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Author Topic: Are F & SF too burdened by their own history?
Brad R Torgersen
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Just to branch this off from the other thread...

One thing that comes up, when discussing the decline of the F&SF print mags, is whether or not F & SF as genre(s) are just too dang swamped by their own history? Such that editors and writers who have been around a long, long time, necessarily pass over lots of otherwise good fiction in pursuit of the dwindling amount of "new" material that is so exotic or otherwise "off the wall" that it satisfies editorial demand for freshness, while leaving a majority of potential readers out in the cold.

Personally, I fear that F&SF are in danger of becoming "ships in bottles", in that they become so freighted by their own published past that they become essentially inaccessible to a broad readership, and new writers find it impossible to break in because new writers cannot possibly a) read all that has gone before and are always in danger of b) re-writing something someone else already wrote.

Sometimes it seems like we're already there, because the #1 thing that always comes up when editors in the field talk about what they're buying, it's VOICE. Not subject. Not even style, per se. Not content. Just VOICE. Being able to tell basically the same thing, just in your own VOICE or in a manner that is somehow "new" for the editor in question.

Maybe this is just a part of a larger problem with Western literature et al? As I see the VOICE thing come up endlessly on other web discussions about mainstream fiction. Editors seem desperate for new VOICE and will pay mad sums for VOICE-heavy authors, even if the authors put out books which the ordinary reader might find lame, boring, incomprehensible, or otherwise hard to take. Because the plot sucks. Or the structure sucks. Or the author is trying to be deliberately sensational or inflammatory.

And I personally find the thought of F & SF (and Western literature as a whole) reduced to games of VOICE, to be a depressing thought indeed.

JMHO.


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Pyraxis
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Well said.

Does Harry Potter qualify as having a VOICE?


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Brad R Torgersen
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I must admit, I've not read any of the Potter books. So I can't say.

I do admire the Potter books and their author for being one of the few *NEW* vehicles (New meaning, not LotR and not Star Wars) to bring kids and YA to the F & SF fold. Problem is, lots of Potter readers begin and END with Potter. Some of them will branch off into other F & SF but not as many as might be possible if more F & SF were generally accessible for younger readers.

Or at least that is my OPINION. I could be wrong. I hope I am wrong?

=^/


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C L Lynn
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I've never read anything else quite like the Potter books, in voice as well as content, but taken as a whole, the plot is the same as nearly every other adventure/coming-of-age story out there. Good vs. evil, the underdog against the big baddie. Whatever it is that makes the books stand out, the author nailed it. And obviously every publishing house is hoping to make the next Potter discovery. Who wouldn't be?

Maybe the problem is that the stories most of us write can't necessarily become billion dollar empires with movies, toys, Halloween costumes, and lunch boxes, so only small non-paying markets are even willing to take a chance on the emerging writer. And how accessible are those small mags to the uninformed public?

But back to the point of your thread, the golden age of F & SF is over, IMO. The heroes, the baddies, the magic and spaceships may be perceived as cliche, even by the editors of the genre, and most stories as rip-offs of an earlier classic, especially by editors of the genre. This is a tragic thing for me to ponder. For who has time to read everything that's been done to know what to avoid? I've already forsworn everything Tolkienish, a good move, I'm sure. But how weird do my stories have to become to be salable? Can't I just write about people for people?

[This message has been edited by C L Lynn (edited December 23, 2008).]


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KayTi
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quote:
Can't I just write about people for people?

This is a great point. I like to write in the sci-fi genre (I have urges toward fantasy sometimes, but not quite there yet) because I like taking an idea of something today and imagining what it would be like if this key technology were available, or if that portion of space travel were well-established. What kinds of social situations would you find yourself in on a colony spaceship? What kinds of problems would you have if your best friend could turn green? The what-ifs are what's so compelling to me.

I agree that VOICE has a lot to do with it, I think those authors who have managed to identify and hang onto their voice, not letting themselves edit the heck out of it on rewrites but staying true to that manner in which they meant to tell a story, they have a higher chance of success.

I do think the Potter books fit into a category of excellent authorial voice. That plus the approachable idea - a kid who doesn't know he's actually a wizard. What kid at age 11 hasn't wished his parents were someone else, he lived somewhere else, he had secret powers that would get him out of homework or chores? That idea has incredible appeal.

I think the Twilight books (full disclosure - haven't read them yet, though have browsed them much and spent many hours discussing them with fans) have a little something different, though again I think voice plays a big role. In the Twilight series, as I understand it, the primary story is a love story, a romance. I don't know how many boys are reading Twilight, but literally every mom I know who reads (I'm a mom, my whole social network is comprised of moms) has read the books and gushes about them. While they're popular, they haven't hit the numbers of Harry Potter, and I have a feeling it's because the story has more appeal to one gender than the other.

ANYWAY - back to the point, though...I'm with you, Brad - I wish we could convince those who control the reins of publishing in the SF/F market to put out some more mainstream stuff, action/adventure, mystery, good plots, lots of storytelling details that draw the reader in. I was a young woman reading sci fi when literally nobody I knew read in the genre, and I ached for reading material that dealt with the mundane daily stuff I dealt with in school, but in a fantastic way. HP did it for fantasy/wizards, but nothing has gotten close to that for space (Ender's Game is an arguable point, but it's a war story, IMHO, which is it's own sub-sub-genre. Yes, I'm splitting hairs, LOL)


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Robert Nowall
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I know I'm burdened by not being strikingly original---a lot of what I do has already been done. I try to make up for it by putting my own unique spin on it---probably not unique enough, because everything I do gets bounced.

I do think a lot of what I see in the SF magazines these days (when I read them) is rather impenetrable to anybody not well versed in the field---I mean, since "Star Trek" and "Star Wars," a lot of what the field used to do is familiar, but a lot still isn't (say, for example, the "have slipstick will travel" type of story one sees (mostly) in Analog---so scientifically techinical they're often impossible to follow.)

On the Potter books and spillover onto other things...I have yet to read past #1 myself. My niece and nephew were big fans...I'll be seeing them this Christmas and, if I remember, I'll have to ask what else they've read. (I gave 'em copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and, I think, one of those "Redwall" books. Not sure if they ever read them---I'm the only "big reader" in our immediate family.)


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TaleSpinner
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I think voice is certainly important.

Of course, first there has to be a story. But then it has to be told in an engaging or entertaining fashion. Voice is about writing prose that's a pleasure to read, that evokes strong images and emotions in unexpected ways, that establishes a relationship between reader, characters and narrator.

That relationship is important. As we said in another thread, names sell, and the voice establishes the relationship between author and reader. A name who not only tells a good story but tells it in an attractive voice is likely to attract readers back with subsequent stories.

There's an element of art and craft to voice too, a way with words, an ability to make them fly off the page and sweep us through galaxies or engulf us in maelstroms.

Voice is to story as style is to clothes, or an automobile--not functionally essential, but vital to the aesthetic sense.

As well as editors, Hatrackers like a good voice. This month in the Ready for Market challenge, the story by JenniferHicks did very well partly because of its voice, which almost everyone remarked upon.

Yes, developing a voice is hard, very hard. That does not mean it's a bad idea, but that it distinguishes an accomplished, fully rounded writer from an average one; in a competitive market there's no room for average.

Just 2c,
Pat


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JenniferHicks
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I would hope that SF/F editors aren't so completely obsessed with voice that other *critical* aspects of stories are given less consideration. Two of the Hugo winners this past year, All Seated On the Ground and Tideline (both posted on the Asimov's website -- go read them if you haven't yet!) are fantastic *stories* as well as having excellent voices. Of course I'd expect nothing less of writers the caliber of Connie Willis and Elizabeth Bear.

As for the story I put into the Market Challenge this month (which TaleSpinner mentioned above), this was a case in which the main character started talking and, for the most part, I let him do his thing. It seems to have worked this time, but itís probably not the best way to write for long-term success. Consistency is as important as anything in breaking into the field, IMO.


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TaleSpinner
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I read somewhere a while back that an author needs to find her voice. Now I realise that, if I did indeed read it, this was nonsensical advice, for as Jennifer says, one picks the right voice for the story.

I agree that consistency is important; it's part of how a "name" sells (I always like Xyz's stories because they're always engaging.) Perhaps part of consistency is always finding a good voice, and that would include giving the character voice when the story so demands.

Just 2c,
Pat

[New Year's resolution: check spelling before hitting Submit Now.]

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited December 26, 2008).]

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited December 26, 2008).]

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited December 26, 2008).]


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TaleSpinner
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quote:

But back to the point of your thread, the golden age of F & SF is over, IMO. The heroes, the baddies, the magic and spaceships may be perceived as cliche, even by the editors of the genre, and most stories as rip-offs of an earlier classic, especially by editors of the genre. This is a tragic thing for me to ponder. For who has time to read everything that's been done to know what to avoid? I've already forsworn everything Tolkienish, a good move, I'm sure. But how weird do my stories have to become to be salable? Can't I just write about people for people?

I agree the Golden Age will never return. Then, they were defining the genre together with an audience who know far less of science than we do now, who were happy with moral tales of heroes and villains--and I'm not sure that audience has entirely gone away. Nevertheless, today we want our science to be even more believable than then, and consistent with a larger and growing body of knowledge. We're less naive about science; no longer is science a saviour, a silver bullet. We want more than simple shoot-em-ups and good guys winning over bad guys. And yes, editors do want to avoid cliche. Perhaps one way to do that is to not read all that has gone before (would one write something Tolkeinesque without having read LOTR?) and simply write true to one's milieu and its characters. (I've read a lot of SF but by no means all of it, and that won't stop me writing SF.) I suspect that just "writing about people for people" is a good strategy.

Maybe this comment from Interzone's December 2008 Editorial might help: "SF that ignores our crises -- or focuses on technological fixes -- is an artistic cul-de-sac. Stories need not address our problems directly: they can be set on 21st century Earth or elsewhere in the multiverse; they can involve alien or artificial intelligence; they can explore inner or outer space. But they should be informed by our fears. Great SF entertains and raises consciousness. A narrative need not be reassuring: true hope lies in the transformative power of the imagination, compassion and honesty of writers and their readers."

Cheers,
Pat

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited December 26, 2008).]


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Robert Nowall
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Well, as for the Golden Age returning...I gather the consensus opinion is that the "Golden Age" of science fiction was the 1940s. I liked a lot of it...but I liked a lot of stuff published in the 1970s, when I first encountered the field...and I do not like a lot of what's being published right now.

Maybe I would have loved this stuff when I was younger, or if I were younger right now...but I'm not, and I'm encountering it now, and I'm harder to please.

I hope I'm not misquoting, but somebody whose name has slipped my memory once said the "Golden Age" is "fourteen." What SF you encounter in and around when you're fourteen will remain your favorite of all that's written. That will be the "Golden Age" to you.


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luapc
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Very well said, Robert. Thank goodness that Harry Potter came along when it did. It brought a lot of fourteen year olds back to reading, reviving speculative fiction at least for a few more years. My only hope is that now that Harry Potter is done as well, something else comes along to keep it going. Maybe it'll be one of us here. At least we understand why Harry Potter works.

Of course, none of this matters for the magazines out there if they keep trying to define speculative fiction as something other than what those readers want. You'd think they'd start to understand that their future lies in those readers that love Harry Potter, not the ones with English Lit degrees.


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Robert Nowall
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Really, it applies to everything, not just SF reading...my experience with music was that I absorbed a lot of stuff and listened to a lot more...then, about 1985, it pretty much shut down and only a piece here and a piece there, or, say, a new piece by an old singer, would slip into my consciousness.

(I kinda associate it with moving out of my parents' house and spending a few years making a thin living until I stumbled into the postal service.)

I mentioned, either here or in another thread, I forget, that I had dug up the latest issue of Asimov's. Well, I don't know how many of you read it, or read the first story in the issue---but if that's what they're trying for in terms of what's published by so-called "names," I'd just as soon not bother. It's too dependent on notions of higher mathematic and scientific thought, it features characters I can't possibly care about or take an interest in---and there are better "this is how the world ends" stories out there.

But if that's what they want...why am I bothering?


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EP Kaplan
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Talespinner, I think one can easily write Tolkienesque fiction without having read LotR. In fact, it's easier to do so nowadays than ever before, when the market it so abound with it that one could easily be filled with ideas derived from Tolkien's influence before ever laying eyes on The Hobbit. It's probably not such a bad idea they had us read it in the seventh grade. Highlight of the year, really.
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TaleSpinner
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Perhaps I should have said, "Would one write something Tolkeinesque without having read LOTR or one of its shelf-yards of derivatives?"

I was trying to say that if you haven't read cliches you're unlikely to write them. But thinking about it, that's probably wrong. LOTR is really a quite standard quest format. And here at Hatrack we see lots of new writers starting stories with characters awakening in strange situations, despite there being few or no stories out there that start that way.

So I'll rescind. I think one does have to be well-read to avoid cliche.

Cheers,
Pat

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited December 29, 2008).]


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Robert Nowall
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I know of three or four works that are certainly Tolkienesque---but whose writers claimed they never read Tolkien. (The one that comes readily to mind is a fantasy series by Alan Dean Foster.)
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mitchellworks
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I've been thinking a lot about voice since I went to OSC's bootcamp during the summer. He said in passing that he didn't think you need to develop a style/voice, but that you have a natural one, unique to you. That you need to nurture it, and that you can kill it if you aren't careful.

I've been chewing on that tidbit for some time. In my shadowy moments I snip that that's easy for him to say, a person of strong natural voice and personality.

But in fact, I like the idea that the writing voice is not a lump of clay that I need to shape into a Michelangelo, but instead it is a vine or a tree that I need simply to feed and water correctly for it to blossom.

I'm still trying to figure out my voice's dietary needs...


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EP Kaplan
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I think that's because an important part of voice is transcribing what you meant to say, the voice in your head, onto paper. It's a matter of eloquence in text. Most of the writers whom I respect were very well-spoken when I heard them talk, even if their manner of speaking didn't necessarily match their "voice". And when you're speaking, you speak most naturally when you aren't conscience of the change. I remember, back when I first got my braces, the less I thought about them, the more natural my speech felt, until finally I got used to having the buggers on my teeth. Voice in prose seems a lot like that. The more I concentrate on just saying exactly what I want to say, as clearly and effectively as possible, the more natural everything sounds. And then when I do feel the need to wax poetic, if it seems kosher, I'll take the chance.
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Wufiavelli
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Also part of it might be the competition felt with new mediums especially video games. The vast majority of video games revolve around SSF/F. Games provide a medium that can compete with books in a way a TV never could. Thousands of people can now log into one world and interact playing out individual stories for hundreds upon hundreds of hours. A lot of video games today are not just some dull story created to provide reason for Hero X to blow the heads off 50 bad guys. Many have extremely intricate stories with a lot of depth.


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TaleSpinner
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Hmm, the more I think about it the more I think voice has more to do with the story than the writer--unless there's something more subtle to what "voice" is.

There's a short Geoffrey Landis piece in Dec 2008 Asimov's. The voice sounds like a kind of interstellar redneck and there are some humungously long sentences, capturing the feel of ineloquent chatter. Not at all as I imagine Landis sounds, and not typical of his story-telling style IIRC.

He does, though, display the kind of knowledge of astronomy one would expect of Landis (and a star-faring redneck). Is "voice" more subtle than just writing style?


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KayTi
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I smell a new topic!!

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philocinemas
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Talespinner, I also read that Landis story, and I heard an entirely different voice. It may have been because of the blurb about Landis at the beginning, or the use of the words "bum" and "karma" in the first sentence, or the subject matter, but I heard a kind-of rambling Dead-head type.
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