Fifty Good Pages

My wife finished proofreading this morning. She found some typos. As is my nature, I came up with a few lines that I thought might make the manuscript even better.

I now have fifty good pages. Good pages are reasonably free of grammatical and spelling errors. They introduce the hero, establish the setting and describe the thing or event that starts the plot.

For me, these pages constitute a reliable beginning for a novel that was already finished several years ago. My wife and I agree that this version is better.

And yet, I fret.

I no longer remember when I started writing the book. I finished a draft and, because my existing agent hated science fiction and fantasy (and didn’t respect me because I wanted to write it), I sent it to another agent, who called me and said “you want to write a real novel.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I replied. I had read enough within the genre to know that readers could handle more than strange quests, rites-of-passage stories, rebellions in dystopian societies, engineer-with-a-problem epics and space opera.

Way back in college I thought that the basic idea in Twain’s wonderful Huckleberry Finn could be adapted to a fantasy. Philip Jose Farmer had created a metaphor for the Mississippi in his Riverworld series. I was more interested in a device I’d glimpsed that Heinlein may have lifted from Twain in Stranger in a Strange Land: that of an innocent forced into the adult world, surviving on his wits, a few special talents, the unexpected benevolence of others. He sees and feels the flaws of this new world, has no idea what to do about it and, after a series of adventures, decides the only thing he can do is to leave. Heinlein had Michael Smith perceive his own end and, in a Christlike manner, understand that by permitting himself to die, he would benefit others. Twain had Huckleberry Finn recoil at the hypocrisy and moral rot of mid-western American slave-holding society and decide to “light out for the territories”–lawless places along the expanding western frontier.

As a youngster I had seen plenty of unfairness, indecency, hypocrisy and outright exploitation in the ways human beings work and live together. As an oldster, I see even more, and worse: well-meaning, well-educated adults who have eminently reasonable explanations that excuse, condone and even praise this vileness as an onerous but necessary way for good things to happen.

I disagree. It doesn’t matter where you were born or what circumstances you were born into–the evil that we choose to do to each other hurts, maims and kills. You don’t need an expensive education to understand that choosing not to be evil and acting to further the good may make things better. Isn’t this message found in our religious texts (usually buried beneath accounts of brutal, divinely inspired battles, hideous punishments and miracles that benefit one person, family or tribe, at the expense of others)?

Having studied moral philosophy I know that merely doing good brings on piles of complexities and contradictions. What if the good you want to do is not the good that the social situation wants? What if, in doing good, you inadvertently hurts someone, or you must choose between saving one life at the expense of another? What if the good you do makes things worse? Let’s say your goodness comes at great hardship to you: should you compensate for this hardship by paying yourself a nice salary, or taking a larger share of the community’s resources? Who and what gives you the right, privilege or power to do anything–good, evil or indifferent? What if, in doing good, you must risk or sacrifice the money, food, shelter, material items or social status necessary to survive comfortably, thereby bringing suffering down on yourself?

Finally, how do you know what’s good, especially if you are an outsider at the edge of an existing culture?

I don’t pretend to solve any of those problems in the novel. I deal with them in one way: our hero learns to trust himself enough to go where he is needed, even if he is not sure when he arrives what that need may be, and if he is competent to fulfill it.

That’s more than enough to sustain a hero on a quest to find his beloved. But it isn’t enough for me, to stop fretting, judging myself, revising too many times and loading myself up at the end of every writing session with those familiar depressive thoughts: this won’t be published, no one will read this, no one will care about it or someone famous will do an inferior version and blow you out of the water because that person is famous and you’re not.

That last condition happened to a writer I knew.

So now I have fifty good pages of a book I’d really like to make even better, that, I believe, will be a “real novel” that fantasy readers will love.

How do I hold on to that, and keep the downer feelings at bay?






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