The vocabulary of critiquing fiction tends to come out of the massed usage of university classes. But the Turkey City Workshop in Austin, TX, has been promulgating its handy set of terms as the Web becomes a more central source of information, because they are posted at the SFWA site.
While many of these are handy, some are a bit clumsy. More importantly, there are some terms which are described in such terms as to confuse the beginner or intermediate writer into thinking that these writing tools are bad to use, when in fact in the workshop environment it would have been made clear that it is only overuse which turns them into liabilities.
Since the lexicon is not copyrighted, we are reproducing the usual version edited by Lewis Shiner, with our comments in italics, and with a slight rearrangement of order to increase the logical flow from one idea to another, eliminating several submerged stumps.
Turkey City Lexicon
A Primer for SF Workshops
(additions copyright OWWW, 1998)
This manual is intended to focus on the special needs of the science fiction workshop. Having an accurate and descriptive critical term for a common SF problem makes it easier to recognize and discuss. This guide is intended to save workshop participants from having to “reinvent the wheel” (see below) at every session.
The terms here were generally developed over a period of many years in many workshops. Those identified with a particular writer are acknowledged in parentheses at the end of the entry. Particular help for this project was provided by Bruce Sterling and the other regulars of the Turkey City Workshop in Austin, Texas.
(This first group we have arranged has terms for problems or situations that apply in almost any field of fiction)
· “Said” Bookism
Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is almost impossible to overuse. Infinitely less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” or the all-time favorite, “he ejaculated.”
(Around here we tend to call them WIOS, Words Instead of Said. Using “interrogated” instead of “asked”, the other invisible word, is also a WIOS.)
· Tom Swifty
Similar compulsion to follow the word “said” (or “said” bookish) with an adverb. As in, “‘We’d better hurry,’ said Tom swiftly.” Remember that the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. 99% of the time it is clear from the context how something was said.
(Actually comes from their overuse in the Tom Swift juvenile adventure series of the Twenties and Thirties. A Tom Swifty is the intellectual’s knock-knock joke:
“The rock shattered,” he said brokenly.
“Let’s operate,” he said cuttingly.
If you can match an adverb to a WIOS, you have a Super-Swifty: “Hit the drum!” he boomed strikingly.)
· “Burly Detective” Syndrome
Fear of proper names. Found in most of the same pulp magazines that abound with “said” bookisms and Tom Swifties. This is where you can’t call Mike Shayne “Shayne” but substitute “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” Like the “said” bookism, it comes from the entirely wrong-headed conviction that you can’t use the same word twice in the same sentence, paragraph, or even page. This is only true of particularly strong and highly visible words, like, say, “vertiginous.” It’s always better to re-use an ordinary, simple noun or verb rather than contrive a cumbersome method of avoiding it.
(Still, in a paragraph of complicated action you can’t use the characters’ name six times, so these do get some use. One just doesn’t want to over use to the point of this becoming a stereotyped patter. However, in spec fi one often wants to recall the patterns of ancient legend being told, and Homer was thick with these. Let’s say in a contemporary style of writing, you should avoid these unless absolutely necessary.)
· Eyeball Kick
That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.” (Rudy Rucker)
(You can’t avoid “perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image” unless you dedicate yourself to being boring. What you want to avoid is not eyeball kicks, but excessively crammed prose that is so busy dazzling the reader he or she can’t tune into the story. There are borders between the SF story and the literary story that were blurred by the New Wave writers, but have rehardened since, much to the improvement of the genre.)
Sudden change in level of diction. “The massive hound barked in stentorian voice then made wee-wee on the carpet.”
Expositional redundancy. Making the actions implied in a conversation explicit, e.g., “‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said, urging her to leave.”
(You can just call it a redundancy, too. You don’t need special new terms for things that already have a name.)
· Telling not Showing
Violates the cardinal rule of good writing. The reader should be allowed to react, not be instructed in how to react. Carefully observed details render authorial value judgments unnecessary. For instance, instead of telling us “she had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood,” specific incidents–involving, say, a locked closet and two jars of honey–should be shown.
(Cardinal? Your short story will be 5000 pages if you don’t Tell rather than Show now and then. Just favour Show over Tell.)
Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper or “Encyclopedia Galactica” articles inserted in the text, or covert, in which all actions stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures.
· “As You Know Bob”
The most pernicious form of Info Dump. In which the characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up to speed.
(Known, especially in theatre, as The Dreadful Scene. For a perfect contemporary example of an excruciatingly Dreadful Scene, read the first chapter of ‘The Silver Wolf’ posted at the Del Rey site. You can sell anything if you or your sister is a Name.)
Name assigned to the voice which takes center stage to lecture. Actually a common noun, as: “You have a Stapledon come on to answer this problem instead of showing the characters resolve it.”
(More generally know as the author intrusion, if it’s a narrative lecture.)
· “I’ve suffered for my Art”
(and now it’s your turn). Research dump. A form of Info Dump in which the author inflicts upon the reader irrelevant, but hard-won bits of data acquired while researching the story.
(It might be less confusing to just call this a research dump.)
Characters give cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel everything so the reader doesn’t have to.
(Shouldn’t a character in pain cry? Must they all be stoics, impervious to either humor or sorrow? This is one of those things which work in moderation, but is a flaw when overdone, or the laughtrack/crytrack is overdone to the point of pathos.)
· Squid in the Mouth
Inappropriate humor in front of strangers. Basically the failure of an author to realize that certain assumptions or jokes are not shared by the world at large. In fact. the world at large will look upon such a writer as if they had a squid in their mouths. (Jim Blaylock)
(Humor is so hard to write. A workshop of semi-strangers will help you catch these in-jokes that don’t work with outsiders.)
· Hand Waving
Distracting the reader with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw (Stewart Brand)
(The typical form of “other fireworks” is attack, flight, pursuit, and other extreme events.)
· You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit
Attempt to diffuse lack of credibility with hand-waving. “I would never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.” As if by anticipating the reader’s objections the author had somehow answered them. (John Kessel)
Element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply. The word “somehow” is an automatic tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story. “Somehow she forgot to bring her gun.”
(This also occurs when the author has to have the character behave in an uncharacteristic way just to make the plot twists work out. For example, the above character always carries her firearm, necessary in earlier scenes, but needs to be unarmed so she can be captured and dragged into the next big step, so “somehow” she forgets to pack. Fuzz is supposed to prevent a glaring change of character, but instead just highlights the strings the author is pulling.)
· Bogus Alternatives
List of actions a character could have taken, but didn’t. Frequently includes all the reasons why. A type of Dischism in which the author works out complicated plot problems at the reader’s expense. “If I’d gone along with the cops they would have found the gun in my purse. And anyway, I didn’t want to spend the night in jail. I suppose I could have just run instead of stealing their car, but then…” etc. Best dispensed with entirely.
(Editors may sometimes consider this downright necessary in other fields, where the assumedly dim reader needs this spelled out for them, but SF readers are supposed to be the brighter part of the population. It is often a glaring case of padding: “I need to delay things for three thousand words, or I can get paid for three more thousand, so I’ll blather.”)
Intrusion of author’s physical surroundings (or mental state) into the narrative. Like the character who always lights a cigarette when the author does, or is thinking about how they wished they hadn’t quit smoking. In more subtle forms, the characters complain that they’re confused and don’t know what to do–when this is actually the author’s condition. (Tom Disch)
· Deus ex Machina or God-in-the-Box
Miraculous solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. Look, the Martians all caught cold and died!
(This is not the sole property of SF! It’s just a lot more tempting in these genres because the powerful-as-Gods-but-we-won’t-call-them-that aliens can always come home and clean up the mess the protagonists are in. A stand-by of Star Trek scripts.)
· The Grubby Apartment Story
Writing too much about what you know. The kind of story where the starving writer living in the grubby apartment writes a story about a starving writer in a grubby apartment. Stars all his friends.
(Even more common in literary fiction. Historical re-enactors always do them in historical fiction, too, and shoe-horn in a role for each of their special buddies, whether they’re needed characters or not.)
· Pushbutton Words
Words used to evoke an emotional response without engaging the intellect or critical faculties. Words like “song” or “poet” or “tears” or “dreams.” These are supposed to make us misty-eyed without quite knowing why. Most often found in story titles.
(The following problems or situations are peculiar to speculative fiction.)
· Reinventing the Wheel
In which the novice author goes to enormous lengths to create a situation already familiar to the experienced reader. You most often see this when a highly regarded mainstream writer tries to write an SF novel without actually reading any of the existing stuff first (because it’s all obviously crap anyway). Thus you get endless explanations of, say, how an atomic war might get started by accident. Thank you, but we’ve all read that already. Also you get tedious explanations by physicists of how their interstellar drive works. Unless it impacts the plot, we don’t care.
(Say amen, brothers and sisters! This is a leftover from Campbell’s “scientifiction” which was always a sugar-coated science lecture — except that the coating was worse than the bare pill would have been.)
· The Edges of Ideas
The solution to the Info Dump problem (how to fill in the background). The theory is that, as above, the mechanics of an interstellar drive (the center of the idea) is not important: all that matters is the impact on your characters: they can get to other planets in a few months, and, oh yeah, it gives them hallucinations about past lives. Or, more radically: the physics of TV transmission is the center of an idea; on the edges of it we find people turning into couch potatoes because they no longer have to leave home for entertainment. Or, more bluntly: we don’t need the info dump at all. We just need a clear picture of how people’s lives have been affected by their background. This is also known as “carrying extrapolation into the fabric of daily life.”
(This is a Good Thing®.)
· Brand Name Fever
Use of brand name alone, without accompanying visual detail, to create false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Hondas and Sonys and IBM’s and still have no idea with it looks like.
(We’d have to call Walter Gibson the best-known perp of this flaw. Unless it’s a spacestation, don’t expect him to imagine any different that 1985, or whatever year he’s writing in. That’s why all the people whose clothes he describes are addicted to “retro fashion styles” of the 1980s.)
· False Interiorization
Another Dischism, in which the author, too lazy to describe the surroundings, inflicts the viewpoint character with space sickness, a blindfold, etc.
· White Room Syndrome
Author’s imagination fails to provide details. Most common in the beginning of a story. “She awoke in a white room.” The white room is obviously the white piece of paper confronting the author. The character has just woken up in order to ponder her circumstances and provide an excuse for infodump (see above).
· Card Tricks in the Dark
Authorial tricks to no visible purpose. The author has contrived an elaborate plot to arrive at a) the punchline of a joke no one else will get b) some bit of historical trivia. In other words, if the point of your story is that this kid is going to grow up to be Joseph of Arimathea, there should be sufficient internal evidence for us to figure this out.
(In short, you need a story, a plot, as well as an idea. Just doing a fan-dance with the idea — let’s keep the readers waiting to see what’s behind this, while we do all sorts of fancy flutters that make them think they might see something any second — is not a story.)
· The Jar of Tang
“For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!” or “For you see, I am a dog!” Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry “Fooled you!” This is a classic case of the difference between a conceit and an idea. “What if we all lived in a jar of Tang?” is an example of the former; “What if the revolutionaries from the Sixties had been allowed to set up their own society?” is an example of the latter. Good SF requires ideas, not conceits.
(So does good fantasy.)
· Abbess, phone home
Takes its name from a mainstream story about a medieval cloister which was sold as SF because of the serendipitous arrival of a UFO at the end. By extension, any mainstream story with a gratuitous SF or fantasy element tacked on so it could be sold.
· Plot Coupons
The true structure of the quest-type fantasy novel. The “hero” collects sufficient plot coupons (magic sword, magic book, magic cat) to send off to the author for the ending. Note that “the author” can be substituted for “the Gods” in such a work: “The Gods decreed he would pursue this quest.” Right, mate. The author decreed he would pursue this quest until sufficient pages were filled to procure an advance. (Dave Langford)
(If you can write one of these after reading this, you have enough chutzpa to make more money as an agent than a writer. Of course there are quests that don’t use plot coupons, but have other internal motivators, or other reasons for needing several items. But there are too many like this! “The Gods decreed” any dumb plot element impossible to otherwise excuse is as cheap as the deus ex machina ending.)
· Used Furniture
Use of a background out of Central Casting. Rather than invent a background and have to explain it, or risk re-inventing the wheel, let’s just steal one. We’ll set it in the Star Trek Universe, only we’ll call it the Empire instead of the Federation.
(Or we’ll steal the Empire in Star Wars but call it the Monarchy and have the Galactic Knights with laser rapiers. By the way, Lucas did not invent the light saber: they appear in older space operas. It’s just that NOW everyone can’t think of them without Star Wars popping in.)
· Space Western
The most pernicious suite of used furniture. The grizzled space captain swaggering into the spacer bar and slugging down a Jovian brandy, then laying down a few credits for a space hooker to give him a Galactic Rim Job.
(Cute example: you gotta look out for squid in the mouth, though. More to the point, many “colonial planets” stories are “frontier town” stories, as if people could get there as easily as the popularion that drifted west on horseback across North America, with “government interference” only arriving later. With the cost of space flight, not likely. It will be more like the establishment of Australia.)