Guest Post: Top 5 SciFi Reader Pet Peeves

As a bit of a change of pace, today I'm featuring a guest post from my friend and fellow writer (and a member of the Collegium Scriptorum Catholicae), Maggie Zapp. M.R. Zapp is a fan of space opera, dystopian fiction, and the English regency. Published in both print and digital publications, she currently freelance copy writes, works on novels, and hopes to win a Hugo Award before the SHTF. A self-proclaimed "cool nerd," she is actively working toward the indie publication of her first novel, and blogs at Apostolate of the Pen. Find her on twitter @mrzappwriter.

As I mentioned in Write What Readers Love, I read tons of reviews on books that fall into the same genre I write in. Even if I've never read the book itself, I receive huge insight into reader expectations by reading reviews and I've noticed some trends.

This top five list isn't a result of polling hundreds of readers - at least not officially. But it is based off three star and below reviews from across a spectrum of indie-pubbed SciFi books. Perhaps reader objections are different for traditionally published SciFi, but I doubt it. If anything, I would think readers tend to give indie-authors a bit of a pass because "it comes with the territory of reading indie books."

That might sound like I'm advocating sub-par writing, formatting, or editing in indie-pub but that is far from the case. I'm not condoning anything less than the very best an author can do, but I do think those who are less discriminatory easily entertained don't mind as much the need for a better content editor, or the occasional mis-used word.

That being said, editing issues aside, here are the top five mistakes SciFi Indie authors can make (in no particular order.) Think about your work. Do any of these apply?

1. Lack of Plausibility: How far does the reader have to suspend belief? Readers of science fiction expect to be dealing with something that is a product of your imagination. Suspension of belief is expected. But writing science fiction doesn't give you free reign to go against human nature or to defy the rules you've created for your world.

Typically, plausability issues in science fiction deal more plot or world-building than it does with characters. I suspect this is the case because humanity (or at least something like humanity) remains constant, despite other planets, worlds, or twilight zone scenarios.

We have to believe that the rules set within your world make sense with each other, that they don't contradict. We might not know what all those rules are. We may not understand how your world came to be or how your machines work. In fact, a lot of times, half the enjoyment of reading scifi is wondering how something came to be (and hoping that the author answers those questions later). But we have to have some rules as a frame of reference, and those rules must make sense among themselves. Think of it as the principle of non-contradiction for writers.

If your beta readers are commenting that such and such is extremely unlikely or would never happen or doesn't make sense in the world you've presented, that is a huge red flag. But you are fortunate that they caught it before your book went on the market and garnered a bunch of three star reviews for the same reasons.

2. Filler: A cardinal rule of good writing is that every sentence in the book has to expose character, move the plot forward, or set the scene. But the best scenario is when it does all three at once. And the worst?When it doesn't do any of those.

Readers hate it when an author includes eight pages worth of writing that could easily have been left out, e.g. battles that don't have any affect on the plot, extensive writing on - at best - side characters that have nothing to do with the main story, main characters musing about things that have no effect on their decisions or don't have anything to do with anything.

Don't be the kind of writer that includes multiple scenes that you wrote because they were cool. Your book is not a collection of cool scenes (unless it's sold as a collection of cool scenes). It's a book, with a beginning, middle, and end. Deviate from that and you'll have some peeved customers.

3. Lack of Character growth: Characters are the heart of a good story. One could have a great plot and great setting but without characters that have complex motivations and personalities, your readers will lose interest - and fast. They might not evolve and develop, but they should at least have multiple motivating factors and a well-rounded backstory.

If your characters aren't real to you, if you can't see them in your mind's eye, like the way you can "see" a friend or enemy, they won't be real to your readers either.

Think about how varied the life is in your social circle, how each person you know is affected by their temperament, their upbringing, and their life experiences. Now look at your characters. Do you understand them as well? If you don't, then they need work before you continue writing your story. You might discover that your plot doesn't work with the character you are envisioning. Or worse, that you've written a character that is completely superfluous to your plot. Your main character should be intrinsic to the story and drive the plot.

If you need help, try this list from Plot to Punctuation. There are tons of other character development tips available online, so I suggest looking around and finding something that inspires you to get to know your character better.

4. Insufficient World Building/Backstory: There are a lot of different reasons why scifi readers love scifi. One of the biggest attractions is the originality of the world presented. Many of the three star and below reviewers expressed disappointment in author worlds not fully explored.

Why is world building so difficult? Because we are so accustomed to the knowledge we have, that when we try to break it down into its minute parts, we miss a lot. A good back story, an understanding of all aspects of your world and why, and the why behind the why, doesn't make it into your book. At least not the majority of it. What it allows for is a plausible world, something that seems organic and real.

That doesn't mean give us three pages of narration about what this world is like, but it does mean we will be more convinced of the plausibility of your world. Your greater knowledge will affect how you tell the story and what your characters do and how they do it

If you take the time (and perhaps utilize some world-building checklists) before you start on your plot, you'll have a much better chance of your story being fully developed.

5. Too troped/too cliched: Perhaps more so than other genres, scifi readers want originality - if not in story line, than in characters, if not in characters than in setting. Something should set your novel apart from other novels. If the three major aspects of your book, setting, plot, and character all follow overdone tropes, reader attraction will lag.

Of course, tropes are tropes with good reason. We are attracted to certain things: the underdog, the adventure story, the explorer turned battling hero. But if there is zero originality, one can't expect to be getting reviews above four stars very much. If you combine overdone tropes with any of the four flaws above, you're looking at a book that will die a literary death in a short amount of time.

TVTrope's Grand List of Overused Science Fiction Cliches is extensive (and amusing). If you are wanting to find a way to work yourself out a cliche, try throwing in the opposite of what the reader would expect. That might seem like an easy fix, but it has successfully worked (e.g. Columbo). You can also check out this list here for some ideas on how to make your story unique.

All of the above is based off of extensive reading of "how to" books online and scifi reader reviews. If you think any of this information is suspect, I invite you to do the reading yourself. In fact, I heavily encourage that you read reviews on books similar to yours in order to be able to avoid specific pitfalls in plot device, character development, world building, etc. that your niche is susceptible to. And keep in mind that reviewers aren't going to be any nicer to your book than they are to anyone else's, but if you give readers what they want, you have a much higher chance of becoming a best seller.


Bits and Pieces 7

 Wow, it's been a long time since I did one of these, and apologies for the continuing sluggishness of posting here at Swords and Space. But at least we are staying faithfully to our radio schedule and speaking of which ...

  1. The next episode of Swords and Space Radio is tomorrow, 9 September at 9pm Eastern as usual. We were going to do another episode of classics with recurring guest Marc Ratusz, but due to illness on his part we've had to switch things up last-minute and instead Jason Frazier and Matthew Zepf will be returning for a sequel to our show on Alien:

    Swords and Space XXV: The Alien Series Revisited 09/09 by The AMDG Radio Network | Film Podcasts
  2. This is a bit old and I posted it on Facebook some time ago, but wanted to share it here also; the ship pictured at the top of this post is the "IXS Enterprise", an interstellar ship conceptualized by NASA physicist Harold White. Looks fantastic. Usually realistic ships look hideous but this one's a beauty and I'm trusting by who its creator is that it is, indeed, realistic.
  3. I read a fascinating article on the blog "This can't be happening!" last week that gave a very different perspective on the whole Ukraine/Russia situation that's going on right now. Here's a little thought experiment that is suggested in the article:
    Imagine for a moment that Mexico’s elected government was just recently overthrown by a violent putsch, financed for the sake of argument by some $5 billion in Russian money funneled to pro-Russian Mexican activists in the country. Suppose too that the new pro-Russian government installed by the putschists then began a military campaign against the pro-US Mexicans living in the 50-mile-wide strip of Mexico just south of the US border (I don’t know if there are any pro-US Mexicans living there, but let’s at least pretend there are). Now imagine that the Mexican military began indiscriminately shelling and bombing towns like Juarez, Tijuana and Encinada -- places filled not just with pro-American Mexicans, but with many Americans who have vacation homes or who manage maquiladora factories across the border from the US. Imagine that several thousand Americans in those areas had already been killed by the Mexican military’s attacks.
    Well, that basically describes what happened in the Mexican-American War. I have no dog in this fight so this shouldn't be taken as some sort of apologia for Russia, but it does give a different perspective. As with most modern wars, there really is no "good guy" in this one.


Bane: Great Supervillain

Recently I had a little "debate" with a couple of friends about the villain Bane (played by Tom Hardy) from The Dark Knight Rises. My occasional guest on Swords and Space Radio, Stephen, felt that Bane wasn't so great. I beg to differ, however -- I thought he was a great villain, and that's not just because I really like Tom Hardy's work.

Bane was just very savage and powerful (he almost killed Batman and completely took him apart), yet at the same time witty but not so overpowering as to be invincible -- he had his weakness in his mask which added some interesting nuance (a little Darth Vader-esque). He was also clearly evil, but had some human elements to make him more real and not one dimensional -- like his clear love/compassion for Miranda/Talia.

In my view, the most important thing that made Bane great was the fact that he was a militant revolutionary (usually they’re the good guys) who cloaked his revolution under the guise of “liberation” (like real world revolutionaries do). Often, the bad guys represent the forces of law and order (again, thinking of Star Wars here) and its the rebels/revolutionaries who are the protagonists (consider how popular that butcher Che Guevara is). But Bane and The Dark Knight Rises gave us a little taste of what revolutionaries are really like. Here's Bane's Blackgate Prison speech which exemplifies his revolutionary demagoguery, as with the Bastille, turning vile criminals into victims (although interestingly, the film wasn't that black-and-white because the criminals therein were unjustly imprisoned, but the point is that violent revolution is never the solution).


"Daddy Issues"

In preparation for going to see Guardians of the Galaxy at the cinema, and doing the podcast we'll put up next week, I've done a fair bit of comic reading (with thanks to my friend Stephen who gave me his collection to guard while he's out of the country), and I've noticed that a recurring theme in Marvel comics is dysfunctional relationships with fathers.

Just a few examples:

Peter Quill/Star Lord (Guardians of the Galaxy) - never knew his dad growing up, and the guy is a major jerk, much of what Quill does is to defy him
Gamora (also Guardians) - her dad is "the mad titan" Thanos, who she hates, and who she wants to kill him
Sam Alexander/Nova (Nova) -  His dad is an absentee drunk growing up, then disappears
Cyclops (X-Men) - parents died in a plane crash orphaning him when he was very young

... Actually, a great many superhero characters are orphans. I am not a huge comics fan, but those who have existing positive relationship with his/her father are few and far between. I suppose Bruce Wayne/Batman had a positive relationship before his parents were murdered.

Clearly this trope resonates with young people who read these comics, for it to be such an enduring theme. And it's a sad commentary on our society that whole generations of children have grown up alienated from their fathers. No doubt the explosion of divorce since the 1960s has played a role where many young people have been separated from one parent, usually their fathers. I believe another factor is the low value placed on the responsibilities of fatherhood in today's society, and the prolonged adolescence that is constantly complained of but rarely remedied.

Some may argue that this has always been the case, but I tend to doubt that. Looking at literature from the past one tends not to see this level of alienation. One also sees numerous accounts praising the great devotion and attention that certain fathers paid to their children, as recounted in, for example, the life of Charlemagne by Einhard, the life of St. Louis IX by Joinville, and various lives of St. Thomas More to name a few that I've read.


Next Week Swords and Space Radio is Back!

Well, the mid-season break at AMDG radio is coming to a close, and it's perfect timing with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy this past weekend. I was able to watch the film today and, having also read the "Marvel Now!" reboot of the series starting in 2013, I know we're going to have a lot to talk about. Here's the link:

Swords and Space XXIV/Culture of Comics #27: Guardians of the Galaxy 08/12 by The AMDG Radio Network | Entertainment Podcasts


When Gameplay Had to Compensate for Lack of Graphics

Truly, the 1990s were the golden age of strategy gaming. Over the years I have dabbled in various strategy games as they came out, but nothing has ever "done it" for me the way classic games like the original Master of Orion, Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space, or the original Lords of the Realm. Newer strategy games all have much better graphics, to be sure, but they always seem to fall a bit short.

To be fair, I have found a few good ones over the years, and I burned many hours playing Galactic Civilizations II which provided a pretty close approximation of the magic of Master of Orion. But on the whole, I think that the reason those old games were so great was because they could not rely on graphics to save a less-than-excellent game. Nowadays I think that visuals can too easily become a crutch.

The good thing is, all those classic games are old enough that they're available for free, and I am now reliving my gaming glory days with my oldest son. I recently downloaded Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space and we've been playing a few turns every other day. It's available here: http://www.raceintospace.org/

If you are interested in the Soviet-US race into space this is a great game. Every launch has us on the edge of our seats wondering if it will blow up, or go according to plan. My son is learning a lot about the history of the space race too. He's just turning 8 next week but is able to grasp the game with some help from me. Great stuff.


'Salem's Lot (Book Review)

Title: 'Salem's Lot
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Doubleday
My Rating: 3 stars our of 5
Summary in a Sentence: A very serviceable vampire tale set in rural New England where the vampires are evil animated corpses not emo romanticized creatures of sympathy, and the characters who battle them well-developed and human

There is a lot of garbage vampire-themed fiction out there, in fact, almost all of it is garbage, so full credit goes to Stephen King for penning a good one that is full of suspense, horror, good characters, and above all vampires that actually are evil and vampiric. I give it three stars as a definite page turner but I can't give it higher than three stars because it wasn't really more than that. It brushed with greatness but left important plot points unresolved and lacked any higher philosophical point. It seemed more like a high quality slasher work.

The novel takes place in the town of Jerusalem's Lot A.K.A. "'Salem's Lot", Maine (population approx. 1000) circa 1975. The main protagonist, Ben Mears returns to his home town to write a novel. At the same time the mysterious Kurt Barlow and his associate Richard Straker arrive. Deaths ensue and Ben quickly comes to realize that vampirism is the cause. He joins forces with an interesting cast of characters. The characters are definitely a strong point of the work -- even minor characters who exists only briefly to fall prey to the vampires are well done and very human. I have to complain that I thought the characters were, by and large, a bit too dramatically immoral peaking the work somewhat of a cross between Peyton Place and Dracula.  To King's credit, he does not feel the need to graphically describe the various character indiscretions and tactically cut scenes, but it all felt a bit much. Although I suppose it underscored the theme of how 1970s American society was disintegrating. I tend to think that people are generally not that bad.

My biggest problems were how Catholicism was portrayed. I do believe Mr. King attempted to show it in a positive light, and it was of interest that Catholic items seemed to be all that was capable of stopping vampires but it was also portrayed as if Catholic holy items are mere talismans that can be given to anyone just so they can fight vampires. The vampire hunters all confess their sins to the priest, but absent any actual conversion of even professed faith in God. There are some truly grievous errors concerning Catholicism that minimal research would have avoided such as having an old Mexican priest break the seal of confession in the prologue. Such superficial treatment, besides being wrong an offensive, weakened the story because it leaves one wondering why these Catholic items "work".

The plot moved at a good pace and offered a good mix of character development, scene setting, and suspense. There was really very little action as such, but Mr. King does an excellent job of creating terror and suspense. As suggested above, the vampires were appropriately evil although their powers felt ill-defined and it was unclear why some physical attacks worked on them and others didn't.

It must be noted that I actually listened to the audio book, purchased from Audible.com. The version I listened it was narrated by Ron McLarty who did an excellent job and really helped to bring the characters to life.

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