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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Starwatch

Dune BoardwalkDuring the last week of September, I participated in the Viable Paradise writing workshop at Martha’s Vineyard. That time of year is ideal for the Cape: no bustling crowds, everything bathed in that saturated golden light unique to fall in New England. The crickets are in full cry, the night sky is adorned with both the summer and winter major constellations. Day by day, the sea turns to gunmetal silver, the salt marsh to beaten bronze.

The workshop itself was interesting, in terms of the writing as well as the social experience. I will comment on one aspect of it here: Almost all the work that I read took place either in the near-future United States or Victorian England. There wasn’t a single space opera or a truly exotic setting in the lot — on earth, let alone off-planet. In some cases, the setting worked well in service of the story’s central kernel. However, it’s very hard to make things look new if the setting is so well-worn.

The standard advice given to writers is “write what you know” (although it’s unclear how that fits with FTL, aliens or nanobots). Writers of speculative fiction might want to venture a little further afield. It seems to me that such travels would nurture the authors’ creative spirit and would also help the readers become receptive to more than iterations of Tolkien and Sterling.

16 Responses to “Starwatch”

  1. Paul Gilster says:

    What a lovely time of year to be at Martha’s Vineyard! And quite interesting to read how constrained some of the fiction you saw there turned out to be. I’m much in agreement re venturing further afield…

  2. Athena says:

    Dear Paul — in connection with this, I’m reminded of a McDevitt story, published in his hard-to-find collection, Standard Candles. The title is To Hell with the Stars, and in it people have become earthbound. They no longer read science fiction (the starry eyed kind) and have given up space exploration. But the books are still there… (*smile*) and the youngsters find them.

  3. intrigued_scribe says:

    The lovely scenery of Martha’s Vineyard in the fall is wonderfully captured! Also, it’s curious to find that some of the writing in the workshop kept to such constraints. With that in mind, the mention of To Hell with the Stars is quite fitting. :)

  4. Dear Athena and all — I’m trying to do my part. C. Sanford Lowe and I have submitted the Analog series of stories* about an interstellar project to make an asteroid-mass black hole to TOR as a novel titled “The Black Hole Project.” We’re keeping our fingers crossed (very few books are being bought). Meanwhile, click the “Black Hole Project” on my website for a bunch of background material. Cheers.

  5. Athena says:

    Heather, I’m glad the description rings true, though no words can quite capture it. As for the writing, I think the constraints I described come from several sources: in troubled times, people look inward and backward — to a golden past, or an iron near-future.

    Also, Americans in general are very culturally insular, particularly the younger people who didn’t get to travel since the downturn of the economy. I got complaints about the names in Shard Songs being difficult to remember. This from people who are supposed to make up entire worlds, species and languages in their stories.

    Finally, the present generation is used to skimming and relying on shorthand conventions and recipes, rather than developing their craft. The fault partly of the Internet, partly of the homogenization and frenetic pace of today’s life.

    I know you have done more than your part, dear Gerry. I’ve visited the Black Hole Project several times. It’s tremendously exciting. I’m impatiently tapping my foot like Asterix, waiting for the book!

  6. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    As you know, I’ve read a fair portion of Shard Songs. It seems odd to me, being a reasonably well educated person but certainly not a rocketscientist, that Shard Songs would be considered too difficult to follow. ^___^ While it may not be completely pedestrian, it’s definitely fast paced and easy to keep up with. Then again, I just got through reading what passes for a bestseller these days and was frankly depressed at the poor opinion the publishing industry seems to have for the reading public. C’est la vie.

    It is lovely that the workshop had the added benefit of affording you a nice trip to MV, in any case!

    I get the feeling the whole Neo-Victorian, steam punk thing is just about played out (as much as I’ve enjoyed some of the better work in that trope) and the next few years are going to see someone hitting a fly-ball out to left field, much to everyone’s surprise.

  7. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    btw – that “completely pedestrian” comment was meant to be tongue in cheek. Just to be sure you knew. -_~

  8. Athena says:

    Kathryn, I think you are right about the publishing industry’s opinion. This impression is reinforced by the advice that the industry representatives gave at the workshop. It was meant well, its intention was to help writers sell their work. Nevertheless, it made obvious that they consider the public to be lazy, ignorant and willing to read only pablum that conforms to a few worn recipes. Of course, this creates the audience they expect.

    The attitude reminds me of the time I sent an article to the NY Times. I discussed the terms of the Drake equation, without any math or arcane concepts. The editor rejected it as “too complex for our readers” (can there be anyone more sophisticated than the NYT readers??). MS-NBC published it in a heartbeat, which tells you how complex it really was.

    As for Shard Songs, it was also instructive to see how people react to different cultural norms. For example, the physical interactions between the men in the story were automatically interpreted as homosexual; heterosexual men are not supposed to touch each other except in violence. What does that say for US reactions to geopolitical problems?

  9. Caliban says:

    “This impression is reinforced by the advice that the industry representatives gave at the workshop. It was meant well, its intention was to help writers sell their work. Nevertheless, it made obvious that they consider the public to be lazy, ignorant and willing to read only pablum that conforms to a few worn recipes.”

    Athena, I’ll have to respectfully disagree. That was not the message I heard from the professional editors and publishers at Viable Paradise. I never heard a single thing discouraging people from inventive, imaginative writing. I agree that much of modern American fantasy is very narrow in its range, which is why I don’t read a lot of it, but I didn’t hear anyone actually advocating such a narrow range. *My* VP submission was a little outside this range — a medieval world, with weird physics — and the general response to my world building was extremely positive. Teresa Nielsen Hayden even seemed intrigued by the grammar of my invented language. I thought the critiques of my piece were fair (mostly plot issues) and worth thinking about. I know your VP experience was mixed; most attendees I talked with were very enthusiastic.

    Calvin

  10. Athena says:

    Calvin, you are quite right — your story was definitely outside the narrow range (that’s why I said “almost”).  I also have no issue with the critiques, either of my work or that of others. With few exceptions, I found them perceptive and helpful.

    I think you and I do agree on the narrowness of the range. For me, the sense of monoculture was overwhelming. And I did hear a message not to challenge the readers by straying too far beyond the expected (with the usual proviso that a wildly talented writer can flout the norms).

  11. Caliban says:

    “I did hear a message not to challenge the readers by straying too far beyond the expected…”

    Can you be specific? Because I did not hear anyone say, “Oh, only Victorian-era fantasy and near-future-America stories sell these days.” One of the submissions I read at VP involved polyamory and Ojibway, Finnish, and Welsh mythologies. The critiques of that story did not center on straying too far from the expected, but on the execution of the story itself.

    I do agree that, more generally, there is a desire among many publishers to stick to safe stories, which explains the bland “bestsellers” Heather referenced. I agree about bestsellers; in college I earned spending money writing book reviews, mostly bestsellers, and most were very badly written. We see the same thing with Hollywood, scared to death of an original idea. This is a money issue. Publishers and movie studios are reluctant to spend their money on anything less than a sure bet. It’s been proven to be a bad business model but there it is.

    But I did not hear any of the editors (and I should modify my earlier comment, there were no publishers per se at VP, just editors and writers) suggest we write safe, familiar stories. In fact, in general editors and publishers are often at odds over this very issue, with editors trying to champion quirky books and publishers being reluctant to pry open their wallets. Sadly, marketing often wins.

    Elizabeth Bear did lecture on how to construct the standard “Hollywood” plot, with the clearly stated proviso that once you have mastered this form of plotting, you can then go on to subvert and break the form.

    Frankly, I’m puzzled by where you heard this message against originality.

    I do agree with insularity, not only in travel but in reading. I think many would-be writers don’t read much beyond the fantasy on the racks, which is why so much of it feels like a retread. Lately I have read a lot of novels coming out of Africa, and the immigrant experience in Britain (e.g. Brick Lane), and I am now working my way through a bunch of novels by Ma Jian on post-Cultural Revolution China. If you have no clue about the breadth of cultures here on Earth, it’s impossible to write truly original cultures in fantasy or SF. On this I know we both firmly agree.

  12. Athena says:

    Of course the instructors would not discourage any of the students. Everyone accepted to VP has a degree of talent, and one of them may be the writer out of left field who produces the next surprise bestseller.

    However, actions speak louder than words: the two manuscripts that the editors in VP requested to see in their entirety were a Victorian-era fantasy and a near-future American dystopia. I, too, reviewed books for a decade. And it is my opinion — as a reviewer and a fellow writer, even if my viewpoint is not mainstream — that these two entries were not unrivaled in quality of concept or execution compared to other workshop submissions that I read.

  13. caliban says:

    I have a hard time taking those two manuscripts as evidence for a preference for a narrow range. For one thing, we only heard about *those* two manuscripts. We don’t know that other manuscripts were not also asked for. And if they were virtually *all* neo-Victorian or near-future America, it doesn’t gives the editors much of a pool to choose from.

    But I would like to point out a way in which I agree with the narrowness “issue.” I think you and I both noticed that, while there was an equal distribution of men and women instructors and students at VP, we were overwhelmingly of European origin. This may say something about North American SF, but I note that in contrast Clarion is more careful in bringing in instructors and students from a wider range of backgrounds. On one hand this doesn’t directly impinge upon learning matters of craft. On the other very relevant hand, places like Clarion and VP are non-trivial launching points for SF/F careers, and so does ultimate affect the “face” of SF/F. This is arguably another facet of your concerns, and a “viable” concern too.

    So in a way I agree with you; I just see different evidence. (But this is what scientists do, no? Argue over what evidence is most compelling? :) )

  14. Athena says:

    Stop him before he puns again! But yes, the mix was quite homogeneous and these are indeed breeding and selection grounds for future careers.

  15. ‘Write what you know.’ Much better is to write what turns you on. It’s all about passion.

  16. Athena says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Jack. We cannot know everything, not even everything we want to know — especially by first-hand experience. That’s why curiosity and empathy are (or should be) defining human traits. They make it possible for us to act humanely and dream divinely.