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Rant #6: In Which the Author Admits That He Hates Facts

I freely confess to being a very picky reader. Not that picky, as my wife points out, or the house wouldn't be awash in paperbacks, but picky enough. There are certain things that drive me absolutely up the wall, spoil my enjoyment, and take my suspension of disbelief out back to rob it of its lunch money.

Chief among these is the "I just read an interesting fact and will now proceed to build a story around it" method of short story composition. I am all for interesting facts. They are, after all, interesting. They're useful at cocktail parties, great conversation starters in chat rooms, and generally far more useful to know than, say, Mark Bellhorn's K/BB ratio during his brief stint in Colorado (A seriously ugly number, in case you were wondering).

They are not, however, generally sturdy enough to hang a story on. Those stories that are constructed around a single tidbit of esoterica tend not to be good stories, because they're predicated on the reveal of this one obscure fact, as opposed to, say, character development, rising action or other things that Mrs. Bintner back at good old Cheltenham High School would approve of. You can almost hear the "Ta-da!" as the author, in the form of the protagonist (often a two-fisted scientist of some sort or other) whips out this magical factoid that saves the day.

I don't want to hear "Ta-da!" when I'm reading. I want the writer to make me say "Aha!" or "Wow" or, on rare occasions, "Well, I didn't see that coming." I don't want to read a story whose climax depends on something that I, as the reader, probably don't know and couldn't possibly learn from reading the rest of the story.

What "Ta-da!" stories do have going for them is originality. A more sour disposition than mine, if such a thing exists, would suggest that this is because no tidbit of this sort can support two stories, so each new Pokemon of enlightenment spawns one story and one story only. For my part, I just think that there are so many of these magical globules of knowledge out there that new ones are constantly unearthed, and excited authors want to share the newest, latest and greatest. And it's not to say that fascinating factoids can't produce good writing. Tim Powers, for one, is a master of taking a whole passel of tidbits like this and weaving them into something spectacular. The difference is that in a Tim Powers novel, the surprises are treated as a matter-of-fact part of the world, not the big surprise at the end of the rainbow, and they're all very obviously part of a bigger whole. United they stand as something fantastic, but by themselves they can bear an unmistakable resemblance to the Bee Girl from the old Blind Melon video - lonely, awkward, exposed, and possibly wearing floppy antennae. It's not until she wanders off into the hazy cannabis-fueled meadow that she finds companionship, happiness, and dance moves that are worth watching.

So I promise - every time I learn something neat, I won't immediately rush out to write a story about it. At least, not until I'm sure it has friends. Or antennae.







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