It’s Not Style Unless Someone Hates It

I recently read The Wes Anderson Collection, and it got me thinking about style.

For the unfamiliar, Wes Anderson is the writer and director of numerous films, and he has a very particular style that can be seen in the art direction, special effects, dialogue, and many other aspects of his movies. He’s a critical darling, and he’s managed to collect an impressive array of well-known actors who are eager to work with him in movie after movie, even in small roles that might seem “beneath” them.

There are also plenty of people who absolutely can’t stand him. They think the dialogue is stilted and monotone, the sets are twee, and the man loves pastels more than the Easter bunny.

Whether you love it or hate it, it’s clear that Anderson has a distinct style.

What is Style, Anyway?

Artistic style is nothing more than a pattern in your work. It might be subtle or obvious, and it will probably change over time.

It’s often hard, as an artist, to be aware of your own patterns—the elements of your personal style. This is one way that feedback can be incredibly valuable. Others will often see patterns you haven’t noticed.

If you have regular readers, ask them about any repeated elements they see in your stories. Those ideas, characters or settings might tell you something about the topics you’re interested in exploring, even if you haven’t consciously realized it.

Digging Into Your Own Head

Style doesn’t have to be entirely subconscious. You can probably identify some elements of your personal style without a reader’s help.

Look at the things you’ve written, and the things you’ve thought about writing. Past writing is a map of the places you’ve been, stylistically, and brainstorms, journals, or half-baked ideas will tell you more about where you might want to explore next.

Know Your Influences

It can also be valuable to look at the work that inspires you. What were your favorite stories growing up? Which books on your bookshelf are well-worn? What about other media?

The most fertile ideas are often the ones that you see in your own work and your favorite stories. You might also find inspiration in non-story pursuits, hobbies, and even “regular” jobs. Life and art often intersect in interesting ways.

Follow Your Interests

The reason it’s valuable to think about your own style is because it will help you shape your stories to be exciting as possible for your primary reader: yourself. It’s a bit of common advice that you won’t get anyone else excited about your work unless you’re excited about it first.

Understand as best you can what thing you want to make, then make deliberate choices that project or communicate that to the reader. Depending on what you like, these choices might be intellectual (references, tropes, allusions, subtext), or emotional (feeling, sound, resonance).

Most importantly, make honest work. It’s easy to shy away from the parts of ourselves we don’t like (or the parts we think others won’t like). But those thoughts and emotions are important aspects of style too.

You have to be true to your thoughts and experiences. Don’t shy away from the unpleasant bits, the cringing embarrassment, the weaknesses. Good characters are usually flawed characters, and authors often need some insight and sympathy for the darker sides of our shared humanity.

Writing With Style

Style often plays out in the choices we make without realizing it. If something feels right, interrogate it. Look inward, and understand your loves, hates, influences, and fears. Play to an audience of yourself.

If you’re honest about the things that fascinate you most, it will help you to write stories you love. And if someone out there decides they hate your style, then at least you know you have it.

Becoming a Writer

Becoming a Writer is a slim volume written by Dorothea Brand in 1934, based upon her experience as a creative writing teacher. As Brande is quick to point out, this is not a book about stylistic technique or story structure. She’s happy to guide readers to other books for that (and there are far more now than there were in the 30s). This book is exactly what it purports to be: a book about how to become a writer, and not necessarily how to write well.

The intended audience seems to be college students or post-school adults who want to get into writing, but aren’t quite sure how to start. Rather than get into all the technical details, Brande suggests what they need is an understanding of how to get into a writer’s headspace, to learn how to think and work like a writer.

While some of the language feels outmoded and there are one or two references to streetcars, Brande’s book stands up well almost a century after its original publication.

Writing Practice

As a first task for a writer to tackle, Brande suggests getting used to writing daily. The prospective writer must embark on a plan of writing immediately after waking up in the morning, before doing anything else. Once this has become habit, she advocates setting specific writing times based on each day’s schedule, and varying them to get used to writing at any time of day.

As a night owl, I am already fairly miserable in the mornings, even when I do get enough sleep. I’ve tried “morning pages” with mixed success in the past. I’ve decided that this is advice I can follow on the weekends, but I’m hit-or-miss during the week.

On the other hand, I have recently tried scheduling mini writing breaks in the middle of my day. It works surprisingly well, and increases my output a small but noticeable amount.

The Mindful Author

Brande is of the opinion that most writers spend too much time discussing the conscious work that a writer has to do, and not enough on the unconscious part of the writing brain. She believes that much of what makes for great writing comes from this unconscious well of ideas, and that great writers learn to effectively use and cultivate it.

To this end, she offers a series of exercises that sound an awful lot like mindfulness and meditation to the modern ear, but must have seemed rather “out there” when the book was first published.

She encourages writers to pay attention to the world around them, observing it with as much child-like wonder as they can muster, and avoiding distractions. This observation, however, should be followed by carefully describing the exciting bits with exacting and detailed language—practice for the unconscious brain in observing, coupled with practice for the conscious brain in relating the raw experience through words.

She also believes that consuming stories while working on a story of one’s own will contaminate it with other authors’ voices. Instead, to release a writer’s inner genius, she suggests some mostly-mindless, hypnotic activity to help free the unconscious—whether that be walking, cleaning, sewing, etc. She essentially recommends cultivating a meditative state with the story as its focus.

Here There Be Writers

A short book with strong opinions, Becoming a Writer tackles the task of writing in a surprisingly wholistic way. On the other hand, it makes sweeping generalizations about artistic sensibilities in almost every word, and I can’t bring myself to believe that those kinds of generalizations ever apply to everyone. But it’s a unique take on the writing book, with ideas that kept me thinking well after I had finished it

Despite being a book of concrete ideas about how to cultivate a good writing process, it is surprisingly romantic—and even borderline mystical—about writers and their art. It treats us as dragons and unicorns, imbued with a certain amount of innate magic, but also gets detailed about the practical care and feeding of these creatures to get optimal results.

If you’re looking for a writing book that is more about getting in the writing headspace, and less about rehashing the hero’s journey for the umpteenth time or tightening up your first five pages, Brande’s book is a good choice.

Growing the Language of a Story

My day job is in software development, and in pre-Covid times, when a solid majority of our teams used to still work in the office every day, I would host occasional “lunch and learn” meetings where we’d have our lunch in a conference room and watch a programming-related video.

Of these videos, one of my favorites is called Growing a Language, by Guy Steele. While it’s made for an audience of programmers, I think it’s fairly palatable to the layman. It is fascinating to me because it has a bit of a literary bent, where the form of the talk is, itself, a comment on the subject.

(I don’t blame you if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, but it’s worth watching to the 9-minute mark—the “now you see” moment.)


Steele starts his talk with a long string of definitions, ranging from nouns like “man” and “woman,” to the names of particular people, to grammatical constructs and mathematical concepts. His speech is oddly stilted to the ear, and some of his definitions cover complicated ideas with surprising conciseness. He perseveres for nine minutes in the face of the awkward, confused giggling from his audience.

At last, he gets to the point.

“A primitive is a word for which we can take it for granted that we all know what it means[…]. For this talk, I chose to take as my primitives all the words of one syllable and no more[…]. My firm rule for this talk is that if I need to use a word of two or more syllables, I must first define it.”

Steele starts with a somewhat arbitrary limitation: words of a single syllable. This is the reason for his stilted cadence. And despite his clever use of this artificially limited language, it’s apparent that he cannot get across everything he wants to say without expanding it. So he begins with simple definitions, then uses those to build more complex definitions.

The first several minutes of the talk are almost entirely devoted to building the language he needs. Then he begins to make his arguments. But he continues to sprinkle in more definitions as he goes, expanding the language so that it is ready to tackle each subsequent concept.

The Language of Stories

Steele is trying to make a point about the construction of computer programming languages, but his ideas are just as applicable to fiction. Each story has its own language, and as authors, we must construct that language as the story unfolds. We are just like Steele, defining concepts and grammar between making points. We are the train conductors laying track in front of our own speeding train.

In science-fiction and fantasy, this is especially obvious. We often need to build a secondary world that feels real, or a magic system, or the rules of some future technology. But even in more “mundane” genres, there are rules that must be defined. Who is the story about? What is the time period and setting, and how do the circumstances of the world affect the characters? What perspectives will be used?

Writing a story is a balancing act—the act of providing exactly enough information for the reader to understand what’s going on, at exactly the moment when it is needed. Too much, too early, and the whole story becomes bogged down in dull definitions. Too little, and the language becomes muddled and confusing; the story, difficult to follow.

Assumptions and Audience

Steele’s other key insight is that the starting point is extremely important. He chooses words of a single syllable. The starting point for a story is more complicated. It’s what you as the author assume about and expect from your audience.

For example, I might be writing about a dystopian future. I might focus on the technologies that enable the authoritarian regime to keep the people down. I might focus on the social constructs that make it difficult for the characters to fight back. I might focus more on the language and structure of the story, or the internal depths of the characters, or an intricate plot. The version of the story that highlights tech might appeal to a reader of hard sci-fi, while a focus on the society itself may appeal to a reader of “softer” sociological science-fiction. The version that uses challenging language and structure might appeal to a reader of literary fiction.

Whether we recognize it or not, every author must make assumptions about what their reader will bring to a story. A story that expects the reader to bring less will necessarily have to start with a simpler “language” and do more defining up-front. A story that expects more from the reader might start with a more complex “language,” but this runs the risk of confusing or driving off part of the potential audience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Better to write a great book for a particular audience than a mediocre book that tries to cater to every reader.

Breaking Expectations

Most of the time, it’s good to cater to your chosen audience, starting with a language they can understand and building it as the story progresses. But it can also be a powerful tool to break those well-defined rules.

It can be a story-defining twist to reveal something new about a setting or character that the reader wasn’t prepared for. It can be shocking and exciting to suddenly change up the structure or the way the story is told. The best authors can even carefully lure an audience into a story that they would have thrown away, were it revealed at the outset, and make them enjoy it. Maybe the main POV character dies at the end of act II, and the book shifts to the villain’s perspective?

Of course, it’s a hard trick to pull off. When done poorly, betraying the reader’s expectations can ruin the story for them. It can feel dull, like deus ex machina that impacts the story without earning it, or even like a mean prank played by the author at the reader’s expense. This is where beta readers and editors prove invaluable, helping to ensure that the trick actually works.

So Easy, You’re Already Doing It

Building a language for each story may seem daunting at first, but the good news is that every author does it, either deliberately or intuitively. By actively thinking about growing the language of the story, we have the opportunity to build it well—providing exactly what’s needed, when it’s needed, and not a sentence too early or too late.

When You Aren’t Inspired, Trust Process

As I approach the final leg of writing my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I feel like I’m finally on the other side of the difficult middle. The central 50% of novels almost always feel like the hardest part to me, and I know I’m not alone. However, I have a big advantage on this project: posting it on the blog gives me deadlines and external accountability.

When I finish writing a chapter, sometimes I feel pretty good about it, and sometimes I’m disappointed. But I set myself a schedule, and I keep writing more chapters and posting them. Sometimes, my only consolation is in telling myself that I can always perform major revisions after the thing is done.

On the good days, writing feels like making art, but on the bad days it feels more like working an assembly line. Clock-in, spend a few hours sticking words together, and clock-out. It’s not glamorous, but it’s often what needs to be done.

Is It A Good Day?

I recently binged through the incredible 32-episode documentary Double Fine PsychOdyssey, which follows the seven-year development of the game Psychonauts 2. Even if you’re not particularly interested in video games, it’s a fantastic study in the complexities and interpersonal challenges of building a creative project with a large group of people.

Tim Schafer, who is something of a game design and writing legend, has a habit of daily writing when he’s working on a project. Over the years he has accumulated piles of old project notebooks that he can look back on. This offers an amazing archaeological view into how these stories grew and changed over the course of development.

Early in the documentary, Schafer flips through a few pages of the notebook for the original game, Psychonauts. These pages contain the first mentions of many of the ideas that became central to the story, although he had no way knowing it at the time. Schafer reads these tentative forays into ideas that now seem predestined, laughs quietly to himself and says, “that was a good day.”

What’s interesting about these “good days” is that they’re often not obvious when we’re living in them. It’s only in retrospect that we can see what works and what doesn’t.

Doing the Work

Cory Doctorow has a great article about this, called Doing the Work: How to Write When You Suck.

In those years, I would sit down at the keyboard, load up my text-editor, and try to think of words to write. Lots of words occurred to me, but they felt stupid and unworthy. I would chase my imagination around my skull, looking for better words, and, after hours, I would give it up, too exhausted to keep chasing and demoralized by not having caught anything.

That feeling of unworthiness and stupidity has never gone away. There are so many days when I sit down to write and everything that occurs to me to commit to the page is just sucks.

Here’s what’s changed: I write anyway. Sometime in my late twenties, I realized that there were days when I felt like everything I wrote sucked, and there were days when I felt really good about what I had written.

Moreover, when I pulled those pages up months later, having attained some emotional distance from them, there were passages that objectively did suck, and others that were objectively great.

But here’s the kicker: the quality of the work was entirely unrelated to the feeling I had while I was producing it. I could have a good day and produce bad work and I could have a bad day and produce good work.

What I realized, gradually, was that the way I felt about my work was about everything except the work. If I felt like I was writing crap, it had more to do with my blood-sugar, my sleep-deficit, and conflicts in my personal life than it did with the work. The work was how I got away from those things, but they crept into the work nonetheless.

This is a profound realization. There is a freedom in just writing (rather than trying to write well) that can be necessary to actually get anything done. The louder your internal editor is, the more important it becomes to be able to turn it off.

What Cory experienced is something I’ve noticed as well. I often don’t feel very good about my writing in the moment. It’s only when I come back to it later that I can take notice of the parts that I like. That’s not to say I don’t need editing. I always find plenty of things to improve. But most of the time my opinion of my writing is higher when I’m reading it back than when I’m in the process of writing it. I just can’t trust my own opinion while I’m writing.

And even if it turns out to be bad, I can always fix it later.

Writing as Manual Labor

As I get older and more experienced, I am more and more drawn to the idea of writing as manual labor. When I treat writing as a simple project of putting one word after another, it takes away the pressure to make those words great. I get the words written faster, and with less anguish.

I don’t always know if what I’m making will be good. I would love to feel constantly inspired—to have the muse always looking over my shoulder and making suggestions—but inspiration comes fitfully.

Sometimes the muse only strikes because I gave her room and did the work.

Reblog: Don’t dribble out morsels of information within a scene — Nathan Bransford

Today’s reblog comes from Nathan Bransford, who discusses some of the nitty-gritty details of getting across information when a scene is on the move.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to reveal different pieces of information. Bransford suggests the simple and expedient route: give the reader the information they need to understand the scene, and give it to them up-front. Don’t make a scene a puzzle to piece together as you read it.

When you’re honing the narrative voice within your novel, you will likely get into all sorts of trouble if you try too hard to faithfully recreate a character’s contemporaneous thoughts. You probably won’t give the reader the context they need and you’ll risk disorienting the reader with inadequate physical description.

Remember, the narrative voice is storytelling to a reader. You are not transcribing the literal thoughts of someone in an alternate world (unless you’re writing something very experimental). It weaves in a character’s contemporaneous thoughts, but you have to make sure the elements the reader needs are present.

One major pitfall of trying too hard to stay true to a character’s thoughts is that some writers will wait for a “pause” in the action before they show the character observing their surroundings and concoct triggers for characters to look at things.

Read the rest over at Nathan Bransford’s blog…

Some Thoughts on Writing Diverse Characters

I am a middle-aged (or at least approaching), white, cis-het man. I’m upper middle class, and I live in the American Midwest.

You would be hard-pressed to come up with a more demographically precise human representation of “The Man” than myself. It’s fair to say that I won the lottery when it comes to privilege. As a writer with that sort of background, the past decade or so has been interesting. There are a lot more discussions (and arguments) about diversity—about who is writing and who is being written.

What “The Man” Worries About

A blogger that I follow recently posted about some of their concerns around wanting to write characters from other cultures, and worrying about getting it wrong. Is it fair to write about other cultures because you’re interested, or is that cultural appropriation? How do you write about someone different without accidentally falling into stereotypes? Is it somehow wrong to even want to tell those stories, when they don’t “belong” to you?

I’ve struggled with some of these questions myself. I happen to be the owner of a half-finished novel populated entirely by people from China and various parts of Africa. It’s a book that I began partly because I thought it would be interesting to explore a sci-fi future where China has become the world’s leading super-power, supplanting the USA (as many have postulated it eventually would). Likewise, the African Union, with many political and economic ties to China, supplants the EU in many ways.

I started writing that book years ago, before I spent much time thinking about the challenges of writing characters who are very different from myself, and before I really noticed the modern English-speaking world  openly debating these kinds of questions. One of the reasons I haven’t finished it is precisely because of those questions.

This post is not a sad story about how hard it is to be a writer like me in this day and age. I think it’s fairly obvious that my background still gives me advantages in the world of writing and publishing. I certainly believe there are much stronger headwinds for writers in a wide variety of marginalized groups.

The questions I’m interested in exploring are personal, and honestly, self-serving. What should I write, and how can I do it well?

What Should I Write?

The first big question is whether I should even be trying to write diverse characters—that is, characters with backgrounds significantly different from my own in terms of race, gender, sexuality, ability, or various other attributes.

To me, this is more a question of extent. We are all different from each other. Writing anything from the perspective of a character who isn’t myself already requires that I step out of my skin and try to understand a different perspective. Science fiction and fantasy already have a certain amount of this built-in.

However, there is obviously a spectrum of characters that are more or less similar to me. For example, my protagonist in Razor Mountain is the same ethnicity, gender and orientation as me, lives in the same region, and has a very similar job. If I start to change those things, like the characters in my older unfinished novel, where do I start to get into dangerous territory, and what exactly makes it dangerous?

The critics of all things woke might pose this as a defensive question: when do I run the risk of being canceled? But that misses the nuance of asking why someone might be upset by what I wrote. Writing a character becomes “dangerous” when I start to speak for someone in an arena where they are different from myself. This is where I run the risk of getting it badly wrong. People who are similar to that character may then feel alienated or even attacked by my inaccurate portrayal of them.

On one hand, I could simply avoid writing any characters that I think might be “too” different from myself. But if we say that nobody should write characters very different from themselves that doesn’t much help to better represent a variety of people in our literature, and it forces writers to create an artificial box around themselves to contain and limit all their writing.

This seems to me like a fearful way forward; supposedly safe, but ultimately bland. On the other hand, inclusion for the sake of inclusion is equally artificial. If I’m going to write a character, it should be because they interest me and fit the story, not to meet a quota or feel good about myself or “do the right thing.”

I don’t think it’s a good idea to be afraid to write characters that are different from myself, but I understand that I need to take responsibility for being accurate (in all the complex ways that can be interpreted). It’s also not my job to tell someone else’s story. A story that is largely about the experience of being gay or being black is almost certainly better told by someone who has lived it.

How Can I Do It Well?

That brings me to the next question. If I am going to write diverse characters, how can I do it respectfully and well?

First and foremost, do the research. Write like a journalist. Things presented as facts should be factual. If I’m going to write about characters living in a sci-fi future version of China, I had better learn as much as I can about what it’s like to live in China today, and make some smart extrapolations about what it might look like in the future.

Maybe unintuitively, I think the same principles apply to understanding people. This kind of research consists of listening to the people within that group. Find interviews or things they’ve written. Thanks to the internet, it’s possible to find people and make friends across the world more easily than ever before. It’s not uncommon these days to hire specific readers for feedback, although that feels a little uncomfortably transactional to me.

The big traps for someone like myself are the temptation to inject my own opinions and feelings into different characters instead of being honest to real perspectives. There are a lot of tropes and stereotypes floating around, often created by people very similar to myself. Primary sources are vitally important. Also, no group is a monolith. It’s worth exploring different viewpoints within a group, if you can find them.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, I see writing diverse characters as an issue of respect. Flippantly writing characters that fulfill tropes and stereotypes is not only a disservice to people who identify with those characters, it’s lazy writing. I think it’s good that we’re having these conversations, and beginning to elevate a greater variety of voices. We all benefit from that, and our literature is richer.

There are a ton of great resources out there, but I’ll link to a couple here, and they have their own lists that will get you started down the internet rabbit-hole:

Giving Characters Direction

Sometimes, a main character seems to come into being, fully fleshed out, and a story just coalesces around them. More often it’s a lot of work to figure out what exactly a character is all about, and what they’re doing in the story. And occasionally, that character fights you every step of the way, and you find yourself uncertain where the story should go.

Today, I want to talk about finding a character’s direction: where do they want to go, and how are they going to get there?

What Do They Want?

The first thing you need to know about your character is what they want. A character with a goal has something to fight for, something to work toward. The story comes out of their adventures along the way to that goal. If a character excites you, there must be something interesting about them, and this interesting thing can often lead to their goal. A character trapped in poverty may want to start a business and become successful. A character whose fondest childhood memories are stargazing with their father may want to become an astronaut. Any strong emotional or physical need can embody the goal that drives the story.

The goal doesn’t have to be straightforward. It could be subtle. In the real world, most of us don’t always understand all of the things that motivate us. For as much as we cherish our reason and intellect, we are creatures of instinct and emotion. Often, feelings run deeper than any “reasonable” ideas about what we need.

Some characters might know what they want and actively seek it. Others may fight themselves at every turn, never entirely understanding what they are actually looking for, creating an internal conflict. Sometimes discovering the real goal can be a powerful revelation that the entire story hinges on.

Where Do They Live?

No character lives in a vacuum. They are a product of their environment, and the setting they live in will influence what their goals are, and what tools and allies are available to them. Sometimes when it feels like a character doesn’t have direction, it’s really a problem with the setting. It’s perfectly reasonable to have the setting be mysterious to the characters and to the reader, but it should not be mysterious to the author.

The character needs to be able to navigate the setting to achieve their goals, and if the author doesn’t know what roadblocks they can face or help they can find, it will feel very difficult to craft a story around them.

To create conflict on their journey, there must be hindrances that make this goal harder to achieve. To relieve some of the tension, the character needs help. Every time they fail to reach their goal, they need to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again. This try-fail cycle keeps the story moving forward, and ideally, it keeps escalating the stakes.

Break the Steady State

Stories don’t happen because everything is staying the same. They happen because something changed, and that change has consequences that the main character can’t ignore. Throw a wrench in the gears. Screw up the character’s life so that there’s no going back.

The most common place to ruin a character’s life is a he beginning of the story (to get the action going) or near the end (to resolve the conflict). However, this technique is just as useful in the middle of a story that is starting to stall.

When the main character is succeeding left and right, a catastrophic failure can bring them back to earth and raise the stakes again. When a villain is running roughshod over the main character, they might let down their guard and suffer their own huge setback, getting the good guys back into the game.

A catastrophe can also serve as a reset button, forcing all the characters to reevaluate their goals and what’s really important to them.

Force Choices

A character needs goals, challenges to overcome, and help along the way. They also need options. Story comes from characters put into hard situations where they have to make choices. Those choices lead to new situations, new problems, and more choices to be made.

Choices are where characters reveal what’s important to them, and a great opportunity for unexpected revelations. When a character has to choose between something that ought to be important to them and something that really is important to them, they’re forced to reveal that secret (or keep it hidden and deal with the regret of not making the right choice).

When the character has clear goals, choices make the story interesting. If there’s only one path forward, then the character will just keep walking. But if there are many options, the character will have to decide among them. For the character and the reader, this amps up the tension as we wait to see if they made a good choice. Alternately, the author can reveal up-front whether it’s a good or bad choice, and the tension then comes from wondering what the consequences will be.


When a main character has direction, the rest of the story often accumulates around it. The goals of the character get them started, and roadblocks and challenges can divert them in unexpected directions and keep the story interesting. They have to make choices; find allies; try, fail, and try again.

If the character is stagnating, a catastrophe can force them to make new choices or reevaluate their goals, and is often a great twist in the middle of the story.

Finally, the most important thing is to remember what made you want to write that character in the first place. They have something awesome about them, and their direction should be tied tight to that. If it excites you, it’ll excite your audience.

3 Things I Learned From Startide Rising

I recently read the 1983 science-fiction novel, Startide Rising, with my kids. It’s the second book in David Brin’s first “uplift trilogy,” a series of loosely-related books that take place in a shared universe. I haven’t read these books since I was a teenager, and I didn’t remember too much about them before re-reading.

The previous book in the series was Sundiver, which I also wrote about.

1 – Unlimited Points of View

These books are very plot-heavy science-fiction, and Startide Rising has an expansive cast of characters. If it were me, I would look for a small number of main characters, and follow their points of view, adjusting the plot so that all the important action happens on their watch. That would be challenging in this story, because there are so many characters, in different locations and constantly shifting groups.

Brin sidesteps that problem by not really focusing on main characters at all. Some characters get more “screen time” than others, but it’s hard to say that this is a story about the dolphin starship captain Creideiki or midshipman Toshio or the genetically-modified couple of Gillian Baskin and Tom Orley. The story is about the Earth ship Streaker and its entire crew as they try to escape the galactic armada that’s bearing down on them.

Brin uses some tricks to make this constant switching between viewpoints less confusing. Most chapters are labelled with the name of the viewpoint character, so the reader doesn’t have to guess and the author doesn’t have to use narrative tricks to make sure it’s clear. There are a few chapters where there is no viewpoint character, or the story follows a group from an omniscient point of view. In those cases, the chapters are labelled with the setting. This might feel very heavy-handed, but it’s a simple and clear way to make the reader’s experience better.

Of course, there is still a notable cost that Brin has to pay for this wide-ranging story with so many point-of-view characters. As a reader, it’s hard to feel extremely close to any of these characters. The story focuses on the plot because there is less focus on the specific characters.

2 – Flat Characters are not Always Bad

This is something I’ve felt for a while, but this book certainly emphasizes the point. Because the cast is so big, it is already inevitable that some characters will be more fleshed-out than others. Because there is an intricate plot, some of the characters may be vital because of a few specific actions they take at key moments, while others are core drivers of the story from start to finish.

For those less important characters, they only need to be fleshed out enough that their actions make sense. They are mostly there to serve as cogs in the story machine. They make the thing keep moving. That doesn’t mean they can be free from any development—readers are still going to be annoyed by “plot robots” who do things that make no sense—but the development only needs to go just far enough that the character’s actions are believable.

Deep, rounded-out characters with complex motivations are important (and a lot of fun to write), but in a book like this, making every character like that would result in an overblown, muddled mess.

3 – Don’t Ignore the Ethics of the Future

The main conceit of the Uplift series is that humanity embarks on a project of genetic modification for dolphins and chimpanzees shortly before making contact with a vast multi-species extraterrestrial civilization where this exact sort of “uplift” is normal and codified into a form of species-wide indentured servitude.

Brin contrasts a kind, enlightened humanity, who treat their uplifted “client” species more or less as equals; with  the often-cruel galactic species, some of whom treat their clients as disposable slaves. Unfortunately, this simple, black-and-white presentation of morality sidesteps all sorts of ethical dilemmas.

At the start of the first book, Sundiver, there are hints that Brin is interested in exploring challenging ethical situations. In his imagined  future, there is an advanced personality test that can accurately predict violent and antisocial tendencies in people. The test Is mandatory, and the basis for a class system that limits the rights of those who fail it.

Unfortunately, the idea seems to be included mostly as setup for a red herring in the overarching mystery of the book. Sundiver does, at least, admit that this sort of policy would be highly controversial, even though it never gets into arguments of whether it is right or not.

By the time Brin gets to Startide Rising, there are even higher stakes. The book follows the first spaceship crewed by newly-sentient dolphins, and it puts the ideas of genetic “uplift” front-and-center. It is made clear that humans are trying to make dolphins their equals, but they are still in the midst of genetic manipulation, and it seems that the primary mechanism of this manipulation is through breeding rights. Individuals who show positive traits are encouraged to have as many offspring as possible, while those with negative traits are not allowed to procreate.

This is plainly a species-wide eugenics program in the name of “improving” intelligent animals into sophisticated people. Yet Brin shows barely any awareness that there are moral depths to be explored here. The “client” species accept this, even if individuals with fewer rights don’t like it, and no human ever shows qualms about the idea. When some of the dolphins eventually succumb to primal instincts under extreme stress, it is presented only as justification for these policies.

We live in a world where tech startups are making daily advances in AI, robotics, facial recognition, and dozens of other fields that could have a profound impact on society, but most of those companies are, in the classic words of Ian Malcom, “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they don’t stop to think if they should.”

Science fiction has a long history of considering ethical concerns around technology and culture that doesn’t actually exist yet. Sci-fi is a playground for exploring future ideas before they invade our real lives. It’s an opportunity for due diligence and to anticipate issues that may need to be addressed. More than ever, this seems like something we need.

It’s also only going to make your story better. As an author, you never want to be in a situation where the reader expects you to address something and you just let it go. If you’re writing a mystery and ignore an obvious clue, the reader will get irritated. If you’re writing science-fiction and you gloss over the ethical minefield of the technology you’ve invented, you should expect the reader to be just as annoyed!

Next: The Uplift War?

This first Uplift Trilogy finishes with The Uplift War, where the Terran inhabitants of a colony planet have to deal with the fallout of the galactic conflict started by the starship Streaker in Startide Rising. We’re halfway through it, and I’ll write a follow-up when we’ve finished.

Reblog: Write Small for a Bigger Impact — Joe Ponepinto

Today’s reblog comes from Joe Ponepinto, who reminds us that great fiction often tackles big, heady issues, but it doesn’t necessarily place them front and center. Instead, it forces us to infer that meaning from much smaller details. Fiction is a game of synecdoche, where the minute and the mundane must be representative of bigger, broader ideas.

Writers have to recognize and accept an essential artistic paradox that the more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel.

That’s from an essay written by Richard Russo a couple of decades ago. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately as I read stories in the submission queue, especially those by newer writers. I can tell they want to say something profound in their fiction. Why not? If you can write something that makes readers take notice, that makes them sit up from their reading and say, “Wow, that’s so true,” it could mean publishing success is not far off.

But many writers go about it the wrong way. Since they want to say something big and universal, they tend to write their stories in the universal. They create settings and characters that adopt the traits of universal subjects, which is to say they become flat and generalized, homogenized into composites. Sometimes the characters in such stories seem written to represent a particular side in a philosophical or social discussion. In reality, though, those “big” topics are so complex and nuanced that they can’t be described efficiently and adequately enough in a short story. The result then is a narrative filled with characters and scenes that don’t connect with readers, and a message that sounds artificial and predictable.

Read the rest over at Jane Friedman’s blog…

Reblog: Get the Big Things Right — Nathan Bransford

Today’s reblog comes from Nathan Bransford, who has worked as an agent, author, and now freelance editor and consultant. He knows that there is a lot of side-work that comes with publishing—from query letters and synopses to promotion and marketing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the things that come with writing, but aren’t actually writing.

He gives us a reasonably-sized list of things to focus on when writing and selling a book:

Particularly in this day and age when so many authors are lost in the weeds of Amazon algorithms and marketing strategies and social media and querying etiquette, it’s shocking to me how many people forget this: it all starts by writing a book that people want to read.

And not just want to read: writing a book that makes other people press it into other people’s hands so they’ll read it too.

That’s it. That’s by far (BY FAR) the most important thing.

Unfortunately, it’s also really, really, really hard to do, which is why it’s tempting to focus on things that are easier and feel more in your control.

Read the rest over at Nathan Bransford’s Blog…