Sunday, August 30, 2009

Science Fiction and the Art of Being Human

Any visitor to my humble writing space would see that my bookshelves are crowded with an eclectic assortment of literary adventures. Ursula LeGuin, George Orwell, Rita Mae Brown, Debora Crombie, Isaac Asimov, Nadine Gordimer, Eoin Colfer, Donna Jo Napoli (just to name a few). It’s one wild party. But no matter how varied the genres, one thing these writers have in common is the ability to craft a phenomenal human story. When it comes to science fiction, however, novice writers often forget to do what science fiction does so well: ask the big questions. Sure an exciting and innovative plot is an essential hook, but the ultimate driving force of any book is its humanity.

The trap for beginning sci-fi/fantasy writers is the urge to get so caught up in creating cool gadgets, provocative character names, and mysterious places that they lose that sense of humanness that transforms not only the narrative, but the reader as well. I’ve read a small share of early drafts and even published pieces that fall short, and the primary flaw is that lack of a truly human story. Many writers portray huge events and complicated plots, but they end up meaningless unless there is a real and relevant human cost.

Let's start with some basic questions:
  • Character
One of the first questions you should ask is do we care about the characters? Are they rich enough, real enough, flawed enough for us to actually care what happens to them? If they are cardboard cut-outs, cliché stock characters, then they will have no resonance with the reader. Even if your characters are robots or aliens, they must have emotional depth to reach the human audience. And believe me, they can. (Take a look at Helen Fox's MG book, Eager for an idea of how one robot can answer this question.)
  • Setting
Whether it’s futuristic or otherworldly, the setting must connect to the human story. At the same time, it needs to be an organic part of the narrative. If it takes too much effort to explain it, the setting loses its impact and becomes detached from the crux of the story. Treat it as another character that brings this world into sharper focus. What does it contribute to the conflict? What does it tell us about the characters and what they need? How does the MC’s view of the setting change through the course of the story?
  • Conflict
What kind of conflict fuels your narrative? Sci-Fi landscapes offer a lot of potential battlegrounds, literal and figurative, but how does it connect to what it means to be human? There is the crux of it all. What does it mean to be human? The further your narrative travels beyond what is the known world, the more diligently the writer must seek to answer that question.  
  • The Big Questions
What is the human cost? The stakes must be high and they must be relevant. The MC should grow through the narrative as well, even if he loses. This is something that good science fiction does so very well. It asks the big questions and pulls the audience, heart and head, into the discussion.

I'll close this brief treatise with a recommendation.  If you have not seen DISTRICT 9, you must. This film has set the gold standard for our time. Some people may wish to bill it as a science fiction movie and others as an action movie. It is neither. It is a human story.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Other People's Children

I was doing my usual blog rounds today, when I got a wonderful reminder about the reality of our artistic passion and our place in the world as writers. Thank you, Rachelle Gardner, for putting things in perspective so succinctly and so clearly.  Seriously, folks, how often do you hear yourself saying, "How did that piece of crap get published while my darling masterpiece languishes in a dark drawer along with a flood of rejection letters?"  As Rachelle reminds us, art is subjective.  And even crap has an audience.  Don't you occasional watch crappy TV just for some guilty, mindless pleasure?  I totally do...just ask my husband.

I've heard people bash best-sellers (and I'll name no names), but obviously someone is reading them.  Yes, we may see it as the last sign of cultural armageddon when what we call junk makes it to the NYT Bestseller list, but as writers we have to face the facts.  Not everyone will love our work.  To put a finer point on it, we may love our children to depths that we never could have imagined before we had them, but that doesn't mean that everyone wants to be their friend.   

How many times have you rolled your eyes when some kid acts up at a restaurant or says something outrageously rude and his parents just laugh and think he's cute?  Now think about some of the things your kids do that you find endlessly endearing.  Maybe she likes to hug everyone she meets.  Great, right?  Sweet, affectionate child, right?  Who wouldn't love some instant affirmation?  Well, Mr. Jones might think she's an annoying, presumptuous child who should keep her hands to herself.  Is he a jerk?  Maybe.  But then again, perhaps he was raised with different standards and different preferences.  I happen to like an open, cuddly kid, but not everyone does.  

It may be a cliché, but our books are our "rambling brats" as Anne Bradstreet would say.  Like our human children, they are born out of love, raised with discipline, and invested with bits of our soul that will bind us to them forever.  And doesn't every parent think their kid is brilliant?So when we see something "less worthy" than our own beloved offspring getting all the goods, we take it personally and we cry, "not fair!"  But honestly, doesn't that make you love your child (or your book) just a little bit more fiercely? 

For that matter, we spend a lot of time teaching our kids that life isn't always fair, but if we give it our best shot, we build character and confidence and ultimately we'll be happier.  Stop worrying about other people's children and other writers' books.  If we dwell on all those things that we deem "crap" and sit around and whine about how so-and-so didn't deserve to be published, we only poison our mood and waste time that we could be writing.  

We nurture our children and make sacrifices without even thinking about it so we can raise bright, secure, amazing people.  We should do the same for our writing.  Nurture the craft, never stop searching and learning and exploring.  Keep looking for opportunities and get to know your audience.  And when that masterpiece finally hits the shelves with its beautiful, shiny dust jacket and a host of glowing blurbs on the back, celebrate its birthday and all the accolades that may come along.

BUT, remember that even in all its published glory, your book will not please everyone.  So just don't read the negative reviews!


Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Member of the Field

As I watch the amazing play and the wide cast of characters in the PGA Championships, I can't help but consider what it means for those stalwart players who make up the field of virtually faceless names that stalk the leader board.  Sure we all know who Tiger Woods is.  And Tom Watson.  And Jack Nicklaus.  And Vijay Singh.  We all have our eye on Padraig Harrington who seems almost unflappable playing alongside Tiger.    But what about Zach Johnson or Steve Flesch or Camillo Villegas?  Okay, Villegas (aka Spiderman) is a hottie and an up-and-comer, but for now he is a member of the field.

I wonder about these guys who love golf and are thrilled to get to play, even if they never win the PGA or the Masters or the British Open.  They get to play golf for a living, something they love.  They get to keep coming to the golf course every week, continue to hone their skills, and perhaps even snag an occasional win or challenge the greats in the last round of a major.  They aren't as famous as the big names, but they are always there.  They make fabulous contributions to the game in their own quiet way, without the glare of the spotlight or the excessive pressures of sponsorship that the big names face.  Are they happy?  They have gotta be.

So what does this have to do with writing?  As I launch my career as a writer, I see many of my colleagues making their way through the field.  Some of my Blue Boarding buddies are catapulting to the top and finding visible success like Maggie Stiefvater, who not only got a starred review but also just hit the NYT Bestsellers list with Shiver,  or Fran Cannon Slayton who is getting rave reviews and touring the country with her debut novel When the Whistle Blows, while others are quietly publishing their amazing books, getting fan mail and glowing reviews, and writing—happily writing—almost every day.  They may not win the Newbery or the Printz or a National Book Award.  But they are crafting stories and building a life doing something they love.  

Do they all want fame and fortune?  I doubt it.  If they are like me, they want to tell their stories, they want to bring something to kids that has meaning.  They want to make reading personal.  They want to create.  There are so many reasons that writers do what they do and to try to quantify them would not only be impossible, but it would be utterly foolish.  

Do I daydream about great reviews and sometime writing something award-worthy.  Absolutely!  But that's not why I write.  That is a goal, but not a reason.  Afterall, in many ways, the striving is the true reward.  For all you jaded folks out there in blogland, I apologize if that seems too idealistic.  But writing in itself is a process, not a product.  It's my daily workout, my passion, my teacher, my inspiration.  I can look out with genuine admiration and hopeful emulation at people like Neil Gaiman, Libba Bray, Jennifer Donnelly, and Jerry Spinelli and think Wow!  I would love to get to that place. Will I be a failure if I never get there?  Absolutely NOT.   If I am one of the field of writers who gets to do what she loves (and maybe even get paid for it), that is the dream.  That is my job.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Wisdom from an 8-year-old

If you are looking for recommendations for young readers, the Book Princess has just started a new blog.  Yes, she is 8 years old and she loves to read.  When she asked me to help her start her own web site for book reviews, how could I resist?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Murder in the YA Stacks

With my revisions on BTDV wrapped up (I hope), I am looking to my next project with unstoppable enthusiasm. This next project is even more ambitious than the last, and directed at a slightly older, more sophisticated YA reader. So I'm wondering, how much can you do with murder in a YA book?

I know death is no stranger to YA fiction, but how graphic, how specific, how much? Maybe I should start with looking back at some of my favorite books. Who could forget when Cedric died in HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE? I've read every single HP book aloud to my son, and when we got to that moment when Wormtail curses poor Cedric, I could hardly speak it. The words barely made it over my lips. Then, of course, there is Sirius in THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and Dumbledore in THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. And even more in THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. I must admit, however, these scenes are fairly "clean" in terms of details.

Another series that offered a bit of murder is Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy. Like the Harry Potter series, death is often accomplished by magic. But this is where my question becomes even more complex. How is murder portrayed in different genres, ie. murder mystery, historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, contemporary fiction?

I'm a huge fan of adult murder mysteries. Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series is wonderful, and the equestrian in me adores Rita Mae Brown's books. But even in adult murder mysteries, the original crime is often fairly detached. You might not even know the victim until after the murder has taken place. But then the characters you really care about are the ones doing the sleuthing.

Historical fiction could offer a more realistic portrait of murder. Jennifer Donnelly's award-winning A NORTHERN LIGHT is a lovely YA historical that takes a hard look at life in turn-of-the-century America. You do learn about the victim and face death in other ways through the main character. Contemporary fiction offers a look at many of life's harder edges (rape, suicide, death, drug addiction), though I must admit, I don't read a lot of "edgy" modern YA novels.

And my own work dances on the borders of fantasy and historical fiction, incorporating paranormal elements among the historical realism. I have dealt with death, and I suppose you could loosely say murder. But this book is quite different, and I'm not sure how far I should take it. Or for that matter, how far I want to take it. How graphic can I be? Perhaps that is just another vein of research I must conduct, but I would be curious to hear how others feel about the subject and by all means, if you have a suggestion for my reading list, please leave it in a comment.