Sunday, October 12, 2008

This Week's Workshop

The sentence.

There, that was one. Easy right? Not entirely. If there is one thing I've learned since I started writing, it is this: Writing science fiction and fantasy should not feel like writing at all. You never want to the reader to remember that they are sitting in bed with a backache and only a cold coffee to soothe it. The kids are shouting in the other room, a dog is barking outside, the bills are due tomorrow. Let them forget all that. There is a world in danger between the crisp white pages they hold in their hands.

SciFi / Fantasy is different than writing other types of novels and for a very good reason, but it all starts with the sentence. You've probably read books about grammar and punctuation by people with Dr. in front of their names and big white beards on their faces. Luckily for you, some of that knowledge should stick and help you form complete and proper sentences.

The dog bit Jimmy
Jimmy was bit by the dog

It's easy to know that the first is the better one because it is active and not passive. So let's go up a step.

Thomas' hand was in the shredder when the machine roared to life.
The shredder roared to life, with Thomas's hand inside.

This one could prove a bit trickier. You probably THINK you know which one is right, but you don't know why. Well, there are a couple things in these sentences that need pointing out. In the first we see the possessive Thomas'. This is bad. Always make sure to use an 's even if there is already an s at the end. Otherwise, you're saying more than one Thomas. I see this problem a lot.

Second, and harder to discern, is why you like the second one better. It isn't any more right or wrong than the first, but it sounds better. Here's why: The second sentence creates drama. The reader doesn't need to know what the end result is before they know the story. The story here is that the machine roared to life. The climax is the hand inside. Even at the sentence level, you can create drama and suspense.

How about these two:

The boat was long and sleek with tall masts, white sails and Lux Aeterna in gold script along the side.
The sleek white boat stretched for thirty feet. Tall masts, sails unfurled. Lux Aeterna in golden scrollwork along the hull.

You immediately like the second one better, don't you? Not if you're a high school English teacher you don't! Two thirds of it is fraggies! This is where my point about immersing the reader comes in. You're not writing a biography. If you were, sentence fragments would be right out! But you're writing a novel. Fragments help you control pacing and speed. Tell MSWord to kiss off and put them in. You can overuse them of course, but so long as your novel doesn't read like it was written by a caffeinated five year old, you're probably safe.