Fiction

Lazy Writing Part 1

I am not often one who gets my feminist hackles up, since i think mostly that sort of thing reduces mostly to class differences. One thing I am starting to find truly annoying, though, is the Dumb Bitch Who Doesn't Know What's Good For Her archetype. You know what I'm talking about: something is clipping along in a story things are progressing from Point A to Point C via Point B, when out of the blue because the plot is running too fast the writer figures that he needs to complicate things a bit and add a subplot of some kind and he introduces this character. And god is she annoying. Even though it's mindnumbingly clear to the reader, the writer, and every clued in character in the story what it is that this character should do in the situation they are thrust into, she instead does the exact opposite. Because this activity is in fact insane and is only there to complexify an otherwise extremely linear and predictable story, the writer needs to create a reason for her to do this thing. There are a few stock reasons, all of which generally work in service of some sort of neanderthal view of human nature, but by far the most irritating is the general appeal to hysterical femininity. The audience is in effect being asked to accept that this character is behaving in a completely stupid way contrary to what the protagonist needs her to do because he emotions have short-circuited her ability to think clearly and act sanely.

How and Why Plot Structure Works

You've heard this before:

There is a protagonist who wants something, badly. There are obstacles in the protagonist's way, usually an antagonist working against him/her. After being obstructed again and again, and finally, when all seems lost, the protagonist risks it all to win and succeeds (or perhaps fails).

Most of the books on writing you'll find in your average bookstore talk about the above, rudimentary plot structure. Often, especially in screenwriting books, the structure is divided up into three acts, with the rhythm going something like this: in the first act an inciting incident forces a protagonist to make a decision to pursue the object of desire, culminating in a minor first act climax in which the protagonist meets up against the full force of antagonism for the first time and manages some small success. Then, in a long second act, there are progressive complications as the protagonist tries to overcome successive obstacles, culminating in a second act climax, which often results in all seeming lost. Then, in the third act, the protagonist keeps fighting and risks it all, leading to a story climax in which he/she (usually) triumphs. Finally there is a denouement in which loose threads are wrapped up and things return to equilibrium. In some cases there are more acts, for instance the five act structure typical of Shakespeare, or fewer acts, a one or two act structure in a short story or half-hour television show, but three acts has become the base norm, especially in film.

You've seen/read/experienced this hundreds of times. And because of that, it's easy to dismiss it. It's easy to say, this structure is what leads to the formulaic shallowness typical of Hollywood, and I want no part of it. It's easy to say I'm going to make stories that bear no resemblance to the three act structure and they will blow your freaking mind. And while it's definitely possible to buck structural norms and create something wonderful, there are examples that could be cited (Roberto Bolaño springs to mind), the problem both with this attitude per se and with the way this information is presented in most writing books is that it ignores WHY this structure has become so standard, that is why it works. And even if you want to do something unconventional, it's important to understand why the conventions exist and how they work, to avoid falling into the traps that they are specifically designed to circumnavigate.

Logos Ex Machina at 365 Tomorrows

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On a completely different note, a piece of flash fiction I wrote is up today at 365 Tomorrows! It's called Logos Ex Machina.

Actually, maybe the note isn't so different. The story's about infidelity, jealousy and bestiality. Enjoy!

Weekend Reading: Online Fiction and Online Funded Fiction Addition

In a previous Weekend Reading, I talked about how surprised I was to be enjoying Queen of the Iron Sands by Scott Lynch. Sadly, that serial falls apart precipitously in chapter 3, right when the heroin arrives on Mars, but the first two chapters are fun reading.

For more reliable online reading check out Catherynne Valente's online fairy tale novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, a novel serialized weekly which is supplemental (but not directly connected to) her highly praised first novel Palimpsest. Fairyland was recently bought by a mainstream YA publisher based on its online popularity.

Hal Duncan has recently engaged in an intresting experiment, releasing samples of short stories along with requests for donations. Every donor gets emailed a copy of the completely short story, and if a certain threshold of total money is reached the story is put on the website for everyone. So far all three stories he has attempted this with have met their thresholds, and all three of the stories he has done this with are currently available for public download. Hal Duncan is the author of the novels Escape from Hell, Vellum and Ink, and he is an excellent writer.

A more remarkable case of public financing can be found on Kickstarter, where blogger Robin Sloan has raised nearly $15,000 (!) to fund the writing of his first novel. What's remarkable about this to me is that, unlike Duncan and Valente, Sloan has no traditional publishing credits, and raised this money simply on the popularity of his blog, some short stories he sold himself on Amazon, and his own pitch, which consists of text, a video, and a writing blog. For different amounts of money you can get different "pledge packs" ranging from ebooks of the novel, physical copies of the novel, "behind-the-scenes" updates of him writing, and more. $15,000 is more than a lot of first time novelists get as an advance.

For a regular source of great online short fiction, Tor.com has become a consistently reliable source. One killer recomendation? Errata by Jeff Vandermeer, which alone cements for me Vandermeer's position as one of the finest writers working right now. All short stories all also available for download in various formats, including ePub for easy ebook reader enjoyment. (With any luck, as ebook readers become more ubiquitous ePub versions of online fiction will become standard.)

And finally, free ebooks are available of Soviet Science Fiction masters the Strugatsky Brothers, so get 'em while they're hot!

Atlas Shrugged Part 1, Pages 12-18: Enter Mary Sue Rosenbaum

In 1973 Paula Smith, the editor of a Star Trek Fanzine, wrote a story called "A Trekkie's Tale" as a satire of the kind of strange wish fulfilling fan fiction that she received from people writing themselves in to the crew of the Starship Enterprise. The story featured a character named "Mary Sue" who was a fifteen and a half year old wunderkind who in the course of a few brief paragraphs earns Captain Kirk's love, Mr. Spock's respect, is revealed to be half vulcan, and then runs the whole ship while the main characters from the TV show are languishing with a sickness. In the end she dies of the sickness herself, mourned by the entire crew, and is given her own "national holiday" aboard the enterprise. The story spawned the term "Mary Sue" as a pejorative term for an authorial surrogate whose primary purpose is to live out the fantasies of the author in a fictional world. This criticism has worked its way into the sort of collective unconscious of amateur writing, and admonitions to avoid writing Mary Sue characters is well known in the fan fiction world.

Atlas Shrugged Part 1, Pages 3-12: Who is John Galt?

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is the worst book ever published. The characters are poorly drawn, the story is ridiculous, the philosophical underpinnings are incoherent and morally repugnant, and the writing is incompetent. Quite frankly and put as simply as I possibly can, there is no value to this book, it should not be read by anyone for any reason. And yet it is. By millions. It has sold a bajillion copies and is a touchstone of political thought for a wide swath of the American public who for some reason have come to the conclusion that it has something to offer. I offer in return the thesis that these people are fucking idiots. As a public service in order that no one else should ever have to read this garbage, I am undertaking the following analysis, in detail, of the book in its entirety, page by excruciatingly awful page. If you're interested in following along, it will be useful to know that all page references and quotations are from the 1999 Plume Paperback edition with a new introduction by Leonard Peikoff. But I discourage anyone from following along. It's my hope that this summary and close reading will be more entertaining than the actual text, and that one can read this instead of ever having to suffer through the actual book.

Why I Hate Short Stories: A Short Article on Why Short Fiction is Short on Interest

I don't like short stories. I have never made this a secret. There is the occasional writer like Mark Twain, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel Garcia Marquez who writes short stories that I like. But these writers are few and far between.

Fiction Magazines Worth Reading

Not so long ago, I despaired at the idea of finding a place to publish my own fiction. Like many aspiring writers, I flipped through Writer's Market and sent stuff out to the supposed top of the short story food chain, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, etc., with predictable results (that is, rejection). But then why should I have been surprised? I didn't generally like the stories published in those magazines (they are usually, shall we say, boring). Even if I was writing the best possible stories I could in the style I liked (and I definitely wasn't) I probably wouldn't have been published in those venues. With this in mind, I set out to find short story publications that I could actually read regularly and enjoy. This is the list I've come up with (so far) in alphabetical order, though I more than welcome recommendations:

On Character in Fiction

I just want to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Dan Green's analysis of Nigel Beale's commentary. I am almost coming to resent the notion that all good stories have to be--and are necessarily--character driven.

Certainly the origins of the novel do not lie in "situations" that are rendered as closely as possible to those of "real life." Precursors to the novel such as Gulliver's Travels or Garganua and Pantagruel are plot-heavy phantasmagorias, anything but explorations of character, while most of the earliest actual novels, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Jones, are either explicitly picaresque narratives whose characters never develop beyond their roles in the plots or tales in which what happens is clearly the focal point, not characters "relevant to me and my life." Those readers like Nigel, who recoil from novels "which impose artificial form on formless real life experience," even when such form is simply "plot," have formed a relationship with fiction rooted in late-nineteenth century realism, later developed into "pyschological realism," that might arguably be called character-centered, but such readers assume this sort of fiction essentially brought literary history to a halt and that other kinds of fiction, less dependent on "lifeness" so very narrowly conceived, are simply marginal, trivial, empty flourishes easily ignored. Only character-driven realism is "natural."

Let me put it this way; if you say that all good fiction is character driven, then you close the door on almost all fiction (in any form) written before the rise of psychological realism. To which I say this: Can a modern person read The Odyssey and enjoy it? They can and do, despite that book's focus on plot over character. So why couldn't a great modern book emphasize plot or ideas (or anything else) over character? In fact, of course, many do, but I should hardly have to bring up the post-modernists again, or Borges, or weird visionaries like Philip K. Dick.

I think 21st century fiction might turn out to be the process of crawling out of the tyrannical grip of psychological realism that the 20th century gave to us.

Genre Fiction, Best Of and Media

Michael Peterson's latest comics column in The House Next Door, which is a fascinating analysis of comics as cartography, contains this aside:

The Best American Comics was established three years ago as a counterpart to other "Best American" collections of prose writing and has largely maintained the same roster of talent in each annual edition.

...

I was digging through some old notes in preparation for this installment on an especially bitter night in 2005, after attending a gallery opening here in Chicago hosted by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, editor of a Yale anthology of comics very similar to the "Best American" books. The gallery featured the same few folks; I hurled out some invective that evening, some of which I'm inclined to retract and some of which is still true today:

Brunetti is part of that society of cartoonists that holds our most public faces—Spiegelman and Ware, Chester Brown and Seth and Joe Matt, Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine and the rest of those who hold Schultz and Crumb as the binary star which we should orbit. They're the ones that sit at the Big Kids Table, and at this point, we're resigned to it. They're married to our roots in the daily and Sunday strips, and for many, that form is what informs their every creation, a view that cannot be disentangled. The comic book as a unit is the stuff of old pulps. To stray too far into genre territory, other than as an ironic metaphor, is to obfuscate your message and resign yourself to obscurity.

This all reminded me quite a lot of my own questioning of genre's acceptance by the mainstream critical world. After all this site was practically founded as a reaction to the predominance of quotidian, autobiographical, realist fiction in the "literary" world, exactly the kind of fiction that dominates both the Best American Comics and (usually) the Best American Short Stories anthologies.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the critical estimation of works in verious media, as judged by some well-known "best of" lists.