Writing Under The Influence

There’s this very odd effect I’ve noted, the last ten years or so, that I wonder if it’s always been so, or just recently.

Feels like recent insanity, but it doesn’t mean it is. It’s entirely possible that this has been going on since the beginning of time.

What do I mean by insanity?

Well, from the Baen bar to conferences, I come across people who tell me they don’t read in the genre they write in, because they’re afraid it will taint their style.  Though the BAD insanity are the people who tell me they don’t read ANYTHING at all because they fear it will make their style “less fresh.”

Now, I suppose there might be some justification for the first one, if you’re one of those sort of people who gets entire phrases stuck in their heads, but have bad enough memories not to remember where they got them.  I could see where it would be safer not to read in the genre you’re working in (though it would also be very difficult for reasons I’ll explain.)

However, for those who don’t read at all for fear of not being fresh, I’d like to point out they should also plug their ears with corks, and try to speak a foreign language without having heard it.

You see, writing – stories on the page – aren’t the same thing as what really happens.  If what you’re trying to write is “real life” at best you’ll end up with formless goo.  At worst… At worst you’ll end up with the worst type of soap opera with all the more exciting bits of people having breakfast, reading the morning paper and maybe, just maybe, driving to work.

This is because fiction writing – any fiction writing, in any time, really – has a certain number of conventions and ways to go about telling a story.  Heck, even if you read a lot, if you put on your writer’s hat for the first time, you might find yourself trying to reinvent the wheel.  My own, rather specific bit of insanity was not realizing that stories were written in scenes.  So, say my character had a fight with his wife in the living room.  Instead of cutting off the chapter/scene and picking up in the bedroom, where he’s packing his clothes, no, I THOUGHT I had to show him walk up the stairs, step by step, then down the hallway…

Insanity?  Sure.  But I was in the critter’s head and he was doing this.  So… I had to, right?  And yes, I’d read books before.  And written books before.  It took me to book five to figure this one out.

But let’s say you’re not brain damaged in my unique way – most people who’ve read any novels would know better than to do what I did.

There’s other conventions.  There’s ways to convey emotions; there’s tricks of narrating a fight; there’s … things you can only pick up subconsciously from reading.

And this is why I said although I understand – for people with bad memory – not wanting to read in the genre you’re writing in – it can get really difficult.

Let me explain.  I read in multiple genres.  I write in multiple genres.  A certain amount of crossover is not a bad idea.  These days, to be honest Romance is to genre writing what Country is to music.  If you have a bit of crossover and can claim to be SF Romance, it’s as good as being Country-Rock – you just added a massive audience to your much smaller niche.

HOWEVER you don’t want to be writing mystery and using sf cues; or fantasy and using sf cues (guilty); or even SF with mystery cues.

I don’t fully know how to explain this, but there is a certain type of…  Well, Kris Rusch calls them “reader cookies” for each genre.  They’re not so much things that advance the plot or are extremely necessary.  They’re things that the reader of a certain genre or subgenre will devour and be all happy about.

As I said, I read everything.  But I’ve found that my early imprinting on science fiction means I understand science fiction readers better.  So I know I can put “cool stuff in” because it excites me, so it will excite them.  More importantly, my mind tends to think the way sf readers do, so when I give just an allusion to something, they usually follow along just fine.

Not so with fantasy.  I spent years writing fantasy, but the truth is, I don’t read as much of it as I do science fiction or mystery.  So, even though I read – and enjoy – Diana Wynne Jones and Pratchett, I keep giving my fantasy novels a “tone” of science fiction by being overly concerned with how and when things work, how and when they don’t, and how to explain them to people in a logical fashion.  This for some reason means I rub fantasy readers the wrong way – at least people who read exclusively fantasy.  I don’t even know how I do it, just like I don’t fully, consciously, try to hook the SF readers.  Or the mystery readers.

Every time I try to write a new genre, it’s like learning to walk all over again, and I virtually have a breakdown over the book.  You’re not quite a new writer all over again, but you’re also not fully an experienced veteran.

So, it seems to me it would be much easier to write a genre if you’ve read sufficiently in it to have an idea how things are done.

If you want an example of this, take a futuristic romance or a paranormal romance (if you read mostly sf or alternately fantasy) and read it.  It will drive you nuts.  I can’t explain it any other way than to say the writers not only reinvent the wheel, but they reinvent it in the wrong way.  For readers of sf/f, it feels like I imagine it feels to a cat getting their fur stroked the wrong way.

It’s not wrong, of course.  It’s not wrong for THEIR GENRE.  It just feels wrong for OUR genre.  These are not the same genres, but sideways steps.  OTOH they are as close as you’re going to get to “fantasy written by romance readers.”

You can make the same type of miscue writing in a genre you don’t read/have never read/don’t like.  (The ones I make tend to be more subtle, just because fantasy is where I’m least at home.)

Is it possible to do it?  I don’t know.  I was getting “accused” of writing romance before I’d read any, so I suppose it is?  I just don’t think you’re going to grow your audience to its maximum potential that way.  (Though, as the late Ric Locke was fond of pointing out, in the global market that e books open up, that might not mean anything.)

However, I guarantee that if you don’t read anything at all, your stuff will not be “fresh” – it will be virtually unreadable.  It would be like never looking at a painting and trying to achieve the effect with your fingers and bits of dirt.  Oh, sure, I can see someone painting a portrait that way (pastel is not much different) but not without ever having seen a painted portrait.  There are conventions of rendering three dimensions in two you’ll be sure to miss.

While not knowing the conventions can result in some good innovations, the chances of that are the same as of an accidental mutation being beneficial to an organism.  (No, I’m not disputing evolution.  I’m just saying that out of millions of mutations most will be harmful, a good number will be neutral, but the beneficial ones are few and far between.)

Yes, you might come up with a really cool way to individualize dialogue.  Unfortunately, we’ll never slog far enough in to find it, because your descriptions will be rendered in such a way we will not have the slightest notion whether your protagonists are mid-air or under the sea.  (Yes, it’s possible.)

I’d advise you to read widely.  I’d advise you to read the genre you aspire to writing, at least enough to know the conventions.  Of course, I’d also advise you to read outside the genre, back and forth in time, and different cultures – even if nothing but your own narrow genre truly appeals to you, it will give you an appreciation for what’s essential and what’s decoration in the current conventions.  (This is much like learning a foreign language will give you an understanding of your own.)

Yes – particularly when you’re a new author – you’ll borrow style without meaning to.  Not as much as you think, mind – that’s an illusion – but if you read a lot of Heyer, your space society might end up talking in high-regency style.  (Which might be a thing, who knows?)  So don’t read anything that’s so distinctive that the porting of manners and expressions will hurt your book.

On the other hand, if you read nothing at all, you will fall down the rabbit hole of your own mind, and at the end of it, the only reader you’ll be aiming to please will be yourself.  This is particularly a danger if you’re young and just beginning.

As Pratchett says of Edward D’Eath “he fell under his own influence.”  It can be a killer.

143 responses to “Writing Under The Influence

  1. Fascinating.

    I’m entirely convinced by the “reader cookies” concept, but I guess I’m so much a fish swimming in SF waters that I don’t even know what our cookies are. Can you give examples?

    • well, I also have issues with reader cookies for SF — I mean, clearly I put them in, but I don’t think about them consciously — but say, in history, if you put in a factoid the reader didn’t know about that time period? Reader cookie. In mystery — say in cozies — make an allusion to the voice character never having killed anyone, and besides his name isn’t even Akroyd… etc. Oh, I’ve found fantasy readers like what I’ll have to call “special effects” — elaborate ooh-ahhhh! descriptions of magic. I found this out because I had one and when my group read they went on and on about how wonderful it was and all the time I was going “but… It’s just bs description! It requires no special effects.” However, I do understand in a way that the “mystical” sense is important in fantasy.

      • Harry Potter. While reading them I constantly grumble about the absence of any sort of rigorous theoretical underpinning for the magic: underlying principles (Laws of Contagion & Similarity, anyone?) strength/intensity (although we are given a clue when Bellatrix tells Potter you have to really mean it when casting an unforgiveable curse) or other factors. Even “wand magic” — critical to resolving the storyline undergirding the series — is essentially just so much handwavium.

        Eventually, having vented sufficiently, I just grit my teeth and concede the cookies of the genre no matter how much it makes me want to toss my cookies in reaction.

        SF cookies involve nods to established memes of the genre, tipping of hat to Campbell, Heinlein and a few others (thus showing respect for those who made it possible to make a living in the genre and establishing common background with the readers who are presumed similarly familiar with antecedent stories) and adherence to the rule of allowing only one change in reality, with everything else following logically from that deviation. Sometimes the variance is explicit, others it is left for the reader to figure out that in this universe the speed of light is not limiting, or that inertia can be suspended.

        • Not handwavium. Wandwavium.
          *ducks, runs*

          • Nein, nein – to properly vave der vand, you must first die hand to vave.

            (Sigh – I have fool-ly lost whatever German gender knowledge I once had, and I had very little even then.)

            *Gooses, runs*

            • *SNRK* And I thought it was all in the elbow!

            • I’ve lost most of my German, and I’m too busy to get it back. Sigh.

              • Dorothy Grant

                You lost most of your German? How much did you keep of him as a trophy? Is his arm hanging over your mead-hall?

                • Very weirdly I never dated a German. Americans, South African, British and a Frenchman but never a German. The closest I came to dating a German was when one of them mistook me for a lady of the evening and made a very indelicate suggestion… and wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Close to dating” as in he got hit with a rather heavy bookbag across the neck and then I explained exactly what he was in German AND Portuguese (it was full daylight and downtown Porto and I wanted people to be aware I was not happy with him, so he didn’t try anything further.) From his expression as he retreated, he probably packed and ran away from any place containing Portuguese females. I got your email, btw — and would be honored. My husband is doing thingies to my computer just now, so I can’t answer via email

                  • I’d like to point out though the man wasn’t to blame. No, I wasn’t that day dressed in perfect thirties attire, which I tended to do down to fishnet stockings. AND THAT was the problem. I told dad about it when I got home and said “I’m wearing slacks, a blouse and carrying the distinctive bookbag of a college student (it’s leather, folds in half, no strap, it’s carried under the arm or clasped to the chest) with the ribbon along its spine in the dark blue of the humanities college and tied as a Junior. Now, these details might escape a foreigner, but what about slacks, blouse, bookbag and barely any makeup says “hooker”? And dad says “everything. Since the city started cracking down on hookers, the younger ones dress like college students, because you people are out at all hours.”

                    So, it wasn’t the man’s fault.

                    • Wayne Blackburn

                      No, I would say he’s not really to blame for the original approach. Where he lost sympathy was not taking no for an answer.

            • Was in der Himmel? Bedeuten Sie “Zuerst müssen Sie die Hände schwingen”?

              *ducks as RES flings a string of sausages, followed by an empty liter stein*

              • Sheet – chemo wiped out most of my German. It was interesting because I was in a German hospital for almost five weeks. With only 1/4 of my brain working, I could understand and speak German. *sigh I guess I have to be drunk now to remember it. Plus the mean old docs won’t let me drink alcohol. Gawd I miss the German Alte Bier.

        • Wayne Blackburn

          That IS one thing I like about The Dresden Files. He takes a minute to describe the reason for doing things a certain way and how that affects the outcome.

          I think one of the reasons Rowling didn’t put that stuff in Harry Potter is that she was actually writing a YA adventure story about overcoming adversity and doing the right thing, and while the magic seemed to be central to the story, she actually just used it as backdrop. Still would have been nice to be a little more consistent with descriptions of spells, and give some explanations of why certain things worked a certain way.

        • A lot of fantasy has a more spiritual feel to it – magic is often depicted as having a connection to the will, and is not something that can be quantified. Some people go both ways: Pratchett has wizards who act like physicists and chemists – if you use these ingredients, you get this result – while witchery is more psychological, more mind games, more connected to the spirit or personality.

          A lot of people were quite ticked when, in Star Wars, Lucas told us the Force came from midichlorons when we all had previously considered it a spiritual connection, something available to anyone who was worthy.

  2. I think you just explained something that I never knew I didn’t understand (excuse the convoluted grammar). I generally only read fantasy by authors that I have read in other genres first, and like. Apparantly fantasy cookies are like peanut butter cookies (edible I guess, but nothing to write home about) SF cookies on the other hand are chewy chocolate, with peanut butter chips, umm-mm good :)

    • Ah, now me, I find SF often to be dry and tasteless, lacking the richness and variety of the fantasy cookie, unless the SF in question borrows heavily from the fantasy elements of adventure and spectacle. :-)

      • ah, you’re talking hard sf. We in Space Opera are ALL adventure and spectacle.

        Or as it occurred to me the other day, halfway through a reading “OMG. I write schlock.” Head>desk. The worst part is that enjoy it. My literature professors would SO slit their wrists. (thereby sparing future students.)

        • Yup, space opera, I’m there. :-)

          Though the early greats could do lovely SF (back in the days before hard SF got literary pretentions and just told a good story).

        • Dorothy Grant

          Given the epic sweep, scope, scale, and size of Schlock Mercenary, much less the way it manages among all the character and plot arcs to still have a punchline every day, there are a LOT worse things to be compared to, eh?

        • Wayne Blackburn

          Gotta beat RES to this one (or maybe take it because he won’t touch it):

          So, a story about your writing adventures would be a “Schlock-u-mentary”?

          • Please, don’t make me get out the Maul of Dreadful PUNishment. Hsave to ensure the schlock-u-mentary is punctuated at appropriate moments with mock-u-mercials.

            I swear, Human Wave writers are all inveterate recidivist punsters.

  3. What I hear you saying, or read you saying, is that writing in each genre is like speaking in a different language, but they sometimes cross over or connect because they all use Latin as their base. Like learning a language, you start with basic words, like good morning, and work up from there with grammar, syntax, subtle text, magnified meaning, and eventually you can speak in that language using sarcasm, puns, and slang shorthand like a native speaker. Likewise, you start with writing in one genre, and each has its own language, syntax, etc., with cross over words that can add a ‘flavor’ of one genre to another. Interesting.

    • actually it’s more like dialects in the same language. You still understand the other person and might think you understand/communicate everything, but sometimes the word you think means bread means… something else altogether. If it were different languages, no one would think they don’t need to learn the other.

      • Like in German – bread is Brot
        or in English bread could mean bread or it could mean money.

          • When I lived in Germany, I found it funny that Germans couldn’t understand our humor (puns)… They didn’t seem to have puns. We worked with a guy that was raised in Germany so spoke German and American English (his mother was German and his dad was an American soldier).

            Like for instance “shit happens.” When we would say this to our friend he would go into the whole digestive system. If we said haha this is funny first, then he would laugh… but wouldn’t know what we were laughing about. English is a very tricky language… or at least the natives bend their own languages.

            • Cyn, as I understand it, there are a few puns in dialect, but not in High German. (Or someone warned my teachers and professors about my propensity (some would say propinquity) for punnery and they wanted to keep it from causing an international incident of some sort.)

              Unlike, say Japanese, where you can have very complicated word plays based on the sound of a word, or the meaning of the kanji used to write the word, or both.

              • Well I learned High German – very strict and unfunny. But, even in dialect (I went to a lot of fests when we lived in Germany) the person telling the joke will say “this is a joke” then he will tell the joke. Then he’ll say “the joke is over.” Then the German would laugh politely ha ha ha… not really a laugh. ;-)

                I was in Japan but didn’t learn much of the language. I did read a lot of translated haiku. Of course it lost it punnery with the translation, but some of it remained. I think it is because the language (at least the written part) is pictorial.

                • After seeing my kid get terribly upset today, over something she said that was a tad thoughtless… I wonder if High German is the language of Asperger’s. *wry* (Though both the ones I know have quite a sense of humor on their own, the kid’s sense of humor can get… rather skew, which also leaves her going, “What’s so funny?” about neurotypical jokes, from time to time.)

                  • You should teach the kid High German. ;-) He’d (she’d) love it. It has really strict forms and it is also like building blocks.

                    • But then you’d need to learn it too.

                    • Wow, Dude, you’re totally blowing my mind! I knew the Netherlands made reefer legal, but that there is a need for High German? Like, groovy, man – far out!

                    • Nothing’s been groovy since Altamont.

                    • Come to think of it, the Hell’s Angels who provided security there did affect Nazi regalia.

                      This seems an opportune time to note the passing of Scott McKenzie, singer of one of the most vapid songs of that era: “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”. Oh well, it had a good beat and was easy to dance* to.

                      *If by dance you mean stand wavering in the breeze while letting your arms flop about aimlessly and gazing off into n-dimensional space.

                    • She might like it, at that. However, I am too much a monoglot to teach much of anything, language-wise. I’ll just suggest German to her if the school offers it.

                    • Beth, there might be courses online, too.

                    • Beth, you might also try Latin. It is more structured than German, helps with English vocabulary (and somewhat with the Romance languages). And more schools offer Latin.

                    • More schools WHERE? Not here. We only have it at college level, anymore. Though Beth google Lukeion project. Both my kids and I have taken their classes, and they’re excellent.

                    • I’m not sure if I’d have the Cope for online courses, honestly! (We were going to do some math ones last summer, but her grandfather died, so, well…)

                      For middle school, German’s more likely to show up. I wish I could remember if she has to choose a language in 8th grade or if that’ll wait till high school… (They’re apparently doing World Language in 7th; some Spanish, some French, some Latin. I’m surprised she didn’t screech more at the French than she did… She is Mightily Offended by their silent letters sprinkled about the language like landmines.)

                    • Beth, Lukeion has actual meeting times and interactive classes. Marshall coped well with it, and so did I and we’re not the most organized people around. Or he wasn’t at 12. I still am not.

            • Part of English’s propensity for puns is that it is actually a mash-up of four or five languages: English, Saxon, French and Nordic tongues. Through in the Celts and the varied other influences and you get things like homonyms (flour, fleur) synonyms (fleur, blumen) and other permutations.

            • Oh, they definitely have puns. Wortspiel. Goethe loves them.

              • Of course, I can’t find my copy of Faust so I can neither look one up nor remember one, but to quote someone’s twitter account — “Meine Goethe, diese Wortspiele sind verstörend schlecht.” Translation: “My Goethe, these puns are disturbingly bad!” But the pun is to “Goetter”, “gods”. Like in “Gegen Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens”.

                • Portuguese HAS puns, just not the ones a certain author thought it had — and people don’t make them in normal speech UNLESS they’re off color. well, I made them off color. Scared my poor parents.
                  I know foreign speakers have issues with puns. I shocked Dan — who had had a string of exchange-student sisters — when I told him “Quack” after he asked me to duck. Apparently I was the first ESL to pun at him… He claims that’s when he decided to marry me.

        • A confusion never mined better than by Bud & Lou:

      • LOL – Some years back the Beloved Spouse & I acquired a Brit guidebook to America, which included such useful tips as not “inviting the local constable ’round for a Sunday joint” nor offering to “stop by in the morning to knock you up.” Similarly, I have watched Scottish-born talk-show host Craig Ferguson and guest Kenneth Branagh piss themselves laughing over American’s promiscuous use of the word “fanny.”

        As George Carlin long ago observed, even in a Disney movie you can have a character say “We’re going to snatch that pussy and cram it in a box” without undue giggling.

    • I think trying to write in a genre without at least reading it a little is like trying to learn to speak a new language without ever listening to it. Yup, just stuff cotton in your ears and pick it up through osmosis!

  4. I’ve read a ridiculous amount of books. I’m not lording that over anyone (except my wife, but don’t tell her) because I know there are even more ridiculous people out there who have read an even more ridiculous number than I have…probably orders of magnitudes more ridiculous.

    I have always felt that every single word I read goes in there and doesn’t come out. Despite my inability access the words and books I’ve read by page and paragraph a la Powder (look it up), I’m a firm believer that the human mind never forgets anything. Given that, there’s a very chunky stew up there full of styles, words used, sentence structure, and narrative flare that my own writing must pass through in order to make it to the screen I’m sitting at.

    I’ve tried to read a wide breadth of authors, but I have my favorites just like anyone else. SM Stirling, Peter F Hamilton and Dan Simmons (though not for Hyperion, oddly enough) come immediately to mind. Undoubtably, these writers influence my work and rightly so. I enjoy their work and want to write what I believe others will enjoy.

    Here’s a question; both Stirling and Hamilton…and I’m pretty sure Simmons, too…use italics when showing internal monologues. I don’t overuse the mechanic, but I’ve been told recently not to use them at all and I don’t understand why that would be. Anyone?

    • ebooks. I have used italics for both internal and for telepathic communication, but my publisher told me it plays holy havock with some older ebook readers.

      • THAT BLOWS. What works then? Internal dialog and, yes, telepathic communication (which will be huge two books from now…as in, major plot vehicle) must have ways to be expressed.

        • Search me. Underlining is also a problem. In Austen fanfic we used * * but I bet that’s out too.

          • Well crap on stilts. Screw it. I’m going with italics and damned all those “old” ebook readers. What do they think this is? The Oughts?

            • well… Kindle is still your biggest outlet, and they can do italics. Just do it.

              • Oh, I’m gonna. Don’t try and stop me.

                • From what I’ve read (and I haven’t gotten there yet myself to verify) the issue is that the markup code to indicate italics in the underlying HTML that is compatible with all the older devices is not necessarily the code supplied by all word processors or convertors (there’s more than one way to do it). If you pre-identify the italics before conversion and mark them with a special text (e.g., “start-ital” / “end-ital”) and remove the italics font used by your word processor, then when it comes time to convert, you can do a search/replace for the correct HTML markup codes that are backwardly compatible.

      • Good to know, but I do not think I will try to find an alternative. Sir Pratchett already used ALL CAPS and bold? Nope. If the ebook owners complain maybe I’ll see about a PoD discount, on a case-by-case basis.

    • Wayne Blackburn

      Funny, the first two Hyperion books are the only Dan Simmons I have read.

  5. I read pretty widely, myself – both for fun and for research, but the one thing I try not to do when I am working on a specific book is to read anyone elses fictional take on the same setting/event of my current project. I didn’t read James Harrigan’s “Gates of the Alamo” when I was working on “Daughter of Texas” because I didn’t want to get any of his interpretations, or visualizations of historical figures mixed up with mine. I’d prefer to stick with non-fiction material, since I am one of those writers who gathers tiny impressions and notions from here and there. I read something interesting, or engaging, and it’s like a little lightbulb going on – “Hey, I have to work this into ‘The Book’!” I want to be certain that I haven’t inadvertently gathered something from another fiction-writer.
    Other than that though – I am only limited in my reading by time and shelf-space.

    • Yes. And I completely understand that. Both while writing Kathryn Howard and Jane Seymour (No Will But His and Plain Jane) I avoided reading previous takes, because they would taint me with their view of these women. I did however watch Shakespeare, to get the rhythm in my head. This is what I call the “touch/feel” which had me watching documentaries on the American revolution while writing A Few Good Men. Now I need to find good ones on the French Revolution. The History Chanel documentary sucks rotten eggs. It goes with the “the oppressed masses rose” while modern scholarship indicates every day life was in fact getting better — which is when revolutions happen. When tyranny lets up. Even though I was watching for the feel of it, the subtle “off” feel (there were other points to it, some minor, but if I know better, they should too) just got to me.

  6. One of the most entertaining reading romps of the past few years, in my limited experience, was an homage to the great British Victorian adventure writers. The author did his homework brilliantly. Although a reader familiar with the originals knows exactly what inspired this or that bit, the modern author keeps the semi-fantasy cues coming just often enough that you enjoy the other references but don’t get bogged down in them. It is not this author’s usual style, but he seems to have had fun wandering down the literary rabbit hole of H.Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy, R. Kipling and co.

    Re. showing too much work in fantasy. I noticed that a well known fantasy author’s spouse has a chapter in the latest anthology, where he “shows the work” on how a particular piece of magic functions. I suspect 1) the author wanted him to get some of the credit because he does the “magic-tech” for a particular book series and 2) he wanted to show the behind the scenes thought and detail necessary to make a “realistic” magic system.

    Cross-pollination is not a bad thing, be it within or outside the usual genre. And then there’s R. Kipling’s poem, “The Craftsman,” about how a certain Bard got his ideas . . . ;)

  7. Agree on read widely and reading your genre(s). And what’s wrong with being influenced? Peter Beagle wrote his masterpiece, The Last Unicorn, after reading huge amounts of James Thurber and Lord Dunsany (and boy does it show in the book) and it’s wonderful. I’ve heard of more than one writer purposely reading a particular author for the express purpose of that author showing up in the work.

  8. Hey, you – yeah, you, crushing berries against the cave wall – there’s this interesting technique some guy across the valley came up with. He takes the excess fur his cat sheds, ties it to a stick and dips it into a paste he’s made by crushing berries. Then he uses that fur stick (I think he calls it a “brash”) to put the berry paste on the walls of his cave. He’s getting some really dramatic effects.

    Yeah, I understand – you want your work to retain its freshness and originality. But you’re missing out on some really cool effects — all the chicks are going ’round that guy’s cave and going nuts over how fast he covers his walls with crushed berry paste using his brashes. Some folk have even offered him animal skins to brash their caves. But you gotta stay true to your vision, sure, I understand. Don’t want your efforts influenced by others, tha’s cool, I can dig it.

    You probably want to stay away from the caves the next valley over, then. Some guy over there has been exploring this really wild techniquw. He calls it “perspective” drawing, whatever that means.

  9. I’m more than halfway thru my first book, a modern era otherworld heroic fantasy. Having read thousands of SF and Fantasy books over the years I’m finding that winging the genre style isn’t so bad, but I have a continuing internal slap-down struggle going on between my obsessive “yes, let’s just build out all the logical pieces to this world and show how it all works” vs. my rational “it’s a heroic story, just make it consistent without distracting and get on with it”.

    For me, it comes down to:

    SF is concepts on display,
    Romance is (special) relationships on display,
    Fantasy is heroes on display.

    Yes, yes, I realize this is way too oversimplified, but when my readerly (and personal) fondness for SF world building concepts keeps interfering with my writerly intentions for heroic fantasy, it feels like something like this is the reason.

    I do have a side romance going on (just starting, since there will be other books in this series), but I seem to be much more resistant to leakage from the Romance genre – no temptation for that to take over and distract from the main heroic plot.

    • For me, it comes down to: SF is concepts on display

      The world-building aspect of it is crucial, I believe, for two reasons. First, it satisfies that need you have as a reader to know how everything works. Second, as a writer, simply taking the time to logically construct wonderous technology or situations allows for all sorts of discoveries (as you do research) which can lead you down narrative and story paths you might not have originally considered.

      Plus, third (rhymes with nerd), if you realize success with your work, you’ll inevitably come up against a too-knowledgeable fan at a con who will drill you on the details. You can only tell so many of them to go pop their zits and get some sun before your sales take a dive.

      • A factor here is that SF has it origins in the writing of engineers and scientists (is it now necessary to specify scientists interested in the physical sciences?) who wrote for the simple pleasure of exploring their concepts. In Asimov’s (I think it was Isaac) formulations of the three stages of SF, in stage one Intrepid Hero builds a motorcar. Stage two, he uses his newly developed motorcar to race the train to the crossing and rescue Miss Trulove from certain death. In stage three society deals with the changes resulting from popular acceptance of motorcars sixty years ago.

        I would not doubt that other genres have similar developmental stages, although their origins may, being shrouded in history’s mists, be less discernible. For example, I suspect Miss Austen’s novel tales derive from the gossip of the landed lower aristocracy, stripped of much extraneous and distracting sidebars. It owes much to the whispered confidences and rumours that have encircled high schools forever.

  10. Romantic Fantasies, by whatever name, drive me up the wall. No consistency to the magic and so forth, that’s all just background to the romance, and apparently doesn’t matter. Romantic SF can be much the same. I expect the science and the fantasy elements to make sense, even when the story is the romance.

    But if that’s what you are _writing_ you need to know to not slow down the plot with science or fantasy details, and keep the focus on the relationship.

    I think. I’m signed up for DWS’s online Genre workshop, to clear up all my confusions on those points, I hope.

    • Years ago, when I was “hardcore” MMO-gaming, I got really fed up with the magic systems the fantasy-based games were coming out with. There was no real innovation, no real difference between them. Understanding the limitations of bandwidth, server/client communications, massive PC loads, etc, I sat down and, over the course of a weekend banged out a completely workable magic system based on the time of day and what constellation in a fabricated Zodiac was currently at it’s zenith, power ebbing and flowing with the march of the stars. It contained real incentives for non-magic users to seek out the right mix of magic-users when questing or raiding, and real incentives for magic-users, whatever their guild, to belong to their sign’s School.

      I never did anything with it and on a shelf it sits. If I ever get a wild fantasy hair up my fourth point of contact (no comment from the Res gallery, please) I might put it into use. The point being, though, that the act of creation in this system fed upon itself, revealing more and more avenues of “teh roxor”.

      • You mean your fourth chakra? o:)

      • You might be able to adapt that to a tabletop RPG setting, though few of those companies can pay ultra-well.

        • Nah. If I ever gain an gravitas as a writer, I’ll be able to sell it to an MMO studio. Short of that, and in the much more likely scenario, I’ll just use it for my own fiction. It was a pretty interesting setup, after all. If you were going to go traipsing off into the wilderness, you had to be very mindful of both the constellations relative prominence and the type of terrain you were on. Mountain wizards of x stellar sign would be strongest when x was highest in the sky and casting in a mountainous region; weakest when x‘s opposite was highest and operating, say, in lowland or steppe areas. Etc, etc.

          • I’m not sure a MMORPG would go with it — from my years on WoW, the movement seems to be to simplify, and to pander to the power-gamers who race to the highest level. What you describe is much more likely to be of interest to tabletop gamers. Or possibly a one-person game like Civ or the like, where resource management is part of the game. A WoW-type power-gamer wouldn’t want to have a half-dozen alts, each one needing upkeep and leveling, just to make sure that s/he had a “viable” (i.e., munchkined to the max) alt for a given raid’s location and zodiac — and woe betide the idea of taking a sub-optimal character into one of those situations!

            (Check out elitistjerks.com for how serious people can get about squeezing the last bit of power from a bunch of pixels.)

            • It would appeal the Eve Online types, who have long bemoaned the WoW’s, EQ2’s, and Rift’s of the world. Give me a fantasy-based MMO as gruelling and unforgiving as Eve Online is in a sci-fi setting and I would be happy. That was SUPPOSED to be Age of Conan, but they completely nerfed the magic and combat system.

              It’s not necessarily simplicity that they are moving to. It’s console gaming and it’s lack of depth in controls. Simplicity is a side-effect.

              • Hmmm. I suppose there might be a niche for that… the Al’Kabor lot on EQ are fairly proud of the old-style hardcore EverQuesting.

    • What drives me bananas is that they explain ALL the wrong things. They’ll go into a detailed explanation of say sympathetic magic and I’m going “yeah, yeah, and?” And then they will be quiet on this thing the hero does, where he talks to ducks, and I go “WHAT?”

      • Susan Shepherd

        *Raises hand* I’m guilty of that. When I was, er, younger and naive-er, I spent the summer off from high school writing a long-arsed story that had both elemental magic and werewolf curses tied into the same system. I got about 65,000 words in when I realized that there was no way to reconcile the two, and my main character had “werewolf” as a trait in my head, so I had to drop the project for a while and let my mental image of him change to something that actually fit the world I was building.

        Now that I’ve worked on multiple projects, I’ve found that I tend to default to ritualistic magic (no “scientific” explanation, but gods or spirits or some similarly unfathomable intelligence is pulling strings behind the scenes, or lending you power that works however they want it to work) or heavily rules-based magic. E.g. if your universe has magic that is useful, cell biology will incorporate it. Which means that magic has a related calorie cost and is going to have interesting effects on your metabolism. And of course, both humans and critters will use it, although humans tend to tinker and refine tools in ways animals don’t.

    • When reading Romantic Fantasies or equiv, yes, I HATE it when there is no substance at all to the world-building part. It’s like the characters are surrounded by a meringue world. The author isn’t worried about consistency, since pieces of meringue can always be pasted together somehow, usually in the form of twee characters with glitter and bottomless powers. Or unicorns and rainbows.

      One thing about fantasy — there must always be a cost for magic, in some form, or it’s no different from free energy or unlimited money. A world where there is no cost for magic is much more grossly unrealistic than the magic itself, having revoked the first law of thermodynamics.

      • That depends entirely on whether or not your universe and the magic therein is based on laws of nature or whimsy.

        • If it’s whimsy, it ain’t a universe. It’s a Hallmark greeting card.

          Seriously, if you postulate a world where absolutely anything can happen (arbitrarily powerful gods pounding on unfortunate mortals, say), it has no moral weight at all, unless those gods are themselves limited in some way. And a story with no moral weight begs the question of why we should care. What could possibly make if feel “right” and “just”?

          Even disaster stories tend avoid the “arbitrary” nature (soulless nature) of the event by assigning moral responsibility to causers or moral consequences to suffering victims.

          This goes back right to the whole omnipotence of God philosophical issue. If He’s not omnipotent, He’s not God. If He’s omnipotent, why can’t He make us all good. IMHO, free will becomes a kludge (used technically) in that context to make the premise both consistent and moral (no offense intended to the religious folks). So, yes, I think limits are required for moral stories, and I think morality makes stories meaningful, atheist or not.

          No whimsy for me. I enjoy the reading of it, but not for very long.

          • Dan Simmons’ “Ilium” and “Olympos” was full of arbitrary gods, creatures, etc. Each with their own limitations, or not, and somewhat of a heirarchy seen through a gauzy haze from the reader’s point of view, and something called “The Quiet” which everyone else seemed to be afraid of, but it was never explained. Within that construct, however, he made me care a great deal about a little android, a classical scholar, Helen of Troy (somewhat…the bitch) and Odysseus himself, after a fashion.

            Speaking of whimsy, along the lines of what you’re talking about, I only got about halfway through “Nature Of The Beast” and had to give up. I’m hoping at some point he pointed out the grid that was holding it all up, but after our heroes, to whom bad things didn’t seem to happen, ended up in Oz, I gave up.

          • If you factor in a deity existing outside of time, omnipotence becomes easily effected. Free Will is a kludge only if you assume the purpose is for us to be “good” — and define good without any moral component, because “being good” entails moral agency, or choice. A parent encourages a child to become an adult by allowing moral agency; denial of the choice to be “bad” cripples the development of maturity.

            N.B., the preceeding arguments are presented as Philosophical, not religious. Your Deity May Vary, as may your philosophists.

            • Wayne Blackburn

              I have a problem with Deity Existing Outside of Time. Imagine, if you will, the Deity of a 1D world, which moves through a 2D “Space/Time” Dimension, and is controlled by its Deity which exists in 3 Dimensions. For the theory to work, does not the Deity require Duration of its own, in order to make decisions as to what interventions to take in order to manipulate the development of the 1D world to the patterns it wants?

              • Postulate an n-Dimensional Deity, able to operate in n-1> dimensions. As a 2-Dimensional deity would operate outside the line of 1-Dimensional entities, as a 3-Dimensional deity would operate outside the plane of 2-Dimensional entities, and a 4-Dimensional deity would operate beyond the ken of 3-Dimensional beings, so would an n-Dimensional deity operate in n-1> dimensions. Our 5-D deity would operate across time just as our 4-D deity would operate across the spatial plane of the 2-D universe.

                • That was an awfully long walk to simply say, “It could so totally work.”

                • Wayne Blackburn

                  So does this mean that you are postulating an infinite-dimensional universe, such that Duration (i.e. Time) for an entity of n dimensions is a span in n+1 dimensions, and therefore the Deity of each dimensional framework exists and moves in n+2 dimensions, and that Duration for said Deity is a span through n+3 dimensions?

                  And so on, and so on…

                  • Is there a need for a deity for n-2 dimensions, or do you suppose our n-dimensional deity capable of handling it all? Do you insist on a micro-managing deity or can you accept one who only takes a hand in a) critical junctures or b) having wound things up sits back to observe the developments or c) only acts upon request — with the answer most commonly being “work it out for yourself, kid”?

                    For the best descriptions of how our hypothetical deity outside Time might operate, see Vonnegut’s oeuvre. I know of no other author who so elegantly described the possible effects of living across time. Such a deity would be no more affected by duration than by length, breadth or height.

  11. I’ve long felt a reluctance to read any famous mainstream literary writers because I’ve so often found they obviously don’t have some of the basic chops needed to write a good novel. They ramble, they get lost, a contempt for common working people creeps up on them even if they’re trying to be fair. It often is “formless goo,” and the lit. conventions are something they really need to ditch. My rule is I’ll try a mainstream literary writer if they’ve successfully written a genre novel. Peter Ackroyd, Brian Moore, Fred Chappel, fine, they’ve each written a great horror novel: in respective order, “Hawksmore,” “Cold Heaven,” and “Dagon.” But after I read Cormac McCarthy’s excruciating but well-done apocalypse novel “The Road” I tried his “No Country for Old Men.” It seems to be going fine, but just when I noticed that there weren’t that many pages left and it wasn’t building toward a confrontation between the sheriff and Chigre the assassin, a major character dies offscreen, Chigre stumbles off wounded, and the sheriff meditates on something or other over a cup of coffee. I actually looked to see if my copy was missing pages at the end, and checked Amazon for the page count.

  12. From my perspective, and I read a lot of fantasy, fantasy’s underpinnings are magic, while sci-fi’s underpinnings are technology. Heroes can be in either story imho. You can put technology into fantasy, but it must appear like magic to the natives. (or the readers)

    I agree with you that if you write in a genre you should also read in the same genre. You might say I am well-read. I have read hundreds of thousands of books since I started to read at six years old. It amazes me when a writer says that they don’t read. Might as well say that they have cut off appendages… and are writing with their elbows. I tell those fresh-faced writers that too. I don’t consider them writers if they are not readers too… I guess that is my vice. Coffee is my other vice. I had to get rid of the rest of my vices (sigh).

    Great post Sarah. (I like saying your name because my step-daugher’s name is Sarah.) ;-)

  13. And if you write a fantasy where the Primary Plot is romance, the romance readers seem to be a tad confused by all the subtleties of the world-building! (Excellent review, mind, for all that. Best “C” I ever got, frankly. I’m delighted about it. :D )

    My problem with reading while writing is that the characters are selfish in my head and don’t want to compress to let someone else’s world and characters in! Next Book In A Series is easier, possibly because the world is already mostly there and they’ve worked around it, but New Book? So hard. Meanwhile, if I don’t get some amount of creative input — usually in the form of reading — eventually the creativity-sources are drained and the well must be refilled.

    This can lead to a nasty deadlock, as you might guess. (“No! Don’t read anything! Just us! …but we’re tired and don’t wanna do anything; go away.”)

    • ppaulshoward

      Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniel’s series is a urban (of sorts) fantasy with a romance sub-plot. One reader was annoyed when Kate didn’t fall in love in the first book with the male lead. Personally, I thought the sub-plot was well handled. [Smile]

      • I have heard good things attached to that name — and at least one of hers is on my also-boughts, so I really should try to read it sometime. Sounds like she’s writing urban fantasy and people are now expecting paranormal romance/paranormal erotica…

        • ppaulshoward

          Mind you, the Edge series by them does have a stronger romance sub-plot. So far each of the Edge books ends with a marriage of the two lead characters. Each Edge book has different lead characters. Mind you, the romance is secondary and not heavy in the sex part.

        • She was also unwarrantedly nice to me when she was already a bestseller, and I was slipping — in fact, I blogged about Darkship Thieves on her site, on my blog tour.

          BTW by “she” I mean the female half of the pen name — though her husband is also very nice — Ilona Andrews is a married couple writing together… which is something that astonishes me, frankly. My husband and I both write, but I think a collaboration would be the end of the marriage, if not the end of us.

          • My spouse and I gripe the most at each other when we co-author stuff. *waves vaguely at the GURPS books*

            Definitely have to check out the Ilona Andrews books sometime. (When my dang characters will stop laying BEAR TRAPS for any other world that dare try to encroach in my brainspace! Gah!)

          • By the way, I hope “Ilona Andrews” doesn’t mind if I put those books in Paranormal Romance at the store. It’s the bookcase that makes the most sales.

          • There is a couple, an anthropologist and an archaeologist if I recall correctly, who write Native American fantasy/ crime stories. Not sure how they divide the work, if one does the technical while the other writes, but the stories are fun and ring true for the cultural groups I’m familiar with.

      • Ilona Andrews (the couple) is one of the names I consider when I look for new reading material (btw Sarah… I am going to have to finally get Darkship Theives for my late birthday present). I really enjoyed her Kate Daniels series. I did think that Kate and her Curran had a lot of problems to iron out. The two of them couldn’t work out their problems in one book. ;-) So thwwwwww to the romance readers.

        • ppaulshoward

          They avoided one major problem with some romance stories. Great sex doesn’t solve the lovers’ problems. Kate and Curran still “knocked heads” after having great sex. [Smile]

    • so true about romance… I like to write primarily in a fantasy/horror and add elements of romance

  14. “…the characters are selfish in my head and don’t want to compress to let someone else’s world and characters in!”

    Yes! That’s exactly what it feels like!

    • Also, I should have added, but it was late and I had a plane to catch (Yes, this is coming at you from an undisclosed location — mwahahahahah) that in the old days a lot of midlisters gave up reading their genre because it hurt so much “OMG, THIS crap is a bestseller? And I can’t make a living? WHY?”
      On that, I was reminded again today that one of mega bestsellers of the last ten years came out a few years after a book of mine that often gets compared to it as in “this reminds me of” — which would mean nothing, except the author and I had the same agent and the agent helped her “extensively develop” her book. Another reason not to read bestsellers. You see every concept stolen from you, and no, it’s not enough to claim plagiarism, particularly since her book ended up COMING OUT before mine. Headdeskheaddeskheaddesk.

      • Oh yea – I had a friend who wrote romance scream when she found the worst writer in her romance group had an agent and was being published. She took a chance on one of her books (can’t tell the one she didn’t like–not because I am being nice, but because I can’t remember) and told me that it was not much different than their writing days. She was having a head desk moment.

      • Wayne Blackburn

        Well, that’s gotta be depressing. Even learning that something I had been trying to improve on during my early college years had been discovered 4 years AFTER I was trying to improve on it is still not quite in the same Headdesking league as that.