By Jim LeMay
Before deciding to try my hand at writing science fiction I had written nonfiction for years: advertising copy, business plans, feasibility studies and the like. For nonfiction my goal is usually to make a concept understandable or a product desirable to the reader. For lengthier or more complex projects like business plans, I start with an outline and build on it. After finishing and polishing the work I give it to the client for his review and, finally, incorporate his comments into the final product. How much different could fiction writing be?
For me, I found out, a lot!
I started the first novel, The Shadow of Armageddon, as I do nonfiction, with an outline. The novel involves a pandemic caused by a bacterial infection that does not respond to antibiotics. Since I knew so little about pathogens and I wanted to describe the disease as accurately as possible I spent some time on research. I must admit that when reading some of the more technical scientific articles I did so with them open on one side of the computer screen and the dictionary on the other. How did we manage before the days of the internet!? It spared me days of poking through the stacks at a library.
Then, after making a few notes about the characters I began writing the novel.
Before I finished the second chapter the characters had changed the story line a little. In subsequent chapters some minor characters increased in importance and influenced the plot in subtle ways. One of them refused to get out of the story even after he died! Some new people appeared that I didn’t even know. Gradually the action deviated farther and farther from the outline. At some point the characters took over the novel and ran with it. Fortunately, they seemed to be headed in the same direction I wanted to go. I really grew curious to see what would happen next.
I wrote Armageddon to find out what kind of dystopian world would result from a pandemic that killed 80 to 90% of humanity. After I finished it though, I wondered what happened to the characters next and wanted to explore more of their world with them. That led to the writing of A Shadow over the Afterworld. By the way, though many of the same characters appear in it, along with some new ones, each novel can be read without having read the other.
I handled the second novel a little differently. I barely sketched an outline and felt less compelled to strictly adhere to it. This time I didn’t mind when the characters acted on their own. In fact I gave them more autonomy. For example, I didn’t know how to resolve a romantic triangle. I liked all three people so I let them take care of it themselves. In the second book, happily, I did get my wish to know some of the characters better and see more of their world.
Before I started writing fiction I read several books on writing techniques and disciplines. Most of these books recommended starting with an outline and since I was used to that I had done it with the first two books. Since that hadn’t worked for me I started my third without even bothering with one. I just started writing.
That one started out simply. It began in the same milieu as the first two with one major protagonist. I set it 87 years after the pandemic to see if that awful period caused a dark age. Just as I suspected, it did. That made me curious about what the world would be like in even the more distant future which begat another story line set 600 years later. Then I wondered about that society’s different strata which called for yet another set of characters in another level of society. Finally three separate streams began meandering through the book, each with its own inhabitants bearing their separate tragedies, hopes and goals. For a while I worried about how they could come together or if I would have to return to the tale of the original protagonist. What relief I felt when they finally started approaching a common denouement.
Writers tend to follow the style of the authors they like to read. My writing reflects my enjoyment of character driven fiction. Well drawn, believable characters can almost carry the plot if you give them their head, perhaps even create it. Not all characters have to be sentient though. Cities can take on personalities of their own. Some that fascinated me almost as much as their inhabitants include Edward Bryant’s Cinnabar, Tanith Lee’s Paradys and China Mieville’s bizarre twin cities inhabiting the same geographical location at the same time in his novel The City and The City. And there are many others.
I believe describing events that I’ve taken part in or at least witnessed adds verisimilitude to fiction. In my first novel, characters discuss the contrasting merits of a white man’s campfire versus an “Injun’s.” This came from a beautiful starry but deathly cold night, while camping in the Rocky Mountains, when several of us debated the building of a campfire. In the second an older character describes to a younger one how hard-working, steadfast people are like mules rather than the horses or donkeys that gave them birth. As a boy I learned this from an old guy in my home town.
Every writer must find his own method of writing. Probably even the most prolific would find Isaac Asimov’s schedule difficult; most weeks he sat at his desk from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day. Mark Twain wrote steadily until, as he put it, his fountain ran dry and he took a break until it filled back up. Some writers like to develop rigid outlines from which they will not deviate. Some of us cannot do that and others develop still different methods.
I gleaned some value from the books on writing. Many were so well written I enjoyed just the reading of them. I agree, however, with the multitude of writers from time immemorial that the best training for a writer is to read. In 1640 Ben Jonson admonished young writers to “Read, observe, practice.” Stephen King tells us to, “Read a lot, write a lot.”
I write fiction in three phases. The first is the sometimes exciting and sometimes scary ride I take with the characters from beginning to end; the second is revisiting the whole to correct ambiguities in plot, character and dialogue. The third, the one many writers find the most onerous, is the proofing, copyediting and polishing of the finished work. Perhaps because of my mildly (I hope) obsessive/compulsive nature I take a certain pleasure in smoothing out rough places and satisfaction in finding exactly the right word or phrase to fit in exactly the right place. As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
My third novel, tentatively named Shadow Jack, will be available for publication in a few months.