Novelist as journalist

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I’ve read two things of late which attribute a journalist’s skill to writing a novel, and vice-versa. Details, handled with care, are what link these two approaches to writing.

In Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler creates a world of 2025 with almost no technology advances, but terrible declines in safety, water supply and food. In her novel she lays out a California with so much detail that some reviewers compared the writing to reporting. It’s a great read, easy to keep plowing through — and it even addresses some spiritual needs of a society in peril.

In The New York Times Magazine, novelist Alex Witchel uses the talents of a fiction writer to capture a dazzling portrait of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. Lots of scene, peeking into the subject’s psyche. Verisimilitude, indeed. A thick, juicy chunk of creative non-fiction, with the emphasis on creative. (And if you haven’t seen Mad Men on AMC, watch. One blogger who writes screenplays calls the first season of this ’60s-era Madison Avenue ad-men drama “a master class in character development.”)

I come from journalism, so details and dialogue are old friends. Structure, though, is the real lesson which I work to learn and practice. Novelists, of course, know story structure but have to do their reporting in a newspaper’s brevity. It’s all writing, after all.

SF (and fiction) basics, books online

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Tor Books is giving away free SF novels through Sunday. I am a big fan of Battlestar Galactica (a SF TV series that is more well-crafted war drama than SF). Downloaded the novel that Tor has published, based on the series, to enjoy the story in print. Well written, indeed.

The author of this Battlestar Galactica novelization, Jeffrey A. Carver, has a Web site with great advice on getting over basic missteps in any kind of writing, as well as the specifics of creating an entertaining SF world.

Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy

And don’t forget to download your free books. Tor is ending the program, which probably rattled some cages in sales for this Macmillan imprint, on Sunday. Maybe most important is what Tor is doing now: putting everything it sells in electronic format, if the big publisher has online rights.

Tor’s Patrick Nielsen Hayden notes: “Tor parent company Macmillan is actively converting all titles to which we have digital rights. It really is just a matter of time before the majority of our library is available in e-book form…. There are issues of workflow and rights, just as there are everywhere else. I think you’ll see lots more e-books in lots more formats in the next few months.”

Slipstreaming toward a genre

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One of the hard things for an writer to accomplish is knowing where their book will land on a bookstore’s shelves. Write a mystery, romance or western, and you have no challenge on this score. Write a story that simply tells a tale, though, and you have two choices: mainstream, or slipstream.

The latter term was coined by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling in 1989, and it’s even got a Wikipedia entry. Eventually that entry will lead you to Sterling’s article. He quips that he’s made up the word based on mainstream. Slipstream is also a kind of propulsion drive used in Star Trek, too, but in Sterling’s view it’s a story that crosses genres (say, sci-fi and mainstream) and describes a world that’s different.

For a master list of the wide and wooly range of slipstream, have a look at the titles Sterling compiled along with Nova Express sci-fi editor Lawrence Person. (Both living in Austin, by the way, home of our Writer’s Workshop.)

Sterling’s article is worth reading if you’re writing something that isn’t quite one genre or another. For now, I’ve decided that Viral Times is slipstream fiction. It’s not a section in Barnes & Noble, but at least it’s a more accurate description of how rich the story will be once its finished.