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CROSSROADS: Literary Fiction vs Speculative Fiction – Round Infinity!


Amazing Stories Logo Even though I’m theoretically on a blogging vacation, I’m still doing the weekly Crossroads series over at Amazing Stories. This week, we’re continuing May’s exploration of the intersection between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction, and to that end I discuss how the core of each genre lies on various creative spectrums.

This week I take a stab at some theoretical groundwork in preparation for next week’s in-depth exploration of literary and speculative narrative strategies. I hope you stop by and enjoy this week’s discussion (and diagrams!)!

Crossroads: The Cores of Literary Fiction and Speculative Fiction

A Blogging Vacation


So over the weekend, I realized that I’ve been blogging just about every week for two and a half years. That adds up to one hundred eighty five blog posts (this one makes one hundred eighty six), which I estimate is a little over two hundred thousand words of non-fiction. When I did the back-of-the-envelope math to get to that estimate, my jaw fell open: that’s a big number, and actually adds up to the equivalent of two book-length works.

And with the (partial) exception of my honeymoon, I’ve never really taken a break from my blogging activities here. This month and next are already crazy for me in my offline life, and they’re likely to get even crazier. So here’s what I’ve decided to do: it is time for a blogging vacation!

To be clear, I’m not shutting down or going away. I love blogging too much to do that. Instead, I’m just going to be scaling back my posting schedule for the next several weeks. I’ll still be posting my weekly Crossroads essays over at Amazing Stories and of course pointing them out over here as well. And honestly? Judging by the last “vacation” I took, I’ll probably pop in here now and again to talk about something at greater length (in fact, I’ve already got some stuff scheduled). But in general, my normally scheduled Tuesday posts will be put on hold until…June 18th, 2013.

That’s a whole month off from blogging here, which for me is an unprecedented break. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay away that long, but it’ll be an interesting experiment.

CROSSROADS: Magic Realism and Negotiating the Unreal


Amazing Stories Logo Welcome to Thursday, folks. Somehow, no matter what I do, this day just keeps coming around. Weird, huh? Well, Thursday’s mean that it’s time for another one of our weekly Crossroads posts over at Amazing Stories, and this week we get deeper into speculative fiction’s often-stormy relationship with mainstream literary fiction.

This week’s essay explores some of the structural and thematic differences between (most) magic realist works, and (most) works of fantasy. While the fantastical devices and conceits may often be similar, their purpose and the way they are used structurally tend to be very different. I hope you stop by to take a look and join the conversation!

Crossroads: Negotiating the Unreal in Magic Realism and Fantasy

Viable Paradise 2013: Applications Due in Just Over a Month


Applications Due: June 15, 2013
Workshop Runs: October 13 – October 18th, 2013

A couple of years ago, I attended Viable Paradise, a week-long workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers. Applications for this year’s VP class are due on June 15th, which is a scant five weeks away. If you’re on the fence about applying this year, allow me to present some arguments for why you should.

Intensity of Focus

VP is a residential workshop, which means you spend the whole week with your fellow students and instructors in beautiful Martha’s Vineyard. And while the environment may be picturesque, don’t kid yourself: you’re not going to spend the week taking in the sights. Instead, the week is an intensely focused period of genre exploration. You’ll be talking genre, writing craft, and philosophy of art from morning ’til late into the night.

The experience isn’t nearly as intimidating as that might sound. First, everyone there – the instructors, the staff, and the other students – all love the genre just as much as you do. The instructors are all working professionals in the field, and have years of experience on both sides of the editorial divide. The volunteer staff (who are there for logistical/emotional support and to make sure everyone eats well) are all VP alums, so they’ve gone through the same intense experience (disclaimer: I was one of the volunteer staff last year, and I will be again this year). And your fellow students? They are all there for the same reason you are: because they love the genre, and they want to get better at the craft of writing.

The intensity of the VP experience is a by-product of everyone’s passion for the craft. And that shared passion is one of the most important features of VP. Where else could you talk story structure and world-building techniques into the wee hours of the morning for an entire week?

Differences of Approach

Each of Viable Paradise’s eight instructors have their own methods, their own perspectives, and their own beliefs about what it takes to produce the highest quality fiction. VP is unique in that all eight instructors are there and teaching in parallel, which means that students get to see the different perspectives juxtaposed alongside one another.

For me, this really drove home the lesson that there are many equally-valid ways to achieve a desired effect. By getting to see different approaches at the same time, I was able to synthesize new techniques and writing processes that work for me, for the way my mind works, and for the way my writing process works. If I were only exposed to one or two instructors at a time, I think I would have had a harder time developing this synthesis.

Novels and Short Stories

Over the years, VP has gotten the reputation of being a “novel-focused” workshop, and for me, this was a feature – not a bug. The opportunity to get the start of my novel critiqued, to have my synopsis examined, and to discuss the practical business of the modern novel market with folks who know it far better than I do was incredibly valuable.

However, despite its reputation for focusing on novel-length works, plenty of students apply with short stories. The instructors all work in both novel and short story lengths, and have done so for years. They have the experience in both forms to understand each form’s constraints and strengths. This helps to bring a very holistic perspective to the craft, and their understanding of the novel filters into the short story discussions, while the short story insights bleed into the novel-length discussions.

The result is an experience that – for me, at any rate – improved my work in both the short and novel length works.

Do You Want to Take Your Writing to the Next Level?

The best way to decide if VP is right for you is to ask yourself: do you want to take your writing to the next level? In my class, we had absolute newbies (me among them), agented authors, SFWA-member authors, and a number in between these various phases of a writing career. Regardless of where we were when we arrived, we left the island able to apply new skills and new perspectives to our writing, which in turn helped us to raise the level of our work.

Since we graduated in 2011, many of my classmates have gone on to publish short stories in various professional markets, to close multi-book deals, to self-publish their books, or (in my case) have their non-fiction selected for a best-of collection.

It didn’t matter where we started from or what our individual goals were, we leveled-up thanks to our experiences at VP.

More Information

If you’re looking for more information about VP, I strongly recommend the Viable Paradise web site.

And if you want a more detailed discussion of my experience at VP, and the costs associated with it, here are my Reflections on the Workshop Experience: Viable Paradise.

And since I’m planning on working as staff again this year, I hope to see you there in the fall!

Running a Little Late This Week


Hi Folks – My apologies, even though we’re only two days in, this has already become One of Those Weeks. As a result, I think I’m going to have skip this week’s post with a return to my regular Tuesday schedule next week. Sorry about this, but even this brief missive is up later than I would like, and everything else is just piling up behind it. With any luck, I’ll have some more interesting thoughts for you on Tuesday.

Until then, here’s a very thought-provoking essay I came across the other day: Foz Meadows on A Rule of Thumb for Escapism.

CROSSROADS: Satire and the Fantastic


Amazing Stories LogoIt’s Thursday, so that means it is time for my weekly Crossroads post up at Amazing Stories. This week, I’m rounding out April’s exploration of humor and speculative fiction by discussing satire and its relationship to the fantastic. (DISCLAIMER: If that sounds familiar, that’s because I explored the same theme here about five months ago as well – but it is a good and interesting theme, so well worth exploring again, I think.)

This is the final post in this month’s series on humor and speculative fiction, but next week brings us the merry month of May, in which I’ll be taking a look at the intersections between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction. In the meantime, I hope you stop by to discuss satire with me:

Crossroads: Satire and the Fantastic

Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays & Commentary Now Available



So here’s a bit of really cool news: today marks the pub date for Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary, edited by Justin Landon of Staffer’s Book Review and Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch.

This is awesome because it marks the first (to the best of my knowledge) curated collection of online critical discussion about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. As a work of critical scholarship, and as a snapshot of influential voices in the field, it is a significant work featuring over fifty essays by writers from multiple perspectives and backgrounds. The authors included (I’m one of them, so perhaps I’m biased) are an impressive roster of genre creators, analysts, and reviewers:

  • Abigail Nussbaum
  • Adam Roberts
  • Aidan Moher
  • Elizabeth Bear
  • Paul Kincaid
  • Rose Lemberg
  • Ana Grilo and Thea James
  • Kameron Hurley
  • Kate Elliott
  • N.K. Jemisin
  • Chris Garcia
  • Foz Meadows
  • Christopher Priest
  • …and many more!

My own essay on “The Circus as a Fantastic Device” is included as well, in case you haven’t seen that one yet. So far I’m only about a third of the way through my contributor’s copy, and I am duly impressed by the quality of the commentary and analysis this collection contains.

If you want a print copy, they are available from Amazon for $11.99 (£8.99 in the UK) here: Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary

If you want a digital copy, unfortunately Amazon seems to have messed up the eBook files so you’ll have to wait until May 2nd…but that’s only a short week away! (NOTE: It is worth mentioning that buying a copy helps a good cause: proceeds from sales of this collection will go to support Room to Read, an organization dedicated to improving global child literacy and gender equality in education.)

Incidentally, on May 2nd, there will also be a Reddit AMA featuring the editors of SpecFic 2012, along with some of the contributors. I don’t yet have all of the details of that AMA, but as soon as I do, I’ll let you know. Hope to see you there!

The Care and Feeding of Chapter Breaks


What do you get when a bunch of writers get together and start chatting? No, it’s not a joke. In this case, some of my friends and I recently got into an interesting discussion about chapters, and more specifically on their use in narrative, and on the various ways in which stories get broken up into chapters.

The Chapter as Structured Emotion

I’m a fairly big devotee of the chapter as a structural unit. They are a natural building block for story: narrower than “act” or “part” (or “book”) but wider than a scene or paragraph (let alone a sentence).

But I think the chapter is at its weakest if we consider it as merely a tool for carving the plot into bite-sized chunks. Yes, a chapter does that. But our engagement with a story is only marginally tied to its plot: our investment is really driven by our emotional engagement, which in turn is shaped by the confluence of plot, characters, language, sentence/paragraph structure, and – yes – chapter structure. To think of chapters as merely tools for managing plot misses on their greatest value. I think the real value of the chapter is as a tool for shaping/directing the story’s emotional arc.

We use more targeted structure in a similar fashion all the time. Consider how we construct our sentences or our paragraph breaks: what is the “punchy one-sentence paragraph” except a way to stress an emotional point? Chapters (and to a lesser extent scenes within those chapters) work on the same principle, only with more weight behind them. It is that weight and the emotional arc chapters take us through which shapes our perception of pace and our engagement with the story.

The All Important End

At the end of a chapter, we’re left feeling a certain way: “Holy shit! What’s going to happen now?” or “Whoa. I’ve got to get a breath of air” or “Aha! I know where this is going [but I need to keep going to make sure…].” The paragraphs in the chapter that lead up to that ending are all leading towards that one crystalline moment, that pause where the reader takes stock of their experience before turning the page and continuing to the next chapter.

At the end of each chapter, we retroactively re-assess our perception of that entire chapter. Our experience of the preceding paragraphs, sentences, and events gets overshadowed by our experience of the chapter’s conclusion. It is only with great difficulty that we can parse where we felt that the chapter dragged, or note where the tension rose. The note on which the chapter ends colors our memory of the chapter, and may even replace it entirely.

This is a structural trick that works in book length as well: consider the end of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Martin’s greatest success in that book was the surprising fate of Ned Stark, and that surprise and its implications force a fundamental reshaping of our experience of the entire novel. Chapter endings do the same on a smaller scale, and furthermore bridge our emotional engagement with the chapter that follows.

The Process of Chapterizing a Book

When we write, different people approach chapter breaks in different fashions. Some of us like to outline, and build chapter breaks into our outlines from day zero. Others like to write an entire novel divided solely by scene breaks, and then cut the narrative into chapters after it’s all down on paper. There is no “right” way to do it, and I think that whether we use chapters as a plot demarcation or an emotional one, the timing for when we go in and slice the story into those chapters is entirely secondary.

Different strokes for different folks. Though my own process has changed somewhat as I’ve written increasing amounts, I find that these days I think of my books as “chaptered” before I sit down to write a word. I view chapters as my milestones in my writing process, and their emotional culmination as the “goal” I’ll be writing towards. I’ll sit down and tell myself “Okay, time to write Chapter X” and then I’ll write until I’m done with that chapter. Later on, I might go in and move stuff around, re-write the chapter from scratch, change the sequence of chapters, drop whole chapters, etc., but that’s part of the “fun” of revision.

From a process standpoint, I’m ridiculously anal retentive about doing all of this. Until I’m putting a completed draft together, I keep each chapter (and for some projects with more complicated structures, each scene) in its own folder, and in that folder I’ve got different files for different versions of that scene or chapter. I’ve got my trusty Excel spreadsheet which keeps track of chapters, scenes, sequence, and versions, and I’m sure if anyone else looked at my crazy system they’d scratch their heads and say “WTF?” but hey – it works for me.

So if your process is to slice up your story into chapters after it’s all down on paper? There is nothing wrong with that. It’s a very different process from mine (my brain honestly can’t quite wrap around its implications – it is very foreign to me), but hey, if it works for your own mental process then that is awesome.

How to Decide Where Chapter Breaks Go

Regardless of when or how we break up our chapters, the key to deciding where to put chapter breaks is the emotional ride we want to take our readers on. Our plots – with all of their twists and double-crosses and cliffhangers – are one of the many devices we use to affect our readers’ emotions. In this, using plot points to signpost chapter breaks might still yield a decent result.

But for greater control of both reader emotion, and for greater flexibility with how we shape / present our plots, I think the key is to consider the feelings we wish to evoke, and to remember that the note struck at the end is the one that our readers will remember.

CROSSROADS: The Importance of Parody for Speculative Fiction


Amazing Stories LogoHello, everyone! Since today is Thursday, that means it is time for our weekly Crossroads post over at Amazing Stories. Continuing with April’s humor theme, this week I look at how speculative fiction uses parody to subvert and challenge the genre, and so move the literary conversation forward.

I hope you stop by and join the conversation!

Crossroads: The Importance of Parody to the Speculative Fiction Genre

Bioshock Infinite and the Components of Video Game Storytelling


On March 26th – while still caught up in the throes of a nasty cold – I dragged myself out to my local GameStop and bought Bioshock Infinite. I started playing that same day, and finished the game (the first time around) a couple of days later. Because I thought my reaction to the game could largely be influenced by my somewhat hazy, cold-altered perception, I waited ’til I was back in fighting trim and then played through a second time. Alas, most of my conclusions were just as strong (if not stronger) after my second play through, and the experience overall has given rise to these thoughts on storytelling in the video game medium.

Since I know not everyone has finished the game, I’ll try to avoid spoilers.

The Fantastical Nature of Story-based Video Games

Story-based video games are inherently fantastical. Whether they are explicitly fantasy-inspired (e.g. Skyrim, Dragon Age: Origins, etc.), post-apocalyptic (e.g. the Fallout franchise or Dead Island), futuristic (e.g. Halo, Portal, etc.), or “contemporary” (e.g. the Call of Duty franchise), they face the same storytelling challenges as any speculative fiction story. Most significantly, to be effective they must:

  • rapidly create a world the player can understand, and;
  • establish character motivation which the player can internalize, and;
  • provide the player with an emotional arc tied to the intersection of world-building, character motivation, and character action.

The video game medium itself makes these tasks both easier and harder than other forms of storytelling. The game’s visual design rapidly communicates world-building details to the player. Just as we quickly gain details of a movie’s fictional environment from the visual cues provided, so too does a video game’s initial FMVs and level design give us clues as to the type of world we are about to inhabit. As the complexity of video game environments has increased, savvy game designers have begun salting their games with telling details that heighten the player’s immersion in their fictional setting. Games like Skyrim and the original Bioshock provide the player with rich backstory independent of the game’s plot through in-game books, notes, recordings, and idle character chatter.

The promise of an entertaining experience is a large part of the player’s motivation for playing. Our own momentum through the story is aided when our in-game proxy has clear motivations, when the stakes are known, and when their desires are both recognizable and understandable to us. When we sit down to play a video game, we are actively looking for the character’s motivation because it suggests to us what we should do to proceed through the game. In Portal, Chell’s reasons for working her way through GLaDOS’ puzzles are easy to grasp, both initially (because she is told to and there is no other choice available) and subsequently (the character’s survival). In the original Bioshock, Jack’s initial motivation is even clearer (i.e. to save Atlas’ family since he seems the only one in a position to do so).

To ultimately be satisfying, the game must provide the player with an emotional arc which develops the game’s themes, and evolves the character’s motivation in line with those themes. Ultimately, the character either succeeds or fails in fulfilling their desires, and the character’s success or failure typically coincides with the player’s success or failure in our gameplay.

Just as with a book, or a movie, or a story, the more each game component (visual design, audio design, gameplay, dialogue, pacing, etc.) contributes to those three basic elements, the stronger the player’s overall response. The truly great games – those that move the medium forward in new and exciting ways, as the original Bioshock did – tend to closely align those game components.

Video Games Done Right: Bioshock

Bioshock The original Bioshock got just about all of these elements right. Its primary strength, at least from my perspective, was its world-building. As with solid world-building in any medium, it begins at a conceptual level:

Rapture is founded upon Ayn Rand’s libertarian/Objectivist principles, and those philosophical concepts are communicated and explored at every point in the game. Shops and commercial freedoms, the dialogue and motivations of secondary characters, the contrast between player character morality and the “selfish” amorality of the Splicers, Ryan, and Fontaine – all apply, dramatize, and critique the underlying libertarian/Objectivist values in different ways.

Beyond the conceptual level, the visual design is arresting. The color palette and level design is firmly rooted in the aesthetic of the game’s time period (i.e. the science fictional visions of the 1960s), but with a notable diversion: by introducing us to post-collapse Rapture, we see a far darker and much more tense environment than what we might have seen at its height. Thus the player’s nerves are already tightened simply by the visual signals of societal collapse and decay.

The level design itself takes full advantage of the increasing capabilities of modern gaming technology. In particular, just about every nook and cranny of each game area is explorable, contributing to the game’s significant immersive quality. The varied little details scattered throughout the game – from broken children’s toys where appropriate, to strategically scrawled graffiti here and there – give the environment a “lived-in” feeling which makes it that much more compelling.

Equally important are the recordings scattered throughout the world. By giving the player the opportunity to find and collect these recordings, the game designers enhance our investment in the game’s world. These recordings provide us with valuable backstory that aids in our interpretation of the core story. They help us to contextualize the themes explored, and give us insight into secondary characters who often never actually appear in the game. Perhaps the game designer’s best trick is to give these (many) secondary characters their own motivations, their own storylines, independent of the main game. Because they are heroes in their own (often tragic, always off-screen) stories, they are actually developed as characters rather than merely serving a tactical info-dumping function.

The original Bioshock’s pacing also works well. The game designers wisely applied lessons from horror/survival games to offer us gradually mounting tension, offset by moments of humor and discovery, and punctuated by sequences of frenetic action. This contributes to the game’s emotional arc, and ties back into the game’s themes and plot.

So how does Bioshock Infinite compare?

A Flawed Narrative: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite Visually, Bioshock Infinite is stunning. The floating city of Columbia is arresting and designed with a strong and consistent aesthetic. However, being an airborne city, it is naturally more expansive than the claustrophobic underwater Rapture. It seems that the game designers chose to prioritize inaccessible backdrop over explorable environments. Most doors – houses, shops, alleyways, etc. – are inaccessible to the player. In other words, our exploration of this aesthetically fascinating environment is severely limited, and we only get to examine the parts of Columbia that are immediately relevant to the game’s primary storyline.

This unswerving focus on the game’s primary thorugh-line is, I believe, Bioshock Infinite’s greatest weakness. Every voxaphone recording found and every Kinetoscope watched contributes directly to the main story’s plot. Where are the character’s living their own lives with their own priorities? It seems that every one in Columbia lives only to inform the player of Important Plot Details. This badly diminishes the degree of environmental immersion, essentially cutting off the game’s world-building at the knees.

Bioshock Infinite’s pacing – particularly at the game’s opening – likewise harms its world-building efforts, though in this case I give the designers a little more credit. The original Bioshock puts us in an atmospheric, claustrophobic, collapsed environment. Rapture is desolate and savage. In Bioshock Infinite, we enter Columbia at its height, with citizens (specifically, those of a certain ethnicity and class) seemingly contented. This is an interesting choice, and no doubt presented the game designers with an interesting set of challenges. However, for such a choice to be rendered convincingly (and so add to the world-building and game immersion), the level design would have to offer more scope for exploration and the gameplay mechanics would have to allow for actual interaction with the non-player characters. As is, our inability to meaningfully interact with the NPCs and the significant amount of time before the fighting starts simply highlights the superficiality of the game’s world-building.

The main character’s initial motivation is likewise hollow. Having played through the entirety of the game, I understand that Booker DeWitt’s initial motivation (“Get the girl to pay off The Debt.”) is contrived to accommodate the game’s eventual “big reveal” (which was so heavily foreshadowed that I figured it out during the opening sequence) but its very thinness prevents us from engaging emotionally with the game’s protagonist. When coupled with the game’s thematic incoherence, our engagement with the game is severely limited.

In the original Bioshock, the themes of liberty, morality, choice, and rights permeate every aspect of the game. By contrast, Bioshock Infinite features a grab-bag of themes that are almost haphazard in their application. Themes of religious extremism, race/class conflict, and personal responsibility/culpability are all there. But at no point in the game’s story are they brought together, shown to be different facets of the same issue, or even explored individually to some satisfactory conclusion. Any one of these themes would have been enough to support an interesting, thought-provoking, and compelling game experience (in particular, I would love to see a game explore race/class conflict). In the hands of better writers and game designers maybe these disparate themes could have been unified. As is, these “important themes” are offered as hints of depth which on closer examination prove to be shallow and simplistic.

What Works in Bioshock Infinite

The above makes it sound as if I actively disliked Bioshock Infinite. That is not the case. I played through it twice because I enjoyed the game and had fun playing it. However, as I outlined above the narrative and game design had very significant flaws. On an intellectual and an emotional level, the game was a tremendous disappointment. Whatever enjoyment it provided me, I derived from its gameplay itself.

Bioshock Infinite is a perfectly passable first-person shooter. If it weren’t part of the Bioshock franchise I would consider it yet another briefly entertaining but ultimately forgettable FPS. But it is part of the Bioshock franchise, which sadly raised my expectations. I expected a game that understood its medium and ambitiously used that medium’s unique features to provide a deeply compelling narrative. Bioshock Infinite didn’t do that.

Video games are beginning to mature as a medium, and some designers are beginning to realize that narrative is just as important to the medium as gameplay. I hope that trend continues, because someday I want to play a game that is as visually beautiful as Bioshock Infinite while still being thought-provoking and emotionally moving.

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