More for Your Ears

Lady Reading by Robert James Gordon

It’s always nice to sell a story, it’s a special treat to sell one to a podcast. For years now, I’ve enjoyed listening to the written word as much as reading it. I discovered audio books and podcasts when my kids were little, and my sitting-and-reading time almost entirely disappeared. Conversely, I spent lots of time on mundane tasks like laundry and driving to and from endless errands.*

I found audio books first, on disk, at the library. I dug up my dorky old CD player and it’s dorkier neoprene jog-belt carrier and started listening to books. There’s an art to sweeping the floor and listening to a book, a different kind of focus. But, if you’re busy with the banal jobs of keeping body and soul together, the house clean, and the kids diapered, it’s an art definitely worth mastering. 

I load books onto my iPod now (which is getting old and I suppose one day will be dorky too). I also stay current by listening to just a few of the hundreds (thousands? Millions?) of podcasts out there. I’ve listed some of my favorites previously, here are some new ones that I’ve added to my feed.

Cast of Wonders
And not just because they produced my story! There’s a nice selection of excellent stories here as well as links to the Camp Myth novellas. Just because they call themselves a “young adult” podcast, doesn’t mean us grownups can’t listen to them too.

Toasted Cake
Another Parsec Award winning podcast run by author Tina Connolly. This one specializes in flash fiction – like a little dessert for your ears.

This excellent weekly speculative fiction magazine podcasts selected fiction and poetry read by the talented and satin-voiced Anaea Lay

Once a month the fiction editors at the New Yorker ask a writer to read one of their favorite stories that has been published in the magazines pages. This is followed by a brief discussion of the story. Good stuff for writers!

A free audio show covering the latest in science news. Once a month they read a flash fiction story from the print journal’s Nature Futures feature.

One of my favorites. Produced by The Poetry Foundation, this podcast features one or two poems followed by a short discussion. Always lovely and useful.  
Go forth and listen!

* When I think back to my college days, I remember spending entire afternoons with friends at our local hole-in-the-wall bar where we would all complain that we didn’t have any time!

Thinking about Stories at the Craft Crucible

Night Light at Apostle Islands
Photographers: Mark Weller, John Rummel, Ian Weller

I spend a lot of time reading and critiquing stories in progress, both in person and for the online writers’  groups that I’m involved with. I’ve blogged about how important this is, but what I’ve been missing out on (and didn’t even realize), was the pleasure of working with a finished and excellent story. 

Lucky for us Anaea Lay has started the Craft Crucible over on her blog. Every Wednesday she’s posting an exemplary story along with her critical breakdown. It isn’t about finding fault with great stories, it’s about finding out what makes them tick. There are a million different ways for a story to fail and almost as many ways for one to succeed. Sadly, no simple formulas for us writers. Turns out, looking at why and how a story succeeds is just as important as finding out why a broken or unfinished story fails. And the best part about the Craft Crucible is that you can play along too!

Below are some of my thoughts on the stories she’s covered so far. I’ve included links in for the stories, so you can read them first, because SPOILERS. Also, click on the Craft Crucible links to read Anaea’s insights!

Seriously: SPOILERS! 

And check out Pank while you’re at it!

Yesterday’s story was Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady by Robert Swartwood. Go on over and read it. It’s an excellent example of a flash story, and won’t take you more than a couple minutes to read. Then check out Anaea’s thoughts. Here’s a bit of my response:

“It’s well done all the way through, but what brings it to the next level for me, is Grady’s age and persistent innocence. His age and the title seem, at first, to be just a ploy to make the story more poignant, but by the end it projects Grady’s inevitable loss of innocence. Swartwood essentially wrote the first half of the story and invites the reader to become the storyteller, and imagine Grady growing older and coming to understand the terrible solution to the puzzle pieces that these objects in Jason’s jacket represent.”

Last Wednesday’s story was Consumer Testing by John Greenwood. This one appeared in Bourbon Penn. Here’s a snippet of my thoughts for that one. (SPOILERS, for real this time. Do go read this deliciously creepy story first!) Check out Anaea’s comments here.

“This story makes me think of J. G. Ballard with its main character who is unable to overcome a cascade of circumstances, and in its unflinching examination of the human dynamic of isolation and abandonment. The father has a pithy saying for every situation, but “Stick with what you know” and “keep yourself to yourself” are the cornerstones of what makes up the family’s philosophy. This is contrasted with his mother’s single opinion, “No good will come of it.” Which the narrator points out has “universal application.”

“No good” is where this story is headed. It’s clear from the beginning that there isn’t going to be a twist at the end that will result in rainbows and lollipops for the narrator. This is not a story of transformation. It does not illustrate a change in the main character. This story is like a proof. The narrator makes a claim in the beginning, and all the events in the story show his claim to be true. This is difficult  to pull off as a writer, and one of the reasons I like this story so much.

The first half of the story is about a recluse trying to get along in a perfectly normal, albeit uncaring world. Then the TV arrives and with it magic. The TV shifts the story onto another track. The TV comes to life and an “authorized representative of a subsidiary of the Mystery Shopping Consortium” appears with an offer that the narrator –though he wants to resist– somehow cannot refuse. It sounds suspiciously like a commercial but the narrator is clear that there is no electricity in the house.”

The inaugural story was Kij Johnson’s famous, or infamous, Spar. WARNING, this story is not for everyone. Some have called it “tentacle” porn, but that’s not really accurate, maybe cilia sex, single-celled-alien-organism smut? Let’s just say there is sexual content, but there’s also grass and flowers and Shakespeare. I really enjoyed looking at this story again and was rewarded for my close attention. 

Check out her other excellent stories!

“When I read Spar this time, I was struck by the fact that she called their ship a “lifeboat.” It seems oddly nautical for a science fiction story set in space. There are more nautical references. She mentions “The mariner’s code” –again, odd for a space story. There’s the line from which the title is taken: “A shipwrecked Norwegian sharing a spar with a monolingual Portuguese?”

A spar can be the mast of a ship (also what two people do when they go through the motions of hand to hand combat – similar to the kind of motions she and the alien are relentlessly going through as well). 

Johnson includes a couple lines of poetry, which I recognized as Shakespeare. At first I thought they might be taken from The Tempest. Thanks to the Internets it was easy to track down. They’re from 

Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

It’s clear that the entire poem informs Johnson’s story on many levels (more than I’m glossing here).

Looking at the sonnet, the only concrete images in it have to do with seafaring:
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark (i.e. lighthouse)
That looks on tempests and is never shaken
It is the star to every wandering bark (i.e. a small boat – something like a lifeboat…)

Here love is described as constant but also distant, untouchable. Like dead Gary or the idea of him or her last image of his body frozen in space.

The sonnet backs into its topic with a negative:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
And Johnson, begins by describing what the alien is not:
“The alien is not humanoid. It is not bipedal.”
The middle of the sonnet describes what love is (the pole star, a light house, unmoving and distant)

The final couplet is a strange negative statement, which is a little harder to parse. (Does it proclaim his love since the poem stands as proof that he did indeed write/love? Is it an admission that his feelings have changed and therefore are not constant and he is no longer in love? Is this a poem of illicit love to his male lover and the last couplet serves as a kind of plausible deniability?)

Regardless of how you read it, it’s the same negative positive negative binary pattern that’s all over Spar.”

Check out Anaea’s reading of this one here

If you’re trying to become a better writer consider “critiquing” the very best stories you can find. Come on over to the Craft Crucible and join the conversation!

A Plague of Cliches, and How to Avoid Them – or Not

Gil J Wolman

Last week I talked about originality and authenticity, but just because writers don’t have to worry about coming up with an original idea, doesn’t mean that we are immune to cliche.

Of course, you can go to TV Tropes and see just how popular a particular idea or trope is by how many entries are listed. While this will give you some idea, it’s not always a good indicator of what ideas are tired and which ones are vastly popular because they are tapping today’s  zeitgeist. 

As Stephen King (and many others) said, to be a good writer you have to be a reader. Reading around the genre you’re writing in will really help you know what’s trending and what’s beginning to feel played. Of course, everything that you’ll find in the bookstore and the library has been published, so on some level it’s passed minimum requirement for originality (yes, even zombies and vampires – see zeitgeist). If you want to take your reading to the next level:

Reach out to the editors of your favorite independent genre zines. (you are reading them already, right?) They always need slush readers. There is no better way to become familiar with what’s being done, and what’s being done to death. If you don’t have the time for that kind of unpaid extracurricular activity, there are a couple excellent resources out there. 

Things We’ve Seen Too Often

Here are just the first four items on Strange Horizons’ excellent list:

  1. Person is (metaphorically) at point A, wants to be at point B. Looks at point B, says “I want to be at point B.” Walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
  2. Creative person is having trouble creating.
    1. Writer has writer’s block.
    2. Painter can’t seem to paint anything good.
    3. Sculptor can’t seem to sculpt anything good.
    4. Creative person’s work is reviled by critics who don’t understand how brilliant it is.
    5. Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.
  3. Visitor to alien planet ignores information about local rules, inadvertently violates them, is punished.
    1. New diplomat arrives on alien planet, ignores anthropologist’s attempts to explain local rules, is punished.
  4. Weird things happen, but it turns out they’re not real.
    1. In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
    2. In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
    3. In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.

There are 51 items on this list. Read them all. It’s a class in itself. In the end, this list isn’t so much about overused thematic tropes as it is about the multitude of pitfalls that a newbie writer can fall into. 

The Lexicon grew out of the Turkey City Workshop to give attendees a common language for critique.  Learning how to talk about writing techniques is an important developmental step. The items on this list illustrate the kinds of missteps that, when embedded in your prose, will give your story a hackneyed feel no matter how brilliant the other elements might be. Entries include:

Call a Rabbit a Smeerp: A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses.
Dischism: The unwitting intrusion of the author’s physical surroundings, or the author’s own mental state, into the text of the story. Authors who smoke or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and cigs. In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain of their confusion and indecision — when this is actually the author’s condition at the moment of writing, not theirs within the story. “Dischism” is named after the critic who diagnosed this syndrome.

As far as thematic cliches, sometimes they can feel like a gauntlet thrown down, and I’m all for bucking the system. If you’re going to try to spin gold out of a leaden trope, you’ll have a better chance if you’r familiar with what you’re up against. And, if you bring your most original, un-cliched writing to bear on your story, you might be able to write something that is the exception to the rule. 

Joshua Kemble via Threadless. Get this, or his League of Cliche Super-Villains as a tee-shirt for a wearable reminder!

No Such Thing as an Original Idea

The Six Neighborhoods of Tropes *

Science Fiction is a genre that puts a premium the Original Idea, but I think its worth clarifying what exactly that is, especially for writers.

Often, after I get a kernel of an idea, I go over to TV Tropes to see how it’s been handled in other places. If you don’t know, TV Tropes is a massive wiki that catalogs storytelling conventions and devices across all sorts of creative and popular media. But be careful! It’s dangerous territory. Every article links to several others, creating a maze more labyrinthine than anything Daedalus could have imagined. Seriously, that picture on the top is a map of TV Tropes links. According to Uther Dean,
TV Tropes will Ruin Your Life. So, consider yourself warned.

I don’t shy away from this kind of thematic research, because, as Solomon said:  

That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:9 NKJV

And I find this comforting.

When I’m working up a new idea I find it useful to see the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of approaches to an idea (trope) that I’m working with. I’m not there to steal, though there is nothing wrong with stealing if you do it right. Austin Kleon has written a whole book about how to Steal Like an Artist.

by Austin Kleon

And filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch explains it much better than I can:

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No matter what you’re creating, it’s not about coming up with an Original Idea, because it’s not really about the idea at all. It’s about the idea + you.

Take any old idea that’s been expressed a million times over and dig deep inside yourself, find and reveal your own personal, human experience of it, and people will call it “original.”

Jean-Luc Godard

* In the information is beautiful, but the subject tangential to this post category: check out this multi-part study about the nature of information on the Internet, using TV Tropes as its model. Here’s the opening quote:

“HP Lovecraft popularized a certain type of malevolent force, something so massive and powerful and unconcerned and out-of-scale with humanity that we could not even understand the whole of it.  Instead, his characters would–before inevitably going mad–only experience a small portion of these beings, typically some kind of horrid extrusion into our reality.  There is much that these Eldritch Abominations have in common with the kind of massively peer-produced content that floats like icebergs in the Internet.”