One of the hardest concepts to grasp, and yet one of the easiest things to spot, is ‘freshness.’ It is more than simply a new approach to the old problem of effective narrative. Down that road lie all sorts of unfortunate experiments in ‘creative’ writing that lead to unreadable prose and incomprehensible story-telling. Yeah, I’m talking to you, James Joyce. (Now, to be fair, though plenty have tried, nobody did unreadable and incomprehensible better than Joyce, so I’ll give him points for that.)
Fresh is a difficult word, with a multitude of meanings from ‘newly created’ to ‘new to one’s experience’ to ‘novel or different.’ The first two — when referring to writing — are mundane and easy to accomplish: write a new story and send it to someone who has never read you before and mission accomplished.
It is that third definition — different — that is hardest to accomplish, especially when trying to mix in those other elements that make fiction truly fresh: briskness, brightness and clarity. Simply trying to be different is not enough; fresh writing also demands those qualities we experience when we first see a mountain valley, bite into a new picked peach, smell clean laundry on the line, blowing against our faces. Finding a balance between exciting the reader while not totally confusing them is often a challenge. Fresh writing makes the reader work but shouldn’t make them tired.
In science fiction, the challenge is both easier and harder. A lot of science fiction is loaded down with traditions, tropes and clichés. Finding something fresh is often a challenge. But it can be done. A good recent example is Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which provides a remarkably fresh spin on the tried and true ‘individual against the empire,’ that has long been a staple of space opera. Little things — like using she as the default pronoun rather than he and introducing the idea of ‘collective POV’ — pile up throughout the prose, which is clean without being boring and sensual without becoming over-written, to build new perspectives on old concepts. Though I’ve read a lot of stories that include AIs on ships, this one struck me as particularly, what was that word, fresh.
And it made me — no big fan of military SF — look forward to reading the next installment when it comes out later this year.
On Being Well-Read
One of the great challenges for a publisher and editor (and, by the way, every writer as well) is to stay current in the field they work in. Trying to read the best SF books published each year (let alone those that are ‘merely’ good) is almost impossible — especially when faced with the prospect of reading a multitude of submissions to the Press (as well as the huge amount of reading for my day job). I cheat a little by using other people’s best-of lists and meeting new writers through yearly anthologies and occasional dips into the best magazines.
Of course, reading in the field is not enough — I like to leaven my SF with dollops of mystery and literary writing (both old and new) as well as plenty of science, politics and history to feed both my writing and my understanding of the world.
Still, I am constantly reminded just how big the field of SF is when I look at the table of contents of various “The Year’s Best SF” and only recognize half or, at best, three quarters, of the names. Still that’s a lot better than my knowledge of other branches of speculative fiction. Recently, the TOC for a high-end anthology of horror was announced. I knew the editor — but didn’t recognize a single writer’s name. I’ve determined to try to rectify that — not because I’m likely to become a big fan of horror, but because it is important to have a sense where that genre is going so I can recognize horror elements that will inevitably bleed into science fiction.
By the way, one thing I’ve learned from reading nearly 100 novel submissions in the last year — it is painfully easy to tell if a writer has read anything outside the genre they are writing in.
News of the Week
The way book covers suck you in.
Libraries adapt to the digital age.
Fascinating stats — especially the one that says .99 e-books sell 12x more, $3.99 ones generate the most revenue and $7.99 ones are 5x more likely to be read.