Category Archives: Writing

You Don’t Own Me — Plot, Worlds and Experiences

 

 

So I watched the very brief panel at San Diego Comic Con this year for Netflix’s up-coming movie Bright, debuting in December, mostly to watch cast members Will Smith and Terry Crews goof around. But it was really funny to listen to them all talk as if they’d invented the genre of urban fantasy with this movie, and as if no other movie or t.v. series in that genre, much less thousands and thousands of books and some games, had existed in it before, (not to mention that more than half of those stories involve cops or other forms of law enforcement.)

And then there was one guy in the audience who asked a question at the end of the session, somewhat hostile, about whether they’d ripped off the popular RPG game Shadowrun, a question that they side-stepped with a certain amount of perplexity, as well they should have. This guy was acting again as if contemporary fantasy novels with elves, etc., hadn’t been published for decades before Shadowrun was created in 1989. Shadowrun itself, of course, borrowed copiously from the “elves with computers” novels of contemporary fantasy that were particularly popular in the 1980’s.

In contrast to Shadowrun, Bright is much less cyber-oriented and more grit police procedural thriller – like again many, many contemporary fantasy stories and a few science fiction stories involving usually aliens, including the story it most resembles on the cop part: the movie Alien Nation (1988,) followed by the television series adaptation of the movie (1989) under the same name. Alien Nation itself borrowed heavily/was descended from many, many science fiction stories in which a human and an alien were cop or other law enforcement partners (building on the buddy cops who are opposites idea from suspense fiction.) More recently, the SF television show Almost Human paired a cop with an android AI in a near future Earth, also a favorite in science fiction.

Does any of this matter? No, it has little effect on people’s enjoyment of a particular story being told, be it written fiction, game, movie, t.v., web series or theater play. Occasionally, a fan of one property will be quite put out if another property is anywhere near the same neighborhood, under the mistaken impression that it somehow harms the property that they love or that the property they love now owns common elements like vampires, elves, time travel, love triangles, etc. When the television adaptation of The Vampire Diaries came out, for instance, many fans of Twilight assumed the show was ripping off their beloved book series, even though The Vampire Diaries had been a bestselling YA book series back since the early 1990’s, long before Twilight existed, and its television show started a year before the novel Twilight was adapted into a movie.

Plots are made out of smaller building blocks of structure. Every combination of these building blocks has been played out one way or another over and over again in story-telling, so much so that people learn at an early age what possible block combinations might be tried once a story-teller sets up a universe and a situation. This is not just applicable to what we call genre stories, but to any kind of fiction. It’s of particular importance to mystery writers, who have to set up clues to the answer to a mystery that are slowly uncovered, include false clues to keep readers guessing, and play with reader expectations of who caused the mystery (usually a murder,) through their use of characters in the plot. No mystery author can keep all their readers from guessing the answer correctly because readers are so familiar with plot and the little structural signs of how story-tellers use character, detailed description and imagery to indicate the levers of plot. But they can try to keep readers unsure of whether their guess is correct or not, to keep reading, and they can work with other aspects of character, plot and theme that stem from the mystery plot or are connected to it but that are interesting in and of themselves.

Every author creates something that is original, because the characters, the exact nature of the story world, and the emotions and relationships, as well as the specific use of words and imagery, all within that story are unique to that author. Characters can become dear to many readers, not because they’ve never encountered a character similar to that one before, but because within the context of the story they are in, they specifically connect with readers. That turns the story into an experience for the readers – which is what art is – an experience through story/language/imagery/sound, etc., that personally resonates and so is valued, (or does not and is critiqued.)

But the bones of what they create will always, always be familiar to readers, always be connected to all the different building blocks readers have encountered, from the time they were small, in other stories and sometimes in real life and history. When a reader is surprised by something in a story, it’s not because of a clever plot twist, but because the reader missed the clues in the structure of the story that would have led them to expect it, or because the reader did notice the clues but other clues created an expectation in the reader that a different building block/direction was where the author was going for that story. That can be delightful when it happens, but it won’t happen with every reader and it doesn’t have to happen for readers to be immersed, engaged, and fall for the characters and world of a story.

Take for instance Ned Stark, in the novel Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. [ Though it’s quite late in the game to bother, I will issue a SPOILER warning here for those who have not yet read the book or seen the television adaptation. If you don’t want to know stuff, stop reading this part now. ] Martin is, above all else in his series, using mythic structures and imagery to tell a massive fairy tale. In the opening parts of the novel, six children of a lord come across a dead parent (mother) dire wolf with six puppies in her belly. These six puppies are given to the six children, very symbolically, by their father. Just previously, their lord father Ned Stark had to execute by beheading a deserter from the Night Watch, because that was the law. And then Ned Stark is asked to come back into far more complicated but equally heavy politics by his friend, the king.

The plot structure of the story is clearly, because of the symbolic dire-wolves, that the six children are destined to be separated, scattered across the lands, and have to deal with different arduous situations and different fates that lead towards the ultimate plot showdown the book sets up at the very beginning in the prologue – as happens in classic myths. They will lose their protector to mainly cause this process – their father, whose dread about taking up the role his king wants him to do will prove to be mythic prophecy. And because of parallel symbolism, the father, who beheaded the herald deserter who warned them about the end, will in turn be beheaded, causing the beginning.

If you’re familiar with mythic story structure, with those combinations of building blocks, and you read the novel, it’s pretty clear early on that Ned Stark is going to die, and in that particular way, and that this event will be the lynch-pin that sends his children into being lost, scattered and driven low by events. It has to happen for the story to unfold properly. He is a supporting character to the six children – Chosen One figures symbolized by the six magical dire-wolf puppies – and their fates.

But the adapters of the television show knew that they could shock a lot of viewers of the show who hadn’t read the books by misdirecting the audience with expectant clues. They hired Sean Bean, a big name actor, to play Ned Stark, while of course the children were played by young, not well known actors. They promoted Bean as the star of the show, so that unfamiliar viewers would think he was the protagonist, etc. They played up Ned Stark’s scenes, while still following the fairy tale structure of the book. It was kind of fun to watch my husband, who hadn’t read the books before watching the first season of the show, freak out when Ned lost his head.

Why would he be especially freaked out at this development? Because it is a familiar story structure, particularly for movies and t.v., that the protagonist doesn’t die – a plot building block. It’s just that the book and thus the t.v. show were using different and also very familiar mythic plot building blocks (see “dead parent” movies.) (Also some building blocks kill off the protagonist, for that matter.) Even if I had not read the book before seeing the t.v. show, I would have known that Ned was destined to die because the t.v. show adhered very closely to the book and used the prisoner beheading and the dire wolf puppies symbolically for the six kids. It would have been clear to me that Jon Snow – the illegitimate, mystery son who decides to go to the Night Watch in exile where the big action would eventually be – was going to be the protagonist, etc., and that all the kids were in for a fall. Because these are plot building blocks of an epic journey/fairy tale/coming of age. For some viewers, even if they hadn’t read the book, those blocks were familiar.

So was the surprise for some over Ned Stark’s death important for the t.v. show’s success? Not particularly, any more than it had been in the book. It certainly didn’t hurt that the show managed to trick some of their viewers (and entertain their fellows who were in the know over their surprised reactions.) But the show didn’t lose viewers when Ned Stark turned out not to be the protagonist and died, when the path the show was taking turned out to be different from what some expected the plot structure to involve. Viewers were engaged in the characters, the world of the story and the images and scenes on the show, whether they knew/guessed that Ned Stark would die or not. [ End of SPOILERS.]

When we’re engaged in a story – its language, imagery, characters and so forth — we aren’t really worried about originality – or rather about being surprised by plot building blocks because we missed or misread clues about them. We’re more focused on seeing what the author has chosen to build just for that world and characters, just for us, and drawing out what meaning the story has for us personally. When we’re less engaged, when we’re bored by a story, then we are likely to carp that the story is too flat, predictable, maybe too like some other story we were more engaged in – it’s not a strong experience for us. Sometimes those comparisons can be pretty ludicrous, such as accusing The Vampire Diaries of time travel, or declaring all elves in gritty contemporary settings to be attributed to the Shadowrun game. Other times, they’re just really acknowledgement of common DNA in plot building blocks — of story ideas, themes and relationships that are of familiar resonance to ourselves.

I’m going to enjoy Bright when it comes out, even if it is directed by the guy who made the movie Suicide Squad for DC/Warner – a film I consider a hot mess. But it will be the umpteenth story I’ve seen/read involving gritty cops and elves and/or magical species. It’s going to be fun, it may even be something I find really well done, but what it won’t be is unique, mind-blowing or radical. Because human beings live on stories – and down deep we know every trick a story-teller can play. We can still be surprised sometimes, we can be impressed with a creation in and of itself and its combinations. But no story owns or invents those basic building blocks of plot structure. Not even if you combine cops and elves one more time, with feeling.

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An Excellent Twitter Rant on Post-Apocalypse and Other World Building

Sigrid Ellis points out a basic problem in writers and of course, television/movie writers in doing post-apocalyptic dystopias. It’s also applicable to pre-industrial secondary world-building as well in fantasy as well.

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Some Writing Related Links

Well the world keeps being a rolling cyclone, don’t it, so in the meantime, some writing-related links:

Author Kameron Hurley explains how the editor-author relationship works and that it’s not a boss-employee relationship.

Author Ann Leckie offers encouragement about the uncertainties of the submission process, even for those authors facing additional obstacles.

Author Jim C. Hines talks about being rejection and how it’s part of all authors’ lives.

Travel writer Geraldine DeRuiter, of The Everywhereist blog, offers Unhelpful Charts for Writers.

And author N.K. Jemisin offered a Tweet thread about Embracing Your Own Voice as a writer.

Author John Scalzi talks about his new novel, The Collapsing Empire and writing life in general in an interview with The Nerd Reactor.

Scalzi also explained how book contracts work to a, I believe they are called Dreaded Elk or something like that, at a signing he did. It’s a good accompaniment to Hurley‘s piece and just funny:

 

 

 

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I Got Quoted in Academia This Year

Back in 2013, I did a blog post about women SFF authors, “Reality and the Welcome Sign — Gender and SFFH,” in reference to Tor UK’s editorial director Julie Crisp’s blog post at the time about how Tor welcomed women authors but they weren’t showing up in submissions, or at least not for things like hard SF. I felt that Crisp was offering a nice welcome message but missing the plot of what women authors actually faced in the field regarding discrimination and marketing obstacles to their success from the industry. Essentially, Crisp was using the “it’s women’s fault that we’re ignoring them” defense, a very popular idea, and the stats that she compiled on Tor UK’s submissions have often been cited by those who want to claim women SFF authors face no discrimination in the market at all. Unfortunately, the stats Crisp offered show the exact opposite.

I was contacted about whether a quote from that blog post could be used in an up-coming non-fiction work on the SF field and I said sure. That book, an academic reference work on early women SFF writers, came out this year from Wesleyan University Press. It’s called Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction, edited by Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B. Sharp. It offers sample works of prominent women writing SF in the early twentieth century, along with lots of commentary and historical context of the field in its early golden age and the women’s role within it. My quote is in the concluding essay written by author Kathleen Ann Goonan, which looks at the women in SF and the science community and the contemporary SF field in contrast.

Being an academic work meant for universities, it’s a bit on the pricey side though chock full of good stuff. If you are looking for a good specialized reference book or teaching writing fiction or SFF fiction, it might be helpful. Anyway, I wish it well and not just because I got a shout out in it. As author Joanna Russ explained so clearly in her non-fiction book, How To Suppress Women’s Writing, if we don’t talk about women writers, society will pretend they aren’t there. Especially these days.

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Publishers, Magazines and Agents Are Not Trolling You

Author and editor Jason Sanford did a piece about the perplexing complaint from writers who had submitted stories to a prominent horror/dark fantasy magazine, The Dark, that they were getting a response too quickly and that rejections they received clearly indicated that the stories hadn’t been read at all.

This was a familiar issue to me because when I was a literary agent, our agency used to get the complaint all the time, and indeed, magazine editors, literary agents and book editors who deal with unagented submissions will tell you that they regularly receive it, and usually when they have managed to respond to submissions quickly. It was a somewhat more understandable situation when it comes to novel manuscripts. After all, authors do know that when they submit sample chapters to an agent or book publisher that the person may not read all the chapters, but may make a decision based on reading just the first chapter alone or even on a few first pages. The biggest commodity publishing folk have to deal in is time, and they will try to get through submissions quickly to find stuff they think they can use. Ninety-eight to ninety-five percent of what they receive they won’t be able to use — it doesn’t work for them, and they know it pretty quickly because they aren’t engaged by the material or it’s not their area of fiction. But they are willing to look at that large pile of submissions to find the small percentage of ones that could and do work for them, for whatever reason they have for that decision.

So it would not be entirely surprising for a writer to accuse an agent or editor of not giving their work enough of a read or proper careful consideration — though agents and editors owe submitting writers neither. But there is no real logic behind the accusation that editors and agents are purposely asking for submissions and then not reading them at all. To what point is there in these publishing people having submission piles in the first place with that assumption? For simply the thrill of rejecting people, usually with a form letter? Authors who make these accusations seem to be claiming that entire publishing operations are wasting their time in an elaborate trolling exercise of strangers with no discernible purpose.

The reality is that no fiction magazine, no fiction publisher and no literary agent intent on selling fiction to fiction publishers needs to be open to submissions from authors if they don’t want to do it, if they don’t think it will pay off with the occasional good find. They can instead keep a closed process where they contact and solicit chosen authors out there for material and only look at that material. Even operations that do take open submissions also do this as well and they can easily find more than enough material by soliciting known authors or authors they happen to spot in the market. Which is why the larger book publishers, finding that keeping increasingly large open submission piles didn’t provide enough returns for the time and expense of having their staff go through them, simply shut the piles down in the 1990’s, and limited their allowed submissions to solicited ones from agents and authors they chose.

Given how low and depressed the payments for short fiction have been over the last thirty years and how much the market for such fiction has shrunk even with the more recent self-publishing and anthology booms, SFFH magazines have no problem soliciting short works that well known book authors happen to have lying around, paying them a few hundred for the stories and reaping the benefits for their circulation numbers. Even the newer, smaller magazines don’t actually need to bother with newbies if they can swing a decent payment by market standards.

Yet the magazines do often have open submissions, or open submissions part of the year, because finding new talent also brings smaller, long term rewards, including pleasing their readers, and because it’s a tradition certainly of the SFFH field to find and bolster what they feel is new talent. But you can’t actually find “new talent” if you do not actually read what new authors submit to you. If you don’t read submissions, having them at all is a colossal waste of time.

In the “old” days a couple of decades ago, the open submission pile was a huge time investment as well as costing some money. Submissions arrived in packages and had to be unpacked, which was hours and hours of time. They had to be logged in to a record system of some sort, which was hours of time. They had to be read, which was hours and hours of time. They had to have rejection letters or requests for more material letters printed, even if they were form letters, which took hours of time. And they had to be repackaged as returns in the self-addressed stamped envelopes and gotten to the post, which took hours and hours and hours of time. The claim that editors and agents and their staff, if they had them, would spend all that time in the processing and mailing of submissions but skip the critical reading part made no logical sense. Yet it happened from submitting authors all the time. They seemed convinced that agents and editors were spending the better part of their days engaged in a non-profitable prank operation.

Everybody in publishing was a little slow to adopt electronic submissions, not because of a distaste in technology but because they feared the submissions would swamp their networks and also leave them exposed to viruses in attachments. But eventually most places taking submissions were able to do so electronically and send the responses electronically as well. This not only saved an immense amount of trees and postage and print costs for authors, but cut down considerably on the amount of time needed to process submissions by editors and agents. The submissions have to still be logged in, which still takes hours, but now story files can be opened with a click. The stories still need to have return responses crafted and sent, but that takes much less time than doing it by mail with packaging. So now the main time requirement is reading the stories. This has meant that editors and agents can get through and respond to submissions in half the time or less than back in the only paper days. And authors in short fiction definitely can hit a lot more markets with their submissions in the time it used to take to get a response from just one submission, which greatly increases their odds of finding a publication that will want their work.

But this improved situation has instead been received by many authors as further proof that they are being tricked by editors and agents who lure them in with open submissions, ignore their work and reject it. Why would they do that? Because, that’s why, seems to be the main response. Submissions to agents and book publishers are free — they aren’t making money off submissions and yet are still spending hours processing those submissions if they take them. While many literary magazines seem to have taken up requiring submission fees, which is deeply ethically problematic and usually not worth an author’s time, submission to major magazines and SFFH magazines is also usually free, and those magazines are again still spending hours processing those submissions. So what exactly is the allure here for publishing people if they aren’t really going to read the submissions, searching for material?

One reason occasionally floated is that book publishers and magazines urge authors considering submissions to check out what they publish before doing so. This is mainly because editors hope to cut down their time spent reading material sent to them that plainly doesn’t fit their lists or publications. But some interpret it as the editors trying to get authors to buy books or subscriptions, or in the case of free online magazines, get their views for the advertisers. But there are many problems with this notion. First off, it doesn’t apply to literary agencies or most anthology editors, and yet those folks still get the same complaint that they aren’t reading submissions. Second, although they ask for it with hope in their hearts, editors know full well that nine out of ten authors won’t buy books from their list or buy/read issues of their magazines before submitting to them. As a way to profit and raise circulation numbers, it’s largely a bust. Third, there are dozens of other types of promotions they could try that would have a much greater return in customers and viewers and do not cost them the hours and hours of valuable time processing submissions, or lead them to have buyers/viewers who are then very unhappy with them and will do no further business due to submission rejection. You get the idea here. Unless some sort of reading fee scam is involved, it simply doesn’t make much sense, and well known agents, publishers and magazines are not running fee scams. What profit they manage comes from the other end, when they put out product into the market. Which is why they are willing to slog through a lot of stuff they don’t want in search of what might be the best thing for them that they’ve ever found.

So the claim seems to come from deep mistrust that some authors have of the very institutions with whom they are trying to work. Even though there is no viable reason for believing that a returned submission has not been read and considered, they tend to treat it as if a blind date has stood them up entirely. But when an author is rejected by an editor or agent, it’s important to remember that all it means is not this story at this time with this person/organization. It doesn’t mean all selling options are closed or that circumstances won’t change. And quite often it can turn out to be a good thing as a better opportunity may come up that would have been missed if the author hadn’t gotten a rejection. Writing fiction is creating, but selling rights to it or placing it is resilience. And understanding that even your best work, which someone will love, may still leave the brightest editors and agents cold because the field is subjective.

After they read it. Really, they read it.

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A Bit of Priming on Publishing — Part 4

This is the last part I’m going to excerpt from my posts in a discussion on publishing options and factors in this forum thread on SFFWorld. It deals with marketing — one part on marketing to agents and publishers and then one on marketing and promotion of books and more self-pub issues. There is some more material in the thread, which you can check out if you are interested, but it was more specific to other posters’ material, rather than general information:

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A Bit of Priming on Publishing, Part 3

Next in my ramblings about fiction authors dealing with publishing options and factors from the SFFWorld thread conversation, this one dealing with literary agents:

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