One thing I hate in readers is a lack of curiosity. Often times folks devoted to a genre whine loudest about not having anything to read, when actually, if they just moved their heads a little in any direction, they’d find something great. Kindles have done away with that, although I’m not sure they’ve done much to improve reader curiosity. If anything Kindles have managed to speed everyone’s descent into a bottomless pit of their own choosing, only now that descent’s fueled by Amazon’s algorithm.
An illustrative anecdote: a month or so back I gave away some books to a friend. One of them I thought was awful and told my friend as much. A week or so later he told me he’d read the book, agreed it was awful, and “the next seven books in the series were just as bad”.
Now this lack of curiosity might not be the biggest problem in genre. But I’d hazard a guess that it could be the keystone problem all the other problems trickle out from. Again the solution is simple: move your head a little in any direction. You will find something better.
A while back I read this post by E. Catherine Tobler called “The Women We Don’t See”. It starts with an anecdote from a friend of hers who realized he hadn’t read a book by a woman in two years. And he was okay with that. A more recent while back, the writer K. T. Bradford challenged readers to quit reading white men for a year. I didn’t opt on the challenge, but I wasn’t incensed by the suggestion. If anything, both posts can simply be read as reminders to maybe think two minutes longer before picking up your next book to read. Even looking at the suggested books outlined in Bradford’s post, she’s only listing twelve books. One a month. You can’t read one book a month by a non-Anglo and/or non-dude writer. Seriously?
There are two big reasons authors get forgotten (beyond the fact that they might suck). The first is the author wrote only the one genre book, and that one was usually early in their career. Fred Chappell’s Dagon and Frederick Turner’s Double Shadow both fit this description (although Chappell has returned to genre at times).
The other reason books get forgotten is because they either exist outside a genre or within a genre that in part hopes to reject them. Despite the history and tradition of women and non-Anglo authors writing SFF, it’s certainly not part of the institutional memory yet. Not when an author can be asked to recommend books to readers and come up with nothing better than the equivalent of Led Zeppelin. This is also why I’m probably only hearing about Doris Piserchia this year. It’s probably also why Joanna Russ gets read like she’s an inoculation against feminism. And why a comment Margaret Atwood made years ago still gets trotted out against her.
All of which is to say show a little curiosity. Take the extra minute and change up your reading diet a bit.
Yeah, I hate that analogy too. It suggests I’m writing all this to extol the salubrious effects of reading certain books, like Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman is a bit of broccoli on your plate, and you should read it because vitamins, instead of the real reason, which is it’s a great science-fiction book with a moral dilemma at its heart that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who knows what the prime directive is.
And in case you need a place to start, here’s a link to SF Mistressworks. Go crazy.
This is a thing I wrote in response to some SFF fandom bullshit going on. If you’re reading this and don’t know what the Sad/Rabid Puppies are, well, I envy you. Stay unaware. Don’t google it. Google prehistoric squirrels or Steven Universe conspiracy theories instead. It’ll be time better spent. For the rest of us poor bastards who have eaten of the Fruit of Bullshit from the Tree of Train Wreck, this post is for us.
When someone says, “Well, at least I care!” all they’re saying is, “Well, at least I have an opinion!” I’ve read this from one of the Sad Pup ringleaders, and couldn’t help but read the bit about “caring” as the foot-stomp of the petulant, self-righteous child. Caring is meaningless. Caring can be split so many ways and made to mean anything. You can carry it down into all kinds of Godwin Law absurdity. Mussolini cared about train schedules. Custer cared about the Sioux. You can’t say they didn’t. They certainly cared enough to have opinions about them. To state so sternly that you’re justified in your actions, because “you cared” is simply a sleight of hand attempt to raise feelings up to the level of values, because you’re not wise or self-aware enough to process your feelings without making noises.
The Other Side of McMedieval Feudalism, or The Use of Mythic Distance in Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur”
So that fascinating thing I hinted at about the setting in my last post about Le Morte D’Arthur – it’s totally generic McEurope, but instead of this being a design flaw, it’s a design feature.
Actually calling it McEurope is too specific. It’s more McMedieval Feudalism seen from the top without ever looking down. It’s an aristocracy divorced from all other social classes with an endless supply of weapons and armor to fight with. You have to at least enjoy that stuff as aesthetic trappings without any attendant realism. Only once does someone go to town and see a craftsperson to get a thing fixed. That’s your realism. Peasants hardly ever appear in it, and knights apparently have nothing better to do than stand all day beside bridges challenging whomever happens to walk by. “None shall pass”, etc.
What locales there are all blend together. Bridges, cloisters, and wells with maidens (or knights) weeping beside them lend some decoration to the otherwise indistinguishable setting. There are castles, and outside every castle is a forest. Inside the forest adventures happen.
But I said this is a feature rather than a flaw. What makes it fascinating is how quickly bright sanitized McMedieval Feudalism can become weird foreboding mythic id-laden fairyland. The one rule is when you go into the forest stuff happens to you. That stuff can be the frat-house jousting (with accompanying sides of homoeroticism and misogyny), or something a lot weirder and subconsciously ripe. It’s no surprise that “the forest” gets transformed into “the wasteland” during the Grail Quest.
What to make of this? On one hand the setting is so bland and divorced from reality as to be nonsensical. On the other hand that blandness has an advantage when telling a story and playing with archetypes, especially because the bland is divided in half, a mundane world and its fantastic reflection, and the archetypes are never quite certain when the one will shift into the other. Not just this, but any deviation from the uniform setting stands out.
So it’s okay to be bland as long as it’s a conscious choice. Use it to your advantage. Dive deep and swim in the dark waters waiting beneath the bland’s placid surface. Find those pearls waiting down there along with those toothsome beasts. What you find might be wonderful or it might be ugly, but it won’t be bland. That’s for certain.
Like most people I have folders and folders full of pictures glommed from all over the Internet. Lately I’ve been making crude collages with them on power point. The above is for a short story about a junky ghost hunter and the codependent relationship he has with his assistants. I made it after the story was written, which is a bit different than using it to brainstorm.
That’s one for a story in process. It hasn’t come together yet like the first one, but that’s likely because the story’s not done. Evocation’s my goal, and there’s a tendency to be prejudiced towards the chosen images and using them to illustrate the story, as opposed to finding the pictures that evoke the story best.
Hipster’s come to be a meaningless insult. It’s become one of those vague words no one has a clear meaning for, but still a desire not to be called. A bit like what happened with the word “sentimental”.
“I freakin’ hate hipsters!” said by 42-year old exurban Ohio resident inside a Starbucks in reference to every 20-to-40 year old living in a metropolitan area.
“I freakin’ hate hipsters!” said by 27-year old Brooklyn resident about everyone who reads home design blogs.
“I freakin’ hate hipsters!” said by 31-year old Seattle resident, and home design blog reader, about home design blog readers that make fun of people who buy Ikea furniture.
Of course you want to shout, “Get that last guy! He’s a hipster!”
But really, he’s just an asshole.
I actually can’t stand hyper-real, “vivid” world-building. Leiber names maybe at most a dozen streets in Lankhmar and describes less than half a dozen neighborhoods — I’d be surprised if he mentions more than four neighborhoods.
However I realize I am in the minority with this opinion and wonder if the clotheshorse swordporn I hate so much might stem from audience overlap with the SCA that values that level of immersion.
Remember Lucas’s Law: The Clone Wars were so much better imagined than seen. The job is to write stuff wide enough for the reader or player to get lost in and shape on their own, than to shape it all for them and suck the life out of it.
(from an email discussion with some friends)
I love the tradition but hate our adherence to them.
I love that authors have been working with the fantastic for so long that there are literally hundreds of years of material from around the world to get lost in. I love that every week I can potentially encounter a new author’s work. But I hate our desire to delineate genres and name epochs.
I hate tradition. I hate the collector scum, mylar bagging bull shit. (“Well, blah blah, American SF really starts with Hugo Gernsback.”) I’d rather no one walled the genres apart from each other. I’d rather find my own Golden Age than be stuck with someone else’s.
The Golden Age is the books you read when you were ten. The classics are any author writing before you were born. The walls can’t erode fast enough — and the more the pulp squad circles their wagons and closes their ranks around their andropause and incunabula the more I say good riddance.
Fandom doesn’t matter. The community doesn’t matter. Books matter. Reading matters. I fear we often forget this.
One could look at fandom as junkies on one side (“GRRM, I need my fix!”) and fetishists on the other. (“Oh my god! Sniff this book’s binding!”) What some marketing department decides to name Steampunk or what some editor calls the “new” Sword & Sorcery (when really it’s just recent sword and sorcery) or what some grad student writes about the “sense of wonder” doesn’t matter. They’re either tour guides or real estate agents who’ve positioned themselves between a reader and a book. At best they are useful in small doses.
This might be why I raise my eyebrows whenever I hear an SF writer say: “I love science fiction”. It smells too much of an abusive relationship loaded with codependency. I love to read, and I love books, and most of the books I love happen to be genre books, but I don’t love the genres.
The squishier and spongier they get, the happier I am.
Here’s a tip for everyone doing NaNoWriMo.
Say while you’re working on your book you get an idea for a decent 2-4K short story, but are uncertain whether you should take a break long enough to write it.
Now this isn’t an instance of “I think this’ll make a good story”. No, this is the story has more or less bubbled forth fully formed out of the froth of your NaNoWriMo-fevered brain, and since you’ve been putting in long hours pounding the keys you KNOW you can write this story, polish it, and get it out the door in 24 to 48 hours.
Well, if that’s the case, and you’re at all interested in actually completing some decent fiction this month, then take the break and write the story.
Your novel draft can wait. Inspiration won’t.
In my continuing quest to make rules to
ignore apply to myself, here’s another one:
I read two books this week. Their names don’t matter much. I liked them both. They had me “turning pages”. But both had what I’ll call critique problems.
A critique group’s job is to find faults, but not all faults need to be corrected, nor can all faults be corrected. A critique problem is that thing your critique group would suggest changing, but shouldn’t be changed because doing so would grossly alter your vision of the story. Perfection shouldn’t be your goal. Your best and the space beyond it are your target. If you have control of your material and are achieving a certain effect and if following the advice of a critique would have you alter so much that that effect would be lost then ignore the critique.
This has been my second writing post. Chuseok pictures to follow.
I’m not a fan of writing posts, especially those written by unpublished, self-published, and/or “neo-pro” writers. Nor am I fan of “celebrity slushreaders” going on about how they dream a story they select might win a Nebula like they were right there writing the story beside the author, or at the very least keeping their tea mug filled, as if reading slush wasn’t the equivalent of being so much human baleen.
Bullshit on all that.
But I’ve got two writing posts itching to get off my fingers so let me just get them done between now and next week and then I won’t have to write about writing or slushing for the rest of the year. I’m putting it here for my own benefit as much as anyone else.
People talk a lot about hooks and openings and grabbing the reader so they keep on reading. And yeah I use the word hook as well, but it’s not about that at all. (Rudy Rucker has a great bit on “hooks” in his Writer’s Toolkit, which everyone should download.)
Other folks talk about establishing trust between reader and writer, and I agree with them but wondered how that trust was gained because it has to be right at the start. Then I got a couple stories in the slush this week that helped me figure it out.
What it comes down to is control.
You can do whatever you want in your story. Write it lush or transparent. Climb Freytag’s pyramid or flip it on its peak and kick it in the rear. Anything goes as long as you’re in control.
As long as each word and sentence connects to the next word and sentence and the whole thing makes a pattern where there’s nothing more you can subtract from it. That’s control. Having pieces left in your hand at the end is control.
What’s not control is starting your story with a well-groomed hook and then piling on introspection, backstory, and/or setting details. What’s not control is leaving nothing out, but throwing it all in there and hoping for the best. Lush doesn’t mean overgrown or overwriting a story so thick it collapses under its own weight.
Every word must link together. They can be ugly or oddly shaped words, but they have to fit into the story’s overall pattern (and of course that pattern can be all freak-a-deak weird, but there has to be some discernable resonance there).
That’s it. Writing post number one is done. It’s all about control.
Next week 10 Bad Slush Habits. Until then here’s Spoek Mathambo’s disturbing cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control”. Don’t blame me if it gives you nightmares.