I was going to do this as a Twitter thread, but then I realized it’s too meandering for that. It started with this:
I was about to use the line “ours not to reason why” in my latest project, but then I realized I referenced “Charge of the Light Brigade” in both “Start of the Majestic World” and “The Directorate.” On second thought, maybe I’ll skip it.
Then I realized that the references to Tennyson’s poem come in the scenes I blogged about here–scenes that already had bothered me with their similarity, until I realized the one in The Directorate is way, way better than the one in Majestic World.
I have to be honest with you guys: I look back at The Start of the Majestic World and it seems pretty amateurish to me. There are elements I like (obviously) but the book as a whole I think isn’t nearly as good as I could do now. I toyed with the idea of doing a revised version last year, but I couldn’t figure out a way to coherently “revise” it–it was easier to just start from scratch and make up a new story with a similar vibe. (It’s called 1NG4.)
I’m greatly improved as a writer since Majestic World, which on balance makes me happy-–it feels good to know that you’re improving at something. But this leaves me conflicted about whether to even keep it up for sale. Part of me feels self-conscious about leaving something that’s not really my “A” game out there for sale. (It was my 2014 self’s “A” game, but not up to 2019’s standard.)
But I’m also sentimental about it. It was my first real attempt at long fiction, and some of the ideas in it have proven useful for future books. And I really, really appreciate all the encouragement and constructive criticism I got from readers. If not for you folks, none of my subsequent books would have happened. Without Majestic World, there is no Directorate.
I hadn’t re-read The Directorate since about the time I published it, but the other day, I flipped through it to check something about the word count, for comparison to the project on which I’m currently working. I was a little nervous, since the first time I re-read Majestic World after letting some time pass, I was underwhelmed by my earlier work.
Re-reading parts of The Directorate, I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is good! No wonder I worked so hard on it.”
I’m not saying that to brag; I’m saying it to say that the way to improve as an author is to write, publish, and get feedback from readers. Including–especially!–negative feedback. There may be some things that you look back on and wince a little, but it’s worth it.
I love ship names. I don’t know why, but I get a real kick out of it when writers name their fictional ships. My favorite example is in Robert W. Chambers’s The Repairer of Reputations, when the characters all go out for a walk and see the ships in the harbor of fictional future New York, and Louis rattles off the names of the vessels. I loved that.
I think the reason I’m so fascinated is that every ship name has a story behind it. You see a ship name, and you automatically wonder why it was given that particular name. It’s an implied story all in itself.
This goes for spaceships in science fiction too, by the way. In fact, I might even enjoy those more, because there’s more room for unusual names. I’m working on a story now that has a spaceship in it, and I’ve been struggling to come up with just the right name. It’s an important consideration–the story that the name suggests to the reader will color their perception of the characters who fly it.
Some fictional ship names I like:
Alert–from H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu
Nostromo–Ripley’s ship in Alien
Invisible Hand–General Grievous’s flagship in Star Wars: Episode III
Tempest–Pathfinder Ryder’s ship in Mass Effect Andromeda
PRCS Wall Cloud–a ship carrying a virus in Deus Ex
[Thanks to Lydia Schoch for inspiring me to write this. Be sure to check out her post on fictional romances.]
You’ll notice I don’t often write romantic sub-plots in my stories. I was feeling pretty bold with 1NG4 and included one, but it’s largely implied and in the background of the larger story.
Romance is hard to write. You need characters who work on their own, and also complement one another. It’s about balance. If you get unbalanced characters, it doesn’t work—or at best, it only works as wish-fulfillment for people who want to imagine their perfectly ordinary self being married to a demigod or goddess.
And if you’re writing a story where the romance is the plot, then you also have to come up with some reason why two characters who clearly belong together aren’t. Usually social expectations are the best mechanism for doing this, to the point that it’s a cliché—A can’t marry B because it would violate all of their society’s most sacred traditions!
The problem with these sorts of stories is that too often, it becomes more about the pursuit, and in the process, one character gets reduced to nothing more than a McGuffin that the other character is trying to get. I hate that.
Here are some fictional romances I consider effective. You’ll notice that they are generally sub-plots, or at least not the sole focus of the story.
Evie Carnahan and Rick O’Connell (The Mummy)
This works because it’s pretty well-balanced—Evie’s brains and Rick’s adventuring skills make them a natural team. This is what I mean—if Evie were always a helpless damsel in distress, or Rick were always a big stupid lug, it would be dopey. But as it is, you can see why they would gravitate to one another, apart from “It’s a movie and we need a romance.”
Thomasin Yeobright and Diggory Venn (The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy)
When you read about Return of the Native, 90% of what you hear about is Eustacia Vye this, Damon Wildeve that. I love the book, but as far as I’m concerned, both of them can go soak their heads. Oh, wait—I guess they do. Sorry if I spoiled this 141-year-old book. Anyway, what I like about the book is Venn’s loyalty to Thomasin, and his (admittedly credulity-straining) adventures as the almost super-human “Reddleman” looking out for her.)
Miranda Lawson and Commander Shepard (Mass Effect 2-3)
Am I the only person who doesn’t hate Miranda? I might well be. Most players find her stuck-up, but I like her. Maybe part of it is that because ME 2/3 built up Commander Shepard as this awesome hero, and Miranda seems like the nearest thing to his equal in a universe that otherwise regards him as something close to a God. She saved his life, and she’s genetically engineered to be perfect, so shecan meet him on even ground. I like that. I don’t see an equivalent romantic interest for female Shepard.
But maybe it’s just my fondness for Australian accents that’s making me biased here.
Honorable Mentions: Unrequited Romances
I started out to make a list of good requited romances, because those are harder for me to write than unrequited ones. But that’s not to say that an unrequited romance can’t make for a good story, because it absolutely can. In fact, the advantage of these stories is that they have conflict inherent in them, as opposed to having to be introduced externally. So, here are some good ones:
– The Atris/Jedi Exile relationship in Knights of the Old Republic II. I talk a little about that here. Actually, KotOR II is brimming with tons of unfulfilled or outright doomed romances. Chris Avellone is great at writing those.
-Elsie Maynard and Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. Just listen to this.
And now, for my favorite fictional romance…
Jane Ballard and Dan Frost (Jane Got a Gun)
Come on, you all knew this would be here. I love this movie, and a big reason why is the relationship between the two leads. The way they gradually rekindle their relationship under brutal circumstances makes for a great story, and the carefree romance of their past contrasted with the grim present is very powerful. True, a lot of what makes it work is the acting as much as anything—the same lines with lesser actors wouldn’t work as well.
I suppose that writing romance for the screen or the stage is easier than writing it in a novel. In a visual medium, putting two attractive people with great chemistry together gets you at least halfway to making the audience to buy in. On the page, though, you have to do a lot more work.
[This started out as a comment on this post by Phillip McCollum. Then I couldn’t post it for some reason, and I realized it was really too long to work as a comment anyway. But you should read Phillip’s post before reading this.]
The big mistake I initially made when I started writing fiction was not doing enough description. I’ve talked about this before, and how it took my friend Pat Prescott repeatedly encouraging me to do more description before I finally got the message.
In my arrogance, I thought that description was boring and a waste of time, and that I was a genius for not doing it. But description isn’t boring—only bad description is boring. Done well, it seems like an integral part of the story.
There are probably other ways that I’ve gotten better at writing over the years, but this is the one that comes immediately to mind. And I want to stress that it was only because I was lucky enough to have a reader like Pat who would tell me (more than once; kudos to him for his patience) that I needed more description. If not for that, I would probably still be blithely bumbling along, writing stuff that contained no description, and thinking I was brilliant for doing so.
The real point here is less about description than about listening. Listen to what your readers tell you. A reader who is willing to comment honestly on your work is the most valuable thing a writer can have.
A.C. Flory wrote a brought up a good point about Theresa Gannon, the protagonist of my book, The Directorate:
“I couldn’t relate to the main character… I simply don’t see her as female… to me, Gannon could be a he just as easily as a she.”
I know exactly what she means. Honestly, I’m surprised more readers don’t mention this, because I feel the same way. There was never much of anything distinctively female about Gannon.
“Well, you’re the one who wrote it!” you are no doubt thinking. “Why didn’t you fix that, dummy?”
Good question. As a male, writing a good female character is something I find difficult, for a number of reasons.
The lazy, quick-fix approach to make a character seem distinctively gendered is to resort to stereotypes. I could have made Gannon interested in things like clothes, or shoes, or something like that. That would be stereotypically feminine.
But I hate stereotypes. It’s not that there isn’t any truth to them; most people are stereotypical in one way or another. That’s why stereotypes exist, after all. But the point of writing fiction is to give people something new and surprising. Stereotypes are, by their nature, not new and surprising but old and familiar. So in general, I think it’s good to avoid them whenever possible when you’re writing stories.
This is another way of saying that it would just feel ham-handed and rather disrespectful to have my space soldier run off to go shoe shopping. Other, more skilled writers probably could pull that off, but I couldn’t.
Writing From A Female Perspective
You don’t have to resort to stereotypes to write plausibly feminine characters, though. You can write plausible, relatable, well-rounded characters who are also distinctly women.
The big problem I see in a lot of female characters written by men is that they tend to be distinctly women first, and characters second. Usually this manifests itself in female characters being preoccupied with sex in one way or another, or else being described largely in sexual terms. I’ve read way too many female characters who seem to exist solely as sexual beings, and it gets tiresome. With Gannon, I consciously strove to avoid this. In doing so, I think I made her too non-sexual, and that makes it hard to relate to her.
The Miranda Lawson Problem
Making a character sexy is a risky proposition. If done right, it can make a character that much more memorable. But more often than not, I feel like the risk outweighs the reward, and you can end ruining a character by trying to sex them up.
Miranda Lawson is one of my favorite characters in the Mass Effect video game series. Part of it is Yvonne Strahovski’s performance (I love Australian accents, OK?), but she’s also a pretty well-written character. She’s been genetically engineered to be the “perfect woman”, and as a result, she feels a lot of pressure to be the best–pressure that sometimes makes her do morally questionable things. All in all, a really good character.
But! There’ s a major “but” here (pun not intended): for some reason, BioWare designed many of the game’s dialogue and cinematic scenes to focus, ridiculously, on her backside. Miranda wears a white catsuit, and the animators missed no opportunity to show her from the back, the most egregious example being a dialogue scene where the view “pauses” there for as long as the player wants until they choose to advance in the conversation.
BioWare defended this by saying it’s part of Miranda’s “character” that she’s genetically-engineered to be beautiful, and supposedly all this was to underscore just how sexualized she was, and how that impacts her personality.
Maybe that was the idea, but it totally didn’t come across that way. It became a running joke by Mass Effect 3 that if Miranda was around, the “camera” had to be positioned behind her. It made her seem less like a character and more like a sex object–which was too bad, because she actually is a good character, and it’s a shame she became the butt of jokes instead.
This is something that’s always bothered me, and what I took away from how Miranda is perceived is that making a character sexy is a very dangerous thing to attempt. It can very easily turn your well-crafted character into a ridiculous figure. I think this is especially true for men writing women.
Mary Sues vs. Competent Men
There’s another common criticism that I’m surprised no one has yet leveled at Gannon, but which I fully expect I’ll hear someday: that she’s a “Mary Sue”. “Mary Sues” are “idealized and seemingly perfect” characters, as Wikipedia puts it. Characters who exhibit preternatural skill in a variety of areas. Such characters seem too good to be true, and as such are hard to relate to.
The term “Mary Sue” comes from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, so this is an issue for sci-fi writers especially. And the original Mary Sue was even a lieutenant, just like Gannon is! So, I probably am guilty of this.
Here’s my defense: there’s another stock character in fiction, referred to as the “Competent Man“. This character archetype is strongly associated with the work of science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who wrote a passage extolling the virtues of having many skills, concluding with the famous phrase, “Specialization is for insects.” His heroes tend to have a wide variety of skills.
And indeed, having many skills is rather key to becoming a hero. Incompetent characters would not be terribly effective at having heroic adventures.
As a few readers noticed, many elements of The Directorate are intended as an homage to exactly the kind of military science fiction that Heinlein pioneered. I think such stories lend themselves to having competent protagonists–after all, usually people who are or have been in military service possess a lot of training in a wide variety of skills.
Have Female Editors
One piece of advice for any men who are writing female characters: make sure you have female editors and/or beta readers. I would never have attempted to publish a novel with a female protagonist if I hadn’t known women who could critique it first. And am I ever glad they did, because their feedback improved Gannon tremendously from the first draft to the one I ultimately published.
That said, there were still times when I would overrule their objections and refuse to modify something. Because, first and foremost, Gannon had to be somebody I understood. If I didn’t do that, I would have no chance of writing her plausibly. So when somebody suggested changing the character in a way that didn’t sit right with me, I would stick with the way I wanted her. I feel it had to be this way, but it’s quite possible this made her less-relatable to everyone else.
As I’ve discussed before, my early writing has been rightly criticized for having too little description. I tried to correct this in The Directorate, and not just in describing the setting–which is essential in sci-fi–but also in how I described the appearance of the characters.
The exception is Gannon. I was deliberately vague about how she looked, because I wanted the reader to project their own image of Gannon. For most of the book, she is the proxy for the reader, and they experience the world through her eyes. My idea was that by leaving her description largely to the reader, they could create their own image of a character they found relatable. (This is something I picked up writing horror: what the reader imagines for themselves is usually way better than whatever you as the author create.)
It’s possible I made her too vaguely-defined, however; and this could make her difficult to relate to.
Creating convincing female characters is one of the biggest challenges of writing fiction for me. I try to avoid obvious pitfalls that I’ve seen a lot of male writers fall into–lengthy descriptions of their anatomy, character traits that are nothing more than clichéd stereotypes–but I’m still not entirely satisfied with what I’ve done so far. The good news is that I can tell I’m improving, and the more I write, the more I feel emboldened to experiment with characterizations, which hopefully will lead to better and more relatable characters.
I hate writing summaries of my books. I’m not sure why it’s so painful, given that, you know, I already wrote the book. The description should just be a condensed version of what I already have. No big deal, right?
Except it’s absolutely excruciating. I’ve often thought I should try to trick beta readers (the ones who like the book, anyway) into writing it for me. Then I can just tweak their descriptions of it, and voila! I’ll have a ready-made blurb.
It’s actually not only for my books, but anything, that I hate writing a summary. For me, the worst part of writing a review is recapping the story. I guess it’s because when you write it, you are just regurgitating stuff you already know. It doesn’t feel productive. It’s like writing a book report in school.
Writing most things is a loose art–you start putting down words and gradually see where they take you. But writing a summary is more like carving something out of marble. You know where you need to go and it’s just a matter of chipping away until you get there. Which feels tedious when you are used to writing in a more natural way.
The most fun ones to write are casual, even humorous ones, where you’re not taking things too seriously. These are most easily done when you don’t like the subject, and want to poke fun at it. That makes this difficult, since authors generally write these things specifically to get people to buy our books–we don’t want to be making fun of them.
But it occurred to me that maybe that is a good clue. For your first draft at writing the summary blurb, try deliberately writing in a super-casual, almost comedic style.
As an experiment, I tried rewriting the description of The Directorate this way. (What I’ve got now kind of makes me wince, even though it was the best I could do at the time) If it were somebody else’s book, and I were describing it to a friend, here’s what I’d say:
“So there’s this woman who’s in the space army, and she’s a big fan of this guy who won this huge war in the past and established the current government where Earth, the Moon and Mars are united. But there are these pro-Earth traitors who are trying to topple the government, and she gets sent to work on a remote station where the government is running secret projects.”
That’s obviously way too informal. But without much effort, I turned it into:
“Lt. Theresa Gannon is a loyal soldier, even as she gradually discovers that there are traitors in the ranks. But when she is sent to a remote station on the edge of Directorate-controlled space, she begins to learn the full scope of what the traitors are planning, and uncover troubling secrets about the Directorate itself.”
I think the latter is better than what I originally had. So I think one good way of writing a blurb is to write it as casually as if you were telling your best friend about the book, and refine from there.
One year ago today, I began work on a sci-fi novel. The day before, I had gone to interview for a job I really wanted. I resolved that I’d either get the job or write a novel, and I figured I’d have about a week to start on the novel before I got a call back.
At the start, I called the file for my novel “SFN” for “Science-Fiction Novel”, because I had no clue what the title ought to be. I’d been wanting to write a science fiction adventure with a space elevator in it since I was 12 years old, and had tried several times before, but never got anywhere with it. And at first, it didn’t seem like this time would work out any better. I remember sitting at my computer, wondering how I was ever going to do this, when inspiration struck.
As a junior in college, I’d had an idea for a completely unrelated story about a soldier named Theresa Gannon. It was set in the present day, and followed Gannon as she tried to cope with some sort of traumatic battle in her past. But again, I never got much beyond an outline of the story and a sketch of the main character. I hadn’t thought about it in years.
And as I sat there, staring at the blank page, I decided to put Gannon in the space elevator story. (Previous drafts had been written from various perspectives, including that of the character who would eventually become Chairman Wilson, as well as various denizens of the space station connected to the elevator.)
Making Gannon the protagonist turned out to be the spark I needed: after that, the story came together relatively quickly. I finished the first draft by early October, and from there started revising based on beta readers’ and editors’ comments. There were a few moments of frustration, but for the most part, it was exhilarating. During those few times when I felt the creeping shadow of discouragement, I reminded myself that Chris Avellone had written Planescape: Torment when he was my age. If he could manage that, surely I could do this.
The end result was The Directorate. That it took pulling together multiple threads of story ideas from my past makes me all the prouder of it. And the fact that I’ve met so many wonderful authors along the way has just made it even sweeter. Thanks to all of you wonderful folks who read the book, follow my work, and provide such terrific feedback and support. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you guys are the best!
Oh… and that job I mentioned interviewing for? I didn’t get it. But I’m not sorry–in fact, I’m glad, because if I had, I would not have finished the book. And you know what? My 12-year-old self would not be remotely impressed if he knew that I got some slightly higher-paying office job. But if I could go back and tell him that yes, we finally did write that story about the space elevator, he’d be absolutely thrilled.
To hear me read an excerpt from The Directorate, click here.
To read reviews of The Directorate on GoodReads, click here.
I was inspired to write this after reading Audrey Driscoll’s post on the same subject. Audrey lists the music that influenced her writing, some of which she worked into her books, and some of which, as she puts it, “lurk[s] unseen, despite its huge influence”. It’s a good post, and I encourage you to read it.
I don’t usually listen to music with lyrics while I am in the act of writing. That would just distract me. Sometimes I’ll put on a little atmospheric instrumental music that suits the mood, but that’s about it.
But as any author knows, writing a book is more than just the time spent hitting the keyboard. You spend most of the time “writing” a book thinking about it, mulling over plot intricacies and character motivations in your head. And then is when what you’re listening to really plays a role.
I didn’t listen to much music for The Start of the Majestic World, but I did listen to quite a bit of the radio show Coast to Coast AM while I was planning it. That definitely influenced the story. A few times while writing, I did cue up the soundtrack to Deus Ex, because that game was just the right vibe of weirdness I was trying to get in Majestic World.
The Directorate also has relatively few musical influences. I listened to “The Captain” by Leonard Cohen almost daily while I was writing it, as well as assorted military songs and marches, including “Heart of Oak” and “The British Grenadiers”, which probably influenced the militaristic tone of the novel.
For my current work-in-progress, I’ve been listening to Western music and soundtracks from Western films. Also, the folk song “The Bonnie Earl of Morey”, which I currently have referenced in the book itself, though I may yet cut that.
For the most part, in all my work, music is a minor influence. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m not very knowledgeable about music, and so don’t think about it that much. I couldn’t write about it the way Audrey does, for example.
But there is one other story I wrote that was much, much more influenced by music than any of the rest. It’s the super-dark tale I alluded to in this post.
First of all, during the process of writing that one, I was listening over and over again to Kay Starr’s performance of “The Headless Horseman” song. It’s a children’s song, so it’s more cutesy than scary, but for some reason it was running through my head constantly when I wrote this book. I don’t know how to explain, but the light-hearted handling of a rather frightening subject somehow fit very well with my mood.
Then, while I was writing the story, a friend played Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” for me. I thought the unnerving blend of romance and death was exactly the sort of eerie dissonance I was going for in my book, so I included a reference to the song.
Coincidentally, on the same album that includes “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, there is also a song called “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” that references The King in Yellow, which was a major influence on my book as well.
But the weirdest part of what was already a surreal writing experience didn’t become apparent until nearly a year after I had already finished writing the story, when I heard the song “The End” by The Doors.
I had heard the beginning before, in the film Apocalypse Now. But when I heard the full, uncensored version, I was immediately stunned by how well the disturbing imagery Morrison used in his lyrics matched the tone of my book. Images and motifs in each fit together eerily well, as did the song’s general feeling of a slow descent into madness. I felt like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell could have had a field day with it.
What about you? When you write something do you listen to music, or otherwise let it influence your writing process? Any examples of a song that really fit your work?
The other day I went to look up the quote about angel food cake from the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the search results, I saw a bunch of study-aid/cliffs-notes style sites addressing the question, “What does the angel food cake symbolize?”
The passage in question is this, when the sheriff is explaining to Atticus why he won’t tell the town what Boo Radley did:
I never heard tell that it’s against the law for a citizen to do his utmost to prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did, but maybe you’ll say it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what’d happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin’ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes.
This isn’t technically wrong, but it’s way too fancy for my taste. Saying that’s “symbolism” is really over-thinking matters. It’s no more a symbol than any other gift is.
I always hated this “what does [x] symbolize?” question, and I think that nine times out of ten, it’s just a subtle way of asking “Did you actually read the book?”
Well, in English Lit class, that’s something the teachers have to establish, so it’s hard to blame them for asking it. But I wish they could find a different way to do it, because symbolism is an actual thing in literature–but it’s not near as commonplace as English classes would lead you to believe.
True symbolism is subtle, and you have to be alert to notice it. The angel food cake in Mockingbird doesn’t “symbolize” compassion, it’s just an instance of it. Any five-year-old kid could tell you that bringing somebody a cake means you want to show your appreciation for them.
Actually, this is not a bad test for deciding whether something is literary symbolism. If a kid could immediately tell you what something “symbolizes” out of context, then it’s not really a symbol.
In Richard Armour’s hilarious satire of literary analysis, The Classics Reclassified, there’s a note on symbolism in Moby Dick (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “The book is full of symbols and allegories. The whale stands for something. The sea stands for something. The reader has to stand for quite a bit, too.” I think this nicely sums up the way most readers feel about books that rely too heavily on symbolism.
Based on this, you’re probably thinking that I hate symbolism. I don’t. I’ve written stories that used symbolism. I just object to the lazy style of literary analysis where everything is a symbol, and a symbol of the most obvious things to boot.
I think we need a better term than “symbolism”. My suggestion is “reinforcement”.
In my opinion, the best use of symbolism in a story is to reinforce the core thematic elements of that story. For example: say you have a story about a guy who goes insane. You might reinforce this by having him look in a cracked mirror that distorts his reflection. It represents his figurative “cracking up” by having him (well, his reflection) literally “crack up”.
That’s just one example. You can use all sorts of things to reinforce a theme—if you write romance, have a rose bush that blooms when the lovers are together and dies when they’re apart. (Yes, I know that’s awfully hackneyed. Now you see why I don’t write romance.)
The point is, all this sort of stuff gets called “symbolism” by authors, literary critics, and academics. But that name is misleading, because it starts artists off thinking about the wrong problem—i.e. “What symbols can I create?”, instead of “How can I reinforce my theme?”
This can lead to pretentious, incoherent art where lots of stuff symbolizes other stuff, but none of it makes much sense or seems meaningful. So instead of asking “What does this symbolize”, lit critics and academics ought to be asking “How does this reinforce the theme?”