How to judge an author

A book the proves that story and context mean everything

A book the proves that story and context mean everything

Well, well, well, it’s been a while since we’ve had a decent author on author scrape in the world of publishing but thanks to a recent piece titled Heinlein, Hugos, and Hogwash by John C. Wright for the Intercollegiate Review feelings have been stirred, thoughts have been expressed, and rants have been rendered, most notably those of author Rachel Aaron. I have issues with both Wright and Aaron.

Wright is upset that science fiction authors are being silenced for their personal views. Much like the defenders of Donald Sterling insist he can’t be forced to sell his NBA team for making racist remarks, Wright believes Sci-Fi authors shouldn’t be punished for their statements on race, gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, etc. He begins his argument by insisting the father (oops, sorry if that’s sexist) of modern military Science Fiction, Robert Heinlein, would not win a Hugo Award in today’s Sci-Fi community. Why? Because Heinlein wrote provocative works that challenged the norms of his day.

Wright is making the same argument the generation before him made about the current state of things and the generation before that voiced the same concerns and the generation before that and so forth and so on. I’m sure Neanderthals sat around grunting out complaints about how utterly politically correct the world of cave painting had become.  We old-timers tend to do that. “Why back in my day we used to…” blah, blah, blah. Most of us have selective memories about what actually happened back in the good old days and get it horrifyingly wrong.

But nonetheless Wright sees a trend that worries him and he’s trying to put the wheels back on the bus. The problem is he doesn’t really make his point. He presents two of Heinlein’s books as examples of where the legendary author lays out his views and then Wright states that one title espouses right leaning social think while the other title espouses left leaning social think.  Wright’s intention was to illustrate that Heinlein had free reign to express his views without fear of reprisal.

Do you see the flaw? Heinlein didn’t adopt a social view and then put it in a story. He wrote two different stories that adopted two different social views. How can you judge a man that is a leftist, conservative, sexist, feminist that has a weird thing for bugs? The ideas in Heinlein’s books didn’t belong to him. They belonged to the societal construct of each story.

Wright goes on to give examples of modern day Science Fiction authors who’ve been attacked and ostracized for their personal views on topics that include homosexuality, immigration, racism, and sexism. His mistake is that he doesn’t recognize that these authors weren’t held accountable for their books. They were criticized and in many cases punished for their opinions expressed outside of their books. As is their First Amendment right, they spoke their minds, and for doing so, they were not thrown in jail nor did the government ban them from publishing a work of science fiction or any other material ever again. Yes, they were boycotted by groups, and they were kicked out of organizations and denied consideration for awards, but there is no constitutional amendment that guarantees you a nomination for a Hugo award or acceptance into a genre based literary association. Like it or not, it is fair and legitimate to judge someone for their personal opinions.

Wright’s final misguided notion is that he is of the opinion that an author’s ultimate value depends on how many awards he or she wins. If you’re writing with awards in mind, stop writing because you’re cranking out thin, worthless crap that no one wants to read, and it won’t win an award as a result. In fact, don’t write for the reader either. I love my readers, but I don’t write for them. In the case of my Oz Chronicles books, I write for Oz and Lou and Wes and all the way down the line to poor lowly Gordy. Those are the people I care about when I write an Oz book. It doesn’t matter to me that they’re fictional. My readers’ views and those of awards judges, even my own views don’t come into play.

Which brings me to my beef with Rachel Aaron. While we both agree that Wright’s views are a tad off-kilter, we do so from very different perspectives. She’s applying the argument that Wright thought he made but clearly didn’t to inform her opinion. That is that authors should not be punished for views expressed in their books. Wright fell short of making that argument because he never cited an example of an author being punished for views expressed in their books. Instead he gave examples of authors being punished for personal opinions expressed outside of their works.

That aside, here’s where Aaron went a little off track.

Authorship is an opinionated business. The very act of writing puts your core values and world view front and center. Your characters, your plot, your moral conundrums, the way you build your world–these are all reflections of you, the writer behind the curtain. If you hold and put forth opinions in your writing that other people find repugnant or offensive, they’re going to offended. And since you, the author, put those opinions in a public medium widely distributed and sold for money, otherwise known as bookselling, these offended people are going to criticize your work publicly. They’re going to say that these stories don’t deserve awards and/or public recognition because of the ideas espoused therein, they might even band together to get you booted out of your genre organizations, publications, and/or fan groups so they don’t have to put up with your crap anymore.

Only in the smallest possible part are my books reflections of me. They are by in large a reflection of my characters and the fictional world they’ve been placed in. True, I am at the helm of the story. I carve out the starting point and the stopping point, but that stuff that happens in between, I stay out of that. That’s left to the DNA of circumstances. The moral decisions made within the pages of my book are made by my characters. In Bad Way Out, E.R. Percy, the protagonist, is responsible for feeding a man to pigs. I would never make that choice nor would I encourage anyone else to make that choice. In The Takers, there are passages where it’s revealed that Oz was a bully in school. I wasn’t a bully in the least little bit. You can read every book I’ve written to date, and you will never be able to figure out my political leanings. Take away the author bio and photo, and you wouldn’t know if I’m black or white or Asian or gay or straight or a man or a woman.

Aaron in particular is not a fan of books “where women are nothing but sex objects and rape victims”. My C. Hoyt Caldwell books contain sexist passages. They don’t contain rape scenes, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write a rape scene in the future. I will if it serves the story.   And to be fair to Aaron, I don’t think she’d be horrified by that statement. The “nothing but” in her objection indicates that she’s not opposed to that kind of material as long as it’s not glorified in any form or fashion.

The problem is Aaron steps into dangerous territory when she writes:

I don’t care if you wrote the freaking War and Peace of sexist rape books, I’m not going to read it, I’m not going to vote for it for awards, and I’m going to tell other people to stay away as well if they don’t want to read sexist garbage.

Now, that might seem unfair. What about the story? What about the context?! But deciding I don’t want to read yet another sexist book full of women being violently raped for plot is my right as a reader, as is calling those books out publicly for what they contain. The same goes for racist books or homophobic books or any other form of bigotry, because I don’t want that poison in my genre. I don’t want it in my world, period. I can’t stop you from writing it or thinking it–that’s your right, your free speech–but just because you wrote it doesn’t mean we as readers and fans and members of the genre (which, by the way, belongs to all of us, not just those you anoint as “real fans”) have to read it or take it seriously.

This doesn’t just seem unfair to me. It seems like she is lurching towards censorship territory. Firstly, story and context matter greatly. As she indicated, she wouldn’t “read yet another sexist book full of women being violently raped for plot”. She’s judging a book she hasn’t read, and making an uninformed opinion about the author based on what others have said about the book. By this logic, she’d not read A Clock Work Orange because it contains depictions of rape and sexist passages. Secondly, by not wanting it in her world does she mean that she wouldn’t want her children to read it? What if a book like A Clock Work Orange was assigned reading in her child’s school, would she then go to the school board and demand that her child not to be forced to read a book with ideas she objects to? Would she fight to have it banned at her child’s school? Do you see the slope Aaron is perched on? Do you see her having trouble finding her footing?

The problem here is that Aaron and I have two different writing philosophies. Obviously, she puts a great deal of herself into her books. The ideas, opinions, moral decisions, etc. are all hers. Only a smattering of mine make it into the stories I tell, and that’s usually a coincidence.

My point is that I have no problem with people objecting to and staging a protest against an author for personal beliefs outside of his or her work. If an author makes a homophobic or racist statement in a public forum that angers you, do not read his or her material. Encourage others to not read his or her material. Why would you want to lend financial support to a person like that? But don’t assume you know an author is racist, homophobic, sexist, or holds any offensive beliefs based on what they write in a work of fiction.  Despite what Aaron says, story and context should be how you judge the use of any loathsome material.

Works of fiction have to be honest to be worth reading. If you remove references to sexism, racism, homophobia, or any objectionable belief system from your story because you don’t want to offend anyone, you’re writing something that is dishonest and truly offensive. A lot of the time the truth is messy and ugly. Don’t be afraid to go there because of it. Write all the abhorrent material you want, and I promise I’ll judge it based on context, but I won’t make any judgements about you.

“I took a risk.”

Lessons in storytelling by Larry David

Lessons in storytelling by Larry David

The headline for this blog post comes from an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David’s character, Larry David, offers it as an explanation to his wife Cheryl, played by Cheryl Hines, when she asks why he would say something so socially unacceptable to another human being. He took a risk in an attempt to be honest to another person, and he failed miserably. That’s what made it so funny.

It sums up how I feel when I think about the stories I write under C. Hoyt Caldwell. Succeeding as Mr. Caldwell isn’t nearly as important to me as taking risks as Mr. Caldwell. I go down some dark roads in an attempt to tell an honest story. Not honest from my point of view, but from my characters’ various points of view. They say and do things that I am embarrassed and shocked by, and I love it. It’s really a blast.

There are parts of The Closeout Kings that I know will offend some readers. As a reader of the material, I even felt it might have gone too far, but as the writer, I knew the material called for it because it advanced character, conflict, and action. Those are the only things I can and will concern myself with. If I start considering how the story will affect the reader, then I’m not really writing. I’m pandering.

Can I take risks as R.W. Ridley? I hope so. Oz’ tale isn’t your typical Young Adult series. There are some very adult themes that he has dealt with and will deal with in the final installment. My goal with Oz all along has been to take him from a boy to a man over the course of the series, and that in and of itself is a risk in the Young Adult market. I never think about category and genre when I write, so that may be why some of the major publishers who’ve thought about picking it up eventually passed because they didn’t know where to place it. I’ve been told on a number of occasions by editors that Oz sounds too grown up. I agree. He does. But there’s a reason for that, and hopefully I can make that clear in Book Seven.

So, here’s a little helpful tool for readers as you flip through the pages of a book. If you are offended by something you read, ask yourself if it reveals something to you about the character and/or story. If it does, then the author took a risk in an effort to be honest. Can you really be offended by that?

The results of the ‘reveal’ poll

I’m as conflicted as this guy.

So, the poll results were unanimously in favor of ‘my friend’ revealing his identity.  The comments on Facebook, however, strongly advised against it.  They also didn’t bother pretending ‘my friend’ wasn’t actually me.  So, what does that tell me?  It tells me I have a lot of great friends, family, and supporters who are kind enough to indulge my occasional bouts of artistic uncertainty.

When I was eighteen, I didn’t secretly and slowly gravitate towards the mind of a writer because I thought it would one day provide me with financial stability (thank GOD!).  I wanted to be a writer in those days because it would allow me to express myself.  As you get older, your priorities shift, and you soon discover, as much as you hate to admit it, you make decisions for financial reasons.  I’m no different than every other adult on this planet trying to pay the bills and contribute to his or her family’s wellbeing.

With those financial obligations comes the erosion of artistic conviction.  Your fear of offending someone and losing their support trumps your desire to take risks.  In a lot of ways, I’m fortunate because I pushed the boundaries with my young adult material from day one.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by people in the know that I need to change the first line of my first book because it’s offensive.  Of course it’s offensive.  It’s supposed to be.

But speaking to young adults using frank and even shocking language to get their attention is completely different than allowing my sometimes cynical and inappropriate adult voice to infiltrate my writing.  I recognized with the writing of Two Notch that I liked playing with ‘adult’ themes and after publishing that book I knew I wanted to dive deeper into that style.  I also knew I didn’t want my young adult readers rushing out to read that kind of material just because my name was attached to it. Having a need to express myself in a sometimes ‘vulgar’ (Think George Carlin as a hillbilly) manner doesn’t mean I’m willing to be irresponsible and shirk my accountability as a member of the global community.

Where does that leave us with ‘the reveal’?  I am as conflicted as ever, but I am going to reveal the title of the book… eventually.  Before I do, I’m going to share two of the reviews that will give you, my R.W. Ridley readers, an idea of the content, theme, and tone of the book.  I’ll follow with a post with detailed information about the book.  It will not be my practice to post about this book or future books under this pen name on this blog.  I have a separate blog for ‘him.’  That blog will mostly address the things that tick me off and the tasteless things that make me laugh. I’ll even touch on political and social issues that put me at odds with a lot of my Southern brethren. I want to keep the two worlds separate, but I also don’t want to be accused of ‘hiding’ something from my readers.  Having a secret identity is cool in some ways, but it also makes you feel like a bit of a liar.

And now the reviews:

From the UK

Could this book start off a craze of what can only be called Appalachian crime noir? Meet E. R. Percy, mountain man and the brewer of the best moonshine you will ever sip. Life has always been hard for the mountain folk, but illegal stills and their product is nothing compared to the drugs trade. When E. R. first refuses to work in the drugs business he is at first threatened, but this escalates to a feud. Throw in a mysterious mountain of a man that suddenly appears in his brewing shed and you find there is a lot of comedy to what would otherwise be a bloody and dark tale.

Fun to read and hard to put down this is a great tale of hillbillies and their culture versus the modern drug lord. The characters come to life in all their glorious eccentricities, from a man mad seventeen year old girl to the corrupt reverend. Unfortunately this book will probably get overlooked, which is a shame, as it is such a great read and should appeal to a lot of people.

…Certainly original, this is full of violence and humour, and certainly a thing that Quentin Taratino would love to get his hands on.

From the US

(Author Name withheld) thriller took me back to my favorite Robert Mitcham movie of 1958. “There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil’s thirst”.

(Title of book withheld) is one fast ride for sure! E.R.Percy and his fat cousin Crick are a pair to draw to but then toss in a naked giant, a too sexy for her own good jail bait teen, a demonic drug Lord and you have a potent 190 proof white light in showdown breaking.

The lingo is country fried as you would expect in a story set in the backwoods where E.R. , a Junior College graduate, is considered a mountain Einstein of the art of Copper Pot Chemistry cooling up the best white whiskey some declare to be in the entire country.

E.R. is content with his wife Rose and his baby until the meth deal in Milo jumps ugly and covets E.R.’s whiskey business and wants to turn all his whiskey customers into meth addicts.

Milo thinks his big city gangster rules will work for him in the backwoods on these hillbillies. Well, you’ll just have to read and find out for yourself if E.R. , cousin Crick, and the Giant survive to supply Mountain Falls with the best whiskey that ever soothed a troubled soul. Buy this book, and pray that Brother Caldwell will keep us supplied with simple good stories from out the backwoods.. Wish I could have given this one 10 Stars!

I chose these two reviews for a reason.  They are incredibly flattering (Hey, I do have an ego, you know?), and they perfectly encapsulate the tone and content of the book.

More to come.

BTW: I’m aware that I’ve provided enough information for anyone to easily find the book via a simple Google inquiry.  I thought about ‘redacting’ the obvious indicators, but that would have made this post look like an NSA document.  That’s an association I’d like to avoid, thank you very much!

My Ireland debut – Writing an author bio

A blog post for which I was paid one pair of Irish pants… I wish!

I’ve gone international.  More precisely, some of my blog posts have gone international.  A writing blog in Ireland just picked up an article I wrote for CreateSpace on writing an author bio.  CreateSpace is a regular gig and occassionally they’ll give permission to other sites to repost material.  I love it because it’s free advertising for me and my books.  My stuff has also appeared on a site in the UK a couple of times.

Here’s a little tidbit from the bio article:

To many, writing an author bio is an enigma wrapped in a riddle buried with Blackbeard’s treasure. It’s hard to know what is and isn’t relevant. What sets one author bio apart from another? Does work experience count? Is it accolades that matter most? What about education – does that make a difference? How can you express who you really are while meeting readers’ expectations of you as an author?

Check out the rest on 

Defending the indefensible – the story of my artistic stand

My new mantra

We killed the retarded boy.

Those are the first five words of my book The Takers. One of those words has proven to be problematic. The ‘R’ word may be preventing The Takers from taking that next step into its publishing evolution. What I don’t share with you on a regular basis is the finagling and negotiating going on with bigger publishers about The Takers. I’ve been very fortunate in that it has generated interest from some editors and publishers who want to take it to that next level; wider domestic and foreign distribution -among other opportunities that aren’t currently available to me as an indie author.

I’ve done two fairly significant rewrites based on their suggestions and feedback over the years. And, I’ve also created a number or series outlines for the entire Oz Chronicles upon their request, tweaking it here and there to accommodate their concerns. In short, I’ve been extremely flexible in my approach to rewrites and edits. I know that publishing is a business and if they are going to take a risk on me, I need to reward their risk with cooperation in the interest of selling more books for everyone involved. Publishing is a tough, tough business that really doesn’t need another temperamental artist in the mix putting everyone’s jobs in jeopardy.

I’ve gotten extremely close on a couple of occasions to satisfying the bigger publishers and taking that next step, but for various reasons, the deal never came to pass. For the first time, my latest round of publishing volley was put to an end by me – more or less. Through my agent, I have been in contact with a publishing house for about a year. They requested a major rewrite. I did the rewrite. They hated the rewrite. They made more suggestions. One change in particular made me extremely uneasy. They wanted the first line changed. They were uncomfortable with the word retarded. It is an ugly word, and I get it. In talking with my agent, I learned he’s gotten this feedback before from other publishers who have passed on The Takers.

I took the critique seriously. Retarded is an offensive word. There is a fairly strong campaign by the Shriver family and the Special Olympics to raise public awareness about the hurtful nature of the word towards the people and cause they serve. And they are right, it is hurtful and ugly and disrespectful. Trust me; I don’t particularly want to be in direct opposition with people like the Shrivers and the Kennedys. Especially when it comes to the use of the word retarded.

So, I took the next two to three weeks battling with the decision. Would the story be the same without the word? Would it change the nature of Oz himself? Oz is a bully trying to make amends for the way he treated a boy with Down syndrome. He’s wrestling with his own failings as a person, and despite the consequences, he doesn’t let go of bad habits easily. He’s struggling to be a better person. I’ve lived with Oz for eight years now. In a weird writer kind of way, the kid is always sitting somewhere in my mind asking me the same question over and over again. “Am I bad kid who does good things or a good kid who does bad things?” I’m trying to help him find that answer through his Oz Chronicles journey.

My wife finally gave me the nudge I needed to say no. We went to Asheville, NC for Christmas, and she saw a bumper sticker that read, “Never apologize for your art.” That was it. That was the sign we needed. And this was a “we” decision given that our finances could be affected by whatever decision I made. Frankly, if she would have insisted that I make the change (which she would never do), I would have tried to make it work. It would be unfair of me to do otherwise.

So I said no because the word retarded works. It sets the tone of the story of a bully struggling to be a better person. It’s an ugly struggle. Getting rid of the word makes the story too wishy-washy and safe. Safe is no way to tell a story. I don’t care if it’s for the young adult market or contemporary literature. No one would ask a painter to eliminate the color red from his or her palette because it’s too bold and bright. By the same logic, words should never be off limits to a writer.

So I stood up for the word retarded even though I agree with the Shriver family. It’s a strange day when you find yourself defending the indefensible, but you know what? It feels kind of good. I put my art first, and in the end, that’s what writers should do. It doesn’t matter that I have a personal objection to certain words or other people may have objections to the words I use. I have to serve the story first. That’s my first priority as a writer.

My Latest CreateSpace post – Getting to know your characters

Here’s my latest contribution to the CreateSpace blog.  As always, be sure to join the community if you want to get some excellent advice on writing, publishing, filmmaking, music, virtually anything creative.  There are a lot of great people to connect with and learn from.

A taste of my latest post: Start a Dialogue with Your Characters

I use the word “uncover” deliberately. I think it’s important for you to approach the task of creating and building your characters from the viewpoint of a complete stranger. Flesh them out from scratch. Sometimes, if you go into character creation with the idea that you know that character already, you overlook the nuances that clearly define him/her and miss the opportunity to give the character real depth.

How to be an instigator

Writing advice from yours truly

Here’s my latest piece for the CreateSpace blog.  Check it out. Leave a comment.  Join the community.

Your Story’s Inciting Incident

Do  you know your story’s inciting incident? The inciting incident is the event that drives your protagonist toward the pursuit of a certain outcome. Or, as writing guru Robert McKee puts it in his book Story,  it’s “an event that radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.” It usually comes in the form of drastic change and puts your main character in a position where he/she must take action.  That action is usually outside the bounds of his or her normal behavior and causes conflict that propels growth. In many ways, it’s the keystone  of your character arc.

First draft of new book – Done!

Working Title and Mock Cover of New Book

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, and it feels so good.  Moments ago, I typed those two words every writer yearns to type once they start a new manuscript.  What words?  These words.  THE END!  I just finished the first draft of a new book.  It doesn’t matter that this draft probably doesn’t amount to more than a very, very detailed 67,000 word outline. 

In other words, there is still a lot of work to do, but the story has a beginning, middle and end, and it’s fully equiped with subplots and deeply flawed characters and dialogue galore.  It’s fleshed out.  I just have to make sure the the skeleton is intact.

Pardon me while I celebrate!

On writing without a message… or what The Takers is really about

What is the message?

What is the message?

At a very early stage in my writing career, I came to the conclusion that I am not a message kind of writer. I don’t have the writing gene that allows me to write a story with a message without coming off as preachy. In The Takers, I set out to write a book about a boy who wakes up to discover he is responsible for the end of the world. That’s it. I didn’t have any other agenda when I typed out the pages of the book every day for 9 weeks.

The book started with a question I asked myself, “What if? What if a young boy wakes up to discover he is responsible for the end of the world?” That “What if” question is not unique to me. Virtually every story starts with the same question. From that question other questions formed organically. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Who is the boy? As I started answering these questions, the story started to form. I wrote without judging myself or the characters or the plot and various subplots.

After I finished writing, I started editing and rewrites. At that point, I realized there were messages in the book. The book (and the entire series) is about the power of forgiveness and redemption (not in a biblical sense). Oz, the main character in the book, has done some horrible things in his life that actually lead to the end of the world. He is faced with the internal question “Am I a good kid who occasionally does bad things or a bad kid who occasionally does good things?” Ultimately, he is a good kid who has done some regrettable things. The end of the world presents him with the opportunity to set things right.

That was not my intention when I started writing. It just happened. There are a lot of talented writers out there who can write with a specific message without bogging down the story with a lot of clunky exposition. I am not one of those writers. For me, the “What if” question is simply a riddle I’m researching and trying to figure out. If messages come from that (and they most likely will), it’s a bonus result I welcome.

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On Being Offensive

Just say it!

Just say it!

I am offensive. I have to be. I’m a writer. This is something I struggled with for a long time because in my non-writery life I’m a nice, if not downright decent guy. I’m the kind of guy who leaves a note on someone’s windshield if my car door opens too wide and might have possibly dinged their door. I hold doors open for people. I say “Bless you” to perfect strangers when they sneeze.

But when it comes to storytelling, I have to leave myself at the door when I write because the characters and the story are far more important than my desire not to offend people. One need only to take a look at the first line of my young adult horror/scifi novel, The Takers, to see how truly offensive I can be. That line is: “We killed the retarded boy.” It is stark and plainly spoken. In short, it evokes emotion, and that is my job as a writer. I have had people tell me they loved the first line, and I’ve had people tell me they were deeply troubled by the first line, so much so that they almost stopped reading. I’m happy with both reactions. If I tried to write a non-offensive version of the line it wouldn’t have the same power. Don’t believe me? Try this on for size. “We took the life of the boy with Down syndrome.” Is it as effective? I don’t think so. It’s too wishy-washy, too sanitized. For me, the best writing is dirty and gritty and unapologetic. At the risk of sounding corny, a writer has to transcend sentiment in order to tell a story. The emotion of a story comes from the characters and the setting not the author.

When you start thinking about how a plot or character or phrase may offend the reader, you’re dead in the water as a writer. You’re story arc will be a flat line. Your characters will be one dimensional with no growth, and conflict will basically be absent from your story. Don’t contrive offensiveness. That’s as ineffective as not being offensive at all. Be offensive because the story calls for it. It’s scary to do at times, but you have to muster up the courage and do it because your story will be better for it.

You will take your share of slings and arrows. I certainly have. To quote a mother in Oklahoma: I cannot believe that these were in the teen section. Gross, Gore, Evil, Blood, Guts……….I’m so full of regret that I had ever bought these. Actually, I love her review. She clearly didn’t read the books because the story is actually a tale of good vs. evil, where good struggles but ultimately prevails, but she had a real emotional, visceral reaction. As a writer, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Writers, offend with impunity… well there will be punity but try not to let it get to you.

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