Month: April 2014

When Is a Story Not a Story?

There is a particular short “story” (sometimes hilariously referred to as “a six-word novel”) that is often attributed to Hemingway (though almost certainly not his invention) that consists of only the following words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This trifle of words is often lauded as being a masterpiece of flash fiction (which, to me, is an oxymoron). Now, I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but this bit of fluff is without any inherent meaning.

The only actual meaning contained in those words is that there are baby shoes for sale in new condition. Any meaning beyond that is given to it by the reader. And perhaps because stories are supposed to be about conflict, we assume the worst. A child who died not long after birth. A miscarriage, perhaps. An adoption that fell through. Or whatever. But those are all assumptions by the reader. There’s nothing in the piece that gives us any reason whatsoever to conclude any of those things, or anything else. Perhaps the shoes didn’t fit. Perhaps they were a gift for a friend, but were forgotten at the back of a closet and never given. Or any of a hundred other things.

Seriously, they were the ugliest fuckin’ shoes.

It’s all well and good to allow your reader some involvement with your work. There is no need for you to spell out everything in great detail. Once upon a time, a test reader of mine complained that I never stated what color eyes my protagonist had. “It’s important,” she said. “You can tell a lot about a person from the color of their eyes.”

Velcro? You’re joking, right?

Disregarding her obvious delusion, the fact was that there was no reason for me to state what color his eyes were. It had no effect on the story. I was perfectly fine letting my reader give him whatever color eyes they wished. Similarly, in most circumstances, I find it okay to let the reader imagine what sort of clothing my characters are wearing. Or what they like on their pizza. Or any of a thousand other things.

Leather!? You bought me leather!? I’M VEGAN, BITCH!

But the actual meaning of an event is rarely open to speculation. See, that’s my job, as a writer: to tell a story. I’m not here to write a puzzle that someone is to figure out (at least, not without giving the answer at the end).

Yet, that’s exactly what this piece does. It forces the reader to “write” the story, filling in the conflict themselves. But stories aren’t just about conflict. They’re about characters and how they change (or refuse to) due to the story’s events (or in spite of them). And there is no character, here. And that’s why I put “story” in quotes in the first sentence. Because it isn’t a story. It’s a scenario, nothing more.

Posted by vmwales in Details, Other Writers, Writing Process, 0 comments

WTF Is Speculative Fiction?

I describe myself as a “speculative fiction novelist.” Says so in the header of my website and on the banner that adorns my table when I do appearances, so it must be true. But evidently, it confuses people. So much so that I’m sometimes referred to in press as a fantasy writer or a science fiction author. Neither is quite accurate, though not exactly wrong, either.

This should be on everyone’s car, since we’ve all been there.

So what is speculative fiction? I can’t say it any better than Wikipedia:

“Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror fiction, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history…”

So far, I’ve hit three of those groups: fantasy, dystopian, and superhero. And actually, my superhero series, The Many Deaths of Dynamistress, could also qualify as alternate history. I suppose in another ten years, my dystopian future book will also qualify as alternative history.

Some of you may have noticed that it says Science Fiction on the spine of the first Dynamistress book and on the back above the bar code. That’s because those codes (called BISAC codes) are pre-set by the Book Industry Study Group. They don’t have a listing for Speculative Fiction. And when Reckoning was nearly ready for publication, they also did not have one for Superheroes (though they do now, probably due to the email I sent them). So I had to choose between Fantasy and Science Fiction. I chose the latter because there’s a good bit of solid science in it, even though it obviously can’t give the results I chose. It’s really Science Fantasy, I suppose. But that’s not an official category, either.

Such is the ongoing quandary of the Spec-Fic writer. We often cross genres and have to pick one to use as a label. That’s why so many of us latch onto the Speculative Fiction label. It fits better, taking into account the mixing of these similar genres.

Not that kind of… oh, never mind.

So why do I write this stuff? Probably because it’s what I grew up reading. I’ve loved comic books ever since I was little. When I was thirteen, I discovered science fiction. A few years later, fantasy. For a long time, that was pretty much all I read, so it only stands to reason that I’d want to write it, too.

My first writing professor in college complained that my short stories, while serious, had a strong element of “popular” fiction in them. He apparently considered this to be a bit of a flaw. That’s okay, because I considered him to be a bit of an idiot.

It’s entirely possible to write “popular” or “genre” fiction that goes beyond the common expectations, to be “serious,” to make people think. And that’s something my table banner also says: “Fiction that makes you think.”

I like challenging peoples’ norms, pushing them outside their comfort zones. And Spec-Fic seems to contain the ideal set of genres in which to do this effectively, while also being entertaining.

And that’s why I love it.

Posted by vmwales in Genre, 0 comments