Writing Speculative Fiction: Markets

The blog "Philippine Speculative Fiction" found at http://specfic.philsites.net/ has a very useful list of short fiction markets (Philippine-based and International).

Go there and check it out!

LitCrit Monday: Critique Session Guidelines

Taken from the LitCritter Google Group pages: a very brief summary of the philosophies and methodologies for LitCritter Critique readings.
If you're planning on attending any of the LitCritter sessions this year, here's the current draft of the LitCritter Session Guidelines for newbies:

Before the Critique Session

  • Read the text the first time purely for enjoyment - Read the text like you would have before learning anything about literary criticism. Keep track of your reactions, whether they are "good" or "bad" but don't dwell too much on the reasons why just yet.
  • Read the text the second time using a critical lens - Read the text looking for plausibility and consistency. Analyze which elements make or break the story: character, tone, plot, language, POV, etc. Take notes or write up your critique so that when it's your turn to speak, you don't fail horribly.

During the Critique Session

  • Respect my authority! - The moderator's job is to make sure that the text being discussed is thoroughly critqued, that everyone in attendance gets to speak their mind within the time constraints, and to prevent too much digression from to topic. Please be kind to the moderator, because some cruel day it could be you!
  • Everyone's entitled to their own enlightened opinion - At LitCritter sessions, there is a mixture of newbies and old hands, a melange of readers who are narrow of focus and readers who are wide of vision, a cacophony of congruent and contradictory opinions. Remember that the goal of these sessions is to learn from one another, not to shoot down differing opinions. It often helps to ask questions and find out why your opinion differs from that of the speaker's.
  • If you never ask, you'll never know! - if something's bugging you about a text, ask the group about it. If you think there's a literary term for something, but you can't remember it or don't know it, ask  about it. If you hear a term that you're unfamiliar with or we reference a story or author you're unfamiliar with, ask about it. If you think we're just making up terms as we go along, ask about it.

When Delivering Your Critique

  • You gonna hafta 'splain yerself! - Avoid broad statements without clarification, such as "I liked it" or "I didn't like it". Explain why you liked or didn't like it, and try to use traditional (and non-traditional) literary terms during your critique. If people still don't seem to understand, other ways. The act of explaining things sometimes crystalizes our reasons for enjoying a text. And besides, rants are always more fun when they're longer than just one sentence.
  • Hey! Author! Leave that text alone! - When critiquing a text, minimize discussion on the author's history, the author's intent (whether actually stated by the author or recounted by some other source), the time period that it was written in, etc. While these can be helpful in understanding the text, the LitCritter stance is that the story / the text must be able to stand on its own. Our own stories won't always have us available to explain to each and every reader, so if we want to learn to write stories that work without the author (or editor or fans) explaining things, we critique stories with the same philosophy. In literary speak, privileged reading trumps authorial intent.
  • Rules? Where we're going there are no rules! - While some books may claim that there are certain rules to storytelling, we don't believe that; many stories have been criticized for being "formulaic" and "trite" and not just by us. Taking a page from business, there are no rules, only 'best practices'. So don't criticize a text for breaking the rules if it works, and don't stress over a text that does things by the numbers but fails to engage or entertain. Try to find out why.

SpecFic Friday: Trope Expedition

There's a wonderful site on the Web called TV Tropes. It catalogs -- in an semi-organized and irreverent fashion -- many tropes that are found on TV shows, in fiction, in movies, and in anime/manga.

However, if you're thinking that tropes are merely a list of things to avoid in the interests of originality, think again. As the site itself says:

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite". In other words, dull and uninteresting.

While there will be a longer discussion on the subject or tropes, reader expectations, genre conventions and that whole ball of yarn, this is the first of a series of short articles on tropes that are found in the three most well-known aspects/genres of speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So let's get started.

Science Fiction Trope: The Standard Science Fiction Setting

  • Time frame: the far future.
  • Situation: humans (or human-like aliens) are engaged in a war with a terrible enemy (usually alien).
  • Complication: an even bigger threat -- long hidden in the depths of space -- has turned its attention to their corner of the universe.

Sound a bit like your planned space opera? Fear not; you're in good company.

image taken from www.b5tech.comE.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series is perhaps the most well known example of this from the era when space opera was a derogatory term. David Brin's Uplift series has this, as does Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos series of novels. In other media, DC Comics's Legion of Super-Heroes, and TV's Star Trek, and Babylon 5 are all sources of good to fantastic science fiction (marred by the occasional stinker).

So what are some key elements of this SF setting?

  1. Easy Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel - It takes around 8.3 minutes for the light of the sun to travel to the Earth at the speed of light, making the sun approximately 8.3 light minutes away from Earth. If you want to get to the nearest solar system to ours (Alpha Centauri, as opposed to Proxima Centauri -- the nearest star), even at the speed of light it'll take you 4.4 years to get there.

    Therefore if your science fiction setting involves you want star-spanning empires and the like, you need an FTL solution. However, invoking FTL has a host of consequences, not the least of which are time dilation and time travel paradoxes.

  2. Space Navies - to help people really unfamiliar with space travel (including the authors), there's a tendency to make naval analogies to every element of space travel. Whether you consider your rocketships to be might space fleets complete with frigates, destroyers, battleships, and spacecraft carriers or more akin to submarines, there will be parallels to modern or historical blue water navies all throughout your setting.

    The purpose of all this: to provide some semblance of the understandable to your reader, who's probably already floundering due their lack of understanding of the vast and hostile nature of space; to suggest that there's an infrastructure behind space travel and space empires; and to evoke the romance of the Age of Exploration, of clandestine submarine missions, of epic WWII Fleet engagements.

  3. Space Marines - you can bombard ships and planets into nothingness, but if you want to secure them for your own use, you gotta send in people.

    Assuming that you're portraying the military as reasonably competent (and not as cannon fodder), the purpose of these characters is to give some idea what the situation on the ship or at the ground level is like.

  4. Good Empire / Bad Empire - some sort of star-spanning (or even galaxy-spanning) political entity that is analogous to a modern nation or union. Important if you want to enrich your setting with all the familiar problems of our modern world -- trade embargos, human rights violations, political ideologies, religious ideologies, bureacracy, factions galore, etc.

  5. An Element of Mysticism - this can be front and center like the Force in Star Wars, or of questionable validity like the Minbari religious beliefs in Babylon 5. We refer to it as mysticism, since religion (with all its doctrines, mysteries, and dogma) tends not to be tackled in most space operas and science fiction settings.

    The purpose: if part of the author's intent is to compare and contrast the power of hope, determination, and faith against the impartiality of science and technology, then you have quotes like Star Wars's "Trust your feelings, Luke." Sometimes, the mysticism becomes functionally magic, allowing the author to break certain laws of physics for dramatic effect.
Explore the trope further for a wealth of interesting and often humorous observations about this meta-trope.

Writing Science Fiction: A Toolkit of Links

When you start to write a science fiction story, assuming that the science is important to you, it's often good to have some handy online references for your research.

For example, if your story involves a star in the sky blowing up and a mad scramble for everyone to get to cover -- wouldn't it help to do some research and discover that the nearest star to the Earth aside from the sun is Proxima Centauri? And wouldn't it be good to know the distance (approximately 4.2 light years)? And that if you're seeing it in the sky, the event happened a little over 4 years ago? And that you shouldn't be describing the sound of the star's explosion because, not only does sound travel slower than light, it doesn't carry at all in space.

Even if you're nodding because you knew all this, you brilliant reader you, it doesn't help to double check right? Here then is this week's list of useful science fiction links.

Wikipedia - No brainer, right? And yes, I know that any one can edit this "free encyclopedia", so yes, one should take some of the data on this with a grain of salt. However, pertinent articles usually have good links to other reference sites, making wikipedia visits useful enough to mention.

Grading SF for Realism - Not a science resource per se, but a useful page that helps explain what hard science fiction is, and helps define the degree of science "hardness". It helps authors grappling with the problem of plausibility by coming to terms with the level of scientific accuracy they'd like to achieve.

Project Rho's Atomic Rockets - A must read for anyone interested in writing about space ships and space combat in the science fiction genre (and perhaps even in the science fantasy genre). Aspects of rocketship science, design, and problems are explained clearly, with some occasional dips into heavy science-speak and mathematics.