Thursday, December 07, 2006

Nalo Hopkinson On Signals of Prose Problems

Multiple award-winning, Caribbean-Canadian SF author Nalo Hopkinson, who is also an editor, offers her opinion on what not to do in "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold..." (Yeah, yeah, we overuse that poetic quote, but dang it, it's so good, it should be overused.)

Here's her intro to the list of writing booboos:

Since I do editing, I get to read a lot of manuscript submissions. Recently I've been thinking about some of the things that signal to me a story going off track. I've written a few of them down below. A lot of them I've done myself. Some of them are my own subjective feelings about issues that mightn't bother another reader. Probably all of them can and have been done successfully, so I'm not saying any of this is gospel.

Here's an excerpt:

9. For no apparent reason, the whole story is a core sewage dump of unrelieved grossness told in graphic and unrelenting detail. Or a saccharine syrup. Or a loving and thorough explication of existential angst. And this is key: There is no other element to the storycraft.
If the story leans on hitting one strong emotion over and over until the reader is numb, I begin to feel that the author could use a few more tricks in zir kit bag.

10. Front-loading the backstory. The story begins with a detailed description of the circumstances, the history leading up to them, and perhaps the surroundings. “Lengthy” in this case can be as little as a paragraph. Then, without telling the reader where the narrator is and what he or she is doing at the moment, it launches into, “that got me thinking about (a lengthy, abstract socio-philosophical observation about human beings or one human being in particular -- who is also not placed in time or space).
I write in a plot-driven genre, so this is something to which I pay attention. As a reader, I don't need non-genre stories to be as picky about plot. Still, I come back to my conviction that fiction has movement. It places a character with a dilemma in a situation. That dilemma can be as small as 'I'm feeling too lazy to get out of bed and change the cat-box,' but something in how the author handles it needs to get readers curious about how the character is going to address the problem, and it needs to make them care about the outcome.

11. The author takes a maternal/paternal tone towards the characters, either a protective one or an overtly moralizing one.
Feels condescending, and tends to lead to cliches, which rob the story of uniqueness and the feeling of being told a truth about a thing. Of course the author will have a subjective position on certain things. Of course that passion will inform the writing. Writing would be pretty damned boring if you disengaged your emotions while doing it. (And for the record, I think that engaging one's objectivity is different than disengaging one's emotions.)

If you're interested in Hopkinson's own style and writing, she has a bounty of excerpts at her site. Here's a snippet from "A Habit of Waste":

I was nodding off on the streetcar home from work when I saw the woman getting on. She was wearing the body I used to have! The shock woke me right up: it was my original; the body I had replaced two years before: same full, tarty-looking lips; same fat thighs, rubbing together with every step; same outsize ass; same narrow torso that seemed grafted onto a lower body a good three sizes bigger, as though God had glued left-over parts together.

On my pay, I'd had to save for five years before I could afford the switch. When I ordered the catalogue from MediPerfiction, I pored over it for a month, drooling at the different options: arrow-slim "Cindies" had long, long legs - ("supermodel quality"). "Indiras" came with creamy brown skin, falls of straight, dark hair and curvaceous bodies - ("exotic grace").

I finally chose one of the "Dianas" with their lithe muscles and small, firm breasts - ("boyish beauty"). They downloaded me into her as soon as I could get the time off work. I was back on the job in four days, although my fine muscle control was still a little shaky.

And now, here was someone wearing my old cast-off. She must have been in a bad accident: too bad for the body to be salvaged. If she couldn't afford cloning, the doctors would have just downloaded her brain into any donated discard. Mine, for instance. Poor thing, I thought. I wonder how she's handling that chafing problem. It used to drive me mad in the summer. I watched her put her ticket in the box. The driver gave her a melting smile. What did he see to grin at?

Her novel, Midnight Robber, was nominated in 2001 for a Hugo award, and an excerpt is here. Skin Folk won the 2002 World Fantasy Award for best collection and the 2003 Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic.


Nalo said...

'cept my most immediate connection to that quotation is Chinua Achebe, not the Bible. :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting writing tips. Very well introduced I think. It's always pretty subjective. But I could totally relate to most of her beefs. I read at least 3-4 stories a day on the forums.

Heather said...

I like that clip - makes me want to read more. And the body? Hmm. Kinda reminds me of the one I see in the mirror every morning.
A Caribbean-Canadian writer? Does she fly south every winter?

Mirtika said...

Hey, Nalo!
I just think "Yeats", particularly never having read THINGS FALL APART... But, perhaps I ought to. Thanks for the visit.


Mirtika said...

Heather, that's why I picked a snippet of that particular story. I think it does leave one wanting much more, to see how this strange occurrence turns out.

My body is so huge, they could stick two or three consciousnesses in here. :O


Nalo said...

I remembered it was Yeats, not the Bible just after I turned my computer off last night. *Sigh*

Heather, I'd love to fly south for the winter! Not in the cards at the moment, though.

Mirtika said...

I tried to post twice at your blog, Nalo, to say I figured you'd had a brain blip (which we all make in these comment thingies that we can't EDIT!), but my comment wouldn't post.