Archive for March, 2009



18
Mar
09

I’m being subtle! Look! Look how subtle I’m being!

Last night I joined my younger sister and the resident organist to go see Watchmen.  There were a number of things I liked about the movie, and other things I found interesting but not particularly enthralling, depending on whether I looked at it as an interpretation of the comic or as a movie on its own.  (Adaptations are a subject for another post, ideally by someone who knows more about film or TV than I do.)  But one particular idea came to mind while watching it.   At one point I leaned over to the resident organist and whispered “Understatement is just a word to the director, isn’t it?”

In this case, it mostly had to do with either soundtrack choice or fight choreography.  But in written fiction (ha!  see, I made this relevant after all!) there’s a lot of ways that subtlety can work well within a story or, if used clumsily, act as a complete roadblock.  I’ve read stories that had a beautifully understated tone, stories that paved the road for the readers but ultimately let them find the way, and stories that made me pull at my hair and gnaw the pages, trying to figure out what the hell was going on and why didn’t the author just say so?  And I’m not sure where the line is.  

Some of it undoubtedly has to do with the reader — I have more patience for subtlety now than when I was a teenager plowing through the library’s selection of anything that looked remotely fantastic — but a lot of it has to do with the mood of the story.  I think there are some clues in a story’s tone that can let the reader know that not all the answers will be spelled out on the page.  And, sometimes, an unstated conclusion can have even more of a punch if it’s surrounded by all the obvious conclusions.  

When I’m writing, though, I have real trouble figuring out what the balance should be.  Unfortunately, in early drafts I pretty much always get it wrong — I’m up front and clear about stuff that’s less important, and I hide the important, plot-relevant details.  If I’m working from an established source, like a fairy tale or a myth, I’ll often veer so far away from the source material that the story becomes opaque.  I’m afraid of giving away too much, particularly when trying to construct a mystery.  As a result I hide too much and obscure the rest with the equivalent of flashing lights and blaring music.  Usually my first critique finds this point and whacks me with it (“don’t be afraid to be obvious” is a frequent criticism within the writers’ group), but I’m still trying to figure out how to get it right.

What are some of your favorite understated stories, either science fiction and fantasy or other genres?  What subtle realizations work for you in a story — character backstory, history, ramifications of the ending?  And what attempts at understatement really didn’t work?

17
Mar
09

New Neuroses

I remember years ago, when I was desperately hoping to sell a novel, I opined that if I could just sell a book, I would be satisfied, my life’s ambition achieved. One of the people in my writing group — an established writer who’d been publishing novels for years — told me, “Selling a novel doesn’t make your anxieties go away. You just trade up to a different set of neuroses.”

And, yes, after the initial euphoric thrill — Holy crap I sold a book! For money even! I can afford to get married somewhere other than my back yard now, and we can even have a honeymoon! — reality does rear its ugly head. Many elements of the path from “finished” novel to “published” novel are kinda tedious. I eventually learned to love reading copyedits, because they can teach you a lot, but when confronted with the first mass of paper festooned with sticky notes, I felt only despair. Reading page proofs can be brutal, too — it’s the last chance to fix things, so you want to be attentive, but you’ve read the book so many times, it’s hard to slog through it again.

Then, once the book actually comes out, you have to contend with bad reviews (or, either worse or better depending on your viewpoint, no reviews). You’ll be on tenterhooks for ages waiting to find out if it’s selling well, or at all, or embarrassingly badly. Then, if you manage to sell more books, you learn real terror, because you’re only as good as the sales on your last book, and if you have three or four books with disappointing figures you can become trapped in the midlist death spiral, with bookstores ordering fewer and fewer copies and publishers deciding you’re poison.

But if you’re still a good writer, you can reboot your career by selling new books under a pseudonym — the magical erasure of bad sales figures! — though that can bring along a whole new bunch of anxieties. (I started as Tim Pratt and became T.A. Pratt and, as I hope to have a long career, I very well may have other names before it’s all over with.)

Or maybe your first novel is a huge success. (Didn’t happen to me, but I know people it did happen to.) The pressure regarding your next book becomes enormous, expectations and stakes high on all sides, with a lot of people to potentially disappoint, and it can lock you up creatively.

There’s also the annoying misery of having self-employment income and thus being forced to pay quarterly estimated taxes, which involves the dreaded necessity of doing math.

So what I’m saying is: selling a book isn’t all rosebuds and candycanes.

But it’s important to remember: it’s also rosebuds and candycanes. Because after the reviews have come and gone, after the royalty statements have rolled in for a few years with their good or bad news, after your middle-of-the-night worries about your talent or lack thereof, your fans or lack thereof, your successes or failures or both, it all fades away, and what you’re left with is The Shelf. You know, that shelf with your books on it, lined up, all the different editions. I think it was Jonathan Carroll, in some introduction or another, who described the idea of writing for The Shelf (which implies its rhyme: writing for yourself). The bullshit fades. The books remain. You pour your best work into it, and if you’re very, very lucky, you see that work bound up between covers with a pretty picture on the front and your name, your own name, right there on the spine.

So becoming a novelist does indeed involve trading up to a whole new set of neuroses. But it also involves trading up to a whole new set of pleasures. When in doubt, remember the shelf.

16
Mar
09

Three observations in search of a theory

Observation One
This weekend I accidentally stumbled into a bookstore signing featuring two veteran, award-winning science fiction writers. If you read sf, you’d know their names. They had a pretty good gathering for the relatively small space, maybe about twenty caucasian fans (or readers, if you prefer), whose median age I’d put at around fifty.

Observation Two
This morning the geek parts of the internet I travel are all abuzz with the news that the Sci Fi Channel is rebranding itself as SyFy:

By changing the name to Syfy, which remains phonetically identical, the new brand broadens perceptions and embraces a wider range of current and future imagination-based entertainment beyond just the traditional sci-fi genre, including fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, reality, mystery, action and adventure. It also positions the brand for future growth by creating an ownable trademark that can travel easily with consumers across new media and nonlinear digital platforms, new international channels and extend into new business ventures.

Syfy more clearly captures the mainstream appeal of the world’s biggest entertainment category, and reflects the network’s ongoing strategy to create programming that’s more accessible and relatable to new audiences. Syfy will continue to celebrate the traditional roots of the genre, while opening the brand to accommodate a broader range of imagination-based entertainment.

In other words, they want a bigger audience, and they think Sci Fi is too geeky for the audience they want.

Observation Three
I walked into a games shop a few doors down from the bookstore. The store was packed. I’m gonna say 50 – 60 gamers playing games, participating in non-traditional consumer media. The crowd was racially diverse (though not as gender diverse as the bookstore crowd), with a median age of something like 17-25, a range that falls within the demographic typically sought by television programmers.

What does it all mean? I don’t know. But it means something. At least I’m pretty sure it does.

16
Mar
09

Diana’s sunday quickie: desert island book

No brainer: Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. (If I could get the omnibus edition with Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon that would be even better!)

I haven’t read the books in years, but they were a solid staple of my junior high and high school years. (In fact a common love of All That Is Pern was how I met my best friend!) I had all of those books memorized. And, I know that just having that book on the island with me would give me such a sense of connection to my self and my past that I would be driven to make the most of my island experience–whether finding a way home, or making the best of where I was. 🙂

15
Mar
09

tim’s sunday quickie: desert island book

Apart from obvious choices like Desert Island Survival for Dummies, and taking this in the spirit it’s offered, I guess I’d go with Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, because it’s big and vast and can withstand multiple readings, and in a pinch I could use it as a shelter or even possibly a raft.

15
Mar
09

Margaret’s Sunday Quickie: stuck on an island and theorizing

This is one of those questions where I really, really want to cheat. I want to claim an entire series as one book so that I can bring, say, the whole damn Discworld series with me, or say that of course A Song of Ice and Fire counts as one book, and so on.  But that’s not really playing fair with the question (unless I picked The Lord of the Rings, since that was envisioned as one book to begin with).  And I already have trouble keeping myself to one book a week, so unless I got rescued from that island quickly, I’d probably go crazy.  

So what I think I’d choose is a long work open to many interpretations, and then devote my time on the island (assuming I had any left over from, you know, all the stuff I’d need to do to survive) to studying it.  Something dense enough that I could spend time coming up with alternate interpretations, spinning out backstories for side characters, finding/imagining secret hidden messages in the text — in short, something that would be a good personal canon for a fandom of one. 

There are probably any number of works that would lend themselves to this, but what comes to mind immediately is Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Loads of characters, all sorts of peripheral bits that I can fiddle with, questions that won’t make sense at all and thus will have to be reconciled by my own convoluted theories.  If I ever got off the island, I’d come home with a Brand New Grail Theory that I could then claim was the real truth behind the myth — and join the long tradition of bonkers Grail theorists.

As you can see, I’d go crazy this way too. But it’d be a different kind of crazy, and possibly an entertaining one.

15
Mar
09

greg’s sunday quickie – my desert island book

What book would I choose to be stranded on a desert island with? Nora already stole my cheat answer: Kindle, of course. Or I could bring the Bible, since it’s awfully big and I hear it’s positively stuffed with great stories (haven’t actually read it myself). And I’ve already talked about my most comforting comfort book of all, Last Son of Krypton, which has comforted me since I was a wee Kryptonian. There are probably dangerous monkeys and giant man-eating turtles on this island, so I don’t want to get lulled into such comfort that I forget to keep my bamboo-coconut gun loaded. A survival guide might be a good idea, but I’m lousy at following directions and I’d just get aggravated at the author, who’s probably just some effete city boy whose practical survival experience extends no farther than wearing fancy wicking pants when he shops at Whole Foods. (I shop at Whole Foods, but my pants don’t wick.)

Okay, okay, obviously I’m just stalling for time here. I’m gonna pick … ummmmm, errrrrr, a blank book! Yes! Because then I can keep writing, and I’ll get a lot of comfort and distraction from the mental activity. Plus if I get rescued I’ll need product to push once I book interviews on all the talk shows.

15
Mar
09

Nora’s Sunday Quickie: Desert Island = Comfort Food

So this week’s “Sunday Quickie” question is my proposal, and an old schtick: “If you were trapped on a desert island, what one book would you want to have with you?” Leaving aside the temptation to cheat and say “I would bring a Kindle (stuffed with fifty of my faves)”… I thought about all kinds of beautifully-written, famous, Important Classics of the genre and the mainstream, some of which I do love. Then I realized… no. That’s really not what I’d want to have with me. The problem with Important Classics is that they’re often depressing, because English-language literature frequently links Seriousness to Grinding Down of the Soul, and if I’m stuck on a desert island — man, screw that. I would want the kind of book that I resort to now when I’m stressed or unhappy about something, when I want a guaranteed uplifting read that won’t force me to think or feel anything but what I want to feel in that moment. I would pick a story in which the protagonists go through hell, but triumph — spiritually if not literally. I would go for comfort food.

Except now I can’t decide among my comfort books. Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn? Something from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry series, or Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels? Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows? Naomi Novik’s first Temeraire book? Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu omnibus (tempted to take that one just for its size)? Argh, choices.

No, these aren’t enduring testaments to fantasy literature, most of them. All of them have flaws, some of which are severe. But they all share a common characteristic, which is that I’ve read the covers off them. Seriously. I’m on my second Wraeththu omnibus; that one is three books in one, and should never have been done in paperback. ::grumble:: My first copy split in half when the spine broke. I do this to all my favorite books. I’m going to have to buy a new copy of one of my science fiction comfort reads soon, David Palmer’s Emergence, because the spine is gone and the back cover is wearing off its tape, and it’s freaking me out because it’s out of print. (::rocks back and forth and mutters:: Abe will help me. Abe knows all.)

Tossing a coin, though, I’ve decided on Novik’s book (His Majesty’s Dragon in the US), mostly because it’s newer and thus I haven’t read it as much as the others. Also, it’s dense enough that I keep discovering new things every time I read it. Going to have to go get it, though; a friend borrowed it some time ago and hasn’t given it back. ::ominous look::

So what are your comfort reads?

15
Mar
09

Rachel’s Sunday Quickie: If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one book to read, what would it be?

If I was trapped on a desert island and could only have one book, I would probably ask for The Swiss Family Robinson or Island of the Blue Dolphins, or some other clever “surviving on a desert island” choice, but that’s not really in the spirit of the question… SO, if I could have only one fantasy book (or book of any kind, really) to entertain me for the rest of my life, it would be Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. The Last Unicorn is the most beautiful, most lyrical work of fiction I’ve ever read, and I’m sure it would make a fine few years of deserted island beach reading. 

This is, of course, assuming I don’t get all Professor from Gilligan and turn a coconut into a laptop or something…

 

15
Mar
09

Some days ya just got nuthin’

I’ve started and tossed four different posts on a variety of subjects. Part of the problem is that I’ve been insanely busy this week due to a looming deadline–one that I’m probably going to miss. (That saga was attempt #1 at a post, discarded because there wasn’t much to say beyond, “I screwed up and now I have to do major rewrites in a very short space of time.”)

Next was an attempt to describe the process of mentoring new writers, but even though I’m working with a very promising up-and-coming writer, I didn’t have much to say about mentoring other than, “I’m learning a lot by teaching, and I hope I don’t screw this up!”

Third attempt was a post about crime scenes, but I realized that it was a subject that deserved a lot more attention than I was able to give to it at that point, so that one was discarded after only a few minutes of deliberation.

Fourth and final attempt was about the frustration that some people experience when faced with the need to network and how to overcome it, but… well, by then it was late in the evening, and I had pretty much run out of time to do any sort of in-depth post.

*headdesk*

When I run into these roadblocks with my fiction, I set it aside and try again later. I go out and take a drive, or just go about the usual family routine (being sure to take my digital recorder with me just in case I get sudden inspiration!) But I don’t really have that luxury right now. I’m supposed to post something inspiring, or witty, or informative. Today. I usually write my post on Thursday or Friday, to give myself plenty of time to flail around in angst about what to write. But the rewrites have occupied most of my spare neurons, and well, y’know…

*headdesk*

 Thank god I’m a novelist. I could never last as a columnist.

–Diana