Ignorance is my friend

There was a recent post by Robert J. Sawyer pointing out that promotional material full of grammatical errors hardly inspires confidence in the value or worth of the book being promoted. Not to mention that editors looking for a reason to stop reading an unsolicited manuscript can find none better.

I studied Latin, French, and English in High School. I failed Latin, barely squeaked through French, and got good marks in English by writing as simply as possible and avoiding complex grammatical subtleties.

I know what a noun is. I know what a verb is. Anything beyond that and I start to get confused. Grammar my downfall.

That I can write reasonably well, most times almost clearly enough to get my point across, is due to the vast amount of reading I have done, reading which has allowed “acceptable practice” to seep into my brain in a process of osmosis similar to what Charlemagne used to employ when he slept with a scroll under his pillow in the hope that an ability to read would somehow leech into his brain during the night.

Not for me the delights of artfully choosing the best word or phrase for maximum impact and demonstration of literary skill. For me the process is more like “What the hell is it I’m actually trying to say here?”

But what a boon this is! When I finally convince a paragraph to resemble what I think I’m trying to communicate I’m so happy and satisfied I don’t give it a further thought. No more worries. No obsessive tweaking to impress the critics. When it is clear it is done.

I derive great satisfaction from this. If I actually knew more — or anything at all — about the subtle possibilities inherent in the complexities of clever grammatical usage I would probably end up depressed and give up writing entirely.

But because I am profoundly ignorant I sail through the task of writing with clear skies and a brisk breeze. Oh, to be sure there are shoals to avoid when choosing the proper course, but once my path is clear it is time to let down full canvas and take full advantage of my ignorance.

And the ocean is becoming very friendly, what with (so rumour has it) certain publishers saving money by not proof reading, many authors saving money when self-publishing by not hiring anyone to proof read, and most common of all, writers totally unable to proof read their own work. (Me, for instance.)

As a result, one can assume, the general standard of correct grammar has been lowered in modern literature, lowered to a standard approaching my own level, thus generating a higher rating of acceptability for whatever it is I manage to conceive.

Or to put it another way, “The Marching Morons” prediction-come-true works splendidly to my advantage. The lower the expectations people have for the technical quality of contemporary fiction, the greater the chance people will actually want to read me! I might even get published someday.

An encouraging trend which makes me very happy.

One puzzling note: for some reason my critics don’t critique my writing. They tend to critique me. Not quite sure why.

The Joy of Being a Judge

I was one of the preliminary readers for the Amazing Stories magazine Hugo Gernsback short story contest. The idea was to rate the stories from best to worse with the best few going on to the finalist judges who are currently hard at work judging up a storm. Results will no doubt be announced soonest.

Why was I chosen to be one of the preliminary readers? A bit suspect you might think, given that I’ve never been paid for anything I’ve published. But I’ve run the Writers Workshops at VCON for five years in a row, I publish an (almost) weekly column for Amazing, and I produce OBIR. In short, I am in the habit of reviewing writing and, especially where a contest is concerned, take my responsibility as a reviewer rather seriously.

I’m not supposed to reveal anything concerning the entries. The preliminary judging, and probably the finalist judging, is meant to be completely anonymous. The contest is not a writers workshop. It’s a contest.

That said, I think I can briefly discuss my task in general terms without giving anything away.

The first thing I did, once I’d been sent PDFs of all the entries I was responsible for, was read through them all quickly in search of general impressions and a rough idea how they compared to each other.

To my astonishment the best two stood out immediately, as did the worst two. It was the ones in-between I had to think long and hard to assign them a place on the list.

The two worst had silly premises that were internally inconsistent, nonexistent characters, plot points which lead nowhere, were overcomplicated and, in general, read like a first draft by someone who had never written fiction before.

The two best had engaging characters, featured an appropriate level of technology which was subordinate to the plot and did not overwhelm it, a simple but well thought out premise with some of the more intriguing implications explored, evocative description, and contained nothing which interrupted the narrative or kicked me out of the story. Thoroughly professional in other words.

The two worst reminded me of the stuff I wrote as a young teenager. The two best reminded me of what I aspire to and hope someday to achieve.

How I placed the in-betweeners depended largely on how needlessly complicated and confusing they were. The more they equaled the clarity and simplicity of the two best, the higher I placed them on the list.

Or, to put it another way, the more complete and whole the story as an entertaining and/or intriguing entity in itself, without anything needing to be edited out, the higher the rating.

One of my dreams is one day to publish an online SF&F fiction zine which pays contributors. Pretending for a moment I am an editor of such, I have to say that I would have bought the two best entries in the contest immediately and been proud to publish them. At least two or three of the remainder would have been sort of acceptable, though I probably would have channelled J.W. Campbell and suggested a rewrite. The rest I would simply have rejected.

In general, still in fantasy mode as editor, I would say to aspiring writers that less is more, clarity and precision important, and above all, a short story is not a miniature novel. Keep it simple. Make it vivid. Make the reader care. Or, at least, fascinate, amuse or intrigue the hell out of the reader. Don’t be dull. Don’t be ordinary.

Such is my advice.

The Advantage of Losing One’s Mind

I refer, of course, to the “problem” of aging. Certainly, as I approach my 64th birthday, I am aware of numerous physical ailments large and small, some of which might kill me.

Shouldn’t worry overmuch about this. After all, could say the same thing about my neighbours but, just like my ailments, most of the time they don’t give me any cause for alarm.

No, it is my mental state which concerns me. Especially in light of my recent efforts to complete the July issue of Auroran Lights, the newsletter I do for CSFFA, the Aurora Awards people. Supposed to have been published last May. Got it out yesterday. Tad late for a monthly publication.

I knew I can only work on one project at a time. Now I know I can only work with one thought at a time. So much for my holistic situational awareness. Even when working on a single project I find I need a list breaking down all the sub-tasks within the project, a list I can tick off one item at a time, or else risk skipping over even the most obvious things which need doing.

For instance, despite proof-reading the “Table of Contents” for my 66 page newsletter numerous times, I completely failed to notice I hadn’t updated the page numbers listed with each article. Apparently just about everything is printed on page five. Hmm.

Not only that, but — after emailing the newsletter to more than a hundred people before I caught my “mistake” — I was moved to complain (about myself) to my wife, but instead of saying “I buggered up the Table of Contents list by not filling in the proper page numbers,” I said something like “I buggered up the thingie at the beginning cause I didn’t get the numbers right.”

Forgot what a Table of Contents is called, you see. Mind a total blank.

Given that I am currently (sporadically) working on my latest attempt at a novel, my increasing inability to juggle more than one thought at a time (and even then I have to hold on with both hands) is possibly cause for alarm.

Seems to me, a novelist is supposed to keep numerous characters in mind, along with all the myriad variations and complications of their behaviour and motivation depending on what is conjured up for the evolving plot. That’s just one example. How on Earth can I compose when I can’t remember what I’m writing about?

It is a bit like trying to look up a word in a Thesaurus (for the sake of a pleasing variety) when you only have a vague concept of the word and not the word itself.

Fortunately, I had a sudden vision of people looking at the Table of Contents in my newsletter and bursting out laughing. “What a moron!” they gigglingly cry.

That’s it! Sheer entertainment value! Expect the unpredictable!

I took a thirty year break between novel attempts. The previous novel had preparatory notes filling more pages than the novel itself, but I’m “winging it” with my current effort.

Even I don’t know what I’m going to write when I sit down at my computer to add more text to my novel. I was a trifle worried about this, but now I know I don’t have to worry about a thing. My growing inability to keep intellectual track of what I’m writing about guarantees I don’t require imagination or creativity to get the job done. I can rely on crazily impulsive, thoughtless and random exposition to throw curve balls at my readers and gob smack them with unexpected twists and turns in plot and motivation. The resulting “originality” of my prose will grab readers by the throat!

More and more my writing resembles the output of the proverbial “room full of chimps typing will eventually, in the fullness of time, randomly produce a work equal to the best of Shakespeare’s plays.”

Gosh. Every day I age, I get closer to the possibility of equaling Shakespeare!

And here I thought losing my mind was going to be a problem…

The Palpitating Pause

I’m going to have to cease posting for a bit. I really have to knuckle down and concentrate on producing the next Auroran Lights Newsletter for CSFFA (The Aurora Awards people) as I’m at least a month behind.

Since, because of my increasing senility,  I am no longer capable of multitasking and can only concentrate on one project at a time, this is my only choice.

Makes me wonder how other writers (bit pretentious to call myself a writer, given that I’ve never published professionally… I’ll have you know I’m NOT a “bit” pretentious; I am “fantastically” pretentious!) cope with the task of writing.

I, for one, require absolute silence, otherwise I can’t concentrate.

I once mentioned this to Christie Harris, a west coast writer who specialised in YA books about the Haida and other First Nations peoples, and she considered my requirement nonsense, saying something like:

“Back when we owned a farm I just plopped my typewriter on a table in the chicken yard, sat myself on a sturdy wooden chair, and typed merrily away to the accompaniment of much clucking, with a baby under my arm no less, and I did fine. Got a lot of writing done.”

Ummm, I’m not like that.

Not only do I require peace and calm to get going, when it comes to fiction I require courage as well. Can take me up to three hours to build up the impulse to pour my thoughts into my computer.

Mind you, non-fiction no problem. I can pontificate endlessly with the best of them.

For some reason I regard fiction more seriously, to the point of risking anxiety attacks.

Once I complete a thousand words (which usually takes three hours, so combined with my “pump-up” session means six hours devoted to a writing session at a minimum) I almost always consider the text the most magnificent prose ever written by anyone, never mind just by little old me.

The next morning when I reread it in the cold light of day, it’s all I can do to keep from sobbing with remorse.

Cicero once wrote “There is a big difference between the light of lamps and the light of day.” He wasn’t kidding! Bothered him too.

Add to this Harlan Ellison’s comment “It takes just as much effort to write a bad book as it does a good one, so stop writing and save yourself the trouble” (or something like that–my memory not the best), and it becomes readily apparent the odds are stacked against you (or at least me) when it comes to building confidence enough to get started, let alone keep going.

I like to imagine it gets easier after several of your novels are published, that writing becomes an ingrained habit, that writing becomes joyful and exciting and thrilling such that you wake up in the morning bursting with desire to get at that keyboard!

On the other hand, I have the nagging feeling there must be a reason a vast number of writers are addicted to booze or drugs, including some of the best and most popular authors. Could it be that writing can be stressful? Nah. Gotta be something else. Mere coincidence perhaps.

Fortunately, I can’t afford to become a booze hound. I find that getting plenty of sleep allays my stress and anxiety, at least till I regain consciousness. If I could just write while I was asleep!

I once dreamed I was writing an epic poem, and when I woke up I was convinced the completed manuscript lay on the table next to my bed. I turned to gaze approvingly upon it, only to realized in horror that there was no manuscript and it had all been a dream. I sat bolt upright and tried to recover the poem from my memory before it faded.

Alas, all I could remember was the title, “Sum Thermae” (which I think means something like “Total Hot Water Bath”), and the fact the subject of the poem had to do with the history of the U.S. seventh cavalry. Perhaps not an epic after all.

Oh well. Maybe my next dream will be more useful.


The Random Reality of Illusion

I refer to the exciting moment when you glimpse the cover of a pocketbook for the first time. It’s all illusion of course, a depiction of a fictional reality, but some of these images are achingly evocative of the sort of thing my teenage self desperately wanted to be real. Such a cover always screamed “Buy me!” as far as I was concerned. I still come across covers like this now and then.

Recently, however, browsing the shelves of a science fiction book store, I was astonished how many covers featured “Bodice Ripper” voluptuous women in deep cleavage flouncy shirts, some of these well-endowed women wielding swords or ray guns, the rest sitting imperiously on a throne. It appears fantasy romance is exceedingly popular these days. Not my cup of tea.

On the other hand, at the WCSFA sponsored Fandom Bazaar I picked up 30 pocketbooks dating from the 1950s and 1960s, 20 of which were Ace Doubles, making for 50 covers in all. Books from my formative years! My criteria in selecting these particular books were the authors, as I wanted to fill in gaps in my personal library. Some I chose simply because they were Ace Doubles.

Now, perusing the covers of these books, I will pretend I’m looking at a pocketbook rack in a drugstore circa 1965 or so. Which have books with covers that demand I buy them? Which ones yell “Put me back in the rack!”?

Looking at the overall pattern, 16 covers feature spacecraft flying against a backdrop of an alien planet or star, flying through an alien atmosphere, flying over an alien landscape, or landing/sitting/taking from an alien planetary surface. Virtually every one of these cover images stir my sense of wonder.

All the rest feature the protagonist front and centre, with the backdrop scenery varying wildly, as does the desirability of these books, to judge by the covers.

Samples of covers that would force my hand into my wallet include:

– A gigantic dog-like killer robot for “The Killing Machine” by Jack Vance.

– A typical 1950s finned rocket ship escaping from a barren, crater-strewn  desert crawling with tanks, for “Battle on Venus” by William F. Temple.

– The pilot of a spacecraft staring at the huge galaxy with multiple red giants visible on his view screen. I’m pretty sure the galaxy in question is Andromeda, since the title of the book is “Recruit for Andromeda” by Milton Lesser.

– A frightened man in a spacesuit clutching his newly-ejected ejection seat as his spacecraft explodes behind him, for “The Genetic General” by Gordon. R. Dickson.

– And a cyborg pressed against his giant view screen as his rocket ship plunges into an alien sun, for “Entry to Elsewhen” by John Brunner.

Obviously, futuristic tech in a futuristic or alien setting was a huge turn on for me. Now for some covers that would have turned me off as a young lad and made me put it back on the rack:

– A stunned, puzzled looking man stands behind some sort of Hi-Fi stereo, meant to be a futuristic radio I suppose, which is releasing sparkly stuff reminiscent of the bubbles produced by the “Billion Bubble Machine” masquerading as an alien communication device in the movie “Robot Monster.” Too silly, in other words, unless I was aware of the virtues of the author, John Brunner, for his “Listen! The Stars!”

– Then there’s the shapely lady in a tight-fitting pink body suit plastered in fear against the wall as a pink sphere with eye stalks and tentacles totters on two tiny pink legs down the hall toward her. Also too silly for my taste. However the book is “Wandl the Invader” by Ray Cummings, a famous SF pulp writer of the thirties (and a reprint from that era). Well worth buying. But not if I didn’t know anything about the author.

– And worst of all, a Captain Kirk-like character in a typical Kirk firing-the-stun-gun pose, wearing a tight-fitting pink turtleneck shirt with tight pants, firing at a fleeing man in the foreground who is even more ludicrous in appearance because he sports a shaved head with a shallow Mohawk (for that “futuristic” look I guess), a red shirt, purple pants, and a flowing green cape. In the background stands a woman in a one-piece gold coloured bathing suit. This 1956 cover screams “I’m Stupid!” at me. It was for “Overlords From Space” by Joseph E. Kelleam.

From these three examples alone I deduce that any cover where the artist didn’t put much thought into it and was content to utilize standard or even substandard clichés struck me as shoddy and insulting. As a kid I would have automatically not even bothered picking these out of the rack in the first place.

Nowadays, even though I am 63 years of age with a fixed list of favourite authors and a vague comprehension of literary technique, covers still speak to me.

Covers are important.

As I understand it, in mainstream publishing it is the publisher who choses the artist and the cover. I know personally at least one author who was devastated and embarrassed by the cover placed on his first novel. I admit it is one that would have prevented me from buying the book had I not known the author. As a writer you sign the contract and take your chances.

Self-published authors appear to have the luxury of choosing (and paying) for their covers, but judging from what I’ve seen on the web, the majority of the work is rather generic with very little that is truly eye-catching.

I repeat: covers are important. Good luck with that.


Unmotivated Motivators Best?

Or to put it another way, are writers wrong to bother with characterization? Does it really matter?

Every good story needs strong characters, they say. Characters the readers can identify with, that make the readers want to share the character’s fears and worries and passions, even enable the reader to identify so strongly the character becomes a wish fulfilment alter ego, at least for as long as it takes to read the story.

But what if the reader rejects ordinary concerns as just so much soap opera which has nothing to do with science fiction? What if the reader doesn’t care if the protagonist  gets laid, finds a potential mate, recovers his honour, or gets fired?

Take myself, for instance. I’ve experienced strong emotions and worries involving all four of the above concerns. I really don’t want to relive them all over again just because it’s part of the human condition. Screw the human condition. That’s mundane stuff. I’m more interested in the non-human stuff. I love idea-driven SpecFit, not emotional fiction designed to make me feel one with the protagonist.

As Buzz Aldrin said when asked if being cooped up in the Apollo 11 Command module with two other guys in close quarters for several days would bother him, he replied something to the effect “Look. This is my chance to walk on the surface of the Moon. I’d put up with kangaroos for crew mates if that’s what it takes to get me there.”

So even as a little kid reading “Tom Corbett Space Cadet” books I’d put up with the “mushy” kangaroo bits (girls were mentioned occasionally as I recall) to get to the good stuff. Not that I had anything against girls (I was beginning to get interested, though not yet as much as I was during the Summer of Love in 1967 when I was sixteen, but I digress…), it’s just that I wanted my sense of wonder evoked, and ordinary matters common to virtually all of humanity didn’t get me excited anywhere to the same degree.

When the “New Wave” of science fiction came along and everybody began celebrating how adult and literary the genre had become, I stopped reading science fiction for a prolonged period. To my mind the genre had been ruined.

And no, I am not one of the Sad Puppy crowd. I got better, in that I rediscovered SF about a decade later and was delighted to discover the old themes had returned. The fact that many authors still wrote in a New Wavish fashion I didn’t mind because the underlying premises were so good.

I realise this is perilously close to appreciating stories that are merely a prolonged explanation of the premise, an elaboration of the author’s notes for the story rather than an actual story, but few such are published today. Most authors get beyond that stage quite quickly.

Besides, if there’s an alien mystery to be solved (my favourite SF theme), I’m more than willing to put up with kangaroos these days because the current herd are reasonably well trained and actually help me get to where I want to go, namely into that state of bliss known as the sense of wonder.

Mind you, I still tend to ignore the “mushy” stuff, which is to say, the “ordinary” stuff, which may sound as if I’m in favour of the “Mrs. Brown” syndrome (the lack of an ordinary character to reflect how ordinary people react to events in the story), but not true. I just happen to believe that type of character should be a secondary character.

The kind of primary character or protagonist I crave is an interesting character. Someone who rises above mundane concerns. Someone who is in some way unique, perhaps in their particular obsession, their habits, their plans, or whatever, just as long as they stand out from the crowd. I don’t identify with such characters so much as simply want to tag along with them and see what happens.

I am more than willing to embrace characters like that, even if they are well-rounded, as long as they don’t suffer from angst.

I hate angst.

The Proper Dosage of Description is?

One of the advantages of work shopping manuscripts, which is sort of what a critic does when reading a given work, is that the reader not only critiques but learns how to critique. So both the author and the reader benefit, at least in a workshop environment. That’s the theory. Not so certain this applies to critical reviews, possibly a whole ‘nother kettle of squid, but still, I find reading published works leads me to ponder the assorted tasks an author faces every time they go to work.

For instance, is there a proper balance achievable in terms of the amount of description a writer employs? What constitutes too little? How much is too much?

Too little, of course, makes it difficult for the reader to visualize the setting of the character interaction. If a story is mostly dialogue, it might as well be a radio play. Yes, you can rely on a reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, to a certain extant, but not if there’s no jumping off point. You can’t bridge an endless void. (Unless you’re reading or writing an existentialist novel, in which case there’s no hope for you.)

At the opposite end of the description spectrum is too much information, more than the reader can absorb. Sometimes this comes in the form of lists, as if attempting to include a thesaurus in the text (Rabelais was prone to this, but since he was describing a late medieval world the lists were rather fascinating). Modern efforts along these lines tend to disrupt the flow and irritate the reader, not to mention stopping him in his tracks. So generally not a good idea.

And then there’s piling on the description in convoluted, run on sentences. How many readers have the patience for this sort of thing? And yet, if the style is unique to the author, it can hold the reader fast like a bird mesmerized by a snake. The best example I can think of (and lying at hand in my den bookshelves) is Salvador Dali’s famous novel “Hidden Faces,” originally published in 1944. Consider the following:

“Cécile appeared to him now clothed with attributes combining infinitely attractive shades of malice and pathos. With her faultlessly beautiful legs he often visualized her emerging, silent and obedient, from the places where his most gnostic imaginative orgies and bacchanalia were consummated, and not infrequently at the climax of their troubling scenes it was precisely Cécile’s face, delicately veiled in grey, that would in the last moment replace the usual one of the Honourable Lady Chidester-Ames who in turn had until then supplied the human embodiment of certain fauns with flawless legs and the ambiguous bodies of hermaphrodites, covered with soft, shiny fur.”

“But if Cécile’s image now held the golden bridle of the extravagant cavalcades of his lasciviousness, harnessed to the mud-wallowing panthers of his perversity…” and so on and so on.

I kinda like “… the mud-wallowing panthers of his perversity” myself. Not certain how modern editors would feel about it. But, of course, Dali’s novel was published because it was written by Dali, an artist of such incredible stature at the time that his grocery list–if illustrated–would have been a runaway best seller. He had reached the Olympian heights of someone allowed to break the rules, which suited him perfectly as that was something he had been doing all his life.

Dali liked details. His paintings were near hallucinatory in their realism because of his attention to detail. In fact his “paranoia-critical method of art” philosophy was based on a conscious and deliberate obsessive attention  to detail. I believe he carried this over in his writing. I’m pretty sure he visualised words as brush stokes to paint the scene he was describing, and, just as you layer on the oil paint to get the effect you want, he treated words the same way. Since the readers of the day expected and anticipated Dali would be true to the glorious task of being Dali, this was not a problem. Few writers today can get away with this. Some try, and I tend to believe they remain unpublished.

Somewhere there is a happy medium. I just don’t happen to know where to find it.

The Bathos of Bombastic Bombardment

Some of you may have noticed my penchant for exaggerated titles designed to trigger a “wtf?” moment from the reader and generate an impulse to read the column in question despite the reader’s better judgement.

For instance, in response to my column “The Critic as Death Demon” Gregg Chamberlain wrote (on Facebook):

“????Death Demon????”

Caught his attention I did. I assume he went on to read the column, in which case he would have discovered the title was inspired by the colourful header image (above) and  the essay itself merely polite musings on the potential harm critics can offer their victims, or rather, the inborn fear they are capable of such, which is a rather silly phobia, considering it very rarely happens.

The trick, as you all know from worrying about book cover designs or fretting over the proper titles for your short stories, is to maximise that elusive first impression moment to your advantage. It is why titles are so vitally important, not to mention so damn annoying to them as seeking to compose one.

(Note: I am noted neither for my grammar or my syntax skills–rather proud of this actually).

One of the dirty little secrets of writing is to utilize a given work as its own advertisement through the use of a catchy title and a “wham! Bam!” opening paragraph. It’s no time to be modest, or restrained. In this case “more is more.”

Oh, to be sure, you can use understatement for a title, if it is absurd enough to contrast starkly with a back page blurb, or even with itself. I happen to like the “BBB” approach myself.

Where did I pick up on this? In my writing studies while earning a BFA (majoring in Creative writing) at the University of British Columbia?


Drawing the proper conclusions after decades of intelligent and comprehensive cogitation over the SF books I was reading?


I don’t think I’ve started doing that yet even at this late date in my life. I just read for fun and always have.

Truth is I experienced my “BBB” epiphany while, as a teenager and a young man, reading as many of the varied works of my favourite mundane artist, Salvador Dali, as I could get a hold of. He had a habit of NOT being boring. Fantastic talent that. (And yeah, he was pretty good at drawing stuff too.)

He tended to use chapter headings like:

“Why I am a Genius.”

“Why I am so Great.”

“How to be Erotic AND Chaste.”

“Why I am so Disgustingly Rich.”

“How to be a Super-Snob.”

Who can resist titles like those? Not me.

Of course, you can’t always use bathos. Not a good idea if you are striving for dignity of concept and solemnity of purpose in your writing. Just don’t make a habit of it. You see, that’s another dirty little secret of writing:

It is surprisingly easy to bore the crap out of your readers.

Don’t do it.