Notes from Loncon 3: The perfect sentence

You Write Pretty

Geoff Ryman (no show), Greer Gilman, Frances Hardinge, Christopher Priest, E J Swift

This panel was a fun one. Four authors proposed their favourite sentence from a fantastical work and defended it to the audience and the rest of the panel. The winner was selected by an audience show of hands.

The winner was Frances Hardinge’s pick from Jabberwocky:

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood
And burbled as it came!

The points in favour of this sentence are that while it is nonsense verse – a playful experiment – the made-up words have meaning because of their music. It exists on the line between comical and eerie. The best monsters are those half-glimpsed. Jabberwocky is such a monster because it is described with unknown words.

E J Swift’s proposed sentence was from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad:

But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand—it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.

The points in favour of this sentence are its energy as it pinwheels through the stream of consciousness, the justification for stealing a wallet, and that while it does so it displays such a great deal of self-awareness on part of the narrator.

Christopher Priest’s proposed sentence was the first sentence of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:

There was a wall.

The points in favour of this sentence are its classic simplicity, its brevity. The sentence is both declarative and symbolic (summing up as it does the main theme of the whole book).

Greer Gilman’s proposed sentence was another one from poetry, Andrew Marvell’s The Garden:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
I fear a lot of the discussion of this sentence went over my head. The points in its favour were the many connections it included both backwards and forwards through the history of the fantastical.
There was also general discussion of what makes a good sentence. These were my takeaways:
  • A sentence is a building block and as such has a function to perform. Different sentences have different roles. A perfect sentence is one that does the job that has been assigned to it elegantly. Sentences don’t have to be beautiful to be effective.
  • Sentences can be weighty in context. Many good sentences come late in a work because they have the full story working towards them. In contrast, opening sentences have a different task – often to be striking.
  • Kill your darlings? Opinions split on this one. Some panellists agreed, take the sentences out and put them somewhere where they can be reused or reabsorbed into more appropriate contexts. Frances Hardinge characterised a ‘darling’ as “a splendid soloist, who is not playing with the rest of the orchestra.” On the other hand, Christopher Priest’s attitude to the urging to kill darlings was “It’s my book. my words. Sod ’em. Sometimes your darlings are really good!”
    I loved both of these quotes – as you might be able to tell from the fact that I transcribed them verbatim in my notes.

Notes from Loncon 3: Of interest to a British writer

This year I went to my first convention: the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I went to a lot of panels, a LOT of panels. And I took a lot of notes.

I’m going to share a few of my notes here. Rather than chronologically, I’ve grouped the panels thematically. This first set of panels were of interest to me as a writer, specifically as a British writer of short stories.

Short Fiction is Dead, Long Live Short Fiction

Liz Gorinsky, Ellen Datlow, Simon Ings, Keffy Kehrli, Ann Leckie

This panel sought to discuss the shifts in the short fiction market and its current state.

My takeaways:

  • The market is diversifying. In addition to the larger markets, many smaller markets are popping up to fill a particular niche. As a result boundaries between genres are both blurring and, perhaps, also becoming more specific, as these smaller markets can aim for a small and dedicated readership and can develop a community around exploring a particular voice or possibility. (It was noted that perhaps the diversity and spread of the short story market was a factor in the Hugo Award for Best Short Story only having four finalists, as only four stories got more than 5% of the nominating ballots: ~43 out of 865. The ballots were so spread otherwise.)
  • US writers dominate the markets. The ‘why’ of this was discussed.
    For Brits (and other Anglophones) it was suggested that they are afraid to send to the US markets. Though it doesn’t work the other way around; Simon Ings from the UK market Arc says he gets a lot of US submissions and not that many from Brits. What the US has, that Britain lacks, are a pulp tradition, many lodestone magazines, and an educational culture around writing.
    For writers in other languages and coming from their own literary traditions, the primacy of US markets is thought to be intimidating. Translation is a big hurdle in short fiction. Editors are reluctant to commission translations, as there is a risk they will dislike the finished product. Many authors have their stories translated (by themselves, by friends, or by professional translators) before submitting. Editors on the panel said they read stories in translation on their slush pile with a more open mind as the stories will often need an edit.
  • New markets backed up by Kickstarters (or similar) often seem to come out of the fanzine tradition. In many cases the editors and slush readers are not paid. This mechanism was not seen as sustainable. Also the main failing of these markets seems to be in sorting out a distribution pipeline for the product.

The World at Worldcon: The State of British SF

Glyn Morgan, Jo Fletcher, Lesley Hall, Dr Paul March-Russell, Simon Spanton

This panel sought to discuss the current state of the British market and how is has developed in the years since the last British Worldcon.

My takeaways:

  • The recent recession has had a strong impact on the market. The big publishers have drawn in their horns and played it safe. This has allowed smaller presses the space to take risks.
    It has made it harder to launch new authors and also to maintain authors who had been recently taken on, but hadn’t established themselves strongly, quickly.
    While there are more SF&F publishers, or more publishers with SF&F divisions, this does not necessarily lead to larger sales in SF&F.
  • Ebooks.  Ebooks were also cited as influencing and benefitting from a movement towards brevity of form.
    Ebooks also provide self-publishing authors the chance to react quickly to market trends. By contrast, in traditional publishing, writers trying to emulate what’s popular now are too late. Don’t be reactive.
    Ebooks make things easier for the standalone novel. There is often a perception, especially in fantasy, that things must come in series.
    More people are happy to read on their phones. Also the audiobook market is on the increase. This shows the appetite people have for story and can lead to an increase in the market.
    [In 2013: 40% of fiction market is ebooks]
  • How books are sold. The number of high street retailers has dwindled in the past 10 years from (maybe) five to just one: Waterstones. In part this could be seen as a response to a growing ebook market.  Once you lose bookshops, you lose curation and suggestion power.
    How do you find out about a book? When the point of sale is Amazon (or similar) the recommendations can be narrowing – more of the same.
    How do you decide whether to buy a book? There is so much review information out there, how do you process and weigh it? Ebooks provide sample chapters.
  • Genre. Genre was conceived as a selling tool, not a reading tool. It is only in the last 30/40 years that books have been sold by genre. Publishers sometimes choose to market their genre books as mainstream to increase the potential audience.
    [In 2013: The #1 mainstream novel sold 600,000 print copies, the #1 SF&F (probably GRRM) sold 166,000.]
    Many on the panel were not in favour of fragmentation of the market into pieces, as this creates pigeonholes that are constricting. However, people writing from outside of genre traditions can sometimes be less constricted because they are coming to SF&F fresher.
    [In 2013: 43% of the SF&F market was in epic fantasy (probably GRRM again!)]
  • The state of British SF&F: This can’t be defined while we’re in it. It can only be defined in hindsight. Trends that were mentioned included: a recent explosion of new voices and talent, a tendency to greater diversification, a tendency for non-genre writers to engage with genre, return of shorter forms (e.g. novellas).
    British SF should not be easily definable in the same way that British identity should not be easily definable. We are many things.
    Who is the British SF&F audience? Wider now than just literature. Movies, TV and comics often bring people into the genre. SF&F has made a bigger impact on the mainstream. Because of this, are we – the SF&F community , the sorts of people who go to cons- no longer the main audience? Is the SF&F community engaged with everyone it should be? And are those people outside of the SF&F community’s conversation the ones who are leading SF&F right now? (Stated as points to ponder – none of the panellists offered answers to these.)

The numbers bolded in square brackets did not come from this panel, but from “UK SF&F by the numbers”, a panel I did not attend. A friend who did attend it relayed these numbers to me and I thought they would be of interest in this context.