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Earning/Maintaining a Reader’s Trust: Starting a Story with Cultural Touchstones, Narrative Voice, and Precision (part 1 of 3)


I mentioned last week about how I’ve been on a spy fiction kick recently, and all of the deceptions and double-crosses have left me thinking quite a bit about trust in fiction. Because really, every piece of fiction is a lie. And yet when we sit down to enjoy it, we’re willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt and offer some modicum of trust (on credit, of course). And this begs the question: why? How do writers earn that trust, and how can we manipulate it?

NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series of posts. This post is focused on initially gaining a reader’s trust with a story’s opening. On Saturday, I’ll post I posted the second installment focusing on how world-building, consequential plotting and story structure affect reader trust. And on Tuesday I’ll post I posted the final installment, focusing on character consistency and narrator/character reliability.

Reader Trust as the Foundation of Fiction

The act of reading is an act of profound trust: without ever articulating it, the reader tells us that they will approach our words as truth in order to derive some benefit (catharsis, enlightenment, etc.) at the end of the story. Coleridge called this a willing suspension of disbelief, and while I know many people have a problem with that phrase, I’ve always really liked it. When we read a story, we are giving the author the benefit of the doubt: we’re not scoring points and indicating every falsehood the author tells us. Instead, we’re accepting the author’s lies fiction at face value because we believe that at the story’s conclusion, the experience will have been worth it.

This trust is not automatic. Nor is it easy. Reading a story takes effort, and some (Italo Calvino, say) take more effort than others (Dan Brown). In speculative fiction, this trust is even more important because we ask more of our readers. When reading secondary world fantasy or far-future science fiction, the reader needs to internalize our world-building. To be immersed in our imagined environment takes more investment on the part of the reader (more new words to remember, more fictional context to internalize). When reading a locked-room mystery, the reader inherently trusts that everything will be explained at the story’s end. If the reader is to be emotionally invested in a character, they must trust that the character’s actions have meaning and consequence.

Trust is what gets the reader to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, to turn the page, and to read the next chapter. The reader needs to have confidence that the author will make their journey worthwhile: the moment they lose that confidence, the book gets put down and (at best) forgotten.

Reader Psychology, Reader Trust and Writer Control

Reader trust is only partially in the writer’s control. A reader’s willingness to trust an author is based partially in their own psychology, and partially in the writing itself. Obviously, a reader is likely to cut a much-loved author more slack than someone brand new to them. That’s because the author has built up a pre-existing level of trust, even if the text itself does not engender that trust. For example, I slogged through most of China Miéville’s Kraken despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy it because on past experience I trusted Miéville to make it worth the effort in the end. When the book didn’t satisfy, my level of trust in the author for subsequent books decreased (although so far Embassytown has been undoing the damage). Short of only writing books that don’t suck, there is nothing a writer can do about this: there will always be readers new to our books, so I figure it’s best not to stress over it.

The reader’s preconceived tastes are equally important. Many people know what they like and only read within that one particular genre or sub-genre. When reading outside of their comfort zone, their level of trust may be nonexistent. Someone who only ever reads police procedurals is likely to be a harder convert to Amish romance. As writers, we might deplore this kind of blinkered reading, but it remains a fact. And one that we can do very little about: there will always be readers who we can’t convert.

Equally important is the reader’s state of receptivity. While Frank Herbert’s Gurney Halleck might gripe that mood is a thing for cattle and love-play, the fact is that the reader’s state of mind affects how they read. Some days, I’m in the mood to be immersed. I want something fun, vivid, and escapist. Other days, I want the mental challenge of unreliable narrators and non-linear structure. And sometimes, I just want to read some dry non-fiction. If I try to force myself to read something I’m not in the mood for, my willingness to trust the author is decreased. However, the author does have some influence over the reader’s mood. Before the reader has even finished the first page, we have control over the book’s technical execution, its cultural touchstones, and the narrative voice. And all three affect the reader’s frame of mind.

Technical Execution: Sine qua non for Reader Trust

We’re always told not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is that we do. When we see a book that is poorly designed, shoddily structured, or badly proof-read, the level of trust we’re willing to offer the author decreases. This, actually, is one of the issues I run into with self-published eBooks. When I see a traditionally published book, I know that a team of experienced people worked to make it the best book possible. That team worked for (typically) about a year after the book was finished to line-edit, copy-edit, proof-read, and design the final work. The fact that the editors actually acquired the book means that someone (actually a committee, more typically) thought the author worthy of their trust. Even if that book still has mistakes, even if it still has a lousy cover, the editorial team’s efforts contribute to increase my trust.

Many (and thankfully an increasing number of) self-published eBooks are well-edited, copy-edited, proof-read, and designed. But when compared to traditionally published novels, a greater share of self-pubbed eBooks are not. I have been burned so often by unprofessional self-pubbed eBooks that my level of trust for the entire category is (unfortunately) decreased by association. That may be unfair to those eBook publishers who work their butts off to execute well, but hey: that’s the capricious judgment of the consumer.

The quality of a book’s technical execution is the cost of entry to reader trust. A book can break all the rules of syntax (Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange comes to mind) and still be excellent. But there is an inherent difference between breaking rules by design and breaking them through inattention. That difference is precision, and the sense of the author’s ineluctable control over their words. If the reader cracks open the first page, and they see haphazardly misspelled words, broken clauses, and meaningless tense shifts, their level of trust will drop through the floor because we are asking them to work too hard to get to the story.

Language is the rail on which the story runs. Would you trust a train where the passengers needed to fix it while riding?

Cultural Touchstones, Clichés, and Psychological Baggage

Assuming the writing is technically well-executed, we still need to wrestle with the reader’s frame of mind. One of the tools for doing so is what I call cultural touchstones. Writers are told to avoid clichés like pestilential vermin, but I believe that clichés have a use in fiction. They are able to cast a concise and powerful spell on the reader, and used appropriately, they become a shortcut into the reader’s mental/emotional state. While they should not be relied upon to the exclusion of all else, they can be incredibly valuable for getting the reader into the desired frame of mind.

Imagine for a moment a preschool, where twenty toddlers (our readers) are running wild and screaming bloody murder. The teacher, a much put upon soul, claps and shouts “Story time!” All of the readers kids take their seats, and look up expectantly. In this idealized scenario, our brave teacher is able to shift her audience’s mental state just by giving them a practiced touchstone, a pair of words that establishes their expectations based on their past experiences. Clichés work the same way.

Consider the sonorous phrase “Once upon a time…” If we come from a western cultural background, this hackneyed cliché is steeped in history and associations. It brings to mind princesses, wicked queens, fairy godmothers, and wolves in the woods. It carries with it a host of psychological baggage associations, which we can use when we tell stories. If we start a story with that phrase, we set certain expectations in the reader’s mind. They can safely assume that we will be dealing with the tropes of fairy tale, that the story will follow certain conventions relevant to the subgenre. Unless the author subsequently shows us that they intend to subvert those conventions, we should not expect a cyberpunk dystopia to follow.

Famous clichés (“Once upon a time…”, “It was a dark and stormy night…”, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”) only work effectively when put to use tactically and consciously. They are the literary equivalent of a cannon. If they sneak into our writing haphazardly, then our writing will quite simply suck. We will be pushing the reader’s emotional buttons not wisely, but too well. Used sparingly, they have the narrative effect of slamming the reader into the desired mental state. Their impact is fast and powerful, but lacks in subtlety and nuance. For more finely grained control of your reader’s mental state, consider using imagery as cultural touchstones and narrative voice as a modulator.

Cultural Touchstones and Narrative Voice without the Cliché

Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are inherently concerned with the conventions of fairy tales, yet she has enormous discipline in avoiding the clichés of the sub-genre. Consider how she opens Dealing with Dragons, the first book in the series:

Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show — it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

Cimorene hated it.

Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing with Dragons, 1990

Wrede does not use a single cliché, even though her subject matter is ostensibly fairy-tale related. Instead, she relies on imagery that is already associated with fairy tales (knights and dragons, royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, etc.) to put the reader in a fairy tale frame of mind. But by avoiding a reliance on a hoary old cliché, Wrede also gains the space to employ the second tool for managing reader receptivity: narrative voice.

In her first paragraph, she describes a stereotypical fairy tale kingdom. But through the application of careful phrases she establishes a sense of whimsy (“…the number five was fashionable”, “knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show”). These images and concepts are not cultural touchstones the way dragons or fairy godmothers are. Instead, they are included to show the reader that the narrator has a sense of humor and acknowledges the inherent silliness of all fairy tales. This contributes to reader trust in two key fashions: juxtaposed against the fairy tale imagery, it establishes that the author is familiar with the conventions of the subgenre, which in turn establishes Wrede’s authority and instills confidence. Second, it undermines (though does not yet subvert) fairy tale conventions, telegraphing to the reader that the author intends to play with expectations. This second contribution sets the stage for Wrede’s masterful one-sentence second paragraph (“Cimorene hated it.”), where she packs characterization, theme, and pacing acceleration into three short words.

This use of voice draws the reader in through unity of character, purpose, and precise execution. Examining the text closely, every word serves a purpose. Even the design contributes to its effectiveness: we have three editions of this book in our house (and an eBook edition on my phone) and every single edition has the first and second paragraphs on the book’s first page. It is the totality of those two paragraphs that Wrede uses as a hook. If she dropped the first paragraph altogether, the second paragraph (the classically “interesting” paragraph with character and emotional engagement) would be meaningless and emotionally dull. It is that slow first paragraph that gives her second paragraph context, like a steep hill on a roller-coaster.

Timing and Reader Trust: When Should the Reader Be Hooked?

Just about every piece of writing advice tells us to hook the reader ASAP, preferably in the first sentence. Like all generalities, it is generally good advice. But there are alternatives available, which may potentially make more sense for our story. Wrede’s first sentence, while interesting, is not a classically interesting hook. It fails to introduce a character, conflict, dramatic action, or thematic factors. Yet the precision of its prose and the sense of whimsy communicated through the voice is likely to get us to the second sentence, which in turn brings us to the third, and so on. Until we get to the second paragraph, have finished the first page, and find ourselves thinking “Okay, Wrede, you’ve earned our trust (for now). Let’s see where this goes.”

When I write, I like to think of it as getting the reader to the next sentence, then the next paragraph, then the next page, then the next chapter. Every sentence and every paragraph is a chance for me to degrade, lose, or (worst of all) betray the reader’s trust. The more of their trust I’ve built up, and the sooner I do so, the better. If I can earn a page’s worth of trust in my first sentence, great. Sometimes, that is possible. But if not? Well, that’s not the end of the world. So long as I can identify the point by which I need their trust, and so long as the writing to earn and maintain that trust is precise, I’m ahead of the game.

I’ve read many stories that never really earned my trust and just meandered into the action. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy, you know what I’m talking about: front-loaded prologues offering backstory that only interests the author, epigraphs that I suspect most folks don’t even read, etc. Sometimes, slow beginnings are the best way to start a story. But the greatest tool an author has to get the reader through that slow start is the precision of their words. Nabokov pulls this off superlatively in Lolita, where even with a distancing framing device and an unreliable (and unsympathetic) narrator, every word follows inevitably and beautifully from its antecedent.

I generally don’t notice that precision consciously on my first reading of a text. When executed well, it should be invisible (if we can count the rivets on the engine, the train isn’t moving fast enough). But even if it’s not consciously noticed, it still affects how I perceive the story and the author. Precise control of language establishes confidence that the author’s expert hand is on the tiller, and thus builds reader trust. That trust isn’t limitless, and eventually the story must hook me. But precision will typically get me past the first paragraph, which in turn might earn the author the second paragraph, then the first page, and so on until I find myself immersed in the story. It’s a chain of chances, and precision connects the links.

Beyond the story’s opening, trust must be cultivated and maintained. In speculative fiction especially, that often hinges on how world-building is managed, or on the book’s plot structure, and the reliability/consistency of characterization and narration.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday Check out the second installment on world-building, story structure, and consequential plotting.

Science Fiction Techniques in Spy Novels: James Bond and George Smiley


One of the upsides of spending two weeks traveling on business in Eastern Europe is that it really adds some perspective to spy fiction. For years I’ve meant to read more of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and to pick up John Le Carré’s George Smiley trilogy. So I worked my way through them and came to an interesting conclusion: both Fleming and Le Carré are science fiction authors. I don’t just mean that in the sense that they use fantastical conceits or gadgets. Instead, I mean that they establish cognitive estrangement for the same reasons and using the exact same narrative devices and prose techniques as speculative fiction authors.

Cognitive Estrangement and the Novum as a Defining Characteristic of Spy Fiction

Reading Fleming and Le Carré brought to mind Darko Suvin’s concepts of cognitive estrangement and novum. Suvin uses cognitive estrangement to describe the method by which science fiction establishes itself as operating in a made-up world where the rules of our humdrum reality need not apply. That estrangement contributes to both our sense-of-wonder and to the genre’s escapist label: it gives us a world that we can inhabit where the impossible becomes possible, and thus opens our horizons to as-yet unimagined concepts.

All fiction relies on cognitive estrangement to some extent: even when we read a contemporary mainstream novel, we accept its fictional premises. How many people do you know who live or speak like fictional characters? None. Effective dialog and effective characterization both rely on carefully considered pruning of reality. Writers are like Mister Miyagi, carefully sculpting his bonsai tree. The natural tree may still be interesting and beautiful, but Miyagi shapes it to underline that beauty. Fiction works the same way. But the difference between speculative fiction and realistic fiction is the degree of cognitive estrangement demanded of the reader. And here is where Suvin’s second concept of novum comes into play.

Suvin claimed that science fiction relied on incorporating something new, something different, something outside of the experience of the real world as a device to achieve a cognitive estrangement. It might be time travel, or aliens, some fancy whiz-bang technology – doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it is a marker that tells the reader “Here there be dragons” and thus puts the reader into the frame of mind for receiving a fantastical story. Reading the Bond novels and the George Smiley novels, I’ve come to the conclusion that spy fiction works in the exact same way.

In order for us to enjoy a spy novel, we need to inhabit a world that most of us don’t ever see: the world of espionage, and assassination, and skullduggery. Does this world exist in actuality? It’s naive to suggest otherwise. But as I’ve never been a spy, it is as foreign to me as Middle Earth or the planet Arrakis. Are there some authors who portray this world more realistically than others? I’m sure there are (I’ve heard rumors that actual spies tend to prefer Le Carré’s novels to Fleming’s, for example). But who cares? In each case, as long as it is fiction, all that matters is the ride that the story takes us on, and whether it is compelling. Just like with science fiction, this ride’s effectiveness is dependent on the story’s ability to establish cognitive estrangement: on its ability to take me into that fictional world alongside our own.

World-building and Character as Tools of Cognitive Estrangement

I’d argue that the techniques Fleming employs are very similar to those used by urban fantasy writers (particularly those who write episodic urban fantasy, like Jim Butcher or Charlaine Harris).

Much urban fantasy posits a “hidden world” alongside ours. We might go our whole lives without ever touching on the affairs of the supernatural that Butcher’s Harry Dresden deals with every day. The same holds true for the cloak-and-dagger world that James Bond inhabits. In both cases, the authors need to establish a degree of trust that we will buy into their reality. And they generally do so in similar fashions.

Like Harry Dresden, James Bond is an initiate. When we first meet him in Casino Royale (or in any of the Bond novels), he already knows the score. He may have more or less experience, he may be more or less jaded, but it is through his already-experienced eyes that we perceive his world. This is a classic device in episodic fiction (see my earlier post on episodic heroes), and it is one that works just as well in spy fiction as in urban fantasy or science fiction.

Secondly, Ian Fleming gives us a setting that while ostensibly realistic, is entirely outside most readers’ experience. Bond doesn’t go to work in a small town in northern New Jersey. If he did, I’d have difficulty buying into the story. Bond travels to exotic locales, places where I’ve never been or places where I’ve only been as a tourist. The result is that Bond’s environment is a priori new to me. I’ve never been to Jamaica, and so the setting Bond moves through is as new to me as Tolkien’s Shire.

Fleming uses classic fantastical devices to make this world real for the reader: he employs the tried-and-true science fictional method of salting his story with very small details that ground his setting and earn my inherent trust in his skills as a storyteller. He goes into painstaking detail about the planes, trains, and automobiles that Bond interacts with. He uses precise language to describe the settings where the action takes place. He doesn’t infodump that information: he just uses it like a dash of spice in his prose, and even though I know that at times it’s absolutely inaccurate, I accept it because it contributes to the story’s flow and the establishment of his environment. I see no difference between this approach and the way George Alec Effinger establishes the Budayeen in When Gravity Fails or how William Gibson assembles his cyberpunk reality in the Bridge trilogy.

It’s easy to see Fleming’s gadgets or his larger-than-life villains as being the primary novum that establish cognitive estrangement, but I actually think it is his world-building that really does it. If we had not already bought into Fleming’s fantastic slice of our world, then we would never believe in Bond’s gadgets or in his monologuing villains.

Neologism as Novum: John Le Carré and the Language of Tradecraft

In many ways John Le Carré’s George Smiley trilogy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People) are like the anti-James Bond spy novels. Bond is crystal clear in that he is on the “right” (British) side. Even in those books where Bond wrestles with doubts, it is a superficial wrestling and not one that really drives to the heart of the story. The heart of Bond is adventure. The heart of George Smiley is ambiguity (or as Kingsley Amis put it in The James Bond Dossier, anguished cynicism).

The Smiley trilogy is set in a world that more clearly borders on our own. Smiley’s adventures take place in London, Berlin, Hong Kong, Prague. These aren’t tourist wonderlands like Caribbean or the French Riviera. I can’t speak for every reader, but these are often places where I’ve spent a fair amount of time. Unlike Fleming, Le Carré doesn’t spend a lot of time with detailed descriptions of his settings or of the ingredients that make up those settings. His focus is on his characters. The setting, and the world that his characters occupy comes across, but it is always filtered through the film of his characters’ perceptions.

But even if he doesn’t salt his prose with telling details to make the setting seem real for us, Le Carré does use a different science fictional technique to establish cognitive estrangement: neologism. Like James Bond, George Smiley is an initiate: he understands the world of spies and secret service. And that comes through in the language that he uses, in particular in his reliance on the jargon of the trade. His fluency with terms like “tradecraft” and “lamplighters” and “mole” (a term which Le Carré actually popularized, based on a translation of the KGB term for a long-term deep cover agent).

These neologisms are employed to the same end as other science fictional neologisms (grok, hyperspace, warp, cyberspace, ansible, etc.). They establish a sense of cognitive estrangement without distracting from the story. Those of us who aren’t spies don’t use words like “tradecraft” or “lamplighters” in our everyday speech. But whatever our profession, I’m sure we’ve all encountered jargon before. It’s a very real and unavoidable part of life. Because Le Carré uses these terms so fluently, so sparingly, their use buys our belief in Smiley’s world and his perceptions of it.

Of the two techniques, I think Le Carré’s is the harder sell. It is a very fine line to walk between successfully establishing cognitive estrangement, and confusing the reader. But I think he pulls it off, and the fact that words he introduced (mole, tradecraft, etc.) can now be found on most any television show is a testament to his success at pulling it off.

Science Fiction Tropes in Spy Fiction?

If spy fiction relies on science fiction techniques, do the tropes of science fiction get play in spy fiction? Here, I think the answer is less clear. The two genres definitely share some common ancestors. Most spy fiction (in particular the James Bond novels) probably trace their lineage to the noir mysteries of the pulp era. The George Smiley books can probably be traced back to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare or Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. The same books often show up in science fictional lineages, but I’m not sure if the two genres share more than a reliance on the same techniques. It’s something I’m going to be thinking some more about, but I’d love to know what everyone else thinks. How are spy fiction and speculative fiction similar? How are they different? What methods and devices work in one but fail in the other?

INTERVIEW: Jonathan Case and Steven Padnick


A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing Dear Creature by Jonathan Case, a new graphic novel out from Tor Books. As the review probably made clear, I love this book – both as a story, and as a work of sequential art. So I invited Jonathan Case (its creator) and Steven Padnick (his editor at Tor) to join me for an hour or so to talk about comics, storytelling, and what went into bringing us Dear Creature.

Jonathan Case, Creator of Dear Creature

Jonathan Case, Creator of Dear Creature

Jonathan Case writes and draws books in Portland, Oregon, as a member of Periscope Studio, the largest cooperative of comics creators in America. His work is featured in the Eisner award–winning Comic Book Tattoo, and has been lauded as some of the best show of new talent in comics. Dear Creature is his first book.
Steven Padnick, Editor at Tor/Forge Books

Steven Padnick, Editor at Tor/Forge Books

Steven Padnick edits graphic novels for Tor Books and writes for Tor.com. He has been working in book publishing for eight years. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

CHRIS: First off, thanks for joining me! It’s great to have the both of you here to chat about Dear Creature. To start things off, Steven, I was really wondering what caught your eye about Dear Creature? How did it show up on your radar screen?

STEVEN: This is going to the most boring story in the world, actually. Jonathan’s very good agent sent it to me. I contacted Jonathan’s studio – Persicope – asking “Hey, is there anyone there with a graphic novel proposal?” and then a day later I got a call from Judy Hansen saying “I’m sending it over!” and it was done. Which is unusual for a graphic novel, since they are usually sold to editors at the pitch stage, and then someone spends a year of their life drawing it. But Jonathan had already done that. So I got a pretty much complete graphic novel. That catches your eye.

CHRIS: So you got both the script, and all of the art as well?

STEVEN: No, this was a one-man show. Everything was already done: there wasn’t a script, just the book, pretty much as you see it. And I read it, and it’s fantastic. Most of the book was done by the time I got to it, so if you want to know what caught my eye about the book the answer is…the book. It’s a fantastic story. I finished it off pretty quickly. Obviously beautiful. I was getting a lot of pitches at the time, and so many of them sounded the same – derivative. This was like nothing else. At all times the story took turns that were both totally naturally for the story, but surprised me. Which is the best situation. Usually we get great art. Or we get a great story. This was both, by someone I had never heard of. At all. Someone no one had heard of.

Every review has said the same thing: this book is fantastic and I cannot describe it to you. I found myself staring at this book that was perfect – as a book. As a selling item, by a new writer, doing a new concept, with a new character, with a really hard to describe plot, the thought was “Well, this is perfect. But it’s hard to sell. But it’s perfect.” In the end, the perfection argument won out, and made me get this book. Now.

CHRIS: So that difficulty in describing it, how has that translated into the publicity and promotional efforts to get the word out about Dear Creature?

STEVEN: There’s no magic thing we can do. We do what we do with any prose book that’s new: We send it to reviewers, we believe in our product, and we do our best. Except for our personal pleas to close friends to pre-order the book, there’s not much more we can do other than what we do for every book. I wish there was some secret like “Oh, we slip a twenty to the reviewer at Amazon” but no, we just do what we always do. Galleys help. That’s the most important thing. Getting people to review it, and hoping that great reviews and word of mouth sell the book.

JONATHAN: And I’ll chime in here, too. I think Tor has done a good job of giving me as a creator opportunities to reach out to a growing fan base with either guest spots on other blogs or interviews like this one. Bookstore signings, that kind of thing. And granted, they probably do that for their other authors in addition to sending books and galleys as well, but in comics, you don’t always find that support. So for me as a comics author, it’s gratifying to have that. I have been getting more exposure and more great reviews than I would have if I’d gone with a lot of the other options that were available to me when I was shopping the book around. It’s worked out well.

STEVEN: Thanks!

CHRIS: That actually raises another question. In sequential art today, creators have so many options for how to commercialize their work – whether crowd-funded indie books, serialized comics, webcomics, etc. What sort of drove you to do this as a graphic novel as opposed to packaging the story in some other format?

JONATHAN: Well, that’s a big question for me. I always wanted to do the sort of work that would take advantage of what I saw as my various strengths. I didn’t know that any one strength that I possessed as a creative person would have really allowed me to succeed. I’ve been drawing since I was two years old. I’ve just gone through reams of paper, and I love telling stories, I love acting and the performing arts. Comics is a way of doing all of those things. If you talk to anybody in my studio that not only draws books for clients but has their own creative thing flowing – whether it’s their own original graphic novels or short stories or whatever it is – almost all of them have an interest in acting. Or a background in acting. It’s really kind of surprising. Around college I graduated with a degree in performing arts, and I was thinking I was going to go to NY or LA. Then at a certain point my life just took a different turn. And I realized I really wanted to tell the stories that I wanted to tell now, and comics is a way for me to do that in a way that I might not ever have had the chance to if I had gone and tried to be an actor or a screenwriter or something. And comics is also just a great group of people. There’s a great community here in Portland that I really connect with on a personal level. Kind of a family business, it feels like.

CHRIS: So with that kind of background in drama, I have to imagine that informed the “crustacean chorus” in Dear Creature to some extent?

JONATHAN: Oh yeah. The whole thing really. The fact that I have a monster that speaks in iambic pentameter, really all of it. My dad started taking us to see Shakespeare plays when I was probably four years old. I couldn’t really appreciate it at the time, but I was steeped in it from an early age. But I also knew how overwrought it could be – how tiresome it could be if it wasn’t done well. And that was the main reason why I put the crabs in there. You don’t want just a bunch of flowery verse with no release valve. I needed to be able to poke fun at myself sometimes. The heart of the book for me is this character that has the sense of something divine. Shakespeare is like Grue’s Bible. It’s his code for living. Its archaic and anachronistic and kind of weird to his peers – like these little crabs that are saying “What are you doing with your life?” But I think anybody with a sense of the divine butts up against that. So that’s how I wanted to connect with this monster story. These grand themes, these personal themes, and the B-movie stuff. That kind of mash-up was interesting to me.

CHRIS: In the press release I saw for Dear Creature, it mentioned the story being somewhat inspired by experiences off the coast of Mexico. Did you run into a teen-eating atomic sea monster out there?

JONATHAN: Well, they have the diablo rojo out there – not the giant giant squid, but the mini-giant squid. That’s kind of monstery. But yeah, I spent some time in Mexico with my parents. They retired early. My dad had the dream of getting to the South Pacific and to New Zealand on a sailboat. And so he bought a sailboat. We never got to the South Pacific, but we did toodle around the Sea of Cortez in a Steinbeck style and met a bunch of different people from all walks of life. This was probably when I was twelve to sixteen. Pretty formative years. And that experience fed into the book, not only in terms of some of the isolation themes. I was the only kid in a vast sea of expats – you know, middle-aged people. But it was also an experience broadening my horizons. All these different people from all these walks of life and dialects. It was a very inspiring time, after I got over the frustration of being the only kid on the block or on that corner of the dock for a few years. The cabin that the leading lady in Dear Creature is holed up in is modeled after the cabin that I would hole up in myself, where I spent hours drawing and dreaming and figuring out a way to escape from paradise.

CHRIS: Speaking of Giuletta, she is obviously not your proto-typical love interest. What drove you to create such an interesting and atypical character?

JONATHAN: I knew it was going to be a hard-sell to do a romance with an Elizabethean-minded monster in a modern world. There’s going to be a quirky person at the end of that rainbow. So I was interested in the idea of matching him up with someone who had probably never had a great love in their life, they were probably a little set in their ways, or a little bit crazy. Just a good match for the insanity of this sea monster marching around with all of his idealism. And early on I had this vision of how I would do my take on the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. If I had this sea monster sitting in a tree outside of a Spanish mission’s window talking to an older woman and making a love of words to her. That was a powerful image that I wanted to get to. So that was the target, I guess. And I worked on the book to get to the point where that scene would make any sense at all.

CHRIS: That raises a question about process. And this goes for the both of you, actually. What were your processes in working on this book at various stages in its lifecycle?

JONATHAN: For me it started out as a play. I wrote a thirty minute play as a senior project in college. It was all in iambic pentameter, and it was about this monster who falls in love with a girl. And the girl reciprocates, instead of being taken aback in horror. That was the genesis of it for me. From there when I decided I wanted to do a comic, I really was coming at it from the standpoint that I wanted the script to be really solid before I started in on something that was probably going to be a multi-year process. I spent about a year off and on – part-time – working on the script, sending different revisions to a friend of mine in LA. His name is Alex Kamer, and he’s a guy who I enjoyed working with in the past on different projects. So before I had Steven, he was providing me with editorial feedback on a really consistent basis. And that was hugely helpful. I was also showing it around to different in Portland when I was just getting plugged into the comics scene. All this helped me refine and figure out what was working, wasn’t working, what I was passionate enough about to stick to my guns on, and then what things I could reconsider. I definitely didn’t work in a vacuum and that was important. By the time I got to actually drawing the thing, I had it all laid out, rehashed, and combed over pretty well. So I felt confident that it was something I could dedicate that time to. Comics just take a lot of time to execute, so that was sort of my process.

CHRIS: So that ultimately led to you having a finished, completed graphic novel for Steven. So what happened when you handed that off to him at Tor? What was that editorial process like from there on in?

STEVEN: Mostly I fixed typos. And I think we had one art change. Also there was a character who I thought might have been killed, who we clarified was not killed. Those were the notes.

CHRIS: So a fairly light editorial process then?

STEVEN: Yeah. Other than acquisitions, which itself is an important part, this was not my finest hour as an editor. It was more of an hour as an editor. Easy fixes, like “A period needs to go here” or “I think this character teleported, you need to fix that.” That was about it. Everything else was done.

CHRIS: I imagine that is different from the graphic novels and prose novels you might have worked on previously.

STEVEN: So far, all the graphic novels have gone through very different styles. Dear Creature was actually fairly close to the way first-time prose novels are sold because most first-time prose novels are completed by the time an editor looks at them. They should be pretty close to good enough to print for us to risk the money on them. So it’s very different from the way I’ve done other graphic novels, but it is very similar to the other prose novels I’ve worked on.

CHRIS: I also have a bit of a question for you, Jonathan, on some of the differences in your experience working on Dear Creature – which is entirely your project – and Green River Killer where you were collaborating. How did those two experiences compare for you?

JONATHAN: They were very different. In the case of Green River Killer, I was getting scripts in chunks. Jeff [Jensen] was working on it and he had a solid direction that he was headed in. He had a detailed outline he’d sent me, so in general I knew the story but I didn’t know the details of how it was all going to fall down. In a sense, I just had to learn to trust him as a storyteller. And trust my editor at Dark Horse that we were actually going to be able to land the plane because I was drawing twenty or thirty pages at a time, and then I would get more script in another week or two, and then do another twenty or thirty pages. And we’re talking final art, not layouts as I did with Dear Creature. With Dear Creature I laid the whole thing out before doing final art, but with Green River Killer it was kind of shooting from the hip. I would get scripts, I would thumbnail it out quickly, go through a lot of reference that was already provided to me by Dark Horse and Jeff. And supplement as needed and then start final art. I cranked through at a pretty good clip. I’m still happy with the work, but it was a completely different process. The freedom of that was really exciting: to be able to work on something where I hadn’t had to divorce myself from all of the preciousness that you get into when they’re your own characters and your own plot points. I didn’t have to kill any of my darlings because it was all laid out for me. So we got it done at a pretty efficient pace and I’m really pleased with the way the book turned out. They did land that plane, and I’m indebted to Dark Horse for releasing a book at about the same time as Dear Creature. That has really paved the way for me as an author, as another comics creator. The two books have really been cross-pollinating a little bit so that’s definitely good.

STEVEN: Yeah, that struck me as the funniest thing about the difference between the traditional prose publishing industry and the comic book publishing industry. We had a finished book of Dear Creature over a year ago, and then we went through the process of selling it to the bookstores, and getting publicity, and doing all this stuff for it. And in the time between when we had the gotten the finished book and published it, Jonathan drew an entire book that Dark Horse published before Dear Creature came out. The traditional prose publishing industry has ridiculously long lead times before books go on sale, and the comic book publishers have none. As soon as they’re done with the book, it is out the door and on the stands. And maybe somewhere between the two is the right answer to how long it should take for a book to come out. But we definitely had both extremes with Green River Killer and Dear Creature.

JONATHAN: It was very surreal.

CHRIS: What’s your perspective on the current environment of the comic book industry. It’s clearly an industry heavily in flux, with graphic novels, webcomics, and digital all changing the playing field. What’s your perspective on that industry today?

JONATHAN: Steven?

STEVEN: There are more people making better work today than there ever has been in the comic book industry. If we don’t limit ourselves to one particular format of comics, whether we’re talking about graphic novels or single issues or webcomics or manga. If you look at all of that, you see an industry at a creative height or maybe heading up a further creative slope. As for the industry as a money-making venture, I don’t know. DC had an amazing month with their re-launch of their individual titles. At the same time, Habibi and Hark! A Vagrant are bestsellers in the bookstores and there are new webcomics popping up every day. Which of these paths comics are going to take in the future? I don’t know. I don’t even have an iPad. Yet. But clearly that’s another route for comics to take, too. So flux is scary, but I believe in the talent that exists today and I think the comics industry is going really big places. Soon.

CHRIS: Jonathan, what’s your perspective from the creator’s side?

JONATHAN: It’s an exciting time, though scary in a lot of ways. I’m glad to see a lot more graphic novels getting produced with the amount of care that I think they should have. I think a lot of publishers are looking at them more and more as complete packages. And I guess I’m speaking of graphic novels in particular, not comics as a whole. But as we move towards this digital distribution model that we’re still trying to figure out, it makes sense to me that when you put something into print you really want an artifact. You want something that has a nice weight, a nice feel, and looks good on a coffee table. And that hasn’t always been the first priority with published comics. In both the case of Dear Creature and Green River Killer, they’re both really good looking books. People want that. People want a counterpoint to the lack of physical object that digital distribution presents. So I think that’s a good model. That’s my ideal model as we move forward. I don’t know if that will stand the test of time, but I’m glad to see that these art heavy books get an artistic presentation, and are marketed that way.

CHRIS: That raises another question about the artistic style you utilized for Dear Creature. It’s certainly very distinctive, especially when compared against what many people think of as the superhero default of the comics medium. What drove you to work in that particular style?

JONATHAN: I didn’t grow up reading a whole lot of comics. So I guess I’m not beholden to some of the same tropes that a lot of people are used to. I was sort of reinventing the wheel, maybe a little bit more than I even needed to when I was starting out with Dear Creature, but I knew that I wanted to emulate the style that people operated in during the ’50s and ’60s – the era when the book is set. So I worked oversized to have that grounding. I worked at 14×20 or 21 inches or some crazy thing. So the originals are huge. And a lot of people ask if I worked that big to get more detail, but the answer is not really. I worked that big because I wanted to emulate people like Alex Raymond and some of those classic comic creators. My hand likes drawing at that size, and I think that when you reduce it down or just when you present it next to other comics – you can’t necessarily put your finger on it, but you can tell that there’s a little something different going on. And I also wanted to get rid of cross-hatching. I made the aesthetic choice that I was just going to use stark black and white, and there are reasons for that which are probably boring for anybody but the artsy types. But it worked out for me. I like how the book looks, and even if there are some panels where it was more challenging to work in that mode, I think there is a readability to it. Your brain registers things quickly when you see an image that is well-composed with just black and white. And the emotional immediacy of it appeals to me.

CHRIS: Did you feel that by going with this aesthetic style you were giving anything up? Were there any trade-offs you were concerned about?

JONATHAN: Maybe a little bit. But when you give yourself a creative limitation like that, it tends to help your focus. So problems that I would have had five solutions to, suddenly I only had one or two. So when you’re working on a project of this size, sometimes that is helpful just for efficiency’s sake. You can always find a solution, no matter what mode you’re working in. It’s just a matter of having to think about it a little more on the front-end, which is something that I think is good for comics. When you think about something on the front-end as opposed to when you’re drawing it, it helps with your storytelling.

CHRIS: Now to wrap things up, a couple of questions à propos of nothing. First up, what are some of the stories you guys absolutely love? What are the stories that you wish that you’d had the chance to work on themselves? New, old, whatever.

STEVEN: Are we limiting this to graphic novels?

CHRIS: Oh no! Any stories whatsoever.

STEVEN: I wish I had written Casablanca.

CHRIS: Ok…

STEVEN: Just flat out that is one of the best scripts. Ever. I wish that I’d written it.

CHRIS: Any others? Or Jonathan, any thoughts on your end?

JONATHAN: I like how Steven is editorially concise.

STEVEN: I have go-to answers.

JONATHAN: I love Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I love the characters in that book.

STEVEN: That’s a good one too.

JONATHAN: Yeah, it’s one of those stories where its reach almost exceeds its grasp. But you love it anyway. That’s definitely one of my favorites. Moby Dick, because that’s another weird book that works. I like weird things that work.

CHRIS: So what have you guys got on your nightstand now? Or on the top of your to-read stack?

STEVEN: This is going to sound like its self-promotion, but I actually read a lot of Tor books these days. I’m reading Ganymede, which is the third novel in Cherie Priest’s steampunk series – the Clockwork Century. The first one is Boneshaker, and the second is Dreadnought. They take place in an alternate history wild west where instead of lasting five years, the Civil War has now lasted twenty and shows no sign of stopping. And also there are airships, and also a disaster that destroyed Seattle and released a zombie plague on the US. They are fantastic, fun, rip-snorting adventures. The book came out a month ago, and it’s great.

JONATHAN: My wife makes fun of me for always having this copy of Don Quixote that I’ve never finished, the new translation. But I’ve been working on it, reading a little bit of it at a time pretty much ever since I’ve known her. And I’ve got this other book on grant-writing for artists that I’m reading through. Nothing too terribly exciting.

CHRIS: It’s actually funny that you should mention Don Quixote. Reading Dear Creature, I thought I was picking up a lot of quixotic elements in that story. As you’ve been working your way through Don Quixote, did you feel that filtering through into your work on Dear Creature?

JONATHAN: I was familiar with Don Quixote, but I hadn’t actually read the book when I started Dear Creature. But yeah, we have similar heroes doing similarly crazy things. They have their own ideas about what’s important and it doesn’t necessarily make sense to a lot of the world around them. So yeah, I can definitely see that connection.

CHRIS: Alright, so now what’s likely our final question: what’s some of the fun stuff you guys are working on now? What can we all look forward to seeing from you guys in the near future?

JONATHAN: Well, for my part, as we’re doing this interview I’m actually working on a page for Dark Horse Comics. I’m doing three different projects for them that are all starting up this month, which is kind of wild. Two of them are shorter pieces, and one is a longer piece that I’m doing with John Arcudi writing. So those will be some of my freelance projects. And I’ve got another book in the works that is another personal project, and doesn’t have a publisher attached to it. Nudging Steven in the ribs over the airwaves there. It’s kind of an adventure, getting back to things that I loved and appreciated when I was a little kid, a book geared to all ages, all audiences. So I’m excited about that. The stuff for Dark Horse, one is called House of Night and my little bit of it is Anthony and Cleopatra as vampires. The project with John Arcudi is called The Creep, which is a character he developed for Dark Horse Presents a few years back. Those are some of the things I’m working on.

CHRIS: How about you Steven? What’s got you particularly excited?

STEVEN: Out in stores right now, actually, are a couple of projects that I worked on. One is a graphic novel – written by Orson Scott Card and his daughter Emily Janice Card – called Laddertop which is a great all-ages sci-fi adventure. That’s out now – actually came out a month ago. Upcoming we’re collecting the webcomic Girl Genius in a very nice hardcover collection. It’s gorgeous, it’s going to be fantastic. After that there’s a graphic novel which I’ve had a lot more influence on called The Advance Team, which is written by Will Pfeifer who wrote Aquaman and Catwoman and is drawn by a Spanish artist named Germán Torres who drew Dr. Who and Speed Racer. The one sentence pitch is a young man discovers that his pop culture icons are in fact the advance team of an alien invasion and only he can stop them before the invasion happens, except while he knows that’s true, everyone else sees this young man going around murdering famous people.

CHRIS: Sounds fun!

STEVEN: He kind of has to somehow do this, and convince people he’s not crazy. It’s a lot of fun, total crazy action. Will has been plugging it pretty much once a week on his blog so you can already see some of the preview pages up. We got Tom Orzechowski to letter it, and the whole book looks fantastic.

CHRIS: Well, that’s pretty much it. It’s been great chatting with you, and thanks again for taking the time!

STEVEN: Thanks!

JONATHAN: Thanks, it’s been fun!

CHRIS: And as a final way of saying thank you, here’s the book trailer for Jonathan’s Dear Creature:

REVIEW: Lightbringer by K.D. McEntire


Title: Lightbringer
Author: K.D. McEntire
Pub Date: November 15th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Reasonably compelling characters, but the love triangle was wasted on me.

What is it with contemporary YA novels and love triangles? Maybe I wasn’t quite the lady’s man I thought I was in high school (I’m sure my ex-girlfriends and my wife are all laughing right now), but it seems like everywhere I turn in YA today, I come across a heroine torn between between two opposed romances. Team Gale vs Team Peeta. Team Edward vs Team Jacob. Clearly, I must have missed out on a defining characteristic of the teen years since I didn’t have multiple women competing for my affections. Wendy, the heroine of K.D. McEntire’s debut YA novel Lightbringer, does not have that problem. She’s got two guys fighting over her…and one of them has been dead for a long time.

Lightbringer is an interesting YA paranormal mystery. It’s got the standard love triangle (are there YA books today that don’t?) but that’s actually the least compelling facet of the book. Two entirely different facets caught my attention about Lightbringer: McEntire’s mundane, living characters, and her take on magic and death.

The book introduces us to Wendy, a teenager facing some tough times. Her mother is in a coma, her dad has to travel all the time for work, and she’s responsible for her two younger siblings. And she sees dead people, who she is duty-bound to help move out of limbo into the Light (whatever afterlife that might imply). It’s a lot for a teenager to deal with, on top of school and boys. The plot’s primary engine is Wendy’s quest to find her mother’s not-yet-dead soul, which she believes is lost somewhere in the Never, the limbo-like afterlife that certain stranded ghosts get stuck in. If ghosts stay too long in the Never, they will gradually lose their vitality and fade into Shades. If they don’t want to fade, then there’s a straightforward solution: eat the Lost, the souls of children who haven’t yet moved on. Yeah, it’s a bit dark. And McEntire’s depictions of the Walkers (the ravenous ghost-eating zombies) are chilling. A band of teenage ghosts try to protect the children from the Walkers, though they seem to be fighting a losing battle. The Never makes for a particularly compelling setting, an interesting ghost-eat-ghost parallel world that McEntire skillfully depicts. Her descriptions have an eery, ethereal quality except where the action comes hard and fast. That juxtaposition of misty language for place-setting, and concrete viscera (literally) is a highly effective combination.

Wendy, despite her ability to see the Never and send ghosts into the Light, is entirely unaware of the Never’s social complexities. For her, ghosts are ghosts. She is convinced that by sending them into the Light, she is helping them. That they might have different opinions, or that the Never’s population represents different moral choices, she is utterly unaware. All of this changes, as her quest to find her mother’s lost soul takes her deeper and more aggressively into the Never. There, she meets Piotr – one of the Riders who cares for the lost children. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything (the cover copy makes it clear) by saying that he’s one vertex of that love triangle. Of course, life and love are nothing if not complicated: he doesn’t realize that Wendy is the “Lightbringer” – a monster who destroys ghosts.

While Wendy is looking for her mother, Piotr is trying to find some of the Lost Children, who have presumably been kidnapped by the walkers. This represents a menacing divergence from the walkers’ normal behavior: typically they just eat the kids in question. But now they seem to be acting with tactics and guile, perhaps at the behest of a mysterious “White Lady”. With his experience in the Never, it is natural that Wendy should look to Piotr for help in finding her mother. As the book unfolds, their respective quests remain superficially parallel but separate. It is only through Wendy’s experiences in the living world, through her flashbacks to her relationship with her mother and her friendship with Eddie (Piotr’s rival for her affections) that the reader develops a sense of linkage between the two quests.

Much as I loved McEntire’s depiction of the Never, it was the living characters who carried the story. I wouldn’t expect a teenager who can see dead people and who is essentially duty-bound to kill them to be "normal". And she isn’t: she has issues, and how she responds to her family situation is heartrendingly believable. A grown-up might look at how she is described and shrug it off by saying that Wendy is “acting out”, but her actions are realistic, deftly handled, and most importantly – McEntire skillfully avoids any sense of authorial condescension. Wendy is engaging, and her voice rings true. Her friendship with Eddie, and their complex and shifting relationship both resonated for me in a way that the Wendy/Piotr hookup didn’t.

As a character, Piotr is quite frankly bland. His heart is in the right place, which I suppose counts for a lot, but for most of the book he felt like a placeholder character. All of the ghosts – Piotr included – are one-note characters who were removed from different time periods (one’s a Native American, one’s a flapper, we have no idea what time period Piotr’s from, etc.). Their speech patterns are peppered with dialog idiosyncrasies, which helps to make them distinct, but it does little to really flesh them out as characters. If the ghosts’ flat natures were by design, then this is some clever storytelling on McEntire’s part. It would be an interesting statement about the depth of characters who hang on, rather than move on with their after-lives. But I’m not certain that was the point McEntire was going for: the Wendy/Piotr romance undermines that point.

Wendy’s relationships with the living people in her life are much more fully realized. The scenes involving her younger siblings, who are both wrapped up in their own problems, are incredibly touching. I wanted to see more of those relationships, and to get a better understanding of how Wendy’s family dynamic worked. I really enjoyed the way Wendy’s relationship with her mother is gradually uncovered as the book progresses. The flashbacks that show Wendy learning how to use her gift, and the past/present family dynamics are all presented very well. McEntire does a good job of leaving vital truths unstated: they might get intimated, but it is up to us to make the connection. If we do, then the eventual reveal becomes that much more satisfying.

Bravely, McEntire does not skirt the moral implications of Wendy’s actions. And by the end, the book avoids offering a prescriptive solution to her quandries. Which worked well for me: the dénoument does not tie off the story with a neat little bow. Whatever conclusions she will draw from her harrowing experiences will be unpacked over the course of years (likely years in therapy). There is nothing easy about that, neither in real life, nor in well-drawn fictional characters. And that sense comes through.

The weakest aspect of the book for me was the whole love triangle aspect of it. I admit, I’m inclined to believe that love triangles in YA fiction (in particular in YA paranormal fiction) are ubiquitous to the point of being overdone. But in this case, I don’t believe that the love triangle actually added much to the story. In fact, I felt that Wendy’s relationship with Piotr detracted from the relationships with her family and (living) friends. Perhaps I would feel differently about this if the love triangle had some sort of resolution. But instead of resolving it in some fashion, it ends with a plot hole that I was simply unable to leap across. Hopefully, that plot hole will get plugged/clarified in a sequel, but the lack of resolution in this one book weakened the experience for me quite significantly. If it weren’t for the fact that the love triangle fell apart without resolving, I would happily have given this book four stars on the basis of McEntire’s creative world-building, deft writing, and excellent characterization. It has all of those elements, but the love triangle just really didn’t work for me.

Overall, I think Lightbringer is solid YA paranormal romance/mystery. As this is publisher Pyr Books’ first foray into the YA market, I think it’s a fine title to start with. Artistically, their experiment is a reasonable success (though not a category-sweeper). Despite its one significant weakness, I enjoyed Lightbringer. While I might not recommend it for everyone, I think that folks who enjoy the YA paranormal romance category will find a lot to enjoy in this book. I’m looking forward to more books from K.D. McEntire (whether in the same world or not), and I’m curious to see how Pyr will develop their YA list in the future.

Leaping the Chasm of Imagination: Verisimilitude, Historical Fiction, and Speculative Fiction


The borders of genre are famously porous. Devices that start in one genre will get adopted, subsumed, and then modified in another. Then the cycle starts again, with the “new” device trickling back to its original progenitor. This tendency is why asking whether realistic or speculative fiction developed first is meaningless: anthropologists and fans can probably debate this ’til the heat death of the universe, and even then the answer won’t matter. But I’m curious as to how and why certain narrative techniques make this leap and others don’t.

Verisimilitude is the Heart of Storytelling

Every single genre – regardless of how speculative it is – relies on some degree of verisimilitude to enable comprehension. Sure, it’s theoretically possible to write a science fiction novel entirely in a made-up alien language with concepts for which there is no human analog…but who on this planet would actually read it? At the most basic level of language, we rely on mutually comprehensible words to communicate. This is the point where I call shenanigans on the pseudo-linguistic (read: intellectually irresponsible) school of critical theory that argues that text/words/language are inherently meaningless. If that were true, then we would not only never have fiction, we would also lose all written correspondence and spoken conversation. Community relies on communication: note their similar roots.

The sentence “John opened the door.” could appear in a hard science fiction story, an immersive secondary world fantasy, or in mimetic chick lit. Sure, we might need to replace the character’s name, and call John “Blaghosan” or something to maintain the illusion, but the act of opening a door can apply in any of these fictional modes. The richness of our lexicon and its corresponding flexibility enables us to assemble more complex, interesting, and layered sentences. But fiction (and any communication) relies on a shared ontological foundation.

At Viable Paradise (which I attended a couple of weeks ago), the amazing Teresa Nielsen Hayden said something utterly profound: “The subject verbed the object, and it was good.” The particulars might vary, but at the sentence level that basic principle underlies all communication, regardless of its realism. The fancy stuff (metaphors, similes, neologisms) that speculative fiction authors love is really a set of clothes hung on this incredibly flexible frame.

The Basic Devices of Fiction: Simile, Metaphor, and Neologism as Genre Markers

All writers use a certain basic arsenal in an infinite variety of combinations to communicate and manipulate their audiences. The most basic tools are such an indelible part of language, communication, and thought as to be near inseparable. But how we use them can actually be one of the markers of speculative fiction.

When we employ a simile (“John scuttled like an ant”) we are establishing a sense of apparency. The use of “like” indicates that John is not in actuality an ant. He merely acts with characteristics more commonly associated with one. Such a use of apparency can take place in any genre and is likely as old as language. Metaphor (“John was an ant scuttling across the floor.”) and neologism (“John the antyman scuttled”), however, are a little more complicated.

If we’re reading a work that is by definition realistic, then we recognize metaphor as a stronger way of evoking apparency. If we’re reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, we know that John hasn’t actually become an arthropod. But if we’re reading something speculative than lacking other markers in the text, our hero John may have suddenly literally transmogrified into an insect (hey, it worked for Kafka, right?).

When we come across a neologism (“antyman”) we now have to decode the new word and incorporate it into our lexicon. Its semantic meaning may be unclear, and needs to be gleaned from context. In speculative fiction, that context may support fantastic concepts (antyman – the hybrid of a human and an ant) or merely extend our realistic lexicon (like Shakespeare coining terms like “assassination”).

This decoding process is part of what we love about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Decoding where a given work’s fantastic borders are is an intellectual puzzle that gives us no small degree of satisfaction (whether escapist or otherwise). Traditionally, literal metaphor has been the plaything of speculative fiction writers. Realistic writers might have dallied in it a bit, but it is only with the relatively recent rise of magical realism and literary fiction’s “discovery” of science fictional devices that this technique has been fully appropriated. A similar process has happened over the centuries with narrative structures.

The Many Structures of the Novel

While many hardcore genre fans might disagree, I would argue that most innovative novel structures first appeared in “realistic” fiction. Whether it is the epistolary novel, the framed narrative, stream of consciousness, or non-linearity it probably appeared first in the realm of realistic mimetic fiction. There’s a good reason for that: like speculative fiction, innovative structures require effort on the part of the reader to decode and process them. To expect the reader to decode an innovative structure and process the speculative elements is likely expecting too much.

Consider the history of the epistolary novel. When it first grew to prominence in the seventeenth century (check out Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister), we had to learn how to consume realistic epistolary novels before fantastical interpretations could flourish. As far as I know, it was not until 1818 that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus successfully introduced early science fictional elements into the epistolary structure, and not until 1897 that Bram Stoker’s Dracula did the same for the nascent genre of horror. I suspect these novels owe much of their continued longevity and relevance to being early examples of speculative stories that made the imaginative leap and successfully appropriated a mimetic/realistic structure.

The pattern is quite similar for other innovative narrative structures. Could Delaney’s Dhalgren have appeared without the innovations of Kerouac? Or would Effinger’s When Gravity Fails have the same resonance without Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett? As readers, we don’t need to have read the realistic taproot texts to experience and enjoy their speculative descendents. Because their structures are successful, they spawn a multiplicity of children: they become part of the cultural zeitgeist that soaks into our awareness.

This pattern actually holds even for the most basic taproot texts of literature. At the start of this post, I asked whether realistic or speculative fiction came first. And the answer is that they both appeared at the same time in the form of historical fiction. Wikipedia dates the first piece of historical fiction back to the 20th century BC. In those ancient days, there was little distinction between what today we characterize as “myth” and what they called “history”.

Even the earliest historical fiction had the same world-building challenges as speculative fiction. History is a foreign country we can never visit, and ancient Greece or Regency Britain are as foreign to our twenty-first century sensibilities as Middle-Earth or the Sagittarius Arm. The world-building techniques for the two genres are identical. Look at how Patrick O’Brian pulls us into his Napoleonic-era nautical understanding in his Aubrey and Maturin books. Then compare his methods to how Arthur C. Clarke introduces us to space-age technology in Rendezvous With Rama. The challenge is the same, and the craft to address it is the same as well.

Does the Pendulum Swing Both Ways?

With the rise of the modernists in the early twentieth century, we saw the fantastic get relegated to a pulp ghetto that we still struggle to escape. Yet even then, there were some “mainstream” authors who looked to fantastic fiction as a source of inspiration (Kingsley Amis and Shirley Jackson both come to mind). The last several decades have seen fantastical techniques gain acceptability within the realistic fiction community (provided they’re labeled “magical realism”). With post-apocalyptic texts like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or blatantly science fictional novels like Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel being published as “mainstream literary fiction” we may be living through the pendulum’s reversal as we speak.

Which are the fantastical devices that will now hop back over that imaginative chasm? What are – and what will – contemporary “realistic” writers learn from their speculative peers? That the cycle will keep going I have no doubt, but I’m curious what lessons realistic authors are learning from those of us who like to mess about with elves and space ships and zombies. Regardless of the genre, my own predilections suggest that writers who want to innovate structurally should read widely and extensively across genres to internalize others’ innovations wherever we come across them. T.S. Eliot nailed it when he said “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.”

What should we be stealing nowadays?

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