HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION: Lesson 5: “Don‘t force it”

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Welcome to our ongoing series of tips on how to write Science Fiction. I’m not sure that I have anything of any merit to teach you, but I am arrogant enough to try. I’m not a professional writer. Anything I say here should be taken as the braying of a jackass, and not as authoritative advice. I’m just saying what’s worked for me.

Feel free to ask questions or make comments below. If something requires expansion or explanation, or just rambling wise-ass comments, I’ll be happy to do it.

LESSON # 5: Don‘t force it.

We’ve all been there: you’ve got some great story in mind. You’ve got a beginning, a middle, and an end. You know exactly what you want to say, and how you want to say it, and how long it’ll take you to get there. Then you sit down to write it and….

…It just doesn’t work out that way.

Napoleon once said that no battle plan survived the first seconds of actual combat. Writing isn’t quite as extreme, of course, but I find that true in my case as well. Take, for instance, my “Undead” stories. My original intention was to write a story about a virtual character in a particular situation, doing a particular, important thing that saves the human race, after a fashion. It was intended as a short short story, ten pages or less. I found I had to keep explaining stuff to set up the premise. Finally I just decided to write a flashback explaining how the character had come to be, you know, virtual in the first place.

I’d intended it to be a paragraph or three at best, but it kept expanding and expanding and expanding until, around page five or so, still having not gotten to the story I intended to write, I finally realized I had been fundamentally misguided about *what* my story really was. In other words, I thought I needed to tell one particular story, but in the doing a different, arguably more interesting story emerged. So I rolled with it for a bit, expanding a few things, fiddling in another plot, then brought it to an organic end, and - viola - “The Undead in Heaven” was written, a more-or-less accidental prolog to the story I intended to tell.

Ok, fine, so I decided to tell the story I’d wanted to originally, now that I had all that out of the way. Alas, this one completely got out of hand as well, and ended up being completely different than I’d intended. I quickly realized once again that the *real* idea of the story wasn’t the one I had in mind, rolled with it, and “The Undead at War” was born. A question arose from that of how this guy gets money while I was trying, once again, to write the original story I’d had in mind, but, again it sprawled out of control, and now I had three stories and was no closer to the one that I’d wanted to tell. Then came a fourth, and I’m halfway through a fifth at the moment.

I didn’t get the story I wanted to tell, but I got nearly a half dozen others out of it, and more to come. Best of all, when it comes time to put all this “Undead” crap out to pasture, I already know the ending, because, as it happens, that’s the story I set out to write in the first place.

It goes the other way, too. When I sat down to start writing my “Redneck Universe” stories, I had envisioned four overlapping short stories taking place at the same time, and arising from the events of the first-ever starship’s first-ever return to earth after a twenty-five year mission. I’d intended a story about a lawyer that can’t fit back into civilian life, a Marine who goes all goofy and becomes a militant environmentalist, an oversexed girl, and a mopey engineer. The stories were effectively discrete, only brushing against each other at a couple points kind of the way Vonnegut’s “Mother Night” and “Slaughterhouse Five” do. I had them all crystal clear in my head, and knew how they were formed, what they needed to do.

And then, predictably, the story about the lawyer ate all the other stories. The over-sexed girl became his girlfriend, the mopey engineer became her ex, the Marine betrays them all. It happened by degrees. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t even realize how huge the lawyer’s story was until I was thirty-five pages in and realized I had little left to say with the other characters. I just rolled with it and kept going. Eventually, around 45,000 words, I realized I had a novel. I’d accomplished about 85% or 90% of what I’d intended to. The engineer got somewhat short-shifted, but it ended up setting the guy up for the “Bob” stories that Republibot 2.0 and I have been co-authoring. ( )

But I gained so much more! I was able to flesh out the fictional world of the story, explore nook that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, zig and zag with characters, and allow them to grow in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I thought ‘em up. And when the ending came - the ending I’d intended from the getgo, it had vastly more impact. Of course there’s no way to tell if the book is any good. It could very well suck, but - this is key - it sucks in a much more organic, fulfilling, and altogether grander way than anything of mine has sucked before.

If all that sounds horribly convoluted and inefficient, well, undeniably it is. But creation is a largely intuitive process. Nietzsche once said - I paraphrase - that when one is doing something artistic, when one is actively creating, that is the one time in our lives when we are not *reacting* to outside influences, and become something more than the sum of our parts. Such things are not building plans. They don’t respond well to a blueprint, though general notions are fine. If creation is intuitive, then it’s largely subconscious. If your main character keeps taking a back seat to someone else, it might be because the someone else is better suited to be the main character in that particular story. If you end up talking a *lot* about something tangential to your plot, maybe it’s because the tangent is where your plot really is. If your thousand-page novel ends up as a piece of flash fiction that just refuses to expand, maybe that’s because you don’t have enough story for something that might function as a doorstop. "Inspiration," when listened to, is the difference between art and a Tom Swift potboiler.

None of this is a criticism, it’s a basic rule of art, and it always has been. All of us have, at one point or another, had a sudden moment of brilliance that seemed to come out of nowhere - that one little arpeggio that suddenly makes the song work, that 3AM realization of how Calculus works, how to ask that girl out, whatever. Your subconscious continues to work on problems even when you’re not thinking about them, just chugging along, be it a month or five years, until it finally reaches a conclusion, and then it tells you. Of course most of us will have forgotten the initial question by then, so when inspiration hits, it almost feels like it didn’t come out of your own head, like someone or something just stuck it there. The ancients attributed this to the Muse because they didn’t know squat about psychology, didn’t realize it was your brain talking to itself, but there’s nothing supernatural or pagan about it.

It is, however, a gift. Listen to it when it hits, I can not stress this enough: when inspiration strikes, seize it, and pay attention to it. If a little voice says “That doesn’t make sense, do it this way” then do it. If the story won’t fit in the box you thought up for it, that’s probably your intuition telling you it didn’t really belong in that box. Listen to your dreams at night, write them down in the morning before you forget. Dreams are, in large part, your subconscious running around without a leash. Even if it doesn’t make any kind of linear sense, there’s some great stuff in there you can carve and polish. If a nightmare wakes you up, write the thing down while you’re cooling off. That’s where my story “The Truth About Lions and Lambs” came from - a particularly nasty nightmare that I couldn’t shake ( ). Scary is good. It’s not my normal storytelling style, but hey: you get handed a great big slab of raw gothic horror like that, you really do need to cook it up and serve it.

Intuition is a reflex you can develop into a skill. The more you listen, the more often you’ll hear, and the more likely you’ll be able to judge if it’s right or not. Your “Muse” is not always right. My story “Earth to Doris” is a rambling mess. It’s eight times longer than intended, built around the tiniest punch line, and I’m still nowhere near the end. I’m still plowing through it, though because it might redeem itself in the end. Your subconscious is not a writing machine that does stuff for you, it just gives moments of inspiration if you’re paying attention. If it leads you wildly astray, well, that’s what editing is for.