Thoughts on Writing #43: by Seanan McGuire


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Post November 17, 2012, 02:40:05 AM

Thoughts on Writing #43: by Seanan McGuire

This one is something that is certainly dear to the hearts of more than one Aphelionite -- and important enough that I emailed the link for it to my crazy local writer friend. He has the annoying habit in his writing of just making up wild-sounding stuff without checking it to find out if it has any validity. Or accuracy. Or believability. All very dramatic, of course, but I call bullshit on him hard and often.

Most recently, he was working on a fantasy story with medieval stuff in it, and put in a thing he called a 'gauntlet' -- a huge machine with all kinds of mechanized weapons in it, supposedly used to test the King's knights for bravery. Trouble was, it killed everyone who tried it. More trouble was, he neglected to figure out that it would need an enormous power source. But the WORST thing was that I had a very hard time convincing him that NO SUCH THING EVER EXISTED BY THAT NAME.

Eventually, he admitted he'd gotten the idea from Hollywood.

I STILL haven't convinced him to take it out of the story. He says I overthink things like this. I tell him I won't be the only one doing so.
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Post November 18, 2012, 09:56:54 AM

Re: Thoughts on Writing #43: by Seanan McGuire

Somewhere in here is the theme that bothers me about a lot of fantasy. The ever-infamous site TV Tropes likes to call something "Fridge Logic" when a writer makes something almost hold together while you watch it, only for something wrong to come to you an hour later when you're looking in the fridge for something yummy. TV show deadlines and all that. But I think the written SF community tries to hold itself to a bit higher standard, and some ridicule emerges when we catch unforgivable errors. (The whole explosions-in-space thing as a revenue-increasing cheap trick is a whole other scenario that I'm not including here.)

Which leads me to fantasy. Specifically, Wizards. Specifically serious fantasy, that isn't a humor piece. Wizard is given colossal powers. Then the castle goes under seige by an army that camps outside the walls. Castle nearly gets over-run because the wizard doesn't know to poison the 70 gallon tankard of soup that the enemy army is living off of. Conjuring wizards are even worse. "I can conjure anything ... except a wristwatch." That kind of thing.

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Post November 26, 2012, 09:34:50 AM

Re: Thoughts on Writing #43: by Seanan McGuire

Meanwhile in other directions, I think the problem of research is related to Writer's Block. We all know it's not 1935 when writers could basically fudge the science and pound out a pulp tale at a half-penny per word.

However I for one am of the type that becomes so nervous at risking all the mistakes of fact error that I simply don't bother to write many "hard" SF stories because I'll never dig myself out of the orbital mechanics etc.

But what could be interesting is if a writer purposely made up "fake facts" just for the sake of getting the story on the page, then just filling in the research later *while checking if any of the info changes actual story lines*. Of the type of humanistic stories I write, I might need to know how an airlock works, but just making it up with a placeholder wouldn't normally affect the plots I use. Even if the astronaut/crew member was off his game and got in trouble, the placeholder would just read "crew member fails to follow protocol and becomes hurt/dead". So I could always go back later and add something that sounds like it works.

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Post November 27, 2012, 03:10:51 PM

Re: Thoughts on Writing #43: by Seanan McGuire

TaoPhoenix wrote:Meanwhile in other directions, I think the problem of research is related to Writer's Block. We all know it's not 1935 when writers could basically fudge the science and pound out a pulp tale at a half-penny per word.

However I for one am of the type that becomes so nervous at risking all the mistakes of fact error that I simply don't bother to write many "hard" SF stories because I'll never dig myself out of the orbital mechanics etc.

But what could be interesting is if a writer purposely made up "fake facts" just for the sake of getting the story on the page, then just filling in the research later *while checking if any of the info changes actual story lines*. Of the type of humanistic stories I write, I might need to know how an airlock works, but just making it up with a placeholder wouldn't normally affect the plots I use. Even if the astronaut/crew member was off his game and got in trouble, the placeholder would just read "crew member fails to follow protocol and becomes hurt/dead". So I could always go back later and add something that sounds like it works.

You know Tao, industry pays big money for conceptial geniuses.
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Post November 27, 2012, 03:43:43 PM

Re: Thoughts on Writing #43: by Seanan McGuire

TaoPhoenix wrote:However I for one am of the type that becomes so nervous at risking all the mistakes of fact error that I simply don't bother to write many "hard" SF stories because I'll never dig myself out of the orbital mechanics etc.

But what could be interesting is if a writer purposely made up "fake facts" just for the sake of getting the story on the page, then just filling in the research later *while checking if any of the info changes actual story lines*. Of the type of humanistic stories I write, I might need to know how an airlock works, but just making it up with a placeholder wouldn't normally affect the plots I use. Even if the astronaut/crew member was off his game and got in trouble, the placeholder would just read "crew member fails to follow protocol and becomes hurt/dead". So I could always go back later and add something that sounds like it works.

None of which matters if you're Ray Bradbury or a writer or his ilk; he himself said that the only sci-fi story he ever wrote was Fahrenheit 451. I know this is straying from the message of Seanan's article, but you could get by perfectly well just using your placeholder pretty much as is. The result wouldn't appeal quite as much to the 'hard' SF fans who get their jollies on the technical details, but it would free up your attention for other things like plot, characterization and dialog.

I've done all kinds of research for my novel, but I admit it's rather shallow. I found myself unable to give authenticity to deep topics like space-time, so I just do like Bill Wolfe says: push the button. There's no rule that says you have to explain everything. I only study a topic enough to make it sound authentic. Think of it this way: a great many people drive cars, but only a handful of them have any comprehension of what goes on under the hood -- and describing that in detail might well be wasted on the majority of readers anyway.

Seanan's point is still valid, of course; if you do choose to portray technological (or other) detail, make sure you get it right.
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Post December 11, 2012, 05:22:02 PM

Re: Thoughts on Writing #43: by Seanan McGuire

Lester Curtis wrote:This one is something that is certainly dear to the hearts of more than one Aphelionite -- and important enough that I emailed the link for it to my crazy local writer friend. He has the annoying habit in his writing of just making up wild-sounding stuff without checking it to find out if it has any validity. Or accuracy. Or believability. All very dramatic, of course, but I call bullshit on him hard and often.

Accuracy and believability: The starship from '2001: A Space Odyssey' comes to mind. Let me quote from Wikipadia:
Wikipedia wrote:This spaceship is founded on solidly conceived, yet unrealized science. One major concession was made in her appearance for the purpose of reducing confusion, and this was to eliminate the huge cooling "wings" which would be needed to radiate the heat produced by her hypothetical thermonuclear propulsion system. The producer and director Stanley Kubrick thought that the audiences might interpret the wings as meaning that the spacecraft was intended to fly through an atmosphere.

Lester Curtis wrote:Most recently, he was working on a fantasy story with medieval stuff in it, and put in a thing he called a 'gauntlet' -- a huge machine with all kinds of mechanized weapons in it, supposedly used to test the King's knights for bravery. Trouble was, it killed everyone who tried it. More trouble was, he neglected to figure out that it would need an enormous power source. But the WORST thing was that I had a very hard time convincing him that NO SUCH THING EVER EXISTED BY THAT NAME.

Eventually, he admitted he'd gotten the idea from Hollywood.

I STILL haven't convinced him to take it out of the story. He says I overthink things like this. I tell him I won't be the only one doing so.

Overthinking? Count me in!
Does it really matter that no such thing ever existed? When writing fantasy, you are already one step away from reality. In that context the question possibly should nor be 'did it ever exist' but 'could it have existed?', 'Could it have been built using the technology of the period the story is based on?'. As I understand, that's more or less the basis for steampunk.
Of course the question of what could have been might require even more research. In addition then another question arises. If it could have been but never was, there just might be a reason for that. Like 'Why should we need a mechanical moster to kill knights when they are perfactly capable of performing that service among themselves?'

Now, concerning that power source, how about

- A pair of oxen.

- Descending weights and springs.

- A water powered mill.

If all else fails you could always put a windmill on wheels.
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Post December 11, 2012, 10:03:19 PM

Re: Thoughts on Writing #43: by Seanan McGuire

Now, concerning that power source, how about

- A pair of oxen.

- Descending weights and springs.

- A water powered mill.

If all else fails you could always put a windmill on wheels.

I brought this up to him and said, "Why isn't this thing located next to a big water-wheel?"

He basically said, "This is fantasy, that stuff doesn't matter!" At that point, I pretty much gave up. He'll find out from someone else.
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