At the OWFI conference this year, there was a workshop on “Keeping it Believable,” which I think should be mandatory for ALL writers. Not just sci-fi and fantasy writers (though it was geared towards them) but EVERYONE. I mean, seriously, how many times have you watched a TV show or a movie and suddenly screamed That can’t happen! He can’t bloody drive a car with two broken arms, a broken femur, and no fingers! Or something similarly ridiculous?
So here’s the top things I took away from that session:
Do your world-building in advance – but don’t info-dump! Readers need to be grounded in Something. Does that mean we jump in with forty pages of description about your alien world and all the flora and fauna and the lack of gravity and the technology and the purple panda bear-type things that the locals call kumquats? NO!!!!!!! It’s up to YOU to figure out how to work your world-building into the narrative. The more you know about your world, the easier that will be. No info dumps!
Start with the story. You have a character and he has a problem. So what if it’s set on an alien planet? The reader will get that soon enough. It’s the character and his problem that are going to draw the reader in first – and keep them reading. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is a good example of this, and here’s a link to the first few pages of it: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/06/childrensprize.patrickness
See how Ness deftly weaves the subtle hints about Todd’s world into his narrative? There’s no two-page lecture on how fissionbikes work, or a five-paragraph discussion of talking germs. He lays a trail of crumbs, and lets the reader follow it. That’s what a good world-building is all about.
You have to consider everything. If you’re writing a fantasy that’s set on a world like Earth, your work is easier than if you’re writing a sci-fi novel set on an alien planet where the gravity is different. Gravity – whether there’s more or less of it in your fictional world – affects the physiology of everything in that world. It’s up to you to research how. If you’ve decided to put two moons in your sky, both have to exert a gravitational pull on your world – which will affect tides, which will affect weather patterns and climate, which will affect where people can live and agricultural patterns . . . see? And before you think that your readers won’t care – they absolutely will, and they won’t be your readers for very long if you don’t care enough to do the thing properly . . .
Because everything matters. If you say the shirt is cotton, then where did they get it? If you mention oranges, but you’re on a frozen planet, where do the tropical fruits come from? Can your five-foot tall, 90-pound MC wield a broadsword with one hand? Probably not. But she might be using a rapier. Why have the animals of your world evolved as they have? Remember, gravity affects physiology. Climate affects everything. Cause and effect. Everything matters.
Your aliens, particularly if your protagonist is an alien, should be human-like. What the presenter meant was that you need to think about emotions, religion/spirituality, ceremonies and rituals, worries and concerns, family life, etc., so your reader can relate to them more easily. If you have a YA protagonist, make their lives as much like a human teen’s as possible. Are they worried about fitting in? Being popular or as good at something? Do they worry about living up to their parents’ expectations? Think about How To Train Your Dragon – it’s pretty hard for us today to relate to the Viking way of life, so we had to have a protagonist that didn’t fit in. 🙂
Language, language! Just for a minute, think about the last sci-fi or fantasy book you read. Or, if you haven’t read one lately, think about this: Cthulhu. HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE THAT NAME?????? I worked with the Lovecraft stories for two solid months and I STILL have no idea!!!
Bottom line: If you can’t pronounce your characters’ names, place names, or ANY of your made-up words, change them. Readers have no patience for it. (I hear you: Tokien made up his own languages! Yes, and he was a trained philologist. He was allowed.) And yes, J.K. Rowling had made-up words – but they were simple. Muggles. Apparate. Expecto patronum. Even her spells were loosely based on Latin words, which – since we get so many English words from Latin – is familiar to most of us. So. Keep it simple. 🙂 And for the love of all that’s holy, NO APOSTROPHES IN YOUR NAMES.
Writing fantasy and sci-fi isn’t easy! WRITING isn’t easy. Every genre has its own rules and problems and pitfalls – and rewards. And no matter what the genre, you have to keep it real. Your historical has to be accurate; your murder mystery has to have all the forensics stuff right.
But. If you’re willing to do the work, your book will stand out.
(Next week: keeping it real in magic!)