Friday, January 25, 2008

Review - Storyteller and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop
by Kate Wilhelm
2006 Hugo Winner for Best Related Book

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Orson Scott Card
1991 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction Book

I am beginning to suspect that the extended titles for the non-fiction category of the Hugos is intentional.

Normally when I do these I've been dividing them with a nice little section on each. That's not occurring this time. These books are closely related and I am going to be setting them side by side in a duel to the death! Or just a rough comparison of their different strengths. One of those two.

You'll have to search awfully far to find a science fiction fan who hasn't at one time entertained the idea of becoming a writer. It's one of those things that seems so easy from a distance. Storyteller (you're crazy if you think I'm typing that whole title every time) and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy offer a hand to would be writers moving from scribbling in your notebook to writing things that sell.

Wilhelm's book also doubles as a memoir of her time teaching at Clarion, a six week long live in workshop designed to take amateur writers, stick them in a pressure cooker, and then spit out people who could be professionals. I found most of the anecdotes interesting but Wilhelm is merciless with her former students. The griping about their problems overwhelms these sections of the book and what I took from them were a lot of object lessons about exactly what not to do. Particularly amusing to me is the group that threw fit when Wilhelm eliminated all of the most clichéd story ideas and insisted that as a result there was "nothing to write about". I recognized a lot of the problems that her students had as common ones with bad fiction.

When it comes to writing advice the books take very different directions. Wilhelm starts from a position that the reader is just someone who slaps words down on the page and needs refining from the start. Card takes the contrary option and starts from a position that the person reading the book can write to a reasonable standard and concentrates his advice specifically on science fiction and fantasy.

Wilhelm's format is essentially "Writer's workshop in a book." She offers a handful of exercises and things to consider when pacing your work. Of special interest is her explanation of what point an editor would stop reading and throw the manuscript away. Storyteller has a great deal of advice on structuring your sentences and pacing your work.

How to Write has a little bit of advice along those lines but Card skips to the big things. He's got a very large chapter on world building, for example, where he points out the practical considerations that have to be used when writing speculative fiction. He touches on all the major traps that get inexperienced SF authors: how to not overload on exposition, naming conventions, limiting the scope of magic and technology, and how much the reader can assume versus what the author has to explain. Perhaps most importantly for the budding author he has a lengthy chapter on how to sell your work.

For me the most surprising section is how both authors answered that timeless question, "Where do you get your ideas?" That's a question that ranks at the bottom of questions that I care about from authors since the real answer is everywhere and nowhere but Card and Wilhelm step through the creative process for them. Card focuses on the moments of freehand inspiration which eventually crystallize into a work for him while Wilhelm is more structured in her thought process.

A problem I had with Card's How to Write is that it is badly out of date in some places. Since it was written in 1990 that is to be expected. Card doesn't anticipate the shrinking science fiction market and the boom in fantasy which makes some of his information inaccurate and not as focused as current reader may want. It is my understanding that there is a more recent edition of How to Write but I have not read it since my collection is being built on getting all of the Hugo winning books.

Storyteller's greatest weakness also its greatest strength: the book has a very harsh tone. I suspect it comes from Wilhelm's view of of the Clarion seminar as a "boot camp for writers" and some readers may be turned off by that.

If these were books on house building How to Write book would be about drawing up plans and selling it while Storyteller would be about how to install plumbing and electrical wiring. Both are very short and have a wealth of details in them, but they have different goals. I'd cheerfully recommend Storyteller to anyone who is interesting in writing in general mainly because of its confrontational tone which can trigger moments of introspection that any would be writer needs. Card's book I'd recommend for someone constructing any creative work that features science fiction or fantasy not just books or short stories since he provides a lot of backing on how to do them well. There's plenty of room for both on the shelf of someone interesting in becoming the next Wilhelm or Card.