What is . . . .

Last night, I was talking with Kate and some of our regular MGC readers about what I should write about today. We discussed several different possibilities but we kept coming back to a single topic and I signed off the internet, satisfied that I had my topic for this post. I finished editing the chapter I’d been working on and went to bed, knowing I’d be up early enough this morning to write the post. Then morning rolled around and after having a dearth of ideas last night, I find myself hit over the head with several new ones this morning thanks to a quick look at Facebook.

The first is thanks to our own Brad Torgersen. He linked to this article from Barnes & Noble about books publishers and editors want us to read in 2016. Brad’s question relating to the article had to do with the covers for the books from Tor. Take a look at the covers. Do they signal science fiction or fantasy to you? To me, they don’t. Two of them “read” literary. One reads as possible horror and the third has a simple contemporary fiction feel to it.

What struck me about the article even more than the covers was how different the editors from Tor described their recommendations when compared to the other recommendations on the list. Of the seven books on the list, the Tor editors start three of their blurbs with mentions of the awards the author has been nominated for or has won. One then goes on to talk about the “decorative blurbs” from other authors — before discussing what the book is about. Another starts with “For the discerning speculative reader and mainstream fantasy dabbler”. Huh? Again, this is before discussing the plot of the book in question.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but if someone is recommending a book to me, I want to know what the book is about and what genre it happens to be before knowing if the author is award-winning, etc. When I see things like “discerning speculative reader”, my first inclination is to move past that book unless I’m in the mood for something literary. I have nothing against literary fiction. I enjoy reading it from time to time. But it is only one part of my reading and even it needs to entertain me. This is something so many people seem to have forgotten. Literary doesn’t have to be boring. It can be thought-provoking even as it entertains. It can have a message — heck, any fiction can — without preaching. Most of us read for entertainment and for publishers to continue to survive, they need to remember that and quit thinking that those who are buying they books give one flip for how many awards the author has been nominated for.

Then came this article about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. No, this isn’t another opening salvo in whether Rey is a Mary Sue character or not. We can continue to debate that if you want on Saturday’s post. Actually, the article itself wasn’t so much what drew my attention as some of the comments I saw associated with it. I don’t remember who showed up on my FB feed with a link to the post but what made me follow through to it was their assertion that the problem with the movie was that, while entertaining, it didn’t go far enough to make us think. You see, it’s not enough to cast a female in the lead role or to have a person of color as a secondary lead. It wasn’t deep enough, intellectual enough. Apparently, it isn’t enough to have an entertaining movie any longer. It seems that is “dumbing down” our country.

What strikes me by comments like this is that those making them comes off not only as an intellectual snob (and I don’t doubt that most of us here at MGC have more letters after our names than many of these commenters) but they also suggest entertainment is not a good thing. This has been and still is one of the basic differences between the Sad Puppy supporters (I can’t and won’t talk for Vox and his supporters) and the Puppy-kickers. Despite what has been said by the other side, Sad Puppies are not against fiction having a message. We just want it to entertain us as it makes us think. If we — or any other reader — gets bored, we aren’t going to continue reading (or watching). But entertain us, subtly wrap your message in with your plot and character development and we will think about it, talk about it and enjoy it. And isn’t that what we, as authors, want? Don’t we want people to be entertained by our work, to think about it and talk about it?

Finally, we get to the topic that I was going to focus on when I sent to bed last night.

In one of the groups I belong to, someone posted a link to this article. Even though the headline for the post is “The Main Difference Between Urban Fantasy and Horror”, the actual thrust of the article is about the difference between the protagonist in UF vs Horror. According to the article, the difference is simple. An UF protagonist takes the supernatural in stride while the Horror protagonist doesn’t know how to react.

Urban fantasy characters generally take vampires and zombies in stride and react as competently as the reader would like to think they would do in similar straits.

Horror characters, on the hand, tend to freak out, panic, doubt their sanity, make unwise decisions,, or even descend into gibbering madness—which is probably the more realistic approach!

I happen to agree with the above explanation. In Urban Fantasy, the fantastic is part of the world and is usually known to the mundanes. Oh, the main character might not realize at the beginning of the story that the next door neighbor turns furry with the full moon or has a dietary need for hemoglobin but, once they get over their feelings of shock or betrayal, they accept it and move on. Why? Because that is the way the world of UF is built. Horror is different. For those characters, the supernatural is not a part of their world. It is something they might have read about or watched in the movies. But it wasn’t real — until it stood up and spat in their face.

(Now, I’m going to be vague here because the discussion took place in a private forum. I am not going to name names nor be specific about what was said. I ask that those who are members of that forum remember the rules and not be specific with your comments. Forum rules still apply.)

Horror strikes people differently. Some readers love it. Others can’t stand it. Some want to read it because it gives them an adrenaline rush. There are those who won’t read it for religious reasons. Others feel it is too depressing while some see it as glorifying the tenacity of the human spirit. Like any other genre, it has its fans and it haters.

However, one thing I will say is that any author writing good horror is anything but lazy. I can think of no other genre that requires more emotional manipulation of the reader than horror. The horror author has to pull the reader in, put his hand on the virtual heart of the reader and tug it, even as the other hand is wrapped around the reader’s throat, squeezing slowly and inexorably. The author has to create characters we want to see survive and win out over the supernatural threat, even as we hope at least one person gets eaten by the big bad.

Is horror depressing? It can be. But beyond that sense of helplessness the characters feel from time to time because they are so out of their depth, good horror includes the need to survive. There are often heroes who are willing to sacrifice themselves to save the others. As with any good fiction, you see the good and bad of humanity in the characters. This isn’t Buffy who suddenly learns she is the Chosen One sent to save the world. These are Everyday Joes and Janes thrust into a situation straight from their worst nightmares. Some will fall and fail. Some will go mad, unable to adapt and deal with what is happening to them. Some will prevail. Just as would happen in real life (at least I hope so).

So, is horror lazy writing? I don’t think so.

Is entertaining in a book or movie a bad thing? I don’t think so.

Is it necessary to make people think when reading your book or watching your movie? No, but if you can slip your message in in such a way that you make them think and still manage to entertain, cool.

Is it important to readers that authors are nominated or have won awards? Nope. Most readers don’t know what the Hugo or any other literary award is.

What is important to readers? In my opinion, a book that draws them in, keeps them entertained (if they are reading for entertainment) or holds their attention (if reading for any other reason) and if it makes them think too, all the better.

So, what do you think?

73 thoughts on “What is . . . .

  1. I tend to agree with most of your post. When it comes to SFF or any book in general I prefer the ones that blow my mind on an intellectual level and also have a fair bit of entertainment. I love Dune, Dan Simmons Hyperion, Pandora’s Star. Books that have a bit of heft on the intellectual side. That’s what I find entertaining. Of course I also enjoy your thriller, myster, and just fun fantasy adventure, but if I had to chose I would go for the heavier stuff. In my opinion a perfect writer combines both elements, makes us think and at the same time excites and entertains us. I think that’s where scifi succeeds. Take Star Trek, there’s a lot of heavy introspective episodes mixed in with some awesome starship battles and exploration, perfect blend.

    The part of the post I disagree with is the Star Wars thing. That movie was just downright dull. It was the movie equivalent of a bunch of forty something dudes trying to relive their bar drinking days. “Hey hey remember how awesome the desert planet was.. yeah lets do it again. Remember how awesome Ol Vader was, lets get another dude in a heavy breathing mask. Dude giant planet killing stations were awesome… lets get a STAR killing one!” JJ Abrams just refilms classic scenes from older and better movies, while he does it proficiently, he lacks the emotional understanding and context of the originals.

    1. Well there’s this method. Winterwood, by Jacey Bedford (February)
      Meet Ross Tremayne, a swashbuckling, crossdressing, female pirate captain, and Corwen, a clever and capable love interest whom Ross—and the meddlesome ghost of her late husband—don’t trust. Then, there’s the matter of the magical winterwood box she inherits from her estranged mother, a box that represents the accumulated sins of her ancestors. As she struggles to right an ancient wrong, she also has to worry about her crew and her country: 1800s Britain, where Mad King George is on the brink of war with Napoleon Bonaparte. Winterwood is a perfect blend of magic, historical fiction, and romance—it truly has something for every reader. —Shelia Gilbert, Editor

      Take a book and throw everything in it and the description

        1. Not necessarily. Not to be insulting, it sounds like someone inspired by The Pirates of the Caribbean series, which isn’t a bad thing. Michael Crichton was evidently inspired by the same thing, and I enjoyed his take on pirates.

          If the above is the actual blurb, that’s the issue. The novel could have all of it and be just fine.

          1. Okay, I thought it was a good blurb, makes me want to find the book. So, what is wrong with it? Since blurb writing is an art, best to know what is pop art and what is classic.

            1. My critique is ther’s too much tell and not enough show. Think of a blurb as a movie trailer, and re-read the blurb in a mental “movie trailer dude” voice. I’d have played down the alt-hist setting and the ghost, and pushed the curse box aspect, but that’s just me.

              1. Yes. What’s there comes off as a laundry list. Woman protagonist? Check. Pirate? Check. Cross-dresser? In love with a “bad” boy? Check. Ghost? Check. Cursed object? Check. Ancient wrong to the righted? Check. War to tend to? Check. Imagine the laundry list approach to selling The Pirates of the Caribbean? It dulls it down. It’s particularly irritating because anyone with a passing knowledge of pirates knows that woman pirates often wore men’s clothes.

                Crichton had an outright transsexual pirate in Pirate Latitudes, as well as cannibals and a black pirate. None of it is listed in the blurb. What the blurb does mention is setting (Carribean, 1665), the situation (English colony in a struggle against the Spanish empire), main character, the aims of the main character (Spanish galleon loaded with gold), the main enemy (an infamous Spaniard), and a teaser: “The raid is as perilous as the bloodiest tales of island legend, and Hunter will lose more than one man before he even sets foot on foreign shores, where dense jungle and the firepower of the Spanish infantry stand between him and the treasure . . .”

                There’s very little of this in the blurb about Winterwood. What’s it about? The ancient wrong? The cursed box? The ghost of her husband? Her current love? Possibility of war with France? What? We don’t know, but there’s a hint in the last sentence: “Winterwood is a perfect blend of magic, historical fiction, and romance—it truly has something for every reader.” Historical romance with a fantasy twist. If that’s the case, play up the romance angle and drop all that’s unnecessary.

              2. Exactly, where the show and tell is concerned. Even in a blurb, you need to give a sense of the characters and what they face, not just “tell” it to the potential reader.

          2. Agreed it could be interesting, but the blurb itself leaves me shuddering. Too many buzz words and too many ideas thrown in for just a blurb.

    2. The Trifecta for awesome stories are those that entertain, educate, and leave you with a message. Oh, to scrabble up a recent example, “The Martian” was a solid survival tale with humor sprinkled all through. It dropped info about Mars, about cutting edge space programs, and NASA bureaucracy. And left you going “Yeah, that’s right. Risking lives and losing them would have sucked, but not even trying would have been massively worse. Massively.”

    3. You hit on my one real complaint with the movie. I missed having the Vader-type of character. Yes, Snoke has been set up as the big bad but, for this movie at least, he was too much like the Emperor. We know he is there, pulling the strings. But where is his strong right arm? Vader served that purpose in the first three movies and you always had the feeling (at least I did) that Vader could turn on the Emperor and take the reins of power himself. Whether he did or not, he was still one of those villians you loved to hate. Kylo Ren — meh. He came across as a spoiled brat who would never grow up to be anything close to Vader because someone would kill him first.

  2. I saw that list and immediately noticed the length of the blurb/description for the TOR novels compared to the rest.

    Was that a purposeful snub or some such?

    The Baen ones were essentially, “it’s a book”.

      1. This was a what are the publishers and editors recommending. Baen probably figured the readers can tell if they want to look at a book by looking at the cover and reading the blurb and doesn’t see any need to “sell” a message or particular author because they genre-bend or some other nonsense.

  3. Will go back and click on some links, but the first thing that leaped out at me was the assertion that The Force Awakens doesn’t make you think. I haven’t seen it, but I have read the spoilers, and there seems to be plenty of food for thought there, and not just if any character is Mary Sue.

    The way Tor is appealing to ego is a strong tip-off of declining sales and that they are unable to compete on story. First is pushing awards. Second is pushing the “discerning reader” thing, which is an admission that relatively few are likely to read the book. It’s like those “haute cuisine” places that sell – no, have a “presentation” – of minuscule portions to “discerning” customers, when right around the corner you can get more and better food at reasonable prices,* The main draw is the self-congratulatory idea among the patrons that they are special and not like all the “rabble” who go to the other places.

    The observation of horror is dead-on. I’ve tried to read a lot of Stephen King’s short fiction, not because I like him or that I’m a huge fan of horror, but because he knows his craft. I don’t know if horror is any more difficult if you have a certain frame of mine, but it isn’t easy. The easiest fiction is message fiction, because there’s always those who read message fiction for the message first, and the fiction second. This holds for any message fiction. I have toyed with the idea of strictly Christian fiction, not because I feel led in that direction, but because, as message fiction, there’s a lower bar.

    *Been there, done that, on business trips were we were wined and dined on haute cuisine. Fortunately, in one city, we knew of a family restaurant just two blocks away, and that’s where we headed when we could. Delicious steaks; fine atmosphere.

    1. I agree that _too much_ “Christian Fiction” is tedious “message fiction.” It doesn’t have to be. My first book, was “Christian Fiction,” but doesn’t push a “message.” People unabashedly pray, and act like Christians, but it*s part of what/who they are.* A short (?) and a full book are both Christian based (in the Con Universe, and IMO better theology), but still “good stories.”

      1. Never said there wasn’t good Christian fiction, only that the bar is lower. You have books like The Sugar Creek Gang, but there is also many, particularly short fiction, that’s terrible. But it gets a pass because of the message.

        I was tempted to release one this year, but it really needs work because it doesn’t quite say what I want it to say. The main story is the relationship of a condemned man with his guard, but where it’s weak is how the condemned man changes in attitude. That constitutes the “message” more than the change in the guard, and that message is straight up Christian. But consider that an editor suggested, out of the blue, that I go indie with it as is as Christian fiction.

        Somewhere, years ago, I came across an article that asked if Christians are required to like poor fiction as long as the message is Christian doctrine. It was more of an open question, but it raised a valid point.

        1. -I came across an article that asked if Christians are required to like poor fiction as long as the message is Christian doctrine.-

          The answer I got from several people of faith of my acquaintance was an inferred ‘yes,’ same with the ‘faiths’ of feminism, environmentalism, etc. Who cares if the story’s good? So long as it’s doctrinally sound.

          But then came the bitter, bitter comment fights about said doctrinal soundness, again from critics of various beliefs regarding their message fic of choice.

        2. My old pastor once read a Martin Luther quote that has become my writing mantra. To paraphrase, it essentially said that the cobbler doesn’t please God by putting little crosses on all the shoes he makes but by *making good shoes*. That’s my goal now: to make “good shoes”. Solid, strong stories that are infused with the values that come from my worldview, not preachy message fiction.

  4. When I see “discerning speculative reader” I immediately think of the line from Spinal Tap explaining the band’s declining audience : “their appeal is becoming more selective”.

  5. Yeah, it’s hard to be competent in fighting the “evil monster” when you only know of the “evil monster” from fiction.

    Of course, it would be really really hard fighting the vampire when you’ve only read about the misunderstood romantic vampires. [Very Big Evil Grin]

    1. And my Node of Perversity immediately insisted that we need stories of vampires who present themselves as misunderstood, and once they’re accepted, reveal their true nature… and to make it a bit more scientific, we prefer the blood of young virgins because it tastes better due to the high levels of certain hormones.

      1. Between the sample of C. C. Chancy’s (a.k.a. Vathara) A Net of Dawn and Bones, and what I know of Vathara’s other stories, I imagine Net’s vampires are as you describe. Except for the hormone bit, but if you’ve read her Project stories you know that wouldn’t be beyond her.

    2. Nah. You just shove them outside and watch them sparkle. Then, when they go into their next emo whine, you shove the wooden stake through their hearts. It wouldn’t be so much to kill them as to end your suffering in having to listen to them whine one more minute. VBEG

  6. Agree on horror. I read GRRM’s “The Sandkings” and it was a few days before I could read anything else in that collection, it spooked me so much. The protagonist is a jerk, the author shows the MC jerkitude from the first page, and you are torn between wanting everything to come out OK, and . . . Eh, I’ll stop there because spoilers, but there’s a reason I remember it so well.

    The covers . . . None of them read sci-fi or urban fantasy. The blurbs . . . the first two are useless to me the reader. The others are OK to decent. And the Baen blurbs? I think someone’s snit is showing. 😀 The other covers and blurbs are decent to workable (and allow me to say that I’m surprised N. Novik is finally ending the series. I thought it would go on forever, like some of the Westerns do.)

    1. Yes. I read The Sandkings in Omni, and it’s a very good story. Note how it sets up the story and draws you in right from the start.

      Been thinking about the whole urban fantasy/horror aspect this morning, since I’ve toyed with an urban fantasy idea that just doesn’t gel right. Since mostly it was among the denizens of the fantastic, there wasn’t much horror aspect. Horror happens where the mundane collides with the fantastic.

      But for urban fantasy to work, the fantastic either has to be rare, or at least not significantly endanger the mundane. If there was a large number of vampires that preyed on humans, it would be hard to coexist with human neighbors. A small number, scattered in locations where feeding on humans wouldn’t draw much attention, might work. Otherwise, they have to be toned down some.

      But does toned down mean you can’t have horror? The film sequel to Hellboy has some horror elements and explains why humans aren’t dying in droves, but concentrates more on action.

  7. Okay. Clicked on the B&N link, and noticed Baen led with author praise in a few cases as well. The only difference seems to be that in the Baen instances the author is already popular. They’re going to sell books just by their name. In this case the author is the draw more than the story. When the author is unknown, the story should lead.

  8. If those are the frontlist for the houses, that’s an interesting direction for cover art in 2016. We’ll see if they’re leading trend or not, eh?

    1. Tor wants to be the “thinking man’s publisher”. Let them. They will find out soon enough — heck, they should already be reading the signs in their profit and loss reports — that people still want to be entertained, not preached to. If a book cover doesn’t appeal to a reader, and doesn’t trigger an identification with its genre, it isn’t going to help sales any. But they will have literary covers and demand we like them.

  9. “Suitable for both adults and older teens, An Accident of Stars by acclaimed newcomer Foz Meadows is a portal fantasy that will leave fans of progressive epic fantasy begging for more. With an interesting cast of strong female leads and worldbuilding on a Kameron Hurley-esque scale, we just can’t wait to see how this series will develop.”

    “Kameron Hurley-esque”? “Progressive epic fantasy”? Sign me up! *eyeroll*

      1. Sure. The Patriarchal Lord of the White Land sends forth his Legions of Pale Privilege to oppress and misgender the non-binary people of Multicultural-Earth. Fortunately, a plucky band of racially and sexually diverse genderfluids go on a quest to Occupy the White Land and tear down the hegemonic power structure.

        Now, you won’t actually sell many copies, but you will get at least three articles a month dedicated to your work at Tor.com, guaranteed.

    1. “Buzz words! Cross pollinating hype! It’s all sanitized, deboned, and perfectly wrapped! PLEASE PAY ATTENTION!”

  10. The prequels were a transparent excuse to market a bunch of crap.

    The new movies? A more polished and technically proficient excuse to market a bunch of crap.

    And I never would have imagined it, but I think Star Wars is finally dying as a brand. We’ve got an entire generation who grew up with the prequels, who never had the emotional impact of Darth Vader’s mystique and who never got the gut-punch surprise of the ‘I am your Father’ moment.

    Now we’ve got the new movie, a carbon copy of IV, and putting a focus on the first movie not as an achievement or a landmark, but just a product, understand what I’m saying?

    Sure, the new movie made tons and tons of money, but somehow I don’t think that’ll hold as true for future installments. The whole thing just doesn’t seem to mean much anymore.

    1. It’s been a “product” since the original third movie. The sad thing is that it could have been much better and made more money if Lucas would have hired a decent writer or two after Empire. Shame I don’t live in that timeline.

      1. That’s probably the timeline Larry introduced us to in Tom Stranger, where Firefly went a bunch of seasons and kickstarted the Libertarian Cowboy Revolution.

        1. The subsequent Star Wars movies were best in the timeline where Evil Reagan won, and bloodily purged Hollywood of communists, child molesters, and drug addicts.

      2. if Lucas would have hired a decent writer or two after Empire

        Well, Brackett was already dead. I wonder if Bradbury could have channeled her as well in a movie script as he did in the second half of Lorelei.

      3. Chris, have you ever read the Secret History of Star Wars articles about Lucas’s wife, and her influence? There’s your missing “Decent Writer”.

        1. I read those after I developed my theory of Lucas didn’t care as long as he made mad money and had nubile starlets give him sexual favors. Turns out both of those hypothesis were correct. Nothing validates egos like massive cash flow.

  11. I think horror has always had a close relationship with fantasy. Both involve taking characters and putting them into situations where they’ve stepped out of the mundane, where they’re in a place where strange things happen.

    It’s just that in fantasy, the prevailing sentiment is wonder, while in horror, it’s: “Let me out of here!”

    They even overlap. Like in the 1977 movie “The Last Wave,” where the main character (and the viewers) are so caught up with the wonder of what’s happening that they almost forget the trap springing shut.

    I think Lovecraft said it best: The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones and a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain: a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature that are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

    1. I’m not much of a fan of horror, but quality horror seems harder to craft than quality fantasy.

  12. If I read fiction, I need to be entertained. Message is secondary. Message I can get from non-fiction. (Sometimes entertainment too, but not everybody jones about physics and geology.)

    Over the years I’ve developed a few preferences. Sometimes I want the entertaining “textual crystal meth” that is a Butcher or Cherryh novel. Other times I want the entertaining depth charges of insight and social themes from Banks, Modesitt or Barnes. I’ve grown to expect a certain quality and craftsmanship, no “Ancillary-Da Vinci Code” goop for me.

    This year, I’ve added one more requirement. The authors that I reward with my dollars, praise and recommendations need not to be saints, but I’ll be damned if I support pederasts, SJWs, low quality and that ilk. I’m not proud of the genre the way I was in the past after many of the skeletons of the past and present have been dug out of the closet.

    1. I have a hard time taking those who continue to promote and protect the pederasts and their supporters seriously, especially when they are the ones condemning the likes of Brad and Larry and others for not adhering to the right think.

  13. On a side note: there’s horror and there’s horror. There’s the fun, exploitative butchery that gives you a couple jump scares and you laugh about it, and then there’s the stuff that makes you want to kill yourself or burn down the planet because you don’t want to live in a world where this could be conceived of (and you don’t want the world where this is possible to exist either).

    But even that I can appreciate for the art of it. And the thing about effective horror is that the creators have to actually put forward characters and situations that the consumer actually likes. Even Lovecraft could be effective, though he didn’t think much of people in general, because he loved the New England of his time and was terrified and depressed at the prospect of seeing it lost.

    That’s why these more existential horror writers don’t really do it for me: they don’t seem to care about their characters, and they can’t make me care about them either.

    But there’s one thing I can’t stand: when the horrendous events are portrayed as a good thing. I can take reading about or watching a bad thing happen, but when I get the vibe that the creators (not characters in the story, the actual creators) are trying to portray this as good, well that’s the line in the sand.

  14. Maybe someone can explain this to me …

    “Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt … We’re thrilled to be publishing his first novel in English, Hex, which was a bestseller and award winner in the Netherlands and has been expertly translated and recast in upstate New York.”

    If the novel already was a bestseller & award winner in the Netherlands, then WHY does it need to be recast in upstate NY?

    There seems to be a presumption that American audiences are incapable of identifying with non-American people/places (look at how Harry Potter was translated from British English to American) …

      1. I’d have totally bought that book based on the title alone.
        (Then been incredibly pissed when it wasn’t funny.)

      2. Aaaaand now I need to think of a plot that I can use that title for…maybe a spoof of the paranormal romance genre…

    1. According to NYC publishers, as best I can tell, American and Canadian readers can’t identify with modern European settings unless the books are Scandinavian mysteries.

      Or maybe the Dutch cultural aspects would have required so much description and additional background that the translator, author, and publisher agreed that he should re-set the book into upstate NY. *shrug* If it were in German I could go look it up and see what the “problem” was, but I don’t read Dutch that well (to put it mildly).

  15. One of the things you said Amanda, really rang a bell for me, and for me at least, I think, puts what Sad Puppies has been saying into perspective.

    “Message” means “Preaching” in most people’s minds. People generally don’t like to be preached at; unless they think they are in the choir. People do like to be entertained, that has come across fine, unless they think entertainment is sinful (atheist or not). But, the subtle thinking woven within the threads of the story, that is what draws the dedicated reader (Dedicated readers, actually read more than what is on the top 10 list, or what their best friend just read, to be included in the club). If you don’t want to think, you just watch reality TV, and sitcoms, which are the same thing. A well told story is a parable. There are layers of entertainment, stitched with little tidbits to make you think. There is a different/continuing/hidden story at every level of understanding, from the top level of “that’s cool/awesome/horrific/amazing” to the deep levels that have you recalling phrases and dissecting them over lunch three days after you finish the book, and coming up with more bits and pieces.

    So, people don’t want fiction that TELLS you what to think whether or not it entertains; they want entertaining fiction that ENCOURAGES you to think for yourself.

    1. Thank you. And you are right. I want something that encourages me to think, even if it makes me question what I’ve thought or believed about something. But tell me what I ought to think and I will dig my heels in and stop reading.

  16. What I found interesting was the blurb for “Hex.”

    Now, Heuvelt is a fantastic example – of someone who has absolutely no clue of how to write science fiction or fantasy. (Not bad at emotional scenes, although I don’t know; that may have been the translation. Someone who knows Dutch can inform me?)

    The fascinating bit, though, is that Tor apparently decided that they needed to not only translate whatever this undoubted piece of tripe is – they also had to “recast” it to upstate New York! Apparently, their “discerning readers” can’t really handle a story set in a small Dutch town. Just can’t relate to it.

    (Of course, to the denizens of New York City, the remainder of New York State is just as much “flyover country” as is Nebraska. So the “recasting” may very well also have the purpose of demeaning the “uncultured” that they find themselves sharing a State with.)

  17. I believe that is _is_ (generally) a “lazy” writer that writes “Horror.” Anyone that experienced *real* hopelessness knows how “easy” it would be. Putting an MC in the middle of an ocean, no land/rescue in sight, forcing them to swim in any direction, with no hope of rescue. What takes *work* is to put land barely in sight, and describing how it feels to grow weaker, and wonder if they make it.
    The problem is that all are taking “lazy” as _incompetent_, which it is *not.* Let’s use this example. Gardener A spends 100 hours, planting, weeding, and harvesting. 1 hour panting seeds randomly, 49 hours hoeing/weeding, and 50 hours “harvesting.” Gardener B spends 10 hours plotting where plants will go, 4 hours planting, and _10_ hours hoeing/weeding. But, He/she spends *76* hours harvesting, with minimal effort. Which is “lazy?” I say that _both_ are, but one is productively “lazy.” To get the same “output” A has to spend far more time than B.
    If Michelangelo had done statues of tortured people, would that have , changed his talent? No, but it _would_ have been easier than uplifting ones He could look around and find lot’s of depressing material. Instead, he created beauty that even the “hopeless” could admire and be uplifted by. Spending *far* more time and effort, to create them.
    Maybe it’s the people I’m around, but we’ve seen real horrors. I’ve fought to keep an accident victim alive, where the extra minutes for _police_ to confirm he’s injured, could mean (literally) life or death. I’ve had to _walk away_ from people dying, because *I couldn’t help them,* except by getting assistance from others. I’ve been *1/10th* of a second from dying, with *no* hope that anyone would know why. I’ve gone into situations with *no* guarantee of survival, to protect others. So, I know “hopeless.”
    Explaining how someone fights (and wins) in that situation is much harder. You “win,” if in no other way, by digging deep, and showing why you fight anyway.Sometimes, so that *no one else will have to.*
    To me, UF is Horror with *hope.* The Hope/willingness to stand for _something *greater*_ than self.

    1. Horror is one thing; hopelessness is another. Really, horror must exploit hope. Nor does horror require that said hope be in vain. It can be, to heighten the effect, but hope in some form must exist even if it’s to yank out from beneath the feet of the reader.

      All of us, after enough years, see enough bad things, but bad things is not necessarily horror. I wear metal framed glasses because that’s what stopped a chainsaw from splitting a friend’s head down the middle when it kicked back. The doctor shined a light up his nose to examine the damage, and it shone out of the wound on his forehead. Gory, yes, but not necessarily horror. A friend in school lost his legs to a grain auger. Gory, yes, but horror? Gore can be exploited for horror, but gore in of it self is just, well, gory.

      Horror must have some element of fear. One of the most basic is to be hunted. Then there’s sickness, insanity, and unpleasant death. This can be by supernatural means (your basic vampire yarn), or completely natural (your basic serial killer movie). Really, it’s anything that unnerves us, writ large. But to exploit this, horror must make the reader care about the characters, and here hope is required, for unless someone is exceedingly perverse, they’re going to read the story to see if the characters make it out alive.

    2. Walter, you are the one who used the term lazy and my response was to that term and not to “incompetent”. I also suggest you are wrong. A lazy writer cannot put a character in what you call a hopeless situation and keep a reader’s attention if they won’t put the time into their craft to build the tension, set the scene and give us something to care about.

      You also seem to equate all horror with hopelessness. Believe me, that isn’t the case. As Kevin or one of the others commented above, horror can have elements of hopelessness in it but it also has hope. It isn’t a main character finding themselves in a situation and then throwing their hands up and giving up. The story would be over very quickly if they did that.

      Horror is one genre where the author has to be able to connect to the reader on an emotional, even in some cases instinctual, level most other genres don’t have to. That means you have to put your characters and your reader through the emotional wringer. Whether it is trying to outwit the serial killer or escape the monster from Hell, you have to have that emotional roller coaster.

      I think you are operating under a misconception of what “horror” is when it comes to genre fiction. According to Wikipedia, “Horror fiction, horror literature and also horror fantasy are genres of literature, which are intended to, or have the capacity to frighten, scare, or startle their readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Literary historian J. A. Cuddon has defined the horror story as “a piece of fiction in prose of variable length… which shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing”.[1] It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is frequently supernatural, though it can be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society.” There is nothing in this definition about helplessness or hopelessness.

      Horror Writers Association notes that the definition of horror when it comes to literature has changed over time, most recently because of the flood of books fitting a certain format by the major publishers. This is where, in my opinion, indie publishing has helped the genre. Writers are going back to what the heart of horror is. One thing HWA notes on its site that I think is important for all of us to remember is this: “What makes horror literature so pervasive is that its need to evoke the necessary atmosphere and sense of emotional dread is utterly dependent on who we are as readers — as people. As children, we might be afraid of the shadows looming from a half-closed closet door or of the monster we believe lies under the bed. Terrors of the imagination run wild at that age. As adults, our fears become more sophisticated, more grounded in worldly events. They become the death of a loved one, the terminal illness of a small child, the fear of our lives running out of our control. Horror, by nature, is a personal touch — an intrusion into our comfort levels. It speaks of the human condition and forcibly reminds us of how little we actually know and understand.”

      Again, nothing about helplessness and hopelessness. And it certainly does not look like a genre where you can be “lazy” in your writing, not if you want to keep your readers entertained.

  18. There is quite a bit here to comment on. I will start with horror.

    Horror is not for everyone. I’m a horror fanatic. I love it. Print, movies, video games, I want it all. I will also admit that I am a bit of a snob about the horror I enjoy, and what I define as good horror. There are times that I want that dark ending, where everyone dies, the bad guys win, and horror gives that to me. Horror in print is also vastly different than horror in film or video games.

    In print, the author has to draw you in, build this world that you inhabit for a while, create the mood and feel that a good horror movie can. Clive Barker is one who can do this quite well.

    I will also say, there is a parallel in the movie making world with print when it comes to horror. For the most part, indie horror movies are vastly superior to the main stream movies being made. The indie movies are more psychological in their horror for the most part, concentrating on story, drawing the viewer in, and not delivering the easy and cheap “GOTHCA!” scare, while the mainstream movies are not.

    It is also a genre that I am careful in recommending to people. I wouldn’t tell all of my friends to read Clive Barker, as his stories are not for everyone, but I enjoy them greatly.

    Now, the covers of the books and the blurbs.

    All the ones from Tor do nothing for me. They don’t make me want to pick them up and read the blurb on the back, or on the inside flap. They don’t say “Science Fiction/Fantasy” to me at all, so I would just pass them up, unless I had someone I trusted recommend it to me.

    As for the blurbs, I don’t care what awards the author has won, I just want to know what the book is about.

    I do get it though, that there is that segment that is trying to make sci-fi/fantasy more literary. Once upon a time they were sneered at, and looked down upon because they enjoyed reading science fiction and fantasy, and now that they have the power, they are going to make science fiction and fantasy the new literary juggernaut, even though that is not needed, as we nerds have taken over, and don’t need boring literature shoved down our throats.

    Finally, we come to message in fiction, be it in movies or print.

    When George Romero made Night of the Living Dead, there was a message in that movie. There has always been a message in Romero’s zombie films. A message about society, but it for the most part is subtle, and doesn’t detract from entertaining people who like zombie movies.

    As long as I am entertained, and I am not knocked out of the story, then it doesn’t matter what your message is, because I will ignore it if I so choose. Stop entertaining me? Well that is a cardinal sin, and one that cannot be forgiven.

  19. None of those Tor books sounded appealing at all. Guess I’ll stick to Brandon Sanderson when it comes to Tor. God bless his prolific soul.

  20. A book built as a carrier for a narrow message = propaganda.
    It has produced some great posters and that is about it.

  21. When I startee reading genres of the fantastic, I never dreamed that the most important thing in works will be the following characteristics. Can I be permitted to quote, not from any article you mentioned but from one award recommendation list –
    *This wonderfully gender positive and sexually diverse tale doesn’t make a big deal about its topics.*
    *This one from an established author -It’s 1974 in Atlanta, where Charlie Lam is having a very bad day. After being cursed by a homeless man, he finds himself slowly being transformed into what he hates and fears the most – a woman. Once an aggressor towards women, he finds that the tables have turned. Darkly humorous, and not for the squeamish, with a fair amount of body horror scenes, Go Deep is like “Metamorphosis” through a feminist lens, and satirically examines the source of harassment and oppression women face, every day.
    *This book is the most interesting exploration of gender I’ve read in ages. It’s a little hard to go into why without being spoilery, but suffice it to say that there are characters who change their assigned birth sex, and their assigned gender, and THEIR SOCIETAL GENDER, and all of this is happening in a faintly-renaissance world where gender ROLES are pretty firmly defined.
    *A meta-textual novel steeped in queer women, normalizing bisexuality.
    *Elderly transsexual male priest ministering to those left on earth after the supposedly ‘best’ part of humanity leaves for the stars. Explores gender (binary and non-binary, cis and trans alike) and “normative” versus “deviant” bodies, minds and lives – sick, disabled, trans, of colour, post-surgical, fat, mentally ill; also society’s priorities now and in the future, and the priorities of science fiction likewise.

    – and my special, a ”what what now, I have no idea waht half of these words should mean award” goes to-

    *A secondary world fantasy where queer relationships and non-binary individuals are normalised. The main character is a hermaphrodite in a commited asexual romantic relationship with an agender person, and the two form a polyamorous relationship with a CIS man over the course of the book.

    Also, did anyone read the blurb for a book that is brilliantly progressive space opera – to quote, I think Guardian – which compares the book as equla to Star Wars or Firefly – though I have no great love for each of them, I do not think they were about a bunch of people and creatures on space ship who discuss their relationships ad nauseam.

    This past year literaly soured me to the genres I loved the most. Thankfully I have a l;arge library of books, predating this progressive iterations of SF, Fantasy and Horror.

    ANd you know what makes me sad the most. These new authors, new books, they are not imaginative, they lack that feelings of joy when you see an author bringing to words some exceptional vision, ideas and concepts, These progressive writers write like a high schoolers writing an assignement, pompous flourishes of prose that dissolve into nothingess on even a casual critical glance. Everything is dark, gritty and disgusting. There is no glory, honor or beauty, either in characters or quality of works.

    If I am allowed to disagree with our esteemed host but – I can not comment on urban fantasy, because as in the case of steampunk, I am of a time when that labels meant something different, and I tend to read fantasy novles which have their plots occur in modern enivometn, but do not read paranormal detective stories, whch seems to take that title nowdays ,but as for Horror this cateogrization to me feels untrue –
    ”Horror is different. For those characters, the supernatural is not a part of their world. It is something they might have read about or watched in the movies. But it wasn’t real — until it stood up and spat in their face.”

    1. Oh, I forgot this gem, from a discussion about year in sf

      quoting tor published author

      Indeed! Kirkus Reviews mentioned that in their starred review of my book (subtle self-promotion there): “It’s refreshing to see such classically underrepresented groups overcome adversity and save the day in smart, sexy style.” The story where the world depends on a straight white man is instantly boring (or at least it should be… I still don’t understand what people saw in Jurassic World). The future is going to be diverse because the NOW is diverse.

      People I think saw in mentioned movie what i saw – Kids in peril! Dinosaurs! Jump scares! People leaving aside bickering and trying to save said kids from peril! AMazing action set pieces! Male character that was fun for a change – but movie The DUFF has a better male character of that type! Pulpy nonsencical plot! Two and a half jhopurs pass by without some propaganda!

  22. I think I went to that page a couple of days ago. I remember noticing that Tor and tor.com both had sections, which I thought was a little unfair to the others. I think the text came from various promotion departments, which explains the vastly different formats the blurbs took. That said, nothing in either the Tor or tor.com texts said that I would enjoy any of them.

    The main issue I had with the Baen offerings is the prevalence of Series. Those don’t give new readers an entry point (Especially when you see something is the 19th entry.)

  23. I should probably stay out of this, but… It’s New Year holiday season, and I’m avoiding other work right now. So… Let me say a few words about this notion of messages and entertainment. See, I’m a professor, teaching at the graduate level, in such weighty subjects as research methods, project management, and software engineering. So in a sense, my business is messages. I mean, I have messages that I need to get across to my students. I need them to understand and remember my messages, on a regular, even daily basis. Teaching is all about messages, right?

    Now, some people will tell you that I have the power of position — I’m a professor, after all! And I certainly have rewards and punishments available. I can give assignments, tests, and grades! So all I need to do is throw out those messages, and those students had better take it, right?

    Wrong. I work hard to get my students to listen, to pay attention, to understand and remember, and one of the main tools I use is entertainment. Scenarios, stories, metaphors… Those are the best tools I know to get the students thinking, and to help them build their information. I have to admit, I’m a constructionist — I don’t believe that I transmit information that magically fills the empty heads of my students. No, I believe I help them construct their own understanding, and stories are one of the easiest and most effective tools we use in that mutual effort.

    Let me give you an example, from this fall. In a class on research methods, we were going over internal validity, external validity, and reliability, which are important measures of how good your procedures or methods of doing research are. The class was struggling with the textbook definitions, so I tried a different approach. I asked them how they knew if their boyfriend or girlfriend really loved them? They stared at me, and I said, “All right, what’s the first question you need to ask them?” Someone chuckled, and said, “Do you love me?” I applauded, and said, “Exactly. Face validity, or internal validity! When he or she says I love you, then you have shown internal validity!” Now everyone was chuckling.

    Then I said, “But maybe that’s not enough? What else do you want them to do, besides just saying I love you?” Now the answers came quickly. Buy flowers, buy chocolates, buy me a diamond ring. I nodded, and said, “You’ve got it. External validity. Is there something external that we can compare it to? Yeah, a diamond ring seems like a pretty good criterion to compare that I love you with.”

    “Okay, what about reliability?” They looked a little puzzled, so I gave them that one myself. “Will you love me next week? Next year? Forever?” Their heads nodded, and I continued, “Will you love me in front of everybody, at the county fair, in the army, anywhere and everywhere? That’s reliability!”

    Now, that isn’t the textbook definition. But I know that when we did the review at the end of the class, they all mentioned my example, of saying I love you as internal validity, buying presents as external validity, and being willing to keep it up as reliability. And I would guess those students are never again going to have to think too hard to remember those three elements, and how to keep them separate.

    Frankly, I can get away with having much more explicit and “In your face” messages than most storytellers, simply because of my position and what I’m supposed to be doing. But even so, it works better if I don’t do that. I actually prefer giving my students scenarios and problems where they have to think about it and work out the answers — the messages — on their own. That way, they know what they did, they understand it, and they are far more likely to remember and use it in the future. And most of my students actually end up enjoying the classes, although I do occasionally end up with comments in feedback about wishing I would just tell them the right stuff. Apparently they have the common misunderstanding that the professor knows everything!

    So… My point really is that even in teaching, where relatively pure messages would be acceptable, it’s not the most effective approach. Sure, we can get away with flat statements. But to get and keep the attention of our students, to show them how what we are teaching is relevant to them, to build their confidence that they can use what they have learned, and to make it really satisfying for them — stories are the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. And stay down.

    In my opinion, at least.

  24. Personally, I found the Baen offerings and blurbs to be some of the least appealing. All I saw was “intimately familiar with this author’s work? You’ll like it.” None of it looked like something someone who was new to the genre would pick up, because you would need to have already read the previous installments. “The Dragon Hammer” looked interesting, and had the most ‘sales pitch’ blurb of the lot.

    The name- and book-dropping of the other titles gave me much more information than, “this is a fantasy.”

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