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Ooh, a blog post! Ann must be avoiding writing fiction!

Right you are!

So, my last post about first person led at least two commenters (Asakiyume– on LJ and Megs on annleckie.com) to mention that first person doesn’t need some sort of constructed excuse, or logistical framework, and what about stories like Sunset Boulevard or The Lovely Bones? And of course they’re right.

That got me thinking about assumptions we make–as readers and as writers–about third person narratives. The argument is that first person requires an occasion or at least the possibility of an occasion where the narrator is actually telling the story. That’s okay as far as it goes–I don’t think it actually goes very far, truth be told, but I’ll entertain the notion for the sake of argument.

Who is telling the story of, say, “To Build a Fire” and how does the narrator know what happened, given that there’s only one character and he dies at the end, quite alone?

Did you ever ask that question? I’m betting not. Because, I think, we’ve got this idea of stories in third person as being neutral and objective, like it’s pure narrative coming out of thin air. But there’s always someone telling the story, whether it’s obviously someone who was obviously present, or not. So what makes third person any different from first person in this regard? Why are there no faux-prohibitions against writing any stories at all in which the protagonist is the only character and dies an unwitnessed death?

Or even less dramatically–if we need that sort of “logical” framework to tell a story, how is it that any narrator who is not the character herself can tell us what’s in the thoughts of that character?

The answer is, they can’t. No actual, existing narrator can. Fiction conventionally ignores this, so that we can tell stories about men who die because they’re alone and can’t build fires, or tell stories about the intimate psychological states of various characters, or whatever it is we need to do. First person is really no less able to take advantage of convention, ignore it or twist it, or whatever the writer wants to do. As long as it’s done well, and it works, then it’s all good.

I think ignoring that aspect of third person–that whether or not the text acknowledges it directly, there’s always a narrator, always some entity with its own point of view telling the story–isn’t a particularly good idea. Particularly if you’re interested in working with Omniscient, which isn’t really fashionable right now, and to judge from the two slushpiles I see regularly, isn’t a tool in a lot of aspiring writers’ toolkits, or at least not one they know how to use effectively. Omniscient isn’t just pure story and exposition coming from out of the air, all-knowing and utterly impartial. I mean, sometimes it pretends to be that, but it isn’t, and IMO understanding that is important for being able to handle omni well.

I also think it’s a good idea to stop and think about all the “third person” stories we tell and hear just in our daily lives. Casting them in third person can make them seem completely objective, but every story is told from a point of view, and no single point of view is completely objective and impartial. I think it’s important to realize that, just generally.

Thinking about this led me off on a tangent. You know stories like, oh, The Worm Ouroborus, or A Princess of Mars, or Looking Back, or…there are bunches of them. They want to be stories about someone in a Fantastic world–the far future, Mars, Mercury, etc, wherever. If someone were writing those stories these days–well, they’d be very different stories, no one would write those stories these days, because “these days” are their own time with their own concerns and preoccupations, but that’s a whole other digression–if someone were writing those stories these days, would she bother making some present day person have a vision in which the story set on another planet could unfold? Not likely–she’d just tell us what happened, plain as that. Would she bother having the main character fall asleep and wake up in the future? Maybe–but she’d be more likely to say, “I want to write about the future!” and just…start the story there. And even if she went with waking up in the future, she’d likely not bother with the “And then I woke up!” ending, thus explaining how we could have received the story to begin with. Because we don’t actually need that. Would she bother to make the main character mysteriously fall into a torpor and wake on Mars–and then mysteriously wake up again on Earth? Maybe–but then again, she’d maybe just start “One day on Mars…”

I’m thinking it used to be much more common for writers to construct those sorts of logical frames around fantastic stories, the issue of “how are we hearing this tale to begin with” was a question they felt needed an answer.* But it’s not one we’ve really been interested in, as readers or writers, for quite some time, particularly in F&SF. Who cares how we know the story? All that really matters is the story itself.

Which doesn’t mean thinking about that framework isn’t potentially useful, or no one should use that sort of frame because it’s old fashioned or whatever–use whatever seems good to you! But it’s been a long time since anyone really worried overmuch about how a guy on Mars could give us a first person account of his adventures if he was on Mars and we were here–or how adventures on Mars could become known to us at all, first or third person. It’s not a matter of every story needing some sort of justification, it’s not a matter of rules about what could or couldn’t be told to us under what conditions. It’s a matter of what you’re trying to do, of what works for the particular story you’re working on.
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*I have not done extensive research to back up this assertion, so it may turn out to be entirely incorrect.

So, this weekend, sitting around drinking coffee in the bookstore, talking about writing with Anna Schwind. By a fairly circuitous route, the topic of rules came up, and one of my least favorites, the “rule” (or sometimes merely “advice”) that one shouldn’t write in first person.

So, why shouldn’t one write in first person? Give me one good reason.

You know what that one good reason is? I’m sure you do, you’re opening your mouth to say it right now, just this very moment, “Ann, the reason is that you can’t have any real suspense in a first person story, because you know the narrator doesn’t die! You knew that!”

Okay. So. That’s bunk. It does not bear examination.

So let’s examine it, shall we?
Continue reading ›

Got some downtime, or gonna have some time to read? Maybe you’ve enjoyed Rachel Swirsky‘s work in the past–stories like A Memory of Wind or A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands or the story that just appeared on Tor.com, The Monster’s Million Faces.

Well, then, you might enjoy Rachel’s new novella–the longest piece she’s written to date, unless I’m mistaken–The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window. Because, you know, it’s awesome.

So go read it!

Y’all know that M.K. Hobson is awesome, right? Because you’ve read “The Hotel Astarte” or “Hell Notes”, and you’ve heard her narrate stories and host episodes for Podcastle. Right?

Well. Her first novel, The Native Star, comes out today.

It’s 1876, and business is rotten for Emily Edwards, town witch of the tiny Sierra Nevada settlement of Lost Pine. With everyone buying patent magicks by mail-order, she’s faced with two equally desperate options. Starve—or use a love spell to bewitch the town’s richest lumberman into marrying her.

When the love spell goes terribly wrong, Emily is forced to accept the aid of Dreadnought Stanton—a pompous and scholarly Warlock from New York—to set things right. Together, they travel from the seedy underbelly of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, across the United States by train and biomechanical flying machine, to the highest halls of American magical power, only to find that love spells (and love) are far more complicated and dangerous than either of them could ever have imagined.

Here’s a trailer!

You can click on that amazon link above and buy yourself a copy. Me, I didn’t have to buy a copy! Because she sent me an ARC, which I read this summer as I lounged beside the pool. It was an absorbing and fun read–a little romancier than I tend to like, but that wasn’t something that dimmed my enjoyment in the least.

I’ve said before that I’m not a particularly good book reviewer. So instead I’m going to link you to this review from Green Man Review:

If there was a shelf in your local library for Alternate American History Weird West Steampunk Romance Adventure Fantasy, The Native Star would be there. There’s no other novel quite like it, nor is there likely to be until the release of the second planned book in the series.

The aforementioned second book is The Hidden Goddess, but you needn’t fear you’ll be cliffhangered by the first–The Native Star works fine as a standalone.

You can read the first chapter here.

What are you waiting for? Run out and get yourself a copy!

Every now and then, I run across the comment that too many books are written “for critics” and not “for readers.” Sometimes the comment explicitly states that books (or stories) ought to be entertaining, and fiction that is difficult to read, highly stylized or poetic or idiosyncratic in its prose, and/or requires some amount of previous reading or cultural knowledge, or has some complex structure, the apprehension of which enhances the piece but requires a fair amount of thought to puzzle out, or …books like this aren’t entertaining. They’re hard work to read. They’re just meant to impress “critics” who somehow, by definition, aren’t actually readers.

Now, I have absolutely no argument with anyone who says something like “These are the sorts of books that entertain me. These others, over here, they really aren’t my cup of tea.” No problem. “I tried to read [Abstruse Masterpiece] and really didn’t enjoy it so I put it down.” No sweat.

But I’ve got a problem when it’s stated as an absolute–“I find this opaque and hard to read, and am not entertained, therefore this sort of book is not entertaining and anyone who writes something like this intentionally has made the mistake of not trying to entertain but instead attempting to impress critics.”

You do see the difference between the two?

I get frustrated with the second sort because I actually find (some) of those opaque, difficult books entertaining. I find their opacity and the intricacy of their construction pleasing to work at. Not all of them, of course. I can think of at least one book that was up for a major award this year that had a prose style that put me off before I’d gotten a hundred pages in. I could. Not. Read. It. Not without major effort that, in the end, I decided I didn’t want to bother with. But I would bet real money the author didn’t sit down at their desk and say “You know what? I want to write something that’s really hard to read so that only a few people will really be able to get into it! Something critics will laud me for, who cares about readers?” And I don’t think the only people praising that book are “critics” or “pretentious” or whatever. They’re people who genuinely enjoyed that book.

Critics get to be critics because they like to read. Critics are readers. They may (or may not) be a particular subset of readers–they may or may not share tastes and predilections with other critics that they do not share with the wider set of readers. But they’re readers. And just like any other reader, each one has their own idiosyncratic personal taste.

For people who like those books, the ones that are “pretentious” or “written for critics,” those books really, genuinely are entertaining. I mean, seriously. When a critic says “This is a great book” that pretty much means they found it entertaining. It’s just that the specific nature of the entertainment they derived from that book isn’t the same as the sort you, or I, or some other random person, might want or enjoy.

Entertainment is whatever entertains you. And not everyone is entertained by the same things. And people who like difficult books do in fact find them entertaining. Really.

It happens with music, too, actually–I used to work for New Music Circle, and while we generally had very small audiences (the few exceptions were things like Stephen Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble–click on the samples and you’ll see why) the folks who came regularly to the concerts really, genuinely enjoyed the stuff. I’d see my boss in the front row really grooving to one or another free improv ensemble, and if it wasn’t someone’s thing, if they’d never really gotten a taste for that sort of sound, that someone might sit there watching him and think “He’s got to be faking this, so he can look intellectual or something. Because this isn’t music!” But it sure as hell was music, just not that incredulous watcher’s thing. My boss? The season ticket holders? They genuinely enjoyed it. The only “problem” with that music is, it’s not the kind of thing you like to listen to. It’s not aimed at you in particular. So, you know, shrug and say “not my thing.” Don’t write a diatribe about how the problem with this music is no one could actually ever enjoy listening to it. Cause I’ll point to my old boss, grooving away, one hundred percent sincere.
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*If you’re feeling adventurous, try listening to some Kaffe Matthews, whose music I, yes, genuinely enjoy. (Her stuff is amazing live.) Or some Gunda Gottschalk.

If none of that appeals, here’s some more bowed piano.

Squid!

So, several things! Because I am mostly written out for the afternoon and I’ve got an hour or so before I have to be anywhere specific.

First of all, a few days ago I read this post by Hal Duncan about rules for new writers and thought to myself, “Yeah, what he said!”

So then. Just a word to the wise, when you’re subbing a story to either Podcastle or GigaNotoSaurus, and you’ve got a character who’s a member of the clergy? Please consider finding such a person and having an actual conversation with them. It’s gotten to where I reflexively wince when I realize a submission has a nun or a priest in it. Or, Mithras help us all, a monk. Nuns and priests are, like, real human beings. The next ms I read with a prim and pious nun in it will send me screaming into the streets. Look, my great-aunt was a nun. I went to Catholic schools. I know from nuns. Nuns and priests (of any religion, honestly) have religious beliefs that I don’t share, and in some cases actively campaign against, but they’re real human beings. Not cardboard cutouts.

So. I’ve had a hard week writing. I’ve had hours and hours free every day, and the whole time I kind of sat at my desk in my beautiful basement office (thanks Mr. Leckie! You rock in so many ways!) and pulled at my hair and wondered if maybe my sales so far had been a fluke and maybe I should pack it in, cause I sure wasn’t getting anything down on paper this week that was even remotely for public consumption. I never should have imagined I could be a writer, I produced only stupid ideas, wrote only stupid stories.

In short, I’ve been having an “I Suck” week. To make it worse, my real-life crit group meets on Sunday and I’d been telling myself that if I wrote like a big, tea-powered writing machine, I’d have something to send in for crit. But the machine was jammed. After several days of very high doses the tea did seem to help things move along a bit, but crit approached steadily, as it will, and I was not as far along as I wanted.

This morning I was walking in circles (or ellipses actually) around the football field and I thought, “You know what? It’s not going to be done in time. I really ought to just give up on that idea and face facts. There’s no real deadline for this piece.”

Reader, it felt lovely. The proverbial weight lifted from my proverbial shoulders and I went home and had breakfast and sat down and I actually feel like I got some work done on this story. Not enough to be done for Sunday, but who the hell cares?

Monk's Mound, Cahokia

Hey, I just realized that I never mentioned Halfway Human being back in print.

Halfway Human is back in print! It’s by Carolyn Ives Gilman–you remember “Arkfall,” which was fabulous and on the Nebula ballot this year and everything? Yeah. She has this novel about a world where babies are born neuter, and when they become adults some become male, some female, and some stay neuter. Only it’s not really that simple. It’s well worth a read. I’d write more in detail, but honestly I’m not good at that sort of thing, and it’s been several years since I read it and I’ve loaned my (pretty old) copy to a friend to read. Maybe I need to order a new one!

I would point you to her website but she hasn’t got one! I have advised her to correct this ASAP. As soon as she has one I will link y’all up. Sound good? Good!

five lined skink

Yeah, I was supposed to be writing all day, and instead I was fiddling around with my website. I’ve got a pretty new WordPress theme, though!

Anyway. I’ve been kind of quiet for a while–not sure why, I guess there’s just been plenty to do. I did write a blog post and then let it sit on my hard drive instead of posting it–it seemed too disjointed for public consumption.

There are a few things in that post, though, that I think bear saying publicly.

Item the first–and context, as James Nicol says, is for the weak: The idea that anyone can be colorblind, utterly free of prejudice, is bollocks. And the more you tell yourself that you don’t see color and that’s the way to defeat racism, the more you open yourself to speaking and acting in a racist manner–and the less you are able to prevent it. Trying to “solve” racism by declaring that everyone should be colorblind is like trying to “solve” the holes in your roof by declaring that everyone should be rain-blind. The more you try to not see the rain pouring through the roof, the less you can do to actually get you and your things dried off and begin to patch the freaking roof.

And when the people around you point out that rain is pouring through the roof, smugly announcing that if they would only stop focusing on the rain everything would be puppies and ice cream is not actually a good way to get dried off. “Holy crap, it’s soaking here, let me get a towel and we’ll call a roofer” might help. “You’re perpetuating the rain by acknowledging its existence” will, sorry to say, not. Help, I mean.

Item the second: GigaNotoSaurus will launch in November. I’ve already bought several awesome stories. By all means, submit yours, if you’ve got ’em!

But. Please, if your story’s ending involves the main character discovering s/he is actually dead and needs to move on? Please think hard before you send it. To anyone, not just me.

In the “just me” category, if you’re sending something to GigaNotoSaurus, those of you who don’t already ought to know that my tolerance for sweet is very low. If you’re doing sweet, it has to be either really freaking amazing, or it has to be cut with something darker and more bitter–and cut carefully. I’m not a horror reader, I don’t require shocking or disturbing. I’ve got nothing against happy endings. It’s just that too much sugar makes me kind of sick to my stomach. Saccharine will make me actually break out in hives. Obvious morals–especially ones that can be reduced down to the sort of twenty-five-words-or-less motivational poster Despair Inc was founded to mock will also not find much traction with me.

I know several people whose taste and intelligence I respect who differ from me in their tolerance for sweet. These same people sometimes really really love stories I am completely unimpressed by, or are themselves unimpressed by stories I regard highly. It’s just how things are.

Oh, and I’d love to see more science fiction than I’m getting.