Handstands in the Air

When we were at the State Fair last week – yes, we do usually go more than once

High in the Sky

– we made a point to see several of the free shows.  “Walking with Lions” was mostly nice for a chance to view some beautiful animals.  “K9 Kings Flying Dog Show” was full of enthusiasm.  However, for us, the no-question favorite was the performance by the Yangdong Chinese Acrobatic Troupe.

In the span of about twenty-five minutes, we saw pole-climbing (and some fascinating controlled falls), hoop diving, astonishing leaps and bounces performed without benefit of a trampoline, an amazing contortionist, and a charming and dextrous woman who spun various lightweight objects (such as a paper umbrella) on her feet.

The troupe’s coach took the stage to give an awesome demonstration that involved highspeed twirling of a wide-blade trident.  This he whirled not only between his hands, but up and down his arms and over his back.  This was an impressive enough display of controlled dexterity when he did his first set, but when, for the second round, both ends of the trident were set on fire, it was really amazing.

To make all of these performances more interesting, monsoon season is upon us.  Gusty pre-thunderstorm winds meant that props often had their own idea where they should be heading.  This was hard enough on the hoop divers and the contortionist (part of her performance involved five lit candelabras).  However, several times the winds removed the umbrella the young woman was twirling on her feet right off the stage.

Even so, for all of these, the winds were an inconvenience.  The finale was a routine that the winds made not only challenging, but possibly dangerous.  Those of you who have seen Chinese acrobats are probably familiar with some version of this routine.  An acrobat, in this case a young woman, comes forth carrying a square-built chair and places it on the stage.  Then she gets up on the seat and does handstands of various sorts.

The act becomes thrilling when an assistant brings out another chair.  This one is set on top of the one below, upside down, so that the back of the upper chair rests on the seat of the lower chair.  Now the young woman mounts to the upper reaches of this unfastened platform and does more handstands and the like.

This continues through a third chair, a fourth, a fifth, with the woman mounting about three feet higher each time.  Jim and I were sitting in the center section, right in front of the stage and I am not exaggerating when I say that we could see the chairs swaying slightly when the winds hit.  If the tower had gone down, the chairs and the acrobat would have been in our laps.

However, despite occasionally stopping for a moment when the winds were particularly strong, the young lady persisted.  When she had built a tower five chairs high, a sixth one was lifted up to her.  Not satisfied to repeat the routine she had done on the lower tiers, she braced this last chair at various angles and struck increasingly daring poses.

The photo accompanying these wanderings is of one of these.

Please remember, the acrobat is not in a theater with safety nets beneath her, but on an outdoor stage amid gusty winds, winds that must have been augmented by the thunderous applause and shouts of appreciation from the audience below.  The acrobat did have three spotters, but had she come down, they all would have been dodging chairs as they hoped to arrest her fall.

But she didn’t fall.  She finished her final twist, then,  chair by chair, she dismounted, taking her bows with a beaming smile.

Now, as I already said, this routine is something of a classic.  Even I, who have not seen that many Chinese acrobatic performances, have seen it before.  Thinking about the act afterwards, I found myself wondering.  When does something become a classic as opposed to “tried and true” or, far worse, “hackneyed,” “old hat,” and “cliched”?  Does something cease to be of value simply because you’ve seen it before?

Certainly, this was not the case for this tower of chairs routine.  I’d be happy to watch it again – with or without high winds – many, many times again.  Skill is skill.  Talent is talent, at least in athletic performances.

However, writers (and others in the creative arts) face a different challenge.  For writers (and the rest), often it is not enough to do the classic well.  There is a craving for novelty – especially on the part of reviewers and editors.  They want to see something new.  Sometimes I’m not sure that this “new” thing needs to be particularly good.  On the other hand, there are readers who want nothing new at all.

I once had my hair cut by a young woman in Santa Fe who, when she learned that I wrote for a living and even wrote fantasy, was very excited.  She told me that she read fantasy.  She read Terry Brooks.  When she had read whatever he had that was out and new, she went back and re-read old Terry Brooks novels.  That was, apparently, all she read.

Now, I admit, this is an extreme example.  However, as the writer of twenty-one published novels, I definitely have seen both sides of the issue.  For every fan letter I get expressing enthusiasm about a new project, I get two asking when I’m going to write a new Firekeeper novel, or a new Changer novel, or a fourth “Breaking the Wall” novel or maybe a sequel to my novels Child of a Rainless Year or The Buried Pyramid.

Sometimes fans of a particular series will not hesitate to tell me they cannot stand the other works I have done, as if this will encourage me to fulfill their request.  Even short stories can trigger this “more, but the same” response.  When I read my short story “Hunting the Unicorn” at Bubonicon, the first question was “What happens next?”

Yet reviewers and editors are the first to say “ho, hum” to the classic.  Sometimes, more puzzling, especially from those on the buying end, a writer hears, “Can you give us more of the same but different, please?”

So what is better?  Do you crave novelty in what you read?  Is something that’s classic in theme automatically boring?  If so, why is it that some of the biggest hits of the last few years have been variations on well-played themes?

As someone who likes to write a wide variety of types of stories, but also doesn’t write just to be different, I must admit I’m curious about where you stand…

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21 Responses to “Handstands in the Air”

  1. Peter Says:

    “When does something become a classic as opposed to “tried and true” or, far worse, “hackneyed,” “old hat,” and “cliched”? Does something cease to be of value simply because you’ve seen it before?”

    Nope. I think it *does* start to lose value when you’ve seen it before, many times, done *badly*, however, and there’s the difference between acrobatics and writing. Balancing on a ladder of chairs or juggling a flaming trident across your back is incredibly difficult and very few people can do it at all, so the tenth time is as impressive as the first. Writing a story about a plucky young farmboy/girl who meets up with the standard assortment of companions and sets off to Save The World is incredibly difficult, but lots of people can do it poorly, so it’s easy to become jaded.

    As for novelty…well, it depends. Sometimes I’m in the mood for comfort food for the soul, so I pick my old Avon paperback off the shelf, open the cover and read “His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god.” and BOOM! I’m in a familiar place. Other times I’m in the mood for something completely novel (pun intended) and I open a book by an author I’m not familiar with in a genre I don’t read much. Most of the time I fall somewhere between those two extremes – if I pick up a new Jane Lindskold novel there’s an element of familiarity – the author’s a known quantity, and I can be confident I’ll enjoy the book – and an element of novelty, as I meet the new characters and explore the new world. If I pick up a new Athanor or Firekeeper novel it moves closer to the other end of the spectrum – I already have an attachment to the characters and world, but there are still new things to discover about them.

  2. Pat McGee Says:

    I think this is an example of the classic “Two-armed bandit” problem in statistics. Imagine you’re in front of two slot machines and you think they have different payoff probabilities. You think (hope?) one gives a steady stream of small jackpots and the other gives fewer but probably larger ones. How do you divide your play between the two in order to get the biggest reward? Well, first you have to play each one some just in order to discover more about how each one pays off. And you never really know when a big jackpot is coming on the next pull of one or the other, if only you made the pull.

    So, to answer the question, “What is better?”, the only answer I can come up with is, “yes”.

    My personal advice is to go where your muse takes you. I may or may not follow, but there’s no way for me to know before you go there.

    I remember buying the first CD of a new band and loving it so much that I played it six times the first day. I rated every single song as five stars, something I had never done with a CD before or since. I bought their next one and only liked half the songs. What I took away from this is the belief that they were exploring lots of different types of things and I liked some and didn’t like others. The reason I liked every song on the first CD was coincidence, not some magical tuning in to my soul

  3. heteromeles Says:

    There’s two answers here, depending on whether you want to keep your old audience or build a new one.

    If you want to keep your existing fans happy, keep writing within the envelope of what made them fans in the first place. So long as you don’t get bored doing it, that’s fine. Personally, I’ll admit I’m not a fan of long series, though, and I think Mercedes Lackey may have come up with a workable compromise of semi-sequential trilogies to allow a mix of familiar and new. There’s no reason to write more about the Changer, for example, but perhaps the Changer’s daughter, ten years on?

    The new audience is perhaps the most important one, especially for science fiction. SF readers are aging and the field is shrinking. My personal take on this is that classical SF was the literature of progressives (progress leads to a shiny new SF world and problems are solved). Unfortunately, progressive ideals have been hammered by reality (Progress is becoming too expensive), and by the nihilistic/apocalyptic element on the Right (the Tea Party and their backers, who seem to want the world to end with them as the winners). Fewer people want to read about a shiny future, especially when it seems increasingly unlikely that we’ll ever get there.

    There’s plenty of apocalyptic SF out there, but it’s been *done.* How many disaster-as-metaphor-for-current-social-angst novels do you really want to read, anyway? Vampires and zombies are getting a bit tattered, even with sparkles.

    It seems we need something else, a new vision of a future to get people reading SF again. If the vision of progress to the stars is currently unrealistic, and if we’re too optimistic to think that the world’s going to end in 2012 (or whenever the Singularity happens), what is there for us to believe in?

    The SF writer Charlie Stross recently started a thread on his blog asking his readers what they wanted to see him write next. The most active thread of the >500 posts was “please write about post peak-oil.” He split off that discussion and accumulated >225 posts in about 12 hours. Yes, I’ve added some of those posts.

    The lesson here is that there’s a diverse collection of people who are very interested in the future, all trying to figure out what it’s going to look like (for better or worse). The most active vision is something Michael Greer called “The Long Descent,” where we and our children have to make all those difficult choices that we’ve put off, and western civilization declines as all previous great societies have. Here, the best we can do is slow our decline, and the worst is some sort of catastrophe where most of us die.

    Long post, but that’s my take. If you want to do something the same, write small groups of stories set in universes you’ve already explored, to keep your old fans happy. If you want to try something new and SF, you might want to set a story 30-100 years into the future, and draw on Jim’s expertise with the Anasazi to build that world. You do have some in-house expertise that most of us lack, after all.

  4. Dominique Says:

    I don’t know that I think about these things so much… When I go looking for a new book, I am just looking for a great story. As long as it is told in a way I haven’t heard before, or the characters are new and interesting, a great story is a great story.

    With that said, your blog got me thinking. I started to notice some trends. For example, in YA, it seems it is always a variation on good versus evil. There is always an overarching villain, which readers become acquainted with in the very first book and continues to haunt the hero throughout the series. The hero is always a young adult who thinks they aren’t special, but end up being very much so. I guess this just speaks to that age and time in people’s life. You’re right though, there are definitely trends…

    In truth though Jane, I think this is stuff you don’t really have to worry about. One of the reasons I love your books so much is that you have such a unique voice, no one tells a story the way you do. I just can’t see you being cliche, ever (even if you were writing the same themes as everyone else). That’s my opinion anyway :)

  5. Tori Says:

    I do buy into that theory that there are only so many basic stories and everything is a variation on them, so I think it’s the setting and characters’ personalities that make it unique. I think Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series is an excellent example of this. The story is unabashedly The Hero’s Journey so it’s all the flavor bits that make it original. Things like needing an object of silver to use as a weapon but not being able to find one due to hippie parents only having wooden eating utensils and jewelry, or a monster that will only attack things with written words on them, or symptoms like a cough or runny nose being “worn” as fashion statements! I think it’s for similar reasons that Harry Potter kept readers’ attention. Again, a familiar story but with a bunch of interesting flavor bits like the Sorting Hat, photos that move, a wacky sport played on broomsticks, strange candy, odd methods of mass transportation, etc. It’s stuff that makes it easy to envision the world you’re reading about. I doubt The Hunger Games series would have been so popular without the heavily-described food, the fancy outfits, the (literally) colorful characters, the bizarre genetically engineered creatures, and so on. But I have read a few novels where there is a whole bunch of flavor, but the “classic” story is told in a sloppy way. So I think the story is the most important thing to get right, and then everything else is icing on the cake. The more colorful the icing, the more enticing the cake.

  6. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Kind of depends on how it’s done. Just think of the movie Avatar. People bashed it like crazy because it was “Pocahontas in space”. My first thought? “That’s a bad thing?” It’s old tale yes, but done in a way not yet seen.

    For me, that’s the important part. I want a slightly different take on it. If you give me three different versions of West Side Story that are pretty much identical, I might still enjoy them, but not as much as if the core was the same, but each one had some small taste of uniqueness to it.

    For my own work I try, perhaps too hard at times, to avoid things that have been done before. Funny things is, I still end up in cliches. There are no new stories (or at least, not many), just new ways to tell them.

    Yet, despite all that, I have to think about how the Lion King is out for 2 weeks in 3D in most movie theaters. It’s old classic, and one of my all time favorites. I have it on VHS. Heack I could play it my head from beginning to end (yes I’m serious, and yes I desperately need a life). But I still plan on going to see it in the theaters. In 3D to see if it’s worth anything.

    I think once a classic’s been on the shelf for long enough, it’s good to bring it back to share with the new generation. But in general, I want just a slight difference. Some small thing that makes a tale unique to that book/movie.

    • heteromeles Says:

      I heard a great version of the standard Avatar critique. Someone in Africa commented that the international media only follows white media stars who go to crisis areas, and ignores what’s going on in the rest of that very big, very diverse continent.

      The comment was “Oh no, we need Tarzan to come save us again.”

      It’s great to get caught up in stories, but when you realize how stereotypical it is for the Great White Hero to Save the Day, it can be a little tedious, even when it’s done well.

      Besides, the Pocahontas of history was supposedly a little hellion, not that her story gets told very often.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Nicolas –

        Look what Tori says and consider. I think she has a bunch of really good points and examples.

        Also, consider several of the biggest hits of late, books that have touched people’s hearts. To an experienced reader of SF/F, they don’t have much in the way of new elements, but I sincerely believe the authors wrote from their hearts and readers responded to this.

        Trust your heart and keep on writing…. You may later find you’ve done something you’re proud of.

  7. Emily Says:

    I’m the sort of person that reads for the characters. If I cannot attach myself to a character I cannot read the book. I won’t recommend the book to others unless the storyline’s good too. I think that it is true what they say about “no new ideas” It’s hard to take something and make it completely new. I think the main goal it to make it yours somehow or do it well.

  8. Other Jane Says:

    The example of the woman who only reads Terry Brooks is extreme, but many people do fall into a “comfort level” where they don’t want to be challenged. They want easy reading where they know the author and what to expect. As an example in another genre, there are a large number of readers who read romance novels. I don’t read romances, but they strike me as the same thing over and over…yet people do read many of them.

    Other readers might like the voice of the author. There are several authors that I’d read anything – just because they wrote it.

    Other readers might just have fallen in love with the world or the characters. I think quite often when people want more of the same or want more in a particular series is because something in that world or those characters strikes a chord in the reader. When the world is interesting and well constructed, it’s like you know there so much more happening and you’re just looking through this one little window…yet you know there’s so much more out there…and you want the storyteller to give you more.

  9. CBI Says:

    My wife and I went to the fair yesterday. The only show we ended up seeing was the Yangdong Chinese Acrobatic Troupe. They were as good as you wrote, but, for some reason, did not do the chair routine. The weather was fine, so they must’ve yanked it for another reason.

    The question re “Hunting the Unicorn” should have been clearer. It was not intended as a request for “more, but the same.” Although it surely came across that way, that sort of request never crossed my mind. Rather, the question was a result of having entered into the world of the fairy realms and the subsequent thoughts provoked in thinking about the difficulties to be faced by . . . . [I'm not sure of your policy concerning spoilers for forthcoming stories, so I've deleted several sentences which discuss some of the thought-questions arising from the story.] I’d categorize it as a prelude to thinking about problem solving: here’s a problem situation, now what are some of the possible options to take to deal with it. As a scientist and one who works with a program to teach creative problem solving skills to kids, I tend to go off in that direction. I apologize for coming across rudely.

    Heteromeles: you have some interesting ideas, although I’m not so sure I agree with some of them or with your recommendations. I did find your description of TEA Partiers to be very, very much off base — not even rising to the level of a bad caricature — based upon my personal experiences at various rallies and meetings. I can’t imagine any I’ve met “wanting the world to end with them as the winners.” That assuredly has no relationship to any TEA party advocacy.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thanks for avoiding spoilers… I’d certainly have loved to hear those questions at the reading. One of the things I love about having Jim read my novels is getting his day-by-by installment as he reads. It’s a treat writers get rarely…

      I didn’t think you were rude. I was simply showing an example of how such comments aren’t restricted to novels or series.

  10. heteromeles Says:

    @CBI: I’ll be happy to take political squabbles elsewhere, since I don’t think it’s fair to ask Jane to moderate either of our strong opinions on her blog.

    • CBI Says:

      I’m fine with dropping the subject or going elsewhere, having no desire to burden Jane. I also have a history of defending politicos I disagree with from unjustified accusations; this was less of a political disagreement than it was a correction.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Excellent manners, gentlemen.

        I’ve always thought one of the nicest things about our political system is that we’re permitted to disagree politely — but perhaps this “living room” isn’t the right place.

  11. Morton W. Kahl Says:

    I am more than satisfied just to see another Lindskold story, long or short. As with, I am sure, many readers I base my purchases on my liking of the author. Is there a better way? I doubt it!

  12. CBI Says:

    Where do I stand: classic or novelty? I’m firmly in the *both* camp. A classical variation, well written, is a delight to read. A brand new situation, well written, is a joy to read.

    Those which combine well-known situations with novelty are just plain fun as well, as long as they’re well written. For example, the “coming of age” story set in an adventure context. Examples we are probably all familiar with are the Harry Potter series and the Breaking the Wall series [Aside: any coming-of-age story which doesn't have an adult wanting to yell at and figuratively wring the neck of the protagonist is missing something in character development.] I’m not knowledgeable enough of literature to be able to discuss this as well as some of you, but I hope this is clear enough.

    On the other hand, there are some themes that I just don’t care for. The vampire and the zombie books leave me behind — even the well-written ones. /De gustibus/ does play a role, I think, perhaps more so with some than with others. But no matter what one’s taste, the storytelling is an essential ingredient.

  13. janelindskold Says:

    Excellent comments throughout…

    Like Emily, character can keep me going when nothing else does — or throw me out of a good book because I can’t get involved.

    Morton’s right, too, that I often go to a favorite author. However, even then there are stories that don’t work for me.

    Reworking the same themes can turn me off a lot. I’m always a little reluctant to discuss specific books here, because I don’t want to produce spoilers, but I’ll try a couple of general examples.

    Example One: a book I read by an author that blew me away so much I was handing copies around to my friends. Then I discovered this author had One Theme and most of her books, no matter how complex, went back to this theme. Worse, the one book I read that departed from it, didn’t move me enough to read the next in the series.

    Example Two: an author who wrote a long series in a complex world with — initially — interesting characters. However, this author seemed to have a couple of plots and simply recycled them with different characters. When I was in love with the world, this didn’t matter, but later I would pick up a new book and growl because within a few pages I could tell exactly which plot it would be and it wasn’t worth my energy to keep reading just for a few more details of the world.

  14. Rowan Says:

    Coming late to the party here, but for me, a lot of it depends on how well I can be hoodwinked into a feeling of newness. I don’t mean “hoodwinked” in a bad way, but like the way Shakespeare poached everybody’s stories and made them SPARKLY. There are always going to be major themes, tropes, and genres, but a good author can take them and make them sing. Tropes can be subverted, genre can be blended, and on and on.

    And part of it is… the ineffable magic of a good storyteller – or, rather, a storyteller that speaks to me. I like a few pretty terrible things. I can’t possibly defend those likes on any rational basis, but something about them grabs me – the way that I assume something grabs so many people when they pick up a James Patterson novel. He’s lost on me, but clearly there’s something going on there.

    That hasn’t got much to do with old vs. new, but I think it’s got something to do with how any sort of story “clicks” with its reader.

  15. Paul Says:

    Author Frank Gruber once claimed there were only seven plots for westerns and, as he listed them, they really were broad enough to encompass practically anything in that genre. SF probably has more basic plots than that (is time travel SF or fantasy? How about faster-than-light particles, which have actually been in the news lately? Sometimes fantasy becomes SF, and vice versa). And I haven’t given up yet on somebody coming up with a totally new one. But it’s often a unique character voice that pulls me in.

  16. janelindskold Says:

    How it “clicks” with a reader (as Rowan said) is crucial to this reader, too…

    And, Paul, is something like “time travel” really a plot or is it a “plot device” — that is, something that a writer uses to start a story off? I think the latter and how it’s justified is what then makes the story SF or F.

    Just a thought…

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