The best intention of SF?

What are the best motives for writing speculative/science fiction?

If you think it’s to make money then you’re either deluded or already successful – though perhaps only enough that you can make the next mortgage payment. There’s usually better financial reward from writing fantasy, crime or anything that’s sold at an airport.

No, it should be for the love of the genre, right?

I think it’s important to explore a possible future without ignoring the present or the past; to show what can happen if things progress down a certain path. Or put another way: to describe a future not in isolation but at least have some resonance with today. For example, in a far future war my characters have to consider whether it is worth working with an old and deadly adversary in order to defeat something even worse. Being so far in the future there doesn’t have to be an obvious link to the present; it shouldn’t matter for the reader to see any specific connection to current events.

There is a space for alternate history/timelines, but I tend to avoid those, as counterfactuals are inherently problematic. In my case, bringing aliens into the mix can give a different perspective on universal themes; not sharing the same history they are unlikely to react as we would. I mean, how much of current strategic thinking is influenced by success or failures of the recent past? More to the point, what ultimately is sanctioned by politicians in response to their electorate’s [presumed] memory and lack of historical knowledge?

Anyway, back to the main theme. How many writers can honestly say they have kept true to their vision and not been swayed by some new successful breakthrough?

It’s never a good idea to plan your book according to some formula shown to bring financial success. I’d generally avoid anything where the author is described as the new [insert best selling name]. It might not be that they planned to emulate any particular author and just happened to be inspired by them – which is perfectly fine, if they can bring something fresh to the genre.

Publishers often prefer books with the potential for sequels – it keeps the reader hooked for the next one, guaranteeing further sales (in theory). Not so bad if the reader knows in advance that they’re buying the first in a series, and better if they know how many there will be. What can be irritating is when one book ends on a cliff hanger and you have to wait six months or more for the next, which is often more expensive, since the first is designed to hook as many readers as possible. I prefer a novel that is self-contained and can be read as a stand-alone, even if it means a bit of exposition of the previous.

Having these ‘best’ motives may seem high-minded and over-ambitious. (A lack of ambition in my writing is not some something I could ever be accused of.) After all, there’s nothing wrong with providing some good old escapism and entertainment.

http://www.adriankyte.com/

http://www.scribd.com/collections/4310244/The-Captured-extracts

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Sympathy for the Protagonist?

One of the basic rules writers are taught is make your protagonist believable. That can be interpreted as: make it easy to relate to them on some level. But it could also mean: give them an internal logic and consistency of behaviour.

But what if a writer invents a character for whom there are none of the realistic constraints associated with ‘normal’ people? Well, they couldn’t be human. You could not empathize with them, right? Even in the more morally simplistic world of video games the least sympathetic protagonist has some kind of flaw or disadvantage to overcome, otherwise there is no sense of jeopardy or challenge for them.

I once created a character who, though not possessing any superhero powers, was genetically engineered to be superhuman in some ways. Roidon Chanley was highly intelligent, charismatic and almost entirely without self-doubt …. and of course he had a lot of success with women. So he seemed like the writer’s enviable third-person alter-ego, having qualities I could hardly even dream of. One compromise was to not make him especially good-looking or tall; in The Hidden Realm, Roidon is described as having a striking, deliberate ordinariness (which was useful for him). Nevertheless, to have him as the main protagonist would be difficult to sustain. At best the reader could admire him, at worse they would think him implausible. For me it didn’t matter that he should be liked; even for for a first person protagonist that is not essential. Perhaps Roidon had become a writer’s self-indulgence, needing to be curtailed in some ways. Yet he lives on, in new iterations.

The Hidden Realm can be downloaded for free. http://www.feedbooks.com/userbook/10887/the-hidden-realm-the-full-version

However you get there

I think most writers develop rituals for their creative work. Even the most rational can harbour a superstitious belief that sitting in a certain chair, a place, or even wearing a particular type of clothing will summon that creative genie. Well if those things worked before…

There are of course the ultra prepared who have their novel all mapped out before they even begin the first chapter; they know the story arc and roughly how its going to end. These tend to be the more prolific writers who can churn out a novel a year, and start early morning writing for five or six hours a day every week day, without fail. They are often successful. And though many of those have their quirky rituals, that’s the only thing I share in common with them. From the outset to right near the end I had no plan of how my novel would finish. I’d be ensconced in my shed with an old netbook and have no idea of how to move the story on, just staring at its little screen. Then somehow the next scene would come to me, and a sentence became a paragraph, became 500 words. Reaching 103,000 words really felt like an achievement (though still, a lot of rewriting to be done!). In short, I found the best way to keep making progress is to put myself in a situation free from distraction where there is nothing else to do but write.

 

Here’s a link to the first few pages of The Captured that have been edited (but subject to change). http://www.scribd.com/doc/216172212/The-Captured-the-beginning

And there’s links to other samples of my writing on Scribd.

Where does it come from?

It’s a mysterious thing, the creative process. Truth is, I try not to analyze where those ideas come from, otherwise it can feel like the spell is broken. Most often, though, there are subliminal influences from the myriad of media we ingest and somehow it gets distilled down into a seemingly original work. I’m not even sure if anything is totally original these days.

However – and this blog will now take a darker turn – an idea can truly come from the unconscious (or subconscious). Almost never does a dream translate into a coherent narrative, much less a story; they exist with a different set of rules to the logic of reality: the surreal, the inconsistent is accepted. But on one Saturday morning I had a dream that was clear and vivid. I watched – like a movie – someone planning an atrocity, a man angry at the world and how it had treated him and his kin. So all a bit dark, and seemingly random at the time. Still, I couldn’t get it out of my head and had get it down into a story to see if it made sense. Well, it did that evening after hearing the news reports of the atrocities in Pakistan, Iraq and of course Kenya. I had a different take on it in my dream/story. Of course, as humans we look for connections and patterns where there are merely coincidences. So I’ll leave it to you to decide.

My short story: http://www.scribd.com/doc/170073967/Something-About-Mary

Making that breakthrough

If the first rule of blogging is check carefully what you’ve written before publishing, then the second should be: double-check if it was done late at night.

And if you’re sending off a manuscript submission you’d probably quadruple check. Yet it’s amazing what mistakes slip through. I often am of my own, and I think I’ve learned to be careful!  Anyway, I might give my thoughts on the submission process (to agents & publishers) in a future post.

But let’s assume you’ve completed the novel, with all the basic errors eliminated. Typically, In the process of writing, it’s been enthralling but troublesome in varying measures, and in the darkest days seemed as if it would never be finished. Then (after [insert number] rewrites) it is finally ready to be released to an unsuspecting world. And with the myriad of free self publishing opportunities it can be. Only problem is it won’t sell, or at least only achieving numbers that barely reach three figures, unless you’re one of the rare exceptions – which has more to do with gaining a following, hitting upon some Zeitgeist whereupon interest snowballs. But more likely it’s your mood that will resemble fifty shades of grey (heading nearer the black end) than sales; and if you’re writing SF, that’s a uniquely tricky proposition. Of course giving it away is far more likely to generate interest. I write from experience here. But to have a realistic chance of making money from your labour of love there’s still only one sure route: The agent.

With the second (and hitherto unsuccessful) attempt at publishing, I’ve become obsessed trying to second-guess what a publisher – or in the first instance an agent – is looking for: their filter process. Now, if they are having to apply some quick criteria to deal with the welter of submissions the process might as well be done by an AI. Let’s see … Previously successful idea+variation, at least enough to give a new spin on the genre Zeitgeist, which can be described in a back-blurb length; opening chapter that does not contain lengthy description (esp world building or biography) but instead either an immersion into an action scene or a character; plot driven by character rather than a concept; no switching POV without a clear break of paragraph; no author intrusion or omniscience; no red herrings or loose ends that are never tied up; no false cliff hangers; SF esp: no deus ex machina style contrivances; no concepts which lack any basis in contemporary science; no scenarios without any bearing on real life situations, or cannot be related by analogy, metaphor or allegory. And there’s probably much more needed to add to the programming. And you’ll notice the filtering would mostly be done through negative criteria.

Anyway, it’s likely I would fail on that test. But then good writing is not about adhering to a strict set of rules, even if it is about having an awareness of them. I can think of some great/acclaimed writers who break the rules, except their talent lies in knowing how to break them, and previous success gives them the confidence to do so. And confidence comes from finding a [writing] voice readers like but which is not pandering to some perceived market-oriented populism. So, of course, you can write something great and it will get slammed (check out Amazon reviews of classic acclaimed novels, or Booker winners) or simply have your work dismissed. Above all it’s about garnering interest. Many flawed novels can be interesting and valuable; I tried to analyse one, only to find smoke and mirrors, but the illusion was enjoyable.

So, yes, something does need to change in the publishing industry. In the meantime, there’s only the frustrating waiting process and the uncertainty of never knowing where you went wrong. Sounds like a publishing dystopia!