Another Boltholer joins us on the blog today for some more ruminations on writing. Bod the Inquisitor aka Simon is a good friend of mine, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him twice at Games Day UK’11 and Black Library Live! 2012, where we spent a good amount of time talking about writing and other things. In his first guest blog for the Bloghole he presents a critical piece on a “How To Write” book, written by acclaimed SFF writer Orson Scott Card.
Being A Writer Is Like Being A God: A Review of One God’s Ideas on World-building
by Bod the Inquisitor
Well this is two firsts in one for me. My first blog and review rolled into a neat little package; oh and thank you to the kind Bloghole/Bolthole moderators for consenting to this wee missive going up on the Bloghole. Thought I’d get that in early as knowing my befuddled brain as I do, I would just forget to do it later.
So, what’s all this about, this double first of mine. Well, like many of my fellow Boltholers, I harbour a desire to write. One day, perhaps, write well enough that some wonderful kind and considerate editor will let me dirty the pages of their magazine/anthology with the product of my meagre scribbling. With that in mind, over the past year or so I’ve been reading a number of the how to write books, articles and whatnot. The most recent was Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science fiction and Fantasy. So considering how rare it is to find a “how to guide” for my beloved genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I thought I would share this with others. Some daft soul told me this is what the internet is for after all.
Right, I expect some might ask, perhaps rightly so, what qualifications does this gentleman, Mr Card, have considering he is telling novice writers such as myself how to write. Well, he has received huge critical acclaim for his fictional work, including numerous awards, far too many to list here but they include multiple Hugo and Nebula awards and nominations. He also has a huge bibliography of work pertaining to fiction of all sizes: plays, novels, short stories, and his own fiction magazine, Orson Scott Cards Intergalatic Medicine Show. More recently he has written the screen play version for one of his books, Ender’s Game. The film will be released later this year with Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley. Mr. Card has also taught various fiction writing classes.
So, enough of that and on to the book, the whole reason I’m here and your reading this, or at least I hope your still reading; ’tis a bit hard with this spot light in my eyes to see if you are still there, or have my fellow Boltholers left that tape of crowd noises on and disappeared off down the pub without me again? Boltholers can be very tricksy you know: it is part of the fun of being one.
Anyway, the first chapter of the book is an interesting essay on the nature of science fiction and fantasy. It defines them and the author’s perceived boundary between the two. I found this interesting but there were bits where that old eye brow wavered a little, but that might just be me. One thing that did catch my eye in this chapter was an all too brief passage about novice writers and their stories; where and how they may fit into these two genera. For me the following passage sums up Mr Card’s view quite nicely:
“The novelty and freshness you’ll bring to the field won’t come from the new ideas you think up. Truly new ideas are rare, and usually turn out to be variations on old themes anyway. No, your freshness will come from the way you think, from the person you are; it will inevitably show up in your writing, provided you don’t mask it with heavy handed formulas or clichés.”
It is, perhaps a controversial view for some, I think. But I rather like the idea that it’s not so much about the basic premise of the story; but more what unique bits and pieces I as an individual, can bring to it, that really matters.
The rump of the book, nearly half of it in fact, is taken up by Chapter Two: World Creation and Chapter Three: Story Construction. I’ve read a couple of other “how to write” books and the closest I’ve come in them to advice on Sci-fi and fantasy is crime and horror. So I was looking forward to these two chapters.
Now, I’ve been lucky enough. I’m not sure if it’s available online anymore, to have read Matt Farrer’s excellent Turkey Lexicon and Mr Card’s World Construction is similar, though his contains some interesting and unusual examples to highlight the points he makes. Also we are introduced to how an accomplished writer such as Mr Card starts with a basic idea about a world and then sets about building it into a rich and intriguing place ripe for storytelling. It is a fascinating read and for me the real take-home advice for those writing novels set in their own world is as Mr Card says, “Give it depth and colour”. It will make your tales richer and more interesting for the reader, more immersive and more captivating. I must say this is a bit of advice I’ve been ineptly stumbling towards as a result of my own tale-telling efforts and realising what I like about the work of others. Those stories, those worlds, that I have come to love the most, be they Fantasy or Sci-Fi ones, are the ones the authors have invested a considerable effort into the world building phase.
Next comes Chapter Three, dealing with the three major components of any good story. The first of these is how to go about choosing the most appropriate character, POV. The second is beginnings plus endings. And the third is how these can be affected by the dominant MICE: Milieu (e.g. Gulliver’s travels), Idea (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey), Characterisation (does this one really need an example?), and Event (e.g. War of the Ring). These examples were Mr Card’s picks and are quite illustrative of the whole MICE concept. This takes up around half the chapter and is quite informative. As a very amateur writer I’ve often read and been told (Christian Dunn of Black Library fame has many pearls of wisdom regarding such things) about how important beginnings are. I’ve found that choosing the most appropriate beginning is one of the most difficult parts of writing. Mr Card has some interesting insights into the matter, ones that seemed to resonate with me quite nicely. Personally, I liked his idea that the dominant MICE, most of the time, will have a big influence upon the writers choice of the most appropriate beginning and ending for the tale they wish to tell. I’m sure those of you that are aspiring writers will be aware of and have fallen foul of that old nemesis, the rambling beginning and ending. By selecting the most appropriate dominant MICE that fits your idea, it will help you prevent that happening.
The next chapter is about writing well, although it’s the shortest chapter of the book believe it or not! To some this might be annoying and I can see their point. However, what there is, meshes quite well with other books, blogs and such like that dealing with the mechanics of writing, like description and dialogue. Hence, I did not miss the fact that this aspect of a “how to write” book was not explored in much detail in this one. But the scientist in me really would like it to have been included, for completion’s sake you understand.
Personally, though I found some of the cautionary tales contained in the last chapter interesting, it was the most disappointing of them all. This chapter is about The Life and Business of Writing and I suspect it suffers from having been written some time ago and could do with a bit of updating. The hard back version of this book was published in 1990, the paper back in 2001. It does not appear to have been updated at any point from its first publication, at least, as far as I can tell. There is a very interesting section on beta readers in this chapter; Mr Card calls them Wise readers. It talks about what sort of questions the writer should be asking them to make the most of a beta reader’s time and effort.
Over all, if pressed into rating this book, (that’s the point of reviews so I suppose I must do so, I’d give this book a good solid 3.75 out of 5. I would give it more, but that last chapter being quite so out of date and the lack of basic writing advice are combining factors for a reduction. I note Mr. Card has another more recent book about writing science fiction, so perhaps these issues have been rectified in that book.
That said I’d highly recommend this book, for the essay on the nature of speculative fiction, for the chapters on world building and on story construction. It is also, as one would perhaps expect, a clearly and concisely written book, making it a very easy and satisfying read.
So if you’ll excuse me I must be off and see if I can put some of the wisdom contained in this book into practice. Thanks for reading.
Well, that’s it for now! Tomorrow we’ll have a review ready for you, so be sure to check back.