Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dansky's Three Pieces of Advice

Over at Storytellers Unplugged, Richard Dansky (Firefly Rain) points out problematic tropes for authors of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Excerpts:
If there are more proper nouns in your back cover text blurb than non-proper ones, you're probably doing something wrong. ...

You're looking to get someone to get to know your kingdoms and monsters and wizards, not give them a Wonderlic test on their suitability to read without resorting to a dramatis personae cheat sheet. So if your book comes back with back cover text that reads like the fantasy equivalent of the President's morning briefing, complete with strategic analyses, family trees and threat levels, suggest a change for something simpler. Your unminted readers will thank you.

Unspeakable evil probably doesn't live in your mom's basement.

Look, I get it. Horror is largely a symbolic genre. The ghosts and vampires and unnameable critters from the vasty plains of Fgg'gtt'btt'tt (or, as I like to call it, Brooklyn) all stand in for something. ... That being said, it seems odd that every old family home that falls into the hands of every struggling writer on the planet has a gate to interdimensional evil in the basement. ...

Because really, what you're saying when you claim world-destroying evil is seeping out through the walls of the place you grew up is that your childhood fears are the worst and most important ones that ever were. ...

Try some perspective. Put it in scale. ...

If your star-spanning galactic empire doesn't have working cell phone technology, you may want to rethink things a bit. ...

Handwave the faster-than-light travel. Make all the aliens want to boink like space is one big rave at Ibiza and Orbital is doing their version of the Dr. Who theme song. Throw in zap guns and nanotech and God knows what else to your heart's content, if it makes for a better story.

But the moment your intergalactic space cops need to rely on a communications device that can't do half the crap my iPad does, you lose me. The instant your plot hangs on a mystery that could be solved in fifteen seconds with Google (and I say fifteen only because space cops are lousy typists), you bore me.
Read the whole thing. Dansky's advice seems spot-on to me -- except the bit about horror. Okay, I get it: Scribes of the scary stuff need to pay attention to verisimilitude. But if you've read classic spooky stories, the stuff from Lovecraft and Poe and James, you know that the genre isn't primarily symbolic. And even if you do many the squamous beastie squatting in your basement representative of some larger theme, that doesn't necessarily strip it of depth. As Richard Matheson has reminded us, evil lurks everywhere, in the cubicle next to you and in checkout line in the grocery store and in the man standing in the pulpit and people to whom he preaches. That's as true-to-life as you get.

(Picture: CC 2010 by horrigans; Hat Tip: Brandywine Books)

6 comments:

Donna Hole said...

Good advice. I'm not a fan of the horrible thing living in the basement either - unless it showed up after you moved out, then came back home . .

Thanks for the link. i'll check out the site.

......dhole

Scattercat said...

I like things living in the basement. I agree that monsters trying to destroy the world isn't very interesting, but I actually quite like it when the horror is very close and relatable. (It probably doesn't help that two of the four full-length short stories I've sold were basically mythologized versions of my childhood, one with a version of the happy ending I got and one with the nightmare ending I might have ended up with. My feeling is that you're not going to scare me with it if it doesn't scare you, so writing from your personal fears and psychological tics is actually probably more helpful than harmful.)

Loren Eaton said...

Donna,

I really think it depends on what an author is trying to do with the beastie in the basement. Fiction is always a vehicle for theme, and the best writers organically incorporate it into the proceedings.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

See, though, you were trying to communicate interesting things about universal human experience in your stories. I mean, "Terrible Lizard King" (everyone here has listened to it, right?) so firmly nails what it's like to isolated and oppressed in grade school -- and one possible "solution" to it.

Richard Dansky said...

Honestly, I was just noting that the correlation between "old houses with unspeakable evil leaking into the basement from other dimensions" and "old houses that belong to writers who are blocked on their current novel and moving back to the family home in order to try to get some work done" has a correlation of roughly 1:1. You'd think unspeakable world-shattering evil would manifest at the local feed lot, or gas station, or new tract home, or something to that effect once in a while.

Loren Eaton said...

Hey, thanks for stopping by!

Okay, I think I see your point better now: The issue is strictly setting, not theme. I almost always have my thematic glasses on, which can cause some overreading now and again.