On Efficiency

For those of us by our natures who are forced to figure things out as we go, there’s a part of the creation timeline I’ve come to refer to as the “Fits & Starts” stage, which is rather where I am now. In a short story it usually doesn’t last very long if the story is going to work. A book, if you’ll pardon the expression, is another story. It can last for chapters at at  time and often does. If it lasts more than that, well, that’s a problem.

Fortunately for me, my characters usually sort that stuff out themselves, once I’ve got a handle on them and what they’re up to. Yet sometimes it seems that this “sorting out” happens when they insist on talking to each other for extended periods. Sometimes these are the sorts of conversations that the eventual readers needs to be in on from the start. Sometimes not.  Or as one of Ursula Le Guin’s early editors of what became the Earthsea Trilogy is alleged to have said–“Ged is talking too much!” With all due respect to everyone involved,  I think I know why.

I definitely  know the time will come when, after the sorting out period and rough draft period, there will eventually come the rewrite period, and at least some of these fascinating (to me) conversations will have to end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. Pity? No. Pitiless. When something once served the book but no longer does, “When it’s a drag on the flow, it has to go.” It’s our job to write it, and our job to cut it if and when the time comes when sections of the prose no longer serve the story. Chunks of any given book are completely necessary for us to write, and absolutely useless, nay counterproductive, for the reader to slog through. It’s sort of a paradox, but there are a lot of them in this process, so you just go with it.

As others have rightly observed, writing and then disposing of these chunks of superfluous wordage is not a very efficient way to go about the job of writing a book, and I heartily agree. I might find myself in envy of those people who can work all this out in a detailed outline before they even start. Then again, writing a hundred page outline of a three hundred page book doesn’t strike me as all that efficient either. Maybe writing is not supposed to be “efficient.” Maybe it’s just supposed to be done, and any way you can do it is the absolute best way there is.

 

Advertisements

I’m Late…Again

I’m late again. Yesterday was filled with getting taxes finished and dealing with a long-overdue ophthalmology appointment. (Odd fact—I have better close-up vision in my left eye than even bifocals could give me. The right…not so much). But apparently I’m not going blind anytime soon, which is a good thing.

I need my eyes to do things, like look over old blog posts to remind myself of subjects I’ve already covered…and covered…and probably covered again. That’s the problem with interests and pet peeves and such. You tend to repeat yourself. Boring, for you and everyone else. Plus it’s easy to see how badly certain subjects will age. I just spent a few minutes on a report of my hunt for a new agent several years ago. Back then I was convinced I needed one, even though I’d been through three very reputable agents who hadn’t been able to do a thing for me. I only started selling novels when I forgot about the agents and just did it myself. So that was a lesson hard learned, but all water under the bridge.

One subject that apparently has not aged is the subject of a writer’s “odds.” It came up again just a few days ago when a well-respected editor blogged about it and I read that and thought “Wow. Déjà vu.” Does it still need to be said? Apparently, so once more from the writer’s side which, oddly enough, is pretty much the same as the editor’s side. This applies to novels as well as short fiction, but my more immediate examples are from the short story side. It goes something like this: new writers trying to break into one of the major short story markets (and the specific ones vary, depending on the time and the writer’s interests) look at the submission/acceptance ratios and get all discouraged. A publication might get anywhere from 500-1000 submissions a month, from which they accept maybe three. So your odds of being one of the three are either 1 in 167 or 1 in 333, depending on how many subs the market got that month, right?

Wrong.

Those odds would only be accurate if everyone submitting a story had an equal shot at one of those three slots, and the fact is they don’t. Most stories are rejected out of hand for a multitude of reasons: wrong length, wrong genre, general incompetence, misspellings—or worse, being autocorrected to the wrong word. Sloppy work. Their odds are never higher than zero.  Maybe about fifty stories a month get serious consideration, and those are the real odds you have to beat, about 1 in 17.Even those odds don’t matter if your story is just what the editor is looking for, in which case the odds are 1 in 1.  Provided, of course, you can get your story past the first hurdle. Right length, right market, at least competent writing professionally prepared according to manuscript guidelines. Do your homework, polish and hone your craft, and the odds get a lot better.

There now. I trust there will be no reason to repeat this ever again? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Speaking of things that shouldn’t need to be said, I just glanced at my bookshelves and realized I’ve never read either Planet of Exile or City of Illusion, both by Ursula Le Guin, one of my all-time favorite writers. I have to correct this soonest.

I’m rambling and there’s a rough draft to rewrite and painting to do. Time to stop.

Review: Legends, Edited by Robert Silverberg

WRITING 02Note and Disclaimer: This review originally appeared in SF AGE back around 1998, and I’m not changing a word of it. I think of these as much as time capsules as reviews. Speculations that panned out or didn’t, hopes dashed, whatever, are par for the course of time.

 

 

LEGENDS edited by Robert Silverberg, Tor Books, September 1998,
hc, 703 pp, $27.95, ISBN: 0-312-86787-5

In LEGENDS, Robert Silverberg has brought together eleven of
the most currently famous and best-selling authors in sf&f, each
telling a new story set in their own chosen milieu. It’s a great
idea in theory, and couldn’t have been easy to manage, yet manage
he has. Let’s see if the fox was worth the chase.
Stephen King leads with a new tale of Roland of Gilead and
his quest for the Dark Tower. In “Little Sisters of Eluria,”
Roland arrives at a dead town on a dying horse. Eluria is empty,
save for one dead body and an oddly marked dog. Or rather,
seemingly empty. After an attack my mutant monsters, Roland
awakens to find himself in the tender care of the Little Sisters
of Eluria, an order of hospitalers. Such care as would soon make
the tender mercies of the monsters look good by comparison.
King can always work the horror element, that’s a given, but
sometimes I don’t think he gets enough credit for the range he
shows, with more or less mainstream work like The Body or his
idiosyncratic take on a fantasy world with The Dark Tower
stories. Those tired of generic fantasy, who sometimes think
that’s all fantasy is, or can be, should really give this
series a try. Continue reading

This is a Conversation, Not a Speech

Rusalka by Ruth Sanderson

Notice the lovely painting to the left, “Rusalka,” by the amazing artist, Ruth Sanderson. I was reminded of it by a FB post by the writer Theodora Goss, said post being about a different matter altogether (we can discuss serendipity on another day). But I recognized the painting she’d referenced immediately. Partly because I’m fond of Sanderson’s work, but mostly because that very painting was the original illustration for “The Swan Troika,” (Realms of Fantasy, February 2011) my final story in that much missed magazine (Seriously. Show me a current fantasy magazine with the same ecumenical spirit toward the genre that ROF had).  If you’ll look in the left background, the guy in the funny-looking sleigh is Pyotr on his way to his fateful meeting with the rusalka in question.

Ahem. Yes, I’m getting off of the subject. Of which there is one, implied in the blog title. Ursula Le Guin once said something to the effect that a story is just marks on wood pulp (or pixels on a screen) until someone reads it. That reading is an act of creation itself and the story isn’t complete until it’s read. I have no argument with that. We want people to read our work, complete it, create their own inner vision to echo the one in our own heads. It won’t be the same vision, but that’s kind of the point. There aren’t just two sides to every story, there are as many sides as there are readers for that story, and the more the merrier.

Sometimes, though, it goes even beyond that. “Rusalka” exists because I wrote a story and the editors at ROF commissioned an illustration of it. You cannot fathom how pleased I was when I saw its original appearance in ROF. After all, I’m no artist. I could never have created my vision of that scene the way Sanderson did. Instead, she showed me hers. I was and am thrilled.

I will now contrast that with an incident from a writer’s group I was involved with. The Heavenly Fox had just been published and another writer in the group really liked it. So much so, that he announced that he was going to write a Springshadow story of his own, at which point I was forced to stand on his head until the impulse passed. Okay, not literally. But you get the idea. I was not thrilled. A little flattered, sure. But not thrilled.

So why the difference? Well, one is an act of re-creation. The other was copyright infringement. As in any conversation, you know when one party has crossed the line. Granted, it’s a fine line. Or rather a tightrope that we all walk when it comes to what happens to a story once it’s out in the world. In a sense, to send a story out into the world is to cede control of it. Legally it may belong to you, but practically? Things will happen that you didn’t count on. My own opinion goes beyond legalities though. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t care who has the right to continue the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. So far as I’m concerned, that series ended when Douglas Adams died. Sure, I know that’s unrealistic. Knowing that doesn’t change the way I feel.

Yes, reading is a creative act in itself, and stories were designed to be read. That’s kind of the point of them, but another thing they are is a conversation between the writer and reader. It’s an act of communication that, in the right context, creates something grander than the sum of its parts, witness that painting. Experience that a few times and you won’t wonder why we get cranky when someone tries to turn the conversation into a monologue.

“Is This the Five Minute Argument or the Full Half-hour?”

The Ghost WarThe subject came up for me because I got briefly involved in an online discussion, which on the surface was about Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. The instigator of the discussion readily admitted that the books were classics, but by implication wondered why they were classics. After all, there was very little overt action, the pacing was slow, and thus the books weren’t that entertaining. My first reaction was something along the lines of WTF??? After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I had to think about that for a bit.

I’m not going to get into a discussion of reading protocols. I’m not qualified, for one thing. However, there is something I have known for a long time, and the ancients knew long before I did—and so I shouldn’t have been at all surprised by that reader’s reaction to a series I did and still do think is brilliant. The proper response is not “What the hell is wrong with you?” The proper response is to shrug and remember “De gustibus non est disputandum.” More or less, “You can’t argue matters of taste.”

Of course, people can and do argue matters of taste. All the time. People like to argue, and for people who do like to argue, matters of taste are simply perfect. For as humanity has understood for a long time and the Romans expressed so succinctly, it’s a completely and utterly pointless exercise. There’s no logic to express, no preponderance of evidence to introduce, no real case to be made. Every such argument starts with one basic position by both (or all) disputants, and that is “Why don’t you like what I like?” The simple and obvious answer does nothing to derail the argument. It’s pointless, but only if you don’t realize that the argument itself is the point. Nothing is settled and no one is persuaded. Arguing in its purest and most honest form.

The thing is, we never read the same books, see the same plays, hear the same music, because we can’t. In order for me to do that, I would have to be you. And frankly, I have more than enough on my plate just trying to be me. My perspective and experience are not yours, and vice versa. If someone says the Earthsea books are slow paced, I would say they are thoughtful. If someone says that there’s no overt action, I would say that most of the conflict is internal but expressed beautifully in the text. If someone says that nothing really happens I’d say nothing but an entire world changing in front of our eyes. And whoever that theoretical someone was, we’d both be right.

Sometimes I think the real miracle is that we ever agree on anything.