Hello again everyone! Its been too long since the last issue of the Writer's Circle. Mostly my fault, but what can I say...
My bumper sticker on my car says it all. “I had a life, but my job ate it!” Anyways, I thought I'd make up for lost time with this post. I've pulled an article from the September 2009 Issue of The Writer
magazine that I have found particularly helpful with my science fiction writing. Its called “11 Rules for writing short science fiction.” First I've posted all eleven rules as written in the article. Following the article, you can find my take on how we can tailor the eleven rules to writing 40k fan fiction. Please enjoy, and please comment on anything that you see fit.
11 Rules for writing short science fiction
a veteran of the genre tells you what you need to know about crafting and selling stories fro an audience 'looking to get amazed.'
by: Terry Bisson
Who writes short stories these days? Who reads them? Or, more to the point, who buys them? Nowadays it seems that they are mostly penned by applicants for MFAs, read by their friends or competitors, and published in small literary journals. And paid for with free copies.
It wasn't always thus. Once there were plenty of short-fiction markets, from The Saturday Evening Post to Redbook, and a sale often brought enough to buy a new, not a used, car. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Irwin Shaw weren't writing short stories for the reviews or for their pals. They were in it for the money.
Today, unless you are a major literary star, it's hard to even give short stories away. That's the bad news. The good news is, there is still a lively commercial market for short fiction, open to newcomers as well as grizzled pros, left over from the pre-TV pulp days when digest-size magazines were printed on rough newsprint, sold for pennies, and read by millions.
If you are one of those authors interested in a commercial market (and why not!) where writers get paid for spinning stories that are read not by other writers (or worse, instructors) but by actual flesh-and-blood readers, you might try writing short science fiction. Just remember that although sci-fi has some similarities to the mainstream or literary short story – and even more similarities to the other genres – it also has important differences.
Here in no particular order are a few pointers, suggestions and guidelines for writing salable science fiction. (Like the famous amp in This Is Spinal Tap, they go to 11.)
1: Meet your readers expectations.
The Western reader wants horse, hat and gun. The mystery maven expects a murder or, at minimum, a misdemeanor. Romance requires a kiss. The science-fiction fan's literary needs are less specific but just as essential: He expects – indeed, demands – a cool, interesting or (at the least) new idea. Sci-fi readers may think they are reading for story, but they're not. They're looking to get amazed. Sci-fi appeals to the reader's sense of wonder, as the critics put it – an imagination excited by encounters with other worlds and other realities, whether it's the landscape of a far planet or the perils of the near future.
2: Know, and generally stick to, the genre rules.
If a pill or chip makes your narrator immortal, it's science fiction. If it's a potion or wand, it's fantasy. Fantasy is about magic, and most often the past, whereas science fiction (as the name implies) is about technology and its promises and problems. If you want to mix them up, know what you are mixing. If the reader things you don't know what you are doing, she won't follow more than a few steps into the story. Yes, rules are made to be broken, but if you want them to snap cleanly, you have to know them first.
3: Come up with a spectacular idea above all else.
A fantastic concept is more important than plot and characterization. The characters in sci-fi exist primarily but not extensively to dramatize the idea. They are not the point of the story; the idea is. Of course, you want your characters to ring true, but don't overdo it. As for plot, its only there to propel the reader through the story so she reaches the idea. I have written and sold sci-fi stories without characters and without plots (for example, “Corona Centurion FAQ,” a faux infomercial for an artificial heart), but no one has ever successfully peddled a sci-fi story without an idea. (Now that I think of it, there is a character in my story – the reader!)
4: Develop your idea fully.
A device such as a warp drive, is not an idea. A warp drives that carries you back to a place before you started is an idea that will put your characters to work. A toy from the future is not an idea. A sex-dimensional toy that teaches kids now not to get along in school or even in this universe is an idea (check out “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” Lewis Padgett's classic about an educational game gone wild). The idea has to contain a conflict that demands resolution. There's a reason they call it speculative fiction, and it's not just because they are too polite to call it sci-fi. It's because the what-if is the why.
5: Put readers to work playing.
The Sci-fi reader brings a gamer's intelligence to the story. This is the sci-fi writer's great – some would say her only – advantage. Use it. Think of your story as the controlled release of information. Let your world, character and conflict emerge in a series of scenes, not all at once. Don't give the game away too soon. The sci-fi reader is not your ally but your opponent and adversary. Think of your story as a contest in which the reader is pleased only if he loses.
The stranger the world the weirder the characters, the more outrageous the idea, and the cleaner and more transparent your prose must be. Experimental writing is for mainstream fiction. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce wrote about everyday life. The sci-fi writer's job is not to make our world deliciously strange but to make our strange world believable. This applies to point of view and timeline as well as diction. Mainstream writers often play with timeline and POV. Don't do this. One POV is enough. One flashback is more than enough.
7: Learn from historical novelists.
They face the same problems as the sci-fi writer. The historical-fiction writer doing medieval Paris has the same central task you have in doing 23rd-century Chicago. Your characters are not walking around in the same world as the reader, so you have to work a little harder. Read Cecilia Holland or Dorothy Dunnett. Be careful not to give readers descriptive clutter. You don't have the space in a short story, and a holographic bouquet or a pair of memory-shoes can suggest a world. Think of it as art direction.
8: Keep your world consistent.
Sci-fi is not magical realism, which delights in surprise and shifting realities. Make your reality consistent with your central idea, and make your world consistent with a plausible, if not strictly possible, future. If your character is wearing a space suit, her cat must, too.
9: Make your dialogue do triple duty.
Dialogue is about information, so have dialogue reveal something about the character, the world, and the story. “I know he's a robot, but he's my ex, and he's not coming to the wedding.” Small talk in sci-fi is like carbonation in wine. It detracts.
10: Don't explain.
That the dolphins reported to the admiral is enough; that they were working for the Navy is best left unsaid. It's what's left out that puts what's left in at work. This applies to jargon as well. It only works when it doesn't have to be translated. Ten four.
11: Forget looking for an agent.
They don't like to bother with short stories, but that's OK. Science-fiction editors actually read their slush. They are looking for new ideas and new writers. (They have a curious desire to survive.) Don't worry about the cover letter. No one cares if you have been published in this, that or the other. If they are sci-fi mags, editors will know it; if they aren't, they won't count.
As I alluded to earlier, they don't teach genre in most MFA programs. They actually discourage it. But if you decide to get serious, check out Clarion and Odyssey, boot camps for sci-fi recruits. If you can afford a few weeks of hard-core workshopping (and at least a couple of grand), you will graduate with a new pack of friends, a new kit of skills, and an insider's track on the biz—a pole position in fact, as one or two grads almost always hit the mags within a year.
Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction, the still honorable pulps, are the top markets, paying anywhere from 5 cents to 9 cents a word. Strange Horizons is the best paying online market at 5 cents a word, as of this writing. Others come and go. Rake the Internet.
Meanwhile, maybe it's best if you think of my 11 pointers as rules. That way, you can break them with some satisfaction. And don't say I didn't warn you: Getting paid, even a few cents a word, is intoxicating.
[Sci-fi author Terry Bisson, winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, is known mainly for his short stories, which include the Internet favorite “They're Made out of Meat.”]
Alrighty, lets take a look
at each one of these rules. How can we tailor them to those of us who write Warhammer and Warhammer 40k. Most things are relatively similar in form and function. However, tweaks are in order.
1. Meet your reader's expectations.
This is true for all writers. Especially those who have to impress a well-versed audience like those readers of Fantasy and 40k. Like the article said;
The Western reader wants horse, hat and gun. The mystery maven expects a murder … Romance requires a kiss.
This is equally true for Fantasy and 40k readers. They expect cool characters, and interesting plot, and some kick but action. After all, that is what Fantasy and 40k is all about. Examples of characters being Honzou, Ibram Gaunt, Uriel Ventris, Lucian Vicarus, Malleus Bulous and many more. You have to write what the readers know. They have an expectation of what Fantasy and 40k should be like, and they are looking for such expectations to be fulfilled.
2. Know, and generally stick to, the genre rules.
This is very important when writing Fantasy and 40k. Now, I can't speak for Fantasy, as I don't write it, but 40k I am well-learned. Example; as a given, Space Marines can't fly, unless in a vehicle or wearing a jump pack, and even then, only for short periods of time. Tactical Marines use mainly bolters and are quite skilled in a group. Whereas an Assault Marine will wear a jump pack and stick to mainly close combat. Imperial Guardsmen stick to Lasguns. You can't give him a bolter and send him on his way. Sure, he can pick one up from a fallen Marine, but you can't start him out with one and just say, “oh, well thats what he was issued!” No, the Munitorum issues standard pattern Lasguns to all Guardsmen. Not Bolters. Those are just the rules.
3. Come up with a spectacular idea above all else.
There are so many things that can happen in the Fantasy and 40k universe that there shouldn't be any problem finding a great idea to run with. If you do have an issue finding something to write about, just pick up a codex. It has many stories that could be elaborated on. Take the 5th Edition rule book for 40k as an example. There is a timeline of events about halfway through with some very vague entries in it. Try formulating a story around one of those events. Who knows, you may be able to run with something.
4. Develop your idea fully.
like the article says;
The idea has to contain a conflict that demands resolution.
This is very true. If your idea is the Tau are assaulting a signal outpost on a strategically vital Imperial world, you must either have the defenders win or the attackers. There is no tangent off to another story without resolving the conflict. Especially when it comes to short fan-fiction stories. Finish what you have started. Thats what readers want, a story with an ending that has an outcome. The outcome doesn't have to be decisive, but it has to be the END!
5. Put readers to work playing.
As the article points out, don't give the outcome of the story away right away. Like any RPG, make the reader play through the game all the way before revealing what is going to happen at the end. Have them experience the conflict from both sides. Perhaps even throw a curve ball at the last minute. Example: A Legion of Chaos Marines is attacking an Imperial Guard held stronghold and it looks like they have the fight won, however the Guardsmen stage a miraculous comeback at the last minute by assassinating the leader of the CSM forces. (this is just an example.) As stated, this is something that the reader never saw coming. Keep them in the game until the very end and the WHAM-O! Upset!
Fantasy and 40k writers wont particularly have to worry about this. We're not pitching a new idea to a new audience. We don't need an explanation about what a bolter is, we already know what it does, and how devastating it can be. However, when Back To The Future came out, none of us had an idea what a “Flux Capacitor” was. So it needed an explanation. It was a brand new idea. Bolters and chainswords are nothing new to 40k readers, so they don't need to be told what they are and how they work. Keep the explanations to a minimum and your story will turn out great.
7. Learn from historical novelists.
This rule doesn't apply as much when writing for a Fantasy or 40k audience. If you were writing standard science fiction and not something from the Warhammer and 40k universe, it makes sense. But not here. The only thing that really applies here is the “learning form other authors” part. If you read other Fantasy and 40k novels, it will help you get a feel for the style of writing. Read many different authors and many different races to help get a feel for the genre.
8. Keep your world consistent.
This is hard to do when it comes to 40k and Fantasy. Each imperial world is potentially at a different place in the timeline. Some may only be nomadic in nature, while others will be hive planets with trillions of people. Although the societies and customs may be different, it is safe to assume that the physics are all the same. We try not to say that the gravity on one planet is exceedingly different from that of another planet. For the sake of fluidity, we try and keep most aspects of various worlds the same. Sure the time/length of day may be different based on the rotation of the local sun, but you will have that issue with any planet that you attempt to write about. In most instances, we try to associate a planet with one aspect of our actual Earth. For instance, if you have an Ork held world that is very humid, we try to model it after tropical regions of the Earth that we live on. With tropical flora and fauna. Likewise, we describe desert worlds with the same words we describe the deserts on earth. Industrial worlds, we like to describe as 19th century Chicago with smog and other pollutants thick in the air, spewing from hundreds of industrial smoke stacks. Rife with manufacture, these worlds are the most unclean of all. And then there are the urban centers that we describe as hive cities. These metropolis settings are filled with towering buildings of various grandeur. As you can see, when we picture worlds such as these, we conjure up images of out current Earth. In this way we are able to “keep our world consistent.” In other words, its not good to have a world where everything floats and people sleep upside down from free floating beds. We assume that the worlds in 40k all have gravity that keeps us grounded.
9. Make your dialogue do triple duty.
There isn't anything else that I would suggest you change to fit Fantasy or 40k. What is said in the article is spot on, even for our type of writing. Since the stories are normally short, it is good to have concise dialogue.
10. Don't explain.
Once again, not much in your story needs to be explained to Fantasy and 40k readers. Most will already know everything and are simply looking for a new story. They don't need to know that cogitators are like computers and display information for each crew member on the bridge of the given Battle-Barge or Imperial Navy ship. They already know what they do, don't explain it. Example:
Originally Posted by Commissar Ploss
“Admiral Merris checked his personal data-slate, a tablet-like unit that displays troop availabilities and different status messages from the ships sensors, to see how many troops were available for launch. He could see that he had 50,000 troops loaded into their drop ships and ready for deployment. The drop ships will shuttle the troops from the Frigate, down to the planets surface where they will be unloaded and ready to fight.”
“Admiral Merris checked the status of his troops via his personal data-slate. He had 50,000 Guardsmen loaded and ready in their drop ships. He shouted commands to his lieutenants, who pressed the appropriate buttons on their cogitators. Admiral Merris looked back to his data-slate and saw the green “Approval” button. He pressed it firmly and drop ships started streaming from the launch bays of the Imperial Frigate docked nearby. He pressed it again and more streamed from his own ship. He turned once again to his lieutenants and said 'Tell PDF command that Imperial reenforcement are on the way.'
the bottom passage is more to the point than the first one. You don't have to explain how things work. The readers will understand and formulate ideas in their own minds.
11. Forget looking for an agent.
Unfortunately for us fan fiction writers, there isn't much chance for our work to get published with a company. GW doesn't really look for fan fiction authors in any other place than their fiction contests that they hold through the Black Library. However, if you think that a story you have created has a shot at catching their eye and getting published, by all means, submit it to their contest. But for the rest of us, the only 'publishing' we'll get is here at Heresy-Online. Which isn't bad at all! It allows you to get feedback and has a dedicated readership with more people viewing different posts each day! Here you have a great shot at your work being seen as well as being read. So keep up the great writing and I hope to see everyone with a new piece soon! I read your stories so you at least have one person. Lol
So hopefully this issue of the Writer's Circle has been a helpful one for you. I know its taken me a while to post a new one, but life tends to get in the way. Look forward to more Writer's Circle posts in the future! And please feel free to comment on this and any Writer's Circle Issue that has come before. They are all open for conversation! And I encourage it!