Five Writing Lessons I Learned From Hugh Howey’s Wool

wool

I have a confession to make. Sometimes, when I’ve hit a rough patch in my writing, I watch Tony Robbins videos on YouTube for a boost.

I know that literary types like us aren’t supposed to like motivational types like Tony Robbins – because he’s rich and in better physical shape than us pale basement dwellers – but the guy dishes out some sound advice, even when he’s just pointing out things that should be obvious. One tactic he frequently recommends has stuck with me: If you want to succeed in a particular endeavor, find someone who’s already succeeded and copy what they did.

Because I want to become a popular science fiction author, and because the evidence suggests that self-publishing is the best way to achieve that, the obvious model for me is Hugh Howey.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of him, Howey is an independent author whose seventh published work, Wool, blew up into an international best-seller. He’s still writing while at the same time sailing around the world on his 50-foot catamaran. That’s not exactly the life I’m shooting for, but it’s not too far off the mark, either.

Helpfully, Howey has made modeling him easy by publishing a blog post called So You Want to Be a Writer, half of which is devoted to the craft of writing. That post, combined with a studious reading of Wool, serve as a solid crash course in how to create fiction that demands to be read.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Read widely and borrow from other genres. While Wool is ostensibly a dystopian science fiction novel, it’s also three romances and two mysteries. The romances raise the stakes on the action, and the mysteries serve as a propellant for the plot at times when mortal danger isn’t in the forefront.

Let your heroes have flaws. Wool’s major protagonist, Juliette, has refused to see her dad for years for reasons that I – as a father of two young girls – consider not to merit the torture of shunning a parent. But this fault springs from the same source as her heroic qualities, making both sides of her more believable.

Let your villains have virtues. The antagonist, Bernard, is doing what he thinks he needs to do in order to keep everyone in the silo alive. His resolve and his willingness to make difficult choices is admirable.

Suspense allows for intellectual depth. I used to think that suspense and intellectual heft were competing forces in fiction, that more of one meant less of the other. Wool destroyed this notion for me. Suspense makes the presentation of larger ideas more palatable. Passages in which characters are thinking deeply aren’t boring if they occur while they are in danger. This also lends veracity to the story. It’s natural that characters on a precipice would have racing thoughts and that they would engage big problems and concepts when they are at risk of losing everything.

Don’t be afraid to take risks or play with structure. Wool’s opening chapter about Holston and his wife would serve fine as a standalone short story. But it’s also an effective inciting incident for the rest of the novel. I can’t recall any other novel that starts that way, and it had me hooked from the beginning. Wool also employs some time-jumping and other devices that keep the story barreling forward.

Clearly, there’s a lot more to writing compelling fiction, but these are the lessons that hit home on my first pass through Wool. When you’re trying to accomplish something difficult, it helps to know that others have done it before. It helps even more when those people look back and shine a light on the path for you. So thanks, Hugh Howey.

And thanks, Tony Robbins.

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Review: Lock In, by John Scalzi

lockin

In the near future, a highly contagious disease causes roughly 2 percent of the population to become prisoners in their own bodies. The U.S. government invests massive amounts of money to help victims of the illness, known as Haden’s syndrome, have normal lives, even without the control of their voluntary nervous systems.

Two options gain popularity. In one, Haden’s sufferers are able to use their minds to control robot bodies – called threeps – that allow them to move around and interact in the world. The other option lets Hadens control the body of another, specially trained human known as an integrator.

It is in this world that Chris Shane, a Haden’s victim who uses a robot body to get around, joins the FBI and on his first day is thrown into a bizarre murder mystery. The rest of the novel is essentially a science-fiction police procedural that’s infused with a snarky voice and sharp commentary about the intersection of industry and politics.

In short, John Scalzi’s Lock In is a fun, quick read that explores interesting ideas. Scalzi deftly weaves in critiques of broad swathes of the current political, economic and cultural environments, and my brain chewed on a lot of these issues between reading sessions. Even though this novel falls just short of full page-turner-hood, I’d highly recommend it to anyone who watches Washington and Wall Street with their head in their hands or to anyone who’s interested in biotechnology, the science of the brain, or the idea of transferred consciousness.

The following section is mainly for discussion with other people who have read the novel.

Some mild spoilers are below.

Here’s what I liked about Lock In:

The main character’s smart, wry sense of humor makes the story move briskly despite the often mind-bending forces at work. The supporting characters also have distinct, crisp voices that made spending time with them pleasant. The effect was similar to being at a party of smart, interesting people.

The scientific aspect of the story was fascinating. The idea of linking mind to machine has always intrigued me. Pushing the concept to the extreme of decoupling Haden’s sufferers’ minds from their bodies and gaming out the legal, cultural, and political dimensions of that separation gave me a lot to ponder.

The possibility of people inhabiting other bodies made the murder mystery setup of the story more interesting. I don’t watch detective shows or read many police procedurals, but the loophole that any given person might actually be someone else kept the act of piecing together this puzzle more enjoyable.

Here’s where Lock In fell short for me:

I never felt like Shane had much at stake. Early on, the main points of sympathy for him were that he was part of a group of that had been discriminated against and that he was starting a job that promised to be difficult. Given that he was a rich kid who didn’t need the job and that he was one of the most famous and privileged Hadens, I couldn’t generate a ton of empathy for him.

Also, the threat to his life didn’t develop until late in the book, and even then, the risk that he’d actually die seemed low. So for most of the novel, the main draw is whether he’ll solve the mystery and prove himself competent. That was intriguing, but I didn’t feel like anything bad would happen to him or to the world if he didn’t crack the case. As the case progresses, we see that there is more at stake, and the back half of the back is more compelling than the first half. So presenting the larger implications of the conspiracy earlier on might have added propulsion to the story.

To be sure, this is a mild criticism of a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. And I’m coming off of Hugh Howey’s Wool, which I found to be an addictive read, so my bar is temporarily higher than normal. I definitely recommend picking up Lock In.

 

 

Seven Head-Scratchers in Star Wars Episode Seven

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Wait? What?

Star Wars Episode VII was released for home viewing earlier this month, and I had to watch it again, having seen it only once in the theater. This second viewing revealed a few head-scratchers that I hadn’t noticed the first time, distracted as I was with the 3-D projection, my rumbling seat, and my multiple nerdgasms.

To be clear: I LOVED The Force Awakens on the big screen, and I loved it again on the small screen. And I usually try not to be the guy who points out all of a movie’s flaws, whether they take the form of improbable action or impossible physics. I swear, I’m not the guy who’s always saying, “Well, that could never happen.”

However, I recently finished writing a short story that required the most research I’ve ever done. (The story is currently out gathering rejections from sci-fi publications, and I’ll probably have it up on Amazon within a month.) So I returned to Episode VII with the mindset of a writer who’d spent a week dissecting maps of the moon’s south pole and trying to plot realistic action in one-sixth gravity.

And yes, I’m aware that no one turns to the Star Wars series for a glimpse into the actual future. The movies are supposed to be fun, and they are fun. So what follows are merely the questions of someone unwinding after too much time imagining the logistics of helium-3 mining:

  1. How does everyone in the Star Wars universe speak beep-boop? Every time BB-8 or R2D2 lets out a string of incomprehensible tones and chirps, everyone understands them. Is beep-boop a required class in grade school for them? And how are they so good at understanding this language if they can’t speak it? You never hear Rey bwoop back at BB-8, do you?
  1. How come the robots can only speak beep-boop? BB-8 and R2D2 can understand everything everyone around them is saying. So we know they know multiple languages. Yet they can’t speak any of them. What idiot made these hyperintelligent machines without thinking to upload a bwoop-to-speech program and bolting a speaker to their bodies. Maybe the hologram generators consume too much computing power, and the secret-map storage compartments use all their spare space.
  1. What’s with the inconsistent quality of the Resistance’s espionage operations? First, the Resistance spies are totally unaware that the First Order has an enormous Starkiller base. Moments later, their agents provide Resistance command with intelligence that their hideout is the next target and the Starkiller is firing in 15 minutes and the Stormtroopers will be eating lasagna in the cafeteria for lunch tomorrow. How does that work?
  1. Why is everyone always abandoning their kids? I understand that a clump of people strong in the Force puts them at risk for being sensed by the bad guys. But since this Force radar is influenced by physical location (“He’s here. I can feel it.”), and faster-than-light travel is available, why not just move all together to a galaxy farther farther awayer?
  1. Why did Captain Phasma crack so easily? When Finn and Han Solo stick up Captain Phasma and tell her to disable the shields, does she resist? Does she say they’ll have to kill her before she’ll betray the First Order? Nope. She resists about as much as an overqualified executive assistant forced to fetch her boss’s coffee order.
  1. Why did the Unkar Plutt, the junk trader on Jakku, just leave the keys in the ignition on the Millennium Falcon? And then why is he surprised and pissed off when someone steals it?
  1. How is there no al fresco seating at Maz Kanata’s place? This planet is gorgeous. You’re telling me a bar overlooking a lake in what appears to be this galaxy’s Pacific Northwest doesn’t even have windows? I’m not buying it. Maz Kanata seems super smart, too smart to miss that obvious business opportunity.

What do you think? These are odd oversights, right? Or am I overthinking things?

Nah. That could never happen.

Why sci-fi may never get funnier than Hitchhiker’s Guide

douglas adams inspired "Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy" H2G2

douglas adams inspired “Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy” H2G2

Science fiction can be pretty grim.

Between the dystopian epics, cyberpunk sagas, and military adventures that dominate the genre these days, there aren’t a lot of laughs to be had.

Sure, these stories often have a witty character to crack wise about the protagonists’ predicaments, and some writers can maintain a smirk while tackling even the darkest themes. But these devices only serve to set off the gloom in sharper relief.

This isn’t a criticism. Dystopias make great settings. Mortal peril keeps readers turning the page. Dread is a perfectly reasonable reaction to our society’s rapid technological development and painfully slow moral evolution.

Still, I wish I could find sci-fi with more levity, more playfulness. I wish someone had topped The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. To be sure, there are some writers out there trying. The Unidentified Funny Objects collections contain a lot of solid silliness. And yours truly is doing his part. Earlier this week, I published Splunking on Kepler 42, a romantic comedy set in space. That followed last year’s attempt at humor: The Berserker Scenario, about a robot that finds its way into the world long before it’s ready.

But at least in my fledgling study of sci-fi literature, humor seems to account for only a small fraction of what’s out there.

I attribute that relative absence to three factors:

Humor is hard

For a story to be funny, every sentence has to elicit a smile or a giggle. Even lines setting up some larger joke have to have something comical about them, some quirky turn of phrase or unique observation.

Humor is personal

We’ve all had the experience of retelling a joke that we found hilarious only to have it met with a blank stare. Humor comes in so many different flavors, all of which appeal to different people. The Three Stooges never made me laugh, and I don’t get what’s supposed to be funny about Benny Hill. Yet I have a close friend who loves them both. And I have another friend who can’t stand the cringe humor that’s so popular today, most notably from shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, two of my all-time favorite shows.

The broad, enduring appeal of Hitchhiker’s Guide is probably the most amazing thing about Douglas Adams’ work. How did a British guy working in the late 1970s create a story that made a 23-year-old Chicagoan shoot coffee out of his nose three decades later? It’s nothing short of a miracle.

Writing sci-fi is difficult enough on its own without attempting humor

Good sci-fi is tough to craft, even without the added challenge of trying to be funny. Jamming in jokes and gags is incredibly difficult when you’re already trying to build a universe, explore complex scientific concepts, grapple with ethical dilemmas, render likeable, realistic characters, all while tempting readers along with an irresistible plot.

With these obstacles in mind, is it any wonder that there are no recent funny, sci-fi magnum opuses like Hitchhiker’s Guide? Then again, I’m relatively new to sci-fi, so maybe I’m missing something.

Any recommendations?

How I stopped being a literary snob

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And how that helped me start writing

For most of my life, I’ve been that annoying writer friend. You know, the one that always says he’s going to be a writer, who talks about how much he loves writing, who tells you all his ideas for all the books he’s going to write. And then never writes a damn thing.

Actually, I would write some damn things from time to time. A scrap of a story here, a bit of dialogue there, a character sketch on a napkin during a coffee break. But never a full story.

Many different obstacles – most located inside my skull – held me back from dedicating myself to my craft. Among the largest of these hurdles was my insistence that straight-up literary fiction was the only genre worthy of a true artist and intellectual like myself.

That stupid idea finally died three years ago, when my wife and I watched the movie version of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The movie grabbed me in a way few films do, engaging me intellectually, emotionally, and viscerally. The action propelled the plot, the humanity gave the action meaning, and the movie’s confrontation of big ideas kept my brain churning long after we’d shipped the DVD back in its little red envelope.

After watching that movie, I realized that most of my favorite movies were sci-fi, from the Star Wars trilogy up to more recent films like District 9 and Moon. The appeal of these films for me was how they tackled the strangeness of the universe in a way that’s not possible in genres restricted by current reality.

That embrace of the hypothetical and fantastic was the missing propulsion without which none of my attempts at storytelling could ever take flight. My subconscious had always wanted to skirt the boundaries of reality, to suffuse my narratives with the spooky, the mysterious, and the ridiculous. But some voice inside me always rapped my knuckles, telling me those devices weren’t the tools of serious writers. That’s why I’d always gotten too bored with my work to ever finish a story. And it’s partly why I stopped even starting stories.

After Cloud Atlas, I tried my hand at a sci-fi short, Beyond the Pillars. It was the first story that I couldn’t wait to return to writing every day, the first one I found myself daydreaming about away from the keyboard. Most importantly, it was the first one I finished.

Now that I’ve found my natural genre and am writing regularly, I’m no longer the annoying wannabe writer guy. I rarely discuss my work around my friends, and I never talk about stories in progress.

I don’t need to waste my breath convincing myself how much I love writing or showing others how writerly I am. I’m having too much fun actually writing.

 

The Humans are Winning Again, at Least in Baseball

maddonepsteinEver since the publication of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, baseball has been ruled by computers.

The book revealed how the Oakland Athletics managed to consistently put together one of the best records in baseball with the one of the smallest player-salary budgets. They accomplished this feat by rigorously analyzing reams of data and finding that on-base percentage, which was largely ignored in favor of batting average, was the most valuable metric for predicting success. With this knowledge in hand, the Athletics acquired players who had great on-base percentages but, for some irrational reason, weren’t commanding large salaries.

After Lewis’ book hit the newsstands, the rest of the league quickly adapted. Teams hired spreadsheet jockeys to sift through the statistics and find ever-more advanced metrics for predicting success. For a while, the teams with the better geeks were able to generate better performance for less money than teams with inferior nerd squads.

But now that every baseball team has a stat shop, the incremental returns of this data-driven approach are collapsing toward zero.

So how are baseball teams going to wrest bargains out of the market of players now? By making them happy.

The team using this strategy the best right now is my hometown favorite, the Chicago Cubs.

Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, who was one of the pioneers of the moneyball strategy as during his time as general manager of the Boston Red Sox, recognized that there was no more advantage to be gained from crunching the data even harder. The only way to gain an edge would be to make the best players want to play for you and to optimize their performance once you’ve got them in the dugout.

So a year and a half ago, he made it a priority to hire the manager that every MLB player wants to play for: Joe Maddon.

In a profession dominated by growly old hard-asses, Maddon is a different species of baseball manager. He sometimes arranges for zoo animals to show up at practices. He hires magicians to entertain the players and loosen them up. He has them wear pajamas on cross-country flights. One week every season, he cancels before-game batting practices so they can rest. When the Cubs players decided last year they wanted to throw a disco-ball dance party after every win – something very few managers would allow – Maddon let it happen.

Maddon’s approach yields two advantages. One is that all of those quirks produce a team that has fun and surpasses its potential on the field. The other is that players want so badly to play for Maddon that this offseason the Cubs signed three high-profile players – Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, and Ben Zobrist – for less money than they were offered elsewhere.

I’ve been negative about humans so far on this blog, first by lamenting how weak we are and then moaning about the various scenarios in which we’re all going to die.

But I’m also reminded that humans have a unique set of soft skills that can’t be quantified and that won’t easily be duplicated by robots, even if they’re beating us at everything else.

In baseball at least, the power is shifting from the machines to the men.

Which Apocalypse Would Be The Most Fun?

chicxulub

The dinosaurs had it easy.

One day, about 66 million years ago, the Triceratops were munching on leaves, and the Tyrannosauruses were munching on Triceratops, when there was a big boom. What happens next is the matter of some debate, (one that scientists are going to be studying this month), but suffice it to say that the dinosaur-dominated world ended abruptly.

By contrast, the Neanderthals watched their world crumble over tens of thousands of years as the climate shifted and those prissy Homo sapiens moved in and wrecked their neighborhood.

These two types of apocalypses – the cataclysm and the gradual deterioration – are both popular in science fiction, and for good reason.

Cataclysms allow writers to create a world from a blank slate. They can rebuild society from the bottom up, an appealing proposition that allows for some interesting premises. Or they can throw modern humans back into a primitive, survival-only state, ala Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and show us what they think we’re really made of.

The deterioration scenario allows writers to exaggerate aspects of the contemporary world and hypothesize on what happens if these trends keep running amok. A great example of this, while not quite an apocalypse, is the rampant consumerism and government fragmentation satirized in Snow Crash.

 So how’s it going to end for us?

Even though our fingers are no longer twitching above the launch buttons, we still have enough nuclear weapons to incinerate the Earth’s surface faster than you can fry an egg. And we continue to fuel a consumer avarice that’s melting the polar ice caps and has already plunged us into a massive species die-off that’s being called the Sixth Extinction.

Sure, some billionaires like Elon Musk are working to make humans an interplanetary species. As I’ve written before, I’m not terribly optimistic about those efforts working anytime soon.

So until we have backup copy of humanity running on Mars – or until we all die – we writers will have plenty of material to work from.

What’s your favorite apocalypse scenario for writing? And which do you think is most likely?

Fun question to mull over on a Friday, huh?

Scott Kelly Reminds Me How Weak Humans Are

Expedition 46 Landing

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

With all the well-deserved attention that NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s safe return to Earth is receiving this week, I can’t help but think about how fragile humans are.

Sure, he appears to have emerged from 340 days in zero gravity in good health. And he always seemed remarkably upbeat despite spending nearly a year enclosed within the same curving walls, far from his loved ones, breathing recycled air. At first glance, it’s hard to look at this unfailingly resilient man, probably one of the best members of our species, and feel anything but admiration and optimism for our future.

Then I remember that it may take humans two years – double the length of Kelly’s trip – to get to Mars and back. They’ll face double the isolation, double the physical challenges, spend twice as long eating vacuum-sealed food. They’ll also lose sight of Earth, its blue oceans and swirling clouds. Also, none of them will likely be Scott Kelly.

And yet we’ve already dropped two robots onto the Red Planet to take a look around and tidy up before we arrive. No sweat.

It’s not getting to Mars that’s hard, it’s getting humans to Mars that’s a pain.

Mary Roach probably said it best in Packing for Mars:

“To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with. You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You’re inconstant. You take weeks to fix.”

As a science fan and science-fiction writer, it’s easy to get caught up in pondering all the technological advances that will be required for humans to push out into the stars. But even when we’ve got the propulsion, communications, and landing problems solved, we’re still going to be sending fallible, fragile humans on excruciatingly long journeys. Other than Scott Kelly, how many of us are equipped for that challenge?