October 6th, 2013

out with friends, crown

Towards a Farthing Party con report: Saturday morning

(I did not wake up in time for the Good Reads panel. I hope it went well.)

Mad Science. I moderated this panel. We had a lovely time talking about human subject research, grant funding, and parallels with/outgrowths from mad alchemy (the idea that the worst times come from the best results–someone pointed out that mad alchemists are almost always students, inflating their claims while fleeing from city to city). Wernher von Braun was mentioned as a Mary Sue figure, getting to run an entire program while Tsien (? Chinese scientist) was thrown out of NASA for much less. Works discussed included Girl Genius, those Bujold novels with Enrique, Frankenstein, Cyteen (particularly with the bad parenting/mad science parallels of Frankenstein), Narbonic, Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavor, Manhattan Projects, the Laundry novels.

There was also some discussion of why comics were coming up a lot in this list, and a few of the answers proposed included that mad science is visually striking and that you don’t have to pay extra for the kind of thing that would break the special effects budget in a movie. Scale was proposed to either underscore or undermine the madness of a particular bit of speculative science: it’s much harder to read something small and subtle as mad science. It’s also harder to read group endeavors as mad, even though the results can be far madder than the strereotypical lone scientist in the lab with an Igor or two.

Someone proposed that autism was replacing madness in portrayals of science: that the stereotypical scientist who would Show You All in years past was much more likely to be hyperfocused and want to be left alone in current portrayals. Mad science is in some ways past visions of the future. Someone also quoted, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and proposed excessive faith in one’s model as the root of mad science.

Finally, biopunks were proposed to all be a bit mad. Jon has glow-in-the-dark plants, and who knows what next. Teresa said, very plaintively, “We’ve been good. We deserve to have pygmy mammoths.” (Yes. Very true.)

Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine. Five Rivers Press has just reprinted this hard-to-find book. Isabelle told of finding it when it was new and she was a college student: “I opened the book again, and the sentence was still there.” That made me smile. Hardly anybody seemed to have just bought the book in a normal way when it first came out. It’s on the cusp of at least four genres (SF, fantasy, gothic, and horror) and refuses to choose between them rather than neglecting to do so. Someone suggested that the title should be taken as a warning, not to read this on an empty stomach, to take it slow. There was strong sense that everything on this planet was distributed unevenly, like tech and supplies are on our own planet. It was compared favorably to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, which some panelists felt handled the subject matter in a way that was far more fetishistic than Black Wine‘s sense that people form a sense of normal that is local to their own circumstances.

Other works and artists it was compared to included Bernini, Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Eleanor Arnason (particularly A Woman of the Iron People), Gene Wolfe, Ian McDonald’s King of Morning, Queen of Day, and Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder (this was the most successful insight for me–I had thought of LeGuin but not of Finder, but it’s very Findery in some ways, in its mosaic composition of a world and in its local normals and in some of the awful things that just happen but do not detract from the good things that also just happen).

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


Critiques and completion

Before I get back to my Farthing Party panel notes, I wanted to talk about why I prefer to critique completed works rather than excerpts or partially finished drafts. Recently I did a crit as a Kickstarter reward for Daily SF, and the promised crit had been on “a short story,” but the person sent me the first few chapters of their novel instead. I want to hasten to add that I am not upset with them about this–I just feel they got less value for their dollar.*

Here’s the thing: there is hardly ever such a thing as good writing in a vacuum.** You can show me, say, a really beautiful sestina about a moth.*** But you can also show me a hard-boiled detective story for which plunking the sestina down in the middle would not improve the story in the slightest. Context is all.****

So I can tell someone what is or is not working for me about the first few chapters of a book. I bounce off the first few pages of a great many books (two just this morning!), so it’s a lot easier to hit the “this is bad writing in a vacuum” buttons. There are plenty of those. But–for example, if my thought at the end of Chapter 3 is, “I really want to know what happened to Maud,” that doesn’t mean that you screwed up by not putting Maud’s fate in Chapter 2. It will depend on what comes after. If Chapter 4 starts, “Maud wiped the blood from her sword and considered her options,”***** then wanting to know about Maud at the end of Chapter 3 is a feature, not a bug. If you wait for Chapter 27, when I have long since ceased caring, or worse, Book 3, then it’s important that I was wondering what happened to Maud from the end of Chapter 3 on.

Everything ramifies forward, but it also ramifies backward. You can say that you want to read onward, or that something is bothering you, or that the whole thing smells of unwashed socks. But a wonderful beginning can be completely undone by an ending that does not follow its implications and ramifications. This is even true at the series length. This is why series that don’t have midpoint endings are so problematic: you are cantilevering a greater and greater weight of story, and eventually it all goes crashing into the river.

And we are once again reminded of what we have said about me and metaphors when I’m tired. But still: the more complete, the more I can turn over the ramifications and see how they fit together, and this is a good thing for me as a reader, but it’s an even better thing for you as a writer, because one of the best things about being a writer is that you can get help from the smart people you know to make your stuff even better. It is not a live-action art form. It can be fixed later. Hurrah for that.

*I get that not everybody has short stories in the first place, so the person may have gotten the most possible value for their dollar. Let’s say, then, that they got less value compared to a hypothetical other person who was giving me the same number of words to critique but in a finished short story instead of a novel partial.

**When Alec said this on Twitter earlier this week, I agreed that there are not at all enough stories with speculative science set in hard vacuum. Pls to be getting on this; kthx.

***Please do.

****If you write me a hard-boiled detective story in which a really beautiful sestina about a moth is crucial, I will love it forEVAR.


Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux