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Sunday, April 30, 2006

"As You Know, Bob..."

The Turkey City Lexicon, A Primer for SF Workshops, is an eminently useful checklist of typical errors and bad writing clichés that turn up in science fiction writing workshops.

Bookmark it.

Do you attend writing workshops? They can be a lot of fun, and you can learn a lot. Well, it depends on the people who attend it. Come to the workshop with an open mind and open ears.

This Wikipedia entry lists several well-known writing workshops and links to them.

As for myself... I live in Scandinavia and can't find workshops near where I live. So I'll have to manage with the Baen's Universe Slushpile for peer review...

Monday, April 24, 2006

Stross On 1st, 2nd and 3rd Person Style

Acclaimed SF writer Charles Stross has posted an essay on the perspective-problem in fiction writing:
"Conjugate Characters, Not Verbs"

Authors and would-be authors take note: Stross analyzes one of the most difficult stylistic issues ANY writer can come up against. I wholeheartedly recommend his essay.

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And now for something completely different...

I love satire and parody, but I don't like "fan-fiction". I think it's a ******* immature thing to do. Grownups should not write fanfiction; if they are so ******* eager to be writers, they can ******* make up their own original ******* characters.

And now I read about this sad, sad, sad, sad... sad person who not only wrote her own fan-fiction novel set in the STAR WARS universe... but also published it on Amazon.com.

Someone called it an act of "weapons-grade stupidity". That pretty much sums it up, no?

Why do these things happen? I like to think that people are, on the whole, fairly sane. But apparently insanity can strike anyone, at any time. There you are, walking down the street with a clear eye and a sharp mind... and POW! you fall and hit your head.

When you wake up, dazed and confused, you find yourself possessed by a single hypnotizing notion: "I am INSPIRED! I must write a fan-fiction novel and readers will love it because I am so INSPIRED!"

Do not confuse "obsessed" with "inspired".

And don't even try to defend yourself with Special Pleading: "Yeah, of course I know about copyright and all that... but MY fanfic is different! It's as good as the original, in fact!" (Yadda yadda...)

ADDENDUM:
1. Robin Hobb explains why she is opposed to fanfiction.

2. A huge discussion about fanfiction over at Making Light.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Mark Twain on Fenimore Cooper

The essay/polemic "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895) by Mark Twain is a wonderful case of Karmic Retribution.

Have you ever thought that some books earn the author money and fame despite not being very good? Well, it happens. But please, this is no reason to get cynical and nihilistic. Awful books may surf the wave of the Zeitgeist for a while... but eventually the book's true qualities (or lack of them) will catch up. Many novels which were once praised as "masterpieces" and "art" and sold very well, have now fallen into into disrepute or been forgotten.

Take Fenimore Cooper, for example. Cooper's Western/frontier books Pathfinder, Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer were immensely popular in the 1800s and well into the 1900s.

But, as Mark Twain pointed out back in 1895, Cooper couldn't write worth ****. His essay is not only laugh-out-loud funny; it also provides several very good examples of writer pitfalls to avoid.

For example, lazy use of clichés:

"A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest.

"It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig.

"There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series."

(From "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" by Mark Twain)

There's more. Much more! Read and be wiser.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

19th-Century Essay: "How To Fail in Literature

Here's a real gem! Back in 1890, Andrew Lang held a lecture on "How To Fail in Literature", and the book of the lecture is now available for free at the Gutenberg Project.

I cannot do justice to Lang's satirical, often hilarious lecture in a single blog post -- so I suggest you simply dive into it.

Here are a few choice quotes from How To Fail in Literature:

"I regard failure as the goal of ignorance, incompetence, lack of common sense, conceited dullness, and certain practical blunders now to be explained and defined."

"The young author generally writes because he wants to write, either for money, from vanity, or in mere weariness of empty hours and anxiety to astonish his relations. This is well, he who would fail cannot begin better than by having nothing to say."

"The less you observe, the less you reflect, the less you put yourself in the paths of adventure and experience, the less you will have to say, and the more impossible will it be to read your work. Never notice people’s manner, conduct, nor even dress, in real life. Walk through the world with your eyes and ears closed, and embody the negative results in a story or a poem."

"If your book does, in spite of all, get itself published, send it with your compliments to critics and ask them for favourable reviews. It is the publisher’s business to send out books to the editors of critical papers, but never mind that. "

"Go on telling critics that you know praise is only given by favour, that they are all more or less venal and corrupt and members of the Something Club, add that you are no member of a côterie nor clique, but that you hope an exception will be made, and that your volume will be applauded on its merits. You will thus have done what in you lies to secure silence from reviewers, and to make them request that your story may be sent to some other critic. This, again, gives trouble, and makes people detest you and your performance, and contributes to the end which you have steadily in view."

"Perhaps reviewing is not exactly a form of literature. But it has this merit that people who review badly, not only fail themselves, but help others to fail, by giving a bad idea of their works. You will, of course, never read the books you review, and you will be exhaustively ignorant of the subjects which they treat. But you can always find fault with the title of the story which comes into your hands, a stupid reviewer never fails to do this."

(All quotes from HOW TO FAIL IN LITERATURE, by Andrew Lang)

Happy Easter! :)

P.S.: But you don't have to be illiterate to be illiterate! This article points out that even the "highly educated" are often awful writers:
Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write,
Courtesy of the Professoriate

Friday, April 07, 2006

When Genre Prejudice Spits You In The Face, Spit Back

If you write what you WANT to write, you shouldn't give a damn what people think about it.

At least that's the ideal. Ideals won't pay the rent, though...

If you like to write any kind of "genre" fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, crime/detective), you will find people who like those "genres"... and you will also encounter people who dislike your fiction simply because it carries a "genre" label.

Of course, tastes differ. I don't read romance novels (it's a guy thing -- you wouldn't understand)... and resent research seems to prove big differences in men's and women's literary tastes. You can't fight biology. I have no issue with that.

But despite differences in taste, I think "genre" labels are mostly a nuisance. They obscure just as much they illuminate. They perpetuate prejudices, and are often used as an excuse for shoddy workmanship.

Here's the skinny, dudes and dudettes: genre labels exist only to help readers and booksellers sort books by label. There is no inherent quality in the label itself!

It's a familiar complaint among science-fiction fans: as soon as a "mainstream" writer has success with a "genre" novel, the critics will pretend it's not "genre" fiction at all:

"If it's good, it can't be SF. If it's SF, it can't be any good."

But the fans are ALSO wrong. Let's look at genre prejudice from another angle.
There are "genre" fans who uncritically devour any crap that carries their favorite "label" -- be it SF, fantasy, crime, romance or "literary" fiction.
I find that totally unacceptable. Didn't I just tell you that there is no inherent quality in the label itself?

So I say: You cannot truly appreciate quality in fiction, unless you learn to rise above the idea of "genre labels". Someone tells you a book "belongs" to a genre. Why not simply ignore the label and ask: "Well, is the book any good?"

"Genre" fans, critics AND writers should stop being so narrow-minded: Genre is not important. Quality is. If you write pap, it's pap no matter what label you put on it.

Just because I write stories about time-travel, space aliens and supernatural terrors doesn't mean I want to get chummy with every person who writes lousy stories about time-travel, space aliens and supernatural terrors.

The same goes for "literary" fiction (just another "genre" label). I don't care if you won the Booker Prize: VERNON GOD LITTLE bored me and I couldn't drag myself through the entire first chapter.

But let's be nice. Tastes change, don't they? People change. They grow up. Our minds become more refined, more mature. Our favorite "themes" may not change much, but with age we require more depth, more realism... and above all, better grammar.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Short Stories Up For Review in the Baen Slushpile Messageboard

The new magazine BAEN'S UNIVERSE has created an original review system for stories submitted for review.

You might call it "outsourced editing": The writer posts a story on the Baen's Universe Slush messageboard.

Then the readers can log in, read the story and post their comments, suggestions and criticisms in the Slush Comments section. The writer reads the comments, posts revised versions of the story, and the process goes around until the story is deemed good enough for proper submission to the Editor.
The advantage of this system is that it provides writers with free editing. You get fast and specific feedback from readers, instead of waiting weeks or months for a brief reply from an editor.

Is this review system the wave of the future? You tell me...

I have recently posted THREE stories for review there:
"SEE", "The Five Fingers" and "The Battery Vanishes".


(You need to be logged in to read them, but it's free.)

UPDATE: a new, extended and somewhat changed version of "The Battery Vanishes" has been posted here:
http://bar.baen.com/WB/default.asp?action=9&read=80736&fid=65