Tag Archives: revising

Truth Requires Consequences


It’s been years since I read *The Time Traveler’s Wife* and I don’t  reread bad books. I do hope the author has since learned how to write, plot, and portray convincing characters.

Over-writing was one problem. “She leaned against him like cold pasta” did give me a permanent bad example when I teach writing. By that late in the book I had been sand-bagged with so many poorly-chosen metaphors that I just sat there giggling in my office chair.

Lack of any science in something she tried to treat as science fiction is another, as is classic levels of “character acting on author knowledge.”

But the most over-arching, thorough-going problem, destroying plot, tension, and characterizations, is the lack of consequences.

We expect, in any world, that when characters transgress the rules of their culture, there will be negative reactions and punishments. To have known rules, taboos and laws both, broken and then have nothing happen to the character except maybe a sympathetic talk, instantly destroys all suspension of disbelief. The plot loses all tension, because we don’t believe in the world or the characters, and it looks like nothing really bad is ever going to befall them anyway. When something bad does happen, it merely seems an author contrivance to play at being dramatic with her handpuppets.

Examples ensue.

The time traveler works in a closed stacks library with a number of co-workers, male and female. At one point it becomes known to the reader that everyone “knows” (from finding the clothes he vanished out of) that he takes off his clothes and goes around naked in the closed stacks.

Reality check: what would happen at any normal workplace if it were found that a male worker customarily wandered starkers around the warehouse or old document storage? Right: the first time his clothes are so found, a note is left on them telling him to come talk to his supervisor or the head of HR. If he does it again, out the door. That’s normal consequences. This does not go on for months or years with co-workers wondering when they’re going to run into him in the altogether.

Instead, everyone is cool with this and doesn’t care that he does this, including all the women. It only comes up when he appears naked in a place with no human entry, and his boss explains that they’ve known about him being a little odd for years.

Additional nega-points for Stupid On Cue: no-one has ever noticed that his clothes aren’t folded on a shelf, or flung all over, or dropped normally. They are laying all in a crumple as if he dematerialized out of them: all garments still fastened, socks inside shoes and cuffs, underwear inside clothes, shirt buttoned and the tie still around the neck, and his watch and wedding ring on the floor under his left shirt cuff.

Secondly, he takes his problem to a genetics specialist because he (via the author) just knows his problem must be genetic. In this way, his secret is out. Later, he has a daughter who zips randomly through time from infancy. Her public school teacher knows this and to allow for it. No one cares that they can travel in time, otherwise.

I’m sure the author meant us to realize that an uncontrolled random time-skipping just isn’t important except to the ones so cursed. Except, as she does not realize, it would be one of the most important discoveries of all time.

ALL SCIENCE IS TURNED UPSIDE DOWN!! Time is no longer one-way and causality can be reversed. The future can create the past, as he sometimes does.

She hand-waves off time-travel with “it’s caused by a genetic mutation.” But *how* is it caused by tweaking a bit of DNA? How does something in him turn physics inside out? Scientists from bacteriologists to astrophysicists must find out. She never even hints at a theory of how the travel works. “It’s a mutation” seems to be her idea of an explanation.

On top of this, once it is known to be genetic, someone is going to get the bright idea to sedate the traveler so he can’t jump, sequester him, hook him up to a milking machine, and use artificial insemination to produce as many offspring of his as possible, in the hopes one of them or their crossbred descendants will have controlled time travel.

Yet he and his family go on living a normal life with no heightened security, and even the geneticists lose interest in them.

One of the times he acts on the past again lacks consequences. The wife, as a high schooler, gets beaten up by a date when she won’t give him sex — but he doesn’t rape her. No one sees her bruises and such until the time traveler conveniently shows up in the next week. She talks the middle-aged librarian into being the muscle for her revenge. They get the bad date to a place, the traveler cows the boy into stripping, and they duct tape him to a tree. She then cell-phones everyone she knows (in school) to come by and complete his humiliation.

And then the event is over and vanishes from conciousness. No one talks about it at school, so that a teacher might overhear. No parent picks up on it. The bad date does not complain to his parents, making up some story about this thug the girl hired because bad date wouldn’t ask her out any more, thereby getting her possibly arrested and sent to Juvenile Hall. No one keeps grilling her on who was the man who helped her pull that off. No one who hates her or just likes trouble purposely brings it up to a teacher or her family.

So please remember in your revising to check for this kind of gross continuity error. This isn’t how the world works, and I detect a whiff of Mary Sue to all this being happy or amnesiac with events that ought to get the characters in some very difficult situations. The author also missed the chance for a much more interesting story in some spots! At least, she needed to iron out these (and other) plot wrinkles so the story wasn’t so desperately silly.

Unnecessary is Deadweight


All overly detailed scenes, that don’t contribute to either hindering or furthering the protagonist’s quest, are unnecessary padding. All they do is clog the pace.

Unnecessary sex scenes. If the sex is not dramatic, that is, the details of the sex itself create or resolve complications, you don’t need it. If the aftermath of sex is where the drama happens, you don’t need the prior detail. Don’t try to convince modern readers that people having hot monkey sex are actually carrying on a thoughtful dramatic conversation during it: who has the brains to? You have to stop the sex cold for complicated talk. The author who tosses in sex “to keep the reader from getting bored” has not fixed but highlighted their problem: the pacing or tension has died. If it’s boring for the characters to discuss some subject with their clothes on, it’s boring plus silly for them to discuss it while their groping is graphically described. (Mind you, I can write erotica, but something besides sex is going on in each of those scenes, which makes plotting through them really difficult work. Good sex scenes aren’t easy.) Read the rest of this entry

Slanguage: A Look Backwards Guides the Path Forward.


Writers mainly use a Standard English that we can assume everyone literately educated learns, when it isn’t still their native tongue. Richelieu’s French Academy guards their tradition. In English, it’s quite enough to say that if Jane Austen didn’t use it, it’s suspect.

Use Standard rather than hip, now, TV slanguage because by the time it’s in print, it’s looking so five minutes ago. (Professional publication usually takes two years from deadline to book, not to menton all the time you’ll take to sell it). By the time return dates fill the inside pages of library copies, it looks definitely dated and, if you’re not careful, starting to become incomprehensible. Too soon the last check-out date is years ago.

One of the perils of writing mainstream YA fiction is you want kids to sound normal and today, which means in ten years the new YAs need a translation. On the other hand, good YA specfi, like Heinlein and Norton, avoided actual slanguage of their time for Standard with invented slang. Many YA publishers’ guidelines say “No science fiction or fantasy”: libraries don’t buy it because the old stuff is as popular as ever. But they always need new contemporary YA because kids can’t understand any longer a story where the protagonist doesn’t have a cellphone that takes pictures for evidence, or where they talk like 1995 did.

Adults are more forgiving of detail, but the story that’s now a period piece of dress and technology becomes foggy if you also used the slanguage and cliches of your time or, worse, your youth. Take Necromancer by Gordon Dickson. Someone says of the focus character, “He always could put the Indian sign on me.” Indian from India or redskins? Control or confusion or paralysis or adoration? Most of you have as little idea what that means as I do. This is played as a key character point, from one of the few to have known the person from youth, but it’s now totally lost to readers because the author used a (Western? rural?) slang phrase from his youth and put it in the future world.

Think how funny and opaque hippy slang stories can be, if you’re under forty. That’s any work stuffed with fashionable phraseology and cliches forty years later. If you want your grandchildren to collect royalty checks based on your work, think twice about not bothering to master Standard English, etc. It can be the difference between a short burst of sales and appreciation followed by limbo, and a long haul of royalties and reputation.

The Bottom Drawer and the Back Burner


Authors frequently refer to things in “the bottom drawer.” It may actually be a box in the closet or a CDR in the back of the box, but it is where we keep our projects that are dead in the water. Maybe we got partway through and something horrifically just like it showed up on the book racks: these evil accidents of fashion happen. Maybe the idea didn’t work out, and we decided not to throw good time after bad, so we walked away from it. Maybe it went around to every possible publisher and just didn’t sell. The problem may not have been in the book, but in publishing fashion. Sometimes we are writing the books of ten years ago, and sometimes the market isn’t ready for what we’re writing and sometimes it’s just the wrong spot in a cycle.

The bottom drawer is a place of cobwebs and dust. The “back burner,” on the other hand, is a place to keep things warm and bubbling. It’s often where we keep ideas that haven’t quite jelled yet, possibly for decades. We may have gotten interested again in the idea from reading our own idea books, and this may be the project to work on after the current one. In the meantime, we collect some research now and then or draw some maps or do some conlang work for an invented world. We may have written nothing on it, or it may be a partial needing more thinking-out.

As a writer, your ideas and words are what you have to sell. It makes good sense both economically and emotionally to leave only incurable juvenalia in your bottom drawer.

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Transcription Errors – Why You Want to Do Your Own Writing Rather than Recycling Someone Else’s


Readers don’t come to us for a collage of what we’ve read elsewhere. It bores them.

Recycled writing includes cliches and stereotypes, including cliched and stereotyped plots. You also need to avoid something between: behaviors or appearances whose description has been exaggerated until it has lost contact with reality. Like photocopying a photocopy, each recycle makes it worse.

Take “turning green” to describe someone nauseated, ready to vomit. Some writers will describe people turning “pea green” with illness.

Have you ever seen anyone turn shamrock color? Of course not! They can’t. Can not.

Probably some nineteenth century writer described chlorosis, chronic anemia, where the skin is so pale that it’s faintly greenish contrasted with healthy skin. Someone recycled this as so pale with temporary illness as to be vaguely greenish. Next copy, the green became notable, and associated with nausea. Finally we end up with people who turn grass-color before running away to vomit.

At no time since the original has anyone checked in with reality, including the editors letting this stuff go by in pot-boiler fiction. This is third-rate writing, except maybe in humor. We assume anyone taking the trouble to stop here wants to be the best writer possible.

Don’t recycle what you’ve read.

Don’t borrow cliche phrases and stereotypical characters, any of that sort of thing. Start with reality, and find your own way to say it. Make the writing your own.

Always use your own physical experience as a touchstone for writing. This means you need to pay attention intently to the world around you.

At some time you or someone you know has been dog-sick. Was there actually any way to tell in advance? Did your internal warning match symptoms from med texts (cribbed by other writers trying to avoid pea-green) or did you fail to salivate, close your eyes, and the rest of that supposed reality? (Questioning authorities is a whole other blog.) Maybe the only authentic warning to an onlooker is an expression of surprise or distress and that hand movement to cover the mouth.

This means a writer needs to pay attention to life and experiences, small as well as showy. Writing gives us the greatest gift this way: our lives, vivid, juicy, and constantly valuable, truly lived rather than sleepwalking through them.

That doesn’t mean you have to commit crimes to write about them: you just have to learn to extrapolate. Y’know — imagine. But do your own imagining. Don’t re-use someone else’s.

Character Pitfalls of Historical Fiction


Historical fiction always serves the didactic purposes of the present.

Parallel periods comment on today in the sneaky revealing light of yesterday:

Mexican-American War = Iraq-American War

or Classical parallels used earlier:

Imperial Rome = British Empire; Persian Empire = France
Periclean Athens = Britain or France; Sparta = Prussia
Periclean Athens = France; Persian Empire = British Empire (French writers, of course).

Writers explain or glorify the present, or amend past indignities, via histfi. Sir Walter Scott single-handedly rehabilitated and glamorized the Scottish, despised by the earlier Georgian English as uncouth demi-barbarians.

Think of racist images recently over-painted by more realistic or positive characters, whether protagonists or secondaries. This can go too far, into anachronism, as when the Noble Savage is revised into a culture missing notable unpleasant aspects it actually had in order to make it fit what today considers ideal or acceptable.
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Time Travel Stories


Time Travel can be a mechanism or a Template.

The sterling examples are the earliest uses of the mechanism, before the template was thought of. The British Barbarians uses a tourist/researcher from the future as a way to demonstrate how barbaric the preening, self-congratulatory Late Victorian English could look to a culture really advanced — in short, to remind them they still had a long way to go before they could consider the problems of the world and society solved. The Time Machine is on the Long Sleeper Template to visit a dystopia. The only reason to have a machine with a reverse gear is so the Traveller could return to his own time and tell his story to a friend in the frame, before disappearing again, never to be seen. Otherwise, the character “wakes up” (stops the machine) in a future age, has adventures, and the story could end right there. Wells tacks on some pointless vignette visits of the dying Earth after humanity has vanished.

The Time Travel Template, on the other hand, is wrapped up with the nature of time, fate, destiny, luck, free will, and alternate history. The time-traveller must use time travel to try to solve plot problems, which requires that the travel be controllable to some tiny extent. It’s up to the author to decide what they want or need: the “many worlds” of quantum theory or a monolineal timeline, rigid fate or conservation of history, or the easy fracturing into time branches that lets you kill your grandfather and still exist because you came from some other time branch where he didn’t die.

A story where the character simply stumbles through a hole in time at convenient (to the plot) moments is not on the Time Travel Template, but only using time travel as a mechanism.

Mechanism or template, the means of time travel are, by most realistic extrapolations of physics, all fantasy. You can mutter about Einstein and quantum-foam holding open wormholes, but those exorcisms won’t change that it’s highly unlikely to ever happen. So you can make it work almost any way you like to limit your traveller’s jumping around. Possible useful snags:

  • It has to recharge between uses, so when you land some place, you’re there for minutes, hours, or days.
  • It has finite energy, so you have to stop every so many centuries even in a high-speed run, and recharge. Picking rest points is an art.
  • You have to keep a log, because you can’t be in the same time twice. After a while, whole decades and eras are “used up” for you. If you try to go there, you wind up at the nearest “empty” point forward or back. Multiply this by the number of travellers in a group.
  • You can be in the same time twice, but if you run into yourself, the universe implodes, so stay out of that town.
  • It’s a big honking device like a small submarine so you have to find somewhere to leave it, and walk away from it to do your visiting. It has to have great burglar-proofing. You may have trouble getting back to it.
  • It’s tiny so you can carry it on your person, but that means it can be stolen, especially if it looks like a ring or other jewelry.
  • It’s embedded in your tour guide, who was just carried off by the bandits.

So you can always make the time travel part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

Village of the Dumbed


As part of teaching the Keys, I have six stories for practice critiquing, each badly flawed in different ways. In some cases, it was a hard decision which I was going to use as a horrible example for dialogue or characterization or plotting, because some are horrible in several ways. Mind you, they were all once published by big houses, and some authors would be considered giants in the field of science fiction and fantasy. Everyone slips sometimes. I think that is an invaluable lesson in itself.

What I notice particularly now is the very common use of Villagers, non-human or semi-human creatures that greatly resemble us, can speak more or less like us, but that have the intelligence of a domestic turkey.

Of course, they are what they are for plot convenience.

That’s so wrong.

Characters of all levels, from protagonists to spear-carriers, need to act naturalisticly, like reasonable people would. Even like stupid people, at the very least.

Yes, the world is full of people who forget to put their brains in gear. I’ll never forget sending back a steak for being too well-done, and the chef sent back the same steak, cooked even more.

However, the constant stereotype of Villagers seems to me a sign of an unconscious, and all the more pervasive, prejudice in the college/academic/intellectual world of science fiction and fantasy, against rural people, farmers especially, as if they were no brighter than their cattle. As an attitude in a field dominated by urban white-collar technicians (engineers, scientists, &c) and “art school geeks,” this is understandable, if not condonable.

You should notice the lack of this in rural-raised writers, like Orson Scott Card, or S. A. Bolich from the horse-raising families out in Spokane, Washington, In her work, it’s as likely to be the citified intellectuals (like the preacher in In the Shadow of Heaven) who wind up the villains.

Certainly, Ursula K. Leguin has noted a distinct lack of blue-collar protagonists in science fiction, and that includes farmers.
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Revision 06.3.2: The Face of the Bottomless Pool


If you are writing about the town you live in, your research has taken a life to accumulate. If you built this world, out of historical research or out of your imagination, it is still huge, and the more you research the deeper it gets.

This is good! From this huge supply you can find the perfect details of day-to-day life, as well as the interesting particulars that your plot hinges on.

The trick is showing the reader the surface of the pool and hinting at what lies beneath the surface, without drowning the poor reader in the depths of excess detail.*


World-presentation is necessary in all genres. Many think of this as some peculiarity of science fiction and fantasy invented worlds, which is simply wrong. Regionalists, especially, should know better.

Far too many novels depict Los Angeles as Miami on steroids, minus alligators, or Boston with palm trees, and so on. Having graduated high school in Los Angeles, I can assure you that there are stringent differences, starting with air quality. Don’t try to take up amateur star-gazing in LA. Smog doesn’t vanish at night, and you’re lucky if you can spot the highest-magnitude stars at all. To truly depict LA, you have to find out the essentials of what makes it different from other cities, like this. That’s all world-presentation.
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Why Not Cookies, Coffee, and Maize?


… or, Why exotic modern foods are out of place in most herofi or highfy.

The first reason to avoid artifacts of our post-renaissance worldwide culture is atmosphere. If you want your reader to immerse in your medievalesque world, don’t keep swatting them in the face with things that don’t feel medieval. If you want a feel of the Orient, don’t bring in New World stuff and if you want a Mesoamerican ambiance, keep European stuff out of the mix.

Particularly, I recall objecting to characters eating cinnamon cookies in a northern mountain culture, in a ms I critted for a workshop. The author’s attitude was that they were technologically possible, so why not? My objection was that “cookies” were unnecessarily shoving 21st century America into a world so alien it didn’t have dogs or horses. The cookies weren’t necessary to the plot. They were merely cosmetic, and in this case the wrong cosmetics. I mean, in the same village, you might as well serve tamales or have the children play basketball.

They’re just as atmospherically wrong, though technologically possible. They’re just not technologically plausible.

“Cookie” is a specifically American and modern (last couple of centuries) word. “Sweet biscuits” or “sugarcakes” could have served the same purpose without swatting the reader out of immersion.

But are they technologically possible? Read the rest of this entry