Tag Archives: plotting

What’s the opposite of writer’s block?

1239877Writer’s insomnia. That state when you’re on a roll, the story is flowing – but there are holes and questions (there are always holes and questions) and ‘oh hey’ moments and ‘is that plausible’ moments. And they all get together in your head and shake you awake at 2am. You think you’re getting up for a wee and a drink of water. But no. They ambush you, make you listen, pour words in your ears.

It’s fabulous. I LOVE this story. (It’s still called WIP – that’s Work in Progress for those not in the circle.)

Meanwhile, a huge storm built up to the south of us, complete with mammary clouds, thunder and lightning. Fortunately, we got to enjoy the spectacle at sunset – but didn’t have to face the fury of the storm.

Impressive, it was. Share photos, I will.

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Learning from the masters – Isaac Asimov’s “Caves of Steel” #amwriting

1954 Hard back cover Doubleday

1954 Hard back cover Doubleday

This is the first of a series of posts I’m writing about what we (as writers) can learn from the works of published authors.

I’m in the process of re-reading Isaac Asimov’s first robot novel – The Caves of Steel. In a nutshell, this book is a murder mystery, a police procedural set in the distant future. Humanity has expanded to fifty worlds, but Earthites are not welcome in the erstwhile colonies, which are now independent entities, with small populations and many, many robots to do the hard work. On Earth life has become increasingly regimented. Most people live in enormous, domed cities (caves of steel) where efficiency is the order of the day. No more private kitchens, few if any private facilities like bathrooms. Living space is earned. The higher a person’s classification, the more room they can have, the more small privileges they can attain. A hand basin, for instance, is a much sought after luxury. Transport is via automated walkways and people are crowded together. In this pressure cooker world, robots are resented, seen as putting people out of work and consequently lowering their status.

There is on Earth one small colony of expatriates, called ‘Spacers’. By their own insistence, the inhabitants are sealed off from the rest of the city, isolated in what you might call quarantine in an area known as SpaceTown The Spacers are trying to encourage Earth to use robots but (as mentioned) it’s not a popular idea. Then a murder is committed in SpaceTown – a Spacer killed by a Human. The Spacers send a robot to partner a Human policeman to solve the crime. But he’s no ordinary robot. Daneel Olivaw is indistinguishable from a human Spacer. Thus starts an unlikely partnership between Elijah Baley, a human detective who resents robots as much as the next man, and the Spacers even more, and Daneel.

Enough said. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ve read the book; it’s a classic. But as I’m reading, I’m analysing and admiring.

Bear in mind the book was first released in 1953 as a serial.

That’s sixty years ago, so yes, it is dated. For a start, the population of Earth thousands of years in the future in the novel is set at eight billion, with the planet apparently creaking at the seams. Now, in 2013, Earth’s population is rapidly approaching eight billion and although all is not well, we’re nowhere near the dire straits described in Asimov’s novel. People still smoke, technology is not what we might expect. But such small niceties aside, the society Asimov has portrayed is detailed and utterly believable. His city (which in the novel is an extension of New York) reminds me of an extrapolation of the suburbs of Hong Kong, with its towering apartment blocks. It’s easy enough to see cars eliminated and replaced by walkways. And regimentation and segregation is (I believe) part of the human psyche. So is prejudice against anything different, like Spacers and (particularly) robots, which put people out of work.

Dr Asimov had a Ph.D. In chemistry but throughout his life he read history, and I think his portrayal of another society in this book is based on his knowledge of history, as well as a logical extension of what existed at the time of writing. Cities were going up, the amount of living space for an individual was going down. That’s still the case today. Communal kitchens, bathrooms and latrines were the norm in earlier times and it’s easy to see the efficiency in that approach. One can also imagine the importance of ‘privacy’ in a world where there is none, and Asimov’s story is peppered with small details which underline that fundamental truth. Even the story of the biblical Jezebel has its place.

The establishment of a quarantined enclave for the Spacers is particularly clever. I have no doubt Asimov noted from history that where Europeans interacted with native peoples, diseases were transferred both ways. Native populations had no answer for infections like measles, influenza and cholera. In the same way, Asimov’s Spacer colonies have no answer to the teeming infections on Mother Earth. So the easy planet-hopping of space operas might be a tad unrealistic – although Asimov himself had plenty of planet hopping in his later books.

Why does this book work so well, particularly given its age? Because the society portrayed is detailed and the characters act in accordance with their backgrounds. Yes, there are times when the author dwells on backstory and description but it’s usually done in the right places. Although the thread running through the story is solving the murder of Doctor Sarton, in a way the solution is less important than the chase itself. Asimov uses a Spacer robot to reveal all the little foibles in human society and also to illustrate his famous Three Laws of Robotics. Really, although the murder is the glue that ties the plot together, this novel isn’t a simple murder mystery.

As a writer, I’ve taken two things from this book.

  • Make your society detailed and believable and embed your characters in their setting
  • Use conflict to illustrate behavior. Teaming Lije with a Spacer robot – incorporating two things he hates – gives plenty of room for making points

It seems Hollywood is making a movie from the book. I hope they do a much better job than they did in Fantastic Voyage and I, Robot.

I welcome comments from others who have read the book. If you haven’t, if you want a print copy, try the local second hand bookshop. Or try the Amazon link.

 

Linnea Sinclair’s “Hope’s Folly’ – SFR the way it ought to be

I’ve recently read Linnea Sinclair’s novel Hope’s Folly. Twice. I tend to do that when I really love a book, getting details I missed the first time around. If you’d like to read the book’s blurb, you’ll find it here.

Yes, I suppose this is a review. But for me, it’s also a statement of what works in science fiction – for me, personally, which, let’s face it, is what a review is – a subjective point of view. This is a writer I admire – right up there with my all-time faves. So let’s do the review thing. But if you’re a writer, take note of how well this story has been built.

Hope’s Folly is a love story, set in a time of political conflict and approaching war. The human Empire is being run by Tage, who has usurped the power of a weak and failing Emperor. Tage has decimated the ranks of the Admiralty, replacing senior fleet officers with people more likely to dance to his tune. But not everybody is going quietly. A rebel Alliance has risen to oppose Tage. Amidst the turmoil, the two alien species in the Galaxy see their opportunity to expand their own borders.

When the story opens we meet Admiral Philip Guthrie, who escaped the purge of the Admiralty by the skin of his teeth. He’s 45 years old, with a shattered right leg healing slowly and the weight of the deaths of many colleagues on his conscience. Tage used Guthrie to plan his purge. Now, Guthrie is determined to join with other Alliance leaders to build a new fleet and defeat Tage’s Imperial forces. But the Empire wants him dead and the Farosians want to capture him to swap him for their own leader, who Tage has imprisoned. On top of all that, Guthrie’s new flagship is a very old ex-fleet cruiser which was disarmed, decommissioned and used as a freighter, and he has to enlist a crew from wherever he can, knowing some of them will be plants.

Lieutenant Rya Bennton is the daughter of Guthrie’s captain and mentor, back in the day. A 29 year-old Imperial Security assassin, she turned rebel when her father was killed in that purge. She’s no dolly bird, tall and built with curves and a lovely ass – and a spare thirty pounds she could afford to lose. She remembers meeting Guthrie when she was a pudgy 9 year old and he was a 25 year old lieutenant who showed her how to fire a laser pistol. She, like Guthrie, has a love bordering on obsession with hand weapons. The description when Rya first sees Guthrie’s Norlack laser rifle is a wonderful piece of innuendo. In this scene, too, we see the connection between the two, the way they think alike.

“Is this,” she asked hesitantly, “what I think it is?”

“What do you think it is?”

“Norlack 473 sniper, modified to handle wide-load slash ammo.” There was a noticeable reverence in her voice.

He pulled the rifle out, hefting it. She had a good eye. Norlacks weren’t common. But recognizing it was modified for illegal and highly destructive charges … Then again, she’d seen it in action. “It is,” he confirmed, amused now by the expression on her face. It had gone from reverence to almost rapture.

“That is so totally apex.” Her voice was hushed. “May I,” and she glanced shyly at him, her eyes bright, spots of color on her cheeks, “fondle it?”

He stared at her, not sure he heard her correctly. Then he snorted, laughing. Fondle it, indeed. He handed it to her. She took it, cradling it at first, then running her fingers lovingly down its short barrel. Sweet holy God. He didn’t have enough painkillers in him to stop his body’s reaction to the smokiness in her eyes, or the way her lips parted slightly, the edge of her tongue slipping out to moisten them, as her hands slid over the weapon.

Ahem. Back to the review.

The love story between these two is gorgeous. Rya keeps insisting she has a huge crush on her commanding officer – that’s all. What would he see in her, anyway? And that thirty pounds… Guthrie keeps realising that not only is he too old for her, but he has a duty to her father’s memory to protect her, not lust after her. He also has to get his almost defenceless ship past Farosian raiders and Imperial warships, regardless of Rya and a broken leg. But circumstances fling them (often quite literally) together in what used to be Rya’s father’s ship as Guthrie tries to build a cohesive team from a bunch of disparate people who don’t know each other. And one of them is a mole.

So why did this story grab me and not let go?

Because it’s so real. In Linnea Sinclair’s universe the ships are not run by all-powerful artificial intelligences. To me, they’re not much different from what we have now, with engine rooms, weapons systems and the all-important environment systems all run using computers but with people running the show. Guys get to cut code, hack, mess about in the systems. The ships have blast doors. The pipes gurgle and knock, metal pings as it cools, or creaks and groans. Everything smells – hot engine oil, leather, soap, food, hair. The ex-freighter has a ghostly smell of oranges that comes and goes. And then there’s the cat. Captain Folly, who comes with the ship, leaves white fur all over the place and prefers women to men.

The people are real. Guthrie is tall, smart, the son of a rich family (which has its own drawbacks). But he’s not a superman. He makes mistakes, has his own foibles, calls himself a Galactic-class ass on more than one occasion. I’ve mentioned Rya’s issues with her weight. She’s also impulsive and not much good at saying ‘sir’. The secondary characters are just as convincing, ordinary people forced to cope with extraordinary circumstances.

The politics is real. I have a history degree and these things matter to me. I can see the Empire disintegrating in this way. If I were to be asked for a similar situation in our recent past, I’d go for Stalin taking over in the USSR.

As always with Linnea Sinclair, things move apace – except for the opening chapter, which I enjoyed more the second time around. This is the third book of a series and the first chapter orientates the reader, I guess. From there on, the author works on the basis of ‘if things can go wrong, they will go wrong’. Guthrie’s relationship with Rya plays as an underlying complication to all the other issues the two face. Take out the romance, and yes, you’d still have a great story. But man, you’d miss out on soooo much.

Oh, and before I finish, I must mention the sex scenes. They’re not many and they’re intense, steamy and sensual, but not a how-to manual.

I loved this book, I loved Philip Guthrie. He is very definitely my kind of man. Sigh. I’m too old to be a fangirl. Five stars. But you knew that already.

So that’s the review done. What can I learn as a writer?

  • Make the cause worthwhile – things people will lay down their lives for.
  • Engage all the senses.
  • Introduce a bit of quirkiness (the cat and the oranges).
  • Use humour.
  • Make sure ALL your characters are real people, with a mix of strengths and flaws.
  • Keep the pace up.
  • When your heroes are in trouble, pile it on.
  • Introduce the unexpected to add twists – but don’t suddenly introduce cavalry without the reader knowing it’s out there.
  • And probably other things like great use of words and getting into a character’s head.

Anything else you’d like to contribute?

Using real history as a plot. Not as easy as it sounds?

It’s time to start a new writing adventure, face the cold, blank screen and begin. For me, it’s the hardest part of the whole process – the empty page. Once something – anything – is down, words are written, then you can read them back and change them, because the thought is there, translated into words.

In a way, this book should be easy, because I know the whole plot. It’s based on historical fact, a real life drama translated into a whole new setting. But is it really so easy?

Sure, I know what happens, but the essence of a good story is not the dry-as-dust facts, it’s the WHY. Why did the characters do that? What was their motivation? It’s the difference between learning a bunch of dates in history class, and learning the story of what happened.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. My first published novel was historical fiction, a dramatisation, if you will, of real events, acts carried out by real people. You can find out more about the book here. The point, though, is that working out why something happened at a particular time isn’t always easy. In a history book you can write that the bad guys delayed their attack for a month. It’s a fact. It happened. But fiction isn’t like that. You’re in your character’s head. You have to have a very good reason why he would delay his attack. Your readers will demand it. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. And it’s true. Your plot must be plausible, you must write the events so they make sense in every way – in how your characters speak and react, what they wear, what they believe or fear.

I had to take all those things into consideration when I wrote “To Die a Dry Death” and believe me, at times it wasn’t easy. This time, I’m not going to be writing a dramatisation, using the real people in the real setting. I’m grabbing a story from history and setting it in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, a Long, Long Time in the Future. In that respect, the journey will be a little easier. But I know it won’t be as easy as join the dots or colour by numbers.

Have any of you done something like this? What was hard? What was easy?