Welcome back readers! And welcome to the new readers! Life, The Universe, and Everything is over, but I can already see from the stats page that we have some newcomers! Welcome! Whether you’re here to look at my books, or here for some weekly Being a Better Writer, welcome all the same!
So then, let’s get down to business with this week’s post, which is … a Micro-blast. Number seven, to be exact. What’s a Micro-blast? Well, it’s what happens when I near the end of a list of writing topics I’ve made for BaBW, and some of them just aren’t quite worth a full post, but are still worth discussing. Micro-blasts are a good way to bridge the gap, combining several shorter topics into one post so that there’s still a decent amount of material covered. Readers get a variety of subjects, and I get to clear some shorter topics and concepts off of my list.
Sound pretty straightforward? Good! Then let’s go!
Right, this is something I’ve encountered a lot in short fiction, especially from new writers (and especially among fanfiction). They’re sadly pretty common. But I call them … the Anti-Story.
Why? Because they’re short “stories” (note the quotes) that … well, aren’t. These are short bits of flash fiction that don’t really serve to do, well, anything for the reader. Brief, thousand-word blurbs that are quite literally summed up in a single-sentence description.
For example: X character goes to the store. Sometimes there’s a “What will happen?” tacked onto the end to make it sound mysterious or like there will be some conflict … But there isn’t. Nothing happens. At all. When you read the story, it’s just X character going to the store. No conflict, no point. Not even flowery, evocative prose. Just “So and so went to the store. The end.”
It’s an anti-story because there aren’t any of the elements of a traditional story. A more accurate name for many of these would just be “a scene” except even then a scene often has a purpose, a goal that it works toward. Character X wants to talk to character Y about a problem. Character Z struggles to figure out how to finish a project. Whatever the case, there’s a clear drive that the scene has.
Anti-story stories don’t have that. They’re just there. No goal. No real purpose outside of “Here’s a thing I wrote about.” They’re an empty scene.
They can even be worse. Sometimes they’re a joke played on the reader. I once came across an anti-story that summed itself up in the description of “So and so has stomach trouble. Could there be a deeper problem behind it?” And no. They had gas. The whole story was a fart joke at the reader’s expense. “Haha, just got you to read this, but the joke is on you!”
Not the best thing to read, really. Because at the end of an anti-story, even if it only took a few minutes, the reaction is to put it down and think to one’s self “What did I just read, and why? That’s time I’ll never get back.”
Now, that isn’t to say this kind of writing is bad. I think where many of these come from is when young, new writers do a writing exercise and then think that because they’ve written it, it’s a story. But it’s not. It’s an exercise.
And exercises are wonderful! Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to sit down and practice one’s craft. But something that comes out of an exercise isn’t by default a story. It can just be a collection of paragraphs. Not a story.
For your story to be a story, it needs to have purpose. A drive. A goal. An objective. For example, I’ve read short stories before that are entirely evocative descriptions of ancient ruins. But though they are very heavy in description and involve no direct, traditional characters, they still tell a story about the ruins. You learn what the cities were like when they were alive, and then, piece by piece, why they fell and became ruins.
And that’s a story. There’s a drive there. You start to learn about the ancient ruins, but as you read, a narrative forms about how these cities fell.
Character goes to the store and buys a drink? That should tell the reader something. There should be something we gain from it outside of “Okay, so they went to the store and bought a drink.”
A good rule of thumb? If your entire story can be summed up in a short description of one or two sentences without losing anything—like in the store example given above—then you’ve written an anti-story.
But all is not lost. Go back and flesh your idea out! Ask yourself the basic questions—who, what, where, and most of all why? There must be at least one of these you can explore further to flesh your base concept out, to take it from a collection of words about very little to a collection of words about something.
Or, in other words, a story.
We’ve all been there. We’ve just gotten home from work, there were a ton of chores to do, but we still want to get a little writing done, so we stay up late. “It won’t be that bad” we tell ourselves. And so we get an hour or two less sleep than we should.
And then again the next night. And again the next night. And it piles up. Then we reach the end of our current writing project, look back at it, and cringe.
See, despite America’s love of working employees into exhaustion and the idea that you don’t need to be awake to work … you do. Especially for something like writing. Writing is an extremely cerebral activity. Or at least, it should be if you’re putting your all into it. Keeping track of characters, keeping their voices distinct, monitoring the plot … all of this and more has to be juggled by the mind while also keeping an eye on things like grammar and just plain using whatever language you’re writing in.
So when we start to cut into sleep, it starts to hit writing. Hard. It may not seem like it at first, but if you keep pressing on? It can have an extremely detrimental effect on what we write.
Sure, that can be fixed in editing. Probably. But who wants to spend twice as long editing a book if they can help it? Personally, I’d rather spend less time editing because I got my required sleep, and let what went down on the page first have as few errors as possible.
Now look, I know this is easier said than done. Most—in fact, almost all—of us have second jobs, or the writing is the second job, and that means we’re already pushing ourselves to be tight with time. Plus, there are still the other elements of mental and physical health, such as exercise and relaxation. There are chores and non-work responsibilities. And there are even things like staying up until past 4 AM because you’re so close to finishing a book and why wait!?
Yeah, that was me last night. Shouldn’t have been … but we’ve all been there haven’t we?
Anyway, I’m not saying that if we didn’t get a full night’s rest we shouldn’t write. More that we should do what we can to make sure that our minds are healthy and hale. And that includes getting enough sleep.
Writing is a taxing mental process. We should do what we can to make sure our minds are charged and ready when we sit down to ask so much of them.
Now, a little disclaimer here: Everyone’s ideal sleep schedule is different. Some people desire sleeping early and rising ridiculously so. Others stay up a little later and then arise a little later.
Figure out what’s best for you. What’s best for your mind. Keep it sharp and on top of things. Your writing will thank you, as will your readers.
No Knowledge is Wasted
So, as many of you readers know, I just attended LTUE and had a blast. But it might surprise some of you to know that of the many panels I attended across various topics, there were a number of them that I attended that I had no set reason to attend.
For example, the panel on Medieval Courts and Law. Have I ever written anything that would require or need 14th-century Germanic law? Well, no. Do I plan to?
Again, no. But I went anyway. Why? Well, I’ll admit that on some level I was curious, but on another level? It’s knowledge, and knowledge is never a bad thing to have when you’re a writer.
Maybe I’ll write about it someday, maybe I won’t. But it can’t hurt to know a little bit about it. Sands, knowing something about it may help inspire me to write about it in the future. Whenever I learn something new there’s a good chance that my mind will go “Hey, there’s a concept” and run with it, creating a new idea or concept.
In other words, what I’m getting at is that as a writer, new knowledge should always be something you’re open to learning about, whether it is from any field. Anthropology. Electrical. Space. Diving.
Every one of those topics has hundreds of stories that can be told using them. Thousands. Millions.
What stories will you miss out on telling if you never learn anything about any of those topics? What ideas will pass you by?
Let me expand on that last sentence a little bit. Often I hear really young writers asking about ideas. Where do they come from? How do creators think of so many?
We learn about stuff. Constantly. And we ask questions. We sit in a panel on medieval courts and law and think “But wait, couldn’t that be abused like this in order to frame a rival for …?” Or we watch a NatGeo minidoc on the most extreme railway in the world and wonder what it would be like to replicate that on a Sci-Fi world.
Or whatever! My point is that many of our ideas can come from learning new things and thinking on them. We puzzle, we ask questions … and a seed is planted.
But that knowledge doesn’t stop there, either. It can come up writing other stories. For example, most people wouldn’t think that my experiences on fishing boats in Alaska would be useful when writing a fantasy story about a bunch of soldiers-for-hire … but then those same characters steal a boat and set out across ice-encrusted waters. My time spent on those same boats and spent touring the USS North Carolina has been incredibly useful writing about life aboard a large space vessel in Jungle.
In other words, knowledge can come back to help in surprising but effective ways. So learn! You don’t need to become an expert on everything to have a little natural curiosity that you can learn from and then apply to your writing.
The Power of Capitalism
I’ll start this off by saying “It’s not what you think!” This is a worldbuilding tool that was brought up multiple times at LTUE. Or rather, more of a guidestick, something you can bring out of your writer’s toolbox to place against your idea when you’re worldbuilding.
I do it all the time when I worldbuild, as do many other authors. But there are also some that don’t, and that can lead a story to problems if one starts asking questions.
Actually, in order to explain this, let me talk for a moment about isekai. Isekai is a subgenre of anime (wait, don’t take off, there’s a point to this; I’m not about to deluge you with anime as I’m not really a fan) that translates to “different world.”
Basically, it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy genre where an ordinary person dies and is reincarnated into a fantasy world as the “chosen one” and immediately gets to live out a wish-fulfillment dream of saving the day, finding love, etc etc etc.
Yadda yadda yadda. Why am I bringing this up?
Because as part of the wish-fulfillment, these worlds the characters are dropped into often suffer from … lapses, so to speak. For example, I have friends that enjoy Isekai, and in the last episode they watched, the protagonist presents a town with a fish as a gift. Because the protagonist is there, the town is able to realize that the scales of this fish are incredibly useful, being lightweight and very tough. Yay, the protag is so awesome for bringing this to our attention!
Except … why didn’t they figure this out a lot earlier? They should have, by all reasoning. They knew what the fish was. But not one of them had ever thought “Hey, that looks useful?”
This is an example of the worldbuilding having an issue. That issue being that the creator never sat down and asked themselves why no one else had figured this out. Naturally, they wanted to the protagonist to do it for the wish fulfillment, but it breaks the world a little.
Which was why at LTUE in several panels, several authors brought up the idea of throwing capitalism at your setting.
Okay, that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. What each of these authors was saying, and what I’m passing on to you now, is that when you create a world you need to hold as a guidestick against it the question of “Okay, how could someone make money doing X?”
Basically, you need to ask for each change you make whether or not someone could use it to make money. Did you just make a magic system where people can become telekinetic after drinking a special potion? How can someone use that to make money?
Because someone will. Even if it isn’t actually money. For example, if this potion allows someone to move things with their mind, how readily available is it? How much does it cost? Are there jobs where it would be cheaper to pay for the potion than for whatever current method they use to move things around? How will that change society? What are the limits?
These are questions you need to ask because people in your world will. Which was why I brought up the Isekai example: A common criticism of Isekai is that the world is under-developed on purpose (read this as “inhabited by dumb people”) in order to make the protagonist special. But in the real world, technologies and new ideas scarcely arrive without someone—or more often a whole host of someones—looking at it and saying “Hey, could I do this?”
That’s just how it works. Regardless of whether or not your society is based on capitalism, species tend to survive and thrive as cultures because they adapt and expand. Which means if you introduce an element of magic/tech to the world, you need to sit back and ask yourself “Okay, how could people make use of this? What are the limits? Why couldn’t someone just do this?”
Side note: See The Last Jedi‘s suicide FTL jump for a great example of someone not thinking things through, as it utterly invalidated every single space battle before it.
Are there limits? What are they? Asking yourself how someone can make a buck at something may help you find them. For example, in Colony the ship’s the characters are on have artificial gravity. However, the books also show that it’s both energy-intensive and of limited range, so you can’t just swing out and move a planet around. Not with where the tech is.
But someone surely thought about that when it was invented.
So, whenever you’re worldbuilding, ask yourself “How can this item be used or utilized?” Because you may find some fun applications along the way that can really make your world come to life, as it will be occupied by living, breathing citizens who are applying what they have to their world.
Now, does this mean that you can’t have things people haven’t thought of before? Of course not! You can write a society, for example, that has cultural reasons not to have experimented with certain ideas, or societal reasons why they’ve not applied research in some way. There’s a short story by Harry Turtledove called The Road Not Taken that explores this. In the story it turns out that space travel is stupidly easy, but down an odd branch of physics and science that mankind never explored, almost by dumb luck. Other races invented space FTL travel … we perfected iron weapons.
Fun story, by the way. You should read it.
Anyway, you can write up reasons why someone hasn’t tried X before and make it work. Social constraints. Cost constraints! For example electroluminescence, which is what gives us LEDs, was discovered in 1907. That’s right, the tech for LEDs is over 100 years old. The first LED was made twenty years later in 1927 and should have revolutionized the world … but since the paper never got any attention, people pretty much forgot about it for over forty years. Plus, the light-bulb was cheap and everywhere! Why spend time making a small LED?
Point being, there are reasons why some ideas don’t take off or no one thinks of them. But you should try to, so that you can either A) show to your readers why it didn’t or B) extrapolate forward into something awesome.
One more example from the con, this from the metallurgy panel. The setting? USA, late 1800’s. The problem? The US Navy sucks and is decades out of date. They’re sailing wooden sailing ships.
The solution? The navy proposes steel ships. But there’s no steel manufacturing on that scale in the US. So they subsidized the construction of massive steel-manufacturing on the promise of orders of hundreds of thousands of tons of steel.
The result? Steel became dirt-cheap in America, and suddenly all these other industries that had been working in iron switched over to steel. Guns? They became steel. Carriages? Steel parts! And the world changed.
Did you just make magic? Now ask yourself how folks will make money with it. Bring the guidestick out of the toolbox.