Bucks County Writers Workshop

NOTE: To give credit where it's richly due, I adapted the lexicon below from the Turkey City Writers Workshop for science-fiction writers, a site which keeps adding alerts to our literary sins. But you don't have to be a science-fiction writer to make the amateurish blunders described.

The Turkey City Lexicon
A Primer for SF Workshops
last Turkey City edition by Lewis Shiner
emendations by the Slug City Writers
Not Copyrighted



This manual is intended to focus on the special needs of the science fiction workshop. Having an accurate and descriptive critical term of a common SF problem makes it easier to recognize and discuss. This guide is intended to save workshop participants from having to "re-invent the wheel" (see "Background" section) 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 the other regulars of the Turkey City Workshop in Austin, Texas. Additional terms by members of the 1988-1990 Slug City Workshop.


"Said" Bookism. Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good work "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."

Tom Swifty. 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 the 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.

Pushbutton Words. 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.

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.

Ice Plant. Omission of specific detail. Author refers to a locally well-known item without revealing essential characteristics which could help the reader tell the difference between a vegetable and a factory.

Eyeball Kick. 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)

Bathos. Sudden change in level of diction. "The massive hound barked in a stentorian voice then made wee-wee on the carpet."


Countersinking. Expositional redundancy. Making the actions implied in a conversation explicit, e.g., "'Let's get out 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 judgements 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.

Laughtrack. 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.

Dischism. Intrusion of the author's physical surroundings (or mental state) into the narrative. Like characters who always light a cigarette when the author does, or are thinking about how they wished they hadn't quit smoking. In more subtle forms a character complains that he's confused and doesn't know what to do -- when this is actually the author's condition. (Tom Disch)

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 writers as if they had squid in their mouths. (Jim Blaylock)

Bang. Bang. "By the way, are you married?" Interspersing of inappropriate action into dialog in an attempt to keep the plot moving.

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 staring fresh, like the author. Often in order to ponder the circumstances and provide an excuse for Info Dump (q.v.).

You Can't Fire Me, I Quit. Attempt 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)

Does It Really Matter Which Hand He Used? Loading already dense, weird or distasteful descriptions with irritating details.

Hand Waving. Distracting readers with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw. (Stuart Brand)

Bogus Alternatives. 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.

Fuzz. 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."

False Interiorization. Another Dischism, in which the author, too lazy to describe the surroundings, inflicts the viewpoint character with space sickness, a blindfold, etc.


Info Dump. Large chuck 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.

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 their interstellar drive works. Unless it impacts the plot, we don't care.

Stapledon. Name assigned to the voice which takes center stage to 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.

Used Furniture. 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.

Space Western. The most pernicious suite of used furniture. The grizzled space captain swaggering into the space bar and slugging down a Jovian brandy, then laying down a few credits for a space hooker to give him a Galactic Rim Job.

Micklewhite. A plausible sounding "fact" made up by an author too lazy or inept to do research, or BS clever enough to fool many readers.

"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.

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.

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 then hallucinations about past lives. Or, more radically: the physics of TV transmission is the center of an idea; on the edges 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 know as "carrying extrapolation into the fabric of daily life."


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.

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, not conceits.

Abbess Phone Home. Take 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!

Plot Coupons. 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 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.

Bucks County Writers Workshop