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
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.
A Republican-controlled House panel has voted to repeal the new FCC rules that would prevent cable and phone companies from dominating the Internet by setting priorities for web traffic. This would result in slower load times for competing services and for smaller websites that can’t afford to pay to have their priorities upgraded. It would be a major blow for free speech on the Internet, with a few major communications companies dictating what websites the rest of us are allowed to access. We could, technically, still access any websites we wanted, but we would become frustrated with the long wait times and click on to something more “user-friendly.”
The reason for repealing this rule, according to the Republicans, is that it would prevent the big cable companies from making costly upgrades to their networks. That is not true. We have had net neutrality since the Internet was opened to commercial traffic in the mid-1990s; it hasn’t prevented the big communications companies from upgrading during that time, and it’s unlikely that making net neutrality the law now will prevent them from making future upgrades. If they want to be competitive, they’ll upgrade. That’s the way it’s always been in business, even before the Internet, and that’s the way it will always be.
For a more detailed look at the panel’s decision see the Huffington Post article.
Yesterday, as was widely expected, the FCC passed the new regulations governing the Internet–the same regs that Sen. Al Franken called “worst than nothing.” Newsweek technology editor Dan Lyons in his article The Internet Splits in Two suggests that we’re entering into Phase Two of Internet technology, which he compares to the growing pains of television – for example, cable vs. rabbit ears. The new regs probably will be challenged in court, and they may be tweaked – or they may not be, which wouldn’t be good for writers, researchers, or for folks with Websites and blogs who can not afford to buy priority placement in the pecking order. As Lyons suggests in his article, which I encourage you to read in full, expect these costs to be passed on to consumers, who will end up paying more for a crappier product. Sen. Al Franken in his Huffington Post article today, The Internet as we Know it is Still at Risk does offer a ray of hope for the future of Net Neutrality.
To keep up on the Net Neutrality issue: savetheinternet.com.
I’ve written an overview of the Net Neutrality issue in an earlier post, Net Neutrality: Keeping the Internet Free. Tomorrow the FCC will meet to discuss Internet regulations. Senator Al Franken doesn’t believe the draft regulations go far enough. In fact, he calls them “worse than nothing.” Rather than try to summarize what Sen. Franken says, I urge you to read his Huffington Post article, The Most Important Free Speech Issue of Our Time.
When I was a novice writer I lived for editorial comments. Occasionally they came, scrawled on a standard form rejection slip, just a few words to let me know if I was on the right track, if what I was writing was any good. I would bet that most aspiring writers long for that coveted editorial critique.
Receiving editorial comments is great, but keep them in perspective. Fiction editing is a very subjective business, and what one editor doesn’t like, another might rave about.
I’ll give you a few examples from editorial comments I’ve received over the years.
“Keeper of the Shrine”
MY NOTES: I took this story back to my Beta Reader, an English Professor at the University of Nebraska. He re-read it, and we decided that I should change the title (“Of Life, Death, and Spiders” seemed a bit pompous), but I shouldn’t touch the symbolism because we believed it was right for a story like this (and apparently two other readers at Prairie Schooner agreed.)
“That Time of Year”
“The Moaning Rocks”
MY NOTES: Unfortunately, by April Antithesis had ceased publication, so the story went out on the submission trail again. It garnered a wide variety of comments – mostly positive, some not, but most editors to whom I submitted commented on it. I published it finally in October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. Also, note that Fantasy Macabre liked the “blending of legend and impending doom,” but Shadows wondered if the legend is “really necessary at all” because it “telegraphed” the ending. The part about telegraphing the ending may be true for some readers, but I know of one reader who was so startled by the ending that she threw the book across the room.
The point of all this is that editors are just readers, and stories strike every reader differently. As I hope I’ve illustrated with these editorial comments, one editor may like something about a story while another may dismiss the same thing. It is nice to get editorial comments because they are a window into how others – particularly, others who read stories for a living – view what you write.
But the best advice was given by the editor of Prairie Schooner in her comments on “Keeper of the Shrine:” “. . . I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” If you have any questions about your work in view of an editor’s comment, take it back to your readers – and every writer should have a few readers he or she can trust to give honest feedback – and ask them if they think the the story might be improved if you followed the editor’s advice.
Some things you may choose to change, other things you may choose to leave alone. But take editorial comments in the spirit they are given: as one person’s reaction to your story. The next person’s reaction might be completely different.
On most magazines’ Submission Guidelines page, the editor suggests reading a few issues to see what type of stories they publish. While it’s a good idea to be familiar with the magazine to which you’re submitting, sometimes this can be taken too far.
I’m talking about slanting a story to fit a magazine, an editor, or an audience. Early in my writing career I read lots of articles about how to slant stories to fill editorial needs. Many of them suggested dissecting a magazine, taking note of such things as:
Many even suggested taking notes on the percentage of the magazine devoted to advertising, and what kind of products are advertised. A writer of one of those how-to-slant articles told about how he dissected Good Housekeeping in this way, wrote a story for the magazine, and they bought it.
But I am reminded of the late Richard McKenna, author of The Sand Pebbles. When he was trying to break into print, he decided that he wanted to write for the Saturday Evening Post. He analyzed several copies and started submitting stories. The Post rejected the stories, so he sent them to other magazines. On rejecting the stories, those editors included notes that were a variation of this: “This is so much like a Post story, we wonder that you haven’t tried them.”
As you probably have gathered by now, I’m not a big fan of slanting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to know a publication well enough so you don’t send a western to a mystery magazine or a science fiction story to a woman’s magazine (unless you know that the woman’s magazine publishes SF). And you do need to take certain things into consideration – don’t send a woman’s romance to a man’s magazine, for instance – but those things are easy enough to see; no heavy analysis required.
One of my objections to slanting is illustrated by the Richard McKenna story. No matter how well you slant a story to a particular magazine, its acceptance is not guaranteed. There are lots of reasons editors reject stories, and “not being right for us” is only one of them. If your story is rejected you’ll have to substantially revise it before you submit it to the next editor, and the one after that, and the one after that … And that’s a lot of work. It’s also not being true to yourself or your craft.
Which brings me to the most important reason for not slanting – if I jump through hoops to write a story for an editor, I’m ignoring my inner voice, which is screaming: “No! No! That doesn’t make sense. You’ve got to write it this way.” Stories can often be written several ways, but a few of those ways are better than others. You must trust your instinct. The way you write your story must come out of you; it must not come out of an attempt to make it acceptable to a particular editor.
That’s a tough way to go because it may mean that a lot of what you write is not what other writers are writing, so you may collect more than a few rejection slips. But it is how you write your best fiction, by being true to yourself.
Ray Bradbury had an awful time breaking into print. One of the reasons is that he wrote stories his way, which was not the way many editors wanted them. He succeeded because he was a disciplined and prolific writer (he wrote a story a week), and he started selling a story here and there. Soon he developed a following, and readers – and editors – looked for his work. Many of the other pulp writers of the Forties have long since been forgotten, but we remember Bradbury and other writers who were true to their inner voices.
Think of the best stories you’ve ever read. How many of them are standard, run-of-the-mill stuff? I would be willing to bet the stories that stick in your mind have a fresh, a different perspective. And that can only happen when the author is true to himself or herself.
So my advice is to write first, then find a market for what you write. Remain true to your inner voice, and you will be published, and you will write lasting work.
I try to avoid politics on this blog, but occasionally I make an exception when it’s a topic of vital importance to writers. The Google-Verizon deal is one of those topics.
In a nutshell, Verizon is agreeing to give Google priority on its systems over all other Internet traffic. According to the New York Times, the agreement “could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege.”
If other corporate giants hammer out similar deals–and the Verizon-Google contract is all the precedent they need–it would be the death knell of Net (network) Neutrality. Net Neutrality means that all Websites are treated equally. No Website–from Google with all of its ramifications down to Uncle Joe’s blog on wheat grass–is deemed more important than any other; the users determine the importance of any particular Website.
According to savetheinternet.com: “The consequences of a world without Net Neutrality would be devastating. Innovation would be stifled, competition limited, and access to information restricted. Consumer choice and the free market would be sacrificed to the interests of a few corporations.”
Josh Silver, President of Free Press, writes in Huffington Post that “the [Verizon-Google] deal marks the beginning of the end of the Internet as you know it.” Later in the same article Silver says:
“A non-neutral Internet means that companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Google can turn the Net into cable TV and pick winners and losers online … Ending Net Neutrality would end the revolutionary potential that any website can act as a television or radio network. It would spell the end of our opportunity to wrest access and distribution of media content away from the handful of massive media corporations that currently control the television and radio dial.”
In a New York Times article Edward Wyatt writes:
“Cable and telephone companies want free rein to sell specialized services like ‘paid prioritization,’ which would speed some content to users more quickly for a fee. Wireless companies, meanwhile, want no restrictions on wireless broadband, which they see as a different technology than Internet service over wires.”
If you think this is all abstract and may not affect you, let’s bring it a little closer to home. Are you a Twitter or Facebook user? If Net Neutrality goes, those applications most-likely would go as well; Google has similar products which would be given priority. Do you blog on WordPress? Google has Blogger, which would elbow out WordPress.
Why is Net Neutrality in danger? According to Silver: “We have a pro-industry FCC Chairman who is terrified of making a decision … a president who promised to ‘take a back seat to no one on Net Neutrality’ yet remains silent … a congress that is nearly completely captured by industry.”
Net Neutrality has been called “the first amendment issue of this generation.” It must be protected.
Every writer, reader, and Internet user has a stake in Net Neutrality. For more information and to find out what you can do to make a difference, read the complete New York Times and Josh Silver articles and visit savetheinternet.com.
For a business to succeed, four things are necessary:
To build a successful writing career, you must use the same principles.
For your writing career to prosper you must not neglect any of these areas. And don’t stop. After you’ve gone through the process with one novel, begin again with another. Keep repeating the process. And never give up. The first novel you write probably will not be the one that is published.
“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?
Voice is important to a piece of writing. Most agents will tell you that voice is a key factor in whether they accept or reject a novel. Hearing that sends many new writers into a panic–OMG, what is a voice, and how do I develop one?
I can’t give you much advice on voice, other than to assure you that you have one.
Voice is, simply, how you write. Some folks might call it your style. Your voice will develop as you learn to write. Your main literary influences will have some input into your voice. You will borrow things from them but you won’t copy them—or you shouldn’t; that would end in disaster. But you will meld these influences into your own style, your own voice.
For example, my major influences when I started writing were Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway. I got my love for creating imagery from Bradbury and Steinbeck, and I strive to keep my prose simple like Hemingway. I borrowed dialogue techniques and narrative techniques from all three.
But I didn’t copy those dudes. My imagery is down to earth (more like Steinbeck than Bradbury, whose imagery gets a little flowery at times), and I tend to mix longer sentences into my prose than Hemingway. The result was my own style, my own voice, that was different from my literary mentors.
Since then I’ve learned from lots of other writers. I learn something from almost every good novel or short story I read. I even learn from the bad ones (i.e.—don’t use that technique or the story might stink to high heaven).
Your voice doesn’t have to stand out like Bradbury’s. It may be more subtle, but it will develop and become more distinctive the more you write.
One thing I do know about voice is that you can’t consciously develop it. If you try to create a voice you will meet with a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. Your writing will sound phony, and that’s a bad thing if you’re trying to get your work published.
The best advice I can give you concerning voice is: don’t worry about it. Work on your craft, write the kinds of stories you like to read, and your voice will take care of itself.