Archive for January, 2013

Science Takes a Beating

I like to write and read science fiction.  Not fantasy, mind you, nor horror or steampunk or alternate history or many of the other subdivisions into which the genre is currently divided.  It’s fun and interesting to me, and it gives me a chance to use some of the science I learned in high school, college and graduate school in new and interesting ways.  It means, though, I have to keep up with the newest developments in science, mostly physics and astronomy, in order to be current in what I put on the page.  But that’s what science fiction is all about.

Science fiction is an extrapolation of the current state of knowledge into the future, and is presented in such a way as to form an interesting and intriguing story.  A story with characters the reader cares about and wants to know more about.  It’s a sort of amalgam of real science with conventional fiction–Jay Gatsby meets Buck Rogers, if you will.  As such, science fiction needs two fundamental things to carry the story well: good writing and good science.  The good writing, for the purposes of this blog, I will set aside.  It’s the good science I’ll concentrate on here.

The science should be well-researched and timely.  The old adage, ‘write what you know’ isn’t hard to follow; a little time spent in the library or online will give an author more than sufficient information to write a short story about almost anything, though having a PhD in some scientific discipline helps immensely.  Not everybody takes their research seriously, though, and the results can be, well, unusual.  Startling, perhaps, even comical.

A few weeks ago I saw an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which a man was being held, as Rod Serling’s voice-over at the beginning of the show said, on an asteroid nine million miles from Earth.  The first view of this ‘asteroid’ was of a desert area (probably filmed in the US desert southwest), and the man, a prisoner in solitary confinement on this ‘asteroid,’ was walking around in his shirtsleeves.  That’s very interesting.

That concept made a good story, okay, but the science behind the story was terrible.  First, an asteroid doesn’t exist 9 million miles from Earth, and if it did, that might be its closest approach because most asteroids are way out beyond Mars, and only a rare one gets that close to Earth.  Second, an asteroid wouldn’t be able to hold an atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen as this one so obviously did.  Its gravity wouldn’t be strong enough.  No asteroid is that big.  Yet this, remember, is an episode of a well-known, well-liked, and popular television show.  Where did the authors get this terrible concept?  Why would they put that on nationwide TV?  Some time spent in the library (no internet in the 1960’s) or a science adviser would have helped them considerably and not make the episode look like a child’s concept of asteroids.

I’ve been in critique groups in which I’ve been criticized for not having good science behind my fictional stories.  Yet, Twilight Zone gets away with it.

Another example.  Remember in the second episode of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back (the second episode, made around 1980, not the current numbering system) where Luke Skywalker and R2D2 take off from the Hoth Ice Planet and travel to the Dagobah system to meet Yoda?  Luke takes his X-wing fighter.  He’s traveling from one star system to another in a small, single-seat craft, not meant for interstellar travel, and not equipped for lightspeed.  In reality, the trip would take so long he’d never live to see his destination, yet he lands in Yoda’s backyard (in Yoda’s swampy backyard) as young as when he left.  Granted, Star Wars took a lot of other liberties with science, but this one has always stood out in my mind as a particularly atrocious example.  If I put that in a story, my critique group would howl like a [fill in your own simile here].  But it actually occurs in a well-known movie, happily loved by one and all.  Somewhat of a double-standard.

In short, sure the science should be good, but sometimes the science takes a back seat to the vagaries of the story line and gets twisted into a mess no one recognizes.  No science fiction story will ever be one hundred percent accurate, it wouldn’t be science fiction if it was.  But it can be better than the two examples above.

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How Long Should It Be?

I’ve noticed over the past several years of trying to get stories published (I’m speaking of fiction here) that there doesn’t seem to be a standard number of words that defines the different divisions of story length.  The names of the different story lengths are reasonably uniform, though even in that case there’s a difference of opinion as to just what they are, and even how they’re spelled.  Far be it from me as an unpublished author to tell the powers that be exactly what should constitute a story length, but I would like to add my voice to the already confused field and, perhaps, confuse it even more.  Here’s my suggestions as to the length (in words) of the different story sizes.

Short-short story (also known as flash fiction):  0 to 1500 words
Regular short story:  1501 to 7500 words
Novellette (sometimes spelled ‘novelet’)  7501 to 25,000 words
Novella:  25,001 to 60,000 words
Novel:  60,001 to 250,000 words
Tome:  greater than 250,000 words

These figures may reflect my interest in science fiction since many science fiction and fantasy novels can run upwards of two hundred thousand words and more.  (Look at the novels of George R.R. Martin.)  It’s not unusual for SF and fantasy to be this long, though novels in other genre may be much shorter.  But these figures do maintain a strong division between the novellette, novella and the novel, a distinction which I think is essential because each has its specific and recognizable niche in fiction.

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What the Agent Didn’t Tell You

As an unpublished writer, I’ve been (quite obviously) looking forward to seeing my writing in print, whether it’s just a story in a magazine or a full novel on the shelves of bookstores everywhere.  Toward that end, I’ve read magazines and attended meetings where agents and publishers and others in the publishing world give all sorts of advice on how to get published.  All of it has been essential, and I take their admonitions seriously, especially the part on how to get an agent to notice my novels and entice them to take me on as a client.

Articles like that occur almost regularly in the writing magazines and frequently in talks at meetings.  But over the years, I’ve noticed one singular shortcoming of these articles and talks.  The “shortcoming” is not a shortage of specific information nor a deficiency of any particular topic, it is, rather, a deficiency of completeness.  Most of the articles I’ve read give a lot of good information, but rarely, if ever, does the author wrap it all up and tie a nice ribbon on it to indicate that everything is there.  Getting an agent (remember, I’m speaking as an unagented novice writer here) requires several factors.  Your letter must be perfect–you can’t insult the agent–you have to do your research–meet the agent ahead of time–get an introduction through someone else–etc., etc., all these things and more must fall in line before the agent is going to take you on as a client.  Trouble is, no one tells you that all at one time.

Most articles I’ve read just dwell on one aspect of landing an agent.  Writing the query letter is especially common as a topic for an article.  Don’t get me wrong here, that’s very important.  But so often the author writes the article so that it sounds as though all you have to do is follow their advice about the query letter and bingo-presto! you have an agent.  Ridiculous.  You can write the best letter in the world and still not get an agent.

I’ve done all that.  I’ve followed the advice of so many agents I can’t count them all.  Just writing a good letter won’t necessarily get you an agent.  There are other factors, such as meeting an agent at a meeting, or knowing someone who can introduce you, as well as writing a good book, and having previous publications or an MFA on your resume.  You’ve got to have it all.  You have to do everything.  The letter is only one step, and even then you may not get an agent.  The process is very subjective–you and the agent have to click together.

For good or for bad, that’s how I see it, and I think agents are doing a disservice to new writers by not emphasizing the completeness of the process in their articles.  I wish someone would write a good article that emphasizes that fact.

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The New Year Beckons…

Well, the new year is here.  Now what?

I’m not one to make many new year’s resolutions and this year I haven’t made any of what could be called a real resolution.  Exercise more, write more, read more, learn more about the writing life–these are all ideas that pop into my head at various and random times during the year so I can’t call them actual resolutions.  I like to tell people I made a new year’s resolution many, many years ago never to make any more new year’s resolutions, and I’ve stuck with it.  But that joke tends to trivialize the concept of (cliché alert!) turning over a new leaf and trying to make better of one’s self.  Let’s just say that this year will be much like the last, and reading and writing will be a prominent part of my life.

What to write?

I’ve given myself until June, 2013, to finish the rough draft of the third of my trilogy, “The Anthanian Imperative,” about a civilization that populates the fictional planet Anthanos.  This should be the end of that series and with any luck, by the end of December I hope to have a well-revised manuscript.

But I also want to get some short stories published.  I’ve begun sending them in, but so far haven’t had any luck.  I’ve got several other short stories in the works, and perhaps 2013 will be a lucky year.  Wish me luck.  I had one poem published in an online journal in 2012, but I don’t consider myself a poet and that particular poem was a special case and that situation isn’t likely to arise again, so don’t look for my poetry anywhere this year.  Perhaps I’ll take a few more courses on writing or self-publishing.

In any event, 2013 is likely to be similar to 2012 (and 2011 and 2010 and…well, you get the picture).  More of the same: writing, reading, and being hopeful about publishing.

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