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

A Workshop Lexicon

The “Paragons” Iteration — from PARAGONS: TWELVE MASTER SCIENCE 
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 

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

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 



“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 

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 

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 

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)


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 

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 

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.


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 

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 


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 

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.


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 

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.”


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)


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.