Reflections on Game of Thrones

(Warning: Here be spoilers!)

Last week was the series finale for Game of Thrones, a series I’d been watching from the very beginning.  Indeed, I first discovered George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books way back in 2002.

I still remember seeing the first book in the store, with the cover advertising it as the first in a trilogy, looking at the shelf and seeing two more books in the series, and thinking I was safe in buying that first book, since whole series was published.  If only I’d known.

I poured through that first book, astonished at the gritty and stark world and the characters Martin had created.  I remember being stunned at Ned Stark’s death.  I finished the first book and immediately picked up the second and third books.

The second book stated it was the second of four books.  Uh oh.  And the third that it was the third of five.  Dammit!  I was annoyed, particularly with the length of the third book, which felt a bit bloated, until I got to the Red Wedding, and Tyrion’s escape from King’s Landing, events which left me gnawing on my soul.

I looked for the fourth book, eventually finding Martin’s web site at the time, which had a crotchety message that he hadn’t finished the next book yet, and asking people to please stop emailing him about it.

Annoyed again, but still hungry for more, I discovered the galaxy of fan sites.  For the next several months I haunted those sites, reading about fan theories, many of which eventually turned out to be accurate.  (When HBO producers approached Martin to make a TV series, they stated they were big fans.  Martin asked them to prove it by telling him who Jon Snow’s mother was.  It was something the internet had figured out years earlier.  The producers knew the answer.)

But it would be three years (2005) before Martin finally produced the fourth book.  While still intrigued, my fever for the series had dissipated, and I decided to hold off reading the fourth book until he had finished the series, which was now forecast to be six books.  Surely he’d have them finished in a few years?

Of course, anyone familiar with this story knows the fifth book didn’t come until 2011, by which time the first season of the TV show was imminent.  I never would have guessed that the show would pass by the books and finish well before them.

Martin seems to have let the tale sprawl into so many settings and characters, that it’s become extremely difficult to move it forward, much less bring it to completion.  Of course, the show has done it, but to widespread criticism that the final seasons felt rushed and, while obviously still showing Martin’s touch, lacked much of his storytelling acumen.

At this point I’m not sure whether I’ll ever go back and finish the books.  It’s been 17 years and I’d probably have to start from the beginning again.  Maybe in my retirement once he finally finishes them.

As an aspiring storyteller, I’ve often wondered what it was about Martin’s tale that drew so many people in.  Was it the unpredictablity?  His penchant for killing off characters?  The overall grittiness of his world, a sort of Middle Earth for grown ups?  Or some combination of these factors?

A recent Scientific American article, in an attempt to analyze what was missing from the later seasons, posited that the difference came down to Martin’s sociological rather than psychological orientation.  Hollywood, the article asserts, is preoccupied with the psychological aspects of character experiences and actions, which was less effective than Martin’s sociological motivations.

I think there’s a glimmer of truth to this, but it somewhat misses the point.  What makes Martin’s storytelling so compelling is his characters, and his ability to evoke emotions in us about them.  And a big part of what makes those characters so compelling is their relation to the society they live in.

Jon Snow is a bastard whose father decides to leave and whose step-mother hates him, leaving him with the limited option of joining the Night’s Watch.  Tyrion is a dwarf whose mother died giving birth to him, earning his father’s hatred, and living in a world that despises him.  Daenerys starts off largely as human chattel, an offering from her brother to a warlord in payment for an alliance.  Samwell Tarly has a gentle nature in a social class that despises him for it.  And Arya has a warrior’s spirit in a society that expects her to grow into a prim and proper lady.

None of these characters are the types classically seen in fantasy.  Conan the Barbarian, King Arthur, Aragorn and many others are alpha males, usually paired with iconic female leads that are in many ways the pinnacle of their world.  Even the hobbits in Tolkien’s books are the elite of the Shire.  (Except perhaps for Samwise Gamgee.)

Martin’s characters start off with glaring disadvantages.  Of course, there are characters in his world who do have the advantages, obvious heroes who will obviously save the day.  Except that all the obvious heroes, one by one, get killed, leaving the characters we’re following, with all their challenges, to cope as best they can.  In the end, these characters are forced to become the new heroes, or villains.

That last point is important.  With many of Martin’s characters, we’re left struggling to categorize them as either good or evil.  Jaime Lannister, despite all expectations, becomes a sympathetic character.  And Daenerys, well, we see her being ruthless throughout the series, but towards bad people, and we assume that’s a rule, until we start to see otherwise.

As noted above, the main thing Martin excels at is evoking powerful emotions in his audience.  It starts with finding the characters engaging, then turns to dread as we see those characters endure searing agonizing challenges, then the triumph we feel if they succeed, or the grief if they fail.

In retrospect, knowing what I do now about story structure, the need for Ned Stark’s death and the Red Wedding are obvious.  Like the death of the Lion King, they evoked the emotions needed at the right time.  And the events of the final episodes evoked the emotions they did to bring about the bittersweet ending we saw.

I generally liked the ending, although I know a lot of people didn’t.  But the story had to end in some manner, and a totally happy ending for this series wouldn’t have felt authentic.  In the end, it’s the goal of art to produce powerful emotional experiences in the audience, which I think the ending accomplished.

If you who watched the show, what did you think of the ending?  Or the show overall?

The success of John Scalzi’s descriptive minimalism

One of the categories here on the blog is Science Fiction, mainly because I read and watch a lot of it.  Occasionally, someone wanting to get into the literary version of the genre asks me for recommendations on good initial books to start with.  My recommendation often depends on the person, but I frequently suggest they try John Scalzi’s work.

Scalzi has a light witty writing style.  He never seems to be far from outright humor, although his stories usually have an overall serious core.  This allows him to explore some issues that other authors struggle to do without alienating all but the most hardcore sci-fi nerds.  A lot of people who dislike science fiction often do like his books.

Of the writers who have explored posthuman themes, his approach is often the least threatening.  His breakout novel, Old Man’s War, features old people recruited into a future army where their minds are transferred into new combat bodies.  But he carefully avoids broaching some of the more existential issues associated with that idea.  Likewise, his novel Lock In explores minds in different bodies in a way that minimizes the angst of many of his more (small “c”) conservative readers.

Scalzi makes compromises to make his work more accessible, but it allows him to present ideas to a wide audience.  He’s been rewarded for it; he’s a bestselling author.  And he won the Hugo Award for Best Novel with the book, Redshirts, with a setting very similar to Star Trek, but one where the ship crew actually notices that a lot of people other than the senior officers die on away missions, and decide to do something about it.

His most recent book is The Collapsing Empire, a far future story about an interstellar empire that is about to lose its ability to travel interstellar distances.  I read, enjoyed, and recommend it.  But it’s the first in a new series, so it ends on a cliffhanger, which some readers might find annoying.

But the reason for this post is that some reviewers are apparently finding the book to be too short a read.  As Scalzi pointed out in a recent post, the novel isn’t actually a short one by normal sci-fi standards, weighing in at about 90,000 words.  Why then does it feel short to some readers?  Scalzi himself offers an explanation.

I’m not entirely sure what makes people think The Collapsing Empire is short, but I have a couple guesses. One is that, like most books of mine, it’s heavy on dialogue and light on description, which makes it “read” faster than other books of the same length might be.

I think Scalzi’s exactly right about this.  His books do read fast, and I think a large part of it is because they’re simply easy to read.  It takes a minimal amount of effort to parse them, particularly starting with Redshirts.  I saw someone once comment that his writing makes for an “effortless” experience of story.

It seems to me that a large part of this is because of his “heavy on dialogue and light on description” style.  If you’ve never read his stuff and want to get an idea of this style, check out his novella on Tor: After the Coup.  Scalzi virtually never gives a detailed description of settings, except to note what kind of place they are, such as an office, spaceship bridge, or palace, and if there is anything unusual about them.  And I can’t recall him ever describing a character in detail.

Some readers are put off by this type of minimalism, finding it to be a bit too “white room”, too much of a bare stage.  They prefer more sensory detail to add more vividness for the setting or character.

I can understand that sentiment to some extent, but I personally find detailed descriptions too tedious.  If I’m otherwise enjoying the story, I’ll put up with detailed descriptions (to an extent), but for me it’s something I have to endure, an obstacle I have to climb over.

One of the most often cited pieces of writing advice is “show don’t tell”.  This advice seems to mean different things to different people.  To me it means that, to relay important information to the reader, the best option is with story events that reveal it, the second is with dialog or inner monologue, and the least desirable is with straight exposition.

But many writers take “show don’t tell” to mean providing detailed descriptions and letting the reader reach their own conclusions.  So instead of simply saying that a workroom is messy, the details of the messiness should be described and the reader allowed to figure out that it’s a mess.  As a reader, I personally find this kind of writing frustratingly tedious.  I tend to glaze over during the description and miss the point the author wanted me to derive.

Apparently a lot of people agree with me.  As I noted above, Scalzi is a bestselling author.  I’ll say I don’t like everything about his writing.  (His character voices could be more distinct, although he’s improving on that front, and his endings often feel a little too pat.)  But his books are always entertaining, and I think, together with the humor, the minimalist style has a lot to do with it.

In many ways, this style is reminiscent of a type of writing we used to see a lot more of.  Classic science fiction authors like Robert Heinlein (whose style Scalzi’s early Old Man’s War books emulated), Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, and many others were all fairly minimalist on description.

Over time, styles have tended to become more verbose.  I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect technology has something to do with it.  Before the 1980s, most writers used a typewriter.  Iterative revisions, with lots of opportunities to add new descriptive details, often required retyping a lot of text (i.e. work).  It became much easier with word processing software, making it much more common.

In my view, this has led to a lot of bloated novels, often taking 500 pages to tell a 300 page story.  To be clear, I have no problem with a 500 page book if it tells a 500 page story (Dune and Fellowship of the Ring both told a lot of story with around 500 pages), but many authors today seem to need that many pages to tell the same stories that were once handled with much smaller books.

Certainly tastes vary, but I think Scalzi’s success shows that when given an option for tighter writing, a lot of readers take it.  I wish more authors would take note.

The odd animosity toward ebooks

Someone called my attention to an Aeon article by Craig Mod describing his abandonment of digital books, returning to the traditional paper variety.

From 2009 to 2013, every book I read, I read on a screen. And then I stopped. You could call my four years of devout screen‑reading an experiment. I felt a duty – not to anyone or anything specifically, but more vaguely to the idea of ‘books’. I wanted to understand how their boundaries were changing and being affected by technology. Committing myself to the screen felt like the best way to do it.

I found this opening odd.  Mod took up digital readings because of a “duty”?  This, to me, is the wrong reason right from the outset.  It makes sense to read things digitally, instead of via paperback or hardback, not because you’re supposed to do it, but because it’s more comfortable, convenient, or pragmatic, not because you feel any obligation to.

Anyway, after describing the way the Kindle enhanced his reading experience, he discusses how things changed for him.

But in the past two years, something unexpected happened: I lost the faith. Gradually at first and then undeniably, I stopped buying digital books.

…As a consumer of digital books I feel delighted, but as a reader, I feel crestfallen. All of the consumption parts of the Kindle experience are pitch-perfect: a boundless catalogue, instant distribution, reasonable prices (perhaps once too reasonable, now less so with recently updated contracts).

…Take for example the multistep process of opening a well-made physical edition….The object – a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth – requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.

Contrast this with opening a Kindle book – there is no procession, and often no cover. You are sometimes thrown into the first chapter, sometimes into the middle of the front matter. Wherein every step of opening The Conference of the Birds fills one with delight – delight at what one is seeing and what one anticipates to come – opening a Kindle book frustrates. Often, you have to swipe or tap back a dozen pages to be sure you haven’t missed anything.

I can sort of see where Mod is coming from.  For decades, I often enjoyed the experience of opening and holding physical books, particularly ones that were well made.  Except that most of the physical books I actually read were trade paperbacks, where the experience was decidedly more pedestrian.  And, at least to me, all of that pales in comparison with the ease and convenience of digital reading.

Back in 2009, I started with the Kindle 2, and after a year or two of tentative experimentation, pretty much switched wholesale to reading electronically.  These days, most of my book reading is via the free Kindle app, which I use on an iPad when at home, or from my iPhone when out and about.  Sometimes, I use the Kindle cloud reader to read from a laptop or desktop computer.

What makes this super convenient is that my position in any book that I’m reading stays synchronized across all of these devices.  And, as Mod described, acquiring a book I’m interested in can now be done in seconds.  (Although I’ve found that it definitely pays to read the almost universally available preview chapters prior to actually shelling out money.)

It’s also extremely convenient to be able to look up the definition of any unfamiliar word or phrase, or to google details on a concept I come across in reading.  And if I’m looking for a particular passage in a book, full text searches save enormous time over the old and often incomplete indexes that were only occasionally available in nonfiction books, and never in fictional ones.

I’ve reached the point where virtually all of my reading is done digitally.  The only time it isn’t is when I want to read something that, for one reason or another, isn’t available electronically, then I might begrudgingly order a physical copy.  The idea of going back to physical books is, for me, like returning to reading scrolls.

Aside from personal convenience, digital publishing has largely created a new industry of indie published books.  Yes, a lot of what’s being put out there is junk, but a lot of it is competent well written stuff, and some of it is brilliant.  Just this week, I read three ebooks on writing, books that probably wouldn’t have existed without the Kindle platform, or if they did, would have been extremely difficult to find.

There are still plenty of people who thumb their noses at indie books, but then people used to thumb their noses at the 19th century penny dreadful novels and 20th century pulp magazines.  There was always a lot of dreck in the old pulps, but a lot of classics emerged from them.  And many genres today, such as fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, and hard boiled detective stories, largely developed in the pulps, with major writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, and many others developing their craft in them.

Over the decades, these old magazines have largely disappeared, a victim of shifting markets as the proportion of the reading population declined, largely due to the rise of competing forms of entertainment such as television, video games, home video, cable channels, and the internet.  As the economics caused the outlets for published works to shrink and consolidate to a few large publishing houses, it became increasingly difficult for aspiring writers to get published.  Indeed, a few short years ago, getting published was about as likely as breaking into show business, requiring not only talent but also an enormous amount of luck.

Digital publishing has resurrected the pulp layer of writing, one that I think is much needed for a healthy publishing ecosystem.  Authors now have a new proving ground similar to the old magazines and penny dreadfuls, readers have access to a lot more writing, including more experimental works, and traditional large scale publishers can now assess a prospective author’s selling potential by looking at their actual sales history as an indie author.

There’s been a lot of press this year about ebook sales being in decline.  What that press appears to be missing is that it’s not ebook sales in general that are in decline, it’s the ebook sales of traditional publishers.  Given the high prices that traditional publishers want for their books, this shouldn’t be too surprising.  A lot of ebook readers are switching to lower cost indie books, which typically sell for under $5.

And publishing snobs should remember that the current hit novel and movie, ‘The Martian’, started as a self published book.  As did ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and many other hits from the last few years.  You might regard these books as hopelessly low grade entertainment, but I’d argue they’re no lower grade than a lot of stuff that got published traditionally.

All of which is to say, that I hope digital publishing and reading are here to stay.  For me, returning to the world of only paper books, with a handful of large publishing houses acting as the gatekeepers to what gets published, is a bleak and depressing proposition.

Yes, the new paradigm isn’t problem free.  I do occasionally worry about what happens to my book collection  (or increasingly my video collection) if Amazon tanks, and I wish they and other online retailers did a better job policing their customer ratings.   (A depressing number of the ratings are obviously purchased.  Amazon is making some highly publicized attempts to combat it, but it’s not clear how well it’s working.  Again though, previews are your friend.)

But to me, the solution to problems with the new paradigm is to find ways to improve it, not to retreat to forms we find comforting only because they are centuries old.  If our ancestors had done that, we’d still be reading clay tablets.

Odyssey writing podcasts

A while back, I did a post noting the podcast Writing Excuses, an awesome resource for aspiring science fiction or fantasy writers.  This weekend, I discovered another podcast  that I had inexplicably missed until now.

The Odyssey Podcasts are excerpts from their writing workshops, an exclusive and intense writing work camp for select beginning SFF writers.  I’ve already been through a number of the episodes and have picked up a lot of great tips.  If you do podcasts, they’re well worth checking out.

I also noticed the Writing Tips section of their site, which has a lot of good, succinct material in it.  I read the sentence unity part with great interest.  I have a tendency to write long, sometimes tangled sentences.  Seeing the problem named and described, with tips on how to fix it, is invaluable.

They also offer an interesting service.  For $300, they’ll critique up to 20,000 words of your writing.  (They’ll do more if you’re willing to pay for it.)  Of course, many aspiring writers already have beta readers and writing group critiques.  Some even have access to English teachers and other writing instructors for feedback.  But this would be feedback from publishing writers, which isn’t easy to get.

Thoughts on knowing and targeting your audience

Writing can be a tricky business.  Whenever you do it, it has to be with an audience in mind.  When I do blog posts here, I’m usually aiming for a general audience.  I try not to assume that my readers know obscure scientific or philosophical terminology.  That’s a decision I’ve made, hopefully one I’ve lived up to.

I’ve read many other blogs which are aimed at audiences more versed in whatever subject matter they cover.  Years ago, I contributed to a local technical blog which assumed that the readers were familiar with IT system administration concepts such as group policies, firewalls, or shell scripting, and I’ve frequented a lot of web sites over the years that were gibberish for anyone not versed in programming concepts such as pointers, semaphores, or data word alignments.  Some of the science blogs I read today assume at least a layman’s understanding of physics.

There are good reasons for doing this.  It can save a lot of time.  I know I sometimes get impatient with popular science news articles when the first 75% is spent covering very basic concepts so that the final portion can describe the new discovery or development.  Of course, the flip side is that many people need that basic coverage, and if it’s skipped to save time, many of those readers will be disenfranchised.

When writing books, this remains a crucial consideration.  Many of the computer books I read assume a lot of knowledge on the reader’s part.  They have to, otherwise they’d be thousands of pages long.  And I still recall the history books I had to read in college, where the author was writing about, say, William the Conqueror, but assumed the reader was already versed in 11th century French and British history.

This consideration doesn’t go away in fiction, particularly in science fiction.  (I’d imagine it’s also very much an issue in historical fiction.)  I’m sometimes asked by people, who want to start reading SF, which books they should begin with.  This isn’t always an easy question, because many of the best works in the genre assume a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader.  I still recall how confused I was as a boy when I first started moving beyond media tie-in books.  Literature SF books seemed to assume an understanding of scientific concepts such as Newtonian dynamics, which comic books and the media stuff had not prepared me for.

Something that helped with that transition, at least for me, were SF juvenile books by authors like Robert Heinlein and Lester del Rey.  Today they would be classified as Young Adult.  But unlike much of today’s YA books, these older books educated while they entertained.  I knew more about interplanetary navigation after reading Heinlein’s ‘Space Cadets’ then anything I ever watched on TV.

With that in mind, it seems like an SF author has certain choices to make when deciding how they will approach concepts in their stories.

  1. Cater to the current understanding of the general population.   If faced with the choice of challenging the reader with a new concept or compromising to meet their preconceived understandings, go with the compromise.  This is by far what most TV and movie science fiction does, although it’s also done by a lot of books, and not just the media franchise ones.
  2. Fearlessly explore the concepts without helping the reader.  It’s up to them to already have the knowledge, do research on the side (much easier today than it used to be), or go read something else.  A fair amount of hard science fiction is done this way, and it appeals to a certain type of reader.
  3. Expose the reader to new concepts, but take the time to help them through it.  This can work well if there aren’t too many concepts to digest.  It has to be done carefully, since more experienced readers may lose patience with long explanations on the basics.

Tastes vary.  Star Wars and Doctor Who novelizations can safely live in 1 and sell a ton of books.  Arguably, these books serve as “gateway drugs” for a lot of fans who may eventually graduate on to the more serious stuff.  (The ones in the 70s certainly did it for me.)

But when I did graduate from the media franchise stuff, the first books I gravitated to were those that didn’t challenge me too far.  At first, I was really just looking for more of the same, and only gradually came to appreciate the additional rigor and expansive concepts in the more serious works.  It was a very gradual progression.

The thing is, the higher in the level of challenging material I climbed, the smaller and more specialized the markets became.  I love books by Alastair Reynolds and Greg Egan, but their sales are nothing like that of a John Scalzi or James S. A. Corey, whose books are mostly 1 with some 3 mixed in.

Of course, most books are some combination of the three categories above.  It seems like the biggest sellers live mostly in 1 and selectively bring in 3 or 2.  The higher the weight given to 2 and 3, the smaller the market.  (Although often those markets are fiercely loyal.)

I think one place where 2 is often seen is in the short story markets.  Part of this is that readers are often much more tolerant of far out concepts in something they’ll finish in 10-60 minutes than in something they’ll spend days reading.  Another part is the fact that there simply isn’t time for a lot of 3 in these stories.  And finally, short story readers tend to be among the hardest core sci-fi fans around, and are probably far more prepared to entertain challenging concepts, and generally aren’t satisfied by 1.

Indeed, a lot of authors are more experimental in shorter fiction than in their longer works.  Fantasy authors like Brandon Sarendon and Mary Robinette Kowal seem more willing to do science fiction in short form while sticking to fantasy in their novels.  And John Scalzi seems much more willing to experiment with dark plots in a novella like ‘The God Engines’ than he is in his longer stuff.

All of which is to say, when writing science fiction, you have to have an idea of your target audience.  Do you want to appeal to the masses?  If so, then you may have to roll with a lot of popular misconceptions.  Or do you want to explore more far out, and hence challenging concepts?  Doing so could be gratifying, but it might well come with a much smaller audience.

As an aspiring writer, my own inclinations are to try to figure out a way to make challenging concepts have mass appeal.  Of course, that is far easier said than done.  If your concepts involve posthuman characters or other strange settings, developing a story that resonates with readers who want to read about people whose struggles, fears, and passions they can relate to, is a challenge.

Ultimately I guess every artist has to decide how commercial or avant garde they want to be.  In many ways, we’re lucky to live in an age where the self publishing revolution makes both options equally possible.  Indeed, it seems possible now for authors to dabble in both.

What is the crucial element of a story?

I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction short stories lately.  As an aspiring author, one of the things I’ve been trying to pay attention to are what the properties are of the stories I end up enjoying.  And, just as important, what are the properties of the stories I don’t enjoy, particularly the ones I end up abandoning.

After probably about a hundred or so of these stories, I think I’ve figured out a crucial element that is missing in many of the stinkers.  It’s one that is easier for a short story to omit since its absence in a longer work would be much starker.

It’s often said that a story requires a conflict, that without that conflict, there is in fact no story.  But I don’t think that’s quite right, particularly after having read many books on writing.  The required ingredient is more fundamental.  Rather than a conflict, what every story needs is a question.  Seeking the answer to the question is why the reader cares about what is happening.  Without it, the story is little more than just a chronicle of events rather than a cohesive story.

Often the question is, “Who will prevail in this conflict?” but not always.  For instance, in a romance, the main question might be something like, “Will these two characters get together?”  In a murder mystery the question is, “Who is the murderer?”  In science fiction, the central question can sometimes be, “What is the nature of the world?”

In a long work, there will likely be several questions, but there’s usually one overarching one that the the lion share of the story is about answering.  For instance, in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, the question is, “Will Frodo succeed in keeping the ring away from Sauron long enough to destroy it?”  In the original Star Wars movie, the question is, “Will the rebels get the Death Star plans and be able to exploit them?”  In the Lost TV series, the question is, “What is the nature of this crazy island?”  All of these works have lots of subsidiary and concomitant questions, but the main ones hang throughout.

In longer works, it’s often possible to ask a question, and answer it at some point in the story, but in a way that asks another burning question, so that the story can be a chain of related questions.  Indeed, even in a work with one overarching question, each scene is often a subsidiary question followed by an answer that implies another question, leading to the next scene.  (Which makes sense since scenes are essentially mini-stories in and of themselves.)

But in a short story, there’s usually only time to ask and answer one question.  And it needs to be asked, explicitly or implicitly, early in the story.  In a novel, the author might be able to take two or three chapters to get around to it.  In a novelette, it needs to happen in the first few pages.  But in a short story, it usually helps to have it happen in the opening paragraphs.

And here I think is where I see a difference between the shorts I’m enjoying and the ones I’m finding problematic.  The ones I enjoy ask their question early, and spend the rest of the story answering it, often in an unexpected way.  I know fairly early what the story is about, and it eventually comes to some definitive answer, albeit not always a happy one.

Many of the ones I don’t enjoy never get around to asking a question.  Often, the de facto question becomes, “What is going on?”  The whole purpose of the story is to leave the reader in a state of confusion until the end, where enough clues might have been dropped that we can deduce what is happening.  More often than not, I find the answer in the “What is going on?” stories to be lame.  And that’s when an answer is given; too often, no answer is offered, or the answer is so subtle that it’s easily missed.

This isn’t to say that a “What’s going on?” story can’t work.  But if that’s the sole question, at least for me, it has maybe 1000 words before I start to lose patience with it.  If it’s going to be longer than that, the writer has an extra burden to find another way to to keep me interested while I’m waiting for the big reveal.  (In other words, to ask and answer other interesting questions.)  And if there is no big reveal, if the story is only there to confuse me and make me feel unsettled and lost, I’ll feel robbed.

It also isn’t to say that a “What’s going on?” question in the early part of a story is bad.  Sometimes it just takes some setup for us to become aware of the story’s main question, although again, I think there’s a time limit on this, which for me is probably along the 1000 words I mentioned above, at least for short stories.

Of course, some stories ask a question and then never answer it.  I’m actually a bit surprised by how many of these there are.  But at least these stories are compelling while they’re being read, even if they never deliver.  (Although, again, I usually feel robbed when this happens.)

At least, this is what I think after a couple of months of intense story reading.  I might feel differently after another couple of months?  What do you think?  Is the question as crucial as I’m thinking it is?  Or am I completely on the wrong tract here?

Literary “rules” I wish science fiction and fantasy books would break more often.

Image credit: Jonas de Ro via Wikipedia
Image credit: Jonas de Ro via Wikipedia

Read any book on writing, or take a creative writing course, and there are certain pieces of advice that you are almost certain to encounter.  In many cases, the advice is good, but some have a tendency to take these tools of the craft and turn them into rigid rules.  And just about any rigid rule is guaranteed to cause problems.  Here are some I wish, as a science fiction and fantasy reader, that authors could be a little more flexible on.

Show, don’t tell.

In film and TV, “show, don’t tell” literally means to show the viewer things rather than tell them in narration or by dialog.  In literary fiction, it usually means to give details and let the reader reach their own conclusions.  Robert J Sawyer gives the typical advice on this concept.

First, what’s the difference between the two? Well, “telling” is the reliance on simple exposition: Mary was an old woman. “Showing,” on the other hand, is the use of evocative description: Mary moved slowly across the room, her hunched form supported by a polished wooden cane gripped in a gnarled, swollen-jointed hand that was covered by translucent, liver-spotted skin.

…Why is showing better? Two reasons. First, it creates mental pictures for the reader. When reviewers use terms like “vivid,” “evocative,” or “cinematic” to describe a piece of prose, they really mean the writer has succeeded at showing, rather than merely telling.

Second, showing is interactive and participatory: it forces the reader to become involved in the story, deducing facts (such as Mary’s age) for himself or herself, rather than just taking information in passively.

Here’s the deal.  Looking through Sawyer’s examples, I’m struck by the fact that I would prefer reading a book filled with his telling examples rather than his showing ones.  No doubt this comes from the fact that I’m not a particularly detail oriented person.  I can be detail oriented when I need to be, but it requires extra mental energy, work I’d rather not do to be entertained.  To me, reading detailed descriptions of everything in a story is a chore I have to endure to experience the story.  It’s like trying to appreciate a painting while scanning it with my eye one inch away from the canvas.  The problem is that many authors are naturally detail oriented, but most of the general population isn’t.

Ann Leckie, the Hugo Award winning author of ‘Ancillary Justice’, recently did a post about the evils of rigid adherence to the show-don’t-tell rule, advocating that showing character development is a good thing, but that always showing aspects of a fictional world, isn’t necessarily.  I think Leckie’s point is probably a good rule of thumb, but one of the commenters on her post said it best: “don’t be boring.”   In other words, show when it’s fun, exciting, dramatic, maybe even horrifying, but never when it’s tedious, when it’s just done to fulfill some literary rule.

Sometimes telling just gets the point across faster, and moves the story along in a much snappier fashion.  An author should be sure not to pass up opportunities to entertain by showing, rather than telling, but only when it’s entertaining.  (Of course, everyone’s judgment on that will be different, but that applies to all of writing.)

Third person limited.

Third person limited is the most used narrative viewpoint in modern fiction, and for good reason.  It can give much of the same level of intimacy of the first person viewpoint, but still provide the flexibility to switch to a different viewpoint character after a scene or chapter transition.

The problem in science fiction, is sometimes it helps to back off and describe large scale events from a third person omniscient point of view.  Yes, an author can always find ways to work around doing that, but only at the cost of additional dialog and/or scenes especially designed to reveal that information.  Sometimes it’s just faster to briefly go into omniscient mode, describe things, and then move on to the next scene.  But contemporary conventional wisdom is that this is a no-no, even though it’s done in a lot of classic speculative fiction.

A few years ago, I was reading an epic fantasy trilogy, and came to the climactic battle at the end that involved all of the viewpoint characters.  The trilogy was done in third person limited, and the author stuck to that for the battle.  The problem was that there were aspects of the battle that we needed to see from each of the viewpoint characters’ perspectives.  So, the author switched between perspectives, with a blank line break used for each shift that is normally used for scene boundaries.

Given the fast moving events of the battle, I found each of these shifts disconcerting.  Each line break made me think that we were finished with the battle, when all we were really doing was jumping into another perspective.  Each shift briefly threw me out of the story.  (At least for the first two or three, until I picked up what the form was going to be.)  This fast moving battle scene practically begged for the utility of third person omniscient.  In a less rigid literary form, the author could have simply adopted third person omniscient, just for that sequence.

No infodumps.

Closely related to the above points, is a contemporary loathing of infodumps, of just relating information to the reader through narration.  Rather than do this, you’re supposed to use incluing, that is, drop clues in the story narrative and dialog to reveal the world or setting to the reader.  When it works, this is great.

But incluing often requires assuming a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader.  I see authors, including experienced bestselling authors, get this wrong from time to time.  The sign that this has happened is usually readers complaining about being confused by the story, or missing key aspects of it.

Some authors seem to take delight in challenging their readers, with the idea being that the reader has to earn their way into understanding what’s happening in the story.  It’s not unusual to have to take breaks from reading these stories to Google terms the author drops.  I don’t doubt that some readers enjoy this game, but my attitude toward such authors is that there better be a lot of other compelling stuff in their story, otherwise I’m going to put their book down and go do something else.

Brief infodumps placed strategically in a story can make it a lot easier to parse.  Even lengthy infodumps can be useful if well placed, for instance, once I’m vested in the characters and the world.  As long as it’s relevant to the plot, I’m usually okay with it.

One nice tool for infodumping is the much maligned prologue.  Yes, they can be done very poorly, flooding the reader with too much information up front, but I’ve also read prologues (mostly written decades ago at this point) that gave me a lot of insight into the world, and dramatically reduced my confusion in the story that followed.  Many editors reportedly will immediately stop reading a manuscript if it has a prologue; an attitude I find a bit dogmatic.

Personally, I don’t even mind the infamous, “As you know Bob, the warp drive works by…” type dialog.  Everyone says this type of dialog is unrealistic, that “people don’t talk that way.”  Except if you actually pay close attention to real people talking, they often do talk that way, albeit without the awful “As you know…” preamble.  Think about all the pointless conversations people often have about the weather.  And look at just about any discussion forum on the internet.  People repeat basic information all the time.

Why do people talk this way?  Sometimes it’s to advertise their knowledge, or to plant ideological markers, or to think out loud.  But often, I think it’s just an excuse to make conversation.

Of course, the idea that this kind of dialog is unrealistic is now so pervasive, it’s virtually impossible to get it past editors.  So authors have to come up with excuses for characters to relay that information, such as having an argument, or having an experienced character teach a less experienced one, etc.

The point is that infodumping, however it’s accomplished, is often a good thing in science fiction and fantasy settings (and probably in historical fiction as well), provided it’s brief and strategically placed.


I  think the bottom line for me, is that I read speculative fiction for the story and ideas, for the content.  Each of these tools should be used when they enhance the author’s ability to convey that story, and dispensed with when they interfere with it.  If an author has a compelling story, I’m going to overlook a lot of form awkwardness when taking it in.  I suspect there are a lot more readers like me than there are ones who get upset when the author violates some writing rule.

One of the nice things about the self publishing revolution, is that it may bring back some old techniques that the publishing gatekeepers have filtered out, despite their utility across decades of genre history.  To the extent it enhances storytelling, and increases the number of people reading in the genre, I think that will be a very good thing.

IO9 has an interesting post similar to this one, albeit with more rules they dislike.

When to give up on a story

ClarkesWorldCover
Cover of the latest issue of Clarkesworld, a sf short story magazine I highly recommend.

I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction short stories lately.  Many have been excellent.  But some have not been my cup of tea.  I’ve run into a fair amount of melancholic ambiance pieces where nothing much happens.  But the stories I tend to enjoy have action, dialog, or at least a steady stream of concrete information.

As I’ve been going through the stories, I’m noticing an increasing willingness on my part to abandon a story before the end.  This is part of an overall trend I’ve noticed over the years where, compared to when I was younger, I’m much more willing to abandon a novel or even non-fiction book if it’s not working for me.

Recently, John Scalzi, discussing his reading for Hugo award voting, urged anyone who would be voting to actually read all of the nominated stories, but noted that you always have the option to quit a particular story if you’re not enjoying it.  George R. R. Martin (author of Game of Thrones) has issued similar advice.  As someone reading both for enjoyment and education, their advice made me feel better, that maybe I’m not an attention challenged philistine.

So, how long do I give a story a chance to work before I abandon it?  It varies with the format.  When I was in high school, I recall being told that you should always give a novel at least 100 pages before giving up on it.  That might have worked in the 18th century when people had lots of free time (at least those who could afford books did) and novels frequently spent the first chapter on the hero’s genealogy.  But these days, I find one or two chapters is enough, or 20-30 pages, whichever is shorter.  That just happens to be about what you usually get in an Amazon preview, which I find a very useful tool to use prior to shelling out money for a book.

I’ve also found this to be true for non-fiction books.  If the author’s writing style and attitude aren’t working in the opening chapter, or if I’m already finding factual errors in that first chapter, I’ve pretty much learned not to invest additional time in the book.  If the subject matter is something I’m intensely interested in, there are almost always alternatives out there.

But when it comes to short stories, I’m giving the author maybe a page, or the rough equivalent when reading electronically, which probably comes out to about 200-400 words.  I’ve found that if the story isn’t clicking for me in those first few hundred words, it most likely isn’t going to do so overall.  They might get another page or two if it’s a novelette or novella.

There are exceptions.  If the author is someone whose work I’ve previously enjoyed, they’ll get considerably more leniency.  Indeed, there are authors who I would likely read their entire piece regardless, because I have a history of enjoying their previous stuff.  I’m also more inclined to give the author more time if their work has been recommended by people whose judgment I trust, or if it has had universal acclaim.  But if I’m trying a new writer’s work for the first time, then the above cutoffs largely apply.

Of course, just because I make it past the opening portions, doesn’t mean I still won’t abandon the work at some other point, although the further I make it in, the less chance there is of that happening, if only because I’m reluctant for the time invested to have been in vain.

Is this fair?  I know it makes me uneasy to think that everything I write is summarily evaluated in the opening passages.  But from what I’m reading, that’s largely what happens when editors evaluate submitted stories or articles.  They typically have hundreds of submissions to go through and it sounds like most get weeded out based on the opening paragraphs.  One of the benefits of reading material from publishers is that their editors perform this initial weeding out.

But even with that, reading a book, story, article, or anything else takes time.  And, being mortal, we all have only a limited amount of it.  Particularly in the case of fictional stories, you should be enjoying the journey at least as much as the end.  If an author can’t make that journey enjoyable, particularly the opening passages which are widely understood to be critical, asking us to fight through their stuff for a payoff we may or may not find rewarding seems unreasonable.

I fully realize that this approach causes me to overlook some works that simply have a slow boil before they start getting good.  But I perceive that, at least for my tastes, these are few and far between.  And usually they tend to be the exceptions described above that get wide acclaim.  I always reserve the option to come back to a book or story, to give it another chance, if everyone is raving about it.

How long do you usually give works to hook you in?  Do you ever abandon them once you’ve started reading?  How long of an evaluation period should an author reasonably expect?