Tag Archives: Robert J Sawyer

How to Start Your Story to Hook Your Readers

We all know that to hook readers a story’s beginning must have impact. But how do we do that? There are books on how to write a great first line, how to make those first scenes powerful, how to make the reader want to turn the page. Yet, despite all that information, sometimes it still doesn’t work. When writing the first draft, remember that your only task is to record the story in your head and not to give yourself writers block by trying to write or start it perfectly. Write it, then focus on specific elements. The starting point for your story may change, scenes either thrown out or rewritten. All that said, if you know where to start, you may have less work to do later.

Stories have patterns. These patterns are specific to genre. Every genre has conventions and consciously or subconsciously, readers expect them to be met. The first scenes signal genre and they tell the reader what kind of story to expect. Is it a romance? A thriller? A crime drama? Fantasy or science fiction? Or some combination? Even with a combination, genre expectations must be met in the story and more importantly, they must be signaled at the start. For example, in a science fiction crime drama, the crime genre has conventions which need to be met: a dead body, a sleuth (amateur or detective), a discovery of the body scene, an investigation with false clues, the sleuth confronting the murderer, and a resolution (justice, injustice or irony where the sleuth loses something in the process). Science fiction explores the consequences of scientific innovation in settings which can range from near future Earth, to outer space, other planets, all of which may have realistic or fantastic settings.

How does one do this? Here’s an excerpt from the opening of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel RED PLANET BLUES:
The door to my office slid open. “Hello,” I said, rising from my chair. “You must be my nine o’clock.” I said it as if I had a ten o’clock and an eleven o’clock, but I didn’t. The whole Martian economy was in a slump and even though I was the only private detective on Mars this was the first new case I’d had in weeks.
“Yes,” said a high feminine voice. “I’m Cassandra Wilkins.”
I let my eyes rove up and down her body. It was very good work; I wondered if she’d had quite so perfect a figure before transferring.

Immediately, we know we’re reading a detective story set in a science fiction world.

Opening scenes don’t always have to be about the plot itself. For example, thrillers establish the genre, characters and promises to the reader about the type of story it is by opening with action scenes unrelated to the core plot, but with action scenes showing the protagonist as a person of action and a hero of the situation. Think James Bond movies for this example. They start with action, not the quieter bits with him going to get his orders to save the world – those appear later. Thriller writers such as Clive Cussler, employ prologues filled with action adventure set in the past. Cussler’s prologues not only set the importance of the book’s quest for a relic or item, but the action sequences and the drama signal the type of story the reader can expect.

Writing to establish the genre helps avoid the dreaded ‘info dump’ wherein the world’s or protagonist’s backstory are explained to the reader. Readers don’t want a biography or a lesson in the geo-politico-socio-economic issues of the world. They don’t care about the why of the character or the world until they know what’s at stake for the protagonist. Only then does the why become part of the how will it be done? and what happens next?

It’s a strong confident opening readers want in which they trust that you will reveal information when it’s pertinent, that you as a writer trust them to help solve the puzzle you’ve created for your protagonist. The confident opening makes us ask questions – who is this person? What is he going to do? What happens next? Actions speak louder than words, so if the social cues say she’s a talented mage, for example, why is she shackled and drowning in a well? As long as every new scene raises questions they will remain engaged in the story.

But we’ve gone through so much work creating the world, in understanding our protagonist and antagonist. This information must be revealed! Yes, some of it must be revealed. When is the best time to do this? Only when the story can’t move forward without it otherwise, it’s an info dump. Until then, keep readers asking questions and avoid the info dump.

In the excerpt from RED PLANET BLUES, we are signaled that it’s a science fiction detective story. The words “the first new case I’d had in weeks” tell us that the protagonist has fallen on hard times, that he doesn’t have a dime in his pocket, and that he’s desperate for work. “Mars” and “quite so perfect a figure before transferring” tell us that it’s science fiction set in a future where mars is colonized and there are intriguing scientific advances. With no info dumping, Sawyer has given us the genre expectations, set the scene, created tension because he has us wondering what will happen next (Will the private detective get the job? But if he’s aching for cash, will he take the job even if it’s a dubious one?). We have other questions too: Why is the private detective on Mars? Who is the woman? What is a transfer? Why is the Mars economy in a slump?

Here’s where I think we get into trouble about where to start our story. Too often info dumps, whether it is about the character or the setting, are about the disorganizing event, the thing that sets the world into chaos and that happens before the story begins. For example, Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliette doesn’t start with whatever set off the feud between the families. The feud is a given and the story starts in the drama of the situation. Dystopian stories don’t start with how the world as we know it ended. They start with the established socio-politico norms. RED PLANET BLUES doesn’t start out by telling us about how and why people colonized Mars, or the disorganizing event that put the Mars economy into a slump, or why the protagonist is on Mars. Those reveals come much later when the information is needed to move the investigation and the story forward.

Besides utilizing genre expectations to hook your reader, there is one more thing to be aware of: the opening of a story is a set up for the inciting incident (the central conflict) and its complications – the situation your hero is going to try to get out of for the rest of the book.

Captivating stories have an inciting incident that sets the story in motion, something that signals the central conflict, the problem our protagonist must solve in order to go from chaos to order. Once the problem is established with the inciting incident, a complication arises which raises the stakes. These stories (as all do) start with chaos and work to establishing order from that chaos although that doesn’t mean that it’s always successful and if it is, that the ending is happy.

Understanding the conventions of the genre you’re writing in will help avoid the dreaded info dump and it has the added benefit of informing the timing of the inciting incident and the pacing of arising complications and information reveals. More importantly, it’ll help you hook readers so that they’ll keep turning the pages to experience the wonderful and wild world you’ve created!

 

Detective Science Fiction

I love mysteries and crime stories especially when they’re set in the future or on other worlds because they not only solve crimes, the good ones also explore the relationship between humans and technology and maybe even with other races. That combination makes Detective Science Fiction is the perfect genre mish-mash!

What are detective science fiction stories?
They’re detective stories set in the future, on earth, other worlds or somewhere in outer space. The detectives need to be observant, to investigate, to question suspects, work within the laws (or sometimes outside them), report to superiors, interact with segments of society. While the detective does his job, the reader experiences a future society through the detective’s eyes. It’s a very up close and personal view of the world.

Why does this mash-up make for great crime fiction?
Technology changes but human nature doesn’t. Despite our technological advances, crime is still part of our world. Theft, murder, white collar, blue collar crimes, crimes against humanity, deviant crimes, commercial crimes, drugs, crimes in international law (slavery, genocide, war crimes, piracy, for example), and the list is endless. In writing about the future, it forces us to consider our lives in the present. What if technology changes and we can read the brain or the psyche to predict if people will commit crimes? What are the ramifications? What happens when we break the laws of alien cultures? What are frontier crime and justice like on a newly colonized world? What happens when an android commits murder? Android or robot detectives, even if they’re good at their job, what perils do they face? What constitutes crime in the future? How are murder mysteries solved in the future – great sleuthing or with advanced technology?

Why do they work? Isn’t science fiction supposed to be about the science?
Detective science fiction works because detectives are like scientists in that they question, they need to know how things work, they explore, they follow clues. But detectives need to find the truth, and to do that they must dig into the corners of society, personalities, and political structures. They need to know a little about everything just enough to ask the next question or suffer the consequences if they don’t. In short, detectives in science fiction are the best tour guide to both future technologies and the resulting human condition. Technology usually has a huge role to play in a detective sci fi and for that reason I greatly admire the authors who go that extra step to know their worlds well.

What are key features of this genre?
For me, it’s a toss-up between technology and characterization. Both are essential and both are the reason I keep reading detective science fiction. The best ones have great plot twists and turns, and are sprinkled with red herrings. As a reader, it’s easy to immerse myself into a society with this combination of plot, technology and characterization. However, just as with commercial crime and mystery stories, there’s a wide range of styles or sub genres within this genre mish mask.

There are cyberpunk detective stories where the element of human/computer relationship plays more of a role than characterization and plot. Then there’s hard boiled noir detective science fiction where in a dark, futuristic society, a detective (usually a gun-slinging male) must solve a crime written in the style of American noir of the 1930 and 40s. There are some cozy mysteries in that the crime is committed off scene and there is little violence but it’s heavy on the setting, the detective’s character, but the detective isn’t usually laid back citizen, like Miss Marple although there may be lots of deduction and little violence.

But the general feature of a good detective science fiction, no matter the subgenre, is the world building, the protagonist’s interaction in that world and the morality tale that crime stories evoke.

Book recommendations:
If you haven’t read any detective science fiction, beware – there’s been a lot written but not all of it has been categorized as detective science fiction, it’s still in the larger science fiction category. And, it’s not brand new either! Here’s the classic story from Isaac Asimov himself of why he wrote his first detective science fiction. This led to him pioneering the human-robot buddy cop genre.

“[John] Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated. I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and that would not cheat the reader — and yet would be a true science-fiction story. The result was The Caves Of Steel.”

The Caves of Steel is a must read.

To date, Good Reads has over 100 books listed in its Science Fiction Detective category. BestScienceFictionBooks.com contains a stellar list. It’s worth checking these lists. So for this reason, I won’t be listing the popular and classic books like the “Gil Hamilton” stories by Larry Niven. Instead, I’ve got 5 authors and novels you may not be familiar with but are worth reading:

Hydrogen SteelHydrogen Steel by K.A. Bedford
When top homicide inspector Zette McGee is called out of her mysterious retirement to help Kell Fallow, a desperate former android accused unjustly of murdering his wife and children, she knows she has to help him. (This is powerfully written, with lots of great world building and much intrigue with sabotage, spies and nasty infections. The consequences of and ramifications of artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness are dealt with superbly.)

Ultra Thin ManThe Ultra Thin Man by Patrick Swenson
In the twenty-second century, a future in which mortaline wire controls the weather on the settled planets and entire refugee camps drowse in drug induced slumber, no one –alive or dead, human or alien—is quite what they seem. When terrorists crash the moon Coral into its home planet, it is up to Dave Crowell and Alan Brindos, contract detectives, to solve an interstellar conspiracy or face interplanetary consequences. (Clever title. Clever concept. To say anymore would be to spoil it. Sorry.)

transient cityTransient City by Al Onia
On a distant mining colony at the far reaches of outer space, vast cities crawl across the surface of a desolate planet looking for valuable minerals while their citizens struggle to survive. Victor Stromboli, a professional crime scene witness, is nearly crippled by the brutal memories he can neither control nor forget. Now he has to solve the mystery of a missing corporate executive who happens to be married to the one love of Victor’s life. (Crawling cities! What a cool concept especially on frontier planets where the characters are strong and quirky and come with really unique idiosyncrasies!)

Red PlanetRed Planet Blues by Rob Sawyer
P.I. Alex Lomax works the mean streets of New Klondike, the domed Martian city that sprang to life in the wake of the booming fossil market. He plies his trade among the failed prospectors, corrupt cops, and ‘transfers’—folks wealthy enough to upload their consciousness into near immortal android bodies. Then, he lands a cold case—a decades old murder of Weingarten and O’Reilly, the men who first discovered evidence of life on Mars. (This was a delightful gumshoe romp which dealt with the implications of transferring human consciousness into android bodies, thus making humans, albeit wealthy ones, nearly immortal.)

Defining Diana 2Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm
Found naked and alone in a locked room, the beautiful woman was in perfect health, except she was dead. It’s 2043 and much has changed: nuclear war, biotechnology and all-powerful corporations have transformed the world. Now science is taking DNA manipulation to new levels. Superintendent Frank Steel is an old-fashioned cop who handles the bizarre and baffling cases no one else can solve. He knows the money, murders, missing persons and gruesome body shops are connected and it starts with the girl. (This novel creeped me out partly because it’s set in a village not far from where I live but also because of the nature of the crime. What would a cyborg future look like, not only with cyborgs and what they’re capable of doing, but what crimes come with that kind of existence?)

The Right Thing

I’ve written before on this blog about my experience attending conventions and seminars, but today I want to revisit that subject and take a different perspective. My previous posts have been about professionalism, about making contacts, meeting editors, etc. Today I want to look at the convention experience from the perspective of a fan.

Everyone who writes genre fiction is also a genre fiction fan. This is perhaps obvious! Last spring, the Fictorians devoted a whole month to discussing various bloggers’ inspirations for being a writer, and not surprisingly a large number of those posts ended up being about genre books, movies, and television shows. People who are caught up in the genre milieu are often the same ones who later become the most prodigious content creators.

Certainly some conventions are more for fans than they are for writers and other content creators (as Randy McCharles discussed here just a few days ago). The most recent con I went to was World Fantasy, which going by McCharles’ metrics is probably 95–100% craft, with just a fringe of commercial around the edges. This is a convention for writers to mingle with other writers. The number of con-goers is capped, so it never felt crowded; in fact, as I wandered the hotel hallways and worked my way from one panel to another I found myself coming upon the same faces over and over again. This is kind of wonderful, because you start to make friends and contacts almost without trying.

And some of those faces? They be famous faces.

WFC is a convention for writers, not hordes of screaming fans in Chewbacca costumes (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but as I mentioned earlier, the writers are fans, too. And as someone who wasn’t accustomed to sharing a table with the people who wrote the books I grew up with? Well, this was heaven.

If someone told me I’d sit across a table listening to L.E. Modesitt Jr. wax eloquent about the time he and his friend constructed a makeshift bomb as children and blew a hole in their family’s shed, I’d have told them to bugger off. I chatted on several occasions with Guy Gavriel Kay (and one of my friends who shall remain nameless—never mind, it’s this one—may or may not have stolen his swag bag of books after the con was over). In a very brief exchange, I met Robert J. Sawyer, with whom I later had the pleasure of becoming much more closely acquainted when he visited my city. I also got to meet two of my favorite writers of all time, the husband-and-wife duo of Gar and Judith Reeves-Stevens. I had been sitting just one row behind them during one of the panels; I have no idea what the panel was about, because I spent the whole time staring at the back of their heads like a serial killer. Fortunately, I kept it together when I finally approached them. They were ever so gracious to speak with me for a few minutes, even though they were obviously on their way to somewhere more important. And the crème de la crème? Me and several other Fictorian contributors had the unique opportunity to pick Brandon Sanderson’s brain in a small and exclusive two-hour Q&A session.

If I haven’t convinced you yet that cons are awesome, you’re beyond hope. Over the years since, I’ve been to a few different cons, and this experience has been mirrored several times. I’m so accustomed to meeting well-known writers now that I’ve started to view them as colleagues—much more experienced and successful colleagues, sure, but colleagues nonetheless.

I’m sure there are some authors who don’t have the time of day for their fans. I’ve heard horror stories, but I’ve never met them, which tells me they must be in the minority. Or at least, you’re less likely to bump into this kind of author at cons, because they have other places they’d rather be.

The authors I met were all polite and approachable. I never felt awkward around them. When we chatted, it wasn’t all about them; they asked me questions about myself as well. They seemed to enjoy connecting with the masses. And you know what? Meeting these authors only made me want to run home and buy as many books of theirs as I could find. The moral of the story is that being a good and decent human being is not only the right thing to do, it probably has some economic benefits as well.

So it turns out the authors whose jacket cover headshots I lovingly gazed at with hero worship as a preteen, and then as a teenager, and then as a young adult, and then embarrassingly even as a nearer-to-middle-age adult, are just people, not much different than I am. That right there infuses me with hope and optimism.

One day, if a fan ever comes up to me and wants my autograph, or even just wants to say hi, no matter how busy I am or what I’m doing, I’m going to smile in the memory of all these wonderful genre fiction luminaries who came before me and pay it forward. It’s the right thing to do.

Choosing A Genre or Mashing-Up Genres ““ What’s it All About?

 I read three well written novels novels recently and wasn’t sure what genre they belonged in. They were set in the future – one was set in a dystopian Calgary with some really cool cyborg people, another was set on Mars where people had the option of having their consciousness transferred into android bodies, and the third was set in another solar system with interstellar travel and neat technologies and alien beings. Science fiction seemed logical as they were all in the future, but their telling and basic elements were much more traditional.
defining diana
If mystery had a future-crime sub-genre, all would fit that category beautifully. Rob Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues has a delightful, laid back gum shoe detective. Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm (see his blog on writing science fiction later this month) is a solid crime novel that’s gritty, hard and gruesome when it needs to be. K.A. Bedford’s Hydrogen Steel has a retired homicide inspector struggling to save humanity while she struggles to accept her own physical reality. These are three well-executed detective stories marketed as science fiction.

The fact is, when we write, we use elements from several genres in our stories. Mystery in science fiction. Thriller in fantasy. Romance in steampunk. The mash ups are as varied as the imagination! And yet, some work better than others. Why? The magic happens when the author understands the elements that make each genre unique. For example, a cozy mystery like Rex Stout’s adventures with Nero Wolfe, could have easily fallen into the annals of “literature’ as Stout deftly captures the voice of the time by using strong characters and a well-defined milieu. Yet, his stories are, first and foremost, mysteries and his novels are marketed as such.

ShanghaiSteam-110px-150dpi-C8In all four examples, it is each author’s ability to understand the genres they are mashing that gives their work depth and memorable voice. Most importantly, their writing is a joy to read as it pleases the intellect on many levels. Making it fun for the reader, transporting him to worlds he never dreamed of – that’s the true test of knowing your genre well and choosing mash-ups wisely. I recently had the privilege to edit Shanghai Steam , an anthology with a unique mash-up of steampunk and wuxia. Reading the submissions and editing the selected stories was fun because authors who understood the subtleties of both genres created distinct worlds, plots and characters. Fun, gripping, mind-blowing – that’s what it’s all about for writers and readers.

Do you choose to write in one specific genre or do you use a mash-up? Every novel has elements of several genres and the question is one of degree and desired market placement. Is it science fiction or mystery? That’s determined when you decide the character of your novel – what its unique voice will be. It’s no different than creating well-rounded, deep characters as was discussed in many of February’s posts. Frank Morin, in his post Complex Characters reminded us of Shrek thinking he is like an onion – layered. In his post Platonic Male-Female Relationships in Fiction (a.k.a. “The Glue”), Evan Braun compared the complexities of romance against friendship as he discussed how each creates a different dynamic in character interaction. What is your story’s dynamic? How will the genres you choose relate to one another? Is your story more mystery or science fiction? Which genre will have the stronger voice? Like Shrek’s onion, how many layers deep will you go into each genre? What blend provides the best milieu for telling your story? How will your characters and your readers react? What will you choose?

March’s posts will help you better understand how each genre can give your story its unique voice and character. We’ll also have posts comparing genre writing to literature, choosing which genres to mash and how to market them, and there’ll also be a case for not worrying about any of it. There will be posts on specific genres including horror, steampunk, fantasy, romance, science fiction and many others. What makes each genre unique? What makes it work?

Choose your story’s voice and character and have fun writing as you peel back the layers!

Let’s see now … Miss Marple in dystopian 2081? A western horror? Steampunk space opera? Romantic military SF? Historical fantasy thriller? Urban fantasy folktale? So many to choose from…