Business Musings: Writing for the Ages

I’m having a bizarre week. I’m redesigning my website, so I don’t have time to update any of the other websites I’m responsible for, including the Women in Science Fiction project. I’m continuing to read for that, though, and am having a blast, although I’m deeply overwhelmed by the amount of material.

Next week, I’m taking a Shakespeare class, partly for a project I’m working on and partly to get my mind on other things. So I’m reading three different Shakespeare plays in prep — Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles, and Antony and Cleopatra, as well as some supplemental material that I need to finish by the middle of the week.

Dean handed me his latest novel on Sunday, and he’s doing a short story per day, starting today. (Well, starting yesterday, really.) And he’s blogging about that.

And because I’m me, I’m keeping up my leisure reading Just Because. And buying too many new books, and not writing enough, and aaaaargh!

(Excuse the meltdown. Am a tad overwhelmed. Moving on…)

So…in the middle of all this reading, I come across this quote from a wonderful essay on writing by John McPhee in the March 9, 2015, issue of The New Yorker.

The last thing I would ever suggest to young writers is that they consciously try to write for the ages. Oh, yik, disgusting. Nobody should ever be trying that. We should just be hoping that our pieces aren’t obsolete before the editor sees them.

I paused and stared at that for a moment, as a dozen thoughts crystallized in my brain.

Let me back up.

My goal with the women in science fiction anthology is a storytelling goal. So many women in sf volumes are out to make a political point, showing women’s lives or providing the missing female perspective.

I think we know that women can do damn near anything now, and in the future, we’ll be able to do even more, so showing how women do things is not my point. Nor am I trying to prove that women have a uniform perspective on anything. We are not a monolithic group, by any stretch of the imagination.

Women have been forgotten in the field by larger numbers than men. I don’t think this is deliberate discrimination: I have a hunch the phenomenon is an unconscious bias (something labeled “second-generation bias” ) When I keep hearing women who should know better say there were no almost no women in sf before the year 2000, I realized that the women who said that had found no women sf role models, because most of the women sf writers’ works were out of print.

So, I’ve been searching for marvelous stories by women, not stories about women or stories that prove a particular gender point. I’m leaning toward action-adventure stories, space opera, and a few family-oriented tales.

I have more than I can use, so I’ve been eliminating stories based on arbitrary criteria. Offensive attitudes, in particular the casual racism of the mid-Twentieth century, have eliminated more than one excellent story. I’ll recommend those stories on the website, along with a warning about the attitudes of the time, but I won’t put those stories in the book.

Scientific errors cause me more headaches, because a lot of the bad science was good science at the time. If I cut out all bad science, I get rid of Leigh Brackett’s marvelous stories about Mars and a lot of C.L. Moore. I can jump over those scientific errors with good introduction.

But the little bit of bad science that has offended me the most? The one that makes me crazy? All of those people who smoke cigarettes on their spaceships. In story after story after story, these astronauts, these families on 1000-year colonization missions, these space adventurers, pollute their air supply with nicotine.

I’ll be honest. Some of these old mistakes, which were just The Way Things Were in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, have made me a bit too cautious in my own writing. What, I’ve wondered, is in my science fiction that readers will find laughable fifty years from now? I know there’s a ton of material just like that, and I can’t anticipate it, because it’s engrained.

I’ve already encountered some of that as WMG Publishing put all of my short stories back into print over the past four years. We’ve had to label a few of the stories, written as science fiction, as alternate history because, oh my, the future has arrived and it is not what my 20-something self predicted.

Still, those cigarettes are polluting my workspace. I was slowing down, because I was worrying (not quite subconsciously) about how to keep my fiction pristine.

So, enter yesterday. (Sorry, I’ve been reading Shakespeare. Couldn’t resist.) Last night, the new cat Sir Duke and I delved deep into Antony and Cleopatra, which I have never read before. I picked up a 1963 copy of the play at Bob’s Beach Books because I didn’t want to use my 8,000 lb. Riverside Shakespeare, and I didn’t want to read a play on my iPad (formatting and font issues). The 1963 version footnotes every damn thing, expecting me not to know what words like “cuckold” mean. When I do hit a word I don’t know, it’s footnoted as well, but the damn compiler of the book guesses as to the meaning.

I mean it. He puts in two different meanings from context and adds a question mark after each. Heck, I can do that.

If I were an anal student, I suppose I would track down the words, and translations and guesses on the internet or pull out the old Riverside Shakespeare and see what they have to say.

But I’m not. I’m reading for story and context, and damn if Old Will’s work doesn’t hold up, even in the bare bones on the page. It takes a minute for the rhythm of the language to sink in, and then I’m as lost in that play as I got earlier in the summer with Leigh Brackett’s work or last night reading some P.N. Elrod.

Even thought I don’t know all of the Shakespearean references. Oh, I know a lot of them. I know the story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. I’ve read history books about it, I saw the horrid Elizabeth Taylor movie, I’ve read lots of historical fiction about it. So the historical references are familiar. Occasionally, some of the slang trips me up, and that’s when I do look at the footnotes. But mostly, the story’s clear even if all the words and references aren’t.

Shakespeare wasn’t writing for the ages. I have no idea if he expected his work to outlive him. Only a handful of writers ever have their work survive in popular form for centuries, and even then, those works must have parts explained to the modern reader.

Yet the stories in that particular form are worth listening to over and over again.

Because of writing workshops and writing classes and critique sites and just plain snark, we have made up some pretty weird rules about writing. We can’t have our references be too current for fear of dating our material. We shouldn’t violate what we know of science to write science fiction. We should abandon perfectly good fiction because of one teeny tiny mistake in the scenario.

And I think we’re losing a lot of great stories that way. In our attempt to write deathless prose, we’re writing prose that isn’t even alive. We’re censuring ourselves, and overthinking everything.

Our work will eventually be dated. Our science will be wrong. Our attitudes will be sooooo 21st century.

And yet, if our stories are good, people will still read them and enjoy them.

When actors perform Shakespeare’s plays, the actors don’t stop mid-scene to explain a bit of archaic language or a reference that good old Will assumed we knew. The actors roll right past it, hoping we’ll get it from context, and generally we do. If we don’t, we ignore it, along with the billions of other things we ignore every day, from the sounds we filter out of our usual environment to the anecdote that a friend retells for the fifty-third time.

I am probably not going to include one of the smoking-in-space stories in the women in sf book, unless that story is so kick-ass that I can’t imagine publishing the volume without it. It’s an arbitrary reason to avoid a story, but as an editor on an overwhelming project, I need some arbitrary reasons.

I will have at least one canals of Mars story, though. I love those stories, with their romance and their sense of wonder. So I’m not getting rid of stories just because the science is bad.

That would be like dismissing all of Shakespeare’s historical plays because he occasionally bends the history in service of his story. The key is the quality of the story and the storytelling.

As readers, we know that. We often read works by people with points of view we disagree with. (Or, at least, I would hope you do.  I do. How else do you learn about others?) We read works of fiction riddled with factual errors. That’s why it’s called fiction, for heaven’s sake.

But as writers, we often forget how readers behave. We worry that our stories have grammatical inconsistencies or bad science or outdated ideas. We worry that we’re “making a mistake” every time we put pen to paper. I mean, every time we type a word on the typewriter. I mean, every time we tap a keyboard.

Things change. Norms change. Acceptable behaviors change. What was once bad is now good. What was once good is no longer sensible. That’s the human condition, and we can’t anticipate it.

Oh, yeah. That’s one more thing I’m doing this week. I’m finishing up the last of Fiction River: Hidden in Crime. An invited writer missed a deadline, so I got some last-minute submissions from some wonderful writers, and I’ll be reading those tomorrow. (In case you’re wondering; the deadline is past. I’m not taking any more submissions.) Hidden in Crime is all about crimes that are no longer crimes. You’d be surprised at how much the laws have changed in the past few hundred years. (Not to mention how much the U.S. changed just last week.)

We can’t anticipate this stuff. We really shouldn’t even try. We should take McPhee’s words to heart.

Let’s not write for the ages.

Let’s just tell the best stories we possibly can, in the best way we can. And maybe some day, some reader who wasn’t even born when the story was just an idea glinting in a corner of our brains will read the story, love it, and recommend it to a friend. Because that’s how fiction lives forever. Not through a lovely turn of phrase, but through a story, well told.

I started something completely different for this week’s blog, then decided it was much too heavy for the middle of summer. If you’re in the U.S., enjoy your barbecues and the local fireworks display. If you’re not in the U.S., enjoy the quiet as the Americans go a little celebration crazy.

And if you enjoyed this week’s blog or got something useful out of a recent post, please leave a tip on the way out. Thanks!

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“Business Musings: Writing for the Ages,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.




33 responses to “Business Musings: Writing for the Ages”

  1. Rémi says:

    In the first two Alien movies, they smoked straight out of cryogen. I especialy remember the Black sergent, Apone, lighting a cigar before he even steps out of his caisson (he had the cigar with him the whole time!). And then he proceeds to chew his crew out.

    In the first Alien, the crew got smoking as a way of getting back to normal, relaxing. It was a detail but a meaningful one. It really contributed to the atmosphere, it felt like a real workplace with real people (well the acting was pretty great too of course).

    It certainly dates the movie, but not nearly as much as the ugly computers and “3D” images (what passed for it in 1979). But mostly it fits right in, because Alien isn’t highly hygienic SF.

  2. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter says:

    Heh. About fifteen years back I went on a sales trip to Northern Quebec, where there was a mining trade show. It was held in the local hockey rink, and I swear every single person was smoking. And every single one was holding a beer.

    You couldn’t see the ceiling for the smoke!

    While I agree that smoking on a spaceship isn’t a good idea (though Larry Niven did a good job showing an asteroid miner smoking on his ship in World of Ptavs), smoking was so ingrained in popular culture that not smoking was regarded as weird not too long ago.

    As to running into words you don’t understand – I fell in love with the works of John Buchan. I spent a lot of time and effort digging out the rarer ones, and ran into the most curious word I just couldn’t understand. What the hell did he mean when he was talking about a ‘Kirk’?

    Apparently it is Scots for ‘Church’.

  3. Jason M says:

    I took an entire course in the Bard while studying at Oxford University, and Shakespeare is best viewed while read. Highly recommended: one hand holding paperback, other hand holding remote. Pause and rewind as necessary. It helps.

    Antony and Cleopatra: how beautifully unpopular. For a good laugh, try A Winter’s Tale. It’s one of his “problem” plays. Which means that it badly needed editing and that he was probably revising until the night of the performance and now it’s become enshrined as part of the canon.

  4. playnoevil says:

    I visited the Computer History Museum and there was a wonderful early radar console with a built in cigarette lighter and ashtray.

    How could you not let people smoke?

    It was our world.

    • I let them smoke. Just not in this anthology. Maybe in another one.

      I went to the Atomic Energy Museum in Vegas, and they had moved someone’s entire 1950s office as a display. The display had the faint odor of smoke, even though no one had smoked around it for years and years and years. Yep, our world. Now mostly gone. 🙂

  5. Gary Mugford says:

    Every movie or TV series is allowed one conceit. Whether it’s “You will believe a man can fly” (Superman) or “What friction?” (any Flash incarnation before the ‘magical invention’ of The Speed Force). So, we add smoking on the printed page of SF tales. Have absolutely no problem with that. I’ve read Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon once every three years for the last three decades. I let a tear drop at the end, EVERY time. Unashamedly. There’s lots of smoking in the book, albeit not in a tin can in outer space. There are other conceits I have to accept. But I don’t get too bent out of shape at the idea of cancelled philatelic covers paving man’s way to the Moon. Just to pick out one anachronism out of many.

    If a reader cannot accept the conceit, then it more or less proves the reader just doesn’t have any imagination.

  6. April Brown says:

    I agree.

    In my Trails series, at least two unintentional major social premises in the novels has since been declared illegal. Thanks to the president for changing archaic laws! However, no agent or publisher would take them on now because they would be outdated. And it messed with the timeline of a later novel as I tried to fit in the time travel portion. I had to decide how to incorporate it.

    There is no way to know when you start a series how laws or society will change.

    I remember a certain series written by another author where the first book was written last – in the original first book, cell phones barely existed. In the later prequel, high speed internet was already in existence 15 years before that original brick, plugin cell phone first novel took place!

  7. Michael Peck says:

    This couldn’t have come at a better time for me. A couple of months back, I received a largely positive review for my book (yeah, I only have one thus far—I ain’t fast) that took me to task for being off on a couple of small details. The reviewer, an expert due to having direct experience in the area, said it was clear I hadn’t done my research, and I should work with people like her in order to get it right. The thing is, I DID do the research, but still got it wrong despite my best efforts—but only a little wrong.

    I actually considered getting in touch and taking her up on her offer for my next book. But what would happen if a technical fudge was necessary to serve the story, one that only she or others with her experience would catch? What if I kept it in there anyway? She might be even more annoyed if I ignored her advice.

    My wife was the one who, as usual, provided the helpful wisdom. I’m self-publishing because I want control over my creative efforts. Why hand that control over to someone else for the sake of accuracy (and HER version of accuracy, at that)?

    As with anything else, you do your best, you make your compromises (knowingly or not), and you try to serve the story and the reader, remembering that you can’t make all of them happy. It has ever been thus. Burroughs presents apes and gorillas as entirely different beings, but I still loved the Tarzan books as a kid. There’s no evidence that any WWII commando ever fought using a bumbershoot as a weapon, but I couldn’t get enough of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos.

    I should listen to my wife more.

    Thanks for this.

    • We all struggle with this, Michael. Experts rarely enjoy novels set in their field. And readers usually don’t enjoy books that are so accurate they lose track of story. I went to an RWA shortly after CSI premiered, and some actual Vegas CSIs showed up. They gave a fascinating lecture…all about what was wrong with the show. Yet it’s still on the air, with tons of other spinoffs. I think of that when I get too wrapped up in the technical.

      And yes, listen to your wife more. (Writes Kris, also a wife.) 🙂

  8. A friend of mine designed a board game set on a distant moon. He wanted it to feel like an intense SF film from the eighties. So the game board is stylized with CRT monitors and a dot matrix printer. Some cards have a monochrome monitor display. Others have (graphically, not physically) those holes along the edges for printer feed. Basically it evokes a vision of 2015 where we stopped developing computing technology in 1980 and focused all our efforts on getting to Titan.
    https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2477970/dark-moon

  9. Mary Jo Rabe says:

    I didn’t discover science fiction until the 1970’s. I loved the “Golden Age” stories (1930’s, 1940’s, etc.). Purely for myself I defined these one-time science fiction stories as “science fantasy” and had no problem with the dated or now obviously false science facts presented. For me at least a riveting story with characters I can’t forget will make me ignore no longer correct facts or objectionable opinions. The only problem is which stories I can recommend to others. Astonishingly enough, not everyone shares my taste …

  10. Lurkertype says:

    Smoking in space always bothered me, because I lived when you could still smoke everywhere and even the smokers would often open windows to air the place out, plus buildings and cars aren’t air-tight. After my first airplane flight, it bothered me even more — at least they opened the doors of the plane every time it was on the ground. And while our astronauts all smoked like chimneys, they didn’t do it in the capsules. Which kinda makes them more impressive — can you imagine being jammed shoulder to shoulder with a couple other guys in a tin can and then having to do impressively complicated things in zero G while suffering nicotine withdrawal?

    Nowadays, besides the high oxygen content, we know that gunk and goo build up ridiculously fast in space. Either you’re going to have to change/clean the air filters more often (which means more space for supplies, less for people and cargo), or you’re going to have to clean tar and yucky stuff off every surface and what if it gets in the delicate machinery?

    But I still love Northwest Smith stalking the canals of Mars and the swamps of Venus. I read “A Fall of Moondust” a few years after watching men bounce around on dust only an inch or two thick. It’s still a good story, but the smoking seemed REALLY ill-advised when you’re buried underground. You’d think they would have banned it for the duration of the crisis.

  11. Cora Buhlert says:

    I completely agree with you on writers worrying that they will date their work. It was particularly endemic in the romance world for a while, where contemporary romance writers would scrub their books of every reference that might date them, thus creating stories set in a bland permanent present where every man wore jeans and white t-shirts, everybody listened to classic rock and everybody’s favourite movie was Casablanca and no one seemed aware of contemporary pop culture at all. It was deadly dull, never mind that e.g. the absence of cell phones or the mention of the Soviet Union in a news broadcast in the background dated the work just as efficiently as some outdated fashion or music references would have.

  12. Felix Torres says:

    My approach to fiction is that all fiction–SF, Fantasy, Romance, Mystery, Historical, whatever–and most alleged non-fiction, takes place in alternate universes with varying physical law and history. It lets me enjoy LENSMEN and NEUTRON STAR and TAU ZERO equally.
    Why overthink it?

  13. “All of those people who smoke cigarettes on their spaceships. In story after story after story, these astronauts, these families on 1000-year colonization missions, these space adventurers, pollute their air supply with nicotine.”

    I have to depart from you here, Kris. That’s not bad science, and not nearly so outlandish as might seem at first glance. Until 2011 when the sub force (improperly, IMHO) banned it, sailors smoked routinely onboard US submarines, and we go to sea submerged for weeks or months, depending on the mission at hand. It was obviously much more prevalent in decades past than it had become by 2011, but it was perfectly normal. The atmosphere control equipment was (and is) more than capable of keeping up with it, and you have to think our gear is far less robust than the atmosphere control gear on a multi-generational starship would have to be. Only reason you wouldn’t smoke in a modern spacecraft is because (if I recall correctly) the atmosphere within them is just oxygen, and that’s an obvious fire hazard. But there’s no reason to think that as craft get more advanced we couldn’t or wouldn’t adopt more earth-normal atmospheric environments in the ships and stations. So there’s no technical reason people with the predilection couldn’t or wouldn’t smoke onboard those ships. Unless the rest of the crew is made up of busybodies.

    • I was wondering if people smoked on submarines after I wrote that, and I would have wagered that they did. It still bugs me. Not because of the health hazards (yes, those too), but…okay, because of the health hazards. And it really dates the story. And I need reasons to eliminate stories! I have millions of words I could use, and only 90K that I’m allowed to use… 🙂

  14. Cutting the story that includes smoking in space is just as easily covered by an introduction. If anything, it shows how far we’ve come. I’d be interested in knowing the date of the writing.

    Our first group of astronauts still [mostly] smoked in early 1959, six months after the news of smoking being bad for us. If the story was written before this time, she most likely thought the problem of smoking in space would have been licked in the future. If it was after, she thought the problem of smoking, itself, would have been.

    • My point isn’t to show how far we’ve come. My point is to have people read stories for enjoyment, without lots of bumps that take a reader out of the story. I will probably use Smoking in Space Stories elsewhere (how’s that for an anthology title?), but I’m trying to avoid having readers realize that they’re reading something “old” and instead read something enjoyable. 🙂

      • Robert Forrester says:

        I dunno Kris, I read Arthur C Clarke’s a Fall of Moondust not long ago and not only was everybody smoking in it (in a closed space bus on the moon), but he also wrote about the moon’s dusty surface being so fine in places it acted like water (for those that have not read it, it swallows the moon bus), which we now know is not true. None of these points bumped me out of the story but only added to my enjoyment, providing a quaintness that made feel like I was reading it from the 1950’s, almost as if it both transported me back and forward in time simultaneously – perhaps these sort of retro stories should now be a separate genre, a bit like steam punk, but quainter and more civilized.

      • Tasha Turner says:

        Smokers in Spaceships… Not only does it make an interesting anthology title but you could have fun with the cover art.

        One would assume all those stories would have the air recyclers cleaning the smoke out but I pictured smoky command rooms where everyone is squinting to see the equipment readings through the smoke. Like bars were before the no-smoking laws became the norm. Forget the health issues I’m worried about unexpected fires on spaceships, addiction withdrawal problems when they run out of cigarettes if a mission is overlong, how much space spare air filters take up (or time spent cleaning them). Why do I suspect none of my concerns show up in these delightful stories your coming across?

      • I understand that. You don’t want to highlight that it’s an old work. On the other hand, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica featured an overweight, chain smoking doctor on the ship.

        I do think a collection of older sci-fi ideas that are still fun (or eye-opening) despite flying in the face of current science would be a great read.

  15. Vera Soroka says:

    Nice post. I think as writers it’s all about being the best story teller we can be. Times change and march on. Can’t do nothing about that. All we can do is grow as writers and enjoy the time we are in. Write what you love. Shakespeare did and his stories have lived forever.

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