Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Moving right along

The trickiest place in writing a novel is the middle of the first act. There is a lot to do. One of the hardest critiques to try and fix is a chapter in the first act where you've dropped a huge clue and the critiquer says, “Well, that was fun and showed something about the characters, but how did it move the story along?”

It makes me feel like a stripper who is preforming in a low class club. I'm trying to do flashes and teases while the audience wants immediate gratification.

There is a fine line between putting in the plot point so subtly that the reader says, “I didn't need to know that little detail so I'll skip it” and writing “PLOT POINT:” just before a paragraph.

Another problem with leaving subtle clues is trying to fool your main character without fooling the reader. In one novel I have a character who breaks character often. In the first draft I just had her do that so once the reader found out why she was doing it they would go, “So that explains that.”

In my first read through I could see that a reader would think one of two things. I was a horrible writer who couldn't keep my character in character. Or, my main character was really dumb. I wasn't going for either one of those so I had to rewrite those parts so my main character notices the changes but has a reason to ignore them.

One tool I use to help me with my plot points is a spreadsheet.

I started this just to keep track of my progress. I'd put the Chapter Number, Chapter Name and word count in a spreadsheet and have it add up my word count so I could see where I was in the book.

I changed that later to help in editing by adding a description of the chapter. This not only helped in editing as I could quickly find a chapter but I could also see how the novel progressed. So I put another column in labeled “PLOT POINT”. Every chapter in my books have at least one.

When I go back through, I see if the plot point is obvious or buried. Then I can work on it. It works pretty well for most of the plot points and points out the problems, fixing them is a little harder.

My worst one so far is it is important that for the reader to see that Howie, a college freshman, knows what a bandelore is. He has to think it is natural for him to know about bandelores, Packard twin-sixes, and other things from the turn of the century, but so far my beta readers are missing that plot point and laughing at my dialog. So even being able to pinpoint where the problem is doesn't always lead to a solution.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Three Elements a good story needs

Of all the absolute “rules” for writing, one rule is never mentioned but I have never seen a good story that violates this one. I have seen too many bad books and movies that violate this rule.

There are three things a good story needs, A beginning, a middle, and an end. Every single book or movie I have liked had these things.

What got me thinking about this was I watched Spiderman II the other day. I had seen it before but for the life of me could not remember what happened. After watching it again I still don't. But I did notice the profound lack of a beginning or an end.

I have liked books that switched things up a bit, started at the end and had the beginning in the middle and that sort of thing. But they still had a beginning and an end. When a story doesn't have all three elements it is not a story. It is just looking at a characters daily life, even the most interesting of characters can't stand up to that sort of peeping.

The beginning:

I've talked about this before, this is the event that changes the character's life and gets the ball rolling. Fred going to work at an accounting job is not a beginning unless he finds something strange that changes his life that day.

It is the same with Superheroes or Monsters. Batman patrolling the streets of Gotham City, isn't a story it's part of the neighborhood watch. His running into a new supervillian that makes him have to change tactics is the beginning of a story.

The middle:

Stuff happens to move the main character towards the end. Without an end there is no middle.

The end:

Not every single plot thread needs to closed, and evil doesn't have to be punished but there needs to be an end. Even in the middle of a trilogy there is an end to the storyline started that second chapter. EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a great example:

Beginning: Our heroes are going their separate ways.

Middle: They learn they need each other. It's a handy lesson for Luke.

End: They vow to reunite.

No matter what genre you write in, except free form poetry, make sure your writing has a beginning, a middle, and an End.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Writing Wednesday: Society Building


I live in a house that was built in 1920. One of the first things I had to do was build closets, because in 1920 they didn't have closets. Being curious I wondered why.

Before the 20th century people kept their few clothes in armoires, these had shelves and drawers to store the clothes. The clothes were laid flat, so it would be tough to organize more than a few clothes. Then in 1903 the world changed.

Albert J. Parkhouse arrived as usual at his workplace, the Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company in Jackson, Michigan, which specialized in making lampshade frames and other wire items. When he went to hang his hat and coat on the hooks provided for the workers, Parkhouse found all were in use.

Annoyed-and inspired-Parkhouse picked up a piece of wire, bent it into two large oblong hoops opposite each other, and twisted both ends at the center into a hook. Then he hung up his coat and went to work.

That simple invention increased the amount clothes that could be stored. Armoires gave way to Wardrobes that had both drawers and hooks for clothes hangers. Someone took the idea of a clothesline and put it into the wardrobe and shirts and coats could be easily sorted.

With the ability to store more than a few clothes people stopped the practice of wearing the same clothes for a month before washing them. With so much more clothes hand washing became a chore so in 1908 the washing machine was made.

Wardrobes became bigger and more elaborate after WWII architects started building them in to home plans.

This simple act of annoyance changed the world we live in forever.

How does all this effect writing?

In SFF it a very important part. As you build your physical world you have to think about how it will effect the people living in that world.

One of the least thought out society reacting to technology is the STAR TREK next generation universe. Two pieces of technology would make that society unrecognizable to us. The Replicator and the Holodeck.

The Replicator would completely transform society. If you had everything you wanted at your fingertips how would the economy work. There are only two ways it could go:

One way would be a slave economy, where all money flowed to the owners of the energy sources that powered the replicators. The masses would have to provide services to these masters of the world to get a little energy to power their replicators. A very small middle class would make some money by selling designs for products to be replicated, but piracy would create a police state where every time you designed something of your own it would have to be checked against existing designs.

Judges would spend all their time checking how close a knockoff is to the original. For instance what if you took one of Gordon Ramsey's meals and used three quarters of a tablespoon of salt instead of a full tablespoon of salt? Would that be an original creation that you could sell for a tenth of the price?

Trying to use a capitalist model on a world with replicators would be a disaster.

So Gene Roddenberry pictured a world without money. Some have called this Socialism, and it is very close to Marxist Socialism taken one step farther. The consumers literally control the means of production.

With no incentive to work, many simply wouldn't. However, working is something that people do enjoy. Some of the nicest neighborhoods are the ones with a lot of retired people. You see flowerbeds that took a lot of work, carefully crafted landscaping, unique fences. These things don't give the owners much material gain, but they get the satisfaction of a job well done.

So the elite would go into Starfleet and the next tier would go into the Civil Corp of Engineers. There would be a huge art movement. But there would also be the dregs of society, a large percentage of the people would simply give up. People who want to do meaningful work but everything is provided for them and they aren't creative enough to be in the engineering sector of the art sector. Star Trek never shows this class of citizens.

Needless to say I absolutely hated the episodes that took place on Earth, as this problem was never directly addressed.

The societal problems of replicators could be addressed and you could build a nice society taking all that into consideration. The Star Trek technology that the writers thought would be a good idea but never (well, barely) addressed was the Holodeck.


You have the ability to create a world distinguishable from the real world. Sounds great, but what happens when the real world sucks.

You tried like crazy to get into Starfleet, and failed out. You wonder what would happen if you didn't. Jump in the Holodeck and you're no longer a failure. Time to come out and study, why you don't need the real world.

The object of your affection dumps you, hop in the Holodeck where they love you.

A family member dies, no problem they will live forever in the Holodeck.

The Holodeck does address the problem of what to do with the people who give up on wanting to do meaningful work but it would hit all parts of society.

I haven't met anyone whose life was so wonderful that there was never a time that they wanted to give up. It's the biggest part of being human that during life there will be many times that you're knocked down, it is the struggle to recover that makes you who you are. With the Holodeck it would be too easy just to stop struggling and give up. Soon all of society would retreat into Holodecks and never come out again. It would be the last invention humans ever made.


So while you are building your world, try to imagine what anything you add to your world would do to your society. A small thing like the coat hanger can change the world profoundly. A huge fictional invention like the Holodeck might seem like a cool idea, but when you look at how it would impact society it soon becomes a disaster.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Writing Wednesday: World Building

Welcome to my favorite part of writing, World Building.

In Science Fiction and Fantasy the world building is huge part of the novel. In Science Fiction the master of world building, using what we know about the universe, is Arthur C. Clarke. In his book 2010 he took the data from the Voyager mission that showed how Jupiter's moons weren't just lumps of dead rocks but vibrant worlds in their own right to create a fascinating, and possible, place where life exists on Europa and Jupiter's core is a diamond the size of Earth.

In Fantasy world building the master has to be George Lucas. In making STAR WARS he blended the pure Fantasy elements of many species living side by side and the space opera elements of droids and faster than light warships to make a fantastic fantasy place.

There is a lot of talk about how world-building is out in literature. I have four things to say about that:

2010 by Arthur C. Clarke, first novel to receive a million dollar advance.

STAR WARS by George Lucas grossed three quarters of a billion dollars.

The STAR TREK franchise turned Paramount, later Viacom into a media empire.

Lord of the Ring trilogy made over $2.5 billion.

I picked these examples because the world building in these stories overwhelms the other elements and they are hugely popular.

So how do you make a fantastic world to put your story in? Think about the elements of your world and what that does to the bigger picture.

In THE SETTING EARTH I placed the story on Ceres, the dwarf planet in the asteroid belt. I looked up a few facts about the place.

It's gravity is 1/38th that of Earth, so a normal person would weigh between 4 and 5 pounds.

It is roughly 100 degrees warmer than the space around it, where does that heat come from? Very likely as it interacts with other asteroids in the belt its core is twisted and turned making it volcanically active. What does that mean for my settlers on the Dwarf Planet? It means there could be an underground ocean and speculating further that ocean could contain native life.

Once I had that concept I could imagine all the fun that my settlers could do to transform this dwarf world into paradise.

A fun sport on the surface of Ceres would be golf. Under the low gravity even an amateur could hit a 3 to 4 mile line drive.

With the underground ocean they could build giant tubes 60 to 90 kilometers across and they could build a habitat larger than the horizon so you wouldn't be able to tell you weren't in a park on Earth except for the gravity. That difference is where they can have fun.

Weighing only 5 pounds and being in a full atmosphere of pressure, they could strap on a pair of wings and fly where ever they felt like going.

Other fun things about the world I created on Ceres. The day is 8 hours long, so besides a work day being a full day, its spin is faster than Earth. I had my characters rest by a waterfall and the combination of the faster spin and the lower gravity made the coriolis effect noticeable so the waterfall curved 40 feet instead of falling straight down.

Unfortunately I had to ignore a known unknown. It is very likely that Ceres has a few moons. I had my main character star gaze a bit. He didn't notice the moons because I have no way of knowing their size and orbit. The odds of my guessing right are slim to nonexistent so in 2015 when the Dawn spacecraft visits Ceres anything I wrote about Ceres moons would be proven so wrong that it would be a distraction.

What I loved about my building a world out of the little data we have about Ceres is I could let my imagination run free but it was bounded by a few guidelines to make it consistent.

In fantasy the same rules apply but you have to make your own starting points.

In non SFF world building is still important. Even if you base your story on a real place you need to decide what elements of reality you are going to use and what elements need to be replaced with fiction.

One author that is considered great at weaving fictional characters and events into real places and events is James A. Michener. Reading a Michener novel is an undertaking so pick carefully. His novels are finely crafted to have the story weave in and out of the real world. While reading his novels you do get immersed in the worlds he is creating, unfortunately they tend to run over 1,000 pages so even a quick reader like myself needs to be immersed in that world for at least a week. Unlike books from some more superficial writers that run that long, you can't read a few hundred pages put it aside for a week and start reading again.

If you like torturing yourself for your art, reading Michener is good for seeing the technique of combining the real world with a world he created. But I beg of you, if you do study his technique, make your novels shorter.

The final word of advice I have on world building is do the exact opposite of what is being said. In building your world be as imaginative as possible, as long as it stays within the guidelines you first set down. Clarke took everything we knew about Jupiter's system of moons and let his imagination run wild in creating the details.

Lucas took whatever elements he liked from any genre and mashed them together and forever changed SFF. People can argue if this is good or bad but it can't be denied that he changed the genres.

STAR TREK has become a genre of its own.

The problem of world building in novels isn't that people aren't interested in it. The problem is that writers have gotten timid and don't take the world building far enough.