Monday, January 02, 2006

Nano Lessons

Science fiction author Crawford Kilian has a pretty good writing blog. Recently he talked about genre conventions and what to do with them. He's specifically talking about a novel he's working on and comparing it to John Robert Marlow's Nano (which I haven't read and can't comment on), but he has some good things to say about genre conventions in general and what a writer's responsibility to them is:

"Anyone writing in... a genre must walk a fine line between plagiarism and parody. If you love your genre's conventions too much, you just imitate your favourite writers and wonder why you can't get published. If you see those conventions as preposterous, you can laugh at them, but then you spoil the fun for your readers (as Cervantes spoiled the fun for all the folks who loved reading chivalric romances).

"The trick is to recognize why these particular conventions appeal to readers, and then to push the conventions to reveal something implicit in them that other writers haven't understood."

That's great advice and reminds me of a quote I once read (can't remember where now, Stephen Grant maybe?) that said that most writers don't really want to write, they just want to stick their names on something that they think is cool. I'm guilty of that. It's the reason I want to write a jungle adventure story. I don't have anything particularly new or interesting to say about jungle adventures (yet), it's just that I like them and want my name on one. Fortunately, I want the one with my name on it to be really really good and that's where Kilian's advice comes in handy.

While criticizing Marlow, Kilian also sneaks in some very sound advice about the difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay:

"One of the problems in Marlow's book is that it's clearly written to be a movie full of big dumb special effects, so right there it runs into genre problems: as a genre, film SF is simply different from print SF. They have different priorities and appeal to different parts of our minds. That's why War of the Worlds is so good as a novel and so awful as a movie. Michael Crichton's laughable Prey is another example of a novel designed to be something else.

"And here is a fatal problem: Print SF tries to get us to think about scientific ideas that the author has dramatized for us so that we can grasp them better. An idea like nanotech is an important one, and deserves careful thought. If it's going to be used simply as a pretext for blowing up San Francisco, the message is that watching stuff blow up is far more important and interesting than understanding nanotech. All the mini-lectures on nanotech are just padding, and of course they'd end up cut from the screenplay."

This is something else I need to hear. I tend to think cinematically when I write. I think it's a strength that helps me keep my pace brisk and my descriptions succinct, but I don't want it to become a liability by forgetting that there are things that prose does that film can't. (I like to think though that I don't have a problem with sacrificing story for mindless action, so in that sense, Kilian's preaching to the choir.)

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