Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Style vs. Substance

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Is it better to be a master stylist, with beautiful, flowing prose and a relatively limp story or a decent technician with a wonderful story?

Obviously you want both, but that rarely happens. More often, you’re reading a story and thinking it’s very well written; I wish the story were better – or, I love the story; I wish this author could craft a better sentence.

So what’s the answer? It depends on why you’re reading the story in the first place. If you enjoy the craft of writing, you’ll probably wish for the former, and if you just want to be entertained, you’ll likely prefer the latter.

I tend to be more intrigued by substance than by style. I’ve read many beautifully written books that go nowhere, and after a time I grow weary because nothing exciting is occurring on the page.

That said, something that’s all action but poorly written frustrates me. I want to shake the author and say, “This needs more editing, more revision, more clarity and better flow.”

Work at your craft; become at least a serviceable writer; then you can concern yourself with discovering a brilliant story – or, find a brilliant story and write it down; then revise it and edit it and revise it again, taking out everything that detracts from it until only the pure essence remains.

The most important part of any story

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The most important part of any story is character. You can have a wonderful idea, completely fresh and original, something that’s never been seen before, and if you can’t sell it with interesting, sympathetic characters, it will die on the page.

Too many authors are intrigued by landscapes and evocative descriptions, and yes, they have value, but without some sort of connection to a human (or human-like) character, they won’t grip the reader like they should.

My readers have told me they identify with Jeremiah Jones, not because of his amazing abilities, but because he’s worried about the same kinds of things they worry about, because he’s put into difficult situations and is forced to do things for the greater good that he wishes he didn’t have to do.

He’s a killer, but a reluctant one. He’s generally selfless. He’s intelligent, but not in an overbearing way. And he understands that he’s not better than anyone else. In fact, he believes he’s worse than most everyone else because he’s a killer.

But he believes in himself too and trusts himself to do what’s right. And he’s relentless. Once he starts on a path, he will not deviate from it unless further action will harm innocents.

When he makes mistakes, he owns up to them. He doesn’t lay blame elsewhere.

All these qualities help make him someone we can admire. That is the best hook any writer can hope for—a character who makes you care, who makes you want him or her succeed.

Negative vs. Positive Emotions

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It seems to me that most, if not all, negative emotions come from wishing the world was other than it is, while many positive emotions come from experiencing the world as it is.

Why is it so difficult to just accept the world without wanting to change it? Is it that so many of us are actively working to change it that we need to fight back against that unwanted change?

Optimism vs. Pessimism

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If you expect the worst but hope for the best, does that make you a pessimist?

And if that makes you a pessimist, shouldn’t everyone be one? Isn’t it better to prepare for the worst, just in case, rather than be completely blindsided by it if/when it comes to pass?

Thinking only positively seems to leave one unprepared for hardship, which comes for us all at some point in life. I embrace my pessimism.

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Every Breath You Take

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With every breath, our lungs take in molecules breathed by Jesus, Stalin, Ghandi, Hitler and Buddha, so each of us embodies the full range of human history – each of us needs to be aware of our place in the world and the impact we can have on others.

If we can keep that in mind, perhaps we can act a little nicer, a little more like the people we admire than we otherwise would. We need not descend to the lowest common denominator.

Write On! Radio Interview Transcript (edited)

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Edited Transcript from Write On! Radio Interview with Ian Graham Leask ~

IGL: This is the first book in a trilogy – what’s the ambition of it?

 SM: The trilogy essentially follows Jeremiah Jones and a society on the edge of collapse due to religion and disease. The first book – The Devereaux Dilemma – examines the question of faith in society, religion and self and what happens when that faith is tested. This is essentially a quest story. Jeremiah has been sent to capture Walt Devereaux so that the president can determine if Devereaux has created the bio-weapons he’s been accused of making.

 IGL: What inspired the book?

 SM: It’s interesting. This book didn’t start as science fiction, but as a philosophical novel. I was curious about what would happen if someone proved there was no God. I thought that would be a fascinating question to explore. However, most of the people I discussed it with hated the idea of such a proof, so I was forced to re-think the concept and eventually I transformed it into a futuristic story about the nature of religion and its place in our society.

 IGL: You pay a lot of attention to style and clarity. It’s not a literary style, not drawing attention to itself, but it’s very clear writing. I like that.

 SM: I think science fiction writers sometimes focus too heavily on technology. By the same token, literary writers sometimes focus too much on style. There’s a middle ground where you try not to let the style get in the way of the story. Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card are good at that. You don’t want to come up with a flowery sentence that pulls readers out of the world you’ve created. You don’t want them to say, “Wow, that’s a beautiful sentence. Now, where was I?” You always want to keep the reader trapped in the story.

 IGL: You don’t mess around too much with technologies. You use more implication and finesse. How long did it take you to get to that point?

 SM: It took quite a while. I learned over time that devoting too much space to descriptions of technology turns off readers who aren’t fascinated with science fiction. And all the great sci-fi writers of the past allow readers to supply imagery – people like Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein and C.S. Lewis. And I love that older science fiction, which I think my writing is closer to than the newer science fiction.

 IGL: There are two kinds of science fiction – one that’s reality based and one that’s more fantasy – yours is more realistic. Why did you choose to go that way?

 SM: I wanted to honor the laws of physics. It can be a little harder to do write in a realistic style in some ways because you don’t have inventions like ansibles that allow for instantaneous transmissions across light years. And those can be great because they allow the author to move the story along more quickly, but I also find them a bit distracting because they’re not reality based.

 IGL: Do you have any feelings about where we’re heading?

 SM: We have lots of potential problems – governmental and religious – that don’t seem to go away no matter how far we seem to progress. And we also see lots of disease-based science fiction. The difficulty is in knowing which obstacle will be the one that brings us to the brink of disaster. I chose to use a man-made virus, but there could be any number of other crises that could lead us toward Armageddon.

 IGL: Talk a little about Susquehanna Sally

 SM: She plays only a small role in The Devereaux Dilemma. But she (or he or they – we don’t know for certain who Susquehanna Sally is) is disgusted with humanity and wants to eliminate people from the face of the Earth. Her solution is to create a virus that will destroy the people who have been harming the planet.

 IGL: Tell us about Jeremiah Jones

 SM: He is the main character through all three books. What I like about Jeremiah is that, like me, he doesn’t claim to know what the answers are. He’s more concerned with the questions, whereas a character like Walt Devereaux believes he has the answers for humanity.

 IGL: How do you write about characters that are unlike you?

 SM: That can be difficult. But if you like the characters and feel passionately about them, it’s much easier to understand where they’re coming from and easier to put yourself into their point of view.

 IGL: You set the book partly in Minnesota. What was the appeal of that?

 SM: I placed it in a fictional area near Rochester. I thought it would be fun to set it in an invented area rather than an existing place. That allowed me to create a town (Crescent Township) that suited my needs without offending anyone or limiting myself with respect to the story I wanted to tell. The future books are not set in Minnesota. In fact, they get much more macrocosmic than this one.

 IGL: You’ve also written a number of law books. Is there a carry over from that kind of writing to this?

 SM: I’m always striving for clarity in my writing. The difference between the two is that in non-fiction, you always know where the story is going (what the court held or what the legislature enacted, etc.), whereas in non-fiction, I don’t know where the story is going to take me and that’s a lot of fun.

character names

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Some readers dislike character names that are complex or hard to understand. These kinds of names are especially prevalent in science fiction and fantasy. Should you forgo such names and stick with characters whose names we can pronounce relatively easily?

My take is that unless you have a very good reason for choosing a bizarre name (other than just wanting to make something different), you should strive to find a moniker that won’t slow the reader down and won’t dissuade readers from choosing to engage the story in the first place.

Choose shorter over longer, easier to pronounce over difficult, and where a character needs to have a name that is hard to pronounce, give the reader some sort of guide to make it easier.

The Fine Print

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Subtitled, How Big Companies Use “Plain English” to Rob You Blind, this latest effort from David Cay Johnston left me infuriated and wishing more people would understand just how much government and big businesses work together to maintain wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the rest of us.

When we would actually save money by not taxing certain big companies because of the loopholes that allow them to declare a negative tax liability (getting paid to file their taxes), then something is extraordinarily wrong with the system.

I highly recommend this book, and I think we all ought to consider how we can act to put a stop to these insane practices.

The Orchardist

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

This wonderful new book by Amanda Coplin is a detailed character study of an orchardist and the people who inhabit his world. At times funny, at times horrifying, it allows us a glimpse into a turn-of-the-century way of life that no longer exists. The language is poetic, the ending powerful. I highly recommend it.

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