Monday, February 28, 2005

100,000 Readers...

... is what I'm hoping for, when my short story "See" is now published in the Chinese magazine SCIENCE FICTION STORY (Ke Huan). I am now writing and preparing more stories for the Chinese market...

To write for translation from English to Chinese is a special challenge. You must eliminate ambiguities, wordplays and metaphors which won't translate well or might be misunderstood.

For example, take this quote by Philip Roth:
"Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends."
Translate it to Chinese and back, and with bad luck you might get something like:
"Sheer Spirit of Childishness and Mortal Seriousness are the friends standing closest to me."

So you must simplify:
"I strive to be both childish and serious."
Dull, but lucid.

Note how this exercise teaches you to write more clearly. Try it! Pick a random sentence from a book, and strip it of all ambiguity... until only its simplest, starkest meaning is left.

(The story "See" can be read in English, in issue #5 of the magazine SIMULACRUM.)

Sunday, February 27, 2005

On Illustrations

Nowadays, we take it for granted that a printed novel contains no illustrations. But it wasn't always so!

In the 19th century, most novels - not just for kids - were illustrated, and often with great skill. Book illustrations in Japan were especially good, and those led to the development of Japanese comics of today.

Check out this large and beautiful online exhibition of book illustrations, "Accent On Images". It contains images from medieval books, to 19th-century novels, to our time.

I'd really like to see the tradition of book illustration revived to its former glory.

Perhaps I'm less prejudiced against illustrations because I started out writing and drawing comics (in the 1990s). When I wrote my novel Darc Ages, I drew illustrations for almost every chapter. The illustrated online edition can be read for free here, or visit the Darc Ages Gallery .

Sometimes even in modern fiction, illustrations are not just nice, but absolutely necessary to clarify events. Rudy Rucker's novel Spaceland, illustrated by Taral Wayne, needs its images to help readers imagine the two- and four-dimensional worlds of the story.

In fantasy literature, J.R.R. Tolkien illustrated his own books, and included maps of his imaginary countries. Tolkien's many imitators have continued the habit of putting imaginary maps inside their books, but their books are mostly lacking in actual illustration.

And then there is of course William Blake - who not only illustrated his own books, but others as well. On the Web I located his artwork for Dante's Divine Comedy.

I know, I know... publishers will tell you, "We can't afford illustrations! Besides, why would readers want that?"

Well. The very first publishers could afford illustrations, and readers certainly didn't complain back then... so why not now? Explain this to me. Is there a desperate shortage of paper or artists? Would readers throw away illustrated novels in disgust... or collect them?

You tell me.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Plot Thickens

Nick Lowe pointed out (see previous post), that badly written fiction (and especially bad SF and Fantasy) is dependent on plot devices. He also made a credible argument that Plotting is often more elaborate in comedy than in "serious" fiction. (As the plot of any Discworld novel can prove.)

So does the art of good plotting only matter in "less-than-serious" novels? Seriously now: is plotting just "for kids"?

Others may disagree, but I think plots are anything but trivial. Not only are elaborate, carefully written plots a guarantee of commercial success, they are also an entertaining alternative to the naturalistic or "traditional realistic" novel. I'll go one step further and claim that Plotting has become the new Realism.

Let me make the following argument: The complexity of a plot is directly proportional to how many options, opportunities and freedom it offers the characters. The more fatalistic a story is, the fewer options, opportunities and freedoms its characters are given.

And this fatalism used to be called "realism." I'll explain.

In the traditional concept of "realistic" fiction, created in the 19th century, the environment and genes shape the characters. And the characters simply bend to these forces of nature.
That is precisely why "serious" novels are so often bleak and depressing: they work according to the unspoken premise of Determinism and Fate. The "Old Realism" characters are basically Doomed. Any attempt on their part to resist Genes and Environment is Futile. Nothing can be invented or prevented; what happens must happen. If characters try to rise above their Station in Life, they will be Punished.

A side effect of this dour outlook, and a persistent tendency of traditional "serious" literature, is contempt and hatred of the middle class - because the middle class obviously are social climbers, believe in a Rising Standard of Living, Opportunity, and are therefore enemies of Determined Fate.

You know what? Traditional realism might have been "realistic" once, but it no longer is. We now live in the era of Chaos Theory. Fate may exist, but can no longer easily be determined. People may not have unlimited options, but the options are many, and increasing by the day.

A prime example of the old "Realism" - that people are Doomed by Fate and Resistance Is Futile - is Gustave Flaubert's 19th-century novel Madame Bovary. (Not that it's unreadable; it's an excellent novel about failure, and could be read as a black comedy if you're in that mood.)

The plot of Madame Bovary is that the stupid bourgeois protagonist Emma and her idiot bourgeois husband move to a village populated by even stupider bourgeois people. Emma is frustrated and bored, but since she is stupid and small-minded, she is unable to really change her life.

She tries to coax her dumb husband into becoming ambitious, but this scheme backfires disastrously - he's too dumb to succeed. Then she tries to emulate a romance heroine by starting a love affair with a rather stupid gigolo. It all ends in tears. None of the characters end up one iota more successful or wiser, or essentially changed (except those who end up dead).

Science Fiction, and the development of this modern world, are a one-two punch in the face of the Old Realism. The modern reality offers not too few options, but perhaps too many. In this reality, characters can and often do rise above their circumstances, or even transform themselves completely. Second chances are plentiful.

Imagine: what if Gustave Flaubert wrote the story about Pamela Anderson or Arnold Schwarzenegger? (Madame Anderson???) That's right, he couldn't. Those characters belong in a different model of reality.

In the realism of this reality, where we live today, Fate is overrated. And Plot is everything. Because Plot equals Possibilities. (And useful Plot Devices, such as Computers, Gadgets and other convenient things can save the day... just like in a badly written book.)

Are we having fun yet? :)

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Bad Writing Makes Good Examples

In order to really appreciate fine foods, you sometimes need to sink your teeth into a really awful, greasy hamburger drenched in ketchup.

In order to really enjoy fine writing (but what is fine writing? I'll get back to that), you sometimes need to read a real turkey.

Read Nick Lowe's hilarious article "The Well-Tempered Plot Device" for an explanation of how bad fiction uses plotting (and pick up a few desperate tricks, in case your plot gets stuck).

And you must read these equally hilarious quotes from the books of Lionel Fanthorpe, the Ed Wood of science-fiction literature. He's not merely bad; he elevates Bad into an artform. (CAUTION: Do not drink anything while reading the quotes!)

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Suffering Artist

Many who write suffer in silence. Millions of writers sit and write in agony, and yet dare not speak of it... it has become their Secret Shame. But it doesn't have to be that way.

If you are a writer and in pain, there is help to be found! It's only a myth that the illness only affects those who write. Seek help! You know what illness I'm talking about, do you?

I'm talking about Hemorroids.

Seriously now: sitting down for long periods of time can often lead to constipation, hemorroids and related ailments. Writers should look after their health, and get regular exercise. Get offa that chair, get up! Get down! Take a walk.

Another problem which arises over time, is neck and shoulder strain. When you sit down to write, make sure your arms are resting comfortably, and do stretching exercises now and then. You can learn more here.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Robert A. Heinlein's Rules For Writers - And Mine

Robert A. Heinlein stated his Rules For Writers thus:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting except on editorial order.

Simple, huh? Though I'm not too sure about Rule 3). For pro writers, 3) saves time. For beginners, rewrites are absolutely necessary.

Here are my Rules For Writers (who are in the process of starting out):

1. Don't quit your day job.
2. Set aside 1-4 hours every evening for writing.
3. Write down every single idea you get for later use.
4. Practice. Now and then, try something you haven't done before.
5. Make sure you have an understanding spouse/partner.
6. Drugs Are Not The Answer.

Explanations of my rules:

1. Don't quit your day job: Stephen King lived in a trailer with his family before he sold Carrie. And even then, he had a teaching job. I like to live comfortably, and starvation ain't my thing, so I have a day job.

2. Set aside 1-4 hours every evening for writing: The evening is when you have the least amount of daily distractions, and your writing inhibitions are the weakest. Also, you are close to sleep, which means the dreaming part of your mind is waking up. Use this. And you must produce.

The "Phony Rule" is: if you meet a person who spends a lot of time in bars, and who says "I'm a writer", this statement is 90% likely to be false. Most writers don't have time to hang around in bars. They're busy working.

3. Write down every single idea you get for later use: Ideas are precious, especially those you get from dreams. When you wake up from a vivid dream, write it down immediately. (And the more you do this, the more helpful your dreams become.) Several of my short stories come from dreams (and were published in SIMULACRUM. ) So carry pen and paper 24/7, and keep them by the bed!

4. Practice. Now and then, try something you haven't done before: OK, so you think: "but I like THESE genres, and I don't want to write THOSE genres. I'd fail anyway." Failure is a form of practice, and if you keep writing the same favorite genre over and over, your skills will stagnate. So experiment a little. Pick a genre you loathe (say, romance or detective stories) and just... try. You can always bury your failures.

5. Make sure you have an understanding spouse/partner/parent: If your wife/partner/Significant Other does not believe you should write, if she thinks you're wasting your time and setting yourself up for failure, you will find out sooner or later. And let me tell you, that breaks your heart.

So your partner/wife/parent must accept: you write, take it or leave it, and you will not quit for anything. If she starts dropping hints that she has no faith in your writing abilities, end the relation.

6. Drugs Are Not The Answer: Once I started to chat up an attractive-looking woman. When I mentioned my novels, she suggested I ought to write stoned, since it "makes you so creative". Needless to say, she had never published a novel. I immediately shunned her.

The myth about drugs and creativity is unbelievably persistent! The very few times I've been drunk in my life (the drinks were free, and I'm a cheapskate), the result was always the same:

a) a hangover, and
b) no creativity whatsoever. Blank mind.

I listen to some music that was composed by musicians "under the influence", but that doesn't mean I want to try the stuff myself. I know that many writers have a drug problem, but I sincerely do not believe the drugs made them creative.

The only drug that maybe could be creatively fruitful is LSD - which I haven't tried, and I don't need to! (My dreams are weird enough as they are, spank you very much!). But acid could just as well trigger psychosis, so what's the point?

Of all hobbies, fiction-writing is probably the least expensive. As a teenager, I wasted a small fortune on model railroading. Eventually, Mom threw the railroad out of my room (she needed the table for a dinner party). And in retrospect, I realize she did me a favor. (Thanks, Mom!)
My parents worried that my writing hobby would leave me unemployed, poor and disillusioned.

But, in retrospect, if I'd continued with model railroading I'd be much worse off today...

Got that? Now get to work.

Oh yeah, I forgot Rule 7):
7. If the Internet distracts you from writing, unplug it while you write.

Words, Words, Words...


I've been posting a lot on the ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION message board, and I have lot on my mind about writing science fiction and literature in general. I used to post a Column on the subject, but the column format proved too ambitious and time-consuming...

On this blog I will post musings and experiences as a small-time published writer. Hopefully, this blog will inspire others who seek the writing life... online, in print or elsewhere. There will be plenty of links to other sources of literature and interesting essays too.

If you want to see more of the fiction I've written and published,visit my Homepage.