Writing: Lexicon


Taking UCLA Extension : Creating Universes, Building Worlds: The Short Story in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Online) from Alyx Dellamonica, I was introduced to the concept of a literary Lexicon. While the idea that one existed made sense as soon as I read one, the ideas that I found in Kit Whitfield’s Lexicon and Turkey City’s Lexicon (on which Kit’s Lexicon is loosely based) was very helpful in catagorizing writing, editing and critiquing.

Each entry will be marked by its source. As I find other references, I’ll expand this page. (I’m using my own catagories based largely off Kit Whitfield’s catagorization.)

Points of Style

  • The Slippery Page [Kit Whitfield]: Unreadable fiction in which the eye slides down the page failing to take much in.
  • Velcro Hooks [Kit Whitfield]: Small, arresting details, images, sentences or other things that snag the reader’s attention and keep him or her interested.
  • Letters To The Editor [Kit Whitfield]: Taking the opportunity to gripe about pet peeves that have nothing to do with the story. If, while the hero is searching the streets for the man who will tell him the truth about what happened to his father, he passes a house done up in a style he doesn’t like and he spends some time reflecting on tacky decorating, the author has inserted a Letter to the Editor.
  • Hobbying [Kit Whitfield]: A feature of the story dwelt on with unnecessary detail because it’s something the author happens to like. If the heroine spends a full page cooking and we hear details about every ingredient, for example, then the foodie author has been Hobbying. (Letters to the Editor and Hobbying can be referred to collectively as Blogging.)
  • It’ll Never Catch On [Kit Whitfield]: A venerable joke in historical fiction: someone introduced to an invention, product, artist or idea that has since become popular shakes his head and says, ‘It’ll never catch on, you know.’ Possibly funny the first time someone used it, but very creaky now, as we’ve all heard it before.
  • Nuggety [Kit Whitfield]: Full of neat, pleasing and memorable incidents, scenes, turns of phrase and similar. Gives the audience that warm, satisfied feeling when reading and when reminiscing.
  • Combine Harvester Writing [Kit Whitfield]: ‘This landscape inspires such thoughts and feelings in me . . .’ Dwelling on the writer, narrator or character as a figure of massive sensibility, without letting the reader share enough of their fun. Typically, the culprit is in a setting that inspires tremendous emotions in them – but we don’t get to hear about the setting in a way that’s clear enough to let us have our own reaction to it, and neither do we necessarily hear an overly moving description of what the feelings and thoughts are. Like praising a combine harvester without mentioning fields or bread: the culprit is a response processor, and we’re supposed to admire them for being responsive more than we’re supposed to take an interest in what they’re responding to. An oblique form of boasting.
  • Buffsasstic [Kit Whitfield]: The feisty, sassy, wisecracking style that has proliferated, with varying degrees of success, in female-centred popular fiction in the past couple of decades, particularly popularised by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fun when it works, laboured when it doesn’t, and no substitute for good character writing.
  • The Ninja [Kit Whitfield]: A motif, scene, character or other quirk that a writer cannot resist using over and over, even when not strictly necessary. Often used unconsciously because it encapsulates something about the writer’s world-view or obsessions. Not necessarily a bad thing, but interesting once spotted. Named after the ‘ninja hypothesis’ (an idea from a website that I can’t seem to find, which I’ll happily attribute properly if someone tells me who I’m indebted to here) – that every work of art throughout history would be improved by the addition of ninjas.
  • Brenda Starr dialogue [Turkey City]: 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 [Turkey City]: 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.
  • Brand Name Fever [Turkey City]: Use of 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 with it looks like.
  • “Call a Rabbit a Smeerp” [Turkey City]: 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.)
  • Gingerbread [Turkey City]: 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 [Turkey City]: 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)
  • Pushbutton Words [Turkey City]: 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.
  • Roget’s Disease [Turkey City]: The ludicrous overuse of far-fetched adjectives, piled into a festering, fungal, tenebrous, troglodytic, ichorous, leprous, synonymic heap. (Attr. John W. Campbell)
  • “Said” Bookism [Turkey City]: 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 [Turkey City]: 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.
  • Bathos [Turkey City]: 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 [Turkey City]: A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit. “‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said, urging her to leave.”
  • Dischism [Turkey City]: 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)
  • False Humanity [Turkey City]: 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.
  • False Interiorization [Turkey City]: 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.
  • Fuzz [Turkey City]: 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.”
  • Hand Waving [Turkey City]: 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)
  • Laughtrack [Turkey City]: 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.
  • Show, not Tell [Turkey City]: 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.
  • Signal from Fred [Turkey City]: 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)
  • Squid in the Mouth [Turkey City]: 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 [Turkey City]: 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.”
  • White Room Syndrome [Turkey City]: 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.
  • Wiring Diagram Fiction [Turkey City]: 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.
  • You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit [Turkey City]: An attempt to defuse 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)

Scene-Setting and Background

  • Too Sexy For This Dungeon [Kit Whitfield]: A traumatic or violent situation described in an overly flippant way, often by a ‘cool’ character who’s being smart-mouthed about something awful they underwent. Such a character will, implausibly, show little sign that being tortured, injured, bereaved or anything else has had any impact on them. Often used by nervous writers to escape the stress and difficulty of writing a scene of genuine pain.
  • The Blind Tourist [Kit Whitfield]: Setting a story in a real location to avoid having to do any scene-setting. The reader is informed that the action is happening in Paris, but the narrative notices little about the local surroundings and conveys no sense of place.
  • What I Wrote On My Holidays [Kit Whitfield]: Setting a novel in a nice landscape, typically involving lushly described sunlight, colours, scents and food, and using the landscape to convey an element of exoticism and heightened emotional import to whatever is happening to the hero. Can be very effective if well handled, but if not, can feel like a mechanical attempt to make the book more interesting, especially if the view of the landscape is basically that of a privileged tourist, giving rise to the suspicion that the author had a great two-week holiday there last year and needed another plot idea. If the author doesn’t have a good understanding of the local culture and a willingness to treat local characters with respect, it looks unintentionally ignorant, and more generally, like the writer is an outsider in a world they’re supposed to have a godlike understanding of.
  • Intellectual sexiness [Turkey City]: The intoxicating glamor of a novel scientific idea, as distinguished from any actual intellectual merit that it may someday prove to possess.

Structure and Plot

  • The Plot Cosh [Kit Whitfield]: Doing something drastic to a character or set-up to force the story along or create suspense. In the Tarzan stories, for instance, chapters frequently produce cliffhangers by ending with somebody getting knocked out, or having someone lose their memory after a blow to the head, which is to say, they get whacked with the Plot Cosh. A character suddenly acting well below their usual level of intelligence to avoid narrative inconvenience – the detective who misses an obvious clue, the heroine who walks right into clear and present danger – can be said to have been slightly stunned after the Plot Cosh administered a light tap.
  • Narrative Capital [Kit Whitfield]: What the writer accrues by setting up situations, tensions, threats and other build-ups. If the author decides on a shocking climax that blows everything wide open, they will be spending the Narrative Capital they’ve saved – having the warring couple suddenly acknowledge their love, for instance. The more capital saved, the better the climax – but you can’t spend the same capital twice, and if you try to have a climax bigger than your capital can buy, the audience feels robbed.
  • False Resolution [Kit Whitfield]: Finishing a story with a definite incident that, because it’s definite, feels like it’s a conclusion, but doesn’t actually settle any of the problems that the plot has raised, leaving the reader with an unsatisfying ending. Often takes the form of solving an issue that has only cropped up in the latter part of the story, ignoring the issue that the story began with.
  • Hatched, Matched and Dispatched [Kit Whitfield]: A variant of False Resolution, in which a story that has taken place on a larger scale is wound up with a small, personal resolution such as a wedding, pregnancy or death, in a way that doesn’t properly round off the bigger questions the plot has raised.
  • The Sailor’s Bar [Kit Whitfield]: The work of an author who, aware that fiction needs conflict, has gone overboard and has his or her characters fight in every scene.
  • Why, I’m Glad You Asked [Kit Whitfield]: Pushing the plot along by having characters volunteer large amounts of useful information on small persuasion, even if there’s no reason why they’d be so long-winded or helpful. Possibly the asker has beaten it out of them with the Plot Cosh.
  • Unnecessary Surgery [Kit Whitfield]: Killing off a character that the reader has gotten fond of, in such a way that the dramatic and structural payoffs aren’t satisfying enough to assuage the grief of seeing that nice person, who everyone had been expecting to stick around, meet with a sudden fate.
  • The Fireman’s Proof: [Kit Whitfield] Common in square-jawed sci fi , and sometimes crime, where the all-action hero has to undo the work of mad scientists. He comes away concluding that Certain Things Shouldn’t Be Meddled With, or that Nature Cannot Be Changed, or something similar – when the real problem was caused not by meddling science but by cockeyed experimental methods, like testing something on an entire planet before trying a small control group or breeding for aggression before you’ve properly checked the creature’s intelligence. Similar to a fireman concluding that chemistry is a malign art because a lab caught fire after the technician fell asleep while boiling something, when the only thing that’s really been proved is that you should watch your experiments more closely.
  • The Cliff of Justice [Kit Whitfield]: A convenient accident that saves the hero from moral difficulties. Just as he or she finally gains the upper hand in the climactic final struggle with the villain and is about to finish him off – or wait, is he? that would make the hero a killer! could we live with that? – the cliff edge crumbles, a rock falls from overhead, or the set otherwise intervenes and the villain dies without the hero having to do the dirty deed. This is supposed to resolve the structural need for punishment while leaving the hero untarnished, but doesn’t work for two reasons: one, it’s implausible, and two, it’s a cop-out.
  • Trouble Bypass [Kit Whitfield]: The narrative patch-job of an author who’s chickening out. A situation arises in the plot that is difficult to solve, usually because it raises deep emotional, moral and/or psychological questions that would tax the author to deal with. Instead of diving in, grappling with them and producing a hard-won but satisfying solution, the author does a bit of quick pipe-work, comes up with a short plot explanation that almost works as an excuse for not going there, and rattles along as before. Works if the reader isn’t paying too much attention, but a waste of an opportunity to write something really good.
  • Shadow Boxing [Kit Whitfield]: Creating characters, groups or situations that represent an attitude or trait that the author doesn’t like, and then criticising, satirising or punishing them – but refusing to portray them in anything but the most stereotypical (and unconvincing) way, as thinking about them carefully would be colluding with the enemy.
  • Noises Off [Kit Whitfield]: Having a great deal of the plot happen off-stage and only be relayed to the audience through character discussion. Not inherently bad, but pernicious when used as an excuse to avoid writing difficult scenes, as it means all the interesting moments are never shown and all that’s left is a lot of talk.
  • You Always Do This [Kit Whitfield]: A variant of Noises Off. Having characters tell each other about issues in their relationship rather than writing scenes that show them.
  • Ravelled Threads [Kit Whitfield]: The result of almost but not quite perfect rewriting. You think you’ve tidied it all up – but then later, there’s a single sentence referring to a character who isn’t there any more, or the appearance of someone who now has no reason to be there, or a reference to a conversation that now didn’t take place, hanging loose and snagging the reader’s attention.
  • Cockroach Eggs [Kit Whitfield]: You know you have to clean them off, but it’s so difficult to spot them all. Little stray words and typos here and there that you should have wiped up – but there, you missed one, and now the whole page looks grubby.
  • It’s Okay, Honey, I’m Evil [Kit Whitfield]: A means of handling the ending of a thriller that somewhat blows the tension. Having established one character (often male) as an is-he-isn’t-he threat to the (often female) protagonist, in the climax, he appears and tries to talk her down while she retreats across the kitchen floor clutching a small fruit knife and whimpering uncertainly. However, everything he says so openly shows he’s dangerous that it a) destroys any lingering suspense as to whether or not he’s trustworthy and b) makes you wonder what on earth he’s trying to achieve, as there’s no way he could expect her to put down the knife when he’s saying things like that.
  • Adam and Eve Story [Turkey City]: 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!!
  • •The Cozy Catastrophe [Turkey City]: 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)
  • Dennis Hopper Syndrome [Turkey City]: 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)
  • Deus ex Machina or “God in the Box” [Turkey City]: 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.
  • The Grubby Apartment Story [Turkey City]: 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 Jar of Tang [Turkey City]: “For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!” or “For you see, I am a dog!” A story contrived so that the author can spring a silly surprise about its setting. Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry “Fooled you!” 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.

    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, not conceits. (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)

  • Just-Like Fallacy [Turkey City]: 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.
  • The Kitchen-Sink Story [Turkey City]: 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 Motherhood Statement [Turkey City]: 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 “Poor Me” Story [Turkey City]: Autobiographical piece in which the male viewpoint character complains that he is ugly and can’t get laid. (Attr. Kate Wilhelm)
  • Re-Inventing the Wheel [Turkey City]: 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 Rembrandt Comic Book [Turkey City]: 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 Shaggy God Story [Turkey City]: A piece which mechanically adopts a Biblical or other mythological tale and provides flat science-fictional “explanations” for the theological events. (Brian Aldiss)
  • The Slipstream Story [Turkey City]: 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 [Turkey City]: 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)
  • The Tabloid Weird [Turkey City]: 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)
  • The Whistling Dog [Turkey City]: 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)
  • Abbess Phone Home [Turkey City]: 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.
  • And plot [Turkey City]: Picaresque plot in which this happens, and then that happens, and then something else happens, and it all adds up to nothing in particular.
  • Bogus Alternatives [Turkey City]: List of actions a character could have taken, but didn’t. Frequently includes all the reasons why. 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 instead of stealing their car, but then … ” etc. Best dispensed with entirely.
  • Card Tricks in the Dark [Turkey City]: 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)
  • Idiot Plot [Turkey City]: 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)
  • Kudzu plot [Turkey City]: Plot which weaves and curls and writhes in weedy organic profusion, smothering everything in its path.
  • Plot Coupons [Turkey City]: The basic building blocks of the quest-type fantasy plot. 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 substituted 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. (Nick Lowe)
  • Second-order Idiot Plot [Turkey City]: A plot involving an entire invented SF society which functions only because every single person in it is necessarily an idiot. (Attr. Damon Knight)

Character and Viewpoint

  • Eggbox Characterisation [Kit Whitfield]: A failure to give characters genuinely different personalities, so that, even if the author declares that Jon is the crazy one, Don is depressive and Ron is usually sensible, in the way they act and talk they’re as alike as eggs in a box.
  • Nice Guy Disease [Kit Whitfield]: A central character who is, basically, a nice guy with no particular personality, who is as a result pretty boring.
  • The Rubber Rapee [Kit Whitfield]: A (usually) female character who bounces back from a sexual assault with implausible ease. Used by male writers who don’t quite understand women, and female writers who like a good victim-heroine but aren’t prepared to slow down the plot for mere psychological accuracy.
  • The Pet Man [Kit Whitfield]: A male character used by female authors, who acts as a love interest to the heroine without having anything as threatening as an independent set of interests, friends or objectives of his own. He does little in the plot that isn’t centred around the heroine, and her emotional life and his relationship with her are the only things he participates in; readers who aren’t in love with him tend to find him tiresome.
  • Punch Bags [Kit Whitfield]: Two-dimensional characters who are set up as so bad that any and all aggression towards them is completely justified, giving the author an excuse for violent scenes.
  • Gammon Shieldblade [Kit Whitfield]: Most common in fantasy literature: an implausible character name that no one in their right mind would actually be called. Often created by sticking together two pushbutton words that don’t logically relate to each other, like Wolfharp or Lifespear, or by randomly jumbling up syllables the author finds mellifluous.
  • The Sabre-Toothed Kitten [Kit Whitfield]: A common figure in pulp sci fi and action that’s paying lip-service to feminism without really being interested in women. She’s tough, she’s a kick-ass fighter, she kills evil men . . . the fact that she’s also beautiful, cute, often small or young, provides the same comforting amount of T and A as a bimbo and has about the same level of personality doesn’t mean she’s not a strong female character. Honest.
    Note to the guys [Kit Whitfield]: a woman who’s just a body that fights is not a big advance on a woman who’s just a body that fucks. Give her some thoughts.
  • Funny-hat characterization [Turkey City]: A character distinguished by a single identifying tag, such as odd headgear, a limp, a lisp, a parrot on his shoulder, etc.
  • Mrs. Brown [Turkey City]: 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)
  • Submyth [Turkey City]: 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)
  • Viewpoint glitch [Turkey City]: 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.

Series and sequels

  • The Wicked Step-Author [Kit Whitfield]: A problem that can occur in a series or sequel where a story is taken over by a different writer. Being that it’s hard to relate to someone else’s brainchild as easily as you relate to your own, even if your intentions are good, a wicked step-author will, often unintentionally, neglect the existing characters, or virtues (such as a distinctive structure, mood, sense of humour or similar), of the original, devoting more energy to the new things they have added themselves. As a result, the reader or viewer gets a lot of stuff they’re not interested in, and not enough of the things that made them fall in love with the series in the first place.
    Note: a good author taking over an existing story can do marvellous things with it, so not all step-authors are wicked. The antithesis is the Fairy God-Author , bringing in a whole new lease of life.
  • May The Best Ep Win [Kit Whitfield]: A problem that besets TV series with developing plots, where numerous different writers get to write one or two episodes apiece and there’s no acknowledged top artist. Having only a couple of hours to showcase themselves, every writer tries to write the defining episode of the series – which in practice tends to mean an awful lot of blown-up drama and speechifying about the characters, every single week, until we’re all exhausted.
  • Open Mike Fantasy [Kit Whitfield]: A technique in fantasy either loved or hated by readers, depending on their tastes and the skill of the author, which is prone to crop up in sequels to stories with a single fantastical creature (though it sometimes happens spontaneously). In the first story, we had, let’s say, a witch. In the sequel, we meet witches, vampires, elves, ghosts, goblins and every other kind of creature you can think of, much in the way that at a club’s all-comers night, you may run into punks, goths, hippies and any number of other subculture types without having your sense of reality jarred. Essentially, magic as lifestyle rather than as magic.


  • Library Ornaments [Kit Whitfield]: References to other fictional works within a story in a way that doesn’t add to it but simply shows off what other works the author happens to be familiar with. Intertextuality can be great, but when handled badly, in its most extreme form the method can create a puzzle that doesn’t yield any pleasure beyond the satisfaction of working out what the author is talking about; in lesser forms, it can feel like the author trying to appropriate the virtues of the writers he or she is referencing rather than working to improve the story on its own terms.
  • The Blurred Photocopy [Kit Whitfield]: A work that’s an imitation of an imitation of an imitation of something else. A Blurred Photocopy lacks the energy of the original, and, because it’s too chained to a single descent of influences, doesn’t have other works or styles refreshing it with new ideas. As such, subject to the law of diminishing returns, and readers are better off just reading the thing it’s imitating, then trying something new.
  • Pen Fatale [Kit Whitfield]: A very good author who has a very bad influence on those who follow them; Raymond Carver and Tom Stoppard are notable examples. A Pen Fatale writes material that is startlingly, seductively clever and different – but the trouble is that only they can write in their style successfully.
  • The Jet-Powered Wagon [Kit Whitfield]: A story where the author’s basic writing skills aren’t up to the high-powered idea they’re trying to get across. If you attach a jet engine to a jet chassis, it’ll fly fast and far; however, if you attach it to a small wooden wagon, the body isn’t strong enough to withstand the impact, and what you’re likely to get is a rattle, a boom, and a mess of cogs and splinters.
    Note: the Jet-Powered Wagon is a common mistake with young, would-be literary writers who’ve had a good education in twentieth-century classics. The authors they read and admire tend to be technically innovative and apparently ‘transcend’ the basics of writing, such as traditional storytelling and character. An inexperienced writer may miss something important, which is that as a practicing writer rather than an academic student, you have to be proficient in the basics before you understand them well enough to transcend them , and so shoots off to write something that has big ideas and no nuts-and-bolts competence. The result tends to be incoherent and uninvolving, either failing to hold the audience’s attention at all or raising the question of why such a fuss is being made about an unremarkable set of events. At worst, it can be an effort to get away with not having the skills or experience needed for the fundamentals by attempting to dazzle the audience with philosophy; however, any philosophical point gets lost, because the writing isn’t good enough to substantiate it. An honourable mistake, but still hard on the audience.

Critics and Feedback

  • Critic Bait [Kit Whitfield]: A theme, technique or other device that will attract praise from critics more because it’s fashionable or appealing to the critical psyche than because the work is outstanding.
  • The Well Said Fallacy [Kit Whitfield]: The automatic assumption that something is well executed because you agree with its morals or message. The cry of ‘well said!’ is fine to praise someone for saying something that needed saying, but should never be confused with ‘well put’.
  • Essay Fallacy [Kit Whitfield]: The assumption made by critics and academics that writing fiction is akin to essay-writing – ie, everything in the story is there to illustrate some previously-decided-upon theoretical point, rather than because it felt intuitively right, was the only way out of a corner, seemed funny at the time, or any of the other practical reasons that writers do things. Such criticism tends to put words into authors’ mouths, and can lead to blind spots as to elements in the book that don’t fit in with the supposed message.
  • Rewrite Shades [Kit Whitfield]: Projecting your own interpretation onto something so strongly that you come away with a memory of it that reflects your own personal vision rather than what you actually read or saw. It’s possible to sit through an entire movie or novel wearing the Rewrite Shades. This leads to arguments later, as it can be very difficult to tell when you’ve got the Rewrite Shades on, and different people can be equally convinced that their version is the correct one.
  • Doing the Author’s Homework [Kit Whitfield]: Projecting an intelligent and complex explanation onto a story to explain something that otherwise doesn’t make sense, and which was probably the author making a mistake. Also, projecting layers of deep meaning onto a story that doesn’t really have them. Basically, putting in mental work to improve something that, if it was going to merit your praise, should have been done by the author.
  • Intellectual sexiness [Turkey City]: The intoxicating glamor of a novel scientific idea, as distinguished from any actual intellectual merit that it may someday prove to possess.
  • AM/FM [Turkey City]: Engineer’s term distinguishing the inevitable clunky real-world faultiness of “Actual Machines” from the power-fantasy techno-dreams of “Fucking Magic.”

Living the Life

  • The Overhead Projector [Kit Whitfield]: A frustratingly common device that sits on top of your skull, projecting onto the page an image of what you meant , rather than what you said. This notional gadget is responsible for the fact that authors trying to edit themselves can miss incomprehensible sentences and misspelled words, because they saw the image from the Projector, not what was actually there. It’s the main reason why it’s good to get a second opinion.
  • The Think Fuse [Kit Whitfield]: The finite amount of time some writers have between the first rush of inspiration and the bleary decision that it’s probably not a good idea. In such circumstances, the only thing to do is drop everything and dash to hook the fuse up to the page before it burns out; fireworks hopefully ensue.
  • The Darkroom [Kit Whitfield]: Where you need to keep your ideas when you’re developing them. A roll of film tends to wither in the light, but can be shown indefinitely when processed into photos; similarly, an idea can be killed if its author talks about it too much before writing it down, but is beyond harm once it’s written; hence, an idea you’re not ready to discuss yet is being kept in the Darkroom.
  • Writer’s Remorse [Kit Whitfield]: The drastic downswing in confidence about a particular idea that follows the initial rush of having or writing it. Part of the emotional process, and not necessarily a sign that the idea is bad.
    Note: It’s often a good idea to write as much as possible before Writer’s Remorse can kick in; you can always revise or cut later.
  • Phantonym [Kit Whitfield]: The feeling you get when you’re searching for the perfect word: that there is a word for this concept that’s not in the thesaurus, but you can’t quite remember it. Usually this is not the case, and you’re forced to go with a word that’s slightly wrong, or else rewrite the whole bloody sentence.
  • Naglet [Kit Whitfield]: A concept or action that you have the nagging sense really should have a single word to describe it-the action of a dog putting its head between its paws on the ground to invite you to play is one that always bugs me – but most unfairly, it doesn’t.
  • Subconscious-Packing [Kit Whitfield]: Reading and absorbing as much as you can in the way of good stylists and general information, on the understanding that it’ll mesh together in your subconscious and make your writing richer. Not to be confused with procrastination.
  • Advice Cuffs [Kit Whitfield]: What happens when a writer with an unusual style or method that works for them listens too obediently to advisers who don’t understand it: they end up playing against their own strengths and producing work below the standard they’re capable of.
    Note: taking wise advice is not the same thing as donning the Advice Cuffs; good feedback judgement is a vital skill for authors to develop.
  • Rock-Punching [Kit Whitfield]: Toughening yourself up for rejections by constantly reminding yourself that the odds against you are massive, you still have a lot to learn, there are hundreds of good writers out there competing with you . . . and so on. Equivalent to the martial arts kid standing under a freezing waterfall and punching at the rocks with his bare hands to harden him for the battle ahead, and a useful exercise, if disagreeable, if you’re to keep going.
  • A Dead Letter [Kit Whitfield]: An idea that you’ve tried to shake up into a story, but whichever way up you turn it, just doesn’t quite work and is best abandoned. Regrettably commoner than good ideas for most people, and useful to be able to identify to avoid wasting time.
    Note: my personal rule of thumb for dead letters runs thus: write a fixed proportion of the story as early on as you can; it should be roughly a page for a short story, and a chapter for a novel. If, within that space, you already have enough elements present that the story can carry on under its own momentum – ie you can move the plot forward using the existing Narrative Capital for long enough to get to the point where you’re introducing other characters and revelations, which will in turn generate more plot – then the story is probably going to work. If not, it’s a dead letter. That’s my own method; others may differ.
  • The Ol’ Baloney Factory [Turkey City]: “Science Fiction” as a publishing and promotional entity in the world of commerce.