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Techniques in Writing Alternate History


For the past several months, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading recent alternate histories and historical fantasies (I’ve reviewed a couple in earlier posts). As a result, I’ve been thinking about how alternate history works, and what techniques apply to the sub-genre.

Divergence as the Elephant in the Room

At some point, all of us wonder about the road not taken. In our private lives, we wonder how life would have turned out if we’d gone to college B rather than college A, if we’d gotten (or kept) a particular job, etc. The same “what if” question gives rise to alternate history, where we try to imagine our world as made different. Whether the portrayal is fairly realistic (as in Harry Turtledove’s Timeline 191) or completely fantastical (e.g. Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy), alternate history gives us the chance to consider what our world would be like in entirely different circumstances. And that’s fun, because it can give us insight into our own world, culture, and history today.

Because alternate history is so centrally concerned with what sets the imagined reality apart from our current reality, how the timeline diverges must be established very early on. Thinking about it, I’ve spotted a kind of spectrum of divergence in alternate history:

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

On the one hand, we have what I call fulcrum divergences. This method is most commonly found in “realistic” alternate histories, which lack magic, monsters, or really anything that could not exist in the real world. Some event is identified as a fulcrum on which history swings, and when creating the story we have things work out differently.

The best example I can think of for this type of alternate history has to be Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain. In our real history, a Confederate messenger lost General Lee’s plans for the invasion of the North. The Union found the plans, and General McLellan was able to turn the Confederates back at the Battle of Antietam. Turtledove asks “what if the message never fell into Union hands?” and proceeds to create an excellent series of realistic novels that paint a Confederate victory and map out the consequences through World War II. Such “little differences” need not be so minor, however: Philip K. Dick posited a world where the Axis Powers won WWII in his classic The Man in the High Castle, nor need the resulting world be particularly realistic (consider Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, where Darwin discovers DNA). Even fairly fantastical stories like Clay and Susan Griffith’s Vampire Empire series still rely on that one point where history changed. Universal within these stories is that the world’s history follows the familiar path we should all know up to that one key fulcrum moment when it skews Doc Brown-like into an alternate timeline.

The other end of the spectrum are foundational divergences. Typically used in more fantastical alternate histories, foundational divergence occurs so far back in the story’s timeline that its effects percolate through all aspects of the world. The place names, some of the personalities involved may be familiar to us, but they are already skewed relative to our timeline based on events that happened significantly prior to the events of the story.

In Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, or Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command magic has been known and applied within the world for centuries. There is no “point of divergence” with our known history, because instead the impacts of magic diffuse throughout all aspects of society, history, and cultural development. The key difference between such alternate histories and those relying on fulcrum divergence is that all recorded history has to be different from what is known. In these books, the foundational difference (e.g. the presence of magic) occurred or was discovered so far in antiquity that its consequences have percolated throughout the world. As a result, such books can often be enjoyed as secondary-world fantasies.

Between these two poles lie a variety of techniques that authors can use to establish that divergence. Often, authors use a time traveler from our timeline to introduce the divergence. Once in the past, the time traveler proceeds to change (or – sometimes not) the past as we know it.

Excellent examples of this kind of alternate history include books like Eric Flint’s 1632, Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Mary Gentle’s First History sequence. In many respects, these books are similar to those that use a fulcrum divergence: in this case, the time traveler becomes the fulcrum. However, they differ significantly in that typically the protagonist (the time traveler) is aware of the divergence or its possibility. This changes the dynamic of the story and significantly alters the reader’s relationship with the hero.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one can have an “alternate history” that completely recasts our known reality, which does not take place in any kind of recognizable version of our history. Here, the events of the book are modeled on actual events in our history, but they are depicted in a completely secondary world.

Turtledove’s World at War series employs this technique, depicting the events of WWII in a completely secondary world. Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World (see my earlier review) similarly (though less historically) models aspects of his world on the American frontier.

Maintaining Suspension of Disbelief in Alternate Histories

The key to constructing an effective alternate history is to keep the reader locked in what Gardner calls the “dream” of the novel. This task is particularly challenging in alternate histories, where the reader knows they are reading something inimical to their pre-existing knowledge of the world. As a result, readers are likely to quickly pounce on perceived flaws, places where the author’s research or techniques fell short. There are several tools that can be used to maintain the reader’s acceptance of the alternate history.

The perspective that the book is written from, and the narrative voice that is employed, are both essential tools to maintain the reader’s disbelief. This is doubly-so if the book is written in first-person, but even when written in third the speech patterns, word choices, and value systems that our narrator employs contribute to the milieu of the era we are depicting. Recently, I read two alternate histories that execute on this aspect perfectly: Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought and Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command (see my earlier reviews here and here, respectively).

In both books, the narrative voice and the dialog employed by the characters rings (at least to my ear) true to the period when the books are set. The words key characters employ, the value systems inherent in their views, the differences in how different characters speak, in both books the quality of voice and dialog help to lock the reader into the alternate history. In At the Queen’s Command, the dialog is strongly reminiscent of other accounts of the late 18th century. As a result, I am able to believe that while there may be magic, I am still reading a story set in the 18th century I am familiar with. The same applies to Dreadnought, which follows a southern Confederate nurse across the frontier.

Nailing the voice like this is partly a question of the writer’s natural ear, but it is also heavily influenced by research. Reading books written in and written about the time period can help provide the “feel” of that time period. And solid research on word use and etymology can help make sure that the dialog is period-appropriate (as Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out recently, people swore differently even one hundred years ago). Research and extensive reading are the keys to nailing this aspect of an alternate history.

But there is a flip side to this coin: When we write alternate histories (or even historical fantasies) there is an understandable temptation to shoe-horn massive amounts of research into the text. After all, not everyone is as familiar with the time period as the author. But this natural tendency has to be handled very delicately because people who enjoy alternate histories are likely those who enjoy history. As a result, they are likely to already have substantial knowledge about history, and thus overloading them with historical information may weaken their engagement with the story.

In historical fantasy, this is a danger that I recently observed in Jasper Kent’s otherwise excellent Twelve. Kent clearly knows the history of 19th century Russia, however in many places he assumes that his readers do not. For some readers, this is likely not a problem. But for those of us who are familiar with that time period, the extensive expository background that Kent provides detracts from the rising action of the story. Striking a balance between that need for background and the forward motion of the story is key to writing any story based in history. When I think about the authors who do this well, they apply the rule of “less is more” and leave the reader to infer whatever background they do not already know. If we have to pick between momentum and background, I say always go for momentum.

Imagining a Different Today

If futuristic science fiction is about imagining a possible tomorrow, then alternate histories are about imagining a possible present. This at once constrains our world-building (to a greater or lesser degree, we have to conform to known history) while providing the opportunity for very focused imagination. When I read excellent alternate histories, I often think that it is much harder to paint a maserpiece by coloring within the lines. But the best authors of alternate history manage to do exactly that.

If you’re looking for fun alternate histories, below is a list of the authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy, from your local bookstore or your library and enjoy:

CROSSROADS: The Western Hero in Speculative Fiction


Amazing Stories Logo With Thursday upon us, that means it is time for another Crossroads post over at Amazing Stories. This week, I look at the archetypal western hero, and the ways in which that hero shows up in science fiction and fantasy. Specifically, I explore the traditional usage of the western cowboy/outlaw and the ways in which SF/F dilutes that archetype, and discuss how contemporary western-themed SF/F (e.g. Weird West, steampunk, alternate history, etc.) subverts the archetypal western hero in fundamental ways.

You can find the whole essay here: CROSSROADS: The Western Hero in Speculative Fiction

When to Jump? The Art of Asking and the Economics of Writing


If you’re a writer, artist, or otherwise creative sort, I strongly recommend Amanda Palmer’s recent TED Talk:

I first watched it when it was originally released, and since then I’ve re-watched it a time or two. And like Chuck Wendig (here), Tobias Buckell (here), and Harry Connolly (here) I have somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, I applaud Palmer’s philosophy of art and artistry. On the other hand, I question its practicality as applied to written art (e.g. books, short stories, poetry, sequential art, etc.).

The Traditional Economics of Art

First, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool believer in the power of commerce. I do not believe – and have never thought – that the value of art is opposed (or even in tension with) the value of commercial exchange.

The price I pay to read a book is determined by the economics of the supply chain and distribution system used to produce the book and get it into my hands. Physical manufacturing (printing, warehousing, shipping, etc.) are just one component with that, and the real supply chain for books actually starts with the artist – namely the author. The author, the agent, the publisher, the printer, the distributor, the retailer all play a role in this supply chain and they are all doing so out of enlightened self-interest: to make a buck.

This is not to say that all (or even any) of these actors are merely cynical number-crunchers out to skin either the consumer or the artist. That kind of oppositional thinking is something I’ve come across pretty often in the arts, and it is the result of naive ignorance. If the actors involved in producing and distributing a work of art cannot feed themselves, they won’t produce any more art. If the investors (authors included) whose capital finances the production and distribution of art on-spec (i.e. without a guaranteed profit) are prevented from making a profit (and so feeding themselves), they will take their capital elsewhere…again, leading to less art. Such is life in the real world (in practice, a similar economic principle has also operated within every historical attempt at a communist or socialist economic system).

With these supply chains and distribution systems, it is impossible for the actors to peg the price of a given book to its “artistic value”. Asking “What is Othello worth?” is a Zen koan more troubling than the sound of one hand clapping. We – as consumers – cannot assign our own (highly subjective) value to a work of art without having first experienced it. Unless we have read a book, we lack sufficient information to value it. Which is why when people read books that they do not enjoy, a frequent lament is “Not worth the cover price.” If we have read an author’s previous work, we may be able to predict a value (e.g. “I loved So-and-So’s last twelve books, so I expect to love the new one coming out tomorrow.”) but such an evaluation is still only an approximate prediction.

But the traditional distribution systems that bring us that book aren’t telepathic (yet, and let’s not give Mr. Bezos any ideas). They don’t know how we feel about a book, nor do they know how we expect to feel about a book. So they can only determine price out of a best-guess approximation, using their costs as a baseline. This is a fundamental philosophical fact: the price we pay for a book at retail has little relationship to its artistic value.

The Economic Consequences of the Patronage System

A patronage system – such as the patronage system that Amanda Palmer relies on – tries to bridge the gap between artistic value and price. To vastly generalize, it relies on technology to flatten the distribution system:

  • It completely obviates the need for retailers to buy/warehouse/sell the product, and;
  • It largely obviates the need for publishers to select/edit/print/warehouse/ship the product.

This process is – at best – approximate. Works of art (whether music or books) still need to be written, recorded, edited, distributed, etc. and the people who work on different parts of this process need to be paid. Yet by disconnecting the “price” a consumer pays from the costs of production and distribution Palmer and those who follow her model can achieve a closer alignment between what the consumer pays and that consumer’s assessment (or prediction) of a work’s artistic value.

When we pay “what we want to” (which is different from “what we can”) all we’re really doing is translating our subjective assessment or expectation of a song/book’s value into dollars and cents.

Such a patronage model is unlikely to work (due to the costs of scale) with a traditional distribution model. No retailer and no publisher will ever buy and stock books on what they consider a wing and a prayer. The reason for that is because they would be unable to determine a breakeven point. In publishing terms, no publisher would be able to predict when a book will earn out, which in turn means they would not have the ability to assess their degree of risk.

Digital distribution – whether of music or writing – lowers the aggregate cost throughout the distribution chain. It does so to a lesser degree than the digital-only/self-publishing boosters out there would want us believe, but it does objectively lower the amount of capital at risk, which in turn increases the likelihood that some publisher might take a chance on the patronage model. However – and this is where the practical part comes into play – just because the amount of capital at risk is lower doesn’t necessarily make the probability of profit any higher.

Think of it this way (this is vastly over-simplified, yet the principle holds): a publisher invests $100 to acquire, edit, design, print, and warehouse a book. Some part of this money goes to the author (an advance), some to the editors/designers/artists, some to the printer, etc. This is the amount of capital at risk in the distribution chain. Yet with a price point set at $5.00, the publisher knows that they have to sell 20 copies to break even. Based on their experience, they know that they can expect to sell 15 copies (75% of their breakeven point) at launch. So while their overall capital at risk is $100, they know that they have a near-certainty of already covering 75% of that cost. Meaning their effective risk has dropped to $25. And based on their experience, they are able to judge the likelihood of those remaining 5 copies selling over a particular time period.

The traditional economic model allows every actor in the system to control the overall amount of capital they are putting at risk, while taking into account their expected effective risk. On the one hand, the publisher has certain (known) costs, and on the other it has expected (probable, though uncertain) revenues. Decisions can be made rationally based on facts (costs) and probabilities (expected sales).

In the patronage model, the cost side of the equation is still known. The aggregate cost may be lower due to a reliance on digital distribution, but the costs remain calculable. Yet it is far, far harder to predict the revenue side because neither the artist nor the publisher are in the consumer’s head.

And this is where my practical concerns with Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking arise.

Pretty Speeches Oversimplify

Yes, Amanda Palmer’s $1.2 million Kickstarter campaign is impressive. Yet it did not happen overnight. It was a result of the relationships she had built with her audience throughout her impressive career. By advising creators to trust their audience, Palmer is glossing over the years of hard work she invested in cultivating an audience which both shares her ethos and values her work highly.

Throughout her career, Palmer has built a highly participative fandom. This was, as she herself admits, a conscious choice borne of her artistic philosophy. I have no problem with this, and I applaud her philosophy and the conviction with which she applies it. However, her experience cultivating this relationship with her audience serves a fundamental economic purpose: it makes it easier for her to assess the probability of her “revenue” in a patronage model.

I’m sure Palmer didn’t sit down with an Excel spreadsheet and a little green visor and model out supply/demand/value curves based on historical receipts. First, few artists are that into Excel. Second, she didn’t have to. She had a “reasonable” expectation that her fan base would contribute to her artistic endeavors because they had done so in the past when asked to.

This last point is, I think, vital. The consumer who picks up a book at B&N is not necessarily the same consumer who will go to readings, nor one who will engage on social media, nor one who will pre-order titles on Amazon, nor one who will contribute to a crowd-funding campaign. Most readers (sadly) aren’t that engaged with either the books they read or the artists who produce them. Yet Amanda Palmer had – on the basis of her experience asking fans for support large and small in the past – a reasonable way of “guessing” at the likelihood that her fans would continue to support her.

I suspect Amanda Palmer doesn’t think of it in such terms. Her experiences – starting with her days as a street performer – have all contributed to this worldview. Her experience with the “art of asking” – and the probability of the audience responding – has shaped her life (in particular her lifestyle and costs of living) throughout its course.

As others have pointed out, writers with mortgages, kids, medical bills, etc. may find it far harder to take such chances…precisely because these obligations increase our (known) costs. A young kid with few bills, no family, and no other financial obligations can afford to take greater risks. In other words, our costs are known and (by our reasoning) high. Yet if we have not carefully cultivated an appropriate relationship with our audience, we have a limited ability to accurately predict the revenue side. In other words, our effective risk approaches our capital at risk, which is a position I would hate to have to justify to my bank.

What Does All of this Mean for Working and Aspiring Writers?

As I intimated above, I personally think it depends on your particular situation. If I were fifteen years younger, I would probably adopt a different strategy than I would today. However, I think even then that difference would be one of focus rather than one of principle.

I think that in today’s artistic world, it is in an artist’s best interest to cultivate a variety of distribution models. Traditional publishing with the Big Six, traditional publishing in small press, self-publishing, crowd-funding, patronage, etc. have all proven to be viable models. As artists, we can make each of them work for us. But doing so successfully means using somewhat different skills to varying degrees. If I want to be successful as a writer (regardless of what point I’m at in this career), I think it makes strategic sense to have experience in all of these distribution models.

I’m going to be better at some models than others, based on my own skills, based on my own personality, etc. But being conversant with these different approaches increases the likelihood that as the market evolves (and the balance among models shifts) I will be able to feed myself (and thus produce more art).

This principle isn’t rocket science. I kind of think of it as “writing 101”, and it has been articulated by writers far more experienced than me many times over. And yet from this principle, a simple conclusion follows:

If we want to be conversant with varying models of artistic distribution, and the patronage / crowd-funding model advocated by Amanda Palmer is one such model, then logically it makes sense to experiment with that model (Q.E.D.). So what does this mean practically?

Most writers end up with – at some point in their careers – a work that will be a hard-sell in the traditional distribution model. Some books are just like that, regardless of their artistic merit. For example, in my case, I have a script for a 128-page alternate history/western/fantasy graphic novel that I wrote about a year ago. There are good reasons why this script won’t sell any time soon:

  • It’s just a script, and I am probably the world’s absolute worst artist.
  • There is no artist currently attached to the script.
  • It works in its entirety: i.e. it is a novel in sequential art form, and does not lend itself to single-issue distribution.
  • I am an unknown – just another blogger out there on the internet with no Bookscan numbers to provide a floor.

All the factors above serve to increase both a publisher’s aggregate risk, and to diminish that publisher’s ability to predict revenue. In time, when more of my fiction sees the light of day and I have Bookscan numbers to back me up? Maybe it’ll be a different. But for the moment, the book is unlikely to sell regardless of its quality.

I knew all of this when I started writing the book, so that’s neither a surprise nor a disappointment. But it does leave me with (I think) a good product that is objectively unlikely to sell through traditional models. And that is the kind of project for which it may be worth considering either a crowd-funded/patronage model, a self-publishing model, or (most likely) a hybrid of the two.

Core Lesson from Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk

I think that the core conclusion that I draw from Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk isn’t the obvious one. Her claim that the audience will catch us if we jump is an over-simplification of a very complex process that took her years to cultivate. But she still has a point: if we do not cultivate such a relationship with our audience, and if we do not learn how to do so, we are passing up an interesting economic model that can support our art.

We can only learn so much by looking at those who were successful. Amanda Palmer’s experiences in music publishing and performance do not translate directly to the world of books. John Scalzi’s success serializing his early novels several years ago does not necessarily translate directly to the industry today. The best way for us to develop these skills (and they are skills, in the same way that speaking on a panel is a skill) is to dive in and figure it out.

It is not a question of whether to jump or not. Common sense suggests that we should all practice our high-dive, if for no other reason than career security. Yet even if we are committed to jumping into crowd-funding and the patronage model, the practical question is which cliff to jump from. Not all of us might be prepared for the high-dive acrobatics that Amanda Palmer performs. I know I’m not. And the only way to reach such spectacular heights is to train (i.e. cultivate the audience and develop the skills to do so). That, I think, is the real trick: choosing the manageable cliff, and taking that first step off its edge.

“Science Fiction” and Literature – or Thoughts on Delany and the Plurality of Interprative Processes


NOTE: Once again, I apologize for posting this a bit later than usual. I’m abroad for only one more week, though, and then we’re back to our regular Tuesday schedule.

I’ve long believed that Samuel Delany is one of the sharpest, most insightful, and most comprehensive critics in the field of science fiction/fantasy criticism. His non-fiction – from The Jewel-Hinged Jaw to About Writing or Starboard Wine and beyond – are a master-class in exploring the ways in which fantastic literature functions, and I freely admit that a lot of my own thinking is based on insights I eagerly cribbed from his work. But that being said, I think his theories on the relationship between science fiction and literature are due for a re-examination.

In “About 5,750 Words”, Delany draws a very distinct line between how readers interpret science fictional texts and how they interpret mundane texts. His argument is extremely fine-grained, focusing on the words and sentence constructions that are employed in both fictional forms. But he presupposes a certain sequential process by which readers interpret each: “A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.”

Delany’s micro-focus doesn’t work for everyone, and some very smart people have criticised his fixation on sequential reading. They argue that not everyone interprets prose sequentially, that the process may be more fluid than the step-by-step plodding that Delany describes. And to be fair, they are correct: the process isn’t necessarily sequential. But those who focus on Delany’s sequence often miss a simple fact: he uses sequence as a pedagogical tool, a way to illustrate his broader underlying argument for which sequence is actually almost irrelevant.

The Idea of Differing Interpretative Skill-sets

One of Delany’s core points (which he highlights in essay after essay) is that readers of science fiction apply a different set of skills to reading science fiction texts than readers of mundane fiction apply to the reading of mundane texts. He goes on to use this distinction to explain why some readers of mundane fiction find themselves categorically unable to read/interpret/understand/enjoy science fiction.

In his compelling examples, he points out that sentences composed entirely of individually intelligible words (such as “The red sun was high, the blue low.” or Heinlein’s “The door dilated.”) become meaningless if read as naturalistic prose. He argues that a certain imaginative leap must be made, an extension or expansion of our imaginative capacity, to consider events, objects, and actors that do not yet exist and possibly cannot exist. This, he claims, is a process alien to the experience of nnaturalistic fiction.

I am sympathetic to this distinction. I think that for many years, and for many readers, this was exactly the case. But cultural capabilities, and their distribution throughout the population, is not static. And Delany himself realized this fact in his essay “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’ – or The Conscience of the King” (you can find it in Starboard Wine).

There, he explores the question of whether literature will subsume science fiction or whether science fiction will subsume literature. And he makes a very compelling case for the encouragement of a pluarility in the methods of literary interpretation. Though he does so relying on Foucault’s exploration of the author, Delany readily admits that as only one way of looking at the interpretative process of literary criticism. Yet nevertheless, readers are vast and contain multitudes: just as a plurality of interprative modes exist among readers collectively and individually, so too does such a plurality exist among critics and authors.

He makes the case that skill-sets evolve and change, which naturally makes me wonder about how those skill-sets have changed in the reading public since “Science Fiction and ‘Literature'” was first presented thirty three years ago.

Evidence for the Merging of “Science Fictional” and “Mundane” Interprative Processes

Looking at what is being published and analyzed today, I believe that the interpretative processes for science fiction and mundane fiction are merging. This starts with the writer, who weaves in structures modeled after mundane fiction into their fatastical yarns (consider the best works of John Crowley or Tim Powers) or who weaves in science fictional elements into an otherwise naturalistic novel (the whole “magical realist” movement, for example).

To make such novels work, the writer must internalize and integrate the structures and conventions of stylistically and structurally disparate genres: if that isn’t a plurality of interprative modes, I don’t know what is. In many ways, this is a creative process that Delany himself talks about in “Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student” (in About Writing). It is an interstitial and conversational act which purposefully interlocks the building blocks of narrative like jigsaw pieces. Only this is a puzzle with no edges: those are cut by the reader, who bounds his interpretation using his own subjective experiences and interprative processes.

Yet the economics of book publishing don’t lie (in the longterm): if readers could not employ a plurality of interprative modes, then they would not buy books which rely on it, and so publishers wouldn’t sell them, editors wouldn’t buy them, and writers wouldn’t write them. However much artists might cringe at the sharp palm of the invisible hand, it does provide some insight into both the state and direction of literary culture.

Possible Reasons for Increased Interprative Plurality

So why now, after close to a hundred years of “modern” science fiction, do we see science fictional texts coming in out of the critical cold? What drives this increase in interprative plurality? I think the answer lies in pop culture.

Though I might be misremembering (since I’m currently in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel and don’t have my books close to hand), I believe Kingsley Amis wrote in The James Bond Dossier that popular literature should be judged as significant literature precisely because of its very popularity. The popularity of any individual or class of work might not translate into “classic” status (whatever that means), but it nevertheless engages in a dialog with the art and culture that preceded it and the art and culture that will follow. Pop culture is a window into the values and priorities and concerns of the culture that consumes it.

And for the past two generations, pop culture has increasingly been adopting the devices and concommitant interprative techniques native to science fiction. Whether it is Star Wars, any of the successive incarnations of Star Trek, the science fictional music of Rush (which, to be fair, I don’t particularly care for), or the near-universal and growing interest in super-heroes doesn’t matter: the net result is that as a society our imaginative vocabulary is increasing.

When Delany first wrote “Science Fiction and ‘Literature'”, he included an example sentence: “Then her world exploded.” Back in 1979, a relatively limited population might have had the cultural vocabulary to interpret that sentence plurally as metaphor and/or literal event. But since then, at least two generations (and soon three) have grown up having seen Alderaan scattered across the stars. Don’t believe me? Check out this three year old exclaiming how “They blowed up Princess Leia’s planet!” Our parents and grandparents do not necessarily have the same interpretative facility, as their formative cultural touchstones were perforce different.

Though one might get fancy and call this an increase in the plurality of interprative processes, I actually think that its foundation is deeper and more basic: it is an increase in our cultural vocabulary, which is itself the ontology that underlies our interpretations. Ray guns, space ships, spells – these are no longer exotica. In the west (and in much of the rest of the world as well), they have become part of our cultural lexicon.

And writers across all genres are benefiting, as it offers them more space to play in. It increases the size of the board, and gives them new puzzle pieces with which they can construct new dreams. But nevertheless, there remains and always will remain a farther frontier.

The New, The Weird, and the Unknown

Even if the “meat and potatoes” of science fictional narrative have been incorporated into our literary vocabulary, science fictional narrative is no more static than the culture which creates it. People continue to write, and so they continue to innovative stylistically and thematically.

While “spaceships” and “parallel worlds” and “time travel” and “alternate history” might be reasonably understandable and familiar even to mundane readers, there remain authors who stylistically carve new pathways into the narrower science fictional vocabulary.

Authors in the New Weird, for example, titillate and enthrall with their twisted and unusual constructs, coupled with stylistic flourishes that often draw from more poetic or literary roots than mundane readers might expect. But because of their strangeness, that crucial “weirdness”, their interpretation relies on a vocabulary that many mundane readers will simply lack. Time travel they might grok, and even grok they might grok, but human/insect hybrids? For the moment, those may be a bridge too far for many.

The same difficulty holds true in “harder” (as in more science-laden, not necessarily more challenging) science fiction texts: the stylistic techniques employed by writers like Peter Watts or Greg Egan push the boundaries of science fiction’s own vocabulary. Is it any wonder, then, that readers not quite fluent in that vocabulary would have difficulty enjoying them?

Yet, culture rolls on. Literary vocabularies shift and share, and I believe that some of what is strange and difficult today will gradually find its way into popular culture, and from there it will enrich the broadly-held cultural vocabulary, and as a consequence the multiplicity of our interprative processes will increase. At the same time, other elements of our cultural vocabulary will fade out of use, leading to a further decrease (Delany offers a great example of this in the added dimension offered to Shakespeare by a familiarity with 16th century Warwickshire slang).

Such has been the history of our cultural development, I think. And such – broadly and with enough remove – has been the history of literary criticism. Is there any reason to suppose that would change?

Information Density and Selecting Planks for Story Scaffolding


Information density, or the “I had to do a lot of research, and now you, dear reader, must suffer for it” tendency, is one of the perennial challenges of good fiction, and over the past several days Alec Austin and Marie Brennan have posted some interesting thoughts on the subject (also, check out the ensuing discussions in their comments sections). Since I love history and tend to write alternate history or heavily historically-inspired stories, this is something I’m usually really sensitive to, both as a reader and as a writer. But the lens through which I view this problem tends to be one of narrative purpose.

What is the story about?

Fiction at its heart is a representational art form, which means that the words we write are not the objects/events we write about: they are facsimiles, symbols which evoke a sense of mimesis in our reader. When we sit down to write a story, we must consciously choose which details (historical or otherwise) to include, and how to portray those details. Alec and Marie refer to this as “simplification” and “flattening,” and while I recognize the value in such terms, they are the diametric opposite to my own way of thinking. Rather than “simplification”, I prefer to think in terms of “selection”. The end point may be the same, but the mental path I take to get there is a little different.

Here’s a writing exercise to illustrate my point: try to completely describe everything in your immediate environs over a five second period. Actually, don’t: to do it right, you’d be there ’til the heat death of the universe.

It is a physical impossibility to capture every aspect of even a limited scope in symbolic representation (and that’s without getting into the details only observable by electron microscope). When we write, we choose the salient details, those that are relevant to our artistic purposes. We might use motifs, or facts, or events, or emotions and more besides. But we choose what we portray, and leave the rest of our imagined reality in the empty spaces between our words. We rely on the reader’s imagination to fill in those blanks. Our job is to use our words to give the reader enough of a scaffolding on which they can hang their imaginings. And the process by which we do so relies on choosing the right words, the right details, to erect that scaffold.

The complex messiness of history, sociology, economics, anthropology, biology are the planks through which we assemble that scaffold. But not every plank is interchangeable: depending on the nature of our story, depending on our artistic purpose, depending on our narrative structure, different planks are needed in different points.

To riff off of Marie’s excellent example of the English Civil War (the history of which she knows infinitely better than I do), the economic pressures on the Crown are at best only marginally relevant if I am writing a fairy tale set during Charles I’s England. A little child who enters the woods and encounters a witch would be unaware of those economic pressures, and they would be irrelevant to the narrative’s overall trajectory. To switch to the European mainland for a moment, it is hard to imagine Hansel and Gretel pausing to explain the economics of the 17th century Black Forest farming communities. It is equally hard to imagine the narrator of Hansel and Gretel doing so because those economics are irrelevant to the story’s goals.

This isn’t a “simplification” or a “flattening” of the detail any more than is the omission of unrelated events halfway across the globe: it is simply the selection of salient information. When we write, our job is to select the salient, relevant pieces of information that the reader needs to perceive in order to achieve our narrative goals.

Illustrative Information versus Explicative Information

However, even if the story is not “about” the economics of 16th/17th century monarchy, the inclusion of such details may add to the sub-textual content of our narrative: to its verisimilitude, or to its tone, or to its broader themes. To run with my Hansel and Gretel example, I can imagine a modified version of the story where the economics of the Black Forest are relevant (the upwardly mobile step-mother desperate to ensure her own children’s future in times of famine, say) to the story’s narrative purpose. If the history, if the detail, is relevant to my story’s overt or sub-textual purposes, then the question is no longer whether to include it or not, but instead morphs into how to do so.

In my reading, I’ve found two different strategies for this, which I think of as the illustrative versus the explicative approach. And interestingly, I find classic fairy tales to provide excellent examples of both strategies. Both are equally valid, and can be equally effective, but they work in different ways. To some extent, these strategies can be thought of as “showing” versus “telling”, but I think that grossly over-simplifies them.

Consider my hypothetical modified Hansel and Gretel example, where I have determined that I must somehow communicate a modicum of the economic context to my reader. I can choose to do so in an illustrative fashion, by depicting the consequences of those economics. I have a vast number of ways to illustrate those economics, but the two easiest are to either (please forgive the quick-drafted examples):

A: allude to them in the step-mother’s dialog

“But Hansel; but Gretel,” said their new mother, “you wouldn’t want your new baby brother and sister to starve, would you? Please, fetch some berries from the wood.”

or
B: imply them through my prose description of their farm/farming community.

With the pox so recent, and the winter so cold and hard, most of the neighboring farms sat fallow: untended, untilled, unloved. Hansel and Gretel’s farm, though scarcely large enough for the three of them in the lean months, was one of the few that bloomed that year. Still, however tight their belts, Father always found an apple for the widow next door, and for her baby boy and toddling little girl as well. With their own mother in Heaven, God rest her soul, the whole village knew it would not be long before Hansel and Gretel had a new mother, and with her a baby brother and hungry little sister.

In each case, I would concretely depict the consequences of the economics, so as to show their effect on characters and setting. I would allude to or imply the broader economics, and I could do so with greater or lesser narrative economy which would in turn be determined by the story’s narrative structure.

Whether I do it in dialog, or in prose, or in both, and whether it happens in one sentence or six paragraphs depends on the point-of-view it is told from, and the narrative voice in which the story is written. The illustrative technique, however, communicates the relevant economic context through implication derived from action.

An explicative approach, where the background is explicitly explained to the reader, would be equally valid. It might be as simply done as the classic “once upon a time” fairy tale opening, where the relevant facts are stated and accepted as given. This might be accomplished through a distant or even omniscient narrator (check out Olaf Stapledon or Mervyn Peake for awe-inspiring examples of this), or the explanation might be heavily inflected by a narrator’s subjective point of view (think Raymond Chandler).

Of the two approaches, I think the explicative is the more difficult to pull off for modern readers. The illustrative approach relies on character and narrative voice to pull the reader along, leaving the intellectual dimension as subtext. As a result, it is more accessible and “less dry” for most readers.

The explicative approach, by contrast, relies on the intellectual dimension and voice to make its content interesting and compelling. Alec mentions Kim Stanley Robinson’s infodumps, and for me they are an excellent example of relying on the intellectual dimension to carry the reader through the relevant background. They are very hard to pull off, and arguably only effective for a limited audience, precisely because this explicitly intellectual approach is “dry” by modern standards of fictional narrative. Explicative approaches that rely on voice, such as Raymond Chandler or Damon Runyon, tend to be more accessible because the narrator’s voice itself connotes character.

Historical Fantasy and Narrative Structures

Given this framework, I think one can communicate just about any level of complex background, economic, social, or otherwise. But it does affect the complexity of the underlying narrative structure. It may lead to more perspective characters, or to a different narrative voice. And those, in turn, may further limit the audience or otherwise decrease the story’s accessibility.

But that’s a fact of life: every word we write limits our audience to some extent. Which is why selecting the right word is all that matters.

Characters’ Age: Musings on How it Affects Writing


In the western world, we live in a culture that idolizes youth, and I suppose that’s understandable. We naturally gravitate towards characters who are young, healthy, vibrant, powerful, and exciting. And yet, some of my favorite characters in fiction (e.g. M. John Harrison’s teugis-Cromis, Ian McDonald’s Georgios Ferentinou, or John Scalzi’s John Perry) are the exact opposite: they’re old, often sickly, damaged, and (superficially) weak. And yet despite their age and infirmity, they become memorable and compelling characters. (since a book I’m currently shopping to agents has an eighty-five year old protagonist, it’s a subject that’s been on my mind a lot recently)

The protagonist’s age is central to every dimension of their story. There is nothing — literally, nothing — that their age does not affect. Whether we’re writing realistic fiction, space opera, or secondary world fantasy, our protagonist’s age will affect the story’s broad plot, the techniques through which we build our world, the style of dialog, and even the specific word choices we make in our narrative.

Age and Plausibility

Let’s first look at age’s interaction with our protagonist’s background. Would you trust your brain to a fourteen year old neurosurgeon? Or would you get into a starship captained by a ten year old? Probably not. At least, not without some hefty assurances that you’re not about to commit suicide. When we consider the role our character plays in their society, we need to run a basic plausibility check. If the character’s age and role stretches that plausibility, then we need to ensure that we provide adequate justification for that divergence.

One of the better examples of this I’ve seen takes place in Philip Reeve’s madcap middle-grade space adventure, Larklight. There, we meet a fifteen year old space pirate captain named Jack Havock. Of course, Larklight is aimed at children…which is good, ’cause there are few readers who call out plausibility BS faster than a ten year old. And the idea that a fifteen year old might find himself a space pirate — and a space pirate captain, no less — obviously stretches credulity. But Reeve makes it plausible both through how he depicts Jack Havock’s actions (while still a child, in a crunch he behaves very responsibly) and through the back story he shows the reader.

A counter-example, where I felt a character’s age worked less well, was Ian McDonald’s recent YA debut Planesrunner where McDonald’s teenage protagonist is shown to be preternaturally skilled at just about everything he puts his mind to. McDonald is too experienced a writer to ask us to make the leap in plausibility unaided: he does provide explanations that justify Everett Singh’s abilities. I might have easily believed Everett to be a savant quantum physicist. Or a naturally gifted soccer player. Or a superb chef. But all three? That suggests plot-oriented convenience, and strains plausibility. Because each of those skills takes time to master…time that a teenager simply hasn’t had yet.

The same plausibility gap works in the opposite direction. In my aforementioned WIP, my protagonist is an eighty-five year old named Johann von Kempelen (yeah, the guy who invented the Mechanical Turk…’cause who else would you want as a clockwork emperor’s physician?). In this case, making him a young man would have stretched credulity on two fronts: first, his job is to be the personal engineer to the emperor. He is responsible for keeping the emperor ticking. That’s not a job you get at a young age, regardless of how fantastical the world is or how talented the engineer. Second, the real-life von Kempelen actually lived in the 18th century. But my alternate history is set in the 19th century. So to make that alternate history less-credibility-stretching, I decided to keep him an old man (even though, in reality, by 1885 he was long dead). Keeping von Kempelen old prevented a plausibility gap, and simultaneously better allowed me to explore the philosophical themes of the book.

In Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (which I discussed here), his protagonist is also an old man, in this case an aging ghul-hunter. On a superficial, sword-and-sorcery action-oriented level, Ahmed did not need Doctor Adoulla Makhslood to be an old man. He could have made him an inexperienced young ghul-hunter, eager to prove himself. Or he could have had him a ghul-hunter in his prime. Any of these choices would have been equally plausible given the overall shape of his story. But they would have completely changed the themes explored, the story’s emotional trajectory, and the technical way in which the story was told.

Age, Actions, and Reactions

Have you ever seen old people fight? I mean, physically? They move differently from the ways teenagers do. There are many reasons for that, some physiological, some psychological, but the bottom line is that a badass move we might pull off at twenty is not something we’re likely to succeed at when we’re sixty. As a result, the character’s age completely changes the way action sequences are depicted. Movement slows and becomes more deliberate, reaction times increase. The characters’ movements in an action sequence, the choices they make, the way they react to danger, all of those will be different based upon their age and whatever infirmities might come with it.

The same holds true for a character’s emotional reactions to events. I react to events completely differently today than I did at the age of sixteen (thank god). That’s one of the realities of aging. And it is one that we need to bear in mind when constructing our characters.

Nnedi Okorafor handles this brilliantly in Who Fears Death? (which I wrote about here). Her heroine, Onyesonwu, is relatively young. And she acts her age, with all of the high-strung emotion that entails. Reading the book, her choices made me gnash my teeth in frustration…but that didn’t mean they were “wrong” for the character: they were exactly the choices Onyesonwu would make. If she were fifteen years older, she would likely have taken a completely different path. But the character worked because her choices – however frustrating they might have been – were realistic given her emotional makeup and maturity.

Equally well-done in this regards is Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, by Mo Willems. If you haven’t seen it, check it out: whether you have kids or not (I don’t), you will find it absolutely charming. The picture book centers around a child who loses her favorite stuffed animal (the titular Knuffle Bunny). What makes this book stand out is that it focuses just as much on the father’s reaction as on the child’s, and Willems manages to grasp both the child’s frustration and fear, and her father’s panic and guilt (so well that we feel the story must be autobiographical). Both reactions are determined by the characters’ ages…and both are rendered in text and illustration perfectly.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Age and Its Relationship to Prose and Themes

There’s a school of thought that says a well-rendered character needs to grow and change over the course of a book. And this is true. But the trajectory of that growth differs based on the character’s age. All characters, regardless of their age, have some sort of back story that informs everything about the character, their perceptions, their values, their opinions, and their voice. However, when writing older characters there needs to be more of that back story, with all of the ups and downs that a full life demands.

The reader doesn’t need to see it, unless it somehow directly affects the events of the story. But we as writers need to know it, because the choices our characters made yesterday affect the choices they’ll make today. For example, if we’re writing first person or close third person, characters are going to notice and react to different smells, colors, textures, tastes based upon their previous experiences. Does the character notice a particular scent? Smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, followed closely by taste. How a character reacts to it (and what else a character notices) should be informed by their earlier experiences.

So should the choices they make. A more mature character is going to grow and change differently from how a teenager would. That’s not because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it’s just that a more mature character will already have grown and learned many of life’s lessons. This dimension of character growth is, I think, more difficult for more mature characters. For the character’s emotional arc, I think the trick is to identify what lessons they failed to learn before the events of the story.

Saladin Ahmed does an excellent job of this in Throne of the Crescent Moon. Adoulla’s emotional journey centers around his failed relationship with a mature, strong-willed woman. He “failed” to learn a lesson about priorities in his younger days (or made choices that he has since come to regret), and the emotional arc of the story focuses on his realization of this fact and his rectification of that mistake. This puts into conflict two “goods” against each other: his duty as a ghul-hunter, and his love for Miri. This makes for a poignant emotional conflict. And a believable one for a character of his age.

Age Handled Well

I’ve mentioned a couple of books where I think characters’ ages are handled particularly well. But there are others which I also wanted to give shout outs to. I’ve mentioned Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: if Scrooge wasn’t an old man, the book would have no meaning. Hugo’s Les Miserables also works precisely because of its interplay between the emotional arcs of youth (Marius, Cosette, Eponine, Enjolras) and age (Valjean, Javert, the Thenardiers). And last but not least, John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big also only works because of the characters’ ages: the growth and evolution of Smoky Barnable and the Drinkwater clan only works because of their (sometimes purposefully indeterminate) ages.

What are some other examples that you think handle characters of different (or unusual) ages well?

Ruminations on Blogivating after a Year and Change and Resolutions for 2012


So judging by the calendar, this is going to be my last blog post in 2011. This time of year always makes me a little introspective, and leads me to think about what the past year has brought and what I want the new year to bring. And since at this point I’ve been posting weekly reviews and essays fairly religiously for the past 15 months, I thought it would also be a good moment to assess how this blog has developed.

Thank You All

First, let me say how utterly and completely thankful I am to everyone who reads this blog. When I started back in 2010, I thought it would attract some ten or fifteen people every week. I figured that was a safe expectation, considering that the non-fiction I write tends to be fairly dense by the standards of the blogosphere. Add to this the fact that I’m writing this blog anonymously and that I’m not a big name author, and well…let’s just say that the visitor stats back in late 2010 bore out my suspicion.

But over the last year, I’ve gone from averaging about fifteen weekly readers to now averaging about fifteen hundred (excluding spam commenters, who I assume don’t actually know how to read). This fact is amazing, and incredibly gratifying. It is humbling to know that there are so many like-minded people out there who love speculative fiction as much as I do, and who find my thoughts interesting enough to subscribe, read, comment, and share with their friends. Seriously, you are all amazing. Thank you!

What Folks Liked in 2011

Since September 2010, I’ve made eighty-four posts here. Of those eighty-four posts, one third were reviews and the rest were almost all theoretical discussions of writing and genre. Based on my WordPress stats, the ten most popular posts in 2011 were as follows:

RANK TITLE DATE POSTED
1 Science Fiction Techniques in Spy Novels: James Bond and George Smiley November 22nd, 2011
2 The Evolution of Middle-Grade Fantasy and Television August 30th, 2011
3 Techniques in Writing Alternate History February 22nd, 2011
4 Flirting and Writing Good Dialogue June 26th, 2011
5 REVIEW: The Crippled God (Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 10) by Steven Erikson March 2nd, 2011
6 Leaping the Chasm of Imagination: Verisimilitude, Historical Fiction, and Speculative Fiction November 1st, 2011
7 REVIEW: The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan July 19th, 2011
8 The Future is Now: Is Hatsune Miku William Gibson’s Idoru made real? December 21st, 2010
9 Some Brief Thoughts on Love, Relationships, and Characters in Fiction August 9th, 2011
10 A Theory of the Hero: Story Archetypes for Heroic Characters (part 2 of 3) September 17th, 2011

What this data suggests to me is that you folks like my theoretical investigations of genre more than my reviews. Is that the case? As I look to continue this great blogging adventure in 2012, I’d love to know more about what kind of material you’d like to see. I did a couple of one-off experiments in 2012 (the interview with Jonathan Case and Steven Padnick, a couple of three-post blog series, etc.) and they were qualified successes. Do you want to see more interviews? Guest posts? Podcasts? Video blogs? More pictures of our guinea pigs? Or should I stick to the approach I’m currently adopting under the theory of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”

Current Resolutions for 2012

In 2012, I would like to continue this blog. I’ve been having a lot of fun writing it and getting to exchange views with all of you both here and on Twitter. As I’ve been thinking about what to do with the blog in 2012, I’ve put together a brief list of blog resolutions for the new year. A year from now, it’ll be fun to check back and see which of these resolutions I actually managed to stick with:

  • Read James Wood’s How Fiction Works Without Throwing it Across a Room. I read a lot of literary criticism and books on writing. I find them fun. But I have never been able to get through James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I find that his quasi-academic presentation obscures his rather banal observations, and the book has just infuriated me every time I’ve picked it up. Yet it comes highly recommended, and so I resolve that in 2012 I will actually finish it. Cover to cover. Honest.
  • Broaden My Critical Theory. There are lots of critics out there who have interesting and insightful things to say about how fiction, and how genre fiction, works. I want to broaden my knowledge, to read wider in the field, and to share some of my perspectives with you as I do.
  • Read More Review Books. About one third of my blog posts are reviews, but I would love to read more widely in and out of genre and post more of my thoughts on what I have found. Since my theoretical musings seem to be somewhat more popular than my reviews, I’d ideally like to do this by increasing my post frequency and thus keeping my theoretical output stable. I’m a little skeptical as to whether this resolution will actually be achievable, but some resolutions are made to be broken, right?
  • Experiment with Give-aways. So far, I have never done any giveaways or anything like that. But as the shelves of ARCs and review copies keep growing, I think it’ll be worth experimenting with a giveaway or two this year. I’m curious to see how it works.
  • Build Guest Post Relationships. I resolve to try to build guest post relationships, both where interesting and thoughtful people come and share their thoughts over here, and where I foray out into the wild Interwebs to share my thoughts on other blogs. It’s a brave new world out there.
  • Be More Active in the Fan Community. This year, I resolve to go to more conventions (I’m already registered for Arisia, Readercon, and Chicon) and to meet other creators, bloggers, and folks who I’ve (so far) only met on the Interwebs.
  • Experiment with Different Formats. This year, I resolve to continue various experiments with different post formats. They may be short micro-reviews, or different style posts entirely (video blogs? Podcasts?)

Do you have any other suggestions for me? I’d love to know what kind of stuff you’ve particularly enjoyed, and what type of material you’d like to see more of in the future. Please let me know! I’ve loved writing this blog for the past year and change, and am looking forward to doing more fun stuff like it in the near future.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year to everyone!

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:

Why Process, Criticism, and Theory Can Be Good for All Writers


What’s the fastest way to start an argument with…
The Professor? Advocate an analytically-driven, engineered writing process.
Chris? Advocate process-less, instinctive writing (“Just write!”)

Obviously, this is one subject on which my wife and I disagree. Sometimes quite vehemently. And this is also an argument that I’ve seen writers manifest in the perennial debate over outlining, writing synopses, or just seat-of-the-pantsing it.

Why Seat-of-the-Pants vs Outline is a False Dichotomy

That question, beloved of the interwebs, is bogus. For a story to be effective, it must be coherent on one or more levels. And coherence in narrative results from having a plan. If a story didn’t have an underlying plan, it would be stream of consciousness and word association. And while some few (*cough* James Joyce *cough*) may have pulled it off, most of us won’t. The real question is one of timing, worldview, and brain wiring.

Let’s posit two (obviously extreme) writers: Jane Outline and John Pants. Obviously, Jane likes to map out the events of her story before sitting down to pen some prose. John, by contrast, sits down and lets his characters tell the story. Both John and Jane still execute on a plan. The real difference is when each prepares that plan.

Jane, with her spreadsheets, notes, and color charts front-loads a great deal of the work. Before she writes her opening sentence, Jane knows what her characters will do at each stage of her story. She knows what motivates them, and how they will react to the situations she puts them in. For her, the act of writing is more a question of finding the words to best express actions that she has already mapped out. The events of her story will rarely surprise her, but her execution might.

John, by contrast, sits down with a character, a voice, or a sentence. He has a hook that brings him into the world of his story, but beyond that he doesn’t know much of where the story is going. After he writes that first sentence, or the first paragraph, he lets the character/voice guide him. The story that unfolds might surprise him, though he counts on his facility for language to express that story as it makes itself apparent. If John has a plan, he makes it up as he goes: he knows what will happen in the next sentence, the next paragraph, or the next scene. But he might not necessarily have an end-goal in sight. His plan is gradually uncovered in parallel to the story.

Both plans come from the heart of storytelling in our souls. Those of us wired like Jane might consciously try to tap into that wellspring, while those like John might have to negotiate access on a moment-by-moment basis. But if we want to write at a professional level, we need to develop the capacity to touch that heart of storytelling whenever we need to. Waiting for the elusive muse, or relying on some ritual, is counterproductive and inhibiting. And that is something that the Professor and I agree on. So how can writers – regardless of whether they plan ahead of time or not – develop the capability to build stories? While at its most basic level the answer is practice (or as the Professor tells me constantly: Just write, dammit!), I think the more complete answer depends on how our brains are wired.

Creative Tools for the Analytical Writer

I’m a fairly analytical fellow by both nature and training. I see patterns and systems just about everywhere (whether they’re really there or not). When I sit down to write, I try to think of it in terms of systems and processes. This isn’t to say that I write by the numbers, but I find that I will always try to build a conceptual framework around whatever writing project I’m working on at any precise moment. Sometimes, that conceptual framework manifests itself in an outline, other times in a synopsis, and sometimes (usually when I write short fiction) it stays in my head. But the quality of those conceptual frameworks, and the tools that I can apply to them are actually the result of critical theory and extensive analytical reading.

I try to read as much critical theory as possible. And since I write primarily in the speculative genres, I also read heavily in genre theory. If your only exposure to critical theory has been Derrida (ick) or most of the other post-modernists, then I strongly suggest you take a look at some of the more formalist schools of thought: there’s a lot of value to be found there. I’ve found that useful critical theory expands my conceptual vocabulary, and gives me a way of thinking about story structure, character archetypes, and narrative techniques. Unlike how-to-write books or blogs (which can also be helpful), most good theory isn’t didactic. It’s diagnostic: it describes what the investigator sees in the field, rather than what a practitioner should do.

Why is this helpful? It explains what other authors, schools of writing, or genres have done. If I’m writing a fairy tale, I find that I keep Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale close to hand. Not because I slavishly stick to the plot constructions he describes, but because he has laid out a time-tested architecture for fairy tale storytelling. I might choose to diverge from his framework, but if I do so, I do so consciously: I know where I’m diverging and why. When I write fantasy, I keep in mind Farah Mendlesohn’s categories of fantasy (from her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy). Doing so does not limit my writing, but it expands my awareness of where my story might go.

Analytical reading is a way of consciously constructing my own conceptual vocabulary. When I read a story, in particular when I’m reading something for review consideration, I’m always asking myself what techniques the author used to manipulate the reader’s perception. I examine their effectiveness, and the reasons driving it. In essence, I’m creating my own internal critical theory that then informs my writing and affects how stories get constructed in the deeper recesses of my brain. A big part of this blog is actually my attempt to further systematize this nebulous personal critical theory and deepen my conscious awareness of it through its articulation.

“Theory is Boring, Didactic, and Risky,” says the Instinctive Writer

Our theoretical John Pants (and The Professor, and a who’s who list of amazing writers) would probably disagree with everything I just said above. They would say that theory can be inhibiting, leading us to write by the numbers. And yes, this is a real risk. Just consider all of the dross produced on the back of the Campbellian monomyth. Instead, they would probably suggest that people should just read extensively and analytically, and write, write, write.

And that is absolutely true. But extensive reading (whether consciously analytical or not) has the same ultimate effect as reading theory. Have you ever found yourself reading extensively in a particular time period, or genre, and discovered that you’ve picked up habits (sentence construction, pacing, plot) from your reading? Even if we don’t consciously dissect our reading material, the act of reading still builds our internal critical theory. Consciously, analytically, or through osmosis, the act of reading assembles our conceptual vocabulary whether we want it to or not. Whether we can ever consciously articulate that theory or not doesn’t matter: it’s still somewhere in our brains. And it percolates there, and then leaks out to flavor our writing. And the more extensive our internal critical theory, the wider assortment of narrative tools we have in our writing workshop.

I admit, I’m not one of these instinctive writers. But I suspect the biggest challenge for such writers is to work through the moments in their writing when their limited conscious plan peters out. “Where do I take the story from here?” is a question I suspect many struggle with at some point. Which is why they say Broadway is paved with excellent first acts. The exhortation that writers force themselves to write, come hell or high water, is designed to train us to smoothly access our conceptual vocabulary – whether we’re conscious of the process or not. And the wider our reading, the broader and deeper that conceptual vocabulary becomes. This then lets us avoid such dead-ends, or to more easily identify them so we can backtrack to fix them.

Process vs Ritual: The First is Good, the Second is Bad

We writerly types are fairly idiosyncratic. Like athletes, we all have our little habits that put us in the zone. Whether it’s a particular chair we love to write in, or a particular time of day to write at, or a particular process that we go through before setting fingers to keyboard, we’ve all got our little rituals. And rituals are bad. They’re crutches that over the space of a career are just not sustainable. Because life generally is not conducive to ritualized work processes. Sooner or later, our favorite chairs break, mugs get lost, schedules get all mixed up. Life just gets in the way. And if we’re beholden to our rituals, then our writing will suffer.

Imagine if John Pants lands a three book deal, with a national book tour (okay, I realize this isn’t likely in the modern world – but for illustrative purposes only, bear with me). He’ll be on the road for eight weeks plugging the first book in his trilogy, meanwhile his deadline for book number two is rapidly approaching (if it hasn’t already passed). If he’s addicted to his favorite writing chair, or to his cat lounging on his feet, he’s going to have a lot of trouble finishing book two while on tour.

I find that I struggle with a variety of rituals in my writing. For example: when I sit down to write a short story, I like to write a complete draft in one sitting. Silly, but it’s just a little ritual or idiosyncrasy that I’ve got. Or if I’m working on a long form work, I like to write a complete scene, or a complete chapter. As far as rituals go, this isn’t that bad (the upside is I usually finish the stuff I start). But it still means there will be times when I decide not to write because I know I won’t have time to get far beyond a single sentence or paragraph. If I don’t have an hour or two to focus, I might just wait for later. And that’s an inhibiting habit that I’m working on breaking. It’d be nice to be able to write effectively at any time of day, whether I’ve got five minutes or an hour to do so. With the Professor’s exhortations (and mockery) I’m working through this, but it’s something that takes – and will continue to take – work.

But there is a difference between ritual and process. Process is an outgrowth of how our brains are wired, and so if we need to write an outline to tell a story, then I say go for it! But we cannot let ourselves become slaves to that process. An outline is one process that is particularly suited to those of us with an analytical mindset. There are others (synopses, notes, mind-maps, and yes – even just winging it, etc.). If we say we absolutely need an outline to write, and then we get stuck in the outlining phase, that might mean our process has broken down for a particular project.

If our process has become a ritual, we might get stuck. But if we have the flexibility to switch to a different process, the odds of bogging down fall dramatically. The last three long works I’ve drafted (one fantasy novel, one graphic novel script, and one alternate history novel) all used a different process. The first had a detailed outline before I ever started writing it. The second had a loose synopsis. And I winged the third until I got about halfway through it, then built a detailed scene-by-scene outline from there. Much as I like process, it can be a crutch. And here my wife’s aversion to analytical writing is dead on: At some point, crutches always break. Which is why having the widest possible assortment of processes in our writing toolkit makes good analytical sense. It is always good to push our own boundaries as writers, to play and experiment with different tools, techniques, and methods.

So what processes work for you in your writing? What techniques would you recommend? What techniques have you tried that didn’t work for you?

REVIEW: Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley


Title: Cowboy Angels
Author: Paul McAuley
Pub Date: January 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
High-concept, hard SF alternate history with a spy-thriller edge.

I first came across Paul McAuley’s work sometime in the mid-to-late ’90s with his genetic cyberpunk (genepunk? I’ve always thought this should be a term) masterpiece Fairyland. Since then, I’ve always kept my eyes open for new McAuley novels and have found far more hits than misses among them. While his books span a variety of sub-genres (space opera, alternate history, genepunk, etc.), they share that high-concept imagination that underpins the best in science fiction. It was that same high-concept approach to alternate history which attracted me to his new novel, Cowboy Angels.

Books employing the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics are a dime-a-dozen, and so that on its own isn’t really enough to grab me. However, in Cowboy Angels, McAuley asks a question: what if the United States had found a way to travel between alternate versions of Earth at the height of the Cold War? In our real history, the Cold War was characterized by the domino theory, containment, détente, and proxy wars fought all over the world (Central America, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, South Asia, etc.). A downright fascinating time period in history, with the all-too-real primacy of the CIA, KGB, Mossad and other espionage agencies. McAuley’s brilliant concept is to introduce parallel worlds as a new front in this Cold War, which to my history-loving mind made me sit up and say: “Right on, this is going to be awesome!”

Cowboy Angels follows one Adam Stone, a retired special operations agent for the CIG (Central Intelligence Group). He has made his career as a spy working to spread US-style democracy across alternate versions of America. We first meet Adam Stone at the end of an era: American policy is changing with the election of the “peacenik” President Carter, and the nature of the Company’s missions is evolving. Adam Stone is comfortable with this change, having grown disillusioned by the manifest destiny ideology that had put him in moral quandaries in alternate Americas. But not all of his fellow agents are as comfortable with their country’s shifting values, and the book’s plot explores the lengths some people will go to in service of their ideology.

The novel’s plot is structured like a spy thriller, with Stone being called out of retirement to track down his friend and former partner, Tom Waverly. Waverly has gone on a killing spree across multiple alternate realities – killing the exact same woman over and over again. Neither the local authorities in those realities nor the Company know why. And so Stone gets reactivated to try and bring his friend in. What follows is a spy-thriller, but rather than have us jet off to exotic locales, McAuley takes us to exotic versions of the United States. Stone’s hunt for Waverly takes us to a kleptocratic New York decimated by nuclear war, to a United States that had been leveled in an apocalyptic World War III, and to a version of history very much like our own.

This is not a James Bond-style spy caper, where our hero gets to enjoy the good life in sunny Macao, Monaco, or other fancy places that begin with the letter “M”. While some of the alternate realities our hero visits seem bucolic, even pastoral “untouched” realities have their gritty undersides. And McAuley artfully exposes us to that, using blood and sinew to temper the novel’s escapism.

In terms of general concept, Cowboy Angels gets ten out of ten points for me. The idea of Kennedy-era expansionist/messianical foreign policy applying across alternate worlds practically begs to be written. Once again, McAuley’s ability to identify and execute on a particular concept is compelling.

However, for me, the book relied too heavily on this (admittedly awesome) concept to carry it. There were three weaknesses that detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Successful execution of both the novel’s concept as well as its spy-thriller plot structure requires distinctive settings, and the concept enables for some fascinating alternate versions of our world. While we get tantalizing glances into some fascinating settings (Nuclear Winter America, an American government-in-exile in Cuba, etc.), the majority of the book takes place in settings only slightly different from what we know. The settings we explore are different enough to remain distinct, but I think there was a wasted opportunity to explore some really interesting alternate versions of America. With so much of the book’s backstory dealing with the Cold War and the fight against Communism, it struck me as particularly odd that at no time did our hero venture into a Communist version of the USA.

The second, less significant, issue I found lay in some aspects of McAuley’s characterization. In particular, Stone’s romantic interest (which serves as a significant motivator through much of the book) struck me as particularly under-developed. Overall, I bought the character: I felt Stone was believable, and engaging. But I was unable to shake that arms-length disconnect and engage enough with the character enough to lose myself in his world(s). It was close – almost nailed just right – but I found that I just didn’t feel enough of Stone’s motivation. The solid plotting and awesome concept were enough to carry me over this weakness, but I wasn’t close enough to the character for McAuley’s gears and cogs at work to disappear.

The third, and least significant, problem I came across lay in the book’s pacing. Please don’t get me wrong, this is a fast-paced book, and it reads very quickly. However, the pacing is relatively unvaried throughout the text. This is an issue I often find in spy-thrillers: too often, I suspect their authors and editors believe readers equate escalating, no-respite events with being a page-turner. This leads to a go-go-go pacing which can be tiring if not offset and balanced against the emotional arc of the story. Just yesterday, Ursula K. Le Guin posted a great essay on this very subject. By giving his character – and the reader – room to catch one’s breath, McAuley could have deepened my emotional connection to the character and the story. By slowing down the story in a couple of places, the overall result would have been more emotionally powerful.

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Visually, the novel is attractive and stands out nicely. The cover was designed by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke and features an illustration by Sparth (aka nicolas bouvier). The cover really communicates the novel’s feel, contrasting futuristic Turing Gates against the decidedly-less-futuristic trains emerging from them.

Much as I enjoyed Stone’s adventure, my own personal tastes would likely have preferred to see the book’s backstory moved to the front. The transition from “manifest destiny” to “peace and reconciliation” and how that transition unfolds amongst the Company’s agents would be a really fascinating story, and one particularly relevant in today’s geopolitical environment. McAuley has set up a fascinating universe with infinite potential for clever, high-concept, and emotionally powerful stories. I would love to see a prequel set in this same universe exploring the Church Committee’s investigations into the Company’s clandestine operations.

Cowboy Angels is a very enjoyable book. The underlying concept is strong enough to overcome the minor weaknesses in setting, characterization, and pacing. That concept was enough to get my imagination firing, and often that’s exactly what I look for in SF. If you enjoy a good spy thriller, or get a kick out of playing with alternate histories, this book is definitely worth your time.

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