19 April 2013

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, A review

Before I dive into this review, let's take a moment to collect ourselves.  The American nation has been horrified at the events of this week (The Boston Marathon Massacre - a title that hearkens back to our revolutionary days - and then the MIT shooting last night and continued manhunt today).  There will be a lot of people looking for answers, faith-shaken to the core.  As writers we all seek to make sense of the world around us by writing stories.  If the jumbled cast of characters in our own minds can sort things out and reach some sort of satisfying conclusion, then maybe humanity has a chance after all.  Arguably this has always been the function of the story teller.  But how can we order our stories with such atrocities swirling about us?  This is where poetry comes in.  Novels make people think, but the immediacy of poems delivers emotion.  Share poems with each other, write a poem or two, then get back to what you do best: writing stories.

Glancing at the title, you, being observant as well as clever, noticed that this is a genre-specific craft book.  While that might be a turn-off to some, there is one section that I recommend to ANY writer: around page 120, there is a section on how to train someone to read your stories.  Card's maxim from his days as a playwright is "The audience never lies."  So you need to find someone that is willing to just read your story and tell you where characters get too similar or things get boring.  There's a bit more to it than that, but this is a really useful resource.  As a non-SF&F writer, this is not a must-have book, so check it out from your library (Inter-library loan is a valuable resource).  Non-SF&F writers, class dismissed.

The rest of us: get ready for some valuable advice not just on how to write better but on how to cope with the realities of living as a writer.

Some writers have labeled Science Fiction and Fantasy (a twin genre with serious boundaries between the two, as I'll cover later) as the "Ghetto" of the writing industry.  Once you're lumped there, you're stuck for good.  The face of the current publishing industry in changing and magical elements (often called magical realism) are fairly normal now, so I wager that it's possible to break out of the "Ghetto," but even if you can't do it under your own name - well, that' s what pen names are for.

Card opens his book on the differences between Fantasy and SF, namely feudal-style buildings versus plastic and rivets.  Obviously there's a bit more to that, but that's the kernel of the idea.

The next 3 Chapters are based around what can be the most confusing part of writing SF&F: world-building, story construction, and writing well (with a special emphasis on exposition).
We all love world-building, otherwise we wouldn't be writing - or at least we wouldn't be writing SF&F.  We'd write literary fiction or thrillers.  Because of this love, the process of world-building is a bit dangerous for us.  Tolkien invented something like eleven languages for his world, but then he was a linguaphile.  Each of us has our own niche that really draws us in during this phase.  Unfortunately, Card doesn't have an answer for when enough is enough - so you still have to answer that yourself, BUT! he does have a really useful rubric for keeping in mind how each decision impacts everything else in your world.
Story construction:  If you're mostly a world builder, then choosing the viewpoint character will likely be the hardest part.  The best question Card asks here is "Who hurts the most?"  That person is the one you want for your protagonist, but not necessarily the viewpoint character (remember The Great Gatsby?).  Readers read to worry.  So that ought to be the guiding principle for viewpoint characters.  Who will see the really important events in your world?  Who will show the reader what to care about?
EXPOSITION - unlike capital letters - can be deadly dull.  To really see how exposition is handled well, I recommend reading thrillers.  In order to be an effective thriller writer, one has to give the reader just enough information to know what's going on and guess what might happen - but never a drop more than that and never less.  Less is cheating, more is stultifying.  In this chapter Card also has some hard hitting advice on how to read with an eye to revising and tightening your own story.

The last chapter talks about the realities of the writing life: the late royalties checks, the rejected manuscripts (yes, even after previous publication), the fluctuation of publisher advances.  And mor great advice on the business of writing.

In short, as an SF&F writer, this is a must-have book.  Sit at the feet of a master and learn. Then get back to your own projects.

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