Bad for Characters, Good for the Story

Sometimes I brainstorm with my husband, throwing ideas around, and often his response to a random idea is “Yes, but then (insert complicating factor that he knows he knows more about than I do.)”

He’s not a writer, so he sees this as a problem. I look at him and blink, and explain that that’s not a problem, that’s delicious new potential source of external conflict in the story. There are the times when I see a complication and realize right away that it’s going to side-track the story in a direction that I don’t want to go, but at the brainstorming level, when I haven’t started writing the story yet, or solidified the plot, it’s not a problem.

The times when it’s a problem are when I’ve written the story and have a plot hole that needs to be filled, and I’m trying to think of a way to fill it. Then, those are the times when I want something uncomplicated – a simple thing to throw in to pull things together.

At the developmental level though, hey, anything goes. Ideas toss around in my head, and eventually they settle into something coherent, but until something’s been put on paper, my mind is open to all ideas. I mean, sure, it wrecks my characters’ lives, but who cares about them? (By the way, I hope I never ever meet any of them in person, because most of them would kill me. Especially Michel, and he would enjoy it.)

Though, to be fair, he’s learning. At first, he would hear my half-formed ideas and say he didn’t like them, that it didn’t sound interesting at all. I would be frustrated at his reaction, knowing that he didn’t see the story in it that I saw. But after a while, he realized what half-formed ideas meant, and realized that there would be more to the story that what I could convey at that stage in the development. He’s told me he’s become fascinated with the process of the creation of a story, and thinks it’s neat to have seen it happen from the first ideas, all the way to final draft. He has faith in me, and because he’s always been honest with his opinions of my work, I know it’s real faith, not a pat on the head. My husband is awesome, and I am blessed. 🙂

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Why I write Fantasy and Science Fiction

I have an in person critiquing group that I get out to when I can, and there’s one member I’ve often got together with for coffee or drinks after the meeting. We chat about the craft because the other members of the group tend focus on word choice and phrasing and not to be interested in delving into the more structural aspects of writing.

He has often asked me, in as polite a way as he can, but it’s still pretty obvious that he looks down his nose at genre fiction, if I’ve considered writing mainstream fiction, set in the real world.

I have, it just doesn’t hold my interest. I tried to explain that I don’t go to sit down and write something – the story comes to me, and I write the story that comes.

But I’ve thought about that, and that’s not a complete explanation, because I’ve often had plots come, but not come with settings. I could slap any setting on that plot and run with it.

Only I couldn’t. There is a definite certain type of story that comes to me, and the stories that come to me are big stories. I mean, stories where the characters are influencing the outcomes of wars, revolutions, etc. Things that are big enough that I can’t just set it in the real world because it’s too big to fit. There was never a revolution that went down the way it did in The Eyelet Dove, and the characters are not the little people you can hide in a big event. The plot requires them to be major players, and in history, no such characters and situations existed, and they’re too big to force in without the audience saying, hey, there was never such a character in such and such a time, that could never happen.

There’s just no way to take such plots and tell the story without changing something major in the setting. Which brings you into the realm of alternate universe, futuristic settings, and my personal favourite, secondary world settings. Which is necessarily, the realms of science fiction and fantasy.

I think that may be part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy to many readers, especially the many lovers of epic fantasy. Perhaps the people who read sci-fi and fantasy just think bigger than people who enjoy mainstream fiction, and want to read about people who make real change in the world. In times where free agency dwindles and people have less and less control over their own fates and ability to make a living, and a sense of free agency is a major psychological factor in satisfaction with one’s life, they want to read about characters who take on huge challenges and save their world. People who have the power do something.

Not all Science Fiction and Fantasy is like that, but the stuff I like most is.

NaNoWriMo 2011 – Road To Elysium

It’s that time of year again, NaNoWriMo is coming around, and I’m gearing up to participate.

My Nano history: my friend Turtle talked me into it six years ago; I started three days late because I was convinced that I wasn’t interested until I saw her so motivated and having fun, and the peer support, and finally caved and started. Failed miserably – exams were at the same time. But I was hooked. Same deal next year, but I got to about 25k this time. Next year I hit under 20k, but that was a month before my wedding. The year after that was 2009, and I wasn’t going to school, and I booked time off work in November to prove that if I had the time, I could do it. And I finally did. Last year I got a new job, and the weeks I had booked off in November disappeared. But I was working close to home, and slightly shorter shifts, that gave me two hours a day extra to do it, so I was determined to give it all I had, and I made it again last year, if barely.

This year I figure I got it in the bag. I have 1 week off, and I’ve had my hours reduced at work – bad financially, but writing wise… eh, I’m enjoying the time it’s given me to work on revision, so there are perks. As long as I don’t get overconfident and lazy, I should be golden.

The project this year: Road To Elysium. Breaking away from my usual Dieselpunk, and delving into science fiction, specifically cyberpunk. The setting will be intergalactic, and largely inspired by current economic events, extrapolating the Corporate personhood idea out to where corporations are now government, and there are no nations, just Companies. Workers are often brainwiped to protect corporate informational assets.

There is slavery, though they don’t like to call it that. In this world, people in debt are forced to work off their debt in service of whatever corporation that owns their debt. Whoever owns their debt, owns them. Society is composed of mostly debt slaves, since the companies don’t pay their workers in cash, but credits that can be spent only on company goods, or traded for cash at a pointless conversion rate, so that no one can actually get out of debt. Or their parents debt, passed down to them. The only other option for someone who can’t work, or refuses to, is bankruptcy, in which case they must go to live on one of the refugee camp planets.

The story starts with the main character, who’s been brainwiped, and doesn’t remember anything before being rescued from an escape pod two years ago. A strange woman shows up to take her away from the mining asteroid she works on – her debt is being sold to another company because that company is looking for a “certain type of worker”. What that is, they won’t tell her, other than she fits the bill.

Once they’re free and clear, she finds out that the woman who’s taken her away is an AI from the planet Elysium, a paradise where all inhabitants live in perfect harmony and equality. The woman tells her that’s where she came from, and she’s come to take her home. But the Corporation that owns her debt catches on, and their journey home becomes a desperate flight from the corporation’s mercenaries, among others.

Seeing as I’m breaking out of my old habits with genre, I figure I might as well in other ways as well. I think I’m going to try writing in first person, present tense, just to mix things up. The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi was in present tense, and while I noticed right away, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it. First person is a little less foreign to me – I wrote my first novel in first person (an abomination that will never ever see the light of print on paper). And most recently, I wrote a short story in first person. I hadn’t planned that, I just had the plot entirely worked out, and sat down to write and the first sentence came out in first person. I looked at it and blinked, and went with it. It’s one of my better pieces, but too long for a short, so it’ll probably be a novel some day.

In any case, I’m being ambitious and daring this year – I suppose I had to make up for having a more comfortable amount of time to work on the thing. Which reminds me, I should go finish the outline for it. 😛

Utopias part 1 – Sustainability

NaNoWriMo is coming up, and my idea for this year centers around a Utopia. It’s not something I’ve done before, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I think the reason I haven’t done it before is because it feels like such an ambitious thing – how vain to put forward what one single mind believes would be a perfect world? How many people have come up with their own picture of a world where everyone would be happy and live in harmony, and been scoffed at because they hadn’t taken one this or that into consideration?

There are a few things a Utopia must be. First, it must be sustainable – what good it a utopia with an expiration date?

Which means sustainable on an ecological level. Which means two things – first, respecting the environment, in some way. Not necessarily revering it as untouchable, but on the other hand, biological diversity is unarguably important. Just think of what would happen to the world if common wheat suddenly stopped growing due to a disease. Lucky thing we can switch to other varieties.

The other thing sustainability means is population control. Whatever plenty there is, a population will grow until it exceeds the capacity of it’s environment, then the population with crash due to famine. It’s a fact. And in case anyone wants to argue that people aren’t animals, we can overcome that, well maybe we are, maybe we’re not – maybe we are in fact capable of defeating our instincts as individuals, but as a whole the above has been true over and over and over throughout history. One might also argue that the areas of the world where the population is growing are the areas of the world where there is not enough resources, however, if the people do not have enough food to fuel their population exansion, what is it that they are eating? Rocks? Sand? This is where the “global economy” comes in – economics of an area are no longer isolated, food is shipped in from other countries, in aid donations, which is only exacerbating the population problem, sustaining the population at an unsustainable level. But that’s another point I’ll have to save for another post.

There are many forms of population control – war being one, famine being another. Obviously those are not the sort of things one would expect to see in a utopia, however. The form existing in China, now, might be viable, but could people be happy with it? Can humans be happy with their reproduction restricted? Keeping in mind that the order of priority in an animals instincts is first survival, and second, reproduction, and all else after those two.

But then look at the countries where the population is declining. Studies show that population growth is inversely related to education of women. If you had an isolated society, where people in general were educated to a sufficient level, would that exert enough of a population controlling influence to keep the population at a sustainable level? Maybe. One major reason for first world people to not have children is lack of resources, which would not be an issue in a Utopia. The reasons for not having children, however, are diverse, from couples just wanting to enjoy their lives unsaddled with children, people having difficulty finding someone two settle down with, health being too poor to bear or look after children, concerns over hereditary diseases, or even not believing that one would make a good parent. In any case, such a society would likely not need to be as severely restrictive of reproduction as China.

Hmm, this is getting long – may need multiple posts. I will get back to this.

The Zeitgeist – Writing in the Spirit of the Times

This is something of a followup to this post and this post. Robert J. Sawyer touched on this on his “Idea is King” lecture as well. It’s about finding an idea that will hit a nerve with your audience.

Think about what concepts are big right now. The current issues and events rocking our world today. A work that makes statements on that is the sort of work that will get people talking, and right from the time of Jonathan Swift and H. G. Wells, science fiction and fantasy have been a platform for making a statement.

I find as I’ve matured, the ideas that come to me are the sort of ideas that are in the Zeitgeist. Obviously I can’t feel strongly about every concept being debated right now, but the bigger ones that I feel most strongly about, I write about.

My last major project, The Box, was about religious tolerance and faith, and the conflict between science and religion, approaching it from the speculative standpoint of “what would a society look like if science was the dominant religion?” From that, the idea was born of a country where an underground group of rebels dedicated to science had overthrown the reigning theocracy, and captured God in a contraption they’d built, and ultimately turn out to be no better ruler’s than the theocracy had been.

My current project, The Eyelet Dove, originally was about a country occupied by a conquering country and revolting against the occupying country. I slowly got frustrated with it, there was something wrong, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then finally I realized that the reason I didn’t like it, was because I didn’t want to write about an occupation – what was on my mind was the conflicts in the world today between the corporate aristocracy and the working class people. That’s what I feel passionately about right now, and when I realized that, the story turned into a people’s revolution, overturning an oppressive and indulgent monarchy and upper class.

And with the way the world is going right now, that’s totally on the front page of the Zeitgeist newspaper.

And now I have NaNoWriMo coming up, which I do every year, and have finally decided on which of many ideas bouncing around in my head that I’m going to do. It’s going to be science fiction this time, possibly classifiable as cyberpunk, with AI’s being a major theme, but then I read this article on debt and my worldbuilding elements began to fall into place. Many futuristic science fiction novels themes center around an extrapolation of how the world will be in X number of years, if things keep going the way they are.

This one’s going to look at debt, and how the current economic situation has turned the lower class into little more than a slave class, with no upward mobility and no power. So that will be the world my main character is trapped in, only with spaceships and asteroid mines, where there is no government anymore – the government has been bought out by the Corporations, and their employees are their citizens, and if they have any debt, they’re their slaves. Only they won’t use that word – that’s an ugly word. There will be internment camp for the bankrupt, and defaulters will be hunted like escaped slaves. The companies won’t pay employees in cash, but in credit that can only be used for buying company goods, so that their employees can survive, but can never get out of debt. And there will be an attack on one of the companies, attempting to delete all of their financial records, so as to free their employees from debt, by a legendary hacker. It will be fun.

Write something that matters

First, read this; it’s relevant and also entertaining:

http://hollylisle.com/index.php/Workshops/how-to-write-suckitudinous-fiction.html

I have read one book of holly lisle’s and I did very much enjoy it. It was Minerva Wakes, about a woman who gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity when her husband bought their wedding rings; the guy at the ren fair or wherever he bought them mistook him for one of the “weavers” who are the arch enemies of the unweaver – basically force of creation, vs force of destruction, good old fashioned good and evil. So, having these rings, they are supposed to take up the fight against the unweaver and their love and powers of creativity, as I remember, is what’s supposed to help them do it. Or something to that effect. It was a long time ago – but that only goes to show how much of an impact on me that I remember it. Them loving one another was important. Catch is, when the story begins, their marraige is in shambles and she’s considering divorce when they find out what these rings mean. So she gets dumped into a fantasy world where she has to get in touch with her dreams again in order to awaken the weaver powers she’s been oblivious to. And of course there’s the happily ever after in the end, but it was cute, and I liked it.

Anyway, that’s only partly relevant. The relevant part is that it had a purpose and a theme and likable characters with flaws and dreams and goals and things they cared about dearly that drove them, and the story.

Some people, particularly in writing circles, don’t like stories to have an obvious message, because they don’t like being preached at. I never like those sorts of stories. Experimental stories that dance around the fact that it doesn’t give me any compelling reason to read on. Drives me friggin nuts, I’m like ok, why did I read that? What’s the point of a story if it doesn’t have a point? Why write it at all, if there’s no reason to write it?

They say, for entertainment. They just want a story to entertain them and nothing else is allowed to creep into it. These people have never given me a more compelling argument than “I don’t like it.” And yet, these people defend their position vehemently, like a rabid atheist, trying to push others to adopt their position, and warning other authors that if they writing something that expresses their opinion, especially if it’s a political opinion, well, be careful, because there’s no market for that stuff.

Which is just not true, I don’t know what kind of crack they’re on, and they never have any statistics to back them up, unlike arguments to the contrary.

I wondered where this attitude comes from. But then I look around at the world, and at my generation, I think, no wonder they’re writing this blather. My generation is a generation that’s jaded by helplessness. Even if we vote, we’re outnumbered by the earlier generations who have vastly different values and ideals, so that our votes don’t matter. We feel that the old guard hasn’t given up the keys to our world and we can’t make the changes we see need to be made. Because there aren’t enough of us, and it’s too big a fight, too much work, and the guy beside us isn’t going to take up that banner alongside and fight beside us for what they believe in and what they want.

I’m not even going to get into all the things we see wrong with the world; that’s not the point of this particular outburst. The point is that we’ve lost hope.

It’s what they want us to believe. They’ve always wanted us to believe that things are the way they are and there’s nothing you can do to change them. Politicians promise it, but they don’t come through. The people in power don’t want change, and they’ve convinced us that there’s nothing we can do.

The complacence is deadly. We give up on our dreams, take jobs that don’t matter to us, and when we feel unfulfilled, we say, well, that’s life, you have to accept it. And when we can’t accept it any more, we put guns to our heads, because we have no hope for anything better.

I may still be relatively young, but I’ve been through a fair bit, and even been close to losing all hope. But I’ve come back from it. Most recently, my last job was really getting rough and it wasn’t allowing me enough time that I was coherent enough to work, to work on my writing, which is my dream. It took a while but I realized that job was outright stopping me from following my dream.

I don’t generally act rashly in those situations, so I didn’t quit right that moment, but I started looking for a new job pretty quick, and awesome friends came through for me in helping me find one. Things are way better now. Because I did something.

I could have survived on that old job. I could live in this ghetto apartment indefinitely and raise kids in here that I didn’t have time to see, and never write another novel. Hypothetically, I mean. I’d actually just do what I did because I couldn’t bear giving up progress or at least the hope of progress.

Right around that time, my favourite band released their new album, with a song that hit home just then:

Letters From A Little Boy To Himself As An Adult
Lyrics by Captain Robert

”Robert as boy:”
Dear Mr. Brown,
One day I’ll be you and
Although I’m only eight now,
You need to hear my rules
Never stop playing
Never stop dreaming and
And be careful not to
Turn into what I’d hate

”Robert as adult:”
Dear little boy,
I’m doing my best up here but
It’s a thankless job and
Nobody feels the same
You work long hours
Watch your credit rating
Pay your taxes and
Prepare to die

”Jody Ellen:”
I have tried to keep my soul
I lost the fight to keep a hold
Now I am not awake
Now I’m not awake

”Robert as boy:”
Hey Mr. Brown,
That can’t be what life is like!
I’ve watched some movies,
And I’ve, I’ve read some books
Life should be exciting
And sometimes scary but
What you’re describing doesn’t
Seem worth the time

”Robert as adult:”
Hey little boy,
I think you are always right
I’ve dropped that worthless life and
I’m moving on
Life should be adventure
I’m stealing back my soul
I’ve lost too many years now
I’m awake

”Robert and Jody Ellen:”
You were right
I nearly lost my soul
I will fight to steal back my soul
Now I am awake
Now I’m awake

This became Etienne’s song, and all my feelings about my life then came out in the novel I was writing for national novel writing month. Etienne is a man who led a small uprising against the oppressive monarchy that was put down brutally. He lost friends, spent time in jail and when he got out, he no longer believed it was possible to change the way things were. Eventually someone convinces him to try again, and he dares to hope again.

Then there’s Claire who dreams of flying a fighter aeroplane, and since it’s a man’s world, she has to fight society’s rules tooth and nail to follow her dream. But she does, right to the end. She never gives up on it.

And there’s the admiral; he doesn’t like the way things are, but he accepts it, and doesn’t believe that change is possible, so he tries to make the best of the way things are.

And finally there’s Maddie, the little girl, who is too young to know she shouldn’t hope for better, and inspires it in others too.

I want my writing, and my characters to inspire people. I think people want to believe and to hope, they’re just inundated with apathy, and there needs to be more hope in the world. I want to put more hope in the world, and this is how I’ll do it.

Where Do The Ideas Come From?

I’m told that one of the questions that comes up at cons repeatedly, and the one that authors dread the most is “Where do you get your ideas?”

Because they all want an easy answer. Take a piece of paper and write something in the middle, then write related ideas around it, and then make a story out of it. Use the snowflake method. Write prompts on slips of paper and draw them out of a hat. Sit at your computer and stare really hard at it like a scrying mirror, until the words magically appear.

And what the authors really want to tell the person is “Get a life.”

Literally. You don’t get ideas from staring at a blank screen. Stories come from life, characters come from real people, settings come from real places. Even in science fiction and fantasy, where the world is so vastly different from our own, this is true.

I have never, ever, once in my life got an idea for what to write while I was sitting typing a story. Maybe some people do, but my ideas come while I’m out in the world, and talking with people. Also, many get their start from dreams.

For example, the novel I’m currently revising is “The Eyelet Dove.” It started as a dream, but the dream only contained the characters Maddie and Etienne, without names, and their antagonists were vague, I originally imagined the city being occupied by a neighboring country.

But over the last few years, I’ve learned more about the state of economics, and the growing gap between the working class and the corporate aristocracy. It’s only getting worse, and I’m not part of the corporate aristocracy. The setting and conflict became no longer and occupation, but a civil war to overthrow the monarchy who’s holding the working class down to fund an expensive war that’s not progressing.

I’d originally imagined the story setting to be more steampunk with airship battles somewhat akin to tallships, but then our local aviation museum hosted one of the few (single digits) lancaster bombers that are still in flying order. My Dad wanted to take me to see it for my birthday, and when his girlfriend said, “Now Don, shouldn’t you ask Lindsay what  *she* wants to do for her birthday?” my response was, “I kinda want to go see the plane…..” I am my father’s daughter, and I think these things are cool. This is a WWII plane, and I got to go inside and see it, and talk to the pilots and find out how many people would have been in the crew, how the plane was used tactically, and that it carried the biggest bombs dropped in WWII.

Suddenly now the story has bombers playing a major role in the story, along with WWII style aeroplanes.

So if you’re an aspiring writer sitting staring at a blank screen and whining to yourself  “I don’t know what to write”, stop. Go to the museum. Go to the zoo. Go see a movie, or read a book. Read non-fiction. Click through wikipedia, follow links until you find stuff that intrigues you. Take a course. Take up a hobby. Learn to dance. Go on a trip. You don’t want characters sitting around the page feeling bored and sorry for themselves, why let yourself do it?