The End Of The World As We Don’t Know It

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My friend Serdar talked about about his disinterest in writing post-apocalyptic fiction at his blog. I wanted to add my own thoughts on this because most apocalyptic stuff and even post-apocalyptic stuff feels boring and inaccurate. As Serdar puts it, its best to take things as Mad Max like mythology, a sort of lesson or metaphor.

As for the rest of the apocalypses . . .

Most fictional post-apocalypse tales are boring, repetitive, and the same stuff. I’ve been watching enough bad-movies that took Mad Max and gave us so many battles in tight leather pants that it’s like 80’s hair bands went to war. There’s so many Zombie movies it’s a running joke that rarely explores the implications of having zombies. Most of our fictional apocalypses have been done so over and over again there’s nothing to learn or take from it – if there ever was much in the first place.

We’ve recycled our apocalypses and our post-apocalypses, so most of them are going through the motions. Most of the apocalypses are zombies, even if they lack zombies.

In addition, real post-apocalypses don’t fictionalize well.

First, some apocalypses are boring. We’re living through a low-level apocalypses now with COVID-19, and it’s not that interesting. Disasters are often not action-packed or dramatic tales, they’re the slow grind, the surviving-enough, the unending grayness of endings. Fiction doesn’t cover that.

Other apocalypses and post-apocalypses ignore or glorify the horror. We’ve had plenty of apocalyptic bombings and and disasters, we’ve had horrors and terrible mass deaths. So much fiction either grinds our face in the blood and turns it into a show, leaving us with that queasy sense of watching apocalypse pornography. Others try to ignore the horror, because it’s so horrible, building fiction around it until it’s drained of meaning.

Good apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction exists, but it takes a person that can write, that explores, that understands the subjects. It is rare, because it is difficult.

This is why my current fiction, the Avenoth series, is what I call post-post apocalypse. I’m not interested in the end of the world (in this case, a devastating war that killed 3/4 of the planet) or the immediate post-apocalypse. Instead it’s about a rebuilt world, so we see the impact of the apocalypse and post-apocalypse, but are far enough in the future to see the meaning of it all. I want a tale of healed scars and a new society with memory, where we understand the past by looking at the present.

Besides, some of these post-post apocalypses have powerful impact. When the world is grinding away or the blood is spilling, it’s hard to see what it means in the whole.

But afterwards? Afterwards is when you can look back on the works of the past, and despair properly.

Steven Savage

Fiction Is More Stressful Than Nonfiction

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As I return to fiction writing with my next novel in the Avenoth series, A School of Many Futures, I find it more stressful than writing non-fiction. I write a lot of nonfiction, and it’s relatively low-stress, yet fiction . . .

My experience with fiction writers reveals this isn’t universal – some are quite relaxed about making it, others knotted with anxiety. So I wondered, why is it more stressful for me – if I understand that, perhaps it’ll help others.

It didn’t take long for me to find out.

Nonfiction writing is . . .

Useful: It takes effort or vast ignorance to make a nonfiction piece truly useless. Oh, it’s possible, but a sincere effort will create something of value. Even if its from a limited viewpoint, at least that nonfiction piece matters to a slim slice of humanity.

Grounded: Nonfiction is grounded in the real world (or our idea of it). Research is available, data is available, previous examples are available. As I heard it once put “nonfiction all shares the same universe.” Research and reference and editing is much easier.

Organizeable: Most nonfiction work lends itself to patterns, outlines, and so on. This is because it is grounded in reality (we can refer to the structure of that reality) but also humans have been busy organizing reality for aeons. There’s plenty of reference. In fact . ..

Relateable: Because we humans share enough similar experiences, good nonfiction work can connect with readers easily.

Marketable: Let’s be honest, when you write nonfiction you sort of know the target audience. If you’re a specialist, even moreso. Sure, your coffee table book “Toilets of America in the 1800’s” may seem narrow, but at least you know your exact audience. Besides, you tell me that wouldn’t be an amazing gift for a plumbing professional or historical writer.

Now with this said, let’s look at fiction, using the above as a template. What makes fiction so stressful?

Unknown Value: Fiction is not real. We don’t know it’s value because of the diversity and unpredictability of people. Is this story going to deliver what people want or flop?

Ungrounded: Fiction isn’t grounded in reality. Even “modern day” fiction can be complicated by the fact we’re making things up in the real world, making it more stressful. I think this is why good fiction writers find hooks.

Hard To Organize: We’re making up something that never happened. How do we organize the unreal?

Potentially Distant: We’ve got to have people “get into” the fiction. But can we create a gateway for them to connect to our work when there may be no solid common ground.

Unsure Market: With so much fiction, with so many ways our stories can go, is there a market for our work? We don’t know. I know fiction writers who obsessively research, but that has to be exhausting.

In summary, nonfiction is something that is likely valuable and grounded in shareable experience, whereas fiction is unpredictable and connected in strange ways. In this, we can see how people managed to make fiction less stressful – they make it more (but not totally) like nonfiction. I can see this in my own writing.

This gives me a few ideas of how to deal with stressful fiction writing.

Value your work: Know why you do your work, what matters, and who it’s for. “It’s fun” is 100% fine.

Ground your fiction: Make sure your fiction is grounded in something, from solid worldbuilding to hard emotional truths. That makes it real, connectable, and removes anxiety – while inspiring you.

Organize: Plotting, pantsing, outlining, iterative improvement – there’s many methods to organize fiction writing. With that organization you have that confidence in what you’re doing, that sense of re laity. Note your method may be “whatever with plenty of iterative improvement” and that’s fine.

Connectable: Make sure people can connect to your work via emotional relevance, good descriptions, etc. When it’s connectable people care – and you get that sense of connection.

Market Decisions: Address marketing concerns head-on. Do you care? Do you want to sell a lot of books? Maybe you do intense research, maybe you just do your thing. Do it and go on.

I’m not saying make your nonfiction like your fiction. That’s ridiculous. What I am saying is take lessons from nonfiction, from organization to sense-of-reality, and apply it to fiction. If you can make a book of spacefaring dragons or cyborg superspies something a person “gets” as sure as a mouth-watering recipe, then you’ve done your job.

After all, be it real or imaginary, the goal is to have people get into and experience your work, be it fact or fantasy.

Steven Savage

Editing: The Fiction/Nonfiction Difference

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As everyone who even remotely checks my blogs knows, I’m editing A Bridge To The Quiet Planet, my techno-fantasy novel and return to fiction.  I’m learning a lot from the editing process and my editor (who I am glad to refer to anyone).

One of the things I’ve realized is how radically different editing fiction and nonfiction are.

This probably surprises few people, but it had never really crossed my mind.  This was because I’ve done both and I’ve written so much over the decades, I hadn’t thought about the shift.  It was all ‘writing’ to me, and I assumed I wouldn’t be that rusty.

Well, I was definitely a bit rusty.  But I also began to see the unique challenges of fiction writing after spending time away from it.

Fact checking is harder.  In fiction you’re basically making facts up.  You’ve got to check and be checked on things you pulled out of the air.

There’s more ways to do it.  Instructional and nonfiction works have certain structures and patterns you usually end up following – from the workflow of a process to breaking things down.  Fiction gives you room with metaphor, wordplay, flashbacks, etc. that give you so many ways to do fiction editing and planning is much harder.

You’re in the heads of unreal people . . . you have to get into the minds of fictional people as you write about them.  So you not only have to empathize with your audience, you have to empathize with people that don’t exist.

. . . and have to empathize with your audience in complex ways.  If I write a good instructional or nonfiction piece, I have very set goals and can pretty easily figure my audience out to deliver it.  For fiction I have to think of a variety of experiences the audience may have, their attitudes, backgrounds, and more – and wrap all that in connecting them to a fictional world.

There’s much more back and forth in fiction.  Because of the unique elements of fiction, I find that editing is a lot more of a back and forth thing.  You find a bit of inconsistent language here and have to go back all over your story.  You realize you need to tweak a “feel” here and there.  With nonfiction I usually can go through one or two edits and be done, with fiction there’s more.

You have more of an illusion to keep up.  Nonfiction is about reality and communicating.  Fiction needs you to keep up the illusion, which requires you to be careful with language, repeated words, being properly evocative, etc.

So that was informative.  I’m glad I took time to write it down.  Now let’s see what else I learn . . .

-Steven Savage