Getting Out Of Corners

Let it be known up front that I am a big fan of Scott Sigler’s work and work ethic. A harder working writer, I do not know. Having said that, there are things about him that I don’t get. That’s okay. Diversity makes this world and interesting place. But he said something in a recent episode of The All-Pro that made me mad. Hit the link and listen to the last ten minutes or so to get the full context.

He was talking about his writing process. He’s an outliner. Given what he writes, it makes perfect sense to do a thorough outline before he starts in writing. He talks about the whys and wherefores, in particular that he pitches ideas via his outline to his agent/publisher and hones it to a silicone coated pointy point before commencing. All of that’s good and well and makes perfect sense. He went further than that, though.

He said “any time the story gets into a rabbit hole they [paranormal/fantasy writers] can whip up some magic and get themselves out of that”. Now he does qualify that to a degree. It still came across to me as painting with an awfully broad brush. He also said that he has to outline everything and make sure that everything you’re reading does actually matter. That certainly seems to imply that at least some fantasy/paranormal writers don’t have to pay as much attention to the craft and that everything they write doesn’t have to be tightly plotted or make sense. That’s simply not true.

It caused me to tweet:

The FDO basically said as a thriller writer he doesn’t have the luxury of the supernatural to get him out of corners he writes himself into.

I also tweeted:

I’m fine with his stance except that he apparently believes writers of supernatural fiction are lazy somehow

Did he say “lazy”? No. I did infer that from what he said. I certainly don’t think he believes that all writers of fantasy are lazy writers. He himself has written fantasy (I think Nocturnal qualifies and there’s another project he’s working on that I know little about). I also think that his GFL series qualifies as fantasy of a kind.

As a writer of paranormal/fantasy fiction myself, I can see that using magic as a deus ex machina can be a crutch/problem. That’s also true of tricorders/sensors and other SF tropes. It’s one we all need to keep an eye out for. It’s also important no matter what genre you’re writing in to have a solid plot and to make sure that everything you’re writing “does actually matter” to the story at large. To single out a wide swath of genre fiction in the way he did was short sighted at best.

As I told one person, I certainly reacted emotionally. It’s also possible I overreacted. I would love to get Scott’s thoughts and yours. Listen to what he said and tell me if I’m way off base here.

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15 comments

  1. I have heard many people (writers, authors, readers) imply that fantasy is somehow easier to write than other literary forms.

    Sigler’s comment is indicative of the prevalent dismissive attitude toward the fantasy genre. The idea that A) fantasy writers lack the work ethic and aesthetic sense to craft a tale without resorting to Deux Ex Magica and B) that readers of fantasy are so dull as to accept such inept storytelling from their authors is insulting on many levels.

    To hear such a comment from “one of our own” is more than that… it’s wounding. I’m sure Sigler’s intent was to showcase his own challenges and how he confronts/overcomes them. In the process, however, he threw fantasy writers under the bus.

    1. I’ve jokingly said that I enjoy writing fantasy because I don’t like doing research. But I give major props to the fantasy authors out there that have built believable worlds with excellent plots and well developed characters. As I said in the post I think that’s harder to do. Which may in fact lead to the very thing that Scott was talking about.

      Then again if you’re writing something in the far flung future that looks as much to me like fantasy as it does sf and the same rules apply. Writing well is hard no matter the genre.

  2. I have to disagree with Meister Sigler – that sort of slippage is possible in any genre. You know you’re reading bad fantasy when the protagonist suddenly develops a superpower that’s perfect for getting out of their current dire situation, but the exact same was true (and played for laughs) on the old Batman TV show.

    Deus ex machina isn’t a fantasy-only problem: It’s just as easy to have the never-before-mentioned long lost husband show up suddenly, or the reluctant witness arrive in court at a critical moment – it’s just more blatantly obvious when the main character develops convenient laser vision/remembers they can cast a fireball.

    That said, I’m a huge proponent of outlining. I don’t have time to wander into dead ends, and I don’t want to make the reader feel cheated with unexpected plot solutions.

    Actually, I think Annie Wilkes, of Misery, said it best:

    “Anyway, my favourite was Rocketman, and once it was a no breaks chapter. The bad guy stuck him in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn’t cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! HE DID’NT GET OUT OF THE COCK – A – DOODIE CAR!”

  3. So he doesn’t like Fantasy. I don’t think he’d enjoy anyone using magic to solve anything, even if the author built it from the foundation. He would still see it as convenience.

    1. I think it’s more than not liking a genre. I don’t like paranormal romance, but I wouldn’t make a blanket statement about writers in that genre. One person I know pointed to his secularist bent. Are there any staunchly atheist fantasy writers?

  4. I think Sigler oversimplified, because he has said often that he admires GRRM, and it was A Song of Ice and Fire that inspired Nocturnal. I do get the sentiment because I too have been turned off some genres because of the lazy writing, because of the loose ends that never go anywhere, because of the DEM and Godmoding. And no, this is not limited to fantasy, I see bad writing in sci fi, horror and worse than anything, mystery, in addition to fantasy.

    1. Correct me if I’m wrong Nutty, but isn’s Song of Ice and Fire sort of low fantasy? Not much in the way of magic/fantasy creatures.

      1. Well I can’t say too much without spoiling it, but there are dragons (they are main characters if not plot points for a whole faction in the series), direwolves, undead that walk about and even more creatures in the later books.

        There is magic, there are glamors, there are rituals and spells

        the thing about the series is that the people in it think magic and these fantasy creatures are like the dinosaurs, dead and gone, but in the series it all reawakens, and shows how it’s always been there. One of the biggest dangers in the books is being a skeptic.

        I could also come up with other fantasy authors that pay attention to detail, I just happened to use one I like the most and can talk about the most… also, one I know Sigler digs, so it proves his flippant comment false to his own real thoughts.

      2. I suspect, or at least hope that he was just riffing. What I had read about SoIaF is that for fantasy it was grittily real. That fits with Scott’s worldview.

  5. This pisses me off. I don’t take kindly to people saying I disrespect other artforms.

    I considered blogging about this on my site, and still might, but I thought I’d give you a courtesy that you chose not to give me, which is responding to the concern where it actually happened.

    First of all, let me share with your readers some things you didn’t mention.

    1) You listened to this particular episode only because in it we ran a promo for your Omniverse podcast. You wanted to expose your work to my audience, you asked us to help you out by running your promo, and we were happy to do that for you.

    2) You don’t mention to your readers that you have my email address and have used it several times, but chose not to contact me directly on this.

    3) You don’t mention that I’m following you on Twitter and you could have DMed me to ask me directly.

    4) You don’t mention that you have a profile at scottsigler.com (http://scottsigler.com/users/spiritualtramp-spiritualtramp), and while you could have communicated your concerns there and initiated a dialogue on the site where the horribly offensive thing happened, you chose to do this instead.

    So, if you “would love to get Scott’s thoughts on this,” then why didn’t you contact me? Why didn’t you DM me? Why didn’t you comment on the episode in question? Why didn’t you at least get my response so you could include it in your blog post? It seems obvious: because you wanted to create some link-bait to drive traffic to your site. Judging by the relative number of comments for this post, that worked for you.

    LAZY?
    I did not imply that Fantasy writers lazy. You implied that. Nowhere in my episode did I say any such thing.

    Fantasy and Thrillers are two different art forms. As such, they have different limitations.

    A painter and a sculptor are both “artists.” If a painter makes a mistake, she can let that dry, then paint over it. If a sculptor makes a mistake and, say, accidentally chips off an arm, she can’t go back and “paint over it.” In that way, sculpting is a more restrictive art form than painting. Does that make a painter “lazy?” No. The two mediums have different requirements inherent in the mediums themselves.

    Writing a modern-day thriller is more “restrictive” than writing paranormal stories. Thrillers are largely constrained by real physics, real governmental policies, real weapons, real technology, etc. The farther you go beyond what people have today, the more you are moving into scifi. The more you move into scifi, the more free you are from real-world limitations. In Fantasy, you have zero real-world limitations. You can make up anything you like. It is a more open and free style of storytelling. How the fuck does that make a fantasy writer “lazy?”

    WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING?
    “That certainly seems to imply that at least some fantasy/paranormal writers don’t have to pay as much attention to the craft and that everything they write doesn’t have to be tightly plotted or make sense.”
    Bullshit. It doesn’t imply that at all.

    Thrillers and Fantasy are two different art forms. There are things you can do in Fantasy you can’t do in thrillers, and things you can do in thrillers you can’t do in Fantasy. In Fantasy, for example, you don’t have the crutch of existing governments, culture, politics and centuries of history on which to draw; you have to create all of that from scratch. In thriller writing, you don’t have the crutch of using magic to make anyone do anything that you can imagine; you largely have to use what is already here and make that work.

    Can a Fantasy author invent new magic, say, teleportation or time travel, to advance a plot or solve a plot hole? Yes. You can’t even argue with that.

    Have you read HARRY POTTER? It’s magic, Rowling can add things at will, as long as she stays consistent with what she adds after she adds it. Charlaine Harris can add new monsters and archetypes at will; she doesn’t have to establish the science behind fairies, she just makes up fairy power that works for her story and establishes it in her framework. In NEEDFUL THINGS, Stephen King can end his book by taking a normal can of fake peanut brittle that the reader has seen a dozen times in the story and suddenly turn it into a magical talisman that has the power to kill the devil. Tell me, could Tom Clancy finish off THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER by saying the submarine can suddenly teleport? No, he could not, because that’s not the way thrillers work.

    Since you chose to trash me on your site and tell everyone what you think my stance is, allow me to make my stance clear: There are things you can do with a Fantasy story that you can’t do with a thriller.

    I WRITE PARANORMAL STORIES. HELLO? IS THIS THING ON?
    If you followed my work or listened to the podcast other than to hear your own promo, you might know I occasionally write paranormal work. My short story NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET is a fan favorite, as is SPLASHING CONTEST. My new ongoing serial HUNTER HUNTERSON & SONS is about a monster-hunting family from Kentucky, transplanted to San Francisco to chase vampires, goblins, ghosts, werewolves, etc. I’ve talked about this repeatedly on my podcast — which you haven’t heard — about how much fun it is to write paranormal specifically because it is a more open and free form of storytelling. Do I need to make someone teleport for a story to work? Then I introduce a talisman, or a spell, or a magic wand. I can do that because it’s magic. Do I have to properly foreshadow that power and establish it as part of a disciplined plot? Of course. Is it easier to make up a magic solution whenever I need it than it is to research actual physics, astronomy, military tactics and weapons, police procedure, etc? Yes, it is. If you don’t get that, than you’re more worried about how people perceive you as an artist than you are about the truth.

    I have about fifteen real-world consultants who give me their expertise on how things really work in the modern world, so I can be as accurate as possible while still telling a captivating story. Want to guess how many consultants I need for my paranormal magic? Hint: the answer is “zero.” I don’t need any, because I can make up whatever I want as long as it works within a disciplined, consistent framework.

    Mind you, I’m not talking about horseback riding or sword fighting, for which you should consult experts to make the story as accurate as you can. I’m talking about magic.

    RECONFIGURE THE WARP DRIVE
    Let me explain this another way. In my eyes, STAR TREK is fantasy. They’ve “reconfigured the phaser array” to finish off a plot more times than I can count. In STAR TREK, you can create something new or modify it beyond its existing abilities any time you like. In thrillers, you can’t do that, because you’re (mostly) dealing with real-world physics and equipment. So, you tell me what’s harder:
    Choice A: Talking to US Navy personnel about how I could move a nuclear submarine into Lake Michigan, how long that would take based on the sub’s speed, which exact sub I would use based on the Navy’s current inventory of ships, how to get the sub through the St. Lawrence Seaway without it being seen, then adjusting when it leaves so that it can arrive at time that works for the outline.
    Choice B: Going back in time to give an engineer plans for a trans-warp drive that instantly quadruples a ship’s speed, so you can adjust
    how fast it can move so that it arrives at a time that works for the outline.

    Outlining is different for each because of cause and effect. In magical stories, you can put in the effect you want, then go back and make up what causes will get you that effect. In thrillers, you are largely dealing with existing causes, and use those existing causes to build to a logical effect.

    GEORGE RR MARTIN
    I read him and love his work. I’m sorry if he’s not “high fantasy” and is just “low fantasy,” whatever the fuck difference that makes when you’re writing about knights, dragons and zombies, but he’s what I read. He’s a major influence of mine, as is Tom Clancy. In GRRM’s stories he can bring people back from the dead whenever he likes and no one bats an eye. If Tom Clancy brings people back from the dead, it would require hundreds of pages of technological explanation. That’s a difference between Fantasy writing and thriller writing.

    Now I know how you handle things “when you get mad.” How unfortunate that you got all butt-hurt about this and this is how you express your thoughts, instead of talking to me face-to-face about it.

    1. Scott,

      First of all, let me say that I’ve listened to every podcast novel that you’ve put out at present. I’m a fan of your writing and have been and will be a cheer leader for your work. I didn’t just listen to this one episode because my promo happened to be on it. Did I listen to the end? Sure. I don’t do that in every case but I did it in this case.

      I didn’t realize that I needed to respond privately or in a particular fashion to a statement you made on your podcast. I choose to do so on my blog. I didn’t do it as “link bait”. Most of the people that responded (except for perhaps you) read what I write here on presumably a regular basis. I did want to spark a conversation on what you said. I view it as sitting around a table talking about what one of my favorite authors said. I invited that author to come and clarify his stance. You did and I am grateful, even if what I did caused you to be angry. As I told A, if I offended you or her I am sorry. I appreciate you coming on here and clarifying what you meant.

      Regarding “laziness”, here’s what I said:

      Did he say “lazy”? No. I did infer that from what he said. I certainly don’t think he believes that all writers of fantasy are lazy writers. He himself has written fantasy (I think Nocturnal qualifies and there’s another project he’s working on that I know little about). I also think that his GFL series qualifies as fantasy of a kind.

      So allow me to reiterate, I don’t think that you think all paranormal authors are lazy. Your comments came across to me as the belief that they somehow have it “easier”. Obviously that’s not what you meant to communicate, so now I know.

      Thrillers and Fantasy are two different art forms

      I’m not so sure about that. You can have a story that has elements of both. I know when you write a thriller there are certainly “rules” to follow to make a good one.

      Can a Fantasy author invent new magic, say, teleportation or time travel, to advance a plot or solve a plot hole?

      Absolutely. I would argue that doing so simply to advance a plot or solve a plot hole may be lazy writing. For example if the hero needs to get from point a to point b immediately and suddenly remembers or develops the ability to teleport, that’s a problem. It sounded to me like you think so to and that you think this is something fantasy writers rely on to do just that. Again, apparently that’s not what you meant.

      Since you chose to trash me on your site and tell everyone what you think my stance is

      Is this trashing you?

      Let it be known up front that I am a big fan of Scott Sigler’s work and work ethic. A harder working writer, I do not know. Having said that, there are things about him that I don’t get. That’s okay. Diversity makes this world and interesting place. But he said something in a recent episode of The All-Pro that made me mad. Hit the link and listen to the last ten minutes or so to get the full context.

      Did I admit to this?

      As I told one person, I certainly reacted emotionally. It’s also possible I overreacted. I would love to get Scott’s thoughts and yours. Listen to what he said and tell me if I’m way off base here.

      Now I know how you handle things “when you get mad.”

      Yes. I think about it. Sometimes I tweet something that I regret later. Just like in real life, where I occasionally put my foot in my mouth. Then, later, I talk it out/write it out and engage with friends on what I think. If I’ve stepped over the line I apologize. Just like I’ve done here. Allow me to reiterate, as I told A, if I offended you or her I am sorry.

      I’m curious as to why you think I should talk to you face to face. That would imply a level of relationship I didn’t think we had. You’re a busy man and have rarely shown any kind of personal interest in what I say, think, write, or believe. If Steven King, George Martin, or George Hrab said something that offended me, I wouldn’t go to them and say “Hey, I’m butt hurt about what you said.” I wouldn’t tweet at them, email them, or comment on their blog because frankly I’m sure they have better things to do than worry about me. I did include your handle in the Twitter stream, and email back and forth with A to let her know that the post was going up.

      I didn’t just talk about you behind your back. I didn’t and don’t hold a grudge or anything silly like that. I will continue to be a fan and support your work, buying books that interest me and promoting your podcast. I hope this clears the air up a bit.

    2. (Great… two “Scotts” in the same post. I’ll use last names for clarity, not out of familiarity or disrespect)

      I’m confused, Sigler.

      I came to Roche’s site based on a Tweet that invited opinions on something I’m interested in. Yes, the Tweet included your Twitter handle, but knowing Roche’s admiration for you, I assumed it would be an opportunity to explore some opinions with you and others about a topic that’s important to me.

      You’re angry at Roche for not DMing you or emailing you, but your first response is in the public forum. If one-on-one contact is the optimal course of action, why didn’t you pursue it yourself? If that really is “the high road”, then why not lead the way?

      If it’s because you’re pissed, then how is that any different from Roche’s inciting incident, responding emotionally to your quote?

      You judge Roche for conspiring to create link-bait on Twitter to boost his site traffic, yet you “still might” blog about it. It’s always been my assumption that blogging is about building a reader base by increasing site traffic, and I also assume that if you WERE to blog this that you would mention it on Twitter to drive traffic to your site. How is that different?

      ISN’T THIS AN OPPORTUNITY?

      And here’s what I really don’t get…

      A FAN

      …who has expressed ADMIRATION for your work…

      LISTENED TO AN INTERVIEW you did…

      …and used YOUR OPINION as a spring board for a discussion (your assertion regarding link-bait is not only absurd but irrelevant).

      I would think that every one of those capitalized concepts would be a good thing, an affirmation that the reach of your work and your “brand” is expanding and gaining credibility, that your opinions are worthy of being quoted and commented upon.

      Granted, you may feel that the conclusions Roche came to are inaccurate and don’t reflect your true stand on the issue… but isn’t that an opportunity? Is that a chance to engage with your readers and fans, to foster and deepen their understanding of how and why you do what you do?

      Instead, your response is an assault. Where Roche went out of his way to be deferential and respectful, you accuse and berate, and even go so far as to intentionally misinterpret his post to fuel your outrage.

      PERCEPTION AS ARTISTS

      Ultimately, I think this is a discussion of religion, not of writing craft or quality of storytelling. As such, everyone’s opinions are valid because they reflect each person’s perspectives and beliefs.

      But, one thing from Sigler’s response resonated strongly for me: “…you’re more worried about how people perceive you as an artist than you are about the truth.”

      My first impression to that was, “Pot, meet Kettle”. Sigler, that very astute insight reflects back on the very first paragraph of your post. You’re clearly just as alert and attuned to perceptions as the rest of us.

      But fundamentally, it speaks to something we all wrestle with… validation. Storytelling requires confidence, and often we chose to base that confidence on external affirmations that what we’re doing is valuable or relevant. When someone (especially someone we admire and respect) is dismissive about our chosen field of endeavor, it tweaks us. When someone claims our opinions are less than acceptable in their eyes, we get defensive.

      And it evokes an emotional response.

      This whole exchange has been (for me) an exploration not of craft, but of who we are IN our craft. Ultimately the only value Sigler’s opinions (or Roche’s or mine) have is to give each of us the opportunity to understand our own perceptions of how we pursue our chosen craft.

      We can’t create in a vacuum, and external input regarding our work (or our opinions when offered in a public forum) is not only inevitable but essential. Because it’s directed at something so intimate and personal, it’s easy to get hurt when that input is less than what we’d hoped.

      But what we do WITH that input is what defines us as creators. I took Roche’s post not as an attack on Sigler, but an invitation to explore his own reaction to it. In that spirit, I’ll add this to my initial comment:

      If you’re a storyteller, then write stories. Write the best stories you can. Use criticism and opinion about them (or the genre you have chosen to write in) solely as a tool to hone your stories not as a validation of your own worth or relevance.

      It’s hard because of the passion we feel for what we do and I certainly wrestle with it every day. But I think the struggle to be aware of WHY we do what we do is ultimately a rewarding one, making us better writers and better people.

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