Monday, April 29, 2013

a journalist manifesto and multi-dimensional analysis of sci-fi stories

On twitter, Ed Yong offered a link to a practical set of guidelines for journalists.

I wrote these 25 commandments as a panic response 15 or more years ago to an invitation to do some media training for a group of Elsevier editors. I began compiling them because I had just asked myself what was the most important thing to remember about writing a story, and the answer came back loud and clear: "To make somebody read it."Ultimately, there's no other reason for writing. Journalists write to support democracy, sustain truth, salute justice, justify expenses, see the world and make a living, but to satisfactorily do any of these things you have to have readers. Fairness and accuracy are of course profoundly important. Without them, you aren't in journalism proper: you are playing some other game. But above all, you have to be read, or you aren't in journalism at all....3. So the first sentence you write will be the most important sentence in your life, and so will the second, and the third. This is because, although you – an employee, an apostle or an apologist – may feel obliged to write, nobody has ever felt obliged to read.
4. Journalism is important. It must never, however, be full of its own self-importance. Nothing sends a reader scurrying to the crossword, or the racing column, faster than pomposity. Therefore simple words, clear ideas and short sentences are vital in all storytelling. So is a sense of irreverence.

Gord Sellar also offers some advice on how to balance the complexity of your story along various axes.  He starts by comparing the tastes of things, noting that nobody wants a food that has all the flavors and equal strength but rather specific combinations or flavors. Then he suggests there are five dimensions of a story: complexity of worldbuilding, density of prose, plot complexity, fast-paced action and depth of characterization.

The main point to be drawn from his post is that you shouldn't try to be strong in axes all the time.  I think he has perfectly described my one complaint with Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.  While I love much of his other work, this one tried to do it all.  I specifically recall an attempt to describe fast-paced action (...hmm, I don't recall that many specific details after all) of Eliza's son attempting to rescue a princess by jumping from his own horse to that of a pursuer's.  Thrilling stuff, but I missed how exciting it could have been because of the mass of details- the world-building overwhelmed the story.

Sellar's graphs reminded me of ecological comparisons of species but I can't recall the exact name of the graphs.  They had something to do with the axiom, "Complete Competitors Cannot Coexist".  "Multi-dimension volume of traits"? "Hyper-volume"?...Oh, well.

Updated later:"
Find a whole lot more on Science Writing at the Guardian.

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