Monday, September 2, 2013

When You Follow the Magic: An Unfinished Collection of Writer's Advice (Part One)

I realized I still have much to say about fantasy and science fiction writing. It has long been a passion of mine to mimic the magic I read in stories, experienced in games, or watched in movies. What I really enjoy is studying what goes into creating the magic: what kind of props are working behind the curtain? What elements are at play and how are they working to create such a wonderful way to use my time? I have found that fantasy and science fiction writing (what I think about these two being lumped together is another post...) is a marriage between the writing craft and the elements of genre. Most of the writing advice books I have read that are geared towards sf/f address both of these topics, with a sly wink that when they come together, you have a great story.

I do have a bit of penchant for writing advice books of all shapes and sizes. One of my favorite activities is to visit my favorite Barnes & Noble every month to see what new book Writer's Digest has released. Books written specifically about sf/f are few and far between, so I intend to list the ones I have read here for a handy reference! I have a couple of a caveats: first, that I don't really like the writing of Orson Scott Card and therefore could not get through the "canonical" How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and two, this is a distillation of many years of research. I have personally read each of these books, and can give them a good recommendation.

Fantasy and Science Fiction Writing Books

  1. The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke. This book may not openly look like a sf/f writing advice book, but trust me, it is. Gerke covers the technical aspects of writing--what should go on the page down to how to create a shiny and interesting first line--but delves much deeper into the heart of the story. My favorite part was his discussion of the protagonist, about knowing who the hero is and what kind of predicament they'll end up in. Gerke really highlights how, in fiction, writers have the ability to create the story that fits the protagonist, from their problematic beginnings (re: that the main character is living some way that is true to themselves, which the plot will bring to the surface) to the heart-rending endings (where the main character decides to whether to correct their personal imbalance or fail to do so). The language of the hero's journey is something very familiar to every genre of writing, but particularly sf/f. Gerke also uses examples familiar to geeks everywhere: LotR, Star Wars, Mulan, and various novels. Gerke has an immense talent with language, and I'm getting ready to reread the book for a third time (twice was not enough to absorb all of the important advice!).
  2. Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons From a Writing Life by Terry Brooks. I am personally not a fan of the Shannara books, for a reason that Brooks identifies in this book: it is really a Tolkien imitation. For me, it did not transcend the imitation enough to hold me (but I will try again one day). Sometimes is written in a conversational manner as Brooks discusses his personal success story and the habits he cultivates for creating stellar fiction. Brooks is very encouraging and accessible, and the fun was in seeing how he did it. While he may not go into technical details, I'm including this book on this list because it gives sf/f a vision for what their success could be like.
  3. Worlds of Wonder by David Gerrold. Back when I first started wanting to write fantasy, wayyyy
    back 10 years, this book caught my eye. I consumed it in much the same way I'm doing with Gerke's book. It was my first encounter with advice geared towards sf/f, and the cover captured my imagination. I believe the book is now out of print, but still available on the Internet. This book is great for beginners to the genre and to writing: a solid grounding for constructing a story and using the inspiration of sf/f to create a killer story. Gerrold is a seasoned veteran of writing and sf/f, and the sense I got from him then was that he is a little "old school" (clearer good/evil alignments, lavish descriptions, typical gender division). He is definitely a dyed-in-the-wool geek, though, and his passion is unabated for good sf/f stories. His most familiar work is The Martian Child.
  4. Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Crawford Kilian. I think this book is useful because it helps writers lay a solid foundation for their stories in knowing about their genre and utilizing research to produce an excellent story. I liked how he handled science fiction and fantasy separately and then explores their subgenres, more than usual treatment of just epic fantasy! I wish he had expanded that section more, but it's a great starting point. Kilian also explains what goes into publishing a book beyond merely writing the story--hopefully soon I'll have cause to use that advice! My copy of the book also included a disc that had character creation software on it, but I have not tried it out yet.
  5. Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper. I believe this book may be fairly well known among aspiring sf/f writers, because of the eye-catching spooky cover and its relatively recent
    publication date. This book has the same engrossing hold as The First 50 Pages with some of the magic that Worlds of Wonder employs. Harper is blunt in the fact that his book is about the paranormal, necessitating that the story is set in our world that has a bit (or a lot) of magic added to it. Out of the books listed, Harper does the best job of helping writers create an idea for a story, by utilizing the familiar and then taking off with it in the most fantastical kind of way. Harper also gives good advice about how to flesh out the technical aspects, and there's a great anecdote about how he conducted research once for a story (sorry--no spoilers here!). The book also goes into advice about creating realistic dialects, and then later, to finding an agent and a publisher for your story. Harper also draws quite a bit from popular sf/f--think Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton, Raymond Feist, and Mercedes Lackey--to illustrate technical aspects (such as the lives and politics of werewolves). 

What I found the most in writing advice books is that their worth is entirely subjective. Many writers love to discuss their topic and give advice for what worked for them or how to avoid mistakes they made. At large, the books I have included have been the most accessible, and for me, the most useful for my writing aspirations. Writers like Harper and Gerke teach as a "real job" (Gerke as a speaker at writing conventions, Harper as a high school English teacher) and they seem to have the books that are the most engaging. I'm excited for discovering new and old books on writing and sf/f, and sometimes it's easiest to handle the topics separately.

For the next part in this series, I will be posting recent links to writing advice articles I have found that pertain to sf/f, and then maybe I'll have the proselytizing itch out of my system.

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