Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fiction and Nonfiction

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 or Analog, and for a scientific publication, a first-rank specialist journal that's available in most academic libraries, like The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology or Taxon.

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.

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Blogger Mike Taylor said...


I really don't have time for this.

If you really believe that writing short stories is super-hard then by all means do adhere to that belief, and spend your time doing something useful (i.e. science) instead. No, of course I was not suggesting that my liver-eating vampire romp was New Yorker quality; however, I do think it's at least on a par, within its genre, with many palaeo papers that I've seen in lesser journals - and by "lesser" I mean "not so lesser that I wouldn't submit to them". I could give you references but (A) I'm sure you already know what I mean and (B) I don't want to needlessly give offence and/or get sued.

But, hey, if you want to spend your time writing blog entries about how you wish you could write a short story but, oh, oh, it's so hard, then be my guest. I'm off to check the proof of my MTE paper and prepare the WCWAJGA manuscript for resubmission.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Such churlishness does not become you.

I don't have time for this either, so rather than compose a brand-new response to your suggestion (that I give up), I'll just copy the part of the post that already addressed it.

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.

Also, your assertion that your vampire story is on par with something publishable is...courageous. I encourage you to defend that assertion by publishing it.

In fact, let's sweeten the deal. If you get your vampire story, or a recognizeable version of it, published in a magazine, I will buy you either volume of the Star Wars Chronicles.

The caveats are:
- By magazine I mean a regularly-appearing periodical with a glossy or cardstock cover and a circulation of more than 1000 (i.e., not a photocopied, corner-stapled fanzine some pimply loser "publishes" in his mom's basement).
- Since you're a busy man and have lots of scientific papers in the pipeline, as well as a family and a real job, I'll be generous and double my six-week allowance for producing a paper. You've got 12 weeks. The offer expires at midnight, Pacific Time, on Wednesday, August 16. If you haven't received confirmation that your story has been accepted for magazine publication by then, no book for you.

Whaddaya say?

10:06 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Thanks for the offer, but no. I already have way too much on to start chasing a paper publication for this; plus I am not at all convinced I'd succeed: the barrier is way higher than for palaeo, because the universe of wannabees is a hundred times as big.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...


So first you mock me with this snotty business:
If you really believe that writing short stories is super-hard then by all means do adhere to that belief, and spend your time doing something useful (i.e. science) instead.

And then turn around and do that very thing:
I already have way too much on to start chasing a paper publication for this; plus I am not at all convinced I'd succeed: the barrier is way higher than for palaeo, because the universe of wannabees is a hundred times as big.

Thanks for proving my point for me, hypocrite.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

OK, on reflection I probably owe you a slightly less dismissive response.

That story took me (as far as I can remember from a distance of twelve years) something like six or seven hours to crank out -- about the equivalent of one working day. In my limited but not negligible experience, that's fairly typical. If I was serious about getting it published, I'd probably put in as much time again in streamlining, clarifying, honing the jokes and stripping out some of the cliches that are so painfully apparent. So call it two days in total.

Now think how much of a scientific paper you can get done in two typical days. Typical days, I say: no choosing your most productive ever two days and gluing them together. Your mileage undoubtedly varies but in my experience I can write maybe between 1/4 and 1/2 page of science on a good day. The main part of that is not spent in the actual writing, but in fact-checking, reference-chasing, measuring off my digital photos, comparing other people's figures, and so on and on and on.

None of that has to be done in fiction. Let's go back to my liver-eating vampire. I threw that in on the spur of the moment because I thought it was funny. To do that I had to do no research. I didn't have to check whether any of Anne Rice's vampires eat livers, or hunt through Bram Stoker's private correspondence, or review the history of liver-eating vampires in film. I just made it up, because it was my world. By contrast, if I wanted to introduce the concept of liveriverous theropods, I would have to do a lot of research. I'd need to find out whether it's been proposed before; I'd need to find out whether there are extant analogues; I'd need to look into the nutritional value of liver and consider whether liverivory would entail additional behaviours to make up nutritional deficiencies. And so on.

You say that fictional worlds need to be consistent. That is sort of true, but with two important caveats. First, fictional worlds only need to be self-consistent; there's no burden on them to be consistent with any other fictional world or with the real world. (An exception is Hard SF in which the science has to be at least credible). You may point out that Tolkein invested decades in building his world, but that is irrelevant because he is a stray data-point totally off the scale of what anyone else does. For every Tolkein there are several thousand Marian Keyeses or John Normans or Douglas Adamses who just make it up as they go along, with scant regard even for self-consistency. Remember, we're talking about what's necessary to write a short story, not what's possible.

The second important caveat is that for short stories (which is what you said you want to write), even the lax consistency requirements of novels are dropped. There just isn't time: short stories are like commando raids: get in, tell the story, get out. Anyone who can't stay self-consistent for the 2000 words it takes to tell a story has no business writing, and would certainly not be expected to do well in scientific writing.

So I stand by it all. If you wanted to write a short story, you'd just write one and have done. I'm reminded of Trish Rucker's observation: "My pet peeve are all the people who say ``I want to be a writer,'' but they don't want to write".

So which is to be? Are you going to get off the port? Or ... ???

11:05 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

You continue to miss my point. If I just wanted to write a short story, I would. And I do. But they aren't worth showing to anyone. My desire is not just to write a short story, but to write a good one, and what's holding me back is the same thing that's holding you back, by your own admission: it will take too much time and effort, with too little guarantee of reward. Both of us have decided to spend our time writing papers instead. My grander point is that this kind of a priori surrender is chickenshit, and that it's good for people to try new things that they'll probably fail at--it keeps us humble, and increases our sympathy with beginners in our own field.

I don't see how you can knock me for not writing a short story when your reason for not publishing the one you've written is the same that I'm giving for not writing. You've just taken one eensy step forward before giving up. And I find your pussing out on trying to get your story published much more reprehensible than my own failure to write one. Your story is already written, I'm giving you nearly three months to find a publisher, and at the end you'll have a published story, an uncontested victory over me including punitive damages, and a fabulous Star Wars book to enjoy forever.

So which is it going to be? Are you going to get off the port? Or...???

11:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

You didn't say anything about publishing a short story in your original post; I can't help thinking you're now trying to move the goalposts because you can't stop the goals raining in any other way.

The reason I am "pussing out" on getting it published (beyond its initial publication in a webzine) is the obvious one: I don't care. I wrote this and other stories for my own enjoyment, and I never had the slightest intention of trying to place it in a major venue. But, hey, if writing for the sheer fun of creation seems contemptible to you then by all means refrain from doing in.

In other words, I'm not even on the pot.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

You're a fine one to talk about moving the goal posts, since in my original post I was obviously talking about the difference between writing a publishable short story and a publishable paper, and you immediately compared a publishable paper to a short story which you first claimed was publishable, and now are claiming is not.

Also, your theme--running for two comments now--of ending with some sort of, "But hey, if you're such a vile worm that doing this noble activity is unpalatable, then don't do it,"--when my intent all along has been to explore why I don't do these things that I could--is rhetorically weak and transparently pissy. It's also particularly uncharitable, given your initial reluctance to start writing papers until goaded on by, er, me.

Yeah, I went there.

For all of you who aren't Mike, I hope you're enjoying this little lover's spat as much as I am. :-) We've also been disagreeing a lot on e-mail. I guess this is just one of those rocky patches that every relationship goes through. Or maybe Mike's just an arse. Your thoughts?

1:46 PM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Since you raise the subject of my own path to this point, I guess it falls to be to demonstrate how you've fatally undermined your own argument.

=== 2003 ===
Mike: I wish I could write scientific papers, but it's so darned hard.
Matt: Well, go on then! Yes, it's hard, but it's worth it.
Mike: OK. [Writes papers]

=== 2006 ===
Matt: I wish I could write short stories, but it's so darned hard.
Mike: Well, go on then!
Matt: No, it's too hard.

"If you really want to be a writer, develop calluses on your pride" -- Adrian Bedford.

12:59 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Excellent. I was wondering which of us would be the first to write a Whig history of the debate. I usually take this very low road first, but I see that you've beaten me to it. Very sleezy of you.

Here's my own take.

MATT: You should describe some specimens.
MIKE: Not interested in doing any real work, thanks.
MATT: How about this one right here?
MIKE: Okay!
DARREN: And this one.
MIKE: Okay!

MATT: It's hard to write either fiction or nonfiction well, and since I already know how to write nonfiction, I'm inclined to stick to what I'm good at. But maybe that's not such a good thing.
MIKE: No, writing fiction's easy, cuz you just make shit up. The werewolf ate the vampire. See?
MATT: I meant writing good, publishable fiction is hard.
MIKE: Then don't do it, pussy!
MATT: That was my point to begin with! And if it's so easy, why don't you do it?
MIKE: Can't, it's too hard.
MATT: Hypocrite.
MIKE: Then don't do it, pussy!
MATT: You already said that. And how dare you say that to me, you ungrateful little shit!
MIKE: [rewrites history] You are hoisted by your own petard, sir!
MATT: No, you are!
MIKE: Uh-uh!
MATT: Uh-huh!

(all exeunt, pursued by a bear)

12:21 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

I kinda feel like I ought to have the last word in this "debate". So here it is:


3:22 PM  

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