>I’ve done a lot of browsing lately over at TV Tropes, and it’s interesting to see how many different ways all sorts of incredibly common tropes get used. Possibly the biggest eye-opener is how much really good fiction uses the exact same worn out old cliches everything else does, proving that it’s not the package, it’s what you do with it.
In the same vein, Diana Wynne Jones The Tough Guide to Fantasyland takes apart the fantasy cliches everyone has seen – but an awful lot of those self-same cliches can be found in the great books. Terry Pratchett – you can stop rolling your eyes, they gather far too much dust that way – has sold ridiculous numbers of books that use (and usually skewer) any number of the cliches. Interesting Times has a wonderful collection of them, including the barbarian horde, the inscrutable oriental, the innocent abroad (‘innocent’ in this case should be taken with a grain of salt, since we’re taking about Rincewind) and much, much more. What Jingo does to political machinations, the ugly cross-dressing male, and any excuse for a war has to be seen to be believed.
What stories have you enjoyed that used one of the old standards in a fresh and interesting way? And on the flip side, what are some examples of recycling the cliches and beating out whatever life they still have?
p.s. Tolkein does not count. He pretty much pioneered the multi-racial group of mismatched questers battling existential evil.
>to Portugal this morning. Knowing how much she loves to fly — NOT! — I’m sure Dan and the boys are dragging her kicking and screaming onto the jet. She’s promised to do her best to keep us updated on how the trip is going and will try to post next week at her regular time. In the meantime, something she said yesterday started me thinking (quit snickering in the back. I do think at at times. Yes, I know, it can be dangerous. But I promise, this time it’s okay — I hope.)
In case you guys haven’t figured it out yet, Sarah and her metal tipped, pointy-toed boots are responsible for dragging me kicking and screaming out from under the bed and actually admitting to the world that I’m a writer. She’s pushed me into submitting — and selling — and writing things I never would have imagined myself writing. Short stories have always scared the heck out of me as a writer because — duh — I don’t do short. But my first pro sale was a short story. A romance/mystery — EEP! — historical fantasy and now I’ve just started a steampunk novel set around the time of the Jubilee Plot in England.
As a result of her prodding and pushing and reminding me that I am not a hack — although I’m still not convinced of it — I’ve had to pay more attention to the actual structure of my stories. One of the best sites I’ve found for an explanation of what a makes a technical aspect of a story successful is http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com
Recently, Jacqueline Lichtenberg has written several posts on the 6 Tricks of Scene Structure. She analyzes the scene and then gives examples. I highly recommend both posts. You can find the first here and the second here.
Now here’s my question for you: what makes a scene work for you? Tell me your favorite scene and why. If there is a scene that had you wanting to throw the book against the wall, tell me why. You don’t have to tell me the name of the book. But tell me what it was about that particular scene that had you wanting to tear the author’s hair out.
I once heard a highly successful male writer thank his wife for taking care of the children, while he shut himself away in a room and wrote. She brought him his meals and cups of tea and made sure no one bothered him.
Believe me, every female writer I know would like a wife!
As a mother of six I used to think, ‘When all my children are in school, I’ll have time to myself’. I had one year where they were all in school. During that year the youngest broke his arm so severely he needed therapy to regain use of it. So I spent a lot of time driving him to specialists and appointments and doing his therapy with him. Then the following year, the eldest left school and went into part time work and study and I spent my days driving her to and from work and the train station to get to college. And how could I resist therapeutic coffee and cheesecake when she and I would have a D and Ms (Deep and Meaningful conversations)?
Meanwhile, I was still trying to find not only a room of my own to write in, but the mental space in my head to tap into creativity. Washing, cooking cleaning, driving kids to jobs, music lessons, tutoring and sport. Here are some tips wise women have passed along to me over the years.
Where possible, buy clothes that don’t need ironing. If it is winter, only iron the collar of a shirt, the rest will be hidden by the school jumper.
If it isn’t dirty, don’t clean it. (Don’t laugh. I used to vacuum the hallway, just because it was between the living room and the bedroom).
When the kids can be trusted in the kitchen, teach each of them to cook their favourite meal. If you have three kids, that’s three nights of the week when you don’t have to cook.
Learn to say ‘No’. If you’re a competant person, people will thrust responsibility on you, president of the school committee, treasurer, tuckshop convenor, run a stall at the school fete. It never stops. At some point you have to decide, I’ve done my share. Let someone else do it now.
And the last one is really important. At some point in your life, things may get too much for you. (Moving house, coping with illness in children or elderly relatives, stress on top of stress). Don’t run yourself into the ground trying to please everyone all the time. Be your own best friend. Best friends can be honest with each other, they have their friend’s best interest at heart.
So be kind to yourself. Imagine what you would say to your best friend if they were going through what you are going through. Now, give that advice to yourself and follow it!
How do you juggle work and family, and still make time for your writing?
Several months ago, the local library asked if I’d be interested in helping start a critique group there. Mind you, it’s been something I’ve asked about off and on for a year or more. The problem has always been space. Our library is bursting at the seams right now and we are anxiously awaiting the completion of the new building next year. Any way, I digress.
The critique group has been an interesting experience for me because I’m the “pro”. I’m the one with the experience and the only one with any pro publications under my belt. More than that, it has shown me the importance of research. Not only about your current project — you know, making sure you don’t have your character from Tudor England using plastic toothpicks or your aliens from a totally non-Earth planet drinking coffee on their spaceship — but also about your target market, be it an agent, an editor or readers.
Part of knowing your target market for an agent, and even for a publisher, is knowing what they want AND knowing their submission requirements. There have been several blogs this week where agents discuss the how-to of their submission processes. Jane Dystel, of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, discusses the “etiquette” of submitting to their agency. First on her list is “read the agency’s submission guidelines”. That seems so simple and yet it is ignored so often. As writers, we sometimes seem to think the rules don’t apply to us. After all, if we send our murder mystery to Agent X printed on blood red paper and little hearts with tiny knives sticking out of them decorate our envelop that will have to get us noticed and moved to the top of their to be read stack, right? Wrong. It will get you noticed. But you’ll find the bottom of File 13, not the top of the TBR stack.
Another one of Ms. Dystel’s rules is to be sure you include all your contact information. Apparently, there are some of us out there who think agents are also mind readers. They don’t need our email addresses or phone numbers. If they like our project enough, they’ll be able to magically devine how to contact us. (That sound you near now is my head thudding against my desk as I wonder if I remembered to put my email address on the last submission I sent out…oh, I did. Whew!) More to the point, in my opinion, than Ms. Dystel’s rules of how to submit is Jessica Faust’s blog entry on how to get an instant rejection from her agency (BookEnds, LLC).
In short, you need to read up on the agent and what he represents, what he’s looking for and then, if submitting to him, follow the agency’s submission guidelines. In other words, reseach.
(steps off of soapbox)
Some links of interest this week:
- Rachelle Gardner wrote a five-part series on “Proposal to Publication” this past week. While I might not agree with everything she says, there are some good points there.
- WriterJenn has an interesting post about how, as a writer, you need to be patient.
And, as always, ebooks are in the news:
- Barnes & Noble announced the launch of its own ebook store. It will have something along the line of 700,000 books and, in conjunction with this, B&N announced it has entered into an exclusive agreement with Plastic Logic to provide ebooks for its reader.
- PBS took on the issue of how the publishing industry is confronting “changing reader habits”. It’s an interesting article/interview about how ebooks are changing not only the face of publishing but also how they are impacting the brick and mortar stores.
- Finally, the Idea Logical Blog discusses “A context in which to evaluate ebook strategies” and the four phases that will, or have, occurred in the process of ebooks becoming a true major player in the publishing landscape.
Lots of links, a little soap boxing, so how about discussion now? What are your thoughts on any of this?
As some of you know, I am a (semi) retired research scientist in the field of biology. Much, maybe most, biological research is now molecular. Molecular biology started with the deconstruction of a DNA molecule by Watson and Crick in ’53, very close to my birth date. The development of PCR in ’84 by Mullis was the first key step in molecular technology.
Molecular biology has turned out to be far more complex than it first appeared so, as yet, practical impacts of molecular research have been felt mainly in the field of identification. Bioengineering is still largely a matter for science fiction but that will change. Drug companies are moving out of random screening of likely organic molecules into a race for gene-based designer drugs.
Bioengineering is likely to have the most tremendous impact on our social system because, unlike the products of the industrial revolution and the electronic revolution, it will affect us directly.
The interesting point about technology is not that it gives new or better gadgets but that it changes society itself. Consider how sewage systems, pesticides, mass transport, electronic media and contraceptive pills have changed the way we do things, the way we think, our very morality.
Molecular technology will challenge our society and conventions of morality as has no other technology because it will be used to change ourselves and create new life.
The churches seem to have no idea what is about to hit. The CoE vicars that I have spoken to seem mainly worked up about cloning copies of individuals. That will be the least of our issues. We will start by eradicating genetic disease and then run straight into problems with the definition of ‘disease’. Does that include cosmetics such as nose size, hight, breast size, or penis size? Will we have generations of little girls all looking like the contemporary celeb bimbo or should we just make showgirls with extra long legs?
Is it a good idea to up the anti-cancer immune response to people working with cancerous materials? How about manufacturing worker classes to do specific jobs?
Good SF is about people, not things.
So, here is a challenge.
What bioengineering development’s impact on society do you think would make a good SF story?
Chris McMahon hasn’t been able to post today, due to illness, so I’ve filled in).
As a newbie published author I had never worked with an editor before. The first time an editor sent me a book report and asked me to do a rewrite, I was lost. The report was rather nebulous and I didn’t know where to start so I called a friend and we talked it through.
She made some practical suggestions such as tightening the first chapter, not so much back story etc. And the editor was pleased with the rewrite. In that case it would have helped if the editor had read the report and said you need to do this, this and this. As a new writer I needed some guidance. Nowadays a slightly nebulous book report wouldn’t worry me, I’ve learnt to read between the lines.
An editor should be like a good shrink, they should help you refine what you want to say and suggest ways to do this. At the Inside View of Publishing, Alan Rinzler talks about choosing a freelance editor.
Getting useful critique from your editor feels like ‘Wow, why didn’t I think about that?’ Or ‘Doh, why didn’t I see that?’
What have you learnt through working with editors?
>The comments on Harry Potter as steampunk and a trawl through the crosslinks off Draco in Leather Pants got me to thinking about the fanfiction phenomenon. If you go looking, there’s fanfic about just about everything, and it usually invokes Rule 34 somewhere. If you take a trawl through any fanfiction archive, you’ll quickly discover there’s a huge range of the stuff, ranging from the utterly abysmal right through to brilliant – and they’re pre-sorted for you.
Some sites have ratings systems, including tags to indicate what the story is about (do not ever open anything tagged with ‘slash’, ‘NSFW’, or ‘shipper’ unless you’re certain no-one is going to look over your shoulder and embarrass the heck out of you), a movie-like G/PG/M/R ranking, and sometimes some version of the 0 through 5 star system as well. What happens then is that the stories live or die on their ratings, rankings, and the number of comments they get. Stories with a lot of comments tend to get more interest over a longer period of time but will quickly “bubble up” to the top of any listing simply because in the fanfiction sites based on forum software, the default is to display by most recent comment. Crosslinkage helps too – comments telling readers “if you liked this, you’ll love X” complete with a helpful link to that story.
Oddly, the most commented stories are either the best or the worst – the mediocre offerings are lost in the noise. The worst are often hilariously bad rather than merely dismal, testament perhaps to humanity’s love of a disaster happening to someone else. Equally entertaining, the best pieces are often better than the originals, not least because one thing many fanficcers do is try to clean up or work around the continuity issues of the original. It’s positively amazing that people have managed to produce coherent, sensible reasons for much of Star Trek’s (all of them) characterization, plots, gimmicks, and other oddities.
Some of my favorites include the Naked Quidditch Match (which, despite the title, is actually safe for work unless there’s a problem with laughing yourself sick at work), the Sith Academy series which pits Darth Maul against the horrors of everyday bureaucracy and the insufferably perky Obi-Wan Kenobi, and of course Cassie Claire’s classic Lord of the Rings Secret Diaries. I also cherish a not-so-secret fondness for Austen fanfic (the respectable fanfic…)
Why mention fanfic at all?
First, it’s an example of a self-sorting open market – every story competes on its merits or lack thereof. The readers are the ones who decide which stories rise to prominence and which fall. Oh, and there’s a niche for everything you could possibly imagine and rather a lot of things you’d prefer not to.
Second, fanfiction is an ancient art form that’s largely ignored and condemned today because of insane copyright rules. Quick questions – how many retellings of Cinderella are there? How many Star Trek novelizations? Dr Who novelizations? Yep, fanfic. Paid fanfic in this case.
Third, fanfiction is a valuable sandbox for budding, blooming, and even overblown writers to hone their craft toolbox. It’s an area where you can experiment with new techniques and have their effectiveness judged by the most impartial audience – people who want to read about characters and worlds they love. They don’t care who you are or how many books you’ve written or how many copies you’ve sold. They care that you write stories they like.
Fourth, it keeps you as an author in contact with your readers. Real contact, because they’re on those boards demanding more if you start a story and fail to finish it, getting irritated if you do something they don’t think is right for that character, and generally being people. There aren’t many places in the publishing industry that do that – if you go wrong, you’ll know.
There are fanfiction sites that take subscriptions, others that are funded by donations, and still others by advertising, as well as the ones that run on someone’s love and devotion. All of them have something to offer writers and readers.
So what can the publishing industry learn from fanfiction?
Dave mentioned in his post – and I guess we are still in that vein of discontent – that we don’t see much “puzzle” sf. Part of this, I think is because it is so very hard to write. I have a nodding acquaintance with science and read about science constantly, but I think just the research for a problem short story would take me as much as research for an historical novel. And it doesn’t pay as well.
But there is something beyond that – something that ties in with discussions at Liberty con the weekend before last. There was a panel on why children aren’t all that interested in space anymore. It tied in with several panels I’ve attended or participated in as to why fantasy is doing better among children than science fiction.
Always the conclusion of the panel is something like “because we’re living in science fiction now.” It is a conclusion to which I offer a dissenting opinion. That is not it. That is not even vaguely it. Because, my dears, I was once referred to as “a child of the lunar age” and I fail to see my moon colonies and – do I need to say it? – “Dude, where’s my flying car?”
No, the reason children by and large aren’t interested in science fiction – and beyond the terrible teaching of science many of them receive, I hear. This is a part I don’t know from personal experience because my children, except for one year, have had excellent science and math teachers – is that we’ve become all too serious about it.
Okay, okay, I can see you all frowning, and you can stop it. You can stop with the “science is a serious thing” too. Yes it is. But when something becomes so serious that you can no longer be playful with it, it is in fact dead.
What first attracted me to science fiction were the big what ifs. What if there was a civilization on Earth before us? What if our ancestors came from space? What if we were visited by an alien race that changed our way of life completely?
At fourteen I read – no, devoured – the whole line of “Chariots of the gods” poppycock. At some level I think I already knew it was poppycock, but it was interesting and exciting, and it made me dream. So did a lot of the science fiction I read at the time: Have Spacesuit Will Travel; Puppet Masters; City; Way Station; Our Children’s Children. It made me dream and speculate and ultimately sent me into learning real science.
Could any of those books get published today? Spacesuit, maybe, updated for the new tech. The others? Not a chance. Puppet Masters? But we “know” xenobiology wouldn’t allow for this; City? But ants could not civilize even if…; Way Station: why would they need a transmission station on Earth? How does it work? Our current science indicates… Our Children’s Children? Time travel could not work in that way. And if we sent them back in time, why haven’t we found any remnants.
I could give you counters to all these dream-killing thoughts. If you think about it, you can imagine ways around it, and there’s always “what makes you think our science is the definitive word?” What if there’s something as big as “heavier than air can’t fly” that we hold immutably true and isn’t? However, I couldn’t get it past the science-fiction editors (except maybe Baen who have more imagination than most and a fondness for space opera) and I certainly couldn’t get it past the reviewers.
And there we come to the core of it. We’ve become small and petty and scolding, holding on to those verities we “know”. We’ve forgotten how to – or are scared of – dreaming big dreams. And then we wonder why kids aren’t interested in science fiction? Oh, my heavens – they aren’t interested because it’s become another lesson to be learned, while sitting quietly, mind, and not playing with your toys.
(This is, I think , why Steampunk is big. It allows one to dream again.)
So am I saying we should publish “garbage” like our ancestors came from the stars? Yes. Yes, I am. A respectable liar-for-pay like us should be able to come up with some reason to explain away all those skeletons and evidence of human evolution on this planet. (I can come up with three off the top of my head.) And because humans are always more interesting than aliens we can’t understand, a respectable liar for pay should be able to come up with ten reasons why aliens will resemble us; why there are humans in the stars; why the starts are – to quote a book title – our destiny.
No, I’m not saying do PFA. What Rowena and Dave said about “some nano machine that is in effect magic” has been annoying me for decades. Ditto for a lot of other things (though I have a fondness for parallel universes.) Look, guys, I have to come up with a logical background for my FANTASY much less my SF. A good liar creates a background that makes people wonder – and which sends them back to check the details. And when you do this with kids, they will go back and study the science, at first to figure out a way it COULD be true. And then they’ll be hooked.
When all we’re offering them is exacting priesthood and barren worlds, in my opinion, there’s nothing there for them. Or for us. So let’s learn to dream again, and teach it to our children.
What do you guys think? Am I being too cavalier with sacred science? Do we have to watch that our kids don’t stumble off the path, even at the price of losing them forever? Who here wants to set off, right now, to a world where ants have developed a civilization, dogs are intelligent, and humans are hopping along the stars, meeting species they can in fact talk to? And how many here read about the big impact on Jupiter and thought ‘it’s aliens, trying to alien-form the system to their requirements’? How many of you look at the starry night and would like to think there are humans out there among the stars, and one day we’ll join them?