So I was talking with a friend about how we don’t really remember anything ever happening in Jules Verne’s classic From The Earth To The Moon. So I checked Wikipedia and learned no, they just get going to the moon at the end of the book. It’s in the sequel, Around The Moon, that they go around the Moon. And this made me learn that twenty years after that, Verne wrote another sequel, The Purchase of the North Pole or Topsy Turvy depending on which sentence you’re reading in Wikipedia at that moment. And the plot’s just got me all giddy with delight but I’ll put it behind a cut in case you don’t want spoilers.
We had this missive cross our desk, after first asking permission and getting a hearty lad to walk ahead carrying a red flag:
What was that old book where I don’t remember the title or the author, but the cover art was this hollowed-out human head that was unpeeling into a helix, and in the upper right there’s a planet kind-of Earthlike but not exactly, and then it’s also an apple with a huge bite taken out of it, with the background an isometric grid imposed on an outer-space shot, and in the lower right corner there’s an infinite regression of open doorframes, each with the silhouette of a stern-looking and possibly alien person in front?
PS: Love your podcast, hope to listen to it someday. Do you have one?
The answer is: you are thinking of every science fiction novel, 1970-1974. You may find some in any used book store of class III or above; best of luck with your search! Do write in if you have further questions.
Welcome back everyone. Hope you had a good week writing and are ready to resume walking through this novel-writing experience. Before I start, though, ClashOSymbols had his good post for the month, “Facts: Never Your Friends”. Read it wisely.
Now we left off last time here, our heroes wondering about the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics. But they don’t know it enough to say anything meaningful, so they can’t be wrong. See ClashOSymbols above. You can’t break a suspension of disbelief if there’s nothing to disbelieve. That’s the first reason they have to talk about stuff they don’t really understand.
Something else you get from this. Now, this part doesn’t matter if all you want is a book, but a career walkthrough’ll tell you this. Characters talk about quantum mechanics, you have a science fiction book. You want to start out writing genre, because if genre readers to start reading you they’ll never stop. Doesn’t matter what genre. Science fiction, mystery, western, romance, military, anything at all. But then you have to pivot to literary fiction. Your genre readers will keep reading, and they’ve talked about you enough to their normal friends that you get those readers too. All your books get reissued with boring but uniform covers and your back catalogue sells all over again. Your genre readers will complain about you selling out, but they’ll keep buying and new people will follow them. Always in your career: start genre, then pivot to lit.
But here’s the thing. The harder you start in genre, the tougher the pivot to lit. Start your career with books about Earth pacified by giant memory-wiping kangaroo robot detectives, your pivot is going to have to be like five novels where a sulky old guy reviews badly-named bands for a minor-league city’s failing alt weekly while nothing happens. So doable but soooooooo boring. If you start instead with something so softly genre it could get filed by accident with the grown-up books, you can pivot without doing anything more than picking duller titles.
So. They talk quantum mechanics many-worlds stuff, they don’t know enough to say anything right or wrong or anything. Science fiction fans’ll eat it up, real people will think you’re doing that Bridging The Two Cultures stuff. The novel’s got a good start and I’m already setting up for the pivot.
Now — oh, phoo, what did they go down there for? OK, they just got off the subway and went down the wrong street. I could just go back and restart from the subway and go the right way but you’re going to have to deal with accidents like this and you should see how to recover. Why is a wrong street dangerous? Because if you’re set in a real place, you might say something about the place that a reader can check and find is wrong. That can wipe out all the score you get from the whole chapter. Even if you’re doing the little-chapter strategy, which I say is gaming the rules and won’t do because I have integrity, this dings you. Remember, facts are just stuff you can get wrong. So, have the characters observe something non-committal and non-falsifiable and then they can say they’re on the wrong street. Hey, they’re rattled from that knifeketeer/magician thing, anyone would understand.
Or you can martingale it. Double down, pick something about the setting and just go wild describing it. Extra hard, yes. It’s almost irresistible to put bunches of facts about the place in. And facts aren’t your friends. But pull it off and you can get so many bonus points. We’ll talk about that a little next time.
For now, though, let me point out the Comment of the Week. That’s from FanatsyOfFlight back on Monday with her great Fan Theory: All Fan Theories Are The Same Fan Theory. If you missed it, you’re probably thinking fan theories are a weak target for satire. Maybe they are, but they’re so well-eviscerated.
About The Author: For two years as a reporter on the student newspaper Joseph Nebus attended all the student government meetings for four of the Rutgers University undergraduate colleges. The most challenging was the University College Governing Association, because as adult commuting students they could afford to cater their meetings with way too much pizza to eat and had the pull to reserve the warm conference room with the plush chairs.
Hi, okay, welcome to this walkthrough of writing a novel. I know we’ve got a lot of new viewers this month because they want to do their NaNoWriMo stuff right. Don’t worry, you should be able to hop right on into this. You all see my novel like it is right now, so let me explain where I’m going.
First, though. Viewpoint. I’m doing third-person omniscient. I mention for the new viewers. I explained why third-person omni like, was it three? episodes ago. Go to that if you want the whole spiel but, in brief: I like it. It’s cozy. I’ve got all my writing macros set up for it. It lets me drop in cynical observations without any characters having to be snarky, which is off-putting when you do it as much as I do. You want to limit readers’ reasons to dislike your characters to the ones that you want, so much as possible. Third person limited is okay. It’s a harder level for getting dramatic irony but sometimes you want the challenge. First person is the easy mode for suspense, the extra-hard mode for dramatic irony. Figure how hard you want to write your stuff. Also you think you get away with any continuity errors by playing the ‘unreliable narrator’ card. Everybody knows that trick so they don’t fall for it. Neutral there.
ClashOSymbols, I see you already rushing to the comments section and you’re wrong. Second person is not happening, and you’re not gonna make it happen. Everything you do in second-person reads like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. By the third time anyone reads a Choose Your Own Adventure, all they’re doing is reverse-engineering the Happy Ending. Do it in a straight novel and you hit the Choose-Your-Own problem, where ‘you’ get told you’re doing or thinking something you would never do. Yes, shut up, a reader who pretends enough will go along with you. But every line you get wrong is fighting the suspension-of-disbelief and a whole novel of that doesn’t work. You’ve got better fights to pick with your readers than what they think they’d do in your scenario.
Also no it’s not second-person if the setup is the person who did the thing telling it to ‘you’. You are so wrong. New viewers, meet ClashOSymbols. That first impression you’ve got of him? You have him pegged. Short-short version, I’m right, he’s wrong, we’re just delaying his inevitable admission. And yeah, interests of fairness, read his walkthrough yourself for the wrong side of things.
Back to the writing. Up here, that’s the Meet Cute. This isn’t a romance, but my leads didn’t know each other before the book starts. They have to have some reason to stick together. They aren’t in a spot they can be ordered to stick together, and it’s so hard having an emotion about a new person. They gotta be shoved together and that’s why it’s a Meet Cute.
So. New York subway scene. Protagonist rescues the guy from the manic guy stabbing the air with a knife, other guy says it was a magician and shows his cell phone photo to prove it. That works. Readers can imagine knifeketeers on the New York subway. They maybe heard from someone how there was a magician performing on a car or in a station on a big city subway. Readers’ll buy it. And the characters have some reason to keep talking because one has the photo of the knifeketeer, the other the magician. All that doesn’t make sense.
So here you see they try guessing about some quantum mechanics multi-world thing. Neither of them knows enough quantum mechanics to figure how that makes sense. That’s fine, it doesn’t make sense. But they can make wild guesses that maybe explain it, and I don’t have to commit to anything. This is important. Everything you write as a fact in your book is something you can get wrong. Every statement is a chance to break the reader’s suspension-of-disbelief. If you want to do science fiction don’t ever explain how something works in enough detail that any reader can check the numbers. They’ll never ever work. Stay vague and you can insist you’re really writing “hard” science-respecting science fiction. Plus you can boast you spared the readers the boring calculations that would prove it.
This does something else important too. But I’m about out of time for this installment. Hope you learned something useful for your novel-writing. Catch you next week with some more walking through. And, yeah, ClashOSymbols, as always, commenter of the week for that killer pumpkin snark. Congratulations. Folks should check what he has to say out. He can write so brilliant an argument you almost forget he’s wrong. Catch you later.
About the Author: Joseph Nebus has an unpublished Star Trek: The Next Generation novel from back when he was a teenager that dear Lord you will never ever EVER SEE YOU CANNOT IMAGINE HOW WELCOME YOU ARE. He is currently working on an ambitious project of grousing about others’ success.
And now the weekend forecast:
Friday. Highs in the upper 200s, Kelvin, or the lower negative 40s in one of those freak temperature scales almanacs say exist but can’t cite for actually being used by anyone but the freak temperature scale inventor. You can get into a good argument about whether “freak” refers to the scale or the inventor over on Usenet group alt.weird.mensuration over in the thriving Usenet community of 1997.
Friday evening. Nagging showers find their focus, indeed their point in life, by getting to the question of whether you’ve got snow tired put on the garage for the winter haul. They won’t be sated by how a garage really doesn’t need snow tires except as an attractive accessory, since most fixed structures — whether attached or detached — have given up their nomadic ways and need very little traction power. Such is life.
Saturday Morning. Even if you were to wake up and even if you found any cartoons playing you won’t recognize any of them, and any attempts to complain about this would be met with your friends insisting the cartoons you used to watch weren’t any good anyway, not even the Looney Tunes, which were from the later years they were boring. Some friends. Skip it.
Saturday. Probability of more than 40 percent that you’ll sit bolt-upright in bed, realizing that you finally have the epilogue scene for that roman-à-clef you were writing back fifteen years ago when you were just out of college. While the original manuscript is now lost somewhere in an avalanche of 3.5″ discs all labelled “Saved Civ II Games” (look for the one where you keep a little Aztec colony intact on Madagascar just so you can finish the spaceship instead of conquering the Earth in 1787), you can still open up a fresh document and start typing your great closer:
Fifteen years out of college, Protagonist [ you don’t remember what exactly he was named but he probably had some name that should go there; anyway, that’s what you have editors for ] was lazing about one Saturday morning when he sat bolt-upright in bed realizing, “I could just look up what `roman-à-clef’ means!” He clapped his hands together, smiled to himself, and fell back into the pillows and the blankets that were oh, so warm. So very warm. So embracing.
However, you won’t, because you’ll almost certainly fall back into bed where it’s so warm and easy to let that novel wait until some better time to deal with it.
Saturday Night. The nagging rain turns on its heels and goes up to its room, slamming the door on its way. This is because it’s going through a phase, the Moon promises, and it should outgrow it soon enough. This little white lie covers up the fact that it can’t possibly be outgrown soon enough. When the rain emerges it’s switched over to a passive-aggressive layer of fine volcanic soot, but only because it wants attention. Pay it no heed.
Sunday Morning. Disturbing dreams seem to be a recollection that you don’t have an editor for your roman-à-clef anyway, or if you did, you forgot where you left him. 25 percent chance you’ll jot down a note to check exactly what you did leave in that storage locker you moved away from back in 2007, but won’t be able to read it when you wake up. In fact they reflect a high-pressure front moving in, bringing along those little solid lines with triangles pointing out on the weather maps.
Sunday. An abnormal mid-day low is reached when you put a $10 in the automated car wash machine and don’t get any change, and don’t get a car wash except for the initial spray of water as you drive in, and the cashier inside the gas station insists that it can’t possibly have taken your money because you’re just supposed to enter codes there. Best remedies include using the giant sized mugs for hot chocolate mixed with marshmallows and whipped cream or just kicking the back of the garage until it rolls down the driveway a little.
Sunday Night. The nagging rain shifts over to a petty, snarky bundle of attitude that’s really funny for the first couple minutes and then leaves you feeling kind of hollow. Let it pass.