The Turkey City Lexicon
A Primer for SF Workshops,
Edited by Lewis Shiner
This manual is intended to focus on the special needs of the science fiction
workshop. Having an accurate and descriptive critical term for a common SF
problem makes it easier to recognize and discuss. This guide is intended to
save workshop participants from having to "reinvent the wheel" (see section 3)
at every session. The terms here were generally developed over a period of
many years in many workshops. Those identified with a particular writer are
acknowledged in parentheses at the end of the entry. Particular help for this
project was provided by Bruce Sterling and other regulars of the Turkey City
Workshop in Austin, Texas.
Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word "said."
"Said" is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is almost
impossible to overuse. Infinitely less distracting than "he retorted,"
"she inquired," or the all-time favorite, "he ejaculated."
Similar compulsion to follow the word "said" (or "said" bookism) with an
adverb. As in, "'We'd better hurry', said Tom swiftly." Remember that
the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. 99% of the time
it is clear from context how something was said.
"Burly Detective" Syndrome
Fear of proper names. Found in most of the same pulp magazines that
abound with "said" bookisms and Tom Swifties. This is where you can't
call Mike Shayne "Shayne" but substitute "the burly detective" or "the
red-headed sleuth." Like the "said" bookism it comes from the entirely
wrong-headed conviction that you can't use the same word twice in the
same sentence, paragraph, or even page. This is only true of particularly
strong and highly visible words, like, say, "vertiginous." It's always
better to re-use an ordinary, simple noun or verb rather than contrive a
cumbersome method of avoiding it.
That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal
of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a "crammed prose" full of
"eyeball kicks." (Rudy Rucker)
Words used to evoke an emotional response without engaging the intellect or
critical faculties. Words like "song" or "poet" or "tears" or "dreams."
These are supposed to make us misty-eyed without quite knowing why. Most
often found in story titles.
Sudden change in level of diction. "The massive hound barked in a stentorian
voice then made wee-wee on the carpet."
Brand Name Fever
Use of a brand name alone, without accompanying visual detail, to create
false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Hondas and Sonys and
IBM's and still have no idea what it looks like.
Sentences and Paragraphs
Expositional redundancy. Making the actions implied in a conversation
explicit, e.g., "'Let's get out of here,' he said, urging her to leave."
Telling, Not Showing
Violates the cardinal rule of good writing. The reader should be allowed
to react, not instructed in how to react. Carefully observed details
render authorial value judgments unnecessary. For instance, instead of
telling us "she had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood," specific
incidents--involving, say, a locked closet and two jars of
honey--should be shown.
Characters give cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at
their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel
everything so the reader doesn't have to.
Squid in the Mouth
Inappropriate humor in front of strangers. Basically the failure of
an author to realize that certain assumptions or jokes are not shared
by the world at large. In fact, the world at large will look upon such
a writer as if they had a squid in their mouths. (Jim Blaylock)
Distracting the reader with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep
them from noticing a severe logical flaw. (Stuart Brand)
You Can't Fire Me, I Quit
Attempting to diffuse lack of credibility with hand-waving. "I
would never have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself." As if
by anticipating the reader's objections the author had somehow
answered them. (John Kessel)
Element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply. The word
"somehow" is an automatic tipoff to fuzzy areas of a story. "Somehow
she forgot to bring her gun."
Intrusion of author's physical surroundings (or mental state) into
the narrative. Like the character who always lights a cigarette when
the author does, or is thinking about how they wished they hadn't quit
smoking. In more subtle forms the characters complain that they're
confused and don't know what to do--when this is actually the author's
condition. (Tom Disch)
List of actions a character could have taken, but didn't. Frequently
includes all the reasons why. A type of Dischism in which the author
works 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 instead of stealing their car, but then..." etc. Best
dispensed with entirely.
Another Dischism, in which the author, too lazy to describe the
surroundings, inflicts the viewpoint character with space sickness,
a blindfold, etc.
White Room Syndrome
Author's imagination fails to provide details. Most common in the
beginning of a story. "She awoke in a white room." The white room
is obviously the white piece of paper confronting the author. The
character has just woken up in order to be starting fresh, like the
author. Often in order to ponder her circumstances and provide an
excuse for Info Dump (see below).
Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the
background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper or
"Encyclopedia Galactica" articles inserted in the text, or covert,
in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures.
Name assigned to the voice which takes center stage in lecture.
Actually a common noun, as: "You have a stapledon come on to answer
this problem instead of showing the characters resolve it."
"As You Know, Bob"
The most pernicious form of Info Dump. In which the characters tell
each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader
up to speed.
"I've Suffered For My Art" (and now it's your turn).
Research dump. A form of Info Dump in which the author inflicts upon
the reader irrelevant, but hard-won, bits of data acquired while
researching the story.
Re-Inventing the Wheel
In which the novice author goes to enormous lengths to create a situation
already familiar to an experienced reader. You most often see this when
a highly regarded mainstream writer tries to write an SF novel without
actually reading any of the existing stuff first (because it's all
obviously crap anyway). Thus you get endless explanations of, say, how
an atomic war might get started by accident. Thank you, but we've all
read that already. Also you get tedious explanations by physicists of
how the interstellar drive works. Unless it impacts the plot, we don't care.
Use of a background out of Central Casting. Rather than invent a background
and have to explain it, or risk re-inventing the wheel, let's just steal one.
We'll set it in the Star Trek Universe, only we'll call it the Empire instead
of the Federation.
The most pernicious suite of used furniture. The grizzled space captain
swaggering into the spacer bar and slugging down a Jovian brandy, then
laying down a few credits for a space hooker to give him a Galactic Rim Job.
The Edges of Ideas
The solution to the Info Dump problem (how to fill in the background). The
theory is that, as above, the mechanics of an interstellar drive (the center
of the idea) is not important; all that matters is the impact on your
characters: they can get to other planets in a few months, and, oh yeah,
it gives them hallucinations about past lives. Or, more radically: the
physics of TV transmission is the center of an idea; on the edges of it we
find people turning into couch potatoes because they no longer have to leave
home for entertainment. Or, more bluntly: we don't need info dump at all.
We just need a clear picture of how people's lives have been affected by their
background. This is also known as "carrying extrapolation into the fabric
of daily life."
The Grubby Apartment Story
Writing too much about what you know. The kind of story where the starving
writer living in the grubby apartment writes a story about a starving writer
in a grubby apartment. Stars all his friends.
Card Tricks in the Dark
Authorial tricks to no visible purpose. The author has contrived an
elaborate plot to arrive at (a) the punchline of a joke no one else
will get (b) some bit of historical trivia. In other words, if the
point of your story is that this kid is going to grow up to be Joseph
of Arimathea, there should be sufficient internal evidence for us to
figure this out.
The Jar of Tang
"For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!" or "For you see,
I am a dog!" Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire
pointless story contrived so the author can cry "Fooled you!" This is
a classic case of the difference between a conceit and an idea. "What
if we all lived in a jar of Tang?" is an example of the former; "What if
the revolutionaries from the sixties had been allowed to set up their
own society?" is an example of the latter. Good SF requires ideas,
Abbess Phone Home
Takes its name from a mainstream story about a medieval cloister which
was sold as SF because of the serendipitous arrival of a UFO at the end.
By extension, any mainstream story with a gratuitous SF or fantasy element
tacked on so it could be sold.
Deus Ex Machina or God-in-the-Box
Miraculous solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. Look, the
Martians all caught cold and died!
The true structure of the quest-type fantasy novel. The "hero"
collects sufficient plot coupons (magic sword, magic book, magic cat)
to send off to the author for the ending. Note that "the author" can
be substitute for "the Gods" in such a work: "The Gods decreed he
would pursue this quest." Right, mate. The author decreed he would
pursue this quest until sufficient pages were filled to procure an
advance. (Dave Langford)