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Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

The Audience Will Kill You

I’ve been noticing Audience stand-ins in science fiction and fantasy recently.  I don’t mean characters who are explicitly “the reader” in some kind of self-aware way, though those exist.  Nor characters with whom the reader identifies–in general, that’s the role of the protagonist.  I’m talking about characters which stand in for the Audience’s expectations of the main characters and the story in which they live–readers as a faceless mass, readers as an imposition.

In The Hunger Games (the first book in the series, at least), residents of the Capitol fill this role.  They’re basically the readers of a YA novel: they pay good money to watch kids suffer through toil, pain, and death.  They develop affection for some characters, antipathy toward others.  They reward their child “main characters” with accolades for displays of emotional growth that fit their (the audience’s) desires for how the story fits together.  And, ultimately, the only way Katniss can buck the audience’s lust for pathos and blood is to threaten to deny them their expected ending.   (I really like young adult books, by the way–that’s part of the reason why I’m tickled by the notion that the Hunger Games edges around a critique of the genre.)

The Consu in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War fill a similar role, only for the military SF audience.  For those of you who haven’t read Old Man’s War, the Consu are sorta-insectoid Elder Race type aliens, with better technology and more firepower than anyone else in the galaxy.  But they fight very limited wars with younger races, because they think such wars consecrate the planets on which they take place, and improve the souls of the races that they fight.  In the scene where the Consu are introduced, we meet a human soldier who’s a bit of a loser; the Consu, during their attack, shoot him in the face and as he dies they scream “REDEEMED!  REDEEMED!”  (I didn’t realize how on-the-nose this ways until I wrote that sentence.)  For the Consu, battle is an opportunity to display nobility, to ascend the Great Chain of Being, and the more these battles involve wicked cool SF space marines, the better.  At least in this book (the first in the series), the Consu present as a nearly-omnipotent Audience fascinated with the kinds of stories that can be told in Military SF–stories about duty, honor, bloodshed, courage, love in dangerous times, and all the rest.  They’re such fans that they only accept ambassadors from lesser races who have proven themselves Main Character material.

I’m scratching my head trying to parcel out the significance of this, and wondering if I’m just imagining it all.  Could presentations like the ones I’m describing arise from the fact that, due to the internet, the audience is more of a presence in creators’ minds?  Are there further examples beyond these two?  (The machines in the Matrix are one possibility…)

Last Week Overview

My pen did not explode on the airplane, but my bottle of ink did.  Somehow, the cap remained intact and most of the ink remained in the bottle, but the ziploc bag around the bottle was ink-soaked anyway.

After five days, I managed to reduce a childhood’s full of books to six medium-sized boxes that will reach Boston sometime in the next few weeks.  Making choices sometimes felt like tearing off a limb, but it was also a good exercise in letting go, and in life editing.  Which of this box of classic SF novels do you keep?  Which do you pass on to the next generation?  Some of my choices were sentimental, but for the most part I feel better knowing that I’ve released books that helped me out into the world where they can help other people.

Only a few pages of writing done last week, but progress made nonetheless.  Goals for this week: ship thank-you gifts, submit a story that’s been on my shelf for too long, and get back to ~1000 words a day.



Packing for my trip to Tennessee, I had a brilliant idea: bring an empty fountain pen, and a bottle of ink.  The pressure change on an airplane makes filled fountain pens spurt ink, ruining pants and pockets and suitcases.  Packing pen and ink separately (I thought) would shortcut this problem.

Unpacking after the flight, I discover that the pen made it through fine, but the (sealed) bottle of ink vented ink all over the (sealed) ziplock bag I packed it in.  My clothes are safe, but that’s another theory sent back to the drawing board.

Fitting Pieces Together

The surge of excitement over the cover release has receded a bit, like a tide, leaving a strange geography of problems to solve–a book to edit, a book to write, and a number of supplemental tasks for Three Parts Dead that I’ve been putting off for a while, many of which involve bugging artists I know.  For the greater good, I promise.  Pay no attention to the mad cackling behind the curtain.

Spy Novel Remix

The New Yorker posted a long read on the Quentin Rowan / QR Markham plagarism scandal, which some of you may remember back from November.  Basically, this guy wrote a spy novel the way kidnappers in Dick Tracy comics wrote ransom notes: by cutting words, phrases, images out of other books and pasting them together, with a little bit of added connective tissue.

The funny thing about this is (as Rob Beschizza  noted at the time, and as the New Yorker piece observes) that if Rowan had been honest about what he was doing, he might have been hailed for his formal invention.  I can imagine devotees of spy fiction devouring such a book-of-books, trying to hunt down the source for every passage.  It would have been a legal nightmare to produce (maybe), but imagine the possibilities–a contest, say, for whoever caught the most allusions.  The book could have been a salute to spy novels everywhere.

I feel there’s a deeper level of oddity to the whole case, though: I don’t know a single writer who isn’t also an avid reader.  Most people write stories based off the ones they read.  Sure, SFF people write mysteries or spy novels, and vice versa, but in general, if you read a lot of fantasy or science fiction, your will be more likely to think of interesting combinations of language, imagery, and story in an SFF context.  Same with any genre, including literary fiction.  We’re all internalizing language and ideas, recombining them, and using them to build.

There’s a difference, to be sure, between a storyteller who glues together pre-existing bits and pieces, like building a popsicle stick man in grade school, and one who cuts up and recombines existing work, as with papier mache.  Even at that stage, influences (and even sources) are recognizable.  I used to make papier mache monster masks, and one of the coolest thing about them (outside of their realism) was the fact that you could still read the newspaper clippings on the inside of the mask.

We tend to want our writers to go a step beyond popsicle sticks or masks: to build wasps’ nests, in which the original materials have been so broken down and remade that we can’t identify them any more.  Of course uproar ensues when someone attempts to pass off a stick man as a wasp’s nest, but I wonder if there’s a place for stick men, or papier mache masks, in the world of fiction, the same way we’ve come to embrace sampling in music.

Troubleshooting Blind

I read Bret Victor’s rant about touchscreens and interaction in late November, but kept running through my mind this morning as (bleary and zombified from lack of sleep) I replayed the events of last night.

The evening started out pleasantly, a nice opportunity to unwind after a busy month.  Time to sit back and watch some more Leverage, with a nice single malt (I’m working through a bottle of the Caol Ila 12 at the moment).  So I turn on the television, and turn on the PlayStation, which is our set-top-box-cum-DVD-and-Blu-Ray player (And Also It Plays Skyrim!).  Usually pressing the on button rewards me with a little rising swell of violins, cellos, and violas, like an orchestra tuning, as the screen fades in to present a space-age looking green wave interface.

I pressed the button.  No orchestra music ensued.  Nor any space-age green wave interface.  The machine seemed to be working, but no picture or sound appeared on my television.

Seemed is the key word here.  For those of you who haven’t made the acquaintance of a PlayStation 3, it’s a black lozenge which looks like it might uplift a race of proto-humans into sentience / beating the crap out of one another while Also Sprach Zarathustra blasts brass in the background.  No, I’m being unfair: the machine does have two buttons, one to eject the disk, and the other to turn the entire system on.  There’s a blue light beside the ‘eject’ button and a green light beside the ‘on’ button.

These are the only two means the device has to accept input or offer feedback: two buttons, and two little LED lights.  When God’s in his heaven and all is right with the world (and NERV), the system accepts input through wireless controllers, and offers feedback through my embarrassingly large television–plenty of bandwidth.  When all is not right with the world, though, you can’t trust the system and the controller to communicate with one another, and you can’t trust the system to talk with the TV either.  The aperture for information from the PlayStation shrinks from 40″ of television to those two pinprick elementary-school science project LEDs, and the control surface shrinks to those two buttons which may or may not work.

How does one troubleshoot a tiny Monolith?  Apparently Monoliths respond to trigger point massage: press a spot, and hold, and wait for tension to ease.  Beeps, changes in the light from the LED, all these things can be indications that what you’re doing works–or doesn’t.  I spent an hour sitting on the floor in my living room sipping Scotch and pressing the power button, over and over again, in different combinations, listening for different beeps and wondering if I’d miscounted the number of seconds between them.  In the end, I connected the PlayStation to a different power source, pressed both buttons at once, waited as the machine coughed up a hairball, and eventually was rewarded with a picture.  I don’t know if the two-button trick had anything to do with my success; David Hume would observe no causal connection, but then, that’s Hume for you.  If post hoc ergo propter hoc holds, then anything I did in that hour might have contributed, including staring at the machine with one eyebrow lofted and a dour expression on my face.

This isn’t unique to the PlayStation–I’d be in a similar spot if my laptop screen suddenly died.  The funny part for me is not that our world is full of technology that is hard to comprehend or troubleshoot, but rather that (once things start breaking) the path for interaction between my brain and the colossally fast computer inside that mini-Monolith is so limited that when things go wrong I’m reduced to pressing buttons that might not even work, and it’s reduced to blinking occasionally at me with tiny heterochrome eyes.  And when we manage to agree on something (a task, say, like ‘boot up to the home screen’), neither of us is quite certain what we’ve done that’s worked.  That’s where we are, when interfaces fail.

Two people could end up in that situation.  Or two nations.  Or a goddess and her faithful.  I’m remembering the Asimov book, The Gods Themselves, in which two universes (ours and another) are endangered by a theoretically infinite source of energy that bridges their worlds.  For much of the book, neither side thinks the other is sentient, and so they treat one another as technical problems.  Any life that evolves out of technology might not be recognizable to us, not because it will be inherently alien, but because it won’t have been designed to interface with us meat-bags.

Weird world we live in.

Locus Reading List

Locus’s 2011 Reading List, assembled based on the recommendation of Locus contributors, editors, and reviewers, has me glancing at my To Be Read pile and wondering if I can’t stack a few more on the top before the whole edifice collapses.  I’ll have to stick with buying ebooks for a while, though, since our little apartment is fast becoming crammed with books and textbooks.  Law schools ought to include the estimated cost of new shelving in tuition.

As of a few days ago, the copy-edited manuscript of Three Parts Dead is back at Tor.  Now I get to breathe easy for a little while, which, for me, means pressing on with research & writing for my next book.  Cryptography, cybercrime, economic collapse, warfare, and tradecraft–obviously, I’m writing a tender coming-of-age story about some kids trying to find themselves after college.  After a fashion.

No, seriously.

“You are not a very good spy.”

Lots of spies and crypto and crime in my reading life right now – I’m reading The Code Book, by Simon Singh, which is a page-turner.  Meanwhile, my wife and I are catching up on Leverage, she’s watching Burn Notice in five-minute increments on her study breaks, and I’m about 60% of the way through Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  (I don’t tend to read more than one book at a time, but I’m paused on Tinker Tailor, not because it’s a slow book, but because if I don’t start finishing books and returning them to the library, the ninja doom librarians will come after me again).  All these different visions of spies, secrets, and crime are crashing in my head to odd effect.  I try to imagine what George Smiley, the competent, dangerous, but also sixty-something, overweight, cuckolded, and cautious spymaster from LeCarre’s novels, would say to Michael Westin, a super-operative who’s several shades more realistic than the graduates of the Bond & Bourne school of agentry, but still pretty fantastical.  I wonder what an actual operative would say to either.  Spies, doctors, writers, lawyers, cops, boxers, thieves, ‘hackers’ – stories provide interlocking images and models for people who participate in certain professions, that map onto the real world in odd ways.  It’s one thing to read Hagakure, another to watch The Seven Samurai, and yet another to watch Samurai Champloo.

The original quote, from the estimable Kate Beaton,about monastics and fan fiction: “You are not a very good monk.”  (A little far down, but everything on that page is golden – Ismbard Kingdom Brunel especially.)

Do Not Invite Ghost Mark Twain to Edit Your Manuscript Unless Your Ego’s Wearing Riot Gear

I’ve recently ascended (temporarily) to the role of Editor-in-Chief at my Day Job, which means mostly that I spend a lot of time wading through business language and trying to hammer it into something like comprehensible English.  To encourage my edit-ees, I’ve been assembling a list of famous and helpful essays about good prose style.  Politics and the English Language is a good example.  One of my favorites in this genre for sheer snark and hilarity is Twain’s essay, Cooper’s Prose Style, on faults in the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (the guy who wrote Last of the Mohicans), so, after re-reading it a couple times, I put it on the list.

Last night, though, as I edited my manuscript, at every other sentence I heard the mocking drawl of  Mark Twain’s ghost: “It is truly remarkable that Mister Gladstone’s characters can make such a deduction without any basis in logic or human reason.”   And so forth.  At least he was called me Mister Gladstone – a little respect from a restless spirit always makes one’s evening sweeter.

Vita may be brevis, but sometimes Ars feels especially Longa.

Happy National Novel Writing Month!

To all who sat down at midnight this morning and slammed out a couple thousand words of they-don’t-know-what: hail!

To all who have never written fiction before, for whom the community is a font of courage and strength: hail!

To all who return, year after year, with new projects and new dreams: hail!

To all who persevere to the end, and build something that makes them proud: hail!

And to all who, finishing, stick their project in the drawer for a few months and come back to it with clear mind and sober heart, to refine words into something grand: doubly hail!

As I mentioned last year around this time, I’ve never participated in National Novel Writing Month, because I’ve always had a project or two on the stove – generally a book half-finished I didn’t want to abandon.  This year, I have a new novel in halting progress, and a finished novel on deadline.  I’ll spend the month carving the latter into shape, which makes this more of an editing month than a writing month for me.  But I love the idea behind NaNoWriMo, and it’s been wonderful to watch it grow into a national (and even international) movement.  So, some words of encouragement and common cause.

Good luck to everyone this month!  May your hands and minds be nimble and quick.