The Page is a Harsh Mistress

Pursuant to yesterday’s post (is this the proper usage of pursuant? If not, it so should be! I’ll have to ask SB when he’s around):

Anonymous said:

Get out your wet noodles and what have you. I’m ready for my lashes.

I started writing a middle grade novel. I’ve read plenty of MG and besides, this is more tween-y and I am a YA-oholic. So no problems there, right?

But then I AM READING a science fiction novel. I do not love SF. That’s not why I picked up the book. I am reading it because it is kind of YA SF, has been recommended to me a gazillion times and is touted as one of the best in the whole SF genre. I am surprised that I don’t love it so much.

I talk to my writing partner about my expectations and how they’ve been dashed. It’s the words, mostly. They just aren’t beautiful. The prose doesn’t sing to me. On top of that, though the main plot is very good, I feel like I can tell when the writer came up with some of the new twists. To me, they feel like they were spackled into place.

I propose to my partner that I might like SF better if the story was written first, then the SF elements worked into it. As a joke, I take the first chapter of my sweet MG relationship story and move it two centuries ahead.

Amazingly, it makes the story come alive. I research SF a little, just for fun, and find:
A. I’ve already read 20 of the top 100 SF stories of all time but
B. It’s not SF unless the science part is crucial to the story.

I give up the idea of writing a SF MG. Until I take a shower and Boing! the What If bomb goes off in my head and I see how the science really could affect the plot.

My questions to you Oh Wise One:
1. Am I crazy? Pathetic? Misguided to think I can pull this off?

What a great question, Anonymous! (Seriously, though, don’t be a stranger.)

And then Patrick (being Patrick) said:

I am assuming “Oh Wise One” is me.

Worrying about the ‘definition’ of SF is a waste of time. There’s a bunch of ninnies who make *those* rules.

YA SF the rules are different than the ninnies who make silly SF rules.

Call it Futuristic Fantasy rather than SF if you are worried about that SF label.

Yes, you are crazy, but that has nothing to do with your writing or your ability to pull your story off.

Patrick is probably much better equipped to discuss what exactly science fiction is than I am. I was always a little hazy with the details. Like, officially, something like Star Wars isn’t “science fiction” because it has nothing to do with science? It’s space opera or space fantasy or whatever? I’m not in SFWA, so I don’t know all the rules of what’s SF and what spec fiction and what’s fantasy and what all.

And of course, Justine is in Texas right now, and probably not checking email/reading blogs, and she’s the actual science fiction expert around here — PhD, lots of lovely science fiction history books with her name on them, etc.

And then I started getting curious, so I decided to look up these “top 100 science fiction stories.” I found two lists near the top of the Google results: A statistical survey of sci-fi literary awards, noted critics and popular polls (of which I’ve read 23), and David Pringle’s (of which I’ve read 7). They are decidedly different. (I think I like the first one better, though I may be biased by my own results.)

So now, being the curious sort, I’m wondering what YA our Anonymous buddy is talking about that is supposedly one of the best SFs of all time. I’m thinking it’s likely we’re talking about Ender’s Game. My favorite Ender book, Speaker for the Dead, does in fact appear on that first list. We can’t be talking about Wrinkle in Time, here, right? That’s a YA classic which is also, arguably, SF.

(SB just walked in and goes: “Ender’s Game, right?” Too funny. Please note, we are basing our guesses here on the description “famous YA SF novel,” and not on any value judgment about the prose.)

Alternately, we could be looking at a LeGuin, though I think she tends to write her fantasy for kids and her SF for adults. Or, we could be looking at the type of classic SF that people tend to read as teens in school: Bradbury/Asimov/Orwell/Huxley (or even Shelley/Wells!) . All of which I read in English class in high school. Or, you know, Heinlein/Herbert/Vonnegut/Dick/Clarke are also teen favorites. (Hee hee. Dick/Clarke.)

Well, all this is besides the point, anyway. I just like playing guessing games. Anonymous is under no pressure to tell us which book he or she is talking about. (Let’s just say it’s a she, to make my typing easier.) She is also under no pressure to like a book, even if it’s been recommended to her a gazillion times and is very popular. (Justine will agree with me on this one.) There is a much-beloved bestselling novel out there that I can’t wrap my around at all. Yay for opinions!

Patrick’s suggestion is a good one, regarding not thinking of it as SF if there’s no science involved. Futuristic is a perfectly cromulent genre all on its own (cf. Nalini Singh’s bestselling series). And the poster does say she’s very well read in MG/YA. I wouldn’t worry about the SF too much. After all, I consider myself a fan, and by one count, I’ve only read 7 of the top 100 SF novels. The poster has read 20. And, of course, the poster is doing the important thing — looking into it, reading it, exploring, etc.

And, I may get lashed for making this argument, but classics, though all well and good, aren’t necessarily going to help too much if you don’t know what’s being written on the topic NOW.

If you want to read more YA futuristics/SF, here’s a list of recent titles to get you started:

-I Was A Teenage Popsicle and Beyond Cool*, by Bev Katz Rosenbaum
-Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras* by Scott Westerfeld
-Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (yes, I know you can argue that it’s not futuristic, but it’s at least ahead of “now.”)
-Feed by M.T. Anderson
-Rash by Pete Hautman


I’m sure that the comments section will bring more suggestions as well. (Sara?)

And, if you want to read a classic YA SF, I’ve always been a huge fan of Heinlein’s Starman Jones. It’s really old school, kind of Horatio-Alger-in-space.

The part of Anonymous’s post that makes little alarms go off for me the most though, is the idea of:

“I might like SF better if the story was written first, then the SF elements worked into it.”

All those books that I listed up there would not exist without the SF element. It’s integral to the storyline. And this doesn’t just go for SF, or futuristic — it goes for everything. Story elements must exist for a reason, otherwise they are, as the poster said, “just spackled on.” The science fiction element of any story is Chekov’s gun on the wall. It must come into play at some point in the story.

The thing about science fiction is that, really, it can be any genre it wants to be — thriller, cozy mystery, romance — but the science fiction element needs to be there for a reason. For example, take one of my favorite science fiction movies: Alien.

Alien is a haunted house story. It’s a classic haunted house story, with all the genre elements: a group of people are trapped in a structure with an evil “magical” entity that kills them one by one.

Now, the problem with all haunted house stories is that, in a perfect world, people would just leave the house. Open the door and walk away. (As I yell at the screen in every horror movie.) So every haunted house story needs to have a REASON that people are staying in that house: in The House on Haunted Hill (and remakes), the residents are being offered a huge amount of money to stick it out. In Poltergeist, their daughter is missing and they have to save her (why they stay in there afterwards is beyond me). In Alien, the filmmakers have hit on the perfect reason to trap people inside the “haunted house”: It’s a spaceship, and they can’t leave, or they’ll die in space. BRILLIANT.

But you see how Alien would not have worked in any other setting. Put it elsewhere –here, now–and you’d have The House on Haunted Hill. Or maybe 13 Ghosts, but no one wants to remember that crapola (right, Jana?)

So I’m having a tough time seeing a book that can be SF (or futuristic) without the SF (or futuristic) being an integral part of the storyline.

But then, near the bottom, Anonymous gives us her twist:

Until I take a shower and Boing! the What If bomb goes off in my head and I see how the science really could affect the plot.

Yeah, I love that. Showers are the best. And yeah, sometimes story pieces fall together at odd times, and they can fall together in any order — plot then character; character, then premise; setting, then character, then hook — whatever. That’s fine. If you’re still trying to piece the story together, then, in my opinion, you aren’t really “working the SF in afterward.” But if it helps you to think of it that way, then don’t let me stand in your way. (I’m sure that my way of putting story ideas together is anathema to lots of people.) Viva la difference, and all that jazz.

So no, to answer your question, Anonymous, I don’t think you are crazy or pathetic, or misguided.

And there is a point when I’m working on every story where I decide I’m crazy to think I can pull it off. Then I know that I’m on the right track, because the project that scares you is also the one that makes you grow. I say: GO FOR IT!

The only other piece of advice I have for you is that, if you are entering a genre as a professional in the genre, it behooves you to become familiar with it. Once you are published in this genre, you will meet a lot of other writers. Your fans will have read lots of books in the genre and will want to talk to you about them. They will want you to give them recommendations for what to read while they are waiting for your next book to come out, etc. It’s just a good thing. Even if you are writing “the X book for people who don’t like X books,” it’s a good thing to be part of the community.

Good luck and Godspeed!

PS: Sailor Boy says that he’s only read 20 of these books. I thought for sure his count would be higher than mine. He also says he hasn’t read Dune. I may have to call off the wedding.

PPS: Crisis averted. He’s seen the Lynch movie. The one with Sting.

Posted in Justine, Patrick, writing advice

30 Responses to The Page is a Harsh Mistress

  1. Jana DeLeon says:

    I am totally not qualified to give an opinion on SF either, but I read some and like some. I totally agree with your assessment of alien and the brilliance of placement. I wonder all the time – why don’t they just leave??????

    The best ghost story to me is still Ghost Story by Peter Straub. (but the book is better than the movie)

  2. Carrie says:

    I think my favorite thing about YA is that you can kinda design it the way you want to be. I mean, with a lot of established “adult oriented” books there are all these people out there who say “you can’t do that,” or “that’s overdone” or “that’s trite.”

    I feel like with YA you have readers who aren’t so jaded. Who don’t have in mind all of these rules and who have such open minds. You can cross genres, write a book that doesn’t follow all the SF “rules” and readers will likely still love it (given that it is still a good book, blah blah).

    In fact, I think that’s the most exciting part abuot writing YA: opening young readers’ minds to all of those worlds! I just think back to being a teen and reading about ideas that seem old-hat now, but were so enthralling and new and different then.

  3. phyllis towzey says:

    I’ve read 22 and 6, Diana, so you’ve got me beat. But, sadly, I didn’t even know DUNE was a book. Thought the movie came straight from screenplay.

    Interesting how we view Sci Fi, and I’m certainly no expert. I always think of the genre in terms of books like Sirens of Titan, not books like Flowers for Algernon. But I guess, really, F for A is Sci Fi, when I stop and think about it.

    There were lots of books I would have included that weren’t on either list — I used to love L.P. Davies when I was into Sci Fi some years ago. Hmmm. If futuristic is included, then I’d put J.D. Robb’s IN DEATH series at the top of the list.

  4. Patrick says:

    I actually have very mixed opinions on the subject of what is SF and it comes down to – I hate labels. I like to label things as good and bad. That would be the two genres I would label things as.

    But really, look at the purpose of genre. So bookstores can say, If you liked this, you’ll probably like these.

    I had this conversation with your agent who’s romance has a SF-ish setting(I use ‘Hard SF’ to describe stories based in Science Fact so I would call it a SF setting, but used -ish just for qualification). So is it SF? Yes. Does it belong in the SF Genre? Nope.


    Reader expectations.

    In a SF genre the premise/plot/characters better be directly affected by the science.

    And with YA, the reader expectation is that the protagonist be YA. After that, all bets are off. Anything goes.

    In Romance, the expectation is the the relationship between the couple.

    So, the key to genre is determining what the core of the book is.

    I’ve been told to worry about genre AFTER you have written your book. Because it is a marketing tool.

    I’ve heard an anecdote about Diana Gabaldon who thought she wrote a Fantasy novel, but was told that it would sell for 5K as a Fantasy and 500K as a Romance.

    I don’t know if that’s a true anecdote or not, but it is fun to say.

  5. Patrick says:

    But the reason why I am on the fence about that qualification of SF is that Space Opera belongs there as SF (Honor Harrington – Naval battles in space)

    And the readers of most SF overlap with Fantasy which Space Opera has more in common with.

    There is a trend toward literary SF, where they want to be taken seriously with meaningful social statements. And so SF appears to be losing marketshare and there is a gulf forming between media SF and literary SF.

    This is all odd to me.

    Star Wars is Science Fiction to me.

  6. Kelly R. says:

    All I can add is you used the word “pursuant” correctly. 🙂

  7. Kelly R. says:

    Okay, I’m already starting to hedge; maybe it isn’t the most appropriate use of the word “pursuant” — just like is it or isn’t it sci fi, huh? To-ma-to, tom-a-to.

  8. Carrie says:

    Kelly, you crack me up! Every time I used pursuant today (tons!) I thought about you and Diana!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Diana, do you remember the year of Dune, when Dune was following you everywhere? It was the same year I was follwed by UPS…ahhh, memories.

    As for Sci Fi, well, I never really thought I liked the genre at all. But after reading today’s blog, I realized not only have I read and loved some classic Sci Fi’s (Brave New World, Wrinkle In Time), I am now obsessed with a Sci Fi television show. Heroes! It is the best TV show to come along in a very long time, in my humble opinion. Glenn and are all caught up, let’s talk!


  10. CaesarsGhost says:

    Science Fiction isn’t Science Fiction if they don’t have to explain the concept behind some contraption at least once in the series.


    “This would not be possible without reactionless drives. By injecting antimatter into the stream and not expelling any energy, it created a vaccume greater in the direction of the engine. Original designers were baffled that their ships were flying backwards.”

    You get the point.

  11. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Yes, elizabeth. We must chat. When are you moving here again?

    CG, you have to tell us what your score was on those SF lists. I was thinking of you all day. Plus: Lever 36, baybee.

  12. Kalen Hughes says:

    He. Hasn’t. Read. Dune? Call off the wedding (or at least make him read it first, LOL). I don’t score nearly as high as I thought I would (having grown up as a sci-fi/fantasy geek): 45/15. But I have at least read Dune (you can hold out the carrot that he doesn’t have to read any further in the series. *grin*.

  13. Sara says:

    Oh dear… so much pressure…

    Only other suggestions I can think of off-hand are some of Margaret Peterson Haddix’s books. I especially liked her Shadow Children Series (Among the Shadows is the first one.)

    And Little Willow had a whole list of YA SF — (though many of the titles are the same ones you mentioned.)

  14. Patrick says:

    I just counted. I’ve read less of those than Diana. He he he he…

    I just pretend to be SF geek. I’m a media SF geek, kind of.

  15. Heather Harper says:

    I don’t read SF, but I do love SF shows/movies.

    And I agree with Jana. Ghost Story by Peter Straub is chillingly good.

  16. eatrawfish says:

    It came up in film class once that “Star Wars” could be considered a Western.

    I think it’s fun to argue (evil men in black hats, strange frontier cities and bars, good guys riding to the rescue) but I also think it’s silly.

  17. Diana Peterfreund says:

    eatrawfish, do you think my alien-the-haunted-house-story is silly as well? You can tell me. I’m tough, and you’re the film expert.

  18. phyllis towzey says:

    Interesting point about Star Wars, eatrawfish — it does follow the ‘code of the West’ and, actually, makes me think of John Ford films. Wonder if George Lucas grew up watching all those Western TV series so popular in the 50’s and 60’s (Gunsmoke, Maverick, Wagon Train, etc.)– he’d be about the right age.

  19. eatrawfish says:

    Hmm, maybe I should have been more specific. I don’t think the idea that “Star Wars” is a Western is silly, but rather the idea that it’s NOT Sci-Fi is kind of silly and trying to force things too hard into a very constrained mold. Also, long discussions on film theory can get kind of silly anyway (or painful, have I mentioned hour long discussions of National Cinema?)

    I think your idea about Alien sounds spot on to me. I think you could argue that it is a horror film as well as Sci-Fi.

    Phyllis, if I remember correctly Gene Roddenberry sold “Star Trek” as a “Wagon Train to the Stars” because Westerns were so popular at the time. Akira Kurasawa’s stuff is also often considered Western even though they are about Samurai – and he loved Ford.

    Not sure about Lucas though. 😛

    *feels very film geek*

  20. Anonymous says:

    Oh MY!

    Anonymous here, overwhelmed with the breadth and scope and cromulency of your response, and that of your readers. I’ll just say “thanks”, and by that I hope you’ll know I mean “THANKS!”.

    And, er, the list was number two. The novel was EG (though I now feel sheepish – who am I to dis anyone’s prose?)

    I shall now return to my regularly scheduled lurking (and writing).

  21. Patrick says:

    Star Wars is based off the Campbell Myths.

  22. Gina Black says:

    Read Dune a Long Time Ago when I had pneumonia. It was an out-of-body experience.

  23. Rhiannon says:

    Patrick, I heard something about that from Diana Gabaldon, as well. Never with the actual dollar amounts, but when I attended a lecture by her (about historic fiction, which is how I categorize her novels) she made some statement about “And how they ended up in the ‘Romance’ section is a whole other story…”

    I’m not fond of labels. But they are a necessary evil. I just try to take them with a grain of salt. But I am only a reader, and not a very deligent one, at that, nothing anywhere near an industry professional 🙂

  24. Carrie says:

    This is what Diana Gabaldon says about it on her website FAQ:

    “When we sold Outlander, the publisher held onto the book for 18 months, trying to figure out what to sell it as. They finally decided that–of all the different classifications the books could fit in–“Romance” was by far the largest single market.”

  25. Julie Leto says:

    Diana Gabaldon should consider herself damned lucky that the romance readership embraced her the way it has and made her a star. Had she been released in any other part of the bookstore, she might be a nobody now. I remember when Outlander was given out as a freebie (in hardcover) at an RWA conference and the word of mouth was like wildfire. I resent her not-to-subtle romance bashing…or can’t you tell?

    I’m stunned by the fact that people didn’t know Dune was a book long before it was that creepy movie (which, btw, I loved, but only because I’d read the book first.) Of course, the book has a character named Leto, so you can see why I’d be attracted. I never read any of the others.

    Re: Star Wars. I think it was very much influenced by the western genre, but George Lucas also says he used Campbell and WWII movies as an inspiration. Regardless of the influences the first three movies changed my life.

  26. eatrawfish says:

    I believe the Campbell Myths are about story structure, and not specific genre’s.

    Been a while since I looked at the whole Hero w/ a 1,000 Faces stuff though.

  27. Patrick says:

    Eatrawfish – If you’re calling it a western, you’re using it as a story structure, not a genre. And as a story structure, Westerns probably aren’t that far off from the Hero’s quest. I haven’t read many Westerns.

    Julie – I agree with you on Gabaldon. Completely.

  28. Diana Peterfreund says:

    I don’t think it’s a western in “structure” so much as story elements. It certainly doesn’t follow the plotline of many westerns I’ve seen.

    Though Lucas did borrow a good bit from Kurosawa, and if he was making “Japanese Westerns” then it makes sense that they are westerns.

    But I do recall when Firefly was coming out and everyone was going on and on about Whedon’s revolutionary “Western in space” I thought to myself that most space sagas were actually Western. They had that same American exploratory kind of vibe. I didn’t even know about Roddenberry and I felt that way about Star Trek.

    But then again, when I say “structure” I’m usually talking about plot progression, as opposed tot eh idea of the architectural elements that make up a book. When I call Alien a haunted house story, ti’s because if I left out the details about the nature of the monster and the setting, it has the exact same plot as a haunted house story, right down to the plucky girl in her skivvies who eventually kills the monster.

  29. phyllis towzey says:

    It was Star Trek that changed my life, Julie. Then again, I am older than you *sigh*. But the first three Star Wars movies are high on my favorite films list.

    Eatsrawfish, interesting note about Roddenberry pitching Star Trek via Wagon Train — I never knew that. That series (ST, not WT) explored every core issue of morality I can think of, and I remain in awe of it and its creator. And when I saw it, it was in reruns every day after school — talk about a massive daily dose of thought-provoking philosphical questions.

    Back on subject, sometimes I do find all the genre classifications tiresome. Why do we feel compelled to put art in little boxes? (other than for pure marketing convenience, of course, which, it seems to me, was kind of what Gaboldon’s quote meant — Julie, was it that quote or something else that bugged you, because it didn’t come across to me as a slam on romance. I’ve never read her stuff tho, so can’t comment at all on what “box” it does belong in.)

    Sorry to ramble on so long, Diana.

  30. Julie Leto says:

    Phyllis, it wasn’t that particular quote…Gabaldon is actually quite well known for not only being offended when people classify her books as romances, but she takes every opportunity to point out that they are not…and not always in the nicest way. This has always rubbed me the wrong way since it was the romance audience who gave her her success. Let’s be real…many a brilliant book languish on a shelf in a bookstore because no audience has discovered it. Not so with her and she should be at least a little kinder about the readership who embraced her so completely. In my opinion, of course.