A Science Fiction Workshop Lexicon: the Paragons Iteration (1996)

Bruce Sterling

A Workshop Lexicon

The “Paragons” Iteration — from PARAGONS: TWELVE MASTER SCIENCE
FICTION WRITERS PLY THEIR CRAFT edited by Robin Wilson
St Martin’s Press 1996 ISBN 0–312–14032–1

People often ask where science fiction writers get their
ideas. They rarely ask where society gets its science fiction
writers. In many cases the answer is science fiction workshops.

Workshops come in many varieties — regional and national,
amateur and professional, formal and frazzled. In science
fiction’s best-known workshop, Clarion, would-be writers are
wrenched from home and hearth and pitilessly blitzed for six weeks
by professional SF writers, who serve as creative-writing gurus.
Thanks to the seminal efforts of Robin Wilson, would-be sf writers
can receive actual academic credit for this experience.

But the workshopping experience does not require any
shepherding by experts. Like a bad rock band, an SF-writer’s
workshop can be set up in any vacant garage by any group of spotty
enthusiasts with nothing better to occupy their time. No one has
a copyright on talent, desire, or enthusiasm.

The general course of action in the modern SF workshop (known
as the “Milford system”) goes as follows. Attendees bring short
manuscripts, with enough copies for everyone present. No one can
attend or comment who does not bring a story. The contributors
read and annotate all the stories. When that’s done, everyone
forms a circle, a story is picked at random, and the person to the
writer’s right begins the critique. (Large groups may require
deliberate scheduling.)

Following the circle in order, with a minimum of cross-talk
or interruptions, each person emits his/her considered opinions of
the story’s merits and/or demerits. The author is strictly
required, by rigid law and custom, to make no outcries, no matter
how he or she may squirm. When the circle is done and the last
reader has vented his or her opinion, the silently suffering
author is allowed an extended reply, which, it is hoped, will not
exceed half an hour or so, and will avoid gratuitously personal
ripostes. This harrowing process continues, with possible breaks
for food, until all the stories are done, whereupon everyone tries
to repair ruptured relationships in an orgy of drink and gossip.

No doubt a very interesting book could be written about
science fiction in which the writing itself played no part. This
phantom history could detail the social demimonde of workshops and
their associated cliques: Milford, the Futurians, Milwaukee
Fictioneers, Turkey City, New Wave, Hydra Club, Jules Verne’s
Eleven Without Women, and year after year after year of Clarion —
a thousand SF groups around the world, known and unknown.

Anyone can play. I’ve noticed that workshops have a
particularly crucial role in non-Anglophone societies, where fans,
writers, and publishers are often closely united in the same
handful of zealots. This kind of fellow-feeling may be the true
hearts-blood of the genre.

We now come to the core of this piece, the SF Workshop
Lexicon. This lexicon was compiled by Mr Lewis Shiner and myself
from the work of many writers and critics over many years of genre
history, and it contains buzzwords, notions and critical terms of
direct use to SF workshops.

The first version, known as the “Turkey City Lexicon” after
the Austin, Texas writers’ workshop that was a cradle of
cyberpunk, appeared in 1988. In proper ideologically-correct
cyberpunk fashion, the Turkey City Lexicon was distributed
uncopyrighted and free-of-charge: a decommodified, photocopied
chunk of free literary software. Lewis Shiner still thinks that
this was the best deployment of an effort of this sort, and thinks
I should stop fooling around with this fait accompli. After all,
the original Lexicon remains uncopyrighted, and it has been
floating around in fanzines, prozines and computer networks for
seven years now. I respect Lew’s opinion, and in fact I kind of
agree with him. But I’m an ideologue, congenitally unable to
leave well-enough alone.

In September 1990 I re-wrote the Lexicon as an installment in
my critical column for the British magazine INTERZONE. When
Robin Wilson asked me to refurbish the Lexicon yet again for
PARAGONS, I couldn’t resist the temptation. I’m always open to
improvements and amendments for the Lexicon. It seems to me that
if a document of this sort fails to grow it will surely become a
literary monument, and, well, heaven forbid. For what it’s
worth, I plan to re-release this latest edition to the Internet at
the first opportunity. You can email me about it: I’m
bruces@well.com.

Some Lexicon terms are attributed to their originators, when
I could find them; others are not, and I apologize for my
ignorance.

Science fiction boasts many specialized critical terms. You
can find a passel of these in Gary K Wolfe’s CRITICAL TERMS FOR
SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY: A GLOSSARY AND GUIDE TO SCHOLARSHIP (Greenwood Press, 1986). But you won’t find them in here. This lexicon is not a guide to scholarship. The Workshop Lexicon is a
guide (of sorts) for down-and-dirty hairy-knuckled sci-fi writers,
the kind of ambitious subliterate guttersnipes who actually write
and sell professional genre material. It’s rough, rollicking,
rule-of-thumb stuff suitable for shouting aloud while pounding the
table.

THE LEXICON

PART ONE: WORDS AND SENTENCES

“Said-book” ism. An artificial verb used to avoid the word
“said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the English
language and is almost impossible to overuse. It is much less
distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” “he ejaculated,”
and other oddities. The term “said-book” comes from certain
pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the
word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in
American magazines of the pre-WWII era.

Tom Swifty. An unseemly compulsion to follow the word “said”
with a colorful adverb, as in “‘We’d better hurry,’ Tom said
swiftly.” This was a standard mannerism of the old Tom Swift
adventure dime-novels. Good dialogue can stand on its own without
a clutter of adverbial props.

Brenda Starr dialogue. Long sections of talk with no physical
background or description of the characters. Such dialogue,
detached from the story’s setting, tends to echo hollowly, as if
suspended in mid-air. Named for the American comic-strip in which
dialogue balloons were often seen emerging from the Manhattan
skyline.

Burly Detective syndrome. This useful term is taken from SF’s
cousin-genre, the detective-pulp. The hack writers of the Mike
Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper
name, preferring such euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the
red-headed sleuth.” This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed
conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close
succession. This is only true of particularly strong and visible
words, such as “vertiginous.” Better to re-use a simple tag or
phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.

Pushbutton words. Words used to evoke a cheap emotional response
without engaging the intellect or the critical faculties.
Commonly found in story titles, they include such bits of bogus
lyricism as “star,” “dance,” “dream,” “song,” “tears” and “poet,”
cliches calculated to render the SF audience misty-eyed and
tender-hearted.

Brand-name fever. The over-use of commercial brand-names to
create a false sense of gritty verisimilitude. It is useless to
stock the future with Hondas, Sonys, and Brauns without
accompanying visual and physical detail.

“Call a Rabbit a Smeerp.” A cheap technique for false exoticism,
in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a
fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature
or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds,
where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like
horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)

Roget’s Disease. The ludicrous overuse of far-fetched adjectives,
piled into a festering, fungal, tenebrous, troglodytic, ichorous,
leprous, synonymic heap. (Attr. John W. Campbell)

Gingerbread. Useless ornament in prose, such as fancy
sesquipedalian Latinate words where short clear English ones will
do. Novice authors sometimes use “gingerbread” in the hope of
disguising faults and conveying an air of refinement. (Attr. Damon
Knight)

Not Simultaneous. The mis-use of the present participle is a
common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers. “Putting
his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver
out of the bureau.” Alas, our hero couldn’t do this even if his
arms were forty feet long. This fault shades into “Ing Disease,”
the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in “-ing,” a
grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper
sequence of events. (Attr. Damon Knight)

PART TWO: PARAGRAPHS AND PROSE STRUCTURE

Bathos. A sudden, alarming change in the level of diction. “There
will be bloody riots and savage insurrections leading to a violent
popular uprising unless the regime starts being lots nicer about
stuff.”

Countersinking. A form of expositional redundancy in which the
action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit. “‘Let’s get
out of here!’ he shouted, urging her to leave.”

Show Don’t Tell. A cardinal principle of effective writing. The
reader should be allowed to react naturally to the evidence
presented in the story, not instructed in how to react by the
author. Specific incidents and carefully observed details will
render auctorial lectures unnecessary. For instance, instead of
telling the reader “She had a bad childhood, an unhappy
childhood,” a specific incident — involving, say, a locked closet
and two jars of honey — should be shown.

Rigid adherence to show-don’t-tell can become absurd. Minor
matters are sometimes best gotten out of the way in a swift,
straightforward fashion.

Laughtrack. Characters grandstand and tug the reader’s sleeve in
an effort to force a specific emotional reaction. They laugh
wildly at their own jokes, cry loudly at their own pain, and rob
the reader of any real chance of attaining genuine emotion.

Squid in the Mouth. The failure of an author to realize that
his/her own weird assumptions and personal in-jokes are simply not
shared by the world-at-large. Instead of applauding the wit or
insight of the author’s remarks, the world-at-large will stare in
vague shock and alarm at such a writer, as if he or she had a live
squid in the mouth.

Since SF writers as a breed are generally quite loony, and in
fact make this a stock in trade, “squid in the mouth” doubles as a
term of grudging praise, describing the essential, irreducible,
divinely unpredictable lunacy of the true SF writer. (Attr. James
P Blaylock)

Squid on the Mantelpiece. Chekhov said that if there are dueling
pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be
fired in the third. In other words, a plot element should be
deployed in a timely fashion and with proper dramatic emphasis.
However, in SF plotting the MacGuffins are often so overwhelming
that they cause conventional plot structures to collapse. It’s
hard to properly dramatize, say, the domestic effects of Dad’s
bank overdraft when a giant writhing kraken is levelling the city.
This mismatch between the conventional dramatic proprieties and
SF’s extreme, grotesque, or visionary thematics is known as the
“squid on the mantelpiece.”

Handwaving. An attempt to distract the reader with dazzling prose
or other verbal fireworks, so as to divert attention from a severe
logical flaw. (Attr. Stewart Brand)

You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit. An attempt to diffuse the reader’s
incredulity with a pre-emptive strike — as if by anticipating
the reader’s objections, the author had somehow answered them. “I
would never have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it myself!” “It
was one of those amazing coincidences that can only take place in
real life!” “It’s a one-in-a-million chance, but it’s so crazy it
just might work!” Surprisingly common, especially in SF. (Attr.
John Kessel)

Fuzz. An element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply.
The word “somehow” is a useful tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story.
“Somehow she had forgotten to bring her gun.”

Dischism. The unwitting intrusion of the author’s physical
surroundings, or the author’s own mental state, into the text of
the story. Authors who smoke or drink while writing often drown
or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and
cigs. In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain
of their confusion and indecision — when this is actually the
author’s condition at the moment of writing, not theirs within the
story. “Dischism” is named after the critic who diagnosed this
syndrome. (Attr. Thomas M. Disch)

Signal from Fred. A comic form of the Dischism in which the
author’s subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work,
makes unwitting critical comments: “This doesn’t make sense.”
“This is really boring.” “This sounds like a bad movie.” (Attr.
Damon Knight)

False Interiorization. A cheap labor-saving technique in which
the author, too lazy to describe the surroundings, afflicts the
viewpoint-character with a blindfold, an attack of space-sickness,
the urge to play marathon whist-games in the smoking-room, etc.

False Humanity. An ailment endemic to genre writing, in which
soap-opera elements of purported human interest are stuffed into
the story willy-nilly, whether or not they advance the plot or
contribute to the point of the story. The actions of such
characters convey an itchy sense of irrelevance, for the author
has invented their problems out of whole cloth, so as to have
something to emote about.

Wiring Diagram Fiction. A genre ailment related to “False
Humanity,” “Wiring Diagram Fiction” involves “characters” who show
no convincing emotional reactions at all, since they are
overwhelmed by the author’s fascination with gadgetry or didactic
lectures.

White Room Syndrome. A clear and common sign of the failure of
the author’s imagination, most often seen at the beginning of a
story, before the setting, background, or characters have gelled.
“She awoke in a white room.” The ‘white room’ is a featureless set
for which details have yet to be invented — a failure of
invention by the author. The character ‘wakes’ in order to begin
a fresh train of thought — again, just like the author. This
‘white room’ opening is generally followed by much earnest
pondering of circumstances and useless exposition; all of which
can be cut, painlessly.

It remains to be seen whether the “white room” cliche’ will
fade from use now that most authors confront glowing screens
rather than blank white paper.

PART THREE: COMMON WORKSHOP STORY TYPES

The Jar of Tang. A story contrived so that the author can spring
a silly surprise about its setting. For instance, the story takes
place in a desert of coarse orange sand surrounded by an
impenetrable vitrine barrier; surprise! our heroes are microbes
in a jar of Tang powdered orange drink. (Attr. Stephen P. Brown)

When done with serious intent rather than as a passing
conceit, this type of story can be dignified by the term
“Concealed Environment.” (Attr. Christopher Priest)

The “Poor Me” Story. Autobiographical piece in which the male
viewpoint character complains that he is ugly and can’t get laid.
(Attr. Kate Wilhelm)

The Grubby Apartment Story. Similar to the “poor me” story, this
autobiographical effort features a miserably quasi-bohemian
writer, living in urban angst in a grubby apartment. The story
commonly stars the author’s friends in thin disguises — friends
who may also be the author’s workshop companions, to their
considerable alarm.

The Shaggy God Story. A piece which mechanically adopts a
Biblical or other mythological tale and provides flat science-
fictional “explanations” for the theological events. (Attr.
Michael Moorcock)

Adam and Eve Story. Nauseatingly common subset of the Shaggy God
Story in which a terrible apocalypse, spaceship crash, etc.,
leaves two survivors, man and woman, who turn out to be Adam and
Eve, parents of the human race!!

Dennis Hopper Syndrome. A story based on some arcane bit of
science or folklore, which noodles around producing random
weirdness. Then a loony character-actor (usually best played by
Dennis Hopper) barges into the story and baldly tells the
protagonist what’s going on by explaining the underlying mystery
in a long bug-eyed rant. (Attr. Howard Waldrop)

The Tabloid Weird. Story produced by a confusion of SF and
Fantasy tropes — or rather, by a confusion of basic world-views.
Tabloid Weird is usually produced by the author’s own inability to
distinguish between a rational, Newtonian-Einsteinian, cause-and-
effect universe and an irrational, supernatural, fantastic
universe. Either the FBI is hunting the escaped mutant from the
genetics lab, or the drill-bit has bored straight into Hell — but
not both at once in the very same piece of fiction. Even fantasy
worlds need an internal consistency of sorts, so that a Sasquatch
Deal-with-the-Devil story is also “Tabloid Weird.” Sasquatch
crypto-zoology and Christian folk superstition simply don’t mix
well, even for comic effect. (Attr. Howard Waldrop)

Deus ex Machina or “God in the Box.” Story featuring a miraculous
solution to the story’s conflict, which comes out of nowhere and
renders the plot struggles irelevant. H G Wells warned against
SF’s love for the deus ex machina when he coined the famous dictum
that “If anything is possible, then nothing is interesting.”
Science fiction, which specializes in making the impossible seem
plausible, is always deeply intrigued by godlike powers in the
handy pocket size. Artificial Intelligence, virtual realities and
nanotechnology are three contemporary SF MacGuffins that are cheap
portable sources of limitless miracle.

Just-Like Fallacy. SF story which thinly adapts the trappings of
a standard pulp adventure setting. The spaceship is “just like”
an Atlantic steamer, down to the Scottish engineer in the hold. A
colony planet is “just like” Arizona except for two moons in the
sky. Space Westerns and futuristic hard-boiled detective stories
have been especially common versions.

Re-Inventing the Wheel. A novice author goes to enormous lengths
to create a science-fictional situation already tiresomely
familiar to the experienced reader. Reinventing the Wheel was
traditionally typical of mainstream writers venturing into SF. It
is now often seen in writers who lack experience in genre history
because they were attracted to written SF via SF movies, SF
television series, SF role-playing games, SF comics or SF computer
gaming.

The Cozy Catastrophe. Story in which horrific events are
overwhelming the entirety of human civilization, but the action
concentrates on a small group of tidy, middle-class, white Anglo-
Saxon protagonists. The essence of the cozy catastrophe is that
the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at
the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is
dying off. (Attr. Brian Aldiss)

The Motherhood Statement. SF story which posits some profoundly
unsettling threat to the human condition, explores the
implications briefly, then hastily retreats to affirm the
conventional social and humanistic pieties, ie apple pie and
motherhood. Greg Egan once stated that the secret of truly
effective SF was to deliberately “burn the motherhood statement.”
(Attr. Greg Egan)

The Kitchen-Sink Story. A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of
any and every new idea that occurs to the author in the process of
writing it. (Attr. Damon Knight)

The Whistling Dog. A story related in such an elaborate, arcane,
or convoluted manner that it impresses by its sheer narrative
ingenuity, but which, as a story, is basically not worth the
candle. Like the whistling dog, it’s astonishing that the thing
can whistle — but it doesn’t actually whistle very well. (Attr.
Harlan Ellison)

The Rembrandt Comic Book. A story in which incredible
craftsmanship has been lavished on a theme or idea which is
basically trivial or subliterary, and which simply cannot bear the
weight of such deadly-serious artistic portent.

The Slipstream Story. Non-SF story which is so ontologically
distorted or related in such a bizarrely non-realist fashion that
it cannot pass muster as commercial mainstream fiction and
therefore seeks shelter in the SF or fantasy genre. Postmodern
critique and technique are particularly fruitful in creating
slipstream stories.

The Steam-Grommet Factory. Didactic SF story which consists
entirely of a guided tour of a large and elaborate gimmick. A
common technique of SF utopias and dystopias. (Attr. Gardner
Dozois)

PART FOUR: PLOTS

Idiot Plot. A plot which functions only because all the
characters involved are idiots. They behave in a way that suits
the author’s convenience, rather than through any rational
motivation of their own. (Attr. James Blish)

Second-order Idiot Plot. A plot involving an entire invented SF
society which functions only because every single person in it is
necessarily an idiot. (Attr. Damon Knight)

And plot. Picaresque plot in which this happens, and then that
happens, and then something else happens, and it all adds up to
nothing in particular.

Kudzu plot. Plot which weaves and curls and writhes in weedy
organic profusion, smothering everything in its path.

Card Tricks in the Dark. Elaborately contrived plot which arrives
at (a) the punchline of a private joke no reader will get or (b)
the display of some bit of learned trivia relevant only to the
author. This stunt may be intensely ingenious, and very
gratifying to the author, but it serves no visible fictional
purpose. (Attr. Tim Powers)

Plot Coupons. The basic building blocks of the quest-type fantasy
plot. The hero collects sufficient plot coupons (magic sword,
magic ring, magic cat) to send off to the author for the ending.
The author decrees that the hero will pursue his quest until
sufficient pages are filled to complete a trilogy. (Attr. Dave
Langford)

Bogus Alternatives. A list of plot-paths that a character could
have taken, but didn’t. In this nervous mannerism, the author
stops the action dead to work out complicated plot problems at the
reader’s expense. “If I’d gone along with the cops they would
have found the gun in my purse. And anyway, I didn’t want to
spend the night in jail. I suppose I could have just run away
instead of stealing their squad car, but then….” Best dispensed
with entirely.

PART FIVE: BACKGROUND

Info-dump. Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended
to explain the background situation. Info-dumps can be covert, as
in fake newspaper or “Encyclopedia Galactica” articles, or overt,
in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and
lectures. Info-dumps are also known as “expository lumps.” The
use of brief, deft, inoffensive info-dumps is known as
“kuttnering,” after Henry Kuttner. When information is worked
unobtrusively into the story’s basic structure, this is known as
“heinleining.”

Stapledon. Name assigned to the auctorial voice which takes
center stage to deliver a massive and magisterial info-dump.
Actually a common noun, as in “I like the way your stapledon
describes the process of downloading brains into computer memory,
but when you try to heinlein it later, I can’t tell what the hell
is happening.”

Frontloading. Piling too much exposition into the beginning of
the story, so that it becomes so dense and dry that it is almost
impossible to read. (Attr. Connie Willis)

Nowhere Nowhen Story. Putting too little exposition into the
story’s beginning, so that the story, while physically readable,
seems to take place in a vacuum and fails to engage any readerly
interest. (Attr. L. Sprague de Camp)

“As You Know, Bob.” A pernicious form of info-dump through
dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they already
know, for the sake of getting the reader up-to-speed. This very
common technique is also known as “Rod and Don dialogue” (attr.
Damon Knight) or “maid and butler dialogue” (attr Algis Budrys).

I’ve Suffered For My Art (and now it’s your turn). A form of
info-dump in which the author inflicts upon the reader hard-won,
but irrelevant bits of data acquired while researching the story.
As Algis Budrys once pointed out, homework exists to make the
difficult look easy.

Used Furniture. The use of a cliched genre background right out
of Central Casting. We can, for instance, use the Star Trek
universe, only we’ll file the serial numbers off it and call it
the Imperium instead of the Federation.

Eyeball Kicks. Vivid, telling details that create a kaleidoscopic
effect of swarming visual imagery against a baroquely elaborate SF
background. One ideal of cyberpunk SF was to create a “crammed
prose” full of “eyeball kicks.” (Attr. Rudy Rucker)

Ontological riff. Passage in an SF story which suggests that our
deepest and most basic convictions about the nature of reality,
space-time, or consciousness have been violated, technologically
transformed, or at least rendered thoroughly dubious. The works
of H. P. Lovecraft, Barrington Bayley, and Philip K Dick abound in
“ontological riffs.”

PART SIX: CHARACTER AND VIEWPOINT

Viewpoint glitch. The author loses track of point-of-view,
switches point-of-view for no good reason, or relates something
that the viewpoint character could not possibly know.

Submyth. Classic character-types in SF which aspire to the
condition of archetype but don’t quite make it, such as the mad
scientist, the crazed supercomputer, the emotionless super-
rational alien, the vindictive mutant child, etc. (Attr. Ursula
K. Le Guin)

Funny-hat characterization. A character distinguished by a single
identifying tag, such as odd headgear, a limp, a lisp, a parrot on
his shoulder, etc.

Mrs. Brown. The small, downtrodden, eminently common, everyday
little person who nevertheless encapsulates something vital and
important about the human condition. “Mrs. Brown” is a rare
personage in the SF genre, being generally overshadowed by
swaggering submyth types made of the finest gold-plated cardboard.
In a famous essay, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,” Ursula K. Le
Guin decried Mrs. Brown’s absence from the SF field. (Attr:
Virginia Woolf)

PART SEVEN: MISCELLANEOUS

AM/FM. Engineer’s term distinguishing the inevitable clunky real-
world faultiness of “Actual Machines” from the power-fantasy
techno-dreams of “Fucking Magic.”

Intellectual sexiness. The intoxicating glamor of a novel
scientific idea, as distinguished from any actual intellectual
merit that it may someday prove to possess.

Consensus Reality. Useful term for the purported world in which
the majority of modern sane people generally agree that they live
— as opposed to the worlds of, say, Forteans, semioticians or
quantum physicists.

The Ol’ Baloney Factory. “Science Fiction” as a publishing and
promotional entity in the world of commerce.

Bruce Sterling

Written by

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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