Learning to introduce characters in a novel.

When you are beginning to write a novel, there are two ways to introduce each character: give too much information about the character, or too little. It’s hard to learn to do it just right.

One thing that helped me was to take out a novel with a similar amount of characters to introduce that was in the same genre (science fiction) and written by a traditionally published author.

I took out my writing notebook an analyzed the first few scenes. I wrote down on what page each character was introduced, and what information was given about each character. I noted who was the viewpoint character in each scene. When I was done I wrote a short summary of the scene.

This helped me a lot. I noted that in the novel at hand, three characters were introduced in the first scene and two different characters in the second. All were important characters in the whole novel.

Earlier in the morning I had started a first scene for my ‘Starship Destine’ novel. After doing the analysis on the professionally written novel, I came to the conclusion that in the rewrite I have to introduce smaller groups of important characters at a time. I also noticed that my model novel mentioned more specifics about the futuristic starship technology in these early scenes.

I think the method I tried today is something I ought to continue with— using a real, professionally published novel as a model to be studied. When reading, I tend to skim in search of excitement. But if I am reading specifically to learn and I take notes, I see things I wouldn’t see otherwise.

It also helped to see what things were mentioned about the characters in each scene. The viewpoint characters in the two scenes— who were the two most significant characters in the novel— had more information given about them. The other characters remained more of a mystery, though I did learn whether each was human or alien. Slight mention of the past history of the two major characters was even given.

For my writing tomorrow, I’ve decided to do a new scene with a different character, starting a little earlier in the story. I’m going to keep the other characters at a minimum, and introduce the initial crisis— an attack on the Terran Fleet Academy’s home world by unknown forces.

Of course that means I’m going to start a whole new scene 1. I’ve done two others. But I think in my case that’s just part of the way I get started. A couple of false starts clarifies things for me.

So, fellow writers: what have you learned through your writing today? And if you were to use a model novel to help you study an aspect of writing, what novel might you pick and why?

IWSG: Writing insecurity due to amateur writing advice.

InsecureWritersSupportGroup2This is a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group blog hop.

Why are today’s writers so insecure? Well, why wouldn’t we be? We have an almost infinite supply of how-to-write advice available on the internet— and much of it is self-published material from amateur writers.

Now, just because a work is self-published doesn’t mean that it is bad. Lawrence Block has self-published both fiction and how-to-write nonfiction. James Scott Bell has self-published some how-to-write books, but also has professional publication through Writer’s Digest books and his fiction publisher. Both of these men, I would say, can prove that they can write well enough to get traditionally published and to be noted authors. They also have both served as a fiction writing columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine.

But the writing world has undergone big changes due to the availability of FREE self-publishing. The amateur writing stage is one we all go through— but the temptation today is to self-publish one’s youthful attempts and then begin promoting it as if it were more mature work. I’ve read a book review by a reader who thought a certain book was so amateurish it could have been written by a thirteen year old. Then the reader discovered it WAS written by a thirteen year old.

A writer still at the amateur/beginner stage may not know how unready his work is. So he plugs away at self-promoting with minimal success— perhaps joining blog hops like IWSG in order to get his writing blog noticed. For the audience of blog-hopping writers, one popular topic is how-to-write tips. And so the amateur-writer-blogger writes about how-to-write. He may even publish a book on how-to-write and it may outsell his amateur fiction by a good margin.

Now, advice from an established writer can make you insecure enough. I’ve read writing advice books by Stephen King, Jerry B. Jenkins, Holly Lisle and other writers I actually knew from their fiction. There advice may be good but it isn’t always the right advice for ME, or for the work I am currently attempting.

Much worse is advice from a writer who isn’t-there-yet as a writer. There are worlds of second-rate writing advice floating around there and many amateur writers can repeat it all as if it were Gospel. Some of the things that bad writing advice has you worrying about are things that skilled professional novelists don’t think about or plan, things that ‘just happen’.  Some will have you planning your novel for years, others will have you dashing ahead with a half-formed idea. For every type of young writer, there is a piece of bad advice out there that will convince you that the way YOU write naturally is wrong, wrong, wrong.

So— maybe it’s time to swear off running after writing advice. Read more books instead. Experience life a little. Learn a new language. Improve your knowledge of your native language. And remember that the only real key in becoming a confident writer is to write, and write, and write. Until you get good at it.



Space Colonization in Silverberg’s The Seed of Earth

SeedofEarthSpace colonization. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit because of my current work-in-progress. And reading some novels that cover the topic.

The back cover of Robert Silverberg‘s The Seed of Earth puts it like this:

“The leaders of Earth intend to spread Mankind throughout the universe, until every habitable planet boasts a human civilization. 60 colony ships leave Earth every day on a one-way trip to the stars. Each ship carries 100 draftees. 6000 a day. 48,000 a week. Two and one half million every year. If your number comes up, one of them is YOU.”

And the story covers the selection of several people to be unwilling colonists, and their adventures on their new world.

Some key concepts from the book that I noticed:

The selection of colonists by means of a military style draft. Since the novel was written in 62, a great many of the male readers had experienced being drafted into military service. But the colonization selection process was quite harsh. Married couples were split, parents were divided from their children forever.

Motivation for the colonization is based on ‘Population Bomb’ fears. [‘The Population Bomb‘ was a 1968 book which claimed that most of those reading the book would soon die due to famines caused by ‘overpopulation’. ]  While the numbers of people sent off Earth was not enough to ease population fears, the fact that those who remained, subject to the draft, delayed childbearing since if a couple were childless, if one were drafted the other could volunteer, and they could go off to the new planet together.

Forced marriage is a part of the colonization scenario. Shortly after landing, the men pick out wives. The chosen women can refuse— until you get down to the last woman and the last man, I presume. No one seems worried about the fact if the whole colony marries on the same day, there might be a large number of pregnancies in the very early phases of colonization. Whereas if they waited for colonists to couple up, some might remain unmarried a few years, and the women of those couples can continue to work while the new mothers will be busy tending their babies.

Colonies are ‘sink or swim’ propositions. They have some modern tools and weapons, but replacing them, or getting more for new generations, is not a given. Mass colonization is an expensive enough proposition. Sending resupply ships to bring new tools, weapons and other items is another vast expense. The book does not state whether the colonists can expect this sort of help. There certainly is no constantly-available authority from Earth to guide the new colony.

The selection of colonists is wholly at random. The colonists drafted may have skills useful for a colony, or may be only useful as unskilled labor. There is no rule that states that each group must have a doctor or a biologist or a carpenter or a gunsmith.

Religious faith doesn’t seem to play a part. If Catholic priests are drafted there is nothing in the book to suggest that they will be permitted to remain unmarried. And there seems to be the expectation that all of the married draftees will abandon their Earthside marriages and take up new marriages on their colony. No provision is made for Catholic draftees to try to get annulments of their marriages. And since the colonists are selected at random there is every chance that there will not be enough religious believers from any one religion or denomination to create a functional congregation and pass down the faith. Now, this is very much in accord with the ideas of many sci-fi writers that religion will fade away just as Marx predicted. But real history shows us that when colonies have been made in the past, a common religion seems to have been useful.

The Seed of Earth is, of course, rather an old book. The short story on which the novel was based came out in 1957, the year before I was born. And the novel came out when I was four. But in a way, that’s what makes the book so educational for science fiction writers today. We don’t live in the world of 1957 or 1962. The presuppositions of that era have been replaced by new ones. And so we notice Silverberg’s presuppositions and can question them.

So— what if you were constructing a novel in which space colonization played a part? Where would your colonists come from? Would they be volunteers, draftees or a mix? How much support from Earth would they expect?

And one question that really intrigues me— what would happen if a colonization program got started in an era when people feared the Earth was facing increasing ‘overpopulation’, and then it was discovered that the reality was that Earth was, if anything, threatened by ‘underpopulation’ and the challenges of an aging population? What might that do to half-started colonies somewhere when the reason for the colonization program went away?

What the great writers had that we don’t.

Have you noticed the decline in writing quality in some newly-published books? I’m not talking about the self-published and small press novels, but the ones from major publishers. And when you compare today’s writing output not to the writers of a few decades back, but to the great writers of the English language, it’s clear that something is missing. And that something should really be put back.

What did the great writers have going for them? A number of things, in their education and homelife, that don’t really exist today. Let’s look at a few of them.

Foreign language. Education in the English-speaking world was originally centered on learning two foreign languages, Latin and Greek. As late as the time in which writer C. S. Lewis was being educated, Latin and Greek, with an emphasis on the grammar, were still essential parts of education. Today, by contrast, language learning materials have as little grammar content as possible, and most language learning materials instead are filled with sample conversations of generic tourists, business travelers or students. Very few people who have completed the required high school courses in Spanish are able to pick up a Spanish book and read it, or write a 300 word blog post in Spanish.

King James Bible. The young people of the past were absolutely drenched in the beautiful language of the King James Bible. It was the ‘Authorized’ version and as late as the time of my own childhood was THE Bible for Protestants. (The Douay-Rheims Bible was a similar traditional Bible for Catholics.) Young people heard the words of the King James Bible read to them in schools, school chapels, and in Sunday services. In many homes, there were family Bible readings as well. The result is that even people from religiously indifferent parents had the words of the KJV Bible as part of their cultural literacy— their shared cultural experience with other English speakers. Today, in American schools at least, the Bible in any translation is a banned book, though mockery of the Bible by teachers is apparently considered just fine unless the media gets the story. Even many Christians no longer read the KJV, preferring more modern, loose translations like ‘The Message’ that make the worlds of the Bible sound like something written by Dr. Phil. People lack the extra depth of English language knowledge that the former KJV immersion gave young people— something which was of great help in reading Shakespeare.

Shakespeare. Once the works of Shakespeare were the common property of the reading class. Children would get together with brothers and sisters to put on scenes from Shakespeare at home. People could refer to the plots of the best-known Shakespeare plays and expect that any literate person would understand the reference. But now schools have been dumbed-down enough that it’s likely that Shakespeare is reserved for the advanced English students only. Or, if state law requires reading a Shakespeare play before graduation, it is taught superficially by teachers that haven’t studied Shakespeare in any depth, so prefer to spend class time on pointing out Shakespeare’s racism and sexism, or debating whether the Bard was gay.

Letter writing. People used to communicate through writing letters. And there were rules in writing letters. You wrote in the best English you could. You asked after the other person and his family. You answered the questions your correspondent had asked in his letter. Some letters were worthy of being gathered into books and published. Now, people communicate through sharing pictures, memes and links on Facebook, and liking one another’s stuff. They don’t know enough to ask about their FB friends, or reciprocate. Many of them don’t even know it is less than polite to call other people morons over differences in opinion. They also text, which gives them the impression that correct spelling and language usage is a thing of the past. If you point out that when someone said ‘your a morone’ to you that there were some errors made, he calls you a grammar Nazi. Even young authors do this, unaware that what they write on their FB pages is a ‘free sample’ of their writing and should be as correct as they can make it to attract readers.

Boredom. The great writers of the past were blessed by times of boredom. They didn’t have round-the-clock television, the internet, smart phones or texting. So they had to do other things. Socialize with other people. Go to church. Read books— better quality books than what many people read today. Visit the sick and poor— it was the socially expected thing for the class of people most authors belonged to. Today, we don’t experience the blessings of boredom as there is always one new computer game to play, or one more ‘reality’ TV show to mindlessly consume.

Since we don’t naturally have the advantage that the great writers of the past had, it is up to us to make up for it. I think that one way of predicting whether a young person has what it takes to be a good author is to find out what that person has learned and done on his own. If all he knows has been force-fed him by our inferior schools, he has little hope of even knowing that he’s missing out on something.

But if the young person is an independent thinker, has perhaps tried to learn a foreign language on his own, or got on a ‘great books’ reading kick, perhaps he is independent enough to get the knowledge he will need to be a great writer someday.


Why we must raise the voting age to 27.

Voting. It’s not a joke. The congressmen and president we pick make the difference between losing even more Constitutional rights or regaining some of the ones we’ve lost. And because voting is such an important thing, we shouldn’t leave it to children. Even overage children.

Let’s think back to the year 1904, for example. Most kids didn’t go on to high school back then. They left school at eighth grade graduation (or before) and got jobs. Serious jobs. Ones they knew they might be doing the rest of their lives. And they didn’t use their pay as ‘mad money’ but used it to support themselves and their families. By the time they got to vote for the first time at age 21, they had been a part of the adult world for a number of years.

And now, we have eternal children who go to dumbed-down colleges and universities for years in the hope that they will get out and be handed a job as one of the bosses, with no hard work involved. They take out massive student loans that they plan to pay back with fantasy money from their fantasy job.

These eternal children may have held jobs, but those jobs were just to pay for their little luxuries— their cars, their bar visits, their smartphones. If they live at home, they don’t pay for their rent, board and free laundry service. They take it as something owed them.

They pick a college major based on what pleases them, not on what could get them a job. And as for their educational level— most of them cannot write a hate-comment on a conservative FB page that has correct spelling and grammar.

The government has begun to acknowledge the fact of prolonged childhood in its laws. One law regarded children up to 27 as children as far as being a dependent on mommy or daddy’s health insurance. Another law extended childhood up to 30.

Now, why should we regard these eternal children as grownups when they have not yet become accustomed to the real world of work and self-support? We see the result in the young stupids who know nothing of the political issues of the day, but voted for Obama because ‘he’s da MAN!’

We need more adult voters. And so it is time to raise the voting age to 27. I know, to compare to the 1904 experience we should raise it even higher, say 35, to insure that even the late bloomers get a taste of real life before getting in the voting booth, but that would be too unfair to those young people with a premature sense of adult responsibility who started adult life earlier instead of drifting through college life, majoring in binge drinking.

If voting began at 27, young people would have more years to start to question the indoctrination they got from their teachers the way they have been ordered to question their religion (if Christian or Jewish) and the wisdom of the US Constitution. They would perhaps even learn to question some of their less-reliable information sources, such as Left-wing political comedy shows.

Even if raising the voting age to 27 only resulted in a 10% reduction in no-information voters, that would translate into politicians having to have more than popular sound-bites and slogans. They would have to look into having a bit of substance. And we could certainly use more of that.