Monthly Archives: February 2014

A Bit About Expository Fears in Short Story (& Fiction, all sorts) Writing

Over at SFFWorld.com, there was a question about exposition and “infodumps” in short stories. (Someone in the discussion brought up the first line of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger.) My thoughts on this were wider than just the specific question, so here they are also*:

* I realized I forgot to give the link to that thread, where a conversation on exposition and such is still on-going. Here’s the link

Okay, Stephen King, The Gunslinger, famous first line:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Short, informative but primarily on an attention getting plane. What are the next lines, though?

The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway. Coaches and buckas had followed it. The world had moved on since then. The world had emptied.

You will note that this paragraph contains a punctuation unwisety and at least one grammatical error, passive verbs, etc. (Because fiction writers don’t write expository essays, they write poetry.) The first pages go on with some more world/setting info in telling how the gunslinger is thirsty, then describing what the gunslinger carries, wears, his guns, then some more description of the landscape as he follows the trail, more info about the devil-grass, some about his past, religion, more landscape and details of his hunting the man in black as he walks and then around about page 11 or so, he runs into a farm and farmer, whom he describes, info in the dialogue, more description, etc. It’s all from the gunslinger’s point of view.

Now The Gunslinger is a novel made up of several serial novellas that King published in magazines and then put together for the novel (as was common in the 1960’s and 1970’s, still around today.) So for short stories, it’s of limited use perhaps, as he has space from length to stretch out a bit. But it’s not entirely absent of techniques you can use for short stories. With short stories, it is often wise to write it out long and then strip it down, especially if it’s a short story that isn’t plotted out beforehand. Here’s also the opening paragraphs of a novel, a science fiction novel called Half the Day is Night by Maureen McHugh:

The man in the reflection didn’t have any eyes.

It was a trick of the lighting. He was looking into a window, out into the dark, and anywhere there was a shadow on his face the glass reflected nothing back. Holes for eyes. David looked up, the light fell on his face and his eyes appeared, he looked back out into the darkness and they became empty again.Outside was ocean. This far below the surface it was always night. You really didn’t have to go very far underwater before all the sunlight was absorbed. He should have realized but he had been unconsciously expecting Caribbean warmth, Caribbean sun, not this huge expanse of black. He shuddered, and picked up his bag and limped on, keeping his eyes away from the window. He could still see his reflection walking with him, a stride and a quick step, bobbing along, favoring his stiff knee. He followed signs directing him to Baggage Claim, they were all in English. That was a disappointment, he had hoped that there might be more French, because of the Haitian population in Caribe. They would be in Creole anyway, and he didn’t know Creole.

This is a good one because McHugh quickly establishes place by using the character’s pov (3rd person limited,) as he is deliberately looking at his surroundings as he arrives in a new place. There’s not every bit there, but there’s enough to start and she keeps dropping in bits. The gunslinger too, in King’s novel, is deliberately looking at his surroundings to chase the man in black, taking stock of his inventory in the harsh environment, reflecting on what is relevant to what he is doing. It doesn’t really matter what viewpoint format you are using and whether it’s a character or the omniscient narrator bopping around characters and adding additional info — the point is that you use pov’s to direct focus and in the process, you provide information in small bits, medium bits and sometimes large bits. In short stories, the bits tend to be smaller and more compacted because of the length issues. But as we’ve seen in trying to do synopses and query letter descriptions, you can pack quite a bit of information into one sentence.

Here’s the opening of a short story published in Strange Horizons, “The Suitcase Aria” by Marissa Lingen (http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/…7/aria-f.shtml )
 

Berlin, 1780I was in my dressing room putting on my makeup when Lukas came to tell me about the body in the canals. Lukas, a tenor, is one of the few actual friends I have in the company, although I have no enemies. Also he was the one who found the body.

The opera house has beneath it a maze of canals, which serve as both fire suppressant and a source of special effects. The stage hands can use them to produce cascades and waterfalls to make the most jaded audiences ooh and ahh. Apparently some poor soul had also met his end there that afternoon.

“Do you know who it was?” I asked. I had to put down my makeup brush, for my hands were no longer steady. A dead body in the canals is by no means a common occurrence, and we are shielded from many of the violent and pitiful deaths of poorer folk, in our opera company.

Note several things here:

1) She starts with a sub-heading notation of locale and time: “Berlin, 1780.”
2) She starts the conversation in the middle. We don’t see Lukas come in and tell her “there’s a body in the canal and I found it.” Instead, she tells us I was here and this happened and then she goes to what she said back for the scene. This is a common technique and it can be quite useful in a short story, because it is easier to pack necessary information more quickly into a few lines of exposition than it is to spell out all scenes in tiny detail and scenic description. (Yet, #580,621 in the reasons why “show, don’t tell” is not something you have to worry about.)
3) She describes the setting, she gives info about characters.

Here’s another opening for a short story, “Tortoiseshell Cats are not Refundable” by Cat Rambo inClarkesworld Magazine ( http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/rambo_02_14/ )
 

Antony bought the kit at Fry’s in the gray three months after Mindy’s death. He swam in and out of fog those days, but he still went frequently to the electronics store and drifted through its aisles, examining hard drives, routers, televisions, microphones, video games, garden lights, refrigerators, ice cream makers, rice cookers, all with the same degree of interest. Which was to say little to none, barely a twitch on the meter. A jump of the arrow from E up to one.A way to kill time. So were the evenings, watching reality shows and working his way methodically through a few joints. If pot hadn’t been legal in Seattle, it would’ve been booze, he knew, but instead the long, hard, lonely evening hours were a haze of blue smoke until he finally found himself nodding off and hauled himself into bed for a few hours of precious oblivion.

He prized those periods of nothingness.

Are we getting ideas yet? 

Again, there is no such thing as an info-dump. The concept of info-dumps, show always, no adverbs, exposition and omniscient narration are evil, etc. were all ideas that formed a stylistic school that came of prominence in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that favored minimalist narratives that resembled screenplays as much as possible. These ideas then would get bandied about by authors (and others) as “the right way to write,” even though the authors didn’t actually use them in their texts much. Which is why it’s a good idea to not get caught up in a lot of half-baked rules that are not rules but instead stylistic suggestions, and instead look at what techniques authors actually use in their texts.

Very few SFFH writers are minimalists. SFFH stories require a fair amount of technical information that is unfamiliar (world-building,) and atmosphere. They tend more Poe than Hammett (and even Hammett wasn’t a minimalist):

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down— from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

He said to Effie Perine: ‘Yes, sweetheart?”

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face. She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said: “There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.”

In short stories, you will sometimes see minimalist techniques such as dialogue without much descriptors or action or settings only briefly described in quick straight imagery, depending on the goals and style of the story. However, short story writers also usually rely more on exposition than novelists may do, because exposition is faster for conveying information, allowing the short story writer to focus on the key scenes or scene fragments that form the center of the story.

So, go look at a lot of short stories (you’ll be helping the SFFH online magazines out certainly by doing it,) look at the different things they are doing and then go play, so that the story is tighter focused to what you want it to do. Any technique you can think of, including those used by Msr. Dumas, you can use. There are no story police. You aren’t “getting away” with anything because there is no one to get away with it from. There is no one reader, as the readerships for different magazines varies widely. Beta readers who tell you are info-dumping, etc., are parroting. They may be having a reaction to something, but you’ll have to pry the relevant information from them, because the 1980’s labels are not going to help you out.

There aren’t any rules, only tools. Pick the tools you like. Odds are at least a section of readers will like them too. Or at the least, not notice them as an issue one way or another, since I find the most vigorous proponents of things like no info dumps love writers who use large blocks of expository information, or show, don’t tell and love the wordiest, world building authors, or no Mary Sues who love the stories with the most improbably powerful protagonists, etc.

Once you start writing your voice, instead of trying to follow a write by numbers declaration of what voice and style you should have, you are probably going to find the writing easier — and stronger. That’s been my experience with authors.

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February 27, 2014 · 8:02 PM

And Harold Ramis Leaves Us as Well

Who you going to call? They called him, frequently and well. (And even the poorer entries he was involved in were funny.)

Writer, director, producer and actor Harold Ramis died from a long time illness caused by an autoimmune condition at age 69. He leaves a legacy in film and t.v. of relentless comedy — SCTV, Animal House, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Analyze This, The Office, etc. He was in many ways the voice of his generation. He will be missed.

Here’s a bouquet of quotes from Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, both of which he wrote with Dan Ackroyd and starred in as Egon:

 

 

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A Little Night Music

Because Arizona has put me in the mood and because it’s a good song, here’s the 1980’s rock video homage style video for Pretty Reckless’ “Heaven Knows”:

And because I’m basically hopeful, here’s the Sam Roberts Band hit, “We’re All In This Together”:

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SFWA Ripples

So last year, the Bulletin, the official magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) writers organization, got into a scandal that was complicated and disenheartening and sexist. Members called for changes that would keep the Bulletin to the standards and policies of the SFWA towards all members. The editor resigned, the Bulletin was suspended, and a large overhaul got underway, starting with a task force to work out new procedures. One of those, after lots of discussion and input from members, was an advisory review committee, which would be formed with volunteers who then would advise the SFWA President, the person in oversight of the Bulletin, about material that broke the standards.

A really horrible petition that presented a false characterization of this committee — which isn’t even formed yet — recently was floated, written by a guy who seems to me to be a reactionary kook, and unfortunately a lot of prominent authors signed their names to the thing, including several prominent female authors. This led to several other incidents/conversations, such as one on SFF.net, where a contracts administrator at Macmillan went after his house’s own author, Mary Robinette Kowal, former VP of SFWA, for feminist activism. 

John Scalzi was President of SFWA when the Bulletin put out its controversial issues, which did upset a lot of people, particularly because Scalzi has been a strong supporter of diversity and civil rights values, and of making the organization more professional. He admitted he’d messed up by not doing enough oversight, ap0logized and pledged to support in-coming President Steven Gould in fixing the issue and making SFWA more professional, particularly by staying out of the way so that others could speak up. But he nonetheless couldn’t help talking about free speech issues when the petition popped up, and he’s thrown himself more into the ring after a number of really awful comments were springing up on the Net, by proposing in comic support that those fighting discrimination and under-representation, those wanting the industry and SFWA particularly to treat female authors and others more professionally, should form an Insect Army. This was in direct reaction to a particular comment on SFF.net that called those speaking up for equal treatment “insects.” This call to arms has gotten terribly silly, but the impetus behind it is sincere. Discrimination doesn’t end unless people speak up, unfortunately, and that speech is the one good thing that comes out of these conflicts. 

On this particular thread at his blog Whatever, I did a post comment, one of several, looking at the chain of history of discrimination on this issue and the recent conflicts. You can read it on that thread, but some folk asked me to also post it here, so I will. I was responding to a commenter named Bruce, who was wondering about the intent of the person who went after Kowal and who I quote at the beginning in italics. (The cricket references are because I chose to be a cricket in Scalzi and Kowal’s mock Insect Army.) Warning: as always, it is long. 

Bruce:

“I can’t say that this anger is warranted, but I think what he wrote is more about his anger at MRK and not so much about sexism and/or censorship at SFWA.”

But he didn’t talk about his anger at MRK blocking his efforts. He talked about her body, about how she supposedly flaunted her body, about how her speech about sexism was therefore false, and he derided her credibility as someone anyone should listen to because she was a nobody writer, despite her books, awards, etc. He deliberately went after her on the basis of her gender and the issue of sexism. So it is actually very related. And it is also related because the people who objected to the sexism in the Bulletin, were doing so because they also want the SFWA to be a professional organization and focus on digital rights, copyright, etc.for all members, rather than write about how sexy some women writers are and how they shouldn’t criticize men ever, the little tyrants.

Let me see if I can cricket this for you:

Long way back, a handful of decades ago, women writers of SFF were told that it would be better if they wrote under a male pseudonym because fans (all of whom were erroneously assumed to be men,) didn’t want to read women’s writings.The threat was that they could have free speech (use their real names and show that they are women,) or they could have a successful career, hiding as men among men. You could do that back then, write anonymously under a pen name and not promote and still make a living, because of the wholesale market. And that was what was politically correct. So it was U.K. Le Guin, C.J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, James Tiptree Jr., etc., and they stayed silent under the threat.

But you can make a better living if you do promote your work, go to conventions, stand up for awards, etc., so women started to partially or fully decloak and risk their careers for a better, more equal one with the men by promoting as themselves. They used their free speech. And the new women authors who came in, having that as role models, then sold their work as themselves. They came out of the shadows and refused to be scared by the light of the threat. And what was politically correct, changed and became more equal (and professional.) Although the discrimination didn’t totally go away.

But women writers were still frequently told that they shouldn’t write about certain subjects in certain ways. They shouldn’t write about sexism in society or issues related to their lives, nobody wanted to hear it from women and it wasn’t reasonable or fair. The threat was, you could have free speech (write about sexism or whatever you wanted,) or you could have a career. That was what was politically correct. But some women wrote about it anyway, fiction and non-fiction, and formed a movement called feminist SF that sold both in the field and in academia where they were sort of starting to realize it might actually be worth studying more female writers. And other women writers coming into the field also felt free to write about those subjects or to write about different subjects that had previously been declared men’s territory. And what was politically correct, changed and became more equal (and professional.) Although the discrimination didn’t totally go away.

But women writers and publishing folk and fans were still frequently told that they weren’t very important in the field or society, and that they should not object to men patting their bottoms or groping them at conventions or propositioning them or talking about their bodies and sneering that they were nonentities. It was unreasonable and exaggerated as a problem. The threat was, you could have free speech to object to the treatment, (and the assault,) or you could have a career. And that was what was politically correct. But some women spoke out anyway and objected, and allies objected. And new women writers coming in, seeing that their fellows had made things safer for their free speech, also spoke up and objected. And standards of professionalism towards women in the field slowly developed. And what was politically correct, changed and became more equal (and professional.) Although the discrimination didn’t totally go away.

I mean, it doesn’t entirely go away, even with women at the helm. So a woman editor okayed and designed, and a male president, who was JS, signed off on and didn’t catch/think about, threats in four issues of the Bulletin, the professional trade journal, threats that violated SFWA’s standards and policies. The threats were best expressed by Mr. Henderson, the Barbie guy, who told women members that the key to career success was to be like Barbie and never blame Ken for discrimination effecting her career. In other words, you can have free speech or you can stay silent and have a career. But women writers and their allies did speak up and object that this wasn’t professional, or equal, or what they needed from SFWA — nor what SFWA was allowed by its policies to do.

I doubt Mr. Henderson would feel that he made a threat, any more than Resnick and Malzberg did — he would probably characterize it as advice, but that particular type of “advice” — a threat against free speech, happens all the time. It’s happened to me here on Whatever, for instance, when a person I’m talking to brings up the advice that unless you are really, really nice and mostly quiet in talking to men about sexism, they won’t listen or help improve equality.

JS could have threatened defensively. Instead he apologized for having okayed threats to free speech. He helped set up a task force to work towards more equality and professionalism in the Bulletin and no threats to women and other vulnerable members. Some people still can’t forgive him for letting the threats go through and have gone away and aren’t coming back, as is their right. Others decided that he had understood the objections and worked to get back on track. And most are waiting to see how Mr. Gould does.

Then came the petition, which was a fairly blatant threat — give up free speech and stop being offended by sexist speech and unprofessional treatment, or everybody’s careers will be tanked and the field ruined. Tell us who is on the advisory committee so we can stop them. Tell us the standards even though we already know the standards because SFWA already has the standards, etc. Women should behave. Feminism ruins everything. Vigorous debate should happen as long as women know their place in the comments section.

Mr. Fedora didn’t threaten MRK with sexist speech. Mr. Fedora threatened incoming women writers who might see MRK as a role model. Since she was an influence as a former VP of SFWA, he declared her an unreasonable and hypercritical radical who had no real influence and sexualized her body — she’s not worth professionalism because she’s female. Because her career is successful despite her free speech, he argued that her career wasn’t successful. If you asked Fedora if that’s what he intended to do, I’m sure he’d say no, and he would honestly believe it to be so. After all, it was a casual conversation; he wasn’t pushing the petition. But that’s because these sorts of threats — free speech or your career, your family, your life, are so ingrained and ubiquitous towards women and disadvantaged groups, they’re habit.

So even though it was completely unprofessional to trash one of his house’s authors, he did it. Because women need to know their place, just like when J.K. Rowling was told, still, in the 1990′s, to pretend to be a man so that boys’ parents would buy her books, (nobody caring about the girl readers because they are girls.) Should she not have decloaked and used her free speech, do you think? She’s had a horrible, unprofessional career, having done so, and really should be given no respect. Because even if you are the most successful author on the planet, possibly ever, the threat gets made — your free speech or we talk about you in a bikini.

If the people on SFF.net in that thread really do care about having a trade organization tackle professionally digital rights, copyright issues, royalties, marketing, etc. — and representation and encouraging diversity which benefits the field and its profits — then they should have totally supported the outcry over the Bulletin about those very things, and the formation of a task force and an advisory committee, and upholding the standards SFWA already has. Instead, they are making threats to discourage free speech.

The insect commentator, who may be a woman, is quite open about that. Women writers are cockroaches, insects to be crushed if they make noise, who should be silent and hiding in the shadows and scared. But instead, they and their allies come out of hiding and speak up. And this isn’t new, despite what the commentator claims — it’s always happening. Because the threats don’t make things better, more equal, more professional, more full of choices and increasing reading audiences, etc. for women or male authors. They are just threats that cause a lot of damage and stagnation, that keep women authors from, say, getting as good royalty rates, marketing and digital rights deals as men. It’s the next frontier, and they’re swarming in. Chirp.

As you can see from that comment post, I’m pedantic and overly detailed when it comes to paper trails in negotiations and conflicts. It comes from my days as an agent doing book contracts, where the difference between “legal expenses” and “reasonable legal expenses” is all important, and from working as an editor where the job is to catch every problem, inconsistency and hole and go over them with authors. I truly believe the ripples from this thing are going in a positive direction. I just wish that all the turmoil didn’t have to come with them. 

 

 

 

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Interesting Shadow Art

I’m in the midst of housecleaning stuff, plus the occasional rant on Scalzi’s blog about the SFWA fun going on, so here, look at some art until normal signals resume:

This is the work of artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, and it’s quite cool.

“The Individual” and “She”

the_individual

she_2004_shad1

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A Light Goes Out — Phillip Seymour Hoffman

This one hurts. He will be missed:

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Ultimate Harmony: Pentatonix

Busy today, so check out the new original song “Run to You” from group Pentatonix. It’s really beautiful:

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