Because science into life doesn't go

Monday, May 22, 2006

I'm a Loser, Baby...

...but in the best possible way:

My story, By the Waters of the Ganga, a tale of reincarnation set in Varanasi, India, placed as a Losing Finalist in the Q1 2006 Writers of the Future contest! Apparently, Robert Silverberg and Anne McCaffrey both dug the story! I'm just happy that such high-profile writers set eyes on the piece.

Being a Losing Finalist means there's still a slim chance of being published in the volume if the winning stories don't take up too much, fingers crossed for plenty of sharp, short winning tales....

Saturday, May 20, 2006

In Cold Blood: An Appreciation

A few days ago I finished reading Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' and since then I have wanted to get down my thoughts about why this was such a captivating read.

First off, there is the assured style of the narrative, right from the first line:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call "out there."

For me, that line exudes authority. You get an immediate sense that Capote is in control, that he knows what he's talking about, and that you can trust what follows. The authorial confidence allows Capote to leisurely spend the majority of those first three pages describing Holcomb, and only delivering the hook right at the end: that this unassuming town will be the scene of a night of brutal, seemingly senseless murders.

For an amateur writer, trying his hand primarily at short fiction, the detachment of the voice is interesting. This isn't the POV of any character. This is the POV of an omniscient narrator, or rather, a journalist; the style is very much of the type found in investigative journalism---and it works.

Secondly, the characterisation, is masterful. Consider the following passage where we first meet one of the two murderers:

Like Mr. Clutter, the young man, breakfasting in a cafe called the Little Jewel never drank coffee. He preferred root beer. Three aspirin, cold root beer, and a chain of Pall Mall cigarettes---that was his notion of a proper "chow-down."

In just three lines we already have a vivid, bold outline of the man. A man who prefers root beer to coffee, indicating a man who has not yet matured into a real adult. The dependence on aspirin, indicating a life of real, or perhaps imagined, pains. And lastly a chain smoker---always a sign of nervousness, of lack of control. And that last detail! A "chow-down". What a wonderful phrase---this is certainly not a man with obligations to work, family, or country---a man who can't even regulate his eating habits.

Maybe Capote had it easy: these weren't mental fabrications. These were real people, and they acted as they were. How could they do anything but? Still, the particular details he uses to sketch a character, situation, or place are always illuminating, and never boring or incidental.

With regards to the dynamic power of the novel---the element of the tale that makes it a page-turner---Capote employs an unusual device at odds with the run-of-the-mill whodunnit. Capote names the killers within the first fifteen pages. The engine that drives the readers curiousity is not the mystery of the murderer's identities. There are no conventional clues for the keen reader to spot. The mystery derives from understanding the killer's motivations. We pinball between the family members on their last day, friends, the killers, and then the detectives brought in.

For me, the driving force is the relationship between the two killers, and the insight into the procedural process as the noose draws close. In choosing this structure, Capote greatly elevates this above a piece of cheap genre fiction. Through the killer's meandering adventures after the murders we see their humanity, see their frailties, and see the way they are in no sense 'evil' in a biblical or one-dimensional way. Through the detective's work we have a mirror onto society's feelings about such men, how inadequate the response is, and how society itself is as much to blame as the men. The tapestry of narrative POVs---including a pair of tom-cats in one scene!---allows us to see the whole story and draw our own conclusions about responsibilities and consequences.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Paradoxical Critiquer

Being an aspiring writer, hanging-out, cyberspacially-speaking, with other green-fingered wordsmiths, I come across a lot of crap writing.

And not just from my own fingers!

Sometimes it has been known for other aspiring writers to commit heinous crimes against the craft of story. Laboured beginnings, nonsensical middles, unexpected, but not satisfyingly unexpected, endings. Terrible punctuation, cliched characters, incorrect formatting. Protagonists who are whores to the plot. Protagonists who aren't part of the plot. Bad science. Awkward pacing. Dialogue from Victorian England when the setting is downtown Tokyo. Adverbs! And the list goes on.

What you swiftly realise is that this writing lark, this incredibly simple process of placing one word after another (and all the words are in the dictionary! as Mark Twain famously said), is anything but simple. Danger lurks on every page, in every paragraph, in every bleedin' line and word! Being aware of the utter hardness of good writing is enough to make most potential writers mutter, somewhat self-deceptively, 'Oh, I'll write that book/scene/paragraph tomorrow/next week/when I retire'.

However, all this difficulty is all well and good, and as it should be. The journey is as important as the destination, and boy, learning to write is some journey! And I speak from the foothills of the craft. So, seeing bad writing, from myself and others, doesn't make me angry or depressed (well, only sometimes), as it makes some. No, it makes me inspired knowing people are making a crack at something very difficult.

What does make me wonder though is how much bad writing doesn't get flagged as bad writing by other aspiring writers. From some of the critiquing circles I've been involved in, I've often been astounded to find that writing, that by many standards can objectively be considered poor, is heralded as a great shining example of good fiction.

I know some people don't take criticism well, and the standard line is that all feedback should be presented in an amiable way....but....sometimes a spade should be called a spade. If a person is serious about writing, they should encourage feedback on the areas of their writing that are rough. And critiquers should make the main focus of their critique what doesn't work for them. Of course, highlighting good practice is important to let writers know where their strengths are, but highlighting bad practice is so much more valuable.

I have a couple of theories about overpraising critiques.

1. Critiquers aren't reading the stories as readers.

Reading and writing are completely different skills. As many critiquers also write, they often bring their writing-head to the table when they read. Unconsciously, or perhaps even consciously, they read the story thinking how they would write it---and since they aren't great writers they might find a lot of agreement in the choices. What I've learnt is that critiques come in two parts. Response and advice. Reader response is something everyone can give, and is by definition, always true. Reader advice is a whole other kettle of wary!

2. Critiquers aren't well read.

I get the feeling many aspiring writers have a style, an author, or a sub-genre they want to imitate. In their reading they've not pushed themselves to discover stuff outside their comfort zone. That's their prerogative. However, without an awareness of how good literature can be, and what makes it good, they will never be able to put it into their own work, or see it in others work. This is something I have direct experience of---I'm not a voracious reader. I average about thirty books a year, plus short fiction---and can honestly say I do not 'get' some award winning stuff---but I believe that if I become a better reader I will become a better writer. I really believe being a great writer comes from being a great reader---reading widely, and reading with thought. Literature doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is an ongoing dialogue between a culture and itself.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Bad Publicity?

Okay. There's this writing contest for up-and-coming speculative authors. It's called "Writers of the Future". If you win, you get excellent money, great publicity, your name in print, and a one-week long holiday in LA.

No bad, eh?

But, what if the contest was called "L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future Contest"? Would that make a difference to you? I know that for some, any link to Scientology is enough to draw a great big line in the sand and to shout "No way! You'll not use my good name to promote your dubious religion!"---notably, David Langford, a long-established SF commentator who writes the always informative Ansible. He suggests that new writers who win in this contest will later come to regret their decision, as all their later work will be tainted with association to Hubbard.

Now, is this fair?

I'm probably biased, but I would say not. Entry to the competition does not in any way affiliate me to the teachings of Scientology. I hardly know anything about the religion except it's tabloid reputation for brainwashing its members, and far-out cosmic explanations of things. That strikes me as a reasonable definition for plenty of other organisations, religious or otherwise. The whole consumerist culture, for example. Also, it seems strange that a religion that is a laughing stock to great swathes of the population would think that positioning itself alongside the next wave of speculative writers and all their fantastical imaginations would in any way garner it greater respect.

The question is, how much research are writers expected to do into the publications they submit to? Bearing in mind that most truths are decided by community consensus, it seems impossible to answer the corollary question, what does being published in this publication really mean?

L. Ron Hubbard, aside from everything else he did, gave new writers a chance to break in on a level playing field. So, I'm going to keep submitting to "Writers of the Future", and hopefully, one day, place!