Life Changes

Hi everyone, 

Phew. This year has been intense, for reasons both good and not so good. However, it is with wholehearted excitement that I write today to share some personal news: after months of planning and saving up, my partner and I are moving to Vancouver, Canada! 

For me, this will be a return to a city for which I feel considerable fondness; for him, it will be a return to that sweet vacation where he had that great gelato, but it will be a big change for us both regardless. We both hope to put down roots there as we move into the next phase of our lives. There’s going to be uncertainty going forward, but I hope there will also be discovery, seredipity and hope. 

Thanks for following me on this journey so far; I anticipate much more to come!

P.S., For those of you who follow me on Twitter, I’ll be posting road trip pictures there. 🙂 

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Interpreting Reviews – A Writer’s Guide

Rows of star ratings, from 5 to 1.I got my first reader review on Goodreads about a week ago *cue the champagne*. Overall, it was positive, with a couple areas of critique that got me thinking about the eternal question for writers and other artists: how do you deal with critical interpretations of your work?

Before we begin, it’s important to note that criticism doesn’t imply a negative evaluation. Criticism as I’m discussing it here is the art of analyzing and interpreting a cultural object (in the case of fiction writers, a book or story) for its craft, artistry, and impact or relevance to the larger cultural landscape. Scholarly analysis of literature is a form of criticism, as are newspaper staples like the New York Times Review of Books, all the way down to user-generated reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. All participate in a rich tradition of reading, interpreting, and sharing views on books.

By adopting a zoomed-out perspective, it’s possible to see the benefit of garnering reviews, favorable or otherwise, for your work: it’s a sign your book is being read, and even more importantly, considered. Another person has taken the time not only to read your words but to construct a personal interpretation of them. They have contributed in some small way to the critical body of work about your work. To me, that’s pretty humbling in itself.

Of course, even after keeping this in mind, there’s still the dilemma of what you should do when you get a negative review, or one that contains negatives as well as positives. My two cents are below.

What to do:

Have perspective. Are the opinions expressed limited to one review, or are they part of a trend of negative feedback? Did the reader expect one thing from your book and get another? That’s an issue of marketing, not necessarily the writing.

Focus on the good. Print out or save the parts of the review you like. We tend to remember the bad, so it can help to reinforce the good.

Look at how the review ends. This can say a lot about the reader’s overall impression. For instance, did the reviewer express interest in your future books?

Consider the negative without dwelling on it. Thoughtful critique in a review can be hard to take, but it can also help you improve as a writer.

What not to do:

Argue with a negative review. Just don’t do it. The reviewer has a right to their opinion, and arguing with it makes you look childish and petty. In the long run, that loses way more readers than a bad review.

Brood. Consider criticisms but don’t obsess about them. Use that mental energy to keep writing and improving.

Revise the book based on negative feedback*. When making changes is as simple as revising and reuploading an ebook, it can be tempting to make changes based on negative feedback. I added the asterisk because, on occasion, withdrawing and revising a book based on negative reviews can be the right decision. Sometimes a book just isn’t finished “cooking”, whether it’s the premise, story, or execution, and consistently negative reviews can act as a signal for that. In this case, it may be worthwhile to withdraw the book and release a revised edition later.

However, if the reviews on your book are a mix of positive and negative, that’s the business. It’s not a sign your book isn’t ready, and you waste time trying to be all things to all people. The same thing one reviewer disliked, another may love; don’t cheat them out of the story they liked by trying to please everyone.

Now I want to hear from you: if you’re a writer, how do you cope with criticism of your work? If you’re a book blogger or other reader-reviewer, what do you take into consideration when reviewing a book? What’s most important that the story get right, and what’s less so?

 

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What’s in a Name? Titling a Book

Pic expressing a blank page used for title brainstormingConfession: I dread coming up with titles. It’s hard in part because so much is riding on it: not only does every book or short story need a title, but the title is an essential part of the book’s first impression. Unlike the cover art or even the content, book titles are rarely changed once decided on. That ill-chosen title can dog the book (and the writer) for years or even decades. No pressure!

There’s an artistry to a good novel or short story title. You can probably think of your favorite titles readily. What do you like about them? Often great titles have a poesy, a gravitas, and evoke some quintessential feeling about the story. In fact, I contend the best titles more often are about creating atmosphere rather than conveying exactly what the story is about.

Consider this shortlist of my favorite titles:
“Vaster than Empires and More Slow” – Ursula K. LeGuin
A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
The Escapement – K.J. Parker
“Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” – James Tiptree Jr., a.k.a Alice Sheldon
The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan

Maybe you’ve read these books and stories too, maybe you haven’t. That’s the point–without knowing anything about the content, what makes these titles interesting? Sometimes they inspire curiosity by combining seemingly contradictory terms (Egan); they may invoke a single, important concept or object from the story (Parker); or they instill a certain feeling that hints at the atmosphere of the story as a whole (LeGuin).

When coming up with the title for my book, I obsessed over titles I like, analyzing them for pattern, structure, and feeling. I asked myself how I wanted potential readers to react when they read my title. I thought about structures I could apply to titles across my series, a subtle but important signal that the books belong together. I made lists of terms and literary allusions I thought might encapsulate the theme or invoke the atmosphere of the book.

Here’s a shortlist of titles I considered:
Drawing Weapons
Advanced Pawn
Some Rock’s Vast Weight (The only literary allusion in the bunch, this is taken from the Iliad: “…as Ajax strains some rock’s vast weight to throw…”)
First Move
Edged Overture

After many hours of research and brainstorming, this is the title I chose:

Absence of blade (n., fencing): The situation in a match when the opposing blades are not in contact; the opposite of engagement.

I chose this title because of the resonances the fencing term shares with the tone and atmosphere of the story: in many ways, Absence of Blade is about characters waiting for the right moment to act, enduring the hardships and tensions of a situation they can’t yet resolve, then seizing the moment to strike.

Titles have to do a lot of work for their books and authors. Beyond thematic appropriateness, they need to sound good to the ear and look good on the page; they need to be memorable enough to be “sticky” to the reader, but not become tiresome even as they’re repeated over and over in marketing copy. I’ve probably spoken or written down my title a hundred times already, with no sign that will be slacking off anytime soon!

So readers, what are some of your favorite titles? And for the writers out there, what’s your method (if any) for coming up with titles?

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Upcoming Space Opera Release – ABSENCE OF BLADE

Absence of Blade (Expansion #1)I’m excited to announce the release of my debut novel, Absence of Blade, coming September 2017!

Absence of Blade is the start of a new space opera series set against a backdrop of interstellar strife. On a contested world, a hegemonic human empire is set to crush an alien colony. An assassin, a spy, and a scientist will have to summon the last of their resolve to resist the Terran Expansion.

Whether they succeed depends on what they can withstand.

This is the first book in my Expansion series, out September 14th, 2017, and now available for pre-order on Amazon.

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So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 3: Creating Continuity

I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about the importance of writing book series to gain and keep readers, especially as an independent author. But what they don’t often discuss is how to write a great book series, one that will hold your readers’ interest not just for one book, but over multiple volumes.

In Part 2, I explored ways to create and maintain a coherent plot and character arcs over multiple books. In this last installment, we’ll look at how to create continuity in the smaller details that give your story life.

As a writer, you ignore the work of continuity creation at your peril. Detail-oriented readers will spot gaps in your continuity and bring this to your attention–sometimes directly, but just as often in reviews. However, creating continuity is more than simply filling in the gaps. You can also turn it to your advantage to create a more realistic-feeling, lived-in world. It sounds simple, but having strong continuity makes your books better by:

Building readers’ trust in your world building. The details, large and small, you include as part of the backdrop can organically suggest a larger world. Working these details in is a way to deliver information without info-dumping the pages’ worth of exposition in your notebook.

Making it feel like your world persists when the main characters aren’t in the frame. Stories can feel a bit thin when only your main characters seem to have jobs or a family, or when all the important backstory in the narrative somehow relates to them. Adding background detail like references to historical events or places we haven’t seen or witnessed strengthens the verisimilitude of your world.

Adding color and texture. For me, often equally as memorable as a series’ main ideas and characters are those little background details of the world around them. If these details are good enough, they can even steal the show to an extent: think of the visual interest of the cobbled-together Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, or the highly detailed maps in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

4 Ways to Create Continuity

1. Feature returning minor characters. These can (and probably should) be characters you found yourself interested in or who showed promise for growth. It’s even better if your minor characters have arcs and roles that change with time.

2. Make reference to future plot hooks. These can be settings the reader hasn’t visited yet, pieces of history, characters the reader hasn’t met yet, etc. This has the added benefit of making you look clever when these details become plot-relevant later.

3. Reference events from past books in current ones where appropriate. This seems really obvious, but it’s worth restating: Your characters will remember what happened to them in past books. Having them react to or recall these events in later books develops the character and shows how they grow and change in response to their experiences.

4. Mention details–places, species, cultural practices–that never become plot-relevant. For obvious reasons you don’t want to overdo this technique: mention something enough (at least twice), and readers will expect it to be sanguine to the main story, and may get angry when they find out it isn’t.

So why mention it at all? For the same reason you include minor characters, or places we only see once: to create a living, breathing world going about its business for whom the characters are not the center of the universe. How impoverished our stories would be if they didn’t have that kind of rich background stage against which the drama of the story could play out!

In a way, all storytelling is creating continuity. Narrative is a linear art form. By weaving in small details and recurring characters, places and themes, you can create a story with much more depth than the bare words on the page. And isn’t that your ultimate goal?

Other articles in this series:

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 1: Choosing a Structure

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 2: Managing Plot and Character

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So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 2: Managing Plot and Character

I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about the importance of writing book series to gain and keep readers, especially as an independent author. But what they don’t often discuss is how to write a great book series, one that will hold your readers’ interest not just for one book, but over multiple volumes.

In Part 1, I took a quick look at three types of book series. Now it’s time to zero in on one of the biggest challenges of series writing: creating and maintaining a coherent plot and compelling characters over multiple books.

This post is necessarily going to focus on the Single-Arc series, since that type tends to make the most demands on plot and character. However, some of this advice is applicable to the Episodic and Shared World series as well.

What Writing a Series Is

Essentially, it’s telling a single, very long story. Before books or even writing existed, storytellers wove tales in the form of epic poetry and oral narratives that were commonly interconnected–in other words, a series. The reason that book series today are published in multiple volumes instead of as a single, massive book is the same reason the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh would have been told over the course of several nights around the campfire. Splitting a series into parts helps the audience or reader absorb it more easily, not to mention increases their anticipation for the next part.

Series have an advantage over standalone books in that they allow for more story; they give the writer the space and the word count to realize ambitious, nuanced plots full of both scope and depth. Characters have more room to grow and change, and readers have more time to become attached to them and follow their journeys.

However, the challenge of balancing plot and character can be exacerbated by the sheer size of a book series. With so much narrative space, it’s easier than ever to lose the thread of the plot or forget what your hero’s driving motivation is. This gets even trickier when you account for series’ tendency to develop large casts of characters.

5 Ways to Manage Plot and Character Across a Series

Create a series bible. Outlining is your friend. I’m a born outliner: for the latest installment in my Expansion Universe series, I sketched out the scenes and beats in 120 PowerPoint slides, indexed by color, and over 100 pages of supplemental handwritten notes. While you don’t have to be as detailed as this, it will be super helpful to have a solid set of notes delineating at least a tentative plot and character arcs. Do yourself a favor and back up your memory, which can be fallible, especially if it takes you months or years to write your series.

Give consideration to character arcs over the whole series. You know you need characters to grow and change over the course of a book; this is no less true over a series, and I’d say actually more so. I’ve seen reviewers complain about books where the characters don’t change, or worse, backslide from earlier development. Your plot should throw opportunities for growth at your characters over the whole series. Ideally, these challenges should build on growth we’ve seen in past volumes–for instance, by having your character respond to a familiar challenge in a new way

Have an idea of the endgame from the beginning. Readers aren’t too fond of a story that seems like it’s making things up as it goes along; this can often be a symptom of the writer not having a solid idea of where the story is going. Outlining the whole series before you begin, however sketchily, can help a lot. Some writers even advocate writing the whole series before publishing it, so you can go back and plump up earlier volumes based on what you know of the story by the end.

Give each book its own arc. Each installment of a series inevitably builds on what came before, and unless it’s the last one, will leave the overarching story incomplete. However, this shouldn’t mean you leave the arc of the current volume unfinished. There still needs to be a recognizable beginning, middle and end to the plot of the book. And please avoid cliffhangers! It’s okay if the story finishes on an uncertain note, but try to at least end on some kind of concluding beat to wrap up the action for the time being.

Establish each book as part of a whole. Having made sure the book stands on its own, it’s also important to include some form of recap. This helps both readers who may be coming into the series not having read previous volumes, and readers who may not remember what happened. Dropping in small details or summaries is better than infodumping. My rule is a paragraph or two of recap at most. If you can do it naturally by working it into the characters’ thoughts or dialogue, that’s even better.

I want to hear from you, writers: what are some of your strategies for wrangling plot and character across multiple books? What are some plotting challenges you’ve overcome (or are working on)?

Other articles in this series:

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 1: Choosing a Structure

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 3: Creating Continuity

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So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 1: Choosing a Structure

I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about the importance of writing book series to gain and keep readers, especially as an independent author. But what they don’t often discuss is how to write a great book series, one that will hold your readers’ interest not just for one book, but over multiple volumes.

So, who am I to talk about writing a book series? My soon-to-be-released novel, Absence of Blade, is the first volume of the six-part Expansion space opera series. This story has gone through many permutations, but I always knew it would be a story I’d have to tell in multiple volumes. And that’s one defining characteristic of a series: the story has to be big enough to warrant multiple books.

There are different ways to do this. To figure out if your story idea would best be served by a series, it might help to look at some common types of series below.

Types of Series and Considerations for Each

The Single-Arc Series

This first subtype is probably the most common type of series. An example that’s likely familiar to anyone reading this is George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, a.k.a. Game of Thrones. What do I mean by single arc? Essentially, there’s an overarching, plot-driven story that begins in the first volume and is more or less tied up by the last volume.

Pros: A single-arc series works really well for giving your story the same sense of urgency and stakes of a standalone book, while the series format gives you leeway to craft a more ambitious plot and larger cast of characters than is workable for a single book.

Cons: With a single-arc series, you run the risk of reader fatigue; especially if readers have to wait a long time between installments, they can grow impatient waiting for the resolution and may well decide to move on to a more productive author.

There are a few ways you can mitigate this, such as planning out your series beforehand so you can write it more quickly, writing shorter series that are quicker to produce, or having two or more series going at the same time. That way, if you ever find yourself needing a break from one, you can switch to the other and still keep up a regular output.

The Episodic Series

The second-most common type of series is what I call the episodic series. The story follows a few main characters through a series of standalone adventures that take place in the same universe. A good example is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, which can be read in any order. Although the novels do make reference to what came before, it’s not necessary to have read the previous installments to understand the current one. Instead, the series is held together by its focus on Miles and other recurring characters.

Pros: One obvious pro of this approach is the standalone nature of each installment. If readers don’t have to have read what came before, they can dive in at any point of your series, enjoy it, and come back for more. Some of the longest running and most popular book series, such as Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, take advantage of the episodic series’ newbie-welcoming format.

Cons: The flip side of the coin is that you must do a greater amount of worldbuilding and setup with each new book. Single-arc series offer considerably more slack, with the assumption that anyone who’s read the first one or two volumes more or less knows the characters and plot arc by book three. In contrast, with an episodic series, every new book must be treated as potentially the first time your readers are encountering your universe.

The Shared World Series

The last major subtype is what I like to call the Shared World series: while this type of series may have recurring characters, typically it follows a new cast for every book, with the unifying factor being that the stories take place in the same universe. An example is Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels: each volume takes place in the Culture universe but starts fresh with a new story and characters.

Pros: Shared world series give the writer even more freedom than episodic series, since they only have to establish the existing world with each installment. This kind of series offers a lot of opportunity to create a sprawling universe while avoiding the danger of overly repetitive storylines that can come with the episodic series.

Cons: On the other hand, the writer of a shared world series has fewer shortcuts available to get readers invested in the story and characters. Since the plot is not a continuation from earlier volumes, and the characters aren’t people the reader might be expected to know, the writer has to do all the work of both plot setup and character setup just as they do with a standalone book.

Standalone Novels Are Still Okay

With all the hoopla about series these days, writers might well wonder if it’s even worth writing a standalone novel. My answer is, absolutely! Your choice to write a single book or a multiple-volume series should be determined by one factor above all–the needs of your story. If you think the story can be told effectively in a single volume, listen to that. You don’t serve yourself or your readers by cramming the narrative with filler to stretch it over multiple books just because “series are hot right now”. Write that one book. Many readers enjoy the change of pace offered by a standalone. Plus, you may find that one book inspires ideas for more in the future. Some of the best series are those that arise organically.

Other articles in this series:

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 2: Managing Plot and Character

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 3: Creating Continuity

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“I Finished My Novel … Now What?”

“This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Winston Churchill

I finished writing a novel last Friday. The first draft is now complete at just under 144,000 words. That word count will decrease in editing, but for now that’s what it is. This is the same manuscript I blogged about for my NaNoWriMo challenge–little did I know I’d be adding almost another 60,000 words to it by the time I finished!

But now I’m done … yay?

That question mark is why I decided to write this post.

The advice below is culled from personal experience and advice that’s worked for me. Rather than how to get yourself to finish that novel–there are plenty of articles out there on that–this article is about what do when you’ve finished a draft and find yourself at loose ends.

What To Do Once You Finish Your Novel

1. Celebrate. Reward yourself with something fun. You did it! Then…

2. Take a break from writing. For a set length of time–I like a week or so–don’t write or edit anything at all. Don’t even look at your newly finished manuscript. Take some time to pursue non-writing-related projects or hobbies: draw or paint, garden, play video games, whatever. (For instance, I’ll be taking time to finish Portal 2 and then laugh at how behind on games I am.)

3. Focus on self care. Especially in the home stretch of a big writing project, we can become, let’s say, hyper-focused on the work and neglect our routines like cooking and cleaning (or delegate them to a supportive partner or roommate). Refocusing on the day-to-day requirements of living will not only make you more popular around the house, but I find it a good way to decompress after a long sojourn in my imagination. Then, after your break week is over…

4. Work on something else. Write that short story idea rattling around in your head, or edit that novella you haven’t gotten around to polishing. The liminal space between novel drafts is fertile ground for experimenting and exploring new ideas. Using this time to work on new material does two important things: first, it helps refresh your well of creativity, which can often seem like it’s running dry after you’ve spent months plumbing it for novel material. Second, it helps you resist the temptation to dive back into your first draft right away to begin revising. Which brings us to my last point…

5. Let your novel sit before revising. It’s crucial to let time lend you some objective distance from your novel before you self-edit. In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends letting the manuscript lie fallow, so to speak, for at least 6 weeks, longer if you can stand it. Like wines, as novels age they steep; they start to feel like someone else’s work, and this is good. It’s a lot easier to read someone else’s work with a critical eye, to spot the continuity errors and places where a character’s motivation is thin, to note where there are setups without payoffs, and all the other important work of developing the piece. When we first set that manuscript down, our emotions are running too high to do this effectively; it still feels like our baby, rather than someone else’s.

Some Final Thoughts

A lot has been written about the creative process of drafting a novel, but less often discussed are the emotions that go into writing it. For all you might focus on craft, it’s important to remember that you’ve also put your heart and soul into writing your novel. If you’re like me, some of your most moving and exhilarating experiences have come while writing. It’s only natural to feel a certain amount of letdown once that first draft is finished. Putting some distance between the writing and revising can help, as can remembering that the first draft of a novel is just that–first. It’s the beginning of the story that is your novel, not the end.

Writers, I want to hear from you: what do you do once you’ve finished a first draft? What do you find helpful in mentally preparing for the next step?

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Writing Convincing Aliens Part 3: Interstellar Relations

d9-paving-the-way-to-unityThis series is intended to help writers brainstorm the elements that go into creating convincing aliens. It can also be applied to creating convincing nonhuman fantasy creatures, artificial intelligences, and so on.

My science fiction novel, Absence of Blade (coming September 2017), is set in a universe where humans are only one of many intelligent species, who maintain an uneasy coexistence in a complex web of interstellar relations. I pushed the creative envelope by making the lead characters members of a nonhuman species, the Osk, and narrating large sections of the novel through their eyes. To do so effectively, I had to create characters with relatable emotions and inner lives who were nonetheless distinctly alien.

Part 3: Interstellar Relations

With a solid biology and culture in place, it’s time to consider your alien species’ place in the larger universe. What relations, if any, your species has with other intelligent species will depend on the scope of your narrative. Though rare, there are stories out there written entirely in the perspective of a fictional species that has never encountered other civilizations.

However, it’s more likely that your aliens will interact with other intelligent species, including humans. Adopting the perspective of a nonhuman species is an effective strategy for reflecting on our own unconscious assumptions, biases, and cultural discourses through the lens of an intelligent species that may share none of these assumptions.

For this reason, the most common trope of interstellar relations is the First Contact narrative, where humans make contact with an alien species through radio communication or with a research team. Establishing your aliens’ biology, environment, and culture ahead of time will help you answer several questions that often arise in a First Contact story, such as:

-How technologically advanced is your alien society compared to human civilization at the time of the story?

-Are there areas of technology where your aliens have outpaced humans while lagging behind in others?

-What’s the economic base of your alien society (agricultural, industrial, post-scarcity, etc.)?

Knowing these features of your alien society will help you decide their likely reaction to First Contact with humans, as well as how it might occur. If you flip the script and have your alien species contact ours, what’s their motivation for doing so? Is it a research survey, an act of war, a religious mission, an accidental encounter?

If your universe incorporates several alien cultures, what are their interactions like? What are the histories behind their various instances of first contact, and how have their relations developed since then? What is your alien culture’s basic stance toward the other cultures they interact with–are they traders, researchers, conquerors? Are they active in interstellar relations, or are they largely reclusive and indifferent to galactic affairs?

Finally, if applicable, what standing do humans hold in the galactic community and why? One of my favorite examples of interstellar relations done well is the Mass Effect video game trilogy by Bioware: the story is set in a galaxy-spanning federation of species to which humans are relative newcomers. As such, humans are still commonly dismissed as upstarts by more established members. Not only is that a great worldbuilding detail, but it comes into play when the human protagonist, Commander Shepard, tries to apply to the galactic council for aid in fighting the Reapers, synthetic intelligences that constitute the series’ endgame threat.

What Not to Do: They Invaded Us Because They’re Warlike

I think I could happily go the rest of my life without reading or watching another aliens-invade-Earth story where their motivation for invading is glossed over, or worse, totally unexplained. Even when there’s a reason for the invasion, too often it’s something lazy like “They need our resources”, or worse, “They’re just warlike”.

I agree it’s possible for a species to have a warlike culture–there are many examples of warlike human societies that raided and subjugated other cultures. The problem with this explanation lies in the enormous investment of material and energy a civilization would be required to muster before it could cross interstellar distances to invade Earth. If you stick to Einsteinian physics as well–in which the speed of light is the upper limit–it also means a significant investment of time. Traveling at sublight speeds, it would take aliens from even the closest stars hundreds if not thousands of years to reach Earth. There needs to be an extremely compelling reason for an alien species to cross that gulf of time and space.

In Donald Moffitt’s The Jupiter Theft, our solar system is one stop of many for the space-faring Cygnans, who left their system millions of years ago when its suns threatened to go nova. The Cygnans are actually there not for Earth but for Jupiter, which they plan to steal so they can harvest its hydrogen to refuel their generation ship. That’s right–they steal an entire planet, and yet it’s believable not just in terms of the supporting science but also because their motive for doing so makes sense.

Even if you choose to bend Einsteinian physics a bit to allow wormholes or some other way around the lightspeed barrier, your alien civilization would still need to be fairly advanced to circumvent that limit. At this stage of development, it’s unlikely they’d be invading Earth–or anyone–simply for our raw materials or our real estate.

So does this mean you shouldn’t write an aliens-invade-Earth story? Definitely not! It just means it will be to your story’s benefit to spend more time than a Hollywood script-writing committee crafting a reason for your aliens to invade Earth. One of my favorite series of all time, Animorphs by K.A. Applegate, is based on such a plausible invasion scenario: the characters learn that Earth is being invaded by Yeerks, a slug-like species that infests and takes control of a host species’ brain and body. The Yeerks have invaded and conquered a number of species before discovering Earth, making humans just their latest victims.

Boom. The Yeerks have a plausible motive for invading–they need the mobility and senses of host bodies–and it’s a motive that fits into their history of interstellar relations.

I hope you found this series on writing convincing aliens useful. Now I’d really love to hear from you: What are some of the alien species you’ve come up with, and who are some of the writers whose alien species have inspired you?

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Writing Convincing Aliens Part 2: Culture and Society

Futuristic CityThis series is intended to help writers brainstorm the elements that go into creating convincing aliens*. It can also be applied to creating convincing nonhuman fantasy creatures, artificial intelligences, and so on.

My science fiction novel, Absence of Blade (coming September 2017), is set in a universe where humans are only one of many intelligent species, who maintain an uneasy coexistence in a complex web of interstellar relations. I pushed the creative envelope by making the lead characters members of a nonhuman species, the Osk, and narrating large sections of the novel through their eyes. To do so effectively, I had to create characters with relatable emotions and inner lives who were nonetheless distinctly alien.

Part 2: Culture and Society

Once you’ve built a convincing biology and ecological niche for your alien species*, it’s time to think about culture. Of course, many nonhuman animals are social, and some, such as tool-using primates and hive-building insects, could be said to have a material culture. However, human culture and society is distinguished by its complexity and variety, which has allowed us to successfully–maybe too successfully–exploit many ecological niches.

Along with material alterations to our environment such as agriculture, industry, and the arts, culture also encompasses things such as written and spoken language, social structures, and religion. If your alien species possesses human-level intelligence or greater, it would likely have cultural expression as well.

What is culture? At its most basic level, it’s communication. Culture allows ideas and knowledge to be transmitted across distances and across time. The first thing to consider in building an alien culture is the way your species communicates: do they have spoken language? Perhaps they communicate by transmitting patterns of light, radar, or sonar, or through sign language. The kind of culture your alien species develops will be shaped by its primary mode of communication: for instance, a species that communicates using pulses of light might develop a highly complex visual language, but have no concept of spoken language (and be puzzled by humans who keep making nonsense sounds at them).

Another element to consider is your species’ social structure: are they social or territorial? Do they form family groups or are they usually solitary? Is there a concept of genders, and is it one we would recognize? Is there a concept of the individual, and how is this defined?

Like communication, your species’ social behaviors and concept of the self will be influenced by their biology to some degree. For example, in A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge creates a very convincing hive mind in the tynes, caninelike aliens for whom individuals are made up of several distinct bodies that communicate with each other via scents and ultrasonic sound.

The hive nature of their consciousness affects every aspect of their self-conception: when bodies die, new members can be added, which affects the entire system’s sense of self. Furthermore, intelligence is shared between bodies. Various members possess different skills and aptitudes, including the ability to speak, with some segments being nonverbal.

Having defined from the outside what type of alien society this is, it’s equally important to look at epistemology, the culture’s conception of itself and its place in the universe. Try for a moment to imagine yourself as a member of this culture: what is its place in the world? Does the culture have a religion or philosophy, or maybe several competing ones? How do these belief systems influence the species’ other areas of knowledge, including science and technology?

In his Quintaglio Ascension trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer has created a convincing alien civilization in the Quintaglios, who evolved from Earth dinosaurs which aliens transported to a distant world millions of years ago. The Quintaglio planet orbits a gas giant and has a single large continent, Land, with the rest covered by ocean. It’s also tidally locked, meaning the same side of the planet always faces the gas giant. Their ideas about the nature of their world is shaped by its geography and planetary system: Quintaglios consider the gas giant, which is only visible from the other side of the world, to be the face of God, and make religious pilgrimages to see it.

What Not to Do: The Monolithic Alien Culture

Depending on the scope of your story this may or may not be doable, but if it’s possible, do not make the alien culture a monolith. I’ve read stories by otherwise very creative authors that make the mistake of presenting all members of an alien species as belonging to one culture, and it always detracts from the story’s verisimilitude. Like our biosphere, human cultures are stunningly diverse. Unless it makes sense for your aliens to be culturally homogeneous–they only live on a tiny portion of their world, they’re a hive mind, etc–it’s a good idea to at least gesture toward the existence of multiple cultures and regional differences, even if fleshing them out is beyond the scope of your narrative. At minimum, you’ll be creating a more lived-in world that better captures your reader’s interest; at best, you’ll have potential background material you can spin off into more stories!

Fictional alien species are rarely alone in their universe. In Part 3, Interstellar Relations, I’ll look at how to establish your species’ role on the galactic stage.

*I use the term “convincing aliens” rather than “realistic aliens” because at present humans have never made contact with an alien species. It’s disingenuous to comment on what a realistic alien would be like, biologically or socially. However, for the purpose of writing fiction, we can make certain assumptions about the beings that might evolve from a given ecological niche that provide a foundation for creating a convincing nonhuman ontology.

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