Deader Than the Dinosaurs?

A lot of things are happening this weekend, both around the house and elsewhere. One of the biggest and most relevant to SFF as a community is WorldCon, which is underway right now in San Antonio. Sadly, while I’d hoped to make it this year, it wasn’t in the cards for me, but for those numerous friends and acquaintances who will be in attendance, I offer my best wishes for a fun and memorable time.
Where it comes to matters in which I am involved, progress on the rewrite continues. It’s slower than I would prefer, but it is steady and positive—which, to me, is the most important thing. I also head back to work at my day job on Tuesday after a bit of a summer break. This means my writing time will be diminished, so I’m pushing this weekend to make the most of what I have left before the fall semester kicks off in earnest.

But of course, before that—a post. I have something of a whopper of an opinion piece for you today.

Quite recently, an article titled “9 Scientific Breakthroughs That Killed Science Fiction Subgenres”made the rounds in my social media circle. In it, the authors explain how the ineffable march of scientific progress has laid waste to various aspects of the genre. Their first specimen in this apparent charnel house of literary curiosities is the Martian adventure yarn.

As you might expect, that riled me up a bit.

To be fair, they’re not entirely wrong. As I lately cracked to an acquaintance, the Mariner and Venera missions were, in my opinion, the worst thing to ever happen to adventurous science fiction. After all, they gave us the first close looks at Mars and Venus, which were for many years the backdrop for numerous tales of interplanetary adventure.

Finding out, as humanity did, that Venus is a molten deathtrap and that Mars is a cold, arid wasteland put a bit of a damper on that. Publishers (and, perforce, writers) backed away from what had now become relegated to the realm of pure fantasy.

After the fact, the action-adventure type stories, when they did happen, seem to have moved off entirely to other worlds in star-systems either invented or so far from home we had little to no chance of disproving them. Of course, now with exoplanet research, that, too, may be a dying field of play—at least by the article’s measure of things, anyhow.

But therein lies the fault of the article, as I see it. The authors appear to assume that SF attracts readers simply and exclusively because its speculations are scientifically accurate. Taken to its logical extreme, this would mean that any story that becomes outdated by current knowledge can no longer be considered any good.

The rub is that not all of us came to SF for the crunchy bits, and they’re not necessarily why we stay. While I can’t speak definitively for anyone but myself, I can say that I have encountered numerous folks who, like me, seem to have come to it not for the facts and the data, but for the powerful sense of wonder and adventure the stories can inspire.

I may lose something approaching writer street cred for the admission, but my initiation into the genre came courtesy of cartoons. As a child in the 1980s, I loved three things: swords, space, and dinosaurs. (Dragons, too, but they lumped in with dinosaurs in a pretty satisfying way at that age.)

If a program on television had any of those things, I was likely to watch. If it had more than one or even all three, I was pretty much hooked. But this was not because I was interested in knowing how the spaceships worked, or why the dinosaurs were there, or why we could (seemingly inexplicably) have laser guns and broadswords in the same fight.

The appeal was rooted solidly in what those things signified: heroic adventure.

Watching such things, naturally, led to reading them, as it does in a house of readers. Or, rather, it led to attempting to read. This is not, however, an indictment of my family. Few, if any, of my relatives had a taste for science fiction beyond the occasional movie, and while my parents were and remain avid readers, they did not share my interests and could provide little guidance.

So I was mostly on my own. In the beginning, I struck up an easy relationship with fantasy. It was prolific enough that I had no trouble finding something at least mildly satisfying. But I was still in love with space, and I wanted my reading adventures to extend there as well.

When I asked others what they recommended, I was typically pointed to Hard SF, to my infinite frustration. I recall, for example, poring over Foundation, trying rather desperately to care, and eventually returning the book to the library unfinished with the sense that if science fiction overall tended to be like that, I’d had more than enough of it to suit me.

This isn’t because it was too “tough” for me or any nonsense like that, either. It simply did not tell the kind of story I’d fallen in love with, and all the galaxies and spaceships in the universe could not change the fact. So, after a number of disappointments along these lines, I gave it up.

That remained the way of things for a long time. It wasn’t until the latter part of high school, when I belatedly discovered the pulp Sword & Sorcery writers, that I blundered into much of anything SF-flavored that suited my tastes, and then it wasn’t until after college that I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books, which singlehandedly redeemed my faith in the whole affair.

Here was something I could sink my teeth into. Never mind that the whole setup was a fanciful anachronism of the highest order. Never mind I’d sat through enough astronomy class and done enough reading on my own to know that it was all very wrong and could never really happen. I adored it, in spite of the “wrongness” of it. Maybe even because of it. I went on the hunt for more things like it, and in time that opened up a whole new vista for me.

I speak, of course, of the space opera pulps.

I’ve seen folks speak ill of these old gems, and apparently even in their time they were reviled by certain sectors. In the name of fairness, I’ve read some real stinkers, myself. But by and large I wouldn’t trade my love of them. They’re heroic, they’re imaginative, and—yes—usually pretty unrealistic by most standards.

But the rationale behind the interplanetary adventure has never been, as far as I can tell, to intimately explore the laws of, say, astrophysics or such. I don’t fault readers who enjoy those kinds of stories, but I will say without apology that I could not possibly care less about them than I do.

What drew me to the idea of science fiction to begin with was the element of adventure. The idea of what if and not what is. That’s what ultimately drew me back, once I found a name for the kinds of things I liked. The pulps have that, even if they sometimes lack textbook-quality scientific rigor. They’re brazenly, unabashedly fun, and the best among them have a myth-like power, Mariner and Venera and Viking all be damned.

So when folks proclaim, as they do in the article, that certain subgenres have been killed deader than the dinosaurs, I wonder whether they haven’t missed the point.

Nobody’s going to try to convince folks that there really are canals and cities and needy princesses on Mars. It’s a little late for that. But there’s no shame in enjoying such things or in creating them, because the point of them has never been anything more than to tell a good story, to have fun in the telling, and to let others have fun in the sharing.

That much, at least, never gets too old.

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On Knowing What You Don’t Know

Today finds me working on the fourth quarter of the Oath of Blood rewrite. I am about halfway finished with this part of the manuscript, and my goal for the end of the week is to have all of the fourth quarter of the story in that state.

As you might ascertain, I have solved my plot woes for the most part. Having done so, I’m now working my way backwards from the end, making sure things pan out as they should. That means, in some cases, yet another rework of earlier material, but that’s just part of the game. And as I’ve finally—finally—settled on the retool of the plot, it strikes me that I am over the worst of the bumps. It’s just a matter of applying the hands to the keys with consistency.

This can’t be entirely attributed to my own persistence, however. I have had a great deal of help from other people, and the solutions would not have presented themselves without that help.

Outside perspective seems to come up often in the discussion of indie writing, and for good reason. When an author chooses to pursue publication outside the realm of traditional publishing, he or she leaves the dedicated infrastructure of that world behind. Unfortunately, that seems to mean that critical aspects of the process sometimes get left out, especially when it comes to revising.

I suspect (hope) it doesn’t need to be said, but self-editing, running spell check a second time, and asking your friends for general input is not a revision. It might be a start, but it will never catch the major problems that afflict a narrative for several reasons.

First, you can’t see what you don’t know is there. In my case, I’ve had Oath in my head for over a year now, and I’ve had the characters in my head for much longer than that (the hero, in his very first incarnation, dates back to 2000). By now I’m so comfortable with the idea of both the characters and the story that a lot of things make a casual kind of sense to me that would never pass muster with a reader. So as a writer, I’m mostly blind to problems arising from these things.

Second, as much as we enjoy knowing someone likes our work, “I liked it!” isn’t helpful feedback in most cases. For a work to be at its best, you have to know the specifics of both what’s wrong with it and what’s right. Which parts really grab the reader’s attention? Which parts bog the reader down? What doesn’t make sense? What seems out of place? And—above all—why?

Third, proofreading is not the same thing as revising. While a solid copy edit is a must, even if your grammar, syntax, and such is perfect, if the content of the text isn’t what it should be, you haven’t eliminated the worst of your problems. They’re just…pretty problems.

No amount of self-justification or soliciting of thoughts from friends and family will help that—well, unless your friends and family are writers or editors and have no problems shredding your work, at any rate. The bottom line is that addressing these things requires an experienced and uncompromising outside reader who will pull no punches about what’s actually on the page and who will hang your darlings up by their heels and gut them without mercy.

As horrible as that sounds, it’s a good thing. Consider:

Back in the spring, I was very confident I had Oath of Blood nailed down. I was sure of myself and of my work—and to be fair to that earlier draft and to Me-Of-The-Past, it wasn’t really the most horrid thing ever written in the English language. But it did have more than its fair share of problems, and they were things I had never even imagined were problematic. They seemed solid and straightforward to me, but to others, they were confusing or disjointed or just flat-out wrong.

Once I knew this, though, I couldn’t let those issues pass by unaddressed, so the ongoing journey through Rewrite Hell began. I’ll cop to having been resentful at first—I mean, I made good grades in English. I’ve been to grad school (for English) and I made good grades there, too. People have always told me, “Hey, Lisa, you’re good at writing.” So how could my work have been problematic?

But I also tutor and proofread for a living, and I’ve had clients make the same protestations to me about work that was plainly troubled. So, in spite of my bruised ego, I (somehow) trusted my editor and outside readers and dug in.

As a result, Oath of Blood has shaped up to be a wholly different beast. It still features the same characters and carries the same general theme, but there have been major changes. The ending is very different, some characters’ fates are radically changed, and the plot is far more coherent. These changes, while they were hard to enact on account of my attachment to the earlier draft, make it much more the story I wanted to tell than the story I originally told could have ever been.

And it’s only because I have sought outside help that this has come to pass.

I cringe now to consider how things would have gone if I’d dashed off a couple of grammatical corrections, polished my word choice a bit, and called myself done. Yes, I would have completed the book “on time,” but in light of the experience I’ve had rewriting, I believe the end product would have been a heap of garbage.

Harsh? Maybe, but also true.

And the manuscript is not out of the woods yet. It may go to a trusted fellow writer in the near future and come back cut to ribbons. It may make it to my editor and experience a similar fate. But even so, if it does, that will be because it still needs more work, and I’ll not be shy about doing that work.

Cranky, perhaps, but not shy.

Distractions and an Upcoming Absence

There’s something to be said for solitude. Especially in the modern age, where digital distractions and the concept of being forever “connected” to work, to friends, to society at large in general, is more the rule than the exception. Don’t get me wrong: connectedness can be nice. The internet at large has enabled me to stay in touch with folks from whom I would have likely drifted were it not there, and it’s enabled me to connect with others whom I’d never have met in any other way.

But the fact remains that such always-on connectedness can be a millstone when the chips are down and the work at hand requires single-minded focus. This is something the past few months have taught me in the most visceral way.

When you discover that a revision is actually a rewrite, and when all your demons well up to “assist” in the process, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to just ignore your work for a while. When that troublesome line—or paragraph—or chapter—is staring you in the face, refusing to relinquish its secrets despite all manner of threats, it’s easy to just go check your email for the twentieth time or to kill an hour or two on Facebook. You know—for the sake of networking or something.

So the problem is that all these “mini-breaks” have become a hindrance rather than a helpmeet.

Some folks a very good at ignoring distractions, setting them aside, buckling down, and Getting Shit Done. But for all my workaholic tendencies, I’m not one of those people. I never was in school—if it was hard or boring, I immediately lost interest in favor of what was fun or easy—and I’m still not as an adult. That’s unlikely to change at my age, I think.

But what I am, thank the various gods, is aware of this fact. That awareness wells up from time to time, driving me to isolate myself from contact with other people. If I’d been writing some decades ago, this would have been as simple as just stocking the larder, unplugging the telephone, and locking the front door. Just me and my beer and the agonizing potential of the empty page.

But even if I were to do the equivalent of that these days, there’s the ever-present temptation to just click over to the browser and avoid the work at hand.

As a result, early this week, a concept struck me that was so astoundingly simple as to have been easily missed. In my junk I have an old laptop, a ten-pound bruiser of a beast I took with me to college just under 15 years ago. Even after all these years and many adventures, it still works (though it seems to think it’s January of 1980—a clock battery problem). It also still retains a serviceable install of Word 2000, but technology is such now that although it theoretically could get online, my usual distractions there would never load, much less run comfortably.

So it struck me that working on Oath of Blood on The Beast was an incredibly solid idea. It took some wrestling to get things up and running—stripping The Beast of everything but what it needed to support Word, converting files to RTF so the old software could read them, transferring said files using a 3.5” floppy (I am a packrat; I still have some) because The Beast doesn’t support USB storage devices—but the thing was done. I immediately saw results. The simple removal of the temptation to dip over into my distractions was enough to force focus.

Still, the subtler distractions of the house made themselves evident in the absence of electronic diversions: the many books I want to read, the antics of the cats, the fact that my husband was in the next room and generally open to idle conversation. The latter, I think, is the hardest one.

Being married, as you might guess, is its own challenge, and even after nearly 5 years of it I’m still adjusting. I don’t in any way grudge my husband’s presence, but we’re both fairly intense people with intense interests. We also both have what are, at very best, irregular schedules. This leads to an environment where it’s tough to tack down a sustained work period where one is truly alone—something I could always rely on when I was single.

Though I haven’t asked him directly, I suspect it’s equally true for him. After all, I imagine it’s less than helpful to him when I go growling up and down the hall trying to unknot a problem while he pores over schematics that look, to my eyes, like lost leaves from the Necronomicon.

Under normal circumstances, I could work around this. However, I’ve reached the point with Oathwhere I need to eliminate even the most benign distractions or risk never finishing the thing. As a result, this weekend I began to cast about for isolation-friendly alternatives to the house, but running off to some temporary escape for a few days, be it a Walden-esque cabin in the woods or even just the local Motel 6, is a prohibitively expensive proposition.

Here providence of a sort seems to have intervened. I have a relative who is planning to depart tomorrow for a week-long vacation, and the offer was made to me that, if I needed an isolated place to set up camp, said relative’s house was available, as was the food in the refrigerator. The one catch was that I must bring my own beer and smoke outside—all in all not a bad trade.

As you might expect, I said yes. My husband, on whom falls the upkeep of the cats and the running of errands in my absence, was also amenable, so provided everything pans out, I’ll be headed that way tomorrow with my duffel bag and The Beast for a week of house-sitting. That means, of course, that I won’t be online in any capacity and won’t be available by phone except for absolute emergencies.

If that seems a bit extreme, well, it is. But it’s also something I’m able to do thanks to the generosity of others and a bit of cosmic serendipity. I doubt I’ll finish my rewrite of Oath completely in that time, but the isolated focus promises the opportunity to make the lion’s share of the progress that remains. Naturally, what I do with the time is up to me, but the fact that I have a means to dig in and seclude myself is a hopeful thing.

So here’s to productivity! See you all on the flipside, hopefully with a good bit of progress to report!