May 22nd, 2006

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Robert's Rules of Writing #47: Lay Down the Law

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Does anyone out there remember the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books?

The books came out when I was a kid, and I loved them. A man named Edward Packard developed the concept, and at first he had a hard time selling them to a publisher. But one publisher took a chance, and once "The Cave of Time" appeared in bookstores, the series took off.

In a way, they were an early version of text adventures or hypertext fiction. The concept behind each book was that you guided the main character, usually known as "You," through the adventure. At the end of every page there would be a branch point, a question you had to answer. For example, you might be wandering through a forest and you come to a cave. If you decided to explore the cave, you would turn to page X to continue the story, but if you chose to keep plowing through the forest instead, you would turn to page Y.

Masello remembers the books; oddly enough, he remembers them being a failure, although I know my personal collection included well over two dozen volumes. Furthermore, I remember other publishers ripping off -- excuse me, adopting -- the idea for themselves, with other lines of books that required the reader to choose a path through a story.

But Masello dismisses the books, and actually for a pretty good reason. He points out that readers don't really want a "choose your own adventure" experience, that they want an author to be in control of the narrative and to bring the story decisively from its beginning to its end.

Personally, I think it depends on the experience a reader is looking for; the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books probably appealed more to the gamer in me than the reader. But while I disagree with Masello's assessment of these books, I do agree that if you're writing a straightforward short story or novel, you have to show that you are in strong control of your material. And that means laying down the law, as he puts it.

Personal example time. When I finished the first draft of "Paying It Forward" (Analog, September 2003), I deliberately left the ending ambiguous. I wanted the reader to be unsure as to what had really been going on throughout the story. Nomi read the ending and told me I was making a big mistake, that the story had to have an explanation for all the events that took place, or else my readers would take umbrage.

Looking back, it occurs to me that perhaps I myself was unsure of how I wanted to resolve the story. The ambiguity existed in my own mind, and that's why I put it on the page. Lawrence Block mentions this issue in one of his own essays on writing; he was never quite sure how he wanted to end his novel "Ariel," and so he tends to feel that the ending of the book is one of the weakest he ever wrote. (And to the best of my recollection, that book never sold as well as his others.)

To conclude, as much as we may like the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure concept, when writing a short story or novel we have to eschew it. As Masello advises, be in control of your material from beginning to end, and keep your readers satisfied.

Copyright © Michael Burstein
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Anyone Read Finnish?

I'm pleased to report that I received today copies of the Finnish science fiction magazine Portti Science Fiction. Specifically, I received five copies of the January 2006 issue, which includes a Finnish translation of my short story "Decisions" (Analog, January/February 2004).

If any of my friends can read Finnish, and you're willing to read the story and verify that the translation holds up, I'll send you one of my copies as a gift.

My thanks to the editors and staff at Portti for choosing to translate and publish one of my stories.
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More on Lehman High School

Earlier today, I found an anonymous reply from a student at Lehman High School. The student, whom I shall think of as "he" since I have no way of knowing their sex, was annoyed with some of what I had said about their recent copyright infringement case involving the musical Chicago.

I deleted his comment for a few reasons. First of all, I used to require all anonymous posters to identify themselves in the body of their post. This person didn't, and sadly, a lot of people have been ignoring my request. So I've now gone to account holder comments only.

But I also deleted it because the response included insults and foul language. My blog is my space, and I don't allow either of those things here. It says on my profile page that I reserve the right to delete any comments I deem inappropriate. And quite a bit of what this student said was inappropriate.

The fact is, though, that the student did have one legitimate complaint with my post, and a few that bear responding to. Had he replied in a more polite manner, I'd have left his reply up and responded directly. I didn't because I don't choose to leave insults up in my own space. However, should this student actually be checking my blog for a response, I thought I'd reply to some of his concerns.

1. The student complained about my characterization of the students whining to the press. He said that the press came to them, and that they did not whine.

My reply: This is quite possibly a fair point. I don't know how the press got involved, although I suspect that someone from the school got them involved. And I don't know if the students whined. But I do know that almost all the articles I read were biased in favor of the students, presenting their disappointment in such a palpable way that I could practically see their tears in my mind.

And, more to the point, I never said that the students whined to the press. I said that the school did. The student who replied to me does not seem to have caught that distinction in my post.

2. The students said that the New York City council members assisted them without their asking for it.

My reply: Again, that may be true, but it's irrelevant. I never said I was upset at the students for getting the city councilors involved. I said I was upset with the city councilors for choosing to get involved. Again, a distinction that the student seems to have missed.

3. The student suggested that if I wanted them to learn about copyright infringement, I should visit Lehman High School and teach them myself. He also wonders why I'm concerned with the lessons that they learn.

My reply: I'd been a teacher for many years, and I was always responsible for making sure that my students knew much more than the material I was technically teaching them. But in this case, it's not really my responsibility to teach the students of Lehman High about respecting copyright law. Frankly, in this particular case that's the job of the drama department. I don't think the student quite got that.

As for why I'm concerned with the lessons that they learn -- why shouldn't I be? If a school in Kansas chooses to teach intelligent design instead of evolution, for example, that has a detrimental effect on society as a whole. In this case, a school in the Bronx has taught a bunch of students that if you're caught breaking the law, you can still get away with it if you get powerful people on your side. To me, that's a chilling lesson, and not one we should be teaching our future voters.

To my correspondent: if you're still out there, I hope you'll take these replies into consideration. And if you wish to provide further correction and detail on just how the press got involved, I'd be more than interested in finding out. Just please be polite about it.

And finally, if any other students from Lehman High are reading my blog, please take note: I don't blame you for what happened, and I'm glad you got a chance to see all your hard rehearsal work pay off in the end. But I hope that you will take from this a better lesson than the one I'm afraid you've been taught, which is that it's easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission. I know of many other students who would have loved to perform in a school musical version of Chicago and were denied the chance because their schools obeyed the law and respected creators' rights. One day, one of you may be the famous playwright who discovers a school putting on one of your plays without permission. When that happens, I hope you'll choose to be as generous with that school as the producers of Chicago were with you. Because if you're not, then that would be hypocritical.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein