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ReReadable Books

September 2011

Getting The Right Answer


Jacqueline Lichtenberg



 To send books for review in this column email Jacqueline Lichtenberg,jl@simegen.com  for snailing instructions or send an attached RTF file.  
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They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton, Easton Press 1990

Labyrinth by Kat Richardson, RoC HC Aug 2010

Side Jobs, Jim Butcher, RoC HC Nov 2010

Unseen by Rachel Caine, RoC pb Feb 2011

Ghost Town by Rachel Caine, NAL HC Nov 2010

Serpent’s Storm, by Amber Benson, ACE pb March 2011

Darkship Thieves by Sarah A. Hoyt, Baen PB Dec 2010

The first thing we learn in school is that the student who has the right answer gets a big smile from the teacher, gets approval, and sometimes jealousy from other students. But it’s never good to not-know-the-answer.

So our earliest conditioning is to get "the" right answer, the one that gets approval, the gold star, or at least no punishment. This conditioning goes so deep that it is triggered when we read novels just for fun. You can’t be having fun if you don’t know the right answer.

Thus writers craft mysteries to play the "game" with the reader – to be sure the reader figures out the "right" answer before the characters do. And this technique is used in many genres, even non-fiction. The writer must be ahead of the reader, but not too far. The writer must not make the reader feel ignorant or stupid. It’s fun to feel smart.

I’m not kidding. This is taught seriously in professional mystery writing, and every successful professional mystery writer knows it whether consciously or not. The same touchstone is used in judging Romance genre, Fantasy and even science fiction, text or screen.

Getting "the" right answer is just that important to anyone who’s been through the public school system. If the answer is not available at the exact right moment in the story, the fun is spoiled.

I have made the point in these columns that fiction works best when it is an analogue of some spiritual truth imperceptible to most people. (Jan-June 2008 columns). Is "the" right answer connected to revelation of spiritual truth? Or is this need to be "right" an artifact of our education system?

Oh, now that’s a question I’d like to have the right answer to!

The winner of the first Hugo Award in the 1950’s, They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton, postulated that our rigid psychological grip on our "truths" is what causes us to age physically. Releasing that death-grip on being right could restore youth. The story is generated by the discovery that people would rather die than discover they are wrong.

So right and wrong is a matter of life and death to us? Is that an acquired trait or innate? Or both?

I postulate that it’s pervasive because I have never encountered a writing student – or indeed published professional writer – who is immune to the compulsive need to include in a fictional narrative what is technically termed the "expository lump."

I’ve been asked on Twitter to define that in 140 characters. I think I’ve got the right answer! The expository lump is the ANSWERS without questions.

In storycraft, "exposition" – the writer talking to the reader directly – is best delivered in half-sentences, dependent clauses, oblique references, and even symbolism, but not in paragraph after paragraph of explanation of what happened before, or how this world works.

Although today’s readers are just as averse to the expository lump (reviews on Amazon will say it’s boring, or sags, or is slow), the publishing standards have trended toward larger and larger lumps of exposition, especially in new books in a series that need to fill the reader in on what went before.

I suspect the reason standards are changing lies within the effect of commercial-riddled TV shows, an erosion of attention span and patience. Writers don’t know exactly where the line between boredom and teasing lies, and prefer to tell more, sooner, than to hold back.

Kat Richardson’s Labyrinth, for example, is the 2010 entry in her Greywalker series, a terrific series and a great story! It’s told in the very modern, breezy first person style, and takes us on a ride across the barriers between realities.

The writer is presenting abstract facts about something beyond the reader’s experience. Think about that need to have, the "right answer" and to cling to it even if it means death. The writer’s job in these cross the reality-barrier fantasies is to tease the reader into giving up their view of "reality" to go beyond.

Kat Richardson has found a style that includes Jim Butcher’s "Harry Dresden" style plotting, where there are several major emergencies happening at once, all told through the first person narrative. Even facing all these impossible challenges, the hero keeps forging ahead applying his/her sense of right-action to the problems.

BTW: don’t miss Butcher’s Dresden Files short stories, Side Jobs. Every story in there is a winner!

Kat Richardson’s hero, Harper Blaine strives not to do too much damage and hates her personal tendency to rejoice over an enemy’s downfall. And eventually, she muddles through. But the story is told against a tapestry of elaborate detail, visual images on two levels of "reality" entwined. In film, this would be stunning, vivid storytelling, but in text it bogs down despite the meaningful impact of the images described.

Rachel Caine has a frothier, lighter mix of images and exposition, but also uses a first person narrative in her Outcast Season series. Book Three, Unseen, takes us deeper into a complicated political war among Immortal beings – with existence itself at stake – and Talented humans known as Wardens. The laws of "reality" again are rewritten in this series. The need to get "the" right answer is literally a matter of saving existence as we know it.

In another series, Rachel Caine continues the chronicles of the Morganville Vampires with Ghost Town. The roles of the various characters evolve, their personalities mature, and they accept their reality in a new way. This is the story of settling into a "right" view of the world that may become clutched in a death-grip in its own time.

Amber Benson, whose resume includes acting on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, brings us the second novel in her Calliope Reaper Jones series, Serpent’s Storm, about the Daughter of Death. I loved the first novel, Death’s Daughter, and The Monthly Aspectarian is quoted in the list of praise for this novel. This narrative, also, is first person tough-as-nails female-hero first person, with vivid imagery, but really minimal exposition handled with screenwriter’s discipline. There’s even a hot Romance that doesn’t stop the action. But what I liked best was the visit to Heaven by Death.

In Benson’s universe here, Death, The Devil, Hell, even Heaven and the relationships they hold to humanity are redefined to build a world where there might be such a thing as Destiny, but there is also free will, even for Immortals like Death. The problem is that if you really understand the Situation, you’d probably rather be wrong than right.

Darkship Thieves by Sarah A. Hoyt, whose work I’ve reviewed in this column previously, is Science Fiction Romance that does not rewrite Reality at all. It’s told in first person by the female lead, Athena Hera Sinistra, who doesn’t know there’s a dark secret about her birth, or darker secret about her Talents. She doesn’t know there’s a "right" answer because she doesn’t know there’s a question, until the attempt on her life that leads her to cast herself adrift in earth orbit – where she is rescued, or maybe kidnapped, by the most alluring man she’s ever seen, and the questions begin.

This new universe Hoyt has created projects what human civilization might be like if we’re trapped in this solar system, trash Earth, and trash our genetic structure to the point where some must flee Earth and hide out in the asteroids, stealing what they need from Earth’s orbital facilities.

Hoyt shows us this future without resorting to expository lumps filled with historical detail about how we got to this impasse, yet you know the answers will be forthcoming. You can read any Hoyt title without anxiety about "the" right answer while you learn to work the problem.

Darkship Thieves needs a sequel because it’s only begun to ask questions. Sarah A. Hoyt writes (extremely well) under several bylines which I discuss in depth in my May 17, 2010 blog at aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com In Darkship Thieves, she also uses the first person narrative to project a strong, tough character facing problems way larger than she is and not knowing the right answer, or even in many cases what the wrong answers might be.

Traditionally, first person narrative is chosen to tighten the point of view so the reader is as misinformed as the narrator. It is a craft technique for taking the objectivity, the "right answer" out of the story, and presenting only one person’s subjective impression of life. It is also usually the choice of inexperienced writers who don’t know how to characterize. None of that is true of these six novels.


To send books for review in this column email Jacqueline Lichtenberg,  jl@simegen.com for snailing instructions or send an attached RTF file.  



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