Oh writing advice which I loathe, let me count the ways I've ignored you

Thinking about all the writing advice I don't follow. This should mean I’m a literary failure. Instead, my stories are published around the world.

So what writing advice have I failed to follow? Let’s count down the greatest hits of advice I’ve ignored.

  1. “Write what you know.” Didn’t do that. I write science fiction and fantasy set in imaginary worlds I’ve never known. I create what I know!
  2. “Don’t shift points of view too often.” Ooh. Done that many times. If your story needs a POV shift just do it.
  3. “Show don’t tell.” I’ve shown many a thing in my stories and also told many a thing. No one path here is correct for every story.
  4. “Write every day.” Nope, don’t do that either. I write when I want to and live my art exactly how I desire. Don't dare tell me otherwise.
  5. “Write for yourself.” I write my stories for others. Sure, I’m the first person to read my stories so they must always please me. But I still write for other people.
  6. “Begin your stories with action.” Except when you don’t. Or don’t want to. Or don’t care to. Whatever floats your storytelling boat.
  7. “Write novels instead of short stories because no one reads short fiction.” Nope, failed that advice and still doing great as a writer.
  8. “Avoid clichés.” Please, every aspect of life and language can be a cliché under the right circumstances. Instead know when to use and subvert clichés.

My point with all this is there’s no one set of writing advice which works for everyone. Plus for every “rule” there’s a rule breaker. And by “rule breaker” I mean writers who defy all the common writing advice and still create captivating stories.

Instead of blindly following writing advice, try finding yourself. Find your voice. If your voice leads you to be a writer, then write away. The rest will come.

Laura Miller, or what happens when a literary critic loathes genre fiction but knows that's where the best stories are?

Maybe this kicking cartoon by Tom Gauld sums up what is going on here? Check out more of Tom's cartoons on his website (and buy his books).

Maybe this kicking cartoon by Tom Gauld sums up what is going on here? Check out more of Tom's cartoons on his website (and buy his books).

So Laura Miller, co-founder of Salon.com and one of the most famous literary critics of our day, jumped back into the genre pool with the essay "Dark Futures: What happens when literary novelists experiment with science fiction."

To summarize, in the essay Miller tracks all the "literary" authors who are now writing science fiction. According to Miller these authors are writing SF because it's so hard to write contemporary fiction with the world constantly changing. So why not write SF instead? She then name checks the authors doing so, including Emily St. John Mandel and her best-selling novel Station Eleven, which Miller notes the author doesn't even consider SF.

Why that author's disavowal? Oh, because as Miller says "Science fiction writers and readers have long resented incursions like these into their territory, especially when they come, as such novels often do, with a disavowal of the genre itself."

In case you can't tell, Miller's words are an irritating excuse for an essay, with the irritation building like a flea circus loose under a wool sweater until the reader breaks out in a never-ending rash. Only then does Miller close with a grasp at profundity by saying "What’s surprising is not that literary novelists are increasingly taking up science fiction’s tools, but that more of them didn’t try it sooner."

So. Much. Fail. In. One. Essay. And before you believe I'm biased because I'm one of those lowly SF authors who need step aside for my literary betters, check out the reaction of other authors to Miller's words:

Part of the problem with the essay, beyond Miller's actual condescending words, is that she overlooks the ability of SF authors to write at the level of the authors she's praising. She grudgingly gives William Gibson and Karen Joy Fowler minor props but ignores the stylistic and literary ability of SF masters like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, N. K. Jemisin, Connie Willis and so many others.

For what it's worth, Miller has long had a love-hate relationship with genre fiction. As detailed in Miller's book The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, she loved C.S. Lewis's stories as a child, desiring “to be carried away by something greater than ourselves — a love affair, a group, a movement, a nation, a faith. Or even a book.” But Miller fell out of love with Narnia later in life when she realized the book's Christian "legends and ideals."

I suspect this attitude carries over for Miller into all things genre. She loves the scope and vision of genre works but can't get past the imaginary blinders which to her separate genre works from what she might call "serious writings." You can see this attitude in how she describes the SF community, where she says lovers of science fiction are "both aggrieved at being marginalized and really invested in being marginalized. So they don’t really want to be accepted. They want to be angry and self-righteous about not being accepted."

As SF author Jess Hyslop said in an online discussion with me, part of the problem with this essay and overall discussions of this topic is in the use of the term "literary," as in literary fiction, literary novelist, literary writing, and so on. As Jess wrote, "Wish we could all stop using 'literary' as a (non?)genre descriptor, & instead understand it as an adjective that can apply to any genre." So true. Perhaps a better term is "contemporary fiction" or "mainstream fiction." Such phrasing would then allow anyone to apply the term literary to any writings which reach deep into the human experience and psyche.

Look, the science fiction genre and other genres such as romance, fantasy, horror, and comics are incredibly open. All are welcome to read and write within these genres. But don't come into these genres, take the best parts of what we write, then disavow the genre and everyone in it.

If you do that, all you're showcasing is your own literary ignorance.

SFWA Nebula Awards Conference

I'm attending this week's SFWA Nebula Awards Conference in Pittsburgh, with my "Blood Grains Speak Through Memories" being one of the finalists for the Nebula Award for Best Novelette. I look forward to seeing everyone.

I'll have a few signed copies of "Blood Grains ..." to give away, so look for me at the Mass Autographing Session (which is free and open to the public) if you want one. I'll also appear on the panel "Critical assessment: What's next in genre?" on Saturday, May 20 at 4 pm alongside Charlie Jane Anders, Amal El-Mohtar, Alina Sichevaya, and Navah Wolfe.

Five trends in the science fiction genre

Science fiction fans are always looking for the next big thing. For new stories with worlds and universes we never knew existed. For cutting edge ideas and places and characters unlike anything we’ve seen or read or contemplated.

Perhaps the oldest science fiction game is to try and predict trends in the genre. To see where humanity’s science fiction dreams might take us next.

One SF trend I’ve noticed lately is the survival of print books, which have increased sales in the United State for each of the last three years. Despite all the doomsday predictions of e-books quickly supplanting print books, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

Even in a digital world people love their print books. That’s SF trend #1.

Despite print books doing so well, the sales of science fiction books continue to lag behind fantasy titles. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. The fantasy literary genre continues to be more open to new readers than science fiction, where many novels are so narrowly focused toward genre insiders that it’s difficult for them to attract new readers who aren’t already familiar with science fiction tropes and jargon.

An exception to this is the science fiction subgenre of space opera. The popularity of this subgenre is partly due to the success of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises — which serve as gateways to written space operas for the general public — and partly because space operas are such exciting SF stories. As a result, more SF authors than ever seem to be writing space operas. Among the new and exciting space operas I've read this year are The Collapsing Empire by Hugo Award winner John Scalzi and The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley. In addition, The Genesis Fleet: Vanguard, a new Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell, was just released, with many more space operas due for the rest of the year.

So SF trend #2: Space opera remains hot.

That’s not to say readers won’t respond positively to other types of science fiction. I loved Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Borne and couldn’t put it down. While VanderMeer is usually known for his New Weird fantasy stories, such as with his bestselling Southern Reach series, with Borne he reaches into science fiction. The novel delivers a weirdly futuristic wasteland filled with discarded scientific experiments and a scavenger who nurtures one of these experiments while facing off with a skyscraper-tall flying bear named Mord.

Yes, the novel features a giant flying bear. And believe me, the bear works.

Despite the flying bear, I’m still calling Borne science fiction. The novel reads as if Jeff VanderMeer has created something totally new in the science fiction universe. Call it New Weird SF. As a bonus, Borne is likely to appeal to many readers who otherwise might never consider reading a science fiction novel.

SF trend #3: Write something totally different and unique and people will read it even if they generally avoid science fiction.

Of course, we can’t discuss trends in science fiction without talking about TV and films, especially since most of the world devours visual SF at much higher rates than written SF.

One TV series to definitely watch is The Expanse, which is now the best science fiction series around. The series follows the conflicts and intrigue between three factions in a future colonized Solar System: A United Nations government centered on Earth, an independent Mars federation, and the impoverished belters living on asteroids who are abused by the other two powers.

The Expanse is frequently called “Game of Thrones in space,” a description which does a disservice to the SF show. Yes, The Expanse shares the same deep love of the genre as Game of Thrones, which isn’t surprising considering that the authors of the original Expanse book series — Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, writing under the pseudonym James S. A. Core — are as fully immersed in the tropes and power of the SF genre as George R. R. Martin is with fantasy.

But while The Expanse features clashes among the elite and powerful just like Game of Thrones, most of the story is told through the eyes of ordinary people who suffer and survive as the powerful fight and scheme. That’s where the power of The Expanse lays — with the series’ characters.

SF trend #4: If people love your science fiction characters, they’ll love your science fiction story.

On the film side of science fiction, Hollywood continues its trend of reimagining old film series, such as with the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the new Ridley Scott film Alien: Covenant (which I prefer to call Alien: Ridley Scott Apologizes for Making Prometheus).

But one SF film which captured attention earlier this year for the wrong reasons is Ghost in the Shell, with Scarlett Johansson as the iconic character Major Motoko Kusanagi. Except the character is only called The Major in the film, a possible attempt by the studio to sugarcoat that a white American actress was selected to play the role.

Before the release of the 2017 film I saw the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell anime during a limited run in theaters. The theater was packed was anime lovers, many of whom, like myself, had seen the anime many times but never on a large screen.

The good news is the 1995 version of Ghost in the Shell is still a great film and must be seen anyone who loves either anime or SF. Sadly, the audience was also forced to sit through multiple trailers and insider looks at the upcoming live action film. Based on the trailers it appeared Hollywood ripped off all the best scenes from the original anime and threw in a ton of angst and interpersonal drama while dumping the original film’s deep philosophy.

The special features ended with an exclusive interview with Kazunori Itō, director of the original 1995 anime. Itō said how pleased he was that a big Hollywood director had recreated his Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson in it. I’m not sure he really meant that. And the audience around me definitely wasn’t impressed with the upcoming film because people laughed at and booed the trailers.

So no surprise from me when the 2017 film bombed.

Which bring me to SF trend #5: Even big Hollywood studios must be careful before messing with classic science fiction stories because genre fans have little tolerance for those who desecrate our SF dreams.

That's one trend which will likely never change.

How many times do I have to say that you must read Borne: A Novel by Jeff VanderMeer?

READ THIS NOVEL!

A few months ago I read an advance copy of Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Borne and couldn’t put it down.

READ THIS NOVEL!

Now, after waiting patiently for Borne to be released to the greater world, I have three simple words:

READ THIS NOVEL!

Borne is one of the best novels I've read in years, even better, in my opinion, than VanderMeer's award-winning Southern Reach trilogy. Which is truly something because I loved the Southern Reach trilogy.

READ THIS NOVEL!

While VanderMeer is usually known for his New Weird fantasy stories, with Borne he reaches into science fiction. The novel delivers a weirdly futuristic wasteland filled with discarded scientific experiments and a scavenger who nurtures one of these experiments (which she names Borne) while facing off with a skyscraper-tall flying bear named Mord.

Yes, the novel features a giant flying bear. And believe me, the bear works.

READ THIS NOVEL!

Despite the flying bear, I’m still calling Borne science fiction. The novel reads as if Jeff VanderMeer has created something totally new in the science fiction universe. Call it New Weird SF. As a bonus, Borne is likely to appeal to many readers who otherwise might never consider reading a science fiction novel. Or a fantasy novel.

READ THIS NOVEL!

Borne is a totally unique and exciting read which is beautifully written and reveals more and more with each re-read. I also look forward to the discussions people have around this book. What is the nature of the creature named Borne? Is the giant bear a stand-in for Trump blundering across the world? Or are we all Borne and Mord on some level?

So many ways to think about Borne. So many ways to enjoy this epic literary adventure. So many ways to say ...

READ THIS NOVEL!