Post-Game: Writing Science Fiction in a Post-Colonial World

So the Clarion West online workshop was…interesting.

The instructor, Fabio Fernandes, seems like a fantastic person, one I could easily sit and talk to for hours. I feel this because that’s basically what he did for two hours: talk to us.

Well, I exaggerate. We spent the first hour hearing having everyone in the class introduce themselves.

The second hour — and beyond? he wasn’t done when I had to hop off to get back to work — was him telling us stories, making reading recommendations, and…that’s it. No real writing advice, other than to write what we want to write, rather than what we know.

But his personal stories were fascinating and eye-opening. Like the one where he picked apart a scene in Ian McDonald’s Brazil (which he translated into Portuguese) involving a group of black men and a white woman, talking us through how the race relations displayed in that scene were not Brazilian, but American. Or how he’s considered to be White in Brazil, but in the US or UK he’s Latino, but only to people in those countries who think of themselves as White, because to other South Americans, Brazilians are not Latino, because they don’t speak Spanish!

And he did in general give me confidence (permission?) to write about cultures other than my own. He said we have to find things in our experience that can bridge the gap between the culture we grew up in and the culture we want to write about. And to remember that we are all both insiders and outsiders: insiders for our native culture, outsiders to everyone else (and vice-versa).

So I guess my experience was positive? If a bit less focused than I’d like. And less organized; they said they’d have the recording link sent to us, but it’s been over a week now and so far, nothing.

So I’m not sure I’m going to sign up for any more of the Clarion West online courses. Apparently fifteen minutes is more than enough to get some excellent feedback on a story draft, but not even two hours is enough time in which to give some general writing advice and techniques.

In conclusion: I really cannot wait for the pandemic to end, so we can go back to learning and sharing in person.

Keeping Score: October 30, 2020

So I found a cure for the distractions last week: Stop reading the news.

I’m serious. Before last week, I’d check three different news sites in the morning, first thing, before sitting down to write. I felt informed, sure, but I also used up time in the morning that I could have spent writing.

So now I’m…not doing that anymore. I wake up and write, for about an hour, before doing anything else.

I still read the news, of course. I just do it after my writing is done, not before.

And so far, it’s working! I’ve been able to churn out anywhere from 800 to 1,200 words a day, doing things this way.

Which is good, because NaNoWriMo starts on Sunday, and I’ve signed up for it again.

I know, I know. There’s too much going on. I’ve already got a novel I need to doing additional editing passes on. And what about that series of short stories that I wanted to do, based on those horror writing prompts?

The thing is, I logged into my NaNoWriMo account last week, just to blow the dust off it, and I realized that every novel I’ve ever written started out as a NaNoWriMo project.

Even if I didn’t finish the novel during that November, I got enough of a start that I eventually finished that draft.

So I signed up. I think the previous short story idea I had, about a woman in the eighteenth century who fights to protect an endangered species — dragons — has enough there to be longer than a short story. I already put off starting it once, because the more I worked on it, the longer it grew.

Well, if I just call it a novel off the bat, the length’s fine, isn’t it?

As training, I’m working through Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. It’s got a series of exercises for drilling into the bedrock of your story and figuring out what really makes it tick, so (presumably) writing the novel itself becomes easier. For example, writing a full scene from your main character’s past that shows the origin of the internal issue they’re going to work through (in the course of the novel).

I’m doing it for the horror short story, for now, not the novel (not yet). First because, well, doing it on the novel would be cheating. Second because I’ve not used this book before, so I wanted to try it out on something small to see if it works for me. And third, because I was kind of flailing on the short story. I hoped some structure would push me forward.

And it has, so far. As I mentioned, I’ve been churning out backstory scenes, working through my main character’s personal issues so I know just what situation will push them out of their comfort zone (and into the plot).

I’m hoping to have enough worked through before Sunday that I can at least write a first draft of the story, and get it out of the way before I need to focus on the novel.

But if not…Oof. I’m not sure what I’ll do. Start the novel, I suppose, in order to keep up with the NaNoWriMo pace? And pick up the short story on the other side, in December.

If any of you are doing NaNoWriMo this year, look me up! My user name’s mindbat , let’s be writing buddies, and help keep each other’s spirits up!

Keeping Score: October 9, 2020

It’s done! The edits are done!

Well, this round of edits, anyway…There’ll be more, down the line.

But the third draft of the novel is finished!

This is the first draft that I feel can be seen, so I’m sending it out to beta readers, hoping to get some good (meaning: useful and thorough, not merely positive) feedback.

I’ll also need to send it to sensitivity readers, because some of the characters are from ethnic groups outside my own. I think I’ve done them justice, but I know I’m not the best judge of that. So I’ll ask some friends of mine to be additional readers, letting me know if I’ve messed anything up.

While I wait (and lean into my reading, to unwind a bit), I’m going to work on a short story or three.

Or five.

I found a horror anthology that’s accepting flash fiction on five different subjects through December. The topics are broad enough that I’ve brainstormed a few different story ideas for each.

Since they’re flash pieces, I thought I’d write one up for each topic, and submit them all (which they allow). Five little stories for my brain to chew on while I take a break between editing passes.

What about you? What do you do, between revisions of a longer work? Or do you take any sort of breathing room between them, at all?

Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire by Delilah S Dawson

I turned the corner, and my soul left my body.

My wife says I walked around slack-jawed, not speaking, not noticing anyone or anything else.

It was our first trip to Galaxy’s Edge, at Disneyland.

We’d been walking around the other areas of the park all day, in the lingering heat of early October, 2019. I’d wanted to go to Galaxy’s Edge straight away, but our friend had insisted we wait till the sun went down. When the crowds would thin, and the lights and special effects on the buildings would come out.

She was right.

Because when we finally made it there, the park was perfect. Not empty, but not crowded. Cool enough to walk around, but not yet cold.

And everything was lit up.

I’ve been ambiguous about a lot of things Disney has done with the Star Wars franchise. But that day, in that park, I forgave them everything.

Because they nailed it.

The streets, the buildings, the design of the doors, the mother-fucking Milennium Falcon sitting right there, looking every inch a hunk of junk that’s ready to race around the galaxy. They even got the sound of the floors in the Falcon right, our shoes click-clacking on the floor panels exactly as if we were being followed around by a foley artist from Lucasfilm.

It was…uncanny.

And I wanted to go back the very next day.

As you can imagine, though, we haven’t been. We told ourselves we could return in the spring of 2020, just in time for my birthday.

What naïve summer children we were.

Thanks to the pandemic, there’s no return trip in my near future. No immersion in the world of Black Spire Outpost.

Except through fiction.

So I picked up Dawson’s book set on the world the park is meant to represent. I wanted to go back there, even for a moment, to let her words guide my imagination in invoking the spirit of the place.

Too much to ask, perhaps. But I had high hopes after reading Dawson’s Phasma, where she introduced two new characters — Vi Moradi and Cardinal — while building out Phasma’s backstory. That turned out to be a Mad-Max-via Star Wars tale wrapped inside a spy story; an incredible balancing act.

And once again, Dawson pulls it off, weaving a high-stakes story with a small-scale focus. She brings back both Vi and Cardinal, filling out more of their arcs and letting both of them shine.

But.

Something bothered me all throughout the book. I didn’t know what it was at first, just a vague unease in my mind as I read along.

It wasn’t until halfway through the novel that I realized what it was: the colonial attitude of Vi and the Resistance towards Batuu (the planet on which Black Spire Outpost is located).

Let me explain. No spoilers, I promise.

When the story begins, Batuu is not involved in the conflict between the Resistance the First Order. It’s too small, too unimportant. The war has passed it by.

Which is one reason Vi is selected to go there, as some place the First Order won’t be paying attention to.

Logical on the face of it. But it’s the start of my problems with the story.

Because no one on Batuu invites the Resistance there. No one on Batuu wants to be involved in the conflict, at all.

The Resistance just assumes they have the right to build an outpost there, regardless of what the local population wants.

Which means they assume they have the right to bring the war there. To bring violence and death with them. Because they know the First Order is going to eventually discover said base, and when they do, they will respond with oppressive force.

And throughout her stay there, Vi repeatedly acts like a colonial officer sent to a “backwards” place:

  • She quickly makes a deal to steal an ancient artifact and use it to bargain for supplies (instead of leaving it alone, as she has no rights to it)
  • She assumes the right to squat in ancestral ruins that the people on Batuu consider sacred
  • She receives medical care from a local elderly woman, which saves her life, and her thanks is to rip the woman’s only help — her grandson — away from her. She thinks she’s right to do so, as it’s “for the greater good”
  • She’s constantly saying things like “Don’t they realize I’m doing this for their own good?” every time she can’t bend someone to her will
  • When she finds herself using local expressions and greetings, she doesn’t think of it as being respectful, but as “going native”

I could go on.

It’s a frustrating flaw in an otherwise fantastic book. I like Vi, I like the other characters, I like the story, I even like the ending.

But the constant attitude of Vi and the Resistance that “we know better than you, so we’re going to make these choices for you” is so…belittling, so arrogant. It feels out of character for a movement that says it’s all about free will. And yet totally in line with the way we Westerners usually interact with other countries.

I still recommend the book. It’s the next best thing to being there, in the park. Which is an incredible achievement, despite the problematic nature of some of its plot points.

Keeping Score: September 18, 2020

I’m turning the editing corner, into the final third of the book.

I’m a little nervous about this section. The middle edits were smooth sailing, but the closer I get to the end, the more things need to line up perfectly. I need to make sure threads are getting wrapped up, that I haven’t skipped any scenes, that everything makes sense.

I need to keep the whole novel in my head at this point, basically, in order to keep it all consistent through the end.

And the end, of course, is the most complicated part of the book. It’s where the main conflict gets resolved, via multiple timelines and a perspective shift.

I hope it works. I hope I can hold it all together.

Because if I can, if I do, then this round of edits will be finished. And I can start sending it out to beta readers, to finally get feedback from another pair of eyeballs than mine.

And maybe, just maybe, have their reviews back in time to make final adjustments, and have it ready to send to agents by the end of the year.

It is…a tight deadline. But we live in hope, don’t we?

Keeping Score: September 11, 2020

It struck me this morning that the pace at which I come up with new story ideas has slowed down.

Time was I couldn’t go a day without being struck by some story idea, and having to write it down.

These days, I feel like all of my ideas are about the book or the story I’m currently working on. Nothing new, no bolts of lightning, just new ways of looking at the characters or the situation I’m already creating.

And that made me nervous. Like, what if the well’s run dry? What if once I finish these stories, that’s it? Nothing else comes?

To banish those thoughts, I remind myself of two things.

First, it’s a pandemic. Not to mention my state is currently on fire (the evidence of which is clearly visible in the sky outside my window). I’m allowed to feel a bit more stressed, and that means my brain isn’t functioning at 100%.

Second, it’s okay to not be constantly throwing out new ideas. In fact, it’s a good thing. Plowing my creative energy into what I’m working on, rather than dreaming up new work to take on, is exactly what I should be doing. The fact that my brain doesn’t feel the need to go wandering for a new story to work on means this story’s interesting and deep enough to keep it occupied.

It’s a positive sign, not a negative one. And it should be embraced.

As for the novel itself, work continues. I’m still going through a chapter a day, giving myself the time to really look at each scene and fix the things that need fixing. A line of dialog that doesn’t work. Some blocking that no longer makes sense.

Okay, not everything. Some things I’m leaving for another pass.

Like in the last chapter I edited, there’s a shift in one character’s dialog. They go from speaking somewhat formal English to a less-formal syntax. It’s subtle, and it still sounds like the character, but it’s there.

I like the shift, and I think it’s appropriate for the situation in that chapter. But in order to keep it, I need to go through and make sure that shift happens every time that situation comes up, so it feels deliberate, and not like a mistake.

Alternatively, I could go through and make the character’s dialog pattern the same everywhere. That might be easier, but I think there’s something that will be lost if I do that. There’s information encoded in the way they shift their speech according to who they’re speaking to, and I’d hate to lose that.

So yes, even as I go through this pass, I know I’m going to need to do another. But that next pass will be more focused, and thus faster, than this one. At least, that’s the intent.

What about you? When you do your editing, do you tackle everything in each pass? Or do you break it up into different read-throughs?

Keeping Score: September 4, 2020

Is it bad to enjoy reading your own book?

I’m still working on the novel, still plugging away at editing one chapter a day. It’s about all I can do, given my schedule constraints.

And so far, it’s…not that bad?

I mean, I’m probably filling in gaps that are there because I know the characters, I know the setting. But I was trying to write the equivalent of an action movie, and while I think I failed at that (there’s not nearly enough stunts or fights in it to qualify), I think I did manage to produce a fast-paced, sci-fi, thriller.

Each of the chapters are short — the longest is maybe ten pages — which makes them easier to edit, but also easier to read.

And I’ve kept the language pretty tight, as well. Not always tight enough, hence the need for edits. And sometimes I wander off into describing a character’s thoughts from the outside, inside of rendering them from the inside (it’s a shift in point of view that I’m still learning how to handle properly). But overall, each scene starts, flows, and then ends without a lot of fat to trim.

Which worries me, of course. What am I missing? What am I not seeing, that I need to fix?

It reminds me of something the write C Robert Cargill tweets about a lot: That when you look at your work, and hate it, part of it is because of the difference between your skills and your taste. Your taste is likely far more sophisticated than your skills, starting out. You enjoy reading writers far better than you. And that’s good! Your sophisticated taste is what lets you see the problems in your own work, which you can then fix.

So I have to wonder: Has my taste declined? Have I been slacking in feeding it new works, so I can be critical of my own?

Or am I just still too close to this book?

Either way, I’m not upset at these chapters. They’re not so horrible that I wouldn’t want to show them to someone else.

Which perhaps is good? And maybe the point of doing all these editing passes and rewrites. To get the book to a point where I think it’s ready to be seen by other people.

Flawed still, probably, yes. But good enough to go out to beta readers, and eventually (after more edits) agents. That should be the goal, right?

And if I’m getting there, I should feel good about it. Not dread.

Note to self: Stop feeling dread.

Keeping Score: August 21, 2020

I seem to always discover new things about the story while I’m writing it.

It shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it does. Somehow, no matter how much time I spend thinking about and planning a scene, simply by writing it out, my brain will come up with new ideas and connections to other parts of the story.

It’s all good stuff, and I’m grateful, but it’d be a touch more convenient if I could think of these things while I’m outlining. That way, I wouldn’t have to go back and revise other parts of the book to match the new things I’ve come up with while writing a scene.

Don’t get me wrong: the fact that I can come up with anything at all, instead of just staring at the screen like a deer caught in a truck’s headlights, is fantastic.

It’s also just a tad bit annoying, sometimes.

Which is to say: I’m making progress on the novel edits.

Looping, patchwork, scattered progress, but progress all the same.

Right now I’m trying to nail down the intro chapters, the first five or so. I want them to do quite a lot: Introduce the main character, and their (normal-day) problems, lay the ground work for a mystery that pops up later, orient the reader in the setting, introduce some antagonists, and make all that interesting enough so the inciting incident is worth sticking around for.

Oh, and they’ve also got to setup the stakes for the inciting incident, have the incident itself, and then pave the way for those consequences to play out.

It’s a heavy responsibility for those first chapters to carry. And before I started making these changes, they weren’t quite up to it.

But I think they can be! So long as I make the right changes.

So that’s what I’ve been working on this week, and will likely keep working on into next week.

I feel a bit like a director on a movie, making changes to the set design between each take (and also changing the script. and the blocking. the actors hate me). I go in and add a machine there, change the readout on a display there, redirect the lighting over there, and then let the scene play out again. Or scratch a scene entirely and replace it with something new, in a new location.

It’s slow going, but it’s fun! Kind of. Makes me grateful no one’s had to read the earlier drafts. This one’s going to be bad enough.

Keeping Score: August 14, 2020

I’m rather upset with past me.

Finally dove into editing the novel this week. Stopped procrastinating and worrying about the right way to do it, and just started doing it. Figured I’d look for inconsistencies, and touch up language or dialog along the way.

And at first it worked! I chugged along, making small changes, trimming sentences here and there, for four whole chapters.

But then I noticed something: The chapters I’d written (and edited, now for the third time) were all too short.

I’d left out physical descriptions of the characters, so the reader had no guidance on what they looked like.

I’d left out descriptions of the locations they were moving through, so the reader had no way to orient themselves in space.

And I’d left out any discussion of how the characters should react to a crisis, so the reader had no idea of the alternatives, or how bad the crisis really was.

I could tell all this, for the first time, because the reader was me.

I don’t mean that I was literally lost in my own novel. Thank goodness, no, I still knew where everything was, and what everything looks like.

But I’d had enough time off from the book to approach it like a reader. And I’ve recently read some books that had a quick pace and an interesting plot but never gave me enough time to get oriented in the world, so I always felt a little confused.

Both things that let me recognize it when it started happening in my own book.

So this editing pass — draft number three, for those keeping score at home — is turning out to be a “filling in the gaps” pass. Expanding conversations so each character’s whole train of thought is present (or at least enough for the reader to make the tiny leaps required). Spending more time in a space before the plot pushes us out of it, so I can give the reader something to visualize.

Thankfully I’ve been thinking about all of these things for two years now (or three? is it three years?) so I can fill in the gaps when I spot them. But even as I fill in the gaps, I know I’m creating more work for myself. Because each of those filled gaps is now a first draft, and will need to be revised again (and again) before it’s ready to go out.

So thanks, past me. You keep the plot humming along, but you forgot to lay down all the sign posts along the way.

Keeping Score: June 12, 2020

This week, I’ve been chasing the dragon of a finished draft.

I’m so close to being done with the short story revisions that I’ve been working on them every day, instead of alternating with the novel. It’s like at a certain point, I can only hold one or the other in my head, and I’ve been holding the short story.

I’m still following the one-inch-frame method, jumping from scene to scene and writing a few paragraphs here, a page there, then coming back and joining them up later.

It feels like a cheat, sometimes, like I’m putting off doing my homework and playing video games instead. And I suppose I am, in a way, holding off from writing the parts that feel difficult in the moment and writing the ones that come easily.

But so far, I always end up coming back to the hard stuff, and finding that either a) It doesn’t seem hard anymore, or b) It’s not even needed.

The latter still worries me. How could this piece that I thought was essential not even need to be written? Am I not just procrastinating on my homework, but refusing to do it altogether?

I try to reassure myself with the knowledge that this is just a draft, one of many, and everything can be revised later. Nothing is permanent.

So here’s hoping I can wrap up this draft over the weekend, and then push through the last scenes of the novel! Would be nice to end June with two projects completely drafted, ready to sit on the back-burner for a bit so I can come back and revise them properly.

How about you? When you’re closing in on a finished draft, do you find you have little room in your head for anything else?