Archive for June, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Style

Obviously, different writers have different styles, and some writers’ styles are almost indistinguishable from others, and some writers’ styles are very different. Occasionally, a writer’s style is so unique that it’s virtually impossible to imitate or emulate, and, in general, such writers tend not to be huge financial successes, although a very few do manage it, usually those whose styles do not scream out the nature of their uniqueness.

That’s easily said, but what is style? According to the sixth edition of A Handbook to Literature, “Style combines two elements: the idea to be expressed and the individuality of the author. From the point of view of style it is impossible to change the diction to say exactly the same thing; for what the reader receives from a statement is not only what is said, but certain connotations that affect the consciousness.” Or what about this definition? “In fiction, style consist of the codified gestures by which the author tells the story.” Or this one by the mystery author Nancy Curteman? “Style is not what an author writes, but the manner in which she writes it. It is an author’s unique way of communicating ideas. One might say that style is the verbal identity of a writer. An author defines her style in word choice and syntax.”

The last definition centers on how a writer chooses words and sentence construction to convey the story to the reader. There are two aspects of that conveyance. The first is whether the words and structure are clear and in general accord with the “rules” of grammar, or at least enough so that the reader understands what is going on. The second is how the reader perceives that construction, and often that perception is based on the reader’s skills as a reader, having little to do with the writer’s skills as a writer. Use of unfamiliar terms, less common tenses, or extremely complex sentences are often cited as “stylistic” flaws, but their use, per se, is not a stylistic flaw. Only their misuse is.

Another question about style that’s especially relevant to fantasy and science fiction is whether the ideas presented are themselves part of style, or whether only the way in which they are presented represents style. This may seem like hair-splitting, but it’s really not, at least not in F&SF. In mainstream fiction, including mystery novels, frankly, the ideas are all out there. Most of them have been there for centuries, if not longer; so the stylistic issues center around the presentation of the ideas, not the ideas themselves, and this this mindset is reflected in the Curteman definition above.

By presenting new ideas or new perceptions about technology that does not yet exist or magic, which may never exist in our universe, except in the sense described by Arthur C. Clarke, an author changes the reader’s context, and by changing that context, influences, and perhaps even creates conflict with, the reader’s normal connotations of what some words may represent. By initially presenting “black” as the color of order (with the associated connotation of “law”) in the early Recluce books, I definitely challenged certain perceptual connotations, at least for American and western European readers. In a different way, the “culture” novels of Ian Banks also create challenges to standard connotations, and certainly so do the works of China Mieville and others.

Add to this the possibility that the presentation and development of an idea in fiction cannot truly be separated from the way in which it is presented and developed, and that suggests that critics and readers who talk about a writer’s style and ideas as if they are separate are missing the point. Over the years, I’ve read and heard comments about writers along the lines of “great ideas, poor style” or “great style, weak ideas.” That’s missing the point. Ideas are a part of style, not separate from it. Elegantly crafted sentences without the support of ideas well-presented are the literary equivalent of empty calories, and ideas thrown baldly at the reader might be classed, using the food metaphor, as raw meat of some type or another, possibly digestible, but hardly palatable to most. Or put another way, good style is when an author captivates you to the point where you enjoy the meal without thinking of either the ingredients or the way in which the chef put it together.


As I’ve noted before, almost all human beings desire certainty, except for the adrenaline-junkies and thrill-seekers, and yet, as more than a few savants have noted, nothing in life is certain except death, and, usually, taxes. In terms of personal and political action, the problem with waiting for absolute certainly is that the price for that certainty is too often astronomical. At the same time, acting precipitately on too little information may be unnecessary or also costly with no positive results.

That’s the dilemma that politicians face today. Given that any action by government is costly, and given that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to throw a senator or representative out of office for failing to act, it’s no wonder that most elected officials are loathe to act on anything that doesn’t either approach a certainty in the minds of their constituents, or that has any significant cost. When I was the legislative director for a congressman, he said that the problem most elected officials had was that they addressed problems that hadn’t really proved to be problems. Needless to say, he was very conservative, and he wanted certainty before committing himself. In fact, however,the only things that approach a certainty in politics are the views of the extremists of either party, which is likely one reason why the Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted over fifty times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even though it is just as certain that the Senate Democrats will block any vote on repealing the ACA in the Senate.

Despite an overwhelming majority of climate scientists declaring that global warming exists and that it is man-made, those who oppose the actions necessary to address global warming insist that there is not enough certainty in the existing evidence. This is tantamount to declaring that they have no intention of changing their minds until there is no possible doubt that global warming exists and is anthropogenic. Given that the rate at which global warming is proceeding – which is, by the way, without any doubt, the fastest rate in the history of the planet – it will likely be a minimum of twenty to fifty years, if not longer, before there’s enough evidence to convince a significant fraction of the doubters… and at that point, we’ll most likely have locked in a sea-level rise of at least fifteen feet over the next two centuries, with even greater increases in sea-levels, tremendous long-term damages, and remediation costs in the trillions of dollars.

Now… if global warming does not proceed that quickly, exactly what will be the effects of earlier remediation efforts? First, they will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases and atmospheric pollutants. Second, greater use of cleaner and renewable energy sources will extend the life of all energy sources needed for a technological society. Third, reforestation and sensible land use will benefit people across the globe. Fourth, better management of industrial, corporate, and personal wastes will result in cleaner land, rivers, and oceans. And most important, since global warming will proceed, the overall costs will be lower. None of these are exactly undesirable for either the United States or the rest of the world… or our children or grandchildren.

Can we really afford the cost of waiting for “absolute” certainty?

Where Belief Is Concerned…

… all believers are irrational, sometimes mildly so, and sometimes wildly so. When I mentioned this to someone I know, she replied, “Belief makes people stupid.” I don’t know that I’d go that far, at least not with all people, but what people do in the name of belief is sometimes puzzling, and at times mind-boggling.

Here in Utah, there was a newspaper story about woman, described as an intellectual, who was ex-communicated from the LDS faith years ago because of her “liberal” views, who still attends church services, although she cannot enter a temple or take part in any “higher” church functions. This is a faith that has just threatened to excommunicate LDS women who have spoken out decrying the lack of women in church leadership. Why do they still want to be LDS priests and bishops in a faith that, for all its protestations to the contrary, minimizes the position of women, as evidenced in cold, hard fact? Utah, with a legislature overwhelmingly male and LDS, has the greatest pay discrepancy between men and women. It also extols marriage for time and eternity, yet has a divorce rate above the national average. There are also LDS gays and lesbians who still want to be “part of the church.” Why? Why would anyone wish to be part of a faith that funded the initiative in California to outlaw gay marriage, or part of a faith that denounces acting on same-sex attraction as a sin against God and nature?

Christians don’t fare any better on the rationality test, either. One study showed that eighty percent of Christian pastors under the age of 45 did not believe in global warming. Seventy percent of evangelical Christians don’t, either. According to a Pew survey, over 80% of American Christians believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. More than 60% believe that the story of Noah was factually accurate and that the entire earth was covered in water within historical times.

“Belief stupidity” isn’t limited to religion, either. Why is it that almost a third of conservative Republicans, the Republican true believers, insist that President Obama is a Muslim, while only eight percent of Democrats do? Or why 75% of Tea Party Republicans deny global warming, while 67% of the population as a whole say that it is occurring? Devout Democrats are no better in their irrationality; they’re just irrational on different subjects. More Democrats than Republicans believe that astrology is scientific; lasers are made from sound waves; genetically modified foods are harmful; vaccines are harmful; organic food is more nutritional than conventional food. And when facts conflict with political beliefs, studies show that something like sixty percent of both Democrats and Republicans will choose their political loyalties over conflicting facts that are scientifically and factually verifiable, and then they’ll argue that the facts are “wrong” or go well out of their way to find one example or fact that seems to support their views.

All of which suggests that perhaps the most dangerous words are “I believe.”


Just the other day, a dissatisfied reader charged me with using “hard-to-say” names, and there have been a few comments about the names I’ve used over the years, as if I had committed a horrible sin by not using plain Anglo-Saxon-English names. But… if I’m depicting other cultures, why would they necessarily have plain English names?

That said, are my choices of names that outrageous? Let’s see about protagonists’ names from recent books: Lerial, Quaeryt [more about this one later], Vaelora, and Paulo. Protagonists’ names from older books: Lerris, Creslin, Dorrin, Justen, Nylan, Cerryl, Lorn, Kharl, Saryn, Anna, Secca, Alucius, Mykel, Dainyl, Rhennthyl, Van, Tyndal, Trystin, Jonat, Johan, Llysette, Ecktor, and Keir. Perhaps not always usual names, but hardly tongue-twisters, and almost all of either one or two syllables.

Now, there are a few names that are a little harder to pronounce, such as Quaeryt, Megaera, Seliora, Luara, Kiedron, or Emerya, but “Quaeryt” is derived from the Latin “quaero,” meaning to search or question, and isn’t that much different in spelling from “query.” “Megaera” is a direct crib from mythology; she was one of the Greek/Roman furies. “Luara” is actually a Russian name, and apparently is also the name of an up-and-coming young pop singer [although I used the name in print when she was only five]. And while I thought I made up the names Kiedron and Emerya, it turns out that Kiedron is a Polish name, and Emerya is Turkish, which suggest that quite a few don’t think those names are so out of line.

What the complaints about the names reveal, unhappily, is a form of cultural chauvinism on the part of the complainers, a form of “if it’s not immediately recognizable, I feel uncomfortable.” The complaints also reveal something about the way people were taught to read. While I can’t prove it, I strongly suspect that readers who have trouble with the names tend to be those who weren’t taught reading on a phonetic basis and who are thrown by even slightly unfamiliar spellings. I will also freely admit that since I borrow, if not outright steal, from classical sources [as well as others], readers with either open minds or wider educations are less likely to be put off by the references.

But while the Bard said,

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”

I’d have to disagree. Names do have connotations, and sometimes even denotations, that convey differences, and I believe an author should choose or create names that do so… whether or not they’re plain English or not.

Repetition… or Reaffirmation and Refreshment?

I receive a certain number of comments about my work.  Some readers cannot wait for the next book, and others, an apparently much smaller number, dismiss my books as repetitive. With that wide a gap, is one group wrong… or deluded… or not comprehending?  I’d have to say, “No.”

This kind of dichotomy has likely existed from the time of the first novels and lies in the basis of the human psyche.

Obviously, at least obviously to me, a novel or story must initially entertain or otherwise provide some form of satisfaction to the reader. However….a novel which merely recounts a series of adventures or events, without an underlying value structure that motivates or challenges the protagonist and the reader, no matter how threatened the protagonist may be or how great his or her achievements may be, is essentially a mindless adventure story, or, if there are no adventures, a totally meaningless mass of words, even if each sentence is perfectly polished.

This would suggest that readers who continue to read my novels, or those of any other writer, for the entertainment value alone, but find them “repetitious” aren’t getting the refreshment or reaffirmation of their deeply held values because the values depicted through the story don’t resonate with them.  After all, we all know that there’s nothing more tiresome than someone telling stories that reiterate old platitudes that we’ve rejected, found unsatisfying, or that don’t match our perceptions of how “the world” operates or how we’d like it to operate. That’s why one group of readers can find a book deeply satisfying and another group, equally intelligent and perceptive, can find the same book repetitious and “boring.”

While a large number of readers read primarily for entertainment and escape, a significant number read for more than that, for a greater understanding, often of who they are and what they believe, as well as to affirm – and sometimes to challenge – what they believe and hold dear..

Although I doubt there are any sociological studies that test this thesis, to me it makes perfect sense why Game of Thrones is so popular and resonates with so many viewers and readers.  The values, or lack of values except self-interest, and the comparative moral relativism embodied in Martin’s work reflects a widely held popular perception about the current power structure in the United States and other technological societies – that everyone is corrupt and venal to some degree and that everyone is, foremost, out for his or her own self-interest, regardless of the consequences to others.

That’s why, frankly, I have little interest in Game of Thrones, and found the one book I forced myself through to be a well-written but boring repetition of violence and human venality that held little appeal to me, while millions of others find it absolutely spell-binding.  And I suspect many of those millions would find, and have found, my work “repetitious.”

All this suggests that when someone reads the work of a long-published and successful author and labels it repetitious, it’s far more a reflection on the views of the reader than an objective assessment of the work in question.

Phoenix Comicon

I generally don’t write about conventions and the like, but since my trip to Phoenix involved my very first comicon, I thought I’d make an exception, particularly since my first F&SF convention was almost thirty years ago, and that means this is likely to be one of the few convention reports I ever make.

Yesterday, I had just checked in as a guest author at the Phoenix Comicon when, out of the blue, sirens blared, and lights flashed, and loud-speakers announced a possible emergency and ordered everyone to walk quietly to stairs and exits and not to take elevators and escalators and to leave the building… out into 108 degree heat.  The problem?  A concession stand had been located too close to a heat sensor. And that was my introduction to the Phoenix Comicon.

Later on Thursday, there was a science fiction and fantasy author kickoff panel, and I found myself seated between Carrie Vaughn and Naomi Novick, and the three of us were flanked by Patrick Rothfuss and John Scalzi, with Scott Lynch and Seanan McGuire next to John, while a pair of troubadours named Paul and Storm serenaded us with a semi-rock parody ballad which was a sort of ode to George R.R. Martin” that extolled George to “write faster, write like the wind.”  I can’t remember much of the rest of the song because I was laughing too much, except for the line complaining about “killing all our favorite characters” and wondering if there’d be anyone left to kill after the next book.

I also discovered I had an actual table, conveniently next to Gini Koch, who writes books much funnier than mine, and across from Yvonne Navarro, and some twenty yards from the empty table of John Scalzi, who clearly has no need to talk to fans – actually he has to avoid them after his popularity almost caused a riot at the San Diego Comicon, or so several very reliable sources reported to me.  I did a signing at the Tor booth on Friday, and Tor actually gave out free copies of The Magic of Recluce for me to sign.  The time for the signing ended just about the time the copies ended; so that was for the best.

Saturday I had a panel on World Building economics, and it showed just how far F&SF has come in terms of economic sophistication. Twenty years ago, almost no one but me talked about or made economics central to their fantasy. At this panel, I had Pierce Brown on my left, who also has a degree in economics as well as spent several years in the financial industry, and Scott Lynch on my right, who has engaged in extensive studies of medieval and Renaissance-level economies and banking systems.  Possibly the best F&SF economics/worldbuilding panels I’ve ever been on… and Scott and Pierce were also most humorous.  Sunday brought back-to-back panels: “The Really Epic Epic Fantasy Panel” and “Keeping A Long-Running Fantasy Series Fresh.”  Both followed their descriptions.

On Monday, I got to the airport early, but possibly not early enough, because I discovered that my flight to Salt Lake had been delayed, and that I’d just missed an earlier flight, meaning that I’d miss my flight home to Cedar City.  As I write, I’m sitting in the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, wondering whether I’ll make the Cedar City flight in Salt Lake [highly unlikely, but barely possible, at least theoretically, if I sprint through the Salt Lake airport, provided there are no more delays] or whether I’ll have to cool my heels in Salt Lake for five hours and have to have my wife drive 60 miles to pick me up in Saint George slightly before midnight.

In any case, that’s the only cliff-hanger I can provide.

LATER NOTE:  I did have to hasten [half run/ half brisk walk] through the Salt Lake Airport to make my connection.  I made it, just as they were closing the doors, but my suitcase didn’t.

Selling the Packaging

There’s an old, old advertising maxim that says something to the effect that “you don’t sell the steak; you sell the sizzle.”  It was true sixty years ago, and it’s even more true today… especially in F&SF.

At almost every science fiction convention or conference I’ve attended over the past five, possibly even ten years, there’s been at least one presenter or guru, if not a whole raft, insisting that the first step to becoming a successful author is, in essence, establishing a huge internet/social media presence.  And there’s at least one very successful author in our field who’s done that, as well as a great number of other moderately successful authors who’ve also done the same thing. While I fully understand the rationale in this day of hype, personality, and instant access, I have to wonder what this does to the amount and quality of actual fiction writing.

On the one hand, if you want to be a professional author and paid for your work, there’s little point in writing something, no matter how excellent, if no one knows you’re writing it and if no one buys it because they don’t know it’s there.  And, like it or not, with the tight margins in publishing these days, very few first-time authors get overwhelming amounts of support from publishers. This problem is compounded by the shorter window during which new books – by almost any author except those extremely well-established – receive attention from readers, bookstores, bloggers, and other media. In short, authors have to work harder to be visible.

The problem is that the nature of the internet is “instant.”  If there’s not something out there practically every day, all too many readers lose interest. I’ve tried to avoid the posting every day syndrome by posting my blogs twice a week and by trying to make them “deeper” and not nearly so much about matters I regard as trivial.  That’s not snobbery, but a recognition of my own limits.  I don’t do light humor and personal trivia well, certainly not along the “cat on bacon” variety.  Even so, posting blogs just twice weekly means that I’m writing 50,000 words a year for the website, and those aren’t words that are going into books.  Both my editors and publicists have been able to see a certain effect from that, especially compared to authors of my vintage and style who have not established even a modest internet presence, but it’s difficult to quantify how much difference it makes.

Is that difference in sales because of the website, forum, and other internet efforts?  Or is it merely because what I write is still appealing to readers?  Both?  Some of each?  How much of each?

Then there’s the other question.  How much are readers affected by a writer’s internet presence and persona?  The other day I read a comment suggesting that one popular author [not me, thankfully] was a far better blogger than an author, but that was something that the author’s readers didn’t seem to catch, because, according to the blogger, the writer was a competent author and an outstanding blogger, and readers thought the author was outstanding in both areas.

My gut feeling is that the commenter is on to something, and that a good internet presence creates an impression of greater authorial ability than may exist, while a poor or non-existent internet presence likely has a negative effect – but only among readers who are active on the internet.

All that said, there’s a real question about the trade-offs.  To what degree does all the effort to develop and maintain an internet presence detract from an author’s principal task, which is to write good and entertaining books?  A website and blog, no matter how entertaining, won’t bring in much income, but if a new author isn’t an instant best-seller, without some form of vigorous self-promotion, he or she may not be around too long, no matter how good the writing.  And then, once you’re established, what happens if you try to cut back on that daily and continuing internet presence?