Dove Arising – Teens in a Double #Dystopia #ScienceFictionBook

DoveI must admit that I did not finish this book. It belongs to the “teens fighting in dystopia” science fiction genre like its more famous sister The Hunger Games. I think I’ve OD’ed on this genre for the moment, so my reaction may not be fair to Karen Bao. Her book includes two dystopias – one on the Moon and one on Earth. The idea of a Moon Base set up by people escaping conflicts on Earth is neat and I enjoyed reading about the base. The young-teen protagonist enters military service for an admirable reason: to earn money to save her family and especially her mother, who has been quarantined for expensive medical care.

Bao’s book is published by the Penguin Group, a well-established traditional publisher, so my comments refer to Penguin’s editing as well as Bao’s writing. I compared the book to a few of the bits of writing advice I keep running into.

  • First is a trend I’ve read about to avoid or at least reduce descriptions of characters. The idea here is that modern readers want to create their own vision of a character. Bao bucks this trend (if it really is a trend) by including descriptions, though they are not detailed. For example: “awkwardly tall body resembles the skinny tree,” “eyes so dark I can’t tell where the pupils and irises meet,” “eyes the…shade of onyx,” “full cheeks and black hair.”
  • A more established writing tip is to avoid saidisms – that is, avoid any words other than “said” or “asked” as dialog tags. Bao tags a lot of her dialog with action as the tip advises:”‘Ah!’ When he spots Tinbie, he hurries to the table.” Though, tips do advise avoiding exclamation marks. But she also uses quite a few saidisms: whispers, drawls, continues, cries, rasps, sobs.
  • Show Don’t Tell, a well established tip to avoid narrative explanations. Bao “tells” quite a bit, especially about how her world works and its history.

So my bottom line is: a traditionally-published author and her publisher are willing to ignore some standard writing advice and still be fairly successful – three and a half stars from thirty-nine reviews on Amazon – a record I would be happy to have. And while I didn’t finish the book, if you are looking for a book in this genre, I’d say give it a try.

More of my posts on writing tips:

Successful Novel Defies Standard Advice – Never Let Me Go

Sphere: Hit SciFi Novels Follows Some Advice, Flaunts Other

Stephen King’s Writing Advice

Maze Runner and Writing Advice

“Star Wars is the ultimate example of Rule of Cool. None of the technology in Star Wars makes a lick of sense, but we love it anyway, because it is awesome.”

Sci-fi “guns”

Writers’ Resource: Critiques Available


Take That! Standard Writing Advice #ScienceFictionBook #MazeRunner

Maze RunnerThere are lots of writing tips out there. I am reading popular science fiction to help me understand the “rules”.

The Maze Runner (book one of a series that also includes a prequel) certainly qualifies as popular. It rates 4 1/2 stars out of 5 on Amazon, with 324 reviews for the version I checked, and was recently made into a movie. It’s easy to read and I finished it in a weekend. I feel a bit overdosed on teenagers in dystopian worlds, so I don’t think I’ll read the next book.

The story’s setting is its strongest point – an enormous maze built from unclimbably-tall walls, some of which move at night, inhabited by weird and highly imaginative monsters. (How could movie makers resist these way-cool monsters?) The monsters may wander the maze during the day, but always, murderously, come out at night. Several dozen teenage boys live in the safe, central “Glade” where they raise crops and farm animals. Memories of their previous lives have been “wiped” and a new boy arrives once a month on an underground elevator. A few “runners” map the changing maze each day, seeking a way out. In over two years, they have failed to solve the maze.

The story follows Thomas, the latest arrival.

It seems obvious that author James Dashner intended The Maze Runner to be the first book in a series. Writing advice says “each book in the series must have satisfactory individual story arc resolutions.” It’s hard to discuss the ending without spoilers, but, while there is a major development, there is no solid ending to The Maze Runner – the ending sets up the next book. This criticism pops up in reviews of the movie, too. Thomas and the surviving boys (sort of) learn why the maze was created and why they were imprisoned there. The actions of the Creators of the maze seem counter-productive to their own goals – how did this help them? Baffling. And one of the characters, the only girl to ever arrive at the Glade, seems superfluous, only introduced to be there at the start of the next book.

One review on Amazon says such criticisms are misplaced, that everything is explained in the rest of the series. If you love the book, realizing there are two more books to buy may be a good thing. Personally, I appreciate each book in a series having its own ending.

Here are a few more observations.

Advice: Edit out typos.

Dashner’s book was beautifully edited.

Advice: Show, don’t tell.

Dashner provides a lot of action, so he follows this well. I did notice that the characters often refuse to answer each others questions. A little “telling” among characters would have been okay with me.

Advice: “There’s a concept behind [a series] that ties the books together and gives readers a reason to come back book after book… This concept will be at the heart of every core conflict. It will likely be the thing you say first when describing your series to people, as it will define what the series is about.” Janice Hardy

Dashner: The hook for The Maze Runner is definitely the maze, and it seems unlikely to me that the maze will reappear in the rest of the series. The second book has equally stellar reviews on Amazon, so this doesn’t seem to have been a problem.

Advice: Avoid saidisms – that is, the tags on dialogue should only be “he said” “she said” and, where it’s clear who’s speaking, drop them entirely.

Dashner: He mostly avoids saidisms – for example:

  • Thomas nodded at him. “A beetle?”
  • “Cuz you’re the newest Newbie.” Chuck pointed at Thomas and laughed.

But he’s not afraid of saidisms:

  • “asked” (To me, this one seems impossible to avoid when the dialog’s a question.)
  • “shouted”
  • “responded”
  • “murmured”
  • “demanded”
  • “yelled”
  • “replied”

A few times I stopped reading to go back to specifically check on what Dashner had used, so his saidisms didn’t interfere with my reading. But saidism advice is repeated so often, I’m intimidated and try to stick to “said” and “ask” in my own writing.

One other note on dialog. Dashner uses invented swear words, and uses them liberally. (Is it true teenage boys can’t form a sentence without a vulgarity?) It worked okay for me, perhaps because invented swear words don’t hit the same spot in my brain as real ones. I find endless use of swear words annoying.

Advice: Characters should have demographic, family, and psychological histories.

Dashner’s whole premise of the boys having their memories wiped negates this advice. Take that! standard advice.

If you’ve read The Maze Runner and can compare Dashner to standard writing advice, or have other thoughts on writing advice, please leave a comment. Let us know what you think.

These are links to some of my other posts on writing tips:

Writers’ Resource: Critiques Available

Successful Novel Defies Standard Advice

Sphere: Hit SciFi Novels Follows Some Advice, Flaunts Other

Stephen King’s Writing Advice

Destiny in Dystopian World Results in the Book “Divergent” #WritingTips #scifi #review #bookreview

divergentDivergent is one of the current crop of dystopias, perhaps inspired by Hunger Games, where teenagers fight each other and sometimes kill. Divergent offers a society inhabited by people like us in a world detached from time and place. It might be a future Chicago since there are a few references like Michigan Avenue and the Hancock Building, but the location doesn’t matter. The technology in this world seems about like ours (although fluorescent lights are called “ancient”) except with more advanced mind manipulation techniques.

In this world, citizens are separated into five factions that dislike and distrust each other. The factions are based on the virtues they venerate – Candor values honesty; Abnegation (now there’s a word!) – selflessness; Dauntless – bravery; Amity – peacefulness; and Erudite – intelligence. But an individual’s personality also has an influence. At age sixteen, a virtual reality test is given to determine if the teen fits their parents’ faction and only the teen is supposed to know the test’s outcome. Then they must choose the faction they will live with the rest of their lives. A bit contrived, but I always give a story it’s premise if possible.

The hero is a girl who changes factions and must struggle through a training and initiation period that is both mentally and physically grueling. Most of the book follows her through these trials with the friends and enemies she makes along the way. Eventually she discovers a dark plot brewing and must move beyond her own problems. Towards the end, some adults actually take positive roles.

Thousands of reviewers on Amazon love this book. A comparative few simply couldn’t accept the premise or didn’t like the characters, or felt Divergent compared poorly to Hunger Games. Some felt “there are way too many books about kids killing each other these days.” (Lisa Babcock).

The book kept me reading right along. This is clearly the first book in a series, and some interesting elements, like “factionless” loners, were introduced (I assume) to be used in the next book. The book does, however, have an ending of its own. Perhaps if you’ve ODed on teen dystopias, you should give the genre a rest. But otherwise this is a good read.

Writing Advice
I’ve been trying to learn something about writing science fiction as I read successful novels.

I found it interesting that the world of Divergent only adds one “high-tech” improvement – mind manipulation. Fists, knives, and guns form the weaponry. Everything from transportation to food seems pretty mundane. This may be a wise choice. Trying to introduce and explain multiple technologies may produce a pedantic book. Omitting explanations may leave readers bewildered. It’s a tough call because, for me, experiencing a different world is part of the fun of science fiction and obviously the future (or an alternate universe) will be different from my world in many ways.

A writing tip I’ve seen is to grab the reader with action in the first 250 words. Divergent begins with the hero (first person narration and present tense) looking at herself in the mirror and thinking. Suspense is added shortly after as she worries about her aptitude test and we begin to learn about her world.

Did it work? Even some of the book’s fans say it starts slow. The start didn’t stop me from reading, but then, personally, I don’t need a James Bond movie sort of first scene.

In Writing Fight Scenes, Rayne Hall recommends:

  • Build suspense with the immediate preliminaries,
  • Avoid prolonged stretches of blow-by-blow description,
  • Provide a surprise – (something happens that is outside the fighters’ control) and a climax when the character may be close to giving up or being defeated.
  • Depending on how realistic the story, an aftermath should take stock, feel pain, and check injuries.

Divergent follows this advice fairly well across a series of fights, though without the surprise/climax. Like most action adventures, I suspect in reality the characters would be reduced to hospitalized immobility by some of the action scenes, but we all seem to accept that in movies so why not in books.

I am closer to understanding “show don’t tell” advice. When Roth writes

The houses on my street are all the same size and shape. They are made of gray cement, with few windows, in economical, no-nonsense rectangles”

I think she is showing me the street via description. “Show and Tell” also relates to pacing: To write “I try to smile convincingly” takes fewer words than describing her appearance. How would you even describe that face so readers would easily understand?

Some adverbs do creep in violating the advice to choose a better word rather than add an adverb. But I think even Stephen King slips an adverb in occasionally.

As for “saidisms,” Roth mostly sticks to “say” and “ask” as current advice recommends.

Sphere, a Hit Science Fiction Book :) #amreading #review #bookreview #scifi

SphereIn my attempt to understand writing advice, I’m reading popular science fiction novels with an eye to learning. I recently read Sphere by Michael Crichton. The book has a 4 1/2 star average on Amazon with 831 reviews, 83% of them giving 4 or 5 stars. That’s beyond popular – it’s phenomenal. The criticism I noticed most was from readers who disliked the ending. There was a one-star review that said “a book that kept me up until 3 a.m.” but the reviewer didn’t like the ending. As a new author, I think I’d be thrilled with that review.

As a reader, I enjoyed the book and happily read to the end. Like some reviewers on Amazon, I noticed a similarity to the classic scifi movie Forbidden Planet, but the setting is different enough that it didn’t bother me. Crichton is known for basing his stories on science, and Sphere includes a neat view of life in a deep (really deep) sea habitat. Since the story is fiction, the author is entitled to departures from reality even in the (presumably) real portions of the story. For example, after a description of how sounds go squeaky in a helium-dominated atmosphere, each character hangs a “talker” around their neck. I wonder if there is such a thing, or if it’s simply convenient that they speak in normal tones for the rest of the story. (I often wonder how much nonsense is inside my head because of something I read in fiction that sounded real enough to believe.)

Did Crichton follow typical writing advice?

The advice: Characters should have demographic, family, and psychological histories.
Crichton gave his protagonist some perfunctory family background that, for me, could have been skipped entirely. The protag’s technical background as an academic psychologist is important to the story and Crichton offers an entire chapter on this. I found that chapter interesting, but the story would have been the same if Crichton wrote one paragraph saying ‘he’s a big-shot psychologist.’ It was a “data dump” but it didn’t discourage me from continuing to read.
Why did it work? Crichton interspersed the data dump with some comic elements (political big-shots asking silly questions about aliens). He presented the dump early, so it did not interrupt the action. He limited his data dumps: other main characters were given technical backgrounds that supported what they did in the story, but only the protag at the data dump level.

The advice: Show, don’t tell.
Crichton “told” often. Some was in context – the leader gives a briefing to new arrivals. Some was blatant telling in the narrator voice: “Many theorists argued… Men already had trouble communicating… Yet men and dolphins might appear virtually identical… But the field of knowledge we were most likely to share…” That is the beginning of each of a string of paragraphs. The “telling” ends by coming back to why “the team mathematician was going to play a crucial role.” Crichton often simply tells something, then proceeds to use the information in the story. But some of his telling is not critical to the story.
Why did it work? It was easy to swallow. For me, the science in the “telling” sounded real and interesting. Otherwise, the “told” information was slipped in easily and used immediately.
The advice: Avoid “saidisms”. He said, she said, is best unless you can drop the “said” altogether because it’s obvious who spoke.
This is advice Crichton follows. And, rather than inserting the dreaded adverb, Crichton couples dialog with action:

  • “‘Oh my God,’ she said. She pushed her thick dark hair away from her face.” (As an added bonus, this character’s physical description becomes a plot point late in the book);
  • “Norman went on in a rush. ‘And when does Jerry…'”

The advice: details of the setting must matter to the story and be there for a reason. The character’s perception of the setting matters more than objective description.
Crichton follows this advice. The setting is strange and unfamiliar, inherently dangerous – a deep sea habitat with helium-dominant atmosphere. Crichton is known for the science and technology behind his settings. His descriptions gave me a good picture of what it would be like in such a place and I can follow how it falls apart during the story. The main character often gives his personal perception of the setting.

What did I learn? Crichton puts in words that are necessary to the story or the setting. Description creates reality for the reader, and Crichton creates a believable world. Where showing would cost a lot of words, he tells the reader something simply – then uses the information (though I might quibble on some of the backstory).

While no single book makes everyone happy, Sphere is a smash hit. I’ll try to learn from it. If you’ve read Sphere, why do you think it worked? Or not?

By the way, Sphere’s copyright is 1987. Do you think I’m making a mistake looking at an older book for guidance? Has the measure of fiction writing changed enough in thirty years to make its appeal irrelevant?

On Writing, Memoir Of The Craft #writing #amwriting #writingtips

On WritingI have tried my hand at writing fiction, so perhaps you’ll allow me a self-indulgent review: Stephen King’s book On Writing.

He defines stories as “vividly imagined waking dreams,” a form of telepathy between writer and reader over time and space. He also notes that “most books about writing [fiction] are filled with bullshit… shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”

The first seventy pages (of a two-hundred page book) talk about his life, mostly childhood and early influences. He started submitting short stories to magazines in his teens, when a few hand-written words on a form-letter rejection were cause for celebration. King thinks this is still the way to get started, especially to get an agent: get your stories published by little outlets (that may only pay in copies of their magazine); that’s how you build your credentials. (I should point out that the book has a copyright of 2000, so King’s advice pre-dates the recent boom in self-publishing, especially of ebooks.)

It’s a nice introduction to King’s style, but I must admit that, anxious to get to his writing advice, I skimmed much of it.

I’m going to include a lot of King’s specific advice; because I’m sure you’re more interested in his opinions than in mine. King offers advice about the mechanics of writing:

  • Use The Elements of Style.
  • Avoid the passive voice – King thinks people write in passive because they are fearful or think it sounds impressive, but it’s weak.
  • Purge adverbs! “The adverb is not your friend” and “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
  • Vocabulary – “don’t make any conscious effort to improve it… use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.”
  • “The best form of dialogue attribution is ‘said’ as in ‘he said, she said.'”
  • Paragraphs should be neat and utilitarian.
  • When he presents a “rule” he also discusses exceptions and authors who successfully violate the rule.

I think the core of the book is about how to be a writer of stories. Some of his comments sound discouraging: “If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well,” and “if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you.” (If you’re a great writer, no one knows how you got there.) But King also mentions the joy and “buzz” of writing several times and says practice can make a competent writer into a good writer.

King’s “Great Commandment” is to “read a lot and write a lot,” four to six hours a day. “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life” and “the more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself.”

He also advises writers to be brave. “Fear is at the root of most bad writing… Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”

King says that “stories make themselves.” He finds stories like fossils in the ground, part of an pre-existing world. Find a story and give it a place to grow.

Stories and novels consist of three parts: narration (to move the story), description (to create reality for the reader), and dialogue (to bring characters to life). Plot is not one of these parts.

I admit to some confusion over the difference between “plot” and “story”, but for King plotting ruins spontaneity. Outlines and character notes are “tyranny” and a strong enough situation renders plot moot.

For his own work, King bases each book on a situation where a group of characters (flat and featureless as he begins) are in some predicament and they try to work themselves free.

King’s writing method is interesting. He says:

  • Set up a simple, humble work space without distraction and close the door.
  • Write every day – if you don’t, characters become stale and you’ll lose hold of plot and pace.
  • Be honest about how your characters speak and behave, even if they are ignorant, bigoted, or otherwise silly or disreputable.
  • Back-story helps define characters and motivation, so get it in quickly but remember that most of it isn’t interesting. Flashbacks strike him as boring and corny. It’s easy to fall in love with your back-story and research (which is a form of back-story), so pay close attention to any back-story that bores your beta readers.
  • A typical novel’s first draft should take no more than three months, written at 2000 words a day and only under “dire circumstances” do less. (He allows a beginner to only do 1000 words a day.)
  • After the first draft is done, put it in a drawer for six weeks and work on something else. Then take it out, read it, and do a second draft. As you read your first draft, look for the theme and pacing so you can add things that enhance those features and delete things that detract.
  • Don’t share your draft until you feel it is reasonably reader-friendly. King discusses the roles of his Ideal Reader and beta readers.
  • After a third draft or polish, King sends his manuscript off (in his case, to agent and publisher), but notes that by the time the “damn smelly old thing” is in print, he’s been over it a dozen times or more.
  • I appreciate that he mentions one of my favorite things several times: Afternoon naps.

There’s more: writing classes and seminars, how to find and evaluate an agent, use of description and narrative, a first and second draft of a piece of his own writing, and a long list of books he’s read. For a short book, it’s packed with information.

For me, the most unexpected part of the book was near the end. King includes an account of his near fatal accident in 1999. If you want to know what it’s like to be struck by a van while you’re out for a walk, this is the section to read. On Writing was the book he was working on, and five weeks after the accident that nearly killed him, he began writing again.

Whether you’re interested in Stephen King or in writing fiction, On Writing has something you’ll enjoy. For writers, take heart: “The scariest moment is just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”

More on writing tips here.