5 Things Watching Sci-Fi has Taught Me about Writing

It’s no great secret that my favorite genres to read and watch are fantasy and science fiction. I’ve actually watched a lot more sci-fi than I’ve read (unless you count comic books). But anyway, I’m doing this post as a follow-up to last week’s post about things that Star Trek has taught me about writing.

For this post, I’ll branch out, and draw examples from some of my favorite sci-fi TV shows ever: Babylon 5, Stargate (all the series, but mostly SG1), and Star Trek (all the series, but mostly TNG). And don’t worry if you haven’t seen all or any of these – my point is to illustrate how good writing is good writing, regardless.

Consistency in world-building is vital to believability

This is the most important thing that I’ve learned about writing. Whether you’re writing sci-fi or a YA contemporary romance, a short story or a 10-novel series, you must be consistent within the world of your story. Consistency helps create credibility and believability, even with a fantastical subject matter. In Star Trek, regardless of which series you’re watching, the ships always fly with a warp drive. This is one thing (of many) that the audience can always expect from any story set in the Star Trek world.

Characters are what truly make the story

Citizen G'Kar of Babylon 5 may be an exotic-looking alien, but he's also a deeply complex, and surprisingly human, character.

Citizen G’Kar of Babylon 5 may be an exotic-looking alien, but he’s also a deeply complex, and surprisingly human, character.

Of course people watch sci-fi for all the special effects, the exotic aliens, and the epic space battles. And in books – sci-fi and otherwise – the adventures, snappy action, and rich settings are important. But without fully-developed characters, all you really have is a cool travel brochure of the world you’ve created. For a story, you need plot and characters. Readers and viewers need people they can connect with.

The three sci-fi shows I mentioned – Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Stargate – have no shortage of characters. What makes an engaging story is the relationships between the characters – their friendships, the different ways they handle challenges, their enemies, their likes and dislikes. In Babylon 5, the overarching plot is war encroaching on peace. But what makes the audience keep coming back for the next episode is not just the dramatic space battles and the epic story of the Army of Light versus the Shadows. It’s the characters who make up that Army of Light, the characters who have hopes and dreams and a reason to keep fighting. If the audience didn’t care about the characters, they wouldn’t care who won the war. Continue reading

5 Things Star Trek has Taught Me about Writing

While I could write about this subject at most any time, I thought it would be appropriate now, while we’re still celebrating the 50 year anniversary of Star Trek. I’ve posted many times about the writing tips and techniques that I’ve learned from the sci-fi show Babylon 5, but since Star Trek was my first science fiction love, I thought it was high time I give it its due.

So here are five things, in no particular order, that Star Trek (mostly TNG, but really, all the series) has taught me about writing and storytelling:

The importance of supporting characters

Everybody loves the heroes of the story, but supporting and minor characters help round out the world. Whether your story has an ensemble main cast (like Star Trek) or just one main protagonist, you need other characters to serve specific roles and to provide more opportunities for interaction and character growth for your main characters. With a longer work (like a novel, a series of novels, or a TV show), you have the opportunity to expand on the minor characters that come and go, and turn some of them into recurring characters. Continue reading

Historical Fiction versus Fantasy – Which is Harder to Write?

Me trying to write fantasy. Or historical fiction. Or a blog post.

Me trying to write fantasy. Or historical fiction. Or a blog post.

 

I’m primarily a fantasy writer, but last year I started a project of historical fiction. At first I thought it would be a breeze, because all I had to do was a little bit of research, and presto! all my story elements are there. No complex world-building and inventing alien alphabets or rules for magic. As it turns out, historical fiction isn’t quite the effortless cake walk I thought it might be.

So now that I have a little experience with two vastly different genres, I thought I’d do a comparison. Continue reading

5 Types of Books to Make You a Better Writer

Some time ago I wrote a guest post about five books that have helped me as a writer. In this post, I want to discuss five types of books (as opposed to specific titles) that I believe can help you become a better writer.

A craft of writing book

This is one category that I need to work on more. I’ve read a few books on the craft of writing, but it’s something that even the best authors can always get better at. If you want to get better at writing, then constantly writing is important – but a how-to writing book can help you strengthen your writing strengths, adjust your weaknesses, and point out mistakes you didn’t even realize you were making.

A people skills book

You know those self-help books about different personality types or how to get along with other people? Those are actually really useful. Even though most of us writers are introverts who would rather just not deal with people at all thank you very much, the truth is that we do have to deal with people. Family, co-workers, and your readers – all are made up of people. Learning how not to alienate your fans or get stressed during a conversation can really make for a nice life.

And secondly, if you write any type of fiction, then – you guessed it – you’re writing about people. Even in more plot-driven genre fiction like sci-fi or epic fantasy, there are characters. Understanding how people work – especially those people who are not like you – can really help you add depth and realism to your characters.

A follow-your-dreams book

Go back to the self-help or inspirational section of the book store and get one of those upbeat books about never giving up on your dreams. Having the determination and the know-how to press through the doubts and rejections and keep going is ultimately more valuable than knowing how to properly punctuate. Writing can be a lonely and difficult thing. Hopefully you have a support network of other writers (whether a local writer’s group or an online forum), but you need to be able to encourage yourself, too.

A well-written book in your favorite genre

If you want to write good science fiction, then you should be reading good science fiction. If you want to write a cozy mystery, then read some good cozy mysteries so you know how to structure the story. This is probably not a difficult task for most writers, because you’re already reading books in your favorite genre, because it’s your favorite.

An important key here is the “well written” part. Don’t just grab the latest free ebook by a first-time author. This doesn’t mean that the book is bad or poorly written, but if your goal is to craft a well-written book, then you need a good example of one. You don’t necessarily have to go for a New York Times bestseller, but take the time to check the reviews, view a sample page, and maybe check the author’s track record or publishing history.

A well-written book in a genre you don’t usually read or write

Even if you’re a fantasy writer, and all you ever intend to write is high fantasy, you should still read the occasional mystery or sci-fi book or contemporary literature. Why? Because you can learn from everything. Character development, foreshadowing, proper sentence structure, proper dialogue tags, pacing – all of these elements that go into making a good story are important no matter the genre. Reading outside of your favorite genre can make you notice elements of storytelling or writing style that you might not have otherwise picked up on because your mind is stretching in a different way. There are excellent writers in every genre, and you might be missing out on some valuable writing tips (or even missing out on discovering your new favorite author) if you never branch out.

And see the previous point about the importance of using a well-written book, not just any old freebie or your teen cousin’s fan fiction. If your goal is to learn, then check your sources.

Do you have any favorite books that fall into one of these categories? Do you have another type of book that has helped you to grow as a writer?

The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: Style Sheets and Consistency

Consistency counts for a lot, and can cover many writerly issues. This is not to say that if you’re a consistently bad speller, everything will be okay, because that’s not the case at all. And being a consistently bad storyteller will not put you on any best seller lists.

What I’m talking about here is perhaps better described as a “style sheet.” A style sheet is a set of notes for yourself – and perhaps for your editor, too – about how you are choosing to spell, punctuate, and capitalize certain things in your story.

Some examples:

Let’s say that you’re an American author, but you’re writing a book specifically for a European audience and you’re planning to submit to a British publisher. Because of this, you have made the personal decision to use British spellings: favour instead of favor, honour instead of honor, theatre instead of theater, etc. You’ll likely get a red underline in Word every time you type one of those words with an extra u, but for your purposes, it’s not a misspelling. Just make sure that you use those non-American spellings consistently throughout the entire work. Writing about the color of the honourable judge’s hair will just confuse everybody.

If you’re a fan of the Oxford comma (or serial comma), then make sure you use it in all instances that would warrant it. If you write “I ate beans, chicken, and corn bread,” then don’t neglect that second comma in a similarly-structured sentence later in the book. (Side note: I’m not advocating for or against the serial comma, or endorsing any particular style guide. Just pick your favorite and stick with it).

If you have a character named Sara at the beginning of the book, make sure that her name doesn’t change to Sarah halfway through. Or if the town is called Bellavista in the first chapter, it shouldn’t be Bella Vista in chapter two (unless the name change is part of the story).

Whether you’re adhering to the rules of a specific style guide or not, a personal style sheet can be a good idea to keep yourself consistent. An alert reader will notice inconsistencies – whether they’re big plot holes, or just little misspellings. But either way, inconsistency makes you come across as a sloppy or uncaring author, and no one wants that. So do yourself a favor, and make sure your writing is consistent.

What Scares Me About Writing

Even though I love to write, there are some things I dread doing as a writer. Sometimes it’s hard to come up with blog posts. Writing stuff for my job isn’t always the same thrill-a-minute adventure as writing my own stories. But sometimes, I even dread writing my stories.

The biggest thing I dread writing are battle scenes. For some reason, I find it equally hard to write a big epic battle with armies as I do to write a sword fight or sparring match between two people. My stories are never bloodbaths or fight-fests, but since I write mostly high fantasy, there’s got to be at least a good battle scene or two.

In the fantasy trilogy that I’ve been working on for some time now, I’m currently almost finished with a major rewrite of book one. I’m almost done with the book (yay!) but that means that I’ve come to the point of the big climactic battle (sigh). Revising the battle scenes isn’t much easier than it was writing them the first time.

Epic fantasy battle look great on a screen, and they look pretty good in my head; but getting that into words on the page? That scares me. I write the scenes with much grumbling and trepidation, asking myself why I do this to myself. Because I love high fantasy, that’s why, and I always wind up telling stories that need a big battle.

So, enter a new genre. While I’m slogging through this fantasy rewrite (and fussing over the stalled book two, which I’ve paused because I’m at the battle scenes in that book, too), I decided to start another project. Because I’m a glutton for punishment I thought it would be fun. This project is something totally new for me – historical fiction.

This new story is set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, so I was delighted as I was doing my outline and realized that I have no battle scenes to write. What a freeing feeling! I thought I’d have no challenges with this story because the climax does not involve sword fights or goblin armies hurling magic spells. But there is something about this story that does intimidate me – I’m writing about something real.

Fantasy, for me, is easy (except for the battles). I can basically do whatever I want, and I’m the expert because I made it up. But historical fiction? Now I’m writing about something that other people know way more about than I do. And there are some people still alive today who lived through this time period. I’m writing about a real place, real events, and one of my point of view characters was a real person. I’d (almost) rather write a sword fight.

So why do I keep on writing all this stuff that I dread to write? Because I’m a storyteller. Maybe this is part of the “work” part of writing, the part that makes it not fun. But I know that if I push through my fear of writing a battle scene or my fear of portraying a real person in a work of fiction, I’ll come out a stronger writer for it.

Please share with me – is there any part of writing or storytelling that scares you?