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Posts from the ‘Writing’ Category

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.

CROSSROADS: Westerns and Speculative Fiction


Amazing Stories LogoSo today is the first Thursday of March, which means it is time to kick off a new Crossroads series over at Amazing Stories.

This month, I’m going to be focusing on the relationship between Westerns and Speculative Fiction. There will be horses and spaceships, guns and swords and lasers, and plenty of riding into sunsets solar flares. This week’s post outlines the aesthetic dimensions of the western which I think are most relevant for speculative fiction and begins to examine whether the western’s commercial trajectory may be a valuable cautionary tale for speculative fiction.

I hope you stop by! Today’s post is: Crossroads: Riding into Space – Westerns and Speculative Fiction

Crushing Conservatism in Epic Fantasy?


So last week, Gollancz (an excellent British publisher of science fiction and fantasy) got some discussion going by tweeting a provocative question:

I missed the initial conversation on Twitter, but I have been following the fascinating responses from Liz Bourke at Tor.com, John H. Stevens at SFSignal, and Steven M. Long. So far, I’ve let Gollancz’s initial question, the essay responses, and the comments made on those responses all percolate in my brain. And out of that percolation, some thoughts come to mind:

Definitions Matter…to a Point

Much of the discussion has focused on defining terms. I suppose, considering the genre community’s love of semantics, that this shouldn’t be surprising. In this case, the discussion has centered almost exclusively on two key terms (“epic fantasy” and “conservative”) which are – admittedly – fuzzy, imprecise, and in may ways problematic. In order to contextualize my thoughts, I’m going to briefly wade into the semantic weeds and define how I will be using these terms, but that is incidental to my main focus. Much of the discussion has ignored the third – and most important – key term in Gollancz’s initial tweet: “crushingly.”

Definitions of “epic fantasy” and “conservative”, while important for the sake of precision, are terms we all routinely employ in some fashion. There is a working understanding of such terms that enables us to communicate. My personal definition of “epic fantasy” or my concept of “conservative” may not match yours perfectly, but there is enough overlap that we can in most cases make ourselves understood.

When it comes to “epic fantasy”, I like Alec Austin’s concept of a tag cloud of sub-genre characteristics, simply because it allows us to think of particular works as falling somewhere on a spectrum of “epic-ness”. Different works won’t all share the same characteristics, but such a model enables us to contextualize particular works somewhere along this conceptual spectrum – and thus to adopt a working understanding we can all agree on.

“Conservative” is a little more fraught, with cultural, political, emotional, and historical connotations that vary across individuals and geographies. “Politically conservative” in the UK differs significantly from “politically conservative” in the US, “morally conservative” varies across religious and secular belief and value systems, and all of these different meanings of “conservative” further fragment into different implied meanings for “culturally conservative”. Loathe as I am to get bogged down in semantics, I’m going to use “conservative” in the following sense (courtesy of Dictionary.com):

1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

I think the term “crushingly” is less well-understood, particularly in this critical context. What does it mean to be “crushingly” conservative (or “progressive”, or “epic”, or “green”, or any other adjective)? What is getting “crushed” in Gollancz’s question? Are we talking about limitations imposed on aesthetics at the moment of creation? The moment of editorial acquisition? The moment of consumer purchase? The moment of reader consumption? Do we mean that structural characteristics are imposed upon creative works wishing to operate within or comment upon a sub-genre’s conventions? Do we mean that the characteristics of a particular sub-genre preclude the exploration of certain themes?

The important part of Gollancz’s question has little to do with how we define either “epic fantasy” or “conservative”. Any attempt to answer hinges upon the meaning of “crushingly”, and the cultural significance of that answer is a direct consequence of the unstated object implicit in the original question.

What Gets Crushed?

What is implicitly being crushed in Gollancz’s question? Obviously at a certain level of abstraction they mean epic fantasy literature. But that is such a broad over-generalization that it offers us little insight. It is far more interesting to narrow our focus and examine which aspects of epic fantasy literature may be getting the squeeze.

Here are the aspects I’m curious about:

  • Aesthetics. Does our current conception of epic fantasy preclude certain imagery, metaphors, sentence construction, etc.?
  • Structure. How do trends in epic fantasy constrain the narrative structures viable within the sub-genre?
  • Themes. Are there thematic areas which epic fantasy cannot explore? Moral, ethical, political, sociological models it cannot dramatize?

By definition, working within a genre imposes certain constraints on a creative work. However broad a given genre may be (and speculative fiction is, on the whole, broader than most), it has conventions. In fact, some might argue that genres are defined by their conventions, which as Samuel Delany pointed out, shape the way readers consume and interpret the written work. These conventions impose constraints precisely along those three foundational lines: aesthetics, structure, and themes. That is an inescapable truth of genre, and represents a key conserving force.

But when does the conserving force of such conventions (i.e. the constraints of convention) grow so constricting as to be deemed “crushing?” And here it gets interesting.

Who Does the Crushing?

The creative process features many actors at many stages: There is the author, who conceives of a story and sits down to write it. There is an agent who chooses to represent the book based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is an editor/publisher who acquires the story based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is a designer and production editor who shape the physical characteristics of the book so as to maximize (they hope) its sales potential. There is a bookseller who orders copies of the book based on their expectations of its sales. There are consumers who buy a book based on their expectations of what they’ll find within its covers. There are consumers who enjoy a book based on what they find within its covers, and some of whom will then go and conceive of a new story influenced (at least to some extent) by everything they have read before.

Each actor and each stage feeds into and affects every other stage of this cycle. Who applies the constraints imposed by genre? We all do.

The author, whose conception of a story has been shaped by their life experiences and media/genre consumption, chooses to impose or subvert the conventions of a genre while writing it.

The agent and acquiring editor (and the marketing and sales departments) are more or less welcoming to different books depending on the degree and fashion in which they apply genre convention. For them, it is about striking a balance between challenging convention enough to be innovative and fresh, while working within convention enough to give the rest of the sales cycle confidence in the work. And perhaps most importantly, that balance can be tipped in either direction by the quality of the execution. As an editor friend once told me: “Nabokov can break every convention and get away with it. But you’re not Nabokov.”

The designers (and the marketing and sales departments, again) shape the packaging of the physical (or digital) product to communicate the book’s balance to the booksellers and readers. Consider the original US covers for Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Stylistically, they suggest that the books’ content will work solidly within the conventions of mid-list sword and sorcery…and thus fail to communicate anything about the novels’ tone, structural innovations, or subversion of epic fantasy conventions. It was, of course, a judgment call, yet one which I think the series’ original UK publishers did better with (and it is significant that subsequent US editions received new covers closer in aesthetics to their UK counterparts).

US Cover UK Cover

The bookseller learns about the book through the catalog copy, cover art, and perhaps even a conversation with the publisher’s reps. This material tells the bookseller about what kind of creative balance a given work strikes, which in turn helps them to determine how many copies to buy, and how to shelve those copies.

All of these decisions, coupled with reviews and third-party commentary about the book, shape the reader’s expectations and frame the reader’s approach to the book’s content. Ultimately, they determine if the reader will buy the book, and subsequently when coupled with the content itself, affect the reader’s enjoyment.

At each stage there is pressure applied to the balance in one or the other direction. Challenge the genre, but not enough to tank sales. Work within the genre, but not so slavishly as to be trite. Stand out, but not too tall. Unless the book’s quality is such that any putative and theoretical yearning for creative balance becomes meaningless. Every actor in this process “crushes” the creative work to one degree or another.

The Real Question

Given this framework, we can now turn to Gollancz’s question: Is epic fantasy crushingly conservative?

I don’t know.

No two people desire aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation to the same degree or in the same direction. It is such idiosyncrasy which makes us human, and which leads to differing opinions. This push for innovation – in any facet of a creative work, and executed in whatever fashion – is constantly in tension with the prevailing cultural norms within broader society, and within the conventions of a particular genre.

Looking at epic fantasy, I see laudable attempts to push the boundaries of the genre. I recommend the work of (among others) N.K. Jemisin, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, Steven Erikson, Kate Elliott, Robin Hobb, etc. I can point to authors and books that challenge, subvert, or extend the genre. I value such innovation very highly. Do I wish to see more such aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation? Hell yes.

But do I think the prevailing cultural winds prevent such innovation from seeing the light of day? Do I think that such innovations are “crushed” beneath the oppressive heels of prevailing commercial trends and artistic tastes? I do not. I think that any innovation within any genre needs to be balanced against the long-standing conventions of that genre, and that this balance can be swayed in either direction by the quality of that innovation’s execution.

I think quality and innovation can both rise to the top. Regardless how circuitous the route, I think good storytelling will eventually win out. It may mean writing and selling more commercially “conservative” books in the short term to establish a fan base (i.e. to assuage commercial concerns about an innovative book’s commercial viability). It may mean by-passing the traditional publishing model and self-publishing an innovative work yourself. But the world of genre literature has the mechanisms in place to bring ground-breaking work to the surface, and to further disseminate its influence throughout the culture and the field.

But your mileage may vary. I think that epic fantasy does have conservative tendencies, just as all genres do. With the shadow of Tolkien, and the weight of history, I think epic fantasy’s conservative tendencies are expressed in ways particular to the sub-genre. Other genres (YA, for example) express their own conservatism in very different ways. An exploration of the ways in which epic fantasy or other genres express their conservatism would be fascinating (and I might come back to it later), but it is not really germane to Gollancz’s original question. Conservatism is inherent within every genre. The real question is whether or not the field is crushed by it.

How to Stand Beneath the Heel

The important conclusion of all this, however, is that if we wish to challenge the conservatism of a genre (regardless of how it is expressed or defined), we need to do it on every front we can. The author sitting alone and writing a challenging book. The agent who believes in the book enough to pitch it. The editor who believes in it enough to acquire it. The designers and sales people and reviewers and booksellers and readers who are willing to give it a shot.

But this process always starts with the creative act: with that author, ensconced behind a desk and dreaming challenging dreams.

CROSSROADS: An Exploration of Science Fiction Romance


Amazing Stories LogoFor this week’s Crossroads post at Amazing Stories, I take an in-depth look at science fiction romance, and explore how its non-literary pop culture support may contribute to it selling less than paranormal romance. There’s also an in-depth discussion of how its devices contribute or impede the sub-genre’s accessibility.

Please, stop by and take a look: CROSSROADS: Science Fiction Romance – a Niche Before Its Time?

[guest post] Pride and Prejudice and Socks


My wife is a mild-mannered Children’s Book Editor by day, and a chef, knitter, puppy mom, and editor some more by night. Tonight, to my surprise and great pleasure, she wanted to post some thoughts on character idiosyncrasy, because I am lazy and didn’t get around to writing a post and she’s kind and understanding to a fault, and totally not writing this. Please, welcome her first guest post here, and enjoy!


It could be the wool fumes going to my head. It could be that this past weekend was the first time in the months since a colleague mentioned ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ that I found myself a) in front of a computer, b) not working, and c) with headphones, and thus spent much longer than I’d ever intended watching video after video of Lizzie, Lydia, and Jane Bennet (and other characters) in vlog form.

But somehow, my first thought this morning (besides the usual bemoaning the alarm clock and general desire for coffee, a shower, and a productive work day) was “I really want to wear my new socks!”

These new socks I wanted to wear were not your standard, six-pack from Target, run of the mill socks. Oh no. These were hand-knit, multicolored in the skein, mostly-wool, sized-just-for-me, made-them-myself new socks. This weekend I had finished some work. I had remembered that long-ago mention of Pride and Prejudice for the internet age. I had only half the length of my (admittedly short) foot to go on the second sock. And so, dear reader, I finished it.

Hence my first coherent thought this morning. Hence the shoes I drew forth from the slightly haphazard pile of footwear at my desk. Hence the comment from a co-worker this morning: “Wow, you planned your whole outfit just to show off your socks, didn’t you?”

But truly? Until she pointed it out – that I had on black tights and a black dress and black ankle-boots and SCREAMINGLY BRIGHT HAND KNIT WOOL SOCKS – I hadn’t even realized that I was the sort of person who would do something like pick out an outfit to showcase a particular article of clothing.

I mean, I make stuff all the time. Mittens, hats, shawls that I wear as scarves, socks, etc. I occasionally get asked whether I’ve made something, like a scarf, that I’m wearing to a meeting or on the way out to coffee with work friends. But base a morning’s wardrobe choice around my socks? Not necessarily how I would characterize myself.

And that is what’s so great about characters. Characters walking down the sidewalk in New York, characters in vlogs, characters in books. Characters are everywhere, and characters everywhere are idiosyncratic. I wonder if we’d all love (I’m a children’s book editor – trust me, we all love her) Anne of Green Gables if she wasn’t delightfully idiosyncratic – if she didn’t name plants and places, or hate her red hair, or dramatize every incident and story she read, or talk copiously and at great speed. I wonder if we’d all shudder at Roald Dahl’s witches if we didn’t know that they had squared-off feet and blue saliva and were constantly scratching their scalps underneath the very itchy wigs they must wear? I wonder if Meg Murray would be half so appealing if we didn’t know she’d like a tomato sandwich and not the liverwurst and cream cheese one Charles Wallace offers to make for their mother? Would we find Katniss Everdeen as sympathetic if she hunted for her family simply to feed them and because she needs bow-and-arrow expertise for the plot, rather than realizing how much she loves being outside the fence around District 12?

Probably not.

One of the nicest things about surrounding myself with characters all the time – in manuscripts at work, in people I spend time with, in books on the shelves at home that I stare at longingly because there are always more manuscripts that need to become books and don’t allow much reading time – lies not in realizing how they work, or in being able to designate what constitutes a good character, or what makes for an uninteresting voice (though I do that too). It’s that characters are so delightful. And though in the books I work on and the books I enjoy reading voice and world-building are the aspects of a story that attract me the most, characters are what give those fictional worlds reason to exist, and what are behind the voices I’m drawn to.

And characters, whether they’re real or online or in books, are idiosyncratic. I am hardly through the existing videos of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but just a little way in, it’s already clear that people playing along with the vlog feel strongly about particular characters (and not just that the man playing Bing Lee is adorable). The creators seem a little apologetic that certain viewers don’t like Lydia’s character very much, or even Lizzie’s. But guess what? The fact that viewers are able to like or dislike them, or find them annoying (for the record, I find the whole thing to be a lot of fun, and Lydia’s character in particular, like, totes adorbs) means that the writers and actors have done a good job in creating believable characters.

Because we all know what’s going to happen! I imagine that relatively few viewers of the LBD vlog haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, or seen the movie with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth (or even the Kiera Knightley version, if they’re willing to make life choices different from mine). We know that Darcy and Lizzie will end up together, his pride and her prejudice notwithstanding. We know that Lydia and Wickham are going to run off together (though I can’t imagine Lydia being ruined a good impetus for the Bennet family to panic if it’s set in the present day, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the show handles it). We know that Jane and Bing Lee, the two nicest people in literature, are going to reconcile despite Lizzie’s prejudice and Darcy’s pride. So why keep watching?

For some? Because we are (read: I am) total suckers for retellings of Shakespeare, fairy tales, and Jane Austen novels. I am there in the acknowledgements of Elizabeth Eulberg’s delicious Prom and Prejudice for a reason, and not just because we have been known to occasionally geek out over movie versions of Jane Austen together. But for anyone who’s not already a fan, or doesn’t know the plot inside out and backwards? It’s because the characters are so well done. For the LBD viewers complaining that Lydia is annoying and skipping over the videos that she posts – isn’t that degree of engagement with the character the point? She’s always inserting herself into Lizzie’s videos, so it makes complete sense for her character to take over Lizzie’s vlog when her big sister is away, or to post her own videos when she’s off staying with her cousin, because she loooves the attention. She goes so far as to create a twitter account for her cat! And Jane? Who always apologizes when she comes to talk to Lizzie and the camera’s on, and has to be dragged into participating with the re-enactments, even though most of the actual content being discussed on Lizzie’s vlog is about Jane’s life? Her character’s participation on the site is mostly pictures of outfits that she’s worn or wearing or planning to wear for a specific occasion. Silent, posed, unobtrusive photos. Because that’s in line with the character as written for the site.

So in a way, it stands out that Lydia would post videos on a site that’s supposed to be her sister’s vlog – yet it’s completely in line with her character’s personality. Or it’s interesting that when two of three Bennet sisters post videos, the eldest posts photos instead of vlogging. Also totally what that Jane Bennet would do.

Because characters, when done correctly, when written so that readers or viewers believe in them enough to root for them or complain about them, when they come alive, are idiosyncratic. They do or say or think things that don’t move along the plot but do underline the way they are. Other characters they encounter might be surprised by certain small traits they possess – but they’re believable in no small part because of those small practices and habits and private traditions and actions and thoughts that don’t mean anything except to them.

Sometimes characters surprise themselves with their own idiosyncrasies as much as they do their authors or readers. Sometimes they wake up and commute in to work and get halfway through their morning before a friend points out that they’ve dressed themselves with the single goal of showcasing their new, hand knit socks.


And here are those hand knit socks she mentioned:
Hermione's Everyday Socks

CROSSROADS: Will You Be My Undead Valentine?


Amazing Stories Logo Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody! Not only is today Thursday, nor merely even Valentine’s Day, but it’s also the day when another of my Crossroads essays goes live over at Amazing Stories.

This week, I’m taking a close look at paranormal romance and urban fantasy, how they work and the complicated ways in which they use metaphor and power dynamics. Come and take a look!

REVIEW: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan


A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan Title: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
Author: Marie Brennan
Pub Date: February 5th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A scientific fantasy which strongly develops its narrator and world.

One of the most interesting themes I’ve found in science fiction is the genre’s complex relationship to science itself: most science fiction stories are simultaneously promoters of science and cautionary tales, warning us of discovery’s ethical dangerous. This makes for an interesting and powerful theme to explore, what with humanity’s unbridled capacity for discovery. But for all of its power, it is a theme which fantasy addresses all too rarely, which is why it was such a delight to recently read Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent.

I grew up on scientist adventurers: Verne’s Professor Arronax (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Doyle’s Professor Challenger (The Lost World), and Wells’ The Time Traveler (The Time Machine) all thrilled with the promise and possibilities reason could bring. These characters practiced and preached a set of positivist values, an Enlightenment tradition untrammeled by the softer complexities of Romanticism. And when a few years later I discovered the history of science, in particular through works like C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars, Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, and Farley Mowat’s Woman in the Mists I could see how real scientists worked and struggled to fit such values into a more complex world than the fictional.

For all of the positivist values promoted through the works of early science fiction, most of those books derive their conflict from the tension between their characters’ full-throated devotion to positivist principles and the subtler risks – ethical, philosophical, and existential – which science exposes us to. Verne’s Nemo – and his mad political philosophy – is an ethical exploration of the militaristic consequences of science, of technology’s capacity for both good and evil. The dismissal of Challenger and Summerlee’s findings in The Lost World explores how society treats discoveries which fly in the face of accepted wisdom, a social statement on public attitudes to science if ever there was one. And Wells’ The Time Machine is nothing if not a commentary on man’s self-destructive tendencies, offset by the Time Traveler’s genius invention of the time machine itself and his yearning to explore.

Such an exploration of reason, such an application of rational thought, is often inimical to much fantasy. So much of the genre relies on the irrational that it is easy to get uncomfortable when put beneath the magnifying glass. Fantasy generally explores different themes, leaving an exploration of science to science fiction. Some fantasists – notably Patricia C. Wrede in her Frontier Magic trilogy, Michael A. Stackpole in his Crown Colonies trilogy, and much in the steampunk vein – have incorporated such scientific themes, but their approaches tend to use science as a device for getting characters into trouble. Science is not the heart of the story: war or some other life-or-death struggle divorced from science provides the conflict. While such stories may be exciting, I usually find myself disappointed that the science gets short shrift.

But Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons keeps the science front-and-center, and builds tension and conflict naturally from that core. The way in which she achieves this effect is particularly interesting because it is simultaneously more obvious and more subtle than I would have expected. The obviousness stems from the book’s historical models: while it is a secondary fantasy, it is structured along the lines of the memoirs and stories of late Victorian (British) natural philosophers.

I am amazed that I don’t see this approach more frequently in fantasy. For 18th and 19th century readers in the Western world, journeys into Africa or South America would have been the equivalent of a secondary-world fantasy. Their settings and the cultures encountered would have been so alien as to be unrecognizable. They would have to establish and contextualize the strange environment, to explain its characteristics in both sensual and intellectual modes. In other words, the historical models for A Natural History of Dragons would have relied on the same type of world-building as any fantasy.

The basic structure of the story traces a recognizable path: the narrator’s development of scientific fascination, her initial discoveries, youthful exuberance, and systematic maturation as those discoveries mount is a natural progression recognizable, I think, to any adult. Because the novel is set during a time when people are ignorant of dragons, the ignorance of broader society (and initially of the narrator) is shared with the reader. We learn about Brennan’s secondary-world along with our heroine as she and her colleagues make what might seem to be basic discoveries. This evokes the same sense of obviousness we get when we look back at the scientific discoveries of yesterday.

The more subtle key to the novel’s success is maturation. A Natural History of Dragons is presented as a memoir written by the now-elderly Lady Trent, a rather feisty and by implication controversial natural historian. In the hands of a weaker author, her anachronistic attitudes (for her time, which is plainly modeled on the 19th century as conveyed by both voice and details in the text) would have always been present. From childhood, she would have been confident of her abilities despite prejudices against her gender, she would have always been respectful of other cultures, would have naturally become the intellectual and moral center of any expedition she took part in despite the many cultural factors stacked against her, etc. She would have been a modern heroine inserted into a historical world, and would naturally have triumphed over historical backwardness. The world would revolve around her because she is Our Heroine, and so a special snowflake.

Brennan neatly avoids this trap, and by doing so makes the book a delight to read. Yes, our heroine is special. But this is a tale of her youth, before she became Lady Trent with the notoriety such a title suggests. The narrator shows herself to be merely one step out of alignment with the mores of her time both during her youth and presumably at the time when the memoir is written. By alluding to her earlier works, and repudiating the prejudices she espoused therein, the narrator simultaneously acknowledges the problematic tendencies of the source time period, and provides justification for the narrator’s anachronism. The narrator does not share the attitudes of the time period of which she is writing because she – and presumably much of her society – has matured in the intervening years. We can plainly see the distinction between the narrator and her younger self, and this serves to further ground us in the character and the world. Yet the whole structure is made even more plausible by showing us the seeds of the opinionated older narrator in the actions and words of her younger self. It is a very neat trick.

Brennan’s character is clearly of scientific mind, and the focus in much of the book is on the science itself. Initially, one can be forgiven for thinking it a tale of simple positivist boosterism: after all, so much of its historical roots were exactly that. But as the adventure ramps up, Brennan introduces suggestions of a flip side to scientific development and discovery. This squarely puts the novel in the conflicted tradition of Verne, Doyle, or Wells. Yet unlike these far earlier writers, Brennan neatly balances the science with an inner emotional journey that at times can be quite touching.

If I have one complaint about the book, it is that it is too short. Partly, this perception is a selfish one: I would have gladly spent more time in this world, with these characters, and with the voice in which the novel is written simply because of how much fun I had with it. But structurally, while the book works as a standalone novel, it did leave me wanting more.

I don’t know (read: my Google Fu was unable to determine) if A Natural History of Dragons is the start of a series or a stand-alone one-off. This is plainly a memoir of Lady Trent’s youth, and she explicitly references other (it seems wilder) adventures which follow. At the same time, the implicit risks of scientific discovery are brought to the fore near the story’s conclusion. They are not resolved or developed in any meaningful sense, but rather are addressed at best temporarily, which while satisfying in this one volume does beg for further development. Both of these facts suggest that more books may follow, and I for one would be very happy if they do.

(UPDATE: Today’s Shelf Awareness for Readers has a nice write-up of the book, where they mention that it is the first installment in a planned series.)

I would also be remiss if I did not mention that the novel is a work of art in hardcover. I would recommend it on the strength of its design alone (with great deckled edges and a sepia-toned font which further evokes that Victorian sensibility), but for me, Todd Lockwood’s excellent illustrations seal the deal.

I strongly recommend A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent to anyone who has a taste for Victorian-inspired fiction, who loves the long age of discovery that spans from the Enlightenment through to the first World War, or who enjoys classic science fiction like Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, or H.G. Wells.

On the Interbook Indecision


Right now, I’m in that horrible place between WIPs. I’ve put two (very different) WIPs to bed, wrapped up both beta reader feedback and revisions on one, and am now awaiting the final pass on another. This means the two books are far off in the back of my mind, no longer front-and-center. Theoretically, this should free me up to focus on a new book. But I’ve once again run into what I call the Interbook Indecision, and it’s driving me batty. I wonder, do others run into this?

What is the Interbook Indecision?

It’s a heady feeling to finish a book. Finishing that first draft and typing “The End” is awesome. Of course, that is never the end: revisions, beta reads, more revisions, sometimes more beta reads, etc. all await until the project is judged “good enough” to go out to agents and editors (which itself prefigures yet more passes).

For me, doing revisions and awaiting beta reads translates into lots of waiting: either I’m waiting for a WIP to “settle” in my brain so that I can approach it fresh, or I’m waiting for beta readers to get back to me. Since the WIP is done – or at least paused while I wait – I find my writing time idle. And that’s no way to run a railroad.

At this stage, I usually start working on a new concept. At first, it’s easy going: I’m excited by the idea, interested by the voice and the characters I’m creating, and I’m having fun with it. Coming off of the book-finishing routine of writing one to two thousand words a day, I find it’s pretty easy to make a sizable dent in a new project. But then something comes up.

Usually at the 10 – 15 thousand word mark, I run into one of those typical writerly problems: I realize the pacing is broken, character motivation needs re-working, plot sequence is out of whack. Whatever it is, it’s a relatively minor problem. I’ve faced – and solved – similar problems before, so I think…no big deal! I’ll just give it a little thought, figure out the solution, fix it, and be back on the road in no time.

Only it never works out that way.

I give it a little thought, sure. But it’s always at this point that I get distracted by a shiny new idea like some sort of creative jackdaw. So I’ll write a chapter or three of the new idea – just to test the waters, of course, to clear the creative palate – and see if it feels like a story with legs. And of course, I’ll forget that when you’ve only written several thousand words, every story seems to have real legs. And here arises the Interbook Indecision.

I’ll have two stories (or sometimes more) which are all interesting, exciting, and fun (for me, which I think is a prerequisite for readers eventually feeling the same). I’m not (at least not yet – maybe some day!) one of those writers who can produce two decent books at the same time. I find that writing a book takes a great deal of concentration, but having two projects that (to me) seem equally viable is naturally inimical to that focus.

So what to do?

My Favorite Solution: Phone-a-Friend

Whenever the Interbook Indecision strikes, I know that I’ve lost perspective. Having written four book-length projects in the last three years (and two in the last year alone), I know that I have the ability to finish either of the projects open before me. But determining which I should finish – or the order in which I should tackle them – may simply be beyond me. So that’s when I seek an outside opinion.

At some point, I’ll have an agent and an editor who might provide feedback and help me choose between warring concepts. Until then, however, I rely on The Professor’s editorial insight. Having her unvarnished opinion helps me to prioritize my projects, keeps me on-target, and focused enough to finish the next book. (full disclosure: the fact that each time I finish a book, she knits me a pair of awesome socks helps, too.)

Yet even with her sharp editorial eye, this process isn’t without its challenges. She (thankfully) has no qualms about telling me when a concept falls flat. But she draws an intelligent distinction between “I don’t like this concept” and “This concept isn’t for me, so I can’t really judge.” And when I hear that, it just means the judgment call has been bounced back to me…when, as I’ve already stated, I’ve lost perspective on the choice.

The Backup Solution: Finding the Core of the Story

So lacking the perspective to judge between two options, and with my Phone-a-Friend option coming up flat, the decision comes back to me. In this situation, what I find helpful is to take each of the stories and try to identify the core nugget within that initially caught my interest.

This is – at least for me – a more difficult process than one might think. When I write a story, there are layers to my own motivation and those layers are ever-shifting based on a wide variety of factors (e.g. my mood, stress outside of writing, what I had for lunch that day, etc.). Yet underlying those layers is a solid foundation, the core of what made me excited to sit down and write the book in the first place. Once I’ve figured out what that core is, I’ll often find that one foundation is more exciting than the other. I’ll also often find that one foundation is otherwise more stable than the other (for example, I’m often prey to fascination with a particular voice, and so might want to play with that voice even when the underlying story is relatively weak).

It’s really a question of figuring out which core concept makes me rub my hands together in child-like glee the most. And once I’ve done that, it’s a question of committing to that project with the conscious acceptance that I’ll see it through to The End.

I wish that this process were easier, or that it were faster. This Interbook Indecision has hit me after each finished WIP, so it’s part of the writing process that I must learn to work through. With four finished projects, I think I’m building a way to do it. Between outside opinion, introspection, and examination, I’ve built a method that (so far) works for me, even if it’s not fast. The consideration and weighing of choices takes time, and it is annoying in that when I’m considering I find myself not writing. If I don’t write, the story doesn’t get finished, and that is incredibly frustrating. But this Interbook Indecision may be part of my mental composition as a writer: something I need to accept and deal with, as a natural consequence of finishing a book.

Thankfully, I’ve already started to refine my method. And if neither outside help or careful consideration helps? I guess I can always flip a coin. But it hasn’t come to that yet.

Does anyone else run into this Interbook Indecision? I know others get distracted by shiny new book ideas when they’re about three quarters done with a WIP, but does anyone else get distracted when they’re 10 – 15% into one? If so, how do you deal with it and settle on a project to finish?

In Defense of Complexity


Hi, my name is Chris, and I like complex stories (this is the point where a chorus of “Hi, Chris!” wouldn’t go amiss 😉).

For the last century, we’ve been trained by television and cinema – much more constrained narrative mediums than prose – to laud the straightforward. And while there are good reasons for simplicity’s commercial popularity, I think it’s a shame that it has become our default mode of storytelling.

I think it is odd that in our culture, I find myself defensive of my appreciation for complicated storytelling. I like intricate plots, multiple perspective characters, rich language, and complex narrative structures. When I read, such complexities mark the difference between breakfast and dinner. Both are important meals, and both can and should be enjoyed. But one begs to be fast and the other lingered over.

Embodying Perfection through Culinary Excellence by DangerDragon

Embodying Perfection through Culinary Excellence by DangerDragon (via deviantArt)

Simple stories can be incredibly satisfying, but they are constructed to be swiftly captivating and directly processed. They are my literary breakfast. But more complicated stories are structurally incapable of such swift ingestion. They take more time to prepare, to enjoy, and to digest. Neither is inherently better than the other, just as pancakes and bacon aren’t inherently better than spaghetti carbonara. But each can achieve certain artistic effects that the other cannot.

Why Simplicity is King: Accessibility

Spaghetti Carbonara

Spaghetti Carbonara

First, I want to make it clear that I love simple stories. They are elegant, efficient, and enjoyable. Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury – all wrote simple, straightforward stories. Yet those simple stories remain incredibly powerful works of art.

Simple doesn’t mean bad, nor does it mean easy. It means uncomplicated, straightforward. A story is simple if it follows one perspective, if it features a single core plot with one or more sub-plots tracked alongside the core story. Simple stories use language that is utilitarian (serving to forward plot, setting, and characterization), as opposed to artistic (where the language and rhetorical structure serve to forward theme independently or in opposition to the plot, characters, or setting).

By this definition, most commercial stories are simple. Pick up just about any commercial thriller, or any best-selling SF/F novel, and you’ll find a simple story within its covers. Most popular mainstream literary novels are likewise simple, however beautiful their prose or highlighted their characters. There is (however much I might grumble about it) a correlation between a story’s simplicity and its sales potential. And I think a story’s accessibility lies at the heart of that relationship.

Simple stories are a narrative train: the author’s job is to put our wheels on the tracks, and then to let us go. They have their one primary line, and the story sticks to it. Their settings, language, characters, and sub-plots are only useful inasmuch as they push the train forward or slow it down. As a result, the reader doesn’t need to expend a large amount of work to get into a story or to follow it through to its conclusion. This speed of captivation is the primary strength of simple stories: their directness heightens their narrative momentum.

Contemporary YA and romance are probably the genres which have sharpened this method to a razor’s edge. Accessibility, and in particular the speed with which the reader is locked onto the narrative track, are paramount for both genres. I’ve heard proponents of this type of storytelling (the Professor in particular) argue that such simple stories work because they get out of their own way.

There’s a lot to be said for such an approach, as it has given us such enjoyable (and meaningful) rides as The Hunger Games (the first novel in the trilogy – the latter two got more complicated), the Harry Potter series, any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, most of John Scalzi’s novels, Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful Throne of the Crescent Moon, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, etc.

To understand them – at least at the superficial level – requires literacy and little consideration outside of the text itself. While some simple stories can be very deep and powerful (think The Great Gatsby or Dandelion Wine), they don’t require us to hold a great many characters, settings, or relationships in our heads when we read them. In other words, they ask less (often much less) effort of us than a book by Umberto Eco, William Faulkner, Victor Hugo, Tim Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin, Christopher Priest, or John Crowley.

Their accessibility grants them a significant commercial advantage, of course, because a great many readers don’t want to work that hard at the reading experience (if I had to read Proust every day, I’d go mad). From an artistic standpoint, their straightforward structures allow them to apply a finely-tuned focus to the themes and issues they wish to explore. By focusing on a simple, core story, its themes are brought into sharper relief. Sometimes, that’s what we want.

But there’s a trade-off inherent to this simplicity. Some artistic endeavors demand more work of the audience. Their accessibility (and so their sales) may suffer as a result, but artistically they can manage certain tricks that simpler fare cannot.

Being Content to Seem What You Are: Complexity and Theme

Marcus Aurelius once wrote “Be content to seem what you really are,” and I think that’s damn fine advice for the written word. It is incredibly difficult to communicate true complexity or philosophical ambiguity in a simple story. Simple stories can communicate depth, emotions, philosophical meaning, morality – almost the entire spectrum of thought and emotion. But complexity is not depth, and uncertainty is not ambiguity. Effectively exploring either complexity or ambiguity as themes in a work perforce complicates its structure.

To roll with the train metaphor from earlier, content (plot, characters, setting, etc.) is one of the story’s two rails. Of the two, it is the easiest to notice because it’s what we consume when we read the story. But the second rail – theme – runs alongside the content, and so long as they run parallel the story can roll ahead. Should their relationship diverge, should the theme veer off at a tangent, the story comes off the rails and we end up with a big mess.

If complexity and its kissing cousin ambiguity are some of the themes we wish to explore, then the content must in some fashion convey that complexity or ambiguity. If it fails in this, then the theme’s exploration becomes stillborn and our artistic endeavor falls along with it.

Consider Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (which I discuss at greater length here). Judged solely by the length of the series, or by the page count of each volume, one might judge it similar to Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time epic. But it is absolutely different, and it is its exploration of historical, individual, and cultural complexity which set it apart.

The series is an artistic success because its content is so aligned with its themes. Where most door-stopper fantasies stick to a limited number of perspective characters with complex histories and relationships, Erikson’s number in the tens (if not hundreds ultimately – I lost count after the first several books). As each of these perspective characters has their own individual motivations, their own personal histories, their own personality traits, the resulting epic balloons into a messy, complicated, glorious work of imagination.

This is both its greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. Because its content (its characters, its plot, its settings, etc.) personify its theme of complexity, the story itself becomes incredibly complex. For its exploration of theme? Mission accomplished. But this raises the fence of accessibility quite high: it takes a significant effort to follow the complex weave of characters, plots, motivations, and betrayals, and many readers just won’t be willing to make that investment.

A similar marriage of content and theme can be found in Gene Wolfe’s writing. If we look at his works that focus on ambiguity, in particular his novels Peace, There Are Doors, and Latro in the Mist, we find that the thematic ambiguity Wolfe explores is likewise expressed in the content, and in particular in the perspective character’s own relationship to truth and reality.

In the case of Peace (which – perhaps appropriately – on some days is my favorite Wolfe novel, and others days is not), the complexity of the content and ambiguity of the entire novel is further developed through the non-linear presentation of events as recounted by the story’s narrator. In this, Wolfe plainly took a page out of Dostoyevsky’s playbook (and perhaps unsurprisingly, Notes From Underground is my favorite Dostoyevsky novel), but the consequence of Wolfe’s artistic choice is to make the story even more difficult to follow.

I think that both Erikson and Wolfe made the right choices in their respective (and extremely different) works. By unifying the content of their stories with the themes they were exploring, they were able to construct more cohesive, and more satisfying stories. It would have been impossible, I believe, to explore their themes of complexity and ambiguity without the corresponding complexity in content.

Structure and Language as Sources of Complexity

Of course, not all stories – and not all complex stories – explore themes of complexity or ambiguity. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Both are complex stories: Tolkien features an extensive cast of characters, and expects the reader to follow multiple parallel storylines through the series. Burgess, on the other hand, writes a simple story in terms of plot and characters, but plays with language in a very interesting way. Could the same have been done without such complexity? Absolutely not.

In Tolkien’s case, the foundation of his epic’s artistic success lies in its narrative structure. Diana Wynne Jones puts it far better than I ever could in her essay “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), but the balancing of disparate movements within LOTR is one of the reasons why the entire story resonates with readers so strongly. Had Tolkien only followed Frodo’s journey, or had he chosen to present Frodo’s story and Aragorn’s story sequentially rather than interspersed, the result would have been far simpler and far less effective.

Burgess’ story is much simpler, in terms of its narrative perspective, its plot structure, and its characters. But it is far more complicated in terms of how language is used, and in particular in the ways that Burgess employs neology. Burgess’ nadsat – an amalgamated argot of Russian and English – introduces complexity into the otherwise simple novel. Doing so in 1962 – at the height of the Cold War – explicitly focused contemporary readers’ attention on the cultural implications of this choice. Similarly, this use of language enables Burgess to surreptitiously slip the slang and its values into the reader’s mind – particularly when the reader is intended (per the author’s own declarations) to reject the violence and pornographic content of the book. Such a dichotomy would have been impossible to create without such complex linguistic play.

The Risks in Complex, Challenging Fiction

As I said, I love complicated stories. But sometimes I feel like they are a dying breed. Commercial considerations being what they are, I understand why. There are few complicated stories on the bestseller lists (although thankfully they still show up on award rosters often enough). Editors are pressured to acquire commercial titles, and that usually translates into easily-accessible titles.

The failure mode for complex works is far worse than the failure mode for simple fare. Even mediocre simple fare is likely to at least satisfy some of its less discerning readers. Complicated fiction, however, becomes indecipherable or (worse) uninteresting when it fails to live up to its ambition.

Thankfully, there are plenty of authors out there who still strive for complexity and the creative opportunities it affords them. Authors like Lavie Tidhar, Terry Bisson, Madeline Ashby, Ian McDonald (in his non-YA fiction), and Samuel Delany are all creating ambitious, complex, multi-layered novels. And even where I might not care for a particular story, I applaud their ambition in their writing and their editors’ courage in acquiring their complex stories.

Amazing Stories and Crossroads: A Year of Exploring SF/F Mashups


As of this morning, Amazing Stories is officially out of its beta test. If you enjoy reading this blog, then I strongly encourage you to stop by www.amazingstoriesmag.com and check out the insightful, fascinating discussions that are happening over on the Amazing Stories blog.

Amazing Stories Logo

One of the reasons why I’m really excited about Amazing Stories is that I’ve committed to writing a weekly Crossroads column exploring the relationship between speculative fiction and other genres. Here’s how it’ll work: every month, I’ll pick a different genre. And then every Thursday throughout that month, I’ll explore how that genre interacts with speculative fiction, how they feed off of each other and inform each other.

As of right now, the first two of my Crossroads posts are already available. The third will be out this Thursday. In January, I’m exploring the relationship between noir and speculative fiction, and so far this months’ posts are:

Crossroads: Where Genres Meet in the Night My inaugural post at Amazing Stories, where I explain what Crossroads is all about and what the year’s schedule will look like.
Crossroads: What Is Noir, Anyway? This post takes a close look at what characteristics make a story noir, and introduces some of the tensions that exist between the noir aesthetic and speculative fiction.
Crossroads: A Genre Darkly (available: January 24th, 2013) Coming up this Thursday, I take a deep dive into the close relationship between science fiction and noir, exploring how science fiction incorporates noir plot structures and style into its toolkit.

Next week, I’ll be taking a similar deep dive into the even greater challenge of unifying noir and fantasy. I hope you stop by Amazing Stories, and I hope that you enjoy my Crossroads column! I’d love it if you could swing by and join in the conversation.

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