Being A Realist

Every so often, I come head-to-head with an unsettling fact – being a “realistic” novelist hurts my sales and sometimes even upsets my editors.  What do I mean?   Well… after nearly twenty years as an economist, analyst, administrator, and political appointee in Washington, I know that all too many of the novelistic twists and events, such as those portrayed by Dan Brown, are not only absurd, but often physically and or politically impossible.  That’s one of the reasons why I don’t write political “thrillers,” my one attempt at such proving dramatically that the vast majority of readers definitely don’t want their realism close to home.

Unfortunately, a greater number don’t want realism to get in the way, or not too much in the way, in science fiction or fantasy, and my editors are most sensitive to this.  This can lead to “discussions” in which they want more direct action, while I’m trying to find a way to make the more realistic indirect events more action-oriented without compromising totally what I have learned about human nature, institutions, and human political motivations.  For example, there are reasons why high-tech societies tend to be lower-violence societies, but the principal one is very simple.  High-tech weaponry is very destructive, and societies where it is used widely almost invariably don’t stay high-tech.  In addition, violence is expensive, and successful societies find ways to satisfy majority requirements without extensive violence [selective and targeted violence is another question].

Another factor is that people seeking power and fortune wish to be able to enjoy both after they obtain them – and you can’t enjoy either for long if you’ve destroyed the society in order to be in control. This does not apply to fanatics, no matter what such people claim, but the vast majority of fanatics don’t wish to preserve society, but to destroy – or “simplify” – it because it represents values antithetical to theirs.

Now… this sort of understanding means that there’s a lot less “action” and destruction in my books than in most other books dealing with roughly similar situations and societies, and that people actually consider factors like costs and how to pay for things.  There are also more meals and meetings – as I’m often reminded, and not always in a positive manner – but meals and meetings are where most policies and actions are decided in human society.  But, I’m reminded by my editors, they slow things down.

Yes… and no…

In my work, there’s almost always plenty of action at the end, and some have even claimed that there’s too much at the end, and not enough along the way.  But… that’s life.  World War II, in all its combat phases, lasted slightly less than six years.  The economics, politics, meetings, meals, treaties, elections, usurpations of elections, and all the factors leading up to the conflict lasted more than twenty years, and the days of actual fighting, for any given soldier, were far less than that. My flight instructors offered a simple observation on being a naval aviator:  “Flying is 99 percent boredom, and one percent sheer terror.”  Or maybe it was 98% boredom, one percent exhilaration, and one percent terror.

On a smaller and political scale, the final version of Obama’s health care bill was passed in days – after a year of ongoing politicking, meetings, non-meetings, posturing, special elections, etc.   The same is true in athletics – the amount of time spent in training, pre-season, practices, etc, dwarfs the time of the actual contest, and in football, for example, where a theoretical hour of playing time takes closer to three hours, there’s actually less than fifteen minutes of actual playing time where players are in contact or potential contact.

Obviously, fiction is to entertain, not to replicate reality directly, because few read to get what amounts to a rehash of what is now a very stressful life for many, but the question every writer faces is how close he or she hews to the underlying realities of how human beings interact with others and with their societies.  For better or worse, I like my books to present at least somewhat plausible situations facing the characters, given, of course, the underlying technical or magical assumptions.

Often my editors press for less realism, or at least a greater minimization of the presentation of that realism.  I press back.  Sometimes, it’s not pretty. So far, at least, we’re still talking to each other.

So far…

16 thoughts on “Being A Realist”

  1. christoph says:

    In my opinion you should tell the editors and critics where to go and what to do when they get there . . . in the nicest way possible, of course. While I am guessing our world views are fairly divergent, I keep rereading the Recluce saga precisely because it doesn’t require the level of suspension of disbelief necessary to read most fiction. Please keep producing excellent, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable works that reflect so deeply on how humans actually interact.

  2. j says:

    Regarding editors’ requests for more action… The copy of Haze I read had cover art that depicted a pair of ships in a style suggestive of action-oriented military sf–although it didn’t show any explicit violence. The book itself, however, is one of your least action-oriented and most philosophical. I wonder if this disconnect between marketing and content wasn’t the source of some of the negative reviews for the book on Amazon. I’m sure the marketing department knows what sells well, but if they’re constantly trying to force your work into a mold that it doesn’t fit, is that really a strategy that is going to pick up long-term readers instead of just impulse buyers who prefer another sort of novel entirely?


  3. There actually is a fair amount of action, and even a space “encounter,” as depicted by the cover, but the underlying philosophical questions and the focus on the individual and cultural impacts rather than the violence [which does exist]create a problem for art directors and marketing types. HAZE is a book whose “action” fuels the philosophical issues. It’s not that the book has that much less action, but that action in itself shows how futile action without understanding can be, which makes it almost an antithesis to most “action-oriented” books, where “right” is enforced by violent action.

  4. nate says:

    At the risk of sounding sycophantic, you are one of the few authors from whom I will buy a book sight unseen. And one of the primary reasons for that, is that your books are far more fulfilling than most of the alternatives. In an age where all too many books are nothing more than spun-sugar confections, you consistently produce meat and potatoes. I know your editors are trying to boost sales, in part because the overall sales of books are falling, but I would suggest to them that they are risking the solid fan base that you have developed over the years.

  5. John says:

    Please don’t change a thing. You are one of the few writers that I feel can write about those ordinary things in life (meetings, meals etc) and it is still extremely interesting. Any of your books that I have read I have read more than once, and there are a few books of yours that I read about once a year every year. I like the action and the battles but I also like seeing the characters’ lives outside of the action; their motivations and what leads up to the action. It’s one thing about your stories that I think puts you near the top of my favorite writers. You bring a depth of realism to your characters that many authors should strive towards instead of pandering to the masses that only want non stop action and skimming over the “boring” parts.

  6. Anthony says:

    I concure with Nate. I select the books that I read very carefully and often avoid authors whose works I have read before, but all I need to hear is that you have authored a new novel to move me to order it. I have this confidence in your work precisely because it seems like it is work and art for you, and there is true content rather than wish-fulfillment fantasy. Even if I can find no character with whom to identify, or empathize, I can rest assured that I will enjoy the process of seeing them put to the test and reap the consequences of their actions and choices for good or ill. That is all too rare.

    On a lesser note, I also enjoy the symbolic elements of your books for their well-considered contradictions of classical or accepted symbols. Many authors co-opt or reverse symbols just to be different, but even back when the Hammer of Darkness was new, I could feel that your approach was going to be different. Sure black is cool, and night is far less stodgy than sunlit cities – but fractiousness and contrariness were not the source of your reversals in characters like Martin Martel, or the initial ‘illusion’ so to speak that the good guys wore black in Recluce. Everything was rooted in something real, tangible, discernable, and ultimately malleable and likely to be misinterpreted by the characters within the stories themselves. In short: blessed relief for readers who can and wish to think.

    I can understand what drives your editors to seek something from you that they perceive will increase sales, and sadly, I can guess from what sources they derive their opinions. I will hold out hope that you are able to resist them and still publish, and that this resistance does not cause you to slow your output, or reconsider the path you have chosen.

    I think for very many of those who read your work, and likely for all of those who seek out things like this blog, your books are extremely important.

  7. eric zauche says:

    Tolkien used to be my favorite author then Henry James until I read all your Recluse and Singer novels at least twice. I was amazed by your use of the chapters about the whites in the Magic Engineer then you wrote a new novel using the same chapters from the point of view of the whites in The Colors of Chaos. Have you ever thought about writing a novel in second person? I have also read your collection of short stories, Octagonal Raven, Imager, and The Corean Chronicles. I read your blogs and agree with most of what you write. I have a BS in economic and sociology but I left graduate school to be a RN. I been a hospital nurse for 20 years. I hope you live a long and happy life so I can read more new novels written by you, my favorite author.

  8. Cameron says:

    My first book of yours was back in 1992, The Magic of Recluce. I have been a fan of your writing since the very first chapter. I appreciate the growth of your characters, from the way they interact at the dinner table with their parents to they way they deal with confrontations and dilemmas. I love how you show them being human, their understanding of their mistakes, their growth through mistakes, going on dates to nice restaurants, their interactions with one time characters. It is this humanity of the characters that has me hooked to your writing.

    If anyone says you are too realistic, then they are missing the point. SF & Fantasy does not have to be always about the huge battles, the build up of power, or the gaining of riches. It is the realism that I love. I want to be able to empathize with a character, the discussions at the dinner table is a way that comes through. I remember times where I was having dinner with my parents and they were discussing what I should do for an education, a wife and what they expected out of me in life, much what Rhenn goes through at the start of the Imagers series. I remember the disappointment from my mom when I went to a small college to take accounting and didn’t marry the girl from two houses over who was from a very respectable family. But, they see where I am now and both of my parents have said that I am doing better than what they could ever have dreamed for me. Much like your characters, they disagree with something and set out to do what they know to be right for them. Empathy and realism.

    I do enjoy some of the more violent parts that I definitely do not experience in my own life. My only invisible shield that I own is currently protecting the screen on my iPod. And, I would like to keep it that way. So, for me, reading your books is a great way to get that little bit of danger and violence I enjoy reading.

    Long story short, I love the books, I love your writing. Please keep doing what you are doing and keep arguing with everyone that doesn’t like what you are doing.

    Thanks for entertaining us!


  9. Derek says:

    I read Tom Clancy for a while but gave him up to believability issues, but still okay reading, could have used a better editor later on. Then I read a Vince Flynn book… It literally is written from action scene to action scene. If one of the main characters kills someone there is no underlying question of the ethics in the situation, it’s just ‘right because main character did it, so be quiet.’

    Plot progression is not just lining up a group of characters and having the main characters kill them sequentially.

    Anyway, that’s what is so refreshing about Mr. Modesitt’s writing style. I believe in one of his hard sf books the main character accidentally killed the sister of one of the bad guys along with the bad guy in a car bombing… And there was actually a sort of internal conflict there for the main character about it.

    I appreciate Mr. Modesitt’s writing. His work is an impulse buy for me.

  10. Matthew Runyon says:

    Well, I’ll jump on the bandwagon…Let us know if there’s anything we can do (besides continuing to buy every book and writing on this site) to convince your editors to leave well enough alone. To quote from another author I greatly enjoy…”A weapon is a device for making your enemy change his mind.” Your books show this very well…And show that there is a vast difference between raw power and skillfully used power.

    A like a romp in a wish-fulfillment world as much as the next person, but I read those once…And the last time I tried to count (five years ago) I’d reread the entire Recluse series at least a dozen times, and I believe I’ve reread it a dozen times since then.

  11. Warehousing says:

    Hi, You have a Great Blog, I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep it up.

  12. C. Smith says:

    I have been listening, and re-listening, to your Imager series on audio book (and desperately waiting for the third book). Your realism is what has kept me coming back to listen again and again. The small details, like what wine the characters are having with their meals, or even that they are having a meal, are the “spice” of story cooking in my opinion. If you submit to the economic machine, we will lose good flavor in our story meal and get some generic mush for the masses.

    Your realism is also a source of learning. After reading your USPS post and the Realism post, I could see how your experience is used to teach, through fantasy stories, the realities of our own world. It expands our thoughts and perceptions rather than dull them. I just hope that economic forces do not remove your writings, and writings of those like you, from the book shelves.

    Thank you L.E. Modesitt Jr. for inspiring, teaching, and entertaining me. Please continue to do so.

  13. Guy says:

    Your novels have always hit the right balance between indirect events and action for me. I enjoy descriptions, of meals, of places, of daily activities, of crafts (especially of crafting!) as well as action sequences. My favorite volume of The Lord of the Rings has always been The Fellowship of the Ring precisely because it contains so much preparatory, descriptive information (Hobbits were made for day to day minutia!). Minutia forms the balance of our days and how we deal with those events/activities forms the balance of our lives. Besides, being a craft beer enthusiast I’m always keenly interested to know which ale or lager your character will choose with their meal!

  14. Hey can I quote some of the information here in this entry if I provide a link back to your site?

  15. You’re free to quote from the site, so long as you give the site name and attribution.

  16. TomPier says:

    great post as usual!

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