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
In this fairy tale picture book King William is desperate to marry off his spoiled daughter, Princess Rose. She is so demanding that he finds himself hiding under furniture (we first meet him when he’s under the bed) whenever he hears her coming.
As in most fairy tales, he invites suitors to compete for the hand of the beautiful princess. Prince Sterling is one of those who applies, and she sends him on a quest to find her the perfect hairpin.
He tries three times before he brings back a hairpin Princess Rose will accept. By then he has lost his enthusiasm for the beautiful but spoiled princess, and although she agrees to marry him, he turns her down and returns to Lily, a not-so-beautiful commoner he met while on his quest for the hairpin.
The Rose and the Lily carries a resounding message: character trumps beauty every time. The story is smartly illustrated by Megan Stiver. At the end of the book, Susan Ross provides instructions on how youngsters can make a crown.
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.
I am a fan of the original Twilight Zone series, hosted by Rod Serling, who also wrote a staggering number of episodes. Because of my love for the show, I tend to write a story now and then of the TZ type. This isn’t intentional; it’s just how my mind works. Apparently, it’s fairly noticeable that “Elevator” belongs in that class. After my number one Beta Reader, my wife Cheryl, finished it, she observed: “This is like a Twilight Zone episode.” So I dedicate this story to every fan of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
“Elevator” can be downloaded for $0.99 wherever e-books are sold. Check my Books page for links.
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.
For those of you who prefer a physical book, rather than digital, The Moaning Rocks and other stories is now available as a trade paperback. At $12.95 it’s a bit more expensive than the eBook because a paper book has significant manufacturing expenses compared to a digital book, which doesn’t. Remember, the eBook is still at a special introductory price of $0.99 until May 31, 2011, at which time it will revert to its regular price of $2.99. To get the special price enter coupon code SH37D.
The Moaning Rocks and other stories contains 13 short stories and 1 novelette ranging from the commonplace to the bizarre. This collection showcases a wide range of my storytelling including contemporary, science fiction, and horror. Following each story is the my commentary on how it came to be written.
From the back cover of the paperback edition:
…and 10 other stories.
Some of the stories have been previously published, and others appear for the first time in this collection.
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
If you like Steven King’s novels, you’ll like Full Dark, No Stars. King is a master of the shorter form. I highly recommend this collection.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As a young boy, Ray Bradbury was fascinated with the planet Mars. Many kids – and even many adults – in the early 20th Century were fascinated with Mars. It was our nearest neighbor, coming as close as 35 million miles of Earth. It had green patches that could be vegetation, it had white polar caps (ice?) that appeared to shrink and grow with the seasons, and some astronomers claimed to see lines (straight lines, indicating that they were made by intelligent beings) which they called canals. What a wealth of imagination for young boys – and science fiction writers.
During the 1940s, Bradbury expressed his fascination with Mars in a series of stories, several of which he later collected into The Martian Chronicles (1950). But The Martian Chronicles is more than a collection of related stories. It is an allegory depicting the settlement of a world, obviously paralleling the settlement of the New World by the Europeans, conquering the Native Americans and taming the western wilderness. The novel also depicts the decline of human settlement on Mars. To help this collection of stories work as a novel with a unified theme, Bradbury wrote a number of bridge passages to ease the transition between stories.
I won’t say too much about the plot. For those of you who haven’t read it, I don’t want to give anything away. I wouldn’t call The Martian Chronicles science fiction. Even at the time Bradbury wrote these stories, scientists were pretty much in agreement that the Martian environment was too harsh to support human life. Bradbury never cared much about the science, which is probably why some hard core science fiction readers don’t care for him. He has always been more interested in showing what kind of trouble we can get into if we don’t use technology responsibly. According to Bradbury:
“It is all too easy for an emotionalist to go astray in the eyes of the scientific, and surely my work could never serve as a handbook for mathematicians. Somehow, though, I am compensated by allowing myself to believe that while the scientific expert can tell you the exact size, location, pulse, musculature and color of the heart, we emotionalists can find and touch it quicker.”*
So if you can get past the fudging over the science and enjoy the fantasy/allegorical aspect of The Martian Chronicles, this book has lots to say and is a must read.
*From The Ray Bradbury Companion by William F. Nolan (Detroit: Gale Research, 1975), p. 70.
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.
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.
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.