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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: science fiction

Say it with me: world-building is fun.

Seriously! It’s the only way—aside from global domination—we will ever get to arrange the world exactly as we want. Don’t like green peppers on your supreme pizza? Banish them! Hate people who squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle? Declare them subversive enemies of the regime!

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Yet, some genres are trickier than others when it comes to creating backgrounds and context. Science fiction, ‘apocalit’ (zombies optional), horror, and dystopias all require as much if not more work than more mainstream genres like historical when it comes to world-building. Why?

Because unlike historical, where it is mostly a matter of doggedly researching established facts, speculative fiction forces us to create those facts.

What’s more, we must do all this while keeping an eye on opposite ends of the setting spectrum. We have to track the big picture logic and global structure as well as check for consistency and catch everyday details.

As if that weren’t enough, we have to embed all of this into prose that is designed to give momentum to the narrative, not serve as a expository guidebook for the Totalitarian-Regime-Next-Door.

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Worst of all, if we don’t get it right, the reader is the one who suffers. Our brains recognize hiccups in logic on a subconscious level. This can lead to reader attention wandering, which can easily become the dreaded…BOOKMARK MOMENT.

Burn the world with a burning reason

Good stories always have at their heart a burning reason. It’s the message, the theme, the desire to share a truth of life that drives us to write. I talk more about the burning reason in this post.

Speculative fiction has given us some of the most memorable burning reasons in all of literature. They incinerate our complacency and comfort zones, leaving only questions and ashes in its wake.

Can’t think of any speculative fiction books off the top of your head? How about:

Farenheit 451, The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Lorax, The Stand, Neuromancer, Ender’s Game, Divergent, World War Z, Underground Airlines, Brave New World, Ready Player One, A Clockwork Orange, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (just to name a few…)

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Now, imagine doing a lightning round of ‘Name the Theme’ for each of these books. You just started ticking off themes and messages in your head, didn’t you? I know I did. For a fraction of a second, I also relived the deep existential unease each book left me with.

Coming up with the burning reason can be uncomfortable because it means asking hard questions. We have to skate a little too close to the edge of moral insanity. It’s the double-dog dare to look through a mirror darkly and see some chilling truths about human nature.

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UN-Successories

However, if we do our job well in coming up with the burning reason and translating it into world-building, the reader will remember our story long after the thrill ride through post-apocalyptic totalitarianism (zombies optional) is over.

Means to an end (of the world as we know it)

The good news is that once we have come up with the burning reason, we have done the hardest part of the whole exercise. If we feel wrung-out, slightly distraught, and in major need of a glass of wine, then we know we’ve done it right.

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Now that we know why our world exists (i.e. the message), it’s time to figure out how we are going to convey that message. In other words, what are the tangible means that will give us the ability to show-not-tell when it comes to explaining this brave, new, freaky world?

Let’s take Fahrenheit 451 as an example. The burning reason of the story (pun FULLY intended) is to make us question censorship and the role of mass media in society. Bradbury then translates the qualms and questions into both physical objects (paper, books, written word, flame-throwers, the Wall) and social structures (‘firemen,’ the governing laws, the underground culture of dissent).

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In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Margaret Atwood uses color and clothing to deepen the impression of the politicization of women’s bodies. An old Scrabble game set becomes another tangible symbol of oppression, rebellion, and consequences.

World-building
Women dressed as handmaids promoting the Hulu original series “The Handmaid’s Tale” stand along a public street during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Film Interactive Festival 2017 in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder – RTX30ML9

From the Barbaloot suits of ‘The Lorax’ to the spice and sands of ‘Dune,’ speculative fiction requires a blood sacrifice of something ordinary. We find the everyday things that best represent the burning reason. Then, we offer them up to be stretched, twisted, and torn until they become truly frightening.

Until they become perfect.

Twist and shout

The good news is that we are done with the really hard parts. Figuring out the burning reason behind our world involves uncomfortable questioning. Identifying the tangible symbols requires logic and hard choices. But turning the symbols into that freaky mix of familiar-and-yikes?

That’s fun.

Okay, so maybe you and I define ‘fun’ a little differently. Is it so wrong for a girl to enjoy daydreaming about turning the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse into Twitter handles that secretly hide the not-so-benevolent intentions of a multi-national cabal bent on eradicating our civil liberties in a post-nuclear-zombie-disaster era?

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This is why writers can’t have nice things.

In all seriousness, this is the part of world-building where we get to flex our imaginary muscles and muscular imaginations. Once we have a tangible symbol, we need to put it through an intellectual stress test.

Let’s look at ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card as an example. The burning reason behind the world-building is questioning how far we are prepared to go to survive as a species. The tangible symbol is a military academy (among other things). The stress test is that Card stretches the concept and purpose of a military academy to its most extreme limit.

While these academies have a goal of instilling loyalty and discipline, producing genocidal sociopaths isn’t in the brochure for West Point.

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We take the concept and purpose of each symbol and either stretch it to its limits…or compress it until it becomes oppressive. The books in Fahrenheit 451 are examples of compression. Books are compressed by fire and memory, leading the reader back up through pondering the concept and purpose of books, and eventually to the questioning of censorship and mass media.

Whoa, did I just bring that full circle? Boom, baby!

The whole world in our hands

World-building is the most fun a writer can have when it comes to distributing death, distruction, and dystopia for speculative fiction. (Legally. Whatever you do in your off-time is your business. *snerk*)

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When it comes to the down-and-dirty process of creating our worlds, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. While I like to nail down every detail I can, from toilet paper to totalitarianism, other writers prefer creation-on-the-fly. Both methods work. There are also problems with both methods. My way can be a bit too rigid and create unnecessary roadblocks. On-the-fly creation can lead to logical holes the size of the Grand Canyon.

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At the end of the day, both methods require a balance between flexibility and attention to detail. Both techniques work best when we grant ourselves the grace of time. Time to think. Time to imagine. Time for our brains to catch up and wave the red flag of contradicting details. Time to find deeper meanings and motives behinds the symbols and reasons.

Time to create the best dysFUNctional world we can.

What’s your favorite dysFUNctional world? Tell me in the comments!

Regularly scheduled mayhem

No surprise here, but I have SO much more to say about this. I am itching to talk about space operas, zombies, YA dystopias, and flavor-of-the-month apocalypses.

From limits to liminality, I have a LOT to say about world-building in general. Kristen is kind enough to occasionally remove my muzzle and allow me to spout off deconstructionist analyses of various books, shows, and movies. But then, the timer goes off, and the muzzle goes back on. *le sigh*

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…because SOMEONE (aka Supreme Emperor Denny Basenji, blessings upon his paws) is an a$$hole at the vet…

Still, she has found a way to channel my slightly manic musings (after we realized the electro-shock therapy just wasn’t working). Kristen and I are offering a Saturday workshop of three classes about speculative fiction. I’ll be teaching world-building (naturally). You’ll get a double-teaming treat of me and Kristen TOGETHER for the character class. Then, Kristen brings some sanity back to the proceedings (after using the tranquilizer gun on me) with a class on plotting for speculative fiction.

If you’re interested, check out the classes below! More classes listed here.

Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Speculative fiction may be a way of seeing the world ‘through a glass darkly,’ but it can also be one of the clearest, most pointed, and even most disturbing ways of seeing the truth about ourselves and our society.

It’s not just the weird stuff that makes the settings of speculative fiction so unnerving. It’s the way ‘Normal’ casually hangs out at the corner of ‘Weird’ and ‘Familiar.’

But it’s trickier than it seems to get readers to this intersection without letting them get bogged down in the ‘Swamp of Useless Detail’ or running them into the patch of ‘Here be Hippogriffs’ (when the story is clearly about zombies). How do we create a world that is easy to slip into, absorbingly immersive, yet not distracting from the character arcs and plots?

This class will cover:

  • Through the looking glass darkly: How to take a theme/issue/message and create a world that drives it home to the reader.
  • Ray guns and data chips: The art of showing vs. telling in world-building.
  • Fat mirror vs. skinny mirror: What is scarce in the world? Valuable? Forbidden? Illegal? What do people want vs. what they have vs. what they need?
  • Drawing a line in the sand: What are the laws, taboos, limits of this world? What is unacceptable to you/the reader/the character? How are they the same or different, and why it matters.
  • Is Soylent Green gluten-free and other vital questions: All the questions you need to ask about your world, but didn’t know…and how to keep track of all the answers.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

It’s a time-honored tradition in literature to take an ordinary person out of his or her normal life and throw them into a whirlwind of extraordinary circumstances (zombies/tyrants/elves/mean girls optional). After all, upsetting the Corellian apple cart is what great storytellers do best.

It’s also that very same ordinariness and normalcy that first gets the reader to identify then empathize with the characters and stick with them (and the book) through to the end.

But, what do we do when our ‘ordinary’ protagonist lives with a chip implant and barcode tattoo, and our antagonist happens to be a horde of flesh-eating aliens…or a quasi-fascist regime bent on enforcing social order, scientific progress above ethics, and strict backyard composting regulations (those MONSTERS!)?

How the heck is the reader supposed to identify with that? I mean, seriously. Regulating backyard composting? It would never happen in a free society.

This leaves us with two challenges in creating characters for speculative fiction: 1. How to use the speculative world-building to shape the backgrounds, histories, and personalities of characters, and 2. How to balance the speculative and the relatable to create powerful, complex character arcs.

This class will cover:

  • Resistance is futile: What does normal look like for the characters? What’s different or strange, and how to get readers to accept that retinal scans and Soylent Green are just par for the course.
  • These aren’t the droids you’re looking for: What are the discordant elements around the characters? What are their opinions about it? What are the accepted consequences or outcomes?
  • You gonna eat that?: Whether it’s running from brain-eating zombies or fighting over dehydrated space rations, what is important both physically and emotionally to the character? What is in short supply or forbidden?
  • We’re all human here (even the ones over there with tentacles): The basic principles and techniques of creating psychological touchpoints readers can identify with.
  • Digging out the implant with a grapefruit spoon: In a speculative world, what are the stakes for the character? The breaking point? The turning point?
  • And so much more!!!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

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.

Gizmos, gadgets, magic, chainsaws, demons, fantastical worlds and creatures are not enough and never have been. Whether our story is set on Planet X, in the sixth dimension of hell, on a parallel world, or on Earth after Amazon Prime gained sentience and enslaved us all, we still must have a core human story that is compelling and relatable.

In this class we will cover:

  • Discovering the core human story problem.
  • How to plot these unique genres.
  • Ways to create dimensional and compelling characters.
  • How to harness the power of fear and use psychology to add depth and layers to our story.
  • How to use world-building to enhance the story, not distract from it.

***A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Recordings of all three classes is also included with purchase.

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.)

***

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!)

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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.