Monday, August 17, 2015

Mixing Genres in Speculative Fiction: Another Look

Astronaut Wizard by Jordan Grimmer
jordangrimmer on Deviant Art. 
I am a huge fan of work that encompasses more than one genre.  Regardless of it is a game, a movie, a work of art, a novel, or whatever - I'm always pleased to find myself in a complex world, with many strange or scary or wonderful things afoot.  I've written before about crossing genres, first in an introductory post here, and then a follow up here.  Still, things have changed since that first post (back in 2010), and I felt it was time to once again sing the praises of mixed genre work.

The artwork at right "Astronaut Wizard" by Jordan Grimmer (jordangrimmer) is an evocative visual display of multiple genres.  The artwork does such a good job of focusing our attention on the juxtaposition - all the light is on the magic hand reflecting off of the helmet.  The rest of the suit and background are lost in shadow.  I enjoy how it jars the imagination - one does not expect magic from an astronaut.  Just the thought makes the mind race with possibilities and questions.  What would space exploration be like with magic at hand - in this case, literally?  What would our past have been like (historical fiction) or our future (science fiction)? 

As far as novels, I read Watership Down by Richard Adams when I was about nine years old and adored it.  On the surface it is a fantasy about rabbits seeking a new home, but it includes so much more - political maneuvering, adventure, mystery, and even a nod to the supernatural.  It's also a very literary book, as far as I see it.  Thinking of it as a fantasy seems limiting, even if basically correct.

Sometimes science fiction is even better with mystery, or romance, or a bit of something scary thrown into the mix.  Certainly the scariest movie I've ever seen was Alien and it was, again on the surface, straight up science fiction.  But wow.  Horror.  Really incredible suspenseful horror.  I'm getting creeped out just thinking about it.

And then how about video games … I'm thinking of the Steampunk groundbreaker "Arcanum" which included magic, robots, monsters and more.  It even felt a bit like a western in places.  My character was always suited to be an arbiter - someone who solved problems by negotiation, and tried to avoid conflict.  This led to navigating some interesting political situations.  There were mysteries to solve, as well as battles to be won.  A generally great, complex game. 

So back to writing.  Fortunately, the tide has turned as far as the acceptance of cross-genre work.  Although it might still be difficult to pitch and categorize such work (and therefore difficult to sell such work) readers seem to be quite keen to read it.  There are lots of posts and articles that will give you tips and hits on how to write and pitch something that includes multiple genres.  I've put a few here as examples you might want to peruse.

Alan Rinzler, Ask the Editor:  Is it OK to cross genres?
Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz, Mixing It Up:  Writing Across Genres
Brian Klems, How to Write and Sell a Cross-Genre Novel

And there are a lot of commonalities between the articles. Here are a few take-aways for writers.

1. Read any genre you want to write in. Make sure you actually like what you are reading, and are motivated and enthusiastic about the genre. Be sure to understand the conventions, and what it is that gives a particular genre its appeal.

2. Focus on story. That means as you are writing, worry less about genre and more about creating a really compelling story that people will clamor to read. As usual, the reader has to care what happens to the characters. And something interesting does need to happen, somehow …

3. Stay consistent. No matter how complex the world, stay consistent within that world.

4. Eventually, you will need to know the primary genre of your piece. No matter what, there is a dominant genre in your work somewhere. It might not be by much, but it is in there. This is important information when trying to pitch or advertise your piece, or when trying to figure out how to tag or select keywords for searches. After all, readers have to start somewhere when they are looking for a new read.

5. Be confident. Don't listen to people who say you can't or shouldn't mix genres. If the story calls for it, then write the story.

Image Credit:  Astronaut Wizard by Jordan Grimmer, jordangrimmer on Deviant Art. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Naming Revisited - Pluto and Charon Get Tagged

Informal names for features on Charon
In my post on "Naming Astronomical Objects - Power, Productivity, and Privilege," I noted that naming astronomical objects was a serious issue (indeed, that naming anything was a serious issue).  I also mentioned that there was a tension between being able to name things fast enough (given the rate of discoveries) and that of wanting to be thoughtful about it.

The New Horizons Mission to Pluto found a unique way of dealing with that situation when they offered a poll this spring, asking people to vote on what their favorite names would be for potential features in the Pluto system.  The campaign was called "Our Pluto," and thousands of people responded to the call.  The campaign ended in April 2015, allowing the New Horizons team to be ready with a pocketful of names when they arrived in the Pluto system in July 2015.  Before long, the first maps of Pluto and Charon were constructed, and the informal names given to the features were indeed those chosen by people from the Our Pluto voting. 

Informal names for features on Pluto
And many of the names are surprising, given their origins in popular culture, such as "Mordor" and "Balrog" from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Vulcan," "Uhura" and "Kirk" from the Star Trek franchise, "Skywalker" and "Organa" from the Star Wars Universe, and "Cthulhu" from Lovecraft's mythos.  These names have been submitted to the IAU for formalization - it will be interesting to see how that body chooses to react, or if any of the names will be considered unusual at all.

For the most part, I really like the names, and many people agree.  Authors of articles in The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Wired, and io9 talk about the good aspects of the naming campaign, and that they feel positively about these names potentially becoming permanent.  But given my previous post on the issue, I feel just a bit edgy.  One issue we've come up a lot with in the SF, F, H community is dealing with great work from not-so-great people.  The issue has been discussed at length more than I can do justice to here, but was dealt with head on using necessary honesty by Nnedi Okorafor in a post (has swearing) about winning the World Fantasy Award.   (So the place name "Cthulhu" for example, may not be a universally lauded name ...)

Still, we're a democratic society, and voting is as close to public participation in official naming that has come to pass on a major planetary body (in my opinion).  I agree with many of the authors of the articles in that having the public involved is a wonderful thing.  It does not absolve us of our need to be vigilant in naming, but it does offer the opportunity to create and nurture community while we do so.

Image Credit:  NASA/JHU-APL/New Horizons

Saturday, August 1, 2015

It Was a "Very" Interesting Week

I did indeed do my experiment to eliminate the word "very" from my writing and speech for a week.  It was actually ten days, for reasons that are opaque even to me.  Anyway, here's what I discovered (at least for what is pertinent my own word usage.) 

"Very" in speech isn't easy to remove.  Substituting other words often results in conversation that doesn't seem natural to the ear.  Reconstructing sentences to avoid the need for the word seems to make for stilted speech.  While the exercise has expanded my thinking, I've chosen to change my word usage in speech by only a small amount.  This holds for most of my written dialogue as well, which isn't a surprise.  It is easier to spend the time to construct good sentences without "very" in them during writing as opposed to "on the fly" during speaking - so it is in fact easier while writing to reduce the use of the word and still create believable dialog.  But not using it in a situation where someone would "obviously" use the word again makes for conversation that just comes out wrong. 

But as for writing, I found many places where I was using "very" in a lazy fashion.  This applies to all kinds of writing - my blog, essays, papers, fiction, whatever.  A little extra effort in any place where I was about to use the word "very" usually resulted in a more interesting and more exact sentence.  This might mean using a different word, or better, restructuring to eliminate the need for the word completely.  That is, saying what you mean more directly, rather than using qualifiers to make the point (i.e. "exhausted" rather than "very tired").  This is not news, since writing coaches and "how to's" have been giving this sort of advice for years.  Still, it is nice as both the scientist and experimentalist that I am that I have the chance to prove it for my own personal condition.

Oh yeah, I forgot to add - this was a real pain for ten days.  We speak and write so freely.  Watching every word, and then going back over and correcting for the stray "verys" that got in there?  Serious pain.

Image Credit:  Once again, it is me and my awesome PowerPoint skillz.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Week Without "Very"

Ah, the word "very."  As we know, there is much discussion about this little word in writing circles.  Let's start off with a few well known quotes about writing this word "very" ...

"So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy.  A man is not very tired, he is exhausted.  Don’t use very sad, use morose," spoken by the character John Keating in the Dead Poets Society.  And there is this one, the first version of which was most likely the product of William Allen White, "Never use the word, ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word, ‘damn,’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.”

I use the word "very" a great deal when I am speaking.  I hear it plenty from friends, family, in various media, at work, etc.  Yet the word is so vilified in writing.  Somehow, I wanted investigate the strange phenomenon of "very."  I kicked around a few ideas and finally settled on the concept of just not using it for a week, either in writing or speaking, unless as a direct reference.  

I'm not sure I can do it, actually, and I keep re-reading my post here to see if it has found its way in somehow.  I have a feeling this will be an interesting week.

What do I hope to learn?  I'm not exactly certain.  Perhaps there will be a difference in how hard it is to avoid in speech versus writing.  Maybe I'll give it up easily and gleefully.  Maybe avoiding it will be irritating and I'll stop after three days.  Not sure.  But let's give it a try, anyway.

Image Credit - Me and my awesome Power Point skills