As someone who’s been reading SF for over forty years now, I’m fascinated by the different ways life on Mars has been portrayed over the decades. My earliest encounters were through books like Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, H.G Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and in my early teens, C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. Alongside such fiction, I remember reading about Mariner 4 in my grandfather’s National Geographic magazines. So I already knew that real scientific discoveries meant these enthralling stories were impossible. That didn’t matter. Mars fascinated me.
That’s still true today, as books on my shelves by Alastair Reynolds, Andy Weir and James Corey attest. The film of The Martian and the TV adaptation of The Expanse series are merely the latest depictions of Mars that I’ve enjoyed on screen, from Flash Gordon through Doctor Who to Babylon 5. I’m still reading National Geographic, and any articles I see elsewhere discussing the real practicalities of sustaining human life on our near neighbour. Then there’s the ongoing exploration of Mars by the Opportunity rover. Go robots!
So now I want to write my own story set on Mars. It’s the ideal setting for me to explore a notion that’s been coming together in my imagination thanks to several recent popular-science articles that I’ve read. The last piece I needed was the invitation to write a new story featuring the Ur Bar, the eternal, time-travelling tavern from the ZNB anthology ‘After Hours’.
So now all I need is this year’s ZNB anthologies Kickstarter to fund. At the time of writing, we’ve got a week to go, and we’re just over two-thirds funded, so there’s $6333 still needed. Do take a look, if you haven’t done so already, and flag the project up to friends who might be interested. There are three anthologies to choose from, and to consider submitting something to, if you’re a writer yourself. You can get involved for as little as $7.
If you’re really keen, there’s a tuckerisation up for grabs. Do you fancy giving your own, or someone else’s, name to my story’s protagonist?
I’ve just included a bit of equipment which I saw in a museum in Malta, into the River Kingdom novel that I’m currently writing. It’s a library lamp from the 17/18th century. As you can see, it has four wicks to maximise the available light plus an adjustable reflector for positioning to direct as much light as possible into the page. Those chains attach a snuffer plus a pair of tweezers and a pair of scissors for trimming the wicks. This particular example could do with a bit of a polish, we saw others in museums where photography wasn’t allowed in highly polished silver and brass which would have reflected even more light. So no, there was no need to be squinting over a book by the light of a single candle, not for the wealthy and educated at least.
We need to remember this, when we’re creating non-industrial worlds. It’s all too easy to get suckered into a positively Victorian mindset that sees the modern age as the pinnacle of human achievement, in some pseudo-evolutionary fashion, which therefore demands that anything that came before us is by definition inferior. No, pre-modern and pre-industrial solutions to the same problems that we face may well be different but that doesn’t mean lesser.
Human ingenuity has been around for untold millennia and it’s worth doing the research to find examples of solutions to problems, because the history that ‘everyone knows’ is frequently at best only half the story, and at worst it’s downright misleading. ‘Everyone knows’ that Henry Ford invented the production line, right? Actually, he invented a particular mechanised version of an approach to manufacturing that’s been around since the Bronze Age. There’s an archaeological site in (if I recall correctly) Turkey that I read about some while ago, flourishing in the 8/9th century BCE where carved hollows and troughs in the rock have recently been rescued from that all-purpose archaeologist’s explanation of ‘ritual purposes’. Someone realised that these shapes looked familiar and went away to check. Yes, these troughs and hollows are the outlines of the component parts of a chariot; specifically those long pieces of wood and elements of wheels that experimental archaeologists have established could only have been shaped by steaming the wood, somehow clamping it and allowing the wood to cool into a new form. These chariot builders weren’t using clamps but the rock itself to make the components that were then assembled by specialists in mass-production.
I have a particular advantage here in that I’m married to a mechanical engineer. He spends his working life designing car assembly lines with dozens of robots now doing the work done by hundreds of men when he first started his apprenticeship, forty-plus years ago. So he’s very good at working out how things work, and at identifying how approaches to the same problem change over the years and centuries. He also has a solid appreciation of the issues around for instance, moving massive slabs of stone to build monuments from Stonehenge, to the pyramids, to the temples of Hagar Qim on Malta, dating back to 3600-3200 BCE. This would be an engineering challenge today. For people using stone rollers, wooden levers and some sort of rope? No one who could manage that deserves to be called primitive, as far as he’s concerned.
So from the small scale items for day to day use, to major building projects in our imagined worlds, we need to remember that non-industrial societies could get along perfectly well without all our modern conveniences. And we don’t only find such things in museums and archaeological sites. Fantasy world builders should take a look at the ingenuity and practical skills of our fellow humans currently living in what can all too often be patronisingly called ‘developing’ countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas.
I remember seeing a TV programme where a group of Andean women build a suspension bridge to cross a river gorge, only using grass and their bare hands. Yes, really. First they made string by twisting the long strands together, then they combined those strings into cords and then made those cords into ropes, and the ropes into cables, all twisted and counter-twisted at every stage to create strength through tension. The village women on the far side of the gorge were doing the same. When they had enough cables ready, someone fired an arrow to carry a string across the gorge. That string was tied to a cord which pulled a rope which pulled a cable to be secured across the gorge. Three cables gave them one to walk on and two hand rails on either side which were joined together with more grass-rope struts which formed a framework for weaving solid sides. By the end of the day, they had a new bridge.
So please don’t make the mistake of thinking that life in your pre-industrial fantasy land has to be nasty, brutish or short. Anymore than you underestimate people who don’t happen to be white and westernised in our own world today.
I’ve come across some thoughtful and thought-provoking pieces recently. Sharing them on Twitter is all very well but that’s both a fleeting and a hit-and-miss way of reaching people, so here’s a round up for you to refer to as and when suits you best.
I remember being appalled the first time I heard an editor say they can tell if a book’s any good in the first 500 words, and being left speechless when a literary agent said that was generous, they’d say 50 words. Twenty or so years later, I understand what they meant.
As yesterday’s post makes clear, I’m a great fan of anthologies and this new era of ebooks makes them viable in a way we haven’t seen before. They give writers like me opportunities to try out new ideas and to offer our work to new readers. Aspiring writers gain valuable experience and a track record to offer potential agents and editors. So how do you maximise your chances of acceptance?
As regular readers will know, I’m keenly interested in issues around diversity and representation in SF&F writing. Thus I’m very aware that the further someone’s lived experience is from my own, the less likely I am to understand the issues they face without listening to their perspective. This article is a case in point, and I will be keeping it in mind for my own writing purposes for a long time to come.
That’s enough to be going on with, so I’ll close with a reminder that you can find other articles about writing, by me and by other folk here.
I’ve had three separate conversations about this recently, relating to very different stories by different writers, so that’s a good prompt for a blog post. Famously, of course, Raymond Chandler said, when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun. There are doubtless times when that will help, though overall, desperation rarely leads to good prose.
Even so, that man, his presence, his motives, the nature of his gun and its bullets, must still serve the essentials of the story. People, plot and place. Shooting or shagging, or their local equivalents, still always need to advance your story or tell us something important about your characters and their situation.
The first of those conversations was about ‘grittying up’ a story. There’s a good measure of violence driving this plot later on but, we wondered, would readers be taken by surprise, and not in a good way. There was precious little in the early chapters to make the reader aware of potentially dangerous undercurrents. Not that throwing an abrupt bar brawl into an early chapter would be any answer. There was no place for that in the story. After some consideration, verbal violence proved to be the answer, telling us something about this world and about key characters. Violence comes in many forms in the real world, so you don’t need to only ever bludgeon readers with characters hacking each other to pieces.
That said, when you do pit your characters against foes in a fist-fight or a fire-fight, you do need to get the details right. If this is outside your own personal experience, then you will need to do your research, and not only about the practicalities. Always remember such events are there to serve the story. Emotional responses are going to reveal so much about characters. This is where biographies and autobiographies become vital resources, giving insights into the ways real people have coped with extraordinary and dangerous situations.
The second conversation was about sex, specifically whether or not Our Hero should end up in bed with The Girl. That climax would certainly satisfy a lot of readers’ expectations. Only this particular story has spent over a hundred thousand words testing expectations in fantasy fiction that have become so apparently inevitable that they’ve congealed into cliché. One particular notion that’s being challenged is the idea that otherwise intelligent and sexually experienced people must unaccountably become slaves to lust.
So, no, we concluded, this narrative has no business ending in a night of passion. Now, that’s all well and good, but that means conveying the reasons for Our Hero and The Girl to go their separate ways which will work both for the story and for those readers who had come this far expecting a Happily Ever After in the bedroom. When it comes to sex, no one likes to be left unsatisfied on the pages or between the sheets. As with so many other elements of story-telling, knowing your tropes is important when it comes to sex.
The third conversation concluded that yes, sex was the way to go. This particular story includes a central, political marriage alliance, but there’s no place earlier in the narrative, either in terms of plot or pacing, for a lengthy courtship, negotiations, whatever. But this relationship is going to be crucial for subsequent events and how key characters respond. So we need real insights into these two people and their private personal relationship. We’re not going to see that if this pivotal chapter focuses on their wedding. A wedding is a production involving all sorts of people, and it’s an event where the central players are on show, presenting a public face. Also, let’s be honest, The Big Wedding is becoming something of a cliché in historical/fantasy fiction.
The wedding night though, that’s where these two are really going to get to know each other, in every sense, for better or worse. There can be precious few secrets between two people naked together in bed. They’re going to learn a lot of important things about each other, which will influence their future life together. For instance, they’re going to learn about each other’s prior sexual experience, because let’s remember ‘virgin’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘untouched by human hand’. Incidentally, the reader can also learn a lot about this culture and society from how its people approach sex. So from the writer’s point of view, this consummation offers a whole load of opportunities to serve people, plot and place in one chapter.
The flip side of that is the considerable authorial challenge of writing a sexual encounter that won’t make readers giggle or squirm, and not in a good way. There are oh, so many pitfalls when it comes to writing sex, starting with but by no means limited to describing the mechanics of Tab A into Slot B. It’s one of those writing tasks that can leave authors feeling very exposed as they search their own experience in order to realistically convey emotional and physical responses.
Add to that, in the majority of sexual situations, a writer’s personal experience is only going to take them half way. For those of us with very, very good friends of different gender and/or orientation to our own, this is generally the cue for a quiet night in with a bottle of wine and a very frank discussion. Then there’s what can be gained from reading other writers; the ones who can do sex well, and equally important, those who do it really badly. As always, spotting overused tropes and clichés becomes critical to avoiding throwing your readers out of the moment. Another resource is erotica, and in particular, reading what those writers who specialise in that genre have to share about the tricks of their particular trade.
Writing sex and/or violence is rarely easy, but doing anything worthwhile seldom is. Sex and violence are integral facts of human life, to a greater or lesser extent. If your fiction is going to have something worthwhile to say about our common humanity, you’re going to find yourself tackling this challenge, sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent. With writing, as with sex and violence, thinking ahead will greatly increase your chances of a satisfactory outcome.
incidentally, I’ve mentioned this idea to various writerly pals, so do look out for First Chapter Friday posts on Facebook and Twitter, and share/RT to boost the signal.
Secondly, last week saw the fifth JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Fiction given by Susan Cooper, thanks to Pembroke College MCR in Oxford. You can see the video of the lecture here, and it’s also downloadable as a podcast. Previous years’ lectures are also available as well as other Tolkien-related stuff. I recommend you go and browse. Once again, please boost the signal, to support this wonderful series of talks.
Thirdly, this one’s for upcoming writerly pals in Scotland. The Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards 2018 are currently open for applications. Find out more here, and yes, please spread the word.
And what am I doing just at the moment? I’m working on reworking one novel, pitching another one to agents, revising some short fiction for a couple of anthologies, and looking forward to getting all that done and dusted so I can start work on a River Kingdom novel.
Here are some thoughts prompted by discussing a pal’s work in progress. This particular story is developing from the core outwards, by which I mean the central characters’ narratives are coming nicely into focus, with their personalities both being forged by events and shaping their reactions to events, driving the story on. All good so far, and this is an entirely valid way to write. Everyone’s process is different, after all.
What this does mean is that just at the moment, these secondary characters are purely serving their plot functions in their interactions with the central characters and events. Beyond that, there’s not much to distinguish them apart from their names. They’re certainly not fully rounded individuals in their own right. As for the tertiary characters, those people who come and go, to populate a novel’s world by providing atmosphere and context, they’re currently nameless placeholders. As I say, this is a work in progress.
So what are the next steps? For those secondary characters, let’s remember that all the same things have shaped them, which have shaped the people a story’s focused on. Where these secondary characters have lived, what they’ve done, what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned from their parents and their culture. All these things will determine their wants and needs and fears and bias, because everyone is the sum of their experiences, one way or another.
Now, you don’t have to put all this into the story – indeed, you won’t want to, because the focus on the main narrative will become unhelpfully blurred. But by knowing these things, the writer can get double or even triple value from such a character’s presence. Then these secondary characters won’t merely advance the plot, they’ll also show the reader more about this world, and may well show us facets of the central characters which we won’t get from the protagonist themselves.
An example? Hank Schrader, in Breaking Bad comes to mind for me. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the series, and I won’t spoil it for you here. All you need to know is this character’s role in that narrative is, first and foremost, functional. Because Hank’s a DEA agent, what we see him do gives the viewer the key counterpoint to the protagonist, Walter White’s story. We learn things about the drug trade and its complications, which Walter’s unaware of, foreshadowing possible outcomes and raising tensions. So far, so plot-structural.
But there’s so much more to Hank than this. He’s a man with hobbies, primarily home-brewing beer. In his established work environment, he’s astute and effective, but when he gets into unfamiliar territory, not so much. He masks his insecurities with bluff bravado, and politically incorrect jokes, but when a family crisis strikes, he does all he can to help, sometimes clumsily but always trying, even if that’s only by checking a water heater.
The key thing here is, the more three-dimensional and multifaceted Hank becomes, the more his involvement ties non-Walt-but-plot-crucial events into the main narrative through the viewers’ emotional investment in Hank as a person in his own right. We also see more facets of Walter White thanks to Hank, and not only directly through their interactions. When we see Hank interacting with Walt’s son, Flynn, there are some very revealing responses from Walt. All of which serves to broaden and enrich this fictional world.
So don’t sell secondary characters short. Use the same key elements that strengthen characterisation in those people who your story’s actually about. Think about all those old sayings about character. “You give yourself away every time you open your mouth.” What people say tells about us who they are. “Actions speak louder than words.” How they do things often tells us still more. “Do what I say, not what I do.” Contradictions can give still more clues to personality. Proverbs like these endure because they’re useful in life as well as in writing.
The same applies to third tier characters, to make them more than your space opera’s red-shirted Ensign Expendables or featureless arrow/sword/spear fodder in your sword and sorcery epic. And if they are going to die, making them real people becomes even more important. Because if someone’s fate doesn’t matter to the reader, then bluntly, it doesn’t count and those words on that page are a waste of everyone’s time. The challenge here is you’ll have even less time and space to give these tertiary people who come and go to further plot and atmosphere, never to be seen again. You must still avoid overburdening your story with irrelevant detail.
So how to make them memorable? Starting with their appearance can often help in making them distinctive. Though I don’t recommend staring at a blank screen until sheer desperation makes you introduce a one-legged red-head on a unicycle serving the drinks. Unless you’re writing a book where they’d fit right in, of course. If not, go and look for inspiration in visual references, on the Internet or in reference books. Don’t limit yourself to whatever historical period or technological scenario you’re working with. Look at portraits, photographic and painted, in magazines and newspaper articles.
Consider the common stereotypes for people in these all too common roles, from downtrodden maidservant to broad-shouldered starship captain and find ways to flip them into something new. Something that plays against a reader’s unconscious expectations will catch their attention, even in a character who’s only there for half a page. Look for the telling detail, in speech, in action, reaction or appearance that will lift this character up into the limelight just for a moment, to convince the reader that they’re more than a cardboard cut-out. Look for ways to use these necessary but otherwise mundane interactions between second and third tier characters to convey something that the principles in this story don’t yet know, to intrigue, or to worry your readers
A recent example for me is the crew of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy ship, The Donnager, in the TV series, The Expanse. Again, don’t worry if you haven’t seen it. What you need to know is that these characters are vivid in their personalities and distinctive in appearance. All their interactions, with each other just as much as with the story’s main characters, convinces the viewer of their military hierarchy, of their motivations, of their training and discipline. All of which makes the whole episode that involves them so much more grounded in plausible reality – even when this is SF set out in the Asteroid Belt.
That’s enough to be going on with for the moment. Feel free to flag up particularly effective instances of second and third tier characters in comments, from viewing or reading. I’ve cited examples from TV because more people are likely to be familiar with them, but there are just as many similarly effective instances to be found in written fiction.
And now that I’ve managed to focus on something other than our bloody General Election, maybe I’ll be able to get back to some writing of my own.
Another discussion that’s going on in various places is the intricacy of writing effective characters in your fiction. Aliette de Bodard is on a blog tour at the moment, what with her new novel, The House of Binding Thorns just out. Do take a look at what she’s saying here and elsewhere.
Plus there’s been a whole load of domestic and business administrative stuff hereabouts, none of which would make for remotely interesting blogpost material but which gets incredibly time consuming.
Best of all, we’ve been on holiday, and that was great. We headed for the Lake District, and got a very different view of the landscapes, compared to our previous visits, with the trees not yet in leaf and the undergrowth yet to start burgeoning. We also saw lots of sheep and the early lambs and the Husband became fascinated by just how different the shapes of sheep’s heads can be, when you start comparing breed with breed. We visited Penrith, and Acorn Bank, and Holker Hall, and the Lakeland Motor Museum which is highly recommended for those with even a passing interest in cars, motorbikes and cycles. The collection is very well displayed and has some real rarities and oddities. And yes, there are an awful lot of daffodils in the Lake District if you’re there at the right season.
By way of light relief, I’ve watched Marvel’s “Iron Fist” on Netflix… well, let’s just say that I am left with one question above all others… Who was that seeker of ancient truth and wisdom, who travelled all the way to the high Himalayas, and taught the monks of K’un Lun to speak English with a broad Stockport accent? That’s a story I’d really like to see told…
While we were on holiday we watched the first season of “The Expanse” in the evenings, and that was very good indeed. As are the books, though now I have to decide if I want to read on after the first three that I’ve already enjoyed, or wait, so I’m not spoiled for the TV adaptation plot..
Meantime, the Internet has been offering a whole lot of interesting things, so here are some links to pieces that have particularly caught my eye.
Incidentally, you’ll notice that I’m linking to Martha’s blog on Dreamwidth rather than Live Journal. In common with almost everyone else I know, I’m not about to sign up to LJ’s new Terms of Service. There are some big red flags and one thing I know about contracts is never sign anything with clauses for concern in the hope that ‘but it’ll never happen, right?’ In any case, this website and blog there have been my primary web presence for a good few years now. So I will be dusting off the Dreamwidth account I set up the last time it looked as though LJ was going down the drain, and looking to rebuild as much of my former LJ circle of friends over there, to continue keeping in touch. I am (unsurprisingly) JeMcK if you want to find me. I’ll be shutting down my LJ account some time later this month when I have the spare time to do the admin etc.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, ‘Timeless‘ is a prime-time, network action-SF show. The premise is straightforward: English billionaire Connor Mason funds the secret development of a time travel machine, bad guys steal the time travel machine, the authorities get involved and a square-jawed hero soldier Wyatt Logan, somewhat sheltered academic historian Lucy Preston, and Rufus Carlin, one of the science team who’d much rather stay in his lab, have to use the prototype machine to stop the bad guys wrecking history for fell purposes as yet unknown. So far, so formulaic.
Well, no, not entirely. Quite a few things lift this TV show above the mixture as before. It’s very well cast and the actors all deliver solidly committed performances. There are soon questions over how bad the bad guy Flynn’s motives might actually be, and while history’s big picture is pretty much maintained, the butterfly effect means massive changes in Lucy’s personal life when she gets back from their first mission. All enjoyably entertaining.
Then there’s Rufus Carlin being black. Not that he stands out in the present day setting; so is Connor Mason and there are more actors of varied ethnicities among the scientific support staff and government officials, men and women alike. The show has a diverse cast because there’s absolutely no reason there shouldn’t be such people in such roles in this day and age. So far so good, and so unremarkable.
But … the action is by no means limited to this day and age, is it? This is a time travel show. And as Rufus points out to Connor Mason in the first episode, “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me!”
Rufus being black adds whole new levels of complexity and interest to the writing and thus to the viewing. Not that the writers are out to beat viewers over the head with Politically Correct Messages. These things arise naturally from the situations created by the overall plot arc. Put Rufus in early 1960s Las Vegas and all of a sudden, he’s invisible because everyone just assumes he’s a waiter. Put him in 1930’s New Jersey and the overt racial bias is much less amusing. Put historical expert Lucy in 1970s Washington and she knows all about the political scandals – but has no clue about the Black Power movement because that was never something a white girl like her would study. Fortunately Rufus did, even if it was just to impress a girl. You get the idea.