Undiscovered Countries

On Labor Day, I had the pleasure of watching SyFy’s Trekathon. In these times where it seems like all the news is bad news, the future, and worse, visions of the future, seem increasingly bleak, it was both nostalgic and exciting to revisit the inherent optimism that Gene Roddenberry infused in the original Star Trek franchise.

StarTrek6pic_origI grew up in Star Trek. My mother, being a mixed-race woman growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, found the vision of a world of Infinite Diversity and Infinite Combinations (IDIC) to be compelling and wonderful. I grew up going to Star Trek conventions with her wildly diverse group of friends whose main point of commonality was this optimistic vision of what could be, and there is still a fanzine out there somewhere in someone’s attic with my first poem titled, “I Love Spock.”

idic_keep_calm_by_sailmaster_seion-d6dv4rrI don’t remember what I wrote, and that’s probably for the best.

I do remember running through the halls of the Hunt Valley Marriot Hotel at Shoreleave (a Star Trek convention that I recently revisited after a decade had passed,) playing laser tag with kids and adults of all ages and backgrounds. I remember being horribly teased because my mother wrote me a note explaining that the reason I wasn’t in school for the Friday of that weekend was because I had a “family reunion” and my friend at the time (who I’d made the mistake of excitedly confiding in) told someone else, who told a teacher, so when I got back, even the teachers were making fun of me being “taken to my leader” and the like. (Some of this was good natured, and some of it was not…doesn’t matter, my mom is just awesome either way!) I still have most of my Tribbles (and Dribbles, the ones with the eyes) and I owned the two tape series, Power Klingon, though I never had the dedication to learn the language. I remember Pirate parties, and watching the first appearance of the Borg at my mom’s friend’s house in front of her giant screen TV, gasping in horror and shock when Picard declared, “I am Locutus of Borg.”

i_am_locutus_of_borg_by_trotsky17-d5fjy65In short, I was raised in a Geek’’s Paradise, and it’s made me who I am today. Thank whatever Gods are out there.

Yet now, when we look at visions of the future in popular media, it seems like the darker aspects of our nature dominate. Don’t get me wrong, I love these dark stories too. The remake of Judge Dredd had me on the edge of my seat, and I’m a huge fan of the ‘we’re all just trying to stay ahead of the gutter, but we don’t really win’ theme that permeates Firefly (the series). I love cyberpunk and Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. I think these stories are a reflection of the world we’re living in, where the line between good and evil seems increasingly blurred, and there are so many possibilities even in your Facebook feed that it’s difficult to latch onto anything and call it right.

It’s hard to imagine a United Federation of Planets when even having an effective United Nations seems difficult, and getting the U.S. Congress to do anything seems impossible.

As fiction writers, we’re supposed to be lying to tell the truth. But I wonder if, in the barrage of negativity we see in the world, the bombardment of Youtube videos of beheadings, school and police shootings, and the generalized glorification of violence that seems rampant in our media, we are reflecting the right stuff. Not that I’m advocating in any way the forced wholesomeness of censored media. I just wonder if by reflecting disproportionately the dark, depressing, and violent, are we in turn projecting a future of increasing darkness, depression and unnecessary violence?

such_different_tribbles_by_ayumi_lemura-d4fskiw

When Gene Roddenberry envisioned the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise, that vision did not reflect the world he lived in. The world he lived in had rampant sexism and racism throughout. The world he lived in considered the Russians and the Japanese to be the enemy, and Black people having equal rights to be a threat to the fabric of ‘normal’ society. He projected a better world (okay, one that still had its fair share of sexism and whitewashing but he was trying.) His future was optimistic, and people like my mother in that optimism found a future worth believing in. It’s what drew me towards science, writing science fiction and fantasy, and towards a deeply held understanding that the differences between us can be breached through open conversation and mutual respect. I think it helped foster in me a basic belief in the goodness of people (which often contrasts with reality, but I’ve found that by having faith in people’s better natures, they will often live up to them in spite of themselves.) It’s not 100%, and Star Trek has been forced on many occasions to examine and recreate itself when it has not lived up to its vision, but that vision has shaped our world and many, many people (like me) in it.

trek cast classic

When I think about writing, I do find myself sometimes falling into the trap of being reactive. In writing, especially in writing speculative fiction, we have the ability literally to shape worlds and reality, and it’s easy to reflect haphazardly instead of truly creating. And reflecting is great, when there’s something behind it. That said, I also think we have a profound opportunity, right now, because things seem so dark, to create through our fiction a world we want to live in. Not a perfect world, but maybe a possible future where the darker parts of our nature haven’t won yet. Where it’s not a given that we’ll all be living in a dystopian hellhole just because it sure looks like that’s where we’re going. (and I LOVE dystopian hellhole books and movies, I’m just sayin’…) Maybe we can write about a world where everyone, at every moment, isn’t entirely operating from pure self-interest. (GotG managed to pull this one off I think) Because compassion is a part of us too, and sometimes it even wins. The truth is, we are a mix of dark and light, optimism and pessimism, action and reaction.

So let’s lay in our course to the futures that we create, and let some of them even rest among the stars.

Naima

 

 

 

Advertisements

Frozen – How to Beat the Blank Page!

What do you do when you sit down in front of that blank piece of paper, blank screen, or partially complete manuscript and you have nothing, I mean NOTHING to say? Let’s face it, this is an experience we’ve all had as writers, especially fiction writers. Whether you’re just starting a story or smack in the middle of it, we’ve all frozen up.

shutterstock_63759181And after the freezing comes the fear:

  • Is this story wrong?
  • Will I ever have a good idea again?
  • Do I just suck as a writer?

After years of writing, I’ve found the source of my deep freeze usually stems from two areas:

1. Am I missing something I need to know about my world?

  • This applies both to realistic and fantastic fiction, though your approach to answering that question may differ. For example, in a recent, non-speculative fiction novel, I had to write a scene about a man who was having a heart attack. The story was set in modern day, but characters had neither a working cell phone nor a landline telephone. I had a number of characters on the scene, one who was trained in CPR. My story got stuck rather quickly because I needed some basic information: (a) how long could a person be under CPR before being reasonably revived (b) how long a person could perform CPR without succumbing to exhaustion (c) how far the runner would need to go in order to find someone with a working cell-phone? A bit of research into the terrain and the intricacies of CPR and I was good to go!
  • The same thing can apply more deeply. For example, is your magical system unclear? What do people eat in your world, what are the obligations of a host to a guest, how long does it take to travel from village A to B and etc. Sometimes the answer is just learning more about your world, whatever it is. The danger of this, of course, is spending the next two weeks playing the research game. So how do you escape this trap? For me, I always ask myself, what is the minimum I need to know to write the scene? Get specific. For example, I need to know what the obligation of a host is to a particular guest, but only insofar as it’s relevant to the scene at hand. I can fill in the rest later, should it become relevant. The more important a detail is to your story, the more you need to fill it in, but if it’s a minor thing, don’t spend more than a ten or fifteen minutes looking/making it up.

So how do get yourself unfrozen when faced with a world building problem? Here is my favorite site for developing my world: Patricia Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions. It is VERY detailed, and I don’t start with doing everything here, but I try to touch on the high points as I like to have a fair amount of worldbuilding done before I start writing. I also find that these questions apply just as well to science fiction as to fantasy worlds.

LINK: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

2. Am I missing something I need to know about a character in the scene?

  • Main character: Is there something important that I don’t “know” about my main character that I need to know in order to start this story/write this scene? Do I know enough about this person’s past in order to understand her present? Do I have a good feel for her voice?
  • Supporting Characters: Is there something I need to know about non-main character in the scene? I especially love to ask this of minor characters. What’s the butler’s story? How about that kid in the corner shining shoes? The fool? The family dog? The most important question for me about minor characters is “what do they want?” Either that or, “what is their secret”. Both of these are fun. Even something as simple as the man serving wine wants to get back to the kitchen and see his  boyfriend gives me some idea of how he’s acting in the scene. His boyfriend is the main character’s brother makes things even more fun.

So how do you learn more about your characters? For me, the best method for finding out what I’m missing is to do a character journal. If it’s a main character, I’ve generally done a character journal either before I start the book or at least somewhere in Chapter 1. But for minor characters, I may not know anything about them at all. So my first step is to look at each minor character and ask myself, “What are you doing in this scene? Why are you here?” and most importantly, “What do you want?” or “what is your secret?” Usually my instincts for this are pretty good, and it only takes 1-2 characters for me to find out who the important (seemingly unimportant) person in the scene is. Once I know who this person is, what they want, and what they’re hiding, the scene usually gets unstuck rather quickly and it’s full speed ahead!

My favorite resource for character journaling is in Alice Orr’s book No More Rejections. I’ve used the character journaling techniques in this book for over a decade and they’ve work for me. What I like about her approach is that you answer the question in the first person and there are many questions like, “I think my best feature is ____” which allows you to really get into the psychology of how the character feels about herself as opposed to merely a physical list of traits. I’ve applied this approach to character lists I’ve found for free online, but hers is the best, in my opinion.

LINK: http://www.amazon.com/No-More-Rejections-Secrets-Manuscript/dp/1582972850/

So that’s my approach, first I check my world, and then I check my characters. What do you do to get unstuck? Feel free to post in the comments below.

The “Rules” of Trilogies–Do They Exist?

Recently in the world of young adult literature, a couple highly hyped trilogies came to an end. Their concluding installments had been eagerly anticipated online, as fans hypothesized about and debated what might happen. How would the books’ respective authors bring these sweeping tales to a proper close?

Then the books came out, and reviews began pouring in. Some readers were delighted, others horrified, and still others found themselves somewhere in the middle. But what I found interesting was the often-repeated sentiment that trilogies have rules, and both authors had broken the rules—and thus betrayed the readers.

This group of readers pointed out that the first book of a trilogy traditionally introduces the main characters and establishes the stakes that will have to be addressed in the rest of the trilogy, including just what’s being fought for. The second book dives further into the problem and the challenges the characters face (as well as the growth that results), often heightening those stakes. The third volume showcases the climax and ends with a satisfying resolution, tying up most, if not all, plot threads.

 

Because both the books I’m referring to are new releases, and I don’t want to spoil anyone, I’m not going to refer to titles. Instead, I’ll paraphrase what happens and how this deviates from the expectations listed above. Let’s call the books A and B, shall we?

In Book A’s trilogy, the author had told the story through a first-person point of view and of course had the narrator endure some big trials and challenges. The stakes for her grew ever higher—to the point that in Book A, she chooses to sacrifice her life. In other words, the author killed off the main character, leaving behind her love interest (and telling the rest of the book from his point of view).

Some readers thought this was a very brave decision and felt true to the story and the protagonist’s arc, and they thought the cost of the protagonist’s self-sacrifice gave the trilogy its emotional resonance. Many others were infuriated, claiming the author had broken the rules of a trilogy. The main character, the one we’re rooting for, they said, is supposed to survive to the end. If you’ve killed off the main character, you’ve killed off any purpose to the three books leading up to her death, and by extension, you’ve cheated the reader, who invested time and money in those books.

In Book B’s trilogy, the existence of magic is revealed here on Earth, and then through a twist of storytelling, we’re shown that there is another world, too, from which the magic comes. The main character is actually part of a great war between races in that other world. In book two, we’re introduced to the war’s participants and shown the stakes—made greater especially because some of those participants want to bring their war to Earth. Also, a new character is shown to be pursuing one of our main characters. But in Book B, those two subplots and others are quickly and easily resolved in order to make way for new characters and an even greater revelation about the scope and nature of the universe. The battles yet to come must necessarily be left up the readers’ imagination; there’s just no room for them in this volume.

 

Again, some readers thought the inclusion of new characters and an even bigger scope (though it would never be addressed in that particular trilogy) was fantastic. They couldn’t praise the author’s sense of worldbuilding and imagination enough. Others felt the book had deviated wildly from the course promised in the first volume, and they often didn’t care about the new characters and felt their presence took screen time away from the characters they did care about. They also mentioned being unsatisfied by the introduction of new plot elements that will never be resolved and the dropping of high-stakes plot threads.

But at the end of the day, readers don’t determine a trilogy’s course. The author does. So who’s right, if anyone?

Let us know what you think: Do trilogies have rules? Do authors have implicit agreements with their readers? When you pick up book one of a trilogy, do you expect the author to follow a familiar trajectory, if not a formula? Has the author failed if not? Can you think of any trilogies where going against the expectations made the book better?

Some Thoughts on Revising

I’ve been revising. A lot. I recently sold a short story I’d started in 2006 to an amazing anthology, and even though I’d rewritten the piece a number of times in the intervening years, it still wasn’t quite right.

Only I’d gotten too close to see what wasn’t working, and so had my critique partners, who’d read a few drafts. So enter the wonderful anthology editors, who got right to the point and showed me exactly what needed to go.

Once I got that story cleaned up and turned in, I moved on to another piece I’d written last year. The Sirens had critiqued it, but I’d never gotten around to revising. Now that I am, it’s amazing how spot-on and vital others’ comments can be in helping you fix your own story.

All that said, here are some thoughts I’ve compiled over the past few months.

Underwoodfive

  • You absolutely need others’ eyes. I don’t care if you’re a gigantic name splashed over the New York Times bestseller list for forty weeks in a row with rights sold all over the world. (May we all be so lucky.) You need others to show you where holes remain in your work, where you can tighten things, where you can and should cut.
  • Trust your own writing. In the anthology story, I’d repeatedly shown a character doing/feeling something and then gone ahead and explained it. (To be fair, a lot of this was holdover from previous drafts. See above about being too close to to the material.) If you’ve done your job right, you don’t need to explain these things to your readers. They’ll get it from context.
  • Sometimes even those of us who tend to write in more poetic voices can have the most impact by saving those poetic images for the actual magic/supernatural moments in our stories. Not always, but it’s something to consider.
  • One clear image is much sharper and more effective than a jumble of two or three. That undercuts their power.
  • You don’t automatically have to kill your darlings—you should like what you’ve written!—but you do need to make them work for you. If you can’t find a way to do that, then yes, cut them. I’ve heard it said that each scene should either develop character or advance plot or establish setting (ideally all three), but I’d add that this pertains to every sentence, too. Make your pretty prose/cool character/awesome idea hold its weight!
  • Sometimes the right elements are there in the story; they’re just in the wrong place. Moving them around and applying the putty of transitions, etc., can often be just the thing you need.
  • Wonderful, unusual ideas are exciting, but they need to be supported by an emotional payoff in some way. Not every character has to be likable, but the reader does need to be able to form some sort of connection to them. Basically, know what the emotional stakes underpinning your story are, and make them clear.
  • Your story doesn’t have to be absolutely linear, but for the most part, unless you’re doing something experimental, the reader needs a bit of foreshadowing and the suggestion of structure. You want them to think, Of course it would end that way!—not because it’s predictable, but because subtle clues were sprinkled throughout, creating a sense of inevitability. Otherwise, the ending feels unearned and confusing, and the reader goes away unsatisfied. Know where your story is going, and lay a path to get there.

So those are some of my musings on the process. Do you agree? Disagree? Have anything to add? Tell us in the comments.

Due Process, or How Do You Write?

Naima and I were having a conversation the other day while painting pottery at a local studio (so much fun, and I totally recommend it as a way to recharge your creative batteries!) about art. You see, Naima trained as an artist, and has recently started honing her abilities again. I used to draw until I quit in high school, believing I wasn’t good enough, so why bother?. But I recently realized how much I miss art and decided to start taking drawing classes, because I really wanted to be able to do it well. Not for anyone else, just for me.

So Naima observed me at work, first painting my plate and then sketching a still life. She remarked that she thinks artists (and this includes writers) fit into one of two categories. Either they’re messy artists, who let loose with their charcoal or words or ideas at the beginning and have to go back and prune/erase mercilessly in revisions, or they’re clean artists. Clean artists are meticulous, the ones who have to do things just so and get a section right before they can move onto the next one. Naima falls into the first, and I fall into the second.

But both have their advantages and disadvantages. With being messy, there’s more freedom for entire volumes of incredible ideas to tumble into being—but a lot more to whip into shape later. With being clean, there’s more order and planning involved, but less opportunity for wild brainstorming and amazing schemes to fall into your lap. Either way, with hard work, you’ll get to where you’re going. In the end, Naima and I both finished our plates, even if mine took longer. (And I still need to go back and add a little detail. Meticulously, of course.)

The same goes for our writing. Naima can conjure the arc of an entire doorstopper trilogy out of one scene, while I really have to go bit by bit (“the three feet in the headlights the whole way” method). Which way is better? Neither. It’s what works for us as individuals. I’ve noticed there’s often a tendency for people to figure out what works for them and then try to say it’s the one correct way to do things. Considering how different we are as people and how varied our life experiences, I think there are as many ways to do things as there are humans on the planet. Not to mention process can change through time. My first novel started life as a NaNoWriMo draft, and then I rewrote it five more times. With my second novel, I’m doing my best to get each chapter as good as I can before moving on.

Maybe you’re a writer who can churn out ten thousand words in one sitting and have them be amazing. Maybe you need five years and a room of your own to produce an elegant manuscript. Maybe you need to write seven drafts before you’re even ready to show your work to anyone else. But your process is yours.

It took me a long, long time to accept that. I would compare myself to other writers and get so frustrated that glorious, profound literature—with magic, of course—wasn’t just pouring forth effortlessly from my fingers. Or that I couldn’t imagine the entire final version of the story in one go, only tiny slivers that often turn out not to be right, anyway. And it’s not like I don’t get envious sometimes of other people’s processes. But I can’t change my brain, so instead, I think about what I can do. Write a little at a time, maybe a thousand words, maybe two, and polish along the way as I discover what my story really is.

Anyway, the important thing is to get to know your brain and how it functions for you. Clean, messy, fast, slow . . . your brain is the only one that can make your particular art, and that’s the point.

So how would you classify your process, or are you still figuring it out?

What Rappers Can Teach Writers

Recently, I watched Something from Nothing: the Art of Rap, Ice-T’s first documentary. It’s on—you guessed it—the art of rap, and it brings in some of the biggest and most respected names in the business to talk about how they craft and refine their art. (It’s on Netflix and Amazon and everywhere else, so see it. It’s pretty amazing.)

As I watched, it occurred to me that so many of the insights these artists offer up are things that writers should listen to. Now you are probably smarter than me, so you probably immediately thought “Duh, of course writers could learn from rappers. Rappers ARE writers.” Well, yes. But I was so used to thinking of rappers as musicians and collaborators that I never considered that a lot of their work still takes place inside their heads, or alone in a room. Just like writers.

So, I pass on to you just a few pieces of knowledge this film captured:

Skip the setup. “Once you grab the mic, in the first bar of your rhyme, you have to swing the crowd to you.” KRS-One tells amateur rappers to hit the ground running. Don’t tell people what you’re going to do, just do it. Writers hear about this concept a lot (hook readers in the first page, the first line) but it’s important not to forget it. No one is going to give you a gold star just for showing up; you have to show what you’ve got. Bring your best and the audience will follow you. But you can’t drag them there. They have to want to go along. Speaking of…

Learn how to listen. “If you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.” DJ Premier is talking about understanding hip hop versus jazz and blues…but the same thing is true for writers. If you’re going to write in a genre, learn the genre. “You have to know the language” says DJ Premier. For writer, that means reading the classics of the genre, learning what the tropes are, seeing how things have evolved. Don’t assume you can fake it, because the readers who love the genre will definitely spot your ignorance…and they’ll tear you apart. Which brings us to the next lesson…

You’re gonna get booed. Eminem tells his story of getting booed during his first attempt to rap in public, an event that got recreated in the movie 8 Mile. He’s up front about it being traumatic. He initially felt like he was done after that…and who would blame him? (At least beginning writers can read their rejections in private.) But obviously, he didn’t give up. He says “couple days later, week later, hour later” he realized he had to get up and do it again. And eventually it worked out. Are you guaranteed to achieve Eminem-like levels of fame if you keep at it? Of course not. But you sure as hell won’t achieve more if you quit now. Which brings us to…

Know how to work. Immortal Technique discusses his…well, technique for how to write. He often works out or boxes, saying “I come back with my blood up…but instead of physically fighting, I focus on fighting mentally.” Everyone has a way to get into the flow of writing. Maybe you need silence. Maybe you need loud. Maybe you need to eat. Maybe you need to not eat. Figure out what gets you ready to write and then stick to it. One warning about this idea: don’t let your habit become an excuse. Just because you don’t have your special yellow legal pad and #2 pencil with you doesn’t mean you can’t write. The pen is just an instrument. So is the computer. The writing comes from you. If you find yourself making excuses, maybe you need to…

Make sure this thing is for you. Dr Dre says once you decide on your path, “you have to give it the passion that’s necessary.” Why listen to Dre? Out of a 27 year career, he took two weeks off. Two weeks. That’s dedication. If you’re a writer, you need to give the same dedication to your craft. You don’t have to write every single day, but you have to be consistent, and you have to care. And, finally…

Be yourself. Speak with an original voice, make it your voice, and make the best thing you possibly can. That’s how you get to be the best. In the words of Snoop, who closes the film: “Find yourself, find your art, find your heart.” Aw, Snoop. You said it.

There’s a lot more where that came from (seriously, just watch the movie…you’ll be smarter at the end). As writers, we should constantly look for ways to write better and improve our craft, and that means learning from every source, even ones that don’t seem obvious at first. Got it? Now go write!

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.