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Writing What I Like To Read

21 November 2014 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by Al Onia.

“Write what you know.” One of those pieces of advice intended to get you focused. Or, to keep you from writing. I mainly write speculative fiction, so in my case, it’s “write what you don’t know, but wish.” Then add another layer. I write what I like to read. Sounds simple; but what do I like to read?

What draws me in and what authors do I return to and why? How do I know the experience and invested time will be worthwhile?

I like to be immersed in a world which the author has taken time to know. It doesn’t have to be detailed excruciatingly but one can tell if the author has worked it all out so that the setting, (physical, economic, social, political, etc.) works, in the background. This provides the stimuli for the characters to act and react realistically.

So we begin with a consistent, believable setting. The effort to create this in mystery and even conventional horror genres is different than SF or fantasy. The setting must be no less contradictory to what the reader knows or expects. Now, I’m immersed in the author’s world, my disbelief is suspended, what’s next?

Character and plot arcs which intersect, in conflict. Goals which matter; inaction will be fatal. Big points for originality.

I desire characters who exhibit psychological realism. The protagonist may be flawed, may be damaged beyond retrieval, but I want to see their actions and motivations portrayed believably. Their flaws are often the main reason they are in conflict with their environment. They find themselves in conflict willingly or not, but inevitably. Now the writer shows his or her talent by solving the issue through exploiting the character’s weaknesses but building on their strengths as well. And I believe the protagonist should have some strength, otherwise why should I care about them? Making me care about them is the tough art. Put them in a familiar quandary, something universal for the reader to identify with (broken relationship, loss of a loved one or thing, financial hardship, disease, injury, injustice).

I read for entertainment. I write to entertain. I read to learn, not to be converted. I write to teach, not preach. The best writers let me take away their interpretation of an issue of importance. Not necessarily to convince me, but to stimulate my own thoughts on the subject.

The other lure for me is the book containing a ‘big idea’. Hard to define in absolutes but some authors consistently produce a concept and character(s) which transcend the genre; epic in design and originality. Think “The City and The City” by China Mieville.

So much for ‘critical reading’. Sometimes I read for sheer brain candy. Reading to decompress from life. These are the books with no hidden message but I still have my standards. Natural storytellers (Robert E. Howard, William Campbell Gault, Lester Dent, Walter Gibson) can create a setting and characters in conflict in a dozen strokes of their writer’s brush; like a pen artist creating a portrait or landscape in the simplest of lines. They make it look easy but like the artist, it took many false strokes and many wrong words before it became ‘natural’. They apprenticed under the gun of a penny or less per word in the pulps. They learned quickly because they had to eat. I don’t read them critically, as I would the aforementioned China Mieville, William Gibson or Peter Watts (three of the more consistent and original writers working in spec fic) but I do analyze passages which work well. Again the fewest strokes of the brush technique to paint the picture before getting on with the action, which is why I dropped by in the first place.

Summarizing, I appreciate and look for: a consistent background which functions almost as another character, widening the options for the protagonist’s conflict; psychological realism where the characters behave consistently within their limitations and strengths and use both to resolve the conflicts; and originality. I hope I succeed at some level incorporating these attributes in my own writing.

???????????????????????????????Al Onia is a geophysicist living in Calgary, Canada. His debut novel Javenny was released by Bundoran Press in August 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Ares, Perihelion SF, On Spec, The Speculative Edge, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Spinetingler, Marion Zimmer Bradley and the anthologies Casserole Diplomacy, Body-Smith 401, North of Infinity and Warrior Wisewoman 3. Al is a two-time Aurora Award finalist in the short story category. You can visit Al at: http://ajonia.com

 

Pluck, Pity Parties and Prose – What I Like Best and What Doesn’t Work

18 November 2014 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by James Van Pelt.

By necessity, talking about “likes” explores only the reader’s internal landscape, at least if we talk about published work. Stephen King, for example, said, “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

What a great snark! But Twilight has sold over 100 million copies. At least some people disagree with Stephen King.

If we’re talking about what we “like” in work that is published, and then compare it to unpublished work, the lines between the good and bad seem more distinguishable (but hardly written in stone—John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces was rejected numerous times during Toole’s lifetime, and when his mother tried marketing it after his death, it received seven more rejections before being published and then later won the Pulitzer Prize).

So discussions of what one likes best and what doesn’t work is seriously, severely, and irredeemably personal.

That said, I disliked Stephen R. Donaldson’s first book in the Thomas Covenant series, Lord Foul’s Bane. I don’t think it was the level of the prose that bothered me (because prose problems put me off in a hurry—I had the hardest time with Nicholas Sparks’ The Bridges of Madison County), but I really didn’t like Thomas Covenant himself. I couldn’t root for a guy who seemed like a walking pity party, who didn’t believe that the cool stuff that was happening to him was really happening, and who raped the only decent character he met in the book. I had students talk to me about Donaldson’s series who said, “Oh, you have to keep reading. By the time you get to the third book, it starts to get good.”

Sorry, that’s too far for me to go with a character I don’t like.

I had the same problem with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Grossman can flat out write, and sentence by sentence he is a wonder, but Quentin Coldwater, his main character lacks any sense of wonder. Amazing things happen to him. In fact, all of his childhood dreams come true, but no matter what happens, his attitude is, “So now what?”

“So now what?” is the killer of ambition. “So now what?” makes all achievement worthless. You can do magic, but so now what? You find the person you love most loves you back, but so now what? You become king, but so now what? As much as I liked the prose, I couldn’t bring myself to read the second book. I told someone that The Magicians felt to me like, as others have pointed out, Catcher in the Rye meets Hogwarts, and Catcher in the Rye didn’t work for me either.

Good prose and great characters work best for me. I loved Jeff Johnston in Connie Willis’ beautifully written Lincoln’s Dreams. I thought Jo Walton created a wonderful character in Mori in Among Others, and Neil Gaiman brought to life Richard Mayhew for Neverwhere.

Good characters go a long way for me. If the character is combined with compelling prose, I’m hooked I can’t put the book down. Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes are transported by Bradbury’s poetic prose, as is Schmendrick in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, and so is Stephen Huxley in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood.

I was on a panel on characterization at WorldCon with Terry Pratchett once. He said that what most often made characters fail for him as a reader was when they were “pluckless.” Characters should have pluck, he said. They should fight to achieve their dreams and try to maintain their sense of selves, even if they are in hopeless situations. I agree with him.

If the writer can combine characters who strive for themselves with sentences that not only don’t stumble over themselves but soar on their own, then I will be a happy reader.

headshotJames Van Pelt has sold over 100 short stories to many of the major science fiction, fantasy, and horror magazines. His work has appeared in numerous ‘year’s best’ anthologies. He also has been a Nebula and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. When he’s not writing, he teaches high school and college English in western Colorado. Read his latest collection short science fiction and fantasy stories, FLYING IN THE HEART OF THE LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE, or find out more at http://jimvanpelt.livejournal.com

 

 

A Tale of Two Readers; or, Everybody Wins

14 November 2014 | 1 Comment » | Kristin Luna

You could say my husband Nic and I are into books. I write them, and read up to sixty a year. Nic reads anywhere from twenty to seventy a year. We love books so much, we had our engagement pictures taken in a library.

Awwwwwww.

Awwwwwww.

Nic and I agree on a lot of things, but there is one major difference between us that frequents our discussions: why we read. I read stories to feel, to experience, to learn and unravel the complexities of life. Nic reads for the story. He reads to be entertained. He can stomach atrocious writing if the story is good. For me, bad writing just flat out ruins a story. This is why he can read Terry Goodkind and I just can’t. (Sorry, Terry!)

Every now and then, Nic allows me to suggest one of my favorite literary fiction books, and he suggests an enormous fantasy tome to me. These suggestions have been both hit and miss for both of us. As it turns out, this is because Nic’s brain and my brain are working in two completely different ways while we are reading.

Researchers at the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging found interesting results when they hooked up readers to a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. The researchers gave two test groups a passage from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. They asked one group to read as if they were reading for pleasure, and asked the other group to read the text closely, as if they were reading it for a literary criticism class. “The subjects were using completely different parts of their brains when reading the same passages, depending on whether they were reading them for fun, or for analysis.”

Most shocking of all, and detrimental to my argument that how I read is better than how Nic reads, is that neither way of reading is superior to the other. “Reading rigorously and analyzing the ideas presented and even the structure of the language and how the ideas are presented exercises one mode of functioning in our brains, and cultivates that mode. Reading just for the fun of it exercises another mode of functioning, and cultivates it. Both are necessary to see the world around us clearly, from a balanced point of view.”

What Nic and I can celebrate is that we both win. Many studies have shown that reading, whether it’s Wizard’s First Rule or The Grapes of Wrath, promotes biological changes within the body, can change how we act, how our brains connect and function, and how we empathize in social situations. Reading slowly can even reduce stress.

So as you read this month’s blog posts about bad and good writing, just remember one important thing: no matter what you read, you win.

The Importance of Word Choice

12 November 2014 | No Comments » | Colette

1000 daysWhich plot sounds better? A maid stuck in a tower serving a princess for a thousand days, or a girl trying to escape a society where everyone is tattooed with barcodes and discriminated against if they don’t have them? Usually, I would say the second, but I read these books close to one another and the importance of well-formed prose became starkly apparent. I have to point out a bias here, Shannon Hale was an author I already liked, but after “Book of a Thousand Days,” she moved into the role as my absolute favorite writer. Why? Because she could take a plot so seemingly boring as a girl stuck in a tower and pull me in from page one. Reading her prose is like a serenade. When a story’s great theme has lousy prose, it’s like stepping into a brand-new truck, going down a bumpy road, and realizing the shocks are out.

Here are the first few paragraphs from “Book of a Thousand Days”:

My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years.

Lady Saren is sitting on the floor, staring at the wall, and hasn’t moved even to scratch for an hour or more. Poor thing. It’s a shame I don’t have fresh yak dung or anything strong-smelling to scare the misery out of her.

The men are bricking up the door, and I hear them muttering and scraping cement. Only a small square of unbricked sky and light still gape at me. I smile back at its mean grin to show I’m not scared. Isn’t it something, all the trouble they’re going to for us? I feel like a jewel in a treasure box, though my lady is the—

Notice the variation of shorter and longer sentences, the simplicity of language, and the inflections in the words that allows the prose to become like a melody when read aloud.

Both books are written in the first-person. However, at the end of Thousand Days, I felt like I knew the main character, Dashti. In the other, the protagonist was still an enigma whom I didn’t understand and whom seemed inconsistent. I think this happens, in part, from a focus on story over character. An indication that Hale knows her character well from the very beginning is shown by her word-choice:

“…hasn’t moved to scratch…,” “It’s a shame I don’t have fresh yak dung or anything strong-smelling to scare the misery out of her.” “I smile back at its mean grin to show I’m not scared.” and “Isn’t it something, all the trouble they’re going to for us?”

These statements tell us about Dashti’s background, her fortitude, her humility, and her simplicity. Of course, this is because we’re seeing the world from Dashti’s view, but the author shows us this view by word choice. Yak dung? Those two words tell us a lot about the story’s location and about Dashti’s place in it.

Don’t get me wrong, story matters and being a good storyteller with proper pacing and resolutions is key, but before you jump to tell the story, think about how much you can tell us by each word, each sentence, and the beauty you strive for in bringing them together. Author Dan Wells has suggested to writers on multiple occasions that we take the time to read and learn poetry. This is why; when we learn to string the right words together, in the right order, our stories rise in dimension and readers find themselves as transfixed by the prose as the story.

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