I think I can handle most anything as long as I have cotton next to my skin. What do you think? What are the likely fashion trends of the future?
Be seeing you!
Much as we’d all love for science fiction romance to become an overnight sensation, the actual scenario is about as likely as a big budget Hollywood remake of MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE.
Yet even an appallingly bad film such as MANOS gained a cult following, thanks to its propagation through home video, the Internet, and MST3K. Rather than an explosion of fame and fortune, SFR is more likely to gain popularity at the rate of a slow, steady growth.
A crying shame, I know.
However, I can’t emphasize enough how beneficial digital publishing is for SFR. Digital releases have strong potential to influence the direction of the genre. Digital publishing offers more creative control for authors. Readers get the variety they crave.
Digital mediums also have the potential to deliver content in non-traditional ways—ways that can attract new readers (and connect them with different genres). Not only that, but ways that adapt to our often hectic lifestyles.
Here’s another reason why I’m encouraging authors and readers to embrace SFR going digital:
In a recent io9 article, The Best Way To Break Into Science Fiction Writing Is Online Publishing, author Michael Stackpole “…is convinced that both established and fledgling authors need to embrace new content delivery methods or fade into irrelevance. In fact, he offered evidence that digital publishing will not only be necessary for authors, but that it will work in their favor.”
And Mr. Stackpole also had this to say:
“Rather than simply changing the method of delivering stories to readers, Stackpole believes digital formats will change the nature of the stories themselves. At the very least, authors should tailor their work to these new mediums. He cited what he referred to as "the commuter market," people who read two chapters per day on their half hour train ride to work. It's an ideal market for fiction broken into 2,500 word chapters, and could presage a resurgence of serial fiction. "It's kind of like a return to the Penny Dreadfuls," he said. "But the readers today are more sophisticated, so we as writers need to put more work into it"” [emphasis & link mine].
In a post at Scorched Sheets highlighting the key items of the Rogue Digital Workshop, it was noted that Kassia Kroszer made this prediction regarding digital content:
“Possible trend toward chunked content [definition note: chunked content is selling book piecemeal – in a way similar to itunes selling songs as well as full albums, consumers would be able to buy individual portions of a work, say a single poem or essay, or only one author’s work out of an anthology]
Subscription and serial content. This is currently experimental, but Kassia thinks it’s definitely coming” [emphasis mine].
And to pull it all together, we have this tidbit from Jane of Dear Author:
In a recap of the RWA ’09 conference, she shared that “I heard from more than one editor that they are tiring from the sameness of submissions and are looking for something, ANYTHING different.”
All of the above represents yet another opportunity for science fiction romance to make its mark. The writing’s on the wall.
What do you think about serialized content for science fiction romance? (Should we dub them “Penny Wonderfuls”?!)
In my Romancing the Blog post The Paranormal Puzzler, I discussed my beef about “the conflation of paranormal, fantasy, and science fiction romances under the paranormal marketing label.”
Well, I’m back on the soapbox again, but from another angle.
Paranormal romances are still going strong. Publishers request it—but what stories do they actually want? If science fiction romance counts as a paranormal romance, why aren’t we seeing more of these stories?
Even if defining cross-genre books like SFR as paranormal romances is only for the purpose of the submission process, it sends a mixed message at best and misrepresents a publisher’s intention at worst. It creates a rut for SFR in that authors (published and aspiring) who might write SFR don’t because publishers say one thing and do another.
SFR and other types of paranormal romances are not mutually exclusive. Just because chocolate sells like gangbusters doesn’t mean strawberry ice cream won’t sell well, too. SFR is closer to strawberry than to some esoteric flavor such as beef stew ice cream (check out my comment for that post while you’re there). So why the differences in how SFR submissions are treated?
One issue I see is that horror-based paranormal sells well because somewhere along the line, the horror was removed from the equation. There are some great stories, but frequently, the horror element that differentiates them from traditional romances has largely been tamed to the point of being unrecognizable. Therefore, my guess is that publishers tend to evaluate them as a “safe” investment. Horror-based paranormal romances were once a risk; now they’re the sure thing.
With science fiction romance, this dilution hasn’t taken place. The science fictional elements have a strong presence, and authors experiment with gender roles in their heroes and heroines. And yes, weird and fantastical concepts abound in these stories. So a second issue is that while the above factors are what keep SFR fresh, they also might hinder a higher rate of acceptance regarding submissions.
It occurred to me that perhaps publishers are attempting to cast a wide net by using the term “paranormal romance” for submissions, but if writers are describing their work in terms of SFR or futuristic romance, what’s really the point? How would they necessarily know if paranormal means SFR/futuristic?
In response to my RTB post, Cora stated that “we also need a new umbrella term for the various genre-crossing novels that have appeared in the past couple of years. And paranormal romance is not it.”
I thought Cora’s statement was very thought provoking, and so I now turn the mike over to you. What do you think needs to change? Should publishers be more specific about their needs, or does everyone already know what’s being communicated? How should SFR authors label their stories when submitting? What might be an effective new umbrella term?
Welcome to the final installment of this week's special feature on author Sandra McDonald and her Outback Stars trilogy.
I'm excited to present an exclusive interview with the author. Read on to learn more about her creative process, anti-submarine warfare school, and Bollywood movies.
The Galaxy Express: THE OUTBACK STARS is a complex and richly detailed journey through time, space, and love. I imagine its development was equally labyrinthine. Please describe the evolution of the trilogy from story conception to publication.
Sandra McDonald: I wish I could say there was a grand plan, intricately designed, that guided the three books like the stars guide ships across the seas. Unfortunately, it's pretty much the opposite! Book one was written as a stand-alone, book two as a sequel, and then book three to resolve the quasi-cliffhanger of book two. At times wrestling the characters and plot has been like wrestling with an octopus – once I pin down one arm, another flings itself into the air. It's been exhilarating and exhausting. I don't recommend it, but at the same time, the sea is in my blood, and so I go back to it time and time again.
TGE: Approximately how much time, total, did you spend on research? What were some of your favorite discoveries?
SM: I don't specifically track research hours, but I'd imagine it was hundreds of hours spent between books, websites, and documentaries. I've had "The Fatal Shore" by Robert Hughes on my bookshelf for years and that's a great, classic resource for anyone interested in the history of Australia. "The Girl from Botany Bay" by Carolly Erickson really opened my eyes to the horrors convict women faced on their way to the colony, and the hardships they endured after landing. The National Library of Australia has an amazing digital collection that I used to read old newspapers and look at fashions, places, and people.
TGE: Was there any particular inspiration for the romance between Terry Myell and Jodenny Scott?
SM: I first started thinking about the book while I was an officer in the Navy – a single female officer surrounded by a lot of handsome enlisted sailors. How tempting! But fraternization was a big issue and could lead to court martial, as it did for a classmate of mine from anti-submarine warfare school. I knew that I wanted to make that a central part of the story – the tension between what the heart wants, and what military regulations insist on.
TGE: Were there any challenges/obstacles regarding integrating a romance with the military and indigenous Australian mythology elements?
SM: Integrating a romance with the military was easy. Integrating Australian mythology itself is the harder part. The Indigenous people of Australia have many different myths and customs that often compete with one another, and I didn't want to offend any one group by using only the details of another. So that was a balancing act.
TGE: Do you have any favorite SF&F books featuring stories with a framework other than, as you once put it, a “traditional European-American worldview?”
SM: David Anthony Durham is doing great work with his Acacia series, and I'm excited to see N.K. Jemisin's "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" coming out soon – I read that in workshop form, and it's very powerful. The Australian writer, Maxine McArthur, has a Japanese sf mystery with a strong female protagonist – "Less Than Human" is the book, and it won the Aurealis award. Charles Coleman Finlay has some short fiction with the Russian perspective – "The Political Officer" was the first, and "The Political Prisoner" is up for a Hugo right now. These are my favorites right now, and I'm on the lookout for more . . .
TGE: If you could travel back in time to your early days of writing, what advice would you give yourself?
SM: My original goal was to be a screenwriter, and that's still a big interest. If I could tell my 18 year old self anything, it would be to start writing novels earlier! And to write lots of short fiction, which is one of my favorite forms.
TGE: In light of your attendance at various workshops, e.g., Viable Paradise, what has been the most satisfying about those experiences? The most challenging?
SM: A satisfying workshop challenges your worldview on what good writing is, and opens your eyes to the world of writing around you. Notice that I said "satisfying," and not necessarily "happy" or "enjoyable." I spent a lot of time at Viable Paradise feeling inadequate as a writer. But I learned a lot, and found in myself the steely determination (or darn pigheadedness) to just keep writing, no matter what. The best aspect of a workshop is, of course, the teachers – not the paid teachers, necessarily, not just the people who are supposed to instruct you, but also your peers and classmates. These can be the worst, too. And so we learn from everyone.
TGE: Let’s say I’m going to Australia tomorrow. What would you suggest as far as a travel itinerary?
SM: If you're going to Australia tomorrow, I'm going with you! Because I've only been to Sydney and the Blue Mountains. As long as we're dreaming, let's include Sydney, Uluru (Ayer's Rock), Kakadu National Forest, the Great Barrier Reef, Melbourne and Tasmania. But not all in the same day. And then we'll really start to travel – across the outback!
TGE: Is there any news you’d like to share about your current or future works?
SM: Keep an eye out next spring for my collection "Diana Comet and Other Stories," from Lethe Press. It's a Bollypunk gender-bending mashup that's been a lot of fun to write, and which is about as far from military science fiction as you can get. If you like Bollywood movies, historical fantasy, lovesick cowboys, zombie authors and gay firefighters, this might be the book for you. The lead story, Diana Comet, appeared in Strange Horizons earlier this year. I'll have it in hand at Wiscon, and hope to see you there.
What a terrific glimpse into your universe, Ms. McDonald. Thanks for your time, and for your art!
Now, who’s up for a free paperback copy of THE OUTBACK STARS? To enter, please leave a comment for this post (giveaway limited to U.S. residents). The deadline is noon on Sunday, July 26, 2009.
Also, enter here for a chance to win THE STARS BLUE YONDER from Tor. Finally, head on over to Fantasy Debut for a review of same.
Welcome back to this week’s feature on Sandra McDonald and her Outback Stars trilogy. If you missed part one, click here. For part two, click here.
I’ve got lotsa links for you today on the esteemed Ms. McDonald and her work, so let’s jump right in:
The author has two works of free short fiction @ Strange Horizons:
“Lost and Found”
Lit Soup presents a guest post by the author: Book Block: THE STARS DOWN UNDER by Sandra McDonald
Here’s a review for THE STARS DOWN UNDER. Sci Fi Weekly tackles THE OUTBACK STARS.
Podcast: Sandra McDonald Interview: Mortification and Shredding
Fantasy Debut offers a nice buffet covering the author’s work:
An Interview With Sandra McDonald! (Read about her military experience and inspiration for THE OUTBACK STARS)
THE OUTBACK STARS by Sandra McDonald (introductory post)
THE OUTBACK STARS: First Post
Debut Graduate: THE STARS DOWN UNDER
Review: THE OUTBACK STARS by Sandra McDonald
Spacefreighters’ Lounge offers an in-depth review & overview of THE OUTBACK STARS
Here there be “Outtakes” and other free fiction related to THE OUTBACK STARS
My ode to hero Terry Myell: That’s So Hot
I also found 10 Hella Sexy Discoveries in THE OUTBACK STARS
New shoes? Meh. New purse? No, thanks. New-to-me author? Yes, please!
I’ve always loved discovering new authors. I realize many readers are hesitant to try out an author new to them, but I’m the proverbial polar opposite. Part of my interest in new voices and concepts has to do with the very nature of SF: I envision it as a frontier genre, as there is always a new discovery around the corner with each story I read. Experiencing the unexpected is a significant part of the appeal.
The other reason is that before the rise of the Internet and DVDs, I feared that I would never recapture the stories of my youth, especially the ones involving grand space opera, romance, and larger than life characters. For years, 100% doubt reigned in my mind that these stories would be gone forever. I also worried that no one would invent similar ones—apart from fanfiction, that is.
All of this evolved into an ongoing quest to discover stories that synchronized with my particular tastes. Therefore, the fact that the author was new to me became inconsequential. My main goal was to relive that sense of excitement over and over again.
In the event that you, my adventure-loving passengers, are seeking a similar experience, I am featuring a trilogy this week that fits the bill.
Author Sandra McDonald’s motto is “love. duty. really big spaceships.” She wrote a trilogy that encapsulates everything I love about stories blending SF and romance. However, the trilogy defies a simple breakdown. Here’s my take on how various elements mingle in her trilogy:
THE OUTBACK STARS is military SF with a romance subplot; THE STARS DOWN UNDER leans toward science fantasy with romantic elements; and THE STARS BLUE YONDER has a more definitive science fiction romance feel. The romance is much more predominant and the story would appeal to readers who enjoy time travel twists.
Another element that appealed to me about this trilogy is that the reader follows the relationship over the course of the three books. Apart from books such as J.D. Robb’s In Death series, publishers don’t frequently support continuing stories revolving around the same couple (at least for SFR). So when they do appear, it’s a pleasant surprise.
THE OUTBACK STARS can serve as a standalone novel, but the other books plunge the hero and heroine right back into the thick of things. While the SF elements were fun, fascinating, and sometimes downright funky, what kept me hooked was how intensely I rooted for the couple to prevail over ever-increasing odds. That’s when I knew I had a keeper.
Here’s the author’s bio from the Tor author page:
“Sandra McDonald has been a Hollywood assistant, a software instructor, a bureaucrat, and an officer in the US Navy. Her short fiction has appeared inRealms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Her previous novels were The Outback Stars and The Stars Down Under. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida.”
This week we’ll have guest posts from two fans of Sandra McDonald, bloggers without whom I wouldn’t have discovered Sandra McDonald’s trilogy. I’ve rounded up a collection of links about the author and her work so you can learn more. You can also look forward to an exclusive interview with the author.
Additionally, one lucky passenger will win a paperback copy of THE OUTBACK STARS!
In the meantime, please share your thoughts about how you approach trying out a new author. What factors have to be in place before you’ll read his/her work?
RWA ’09 may be over, but the excitement remains….
When we last left Agent Z, Inter-Galactic Spy and all-around clever goose, she was about to be assimilated, annihilated, and thoroughly annoyed by the encroaching space pod-controlled crowd at RWA ’09.
And as we learned, not owning a Calico cat named Frank carries its repercussions. We now join her transmission, already in progress…
Okay, forget the file. I have to remember what my Inter-Galactic Sensei said to do in such situations: RUN!
Oh, the blood! Oh, the humanity! Oh, crap! I got more blood on me. I hope that “New & Improved” detergent I bought is good for extraterrestrial whatsis.
***skizz*** Hey, Z. Sorry about the interruption. The post suddenly ended. What’s going on?
Heather! Okay, when you last heard from me, I was about to be assimilated, annihilated, and…
***skizz*** Yeah, yeah, yeah. We already covered that in the intro. I mean what’s going on now at the conference at this very second? Any SFR sales? Can we officially announce that space opera romance is the new black?
It’s a nightmare. The crowd’s getting crazier. Both the E-Pubbed and Print-Pubbed teams have foam pouring out of their mouths, and worst that than—expensive perms are starting to wilt! It’s terrible, just terrible, I say! They’re now jumping up and down and shaking all around. It reminds me of some sort of an alien hokey-pokey.
***skizz*** Wow! It’s too bad we don’t have visuals on this.
Yeah, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. You know the new iPhone has….
***skizz*** Uh, let’s discuss this later. Your Gor trip kinda killed the budget for this year.
Oh, that. But in my defense, those were nice outfits!
Wait. What’s that in the far corner of the room…? It’s another pod splitting open. This one is larger than the rest. Much larger! It’s also wearing a crown and has something in its, uh, hands. It appears to be some sort of remote control device and it’s blinking.
Jinkies, this might be a clue!
***skizz*** That must be what it’s using to make everyone act so crazy! And I’ve seen enough Saturday morning cartoons to know that if you smash it, everyone will return to normal!
But there’s an AV setup in the corner. What if the remote has no control over them and the creature’s just getting ready to pop in a DVD to enjoy…like THE PHANTOM MENACE or BABYLON A.D.?
***skizz*** Smash it anyway! Either way, you win.
Good point. Hiiiiiiiii Yah!
***skizz*** Z…? Z, come in!
Okay, I’m here. Everything’s cool. Wait a minute…someone’s approaching me. Hard to tell who it is underneath all the blood and guts.
(Speaks to someone out of range) Oh? Really? Yes, I’m listening…. Well, in addition to the advance, I won’t settle for anything less than 50% of the royalties. Have it all hand-delivered by the cast of 300, too. Of course, they have to wear the same outfits…! (Tsk! What a question!) Here, you’ll have to talk to my agent… Hang on a second.
Heather, I’ve just been approached by a bunch of heavy hitter editors—Anne Sowards, Ann Groell, Heather Osborn, and Angela James. Apparently, they all liked my most recent ass-kicking adventure so much that now they want to offer me multi-book deals! Plus, I see Kris Alice Hohls—she’s offering to devote an entire issue of LoveLetter to me!
I think I’m going to hold out for payment in gold, though. In fact, I want ingots shaped like Han Solo frozen in carbonite! That’s the ticket!
***skizz***Woot! You go, girl.
What can I say? All in a day’s work. Until next time, Agent Z out.
Stop the presses! Grab your Jimmy Olsen signal watches! I interrupt this blog to bring you a newsflash.
Agent Z here at the Romance Writers of America’s annual conference, and folks–it’s pandemonium. Barely five minutes ago, strange pods of unearthly origin crashed through the roof and a multitude of tentacles sprang forth!
And they’re space tentacles—the worst kind!
Being Agent Z, Inter-Galactic Spy, I of course remembered to bring my Gamera mask, so I think the pods believe me to be a friend of children everywhere. Whew!
These tentacles are lashing out at everyone, having some kind of disinhibiting effect on the romance writers. Usually a group of anti-social hermit types spending most of their waking hours on their computer keyboards, these scribes are now throwing caution to the wind and engaging in the roughest kind of fisticuffs.
Whoa! I almost got hit by a champagne bottle. Who would have thought that a seventy-year-old Harlequin Presents author had it in her? They’re acting all kinds of crazy opposites. Ohmigod! I think I just spied Jude Deveraux with a goatee. (Oddly enough, it doesn’t look bad.)
Oh, no! Now they’ve noticed my fashionable pastel polyester-and-velour ensemble a la Penny Robinson! No doubt they share—and quietly admire—my sartorial shopping skills. (I picked up quite a few pointers while on planet Gor.)
I’m just gonna get myself to a safer place before I suffer an injury. Geez. Would you look at that? I’ve got red on me! Sod it.
Now what? Hmmm, by the look of things, they’re forming into two distinct factions. I can’t quite figure it out.... Blimey! It’s E-Pubbed Versus Print-Pubbed. The recent Internet shenanigans have spilled over to the conference. This is terrible! This is awful! It’s matter meets antimatter! KITT meets KARR!
Ladies and gentlemen, this is truly a remarkable sight! While clutching broken bottles, razor blades and many cans of hairspray, they are advancing upon each other. There will be blood on the romance conference floor tonight, folks. What will the readers think? Will their favorite writers survive? Will they get autographs in time to eBay ‘em for premium prices? It's MORTALLLL KOMBATTTTT!!!!!!
Wait. Now they’ve stopped. Something's up.
There’s a huge stand-off going on. Dayum, I never thought a bunch of smut writers could look so tough. It’s a veritable miasma of blood, guts, and mascara. Ahhhhhh!
But here comes a gang of the perennially unpubbed. What will they do? They hold the balance of power – there’s so dang many of them! Oh look–they’re lining up behind Nora Roberts! (How predictable.)
Something’s got to give. This is so painful to watch. I can’t look. Oh, crumbs. In shielding my eyes, I’ve cracked my Gamera mask. They’re onto me and my Official Phantom Empire chums (Oscar & Pete) can’t be reached!! (Now who will press my britches?)
Wait, I know! Modern technology shall be my savior.
I’ll just whip out my handy
Disintegrating Atom Smasher Machine iReaderSwindle 9000 (available in five fanciful colors) and find that ebook I’ve been meaning to get around to: HOW TO SURVIVE THE COMING ZOMBIE-POD TENTACLE APOCALYPSE. That’s gotta be helpful, right?
Crapper Snacks! That crazed crowd is inching closer. C’mon, c’mon, where is that file?
Aha! There it is.
Now I’ll just…. Oh, no. It can’t be. The stupid ebook file is locked by DRM! Great. According to its properties, the ebook will only open on an iReaderSwindle 8995 ver. 2 that was manufactured between the dates of January 17 – 20, and sold to a guy named Fred who drives a 1978 Dodge Colt with a lazy Calico cat named Sebastian.
Geeeeeez. They’re making this DRM stuff more ridiculous all the time!
What’s that? A call on my handy utility com? It had better not be those guys selling starship warranty extensions again!
****skizzz**** “Z! It’s Heather. How’s the conference going?”
Well, some pod things landed and now everyone’s acting like some crazed Astro Zombie! And worst, even as I speak, they’re heading right toward me. I think they can tell I’m not one of them because my mouth isn’t dripping saliva at the sight of the after-hours bar.
****skizzz**** “Wow. You get all the exciting assignments. What can I do to help?”
I might…just might…be able to survive if I can get this ebook I bought to open. But it’s locked in this stupid DRM. Here, I’ll send you the requirements to open it.
****skizzz**** “Okay….got ‘em! Let me do a quick search and get back to you!”
Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. Hey, that zombie over there looks like Joanne Worley. Weird.
****skizzz**** Got it. I’ve located an iReaderSwindle 8995 ver. 2…and as luck would have it, it’s right in the very room you’re in now!
How did you find that out?
****skizzz**** Unbeknownst to the public, there’s a GPS tracker built into each one.
Really? That seems odd.
****skizzz**** Sure does, but it’s very convenient for this post, isn’t it? It’s called the Deus Sex Machina SFR Chip, or just “Scrappy Doo” for short.
Well, I’ll be damned. Lemme look around and grab it then. The zomboids are so close now, I can smell their mini-bar breath!
Let’s see, let’s see….here it is, right under this pile of man-titty swag! An iReaderSwindle 8995 ver. 2. Check. Manufactured between the dates of January 17 – 20. Check. Once owned by a guy named Fred. Let’s see…initial’s here are “F. Flintstone.” Okay, check. Turning it on….there’s a pic of his 1978 Dodge Colt. Check. And what’s this? A photo of a Calico cat sleeping? Double check! At last! I’m saved. Now I can open the file and discover how to escape! Yippeeeee!!
Uh! Waitaminute. It’s not opening…?? What’s this pop-up say? “Sorry. This DRM file won’t work with this unit. Your lazy Calico cat isn’t named 'Sebastian'”? What???? His name is FRANK? You mean I can’t open the file I bought and paid for because of that???
Oh, fudge. Next time, I’m just pirating it.
To Be Continued...!
About the author:
Deborah Cooke has published over forty romance novels and novellas, including historicals, contemporaries, paranormal and fantasy romance, under the names Claire Delacroix, Claire Cross and Deborah Cooke. As Claire Delacroix, she currently is writing a trilogy of future-set (post-nuclear but pre-Apocalyptic) romances for Tor, each of which features a fallen angel hero. Book #2 in that series, GUARDIAN, will be an October 2009 release.
As Deborah Cooke, she is writing the Dragonfire series for NAL Eclipse, which features dragon shape shifting heroes in contemporary society. Book #4 in that series, WINTER KISS, will be a November 2009 release. She also contributed a short story to the MAMMOTH BOOK OF VAMPIRE ROMANCE II, which will be released in October 2009.
For more about her books, visit her websites http://www.delacroix.net and http://www.deborahcooke.com, or pop by her blog Alive & Knitting at http://www.delacroix.net/blog
Chef is breaking out the bear claws, muffins and espresso for you to nosh while we delve into Deborah Cooke’s in-depth worldbuilding workshop:
One of the most commonly cited reasons for reading popular fiction is to lose oneself in another place and time. Although plot, characterization and language all play a big part in ensuring that a book is compelling, the “world” where the story occurs should also captivate the reader.
I am particularly fond of intricately constructed - and well described - fictional worlds. Time and place is less important than the sense of actually being in the universe constructed by the author. When I think of the stories that really stick in my mind, invariably, they’re ones that are powerful examples of world building. New Orleans may or may not have ever been the way Anne Rice describes it, but it will always have the lush gothic aura for me that she describes so vividly. Is there a place called Manderly? Does it matter? Daphne du Maurier’s description will more than suffice. I’ll never forget the rigors of life in a lunar colony from Heinlein’s THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRISS, or Tolkien’s extraordinarily detailed Middle Earth from the LORD OF THE RINGS. The list could go on and on. The setting, or the world the author builds for the reader, is a big part of what makes good fiction compelling.
World-building is the act of designing and then describing a setting with such clarity that it feels like a real world to the reader. World-building is given particular attention in fantasy and speculative fiction, as the setting is assumed to be unfamiliar to your readership and thus must be explained. However, it is no less important in historical fiction, and the same argument can be made even in contemporary fiction. Not all of your readers share your experience even of the world we know and love. Presumably you have chosen your setting for a reason - in order to ensure that your reader gets the message, you need to introduce him or her to the place in question.
When an author world-builds well, the setting is distinct from our own, yet the reader still feels a common bond with the characters. This is trickier than it sounds, as it is a combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar. There are no accidents in making this come together well. So, let’s look at a tip list for world-building:
1/ Choose Your Book’s Setting Deliberately
That's not really as devious as it sounds. You should pick settings or worlds for a reason - because the setting highlights the conflict, or because it’s seldom used, because it’s a world you know a lot about, or simply because it’s a setting that characteristically sells well. (Be warned that if you choose to make up a world to avoid doing research, you’re getting into more than you’ve bargained for! Inventing a consistent world is far more work than researching an existing one.) Whatever the reason, you need to know why you’ve chosen it. From that, you can decide what you need to highlight about that setting in order to get the most from your choice.
For example, you might choose a 8th century British setting because the story you want to tell is reminiscent of old Celtic tales and you think that the Arthurian setting will showcase those plot elements. Alternatively, you could set the same story in an entirely different era - perhaps in the midst of a modern war - to showcase its romance by contrasting the story with the setting. We see this with Shakespearean plays - directors often change the setting of the play with the intent of showing the timelessness of the conflict. This can work brilliantly or not work at all. If you have a plan, particularly if you’re going to defy expectation by setting MacBeth in post W.W.II Indochina, you’ll have a better chance of success.
Whatever your strategy, you need to understand your key reason for choosing the setting
2/ Know Your World As Well As You Know Your Own
Or even better. The more you know (or decide) before beginning to write the story, the far easier your job will be. Every time you run off to research a detail or replot a universe, you risk losing the pacing and even the thread of the story itself. So, map it all out ahead of time, chart the big issues and when you run into something you haven’t considered, just flag it and keep writing. Although the world building is important, it always takes a back seat to the story.
You’ll need to define what’s different about your world and what’s distinctive about it, as well as what’s the same as our world. A key issue here is consistency - you may lose readers with a single loose end which they know doesn’t work. For romance, in any period, social histories are the most helpful as they give you information on how people lived (or live). In creating a fantasy world, you might consider yourself to be compiling a social history. It might help you to actually write a guidebook to your world, or at least build a binder of notes so you have a reference.
When you begin to write the novel itself, remember that there are always compromises to be made - you’re not writing an anthropological study of your fantasy world, so you can’t include every detail in the book. Similarly, a contemporary doesn’t have to include a map, etiquette guide and telephone listing for your chosen setting. When writing historicals, you will have to take a stand on anachronism which you find a comfortable compromise. Working out all of these issues in advance can save yourself a lot of grief.
So, how do you manage the detail?
3/ Be an Alien of the Same Species as Your Reader
How do you make the world familiar to your reader? This is a challenge, depending upon how different your setting is from the world your reader is likely to know.
Start with the obvious details that the reader is unlikely to understand.
If you are selling commercial fiction - like romance - to a New York based print publishing house, you can make an assumption that most of your readership will be residents of the USA in the early 21st century, which means they understand some things as a given. Cars, telephones, grocery stores and televised sports to name a few. They will understand jokes about men needing to have the remote, channel flicking, voice mail and deciphering nutritional information on Cheetos’ bags. They may or may not know what it’s like to live in Teeny Town, Arizona, or how it feels to hang-glide, or what medieval consanguinity laws were. Notice and explain what you cannot expect readers to universally understand. You won’t always get this right, because you can’t know all regional differences, but you can make a pretty good run at it.
4/ Describe the Exceptional and the Unusual
That's how people observe and it’s another good trick for managing detail. You notice the woman with the green hair on your way to work, but not the ninety-seven brunettes that you also passed. We observe by discrimination, noting exceptions rather than consistencies. You'll do most of this automatically - no need to explain that all the characters have two arms, two eyes and two legs unless otherwise noted - but it's a good guideline to keep your descriptions from getting out of control. It’s a useful attribute to give aliens of the space-time continuum as well, which we’ll talk about in a few minutes.
To get a handle on what could easily become a mountain of description, imagine that you are a time traveler - regardless of what niche you’re writing for - or a visitor from “away”, maybe a remote island - what would you notice specifically about this setting?
5/ Describe What the Reader Needs to Know
This can be anything from the mood of the times, the political stability or instability, a foreign country, a class of society, the particular ambience of the private estate where the story takes place, the scene of the crime. This is the reason, essentially, that you chose this setting. If there's anything the reader needs to know in order to understand the plot or the motivation of the characters, ensure you show it to them. Mystery writers are often very clever about this, sliding in the detail that makes it possible for the reader to identify the villain, but burying it so that the reader’s eye slides past it.
6/ Describe What the Reader Wants to Know
Reader expectation is a strange and unusual beast, and its appetites vary from genre to genre. Part of understanding your chosen genre is understanding what the reader hopes to find within the covers of your book.
For historical romance, the reader expects to be immersed in the period setting. Don't forget the clothes, the hair, the furniture, the food, the lingerie, the prancing Lippizaner horses. For a Regency romance, there is even more specific detail expected - these readers revel in Regency trivia. Similarly, a contemporary that takes place on a military base, or within a police station, needs the “insider” detail to satisfy the reader. A space opera will need to have details about the space ship, how it’s managed, what it’s like to live on, who’s in charge. This is part of your compact with your reader. Recognize why the reader is buying this book and deliver to that.
7/ Human in the Alien - or Familiar Themes in Unexpected Places
Now we come to the question of introducing commonality. Although your setting may be strange and unusual and the characters just as odd, in order for the reader to care about them, those characters must be understandable. Essentially, you must find the human in the alien, if you’re writing fantasy, or the modern in the archaic if you’re writing historicals. As readers, we cannot cheer for characters whose choices make no sense to us or whose goals are inexplicable. We certainly can’t fall in love with them.
This doesn’t mean that the characters must be your neighbors in fancy dress, but that you should use the same technique of selectivity - choose whatever needs to be distinctly odd about the character and make the rest of him or her familiar. The character might show emotions the same way that we do or feel similar emotions but hide them - this is far easier to portray than a character who has no emotions at all. Unless that’s the point of the character, like Spock, whose oddities were limited to his ears and his impassivity. It is no coincidence that all of the emotionless characters in Star Trek ultimately developed emotions - and watcher empathy, as well.
Conflict and goals provide another point of commonality. A character who wants to fall in love, or is fighting family disapproval, or needs to marry and have children, or has any number of other recognizable goals is more understandable and thus more sympathetic to the reader. Eve in the J.D. Robb series is a cop who wants to catch murderers - this makes eminent sense to us regardless of the unusual world she inhabits. For romance, the protagonists have to have viewpoints on love and partnership, though one of them may not know exactly what it is. Having one character more in tune with the reader’s expectation is another trick to not only drive the conflict but make the alien more familiar.
Finally, there can be social trends in your world that are resonant of trends in our own world. In my future-set series, the Republic has endorsed slavery by the late 21st century, although it’s different than it has been in the past. There have been nuclear wars waged over oil reserves in this same world. These are plausible possibilities that have some familiarity for readers. Similarly, the science works the same way in my fictional world as our own - I used medical reports from Hiroshima and Chernobyl to speculate upon the effects upon humans of those nuclear wars.
Your world has to be consistent, wherever it is, or its inconsistencies have to be explained. This includes the customs, the role of women, religion, food sources, travel, religions and all other facets of social history, as well as its language and names. There are books and computer games that review what skill sets a society has to have to achieve certain accomplishments, and histories of the development of just about everything. Even for an alien universe, you need to place your civilization somewhere on the continuum and know the implications of that placement. One of the fun things about world-building is putting what we think of as disparate elements together and making them work in a different way, but as mentioned earlier, this is a lot of work.
The protagonists and secondary characters who inhabit your world need to be consistent with it as well, and their expectations should be shaped by it. Look also at character’s occupations in contemporaries and historicals and consider what is plausible for this person to know or be able to do, to own or to dream about.
Structure for novels is a topic that could lead to an entire workshop in itself. In terms of world building, though, the structure of the book can help you to manage the information.
First of all, don’t tell your reader more than he or she needs to know too soon. If you front-load your book with technical explanation, the reader will lose interest before getting hooked by the story. Your main focus at the beginning of the book is introducing the characters and the conflict, and getting the story in motion. Don’t bog these passages down with a description of the complex interlayering of religions on your Venusian futuristic society. The characters and the conflict are what “hook” readers and persuade them to read on in fiction - not an intricate analysis of the geopolitical landscape of 17th century France. However pertinent such details are to the story, save them until after the reader is hooked. Nora Roberts does this very well in her J.D. Robb books - people are sometimes three or four chapters into the book before they say “wait a minute - cars don’t fly.”
Secondly, use structure to illuminate the world you’ve dreamed up. In FALLEN, I had the challenge of a particularly intricate society to present, and the need to do that without slowing down the pacing of the book. The reader had to know about the Republic’s politics, history and laws to understand - for example - why Lilia was in trouble for wearing her pseudoskin in public. I chose to insert blocks of Republican law code and newspaper articles at critical points in the story. Both of these types of writing are terse and fact-oriented, so they didn’t take up a lot of space. They got right to the point. It didn’t make sense for Lilia to expound on all of these items, even though she knew them, because everyone around her knew them too. The insertions worked well, especially as they were typeset in a different font.
10/ Use Your Characters
If all of the characters hold the same assumptions, they may never question them, let alone explain them. The reader won’t understand the alien world and thus may not feel an emotional bond with the characters and their plight. Worse, any explanation inserted by the author will feel forced.
This is an alternative method for presenting the data – more similar to the structure of my GUARDIAN, which takes place in the same world as FALLEN. Having two characters together, one of whom understands the world and one of whom is recently arrived or seeing a new facet of the world compels the first character to explain - and the reader learns, too.
Another option is to have one of your characters “like us” and the other not. Ursula K. Leguin did this in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS– we understand the emissary perfectly, and his confusion about the world he’s visiting. This is also used in time travels - one character is usually from our own time, or close enough to it that we understand him or her, and the other is from the other time. Each character’s point of view then provides a glimpse of their own world’s assumptions as well as their uncertainties about the other world. This is a very useful technique for romance, as it helps the reader to make that critical emotional bond with the character. It compels the “alien” character to explain his or her world to the other character and thus to the reader.
But don’t assume that this is used purely for fantasy work. If you take a careful look at historicals that work well and don’t have a contemporary character, you’ll notice that one character (often the heroine for romance) is “just like us” but in different clothes. Similarly, in contemporaries, it’s not uncommon for one character to be readily understandable to us and the other less so - often one will be in the military, or a high powered businessperson, while the second is “just like us”. Again, the contrast in their experiences compels the characters to make explanations to the other, and thus to the reader.
11/ Experience Your World
If a setting is described by its visual elements alone, four of the reader's senses have been abandoned for no good reason. If the reader was there, she/he would use every one of those senses. As a writer evoking that scene, you should use them, too. Smell the setting, taste it, hear it, feel it. Draw the reader right into the experience and make it "real" by describing the observations of those other senses.
Romance is particularly conducive to sensory description. Sensation and emotion go easily hand-in-hand - readers bought your book to feel what the protagonists feel, to relive that heady experience of falling in love. When people are in love, they "feel alive", their senses tingle, they're hungry for sensation. In moments of extreme emotional duress (like falling in love) everything is more vivid, more pungent, more of whatever it is, and it should be so for your characters. The only thing to watch here is that you don't overuse this technique. It can become wearying to read page after page of sensory assault - save it for really important moments, like thresholds of change.
12/ Use Active Verbs
Whenever you associate an active verb with an inanimate object, it flags a reader's attention. You can do this sparingly to attract attention and make your settings more vivid. A good example of this is from Salman Rushdie's MIDNIGHT’S CHLDREN when the protagonist describes his own grandfather, who has returned to his home of Kashmir in northern India:
"Aadam's eyes are a clear blue, the astonishing blue of mountain sky, which has a habit of dripping into the pupils of Kashmiri men."
Skies don't drip, we know that, but the choice of words - here and throughout the passage - makes the entire countryside seem alive. Taken to extremes, the setting can become another character, one that is benevolent and malicious by turn. This is a particular hallmark of fantasy writers or authors who incorporate mythology into their work, or gothic romance authors. It's a very effective tool when writing fantasy romance, as well.
13/ Choose Language Carefully
Be careful of how many words you invent. This is a real temptation when building an alien world especially, but try to limit yourself to naming key concepts in your alternate language. Again, use the technique of highlighting what’s important with a distinctive phrase - this will help to keep your pacing crisp. Of course, if you are going to invent a language, you need to learn something about languages and sounds, to ensure that it makes a consistent, cohesive whole. There’s nothing more disconcerting than a couple whose names are completely different but who are supposedly part of the same society - how many stories of Scheherezade and Bob have you read lately?
World-building is one of the more rewarding challenges of writing fiction. A well constructed world will grab the reader and force him or her to think according to its maxims, and maybe even escape "real life". Part of your job as an author is to vividly illuminate a world of your own imagining and to paint that world with such clarity that for a few golden hours, it IS real to your reader. So, do the extra work and go a bit farther – use these suggestions to make a setting as distinctively your own as your story.
From childhood, Karin Shah wrote herself into her favorite TV shows before falling asleep every night. But, despite graduating with a degree in English as a Writing Art from SUNY Oswego, Karin had no plans to write as a career. She got her Master’s in Library and Information Science at the State University at Buffalo and worked as a School Librarian in a suburb of Rochester, NY, for five years, before discovering writing was where her heart lay.
Karin lives with her amazing husband Nikhil, brilliant children Natalie, and Roman and two mischievous basenjis, in Columbus, Ohio. She belongs to RWA, Central Ohio Fiction Writers, the Futuristic, Fantasy and Paranormal special interest chapter of the RWA, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
“Get away from her, you b*tch” --Ripley, ALIENS (1986)
Just like fictional characters, writers have backgrounds and influences that color the novels they write. I’m no exception. I was seventeen in 1986 and the character of Ripley made a big impression on me and how I write female protagonists. The scene where she gets inside the loader and physically fights the alien queen is so iconic there’s a Direct TV Commercial.
In ALIENS, Ripley has a backstory some of the audience knows from the previous movie: everyone on her old ship was killed by aliens, and Ripley through her own ingenuity and perseverance was the only survivor. For those who haven’t seen the first movie, James Cameron et al, give us a dream to ratchet the newbie up to speed and give us a scare. The nightmare, the news that her daughter has died from old age, and the way she is treated by the board who revokes her flight license, let us know deep inside Ripley there’s a gooey center, because on the outside she is one tough cookie.
“Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?” –Ripley, ALIENS (1986)
I have a soft spot for the kick-ass, take-take-no-prisoner heroine. I especially like them misunderstood. Hard on the outside and vulnerable on the inside.
There’s not much sign of a cream-filled center when the hero of my SFR STARJACKED, Rork, meets Tia Sen, the heroine. In this scene, his mission to track the gang of pirates who murdered his friend has gone wrong. All he can do now is pray his cover is intact. Tia stops her underlings from beating him to death, but her motives seem less than pure:
…“How many times do I have to tell you, Jeb? Don’t damage the merchandise.” She enunciated each word as if to a small, rather thick child, instead of to the short, muscular man who stood in front of her.
“Tia—” Jeb began, his voice mutinous, but she cut him off.
“I’m the first mate and leader of this mission.” Her voice exuded authority. “I and only I, decide who lives and who dies. And I get first choice of any booty we take. That includes slaves.”…
In ALIENS, we see Ripley’s softer side through her interactions with Newt, a little girl who has managed to survive on LV-426:
“Uh-oh. I made a clean spot here. Now, I’ve done it. Guess I’ll have to do the whole thing.” --Ripley to Newt, about the little girl’s dirty face, ALIENS (1986)
Here's a montage of Ripley & Newt.
In STARJACKED Tia’s softer side is hinted at in the prologue when Tia discusses her plans with her friend Kaber:
The com hissed as the tense voice on the other end continued. “This is the biggest thing we’ve ever done. Your father—”
Tia didn’t have to be reminded of the penalty should her father discover even the least of her activities. “Can only kill us once.”
But for me what I like best in ALIENS is the relationship between Hicks and Ripley. The happy for now ending works for me, but I wanted more, which is why I write romance:
Tia peered at him over her shoulder. Her cheeks flushed. “If you’re finished gawking…” Her voice was gruff.
He sat beside her on the bed and squeezed some of the cream onto the wound. She handed him the bandage. He gently covered the open portion of the wound.
“Put some of the ointment on the other scars.”
Rork gingerly began applying the cream to her new and old scars. At first, Tia held her body rigid, carefully holding the front of the robe over her breasts, but as he realized he wasn’t hurting her and his strokes became firmer, she sighed and leaned into his touch.
Rork allowed his fingers to linger on the rough edges where scars met unmarked skin. The heady scent of her body filled his nostrils as he leaned forward to add more pressure, and he couldn’t resist inhaling deeply. Inured now to the shock of her disfigurement, arousal rushed back. Her nape was so near his lips. She was naked beneath her robe, evoking the memory of his earlier fantasy.
Her breathing staggered, and he realized suddenly he affected her as much as she affected him.
Although the plots of my novels range from space opera to fantasy to paranormal romance, you can be sure to find in all my heroines a little bit Ellen Ripley.
To view the STARJACKED trailer, click here.
What are your influences? What authors, movies, books or real life experiences shape what you write or like to read?
Love them or love to hate them, great villains will make a lasting impression. And if said villain is really bad (bad in a good way), he can outshine even the hero or heroine. A certain Robin Hood movie comes to mind... As much as I enjoy Kevin Costner, he didn’t stand a chance against Alan Rickman’s dementedly wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.
Just as we’re likely to recall a good one liner we heard or read, “good” villains will stick with us. Gormenghast’s character of Steerpike, the scheming young man and his twisted rise to power. Stephen King’s Nurse Wilkes and her sledgehammer. Richard Harris’ Hannibal Lecter. Fava beans, anyone? We all remember these fine, fine villains. Because that’s what they are: unforgettable.
But beyond the impact they have on our psyche, I have always wondered about the attraction of villainy in books and movies. What makes these people so damn intriguing? Even back when folks wore togas and sat around fountains to, well, evade house chores, the role of baddie in a play wouldn’t go to just any actor. For your reading pleasure, I have compiled a short list of what I think are popular motivations to show some love for the baddie:
I’m the first one to admit that I love, love when a baddie is redeemed. Not too many and not too often. But nothing makes my inner Chihuahua chase her tail with savage glee like a killer growing a conscience and turning protector. Or a thief moved to leave a little something behind in compensation. A lot of us want, deep inside, to be able to forgive, make it all better. Maybe it’s a woman thing. Maybe it’s more universal than that. Who knows!
The appeal of the “bad boy/girl” is an old and well-trodden path. And it goes beyond the black leather and motorcycles. Who hasn’t had a fantasy or eight about taming that handsome bad guy? Come on, admit it, you totally *loved* the odious Colonel in the movie The Patriot! Personally, I’ve had a serious crush on author R.A. Salvatore’s character of Artemis Entreri, the haunted assassin who can never find inner peace. Wounded soul + hot body + killer skills = hello, le sexy!
Heroes are predictable; some of them are even a bit boring. Look at it this way: heroes mostly do good...villains mostly do what they want.
To learn more about Nat’s own villains, visit her at www.nathaliegray.com.
Note: FREE BOOK ALERT!
Five lucky passengers who leave a comment on this esteemed blog will win a copy of Nat’s most recent release, AGENT PROVOCATEUR, on sale from Red Sage Publishing (which turned 15 years last month...15 YEARS, dude, seriously).
This giveaway will self-destruct in twenty-four hours.
About the author:
Katherine Allred was born in Arkansas and spent her formative years there learning to love books at her grandfather's knee. When she was five, her mother remarried and moved them to Michigan, where they stayed for the next ten years. At age fifteen, the entire family moved back home to Arkansas, and she's been there ever since, except for brief stints in other countries and states while her hubby was in the army.
After receiving a BS in journalism from Arkansas State University, Katherine began her writing in earnest. To date, she's had seven books published, with number eight being released in April, 2009, and number nine just completed.
A member of Romance Writers of America, Katherine has achieved many awards for her novels, including the 2006 EPPIE award, winning the PASIC Book of Your Heart contest in 2002, and having a novel named Best Book of the Year by Romance Reviews Today in 2005. She currently writes for Eos, the science fiction imprint of Harper Collins Publishing.
Katherine Allred kicks off the series of guest author posts for Parallel Universe with the following artful appellation article:
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Shakespeare might have rethought those famous words from Romeo and Juliet if one of his characters had been an alien. The hardest thing a science fiction writer has to do (after creating a plot, believable characters, and realistic world-building, of course) is come up with alien names that a human reader can pronounce. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen readers complain about names like Qz’aaaarxeul. And believe me, I’m on your side. I hate those type of names, too. Anne McCaffrey is the only writer I’m aware of who has ever used the apostrophe to good effect in names.
On the other hand, you can hear the screams all the way to Alpha Centauri if we give a slimy, green, bug-eyed monster an earthling name like Jim. After all, no self-respecting slimy, green, bug-eyed mother monster would ever name one of her offspring Jim. She’d name him something completely unpronounceable to earthlings, which brings us right back to where we started.
It’s a fine line authors walk between believable and outrageous in our attempts to make everyone happy. And to add even more pressure, it seems we now have to worry about what our choices will do to the next generation of children here on good old Earth. According to an article in Australia’s The Herald Sun, parents are taking names from science fiction for their offspring. “There have been 18 Neos, 133 Xanders, 273 Trinitys and 158 Willows born in Victoria since 1980.”
If you’re expecting and names from Buffy and The Matrix don’t do it for you, never fear. Robert Schnakenberg has compiled a book of Sci-Fi Baby Names: 500 Out-of-This-World Baby Names from Anakin to Zardoz, available from Amazon.
With the mental health of future generations in our hands, what’s an author to do? After thinking it over, I searched the web for a name generator that might take some of the weight off my shoulders. The pirate name generator wasn’t a big help. It dubbed me Red Mary Flint, which doesn’t really sound all that alien. Then I found Behind the Name. One push of the button yielded Baqir Tomi. Now we’re getting somewhere. Just to be sure, I hit the button again and got Mamadou Kalev. I think we have a winner. I’ll be saving this site for naming quandaries on my next books.
Curious as to how other authors handle this problem, I decided to ask a few. Cheryl Brooks, author of The Cat Star Chronicles, says she tries to make the names as feline sounding as possible. “I might put in anything at first—a common name or even a description—and then change it as the character develops. Other times I just hit random keys on the keyboard and then add or change the vowels until I get something that sounds right.”
Anitra Lynn McLeod has a similar style: “I take ‘real’ names and words and move the letters around or delete letters. For example, in WICKED HARVEST, the heroine, Enovese got her name from Genevieve, my aunt. Chur was part of churlish because my hero can be rather churlish at times.”
Eileen Wilks, best selling author of the paranormal/urban fantasy series, THE WORLD OF LUPI, says “I usually prefer one or two syllable names to make it easier for readers to remember them. In most cases, I look for combinations that sound like they should be a word or a name already. One of my favorite ways to jump-start the process is to play a game called Word Warp. Word Warp gives you a six-letter word, but it's warped, the letters out of order, and you can warp them over and over. The object of the game is to make words from those six letters—but when I'm name-hunting, I warp it until I get something that sounds like it ought to be a word (or a name), but isn't.”
Personally, in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS I took the easy way out. Because my aliens had names that were unpronounceable, I let the human heroine give them nicknames. In book two, CLOSE CONTACT, the characters are all descended from Earthlings so there wasn’t much problem with names. However, now that it’s time to work on book three I’m in desperate need of names for three dragon birds and Qz’aaaarxeul isn’t an option. Maybe I’ll head on over to Behind the Name and see what they come up with.
Congratulations once again to the following authors for being finalists in the romance industry’s most prestigious awards: