Archives: Writing

The Show Must Go On

13 - 1 (1)Twice daily visits to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to visit my newborn daughter eat up a lot of the day. It is terrific to observe her progress. She’s getting bigger every day and should be coming home in, perhaps, a week.

Fantastic. But I still need to keep writing.

OryCon 35

I attended my first science fiction convention as a guest this weekend. Not my first con, but my first on the other side of the panel table. OryCon is the annual Portland convention, now in its 35th year. It brings together fans of the myriad interests lumped under ‘science fiction.’ So, you’ve got your klingons, your gamers, your costume makers, anime buffs, etc. I’ve attended about a dozen of these over the years, not with any particular focus, but simply as a reader of speculative fiction in general. It allowed me a chance to meet some of the authors of books I’ve enjoyed and to hear the authors discuss various topics at panels.

Discipline

The simple fact is I don’t wish to write today. I am tired. I woke early to pick up my wife at the airport. She is understandably tired: travel in addition to pregnancy. So I handled the shopping and the preparation of the coming week’s lunches. Now my feet ache – my dogs are not exactly barking, its more of a whine. Along the lines of what I’m doing here.

Disappointment

I’m learning the publishing game through the time-honored method of experience. It seems that disappointment is a constant threat. I’d been expecting a release date of October 15 for my novel “Reunion.” In fact I’d relied upon the date, sending out invitations to a party to celebrate the book’s impending publication.
Lesson one: The book hasn’t been published until it’s been published. Nothing is certain.
See, I received a message from the publisher a few days after sending the invitations alerting me that the publication date was pushed back. It seems the cover artist required more time. He is creating a painting for the entire cover, front and back. The approved concept was more involved than originally anticipated so he’ll need a couple more months.

Argosy

Argosy

The writing savants instruct that we not employ a ten-dollar word when a nickel’s worth will suffice.  You will lose the reader if he is forced to consult a dictionary.  You risk appearing pretentious.

This is no doubt sound advice.  And yet I struggle with it.  I like archaic terms, obscure, little-used words and expressions.  I enjoy encountering a new word, even if it means heaving open my brobdingnagian 1920’s era dictionary, or hopping onto the web for a quick search.  I loved it even as a kid.  A new word was a precious find.  I hoarded them like gems.  Reading L. Sprague de Camp was like a treasure hunt.  I’d roll “yclept” about like a shining jewel.  An archaism that I valued precisely due to its rarity.

I like the baroque stylings of a Jack Vance, or the dense, lush lyricism of E.R. Eddings just as much as the more approachable, breezy prose of Elmore Leonard.

So I find myself torn.  I do err on the side of caution, many of my jewels not surviving the culling of the first draft.  Of course infrequency causes the remainder to stand out, and a word that stands out can lead to the very problems the wise and experienced writing gurus warn about.  Thus I weed out even more – the story itself being more important than one of my beloved treasures.

But sometimes the nature of the story allows me to indulge.  And I do.

What are your thoughts?  Does it diminish your enjoyment of a story to stumble across an unfamiliar word?

Naming Characters

“What’s in a name? That which we call a  rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Well, sure, Juliet, but books communicate only through words, not smells.  The names chosen often must be capable of more than simply differentiating one character from another, they must be able to convey certain information, whether about the character or about the world the author has created.

And creating worlds is what speculative fiction authors do.  The aliens, elves, planets, or kingdoms invented need names.  There are many approaches to naming conventions.  Glen Cook, in his “Black Company” series employs common English words: “Opal,” “Juniper.”  Or relatively uncommon but still familiar names: “Elmo”, “Otto.”  Some readers, perhaps conditioned to expect that fantasy will adhere to certain conventions, find this hinders suspension of disbelief.  It works for me, however; it helps ground the stories, provides a sense of gritty reality.

Another option is to become a philologist, invent several languages, and provide appropriate names from word roots or compounds of those invented languages.  This option works best if your name is Tolkien.

Other writers seem to peck randomly at the keyboard and then go back and insert an apostrophe.  These writers don’t, apparently, attempt to pronounce the names or quite grasp what an apostrophe within a word is supposed to accomplish.  Vide “the Apostropocalypse” in Neal Stephenson’s “Reamde.”  His takedown of this particular naming convention is quite clever, as one would expect.

In my first novel – that has been consigned to a box in the closet, never to see the light of day – I resorted to the atlas.  Characters from certain invented lands were assigned countries from the atlas and I selected place names from the respective countries (e.g., Estonia) to repurpose as character names, ensuring a consistency, a sense of commonality among characters within the discrete lands.  At least that was the intent.  No one will ever know if I succeeded.

My second novel, “Reunion” (to be released by Twilight Times Books this October) is essentially a contemporary piece, so names presented little difficulty.  However, a couple of characters did require some thought.  For reasons that – I hope – make perfect sense to those who read the book, I modified ancient Babylonian names to tag these two characters with.

I am faced with a different challenge in the novel I am currently writing.  I want the names of the alien race to exemplify their language.  Thus most of the names feature ch, k, or g to indicate that the alien speech consists largely of gutturals and harsh consonants.

Names can help establish a sense of place, of verisimilitude.  They can also, of course, be allegorical or symbolic, if the author wants to go down that path.  Something to consider before assigning a moniker.

What’s in a name?  Maybe quite a bit.

Writing What You Know When You Are Just Inventing It

Received writing wisdom has it “write what you know.” Well, what if you are writing about three-limbed aliens or magical elves? How are you supposed to possess concrete, factual information about something fictitious? Assuming you are not simply adopting some other writer’s creation, how can you write what you know when you’re inventing it as you go?

Short answer? Write what you know around the elements created out of whole cloth. Your novel magical system has no existence outside the bounds of your imagination, but perhaps the characters employing it are based firmly on personality types you know only too well. Or the political structure of your secondary world is lifted directly from a term paper you wrote for your poli-sci course. Or the Space Legion’s battle tactics are exactly those you were taught in infantry school.

The shiny facade of your fiction may be something fundamentally unknowable, but the supports, the foundations, the unseen infrastructure holding the whole edifice together, making it read as plausible – these you should be familiar with. Inclusion of matters you have a comfortable working knowledge of will lend your story a sense of grounded verisimilitude that will encompass the fantastical elements as well.

Technobabble

The thing to bear in mind is that it is science FICTION. If you were describing actual scientific advances you’d be an inventor and the world would be a truly fabulous place, complete with jet packs, flying cars, and anti-matter engines. Or a smoldering cinder, slowing cooling in the deep freeze of space. Depending. The aim, therefor, is not viability but verisimilitude. Not necessarily plausibility, though that’s a bonus. Your gadgets need to pass without raising an eyebrow within the context of the world you’ve created, not of this one.

Technical jargon, or technical sounding jargon, is the primary tool in your verisimilitude chest. Engage in a bit of research, absorb the language of scientific journals. But keep the research wide rather than deep. It is easy to drown in the topic you’re investigating. You forget the aim – verisimilitude – and begin to despair because your essential piece of sci-fi hardware – the hook upon which your story hangs – appears implausible. Take a step back, breathe. Remember the goal. Look, if we science fiction consumers were that insistent upon rigid, peer-reviewed science backing the fiction then the shelves would be empty and television would consist of nothing but police procedurals and reality programming.

So learn your technobabble. And set the stage for your plot-necessary tech with throwaway descriptions of other context-appropriate future gadgetry. If such other wonders are commonplace then this key breakthrough shouldn’t threaten suspension of disbelief.