Showing posts with label Robert J. Sawyer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert J. Sawyer. Show all posts

Monday, April 22

How Robert J. Sawyer Writes A Novel

How Robert J. Sawyer Writes A Novel

I just came across this interview with Hugo and Nebula Award winner, Robert J. Sawyer.

How Robert Sawyer creates his characters

The characters almost always come out of the research I do. For instance, in Frameshift, Pierre Tardivel started out simply as a man at risk for a genetic disorder, but as I learned more about such things, his background, motivations, and thoughts grew more complex and subtle. I really do believe what Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche said: "If you want to get across an idea, wrap it up in a person."

Robert Sawyer's advice for aspiring science fiction authors:

As a business, science fiction is very similar to mystery. Both have healthy short-fiction marketplaces, dominated by Dell Magazines — the same people who publish Ellery Queen's and Hitchcock's also publish the top two science-fiction magazines, Analog and Asimov's. Both genres are series oriented: if you want to develop a character and write book after book about him, her — or it — you can. Both are convention-driven businesses: just as there are lots of mystery conventions, so, too, there are lots of science-fiction conventions. And both are research-driven genres. You can't write a really good mystery without doing lots of research; the same is true of science fiction. My advice for those wanting to break into science fiction is the same advice I'd give for those wanting to break into mystery: start with short fiction, then try to sell a novel. And, just as in mystery, I'd say the greenest pastures are in New York; don't be afraid to tackle the American market, and don't worry about your Canadian content — I've never had the slightest problem selling flagrantly Canadian work in the States.
Read the rest of Robert J. Sawyer's interview here: Fingerprints Interview of Robert Sawyer.

Credits: "From the December 1997 issue of Fingerprints, the newsletter of the Crime Writers of Canada. Interview conducted in November 1997 by Jim McBride."

Other articles you might like:

- Walter Benjamin's Advice To Writers
- 5 Rules For Writing A Murder Mystery: Keeping the Murderer Secret Until The End
- How To See Through Your Character's Eyes

Photo credit: "I am Chicago" by kevin dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, March 25

4 Ways To Enchant Others

4 Ways To Enchant Others
Wouldn't it be great to be enchanting?

Enchanting people find it easier to attract others, to schmooze.

And, of course, if you'd like folks to notice you, to read your book, your short story, your anthology, being enchanting helps.

(Perhaps that sounds predatory, but I don't mean it to be. Being enchanting would be lovely in and of itself.)

Sadly, I'm part of the less-than-enchanting crowd. So are most writers I've met. Perhaps it comes with the territory. Anyone who writes several hours a day about worlds conjured from their imagination can be forgiven if they emerge from their writer's cave with all the charm of a starving bear.

At least, that's what I tell myself.

Except I know it's not true. I found Robert J. Sawyer enchanting. Mesmerizing even. Not only is he one of the better known science fiction writers alive today, not only has he been engaged in many side projects, not only does he regularly take time out of what has to be an insanely busy schedule to teach other writers, he comes across as a genuinely nice, funny, absurdly intelligent, person.

Is there any hope for the rest of us less socially gifted writers?

Fortunately there seems to be. I just read a great blog post by Penelope Trunk: How To Be Enchanting. She says that people who are enchanting do 4 things:

1. Say yes.

Opportunities to enchant happen all the time.

- a retail transaction
- a high-level corporate negotiation
- a Facebook update

Perhaps even ... a blog post? (grin)

But that doesn't answer the question: Why say "yes"? After all, saying yes involves us in more work, more time spent, and we have precious little of that.

Here's Penelope Trunk's answer:
“A yes buys time, enables you to see more options and builds rapport,” is what Guy writes. “By contrast, a no response stops everything. There’s no place to go, nothing to build on and no further options are available. You will never know what may have come out of a relationship if you don’t let it begin.”
Though if you say yes it's a good idea to follow through.

2. Be passionate.

Penelope Trunk writes:
I was coaching this guy, Jonathan Mann, and the first thing I learned about him is that he has written a song a day for 1500 days in a row and they’re all on YouTube. That is immediately enchanting because determination and commitment are enchanting.

People want to be close to passion because passion is contagious. Also, when you are passionate about something you can find an immediate connection to other passionate people, because commitment to a cause and the drive to get there are scary to own, so people who are doing it feel an immediate bond.
I agree! Passionate people do find it easier to connect with each other because of a shared way-of-being. Even if we aren't familiar with what the other person is passionate about we connect with their drive, their commitment, their fire.

For me, one such person is the singer/songwriter for The Land of Deborah.  The Land of Deborah is more than a band, it's a way-of-being, an approach to life. Just being around Deb makes me feel re-energized creatively.

Penelope's blog post doesn't stop there, she goes on to discuss two more traits of the enchanting and they're well worth reading. Penelope's post is wonderful, and as always I love her quirky links.

Penelope left her readers with a song she loved, so I thought I'd do the same. Here are four songs by The Land of Deborah; they're free! My favorite is Should've Stayed In Bed. Enjoy!

Other articles you might like:

- The New Yorker Rejects Its Own Story: What Slush Pile Rejections Really Mean
- Writing And The Fear Of Judgement
- The Rules Of Romantic Comedy

Photo credit: "* * *" by aussiegall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, November 22

Robert J. Sawyer: Showing Not Telling

Robert J. Sawyer: Show Don't Tell

Robert J. Sawyer & Dirty Harry

For my second post today I want to share my notes from a workshop I took with consummate science fiction novelist Robert J. Sawyer.

The first time I heard Mr. Sawyer speak was on the first stop of his book tour for WWW: Watch last year. If you ever have the opportunity to hear Robert Sawyer talk--whether it is a keynote address, a book launch or a workshop--I'd advise you to grab it. He's a terrific speaker.

Here's an example: Mr. Sawyer's workshop was held on the morning of the third day of the conference and everyone, including Mr. Sawyer, was tired. I think we all wished we'd had one more cup of our favorite caffeinated beverage.

Dirty Harry and Backstory

Regardless, Mr. Sawyer gave a great talk and, at the end, opened the floor to questions. Someone asked him about backstory, how much was enough. Here's what he said (this is from my memory and is not verbatim):
Great question! You want to put backstory in when its relevant to the other characters. For instance, perhaps you all remember a scene that goes something like this:
Here Mr. Sawyer assumed the manner and voice of Clint Eastwood and proceeded to act out the iconic scene from Dirty Harry:
I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking "did he fire six shots or only five?" Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk? (Memorable quotes for Dirty Harry)
But of course that's all backstory. Or an information dump, but that's what a lot of backstory is. The scene only works if the reader/audience understands that Harry doesn't remember how many bullets he has and what will happen to 'punk' if there's even one left. That information is critically important to 'punk'. That's why the scene works, and works beautifully.

I'd never thought of it that way before.

That's the sort of thing I've come to expect from Robert Sawyer. He's knowledgeable, witty, a great teacher, and knows how to make a crowd laugh, even first thing in the morning on the third day of a conference!

Show Don't Tell

RS's example of what telling versus showing:

Mary was old.
Mary moved slowly across the room, her hunched form supported by a polished wooden cane gripped in a gnarled, swollen-jointed hand that was covered by translucent, liver-spotted skin. (Robert Sawyer)
When we 'tell' we're using straight expository text. What is the big difference between the examples above? In the "showing" example RS didn't use the word "old". The reader inferred it.

Interactive Reading

Prose fiction is a form of interactive media. Lectures are boring, books shouldn't be. Make your stories interactive.

What is our goal? Why do we write? We want to ENTERTAIN readers. You want to engage your reader, you want to bring their cognitive functions to the story.

Convey information actively. You want your readers to find your work EVOCATIVE.

How do you do this? Look for TELLING DETAIL.

Singh had a reputation for being able to cut through layers of bureaucracy and get things done. (Robert Sawyer)
Chang shook his head and looked at Pryce. "All this red tape! We'll never get permission in time."

Suddenly the office door slid open, and in strode Singh, a slight lifting at the corners of his mouth conveying his satisfaction. He handed a ROM chip to Chang. "Here you are, sir — complete government clearance. You can launch anytime you wish."

Chang's eyebrows shot up his forehead like twin rockets, but Singh was already out the door. He turned to Pryce, who was leaning back in his chair, grinning. "That's our Singh for you," said Pryce. "We don't call him the miracle worker for nothing." (Robert Sawyer)


Showing is descriptive. Dialogue by its nature is telling. But you can still show some things. For instance, through the words used. Is the person speaking educated, uneducated? Do they speak with an accent? What kind?

One caution, though. Avoid being offensively steriotypical.

Show Using Action

Let's say you want to introduce the information that a character is an engineer but you don't want to outright say, "Mark is an engineer".

RS gave an example--which I didn't have time to write down in detail--in which a person walks into a boardroom, sits down, his iron ring clicks against the glass of water as he takes a sip, etc. The point is that we use the (more-or-less) well-known fact that engineers wear iron rings to actively (ring pinging against the side of the glass) plant the idea that this character is an engineer.

It's always more interesting to receive information in an active way. The next time you're watching a movie notice how often the characters will be walking around, doing something active, while receiving the obligatory information dump. And it makes a difference. The same applies to writing.

When Telling Is Okay

You don't always want to show rather than tell.

a. Don't bother showing if it's not on the test.

If you spend a lot of time describing something, if you show something, that lets your reader know it's significant. On the other hand, if you tell them something that lets the reader know it's not significant.

RS said this is how he thinks of it: Is this on the test? If you're wondering if it would be okay to tell something rather than show it ask yourself: Is this on the test? Will this be important later? Is it important to the story? Does the reader need to know this in order for the resolution to make sense? If it doesn't then you can tell it.

For instance, if your story hinges on it being the dead of winter then you'll want to spend several paragraphs describing this. If it doesn't then you won't.

Also, pay attention to imagry.

Spring --> rebirth
Fall ---> crumbling decay
Winter --> dead, depressed, stalled

You don't have to show everything, you don't have to show something if it's not on the test.

b. Don't bother showing if you're on the first draft.

When you're writing the first draft you don't know what the next twist is.

If you're only writing in declarative prose then if you have writer's block you can go back and write a previous scene in detail. Flesh it out.

For instance, in Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury could have written "It was summer" and then gone back and wrote "I remember a summer that would never end".

c. Don't bother showing in your outline

It's okay to write in your outline "and then an epic battle occurs". You'll fill this in when the time comes. And if your outline changes it will save you wasting time on a scene that will never make it into the final draft.

Audience Questions

i. Description in adult versus young adult literature

One of the questions Robert Sawyer was asked was whether there is a difference in Young Adult literature regarding how much description you should give. Mr. Sawyer said you might want to be sparser in your description. You can't put in as many details. You can't list 20 things about the old church on the hill, you can only list 3 so you have to be careful you make those three do the work of 20.

ii. Too much specificity can hinder reader identification

For instance, if you want your reader to identify with a character you could write, "A beautiful woman walked through the door" and leave the reader to fill in the details. What color her hair is, how much she weighs, how tall she is.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what you consider beautiful might not be what another person does.

#  #  #

That's it! I'll try to remember to put up my notes from Robert Sawyer's other workshop, The Intimately Human and the Grandly Cosmic. There he spoke about what Science Fiction is, what genre is. Also, I sat in on Anne Perry's workshop, Where Did They Come From (about characters and characterization) again this year and, again, it was wonderful.

 Have a great Thanksgiving! :-)

Other articles you might like:

- Happy Thanksgiving, Battlestar Galactica & Kris Rusch
- 8 Do's And Don'ts Of Writing Fiction From Neil Gaiman
- Writers: How To Use Permanently Free Books To Increase Sales

- All the examples, above, of showing versus telling are copyrighted by Mr. Sawyer.

Photo credit: "I Love October" by Pink Sherbet Photography under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.