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[process] Dialog tags

Another thing that came up in discussion over the weekend at Cascade Writers was dialog tags. If you’re not familiar with the term, that’s the “said Maryam” that comes at the end of a snippet of quoted dialog. So:

“This is a dialog tag,” said Maryam.

Thanks to the Turkey City Lexicon and several generations of Milford-Clarion style workshopping, we’ve all had ourselves beaten half to death over “said-bookisms“. Speaking verbs, basically. “Said” and “asked” are conditionally invisible. “Replied”, “stated” and so forth are marginal. But words such as “interjected”, “erupted” and of course that old favorite, “ejaculated”, are intrusively strange except in instances of specific stylistic applicability. So:

“This is a said-bookism”, intoned Maryam.

Writers resort to said-bookisms because the two conditionally invisible dialog tags lose their invisibility through overuse. Especially structurally invariant overuse. In other words, tennis match dialog. So:

“Hello,” said Maryam.
“Hi, there,” said João.
“How are you doing?” said Maryam.
“I am fine,” said João.
“May I press you to a candied starfish?” said Maryam.
“No, I am fasting for cultural reasons,” said João.

We don’t like that. Bad style, no biscuit.

Getting around that problem, which is fundamental to the early writings of people educated in English at least (I can’t comment on other languages) is part of the education of a writer. There are several basic techniques.

One is the judicious use of said-bookisms. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional “interjected” or “queried” or something, so long as the word also carries some story weight, and does not draw undue attention to itself. (Note that you get to use the speaking verb “ejaculated” precisely once in your entire professional career, otherwise we will all come to your home and mock you.) So:

“Hello,” said Maryam.
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?” asked Maryam.
“I am fine,” said João.
“May I press you to a candied starfish?” offered Maryam.
“No, I am fasting for cultural reasons,” exclaimed João.

Still pretty stilted, but not quite so irksome as before.

We can also employ variant structure to break up the flow of the text and provide a little more rhythm to the dialog. Varying the structure can also shift the emphasis on individual lines. So:

Maryam said, “Hello.”
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?” asked Maryam.
“I am fine,” João said.
Maryam offered, “May I press you to a candied starfish?”.
“No, I am fasting for cultural reasons,” João exclaimed.

Also pretty stilted, but again, not quite so irksome.

Now we can introduce blocking or action to indicate dialog, further easing the style crunch. So:

Maryam waved. “Hello.”
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?” asked Maryam.
“I am fine.” João smiled.
Maryam held out a small crystal dish. “May I press you to a candied starfish?”.
Hands flying up in apparent panic, João replied, “No, I am fasting for cultural reasons!”

Once we have a flow of dialog established, we can start omitting speaker referents and trust the reader to follow along. So:

Maryam waved. “Hello.”
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?”
“I am fine.”
She held out a small crystal dish. “May I press you to a candied starfish?”.
João’s hands flew up in apparent panic. “No, I am fasting for cultural reasons!”

Even better is dialog where each character’s voice is sufficiently distinctive that the tags aren’t needed except to keep the reader occasionally reminded of who’s got the ball in the serve-and-volley of the dialog. So:

Maryam waved. “Greetings.”
“Yo, dawg,” replied João.
“And how do you find yourself today?”
“Chillin’, not illin’.”
She proffered a small crystal dish. “Might I press you to a candied starfish?”.
“Hell, no! I ain’t eating that shit.”

One of the suggestions I made to my student group at the conference was to write a scene between a crusty, retired professor of classics from some major university in New York City riding in a taxi with a youthful recent Somali immigrant cab driver. After some basic blocking and character setting, you really shouldn’t have to tag that dialog at all. The differences in generations, cultural perspective and speech register should provide ample distinction.

For a bonus, write that scene twice, once from the cab driver’s perspective, and once from the professor’s perspective. What kinds of things does the cab driver notice and look for? What kinds of things does the professor notice and look for? How can you work those into dialog?

Your thoughts?

[writing|process] Don’t give me those hand-me-down shoes; or, the virtues of manuscript formatting

One topic that comes up fairly often when I’m working with aspiring writers is the subject of standard manuscript format. New writers are often puzzled as to why this is important, while established professional writers are so accustomed to the concept that they tend to not even think about. It’s one of this things that feels kind of stupid and arbitrary, and often seems baffling to people just beginning their encounters with the magical fairyland that is publishing.

Well, it is kind of stupid and baffling. But that’s the way things work.

Here at Cascade Writers this weekend, I hit on an analogy which seemed to help explain why.

When you go for a job interview, you fix your hair and put on a nice pair of shoes. Outside of consumer facing retail or front desk work, not all that many jobs actually require good hair and nice pair of shoes in order to perform your job functions. For example, most programmers I know work in cargo shorts and sandals and t-shirts, and you’re lucky they’re wearing clothes. Yet even most of them fixed their hair and put on a nice pair of shoes when they interviewed. Likewise, I don’t really care what my plumber is wearing so long as I don’t have to think about their anatomy while they’re working.

The reason you dress like this for a job interview is fairly clear. You want the interviewer to focus on your qualifications for the job. You don’t want them wondering if you slept in the bed of a pickup truck last night. The purpose of fixing your hair and wearing nice shoes to make your personal presentation transparent within the context of the social standards of job interviewing process. You are removing distractions.

So it is with standard manuscript format. The manuscript is not the story. At best, it’s a tool for transmitting a version of the story from the writer to the reader. In this case, the editorial reader. If you follow standard manuscript format, your manuscript is functionally invisible, and all the reader sees is the story. You don’t want them wondering why the heck you used Zapf Chancery for the font, or glancing at the sweet kittens at the top of your lavender letterhead. The purpose of standard manuscript format is to make your story’s presentation transparent within the context of the professional standards of the editorial process. You are removing distractions.

And yes, if you’re a brilliant enough writer, you can submit something written in crayon on butcher paper and get it published. Just like if you’re a brilliant enough whatever, you can get a job in your field even if you show up to the interview hung over and decked out in bad skag. But why create the distraction?

Standard manuscript format brings the focus in sharply on the story. Exactly where you want it.

[process] Believing one impossible thing before breakfast

I’m working on critiques for an upcoming workshop at which I am pro’ing. A couple of times in the course of reading these manuscripts I’ve been moved to make an observation that I’ve heard before in genre fiction circles, but honestly don’t recall the source of. Basically, this:

When writing SF/F, you get one impossible thing for free. Everything else you have to earn.

Put another way, you can’t make everything up. Generally speaking, stories have to have enough grounding in the naturalistic world for the reader to relate to them. (There are of course always brilliant exceptions to this and every other rule of writing, but they’re damned tough to pull off.) Likewise, if you’re going to ask the reader to swallow something huge and improbable, a bunch of sweet reason can help it go down.

It’s clear enough this rule isn’t literally true. Plenty of science fiction comes with FTL travel, strong AI and teleporters all at the same time, for example. But in a sense, those are all one thing. Say, the starship Enterprise.

But if you want the full starship package and vampires for the crew, you’d better make me believe in what you’re doing. Because I can buy the starship thing. That’s one of our tropes, what Gardner Dozois calls “the furniture of science fiction”. And I can buy the vampire thing if you’re writing urban fantasy or horror.

But vampires in space is a real (if interesting) stretch. I mean, what about that whole sunlight thing? (And for that matter, what happens to werewolves who go on a lunar expedition?) Vampires on a starship… Now you’ve added too many impossible things. Unless of course you’ve earned it within the story through world building or character or plot.

The other end of this phenomenon is what John Scalzi calls “The Flying Snowman“, where the impossibilities are all being accepted until the suspension of disbelief is shattered by something that goes too far over the top. I believe this is just the same principle written from the opposite direction.

So, yeah. You get one impossible thing for free. That comes on credit from me, the reader. Everything after that had better make sense, at least within the internal consistency of the story being told.

[process] Filling the pool on the way down

Yesterday I finished the first draft of a story called “Grindstone”. 5,000 words of very melancholy steampunk. The requirement had been to write something about automatons or airships. So I did both.

When I sat down to start typing this past Monday, I opened the file and typed one sentence.

Blood always rusts the springs in my hand.

I had pulled this out of the air. It didn’t mean anything yet. It had no context. There was no title. I was just typing.

So I typed another sentence.

Other people’s blood, to be specific.

At least now I knew whose blood it wasn’t. And I had a wry tone to my character. So I’d begun to define the classic character in a setting with a problem, minus the setting thus far.

After that I typed a paragraph. Still pulling things out of the air, mind you.

It’s cold up here on the fly deck where I am cleaning my weapons. There is nothing around us but empty sky, stretching to the horizons and beyond. The good airship Entwhistle is two days and more from the nearest friendly port given our current heading and the nature of the winds in this airband. I can hear her engines straining slightly. They are running under just enough load to give them a workout without redlining. Which is good, because the rest of this vessel is about to fall through the sky, carrying us all with it.

(This is the straight first draft, by the way.)

At that point, I still didn’t know what the story was about, not in the slightest, but I had a little direction. I’d set my pins because now I had character, setting and problem, along with some implied action. It occurred to me that the story’s title was “Grindstone”, though I didn’t know why that was true, either. Then I typed about another page and finished the day at 300 words with a story stub.

Tuesday I sat down to write sgain. A second POV character presented herself immediately. She was watching Entwhistle dock, which gave me an opportunity to describe the airship from an external perspective. She had her own problems, every bit as severe as my first POV character’s. It was decidedly non-obvious to me how these problem sets were linked, or how I was going to resolve either of them. By the end of that writing day, I had produced another 2,000 words.

Wednesday I once more sat down to write. I had 2,300 words, didn’t know where I was going, and was aiming for 5,000 words. An hour and a half later, including various interruptions, I had 5,000 words with a fitting resolution that surprised me. I didn’t know until the last couple of pages how it was going to all come out. I did find a very good way to use the grindstone concept in the middle, and it paid out at the end as well. The story needs some more attention, though so far my first readers have liked the piece.

Short stories almost always work this way for me. I start out with a nugget of an idea, sometimes as little as a single word or a simple concept. In this case, the nugget was “steampunk story about automatons and airships”, plus those first two sentences, which I had utterly pulled out of thin air. I’ve jumped off the high board over an empty pool. I then begin filling the pool with water on the way down, so that when I land, the ending makes a proper splash. Or at least a proper enough splash that it can be fixed on revision.

It used to really bother me that I write this way. That’s almost the ultimate in following the headlights. Short stories for me really are almost the same as free writing. Ruth Nestvold used to say I didn’t write stories, I channeled them. And the way I do this matches almost no one’s advice on how to write short stories. But it works. In my own opinion, I’m a better short story writer than I am a novelist; in novels, I more or less follow the generally accepted guidelines on how to write.

My point is, it doesn’t matter how you get to the other end of the manuscript. There’s tons of advice out there. Some of it is even from me. But it doesn’t matter how you get there. It only matters that you get there. Hopefully in a way that is satisfying to you and produces a good narrative, but any finished story is by definition better than an unfinished story. (Exceptions include Ted Chiang and Howard Waldrop.) Because once you can and do finish a story, you can use that story as a tool to learn how to write a better story next time.

For me, it’s filling the pool on the way down. Writing short stories is a leap of faith. Very nearly literally so. Even now, having written something like 500 first draft short stories over the past twelve years, I’m still surprised every time I land.

[process] Creativity comes in all shapes and sizes

I’ve been mulling over some other aspects of my delightful weekend at World Steam Expo. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot since that convention about how the creative process works for differently for people in different creative fields, and in turn, how that might inflect my own writing.

Watching the League of S.T.E.A.M. from up close was fascinating. Likewise talking to members of Abney Park and Steam Powered Giraffe, as well as watching the other bands, troupes and performers there.

In simple terms, what I saw was creativity expressed as a tightly interactive process.

The creativity of writers of print fiction is very much an internal pursuit. We work alone, usually in privacy. Even writers who collaborate generally do that serially rather than through face-to-face interaction. (As I understand it, this happens differently for the script writing staff of television shows, so it follows that the solitary work pattern is not universally true of writers. Journalism, to mention another counterexample, is arguably an interactively collaborative process in another sense.) Creativity runs silent and deep for people who write novels and short stories and poetry.

By contrast, the creativity of actors, at least in the context I saw at World Steam Expo, was absolutely a participative, iterative process. The League of S.T.E.A.M. were in character much of the time, even when they were not out in public. When not in character, they were thinking and talking about character, or performance, or script, or costuming, or props. They live their parts, moving in a literal swarm of multidimensional creativity. Likewise some of the other performers. I never saw Spine from Steam Powered Giraffe out of his makeup all weekend.

As a writer, I live my parts, the stage being inside my head. But that stage and its creativity are contained between the privacy of mind and the interface between my fingers and my keyboard. Like I said, a profoundly internal pursuit.

I found myself feeling very envious of the League of S.T.E.A.M., of the other performers and musicians. Watching that ongoing performance and creative exploration made me wish fiction writers could work collectively. It made me wonder what fiction writers could do if they did work collectively.

What would it be like to pull half a dozen writers together in big room and actively, verbally brainstorm a story from conception to completion? Sure, we sit around and talk about ideas sometimes. Sure, we consult one another on technical or plot details. But what would it be like to live our way through that process? Participatively, iteratively.

It’s not that I think the current process of writing is broken. I don’t, not at all. It’s just that I received a glimpse into a different process. It’s a new toy, and I’d love to try that out.

[process] Reality, realism and synchronicity

Sometime this past week (it’s all something of a blur now), I was having a conversation about realism in fiction. I think this was with @madge707. We weren’t talking about realism as a literary movement, but rather the more plain meaning of the word. Specifically, the balance between enough detail and too much detail.

As they say, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. It’s simply not possible. Someone with special knowledge is going to be a much more critical reader of fiction in their knowledge domain. The amount and precision of medical information I would have to put into a short story about doctors in order to satisfy a medically-trained reader is far greater and more demanding than what I would have to put in to satisfy a general reader. On the other hand, there are a lot of doctors and nurses and med techs and so forth out there, so this is probably worth getting right.

Another example of this is a short story I read some years ago, possibly in a Writers of the Future volume. In it, the protagonist is time traveling, and flips through a series of historical vignettes. At one point, the arrive atop a yurt in Genghis Khan’s horde, and climb down the central tent pole to take some action. This threw me out of the story, first of all because “yurt” is a Russian word, and to Mongolians, it’s a “ger”. Second of all, gers don’t have a central tent pole. They have a pair of offset poles supporting a central ring. Why do I know this? Because I’ve spent time in Outer Mongolia, including visiting and sleeping in actual Mongolian gers. However, this is a knowledge domain that I share with about seven of the people who ever read that story.

One of the challenges of being a writer is knowing where to set that dial. When does reality trump realism? Sometimes the actual details really are less believable than the fictional details.

The example that had generated the conversation was that @madge707 was working on a story about a San Francisco police detective. In the SFPD, detectives are titled as “inspectors”. Someone in her critique group at the conference was confused by this, not realizing this bit of San Francisco detail. So the question was, did she go for the reality, which was confusing, or the realism, which was erroneous. (Obviously, there are fairly simple ways to resolve this, it’s just an example.)

I provided a similar example from living in Portland. While Portland has a police department, just like virtually every other city or town in the United States, the Portland police department is formally known as the Portland Police Bureau. (The fire department is the Portland Fire Bureau, etc.) I’m not even sure most people in Portland realize this. It’s not prominently painted on the police cars or anything. Almost certainly no one outside Portland knows this unless they have special Portland knowledge. So, as I said to @madge707, if writing about crime in Portland, would it be confusing to refer to the Police Bureau, or the PPB? Because that would look odd to most American readers, who expect the term “Police Department”.

A couple of days later, I’m reading Mark Teppo‘s excellent and gripping novel LightbreakerPowells | BN ] (which I have since left on an airplane, forty pages from the end, grrr) and what do I find but a reference to the Portland Police Department, being used by a character who is a cop from the Seattle Police Department. The reference is in initial caps, i.e., the proper name, which is of course, not correct. Something the character in question would absolutely know better than to do, insofar as real life goes.

I cracked up hard.

Ah, the magic of synchronicity.

[process] My copy editor comments in response

Kalimpura‘s copy editor and I have had a very nice email exchange arising in response to my recent post about copy edits and manuals of style. [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ] With their kind permission, I am reprinting excerpts from that email exchange here, as I found it pretty interesting.

On eccentric spelling issues:

I thought I’d share a little bit about how British/Canadian spellings can come across to a copy editor.

Basically, the first time I see words like “storey” and “colour,” I’m on alert wondering if the author just went English for a second or what else might be going on. It gets harder again, when later “flavor” and “harbor” might go by as is. (And I’m not even sure why, or if the author has a strong reason why “colour” and “neighbor” might inhabit the same sentence.) Textually, it can read like the narrative has mysteriously decided to affect a brief accent that is just as quickly dropped again. At this point, I am noting what the prevailing style is and if there perhaps might be some narrative logic to a quick switch in voice/dialect/geography—yet only for certain words.

I don’t greatly prefer American over British spelling, and have had no problem when enough of the latter crops up, then going back and reconciling grey, kerb, spiralling, harbour, draught, neighbour, til, and so forth–all in. Before the tipover point, I’m writing down hundreds of words and instances in my notes, work that’s often needless when it turns out the author just quickly tried out a dialect and backed off from it. Those hours never feel wasted, just part of the job.

I am thinking that where many, many readers (and editors) see/hear an inconsistent regionalism in what an author spells, the author might just be trying to encode a quick flavor of nostalgia, sprinkled where they most prefer it with a spelling device. That’s the point at which the author’s stet is so stylistically priceless.

In my case, when I do this, I am trying to convey a flavor with certain spellings. So, “storey”, “despatch” and “draught”, for example. It looks right for what I’m wanting to do in the book. I’m not deliberately being Anglophilic or otherwise, just working within a certain context that feels right to me.

They go on to say:

I’m glad you’re keen on preserving your intentions when they might be invisible to someone farther along in the process. With 900 books behind me, I’ve witnessed that most often textual quirk is not the result of care or deliberation, but accident and inattention, and now and then forgotten indecision. You do your best as a CE to come across as an aide-de-camp rather than an adversary, giving the author more YES/NO choices than they might first have had in mind. Maybe 1 percent of authors are as good about process and design as you are (no lie), which makes the mighty stet such a blessing for everyone involved in the making of the best book possible.

I appreciated the kind words, but that’s also an important point. The copy editor has to distinguish between auctorial intention and textual errors, generally with very little context to work from. In my response to them, I mentioned that I had developed a stylesheet for the Sunspin books, to address certain items of usage and so forth. My copy editor replied:

A style sheet specific to each title could be helpful for you and for the other hands and eyes involved in the next books, sure.

Noting points of usage and style is valuable, as is delineating the reason and pattern behind, say, the narrative “speaking” in “storey” and “draught” but not “dialled” and “programme,” for example. Sharing your overarching scheme helps immensely and aids the CE with the gist of your spelling gimmicks and similar storytelling choices.

On the other hand, if it’s just as much of a time sink to create a comprehensive style sheet as it is to click “reject change” later on, then I’d say put the time in at whatever point in the process you can best spare it: front or back.

I’m increasingly coming to believe that an author-generated stylesheet can be critical. Of course, I only know what a stylesheet is from experience with prior copy edits. I don’t believe I’m free to share those here, as they are Tor’s work product, but at the bottom of this post, I’ll append part of my Sunspin style sheet as an example, since at this point that’s still my own work product.

A bit later, I received a third email from my copy editor, adding another interesting comment.

[S]omething else that might be valuable if you’re continuing to write in genres that use sometimes exalted, formal, studious, or ceremonial speech between characters is to let the CE know that despite the tone, you’re purposely leaving out the “whom” or similar constructions in either the dialogue or running text. A careful CE is generally trying to extrapolate and fill in from a mosaic of other hints–if you have an issue that contrasts rather than coheres, that’s the sort of thing to flag.

I want to thank my copy editor for their frankness, and their willingness to be quoted herein. And also for the terrific copy edit.


Sunspin stylesheet notes follow. In addition to these explications of usage, I have lists of people and place names, as well as a list of starship names. I still need to create a list of nonstandard words in deliberate use.

Titles or ranks are capitalized when they are part of names or used in direct address in lieu of a name. They are uncapitalized when being referenced without the name or otherwise in indirect use. These include father, father superior, sergeant, lieutenant, lieutenant-commander, commander, captain, admiral, baron, count, earl, duke, prince and princess. The only exceptions are Before, Library, Interlocutrix, Patriarch and Imperator, which are always capitalized, even in their adjectival forms. (“Before” does not have an adjectival form.)

The prefix “go” when applied to an officer’s rank (i.e., Go-Captain Alvarez) is specific to the Navisparliamentary service, and is reserved for those officers trained and certified for starship command. Note that some starship captains do not have a “go” prefix. These are either captains from outside the Navisparliamentary service (i.e., Captain Kinman), or more rarely, Navisparliamentary officers in a command role without the formal certification. The “go” prefix may be omitted in casual address, much as lieutenant colonels are often referred to simply as “colonel”.

The suffix “praetor” when applied to an officer’s rank (i.e., Lieutenant-Praetor Shinka) is specific to the Imperatorial Guards (also sometimes referred to as the Household Guards — the two terms are interchangeable). “Praetor” is reserved for those officers permitted to carry weapons in the Imperator’s presence, or to command troops carrying weapons in the Imperator’s presence. The “praetor” prefix may be omitted in casual address, much as lieutenant colonels are often referred to simply as “colonel”.

Starships are always formally referred to with their pair count, so “Third Rectification {58 pairs}” in narrative or written references, but “Third Rectification, fifty-eight pairs” in dialog. This formal reference should be used the first time a starship’s name is introduced in narrative or dialog, but can be omitted in immediately subsequent uses. If the starship is not referred to for a while, the reintroduction of the name should again be with the formal reference on initial occurrence.

Note that both Third Rectification and Joyous Strength have varying pair counts within the manuscript of Calamity of So Long a Life. This is because of the new pair master built at NSN.411-e. AA. Characters unaware of the return of the two starships will refer to them by their previous pair counts, Third Rectification {58 pairs} and Joyous Strength {21 pairs}. Characters who have become aware of their returns will refer to them as Third Rectification {59 pairs} and Joyous Strength {22 pairs}. This creates an apparent inconsistency in the text, as for much of the book, not everyone is aware of their return, so both references are being used. However, any given character will be consistent according to their knowledge of the situation.

Polite address for persons without title or rank is “Ser” or “Sera”. This corresponds to “Sir” or “Ma’am”, and also to “Mr.” or “Mrs./Ms./Miss”. However, in a very few cases the older, archaic forms of address are used, exclusively by Befores, and usually under stress or in a moment of thoughtlessness. Likewise, a common expletive is “hells”, except for the Befores who will often use the older, singular form. (I.e., “what the hells?” vs “what the hell?”)

This culture does not make a strong distinction between the name of a star and the name of the primary inhabited planet in any given solar system. Hence “Salton” for both the star and the planet. Often the star will have a different name or survey number for technical or scientific use, but in Calamity of So Long a Life this rarely occurs explicitly in the text.

In starship operations, generally speaking a “cruise” is a voyage between destinations which or may not include multiple distinct transits between pair masters. A “transit” is more specifically the process of traveling between any two pair masters. This language is not used with precision, and so there may be occasional inconsistencies depending on the speaker, dialect or stylistic concerns of the text.

[process] Copy edits and manuals of style

I am currently more than halfway through the copy edits of Kalimpura, recently received back from Tor. The manuscript is actually pretty clean, and the copy editor’s queries are both minimal and very much to the point. I’m going to assume this is a good thing, though as [info]calendula_witch recently said to me in a related context, she feels like she’s cheating when she receives a clean manuscript to work on.

However, one thing that has always baffled me is why fiction publishers use manuals of style for copy editing manuscripts. In my case, per the abbreviated notation in the style sheet that accompanied my copy edit, M-W 11th, Chicago 15th, Words into Type, and Garner’s Modern American Usage.

I do understand why some aspects of house style are important, such as getting the ellipses and em dashes correct. That’s a book design and typesetting thing. For example, the style sheet says the following:

em-dashes:
“Use this form—” When an action. “—interrupts the speech.”
“Use this form”—when an action occurs simultaneous to speech—“without interrupting it.”

Okay. Fine with me. This is how Tor wants their books to look. Hooray! I’m not a book designer, and I certainly didn’t embed any punctuation geekery in the manuscript I turned into them.

But on usage and spelling…? Fiction is in one important sense all about voice. And there’s a lot of changes that get made in the copy edit that I have to stet. There are certain archaic or non-standard spellings I favor. “Storey” for “story” when describing buildings. “Dreamt” instead of “dreamed”. “Til” instead of “till”. All of which get carefully amended to the current standard written usage, and all of which I just as carefully stet back to my original.

Don’t even get me started on the that/which distinction. The rule about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses is a piece of prescriptivism demonstrably at odds with the way people actually use those words, and I personally will deliberately stray from the rule for the sake of smoothness of the reading. (i.e., not creating a clunky string of serial uses of “that” or “which”)

Likewise “who” and “whom”. I know the difference perfectly well, thank you. But almost no one uses “whom” in casual speech, so in dialog my characters don’t, unless they’re the sort of personality who would be either that formal or that persnickety. Also, “they/their” for third person gender indeterminate is a very common usage dating back hundreds of years in English, and really doesn’t need to be corrected.

Oh, and comma splices, I loves me some comma splices when I’m writing fiction. So what? It’s my voice.

Fiction isn’t formally correct, and it shouldn’t be. It should reflect the author’s voice. I can write very formally when I need to. I do it all the time for business writing in the Day Jobbe (though that has its own usages and quirks). I also do some legal writing in the Day Jobbe (disclaimer: I am not an attorney and I do not practice law, I do, however, routinely draft certain contract provisions for our Legal department to review), as well as some technical writing that is distinct from my business writing. I even occasionally do marketing writing there, though less often than I used to. Each of those forms has their distinct speech register, expected norms of usage, and formalisms.

The really great thing about fiction is that you get to craft your own speech registers, your own norms of usage, and your own formalisms. While I definitely need to be internally consistent in style and usage within the text (though I can readily imagine exceptions even to that statement), I don’t need to be consistent to formal usage, so long as I remain clear and comprehensible.

So I’m always puzzled about why publishers instruct copy editors to round off all the interesting bits.

[process] Slamming the doors on your spaceship

I have this whole theory about the non-normative nature of the science fiction genre and its transformational narratives. Luckily for you, I’m not going to talk about that in this blog post. Not much, at any rate. (Ask me some other time.) A somewhat more plain-English way of articulating one of the key concepts behind that theory is to say that most of us read science fiction to experience something meaningfully different than what we find in our everyday lives.

One of the signature fillips in the original Star Trek was the doors on the starship Enterprise. It’s hard to remember this now, but when Star Trek went on the air in 1966, those automatic doors we’re all so used to at every grocery store and whatnot basically didn’t exist. The bridge doors sliding open and shut with a “schmuck” sound behind Shatner’s every entrance were very, very strange. Different. A simple signifier of a bold, new world. (We saw an attempt to recapture that sensibility in Deep Space Nine with those weird rolling cogwheel doors.)

Different.

In a similar vein, a very common narrative trope in science fiction is that future spaceship operations will have their roots in naval tradition. So, for example, almost all spaceship or starship crews seem to follow naval or merchant marine ranks. Ships have “hatches” instead of “doors”, “decks” instead of “floors”, which is often reflected in science fiction usage. Less often but still common are usages such as “overhead” for “ceiling”, “bulkhead” for “wall” and “passageway” for “hallway” or “corridor”. This is both part of how we’ve been trained to think about spaceships in our narratives, and part of making things in the narrative feel just a little different, an echo of the frisson we got from the original Star Trek‘s bridge design.

Lately I’ve been doing a fair amount of workshop critique reading for various events, and as happens anytime one reads a number of manuscripts, certain coincidental trends emerge. In this case, it’s writers setting stories on space stations or spaceships where the interior fittings are described with common architectural terminology. This bothers me vaguely based on my lifelong training as a genre reader, as well as the sensibilities I’ve evolved as a genre writer these past two decades and more.

I really can argue this both ways quite readily. Part of the challenge of making the unfamiliar feel real in fiction is leaving in enough bits of naturalistic reality that the reader can follow along with the adjustments in reality that the story offers. (Oddly, [info]the_child and I were discussing precisely this point a day or two ago in a slightly different context.) This is the source of that piece of genre writerly folk wisdom that says you get to do one impossible thing for free in your story. If you change everything at once, the story becomes incomprehensible.

In other words, having people on spaceships live in rooms and open doors and walk down halls and stare at the ceilings keeps the reader from being distracted by wondering what the hell an “overhead” is, when that’s not the point of the story. At the same time, people who live in rooms and open doors and walk down halls and stare at the ceilings may as well be hanging around in my house. It doesn’t feel different.

And different is what science fiction is all about.

Still, I can forgive this in pursuit of the story. Every writer has their own vision of how the narrative should flow. Every writer’s vision evolves.

But I really, truly draw the line at slamming the doors on your spaceship. That whole concept is so predicated on contemporary Western interior design, and echoes strongly of teen tantrums and relationship spats. It makes all the sense in the world in a romance novel taking place in a naturalistic contemporary setting for the protagonist to slam a door. That’s an emotional signifier and a familiar action. But damn it, I want my spaceship doors to go “schmuck”, or dilate, or hiss gently into the walls, or dematerialize, or at the least clang ponderously. I don’t want them to be slammed.

There’s a fine line between the familiar and the banal. For good science fiction to work, you really need to keep on the right side of it. Otherwise you’re missing the whole point of the genre, methinks.

Do the doors slam on your spaceship?

[writing|process] And then I passed the top step…

I finished the first draft of Their Currents Turn Awry this past Monday. Ever since then my brain has been nagging me. “Why aren’t we writing? Why aren’t we writing?”

It’s like running up the stairs and stepping wrong because you tried to keep going upward past the top step.

This almost always happens to me after I finish drafting a novel. For some reason, the sensation has been very strong this week. I know from experience that it’s a bad idea to view this phenomenon as a form of momentum and try to keep writing. The writer brain must be allowed to reset and recalibrate.

Still, why aren’t we writing?

[process] Do we need Sauron and Voldemort?

A day or two ago, I asked the question on this blog, “Do we need Sauron and Voldemort”? By which I meant, do we as writers need strong antagonists to make a story compelling?

Obviously, that’s a storytelling modality that works very well. One can hardly argue with the commercial success of either Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Either of those series probably moves more books in any given month than I’ll sell in my entire publishing life.

Humans, or at least humans living in the storytelling and cultural traditions of the West, have a strong affinity for dualism. Perhaps we’re all birthright Manichaeans. The simplicity of moral contrast, of a binary choice, appeals strongly to us. Many people distrust nuance in ethics, in morality, in politics, in law. There’s something very comforting about a simplistic good-vs-evil dynamic. You know who the “us” are, and you know who the “them” are. And certainly in both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, that is unambiguous on the page.

Yet there’s a gentleman down in New Mexico who’s shifted more than a few million books writing about a world where the good guys aren’t very good, and most of the bad guys have mixed or even noble motives. Kind of like real life, where everyone is a protagonist, a hero of their own story. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has proven in a big, big way that you don’t need stark moral dualism to sell well. Damned near everything in those books is ambiguous. There is still a decidedly strong moral dimension. It’s just ambiguous and complex to the point of being non-Euclidean.

So I think about my own work in this context. Most of my books don’t have clear-cut, central antagonists. (Well, maybe none of them do.) My plots tend toward one of two models — the hero(es) opposed by a shifting collage of shadowy forces; or a set of interlocking protagonists with conflicting goals. I like what I write. Bluntly, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t write it. But I don’t write like Tolkien or Rowling. Or Martin, for that matter.

I write like Jay Lake. And Jay Lake is a guy who sees the world as complex and nuanced, and largely filled with people who think they’re trying to do the right thing, even if too many of us cannot see the consequences of our own actions and beliefs for what they really are. (Yes, that’s a not-very-veiled reference to contemporary American politics, but it also really is how I see the world in general.) So I write fiction where the world is complex and nuanced. I don’t think I could write a Sauron or a Voldemort. I just don’t believe in pure evil for evil’s sake, any more than I believe in pure good for good’s sake.

So, no towering antagonists for me. Which makes me wonder about Sunspin, which is decidedly in the vein of interlocking protagonists. Much as the precursor novel Death of a Starship was. It also makes me wonder about my sales figures. Am I really writing stories people want to read? Or am I doing it wrong?

What do you think? Do we need Sauron and Voldemort? Or does George R.R. Martin have the right of it? Where do you fall as a reader? Where do you fall as a writer?

[process] Writing without thinking

Yesterday I happened to be in the car as OPB broadcast the Canadian variety magazine show Q. The segment I heard included a reprise of an interview with jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins. In the interview, Rollins talked about playing without thinking, about how when he was really playing his best he was sometimes surprised at what came out, and he didn’t consciously consider it. He and the interviewer talked about how you needed to practice and acquire the basic skills to do something before you could begin immersing yourself in the activity unthinkingly.

That struck me as pretty interesting.

I remember when I first learned to drive an automobile. It seemed impossible to keep track of all the elements at once. I had to think about the accelerator, the brake, the clutch; remember to check my mirrors; flick the turn signal on and off; keep track of the gas and watch for the idiot lights; plan my turns; think hard about parking in any form, whether head-in, head-out or parallel; and a host of other, less urgent issues like where I was going, what the posted traffic control signage said, and so forth. All this long before doing the important stuff like tuning into good music on the radio or cruising through the fast food drive through. It was overwhelming.

These days, after having been on the roads for over thirty years, i get into an automobile and go somewhere without thinking about it at all. Driving has become practically an autonomous process. Conscious thought intrudes if I’m driving to an unfamiliar destination, or in a different state where some of the traffic laws might be different (like right turn on red), or am otherwise introducing a novel element. But even then, once I’ve dealt with the new situational element once or twice, it becomes part of my autonomous process as well.

So with writing.

I can remember in 1990 or 1991 when I first got serious about writing, with the Slug Tribe back in Texas. I had an enormous problem for a while with control of tense. Stories would start out in simple past, wander into present tense and back into past without rhyme or reason. I can remember being very frustrated about how I could possibly keep track of the difference.

Sort of like being frustrated about having two feet and three pedals when driving a car.

These days, I still sometimes write stories that shift tense, but always for a reason. And that reason is (almost) never a conscious decision. It just feels right when I do it. I can’t even analyze it when I’m doing it — if I tried, I’d screw up. The practice of writing has become increasingly autonomous for me. Unconscious. Unthinking.

And very rightly so.

This means that when I want to add something new to my bag of tricks, or sharpen an existing skill, I can focus on that without worrying about juggling the rest of the balls. Just like driving to a new destination. I may be concerned about where to turn, but I long ago learned how to turn.

This also means that most of the time when I’m writing, I doing it the way Sonny Rollins described. I’ve mastered enough of the skills that I can focus on the practice without conscious attention. I think athletes call this “being in the zone”. I’ve also heard this referred to as “unconscious competence.”

It’s pretty cool to think about. How far are you along the process of unconscious competence in your writing?