March 21, 2010

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt’s Final Advice (from “12 Blunders”, anyway) – Forget the Payoff

(above, Jack McDevitt)

I’ve always hated stories that don’t end but peter out into frivolousness or hopelessness. I define the vast majority of Literary Novels this way. In 2007, I wrote the following, “Literary fiction is about powerless people living their lives in excruciating detail. The main character is the author in thin disguise making educated, satirical, wise, obscure, snide or erudite commentary in a way that no real person is that life could possibly be able to duplicate.” (I wrote this after a jag of reading Hemingway and Danticat).

Genre fiction, on the other hand, tends to have definite endings – sometimes good and sometimes bad, but always clear and typically, that ending is the only possible end result of the actions the author exposed. Romance, mystery, SF, fantasy, westerns, horror and everything in between tweaks the nose of the literati by constantly being commercially successful. Except for literary novels that get turned into movies (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, FORREST GUMP, FIGHT CLUB spring to mind), literary novels are read by a (supposedly elite) few who expound on them and write doctoral dissertations and eschew “genre fiction”. If this were not true, English teachers/professors might regularly assign John Norman’s ASSASSINS OF GOR, or LaVyrle Spencer’s MORNING GLORY, or QUEEN OF BLOOD by Bryan Smith.

I tried to write a “literary” science fiction short story. It was so awful I turned it over to Bruce Bethke and his FRIDAY CHALLENGE ( to dissect because, for me at least it was a dead story.

Why is it dead? No one understood the ending because I didn't spell it out. It was supposed to be subtly literary. I put it out for critique in an online writer’s group I’m part of. Several people commented that it was an SF story but they never saw the main character get to the space ship and fly off the planet. I wanted to say: “She didn’t. She plunged into the swamp and broke her neck, leaving behind a husband who’d lost a leg, his massive debt to the on-planet mining concern, and a little boy in the care of aliens. The End.” NO ONE GOT THE TRAGEDY. Because it was a “space story” and there were aliens, it MUST have been genre fiction and therefore needed an ending that was happy – or at least obvious.

I am NOT saying SF can’t be “literary”. Gene Wolfe and Connie Willis have proven otherwise. It’s just that I can’t produce anything remotely identifiable as literary. While McDevitt says, “I was laboring under the notion, beloved by Americans, that if you have a problem, there should be a solution. The reality of course is that some problems don’t lend themselves to solutions.” I would point out that while McDevitt may believe this in his heart of hearts – and he gives at least two examples to illustrate his point – his NOVELS don’t reflect that belief. All of the ones I’ve read have solutions. Not all the solutions are “happy endings”, but every one of the novels I’ve read so far have had solutions.

Proving…absolutely nothing! Except that the old saw, “Do what I say, not what I do” is alive and well on planet Earth. I will henceforth do what Jack McDevitt does: provide clear solutions to his stories – and write the best books I can.

Thank you Mr. McDevitt for sharing your wisdom with me!

(The Twelve Blunders have been used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage: Thank you, Mr. McDevitt!

image taken from:

1 comment:

Becky said...

Wow, that does not bode well for my stories, they rarely end well for my characters. Hopefully my readers will be able to follow and pick up on what is going on...