One of the things that unites speculative fiction genres is dealing with a world that’s different from our own in ways that seem impossible. With fantasy the line is easily drawn, we know that there aren’t actually wizards or dragons no matter how much we want to believe. But with science fiction there’s always this grey area where we’re not entirely sure just what is and isn’t really possible. It’s that grey area that gives the genre its unique flavor as we explore worlds that seem completely insane but still have that vague sense of truth to them. In essence, when you describe something in science fiction as not possible you can always feel that lingering sense of “yet”.
It’s because of this that I’ve always been a big fan of Clarke’s laws – particularly the third law. According to Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi author and futurist responsible for stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey, any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. It may sound like an easy excuse for writing impossible things and calling them scientific, but when you think about the real world you realize it’s surprisingly accurate. To this day there are people who believe everything that NASA does is an elaborate hoax because, to them, everything NASA does seems impossible. Even people who do trust in science will doubt some things are possible just because a theory sounds insane despite evidence.
And one of the most interesting aspects of this concept as a speculative fiction writer is that some of those theories may shape our future. We can’t be entirely sure which will actually happen, but we know that the world of the future will be drastically different from the world of today. In fact, in academic circles they say that we may one day hit a “technological singularity” – a point at which technology has advanced so far that society would be near unrecognizable to us. Some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around that, but anyone who reads this right now is doing so through a device that would have been considered witchcraft a thousand years ago. So how is it that we can have experienced such dramatic changes and yet still feel like things can’t go further?
For the long time readers of this blog it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I’ve been watching Star Trek since I was a child and to this day still watch the reruns. In fact, in the last couple of years I’ve been watching the H&I “All Star Trek” block every day. As a result, though I don’t actually pay attention to every episode (I’ve seen all of them several times before), reruns of Star Trek have been running as the background track to my daily activities for quite a while. It’s habit, mostly, and every once in a while I’ll look up from whatever I’m doing to either watch one of my old favorites or come to recognize some of the flaws that I overlooked as a kid. The franchise taught me a lot about speculative fiction, for better or worse, and to this day I appreciate it for what it is – flaws and all.
One of the flaws that Trekkies debate constantly is just how consistent some aspects of the world actually are. Continuity is a big deal to the average nerd, and continuity tends to get stepped over often for the sake of an individual episode’s plot. As I’ve said in the past, while the little details may not necessarily matter to the plot, they’ll usually matter a lot more to your audience than you expect them to. And one of the greatest inconsistencies in Star Trek over the decades lies in the distances they travel and how fast they actually do it. Everyone is familiar with the idea of “Warp Speed” and has an understanding that it’s faster than light, but only Trekkies are aware that there are times when Warp Speed is sometimes less about the speed of light and more about the speed of plot.
“Oh god,” I can hear you saying, “a Trekkie is about to complain about numbers, just like mom warned me would happen.”
But when I bring this up I don’t bring it up as some jackass with no life who obsesses over the details of fictional worlds. No, I bring this up as a writer with no life who obsesses over the details of fictional worlds. You see, there’s something to be learned not only from the inconsistencies but the reaction those inconsistencies get. It’s been long known that Star Trek’s technobabble can be a barrier for entry for some audiences, but something often overlooked is that there are times when decisions are made, for the sake of technobabble, that actually run counter to their intention.
Your audience’s expectations are a strange balancing act. People like the familiar, they cling to the well worn and comfortable, but they can just as easily reject something as being unoriginal. We’re hard wired to want something that we recognize but at the same time demand something new, meaning that we’re often put off by things that are either too familiar or too unfamiliar. And, generally, we go into everything that we read, watch, or play with some expectation of what we’re going to get and what we want from it.
You’re under no obligation to meet all of these expectations, of course, because it’s impossible to hit every single expectation thrust upon you. But, as I mentioned not too long ago, you shouldn’t just brush off those expectations either. If you prep someone to expect a payoff, you owe a payoff, and using someone’s expectations without intending to include a payoff is eventually going to backfire. So clearly there are two completely different kinds of expectations – those that work for you and those that work against you.
For those familiar with my work, you’ll know I like to blend genres. The two most obvious genres in the blend are science fiction and fantasy as I take creatures from legend and use science and sci-fi tropes to explain the various quirks those creatures have. But the third genre I threw into the mix for my books, arguably the most important, was a dash of mystery. Part of this was because the idea first came to me as: “what if vampires really existed, who would police them?” But the other aspect of the decision was that it felt like solving mysteries would give an opportunity to explore the world with a bit more depth. Every detail that my protagonist uncovers or considers while doing his job is, in turn, a detail the audience would learn about the same world. It felt like a natural fit.
So I’ve made it a point over the last several years to do my best to be a student of mystery. Though I always knew the basics and I think I’ve done reasonably well, it’s important to learn new tricks and make sure you’re ahead of your audience a touch. I even shared a few of these tricks in the past as writing tips on this blog. Despite seeming fairly straight forward and even common sense, it’s not as easy as it looks and I’ve known people who struggled with it. There are so many approaches and techniques to delivering a good mystery, and learning all of them and mastering them is something I know will improve my work as I carry on. But not every technique I come across is equal. Some of them are even bad. And one in particular, a fairly popular one depending on which medium you’re looking at, has always proven itself to create more problems than solutions (in fact, as I’ll get into later, that’s by design).
As I’ve been saying for many years to anyone that will listen: all things can be inspiration. You can learn from your life experiences, from the things you watch, the activities you take part in, and even the conversations you have from day to day. Your experience with your friends and families can teach you dialogue. Your favorite shows can give you an intuitive sense of pacing. Not everyone picks up on the fact they’re learning these things, but when they stop to pay attention it can become a tremendous tool to improving your craft. And most of us know that you should read and watch everything you can. But, sometimes, there are things that can greatly benefit you that would normally be overlooked – peculiar inspirations.
A lot of these things that I would call peculiar inspirations are things that you normally wouldn’t think of or would have a reason to avoid. My screenwriter friend objected to the notion of taking an acting class, but I still think to this day it helped me get into the minds of my characters. It probably sounded silly when I suggested the benefit of watching pro-wrestling, but there’s so much instantaneous audience reaction it’s hard not to see what the masses like. And today I come to recommend to you the benefits of role playing.
Of the many skills that you need as a writer, few are as rare and yet necessary as time management. The ability to sit down, make the best use of your time, and churn out productivity despite anything that might get in your way is not something I’ve found in many writers I’ve known. In fact, if I had to pinpoint one of the chief things that makes life hard on a writer on a consistent basis, it’d be a tough fight between confidence and time management. Even our most innocuous events are about time management – NaNoWriMo every November is basically a trial of our ability to just consistently put words to paper and not get distracted for a full month.
But managing our own time isn’t the only struggle we have as far as schedules go. There’s another to be considered that rarely gets brought up. We may talk around it, but it’s such an abstract for us that it ‘s not usually on our minds. Sure, we have to worry about how we use our own time effectively, but that’s not the only time that our work has to navigate through. Because, once the work is out to the public, we also hae to worry about the time of our audience… Continue reading Your Reader’s Time→
Over the last few years there’s been something of a shift in the culture around us. In a day and age where nostalgia properties reign supreme, it’s hard to imagine that the same properties no more than a few years ago were often considered deeply “niche”. Superheroes were considered low brow entertainment meant only for children and basement dwellers before suddenly becoming the dominant movie genre for the last several years. The Lord Of The Rings was once thought to be in the same category, familiar to children and to nerds who spent too much time playing Dungeons & Dragons. Then it became a phenomenon that a studio drove into the ground with an attempt to turn the “prequel” into a franchise unto itself.
Despite this, when you look at the entertainment industry you’ll often find that speculative fiction works still feel like they’re not allowed to sit at the adult table. There is a rush to get some works out even when they shouldn’t because that’s generally what the industry does when they don’t understand a current trend. But if you look at what gets the awards, the recognition, and the respect it becomes clear that we’re still kind of the oddballs. A few years ago I saw several entertainment industry insiders, particularly literary agents, say that sci-fi needed to minimize the “science” aspects to succeed – something they defined as a “new sci-fi”. You’d think the attitude is gone, but on multiple occasions I’ve encountered it again. For all intents and purposes, the current successes of speculative fiction are considered a temporary trend.
Yet, if put on the spot and asked to name a worldwide success in the last 20 years in any form of media, the first thing to spring to mind would probably be in one of those “niche genres”. That’s not true for everyone, and you may certainly associate “critical acclaim” with “worldwide success”, but when you think of a true phenomenon it will almost always be something that is marginalized by the same critics. Sometimes it’s argued to be a matter of “depth”, but some of the deepest stories that spring to mind are also within those genres. It’s a disconnect that sometimes makes you wonder:
One of the hardest parts of being involved in a creative profession is dealing with the forces that drag down your productivity. I’ve talked about it often enough in the past because, frankly, that’s what all of us do at some point or another. But generally when we talk about these things we talk about how to make sure you “stay motivated” and keep working even if it’s only a little at a time. We talk about the idea of taking regular breaks to keep fresh and not be frustrated. We talk about setting a reasonable word goal for the day. And this is all good… for the first draft. But the fact is that if you intend to go beyond simply a hobbyist and into making it a successful career (with luck) then there’s more to it than simply staying motivated throughout the initial writing – because the time in between those efforts is going to be taken up by other tasks you’re not too thrilled with either.
And this is the part where neurotic natures that slow your creative process can become downright damaging to your actual results. Sure, in theory the hardest part is to actually get something to the page because that’s a lot more complicated than most people acknowledge it to be. That part can be tiresome and ugly and leave you feeling exhausted and frustrated. But the thing about it is that writing and editing your work is only the first step and, sadly, is still miles away from actually getting it all where you need it to be. Even after publishing you’re not actually “done” and there is still a mountain to climb ahead of you before you reach anything resembling a peak. That mountain’s also pretty much the reason why writers fail, btw, so you better be ready to find a few bodies along the way.
As someone still climbing that mountain, I can’t tell you how to do all of the things that you need to do to get to the top. I can, however, tell you what I’ve learned about the pitfalls behind me and the ones I’m learning to cross right now. Every day I find myself learning something that I realized would have been a life saver years before, sometimes even downright messianic. I have, to put it lightly, learned everything I have through trial, error, and hilarious misfires. How bad were these misfires? I released my first book in the same month a well known bestselling author released one in the exact same genre. Lesson learned? Figure out what the big fish is doing in the pond before you jump in.
So know when I pass on today’s advice I’m not talking from a position of authority or judgment, I’m talking as someone who has done really stupid things and has learned in the process. And recently as I was trying to learn how to fix one of my problems I saw someone struggling with the same issue I was. Both of us had been struggling to keep up with the schedules we had set for ourselves, even adjusting for my recent misfortunes, and I’d just learned why from a third party. To put it bluntly, if you struggle with keeping up with your schedule… Continue reading Schedules and Valued Time→
There’s something I don’t talk about very often but is well worth mentioning right now: I am a fan of Shark Tank. Yes, for some weird ass reason I really like watching startups and entrepreneurs try to get money. It started during one of my trips to Canada when I realized how amused I was by their version, Dragon’s Den, and I’ve been watching it ever since. And it’s not just Shark Tank, I’m into similar shows about getting an investor on board too because I like to see people come up with ideas, business models, and strategies and see if they can get someone to buy in. I’ve long mentally registered it as a form of research because someday, theoretically, I hope to leverage my work into a more complex business and, as an independent, I’m basically a business unto myself. But the reason why I bring it up is because of one of the things that often gets cited as a reason why this guy decides not to invest in certain businesses.
Keven O’Leary is the designated asshole of the series in two countries, both as a Shark and as a Dragon. And generally the reason why is because he’s the most brass tax of anyone in the show. It doesn’t matter how good your life story is, it doesn’t matter if you cry, it doesn’t matter if you’re helping hungry children in a third world country – Kevin wants money, Kevin is going to get money, and Kevin will shit on you if he doesn’t think you can make money. It’s really kind of ironic that he’s basically the public representative of a mentality that drives most financial markets and yet we only hate him because they set up a production and cameras. Mitt Romney basically did the same thing through most of his life and he was a successful politician right up until he got caught calling half the country worthless. But one thing that Kevin has said about certain businesses really rings in my head today.
You see, Kevin doesn’t invest in things that center on a single person’s talent. He doesn’t put money behind the efforts of one person. If it’s not something that can be replicated without that person, he doesn’t give a shit. And, he explains it in the typical fashion of a reality TV villain: “You could be hit by a bus tomorrow and I would lose my investment.”
One of the interesting aspects of being a writer online is that you get to see a lot of other writers from all walks of life and philosophies. There are a lot of successful writers that everyone follows, of course, but beneath the big names you have a wide variety of people who have seen every level of success and have taken just as many roads to get there. And these people network a lot: having conversations and following each other on social media all the time. So one of the things you can really see if you follow enough people is how the writer community divides across certain lines. One of the lines I’ve noticed is pretty clear between three big schools of thought is just how likely your work is ever going to succeed.
The first school of thought you’ll find without much effort is the group that wants to cheer each other on. Being in a creative industry isn’t easy and a lot of people get discouraged, so there are people who will constantly be doing what they can to let you know you’re not alone. The second group, not pessimistic, will focus more on the grind of it all. These people will tell you can make it, but it’s uphill battle, it’s going to be exhausting, and you’re going to need a plan. Meanwhile, the third group is the one that says it’s basically pointless to try unless you get damn lucky or you’re supremely talented. And, of course, the people in the third group tend to think they’re among the chosen – even if the numbers don’t bear it out yet.
The third group is just a fact of life. I have a friend of mine who does script coverage who has had to deal with quite a few of them already in her young career. But one of the things I’ve noticed trending among several of these people lately is the idea that self-published authors were just too immature to follow the traditional publishing route. In their eyes, clearly, if your work was worthwhile then you would have gone to the publishers instead of trying to do it on your own. Either you weren’t confident enough in the work, were too arrogant to accept edits, or just weren’t patient enough to let the system do its work. According to this meme floating around, traditionally published works are better than self-published works by default. And at first I was just going to brush it off as their standard MO and not comment on it, but then a thought occurred to me: