The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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BASFF SAMATAR forestClicking the illustration to the left will take you to “How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar, in the Mar. 2014 issue of Lightspeed. Clicking the cover will take you to the amazon page for JJA’s first Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy volume, which is where I read the story. 

I highly recommend the Best American. Quite a few of the stories were excellent. 

The Challenge:

Writing compelling characters can be majorly tough. Especially in short fiction, how do you find the room to really bring the character to life while also advancing a plot in some reasonable fashion? 

In a lot of stories, the answer seems to be to shovel exposition at the reader: tell us their whole life story, and pray it feels relevant. Or describe the character in minute detail, or give one key piece of backstory and hope it serves to flesh out the character so that we buy in. 

But those methods never really appealed to me. The former bores. The latter strikes me as reductive. Both hammer the pace until it completely gives in. 

So what’s a writer to do?

The Story:

There’s a lot to this story. A LOT. So much worth looking at. For one, it handles a lot of exposition in a complex way and makes it interesting. Also, it reads so smoothly, despite having really complex syntax and a musical prose quality. 

Also, twisty. At first its seems like this is set in a camp for wayward teens (it isn’t) in a world exactly like ours (it’s not) and that the girls are beginning a journey to heal emotionally and will ultimately lead fulfilling lives (nope). 

But the thing I wanted to talk about most, I found, was characterization.

We are introduced to a bunch of characters and they all felt so physically and emotionally separate and that fascinated me. 


The Solution:

In this story, Samatar seems to use 3 techniques to characterize. Firstly, the “expositional” type I mentioned earlier, although it is used just for one character and has a very gentle touch. Secondly, she offers precise and vivid descriptions of characters, usually invigorated with mood and voice–these are also used sparingly and are provided in sharp, short bursts. Not every character gets these treatments. 

Most of the characters, especially the campers, are characterized in a third way that I would call “reactionary.” 

Perhaps obviously, what I mean by this is that we get a huge glimpse into the characters simply in how they react to a core element of the story: puke. Okay, to spoil the first scene for you a tad: Cee jams a toothbrush down her throat to force herself to puke. Her friends watch on, and Cee encourages them to join her–she offers them her reasoning, although it’s suspect. 

Here are the reactions we get from the characters:

  1. Elle: At first says “Oh my God, that is disgusting.” But then she forces herself to puke “all of the sudden” (and with uncommon skill) in the sink beside Cee.
  2. Kate: “We have to stop her!” She grabs Cee and pulls her into a stall, frantically switching between “help me you guys!” and “Ew, ew, ew.”
  3. Max: “She’d believe anything”–Max responds at first with curiosity, and then with disbelief and disgust, screaming. Eventually, while trying to help Kate end this insanity, she gets so disgusted that she also pukes.
  4. Tisha (the narrator): The story is in first person, so we get a lot of her reaction. The key thing is “God, Cee. You were such an idiot.” But also, she starts laughing, apparently because she’s dizzy and afraid she’ll puke too. Then, of course, she gets so disgusted that she involuntarily pukes.
  5. Cee: When Elle begins puking, she nods her approval and says, “Good job, Elle!”
  6. 5 or 6 “other girls”: Many of these girls laugh at Katie’s antics trying to pull Cee into a stall, and say various things such as “Are you nuts?” and “Oh my God” and clutched each other. 
This isn’t the only episode of reactionary characterization we get in the story, but this one I think is the most useful and deals with more of the characters than the handful of others. 

Do you, reading this out of context, get as powerful a sense of these characters as I did? 

Two things that I think make this really genius-level material: 
  1. It’s puke. Even though the world she’s building is a little strange, just about any reader knows how they feel about puke and will probably have a visceral reaction. So this scene, these reactions, create a range that we can place our own reactions in. It’s a perfect barometer that allows us to compare ourselves to the other characters, almost getting to know them through analogy. 
  2. The “5 or 6 other girls” shows us what “normal” is in this world, which may be up for debate. It gives us a sort of control group to which we can gauge our own reactions and the reactions of the other characters. How does Max’s reaction reveal her idiosyncratic personality compared with the vaguer reactions of the other characters?
Finally:

One way to characterize (even in a strange world) is to create an event that readers can understand and allow the central characters to have specific reactions to them across a wide range. Spend time brainstorming a list of possible reactions.

But also, especially if the situation is strange, or the world is different than ours, make sure there is a control group that can show us “normal.”

Not only does this allow us to understand the characters better, it can allow us to engage further with the story, because we have to place ourselves on the scale. 

Thanks for reading! Do you agree? Disagree? If  you have any other strong examples of reactionary characterization, I’d love to hear about them. 

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F&SF  Earlier I suggested I might try to do a market analysis, and here is the first. Keep in mind, from a practical standpoint, this may very well be futile and useless. Still, I think as an activity it can be useful as long as you find a good, consistent method. This’ll get long, but I think it’ll be worth it.

Methodology

Only on the internet can something you say off-hand be lorded over you for the rest of your life. 

Anyway, 7 years ago on the F&SF forum someone posted this question: “How do you get that first story published?”

With this message, additionally: “The problem is that the rejection letter didn’t say what was wrong with the story. How can you ever get published when you don’t know what the editor is looking for in a story? Any suggestions as to how to get that first story published.”


And here was the best response from a seven-years-younger C.C. Finlay: 

“If you want to know what an editor is looking for in a story, you have to read their magazines or anthologies with an open mind. I led a workshop once, where we read and critiqued stories published by major magazines, including F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog, and SciFiction. The only rule for critiques was that you couldn’t point out what was wrong with the story–you had to find what was right with it. What spark was there in the story that caught the editors’ attention and made them want to buy the story. Many of the people who embraced that idea, and looked for the things that worked in every story, are selling their short stories now. They also developed a good idea of what markets their stories were best suited for. For what it’s worth.”

So from that, my methodology will be to look in on what is right with stories in F&SF, see if we can pin down C.C.’s style using his own approach. “For what it’s worth.”


Data — The Stories of F&SF Jan/Feb and Mar/Apr 2016

Here are the issues, the stories, and the things about them that caught my attention. 

F&SF JAN/FEB 2016 (special issue, kind of–3 Mars stories)

“Number Nine Moon” by Alex Irvine, Novelet:
Far Future SciFi. 3rd person. Fascinating situation–the protagonists are stuck in an abandoned city on Mars because they decided to loot the place after the Mars settlement op shut down. They only survive because the main character is practical and gets stuff done. 

“The White Piano” by David Gerrold, Novelet:
Ghost story. 1st person. Has one ghost story inside another, a nested sort of story. It’s also sweet, being thematically about how a family deals with the loss of a parent. Strong tension throughout. The nested story is driven by the mystery of the piano that plays at night. 


“Telltale” by Matthew Hughes, Novelet:
Adventure fantasy. 3rd person. This story is part of a series of tales that F&SF has published. Stakes are given right away and they are big: life or death. Immediate mystery of “where is he?” and there is a slow build to the mystery throughout. A big turn at the start of Act 3. An ending that is very practical, to match a practical get-stuff done protagonist. 


“Vortex” by Gregory Benford, Novelet:
Far Future SciFi. 3rd person. Very fascinating microbial alien that is all one creature inside the planet. Global politics affecting interstellar research on mars. A set of practical characters trying to save this alien from someone else’s mistakes, and a simple but powerful moral in the end from the mouth of the protagonist. Scientifically accurate.


“Rockets Red” by Mary Robinette Kowal:
Historical SciFi set on Mars (I KNOW!)–that’s a good point on its own. 3rd person. A close and personal story, and short, with a small interaction between a man and his mother (on mars, in the 50s). 


“Smooth Stones and Empty Bones” by Bennett North:
Fantasy. 1st person. Interesting take on what is essentially a zombie story. Begins with a solid, enticing mystery. A surprise ending pulled of believably. 


“Caspar D Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do?” by Nick Wolven:
Near Future SciFi. 1st person. Quite dark, but also, oddly, a little funny (in a nihilistic, end of the world kind of way–which is…a real kind of humor?). It’s a personal point of view on a big social issue (terrorism, media terrorism in this case to go along with the unending onslaught of media in this world). The ending is quite open-ended. 


“Robot from the Future” by Terry Bisson:
Near Future SciFi. 1st person. Strange and very visceral opening. Story driven by mystery. A classic genre plot structure: character has a problem, tries to solve it three different times. But the human interactions and the narration provide a lot of little surprises that keep the story moving. Strong characterization. Another one of those pragmatic protagonists.


“Squidtown” by Leo Vladimirsky:
Alternate History. 1st person. And impressive world and really great casual world building. Strong characterization, too, and the protagonist’s lack of a tongue creates some wonderful tension. 


“Touch Me All Over” by Betsy James:
Secondary World Fantasy. 1st person. A strong voice and experimental style. Character starts off with basically the worst thing happening to her: she loses her ability to pursue what she’s decided is the point of her life. 


“The Visionaries” by Albert E. Cowdrey:
Ghost Story (kindof). 3rd person, multiple. Plot driven by mystery. Interesting haunting–because it’s in a grove and because it’s haunted by what’s going to happen there. Multiple points of view in this story. Also, the end is an answer to the mystery but it makes the reader do a little work to figure it out, and it’s super satisfying because it brings together a lot of threads of the story while still remaining open-ended. 


“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” by E. Lily Yu:
Fantasy. 3rd person. Really sweet tale about a woman who wants to cure her friend of cancer. Interesting take on the unicorn trope. The end is sort of open. 


F&SF MAR/APR 2016

“The Liar” by John P. Murphy, Novella: Magical realism? Or strange ghost story. 1st person. A nice soft opening that allows us to learn about the lying power in a controlled environment. Then an introduction of a mystery that slowly builds to drive the story. Protagonist is honest and practical and gets stuff done. 


“The Ghost Penny Post” by Marc Laidlaw, Novelet: Fairy story/Historical fantasy. 3rd person, multiple A great twist of totally real world with fairy world, highlighted by the use of the postal system as the real-world element. Not sure I’ve ever seen a story taking this angle. It takes a very pragmatic man into a flight of fancy in a delightful way. POV switches to fairy characters with really lush descriptions of that world. 


“Red in Tooth and Cog” by Cat Rambo, Novelet:
Near Future SciFi. 3rd person. A truly clever novum (automated appliances that are abandoned and end up making an ecosystem in Central Park, and they can modify themselves) and a slow build in stakes. This story is really driven by world building, getting to know how this ecosystem functions and some characterization of the robots. Comes down to a simple choice being made by the protagonist. 


“The Language of the Silent” by Juliette Wade and Sheila Finch, Novelet:
Far Future SciFi. 3rd person. Protagonist is a newly-deaf linguist, which makes for an interesting POV for an interstellar first-contact story in which she has to translate. The protagonist, also, is of mesoamerican heritage and that plays a big role in the thematic content of the story. 


“A Mother’s Arms” by Sarina Dorie, Novelet:
Far Future Scifi. 1st person. Very close, very alien point of view that leads to a number of humorous moments. Clever use of language to world building like when the protagonist’s “stomachs” are hurting. A quite fast-paced and sad opening, paired with the rest of the story which is pretty happy, including a happy ending. Very emotionally engaging tale. 


“Belief” by Nancy Kress:
Near Future Scifi? 3rd person, multiple. Multiple points of view allow a thorough exploration of beliefs and their effects. Sort of attempts to weave science and spirituality. 


“Nanabojou and the Race Question” by Justin Barbeau:
Historical Fantasy/Fairy Tale. 3rd person. Very accurate historical reality with the fairy tale myth entwined. A dryly humorous voice. Main character mostly acts as an observer, but takes one critical action. A pragmatic main character. 


“Diamond” by Chris DeVito:
Far Future SciFi? 2nd person. It’s a story about an alien playing baseball and harkens back to racial integration of the sport. A very short tale with strong imagery. 


“The Silver Strands of Alpha Crucis-D” by N.J. Schrock:
Far Future SciFi. 1st person, plural. Very alien aliens, silver strings that dance in the sky. Incredible imagery throughout. A simple but powerful allegory about the ill effects humans have on their environments.  


“Golden Gate Blues” by James L. Cambias:
Noir mostly (with some meta fictional tendencies in a super hero world–a fascinating combination right away). 1st person. A strong voice and a bit of humor (again pretty dry). A great world, with solid world building and a cool novum. Driven mostly by mystery. A pragmatic protagonist. 



Analysis

That’s a lot of information to digest, I know. Give them a read and see if you find any of the patterns. 

A few trends I’ve noticed: nearly half of the stories (9/22) are mainly mystery driven (a few more have mysteries as minor elements) and nearly a third (8/22) have that classic-scifi “pragmatist” protagonist. Just a few more are in third person than in first (12 to 9 respectively) and just a few more scifi than fantasy (11 to 9). Near future scifi and far future scifi are nearly equal. Many of the stories are interesting just in the choice of POV character–either an alien, or someone with a disability that gets in their way, or a pragmatist. Nearly all of the stories are written in a plain and straightforward style but they also give more space to imagery than stories at other markets might. 

Some more general trends: the fairy stories, for the most part, are tied to very mundane, solid, real-world elements. Non traditional short story POVs stand a chance of working (3rd person multiple and 2nd person) as do the hard to place, slipstreamy stories, although they are few in number in these issues. Aliens in these issues, except for one story, are truly alien. 

Structurally speaking, the stories usually involve characters who want something and chase it, lose something and try to replace it, or have a problem and know how to solve it. Their plots are fully formed and idealized, usually with a good number of scenes (and scenes are longer, fully realized with definite beginnings, middles and ends). Stories in F&SF, rather than having an open ending, tend to “close with a click” to quote Terry Bisson. 


Although I think this magazine has more in common with classic Sci-fi than some newer mags do, I’d also be surprised if those magazine display the same breadth of genre. 


Anything to add? What is your experience reading F&SF or submitting to them? Do you notice any patterns above that I missed? Also, let me know if there’s a magazine you’d like to see get this treatment.