Are Writers Better Liars Than Other People?

From The Volokh Conspiracy, an interesting case of a criminal defendant on the stand being questioned about whether the fact that he is writing a work of fiction makes his story of events even less credible than it already is.

 Haven't you always wanted to do this? (Shutterstock, from ABA Journal)

Haven't you always wanted to do this? (Shutterstock, from ABA Journal)

In Don't Trust the Defendant — He's a Novelist!, Eugene Volokh details how the prosecutor questioned the defendant on the stand about the novel he was working on. "But this book of yours is a work of fiction. But everything you're testifying here—now, you're telling us the truth today, aren't you?" the prosecutor says.

The defendant attempted to appeal, calling this line of questioning "nothing short of a character assassination".

We lie, but only in ways we know you will not actually believe

As a novelist, I am a bit distressed the idea that just mentioning someone is writing a novel is considered, by both sides, as bringing in something shameful and an indication of a deep character flaw.

Now, it seemed like the defendant, William Dangelo McKinney, had a lot of other evidence against him that he violently assaulted his girlfriend and then stabbed another man to death the next day, when that man came to pick the girlfriend up to take her to work.

There is a lot more to lying than coming up with a consistent narrative. There is a lot about demeanor, an understanding of what other people might or might not know, a sense of how the audience is taking the story, and a kind of low-level persistence that can masquerade as moral certainty. I'm not sure writers tend to have any of those in better supply than anyone else.

And we are certainly able to distinguish fiction from reality. That, in fact, is why we write fiction in the first place.

Should you be fined for being a novelist?

Volokh does not mention another distressing element of what happened to McKinney as a result of his foray into fiction. As the record of the appeal at McKinney v. State says in a footnote:

Although it is not apparent from the quoted portion of the record, McKinney asserts in his brief that the book was a "fictional romance novel." (McKinney's brief, p. 18.) The trial court imposed the $50,000 fine on McKinney, in part, "to make sure there's no opportunity for Mr. McKinney to profit" from publishing a novel.

A $50,000 fine for trying to write a novel? Would they similarly try to keep him from profiting from selling gardening services or even a nonfiction book on the history of hair styles? There is no indication that the novel relied for its plot or its proposed marketing on his crime. He had written the book a while before, during a previous stint in prison. It doesn't even indicate that it would take the first $50,000 of royalties, or something like that. It seems that the fine was imposed just for daring to write a book in the first place. And the $50K shows an overoptimistic view of what first published novels typically earn.

I'm not sure this case is the best one on which authors should take a stand, but I certainly it appalling that I could be charged with a crime, and then have an additional penalty imposed because I wrote a novel.

As any writer knows, writing a novel is its own punishment.

Do you think that a jury should take a fiction writer's profession into account while judging truthfulness?

And what other professions should we regard as suspiciously good at managing truth? Lawyers? Politicians? Marketing people? If the latter, I could be in for some kind of double punishment.

Getting Things Done When You're a Dumbass

If I ever write a self-help book, that will probably be the title. Of course, I don't get much done, so I am unlikely to ever write that book. Consider some of my entries here to be notes to such an unwritten life-transforming masterpiece. As I've written before, part of the problem with inspirational stories of self-transformation is that the people transforming themselves seem way more on the ball, even as alleged disasters, than any of us actually are.

"I was a nationally known newscaster, but I worried that maybe I did not entirely deserve my success, money, and beautiful wife, and sometimes fretted that I would suffer some kind of setback in my steady climb to even greater success...though fortunately I was wrong about that" was pretty much the starting point of Dan Harris's 10% Happier, a book about meditation.

I listened to it on audio while running, lifting, and considering starting a meditation practice. The chipper and self-important Harris (who ably read his own book) did not persuade me, and I am still pretty unmeditated. By the way, audio sucks for anything you want to fast forward through, and Harris's book, like many similar books, is an OK magazine article packed with so much filler it's like one of those OTC nostrums you get that somewhat glumly fesses up that, when you really give it a good look, it is made up of "98% inactive ingredients". It's made for skimming over at hydrofoil speeds.

But enough about him. I'm not well known or successful, so when I try something and think maybe it works, and then tell you about it, it might work for you, though probably not. But mostly I can tell you what doesn't work, isn't working, or probably won't work, and so probably will not work for you either. News you can use! That is, assuming you are not the lighter-than-air Dan Harris, but a regular shlub kind of like me.

This is generally known as "bitching", "whining", or "this explains why you're sitting alone writing blog posts", but I prefer to think of it as a deep look into procrastination and despair for the benefit of my readers.

And that's just the introduction!

I just redid my website, with a new design, and a new generation of Squarespace (I procrastinated so long I jumped right from Version 5 to Version 7). On my original website I had several stories for download. They had been there forever, and for the new version I wanted to upgrade and add a few newer stories. Like a lot of things, I had been putting that off, and recently decided to get down to it.

 Cover with one of the stories

Cover with one of the stories

First off was finding the original of each story.

So then I search around my folders, and see my original submitted version of the story, and also the marked up galleys, which is what actually got published. Those changes are not reflected in the original electronic draft, they are scribbled on a PDF that was then scanned.

Versioning is always a problem in marketing as well. You have original text, changes in editing, changes in review, changes in design, and even changes later on when you discover some awful mistake. If you have not rigorously kept track of those changes and saved them back into some master as-produced version, someday you will be asked to reprint an updated design, or with someone else's branding added, on a really short timeline, and you are left desperately trying to figure out what the "real" version actually is, which you should know because you wrote and produced the damn thing.

And here I'd finally gotten to this task after putting it off for weeks, only to find it is even more work than I thought it was. But I've written about this before. And here I'm writing about it again! Is it any mystery why I may not be as productive as I should be?

Then, once those changes are incorporated into the document...choices, choices. Fonts, formats, links. Grumbling and whining. And you know what? I did it! It still doesn't look quite like what I want it to, but you can get some new stories at my Free Stories page. So it was all worth it. Pretty much. Now, to get to those five or six other important things I had written down on my list this morning....

What always takes longer than you think it should?

"Everything", while a reasonable answer, is not acceptable. What has the biggest disproportion between estimate and achievement, even if you know perfectly well that's true, and has been true every single time you've done it?

The drone in your future

Get ready. Within a few years they will be everywhere.

Drones. They'll be flown by national governments, state governments, local governments. By news agencies, archeologists, meteorologists, real estate investors, transportation engineers, paparazzi...the list goes on. Their price is going to keep dropping.

The effects will be dramatic. Local SWAT teams, tick-full of Homeland Security money, will be desperate to acquire them to survey for drugs, bust in doors, and overawe evil doers. A war of assassination will pervail throughout unsettled areas of the world. Outdoor weddings will be less popular. Secure delivery of small parcels will have a new modality. Hobbyists will create ever stranger devices.

And, at some point, things could get rough. Our government is already overarmed, both internationally and domestically.  What happens when you can officially be ordered to stay inside, and that order can be enforced everywhere?

Well, for a long time it's just going to be pointless extra feeds of drone visuals in local news shows and shots of celebrities trying to sunbathe somewhere. And a few bad guys killed in peripheral areas. Maybe that's all it's going to be. I have to say, I don't even know how to prepare.


Our only real choice on global warming: adapt

David Zetland at Aguanomics has the best simple description of our global warming choices. Short summary: no one is ever going to agree to reduce carbon emissions, even though when the sky falls it will fall on every one of us. So our only option is to work out how we are going to live in a high-carbon world.

I care about global warming.  I am also flying my family to visit my mother this Christmas holiday. Am I evil? A fool? No. Just complicit. Just making the same choices everyone makes. We have only one life, we have the opportunity to live it in pleasure and comfort, and so we will take it. If we think about it, we'll bicycle somewhere rather than driving or put a solar panel on our roof.  I believe the technical measurement for how much that helps is on the close order of "jack shit".

So, how do we live in a warmer world? We need to think about it, because, assuredly, we are going to be living in it. And blaming someone else, no doubt.  Those pesky Chinese! Don't they know cars and single-family houses are merely vanities? What's wrong with them?

If the sky is going to fall, figure out how to strengthen your roof. That's the highest value for your dollars, like it or not.

BTW, Aguanomics (note the 'g'), mostly about water but also about other topics, is one of the most informative blogs around.  Scarcity of potable water is going to be a major issue in the coming decades. I'm currently reading Mr. Zetland's The End of Abundance, a compendium of good sense on water policy. From his accounts, he travels all around the world, doing interesting things and meeting interesting people. And his photo indicates that he is good looking to boot. I'm feeling the uneven distribution of resources here. I'll just have to live with that, and suck as much value from him as I can. Look for stuff I've stolen from him in my fiction.


Genres and audiences

There has been a lot of discussion about the genre of science fiction lately--though I suppose there always is.  SF as marketing category, SF as set of reading protocols, SF as exemplifying didactic rationalism, even, heaven help us, SF as literature.

Genre (whether film noir, or jazz, or chili) is a good topic to argue about, because there is no bright-line rule dividing it from other examples of the form.  There is always ambiguity.  It is always, in some sense, statistical, and there are any number of edge conditions that those who favor liminal situations and ambiguity are naturally drawn to.

I've been thinking about genre lately.  I write SF, but don't read a lot of it.  I tend to read mysteries, when I read fiction--and Brain Thief is a mystery novel, perhaps before it is a science fiction novel.  But, at least at this point in my attempt to get some clarity, bootlegging yet another genre into the discussion probably is not helpful.

One thing about genre is that you can't understand it without understanding who consumes it.  And the audience is only implicit.  You can watch any number of Busby Berkeley production numbers or Disease of the Week movies without really being able to figure out who they were made for. And every artist is conscious of his or her audience.

And, no matter what its literary pretensions, there is a core audience for science fiction, a rationalist, slightly Aspergers, system-loving, covertly romantic, optimistic group. The core group consumes vast quantities of its favored product.  It's not the same audience in 2010 as it was in 1950, but certainly has some long-term similarities with it.  For example, this audience has always enjoyed communicating within itself.  It has new methods of doing it, but the drive has always been there.

I think understanding this core audience and its responses is the first step to understanding this genre.  When someone claims Margaret Atwood, say, has never written science fiction (she's said this herself), what he really means is, what Atwood has written does fulfil this core audience's needs.  It doesn't matter if the book is set in the future or whatever.  The core audience has a need for mental integration, for underlying system, for extrapolation, for daring and romance, for sacrifice and visual drama, that that particular book does not provide.

This is not the key or the solution.  But without taking the audience into account, and discussing only what is on the page, it's easy to go wrong.  It's the first step to understanding genre.

Heuristic hijacking

Humanoid robots were once universal in science fiction. They looked somewhat like metal people, and had narrow human personalities with programmed obsessive-compulsive disorder that kept them focused on their assigned tasks.

They were also charming. Now, as I've mentioned before, we tend to react emotionally to beings (fictional or real) that have constrained emotional and intellectual toolsets (autistic, mentally handicapped, animal, programmed). Robots certainly meet that requirement, and were usually written with a certain pertness or "speaking truth to power" attitude. The bombastic or prideful would meet their comeuppance from the clarity of a robot. Robots weren't deliberately contrary, had no emotional needs of their own, weren't petulant, snarky, or angst-ridden, and were in general easier to deal with than messy human minds.

In real life, people are still working on that charm.  In his article Robots That Care, New Yorker medical writer Jerome Groopman describes some attempts at therapeutic robots. The article is vague and bland, partially because robots still can't do that much, and using them to interact with people who have had strokes, Alzheimer's patients, and children is mostly unsuccessful.  The article does have some interesting things to say about how a robot can be programmed to interact differently with an extrovert than with an introvert, but has little hard information on it.

Because, of course, the article is about robots who might someday successfully pretend to care, not robots that care. The designers seek to hijack our hacked-up heuristics for interpreting other minds. Since we're capable of attributing personalities to computers, cars, and cats, we clearly are predisposed to see other minds even when they aren't there. Sherry Turkle, at the end of the article, thinks this is a bad idea. She wonders why people are so eager to cut humans out of the therapeutic relationship. The benefits would have to be extraordinary, she says for it to be worthwhile.

So beware heuristic hijacking (a concept that's been around, but Google indicates that I just now thought up the term--remember that you read it here first). Our makeshift analytics will inevitably be trickable by devices with the right programming and enough processing power. It hasn't happened yet, but it will.

Westerns and space operas

Every genre writer's dream (or at least this genre writer's dream) is to write a work that attracts readers from outside the genre, without compromising its essential genre nature.  In fact, to bring them in, to show them what the point of the genre really is, and get them to appreciate it.

I've not read enough Westerns to know whether McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is a representative Western, but it sure is a great novel.  It's pretty elemental:  men and women in rough, hard-to-survive country, hard because of the unsparing environment, and hard because of other human beings.  Some characters you have invested real feeling in get killed offhandedly, the way real people did, and do, die.  Victories are local and temporary, and savored all the more for that.  Defeats are large, and often final.  The characters are compelling, and often funny as hell.  They understand what many of us have forgotten:  our most important duty in this life is to entertain each other.

McMurtry does it without elaborate literary references, mythic structures ("mythic" in contemporary fiction means "unbelievable characters with tortured syntax"--run if you see the word used in a review), or "fine writing".

Now, McMurtry is not purely a writer of Westerns, though he is a Western writer, so it's not like he's clawing his way out of the corral.  But he's decided to play to what makes the genre appealing (particularly a stoic nobility brought out by the harshness of circumstance), commenting on it at the same time (Call, the most stoically noble of the characters, is disliked and suspected by all women, who tend to perceive too clearly what it is he had to give up to be who he is), while letting us share in the genre's inherent energy (you can see why the men respect Call, obey him, and instinctively want his approval, while understanding why someone who does not depend on his skill and authority might be less taken in--even Darth Vader eventually identifies himself to his son, and Call...well, you'll just have to read it and see what Call does with his own unacknowledged son).

Science fiction is a much bigger playground than Westerns, so it's natural that many more writers can play there and nowhere else, and have successful, productive careers.  But sometimes it's worth trying to take your ball and play somewhere else, using the skills you learned there.

That was my ambition with Brain Thief, certainly.


Military strategy for the unmilitary

Someday I'll write a big, fat fantasy novel.  I say this, even though I don't particularly like reading big, fat fantasy novels.  Writers like to say that they write books they'd like to read.  I'm sure I could write a BFFN that I'd like to read--the question (and one that's come up a bit too frequently) is whether anyone else will want to read it.

But one thing I do know--BFFNs must have a lot of military activity, and at least one giant battle.  And it stands to reason that those battles will need to reflect the limitations and affordances of historical military combat.  Here is where I hope my deep reading in history will stand me in good stead.  I hope.

I'm not militarily minded and don't gravitate to explicitly military fiction.  But I do like to know how things got done.  Most history writers are either too fanatically detailed or too cursory for me.  What am I looking for?

In The Fall of the Roman Empire, Peter Heather gives an account of military operations after large Gothic forces crossed the Danube and moved into.  He describes how the Rhodope Mountains

...are extremely difficult to cross from north-east to south-west...and movement north and south through the Haemus Mountains is channeled through just five major passes....

And bravo for Heather, there is a nice clear map without a lot of extraneous details, showing the geography and the routes of the armies between 377 and 382.

He goes on, about the Romans.

Heavily outnumbered as they were, the available forces had no prospect of defeating the Goths; so...they fortified the passes through the Haemus Mountains...Some of the passes...are quite broad, but they are all high.

Then he gives an account of how 4,400 Russians held one of these same passes, Shipka Pass, against 40,000 Turks during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877.  For two months, the Romans were similarly successful, but then a force of Alans and Huns joined the Goths.  If one pass was forced, the soldiers at the others would be cut off.

Once the Goths and their allies were south of the Haemus, they could rampage at will.  The only geographic barrier beyond was the Hellespont itself.  This situation led to Valens's defeat at Adrianople.

It's this type of description of terrain and strategy that makes me feel that I understand something.  Using history as a crib, I could write some convincing strategic maneuvering, using what I know of geology, geography, and climate.  And I could make sure it was something I enjoy reading.  What about the rest of you?


Are technothrillers science fiction?

On his temporary blog, Edward M. Lerner (more typically at SF and Nonsense) asks a question:  how does a technothriller differ from near-future SF, if at all.  Somewhere back there, I think, is the income/status issue I've been seeing a resurgence of lately--"why do they have more mainstream acceptance and why do they make so much more money?"--though, to be fair, Lerner never heads in that direction.

Just remember that, with a writer, "and how does that get me a bigger advance?" is the unspoken addendum to any question, kind of like "between the sheets" for Chinese fortune cookies.

My answer:  SF is about the transformation of order, technothrillers are about the reestablishment of order.  In an SF novel, a change, particularly a technological change, moves out into society as a whole, and transforms it.  In a technothriller, changes, even dramatic ones, are confined to the immediate area of the characters and the plot.  In an SF novel, if dinosaurs are recreated, their recreation and the technology behind it gets used in war, in labor, in abstruse spiritual transformations.  In a technothriller (Crichton's Jurassic Park books), they stay on their island.

The containment has several related favorable features, as far as a mainstream reader is concerned.  Reactions, mores, and cultural features are recognizable.  And, as a result, the writer isn't tempted to spend time and energy making up stuff (changing the way people pump gas, or giving them weird new bedroom furniture) just to show that we're in The Future.  And the writer can't hide behind the chrome, and has to focus on the engine--the plot.