Category Archives: Writing

Sci-Fi’s Weird Roots

Evolution is inevitable, regardless of what certain people may believe, whether it be socially, physically, or personally. Things change, grow, adapt and become something else over a gradual process. In the literary world this is most obvious in the themes that change over time and the way we view certain tropes of the bygone era. Speculative fiction writers in particular have an almost love-hate relationship with our roots – we love the classics that broke new ground but hate to think we might be grouped into the same niche they were. After all, sci-fi and fantasy once carried a terrible stigma of being the domain of basement dwelling losers who took it all far too seriously. Since the day sci-fi became a thing it has gradually done everything it can to be taken seriously as a genre and considered “literature” with the rest.

It wasn’t very long ago in the grand scheme of things that sci-fi was still considered a new, fringe category that barely counted as a genre. Compared to others that have existed for ages, the earliest known works that could be strictly considered “science fiction” date back only a couple centuries at most where as others can count their earliest entries back to the dawn of the written word. Sure, Beowulf wasn’t considered “fantasy” at the time it was written, but it’s hard to deny that’s really what it was. And because of this we can also point at almost the exact moment where Sci-Fi made this transition from being an oddity into a true genre – we call it the Golden Age.

The Golden Age was a time of big ideas and big figures, people like Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke dominated in these days and their work went on to define not only the genres but how we think about certain parts of civilization. Despite having a simplistic view on it, it’s hard to get through a conversation about robotics without someone bringing up Asimov’s three laws. And Arthur C Clarke, with “Clarke’s Law”, made us realize just how fantastic things we have today would appear to the past and how fantastic things from the future would appear to us. And as far as the genre went, it’s undeniable that the ideas they introduced to us have become a foundation of the genre as we know it today.

Still, while the Golden Age made sci-fi a serious genre, it wasn’t the only era that made sci-fi what it is today… Continue reading Sci-Fi’s Weird Roots

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Spinoffs And Gaidens

Creating good follow ups to a franchise can be an incredible challenge. As I covered before, the very act of making prequels and sequels is filled with pitfalls around the very idea of resolutions. A bad prequel or sequel can either prove to have no resolution or will derail the resolution of an entry that came before. But some prequels and sequels, often the most successful, are those which can stand solely on their own and find resolution from within. In fact, some of these prequels and sequels could be seen as spin-offs due to their detached nature. But, in actuality, these stories that exist between a prequel/sequel and a side-story tend to fall into something a little different than simply a spin-off, entering the domain of something the Japanese would refer to as a “gaiden”.

A word simply meaning “side story” or “tale” in Japanese, the gaiden is a supplementary anecdote or event to another work. Technically, by definition, all spin-offs are gaidens and all gaidens are spin-offs, but the differences lie mostly in the approach. In fact, the gaiden is so prevalent in Japanese culture that it’s responsible for bolstering several branches of their entertainment industry from “light novels” to “radio dramas” (which they amazingly still have over there). And, though you’ve likely never heard the term before, you’ll recognize most of the earmarks. In fact, when you become familiar with the approach to a “gaiden”, you start to realize something:

Most of the best spin-offs are gaidens… Continue reading Spinoffs And Gaidens

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What Most Rejections Really Mean

Rejection, it sucks. If you’re here, you’ve probably followed this link from somewhere on twitter or facebook where writers share tips, advice or pep-talks and, unfortunately, that probably means you know the fear of the rejection letter.

Though, hey, at least you’re not Jim Lee

It’s easy for us to think, because we got that letter, that it says something about the actual quality of our story. Even if it’s just the opinion of one person, that opinion is devastating because it holds the weight of someone who, at the very least, has control over your career for however long it may be in front of them. And, with an opinion of that weight, it’s hard not to take it personally. But there’s something that people need to understand about rejections, something that’s hard to grasp:

If you’re ready, they rarely have anything to do with you. Continue reading What Most Rejections Really Mean

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A Tale With No Villain

Learning how to write is built largely on the idea of formulas. You’ll find many students and early writers follow these formulas almost religiously and sometimes, despite their best efforts, they never quite escape them. Time and time again you’ll find stories out there which could best be described as “formulaic” and it’s never intended as a compliment. Unfortunately, breaking away from it can be challenging because rarely do lesson plans include a guide on how to break the mold they so carefully made for you.

One of the examples of this is the idea of how the cast should be constructed. With certain roles being absolutely necessary to the idea of a story to tell, such as a protagonist, it’s easy to understand why. You wouldn’t want to go telling a story that has no protagonist or main character of any sort, as there has to be someone for the audience to relate to. You also wouldn’t want that character to have no one to interact with, because then there’s nothing to provide some of the texture the story arc would so badly need. But often there’s a sense that all roles mentioned in a typical formula are 100% necessary outside of the protagonist even when that isn’t necessarily true.

For instance, not every story requires an antagonist… Continue reading A Tale With No Villain

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Problems In Post-Scarcity

Images of the future are often polarized along pretty extreme lines. Dystopias and utopias dominate the landscape in science fiction because they’re often thought to be the easiest to write and easiest to deliver a message. The world within a dystopia can be used to magnify today’s problems to be easier to see while the world within a utopia can often highlight issues we don’t see in our daily lives. But the truth is that they’re not nearly as easy to write as people often think and a lot of attempts fall short of the overall mark. Dystopias, in particular, are generally derived from each other and have become attached to tropes rather than genuine ideas. And utopias, as I’ve established not too long ago, are generally the improper labeling of a superficial analysis of what turns out to be post-scarcity societies.

I’ve thrown around “post-scarcity society” often in the last couple weeks without going too in depth on the subject. For some people it would be hard to really tell the differences between a utopia and a post-scarcity society, with the two of them essentially looking ideal from where we stand and showing few of the problems we could readily identify in our current culture. But the division between the two is rather clear: a post-scarcity society has solved many major problems while a utopia has ostensibly solved all problems. And the fact of the matter is, while we’ve never seen a utopia in the real world (and likely never will), we have, however briefly, gone beyond some form of scarcity. Hell, it briefly appeared to happen in the last century before a peanut farmer harshed everyone’s buzz.

He wasn’t wrong though.

But the idealized post-scarcity, the one that you want to see in your speculative fiction, can be a tricky thing to write because it often requires you to understand problems from a completely different perspective. Because writing a post-scarcity society believably requires you to recognize… Continue reading Problems In Post-Scarcity

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Monday Musing: Priorities

Coming out of the tail-end of what we’ll call a “pollen bender”, I’m wide wake in time to see the sun rise and sit in relative silence with my thoughts. And, thanks to the wonders of medication, those thoughts are pleasant for now. Sure, I can hear a lawnmower running at 6:30 in the morning and I know I’ll be cursing that sun before it reaches the other horizon, but at least for right now I’m in an okay place. I might have breakfast today, I may make coffee, I’ll get together a schedule and try my best to make that schedule happen.

Or I’ll pass out again once the meds fully kick in (which is totally what happened today).

But, assuming I have long enough to make it happen, what exactly belongs on that schedule? Creative types who haven’t “made it” are faced with that question often. Every day we’re silently asked by the world at large whether today is a day you should go running head long at that wall. Our brain says that the skull is becoming fragile and that the wall hurts when we run into it, but our hearts say that one more good headbutt and we just might make it through. It’s brick but we’re persistent and we’ve heard other people who managed to headbutt through that wall just fine so it’s clearly a smart decision, right?

Getting to that “made it” point is known to be incredibly hard, downright brutal at times. We sacrifice our days to goals that the world tells us are unobtainable, then we’re told by that same world that if we don’t charge skull first into the metaphorical brick that we’re not really dedicated to it anyway. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and the schedule’s still not totally filled out. So you’re left feeling around blindly, trying to determine what’s really worth your time, and finding some regrets along the way. Because, until you see the results, everything is a… Continue reading Monday Musing: Priorities

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Prequels, Sequels, And Resolutions

We live in a world today where having a “franchise” is incredibly important for writers of every kind. Films are the most visible of this, especially in a post-Avengers world, but it’s also long been true of other forms as well. Writing a film that removes all possibility of a sequel or spin-off of some sort is generally a good way to get executives meddling in your work. Having a television series that couldn’t somehow generate a spin-off or be part of a “universe” is gradually becoming taboo. Comic books and video games are expected to be part of a long running series, sometimes to the detriment of both. And, even as an author of novels, someone who manages to land a book deal is signed for more than one book of the same series. In fact, one could argue that even if you only make stand alone projects, if they keep getting money – you are the franchise.

But that leads to the inevitable problem of prequels and sequels struggling to succeed. It’s well known that making a good sequel can be pretty difficult and making a good prequel is thought at times to be nearly impossible. More than once I’ve heard other writers and critics talk about how a good prequel is something that just can’t be done. And sequels, though recognized to be capable of being good, are generally approached with great caution. Yet, it’s impossible to ignore that some series of books and similar projects wouldn’t have been quite as good as a single stand-alone entry. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and many others just wouldn’t have been the same without multiple entries building their lore. Though, a word to some, this doesn’t mean you divide a stand alone book into multiple films.

Still, despite these successes, you would be much harder pressed to find a prequel that everyone can agree is somewhat good. In fact, I’ve had prolonged conversations with people who insisted that prequels not only fail but tend to ruin or cheapen the thing they were a prequel to. Frankly, with Star Wars showing us how much prequels can be utterly loathed, you couldn’t blame someone for that idea. And yet, many who hated the Star Wars prequels have had to admit that they were pretty fond of… a Star Wars prequel.

So the question comes, just what exactly divides good prequels and sequels from the bad? When the topic comes up people tend to have a laundry list of things that a prequel or sequel needs to be “good”. However, the items on those lists are usually things you need for any story to be good anyway. So why would it be that it’s easier to write a stand alone than it is to write good sequels and prequels, and just how did the ones that pulled it off manage to do so?

In my opinion, it boils down to one thing: resolutions. Continue reading Prequels, Sequels, And Resolutions

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Immortality and the Mind

As human beings the one thing that is universal among all of us is that we will eventually die. Try as we might, you can’t avoid it. Modern medicine, technology, and society have allowed us to extend our lifetimes to twice as long as our ancestors, sometimes even longer, but we still have to face that one outcome in the hopefully distant future. Not that the fact we all owe a death doesn’t stop people from trying to get out of it. Hell, in ways we’ve built entire cultures around the desire to find a loophole.

When you really think about it, religions are based on this idea that we can somehow be eternal. Sure, there may be explanations for the world that create mythologies with a pantheon of gods or a single almighty deity, but the actual crux of a religion is that there is some part of us that is eternal and everlasting. If you do the right thing in the right religion you’ll go on as an eternal soul, or be reincarnated into a new life, or break free of the bounds of human mortality. It’s undeniable that we’ve gone a long way to follow stories of immortality – even inventing gunpowder.

So it should be no surprise to anyone that speculative fiction is full of possible ways out of it. Immortal beings have been a staple of fantasy for as long as “fantasy” has even existed. Methods of achieving a higher state of existence have been fairly common in fantasy and sci-fi for almost as long. And with modern medicine slowly creeping its way to resolving the biological aspect of aging, sci-fi still has new avenues to explore on the subject. Aliens, demons, gods and other entities walk through these stories timeless and unaging, a pinnacle of the dream that so many of us have and presenting to some a hope that maybe we could do the same someday – possibly before it’s our turn.

But then the question becomes: would we want it if we had it? Continue reading Immortality and the Mind

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Monday Musings: Mislabeled Utopias

One of the great staples of speculative fiction is the idea of the idyllic utopia where all the world’s ills just cease to exist. These utopias are inevitably short lived in the hands of writers because we need to make a conflict of some sort. Perhaps a sudden alien invasion brings it crashing to an end. Maybe new threats or issues become known and catch the untested society off guard. Often it turns out that the utopia is in fact a dystopia in disguise. But, on a few rare occasions the utopian society will survive on through the events in question and just continue to be perfect despite the odds.

Usually when this happens it’s actually the old favorite shorthand of “utopia” actually meaning “post-scarcity”. Writers and audiences generally have trouble identifying the differences because at first glance they’re pretty much the same. A post-scarcity society is one where problems of resources are resolved and civilization is impacted in profoundly beneficial ways as a result. There are so many facets to that to go over, one for another day to be sure, but it doesn’t quite make something automatically utopian. However, when we see a “utopia” survive against all odds it generally happens to be a very orderly post-scarcity society. This isn’t because writers don’t know the difference, it’s just that true utopias are pretty damn hard to write about in an interesting fashion.

And, when you look closely, they still aren’t what they appear…. Continue reading Monday Musings: Mislabeled Utopias

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Redirecting Your Energy

As is well known to anyone who’s followed the blog for a long time, the guy who writes it is a broken man who becomes crippled at the mere sight of flower petals. Allergens are my greatest enemy, and they’ve often made getting up in the morning difficult. Hell, today they made getting up in the afternoon difficult as I temporarily fell asleep face first on my desk. Generally that means that I’ve got a touch of derailed productivity, the need to step away from certain tasks to chase down others instead. And, despite my own advice, sometimes I still fall into the trap I described back when I first mentioned the phenomenon.  It’s easy to think that you’re not doing your best if you give into some physical ailments, even if everyone around you tells you that it’s okay.

But, having finally come to realize that I was just being silly in trying to chase down my original task for the day, I’ve accepted that I should have listened to that guy hopped up on benadryl many months ago. I shouldn’t push myself to do a task that I know isn’t going to be getting my best effort. I shouldn’t damage the work just to appease my guilt over my physical failings. There are other things to be done, other tasks worth my time, which I can still do even if my head feels like it’s been stuffed with cotton and can only be relieved by the blessings of the MyPurMist given to me for my birthday.

Slowly becoming more man than machine, just don’t let me buy a Navage.

But then, a question presents itself: What the hell do I do then? Continue reading Redirecting Your Energy

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