Last week I ended up finishing the editing/feedback draft of my new project (as mentioned in the newsletter), which meant I woke up Thursday morning and said “crap, I need to write a ranty blog post!” But as I started hammering away at it I quickly realized this topic wasn’t quite as quick and easy as it was in my head. So it didn’t get done Thursday. And Friday is errands. And now it’s the weekend again and okay look, I missed a week.

Anyway, I’ve talked about worldbuilding here once or thrice before, but I thought it’d be worth revisiting a certain facet of it that I talked about on Twitter a month or four back.

And that facet involves my time machine.

Well, okay, let’s back up a bit.

We’ve all read stories that revolve around some shiny-new technology. Supercomputers. Self-aware androids. Teleportation machines. Dimensional gateways. They’re the basis of so many books, comics, television shows, movies, games, and probably some other storytelling format I can’t think of. Oral tradition? Probably lots of androids in those eastern European folk tales that are verbally passed down through the generations.

I think we can all agree that having some kind of future/super technology as the basis my story is a kind of worldbuilding. If I’ve got a machine that’s going to change the world, I need to understand the machine, the world, and what kind of changes it’s going to make. So, like any type of worldbuilding, I need to have a lot of it planned out from the start. I have to be able to answer basic questions about it, because my readers will ask these questions. And they’ll ask because, by it’s very nature, we expect technology to operate in specific, predictable ways. That’s one of the things that makes it different from magic (hold your Clarke’s law responses).

And that brings us to my time machine.

If I tell you I’ve got a time machine, there’s a bunch of things we can expect people are going to want to know. For example, is the time machine real? Did you build it or just find it? No, seriously, is it real? How did you build a time machine when you can’t figure out custom ringtones on your phone?

Past those, though, there’s a bunch of things people might ask. Can you travel in time both ways, forward and back? Does the machine travel through time or does it just send you through time? If the machine travels with you, does it need some kind of energy or fuel? If it needs fuel, is there a limit to how far back/forward it can go in one trip?

And that’s before we even get into all the other bigger, standard time travel questions. What happens to the present if I change something in the past? If I know the future, can I change the future? Does the time machine compensate somehow for planetary motion?

This is a standard part of any worldbuilding. If I want to alter the world in my story somehow with a new element—for example, with a piece of technology that doesn’t exist—I need to stop and think about all the ramifications this new element is going to have. How will it change things? How will it interact with the existing world? To paraphrase Fredrick Pohl (who I think was paraphrasing someone else when he said it), a good sci-fi story doesn’t predict the car, it predicts the traffic jam.

If I, the writer, don’t know the answer to any of these basic questions, I think it tends to create problems somewhere down the road. There are two big ones, I think…

The first is general inconsistency. People use the time machine this way in chapter four, but then use it this way in chapter twelve. And, yes, we killed Hitler in 1938 but we’re… uhhhh… we’re just not going to talk about it. It’s a huge, major, historical event, but let’s, y’know, just pretend it didn’t happen. Everything turned out exactly the same anyway. Because the time machine ran out of the, uhhh, chronoline that it runs on.

See, if I don’t know the rules it’s hard for me—or my reader—to know if I’m breaking them. Which kind of means I’m cheating. It’s something I’ve talked about before—trying to world build in the third act.

The second issue is that if I don’t set any rules for how my technology works, I’m going to be trying to create tension/ conflict/ drama out of nothing. If I have no context for how the tech works, it’s hard to tell if something is difficult or dangerous or even impossible.

For example, if I say I’m using the time machine to send Wakko a million years into the past for two hours. Okay, so is that… risky? Supposed to be impossible? A normal Friday? Is there a reason it’s two hours and not three? If I don’t have any ground rules for how the tech works, I can’t tell if my characters are doing something amazing with it or not. And I can’t tell if their reactions are rational, irrational, or completely melodramatic.

Really, both of these boil down to needing context. My readers aren’t going to know how to feel about something if I don’t know how I want them to feel about it. And I can’t know unless I’ve established some sort of norm.

Look at it this way. If I tell you I’m taking a plane to Boston, you’d say “Oh, okay.” If I tell you I’m taking a plane to Cairo, Egypt, you might raise an eyebrow and say “Really?” And if I tell you I’m taking a plane to Jupiter, you might think I was nuts. Or drunk. And if I told you I was taking a plane to heaven, because heaven is up in the clouds and that’s where planes go, you might be tempted to call someone for my own safety.

Let me give you one more. There’s an old WWII Bugs Bunny cartoon where he’s fighting a little gremlin on a plane. And after several go-rounds between them, the plane ends up in a nosedive, hurtling towards the ground as both of them scream. Fortunately, the plane runs out of gas at the last minute and ends up stopping a few feet from the ground. Laughter ensues.

All of these different statements and examples make sense because we know how planes work and how they’re generally used. It’ s pretty standard to fly cross-country, but a little unusual to fly halfway around the world. We know planes can’t fly to other planets and definitely not to the afterlife. And we absolutely know a plane isn’t going to stop moving in mid-air because it ran out of gas.

If I’m creating a new tech, I need my readers and characters to have this sort of understanding of it. Because maybe my time machine would stop in mid-air if it runs out of fuel. Or maybe it slingshots back to wherever it started. Maybe it just goes to the last destination date we gave it. Or it might just sit there until we can figure out how to channel 1.21 gigawatts into the flux capacitor.

Now, let me toss out four conditionals.

One is that I don’t need to explain everything about my time machine and how it works. Within my story, a lot of people are going to know how X works, and people usually don’t sit around talking about things they already know. Especially if they’re well-established in my world. People don’t need to have conversations about how cars work every time they go for a drive. But people in our world all understand cars well enough to know something’s wrong when the engine makes a grinding noise or fluid gushes out from beneath the hood. And something’s very unusual if the car takes off vertically and flies away. My characters should be acting and reacting in such a way that readers can tell if something’s normal or very odd or horribly wrong with how this piece of tech is working.

Two is that in my story there might be a very good reason people don’t know how my tech works, or won’t talk about how it works. Maybe they accidentally invented it just last week and are still figuring parts of it out. Maybe they’re hiding that it runs on the life-energy of kittens. Maybe it’s got some side effects they’d rather not talk about. But even then—as the writer, I should know how it works. Which means it should still act consistently.

Three is that maybe my tech isn’t doing the thing we think it’s doing. It’s not uncommon to have stories where we find out thing X is actually thing Y. My characters thought they found a time machine that projected people into the past within their lifespan, but really it just creates incredibly lifelike holograms of their own memories. Absolutely nothing wrong with this. But my characters should still have their own ideas of what the tech is doing, and there should be an understandable reason why they think this. And it should be consistent when I reveal what the tech is really doing. That’s just how a twist works.

Fourth and finally, I know somebody’s frothing at the bit to bring up Clarke’s Law, so let’s talk about it real quick. Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. I seriously love this one (and it’s inverse, if you’re a Seventh Doctor fan). But by it’s very nature, this also excludes any such devices from this discussion. Clarke’s law literally says we can’t recognize X as technology. So we shouldn’t expect to follow tech rules while we’re writing about it.

Anyway, I’ve been blabbing on about this for a while now and I think you’ve got the idea. If I want to make a time machine– or a teleporter, a psychokinesis drug, cybernetic eyes, bio-booster armor, whatever– I need to have consistent, thought-out rules for how this technology works. And these rules need to be in place on page one. If I’m not going to even think about how time travel in the past affects the present until I’m 2/3 done with my book… I’m probably going to hit some snags.

Next time, I want to talk about Neil Armstrong’s left foot.

No, wait. Your left foot! That’s what we’re going to talk about!

Until then, go write.

July 16, 2020 / 2 Comments

A Compass That Doesn’t Point North

A few weeks back I talked about things getting their genres mid-identified, and afterwards somebody asked an interesting follow up. Namely, how do we identify genres? What are the benchmarks? How do we decide if something’s sci-fi or a techo-thriller or a romance that just happens to be set in a sci-fi world?
I know this sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t. For a couple reasons. Which I shall go over now.
First and foremost thing to remember—I shouldn’t worry about genre while I’m writing. Genre’s really a marketing tool more than anything else, so it doesn’t have a lot of use on the creative/ artistic side of things. In fact, if I’m worrying a lot about the guidelines of a given genre while I’m writing, I may want to take a step back and make sure I’m not just trying to jump on a trend. In my experience… that doesn’t work out most of the time.
With that in mind… what even is genre? A great way to think of it is a compass (many thanks to Pierce Brown for this analogy). Genre points you in the general direction of things you’re looking for. You want to head south-west? Just keep going that way. You want to find horror novels? They’re all over there.

And that leads us to another good way to think of it, maybe an even more relatable one. Where would my book get stocked in the bookstore? Don’t think about getting misshelved or getting featured on that best-sellers endcap. No excuses, no avoiding the question. Picture your favorite store and decide where would it be shelved in that store. 

If I can’t answer this… I have a problem. Because this is how an agent’s going to try to sell my book. “It’s something new to go here.” Even if I’m just planning on self-publishing an ebook, Amazon’s going to want to know how to categorize it.

Let me tell you one last little story. My first published book was Ex-Heroes, which ended up becoming a series of books set in that world and all involving the same basic theme—superheroes fighting zombies in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. When the series originally came out, it was through a small press that specialized in apocalyptic fiction, specifically zombie fiction. That was their niche, and they filled it perfectly. So they heavily emphasized the zombie/ post-apocalyptic aspects of the book in their publicity for it. That’s the direction their compass pointed.
But… by book three the series had moved to Broadway Paperbacks at Random House, and they wanted something that would promote well at comic conventions. So… the superheroes became the new focus. And so the compass needle for the books swung from the horror section (in the few stores the small press had gotten them into) to the sci-fi section.

My point being… life finds a way.

No, sorry, my point is that in both cases, the genre gave people a good idea what they’d find when they opened the book. Post-apocalyptic zombies. Superheroes.

So, that said… let’s talk very rough guidelines for a few basic genres. I won’t be able to touch on every genre (and may not even do a fantastic job with these), but I figure if you’re here looking for advice from me, there’s a semi-decent chance you’re writing the same kind of stuff you read. Which is me arrogantly assuming you ended up here because you read a couple of my books and liked them.

Science-Fiction—this is when my fictional elements have a rational, scientific explanation behind them. They don’t need to be explained(although hard science fans love it when you can), but they need to fall within a range of believability.

Science-Fantasy—This is when my story elements are hypothetically grounded in science, but (to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke) they’re so far advanced they’re beyond all possible understanding and essentially magic.

Fantasy—This is when some aspect of the rules of reality are tossed out the window. It might mean magic. It might mean new races or species (dragons, elves, orcs, owlbears, what have you). Fantasy tends to have less technologically-developed settings.

Urban Fantasy—A subgenre I thought was worth mentioning. Here we’re still tossing some of the reality-rules out the window, but we’re specifically doing it in a modern (or near-modern), real-world setting, often with more modern technology alongside it.

Horror—Might sound obvious, but many aspects of these stories involve fear for both the characters and the reader. Depending on my exact subgenre, that fear can have many different causes and intensities.

Romance—again, might sound obvious, but in romance most of the elements revolve around two characters developing a relationship despite various challenges. There may or may not be a sexual element (of varying explicitness) again depending on my subgenre.

Mystery—This is when the main thrust is trying to find answers to a problem—very often (but not always) involving a crime of some sorts. Another good rule of thumb for mysteries—they tend to center around something that already happened. The mystery is past tense.

Thriller—Somewhat similar to mysteries, this is when the plot elements involve a current, ongoing problem. Because of this, thrillers also tend to have a strong action component and fast pacing. The rule of thumb—thrillers are happening right now.

That’s not all possible genres (not even close), and there are sooo many sub-genres, but it’s enough to get you started.

One last thing to tag onto this. You’ve probably heard of terms like young adult or middle grade. It’s worth noting these aren’t actually genres in and of themselves, but additional guidelines that get applied to a given story. It’s not about my story as much as it is about how I’m choosing to tell that story.

All of this leads me to my final bit of advice, which kind of ties back to that earlier post. If I had to give a one or two sentence elevator pitch about my story, what would be in that pitch? What would I be focusing on? Would I be talking about space elevators and moon colonies, or would I be emphasizing the zombie hordes rising from their graves? Remember—I’ve only got two sentences, and they can’t be run-ons. Elevator pitch. Very fast, very clear.

Consider Twilight. It has vampires and werewolves and more than a few deaths… but it’s not a horror story. It barely counts as urban fantasy. The thing we’d emphasize in our elevator pitch is the high schooler who falls in love with a vampire. It’s a romance novel. Supernatural romance if we want to start focusing down.

And remember—there may be elements to my story that’d normally be immediate signs of one genre, but they don’t come up in that elevator pitch. That’s okay. I shouldn’t try to cram them in. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth has lots of raunchy jokes and a few spaceships, but I’d bet 99% of the people who’ve read it don’t think of it as a comedy or a sci-fi novel–their minds jump right to the necromancy and the murder mystery.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about genre. Unless anyone has any specific questions?

Next time…

Well, in some beautiful, alternate world we all sheltered in place all through March and April, wore our masks for May, and now it’s perfectly safe for all of us to attend San Diego Comic Con next week! YAY!

But in this world, alas, SDCC was cancelled because of folks who refused to do those things. There are still going to be some virtual events, though. I’m doing a panel on sci-fi writing next Friday at 4:00. I’m hoping to have a new Coffeehouse video up by then. And I’m also going to be doing a special Saturday Geekery, live-tweeting a few B-movie classics with some friends. You should come join us.

And all this means that next time, I may revisit and revise my list of top B-movie mistakes.

So until then, go write.

And, c’mon… wear your mask.

August 12, 2010 / 3 Comments

Nothing Up My Sleeve…


Looks like I gotta get another hat…

Anyway, back in the day, when there just weren’t as many stories to be told, there was a very common structure to Greek stage plays. Essentially, the characters screwed up. A lot. They’d fail at tasks and get themselves in way over their heads. Just when all seemed lost, the stagehands would lower in “the gods,” one or more actors on a mechanical cloud, and the gods would use their omnipotent magical powers to take care of everything. No harm, no foul. Everybody wins.

If you didn’t already know, the name of this mechanical cloud was the deus ex machina (god from a machine). The term is still used today, although it doesn’t have the lofty implications it used to. It’s when a solution to a problem drops out of the sky.

Or, in this case, drops out of the sacred orb of Shen’nikarruan.

With the cinematic success of Lord of the Rings and the overall success of Harry Potter, fantasy is a hot genre again. Mix in a little softcore horror like Twilight and a lot of folks are probably tempted to write in that sexy-dark-mystic sort of style. Even a lot of people who’ve never had any interest in this sort of story before. Which is a shame because a writer really needs to be familiar in whatever genre they decide to write in.

A common problem beginning writers make–especially genre writers– is to fall back on magic to solve their problems. Characters get into a load of trouble, back themselves into a corner, square off against nigh-impossible odds, but are saved at the last moment as they all lay hands on the sacred orb. It doesn’t matter how world-spanning or universe-threatening the problem is, when the pure-of-heart grab that big emerald sphere it’s all going to go away and make life so much better for the good people.

For the record, it’s not just mystic orbs. The offenders also include–

–magic wands

–mystic swords

–enchanted rings, necklaces, or bracelets

–tiger-repelling rocks

–artifact X which must be returned to/ retrieved from the temple of Y

Now, before any other genre writers reading this start feeling smug, let me remind you of Clarke’s Law. You’ve probably heard some variation on it before. Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. A writer may call it the Technotron 9000 and explain it harnesses neutrinos to bend quantum fields, but for all intents and purposes it’s just another mystic orb.

This all goes back to something I’ve ranted about many times before. No one wants to read about a problem that solves itself. They want to read about characters who solve problems, preferably the characters they’ve been following for most of your manuscript. Lord of the Rings does not end with god-like mystic flames destroying the one true ring when the heroes reach the end of their journey. No, it ends with one character all-but driven mad from the burden of carrying it and another one who was driven mad by the ring accidentally destroying it because of his obsession to possess it again. Likewise, Harry Potter never beats his final challenge with magic but just through his sheer determination to do the right thing.

Y’see, Timmy, in good stories the sacred orb of Shen’nikarruan isn’t a solution, it’s just a MacGuffin. For those not familiar with the term, Alfred Hitchcock coined it to describe things that motivate plot and story without actually interacting with them. The Maltese Falcon (in the book and movie of the same name) is a classic MacGuffin. It’s what motivates almost every character in the story, but the legendary statue itself never even appears.

Now, as I often point out, this isn’t to say a magical plot device will never work. If you think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark has God step out of a box at the last minute to kick some Nazi ass (and save Indy and Marion). Take a moment, however, and think of how many other things in that movie have to work perfectly in order for that ending to work. It’s a level of storytelling most of us–myself included–never have a prayer of reaching.

Which actually brings me to a potentially touchy angle, but one I feel obliged to point out. So if you’re easily offended, you may want to stop reading now…

There is a nice little niche market of faith-based films these days, and a few well-paying contests as well. In these stories, it’s completely acceptable to have prayers answered and problems solved by divine intervention. Heck, it’s almost expected in some of these markets. The Lord steps in to cure diseases, cast out evil spirits, and sometimes even make a personal appearance. At the very least, he’ll send down one of the archangels to help that nice woman who couldn’t pay her mortgage to the evil capitalist developer.

The thing is, despite the previous example of Raiders, “God saves the day” really isn’t an acceptable conclusion to a story. In those niche markets it’s fantastic, but for every other audience it’s just as much a cop-out as the magic orb or the Technotron 9000. The characters aren’t solving problems or doing anything active. In fact, they tend to be innately passive while they wait for the big guy to solve things for them. Which makes sense, because these faith-based stories usually aren’t about the characters, they’re about a religious message the writers are trying to get across.

Again, nothing wrong with having magic, uber-technology, or even divine intervention. But this isn’t ancient Greece. These days, it has to be about character first.

(I had no idea how I was going to end this, and then the archangel Beleth pointed out that I could just bring it back around to the opening idea…)

Next time, I’m going to drop names and prattle on about the time I talked with Hawkins from Predator about storytelling. Yeah, the skinny guy with the glasses. Him.

Until then, go write something.