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How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction - A Sort-Of Guide

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How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction - A Sort-Of Guide

Postby shadowbooks » Sun Apr 15, 2007 12:08 pm

Hey Everyone - I have a blog series going which details my approach to writing - for whatever that is worth! I thought I might post the first few parts here for anyone that is interested :)

Writing and Publishing Fantasy and Science Fiction

General Introduction

Welcome to my new blog series which aims to explore the processes of writing, publishing and promoting independent fantasy and science fiction novels and stories. Before we go any further I think that it is important that I spell out exactly what this guide is not. First, it is not a guide to being published by a mainstream commercial publisher or a guide to attaining an agent. If you are looking to be published by Tor or Harper and Collins may I suggest you have a look at www.SFWA.org (as a start) which has a wealth of information for writers looking to go down that road. This guide is something else entirely.

Neither do I intend to tell you how to write – we each have our own voice, our own demons and our own methods to approaching writing. What I hope to do here is to illuminate the process which I go through when I write a piece of fiction and the techniques which I use which may (or may not) appeal to you. It is, to put it simply, one of a million approaches to writing. But in sharing this process with you it is my hope that when you sit down to write that you are able to think about your writing and the process of world building on a far deeper level than you might of before.

Before we move on let me take you back to the first point, that this is not a guide to commercial or traditional publication. What then, you would be right to ask, is it? I suppose it is a guide to sharing your writing with the world by any means necessary – I purposefully avoid the traditional publishing world because, first and foremost, there are many people better qualified than me to discuss that world, and secondly, because there are alternative avenues to sharing your writing and publication – the problem is that most of these are dead ends or outright lies (we will get to that in a few issues time). Some companies will offer to make your dreams come true by selling you nightmares. If you are thinking about becoming an independent author then the world is a minefield of false promises and negative credibility. Unlike other industries such as the movie industry where the indie film maker is accorded some tiny degree of respect the independent author is a laughing stock (often for good reason) and a joke. He is a pathetic would-be-if-he-could; a reader with jumped up ideas of self importance and ability.

I cannot make your dreams come true, nor can I really help to sell even a single copy of your book (and remember almost every book released sells less than 100 copies). But what I hope to deliver here is the basic knowledge you need in order to begin thinking about how you can approach the independent market and how you might become an independent writer and gain some degree of credibility. The road will be long, and it will be difficult. You cannot do this fulltime so give up any such notions now. You will not make any (significant) amount of money so stop thinking about that now. If you wish to release your own writing then your motivation must be something else. It must be for the love of writing, for the love of getting feedback and for the love of knowing that, even for just a few instants in someone's life, you can affect people with your words. Reading, like writing, is not something which people do lightly. Think of how many TV shows you consume in a single night, how many movies a month do we see? Now consider how often the average person reads? How many books a year are read compared to TV shows viewed per evening? Reading is not something people do lightly because it demands time, it demands emotional commitment and it demands emotional enlightenment. When you peel back the pages of a book you surrender yourself to the words and to the worlds that they create. With wild abandon we loose ourselves in reams of text which, after a page or two, we no longer see. We become immersed in worlds in a way that other mediums can only dream of.

The act of reading is not something to be taken lightly and neither is your reader. If you are an independent author you will not affect thousands but you can affect some. These are dangerous waters and this guide is only a toe dip into the world we navigate. It is not an invitation. It is more likely a warning. Consider yourself forewarned.

Beyond here lie monsters.

Part One – The idea and the genesis of the story

Let us take a moment to remove our hands from the keyboard, to shut down our word processors and meditate, at least superficially, upon the art of writing.

There is a very good reason I have begun this series with these words which I must first briefly explain. When I started writing there were no easy guides that I could find, no sage advice for me to listen to. And even if I found such a source chances are I would have ignored it. Reading, writing and experience have taught me to approach writing in a fundamentally different way these days than when I first started and it has been a long and difficult road. I look back upon past efforts with an odd mixture of pride and shame; anyone who has read my graphic novel Xevicom Forever will know what I mean when I say that I fell very easily into the trap of writing pulpy dialogue for that comic. I look back upon this first piece of writing with a wide grin and silent cringe.

This is the reason I have asked you to remove your hands for the keyboard and to do what I never did when I started out. Think about what writing truly means. I have already reminded you that as an aspiring author you are competing not only with other books and writers but with TV, the movies and videogames for your audience's attention. If we are to convince them that your words, your worlds, are worth the emotional and intellectual investment they must make then it is necessary for you to understand what your words truly mean.

Many of you may already have well developed plot ideas or characters in your mind. At first glance this does not appear to be a big problem but what I often hear from other aspiring writers are questions like "I've got all these great ideas but I can't finish my story", or, "I can't get started" or "I write the first few chapters, loose interest and start on another story" and so on etc. Others tell me they have created wonderful sets inter-character relationships developed in their minds but can only express them clumsily by falling back upon tried and tested ways of developing romantic tension. Others write and tell me that they have a concept in its most abstract form but baulk at the idea of having to write characters who can express their concepts. Regardless of where you are it is always beneficial to allow your hands to drop away from the keyboard and to forget (at least for a time) about any preoccupation with your characters which you might have. We must set aside all of their inter-tangled relationships, personality quirks and the images we hold in our mind. Next we must utterly abandon plot and place it in the same box as our colourful cast and assess what is left because what remains should be the true heart of our story.

In order to illustrate what I am getting at let us take as an example DUNE by Frank Herbert. If we strip away the plot within plot story, the massive cast of characters, the complicated feudal system and the central plot of revenge and rivalry what is left of this impossibly intricate story? It occurs to me that when this science fiction classic is stripped back to its bare bones what remains is a single theme – an exploration of a civilization built upon the back a single resource, in this case the Spice. Everything else, plot and characterization, is secondary to this central theme which is communicated through the story of Paul Atreides*. But let us consider this some more. If the central theme of DUNE is an exploration of what can happen to a society that is built upon only one resource what is this story not? I would argue that it is not a story about good and evil – to be sure there are good and evil characters but they are not what the story of DUNE and its follow ups are about – this honour falls to the Spice and humanities dependence upon it.

Let us take another example. J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is no doubt known to most of you, especially if you wish to write fantasy. Let us briefly ask what themes underpin this story. Stripping away the various plots and characters it appears to me that The Lord of the Rings is concerned with two central motifs. The first is a direct contrast to DUNE as Tolkien's classic is primarily concerned with the fundamental battle between good and evil; time and again Tolkien reiterates to the reader the almost hopelessness of the main character's scenario but still they fight on because that is what good must do to overcome evil. The other theme which I think is key to understanding these books is companionship and how relationships develop and are altered by war. Frodo and Samwise are key examples but so to are Merry and Pippin, Aragorn and Gandalf etc – throughout the trilogy the theme of how war can affect and form close bonds of friendship is consistently explored.

Ok, enough! I hope I have not bored you into submission – I dislike doing these deconstructions as much as you probably dislike reading them but I am moving towards a point. And that point is, to put it rather crudely, your story is more than the sum of your characters and plot lines. It is more than the relationships between the characters or the descriptions and visualizations. It is even more than the clever twist you have ready to knock the socks off your reader on page 198! No, what makes your story are the underlying themes – these themes are literally the point of your story. They are the why – your words, characters and plot are the how.

A good example I would give you would be the process I went through when writing my first novel Lords of Darkness and Shadow. Like I said earlier I had found no guide to writing and even if I had I would likely have ignored it. These ideas and approaches, the discovery of the why rather than the how were not even sparkles in my eye at the time. When I began work on what would become this book I was obsessed with the how. Who were my characters, how did they get to where they are, what are their relationships, what is the larger plot in which I am going to entangle them. It was not until I was well into the writing process that I began to ask myself why I was writing the story and what larger concepts I wished to communicate with this piece. As the story developed it became clear to me that the central why of this book was as follows:

"The worlds created by our imaginations are not isolated islands adrift in our subconscious but are each apart of a much larger tapestry of human existence. What would happen if our imaginations (or souls, if you like) were not always dislocated pieces of consciousness but had once been a great interconnected landscape that bound humanity together – and what would happen to humanity if a process began that would re-forge this great link?"

The problem with my writing at the time was that by the time the why of the story was fully developed I had already written a good chunk of a novel which I did not want to discard – I already had the how – plot and characters were already firmly in place. The problem when I read through the story, then and now, is that the first and second halves seem somewhat disjointed in that the narrative begins as something of a horror-SF piece that seems to concentrate more upon the responses of the book's main character, Kara, to the most surreal and awful circumstances I could imagine. By about the halfway point however it begins to take on many more fantasy elements which are used to explore the central theme – this is not a problem in its self but the story definitely would have been better had the first half related to the true theme of the story.

This is in striking contrast to Xevicom Forever #4 in which the central theme runs consistently through the comic – "how would I respond if I lost my wife?" – the actual comic follows a far more convoluted story with various superpowers but this idea remains the core idea of the story. Whilst this issue was not as well realized as it could have been at the very least the why of the story is there and it creates, in my opinion, the best standalone narrative in the whole Xevicom Forever series.

If you are looking for that first spark of inspiration, that first instant that you know will be apart of your yet to be written epic then I suggest you go sit down and think upon why you want to write. What are the messages you wish to communicate and explore? Fantasy and Science Fiction are collectively called speculative fiction for a reason – what are you speculating about? With a basic understanding of why you want to write a story you can begin to move onwards and develop characters, relationships, worlds and plots to serve that end but for the time being that first why should be the spark of inspiration that will set your imagination into movement.

I think that is enough for this first lesson. To recap, no matter how far along you are with your story take your hands from the keyboard and ask yourself why you are writing your story. If it comes down to something relatively simple or clichéd then look deeper for something else you can expand upon or introduce. You owe it to yourself, you owe it to your story, and you owe it to your readers.


*DUNE is an incredibly complicated book, especially if measured over the entire series and I have no doubt that any DUNE fans reading this might disagree with my simplified central theme to this book. If you want to see how I got to my opinion I recommend The Road to DUNE which features a number of unused scenes from the first two books along with a short novel Spice Planet written by Herbert's son Brian and collaborator Kevin J Anderson which is based upon the first outline for DUNE. In this very early version of the story many of the more convoluted and expansive elements of DUNE are missing but the theme of galactic dependency upon a single resource remains fundamental to this text.
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Postby clknaps » Wed May 30, 2007 6:35 pm

Great information, thank you for sharing this with us. I'm always interested to learn more about the publishing process.

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