Posts Tagged writing
I just got back from the 2018 edition of the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference, (#PPWC2018) and had a great time. As usual. Lots of good sessions on many different aspects of writing, and had a chance to pitch my first sci-fi novel to an editor. He asked for the first 50 pages, which, by the time I write this, have already been sent. I met lots of good writer friends, and handed out business cards. Business cards are always good, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned veteran.
But what I want to consider in this blog post is one session in particular. It was titled “Fantasy and Sci Fi World Building: Writing Like an Anthropologist.” It was given by Darby Karchut, who’s written several sci-fi novels. The premise of the talk was a factor in world building that I had given some thought to as I wrote my trilogy, but hadn’t gone into in great detail. When building a new world for your characters, you have to supply them with all the intricate facets of life that we have here on Earth. It’s not enough to create a planet and populate it with aliens. They have a life. They have a history. They had to get on that planet somehow, and there may be a substantial number of details you haven’t thought of that play a role in your character’s daily life. (Assuming they have days and nights on their planet.)
Ms. Karchut listed eight factors that should be taken into account when worldbuilding. 1. What is the government like? Representative? Repressive? Dictatorial? 2. What is the economy like? What are the main driving forces in the economy? Science? Politics? Food? Beer? 3. Is there a religion? If so, how religious are your characters? 4. What is life like on your planet, and how do your characters spend their daily life? What dominates their daily life? 5. What are the arts like? Music? Movies? 6. What are the dominate social groups? To which group does your main character belong? Do you have rich and poor people? Or is everybody at the same social level? 7. History. Delve into the history of your planet. That one factor can shape the daily life of your characters in many different ways, especially ways you may not have thought about. 8. Language. What language do your characters speak? How did that language originate and how did it come down to them? If a visitor comes to your planet, how does that outsider know how to speak their language?
I appreciated this session because it brought up so many things I hadn’t thought about, or only briefly considered, about my characters and their home planet. If you write sci-fi, I strongly recommend you take these things into consideration. A reader will be more likely to keep reading if he/she understands that you’ve delved deeply into your imagination and taken the time to build a complete world. That’s what makes science fiction good: imagination. More so that most any other genre of writing. A well-thought out world may help fill plot holes, too, because if a difficult situation arises, you will have already developed a fully-functional economy that will give you a clue as to how your characters will act and how the difficulty will play out.
During the past year (2017) I published on this blog two entries about tension and conflict in writing. If you’re a writer at almost any phase of your career, you’ve certainly heard of the dictum—in fact, almost a rule of law—that you have to have tension and/or conflict on every page of your creative writing story. Nothing less will do. It’s a rule I subscribe to, though I’ve also said that one or two pages without tension or conflict probably wouldn’t hurt. But I’ve begun to realize in the past few months that that piece of advice is based on flawed logic, and I would like to correct that error here. Or at least try to.
The reason I say that advice was in error is that I’ve come to realize that there are really two types of tension/conflict, and both are important in writing fiction or creative non-fiction. I’m not talking about the difference between tension on the one hand, and conflict on the other (see my blog entry of 7/16/2017 where I describe the difference), but about two different forms that the combined tension/conflict duo can take. The first form is the general background tension/conflict that pervades a story all the way through (or at least most of the way). This is the kind of tension that simmers away almost unnoticed, that the characters are always certainly aware of, but only if they stop to think about it and acknowledge it. An example might be a story about life in a submarine during World War II. (Or perhaps in a spaceship cruising the galaxy looking for “bad guy” spaceships to destroy with photon torpedoes.) Going down to three or four or five hundred feet below the surface of the ocean in a submarine is bad enough, but with the constant threat of depth charges raining down on the sub just elevates the tension level to a point where everybody is constantly aware of it. It’s in the background, it affects everyday life on board that sub, though the crew may not always be aware of it. Every crew member has his/her duty and carries it out. This is the type of tension that must be present on every page; it’s a constant reminder of the basic plot line of the story. Once the submarine returns to its home port, Pearl Harbor say, and every one relaxes on Waikiki Beach, the background tension is gone, and the story collapses. There’s nothing to hold it together. A story about sailors relaxing on a beach doesn’t hold much interest unless there’s some other background conflict.
But superimposed over that background tension/conflict is the more prominent one. This is a more immediate one. This is the tension of now, the tension of events taking place over and above the background. In that submarine, this might be the tension of a fight between two members of the crew, a fight that boils over from conflict between them that’s been simmering for days or weeks or months, dating back to well before they boarded the sub for their latest tour of duty. Or, it might be the tension of getting ready to fire torpedoes, with the ultimate realization that could bring down those dreaded depth charges and blow their nice warm submarine out of the water. This is the kind of tension/conflict that comes and goes, and isn’t necessarily present on every page. It rises and falls; it ebbs and flows, and an author can’t expect his/her characters to live under this type of stress and strain for a long time. They have to have some respite. But it is essential for the story, it provides a series of events that carry the reader along and allows him or her to see the inner workings of the main characters. It provides a look—maybe not much more than a glimpse—into their minds, into how they handle themselves in difficult situations, into what makes them tick. It gives the reader a look at the real person your character is, not the veneer they show to the world. Tap into this tension, but don’t overdo it—your writing will be better for it.
Here are a few commentaries and observations designed to fill this space with words. These are especially directed toward those of my readers who are writers.
Which of the two constructions do you prefer? 1) I’m ten years older than him. Or: 2) I’m ten years older than he is.
The quote, “A [fill in your work] is never finished, only abandoned,” has been attributed to several writers. The poet Paul Valery is credited with, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” Graham Green said, “It,”—referring to a novel—”is never finished, only abandoned.” The novelist E. M. Forster said, “A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned.” I’ve even quoted it myself without giving proper attribution, usually referring to novels, rather than poems. And I’ve come to believe the truth in that quotation (whoever you feel is the real author). I’ve just completed a serious revision of the third installment of my sci-fi novels (it’s called “Warrior,” but hasn’t been published yet). The revisions filled in quite a number of plot holes, and smoothed out some awkward phrasing here and there. Now all that is left is to print out the novel (the first time that novel has been printed) and read it in the “paper” stage (see last week’s blog) and read it out loud. And then make whatever changes I feel are necessary. All of that won’t be a simple matter by any means, but it will insure that the novel will be in a reasonably good state, ready for beta readers or critique groups. Yet, based on my experiences with the first two novels, both of which have gone through that “print/read/out loud” phase, small touch-ups will always be possible at any time. It’s true, the novels are never finished; you can always make changes. I just have to be willing to drop them and let them go. And not obsess over small things.
If you have a character in your writing who is angry, and you need to show intense outrage/passion/displeasure/hatred, and you are writing in the 3rd person point-of-view, which way do you like to express it? By having the angry person be the POV character and present to the reader directly his/her feelings ? Or by having the character be not the POV character and letting him/her—and by extension, the reader—view it from a distance? It can be done either way, of course, but does it seem to fit your style of writing better one way or the other? Generally I stick with the indirect way: presenting the anger of someone directly in their head seems too much like telling, not showing.
In this day and age of climate change when storms are getting more and more powerful, and forest fires burn more and more square miles, I’ve noticed that people caught up in these events tend to use a curious method of comparison to try and describe how they sound or feel. Frequently that comparison is to a “freight train.” Most frequently, this is the object of comparison for tornadoes, but it has also been applied to land/mudslides, and even hurricanes. But I’m curious, do most people really know what a freight train sounds like? I’d almost be willing to bet that most don’t. I’ve heard a few freight trains in my life, and though I’ve never heard a tornado, I really wonder if the two sound alike. Anybody know? In this day of long trains pulled by large-horsepower diesel engines, the sound is more of a growl of low pitch and high. I suppose that back in the 1940’s and 1950’s when large steam engines pulled long trains of coal out of the Appalachian coal fields of Kentucky and West Virginia, and they had to literally pound the rails to get it over the mountains, it could have had a terrible rumbling feel, especially considering the power in the exhaust of the mighty engines and the shaking of the ground if you stood too close. But diesels don’t do that much any more. They seem to glide along; there’s no pounding and no heavy exhaust. I wonder if a tornado or mudslide really sounds like that. Anyone have any idea?
In this blog posting, I just want to make a few observations on a couple of aspects of writing. To wit:
First, I stopped at a local Barnes and Noble bookstore this afternoon to get another science fiction book. I wandered down the aisle where the sci-fi/fantasy books were shelved and, as usual, glanced briefly at the books that led to the sci-fi section. Those books consisted largely of classics and other fiction, not sci-fi. Then I hit the science fiction section, and the contrast was—as simply as I can put it—eye opening. The classics, all those non-sci-fi books were brilliantly colored: reds, yellows, and oranges seemed to dominate, though other colors were evident too. But the sci-fi books were almost uniformly black. Coal black, black as midnight in a coal mine, black as the ace of spades, to use several well-worn clichés. The actual dividing line was between the classics and the newest releases of sci-fi books, and certainly not all sci-fi books are released in blackened dust jackets. But in this particular case, almost all the new releases seem to have been painted with a brush dipped in India ink. Even a classic such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is in a deep blue, and it stuck out only because I was familiar with the name. I did see two or three books in much lighter colors, and I even bought one, an anthology of space opera and military sci-fi called Infinite Stars, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, published by Titan Books. It has a kind of light tannish-red grizzled cover, and it stood out from all the blackness like a sun in the midst of infinite darkness.
I’m not sure I can tell why so many sci-fi books are published in dark covers. Perhaps it’s a trend of the times. There seems a tendency toward dark plots nowadays, of heroes who are not what they seem to be, or who have to overcome vastly destructive personal demons before they can fulfill their destiny and rescue the damsel in distress (or whatever it is they have to do). There are, of course, many sci-fi books released in recent years that are not dark (Victor Milan’s Dinosaur series comes to mind), but there is a serious trend. I, personally, am not in favor of it. If I ever get any of my books published (the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise), I will certainly insist that the covers be lighter, even much lighter. Reds and yellows are common. Even a light blue would be good. What’s that you say? The author doesn’t have any control over the cover? We’ll find out.
Second, I want to comment briefly on one aspect of getting short stories published. I’ve written several short stories, mostly literary in character, and I’ve been trying to get some of them published in literary journals around the country for quite a number of years. Most of the journals state in their instructions to submitters something like: “read a back issue or two of our journal to get a feel of what kind of works we are looking for.” Okay, well said. Good idea. And I have been reading some of the journals I submit to, when I can get to them. But I’m becoming more and more convinced this advice is questionable at best. Several times (more than I can count on all fingers and toes) I’ve read a journal and said, “Aha! I have a short story that will fit well with this magazine. I will give them a try.” So I send in a story, wait a goodly number of weeks or months and, invariably, comes a rejection that says, “We did not feel this story was a good fit for our magazine.” So I wonder, what value is it to read the magazine beforehand if they’re going to reject something the author thinks will fit their editorial style? Granted, the whole process is subjective, and the editor’s decision is the last word, but if the author can’t make a good judgement on the “fit” of the story, that just makes it harder to get published in the first place.
The November, 2017, issue of The Writer contains a couple of articles about apps for writers that can (potentially, at least) make the physical act of writing easier. My first reaction when I saw the magazine was very much in the realm of Ebenezer Scrooge: “Bah”, I said, “I don’t need an app to do my writing. I do it myself.” Of course I do.
But now that I’ve read the articles and looked over the listings of products and tools that can make writing easier, I’m beginning to change my mind. Granted, the writer still has to do the actual writing—or at least the mental, imaginative, and creative part of the writing if not the physical act of putting one word after another, because now software is available that will write as you speak. I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet, but I am leaning toward looking at, if not outright purchasing, one or two apps that might help me get the job done. File storage, social media management, e-book creation, all look like possibilities, if not now, at least in the future.
But I’m not leaning toward any of the large, word-processing apps or downloads. I’ve been using Microsoft Word for—well, let’s just say a long time now—and I’m satisfied with it. I’m very familiar with it, and I can’t see learning a new word processor that does largely the same thing, even though it may have other functions. Some people swear by word processing programs that can help them “organize” their work into, say chapters and scenes and convenient blocks of text. I can’t say I need anything like that. I keep most of that in my head anyway, or on paper. It works for me, and I’ve always felt that writing is best done by whatever works for the writer. Do it your own way.
In the end, of course, you have to do the writing yourself. No app will write a novel for you, though that may be in the not-too-far distant future. Artificial intelligence may make us writers obsolete, and such original material as reports, poetry, novels, biographies, whatnot, may be computer generated. Fortunately I won’t be around to see that, and I suspect that artificial intelligence will never fully replace the human mind. I’m sure AI will do more imaginative, creative thinking than it does now, for better or worse. But it will be a long time before a computer wins a Pulitzer.
So, whether you’re writing one haiku or an exhaustive history of all the dinosaurs that roamed the North American continent, you still have to sit down and write the damn thing. Apps can help, but it’s up to you to do the heavy lifting.
In the almost twenty years since I started writing fiction, I’ve noticed a change in the way I read that same genre. I started my career as a scientist many, many years ago, and the only thing I wrote for a large part of my life were scientific papers. The only thing I read with any frequency was nonfiction, including other scientific papers and the occasional nonfiction book. (With the one important exception of Sherlock Holmes; for some reason which I can’t explain I latched onto Holmes a long time ago and read and reread it. Perhaps it has to do with Holmes’s insistence on using logic and reason—which is an important part of the scientific method—to identify the criminal in the case. The fact that Watson was a physician also didn’t hurt.) But in any event, my life was largely saturated with nonfiction, from biography to all sorts of general nonfiction to straight science and how-to books in microbiology and virology. Then I started a novel.
And as I started, I also began to read novels I hadn’t read before; I studied writing; I read writing magazines and books on writing; I went to writer’s conferences; I joined writing groups and listened to speakers talk about all phases of writing. I read novels and short stories and tried my hand at both. And I have so far gotten to the point that I feel I can write a reasonably good short story, one that stands a good chance of being published. (You can see two examples of my short fiction on this blog site; just go to the Short Stories tab.) Now all I have to do is convince a publisher to agree with me. But all that writing and learning about writing has had another effect.
Now when I read, I read more like a writer. I notice things I almost certainly would not have noticed had I not studied how to write. I’m much more conscious of what the writer of a book or short story is trying to do and say than I would have been otherwise. I look for plot holes; I look for foreshadowing: Ah-ha! He’s introduced an new character/concept. That could be important. I will follow this. To a lesser extent, I am more aware of things that are missing (why isn’t the main character doing this? Or this?). I look at grammar and sentence structure more carefully, I am aware of voice, point of view, and tense more stringently. I look at the author’s voice and style much more than I used to. Before, when I read nonfiction, I only wanted to get the information from the book/article/whatever. And in the case of the odd fiction piece, I read only for the entertainment. I didn’t have the knowledge to understand how it was put together. Now I am much more attentive to style and performance, even in nonfiction. Good or bad, that has been one of the side issues of learning how to write.
That extends to watching TV and movies. I’m now much more tuned in on how the show was put together. I’m conscious of plot holes and things that aren’t there. I look for oddities and peculiarities. I’ve come to realize that Captain Kirk on Star Trek, The Original Series was a lousier captain of a deep space vehicle than I thought he was at first. (Some of the things he did—wow.) But enough of that; who cares? Writing is fun and interesting, and looking at other writer’s works just makes me a better writer in the long run. A fundamental tenet of writing has always been that writers must be readers. This is one reason why.
Have you ever read a book you liked so much you said to yourself (or to someone else), “I just couldn’t put it down”? You meant, of course, that you liked the book so much you kept reading even though you had other things to do, but couldn’t tear yourself away. I’ve read a few books like that, though most books I’ve read were of the “I can put this book down and get on with my life any time” type. Right now I’m reading a book that, at the very least, approaches that “couldn’t put it down” status, if it doesn’t stand squarely within it. The book is Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It was first published in 1986, but has gained some attention in the past few months because the repressive ultra-conservative society it portrays has struck some people as similar to the path our conservative government has begun to take us down. Whether that’s true or not, I leave to history to decide.
This blog post is not intended to be a review of the book, but rather a brief examination of the factors that contribute to the “couldn’t put it down” concept. What makes a book so good you enjoy reading it so much you’d rather read it than do something else? Many books I’ve read—in fact most—I could put down at almost any time, but “The Handmaid’s Tale” is too exciting to do that. The last book(s) that took my attention into the story to that degree were Connie Willis’s dual set about the Battle of Britain, “Blackout” and “All Clear,” even though I’ve read a number of other books in the meantime. Why should this be?
I think several things have to come together to contribute to a book to that extent. First, the writing. The writing has to be above reproach; smooth and free of points that take you away from the story. As you read, you’re immersed in the story, and nothing comes along that is unclear, unreadable, or varies from the author’s style. The English grammar is fundamentally impeccable. Actually, Ms. Atwood uses an inordinate number of commas, many in positions I wouldn’t, but that hasn’t seemed to bother me. Very early on I began to overlook them and haven’t looked back. The writing still flows in spite of them.
Second, the subject matter has to interest the reader, and more than to just a small degree. As I mentioned, our political climate today has induced some people to make comparisons between the book and the present government. I’m not sure I agree with them to the extreme extent they’re willing to go, but I can see their point. As a result, the book has aroused my attention and I want to see what all the fuss is about. I’m interested and want to know more. That’s the same reason I liked Connie Willis’s books; I have a great interest in World War II, and I enjoyed reading her take on it.
Third, I believe there is the undefinable. Everything “comes together” in these books. The writing, the subject, the author’s style—they all meld together to produce a book that for a few people becomes fascinating to the point of delight or enchantment. That’s good, but that’s not something that can be quantified or dissected. That situation is precisely what a writer wants to achieve. Really. I just hope my books reach that point for a few people.