Writing References

On Friday, October 13, I led a writing workshop for Can-Con in Ottawa. To make life easier for me at the workshop, and also to share a useful list for any writers out there, here are some books that I’ve found useful as references.

(Since the workshop is in Ottawa, all book links are to Amazon Canada. This is simply for my own convenience; if you want to buy a copy of any of these, visit your favorite bookstore or web site.)

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer
A quirky but useful general introduction to writing science fiction and/or fantasy
Into the Woods, by John Yorke
One of my favorite books on story structure and plot
Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin
One of the few books that deals with the nitty-gritty of actually telling
stories, down to the word and sentence level. It’s not a beginner book, but it’s a book to read when you’re ready to get serious about prose.
A First Page Checklist by Ray Rhamey (PDF)
Since the workshop I’m doing is specifically on openings, this is a useful set of points to consider, even if you decide to let some slide

As time goes on, I may add more to this list. I’ve just begun working on the start of the third book in the “Dark vs. Spark” series, and as part of the process, I’ve picked up a number of other writing books that have been recommended to me. For the moment, however, the books above are a great place to start.

While I’m at it, let me add that all writers should carry something that they can immediately use to make notes. Your phone doesn’t count if you won’t actually use it, nor does it count if you don’t review those notes within a day of making them and then store them in a searchable format.

For years, I’ve been using normal 3×5 index cards; I put 3 or 4 in the back pocket of my pants where they lie nice and flat but are immediately available for writing. After writing on a card, I leave it by my computer so I can transcribe it ASAP, either into a text file, Evernote, or Scrivener. The nice thing about index cards is that they’re cheap, and if they get crushed, or wet with rain, or whatever, I can just throw them out and grab another handful. It’s like a notepad that never runs out of pages!

ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS: Characters

Continuing on from my last post, let’s look at the characters of All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (to be published by Tor Books on November 7).

The four main characters are all roommates, and are third-year students at the University of Waterloo (my old alma mater). Just for fun, I decided that they’d each be from one of the major departments in the Faculty of Science: Biology, Chemistry, Earth & Environmental Sciences (i.e. Geology and other resources), and Physics & Astronomy. I should note that I’m roughly halfway through a B.Sc. in Geology, although it remains to be seen if I’ll have the time to keep going.

The story is told from the viewpoint of the Geology student, Kim Lam. Kim is very smart and very non-binary, but still working through the fallout of a failed relationship with someone who wanted to be a Darkling more than he wanted to be with Kim. Kim is stuck in emotional quicksand. That slowly begins to change when a lab accident gives Kim and Kim’s roommates superpowers.

One of those roommates is Miranda Neufeld: physicist and amateur opera singer. Another is Shar Chandra, a wizard when it comes to chemistry, cookies, and getting under Kim’s skin. Lastly is Jools Walsh, nominally in biology, but actually majoring in bad decisions.

Why these characters? Well first, I wanted a team of superheroes, and four seemed like a good number. Four people provide lots of scope and combinations, without the group becoming too big to handle. Four people also matched nicely with the science departments…and that’s important because in this setting, superheroes are strongly linked to science (just as Darklings are strongly linked to magic).

Secondly, I wanted characters who were interesting and sympathetic, but very different from each other. Kim is a walled-off introvert; Miranda is high-maintenance and strident; Shar is completely imperturbable; Jools is wild and moderately self-destructive.

Each character has something unique to contribute to the action and ambiance. For example, since this is a superhero book, fighting is inevitable…so someone on the team really ought to know how to kick butt. Making someone a martial arts student was too easy; instead, Jools is a fanatic hockey player (one of the reasons she’s doing so badly in school). The other roommates bring their own strengths to the table, in unexpected but believable ways.

From Day One, I’ve envisioned ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS as the first book of a series, with each book told from the viewpoint of a different roommate. ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS is the book where Kim confronts the ghosts of the past. The next book (THEY PROMISED THE GUN WASN’T LOADED) will be from Jools’s point of view. After that comes Miranda, then Shar.

Each book will show the central character dealing with personal issues—win, lose, or draw. Each book will also be written in a different tone of voice, appropriate to the character involved…which is a lot of fun for me, and I hope for readers too.

ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS: What It’s About

My next book ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS WERE SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT comes out from Tor Books on November 7, so it’s high time I talked about it. I’ll be doing a number of blog posts over the next few weeks; feel free to ask questions as we go along.

But first things first: what is the book about?

Superheroes. And vampires/werewolves/demons.

Here’s the set-up. In 1982, monsters all over the world realize they’ve been doing it wrong. Why hide in the shadows when you’ve got a supremely marketable asset? So they announce that for ten million dollars, they’ll convert you into the monster of your choice. You’ll get magical powers, immunity to disease and aging, plus a bunch of other benefits.

By the dawn of the 21st century, almost all the rich and powerful people in the world have paid to become Darklings. They’re careful not to behave too outrageously—they don’t want to provoke a serious uprising—but they run every government and major corporation, without anyone powerful enough to stop them.

Then superheroes show up: everyday joes who just happen to get bitten by a radioactive spider, fall in a vat of weird chemicals, or touch a strangely glowing meteor. Suddenly, randos off the street have just as much superhuman power as wealthy Darklings do. Super “commoners” quickly become a counterbalance to Dark overreach.

So that’s the set-up: the rich 1% are Darklings, the 99% are superheroes (universally called Sparks). As you can imagine, fisticuffs and a lot of explosions ensue.

Next time, I’ll talk about the book’s protagonists and maybe a bit about the plot.

Materialism

Here’s something that puzzles me. Almost every story ever told conveys the message that happiness doesn’t come from material things. Stories (whether in books, in movies, or told around a campfire) almost always say that happiness comes from stuff like love, friendship, family, meaningful achievements, and/or adherence to higher principles.

It’s really really hard to find a story that says otherwise. I’ll grant that material things are often thrown in as an extra reward; Lizzie Bennet (from “Pride & Prejudice”) doesn’t just marry the man she loves, she also ends up rich. But the money is just icing on the cake. Contrast Lizzie with her friend Charlotte who ends up with money, but doesn’t love the man she marries. We instinctively see Charlotte as miserable, while we know that Lizzie will have a happy life.

Even “Atlas Shrugged” is idealistic in its way. None of its “admirable” characters are merely chasing money; they endure a fair amount of grief “in the name of the best within them”. They could all be materially comfortable, but they give it up on behalf of higher principles. I think they’re all pretty despicable, but they sacrifice a lot of material gain in pursuit of their beliefs.

So with pretty much all of human fiction making the point that “stuff isn’t enough”, why does so much non-fiction uncritically assume the opposite? I read article after article which take it for granted that readers are all mindless materialists. Often the articles are making points like, “Don’t kill yourself trying to have it all,” but they start from the premise that readers have never heard this before…as if readers have never read a book, seen a movie, watched TV, or even played a video game.

It’s not that people don’t realize materialism is shallow and stultifying. It’s just that the structure of modern society makes non-materialism very very difficult. We’re brainwashed by ads, even though we know better…and if we want to feed our kids or eat anything ourselves, we’re often forced to grub for money, even though we know it’s not going to satisfy our inner hungers.

I just wish non-fiction recognized that people aren’t totally naive about the hollowness of acquisition. We need strategies, not sermons. We aren’t stupid, we’re stuck.

The Seven Deadly Sins

Traditionally, the seven deadly sins are Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, and Sloth.

Now first, an aside about Sloth. “Sloth” is one English translation of the Latin word acedia; other translations include “apathy”, “world-weariness”, or even “cynicism”. I like those translations a whole lot better. Sloth is a judgmental word you use to accuse someone else of laziness. Apathy and world-weariness, on the other hand, are feelings we can often recognize in ourselves. So let’s keep that in mind moving forward.

But why are the deadly sins so deadly? Why is Gluttony on the list, but murder and rape aren’t? This puzzled me when I was a kid; but in high school, an English teacher explained it in a way that clarified the whole thing for me.

The deadly sins are deadly because when you’re in them, you don’t think they’re sins.

When you’re angry, you think you’re right. You think the people who made you angry are the ones at fault, and they deserve some kind of punishment.

When you’re proud, you think you’re right. You’re the one who “gets it”. Other people are stupid or thoughtless or even evil. In some way, they’re less than you are, so you can write off their thoughts and feelings.

And so on.

Classic Catholic theology lets you get past your sins by making sincere confession and doing penance. But when you’re in the grip of a deadly sin, you often do bad things without feeling bad about them. Maybe you won’t confess them as sins—they don’t feel wrong. But even if you do confess them as sins, you aren’t really sorry for them. You think you were justified.

So the deadliness isn’t in the action, but the underlying attitude. Once you recognize this, you can see yourself doing it umpteen times a day. Whether or not you believe you’ll go to hell for bad behavior, I hope we can all agree that we should avoid acting like self-justified dicks.

That’s why it’s useful (as I said in The Brain as a Sense Organ) to develop the skill of identifying thoughts and emotions as they arise. If you recognize you’re angry, you may also be able to recognize that your judgments are coming from a not-ideal place. You may then be able to set aside the stories that your brain is inventing (“I’m good, he’s bad”) and deal with situations in a less biased way.

What does this have to do with writing? It can be a good entry point into portraying “villains” and other people who make problems for your protagonists. Antagonists often believe they’re perfectly justified in the terrible things they do. They’re probably in the grip of a deadly sin. Pride, Envy, Greed and Wrath are the most common culprits…but I think we shouldn’t forget about the others. I eagerly await an upsurge in villains who do what they do out of Gluttony.