Story Matrices – the story behind Gillian Polack’s research

Today I’m wildly busy, but also celebrating. The research I’ve talked about at science fiction conventions for years is finally in print. Thanks to Luna Press, a Scottish SF publisher with an academic branch. The book is Story matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The reason I’m so tired and so very delighted is because this book was almost lost to the world because Canberra had bushfires and the bushfires made me ill. I had a week of doing normal everyday things before COVD hit Canberra and since then I’ve not been able to go to libraries, to attend face to face meetings and so much more. I’m not entirely a well person and so I’m one of those who have spent most of COVID seeing people only online. Occasionally I get out and pretend life is normal, but I’m always wearing a mask and it’s always risky.

Despite all this, my little study of how science fiction and fantasy is important in cultural transfer and explanation is officially available. It’s not the mega-study that I had intended, but, as someone earnestly said to me a couple of months ago “it’s much easier to read than it would have been if you’d written it the way you told me you would.”

There are so many things I want to tell you about this book.

I want to talk about how hard it is to write any book through brainfog and with lungs that don’t fully work. I want to explain that air should be breathable, not riddled with particles.

I also want to talk about how difficult it was to avoid the usual explanations of writers we no longer trust. Aided by the brainfog, my first draft kept falling into bad explanations of the changing relationships between Marion Zimmer Bradley, JK Rowling and their readers. I then looked at what I wrote and realised that I was doing exactly what my book explains: I was telling stories about them that explained who they were and their life choices. But my book isn’t about their life choices nor how we react to them. That I dislike a whole bunch of things about MZB’s private life and get angry about JK Rowling’s opinions about my friends is, to be honest, not useful. These are my emotions and my ethics and my personal opinions.

I need to get past the ethical questions and the personal. My research explains that how we tell stories is damned important. I needed to understand how we include our ethics and our thoughts about others into our work, often without knowing we’re doing this. I needed to write it out clearly. That was surprisingly difficult. Now that the book is out and people can read it, I’ll find out if I’ve succeeded.

It’s urgent that we understand why harmful stereotypes keep being updated and complex understanding of human beings is only appropriate for certain kinds of novels. This is why, instead of describing my own personal reactions of this author or the other, I needed to explain how novels give us tools that support one interpretation or another. I had to explore what some of those tools are and explain how they work.

My original plan was for a comprehensive explanation that changed the world. Life reduced this to an introduction, with lots of different entry points for readers and writers, so that they can explore for themselves the bits of the world they want to change. I looked at unique culture and shared culture, at what story space is for a reader and what it is for a writer, at how we build worlds for fiction and to play in. Understanding how Rowling and MZB’s work fits into this, helps us understand how their life choices creep into their fiction and gives us the capacity to understand which parts of that fiction are good and which are worrying. It takes us past stereotyping and into how that stereotyping plays out in novels.

This book is the next step after my History and Fiction work. It’s the precursor of a deeper exploration. Right now, I’m looking at how fairy tale retellings and fantasy world building operate in certain novels. Now that Story Matrices is out, I need to deepen my understanding of how we do what we do and what that means for our writing. I especially need to understand how the nicest people can use racist and bigoted cultural elements in their work, and how the most terrible people can write immensely popular and well-written novels. I need to do this non-judgmentally, because I am also capable, as a writer, of doing all these things. Instead of saying “What a terrible thing this writer has done”, I want to look at works and say “These are the techniques the writer has used.” Readers can make their own decisions about ethics and are perfectly capable of judging for themselves, but it really helps to have useful tools.

How culture is encoded into fiction and the cultural baggage fiction carries is not a simple matter. It’s a mosaic sparkling with colour and with outlines that move and perspectives that change. It’s easier to give simple descriptions and to announce, “I understand this.” It’s so simple to hate a book without understanding what the writer has actually done, what we’re reacting to with such force. There is a price for choosing the easy route. Our everyday lives become riddled with material we read in our fiction or watch on TV or in movies, or in comics or… in any narrative.

With the best intentions in the world, we can spread prejudice and support hate. That’s the extreme case, the one that’s right now playing out in a war in Eastern Europe, in the collapse of politics in Pakistan, in the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, in Myanmar and in may other places. I can see those stories in the convoy folk who descended on Canberra in February and have been giving us a hard time ever since.

So much of the things we do in our lives is influenced by the stories we love. Story Matrices is one step on my journey to understanding this. In a perfect world, it will help readers and writers see what we put into novels and what we take out of them. It will give us back choices about the aspects of culture we want to accept.

Ways of Telling Stories

BoothLast week I realized Karen Joy Fowler’s latest book was out, so I walked over to East Bay Booksellers to pick up a copy of Booth.

I’d considered waiting. It has never occurred to me to be interested in the family of John Wilkes Booth.

But on the other hand, if I have not read every piece of fiction published by Karen Joy Fowler since I stumbled over an early collection of her short stories in a bookstore in New York City sometime in the 1980s, it is not for want of trying.

I still adore “The View From Venus,” which is one of the first of her stories I ever read. I had a fight with an editor of a science fiction review magazine when I wanted to name “What I Didn’t See” as my favorite story of the year. (He said it wasn’t science fiction. SFWA members disagreed — it won the Nebula that year.)

The Jane Austen Book Club is the only book I can remember that was embraced with equal enthusiasm by my mother, my sister, and I (all big readers, but with different tastes). My friend Anne Sheldon, with whom I share a passion for baseball, got me a signed copy of The Sweetheart Season as a gift.

And We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves blew me away.

So I bought Booth and ended up staying up into the wee hours to finish it the other night because it was just that good.

This was not a case of not being able to put the book down because I had to know what happened next. Booth is an historical novel about the family of the man who murdered Abraham Lincoln. You go into it knowing how it has to end. Continue reading “Ways of Telling Stories”

CODA

When I to went Clarion, waaaaaay back in the day, Algis Budrys taught a lesson on the five beat plot (variously the seven beat plot, the well-made plot, and I’m sure there’s another dozen names for it somewhere). The five beat plot boils down to: 1) the heroine has a problem; 2) the heroine attempts a solution; 3) an obstacle thwarts the solution; 4) the heroine solves the problem; 5) validation. (There are many different names for the five segments, but that’s the essence of the thing.)

Think of stories you’ve read, stories you’ve perhaps loved. I have this dread ring of power, see. I must destroy it! We gather our team. I hit obstacles (boy, do I hit obstacles). Eventually, through toil, danger, and blood, I destroy the ring. But not only have I destroyed the ring, the quest etc. has changed me on a fundamental level. I get to vanish into the West with the elves (and does anyone but me wonder if Bilbo ever felt homesick or bored, there among the elves?). I bet you can think of a zillion works, from Austen to Zelazny, which employ this bare-bones outline.

No, the five beat plot isn’t the only way to tell a story, Continue reading “CODA”

The Future Is Starting Right Now

The Ministry for the FutureKim Stanley Robinson is an optimist.

If you only read chapter 1 of The Ministry for the Future, you might not believe that. But even though his novel opens with a horrific and all too realistic disaster caused by climate change — and later describes several others — he isn’t writing a dystopia.

Rather he’s writing a story in which human beings find ways to deal with climate change without pretending that the process won’t be messy.

I called him an optimist, not Pollyanna. (Do people still read Pollyanna?)

He knows how bad things are and how much worse they can get, but he also knows we are capable of making things better. In this book, the efforts to address climate change include everything from economics to politics to geoengineering to violent actions against those who refuse to take action to stop carbon accumulation in the atmosphere.

There’s also what happens with climate refugees, mental breakdowns among those who have suffered from disasters, and violence against those working for real change. It’s a long book.

I have no doubt that we’re going to see something similar to the disorder he chronicles here over the next 30 years or so. I hope he’s right that we’ll get some of the positive changes, too.

He has more faith in political change than I have, but Wikipedia reports that Francis Fukuyama, who was notoriously wrong about the end of history, has called the book “ludicrously unrealistic.”

If I have to choose between Stan Robinson and Francis Fukuyama, I’m going with Stan every time. Continue reading “The Future Is Starting Right Now”

Sorrow and Joy in History

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from the British writer Jacey Bedford, whose latest book, The Amber Crown, came out January 11.]

By Jacey Bedford

The Amber CrownThe king is dead, his queen is missing. On the amber coast, the usurper king is driving Zavonia to the brink of war. A dangerous magical power is rising up in Biela Miasto, and the only people who can set things right are a failed bodyguard, a Landstrider witch, and the assassin who set off the whole sorry chain of events.

I love stealing from history for my fantasy books. When I was researching for The Amber Crown, which has a Baltic setting, I found some fantastic nuggets from the pages of history that turned into inspiration. I offer two examples, one so gory and grim that it makes you wonder who thought it up in the first place, and whether they were entirely sane. The other is so fantastic that my critique group thought I’d made it up, but I just transplanted it straight from history.

Grim enough to be Grimdark

Let’s get the grim one out of the way first – execution by sawing. I don’t put this on the page in all its gory detail, but sawingone character thinks it might be his fate, another reflects on it after seeing it take place. We tend to know about hanging, drawing and quartering. The drawing by the way was being drawn to the place of execution on a hurdle, not having the guts drawn out of the belly while still alive. So the victim was drawn through the streets, hanged and then his body cut into quarters. So really it should be drawn, hanged and quartered, in that order.

Accounts differ, but sawing, with a two-handed saw, could be across the body, or lengthways down the body starting at either end. The medieval illustration in Wikipedia shows that they tied the victim upside down on a frame, legs apart, and then began to saw them in half, lengthways, starting at the crotch. The theory was that because they were upside down the blood drained towards the head and so they didn’t bleed out, or pass out, quickly, but stayed alive and screaming while being butchered like an ox. It’s hideous, so I reserved it for traitors and king killers. In The Amber Crown it’s a character we haven’t met who suffers this fate, so it’s not as personal as if it’s a character we’ve already become invested in, though, sadly, it is an innocent man. Continue reading “Sorrow and Joy in History”

Sometimes it takes sophistication to learn to write simply

Today I wandered around my bookshelves until I found a book that made me dream. Nostalgia is one of the better side-effects of the pandemic.

Recently I’ve been working away and trying to understand how writers develop worlds for novels. I started thinking about language and rhetoric decades ago, and my research now is where that track has led me. One of my big moments of “Oh, this is so much something I need to understand” came when I was studying in Toronto in 1983-84. I was doing a Masters in Medieval Studies and one of my teachers was Sister Frances. She told her favourite student pope jokes and she taught the rest of us Medieval literature and rhetoric.

The book I have before me right now is a tiny paperback, published in 1967. Unlike most of my old paperbacks, it’s held together very well. It was one of my textbooks for that class, and I’ve referred to it many times since, so I can’t help thinking that, for a sixties paperback, it’s very robust. I would like my old age to be robust, but I’m not made that way. It’s a translation of Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova, and the translator was Margaret F. Nims, who was, in fact, Sister Frances.

I made sure, decades ago, that no-one could steal this little volume. I didn’t write my name in it. I printed a little label using a pseudo-Medieval font and an old dot matrix printer (it was a brand-new excitingly innovative printer in 1985) and the label reads:

Yee that desyre in herte and have pleasaunce

Olde stories in bokis for to rede

Gode matteres putt hem in remembraunce

And of the other take ye more hede

Whanne yee this boke have over-reade and seyne

To Gillian Polack restore yee hit ageyne.

I meant to commission several new sticky labels from artist friends for all my more recent books. I still want to do this, when I find the money.

Let me talk you through some of the reasons I love this volume.

Poetria Nova is a guide for writers by someone who knew his stuff. It taught me that it’s more important to be readable than to show off my erudition. The author shows off his erudition to write a manual, which makes good sense given the time and place of its writing. Also given its form, because it was written as a poem. It is, however, not a quick or easy read, even in English translation.

Anyone who looks hard enough into my fiction will see all kinds of daft allusions, because I am the kind of person who enjoys putting Easter eggs in my novels, but Geoffrey de Vinsauf taught me that showing off matters intellectual is secondary to ease of reading. In my dreams, my writing is elegant and learned and full of sophistication (and Easter eggs), but if readers don’t want to continue reading, then elegance and learning and sophistication are completely wasted.

Sister Frances taught me to look for the underlying rules and work out why they were applied to that kind of writing before thinking to dump them. The Poetria Nova is one of the sets of rules she used to explain this. She was explaining why rhetoric is so important to writers, and she had us apply rhetorical theory to some beautiful Middle English poems, which is why that particular rhyme marks that particular volume.

I decided I was incapable of writing poetry because I learned what was hidden by the words in just four poems. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I learned that knowing theory doesn’t improve writing unless the theory can be applied. It’s important to write and practise and create to make the theory so much a part of one’s being that the focus can be on using it to bring the world and the people who live in that world to life.

When I first read the manual, it looked like an awful lot of rules that were only good for people who like applying rules. Nearly forty years later and I can look at a rule and across to my fiction and see where it makes a difference. The thing is… I don’t apply the rules mechanically. I’ve learned (through the ‘part of one’s being bit) hear the music in the words and see the pictures they create. That’s when I’m writing at my best. I merely try to do this most of the time. The trying, though, is where the learning happens.

I don’t explain rhetoric at great length. I haven’t for years. Decades, even. I used to be able to, but not doing so means I’ve lost a lot of the words and concepts. There is, however, a few words I’ve used over and over again in teaching. This bit reminds me of the reasons for the rest. It gives me a structure to play with when I sit down to write.

The text is about the concept of structure, to be honest. It’s the idea that the order we set something down reflects the needs of what we’re writing about and makes it easier for a reader to understand what we’re saying. This is particularly important to me because my brain doesn’t work in a lineal fashion and I often have to re-order ideas to make them make sense. Knowing that there is an ideal order of words and of ideas for any type of writing helps me step back and ask how I should be writing and how I should be editing. There isn’t a single ideal order for all types of writing – writing is a wonderfully fluid and dynamic thing in that way – understanding genre means understanding what order of words and ideas work within a given genre.

The perfect order changes according to what we write, and Geoffrey of Vinsauf gives examples of how to start different types of stories. I tested all his opening styles, just the once. Medieval rhetoric is an imperfect vehicle for modern writing, but it was a lot of fun to translate into openings for novels. Since then I’ve been fascinated by openings and what they do and how they work and how they change over time and for different types of story.

One of my biggest issues with the openings of many modern novels I’ve read is that they introduce the first thirty or so pages perfectly, but not the rest of the book. It’s as if the writer has been trying for a perfect hook for a reader, then followed up that perfect hook for enough time to bait the publisher… but has forgotten that the whole novel should fall neatly into line. I feel betrayed when this hurts the whole story.

What is that bit of the text I use in teaching? It’s just a few words in the middle of the section on Amplification and Abbreviation. Geoffrey is talking about description:

“So let the radiant description descend from the top of her head to her toe, and the whole be polished to perfection.” I translate this to most modern styles as “If you need to move a character from one side of the room to another, find a way that adds to the story and doesn’t waste the moment. Isolate each element in order. Make every word count.”

I suspect most writers have books like this in our past. Not necessarily translations of Medieval technical manuals (our earlier selves always appear in our work, in their own way) but unexpected books all the same.

Sister Frances didn’t know I was a writer: I was very careful to keep that side of myself hidden from most of my lecturers in Medieval Studies. She nevertheless taught me more about writing than I learned from any other single lecturer in my whole varied academic career. Geoffrey de Vinsauf brings that back, every time, and, if it weren’t an unholy hour of the night here, I’d be hauling my volume of work by the Pearl-poet off the shelves right now and seeing what memories lurk in their lines.

Writing Is Hard

One of my old daily senryus showed up on the (far from meta) Book of Face the other day. Since I was desperately trying to finish a book review on deadline — that is, since I was both writing and finding ways to avoid writing — I shared it and noted that I needed to remember the point:

Actually writing,
regardless of quality,
is what keeps me sane.

It generated a lot of discussion. One person, who was also struggling to finish an essay, observed that writing is “the hardest thing in the world.”

That got me to thinking.

Writing is hard. There’s figuring out what you want to say and then there’s figuring out the best way to say it. Both those things can be daunting and difficult, and the more complex the project, the harder it gets.

Take my book review (which is safely finished) as an example. I loved Elie Mystal’s Allow Me to Retort (get it on January 11 when it comes out), so what I wanted to tell people was why I thought it was a good book.

That’s actually hard enough for me, because a lot of my response to what I read — even when I’m reading a book addressing the shortcomings of the U.S. Constitution — is a gut reaction. And if the book is funny — and in this case, the author is very good at being funny even when he’s writing about outrages — I’m too busy laughing to think about the details.

Which is why I put sticky notes all over books I’m going to review. I don’t label them; I just stick them there and then I go back to those (many) pages. That helps me figure out what I want to say when I tell people why they should read this book.

Then I had to figure out how to say it. This review was for a lawyer publication, and while that means I could say “equal protection” or “establishment clause” without explanation, it also meant I needed to make sure my points in favor of the book would pass muster with lawyers.

Lawyers are inclined to argue with things. If you want them to listen, you must at least make it clear that what you said is worth arguing about. Or, in the case of my book review, that what the author said is good legal analysis.

This is, as the person on my FB page commented, hard work. Continue reading “Writing Is Hard”

Writing. Process.

Emily on the day of her adoption. A little anxious, but eager to be loved.

This weekend our lovely, ridiculous Elder Statesdog, Emily Apocalypta Robins, died. She’d been declining over the past year, but in the last week the progression had gone from a gentle slope to a sharp dive. She died in our arms, surrounded by love, and with assistance from a very gentle, thoughtful, kind vet who came to our home, listened to our Emily stories, explained the process, and shared a little of his own life-with-dogs experience. Afterward, while my husband and my daughter alternated between laughter and tears (you cannot discuss Emily without laughter coming in to it) I scurried around doing things, because that’s one of the ways I process and deal with strong emotions. The other way is… well, what I’m doing now. Writing.

Emily came to us from the SPCA when she was 3 months old–she had been rescued from a girl on a street corner in Bayview who was trying to sell her to get money for a prom dress (and apparently had not been patient with the puppy in the box, which was what drew attention to her). From that inauspicious beginning came the dog who was perfect for our family. She lived with us for 15 years, saw my kids grow up and go out into the world, and on the way, Emily generated many many stories. Continue reading “Writing. Process.”

A Few Thoughts on Technology and Transitions

It’s always amazing and heartening how much inspiration we can draw from the next generation, whether they are our own children or someone else’s. In my personal life, my younger daughter dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the world of social media, into getting my first stupidphone, and later into video chatting (during her  years of medical school on the other side of the country). Now these technologies are part of my everyday and work life. They’ve saved my sanity during the pandemic.

I think it’s good to keep learning new things, to use our minds and bodies in different ways. One of the challenges of these new computer-based technologies is that they require us to use different methods of thought. The transition, for example, from keyboard-based word processing programs (like WordStar for DOS, the one I first used) to graphics-based (Windows) programs entailed a different logic and hand coordination. And both of them are a far cry from the typewriter I used to write my first published stories.

My very first stories (actually, my first umpteen attempts at novels) were written by hand in composition books or on scratch paper. I remember reading an interview with the British mystery writer Dick Francis, in which he described writing in ink in composition books (and that it had never occurred to him that a story, once written, could be revised!) so the method is definitely a time-honored one. Once I learned to type (in high school, on those really heavy manual typewriters) that became my preferred method, although when my children were small, I always carried a spiral-bound notebook on which to work on the Story of the Day in odd moments. Retyping a revision was a major chore, since I had to do it myself. I became expert in the application of white correction fluid. At least carbon copies were no longer necessary, but I had to take my finished manuscript to a copy shop because in those days no one owned a home copier.

I am of several minds about whether the ease of making changes as I go, being able to print out a manuscript at any stage, and so forth, have really changed how I write. I love the saying that the most important word processor is your brain. Perhaps I splat over the page, as it were, more spontaneously when I use a computer just because it’s so easy to tidy up my prose later.

That can be a good thing as I follow whatever wacky idea pops into my mind. Some of them are truly best expunged but others are quite juicy. In some ways I am more focused now than in 30 or 40 years ago; I know much more about how to put a story together, even if it isn’t one I’ve outlined.

Having multiple writing media available to me is a great thing. I often go back and forth when I’m stuck, especially between dictating and typing or typing and longhand. Dictation using voice recognition software is especially great for dialog or speeches (can you see me acting out the parts of the various characters?) Just as we don’t all write in the same way, I don’t write in the same way all the time. Sometimes words flow and then I want the medium that allows me to best keep up with them. But other times I’m stuck (or sulky, or distracted, or tired) and switching can help get things rolling again.

In the end, though, the only version that matters is the one in the hands of the reader.

Something worth celebrating

I’m sorry I’m a bit late this week. Instead of a long post, you get a short thought.

I was totally caught up in meeting deadlines and then I met them and I took a break and I found myself asleep before I’d written my post. Why did I need to do so much catching up? I’m just emerging from a stint with the historical fiction side of things. I was at the Historical Novel Society of Australasia’s conference. It was wonderful and has set me thinking a great deal about what I need to do with my own research.

I’m taking a break from my own research at this precise moment: I will return to it in fifteen minutes. Instead of reviewing literature that analyses fantasy and fairy tales and rhetoric and related subjects, I’m thinking about the research I did on historical fiction and fantasy, a few years ago. It’s one of the reasons I attend the HNSA conference every two years.

The conference itself reminded me that different genres require different styles of research and use different techniques to integrate that research into their fiction so that the novel reads like a novel and not like a failed academic treatise. I got to see some wonderful writers talk about their work and gently I realised that it’s about time to admit to a terrible truth.

Writers who successfully cross genres and write mysteries as well as historical fiction as well as science fiction as well as different kinds of fantasy are doing something intellectually very difficult. Hidden beneath the entertaining novels are some frighteningly good brains doing amazing amounts of exactly-the-right research and thinking.

I’m taking a moment to toast all these writers. I’m toasting them in very fine coffee.