This weekend, I attended Norwescon, an SF convention held every year in the Seattle area, and in the dealer’s room, there were both general booksellers and individual tables for small presses. At random, I picked up Mira Grant’s Rise.
For some teachers, putting on the Kevlar gloves and strapping their service pistol to their waist would have brought a feeling of security, like they had finally put the world back in order. For Elaine, it felt like a declaration of failure.
This isn’t an opening paragraph. It’s not even a chapter header. This is some random paragraph deep inside a book that I picked up at random, understanding only that it was yet another zombie novel.
There is not a word in that extract that isn’t doing an incredible amount of work. With the transition from “teachers” to the incongruent “Kevlar guns and service pistol,” the mention that other teachers would enjoy the process but our heroine would not, every word in those two sentences is either telling you something, or is glue necessary to make the grammar work.
Contrast this with the opening paragraphs of Toy Wars, a middle-press book by Tom Gondolfi that has been sitting in my “to read” pile ever since I picked up it at last year’s Norwescon:
After my uneventful manufacturing process, I woke up. Where was I before that sleep? I didn’t remember deactivating my cognitive process. My memory sump revealed no memories that predated that moment. Life must begin and end somewhere, just as a line must have two points that define its position in the universe. My line started when I awoke.
My memories show only a notation of my origin. “Activation occurs, L+13y224d1h0s. Internal clock set to M+0. Awaiting command from Factory 55466″
“Stand by for shape and color recognition patterns,” came the intense voice of the Factory itself, both auditory and over the net. The voice vibrated deeply from the very walls of the 3-meter-high chamber as the voice over the electronic network mimicked it in tone and timbre. A large video display in front of me carried the image of my body being laser-scanned from the top of my big saucer-shaped ears down to the bottom of my broad, flat feet.
There’s a lot of extraneous noise in these paragraphs. They’re written by someone who understands that he needs a hook, and has a good idea for a hook, but the execution is weak.
The sad thing is that, with no memorable exceptions, every book on the small press / self-published tables was more like Gondolfi than Grant. Wordy, weak, and often grossly conversational. Gondolfi’s story has an interest conceit, which puts his heads above many of the books I contemplated. As a writer, I’ve been tempted to open paragraphs with words like “actually” and “indeed.” Every word must convey information. Those words don’t, yet beginning writers seem to love them. Grant doesn’t, and in those two sentences she somehow tells an entire story about Elaine.
The demise of traditional publishing companies will have some real benefits. There were gatekeepers who kept out women and minorities, privileging the white men who they resembled. There were capricious editors who preyed on their writers in all manner of unscrupulous ways.
The loss of editors will have a real impact on the quality of writing that gets put out there. Critics can plug some of the gap but not all of it. Someone needs to get paid to have good taste. Someone needs to be able to say, “With this writer, you’ll be in good hands.”
2017Stories are down… (Updated: they’re back.)
I’m sorry about this, I ran an upgrade and now the story engine has completely failed on me. I have no idea why, and no idea when it’ll be back up. I’m working on it, but I can only deal with it after I’ve actually met my professional obligations, so it may be a day or two before they come back.
EDIT: And they’re back up. I have no idea who thought it would be a good idea to change the tokenation on template names as a “minor fix,” but we’re gonna have words. That upgrade cost me a lunch break.
2016Milo & Ann
“Are you ready for this?” Ann asked.
Milo licked his lips. For some reason his mouth was suddenly drier than the morning after a bourbon-and-benzedrine bender, an experience with which he was intimately familiar. More intimately familiar, well, actually, than actual intimacy. He managed to curl his lip into a contemptuous sneer. “Bring it on.”
“Follow me, boy,” she said, grabbing the red silken tie that hung loose about his neck. One of the young men who frequently buzzed around him had tied it, but he’d refused to actually tighten it. That wasn’t his image. That wasn’t him. Ann used it like a leash, pulling him out of the tiny little media closet to which her texts had guided him. The corridor was cold concrete coated with thick off-yellow paint, the floor that industrial mottled grey all hotels and conference centers used to hide any unfortunate, incidental stains.
“We’re really going to do this?” Milo said, surprised that his usually strong voice, his only real tool, threatened to crack. He told himself it was only the dryness in his throat.
“You are,” Ann said. “I planned on it the moment I saw you. You looked like the kind of man who needs this sort of thing. Just like Dinesh.” She pushed open the final door so hard she may as well have kicked it and hauled him into the main conference hall.
At three in the morning, the lights were down low, just enough to keep someone from tripping over a step. The hall, which hours ago had been filled with the raucous glee of hundreds of delegates on the penultimate night of nominations, now lay silent. Milo looked up at the ceiling, where nets held back the balloons that would drop tomorrow night.
Ann led him up the stairs. The wide platform beckoned. The podium waited. “Here?” he said.
“Here.” She hauled him around until his back was to the auditorium. He faced her. In all the years he’d been watching her on the television, admiring her, learning from her exactly to inflame in enemies, he’d always admired her strong neck. “Down,” she said, and pulled on the tie again.
Milo fell to his knees. She wore her trademark black dress, the one that just covered her thighs. She reached down and grabbed his hand, pulled it up under her skirt. “Find it.”
His hand found the cold, blunt dildo waiting. His heart beat faster as his fingers told him how big it was, how textured, how veiny. With one hand she pulled up the hem of her skirt and revealed it to his eyes. She grabbed his head and pulled him closer. “Suck.”
Milo felt himself tremble inside ass that rubbery, big black fake cock reached his lips. The cold, flavorless plasticene thing smelled faintly of kerosene and lust, and he opened his mouth and slobbered on it. With both hands she grabbed his head and pulled him onto her cock. “That’s it. Good boy,” she murmured. “Good boy.”
His heart leapt at her skill, that ineffable mixture of kindness with her voice and cruelty with her hands. He was hers to command, he realized, something he had never thought with any other woman in his life. The dildo pressed against his throat and his body convulsed in a desperate desire to keep breathing, and she relented. “Up. Turn.”
He obeyed. She grabbed his hands again and put them on the podium. He looked out into the auditorium. The cameras of a hundred news outlets, most of them run by untrustworthy liberals, were watching this moment with, he hoped, cold, unpowered eyes. This room, this massive room where tomorrow their master, their god emperor, would be proclaimed as their leader and savior, was entirely Milo’s and Ann’s, tonight. She yanked down his pants.
“What a fine lily-white ass you have, Milo,” she said, and the jeering admiration made his own cock stir. “Shall I give it what it wants?” Her hands, her strong, broad hands, caressed his asscheeks. “Do you want it?”
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Yes, what?” she snarled.
One hand slapped his ass so hard he almost fell against the podium. “Try again, idiot child.”
Another hard slap. “Closer.”
“Better.” He heard a metal tink as she snapped the dildo firmly into the forward ring of its harness, and another snap was the familiar bottle top of lubricant. At least she would be that kind. The cold wet head pressed up against his asshole. She wasn’t kind; his anus spasmed as the cock sank into him and he realized that the lube was that kind laced with capsacin and clove, the kind that made his hole burn, that hurt. He whimpered, “Oh, Daddy, oh, Daddy…”
“Yeah, Daddy’s here,” she said, her hands grabbing at hips. “Take Daddy’s cock. You love Daddy’s cock, don’t you?”
“Yes, Daddy, yes, daddy!” His asshole was inflamed, his guts filled with that massive dildo. “Fuck me, Daddy, fuck me.”
“Do it, Milo. Come. Leave your mark.”
Milo grabbed his cock and began to beat it. It didn’t take more than a few strokes from the two of them working in concert before he groaned loudly, sinking to rest his forehead on the podium where tomorrow a speech would be laid, a message delivered. His head sagged with relief as he ejaculated all over the platform floor.
Ann stepped back. He stood there, his knees barely holding him up, his body quivering, his asshole burning, his cock dripping semen. He heard a few tinkling sounds as she did something to put away the dildo. Finding strength in his arms, he pushed himself upright and turned. He looked down at the deliquescing blob that evidenced his own transgression. He was still staring at it when her heeled shoe blotted it from his eyes.
“We should get out of here,” she said. “But at least tomorrow, you’ll get to sit in the audience and you’ll know that both your Daddies have stood here and ground your worthless cum into the floor.” She grinned. “Right?”
He closed his eyes and saw it. The crowds. The screaming. “Make America Great Again!” they would chant. And then the orange-skinned, blond-haired man he called Daddy would stand there— stand here, where he stood this very moment— and his feet would be positioned over the smear of his seed. Milo shivered with exhilarated anticipation.
“Get some rest, Milo,” she purred. “You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
2016Fanfiction is Communist! (really not really)
This morning, I was reading an interview with writer Svetlana Alexievich. In it, she writes,
We [Russians] are a word-centric country. It’s this Russian tendency to live in an idea or that people tend to live by the word and in the book. There has always been this ingrained idea in people’s minds that books are there to teach you how to live, that they create ideals for you to uphold. Especially in the Soviet times, when they were actually remaking a human being, remaking a person, literature was there as a major tool of support.
After reading that, I made the offhand comment that “You know, maybe part of the reason the United States is so fucked up is because we rejected the idea that literature is there to give us moral guidance and daily rituals. We rejected the idea that stories should be edifying.”
One of my readers responded that I wasn’t far off the mark.
@elfsternberg Some of the advice they give in writing workshops started as a project to avoid sounding socialist: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/books/review/workshops-of-empire-by-eric-bennett.html
— The Feather (@YellFeat) August 24, 2016
My first reaction was a simple “Holy chao.” Because I was actually right. During the Cold War, the US government covertly sponsored creative writing workshops around the country with the explicit goal of teaching writers guidelines that would discourage “Communist” lines of thought. Since Russian literature was primarily critiques of social ills and didactic tales on how one lived a moral life, these were to be avoided. Personal, concrete, individualistic stories were what Americans writers were to write, and what American editors wanted to buy. Many of the standard mantras of writing, such as the now universal “show, don’t tell,” actually grew out of a conscious effort to teach people how to not Write Like a Communist™.
I thought I was kidding. I wasn’t. Mainstream literature and MFA programs grew out of a desire to spread American values without being seen as imposing an ideology.
The fascinating thing to me was that the guidelines had such weird contradictions. American literature must “Show the wholeness of the human being, one of irreducible and indivisible integrity. The character must be one with a sense of strict conduct.” Yet because the character’s integrity and conduct were so internalized, while the writer was constrained to a shallow showing of the character in action, it became impossible for writers to do more than casually handwave toward the sources of integrity and conduct.
So here’s where I think about fanfiction. I’ve read a lot of fanfiction. And one of my favorite AU (“alternate universe”) settings in the simple “Coffeshop AU.” The Coffeshop AU is simple: take two characters whose lives in the original work are complicated, busy, insane, and generally heroic or tragic, and have them meet in a modern-day coffeeshop. Let the story proceed from there.
I contend that the popularity of the Coffeeshop AU is because it has something modern literature lacks: examples and ruminations on how to be an adult. YA literature manifestly doesn’t do this. To a degree, it may want to show exemplary lives, or it may show the consequences of self-destructive decisions, or it may just show characters struggling to survive the day-to-day of life’s mundane degradations. But it doesn’t teach how one does that.
Fanfiction does. In fanfiction, characters ruminate a lot. They consider their options. Characters tell us what they’re going to do, why they’re going to do it, then they do it, and then they tell us what they did and what the consequences were. To a “modern” reader, these works seem trite and boring. But to a seventeen year old who’s trying to figure out how to date without getting hurt, how to find a job and survive the oncoming train of adult existence, how to deal with the world as it is, fanfiction is the lesson, the playground, and the experiment, all rolled into a cute tale about a Disney Princess, Sherlock Holmes, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. They explain how other people come to the conclusions they do. They get out of the rugged individual and try to come to universals about why human beings are the way they are.
Fanfic is literally an attempt to recover something that was lost: a literature that helps explain to us how we should live.
2016Stalled and confused…
I’m seriously stalled on my writing.
Programming has been taking up an awful lot of my time recently. It might be the medication; I finally have the right meds to support my brain’s capacity to program like never before, and I’ve been coding my heart out, both professionally and as a hobby, and the results have been astounding.
But in writing, I’m stalled. Two years ago, I wrote a Frozen/Honor Harrington fanfic that I put up on Archive Of Our Own, and it was pretty well-received. As a joke, I mentioned on my Tumblr that I might write more of them, and got a surprising wave of cheerful requests for more Frozen stuff. So I opened up a new blank file and started typing. Just as the first story was very much a critique of space opera in general and David Weber in particular, the second was going to follow the same path but try to do something different and address the neoreactionary movement. I wanted to do another Captain Anna / Lost Colony Elsa kind of thing, but with a really different and darker theme. I started with the premise of a book called The Cleanest Race, which is about how North Korea’s internal civil religion centers on the idea that NorKor’s people have the cleanest, purest, “best” genetics in the world, while the rest of the world suffers from being “genetic mongrels.” According to the NorKor civil religion, we’re ultimately doomed to die in our uncleanliness, but in the meantime we have a stash of brutes, geniuses, and demagogues who threaten to overwhelm NorKor and wipe out their purity, and that’s why they’re so poor, and why they must fight so hard, and remain so insular.
So I was going for a Star Trek Anna and a Warhammer: 40K Elsa, where the latter learns that her peoples’ view of the Federation is about as eff’d up as you can imagine. I started to get down into the weeds about how white racism has evolved a “white separatist” movement whose central arguments echo the NorKor propaganda— purity isn’t necessarily strength, but there is a strain of “pure whiteness” and it deserves its own “safe space” protected from the mongrels and brutes. It worked for a while because, you know, Elsa is really, really pale.
But now the story’s a mess and I don’t have an ending. And I really need to strip out anything that feels too much of the mallet-to-the-head.
Sigh.keep looking »