Where to Stand

I swear every other week, another ad comes across my feed saying “So and so is the new Heinlein.”  Needless to say when I look up their samples, they’re not even the old Heinlein — outdated and sometimes odd, but shining with a brilliance all his own — they’re more like the new newby, all stumbling sentences, half baked ideas and either repeating the new SJW hotness or trying to be its contrary in a self-conscious, little-girl-at-recital way.

I don’t hold it against anyone if their publishers compare them to Heinlein.  That’s not your call, and you can’t say anything.  A few that their publishers have promoted that way have a spark of the master, and you know who they are.

I’ve been compared to Heinlein in reviews, and obviously I’m not going to scream at that.  I always get incredibly flattered, even though I know it isn’t true.  Sure, he’s a major influence in my writing, because he was my favorite writer since I became aware of having a favorite writer.  But I’m not him.  I am but an egg.  And when the egg hatches (maybe, some are duds) I’ll probably be more myself than him, because that’s the normal artistic progression: you outgrow your influences and re-meld them into a new synthesis.

I would not, however, dream of comparing MYSELF to Heinlein.  Why not?  Well, because I am not him.  Every time I re-read his work (once every year or so) I become aware of my short comings.  Every time I learn something new.  To put a thing up saying “I am the New Heinlein” is just inviting all his long-time fans to examine my work minutely and compare it to his.  And that — since I’m one of those long time fans, I know — only ends one way, and that’s NOT with them terribly impressed with me.

However, if they read it without my dancing around saying “I’m so great” fans often say “there is a tiny spark of Heinlein there.”  And his reflected light is so great, that that’s enough to get other people to try it.

I didn’t get this when I was a much younger writer.  I don’t think any young writer (as in recently published) does.  It’s just something that’s not immediately graspable.  It’s made worse by agents and publishers who ask in submission forms (do they still do that?  I realized I’ve been established for ten years and haven’t cold-submited to anyone) “Who is the author you most resemble?

It’s silly, and I think they intend to use it as part of their publicity, but it used to stop me cold “Who the hell do I resemble?”  And the answer was as it is still “no one.  I’m me.”  Particularly considering what I am likely to write at any given moment partakes of the day and what side of the bed I got up on, how can I say that about all my work?  I remember I sent a submission out once and I filled that space with Le Guin, because the work I was submitting was a magic world that involved human sacrifice.  I was thinking of the Tombs of Atuan, of course.  I got back this shouty rejection telling me I was nothing like Le Guin and yelling at me for not writing with my “feminine side.”  It wasn’t till much later I realized they saw Le Guin and read “feminism” while I was saying “deep and dark world with magic and human sacrifice.”

This is particularly true of YOUR work.  When I took my first class with Kris and Dean, they told us that a writer is the worst judge of their own work.  And they were right.  And it doesn’t just mean judge in quality terms.  Sometimes what my fans find to love (or hate) in my work leaves me going “Oh, I guess that’s there.  I hadn’t noticed.”  And sometimes the reason a book (or movie) is popular is something you consider so incidental that it would never occur to you to promote it.  Someday, you should listen to Dave Drake telling how Jim Baen thought he was in the same niche as a bunch of other writers, people he’d never thought of.  The only thread linking them? Mil SF.  From the publisher’s perspective, despite vast style differences, etc, there was no difference.

I’ve never been good at this type of comparison anyway.  I’d have done it if I could when I was a rank beginner, except I always had the feeling that what I saw in these authors isn’t what other people saw.

I used to call attention to my deficiencies in a different way: I used to put lines of poetry at the beginning of my short stories.  This is because reading poetry was (still is) the best way to come up with short stories.  A metaphor will inspire me, or a bit of feeling will catch me, and I carry that into the story.

When I was young and stupid (a conjunction that’s not obligatory, but which often occurs) I used to think that if I put the piece of poetry at the top, it would carry my story along on its back, as it were, and I’d have to work less.

This assumption almost gave Kris and Dean a heart attack at my very first workshop.  Their first fear was unfounded, mind.  Because at the time I mostly read poetry in Spanish or Portuguese, they assumed I was taking someone’s translation and using it without permission. Yes, translators get copyright to their translations.  So if I were doing that, at least more than a couple of words, I’d need permission.  BUT even when I reassured them that I had translated the bits myself (and most of the poems are out of copyright, anyway) they told me it was a bad move.

Why?

Well, it adds nothing to the story.  Not really.  It might be what inspired you, but if you did your job right, the bit that inspired you will be right there, embedded in the story.  And by putting in words that are greater than yours, you’re just inviting comparison.

It goes something like this “if that poet is so great and has such a following you think it enriches your story, are you saying you’re as good as he is?  And if you aren’t, is that a comparison you want?”  … and for that matter, if you are, since I used some poets that wrote in Spanish and which are iconic everywhere in the world (the Portuguese one is less well known, but revered where known) even if I should have been so full of myself as to think the comparison was in my favor, do I want the poets many, many fans who disagree to gloom onto me as having insulted him?  Do I want them to read my work looking for flaws, or looking to become a new fan?

So… I ditched the poetry bits.  And I’d never compare myself to someone like Heinlein, whose typewriter ribbon (well, for most of his writing career) I’m not fit to change.

Yeah, the name of Heinlein catches my eye, and I go in to look at the book.  The problem is that most writers aren’t even passable, and even those who might have a reflection of a spark have got me expecting Heinlein.  And they’re not Heinlein.

To be fair, neither am I.  And I’ll never be.

And the best way I’ve found to do publicity is “the first taste is free.”

I’ve found that every time I put a short story up for free here, my fandom’s involvement and size jumps up.

So, going to strive for a free short a month.  In addition to the novels-in-progress, which yes, I’ll finish.

Because that gets fans hooked on me.  Which is good, because in the end, I’m just me.  And my mind and my ability are all I have to sell.  I’ll never be Heinlein. The best I can aspire to is being myself as hard as I can.

 

 

88 responses to “Where to Stand

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Robert A. Heinlein didn’t say that he was the next “Doc Smith”. 😉

  2. Seems like there are the RAH Detractors or the RAH Wannabes – and both fail miserably.
    For the detractors, they only succeed if an unbiased reader does NOT read Heinlein. Once they do, their support is lost.
    And for the wannabes, yeah they can get away with is as well. Until, again, the original is read. And then they are dropped in scorn.
    Much better are those who make no claims of mirroring Heinlein, but seek to use his works as a teaching aid to improve their own.

  3. Michael Brazier

    If anyone asked me which author I most resembled, I’d probably answer “Jim Theis”, on the rule that a silly question deserves a silly answer.

  4. I really don’t know/recognize any authors as being like Heinlein. I just ran across ‘Variable Star’ at the library, that Spider Robinson wrote from RAH’s notes, and thought he did a credible job of it, but there was too much Spider in it to suit me.

  5. I . . . haven’t the fainest idea whose writing mine resembles.
    And comparisons just don’t work for me as a sales gimmick. “All the flavor of X, but only half the calories!” pretty much guarantees that it’ll be nasty.

  6. I couldn’t even begin to tell who I write like. I tend towards the dark and funny. Other than that? No idea.

  7. Epigraphs can go either way. I’ve seen them in a lot of stories, working fairly effectively to set theme and such.

    I confess in Witch Prince Ways I used two snippets (nursery rhyme sort of poetry, my own composition) to open and to end, and while one beta reader didn’t like ’em. others singled them out to mention as good.

    • It’s fairly easy to ignore the little snippets if they annoy you – most of the time they are set apart with block quotes or italics. I used to read the ones in Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey novels – and appreciate her classical education even more.

  8. If you’re asked whose writing yours most resembles, say that your writing is something of a combination of the styles of 3-4 classical writers, then pick the most impossible combinations you can. Say, Thomas Aquinas, John Dos Passos, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Spike Jones.

    • Except that I won’t write novels, my aspiration would be to become heralded as the next Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

      • He apparently made a chunk of money when he was alive, so I’d mark him down as “successful.”

        Styles change. I never could choke down any of Dickens’ writing, which was also popular once.

      • richardmcenroe

        It was a dark and globally-warmed night…

      • If I could achieve that, I’d be ecstatic.

  9. BobtheRegisterredFool

    So I can’t take theses attestations to the bank?

    …like a young heterosexual Eichmann writing reports on problem solving, logistics, and train schedules.” “…if Athens had lost the Peloponnesian war, and Socrates had written of his captivity as a Janissary putting down helot rebellions.” “His intellectual perception, rigor and integrity is fully the equal of Ed Gein, Barack Obama and Margaret Meade.

    Sanders is saying that people who think Jesus and Allah aren’t the same shouldn’t be in public office.

    I wonder what he thinks of those who oppose my friend Hank, who thinks that The Constitution and Allah being the same, opposition to The Constitution falls under blasphemy statutes.

    • What Sanders was actually saying is that anybody who denies the supremacy of the State shouldn’t be in public office. If the State rules Jesus, Allah, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are interchangeable who is a mere administrative cog to disagree?

      I thought the supplicant’s answer was obvious: “It isn’t my job to decide that, senator, my job is merely to send them to find out.”

      N.B. — this presupposes Sanders was quizzing nominees for certain categories of jobs which may not apply, in which case the last phrase should be (along with Senator Bernie) struck.

    • And since the Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, Sanders is a blasphemer.

      • Whether Sen. Sanders is a blasphemer or not I will leave to The Author, that’s not my department (says Werner Von Braun?). I will say he is an annoying, uneducated, bigoted idiot and clearly utterly unfamiliar with evangelical (and orthodox, note little o) Christian belief. Also as noted the constitution forbids religious tests for office so he’s out of luck and just playing to his equally idiotic base.

  10. I use epigraphs in my novels, with two or three at the beginning of each chapter (the novels run 20 chapters). Not everyone realizes that the epigraphs are mostly from two group characters (Bad Fans and Good Fans), and are a part of the story. Those I write myself.

    Then there’s the occasional quotation from scripture, most often the Book of Job in the Old Testament (I’ve had people ask me what that is), because one way of describing the book has always been ‘a modern retelling of the Book of Job,’ and that let’s me make a few connections.

    Plus I write haiku occasionally – and credit them to a Japanese poet and an English translator – and they also add something to the story I can’t get in any other way.

    I’ve had someone get to the end of PC, read the epigraphs, and send me an email that they finally got one of the points I’ve been trying to make for the whole book.

    I think it’s kind of fun.

    Couldn’t you write your own poetry? With an alter ego pseudonym for the author credit?

    They are your stories – you should write them in the way that pleases you.

  11. There’s this fellow on the internet that goes by the handle “Confutus”. I write like him.

  12. The music industry was forever touting some new punk as “the next Bob Dylan.” They even slapped that label on Bruce Springsteen … and now newcomers get labelled “the next Bruce Springsteen.”

    In its way, such a label is like a Hugo — primarily a sign that this is crap best avoided and incapable of meriting attention on its own.

    As far as I am concerned, there was only ever one true “next Robert Heinlein” and that was a guy named Anson MacDonald. Now MacDonald, he could write like the master!

    • In book blurbs, you get the “best [genre] since [name]”!

      The one that flatters is when it’s since the author’s last book.

      • Or the one that is “since [some really recent author]”. “Hey, this guy is best in genre since some other guy you have never heard of!” The danger in that (besides those of us who learned to read between the lines in ad copy ages ago) is that your potential reader, upon seeing the blurb, growls out, “That author sucked! And so must this author!”

    • Acts like Bob Dylan are often unique and never to be repeated. Dylan is a great songwriter (just ask all the bands with hit cover songs) and a very interesting lyricist (though his voice is an acquired taste).

  13. I do quotes — usually Biblical — at the start of most of my novels; mostly because I am an old-fashioned sort of writer when it comes to historical fiction. It’s a nice way to set the mood, and give a nod to the cultural milieu of the 19th century cultural scene. Now and again I have been compared by fans to Larry Mcmurtry … mostly I think because I write in the same historical period in Texas … which comparison faintly exasperates me because I don’t really like Mcmurtry. (Expanded explanation here –
    http://www.celiahayes.com/archives/1116
    I better like the comparisons to Zane Grey and Elmer Kelton. I’ve often described one of my books (The Quivera Trail) as “Mrs. Gaskell meets Zane Grey” – which only makes sense to majors in English. I’m OK with the comparison to Elmer Kelton. I might have had a chance to meet him personally, at the West Texas Book Festival a few years ago. http://abilenetx.com/city-hall/departments/community-services/library/friends-of-the-library/book-festival
    He was the honored guest that year, but he passed away a few weeks before the event, and I was pretty bummed over it.

    • Sure, and Larry did modified quotes for his world in Grimnoir, and that’s fine. But what I was doing were lines of poetry JUST for the feel that had sent me into the story, so…

    • I’ve noticed over time that many people’s idea of “like” or “similar to” is often based on differences that I find both tiny and inconsequential. And once they latch onto those things, they’re blind to the big, obvious differences.

    • I’d take Kelton as a complement, Grey as a wash, and McMurtry as an insult. Grey was one of those authors who was very talented, but I don’t really like. I actually prefer his nonfiction, but he spends so much time on description and trying to get every detail right that I get bored waiting for the story.

  14. I’m not even sure Heinlein was as good as Heinlein…

    I remember reading stuff of his when I was a kid, and I remember the books like Citizen of the Galaxy as being sublime works of wonder, evocative of entire universes of wonder. And, when I went back to re-read those books, a few years back, from the perspective of my jaded, adult self?

    Huh… Not quite what I remembered, to be honest. I mean, they’re great books, still, but… Somehow, the “inflation” I remember them having in my mindspace as a young reader wasn’t quite “there”, anymore, if that makes any sense to any of you. I wasn’t disappointed, quite, and I don’t think any the less of his works or his writing, but… There’s something different on a re-read separated by decades of adult life from my first pre-teen exposure.

    It’s an interesting phenomenon, to be quite honest. I remember the books far differently than I experienced them the last time I reread them, except for Starship Troopers, which I kept re-reading throughout most of my military career. And, that book is another interesting little example–You read that work as a civilian, you see one layer/level of it all. Reread it as a private soldier, you see another–And, still a third, deeper layer looking at it as a junior NCO, still to discover more depth still, once you’re a senior NCO looking at the work from yet another perspective. I can’t think of too many works of literature I’ve run into that have proven to provide me with similar insights or food for thought in any equivalent manner, over the years. Usually, it’s been going back to something I considered seminal in my youth, and discovering that it was utter bullshit, or the opposite–The discovery of unplumbed depths and profundity in things I dismissed as being of little or no value in my youth.

    If I had to pick out a late-20th Century author as someone whose work I think will last the ages, Heinlein would be the guy. Like Shakespeare, who wrote for pure entertainment and amusement of his peers, Heinlein was trying to put food on the table. But, he somehow managed to address things in a timeless manner that evokes thought and creates entire universes with just a few minor brushstrokes of narration and description.

    Citizen of the Galaxy is a good example of this–I’d love to be able to trace the arc of what he did with the Free Traders in that book, because I’m pretty sure that dozens of later authors mined that rich descriptive vein for their own work, extrapolating and building on it. And, he did that as a throw-away, as a narrative device to get Thorby back out into the universe. A lesser author would have come up with some other way to make that happen–Heinlein throws off a cultural description possessing a depth and breadth that flatly boggles the mind with potential, making it look amazingly simple. Good grief… Another author could have taken that idea and run thirty books off of it, and I think (someone correct me if I’m wrong…) that that was the only time he ever mentioned the Free Traders in any of his books. It would be interesting to know just how many authors got inspiration from that, because I’d be willing to bet it was more than just one or two…

    • Andre Norton’s Free Traders predated the ones in Citizen of the Galaxy, but they were all-male ship crews, not family units.

      It looked like Heinlein just pulled a generic exogamic tribal description from an anthropology book and reset it in space. At least, I didn’t notice anything much different from what I’d read about already.

      • Terry Sanders

        Well, *I* hadn’t read it. 🙂

        Most writers just used Tramp Freighters IN S-P-A-A-C-E! Andre Norton added a little socialist claptrap to get the _Solar _Queen_ off her fins, then forgot about it.

        Heinlein said *But what if they’re not just gypsy truckers? What kind of culture could survive, scattered across lightyears in moving dormitories that meet once in a blue moon?*

        Then he found one and used it. As more than a toss-off, but still basically an interlude to give Thorby a little time to grow.

        Even the Heinlein I can’t stand is well written and inventive.

        • I love CJ Cherryh’s Alliance-Union books that center on the family starships. (And the Chanur series is similar, yet alien.)
          One of the best things about scifi is taking human nature and putting it in a wholly different setting, then developing the story with speculation on what is variable and what is immutable. Cherryh does that extremely well, imo.

          • The Alliance-Union books are mesmerizing. The problem with this thread is that I am constantly thinking I need to re-read that. And that. And that. The plate is getting very full.

    • In The Star Beast Heinlein provides an interesting dimorphism between types of bureaucracy, with the abuses of authority practiced by the sheriffs and police as contrasted against Mr. Kiku’s handling of the various crises, a depiction which constitutes a brief in support of professional bureaucrats.

      Admittedly, the contrast between top level professional bureaucrats and top level professional politicians is bound to benefit the former.

      • I bounced hard off that book at age 10 or so, and again a few times in following decades.

        The last time I read at it, it felt like there were huge chunks missing, or maybe it had been a much different book, clumsily edited into something else.

        Then again, it seems to be a favorite for some people…

    • Michael Houst

      It’s not that Heinlein changed, it’s that you changed. The stories are just as good as they ever were. His young adult stuff was tailored so well for young adults. It’s not surprising that older and more jaded folks, or those of us who read him when we were far younger find them to be a bit shallower and staler than we remembered. (But I bet you re-read the whole story through anyway, didn’t you?)

      • That was the point I was trying to get across, with that opening paragraph. The Heinlein of sainted memory, from childhood initial readings of his works, ain’t the Heinlein my adult self appreciates and recognizes as a genius. Like ogres and onions, the man’s works have layers

      • Speak for yourself. I first read RAH in the lower elementary grades in the late 1950s. I reread several of the juveniles over the past year and did not find him any less good.

    • Have you read Catch-22? I bought the PB, read the first 5 chapters, couldn’t make sense of it, and gave it up. Then I went into the AF. Came home from training, read it, thought it highly funny. Five years later, reread it, saw the idiocy and weirdness, and though it sad. Ten more years, read it, saw the humor and the pain.

      have you read Catch-22

      • I’ve only ever been able to get a few pages intoCatch-22, and then the whole thing just rankles me out of it. I’ve managed a skim of the work, enough to write a paper on, but really read and appreciate the damn thing as a literary work? Nope. Can’t.

        Heller is, I think, too objectively and demonstrably “anti-war” with it, and that takes me out of it. Good Soldier Schweik, which is equally anti-war? Enjoyable, and because he has an eye and an appreciation for the military vocation done right, well… It’s different, somehow. With Heller and Catch-22, it’s all venal evil, all the time–He sees no difference between the Nazis, who are virtually cartoon characters, and the endeavors of his protagonists, if that makes sense. And, that’s something I find disturbing on a visceral level–Heller wrote that book like the Nazis weren’t running death camps, and were virtually on the same level as the Allies. There’s no acknowledgement there that sometimes war is a necessary evil that has to be endured in order to prevent greater evil, and I just can’t countenance that as a worthy read, or entertainment.

        I’m not disturbed by the anti-war message, really–All Quiet On the Western Front bothers me not a whit, and I think that Remarque was a great author. The flippant nature of Catch-22 when compared to Auschwitz and Treblinka…? A bridge too far into the territory of moral relativism, for me, I’m afraid. War is an inherently ridiculous undertaking, but when your opponents are Nazis, I find it hard to appreciate the humor or find the message that all wars are equally foolish and ridiculous. At some point, there’s a line between acknowledging the ridiculous and objectively supporting the notion that there is nothing worth fighting for, and that there’s no point to resisting evil because “moral relativism”. And, Catch-22 is well on the other side of that line, for me.

        YMMV, and that’s cool. I don’t like Heller, or his book. Maybe if I’d encountered it as reading material before I stood on the grounds of Dachau…? I might feel differently. Dunno–I kind of like to think not, though.

        • Well said, sir. I read Catch-22 as a child (not even quite a teenager, I think), and yes, it can be funny, and yes, there are no doubt idiocies and injustices in the Army, even if you’re fighting for a good cause, but what would happen if everyone deserted and managed to run away to Sweden? There would have been nothing to stop the Nazis.

          • Catch-22 is also a reflection of Heller’s personal experience: He was a B-24 bombadier in Italy, an the entire Italian campaign, from after Sicily to the end, was a complete and utter waste of lives. The only argument for it was that it was areally great war of attrition that tied up Nazi troops. I would propose that any “really great war of attrition” is something to be avoided at all costs.

            I wonder how the Northern European campaign would have run if all those allied troops killed and wounded in Italy had been available.

            And absent Italy, there’s a small chance that a landing in northern France could possibly have happened in 1943.

            Heller’s being stuck in that CF drove the tone of that book.

  15. More free stuff! Yea!

    And you flatter me if you think *I* know many poets. John Ringo has more to do with my knowing Kipling than the other way around. I don’t even remember Allen Tate’s stuff, and I did my senior research paper in high school on “The Swimmers.”

  16. richardmcenroe

    So can we compare you to Roger Elwood?

  17. I once said to an editor that I wasn’t sure about the novel I was planning, because it seemed “too Heinlein”. Without missing a beat, he said, “What’s wrong with that?”

    I get his point in terms of marketability, but… If I feel like I’m just retelling The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, then there’s no point. Yes, my Lunar tales are inspired by Moon. That’s unavoidable. Heck, the city where most of them take place is The Incorporated City of Tycho Under! But there’s a difference between a world that resembles his and a plot that resembles his.

  18. July 18th, 1953.

    Marion Keisker gently asked the shy teenager, “Who do you sound like?”

    “I don’t sound like nobody,” Elvis answered.

    -j

  19. You are definitely NOT the new Robert Heinlein. You are the current Sarah Hoyt – going off in about seven different directions at once…

    I don’t WANT Robert Heinlein.

    Rephrase… Okay, I do wish the master was still cranking them out; I love every one of his works. But I also love a well-grilled sirloin steak, with a side of cob corn and a baked potato with chives fresh from the herb bed. I would shoot myself in the head, though, if that were the ONLY thing to eat every day, day in and day out. I want my Thai food, too. Or Tex-Mex. Or Midwest American roasted chicken with buttered egg noodles.

    • I miss Heinlein, and I really miss Pratchett who went too early. BUT I don’t want to be either of them.

      • To be the new Heinlein you will have to take up pushing Free Love and I cannot see you getting into that.

        • What about his nudism kick? Yuck! Call me a prude, but I think you should only be in dishabille with your spouse.

          • I don’t have anything against nudism, per se, but as I wander the aisles of Walmart or Anytown, America, the ratio of folk I want to see nekkid vs the ones I don’t never want to see like that approaches zero to one hundred decimal places.

            And that is before we factor in tattoos, which increases those decimal points by a factor of a billion.

            There are maybe a hundred people in this world whose casual nudity would not repulse me and I am fairly sure none of them have any interest in seeing me in the buff.

  20. Can I be the next Heinlein this week? I don’t think anyone has claimed it yet.

    😉

  21. Part of me would love to have the next generation of writers all trying to be “the next Alma T. C. Boykin.”

    With my luck it would turn out to be “Here. Read this. This is who you really don’t want to be compared to.” Sort of like the two Writers Who Shall Not Be Named are here. (Yes, the one who wrote E—- T—– and the Shadowdancer-obsessed one.)

  22. The thing is, David Drake was the first mil SF i read and so he is the standard i apply to that

  23. I’ve used lines from old poems for titles. One roughly plotted novel will use a line from the Bible, and I plan to put the whole quote at the front of the book. It will be more, however, about the point being made than to evoke a mood.

  24. Yes, Sarah, you are you. And, of that I am very glad! Your works set a bit apart from all the other books I have read (of the two genres I have read of yours). It’s why I keep reading.

  25. Rick Boatright

    I can’t take the time right now, but we need a link to the piece you wrote on the person attempting to infiltrate the Congregation…

    And -everyone- I’ve ever compared to Heinlein, ended up writing stuff that wasn’t Heinleinian… ’cause they were ultimately themselves, good or bad — or sometimes both.