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>"On the Writing of Speculative Fiction"

>Last weekend, I posted Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing fiction. In the course of discussion, I admitted that I didn’t look at them so much as rules as guidelines. In fact, most of the so-called rules of writing we see populating blogs and how-to books are, in my opinion, nothing but guidelines. When writing, you have to consider the rhythm of your prose, the type of book you’re writing, your audience and, most importantly, your narrator or point of view character. You have to choose which rules to follow and which to break. That said, I came across a piece by Robert A. Heinlein last night that I highly recommend for every writer, especially those of us who write science fiction or speculative fiction.

Heinlein wrote “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” in 1947. It was reprinted in Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction (ed. Damon Knight, Harper & Row, 19770. It’s not a long essay, only about 5 pages. But those 5 pages contain a lot to think about and I highly recommend you go find it. I could spend too much time discussing everything included in the essay — so I’m going to focus only on the last bit: his rules for writing speculative fiction. I may come back to other parts of the essay later.

These rules are, according to RAH, “a group of practical, tested rules which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.” He starts by assuming, rightfully so, that anyone reading the rules and considering them can type (or keyboard now), knows the standard manuscript form or can at least look it up, and that they can spell, punctuate and know enough grammar to get by.

(Before going any further, let me add my two cents worth here. Don’t rely on spellcheck for spelling. It is a good tool to get you started but it won’t tell you if you’ve used “to” or “tow” properly in a sentence because they are both words. Turn off the grammar check utility and get yourself a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk & White. A good dictionary and thesaurus are musts as well.)

Now for the rules:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. You must put it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

For the most part, I agree with everything he says. I also submit that these rules apply to any form of writing, be it speculative fiction or romance or westerns or non-fic. I wholeheartedly agree with rules 1, 4 and 5. To be a writer, you must write. But you must also put what you write on the market. It doesn’t do any good sitting in a drawer or under your bed or as bonfire fodder (No, Sarah, I swear. I haven’t had a bonfire recently.) That said, I’m not sure everything I have is marketable so, no, things don’t always stay out there. Although, at the moment, I have three short stories making the rounds, looking for the right fit.

Where I do disagree, at least on a very minor scale, with RAH are rules 2 and 3. I’m not sure everything can be written to conclusion. I admit I haven’t always finished what I’ve started. Yes, a lot of the time it’s because I’ve lost interest in it or haven’t had the discipline to continue. Other reasons are because the piece was nothing but fanfic or so close as not to be distinguishable. That said, I do try to finish everything now — except for that one, on-going and never to be ended fluff that I do for decompression and is never to be seen by anyone else but me. In fact, I must figure out a way that it will self-destruct upon my death so no one sees it then. Hmmmm.

I also have issues with not rewriting except to editorial order. What I wish is that RAH had explained this a bit more. Does he mean only when an editor tells you to, or does he mean to clean up the manuscript to make it marketable? Sarah, you’re our resident RAH expert. Any thoughts?

So, what are your thoughts? Does Heinlein have it right with these general “rules”? Do these rules still hold true 60 years after they were first written? Why or why not?

>Ups and Downs of Writing

>
It has been a good news and bad news sort of week.

First, I got a renewed contract and cheque in advance for editing – that was very good.

Then I made a sale to Jean Rabe for an urban fantasy style short story in a rural setting. It will be published in a DAW anthology titled Boondocks Fantasy.

My story is called Siren Tears and it was inspired by:

“What potions have I drunk of siren tears,

Distilled from limbecks foul as hell”

Shakespeare, Sonnet 119.

The story is set in Morwenstowe, North Cornwall as seen through the eyes of a London yuppy.

The real Morwenstow coastline is shown above.

Then the BBC rejected my Friday Short Story for Radio 4. It is very specific so does not have an alternative outlet. Shame, I think it is one of the most technically competent stories I have written. But I can see why it was not very BBC.

It is called Past Lives and I post it below:

Past Lives

By

John Lambshead

Something about the scent of the invitation card dredged up memories that I thought long buried under the silt. Maybe she still used the same perfume, or soap, or perhaps I could smell the chemistry of her skin. You never forget your first, no matter how hard you try. I held the card to my nose and was transported back a decade.

#

Hello fresher. Those were the first words she ever spoke to me. She was running the Literary Society’s stall at the university freshers’ fair. I was disinterested in highbrow literature, still am for that matter, but I paused to listen because she fascinated me. Her voice was low and throaty and she said “yah” instead of “yes”.

She was like the foreign movies that the Film Society was advertising on the next stall – exotic, confusing, incomprehensible, sophisticated and so very sexy. Our heads were close together when she showed me where to sign the application form and I inhaled her scent for the first time.

I was so smitten that I attended a meeting of her society. Greater lust hath no man than he sit through an evening of modern poetry. She chaired the meeting, introducing the first poet who read a piece consisting of random words arranged on the page to form patterns. Nothing rhymed but strawberry jam and menstruation formed a recurrent and disturbing theme. It was followed by an author reading his poem illustrating the evils of masculinity and the need for a feminist economy. I disgraced myself by asking how in practice feminine finance would differ from masculine. Apparently if I was too stupid to work it out then the author could not tell me. I shrank back in my chair at his scorn. She smiled at me and winked, her eyes dancing with laughter.

There was wine and cheese afterwards. People formed groups and talked about things like the allegorism in Bradbury’s latest novel and whether silence was more important to poetry than words. I worked my way across the room and sidled up to her. Eventually, I caught her eye.

“Hello fresher,” she said, with a smile. Her attention flicked away before I could reply, back to the circle of postgrads that formed the social elite of student society. No one noticed me leave.

My student life moved on without her. Twelve months later my class sat around a table in the public bar of the Bargeman, celebrating the start of the new academic year. No one commented that some familiar faces were missing, casualties of the end of year exams. It was no more done than bomber pilots asked how old Squiffy had bought it when he failed to show up for breakfast in the mess.

Our group drank real ale. I had little taste for the brew but lacked the courage to resist peer group pressure. The conversation around the table dissolved into background noise in my head and I wondered why I sat drinking a sour liquid with people that bored me. I put down my glass and slipped out of the pub. No one noticed me leave.

The canal was dimly illuminated by light filtering through the trees from the road lights. I walked along the towpath away from the university, happy to disappear into the dark.

A muffled female cry caught my attention. I heard the word “No” and the murmur of an answering male voice. White limbs writhed under a black shadow in the bushes. I hauled the shadow off her by the scruff of his neck. He gazed at me with goggling eyes. I hit him on the bridge of the nose, breaking the cartilage with a satisfying crunch. His blood ran black in the dim light. I pushed him away and he fell heavily. He called me a rude word but he fled when I raised my fist.

I reached down to help the girl to her feet.

“Hello fresher,” she said.

We became lovers that night. I had little sexual experience but she taught me. My naivety amused her and fixed her nickname for me for ever. No, you never forget your first.

She often stayed in my room on campus during the week. Occasionally I stayed over at the old terraced house she rented with two housemates. A bewildering variety of older men passed through. She laughed at my disapproval. Her room was a disorganised mess of research papers and text books scattered amongst old tissues and takeaway containers. She was amused to find I organised my lecture notes into a cardboard filing system, all annotated and neatly cross indexed.

Sometimes she talked and screamed in her sleep. I used to hold her tight until she stopped trembling. She insisted it was only a bad dream, not a bad memory, but I noticed it was always the same bad dream. When I tried to question her she would silence me with her lips until I was deflected.

Our relationship was entirely in the present. I learnt not to ask personal questions about her past because she either changed the subject or told me something fantastic that contradicted the previous answer. I had no past worth discussing. My life had revolved around school and homework to achieve my grades

We never discussed the future. She rebuked me if I called her my girlfriend. She said she was a free agent, and so was I. She was out of my league, so I never pushed the issue for fear she would dump me, but I did not want to be free.

It was one of those cold crisp London days before global warming. Bright sunlight from a startling blue sky caused the frost to sparkle like icing on a cake. The grass crunched under my weight. The air was so cold and dry that it burnt my lungs. We walked along the towpath by the icebound Grand Union Canal. The brightly coloured canal boats moored against the other bank stood out like lego bricks on a white tablecloth. Washing hung frozen and rigid in the still air.

“When I write, this is what will come out,” she said, gesturing at the scene.

She laughed in delight, eyes hidden behind fashionable pink sunglasses. Her breath condensed in the cold air as if her words were hanging in space. I photographed her, freezing the moment for all time.

Every detail of that walk is clear in my mind. It was the pinnacle of our relationship. Afterwards, we spent less time together. She disapproved of my love of shooting and photography, which she described as pseudo-art for chocolate boxes. Conversely, modern art exhibitions and experimental theatre bored me rigid and I found it hard to conceal my contempt for the posers who created it.

She had never claimed that I was her only lover, let alone that she loved me, and I chose not to ask. One night we had arranged to meet in the union bar after her seminar. I checked my watch for the twentieth time. This was not the first time that she had stood me up. The rest of her literary crowd were there so why wasn’t she? I tapped one on the shoulder to make enquires.

“She’s still with her supervisor, getting in some extra tuition,” he said with a laugh.

I stormed out and strode to her department, my anger building with every step. I ran up the stairs and threw open the door to her supervisor’s office. She was on her knees in front of him. She stared at me without expression before very deliberately turning away, resuming her performance as if I was not there.

He flapped his hand to shoo me away without opening his eyes. Something in me died that night. The greyness descended. I stopped attending lectures and dropped out of college rather than fail the year.

#

“Fresher, you came to my birthday party,” she said, throwing open her front door and giving me a hug. She smelled just the same. She had cut her hair and was thinner than I remembered. Lines radiated from her eyes when she smiled. It had been ten years but somehow I had not envisaged her changing. Life had marked me, I stroked the beard I had cultivated to hide the scars of cosmetic surgery, but in my head she had remained the girl at the freshers’ fair.

She pulled me in and thrust a glass of white wine into my hand. I was instructed to mingle. My leather jacket and jeans stood out among the fashionable suits and evening dresses. People stood in groups and discussed the latest ad campaign, Marxism, and the merits of various private schools for young Julian and Jemina.

A popular photoprint decorated the main wall – the ‘girl in pink shades’. It was my first big sale, the one that kick started my career. I had not really looked at that photo in years.

A man noticed my interest and came over to comment. He explained that his wife had known the photographer, indeed, his wife was the subject. He made a joke about how she had not aged well. I walked away, resisting the urge to break his nose again.

A woman recognised me as THE war photographer, the one who got all those awards? What was it like to be in a warzone?

I had a flashback. I felt again the hot dust of Afghanistan that penetrated everywhere.

Have you ever smelt a burning land rover? It’s a strange mixture of oily smoke from tyres and diesel, acrid chemical fumes from burning plastic and the sweet smell of roasting flesh.

I kept on snapping pictures as Terry Taliban sprung their ambush. Men fell round me and an RPG took out another car with a great whump of flame that battered my ears and seared my skin.

Brownie returned fire with the automatic grenade launcher bolted to our car. I photographed him crouched over the gun. A bullet hit him in the temple, blowing out the back of his head, and getting me another award-winning photograph.

I dropped my camera and grabbed the gun. Terry had dug themselves into pits on the hills above the track. They popped up to fire. It was so easy compared to clay pigeon shooting. Wait for Terry to give away his position. One short and one over to bracket the range then pour it in until they stop moving. I settled into a steady rhythm, changing ammunition belts as they ran out, until something exploded in my face.

The woman wanted to know how I overcame fear? How I could stand up unprotected on a Land Rover, single-handedly holding off the Afghans until our soldiers could rally. She wanted to know how I, an artist, reconciled myself to killing.

I wanted to scream the truth at her, that a dead man isn’t scared of death, that killing is easy, you just aim and pull the trigger, but I stuck to the platitudes I trotted out on daytime TV.

I let myself out, thinking no one noticed me leave, and flagged down a passing taxi.

“Fresher, wait.”

She ran down the pavement after me. She threw her arms around my neck and kissed me hard on the lips. Her scent filled my nose.

“I thought we might meet up,” she said.

“Sure,” I replied, “I’ll give you a ring.”

I waved the invitation card, to show I had her phone number, and climbed into the taxi without looking back.

The taxi driver cheekily asked me if the lady was a good friend. I told him she was just someone that I’d met in a past life.

I raised the invitation to my nose but her scent had gone. I tossed the card out of the cab window.

The End

————————————————————————————-

By all means comment below.

>Past Lives in Fiction

> Ah. What a week! Apologies for being a little absent from the blogging. I had a three day short story Masterclass this week in Brisbane – part of the prize for the 2009 One Book Many Brisbanes short story competition. The Masterclass was excellent, and exhausting!

Past Lives.

Everybody has had past lives of some sort. For example, I had a past life as a pizza cook, but unfortunately used to burn way too many garlic breads. At one time I was a Shift Chemist in a sugar mill (I could not get out of town fast enough). Then I had various stints of Engineering with quite a few years spent running a Speech Pathology practice in the middle.

But there is the other type of past life. The one that many believe predates the current one. It’s a completely fascinating idea. I mean so much of what we are – and the meaning we ascribe to our lives – comes out of the examination of our past. Writer’s particularly, being very comfortable in their own headspace, often pore obsessively over the relics and flotsam of their own experience.

The idea of a past life – a prior incarnation – means that we have this whole other resource there – a whole other lifetime (or lifetimes) of experiences to draw on to put our own existence into perspective, to give it meaning, or divine some sort of path to the future. In fiction it gives a whole other dimension to the plot and the characterization. I guess in theory if you had time travel and past lives as possibilities, the very same person (or at least their ‘soul’) could be the prime mover, adversary and bystander in the story at the same time. Now that’s pretty interesting.

It seems like such a rich resource for a speculative fiction setting, but I could not for the life of me remember one story that featured it.

What are some examples of past lives in speculative fiction that really caught your interest? Who has done it best? Were you really a grasshopper in your past life or were you Napoleon? Or Cleopatra?

>Setting the Scene (Get me in the mood baby, ooh yeah!)

>Sarah’s offered quite a lot about remembering that there’s someone on the other end of the book, and way to keep that person reading. I’m going to look at one specific part of that: the scene-setting and cuing in it offers.

How many times have you read something where the author switched track on you, and the book turned into something you weren’t expecting when you started it? And how often has it irritated rather than delighted you? Yeah. I thought so. See, we’re so attuned to what a story should be, we can pick up – subconsciously at least – what a story is about from very little.

Take for instance the opening to Pratchett’s The Color of MagicIn a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly. That one sentence is enough to cue readers in to several things: we’re not in Kansas anymore, and it’s not going to be reality as normal. Oh, and it’s almost for sure fantasy. Comic fantasy.

It might not register at the conscious level, but we’re primed for laughter.

Of course, this is Pratchett, and even Pratchett of nearly thirty years ago stands head, shoulders and quite a bit more over every other author alive today (although in my not at all humble opinion both Dave and Sarah are climbing that particular mountain at speed).

So how do we lesser lights set the scene? There’s a few things to consider.

First up, and possibly most important, each genre and subgenre has its own distinctive ‘feel’ and tropes. Standard practice in a cozy is utterly verboten in splatterpunk horror, and so forth. The mood we set has much the same effect as a movie soundtrack – more or less invisible (or it should be) but puts the reader’s emotions where we want them. Yes, it’s manipulative. We’re playing with people’s minds because they want us to. If they don’t like us hitting their emotional buttons, they don’t have to buy our books. Next question? Good.

Okay. I got bitten by this not long ago, in a crit group looking at the opening of my current work in progress. The piece is typically Kate-weird, meaning it doesn’t quite fit into any nice, neat slots. It’s more or less space opera, but it’s also got elements of erotica, in that quite a bit of the plot is carried by and depends on sex. Specifically, somewhat kinky sexual practices that aren’t so much as hinted at in the start of the book. The advice I got, not suprisingly, was that I need to have the sex up front so that it’s not picked up by someone who reads the opening and thinks it’s okay for young teens. Or, for that matter, so editor X doesn’t start reading thinking “light-hearted space opera, a bit of a romp”, get to the sex, and have his, her, or its brain explode.

Attractive as the notion of making peoples’ heads explode might be, it’s really not a good idea to do that to people you want to give you money, so… I need to put sex up front, preferably in a way that foreshadows the kind of sex that happens later on (especially since said sex is emphatically not garden variety vanilla). What I start with now says “lightweight space opera, with humor”.

As to how you do it, it’s all in the power of words. English has a phenomenal number of synonyms, most of them with very different emotional/atmospheric connotations. Let’s take, for the sake of example, sex. We all know what’s involved. Call it making love, and it becomes a much more intimate act. Or take desire, longing, yen, urge, obsession, need – they all mean more or less the same thing, but the flavor varies. A lounge, a sofa, a Chesterfield… Curtains, drapes. And I haven’t even gotten out of the common words.

For science fiction, probably the most common trick is faux tech-ese and using technical terms instead of the normal “earthbound” words. Epic fantasy and sword and sorcery often go the other way, using archaic forms of common words – sparingly. Urban fantasy generally maintains a conversational, smartass tone and uses a lot of not-quite-slang, enough to make it sound cool (or whatever the designated word for that is these days) without being so cutting edge it dates the book between the time it’s written and the time it’s published (For an example that dates a book, read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and then tell me you don’t see late 70s written all over it). Horror of course pulls all the stops out: cognitive dissonance, bleak or grim descriptors, and every possible trick in the writer’s vocabulary to make the whole thing bode. An excellent guide to the process is Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, containing the famous quote about terror, horror, and gross-out. A good thumbnail distinction here is that terror is being in an iffy situation and realizing your buddy is missing. Horror is finding your buddy in a closet – and he’s not alive. Gross-out is when the alien or monster comes out of his chest, usually featuring loving description of the effects. The word ‘glistening’ gets used a lot, even when there shouldn’t be enough light for anything to glisten. As a general rule, if you’re wanting to scare your readers, aim for terror. Drop to horror only if you can’t manage terror. And gross-out is the last resort. (Yes, Stephen King said approximately that, and yes, he will go for the gross-out if he can’t make terror or horror happen).

Let’s have a few samples of story openings that do a good job of setting the scene. Short or long, yours or someone else’s (if it’s someone else’s, please acknowledge the author). No more than a couple of lines – most of the good ones don’t need more than that.

Here’s one or two of mine, just to kick things off:

There are times when being a Quality Assurance Mage sucks. The silvery gray spell-ball on my desk told me today was one of them. Fantasy, rather whimsical, may or may not be urban. From my short story A Spell of Quality in Misspelled. This sale was an invitation, so I didn’t need to have the higher standards that anything going through regular slush has to have.

The great looms stood silent, strands of Scylla-silk glimmering in semi-darkness above the completed weaves. Air heavy with the acrid tension of electrical discharge sparked and crackled with each of my cautious steps. Science fiction, fairly dark. The use of words like “heavy” and “silent” suggests that this isn’t going to be a particularly fluffy piece (accurately, as it happens). This is the opening of my short story Choice of the Oracles in Fate Fantastic – another sale by invitation.

Another convention, another con hotel. After a while, they blur together into an indistinguishable mass of faux-elegance and bizarrely costumed fans. This is the opening of ConVent a novel which – alas – remains homeless. The setting is pretty obvious, and the tone suggests urban fantasy. Anyone who’s ever seen photos of a busy science fiction convention can see the scene. So, for that matter can a heck of a lot of people who haven’t been to one – because I’ve played on the stereotypes of science fiction fans with this opening.

What are some of your examples?

>Watching Yourself Go By

>

Lately I’ve run into two or three beginner writers who have EARNESTLY informed me they’re writing what they’d like to read. They don’t care what anyone thinks. They’re writing for themselves first and foremost.

Children, I’m here to tell you that unless you’re one of those sad people standing in public parks, talking to themselves, you are NOT writing for yourself first and foremost.
Oh, I confess I’ve been through this, once at least. Completely beaten, feeling like no one would buy my stories, I decided I would write “just for myself.” I think this lasted a whole week – in my defense I was very ill at the time – and the result is one of the most formless, boring and unreadable pieces of tripe I’ve ever written.

Why should that be, you say. Well, for one, because if you need to write down stories to tell them to yourself, we need to talk. Most of us managed to tell ourselves stories in our heads long before we learned to write and read. But there is more beyond that. You are in full possession of the story from beginning to end. So even if you try to “tell the story” with a certain shape and structure, it doesn’t matter. You know at the beginning what the end is. Yes, even if you pretend you don’t. It’s kind of like trying to play chess with yourself. You always know which side you’re favoring.

The sad, unacknowledged fact is that we – the lone, ink-stained wretches in our little corner, are as much performers as the most stage-hungry actor, the most attention-craving politician. We write – at least if we’re not (yet) utterly psychotic – to be read. We can sit in our corner and say “Well, I didn’t WANT to be a bestseller, anyway” but that’s no more than the sniffling ego-defense after our darling isn’t loved as it deserves. Or “I don’t care if the market is stoooopid, I will write little green man sex, because that’s what I’d REALLY like to read. More people would like to read it, if someone would just publish it!”

So, what am I saying? Am I saying you should write to market?

Well, yes and no. If you write to market you have to be incredibly savvy. You have to be as savvy as financiers investing in futures. You can’t be sure the way you’re betting is the right way and to make things worse – in publishing – the signals you’re getting are distorted. By the time you see a big infestation of purple vampire porno at your local book store, these books were accepted 2 to 3 years ago, the houses are flooded with purply porno and the editors are screaming “no more.”

Not saying it’s not possible to see the way the market is going to jump. Eric Flint tells me he did, and I see no reason to doubt him, so did Jacqueline Carey. The caveat here is that they didn’t aim wholesale at something that’s selling well. Instead, they took what’s selling well apart and looked at trends. Say, looking at Twilight you could say “the market is rife for young women with weak family structures who fall in love with masterly men who are in some way alien or magical and who can vouchsafe the women special status or power.” Or you can go one better, and take that trend apart further. Read, say, all the bestsellers in your intended field over the last ten years and take the trend apart. “Protagonist, between ten and twenty; broken family or great loss; set in small town……” Etc. (I’m pfa here.)

NO, I’m NOT telling you that you SHOULD do that. I don’t think I could. It’s sort of a painting by numbers, and painting – embroidering, cooking, and I don’t see why not writing – by numbers causes me to get bored, which causes my brain to shut down and next thing you know I’m asleep and drooling on the keyboard. Note I’m not claiming this as any form of moral superiority. Heck, my dears, if I COULD do it, I would. I’m quite smart enough to see this sort of thing in the market, and if I COULD do it, I could be not only a bestseller but very, very wealthy. And though I don’t write to be wealthy, a little wealth and respect would give me loads of times to write the other stuff I’d like to write.

But I’m not talking about theme, really. Or the sort of elements that could constitute writing to market or not. Oh, theme is part of it. I wrote eight books no one will EVER buy, simply because I violated rule number one (below.) BUT writing a theme people want to see is not the same as writing to market, according to latest bestsellers. And it certainly is not writing things you have no interest in, or force yourself to write, for the sake of “market.”No, it’s more basic than that – it’s more in how you introduce your book. How you put each sentence in, with the idea of what the person on the other side is getting. You might know your character is a nun, for instance, but if you start the book with her putting on bright red stiletto heels and never explain it, but just think this makes her a “complex” and “multifaceted” character, don’t come crying to me when your reader doesn’t get it.

The point here is that you know more about your world and characters than ever goes on the page, so if you are putting things down, you are not seeing them for the first time. You have no idea if this is “the kind of book I want to read” or not. It’s entirely possible coming at a stranger’s book with the same character putting on red heels, you’d read to see if it was explained, and when it wasn’t, you’d throw sister Charity Jewel and her red heels against the wall.

You can no more read your books as if they were a stranger’s than you can stand at the window and watch yourself walk by.

So, what can you do? Besides developing a few unstinting readers, as honest with criticism as with praise, when deserved. You can heed the rules of the Sarah.

1 – Thou shall know the boundaries.What does this mean? Well, you will become aware of what is considered “normal” in your culture, and you’ll not violate it without just cause. You’ll become aware of what’s normal sex, say, as portrayed in books. And normal violence. And normal science. And normal… Am I suggesting here you confine yourself to the median? No. I could no more confine myself to the median than I could develop wings and fly. HOWEVER you have to be aware of the uttermost boundaries of what you can do and still be read by a large number of your intended readers. This can be difficult if you read very widely as I do. What’s acceptable in main stream, in sex, politics, science or violence is completely different than what is acceptable in science fiction, and again in mystery and in different subgenres of mystery. (For instance, if you have a torture-murder in a cozy, it BEST be off screen and even the body not shown in full horror.)Mostly, because in every culture these are hot points, this boils down to 1 a) though shalt not push the ew in sex without just cause. Thou shalt be aware of penalties if thou dost. b) thou shalt not push the ew in violence and thou shalt know when thou dost, and why.I’m not saying sometimes you shouldn’t for shock or horror, or for whatever reason. The ew factor is a very powerful emotion. Just don’t invoke it till book goes against wall, and DO NOT think you’ll escape paying for it. The penalty might be people thinking you’re pervy or your being known as the lady who wrote sex with a dragon. OR it might be losing half of your potential readers. Or, as in the case of my first – written – series, it might be never getting published at all. Proceed with caution.

2 – Thou shalt, right off the gate, let these people know who where and when they’re dealing with. Also, if possible, which genre and subgenre. This is very important, very subtle, and has to be done at the same time as hooking the reader.Say I start a story by describing a man being mean to someone. This is my main character, and you’re supposed to think he’s kind and loving. By the time you get to the scene where he’s kind and loving, your reader will think he’s insane. Ditto for your world. If you’re in the future, show us the spaceship or the robot BEFORE the oxcarts everyone is driving because of environmental regulations. Just pay attention to the picture you’re forming in the readers’ mind. Place your clues and cues intentionally, not devil-may-care. This is hardest and most important in the beginning, but you should keep half a mind at it throughout the story.

3 – Thou shalt foreshadow.Yeah, yeah, I know. But… but… but… the big twist when your character goes insane and kills his former friend is supposed to be a shock, a surprise, a totally mind-blowing denouement.Right. And in real life it does happen that way – or not. Read the biographies of any serial killer, and you’ll see TONS of ignored warnings. When the worst happens, people are going “but he was such a nice man” even as they DON’T believe it. It’s partly to reassure themselves they say those things. Depending on the level of surprise you want, your foreshadowing can be more or less open. If less, though, be ready for people to tell you it “came out of nowhere” and again, you’ll lose readers.Look, books are not reality. Books are orderly. Reality is… not. If you want a story to make sense, you read a book. That means the story MUST make sense, and that you must expect the “reveal” even when you don’t and will be “really suprised”.

4- Thou shalt make sense.That means that if you got bored with your plot, and you want half of your characters to die crushed by rocks, you won’t do it. Or if you do it, you’ll go back and reforeshadow. You won’t create a whole mountain range of loose rocks you never talked about, just to kill your characters as they doubtlessly deserve. Ditto, your reserved character won’t become chatty. Your chaste character won’t become slutty. AND NO ONE WILL HAVE SUDDEN MADNESS AS A MOTIVATION FOR ANYTHING. Yes, that last one is a sore point. Not only does everyone who enters contests I judge think this is the ultimate in cleverness (It’s not.) BUT I’ve read more than a few professional mysteries that have this most unsatisfying of reasons as a motivation. Okay, I’m only a reader – even if LOUD – but let me tell you right now, if you do that, not only have you lost me as a reader, but I’ll make merciless fun of your plot EVERYWHERE. Unless you foreshadow the madness and the reason to go insane. To do otherwise always seems to me to be a shrinking in the face of evil, a childish belief no one would do evil unless they’re insane. You KNOW that’s not true. So why are you trying to treat readers like children?

5 – Thou shalt not have thy characters laugh or cry alone.I don’t care how much you love your characters, and how brilliant their jokes, sad their distress is. You will give your reader a reason to care. You will make sure the joke, the in-comment, the insanely funny bit of something is immediately obvious to your reader, even if you have to lay the ground work for ten chapters. Ditto for the crying, the loss, etc.Two of the MOST infuriating readings I EVER attended were the one where the woman was reading five characters of whom we’d never heard having a conversation full of in-jokes. This is where you’re going “say what?” “They who?” In the middle of laughing madly, she paused to tell us “helpful” things like “see, this is funny because he’s really a redhead.” Since it was the beginning of the book, she had no explained this to the readers either. The effect was of being held on the outside of a group that’s laughing and you don’t know at what. The other was a woman reading the story of someone attending her own funeral, and crying as she described how sad all the family members were. Since we knew neither the main pov character nor the people crying over her – nor, it must be added, the writer who was crying buckets while reading – the whole effect was of wanting to go away so these people could grieve in peace.

So, what other rules would you suggest? What gives you the most trouble in terms of thinking everyone should get it and being baffled when they don’t? How do you feel about sex with purple aliens? Have you now or will you ever write sex with dragons? Do you know if your ew-factor is average for your culture or too high or too low? Do you often skim over scenes of unimaginable violence in bestselling books, or do you find the violence too tame?

>Commas and me.

>

I spent the last few days going through book one of King Rolen’s Kin, doing the edits my UK editor had asked for.

Before I sent off the manuscript I read and re-read it. I had my husband read it, then I corrected it. I had my son, the mad-keen fantasy reader, read it and then I corrected it. Then I printed it up and read it and corrected it again.

It is amazing the silly little things that get past you. And then there are things you could just kick yourself for doing. For instance, all these years I’ve been writing about oriole windows. Not oriel windows. The first one is a type of bird.

And I had everyone drinking burgundy. I thought that was a type of wine, not specific brand, named after a place in France. Well, I knew it was a place in France but I thought it was also a type of red wine. Sigh.

A big thank you to my editor for spotting these things!

Then there are commas. You might gather from the title of this post that I am rather fond of commas. I know grammatically, there are places where it is optional whether you use them or not. And I guess I was one of those people who opted in, rather than out.

I find myself mentally putting commas into the pages of printed books. I also find myself reading happily away then, when I come across something that just looks wrong, I feel like I’ve tripped over it. It throws me out of the story.

We’ve been having a discussion on the VISION list about tricky words like ‘affect and effect’ or ‘that and which’. Here’s a web site. If you scroll down, you’ll see explanations for their use.

For instance I have a thing about ‘lay and lie’. I keep seeing it used in books and it sounds wrong to me. Chickens lay eggs, people lie down.

Then there’s the thing with apostrophes. I see them used where they shouldn’t be — on building signs, where people should know better. I get the urge to go around and correct the grammar on signs. It’s really rather sad. And don’t get me started on ‘it’s and its’.

Are there words that trip you up repeatedly? Do you have a thing about commas?

>One hell of a night out… the Pizza-man’s tale

>It was a dark and stormy night, which was about normal in these parts, when suddenly all hell broke loose! At least, part of hell broke loose, cheering and running. Gwaarg, the dog-headed demon in charge of the western perimiter hell-fence maintenance growled “F’kit!” furiously, as he saw the damned souls streaming out of the nether regions toward Taki O’Loughlin’s Irish Bar and Grill, Belly-Dancing Tuesday. He groaned as he set out after them. This would be another all-nighter. The only way of separating them from the rest of the patrons would be to listen to the accents, because merely looking for half-naked flayed-alive souls with white-hot scorpions clinging to their genitals was hopeless in that crowd once the Irish-Greek dancing started. Worse, he could hear the escapees practicing. “Begorrah!”, “Nancy-Wuskey!”, “Banshee!” Whuskey yee’r th’divil!” they bellowed eagerly in chorus, except for the one who was yelling “Mazeltov!” You always got one. No, that wasn’t true. There’d be at least three in the pub, and while it might seem perfectly justified, he’d get yowls of outrage from human resources and a ream of paperwork if he took anyone too soon, or, as unlikely as it might seem, someone who wasn’t heading for hell at all, but was just delivering pizza. And in a pub with shamrock-covered plastic tablecloths, delivering in pizza (even with anchovies)was considered a penance, as Gwaarg had found out last time.

Heh. Ok so I was taking a few moments to write a prologue to poke fun at Elmore Leonard’s ‘rules’- except for being Margret Atwood, which, as I am perfectly happy to write science fiction (with or without conversational cosmic calamari) I cannot imitate. They’re actually not bad guidelines, just not ‘rules’. Before I was so distracted the thing I was going to write about was food. Now, as we sort-of-I-hope proved up there, one man’s terrible and boring and another’s entertainment vary. One of my own pet entertainments is putting food into my books. It’s such fun prising the pages apart later, trying to work out the squished splotches might once have been. It’s also a good way of getting roaches to edit out paragraphs that you wish you’d never written or even read.

Actually, on that charming, appetising note… what I meant writing was about food. Now, as the sort of person who reads recipe books for light entertainment, I will admit to being a little biased here. The landscapes of my worlds are colored by food (and occassionally drink. I have come across red wine that permanently stained concrete, let alone the worlds of my imagination). They’re a window to fill in on some of that descriptive guff I am (thank you Mr Leonard) generally quite sparse on. I have this odd idea that they appeal to different set of senses than ones involved in looking at scenery – But I could be wrong. What is your take, folks? Do you like food in books to be described, and had you noticed that I do so? (So does Sarah, for what it is worth).