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I’ve read and presently read all kinds of stories and books—mainstream like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton, historicals like Gone With the Wind and Wolf Hall, mysteries like the Raymond Chandler books, romance like the Nora Roberts books, high fantasy like The Mists of Avalon, urban fantasy like the Kim Harrison books, science fiction like Hyperion and Dune, and creative nonfiction like The Devil in the White City.
But my favorite books remain the books I read as a child—Charlotte’s Web with talking animals, all four of the Mary Poppins books with talking animals, and Kipling’s Jungle Books, also with talking animals.
I suppose the talking animals ruined me in my childhood as a reader; I grew weary of mainstream writers obsessing about their problems with their families and their love lives and struggling to put a beautiful spin on every word. My mother gave me her own 1936 edition of Little Women. At eight years old, I hated that book, in spite of Jo. Now, years later, when the new film of Little Women was released, I tried the book again. I couldn’t get past the first thirty pages. In spite of (or because of) Jo.
I found compelling reading in the bold, tight style of a Chandler or even a Wharton (though Edith obsessed too much about bad marriages). I actively disliked and was put off by some writers’ overwrought style. (Still am.)
And I welcomed worlds other than our own, mind-boggling ideas, philosophical ideas, and offbeat characters.
Which brings me to Jo Walton’s blogs in the mid-2000s about genre books, some of which are collected in What Makes This Book So Great.
Walton is a book commentator and a fantasy writer herself; her blogs and commentary about books appeared on the Tor website. Her collection of blogs was reviewed in Locus Magazine and points she made about genre books—especially the use of metaphor—became emblazoned on my reader’s (and writer’s) mind.
From Walton’s Blog:
“I was reading A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. This is a mainstream story in which a female academic buys a bottle containing a djinn and gets it to give her wishes. It’s a mainstream story because she finds the bottle on something like page 150 of 175. In a genre story she’d have found the bottle on the first page. It has mainstream pacing and expectations of what’s important. The story is really about how simple answers are not fulfilling. The djinn is a metaphor in exactly the way Kelly Link’s zombies aren’t a metaphor. People talk about SF as a literature of ideas, as if you can’t find any ideas in Middlemarch or Rainbow Six! I don’t think [science fiction] is so much the literature of ideas as the literature of world-building.”
What does Walton mean?
The world-building in science fiction and fantasy is the overarching metaphor—you don’t fly in the space of your mind (mainstream), you actually really fly in space (SF/F). You don’t confront the dragons of your emotional demons, you really mount a dragon and fly (SF/F).
So genre readers are accustomed—and expect—to enter an entire metaphorical world. Genre readers take literally anything that happens in the world.
And so. You, as a writer, may write “literary” metaphors in your genre fiction at your peril. Everything is REAL to the genre reader and a misplaced metaphor—when absolute fidelity to your world is crucial—can throw your whole story off.
Before I delve into some examples from recent SFF stories I’ve read, I’ll add one more observation from Jo Walton. She’s talking about how naming characters can go wrong, but her example is appropriate to my criticism below.
From Jo Walton:
“This led me to pondering that common pitfall of making up fantasy names: hitting on something that already means something else, and is thus inadvertently funny. “Mein” to me means “noodles” as in “chow mein” and “lo mein.” I don’t know if it’s authentic Chinese or Western restaurant Chinese. Because I’m aware it means noodles, I find it hard to take it entirely seriously as the name of an evil enemy. Next, bring on “the war with the linguini!” and “the war with the tortellini!” Fantasy names create atmosphere, and this is not the atmosphere you want…”
Point taken. Now on my specific observations about the use of metaphor in genre fiction and in a published story I recently read.
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From the author of Summer of Love (a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist and San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. BACK IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/Summer-Love-Travel-Lisa-Mason/dp/1548106119/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/summer-of-love-a-time-travel-lisa-mason/1104160569.
The Gilded Age (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Public Library Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. BACK IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/Gilded-Age-Time-Travel/dp/1975853172/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-gilded-age-a-time-travel-lisa-mason/1106038566.
The Garden of Abracadabra (“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy . . . I want to read more!) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1978148291/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-garden-of-abracadabra-lisa-mason/1108093507
Arachne (a Locus Hardover Bestseller) is an ebook on US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in France Kindle, Germany Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Spain Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Brazil Kindle, India Kindle, and Japan Kindle. Back in Print! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/dp/198435602X or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/arachne-lisa-mason/1000035633.
Cyberweb (sequel to Arachne) is on US Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also Kindle worldwide on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Brazil Kindle, France Kindle, Germany Kindle, India Kindle, Italy Kindle, Japan Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, and Spain Kindle. Back in Print at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1984356941 or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/cyberweb-lisa-mason/1001932064
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle world wide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT at https://www.amazon.com/Strange-Ladies-Stories-Lisa-Mason/dp/1981104380/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/strange-ladies-lisa-mason/1115861322.
One Day in the Life of Alexa (“Five stars! An appealing narrator and subtly powerful emotional rhythms”). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. Order the beautiful trade paperback NOW IN PRINT at https://www.amazon.com/One-Life-Alexa-Lisa-Mason/dp/1546783091 or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/one-day-in-the-life-of-alexa-lisa-mason/1126431598.
Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition, A Lily Modjeska Mystery (Five stars) On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. SOON IN PRINT!
Shaken (in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Hummers (in Fifth Annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Daughter of the Tao (in Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn) on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in AustraliaFrance, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Every Mystery Unexplained (in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Tomorrow’s Child (In Active Development at Universal Pictures) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria (in Full Spectrum 5) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
U F uh-O (Five Stars!) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Tesla, A Screenplay on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
My Charlotte: Patty’s Story on Barnes and Noble, US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Netherlands, and Mexico.
“Illyria, My Love” is on US Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Germany Kindle, France Kindle, Spain Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Japan Kindle, Brazil Kindle, Mexico Kindle, and India Kindle.
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