Just Glue Some Things on It

Misha Burnett

Misha Burnett, an interesting member of the online book club I’m in, notes that readers of his story in Cirsova Vol. 5 quite enjoy it:

I’m rather surprised by how much good ink “In The Gloaming” is getting.  I wrote that story as a deliberate pastiche of the EC Horror comics that I grew up with (and the pre-code reprints that came out in the 80s). It’s probably the most derivative thing I’ve ever written, and certainly one of the easiest–I think it took me an afternoon, once I came up with basic idea.

But that’s not the only nugget of knowledge in that thread.

Bestselling literary critic Jeffro Johnson chimed in by pointing out the modern writers are weak on plotting:

+Misha Burnett It’s just like +Kevyn Winkless was saying. Today’s writers are experts in everthing EXCEPT how to create a plot. The type of story you were emulating is old hat to you, but you can’t tell me you can pick up anthologies and magazines at B&N that do anything remotely like that. The techniques you use are, as +Nathan Housley pointed out, literally magic. In today’s milieu, that means that your flawless execution is going to be a bombshell. All the more so since you are going up against the most abominable of Mythos derivatives. You cannot go out and buy that right now. You just can’t

And Burnett follows up by telling us how so much modern writing simply copies the surface features of the genres it imitates:

So much of the alleged pastiche or homage fiction these days (“Lovecraftian”, “Hard-Boiled”, “Space Opera” and so on) feels like the “sporty” versions of mid-sized cars that auto makers like to produce.

You’ve got the same engine and drivetrain as everything else on the road, but we’ll stick a spoiler on the back and a tach on the dashboard. The people who buy the cars don’t even know the purpose of those design features, they just look cool.

I see the same sequence of events (I hesitate to call it a plot) repeated over and over, with different trim.

Glue some gears on it, and it’s Steampunk.
Glue some tentacles on it, and it’s Lovecraftian.
Glue some 40s slang on it, and it’s Hard-Boiled.
And so on.

The idea that the structure of the story is a consequence of the overall esthetic just doesn’t seem to occur to people.

This right here is instructive. It’s simply not enough to emulate the most well-known features of a genre; instead, look into what assumptions that classic genre made if you want to truly capture its spirit.

That being said, there is no shame in combining an older aesthetic with a more modern aesthetic — but it requires you to understand why the older aesthetic worked, and how to write it.

This entry was posted in Interesting people and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Just Glue Some Things on It

  1. The Mixed GM says:

    You cannot just glue some X on a story to make it a Y kind of story. In my not-so-humble opinion, the worst offenders are stories that have a character in a pre-modern setting having modern beliefs.

    This is not the same as “present-day person is transported to the past and things are awkward because of his or her modern-day beliefs”, because that makes sense. That kind of story is acceptable.

    What is not acceptable is when a character grows up in a pre-modern society and then adopts what we would consider a modern-day belief FOR NO GOOD REASON (especially a belief that is against the rest of the world and has no precedent in the world). This is really jarring to suspension of disbelief and is lazy storytelling. If you want to write modern characters, either transport them in time or write a modern setting.

    Don’t glue gears on a story full of characters that act like modern-day Americans (even though it is based in 1910 London) and call it a steampunk story.

    Don’t make a story with modern characters, insert a dragon and castle in it, and call it a medieval fantasy.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      I couldn’t agree more. It’s always a good idea to take advantage of a setting to make good characters.

    • Man of the Atom says:

      How many RPG gamers and authors today do that (make “Tack-on Entertainment”), and have no clue there is a way to understand what it might really have been like to live in Medieval England, or struggling space program in the middle of a Cold War, or a merchant living through the French Revolution, or to be a hard-boiled PI in 1930s New Jersey?

      Young people have been educated NOT to read or watch media from these forbidden (read Sexist, Racist, Misogynist, whatever) periods in History. Any wonder you have Cargo Cult Creators who populate the Entertainment Media?

      Great post, Rawle!

      • Rawle Nyanzi says:

        That is a good point; the larger culture always makes it a point to tell you how “hateful” the older works are. After being told that day after day, who’d want to read such work? That’s why this exploration of the pulps is so important — it helps dispel such myths.

      • Mary says:

        A fair number of them don’t want to know. After all, they might taint the purity of their broad-mindedness if they read about people who don’t agree with them.

        • Rawle Nyanzi says:

          Ironically, that fair number of them is behaving in a closed minded fashion. But they’ll do what they do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *