Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Writing Advice

The best piece of writing advice I ever got came from Gene Wolfe, fairly early in my career. He said, "Have a short story feature two situations, and then let them solve each other." I thought of this advice while I was reading Paolo Bacigalupi's story in FAST FORWARD 2, "The Gambler."

Once I got past the image in my head of Kenny Rogers, I was really impressed with this story (which Gardner Dozois signaled out as among the best in the anthology). The story works on many levels. It also illustrates Gene's advice perfectly. Ong, the protagonist, has two "situations;" one is his concern and longing for his parents, who disappeared during the "black hole" of no information that Laos has become after a bloody revolution. Ong, now in America, is a reporter for a news conglomerate, and his second "situation" is that his ratings are low. He writes thoughtful, "depressing" articles about minor government corruption and minor environmental disturbances such as the extinction of an obscure butterfly. Almost no one reads these articles. Bacigalupi works his plot so that these situations impact upon and, ultimately, "solve" each other.

What's lovely about this story is that even though the high-tech tracking of media hits ("the malestrom") is completely believable and savagely frenetic, the characters (with one exception) are refreshingly low-key. Even the captain who arrested Ong's father in Laos is not a stock villain but a sad, believable man. Ong himself has a quiet tenacity that is the opposite of James-Bond heroism, yet he is a hero nonetheless.

Anyone wanting to write SF would do well to study this story's construction, pace, and deft characterization.


José Iriarte said...

I can't wait to read this story and see how it works!

Here is a link for anybody who might be looking for it (and so I can find it when I get home).

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I hate to be obtuse, but are you THE Nancy Kress, the former fiction columnist for Writer's Digest?

If so, I want to thank you for your many, many helpful articles. I learned so much about writing fiction from you.


José Iriarte said...

Indeed she is.


I found the story captivating, but I'm not sure I see how Ong's concern and longing for his parents is solved. Or maybe I do . . . let me work through this:

[rambling]It seems as though Ong acts out his concern by reporting on topics they (and principally his father, yes?) would have had connections to. This behavior leads to his low ratings, because most people--most Americans?--aren't interested in this sort of news piece. His date with Kulaap doesn't really satisfy his need to connect with his parents, does it? I mean, yes, he discovers that she is also active in the small online community of people sharing news, but all he has is dribs and drabs of news about Laos, and not really news about his parents. What his date does accomplish, though, is it empowers him to write what he wants. It's ambiguous, though, as to whether he is materially empowered. He has a short-term increase in hits, but there's no implication that this will generate long-term interest for the sorts of stories he wants to write. In fact, we see prominently displayed the theme that news is only news for an instant, and becomes passé very quickly. And Janice makes it pretty clear she wants to get rid of him. There is a glimmer of possibility, as seen in the last line that reminds us that it is Ong's heritage to be a gambler. But we don't have resolution in the form of a clear promise that Ong is going to be okay. He could--likely will--get fired and deported. So any resolution we have is emotional and not material.

Hmm . . . I'm going around in circles. I've now turned myself completely around. I see a resolution in that Ong has decided to toss caution to the winds and write what he cares about, but only the possibility of a temporary resolution to his low ratings.

Are these really two situations? Since his low ratings are caused by the articles he is driven to write by his need to connect to his parents, couldn't it ne argued that they are the same situation?