Opening Control

September 6th, 2011

My Homeless Moon cohort Justin Howe had a neat writing post last week about openings.  Justin is a first-reader for a Hugo-award winning magazine, so he has seen a ton of story openings, and he’s written a few cool ones himself.

In his post, he articulates the way he thinks writers in openings establish that “trust” with the reader.  He calls it “control.”  For example, not trying to do too much into the opening; not cramming in lots of introspection or backstory or setting.

That’s a neat way to articulate it.  I often call it the prose feeling “assured.”  As a reader you can tell, in a great opening, that you’re in expert hands.  Like the writer knows exactly where they want to lead you.  What things they need to lay out for you in order to have you follow them there, with nothing that’s unnecessary or extra.

Thinking about “control” or “assured-ness” in openings reminded me of a nugget I read a while back.  It’s via Bradley P. Beaulieu, a new fantasy novelist with a dozen pro story sales, who’s also written some neat articles on writing in the SFWA Bulletin.

He went to Clarion years ago and, in his awesome post of nuggets from the whole six weeks of the workshop, related this one from veteran writer Nancy Kress (whose books on writing I love):

It’s more important to be interesting at the beginning of a story than clear. The common tendency at the beginning of a story is to over-explain so that the reader “understands.”

Well, the reader doesn’t really care about understanding early on. They care about an interesting character in an interesting situation, something to entertain them and make them want to read on, and that’s almost always not the same as explaining to the Nth detail what’s going on and what came before.

That’s a slightly different angle on it than Justin’s “control,” but it’s talking about the same end. It’s a notch beyond the common writerly advice of honing the purpose of every thing you put in an opening. It’s honing your overall bundle of purposes there.

It’s sticking to the bare minimum of purposes to be achieved in your opening. Having them be enough that the opening should be interesting.  But exercising control as far as which purposes you plan to achieve in the opening and which you set aside to accomplish later in the story.

Having that sort of metered approach to the set of things you’re trying to accomplish in the opening also means you probably won’t have too much background/etc or be over-explaining.

Insightful food for writerly thought the next time you craft an opening.

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Farewell, New Weird

August 24th, 2011

Weird Tales magazine has been sold, according to Editor Ann VanderMeer, to a new Publisher/Editor, Marvin Kaye, who intends to edit the magazine himself.  Ms. VanderMeer’s editorship will end with the next issue, #359, which Mr. Kaye plans to publish next February.

I for one will be sorry to see Ms. VanderMeer go. Her editorial vision took WT in a less pulp, more literary and character-centered direction. She published several pieces by veteran writers that I enjoyed, including a new Elric novella by Michael Moorcock.  And she also published many new and neo-pro writers, as she proudly mentions in her farewell editorial, including Rachel Swirsky, Jonathan Wood, Amanda Downum, and N.K. Jemisin.

The former and the latter have gone on to earn Finalists for major awards.  Jonathan Wood has authored two of my favorite stories so far in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Amanda Downum has published a dark, secondary-world fantasy trilogy.

Ms. VanderMeer also bought my first genre sale, “Excision” in WT #347. (That same issue included the Jonathan Wood and Amanda Downum pieces.  Downum’s story is one of the top ten stories I’ve read in the last decade–a creepy yet heart-rending tale of emotional loss and attempted redemption.)  And Ann was delightful to me in person at Capclave last year.

Best of luck to Mr. Kaye with his new plans for the magazine, and I’m certain that Ms. VanderMeer’s editorial vision will continue in her future projects.  But I’m sad to see the new slant that she brought to WT five years ago end.

Weird Tales #347

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No Danger in a Double-Swoopy-Overhand-Neckchop Unless I Care

August 19th, 2011

I get to read a lot of fight scenes.  I often see stories that open with a fight scene. But for me, I routinely see two things in fight scenes that kill my readerly interest as utterly as a head-severing blow from Conan’s greatsword.

The first: I don’t think readers can ever picture the physical moves of the fight as clearly as the author does.  It’s very difficult to describe physical action that’s happening in specific spatial places in a way that the reader can get such 3D spatialness from the prose.  Sometimes you can use fighting jargon to describe a stance or move, but if the reader doesn’t know that term, that doesn’t work either. All that ineffective description just ends up bogging down the pace.

What’s more, I don’t think it’s necessary that the reader be able to picture the moves in a fight. The general feel of the fight is far more important to me.  Is it elegant, with quick moves, like Wesley and Inigo in The Princess Bride?  Is it short and brutish, like Robin and the Sheriff at the end of Robin and Marion?  It is epic and terrifying, like Eowyn and the Nazgûl? Bestselling D&D author R.A. Salvatore considers the surroundings: is it taking place in a ring, on a rocky hillside, or in a tight cave?  Capture the vibe, and that will hook me far deeper.

The second: I don’t think most writers realize that in a fight scene the danger, and therefore the narrative tension, doesn’t come from the adversary, or the weapons, or the moves.  It comes from the character.  A character who I already care about (that’s why opening with a fight scene rarely hooks me).  Then showing me how this fight threatens that character’s internals.

No, not their internal organs, Conan; their emotions.  Their hopes and dreams; what they want and what they care about.  I think all real fights have that–people get into fights because something emotionally important to them is at stake.

If a fight scene captures the vibe and makes me feel the character’s emotional stakes, then I get the danger.  En guarde!

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Don’t Make a Mess of the Whole Semipro Zine Category?

August 16th, 2011

Word comes from semiprozine.org that there is yet another idiotic proposal to redefine the Semiprozine Hugo category (and the Fanzine one), this time to exclude audio podcasts or any other non-text format.

I don’t quite understand the print purists’ furor over new media, such as audio.  But I’m shocked at the ancillary effect that their revision, which was rejected by the Semiprozine revision committee, would have.  They want to cross out the stipulation of “non-professional”, which would effectively put all magazines into the Semiprozine category.

Yes, Asmiov’s, Analog, and F&SF would all become semipro zines.

I am boggled that anyone could think that for example F&SF, which currently has an exclusive business arrangement with one of the largest corporations in the world (Amazon), is on equivalent footing with magazines like Strange Horizons, which is a charity that has to beg for donations every year.

But this incessant Hugo politics seems to get more mind-boggling with each iteration.  The idiotic minority proposal I blogged about a few days ago would exclude every zine that had been nominated in the past four years; this one would include nearly all magazines in the field.

I hope cooler heads will prevail.  For the good of the entire field.

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