How Not To Worldbuild: Ep. I, The Phantom Mess.

So, I realize it’s a little late to bash on Star Wars, Ep. I, The Phantom Menace, but I have a good excuse; I have three children. So upon discovering that the prequels existed, which they did by the subtle and clever ability of knowing how to count things in a sequence, they asked me if I would please, please PLEASE check out the prequels from the library so they could watch it despite my wife’s and my strong moral position of not having such filth in our house.

These are the struggles facing those of us who dare to parent responsibly and with discipline.

But yes, I caved.

And I am proud that one of the first questions my son asked was pretty much: “So what’s a blockade, and how come the Trade Federation can just do that?”

Which of course, was one of the questions that Lucas should have asked himself before penning this godsawful mess. See, in the opening crawl, we are told that the whole mess with Naboo stemmed from the taxation of “outlying trade routes” being “in dispute.” Which led to the Trade Federation imposing a supposedly “perfectly legal” blockade of Naboo because…

Because why? Because it was Freak-Out Friday? We know that Naboo and the Trade Federation are both member states of this Galactic Republic. I mean, ignoring the fact that a blockade is pretty much always an act of war, and ignoring the fact that I can’t even THINK of a historical precedent for a polity that would legally allow one member state to straight-up blockade another member state, what possible advantage does this confer to the Trade Federation? Senator Palpatine later says that the “taxation” of the trade routes issue began in the Galactic Senate, but never says who was taxing what, or why, or how the Trade Federation blockading Naboo makes sense as a retaliatory measure.

As a side note, I think the only thing that makes remote sense is that somehow, Naboo refused to pay the taxes, and the Trade Federation retaliated with a blockade. And when Chancellor Velorum sent the Jedi to negotiate, Sidious ordered their deaths and the subsequent invasion of Naboo to prolong the crisis. Of course, this is pretty funny when you realize that the whole thing relies on the Senate being just fine with ignoring the invasion of Naboo, AND YET ready to remove the Chancellor for IGNORING the invasion of Naboo, AND THEN replacing him with the Senator from Naboo, who will not ignore the invasion of Naboo.

Now, I suppose one can always say that that’s a hell of a lot of backstory that’s not very interesting, but that ignores the fact that the original Star Wars painted a completely logical picture of the Imperial Government with just a few sentences in passing:

“Holding her is dangerous. If word leaks out, it could generate sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate.”

“Send a distress signal. Then inform the Senate that all aboard were killed.”

And later…

“The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.”

“That’s impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?”

“The regional governors will now have direct control… fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”

In five sentences, we have a complete and coherent picture: The Emperor is consolidating control over the relatively-new Galactic Empire, and using the equivalent of nuclear weapons to do it. He and Vader are keeping the inflammatory arrest of a Senator for treason quiet until the Emperor can dissolve the Senate, and the Death Star is ready to back the power play. All of this is reasonable, and it takes maybe three minutes of dialogue. That’s excellent worldbuilding.

Twenty years later, in its place, we have far more dialogue that gets us exactly nowhere. It’s like he just didn’t care.

Where Stories Come From: When The Fleet Comes

I think it’s safe to say that the most popular story I’ve written is “When The Fleet Comes” (which you can buy at the link to the right for only $1.00). It was for months the best-selling short story for Digital Fiction Corporation, and for all I know, still is.

“Where do you get your ideas” is a classic question to writers that has become a cliche, and most of us respond with something like “where don’t you get ideas,” because seriously, they’re everywhere. Contrary to many assumptions, writers never run out of ideas. They just run out of ways to execute them properly, which is a lot harder. But this one, I remember.

So many of my ideas for writing stories seem to come from me being tired of reading the same old plots again. The core of the story — that the Earth is destroyed — is a very old one, going back arguably to religious prophecy. But those stories always seem to end in one of two ways: humanity escapes to a new world and/or achieves revenge on its destroyers, and starting anew as masters of their own fates (When Worlds Collide, Titan, A.E.) or it’s entirely a memento mori tale (On The Beach, I Am Legend).

And yet history is replete with the stories of people whose tribes were almost wiped out, leaving them with no home to go to, no new frontier within their reach. The Native Americans, the Tibetans, the South Vietnamese, and too many others to count were left with the choice to live under an alien dictatorship, or to flee into exile and live with aliens. And they had to go on, and build new lives in cultures that would never be theirs, and preserve parts of themselves to pass on to their children, knowing that it would never be more than parts.

There was no one moment that inspired me to write the story. I just wondered how people from my own heritage might deal with the loss of their entire social and cultural framework. And so I considered Sean, the orphan adopted into alien culture, never really considering “his” people to be his. And I considered Amanda and her father, George, trying to, in their own way, continue the human race on an alien world, and finding their own, flawed answers to the question, what is important? What do we remember? What do we do to survive? What makes us… us? They do it by turning inward, but also by accepting a grim necessity. And I also considered Sean’s alien wife, Ajna, and her well-meaning naivete that hurts him, but nevertheless holds a degree of insight into his pain.

In any case, it seems to have spoken to more people than anything else I’ve ever written, and I think this is one of the things I really value in the SF I choose to read: the challenging of the dichotomies that are so often presented. The cry, “Victory or Death” echoes down through the ages and is a popular theme, but what happens when the first is out of your reach and the second seems unthinkable? If you are one of those who read the story and enjoyed it, I can only say, thank you for showing me that I am not alone in considering these things.

Reverse Poison: Writing Advice

Chemical weapons are funny things. I remember doing research on them back in high school, and reading about what were called “medical countermeasures.” This meant, basically, that you would take someone who had been exposed to a nerve agent that, say, depressed neurotransmitters, and you would give them a shot of something that would overproduce them. Of course, you really had to be careful with this, because taking the antidote by itself would kill you just as surely as the chemical agent was. Essentially, you poisoned the body in the opposite way it had been poisoned, and that let you go on living. But the body had to have been poisoned that way in the first place.

Reading Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird reminded me of this, especially when, late in the book, she gave the advice that when one is suffering writer’s block, one must “resign as the controller of one’s fate.”

Now, the problem with that advice is that by itself, it is exactly the kind of advice that I-As-A-Beginning-Writer did not need to hear. It sounds like, “Hey, don’t worry about being blocked. Go off and fill yourself with the universe and come back when you are Inspired And Ready To Write.” And by itself, that advice is the Death Of All Writing. Because that feeling is rare and far between, and the only way I have ever found of summoning it with any chance of success is to write when I do NOT feel it.

Now, taken in context with the rest of the book, it’s pretty clear that what Anne means is more along the lines of, “You can’t summon brilliant writing on demand, so you have to abandon that hope and resign yourself to writing what feels like shit for awhile, even if it’s only a little of it, until you push through and it feels good again.” In that context, the advice is extremely valuable, and leads to good results. The problem is that the quote is so., well, quotable that you run the risk of finding it in isolation — or worse, understanding it in isolation — and poisoning yourself by taking the antidote to a problem you haven’t been privileged to have yet.

Wait for the problem of being a disciplined writer first. Then the advice to resign control of the forward motion makes sense.

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.

How I Learned You Do Need An Editor

Okay, so I realize that many smarter people than I already figured this out. This post is for people, like me, who are better-than-average at spelling, sentence construction and mechanics. People who, like me, are often told that they write very clean copy. People who, like me, have sometimes wondered why they would need an editor before self-publishing. Upon re-reading my novel that I have fully revised TWICE and was now revising for the third time, AND which has been through easily a half-dozen beta readers, I discovered, among other things:

That most of the regiments and noble houses had at least two different color schemes for their banners and uniforms.

My main villain’s formal regalia was elaborately and stunningly described, with some of the best prose I have ever written… three separate and completely different ways.

During the climax, A military unit ambushed and murdered another military unit that it had relieved over a week previously.

The succession of the kingdom was arranged such that my villain could and should have solved the problem with a cup of poisoned wine and an unfortunate accident about ten years ago.

My protagonist’s nasty younger brother reacted to something before he ever showed up.

My protagonist’s personal rifle had a plot-activated bayonet.

Now, I’ve never used a professional editor, but I had read this thing a half-dozen times, had beta readers do the same, and while they pointed out a number of problems, these skated right by them. So I know the results of NOT using one. And they are to be avoided.

Edited To Add: I would like to say (because I meant to, but not strongly enough) that I do not mean any of the above to cast aspersions on my wonderful beta readers. Firstly, there was a lot MORE wrong with the novel when they saw it, and they caught a BUNCH of errors and weak points. Secondly, it’s not really their job to catch everything. That’s why you HAVE an editor.

 

 

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.

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.

A Few Thoughts On Worldbuilding

Most of us, as we begin writing, and begin selling, gradually start to get a handle on what our strengths are as a writer, and what we enjoy writing most of all. One of my strengths, I have been told, is the development of setting, or what is commonly referred to as worldbuilding. Worldbuilding often involves establishing history, politics, culture and geography of your F/SF world, but I’m going to talk about some techniques I rarely see used, here, which, if done right, can lend a whole layer of depth to the world not often enough explored.

For much of this, I’d like to point out that I’m indebted to S.M. Stirling, whose works abound with such things. If you can only read one of his fabulous alternate histories, I suggest The Peshawar Lancers.

Food: Is anything more fundamental to culture than sharing a meal? That’s where deals get done, where people fall in love, where poisonings occur. And yet how often meals are skipped over, or if they are portrayed, are done so in minimal terms, with people eating bland dishes of no significance. The food of a culture tells you what are luxuries, and what are staples. What flavors are favored, and which are disliked.

Art: Religion often plays a part of a fully developed world, and yet how rare is it to see the religious art of a world fully developed, despite the fact that in our own world, religion has inspired a huge percentage of the high arts. Art communicates a great deal of the culture’s values, and can be used to tell its story. Stirling does a wonderful job with this when a protagonist of his, on the dirigible ride to Delhi, contemplates a reproduction of a famous painting that draws on Kipling’s Exodus Cantos while eating a meal in the dining cabin, using food and art simultaneously to draw the protagonist’s mind to her own history.

Music: This is perhaps the hardest of these three to portray, since it’s difficult to convey instrumental sound on the written page. But naming instruments can give you an idea of what is popular and what is not, and writing lyrics can give a feel for whether this is a culture that values arias or ballads or folk verse or chant.

Thus concludes our microlesson today on worldbuilding.

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.

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.

There are many things I wish I could go back and tell my younger self about life, love, writing, and many more things. I’m going to start with this one, in the hope it may be useful to my readers. Just a year ago, I would have said that writing a novel this quickly would have been impossible for anyone but a professional, probably-childless, full-time writer. Here are the lessons I learned that made this possible. I would like to especially credit Steven Barnes and his Lifewriting philosophy for teaching me many of these things. There’s a lot more over on his Facebook group dedicated to this, some of which I have not yet put into practice, but it’s well worth checking out. I’ll designate the points I learned from him with an (L).

1) Have A Clearly Defined Motivation (L): In this case, my motivation was two-fold: 1) I had a contract promising me payment, and 2) I had another novel I really wanted to get to revising in June because a publisher asked me to. So I had to be done with this by May. Now, if I had read this a year ago, my reaction would have been something like,  Oh, all you have to do is get publishers to hand you contracts for shit you haven’t even written yet, or respond favorably to something you have? Well THAT sounds easy! Thanks for nothing, asshole!
And I would have been wrong to think that. Because what I would have been missing is that the motivation always comes from YOU. Yes, it’s AWESOME to have external motivation. But if I had decided, no bones about it, “I’m gonna self-publish this baby by the end of August” I could still have accomplished this. That decision is ENTIRELY in your control.

2) Control Your Word Count: This novel had a soft limit from the publisher of 55,000 words, and a hard limit of 60,000. This meant that I had to make absolutely sure that it didn’t balloon into an epic. At 53,000 words, it is the shortest novel I have ever written, the next shortest being about 120,000 words. Word Count MATTERS. If this had been a typical-length novel for me, I doubt it would have been finished in under six months. I can’t type that fast. Yet. So how do we control our word count? We…

3) Outline: Before I started this project, I created a thorough (about 3000 word) outline of the story, including four character sketches of the family at the center of the book. On completion of this outline, I was reasonably satisfied that I would not exceed word count. I could not allow myself any real subplots. Focus had to stay tight on the major plot from beginning to end. This meant that I could look back at the outline so that I never had the dreaded “What was going to come next” moment. Also, it was a great way to squelch rabbit trails that would inflate the word count.

4) Double Outline: Before beginning each chapter, I read the outline to make sure it would make sense, and then made further notes, including who would say what in what order. This outline would have looked like gibberish to anyone who wasn’t me. But it ensured that while I was actually writing, I got to focus on how the prose sounded, because I had already decided what to say, when.

5) Control Your Time (L): While I was writing the novel, some other things I normally do had to be put on the back burner. Short story writing, responses to calls for submissions, marketing, and, notably THIS BLOG all suffered. In fact, it’s the reason you haven’t been reading much here for the past two weeks, and the reason that this is NOT a William Shakespeare’s Dune post. Working on it. It even means that blog posts have to be shorter. This, one, for example, has now taken all the time that I can give it, so I’m going to leave part two of it for tomorrow.