Who is the narrator? Where and when is the story being told? These are just a few questions a reader may ask at the start of a new story. For many years, third-person has been genre's preferred narrative form, but lately it seems first-person narratives are having a resurgence. How do writers choose their viewpoint, and how does it affect the sorts of stories they can tell? Why is YA so often told in first-person, and epic fantasy generally (but not always!) third? To add another layer of complexity, the present tense also seems to be increasing in popularity -- Lauren Beukes' Zoo City and Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus are just two notable examples. How does the use of present tense change a reader's experience?
Kate Nepveu, Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, Edward Cox, Maureen Kincaid Speller (m)
(I don't know how the order of names is generated on the program list.)
I think the con generally is having a lot of trouble with its available spaces, because this was in one of the smaller rooms and there were likely as many people waiting in line outside hoping to get in as where outside.
I was a little nervous about being on this panel, because look at those other names! But everyone was generous toward other panelists conversationally and it really was a conversation, it was so much fun. (You all know I could talk about point of view and narrators basically forever.)
Maureen had us introduce ourselves in our preferred POV. IIRC, Ed tried third and found it surprisingly difficult; Robin and Pat both used first; and I (who had the advantage of going last) started in first and then switched to third, and ended with "she may or may not be fascinated by unreliability in narration."
We talked about a million things. The limitations of first-person, and how they'd got around it by the frame story in the Kvothe books or the found documents in the first Assassin's trilogy. I talked about floating first and concrete first, where it's never explained how the words get on the page or where a specific mechanism is mentioned. Pat said that floating first will always get the author asked how the words are getting on the page, that someone will care; toward the end, we had a talk about the history of POV in novels that I can't reconstruct now, but that I think came down to the origin of first-person in face-to-face storytelling, was carried through in the frame story idea that was once obligatory and since has been dropped (I met a mysterious stranger who told me this story, I found this manuscript), and it's been recent enough that the obligatory frame story was dropped that people aren't quite accepting of "the words just get on the page somehow, darn it" as the price of admission to that work.
There was the obligatory shout-out to Peter S. Beagle's The Innkeeper's Song, which is multiple-first and brilliant; Pat said it was currently out of print but "I'm going to fix that."
We talked about multiple viewpoints; Pat blamed the sudden explosion of really-multiple-third on A Song of Ice and Fire, but Martin has been honing his craft for decades, new writers are allowed a maximum of three. Also, people try to go right to the action by shifting POVs but that can actually remove suspense. Robin choose POV for the best-situated character and then stayed pretty tight with them, but also employed an omniscient sometimes to show competing understandings of situations and so forth. I mentioned an unpublished friend who generally constructs their multiple-POV book on the theory of "who in this scene knows least," because that allows for dramatic irony and the reader making connections and so forth, and how I'd suggested that maybe at plot or action-heavy moments might be a time to step back from that principle. (But I don't know how they solved it yet because the W is still IP.)
(In terms of cutting to the action, I mentioned _Ancillary Justice_, of course (booklog discussion of POV.))
Uh, what else? We talked about omni with a present narrator and how fun that can be: Catherynne M. Valente's _Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland . . . _; _Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell_; Lemony Snicket. We talked briefly about sex: I observed that romance is generally in third, while "chick lit" is in first, and while I don't know about professionally-published erotica, I don't see a lot of first-person fanfic. I sort of thought this might be because for people who read with themselves in the place of the first-person narrator, there would be too much of a disjoint if a scene was very physical or physically-based emotional, but that was just a theory--which can't account for "chick lit." (Pat had previously said that he made a distinction between character-based stories and plot-based stories, and that the former got first-person and the latter got third, but that he's working on two things now that are in third and follow female characters from his trilogy, and he thought possibly that he instinctively went to third was because they were female.)
Someone in the audience asked about really rare POVs like second-person or future tense; no-one seemed particularly enthused by them, but as writing exercises to stretch your craft, sure.
There was a lot more, but I'm stumped now, and for some reason it's a million degrees where I'm writing this and I desperately need to hydrate before my next panel. If you were there, chime in, and if not, feel free to comment! (Seriously, could talk about this forever.)
Fantasy world-building sometimes comes under fire for its pedantic attention to detail at the expense of pacing or prose style. Do descriptive passages clog up the narrative needlessly, when reader imagination should be filling in the gaps? Where does that leave the landscapes and cultures that are less well represented in the Western genre: can world-building be a tool in subverting reader expectations that would otherwise default to pseudo-medieval Euro-esque? If fantasy is about defamiliarising the familiar, how important is material culture - buildings, furnishings, tools, the organisation of social and commercial space - in creating a fantasy world?
Mary Anne Mohanraj (m), Tobias Buckell, Kate Elliott, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Victoria Donnelly, Ellen Kushner
( notes; some uncomfortable bits about race )
Sofia Samatar recently suggested [*] that SF genre writers and readers have "a tendency to focus on content rather than form", even or especially when engaging with marginalised perspectives. Does our genre inevitably tend towards the form and structure of western, English-language stories, regardless of what cultural tradition(s) are reflected in the content? How can a non-western or non-Anglophone writer engage with science fiction and fantasy while also operating outside of the conventions of western-style storytelling? Is it possible for western writers to engage with non-western traditions in an authentic way and produce a story that a wider audience will recognize as science fiction or fantasy? What are some of the different forms offered by non-western cultures that need to be told?
Amal El-Mohtar, Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, JY Yang, Nick Wood
( notes )
[*] Here's the whiteboard rec list for the African SF panel at Nine Worlds; thanks, shaded_sun!
Authors sometimes say that they started writing because they were looking for a story to read that they couldn't find. What happens when you can't find the story elsewhere and you can't make it either? What fragments do you have sitting around, ideas you wish someone would write for you and plot bunnies that plain up and died on you? Have you ever found something you wanted in a story in other media?
Erik Amundsen (m), Greer Gilman, Sonya Taaffe, Trisha Wooldridge
( notes, including throwings of gauntlets and sketches of plot bunnies )
About to take a draft brief down to its component paragraphs so I can comprehensively rearrange them. It's not quite pulling a Frankenstein on it, because all the pieces are there, just in the wrong order, but I can't think of a better metaphor. What do you call this process, if you call it anything?
(Interestingly to me, I seem to no longer think of the moment when a case comes clear to me as "breaking its back", but as its having "shaken out," kind of like sifting, I think, all the excess nudged away by my backbrain until I see it plain in a sentence or two.)
And that's enough of that.
I subscribe to her blog in Google Reader, however, and the posts are still there. In order to provide context for the discussion surrouding these posts, then, I have copied & pasted the text below and taken screencaps (note: I redid the caps for readability shortly after posting this, which is why the timestamps are later). I have not edited them in any way.
( 32 KB of text )
I've said my piece about the first of these already, and do not feel it necessary to respond to the rest. Therefore, I'd prefer that you use this post as a reference and not a place for discussion. Thanks.
Dear professionally-published authors who despise fanfic of their own works,
So you despise fanfic of your own works. It revolts you on a visceral level. Okay. It would be rude and pointless of me to suggest that you shouldn't have a gut-level emotional reaction, because, after all, it's gut-level. And I may even sympathize or agree with you.
But because you are a thinking being, you get to choose what you do, as opposed to how you feel. And in that respect, I suggest you should do the following:
- Say, "I do not want fanfic of my own works to be written. In any event, it would be unwise of me to read such fanfic, so if any exists, please do not tell me about it.";
- Don't read any fanfic; and
- Sic your publishers on any fanfic of your works that is being published for the fanfic author's own profit (an extremely rare occurence).
Because here's the thing about non-commercial fanfic: you can't stop it.
With regard to the practicalities, fanfic is not, as a category, illegal in the United States. Anyone who says otherwise is misinformed. (A useful resource is the Fair Use Overview of the Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Center; see also this 11th Circuit decision about The Wind Done Gone, "a fictional work admittedly based on Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.") Thus, your legal rights may not be clear-cut with regard to any given story.
(NOTE: I am not hosting a discussion about the legal status of fanfic, because: (1) I've seen more than enough prior instances of it; (2) I don't have time to moderate it; and (3) not to put too fine a point on it, but: I'm right.)
But even if a particular fanfic comes nowhere close to fair use, the Internet is such that—between anonymous posters, pages not indexed by search engines, restricted-access sites, and the like—trying to get and keep that story off the net could be an enormous investment of time and resources on your part, with little guarantee of success. Not only that, but if people hear that you're suing a fan who wrote a non-commercial fic, they're likely to start writing new fanfics in response. I'm not expressing an opinion on the propriety of that, just pointing out that it's a genuine possibility.
More fundamentally, if people are writing fanfic about your works, then their imagination has been sparked by your works; they have been moved by the same impulse to engage with a story that runs through all of human culture. People gossip about their favorite characters; become fascinated by unexplored characters, locations, histories, themes, implications; imagine what would happen next, or if, or instead; and critique every aspect of a work. Sometimes this takes the form of passing in-person conversations, sometimes of blog discussions, sometimes of scholarly works, and sometimes of stories. (Sometimes, even, of critically-acclaimed, award-winning, professionally-distributed stories.) I would be astonished to hear that your own writing never was influenced by this impulse—I say this not to suggest that you've been writing fanfic all along, but to point out the strength and universality of this impulse. (For an eloquent and lengthy discussion discovered just as I was about to hit "post," see Jonathan Lethem's "The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism" from a few years back.)
You can be revolted by the idea of fanfic of your own works. But you are so unlikely to be able to stop it that you are better off saving your time and energy for other pursuits. Put your position on the record as above and then do your best to ignore it.
Finally, I particularly urge you to not revile fanfic on the grounds that much of it contains sex [*], when your own works, first, are full of sex, some of it involving characters not of your own creation, and, second, were inspired in part by Dr. Who. Because not only have you insulted some vocal fans of your books, but you look a bit foolish to boot.
[*] ETA: a response from the author in question.
ETA 2: the author has deleted the posts in question; the text is archived here.
So I'm catching up on This American Life podcasts, still, and I get to a rebroadcast episode from way back in the day, #27, "The Cruelty of Children." Act One is David Sedaris telling a story from his youth and is fine. Act Two is Ira Sher telling a story about how when he was a child, he and some friends found a man trapped in a well and decided not to help him. It was absolutely chilling . . .
. . . and at the end, the host says, oh, just to be clear, that was fiction.
Dear Reader, I was livid. I have only been listening to This American Life for a few months now, and all this time all their stories have been very much not fiction: straight-up investigative journalism, interviews, personal narratives, and so forth. And so I was very much not expecting fiction.
(It was introduced as "a story by writer Ira Sher," which is ambiguous; Sedaris was also introduced as a writer and his section was called "a story." It's clearly labeled fiction in the website summary, where you can listen to the episode, however.)
I point this out not to criticize This American Life, but to caution writers of all kinds: this is the power of reader expectations. Trifle with it at your peril.
Dear Suzanne Brockmann and J.D. Robb,
Please do not call the eyes of people of Asian descent "exotic." "Exotic" means foreign and unfamiliar, and in your present-day and near-future American settings, people of Asian descent are neither.
Very truly yours,
For those unfamiliar, Brockmann writes the Troubleshooters romantic suspense series (booklog); Robb (a.k.a. Nora Roberts) writes the near-future In Death mystery series (booklog). Both are obviously committed to having a diverse cast of characters (particularly Brockmann). I absolutely believe they did not have any racist intent in writing their character descriptions.
And yet Brockmann describes a character in Into the Fire as having "eyes that revealed his part-Vietnamese heritage with their exotically graceful shape," and Robb repeatedly describes a recurring character as having "exotic almond eyes" (to quote the website excerpt of the forthcoming book (PDF)). And every time I see those references, I think to myself, "No, neither I nor my eyes are foreign, thankyouverymuch."
Good intentions are important. But they aren't sufficient.
(Brockmann uses "exotic" about other characters too, ones thoroughly white, at least; I think Robb tends to keep it for foreign things.)
As everyone has said, California's highest court today ruled that "the designation of marriage" must be made "available both to opposite-sex and same-sex couples." I am so happy about this, though my happiness must pale besides that of those more directly affected by the decision.
That decision, by the way, is 172 pages: 121 pages of majority opinion (including 73 footnotes), 40 pages of concurring and dissenting opinions, and 11 pages of administrative stuff (PDF, 500KB). I've only had time to skim the majority opinion (and I am, alas, not the sharpest knife in the drawer at the moment thanks to sleep deprivation), but the only word that comes to mind is "exhaustive." Which—to go off on a tangent—interests me, because there are several different potential audiences for all this exhaustive discourse, and talking to multiple audiences is a tough thing to do.
( legal natter )
Have any of the non-lawyers here ventured into the decision itself? What did you think?
Besides picking carpet for the new library and making appointments for HVAC maintenance and tax preparation (exciting, I know), the concrete parts of last week were mostly ( FutureBaby stuff (daycare visits with religious digression; echocardiogram) )
All these ultrasounds do make me wonder how difficult it was to get medical ultrasounds started, because many of what the doctors and techs call really clear pictures are, to me, grainy blurry blobs. Obviously medical science knew a good deal about anatomy, but it would have no way of telling how any given heart was constructed and thus what, precisely, an ultrasound of said heart was showing—right? And the 2D view of a 3D thing is so odd, especially when the depth changes with a little shift of the wand . . . anyway, learning how to read ultrasounds must've been an interesting process.
* * *
Between the workshop earlier in the month and the brief I drafted after I got back, I've been thinking more than usual about my writing process. There's generally a point when everything suddenly falls into place and the whole case crystallizes into a couple of sentences—which almost always comes later than I'd like [*], but from there, writing is easy (or, at least, no longer like pulling teeth).
Thing is, I think of this as "breaking the back of the case," which I picked up unconsciously from David Henry Hwang's afterword to M. Butterfly. Which is a pretty nasty metaphor, and not that accurate for me either, but it seems to have stuck. Do you all have different metaphors? Does this happen to you when you're writing nonfiction? Fiction?
[*] I wish I could consciously monitor this process, and could therefore determine how much of the time leading up to this moment is actually needed and how much is just plain old procrastination. I'm planning to experiment with consciously shifting my focus from one thing to another, to see if my backbrain will process things in parallel.
* * *
Since I was in the office on Sunday, I took pictures, because I find people's work spaces interesting (also I never got around to posting the ones I took earlier and things have changed slightly since):
Anyone else want to post pictures of their workspaces?
* * *
Finally, a few links:
- Nice Beaver! :: One more zoo picture from Chad.
- Why do writers pretend to be Indians? - By David Treuer - Slate Magazine :: "Sadly, until we break the habit of reading Indian lives as necessarily "Indian tragedies"—and see the shallow types and terrible prose and awkward, tragic poses for what they are—there will be more Indian fakes."
- NPR: It Isn't Rocket Science: How Best to Board a Plane
- "Hollywood's About-Face On Blackface: Is the Broken Taboo a Step Forward or Back?" By Neely Tucker
- Match It For Pratchett :: Help match Terry Pratchett's $1 million ( £500,000 ) donation to Alzheimer's Research.
- Decision of the Day » Blog Archive » Best Case Name Ever :: "U.S. v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins, 05-56294 (9th Cir., March 17, 2008) // Even better: the Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins win."
- Is it possible that a Hummer's better for the environment than a Prius is? - By Brendan I. Koerner - Slate Magazine :: Answer: no.
Oh, okay, really finally: we got forty minutes into Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal on Saturday night before turning it off. Even if we'd realized that it was an OVA edited into a movie, rather than a series, it was violent and choppy and just not what we were in the mood for after a nice dinner to celebrate the good news about FutureBaby.
I see interesting posts (sartorias, papersky) about what writers owe readers on the reading list. That question I have to think about some more (helllllo, really long weekend!), but in thinking about it, I'm struck by the distinction some people are making between what the writer owes the reader and what the writer owes the story.
What is the difference?
Another sucky week here at Chateau Steelypips, so let's talk about writing instead.
Apparently "ten things I know about writing" is going around as a meme. I'm not doing ten, because this is a specific list: ways that writing a legal brief is like writing a work of fiction, as noticed by me in the last couple of weeks.
- Reader expectations.
You must know what your readers expect from you, at pretty much every level of the work—from the way a sentence will proceed, to the way that sections fit together, to the way the work will end. In fiction, you can violate those expectations, but you must know what you're doing so you can make it worth it. In legal writing, violating reader expectations is not recommended, because the consequences of annoying your readers are rather different.
- "Said" words.
In fiction, "said" is invisible as a dialogue tag.
When I got back a draft that replaced every "the court stated" with "the court said," I realized that the same rule applies to non-fiction.
- "I've suffered for my research, and now you must too."
Yes, you did several boatloads of research before starting to write. Yes, you're proud of all the nuances and variations you now comprehend fully. Yes, it was important to have as complete a map as possible of the landscape before starting, because you can't know what path you're going to take without a map.
But once you've picked your path, most of that information becomes entirely superfluous. And you don't get points for including superfluous information, no matter how hard-won it was.
- Other sets of eyes.
People who will keep you from inflicting violated expectations, said-isms, and too much research on your readers? Priceless.