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.
Anyone who’s had any exposure to other people will know at least one person who’s said that there was no such thing as a new idea anymore. These people come in a few flavors, from the people who say that all “new” ideas are really amalgamations of old ideas to the ones who endeavor to be pedantic by pointing out that “ideas” were just things waiting to be discovered and someone would do it eventually. But the most common, and arguably the most annoying to creators, is the cynic who believes that we’ve run out of ideas and that creativity is dead. And, frankly, when you look at the swath of similar products coming out at once from studios and publishers, it’s kind of easy to see where they’re coming from.
From the perspective of these people, once any idea is put out there, everyone is going to race to copy it as fast as possible. There’s no coincidence between similar products, it’s all a matter of quick cash grabs. After all, how else can you explain so many similar stories being put to print and film back to back? It’s hard to argue with, because we can all see with our own eyes how publishers and studios can churn things out. So whenever one thing becomes successful, dozens of copycats will follow up. Is a dystopian YA story the new big thing? We’ll see 20 of them by the end of the year. Did a formerly terrifying monster suddenly become sexy? We’ll run that into the ground. And if you’ve managed to put out something original in that time, there’s a good chance you might get lumped together with the others whether you knew of them or not.
But what those cynics don’t realize is that often this race to hit the iron when it’s hot usually means the studios and publishers are digging up old submissions or overlooked IPs, and that the creators behind those ideas generally had no idea the others existed – but came to the same idea anyway. Continue reading Multiple Discovery→
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:
As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, we enter a time of traditions. The holidays are soon to be upon us, the stores are filling with decorations, people are starting to complain about the fact that Christmas shopping season “seems to start earlier every year”. For writers, this is the time of year when people new and old take an opportunity to challenge themselves by trying to write a novel in one month’s time. National Novel Writing Month is so ingrained into the culture that I do not personally know a single writer or writing enthusiast in my life who hasn’t taken a swing at the challenge at least once. And, while I myself tend to avoid rushing through word counts to meet these sorts of challenges, I’ve always had a tradition of my own.
Though I was hesitant at first, I’ve made a point in years prior to throw out some writing advice in November and editing advice in December. Though it’s often joked that everyone becomes a “guru” on the internet, it was never my intention to do this. Only after being nudged by friends did I even try to. Hopefully, over the years, I’ve said something useful to someone who was just taking their first steps into writing novels. If not, at least I hope it was entertaining to watch me try. Given the projects I need to get done before January, I’m not entirely sure how I’ll do this year. But, at the very least, there’s one lesson to be shared that I’ve been pondering lately.
There are times when trying to articulate what I’m saying can be a little harder than others. I know what I want to convey but that’s sometimes more grey than people would like. It’s so easy, especially in the modern era, to be labeled as the enemy by everyone because your nuanced position happens to be neither firmly in the black or the white. Too often, the two sides are unable to see that there are a lot more people who stand somewhere in the middle. And, a little over a year ago, I walked right into one of those conversations accidentally while in search of something to post to my blog. Before I knew it, I was receiving a swath of comments and messages regarding copyright and the legality of fan-works.
As a result of the conversation, I’ve spent the last year writing a series of posts responding to a litany of polarized views. But in responding to so many varied opinions not everyone actually understood what points I was making at the time I was making them. From addressing the moral superiority some people thought they had, to pointing out that fair use isn’t quite as sturdy as people on the internet hope it to be – I’ve been trying my best to respond to everything while keeping my own position as clear as I could. And, frankly, despite my best efforts I know that something this complicated is almost impossible to keep clear in short order. In fact, I’d even go so far as to argue that’s by design.