Question of the Week: Too Many Words?

Over the years, I’ve supplied art suggestions for articles and sometimes for the covers to my own books. Usually I gave them to an art director, most of whom simplified my ideas to give the artist the greatest possible freedom. On at least one occasion, the art director passed along my detailed one-page character description and many links to Elizabethan-era playhouses. The artist’s brain nearly exploded.

Since then, I’ve tried to be careful not to overwhelm an artist with too much detail. But do some readers suffer the same sort of detail overload?

I know I’ve read stories with page after page of detail. A few of these were fascinating descriptions of meals or futuristic cities or something equally engaging, but most were, in a word, tedious.

I’m sure I’ve erred on the side of tedium sometimes, especially in some of my earlier work but also when presenting a character who has an eye for detail. These days, at least during revision, I try to keep an eye out for excessive detail and snip it away before it can wreak its havoc.

Where do you most often notice excessive detail in fiction? Is it in description of a character’s appearance? Is it in setting, clothing, technological devices? Are there places where you appreciate detail more than in others? That is, do you like detailed descriptions of fantasy or SF governments but find differences in fashion dull as dust?

Question of the Week: What Makes a Book Good?

When friends recommend their favorite book, they offer different reasons why I should read them. “The setting is incredible!” “Her prose is just beautiful.” “I have never seen such a cool system of magic.” “I laughed out loud.” “When my favorite character died, I threw the book across the room… but then I had to pick it up to see how it ended.”

The best books are good in more than one way, usually. You can have a funny, sad, exciting book full of gripping characters and lovely writing. But sometimes a book with terrible prose gathers a passionate audience who simply must know which boy the heroine will choose, or perhaps a book with a clumsy plot succeeds because its characters all seem so real and sympathetic.

Think of your favorite book. Now, please tell me what one element stands out as making it your favorite. Is it the suspense? Is it the world-building? Describe what makes that book so fantastic that the rest of us should read it.


Question of the Week: Foreign Settings

One of the most important classes I ever took was Comparative Literature. It turned me on to one of the greatest human activities: translating literature. When asked what super power I’d choose, I say the ability to speak and understand any language. After decades of disuse, I can barely make myself understood in French, so I’m basically monolingual. Even so, I delight in the few dozen words I understand in various other languages.

What I dig about works in translation, whether it’s prose or film or theater or something else, is the brief immersion in another culture. Despite the different fashions, music, food, and social constructs, what I always take away from foreign fiction is that human beings are essentially the same everywhere. We enjoy love stories, heroic stories, horror stories, and comedic stories.

Unfortunately, many readers or viewers don’t feel comfortable outside their native cultures. A great Japanese SF film isn’t likely to do well in North America. Part of that is because of the unwillingness of North American viewers to read subtitles or endure anything less than impossibly flawless dubbing, but I think more of it has to do with culture shock.

There’s also the danger of misrepresenting a culture outside your own. That’s where some fantasy and SF get a pass, since many such stories invent new societies, often by combining two or more real-world cultures. Others plunge right in to foreign cultures and do them justice. I adore Barry Hughart’s Master Li and Number Ten Ox stories, for example. For those that try and fail, we have perpetual convention panels and flame wars on the issue of depicting the “other,” a loaded term that can blow up just by being on the subject line.

Do you feel a resistance to books or movies based on another culture? That is, are you more likely to read a fantasy that feels influence by European culture than Asian or African? Or do you find yourself more drawn to fiction set outside your familiar culture?

Question of the Week: Kung Fu Archetypes

All of our favorite genres have their cliches, memes, tropes, and other recurring elements. Unfortunately, the words “cliche,” “meme,” and “trope” make them sound like an infection. What I’m really looking for is archetypes, specifically those found in wuxia novels and kung fu movies. There’s the drunken boxer, the wolf girl, the brave archer, the ardent disciple, the white witch, the one-armed swordsman, the loyal captain, the lady hermit, the master of a deadly strike, the vampire-hunter, the acupuncturist, and so on. I’ve begun a list, but I could use your help.

What kung fu/wuxia archetypes can you think of?


Question of the Week: Giant Monsters?

Now that we’re past The Winter Soldier, the next big genre movie I’m excited to see is Godzilla.

I know not everyone gets that, and those who do can seem like crazy people, but that’s because only most of the giant-monster movies have been silly or bad or both. There were at least two great ones that once gave me terrible nightmares, and they give me hope that this one can do the same.

The Americanization of the 1954 original Godzilla (Gojira) spoiled an awful lot of what was great about that film, and I’m not even busting on Raymond Burr. As Ryan Britt pointed out in his article last week, the revelation of the monster is reported after-the-fact in Godzilla, King of Monsters! More importantly, almost all of the personal drama is stripped away because, even then, Americans didn’t like reading subtitles.

The original film is scary as hell, if you embrace the 60-year-old effects. The nighttime rampage still gives me a chill.

The other giant-monster movie that still works for me is the original King Kong. Yes, the effects are ancient, but not only are they a triumph of the contemporary technology, but the presentation of the monster is dramatic, suspenseful, and potentially nightmare-inducing.

My childhood giant-monster nightmares weren’t based on a particular movie, but I’m sure seeds were planted while I was watching those two classic films. These days, only a few giant-monster films have come close to scaring me, including The Host and bits of Monsters and Cloverfield—the latter mostly in the earliest moments of hearing the monster from across the city and seeing the destruction it’s capable of wreaking.

Have you seen any giant-monster films that actually frightened you? Do you think the genre is inescapably silly or that filmmakers have simply failed to make them scary most of the time? Whether because it’s scary or campy, what’s your favorite giant monster?

Another Question of the Week: What the heck is “Grimdark”?

Do you find the term “Grimdark” to describe gritty fantasy utilitarian or dismissive? Or do you think that it depends on how someone is using it? Do you know any authors of “Grimdark” who use the term to describe their own work? What’s the equivalent term for the opposite of “Grimdark”?

What’s your definition of “Grimdark,” and what are some examples you’ve read?