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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Starting Smaller

Yeah, missed last weekend's post again. But, it's hard to get motivated to post when you don't really have much to post about. But this time I do, and I thought I would do it before the holiday weekend officially kicks in.

Still haven't made too much progress on TSS. However, I've decided to go forward with trying to get my recent short story "Exequies" published. I don't know where yet. I've got some minor edits to do on it, but so far, all the reviews of it have been really good. Hopefully that means I did a good job on it, and the rigorous editing I put it through before sharing it might have done some good.

One of the things I've noticed while researching science fiction markets is just how weird many science fiction short stories are. Some of them I just have a hard time understand what's going on, who the main character is, or what they're trying to accomplish. Not because the "science" part of the science fiction is difficult to grasp, but because the writing is just... well... different. I don't want to say "bad," because in this day and age, quality is in the eye of the beholder. But seriously, when you can't even figure out if the main character - who is narrating the story - is male or female, or even human, until halfway through the story, isn't that a bad thing usually?

The only reason I can think of for there to be so many "weird" science fiction stories out there is that experimentation is a really big trend in the short story market right now. In their quest for originality, authors are pushing the boundaries of what was once considered an acceptable style or format for a story, and they're coming up with some very strange things indeed. Some of them work, and quite spectacularly. But in my opinion, most of them fall flat on their faces and there's nothing remarkable about the story except that it's impossible to figure out what's going on.

Now granted, that's just my opinion. And before you think me overly critical, let me try to explain why I think the way I do. When I write a story, whether it's a novel or a short story, I'm trying to communicate something. I'm trying to actually tell a story. Whether the plot revolves around a war or just a single person's inner struggles, the plot goes somewhere and conveys some sort of message. Sometimes the message is just the plot: "Here's what happened." Sometimes I try to share some sort of moral or communicate my personal values. But the point is, writing - even fictional writing - is communication. In my humble opinion, if a reader finishes a piece of writing and goes, "Huh?" the writer has utterly failed in his or her job. If by the end of the work, the writer can't communicate something the reader can understand, then the work needs to be rewritten. Otherwise all it accomplishes is making the writer feel good about him or herself.

Writing should have purpose, and if the reader doesn't at least have an idea of what the writer's purpose was (even if it was just for entertainment), it was all for naught.

So anyway, I'll get off my soapbox now. Hopefully, "Exequies" accomplished my purpose - which is both entertainment and perhaps a hint of personal belief. If I get the manuscript back from magazine publishers with "Huh?" written on it, well, it's time to go back to the manuscript and get it figured out!


  1. I think one of the reasons you see a lot of experimental writing in SF is because, after poetry, it's traditionally been one of the more progressive writing genres. In that SF lit class this past Summer we went over the history of SF and saw how it emerged as a separate genre that didn't "play by the rules" at a time when classic literature was at its peak and the leading academics pretty much had an exclusive club going where they turned up their noses at writers who didn't follow the standard rules.

    If you look at early SF like The Time Machine and Frankenstein, one of the things that you notice is their unique approaches to the human condition. While Frankenstein is often considered a gothic novel along with Dracula and some of the darker novels and romances from the 19th century (Jane Eyre, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, several of Dickens' novels), it is considered science fiction because it used real science as a basis for the hypothetical experiments which drove the story and confronted a very real issue that the future brought with it: scientific progress advancing quicker than moral reform can keep up. Since people were entrenched in the reactionary attitude of the Victorian era, they tended to ignore the moral implications that new technology brought with it under the assumption that they had reached the pinnacle of morality, and once they finally started paying attention to what the scientific revolution had come up with at that point (largely driven by the 'need' for technological superiority in military weaponry and defenses) it was too late to just decide, "Oh, well, perhaps we shouldn't be making some of these things."

  2. This catch-up game continued with the introduction of jets and bombs and ever-more-deadly weaponry and continues even today, when we spend $4.5 million on a Predator UAV and deploy $68,000 Hellfire missiles to kill impoverished uneducated allies-turned-enemy (many of who we created in the first place) "because it saves the lives of US soldiers and citizens." Without batting an eye we continue to think it is moral and just to pump billions of dollars into this death-centered research while neglecting life-saving research opportunities to counter real threats like heart disease, cancer, and viral diseases, and avoiding spending money on the dregs of society like the plague "because they need to get a job and take care of themselves like the rest of us," completely counter to the loving, forgiving, charitable attitude most of us claim we are trying to emulate.

    If we look at Frankenstein we see the same problem: trying to advance knowledge just for the sake of advancing knowledge without considering the moral implications. The way the monster lives out life rueing his own existence and wondering if he has a soul while the doctor tries to figure out how he can remedy the terrible thing he's done by creating the monster, is supposed to parallel the cultural confusion over transitioning from the spiritual Renaissance to the pragmatic Age of Reason and on to the subjective Age of Enlightenment and beyond.

    Same question with The Time Machine: as the cultural standards for what is moral obviously change as time goes on, how will the future be affected by actions we make now?

    Modern SF followed in that vein when it was just short stories and serials in tabloids and other cheap pulp publications. It began with normal working-class people writing stories that interested each other, and exchanging them through the mail until a small subculture of amateur writers was formed that dealt primarily with the hypothetical future society based on advancements being made in the present, and since none of these things had occurred yet the possibilities were endless. If you look at Asimov's early writings, they are nothing like his later works, because of constant experimentation. And from the 1920's up to about 1960 few SF writers were taken seriously by the exclusive literary scene and were put on par with romance novelists. Only when the recognition of their continued popularity decades after being written came to light were they ever considered "real" literature, which is kind of sad, though I guess that timeless value is what makes something a classic.

    You should take a look at these SF short story anthologies I have, because some of the stories sound like what you're describing now, and weren't well-appreciated at the time but have since become classics. And it might not be encouraging to hear, but most of the genius SF writers took a long time to gain any kind of renown or profitability (they sold some of their most famous stories to Amazing Stories and other SF magazines for a pittance).

    And this huge rant was just to get to this point: keep at it and write about issues and values that are important to you, because chances are they are important to other people as well, and when one of those people happens to be a publisher or agent, I think you will be good to go.