25 November 2009

Spec Fic Tools VI : Plot

Plot is, of course, the most important tool in the spec fic authors' toolbox. Plot also has to be integrated with every other aspect of the story, including characterization and speculative elements.

To examine plot, let's look at Robert J. Sawyer's 2009 novel Wake. As faithful Electric Spec readers and writers know, Sawyer was kind enough to let us interview him in 2008. As Sawyer himself told Electric Spec, "My next book is called Wake... The theme is ... the waking up of a global consciousness, with all of it happening step-by-step on-stage while the reader watches. It's been the hardest book I've ever written, but I really do think I've managed some cool stuff in it."

I agree Wake does have some cool stuff in it, in fact, it has a lot of cool stuff in it. Wake has two major pov characters, Caitlin a blind sixteen-year-old living in Canada, and an emerging global consciousness. These two characters have their own plots which are strongly interconnected. There are also several subplots that support the overall theme.The emerging global consciousness' journey begins with "Just awareness--a vague, ethereal sense of being. Being...but not becoming..." (p1) The reader first meets Caitlin after her first day at a new school: "Caitlin had kept a brave face throughout dinner, telling her parents that everything was fine--just peachy--but, God, it had been a terrifying day, filled with other students jostling her in the busy corridors, teachers referring to things on blackboards, and doubtless everyone looking at her." (p 1) Very soon Caitlin receives a bombshell when a Japanese scientist tells her "...I do think there's a fair chance that the technique we have developed may be able to at least partially cure your blindness..." (p6) Wow! Talk about a dramatic plot development!

Sawyer does a particularly nice job of utilizing other books and websites while telling his story, such as The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, and Hellen Keller's autobiography The Story of My Life: "Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world." (p27) These books and sites are relevant to the plot; they help the pov characters understand what's happening. For example, Caitlin writes a review of Jaynes' book which includes "...I think being self-aware emerges when you realize that there's someone other than you." (p139)

One of the subplots involves an epidemic in China, which leads the Chinese government to undertake drastic measures including isolating the Chinese internet from the rest of the world. This subplot has a direct effect on the emerging consciousness which experiences "Worse than terror, as larger and larger chunks are carved off." (p52) Then when Sinanthropus, a Chinese revolutionary of sorts, tries to "...keep this little portal open..." (p60), the emerging consciousness notices "What is that?...Straining to perceive it, to make it out, this unusual...sensation, this strange...voice!" (p60) Suffice to say, this episode helps the consciousness on his journey.

Another subplot which has a significant effect on the emerging consciousness is Hobo "...a very real, very alive adult male chimpanzee." (p89) Hobo has his own mental journey which starts when "Hobo let out a startled hoot. --as a small male orangutan made his way onto the chair visible on the screen..." (p92) "The first-ever interspecies webcam call was off to a great start." (p93) Hobo helps the emerging consciousness attain consciousness.

Of course, the hero is really Caitlin and the reader cheers when she has "...a sensation, a something, like bursting, or...Or flashing." (p83) "...these different...flavors of light, they were colors!" (p84) "...Caitlin is seeing the Web connection somehow?" (p98) The Japanese scientist Kuroda says, "...I was thinking we should call it 'websight.'" (p129) Caitlin is well on her way to attaining the ability to see the real world. Hurray!

During her journey, she discovers the emerging consciousness and they learn to communicate. In fact Caitlin takes on the role of its teacher because "Helen Keller had been uplifted by Annie Sullivan. And the...the whatever it was...surely could also be brought forth." (p287) Thus, the emerging consciousness thinks, "My teacher continued with the lesson, and I struggled to follow along..." (p278) And after a lot of help from its teacher, "My mind was inflating, my universe expanding." (p322)

In the end... I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. I highly recommend you read for yourself what happens in the end. I'll just say all the plot lines and subplots tie together very nicely. Kudos, Mr. Sawyer.

22 November 2009

Shortcuts to Characterization

Lesley's post on characterization tools inspired something I've been thinking about a lot, which is Shortcuts to Characterization. This is important in short stories because, well, they're short.

  • The Redshirt. Killing off a Redshirt can prove the foe is serious. But please give your Redshirt a name and a real relationship to your protagonist (which admittedly moves them somewhat out of the realm of Redshirtedness). When s/he dies, make it count. This is an opportunity to advance plots and create reversals within your protag, so make your Redshirt work for you.
  • Less is More. Keep as few characters as possible in your story, and try to keep only two talking in a scene at once. If you must have more than two present, then give a reason for one or more of them not to talk--busy them with readying the ship for flight, make them an underling (who will perhaps spout off with something surprisingly helpful or do something stupid to raise the stakes), or perhaps an alien who doesn't have their language.
  • Show Me The Money. Showing takes far less real estate than telling. Just let your character be who s/he is. No need to explain every action as long as they are true to character.
  • Fightclub. Deep conflict brings out your characters' real colors. Experiment with keeping every word they say and every action conflictual and watch your character shine.
  • Drop the History Lesson. We don't need to know everything that led up to this point in your protagonist's life. Devise a simple reason rooted in character - key word being simple. Certain people just draw conflict, by way of their career, personality, upbringing, or position in life. And there is a certain elegance in simplicity.

18 November 2009

Spec Fic Tools V : Characterization

Another crucial tool for the spec fic author is characterization. Old Man's War (OMW), the 2005 novel by John Scalzi, was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo Award for good reason. Scalzi does an excellent job with characterization via the first-person narrative of protagonist John Perry. Scalzi creates a realistic, sympathetic and empathetic character by showing us John's actions, speech and thoughts.

The first paragraph of OMW is excellent: "I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army." (OMW p7) Immediately the reader learns the protagonist's age, the fact that he's a widower, and the fact that he's willing to fight for his country--or planet, as we find out later. Both the facts that he's a widower and he's willing to fight to protect others makes him sympathetic right off the bat, moreover, the reader identifies with, i.e. empathizes with, him because he's sympathetic. The author also piques the reader's interest with a seeming inconsistency: how can a seventy-five year old join the army?

In chapter two, Scalzi uses a device to make characters more sympathetic, namely, they thwart a very unsympathetic character: Leon says, "There's nothing in the Bible that says we should be stuck on Earth while a bunch of brownies, which don't even believe in Jesus, thank you very much, fill up the galaxy. And it certainly doesn't say anything about us protecting the little bastards while they do it." (OMW p26)
John says, "But I say unto you, Love your enemies.... Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father who is in Heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust..." (OMW p26)
And in response, "Leon turned lobster red. 'You're both out of your fucking gourds,' he said, and stomped off as fast as his fat would carry him." (OMW p26) This scene works very well to endear the reader to John because Leon is so unpleasant and 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'.

When other people like the protagonist, the reader likes the protagonist. Thus John collects friends such as Jesse, Harry, Thomas, Susan, Maggie, and Alan, and they all have an easy camaraderie. For example,
"This is my roommate, Alan Rosenthal," he [Harry] said, by way of introduction.
"Formerly known as Sleeping Beauty," I said.
"About half of that description is right," Alan said. "I am in fact devastatingly beautiful." I introduced Harry and Alan to Susan and Thomas.
...Harry said to me ...."...Alan here is a theoretical physicist. Smart as a whip."
"And devastatingly beautiful," Susan piped in.
(OMW pp48-9)

A significant way to make characters appealing is to show them caring about others. Scalzi does this extremely effectively:
...we became friends, and close friends at that, in the short period of time we had together. It's no exaggeration to say that I became as close to Thomas, Susan, Alan, Harry, Jesse and Maggie as I had to anyone in the last half of my 'normal' life. We became a band, and a family... We gave one another someone to care about, which was something we needed in a universe that didn't know or cared that we existed. We bonded. ...And as the Henry Hudson drew closer to our final destination, I knew I was going to miss them. (OMW p105)
When John's band of friends, the Old Farts, get assignments in other parts of the galaxy, they resolve,
"Let's do it," Harry said. "Let's be our own little family. Let's look out for each other, no matter where we are."
"Now you're getting misty, too," Susan said.
..."A pact, then," I said. "To stay the Old Farts, through thick and thin. Look out, universe." I held out my hand. One by one, each of the Old Farts put their hand on mine.
"Christ," Susan said, as she put her hand on the pile. "Now I'm misty."
"It'll pass," Alan said. Susan hit him lightly with her other hand.
We stayed that way as long as we could.
(OMW p109)
Thanks to Scalzi, the reader also feels like part of the family and gets 'misty' as well.

These personal relationships are utilized effectively throughout the remainder of the book. The reader feels sorry for and sympathizes with John when his new family meets with disaster, for example, "Maggie was the first of the Old Farts to die." (OMW p162) John describes Maggie's death:
She was my friend. Briefly, she was my lover. She was braver than I ever would have been in the moment of death. And I bet she was a hell of a shooting star. (OMW pp163-164)

In Part II of OMW, Scalzi changes gears a bit and shows his characters at war. A reader instinctively admires a character that protects others. These characters are, moreover, sympathetic because they are realistically afraid but continue to fight to defend humanity anyway. Isn't that the epitome of courage? John has a very difficult time in his first battle when his fellow soldier Watson is killed, which the reader can empathize with.The reader furthermore wants to identify with John because he turns out to be a very good soldier. For example, in the first battle, he discovers a way to kill the enemy by using two shots. "I forwarded the firing specification to Watson and Viveros; Viveros forwarded it up the chain of command." (OMW p155) "We won. The double-bullet rifle technique thinned out the Consu herd by a substantial amount..." (OMW p157) John continues to be an admirable soldier with good ideas for the rest of the novel.

In part III, Scalzi creates a final, very effective, aspect to John's characterization which is introduced when John is near death:
A warm hand on the side of what's left of my face. "Hey," the familiar voice says. "Hey. You're all right now. It's okay. ..."
Her face comes into view. I know the face. I was married to it.
Kathy has come for me.
I weep. I know I'm dead. I don't mind.
(OMW p211)
John suffers and the reader suffers through him and for him.
When John approaches the mysterious woman for the first time the reader is right there with him:
I stopped as I got a look at her face...
"It's not nice to stare," the woman said, using Kathy's voice. ...
"I'm sorry, I don't really mean to intrude,” I said. "I was just wondering if you might recognize me."
She flickered her eyes up and down on me. "I really don't," she said.
(OMW 234)
Again, the reader feels for John.

Since Scalzi knows what he's doing, this Kathy/not-Kathy issue is resolved by the time OMW concludes.
Therefore, in OMW, Scalzi uses every trick in the book (except maybe saving babies and/or puppies) and successfully shows us John's actions, speech and thoughts to make the reader care about him. Kudos, Mr. Scalzi.

13 November 2009

Science Fiction influences European Space Agency

Jim Gunn was kind enough to pass along this very interesting article the European Space Agency put together in which they "review the past and present science fiction...to identify and asses innovative technologies and concepts described therein which could possible be developed further for space applications."
The report includes:
  • Introduction
  • A Touch of Science in Your Fiction
  • The Allure of Vinyl Space Suits
  • A Few Thoughts about Ideas and Images in Science Fiction
  • The Exploration of Space by Artists and Writers
  • Summary of Science-Fiction Concepts
    • Propulsion Techniques
    • Colonization of Space
    • Energy and Power
    • Computers and Communications
    • Robotics and Cyborgs
    • Launch Systems
    • Resources and Materials
    • Other Technologies

  • Appendices

The 48-page pdf article can he found here. Maybe it will inspire you!

12 November 2009

Is Your Story Stuck?

You have a great idea for a story. You sit down at the keyboard and bang out a sentence, a paragraph, even a few pages, and then . . . nothing. You read what you've written and realize it sucks. Or you can't figure out what happens next. Or you can't figure out how to get to that great ending you thought of.

Sound familiar? Believe me, it happens to all of us. But here's a few strategies that have worked for me to "unstick" a story:

1. Add a character. While you don't want to populate a short story with to many characters, sometimes a story suffers with too few. Your protagonist might need a love interest, a nemesis, or even a side-kick. If you decide to go this way, make sure it's a well-rounded character. A cardboard character could just make the situation worse.

2. Figure out why you wrote what you wrote. Did something in what you've written already travel from your subconscious writer brain right to the keyboard without passing through your critical editor brain? Good! It is probably some of the best material that you have on the page. Now you just need to think about why it ended up there. If it takes your story in a new direction--go with it.

3. Set it aside. Let your subconscious writer brain work on the story overnight, or even for a few days. However, don't set it aside for more than a week or so, or your subconscious writer brain will give up and start working on something else.

4. Submit what you have so far to your critique group. Don't feel like everything you submit needs to be finished. Sometimes, just hearing others talk about your story will give you an idea. (Don't have a crit group? Get one--either on-line or in person. They are critical).

5. Look at POV. This can be tough, but ultimately rewarding. Try switching from first person to third person limited. Or vice versa. Alternatively, try telling the story from the POV of a different character in your story.

6. Bang it out. If all else fails, decide you are going to finish the story even if you think it sucks. Make sure you get to the end, even if you are not happy with it. You might surprise yourself when you go back and look at it. Or you may find yourself at a point where 1 through 5 might work for you. Remember that your critical internal editor is your enemy early in the creative process. Don't let him or her stop you!

11 November 2009

Spec Fic Tools IV: Speculative elements

A crucial tool in the spec fic author's toolbox is the speculative element. This can be future/alternative technology and/or science, magic, or any other supernatural element. It is imperative, however, that the speculative element(s) be fully integrated into the story. Without this, the story is not truly speculative fiction.

To illustrate my point, I examine Charles Stross' 2007 technology-laden novel, Halting State (HS). Stross has fully integrated future technology into his novel; for example, the novel's inciting incident is a crime that has been committed in virtual reality. Thus, the investigators must go into virtual reality to investigate and solve the cybercrime. In so investigating, the protagonists discover serious implications for cryptographic keys and the entire European computer network.

The references to computer jargon, cryptography, MMORPGs and virtual worlds are prevalent, e.g. Jack says during his job interview, "We were implementing a swarm-based algorithm for resolving combat between ad hoc groups with position input from their real-world locations--" (HS p66) And in his follow-up interview he says, "Zone games don't run on a central server, they run on distributed-processing nodes using a shared network file system. To stop people meddling with the contents, everything is locked using a cryptographic authorization system. ...It's based on the old DigiCash protocol, invented by a crytographer called David Chaum...." (HS p90) Near the conclusion, Jack realizes, "And there are much worse things a black hat troupe on a capture-the-flag rampage can do these days than just grabbing passwords and borking hospital networks. Lots of critical engineering systems rely on encrypted tunnels running over the Internet, lots of SCADA systems and worse..." (HS p288)

How does Stross integrate technology into his science fiction? He starts with the big picture. First and foremost, Stross claims "SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist...", and real SF is "...a disruptive literature that focuses intently on revolutionary change..." (www.antipope.org)

Therefore Stross' method is to "...start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don't have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects...And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it." (www.antipope.org)

Stross actually criticizes some media SF for handling technology poorly: "The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating 'tech' to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization." (www.antipope.org) So, he is careful to always make sure his tech is an integral part of the plot and characterization. Kudos, Mr. Stross.

10 November 2009

Writing on Reading: The Ghosts of Belfast

This review may be a bit biased because Stewart Neville is not only an Electric Spec author but also an incredibly nice and generous guy. He was kind enough to help us with our website and downed quite a few beers with me and the other E-spec editors at MileHi Con.

So, of course, I got my signed, hardback copy and began reading soon after I got back from MileHicon.

Despite my affiliation with Stewart, I admit I was a bit skeptical when I started the The Ghosts of Belfast. After all, it probably isn't the kind of book I'd typically pick out at the book store. It is shelved in the "crime" section despite having speculative elements. And the premise is dark: the protagonist is haunted by ghosts who will not let him rest until he has avenged their deaths. So, lots of blood and bullets in this one.

Nonetheless, Ghosts really grew on me as I read along. Stewart made me care about his protagonist, despite his many flaws. The book is very tightly written, with good imagery, tension, and character building throughout. By the end, I couldn't wait to find out how the story would finally be resolved, and when I finished I wondered when the next one was coming out.

The sign of a good tale, if you ask me.

08 November 2009

Just a note:

We've been reading submissions. It looks like we're caught up to the first of October. We try hard to keep about a month out on stories - or less, when we can. We're writers too, we know we like to get quick responses. But when we're putting together an issue we tend to lag. So sorry for any delay!

It's odd how styles seem to run in groups. I'd say by far and away my biggest reason for rejection in this set was because the stories didn't quite flow like a story should. Sometimes I had a hard time just figuring out what the story was about or labeling a protagonist and antagonist. We like clear protagonists with clear goals, obstacles, and conflict. It can be as simplistic or as heavily themed as you like, but give me somebody to root for and make me worry they won't achieve their goal.

Anyway, I'd like to get through more slush this week, but writing and life goals are coming upon me with brute force, so it might be awhile. Thanks to everyone who's submitting and keep them coming. Also, feel free to submit to the First Page Game. Heck, send me your NaNo first pages, even. It's just plain fun.

06 November 2009

World Fantasy 2009 Awards

Things have been hectic around here at Electric Spec what with MileHiCon and finishing up another awesome new issue.

Check out the new ElectricSpec issue!

As many of you probably know, the World Fantasy convention was last weekend in San Jose, CA. Let's give a shout out to the World Fantasy Awards winners, in particular, best short story "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson (Asimov's 7/08), and best novella "If Angels Fight" by Richard Bowes (F&SF 2/08).

Congratulations to all the nominees!
More World Fantasy Award info here.

02 November 2009

First Page Critique Game

Treaty Station

The fool was still following him. Kyle took a corner table, with his back to two walls, commanding a view of the whole bar.

The table was made of polished wood, but the perfectly even grain betrayed it was vat grown. It made little sense to ship trees from the surface of a planet to a space station.

Kyle swallowed some of his rum and coke, ice cold with just the right amount of bite going down. The barroom was built for tourists, but it had atmosphere all the same. The bar itself took up a little less than half the front wall. Next to it was the red door he had heard so much about, with ‘HUMANS: DO NOT ENTER’ in large black letters. Each of the walls to the left and right had one door leading out to the station at large, and one restroom. So far, the Mazoids had used the ladies room with no complaints from either species. There were several rows of tables at the rear of the room, and more in the unoccupied area to the side of the bar. The curvature of the floor underneath was hardly noticeable – an inch or so for the whole room.

Five minutes later a man sat down a couple of tables away and buried his head behind a newssheet.

My issue with this is that while you're creating an intriguing SF world, I'm wondering what happened to the fool following Kyle and why that's not foremost on his mind. He's thinking about a vat-grown wooden table, whether his drink has enough rum, and the practically unnoticeable curvature of the floor. I don't buy it. So I feel we've got a little bit of POV slippage here. Either that, or Kyle doesn't care that he's being followed, he knows he can handle it - which might be indicated by the word "fool". But then, if he doesn't care, why should I? That device can kill the impact of the hook. It also feels a bit like bait-and-switch to throw a hook in the front line and then launch into description that really doesn't give us much important information but that he's on a space station.

So the discrepancy bothers me. A more interesting treatment, should all this information prove necessary, might be to have him concerned over his tail while creating an obstacle out of the description. Maybe he's got a talkative bartender or tourists discussing the decor and he's thinking "Shut up, where's that damned tail, fuck, he could sneak up on me at any moment in this crowd." Or even add in how he feels about that. Maybe the crowd is good cover for his escape or dang it, there's kids in there and he can't let them get hurt. Or even, No matter, they're just aliens. Expendable. Maybe if bullets are flying (or lasers or what-have-you) he can worry over what that will do to the space station walls, or thank the gods he's in a lawless place because if he's found in a fight while on parole back on Santon 5, he'd be screwed...

Obviously the possibilities are endless.

In this way you can make scenes work for you in multiple ways, thereby saving valuable real estate: give information about the setting (description), demonstrate the story problem (initiating incident), how your character reacts to the incident (POV and voice), offer obstacles (heighten tension) and then show his reaction to the obstacles, too (forward the plot, characterization).

So my feeling is that your scene can definitely do more work for you.

Thanks for playing! The queue is empty, so if you want me to do another page, my time is freed up now that the issue is out. You can send it after you go read the new issue! :)