Tag Archive | writing

Most writing advice is free, but the value varies

“Writing Advice 5¢ - the Expert is In”

We’re all experts…

I made my first professional sale to a science fiction ‘zine (Worlds of If) forty-four years ago. And I was ecstatic, because I had only been submitting to professional ‘zines for two years, and I had already made a sale! I was on my way, right?!? Except I didn’t make another sale until thirteen years later. So maybe I didn’t quite know what I was doing, just yet. And for the next ten-ish years, I only managed to sell stories to fanzines and semi-prozines. Which seemed like more proof that I wasn’t quite a pro.

Except…

My primary source of income since 1988 has been writing. Most of that has been technical writing (and related jobs) in the software industry, but I find it really hard to discount the fact that the word “writer” has been part of my official job description for a bit over 31 years. So my day job and my hobby job for more than three decades has been “writer” — so maybe I have some idea of how to put words together? Plus, for more than two decades I was the editor of a semi-prozine that produced at least three issues a year for those two decades. Which were offered for sale and purchased in sufficient quantities to cover the cost of printing.

So maybe, just maybe, I have some correct notions about what it takes for a story to appeal to an audience, right?

But here’s something I am absolutely certain of: I can’t teach you how to write. I can tell you how I do it (the parts I understand—there’s a whole lot going on in everyone’s subconscious that remains ineffable). I can tell you techniques that work for me. But only you can figure out how you can write.

And that’s true of everyone. No one, no matter how accomplished, can tell you how to write. I love reading or hearing about how other people go about writing. I like attending panels and seminars and the occasional online class from other writers. So I’m not saying don’t take anyone’s advice or class, just remember that in the end you are the person who is telling your stories. So only you can figure out which things people suggest work for you, and which don’t.

A lot of advice gets repeated regularly, and it seems sound. When you’re feeling anxious about writing, it can be comforting to have these rules to fall back on. But these pieces of advice can be stumbling blocks or worse. For example, one frequently repeated piece of advice is to cut out the adverbs. “Search for words ending in ‘ly’ and delete them!” So take out things like terribly and gently and carefully and slowly. Supposedly this makes your writing clearer. It also makes your writing duller. Some adverbs are superfluous. But like every other kind of word (nouns, verbs, adjectives), sometimes they are exactly right.

Then there is that tired old chestnut, “Show, don’t tell.” I’ve written before about how that advice is more wrong than it is right. In a nutshell: the extreme version of the advice leads you to remove all exposition from your story and exclude people who don’t share all your (unconscious) cultural assumptions. For a writer of science fiction or fantasy, that makes it impossible to put the reader into a world that is different than our own. Better advice is to paint pictures with your words. Anton Chekov said it thusly: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” So use exposition when necessary, but make sure it isn’t flat and boring.

Said is a perfectly good verb. So is snarled, whispered, replied, asked, shouted, demanded, muttered and retorted. So that advice about never using any verb other than said as a dialog tag is another one that is well-meaning, but not completely right. Now, it is true that a writer can go overboard with the dialog tags. I was cringing mightily during a recent audio book where the author seemed to take the flip side of the advice and never used said at all. Among the horrible tags he did use were: extrapolated, polled, nodded, puffed, interrogated, and the absolute worst: all-caps-ed. This is another one where the truth is somewhere in between. Don’t go bananas with the synonyms for said and asked, but don’t stick to only those two, either.

Also, sometimes you don’t have to use dialog tags at all. You can describe what the character is doing: He pursed his lips. “Do you want my honest opinion?” Or if you are telling the story from a particular character’s point of you, you can describe their thoughts or feelings: Sarah wanted to hug him. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that today!” But again, you need to figure out what works for you. I have a bad habit in first drafts of putting a she/he/they nodded on about half the dialog entries. I think it’s because I nod when people talk to me (which is hilarious when I do it on conference calls!). But when I read the draft later—especially aloud to my writer’s group—it sounds like everyone in my story is constantly bobbing their heads wildly and can really distract from the scene!

Some people insist that you absolutely must write every day on your project or you aren’t a real writer. Bull. Yeah, some people write like that. And if that works for you, great. But some of us need to take days off. My day job involves writing and editing, so some days when I get home my brain is burned out, and I don’t get much if any writing done. And don’t tell me to get up super early and write before I go to work. I’m not a morning person, and frankly if I tried I have no doubt that some days I would be much less than good at my job. And I like my work. Work pays the bills! And I like eating. If writing every single day works for you, great, do it. But don’t feel like a failure if some days you just have to do something else to recharge the mental batteries.

There are two very common bits of writing advice that I do fully endorse:

  • A writer writes. You can skip days, but you can’t skip writing altogether. If you feel stuck, force yourself to write a single word. Just one. Then, look at it, and decide what the next one is. If that’s what it takes, just make yourself put one word after another until you have a sentence, and then another and another.
  • A writer reads. Read other people’s work regularly. Read things you love. Every now and then, read stuff from a genre you don’t like. Or a style of writing that you usually don’t take to. Not all the time, but make sure you are expanding your reading horizons, regularly.

Other than that, I just have to ask: why are you still reading this post! Go! Write something! The world needs your story. And no one can tell your story except you.

Advertisements

That’s not a plothole…

Plot hole. I do not think it means what you think it means.

A classic…

Frequently when people are trying to explain why they don’t like a particular movie, series episode, or book, they will refer to a plothole. They will express great frustration about this problem in the story. And they will get angry at you if you don’t agree with them that this plothole was a horrible mistake that made the whole story worthless. I get it. When I really dislike a movie or book I find it hard to believe that other people—particularly my friends who have common interests—find any redeeming qualities in it. Now there is an entire other essay’s worth of discussion about how different people feel that different parts of a story are important than others; that’s not what I want to talk about today.

A lot of people use the term plothole incorrectly. And the people who are most likely to use it incorrectly are also the people that believe that a plothole trumps every other aspect of the story. So, what is a plot hole?

Plothole A gap, inconsistency, or contradiction in a storyline that breaks the flow of logic established by the story’s plot.

As a writer, plotholes are the bane of my existence. When I find a contradiction in my story, it sometimes makes me want to tear my hair out. Sometimes a plothole isn’t very difficult to fix, once you find it. But others do indeed make the entire story fall apart. The existence of that latter type is why some people think that anything labeled plothole completely invalidates the story.

There are many other kinds of gaps which people confuse with plotholes. Those include:

  1. things an individual reader/viewer wish didn’t happen,
  2. character actions that contradict the version of the character the individual reader/viewer has constructed outside canon,
  3. things that contradict the political/moral preferences of the individual reader/viewer,
  4. things the author(s) intentionally plant to foreshadow something that will explain everything in a future chapter/episode/sequel,
  5. things the author(s) didn’t think they needed to explicitly explain because they thought you had critical thinking skills,

Let’s tackle these:

Things you wish didn’t happen. I have great sympathy for this issue. There are almost always things that I wish didn’t happen in any story I read or watch. Characters you wished to live are killed, or characters you thought should get together don’t, or a villain you thought should suffer more doesn’t. It can be very upsetting when a part of the story you care about doesn’t go the way you want. But that isn’t the same thing as an actual plot contradiction. And if it makes you feel any better, often the author is just as upset about the direction a story goes as you are. Seriously. When I was writing the first draft of one of my books, there was one scene where I was bawling my eye out while typing, because I didn’t want that character to die, sacrificing himself so his daughters could be saved, but everything in his story had led to that moment, so that’s what I wrote.

Character doesn’t behave the way you think they ought. When a story grabs us, we usually find ourselves identifying with many of the characters. And we’ll imagine a version of the character based on what we see in the early stages of the story. When we don’t realize is that we are also basing the character on things that aren’t actually in the story, but that appeal to us. Sometimes we overlook hints of things in the character’s personality that are less pleasing to us. So when that particular aspect of the character’s personality become a major plot point, we yell “out of character!” and “that contradicts everything we know about them.” Sorry, no it contradicts things you imagined into the character, not what was actually in the story. A subset of this problem is that sometimes we forget that humans are impulsive and make decisions based on emotion and hunches. Humans make mistakes. No one in real life is 100 percent consistent, so we shouldn’t expect fictional characters to be, either.

Things that contradict your political/moral preferences. One of my favorite movies is a silly comedy released in 1991 called Soapdish. The story contains, among other things, a supporting character played by Carrie Fischer that is my favorite thing she’s ever done outside of Star Wars. I laugh myself to tears every time I watch it… except it has one problem. A major running sub-plot is resolved in a quite transphobic way. Even in 1991 I was a bit troubled by it. More recently, I have to brace myself for it, and I no longer recommend to movie to people without a content warning. But, despite that thing being problematic, it isn’t a plothole. It is perfectly consistent with the rest of the story. Do I wish it didn’t happen? Oh, yeah. Do I enjoy the movie less because of it, again, yes. In this case, I’m able to enjoy the rest of the movie despite this problematic bit. I understand perfectly if other people can’t. But, it isn’t a plothole. It’s a failing of the narrative and demonstrates that some of the characters are a bit less open-minded that I would like.

Things that the author plans to explain later. For example, in one of my works in progress, one of the protagonists is a shapeshifter. But they don’t advertise the fact. At different points in the story, their hair (color and other qualities) is described in different ways, because their hair changes slightly with their mood. It looks like an inconsistency early on, but it is eventually explained by the end of the book (and there is one big hint in the opening chapter). Other dangling unfinished bits you notice at the very end may be intended for a sequel. If the unfinished bit doesn’t invalidate the resolution of the main plot, then it isn’t a plothole.

The author thought your critical thinking skills would fill in the gap. Not everything has to be spelled out. For one thing, trying to do so would add hundred of thousands of words to any book. The author has to make some judgement calls about things the readers will figure out, and things that need to be explained. The author will never guess correctly for every single reader. If, when you explain your plothole to a friend, and they immediately say, “Oh, I just figured that Y happened because of X,” you’re probably dealing with something the author thought you would figure out on your own.

Any of these reasons, of course, are a valid reason for you to dislike a particular story, movie, show, or book. But it does not mean the authors left a big plothole in the middle of the narrative road. And it doesn’t mean that the story is inherently, objectively bad.

Chock-full of meaning, or more adventures in dictionaries

Clck to embiggen.

A discussion about writing advice crossed my social media stream this week. One topic was archaic similes that literate people know the meaning of, but because they refer to practices or objects that are no longer part of daily life, no longer conjure a vivid picture in the mind of the reader. The first example was “hoist with his own petard,” which many people more-or-less understand, but since almost none of the people who recognize it knows that a petard is a small explosive device, and that the word hoist in is the past participle meaning to “lift and remove.” So the full meaning of the phrase as Shakespeare first used it is that a person who has tried to set a bomb against another person has instead had it blow up in his own face (and removed them from the situation).

An informal survey I conducted many years ago among acquaintances at a gaming event proved that a substantial number of people were certain that a petard was part of a sailing ship, and so the image they all had was of people being hooked on some sort of winch and raised into the air. One could argue that that is close enough, but it is definitely a different image than the evil bomber who is taken out by his own bomb.

Someone else suggest that the phrase “chock-full” fell into the same category because many people don’t know what a chock is. And… well, it is probably true that a lot of people don’t know what a chock is, but the noun, chock (meaning a block or wedge of wood) didn’t enter the English language until the 1700s, where it derived from a French word meaning a log. Whereas chock-full was an English word more than 400 years before chock, and it has no connection to the noun.

chokkeful Middle English crammed full

The earliest written version is from the year 1400, but there is reason to believe the word is older than that. And it has always meant “crammed full.” Which is kind of amazing, when you think about it. The only thing that etymologists aren’t sure of is whether it is a derivative of the Old German (and Saxon and Old English) word chokke which as a noun originally meant “jaw or cheek” and as a verb meant to grasp a person by the jaw, or if it comes from on Old French word choquier which meant to “collide, strike, or crash.” If the former, than the image our 15th century ancestors was imagining was a mouthful. If the latter, the image was of someone forcing more things into a container than it ought to be able to hold.

Now, if the argument is that one must imagine the exact same physical manifestation of a word for it to be meaningful, I guess you could say people ought not use chock-full, given that some people think it has something to do with chocks. But if that is the standard, than no words can ever be used. Besides, I abide by a slightly different school of thought. Chock-full hasn’t been a simile for at least 600 years. It is simply a word that means “crammed full” and since that meaning has been the same for all that time, well, the only native English speakers who are going to be confused by it are those that are over thinking things.

If chock-full is a word that you use in every day speech, then if it seems to fit in something you’re writing, use it.

The problem with making word choices while writing isn’t whether a specific word would be defined exactly the same by every reader, but whether the word flows naturally in the narrative. For a lot of people, “hoist with his own petard” is an affectation that has been inserted into the narrative to emulate Shakespeare. And every writer goes through a phase where they are trying on styles and phrasings of writers they admire. If you do that, the reader will seee that inauthenticity right away.

So the first rule is: is it a word that you use yourself without having to think about it? If so, it fits your style and is probably okay to use. The second rule is, is the way you use it one of the commonly understood definitions, or it is jargon—is it a specialized meaning of the word that is only understood by members of a particular profession, sub-culture, or clique? Well, then maybe limit its use.

Of course, there is a difference between word choices in the narration than words used in dialogue. Maybe your character fancies themself a Shakespearean hero and is constantly quoting (or misquoting) lines from famous plays. Of course a character like that is going to use the phrase “hoist with his own petard,” and you, the author, will likely have another character ask what it means or correct him when he says it wrong (and I have heard so many people, probably because they think a petard is a winch or similar rather than a bomb, say it “hoist on his own petard”). That works just fine!

There is also the choice of audience. Maybe you intend your story primarily for members of a particular community. Even then, I still point back to rule number one: stick to words you use conversationally yourself. And if you’re not sure, read the whole scene outloud. Any phrase or sentence that trips up your tongue needs to be re-written, because if you can’t say it without getting tongue-tied, it isn’t written in your voice.

Don’t choke on the vocabulary, don’t shove in pretentious phrases, and don’t get cheeky.

But what is it? Or, why we worry about sf/f, sub-genres, and fictional rules

“I'm not a science fiction writer. I've only written one book that's science fiction, and that's Fahrenheit 451.. All the others are fantasy.” —Ray Bradbury

(click to embiggen)

I was reading (and participating) in the comments on Camestros Felapton’s excellent review of one of the Hugo nominated stories, and found myself thinking a lot about how and why we humans like to classify everything in general, and stories/movies/et cetera in particular.

For instance, what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? When I was much younger, I would have answered that fantasy was “just making any old thing up” while science fiction required an understanding of and adherence to science! (and was therefore superior). But as Thor observed that all words are made up, so too all stories are made up. The usual definition isn’t far from what younger me said (minus the hypocritical and judgmental bit): Science fiction deals with scenarios and technology that may be scientifically possible at the time written, while fantasy deals with supernatural and magical occurrences that have no basis in science.

Of course, that phrase “may be possible” includes a lot of hand-waving. Faster-than-light travel seems less and less likely to be possible as our understanding of physics has grown, yet everyone is quite happy to classify space opera as clearly part of science fiction.

It has been persuasively argued that what dictates that one novel is shelved in the science fiction section, while another is shelved with fantasy, and yet another shelved in horror all comes down to marketing. Not because marketers are trying to advance some sort of agenda, but because a lot of readers like having books offered in familiar categories. Unfortunately, the marketers (and associated persons in the publishing industry), being human, can make those distinctions on rather dubious criteria. One of my favorite authors, who writes books that cross over many genres (and has won at least one major fantasy award for a work of horror), often finds her books being reviewed as “Young Adult” simply because she’s a woman and the books tend to explore sf/f themes.

Of course, that opens up another can of worms. Who decided that “Young Adult” was a genre? It’s an age category, like Middle Grade and Early Reader, right?

It’s useful, sometimes, to talk about a specific work of fiction in reference to similar works of fiction. The aforementioned comment thread I was involved in included a discussion about why portal fantasies seem to be resurging lately, which is why I starting thinking about what portal fantasies are. I know several works that everyone agrees are portal fantasies. When I suggested that the Saturday morning live action children’s show Land of the Lost from the 1970s (I don’t want to talk about the more recent movie) might be a portal fantasy, someone else pronounced it portal science fiction.

The conventional definition of a portal fantasy is a story in which people from our mundane world enter into a different, fantastical world, through a portal of some kind. In Land of the Lost, the family on a rafting trip go through some kind of hole in space or time and land in a world where there are dinosaurs, some primates that might be precursors of genus homo, and humanoid reptileans. Sounds pretty fantastical to me! I mean the dinosaurs and primates may have overlapped a bit in Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, but none of those primates were the size of chimpanzees, nor had brains anywhere near the size of the critters in the show. So it isn’t a time warp they went through to an earlier part of Earth’s history.

So is it a portal fantasy with some sci fi trappings? Or are the sci fi elements enough to call it something other than a fantasy?

Let’s set that aside for a moment and talk about magic systems. Because one of the things that often distinguishes science fiction from pure fantasy is the presence of magic. But some fantasies involve very strictly defined magic, with laws that seem to be as rigid as physics, and logical ways one can deduce what is and isn’t possible to do with magic from those laws. Yet, how is that different than the fictional science that underpins many science fiction stories? The author is just positing a different set of discoveries of natural law.

I described my younger self’s definition of sci fi as hypocritical because I’ve found myself, for the last decade or so, far more interested in writing fantasy. I have a couple of sci fi tales still rattling around in my collection of works in progress, but fantasy has been where I keep finding myself. And while most of my fantasy stories involve magic, I’m not one of the authors who thinks it is necessary to work out very precisely how the magic works in my universes. I have rules of my own, and I write my stories within them, but I don’t think it particularly interesting to have one of my characters (no matter how much the Mathemagician, for instance, may love giving lectures) deliver an info dump about the limitations of magic in his world. When it is important to the plot, I work it in, so that the reader understands what is happening and what’s at stake, but otherwise, I leave it to things like: dragons can fly and breathe fire, sorcerers can hurl fireballs and ride flying carpets/magic brooms, priests can smite their enemies and their blessings can cure wounds, and all of these things have costs commiserate with the extent to which reality is being bent.

And I admit one reason I don’t like going into any more detail than that is because ever since my early days of roleplaying (late 1970s, before Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition existed), the people I liked playing with least were the ones who got into long tetchy arguments about the rules before and after every single dice roll. Your mileage may vary, so if you want to write down all the laws of magic for your stories, go right ahead.

But, the fact that most fantasy stories do have rules of how the magic/supernatural stuff works, and most fantasy authors try to follow those rules and keep them consistent, I still have trouble seeing how some people can so blithely draw a strict distinction between science fiction and fantasy. XKCD had a great cartoon not that long ago around the fact that you can describe the tiny nuclear power cells in the two Voyager spacecraft as “orbs of power!” Because they are balls of a very rare metal which, once assembled, simply radiate energy for many, many, many years. Not only that, if you touch them (without proper protection), you can die! It sure sounds like a cursed magical item, such as an Infinity Stone, doesn’t it?

To circle back to the Land of the Lost–the humanoid reptiles had some very sophisticated science fictional equipment, but it was all powered by mysterious little crystals. Put the right colored crystal in the right spot and voila! A portal opens and a healing beam of energy comes down or something. Again, is that science or magic? Because, seriously, crystals?

These sorts of questions are why the late, great Jack Chalker was fond of saying, “All science fiction is fantasy, but not all fantasy is science fiction. And some science fiction becomes fantasy as our understanding of science changes over time.”

Don’t stick a fork in the reader, or, getting the ending right

“Beginnings hook readers. Endings create fans.” plotwhisper.com

“Beginnings hook readers. Endings create fans.” plotwhisper.com

We talk about beginnings and opening lines in fiction frequently. I’ve written about it many times myself1, as well as participating in panels at conventions on the topic. We spend less time talking about endings. One reason why is because it’s a more complicated topic, because for the ending to work all of the stuff in the middle of the story needs to come together in a satisfying way, and ideally the ending will tie back to the opening. So it’s easier to give advice about moving character arcs along, making them work with the external conflict, and so forth, and assume that the ending will take care of itself if we get all the rest right. I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately in part because I’ve been seeing the topic talked about a lot on various social media—but also because over the course of the last week I’ve watched season finales of three shows that I’ve been following for years2.

First, an ending doesn’t have to be a happy ending to be satisfying to the reader. Tragedies have been around for a long, long time. But most readers do want a character they can root for throughout the story, and if the character fails in the end, the reader still wants to feel that they were right to root for that character. Maybe the protagonist’s death allows others to escape a terrible fate. Maybe the cause was worth the sacrifice and the way the protagonist failed leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope that someone else will succeed where they failed. Maybe all the reader needs is to know that the protagonist believe their sacrifice was worth it—making an effort against the forces of darkness is better than not trying at all.

Even happy endings have to feel earned. The reader isn’t going to be satisfied if it doesn’t feel as if the struggle was real.

And surprise endings? Surprise endings can’t feel as if they came from nowhere. You can surprise the reader at the end, sure, but a second after the surprise is revealed, the reader should go, “Dang! I should have seen that coming!” The surprise has to make sense within the narrative frame and the character arc(s) you’ve already led the reader through.

I’ve written about that particular phenomenon once before, specifically in the context of murder mysteries and similar stories, so I’m just going to quote myself:

For me, part of the fun of a good mystery is finding the puzzle pieces in the storyline and admiring how well they are constructed, or how good a job the author does of putting them in plain sight while not making them obvious.

Sometimes I am completely blindsided, and if that happens without the author cheating, that is just as much fun as figuring it out before the reveal.

Bad mysteries aren’t bad simply because they are predictable. They’re bad when they are too predictable. When the author (or author and director, in the case of a movie or show) clumsily gives things away or relies on cliches, there is no delight in the reveal. If the author cheats by simply withholding information, or otherwise pulling something bizarre and shocking out of nowhere, that also spoils the fun.

And, as in all stories, if the author makes us care about the characters, even if the puzzle isn’t terribly difficult, we can still enjoy the battle of wits between the detective and the puzzle.

Getting the ending right isn’t easy. And if you get it wrong, the reader doesn’t just dislike the ending, they feel as if all the time they have spent on the story was a waste. And remember, it is a sin to waste the reader’s time. This doesn’t mean that you have to give the reader the ending they want—it means your ending has to make sense, it has to pay off any questions or themes you teased the reader with before, and it has to feel earned. It has to be the best ending you could deliver, not a prank you pulled on the reader to show how clever you are.

It isn’t easy, but nothing worthwile is.


Footnotes:

1. The Night Was Sultry, part 1—adventures in opening lines, The Night Was Sultry, part 2 — more adventures in opening lines, The Night Was Sultry, part 3 — finding the emotional hook, The Night Was Sultry, part 4 — fitting the opening to the tale, The Night Was Sultry, part 5 — closing the circle, openings and endings, and Begin at the beginning, not before for instance.

2. Specifically Lucifer, Arrow, and The Flash. Which I feel I need to mention, because I know that one reason so many others are talking about this topic is because of the final season of Game of Thrones which is not a show I have ever watched—so none of this is intentionally about that topic.

I hate the term “fan service,” or, don’t forget you’re writing to an audience

“A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time. Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.”—Kurt Vonnegut

(click to embiggen)

I was reading a review of a work of art that I had already observed, but the review was by an author that I usually like, so I was interested in their take on it. Now while the review was mostly phrased as a positive, it also included the observation that the work of art was mostly fan service, and that stringing together a series of entertaining moments was not the way to accomplish substantive writing.

Bull.

While everyone is entitled to their opinion, that doesn’t mean that the opinion is valid. I mean, technically, if one’s definition of substantive writing absolutely excludes the possibility that anyone would find said writing enjoyable, I guess it is a valid observation. But I don’t think that such a definition is a reasonable one.

One of the reasons I hate the term “fan service” is because the implication is that merely because a moment in a story (whether that story is a novel, short story, movie, or television episode) makes the audience cheer that means it is objectively a bad thing. Now the counter-argument is usually stated that they aren’t saying a story shouldn’t be enjoyable, but rather that the author shouldn’t put something in merely because the audience wants it.

To which I say, “Bold of you to insist you can always discern the writer’s motive.”

On one level, the fan service critique sounds like simply another way of stating an oft-repeated piece of writing advice: “Of course you have to write to an audience, but never forget you are writing for yourself.” That’s a good piece of advice so long as you understand what it means is that you shouldn’t compromise your story to appeal to an audience. And by compromise we mean, don’t make the story unsatisfying/unbelievable to you. Because then you aren’t writing your story.

Sometimes what people who use the term “fan service” really mean is that it is something they think the wrong sort of person would want. It’s a weird form of gatekeeping. “This plot development appeals to the sort of person I don’t want to consort with, and I don’t want to consort with them so much, that I don’t want to be perceived as liking the same sort of things as they do.”

While others who use the term seem to honestly believe that if something is enjoyable that it isn’t worthwhile. Because only difficult-to-understand art is substantive? Though there is a lot of snobbery in this attitude, so it may just be another form of gatekeeping.

Other times, the person using the term means the event was something they didn’t care for. And that is a valid reason to dislike a particular story, but that doesn’t mean the story is objectively bad. Whether you like the plot point or not is literally a subjective thing. And you know what else is subjective? The definition of “substantive” when applied to any work of art. Because substantive just means “important” or “meaningful” and what is important and meaningful is going to vary from person to person.

“A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time. Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.”
—Kurt Vonnegut

I like this Vonnegut quote because it embraces the idea of subjectivity. Readers are selfish, he observes, but he doesn’t say that is a bad thing—because in this context it isn’t. Just as a person who is on a date with someone that they find incompatible (whether they simply have no common interests, or are off-putting, or creepy, or acting like an asshole) has the right to walk away, so too the reader has the right to set the book aside and never finish it.

It’s simply the flip side of the principle that not every story is for everybody. While a particular person may be incompatible with you, they may be absolutely perfect for someone else. The same goes for stories. Something that I can’t stand might be one of your favorites, and vice versa.

Putting things in your story that makes some of the readers cheer ought to be one of your goals as a writer. You shouldn’t be afraid of it. The key is whether or not that same thing is something you think belongs in the story.

The ultimate goal is to write a tale that makes some readers keep turning the page, again and again, anxious to find out how it ends. That means at least occasionally including moments that cause that reader satisfaction.

That isn’t fan service.

That is simply good storytelling.

Who is the actual monster? Or, more of why I love sf/f

The Modern Prometheus Preface Mary Shelley subtitled her novel "The Modern Prometheus." According to the Greeks, Prometheus, a Titan who preceded the Olympian Gods, created Man from clay. Zeus demanded food offerings from Man, but Prometheus taught them how to trick Zeus into accepting the less useful parts of a butchered animal so that Man could keep the best parts for themselves. Once Zeus learned of the deception he decreed that Man was not to be allowed fire. Prometheus crept into the underworld, stole fire from Hephaestus, and gave it to Man. Again, Zeus discovered the transgression and chained Prometheus to a rock, where an eagle would devour his liver every day (it would grow back every night). He remained there for 30,000 years.

[Swiped from an educational slideshow about Mary Shelley’s most famous novel: https://www.slideshare.net/mrsallen/frankenstein-the-modern-prometheus )

I’ve written about Frankenstein as a pair of classic movies, as an award-winning parody, as the basis of a whacky sixties comedy, and I’ve mentioned it many times while talking about the history of science fiction, but I’ve never written a post just about the original novel published in 1818. I’m obviously long overdue, and since something I saw on line earlier this week almost made me type a twitter storm of irritated commentary, I figure that now is as good a time as any to remedy the situation.

The full title of the novel is Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and Mary Shelley famously wrote the short “ghost story” that would eventually become the novel in 1816 while she and the man who would later become her husband were at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, spending a lot of time with Lord Byron. The novel was published in 1818 in a limited run as a tthree-volumn set without the author’s name. After a successful run of a play based on the novel, a second edition, listing Mary as the author, was published in 1823. Finally, in 1831 a heavily revised edition was published, and for the first time made available at a “popular edition” price.

Most people think they know the story of Frankenstein, but few have actually read the book. And as a fairly typical novel of its time, the very slow burn of the story, not to mention the surfeit of complex sentences and frequently mini-monologues of all the characters can make it a difficult read for modern readers. Even the structure of the novel is different than typical modern books.

The novel is told in the first person, but from three different viewpoints. It begins from the viewpoint of the captain of a sea vessel that has been trapped in the Arctic ice, who finds a half-dead man similarly marooned. The man identifies himself as Victor Frankenstein, and then tells the captain how he came to transform a body assembled from corpses into a living being, then horrified at how hideous is looked (not anything it actually did), that he rejected it, drove it away, fervently hoping it was die in the forest since it had no skills, couldn’t talk, et cetera, and then tried to go back to his life. The middle of the book is from the creature’s point of view (though still filtered, because the creature eventually found Victor and told him the story, which Victor is now telling to the captain who is writing all of this down for us).

The creature did not die. He took shelter new the cottage of a family that lived in the woods, and by watching them learned to speak, eventually learned to read, and came to hope that he might not die alone in the world. The grandfather of the family was blind, and the creature struck up a friendship with him, carefully only coming around when the old man was alone (since every person who had laid eyes on the creature up to that point had been so horrified by his appearances as to scream and chase him away). Alas, the rest of the family catches him once, and they have the usual reaction, sending the creature fleeing deeper into the woods. The creature finds Victor, explains all of this, and then asks Victor to create a second person like himself, to be his companion and mate. Victor agrees.

The next part is back to Victor’s point of view, and Victor begins assembling body parts in secret again, but he suddenly becomes afraid of what will happen if the creature and his mate can actually reproduce. I emphasize at this point that here at more than two thirds of the way through the novel the creature hasn’t harmed anyone, hasn’t threatened anyone, has not behaved in any way other than as frightened child. But Victor suddenly decides that he can’t let the creature have a companion, he destroys the body parts, tells the creature he will not help him after all. The creature loses it, and eventually decides the best way to get his revenge on Victor is to start killing people Victor loves. Victor tries and fails to kill the creature, and they wind up chasing each other across northern Europe and into the Arctic.

Finally, we return to the viewpoint of the sea captain, as Victor gives a last monologue and dies. The creature find the ship, has a conversation with the captain in which he agrees that he has done terrible things, and explains that his intention had been to lure Victor to a spot where the creature could kill him, and then not just kill himself, but set himself on fire in a place where no one would be able to study his body and figure out how Victor did it.

And that’s where it ends.

Like any work of art, everyone interprets the story differently. A little over a year ago there was a bit of a kerfluffle when one newspaper ran a story about how modern readers feel sympathy for the creature with a headline that referred to such students as “snowflakes.” There seemed to be an assumption that having sympathy for the creature—seeing him as misunderstood and a victim—was some sort of modern politically correct reaction.

There’s a big problem with that: the original novel actually does portray the creature as a victim and as being misunderstood. And that’s not interpretation, it is literally what happens in the story. Not to say the story makes him a blameless victim, and certainly how the creature takes his revenge by killing innocent people beloved by Victor is an evil act.

But it is an act of revenge. And the book frames it that way.

Lots of people assume that the theme of the book is that there are some things which mortals are not meant to know, and that if mere humans try to play god horrible things will happen. But that isn’t really Victor’s sin. We get a hint of that in the title itself: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was not a mortal who stole from the gods, Prometheus was one of the gods (yes technically a Titan, but that was just the name in Greek mythology for the first generation of gods). And what Prometheus was ultimately punished for was giving humans the gift of fire, then not making sure they would use it responsibly.

Victor’s sin, then, is that he gave life to a creature, and then abandoned it, rather than caring for it. As the creatures creator, he had a responsibility to teach it how to get along in the world, to know right from wrong, and so on. He didn’t do that. And he drove the creature away not because of anything the creature did, but simply because of the creature’s hideous appearance.

The middle narrative, when the creature tries to teach himself how to be a good person, is the next big clue as to the real them. The creature naturally craves love and the comfort of companionship, and he tries to learn how to be a member of society. He befriends the blind man and earns his trust. It is only when once again people see him and assume because of his looks that he must be a dangerous, evil thing, that he abandons his plan to try to become part of the human community.

Then there is this admission from Victor himself, in the final deathbed monologue:

“In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty”

Victor goes on, unfortunately, in that monologue to insist that he was right to abandon the creature, but his rationalization only works by assuming that somehow he knew how the creature would react to yet another betrayal.

Finally, we have the creature’s final plan: he had already destroyed the remaining records of Victor’s experiments (those that Victor hadn’t destroyed himself), then set out to kill both Victor and himself so that no one could have create another creature like himself. Before Victor died, he had admitted to the captain that the creature had been leaving clues to make sure that Victor was still pursuing him. The creature had thought it out: Victor was the only one who knew how he had reanimated dead flesh, but it was possible that another could study the creature’s corpse and figure it out, so the creature needed to kill Victor, and then he needed to destroy himself. He planned to set himself on fire somewhere on the arctic ice precisely because any remains would eventually wind up lost in the sea.

In other words, he was cleaning up Victor’s mess.

There are plenty of quotes one can pull from Victor’s and the creature’s monologues to support the usual interpretation that this was all about an arrogant scientist treading into areas best left alone. But those are all perspectives of characters within the narrative. Just because a character says something, that doesn’t mean it is what the author believes—it’s something the author thinks the character must believe in order for their actions to make sense.

I’ve said many times that an author’s values and beliefs manifest not necessarily in the words of the characters, but in the consequences of the actions of characters, and how the way the narrative portrays them shows you whether the author thinks those consequences are deserved. It’s very clear from that perspective that yes, both Victor and his creation have done deplorable, immoral things. But it is also clear which of them realizes it and takes personal responsibility for it.

Victor blames the creature for everything, including his own actions, up to his dying breath. The creature blames both Victor and himself for the various atrocities, and in taking the blame, pronounces (and then carries out) his own death sentence.

Which means that ultimately, it isn’t the creature who is the monster.

Life is short and other musings about writing, reading, and variety in sf/f

“Life is short. Write that novel. Paint that painting. Try new recipes. Learn black magic. Go into the forest at night. Summon a demon. Earn that demon's trust. Become best friends with it. Brag to everyone else about your new cool demon best friend. Knit that sweater.”

Life is short… (click to embiggen)

So, I started Camp NaNoWriMo yesterday. I and a few friends have a cabin (which is basically a private chat group for up to 12 people who have set up projects). Camp NaNoWriMo is similar to the full fledged National Novel Writing Month, but it’s meant to be a bit more low-key and flexible. You get to set your own word count goal, for one. Lots of people use Camp NaNo to edit or revise a large project (such as whatever they wrote during a previous NaNoWriMo). It’s fun. I like having the private chat and having a structure for posting progress, getting and giving encouragement to friends, and so on.

Our cabin isn’t full, so if something like this appeals to you, set up a project and send me a message with your user name so I can send you an invitation to our cabin.

My particular project is an editing one, and I’m counting words as I go through scenes in the larger project. When I finish the edits on a scene, I copy it into a seperate Scrivener document to keep track of my word count. I was a little suprised at how much I got done on the first day, since it was a day at work where I don’t really get a chance to take a full lunch to spend writing, and I was feeling more than a bit out of it when I got home from work.

In other news, the 2019 Hugo and Campbell Awards Finalists have been announced. I was quite pleased to see that in every category at least one thing I nominated made it to the final ballot. The flip side of that is that there are also a lot of things with which I’m not familiar that made it onto the ballot, so I get to read a lot of new stuff soon!

I was really happy to see that Archive of Our Own—a massive fan fiction repository—is nominated in the Related Works category. It’s a little weird, because there are thousands of contributors (including me, though I have such a teeny tiny bit of stuff posted I don’t really count). Clearly if it wins, thy won’t be handing one of the big rocket trophies to every contributor. There are a couple of things in that category that I haven’t read, so I don’t yet know if AO3 is going to be my first choice for Related Work, yet.

As I said, I’m once again looking forward to reading stuff that has been nominated for the Hugos. As happy as I am to see things I nominated make the list, I also love seeing new things that I haven’t read, yet. Because, as I mentioned as part of another point last week, no one’s favorites list can encompass all of science fiction/fantasy. And that isn’t just because a whole lot of it is being published today (although with self-publishing being so much easier, and the internet making things more discoverable, there is an incredibly wide variety to choose from).

But a lot of people operate under the illusion that in times past a single fan could, indeed, read everything in the genre that had been published that year. It only seems that way if you assume that only the authors and stories you have heard of years later are who and what were being published at that time. A great example of this misapprehension is one of the flaws in a recent blog post by whacko Brian Niemeier (that I won’t link to directly, but since Camestros Felapton does a nice analysis of some of the flaws, I’ll link to his post: Did fandom cause the collapse of civilisation or vice versa? Let’s Assume Neither 🙂).

Niemeier makes the claim that “back in the day” everyone read Edgar Rice Burroughs and everyone listened to The Shadow radio show. Now, it’s true that Burroughs’ Tarzan books sold so well that he was able to form a film company and produce his own adaptations of his books, something that would be unthinkable for an author to do today. But it’s simply not true that everyone read the Tarzan books, if for no other reason that regular readers of novels and the like have always been a minority of the population. James Branch Cabell, a contemporary of Burroughs, sold more copies of his books during the nineteen-teens and -twenties than Burroughs did, yet he is largely forgotten today. There were scores of magazines publishing sci fi, fantasy, horror, and related fantastical fiction, publishing thousands of stories during that time most of which written by hundreds of authors many of whom we’ve never heard of.

While there is a huge amount of fantastic fiction to love now, there was a huge amount then, too. And I think that’s great! Because not everyone likes the same things, and the more variety there is, the more likely that there is something wonderful to discover and read for the first time, right? Similarly, the fact that many people like many things, mean that something you or I create is likely to find a receptive audience.

I am quite certain that if someone wrote a story about a conjurer who becomes best pals with a demon and they take up knitting together, someone out there will want to read it.

And those are good things.

Sometimes Extinction Arrives on Wheels — more of why I love sf/f

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, July 1988. Cover art by Bob Eggleton.

Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1988. Cover art by Bob Eggleton.

Some months back I wrote about the first story written by Connie Willis that I remember reading. And while that story is awesome and I still find new insights every time I read it decades later, the first of her stories that made me go, “Dang! This author is GREAT!” Was from a few months later that same year: “The Last of the Winnebagos.”

The story is about a photojournalist who is supposed to be on his way to cover a political event, but he stops to take pictures of the so-called Last of the Winnebagos. The tale is set in a dystopia near-future where, among other changes, the entire species of dog was wiped out by a plague. During the death spiral of the dogs extinction, laws against animal cruelty and the like have ratcheted up, and the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has become not just a major political force, but for all intents and purposes a national secret police force. Even accidentally killing an animal can result in serious prison time and other steep penalties.

There are other changes that have taken place unrelated to the dog plague. Energy sources are rationed, for instance. At the time of the story there are only three states left in the country that have not banned RVs and similar gas-guzzlers. Even in those states where they are still allowed, just vehicles are banned from federal freeways. So the elderly couple who drive around in one of the last RVs, regularly park somewhere public, put up a sign, and for a small fee give people a tour of this relic of a bygone era.

While taking pictures and interviewing the couple, the photojournalist takes particular interest in the photos they have of their last pet, who succumbed to the plague, like so many others. During this portion of the story, we learn of that the journalist has an ongoing side project to take photos of people talking about their beloved dogs, trying to catch the moment when, as he says, “their face reveals the beloved pet.”

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot. Suffice it to say that there are secrets revealed—such as why the photojournalist is more interested in the elderly couple and their photos of like on the road with their beloved, long-lost pet than the paid gig. And we learn a few more interesting twists about the dystopic America the characters inhabit.

That’s a big part of why this story hooked me. The dystopia that Willis imagines in this story is quite different than any I had seen before. Yet utterly believable. People will vote for very strange things and get behind politicians proposing quite ridiculous things if they get riled up enough. A truth that has been demonstrated very painfully the last few years.

Even though the story involves the journalist driving over great distances a few times, interacting with the “secret police” as well as ordinary citizens, the tale always feels intimate. We’re exploring something very personal and painful in this story. In addition to seeing some novel ideas (for the time) of how certain technologies would change.

It was a good story. A thought-provoking story. A story that explored both personal grief, and communal regret. As well as looking of multiple (and very plausible) types of extinction.

Fighting toward the light at the end of the tunnel—or why hope is important in sf/f

What’s wrong with hope? (click to embiggen)

One of the things I loved about tumblr (before the SESTA/FOSTA madness), was the wide variety of cool things that would come across my dashboard because someone had reblogged something reblogged by someone who had reblogged from someone else. At some point in the last year, this blog post by Alexandra Rowland crossed my timeline. I thought it was cool, and I liked it and reblogged it myself, and I didn’t think about it again until last week when everyone was posting links to an article on the same subject on Vox (and in many cases arguing against the premise). The original post was simple:

The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.

Rowland goes on to describe hopepunk in more detail. In later posts, when lots of people argued about the term she chose (often suggesting noblebright as the preferred term), she explained how a hopepunk world is different than a noblebright one. Noblebright is where every hero is noble and pure and they conquer evil because they are noble and pure and once evil is conquered everything goes back to being noble and pure. A hopepunk world isn’t a rose-colored fairytale place, instead:

The world is the world. It’s really good sometimes and it’s really bad sometimes, and it’s sort of humdrum a lot of the time. People are petty and mean and, y’know, PEOPLE. There are things that need to be fixed, and battles to be fought, and people to be protected, and we’ve gotta do all those things ourselves because we can’t sit around waiting for some knight in shining armor to ride past and deal with it for us. We’re just ordinary people trying to do our best because we give a shit about the world. Why? Because we’re some of the assholes that live there.

I’m not completely sure when the term grimdark was first coined, but I know the attitude was around (and works of fiction based on it were getting praised and winning awards) in the late 1980s. Grimdark is sometimes described as a reaction to idealistic heroic fiction, meant to portray how nasty, brutish, violent, and dark the real world is. It has also been defined somewhat more accurately as a type of fiction that prefers darkness for darkness sake, replacing aspiration with nihilism and the assertion that true ethical behavior is either futile or impossible.

I think a much more accurate description of the majority of grimdark is torture porn and rape porn pretending to be a deconstruction of unrealistic tropes. Damien Walter noted in an article for the Guardian a few years ago that it is driven by a “commercial imperative to win adolescent male readers.”

Usually in grimdark stories the driving narrative force is to do the most brutal, shocking, nasty thing the author can to characters that they have made likable—with a lot of misogynist skewing. Rape of women and children is particularly prevalent in these stories, usually justified by the claim that that is realistic for pre-industrial societies, ignoring the fact that in war zones throughout history men were almost as likely to be the victims of rape by the enemy as women. I also have trouble with the “realistic” defense particularly in the epic fantasy settings because those authors never show people dying of cholera or dysentery—which in the real historical settings were at least a thousand times more likely to be the cause of a person’s death than torture or rape.

Grimdark appeals most strongly to white (usually straight) young men from middle class backgrounds—the sort of people who are least likely to have experienced much in the way of grimness in the real world. They are the kinds of guys who will insist that they are oppressed now because women, people of color, and queer folks have some civil rights protections. In short, they are the kind of people that:

They’re nice white middle class boys and the closest they’ve ever come to the ghetto is when they accidentally got off at the tube in Brixton once, took one look around and ran crying back into the tube.

I’ll tell you where that quote came from in a minute. First, I want to finish explaining why I believe it is mostly white, straight, middle class young men who find this appealing. It’s precisely because their exposure to grim realities is almost always secondhand. The notion that the person held up as a hero isn’t really a paragon of virtue is something they didn’t experience firsthand as a child. They didn’t routinely have someone they admired and loved call them an abomination, for instance. Queer kids, on the other hand, experienced that again and again growing up. Women learn early in life that the best they can expect from society and family if they get sexually harassed or assaulted is that they will be blamed for not somehow avoiding the situation. People of color learn that their lives are considered disposable by much of society, and so on.

Brutality, nastiness, and cruelty aren’t surprising revelations, to us. They are things we learn to expect (and endure with a smile if we don’t want to get grief from those around us). So we don’t get the same puerile thrill from its portrayal as others do.

I started working on this post last weekend after reading some of the follow-ups to the Vox story that I included in the Friday Five. And then I discovered that Cora Buhlert had already said much of what I thought about the issue (and had a lot more references than I to quote) in a blog post that I failed to read last week while I was being sick and not reading much of anything: The Hopepunk Debate. The block quote above came from there, where she was quoting a much older posting she had done elsewhere. You should go read her post, because it’s full of all sorts of interesting citations and observations.

When grimdark first started popping up, it seemed to many like an interesting and novel way to look at our perceptions of culture. It was the scrappy newcomer to the pop culture landscape—in 1987. In the 30-some years since, it has become one of the dominant paradigms of storytelling. The most popular fantasy series on television anywhere right now, Game of Thrones, is grimdark. It’s no longer surprising when likable characters are maimed and tortured and murdered in brutal ways in popular shows and books. It’s become boringly predictable.

Except that’s not quite true. Brutality has always been banal.

This gets to why I think Rowland is right to use the suffix -punk in her description of this reaction to grimdark. Grimdark has become the norm in too much of speculative fiction. Believing that hope is a thing worth kindling is, in such an environment, an act of rebellion.

We can argue about what kind of works qualify as hopepunk. For instance, I think that The Empire Strikes Back could be considered hopepunk. Luke’s insecurities and imperfections drive his part of the plot. Lando isn’t a nice guy (charming, yes, but not nice). Han is imperfect in different ways than Lando or Luke. Lots of things don’t go right for the heroes, but they don’t give up.

I’ve said many times that science fiction is the literature of hope. Even in most dystopian fiction, I have said, there is a glimmer of hope. I fully understand that that is something I believe, and isn’t necessarily an empirical fact. I believe the best sf/f can be realistic, it can be dark, it can portray the imperfect and even nasty nature of the world, while still offering that glimmer of hope.

And the truth is that that world is more realistic. That is an empirical fact. If the worst possible outcome was always more likely than others, our planet would be a barren, lifeless rock. Yes, we all die eventually, as far as we know all living creatures do. But the world is full of life because more often than not, living things survive, they endure, and they pass the gift of life along. Not understanding that requires turning an awfully big blind eye on the world. It’s a boring and inaccurate assessment of the world around us.

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

%d bloggers like this: