Second-hand advice (4): Breeding contempt

Back in college, when I took an intro-level creative writing class, the professor offered a bit of insight which I think bears repeating: a writer’s goal should be to make the familiar strange, and make the strange familiar.

The back half of this really resonated with me at the time, because I’ve always been deeply embedded in the speculative genre end of things. It seemed to me that this was a useful yardstick for determining the appeal of any given science fiction or fantasy story outside of the most obsessive self-proclaimed devotees. Case in point: the Millennium Falcon. It’s a completely invented piece of futuristic transportation technology, a YT-1300F light freighter armed with laser cannons and capable of faster-than-light movement, all of which is so far outside the sphere of lived human experience that it is, by definition, not relatable. But it is also dirty, and gets made fun of for being ugly, and it has a tendency to break down at the most inopportune times, all of which is highly relatable. The point being, it’s all well and good to be imaginative in filling a story with never-before-seen people, places and things, which is in fact the draw of speculative fiction for most fans. But it also helps to provide some kind of recognizable facet of those fantastic elements.

Later, in another creative writing class, one of my fellow students submitted a story for workshopping which was about a superhero trying to solve a crime committed at a comic book convention. This was circa 1994 or 1995, long before the mainstreaming of those things. And on the one hand I understood where my fellow student was coming from, taking two different things he was interested in and mashing them up for maximum crazy. But to anyone not already well-versed in comic-con culture or superhero tropes, the story was borderline incomprehensible. And I thought back to my previous instructor’s advice and wished my fellow student had adhered to it, either using more familiar police procedural elements to dig into the weirdness of comic-cons, or a more accessible setting for a mutant powered protagonist.

That first writing professor wasn’t even talking about genre fiction when giving the advice, though. Her intention was to address frames of reference in realistic, literary fiction. A writer should be able to describe anything in such a way that the reader can make a connection. Whether writing autobiography from the perspective of an ethnic or religious minority, or writing historical fiction, or writing about the quirks of a highly specialized professional discipline, the ideas should not be so self-contained and self-referential that an outsider is baffled by them. In other words, the self-reflexive question a writer asks should not be “Can I or should I write about this subject? Will anyone else understand it?” but rather “How can I write about this subject so that everyone will understand it?”

The flip side took me a little longer to wrap my head around, but was probably the lesson I needed more. Everyone is at least passingly familiar with the old admonition to “write what you know”, but I’ve often felt as though that advice put me in an impossible situation. I am a cis-het white dude which means that my perspective on life is the default perspective of 95% of literature. I am American, and America has historically dominated pop culture, with a particular fixation on New York City, which was where my dad worked while he and my mom raised kids in nearby middle-class New Jersey. If I wrote exclusively about what I knew, I would be treading the same well-covered territory that countless other writers had gotten to first.

But that’s the trick, of course: write about what you know, but if what you know is overly familiar either due to true universality or popcult oversaturation, then make the familiar strange again. Write about it in a way that’s never been done before. Compare and contrast it to something less common, something not at all obvious.

And it’s important to note that this is good advice at both the micro and macro level. An entire novel about a boy and his dog had better have some fresh perspective to it to validate its own existence. But even a crazy pulpy story crossing over various subgenres can stumble by ignoring the suggestion even for a moment.

I am thinking of a specific novel I once read, which I’m not going to call out by name because (a) that’s not the point and (b) at the end of the day, whatever sins the author committed in writing the book, he still has multiple novels published compared to my zero, so dragging him by name would be highly petty. Still, I will always remember encountering one particular passage in the book where the protagonist fell overboard, sank underwater and had to swim safely to the surface. The author, in order to convey the time it took to reach the air above and also emphasize the physicality of the effort, described … swimming. In purely mechanical terms using very flat prose.

It bothered me for a couple of reasons. On one level I felt like it was an insult to my intelligence. I know how to swim, I know the coordination of limb movements entailed in the word ‘swim’ and I am reasonably sure that even someone who can’t swim understands what it means, so to be told explicitly that a swimming character raised an arm overhead and pulled it back through the water to create forward propulsion seemed condescending at best.

But on another level it struck me as a wasted opportunity, the blandest possible way to progress (or pad out) the narrative. Even if I had no idea how swimming worked, the rote description of it was still boring. It provided no character insight to the protagonist. It added nothing to the mood of the scene. It was the familiar remaining doggedly familiar. Different language, a strange yet well-deployed metaphor, a triggered ironic memory or an unexpected development, any of those could have elevated the material. It was just one paragraph out of an entire novel, but it’s the part that sticks out in my memory most prominently all the same.

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Second-hand advice (3): You can’t please everyone

It may or may not always be nice to be noticed. Perhaps there truly is no such thing as bad publicity. There is at least a grain of truth in the idea that the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. All of which may help to explain why, when the editor of Weirdbook announced that the most recent issue (in other words, the one to which I was a contributor) had been reviewed by Tangent Online but also warned everyone that it was an unpleasantly unfavorable critique, I nonetheless clicked on the link to see what was being said:

Tangent Online Reviews Weirdbook #37

In the Weirdbook editor’s defense, he was unstinting in his assurances that he disagreed with the reviewer, that he was proud of every story he had selected and truly believed that together they comprised one of if not the finest issue of the magazine since its revival. But I am both reasonably thick-skinned and morbidly curious, so I felt the need to see for myself.

It is, without question, a review written by someone who was not wildly enamored with the issue in question. But it’s also an evenhanded review in the sense that the reviewer tends to say one good thing and one bad thing about each story. Granted, in more cases than not the praise is faint and the fault-finding is harsh, but the whole thing doesn’t read as vindictive axe-grinding. (It also should be noted that my last name is spelled wrong throughout the review, which was an error I noticed in the proofs of the issue and asked the editor to correct. The reviewer also makes reference to proofreading errors throughout, which makes me wonder if the editor sent an advance copy out for review before final edits were done. I’m completely familiar with the phenomenon of typographical errors becoming so annoying that they color the perception of the artistic merits, so add that grain of salt into the mix, as well.)

At any rate, here is the portion of the review dedicated to my tale, The Maiden Voyage of the Ariona:

In a sort of 19th century, the narrator is a worker on a pilot project for an undersea rail which is ultimately intended to cross the width of the Pacific. But as above is not so below and there are some things Man Was Not Meant to Meet.

Suspension of disbelief is essentially impossible with this thoroughly retro story, which is conceptually a bit like Verne meets Lovecraft with a dash of Burroughs and told in a style where nacreous pearlescent rails fade into a brumous caliginosity. That said, it’s quite imaginative and the late action sequence of the story is quite a lot of chilling, thrilling fun.

All in all that’s not too shabby! If I were in need of a positive pull-quote, “quite imaginative and the late action sequence of the story is quite a lot of chilling, thrilling fun” would certainly do in a pinch. Furthermore, I wholeheartedly agree that I gave in to my worst vocabulary show-off urges in the story, though the reviewer does seem hip to the idea that I did so at least in part to evoke the material I was paying homage to. I regret nothing.

But to be honest, it’s the following bit that really gives me pause: “Suspension of disbelief is essentially impossible with this thoroughly retro story.” I’m not sure if the reviewer is saying that the concepts in the story are far-fetched in a retro way, meaning that he would also find it impossible to suspend disbelief while reading Frankenstein or War of the Worlds or any other canonical classic based on ideas which we all later learned were Not The Way It Works. Or, conversely, if he has no problem with those implausible stories of reanimating the dead and alien invaders from Mars, but finds my fantastical creations so much more outre that they overwhelm any illusion. Either one would be hard for me to wrap my head around.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter. This is a Second-hand Advice post, and while I’m at it I can throw in a bonus nugget of wisdom gleaned from my college writing courses: you don’t argue with criticism. You can wrestle with it in your head, you can ultimately choose to dismiss or ignore it for any reason or no reason, or you can accept it and adjust your current and future work accordingly. At most, and at best, the proper response to a critic is your current and future work itself. The urge to fire back should be channeled into your writing; if you feel you were right all along, then double down on your ideas and let the results speak for themselves.

The main piece of advice I wanted to repeat, however, was this classic: you can’t please all the people all the time. One criticism I have received is that my stories are slow burns where the wonder or terror only bursts through the mundane world at or near the end. This is a totally fair observation! And while I construct stories that way on purpose, because those are a kind of story I really like to tell, I am aware of the merits of stretching myself now and then, which leads to stories like The Maiden Voyage of the Ariona: set in an impossible past, premised on fantastical pseudo-technology and piling on the supernatural threats as well. And thusly insulated against charges of telling a story which is too sedate or insufficiently speculative, I leave myself wide open to being called out for rendering suspension of disbelief impossible. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Nonetheless, I’ll keep writing my slow burning, late twisting tales, and the occasional all-out weirdness, too. Not everyone will like all of them, but hopefully they’ll each find a few admirers here and there.

Second-hand advice (2): Specificity

I recently wrote a story for a specific open call, and upon completion found that it had exceeded the maximum word count indicated in the guidelines. This was not terribly surprising. I tend to run wordy anyway, and this particular anthology was based around something of a double-theme, which naturally meant I tried to cram twice as much information into the narrative as I might have otherwise. If the preceding context seems overly vague, I beg forgiveness; but since I haven’t heard back from the publisher in question as of yet, I don’t want to jinx myself by naming names. However, the very concept of vagueness makes an excellent springboard into my second-hand advice for today: make your writing specific.

There are two very good reasons to follow this advice. One has to do with establishing your authority. It should be obvious, if nothing else due to the common root of the words, that the author of the story is the authority on everything that happens in it. Yet many a writer, particularly early on in finding his or her voice, declines to embrace this notion. And I include myself in their number, though I try to increase my awareness of this tendency and fight against it. I imagine there’s an element of humility, real or affected, coupled with a fear of failure. To create something and put it out in the world is hard enough without imagining hypothetical critics challenging your claims. Better to hedge your bets, to provide an easy escape hatch in the form of equivocations and approximations.

Except, no, that’s not better. Ambiguity is rarely memorable, and a timid author who doesn’t trust himself or herself won’t earn the trust of readers, either. Moreover, if you are writing genre fiction of any stripe, there’s even less reason to build wiggle-room into your statements. It’s one thing to avoid specifying how many miles a person walked before collapsing in exhaustion, fearing that someone somewhere with an advanced degree in kinesiology would nitpick the details. Guarding against the possibility that someone will challenge an assertion as to how many miles a vampire can fly in a single night misses the point of writing fantastical stories in the first place.

The second reason to commit to specificity is because it will make your writing cleaner, tighter, and ultimately better. Backing away from precise descriptions usually involves including qualifiers, which in turn are almost always filler words. Stating something definitively can be done in fewer words. Lowering a story’s word count is sometimes helpful when writing within editorial constraints, but even if you find yourself with a 4200 word tale in response to a call for stories between 1000 and 10,000, the 3900 word version of your story would probably be the more dynamic one.

Below are some of my suggestions for revising a draft to increase specificity and lower overall word counts, all of which begin by typing a keyword into your search function and considering every instance found in your story.

Almost – There are a couple of ways “almost” (or synonyms like “nearly”, “not quite”, etc.) works its way into narratives: physical descriptions and actions. Often a thug is “nearly seven feet tall” or a femme fatale’s hair and makeup are “almost flawless”. And there is just as often some logic underpinning the word choice. To be exactly seven feet tall must be rare, not to mention hard to gauge unless the person in question is standing next to a measuring tape. And nothing is ever perfectly without flaw, so in order to sound like we know how the world works we must make allowances. But this logic isn’t worth much. If word count is your main concern, you have two choices: let the thug be “seven feet tall”, or describe him as “towering”, which is evocative without quantifying. “Nearly seven feet tall” wasn’t precisely quantifying, either, even quadrupling the words. If you don’t care about adding more words, then insert a metaphorical yardstick to measure against. Similarly, let the femme fatale’s look be “flawless”, in the name of poetic license. Or let it be “meticulous”, which implies human effort, and assume your audience is smart enough to understand the inherently imperfect nature of humans.

Actions are also allowed to take advantage of poetic license. Consider the following three sentences:

She ran so fast she almost flew across the room to answer the phone.
She almost flew across the room to answer the phone.
She flew across the room to answer the phone.

The first example vastly underestimates the audience, heading off potential confusion about literal flying by relegating it to a modifier of the action already named as running. The second example is better, except for the superfluous “almost”. Reminding readers how figures of speech work by drawing attention to them is not the writer’s job.

The other justification for an almost-action is the counterfactual: “she lost her balance and almost fell off the roof.” She specifically didn’t fall, but not in the exact same way as someone who was never in danger of falling at all. This comes down to pacing, and it may well be best to acknowledge what almost happened in just those terms and move on, but it’s worth at least considering describing the actions that did occur, rather than those that did not.

Start – Or its synonyms, “begin”, “set to”, “embark” etc. By definition, everything that happens had to at some point start happening, in order to no longer not be happening. Rarely does this need to be specified.

My alarm started to shriek.
My alarm shrieked.
The sun started to rise.
The sun rose. (Or possibly, The sunrise appeared.)
His resolve started to weaken.
His resolve weakened.

There may be reason to refer specifically to the start of something. For instance, to set up the possibility of interruption. Have I seen the Suicide Squad movie? Well, I DVRed it, and started to watch, but got sleepy half an hour in and still haven’t finished it. Alternatively, to tie the beginning of a longer action to a specific point in time. Maybe I shouldn’t have started watching Suicide Squad at 11 PM. Otherwise, focusing on the initiation of an action, rather than the entire action, is arguably too precise, while still resulting in filler words your story could easily do without.

Try – Or “attempt” etc. Effort implies action and vice versa. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and thus you have to try to get out of bed in order to get out of bed. Unless you recognize the truth in “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Much as specifying a “start” can work if being contrasted with a subsequent failure to finish, a specific “try” may be a setup for a resultant failure, as in the victim who tries to scream but finds his voice stolen by terror. In such cases the gap between what is intended and what is possible is the entire point. But consider:

I tried to turn the doorknob. It was unlocked, and the door swung open.
I turned the doorknob, and the door swung open.

The first example makes all kinds of assumptions and preemptive explanations regarding the character not knowing whether the door is locked and thus not being sure if it will open until making an experimental attempt. The second limits itself to observable actions, gets the same points across, and does so in fewer words.

Seem – Or “as if”, “look like” etc. Not to be confused with visual comparisons, as in “his face looked like a moonscape” (although I would argue that metaphors are stronger and better than similes, and would drop and swap words in favor of “his face was a moonscape”) but more egregiously something such as:

She looked like she was reaching for her sword.
She reached for her sword.

Neither of which is as succinct as “She grasped her sword.” “Reached for” is closely related to “start” and “try” in that it only makes sense to acknowledge if the expected outcome will never come to pass. Otherwise, the prelude to the action is less important than the action itself. Moreover, admitting that appearances can be deceiving and intentions are unknowable does not enhance the story (unless that is in fact the theme of said story). It merely makes the author look apologetic, providing excuses up front for contradictions yet to come. Yes, it is possible that she was not grasping her sword, but rather scratching her side, and context should determine how important that is. If the POV character perceives things correctly, and responds accordingly, then dwelling on the other possibilities is moot. If the POV character is mistaken, then describing actions and reactions accurately, without editorializing, will convey everything the reader needs to determine where the disconnect occurred.

As I mentioned at the outset, I’ve been guilty of all of the above, and I tend to use those crutches multiple times per story, to boot. Stripping them all out hasn’t proven to be a magic bullet that shrinks a draft by twenty percent, but every little bit helps, and taking the time to excise the noncommittal phrasings throughout always leaves me feeling better about my writing.

Second-hand Advice (1): Show and tell

I don’t consider myself any kind of expert fiction writer, with my bare handful of published short stories to my name, but I am a longtime student of the endeavor. I consider the learning process to be an ongoing thing, and I have had my fair share of “a ha” moments over the years (and years and years). In some of those cases, I’d like to think that I’ve processed the lessons learned to the extent that I could make a fair attempt at passing them along myself. So, starting with this post and continuing on an irregular basis whenever I’m reminded of an example, I’d like to offer my own takes and insights on some of the things I’ve been taught about writing which I believe bear repeating.

Someone asked recently if it ever got tiring hearing the same old advice over and over again to “show, don’t tell”. It was not so much an indictment of the frequency, or a request for some new advice since the old has been repeated so often that everyone has internalized it and gains nothing from hearing it ad nauseum; it was a genuine questioning of the validity of the advice itself. The asker’s attitude more or less boiled down to “shut up and let me tell my story my way, or if you want a show go to the movies!”

Personally, I don’t ever get tired of being urged to “show, don’t tell”. It’s something I struggle with on the regular, and I consider each and every reminder helpful. I think it goes without saying that it’s good advice for storytelling, but apparently it’s not self-evident, since at least one person is capable of doubting its utility.

Part of the problem, I think, arises from confusion over what exactly is meant by the word “show”. It’s not intended to mean a hyper-focus on visual imagery and descriptive details. It simply means to demonstrate, as in the old math teacher’s insistence to “show your work”.

So, assuming a writer composing a scene in which a protagonist escapes from a prison, the text might read as follows:

Roy slipped through the unlocked door and quickly padded to the end of the corridor, where he bumped into two guards on patrol. He fought his way past the guards, leaving them unconscious in his wake, and continued toward the main gate.

Not the most scintillating prose in the world, I readily admit, but I think it’s perfectly serviceable and, more to the point, it doesn’t violate the spirit of “show, don’t tell”. Yes, it includes a reference to a fight without actually conjuring up a clear blow-by-blow of attacks and injuries. It tells us the fight happened rather than showing it to the audience in detail, but that’s basically a stylistic choice.

Consider, on the other hand, a passage like this:

Roy was normally a pacifist, but he was out for blood now. The evil warden had spent months torturing Roy for no apparent reason, and Roy burned for revenge. Within a few paces of the main gate, he stopped and changed direction, intent on finding the warden and leaving him a permanent reminder of their time together.

This is the kind of writing I would call out for ignoring the “show, don’t tell” rule. This prose isn’t just condensing action down to a summary level to get the same idea across quickly, it’s asserting value judgments and drawing conclusions, all of which is best left to the readers. The text is telling that Roy is a pacifist, that the warden is evil, that the torture was without cause or explanation, and that Roy has a plan to settle the score. These are the kinds of things that could be shown in less presumptive ways. No need to tell the reader that Roy is a pacifist if he can be observed living that philosophy, or to label the warden as evil if his violations of order and goodness can be narrated.

Not that any of the above is absolutely inviolable. Sometimes “show, don’t tell” feels like beating around the bush. Sometimes a writer might be working in first person and want to state explicit conclusions and value judgments because that’s the way the narrating character thinks about the world. Above all, sometimes breaking a rule is a really effective attention-getting move. But to break a rule in a memorable way, it helps to know why the rule is there in the first place, and the above is how it finally made sense to me.