On Writing


Just add cheese…

I’ve been watching the Librarians, though I’m a couple episodes behind at the moment, and I can’t deny that it is one of those deeply silly shows where enjoying it is not so much a suspension of disbelief but an acceptance that you are watching something deliberately over-the-top, into the realm of farce. It’s intensely cheesy, and it’s only redemption is that – for all it’s faults – it has a great deal of heart.

The cheese, though, the over-the-topness and silliness, is one step shy of epic. Or one step beyond epic. In my own writing, attempting scifi and fantasy (especially) has been for me an exercise in learning to hear cheese. How far can you go before it’s just too ridiculous. Where is the line between awesome + funny and that blank stare where the reader/audience/whatever is trying to decide if this was serious or they’re supposed to laugh. And then – as if that wasn’t precise enough – where to take our humor so that they’re laughing with you and not at you.

I often err on the side of safety, so my forays into epic are few and far between and it becomes all the more important that I be able to hear the cheese. A lot of my old writing is a little cheesier than that I really like now, and going back to read it is a little bit like going back and looking at pictures of me as a kid. I didn’t even know how silly I was being, and it’s a little bit charming now, but also something I’m glad to have left behind.

Cheesy dialogue is the worst offender, but then dialogue is always a rough one to deal with.

But, yes – I’m still not sure where exactly the line is, at least not for me. How much can I attempt intensity, attempt ‘epic’ before it all falls apart as ‘trying too hard’?


Decisions Decisions 1

There is something to be said for pulling as far back from your project as you can and taking a good, hard look at the metanarratives and themes incorporated into the most stripped down version of the story.

The original version of the story that I’m deconstructing was written in 2012, and despite the fact it was only now just barely 3 years ago, the change in my writing style and baseline assumptions is marked. Some of the decisions I made subconsciously I have needed to re-examine, to tease apart and consider their guts. I’ve discarded some major elements already and my conceptualization of just who the main character actually is has radically shifted.

However, some stuff that I’ve examined I’ve decided to keep, and I think the why is just as interesting as how it’s going to be used in my novel. For example, here are a couple of the questions that my examination of Station has brought to light:

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Q: What commentary does it have that chose a very Cold War version of an negative future, of a blasted and razed planet, rather than the modern negative futures which are predominantly dystopian?

A: My central idea is that this is a society frozen in time, literally and figuratively.

Important because:

The type of apocalypse chosen for a work of science fiction is influenced by all sorts of things, and mine is by far an away affected by the 80s. lot of the written scifi I cut my teeth on was 70s and 80s stuff, plus scifi television operating on vanishingly small budgets. Other planets, even ones with life on them, look like dusty, soundstages full of foam rocks, or like quarries in Wales, or like the uncomplicated interiors of spaceships where the walls are all sheet metal or painted flats. My mental image of the future is theatrical, and where it’s not, I am predisposed to view far off planets as devoid of life, looking far more like the images sent back by Curiosity from Mars. So, from the outset, this other planet I’m creating began life as a barren, radioactive world.

So that’s where I started, mostly subconsciously, in building a world where the last remnants of the population have been forced underground to scrabble for vanishing resources.

I’m choosing to keep this construction, though, because it IS a Cold War fear.

In contrast: There’s a trend right now in apocalyptic science fiction that it’s going to be a massive natural disaster that kills us, or we will be deliberately murdered by our creations spun wildly out of our control by our own abuses (okay, that one’s not new). It’s indicative of how much more we’re connected and how much faster we can communicate globally, that fears that our failures will cause widespread destruction in the form of the inexorable power of the elements. It’s the sea levels rising, and cities sinking. It’s about earthquakes and pandemics and the inability to out-science crop blight or nuclear winter or just straight-up meteors falling from the heavens. The predominant theme to a lot of the more modern apocalyptic scenarios is ‘this is us, we screwed up, it’s our fault and now things are irreparable and wildly beyond our control and it might have actually snuck up on us while we weren’t paying close enough attention.’

For the sense of Cold War destruction, on the other hand, in this idea of an irradiated planet wracked by war, it’s tied up into fear of the other guy, of annihilation at the push of the button the moment that the factions become unbalanced and the whole game board tilts and everyone’s dumped off. It’s helpless fear that somewhere, someone might nudge something out of place and all you’ll be able to do is put on your sunglasses and sit on the porch to watch the fireworks as your planet flares into ashes one metropolis at a time. It’s the idea that action (stepping forward OR stepping back) is the doom of the human race, and that we’re two minutes to midnight.

While this concept of aggressive tension is, absolutely, relevant to today (the doomsday clock is at 5 minutes to midnight, updated 2014 if you believe wikipedia), the global narrative has changed. Stories attempting to avert apocalypse or even (on a smaller scale) citywide disaster, are not about stealing the codes for nuclear missiles so that Enemy Nation can bomb Some Capitol, but about averting terrorist plots of mass murder. And the plots are not about winning any sort of war, it’s about destroying people because ideological reasons, or about much more personal greed or power. Even nuclear threats and international power dynamics are couched in terms of terrorism rather than superpowers at odds.

Of course there are exceptions, there are always exceptions, and what I’m describing is very much Western-centric. The narrative has had to change, especially for the US, for various reasons. What I’m driving at, however, is that I want to use the idea that mutually assured destruction is deeply reactionary. It arguably freezes escalation and – at the same time – it also freezes deescalation.

So, in my choice to use this type of apocalypse, I become most interested in one primary question: what happens when deescalation (the usual better choice) also assures destruction?

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And moving on…

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Q: What sort of idea am I exploring by placing emphasis on toxic responsibility?

A: Even if someone is doing what they feel is right, is honorable, or is the responsible thing, they can become a worse version of themselves if the environment (or any other factor) is toxic.

Important because:

Even though you’re the person who should have the resources, the skills, and the experience to accomplish something, you could still be exactly the wrong person for the job. Responsibility, depending on what it is, hits different people in many different ways, and not just responsibility. Toxic factors – relationships, environments, expectations – can also warp the efforts and emotions of someone who is trying the best they can.

The choice of what to do with those efforts and emotions, in a toxic environment, is very much indicative of what sort of person the character is. It’s an offshoot of a trope, actually, the one where pain or fear will reveal the true nature of a person. A toxic environment, however, isn’t quite pain – at least not physical. It’s also not quite fear – at least not in a direct sense.

Taking someone out of a toxic environment (or leaving them in because of circumstance) can have a profound effect, and not even the nature vs. nurture sort of way. I’m talking about how adults, with all of their unique scars, can respond to these environments when introduced to them late in life.

This is a fascinating subject to me and to be honest I don’t have a lot of answers yet. This is a newer question and I’m still exploring it. (That’s also why this elaboration is much shorter.)

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Moving on once more, what I’m saying is that there a lot of things I added to the original version of the book that have further-reaching implications that I’d previously understood. I’m rather glad that I’m doing this now as opposed to after I’d finished this draft.


So I’m Writing a Synopsis 2

I mentioned previously that I’m writing a loose synopsis for Station. This is, in part, because Genevieve has been writing a great many for her drive to become a writer for visual media (ie Comic Books). I have been helping her edit and stream line them for submission, and there is a lot of really good stuff that happens when you do a synopsis.

Because of the nature of writer-blogging, I’m going to cite my sources and over-explain everything, so buckle in.

The definition for synopsis I’m using is this:

An often beat-by-beat description of the plot of a novel or other creative work, describing the major arcs, themes, and events in a way where the short version is both enough to give you the gist of the whole story (including the ending) as well as make you want to hear the long version, properly told.

Which is sort of where my investigations into the whole synopsis thing have taken me, a bit rephrased. To that, I’m going to add that a synopsis follows the primary arcs and themes tailored to a specific genre. So, for example, a romance synopsis will follow the character arcs of the two leads and how they interact. Their motivations drive the events of the plot, and so their motivations are one of the most important things to put into a synopsis of ‘type: romance’.

By contrast, the story that I’m writing (Station), is part of the science fiction adventure genre. Its roots are very firmly in the soft sci-fi of the 80s and the pulp science fiction from before the 1950s. It’s is distinct from epics, space operas, and hard sci-fi in that it’s a much more contained, and deliberately episodic, story. Plus, my inclusion of time travel pops it up into more of the science-fantasy realm, which means I have to set up the world-consistence myself without depending on outside scientific knowledge. My story in particular is also very character driven (rather than political, disaster, or concept-driven), and has horror influences that will crop up whatever I do.

So, to sum up, my synopsis needs to emphasize the adventure elements as well as the character bits. The horror elements need to be mentioned, but should not take over the synopsis. If I can leave them as ‘Fridge Horror, all the better.

Great, good. Okay.

In practice, I’m finding out several things a synopsis is good for.

Thing 1: Plotholes! I’m finding them! I can spackle them over before I get there.

Thing 2: Structure! I can figure out where bits feel too slow and where they feel too fast, and can apportion more and less time to things based on importance. And, and this is sort of extra and doesn’t really apply to my synopsis in particular,  a synopsis will sort of give you an inkling what media your story would fit best in. Like, say, you have an idea for a sort of episodic/series book, or you have a trilogy, or you have a standalone, or you really have a story that need more pictures than words.

Thing 3: Themes! I really like to explore particular themes, and often I don’t know what those ARE until I’m several chapters in. This synopsis is helping me figure out what I need to explore specifically before I get there, which is always helpful.

Thing 4: Characterization! Knowing what my characters will and will not do will help prevent me from having to rewrite big chunks of the beginning once my characterization has solidified later in the book. (Since I write chronologically by choice.)

Thing 5: Actually, a lot of these things are about continuity, so the last one for today is Continuity! I always have to do a continuity pass or two, aligning everything with my concept of what’s actually happening once I reach the end of the book. It’s sort of like how a tv pilot always has weird things happen when looked at in context of the rest of the episodes, because the characterization isn’t set and the themes are still in fledgling form, and the starting point is still a little bit nebulous. A synopsis is helping me eliminate a lot of the heavy-lifting of my continuity pass before I get too much further, which is all to the good, imho.

and other Things, but those are the most important at the moment.

The bottom line is that I’m really glad I’ve been doing this, though it means a full rewrite for the whole thing, including a pretty dramatic restructure. Needs must, I suppose, but I recommend writing at least one synopsis to see if it might be useful for your writing style. If you’re traditionally publishing, you might have to learn how to write one anyways. 🙂