Monthly Archives: February 2015

Genre Lessons: Science Fiction

"Mystic Mountain" nebula.

Hubble space telescope’s view of “Mystic Mountain” nebula. Image from hubblesite.org

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month, we’re reading science fiction. I already read a fair amount of sci fi, but it’s usually “softer” sci fi, so I went for a space opera to try to push my genre boundaries. Here are the main writing lessons I took from the book.

1. Character is king. I know speculative fiction readers gravitate toward those stories because of their unique settings, be they worlds with fairy wars and dragons or augmented space ships that respond to mental communications. But what makes those settings interesting is the way the characters interact with them. I had trouble getting into this book at first because the main character starts out as a pretty unlikable person. This is absolutely intentional, and it’s done very well, but I had a hard time caring about his struggles in the beginning. (He grows more likable, but it was tough to stay invested in those first chapters.)

If you have an unlikable character, try to balance that with more emphasis on the plot. I stuck with this book because I wanted to know the outcome of the central contest, even though I didn’t really care whether the protagonist won or not in the beginning.

2. Rich settings are great, but too much description can bog the story down. Unless you’ve got a book where the setting is a character, setting can’t drive a story by itself. (And even then, I’d argue that the characters should do most of the driving.) Setting can enhance a story, and provide a backdrop for essential plot points; but ultimately a lengthy description of how your main character’s hovercraft works is only necessary if that hovercraft doesn’t work later in the book.

3. Give readers information as they need to know it. Instead of a huge info dump that provides every detail of your character’s home planet, sprinkle in the good stuff when it’s relevant. Tell us about the heightened gravity when your character has to jump a fence and can’t make it. That’s probably the only time she’ll be thinking about gravity, anyways. The book I read did a great job with this, too.

4. Even if there’s magic or sophisticated technology, your world has to make sense. There have to be rules. One of my biggest pet peeves as a reader is coming across a magic system that’s inconsistent or a piece of tech that feels contrived solely to make the plot work. If we’re told the mind-controlled space ship can only hold enough fuel to fly from Planet A to Planet B, then your character shouldn’t be able to go from Planet A to the much-farther Planet C without stopping to refuel. And please, don’t have him find some kind of alternative fuel that just happens to work perfectly and saves him from running out of fuel in the middle of the galaxy. Readers will notice, and they’ll call you out on it. (Note: this didn’t happen in the book I read for book club, but since I’m talking about writing sci fi, I thought I’d mention it.)

So, those are the basic lessons I learned from science fiction. Are there any that you’d add?

Writing believable bad guys

Villain. One of my biggest pet peeves in books and movies is the stock villain. You know the type — evil just for the sake of being evil, because something has to get in the hero’s way. To make sure my own villains are three-dimensional, I follow five rules for writing believable villains:

  1. Every villain has a story

Even if your antagonist is a loner, she had to come from somewhere. Most likely she had parents, or foster parents, or even just people who helped her get by on the streets. Did she join a gang to survive? Was she bullied? Was she the bully? Did she have siblings? Has she ever been in love? What was it like?

Exercise: Write a scene or journal entry where your villain reflects on her earliest caregiver(s). Did she grow up in a nurturing home? With an abusive foster parent? Raised by siblings, or a whole community?

  1. Every villain is the hero of his/her story

Why does your villain want what he wants? How does your hero get in the way of that?

Exercise: Tell the story from your villain’s point of view. How do his confrontations with the hero (especially the final showdown) differ?

  1. Just as all heroes have a moment when they must decide to be a hero (e.g., Luke decides to go with Obi wan Kenobi to Aderlaan), all villains have a moment when they decide to be a villain (e.g., Anakin joins the Dark Side).

As Dumbledore says, “It is our choices that define us, far more than our abilities.” Good villains are not evil simply because they were born that way. They decided to do evil. They probably thought they were doing the right thing, or else found ways to justify it to themselves (“sure, stealing is wrong, but if I don’t steal this bread my little brother will starve”). You don’t have to put your villain’s origins into your story, but you should know what they are, and when your villain passed that point of no return.

Exercise: Write your villain’s defining moment. What brought her to this point? How does she feel about what she’s doing?

  1. Remember that bad guys/gals are people, too

Your villain is still human (or at least has human emotions that readers can empathize with). There are things that will make him laugh, or cry, or fly into a rage – and not all of them have to be related to the hero and his/her journey. Does your villain have a soft spot for dogs? Would he be in awe of a skyscraper, or the Sistine Chapel, or a mountain vista?

Exercise: Write a scene featuring your villain that has nothing to do with the main plot. If he’s grocery shopping, what items does he buy? Does he make a snarky comment about how expensive organic carrots are? Does he have a relationship with the person at the meat counter, or the bakery? Does he refuse to buy generic brands on principle?

  1. Everyone has quirks

We all have things we like, things we hate, things that drive us crazy, things we do that drive other people crazy. Your villain is no exception. Does she hate candies with nuts in them? Is she allergic to pineapple? Does she bite her nails? Is her bedroom/lab/lair meticulously ordered or a complete mess?

Exercise: Spice up a scene with your villain by adding a quirk or habit that annoys another character. Is the hero distracted by the villain’s constant pencil tapping? Does the villain’s assistant hate her evil laugh?

Those are my rules for writing believable bad guys. Do you have any you would add? What really good (or really bad) villains have you come across recently?

Adjusting goals and deadlines

Delayed.

Photo by flickr user Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures

I was always that student who wrote papers long before they were due, so it’s hard for me to write a post about pushing deadlines back. But I also feel like I may have queried my last two books too soon, and one of my goals for 2015 is not to rush to finish projects. I had big plans to finish revising a novel I wrote last fall and start querying by the end of March; but the more I work on revisions, the more I realize how much I have to do. There are MAJOR issues with this book, and I know I’m not going to sort them out in two months.

My gut is telling me to set this project aside and let my subconscious figure things out. Plus, while waiting for feedback from a CP, I started working on another novel — one that’s pouring from me much more easily, and which, frankly, I’m a lot more excited about right now. I don’t want to forget about that first project — I love the characters and premise, and I think it could be really good with the right changes. But I don’t want to frustrate myself trying to sort out those changes and not write the book that’s demanding to be written.

So, I’m officially working on two books now. My plan is to finish a first draft of the new book, then try to tackle the old one while I let that sit. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tackle revisions on the new project with more distance than I have other books, since I’ll have worked on something completely different in the interim. I write a lot, particularly when I’m drafting (I managed more than 40 hours over six days a couple weeks ago, plus my regular full-time job — who needs sleep?), but I doubt I’ll have anything ready to query at the end of March. I may *think* I have something, but I’m going to force myself to wait and really take the time to polish it.

On the downside, I’m putting off a deadline I set for myself, which feels like a failure. But on the plus side, I’ll now have two polished projects when all is said and done.

How do you handle deadlines when a project just isn’t working for you?

Youth Media Awards 2015

Some people get excited about the Oscars, or the Grammys, or the Tonys. Sports fans may look forward to the Super Bowl, the World Cup, or March Madness. For me, it’s all about the book awards, and my favorites are the YMAs.

For me, a few of the highlights from this year’s Youth Media Awards include: a graphic novel winning a Printz Honor, one of my favorite books winning the Printz Award, and a book on my to-read list that won both a Printz Honor and a Morris Honor. (Can you tell I’m a little obsessed with the Printz Award?) For those unfamiliar with these prizes, the Michael L. Printz Award “honors the best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit,” and the William C. Morris YA Debut Award “honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.” As a YA reader and writer, I pay close attention to these winners for great prose and authors to look out for in the future. If I’m ever unsure what to read next (Ha!), I look to the YMA winners.

This One Summer. I’ll admit, I haven’t read Printz Honor winner This One Summer yet, but I’m thrilled that the honor went to a graphic novel. While I’m not a big reader of graphic novels, I think they too often get a bad rap as being considered “lesser” works. I find this incredibly frustrating, because there are so many stories that can be told so much better with pictures, and I’ve read graphic novels that I think have incredible literary and artistic merit. A recent (and admittedly not the best) example from my own reading is Shawn David Hutchinson’s The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley. Yes, this is a novel, but there are pages of the Patient F comic Andrew draws throughout the book, and those comics do a lot to enhance the story of both Patient F and Andrew Brawley. The images are powerful, and do so much more for the story than a prose description of them would. When people — especially parents of reluctant readers who enjoy graphic novels — look down on the format, they’re doing a disservice to the artists, authors, and readers of these works. So when a graphic novel wins a Printz Honor, even though it’s not my format of choice, I celebrate.

I'll Give You the Sun. The second happy moment for me was seeing Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun win the Printz Award. For me, this was one of those books that I picked up almost on a whim. I’d heard good things about it, but it wasn’t at the top of my to-read list. But the audiobook was checked in when I needed a new one, so I picked it up. And I was completely blown away. The prose is absolutely gorgeous, and the characters have some of the most authentic, well-developed voices I’ve ever read. And the plotting, wow. Seriously, I couldn’t wait to get in my car and listed to more of this book just to spend a few more minutes in Noah’s head. The way he views the world is fascinating. When one of my favorite books wins my favorite award, it makes my whole week.

The Carnival at Bray. Finally, the yesterday’s YMAs ensured that an author who was already on my radar jumped up my to-read list. I’ve been planning to read Jessie Ann Foley’s The Carnival at Bray because it was nominated for a Morris Award, and because our new teen librarian mentioned possibly inviting her to speak here next year. Now that The Carnival at Bray won a Printz Honor, this book is going from the “maybe I’ll read this someday” section of my to-read list to “definitely check this out.” Plus, it’s set in Ireland, and I don’t read nearly enough books set in Ireland.

So, those are my highlights from the YMAs. What are your thoughts on the winners? Any that surprised you? Any books you wish had won that didn’t? Please share in the comments!

For a full list of the Youth Media Award winners, check out YALSA’s book blog, The Hub.