I am in total sympathy.
You may have noticed that there's a book Charlie Stross and I and a few other people lucky enough to have gotten ARCs have been wetting our pants over for months.
The book is Blindsight by Peter Watts.
It's out. And now other people are wetting their pants over it too.
Seriously. Every so often a book comes along that changes things. Think Neuromancer.
I think this is one of those books.
Read it, or risk being caught flat-footed.
leahbobet and stillsostrange and jmeadows have informed me that it is my sacred duty to blog meaningfully today. And since I just slushed (I read slush for Ideomancer. FWIW, I really recommend reading slush as a great way to learn why one is really not as clever as one thinks one is.) I was thinking about one of the most common reasons why, if the writing and narrative are good enough to hold me to the end, a story doesn't work for me.
And it's because the story fails to ask the interesting questions, and then pay off on them.
See, here's the dirty secret. Yer average slush reader is jaded like a jaded thing. I just rejected seventeen stories in about three hours, while eating sushi and drinking beer with the other hand, and hanging out in IM with other slush readers. (We believe that pain shared is pain lessened.) I've been reading slush since 2002, first for Abyss & Apex and then for Ideomancer, with a stint as a contest judge for Chizine along the way.
And when I look at short stories, I am looking for something special. I'm looking for the story that will make me sit back at the end and go "oh." And if you can make me cry, you've got me.
What I'm saying is that a perfectly functional short story is not enough.
I need a story that does more. It needs competent writing and a strong arc and narrative tension and characters I can care about--and "care about" can mean hate, by the way--but more than that, it needs some thematic resonance, some oomph, some bomp-de-bomp.
But it also needs to ask harder questions. To keep asking "why" and 'what happens then?" To develop the question. To get down in there and dig, and dig, and dig. To call up its writer friends and go "hey, here's my scenario, here are the things I thought of that could happen. How can I make this more challenging? How can I find a third (forth, fifth, sixth) path to take the story down?"
To pick an example not entirely at random, the story I was working on this week--when I got to the ending, I had two paths I could go down. I could have the protagonist sacrifice himself to save his people, or I could have him find some wiggle room and get out of it.
Both of those felt like trite endings. Both of them were trite endings.
And after talking to my crit partners, I found another solution. One where there's some wiggle room... and the solution entails an even more terrible sacrifice, partially shifted onto the shoulders of an innocent.
Better story, better ending, more thematic and moral complexity.
Keep asking questions.
jmeadows wanted me to blog about line of direction. And I dunno anything about line of direction; I suck at it. I'm always having to go back and fix it in chunks. cpolk is the line of direction girl.
On the other hand, maybe that qualifies me to talk about it.
Line of direction, in cinema, refers to the ways in which the director, er, directs the audience's attention to the significant aspects of a scene, and does it in an order that the audience can process. For example, we see the protagonists face, and then a closeup of his eyes--narrowing? steely?--and then a shot of whatever it is he's just noticed that made his buttocks clench.
Anyway, we need to do this in fiction, too. You have to lead the reader through the narrative in something resembling a linear fashion (unless you are being all experimental and jagged, which is stunt writing, and requires extra care and expertise) to slide him through the story so he does not lose too much information. So you feed him information in a logical series, to aid him in assessing it.
Think of it like proofs in geometry. Or like a film editor splicing a scene.
It's the art of directing the audience's attention where it needs to be.