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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-10-26 05:33
Subject: [process] The writer who came in from the cold
Security: Public
Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Mood:curiously carved head
Music:me typing
Tags:child, personal, process, writing
I chat online with jeffvandermeer reasonably often. He's a good friend, and a thoughtful human being. Plus we like to kvetch with one another. Sometimes, though, I feel like I'm participating in the world's slowest moving interview. I think that's because Jeff tends to ask insightful questions. As most of you who've met me in real life know, I've never met a silence I couldn't fill, or an idea I couldn't talk to death, so this questioning is like throwing a bale of catnip into the tiger pit at zoo.

He asked me yesterday how the New Model process had affected my writing goals. Short answer: I'm not sure it has. Slightly longer answer: The short answer is BS, but I don't have a long answer yet. However, this prompted me to muse on an observation I'd recently made to lasirenadolce, to the effect that I've been moving from the second world toward the first world in my writing.

A brief exegesis on my terminology:
  • Second world: Fiction which takes place completely outside the bounds of objective reality. Most high fantasy and future-based SF, for example. See my story "The Cleansing Fire of God".

  • First world: Fiction which takes place in or near the bounds of objective reality. Much of mainstream lit, non-paranormal romance, mystery, etc., along with contemporary fantasy and current-state or near-future SF. Includes secret history and some of alternate history. See the story by specficrider and me, "The Canadian Who Came Almost All the Way Home from the Stars".

  • Feel free to offer corrections or alternatives to these definitions in comments, btw.

I first started writing short stories with structured intent (as opposed to homework assignments or random noodling) around 1980 or 1981 when I was still in high school. I was all about the second world then. It was an escape for me, in the manner of angst-ridden teens throughout the history of angry teenagers. Around 1985 I read Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, and I thought, "Wow, you can do this with words?" I was hooked. I continued to write, more or less in a vacuum, until I fell into my first crit group in 1990. I continued to write, with support, critique and encouragement, until the_child came along, at which point I took a two year hiatus, and moved from Texas to Oregon. I resumed writing in the fall of 2000, around the same time I found the Wordos, the very excellent critique group in Eugene, OR which played an enormous role in launching my professional career. I began publishing in 2001. The rest is a matter of public record, a fair portion of it on this blog.

In all that time, I was deeply immersed in the second world. I wrote some contemporary fantasy, but the stories always felt more real to me, more truly mine, when I controlled all aspects of setting, character and plot. This stems in part from my lifelong love for our genre, and part from simple fear of screwing things up. (Which is one reason Black Tulip will be such a big step for me — I've always steered away from historical fiction out of a desire to avoid embarrassment.) But mostly it was because those were the stories I wanted to write.

Over time I've written a fair amount of stuff in or close to the first world, our world. My recent work under the New Model process has been both — "America, Such as She Is" is alternate history but firmly grounded. "Witness to Fall" is contemporary fantasy, except set in the mid-nineteenth century. On the other hand, other recent New Model short fiction such as "Human Error", and "The Sky That Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black" are second world.

What I'm discovering is that I feel more power, more control, more magic writing in the first world. This is a transition in progress, and it startles me considerably. I have no idea what it means, and it scares me a bit, but it's also fascinating.
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Paul Weimer: Eric--On Second Thought...
User: princejvstin
Date: 2007-10-26 13:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Eric--On Second Thought...
So, Mainspring, although Alternate History, is firmly Second World by this definition.
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Jay Lake: writing-Mainspring
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-26 13:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
To be sure. I don't personally consider it AH, I consider it fantasy. That's just my opinion, and I recognize that a lot of other folks have seen it as AH.
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Paul Weimer
User: princejvstin
Date: 2007-10-26 14:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The phrase that bubbles to mind is "Clockpunk AH Science Fantasy".

You are the author, though and I am suddenly reminded of the scene in the movie "Back to School" where the protagonist gets a failing grade on a paper on Kurt Vonnegut which he had Vonnegut actually write for him.

"And whoever wrote this paper doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut."
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-26 14:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The writer is generally the last person to know what their work is about. That's a corollary of my strong belief that the story belongs to the reader.
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Paul Weimer
User: princejvstin
Date: 2007-10-26 16:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As someone once said:
"I supply the text, you supply the meaning."

It IS almost always a marriage of writer and reader that makes a story or book come alive, especially a good one.
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S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2007-10-26 13:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
(I'm not published, so take this with a grain of salt) :)

I basically went the opposite direction as you. I started writng 1st world stuff (really BAD first world stuff) when I was 11. I never really wrote any SF/Fantasy until just a few years ago, despite the fact it was the vast majority of what I'd read.

High Fantasy in particular seemed EXCEPTIONALLY difficult. I had to build up to it with baby-steps like Faerie-Tale-style stories and evem a little SF.

I thought I'd share this journey -- from the real to the fantastic -- just because it's so different from your own.

Anyway, now that I've written some High Fantasy, less drastic departures from reality are looking attractive again. And part of that backswing comes from the fact that most people (even those within the SFF genre) seem to dismiss High Fantasy as vapid and lacking-in-meaning.
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Jeremy Tolbert
User: the_flea_king
Date: 2007-10-26 15:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have a theory that the huge bulk of second world fantasy is just first world fantasy where the starting point is Middle Earth, not, uh, Earth.

When it's not, it's my favorite stuff out there.
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markbourne: escape key
User: markbourne
Date: 2007-10-26 17:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:escape key
Thanks for the terminology. It adds workable labels to notions I've been mulling for the past year or so re my own fiction -- both what I've been writing and what I've been reading.

For all sorts of reasons (not all of which I've spelled out for myself even, I suspect) I find little second-world fiction that entertains me anymore, or even holds my interest. And that doesn't feel like a loss or diminishment to me. On the other hand, my reading in first-world genre and "literary" fiction has widened and deepened greatly over the past several years, to the point where, as I enter a bookstore, the SF/F section is no long my first target. It's still a target, yes, but lately I'm more interested in the latest T.C. Boyle or Francine Prose or George Saunders or.... (It's worth noting that those and other faves, most familiarly Michael Chabon, are genre-friendly and often use elements that would be right at home in any strong issue of F&SF.)

Likewise, when I'm hankering for some good SF, or when I'm sitting and enjoying the latest Dozois Year's Best, the stories that engage me most, that stay with me afterward, are those with roots and tendrils in a recognizable "our world," even if our world is portrayed slantwise for useful effect.

My bellwether seems to boil down to a simple and entirely subjective question: Does this author seems to be writing only for an audience who reads only SF/F? If so, chances are the story will have a hard time keeping my eyeballs locked. This gets into another discussion on the possible deleterious effects of rampant inbreeding within genre, but that's for another time and a second bottle of Jack Daniels.

Anyway, two cents from a genre reader now in his 40s.

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