Writing in Retrograde?


In recent weeks, there has been much speculation on the internet over the announced sale of Weird Tales and what that means for the future of weird fiction. Surely, the loss of Ann Vandermeer at the helm of a very successful magazine stings more than just a bit, and has caused many to worry over whether the magazine’s new owner will rewind the clock on the type of stories chosen for publication. There seems to be a general consensus that this will be a very bad thing, and I’m inclined to agree, especially given all the new voices and strange stories that Weird Tales has published in the last few years. We need magazines like that to stand on the bleeding edge and explore new territory.

But the chatter about Weird Tales is just the latest in an ongoing discussion about the direction speculative fiction should take in the modern era, and like any discussion worth having, there are a million opinions. I talked to one reader at WorldCon who didn’t think anything written after 1960 was worth bothering with. I’ve also had conversations where the opposite was stated. And it isn’t just the readers being hide-bound to tradition and writers being avante-garde risk-takers. We’re a pretty diverse bunch.

As a new and aspiring writer myself, I feel like I’m caught in a crossfire of sorts. Clearly there’s a need for new voices and envelope-pushing narratives, but what about the stories that got me reading in the first place? Some of them are pretty clunky by today’s standards, but they are still inspiring to me despite possible flaws. Lovecraft and Howard wrote tales that can often seem painfully dated (and sometimes troubling in their worldview), but the Cthulhu and Conan mythos have inspired so many writers (like me!) to tell stories of their own. I could also include Tolkien, Heinlein, and even Lord Dunsany in this list. Their works are the building blocks of so many writers’ toolkits. Dated though they seem, it’s wrong to dismiss them merely as relics of a bygone era, isn’t it?

Now there’s a whole other discussion to be had about how you might bring modern relevance even in stories that pay homage to classics (and Morgan has a good discussion of that here) , but I want to address a specific issue in my post.

Do you feel caught in the middle sometimes? Are you paralyzed between tradition and the weirder voices that call you to the edge of lands yet uncharted? Yes? Good, me too. I’d like to be more experimental in my writing, but I haven’t really developed that sort of writing voice yet. I’m not sure I ever will. I worry sometimes about not standing out. I also worry about my work sounding too much like the voices that first inspired me. I’m in the middle of a revision right now that makes me think I may be doomed to meander aimlessly between these two poles forever. I’m starting to realize that that maybe that’s okay.

Whenever I get too stressed out about being “too new” or “too old,” I recall some advice Ted Chiang gave my Clarion West class (and I’m paraphrasing a bit, here):

 What are you not getting out of what you read? It’s your job to write it. Cultivate a unique voice. Write the stories you want to write. Find your truest readers, they will be loyal!

Now Ted writes some pretty cutting edge stuff, I think we can all agree. But I think his advice remains sound no matter what you write. As a fellow aspiring writer, I urge you not to let the debate between tradition and modernity get in the way of cultivating your storytelling voice. Take risks. Subvert tropes. Tweak expecations. Have fun.

But write what’s in your heart first.












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  1. Paul Weimer
    30/08/2011 at 8:34 pm Permalink

    Thanks, Andy.

    There is a creative tension there, I think, between “old school” and “new school” that is dying for some writers to exploit…

    And it has been always thus. Consider that in the 50’s,60’s and 70’s, De Camp wrote the Krishna novels as a way to do Burroughs’ Planetary Romances in a “new school” way.

    Who is to say that someone couldn’t do that idea, again…

  2. Philip Athans
    15/09/2011 at 4:15 pm Permalink

    I’m going to throw out what might be a bit of a controversial curve-ball here and submit that this tension between new and old, tradition and avant-garde, etc. is yet another symptom of a bigger, more troubling disease, and that’s an increased (and unwarranted and unnecessary) cynicism on the part of readers.

    I came to SF and fantasy as a kid, in the highly isolated days of the late 60s through the 70s, when kids didn’t have “online friends” spread across the world, and the “SF Community” they were exposed to consisted of maybe half a dozen (or one or two) close friends from school.Now, though, everyone has not only assumed, but has in some way, frankly, been pushed into the roll of critic, which has the brain-damaging effect of stripping away anyone’s ability to like anything–everything has to be chained spreadeagled to the altar of “tropes” and anachronisms and petty typos, basted and roasted and disassembled for spare parts until the joy of reading, the sense of discovery, and everything that probably attracted you to genre fiction in the first place is left tattered and bleeding on the floor of the internets’s 24/7 autopsy room.Just sayin.