In a comment on the previous post, Mike wrote:"...let me tell you from experience that writing a short story takes a
lot less time than writing a scientific paper. The reason? No-one can call you on minor irregularities. If I'm writing a vampire story and in my story the vampire wants to eat my liver as well as drinking my blood, then it's my prerogative to make the universe work that way: after all, I made it up. But if I'm writing a scientific paper and I want to mention in passing that Brachiosauridae as traditionally conceived may be paraphyletic, then I'd damned well better know (or find out) that this was proposed by Salgado et al. 1997, and what characters the argued supported the paraphyly, and whether those characters are good, and what others have written in response to the idea. All that takes time to work out - a lot of time. Whereas writing 'The vampire wanted to eat my liver' takes as long to write as it takes you to type the characters."
I strongly disagree with this, and I'm going to explain why out here, in the open, not in the comments on this miserable blog, which any self-respecting reader knows to avoid.
You are right that fiction writers can just make things up as they go along, and are thus less constrained by facts. Less
constrained, not unconstrained. We'll get back to that in a minute. But I think you missed my point entirely. I explicitly drew a distinction between an amateurish short story and a decent scientific paper. I didn't define 'amateurish' or 'decent', but I had in mind the same thing you did (at least for the scientific paper, since you talk about chasing refs): unpublishable vs. publishable. I could kick out a short story in no time, it's true, but I doubt it would be publishable. And, okay, you can get just about anything published somewhere
, so let's refine the criterion for success: publishable in a respected periodical. For fiction, something that's available on the newsstand, like The Strand
, and for a scientific publication, a first-rank specialist journal that's available in most academic libraries, like The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology
If the workload is poured into 40-hour weeks, all of my substantial publications
have taken about six weeks to write. The Acta paper took three months, but I was teaching and taking classes at the time, and those three months included Christmas break. The illustrations took another two months, under similar constraints. The chapter in The Sauropods
only took a month, but I was working 6 or 7 days a week, and often for more than eight hours at a time.
I could bang out a short story in a couple of days, but it would suck, bigtime. If I poured six weeks of work into it, I don't know if the result would be publishable or not. Which is precisely my point: if I spend that same amount of time on a scientific paper, I can be confident that I've produced something good and useful. I have enough experience to know that it's good and useful before I send it out, and confirmation will come when it's accepted for publication (the vagaries of peer review notwithstanding).
The point of the previous post is that it would probably be good for me to take a stab at writing a good, submittable short story, just because it will be hard and there's no guarantee of external reward.
But the point of this post is to tear apart your argument, so I'm going to get back to that.
So, if this isn't clear from all that's come so far, I think that, deliberately or not, you sidestepped my point by comparing a publishable scientific paper to a short story that probably is not publishable. "...Let me tell you from experience that writing a short story takes a
lot less time than writing a scientific paper."
Yeah, but a publishable short story? If you're talking about your liver-eating vampire story, then I'm sorry, dude. It's not newsstand material and it probably cannot be revised to be so; any story that turns on those specific plot points is going to have to bring something amazing to the table in terms of language or point of view, because on plot it's waaaay too been-there-done-that. (Feel free to publish it and prove me wrong.)
Anyone can think of a cool scene--a man with a sword faces a monster, for example--and write about it. What separates the wheat from the chaff is the skill and grace of the execution. Just having the idea is not enough. (Except, evidently, in genre fantasy.)
Whereas in science just having the idea (and, hopefully, some data) is
enough. You don't have to be a very good writer to produce a publishable paper. In fact, it's probably much easier for a beginner to rack up publications in the sciences than in commercial fiction publishing.
But now I'm the one comparing apples and oranges. Even in a small field like paleontology, there are hundreds of possible venues in which to publish (Jerry Harris
lists more than 250, and that does not include many museum bulletins). But the number of newsstand publications that predominantly
feature short stories is probably only a dozen or two for all genres combined. Getting a story into a newsstand magazine is probably the fiction equivalent of getting a paper into Nature or Science.
Nevertheless, I would not be surprised to learn that someone like Gene Wolfe or Stephen Baxter spends six weeks crafting a short story. I'm sure many authors can and do bang them out faster (heck, I once wrote a short paper in six hours) but I think your "fiction's easier" line would collapse if we looked at how real authors actually work. Along these lines, you might want to check out Stephen King's excellent book On Writing
. One of the things he talks about is doing research--yes, research--for his stories and novels. It takes time to get things right. If you want to just make shit up as you go along, don't expect to have much a career publishing fiction (except in genre fantasy, natch).
Which brings me to my next, and hopefully final, point. "No-one can call you on minor irregularities. If I'm writing a vampire story and in my story the vampire wants to eat my liver as well as drinking my blood, then it's my prerogative to make the universe work that way: after all, I made it up."
Editors most certainly can call you on minor irregularities. As can readers, who can write back to the editors and prevent you from selling any more stories. Plot holes, inconsistencies, cliches, failure to suspend disbelief--fiction writers have to dodge all of these and more, just as scientific writers have to make sure that their facts are up-to-date, their data are adequate to address the problem, and their conclusions are sound. Also, abiding by the rules you made up can be a pain in the ass and require some research of its own.
A great example of this is in the Star Trek: The Next Generation
two-parter "The Best of Both Worlds" (the one where Picard gets enBorgulated). Worf and some other dumbasses beam aboard the Borg cube to rescue Picard. Then for the rest of the episode, everyone tries to think of a way to destroy the Borg cube. Apparently no one notices that they have antimatter technology and the free run of the enemy vessel.
That's not really a fair example. If the Enterprise
crew ever realized that they could just beam some photon warheads into the bad guys' redoubt, each episode would be about five minutes long. It's a shared universe, which means the writers of that episode were constrained by the kinds of solutions previous writers had come up with, whether they made any sense or not. Also, it's TV, which is mostly pretty stupid compared to anything you have to read. Finally, it's Star Trek, which is especially
stupid compared to anything you have to read (see Michael Wong's hilarious critiques here
). I have read enough interviews with authors of novels to know that continuity errors are a concern for them, even if they are small potatoes in Star Trek.
At the point I would normally sum up or generate some sort of conclusion, but it's a quarter after two and I'm zonked. Please rebut. Matt out.
Labels: Posts About Writing, Posts That Provoked Spirited Discussion