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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Beth Revis, Across the Universe AND Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy

Note: I am laaaaazy. I started writing this at the beginning of the month, and I've made progress at the rate of about 20 words per day, on average. This is pretty darn lame. Still, there were some things I wanted to share about what I read, so please humor me by reading on.

One of my favorite first chapters is in Beth Revis's Across the Universe, which is her first novel. She wrapped me up in the story with her wrenching introduction/first act narrative. I liked how she really dove into the conflicts of one main character's starting point. Of course, the conflict changes, and Revis successfully balances a second protagonist, as well.

Ultimately, I found myself only partly pleased with the novel, and it's all Orson Scott Card's fault.

That because I was reading Card's well-aged How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. This occasions an admission on my part, a somewhat painful one, considering that I read a lot, much of it science fiction and fantasy: I've never read a book by Orson Scott Card before.

Nope. Not one. Not even Ender's Game.

For those who don't know what kind of an admission this is, say, maybe you're not a sci-fi nut, or you've just been defrosted after an avalanche buried you in the Alps in the last Ice Age, this makes me howl with derision. It's sort of like living in the US and admitting you've never eaten corn on the cob, or growing up in the 70s without knowing what Farrah Fawcett looked like. That out of touch.

So why is this Card's fault? (I feel a need to justify this, after comparing him to corn on the cob and a 70s "pin-up girl".)

I work in publishing, and I read a lot, and I'm trying to write, and he really spoke to that confluence of concerns with his book. How to Write, that is. Not Ender.

Scott focuses on how a writer needs to think about readers as a segmented market, that they access a writer's work not by its ideas or its quality, but by its marketing. This makes eminent sense, and Card humorously and helpfully takes us through an abbreviated version of his own voyage of discovery on this, with substantial diversions into strategies to manage the channeling of creativity.

As a publisher and reader, his observations meet with my own experiences, but as a writer, I was surprised to find I had not put them into practice. Card specifically does not argue against breaking boundaries and opening new ground. He simply, and eloquently, shows how sales categories help customers find books they will like. The point-of-sale success of categories like "fantasy" and "mystery" leads booksellers, distributors, publishers, and best-selling authors, to think in those terms as well. For Card, it's a matter of how hard one wants to fight to get sales. If you're OK with the challenge, cross boundaries. If you'd just like to have your book read, consider living, and writing, within them.

He also offers some keen tidbits of advice. One of the ones I remember is about using offensive language. Consistent with his approach in this book, he doesn't moralize about this. He simply observes that market placement will constrict with expletives, and expand with their deletion. He advises against made-up expletives because they will break the spell the author is spending so much time and energy to create.

So, how did Ms. Revis lose me? I learned from Card (yep - his fault) that publishers respect the boundaries of genre fiction. For instance, the boundaries among romance, mystery, and science fiction. Those would be easy to see, right?

Of course, this isn't true at all, and the value of Revis' book lies partly in her ability to weave multiple levels of narrative together. There's a travelogue, coming of age (twice over), mystery, and the sci-fi setting, all blended into a single, very readable narrative. (Brava!)

My problem was that I was focusing too much on the different types of narrative to enjoy their combination fully.

The science fiction setting is, in the end, mainly a setting, however. I recall reading something from Philip Dick, shortly after he started to be recognized as more than a crank and a hack, and also shortly before he died, that in science fiction, the universe in which the story is set differs in one main aspect from our own, and the characters are principally involved in dealing with that difference.

Take Robert Silverberg's The World Inside. The premise is that on an overcrowded future Earth, people live in gigantic high-rises surrounded by open space. The novel isn't about how the high-rises are built, or why, or the political machinations needed to force people into them. It's about how people adapt to the circumstances they're in, which fundamentally differ from our own.

I like (but don't worship) that definition of science fiction. It mostly works. Across the Universe, however, may as well have been set on an island as on an intergalactic, intergenerational space ship. It would be a fascinating story in a different setting. And that only bothers me, I suspect, because I learned to look for this in a last-millennium "how-to" book.

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