I recently had the chance to attend a science fiction writing masterclass presented by Locus Magazine in Oakland, CA. The class, lead by Hugo, Nebula, and Locus winner and NYT best-selling author of the Mars trilogy Kim Stanley Robinson, was a great opportunity to meet fellow authors, see the Locus offices, and, of course, learn from a seasoned veteran of the sci-fi writing world.
Overall the class content was focused on literary technique for short stories in the genre, but in the afternoon, he did field a few questions about the publishing industry and novel writing. I thought it would be useful to share a few key takeaways I picked up from the class with my fellow authors.
Exposition isn’t always bad.
The mantra “Show, don’t tell” is oft-repeated but somewhat non-sensical for a fiction writer. As a visual medium, movies are bound to this way of thinking as they can only move the plot and show the consumer information through “showing,” but a writer has a much wider toolkit to work with for moving the plot. Why limit yourself to simply “showing” when words can do so much more to explore a world and expose detail?
When people say “show don’t tell,” what they really mean is be vivid, specific, and interesting, and despite the sometimes rabid fervor against exposition, it can be all three of those things when used effectively.
Robinson referred to exposition as “world building by context clue,” and his contention is that it’s the most effective vehicle for conveying the “How” and “Why” within a plot for science fiction.
A good plot is finding the tension between the believable and the dramatic.
You can visualize this tension as a grid, with each “believable” and “dramatic” on the positive ends and “fantastical” and “boring” on the opposing ends of each axis.
The eventual placement on the spectrum is going to look very different for every plot (sometimes changing even in the course of the same story!), but as an author, you have to be okay with that. Some stories call for more dramatic elements while others will call for more realistic elements.
The goal is to attempt to maximize the levels of both elements so that the story is both dramatic and interesting while also believable enough to be relatable and have impact.
Professionalism still matters in fiction.
With the proliferation of self-published works, there has been a lively debate among authors about the use of editors and general professionalism when it comes to publishing work. Robinson contends that despite this shift in publishing, these ideas still matter, but it’s not just professionalism for professionalism’s sake.
An author should endeavor to create what he calls a “smooth surface” for the reader, giving them a friction-less reading experience so that they remember and can engage with the plot and the characters rather than grammatical potholes and semantic broken windows in your writing. The grammar and rhetoric should be correct and consistent, even if the author is adopting an aesthetic within the text.
For example, it’s fine (or even encouraged!) to use unique voicing and grammar for a character from a specific region, but it should be consistent throughout the work and should not interfere with the reader’s engagement with the plot. These finer points are what high quality editors can really help with, so he encouraged all of us to consider engaging one even if we are self publishing.
I have taken classes in general writing technique previously, but this class was an excellent chance to examine those concepts in the context of science fiction with the guidance of someone who has written extensively in the genre. I would highly recommend attending a class offered by Robinson if he ever does another run, but I would also stay tuned to the Locus blog for their next class offerings. According to their Twitter, they will have a class with NYT best-seller Gail Carriger soon that is sure to be a great one.
Connect with J.M.!
J. M. Howe is the author of several published non-fiction works in both long- and short-forms, but he is currently attempting to dip his toes into the world of fiction. He lives with his wife and dogs near the Happiest Place on Earth and can be found on the Internet at jmhowe.com and @itsjmhowe on Twitter.