Monday, August 07, 2006

It's Not Just Ships That Shoot...

I had a joyous email yesterday from a friend and sister author who's decided to start writing SFR. She already writes action-adventure romances--hot ones, actually. I think she'd be a great addition to the genre and Lord knows, we need more good SFR authors. And no, I don't consider other authors in competition with me. Readers read 'em faster than we can write 'em.

But that's an aside and not the real topic for Monday. The topic grew out of my writer-friend's query to me about writing SFR. What kinds of things do I consider when I write a story, where does the tech talk come from, how do I invent worlds? Those were a few of the things she asked.

Her email got me thinking. No one's ever asked me anything that quite in depth before. It forced me to give some serious thought about how I do what I do. And that generated a response from me that said, in essence, it's not just about ships that shoot.

The warp and weft of SFR--because it is a melding of two genres--is so much more than a riveting action scene in deep space. It's so much more than a technological puzzle on a space station or moon colony. It IS all that, yes. But it's also the characters, their reactions, their fears, their failings, their hopes, their dreams. Their challenges.

It's also the worlds, the settings: unique, unlikely, exotic, spartan, gadget-laden, surreal. It's about placing characters into these worlds, at the moment of conflict. Or as the venerated Jacqueline Lichtenberg quotes on her site (and I'm paraphrasing), it's when "I must" slams hard up against "You cannot."

Granted, some of these elements also exist in other genres. But in SF and SFR, things just seem so much more intense.

An Accidental Goddess grew out of an idea of a pressure cooker. I wanted a setting that was confining. I wanted pressure and problems to build without giving the characters a means of escape. So I plopped Gillie and Mack on a space station. I dismantled Gillie's ship so she couldn't run from her problems--she had to face them. I gave Mack a near impossible time deadline so he couldn't hop the next shuttle and take a vacation. Yeah, eventually they face ships that shoot. But the real crux of the story was forcing two people do deal head on with their emotions and their problems.

My upcoming Games of Command has a lot of shooting ships, one near crash and one major crash. It also has a half-human, half-cyborg main character, which certainly brings in the tech issues. But it's the characters reactions to these tech issues--not the tech itself--that drives the plot.

So SFR isn't just about ships that shoot. It's also about characters who strive and triumph. It's a good light show and an HEA.

I may have to design a seminar on the subject, either for an on-line class or one of the upcoming writer conferences. Would you take such a class, or attend one at at conference? If so, what kinds of things would you want to learn? What do you want to know about writing SFR?

I'm yours to command...


  1. I've said that speculative romance requires the author to ask "what if" twice

    Science fiction asks "what if humans break the light speed barrier and encounter interstellar aliens."

    SFR must ask "what if humans break the light speed barrier and encounter interstellar aliens, AND what if the human captain and the alien captain fall in love."

  2. I don't know if I can answer this after being called "venerable" -- boy that gives one pause!

    But I'd have to answer your friend that worldbuilding has been studied and developed to an artform by generations of SF writers, Hal Clement and Poul Anderson being two of the best.

    Now the basic principle you use to generate those characters who must and cannot is derived from the study of modern science, Earth Science.

    As you learned how Earth formed, cooled, and evolved life that evolved into us, you must reprise that sequence in your mind starting with a different planet -- different chemical composition, different star, different temperatures, different and variations on differences, all through the evolutionary tree -- branching and re-branching in ways different from our own.

    Start in your imagination with the gaseous nebula and end with the inevitable differences in sexuality and other life functions (all 5) that your new species will have.

    From those differences in the 5 signatures of Life, you then generate a whole bunch of different philosophies.

    Remember these very different people will be looking at the same universe we do (maybe -- well, there are probably 11 alternate universes) and drawing conclusions and philosophical and religious premises based on how their own sexuality and reproductive proclivities interact with our universe.

    Once you've gotten that far, introduce this alien to a human and it's guaranteed that sparks will fly.

    That's Hal Clement's method.

    Now, Poul Anderson's shortcut is one I find most useful and that produces books I like to read.

    Study today's plants and animals, and especially how reproduction is practiced among them (and the physical reasons why it works that way).

    Take one of Earth's animals and give it intelligence, and watch its instincts and its philosophy conflict until it produces a civilization.

    Imagine for example intelligent snails. Ever seen snails mate?

    Civilization is really all about making a safe home where reproduction and child rearing can happen in peace and plenty. That's the objective of every mortal civilization we've ever known -- reproduce and if you're lucky become immortal (by religion or reputation or other means).

    If our basic reproductive biology were otherwise, what would be our differences.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. I think that's why I wrote my freshman effort at SFR in first person. You still get a feel for the world but in a different way, and it's heavily filtered by what the character actually -knows- about the universe.