Occasionally I’ve heard science fiction writers complain that in order to create a future world or alternate reality they have to sacrifice characterization; to create a world and to create characters would take too long, be too wordy, and might bore the readers.
That is crap. It’s an excuse used by 1) lazy writers who don’t want to bother with characterization, and 2) inexperienced writers who haven’t yet learned to “show, don’t tell.”
Ray Bradbury created an unfamiliar world populated with well-defined characters in Fahrenheit 451, as did Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, as did Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, as have many other science fiction and fantasy writers.
You don’t need to waste lots of words describing your futuristic world; a few well-chosen words will do. In one of his stories, Robert A. Heinlein has doors that operate like camera shutters; they open automatically when someone approaches them and close after the character has passed through. To communicate this concept to his readers, as his character approaches a door, Heinlein writes three words: “The door dilated.”
Similarly, don’t waste words describing your characters; show them in action. The best way to engage your readers is to create characters who are like them, characters who want the same things and who react emotionally in the same ways. This establishes an emotional bond between your characters and your readers.
To create a dystopian world, find something that may be slightly wrong in our contemporary society and exaggerate it so that it is has caused your future society to be seriously out of whack. For example, Ray Bradbury took censorship to the next level in Fahrenheit 451 when he envisioned a future in which firemen seek out illegal collections of books and burn them.
So you have characters to whom your readers can relate, and you have a society in which something is broken. Now combine the two.
Remember that, although the characters have an emotional tie to contemporary readers, their thoughts and actions must be consistent with the society in which they live. In Fahrenheit 451, for example, at the front of the characters’ minds all the time is the knowledge that possessing a book is a serious crime. They know also that speeding 100 miles per hour down the freeway and trying to hit anything that moves is a good, and accepted, form of recreation.
That’s it in a nutshell. Writing a solid dystopian story is as easy as writing a contemporary story if you follow these three guidelines:
The article originally appeared on BEAUTY IN RUINS on April 12, 2012
It should not come as a surprise that a book of little literary quality (and I use the word “literary” in the loosest sense) should top the New York Times Best Seller List, but it is irritating when one considers all of the excellent novels that don’t even come within hailing distance of the hot 100.
I haven’t read the complete novel, but I did read the first several pages. Basically, I read it as an agent and editor would if it showed up their slush piles (i.e., “hook me in the first few pages or I pass on it.”) The opening didn’t hook me because the prose was not polished, the dialogue was wooden, and the scene did not interest me enough to continue reading. I didn’t even get to the porn, which seems to be the primary reason sales of this book are challenging sales figures of such authors as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, who actually are excellent writers.
Since I can’t speak to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey because I got bored, here’s a video of a an all-woman book club that did read the complete novel–apparently to the regret of some members in the group. The novel (and I use the word “novel” loosely) has already resulted in many parodies, one of which has been getting much press. Although I haven’t read Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, it certainly piques my interest more than the book at which it is poking fun.
Ray Bradbury once said that there are three great adventures: being born, living, and dying. Last night Bradbury embarked on that last great adventure when he died at his Los Angeles home at the age of 91.
Bradbury not only had a profound influence on my writing style, but his book The Martian Chronicles inspired me to start writing in the first place. We exchanged a few letters in the 80s and early 90s, and I found him to be an approachable and generous man.
The first time I wrote him, I sent him a copy of the college thesis I’d written about him and his early work: Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. In less than a week I received a note of thanks along with galleys for a new book of criticism of his work another author was publishing.
My first inclination when I heard of Bradbury’s passing was to take time off and read some of his stories in honor of his memory. But I immediately realized that the best memorial to a man who got physically sick if he didn’t write at least two pages every day would be to write. So as soon as I post this, I’ll go back to work on my novel. I’ll read some of his stories later.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Ox-Bow Incident is not your standard western. This is an excellent examination of mob justice and its consequences. Clark was a really good writer. He develops the characters and settings much better than many of the westerns I’ve read. The descriptions of western life sound as if he’s writing from experience, as if he were there, which is not the case.
Clark was born in 1909 in Maine. In 1917 his father accepted the position of President of the University of Nevada and moved the family west. By that time the west described in The Ox-Bow Incident was well on the way to extinction in the face of 20th century technology and civilization, but I’m sure there were still many remnants visible in the buildings and the landscape and many people still alive willing to tell stories of those times to an eager youngster. Even in the late 1930s, when Clark wrote this novel, he could have still found many people who remembered the west of 1885.
Not long after its publication in 1940 The Ox-Bow Incident was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. The film is good, too, considered by many to be a classic. Read the novel, then see the film, in that order. I recommend both most highly.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As young adult paranormal thriller/romances go, Red is page-turner. It tells the story of how love grows between Elodie and Sawyer. Neither of them knows the other is a werewolf when they first meet. Elodie, it turns out, is working with Sawyer’s father on a project to re-introduce the red wolf into Tennessee.
Sawyer’s dad also is a werewolf. His mother was shot while in wolf form–in Sawyer’s family, werewolves mate only with their own kind. Elodie’s father, who isn’t a werewolf, raised her after her mother supposedly killed herself when Elodie was three because of the curse on her family. Although Sawyer is a seasoned werewolf, Elodie, at age 17, is a late bloomer–she has yet to undergo a full transformation.
One night after working late, Elodie’s car breaks down. As she is walking home, a vehicle tries to run her down. Her assailant is a werewolf hunter who will not stop until she is dead. Elodie and Sawyer–who has appointed himself as Elodie’s unofficial protector–risk death as they search for a way to discover this hunter’s identity and stop him.
Red has everything a good story should have: twists and turns and surprises, characters we can identify with and cheer for, and a pace that makes us hunger for what is coming next. I highly recommend it.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Love and Other Four-Letter Words is a well-written and engaging story about a teen caught in the middle of marital problems between her parents.
When Sammie’s parents decide on a trial separation, her father (a Cornell University professor) leaves for California on sabbatical while her mother sublets their home in Ithica, NY, and moves with Sammie to New York City.
Her mother, a frustrated artist, regrets leaving the big city for an art teaching job in Ithica when she got married. When she can’t find work immediately, she falls into a deep depression, leaving Sammie to take care of both of them while also trying to rebuild her own life. But before things get better, they will get worse, much worse, eventually leading to a melt-down.
This coming-of-age novel contains some profanity and mild sexual situations but nothing that would be surprising or disturbing to most teens. I highly recommend it for early teens on up.
Read my review of Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Help is a page-turner.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1962 to 1964 the novel unfolds against the backdrop of the segregationist society at that time. It is told in first person by the three main characters in rotating segments. Aibileen and Minny are black maids, and Skeeter is the white woman, recently graduated from Old Miss, who convinces them and ten other maids to tell their stories for a book she wants to write about what it is like to be black maids working for white families.
Given the social climate, Skeeter is risking ostracism, but the maids are risking not only their jobs but the prospect of being black-billed so they will not be able to support their families. After much work, Skeeter manages to gain the trust of Aibileen and the tentative trust of Minnie, but the other ten prove to be impossible to get.
Until some things happen.
The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s first novel, tells the story of writing this book and of what happens after it is published. It has been made into a movie – due out in August – which from the looks of the trailer seems to follow the novel quite well. But I encourage you to read the novel first; they have to do lots of trimming and condensing to fit a 444-page book into a two-hour film.
I most highly recommend The Help.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Jacob Wonderbar has one of the coolest log-lines I’ve ever seen: “Space travel is all fun and games until someone breaks the universe.”
That sentence sets the tone of this zany novel for young people, ages 9 and up. Jacob – general troublemaker and the terror of substitute teachers – and his friends, Dexter and Sarah, buy a spaceship from a disgruntled alien for a corn dog and set off for adventures in outer space.
In trying to prevent their spaceship from crashing, they fire a missile that causes a chain reaction of explosions across the universe (which Jacob dubs “the spilled milky way”), which blocks the path to Earth. Miraculously, no one is injured, no inhabited worlds destroyed, but in the words of two cosmic police officers the kids just caused a “big mess.” Unfortunately, that mess will prevent them from returning home for one or two thousand years (according to a construction worker when they try to head home), and there is no detour around the chaos.
The novel contains a pirate, a planet that smells like burp breath and has a day one minute long, a planet populated by scientists, a planet populated by substitute teachers, and a king of the universe.
Nathan Bransford is a former literary agent whose blog is an excellent resource for readers, writers, and anyone remotely interested in the publishing industry. I’ve been looking forward to reading Jacob Wonderbar ever since Nathan blogged that he’d sold it. I like the book, kids in the tween and early teen years will like it, and adults who are fans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which I am) will like it.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Please Look After Mom is a must-read. Told from the viewpoints of four people – a daughter, a son, a husband, and Mom herself – it is about a family’s reactions to Mom’s disappearance at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea. The family reports Mom’s disappearance to the police, and they post fliers asking if anyone has seen this woman. At first they get a few calls, but soon the calls stop coming. It is as if Mom has vanished into thin air.
But the search for Mom is only a loose framework on which hangs a story of self-discovery as each viewpoint character reflects on what Mom meant to him or her. Please Look After Mom is full of surprises. It is a character-driven story that engaged me from page one, and I highly recommend it.
Kyung-sook Shin is one of South Korea’s most popular novelists and has won many literary awards for her work. My only disappointment is that Please Look After Mom is the only book by this exceptional writer to be translated into English. I hope it does well enough so there are more to come (as of this date it is number 27 on the New York Times best seller list).
For those of you who prefer to curl up with a good book rather than a cold, emotionless digital reading device, my novel In Human Form is now available as a trade paperback for $14.95. The ebook, however, is regularly priced at $2.99 (but is specially priced at $.99 through May 31, 2011; enter coupon code BN99Y). The excellent cover for In Human Form, like the excellent and creepy cover for The Moaning Rocks, was designed by Joleene Naylor, who also has written several novels.
This is In Human Form in a nutshell:
Wendy Konicka survives a mysterious fire that destroys her home and kills her father. When she awakens three days later, her memory is gone. She doesn’t even remember that she is an android and that the man known in the community as her father was her creator. And the few around her who have learned her secret keep it from her, misleading her to think she is human – which puts Wendy and the people she has grown close to in danger from ruthless conspiracy theorist Earl Vaughn.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I put off reading this novel for more than a year because it is massive, 1,074 pages in hardcover. But I may have temporarily forgot that Under The Dome was written by Stephen King, who, in his own words, likes to write with “the pedal to the metal.”
Under The Dome has all the earmarks of a Stephen King novel: violence, massive destruction, sexuality (much of it perverted), and a deliciously depraved villain. It also has a cast of characters so large that King lists the main ones (in categories, no less) at the front of the book for easy reference. He also gives us a map of Chester’s Mill, Maine (the sock-shaped town, population 2,000, where the story takes place) showing the major landmarks in the novel.
The hero is Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a disillusioned ex-army officer (he has been the cook at the Sweetbriar Rose restaurant for the past few months) who is on his way out of town when the Dome comes down. I won’t tell you what the dome is or why it comes down. Suffice it to say that Barbie is trapped, which is inconvenient. He was leaving because of bad blood between him and some of the town’s young punks, particularly Junior Rennie, the son of Big Jim Rennie, used car dealer and one of the town’s three selectmen.
Big Jim uses the dome to assert his leadership. The town needs a leader to keep order now that it is cut off from the rest of the world, and why shouldn’t that leader be Big Jim? The only problem is that Barbie manages to get a call out to his former commander, Colonel Cox, who promotes him to Colonel and puts him in charge of the situation.
This doesn’t sit well with Big Jim as he embarks upon his mission to take over the town with the help of his “special” police officers. These are the town thugs who will do what Big Jim tells them, using whatever force is necessary (or even unnecessary) to keep the citizenry in line. Barbie and the friends he’s made since coming to town are the major obstacles in the way of Big Jim’s goal. They must be silenced, discredited, and/or killed to prevent them from interfering with Big Jim’s plans. He implements those plans through deceit, general skullduggery and even murder to turn the townspeople against Barbie and, as King calls them, the expatriates.
Under The Dome may be a massive novel, but it is a page-turner, right up though the electrifying climax and conclusion. I highly (double highly) recommend it.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Although I was a fan of the John Wayne movie based on this novel, I’d never read the book before. When the latest film incarnation with Jeff Bridges was released, I dug up a copy of the novel and read it before going to see the movie.
The critics were right. The Coen brothers version does follow the novel more closely than the first movie, particularly in some key spots that I won’t tell you about. I hate giving things away.
There is, however, one major section where the story departs from the book, and I can’t figure out why. There is no reason structurally or story-wise that it should be changed (even the John Wayne version followed the novel here). I won’t tell you which part it is, either. But it really doesn’t make that big of difference. It’s just odd, and I actually do like the Jeff Bridges True Grit better than the John Wayne version. And Matt Damon, who plays LaBoeuf in the Coen brothers version, is a better actor than Glen Campbell. Sorry, Glen. Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie Ross, also gives a commendable performance in her first major motion picture role.
Enough prattling about the movies. The book is an easy and an enjoyable read with strong characters and action. It is one of those genre novels that rises above its genre. I highly recommend it.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an exceptional novel.
It is a character-driven story about 15-year-old Virginia Shreves who feels that she doesn’t fit in – not at school and especially not with her own family. Her mother is an adolescent psychologist who does not practice what she preaches. Her father is a little less rigid, but he’s a high-powered manager.
Both of Virginia’s parents are workaholics and leave her to fend for herself most of the time. She idolizes her older brother – who is a chick magnet – and wishes she were more like her older sister, who has joined the Peace Corps (much to her mother’s chagrin) and is working in Africa.
All of Virginia’s family are dark-haired and thin. Virginia is blond and has a weight problem, due in large part to comfort eating.
Then something devastating happens that changes the entire family dynamic (I won’t tell you what it is; it’s a crucial turning point and best if you discover it for yourselves), and puts Virginia on the road to making major changes in her life.
The characters are well-delineated – especially Virginia, who gets inside your head the way that few characters do. Even the minor characters have their quirks, like Alyssa Wu who knits all the time to keep from fidgeting, and the math teacher Mr. Mooney, who forgets formulas but who remembers a plethora of old songs that he associates with names (“Carry me back to old Virginny . . . “) and sings whenever he interacts with students – much to the students’ mortification.
Although The Earth, My Butt & Other Big Round Things is technically a young adult novel it can be enjoyed at any age. An excellent read. I recommend it highly.
“I disagree with the advice ‘Write about what you know.’ Write about what you need to know, in an effort to understand.” – Donald Windham
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably been advised once or twice by a well-meaning writing teacher or Beta Reader, to write about what you know. Usually they mean to write about things you’ve experienced. While it is good to write what you know, you don’t have to experience it to know it.
When I was attending the University of Nebraska I knew a science fiction writer named Cindy who’d had two stories published in Analog. One of those stories had been critiqued by a writing Professor from whom I was currently taking a class. The Professor had admonished her to “write what she knows,” and apparently he was skeptical that an alternate reality was something that Cindy understood. That story went on to become her first published fiction.
Although some writers have written excellent fiction that has grown out of their experiences, for most of us there is research. The research can range from a little to extensive.
While in college, I wrote a story for a writing workshop about a custodian cleaning the morgue during the graveyard shift. He has a habit of drinking on the job and is a little tipsy, so he believes that one of the bodies dropped off for an early morning autopsy is really alive but is in a coma. I had never been in a morgue so I called Lincoln General Hospital and asked if I could come over and take a look. A nice fellow showed me around the morgue (the first thing I learned is they didn’t like to call it the morgue; on the door was a sign that said “Clinical Evaluation”), and I went home and wrote the story.
It turned out that one of my classmates actually had been a custodian on the graveyard shift at Lincoln General. He thought I’d worked there at one time myself. When I told him I’d just done research, he said I’d nailed it. He asked if they still had that barrel of brains … I said no, just the jars containing bits of organs in the closet.
“Clinical Evaluation” became my first published story, appearing in Pig Iron Press’s 1983 anthology The New Surrealists.
Arthur Hailey was an example of a writer whose backgrounds were almost entirely researched. The author of such bestselling novels as Airport, Hotel, and The Moneychangers, Hailey would choose an industry, spend months researching it in-depth, and then set a story in that industry.
Although Hailey was a pilot, he didn’t have much personal experience (and most of the time he had no personal experience) of the things about which he wrote. But no one could ever accuse Arthur Hailey of writing about things he did not know.
Whatever you write about you can fill in the parts you don’t know with research. Sometimes what you haven’t experienced can be a major part of the story.
When you research, use “live” rather than “dead” sources as much as you can, or as much as you need to. A dead source is anything you find in a book, magazine article, a document, online, or any other place it is written down or recorded. A live source is when you get your information by talking to people who have had the experience you’re writing about. In the examples above, Cindy used dead sources–and her imagination–to get her science fiction story right; Arthur Hailey and I used live sources for our research.
Use “live” sources whenever you can because they’ll be able to tell you things you usually won’t find in books. You’ll be able to ask them questions that will help give your story the touch of verisimilitude that it needs. For instance, you’ll be able to ask a person who grew up in New York City what it feels like to window shop on Sunday morning, what the traffic’s like at that time, and how many pedestrians are out.
You probably would search long and hard for that information in a book, and you may not be able to find precisely what you want by surfing the Web.
The Internet, however, is a good tool to use for contacting “live” sources around the world and getting almost instantaneous answers. For example, the Australian writer Steph Bowe–whose first novel, Girl Saves Boy, will be published in Australia this September and the summer of 2011 in the U.S.–recently posed several questions to her American followers on Twitter about how an American character would react in certain situations.
Make sure that your research is thorough. Dean Koontz is another example of a writer who does extensive research. He cautions writers to be sure to get the tiniest details right–for one of his novels he had to find out the color of taxicabs in a certain Japanese city.
Don’t assume that you know something; find out. I thought the slang “blow away” was descriptive of what happens when someone gets shot; the force of the bullet knocks the victim over. Then I researched it for a novel I was writing. As it turns out you’d have to use a pretty big gun for that to happen. I mean a seriously big gun. If you shot someone with a .357 Magnum or a shotgun, for instance, he would just drop like a sack of potatoes, not go flying off his feet like he did in one movie that shall remain nameless.
That’s the sort of thing that somebody, somewhere will know, and it’s annoying to be at a book signing and–to paraphrase Ray Bradbury–have one of your readers say, “Dude, on page 227 where Joe gets shot and it flings him over the back of the couch …” and you say, “Yeah,” and he says, “Nah.”
So write what you know, but you don’t have to personally experience it to know it. You know what I mean?