Being a Better Writer: Science-Fiction

Hello readers! Welcome back! I trust you had a good weekend?

I certainly did! Shadow of an Empire picked up another Five-Star review, which while not being a title that fits with the genre today’s post is about, is certainly something that I’m happy about regardless. The reviewer in question stated that they found Shadow of an Empire while looking for fantasy books that had deeply developed hard magic systems, and to that end they were incredibly impressed (and thoroughly enjoyed) just how deeply the magic was laced through the world, characters, society, and setting.

They also expressed sadness that there was only one title to date in the series (well, they probably don’t know about the short in Unusual Things, or weren’t counting it because it was, after all, a short). And to that I say “I have plans.” But I need to finish up Starforge and the UNSEC Space Saga first.

Okay, news done. Let’s get down to details with today’s (admittedly) broad topic of a post: Science-Fiction. First of all, what do I mean titling a post with such a broad, generic term?

Well, as long-time readers of the site may recall, I’ve done genre posts before. Such as the post on Westerns, or the one on Mysteries. And doing a genre post on Science-Fiction has been on my list for a while because, well … There’s a lot of disagreement out there about what Science-Fiction is.

Yeah. Again, what is the internet but a location for people to argue over whose lack of knowledge is greater? Even outside of the internet though, the subject of “What is Sci-Fi” in the last decade has become a topic of much debate. And I don’t mean “debate” in the terms of “Let’s sit down and have a calm discussion” either. More often than not the “debates” over what Science-Fiction “truly is” devolve into people speaking or shouting past one another … or threats and disparaging comments made about the parentage or life of anyone who disagrees.

In other words, if you’ve heard of how the internet, from Twitter to conventions, has become a “battleground for Science-Fiction and Fantasy” in the last decade, the argument over what Science-Fiction is most assuredly plays a part in that debate.

So why talk about it then? Well, because I happen to believe that one entire side of that argument is wrong. At which point I’ll forewarn that this means I’ve “entered the debate” and taken a side that could see all kinds of disparaging things thrown at me or said about me. But it’s not just that one side is wrong, but that the debate has become so fierce that there are a lot of people out there that legitimately don’t know what Science-Fiction is anymore. The term has become empty, or misused. The term has been diluted and at odds with itself through its various definitions.

Which in turn has led to no small amount of confusion among both readers and writers alike. It’s hard to go a few days anymore without seeing a discussion of Science-Fiction online where someone doesn’t bring up a book only to have someone else say “Well, that might be a nice book, but it’s not Science-Fiction and therefore not germane to this discussion.” Or bring up something that they’re working on writing, only to have someone post “I’m sorry, but that’s not Science-Fiction. If you want it to be Science-Fiction you’ll need to dump these elements and do this.

Of course, by hopping into this “debate” there is some risk, in a small way, that I’m simply contributing to what the webcomic XKCD as the “standards” problem. But I’ll try not to, as after all, Science-Fiction has been around for centuries, and a fixed definition for decades now (newcomers trying to change it notwithstanding). So with all this said, let’s dive in, starting with the answer to the following question: what is Science-Fiction?

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Being a Better Writer: Now is the Time

Hello readers! Sorry for the lateness of this post. I didn’t sleep well last night, and that kind of lead me to sleep in this morning once I actually did fall into slumber.

But you aren’t here for that, you’re here for Being a Better Writer. And we’re diving right into it, as is fitting when you consider the title.

What, you thought I’d name a post Now is the Time and wouldn’t dive right in? Buckle up, because here’s a writing topic some of you need to hear.

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Being a Better Writer: Entertainment Value VS Quality

Hello readers! Welcome back to the start of another week, and with it a new episode of Being a Better Writer! I hope you all enjoyed your weekend. I certainly did. The conference I watched was a truly splendid experience, one that I would recommend to anyone looking for a little peace and thought with everything else that’s been going on across the world.

This weekend also saw the release of episode three of Fireteam Freelance, which resulted in a couple of surprised and curious comments at the end. It looks like readers are enjoying it!

And me? Well, aside from the conference, it’s all Alpha editing on A Trial for a Dragon! Making lots of little changes with this one, bits and pieces where a single word in the right place (or the wrong on) makes all the difference … and that was an unintentional G-Man, I assure you. Anyway, tweaking A Trial for a Dragon just so is time-consuming, but by the end, this story is going to shine bright, people. Which is good, because the clock is ticking on that April 30th submission date!

Anyway, I could go on and on about that and how fascinating the editing process can be (a single word, folks) but this isn’t a post about Trail for a Dragon, it’s for Being a Better Writer. And more, it’s a requested topic, so let’s talk about it!

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Being a Better Writer: Keeping it Simple

Alternative title: Don’t Bite Off More than You Can Chew.

Hello readers! Welcome back! How was your weekend? I trust it was enjoyable?

I hope I was able to help with that. Episode two of Fireteam Freelance dropped Saturday morning with a bang! More adventures with Adah, Ursa, Anvil, and Owl!

And … that’s all the time I’ve got for news today. And all the news, so it works out. So, let’s talk writing.

With a title like this some of you are probably wondering what the inspiration is. Well, as many of you know, I do a lot of reading. Not just books, but webcomics and even some fanfiction here and there as well. I’m also highly selective, especially with the last two, but I do notice a lot of trends. Trends that tie back into a lot of stuff I hear from novice writers (who frequently turn around and write fanfiction or webcomics).

In fact, I was actually tempted to share a synopsis I found for one new webcomic in this very post to illustrate my point today, but decided against it. It would have illustrated today’s point, or rather today’s issue we’re discussing pretty well … but I’d hate to have that creator find this post and feel personally put under a spotlight they didn’t ask for.

So let me give you a common hypothetical. An occurrence that happens to authors, or to teachers in creative writing courses, or even to random people who know someone bitten by the writing bug. They get cornered, and they’re given a synopsis of this new writer’s planned plot and story. And it’ll be something like this:

So the main character is an undead werewolf, right? And she’s trying to hide and survive this organization that’s hunting her, while trying to figure out what happened to her mother. Her mother was a powerful sorceress who might have discovered the cure for this deadly disease that’s wiping out the world, which she got from aliens. But the good aliens, not the bad ones. See, she was part of a secret organization that fought the bad aliens during World War I, who were using voodoo to try and manipulate the world and take over. They’re not related to the people hunting the main character—or maybe they are, I haven’t decided yet. Anyway, one of the people hunting her is secretly in love with her, but there’s a problem because they’re actually a vampire, part of a secret organization that’s working against everyone else to try and make the world eternally night by using the bad and good aliens. So we start out in this high school …

So, what do you think of my short story idea?

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Being a Better Writer: Keeping a Short Story Short

Hello readers! Welcome back after a spectacular Life, The Universe, and Everything writing convention! I hope you were able to attend, or if not, that you’ll be checking their youtube channel to see what’s posted as they upload panel recordings! The experience was incredible!

It was not without risks, however. Such as the dreaded “con crud” (aka you’ve just been exposed to around a dozen different colds and you’re low on sleep), so today’s post is going to be a little shorter than normal. No news, possibly some flat-brained typos, but I’m getting it done! So then, let’s talk about keeping your short story short.

This was a topic that actually came up in one of the LTUE panels I was on, in a roundabout way. An audience member asked about keeping short stories short stories, and said that they’d been told the best way to do it was to think of a short story as either the first or final chapter of a story. In other words, they explained, it either set up a beginning, or tied off an ending.

That’s actually a pretty good way to think of it, provided you’re thinking of a story where everything that can come before is capable of getting squeezed into that one chapter (though yes, that’s more important for a story that’s the “end” of something than the beginning, as one sets up and the other ties together).

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Being a Better Writer: Learning From Other Authors’ Books

Readers! The time has come! The magnificence is upon us! It. Is. Here!

What am I talking about? Why LTUE of course! Life, The Universe, and Everything! The convention for writing Science-Fiction and Fantasy! It’s this week! February 13th-15th!

Yes, most of you have probably already heard of it since I have been mentioning it fairly frequently for the last month. But as it is this week, this is the last time for reminders. Come to LTUE and feast (metaphorically, we need those brains, plus at this con a zombie outbreak would be met with a shrug) on the knowledge of hundreds of professional authors!

Myself included! Yes, I will be there, speaking on several panels as well as attending the launch of A Dragon and Her Girl! And doing a reading from my short in said collection the next day! In addition, I’ll also be at the general signing, so if you’re grabbing a copy to sell, well …

I’ll also be around the con the whole time I’m not on a panel, having fun or even attending other panels. If you’re on the lookout for me, I’ll be sporting a tan shirt that says “Ask me about my book” (perfect, right). Feel free to speak up, catch my attention and say hello! As long as I’m not running to one of the panels I’m on, I’m always willing to chat for a bit and say hello!

By the way, if you’re attending LTUE and looking over the panels in joyful glee of figuring out where you want to be and when, check out my schedule here if you want to make sure you can make it to the panels I’m on. I hope to see you there!

Now, in the spirit of the week, I thought I’d cover a less common but no less useful topic this time for Being a Better Writer: learning from works written by other authors.

This is something that I’ve written about before, or at least touched on, in various BaBW posts, this concept that reading other authors’ works can be a bit like picking up a textbook on how to write. But since this week is all about learning right from those authors, I figured it was about time to do a post on it. After all, if you can’t make it to LTUE, and can’t watch any of the videos that will go online on their YouTube page, that doesn’t mean you still can’t learn from the massive amount of authors that will be there, albeit indirectly.

So then, how does one learn about writing by reading someone else’s book?

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Being a Better Writer: Getting by on as Little Detail as Possible

Hello there readers! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer! I hope you’ve all had a great weekend, got some fun reading done. I certainly did. I made a jaunt to my local library, picked up, and have already read through one of the books I knew I needed to bring up at one of my panels at LTUE. Which is a good segue into some quick news reminders about LTUE. It’s almost upon us, people! In fact, it’s just over a week away! So you’re pretty much at the last chance grab your registration in advance! If you don’t now, you’d best be prepared to pay your way in at the door!

Once you’re there, though, you’ll have a veritable smorgasbord of writing advice and guidance available to you from hundreds of panels, all of which you can see in a grid here (PDF warning; it’ll likely download on a mobile). By the way, some of those panels? I’m on them! So swing by if you’re at LTUE, as they’re some excellent panels on excellent writing topics!

Now, with the LTUE reminder taken care of, let’s get down to business with today’s post. Today I wanted to talk about getting by on as little detail as possible. Or, from my perspective, one of the core components of a short story.

Okay, I realize that might sound a bit strange to some of you. And others might be nodding. Or wondering about other core components of short stories, which there definitely are a few of (for example, a really core one is a story that fits inside a short … which is another topic for another time).

But getting by on as little detail as possible is key for keeping a short story, well, short. See, it’s one thing in a book to have a character come into a setting and take a quick look around it, noting who is present and who’s speaking to who, or perhaps what the setting itself looks like. After all, with a traditional book you’ve got hundreds of pages waiting to be filled, so spending a hundred words establishing a setting for the next few pages? Not such a big deal. In fact, it’s expected.

For a short story, however, where you’re limited in both space and wordcount, taking those hundred words to describe a setting or a scene? Suddenly they’re a much larger blow against the “budget” of space you have to work with. And if you go ahead and write as though you have all the space available to you as one normally would, upon reaching the end you might find that your “short story,” initially directed to be around a few-thousand words, is now nearing novella size.

Whoops.

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Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice: Nothing New Under the Sun

Hello readers! And welcome to the first installment of Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! Where we’re looking, one week at a time, at all the cliche writing advice out there, the quick sentences thrown out by dozens of Facebook, Tumblr, and (shudder) Twitter users, or even just regular folks at a coffee shop. The kind of stuff that comes in a quick, digestible sentence and sounds like it’s useful.

Catch is, most of this sort of writing advice is so brusque that it’s really not that useful. Instead, it’s a bit like, well, like a small wooden carving that’s been carved one too many times. it still has the general shape, yes, but it also isn’t quite what it should be. But people keep passing it around anyway and saying “This is that thing!” because now it’s small, somewhat attractive, well-worn, and easy to pass along. Even if the thing it supposedly represents isn’t all that close when someone who’s actually seen one picks the carving up.

Which is why this summer, for the next month or so, Being a Better Writer is going to be digging into a whole range of cliche writing advice sayings that are spat out and regurgitated without much thought for how accurate they really are. The kind of things that are easy to remember and say … but may not hold as much truth, or really even useful advice, as most people think.

Or maybe they do? That’s what the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is here to find out. We’re going to break these cliche sayings down, see what makes them tick, see what they’re intended to accomplish, what they actually accomplish, where they go wrong, and then see if we can’t glean some good old fashioned knowledge to improve our craft out of what’s left. And the cliche for this week?

There’s nothing new under the sun.

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Being a Better Writer: The Ellipses and the Em-dash, Odd Forms of Punctuation

Welcome back readers! I hope you had, if from the US, a successful and interesting 4th of July, and if not from the US, a solid weekend! I did. For starters, my friends and I gathered and watched all of Season 3 of Netflix’s Stranger Things. I won’t spoil anything (obviously, I mean, come on) but I will say that I think it’s better than the second season. Mostly because they fixed the largest flaw with the second season, which was some weak pacing in the last few episodes. Here everything is much more tightly bound together, and there’s never really a single moment where even if you feel like you can stop that you want to.

So yeah, it’s really good. I do recommend. Next, there are only a few hours left in the Independence Day Sale! By tomorrow, it’ll no longer be available, so if you were planning on grabbing Shadow of an EmpireColonyDead Silver, or another book of mine while they were on the cheap, now’s your last chance! You’ve only got until the end of the day!

Finally, just a quick heads-up that we’re about to start the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice here with Being a Better Writer, and we’ve put out requests to you, readers, for every bit of cliche writing advice you’ve ever been told. If you missed the announcement, there’s a lot of cliche writing advice out there that can do more harm than good, especially when it’s taken literally and without the context it once had. So BaBW is going to spend the summer breaking down that advice, stepping back to look at what it really means and what you should be learning from it.

That starts next week and runs through either the summer or until we run out of cliche advice! If you’ve got one that you’ve always heard, go ahead and post it in the comments so it can go on the list!

Right, so with all that said (you read it, right? Sale, Stranger Things, and Summer of Cliche Writing Advice!), let’s talk writing! Specifically, let’s talk about some of the lesser-taught methods of punctuation out there: the ellipses and the em-dash.

You’ve seen them before … Right? In fact, there was one right there! Those three periods right in a row, the “…” That’s an ellipses, and you’ve likely seen one from time to time when reading a book. Or a lot if you read comics, or fairly regularly if you’re reading technical or research papers that use a lot of quotations. Though the use is a bit different in that last one.

Point being, you’ve likely seen it used somewhere. But, even though used on occasion, you don’t see it used as often as, say, the comma, or the period, or the question mark, all of which are regular features of punctuation you’re taught about in a basic school education.

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Being a Better Writer: Character Voice

Hey readers! Welcome back!

I know. It’s been a slow week from your perspective. The last major post here was another Being a Better Writer post last Monday. I said nothing else all week.

It’s because I was keeping busy. I’ve thrown myself headlong into Jungle edits, currently on  chapter … 37? Of 42. I think. Not important. The vital detail is that I edited something like 120,000 words last week. This week will see every single chapter up for the current group of Alpha Readers.

Oh, Hunter/Hunted beta calls will go out this week, too. I gotta finish up some of these plates so I can stop juggling them. And then pick up more.

This week there will be more than just Being a Better Writer, so check back. Got some thoughts on things here and there, as usual. But that’s for later.

For now, I want to talk about character voice.

Character voice is one of those unique elements that can make or break your story. Imagine, if you would for a moment, that you’ve gone to see an animated movie. The particular film doesn’t matter. Picture a favorite. You pull out the Blu-ray, walk into the theater, whatever, sit down, and the first character comes up and speaks. There’s their voice. Cool. Whatever.

Then the second character opens their mouth to respond … and it’s the same voice. The same VA, clearly the same person who did the first voice. And they do the third voice. And the fourth. And the fifth.

No changes. No switches to pitch or inflection, or any of the standard talents voice actors use when fulfilling multiple roles. Just the same voice for every character.

I’d imagine a viewer would find that both difficult to keep track of and outright annoying, wouldn’t you?

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