Thursday, November 20, 2014

Here's Ursula K. Le Guin's Fiery Speech from Last Night's National Book Awards


Give that woman an mic so she can drop it! Last Night the National Book Awards honored Ursula K. Le Guin with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. You can read more about it at NPR and Motherboard. It would be enough that one of my favorite feminist, science fiction authors won a prestigeous literary award, but then she gave a speech that encapsulates and articulates the zeitgeist of the world of letters right now.

She starts out by recognizing the importance of fantasy and science fiction in literature, and then wades into speak truth to the world of publishing. This vast and chaotic, somewhat broken machine that commodifies our art and letters for mass consumption. She uttered a battle cry that both gave no quarter and inspired hope - at least in this writer.   

According to NPR, at the after party, Le Guin said of her speech: "I hope it goes outside this room."
 
Parker Higgins transcribed her entire speech. I'm reblogging most of it below. Check out his post for her speech in its entirety, and stick around to check out his super cool parker higgins dot net blog.

"I rejoice at accepting [this award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
 
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It’s name is freedom."

Neil Gaiman presents Ms Le Guin with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Naturalism and the Fantastic in Snowpiercer

I’m continuing my tradition of writing about movies long after they’ve been released.
I was lucky enough to see Snowpiercer in the theaters this summer. It was, refreshingly, not a typical summer blockbuster. I expect no less from the always-interesting Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Actually, I first heard about this movie because of Bong’s feud with Harvey Weinstein, the producer who bought the U.S. rights to the movie. Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer to make it more appealing to American audiences. Bong felt the movie should stand as it is, and so did many of the fans who’d already seen it in its international release. In the end, the twenty minutes stayed, though the movie got a more limited release.

Now, I don’t know exactly which twenty minutes were on the chopping block, but I can understand why a big name producer might want to fiddle with this story. Snowpiercer worked for me, but it’s an odd movie and definitely not for everyone. Even my genre friends were pretty divided about it. To me, the main difficulty that this movie faces is one that affects genre storytellers more than others.

I believe it has to do with science fiction and fantasy’s tricky relationship with naturalism in storytelling. According to the dictionary:

“The term “Naturalism” was given to a 19th-century artistic and literary movement, influenced by contemporary ideas of science and society, that rejected the idealization of experience and adopted an objective and often uncompromisingly realistic approach to art.”

Great genre stories often employ naturalism. In science fiction, outrageous premises and alien worlds, when rendered in a naturalistic style, gives the fantastic elements a sheen of believability. It’s a literary of sleight of hand. When it works no one complains, when it doesn’t the audience will find the story “unrealistic” and pick apart every detail exclaiming, “But that’s impossible!”

Great fantasies are often grounded in naturalism, too. The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones are drenched in naturalistic details of our physical world and grounded in modern theories of social behavior. This backdrop makes the magic and strange creatures that populate these worlds seem immediate and possible. The fantastic elements are given the weight of reality by details that we recognize, objectively, as part of our world.

The use of naturalism in science fiction and fantasy stories often works without us really noticing. But stories like Snowpiercer are different. On one level, Snowpiercer is a grim dystopia and an action flick with a social agenda. It also stuffed with many strange, scenes and elements that don’t immediately make sense. The movie employs gritty, naturalistic effects, but the story is not realistic, it’s symbolic.

I was just getting around to this realization when I came across a post examining Snowpiercer as an allegory. Go check out Michael Hughes' excellent: How an Obscure Second Century Christian Heresy Influenced Snowpiercer.  Later, in an online discussion about the movie, Ted Kosmatka, wrote: 
 "Here’s the deal I made with the movie: Spin me a good parable, and I won’t hold you to reality."
Allegories and parables are both species of metaphor. In the case of long works, like Pilgrim’s Progress, they are extended metaphors that reveal hidden meanings and illustrate concepts.

Symbolic stories like Snowpiercer that employ naturalism risk creating a kind of cognitive dissonance in a viewer who takes naturalism as a cue that the movie is realistic. As I watched Snowpiercer, I quickly realized that I needed to decouple the idea that the movie’s naturalistic detail had anything to do with reality. Once I did that, I was free to enjoy the story on its own terms.

This is a challenge particular to speculative writing. Not only must the storyteller tell a compelling story, they must make clear to the audience just what type of story they’re telling. Of course, success also depends on active participation from audience. I have no real solution to this aspect of the genre, as I think the best stories; the best art pushes exactly these boundaries, forcing our brains and hearts to reach for new levels of understanding and connection.

Many of my favorite stories fall along these lines: KarenRussell’s novella, Sleep Donation, which I read (among other things) as an allegory for the cost of giving set in a fantastic tale of modern day epidemiology; The movie, Gamer, which I saw as a dark, inverted fairy tale. These layers of meaning double the fun for me, because every scene, every action, every line of dialogue has one meaning while other meanings move along underneath, underpinning and obverting every moment.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Check out the Literary Landscape with The Review Review


As a reader, one of the things I love about literary magazines is that they are all so different, each with their own particular aesthetic and editorial style. Perusing the shelves at a bookstore or looking online, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the breadth and depth of different voices out there, and by all the different packages they come in.

As a writer, one of the things that is so daunting about literary magazines is that they present an ever shifting and varied landscape, where a writer with work to submit can easily get lost. Each magazine, with it’s own quirky voice is looking for a particular type of writing. But that’s no reason to be discouraged! You, dear writer, have your own unique voice.

Anyone would be hard pressed to keep up with the thousands of literary magazines out there. What writers (and readers) need is a kind of speed dating service where you can meet a whole bunch of them in order to find the ones you click with. One of the best resources for both readers who want to find their particular flavor of magazine, and writers who are looking to place their work is The Review Review, run by Becky Tuch.* I’ve been getting their newsletter and using their website for market research for a while, and now I’m reviewing for them.

In the about page Tuch says:

 “Here, writers can get a deeper sense of the journals by reading reviews of the latest issues. This is not intended as a substitute for the actual journals, but merely a way to guide writers toward the journals that most interest them.”

The site includes a listing of literary and creative nonfiction magazines (with brief descriptions for titles that don’t yet have reviews), a searchable database of reviews, informative interviews with editors from literary magazines, and publishing tips.

But it’s the newsletter that I find most useful. I peruse it and note one or two literary magazines that I want to investigate further, either to read or to put on one of my “submit to lists.”

So, if you write stories that defy genre, or just want to check out the rich landscape of literary magazines, check out this great resource.

* For more about Tuch and her work, check out her interview over on Bustle.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Turkey City Writers' Workshop

Turkey City 2014
I didn’t blog last week because I was preparing for the Turkey City Writers’ Workshop, which happened Saturday, October 18. I found it to be a useful and positive experience. It is also a ton of work. They don’t call them workshops for nothing.

Turkey City has been around since the early seventies, and its participants through the decades are a who’s who of genre writers, especially cyberpunk. This workshop is geared for advanced writers, and is known for its tough love approach. The expectation is that all the attendees have mastered the basic techniques of writing and storymaking. I found this to be the case for the most part. Even the less experienced participants brought material worth discussing, in my opinion.

For the past few years Chris Brown has graciously hosted it in his amazing home. He also participated with an excellent story that sat right at the intersection of genre and literary and wonderfully captured the gestalt of Austin hacker scene.

This year the word limit was 10,000 words, and with twelve people participating, well, you do the math – that’s a lot of preparatory reading. Not everyone turned in a novelette, but since my regular crit group limits pieces to 5,000 words, I did relish the opportunity to submit something longer.

We were six men and six women, and with strong female voices such as Patrice Sarath and Stina Leicht attending, I found the opinions and insights well balanced along gender lines. Anil Menon and Jasmina Tesanovic also provided international and literary perspectives to our pieces. All in all there were plenty of fascinating, quirky, and useful opinions to go around.

Corey Doctorow even stopped in at the after party as he was in town for the Texas Teen Book Festival (which is becoming quite a thing BTW).

I was determined to bring something new to my first Turkey City and worked hard to complete a 9,000-word novelette from a previous fragment. It was pretty green. If I’d had all the time in the world, I would have taken it through one more revision before submitting it to group critique. It got dinged on the things I pretty much expected it would. Elements of the story are a little pat; the characters tend toward types. Subtlety and nuance, for me, tends to blossom in revision. The first pass is usually about setting the storyline and expressing the characters basic traits. (I’m one of those weirdos who likes revising way more than pounding out the first draft.)

I also got some excellent food for thought, especially from Bruce Sterling, who was the idea man of the critique group. He threw out all sorts of alternative scenarios for my story and its characters that really freed up the way I was thinking about it. The novelette is taking a well-deserved rest this week. Next week I’ll pull it apart and revise it and get it out there into the world.



Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Game Plan: Story Structure for Football Season



Telling a story in three acts – or not.
(Bear with me: I'll get to the football soon, promise!)

As a storyteller, the concept of the three-act story form is unavoidable. The idea is particularly popular among screenwriters, and is found in numerous books, featured in lectures, and on countless websites. It is often applied to narrative storytelling regardless of the form. But wait! FILM CRIT HULK presents a counter argument to the idea of the three-act structure in his epic take down, The Myth of the 3 Act Structure:

 HULK HAS NEVER SEEN SOMETHING SO UNHELPFUL BECOME SO WIDELY ACCEPTED. SURE, IT MAKES SENSE AND IS A SIMPLE WAY TO SEE STORIES FROM AFAR, BUT IT’S ALSO SO SIMPLE THAT IT’S TAUGHT TO ELEMENTARY SCHOOL KIDS WHEN THEY’RE FIRST GRASPING THE CONCEPT OF NARRATIVE. AND WHILE HULK ARGUES THAT THE SIMPLE TRUTHS ARE OFT TIMES THE MOST IMPORTANT ONES, THE EXPRESSION OF THOSE TRUTHS SHOULD BE FAR MORE COMPLICATED. AND THE 3 ACT STRUCTURE IS NOT EVEN “A TRUTH.” IT’S A WRITING MODEL ATTEMPTING TO HELP YOU GET AT ONE. SO HULK THINKS THAT HOLLYWOOD COULD MAYBE STAND TO DO A LITTLE BETTER THAN A THIRD GRADE GRASP OF STORY.

Oh, preach it brother! Seriously, read the whole essay.

Of course, Aristotle laid down the foundation of narrative theory in his Poetics where he describes a story as “a whole [that] has a beginning and middle and end.” This is absolutely true, all stories have these three parts in some degree, but I think confusion arises when we conflate the idea that these three parts of the narrative will align with a story’s acts. In other words, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, but they can have any number of acts.


A story should have exactly as many acts as it takes to bring it to completion. That could be five acts or seven or twelve or more. I’m currently writing a short story with two acts (and of course, it still has a beginning, middle, and end).


For a practical guide to narrative structure (and a survey of popular theories of narrative structure including three-act and the Hero’s Journey) read John York’s Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story, which is one of the best books that I’ve read about story structure in, well, maybe ever. * In it, York defines an act as:



“A unit of action bound by a character’s desire.”

THE GAME
Last Monday night, I was sitting on the couch watching the Monday Night Football with one eye (as I do) and thinking about story. Recently, a friend asked me what I found appealing about football. As a writer, I enjoy watching sports because it reduces drama to its essential elements. Two teams take the field, both want to win, only one will. This is conflict in its purest form. When watching scripted dramas, I often get distracted second-guessing what the writer was trying to accomplish, or thinking about how the director’s choices affected the scene. I can’t help myself. While this has its own pleasures, a football game, with its direct conflict overlaid with the commentators’ patter to give a little color to the characters on the field, is just the thing after a long day in the word mines.

It's this no strings attached narrative that draws me in. By observing a football game’s narrative, we can see how its structure contributes to dramatic tension. We can see, with a just few rules to provide a framework, how flexible the parts that form the whole can be.


THE CLOCK

This is the most artificial construct of the game and the most necessary. It’s the running time of a movie, the word count in a short story or novel. Everyone can relate; the Clock itself is a kind of antagonist, ever present, stalking us all to our dying day. The winning team will try to run out the clock. The losing team is playing against, not just the opposing team, but time itself. This arbitrary limitation is the essence of what shapes the game. And it’s time and its limits that shape the stories we tell. But within the constraints of any given time frame there are an infinite number of variations.

THE DRIVE

When a team gets the ball, it tries to score with a series of plays that together form a drive toward the end zone. Like the act, a drive is a unit of action bound by the team’s desire to score. A drive is made up of a series of plays, and an act is made up of a series of scenes. A game can have any number of drives. A drive can end in failure after one broken play or a fumble, or in success with one magnificent Hail Mary pass. A drive can consist of dozens of running plays and short passes, making downs by inches, moving the chains just enough to keep the drive alive. A drive consists of exactly as many or few plays as it needs for the team with the ball to either achieve their goal (touchdown!) or fail (because they couldn’t make enough ground or they turn over the ball).

THE PLAY

Drives are made up of plays just as acts are made up of scenes. Each play is the very soul of conflict, the lines smash together, the linemen try to sack the quarterback, the quarterback sends the ball sailing toward a receiver - will it be caught and held, or fumbled, turned over for a reversal? Scenes are the basic elements of story. The binary code of success/failure that drives narrative.

THE STORY

Each game is bounded by the same rules, but no two games are alike and they can contain any number of plays that make up any number of drives. Yet, each game tells a story, one that we recognize as such on an elemental level. So, when you’re writing, while you know that every story will have a beginning, middle, and end, consider all of the myriad ways that you can travel that road.

 


* and believe me I’ve read more than a few.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The New Novel Plan or I’m Making This Up as I Go Along.

U of Louisville puts entropy to work...
How do you plan a novel? I wish I knew; yet I keep trying. A plan is a comfort even when I know that it is no more than a container. A vessel that I fill with both my dreams and my commitment to chase them, a fragile clay pot to stand against the universe’s inevitable urge to entropy and all the myriad ways that manifests in my everyday life. For more on that go read Pamela Zoline’s Heat Death of the Universe (PDF). 

I was all set to blast through this novel in about three months. The outlining is finished, and I’ve been drafting the new first chapters to work with the material I’d already written. Then, a couple weeks ago I got word that I’ve been invited to attend the Turkey City Writers’Workshop later this fall. I’m thrilled, and I really want to write a shiny new story for it, so that I can get the most out of the workshop.

Yet, I don’t want to completely abandon my novel, so I’m changing my plan. Instead of drafting it at white-hot speed, I’m going to work on it super slowly. I’m going to use the “Don’t Break the Chain” method and write at least 25 minutes – and no more than one hour – a day, every day. This will probably get me about 350-500 words a day. At this pace, I should have a finished draft in about six and a half months. Of course when I get to the other side of this workshop, I’ll decide if I want to change my plan again.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Words Fail Me: Writing the Impossible


Ernest Hemingway said good stories should be like icebergs.

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit the things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
Earnest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon

His theory of omission kicked off an era of minimalism that was a mixed blessing because achieving what he’s talking about takes a level of mastery that few writers attain – not that we shouldn’t try. His instinct to have the heart of the meaning express itself in the unwritten warp and weft of a story has without a doubt enriched modern literature.

Hemingway didn’t say that it was impossible to render the entire iceberg, only that it was better not to. Implicit in this quote is the idea that it’s a writer’s job to take in the whole iceberg. I agree we must try to embrace the entire experience of what we are attempting to write about. In fantasy and science fiction this may mean hours spent building alien worlds, cultures, politics, or magic systems from the ground up before writing. Always, it means being alive to everything and everyone around us.

Despite our best efforts, we are all doomed to failure. We never grasp the entirety of any experience, the layers of nuance, the shades of meaning, the unknown histories. Worse, there is no way to hold onto the fragility of a fleeting moment without etherizing it like a butterfly and pinning it to a display case. A dead butterfly is still a butterfly, but it’s not the same thing that fluttered over the sun-splashed meadow.

Some things are omitted because there is just no way to articulate them. Karen Russell acknowledges this in this gorgeous quote from her wonderful novella * about a strange plague of insomnia so severe that sufferers eventually die:

"Then I wish for whatever is flowing between us to remain unnamed, formless, unmeted into story or ever "experienced" in the past tense, and so concluded; I don't want to say it, I don't even want to try to understand it, and so begin to mistake it for something else, and something else after that, paling shadows of this original feeling, something inaudibly delicate that would not survive the passage into speech."
From Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

Writing is a way to plumb the depths of the unfathomable experience of our existence, and in the end, though we dive deep, it is impossible to know every contour of the submerged iceberg. And as Russell says, some things you can bring back from your journey of exploration and others you cannot.
* You can listen to Russell talk about Sleep Donation on Fresh Air, though I would recommend reading it first.