Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Gene Wolfe on Writing – Longform

on writing

A must read for writers of Science Fiction, or readers of SciFi.

Turkey City Section 1

web.archive.org/ web/ 20030814162619/ subnet.pinder.net/ onwriting/ index.asp?name=./ References/ 19960102TurkWords.htm

January 02, 1996


"Said" Bookism
Artificial literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word "said." "Said" is on the few invisible words in the language, it is almost impossible to overuse. Infinitely, less distracting then "he retorted," "she inquired," or the all time favorite, "he ejaculated."

Tom Swifty
Similar conclusion to follow the word "said" (or "said" bookism) with an adverb. As in, "'We'd better hurry,' said Tom swiftly." Remember that the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. 99% of the time it is clear from context how something was said.

"Burly Detective" Syndrome
Fear of proper names. Found in most of the same pulp magazines that abound with "said" bookisms and Tom Swifties. This is where you can't call Mike Shayne "Shayne," but substitute "the burly detective: or the "red-headed sleuth." Like the "said" bookism it comes from the entirely wrong-headed conviction that you can't use the same word twice in the same sentence, paragraph, or even page. This is only true of particularly strong words, like, say "vertiginous." It's always better to reuse an ordinary, simple noun or verb than contrive a cumbersome method of avoiding it.

Eyeball Kick
That perfect, telling detail that creates and instant visual image. The ideal of certain post modern schools of sf is to achieve a "crammed prose" full of "eyeball kicks." (Rudy Rucker)

Pushbutton Words
Words used to evoke an emotion response without engaging the intellect or critical faculties. Words like "song" or "poet" or "tears" or "dreams." These are supposed to make us misty-eyed without knowing quite why. Most often found in story titles.

Sudden change in level of diction. "The massive hound barked in a stentorian voice then made wee-wee on the carpet."

Brand Name Fever
Use of a brand name alone without accompanying visual detail, to create a false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Hondas and Sonys and IBM's and still have no idea what it looks like.

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Turkey City Section 2

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January 03, 1996

Sentences and Paragraphs

Expositional redundancy. Making the actions implied in a conversation explicit, e.g., "'Let's get out of here,' he said, urging her to leave."

Telling, Not Showing
Violates the cardinal rule of good writing. The reader should be allowed to react, not instructed how to react. Carefully observed details render authorial value judgments unnecessary. For instance, instead of telling us "she had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood," specific incidents -- involving, say, a locked chest and two jars of honey -- should be shown.

Characters give cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel everything so the reader doesn't have to.

Squid in the Mouth
Inappropriate humor in front of stranger. Basically the failure of the author to realize that certain assumptions or jokes are not shared by the world at large. In fact, the world at large will look upon such a writer as if they had squids in their mouths. (Jim Blaylock)

Hand Waving
Distracting the reader with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw.

Hand Waving — You Can't Fire Me, I Quit
Attempt to diffuse lack of credibility with hand-waving. "I would never have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself." As if by anticipating the reader's objections the author had somehow answered them. (John Kessel)

Element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply. The word "somehow" is an automatic tipoff to fuzzy areas of the story. "Somehow she forgot to bring her gun."

Intrusion of author's physical surroundings (or mental state) into the narrative. Like the character who always lights a cigarette when the author does, or is thinking about how they wished they hadn't quit smoking. In more subtle forms the characters complain that they're confused and don't know what to do -- when it is actually the author's condition. (Tom Disch)

Bogus Alternatives
List of actions a character could have taken, but didn't. Frequently includes all the reasons why. A type of Dischism in which the author works out complicated plot problems at the reader's expense. "If I'd gone along with the cops they would have found the gun in my purse. And anyway, I didn't want to spend a night in jail. I suppose I could have just run instead of stealing their car, but then..." etc. Best dispensed with entirely.

False Interiorization
Another Dischism, in which the author, too lazy to describe the surroundings inflicts the viewpoint character with space sickness, a blindfold, etc.

White Room Syndrome
Author's imagination fails to provide details. Most common in the beginning of a story. "She awoke in a white room." The white room is obviously the white piece of paper confronting the author. Often in order to ponder her circumstances and provide an excuse for Info Dump (see section 3, below).

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Turkey City Section 3

web.archive.org/ web/ 20030814162548/ subnet.pinder.net/ onwriting/ index.asp?name=./ References/ 19960104TurkBackgrnd.htm

January 04, 1996


Info Dump
Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper or "Encyclopedia Galactica" articles inserted in the text, or covert, in which all action stops and the author assumes center stage an lectures.

Name assigned to the voice which takes center stage to lecture. Actually a common noun, as "You have a stapledon come on to answer this problem instead of showing the character resolve it."

"As You Know, Bob"
The most pernicious form of Info Dump. In which the characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up to speed.

"I've Suffered For My Art (and now it's your turn.)
Research dump. A form of Info Dump in which the author inflicts upon the reader irrelevant, but hard-won bits of data acquired while researching the story.

Re-Inventing the Wheel
In which the novice author goes to enormous lengths to create a situation already familiar to an experienced reader. You most often see this when a highly regarded mainstream writer tries to write an SF novel without actually reading any of the existing stuff (because it's obviously all crap anyway.) Thus you get endless explanations of, say, how an atomic war might get started by accident. Thank you, but we've read that already. Also you get tedious explanations by physicists of how their interstellar drive works.

Unless it impacts the plot, we don't care.

Used Furniture
Use of background out of Central Casting. Rather than invent a background and have to explain it, or risk re-inventing the wheelUniverse, only we'll call it the Empire instead of the Federation.

Space Western
The most pernicious suite of used furniture. The grizzled space captain swaggering into the spacer bar and slogging down a Jovian brandy, then laying down a few credits for a space hooker to give him a Galactic Rim Job.

The Edges of Ideas
The solution to the Info Dump problem (how to fill in the background.) The theory is that, as above, the mechanics of the interstellar drive (the center of the idea) is not important; all that matters is the impact on your characters; they can get to other planets in a few months, and, oh yeah, it gives them hallucinations about past lives. Or, more radically: the physics of TV transmission is the center of an idea; on the edges of it we find people turning into couch potatoes because we no longer have to leave home for entertainment. Or, more bluntly: we don't need Info Dump at all. We just need a clear picture of how people's lives have been affected by their background. This is also know as "carrying extrapolation into the fabric of daily life."

The Grubby Apartment
Writing too much about what you know. The kind of story where the starving writer living in the grubby apartment writes a story about a starving writer living in a grubby apartment. Stars all his friends.

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Turkey City Section 4

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January 05, 1996


Card Tricks in the Dark
Authorial tricks used to no visible purpose. The author has contrived an elaborate plot to arrive at a) the punchline of a joke no one else will get or b) some bit of historical trivia. In other words, if the point of your story is that the kid is going to grow up to be Joseph of Arimathea, there should be sufficient internal evidence for us to figure this out.

The Jar of Tang
"For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!" or "For you see, I am a dog!" Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry "Fooled you!" This is a classic case of the difference between conceit and an idea. "What if we all lived in a jar of Tang?" is an example of the former; "What if the revolutionaries of the sixties had been allowed to set up their own society?" is an example of the latter. Good SF requires ideas, not conceits.

Abbess Phone Home
Takes its name from a mainstream story about a medieval cloister which was sold as SF because of the serendipitous arrival of a UFO at the end. By extension, any mainstream story with a gratuitous SF or fantasy element tacked on so it could be sold.

Deus Ex Machina or God-in-the-Box
Miraculous solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. Look, the Martians all caught cold and died.

Plot Coupons
The true structure of the quest-type fantasy novel. The "hero" collects sufficient plot coupons (magic sword, magic book, magic cat) to send off to the author for the ending. Note that "the author" can be substituted for "the Gods" in such a work: "The Gods decreed he would pursue this quest." Right, mate. The author decreed he would pursue this quest until sufficient pages were filled to procure an advance. (Dave Langford)

Gene Wolfe