Fiction Blog, Musings & Bookish Things, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Geeky Things

Science Fiction & Fantasy: More Than Just a World?

american gods

As I wrote in “Why I Write Science Fiction & Fantasy,” one of my favorite aspects of the science fiction and fantasy genres is their imaginative world building. Whether reading or writing, I love being transported to an entirely new realm, or thrown into a version of Earth I barely recognize. Often, I’m “sold” on a book or movie simply on its world. For example, before I read Wool by Hugh Howey, all I knew was that it takes place in an underground silo in a dystopian-type world. That was enough to hook me — and Howey delivered on his gripping world, and so much more.

And that’s what I want to talk about today. The more. If you’re my friend on Goodreads or notice the widgets on my blog, you might see that at the time of this writing, I’m about 200 pages into Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And I have been. For weeks.

I was sold on the concept of American Gods immediately. The various deities of world religions are real? They walk among us? The main character essentially road trips with them around the U.S.? Yes, yes, and hell yes.

But as I started reading the novel, I found myself struggling to get from one page to the next. As a protagonist, Shadow feels emotionally detached from his own life. And sure, I’ll grant that prison and tragedy can do that to a person — but I find him dull. Likewise, while Gaiman is a talented writer, the plot seems to move at a glacial pace. As for the mythology — yes, it’s fantastic. Though as someone who is interested in mythology but does not actively study it, I know there are dozens of references I’m missing. And that’s frustrating.

I’ve discussed American Gods with a few of my friends. When I express the above issues, they say “Oh, yeah, I agree. But isn’t the world awesome?” Which, yes, it is. Great concept. We’ve all said it a thousand times.

So, fellow science fiction and fantasy readers and writers, my question is: Is having a fascinating world enough for a sci-fi/fantasy novel?

Now, if you disagree with my feelings on American Gods, don’t let that cloud your answer to the question. I’m sure you can come up with your own example of a killer world with dry characters and an unengaging plot. Another one of mine? The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The Axis Powers won World War II? Fascinating. The plot and characters? Not so much. (I know, I know. What kind of SFF writer am I?) Feel free to share your example in the comments.

sci fiPersonally, I don’t think a great world is enough. Should a sci-fi/fantasy story have an original world or inventive driving concept? Yes. I think it’s, arguably, the entire point of the genre. That being said, I don’t think a story can rely on a world alone. As a reader, I need characters that I can love or love to hate. I need a plot that feels purposeful from almost the beginning of the book, if not the first 100 pages. I prefer a dash of action, a tangible subplot, and on a purely structural basis, chapters that aren’t 50 pages long.

In my own writing, I try to hit all of these points. I like to think that a steampunk world without steam is a strong enough concept to enthrall sci-fi and fantasy fans. And I tried to make Aya and the supporting characters engaging, complex, and flawed. I hope the plot is clear and stimulating, even though the action is more covert than sword-wielding. To some people, I will succeed. To others, I’ll probably be their American Gods (and not in the good way). But hey, art is subjective.

I’d like to close with a caveat. Obviously, I have not finished American Gods yet. Maybe, when I get to the 250 or 300 page mark, the story will pick up, Shadow will take some initiative, and the plot will chug along more quickly. I fully recognize that I could love this book and bow down to its genius with my other sci-fi/fantasy fans. I’ll finish it — but I have feeling it’s going to be a slog.

So give me your two cents on this.

Can a science fiction or fantasy book rest purely on its world? What makes a truly great sci-fi/fantasy story for you? Are there any “classics” that you find dull? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Guest Posts, Writing & Publishing Articles

Guest Post: To Tell or Overtell? by Zachary Chopchinksi

Hello, everyone! Today, I’m excited to kick off a series of fantastic guest posts from some of my favorite fellow authors. Stay tuned this week and next week for their posts, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot and have a few chuckles along the way, too!

overtellTo tell or to overtell. That is the question. Or fear, more so. We have all been in a situation where we are obligatorily nodding our heads with the occasional “Yeah, yeah yeah” or “I know, I get it”. The story that will not end. The long-winded individual that means well, but their delivery drags on farther than stretched taffy. This is an issue that should be examined to help any tale-teller or, in our case, author. In fact, I have been known to do this on occasion…OK, it’s actually an issue of mine. I’ve been working on it, and through some of the resources I have come by I would like to pass along some of the things I’ve learned.

The threat of “over-telling” a story is a real issue that can make the author sound pompous, can let the reader get bored (or discouraged) and in many cases, cause further reading of the author to be rare. Although, it is important that the author’s story be well founded, strong, and remnant of the previous aspects of the story–so the reader does not forget anything–it is also important that the author be wary of over-telling. Strange to think of, yet very important.

So ways to combat this? READ YOUR OWN WORK! Silly, I know, and generally a given, but authors don’t always do this. Some things to look for are re-used adjectives describing similar situations. Repetition is an obvious tell. Another thing to monitor is the references to previous events within your story. If it keeps coming up, examine how to avoid that. If the repetition is necessary, consider different ways to introduce the details.

Small tips from small writer.

More from Zach:


The Curious Tale of Gabrielle

The 2K International Writers’ Blog Tour Interview

Fiction Blog, Musings & Bookish Things, Writing & Publishing Articles, Writing Craft & Tips

On Independence Day and the Gift of Writing

lakeOver the weekend, Daniel and I accompanied my parents to Stockton Lake to celebrate Independence Day. (For those of you following me during Camp NaNoWriMo 2015, Baby Groot came, too!) This was Daniel’s first Independence Day, and while he still hasn’t memorized The Star-Spangled Banner, he had a blast watching the fireworks over the lake and ogling at the almost-embarrassing amount of patriotism. Seriously, our campground had two patriotic parades (one for decorated golf carts and one for decorated house boats) and fellow campers blasted American-themed country music songs from said golf carts and house boats and trailers, too.

Beyond having to say “Because ‘Merica” to my immigrant husband a few dozen times, this weekend was a bit odd for me. First, as with all the moving-induced insecurity, I have no idea when and where I will be for Independence Day next year. However, I imagine I will not be able to make it back to the Midwest for our lake tradition. I hope I’m wrong. Second, my blanket excuse for all things moving and “real life” related has been “I’ll do it after 4th of July weekend.”

Guess what time it is?

Luckily, I think I’m ready to tackle the big to-do list. After a relaxing weekend, I’m feeling recharged and prepared to face the challenges in front of me. For me, the lake is one of the most inspiring places. Gorgeous nature, eclectic people, and sensory overload — what more could a writer want? During this trip, Daniel took pictures to document his experience, and I found myself trying to memorize every detail.

lake 2I’ve been doing that a lot lately — trying to memorize everything. Despite living in the same state my entire life and in the same house for nearly 15 years, I keep worrying that I’m going to forget things about my home. Will I remember the irises that sprout in the ditch? Will I remember the pattern of the chihuahua scratches on my door frame? Will I remember the sound of water bubbling through the creek at the end of the road? The inscription on the bridge?

I know that I won’t. Even with photographs and careful planning, five, ten, thirty years from now, I won’t remember all of these details. And that long from now, I will have new details to cherish and new memories to catalog. Life goes on, and the human mind files through everything, storing and tossing as appropriate.

That’s why writing is a blessing. Already, the essay I wrote about Stockton Lake is holding onto those memories for me, like a piggy bank just waiting to be cracked open when my neuron funds run short. It works for my mom, too, who gets to relive our favorite place right along with me every time she reads that essay. All I have to do is string words together on a page, and the things I want to remember and the feelings I have will come flooding back to me. It’s why readers love to read, why books, whether paper or electronic, will always be celebrated and shared.

We writers are more than just storytellers. We are historians. We are textual photographers. We are treasure seekers and keepers. We are the key-holders to the human memory, the collective human experience.

What will your words do for you, for your loved ones, for humanity today?

Musings & Bookish Things, Writing & Publishing Articles, Writing Craft & Tips

What Writers Can Learn from Mad Max: Fury Road

road warriorThis weekend, Daniel, my parents, and I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that we are pretty big Mad Max fans. Okay, let me clarify that: my mom enjoys them, Daniel and I really enjoy them, and my dad ranks Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior as the best movie ever (Joe Dirt and Mad Max are #2 and #3, in case you were wondering).

Anyway, the purpose of this article is not to gush about the films. Likewise, I do not intend to review Mad Max: Fury Road (5/5 popcorn bags!), nor will I bestow upon you any major spoilers. Instead, I want to discuss what I appreciated about the film on a storytelling level and share some takeaways for writers like myself.

1. Create the fictional world the “real” world needs

I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not going to hurt my brain trying to describe exactly why society loves the apocalypse so much — especially in the 2010s. Maybe it’s that some of us are feeling the effects of The Great Recession. Maybe it’s the pressures that go along with rising credentialism and changing gender structures. Maybe it’s how overstimulated, over-connected, over-shared social media has made us. Whatever the reason, and whatever the apocalypse — zombie, nuclear, economic, or pandemic — we eat it up.

We need the escape the apocalypse offers. We needed it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I know I love the romanticism of it — the freedom from modern worries, the lack of rules, the return-to-basics survivalism. Mad Max: Fury Road gives us the batshit insane apocalypse we need to release some of that tension and feel just a little bit better about what’s going on in the real world.

2. Include relevant themes

My favorite aspect of Fury Road is that it stayed true to the original trilogy, especially thematically. Several themes from the originals carried over into Fury Road; including, the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots,” putting the good of the community before your own needs, and perseverance for the sake of perseverance (and maybe the hope of something better).

furiosaHowever, Fury Road also introduced a few new themes that are particularly relevant to 2015. First, as many critics have espoused, the film contains a strong, feminist message. On an obvious level, it condemns sexual violence against women and the treatment of women as objects. On a more subtle level, the film showcases women as men’s (mainly Max’s) equals, capable of saving themselves with Max in more of a supporting role than “hero” role. The film’s feminist message is particularly relevant today — throw a virtual rock on Buzzfeed and you’ll hit an article on gender. By tapping into this theme, Fury Road is conveying a necessary, relevant message in its totally wacked-out world and opening itself up to a whole new demographic.

Second, in Fury Road, Max has visions of people he could not save, which ring of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In a time when a war on terror continues and society is growing more aware of and educated about psychological conditions, I think Max’s PTSD is well-placed. Not only does it function as character development, but it incorporates a relevant theme from the real world and helps its audience explore it in a new way.

3. Push boundaries within the world

This tip is short and sweet. Like any other fictional world, the Mad Max apocalypse has rules. It’s in the Australia desert, resources like water, food, and fuel (aka “juice”) are scarce, creativity (in outfit and car design) is crucial, and pretty much everyone is crazy. Just when you think you’ve seen it all with this world, it gives you an electric guitar player strapped to a war machine in the middle of battle. If you have yet to see the movie, trust me, it looks ridiculous — AND YET, it works. And you know what? Fans of the series love it.

The point is: create a world that the “real” world needs, make it relevant, and then push the boundaries to the point that it becomes insane, but epic.

4. Give the audience what it wants

fury roadAlong these same lines, as a writer, you need to know who your audience is and give it what it wants. Fury Road is full of car chases and crashes, nail-biting fight scenes, and punchy one-liners. There’s more action than speaking, and you barely get a minute to breathe. But that is exactly what the audience wants. Whether you write apocalyptic fiction or romance, the best thing you can do is give your readers what they want (and a little bit of what they need from points 1, 2 and 3).

Honestly, I don’t care whether or not you like any of the Mad Max movies. Regardless of your opinion, there is storytelling wisdom to glean from them. The original trilogy became cult classics, and even three decades later, the world and themes within them are still engrossing viewers. The Mad Max series has created a vibrant world and episodic stories that hook its target audience and keep it coming back for more. If you can do the same in your own writing — delivering your audience, whoever they may be, what they need and what they want — you just may have a hit on your hands.

What themes emerge in your own writing? Why do you think the apocalypse appeals to so many viewers and readers? Share your thoughts below!