Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Best Advice for Writers: WRITE!

I had the interesting and somewhat humbling experience recently, as I cruise into the final stretch of creating a new novel and the first book of a new series, of going back and re-reading (or at least re-skimming) the first one I ever published. The occasion was the publication at Smashwords and Amazon of a one-volume e-book edition of the Star Mages trilogy, called (appropriately enough) The Star Mages.

(You can find The Star Mages at Amazon or at Smashwords at these links, by the way. Same price, $4.99, either source.)

So anyway, I have this nifty new all-in-one edition of the trilogy and so I took a look at it to see how it would appear in a Kindle, a Nook, or a Sony Reader (I have all three in the PC software versions). In doing so, I noticed that The Stairway to Nowhere, which is the first book of the trilogy, is not as well written as The Green Stone Tower, which is my new work in progress, or as the second and third books of the trilogy itself. There are places where Stairway comes off to me as a bit clumsy, not in its plot development or characterization but simply in the writing style, compared to what I can do now.

This was somewhat embarrassing but probably shouldn't be. Stairway isn't the first novel I ever wrote. (The first one I ever wrote is called A Tale of Metal, Mind and Feather and it's sitting on a hard drive unpublished. Maybe someday, with a LOT of revision.) But it is the first one I ever published, and quite honestly, it shows.

A lot of people have told me that some of the fantasy elements of The Star Mages remind them of Roger Zelazny's Amber series, with the multiple worlds and the polarity between two opposing forces. There's another resemblance in my opinion. The first book of Zelazny's series, Nine Princes in Amber, is quite clumsily written compared to all of the subsequent books. Nine Princes was not Zelazny's first published novel, but still suffered from a certain awkwardness of style that did not afflict the sequels to nearly the same degree.

All of this points up a piece of advice for writers that is really quite obvious but that doesn't get a whole lot of bandwidth. You can take classes in college. You can attend writers' groups and writers' workshops and writers' retreats. You can get advice from other writers, publishers, agents, and editors. All of that may be useful to a degree. But the best way to learn to write is to do it. There is simply no training, no education, no advice that carries the same learning potential as putting fingers to the keyboard and having the words appear on the screen and be saved to disk -- LOTS of words. Thousands and thousands of them.

Your first efforts are going to be crap. That's an unavoidable fact. If you have it in you to do this, eventually, in the process of writing a whole lot of crap, you should reach a point where you begin to write non-crap. And then, hopefully, something that's actually pretty decent. And eventually, if you keep at it -- something good. Or really good. I'm still trying to get to that point, but I like to think I've hit the non-crap point and maybe even the pretty decent point.

But you have to write the crap first. There are no shortcuts.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Libertarianism and the Wilderness

It occurred to me recently that the best metaphor for describing the libertarian conception of liberty, the rights of the individual, and all of the thinking underlying libertarian positions on both social and economic issues is the concept of the wilderness or the frontier.

This concept is a defining archetype of American history, and libertarianism is a quintessentially American political philosophy (which is not to say that most Americans believe in it -- not the same thing), so it should not be surprising that the two should go together. For much of American history up until the late 19th century, the perceived reality of life in the United States included a lot of land that belonged to nobody. (Well -- nobody except Indians. Which in the thinking of Americans at that time pretty much meant nobody. The Indians might object if you tried to claim that unclaimed land, sometimes violently, but that was just part of the risk.) There was "back east," where most of the land was settled and belonged to someone, and then there was "out west," where most of the land was unclaimed. You built a homestead, there were somewhat fuzzy boundary lines around what was yours, then there was wilderness, unclaimed land, and then you came to someone else's homestead with its own fuzzy boundary lines. Cross over into someone else's land and try to make off with their cattle or sheep or pigs or whatever, and you were committing a crime, but you could leave your own property, wander into the wilderness that nobody had title to, and be free as a bird, able to make use of whatever the Indians wouldn't shoot you for using.

Now think of land ownership as a metaphor for rights in general. The old saying, "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins," is agreed to by just about everyone, and that includes libertarians. But in the libertarian conception, we're not very close together, and so the chance of my swinging fist contacting your nose is pretty slim. They agree that it's possible and that's what the law is for (libertarians by definition aren't anarchists), but you have to go pretty seriously out of your way to interfere with someone else's rights. Unless you're the government. The government, in the libertarian conception, exists to protect people's rights, but in reality the government is the main thing that tramples on people's rights and that describes most of its activity except on the rare occasions when someone does in fact go out of his way to be a pain, such as a burglar breaking into your house.

The libertarian conception of rights can be depicted visually like this:
Rights, in this way of thinking, are like homesteads in the wilderness. There's your rights and my rights, and a lot of open space in between that represents nobody's rights. You can do pretty much whatever you want, as long as you don't cross over into that little space that defines "my rights" or "his rights."

Contrasting the archetype of the wilderness is what was happening "back east," or in Europe or other civilized places. (Or sissified places, depending on your point of view.) In that conception, there was no wilderness. Everything belonged to someone or other, so as soon as you go off your own land you are either in public space (which has its own rules of behavior) or you are on someone else's territory and quite possibly trespassing. That lends itself to a conception of rights, too, in which any action you take bumps into someone else, and a ruling is required (either legal or informal) as to whether you have a right to do that in the particular case. Here's a visual conception of that:
Here, if you step outside your own rights you are automatically infringing on the rights of someone else. There is no open, unclaimed territory. Rights become a matter of dividing up freedom of action (or property, as the case may be). If the right to do something isn't mine, that means it's yours, or his, or hers, or theirs, or anyway it's somebody's.

One of the purposes of government is to mediate disputes among citizens. That's why we have civil law; in severe cases, it's also why we have criminal law. Obviously, a lot more government will be needed when the reality of rights is similar to the second illustration than it will if it resembles the first.