Getting S.O.R.T.E.D & Sorting Out Psychological Complexes
Structuring my first non-fiction book; making my way through "How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy" by Orson Scott Card and various self-imposed limitations
You simply cannot evaluate an entire outfit using only a handheld mirror. Sure, the trim on your tricorn hat pairs well with your powdered wig and lace cravat, but do they both match the buckles on your shoes? It’s hard to know. Perhaps your foray into fashion turns out well and you end up “well-turned-out”—but why risk it?
Where is this sartorial metaphor going? Ah, yes: a book draft is much like an outfit, each component (chapter) may be perfectly serviceable on its own—even downright dazzling—but does it work as a whole? That was the question plaguing me.
Fortunately for me, while grappling with the enormity of my book (it’s a short book inching its way to 30,000 words, but I am only a Writing Foetus™ after all) I came across a tip by Gillian Perkins, author of SORTED, a book about tidying and getting organised. On her blog, she advises writers to store each chapter of their draft as a separate Google Docs file.
I was doubtful it would work but desperate to get out of a rut. Having taken my all squibs and scribbles and complied them into the one document, it seemed counterintuitive to split them all up again. It also seemed highly seductive, because it would give me the sense of having accomplished something, akin to rearranging the laundry on the clothesline instead of taking it down.
Surprisingly, having each chapter as a separate file was immensely helpful to the writing process. If I want to reorder my draft, it’s as easy as renaming a file. And, once my draft isn’t quite so shamefully shambolic, I’ll be able to collate reviewer remarks just as handily.
This compartmentalising approach is sort of how a paleontologist cleans every fossilised bone before assembling it—along with plaster bones—onto a steel armature, rather than attempting this process with their ladder perched precariously against the ribcage of a half-assembled Brontosaurus. (My analogies are a tad tortuous today, ay?)
Another issue was that certain chapters of Psychology for World Domination are fairly well polished, having started off as articles. Therefore, I felt stultifyingly and cripplingly self-conscious when adding any new text to these well-worked sections, like I was slapping playdough arms onto the Venus de Milo. Now the rough and sketchy chapters are in a different “place” so the contrast in quality doesn’t make me feel quite so wretched. So that’s one psychological complex outmanoeuvred.
Sorting out sci-fi related psychological complexes
When I was around twelve years old, I picked up How to Write Science Fiction by Bob Shaw at the library. I’d have forgot the name of the book if it were not capped off with a memorable and poignant short story called Light of Other Days.
This is not to be confused with the Clarke and Baxter sci-fi novel The Light of Other Days which revolves around the diametrically opposed scenario of instant transmission of information through wormholes. Shaw’s story focuses on “slow glass” through which light takes so long to pass that it provides a window into bygone days, the kind populated by the dearly beloved and departed.
Already under the misapprehension that I’d have to be an astrophysicist to write sci-fi, Shaw’s assertion that one must reinvent space travel with every work really did a number on me. It put me off for years, in fact.
I was delighted to find that Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy has an entire section to help you decide on your method of space travel, whether it’s jumping through hyperspace, travelling at warp speed, or using interstellar dust as fuel. (There’s also a similarly edifying section on types of time travel, and how to develop a magic system that is believably integrated into your fictional society.)
Problem solved. Though I’m no longer so sure about Shaw’s suggestion. It’s not as if space travel features in every sci-fi tale. And even when it does, does the audience really need to know how a spaceship get from A to B?
This isn’t the first time I’ve found Card’s words to be very reassuring; in the preface to Ender’s Game he describes how one need not approach sci-fi as a scientist. Many angles are possible. One could come at it from the perspective of a military history buff contemplating low-gravity battles in space, as Card did. Or perhaps as a linguist trying to conceive of a highly intelligent alien species without a faculty for language (Blindsight), or the reverse: such a refined sense that it facilitates an understanding of non-linear time such as in The Story of You (adapted as The Arrival).
I think I’ll approach sci-fi from a psychological lens; a collection where each story deals with a protagonist stripped of something which makes us human—an embodied existence, a sense of body ownership, or self-agency—through technological shenanigans.
Looks like I have a sci-fi and fantasy anthology in me, after all! On that (psychological) note, you might like to check out my other newsletter: