable – in that view the publishing industry killed their own viability.

But in combination with the idea that natural talents don’t exist and that everybody can learn to write a book, this easy access technology enticed countless other to try as well. most in the hope for fame or money, which is the situation we find ourselves in today: the market is overflowing with rehashed ideas, many written by teens, often without proper editing, and catering to an audience that seeks to escape reality. Or rather, to provide a hopeless generation with something to hold onto: the mountain of apocalypse stories gives readers unconsciously the feeling that if such disasters can be overcome by their heroic (teen) characters, then surely the real world can also become right again. In other words, this kind of reading material is serving a psychological need.

But this isn’t a downward spiral that will continue, but rather a transition period. We are already seeing new organizations popping up, ready to help those writers who are serious about quality. We see websites that frown on self promotion, and websites that compile lists of quality books that are then presented to libraries. More help in marketing is becoming available for those writers who cannot deal with this or with the electronic world. And many publishers are scrambling back, trying to do better by writers. There is also more demand for new topics, and not just to get away from the real world, but countless anthologies are popping up looking for writers to help shape a new future. In other words, they are appealing to that what writers tend to be good at: to speculate and imagine.

This sort of new quality control will start weeding out those who write simply because it is the fashion to do so. This will reduce the number of hopefuls in university classes who believe that writing is simply a technique, and slowly bring in a new infrastructure, in which the old-fashioned publishers are replaced, but story telling itself will not go away. We writers need to simply ride out this transition and support each other as best we can, but not give up.

Of course, we need to also watch that this new infrastructure will not start dictating topics and content again, but let us hope some people can learn from the past.

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