Brust, Zelazny, Skill, Taste and a very brief life update

I told myself I wouldn’t do anything productive tonight, out of respect for my poor brain (and knees – trail running is gorgeous, except for the wonky terrain, which my already fucked up knees didn’t appreciate). Sunday, I got back from another year at the Rainforest Writer’s Village Retreat (and visiting folks I miss DEARLY up in Seattle beforehand) and, along with submitting a new short story to an anthology at 2AM last night, my brain’s run out of any extra action potential. 

There are stories, but I’ll tell those later.

So due to the forced relaxation, I parked myself on the couch tonight, not really reading, not really paying attention to the Futurama episodes I put on because turning myself off lets my brain finally spin down and start to unpack. And there’s a lot to unpack since the last time I posted. A lot of it writing-related.

There are a couple (related) things I wanted to write about tonight, so I’ll start by posting something I just finished writing for my book club’s internal blog about a post on Roger Zelazny by Steve Brust. Here’s the post:

* * *

Steve Brust is working on a new book in his Vlad Taltos series (he’s one of those writers where knowing them personally gives their fiction so much more depth to me, like you can see the bits they’re writing for their friends as much as their readers), and so he’s blogging a bit more lately, and tonight he posted some thoughts on Roger Zelazny.

We’ve talked a bit in the past about Zelazny’s influence on the genre (not just limited to the discussions of This Immortal (and it’s place in the genre’s pulp tradition)) (whoo! double bracket asides!), but one thing that came up that I remember thinking about is that I knew a lot of awesome writers (Gaiman’s one among many) love Zelazny, and, not having read widely in either Zelazny OR much of anything from that era, I had a hard time empathizing with the genre’s idolization of him. So I wondered (and still do) what it is about Zelazny that’s so influential? I think I remember citing childhood influence and how it shapes our tastes and perceptions of story, and we develop a kind of nostalgia for them that’s scratched by other similar things (I mean, at least I think I did – if I didn’t, well, I was probably drunk).

Brust’s thoughts:

Anyone familiar with his work and mine knows that the term “influence” is a drastic understatement.  As I’ve said in other places, I knew I wanted to be a writer when I first read Lord of Light and realized that what I wanted more than anything was to make other people feel the way I felt when reading that book. (It just occurred to me that it was my friend David Dyer-Bennet who first suggested I read that one, and I’ve never said thanks. So, thanks.)

Once I got to sit around a small table in a bar at a World Fantasy Con with him and Neil Gaiman and we talked about writing for hours.  Oh my fucking god.  During that conversation, I asked him how to write a short story.  He got a mildly startled look on his face, and said, “Write the last chapter of a novel.”  I don’t think I’ve ever managed to do that, but it’s been going around in my head and generating little baby ideas ever since.

I love the way he used words–I can stop and reread a sentence of his  just for how the words make me feel.  I love his characters–I am willing to follow them around a book just to see what they’ll do.  I love his sense of structure–his story that feels balanced, that feels right even aside from how it resolves.  I love his touch for the bittersweet ending that left one feeling, “well, it was worth the struggle, but it didn’t come without a price.” I love his ability to humanize myth, and to mythologize humanity.

I am a process geek.  That is, I can think and talk about how writing works–and ought to work–for hours.  I love making generalizations about writing, and then testing them.  And I believe the source of that, or at least a huge part of the source, is reading Roger and saying to myself, over and over, “How does he do that?”  The fact that I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer has done nothing to alleviate my desire to try.  After all, I’ve only been at it thirty-five years or so.  Maybe in another ten I’ll get somewhere.

I’m so glad I knew him.  I’m so glad I can still read his work.  I miss him so much.

* * *

Amen, Steve. A-fucking-men.

I go on to talk about reading more Zelazny in the future (particularly because I’ve had Lord of Light in my to read pile since before I went to Viable Paradise, thanks to my friend Kendra for knowing me better than I know myself; but also because I want to read it for the first time with my friends in the book club (we’re all super-close friends from grad school, so the book club is actually an excuse to hang out online once a month and pretend like we don’t all live thousands of miles away from each other)) (dude – more double brackets).

Anyway, I wanted to cross post this here because it touches on some other points I wanted to expand on.

(Warning – a rant (with many asides; and semi-colons) is about to ensue – and it’s as much to sort out my own thoughts on this as it is to open up things for discussion).

I’ll acknowledge that in my post when I’m talking about Zelazny’s legacy on the field, I’m making broad generalizations because I’m still a newcomer to this field. Hell, I find it hard to keep up with everything that’s going on right now, let alone go back and try to read everything everyone ever mentions in conversation (oh, if only it were a perfect world…). But I think my last point about nostalgia is a valid one – about how we, particularly as artists, all have that one book or movie or album we can point back at and say, “That. That changed fucking EVERYTHING.”

When I was in sixth grade, I read Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always, and it changed the way I related to fiction: it made me aware of the power stories had over me (I read a lot as a kid, but it was always stuff my dad handed me or stuff we already had around the house, or stuff with interesting covers at the library). I remember thinking after finishing that book that I knew what my taste was. Of course, my dad knew before I did, so he didn’t stop me from reading more Clive Barker (and I would soon find out that his books were not nearly as age-appropriate as The Thief of Always), and then buying me my first collection of Lovecraft short stories, and showing me more and more classic and modern horror movies, and handing me the complete collection of Poe.

Point being, that was the first book that changed me for having read it. I was officially in love with stories, even if the reason why wasn’t immediately apparent. So in my mad consumption of them, I began to figure out what things I liked and what things I didn’t, so that I could better search out more stories I could fall in love with. More importantly, though, I started to try and figure out why I did and didn’t like certain elements. And at first that had to do entirely with taste. But more and more I love stories also because of the skill taken in crafting them.

And this is where we get to something I want to go into a bit more: the differences between skill and taste, the weird gray space between the two and how sometimes our frustration gets us to forget about the skill part of things, specifically how that relates to short fiction.

For the sake of this rant, I’m gonna define skill as the effects of mindful practice and training on your particular art – in this case writing. It’s the thousands of hours of effort spent trying to get the stories in your head to come out on the page exactly the way you want them to.

Taste is the actual stuff we write about. The themes. The kinds of characters. The kind of plot. The setting and the tropes we send up or twist or honor in our stories. Zelazny was huge in shaping Brust’s taste.

But the weird grey area comes in on the effect taste has ON skill.

The latter is certainly dictated by the former. Say you want to write a hard boiled noir detective story because you’ve been feeling nostalgic lately for those rainy Sunday afternoons as a kid that you spent watching those old movies they kept referencing on Tiny Toons (I will always love you, Peter Lorre). But in order to write a story like that, you have to know the elements that define it’s style (cynical main characters, a dead body, a femme fatale), and how to execute those elements (how to write compelling, non-wooden dialogue, a good grasp of the elements of clear and compelling description, and realistic characterization of both characters so they can have that kind of dynamic). Only then will it replicates that awesome vision for the story you have in your head – the vision that lines up with your taste.

We can read a story that’s skillfully done and appreciate it for how it is put together, the process behind it, but still not like it because it’s not our “thing.” Alternately, we can compulsively consume art and media that is badly put together because it scratches an itch for something deep within ourselves (the desire to run away, the need to believe there’s something bigger than us and our problems, wish fulfillment, existentialist angst, human connection, to believe in happy endings, GIANT EXPLOSIONS AND AWESOME WEAPONS ARE COOL, etc.).

There are great stories out there that have incredible characters and no plot, just as there are amazing stories that have a ragingly good plot, but characters that would blow away in the first strong breeze. And there are also stories that might not have well constructed plot OR particularly engaging characters, but still manage to appeal to a wide variety of tastes by scratching archetypal itches.

It’s funny how you can also break those three things down into three general fiction stereotypes: “literary,” “genre,” and “commercial.”

I see a lot of other new writers (much like myself) trying to get their first professional publications and build a name for themselves, complaining about how it’s impossible to get short stories published. Which is fine, in and of itself. I still commune with my fellow writers every time I get a rejection, before sitting back down and trying to figure out what was wrong with it and how to fix it. But the basis of their complaint is not the quality of their own fiction, but the taste of the editor.

Now, this is a valid point – any editor is going to buy the stories that move them the most because they want to publish the best fiction they can. You may be the absolute best adventure short story writer out there today, but if you’re sending stories to a dark literary horror magazine, the editor is not going to buy it. That’s taste. You could even write a story that is absolutely packed with things they love, but because there are so many other stories s/he’s considering, they might go with the one that made them cry instead of the one that thrilled them. Because maybe they want to balance out a glut of thrilling stories they’re publishing soon (or because the editor read it at exactly the right time that it resonated with maximum effect); or maybe they just bought another equally awesome unicorn superhero story to yours a few months back, and they don’t want to become known as the “unicorn superhero” magazine.

Point being, when a writer gets to the kind of skill level where they’re able to take those tropes and kinds of characters and kinds of plot they enjoy down on the page and have it do exactly what they want it to do, there’s always going to be an element of luck. And sometimes it can also come down to whether or not your name might help move a few more issues or subscriptions so the magazine can keep going.

But that last editorial consideration is where folks tend to go off the rails a bit, bringing up “commercial” fiction, like Twilight or The DaVinci Code, saying that editors are buying crap anyway – implying that an editor’s taste is not based on skill, but instead on what’s marketable. So why should they even try?

(I realize, of course, that I’m setting up a theoretical straw man here. This isn’t based on one particular thing that someone said, but about things I’ve been thinking about lately – things based on lessons I’ve learned this past year I’ve spent slushing, and this past year I’ve spent writing, and conversations I’ve had with other writers and things that I get frustrated about. So yes, there are generalizations, and I’d love to explore them further in more complexity in the comments, since I would love to explore more aspects of the intersection of taste and skill and if there actually DOES exist some kind of sweet spot (Star Wars? Harry Potter?) between the two. Moving on.)

But that argument makes two assumptions: 1) that the people reading pro-rate genre short fiction are the same people that are buying millions of Twilight books and going to see the movies in the theaters; and 2) that an editor’s taste is based entirely on what can sell magazines.

I’m not even going to go into the first point because I honestly don’t know what the readership break downs are for genre short fiction markets (I know even less about literary magazines), though I would hypothesize that there aren’t a lot of copies of Asimov’s or F&SF on shelves next to the complete Twilight. And that’s not even to say that it’s because Asimov’s is “good” and Twilight is “bad,” but because the way short fiction in pro-market magazines is crafted, and the itches those scratch, are different than the way Twilight is crafted, and the itches those books scratch. Sure there are going to be people out there that have both of those itches, just like there are folks that prefer page-turners to info-dense character studies.

The second one comes from a place of frustration – that there’s no formula for a “pro-rate” story, even within the same market. That they only like to publish big name authors because why wouldn’t you pick a big name author over an unknown?

But we, as readers, like lots of different things. An editor is just a reader with a venue with which they can share the stories that really excite them. The reason a lot of authors keep appearing over and over again in the same magazines is because that writer’s squee profile lines up nicely with that editor’s squee profile – they love a lot of the same things in stories. And those loves will have developed out of completely different formative experiences.

For example, I love hard boiled noir (see previous rant-y bit), things that have Alice-in-Wonderland or Hitchhiker levels of absurdity, really well done survival horror (like Alien), emotionally manipulative camera lens gazes (Psycho), deep character studies (Moon), tightly structured stories with no gun left unfired (Attack the Block/Edgar Wright movies), one-liners (Woody Allen movies), etc. You can take any two of those things and write a story that, if well-crafted in terms of skill (characterization, pacing, grammar, etc.), would blow me away. And you could take any other two things and write another story that is completely different in terms of tone, style, tropes, etc., and still blow me away. I have no set formula for the things I like. I’ll know it when I see it.

And that’s where the gray area between skill and taste becomes important – where you know enough about the elements you like that you know the expectations a reader has with those elements; and maybe also what ways those expectations have already been played with if you’ve delved deeply enough into it; and then you play with them further, or parody them, or go in a completely different direction, or explore the overlapping region it could have if you mashed it up with an entirely different element with it’s own history of tradition.

There’s a difference between a story that includes the right elements (to appeal to a particular editor) and executing extremely well, just not in an original way, and a story that includes the same extremely well-executed elements, but in an original way. One tickles more than the other.

So that’s my rant. I guess the tl;dr version is that getting short fiction published (or any kind of art, really, in front of a wide audience) depends both on how many hours you’ve put your butt in the chair AND luck. But the odds on the latter get better if you’re submitting stories to the kinds of markets where the current editor has a track record of publishing stories you love.

And you read them again because you loved them so much. And then you sit down and start to try to figure out how they managed to do to ou what they did to you, so you might, at some point in the future, do that to someone else.

Because I mean, really. That’s the entire reason we submit ourselves to this frustration – to discover truth and to share that with others in the hopes you can change someone else for the better like your favorite author changed you.

Because we’re still grateful, all these years later, for the things they left behind.

[I know this is not exhaustive – it’s not meant to be. But now I’m exhausted. So it’s likely I dropped some discussion threads I was gonna come back to. But it’s long enough as it is.]

This entry was posted in Process Geekery, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Brust, Zelazny, Skill, Taste and a very brief life update

  1. Pingback: Being good, being great, and a slight overdose on writing process geekery | lagoraphobia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s