Monthly Archives: October 2015

Allow Your Readers to Suspend Disbelief by Getting the Details Right

We are all familiar with the concept of willing suspension of disbelief. This phrase, coined by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, refers to the reader’s willingness to believe the plausibility of the narrative as long as the plot is pretty much airtight.

This does not refer to the realism of a plot. We may read a book set in a fantasy world featuring a Beast Glatisant and villages that appear only once every hundred years, but we’re willing to suspend our rational minds and accept those elements so long as they are presented with a well-thought-out explanation. Oh, of course, the village disappears as an act of God, or the beast is a Jurassic leftover. Of course, on with the story!

This is all well and good. And often in sci-fi and fantasy works, the science or the fantasy is well thought out and reasonably explained. But many works stumble on the presentation of utterly mundane details.

What do I mean? Here, I’m going to use several television series as my example. In the sci-fi world, Terran explorers often encounter alien species. The aliens are generally well-created, with backgrounds, technology, and cultures viewers can easily accept. But one tiny hitch exists: how are the Terrans and the aliens communicating?

Dominar Rygel XVISeveral series have come up with acceptable explanations for this. Star Trek had its Universal Translator, and Farscape had its translator microbes. Now, if you really start to deconstruct these tricks, you can find issues with them, and many do. But for the most part, you can accept these devices and move on to enjoy the show.

But what happens if you don’t even try to explain away a completely mundane but utterly necessary detail like this? I am thinking specifically of the television version of Stargate. In the movie, Daniel Jackson must learn to communicate with the inhabitants of Abydos. But in the series, this is simply not an issue. Somehow, no matter what planet the team visits, everyone can communicate immediately.

I’ll be honest, this sort of series-long flubbing of a perfectly mundane detail ruined the show for me, and I didn’t watch it after the first few episodes. And in the nerd world, trust me, people are watching for these flubs. They will notice, and they will discuss it online to the death.

Now, you may pooh-pooh some readers’ need for believable detail. And yes, yes, some people (meaning the likes of myself) may be overly obsessed with accuracy. But it’s really not that hard to come up with some sort of technology or device that fixes these insurmountable barriers for you.

Paradoxically, the more outrageous your fix, the less most readers will question it. But have a fix. Please, allow us to suspend our disbelief.

If a Black Cat Crosses Your Path, Pet It: Or, Don’t Rely on Superstitions

As writers, we have the sense that the power in our writing is magic. We don’t think of ourselves as the deliberate, logical creators of the words we write; no, we tend to assume it’s all the work of a fey being whispering the words in our ears. As such, when it comes time to write, we can latch on to superstitions or gimmicks that we think drive the perfect words.

Mostly this happens because when we do, by some mysterious means, manage to write something we think is perfect, we assume something other than ourselves drove the creation. If we used a certain pen to write a manuscript, well, then, it must have been the pen, and we’ll never use another kind. If we were wearing those fuzzy slippers when we wrote that perfect chapter, then they are lucky slippers, and we’ll wear them again next time.

Those, however, are the rather normal superstitions. Others include writing each manuscript in a new spot, or, the superstition goes, the spirits of the last work will interfere with the progress of the new work. Or how about this one: no chapter may have thirteen pages, or the entire work will fail. A pluviophile (someone who loves rain) will only write when it is raining, and one writer had to smell rotten apples while writing.

Certainly, at times, when we are really “on,” the words do flow as if spoken by an unseen force. And at other times, nothing you can do will make the words form themselves the right way. But, though I’m not normally one to knock superstitions (I rather like them), really, it’s not the fetish that’s behind the good parts of your writing. You know what it really is? It’s you.

Yes, horrible and frightening as it is, you and your own mind are the power behind your good writing. The talisman you rely on may, indeed, put you in a mind to write or give you the sense of safety that you need to write well, but believe it or not, good writing can happen without them.

Aleksander SolzhenitsynFor example, when I was in college, I wrote very little. My excuse was that I needed an uninterrupted block of time to write, and with classes, studying, and work, I just didn’t have that time (so I said). I knew this was an excuse, and I finally admitted it when I found out that the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote his work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich while imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag. According to legend, he wrote a few pages each day, memorized what he had written, and then destroyed the evidence.

Well, color me ashamed. If Solzhenitsyn could write while in a brutal prison, I upbraided myself, what’s your excuse?

The fact is, if you are relying on a gimmick to help you write, then you really don’t have faith in your own mind and powers. That’s the real issue with relying on a trick to produce good writing. For the time may come when the pen you love is discontinued, or you may have to move to a desert. Will the writing stop then, or will you learn to rely on your own mental powers? And if you can do it in that circumstance, can you do it now?

Put Muscle in Your Story With Conflict

Today, we’re going to talk about the importance of conflict. The fact is, conflict drives a good plot, and without it, your story has no muscle.

In her book Outlining Your Novel, K.M. Weiland identifies five different types of conflict that you can write into your novel. These are as follows: personality conflicts; unexpected situations; “high stakes”; inner battles; and outer battles.

Personality conflicts, of course, consist not just of the classic struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist, but also all the minor personality conflicts that can ensue along the way. And minor conflicts your protagonist should have in spades – even with those of your characters who seem to be on your main character’s side. If you want your readers to root for your hero, no better way to make that happen than by pitching what seems to be the whole world against him.

Arthur Dent, much bemused by his adventure.Unexpected situations are just that and open the door to new situations for your main character. Perhaps, like Arthur Dent, your protagonist just goes down the pub to have a pint with his friend, only to be whisked away on an intergalactic quest. How could his horoscope have predicted that? Think of the most unpredictable outcome possible for the most mundane of situations – and write it into your plot as a startling twist.

What about high stakes? Weiland explains that when high stakes are involved, a task that otherwise would be doable becomes nothing short of heroism. Suppose, for example, that your hero must simply deliver a mysterious load of cargo to Epsilon Eridani. Easy enough for your dashing, young captain – until he discovers that his cargo is actually the cryogenically frozen Princess Malaguena of the Galeron tribe, and the fate of the entire star system depends on her successful delivery. Your young captain might sweat a bit now, but no reason to stop there – now an entire gang of reivers is after him, determined to kill him, capture Malaguena, and bring about interstellar war. High stakes indeed!

Finally, consider inner and outer battles. Of course, outer battles are easy to plot. Fight through the enemy, scale the castle walls, and behead the evil Lord Ulmar. Those conflicts are a dime a dozen. What’s more intriguing is the inner conflict taking place within the hero or heroine. Suppose the heroine is torn between her loyalty to her family and her loyalty to what she believes is right? Suppose she knows her father is a monster, but she still cannot convince herself to betray him? How strong are blood ties? There you have inner conflict.

All of these kinds of conflict can be present in varying degrees in your work of fiction, and all of them invest readers in the outcome. Nothing is more boring than a novel in which everybody gets along; amp up the conflict, and put muscle in your story.

Guest Blogger: Gre7g Luterman on Borrowed Universe or Fan Fiction?

The interwebs are packed with fan fiction, from vast repositories like fanfiction.net to blogs and even forums. Some tales are brilliant gems to be treasured; some are amusing slash; and yet more are best forgotten.

But what of the authors who wrote the Man-Kzin wars? Or the dozens of books published by White Wolf to prop up its role playing games? Or the hundreds of novels set in the Star Trek universe?

Does Jerry Pournelle write fan fiction?

I’m not certain if fan fiction is a wholly separate category from writing in a borrowed universe (BU), or if one is a subset of the other. However, there’s no question that the two differ. And I don’t mean because one is good while the other is not.

Is it BU fiction because these authors were asked to write in this universe? Or that they got permission first?

Getting permission first before writing in someone else’s universe is always a good idea, but that’s not the only difference. Try flipping through stories from a fandom that you don’t currently follow. You’re liable to find gems such as the following:

“A kunai shot past Sakumo’s head, but Konoha ignored the Iwa nin and hurled a shuriken. . . .”

What does that mean? I haven’t the foggiest. I tried reading some Naruto fanfic once so that I could learn about its massive appeal, but I got tired of having to Google details from every sentence. And that’s when it dawned on me: what differentiates fanfic from BU fiction is that fanfic authors don’t bother explaining the universe. They don’t tell you the limitations of magic, or the history of the conflict, or even the characters’ backgrounds.

A fan fiction writer merely needs to say that Hermione Grainger waved her wand and pronounced the spell with perfect inflection, or that Bella stared lovingly at Edward, or that the lightsaber sliced through the robotic troops without slowing. If we’re in that fandom, then we already get it. We don’t need all the setup, and the author can jump right into the bit that he or she really wants to write.

But is that the sort of tale that you want to write?

BU fiction, on the other hand, stands alone despite its origins in someone else’s universe. These tales don’t typically reuse the original author’s characters or even their settings. They share the history, the larger conflicts, and the rules that the original author set down. They don’t add faster-than-light travel to a universe in which it is impossible or make vampires invulnerable to sunlight when the original author made it lethal.

But they do give you a chance to explore how the world would impact other stories. Perhaps the original author focused on the machinations of royalty in a magical society, but what would life be like for a pauper hero? Perhaps the original author focused on a single character, while you could tell the tale of the wider-ranging conflict.

I strongly encourage you to try writing your own story in someone else’s universe. Take a world that sparked your imagination, discard the characters, and come up with a whole new tale. Don’t skimp on the introduction or the explanations. Add your own color and depth in places that lacked them in the original universe. Write the whole story as if it was your own.

When writing BU fiction, you should feel free to tweak the details of how things work, but try to stay faithful to the bigger framework. Fans of this world will expect a lot, but if you write an enjoyable tale, they’ll forgive the little changes you choose to make.

Yes, you will find it hard or even impossible to sell your work to a publisher. Instead of having hundreds of publishers that you can submit it to, you may find only one. But if you’re not trying to sell your work, then you will find it infinitely easier to find readers with a borrowed universe tale.

The readers are out there, and they always want more than the original author can produce. Writing in a borrowed universe (or even fanfic) is a great way to build a following and lead them to your original fiction.

Perhaps one of these new fans will want to borrow your universe. Encourage them to do so!

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Gre7g Luterman is the author of Skeleton Crew. You can read this BU tale and others on his website at: http://gre7g.com/.

Learn to Make a Mess: On Befriending Your Process

Oftentimes, you’ll come up with a great germ of an idea for a story. You’ll dash off to write it, but when you do, you’ll find yourself meandering, following twists and turns that your erratic right brain dreams up seemingly out of nowhere.

Eventually, you end up with a jumbled mess of a draft—plot twists that go nowhere, holes you forgot to fill in, and characters whose situations you forgot to resolve.

If you’re not the sort of writer who outlines before embarking on a project, you’re almost certain to end up with such disarray. While I could take this opportunity to urge you to outline beforehand (and I probably will at some point), I’m going to give you a different bit of advice.

Getting muddy.That advice is to take heart. When you muck about in a draft, you do, invariably, toss up a lot of mud. In fact, you end up with piles of it. Writing is like that: lots of digging around in the earth and getting yourself covered in ick. But while you do dig up a lot of useless mud, you also inevitably stumble on some gold.

And that’s the whole point of the rough draft—finding the gold. When you get to the end of your draft, and you’ve got a sinking feeling that you’ve got a lot of dren, take the time to go back through what you’ve written. My bet is that pieces of the real story are hidden there in all the garbage.

Those are the pieces you want to keep and stitch together into the story you meant to tell. If you’re really the kind of spontaneous writer who refuses to outline, then this is a process you must learn to embrace. Befriend it. In fact, learn to enjoy the ride. Accept that this is how you write, get out your shovel and work boots, and make a mess.