Mark H. Phillips
So, you want to write a science fiction story. Suppose you’ve got to produce a short story in a month. Knowing a bit about the conventions of the genre might save you from wasting time and effort on flawed starts.
Science fiction is a genre of ideas. More than any other genre, knowing your conceptual raison d’être from the start is essential. Character, setting, voice, etc., are all subservient to elucidating the ideas. Think of a science fiction story as a purified and dramatized version of a particular kind of rhetorical tactic in a particular kind of conversation. It’s one in the morning and two friends are sitting at a back table of a bar discussing philosophy or physics or anthropology or economics or politics. Capitalism versus communism. Determinism versus free will. Nature versus nurture in sexual orientation. You’re both trying to come to grips with some conceptual choice, get the other person to see the issue from a new perspective. At some point one of you launches into a thought experiment: “What if…” “Imagine a world where…”
A good thought experiment forces a thinker to address the crucial issues head on, engages their intuitions in ways they may not have anticipated, forces them to zero in on what is essential and dismiss the irrelevant. It should be designed so the person cannot worm out of the dilemma or duck or confuse the issue.
Here’s a thought experiment I used with a rather rabidly homophobic friend of mine, Bob, while discussing the ethical, social, and legal status of the LGBTQ+ community. Suppose a new COVID-19 vaccine, rushed into production without sufficient testing, has a bizarre mutagenic side effect: several months after everyone in the world has been vaccinated, half of all humans wake up having completely changed to the opposite gender. The newly re-gendered are all fully functional, their chromosomes altered and then fully expressed overnight. All of their memories are intact.
Suppose my homophobic friend is one of the newly re-gendered (Karma is a bitch). If Bob is still 100% attracted to only females, is Bob suddenly 100% lesbian? If homosexuals should suppress their desires and marry only someone of the opposite sex, would Bob be forced to marry a guy or remain celibate for the rest of “his” life? Or would Bob, obviously feeling gender dysphoria, be tempted to have a sex-change operation and thus become a transsexual? How would the laws and social customs change if, overnight, the population of legislators and voters were 50% homosexual instead of 4.5%? How would gay couples react if one or both partners switched genders? How would feminist organizations adapt if half their members were suddenly male? Would Congress finally get around to installing more women’s restrooms in the Capital Building? Imagine the chaos in the Middle East.
The better the thought experiment, the easier it is to adapt it into a science fiction story. The science fiction writer fleshes out all the details to create an engaging, exciting, emotionally riveting story. I first came across this notion of science fiction as thought experiment in an introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Many stories are set in the future or on a distant planet only because that allows the author to control the details of the thought experiment, to bring rational and emotional focus on just the concepts they choose.
Innovation is rewarded, but it is not necessary to come up with new thought experiments. There are hundreds of famous thought experiments from philosophy, physics, economics, sociology, etc. just waiting to be exploited. Think of them as chords in music. You, as composer, just need to use those chords to create new music. The sudden-change-of-gender trope has been used many times in the history of science fiction. Heinlein used an unforeseen sex change as fodder for his musings on gender in the classic I Will Fear No Evil. Star Trek did it to Captain Kirk in the last (and perhaps the all-time worst) episode of the original series. Involuntary re-sleeving into an opposite-gendered body was included as a plot device in the Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon. If you want a fun and fecund resource of one hundred thought experiments you could turn into science fiction stories, check out Julian Baggini’s The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten.
Once you have chosen the thematic thought experiment of your story, what else do you need to be aware of as a newbie science fiction writer? Do you need to be fluent in science? Nope. There is a niche in the genre called hard science fiction that prides itself on not violating any presently understood science, but most science fiction writers and readers have only minimal scientific knowledge. You might choose a scientifically astute beta reader to flag any outrageous howlers for you, but basic Wikipedia-level research is quite sufficient for most stories.
What is more important than specific scientific knowledge is a rigorous logical extrapolation of your thought experiment. If your story is of the form “What if X happens?” then you ought to spend time figuring out exactly what Ys and Zs must follow. The fundamental “What if…” can be quite outrageous as long as what follows from that premise is seemingly inevitable. David Brin’s Practice Effect imagines a world where the laws of thermodynamics are different. Artifacts deteriorate when not used, but become better with use. In that world, the rich own too much clothing to improve through constant use and so pay bums to wear their clothes for them until rags are perfected into ball gowns and tuxedos.
Science fiction fans cherish rational thinking as much as fans of detective fiction. In detective fiction, the plot must function like clockwork. The detective’s solution cannot have any holes. In science fiction that logical rigor is often expended in worldbuilding. You must compel your reader with sound arguments that a society faced with mass gender switches or changes in the laws of entropy would inevitably adapt as your story suggests.
Worldbuilding and the slow working out of a detective’s solution also follow the same pace. I’ve argued in a previous blog that readers, and especially science fiction readers, will tolerate necessary and sufficiently fascinating data dumps. But they prefer that information be trickled into the story. Tease the reader with hints and glimmers slipped into the action. They need to feel that they are figuring out the rules of your new world without too much help. If you confuse them because you gave them too much intellectual credit, they’ll forgive you. If you explain everything like they are twelve-year-olds, they’ll resent you for your clarity.
Traditionally, science fiction is written in a straightforward journalistic prose. The ideas and worldbuilding are the stars; rhetorical flourishes usually just get in the way. Orson Scott Card cautions writers to stay away from metaphors, for instance, because readers are hypersensitive to clues about how your strange world works. A reader is just going to get confused if a character “took heavy mechanical steps towards the door.” In a non-science fiction story, no one would contemplate that the character was a cyborg. In a science fiction story, actual mechanical legs might be a plausible inference.
On the other hand, language and dialect can be crucial to worldbuilding. Alex’s use of the Nadsat argot in A Clockwork Orange tells us a lot about the world he lives in. Klingon is a fully constructed language developed by linguist Marc Okrand for the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and has since rapidly grown into the “real” world. Many actors on the series The Expanse had to train for months with a language coach to master the Belter dialect that gives the show such a unique feel.
The history of science fiction is replete with high concept stories populated by cardboard characters. Modern fans are much more discerning. Characters should be fully and realistically developed. But those characters should be designed to further the thematic core of the story, fully consistent with the world they inhabit. Your character exists to illuminate your thought experiment, to emotionally engage with it, to be torn by its inescapable logic. Never sacrifice the logic of the thought experiment to increase character realism. And never let a character off the hook by eliminating the need to truly face the dire consequences of their dilemma. Logic trumps sentimentality every time. If you want it the other way around, there are plenty of other genres for you to try. Here’s a test of your ruthlessness. Could you write a story like “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin? (Read it for free here.) The story caused a furor when it first appeared in the August, 1954 edition of Astounding Science Fiction and most fans still have strong reactions to it. I won’t spoil the story here: go read it and see what I mean.
The same capitulation to ruthless logic resonates in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in the infamous Kobayashi Maru test, a simulation designed as a no-win situation to teach cadets about dealing with the real possibility of the universe kicking their ass no matter how cunning they are. The only cadet to beat the Kobayashi Maru test is, of course, James T. Kirk. He cheated and reprogrammed the computer to allow a positive solution. Which meant that he had never faced a no-win tragic situation. Which meant that he was all the more devastated when he had to face a similar scenario outside a simulation. The logic of their theme demanded a price, and the writers didn’t relent just because the character was beloved by the fans (a lesson reversed by the writers of the reworking of the Khan story in Star Trek: Into Darkness).
Of course, the very best way to imbibe the conventions of science fiction is to read lots of it. Since my supposition was that you would crank out a story in a month, I’ll have to give you a short best-of-the-best list. Here are six examples of the genre chosen to give a wide variety of styles, options, themes, and techniques:
1) Neuromancer by William Gibson
2) The Persistence of Vision by John Varley
3) Dune by Frank Herbert
4) The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
5) The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
6) Startide Rising by David Brin
As works drift away from this core concept of a literature that fleshes out thought experiments, we get into subgenres that are science fiction more by historical affinity or superficial trappings. That’s how family resemblance concepts work. I’m not interested in quibbling about what “real” science fiction is, but this guide on how to write science fiction won’t help produce works in these peripheral categories.
Space opera, for instance, is mostly action/adventure fiction dressed up with space ships, ray guns, and bug-eyed monsters. It can be very well written and quite fun, but it’s really war stories, westerns, or gangster stories rewritten into alien locales with cool futuristic tech. Fantasy is a very popular genre. It’s usually not driven by thought experiments, but rather by mythopoeic battles between Good and Evil involving magic. The Lord of the Rings is great fantasy. Star Wars is good fantasy with light sabers and Jedi instead of broadswords and wizards.
A lot of the science fiction that appears on TV and in the movie theaters is space opera or space fantasy, and my guide won’t help you write those types of stories. Star Trek in all of its incarnations (including The Orville) is science fiction that meets my core criteria. Altered Carbon and The Expanse qualify. By my definition, The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction.
I hope this Quick Start guide will inspire you to write some excellent idea-based science fiction. It is a challenging, but immensely rewarding genre, with some of the most devoted fans in the world. You’ve got a month. Starting…Now!
Learn more about Mark H. Phillips and his writing here.
It’s the dog days of summer and I live in Houston. It’s hot. I want some cool relief. I also want some cool relief from overly intense emotional fiction. I’m tired of the overwrought. For some writers, the very purpose of writing is to provoke the most intense emotional responses possible in the reader. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, Sam Fuller, the famous director playing himself, sums up his attitude toward storytelling: “Film is like a battleground. Love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word, emotion!” I think many of today’s writers have taken this to heart. There is too much emotion set at too uniformly high a pitch.
In preparing this essay I came across hundreds of articles on how to make your writing more emotionally intense. I found virtually no articles on how to dial back the emotion, and why a writer would want to do so. Of course, there will always be a market for melodrama, with its cloying sentimentality; fainting damsels about to suffer fates worse than death; passionate confrontations, one after another; frequent cliffhangers, sacrificing plot coherence to the need to keep the audience’s passions feverishly aroused. This form is still the norm in operas, soap operas, and telenovelas.
To each his or her own, but I have no desire to read or write this type of melodrama. My fictional tastes run towards the much cooler end of the emotional spectrum. I enjoy detective fiction where the goal is to enjoy pure intellectual rational deduction featuring clockwork plots with intricate and sinuous plot twists. The coldly analytic Sherlock Holmes stories are obvious examples. I occasionally indulge in a cozy where the suspense and emotional intensity is set so low that the writer can take time out to explore the nuances of cooking the perfect scone. I enjoy hard science fiction (SF) where the author speculates about how humans or aliens will adapt to new technologies, and where the writer can take the time out to explore the nuances of orbital mechanics or terraforming if that’s integral to the plot. I’m fond of the atmospheric ghost stories of M. R. James, which provide mild chills when compared to the gut-wrenching terror provided by Stephen King or Clive Barker.
So there are types of literature where emotions sometimes need to be tamped down. Even in works that seek maximum emotional intensity, the writer will often want to dial things back, to allow the reader to recover from shocks, to make the emotional highs more intense by contrast with muted passages, or to allow for a slow but steady increase in the arc of suspense.
So, what techniques allow an author to artfully dial back emotional intensity?
1) Use distancing to mute the reader’s emotional reactions. Distancing is another layer of point of view (POV) similar to the different kinds of shots in motion pictures. Films constantly alternate between long shots, medium shots, and closeups. Long shots are used to set scenes, capture epic battles, sometimes to pull back from the action to allow cooler, more reflective moods into a film. Medium shots are used for interpersonal action. Lovemaking, kung fu fighting, courtroom cross-examination, etc. Closeups are used to bring us as close to a single character as possible to show us intense individual emotions. The writer, unlike a filmmaker, can go further than the closeup to gain emotional intimacy and intensity by going directly into a character’s soul and revealing their direct passions either with God-like third person insight or with a first person stream of consciousness.
Compare these descriptions of the same character and situation:
a. People familiar with the staid banker, Benjamin Kite, today may be surprised to learn that in his teen years he was more susceptible to female charms.
b. Benny saw Carol and fell immediately in love.
c. Benny felt his face flush. Carol was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. He told himself that he had to win her.
d. Benny thought, “Holy shit. What a fox. I’ve got to ask her out. But if she says no, I’ll die.”
If you’ve chosen a third person POV you can dial back emotions by using your authorial voice to pull back from the action, put the emotion in a wider context or farther back in nostalgic time. When you want to ramp up the emotion, zoom in on the character’s direct actions and emotional responses. If you are in a first person POV, the same options exist: to put (d) in first person just remove the “Benny thought”. (a) would read, “People today see me only as a staid banker. They would find it hard to believe that as a teen I was more susceptible to female charms.”
A good writer will continuously vary the zoom for the specific moment-by-moment needs of the story. A movie consisting of only highly emoting actors seen in extreme closeup would be unwatchable.
2) Tell, don’t show. If you want to dial down the emotion, take some time to just tell your reader things. Not everything has to be action or dialogue. In Moby Dick, Melville takes the whole of chapter forty-two to discuss the cross-cultural and literary association between the color white and death. Neal Stephenson, in his bestselling SF novel Seveneves, describes how to simulate gravity in space by linking two pods with a cable and spinning them around like a bolo. I doubt many SF readers were upset with him for taking the time to do so. Enjoying the descriptions of such technological strategies is part of the joy of SF. Writers are told that if they tell rather than show, readers will lose interest. That’s only true if what you have to tell them is of low interest. Tell them something fascinating occasionally, and they will love you for it.
3) Don’t forget the old standby of comic relief. There’s a reason Una O’Connor appears in the films The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein. She allows the audience a moment of laughter amidst the grim suspenseful doings. Unrelieved emotional tension numbs an audience. You can increase emotional payoff in a work’s key moments if you allow your reader to recharge their emotional batteries in between.
4) You can tamp down emotional intensity by reminding your reader that they are reading fiction. In a previous blog, I’ve dealt extensively with postmodernist and metafictional techniques designed to intentionally throw the reader out of full immersion and thus emotional involvement with a text. Authors as diverse as John Fowles, John Barth, and David Foster Wallace have often traded emotional immersion for spectacular intellectual prose fireworks. In theater, Bertholt Brecht advocated the use of distancing effects such as lighting the audience seats as brightly as the stage or breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly. He wanted to inhibit the audience from an emotional involvement with the characters and allow them a purely intellectual appreciation of the systemic wrongs that were causing the characters’ dilemmas. He wanted his audience to act on what they had seen, something that might not happen if they wallowed in emotion as passive escapism or experienced an emotional catharsis that encouraged an acceptance of the status quo.
There are many other techniques an author can use to control the emotional intensity of their work. Sometimes, for the good of the whole, you have to ease back on the throttle. Doing so with artistry and finesse is what good writers do.
Learn more about Mark H. Phillips and his writing here.
Remember that television show called “The Voice”? Each week, talented singers vied for the approval of the judges to see if they had the best voice. If the judges were publishers and editors, and you read a portion of your novel for three minutes, would you be selected the winner?
I just finished reading James Scott Bell’s book on “Voice”—which I highly recommend. The definitions of an author’s voice have always been a bit vague and varied, and no one seems to know how to achieve it. It’s assumed the author’s voice is what makes his or her writing unique enough to stand out in the crowd, but Bell argues the point. He believes “voice” comes from the character in an author’s story, not from the author alone. His formula involves the character’s background and language filtered through the author’s heart onto the written page (or, C+A=P). Thus, “to create a memorable voice, you must first create a memorable character.”
Whether you prepare character outlines or allow your characters to develop on their own (plotters vs pantsers), you need to (1) decide his/her role and manner in life. Bell’s example is “a straight-laced detective on the verge of retirement,” which gives an immediate impression of who that character is in life. Only then do you (2) sketch your character’s physical appearance and (3) his/her background (level of education, where they grew up, their family life, etc.). The fourth thing Bell suggests is for you, the author, to create an event that occurred in your character’s life at a pivotal age that proved so emotional, it has been carried through to the present. That age can be nine, sixteen, or twenty-seven, depending on your character.
The last thing—what your character wants, desires, yearns for, or dreams of—is usually listed as #1 on most character description lists. After scrolling through photos to find one that fits what you see in your mind as that character, Bell takes us back to “voice” with what he calls a Voice Journal – what your character sounds like when he speaks or thinks. He suggests doing what great actors do when preparing for a certain role. They study that character until they feel what that character feels and thinks what that character thinks.
In my drama class in college, the teacher said that in order to be a good actor, you have to believe the lie. You have to become the character you’re playing to such an extent that every person in the audience forgets they’re watching a play or a movie. Daniel Day-Lewis is a prime example of a “character actor” who immerses himself to such a degree that you forget you’re watching Daniel Day-Lewis. Suffice it to say that nearly every movie he’s been in, he’s been nominated for an Academy Award. He not only believed the lie—he got the audience to believe it as well. His voice, his accent, his mannerisms, his beliefs became embedded in that character. In comparison, take Robert Redford (forgive me, Redford fans). He’s a good actor, but every movie I’ve seen him in, he was Robert Redford playing a character. He never quite got over himself enough to become that character.
I think this is what Bell is saying when he urges the writer to filter the character, his/her voice, background, and beliefs through your heart (as a writer) while finding something to relate to in your character’s background, something that will make you feel what they feel. As humans, we all have the same basic emotions—fear, jealousy, rage, rejection, joy, and love. We use the same gestures and much of the same language. Find it in yourself and bring it to the surface in your character. For instance, Nora Roberts has one voice for her romance novels and another voice for her J. D. Robb novels.
What does Bell see as your number one priority? It’s not worrying about your voice, your critics, or your audience. It’s writing with joy. When you write with excitement, it comes through. When you love words, it comes through. Write first. Edit second. Be emotionally engaged, and enjoy the ride. Bell quotes the beginning scene in Romancing the Stone. As Joan Wilder types the final scene of her novel, she’s weeping. Real conflict, real emotions = voice.
There is so much more in this slim little volume called “Voice,” but I wanted to touch on the major points in case, like me, you’ve wondered how on earth to find your voice. It’s there. You just have to look inside.
Learn more about the author at http://cadenstclaire.com.
By Laura Elvebak
With the stay-at-home orders from the pandemic, my first thought was, “Now I have plenty of time to write that short story and the new Niki Alexander mystery as well as blog every day.” Instead, interruptions gave me an excuse to mute my good intentions. At first, my part-time job cashiering at Petsmart took me away from home and left me too tired to think about writing. Now my hours have been cut to four a week, if that.
More time to write. Right? Except I couldn’t force myself to sit my butt on the chair and crank out words. I found every excuse not to write. There were long-neglected projects to fill my time. I cleaned every room in the house, though I only had the energy to do one room a day. The next project was finding albums and filling them with all my stored photographs that have languished away. There were books on my table half read.
But the project that finally grabbed my attention and time, to the point of obsession, was the box of letters I recovered from the obscurity of an ignored cupboard. They were sent to me by my father’s widow after his death. Now the excuse of the pandemic offered me unlimited time with a history I had not explored. A chance to know the mother I barely remembered, the distant father of my youth, and the love that produced me. I had put off this journey into the past long enough.
My father and mother were married October 17, 1941 in Los Angeles. They had an unforgettable romantic honeymoon in a mountain hotel, and spent three months in wedded bliss in their little apartment. He worked during the day for an insurance company, she as a dental assistant. Together always when they weren’t working, they filled their nights wrapped in each other’s arms. (This was recalled ardently and frequently in his letters.) They were two people deeply in love and planning a life together.
Then came the call of the draft and my father was duty-bound to serve his country. He was determined to be the best soldier he could be and make his wife proud. They didn’t know it at the time, but Mother was already pregnant with me when he left. I arrived August 25, 1942, while he was in basic training at Camp Grant, in Rockford, Illinois. Despite his requests for a furlough to be with his wife for the birth of their daughter, his superiors and even his health had different plans for him. Surgery to repair a ruptured hernia was held in the army hospital following by six weeks recovery time. War in Europe cancelled many furloughs. Not until January 1943 were they able to spend time together and for him to get acquainted with me. Eventually he was transferred to the Medical Corps in Nashville, Tennessee, where he served as a medic technician and then as supervisor over the lab.
Their letters contain a love story that transcended time, war and death. Written with the passion of newlyweds, they covered the years from January 1942 to December 1945 and recounted the hardships of separation during wartime. Fortunately, my father was never sent overseas to fight, and wrote my mother every day during basic training and throughout his transfers that ended in Nashville. He only missed days when he was too exhausted from working day and night.
The letters were the only way he knew to be close to his beloved bride and if the mail from her didn’t come for a day or more, he would grow deeply despondent. They shared their thoughts, their plans, their money worries and, most of all, their love and desire to be once again reunited as a family. He was so proud of her, as a wife and as a mother. He loved hearing how she took me to the beach and the park and read to me, teaching me at an early age to count and know my alphabet.
They both smoked cigarettes. Even when he was recuperating in the hospital from his hernia operation, he smoked to relieve the boredom. On the other hand, he cautioned his wife about smoking in the house around their daughter.
He described marching for hours in the snow day or night, marching or building tents in the summer heat and humidity. It was an adjustment from growing up in Los Angeles with the mild weather. There was always the worry about money – he sent most of his $32 a month pay to my mother and made sure she got the allotment checks she was due. He worked hard to reach the stripe of sergeant for the increase in pay.
I loved reading of their constant affirmation of their love. Little things, like Mother sending him homemade cookies, cakes, stuffed dates, darning his socks he’d sent her, reassuring him of her love in return. The few furloughs he got, he spent with her and me. If he couldn’t get off base, Mother would travel anywhere to be with him. Although she returned to her home with family in North Dakota for my birth, she quickly returned to Los Angeles within three months to be with my father’s folks, even if it meant hitchhiking a ride with truckers.
My father was finally honorably discharged in December of 1945. Tragedy struck three years later when my mother died of cancer. I was five years old. As I reflect back on those times, I can’t help wondering how my life would have been different if she had lived.
I’ve been asked if I plan to use these letters as research for a book. I’ve thought about it, but this blog may be the only way I can write about them. I treasure the photographs relatives have sent me, taken during this time and I have filled albums with them.
Here is one of my favorite pictures.
Laura Elvebak is the author of the Niki Alexander Mystery series, three standalone novels, and multiple short stories. Her latest short story, Sucker Punch, was selected for publication in The Final Twist Writers Society anthology, Menu for Mayhem.
by Cash Anthony
We’ve all known of stay-at-home writers. They may not have identified themselves as that, but many fine authors and poets were moms staying home to take care of their children, finding time to write whenever they could. House husbands have been writers: Clive Cussler told how he got his start, writing at night while his wife was at work, after he gave their children supper and put them to bed. Many famous male authors stayed at home once they were willing to commit to their writing and give up their day jobs, enduring their share of months without income or relying on family, friends, patrons, and sometimes other writers’ generosity to get by until their writing provided an income.
So, what to write about now? How do we find something inspiring that doesn’t simply reflect the grim reality sweeping around the world?
This period when our nation is fighting a pandemic provides a rich source of material, and not just from the drama of those with positive diagnoses scared half to death, or those in ICU fighting for their next breath.
It’s also a time when emotions are high, and those are the stuff of ‘material’. Certainly there’s fear, both among the general population and especially among health care workers. But there are other emotions, too, generated by this time but not directly related to getting sick.
For example, young children are bewildered. They don’t understand why they can’t have play dates or use the fixtures installed in the park, if they even get to go there. A program on NPR this week discusses attempts to explain a pandemic to children on the autism spectrum. Not only are children perplexed, but their parents may well be uneasy and frustrated, yet trying to be protective, when giving these kids some kind of explanation they can absorb.
Teenagers are usually highly social humans, learning to take their cues from their peers and oriented toward wanting to belong, even while wanting their independence. Foolish and irresponsible teens have been shown on the beaches of Florida and Gulf states, partying in denial of the dangers of close contact. But others–far more, in fact–decided not to celebrate and instead are manning food banks, Meals on Wheels, restaurants needing drivers, curbside delivery volunteers, and their sewing machines as they learn how to make masks. Seniors, whether in high school or college, are uncertain about their futures and how they’ll reclaim their grade point averages, how admissions committees are going to rank them, how employers will look at their transcripts when the last semester of their education shows only pass-fail grades. This uncertainty is a crucible for hot tempers, despair, lashing out…the sort of emotions that engender arguments that turn into fights, slamming doors, aggressive driving.
Beyond explaining to young people what the pandemic is and why their movements are curtailed, parents are also struggling to home-school and entertain their children. If a parent doesn’t understand the material himself, this can bring up a barely disguised sense of inadequacy and even shame. Whatever the reason for not going forward to a higher rung of education–poverty, lack of emotional support in their own youth, indifference, boredom, failure to apply timely or uncertainty about how to gain entrance to an institution of higher learning–these situations can play on an adult’s sense of competence.
And there’s the consequence of isolation. Many writers know not merely solitude but also loneliness in the best of times. There was always plenty of fear here. Is my work good enough? Is this draft really better than the last one, or was I wasting my time trying to improve it only to make it worse? Who wants to read this stuff, anyway? Where is the support of my peers that might ease some of this concern, or don’t I deserve it? Where in the world can I buy a webcam and have it today, when they’re sold out everywhere? For while I’m holed up struggling to put words on the page, I’m missing out on the social network that I find so inspirational in creating characters, having to extrapolate from emotional scenes I remember, or imagining the worst reactions of others to a steady diet of bad news and worsening statistics. Humans not only live in social environments for convenience and mutual aid and protection, they crave all the other benefits that satisfy their animal needs: hugs, pats, squeezes of their hands, strokes, sex, and the stimulation of non-physical connecting. They want to share comforting words and ideas, and they want to know what other people are doing. Gossip, bragging, sarcasm, subtext–these are indirect ways of expressing hostility, which may be more palatable than outright arguing when living in close quarters with people who will quickly let them know the consequences of lashing out.
Finally, there’s the other side of the coin. That is, positive emotions. We still see them expressed, for instance when children get to play outside. The normal running around, chasing each other, making mud pies, collecting bugs, helping in the garden, riding their bicycles and skateboards give them some welcome excitement, exercise, and fascination. For adults, the taste of take-out from a favorite restaurant can inspire extra delight as a change from home cooking, even when it’s eaten without waiter service, over the sink. Liquor stores, which only the city of Denver foolishly attempted to close down (to massive protests) at a time when bars and clubs are shuttered, are still open locally and fully stocked, as are gun shops if your interest runs that way. Adults can also enjoy comedies and comedic moments in their favorite dramas on TV or in movies. Even without a live audience, some comedians are capable of giving us laugh-out-loud moments.
This past week, John Oliver presented one of the most unusual bits I’ve ever seen on TV: showing a set of extraordinary watercolors that were sold on a 1992 TV art auction in south-central Pennsylvania. He was so taken with the last piece that he put out a plea to his audience to find the person who bought it then, so he can buy it now to hang on the wall behind him while he broadcasts from home.
What could inspire this offer? RAT EROTICA! by a “furry artist” named Bryan Swords, of York–aptly nicknamed (I’m not making this up) Biohazard. If you watch the last seven minutes of the March 29th episode of Last Week Tonight, starting at minute 20:51, you’ll be at least amazed if not highly entertained. https://tinyurl.com/ttl9mgw. You’ll have to wait through the first commercials before you can advance your cursor toward the end of the show, assuming you want to get away from Coronavirus news; and unfortunately the Internet version keeps trying to skip to other ads toward the end, but don’t touch your cursor. After a short break, Last Week Tonight will continue on its own to the end of the show. So, persevere.
I wasn’t guffawing, but I certainly grinned more than I ever have listening to Dr. Tony Fauci.
Stay safe, write at home but try not to stress if you don’t feel productive–and if you need material or just inspiration, you can write about what you wouldn’t expect to see on TV, when it suddenly pops up.
Cash Anthony is an award-winning Houston screenwriter, author, editor, and director for stage and film. Her short stories have appeared in A Death in Texas, Dead and Breakfast, A Box of Texas Chocolates, Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks, Underground Texas, and Deadly Diversions. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.
by Jack Strandburg
First, for those writers and wannabe authors who might not know the difference between a plotter and a pantser:
Plotter – plans out (outlines) their story before writing. Although this definition from Google states “novel” I substituted “story,” to include novella and short story.
Pantser – flies by the seat of their pants – writes with little to no planning.
I found a documented third type, a Plantser, who writes the story in blocks or stages with varying degrees of planning. This method, one that I’m striving to adopt, is an approach for writers who want to reduce the risk of wandering into plotless ramblings requiring significant rewrite and revision once the first draft is completed.
My journey to “Plantsing” began a month or so ago after some prodding, urging, and insistence from my writer’s group, that I stop plotting and start pantsing. I couldn’t blame them, because they were only responding to my frustration that my plotting approach was keeping me from accomplishing any (and I mean any) writing.
There are plotters and there are plotters. I am (or hope I can now say used to be) the extreme plotter, where I wanted to have my story planned out from beginning to end, with every event in between. Now, I’ve been writing for over 30 years and am experienced enough to know that story and character are more likely than not to change while writing, but I fell into a situation where my plotting was also functioning as procrastination. If I didn’t know my middle, or in most cases, had no idea how my story would end, I convinced myself I couldn’t start the story.
Whether I wanted it or not, plotting became my safety net. If I never started writing the story, I’d never fail, thereby preserving my belief that I was a great writer. Sounds crazy, but I’ve researched enough to know that many writers experience the same emotion and doubt.
I’d been working on a short story for an upcoming anthology, and had the majority of the story plotted out, but couldn’t come up with a satisfactory ending. I had several ideas, but different endings, at least in my mind, meant different steps to that ending. Here again, my need, no, let me be honest – obsession, to have steps A to Z firm in my mind, was keeping me from writing the draft.
One Sunday about two months ago, I and three other members of my writing group met at a friend’s home to discuss one another’s current projects, offer suggestions to help, and more importantly, hopefully provide much needed confidence to actually put our stories down on paper.
The session did provide a measure of confidence and for me, a kick in the butt. During the next week, I decided to go undercover and put on the hat of a pantser, certain nobody would recognize me.
I had enough of a story to start writing, yet still fought with my stubborn plotter mind to ignore the fact I had no satisfactory ending. I plunged ahead and, within two weeks, I finished the first draft of the story. The ending not only evolved with little to no anxiety, hives, or unidentifiable rashes, but to me, was an obvious way to end the story, and in my mind, fit the theme like a glove.
This experience provided me with much needed confidence and armed me with a lethal weapon to combat my plotter approach. I’m not likely to become a true pantser, because I’m going to plot and outline to a degree, especially when it’s a novel or novella, but now I realize I no longer need to wait until I have a flawless beginning, a strong middle, and a rock solid ending before I start to write the draft.
If plotting is keeping you from writing the story, if you have one or more characters with a goal in a location and a situation, ideally a conflict, trust me, you have enough to start writing. And the beauty is, the scene you write doesn’t necessarily need to be the first scene of the story.
I’m now a firm believer in the Plantser method, and only wish I could claim I came up with the term.
Give plantsing a try – you might find it’s in your wheelhouse.
About the author
Jack Strandburg is the 202o president of The Final Twist in Houston, Texas. He is a degreed professional who has been writing since his teenage years. His first published novel by Solstice Publishing is Hustle Henry and the Cue-Ball Kid, a parody of the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
He is an editor and proofreader for Solstice Publishing. Learn about Jack’s editing services here.
by Genie Olson
Editors are often overwhelmed. Imagine a desk and computer with an inbox piled high, filled with a steady stream of submissions. Like any mortal chained to a profession, shortcuts become the saving grace when wading through deep waters. Editors, young and old, develop techniques to quickly filter out manuscripts that will, to be blunt, require too much work.
The author may believe their work is the next best seller and an epic movie deal is on the horizon. It could be true, except . . . rejection.
One reason for a quick dismissal is the silent creep of passive voice. The editor simply does not have enough time or energy to comb through 80,000+ words and rearrange subject and verbs to remove passive voice. The manuscript ends up in the trash heap and the editor is on to the next one.
How does an author avoid this and hopefully gain more time with the editor?
Unless you are an English major and understand the mechanics of diagramming sentences, any talk of objects, prepositional phrases, subjects, and verbs, will likely have you cowering in the nearest corner. So, I’ll do my best to coax you out and teach you to appreciate, and not ignore, your word processor when it underlines passive voice.
What is passive voice? I’m going to give you two ways to identify and ferret it out.
First, it is generally the use of state-of-being verbs. Put simply, the use of the verb was. That said, not every use of was is passive, but it’s a good place to start when editing a manuscript. Conduct a simple search for the word was and evaluate the sentence for passive voice.
Second, look for instances where the subject of the sentence is caught in a prepositional phrase. Remember prepositional phrases from grade school? My teacher used a house as an example. She told the class, you can do it to a house, it’s probably a preposition. In the house. Across from the house. Over the house. At the house. (You get the idea.) A preposition indicates position, direction, or time.
When the subject becomes trapped in the prepositional phrase, the sentence is written in passive voice. In other words, the doer (subject) comes after the verb (action word).
Passive Voice: The test was passed by the student.
Was passed is a state-of being verb. By the student is a prepositional phrase. The test becomes the subject because the student is trapped in a prepositional phrase.
Active Voice: The student passed the test.
The student is now the subject of the verb passed. The doer (student) comes before the verb (passed).
Here are a few more examples of passive voice, changed to active voice. I’ve italicized the subject to show it caught in the prepositional phrase and coming after the verb.
Passive: The files were thrown away by Robert.
Active: Robert threw away the files.
Passive: The holiday dinner was made by grandma.
Active: Grandma made the holiday dinner.
Passive: The decision to run the red light was made by Jim.
Active: Jim decided to run the red light.
Learn to seek out and destroy passive voice to increase your chances of gaining more than five or ten minutes of an editor’s time. This change will make your writing stronger, and the meaning more clear.
A bonus of active voice is that readers tend to identify more with the subject. Consider the last example. How many of us have been in a hurry and run a red light? Did you identify more with the decision (passive) to run the light, or with Jim (active), who actually ran the light? When you read the passive sentence, did you think Jim was foolish? When you read the active sentence did you think, yeah, unfortunately, I’ve done that?
Keep the emotion in your writing, and the editor interested, by making it more active.
2342 Bissonnet Street
Houston, TX 77005
They may even have signed copies of the books you crave.
We Hope to See You Soon .
What has driven this normally quiet, unassuming group into a burst of seemingly blatant self-promotion? Have they lost their collective minds? Has the webmaster run amok? And who thought posting that photo was a good idea? Could it be an abundance of excitement over publication of their 8th anthology? Or is it the thrill of meeting readers at Houston’s Murder by the Book on March 14?
If you don’t yet have your signed copy of Menu for Mayhem, come join the fun. You may also be able to score a signed copy of Denizens of the Dark.
If you are dying to get your hands on signed copies and can’t join us on March 14, you can order your copy in advance by contacting the store.
2342 Bissonnet Street
Houston, TX 77005
Which delicious mystery will you read first?
Texas Chili Cook-Off
Red hot chili fuels this rip-roaring tale.
Explores death and compromise in the hearts and minds of a young girl and her brother in northeast Texas in the late 1950’s, a world that is fast disappearing.
A father and child pursued by assassins. Can Eva Baum save them?
Dying for Corn
Biker and sleuth Jessie Carr is already working a case when she asks her partner, retired Texas Ranger Beau Marsberg, to help an elderly woman wrongly accused of murder in East Texas. Even the sheriff is having trouble figuring out how she did it, since the corn pudding she served the deceased passed all lab tests–but why did the victim want more and more of it?
A Tailor Serves Kyselo
An old Czech man will decide a young thug’s fate the traditional way: with a bullet to the brain or a hot bowl of soup.
Sweet Potato Pie
Serves up a suicide/murder bubbling over with the people and politics of Northeast Texas at a time when oil had a hand in everyone’s life, and sometimes, their death.
What’s a Guardian to do when an unexpected guest views their hosts as a meal?
Hot Mulled Cider
When Emerson’s murderous brother Bryce visits for a holiday handout, Emerson prepares his ultimate reward.
When pro-wrestler Catrina Magdeleine learns she has a half-sister in California, she takes the first plane out of Mexico to protect her from their abusive father. But he’s not the only danger that awaits. Abandoning her commitments in Mexico was bad enough, but involving the Mexican Mafia could kill them all.
Recipe of Doom
Sabatier and Kern must travel to a demon-haunted dimension to save a boy’s kidnapped soul.
An evil mother-in-law, an adorable daughter, and a meddling maid under one roof – what could go wrong?
Full disclosure: This interview is last because it took me the longest to acquire. You might think getting your spouse to sit down and answer a few questions would be an easy task. In our case, you’d be wrong. I’m glad I persisted. I learned a few new things about my husband.
To what do you owe your success?
I live by Sherman Alexie’s advice, “For every page you write, read a thousand.” I’m a narrative junkie and biblioholic. When I can’t find exactly what I want to read next, I have to go ahead and write it myself. I enjoy writing, but I probably enjoy researching even more. For my science fiction novel, The Resqueth Revolution, I researched zero point energy and Nazi secret weapons projects for about six months and then wrote the first draft in just six weeks.
Which of your stories is your favorite?
I think I’d pick “The Fritz Ritz” in the Final Twist anthology, Underground Texas. It’s about a murder in a WWII POW camp in Fredericksburg, Texas. I enjoyed researching the history of the camp and read several journals by guards and German prisoners. I wrote the first draft in a little bed & breakfast in Fredericksburg to get the feel of the place. I also enjoyed researching and writing “In the Darkest Deep” in the anthology Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks. It’s a suspense story set in the abandoned tunnels of the Superconducting Super Collider near Waxahachie, Texas. I got to research illegal urban exploring and tunnel hacking and combine it with my experiences with SCUBA diving.
What are your top 3 short stories of all time?
“The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft. I took a half year and read S. T. Joshi’s excellent H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, simultaneously reading everything Lovecraft wrote as it came up in the context of his life. Cursed books of eldritch knowledge, unspeakable cosmic horror: what could be more fun?
“A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman. Now take the Cthulhu Mythos of Lovecraft and have a master storyteller like Neil Gaiman combine it with Sherlock Holmes. Oh, and it won the Hugo award for best short story.
“Glacial” by Alastair Reynolds. I like my SF hard and as cold as space itself.
You’ve also published two novels. Do you prefer writing novels or short stories?
Each has its attractions. With novels I enjoy the room to explore themes, develop characters, and layer complexity into the plot. With short stories I enjoy the challenge of having to attain a laser focus on just the essential elements. Of late I’ve been experimenting with flash fiction of under a thousand words. I’ve also been trying out rarely used story structures: I just finished and submitted a story for an upcoming Final Twist anthology that uses a serial point of view structure I’ve only seen once before in Theodore Sturgeon’s Godbody.
Your Eva Baum novel was published in 2008 as “the first in a series.” It received great reviews. One reviewer said the book was better than sex! Will we ever see a second book? What has Eva been up to for the past decade?
There is a second Eva Baum novel written, but not yet edited or published. I particularly enjoy writing about Eva because I get to write her exploits in collaboration with my brilliant wife. While fans of Eva have had to wait for the next novel, Eva short stories have been appearing regularly in the Final Twist anthologies. I’m extremely happy with the way Eva has developed in the short stories, but we’re going to have to get the next novel out there because it contains some startling and dramatic changes in her life.
In addition to the short story singles shared above, you can find Mark’s stories in these anthologies from The Final Twist:
One last question – who is the love of your life?
My wife, Charlotte, but I would vastly prefer she stop quoting that review about my writing being better than sex.
On that note, feel free to use the comments to ask your own questions of Mark H. Phillips.
Today’s question for our readers: When Is Severe Biblioholism a Bad Thing?