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The Basis of Suspense

So, a week or so ago, Kyle Aisteach wrote a blog post called “Hiding in Plain Sight.” It’s a pretty good post on an important topic–that is, when you want or need to “surprise” a reader with something, but in order for that surprise to work you also have to lay certain information in front of the reader without letting them realize just what it means. This is, no joke, a really important thing to be able to do, and it can be tricky. I think the first time I actually really, truly noticed it was when I first watched The Hudsucker Proxy. Yes, I know, films are not stories or novels. However. The Coen brothers pull this particular trick off in a spectacular fashion, and once I realized what they’d done, I spent some time figuring out just how they’d done it. I won’t spoiler the movie for you. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about, and could do worse than to watch for yourself, again, to see exactly how they pulled it off. If you haven’t, well, you might want to start watching Coen brothers films.

Anyway. In his blog post, Kyle is contemplating that particular technical issue. It’s an important one, for various reasons. You want it in your tool box.

But there was a particular line in the post that made me go “Nope. Nuh uh. No, Kyle.” But I was at Worldcon, and only looking at the web to relax a bit before going to sleep, and so I didn’t comment. But it’s come to mind now and then and hey, this is why I have a blog, right? So I can muse on whatever takes my fancy.

I’m not meaning to aim any criticism at Kyle or at his post. Like I said, he’s talking about a technique that pretty much every fiction writer needs to think about at one time or another. No, it’s just this one line: “Surprise is also the basis of suspense, which is arguably even more important to the storyteller than humor is.”

Here’s the thing. Surprise is not, in fact, the basis of suspense. Surprise can be very important–though, as Kyle reminds us, it’s mostly a particular sort of surprise. One that’s been carefully prepared. But suspense?

Suspense is not about surprise. Suspense is not about hiding information. You can hide as much as you want, you can jump out from behind doors as often as you like, you can surprise your reader every time but that’s not the same thing as suspense. At all.

I’ve said it before, and will doubtless say it again. Suspense is not generated by not knowing what happens next. Suspense is generated by the reader caring about what happens next.

Now, this is not to say that the order in which a reader receives information isn’t important. In fact, managing the flow of information–the order and the pace of it, what details are revealed when–is something any writer has to get a handle on. Particularly in science fiction and fantasy, where so often you don’t just need to tell the reader what’s happening, you also need to convey just what the world of the story is like, or the history of the story’s world, or…you know. Exposition. I suspect most of us learn very early that we need to pay serious attention to the ways we handle exposition. But we forget, perhaps, that just telling a story is, itself, a kind of exposition.

The aim is not to conceal–suspense is not about concealment, not about surprise. The aim is to expose. Suspense is generated by the act of exposing–by the way in which you reveal.

In The Hudsucker Proxy, nothing necessary is concealed from the viewer. What isn’t immediately revealed to the viewer also isn’t immediately revealed to Norvile Barnes, the protagonist. The viewer learns it at the appropriate moment–the moment he learns it. A large part of the effect of this revelation is surprise (very much the sort of surprise to which Kyle refers). But we have not been waiting, while watching the film, to discover this thing. What makes the revelation so effective is not that we’ve been waiting for it, but that we never actually suspected it was there to begin with (although of course it was carefully set up for us from nearly the beginning of the film*). So it’s not the concealment of this information that makes for suspense. Any suspense is generated by our sympathy for Norville, by the way the viewer engages with him and with his situation.

Any time you tell a story, you aren’t going to be able to present every bit of information at once. So even when you don’t mean to conceal anything, you’re going to start in a state of the reader not knowing everything she needs to know. The way you reveal that information is going to have a huge impact on how the reader experiences the story–but this is not the same thing as getting the forward movement you need from concealment. I know that seems like a nitpick, but it’s really not the same thing. And I kind of wish people would stop framing suspense as an issue of what is concealed–because it’s nothing of the sort. Like I said, I’m not pointing a finger at Kyle. This is the common assumption about suspense, and like so many common assumptions it’s rarely questioned. But the fact of the matter is, a reader doesn’t keep reading because of a mystery, or because there’s something she doesn’t know yet. She keeps reading because she cares about the answer to the mystery. She doesn’t keep reading because she doesn’t know if the character lives or dies. She keeps reading because she cares if the character lives or dies. Different things.

Still, it’s true, how you manage information is extremely important. I mean, like, completely, entirely essential. You could do worse than to ponder that issue daily for the next few months. Or even years. I’m not joking. The order and pace at which you reveal information to your reader can keep your reader reading, can engage her so that you can get her to care. And in fact, this isn’t just an essential issue on the level of story, but also on a word-to-word level. I suspect it’s what Charlie Jane Anders was talking about when she said on io9 that “there’s really only one kind of sentence that actually works: a sentence that carries the reader forward from the previous sentence.” Some of the commenters were all “well, duh,” but actually I think this is an important insight, it’s just that it’s difficult to articulate. It’s all about how you’re feeding the information to the reader. Word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. Scene to scene. It’s all about getting the information to flow exactly the way it needs to, for your story to be effective. It’s about exposition.

Not how you’re concealing it. How you’re exposing it.


*I’m trying very hard not to spoiler this film, but really, why haven’t you watched it already? And I really, truly feel I learned a lot from how it handles this sort of exposition. It is, for me, a very clear, textbook example of a particular technique that has come in handy, for me, more than once.

Slush Frustration

You guys. Seriously. There are things I see over and over again in slush and after the fifteenth or sixteenth example of it I just want to shout “Stop doing that!” But of course, the writers don’t deserve to be shouted at, and it’s certainly not their fault that their story is the nineteenth I’ve seen that day that does exactly the same thing.

It’s something I’ve mentioned here before. But it’s so, so common that it could bear mentioning again. Put briefly, an idea is not a story. In fact, a single idea is generally insufficient to make a story with. You need at least two, and then you need, you know, a story.

Let’s say I’ve had an idea–coffee naiads! Like water nymphs, you know, only for coffee!

This is the sort of thought you have when you’re waiting in line at Starbucks. The best thing to do with this kind of idea is to set it aside. Maybe put it in a notebook if you keep one (I don’t, mainly because I never actually look at notebooks. This is a problem I have with calendars, too. Thank goodness for SMS alerts, is all I can say). Maybe it will come in handy some day, and maybe it won’t. Probably won’t–most of these idle idealets don’t turn into anything more. If it will, it won’t do so on its own–the idea of a coffee nymph, with nothing more, really can’t support even a flash piece. It needs something else–another fantasy premise added to it (perhaps a very careful working out of what that would mean, for such beings to exist), a very compelling character with a definite problem or crisis that is, somehow, linked to the existence or nature of coffee nymphs. Something. Anything.

Anything but what so often turns up in slush. The writer had the idea of the coffee nymph. Like a good, industrious writer she sat down to make something of it. “What do I do with my coffee nymph?” she wonders, and the first thing that comes to her mind is….oh, a guy who goes to Starbucks every day and is in love with a woman he always sees there. He doesn’t know how to get closer to her, or perhaps he talks to her every day but she’s not forthcoming about who she is or where she lives and won’t agree to meet him anywhere but at the coffee shop. The employees there obviously know her well, and they look at him with pity, and they warn him to just leave her be, he doesn’t have a chance, she’s not for him. Ah, but if he gets a job there, he’ll know what they know! He will, they agree, but warn him that he will regret knowing it.

Nevertheless, he is driven by love to quit his high paying corporate job and take work as a Starbucks barista. At the end of the first day, they empty the urns and turn them off…and his love vanishes into thin air. Because she is the spirit of coffee, you see? No coffee, no coffee nymph. He can never have her and he has given up his former life in vain! His heart breaks, but he will stay there to Be With Her Always. The End.

(There are, of course, alternate endings available. Our MC might find a way to triumph, investing, perhaps, in an industrial coffee urn for his apartment, or buying the coffee shop and making it 24 hour so he can have her at his beck and call, for a “happy” ending. Or alternatively, he can find that he is now trapped forever, and will for the rest of his life be only a mindless slave to Coffee.)

Nine out of ten folks who write this story give it to us in a very predictable fashion. We open in the coffee shop with our main character in line watching the coffee nymph, musing on how he’s come there every single day to see her. We probably have some backstory inserted–if we’re lucky it’s a paragraph or so of straight narration. If the writer has spent too much time exposed to The Rules of Writing we get some As You Know Bob dialogue–not one sentence of which is even remotely likely to actually appear in an actual human conversation–that takes up four times the space. We get the conversation with the sympathetic barista, we probably get a scene where he talks to various other people in his life, perhaps a scene at the MC’s work where he reflects on how empty his life is without Her. We’re told (or, gods help us, shown in great detail) that he quits. Our last scene will be an extended description of taking the Starbucks job, showing up for the first shift, explaining how much he anticipates finding out the truth about Coffee Nymph (Oh, her name will, of course, be some kind of pun or clever joke on her nature), and then, finally, the tragic Truth is revealed.

The tenth writer will realize that, in fact, there isn’t actually enough here for a story to run on. You want a story to propel the reader forward, to keep her reading. That’s actually not easy to do, and it’s even more difficult with insufficient material. What that tenth writer ought to do with this realization is to either put this story away until more material has appeared, that she can combine with this to make something that will really do the job, or else she should spend a lot of time and thought on this idea, build it up into something less flimsy, something that will really, truly hold the weight of a story, really, truly, interest a reader.

But this tenth writer, having seen that her story is lacking a certain something, decides that what it needs is suspense. So she’ll write this story from the point of view of the coffee nymph. While carefully never mentioning just what the character is, just lots of mournful references to “But I could never be what he wanted me to be, what any of them have ever wanted me to be.” And in the end, she will explain to her would-be lover (and to the reader) just what she is. Surprise! You’ve been waiting all through the story to find this out! On the edge of your seat, even!

Well, no, not. The reader gave up a few paragraphs in.

These are not stories. These are “Once upon a time, I had this idea–coffee nymph! The End.”

To be honest, I am profoundly uninterested in the coffee nymph idea. I produced it with about five minutes’ worth of flailing around, while I sat here on my couch. The plot outline took another five minutes. If I wanted to write this story, it might take a few hours. As outlined above, anyway. But I wouldn’t do it, and won’t. It wouldn’t be anything anyone would actually want to read.

Now, another writer might really make something of the coffee nymph. Perhaps next week I’ll read a coffee nymph story and be really fascinated by it. That’s how these things go–you have to make your reader interested in your story, and if you’ve done your job really well, you can even interest the reader in something she’d have told you an hour before was inescapably, deadly dull. But that takes work. You can’t just rely on what you assume you know about coffee or naiads. You’ll have to do research. You’ll have to think hard about your characters–who gives up a good job for a woman in a coffee shop who so far hasn’t given them more than the time of day or some light conversation? No, I mean, really what sort of person does that? Don’t just lean on “but love!” There’s not enough structural integrity in “but love!” to hold a styrofoam cup off the ground, let alone support a reader’s interest. And there are actual implications in “but love!” and in that character’s actions. Who goes to desperate lengths to court a woman who has repeatedly indicated her lack of interest in his courtship? Whose friends have warned him off? Let’s say this guy is convinced that even though she has continually said she is uninterested and unwilling to share more with him, somehow in her manner she has conveyed that she might actually love him–in that case, she said “no,” but this guy is sure she must really have meant “yes.” Suddenly “but love!” takes on a sinister, pathological air. The writer didn’t mean for this to happen–she only had this idea about coffee nymphs and she knows she should write every day and this seems cute and clever.

You guys. Think your ideas through. Combine them with other ideas, or break them open and look at what’s making them tick, examine them exhaustively from every angle so that you can find the things about it that really intrigue you, that raise questions maybe.* Write down the first two dozen things you think of, when you’re first putting the coffee nymph story together, and then throw that list away and don’t use anything on it. Learn about coffee–I mean, really learn about it. Read a bunch of really good fiction. Think about the coffee nymph some more. How would your favorite writer handle it? Spend months pondering. Why have you spent months pondering a coffee nymph? There’s something there that interests you, what is it? Dig that out.

Then write the story. Otherwise I can pretty much guarantee you’re getting another form rejection.

*”What kind of asshole won’t leave a woman alone even though she and everyone else have asked him to leave her alone?” isn’t sufficient, here, but might be a good start. It would, however, be a distinct improvement on not asking anything, just slapping the story down and submitting it.

**This is, you argue, an awful lot of work to go through for a silly two-thousand-word story about coffee sprites. And yes, it is. But I suspect that most people submitting these stories are trying very hard. They want to sell stories, they want to be good. They will never achieve even half of their aims if they aren’t willing to put in that work. If you want sales, and readers who say “Wow, that was a great story!” you won’t get it without actually, yes, going to such lengths for what is, in the end, a couple of pages of fiction. You want editors and readers to take your writing seriously–so you should take it seriously.

***I didn’t want to use one of the many ideas of this type that I’ve seen in slush over the last couple of years–like I said, I’m pretty sure every single one of them was written by someone who is genuinely working on their writing, and none of those writers deserves to feel as though they’re being held up for ridicule. And ridicule isn’t my intent–I just want more people writing those kinds of stories to understand why they keep getting rejections for them.

What Makes You a Professional Writer?

So, last night on Twitter I came across a link to a quiz–if you answered “yes” to eight out of ten questions, the blogger asserted, you could truly claim to be a professional writer. Otherwise you’re just a hobbyist!

I’m not going to link to the quiz itself, for various reasons, but I’ll link to Scalzi’s post about it.

He does a fine job taking down at least one of the assumptions behind the quiz–that one person’s process is the one and the only way achieve a particular result.

There are other assumptions in that list of questions, assumptions that bug me. And I’m saying that as someone who actually did answer “yes” to a fair number of those questions. The one about your living space being a mess because you’d rather write–yeah, I’m a crap housekeeper. But, you know, I’ve always been a crap housekeeper and I hate cleaning stuff with the fire of a dozen supernovas, so my choosing to write or read rather than clean isn’t a sign of my devotion to my art. And people have varying tolerances for different states of messiness–I can easily imagine a writer who just can’t work when the room around them isn’t straight. For such a writer, taking the time to clean would, in fact, be a necessary precondition to becoming a professional writer.

And let’s look at the question about whether you’ve taken a lower-paying job so you can have more time to write. I have also done this. But, see, Mr Leckie has a job that pays enough to keep us fed and housed, plus that job has benefits. If that weren’t the case, it would not have been possible for me to do that. And if one were to go by that list of questions, no single parents could ever be professional writers. Not really. No one with serious medical needs, or kids with serious medical needs, could ever really claim to be a pro.

In fact, the entire list assumes a level of privilege that’s really pretty offensive. Which is why the folks in my twitter feed were agape at that quiz last night.

So, if you’re an aspiring writer looking for direction and advice, or if you’re working seriously on your writing and wondering if you can or might be a pro, I would urge you not to take the advice or judgement implied by that quiz. There’s nothing helpful there, and most likely it will only leave you feeling like you never can be, like you’ll always be found wanting.

Which is, in fact, the point of the quiz. The blogger begins by explaining how disappointing it is to meet people who talk as though they’re pros but come to find out they’re really only hobbyists. The quiz only tells you the grounds on which the blogger makes this judgement–they have not sacrificed sufficiently for that coveted professional status.*

It’s pretty obvious that knowing where that distinction is, knowing who is and who isn’t in the club (and making sure those who don’t make the cut are aware of that fact), is the important bit.

But, see, why is this distinction even a thing? I get why SFWA, for instance, would want to put definite boundaries around who is and isn’t a member (whether where they’ve placed those boundaries makes sense is its own, entirely different issue, and not under discussion here). But aside from that, who the hell cares? Scalzi points out, sensibly, that if you’re getting paid for your writing you have every right to call yourself professional. I would ask, “Do you consider yourself to be a professional?” And your answer is your answer. Why would I bother to police that? Why do I care if you’ve met any other requirements? My sense of myself as a writer doesn’t require that I be better or different from anyone else, whether “anyone else” is a writer or not.**

Of course, if I saw writing as a status thing, if I envisioned myself as somehow nobler than the average Jane because of my GREAT SACRIFICES to Art, then, yes, I’d want to put a boundary there, and a Border Patrol. Because if any slob in a sweaty t-shirt could claim they were a professional writer, where would that leave me? Where would I get that sense of superiority that gets me through the day?

Writing is hard. Writing for money is hard. It does, indeed, require hard work and sacrifices–every writer is different, and every writer’s work and sacrifices will be particular to their situation. Nobody needs the extra burden of people drawing arbitrary, self-serving lines around what it means to be a “real” writer. And I’d suggest that if you’re tempted to do that, you might want to consider whether spending time drawing those lines isn’t in itself a waste of time. Shouldn’t you actually be spending that time writing?

*The sufficient sacrifices, of course, are ones that its only possible for certain people to make, as I mention above. If you don’t have the spouse with a good income, or if you have kids with medical needs, or if you’re in a position where cutting your hours so you can write more means getting evicted because you can’t pay rent and where’s supper coming from anyway, well, you aren’t a pro because you haven’t sacrificed enough for your art. (Honestly, I cannot roll my eyes hard enough.)

**That way lies madness! IMO, of course. Maybe you get energy from comparing yourself to others, and can do it without losing your mind. Me, I become a gibbering mess of anxiety and panic if I compete with anyone but myself. And I’d much rather invite people into the club than keep people out.


So yesterday I posted about some problems with Penumbra Ezine–namely, that although their guidelines say they pay five cents a word, until recently they published one “Rising Talent” story on their website a month–and those Rising Talent stories were unpaid. What’s more, there was no indication that those stories would be unpaid anywhere on their website. Writers “honored” with the Rising Talent designation discovered it when they opened their acceptance email.

This morning I had an email in my inbox from Celina Summers, editor of Penumbra. The email is kind of baffling–it says I’ve wrongly accused Penumbra of being a non-paying market when in fact they have paid at least five cents a word for every story they’ve published! Oh, and also the Rising Talent authors all totally knew they weren’t getting paid for their stories before they signed the contract.

Yeah. I don’t know either. You’d think the contradiction here would be obvious. And pretty much the whole email was like that, refuting things I hadn’t actually said, and then attempting to refute things I actually had said by basically confirming the facts I’d posted. The whole thing was either astonishingly disingenuous or astonishingly foolish.

It has also come to my attention, from a different source, that I am “an out and out lone wolf” with an “agenda at Penumbra.” And apparently just pointing out the plain fact that Rising Talent stories were not paid for, and that this fact was not apparent on the website but rather something writers discovered when they were granted this dubious honor, means I’m part of a “crusade to force [Penumbra and/or its parent company Musa] to close.”

First things first. I kinda like “out and out lone wolf.” Granted, it’s not as awesome as Gamma Rabbit, and doesn’t really even touch the gibbering incoherence of THE….Sodomite, but, you know, you take what you can get. And that “out and out” does add a pleasant touch of weirdness, so.

It’s also a trifle tin-eared. I mean, the image of the lone wolf is kind of romantic. I could totally see it being a superhero identity.

My only “agenda at Penumbra” (really?) is to inform writers. The best outcome of this, from my angle, would be for Ms Summers to begin to actually run Penumbra as the professional magazine she claims she wants it to be. This would include being completely honest and up front about pay rates, continuing to pay all authors (instead of, as with the extremely badly conceived “Rising Talent” business, paying most authors but not paying the one a month that should just be grateful to have their story posted on the website), and responding to all authors in a professional, non abusive way.

If Penumbra can’t be run on those terms, then yes, it should close. But note, Penumbra closing is not actually a goal of mine. Informing writers is my goal.

In her email Ms Summers claimed that my “accusation” could destroy Penumbra. I am flattered she thinks the Out and Out Lone Wolf holds so much power. I’ll say here what I told her– the only thing that could destroy Penumbra would be Penumbra itself. My pointing out a problem did not cause that problem, and my having said nothing, or retracting my (entirely factual) blog post would not solve that problem. Penumbra’s future is all on her.

I’d like to note, by the way, that Ms Summers offered to let me see Penumbra’s books and learn all about their finances and how they run things behind scenes. How this was supposed to prove to me that really the whole Rising Talent thing was fine and dandy, and the truly appalling emails I’d seen from her to at least one writer were totally and completely all right, I have no idea. I refused, because really that was irrelevant to the problems I was talking about, and to be honest the invitation just convinced me that either Ms Summers truly has no idea what the actual problem is, or else she thinks I’m stupid. Neither one speaks well of her.

I’m done blogging about this, because I’ve done what I wanted–gotten the information out there. Y’all can do what you want with it. I’d be more than happy to see Penumbra straighten up and fly right and go on to Ezine Greatness. If not, it’ll be because of their own actions, not one writer’s blog post.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an overpowering urge to go outside and out and out howl at the moon.

People Die of Exposure.

So, I’m speaking here as my personal self, and not as Secretary of SFWA.

First off. Writers. Any editor who tells you that they’re doing you a favor by giving you exposure? Not worth submitting to.

Because they’re not doing you any favors. If they’re just publishing your story for free on the web, you could get exactly the same “exposure” by publishing that story on your own blog.

Now, I’m not saying all non-paying venues are crap, or not worth subbing to. For one thing, your goals in submitting might not have much to do with being a professional writer–writing and submitting might be all about the fun for you, and that’s awesome and wonderful and have a great time! And there are, actually, or at least have been, a few places that pay nothing but have really good critical reputations. But those few non-paying venues that appearing in actually might do something for your career? Are edited by people with standing and reputation in the field such that yes, others pay attention to the stories they select. Those editors will never say they’re doing you a favor publishing you, because they know that in the end, you’re doing them just as much of a favor by giving them your story. Their reputation is based in part on their consistently publishing good work. That reputation doesn’t exist without you and writers like you. And they know that, and aren’t going to try to tell you that they’re somehow doing you a favor and trying to give you a leg-up.

Seriously, I’ve got no problem with non-paying venues, so long as they’re up front about not paying, and don’t try to act like they’re granting favors from on high by publishing you.

I do have a problem with zines that conceal the fact that they don’t pay. And I’ve got an even bigger problem with zines that pay some writers, but keep a slot for “promising” writers, you know, to give them a leg up. Without, you know, also giving them a check.

Now. A bit more than a year ago, the ezine Penumbra opened its doors. Their guidelines said they paid pro-rates–five cents a word. They also had a slot in each issue for “Rising Talent,” a story from an up and coming, new writer they felt deserved the spotlight.

What the guidelines, and the description of the Rising Talent thing, didn’t say was that the writers so-spotlighted would not be paid for their stories.

It appears this is no longer the case–the Rising Talent page on the website now only lists the existing Rising Talent stories and the description of it has been deleted.

So, this is where my personal desire to inform new writers intersects with my role as Secretary of SFWA. Because it’s become clear over the last year that some number of writers have been assuming that Penumbra was a SFWA-qualifying market, or at the very least would be in the fullness of time, that once their year was up, they’d be found to have met all qualifications and the writers who had sold to them in that last year would have a qualifying credit to their names.

Sadly, because they didn’t pay for the Rising Talent stories, and SFWA requires qualifying markets to pay SFWA minimum for all new fiction acquired, that isn’t going to happen. Not for this year, anyway. And when I say “sadly” I mean that–it’s to the advantage of writers to have lots of interesting, well-run, thriving venues for fiction around. The more there are, the better it is for us. When I see a zine obviously trying to get SFWA status–whether because they’ve announced they are, or whether it’s clear from their policies and guidelines–it gives me a warm, happy feeling. I wish them success. When I’m sitting in my Secretary Seat, it makes me happy to send an email telling someone that yes, they are a SFWA qualifying market!

So, I genuinely want Penumbra, and other zines trying to get that status, to succeed.

I want to say again, btw, that I am not at this moment sitting in my Secretary Seat. I won’t even be able to in a few weeks–on July 1, Susan Forrest pulls up with the SFWA Trailer and hauls that baby away. But it’s still here for now, and I am not sitting in it. I’m speaking only for myself at this point.

There’s been some back-channel chatter about the Penumbra situation, with some surprise and dismay at not only the lack of payment for Rising Talent stories, but also for the way Penumbra didn’t mention that lack of payment up front in its guidelines. From one angle, it looks pretty exploitative–let’s say you’re a new writer, hoping for a good home for your fiction and (oh please oh please) a SFWA qualifying sale. You get the dreamed-of acceptance–but wait, it’s for the Rising Talent slot! Isn’t that great!

Except you don’t get paid. You’re asked to write a nonfiction article to go along with the story, and you’ll get a free full page ad in the magazine! And they’ll pay for the nonfic!*

Now, if you’re a new writer who’s been paying attention, you know that there’s something off here. The guidelines said nothing about not getting paid for Rising Talent. You’ve been reading blogs and you know about the debates over whether it’s ever worth letting anyone publish your fiction for free. But damn it, you’ve been submitting and submitting and hardly getting any love, and this is almost the next thing to a SFWA pro market and if you pull out, will that leave you with a bad reputation? After all, SF&F is small. Everyone knows each other, what if you get blacklisted because you’ve acted like some kind of spoiled special snowflake over this?

These are very real feelings, and very real fears. And the way the Rising Talent thing was set up, it was almost custom-made to play on these feelings.

Now, in the various conversations I’ve heard about this, it’s been suggested that Penumbra just made an honest mistake. They didn’t mean any harm and didn’t know any better.

On the one hand, I really hope that was the case, because the alternative is something I’d prefer not to be true. On the other hand, if that is the case, it displays a pretty astonishing lack of knowledge of standard practices in SF&F. A complete ignorance of the conversations surrounding writing and selling science fiction and fantasy. And given that they’ve been aiming at SFWA qualification, it’s a bit puzzling how they could have failed to notice the mismatch between the “at least five cents a word for all new fiction” requirement and the whole “who needs money when we can give you valuable exposure” Rising Talent thing. Heck, once you know Rising Talent wasn’t Paid Talent, even the language of the Rising Talent description is dicey, given the common advice to new writers about the value (or more properly the lack thereof) of “exposure” as payment. That text is gone now, but this was the last sentence:

This is just our way of bringing a talented writer into the spotlight, in the hopes that exposure will lead them to bigger and better things.

And in fact, this isn’t their only problem. While I know a number of writers who have had a great experience selling their work to Penumbra, I also know of a number who have had decidedly negative experiences. I’ve seen emails, and let me tell you, I raised an eyebrow while reading them. And I admit I’m kind of raising an eyebrow over the response to “You shouldn’t be only paying for some stories and not others” being to delete the Rising Talent, not, you know, start paying for it.

Now, maybe the editor had a bad day. Or a bad week. Or has a bad week every couple of months or something. That happens–but it doesn’t excuse the sort of treatment of writers that I’ve seen. Let me say again, it’s not like someone told me what happened and they blew it out of proportion or twisted it around. I read the emails themselves. There is no excuse for what I read.

But let’s say it was a bad day, and most of the time they’re not like that, and all of it–the badly-written (and poorly understood) contract, the surprise non-payment for Rising Talent stories, the sporadically unprofessional emails–it’s all just them learning, just honest mistakes, and they’ll do better in the future.

I sincerely hope that’s the case, I really, truly hope they do better in the future. But as far as I’m concerned–me, personally, not anyone else–they’ve got a very, very long way to go before I’m going to tell a new writer that it’s a good place to submit. And I’m not happy to say that, I’d really much rather say, “Hooray for Penumbra, they’re a qualifying market now!” But I can’t say that, and it makes me sad.

*I’ve seen the correspondence and the contract of one of the Rising Talent authors. It was a whole ten bucks for the article. Or, actually, the contract appears to say the ten bucks was for the story–the only work named in the contract–while the correspondence insists that the article is also somehow covered in the contract that nowhere mentions it.

**Incidentally. There seem to be several widespread misapprehensions about SFWA qualifying status. One is that it’s some sort of mark of quality–that publishers that put out well-regarded work that wins awards but don’t pay minimum or meet circulation minimums ought still be able to be on the list. Sorry, no. There’s a list of requirements right here and they all need to be met. SFWA qualification makes no statement whatever about the quality of any market, or of the fiction it publishes.

There also seems to be a misapprehension that just paying five cents a word is sufficient. It is not. Please read that link above.

Please do not tell me about the requirements being outdated. I know they are. There’s a distinct possibility the Board will be looking at maybe changing those requirements in the nearish future. Please do email a Board member (any Board member! Seriously!) with your thoughts on the matter, if you’re having serious thinky thoughts or concerns you’d like them to know about. Be polite when you do, whoever you contact is a volunteer who’s working hard on any number of things right now.

***New writers, no one reputable is going to blacklist you for asking questions about a contract, asking to negotiate things that seem dicey to you, or just refusing to accept an acceptance that doesn’t seem right. An editor who tries to tell you that pros never question, negotiate, or pull out of bad deals, or who tells you that you’ll be blacklisted for doing those things, is not reputable and doesn’t actually have the ability to blacklist you that way. That editor might refuse to work with you again (no big loss!), but there’s no industry-wide blacklist they can put you on.

****Whether you’re a SFWA member or not, if you have an experience with a SFWA qualifying market that suggests that market might no longer qualify, please by all means email the Secretary of SFWA at and let whoever that is (it won’t be me after June 30!) know what went down.

Haven’t been blogging much lately, mostly because I’ve been busy with, you know, stuff. And things. Nothing really exciting. The last couple days I’ve been making things out of Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens and so far the results have been interesting and quite good. Though this morning’s serving of puls punica was entirely too much cheese at the beginning of the day and I am loathe to move much now if I can help it. Apparently the recipe comes from Cato the Elder, who fed it to his slaves, and actually it tasted quite good and no doubt all that cheese was good for calories and protein if you were doing Cato’s farmwork, but urgh.

I do highly recommend the mixtura cum caseo with lagana (the lagana weren’t hard to make, but just for reference, a box of wheat thins would make an entirely acceptable substitution). Fabulous lunch. Also ginormous amounts of cheese.

Once I’ve managed to digest the puls punica–I expect that will be some time next week–I’ll be trying the moretum and maybe even trying to make some garum. The “if you don’t have the patience to leave a jar of fish and salt in the sun for six months” version, I’ll just say that right up front.
And there’s still quite a few breads, porridges, and soups, as well as one or two things with, like, meat or fish in them!

Anyway. A conversation on Twitter reminded me of a writing peeve of mine, and I thought I’d rant on that a bit, because.

The peeve is, complaints about “passive” characters, when those characters are not, in fact, passive–when in fact small choices in constrained situations do indeed lead to change, sometimes on a large scale, sometimes not. I most often see this when the characters in question are very hedged about by circumstances. The movements available to them can be small and subtle.

Now, it’s true that small and subtle movement often can rule out big, wide, adventury stories with exploding planets–though it doesn’t always–and it definitely rules out naked power fantasies where the MC is a Chosen One with all kinds of power–physical, political, economic–at their disposal.

But “very few choices, few of which involve much physical violence or action” is not the same as “passive” and I think assuming it is is particularly unfortunate. In fact, historically, in various times and places, women have lived in constrained circumstances, with options limited by custom, and yet quite a few women, historically, in various times and places, have done some amazing things within those limits, up to and including ruling empires. And there’s a great deal of drama available in those stories, in the ways people can, and did, manipulate the limited choices available to them with pretty astonishing results. Looking back on those and saying, “Well, but she didn’t really do anything, she was just passive” is….let me politely call it an error.

It’s quite a coincidence, isn’t it, that those stories and their real life analogues are so often about women or members of other marginalized groups, and when you look at that, the prohibition on writing passive characters suddenly looks very different.

Plus, while yes, it’s very fun to read about emperors and generals and whatnot, I have a problem with the unstated assumption that everyday people, just ordinary folks, must therefore have lives that are not interesting enough to tell stories about.

Not to mention the fact that thinking only the planet-exploding, power fantasy stories are worth telling is so extremely limiting. I mean, I like planet exploding power fantasies as much as the next girl, but I’d be so, so bored if that were all there was to read.


So, on a discussion forum elsewhere the topic of omniscient came up, and I got cranky and wrote a post, and this post here is a very edited version of that one.

One of the things that made me cranky was an assertion that omni was an advanced skill and only highly trained professionals with safety equipment firmly in place should attempt it. It was also suggested that because readers are mostly used to limited third, one should only deploy omni if one had a really good reason to.

I’ve said several times what I think about “don’t try this at home, kids” advice for writers, so I won’t repeat myself beyond saying I think that’s bullshit and you should absolutely try anything at all that you think might make your story as marvelous as you want it to be. Or even anything that sounds cool and fun. There’s honestly no real downside.

So, that disposed of. Is omni really all that advanced?

I don’t think it is. It’s just that limited third has become fashionable, everyone trying to learn to write is using models that used it, and in limited third headhopping is experienced as obtrusive so beginners are told to avoid it but not how to make it work or how it’s different from omni. So if you haven’t read much that uses omni, you won’t understand how it works, let alone how or why it’s different from limited third.

It’s true some number of readers just aren’t used to reading omni. But this is really not relevant. If writers only ever produced the kind of thing everyone was used to reading, sweet merciful Mithras, all of literature would be one gray, formless mass of uniform goo. It would be easy to read but why would anyone bother? And is that really what you want for your writing?

The question isn’t “is this what readers are used to?” The question is, “How do I make this work?”

You’ll be ill-equipped to make omni work if you haven’t read much of anything that uses it, or if you assume you can treat it like limited third. So the first thing anyone should do who wants to use it–and you don’t need any excuse to use it beyond the simple desire to do so, or the feeling that your story would be better for it–is to read work that uses it. In the conversation that triggered this post, Middlemarch was suggested, and I heartily endorse that suggestion. By all means, go read Middlemarch, it’s fabulous. But while you’re reading, pay attention to the POV. Notice that there’s a narrator. There’s a “someone” to be omniscient, to know all and tell us about it.

Limited third has no “narrator.” In limited third, somehow the impressions and thoughts of the POV character are arriving on the page. Omniscient, by contrast, only works if you assume Someone is telling the story. That someone needn’t be made explicit–you can do it by consistency of voice alone, if you want. But once you’ve established that narrative voice, by and large the reader will let you do whatever you like, because you’re never actually violating the main POV–that is, your (nearly always unnamed and often unmentioned) narrator.

That narrator can be a character in the story herself, named or not. Or they might be just an unnamed someone whose voice and comments make it clear they’re sitting there telling you this story, commenting on it, providing incidental information, their own judgments and opinions. Or they might be nearly invisible, barely detectable but for a few value-laden descriptions or one or two wry comments, or possibly just a certain distance in the narration–though of course it’s entirely possible to do an intimate omni and a very distant limited third, still, one quick and dirty way to establish omni from the very start is to open with a bit more distance than you’d expect in limited third. (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…It is a truth universally acknowledged….Once upon a time…)

Now, if you don’t like omni, and have no desire to use it, then by all means, don’t. And if you don’t enjoy reading work that’s in omni, well, don’t, but of course I do think a writer ought to at least sample as broadly as she can.

But don’t avoid it because someone has told you it’s advanced, or hard to sell, or something readers won’t tolerate. Do whatever it is you think you need to do to make your story the most awesome thing you can manage to make it. Editors aren’t sitting around hoping for bland imitations of the last thing they published. And even if they were, is that what you’re really wanting from your writing, in your secret heart of hearts? Or do you want your work to be freaking awesome?

And you’ll never learn to do the awesome stuff if you don’t try.

(BTW, I also highly recommend Hal Duncan’s Rule 4 for New Writers: POV is not a communal steadicam. Hell, just read all the stuff he’s got for “new writers.”)