Have some taste

In which I try to define serious art and alienate Firely and Megadeth fans

My quest as a writer, and to a larger extent as a reviewer, reader, and participant in aesthetic culture, is mostly consumed with figuring out what distinguishes one work from another in terms of a very hard-to-define quality. Whether I am socializing around music, science, or science fiction, there are certain qualities that distinguish one fan from another and the reflection of those qualities in the works that we socialize around. There is some criterion by which I look at music, movies, television shows, short stories, and novels, that reflects its quality better than anything else, yet this criterion is not specifically related to execution of the story or music.  It’s often not a matter of skill, but of choices made by the artist of what to talk about, or what to take seriously.  It’s very hard to place, but I think I have arrived at calling it “taste.” Continue reading “Have some taste”


Fantasy Maps

Just a quick note: after viewing a nice tutorial, I was able to come up with a nice map for The Last Omen, the novel I just finished revising.  Here’s the map and then you can watch the video yourself:


A Wrinkle in Time

Should you go see the new adaptation of the classic book? Maybe…

Here is my Goodreads review (follow me on Goodreads), or scroll down for what I thought of the film.

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why ask me? This book is a classic that goes beyond all internet reviews. School librarians and teachers will forever be recommending this book, and with good reason. If you’re going to read it as an adult, don’t expect too much, but kids will remember it forever. I just read it to my children and we went to see the movie. It’s a cerebral, magical, wonder-filled book that is great for children from 8-12. I highly recommend it for reading aloud or reading solo. The kids loved it. It’s imaginative and adventurous, with plenty of laughs and cries. The thing I liked most about it was reading a children’s book that quotes Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes in their original languages. That’s the kind of book I want to read to my kids. Continue reading “A Wrinkle in Time”

Let’s Get Serious!

In which I alienate Phish fans

What is it that makes readers connect? Sincerity and honesty. The kind of sincerity I’m talking about might be called being “serious” but as Alan Watts pointed out, the word “serious” has a sort of dry unfunniness about it, and that isn’t what I’m getting at. Fantasy literature in particular has this problem, much less than it used to, that it’s hard to take seriously a book about wizards and dragons. Ursula LeGuin seems to have eventually convinced everyone to take such books seriously, but not without plenty of books getting written to convince people otherwise. Wizards and dragons sound like childish topics, until you read Gene Wolfe, Stephen R. Donaldson, or dare I say Robert Jordan?

Continue reading “Let’s Get Serious!”

Short stories

My novel went out to publishers some time last week, and that’s exciting, but now I’m back into a long waiting period. There’s this weird thing in writing advice where nobody talks about anything except getting an agent, so getting an agent was a strange letdown where my entire six months depended on a long drawn-out process of waiting. Now I’m getting that back in waiting to hear from publishers. I try to keep in touch with my agent, but I don’t want to bug him when there’s nothing for us to talk about. I’m now homeschooling a kid, and continuing to work on Firesage, which is going a little slow since it’s hard to find a consistent work schedule with the new adjustment.

I had decided to see if anything happened fast before I sent out any more short stories. All of them have been rejected except for one that’s been with the same market for almost three months (their time limit). That one I’m interested in, because it’s a prestigious market with a ready supply of subscribers, and only one author appears in any issue. The rest I have sent to a variety of interesting markets. My space colonization story “The Fault is not in Our Stars but Somewhere Between Jupiter and the Asteroid Belt” has gone into the black hole of Analog’s submission pile. That will take at least six months to hear back from.

I sent “Killing Montherek” to Flame Tree Press, a British publisher that is an offshoot of a fine gifts and calendars company. I felt a little weird sending it to them, as even though they are a SFWA-qualifying market, I had never heard of them and didn’t know whether they were “for real,” as in if they had good standards, or if they could really distribute their books well. I totally changed my mind the next day when I was at Books-A-Million in West Lebanon. There was a whole shelf featuring their anthologies, which were beautifully bound with fantastical Victorian-esque covers. Their shtick is to put brand-new stories from new authors alongside classics from Bram Stoker, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard. Totally my thing.

I sent “The Harp” to Spark, which is a literary genre-fiction market. I have a hard time deciding where to send that one, since it is clearly fantasy, about sorcery, but its theme is decidedly sensual, so that rules out quite a few places that would otherwise be good for stories about sorcerors.  On the other hand, it’s not particularly kinky, more cerebral, so that rules out a lot of places that are more topical and weird.  I’m just going to keep sending these out until they stick somewhere.

I recently heard an author saying that you should only send stories to the top ten markets and trunk them if they don’t get published there.  I’m not buying that for now.  I know these stories are good, but they are not fashionable.  They are probably considered old-fashioned.  I’m not after prestige with other writers; I’m not even after the money.  I want people to be able to read these stories, and I want the opinions of good editors, not all of whom work at the top ten short story markets in SFF right now.  I am not trying to impress the top writers in the field.  Most of those markets seem very trendy to me, and unlike other people, I do not write just what those particular editors want.  So it might take longer, but I’ll see that people have a way to read them eventually.

Boskone 2017: A con worth going to

The value of professional networking at scifi conventions cannot be understated, except by talented writers…

This past weekend I went to my second scifi convention in Boston, Boskone. I had a great time and met some people I only know online or from the other convention I’ve been to, Readercon.  Most importantly, this con was really useful as a professional, and I’m definitely looking forward to going back next year. Continue reading “Boskone 2017: A con worth going to”

Reading for fun

In which I try to redeem my previous intellectual arrogance

A few weeks ago I questioned “reading for fun” in a post that started an excellent discussion with Michael McLendon and a few others on Facebook. I put forth that although Brandon Sanderson exhorted his students to always remember they are writing for entertainment, I don’t read for what I would strictly call entertainment, and I always aim to get something more serious out of reading a book. I don’t have the same expectations for movies and TV. Sounds reasonable enough and the discussion went fine without too much hair-splitting.

However, I became aware that I sounded a little like this:


Continue reading “Reading for fun”

What makes a book fun?

Are books just entertainment? Really?

I’ve been thinking lately about what constitutes good taste, why we read, and about reader preferences.  Last night I watched another of Brandon Sanderson’s short videos from a few years ago, and I encountered this opinion he gives in the first few minutes about entertainment versus meaning in books, especially fantasy.

The gist of his point is this: “We are doing entertainment, that’s what it is…describing a statue as a rock is true…people are going to pick up your book for entertainment purposes, that’s why they go get it… . They are picking up that book to be entertained. Don’t forget to be fun.”

A few days ago, Sam Sykes tweeted a question getting at the same point. My reply was similar to Brian Staveley:

So Sanderson’s argument is at the most basic level, people read for the same reason they watch TV. The enjoyment readers get out of reading a book is just that: enjoyment, fun, comparable to riding a roller coaster, hearing a good pop song, or watching a thrilling car chase. If there’s no element of fun, then readers, or most readers, won’t be interested enough to catch other meaningful statements the author or screenwriter tries to “sneak in.” There will be meaningful statements about the nature of life, about different sorts of people finding commonality, about the experiences of others, and so on. Your readership will be smaller if you bash your reader or viewer over the head with a “message.” When Tolkien said his stories were about hobbits, he had a point, because he didn’t mean hobbits to represent any particular people in this world, left-of-middle-Earth.

I disagree with both Sanderson and Tolkien. Although they’re both right on some level, storytelling has to be deeper than that or else it’s unsatisfying. Furthermore, a “message” or “meaning” is entertaining, albeit in a different way, and in a more satisfying way than “pure fun” can be. I would go so far as to say it’s impossible to tell a story without a deeper meaning, as bad as Firefly happens to be.

My first problem is many readers, writers, and commentators think “meaning” is synonymous with bludgeoning the reader with a political statement. Political statements are too current to be enduring, they are divisive, and they risk conflating desire with morality. In other words, I might want lower taxes, or free health care, or for the state to sponsor performance art with marshmallows, but those are not moral concerns. Stories need to be about deeper concerns, if I decide to write a story about performance artists being persecuted by a harsh government, or oh say farmers being kicked off their land by banks and moving to California during the great depression, I risk reducing my readership. Not only reducing my readership, but making it unreadable and incomprehensible to people who disagree. They won’t get any message I want to get across because of their disagreement.

More likely, however, they won’t understand or read my story because it will be bad. Grapes of Wrath is a terrible book by a good writer. It’s preachy. This is a point where I agree with Sanderson: if you have a reader who disagrees, or sees himself as an example of what you’re railing against, you’re not just turning him off, you’re actually insulting him. That’s not cool, man.

But the problem with using that argument against having any meaning, and reducing your story to “entertainment” is political or social messages are only one, and the most limited kind, of meaning. They are inexorably linked to the time in which they are written. They are not archetypal, they are not moral dilemmas. They might make a good background for a story, but writing a story with only a political meaning is extremely limiting. But there is archetypal meaning that gets readers in the vagus nerve, and it will very rarely be political. Stories are always about life and death, birth and marriage, falling in love, falling out of love, self-redemption, maturation, and menopause.

When I read a book, and it is merely entertaining, I consider it a waste of time. Sanderson argues that readers are picking up the book to have a good time, and he’s right most of the time. As I’ve really tried to pay attention to why people read, I’ve found that many readers read for the same reason that someone might watch TV: it’s engaging, fun, and a way of seeing how clever other people can be when you’re exhausted after a day of work or school. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it does appear to be the way things are for many people. I remember turning to The Wheel of Time or other novels after days of being really exhausted and knowing I wasn’t going to get any sleep that night.

Most writers I know don’t read “just for fun.” If I spend weeks reading a book, I expect a lot more than I expect from a two-hour movie or a one-hour TV show. I expect hardly anything from most TV shows. At the very least when I read a book, I expect to learn something about someone (a fake person, but a person nonetheless). I hope to see a lot more; I hope to learn something psychologically that I can’t learn just from talking to regular humans. It’s not socially acceptable to sit down and interview people and learn the things you can learn from a book. Movies and TV shows just don’t go that far most of the time. That’s fine for them, but for a book I expect it at least to be sincere about what it means to be a human being.

Sanderson’s line of reasoning also neglects that deep meaningful message are entertaining in their own way. It’s not just “boobs and explosions” (or clever people) that are entertaining. Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays, for instance, are so dripping with meaning that people forget that they were entertainment, sometimes for common people. I feel entertained when I learn about a deep truth and see it put into action, even in a pop song; it’s much more satisfying than the boobs and explosions and car chases. Those things are rather expendable. I would much rather really learn something deep than see another chase, or another trek, or just another guy solving a problem. The film version of The Martian, for instance, was not that moving because it was just a guy solving problems we knew he was going to solve. The parts about isolation and human relationships were sandwiched between very simplistic “what’s he going to do next” scenes.

Compare that to Hamlet, or even one of Shakespeare’s more simplistic plays like Romeo and Juliet. With Hamlet, “what’s he going to do next” is the basic unit of suspense, but while we’re wondering about that Hamlet grapples with life and death and all the important stuff. He goes to the core of the archetypal struggle that we all experience: “Why don’t I just give up? Why do I go on like this? I could kill my uncle, but would the end result be so different from just killing myself?” Interstellar, as opposed to The Martian, was always about human relationships at all moments of the film. The science and technical dialogue were incidental. I find that more moving. If you don’t then…I don’t know. Maybe we’re just different, and that’s fine.

(Incidentally, this is my big problem with editors or agents saying “I have to be hooked,” because what constitutes a hook is so hugely subjective. I know that what hooks me is different from what hooks people who love Firefly, so exactly what are you telling me when you say you need to be hooked?)

My last point is hardest to defend. It’s very hard to write something without a deeper meaning. Fairytales, which seem to just be funny stories, are incredibly meaningful expressions of deep archetypal truths, just like dreams. And that’s the hard part: when a story has that dreamlike quality, it is so much a better story than something that’s all about the surface of life. It may be possible to write a story without that much meaningful, but I don’t think it’s at all easy to write a good story without really digging into what’s meaningful for the characters, and thereby what’s meaningful for the reader.

I’ll close with a passage from Robert McKee (I happened to land on this passage just after watching Sanderson’s video):

Never allow yourself the luxury of thinking, “It’s just entertainment.” What, after all, is “entertainment”? Entertainment is the ritual of sitting in the dark, staring at a screen, investing tremendous concentration and energy into what one hopes will be a satisfying, meaningful emotional experience. Any film that hooks, holds, and pays off the story ritual is entertainment…., no story is innocent. All coherent tales express an idea veiled inside an emotional spell. (Story, pg 129)

Is Rogue One Fan Fiction?

In which I alienate readers by mentioning a good movie’s Big But…

I saw Rogue One last night, and it was great. I was surprised by how seriously it treated the story, and by the father-daughter connection. The ambiguity of the characters and their motives was very satisfying to watch: almost every one had conflicting motives and could have made a decision either way at every point. There were definitely good guys and bad guys, but the way they accomplished their goals was highly ambiguous and provoked a lot of moral questions. The acting was fantastic, and the production design was really cool. There were at least two very cosmopolitan cities that didn’t have the artificial sheen of Coruscant in the prequels. And of course, there were familiar characters, especially imperial characters, that I didn’t expect to see.

They broke with the typical elements that we’ve come to expect from “Star Wars movies.”  There was no crawler at the beginning, there were titles announcing the locations, and there were lots of new sorts of droids, troopers, and imperial officers and ships. The music was not John Williams, but it was satisfactory. It was loud, and distracting at some points, but the whole movie was loud and full of action. If you haven’t seen it, go and see it, and enjoy it. I really enjoyed it, BUT

Continue reading “Is Rogue One Fan Fiction?”

Writing Anti-Advice: where to get writing advice and how not to take it

Some writing advice is not for you, and some should be ignored completely

If you have just started writing fiction, then you’ll likely fall into one of two groups:

  1. People who don’t take advice and just start writing
  2. People who read up on something for a long time before beginning
  3. People who don’t readily please dichotomies

Continue reading “Writing Anti-Advice: where to get writing advice and how not to take it”