Posts Tagged ‘SF/F’

Milling the Ford: Don’t Expect the Wrong Things from Critiquing

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

I’ve seen recent online discussion of writers and workshoppers slagging the Milford method.  (That’s the formal name for classic critiquing method, used by most all F/SF writing workshops including Odyssey and both Clarions, where you go around in a circle and everyone gives the author their comments on a submission).

These writers blame it for, among other things,  sending young writers into a spiral of unending revisions on the same story and leaving them tied in knots of self-doubt about their own ability.

Those fates are possible consequences of critiquing. I’ve written probably a thousand critiques and had hundreds done on my own work.  I’ve seen those outcomes and at times resembled some of them myself.

But the Millford method is not the cause.

The cause is writers expecting things from critiquing that it’s not going to deliver without work.

Critiquing is only as good as the critique group’s insight, but not just their insight on writing in general or the specific type of writing in that submission.  Also their insight on you the author–what kind of writer you are, what your goal for that submission is. If they don’t know as much about your writing and its goal as they know about characters and their goals, they won’t be able to give comments that fit not just your vision for the story but also your aim for it.

The benefits of critiquing also depend on you the author’s ability to extract the wheat from the chaff. You have to decide which comments fit your vision for the story and which don’t. Writers who end up tied in knots from getting critiques clearly haven’t figured out how to do this. It’s difficult; even maddening. But that’s not the fault of the method.

And critiquing is never going to add a spark of brilliance or magic or “quan” to a story that doesn’t already have it. The onus for instilling spark rests squarely with the author. Maybe it happens on first draft, or maybe inspiration strikes after critiques or even during. But if the story ends up merely average or competent and without any spark, there’s only one place the blame lies.

To be fair, these subtleties require critiquers who are experienced, familiar, and mature, far moreso than the beginners at most workshops. In fact, a reason why most workshop critiquers are not this good may be that critiquers who are this good have no need to go to a workshop.

Rejecting the Milford method seems to feel liberating for some young writers, but to me it looks like an escape hatch. Spend time cultivating some familiar and mature critiquers, and tackle its difficult decisions, before you give up on it.

Escapism and Epic Fantasy’s Mean Streak

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

On the heels of my post about escapism in F/SF and what works for me, Elizabeth Bear had an essay about it in Clarkesworld.

Filtering her cheeky epistolary voice, she seems to be lamenting the paucity of playfulness and fun in current speculative fiction.  Replaced, as she notes, by the moral complexity of layered character motivations. But she suggests that that move to darker fiction may have gone too far.

In my shallow survey of post-George R.R. Martin epic fantasy novels, I’ve seen that very thing. Through the mid-90s, epic fantasy protagonists on the whole had monochromatic motivations and battled singularly eeevil villains.  A Song of Ice and Fire brought characters with multifaceted motivations (which incidentally obviated the need for a villain because complex characters will, quite justifiably, do plenty of villainy to each other).

Like Bear posits about spec-fic in general, I’ve seen epic fantasy take that villainy or ‘meanness’, as she calls it, and pile it on, with seemingly no care for balance or reason. She laments the loss of positive endings. I more lament that the preponderance of villainy has given me John Gardner’s disPollyanna Syndrome, which she mentions: the expectation that every outcome will be the worst possible one.

It’s not that I want happy endings; I want to feel the chance of a happy ending. Or an unresolved ending. I want to feel the same uncertainty in a fictional situation that I feel in real life. I want to feel the characters fighting to control their destiny, and failing if they are going to fail but also succeeding, if that’s the perfect conclusion to that story.

This dark or brutal or ‘mean’ trend in current epic fantasy has sold tons of books and launched dozens of novelists’ careers, so plenty of readers are getting escapism from it. But I prefer the ones that are multifaceted.  I knew already that I find escapism in complex characters, but this makes me realize that I also find it in complex situations and nuanced outcomes.

Take a Look at Some Less-Known

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

I’ve been trying to alert people to the Hugo nominations deadline this Sunday and the stuff from Beneath Ceaseless Skies that’s Hugo eligible; now I have to remember to send in my own nominations. :)

Neil Clarke, Hugo-winning editor and tireless advocate for the field of semipro zines, had a cool tweet yesterday that he hopes to see more new blood represented in the field of finalists this year, and another listing some of the quality semipro zines that have never made it to the finalist ballot.

I agree completely.  Of course, I do have a horse in this race myself: BCS is eligible for Best Semiprozine, and according to reviewer/editor Rich Horton, we publish more total fiction than any other online mag.

But leaving that aside, there are at least a dozen other less-noticed semipro zines doing great work. And the ballot in past years has seemed to feature the same magazines a lot.  (Glancing at for example shows Locus and Interzone on the ballot every year in the last ten years and Ansible seven of the last ten.)

So in recent years, I’ve been nominating those under-represented or less-noticed semipro zines who I think are worthy.  Neil’s list is a great starting point–On Spec (who just published a story of mine), Abyss & Apex, GigaNotoSaurus (a ‘sole proprietor’ zine like BCS, and I know the tons of work that entails), Black Gate (that stalwart swords & sorcery mag that never seems to get much notice). And may others.

So if you’re nominating for Hugos, before you fill out your ballot take a look at some of those less-noticed zines.  You might find their work just as worthy as the better-known ones.

Lower That Crossbow, Pardner

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

Last week while pondering swords & sorcery as I jotted notes for the roundtable S&S discussion for SF Signal Podcast #108, I had a neat revelation.  Lou Anders, Hugo-winning editor and huge S&S fan, mentioned the same thing during the podcast, so this connection has clearly caught other peoples’ eye too.

Swords & sorcery and Westerns are very close kin.

The similarities jump out at you.  A strong feel of adventure. A “gritty” hardscrabble environment.  Hardscrabble characters, often from the lower levels of society, trying to eke out a living. Often weighed down by emotional baggage or scarred backgrounds. Often on the darker side of law or morality. Often battling antagonists from higher levels of society (rich cattle barons instead of rich sorcerers!).

These parallels are quite fitting.  Westerns have a powerful lure in American culture–something about the freedom and adventure in gorgeous untamed lands, in elegant firearms, in carving out your own existence in a wilderness.  Swords & sorcery has a similar lure–not so much the American classics of freedom and carving out an existence, but definitely adventure in awe-inspiring (fantastical) lands and elegant (pre-gunpowder) weapons. And they both are a perfect backdrop for troubled heroes and bitter struggles.

This may explain why I so love “Weird West”–the uncommon spec-fic subgenre that combines paranormal stuff with Old West settings.  Whether a historical Old West, like Kenneth Mark Hoover’s Haxan stories, or a fictional Old West-flavored world like Erin Cashier’s “Hangman” or J.S. Bangs’s “The Judge’s Right Hand.” It has the same hardscrabble feel as S&S, but in a setting that feels fresher in SF/F yet still has a strong pull of adventure.

I wish there were more Weird West. And I’m going to add more Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry to my stack of Fritz Leiber and GRRM.