Periodically, a friend tells me that he or she knows someone who is writing or has written a novel. It happened last week as I’m sure it happens to most writers. Not that I’m the expert on all things writing, but I’ve navigated the writing world long enough to have an opinion.
So, I had the phone conversation with a young man (son of an old friend) yesterday. I decided to write him a follow up email with a few resources I have appreciated and it made sense to put it into a post. Next time, I can just send the link. Actually…I wouldn’t do that. I would still take the phone call, but it helps to have the information written down in one place.
For the new writer…Here’s my advice:
First, congratulate yourself that you just wrote a novel. That.Is.Amazing. Celebrate and then think like a critic and move on. Try to figure out if this book is what you really want to publish and to the best of your ability, think about whether or not you’re addicted to writing. If you’re not, the road is too hard and very long (for most of us). Don’t keep going unless you know you really LOVE it.
Social Media. You might hate it, but every author has to be on social media. If you want to start somewhere, try Twitter.
On Twitter, connect with and start following folks from the #WritingCommunity. Other hashtags you could check out: #amwritingsciencefiction, #amwritingspeculativefiction, #amwriting, #amwritingfiction. While you’re there you’ll find links to various author websites. Some are way more amazing than mine, others are just a page with a photo and the book cover, with minimal links if any. Begin thinking about your author website. How do you want it to feel? What content, if any, do you want to regularly produce on it?
Find a Critique Group:
It’s great to have beta readers, but it’s even better to find a group of writers, like-minded souls who write and will be willing to read your stuff and give you feedback. I’ve started a number of groups over the years. What I have found is that the most important trait for those in the group is work ethic. If the people aren’t actually writing, then it’s probably not worth your time because A. they won’t submit anything to the group and B. They will be the weakest when it comes to critique. Find people who write and be willing to put in the work for them by being a thorough and honest critic. Work for them and they will work for you. (That’s ideal…always exceptions, but be careful about those exceptions).
Go to Cons (like Emerald City Comic Con or WisCon) and get to know people. You will meet fans and you will meet writers and small publishers. You will make connections and you will have fun. (Photo of Ariel is my daughter, who goes to Cons and always dresses up, mostly not in Disney costumes, but this was the best photo I could find today…plus, it’s bright and cute.)
Books on writing and why I like them:
If you buy one book, I would make it this one. I’ve taken McKee’s class twice (weekend course) and everyone from Pixar would attend in the Bay Area (where I used to live). Screenwriters would fly up from LA to take it in case they had missed the weekend in Southern California. I knew writers who would take it every other year during the time he was touring. He traveled all over the world teaching his course in the 90s and early 2000s. Why? I think he had/has a way of distilling what it takes to tell a great story. It’s less literary and more about structure, the architecture of good storytelling. I refer to this book all the time, also because this was the stuff I never learned in college. For whatever reason, my writing program de-emphasized story structure. Maybe they thought we were smart enough to pick it up, sniff it out and do it ourselves.
*Why don’t I have a photo of this book cover? I have loaned it out…which so many of us writers inevitably do and then regret. That book has escaped my shelves. I have no idea who has it now, so I will probably have to buy it again. DRAT! It’s not cheap!
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. le Guin
This is a short book, but really helpful. UK le Guin is a scifi/fantasy writer, so it’s wonderful to get practical advice from someone who knows the genres we are writing in. She may have the most concise and best definition of point of view and tense that I have read. I highly recommend it and it also comes with exercises.
le Guin has written a wonderful series, 5 fantasy books (long before Harry Potter) about a wizarding school, called
If you don’t want to buy all five, try out the first one.
UK le Guin is one of my heroes. Here is my review of her science fiction book, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, A Book Review
This book (pictured on the top of post) drives home the kinds of techniques that make characters eternal/memorable. It too is practical. The chapter on Protagonist Problems is spot on and one of the best things you can read as a young writer. Corbett captures key mistakes many writers make when crafting characters, especially main characters.
Revising Fiction, by David Madden
A Study of Non-Humanoid Characters
(Beware. A Few Spoilers Below. For a no-spoiler review of the film, ANNIHILATION click here, for a review of the novel, click here )
Since my second viewing of the film, ANNIHILATION, I have been musing on my own sci-fi writing, thinking about how difficult it is to portray non-humanoid aliens in a novel, even more so on the screen or stage. The audience may not ponder this, but sci-fi authors grapple with the problem every time they sit down to write.
If you do a google image search of Star Trek aliens, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Scroll down and down and down to view many colors of skin, odd make up and costumes, but most of the images you see will be faces that look a lot like human faces. In particular, those aliens that become super villains are almost always humanoid…Klingons, for example. Why do Star Trek writers/producers seem to prefer the humanoid alien?
One theory emerges…
When telling stories, facial expressions and body language hold meaning. When my editor asks me to show and not tell in my story, I rely on movement, posture, actions as well as dialogue to show character. So, if my alien is a purple blob that does not speak human language and is flying a space vessel into lower Earth orbit for the first time and feels anxious, how do I show the reader its anxiety? My editor will scold me if I write: The blob creature was anxious as it flew into low Earth orbit? This is an example of telling and not showing. Substandard writing. She wants better and I pay her for that advice…so how does a writer manage? Maybe I decide the blob alien doesn’t have any feelings. It’s machinelike. I don’t need to show anything beyond the flying. That option is backed up by the way human beings often view the other, whether alien or human. That’s how people objectify the other.
It/he or she feels nothing = I feel no connection = I don’t relate = I can despise it, him, her.
The not-feeling portrayal of the alien works sometimes. A number of successful sci-fi stories deliver to its audience the alien as monster, a creature or entity both sinister and destructive. The Thing as well as the first Alien films are good examples. Both follow the script of the haunted house drama. Humans are in grave danger, trying to defeat a monster that has found its way into the sacred living space. It will use up and in the process destroy all the good guys, unless the good guys destroy it/them first. The monster is objectively all evil.
What about non-human characters that might not be all evil? Those are of interest to me as they are to many other sci-fi writers.
Back to the purple blob.
So, how would I portray the anxiety in my blob character? Maybe I show the blob sweating while it nears planet Earth. Okay…that won’t work. How about a trembling blob? Would my audience interpret a trembling blob as an anxious one? For all they know, the trembling is a physical reality of a ship entering Earth orbit. You see the problem, which brings me to R2D2.
R2D2, not an alien but wildly different than a human, holds one answer. Recall a number of Star Wars franchise films. R2’s personality makes his mark in all of them and does so as a non human…How do the writers pull this off? How does R2 connect with the audience, which he does in a big way? (Note: in the Star Wars universe, all droids are programmed male or female. R2 was programmed “male” which is why I use the male pronoun when referring to him.) How do we know R2 has feelings when he can only bleep, squeal, whistle, spin its carapace from left to right, roll here and there and lunge back and forth on his three-wheeled legs? He doesn’t have facial expressions, arms and doesn’t even speak a human language, but the audience, especially children, feel a connection and an affection for this character. Why?
Dig deeper into the screenplay of the earliest film…Notice how humans, Luke and Leah, or another verbal and humanoid robot, C3P0 interpret for the audience what R2’s squeals, bleeps and actions mean. The audience sees and hears C3P0 responding to R2D2 in STAR WARS, A NEW HOPE and comes to understand the determined personality of this character.
Here’s an early R2D2 scene most of us are familiar with…the droids have just crash-landed on Tatooine and are journeying together across the planet’s desert-like dunes.
C3P0: What a desolate place this is…
R2: squeak, whistle
C3P0: Where do you think you’re going? Well I’m not going that way. It’s much too rocky.
R2: bleep, squeak
C3P0: This way is much easier. What makes you think there are settlements over there?
R2: bleep, bleep, whistle
C3P0: Don’t get technical with me. What mission? What are you talking about?
R2: whistle, bleep, bleep
C3P0: I’ve just about had enough of you. Go that way. You’ll be malfunctioning within a day, you nearsighted scrap pile!
R2: (turns to the left and begins heading in a different direction than C3P0)
C3P0: (calls after a departing R2) And don’t let me catch you following me and begging for help because you won’t get it.
Clever writers! This is one way to give that bucket of tin a whole lot of personality…put him alongside another verbal character who will always react emotionally (even though he is a droid, who of us would deny that C3P0 is highly emotional?) and interpret bleeps and whistles for the audience. After a while, the audience doesn’t even need the interpretation. We begin to hear the difference between a happy squeak or whistle and a sad bleep.
Back to the purple blob. If another humanoid is flying co-pilot and happens to speak a human language…now I can have the co-pilot respond to the trembling.
Purple Blob: (trembling as flames erupt around the nose of its space vessel)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: I’ve never seen you tremble before, Sir.
Purple Blob: (squishes 2 hoots and a few groans out an opening on the side of its gelatinous body.)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: Well. I can see why you would be nervous. The gravity on this planet is stronger than we thought, but our heat panels should protect us.
Purple Blob: (squishes out 1 hoot)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: I’m just glad it’s you flying a not me.
That’s it for now. Thursday, I’ll tackle the fantastic aliens in the film and short story, ARRIVAL.