Mary Robinette Kowal’s Story Organization

This was a cool gem I found on Reddit:

Mary Robinette Kowal gives a rundown of how she turns an idea into a story idea! I’m always interested in seeing how each author does this. I’m going to go through her steps to see if it helps me. Starting out as a writer means learning all the rules and then internalizing them to make them your own.

One of the things that is hardest to learn is that you need to trust your own instincts — not as a writer, but as a reader. Basically that moment when you think, “I would love to read a story about…” is a moment when your brain is offering you inspiration for a story you could write. Even niggling side thoughts like, “it would be cooler if” can be the seed of the story.

The seed isn’t the problem, it’s developing it into a story idea that’s the tricky bit. Here’s an exercise to try.

  1. Write down a gee whiz idea.
  2. Where would this gee whiz idea happen? That’s your general scenic location.
  3. Write down characters who would be there.
  4. From that list, which ones do you want to spend time with?
  5. What does each have at stake?
  6. Pick the one who has most at stake ie the most to lose. That’s your main POV character.
  7. What do they want? Brainstorm for 3-5 minutes and, then bold the idea that excites you.
  8. Why can’t they have it? Brainstorm, then bold the idea that excites you.
  9. What is their plan? Brainstorm, then bold the idea that excites you.
  10. Write 1- 3 sentences summing up your decisions.
  11. Identify what kind of MICE conflict it is.
    • A. Trying to escape – milieu
    • B. Questions –idea
    • C. Crisis of faith/self-doubt – character
    • D. Things happen! – event
  12. Where does that mean the story needs to begin? Or, what MICE Quotient frame goes around it gets.

So that gives you a basic story beginning, but something that is only a single thread is often dull.

Now we need a second plot thread. Typically, if you pick the same MICE Quotient element, it winds up being just a conflict in the main plot, not a second thread in its own right.

  • 1. Try to find a different MICE element to introduce.
    • A. Milieu – What problems exist with your MC’s environment?
    • B. Idea – What questions does your MC have?
    • C. Character – What challenges your MC’s self definition?
    • D. Event – What disrupts your MC’s status quo?
  • 2. From the list, try to pick something that is not the same kind of MICE thread as your primary conflict. This will be your secondary conflict.
  • 3. Write 2-3 sentences summarizing your decision.
  • 4. Weave that into your previous set of decisions and that gives you a very basic frame for a story.

There are other tricks and this is definitely not the only way to go from idea to story, but it’s an exercise that can help you sort things out while you are learning to develop your instincts.


“Hard” Sci-Fi Is a Made Up Term

Once upon a time, I made an unfortunate attempt to label the kind of thing Poul [Anderson] writes as “hard copy”—work so deeply felt and so carefully crafted that it looks solid no matter from what angle you view it—and I asked for more of the same from other people. Everyone instantly assumed that what I was talking about was sf in which the science was correct, and thus inadvertently was born our present usage of “hard science fiction.”

From James Blish The Tale That Wags the God 

The distinction between “hard” and “soft” is useful but I’ve seen various debates in the Sci-Fi community over whether or not it’s contrived. Nice to know it was all a fluke! Language is funny this way.

Solarpunk: Green Sci-Fi?

Nothing more punk than solar!

Nothing more punk than solar!

So, I’m kind of a negative person. (Hey, you SHUT UP!) This tends to mean that when I come up with a sci-fi plot, it’s probably best described as dystopian.

I feel like the sci-fi genre is built on dystopia: see this thing you are about to do? Here are some consequences you didn’t think about, and now we’re DOOMED!

Well, enter Solarpunk, a new sub-genre I came upon in my internet meanderings. The basic point is something like this: Try to think of a future that inspires hope in people, and not despair. And what’s more “punk” then living off a grid by getting your energy from the sun? Stick it to the man! You can’t tax sunlight!

That seems pretty cool, but it does have a purpose: sci-fi showed us what starships and space stations could be, and we get pretty close to that at NASA some days, right? Well, try to inspire that wonder in something eco-friendly. Frankly, my generation has grown up with this climate-change stuff hanging over us: we’re all doomed, no hope, no one will make anything better, blah, blah, blah. Well, time for some HOPE. What do we think is achievable? What forces do we have to overcome to see a Solarpunk world?

Says Adam Flynn:

Solarpunk is about finding ways to make life more wonderful for us right now, and more importantly for the generations that follow us – i.e., extending human life at the species level, rather than individually. Our future must involve repurposing and creating new things from what we already have (instead of 20th century “destroy it all and build something completely different” modernism). Our futurism is not nihilistic like cyberpunk and it avoids steampunk’s potentially quasi-reactionary tendencies: it is about ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community.

Sarena Ulibarri has a similar observation:

One way to motivate change is to make it uncomfortable for people to be where they are — that’s the strategy of dystopia: if you continue on this path, look where we’ll end up. Another way is to make it comfortable for people to be where you want them to be — that’s the strategy of solarpunk: look at this beautiful world we could build. Can science fiction directly influence science or policy? No, nor should it. But it can influence what people see as possible, and what images people default to when they think of the future. 

Honestly, I think of Miyazaki and the fictional worlds he built with his animation. His characters always regret picking a fight with nature, and they are all so deliciously human about their faults. Just watch Princess Mononoke.

People under 30 are presented with radical individualism or trans-humanism as solutions to the mess of life (these themes are prevalent in sci-fi), but we find ourselves longing for something more sustainable and less dreary.

That’s kind of cool. And I think it’s kind of telling that I can’t think of anything right away to add to a Solarpunk genre, which means it’s harder to write about hope than despair.

Aren’t humans funny?

How to find Critiques and Beta Readers For Science Fiction

 Illustration of Gernsback's speculative article on what cities will be like in the futureAnne R. Allen has a great pots up called Beware Groupthink: 10 Red Flags to Watch For When Choosing a Critique Group.

Frankly, lots of it gave me the willies. The particular challenge I’m having with critiques is in finding someone who knows how Science Fiction works. I worked with a wonderful mystery author in 2010 who read all of my short stories. She gave me great pointers about plot and structure, but she often told me things like: “I’m trusting you with that electromagnetic radiation thing.  Can that happen? Beats me. I don’t read much Science Fiction.”

So, the challenge is not just in finding a good group of intelligent people who know how writing works, it’s in finding people who aren’t scared off by the expository writing found in most Sci-Fi. I’ll try to illustrate the problem. Let’s say, this is the opening line of a book:

“Sammy woke up to find the tiffrits out of the garden again, and she was very angry.

Sci Fi readers will say, “Oh cool, we’re going to find out what a tiffrit is!” These readers will expect me, the author, to do that without a ridiculous info dump that tells instead of shows through my narrative powers.

Non Sci-Fi readers panic. “What the hell is a tiffrit? Is this author high? Do I just not know what it is and everyone else does?”

I’m finding that this is a common barrier. Orson Scott Card advised that all writers have at least one “wise reader” that is nearby and willing to explain any confusion they feel to the author objectively. This works as long as they don’t try to re-write everything and understand what you are trying to do with your fiction.

So far, I have about three great beta readers that I impose upon: you guys know who you are!

If anyone would like ME to be a beta reader or do a critique swap, email me! I’m ready and willing, and plus, we authors need to help each other out. rebecca DOT Devendra AT gmail.


What I Learned from Orson Scott Card

After reading Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy I got some good takeaways I want to share. (Nota Bene: these are my reflections based on what Card wrote, not his advice verbatim.)

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Don’t try to be 100% original, or you’ll be unbearable. No idea you come up with will be truly original anyway, so write what you want to and bring your voice to it. That’s what your readers are buying.

Doing the work to build your world before you write at all will set you free. Even if you don’t use all of that information, having it all worked out only helps with your expository writing.

Science Fiction Readers are intelligent and inclusive. Don’t patronize them and don’t betray their trust. If you did your homework, they’ll respect that.

Warp Drive. That’s Star Trek only, newbie. And it’s not even good science, so while we suspend belief for a good time with Captain Kirk, Sci-Fi readers will throw your book out the window unless you’re writing fanfiction.

If the world follows our rules, it’s science fiction. Science Fiction is about what could be but isn’t; fantasy is about what could be. Fantasy has trees, Science fiction rivets.

Be willing to change anything. There’s nothing sacred about your original idea! During the creation stage, be true to yourself, even if that means the final story is COMPLETELY different!

Know the difference between characterization and a character story. A character story is about the transformation of a character, his internal turmoil etc. Characterization is caring about the people involved in the events of your story.

And of course, he recommends that all authors do their homework: read ALL of the greats, figure out why you like what they wrote (Or not! That’s fine too!)and only then will you have a better idea about what you want to write yourself.

So, get to it!