Monday, December 14, 2009


2010 is going to be the start of a rather busy on-line workshop year for me. I’m starting by co-teaching a workshop on building space/fantasy militaries with a beta-reader of mine, Michael L. Helfstein. USNR (retired). You can find a complete list on my website in NEWS . But I want to talk about—and, yes, promo a bit—the upcoming class on building militaries and military characters.

First, I have absolutely no military experience. That’s what Mikey’s for. But I am and have been a consumer of military stories, from romance to SF to action-adventure, from Weber to Brockmann to Dees, and more. I think that in order to write a good military character it takes both parts: a knowledge of the “world” you’re building, and a knowledge of reader expectations.

Thanks to my new nook, I received as a freebie download a copy of David Sherman’s and Dan Cragg’s first book in their STARFIST series—essentially, the Marine Corps in space. I’ve only read book #1—just downloaded book #2 this morning—but as an avid Suzanne Brockmann fan I related to the military descriptions and authenticity, but the plotting and, oy, head-hopping didn’t work for me. The characters did, eventually, enough that I ordered book #2 and likely will read more in the series because I definitely respect Sherman’s and Cragg’s street creds as former military. And if I was simply a purist SF reader and had never read more character-driven genres, I wouldn’t have felt cheated by the way the book was crafted. Or rather, my reader expectations would have been different and, likely, satisfied.

You see, it’s all about reader expectations and that’s something I don’t think we’ve touched on as much when we talk about world building here.

And it’s not just the romance angle, so please don’t bring that out as the only tune a female can dance to. My expectations have been met by Huff’s VALOR series, Moon’s VATTA’S WAR series, Weber’s HONOR HARRINGTON series. Not one is romance. I’ve also had fun reading David Drake’s LT LEARY series. Again, no romance, though definitely lighter in tone than STARFIST.

The difference between the books is the emphasis on character vs. world building. Not that Sherman and Cragg don’t have some memorable characters: Charlie Bass is a terrific hero. But I kept looking for a key central protagonist to latch on to and by book’s end, realized there really wasn’t one. There was Dean, there was Bass, there were other characters I thought might be central who then—yikes!—ended up getting killed off.

Surrounding all that was a lot of military structure, some neat tech stuff, and some interesting song lyrics. There were lots of words spent on the authors telling the reader about military structure and why the characters were doing or doing to do something or the other. There was, sadly to my way of thinking, far less showing the characters doing those things.

That perhaps can be chalked up to reader expectations. The ubiquitous (and I do believe this is changing) sixteen-year-old male SF reader is more attuned to reading manuals than fiction. Character development is dropped in favor of technical detail.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As long as that’s what your readership wants.

And that’s why I think reader expectations must be inexorably a part of whatever world building you do. But to do that, you need to know your readership; you need to know the likes and dislikes of the readers who would pick up your book.

Writing cross-genre, that’s not always an easy thing to suss out. I would love to have Sherman’s and Bragg’s knowledge to integrate into my books, mostly for the verisimilitude but also to draw in the wider range of readers. But I know I’d risk losing some readers as well. While I eagerly soaked up much of the military techs and specs and routines early in the first STARFIST book, I found by mid-book I wanted, now, more of the characters. I wanted to see them arguing about mission strategy rather than being told that certain strategy launched an argument, with emphasis being on mission details rather than on character action.

Sherman and Bragg had built the world for me. Now I wanted to see and feel the characters moving around in it (and yes, the ending chapters were ones where they did, and they were great fun!).

On the other side of the spectrum has been the charge that many futuristics and SFRs fail in their depiction and execution of technical and military details. “Sloppy science” is the criticism I’ve often seen, but also a failure in accuracy in military elements. While it can be maintained that the average romance reader doesn’t care about such things (and I do believe this too is changing), I think failure in those areas does weaken world building. When I read a romance set in Victorian England, I want to hear, feel, smell, and taste Victorian England. When I read a romance set on a military battleship in some distant galaxy, I want to hear, feel, smell, and taste life on board that battleship.

So my upcoming workshop in January with Lt. Commander Helfstein will strive to hit that middle ground. Mikey will provide the Sherman- and Bragg-like details. I’ll do my best to help students turn that detail into page-turning, character-based action.

And then I’ll reward myself by reading the second STARFIST book.

REBELS AND LOVERS, March 2010: Book 4 in the Dock Five Universe, from Bantam Books and Linnea Sinclair—

Kaidee hated when her ship didn’t work. Dead in space was not a place she liked to be. Especially with an unknown bogie on her tail, closing at a disturbingly fast rate of speed that made her heart pound in her chest and her throat go dry.

PS: Yes, I love my nook but then, I’ve long been an e-book fan and was previously reading on a small Dell Axim X50.

PPS: More info on the workshop HERE.


  1. Here you are back after a long absence from this blog, and WHAM, you hit the topic I'm going to post on tomorrow.

    Folks reading this -- she didn't tell me and I didn't tell her that Worldbuilding would be my topic this week.

    It's got to be in the air!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  2. Oh, this gives me such ideas on marketing this, but I won't hijack the thread.

  3. I've always loved military SF whether in films or books, although I have a bit of catching up to do. I suspect one reason I haven't read tons in the genre is the fear that the characterization won't be crafted as well as the worldbuilding, regardless of whether there's a romance in the story. I don't have to have a romance in a military SF book as long as the characters and plot are riveting.

    But, I did delve into a few military SFR books in 2009. My list of military SFR/stories with military SF elements I read includes:


    HOPE'S FOLLY by some lady named...uh...wait a minute, it'll come to me...oh yeah, Linnea Sinclair

    COMPROMISED by Nathalie Gray

    MOONSTRUCK by Susan Grant

    ALPHA by Catherine Asaro (I think this counts, yes?)

    BEYOND THE RAIN by Jess Granger

    I also enjoyed INTO THE STORM: Destroyermen, Book I by Taylor Anderson. Even that had a romantic subplot! (albeit a thin one)

    I also read, maybe it was last year, Dan Simmons' THE TERROR. That's military horror/supernatural, but wow did I learn a lot about naval history from that and INTO THE STORM! Same with McDonald's trilogy--great day in the life stuff. It's a learning curve but I enjoyed every minute of it--mainly because I cared about the characters in each story so much.

    >also a failure in accuracy in military elements. While it can be maintained that the average romance reader doesn’t care about such things (and I do believe this too is changing)

    I think it's changing, too. Accuracy is especially important in the age of Google, when readers can quickly check information presented by an author.

    However, speaking as someone with zero military experience, I would not be as particular as readers who have such a background. As long as the author makes it seem believable and demonstrates a grasp of details with which I am also familiar, then I'm a happy camper. But you can't go wrong with ye olde verisimilitude, as you stated.

    At any rate, I'm loving what I've read so far and can't wait for more.