Mark A. Carter

red pill and research

World famous Canadian Science Fiction novelist Mark A. Carter discusses the importance of maintaining the fiction bubble, being a good liar, Probable Impossibilities, psychologically manipulating the reader, the all important willing suspension of disbelief, and writing about what you know.

More than being a good storyteller, the good writer must first be a good liar. Yes, I said liar. The concept of Impossible Probabilities and Probable Impossibilities all comes down to an admixture of truth and lies and lies and truth that a good writer must use to manipulate the reader. Read: Aristotle. Poetics. Translated with an introduction and notes by M. Heath. London: Penguin, 1996.

It is the responsibility of the writer to inform the reader with facts that are obvious, things that the reader knows and acknowledges as truth, and thereby set up a level of trust. Then gradually, painstakingly, the writer may be able to interject a tidbit of untruth here and there to advance characterization and/or plot but ultimately to manipulate the reader.

Good writing walks a tightrope between what is believable and what is unbelievable. Read: Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Translated by Richard Howard. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1973. If this manipulation is done well, the reasonable or willing suspension of disbelief holds, and the writer can take the reader anywhere. But if you push too far, if your facts are inaccurate, if your fiction is too far-fetched and the reader hesitates, all is lost. The fiction bubble pops. The willing suspension of disbelief collapses. Books get thrown across rooms. Readers are angered by the waste of time they have invested in your book. And nowadays, readers get even. They get on the horn and blog about your crappy novel. And all is lost on several different levels. Oh my ...

So, what is a writer to do to maximize his believability? You do research. You research everything. Do your homework. Become a mini-expert on the topic at hand. If you want to write about a sun going nova, learn about what happens to make a sun explode. Then use your creative skills to turn the physics of the phenomenon into a literary description. As I have stated in other essays, use photographs to enhance your description even further. But get your facts right. It makes the writing better. It makes it richer. And in the long run it makes it easier to write. It puts the flesh on the bone. It engenders the writing with authenticity. And the reader will believe.

Crude and rude people sometimes refer to this phenomenon as baffling with bullshit. That is perhaps what they do in their daily lives. It's what lousy sales people do every day. I have also encountered it in the lower rungs of education, secondary school principals usually, who are political animals first, and human beings last. You know who you are. But that term diminishes what a writer must do to become a mini-expert and hold the attention of a reader with his prose.

My eye surgeon, a doctor whom I respect very much for his expertise asked me why I design and build laser power supplies in my spare time. He couldn't fathom why I did it. He couldn't see the purpose of doing it if it didn't make money. But then again, doctors make money in a different way or on a different time scale than writers. We do not submit claims to the government for services rendered and get paid for our time. If we did, we would own the planet. I would even be putting in claims for my diurnal and nocturnal dreaming time. Personally, I chalk up my circuit endeavors to research. Before my marooned Steampunk hero builds an electronic circuit, by hand, to replace the printed circuit technology in his time travel device that has fried in the story, I want to know that it can be done. So, I build what I plan to write about. You have heard it before, but it warrants mentioning once again: Write about what you know. Why? The astute reader can smell a rat. If your description is too general or just wrong, the fiction bubble will pop. Your book will be burned or thrown or used to balance a table leg. And kiss your career good-bye, and rightfully so, because you haven't done your research.

The fiction bubble pops or the willing suspension of disbelief collapses when the reader knows more about a subject than you do. But if you do your homework, even the most astute physics professor will become a fan of your fiction. To guarantee fans in the academic community and elsewhere, never feel embarrassed to contact a trained professional and ask him to read your writing to ensure that what you have written is bone fide in their field. Many scientists are Science Fiction fans in their own right. In fact, it is Science Fiction that made them want to become scientists. After all, art imitates life and life imitates art. And so it goes.

Before you commit thoughts to paper, imagine them. See the setting. Be the characters. See the details. Walk around in the scene. Hear and say the dialogue. If the magic works, and the more adept at this exercise you get the more it does, you will find yourself transported. You will discover yourself utterly lost in the fiction bubble of your own creation. And these are truly magical moments. Then, some noise, some uninvited distraction from the real world will inevitably intrude upon your creative waking dream, and the fiction bubble will pop. So, while the memory is fresh, by all means, write down what you have worked out. It may be some of your best work.

If and when you write something that is close to the edge, close to the verge of popping that magical fiction bubble in the reader's mind, have one of your characters address the issue themselves. Have them doubt what your hero is doing or saying. Have them ask the same question that is forming in the mind of your reader. The technique diffuses the reader's doubt. By your character asking the same question, you further involve the reader in your writing. And dare I say it, it is usually the point where lie exceeds truth in your story. It happens when you have manipulated the reader utterly to your way of thinking. It's swallow the blue pill or the red pill time, baby. And if the reader chooses the red pill, you've got them.

MORPHEUS: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Wachowski, Larry and Andy. The Matrix. Film. Warner Brothers, 1999.

Read: Eye Candy
Journal Infernal
Killing Characters
Writer's Block
Writing Tips

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - novelist

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