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Artist, Heather Oliver             

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The Moment of Change

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Last fall I mentioned that my two Bull Spec poems (Spacetime Geodesics and Night Patrol) and one of my dear friend and blog contributor Calvin Johnson (Towards a Feminist Algebra, in Stone Telling) will appear in The Moment of Change, a reprint anthology of speculative feminist poetry, edited by Rose Lemberg and published by Aqueduct Press. The collection will be released in May at Wiscon, with a cover by Terri Windling (shown).

I find it strange that I got four poems published in rapid succession: I consider myself essentially a prose writer.

The Mysterious Story: A Theory of Fiction, with Exercises (Part 2)

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire. Because the essay is slightly longer than usual blog length, it appears in two parts.

The Mysterious Story, Part 1

The Mysterious Story, Part 2

Opening questions are how a story starts the seduction of our minds. To keep us reading, a story must carry out a balancing act, like a good joke, between logic and surprise.

If, for example, Tolkien had never answered the question of “what is a hobbit,” but instead zoomed off to examine the lives of Russian serfs, we might well feel cheated of the logic of the story. If, by contrast, Tolkien had written, “A hobbit is another name for a rabbit, the end,” we might feel the story lacks enough surprise as a reward.

Understanding that a story balances logic and surprises gives underlying support for many so-called “rules” of writing that seem irritatingly arbitrary to novice writers. Deus ex machina endings, where a sudden character or event out of nowhere “solves” the problem, violate the principle of logic. Chekov’s dictum, that a pistol on the mantle in the first act must be fired in the third act, also feeds on the principle of logic, as well as what I call the “reverse-Chekov dictum,” that if you are going to fire a pistol in the third act, better introduce it in the first.

Classes and books on fiction writing often advise one to write stories wherein the main character, or a main character, changes; e.g. Rick in Casablanca, who evolves from an aloof, uninvolved man to a freedom fighter. In truth, such character evolution isn’t formally necessary at all, but character arcs do provide a powerful and logical pattern for our minds to tease out. Rick’s story is made all the more logical, and more compelling, by the fact that he had previously been a freedom fighter.

# # #

Logic alone is not enough. There must be surprises as well.

But surprise is a tricky thing. One method of introduce surprise is introducing a random event.  While common, it is a weak structure, because randomness is the opposite of logic.  A random event–such as a cyclone ripping through the fields of Kansas, or an old flame walking into your gin-joint–can kick off a story, but the response must be rigorously logical and one cannot rely upon too many random events. It doesn’t matter that real life is full of randomness; our minds demand patterns and rebel when the patterns don’t make sense.

Another strategy is through concealing information.  The logic is there, but only apparent in hindsight.  Again, this is a tricky strategy.  Simply withholding information from the reader so you can spring a surprise on them can tread dangerously upon logic.  Too many weak plots, especially those built on mistaken identity, rely upon characters making assumptions that few normal people would make.  Concealment can work, however, if the character concealing the information has good reason to.

A third and stronger strategy is misdirection.  One give a logical alternative while dropping clues to the real solution. This is a favorite strategy of J. K. Rowling, making Snape, or Lupin, or Sirus Black appear to be a villain, while quietly laying the groundwork so that when the true villain is revealed, you say, Ah! That makes sense after all. (Rowling is not above using heavy-handed concealment when it suits her, though.) Alternately, one can frame an situation to imply a wrong assumption, which is how the joke about the grasshopper works.

Surprise doesn’t have be just in plot. It can be in character as well.  My two favorite pieces of advice for constructing characters are, one, work against cliché and convention (i.e. instead of making the female love interest pale, thin, and helpless, make her dark, large, and kick-ass), and two, in addition to a primary character trait, add a secondary, seemingly contradictory character trait. A globe-trotting archaeologist who is afraid of snakes. A gangster who shoots his rivals yet gives money to the poor. A wizard powerfully skilled in dark magic who still worships the memory of his one true love.

Exercise: read a story carefully, taking note of the surprises, especially those beyond the initial hooks. What mechanism is used for those surprises? Going further, is the response to the stories logical?

And, for you writers out there, here is your final exercise: write a marvelous story, full to the brim with surprise and logic, that delights us with the patterns they weave in our brains.

For further reading: Samuel R. Delany, “About 5,750 Words,” which can be found in his book, The Jewel-hinged Jaw:  Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Dragon Press, 1977; revised 2009). An excellent essay on how we read, and especially how we read science fiction.

Images: 1st, Anton Chekhov, who grew increasingly more sophisticated in the use of loaded guns in his plays (painter: Osip Braz, 1898); 2nd, Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (illustrator: Richard Powers).

Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

A Geology Lesson

Here, the sea strains to climb up on the land
and the wind blows dust in a single direction.
The trees bend themselves all one way
and volcanoes explode often.
Why is this? Many years back
a woman of strong purpose
passed through this section
and everything else tried to follow.

– Judy Grahn, from She Who

Between the physical death of Joanna Russ and the latest endless lists and discussions about women’s visibility and recognition in SF/F, well-meaning people have come up with the Russ Pledge. Namely, a pledge to acknowledge and promote women’s work.

As recent history has shown, Twitter notices don’t start revolutions, let alone sustain them. Even if they did, I won’t be taking the Russ pledge for the simplest of reasons. I have been implementing it for the last forty-plus years. It’s not a cute button on my lapel. It’s not a talking point in my public persona. I cannot take it off when I take off my clothes. It’s not an option. It’s an integral component of my bone marrow that has shaped my personal and professional life.

Long before her death, Russ had been marginalized for being too prickly, a prominent target of the “tone” argument. Even many women found her uncomfortable — she might annoy the Powers that Be and compromise paltry gains. As if good behavior brought acceptance to boys’ treehouses. As if she didn’t threaten the status quo by her mere existence, let alone her uncompromising stories, essays and reviews. Most people know of The Female Man and How to Suppress Women’s Writing, if only by rumor, but the rest of her opus is just as radical. If you want to have your preconceptions soothed by feel-good feminism, Russ is not your woman.

It’s not surprising that eventually she burned out (“chronic fatigue syndrome”), like most people in equivalent circumstances. She kept showcasing true aliens — women as autonomous beings with agency! — and asking questions outside the box. She kept pointing out that even if you have been “promoted” from field hand to house servant you can still be sold down the river. An uncomfortable reminder for those who keep clinging to the hope of “change from within”, the illusion that being abjectly nice to the ensconced gatekeepers and kicking the more disenfranchised below will ensure decent treatment, or even survival.

Joanna Russ paved the way for all who walk the path of real change not merely with words, but with her body. Like the women in folk ballads who got buried alive so that bridges would stand, she deserves more than pious twitterings now that she’s safely dead. I recognize the good intentions of those who promote this pledge in her name. But enough already with “mistress lists” and their ilk. If people want to really do something, I suggest (and mind you, this is a suggestion, not the forcible penectomy some obviously consider it to be) that they read women’s books. Publish them for real money, as in pro-rate presses – pathetic as pro rates are, these days. Review them in major outlets. Nominate them for prestigious awards. Hire them as editors, columnists and reviewers (not slush readers or gofers) in major venues, in more than token numbers.  Teach them in courses.

Unconscious bias is a well-documented phenomenon and is alive and thriving even (especially) in self-labeled “progressive” communities. Women have shown up the arguments for intrinsic inferiority by winning open chairs in orchestras when performing behind curtains and winning major literary awards when hiding behind pseudonyms. But this does not change the dominant culture. And it does not make up for the oceans of creative talent that got lost — suppressed or squandered in anger or hopelessness.

I will let Russ herself have the last word. It’s striking how ageless she remains:

“Leaning her silly, beautiful, drunken head on my shoulder, she said, “Oh, Esther, I don’t want to be a feminist. I don’t enjoy it. It’s no fun.”

“I know,” I said. “I don’t either.” People think you decide to be a “radical,” for God’s sake, like deciding to be a librarian or a ship’s chandler. You “make up your mind,” you “commit yourself” (sounds like a mental hospital, doesn’t it?).

I said Don’t worry, we could be buried together and have engraved on our tombstone the awful truth, which some day somebody will understand:

WE WUZ PUSHED.”

from On Strike Against God

“I Like a Little Science in My Fiction”

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Some people walk on water //
Some just keep falling down.

– from Ramon, by Laurie Anderson

Whenever the imminent death of SF from lack of scientific knowledge and/or mindset comes up, some people wring hands and point fingers at YA fantasy or the “feminization” of the domain, some spring to action:  Kay Holt and Bart Leib, the founders/editors of Crossed Genres, just launched a blog titled Science in My Fiction.  As Kay says, both in words and in the playful image she created to celebrate the launch (right):

“The purpose of the Science in My Fiction blog is to get science fiction and fantasy writers and fans thinking ahead of science again. Playful bloggers will take a look at recent scientific developments and extrapolate potential futures from them. // This is a fight for survival of the fiction. It’s time to seize culture and do science to it!”

Visitors to Astrogator’s Logs will recognize some SiMF contributors: Peggy Kolm, Calvin Johnson and yours truly.  The first post is Extrapolative Fiction for Sapient Earthlings by Kay Holt.  Posts will initially appear twice weekly and may increase to thrice weekly once the contributors find their rhythm.

Go take a look!