Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: science fiction

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday with me, Cait Reynolds. Today, we are going to go the distance. Literally. No matter what genre we write, our characters generally go places. The physical distance between these places impacts the timelines of our stories, pacing, and tension. Distance, great or small, can also be used to create atmosphere or to illustrate differences between characters.

But, before we get too much farther (ha ha, pun fully intended), here is the requisite photo of Denny Basenji, who is determined to go nowhere and do nothing.

GPS, Equipages, and Transporters

Like I said, it doesn’t matter what genre we write. Every story takes place in a…well…place. Whether it’s another planet, a fantasy realm full of dragons, Regency England, or today’s Los Angeles, distance plays a part in shaping and defining the story.

Let’s tackle the easy stuff first. When we write about anyplace on planet Earth, all we have to do is use Google Maps to get a sense of location, geography, nearby locales, and distance (by planes, trains, and automobiles…and bikes and feet).

I generally keep a little written note of the locations in my story and how far from one to the other. It’s quick a quick reference guide for me as I write, and it eventually helps my editors and proofreaders ensure consistency.

Staying on planet Earth but going back in time, we are still dealing with the same locations (for the most part), so Google Maps is still our friend.

However, now, we have to add in another layer: transportation. Whether it’s a pilgrimage on foot, the complex transportation logistics of a Crusade, taking the carriage to the ball, or crossing an ocean or continent using steam-powered engines, the way our characters get places must be factored into the overall timeline and plot.

But…how exactly do we figure out how long it would have taken a farmer’s cart with two old horses to go twenty miles versus a smart little phaeton with a pair of bright, brisk ponies?

Ah, hello, Google, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.

 No, seriously, you can google that stuff. It might take a little bit of digging (depending on how complex the logistics or how detailed you want to get), but the information is out there.

To prove my point, I just typed in, “average travel speed by phaeton and ponies” on Google and came up with a wealth of information about travel speeds and terrains (in both miles and kilometers!). If I really wanted to nail the exact amount of time it would take Mrs. Gardiner from Pride and Prejudice to go around the 10 miles of Pemberley’s  Park in the phaeton, I would probably spend about twenty minutes to half-an-hour digging through Google results.

For science fiction and fantasy, we get to create the rules, but then, *sighs* we then have to play by them. We can create any alien planet or mist-ringed elven realm we want, but as part of basic world-building, we must actually build the world.

Look at classics like Dune and Lord of the Rings. Herbert has very specific rules and details about space travel and distance between Fremen enclaves on Arrakis. In LOTR, Tolkien provides perhaps the most perfect example ever of using geographical distance to create tension and manipulate the pacing of the plot.

For science fiction, it’s worth doing a little Google, Wikipedia, and science magazine website digging to get a basic understanding of the distances between planets, solar systems, and galaxies – and, how long it takes to travel between them in lightyears. Keep a list of every space station, planet, and outpost, and their distances from each other.

We can talk about warp engines and wormholes all we want in science fiction, but we need to keep it consistent. If we get our characters into a situation where the only way out is to go to warp 10, but the scale only goes up to warp 9.9 (looking at you, TNG *wink*), then, we can’t just wave a magic wand and have the raven-haired, emerald-eyed, 22-year-old engineering ensign with a tragic past suddenly come up with a way to achieve warp 10. 

This is a direct violation of Lamb’s Law of Coincidences: You can use all the coincidences you want to get characters into trouble, but you can never use it to get them out of it.

In fantasy, the same rules apply. I would even go so far as to draw what I like to call a “stick-figure map.” That’s a polite way of saying a bunch of blobs and dots on a piece of paper with arrows between the dots indicating distances between cities, kingdoms, continents, etc.

Magical transport needs rules, just like sci-fi transport. Treat dragons like horses: how fast can they fly, for how long, are there different types of dragons that go at different speeds?

Personally, all my dragons come with a V8 standard.

Polite nothings about the roads and the weather.

Conflict! 😀
Just like it’s natural for us to complain about traffic, tell stories of bad flights, or share information about how to get to a certain location and how long it will take, characters talk about distance and travel, too.

“It must be very agreeable to her to be settled within so easy a distance of her own family and friends.”

“An easy distance do you call it? It is nearly fifty miles.”

“And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day’s journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance.”

“I should never have considered the distance as one of the advantages of the match,” cried Elizabeth. “I should never have said Mrs. Collins was settled near her family.”

 

In this example from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, distance and travel are used to highlight the differences between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s wealth, social status, and character. It’s just one of the many brilliant examples of “show, don’t tell” in the book, but that’s another post for another time.

When I was writing a scene about the journey of one of the characters in Kristen’s and my zombie western, I did spend more time – probably close to an hour – learning about railroad journeys from the East Coast to Arizona territory in the 1870’s-1890’s. This was much more involved for several reasons.

First, based on the exact year we are using, I needed to find out just how far the westward railroad expansion went. I discovered that while there was service to California already, the first tendrils of track had just begun to breach the borders of Arizona.

Therefore, the character would have had to end his rail journey a good 200 miles from his destination and take a stagecoach the rest of the way.

The time I spent researching this was not wasted, and not just for the fact that I was assuring that my facts were correct (socking it to the trolls!), but I realized how much this particular journey would represent abandoning civilization for the character, and it also gave me an opportunity to add in a hint of backstory for his relationship with another character whom he meets at a hotel in Denver when he is making arrangements for the next stage of his journey.

The failure, shortcomings, and limits of transportation provide us with fantastic tools for ratcheting up the tension.

Not to bring up bad memories of math class for many of us, but if character A is 60 miles away and trapped with a bomb set to go off in an hour, and character B can only travel 30 miles-per hour, what is going to happen to character A? (Leave your answers in the comments! Bonus points for creativity and flash fiction LOL.)

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I love hearing from you!

For the month of September, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES FOR SEPTEMBER AND MORE!

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds, award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson, and Kim Alexander, former host of Sirius XM’s Book Radio. So click on a tile and sign up!

(If you are getting this via email, open the blog post to see all the options and sign up!)

Villains & Anti-Heroes: The Characters We Love and Hate. $45.00 USD. Tuesday, September 12, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Hooked: Catching Readers in the First Five Pages. $40.00 USD. Thursday, September 14, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Turn Your Passion Into A Business: Making Money As A Writer. $40.00 USD. Monday, September 25, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Guilty Pleasures: Writing Suspense, Thrillers, and Crime. Tuesday, September 26, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Outside the Box: How to Read More, Write Less, and Up Your Fiction Game. Friday, September 29, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

On Friday, we explored how shame is the beating heart of great fiction, how probing the shadow sides of human nature is what can separate the mundane from the magnificent.

All fiction has its place. Some fiction is purely fun and escape and the world needs more fun and feel good. Certain books are simply a holodeck to get away from the mundanities of life, the overwhelming pressures of being an adult (kids, laundry, bills, car repairs). They serve as a place of rest and we all could use more of that!

But that isn’t all fiction.

Many writers (myself included) desire to go far deeper with our fiction, explore wounds and human issues, poke and prod at larger social dilemmas using the narrative form to expose that which is diseased and show it can be overcome. Speculative fiction is an excellent outlet for this. This genre offers a myriad of ways to help us mere humans face all the stuff we fear the most.

I am breaking out of my comfort zone and now offering new classes specifically for the genres I love and read the most. In August I have a class on Speculative Fiction and one on Character-Driven Stories (which includes but is not limited to literary fiction and can greatly enhance genre fiction) before I leave for New Zealand to keynote.

Why did I pick these two to start with? These are my favorite kinds of books to read, which means I’ve read a lot of these kinds of stories.  I also find it fascinating how (believe it or not) great speculative fiction has a lot more in common with literary than one might believe.

What is Speculative Fiction?

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes but it not necessarily limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror, utopian, dystopian, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction.

Basically, all the weird stuff.

(And forgive me because today we are using seriously broad strokes.)

But what makes the difference between the laughable 1950s science fiction matinees and the long-forgotten pulp fiction versus the works of Philip K.Dick? What makes The Road literature even though it’s a post-apocalyptic novella? Why is Heart-Shaped Box or Wool so deeply disturbing and simultaneously resonant?

Why do star-packed big-budget films like Jupiter Ascending fizzle? Yet Blade Runner is a science fiction staple worthy of being remade for the newest generations to enjoy?

Plot

It’s easy to dismiss speculative fiction as escapist fluff and some of it is. But, when we look to the great speculative fiction, we see the authors are disguising explosive social commentary within narrative so it can be viewed and experienced behind the safety-glass/containment field of story.

By using story, we writers place the reader into this world then (hopefully) generate empathy that is impossible to create any other way. I’ve seen the movie I, Robot countless times and I bawl EVERY time during this scene.

Yeah this is me…

Stepford Wives was a commentary on the women’s liberation movement. Animal Farm was a treatise on socialism and the dangers of groupthink. The peril that comes with handing over too much power to those who claim to have noble and benevolent intentions without asking the hard questions.

Brave New World was Huxley’s stab at a culture propelled by temporary highs, unlimited choices and instant gratification while rejecting that which endured (love, family, marriage), because that which lasted required time, sacrifice and work. He showed us an eerily accurate picture of what society could become if we were not vigilant…and is now probably rolling in his grave.

*Makes note to write story about Huxley haunting Instagram*

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was Philip K. Dick’s commentary on artificial intelligence and just because we can play God, should we? What sort of moral implications are involved? These are issues we are now facing for real, that are no longer fiction and we are being tasked with the tough questions.

Is it wise to create and sell sex robots that come with a “frigid” setting? What happens when we extend the logic of this? Blade Runner. We get Blade Runner. Also a bizarre escalation/reinvention of the previously mentioned Stepford Wives.

All these great science breakthroughs that float across our newsfeed are now fertile ground for new and possibly even better stories that prod the science with ethical dilemmas.

We show the world it’s upside down and maybe even ways to right it.

I believe that the great speculative fiction writers have always been the conscience of culture, the voice that whispers things like, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” Or, “This really is a big deal and can go ugly really easily.”

Horror does a lot of that as well. Good horror writers tap into the subconscious angst and gives it a face. What happens when society is allowed to continue to devalue human life? When mobs are handed permission to call the shots? Let’s chat about this after watching The Purge.

To Make it BIGGER, Make it Smaller

When we care about everything, we care about nothing. Additionally, the human mind can’t truly grasp the loss of a billion lives. It doesn’t resonate because it can’t compute.

Thus the great spec-fic plots make the big small. We tell a small story of one person or a group of people as it plays out on the far larger stage. World War Z anyone?

This is why so many Hollywood movies about asteroids hitting the planet fizzle while The Road simply guts us.

Not All Big Stories are Big

Sometimes speculative fiction isn’t addressing something big, rather it dives into the intimate and deeply personal. Heart-Shaped Box is about a vengeful ghost out to destroy an aging rock star and anyone he loves. While the supernatural elements are terrifying, what is so beautiful and moving about this story is how the characters are forced to face and conquer inner demons they would have been happy to bury if not running for their lives.

The human story is what elevates this from a forgettable scary book into a work that prods at the deep dark places of the characters (and by extension the reader).

Character

Writing speculative fiction is really tough. It has a lot in common with literary in that it can turn preachy or fall flat so easily. Too many writers get fixated on world-building, when world-building is backdrop and can never substitute for story.

Spec-fic is tough and I swear it is the souffle of fiction. If we aren’t careful and look away one second? Yeah.

Plot of course matters in that we need a core story problem to drive the story, but characters are vastly important (possibly even more important). We must develop multi-dimensional characters with flaws and problems to set on this adventure because gizmos, gadgets, spaceships, magic, chainsaws, gore and ghosts alone are not a story.

We don’t need a bigger asteroid…we need a better story. Story is what is going to rattle the cage, not the two-ton spider. More blood or teeth won’t scare us and won’t change us.

In a world where we are overwhelmed with doom and gloom, where any debate on-line easily devolves into ranting, I think spec-fic is more important than ever in human history. Story is the place where the armor goes off and the heart is exposed and then able to be changed, fixed, remolded, and softened.

What are your thoughts? Do you love horror? Dystopian? Science fiction? What are your favorites? I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU! What makes spec-fic great? Or fall flat? What are your pet peeves?

I love speculative fiction, even though it took about 4 years to figure out what other writers meant by “speculative fiction.” I am a horror and science fiction JUNKIE. And I love the good stuff, the stories that poke and prod and that people can’t help talking about, debating, discussing in a way no Facebook rant-fest can. Which, again, is why I am thrilled to be offering a new class on it!

****And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! So scroll down and sign up!

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Baby It’s Hot in Here—Writing Erotica & High Heat Sex Scenes August 4th $45 General/ $90 GOLD/$150 Platinum

Classes with MOI!

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Elements of Literary—How to Write Character-Driven Stories August 3rd $40

Beyond Planet X, Monsters & Chainsaws–Mastering Speculative Fiction August 10th $35

Classes with Award-Winning Author Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Method Acting for Writers—How to Write Deep POV August 1st $85 (two-week intensive class & lifetime access)

Beyond Lipstick & Swords—Writing Strong Female Characters September 9th $40

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday! I’m back, along with Denny Basenji, opinions on words, and a new haircut.

Also, I do know that I owe everyone my freshman year high school photo. I will post that on Friday. *pinky swear*

So, today, I’m talking about world-building for epic fantasy and science fiction. Of course, there are specifics to each genre that could merit their own blog post (and will eventually get their own blog posts), but for today, I want to talk about what they both have in common, especially when it comes to creating a world that is paradoxically both alien and familiar, comfortable and unpredictable, and just as human as you or I – tentacles notwithstanding.

Two Peas in an Alien Pod

Why are epic fantasy and science fiction similar, you ask? Well, let’s start with the most fundamental problem both face. It’s a misconception on the part of writers that regularly drives me to call upon the holy, withering powers of the Red Pen of Wrath.

 

The problem is this: a premise is not a plot.

I am just as guilty as anyone when it comes to this. I would get the coolest idea for an epic fantasy story with dragons, or a magical sword, or…or…a shy, downtrodden young girl who comes into her magical inheritance and has to save the world. Or, even worse…a space opera or an oppressive alien society bent on conquering a post-apocalyptic Earth…

You get the idea. And, that’s all it is. An idea. It’s a premise, a setting, the faintest concept sketch of a backdrop. It is not a plot. While the plot and characters are shaped by the world we build, we must first have a firm idea of the actual story we want to tell before we go indulging in literal flights of fantasy.

The best, most enduring, and most powerful epic fantasy and science fiction tell stories that are rooted in deep philosophical and ethical questions about how humanity (no matter what the species “we” are in the story) makes choices when pushed at warp speed into a magical corner.

A premise is great, but what is the burning reason why we need to write this story using this setting? If we can answer this question, then we are on the right track and are good to keep going with our world-building.

Culture Shock

Let’s just put it out there from the get-go.

Fantasy that uses the ‘faux medieval fallback’ is lame. Worse, it’s lazy, and I am not going to waste the precious hours of my life reading that crap. If an author can’t be bothered to build a world that goes beyond throwing in some Lord-of-the-Rings-style magic into ‘The Princess Bride,’ then, I can’t be bothered with his or her book.

Science fiction that so blatantly ignores human nature is also lame to the point where it can undermine the believability of an entire premise. For example – and yes, this is going to be controversial, and don’t flame me if I got it wrong because this is based on a memory from years and years and years ago – when I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and Captain Picard said that we had evolved beyond the need for money, I laughed. And then, I got mad. Seriously??? I don’t care if it’s dollars or hotel points on Risa, you cannot convince me that given the nature of the personal and psychological problems the TNG cast dealt with demonstrated that humanity had evolved beyond our basic competitive biological nature. We would need some serious genetic rewiring in order to let go of our need to gather and accumulate resources. When I could forget that little issue, sure, the whole premise was great. When I couldn’t? It was like a bad itch with no ideological cortisone to hand.

The absence of technology does not mean a society has to be simplistic with two-dimensional characters like the mustache-twirling villain or the reluctant young hero with chronic self-esteem issues. Conversely, the presence of technology doesn’t automatically cancel out all of society’s more complex, sticky social issues.

Good world-building in these genres should be an uncomfortable process. It should poke and prod at the difficult questions we tend to avoid on an everyday basis. We know we are doing it right when we feel a kind of culture shock, just like when we wake up at 3:00 a.m. in a strange hotel room on the first night of a trip to a foreign country. Sure, it’s a bed and a room, but something about it just feels fundamentally different, no matter how much it is the same.

The More Things Change

When we are creating a future or fantasy world, we obviously have to cover all the bases of politics, religion, education, economics, industry, regionality, food, etc. It’s the kind of exercise in thinking, imagination, and logic that forces us to play every idea six moves out to see if it still works and what else it might effect. However, almost more important than the differences we create are the similarities that we keep.

Not everything needs to be changed and/or renamed. That’s not world-building. That’s complication, not complexity. It’s also the biggest and easiest trap for us to fall into.

A world that is over-complicated and needlessly different puts and keeps distance between the story and the reader, and that’s not even dipping a scaly alien toe into the issues of character development.

So, how do we determine what needs to be changed? Some of it comes from the necessities of the plot, and some of if comes from the implications of physical realities of the setting itself (Dune is a great example of this). At the end of the day, though, we need to ask ourselves some basic questions every time we want to change something:

  • Is it relevant to shaping the character’s personality, motivations, and decisions?
  • Is it necessary to the plot on a macro or micro level as a source of conflict?
  • Can it be used as a stressor to up the tension or accelerate the pace?
The Sand Prince by Kim Alexander

One of the absolutely best examples of this that I have recently read is Kim Alexander’s The Sand Prince. It’s not just epic fantasy and an astoundingly exquisite example of world-building. It’s a riveting, meaningful story with characters I identify with and have come to care about deeply. If you read it (and you should), look at the way she uses food and colors to drive home desperation, hopelessness, anger, and stress. That’s just one small way she uses details to up the stakes for her characters and relentlessly drive the story toward its riveting climax.

And on the Seventh Day, Cait Taught a Class

If you’re feeling exhausted and perhaps even a little overwhelmed by this post, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Even God needed to rest on the seventh day, proving once again that world-building is hard.

However, even God had a system for creation, and I am teaching a tiny, pale version of that on Friday, July 28, 2017 from 7:00-9:00 p.m.

Class Title: Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $35 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY July 28th, 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

Science Fiction and Epic Fantasy are the double agents of the literary world. They simultaneously provide exotic escapism while at the same time serving as a ruthless mirror of contemporary society.

Whether it’s magic or technology, these genres bend rules and toy with the impossible.

However, it is also perilously easy to fall into the trap of bending every rule to make it easy for yourself, your plot, and your characters. When the fantastic becomes too fantastical, your world begins to lose its magic, and readers begin to distance themselves from the emotional impact of the actual story.

This class will cover a wide range of topics, including:

– Etymology: If you are going to make up names for people, places, food, customs, magic/technology, etc., you need to understand the fundamental rules of creating language.

– What’s normal and carries over from our world/time and doesn’t need description vs what is different and should be described

– How much magic or science do you have to know in order to build your world effectively?

– How to keep it real: tips and tricks for keeping your characters relatable to readers, even if they have tentacles/magical powers/chip implants.

– Spotting tired tropes and DOING BETTER. Make your fiction unique. No retreads! “Oh no, not another young, timid girl who becomes magical/laser-wielding social warrior!”

In a world of a gazillion forgettable fantasies and sci-fi stories, let Cait help you take your WORLD & STORY to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL. When world building is done right? Fans will be BEGGING to do fan fiction with the worlds you create.

World Building GOLD

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story. 

World Building PLATINUM

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and bonus worksheets. These worksheets will efficiently guide you through in-depth world-building and research, providing you with consistency for your writing and an excellent reference/style sheet for your editor and proofreader.

Register Here!

***

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

We’ve spent the past several weeks talking about my Deadly Sins of Writing, which are seven newbie mistakes that interfere with our fiction. “Was” clusters and ellipses overkill are distracting, and POV shifts just make us want to lie down until the dizziness passes. Ah, but once you have successfully removed the offending sins, you can more clearly see the actual story…but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more trouble ahead. There still might be more work to do.

Many of you have vowed to take your craft more seriously this year, which means more conferences and many, many more queries. For those of you who have submitted before, every wonder how an agent can ask for the first 20 pages and still reject our book? Did you ever wonder if the agents really read these pages? How can they know our book isn’t something they want to represent with so little to go on? I mean, if they would just continue to page 103 they would see that the princess uncovers a whole underground movement of garden gnomes with interdimensional capabilitites, and they wouldn’t be able to put it down. Right?

Wrong.

For those of you hoping to win my contest, you might be wondering exactly how much my 5 or 15 page critique is going to help you. Well, today is a peek inside my head. Please ignore the laundry. I’ve been meaning to get to that.

Back in the day before I wrote full time, I paid my dues doing a lot of editing. I have edited countless manuscripts, and today I am going to let you see the first 5-20 pages through the eyes of an agent or editor. Novel Diagnostics 101. The doctor is in the house.

I mean no disrespect in what I am about to say. I am not against self-publishing and that is a whole other subject entirely. But, what I will say is that there are too many authors who dismiss why agents are rejecting them and run off to self-publish instead of fixing why their manuscript was rejected.

Agents know that a writer only has a few pages to hook a reader. That’s the first thing. But agents also know that the first 20 pages are a fairly accurate reflection of the entire book.

Years ago, when I used to edit, I never cared for being called a book doctor. I rarely ever edited an entire book. I guess one could say I was more of a novel diagnostician. Why? Doctors fix the problems and diagnosticians just figure out what the problems ARE. Thus, what I want to help you guys understand is why beginnings are so imporant.

I generally can ”diagnose” every bad habit and writer weakness in ten pages or less. I never need more than 50 pages (and neither do agents and other editors). Why? Well, think of it this way. Does your doctor need to crack open your chest to know you have a bum ticker?

No.

He pays attention to symptoms to diagnose the larger problem. He takes your blood pressure and asks standardized questions. If he gets enough of the same kind of answer, he can tell you likely have a heart problem. Most of the time, the tests and EKGs are merely to gain more detail, but generally to confirm most of what the doc already knows.

The first pages of our novel are frequently the same. So let’s explore some common problems with beginnings and look to the problems that they can foreshadow in the rest of the work.

Info-Dump

The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization or some alien history all to “set up” the story.

In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters and even plotting. How can I tell? He begins with his strength…lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout.

This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story. The narrative then becomes like riding in a car with someone who relies on hitting the brakes to modulate speed. The story likely will just get flowing…and then the writer will stop to give an information dump.

Also, readers read fiction for stories. They read Wikipedia for information. Information does not a plot make. Facts and details are to support the story that will be driven by characters with human wants and needs. 

Sci-fi/fantasy writers are some of the worst offenders. It is easy to fall in love with our world-building and forget we need a plot with players. Keep the priorities straight. In twenty years people won’t remember gizmos, they will remember people.

Book Starts Right in the Middle of the Action

A lot of new writers are being told to start right in the action, and this tip is wrong…well, it needs to be clarified. We need some kind of conflict in the beginning to make us (the reader) choose to side with/like the protagonist. This conflict doesn’t necessarily have to do with the main story problem (directly).

For instance, in the Hunger Games we are introduced to Katniss and we get a glimpse of the hell that is her life and the burden she has of feeding her family. We feel for her because she lives in a post-apocalyptic nightmare where life is lived on the brink of starvation. Nothing terribly earth-shattering happens, but we care about this girl. So, when Katniss is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games–a brutal gladiator game held by the privileged Capitol–we want her to win, because that means a life of food, shelter and relative safety.

Suzanne Collins didn’t start out with Katniss in the arena fighting the Hunger Games. That is too far in and is too jarring. We need time with Katniss in her Normal World for The Hunger Games to mean anything or this action would devolve quickly into melodrama. Even though in the beginning, she isn’t per se pitted directly with the Capitol, she is pitted against starvation and depravity…which leads us nicely into the main cause of that starvation and depravity (the Capitol) and the solution to this life (win the Hunger Games).

Yet, many new writers take this notion of “start right in the action” and they dump the reader straight into the arena. The beginning of the novel starts us off with the protagonist (we think) hanging over a shark tank and surrounded by ninjas. There are world-shattering stakes and we are only on page 2.

This shows me that the writer could be weak in a number of areas. First, she may not be clear what the overall story problem is, so she is beginning with a “gimmick” to hook the reader in that she is unsure the overall story problem will. Secondly, this alerts me that the writer is weak in her understanding of scene and sequel novel structure.

Scenes are structured: Goal-> conflict -> disaster

So when a writer begins her book with Biff hanging over a shark tank surrounded by ninjas, two major steps in a scene have been skipped. Also, if you go back to an earlier blog from last fall, Normal World serves an important function. Thus when a writer totally skips some fairly vital parts and thrusts us straight into disaster, I already know the author will likely rely on melodrama from this point on. Why? Because that was how she began her book.

Book Begins with Internalization

Fiction is driven by conflict. Period. Writing might be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. When a writer begins with a character thinking and internalizing that is another huge warning flag of a number of problems.

Do you need internalization in a novel? Yes! But it has its place. Most internalization will be part of what is known as the sequel. Sequels transpire as a direct reaction to a scene. When a writer begins the novel with the sequel, that is a huge warning that, again, the writer is weak when it comes to structure. There is a definite purpose for reflection, but kicking off the action is not one of them.

Also, beginning with the protagonist “thinking” is very self-indulgent. Why do we as readers care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? We don’t know this character. The only people who listen attentively to the thoughts, feelings, and disappointments of total strangers are shrinks, and they are being paid well to do so.

Now, give us (your readers) time to know your character and become interested in her, and then we will care. But, starting right out of the gate with a character waxing rhapsodic is like having some stranger in the checkout line start telling you about her nasty divorce. It’s just weird.

Also, like people who tell you about their abusive alcoholic father the first 30 seconds after you’ve met them, they likely will keep this trend of rudely dumping too much personal information. When the protagonist begins with all this thinking and more thinking…and more thinking, it is probably a bad sign for the future. Just sayin’.

Book Begins with a Flashback

Yeah…flashbacks are a whole other blog, but lets’ just say that most of the time they are not necessary. We do not need to know why a certain character did this or that or why a bad guy went bad. Again, that’s for therapy.

Did we really need to know why Hannibal Lecter started eating people for Silence of the Lambs to be an AWESOME book AND movie? Now I know that there was a later explication of this….but it was an entirely different story (and one that really didn’t do well, I might mention). We didn’t stop the hunt for Wild Bill to go on and on about how Hannibal’s family was slaughtered in the war and the bad guys ate his sister…and it worked!

Flashbacks often alert me that the writer needs time to grow. She hasn’t yet developed the skill to blend background details with the current conflict in a way that supports the story.

I’ll give you a great example.

Watch the J.J. Abrams Star Trek. We find out exactly how Dr. Leonard McCoy gets his nickname, Bones…one line. “Wife got the whole planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.” The audience didn’t have to have a flashback to get that McCoy’s divorce was really bad. That is a great example of a writer seamlessly blending character back story.

Flashbacks, used too often, give the reader the feel of being trapped with a sixteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. Just get going forward, then the car (story) dies and rolls backward.

Also, sometimes, not knowing why adds to the tension. The Force was more interesting before it was explained. For more why over-explaining is a total story-killer that RUINS tension, I recommend a visit to my post What Went Wrong with the Star Wars Prequels.

There are three really great books I highly recommend if you want to work on your beginnings (and even learn to fix the problems that bad beginnings foreshadow). Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Hooked by Les Edgerton, and Scene and Sequel by Jack Bickham.

Many authors are being rejected by the first 20 pages, and because most agents are overworked, they don’t have time to explain to each and every rejected author what they saw. Thus, too many writers are reworking and reworking their beginning and not really seeing that their weak beginning is a symptom of larger issues.

It is the pounding headache and dizziness that spells out “heart condition.” We can take all the asprin we want for the headache, but it won’t fix what is really wrong. Hopefully, though, today I gave you some helpful insight into what an editor (or an agent) really sees so you can roll up your sleeves and get to what’s truly going on.

What are some novels you guys can think of that had amazing beginnings? What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell are some of my favorites. I know that I had to put down Next by Michael Crichton because it just went on and on without addressing a core problem. I was a hundred pages in and had no idea what the book was truly about, and had been introduced to so many characters, I had no clue who I was supposed to be rooting for (most of the characters were utterly unlikable).

What hooks you? How long will you give a novel before you buy it? How long will you give a novel you have bought before you put it down?

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

Last Week’s Winner of Five-Page Critique–Ted Henkle.

Please send your 1250 word Word doc to my assistant Gigi at gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com. Gigi will make sure I get your pages.

NOTE: For those of you who haven’t yet gotten your pages back, I am going on an exploratory mission in my spam folder to see if anyone has been missed. If you don’t have your pages back by Thursday then please resend to my assistant. I get about 500 e-mails a day, so I am redoing things so submissions don’t get lost in the ether. Thanks for your patience.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of September I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: GRAND PRIZE WILL BE PICKED THIS MONTH. I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced at the end of September) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

 

For the past several weeks we have been exploring structure and why it is important. If you haven’t yet read the prior posts, I advise you do because each post builds on the previous lesson. All lessons are geared to making you guys master plotters. Write cleaner and faster. I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. Think of this like stocking your cabinet with spices. If you like to cook Mexican food, then you will want to have a lot of cumin, chili powder and paprika on hand. Like cooking Italian food? Then basil and oregano are staple spices. In cooking we can break rules … but only to a certain point. We can add flavors of other cultures into our dish, but must be wary that if we deviate too far from expectations, or add too many competing flavors, we will have a culinary disaster. Writing is much the same. We must choose a genre, but then can feel free to add flavors of other genres into our work.

Ten years ago, when I first got this brilliant idea to start writing fiction, I didn’t do any planning. I knew zip nada about the craft, and, frankly, was too stupid to know I was that dumb. To make matters worse, I tried to write a novel that everyone would love. It was a romantic-thriller-mystery-comedic-memoir that would appeal to all ages, both men and women and even their pets and houseplants. I am here to help you learn from my mistakes.

I believe there are three kinds of writers. One type of writer is the Born Genre Author. This type of writer knows the genre he wants to write from day one. He is a born horror author or fantasy author, or whatever. This type does not start on a horror novel and then suddenly start thinking that YA is more his stride…or maybe sci-fi…or literary fiction. This author’s laser-focus is a tremendous asset, but tunnel-vision can get him in trouble. The greatest weakness I see with this type of writer is that they often don’t read outside their genre and so their work can lack that je ne sais quoi that makes their writing stand apart from others in their genre. Of course, this is easily remedied if this type of author can make a conscious effort to diversify.

Another type of author is like I used to be (and still have to fight). Meet The Dabbler. We love everything and have a hard time making up our minds. We love all kinds of writing, but this lack of focus can hurt our platform and spread us too thinly to be effective. Dabblers also are bad about making the mistake of trying to write a book that is all genres and what they end up with is an unpalatable mess. On the flip-side, though. Dabblers who can finally choose a genre usually are very innovative creatures because they have the knack and ability to draw flavors of other genres into their writing. The trick is getting them to pay attention and focus long enough.

Then there is the third kind of writer, The Profiteer. These writers are in the business for all the wrong reasons, and, because of that, usually never end up finishing, let alone publishing. They are writing for the money and fame and often are genre-hos. They keep a finger in the wind searching for what is currently hot. Vampires? Chick-lit? Whatever is flying off shelves, that is The Profiteer’s  new love. Of course what this writer doesn’t understand is that by the time they finish the novel, land an agent and that book makes it to print, the trends will have changed. But most Profiteers fall by the wayside, so that’s all I will say about them.

Just as nailing the log-line is vital for plotting, we also must be able to classify what genre our novel will be in. Now, understand that some genres are fairly close. Think Mexican Food and Tex Mex. An agent at a later date might, for business reasons, decide to slot a Women’s Fiction into Romance.  Yet, you likely will NEVER see an agent slot a literary fiction as a thriller. They are too different. That is like trying to put enchiladas on the menu at a French restaurant.

Part of why I stress picking a genre is that genres have rules and standards. For example, I had a student drop out of my Warrior Writer Boot Camp because I told her that her hero could not be the Big Boss Troublemaker (main antagonist) in her romance novel. I advised her that the hero could be an antagonistic force, but that she had to choose another person to be the BBT. Why? Because the genre of romance has rules, and guy and gal MUST come together at the end and live happily ever after. This cannot happen if the heroine defeats the hero.  Great love stories generally do not involve the hero being beaten up by a girl. I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

Understanding your genre will help immensely when it comes to plotting. It will also help you get an idea of the word count specific to that genre. I am going to attempt to give a very basic overview of the most popular genres. Please understand that all of these break down into subcategories, but I have provided links to help you learn more so this blog wasn’t 10,000 words long.

Mystery—often begins with the crime as the inciting incident (murder, theft, etc.), and the plot involves the protagonist uncovering the party responsible by the end. The crime has already happened and thus your goal in plotting is to drive toward the Big Boss Battle—the unveiling of the real culprit. Mysteries have a lot more leeway to develop characters simply because, if you choose, they can be slower in pacing because the crime has already happened. Mysteries run roughly  75-100,000 words. Mysteries on the cozy side that are often in a series commonly are shorter. 60,000-ish. I’d recommend that you consult the Mystery Writers of America of more information.

Thriller/Suspense—generally involve trying to stop some bad thing from happening at the end. Thrillers have broad consequences if the protagonist fails—I.e. the terrorists will launch a nuclear weapon and destroy Washington D.C. Suspense novels have smaller/more intimate consequences. I.e. The serial killer will keep butchering young blonde co-eds. It is easy to see how thriller, suspense and mystery are kissing cousins and keep company. The key here is that there is a ticking clock and some disastrous event will happen if the protagonist fails.

So when plotting, all actions are geared to prevention of the horrible thing at the end. Thrillers can run 90-100,000 words (loosely) and sometimes a little longer. Why? Because some thrillers need to do world-building. Most of us have never been on a nuclear sub, so Tom Clancy had to recreate it for us in The Hunt for Red October (Clancy invented a sub-class of thriller known as the techno-thriller).

Pick up the pacing and you can have a Mystery-Suspense. Think Silence of the Lambs. A murder happens at the beginning, and the goal is to uncover the identity of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (mystery), but what makes this mystery-suspense is the presence of a ticking clock. Not only is the body count rising the longer Buffalo Bill remains free, but a senator’s daughter is next on Bill’s butcher block.

When plotting, there will often be a crime (murder) at the beginning, but the plot involves a rising “body count” and a perpetrator who must be stopped before an even bigger crime can occur (Big Boss Battle). These stories are plot-driven. Characters often do not have enough down-time to make sweeping inner arc changes like in a literary piece.

Pick up the pacing and raise the stakes and you have a Mystery-Thriller. Think Killing Floor by Lee Childs. The book begins with a murder of two unidentified people at a warehouse, but if the killers are not found, what the killers are trying to cover up will have global consequences. And I am not telling you what those consequences are b/c it would ruin the book :D.

When plotting, again, there is often a crime at the beginning with rising stakes, and the protagonist must stop a world-changing event from happening (Big Boss Battle). The focus of your plot will be solving the mystery and stopping the bad guy.

For more information on this genre, consult the International Thriller Writers site.

Romance—Guy and girl have to end up together in the end is the only point I will make on this. Romance is all about making the reader believe that love is good and grand and still exists in this crazy world. The hero cannot be your main antagonist.  Romance, however, is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. If you desire to write romance, I highly recommend you go to the Romance Writers of America site for more information and that you join a chapter near you immediately. This is one of the most amazing writing organizations around and a great investment in a successful romance-writing career.

Word count will depend on the type of romance you desire to write. Again, look to RWA for guidance.

Literary Fiction-is character driven. The importance is placed on the inner change, and the plot is the mechanism for driving that change. Literary fiction has more emphasis on prose, symbol and motif. The events that happen must drive an inner transformation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road is a good example. The world has been destroyed and only a few humans have survived. The question isn’t as much whether the man and the boy will survive as much as it is about how they will survive. Will they endure with their humanity in tact? Or will they resort to being animals? Thus, the goal in The Road is less about boy and man completing their journey to the ocean, and more about how they make it. Can they carry the torch of humanity?

When plotting for the literary fiction, one needs to consider plot-points for the inner changes occurring. There need to be cross-roads of choice. One choice ends the story. The character failed to change. The other path leads closer to the end. The darkest moment is when that character faces that inner weakness at its strongest, yet triumphs.

For instance, in The Road, there are multiple times the man and boy face literally starving to death. Will they resort to cannibalism as many other have? Or will they press on and hope? Word count can vary, but you should be safe with 60-85,000 words (The Road was technically a novella).

Fantasy and Science Fiction will involve some degree of world-building and extraordinary events, creatures, locations. In plotting, world-building is an essential additional step. How much world-building is necessary will depend on what sub-class of fantasy or sci-fi you’re writing. Word count will also be affected. The more world-building, the longer your book will be. Some books, especially in high-fantasy can run as long as 150,000 words and are often serialized.

Consult the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for more information.

Horror—This is another genre that breaks down into many sub-classifications and runs the gambit. It can be as simple as a basic Monster in the House story where the protagonist’s main goal is SERE-Survive Evade, Rescue, and Escape. The protag has only one goal…survive. These books tend to be on the shorter side, roughly 60,000 words.

Horror, however can blend with fantasy and require all kinds of complex world-building. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a good example. Stephen King’s horror often relies heavily on the psychological and there is weighty focus on an inner change/arc. For instance, The Shining chronicles Jack’s descent into madness and how his family deals with his change and ultimately tries to escape the very literal Monster in the House.

Horror will most always involve a Monster in the House scenario. It is just that the definitions of “monster” and “house” are mutable. Word count is contingent upon what type of horror you are writing. Again, I recommend you consult the experts, so here is a link to the Horror Writers Association. The Dark Fiction Guild seemed to have a lot of helpful/fascinating links, so you might want to check them out too.

Picking a genre is actually quite liberating. Each genre has unique guideposts and expectations, and, once you gain a clear view of these, then plotting becomes far easier and much faster. You will understand the critical elements that must be in place—ticking clock, inner arc, world-building—before you begin. This will save loads of time not only in writing, but in revision. Think of the romance author who makes her hero the main antagonist (BBT). She will try to query, and, since she didn’t know the rules of her genre, will end up having to totally rewrite/trash her story.

Eventually, once you grow in your craft, you will be able to break rules and conventions. But, to break the rules we have to understand them first.

I have done my best to give you guys a general overview of the most popular genres and links to know more. If you have some resources or links that you’d like to add, please put them in the comments section. Also, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t address other genres, like YA or Western. If you have questions or advice, fire away! Any corrections? Additions? Questions? Concerns? Comments? I love hearing from you. What is the biggest hurdle you have to choosing a genre? Do you love your genre? Why? Any advice?

Make sure you tune in for Wednesday’s blog where I continue walking you through blogging for platform :D. What do we blog about to gain a fan base?

Happy writing!

Until next time….

Give yourself the gift of success for the coming year. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books! Enter to win a FREE copy. Check out Author Susan Bischoff’s blog.