Peeve of the Day

Look.  Look there.  See that?

Don’t tell me your character “noticed” it.  Not unless it was something already present that he or she picked up upon in passing, or after a casual glance, or after letting an awareness of their surroundings percolate for a while in the back of their mind.

Which is to say, people don’t “notice” boulders rolling downhill towards them, or the sound of massed gunfire just over the next hill (though they might “notice” the sound of an isolated gunshot, provided that they aren’t in one of the lines of work where that particular sound is going to bring them at once to full adrenaline-charged awareness), or a mob of villagers waving torches and pitchforks.

They’re going to notice other, more subtle things: The envelope lying on the desk in front of them is addressed in a familiar hand; the object of their affections is wearing a new perfume; the gnomon on the sundial is cast in bronze in the form of an antique drop-spindle.

Most of the time, though, “saw” is a perfectly good and serviceable word.

More Tokens of Respectability

The Washington Post now has a regular science fiction and fantasy column.  (And they’re going to be getting a regular romance column soon, too.)

I’m not sure how I should feel about all this.  It used to be that no good ever came of science fiction and fantasy trying to gain literary respectability.  All that ever happened was that the sf and the fantasy thus produced were unpleasant mutant products that were – as the saying goes — neither flesh nor fowl nor good red herring, and the arbiters of literary respectability didn’t like them anyway.

But now it seems that establishment respectability is finding us whether we go looking for it or not.  Which is fine with me, so long as sf and fantasy don’t lose their pipeline to those deep wells of don’t-give-a-damn-about-being-respectable which are the source of so much of their energy.

The liveliest art is always made on the wilder side of town.

It’s Almost Like Being Respectable

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – that eminently respectable publisher with eminently respectable bloodlines (I’ve been in this business long enough that I can remember when Harcourt was a separate publishing house) – is adding a science fiction and fantasy volume to its annual Best American series.

This isn’t the first, or the only, annual “Best of” anthology out there; but it’s (maybe the first?  I don’t know that answer) one that’s coming out not from a known genre publisher or fantasy/sf imprint, but from a mainstream house that’s very much into serious literary business.  They’ve also had the good sense to take their series editor ( John Joseph Adams) and the editor for the inaugural volume (Joe Hill) from the ranks of people who are actually working in and familiar with the field, instead of hauling in some college professor or mainstream critic to do the job.

(I have nothing against literary critics or college professors, mind you; it’s just that their taste in fiction tends to privilege those works which provide the best fodder for classroom lectures and articles in academic journals.  Which is not necessarily the same thing as those works which are good.)

The Better Part of Valor

If you’re going to get into an internet flamewar, my first word of advice to you as a working or aspiring writer is . . . don’t.  No matter what you say, you’re going to alienate at least some of your potential readers, and not necessarily the ones that you’d want to alienate, either.  You can just as easily get ripped up one side and down the other by the people you think you’re supporting.  Better to keep your mouth shut and let your work speak for you.

That said, even if you don’t go looking for a flamewar, sometimes the flamewar finds you.  Resist, in that case, the urge to leap at once into the fray in your own defense, or in defense of a friend.  Hasty words in the physical world vibrate in the air for a moment, and – absent the intervention of recording technology – are gone; hasty words on the internet will stick around and haunt you forever.  Some variation on “You make/[Name] makes some telling points; I’ll need to think about them for a while before I can respond properly” is a useful reply, and the kind of thing you can keep ready against a time of need.

Sometimes, though, neither silence nor delaying tactics will do.  In that case, here are a few things to remember:

There may come a day, possibly in another century or so, when the words “strident” and “shrill” can be effectively applied to human discourse, but that day is not now.  For the foreseeable future, the use of these terms should be restricted to descriptions of fire alarms, police whistles, and piccolo solos.  Their deployment in any other context will result in Critical Argument Fail.

There was a time, for a couple of years several decades ago, when the term “politically correct” was an effective descriptor of a certain attitude and outlook on the world. At that time, it was an in-group term for the excessively zealous and doctrinaire who were, nevertheless, on the speaker’s own side — but it didn’t take long for the word to escape from that closed circle into the wider community, at which point the other side seized upon it and made it their own.  The use of the term in its original sense is no longer possible; any attempt to deploy it will, again, result in Critical Argument Fail.

And if you don’t know by now that the use of “hysterical” will generate an automatic Critical Argument Fail, then I will charitably assume that you’ve had an incredibly sheltered internet upbringing.

Either that, or you’re doing all of this stuff on purpose, in which case you’re on your own.

More Weird and Nifty Research Links

Have a character who’s going to get arrested in downtown New York?  Check out the review page for Manhattan Central Booking.  (Yelpers will review absolutely anything, apparently.)

Remember Mary Ingalls, who went blind from scarlet fever in On The Shores of Silver LakeWell, it probably wasn’t scarlet fever.

Also — those Norse runes? Turns out a lot of them are also written in code.  And a lot of those coded messages turn out to say things like “kiss me” and “interpret these runes” . . . any day now, they’re going to find one that says, “for a good time, call Gudrun Osvifsdottir.”

And speaking of codes, the mysterious Voynich Manuscript may have been decoded at last — not by cryptanalysts, but by botanists.

My Boskone Schedule

What (and How) to Read to Kids
Saturday 10:00 – 10:50

Reading aloud can be a memorable bonding experience — and big fun — for both adult and child. What genre stories work well when told to pre-readers? To 6-year olds? To 8-year-olds? We’ll discuss book selection and vocal presentation tips for both novice and experienced read-out-louders.

Bruce Coville (M), Bill Roper, Stacey Friedberg, Debra Doyle

Finish It! Completing Your Work
Saturday 11:00 – 11:50

Here you are with two half-completed novels, a handful of unfinished short stories, and a pile of great ideas gathering dust. Then there’s work, life, family, and cons. How do you maintain momentum with so many distractions? Panelists share their experiences as well as strategies to help keep you on track toward finishing the projects that only end when the manuscript is sent out!

Jeanne Cavelos (M), Jeffrey A. Carver, Felicitas Ivey, Fran Wilde , Debra Doyle

The Evolution of a Hero
Saturday 14:00 – 14:50

Heroes aren’t born. They’re made through a combination of choices and circumstances that mold them both internally as well as externally into someone powerful enough to represent a challenge to the story’s antagonist. Has the once well-defined transition from zero to hero changed with the introduction of modern social structures? What about modern female characters who chafe against preconceived notions of who a hero is, what it means to be a hero, and how a hero is made? Are there differences between the growth of a hero for men and women? And what does this all mean for the antagonist?

Jeffrey A. Carver (M), Jennifer Pelland, Craig Shaw Gardner, Debra Doyle, Greer Gilman

What Is Storytelling For?
Saturday 15:00 – 15:50

Why tell stories? What is the purpose of narrative fiction in culture? Are the world and characters a massive counterfactual conditional and the narrative an extended consequence … i.e., if things were thus, then this might happen? Or are we just telling lies?

Debra Doyle (M), Jo Walton, Ada Palmer, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Michael Swanwick

Debra Doyle, James D. Macdonald & Darrell Schweitzer
Sunday 11:00 – 11:50

Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald
Sunday 13:30 – 13:55

From Browncoats to Red Shirts
Sunday 14:00 – 14:50

“Millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.” SF can be cavalier about the death of away-team expendables or the faceless multitudes of Alderaan. But lately, storytellers are starting to finish off our favorites. Cheap, hateful trick — or welcome return to reality? What are the benefits (and dangers) of a story where no one, not even your best-loved character, is ever truly safe?

Steven Popkes (M), Walter H. Hunt, Melinda Snodgrass, Debra Doyle

Another Thing Not to Do


And I say this who have written them.  In my defense,

  1. I was a much younger writer, then.
  2. I believed that the story demanded it.  And
  3. I think I got away with it.

Of the above, #3 is probably the most important.  Good writing is all about what you can get away with, and one of the big lessons to learn on the way to becoming a good writer is figuring out how much, and what sorts of things, you can get away with.

Usually, the answer to “how much can I get away with? is “not nearly as much as you think.”  On the other hand, sometimes your muse doesn’t leave you with any choice except to say, “what the hell” and go for it.  At which point, you do your best and take the consequences as they come.

So, anyway, prologues.  Not nearly as many stories need them as have them, and entirely too many failed stories – especially in the Epic, or Doorstop, Fantasy genre – start out twenty years or so before the main action, with the portentous birth of the main character, or the portentous death of somebody important to the backstory, or the portentous prophecy of some future birth, death, or general catastrophic doom.  For this reason, if you find yourself feeling the urge to commence your novel with a prologue, at least stop first and ask yourself, “Can I put this same information into a flashback somewhere around chapter five?  Or into a couple of paragraphs of dialogue between the Young Protagonist and his/her Wise Mentor somewhere around chapter two? Or will this section work just as well if I label it ‘Chapter One,’ and commence the next chapter with ‘Twenty years later’?”

If you can answer any one of those questions with “Yes,” then you should probably take the hint and revise your no-longer-prologue accordingly.

In Which I Confess to Being Puzzled

So apparently one of the things people whose cell phones have cameras in them do is take pictures of themselves. Which utterly fails to surprise me, because it strikes me that, given the ability to do so, it’s a very human thing to do. And they refer to these cell phone self-portraits as “selfies,” which again fails to surprise me, because a new phenomenon (or a new variation on an old phenomenon) needs a word to call it by, and word-making is another very human thing to do.

But apparently all sorts of other people have been getting all sorts of put out by the practice, or by the word for the practice, or both. And I’m perplexed as to why on earth it bothers them so much — surely it can’t be because a lot of the producers of selfies are young and a lot of them are female? Or is it because now the ability to produce a self-portrait is available to anyone with a cell phone camera, instead of being limited to the likes of Albrecht Dürer or Vincent Van Gogh?

Really, sometimes the things other people choose to view with alarm confuses me.

Today’s Nifty Links

Link the first:  A newly-released on-line archive of images from the French Revolution, done as a partnership between Stanford University and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.  There’s an article about the archive here; the bilingual, searchable archive itself is here.

Link the second:  Over at John Scalzi’s blog, there’s an open comment thread going on, with writers sharing the most valuable bits of practical craft advice they’ve received or read.