Do you entertain?

Had a long phone call with a friend and fellow writer yesterday. Such things tend to ramble, and that’s good. We’re both writers, so mostly we talk craft and business. And music, because she’s a musician. And other things. (The wife accuses this redneck of being a renaissance man.)

Not entirely random, but getting there.

From a literary interest standpoint, we’re just about as far apart as two people can get. She makes it a point to read all of the Hugo and Nebula nominees. Is currently in a book club where that’s what they do. I honestly couldn’t tell you any such titles except when they capture the cultural zeitgeist and end up redefining some genre.

For example, William Gibson didn’t invent cyberpunk (and he’ll point you at the folks who did). JK Rowling didn’t invent Magic Academies. However, both of them pretty must established those two genres for everyone else coming along.

At the same time, one of the reasons I don’t follow those things is that I’ve seen the sausage being made. Hugos in the past were awarded as a result of about 1000-1200 voters who had signed up for that year’s WorldCon. Half a decade ago, a group of fascists figured out how they could stuff the ballots and other shenanigans. It blew up in their faces spectacularly, and I’m happy.

At the same time, it just shows that such awards are popularity contests within a small cluster of self-described experts. Nothing at all to do with the quality of the books themselves.

In the broader realm of science fiction, I run into the same problem. More than once I’ve sat down and tried to read one of the “Best of XXXX Year” or “Year’s Best…” etc short story collections put out by THOSE PEOPLE. Honestly, the Silmarillion is an easier read. And usually makes more sense.

Science fiction (and maybe other genres, but I’m not sure) has had a problem in the past of wanting to explore really cool ideas. And rewarding those really cool ideas. And hardly ever once stopping to actually ask “yes, but is the story any good?”.

Many of them are a cute idea. Fun character concept. Maybe an amazing setting. Possibly a problem that needs to be addressed. Many of those “grand important literary stories” we’re supposed to be impressed by manage one of the three. But only one. Those Best Of collections are just one right after another.

As a writer, I work the seven point plot structure most of the time. Character, Setting, AND Problem. My story fails in my eyes if I miss on even one of those. Which is probably why I’ll never win one of those big awards.

I’m here to entertain you. She and I compared my stuff to some of what she was reading. Those all had socio-political statements to make. And only maybe actually tell a story. Right now, they were wading through a whole swamp of Neo-Confederate anti-colonial slave/rape/pain stories, told from the standpoint of the people being abused.

Good. Science fiction is all about the “What If?” element of story telling. Those topics should be explored, especially by folks at the short end of the stick vis-a-vis Modern American Culture. I’m about as upper-middle-class, pasty white, cis-presenting, not-currently-bearded, science fiction writer as you can get. I can talk about those kinds of characters, but I haven’t ever lived that.

I’ve never been pulled over or stopped on the sidewalk by a cop because of my color, race, gender, or anything else. And SF lets you thinly veil such things in a way that you can talk about them and explore them. And talk about normative results.

What should be, rather than what is.

However—and this is a big however—they still need to be interesting. Entertaining. She talked about plodding through them, because the writers had a fantastically detailed and interesting setting to explore. But maybe cardboard cutout archetypes chewing scenery. And the problem was the exact same one that she’d just waded through in the previous half-dozen stories.

So I offered her some of my approaches. (Masterminding, but she’s more of a young writer taking all her amazing expertise in other art-as-profession lives and turning them to the written word now than a true peer. Today. That will change.)

My wife, the Fabulous Publisher Babe™ didn’t really understand my writing style until I made her watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension. There is a scene were aliens have attacked. Two minor characters go down to the lab to look around. One is an old salt. The other is the new kid who is our pseudo-narrator, named New Jersey. (Just watch it if you haven’t seen it.)

New Jersey asks why is there a watermelon in an industrial press. Reno starts to explain, thinks about it for a second, waves it off. “I’ll explain later.”

And never does. For decades, that has been a thread that you can tug at and never solve. (The director had his reasons, and they make perfect sense, but it has nothing to do with the film.)

I write complex characters who are good/excellent at one thing that tends to define them at the top of book one. At the same time, they have flaws that come up later. Holes that can be exploited. Gaps where they need a friend to step in and handle things.

Valentinian is a card sharp who’s pretty good with a blaster. (Modeled loosely on Han Solo.) But over the course of the series, he realized just how much more dangerous the rest of his newly acquired crew/family is, and how he doesn’t have to be the heavy anymore. And he smiles, because Kyriaki and Dave are just deadly. Let them handle it.

Are your characters interesting? Are they the sort of person you might have over for a beer or coffee, and just chat? Or are they two-dimensional cutouts? What are their hobbies when they aren’t doing? What keeps them up at night?

In a similar vein, how different is your setting? How many other people have done the exact same thing in the last year or so. What makes yours unique? What makes it interesting?

If you haven’t gone that extra step, likely it won’t be anything more than ‘Oh, I’ve seen this story a hundred times before’ when the reader hits it. And then their eyes kind of glaze over and they maybe just skip on to the end of the story and agree that they guessed how it would turn out.

Have you made them think? Have you entertained them?

Or have you just filled a few pages with an interesting idea that maybe gets nominated for some award and forgotten after that? Those nominations can be useful, but I hate to tell you how many writers I know who turn out the pretty words and interesting concept stories, then go back to their day job at the call center or the mall.

If you haven’t impressed and entertained the reader, they won’t end your story and flip over to see what else you have written that they might buy.

The WHOLE POINT of being in anthologies with your short stories is to hook someone, so that they go buy the rest of your catalog. That is, if you want to make writing your profession. (See “Do you want to be Famous or Rich?”)

Famous writers win awards. A few get book deals. A fewer of those get movie/tv deals. Most of them make less than $10,000USD/year. And generally WAY less. Not enough to live on in this country by a country mile.

You either have a job and write in your spare time, or have a supportive spouse who pays all the bills so that you can write.

Circling back, my friend reads those award-nominated stories, but finds her ass dragging after a while. Especially when they hit the same Problem or same Setting several times in a row, none of which took the extra step to entertain.

And I can hear a few folks explaining to me that I don’t understand literature. No, I do. But my stories are entertaining first and foremost. The political, moral, and ethical questions are buried down a layer and you absorb them in the process of racing to the end of the book because you can’t put it down.

And you can’t. I’ll hook you. My craft is good enough. Because first and foremost, I want your money. After I get that cash, then I will make you think. You might not even realize it, because my characters talk about these problems, and deal with them, without my heavy-handed moralizing like a dead, lead hand on your bum, shoving you into the sausage maker.

Put simply (as noted above): Do you entertain?

Are your stories such that readers will put this anthology down when they finish your story and go look up EVERYTHING ELSE YOU’VE EVER DONE with credit card in hand?

We call that Walking the Catalog when you see book one followed by two, three, four, etc, over a course of a few days. Means I’ve hooked a new reader. I have several hundred titles that they can buy. And I put out more every month, so that they can come back time and again.

Because I entertain my readers. And challenge their legal, moral, and ethical  standpoints with my characters. You may disagree with me, but you will have to think. I’m going to challenge you, but first, I’m going to grab you by the lapels and drag your ass to the bottom of the lake and hold you there with my story.

Are you doing that to your readers?