Jan 7, 2016

Short Game

cover art by Frank Kelly Freas
2015 Fantasy Challenge
I'm a creature of habit and I like to perform little experiments that test the possibility of changing my ways. Last year I challenged myself to to write a fantasy story.

For my 2016 Change Challenge, I'm going to play a little game that will challenge me to write shorter, more streamlined stories and story summaries.

Reading Disease: I'll read anything. source
Why Bother?
I recently complained about the pulp science fiction magazine practice of paying authors by the word. As a consequence of that bu$iness practice, we ended up with many pages of pulp science fiction that were just "filler" for magazines that needed to reach an arbitrarily established page size each month.

To some extent, we fans of Sci Fi were to blame... we'll read anything with the label "science fiction" on it, even if the story is low quality. There is a similar problem in the current era. Word processors and the internet facilitate the creation of long, bloated novels and series of novels. Too few authors have the self-discipline to strive for brevity. I know I don't.

Alastor Cluster
Science fiction, because of its very subject matter, has a special problem with brevity. Authors are expected to imagine and describe entire new worlds. Describing a new science fiction universe and making it intelligible to readers can take much effort and many pages. After Sci Fi fans have been led to a new world, there is temptation to trap them there and subject readers to yet more stories set in that now-familiar fictional universe.

Personally, I really do prefer to read longer stories and most of my all-time favorite stories are parts of novel series and I've long avoided writing short stories. I particularly despise trying to fit short stories into a predefined size limit.

Some authors are masters at crafting chapter-sized chunks of stories. A bunch of these mini-stories can then be strung together sequentially into a longer work. I've never enjoyed that kind of thing. I don't like such an artificial and stuttering presentation, particularly when false climaxes have to be made for each chapter. My default path to reading and writing bliss is thus to go long, but I want to challenge myself to imagine shorter.

Information Overload
I've been reading science fiction for over 4 decades, and I've long wished for a simple way to know what I'm getting into before buying novels. During the same time, I've also read a large number of biological science journal articles. It is common practice in the biomedical literature for authors to provide a short summary of their article. Readers can quickly read an abstract before deciding if they should bother to read the rest of the article.

For novels, it has been conventional practice for publisher$ to trick readers into buying. Book cover blurbs are often misleading marketing tools rather than honest depictions of what awaits inside. I've learned that I can't rely on book cover blurbs to accurately inform me about a book's contents.

Cadwal Chronicles: Book 2
Here are three examples of deceptive marketing and reader baiting from the back cover of my copy of Ecce and Old Old Earth (1992 Tor edition):
1) "a conspiracy of humans and aliens" Jack Vance is well known for writing stories in which aliens conspire to trick and enslave humans. This is not what the three novels in the Cadwal Chronicles are about, so putting this on the cover is offensively misleading.
2) "the scientific houses of Cadwal" In Vance's novel The Language of Pao, there are are what could be called "scientific houses". There is no such thing in the books of the Cadwal Chronicles.
3) "there are ancient crimes to be discovered" In Vance's novel Emphyrio there are what could be called "ancient crimes" that need to be revealed by the protagonist. In the Cadwal Chronicles there is a crime (the murder of the protagonist's mother) that is 20 years in the past, and Frons Nisfit stole and sold some Naturalist Society property (including the Cadwal Charter) several decades previously, but using the term "ancient crimes" in the context of the cover for this novel is misleading. And these crimes are not "discovered"; rather, the mysteries associated with them are solved.
Cadwal Chronicles: book 3
Book publisher$ like Tor routinely engage in this kind of deceptive marketing. And don't even get me started on the topic of cover art that has nothing to do with the story. I want to find ways to clearly and concisely communicate the nature of my own stories to readers, not trick them.

Short and Sweet
Bottom line: I prefer long fiction, but I want to experiment with going shorter. Going shorter does not come easy to me, so this is going to be challenging and I might fall flat on my face (that's okay, in 2015 I tried to write a fantasy story and basically failed). In particular, I want to challenge myself to write shorter versions of long stories and honest summaries of stories that can be aids to readers who are struggling to search through the vast ocean of available science fiction stories for the specific types of stories that they enjoy.  Question: Is it true that even a very long science fiction story can always be "boiled down" or encapsulated or expressed as a short "teaser story"? I'm skeptical, but this idea intrigues me.

I suppose there are few things more frustrating for book publishers than to put out a wonderful novel and have the world fail to notice. Why put an accurate book description on a cover when doing do might "trick" readers into thinking the book is boring? This is a real danger for authors such as Vance who can start with a simple plot as the skeleton of a story and turn it into a festival for readers. Are there some books for which any concise summary will fail to capture the book's magic?

Gohrlay's visit to Earth
The Editor
I've been playing around with the idea that I am just "the editor" of the Exode Trilogy. I have fun imagining that people such as Thomas, Gohrlay and the Atlantis Clones write the "chapters" of the Exode stories and then it is my job to cobble all those "chapters" into a coherent set of novels.

Here in 2016 I want to take this game play to a new level. I'm going to start making editorial demands on Gohrlay and the other authors who are telling the Exode story. In particular, I'm going to demand that folks like Gohrlay submit short "teasers" to accompany their long writings.

Foundations of Eternity
My model for these "teasers" is going to be the "abstracts" that are placed at the beginning of scientific journal articles. The "teasers" that I ask for are not going to be marketing devices, they are going to be aids to the reader. An additional rule is going to be "no jargon allowed." The story teasers need to be in plain English.

Target 1
For about the past 6 months I've been planning on re-writing the first chapter of Foundations of Eternity. I figured out a way to get Gohrlay to do this particular writing project, and it is only fair that she be allowed to tell, in her own words, how she died. But I'm going to insist that she start by providing me with a short (less than 500 word) "abstract" of the story.

Multiple Tracks
cover art by Boris Vallejo
We no longer need to be trapped by the restrictions that are inherent in print publishing. Why can't there be multiple versions of science fiction stories? I'm imagining short, medium and long-length versions of the same story. Let each reader decide which version they want to read.

A Model
My hard-cover copy of Jack Vance's Araminta Station is 554 pages long. I greatly enjoy that novel, but I can't escape the feeling that it is longer than it needed to be. At the start of the second book in the Cadwal series, Vance provided a 17 page-long synopsis of Araminta Station.

building R. Gohrlay
When I wrote the first chapter of Foundations of Eternity, I was trying to convey the idea that Gohrlay's telepathic ability (largely unconscious) was providing her with clues about the fact that her secret mission to Earth could never really go undetected. The chapter ended up at 9,000 words, probably longer than it should have been. I suspect that Gohrlay's version of the story will be of a similar length.

Foundations of Eternity
Vance found a way to condense the 554 pages of Araminta Station down to just 17 summary pages, so (theoretically) that 9,000 word chapter in Foundations of Eternity could have a similarly scaled-down abstract of 275 words. Get to it, girl.

Related Reading: Contact Ascension
Nov. 2016 update: shortness
Next: from Numenes to Yrinna
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