Monthly Archives: June 2013

What I’m reading: Beautiful Boys by Theodora Goss

I recently read “Beautiful Boys”, by Theodora Goss, Asimovs 2012 (reprinted in Strahan’s anthology).

Nice lyrical opening and the intriguing science fictional idea (distantly related to the disturbing “The Screwfly Solution”, 1977, Sheldon). It was also cool that she kept things ambiguous (possible unreliable narrator). And the use of Omni POV was quite effective (in the part about of waitress/boyfriend).

What I’m listening to: The Moon Moth

I would like to salute Josh Roseman’s narration of Jack Vance’s “The Moon Moth” on Starship Sofa (in two parts) as an example of extreme excellence in narration (the story involves a planet where speech is sung instead of spoken).

Starship Sofa can be a mixed bag but I though he really hit it out of the park. This might be one case where the podcast is more fun that the written version.

Thoughts on writing: Lessons from teaching

Over the past 20 years I’ve taught at four different universities, teaching different courses to both undergraduates and graduates. All told, I’ve had more than a thousand students. What have I learned that’s relevant for writing fiction?

It’s new to them

I know a ton about the subject. But to 19-year-old kids, it’s totally unfamiliar territory. I need to get them oriented, explain the terminology, ease them into it.

In fiction, your reader is a new arrival to a world you’ve lived with for a while. You need to gently introduce them to the setting, without bombarding them with a bunch of unfamiliar names and words in the first sentence of the story.

Unity of purpose

When giving a lecture on topic X, do not wander off into topic Y, especially when many of the ideas in topic Y contradict the ideas in topic X. If an example, table, graph, or slide does not advance your goal of teaching topic X, delete it.

In fiction, if sublot X or character Y does not serve to advance the overall goal of the piece, delete it.

Keep it simple

When I started out teaching, I worked hard at devising complicated examples that illustrated obscure points of theory. I made fiendishly subtle homework problems to challenge and impress the students. This was a mistake. Although fun for me, it didn’t work for them. A basic rule of thumb in teaching: if something seems at all complicated to the teacher, it will be completely opaque to the students. A homework problem I cannot solve in my head in ten seconds is going to really frustrate the students.

Similarly, in fiction, it is not necessary to construct a complicated plot with millions of moving parts. The reader has a hard enough time remembering the character names.

Manage expectations

Do not tell the students that grading will be based on a paper and a midterm, then cancel the paper and substitute a final exam. This will upset them.

Similarly, in fiction, you make a series of promises to the reader that you must keep. If the first paragraph of the story is humorous, the rest must also be humorous.

Get feedback

If you teach the same course over and over again, you will quickly learn exactly where students get confused. When you hear the same question repeated, you will quickly learn which slide on your lecture note is poorly phrased. When you teach, you get constant feedback, just from looking around the room and seeing student faces. I often tell jokes in class. Like a stand-up comedian, I know from experience which jokes will work, how to phrase them, and how to use comic timing. I know when a joke bombs, and I have a good idea why it bombed.

Such feedback is largely absent in the world of writing fiction. Seek opportunities to get feedback. If you write humor, be physically present when someone reads your work, so you can count the laughs.

Do what you love

In teaching, especially when teaching an elective course, you have many possible topics to cover. Which ones should you include?

When I first started teaching, I used lecture notes inherited from a senior colleague. These were excellent notes, but they included a lecture on topic X. Topic X was not a necessary topic that every student needs to know, and I neither knew nor cared about it. Not surprisingly, I was terrible at teaching topic X. I should have dropped that lecture and given a lecture on a topic that I knew and loved.

So, a general rule of teaching: don’t teach what you don’t know. There is a lot that you know that the students don’t know. Spend your time transmitting this information. Don’t try to transmit what you don’t know. If you are not interested in topic Y and the student’s don’t absolutely need to know it, don’t go out and learn it. Of course, if you are interest in topic Y, then preparing a lecture about it is a great way for you to learn about it.

In fiction, we have the luxury that all material is optional material, and you only need to write what you want to write. For example, if you don’t love horror, don’t write it.

Thoughts on writing: Lessons from academic papers

Over the years, I’ve written around twenty papers published in academic journals (under my real name–Oliver Buckram is a pen name), plus various book chapters and other work. I’ve written referee reports or served as a discussant for dozens more papers written by my colleagues.  And of course I’ve seen many student papers in my role as advisor and grader. What have I learned that’s relevant to writing fiction?

Kill your darlings

In an academic paper, you’re striving to communicate a set of ideas or facts to the reader. In fiction, you’re striving to communicate emotions, theme, and plot. In both cases, you need to ruthlessly remove irrelevant material that detracts from the unity of purpose.  It doesn’t matter how long you worked on the irrelevant material, or how hard it was to obtain the data.

When revising academic papers, the life cycle of unnecessary material goes like this: I realize section 5.2 is really irrelevant, so I shrink it a paragraph.  Later it becomes a sentence. Then a footnote. Then the footnote goes to footnote heaven.

It’s not about you

Newly minted Ph.D.’s often write papers that say “I ran regression X. Then I realized that regression Y was better. So here is regression Y.” News flash: no one cares. We just want to know what the truth is.  So, skip your personal odyssey and just give us regression Y.

Similarly, in fiction, the reader doesn’t care which character was originally the protagonist, or which scene you particularly enjoyed writing. They just want a good story (see: Darlings, Kill Your).

What is the point?

Bad academic papers often take the following form. The author discusses some ideas vaguely. He runs some inconclusive regressions which he explains poorly. He then concludes, summarizing how he “examined” the topic and “explored” the data, with possible mention of “complexities” or “important variables”.

You need to have a point. If you don’t have a point, don’t write a paper. Often, it is possible to detect pointlessness in the paper’s abstract or conclusion. 

Similarly, in fiction, the story needs to be about something: an event, a decision, a realization. Too many stories meander hither and yon, and then eventually peter out.

Be vivid and tangible

In academic papers, you need to translate statistical results into specific, usable form. Often the best way to do this is graphically, using a scatter plot, for example. Boring and abstract: variable X is positively correlated with variable Y.  Vivid and tangible: look at this neat graph of X on Y! Boring and abstract: the regression coefficient on variable Y is 0.03.  Vivid and tangible: A one-standard deviation increase in variable Y results in five thousand dollars of additional annual salary for the average worker.

In fiction, ideas, theme, and characterization are communicated through specific images, actions, and dialog. Boring and abstract: Joe was annoyed at Fred. Vivid and tangible: Joe glared at Fred and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

Get feedback

Your writing can be improved by getting feedback from trusted readers. In academia, we do this in many ways: by presenting papers in seminars and conferences, sending it to colleagues around the world, and through the publication process. In fiction, opportunities for feedback are fewer and generally less formal, coming from writing groups and writing friends.

The publication process for fiction is much, much more fun than for academic papers, for two reasons. First, in academia, papers must go through an often-excruciating refereeing process, where two or three anonymous colleagues/rivals/idiots demand various changes to your manuscript. In fiction, in contrast, friendly editors make helpful suggestions.  Second, academic journals do not pay their authors.  Instead, the authors pay the journal in the form of submission fees (one journal in my field charges $600), although these fees are typically an expense that is paid by the author’s university.

Have a goal

Students often crash and burn in the following manner. They decide to write a paper on topic X.  They go out and collect data on X, which takes them many months. A week before the paper is due, they sit down to write the paper. Problem: they don’t have a point. They have the data, but don’t know what to do with it.

They’ve done things in the wrong order. Ideally, you should start out with hypothesis Y. How can we test Y? Then you figure out what data is needed to test the hypothesis.

Now, your goal is allowed to change over time. But you do need to have a goal. And you shouldn’t do a ton of work on the data without a clear idea of how that work will ultimately advance your goal of testing an interesting hypothesis.

Similarly, in fiction, it is not enough to just have an idea (what if the internet is secretly made of cheese?). You also need to have a character and a dramatic situation (perhaps a cheesemaker stumbles upon the truth). If you can’t think of a way to use your idea, move on to the next one.

You don’t know it until you write it

In research, I often find that the process of writing itself adds great clarity. For example, I make a complicated table of results, then when I am writing up the results, I realize that I’ve missed something basic.  For example, I write the sentence “Row 5 of Table IV proves that XYZ is true.”  Then I realize that the sentence is untrue, and that I need to do something different to test XYZ.

In fiction, the same holds true. Characters may surprise you. Things which work in your head don’t work on the page. The process of writing is a process of discovery.

What I’m reading: Edmund Crispin

Last week I reread The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin,  one of a series of mystery novels featuring Gervase Fen, the eccentric detective and Oxford don. Literate, funny, and highly entertaining.

It was interesting to reread this with my writer’s eye, only newly-acquired. This time around, I noticed Crispin’s POV shifts and other tricks.

My favorite book by Crispin is Buried for Pleasure. Hilarious. The book has a mood and flow that really come together, with never a false note. Scene after scene hits the mark, with high points including the testimony of the “mullocking” couple, Fen’s speech to his political meeting, and the memorable and mellow final scene. They don’t write books like this anymore.