Monday, March 04, 2013

Fiction Writing, World Building, Etc.

So I started writing the first few pages of a science fiction story, using as my starting point the questions I asked awhile back. The first cut was four pages, around 2,500 words, just to introduce my character and get myself used to writing fiction again (I'm a technical writer for my day job, and that uses the brain cells in a similar way). I have a story path laid out, but I keep going back to those first four pages. My second cut at them was to tighten up the writing and add or subtract useful/useless bits of prose.

However, I'm still not happy with it. If this is to be my introductory text, I need it to do a few things:
  • I need to establish my character. In this case, the scene begins with my protagonist, Mike, doing something atypical for him. A California sun-lover, he is not particularly fond of the cold, so I have him snowboarding. Why is he doing this? In the future I'm writing, people grow up in peer groups of ten ("tens," in fact), where the group will is more important than the individual. Mike does not like being in the cold, but he doesn't want to be disagreeable, either. The social sanctions against noncompliance are too strong. This gives Mike color and attitude because snowboarding rubs him wrong a couple of ways--he's independent-minded and doesn't like complying with his peer group and he doesn't like the cold. As a final layer of character development, Mike is a klutz. He has been genetically designed for intelligence, sociability, and health, but athletic ability appears not to been in his particular mix. So snowboarding presents him with a level of uncertainty and danger. It might sound sadistic, all this stuff I'm doing to poor Mike, but if he began the story happily and well-adjusted, how boring would that be? Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, in How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction, challenges new writers to ask, "Who hurts the most in your world?" As a rule, I'm anti-drama in my personal life, but I've learned that my fictional worlds need conflict or the reader gets bored.
  • I need to establish my style. I've read some absolute balderdash over the years, much of it because I was drawn into a narrative by the language of an author's opening paragraph. I've also struggled with or not bothered to buy books that failed to win me over in the first page, paragraph, or even sentence. Effortless or graceful writing takes work, as I've noted from reading the works and the writing habits of one of my favorite contemporary writers, Mary Doria Russell. She'll put a story through 50 drafts or so. Yikes! But the results are truly astounding. Her prose slips over my mind like water, and her stories are a pleasure to read. So the stylistic edit involves what Michelangelo might have called chipping away the unnecessary stone until the figure he saw within the marble appears.
  • I need to establish my world. This is where I need to go next. I've established my character in my mind and how he communicates--I've decided to go with a first-person narrative this time--but now I need to help the reader and myself better "see" the world of 2117. Snowboarding is a contemporary activity, somewhat familiar to a 21st century reader, so what would be different in the future? Several things can change: the board, the rider, or the environment in which the individual rides the board. I've already touched on why Mike is on this mountain, doing something he doesn't want to do. Do I need to do other things to show that social pressure? He's wearing a sapphire implant in place of one eye, and in that eye lives an artificially intelligent adviser that talks to him and provides a head-up display (HUD) to give him guidance and information on everything from the ambient temperature to the state of his health, as for example when he slips and falls while attempting to avoid a rock outcropping. If it's the future, would the board have safeguards to prevent that type of accident? That would reduce the danger and thus the tension. Is the implant really necessary, or has technology advanced to the point where some other mechanism can provide the HUD? Is the climate different? Maybe the future world climate is colder and he's snowboarding in June or July. How "different" do I make my world or character? Science fiction readers are used to being immersed in unusual environments, slang, and technology, with the expectation that the author will explain them at some point. Make things too different or indecipherable, however, and the reader might give up out of sheer frustration. 
The bottom line is, I don't think my scene is quite "there" yet. I need to put my character and through them my reader into the future I have in mind. I'll try to keep these entries going as a way to keep myself honest and help the interested reader or writer understand my personal creative process. If you have specific questions, I'll be happy to answer them.

No comments: