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February 6th, 2013

No idea why I feel obligated to say this, except that it's 7:55 am and I am killing time before an 8:15 am meeting...

What do I look for when I pick up a science fiction book? (Any book, for that matter, but especially SF.) All I ask for are three things:

1. Make me turn the pages.
2. Show me something I haven't seen before.
3. Be honest.

Easy, right? 

1. I think number one is the hardest. There are many authors (including many who have had wonderfully successful careers without my stamp of approval, thankyouverymuch) who seem to fail at this.

The classic example of a writer who's very successful but, for me, fails on this score for some reason is Neil Stephenson. Both Snow Crash and The Confusion have wonderful opening scenes, and yet once I put them down I never had the urge to pick them up again. (Cryptonomicon, by contrast, held me to the very last of its many, many pages.)

Why? This is my own personal twitch, but... neither of them had a character who I cared about enough that I wanted to spend more time with them. I don't necessarily have to like the character – the people in pameladean Tam Lin were all the artsy types whom I avoided like the plague while I was in college, but somehow she made them interesting enough that I wanted to see what happened to them. (In that case, I think it was her description of the children's books the main character was leaving behind that did it for me.) So, having given all you writers my wisdom on what I want ("make me turn the pages") I confess I have no idea how to accomplish it.

2. I've read a lot of stuff. I have seen most of the things people are trying to do, done better, already. So, surprise me. papersky (writing, as she says, at the edges of genre) is a master of this. She doesn't always succeed in getting me to turn the pages (some of her more esoteric fantasy doesn't have the hooks shaped to lure me in), but when she does, she has me hooked but good.

3. Be honest? To misquote Hemingway, I think, all you have to do is sit in front of the keyboard and bleed. Again citing papersky that was what made Among Others a Hugo-winner. (Along with it being a page-turning and showing me an enormous amount of stuff I hadn't seen before, of course... but it was its honesty that sold the deal.) 

By contrast, I can think of a couple of other writers (again, very successful but still...) who write fantasies where you walk away wondering if they really believe in their story. Not just that, when they walk away from the keyboard they know it's fiction; but even while writing it, they know it's fiction. Or they make their characters do what is expected, rather than showing that spark of insanity that reality always holds.

Anyway, time for my 8:15 meeting...

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