When to dump your draft and when to fix it.

Revision is a key step in writing and one that I have come to enjoy.  It wasn’t always that way.  I viewed any time I spend revising as time I wasn’t creating.  That is obviously not the case and it took me some time to get over that, but there is one part of revision that will always sting.  When you find a section that isn’t your best work, how do you know when to dump it and when to fix it?

DON’T DOUBLE DOWN

Once you realize that what you have in front of you isn’t any good, stop and assess whether it is worth continuing.  Many writers try to save a dying draft because of the time and energy they put into a piece.  Just because you are emotionally invested in your written words doesn’t mean they are readable. Know when to cut and run.

SOFTEN THE BLOW

Instead of highlighting 30,000 words and hitting the “delete” key, create a “dump” folder.  It is entirely possible for you to go back into this folder later and retrieve key pieces of information or plot, but the odds are that you won’t.  In my heap, I label and sort paragraphs, scenes, and whole chapters.  Some sections are totally useless and idle nonsense.  Other sections are about characters and settings that I find fascinating but would bore anyone else.  The book should be the story, not the history.

In the end, revision is critical when creating a story.  Not everyone has the strength to let go of weeks or months of work, but it is necessary at times. When you’re famous and long dead, your children can publish your Silmarillion.  Until then, please keep it to yourself.

Two Quick Points about Setting

Writing allows you to be in two places at the same time. While I’m sitting in a library in New Jersey, I’m also on the quarter deck of a brig in the Caribbean Sea. With that said, reading allows for the same thing, as long as the writer does his or her job.  The hard part is getting the reader to join you where you want them.  These are two quick points about setting.

PIECING IT TOGETHER

The settings we create come from fragments of what we know.  The gnarled and knotted trees from the woods behind the house in which you grew up now find themselves bordering a clearing in a dark forest of a far away land.  These trees give your characters the same foreboding that you felt when you were seven.  At the same time, the lush and well lit path from your walk in the mountains of Vermont last week seems like your characters’ best chance to escape this forest with their lives. These two pieces of your woodland experience didn’t share a field of view except in the world that you created.

PEOPLE HAVE NO PATIENCE

The days when a writer could go on for pages about the majesty of a mountain are long gone.  People simply do not have the patience for it.  The difference in modern fiction is that the details now need to be artfully dropped into the action.  Even the most beautiful field sits idly until acted upon by characters.

My philosophy on setting is an adaptation of the question: If a tree falls in woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  It may make a sound, but no one cares.

For more on setting, check out my previous posts on World Building and Setting vs. Setting the Scene.

The Four Types of Sci-Fi/Fantasy Worlds in under 300 words

It all depends on how immersed your world is in the elements of that genre.  

Minimal Immersion

The world is just like the one we see, except the hero, the villain, and maybe some friends have a special power.  Perhaps they can see through walls or have an accelerated healing factor.  Other than this, the world that the story takes place in is no different than ours.   Some examples of this are “The Sixth Sense” or any Spider-man movie.

Total Immersion

The story world is identical to ours, except that there is a major change.  This is the basis for most alien invasion, vampire attack, or zombie films.  “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Walking Dead” are television shows that do this well.  Other examples are stories involving characters like Superman, the X-Men, Transformers, and Harry Potter.

The Secondary World

The story takes place on a completely different world.  The geography, climate, politics, economy, and species of life are specific to this setting.  This gives the author complete control, but carries the burden of making it seem real to the reader.  Obvious examples are “Star Wars” and The Lord of the Rings.

The Strange Visitor

The fourth type of fantasy or science fiction setting is when a person from our world visits another time/space or when someone from a different time/space visits our world.  Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan, and “The Terminator” all fit this type perfectly.

With a better understanding of the different types of fantasy and science fiction settings, it will be easier to distinguish which best fits the story an author is trying to tell.

Immersing story in genre.

Stories should be shaped by the elements of the genre.  

 SCIENCE FICTION / FANTASY

When you tell a story in science fiction and fantasy, make sure you are using the genre to tell the story more effectively. Authors often use space ships, orcs, and aliens as window dressing for a story that could have just as easily been told on the streets of an American city. If the fantastic elements don’t enhance the story, then it doesn’t belong in the genre. The easiest way to tell if an author has done this is to try deleting the science fiction or fantasy elements in the story and see whether the message of the story is as effective.

 MYSTERY

Mystery writers know this rule and it is a lesson that all writers should follow. Don’t start writing until you have the ending in mind. The ending should be obvious from the beginning without giving away any surprises. This practice takes time and plenty of rewriting, but it is important.

FOR EXAMPLE

In Captain James Hook and the Curse of Peter Pan, thirteen-year-old James Hoodkins is torn from his home, nearly drowned, beaten, forced to kill, and made into a pirate all as a result of his chance encounters with Peter Pan. The fantasy elements of magic and a secondary world (Neverland) concentrate and enhance the story in a way that would be diminished if it were taken away. The ending, in which an adult Captain Hook confronts an eternally young Peter Pan, is obvious and anticipated.

Infuse personal experience in your genre in under five minutes.

It is said that people read Sci-fi/Fantasy for consolation or escapism. There is just something about a secondary world that unlocks a thousand possibilities. In that latitude, we can witness what we can be or what we should avoid without the ham-fisted mallet of preachy non-fiction.

REALITY IN A SECONDARY WORLD

Rarely do writers create situations, places, or characters completely from thin air and form a secondary world. More likely, authors draw from their experiences. They recast their lives in a different setting with a familiar a person, an incident, or an emotion. The result is something completely new while also remaining accessible to readers.

For example, high-powered nuclear warheads could fall into the wrong hands in our world. Turn on the news and there are any number of publicized threats about dictators. This is hardly different from how Zod intended to use the “Nova Javelins” in Kevin J. Anderson’s The Last Days of Krypton. Come to think of it, the book also did an outstanding job on the topics of betrayal, government, politics, and the importance of science and the arts in society. Sound familiar?

USE WHAT YOU KNOW

Readers like hard information. This is information about a profession, a location, or how something works. Every society has teachers, lawyers, politicians, doctors, engineers, criminals, and entertainers. It doesn’t matter whether it is on this world, one far away, or one in a distant past.

YOUR HOMEWORK

Here’s an exercise to illustrate the transferable use of personal experience. Pick a terrible incident you had at school. It could be when you failed a test, had a run-in with bullies, or caused trouble during a boring class. Once you’ve decided which experience to pull from, reset it in a secondary world. If you’re having trouble coming up with one, try to imagine the Starfleet/Jedi Academies or what school is like in the palaces of Gondor or King’s Landing. It would be best to use your own, but sometimes it’s okay to use well-known settings for inspiration and practice.

Personal experience anchors a story in realism so that the fantastic is far more believable. It is the difference between Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker and it is essential storytelling.