Science-Fiction Dont’s: A Micropost

Hi, readers!

I know it’s William Shakespeare’s Dune Monday, but I’m a little behind, so I have to leave you with this observation:

One of the worst things a science-fiction writer can do is to introduce an amazing technology or alien ability, and then do nothing with it.

I was reminded of this when watching Attack of the Clones with my kids. Zam Wessel is chased down by Obi-Wan and Anakin, and under stress begins to revert to her true shape. Anakin recognizes that she is a Changeling.

And then, she utterly fails to change her face, attempting to sneak up on Obi-Wan disguised as the same attractive woman she was when they started chasing her. The whole thing goes nowhere, and we’re left with a terrible sense of disappointment. Never do that to your readers. It’s like going to a banquet and finding out that the delicious dessert in the center of the table is a frosted cardboard prop.

So, the reason I’m behind is that I’ve spent the last month (and a VERY intense last WEEK) revising a 620-page novel and have just sent it to a publisher. I’m done writing today.

The “Importance” Of Originality In One Easy Lesson.

I just sold a story about Space Marine Midwives with Disabilities to a pro market magazine (announcement of which one when contract is signed).

This should teach us two things about “originality.”

  1. No idea is so completely bizarre that it should be cast aside as unworthy  of being published.
  2. Since the GENESIS of this story was actually a Call For Submissions (for an anthology that as far as I know, never even opened to submissions. Yeah, um, really should have gone on to that if you wanted this story, guys) that SPECIFIED “Space Marine Midwives,” there is no idea so completely bizarre AND original that no one has thought of it already.

In other words, “Originality” doesn’t matter a DAMN as long as it’s good writing and doesn’t FEEL like a retread.

The rest is up to you.

How To Tell If You’re In A Dystopian YA Novel.

“So,” said President Maximum Leaderking. “You come highly…” he paused to look at the notes in front of him. “Recommended.”

You’ve been on your own for seven years now. Seven years since the Derpvirus swept the globe and turned all the adults stupid. Well, stupider. Now, you’re more intelligent than any adult human simply by virtue of being sixteen. President Leaderking used to be a Nobel Laureate. Now, he might be qualified to manage a McDonalds. Only problem is, all the adults remember how to use guns, and President Leaderking’s goontroopers each carry an AH&SKS-757 Magnum Assault Rifle.

Seeing as there are six of them behind you, you say, “Yes, sir.”

“But you were not unaffected by the virus, were you?” President Leaderking continued.

How had he found out? You’d been so careful! But he knew. He obviously knew.


“Smile for me, please?”

Alone in the room with him, you withdraw your luscious, full lips, revealing your vampire fangs.

“Well,” said President Leaderking. “That, combined with your top scores in archery and unarmed combat make you especially useful for our Outcast Squadron. It’s a group of ultracompetent freaks like you that we train to be terrors in combat and then unleash on the unsuspecting Borderlands totally unsupervised so that you can clear any survivors from our territory.”

Curse them for sending you out with nothing but natural talent and military training into a whole populace of poor people that the Government ruthlessly oppresses. What hope have you?

“It’s time for you to meet your new comrades.” And Leaderking mashes a button that activates the trapdoor you’ve been standing on, sending you down a ten-story chute.

A rough hand helps you up. It’s bigger than any hand you’ve ever encountered. “Hi,” said the boy. He must have been at least nineteen, and built like a really sexy tree, with dark brown hair and a beard that was at once full enough to make him look manly, and scraggly enough not to be gross. “I’m Logan Darkblade. You must be our vampire. Sorry about the ride.”

“What are you?” you stammer.

“He’s our shifter,” says another voice behind you. You turn and see a slender, olive-skinned boy with long, blond hair coiffed in a neat ponytail.

“What’s a shifter?”

“It’s like a werewolf. Except for not being gross or a curse. I can turn into a wolf that looks like an enormous, well-groomed dog at will.”

“Wow. And what do you do?”

“I’m Gareth Longthorne. I’m the Hunter.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’m very good at every martial art and form of weapon known to man. I’m just good enough that you almost can’t show me up because you’re a girl. You’ll find that makes me devastatingly attractive. Now I should introduce you to our siren.”

“Why do we need a..?”

“No, her name’s Lydia Gravesend. She’s almost as beautiful as you, and you can tell by her red hair and snotty manner that she’s so freakishly outcast that she would never betray us to President Leaderking if we should give our allegiance to the oppressed of the Borderlands and lead an insurrection.”

“How do you know?” you ask.

“She’s wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Not A Spy For The Office Of The President.”

“Oh, good.”


A Few MORE thoughts on Worldbuilding with Food, and Art

So, a few weeks ago, I posted some Thoughts on Worldbuilding. And in the natural course of things, another blogger linked to it here.

Now, while it’s always flattering to have people link to your blog, because it means that they found what you had to say worthwhile (or at least, worth screaming about), I fear that my colleague of teh Interwebz misunderstood the technique I was trying to highlight. Because he (or she) had this to say:

“Food is the easiest but only becomes a concern when the characters don’t have a steady reliable supply of it. Or if they are moving between multiple cultures. Art and music are best left for the slower parts of the story and again would only be noticed if the character is operating outside his usual culture.”

And the problem is that this is both right and wrong at the same time. It lacks imagination, and it lacks an understanding of the role of the storyteller.

Now, it’s correct to say that noticing food, art and music are best done in the “slower” parts of the story, but that in itself reveals a limited understanding of pacing. Certainly, you don’t want characters thinking of food, art and music during a gun battle or a chase. But a fast pace, or rising tension, do not have to encompass anything that is literally fast or athletically active. Consider, for example, the dinner-party scene in Frank Herbert’s Dune. The tension rises inexorably as the various factions present do verbal battle for supremacy, and through it all, the food lays out a vibrant background that illuminates the cultures of Arrakis and the Imperium. It has nothing to do with a lack of supply, and little to do with multiple cultures.

But there are always multiple cultures in the act of telling a story. At least, there are two: the real culture of the real reader, and the artificial culture of the work. And even in a contemporary novel of America, food and art and music can be used to signal what things are important to the characters. Is this a man who turns up his nose at scotch improperly oaked? Or a man who enjoys ketchup sandwiches? Does she listen to Rob Zombie, or Pink Floyd?  Or Vivaldi. Does he notice the Warhol print in Wal-mart and spend money on it? Or is he going to snort at that and smugly congratulate himself on his understanding of Pollock?

Now, in F/SF, you have a whole culture to map out. It’s a challenge when your characters are intimately familiar with that culture, and they’re certainly not going to say things like, “Welcome to our home, Bob and Linda! Do sit down and partake of these lovely snarf-burgers, the principal Arcturan delicacy!” But look at what S.M. Stirling does in his excellent book, the Peshawar Lancers. He has to set up an alternate 21st century in which the United States was destroyed, and most of Europe crippled, by a cometary impact. It’s over a century later, and the British Raj is the dominant power. How does he portray this in the opening scenes of the novel?

Well, for one, he has his principal heroine sit down in the lavishly appointed dining room of an airship. She notices all the dishes (because of course we notice what we are eating, whether we are in a different culture or not) and her mind wanders to the huge reproduction of a famous mural that dominates the dining room, portraying the Exodus from England as the government of Great Britain removes itself from the Thames, sailing to Delhi. She then thinks how monstrously inappropriate a scene that includes cannibalism is for a dining room and of the Kipling Cantos that inspired the artist to paint such a thing. And so, in a couple of pages, we are treated to a snapshot of the culture of the 21st-Century Raj combined with a good deal of backstory which the heroine has good reason to be thinking of. It flows with a brilliant ease and never feels artificial, and it all comes from a lady sitting down and dining alone inside her own culture.

As You Know, Bob, You’re In A Hard Science-Fiction Novel.

“I am? I’m in a hard science-fiction novel? How do you know that?”

“Well, Bob, look at it this way. What do you do?”

“I’m a scientist.”

“And what sort of scientist are you?”

“Well, I’m a nuclear physicist.”

“Right. And do you have any mad and overly-complicated schemes to take over the world?”

“Um. No?”

“How about make tons of money by dumping nuclear waste illegally all over women and children in some underdeveloped nation?”

“What? NO! Why would anyone DO that? Thorium reactors don’t even…”

“Please, Bob. We’ll let you have your exposition later. That’s how you know you’re in a Hard SF novel. In any other setting, a nuclear physicist would by definition be the villain. And who are all your co-workers here on this ship?”

“Well, there’s Dave the astronomer, and Karen the biogeneticist, and Shu-Ling the botanist, and Raymundo the geologist.”

“Okay, so two things to notice. First of all, everyone on this ship is a scientist, right?”

“Well… yeah.”

“So, no one is here just to pilot the ship?”

“Dave does that.”

“Or fix the ship?”

“Raymundo in an expert mech…”

“Or cook meals?”

“Karen is a professional chef at…”

“Okay, now you’re just embarrassing us all. Not only are the women all in the life sciences, one of them is actually your cook?”

“She’s a professional chef. That makes it not sexist.”

“Of course it does. And she, not to mention all of you, can have completely different full-time careers as well as being world-class, practically-Nobel laureates because scientists are just that smart, right?”

“Well… yeah? But I don’t do any of that stuff!”

“And what do you do for fun?”

“I play the violin.”

“And you did what with that back on Earth?”

“I was the concertmaster for the Boston Orchestra.”

“Of course you were. Why scientists should probably be running the planet Earth rather than running around in spaceships.”

“Well, we’re saving the planet from climate change and overpopulation and corporate greed actually, but I think your suggestion has merit…”

“I am just shocked to hear that. Bob, Karen had a question about nuclear physics she asked me to pass along: How much radiation should we expect to take traveling near the corona of that M-class star we’re approaching?”

“Well, that depends very much whether we’re talking about alpha, beta, or gamma radiation. As you know, alpha radiation consists of the nuclei of helium atoms, about which the electrons orbit…”

“Why are you answering the question of a double Ph.D as if she’s a high-school student? And using the Bohr model, which hasn’t been current for like fifty years?”

“Um, because… well, um…”

“Is it because your readers’ last contact with nuclear physics was in their junior year of high school? In Mr. Kramer’s class? That he went over once? For thirty minutes? While they were asleep?”


Notes To The Author As A Young Man: How You Can Write A Novel In Three And A Half Months, And Still Have A Life (Part 2)

A continuation of yesterday’s post.

Write Every Day (L): I cannot overstate the importance of writing on your novel every day. It builds a momentum up that is easy to sustain, much like running down a shallow grade. Gravity helps you. But if you stop, you have to overcome your inertia again and it’s a lot harder.

Don’t Give Up When You Fail To Write Every Day (L): You will fail to write every day. At some point, something is going to come up that will (more accurately, “that you will allow to”) keep you from writing. There will be something with the kids, or your wife, or your job, where you will come home and say “I just can’t.”
And the worst thing in the world you can do is throw up your hands and say, “Well, I failed. I guess I don’t have what it takes” and pitch a fit about it. Get back to work the next day and go on. Make up for the lost day if you can. If you can’t, oh well, you lost a day. Keep going.

Do Not Agonize Over Shit You Will Fix Anyway In The Revision (L): This may be the most important piece of advice that I implemented, having learned it from Steven Barnes. And I resisted it for a long time. My reasoning was, “If I know what to fix now, I should fix it. I’m going to have to fix it anyway, and this way I won’t have to revise as much.”
Well, as I have said to my own students before, “That is very compelling and sensible reasoning, which is nevertheless wrong.” Okay, but why is it wrong?
It’s wrong for four main reasons:
1) The process of going back and revising kills your momentum. Part of what encourages you to keep going is seeing how much you’ve done. It’s a reward that your animal brain really gets off on. So the faster you go, the faster you go. If you kill that momentum, you slow down HARD. And unlike the tortoise, slow and steady really does not win this race, because…
2) What you’re really doing is replacing errors that you can see with ones you can’t. They’re going to creep in there anyway, and they’ll be harder to see when you DO go back and reread the manuscript. I always thought that it made more sense to fix the errors NOW than to go back later because if I didn’t, I’d be building later chapters on earlier crap, and it would all have to be fixed. There’s some truth to this* but what I didn’t realize is that it cuts both ways.  You can also come up with a solution near the end of the book that fixes things you screwed up earlier, only because you “fixed” it earlier, that new solution doesn’t work and you have to go back and fix your fix. Which is now HARDER because…
3) When you go back and revise, you will, if you’re any good, produce tighter, neater prose. That’s a good thing. But having to revise that is harder, because its so well done. So essentially, you end up throwing out TWO drafts and writing two more to replace finished prose with finished prose, rather than throwing out ONE draft and writing two more.
4) Finally, going back and revising isn’t fun, so you try to avoid it, and this means you have to fight the urge to agonize over everything. What is this character’s name? What is the name of this gadget? What is the name of this country? How exactly does the gadget work. I need to research to see if that’s plausible. And you’re stuck in a mire of Getting Everything Right The First Time. Right now my manuscript is filled with people named [NAME], and notes like [LET’S GO BACK AND MAKE JEREMY’S PARENTS HAVE A RUN-IN WITH HIS MOM] or [I’D KIND OF LIKE JAEL TO DO SOME SORT OF THEATRICAL TRICK HERE TO DEMONSTRATE FALLING IN LOW GRAVITY, BUT I DON’T WANT TO WORK OUT THE MATH RIGHT NOW.]

So that’s how I did it. Obviously ALL these techniques may not work for YOU, the reader (especially the outlining), but this is the advice I wish I could have read and understood twenty years ago. I hope it helps.

By the way, if you’re interested in more from Steven Barnes, who knows a LOT more about all this than I do, you can find the Lifewriting group here.

*There are some cases where you really want to go back and revise right then, but they’re really on the order of making a huge change to your basics. Like, “I want this character to be a 78 year old man rather than a 16 year old girl,” or “I think we should set this on Enceladus rather than on the Titanic.” Anything less than THAT, leave for revision.