Posts Tagged Life Form Three

Why I like to write science fiction… my first interview about Lifeform Three

cheleI think this is the first interview I’ve done about Lifeform Three. I’m at the blog of Chele Cooke, whose name you may recognise because she was an Undercover Soundtrack guest a week or so ago. Chele is holding a sci-fi festival at her blog this month, and has invited along a number of authors who’ve written in the genre, from epic fantasy to chrome-plated mind-voyages. The awesome Hugh Howey is coming tomorrow, so I must be warm-up for him!

Chele made us all answer the same questions. How we developed our stories, what our distinctive takes are and who we’ve been influenced by. Personally, I think of SF as the classic genre of the imagination, one of the finest ways to ask questions about humanity that can’t be asked any other way. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Come over for the rest.

coverLF3

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3 tips for writing watertight fantasy, science fiction and time travel stories

The Hills Are AliveYou could argue that fantasy and science fiction are the genres where we can be most imaginative and inventive. But this very freedom brings responsibility. I see a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors who confuse the reader because they don’t cover a few very important bases. And I’ve had to address a few of these issues myself in my sci-fi fable Lifeform Three.

1 The logic of the world must be established – and stuck to

You need to establish, early on, what can be done and what can’t. If you have robots, for instance, what can and can’t they do? Are they benevolent? Of course, you don’t have to explain this if your story is a mystery, where the characters have to puzzle out the logic of the world, but otherwise you need to cover those bases as part of the setting description.

This particularly applies with stories of time travel and doppelgangers. One of the reasons readers enjoy them is that they must be cleverly plotted. To do this, you have to set limits and rules, and play within them. If, late in the story, you suddenly make up a new thing that the heroes can do, that annoys the reader. The very thing they wanted was to see how you would use your particular time travel physics in an ingenious way.

Staying with time travel, you must be time-travel savvy. Certain issues are always tackled – meeting yourself, duplicating yourself, leaving messages for yourself, saving your parents, changing history, fixing the lottery and so on. Do what you like with them, but readers need to see you’ve thought through these paradoxes.

You might not reveal all your world rules to the reader, but you still need to know them.

2 Consider the consequences of magic powers or devices

I see a lot of novels where characters have magic powers or gizmos that look far too potent. I was editing a manuscript where a character gets out of a scrape with a device that allows him to melt stone. But it never appeared again – which seems unlikely as it was so useful. Furthermore, the reader expects to see such things used more than once.

Also, the writer hadn’t thought about other consequences if such a device existed. Certainly, it wouldn’t be possible to keep someone a prisoner. Not only that, there would be other consequences in the society. Just to take one example, how would people make their homes secure? The writer hadn’t thought about this; she’d invented the gizmo on the spur of the moment to solve an immediate problem.

Star Trek used to do this all the time. They had a holodeck, yet the scanner on the flight deck was 2D. If you had 3D imaging technology, wouldn’t you use it on all your visualising devices? (No doubt someone will explain this to me in the comments…)

So make your technology (or magic faculties) consistent. And beware of inventing devices or magical powers that are too potent and far-reaching. (Unless you mean to do that deliberately, or want to invent Kryptonite.)

3 Be precise with description

I fell foul of this myself with Lifeform Three. In an invented world, you have to be more careful than usual with description. The reader will scrutinise every word to build the setting in their mind – and it’s easy to mislead them. With Lifeform Three, I had a statue in a dancing pose, and my editor got confused because I described the statue as ‘twirling’. ‘Can she move?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s just the statue’s pose.’ ‘Write a description that doesn’t suggest movement,’ he said. I changed it to ‘posed as if about to pirouette’.

Thanks for the pic The Hills Are Alive on Flickr 

Those are my three top rules for writing science fiction, fantasy and time travel stories. Do you have any to add? Or gripes about films, TV shows or novels that have transgressed these rules? Let’s discuss

nyn2 2014 smlI’ve tweaked the title of the characters book. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?

Now back to comments. Time travel, fantasy and science fiction, writing rules thereof. Over to you…

 

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Why literary novels take so long to write

literary fictionLiterary novels are famously slow to write. Three years seems the average gestation from first committed day to final sign-off. And some writers refine on and on for much longer.

In these days of empowered authors dashing off novel after novel, this tortoise speed must seem self-indulgent, even lazy. And in commercial publishing, you might be given just a year to deliver a book.

So just what makes some literary novelists take so much longer? What are we doing with all that time? If we know how to write, why can’t we just slap it out?

Everyone’s different of course. I can only tell you why I can’t – but I suspect my reasons aren’t unique. So here it is: why it takes me so long to write my kind of novel.

1 Striving to not repeat myself

I want my new novel to be its own entity. There will be enough similarities with other books I’ve written – themes, style, quirks and concerns will put my fingerprints all over the book regardless. But I don’t want to make a set of table mats. I want to ask different questions. Stretch what I can do with stories. Explore different characters.

When I have a gut reaction idea, I try my best to shift into a different groove. Is it too like something I did in My Memories of a Future Life or Life Form Three? Should I search for another answer?

Heaven help me when I also have to check for similarities to The Mountains Novel. (Which in fact does have a proper title. But I’m wary of revealing it until the fragments are joined.)

2 Patience and perspiration

At first, an idea seems full of glow and potential. Then perspiration begins. After a while the idea looks graceless, incoherent and ordinary. Perspire some more and it becomes a pupating mass of stuff that could turn into absolutely anything. It may go and live under the bed for a while, as might I.

Developing an idea is like learning a language. For a long, frustrating time, all I can hear is syllables and squawks. But persistence tunes my ear. I start to understand what I’m making. I know what I need and what I can discard. It doesn’t happen in a hurry, though.

3 No rules 

If I wrote genre fiction, it would be clear how to develop an idea. I’d line up the tropes, check I’d ticked all the boxes, add a twist of me and voila. Instead, I have to invent the novel’s framework, context and references. Tropes and conventions might suggest possibilities, but I’m out on my own – and not even sure what I’m looking for.

4 Perversity

I freely admit I make life difficult for myself. In fact, many of my ideas would make perfectly respectable genre novels. My Memories of a Future Life could have been a thriller, a romance, a murder mystery, science fiction (in fact, I had mainstream publishers pressing me to alter it in those various directions). Life Form Three was more of a challenge (see point 1 about not repeating previous books…)

So why don’t I take the road well travelled? My novels would be ready much faster. They’d be a cinch to sell, relatively speaking, and they’d probably be valued by at least as many people. But if I did that, I feel I’d be wasting a deeper truth. That’s just me: the stories I most cherish are individual and unusual. If I’m not striving for that, it doesn’t seem worthwhile.

What do you write? How long does it take you to finish? Why do you write the way you do?

nyn1 2013 ebook j halfresGIVEAWAYS! Over on the Red Blog, Bryan Furuness is giving away 2 paperback copies of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson … follow the steps to enter

Also, don’t forget that there’s a giveaway here as well… to celebrate the new cover of Nail Your Novel.

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How to get a great cover design – when you don’t know what it should be

181657829_582f3b7158Your novel’s cover is make or break, especially if you’re an indie. Whether you do your own art or use a designer, you have to know your book’s market and what will grab the right readers.

I tweeted two posts this week where indie authors wrote about working with cover designers – one by Andrew Kaufman at Crime Fiction Collective and the other by Terry Odell at Blood-Red Pencil.

They talk about an exciting two-way process where they discuss images and typographical treatments. But you can’t direct a designer unless you know what your cover should say. And that’s my problem with Life Form Three, which I’ve decided I’ll publish later this year. Perhaps it’s yours too, especially if you have a novel you’re told is too original and doesn’t fit a genre. This is how I’ve solved it.

I decided to do market research. And it’s turned out to be incredibly helpful.

What I did

I picked an emblematic scene from the book and roughed out a cover to illustrate it. I sent it to friends, who I figured might like the book but in different ways. I included a few hyper-critical writers too, because I knew they would give me the truth.

I also found I got more honest critical comment when I asked friends to show the cover to their spouses and report back. If the spouse didn’t have to worry about hurting my feelings, they were far more brutal.

nynfiller2The questions I asked

I didn’t ask: ‘do you like this cover’. A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ doesn’t tell you anything. Instead my questions were: What is this book about? What does it say to you? (They’ll tell you anyway whether they like it.)

Do they already know anything about Life Form Three? No – and that’s the point. They are interpreters telling me what I’ve just said in a language I don’t yet speak. I thanked them for their feedback and explained that I wasn’t going to tell them whether their responses were on the right track or not in case I needed to use them again.

And repeat

I repeated the experiment with another rough cover in a very different style, and gathered another bunch of useful responses. I added more guinea pigs who hadn’t seen the previous version.

What did it cost?

Nothing, except time researching images (which was considerable – so start well in advance). The pictures for the first cover were roughs from photo libraries, which they’ll let you download free to make dummy designs. The second cover was a detail from a painting I knew I could license. I can’t show you either of them here because I don’t have the reproduction rights. (Also, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea – my jurors have been sworn to secrecy!)

Did it work?

Totally. I was very surprised by some of the responses – and that showed how much I needed their feedback. And this brings me to another point. Don’t do a test if the results won’t influence what you do next. With both trial covers, I thought I was onto a good concept. When I tested them, I discovered flaws I couldn’t have thought of.

But after these two exercises, I have clarity. Even though neither cover was right, I know what the real thing should say and I can brief a designer. (And my guinea pigs are still in suspense…)

The brief

What kind of brief do you need to provide? A designer won’t have time to read your book. Send a synopsis that captures not just the events but gives a flavour of the storytelling style. Also list the target audience including age group, imagery and themes that might be of special significance or scenes that could carry the spirit of the whole work. Also explain why you chose the title, as the art should enhance it or create intriguing tension. And let the designer know if you want to leave room for blurb quotes and loglines.

Do it early

I’m not going to publish Life Form Three until at least autumn, but I need the cover  in advance because that will set the tone for everything else. The blurb and any publicity materials will be created to make sense of it. So it’s essential that the book’s outside is faithful to the inside.

Footnote: how the other half lives

Funnily enough, as I’ve been moving mountains for the right cover, a traditionally published friend is having a very different experience. I know indies are probably past the stage where we have to stress that our production processes are up to professional standards, but this left me reeling.

Out of the blue my author friend was sent a cover by the art director. He hadn’t been consulted about it. It would be worth getting his input too, as he’s been a bestselling children’s author for more than a decade and knows what covers have sold well to his readership. He tells me that when he signed the contract he emailed the art director and offered to send briefing notes, but was curtly told: ‘We don’t need your notes. We know what we’re doing’.

So did they? No. The cover they designed was catastrophically inappropriate. They didn’t ask about the the age group, so they made it look too juvenile. While the book’s  competitors have slick images that look like computer games, this cover featured big typography (ie it was cheaper than proper art) and thumbnail graphics. Even the font gave the wrong messages – it suggested the setting was the wild west, whereas the book is set in ancient Persia. Now the author is locked in a dispiriting argument with the publisher about a cover he knows will be a disaster.

You know what? I’m glad I have control of my cover.

How have you decided what to put on the cover of your novel? How have you made sure it sends the right signals? Have you changed a cover so that it could find its true audience?

 Thanks for the pic Danorth1 

(I haven’t finished with covers yet. I may need jurors for Life Form Three Version 3. If you’d like to be one of the secret clan, email me or sign up to my newsletter)

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