Saturday, May 28, 2005

Some Plots Can't Be Justified

What types of story plots really piss you off?

For example, when the hoary old plot twist "It was just a dream!" occurs, people react differently - some like it, some feel cheated. (The "It Was Just A Dream" plot CAN be used well, for instance in many of Philip K. Dick's stories and novels. But it can easily be abused.)

It's a very common misconception that the writer "gives away his soul" in the characters he writes, while the plot is just a framework on which to hang the characters.

I think it's the other way around: the plot gives away the real message between the lines, and the characters are of secondary importance. We tell stories not to admire the imaginary persons' personalities, but what they do and why they do it.

If you see it that way, certain plots become too disgusting to stomach, because they clash with your convictions. I can forgive flaws in the story's characters, but I can't forgive plots with flawed messages.

Here are some examples:

1. "Saddam Hussein Writes The Plot" plots:
Saddam Hussein wrote a novel (I kid you not) about a warmongering usurping tyrant whose actions and policies were justified. Any story where the protagonist is a warmongering usurper/tyrant/emperor but it's always justified as "Good For The Country" or "Part Of History's Great Plan" makes me cringe.

2. "Horny Old Man" Plots:
A middle-aged man (usually a white middle-class type) goes to bed with a much, MUCH younger person... and the plot creaks and strains to make this seem extraordinarily Noble and Romantic and Rebellious...

...but strip away all the huff and puff, and all you're left with is a Horny Old Man.

(Incidentally, these stories are almost always written by Horny Old Men who think they are being terribly "intellectual". There are also examples, though much fewer, of "Horny Old Woman" plots.)

3. "Genocide Is Cool" plots:
Any plot which hinges on the hero killing off 100,000-1,000,000,000 (or more) "enemies". There is no way I'm going to admire such an atrocity, no matter what the excuse is.

(However, such plots have the potential for becoming award-winning, bestselling cult books, a fact which makes me very very depressed.)

4. "The Gadget Saves The Day" plots:
What John Boorman did right with the movie EXCALIBUR (and so many others fail at) is that when King Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, this does NOT automatically remove all obstacles or make everybody obey him.

In the real world, entire empires and peoples will not suddenly become enslaved by a magic trinket. That's just impossible. (Except in some SF and fantasy.)

5. "Talk About Your Feelings" plots:
A plot in which no resolution or significant change occurs, except that the protagonist gets to Talk About Her Feelings. Very Nice and Humane and Kumbaya... and So Boring.

This may seem merely like an example of a "weak" plot (i.e. it lacks an underlying message and is only under-written), but I think it does carry a message.
Namely, that feelings are SO important that as long as the character has the "right" feelings, she can do whatever the heck she wants and not be responsible for it!

I'm sure you can come up with other examples of Plots You Hate.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Computers Are To Blame!

Before typewriters, authors wrote by hand (like, say, Charles Dickens).

Or they dictated (even later writers, such as Georges Simenon of the famous "Inspector Maigret" series, dictated to a secretary).

I wrote my first novel (unpublished, but available online here) on an electric Army Surplus typewriter.
It made a tremendous noise, like this: Hummmm... chakk-chakk-chakk KA-CHUNGG! Whizz... Chakk-chakk-chakk-chakk KA_CHUNGG!
(My neighbors must have hated it.)

And then came computers.

Have you noticed how long most novels are today? It's not just because publishers want them that way. (The strategy seems to be that if your books have thick spines they will visibly stand out from, and take shelf space from, competing books.)

The prime reason why books are so long today is that those evil, evil computers replaced typewriters. Suddenly, writers didn't have to think before they wrote. They could just pour out words and proofread on the fly, thanks to the Spellcheck function.

The computer-as-writing-tool makes us all self-indulgent. (I stand accused.) For instance, with a typewriter you would think twice before planting a three-page infodump in your manuscript. It forced the writer to be economic with words, to get to the point.

With a computer, it's so easy to show off every little irrelevant tidbit you dug up in research, you can't resist putting ALL of it in your manuscript.

So would I go back to using a typewriter?
Heck, no!
Too much bother with the paper and noise and correction fluid and typing-arms getting stuck...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

There Ain't No Such Thing As Writer's Block

People have different work rhythms and cycles.

Some write in bursts of activity, lasting day and night, followed by extended periods of exhaustion. Others like to do it in the evenings (*cough*), some write in the morning... others work strict office hours, writing from 09:00 to 17:00.

But almost all writers find themselves at some point "unable" to write, even when there is time and energy to spare. You have the opportunity to sit down and write, nobody's pointing a gun at your head, your family's not starving... and yet you do not write. Why?

The late Douglas Adams was "late" also while he lived - he was notorious for not keeping deadlines. What was he up to? I don't know.

And there are people like Stephen King or Isaac Asimov, truly obsessive-compulsive writers - you couldn't stop them if you tried. But even they must have had their dry spells.

You can call it what you like - writer's block, fear of the Blank Page, procrastination, creative drought, waiting for inspiration... doesn't matter. Either you write, or you don't. "Writer's Block" is just a word. (OK, two words.) I'm not going to give you or myself any excuses.

Nothing gives me an ulcer like those poseurs who say (nasal tone): "Well you know, I want to be a writer..."
Well, who's stopping you, then? Are you waiting for your Official Writing Permit? Is Seinfeld on tonight? Just ****ing do it!

This little rant is aimed at myself too. Been procrastinating for several weeks. And I hate myself for it.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

What's In A Name?

Did you know, that while Margaret Mitchell was writing her epic novel GONE WITH THE WIND (not her first choice of book-title, by the way) at first she named her heroine "Pansy O'Hara"?


Luckily, the movie producer convinced Mitchell to choose another name - Scarlett O'Hara.

In fiction writing, names are important threefold:

1. The name of the story
2. The names of the principal characters in the story

3. The name of the writer.

If you find it hard to come up with varied and original names for your fictional characters, try the BabyNames index of names.

In my first draft of TERRA HEXA, the musician character was named "Pete". I am a little dyslexic with people names, and often mix up names in real life, and also when I write fiction. I kept mixing up "Pete" with another character's name, and misnamed them several times.

After I changed "Pete"'s name to "Mick", it became much easier to tell the two characters apart.

"Gulliver Foyle" is a cool character name. "Max Power" is not.
"Trapper John" is a cool character nickname. "Two Sheds" Jackson isn't.
Variations on Tolkien names - such as "Frodorithim" - are so lame, it's not even funny.

Picking a good title for a story or novel is even harder. I try to keep it short. The ideal title should be 2-4 words long, and memorable. And in the name of all things holy, do NOT try to cook up convoluted, pretentious titles like "DEATHSTORM: FATE OF MAN" (I made that one up, but there are many, many such titles around - especially in the Generic Fantasy genre!).

Finally, if your own name is very difficult to pronounce, you might consider a pseudonym. Many times I've thought that "Yngve" just isn't a very good writer's name... it's become a running joke in science-fiction fan circles.

Stephen King was lucky with the name he was born with.... it's excellently suited to put on book covers. It sings, you know?

And... if you're about to become a parent, you should really think twice about how you name your newborn baby. I mean, what kind of demented sadists name their offspring "Melvin" or "Pansy" or "Biff"?
Parents tend to be unbelievably shortsighted when they name babies. The rule of thumb shouldn't be "What sounds cool right now?" but "Am I certain that my kid will NOT be teased by other kids for his/her name?"

(Obviously, the same rule applies to the title of the book you write.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Scanned Images From Chinese Magazine KE HUAN

I've scanned some pages from the April 2005 issue of the Chinese science-fiction magazine KE HUAN, where my short story "See" is printed.

See them HERE.

If you are curious about publishing in China, check out articles on the excellent Zhwj site, or Danwei.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Problem of Visualizing the Impossible (For Thousands of Chinese Readers)

The Chinese science-fiction magazine SCIENCE FICTION STORY/SCIENCE FICTION PICTORIAL MAGAZINE (.ak.a. "KeHuan") has published my short story "See" in its April 2005 issue.

(I just got a copy of the mag by snail-mail, and will post scanned images.)

"See" is fairly short - about 1500 words - and deals with my favorite subject: perception, how we perceive reality.

The plot is dead simple: the nameless protagonist, only referred to as "she," wakes up and finds that everybody's perception of reality has been profoundly altered. In fact, the change is SO profound, I couldn't draw a picture of it...

Why does this matter? Because as a writer, I put the highest emphasis on visualizing what you write, to "picture" it - or you won't be able to accurately describe it in words.

Even though I couldn't draw the story's weird and scary changes in visual perception, I could imagine them in my mind. And this alone made it possible to write them down with meticulous attention to detail - a mix of realism and surrealism that you might experience in a dream.

That the story was translated to Chinese, proves that its theme is not bound by my language or culture: it deals with imagery, not abstractions or conversations. Chinese, Swedish or New Zealander, you can "understand" what happens in "See", even though its events are impossible and surreal.

I also think that the story works on a metaphorical level: the change in perception mirrors the "flattening" effect of modern media and the Internet, that makes the whole world come "closer".

Another new Chinese magazine, WORLD SF (not to be confused with SF WORLD) is set to publish my short story "Telephone Conversations" in its June 2005 issue. (It was originally posted on my old homepage under the title "Keeping Up With the Cloneses", a pun which couldn't be translated to Chinese.)

This satirical story also deals with perception, but in terms of prejudice and bigotry... namely, how a narrow-minded housewife sees her neighborhood through the distorted "lens" of her preconceived notions and self-delusions. She's also a comic monster and was a fun character for me to write... because you can't trust anything she says.

(I'm planning to re-post both stories on my homepage, later.)