Sci-Fi Tropes – Because You Liked Angels

Gates of Heaven by Hubble Telescope

Since people seemed interested in the idea of fantasy tropes, and I write sci-fi as well, here are a few that often find their way into science fiction. There are even some overlaps, but I didn’t include them here. I focused more on the books that represent these ideas.

1. Robots – Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories set the standard. The distrust of any artificial intelligence has made its place in sci-fi to the point that real designers actually use the author suggestions when considering how to program their machines. In movies, the Terminator series uses this distrust idea. It reflects the fantasy trope of pastoral ideal.

2. Interstellar Travel: George Lucas’s Star Wars and Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Yes, I honor both.  The very terms FTL, Warp and interstellar were first used in science fiction and now have been adapted to science fact.  It is a given, if you have space and those bright lights in the sky, you need to travel to visit them, and that takes time and speed. And believe it or not, the scientists who work on these ideas refer to the likes of Star Trek just to think outside the box a bit.

3. Time Travel: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. “By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein. Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. Closely related to interstellar travel is the ability to travel through time.  In a way this is more attractive because you can then manipulate and change what you know, rather than deal with all the things you don’t know. And what fun possibilities to write about when you mess something up in your timeline.

4. Superpowers: Superman by Joel Siegel and Joe Schuster. Spider-Man by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.  Both sci-fi and fantasy entail superpowers but they split in how the originate. In fantasy, it usually means you are the prophesied one. In science fiction, it’s usually the result of a scientific experiment or mishap.  The possibilities allow for imaginative ways to gain, use, abuse and fight superpowers. Again, if you write this way, be sure to provide your own twist on them.

5. Bodily Transformation: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  Closely tied to the superpowers is the transformations that go with them.  The theme of dealing with the bad side-effects is common.  Rare is the ‘you are more beautiful’ after undergoing a bodily transformation. In my own work, the transformation goes multiple ways, and allows us to explore race and beauty in new, non-linear ways.

6. Parallel Universe: “Mirror, Mirror”, Star Trek. Fringe. Ever since the ideas of dimensions (1st – a point, 2nd – a line, 3rd – mass, 4th – time) was defined, authors have been speculating ‘what would the 5th dimension be’?  Bring on the wild theories and in what kind of universe would get to go see it. Science believes that there are innumerable alternative universes. Write on!

7. Alien Invasion: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.  With the parallel universe and interstellar travel, it opens the gates to who might be on the other side.  As Carl Sagan claimed, ‘If there isn’t life out there, it seems a terrible waste of space.’  There’s got to be someone/thing out there.  And of course they are just as curious and evil as humanity.

8. Immortality: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. The Highlander franchise.  Closely related to the superpowers, immortality can be gained or natural.   Both the good and bad of living forever must be explored. Some argue that this should be in the fantasy camp, but again, it changes in how immortality is obtained. In that case, Highlander probably should be a fantasy.

9. The Post-Apocalyptic World: Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. George Miller’s The Road Warrior. This trope has evolved to be a genre all in itself. The Bible introduced the term apocalypse, the end of the world.  What if you survived something that ends everything else you know?  What a wonderful thing to investigate. So many ways to die…or survive.

I’m sure there are more tropes than these. Please feel free to comment and make suggestions of others. Someone once said there are only seven original story lines. However, following a trope and making it yours with a unique twist certainly allows a reader to fill up their library with more than seven novels.

Fantasy Tropes – How Angels Fly

Tropes in fantasy are wonderful to consider. Often it is the idea, not the character that provokes me and prods me into writing it. How would a normal human (often my people are just that) react to having access to one of these tropes?

1. A Secondary World — A world whose connection with our present day world ranges from nominal to non-existent. It could be the remote past or future, or simply a-historical. The inhabitants can be anything from human only, through the standard elves, dwarves and orcs, to a complete Fantasy Kitchen Sink. Just remember, usually magic takes the place of technology, so cars aren’t needed if you can simply wink out.

2. Pastoral Ideal — Much genre fantasy, of all genres, appeals to the pastoral ideal, the perfect quiet scene.  That’s the reason for medieval settings. Even urban fantasies will quite often depict cities as blots on the landscape, whose citizens are blinded by the material stuff, to what really matters. There are some fantasies, however, which either deliberately take the opposite stance or present a more balanced worldview. For me, I want that pastoral ideal simply because I’m an introvert.

3. Functional Magic is almost always present, though its role in the world can vary widely. It might be either respected, feared, persecuted, or simply not believed in. Its frequency varies from the stuff of legend, through to rare but available to the well connected, up to an obvious part of everyday life. Magic usually lies at the extreme ends of this scale. It may be taught through a master and apprentice system, or in a magical university, when it can be taught at all. When wizards are immortal, they don’t need to train successors, and may not be able to.

4. Undiscovered or Unexpected Powers – Unless your life is way cooler than mine, most of us don’t walk around thinking we’re beyond extraordinary. Sure, sometimes I feel pretty spectacular after drinking orange juice, but I don’t feel super-powered necessarily. The true creativity here is finding something unique enough to be worthy of writing.

5. Flawed and Feisty Heroes and Heroines

A good story is nothing without a worthy protagonist. They cannot, however be perfect and do everything right the first time.  Fantasy does few things better than putting the spotlight on capable, compelling young people, flaws and all.

6. The Unready Royalty

Lavish palaces and elegant balls are all well and good, but it’s often most exhilarating to gaze upon them with fresh eyes. That’s why the hero or heroine thrust unexpectedly or abruptly into the royal realm is so particularly delicious. Harry Potter might not seem royal, but in the Wizarding World of Rowling, he’s at least the crown prince.

7.  Dangerous Games

Often, what lends unease to these unknown worlds is a marquee event, the ultimate test: a game that’s most definitely not for fun. It’s a test of skill with phenomenal consequences. Whether it comes as a wide-eyed surprise or at the conclusion of years of training, the results are high-stakes and all-consuming.

So Do You Need An Editor?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is above. A friend of mine asked what kind of editor she needs if she has a friend who is doing that for her. I don’t know what kind of editor her friend is, but I know you cannot do it yourself. Years later, you still see errors in what you’ve written and you swore you went through it dozens of times. You probably did, but unfortunately it is human nature to see what we expect to see.

Granted, some of these are for professional writers who work with the big 5 publishers. They write on demand and have to churn out what is demanded and on trend. That could never be me, so no developmental editor.

A line editor makes the difference between JK Rowling and Charles Dickens. They examine each line and make sure it’s readable for the audience. Is it lively. That nasty passive voice slips in and suddenly your words sound like an amateur self-published voyeur who wants to say they’ve written a published book. They also catch the ‘what on earth was I trying to say with that?’ problems I find after I’ve not read my book in months.

The copy editor represents what we think when we say the editor. They know their to, too, twos and accept/except better than they know their own name. They also catch those things that years later break your confidence when it pops up like a typo.

Fortunately my publisher provides a proof reader as well as an editor. This person needs to be so precise and speak geek to know that everything looks good on the page, even after it becomes a digital format. Three hundred years ago this would be the person putting tiny little type backwards on each page. Bless them and their attention to detail.

Finally the acquisition editor goes back to the big 5 publisher. They reach out and seek the books that their company plans on publishing. They know what they want and go find it or requisition it from the stable of authors working for that company.

Oh, and for my friend, the editor I called a continuity editor, a developmental editor. Good Luck.

Keeping It Normal – Publishing in Covid

I have been using this summer to write pretty intensively. Normally I would have book #4 of my Wise Ones series out and I would be preparing to sell it actively at the state fair. Not this year. Like many things, Covid-19 has thrown everything into a maelstrom. My sister Paula couldn’t finish the illustration soon enough. Then the publishing company, with everyone in lockdown, became delayed. Believe it or not, the toilet paper issues the US had impacted the paper printing industry such that they aren’t taking orders for books, but refitting for TP production. 
With that said, we’re now on the way. The manuscript has been sent to my publisher and in the editing process. I managed to get the cover image (a very large file) sent to Next Chapter. They’ve now sent it back with the font applied. I’m attaching it here, but I have one concern. In all the other books, my name is at the top and the title is on the bottom. Paula even made the skyline very pretty for that purpose. However, Next Chapter disagrees and sent me this. I’d like to know your thoughts. Should the author’s name be separated from the title or placed where it is in this cover?

By the way, I still don’t have a publication date. It usually has taken three months after I turn it over to them. As we know, however, nothing this year is going as expected. I’m just looking forward to trying to make normal things happen no matter the obstacles.

Head Bobbing – How to Add Confusion

Head-bobbing or Bobble-heading?

I spend a lot of time writing during the summer, especially one like 2020. I need to write just to stay sane and avoid watching the news or drowning in social media. However, I can only write so much before I need a break. So I read a great deal as well. Right now, I’m reading book #9 of my Wise Ones, and I have some severe problems. The main one jumping out right now is head-bobbling!

What’s that? Head-bobbing happens when an author jumps from one person’s perspective to another in a third-person point of view narrative. Well, doesn’t that have to occur if you’re going to hear what another character says to a question, or within a conversation in general? Yes, and that is fine. You have to hear both sides of a conversation. You don’t have to hear what’s going on in both their heads.

When you write character A, “Lovely day we’re having,” she said wearily, wishing that the heat would let up just a bit so she could go on a walk.

Character B says, “Yes, I agree, want to go for a walk?” he replied with an eye to throwing her in the river and drowning her. 

That’s where the problem resides. You can’t read the thoughts of both characters. That’s head-bobbing and it’s a big no-no that I did repeatedly early in my writing career…like in book #9.

Now, no one taught me this little gem until I was ready to publish for the first time, Head-bobbing is a fairly easy thing to do, but only agents, editors, and publishers know about this rule. I would guess half of the authors on the planet have done this and only found out it was against the rules when they tried to publish their book. It took an agent telling me about it, and I’m an English teacher. You’d think I would have known. No, just those few who got their degrees in publishing or editing. Maybe a few creative writing majors out there. Certainly, no one who writes as a hobby and life-line has heard it. 

Well, now you have. Quit doing it. Often, if you remove the thoughts of character B and do some foreshadowing of the imminent drowning, the writing will be more concise, include more tensity, and won’t lose you in the transitions. Now you know.

Beta Readers – Not Just Pretty Fish

Pretty but vicious

The beautiful azure blue fish with its feathery tail twists among the reeds. Its fins flare out larger than the fish itself like an angel’s wings. Yet this glorious fish hides something vicious. It is a betta fish and protects its territory against all comers. This devilish fish has a great deal in common with the other territorial beauty, the beta reader.

First, a beta reader, the person you ask (yes and sometimes pay) to read your book before you are ready to send it to an editor, is just as territorial as the fish. I have several I have asked to read. All of them are friends, but not ones who would feel awkward about telling me that something stinks. One person has six kids and is careful about what they read, so she looks with a careful eye to appropriateness. She’s the one who told me you couldn’t feed a newborn baby on cow’s milk. I had to rework a scene to bring in goat’s milk just for her. Another beta read groused about the fact that I had bales of hay in a culture incapable of using equipment beyond a scythe. Like I said, territorial.

Beta readers also can be vicious. I invite them to make my writing bleed like a horror show. What words should I use? I don’t hire professional readers or people with English degrees because grammar isn’t the issue. I want them to tell me to my face when they got lost or confused. Gee, this part is really slow. Is there something you can do to jazz it up there? As a writer, I know exactly what is going on in my story, but we don’t often see when someone else can’t read my mind. It’s my job to make it clear and a beta reader’s job to be sure I know it isn’t clear.

The hardest part of using a beta reader is finding one. Right now I am beta reading for the daughter of my colleague and frankly, I’m not liking it. It’s not my genre, and I hate to tell her that her flashpoint (where the crisis is revealed) is way too late in the story. As a beta reader, I’ll tell her it’s too boring for me to finish, but will she take my advice? Does she expect me to fix it? I hope not. That’s like having two betta fish in a bowl. It ain’t pretty.

Sequels – Write On Or Not

I fit none of the above

Sequels are a strange thing for many people. Why wouldn’t you write a sequel if the book is good? Movies do it all the time. What’s the big deal? Well, that depends on how you work as an author, and if it’s a wise thing to try.

First, you need to consider if you can do it. If you plot out your novel beforehand and can have an adequate cliffhanger or some kind of unfinished tension to build on, maybe you can do that. Remember, a reader is going to expect a climax at the end that is somewhat resolved and yet makes them want to continue on.  For writers like me who plot as they go, this can be problematic. I stop writing when I run out of ideas and am ready for the prepped resolution, not when the story ends.

Another thing to consider is the genre of the work. We put so much into the setting, the magic, the creatures, and physics of the world in a fantasy novel. It seems a shame to throw it away on just one book. Such a genre begs for sequels, which is why three at the minimum usually gets done. However, if you write romance novels, you don’t dare make a sequel unless it follows a completely different set of characters. If Lizzy doesn’t get Mr. Darcy, no one would read it. If you left it on a cliffhanger, the readers would protest. The best you can do is find Mary a guy. Now there’s a challenge.

Then you have to deal with your fan base. They expect you to continue if you’re any good, but do you want to keep going. Are you bored with the characters? Can they continue to grow? Has it gone on too long, and is each sequel getting worse? I had that problem with the Wise One series. My writing improved as I went, but at a certain point, I had ‘painted myself into a corner’ as it were. The books were all finished, but did I sustain the quality throughout? Is there enough variety between each of the storylines? Is the style consistent? What about continuity within the entire arc and is there an arc that sustains it all? As a result, you cannot publish any of them until you are satisfied with all of them. 

We’ve all wanted to see what happened to a character we have loved. How did Minas Tirith and Gondor do under Aragon’s rule? Did all the elves leave Middle Earth? How was Harry’s life after school and working at the ministry? Did Mary Bennett ever find someone to love? But you have to remember, an author is a real person and the people we love are fictional. The show may go on, but the lives of characters do not, sadly.

Save Me From Myself – Write a Review

Once, on one crazed train ride in 1993, I calculated how many hours I had into the first book I wrote to completion.  Sea Queen, book #9 of the Wise Ones series is about 80,000 words.  These are the very sad results of my dance with a calculator.

Please be aware that I spent a good ten years, most of my adolescence not officially writing.  Instead, I gathered ideas, doodling maps, making character sketches, and daydreaming, which I do not count. I’m just focusing on the actual hours spent in front of a computer with a cursor moving across the page. I average about 2,000 words a day, which takes about six hours. Forty days of just writing to make an 80,000-word book.  Then you throw in at least that many days to revise and then forty more to edit.  That ends up as 720 hours of work just to get it ready for printing.

It sounds pathetic, like very little work, although I assure you I rarely wrote for six hours every day and I often took breaks of several hours for sleeping and eating. I even made a living during that time.

So if I were to ignore the time finding and working with my publisher, and they are selling my book for $10.00, of which I get $2.50, how much am I making an hour? I am making $.0003 an hour for the book.  How is that?  I’d have to sell over 1000 books before I made $1.00 an hour. I’d have to sell millions of copies if I were going to make a living. And I don’t sell that many, trust me.

Good thing I don’t need to sell any books to feel fulfilled. I want to write even if I never make a cent.  However, it would be nice to make something. So how can my dear readers help this author make money if you only buy a book?  If you really want to ‘pay’ an author, more than the $.0003 an hour, I make one request.  Write a review.

Amazon, BookBub, Goodreads, or any other online format is great for a review, and you can use the same review in all these places. The more reviews I have, the higher my book displays in searches. If I display higher, I sell more books. Word of mouth is the best way to sell books. My readers (teens and twenty-somethings) are more likely to buy books they hear about from others than if they see advertisements. Most of my reviews are good, but I know that there could be more of them. If even half of my readers wrote reviews I’d be far better off. 

Did I tell you how much I detest numbers? That’s what this whole blog post is about.  Petting a scorpion, like my picture.  It certainly would be much more entertaining.

Outsiders – A Case for Literature

Escape with me

As another school year staggers and stumbles to a close, one of my English students asked me, ‘Why do we have to read a whole book?’  Such a question pains me. He’s not a great reader and finds an entire novel a burden. I find short stories as annoying as he does reading an entire 185-page copy of The Outsiders. Yet his question has merit.  Why do we bother studying literature in our modern age? 

First, be aware, I gathered this list, for there are many greater and deeper thinkers on this topic than I.  However, my initial thought was imagination. I find that my students, especially those who dread reading, have no imagination. They cannot think for themselves and invariably assume there’s a right answer and they just need to find it in one specific paragraph. Literature requires an imagination, which then launches to other skills like curiosity, exploration, and a flexible mind. A video screen can never provide vivid and wide-ranging thoughts that words invoke.

Next, literature provides an escape, especially in this day and age. I want to walk the streets of ancient Troy, tread in the Sea of Tranquility or overlook Dune, and none of that is possible even if travel bans were lifted. Going down a rabbit hole or rocketing to a galaxy far, far away requires words written by someone else, and I will take it from there.

There are studies that demonstrate that avid readers are more empathetic, kind to others, and have a more resilient and flexible mind. Mark Twain once wrote, “Travel (even if that travel is in your book) is fatal to prejudice, narrowmindedness, and bigotry.” Isn’t that something we need right now?

Another aspect of literature is its ability to connect us to our culture and past. If I reference a trojan horse, another circle of hell, a white whale, or a grinch, I’ve dipped into what it means to be a well-read person in America. Others around me know what these images mean and do not expect me to say it in boring language. Shakespeare created many of these great cultural links over four hundred years ago and we still ask ‘to be or not to be’.  We need them to tie us to what we used to know.

And even if you cannot endure the thought of a great piece of literature taking you to uncomfortable places, it still allows you the quiet contemplation and self-examination needed to strengthen yourself. You can be reverent and entertain yourself without imposing on others or adding to the noise and confusion of the day. We need that literature if only to remind ourselves that we can be still and not so frantic.

So, to my reluctant student, yes, we need to read literature because it helps us be humans. Ponyboy knew it and shared it with Johnny and Cherry and the rest of humanity. You can become one with the gang and maybe you too can learn how to navigate a difficult world.

Copy Cat – Is It Plagiarism?

Revealed: The Full Endpapers From Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer ...
I follow the masters – Brandon Sanderson’s Endpages

This past week has been wondrous for my writing. First, school is out so my subconscious mind can dwell on something other than my students where it typically lights. More interesting is the freedom I now have to plot out a book. Also helping me is the almost rabid desire to tune out the world right now. I’ve sworn off checking the news, social media, and even emails to leave behind the ridiculous social upheaval and destruction there.
Usually, my routine is fairly rigid, with pills and bathroom duties set at a precise time. However, recently I’ve been able to get up, do those duties, and then go back to bed. I don’t truly sleep at that time.
Instead, I plot. I mentioned before that I consider myself a hybrid pantser. I do not plot out each event in my story, but instead, I get to know my setting, conflict and main characters before I launch them into adventures I will discover as they come. I have been using that hour or so drifting to craft the characters and world of my next novel. At this point, I’m entitling it Exchanged.
About three months ago I wondered what would happen if you were a queen or princess in a somewhat fantasy world (there is very little magic at this point). To stop a war, you sacrifice yourself to go live and marry the king of the enemy state. He would have to give up his daughter or sister in the same situation. The goal would be to put a halt to the generational war. That is what I’ve been dreaming about every morning for the last week.
I am so grateful for the impressions and revelations I get during this time. One of the most fruitful fields to wander in for this is authors that have gone before. Brandon Sanderson often writes little prologues at the beginning of each of his chapters. They seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with the story and the reader thinks they can ignore them, except they can’t. These prologues reveal the antagonist like clues in a mystery novel. I’m copying that idea of using chapter-opening snippets to reveal the past and not connecting it until the very end.
Another person I find myself imitating is Winston Graham, the author of the Poldark series. We’ve been binge-watching the BBC series and I love the interplay of the characters. I want to make my two queens like Demelza and Elizabeth. They will become the powers behind the thrones and make the men in their lives into better versions of themselves. They will change, adapt, and perhaps even fall (I haven’t found out yet) along the way.
The final author I am copying is Patricia McKillip in her Riddle-Master of Hed series. She used scars or marks to indicate who had mastered certain skills. I intend for everyone in my story to have a natural-born tattoo that does much the same thing, only their marks show their true calling. My two queens are both going to acquire new tattoos when their status changes. That mark will eventually be something more for all the people in my world.
Is this plagiarism? I don’t think so. This isn’t the plot at all, just the world I am creating. Reflecting the masters and those that have gone before is a form of flattery, isn’t it? I do not intend for any of these elements to be obvious in its usage. You could probably read all three of these authors and not recognize them as an influence, but it does give me a sense of ease to know I am following after those that are worthy of emulation. I copy, but hopefully, I expand as well.