One of the hallmarks of science fiction is its intense originality. Science Fiction has few limits on topics or scope, and has wandered far into speculation about the future, future societies, and technological change. Along the way, science fiction writers have explored fiction's classic themes of life and death, human failure, and challenges intrinsic to any worthwhile story. To catch an editor's eye, you must have something different in your story, something you handle especially well--a vivid character, an intriguing background, a compelling theme.
Paula E. Downing in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Sylvia K. Burack, 1994
Learning how to write is hard enough, but deciding what to write about--isolating a marketable subject that is appealing to you--is the most difficult task a writer must confront. Find a subject that intrigues and motives you and that will simultaneously intrigue and motivate readers. The task is double-edged. Salable subjects are around us everywhere; on the other hand, they are astoundingly elusive.
First person, past tense is a good way for beginning writers to tell a story. As voices go, it's straightforward, its boundaries reasonably clear. It's a familiar voice; we normally frame the ongoing narrative of our lives in the first person, past tense. "Where were you?" "I was out walking the dog and I stopped to buy an ice cream cone." But a first person narrator must be a participant in the story he's telling, and his involvement limits his information. He can report only what his senses reveal, what others tell him, what he knows, and what he speculates.
They give you a thousand dollars a week [1960s] until that's what you need to live on. And then every day you live after that, you're afraid they'll take it away from you. It's all very scientific. It's based on the psychological fact that a man is a grubbing, hungry little sleaze....In twenty-four hours you can develop a taste for caviar. In forty-eight hours fish eggs are no longer a luxury, they're a necessity.
A beginning writer has more going for him if he decides to write a nonfiction book....A beginner has just as good a chance to find a salable idea as the professional writer.
Doris Ricker Marston
Ultimately every writer must follow the path that feels most comfortable. For most people learning to write, that path is nonfiction. It enables them to write about what they know or can observe or can find out.
Being a writer of nonfiction books doesn't seem perishingly difficult; it just requires a certain amount of energy and an intelligent interest in the world. And a certain accumulated skill at organizing the materials that one's research gathers.
Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is more telling. To know that a thing actually happened gives it a poignancy, touches a chord, which a piece of acknowledged fiction misses.
W. Somerset Maugham
I'll bet you think that if you write a nonfiction book that is interesting, fact filled, and with touches of great writing, a publisher is sure to buy it. Wrong. You have forgotten the first basic rule. Find out who wants it.
Fact-based writing can reach creative levels just as fiction writing does, and in the hands of an accomplished nonfiction writer, imaginative use of facts can be transformed and become art.
One of the most public and wholesale rejections of a writer occurred in 1975, when Esquire published "La Cote Basque," an early chapter from Truman Capote's novel-in-progress Answered Prayers. Capote's women friends from New York's cafe society were horrified by the exposure of their secrets and promptly banished him from their inner circle. According to his editor, Joe Fox at Random House, "Virtually every friend he had in this world ostracized him for telling thinly disguised tales out of school, and many of them never spoke to him again." Their little writer friend, the elfin troublemaker, had taken things just a little too far. Capote crossed a line he claimed he hadn't known existed, though he confessed to a certain amount of delicious anticipation before the piece ran, and he agreed to be photographed for the magazine's cover with a fedora wickedly tilted atop his head while he pared his fingernails with a very long blade.
The best sportswriters know this. They avoid the exhausted synonyms and strive for freshness elsewhere in their sentences. You can search the columns of Red Smith and never find a batsman bouncing into a twin killing. Smith wasn't afraid to let a batsman hit into a double play. But you will find hundreds of unusual words--good English words--chosen with precision and fitted into situations where no other sportswriter would put them. They please us because the writer cared about using fresh imagery in a journalistic form where his competitors settle for the same old stuff. That's why Red Smith was still king of his field after half a century of writing, and why his competitors had long since been sent--as they would be the first to say--to the showers.
William Zinsser, On Writing Well, first published in 1975
Undefeated lightweight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr., an unpopular fighter in a corrupt and dying sport, pleaded guilty in December 2011 to beating Josie Harris, the mother of three of his children. The assault took place in Mayweather's palatial 12,000-foot square home in the upscale Southern Highlands neighborhood in Las Vegas.
On June 1, 2012, Mayweather began serving his 87-day sentence at the Clark County Detention Center. Because he's a celebrity and a notorious loudmouth, corrections officials, for the boxer's own protection, isolated him from the general jail population. (I'm sure jail administrators were not thrilled to learn they would be responsible for this guy.)
A few days into his incarceration, Mayweather's attorney filed an emergency motion asking for a modification of the multi-millionare's sentence. The boxer's lawyer, citing "inhumane" conditions at the lockup, wanted the justice of the peace to change Mayweather's sentence to house arrest, or, at the very least, 3 days a week in the hell-hole, and the rest of the week at home. (There are millions of Americans who would plead guilty to murder in order to be sentenced to life without parole at Mayweather's mansion. There are probably hundreds of thousands who would find the Clark County Jail an improvement over their current living conditions.)
So what were the inhumane conditions that required Mr. Mayweather's immediate rescue from county incarceration? Was he living off bread and water in a stifling hot cell equipped with a bucket and a lice-infested mattress? Was he fighting off rats, sexual predators, a gang of deranged skinheads, and sadistic guards? What?
According to the 35-page sentence modification motion with the attached affidavit from Mayweather's personal physician, Dr. Robert Voy, after 10 days in the can, the boxer was getting out of shape. Incarceration was interfering, in a serious way, with his career as a prize fighter. (And great prizes at that. Last month, in his victory over Migel Cotto, Mayweather walked away with $32 million. Most fans who paid to see the fight paid to see Mayweather lose. Instead they saw a boring bout.) As an inmate at the Clark County Jail, Mayweather was not able to maintain his exercise regime. And perhaps even worse, the joint's food and water were simply not up to his standards.
Because this special man was forced to eat bread, fruit, and energy bars purchased from the commissary rather than the crap fed to the other inmates, Mr. Mayweather was only taking in 800 calories a day. In other words, his Clark County captors were starving him to death! They were not mistreating an ordinary beater of woman, this man was a professional. He was the holder of a title belt, and lest you forget, he had been on "Dancing with the Stars"! (His only defeat.) How could this be happening in America?
Arguments on Mayweather's motion were heard before Las Vegas justice of the peace Melissa Saragosa on Wednesday, June 13, 2012. Ruling that Mayweather's request did not meet the criterial for sentence modification, (an illegal sentence, or one based upon an untrue assumption or mistake of fact) Saragosa condemned the prisoner to 75 more days in Clark County hell.
When asked by a reporter to comment on Mayweather's sentence modification plea, prosecutor Lisa Luzaich remarked, "It's jail. Where did he think he was going? The Four Seasons?"
Floyd Mayweather is now a successful boxing promotor operating out of Las Vegas.
An ordinary, nonliterary jerk is a person with an off-putting personality who nobody likes. While the term "jerk" is not included in the jargon of psychology, we all know what it means. Miserable jerks are even worse, and populate every profession. In the literary world, miserable jerks are often well-educated novelists whose literary ambitions far exceed their talents. Miserable jerks often end up as unpublished college professors teaching aspiring novelists how to write. Again, if I may use the vernacular, a flaming jerk is an egotistical, mildly talented novelist who writes a bestseller that miserable jerks hate. While writing bad reviews of this flaming jerk's novel, they take to their writing desks to imitate his literary style. It's all pretty sad.
Thornton P. Knowles, The Psychology of Writing, 1976
Americans who grew up in the 1950s were programed to respect and obey the law, work hard, and raise their own children without state interference. They also paid their taxes. Today, I image that most people of this generation remain true to these values. I've been fortunate to have lived in this country my entire life. I earned a wage for forty years, paid my taxes, have never been to jail, and helped raise a family. I don't like paying taxes which I believe are too high, but I pay them anyway because that's part of the social contract that binds us as a nation. It's also against the law to cheat the government.
Citizens of my generation were taught to play by the rules. You don't drive unless you have a valid driver's license, an updated inspection sticker, and car insurance. I consider being pulled over for speeding and not being able to produce my driver's license because I left it at home a big problem. I would come away from that experience feeling like a criminal. I still view shoplifting, bad check passing, and illegal drug possession as crimes of moral turpitude. Growing up, I don't think I met anyone who had been in jail. In the past, cops were treated with respect even if they didn't deserve it.
Today, when I go to the doctor's office, if I don't have my social security data and my insurance papers, the doctor won't see me. There are no excuses. When I go to vote, I expect to be asked to produce a driver's license or some other form of identification. That requirement doesn't offend me because it makes sense. You are only allowed to vote once, and you have to be a U. S. citizen.
Years ago, the U. S. government lent me money to go to college. I paid it back. The idea of not paying it back never entered my mind. In my day, people who didn't pay their bills were considered deadbeats. The vast majority of citizens who were on welfare back then were on the dole temporarily because they were ashamed and embarrassed by having to rely on the government. Welfare was not a way of life. People didn't feel entitled to a free lunch.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings, the terrorists' mother was on television criticizing the United States government for framing and not protecting her two sons. She and her husband had lived in this country ten years. They left the county but their boys stayed here. While the family lived in Massachusetts they were on state welfare. The boys had free rides in college, and while they were plotting to kill Americans, were living off welfare checks.
Since the bombings, a Massachusetts state legislator has been on TV revealing how easy it is in that state to get on welfare. All a resident has to do is ask for the money. Social security numbers are not required. In other words, bureaucrats in Massachusetts have no idea who they are giving taxpayer money to. As it turned out, they were giving it to a pair of terrorists who set off two bombs at the Boston Marathon.
One would have to conclude that the people of Massachusetts are either very wealthy or not very bright. As a U. S. citizen who pays his taxes and obeys the law, I can't see my doctor without my social security data. In Massachusetts, suspected terrorists go to college free, and live on the dole. This gives new meaning to the phrase state-sponsored terrorism.
Goodreads.com lists over 6,000 [literary] prizes on its web site. The oldest, the Nobel Prize in Literature, was founded in 1901; the youngest was established yesterday. Ten more will certainly be announced tomorrow.
At two-thirty on the afternoon of Thursday, May 18, 2017, Ebony Archie pulled into the Kroger supermarket parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi. With her 6-year-old son Kingston Frazier asleep in the back seat of her running Toyota Camry, the mother entered the store to purchase some medicine.
According to a parking lot surveillance camera, shortly after the mother entered the grocery store, two men in a two-door Honda Civic approached the Toyota. One of the men climbed out of the Honda, got behind the wheel of Ebony Archie's car and drove off with the 6-year-old still in the back seat.
When the mother came of the supermarket and discovered her car and her son missing, she reported the theft to a Hinds County sheriff's deputy on patrol on the lot. She did not, however, initially mention that she had left her son in the stolen car.
At 4:30 that afternoon, when the distraught mother informed the police of her missing son, the authorities broadcast an Amber Alert.
Sometime during the early morning hours of Friday, May 19, 2017, a citizen reported seeing the stolen Toyota parked alongside a dirt road outside the Madison County town of Gluckstadt, Mississippi. In the back seat of the vehicle, police officers discovered the corpse of Kingston Frazier. The boy had been shot at least once in the head.
At ten o'clock that morning, Madison County District Attorney Michael Guest announced at a press conference that within hours of the discovery of Kingston Frazier's body, three local teenage suspects had been taken into custody and charged with capital murder.
The murder suspects were: Dwan Wakefield, 17, D'Allen Washington, 17, and Bryon McBride, 19. (In Mississippi, 17-year-olds accused of capital murder can be charged as adults. They could also face the death penalty.)
According to media reports, Dwan Wakefield was a senior at Ridgeland High School where he had played football until he was thrown off the team for an unspecified reason. At the press conference, the district attorney did not reveal the roles each suspect had allegedly played in the boy's murder. The suspects were due in court for arraignment on Monday, May 22, 2017.
The joy of being a [literary] writer today is that you can claim your work's flaws are all there by design. Plot doesn't add up? It was never meant to; you were playfully reworking the conventions of traditional narrative. Your philosophizing makes no sense? Well, we live in an incoherent age after all. The dialogue is implausible? Comedy often is. But half the jokes fall flat? Ah! Those were the serious bits. Make sure then, that your readers can never put a finger on what you are trying to say at any point in the book. Let them create their own text--you're just the one who gets paid for it.
B. R. Myers, A Reader's Manifesto, 2002
[This is an outstanding, groundbreaking book.]
Dashiell Hammett produced work so stark, yet so complex, that any attempt to dismiss him as a mystery writer would be a glaring error. In Red Harvest, 1929, he deals with mob control and mob wars in a town called Personville, nicknamed Poisonville. The bad guys are bad, and the good guys are bad in a good way, and the whole book is a morality play. Forces of light and dark run through the actions of tough guys. The value of traditional male ideals is enhanced because even some awfully cynical people can still hold them.
In late November 2013, someone called 911 to report that the parents of a two-year-old had helped, observed or encouraged their toddler to breathe smoke from a lighted bowl of marijuana. The alleged incident took placed in Mayfield, New York, an upstate town in Chatauqua County not far from Buffalo.
On December 5, 2013, deputies with the Chatgauqua County Sheriff's Office arrested the parents and the grandfather of the weed-exposed child. George Kelsey, 18, Jessica Kelsey, 17, and 54-year-old Don Baker were booked into the Chataququa County Jail on charges of second-degree reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. A magistrate set each of the suspect's bond at $20,000.
The two-year-old victim has been placed into the care of a child protection agency pending the outcome of the case.
If the endangerment charges prove true, these stupid, drug-addled parents should lose permanent custody of their child. Moreover, the judge should impose the maximum sentence on all three defendants.
In a nation of potheads, kids under twelve are the only sober citizens left. How long will that last?
Willing suspension of disbelief is a strange state of mine--reading nonfiction does not require it and neither does reading poetry, since both are based on logical argument…The world is full of people who are rather proud that they don't read novels. Publishers often lament that the audience for novels is narrowing, and especially that it is losing men. A literary education not only enlarges a readers' willingness to suspend disbelief by extending her range of pleasures, it also strengthens her ability to enter the meditative state, and to be receptive to the influence of another human mind, because it is a state of contemplation that is essential to the true appreciation of the novel.
Jane Smiley, 13 Ways at Looking at the Novel, 2005
My journals date from about 1917 to about 1930, with a few entries of more recent date. They occupy two-thirds of a whiskey carton. How many words that would be I have no idea, but it would be an awful lot. The journals are callow, sententious, moralistic, and full of rubbish. They are also hard to ignore. They were written sometimes in longhand, sometimes typed (single typed). They contain many clippings. Extensive is the word for them. I do not hope to publish them, but I would like to get a little mileage out of them. After so many years, they tend to hold my attention even though they do not excite my admiration. I have already dipped into them on a couple of occasions, to help out on a couple of pieces.
E. B. White, The Second Tree From the Corner, 1954
At the heart of most traditional fantasy milieu is a culture derived from that of the European Middle Ages, in large part the medieval societies of what are now Great Britain, France and Germany. The culture is a synthesis of both the Roman culture that dominated western Europe for some five centuries and of the Germanic culture that eventually overran and absorbed it. Three major institutions formed the basis of medieval society and dictated how most people lived. These were feudalism, manorialism and Christianity.
Michael J. Varbola in The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference, edited by the editors of Writer's Digest Books, 1998
Over the past ten years there have been more than two dozen hazing deaths at U. S. colleges and universities. Victims of these unintentional, senseless killings were members of fraternities, school bands, or sports teams that had long histories of putting new members through right-of-passage rituals. These young people died because they desperately wanted to belong. Despite the efforts of university administrators and others to break this tradition, hazing has continued and students die as a result. (Since 1970, there has been at least one hazing related death on a college campus every year. Eighty-two percent of these hazing deaths involved alcohol.)
The Penn State Case
In early February 2017, a hazing ritual at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house led to the death of a 19-year-old pledge from Lebanon, New Jersey. After consuming vast amounts of alcohol, Timothy Piazza fell several times causing a fractured skull and shattered spleen. Fraternity members waited 12 hours after the pledge's first fall to call 911. In May 2017, the local prosecutor charged eight fraternity brothers with involuntary manslaughter.
The Chen Deng Case
Before the Penn State hazing death, Chen Hsien Deng died pursuant to a fraternity house incident.
Chen Hsien Deng, a 19-year-old freshman finance major at Baruch College in Manhattan, New York, joined the Pi Delta Psi fraternity. According to its published profile, this fraternal organization is an Asian-American group with a mission to "spread Asian-Amerian cultural awareness." Founded in 1994, the organization has chapters in twenty states and the District or Columbia.
On Friday, December 6, 2013, thirty members of Pi Delta Psi left New York City en route to the Poconos Mountain region in northeastern Pennsylvania. Chen Deng was one of four fraternity pledges participating in the weekend getaway. The group had rented a house in Tunkhannock Township in Monroe County.
On Sunday, December 8, 2013, at eight-fifteen in the morning, three of Deng's fraternity brothers drove him to the Geisinger Wyoming Valley Hospital emergency room in Danville, Pennsylvania. Doctors found the freshman unresponsive and immediately placed him on life support. Twenty-four hours later, Chen Deng died.
Two days later, a spokesperson for the Luzerne County Coroner's Office announced that Chen Deng had died from "closed head injuries due to blunt force trauma."
Investigators with the Poconos Mountain Regional Police Department, when they searched the rented house in Tunkhannock Township, found marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms.
At the hospital, detectives spoke to Sheldon Wong, the fraternity's "pledge educator." Wong said that Deng had injured his head when he fell backward in the snow while wrestling another fraternity brother. Charles Lai, another member of the fraternity told a different story. According to Lai, Deng had died during a hazing ritual called "The Gauntlet." In this initiation game, a blindfolded pledge is repeatedly tackled as he runs a gauntlet of fraternity brothers while carrying a backpack full of sand. After Deng was knocked unconscious in the snow outside the rented house, fraternity brothers carried him into the dwelling.
Before driving Deng to the hospital, fraternity members removed and replaced his wet clothing. Next, someone made an Internet search regarding the unconscious pledge's symptoms. The Internet inquiry also included determining the location of the nearest hospital. An hour after Deng collapsed in the snow, the three Pi Delta Psi fraternity brothers drove him to the emergency room in Danville.
At the hospital, one of the fraternity brothers called the rented house in Tunkhannock and instructed someone there to dispose of all fraternity memorabilia as well as anything else that would reveal what had happened to the dead pledge.
In July 2015, 37 members of the fraternity were charged with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, hindering apprehension, and other related offenses.
In January 2017, 25-year-old Ka-Wing Yuen became the first defendant in the Deng Case to plead guilty. Yuen pleaded guilty to the felony charge of hindering apprehension and the lesser offense of conspiracy to haze. He faced up to eight years in prison. The judge sentenced Yuen to five years of probation.
In any piece of fiction, the writer's first job is to convince the reader that the events he recounts really happened, or to persuade the reader that they might have happened (given small changes in the laws of the universe), or else to engage the reader's interest in the patent absurdity of the lie. The realistic writer's way of making events convincing is verisimilitude. The tale writer, telling stories of ghosts, or shape-shifter, or some character who never sleeps, uses a different approach: By the quality of his voice, and by means of various devices that distract the critical intelligence, he gets what Coleridge called--in one of the most clumsy famous sentences in all literature--"the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."
If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it's science fiction. If it's set in a universe that doesn't follow our rules, it's fantasy. [It's the rocket ship versus the magic carpet.]
Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1990
Blooming writers really do not know what to expect when they sign up for a workshop or a creative-writing class. Some want to learn to write, or to write better. Others have been writing a great deal for a long time and want some feedback. These are realistic goals. A certain kind of person finds writing classes and workshops to be like camp, and just wants to hang out with all these other people, maybe with a writer he or she respects, to get and give response and encouragement, and to hear how other people tell their stories. Some people want other people with whom to share the disappointments and rejection letters and doldrums. A lot of people like to work on other people's writing because it helps them figure out what they themselves love in the written word, as well as what doesn't work for them. And others want feedback from people who aren't quite friends or editors but who will be realistic and honest and helpful.
Shoplifting is…misunderstood because the line between crime and disease has blurred. Although most estimates put the number of kleptomaniacs among shoplifters at between 0 and 8 percent, some experts believe that the disease is far more prevalent. Others contend that so-called shoplifting addiction has replaced kleptomania altogether. [How about greed replacing both of them?]
First drafts, even pretty good ones, can be excruciatingly hard for anyone but their authors to read….What is going on? Is John talking to Mary, or is he talking to Bill? Are we in Iowa or Guatemala? Nothing is so infuriating as not being understood, but if a reader of good basic intelligence does not know what you are talking about, you have a problem. Don't rationalize it by blaming the messenger for the message. Your reader is not stupid. You are not being understood, and it is your problem.
Sadly, your first readers may be reluctant to tell you the truth about your lack of clarity. It is a fact that many readers (especially in a school) will go to great lengths to conceal their bafflement over a piece of prose they don't understand. Rather than run the risk of being thought dense or uncomprehending or philistine, all too many readers, including many who should know better--editors, teachers, workshop members--would rather skip over an obscurity than admit they just don't get it.
The secret to the art of journalistic interviewing--and it is an art--is to let the other person think he's interviewing you. You tell him about yourself, and slowly you spin your web so that he tells you everything.
Truman Capote in Conversations With Capote, edited by Lawrence Grobel, 1985
Many writers are reluctant to talk about the creative process--that is, how and where they get their talent, ideas, and inspiration to write. Many deny that talent is an inborn phenomenon while others ridicule the notion that writers have to be inspired to create. Perhaps creativity is less a mystery than lack of creativity is. When a reader tells a writer that he can't imagine how one can produce a book, some writers may wonder how one cannot.
Thornton P. Knowles, The Psychology of Writing, 1976
If you have not been keeping a journal or diary, it is time to start one--or a couple of them. There is a personal journal where you write your innermost feelings about life, often in a spirited, free-writing, spontaneous fashion. Then there is a writer's journal, where you record your thoughts and ideas about your writing work. In a writer's journal you conduct an ongoing, spontaneous dialogue with yourself about writing, developing the subjects and ideas you intend to or are actually writing about. I compare a writer's journal to an artist's sketchbook. It is where the masterpiece begins.
What I remember about my first years as a published novelist is how eager publishers were, in those early days, for new fiction. This may have been because there was no New Journalism yet--once it appeared it dealt fiction a kind of double whammy, since the New Journalists used many of the techniques of fiction while keeping the appeal of fact.
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, 1999
The latest from Jim Fisher. Test your knowledge with the true crime exam at the end of the book!
The Mammoth Book of Murder
200 gripping stories of violent death
Crimson Stain 2013 New and Expanded Edition
Crimson Stain: The Shocking True Story of the Only Amish Man Ever Convicted of Homicide, by Jim Fisher
The GE Mound Case
The GE Mound Case: The Archaeological Disaster and Criminal Persecution of Artifact Collector Art Gerber
SWAT Madness and the Militarization of the American Police: A National Dilemma
"[A] powerful work . . . well researched . . . Recommended." Choice
LITERARY QUOTATIONS: GENRE
LITERARY QUOTATIONS: GENRE is a compilation of informative and entertaining quotes by writers, editors, critics, journalists, and literary agents on the subject of literary genre. The quotes also touch on the subjects of craft, creativity, publishing, and the writing life.
A graduate of Westminster College (Pennsylvania) and Vanderbilt University Law School, I am the author of twelve non-fiction books on crime, criminal investigation, forensic science, policing, and writing. I have been nominated twice for the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allen Poe Award in the Best Fact Crime Category. As a former FBI agent, criminal investigator, author, and professor of criminal justice at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, I have been interviewed numerous times on television and radio and for the print media.
For more information about me, please visit my web site at http://jimfisher.edinboro.edu.