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The Six Approaches to Time Travel Stories

Writing

My son, Ethan, posted a neat graphic by Harrison Densmore explaining three approaches to time travel in stories. It’s pretty good, actually. Check it out:

time travel theories

I think this is a great start, but it’s incomplete. There are at least six approaches to past time travel stories. Note that future time travel isn’t such a big deal: we do it all the time, and even know how to speed it up (travel at relativistic speeds).

Here’s the list I know.

  1. Time travel is impossible. The reason I mention this as one of the options is that a story can be about people attempting time travel, thinking something is time travel that actually isn’t, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be the real one.
  2. The self-healing timeline. In this one, you travel back in time and change something, but the universe changes something else to cancel your change out. I’m not a fan of this one, because 1) why does the universe care?, and 2) two changes that cancel out one particular effect are not the same as not changing anything in the first place. For instance, what about the people whose lives would have been affected by the orphan?
  3. The timeline that’s smarter than you. This is the one Densmore calls “The Fixed Timeline.” In this one, any changes you make were what happened all along; you just didn’t realize it. Maybe you shot and killed your grandfather, and it turns out that wasn’t your grandfather at all, that’s just what grandma told your dad when he was growing up. I’m not crazy about this approach either, because it requires existence of some kind of intelligent Fate and imposes arbitrary limits on human intelligence. Humans may be intellectually limited, but we’re not stupid. Except sometimes, but that’s another discussion.
  4. Dynamic timeline. Densmore covers this one nicely. I think nature abhors a paradox, but you can still get fun stories out of this.
  5. Multiverse. This is the easiest one to work with, although I’d point out that some multiverse stories don’t restrict universe-hopping–so you might spawn a new version of the universe and experience it as long as you stay there, but be able to come back to your original timeline because your machine or magical ability or what have you is just that good.
  6. The elastic timeline. In this timeline, you can go back in time and do whatever you want, and the world will change accordingly (e.g., no baby Hitler), but when you return to your original time, nothing will have changed. In this approach, the universe is assumed to have some kind of resilience, or time travel to occur in some kind of pocket universe that vanishes when you leave it. I have an unfinished story that uses this approach in which a young man regularly travels back in time to kick the living crap out of horrible dictators from the past–just appears in Francisco Franco’s bedroom, for instance, and goes to town on him with steel-toed boots. As you can imagine, he comes to find this approach to happiness flawed.

A handy time travel t-shirt created by the brilliant Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics (qwantz.com)

A handy time travel t-shirt created by the brilliant Ryan North, who writes Dinosaur Comics (qwantz.com) three times a week.

Oh, a pro tip if you travel back in time to the Middle Ages in Europe: bring pepper. Most valuable spice of the age, black peppercorns. Just hit Costco before you go and buy yourself a fiefdom–or end up dead by the road when they rob you, but nobody said time travel was safe. Actually, that’s a unifying feature of every one of the time travel approaches mentioned above: none of them is particularly concerned with what happens to you.

Another subgenre that works like a time travel story in some ways is the Alternate Universe story, like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South, in which twenty-first century white supremacists travel back to the American South and supply the Confederates with AK-47s. The Man in the High Castle is another fascinating example of this genre. I find these fascinating, though they can’t be easy to write. One of the reasons I mention them with time travel approaches is that sometimes alternate history stories are conceptually time travel stories (as in the Turtledove example)–which includes times when you might think you’re just looking at an alternate history but (twist!) there turns out to be time travel involved. I’m guessing that might be how The Man in the High Castle works, but nobody ruin it for me, OK?

In the shameless self-promotion department, I have some 11 very short time travel and alternate universe stories in my Bam: 172 Hellaciously Short Stories (of things that could never happen), which you can get on Amazon in paperback or eBook format.

So … what did I miss?

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My latest story now live on Daily Science Fiction: Uh .. Guys?

Luc's writing projects

Daily Science Fiction, a free electronic science fiction and fantasy magazine, published my short short story of aliens observing an Earth in peril, “Uh … Guys?” last week for their e-mail subscribers and today free for everyone at http://dailysciencefiction.com/science-fiction/aliens/luc-reid/uh-guys .

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Aliette de Bodard on Crossing Over

Interviews

This is the seventh interview and the ninth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far in the series at the end of this piece.

In today’s post, I talk with British Science Fiction Association award-winning French/Vietnamese writer Aliette de Bodard about writing, reading, cultural divides, and the bridges that span them.

LUC: Just to bring your work to science fiction and fantasy readers in North America, you’ve had to bridge a number of gaps–ethnic, linguistic, geographical, and more. Does this affect how you choose your characters and how you think about writing?

ALIETTE: I have to admit that I didn’t quite think of it that way! For starters, I was hardly aware of the SFF market as being sharply compartimentalised when I started writing–and, if anything, I would have targeted my work at the UK market, since that’s where I started reading most of my genre. I also seldom think in terms of gaps when writing: rather, I write passionately about things that matter to me, and trust that this enthusiasm will communicate itself to the reader.

But yes, if we’re talking quite plainly–of course my origins, my personality and the milieu I grew up in and am still part of deeply and irrevocably approach how I’m choosing characters and how I think about writing. I would be a very different person if I had grown up white on the US East Coast–my family, my education, my friends, etc. have shaped me as a writer, and continue to shape me.

I tend to pick characters from non-mainstream backgrounds, mainly because I’m somewhat disquieted by how SF, which should be the literature of the mind-blowing and mind-opening, tends to over-feature characters from a certain background (overwhelmingly male, white and American or Western Anglophone) and from a certain mindset (what I would call “tech-loving” with a strong faith that science will make things better). Not, of course, that I have anything against those views myself, but the over-representation of these can be a little overwhelming in the bad sense of the term…

I approach writing as the sum of everything that I have read, which means traditional French/English/Vietnamese/Chinese literature as well as genre from Ursula Le Guin to Alastair Reynolds to Jean-Claude Dunyach. Reading so much in so many traditions has enabled me to see that the “rules” of writing (like “show don’t tell”) are deeply problematic because they enforce the conformity of a certain type of fiction–they’re a great help as you’re starting out, but taken too rigidly they can easily lead people to stifle their own creativity in the search of the technically perfect, but soulless story.

It’s hard for me to tell how much my approach to writing is shaped by my background and which specific bits are “different”–I know that I place a high importance on family in my fiction, and immigration and living between different cultures (obviously a very personal preoccupation!), but I assume there are more subtle effects on themes, characters and storylines that I’m not able to see because I’m too close to them.

LUC: There are a lot of interesting threads in that response, but let me grab onto one particular one, because I don’t think it’s ever even come up in this discussion for me until now: science fiction tending to include people of a certain mindset. I had never thought of it that way before, but it strikes me immediately as having a lot of truth to it. When science fiction stories emphasize strongly tech- and science-friendly characters, what points of view would you say aren’t getting a lot of representation?

ALIETTE: Hum, it’s one of those questions where I don’t think I can give a complete answer to, but I can provide a few examples… By and large, SF is mainstream US, 21st-Century and tech-loving, which means that anything outside those points of view is getting poor representation. I can mention a few things that struck me, beyond the most obvious ones of poor POC/female/non-US representation, but this is obviously very limited!

  • the paucity of stories where family is important, and in particular family outside the nuclear family (SF sometimes gets around to mentioning fathers and mothers, but aunts, uncles and cousins somehow seem beyond the realm of possible relationships)
  • a marked dichotomy between allegiance to a church or allegiance to science, generally failing to recognise either that the two points of view are not incompatible, or that religion doesn’t necessarily mean full allegiance to a church (in many Asian countries, people practise bits and pieces of religions depending on the circumstances, and don’t refer to a single church for prescriptions on every aspect of their daily lives)
  • a presentation of individualistic, lone mavericks who strike out to seek adventures as intensely heroic, and a deriding of people who do not follow that mindset as being cowardly (in Asian culture, people who abandon their families to strike out would be the cowards because they shirk their duties to provide for their relatives, and the act of falling out with your own family would be a tragedy rather than a cause for celebration).

LUC: Recently on your Web site, you quoted Juliana Qian:

Our cultures are exotic, fashionable, fascinating and valuable when contained within or filtered through a white Western lens – then our cultures are glittering mines. But drawing from your own background is backward and predictable if you’re a person of colour. Sometimes white people try to sell me back my culture and I have to buy it. My China is as much the BBC version as it is the PRC one. There are things I want to eat but cannot cook.

This brings up the question of how different it is for someone within a group–whether we’re talking about, for example, Russians, transgendered people, or people with physical handicaps–to write about that group than for someone outside in terms of how the writing itself is viewed. How does this affect your work, or the work of other writers whose work you follow?

ALIETTE: It’s all but inevitable that someone within a group will perceive it in different terms than someone outside a group: it’s what I call “insider” writing vs “outsider” writer. There are two different problems: who is writing this, and for whom it is intended. I’ll leave aside the obvious combinations of outsider writer for outsiders only (which is a very dodgy proposition and fairly exclusionary) and insider writer for insiders only (posing no particular issue: write what you know for people who know it as well). That leaves the “crossing overs,” i.e., outsider writers writing for an audience which includes insiders and insider writers writing for an audience which includes outsiders.

If you’re an outsider, it is possible to achieve a sufficient degree of empathy with the group to make your depiction of it from the inside plausible, but it takes a lot of hard work, and I think people don’t understand how seldom this happens: the authors who pull this off, say, for Vietnamese culture, can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand, and generally have thoroughly immersed themselves into it for years. A few more authors will produce a passable description, and the bulk will unfortunately perpetuate majority stereotypes or latch onto what seems to them shiny elements of a culture–elements that are totally natural to insiders (one of my favourite examples from Sino-Vietnamese culture includes the over-emphasis on face, which is an unconscious thing–people don’t spend their time going, “oh, I’m going to lose face if I do this” every two lines!). Hence the importance of thinking very carefully about what you’re doing when depicting a culture and of getting beta-readers from said culture to correct you.

If you’re an insider, you have a slightly more difficult problem. I’ve already said that the elements of a culture that appeal to outsiders are not necessarily the ones that insiders think most important, and also that many things that seem natural to you (like food) will require explanation in order to make sense to outsiders. There’s a hard line to draw between making your culture a little more “accessible” to outsiders, and between twisting it out of shape so it appeals to the market.

In my work, I’ve done outsider and insider depiction: when I do outsider (such as in the Aztec books), I do my best not to exoticise or demonise practises that the main characters would have found totally natural, like human sacrifices. When I do insider writing, I find myself very often having to explain behaviours and attitudes that are perfectly normal to me, but that make no sense to outsiders (like filial piety or Confucianism): the first draft of my novella “On a Red Station, Drifting” basically had every (non-Vietnamese) reader terminally confused, and I had to do my best to clarify what I meant without having the impression that I was putting the “crunchiest bits” of my culture on display for Westerners (I enjoy writing about my background, but I certainly don’t want the feeling that I’m debasing it in order to sell better!).

LUC: I was interested when you mentioned those authors that you could count on the fingers of one hand, because while we’ve all seen examples of mishandling of other cultures, examples of people who do the job really well seem harder to come by. Are there any writers that come to mind to you offhand who really do an exceptional job, whether they’re outsiders whose writing rings true to insiders or insiders who make a real connection with outsiders?

ALIETTE: It’s going to be hard for me to point out outsiders who really do insider narrative well, as I can’t really appreciate anything beyond France and Vietnam in fiction; and a lot of portrayals of both, as I said above, are very debatable to say the least. That said, one of the works I thought did a great job of evoking the spirit of 17th-18th Century France was Kari Sperring’s debut, Living with Ghosts: the intricate plot and delicately-drawn characters made me think of a modern-day, more nuanced Dumas.

There are more than a few people who are insiders and who create a real connection with outsiders: the first one who comes to mind is the unstoppable Ken Liu, whose fiction is basically everywhere, and who creates really strong stories driven by Chinese culture. I can also cite Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, whose idiosyncratic Filipino SF is bound to make a huge splash (check out her “Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life“, which tackles emigration, mixed marriages and power dynamics in a very spec-fic way), and Zen Cho, who has a knack for mixing comedy and poignancy in really well-realised stories (her “House of Aunts” is a really awesome not-quite-our-vampires story).

As far as novels go, can I point out to Thanh Ha Lai’s truly awesome “Inside Out and Back Again”, which shows emigrating to America from the point of view of a young Vietnamese girl and the resultant culture shock; and to Joyce Chng’s Wolf at the Door and sequels, urban fantasy set in a vibrant and rich Singapore and featuring a very strong main character in the presence of werewolf pack leader Jan Xu.


Aliette de Bodard lives in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and writes speculative fiction in her spare time–her Aztec noir fantasy trilogy Obsidian and Blood was published by Angry Robot, and her short fiction has garnered her a British Science Fiction Award and nominations for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award for Best New Writer. When not writing, she blogs and posts recipes over at www.aliettedebodard.com


 

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Anaea Lay on “An Element of Excitement”

Society and culture

This is the fifth interview and the seventh post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

In today’s interview we talk with author Anaea Lay.

LUC: Modern fiction–and some might argue fiction throughout history–seems to have a much more limited cast of characters than real life does, often putting characters who are straight, Caucasian, fully able, neurotypical, relatively young, and otherwise a lot like the typical American CEO or politician center stage. From your point of view, what difference does it make? What, if anything, is there to be gained from having a more diverse range of people in the center of our novels and stories?

ANAEA: I’d specify that modern English-language fiction does that. You get a much broader cast if you branch out into fiction from other parts of the world.

That said, the biggest risk with limiting your cast is that you’ll be boring. There’s nothing wrong with writing about a straight white middle class American male in good health, but you better give me something that’s going to set that work apart from all the other stories about the same character. If you stretch out and write about somebody else, somebody I haven’t read about a thousand times already, you’re starting off on stronger ground.

It’s one of those truisms you hear all the time that there are only x number of plots and every story is just a variation on one of them. Expanding your cast of characters opens up your possibilities for variations. It lets you tackle new problems, see new obstacles, go to different places and play with new ideas. As a reader, I like to see different characters because finding new things is part the joy of reading. When I get bored, I start to nit-pick what I’m reading and everything falls apart for me.

There’s also an element of excitement when I run into a character who’s like me in a way that I’m not used to encountering. There really ought to be more child-hating polyamorous women in fiction, because I’m a sucker for them.

As a writer, creating interesting characters keeps me engaged. I’m not a planner, so I rely on my characters going interesting places and doing interesting things to find my plot and get me through it. “Unmarked” characters run a high risk of winding up invisible to me while I’m writing. But the characters who challenge me, who come at the world from a different angle or background, force me to be a better writer. World building matters so much more because they way they interact with the world and the world interacts with them is different.

Making sure your prose is spot on matters because you can’t rely on the assumptions of what everybody knows about your default character to do your work for you and you might be bumping up against expectations trained by those defaults.

LUC: So does a broader range of groups of people attract you when reading fiction, too? What do you look for in fiction you read? What kinds of novels or stories would you most love to find in this regard?

ANAEA: I’ll read most anything if its good, and some things even when they aren’t. Having a broad range of characters, or characters I haven’t already read umteen billion stories about definitely stands out when I’m looking for fiction. One of my favorite authors right now is Nora Jemison. A lot of that is her prose which is lush and gorgeous, but her characters are fascinating and complex and not people I’ve read tons of things about, which makes it really easy to wind up completely immersed in her story. I’m not mentally checking off tropes as I read, and I’m not switching into analytical-reader-mode just to find something interesting enough to stay engaged.

I don’t look for fiction with character diversity as an explicit criterion. That said, I hate reading things I can predict from early on because I know the shape of the tropes they’re using. Having non-standard characters is a signal that the author is doing something different, and that makes it much more likely that they’re doing something I’ll find interesting. Greek and Norse gods? It’ll take a lot to make those compelling again. Tlazolteatl, though? Do your research well enough to keep from hurting me, and I’m there. Whiny white guy who wants to get a girl? Meh. Whiny Chinese-American guy who’s lost his connection to his mother? I contemplated crying. That’s what I want to read.

LUC: What other kinds of inclusivity, apart from race and ethnicity, connect particularly well for you or raise your interest in a story?

ANAEA: Women getting to play traditionally male tropes, and and bi or homosexual characters outside their standard boxes. See Alice from the BBC series Luther for a great example of the former, “Astrophilia” by Carrie Vaughn in Clarkesworld for the latter.

LUC: What do you hope to see happening among writers over, say, the next decade that’s different from what we’re seeing now, in terms of inclusivity?

ANAEA: I’d hope that going forward we continue to find the characters who’ve been neglected and tell their stories, and to keep talking to what’s going on. For example, I was having a conversation where somebody was lamenting the loss of the “Coming out” story as a compelling story. At this point, there have been so many stories about the difficulties of coming out, and coming out is so much easier than it was twenty or thirty years ago, that it’s hard to bring anything new to that particular story, even though it was hugely popular in the 90’s. I’d hope that we’d keep pressing the boundaries, keep making progress to the point where things that seem fraught now become normal. But I’d also hope that we don’t neglect where we are now or forget what it’s like to be breaking this ground and learning these lessons.

There’s an arc you can see over time as you look at fiction. If you look at some of the classics that try to paint a better future, or warn about a problematic future, they’re ridiculously simple and naive by today’s standards. Just compare Brave New World to The Windup Girl and you’ll see what I mean. I’d much rather have more fiction like The Windup Girl, and I’m excited about where that conversation will go from here because it’s going to have to break new ground, get more nuanced, richer. But it’s handy to have Brave New World as a yardstick to see how far we’ve come, or haven’t come.

You can do the same thing with looking at trends across time to include more characters. It’s still easy to run across cringe-inducing badly written women, but the good ones aren’t the exception anymore. There seems to be a movement toward non-white characters and pulling from non-western traditions and while a lot of that is creators deliberately making an effort to do that, audiences are getting savvy and starting to demand it, too. I’m not the only jaded and bored reader our there.

So I suppose I don’t have any specific desire for ten years from now, except that we keep doing what we are doing, and keep getting better. Though I will not complain if sparkly vampires have disappeared.


Anaea Lay lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she sells Real Estate under a different name, writes, cooks, plays board games, spoils her cat, and plots to take over the world. The rumors that she never sleeps are not true. She has no comment on the rumors about the disconcerting noises emanating from her basement. You can find her fiction in Apex, Penumbra and Shock Totem. She blogs about just about anything at anaealay.com


 

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In the Journal Nature: My “Ways to Enjoy Nutrient Blend 14”

Luc's writing projects

One of the more thrilling short story sales of my career recently was of a quite short story called “Ways to Enjoy Nutrient Blend 14,” a tale about augmented reality and society change, which sold to the international science journal Nature some months back for their ongoing fiction feature “Futures.” The story appears in the new issue of Nature, and is available for free on the Web at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v488/n7410/full/488246a.html.

This makes two of my stories appearing for the first time on the Web in one day, and both in pro venues; that may be a first!

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On Daily Science Fiction: “Dear Editor, Enclosed Please Find My Story About Your Unfortunate Demise”

Luc's writing projects

Daily Science Fiction, in case you don’t already know about it, posts one short speculative fiction story each weekday. E-mail subscribers get the stories first (subscriptions are free, by the way), and they appear on the Web site a week later. Editors Michele Barasso and Jonathan Laden showcase some major names and great talent among science fiction and fantasy writers. Often their stories are beautiful, poignant, and deeply meaningful. Today … not so much.

Fortunately for me, given that every once in a while I’m gripped with the need to write a story on some humorous (or at least intended-to-be-humorous) topic, they also publish some humor, like my story “Dear Editor, Enclosed Please Find My Story About Your Unfortunate Demise,” which appears on the site today. I wrote this story because I really wanted to send a submission that began “Dear Editor, enclosed please find my story ‘Dear Editor, Enclosed Please Find My Story About Your Unfortunate Demise.'” Why? That, my friends, is a question I am unlikely to understand any time soon.

I hope you enjoy the story and get a chance to dig into some of the marvelous work in the Daily SF archives.

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Bam! Stories of the Impossible and the Wildly Improbably: Free eBook This Weekend

Luc's writing projects

This weekend I’ll be attending Readercon near Boston, Massachusetts, and while there I’ll be doing a reading of stories from my flash fiction collection Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories. Bam! has been available for Kindle since last year, and the paperback ($11.95) is just coming out now, already available here and scheduled to show up on Amazon.com within the next week or two.

In celebration of all this, Bam! for the Kindle (and all devices that can run the free Kindle viewer, including PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, Android devices, etc.) will be available free today through Sunday. Feedback, good or bad, is always welcome. Enjoy!

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Readercon: Science Fiction, Creativity, and Fascinating People

Events

Every July, science fiction and fantasy readers, writers, editors, and reviewers gather in Burlington, Massachusetts (outside Boston) for Readercon, a literary science fiction convention. Readercon is special because it is devoted to speculative fiction in novels, short stories, and other writing–setting aside games, movies, TV shows, and the like.  It’s a great place to go to talk about everything from bug-eyed monsters to feminism, science fictional politics to Sherlock Holmes–not to mention to bump elbows with and listen to discussions between noted authors and poets. (See the full program here.)

Guests this year include Peter Straub, Caitlin Kiernan, Ellen Datlow, Michael Swanwick, Barry Longyear, Nick Mamatas, Neil Clarke, and others–myself included.  (See the full guest list here.)

This year Readercon starts on Thursday, July 12th with free programming and continues for members Friday through Sunday. Memberships are $70 at the door, less for single days.

A panel at a recent Readercon. Photo by Ed Gaillard

My own participation includes discussions on motivation and creativity (including my 1-hour Writing Motivation Toolbox presentation Saturday evening), a panel on transcending the human body, and readings from my book of flash fiction, Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories.

This will be my second trip to Readercon, and if it’s anything like my first, I plan to have a spectacular time. Hope to see you there.

Luc Reid’s Readercon Schedule

Friday July 13

5:00 PM    G    Why I Stopped Writing. Erik Amundsen, Nathan Ballingrud, Steve Berman (leader), Geary Gravel, Jennifer Pelland, Luc Reid. We’ve all seen writers logging their word counts, charting their progress toward the next novel or short story. And we’ve heard the advice to keep writing and submitting. But is it ever a good idea to just stop? What can we gain from getting off the publishing merry-go-round, at least for a while? Is stopping a sign of failure, or just another stage in a writer’s career? The panelists discuss how and why they stopped writing (and maybe started up again).

Saturday July 14

6:00 PM    RI    Writing Motivation Toolbox. Luc Reid. Leveraging recent psychological and neurological research, Luc Reid offers a brief tour of human motivation mechanisms as well as specific ways to get past writer’s block, inspire enthusiasm, sharpen focus, and get words onto the page. Many of the ideas from this talk about writing can be carried over to other areas of life, such as health, business, organization, and relationships.

7:00 PM    ME    Kurzweil and Chopra, Ghosts in the Same Shell. Athena Andreadis (leader), John Edward Lawson, Anil Menon, Luc Reid, Alison Sinclair.Transhumanism (TH) has been a prominent strain in contemporary SF; cyberpunk is in many ways the fiction arm of the movement. Athena Andreadis and discussants will explore core concepts of TH (longevity, uploading, reproductive alternatives, optimization projects from genome to organism), investigate which are strictly in science fiction versus science territory, and examine the larger outcomes of these tropes within the genre as well as in First Life, aka the real world.

Sunday July 15

10:00 AM    ME    The Seven Deadly Myths of Creativity. Andy Duncan, Joe Haldeman, Steve Kelner (leader), Toni L.P. Kelner, Matthew Kressel, Jennifer Pelland, Luc Reid. What is creativity, really? How does it work? Many people think of it as somehow magical, but in fact there has been considerable neuropsychological research devoted to the process of creativity, and current evidence makes it clear that it is inherent in the human brain: everyone is creative; the question is how to harness it. There are many myths about creativity that not only are unhelpful but have actively blocked or inhibited writers. Fortunately, many of these myths are entirely explicable and avoidable. Stephen Kelner, a research psychologist who is also a professional writer, will give an overview of the myths and the realities, and discussion will further explore individual participants’ questions or challenges.

11:30 AM    NH    Reading. Luc Reid. Luc Reid reads ridiculously varied flash fiction from his collection Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories. Topics include a virulent outbreak of happiness, alien cheesecake focus groups, and Cinderella’s divorce.

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Online Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Courses with Cat Rambo

Resources

Writer Cat Rambo has recently been offering online classes and workshops that have proved fairly popular. Cat is a highly accomplished writer of fantasy and science fiction. Her work has appeared in top pro venues like Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Weird Tales, and Strange Horizons, and from there a number have made their way into year’s best anthologies. My experience is that she’s personable and insightful. If you write or are interested in writing science fiction or fantasy and want to improve your skills, the classes below might be just what the doctor ordered. They run from one to six sessions, are priced in the $100-$250 range, and are described in detail with schedule and price list at http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/2012/01/04/online-classes-and-workshops-for-2012/ .

(Note: I don’t get a cut of any of this; I’m just mentioning it because I think Cat is an unusually good source of writing knowledge.)

About the class format, Cat says “I do them on Google Hangouts, which means that people can participate via video (or if they are shy, by audio only). The format allows for a class that is conducted both during the class time and also outside of it via discussions on Google+. I’ve been very happy with this – I feel as though the combo of in and out of class exchanges has let me connect with students in a deeper way than in a once a week face to face class, weirdly enough.”

Here are the current offerings:

Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction Stories: A six week workshop focusing on the basics of writing speculative fiction short stories, including plotting, creating believable and engaging characters, world-building, what to do with a story once it’s finished, dealing with editors and markets, and other necessities. Students will have the opportunity to workshop two stories over the course of the class.

Editing Basics: This three week workshop targets editing both other people’s works as well as your own. Topics include how to edit at both the sentence and story/book level, working well with writers, theory of ToCs, electronic publishing, copyright, and making a living as an editor. Each session is two hours and includes in-class editing exercises, with week one focusing on developmental editing, week two on copyediting and fact checking, and week three on publishing.

Bring On The Flash: A three-hour session focusing on writing flash fiction and consisting of a mixture of lecture, in-class writing exercises, discussion of how to turn fragments into flash, and an overview of flash fiction markets.

Your First Page: Co-taught with Louise Marley. Louise and I have done this workshop several times with great success – we thought we’d try an online version. You give us the first page of your novel and we’ll critique and discuss it in a way that will be helpful with the overall work as well as talking about agents, and editors and how important the first page is when engaging them. More than one students had told me this was the single most useful workshop they’d ever had.

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Literary vs. Commercial Fiction: Choosing What to Write

Writing

Which is better, between literary and commercial fiction? Maybe we can agree that the answer depends not just on each individual’s tastes but also on the question better for what? Better for getting engrossed and transported? Better for empathizing with people living in tragic circumstances? Better for opening up ambiguous but important life questions?

Not long ago, a reader named Ankush commented on my article “7 Key Self-Motivation Strategies for Writers” with several questions, one of which–how writers can enjoy their work and not feel oppressed by it–I tackled in my recent post “Joy and Misery for Writers.” He opened a different can of worms with this question:

After much struggle, I’m beginning to feel that I’m more of a literary writer than genre writer. I think that genres are inherently repetitive, and the only scope of originality is in literary fiction. But the, perhaps I’m saying this to avoid facing my failures in genre writing (particular horror).

The basic concern here–which should I write, literary or commercial fiction?–is one that has come up for me in recent years too, and has probably (I’m guessing) been a pertinent one for most writers who ever spend time working on commercial/genre fiction.

Separating literary from commercial fiction
To be clear about my terms, by “commercial fiction” or “genre fiction” I mean fiction that tries to appeal to readers who are interested in stories with certain kinds of premises: mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, thrillers, and so on. By literary fiction, then, I mean fiction that asserts that the value in the story will come from the specific situation, quality of the writing, characters, description, etc. rather than anything general about the premise.

However, commercial fiction can have superlative writing, characters, description and so on; and literary fiction can written around a premise that could be categorized as romance (Jane Eyre), science fiction (1984, The Handmaid’s Tale), or another genre. In fact, there’s no hard delineation between the two groups at all, but the way they’re generally distinguished is how they try to appeal to readers and how they are sold. You will find these different kinds of books segregated in many bookstores and libraries, but not on many home bookshelves. For more on the perceived distinctions between commercial and literary, see my 2007 post “The Myth of the Science Fiction Ghetto.”

You can probably tell from the above that I’m not going to agree with Ankush’s point of view that genre fiction is inherently repetitive. You can’t tell me that Ender’s Game or The Golden Compass or Flowers for Algernon were just rehashes of work that had come before (OK, you can tell me–but I really won’t listen). There’s nothing stopping a genre novel from being just as fresh, insightful, revelatory, and subtle as the best literary fiction just because it’s about finding out who killed someone or because it has a spaceship on the cover.

Push vs. pull
So what am I saying is the real difference between commercial and literary? It’s not arbitrary that they’re sold to different readers with different approaches: there’s a difference in how they’re experienced. My contention is that this difference is about whether it’s the story’s job to pull in the reader or the reader’s job to dig into the story.

The thing about commercial fiction for those of us who enjoy it is that it’s effortless and entertaining to read. You don’t take a break from a good romance or fantasy novel halfway through because of emotional strain or intellectual effort. The tension in the story pulls you in, along with promises of trips to places you want to go, people you’re delighted to watch in action, and scenes of fascinating things unfolding. Commercial fiction can be intellectually and emotionally challenging, but successful commercial fiction uses tension, action, and wonder to keep readers immersed without any special effort on their part.

By contrast, literary fiction at its best seeks to be deep, multi-layered, and open-ended. It offers something that the reader can delve into, consider, argue with, or decide to become immersed in.

In good commercial fiction, it’s the author’s responsibility to pull in the reader. In good literary fiction, it’s the reader’s responsibility to find something of value in the book.

Shedding light on how people look at literary and commercial fiction
I’ll be quick to add that this distinction of the two isn’t cut and dried either. The only absolute way to call something commercial or literary is to look at how it’s sold, and the only use in doing that is knowing how to sell it. But I think looking at the issue as one of whether it’s the author’s or reader’s responsibility to lead the way sheds some useful light on how people view the two types.

A book that sucks the reader in and does everything it can to maintain interest could be accused of being simplistic, formulaic, or of pandering to the reader at the expense of a meaningful story. Some (not all) commercial fiction does pander, after all.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, could be looked on as boring or out of touch. If you start reading the book and it doesn’t grab you by the lapels and drag you into the story the way commercial fiction you enjoy does, you may conclude that the book isn’t well written or has nothing to offer you.

This also helps shed light on what’s going on with literary writers who shun action in their writing or who complain that readers are lazy: commercial fiction readers are expecting the author to come out and meet them, while literary authors are expecting the readers to come inside and look for them. If both stay in that mode, they’ll never meet, and the commercial fiction readers will wander off looking for more outgoing writers, while the literary authors give up on them and settle for the subset of readers who made a special effort. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: no book is for all readers, and readers don’t have to like every kind of book. However, it’s useful to understand.

Which to write?
For writers, each approach has its attractions. Commercial fiction can ensnare more readers because it isn’t limited to those who are willing to put special effort into digging in. Literary fiction can trust that its readers will wait for the good stuff and structure its stories so that they maximize meaning and impact. Ideally your commercial fiction is so rich and rewarding that even readers who are pulled in are inspired to look deeper and think harder, or your literary fiction is so powerful that it draws in readers even if there is no conventional hook.

I’d also like to point out that while the distinction between commercial and literary only seems to have become sharp in the past century or so, there are revered writers of the past who took a more commercial approach, like Dickens, Austen, Twain, and Shakespeare, in addition to the many whose works were more literary, like Dostoevsky, Hugo, Hemingway, and Woolf.

As to writers, in terms of the choice of which to write, I could take up questions of markets, pay rates, respect, and the like, but I’ll ditch that in favor of this question: what do you love to read? If your idea of a good afternoon reading involves something like Les Miserables or The Druggist of Auschwitz, then you probably won’t be satisfied writing romance or fantasy, even if you think that’s all you could write that would sell. My guess is that contrarily, if you reach for books by Lawrence Block or Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer, then forcing yourself to write literary fiction will likely be a joyless and doomed exercise.

Of course, if you read both, you have your pick, or you can go back and forth, or you can shoot for books that are written as genre but sometimes sold as literary, like The Time Traveler’s Wife or Outlander or The Lovely Bones. If you feel comfortable in either world, then it’s probably time for you to consider what kind of career would be most enjoyable for you, picturing yourself at the height of success and working backwards–which is probably a good exercise for anyone, writer or not.

Bookshelf photo by chotda

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