Review Halloo

In addition to editing and blogging and occasionally teaching, I also write fiction.  Or, as we sometimes put it around here, “I tell lies to strangers for money.”

Which means that from time to time the books I write get reviewed — sometimes by people who like them, and sometimes by people who don’t. A good review is always nice. A good review that makes it clear that the reviewer didn’t just like the book, but actually got what the writer was doing with it –above and beyond buying groceries and paying the rent — is something beyond nice.

(There’s no predicting which reviewer you’re going to get such a review from, either. Sometimes it’s from a friend who’s liked your stuff since forever; sometimes it’s from somebody whom you’d swear wouldn’t give you the time of day. Just another one of those things that make most writers just a little bit crazy.)

But a good review is not required.

It’s okay if you-the-reader or you-the-reviewer don’t like my book. Maybe the book sucks. It happens sometimes. Bad stuff can happen to the writer, or to the publisher, or to the world in general that causes the book to be radically screwed up in one way or another.

Sometimes what sounded like a good idea in the writer’s head, and a good idea in the proposal stage, and a good idea at the outline stage, turns out to have been a bad idea after all when the time comes to make an actual story out of it. Sometimes it’s a really good idea, but not, as it turns out, a really good idea that the writer in question is able to carry off.

Or maybe the book is a good book for its target audience, and that audience is not you. Maybe it’s a good book that you disagree with so intensely that it makes your eyeballs bleed. And it’s your right to say so, at whatever length you feel necessary.

But please don’t feel like you’re obliged to let me know about it. I don’t go chasing down reviews, whether good or bad – that way madness lies, at least for me – and I’m not especially interested in defending my work after I’m done with it. Once it’s all grown up and out in the world, it needs to stand or fall on its own.

The Iron Laws

The problem with the auto having been diagnosed as an easily-fixable (and not especially expensive as these things go) rust hole in the oil filter, I’m free to turn my attention to other matters . . . things like the Iron Laws of Storytelling, for example.

What am I talking about when I speak of the Iron Laws?

They’re the set of reader expectations that have been hanging around in western art and literature for so long that they’re practically hardwired into our brains.  If you’re a writer, you violate those laws at your peril; which is to say, you should only do it on purpose and with your eyes wide open.  (“A gentleman,” my father used to say, “is never accidentally rude to someone.”)

A few of the Iron Laws, slanted toward science fiction and fantasy, but applicable everywhere:

Truth spells (or truth serums, or whatever) never make anyone happier. You’d think people would have figured that one out by now, especially with the way that nobody under a truth spell ever tells one of the good truths, like “The pie here is so delicious I always stop by for a piece after a bad day, because it makes everything better” or “Your hair is beautiful; if you ever cut it I think I’ll cry” or “You’re the only reason I made it out of seventh grade alive.” But fictional characters keep on trying, just the same.

The equivalent, or at least related, law for contemporary mimetic realism is, of course, “Eavesdroppers never hear anything good about themselves.”  They will, however, almost inevitably hear only the most misleading portions of any important information actually exchanged.  Likewise, in a romance novel — or almost any novel with a romantic sub-plot — any platonic hug or similar physical gesture of affection between two uninvolved characters will inevitably be witnessed, sans context, by the significant other of one of the two parties.

And if you’re a character in a story with a title like “Appointment in Samarra”, there’s no point in buying a bus ticket to Omaha instead.  You’re still going to end up in Samarra by the end, and it won’t be pretty.

There are other Iron Laws besides the ones I’ve mentioned here — feel free to enumerate them in the comments.


The Lone and Orange Sands

A correspondent asks, “Why don’t ‘jar of Tang’ stories work for readers?”

Before I take a stab at answering that one, some definition of terms is probably in order.  The concept of the “jar of Tang story” comes from the Turkey City Lexicon, a collection of workshop terms originally compiled by and for the Texas-based Turkey City Writers’ Workshop:

A story contrived so that the author can spring a silly surprise about its setting. . . . For instance, the story takes place in a desert of coarse orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier; surprise! our heroes are microbes in a jar of Tang powdered orange drink.

This particular kind of failed story is especially common in science fiction and fantasy, since determining the nature of reality and figuring out the rules of the universe are recurring themes in both genres, and the reader is presumed to be an active participant in the process.

It’s also necessary to acknowledge that once in a while you’ll find a reader who actually likes this kind of story, because there’s no accounting for taste and nothing is so weird that there isn’t somebody out there who will like it.  Also, a sufficiently accomplished writer can make anything work — but for some stories, “sufficiently accomplished” means “maybe Will Shakespeare could have pulled it off on a good day.”  (But mostly Will Shakespeare didn’t even try, because part of being an accomplished writer is knowing how to pick your battles.)

Setting aside idiosyncratic tastes, here’s the big reason why “jar of Tang” stories don’t work:

Readers like being fooled; they don’t like being made to feel foolish.

Being fooled is the good kind of surprise, the one where the rabbit comes out of the hat and the ace of spades is on the top of the deck instead of in your hand and the nice young man who works at the coffee shop is really the Crown Prince of Ruritania in disguise.

Being made to feel foolish is something different.  It’s the writer saying to the reader, “Ha-ha, gotcha!  You totally thought that those characters you were identifying with had slogged across a vast and waterless desert only to come up hard against an impenetrable but transparent — and clearly the product either of magic or of superscience — wall!  But you were wrong!”

Whereupon the reader feels stupid for not having considered alternate interpretations, and feels like a chump for trusting the author to play straight with him or her, and is generally full of resentment and wounded ego — because the reader is supposed to be a fellow-traveller on the voyage of discovery that is the story, and not anybody’s dupe.

Where I Was Yesterday, Other than Here

Yesterday was a non-posting day, because it was also move-the-son-back-into-college day.  Four hours there, four hours back, and a lot of running around doing paperwork and toting luggage in between — and that’s when everything goes smoothly, which it often doesn’t.

This time the car started leaking oil just as we finished the move-in process, and we only made it back home by dint of adding more oil every sixty to a hundred miles to replace the stuff that was running out.  The car is now reposing in the local auto shop and awaiting repairs, and I am left reflecting upon the feast-and-famine nature of the freelance life.

Which is why I wasn’t thinking much about Writer Stuff yesterday, and also why I’ve argued my natural reticence into submission and added a tip jar to the sidebar of this blog.

They Can’t All be Winners

It happens to every reader at least once . . . they pick up the hot new thing that everyone’s talking about, or the landmark classic that everyone says is a must-read, and as far as they’re concerned it might as well be a plate of spinach.  And not the yummy kind that goes into spinach-egg-and-bacon salad, or Something Delicious Florentine, or white lasagna.   No, it’s the limp and bitter kind that gets served up from cafeteria steam tables to defenseless schoolchildren who decide on the basis of the available evidence that spinach isn’t a vegetable, it’s a plot against humanity. Samuel Pepys hit the nail on the head, back in the 1600s:

And so to a booksellers in the Strand, and there bought Hudibras again, it being certainly some ill humour to be so against that which all the world cries up to be the example of wit; for which I am resolved once again to read him, and see whether I can find it or no.

I’m betting he probably didn’t.

It wasn’t Hudibras that did it, in my case, but I’ve certainly had the experience of just not getting the appeal of whatever it is that everybody of my acquaintance currently seems to like. I tried Dune three times – once in high school, once in college, and once in grad school – before deciding that whatever its attraction, I was constitutionally immune.

Middlemarch is another one that didn’t work for me.  I got fifty pages into it, looked at the four hundred and fifty more pages of painfully small type waiting for me up ahead, and said to myself, “Life is too short for this.  I will take my chances with the Cliff Notes.”  But I know that it’s not the book, it’s me, because no book can be a match for every reader.  I’ve got at least one good friend whose taste in many ways marches with mine, who loves Middlemarch with a passion; on the other hand, she can’t stand Moby-Dick, which I love.

(I try to remember this truth when somebody doesn’t like something I’ve written.  Occasionally I even succeed.)


Opening Moves

Some of my favorite first lines:

There once was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either.
– John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost

There was a man named Mord whose surname was Fiddle; he was the son of Sigvat the Red, and he dwelt at the “Vale” in the Rangrivervales.
Njal’s Saga

I love this saga. It’s a long way from Mord Fiddle to Njal Thorgeirsson and all his sons getting burned alive in their house, and it’s all interesting. Some people speak dismissively of the Icelandic sagas as being about nothing but “fighting and flytings”, to which all I can reply is, “Yes. And your point is?” I have low tastes, I suppose.

Listen! We have heard of the glory of the kings of the Spear-Danes in days gone by….

Beowulf is one of those furniture-of-the-mind books, for me – along with Njal, it was part of my introduction to the Northern Thing, and had I never read it, I would probably be somebody else entirely than I am today.

In summer all right-minded boys built huts in the furze-hill behind the College–little lairs whittled out of the heart of the prickly bushes, full of stumps, odd root-ends, and spikes, but, since they were strictly forbidden, palaces of delight.
– Rudyard Kipling, Stalky & Co.

Although my very favorite Stalky line comes later on: “You’ve been here six years and you expect things to be fair? My hat, Beetle, you are a blooming idiot!” For some reason, it gave me great comfort during my own high school years.

Stalky in general did; there’s nothing like the confirmation that somebody else’s school days were even worse.

Mr. C(lavius) F(rederick) Earbrass is, of course, the well-known novelist.
Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel

This is the single most truthful book about writing that there is. Period. Favorite line, at least this week (concerning the conversation at a literary reception): “The talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, worse than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others’ declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life.” As they say in some quarters: Word.

Call me Ishmael.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick is one of the major exceptions to my general lack of fondness for modern novels – but then, considered as a modern novel Moby-Dick is a weird and atypical specimen, and I suspect that the things I like about it are the things that make it atypical. I like the long digressions about whales and whalefishing, for example; in a science fiction novel, that would be the point where the author takes a break to spend a couple of pages talking about the hyperdrive equations.

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.
Homer, The Iliad

I know it looks pretentious, but I honestly did read the Iliad – in a prose translation, to be sure, but the whole thing and not some wimpy version expurgated or redacted for the kiddies – when I was twelve, and it blew the top of my head off for weeks.

This is the story of the different ways we looked for treasure, and I think when you have read it you will see that we were not lazy about the looking.
E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers

I like all of E. Nesbit’s stuff, both the fantastical – especially The Enchanted Castle – and the non-fantastical, like this one. Never mind that this is a children’s book; Oswald Bastable is one of the great narrative voices in English prose fiction.

I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father.
James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

James Thurber is one of my Style Gods – Thurber, and the Icelandic Sagas, which has to be one of the more warped pairs in the history of literary influences, but there you are.

Getting Tense

I hate it when an otherwise literate writer uses may in past-tense narrative where might should have been used instead: “If there was any truth to {Name }’s story, {the villains } may already be in hot pursuit.”

No. That’s wrong. It should be “If there was any truth to {Name }’s story, {the villains } might already be in hot pursuit.” May goes with the present tense: “If there is any truth to {Name }’s story, {the villains } may already be in hot pursuit.”

(The question of “was” vs. “were” I’ll let slip, given the moribund nature of the English subjunctive.)

There. I just had to get that off my chest, is all.

Hazards of the Course: Endings

It happens with any long-running and popular sequence of stories, whether it’s a film trilogy, a television show, or a series of novels. The final entry in the sequence could cure cancer, end world hunger, and bring about peace in our time, and people still wouldn’t like it.

I call it the Write-Your-Own-Ending effect. Fans of any long-running series – whatever the medium – are going to invest themselves heavily in their own ideas/speculations/opinions about how the series ought to end. Satisfying all of them at once is going to be impossible. Satisfying any one of them completely is going to be almost as hard, since there’s always going to be something left over that doesn’t please. (“He/she never thanked him/her for this/that/the other damned thing!” “Why wasn’t so-and-so part of the Big Group Hug at the end?” “The ending was all about Titular Hero! Joe/Jane Sidekick barely got a mention! That just goes to show that Titular Hero really is a jerk, just like all us Joe/Jane Sidekick fans were saying all along!” And so on and on.)

The longer the dedicated readers or viewers have been waiting for the conclusion, the stronger the effect is going to be.  Because they will not have been waiting passively all that time — they will have been making their own ending in their heads while they waited.  Some of them will have actually gone so far as to commit their endings to pixels or paper; but even those who don’t take that final step have still been thinking and speculating and developing their own opinions about how things ought to turn out.  So when it comes time for them to evaluate the actual conclusion to the work, they’re not just going to be holding it up against the previously existing material to see how well it fits — they’re also going to be holding it up against their own internally-developed Best Possible Ending, and the further it deviates from that ending, the more unhappy they’re going to be.

The Dreaded Middle

Beginnings are hard to write.

Endings are even harder to write.

But the hardest part of a book to write, hands down, is the middle.

The middle of the book is that part where ennui sets in, the part where you start to heartily dislike most of not all of your characters, or — if you still like them in spite of everything — the part where you become so tired of the fictional milieu you’ve embedded them in that you start to fantasize about lifting them out of it wholesale and giving them all jobs in a coffee shop instead.  The middle is where plots break down, where minor characters show up out of nowhere and attempt to hijack the narrative, where major characters suddenly take left turns into unmapped territory.

Sometimes the plot breakdown is obvious when you hit it, and you end up stalled for days or weeks or sometimes, heaven help you, years, until you work out what’s holding things up.  Other times, you don’t notice it until it’s time to do the revisions, and then you’re stuck doing a massive structural rewrite on a short deadline.

One way or another, with novels it’s the midgame that makes or breaks people.