30 April 2008

Should Your Characters Be Sympathetic?

Here's how one of my fav authors, George RR Martin, answers that question [in reference to his Song of Ice and Fire series]:

"I don't concern myself over whether my characters are "likable" or "sympathetic." (I had my fill of that in television). My interest is in trying to make them real and human. If I can create a fully-fleshed three-dimensional character, some of my readers will like him/ her, or some won't, and that's fine with me. That's the way real people react to real people in the real world, after all. Look at the range of opinions we get on politicans and movie stars. If EVERYONE likes a certain character, or hates him, that probably means he's made of cardboard. So I will let my readers decide who they like, admire, hate, pity, sympathize with, etc. The fact that characters like Sansa, Catelyn, Jaime, and Theon provoke such a wide range of reactions suggests to me that I have achieved my goal in making them human."

Do you agree? I think a sympathetic character can be drawn that will be likable for the 
vast majority of the readers and still not come across as cardboard. However, don't be afraid to give your protagonist flaws and your antagonist positive traits. Martin takes this one step farther, drawing many characters that are hard to peg--to great effect. 

Writing on Reading: A Highly Placed Source

A Highly Placed Source by Michelle Dally is a bit far afield of my usual reading fare. It is a YA novel, and probably would not be considered fantasy. However, its a first novel by a local Denver author, which makes it interesting material for me. Source is based on a high concept premise: what would happen if God talked to a high school kid--and the media got a hold of the story? To add one more twist, God's first message to the kid is that masturbation is okay--a message sure to inflame established Christian church authorities. 

Dally has a nice voice and does a great job keeping the plot moving. However, the author's decision to tell the story from multiple POVs lessened the effectiveness for me. It did not feel as if Dally wanted to identify a central protagonist, and therefore as a reader I never felt completely grounded. Also, at certain points the POV "head-hopped" between characters within a scene, which I felt was disconcerting.   

Overall, I found her writing very promising and look forward to seeing more from her. 

28 April 2008

Speculative Fiction Today

I liked Lesley's post on THE TIME MACHINE, but a contemporary reader might wonder what such a book offers us today. When read by Wells' contemporaries, it was a scathing commentary on the powers of the day; now it's also a wonderful opportunity to look back at how far we've come...or not. Really great speculative fiction stretches its readers this way on a regular basis. In many ways, it lives beyond its own time better than other genres.

Compare the slew of popular Cold War novels to a film like 2001. The year 2001 has passed, obviously, but the themes of the film 2001 are eternal. 2001 is not only now; it remains our past and future, and was meant to be both from its inception. Not that Kubrick would ever comment on the themes and meaning of the film; as he said: "You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film..." (Note the verb usage.)

But back to our Cold War spy novel: we live in a radically different world now than during the Cold War. Those old spy novels are still fun reads, but we'd be hard-pressed to find social and political commentary within them that wears as well as many universal spec fic themes.

One of my favorite things about speculative fiction, besides the intense what if? factor, is the ability to comment on this world from beneath the cloak of another. This device softens brutal blows against government policies, social issues, stereotypes and prejudice, religion...the potential is infinite. Taking the opportunity to put a theme into a new world also shows universality (sometimes literally). Alongside their deeper metaphors, many sci fi and fantasy novels state plainly: Folks is Folks, no matter the trappings.

A little book called THE ROAD recently came under a great deal of acclaim. Now, I think THE ROAD is a good, deserving book. However, its post-apocalyptic setting--and examination of parental love, the destruction of social convention, and the loss of what we believe makes us human--don't bring anything particularly new to the speculative fiction reader's bedside table. Even McCarthy's use of unconventional punctuation and grammar to exemplify base need and the destruction of society (a friend joked that all the commas must have been lost in the war), while clever, artistic, and appropriate, doesn't seem all that original to someone who reads science fiction's depiction of various forms of communication. I've even taken part in extensive discussions on how to treat telepathy in fantasy.

Fortunately, (and unfortunately, to some pulp fans) the bar has been raised for speculative fiction. The market expects a fresh, perhaps more literary approach. With all the real fears people face in the world today, the macabre must sting us in new, previously forbidden places. Some say sci-fi is dead because The Future Is Now; I say there's never been a greater need to examine where our burgeoning knowledge will lead us. In times of war, fantasy trope--that hero/ine who sweeps in to save the day--is always in high demand. Fictional heroes give us a more palatable vehicle in which to hope and grieve for our real heroes. Politics notwithstanding, humankind has rarely seen a time more ripe for social commentary, and writers are hard-pressed to find a better genre than speculative fiction in which to do so.

Writing on Reading:The Time Machine

Recently I reread The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, published in 1895. The prose in this book is fabulous, with lots of big words. :) The entire book is basically a monologue in which the protag tells the story of his travels to his friends. That would never fly today. There is also a pov shift in the epilogue. Note: The Time Machine is more complicated than it appears; the science fiction in it is NOT the time machine (which is insufficiently explained) but the sociological extrapolation of the British class struggle as seen by Wells. The Morlocks are the working class; the Eloi are the aristocrats. This is exemplified by The Sphinx that figures prominently in the story and refers to Thomas Carlyle's 1943 essay "The Sphinx" about the organization of labour in Britain.

As an American, the class struggle does not resonate with me very well. I also watched the 2002 movie "The Time Machine" and based on that, the story appears to be more about reason/science versus emotion/love. The protag is initially conflicted about whether to be with his girlfriend or work in his lab. There is a tragedy and he turns to reason/science at the exclusion of all else. Clearly the Morlocks, who still deal with machines, represent reason/science and the Eloi who can only love represent emotion/love. In the end, the protag destroys his machine and choses love among the Eloi. :)

Whatever you think it means, it is clearly an intriguing story on many levels. Send Electric Spec your multilayered stories!

Nebula award winners

The Nebula Award winners were announced this past weekend. The winner for Short Story was "Always" by Karen Joy Fowler. Read more about it at SFWA Nebula News. Congratulations to all the winners! Was anyone there at the Nebula Weekend? If so, post a comment! :)

22 April 2008

Re: meme

Bets, one of our editors and also the keeper of the not-so-secret identity Sex Scenes at Starbucks, informed me that I have to do a "me me." Knowing her secret identity, but not being familiar with a "me me", I figured it was something kinky. Not so. Turns out it is a blog chain letter sort of thing. I'm willing to go along to a point, but, as it turns out, I don't know six bloggers I can "me me" back, so I'll be one of those dead end links.

Anyhow, six random facts about myself:

1. When I was around 18 years old, I was pulled over by the police as a suspect in a bank robbery. They got really nervous when I reached down to unbuckle my seatbelt. Apparently, bank robbers are not good about "clicking for safety."

2. In college, I was approached by the police for suspicious broomball activity. Apparently, walking down the street with a broom covered in duct tape is a suspicious activity.

3. I have studied four different martial arts, but I don’t remember much about any of them. So, go ahead, kick by butt.

4. I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I don’t have all the answers, but if you need questions, I’m your guy!

5. The first story I ever wrote was a story about giant red shoe. Good to know my brain worked funny even back in third grade. (And thanks, Mom, for saving the story).

6. In college, I used to woo chicks with my singing/songwriting abilities. As my wife will be happy to confirm, my chick wooing days are over, but I still occasionally play some guitar.

21 April 2008

what is SF?

What is SF? The issue has come up a few times with story submissions we've received at Electric Spec. If you read the interview we did last year of James E. Gunn you'll know he says Science fiction is the literature of the human condition experiencing meaningful change. Very nice.

One of the Electric Spec editors has written a very nice legal thriller with extraterrestrials. I say the inclusion of aliens in the story makes it SF. There are some other things that IMHO, if in a story, automatically make it SF. These include: intelligences (human or otherwise!) in space or on other planets, time travel, alternate history, robots, AI, the singularity/post-singularity, apocalypse/post-apocalypse/utopia/dystopia, cloning/genetic engineering of people, and insert-your-idea here. I'm sure I'm forgetting some.

What do you all think? What is SF?

17 April 2008

Science update: dark matter

The DAMA (DArk MAtter) team, led by Rita Bernabei of the University of Rome claims again that they have detected dark matter. See the New York Times article. The DAMA group basically has a big vat (500 pounds) of sodium iodide nearly a mile underneath the Gran Sasso mountain in Italy. They claim to record flashes of light when a WIMP smashes into it because of the Earth's passage through a 'wind' of dark matter particles as it goes around the sun. The flashes of light come about because the sodium iodide is a scintillating material. This method utilizes the idea that the change in the Earth's orientation as it orbits the Sun varies, on a seasonal basis, with its interaction with the cloud of WIMPs that is believed to fill the Solar System. The DAMA team's results are exciting, but so far, no other group has been able to verify them.

A bit of background info. Dark matter is a form of matter that does not emit or reflect enough electromagnetic radiation to be observed directly. We have a lot of indirect evidence, especially gravitational effects on visible matter, for dark matter, but we don't know what it is. A WIMP is a 'weakly-interacting-massive-particle' and is one leading candidate for dark matter. Note that WIMPS only interact through the weak nuclear force and gravity.

Suffice to say, I'd love to read a story featuring dark matter! :)

15 April 2008

Writing on Reading: Turning Angel

I've been falling behind on my book reviews, mostly because I've been reading some non-fiction lately that probably would not be interesting to our blog readers. 

Turning Angel by Greg Iles is a thriller about the aftermath of a murder of a girl in a small city. Iles does a great job hooking the reader at the beginning and ramping up tension from chapter to chapter until the climax. I only had two complaints about the book. First, the teenaged women in the book seemed too mature. In the acknowledgments, Iles indicates he spoke to numerous highschoolers to find out what life was "really like" in high school. If so, then high school students today are more emotionally mature and sexually experienced than college co-eds were in the late 80s (when I went to school).  I hope that's not true--especially as the father of two daughters. I realize girls get exposed to mature subjects earlier than ever before, but does that really make them "women of the world" by the time they are seniors in high school?

My second criticism is that Iles left out an explanation of a plot detail that I thought was important. (Or I missed the explanation). 

Overall, however, I'm impressed with Iles and his ability to create a gripping story.

Barth Anderson's new book

I want to take the opportunity for a shout-out and blatant promotion for friend Barth Anderson. Since appearing in the pages of Electric Spec, he’s just released his second novel: THE MAGICIAN AND THE FOOL. Reviews promise a rollicking ride of mystery and magic, circling around the history and legends of Tarot. Compelling characters guide readers through an intriguing non-linear plot. I've personally loved everything I've ever read of Barth's, so I might be a tad biased, but the first chapter was so evocative I couldn't help but run out and buy me a copy. But gee, don't take my word for it. Read it for yourself.

Sorry, honey, but I'm curling up with a book tonight...

be consistent

The great Polish writer, Stanislaw Lem (he wrote the novel Solaris among other things) developed a theory of fiction writing based upon the idea that no matter how far-fetched the story or how wild the setting, that it should nevertheless be internally consistent down to the tiniest detail. Then and only then, will the far-fetched or even the impossible not only become believable, but also make a world we could live in.

Good advice! Authors, be consistent!

Keep sending those stories into Electric Spec.

11 April 2008

some Hugo finalists--for free

I know all of you are planning on going to World Con 2008 Denvention 3 this summer, right? So, you'll be busy now reading the Hugo finalists, which I blogged about earlier. Ms. Williams over at Asimov's has kindly posted all the finalists from Asimov's Science Fiction on-line for free: here. Thanks, Sheila! I highly recommend everyone click them out. :)
Blog readers know my philosophy: good reading helps lead to good writing.

10 April 2008

Seeing Another Dimension?

Once in awhile, someone comes along who cannot only see length, width, and height, but also space/time. A premise for a science fiction story? Perhaps, but it was also one of the many fascinating ideas presented by Dr. Leonard Shlain at a lecture I attended at the Conference on World Affairs. Dr. Shlain has written three books (which have now been added to my reading list), and his forth, on Leonardo DaVinci, is coming out soon. One of the questions Dr. Schlain tries to answer is what was it about DaVinci's brain that made him brilliant in both science and art? Of course, there's lots of possibilities, but one idea Dr. Shlain poses is that DaVinci was one of those rare human beings who could see what most others cannot--a fourth dimension. Wow! It is certainly an idea that got my brain churning.

08 April 2008

It's not fair

I've come to the realization that my fellow editors and I have different taste in spec fic stories! What does this have to do with me, you-fabulous-authors ask? A lot. Here at Electric Spec editors get assigned stories randomly. So, it's just the luck of the draw which editor you get, and your story may or may not be among their preferences--or pet peeves. I'm sorry about that; it's not fair.
Another thing that's not fair is: you can have a very good story, even a great story, and if it doesn't fit what we happen to need, we'll reject it. :(
All authors run into that problem. Personally, I'm planning on writing FOR specific markets in the future.
Anyway, the point I wanted to make is, please don't let anyone--certainly no editor (or agent)--discourage you from writing! Good luck!

04 April 2008

Art v. Craft?

In Gary K. Wolfe's Locus column this month, he theorizes that "there's always been an odd tension between craft and art in the SF field." He goes on to explain that "the crafts of SF, fantasy, and horror aren't exactly the same as the craft of the short story, even though the art--the why [the story is written]--may be very similar."

I disagree. Any tension (also an inapt word in this context) between art and craft in SF is no different that the tension between art and craft in any other genre. The craft of any short story, be it speculative fiction or not, is similar. Setting, character development, deft prose, crisp dialogue, plot development, etc. are tools of the craft of writing regardless of your choice of genre. Furthermore, the art isn't "very similar"--it's identical. Writing fiction is an art and its writers are artists. The "why" and "how" of their art, and especially the quality of their product, does not change the fact that it is art.

If you want to write high quality speculative fiction, you'd better be familiar with the genre. If you want to paint well in the abstract expressionist style, you'd better be familiar with the masters. Studying your milieu is not an issue of craft, its an issue of medium. 

01 April 2008

Guidelines for Authors

I read a very good blog entry yesterday "10 Guidelines for Aspiring Speculative Fiction Authors by Robert Rhodes" on storycrafters.blogspot.com. A summary follows:
  1. Read read quality spec and non-spec fiction
  2. Pay attention and take notes you never know when an idea might strike
  3. Master the basics
  4. Create a complete, vivid story good stories integrate (1) a compelling character (2) in a fascinating setting (3) overcoming vast difficulties (4) by his or her own efforts and (5) achieving a worthwhile goal.
  5. Reach for the stars write your best story
  6. Beware of infatuation gain emotional distance so you can revise
  7. Be open to criticism
  8. Be--or pretend to be--a professional identify markets, follow submission guidelines, proofread, etc.
  9. Reward yourself
  10. Never, never, never quit

I couldn't have said it better myself! :)
Keep sending Electric Spec your stories!