Entries in Writing (9)


NYRSF: Delany and Jemisin Read Sturgeon

The NY Review of Science Fiction hosted a tribute to Theodore Sturgeon last night, down in Soho. It was a delightful evening, introduced by Jim Freund (as per usual) with Sturgeon's daughter Noël giving background on the late author and the pieces featured. She also discussed a thirteen-volume series of all Sturgeon's published short stories, published by North Atlantic Books. Samuel R. Delany and Nora K. Jemisin were our two illustrious readers for the evening.

Samuel Delany read Sturgeon's piece "The Clinic", a wonderful story that begins as a strange case of amnesia related in the first person by a non-native speaker of English. The language of the piece is allusive and strange, revealing much about the character through words and pacing. It soon becomes clear that this is a story more about disability and difference than amnesia, a sensitive piece about beings displaced, finding a new home elsewhere.

In the Q&A that followed, it came out that Delany chose the piece himself; it was not one that Noël had originally selected because it was slightly on the longer side. But it's one that Delany found moving and real; it made him weep to read.  It was an example of Sturgeon's conscience, and Delany said he loved the language of it. It was language that made one stop and focus.

N.K. Jemisin read "Bianca's Hands", a difficult, poignant, wrenching piece about a young man who becomes obsessed with and marries a profoundly mentally handicapped woman, finding in her final release. The piece is woven thorough with extraordinary descriptions of the woman's hands, beings with lives of their own. I don't recall who it was who said the piece was in the horror genre, but that seems right.

Noël said that Sturgeon had written the piece in (going on memory here) 1939 but that it wasn't published until the late 40s. One person to whom he'd sent the piece refused to have anything to do with it, finding it repellent. And one can see why, given the undercurrents of violence and death that permeate the obsession at its center.

One of the most interesting discussions of the meeting came in the Q&A, when Jemisin said she found the piece to be about eros and thanatos, but without love. She felt that the veiled sexual violence inherent in the male protagonist's overtures were not loving, but something rather more sinister. Delany however had a different take. He felt that the protagonist's inability to get his own way (he was originally rebuffed by the woman's hands, that violently wrenched him away, injuring his wrist) and his willingness to wait patiently, showed that although he may have arrived with desire, he had learned to love. It took him nineteen days to do so rather than ten years, which points to this being a work of horror rather than something more mainstream, but nevertheless it was not simply an example of an erotic urge gone awry.

Jemisin also said in the Q&A that she valued the piece because it showed how a beginning author had to avoid hanging back with the narrative. How one had to be willing to go fully into the most wrenching, deepest emotion, and how that was difficult to learn how to do. I agree with her. The temptation in writing, particularly for someone starting out, is to tone things down and aim for respectability rather than emotional depth. That goes particularly for a cerebral genre like SF.

I plead guilty.

At any rate the readings were fantastic and a fitting tribute to Sturgeon's life and work.


On the Irreality of Fiction

Why do some people claim that realistic fiction is superior to speculative? Fiction, by definition, is a series of lies. It's unreal. The world it describes doesn't exist, hasn't existed and will never exist.

If fiction is to have any value at all, it's not in terms of its accurately portraying reality, because it doesn't.

Now, that's not to say each person will prefer something different. Some will prefer fiction that cleaves close to everyday life. Some find that the depth of description one finds in fictional accounts of reality happen to be more accurate, perhaps even in a sense more truthful, than what they can find in nonfiction. (Though I wonder if they've looked very hard at good nonfiction). I understand that.

But it's always seemed to me that fiction writing has to do more than simply describe reality to be interesting. Because after all, if what I wanted was a description of reality, I wouldn't be reading fiction at all.


The Existential Chess Game of Writing

There's a million stories in the naked city, as they say, and a million ways one can get writer's block. Sometimes it helps to classify what ails, in that one can grasp on a problem with a name. So here it is, I'll call it the 'existential chess game' sort of writer's block.

How does it get going? Rule one of writing is to sit down, fingers on the keyboard, and write. But to begin to move the fingers one has to have a goal in mind, either immediate or distant. So here's what happens: I think of a middle-ground goal, someplace I'd like to get to. And then it occurs to me that that will ramify in some way that I don't want: it's too simple, it's clichéd, it's bloodless. I take another choice, and work out the mental ramifications of that one, but it comes with several options, and it's not clear which appears the best of a bad lot. The ramifications of that ...

It's as though I'm in a chess game with myself, where every move presents options that will put me in check. This kind of feeling is akin to the existential dread of many-choices; the choice not taken might have been the better one, no matter what I do.

Thinking out ramifications is hard work. It takes time, time that's not involved in writing. And it's frustrating work, since it leads nowhere.

The solution, of course, is just to pick one and write. But which one?

"The first one!" you say. "Any one. That one!"

Would that it were that easy. Perhaps it is?



I can't agree more. 'Literally' means literally.



What is it with the Endings?

I've been trying to write on a fixed schedule and mostly failing over the last few weeks. I'm doing short stories because they give more freedom to try new things out, rather than being fixed into a long-form narrative.

Here's the problem: more short stories means more endings. I don't know what my problem is but I can't seem to want to end a story. It's like there's something in me that wants everything to become a novel: here's these neat folks, here's this interesting premise, here's this cool world, so let's just let the thing spin and see where it goes.

But then I'd be back in the long-form, where I don't want to be, or worse off with a novella. Novellas are virtually unpublishable. So it feels like just when I'm beginning to give the thing some gas, it's time to find an empty spot to park it. And I don't want to park.

It's a formula for ongoing bouts of writer's block.

Now, one answer is to quit with the discovery writing: a lot of what I do is planned in advance, and of course if the whole story comes in a flash of insight, there's no problem. But discovery writing is a fun and productive course, particularly with more freeform or experimental short pieces. And then I'm stuck finding the damn ending.



Psychology of "Writer's Block"

Here's the paper we'd have all been waiting for ... if only it had met with success!

Hat tip to Brad DeLong.


On Writing What You Know

I've been meaning to write about this topic for awhile now. A new post on Nancy Kress's blog has finally roused me from my dogmatic slumber to do so.

Write what you know. That was the first thing that was drummed into our little heads in creative writing classes in high school and university. In other words, no great flights of fancy; stick to experiences you yourself have had, or which you can extrapolate immediately from those experiences. That's what our teachers and professors meant by it.

The corollary to such admonishment, of course, was that writing Fantasy or Science Fiction was not approved of. It was assumed to be the opposite of 'writing what you know'.

What resulted from this advice, always, was a form of not-very-creative creative writing; fiction thinly separated from memoir. It always bored me, and eventually I gave up on the whole program.

If I want to read memoir, please, let me read the real thing: an actual history of someone's life. I don't see the point, particularly, in reading a fictional memoir of a false life. It's a pretty lie trying too hard to seem the truth.

In one sense, writing what you know is good advice: one can go very wrong in making stuff up. If one wants to write about being an auto mechanic, well, one ought to know something about the auto mechanic's life, or one's story will either be thin on detail, or wrong on the facts. And neither of those is any use to anyone.

But much of the great literature of the past was written by people who wrote about things they did not -- or could not -- know about. The great tradition of mythic literature would have been impossible otherwise. Homer didn't know anything about the Cyclops, Circe or the Sirens, nor the gods of the Iliad. He had heard stories, no doubt, but as for personal experiences, he made them all up.

And that, after all, is the point of anything fictional: it's all made up. At its most basic, fiction is a series of lies. For the lies to be compelling, they must be told convincingly, and that alone is the point of writing what you know. Write convincingly. But write with broad scope.


Learning by Doing

Occam asked a question after my last post, wondering what problems I'd found in the draft of my manuscript. The short answer is that I'd chosen the wrong main character, midway through the writing process. I'd actually started the thing without any real notion of a strong main character at all, then later gone back and added a bunch that made the main character out of a very powerful person in the novel.

It was only subsequently re-reading an old copy of Orson Scott Card's book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy that I realized my mistake.

The odd thing is that I'd read that book before, and other similar words of sage advice, yet they hadn't stuck with me until I'd gone and made the errors that they warned against. It's as though it wasn't enough to read that there was a hole in the floor. I had to go trip in it to learn not to step there.

I suppose I've learned that lesson enough times in my life that I shouldn't be surprised by it anymore, and yet there it is. It's still surprising.


Trunk or Edit?

So I have a novel I've been working on for awhile now, one that I thought was finished a few months back. I started sending around query letters while I was doing some background reading on novel and query letter writing.

As an aside, there is a shockingly large amount of good information out there on novel and query letter writing. Or should I say, there's a shockingly large amount of information that's well written and persuasive on these topics, and quite a bit of it is SF related.

At any rate, having done the reading I began to realize that there were serious structural problems with my book that would likely make it impossible to write an effective query on its behalf. And this was going on while my queries, written to the best of my minor abilities, were going nowhere.

Fortunately it does seem to me that the problems I'd pinpointed were, though serious and extensive, soluble with cutting and reworking. We'll see if that pans out.

Now I'm deep in rewrite mode, and wondering when one decides that a book should be trunked rather than edited. Sure, if it looks like the problems with it are so extensive that no rewrite will do it justice, it should be trunked. But when else? Because I'm very much inclined to agree with the advice (found extensively) that one should only rewrite very selectively. It's almost always better just to start afresh with a new project.

At this point I've decided to finish this rewrite and begin again with the querying. If the second round goes nowhere, I'll trunk it and try again. But of course it'd be hard to trunk something that I like and that I've worked on for many months. Chalk it up to a learning experience? We'll see what happens.