Writing weirdness

Searching for the Strange in Short Fiction on Dec. 4

I'm presenting a book talk on "Searching for the Strange in Short Fiction" on Wednesday, December 4 at 7 pm in the Bexley Library auditorium. I'll not only discuss the strange with regards to SF/F short stories (including SciFi Strange) but I'll also meander through my thoughts on how short fiction in general—no matter the genre—is at essence an exploration of the stranger aspects of human existence.

If you live in or near the Columbus, Ohio, area, please stop by on Wednesday for the talk. I'll be giving away a signed copy of my Never Never Stories to one random participant. In addition, if any writers show up I'd be happy to discuss fiction markets, writing theory, and anything else after the talk is finished.

Don't cliche yourself into becoming a hack writer

I'm tired of the writing cliches. You know, all those snappy little sayings about how if you want to be a writer all you have to do is write. Or that you should show not tell. Or start a story in the middle of the action.

To quote the great Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.

The problem is not that there's no truth in these cliches. Of course there is. All cliches have an element of truth or else they'd never have become cliches in the first place. But if you need such cliches to understand writing, odds are you'll never become a great writer in the first place.

To understand what I mean, check out what author Jeff VanderMeer wrote as the ever-charming Curmudgeon on his Facebook account. Jeff's response sums up my own feelings about all of the "writers write" advice which abounds in our world.

"I'm finding the proliferation of this advice annoying: 'If you want to be a writer, write.' Well, duhhhhhh. If you have to be reminded of this continually or accept this 'wisdom' with some kind of rapturous awe...hit yourself in the head with a dead fish while repeating after me: "WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE." You will not soon forget again. - Sincerely, the Curmudgeon

Look, writers write. If you don't have an instinctual understanding of that, you'll never be a writer. Chanting the cliche "writers write" like a repetitious mantra will do nothing to change this fact.

My suggestion? Writers should avoid all of the following writing cliches. Unless they actually work for you. But even then don't become so obsessive with the rules that they blind you to the truth behind the writing process.

Writers write

Reread what Jeff VanderMeer said above, then allow me take this cliche to the extreme. Writing is not merely the process of putting words on paper or screen or organic-cerebral implant—writing is a process. Part of that process is, yes, the physical act of writing. But reflection and understanding must also be present before the actual writing takes place, and editing and rewriting must occur afterward.

Do you know what types of writers merely write, with no other part of the equation figuring into their writing? Hacks. Anyone can crank out page after page of writing. But to be a good or great writer means you can't simply write. You also must reach into far more of the creative process than the simple physical act of writing. 

Show don't tell

Don't get me started about this cliche, which is so widespread it even has its own Wikipedia entry. Yes, showing is often better than telling. Except when it's not. For example, if you're describing an action scene, I'd say to generally go with showing. But many things in stories should be told and not shown, such as transition scenes which would otherwise bore a reader, or those moments when you reach into a character's head to reveal a startling insight to the world. And there are plenty of times when a writer should neither tell nor show (that's why few stories have their characters eating and drinking as much as humans do in real life).

There are authors who can "show" entire worlds in their prose, and those who would have been better off telling. And those whose "tellings" are richer than any attempt at showing could ever be.

As Neil Gaiman has said, "The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like." That advice totally applies to the show don't tell cliche. And notice how Gaiman told us that advice instead of showing it.

Start in the middle of the action

Also known as using a hook because you want to stab the reader through the torso with a curved piece of metal and toss their screaming carcass into a frothing river full of piranha. What's that, you say? Using a hook to start your story doesn't sound as attractive when I write it that way. I wonder why?

Look, I have nothing against starting some stories in the middle of the action. But I've also read amazing stories which instead first slowly set the scene, and even stories which succeeded by starting in the middle of philosophical reflections. Each story and author must find their own beginning.

Write what you know

Basically this advice implies that only arrogant know-it-alls can ever be writers. Please! I love reading stories where authors didn't stick with what they know. Where they ventured into unknown realms and tested new ideas and learned as they went.

Don't get me wrong—writers should have a strong knowledge of the world. And if you're writing about a topic, make sure you have an understanding of it or you will be called on your ignorance. For example, if you're writing about a Thai woman living in Bangkok, but have never visited Thailand and know nothing about Thai culture except what you've seen in the movies, it's the ultimate in arrogance to assume you can write her story. 

But as long as you're not arrogant there's no reason you must limit yourself to writing what you know. Almost all writers—hell, almost all people—know very little about life. Following "write what you know" to the extreme would mean no one could write anything since we're all ignorant about most major aspects of life and the universe.

If you can write in a great way about the little you understand in life, go for it. But if you likewise want to reach beyond yourself to embrace a story you wouldn't otherwise know, don't be afraid to take that chance. But if you write about topics or characters beyond the scope of your life and knowledge, do so humbly and with your eyes wide open.

Stick with a single point of view

I get it—switching back and forth between first person and third person can really throw a reader. And since most writing advice is aimed at new writers, who often have problems with point of view shifts, I understand why this cliche is so often given.

But Neil Gaiman's advice above also applies to shifting points of view. If an author can make multiple points of view work, then go for it. If you can't, then stick to a single POV. Or take a chance. 

I like writers who take chances.

Avoid cliches

Isn't it funny that writers are told to avoid cliches even as we are given so many cliches to guide our writing process?

Seriously, cliches are another area where a good writer can make them work while a hack merely wallows in the cliche. Don't be afraid of cliches, but likewise be careful about embracing them. 

How the hell can I ever become a writer without cliched advice?

So what advice would I give new writers, if they are to avoid the cliches listed above?

I'm tempted to tell every wannabe writer to figure it out for themselves. Not that I'm trying to be an ass or to thin out the competition. Instead, I want people to understand that writing is like life—a process we can share with others, and which is made great by our interactions with others, but which we ultimately live as individuals.

Instead of advice, I humbly give the following suggestions. This is what seems to work for my own writing and perhaps people will find this useful.

  • Understand life. Or at least try to reach an understanding. If you don't have a decent understanding of the world around you, your limited vision of life will transfer into a similarly limited vision within your stories.
  • Understand your written medium. If you write fiction, read fiction until you can understand stories on an instinctual level. Same with the other respective writing mediums. No matter if you're a journalist, poet, screenwriter, game writer or so on, understand the storytelling in those mediums until it becomes second nature.
  • Let the writing consume you. And that doesn't mean merely writing 24/7. Yes, write as much as you can, but realize there are also times when you need to recharge and think about what you're writing. For example, which of the following makes me a writer: The 10 hours I spent thinking about a story or the one hour I spent writing it? The truth is my story wouldn't exist without both aspects of my creative process.
  • Don't be arrogant. Yes, I know many writers have big egos, but that's not what I mean by arrogance. Instead, don't assume you know everything. Don't assume your viewpoint is the only viewpoint in the world. If you're open to the people and experiences of this world, everywhere you go you'll find stories waiting to be told.
  • Understand that each person's creative process is unique. The act of creation is so singularly dependent upon the individual that it's silly to universalize any fixed set of rules. Take from others the advice which works and ignore what doesn't.

And that last point is actually the point of this essay. If you rigidly follow the writing rules laid out by others, all you'll end up doing is becoming a shadow of those who created the rules. In other words, a hack. Someone who can create words but lacks the insight and ability to make those words into something great.

Two of the saddest things in the writing world are stories which could have been amazing, and writers who had the potential for greatness but never reached it.

Don't be a hack. 

Do authors' obsessions with daily word counts result in bad stories?

A few years ago I wrote about how long it took me to write a typical short story. Long story short (I know, bad joke) I'm a slow writer, taking around 20 hours to create a 5,000-word short story. I continually write and rewrite and edit, these different creative aspects of fiction writing merging and mingling until I often do all three within seconds of each other. But as that post also makes clear, other writers have different processes. For example, John Scalzi stated that with "20 hours of butt in chair, I wrote and did the initial edit of 'The God Engines,' which is 30,000 words."

Since that post, my glacial pace has not increased or slowed. But compared to other writers, I might as well be literally turning into a giant hunk of ice. I mean, it sometimes seems like every author I know tweets or posts Facebook updates about how many words they wrote today. 1000 words. 2000. 5000. The other day my Facebook news feed even proclaimed that someone wrote 10,000 words in a single afternoon, which is astounding (or a big lie, or a joke, it's sometimes hard to tell with author's Facebook feeds).

But—be warned, here comes the rant—enough is enough. Come on authors. Stop the bragging. Or if you're going to brag, mention the total fiction writing package, not merely word count. Mention the hours you spend rewriting and editing, or plotting out and contemplating your novel. Mention how you gave up on a story and returned to it three years later. 

Don't get me wrong. I've bragged about my word counts before. I also realize word-count crowing is how many writers motive themselves. Hey, I did my 2,000 words for the day! Time to tell the world so I can keep my bonafide author credentials for another 24 hours!  But here's the question I'm pondering: Does an obsession on word counts hurt writers more than it motives them?

I mean, cranking out words doesn't matter a bit if your words don't make sense. Or if they're a jumble. Or if you write a 5,000-word digression which takes the reader out of your novel.

Despite this, it's still word counts we authors brag about. In fact, the highest profile fiction writing event each year, National Novel Writing Month, is built around word count alone. They even brag about participating authors writing more than 3.2 billion words in November 2012. The premise behind NaNoWriMo and our obession with producing daily word counts is that cranking out words indicates a productive writer. It's a belief that the hard part of writing is in the initial creative process. Once you bring words into existence, so goes this line if thinking, you can always go back and rewrite to your heart's content.

But what happens if that rewriting never happens? 

I've talked to a number of authors in recent years who say they hate rewriting and editing their stories. That's possibly how many authors have always felt, but I also wonder if our obsession on word counts is making new authors believe rewriting isn't as important as the initial spurt of creation. But here's a truth for you—without rewriting and editing, odds are the suck level of your precious story will be rather high. While creating words may be more fun, rewriting is what ensures your story will actually be read by people.

Because when you get down to it, readers don't care how long it took an author to write a story—all they care about is if the story's worth reading. And without rewriting and editing, odds are a story won't be worth much at all.

Dead online magazines and journals

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the storySouth Million Writers Award. Hard to believe only a decade ago online magazines were so looked down upon by the literati that we had to start our own award to honor online-published fiction. Now online publishing and ebooks are all the rage. Go figure.

I'll be writing more about the award in the coming weeks, but until then I wanted to share a list collected by author Robert Laughlin. Robert went through the archives of the last nine MWA award cycles and collected those magazines and journals which have passed into the great literary afterlife, both in the last year and in the last ten years.

The reasons for this vary — sometimes the editors lost interest in their magazines or no longer had the free time to donate. In a few instances, editors passed away. Others shut down their magazines in fits of angst and anger at whatever injustice they believed was keeping their magazine from reaching wider audiences. Others were shut down by their corporate owners because they didn't generate enough revenue (yeah, I'm looking at you, Sci-Fi Channel, now known by the disease sounding name of Syfy).

WARNING! BLATANT PRODUCT PLACEMENT! In case you're interested, I touch more upon the nature of online magazines in the introductions to my two recent anthologies of MWA stories: Million Writers Award: The Best Online Science Fiction and Fantasy, which focuses on SF/F stories, and Million Writers Award: The Best New Online Voices, which highlights non-genre stories. The anthologies also collect stories from some of these defunct magazines (and are available in ebook editions for only $2.99).

So what happens to the stories which weren't collected in anthologies or reprinted elsewhere? Hard to say. Some of these journals can be found in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Maybe some day a reader will stumble up a long-ignored story and bring it to the attention of the larger world. But I also know that some of the stories published in these dead online magazine are gone forever. When I was editing my MWA anthologies there were several stories I wanted to reprint but I could no longer locate either them or their authors.

Such stories now exist only in the minds of those who once read them.

Now that we're done with such a depressing thought, here are the lists. Please note that all of these magazines and journals are named because they placed at least one short story on the listings of MWA notable stories of the year. If there are any errors or missed online magazines, please add them into the comments below.

MWA JOURNALS THAT CLOSED IN 2012

  • Cezanne’s Carrot
  • Dark Sky
  • dispatch litareview
  • Dragonfire
  • The Dublin Quarterly
  • elimae
  • Girls with Insurance
  • In the Snake
  • kill author
  • LITnIMAGE
  • Lost Magazine
  • Night Train
  • (parenthetical note)
  • Rough Copy
  • Saltimbanque Review

MWA JOURNALS THAT CLOSED BEFORE 2012

  • 3711 Atlantic
  • 42opus
  • 5_Trope
  • Aberrant Dreams
  • Abjective
  • Absent Willow Review
  • Afterburn SF
  • Alsop Review
  • Arkansas Literary Forum
  • Arriviste Press
  • Atomjack Magazine
  • Baen’s Universe
  • Big News
  • Blithe House Quarterly
  • Bosphorus Art Project Quarterly
  • Bullfight Review
  • Cautionary Tale
  • Cherry Bleeds
  • Conversely
  • Coyote Wild
  • Crime Scene Scotland
  • DayBreak Magazine
  • dead drunk dublin
  • deathlings.com
  • The Deepening
  • Demolition
  • Dogmatika
  • The Edge of Propinquity
  • Edit Red
  • Eleven Bulls
  • The Exquisite Corpse
  • Fantasy Magazine (merged with Lightspeed Magazine)
  • Farrago’s Wainscot
  • Fawlt
  • Fiction Attic
  • Fiction Warehouse
  • Fiction Weekly
  • Figdust
  • FlatmanCrooked
  • A Fly in Amber
  • Fortean Bureau
  • Gator Springs
  • Gowanus
  • Green Integer Review
  • Hardluck Stories
  • Helix
  • The Hub
  • The Infinite Matrix
  • Infinity Plus
  • Ink Pot
  • Kennesaw Review
  • The King’s English
  • Lamination Colony
  • The Land-Grant College Review
  • laurahird.com
  • Lit Rag
  • Lone Star Stories
  • Me Three
  • MWU: Muslim Wake Up!
  • Nerve
  • Newtopia Magazine
  • Noneuclidean Café
  • Outsider Ink
  • The Paumanok Review
  • PERIGEE: Publication for the Arts
  • Pindeldyboz
  • The Pittsburgh Quarterly Online
  • Plaztik Press Literary Magazine
  • Poets & Artists
  • Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k)
  • Potion
  • The Quarterly Staple
  • Raging Face
  • Reflection’s Edge
  • Rouse
  • Rumpus
  • Salon.com (listed b/c they no longer publish fiction)
  • SCIfiction
  • Serendipity
  • SFReader.com
  • Shred of Evidence
  • Small Spiral Notebook
  • Socialist Review
  • Southern Gothic Online
  • Southern Hum
  • Spoiled Ink
  • Steel City Review
  • Susurrus: The Literature of Madness
  • Taint
  • Thieves Jargon
  • Thirst for Fire
  • Three Candles
  • Thunder Sandwich
  • Tryst
  • Twelve Stories
  • Velvet Mafia
  • Verbsap
  • View Unplugged
  • Weekly Reader
  • Writers’ Bloc
  • You Must Be This Tall to Ride

Preying on the Dreams of Writers

The worst thing about being a writer is encountering all the fellow writers who have had their dreams destroyed by scammers and frauds. While these vultures exist in every field of human endevour – after all, if people can dream of something then others will find a way to rip off those dreams – the writing field is especially prone to con artists. Perhaps this is because most freelance writers lead extremely solitary lives and crave validation, making it easier for others to prey on them.

To fight back, SFWA hosts the wonderful Writer Beware site, which gifts these literary vampires with the revealing sunlight of day. The site is the brainchild of Ann Crispin and Victoria Strauss and I can't thank them enough for all they do. If I ever have a question on whether an agent or editor is trying to scam someone, their site if the first place I turn to.

However, the scammers don't like this so they are constantly harassing Ann and Victoria and anyone else who exposes their misdeeds. For more on this, check out the Writer Beware blog and the John Scalzi's great post on this subject. I hope other writers will read up on this issue and rally to the defense of Ann, Victoria, and Writer Beware.

Reading Without Meaning

Before I was a writer I was a reader. Doesn't matter if I'm reading a short story, a news article, an essay or a poem, I flat out love the act of reading. I love the way words interact with each other and spin different meanings and understandings based on how they are arranged and used. I'm also not alone in this love of reading. There are billions of people around the world with a similar love.

But lately my reading hasn't been as satisfying. The problem isn't with the traditional fiction, essays, and journalism I read. No, my problem is with many of the online news articles linked from places like Yahoo and Google News. I'm sure every reader of online news is familiar with these articles, which have eye-catching titles like "Can't Sleep? 7 Eats to Avoid" or "5 Cheapest Places To Live in America."  But once you read the articles you come away feeling unsatisfied, as if you'd eaten candy all day and forgot to ingest any actual food. These articles are often little more than lists, promising much more than they can deliver. They lack context. They lack a deeper understanding of life. They lack meaning.

I understand why this is – these articles are created by content farmers, whose only aim is to get as many eyeballs as possible clicking through their content. They don't care if their articles contribute nothing to their readers. They only care that they're good enough to work as SEO and that the big boys like Google don't call them spam.

But despite claims that search engines are cracking down on content farmers, my sense is that the content farm way of life is spreading more and more into online journalism. As one AOL writer asked his boss, “Do you guys even CARE what I write? Does it make any difference if it’s good or bad?" The answer, of course, was no.

But that "no" is extremely irritating to readers, who quickly tire of reading things which tell them nothing new and provide no deeper understanding of the subject matter. So yes, these articles may land a ton of eyeballs, but how many of those eyeballs exist under irritatingly raised eyebrows, and how many of these readers make the subtle decision to stop wasting their time with online news because of crap like this. Such a process might be slow but it can definitely happen. And it is very much a case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

But the future promises to be even worse for online news readers.

According to the provacatively titled "Will Robots Steal Your White-Collar Job?" journalism is at risk of being AI-sourced by the new generation of intelligent computer writing programs. The article mentions the program StatSheet, which has generated "more than 15,000 articles a month and over the course of its nearly four-year lifespan, has created a million pages of news."

The program's inventor, Robbie Allen, adds that "Within the next three to four years, it will be better than what a human can produce. And the reason for that is pretty much the foundation of computation: We can analyze and access significantly more data than one person can on their own."

I have no doubt about that last point regarding data handling. But can your program provide meaning and context and the deeper understanding that readers enjoy? No.

In fact, the article where I first read about the StatSheet is a perfect example of what these types of programs – and indeed, most content farmed articles – can not do. "Will Robots Steal Your White-Collar Job?" is a short but in-depth journalistic examination of an emerging trend. The author, Brian Fung, pulls together data and original information, including original quotes from knowledgable people, and crafts all of that into an informative article which left me knowing much more than before I read it. His article is a perfect example of the insights I expect to receive when I read shorter-form journalism.

It will be interesting to see where all this goes. These types of writing programs could be useful in cranking out breaking news articles. But if they are applied to other types of journalism I expect readers will react in similar ways to how I react to content farmed articles. All these articles do is waste time and leave the reader wanting to read less, not more.

The simple truth is that if you don't love reading there is no way you can be a successful writer. The passion and committment to words can't be faked and can't be content farmed out or generated by a program. And the same is true of helping readers to see to deeper meanings and understandings.

Perhaps I'm simply being naive. Perhaps not. But I do know what I love about the act of reading. And reading farmed content – created either by humans or computers – is not what I love to read.

When You Have a Chance to Meet an Editor, Say Hello!

One of the highlights of last weekend's Context convention – aside from hanging with great people like John ScalziMaurice BroaddusJohn Hornor Jacobs, and Jason Sizemore – was having the opportunity for a detailed discussion with David Hartwell. In case you don't know, Hartwell is a top editor with Tor Books and has decades of experience in the science fiction field. He has worked with a number of big name authors, including Philip K. Dick and Gene Wolfe (and was intimately involved in editing Wolfe's influential series The Book of the New Sun, which is one of the best literary works of the entire 20th century).

Hartwell and I sat beside each other at a "Meet the Authors" event and talked a good bit. One thing which stuck with me – and which Hartwell said I was free to share with others – was his shock at how few new writers had approached him at this convention. Considering that Context is geared toward writers, Hartwell expected a number of new authors to either pitch their novels or, if they didn't have a book ready, to at least introduce themselves. Instead, I was evidently one of the few writers he didn't personally know who engaged him in conversation.

This totally blew my mind. I mean, if you're serious about making it as a science fiction writer, why wouldn't you go up to a prominent SF editor and introduce yourself? Even if you get nervous around editors or don't have much to say, at least shake the man's hand. That way if you ever submit something to Hartwell you're not a total stranger.

As I mentioned, Context is aimed at writers, so I'm at a loss to explain why more writers didn't approach Hartwell. The only thing I can figure out is that there are a number of new authors out there who feel traditional publishing houses are not for them. One person I talked to at Context described these new authors as part of the "self-publishing subculture," which believes that to be a successful author all you need do is self-publish your book and attend conventions, where you sell copies to fellow authors who are also hawking their own self-published books.

Personally I feel that view is too dismissive of self-publishing, but it has a bit of truth. We've all met authors who believe success means selling a few dozen copies of their self-published book to friends and family. And if that's all they want, more power to them. But as a writer, I want to reach as many readers as possible. If self-publishing will do that, great. If traditional publishing will, that's also good. But no matter the route you take, one of the vital keys to writing success is to learn all you can about our industry.

Whether you want to self-publish your novel or are trying to land a traditional publishing contract, it is in every author's interest to make connections and talk with the editors in our field. And not simply because these editors might be able to help you with your career (although that is a big plus – remember, every editor out there lives for the moment when they discover a hot new writer). You see, editors are also a great source of information on what's going on in our genre and how the speculative fiction business works. This is information every author needs to know.

And to top it all off, most editors are fun people to talk to.

Yes, it would be nice if one day I'm able to submit a novel to David Hartwell and he remembers who I am. But equally as important, I had a great time talking with him. I learned a number of things about our genre I didn't know before.

So the next time you go to a con, say hello to the editors. 

Writing a Novel On Google+

I'm extremely impressed with the hangout function on Google+. Not only is it a fun way to interact with people, as a writer I've found the hangout tool to be a great productivity booster. As I've previously mentioned, the combination of chit chat with other writers and the peer-pressure to write can result in some impressive word craft.  All that remains to be seen is if the hangout feature can actually help writers be more productive over the long-term, or if the increased productivity will fizzle out as people grow weary of this social media feature.

To test this, I will write a novel while hanging out on Google+. Yes, an entire novel. I actually started working on the novel in my previous two hangouts so if this pans out that means the entire manuscript will be written while my face is webcammed across the Google+ universe.

Here's the deal: Every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday I will host a Google+ hangout at 9 pm Eastern. Any writer who is in one of my circles is welcome to take part. Starting at 9 we'll spend about 15 minutes talking shop and fumbling through that social awkwardness we writers know so well. After that we'll write for an hour. Depending on how people feel afterward, we can then follow up with more chit chat and writing.

Speaking for myself, spacing the hangouts over the week will give me time in between to do revisions and plan out the novel. However, the actual hangouts will be solely for writing. If anyone else thinks a regularly scheduled hangout will help your writing, please join in.

I'll also be posting regular updates on how this experiment goes.  And once again, thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal for coming up with the idea of these writers' hangout.

Writers' Hangouts in Google+

The other day Mary Robinette Kowal explained to the social media world how to hold a writers' hangout in Google+. Basically, you use Google+'s ability to hangout with others while also cranking on your latest literary masterpiece. Since I'm aways looking for ways to bring more fun to my writing, I staged my first hangout last night.

The results: Fun as hell and a great way to motivate yourself into being more productive.

As Mary suggested, I scheduled a time for the hookup and mentioned it on both Google+ and Twitter. Once we started the Google+ hangout functionality worked great, with people easily able to see each other and talk. In short order ten other writers--ten people being the most that can use the hangout feature at one time--logged in. We spent about 15 minutes talking and wrote for the rest of the hour, followed by more talking and writing.

Thanks to everyone who showed up, including Mary, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jamie Rubin, Janet Harriett, Patrick Thunstrom, Adam Callaway, Brian Dolton, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Juliette Wade, Shaun Duke, Scott Roberts, and John DeNardo. I'm also pleased that the hangout helped me write almost 1,500 words last night. Since late night has always been one of my least-productive writing times, the hangout was well worth doing.

I'll be scheduling more writers' hangouts in the near future. If you want to take part, simply keep an eye out on my Google+ feed.

Update: Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Jamie Todd Rubin give their take on our hangout.

Learn the Rules of Grammar and Spelling Before You Break Them

If you want to be an author, you must know the rules of grammar and spelling. If you don't you will quickly discover your writings being dismissed on what appear to be superficial grounds. "Of course I couldn't read his story – in the first paragraph alone there were three typos, a dangling modifier, and a damn comma splice."

Is this unfair? Perhaps. But people make snap judgments every day using far less worthy ideals than proper grammar and spelling.

But all that said, once a writer has learned to work within the rules of grammer and spelling, the writer will also know when to break the rules. Read the great authors and you will find them abusing and breaking all types of grammatical requirements. You can moan all you want about these authors breaking the rules but the moaning doesn't matter – the great writers will still be great and the rules will still be the rules, except when they are broken.

I have no point in all this except that if you are going to break the rules you'd better be good enough to get away with it. And to become good enough to break something, you first must understand it.

The World's Smallest Essay on Our New Miniaturization of Literature

In the early part of this millennium, a well-known author was presented with that oft-asked and irritating question, "What advice do you have for new writers?" Her reply: "Make sure what you have to say is worth reading, because our libraries are being filled up by minutia."

* * *

According to industry statistics, more books than ever are being published, with 1,052,803 books coming out in the U.S. alone in 2009. The vast majority of these books are self-published, with ebook sales exploding while print sales remain strong.  But these massive sales numbers disguise that most of those million plus books sell only a few copies. More than ever there are a handful of best-sellers and everyone else.

Stephen King. John Grisham. Stephenie Meyer. Forget all others.

* * *

minutia (noun). A minute or minor detail.

* * *

When Ann Godoff, the respected head of the Random House Trade Group, was fired way back in 2003, it wasn't because she hadn't made money for her corporate bosses. It was because she hadn't made tons and tons of money. As the New York Times wrote at the time, "The old assumptions of book publishing — that it earned modest, steady profits built on a respected stable of authors and a deep backlist — now seem practically prehistoric."

If the old assumptions of book publishing were dying in 2003, where does that put us in our brave new world of ebooks?

I love that ebooks allow authors to keep their backlist in print. I love that ebooks empower everyone to be an author. But does everyone truly have a story to be told? Does every book deserve to remain in print forever?

* * *

Etymology of minutia:

The word comes from several Latin words including "mintiae," meaning petty details; "mintia," meaning smallness; and "mintus," meaning small. Minutia dates from around 1751 — right smack in the middle of the scientific revolution.

* * *

The old joke is that specialists learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing, while generalists learn less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything.

How about another choice besides two different types of the same minutia?

* * *

The scientific revolution changed how people thought about themselves. Human knowledge became abstract. Truth could be empirically tested, proved, or disproved. The world was seen as a giant machine and could be broken down into tiny pieces.

Into minutia.

* * *

Most common advice in MFA creative writing programs: "Show, don't tell."

* * *

The world is growing smaller every day — and not in the "it's a small world after all" vision of Walt Disney or a treehugger's "we're all neighbors in an interconnected web of life." Instead, it is becoming more and more possible to find out anything about everything. Want to know if God exists? Search Amazon and you'll find a million different ebooks promising God's address on a silver platter. And if you can't Kindle a truth to your liking, Google will definitely deliver it.

Why read literature to understand the world when the truth — any truth, someone's individual truth — can be delivered instantly?

* * *

Second-most common advice in MFA programs: "Write what you know."

* * *

The scientific revolution, writ large, began with Nicolaus Copernicus saying the sun is the center of the solar system. Along the way, Isaac Newton went from apples to gravity, and later Charles Darwin evolved, Albert Einstein discovered that we are all energy, and Dr. Jonas Salk produced a polio vaccine.

That's what I know about the scientific revolution. None of it is minutia.

* * *

Thousands of major scientific and technological discoveries are announced each year.  I don't doubt that these discoveries are true or that some of them will one day change our lives. But of all the scientific and technological breakthroughs announced last year, how many did you truly understand?

Do you try to understand each new discovery and its possible impact on our world? Or do you simply nod your head and think, "That sounds absolutely marvelous. I don't understand what it means for humanity, but I'm sure someone does."

What does it portend when the scientific and technological forces shaping our lives on a daily basis are not understood by the vast majority of people?

* * *

Just as fewer and fewer people understand scientific discoveries, more and more books are being published but selling only a few copies. Is this because most of those million plus books released each year aren't worth reading, or are they simply lost in an avalanche of literary overload? Or is it some mixture of the two?

In many ways, literary success has always been a system of long odds. Want to become the next Stephen King or J. K. Rowling? Then write your book and hope the literary lottery pops up with your number. Yes, talent matters. Yes, drive and determination and craft make a difference. But it is still a roll of the dice to make a living from your writing, let alone make the best-seller lists.

As the number of self-published books and ebooks reach even higher numbers, how will this improve for the better? When we have ten million ebooks coming out each day, authors will be praying that an influential reader or critic actually reads their book, let alone praises it. They'll be endlessly promoting their beloved tale to the world, hoping against hope that the odds click and their book is suddenly on the digital road to success.

The new literary lottery is for a book to rise above the minute and tiny role it plays in a world of millions of digital editions.

* * *

One final minutia:

The well-known author from the start of the essay is not famous — her books are rarely read outside of the literary world. But writers know her, and she swears she was misquoted in her response to that oft-asked and irritating question, "What advice do you have for new writers?"

Her true response: "Make sure what you have to say is worth reading, because our libraries are being filled up by the minute."

Nothing ever really fills up. There is always room for more minutia.

* * *

Note: This is a reworking of my essay "World's Smallest Essay on the Coming Miniaturization of Literature," which came out in 2003 or so. Be sure to also read Jim Booth's response to this original essay, Literary Minutiae at the Present Time. (And yes, I'm aware that the spellings of minutiae and minutia in these essays don't match. Such is life and the preferences of different dictionaries.)

 

To the Author of the Unfinished Novel

The other day an acquaintance emailed me with a personal request: Would I look at an excerpt of her friend's novel and give my opinion on whether the novel was worth finishing. Attached to the email was the first 6,000 words of her friend's novel, which was evidently all the author had completed.

The backstory is that this author's friends and family have read this excerpt and are encouraging her to finish the novel. The acquaintance hoped I could read the novel excerpt and give my opinion on whether or not her friend should actually finish it.

Now, many people have expressed their views on how writers should respond to requests for feedback. But since this was a request from a family friend I didn't want to blow it off. Here's my response, which I hope was helpful. I also hope these words help other new authors.

I read through your attachment and your friend's story is of interest. However, it's not up to me to say whether or not this novel should be completed. Only the author can decide if a story is so personally gripping that it demands to be completed. If an author doesn't feel the burning need to finish a novel then nothing anyone else says will change the author's mind.

To put this in perspective, what you sent me is the first 6,000 words of a novel. In order to finish the book an additional 74,000 plus words would have to be written. In many ways the first words of the novel are the easiest because the author is often seized with a particular character, or maybe a vibrant voice or situation grabs hold. As a result the author tears into the story and before they know it several thousand words have been written.

But this is only the first step. Now the author must find a way to continue the novel's momentum for tens of thousands of additional words while also creating a compelling plot, unique situations, and engaging characters. There are hundreds of ways to do this; for tips, I'd suggest your friend look for books about novel writing in either the library or bookstore. But what all this means is that its hard work to complete a novel. If the author doesn't have the burning need to tell this particular story, nothing I say will make them want to finish.

Sincerely,

Jason Sanford

How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion

If you write genre fiction, slap yourself hard if you don't read MagicalWords. The blog is jointly produced by a number of top fantasy authors including Faith Hunter, David B. Coe, Misty Massey, A.J. Hartley, Stuart Jaffe, and C.E. Murphy, and features the authors' distinctive views on both the craft and business of fantasy writing.

Now comes How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion, a compilation of how-to writing advice from the blog. Edited by Edmund Schubert of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, the book covers all aspects of fiction writing, from getting started to word choice to the business side of the craft.

Edmund has been kind enough to let me reprint the first essay from the book. It's pasted below. After you read it, be sure to check out the rest of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion.

 

They’re Not Rules, They’re Price Tags

by Edmund R. Schubert

Never write in second person.

Always start with a powerful first line.

Never change POVs in the middle of a scene.

Eschew adjectives. And adverbs.

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah . . .

How To Write Magical Words is devoted to helping people write better, and there’s a lot of great advice to be found here.

And it’s all negotiable.

Seriously. There isn’t a bit of writing advice here that someone, somewhere (probably multiple someones and multitudinous somewheres) hasn’t broken, and broken really damn well.

So should you listen to what Faith and David and A.J. and Misty and Stuart and Catie have to say about writing? Of course you should. They’ve been doing this for a long time; they know what they’re talking about.

Well, then what the heck are you talking about, Edmund?

That would be a logical question.

What I’m talking about is this: I’m replying to a certain question before it’s even asked, a question I hear all the time. The minute any writing conversation turns in the direction of “rules” or “guidelines” or even just plain old “advice,” it inevitably crops up.

That question is: “Yeah, but what about ____x____?”

Because yes, there are exceptions to every rule. In fact, those exceptions are usually exceptional. People hold them up as shining examples of why the rules don’t apply. They do so wrongly, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it.

That’s why I want you to stop thinking of them as “rules” and start thinking of them as “price tags.” Even the rules of grammar and punctuation. They are all price tags.

Why price tags? Because there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules. If the gain outweighs the loss, then it’s worth doing. If not . . .

Let’s start with the rules of grammar and punctuation; they seem to be the most immutable. You want to break those rules? Generally, the price you pay is a lack of clarity and, as a result, a lack understanding. There’s a great book that came out several years ago called Eats Shoots and Leaves that talked about the importance of punctuation. Just punctuation. That subject alone filled an entire book. But look at the difference one little comma (or the lack thereof) makes in the title. If you say “eats shoots and leaves” without the comma, you’re talking about a panda’s diet. What do they eat? Bamboo shoots and leaves. But add one little comma so that it reads, “eats, shoots and leaves,” now you’re talking about a mafia hit-man who sits down in a restaurant, eats his dinner, kills the guy at the next table, and then walks out. A panda bear and a mafia hit man—and all that differentiates the two is one single comma.

There simply aren’t a lot of good reasons to mess with punctuation. Period. But grammar is a little more flexible. Look at the second sentence in this paragraph, the paragraph you’re reading right now. That’s really not a sentence, is it? “Period.” There’s no verb, there are no independent or dependent clauses; it’s just one word, sitting there, all alone. It’s—gasp—a sentence fragment. And doggone it, it’s not the first one that’s been used in this piece.

What price did I pay? Not much of one, because there was no loss of clarity. I knew when, where, and how to use them. What benefit did I gain? That fragment carries extra emphasis. It makes it perfectly clear that I think there are very, very, very few reasons to mess with punctuation. And that’s what fragments do best: narrow the focus down so as to emphasize a point. But you still have to be careful to construct. Them properly. Because the sloppy. Unintentional use of sentence fragments only causes confusion (see my previous sentence-fragment mess, right before this sentence; yes, that was intentional. But it was still ugly.).

Here’s a different example, one that comes up frequently when we’re talking about writing: don’t write in the present tense, or, heaven forbid, the future tense. Has it been done? Of course. Should it be done? Well, that’s really up to you. As always, there’s a price to pay.

In this case, because past tense is the tense used in the vast majority of writing today (especially if you disregard “literary writing,” which accounts for two-thirds of the uses of other tenses), unless present or future tenses are used seamlessly, it’s going to jump out at the reader. Look at me, it screams. I am writing in the present tense. I am going to be writing in the future tense. If that’s the effect you want—if it serves your story somehow—then by all means, go for it. Some writers can do so in a way that’s unobtrusive, so you hardly notice it’s being done. But here’s the thing: most readers want to be swept up in a story and carried away by it. They want to be immersed in the world they’re reading about to such a degree that they forget about the real one they’re living in. That can not happen if the writing is calling attention to itself. Using tenses that scream “look at me” are not going to allow that to happen. Again: “Can it be done” is not the question you should be asking yourself. “Should it be done” is the question.

I could go on about this at length, but I’m sure by now you see my point. The bottom line is that the rules are there for a reason. And it’s not to say you can never, ever, ever do ____x____. It’s to say that if you do _____x_____, make sure you know why you’re not supposed to do it. Make sure you understand the price tag that comes with doing it. Make sure that you understand that even though great writing breaks a lot of rules, no one breaks the rules effectively without thoroughly understanding them.

Once you really, truly understand the rules, then by all means, go ahead and break them. Break them into a million shining pieces that people will hold up and bask in the glory of.

Break them so well that you’re the one that people are talking about when they come up to me at my next convention or workshop and say, “Yeah, but what about ____x____?”

Groundbreaking Czech SF Magazine Ikarie Shuts Down, Staff Start New XB-1

Ikarie November 2010 Sad news from overseas: The groundbreaking Czech SF magazine Ikarie has shut down after over 20 years of publishing and 247 issues.

Former Ikarie editor Martin Šust shared the news with me yesterday. Their last issue was published in November 2010 (see image at right). According to Martin, the unexpected closing was not due to poor sales but instead the publisher's desire to focus on lifestyle magazines.

Named after the classic Czech SF film Ikarie XB-1 and founded in 1990, Ikarie was one of the most important science fiction magazines in Europe. Published as a 8.25 x 11.5 inch, 66 page monthly with full-color covers and black and white interiors, Ikarie contained between five or six stories in each issue in addition to reviews and nonfiction articles. Over the years Ikarie published countless Czech authors along with translated stories from the biggest names in world SF. 

New Czech Magazine XB-1

The good news, though, is that Martin and other members of the Ikarie staff have already started a new Czech SF magazine. Named XB-1 in honor of the second part of the Ikarie XB-1 film title, Martin says the new magazine contains the same editorial board.

The first issue of XB-1 was published in December and they already have a nicely designed website. It appears the magazine will continue to translate foreign-language stories.

I'm particularlly sorry to see Ikarie go—over the last two years the magazine translated and published four of my stories, including my Nebula-nominated novella "Sublimation Angels." But while Ikarie will be missed, I also know Martin and the rest of the staff will do a great job with the new XB-1.

Update: I should have specified that Martin Šust was foreign rights editor for Ikarie while the editor in chief was Vlado Ríša. They are reprising their old roles with XB-1.

Where's The Great Gatsby of Today?

Here's the question for the literary crowd: Where's The Great Gatsby of today?

I keep hearing from literary writers that the difference between genre and "Literary" fiction—besides the big L and plenty of academic air quotes—is that literary fiction deals with what truly matters. Literary fiction is "serious fiction" with "literary merit" as opposed to all that trashy genre stuff, which is merely fun to read.

Now obviously I don't agree with that; for me great fiction boils down to well-written stories which reveal a deeper truth about our world. There are stories which do that and stories which don't.

But in the interest of giving literary writers a shot at proving their genre's worth, I want to know where's The Great Gatsby of today?

I ask because it appears that while journalists and scientific researchers are exploring the issues and themes raised in F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, not a lot of literary authors are doing the same. For example, the recent NY Times article "As for Empathy, the Haves Have Not"covers research indicating there are major differences in how the "rich and the poor experience the world psychologically." Basically, the less money you have the more likely you'll develop good social skills to compensate, while the rich have what the researchers call an "empathy deficit."

Then there's the amazing Atlantic Monthly article "The Rise of the New Global Elite" by Chrystia Freeland, which explores the new upper class of people with almost no ties to the lands, cultures, and beliefs of their births. 

In light of the recent near collapse of our economy, the topics covered by these two journalistic articles cry out for the fictional treatment from an author with "literary merit." But I see nothing out there even though these cultural trends are hardly new. They've been around for almost two decades. The last big literary novel to deal which this subject was Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. But since that novel came out in 1987, it hardly deals with today's new rich.

Instead, the Atlantic Monthly article opens with Fitzgerald's famous quote that the rich are different from you and me. No recent author is mentioned except for Holly Peterson, the daughter of one of the tycoons profiled in the article. Peterson evidently wrote a novel called The Manny, which "lightly satirizes the lives and loves of financiers and their wives on the Upper East Side" and is described as a "mommy lit" beach book.

If I was a literary writer with a big L and air quotes, it would bother me that Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby are still the standards by which fictional examinations of today's rich are measured. Are the screwed-up lives of the rich and how they're changing our world a topic avoided by literary fiction? Are our literary writers too tied in with uppercase ways to write truthfully about the extremely rich? Or am I missing some amazing stories and novels which are as penetrating as those two journalistic articles?

I look forward to hearing from people.

Why the Entire World Doesn't Steal from Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is a great writer—one of the best short story authors of the last half century. Ever since I read "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" as a wide-eyed high school student I've actively sought out his fiction. Even when his stories don't succeed his cutting prose and exploration of ideas usually far surpass the short fiction of other authors. Several well-thumbed editions of his stories rest on my bookshelves.

So yes, I really like Ellison's fiction. And that's why it pains me every time he opens his mouth and complains about someone stealing his ideas.

The latest example comes in a Wall Street Journal interview where Ellison claims Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Road rips off "A Boy and His Dog."

Sorry Harlan, but no f'in way.

The truth is all stories owe debts to stories which came before—especially when an author writes on a well-tread theme like the post-apocalypse. As I wrote a few years ago about The Road, there are many  stories which no doubt influenced McCarthy's novel. Along with Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" these influences include Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, The Postman by David Brin, Alas,Babylon by Pat Frank, and, most notably, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

However, there is a big difference between influencing and stealing. Between stories sharing the same idea and plagiarism.

Each of the works listed above frames the post-apocalyptic world in different and unique ways, yet it would be silly to claim they've all stolen from each other. Instead, they've built upon each other across the years—sometimes deliberately, sometimes on a subconscious level. That is what the term "influence" means. Cultural artifacts like stories ripple to various degrees across our mental landscape, influencing viewpoints and beliefs far beyond the original creation.

But again, that type of influence doesn't amount to stealing.

It's possible Ellison was joking in that interview about McCarthy ripping off his story, but I suspect he is being serious. After all, Ellison has a history of claiming other people stole his works. He sued Orion Pictures and James Cameron for "stealing" the ideas behind The Terminator, specifically the idea of a soldier being sent into the past to fight. Ellison also claimed they stole his idea of a human-like robot from the "Demon with a Glass Hand" episode he wrote for The Outer Limits.

Orion paid Ellison off and gave him an acknowledgement credit in The Terminator, a decision the film's writer and director James Cameron totally disagreed with. According to Cameron, because he was still a new director he "had no choice but to agree with the settlement. Of course there was a gag order as well, so I couldn't tell this story, but now I frankly don't care. It's the truth. Harlan Ellison is a parasite who can kiss my ass."

Obviously that's still a sore spot with Cameron and it's easy to understand why. If you read Ellison's original story "Soldier From Tomorrow," or watch the episode of The Outer Limits  Ellison wrote based on that story, it's obviously the only similarity between these works is the general idea of a soldier travelling back in time. The same with the shared idea of a human-like robot or cyborg in both "Demon with a Glass Hand" and The Terminator. After watching The Terminator and seeing/reading the original works Cameron supposedly stole, one comes away feeling Orion Pictures paid off Ellison merely to make him go away, not because there was any merit to his claims.

The key point all authors and creators should remember is ideas are not protected by copyright. As the U.S. copyright office states, "Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work." 

As authors and readers and lovers of films, would we want it any other way? If someone could copyright the idea of spaceships, half of science fiction would vanish with a stroke of the lawsuit. If it was theft to write about quests for a magic item—say a ring—or modern vampires who look like cute pop music stars, the fantasy genre would likewise be in for hard times.

Plagiarism is a serious charge and I wish Ellison wouldn't throw the term around like it is nothing. Simply because an author has written on an idea Ellison once wrote about does not equal theft.

There's also a down-side to Ellison crying wolf so often. In that Wall Street Journal interview, Ellison is introduced as as the guy who "penned Soldier, which James Cameron drew from for The Terminator." With a single lawsuit Ellison has caused his own legacy to be rewritten. Instead of being remembered for his ground-breaking stories, Ellison is now the guy who wrote a story which somewhat inspired a movie.

To me, the rewriting of a great author's legacy is the only true theft going on here.

You Are a Stupid, Ignorant Writer—and Your Story Just Paid the Price

You're out there. I know you are. The writer who submitted a story to me by UPS Next Day Air. You thought your story was so important you paid extra to rush it to me. You no doubt thought I'd be honored to recieve your words wrapped in a special brown and green Reusable Express Envelope. 

Or, as it says in small print on the barely legible envelope, "Use. Reuse. Then Recycle."

I say barely legible because the envelope sat under the snow for a week and appears to have been stepped on a few times. I also suspect a squirel or rabbit gnawed on the envelope, but it's hard to tell which species did the deed. I assume UPS delivered the envelope while I was in Alabama for Christmas. They probably left it on my porch like they usually do and at some point the wind blew it into the snow, where I discovered the envelope this morning.

Naturally I stopped my mail delivery for the week I was gone. If you hadn't been showboating by sending your submission Next Day Air it would have been held by the post office until I returned. And your story would not now be the consistency of mush. The only thing your story remains fit for is recycling. So at least in that regard, kudos on using an eco-friendly envelope.

But that's only part of why you are a stupid, ignorant writer.

I mean, your ruined submission doesn't even contain a SASE. Don't know what that is? Well, I'd tell you to look it up but that's obviously beyond your feeble abilities. Because if you'd looked up storySouth's guidelines you'd know the magazine only accepts electronic submissions. We've never accepted mailed submissions. And if you'd checked, you'd also have learned—and please pay special attention, because this is important—I HAVEN'T EDITED STORYSOUTH IN ALMOST TWO YEARS!

Check the magazine's Wikipedia page. Check storySouth's about us page, which lists Terry Kennedy and the other great editors who now produce this wonderful literary journal. Pan all the way to the bottom of that page and you'll see my name under Editors Emeriti. To save you the terrible pain of Googling that term, it means I no longer accept submissions mailed in Next Day Air envelopes which sit in the snow all week and are chewed on by cute-looking rodents.

If you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader. And if you can't even read a magazine's guidelines you have no business submitting to them in the first place.

So yes, you are a stupid, ignorant writer. And unfortunately, your story paid the price for your sins.

The Difference Between an Author and a Writer

Someone asked me the other day to describe the difference between an author and a writer. I tried giving a basic definition by saying most people are writers at some point in their lives—even if all they write is a grocery list—while authors focus on writing as a career. But this person didn't like that answer and persisted.

So here's my attempt at a deeper response: An author has readers. A writer doesn't.

I'm pretty sure I'm going to take some flack for this, but before hurling those flaming pens my way please hear me out.

Yes, anyone can be a writer, but in this context I'm not talking about writing a school paper or tweeting a few words about the double scoop of red pepper ice cream you ate before breakfast. Instead, I'm talking about creating something with words which didn't exist before. Using words to craft a story or poem or essay or book which has the potential to take on a life of its own. To me, such acts of literary creation are at the heart of what it means to be both a writer and an author.

So assuming an author and a writer are both aiming for the same thing—creations built around words—why did I bring readers into this equation?

Simple. In the act of literary creation, we all start out as writers. We write for ourselves. We write to create. We write to explore and play and experience and for a thousand other reasons. And at the end of that process we look around to see who wants to experience our creation.

Why do we do this? Why do most writers seek out readers?

Again, many reasons. Validation of what we're doing. The ego-driven need to show others what we've created. The belief that what we've created deserves to be shared. The urge to make money through publishing your writings. And, perhaps, an understanding that the best creations in our world result from the interactions of more than a single person. That literary creations can be improved by being shared with others. That feedback is a good thing. That readers—by the very act of reading a work—show a writer what resonates and works and what doesn't.

And it is this process of sharing your creations with the world which turns a writer into an author.

Anyone can be an writer. Simply write and create something new. But to truly grow as a writer—to become an author—you have to push your creations out into the world.

It's almost impossible to think of a successful author who didn't at least try to share their writings with the greater world. Emily Dickinson is a favorite example of an author who was unknown during her time and kept her writings mostly hidden, but even Dickinson sent her poetry to others seeking feedback. History presents few examples of successful authors who were totally inward looking and disregarded the need to seek readers for their works. 

So to the person who asked me about the difference between writers and authors, all I can say is they are different terms for people who create literary works. But in my view, writers can only grow into authors by sharing their creations with the larger world. 

Any thoughts from other people on this?

Why It's Worth Expressing Opinions on Literature

Yesterday Niall Harrison wrote an in-depth response to my essay on "Why We Write Literary Reviews." I appreciate Niall taking the time to respond. As I mentioned in the comments on his site, my essay's main point was to explore what causes someone to take the first step toward writing literary criticism. Where the criticism goes after that initial step depends upon the reviewer, the subject, and a thousand different subjective points.

Niall is correct in saying I approach reviewing from the point of view of a fiction writer. That's quite natural since I mainly see myself as a fiction writer. However, I also approach reviewing from a reader's point of view. I was a reader before I began writing fiction and it's as a reader that I learned what makes great fiction great. At the risk of making a grand assumption, I'd say all fiction writers—and indeed, almost all writers—come to their craft through the same process of first being readers.

 But that's not to say literary reviews and criticism are secondary to fiction writing, or that I take reviewing as being less serious than fiction writing. As with all creative endeavors, there are great stories and great reviews, bad stories and bad reviews, and a wild mix of everything in between.

The Relationship Between Fiction and Criticism

Even though literary criticism and fiction writing are equally valid means of creative expression, their relationship to each other is not the same. Fiction writing can be created totally apart from literary criticism while literary criticism can't be created apart from the texts it critiques. But paradoxically, while the creation of literary criticism is intimately tied to the texts being critiqued, the criticism which results exists totally separate from its subject matter.

To understand this distinction, consider how often you've read and enjoyed reviews of books and stories which you have no intention of ever reading. Those reviews couldn't have been created without the original texts, but once created they were independent of those texts.

Again, none of this means literary criticism is a lesser creative art than fiction—it merely has a different relationship to its subject matter. And this relationship can be parsed even more if you separate literary reviews from literary criticism.  For example, on Niall's comment thread John Scalzi states that he tends to see "reviewing as closer to consumer reporting and criticism as exegesis, for which consumer reporting is not a primary goal. Most reviewing/criticism falls on a line between those two end points."

I agree with Scalzi's points. When I write a book review, at the review's core is whether or not I recommend the book to readers. When I write literary criticism, the core isn't so much to recommend certain books as to draw larger understandings and ideas from a reading of literature. And as Scalzi says, those are merely the extremes. The elements of reviews and criticism often flow back and forth so that one can both recommend a specific book and address larger literary issues, or vice versa.

Reviewers and Ego

The part of my essay which really irritated Niall and others was when I said that one reason people write literary reviews is to bring attention to themselves. This was only one of many reasons I gave—and it is definitely one of the less likely reasons—but it still attracted most of the negative attention.

The simple truth is that human creations can not be separated from human ego, and criticism is no exception. As Niall says, "of course reviewers want attention; reviewing is an act of communication, it takes a certain amount of ego just to stand up and say your piece in public, and we want to know that our communication is valued."

I totally agree. Critics want to know that their ideas have entered into the larger cultural discussions continually engaged in by humanity. The same can be said of fiction writers, poets, and all artists.

However, the point of my essay was to ask why a person takes that first step toward writing literary criticism. If that first step toward writing criticism—or the first step toward writing fiction or taking part in any creative affair—is dictated MERELY because you want attention, then you have engaged in a bastard exercise which rarely creates anything worth remembering.

Many of the problems with today's artistic world—hell, with the world in general—result from people focusing solely on drawing attention to themselves. It's as if people see becoming self-centered Hollywood superstars as the natural way of life.  This results in CEOs of financial institutions deciding that looting the economy is more important than creating jobs or manufacturing worthwhile products, or parents deciding that forcing their son to lie about being a "balloon boy" is worth doing if the whole world ends up watching.

Humans are by our very nature ego-centric. But when you can't see anything beyond yourself, how can you call yourself a true creator? After all, to create something—to bring into existence something new—means you must both engage your own self and reach beyond your self. Creation involves both yourself and more than your self.

So yes, everyone has an ego and we all want to know that our contributions to life are noticed and make a difference.  That's basic human nature.  And yes, great artists often have great egos. But the best art is created by artists who are also able to look beyond themselves and see the greater goals and patterns of life. To my view, having an ego doesn't mean you can't also aim for more than merely satisfying your ego. Only by aiming for that greater goal does one have a shot at creating great art.

The Stereotypes of Literary Critics

But all that said, Niall is correct that by raising this "ego" point I treaded very close to the stereotypes many fiction writers have about reviewers, such as the mistaken belief that literary critics speak only from ego or that critics are failed fiction writers.  I should have clarified this because it wasn't my intention to promote these false stereotypes.

Unfortunately, these stereotypes are believed by a number of writers and artists (even if most won't mention them in public). For example, in Tobias Wolff's classic short story "Bullet in the Brain" we are introduced to a literary critic who witnesses a bank robbery. Despite what common sense states about not insulting violent men with guns, the critic can't stop making snarky comments about the clichés erupting all around him. As the story makes clear, this critic makes these comments because nasty opinions have become entirely ingrained with his essence. Being snarky is perfectly melded with this critic's ego.

Is Wolff's uncharitable view of literary critics how some fiction writers see critics? The answer is likely yes. It's natural for people to dislike criticism. Instead of seeing the critic as expressing an actual truth, writers want to ascribe negative comments to the critic simply being cruel. Do a few literary critics attack writers because they want to hurt them? Of course. But critics like this are an extreme exception. The vast majority of critics have far more noble goals in mind with their criticism.

And in fact, this truth is also shown in Wolff's story, and it's why his tale rises above being a joke about a nasty critic and becomes a true work of art. As the critic is dying he remembers what brought him to a love of criticism—the musical words spoken by a friend during a childhood baseball game. This love of words clicked into the critic at that moment and for the rest of his life he sought to understand the greater art all around him. The story's tragedy—and the reason why Wolff elevates the literary critic's character into a creation which resonates with readers—is that the critic had forgotten how life first brought him to criticism. It took death to remind him of what he'd lost in life.

I think Wolff's story ties in closely with the point I was making about why people take the first step toward literary criticism—and by extension, the first step toward anything in life. Something catches our eye. Something jangles into our brain. And from there we walk forward, exploring all we can. But the reason we take that first step remains extremely important, and taking the first step for the right or wrong reasons heavily influences everything you eventually create.

To close, I want to share a great quote from Gary K Wolfe, which Niall gives at the end of his essay:

"One writes reviews because reviews are what one writes: they are essays about literature, and literature is worth writing essays about."

Amen to that. No matter the reason for taking your first step toward writing a literary review, the most important thing to remember is that literature matters. As does literary criticism. And the things which matter in life are always worth expressing an opinion about.

Why We Write Literary Reviews

I don't review many books and short stories. Maybe a dozen during a busy year, less when I don't feel the need. And I tend to focus on works which really impress me, as with my reviews of the Dark Faith anthology edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon, or The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

It's also rare for me to rip stories with my critiques. I basically refuse to waste my time reviewing bad stories. The irony, of course, is that if I slammed more stories I'd probably publish many more reviews.  I find it easier to rip stories apart than to write positive yet insightful criticism. When you read a bad story, the flaws almost beg for sarcastic comments and ridicule. Great stories don't beg for anything—except to be read by as many people as possible.

I'm currently writing a review of Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, which I absolutely loved. Okorafor's novel came out earlier this year to near universal acclaim—check out her website for a sample of these glowing reviews. While I totally agree with this praise, the large number of already existing reviews made me wonder whether I still needed to critique the book.

To help me answer this question, I decided to figure out why people write literary criticism. Here are the reasons I've come up with:

  • A need to bring attention to a worthy story, or to condemn a bad one. This is the first and most powerful reason why people review fiction. The need to praise or condemn the things we love or hate is a primal need in humanity. I'd be willing to bet that when early humans began speaking, dichotomies such as love and hate, or good and bad, were among the first words from their lips. While such simple dichotomies can create turmoil in our world, they are also one of the most effective means of spreading information about those aspects of life worth embracing—or avoiding.
     
  • A need to pontificate. Whether you praise theoretical reviews as legitimate literary criticism or deride them as intellectual masturbation, agendas are at the heart of why someone writes this type of fictional analysis. The reviewer has an agenda and the book is critiqued from the agenda's point of view. These types of reviews can be fascinating but are rarely enlightening. Instead, they confirm the pros and cons of already existing views and theories. And whether or not the review tempts you into reading the story depends on whether or not you agree with the reviewer's agenda.
     
  • A need to explain how the reviewer would have written a different book. This reason for writing a review drives me crazy. I mean, if reviewers wish a different book had been written, they should write that damn book instead of pushing their ideas onto another author's story. A recent example of this is Lawrence K. Altman's review of Dr. Connie Mariano's memoir about her time as the White House doctor. Altman goes off on several tangents in his review, such as faulting Mariano for not discussing at length the 25th Amendment dealing with succession. This ignores the point that Mariano was writing a memoir, not a scholarly examination of the subject. Obviously Altman wished he'd been the one to write this memoir, not the author who simply dared to write about her own life.
     
  • A need to play with the story's world creation, stylistic language or themes. This is where reviewers are so inspired by a story they want to play with what they've read, so their review recreates or mimics aspects of the story. While this reason for writing reviews is somewhat rare, there's nothing wrong with the desire and it can result in some quite enthralling criticism. This stylistic playfulness can also tempt people into reading the original story by giving a taste of what's to come.
     
  • A need to draw attention to the reviewer. This is another irritating reason to write a literary review. Reviewers who want attention should instead write their own stories, although that's also a lousy reason to write fiction. While there is nothing wrong with critiquing from your own point of view—indeed, that's hard to avoid because criticism and opinions are such personal affairs—reviewers should never forget that true criticism isn't about them alone. Yes, it is their reaction to the story. But the story also exists apart from them. Only a fool forgets that.
     
  • A need to expand the understanding of a story. This expanded understanding can occur on the part of reviewers, their readers, or both. To one degree or another, this desire for understanding is the raison d'être for most types of literary criticism. And since many literary reviewers are also fiction writers, this expanded understanding can influence other stories in amazing ways. For example, if I, as a reviewer, understand what made one novel special then perhaps my own fiction writings will take a giant step forward. Or perhaps new writers who read my review will apply this understanding to their own fiction.

So why do I write literary reviews?

For me, literary criticism breaks down to the first and last points—the desire to bring attention to great stories, and a need to increase the understanding about stories both in myself and others.

And that's why, even though Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor has been extensively critiqued and praised, I'm still going to review the novel. Perhaps I will understand the story more as I write my critique. Maybe others will enjoy my insight into this wonderful book.

But most importantly, perhaps a few more readers will read the book because of what I say. And in the end, guiding readers to great books is the most important service any literary reviewer can provide.