March 1, 2015

WRITING ADVICE: What Went RIGHT With “Teaching Women To Fly” (Stupefying Stories: It Came From The Slushpile, 2010) Guy Stewart #14

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote to the left will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

I have a saying regarding “literary fiction”: “[It’s] about powerless people living their lives in excruciating detail. The main character is the author in thin disguise making educated, satirical, wise, obscure, or erudite commentary in a way no real person in that life could possibly be able to duplicate.” This was from my personal journal after reading Hemingway’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, Edwidge Danticat’s KRIK KRAK!, and several years later, Gregory David Robert’s SHANTARAM.

There is a powerful movement in science fiction to writer “literarily” as well as in the more traditional style of most SF – space operas – exemplified by the works of Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delaney, Mary Doria Russell, Stanislaw Lem, and others including JG Ballard, who was my very first exposure to literary SF.

There is a certain kind of literary SF that I like, which delves deeply into character while maintaining the edifice of science fiction adventure. After reading Danticat’s THE FARMING OF BONES, I wanted to try my hand at the style and wrote this story.

I thought it was deep, interesting, and powerful – exactly what literary fiction was supposed to be.

It was summarily and anonymously rejected a dozen times, so I submitted it to an on-line writer’s group I was part of. It was summarily executed with many comments. The most succinct were:

Something could come of this, in such a way that although Celianne fails to overcome her fear of starships, she finds a way to help her family and perhaps even pay off her debts. Perhaps they've even scavenged enough parts of derelict ships to build their own and need a pilot, who knows? Well, you do. So do consider doing more with this aspect of the story.

“As a story, this one starts out quite slowly. A conflict doesn't become apparent to me until Bill's status is explained on page 10, and then the Company man threatens Celianne on page 11. The tension mostly evaporates while she's rescued by the grumpah, to return only on page 21 when Mamun demands his payment. 

“Initially, we're presented with Celianne's internal conflict which is that she misses flight but is terrified of it because of being kidnapped and tortured by pirates. However, I'm not sure-at least in the beginning-what she wants. She misses flying, but does she want it again? In the first few pages, there is no strong desire driving her forward. She's simply going through her daily routine until she learns of her husband's injuries and creditors begin to harass her. Because of this, I did not feel truly engaged in the story until the damaged harvester came in…As I mentioned earlier, I like that Celianne overcomes her fear. However, when the _grumpah_ says he's taught a lot of female humans to fly, it seems that success will come easily to Celianne, and it does. This makes the ending inevitable but not surprising. Celianne never seems to be in any danger from flight.”

All of these people – as helpful as they were trying to be – were READING the story as if it were a standard SF story; in which case, she would overcome her fear of going back into the weirdness of interstellar flight, save her family, and leave Enstad’s Planet behind.

But that wasn’t what I was trying for in the story! I wanted to communicate that no matter where we go, we are ALWAYS going to be dissatisfied. We can live on worlds far from Earth, far from everything we know and evolved/were created for, and still we will whine and cry about our lives. We will be bored...that’s the thing I will never forgive STAR TREK for: no one on the show is ever bored. Apparently, along with being free from want, they “…don't succumb to revenge…have a more evolved sensibility”, and all the rest of the wonder that makes STAR TREK fun, but ultimately doomed, no one’s ever becomes bored whilst trekking between the stars.

I don’t hold that hope up for Humanity and I think the literary SF writers don’t either. But there are few who can write it and maintain the balance between the exploration of the “normalness” of space travel and forward-moving action/adventure.

Most people think I missed the boat here.

Until I sent it to Bruce Bethke.

He was the first person to understand the story. It could be that his writing tends to be in this vein – it would explain why he won the PKD Award in 1995. He has fascinating thoughts about the life, the universe and everything and he has become a good friend of mine. He “gets me” where others don’t.

I’ve written a few other stories with a literary bent – and one person that the list below doesn’t include but SHOULD, is Michael F. Flynn. If you want to read literary science fiction wrapped in a hard science fiction shell, try THE WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS.

At any rate, I’m going to continue to try and mine this vein despite my negative assessment at the top of this essay. While my intent is to counteract the rosy perfection of STAR TREK’s future, I also refuse to fall into the grim darkness of THE HUNGER GAME’s future.

There has to be a middle ground and I am more than willing to keep hammering away at what I could call in my head, “realistic future science fiction”...

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