Tuesday, May 13, 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

Normally I don't go in for this kind of thing. Especially when it comes to discussing the craft of writing. But, a friend, genre writer, beta reader, and US Army cavalry brother, C.S. Nelson talked me into to participating in a blog tour.

What's a blog tour? It's one of those things that writers do, where we pass along a topic and a format from blog to blog, and create a hyperlinked chain of thoughts. In this case, it's a set of questions about writing.

Again, I'm usually adverse to this. In part because writing is a deadly boring business. Aspirants and fellow practitioners may love the ugly details, but few others share any interest. Friends and innocent readers who get caught in the conversational crossfire tend to glaze over eyes first the moment us keyboard pounders start holding forth on THE PROCESS or MY METHODS.

"And normally we go on and on with way too much enthusiasm, anger, and a scary amount of emotional investment," he said breathlessly, from not having taken a breath during several sentences worth of run on.

So, consider yourself forewarned as we veer away from our normal territory here on Consilience and head for the cliff.

What am I working on?

A sequel to a military science fiction thriller of mine that one of the big five science fiction publishers has been considering for about eighteen months now. That, and outlining a pair of short stories set in my "Lisa with Child" near future universe. And maybe something for the Baen's fantasy short story contest...

How does my work differ from other works in the genre?

Big picture ideas. Lots of them. And woven together in big conceptual packages. The kind of interlinked exploration of ideas in action that's been mostly absent from the navel-gazing funk that literary science fiction has descended into over the past twenty years. Also, my work isn't dark or depressing like many of the critically acclaimed SF novels of the most recent decade. There's understated determination and ideals pitted against the chaos and confusion of life in my stories. My characters are not always nice people, and certainly have their issues, but there are enough of them vested in trying to figure out the right thing, or at least the least messed up thing to do, that a fairly broad readership seem to empathize with them.

Also, lot's of realistic biotechnology based on what we've learned about the human body, brain, and nature over the past two decades. If "realistic" sends cringing shivers of incipient boredom down your spine, you probably haven't been looking around at recent developments. The things we've discovered about who and what we are on the cusp of culture and biology, and all the environmentally interactive biological processes that drive this, are strange, and at times alien, and utterly fascinating. Especially when looked at in the broader contexts of real world human evolution and history. There are so many story opportunities, dilemmas, character experiences, and oh-shit or fuck-that's-awesome moments going to waste right now.

Also, I write some amazing kinetic actions scenes!

Why do I write what I do?

I have a degree in history, and when I was an army cavalry (reconnaissance) scout I saw history inflicting itself on people in the Balkans during our peacekeeping period there. Also in Korea, as a massive famine played out on the other side of the border. A lot of those 1990s conflicts were part of the aftermath of the Cold War, which had been this huge life-and-death, future-of-the-planet conflict. One with root causes in some ill-considered responses to the social upheaval unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Now we find ourselves in a new age of mounting societal unease. One in which the early stages of the information revolution are helping to destroy the old structures of employment along with the relative degree of equality in opportunity, wealth, and social mobility that we achieved during the late industrial period.

Then there are other revolutions I've glimpsed in the offing.

While working as lab tech, I saw monkeys up and running about not all that long after their spinal columns had been surgically damaged, and then given a regenerative treatment. And there was much, much more. We've got new revolutions in biotech and robotics descending on us even before we've felt the full impact of the information technology shift that's presently rocking the social and economic landscape beneath our feet.

Someone really should be taking a look at these huge changes. That, and floating some scenarios about what we might become or some of the approaches that we might take to meet these challenges, without falling back on the word "singularity." Or how we might fail to work things out, and then find our way back from a disaster.

Doing so would help expand science fiction beyond a very narrow and much-gone-over set of ideas about what we've failed to do in terms of gender and race relations in recent history. Or imperialism. Or some of the enormously simplistic, chest-beating works that complain about our cultural decline from a traditional utopia that never existed.

In other words, we could really use some educated, post-ideological science fiction at a time when sci fi is polarized, and very much vested in ideologies that formed back during the industrial era.

There seems to be very little casting about in the genre for how all this new information on genetics, neurology, computational biology, robotics, and a shifting economy might shatter our present worldviews and societies. Much as earlier discoveries did with traditional religious paradigms, before giving rise to new politics, updated religions, and new types of polities. Polities like monotheistic kingdoms rising out of animist tribes and chieftanships in Northern Europe. Or the deist Liberalism of the Enlightenment appearing to challenge old monarchist assumptions in Western Europe at a time when kingdoms were starting down the road to becoming nation-states. States in which religion was separated from the governance structure. Or the humanist transformation in Song China, as the international Silk Road trade and booming domestic mass production brought about big shifts in how city dwellers saw the world and humanity's place in it.

How does my writing process work?

It's gotten a lot more formalized over the past three years.

I used to wing it by cobbling together cool character interaction scenes and action sequences that occurred to me pell-mell. This worked after a fashion, but I also painted myself into a lot of plot corners trying to connect those moments. The struggle to get out of having boxed myself in with lots of implausible character choices often sucked the joy right out of several nights worth of writing.

Now I outline, then write a synopsis and character bios. After that, I review the preparatory material and write a timeline.

At first there wasn't a whole lot of fun in this. Aside from the character building and some setting notes, it felt like homework. However, the more times I've done it, the more I've come to enjoy the prep work. Writing the outline is still very much an act of storytelling. At the same time, it also frees me from all the immediate distractions of constructing a scene. That lets me focus on the overall story I'm tying to get across. Also, since I'm not trying to shoehorn characters into the next "awesome" scene that I imagined in isolation, there's a lot less pressure to impose unrealistic choices on them.

It's also turned out that the timeline, outline, and the character bios provide a lot of  inspiration for scenes that need to be written in order to make the plot happen. Both the oh cool stuff and the kind of minutia that comes from taking the time to think about the characters and their relationship with each other and the setting. That in turn lends itself to pulling off the kind of cinematic moments that generate plot tension and set up events one, or two, or three scenes down the road.

Over all it's a hell of a lot more holistic than the winging it approach. Of course, your mileage may vary, there's no disputing tastes, what works for me might not not float a boat for you.

Bouncing back

On a blog tour you're supposed to end by tagging others who will do the next round of posts. However, since as mentioned above, this isn't really my thing - and me being a rebel and all - I will redirect you back toward the awesome Mr. Nelson, who writes amazing characters, horror, and diesel punk. And whom I fully expect to find one day laughing atop Stephen King's grave as the next crown prince of dark mind-fuck cool stories.

Christopher S. Nelson

Texas native and Army Scout, C.S. Nelson lives in the high desert of Southern California where he carves his love of dark fiction into short stories and novels. Zombies, diesel mechs, witches, ghosts, prop fighters, and conspiracies. Anything goes as long as it can deliver a solid sucker punch and steal a kiss before the fight’s over.

Sergeant First Class Nelson has served two combat tours in Iraq, played rocket roulette with the insurgencies, and speaks enough EspaƱol, Hongul, and Deutsch to order take-out on two continents. His work has appeared in US- and Canadian-based e-zines and printed anthologies. He loves metal, jazz, swing, pop art, old cars, and anything Americana. He has an aversion to owls. Find him at: www.nelsoncs.com

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