How fiction starts: an analysis of 1200+ sff books

When I make my writing analysis posts, I usually pick random sentences but beginnings may be an even better choice. They are probably the most edited, if not overthought, parts of a book, and it’s also where writers show off their skill or (if they fail at it) their weaknesses. And if you want to see how writing changes through time, the first sentence may actually be all you need to read. And for those who have huge submission piles to plow through, the first two sentences is all you need to read for the first culling.

If you have followed me for some time, you already know my dislike of contemporary writing fads and techniques and my belief that you can see its decline in quality just in the formal aspect of writing. Strange syntax, (too) deep POVs, -ing participles galore, unnecessary descriptions, showing where telling would be perfectly fine and, finally, no personal style and no distinctive narrator—just piles and piles of descriptions, one after the other, like a transcription of a video recording. And, sure, it’s fine and all to talk about these things in the abstract and using a few examples from time to time, but it’s better to have some solid evidence to back you up. So here it is.

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Door stoppers, or how you can probably cut off half of any sff novel.

Despite this blog’s interest in fantasy, there’s actually a lot of “beginners” books in this genre that I never read when I was a kid. The kind you either read young or you never will because as an adult they seem… kinda bad. I ignored almost all the D&D novels aside from a few Drizzt books, and I never touched a single Dragonlance book (more than a hundred already written as of today.) That changed yesterday when, in a whim, I began reading the first Dragonlance book. And, well… it was somewhat better than I had expected. Better than a lot of the stuff being written today, anyway.

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Reading the Hugos (2019) A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies

Of the six short story nominees, three have a witch as the main protagonist (or two, depending on how you define “main”) who is also pretty woke. Outside of these Hugo finalists, I don’t think I have read a story with a witch protagonist in years.

Another trend I have noticed these last years is what I call trivial or mundane fantasy. These are stories with characters that have reality-altering powers yet they don’t use them for anything moderately interesting or to help other people (or themselves) even when that’s the point of the story. In fact, most of these characters are surprisingly powerless and victimized through the entire story. Why? Well, there are many reason, but here are a few: these are fantasy stories only superficially, the fantastic elements being clearly tacked on; related to that, they are not proper stories either but allegories, where powers and fantastic elements stand for something else; and, finally, the ideological consensus of these stories demands victimized characters and it naturally frowns on superpowered characters or even assertive ones—hence why many of these stories are such downers and need a quota of woke characters/moments so they don’t feel absolutely nihilistic. You obviously can’t have an oppressed, let’s say, witch, which is a stand-in for women, if she can blow somebody’s head off with a word.

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Reading the Hugos (2019) The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat

What’s with these long titles that tell most of the story, sometimes even the ending? I know it’s hard to come up with titles, but seriously, it’s as if I renamed Star Wars to “The Fantastical Adventures of the Moisture Farmer who Discovers Space Magic and Blows up the Death Star.”

Anyway, this short story, TTTBRSATPWWMOM from now on, by Brooke Bolander appeared in issue 26 of Uncanny, which was entirely dedicated to dinosaur stories. It’s a fantasy comedy piece and it has to be read and understood as such; I wouldn’t recommend reading it with a serious mindset.

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Reading the Hugos (2019) The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

Commenting on my last post, where I gave a harsh beating to the previous Hugo short story finalist, Alexandru Constantin mentioned that he “can’t get past the stupid titles.” Yes, I have thought about that too, and it’s a common issue with these award-worthy stories or those that give off some kind of literary aspiration: they usually have humongous titles. It’s like they are trying to compensate for something, or perhaps it’s a way to mark the story as one of their own. It reminds me of that amusing observation about the length of a country’s official names correlating with how undemocratic it is (e.g., People’s Democratic Republic of Something or Other.)

I’m pleased to announce that that does not apply to today’s story, and even if the title is ridiculously long and descriptive, in this case, it seems more a matter of extreme literalism and lack of imagination to come up with titles than anything else.

This one is good.

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Reading the Hugos (2019) The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society

This story is quite pointless. It’s also the female equivalent of those stories written by pervy old men whose dashing protagonists bangs every well-endowed lady in the land, but with the female twist (actually, the need) of the males longing for the woman many years or decades later. But as I said; it’s just pointless. Not bad, just without a point or purpose. I do not know why it exists. I do not know why 1,887 words were arranged to form this short story. I can see this existing as a joke, a post in somebody’s blog, a somewhat comedic snapshot, but I can’t see why this is a Hugo nominee, potentially the best fantasy or sci-fi short story of the year. In fact, there’s hardly anything fantastical in this story aside from the half-satyr’s titanic schlong and Rose’s irresistible sex appeal (and legendary endurance.)

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Reading the Hugos (2019) The Court Magician

It’s that time of the year once more: time to read the Hugo Award finalists and be shocked, amused, horrified, and (occasionally) entertained. As usual, I’ll stick to the short stories because they are free to and it’s where hungry, ambitious authors try to show off, so there’s hardly a better category to get a graphography (is that a word?) of the current zeitgeist, but I may throw in a novelette if I feel like it.

Of course, for the same reason there is such a thing as Oscar bait, there’s also Hugo bait, so expect to see certain patterns with these stories—or just with their authors. Like in previous years, gender is one main theme, and of the four big categories (novel, novella, novelette, and short story,) with 24 stories and 22 authors, 18 of the finalists are women, 2 identify as trans, and 2 weirdos are men. There are also many names you might recognize from previous years. Make of those things what you will.

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