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Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Key ingredients for a space opera

Currently I'm experiencing a spike in sales in both my books, so something must be going right. Here's what I think is working, based on what readers and reviewers tell me, and what I'm trying to maintain (and improve) in the finale of the trilogy.

1, Distinctive style
2. 3D characters
3. Female bad-asses
4. Cool ships
5. High stakes
6. Relentless tension
7. Cool alien artefacts
8. A leavening of humour
9. Sacrifice of angels
10. Aliens so advanced they couldn't care less about humanity

1. Distinctive style. First off, I'm not pretending to be a great writer. I love Iain Banks' ingenuity and black humour, and wish I had Hamilton's or Bear's or Baxter's grip on the science behind SciFi, and Orson Scott Card's story-telling ability, Clarke's ability to create wonder, Brin's mastery of aliens, Herbert's capacity to create an entire universe, McDevitt's pace, Morgan and Asher's tension, and Mieville's grip on the English language. I don't. But I can do (so I've been told) page-turning, vivid Scifi that is character-based (I'm a psychologist by training, which I hope helps) and makes readers think about ourselves and where we're headed, and takes an honest look at how incomprehensible and probably awful First Contact is going to be when it happens.

2. 3D characters. Every character is flawed, each one has a weak spot. Micah over-analyses everything; Blake is haunted by a dark past; Gabriel is a deadly assassin except when it comes to his sister, Pierre is a genius but emotionally challenged. The villains don't think of themselves as villains. Most male readers want to be Blake or Gabriel but probably fit Micah or Rudi or Zack or Rashid better. Few female readers want to be Louise, even though they know men might prefer them that way. They probably want to be Kat or Sandy, but in each case there's a price tag. These characters don't get made up overnight. They've been camped in my head for about eight years now.

3. Bad-ass female characters. Louise is like a black widow spider, initially deadly attractive, and then just plain deadly. Men get mesmerised by her. One of my female readers said she wanted to climb into the book and shoot this bitch herself. Kat starts off easy, but has a black streak, and is no pushover. Sandy is a secretary with a tongue like a whip, she'll always have the last word, and make you wish you'd not said anything in the first place.

4. Cool ships. Okay, these are mainly in the second book, Eden's Trial, and in the finale I'm writing right now, Eden's Revenge. The Kalarash have a ten kilometre long organic ship hiding underground, shaped like an elongated crossbow. The one who finds it is blind, and only does so because he can hear it breathing...

5. High stakes. Actually, the stakes start off high and get higher. And they have to remain personal, not abstract. They have to matter to a character we care about, who will end up having to risk everything, probably alone at the end, to avoid catastrophe. Since all my books are thrillers, I can't say what the stakes are, but, well, it's space opera so you can guess.

6. Relentless tension. Well, almost relentless, there are a few spots you can go make a cup of tea. I've done plenty of other blogs on this aspect (e.g 'arrive late, leave early'). When I'm writing, if I'm not gripped myself, I stop. This is why I'm not one of these '2000 words a day no matter what' writers. I often ponder a chapter for a while, refusing to type anything until it just has to come out. That way it's not mechanical, but palpable. I use a two-track construction in all three books, which can allow one chapter occasionaly to ease off (and introduce some foreshadowing or back-story, for example) while the next chapter tightens (see blog 'on tourniquet plotting' for more on this).

7. Cool alien artefacts. Okay, it has to be the Hohash mirror. Most readers who have commented have mentioned this, includiing SF writer Gary Gibson (who also liked the Kalarash ship). These mirror devices are not what they seem, and while more is revealed in book two, their full purpose is only learned at the end of book 3. The other cool artefacts are the 'node', 'Optron' and Sarth missiles in book 1, and the 'resident' (books 2 &; 3), which I'm sure Apple would love to market...

8. A leavening of humour. SF agent John Jarrold first told me he appreciated this in book 1, and he loves Iain Banks books as do I. There's not much humour, because there is so much conflict and so much at stake, but the odd quip - not like Iron Man in the recent film The Avengers, which I like but is not 'serious' - but the type of humour that is spoken in tense moments. That way, it shows the characters' humanity without losing the tension. Read Banks and see how the master does it :-)

9.  Sacrifice of angels. (Star Trek Deep Space Nine - you've seen this episode, right?) If there are high stakes, someone has to die. Not just the baddies. A number of readers, especially female readers, have bemoaned the death of certain characters, even pleading for them to somehow return. While one or two do, some good characters get killed off for good. That's life. Otherwise high stakes don't mean anything. Have a look on my website at the Prologue for Eden's Trial, it wasn't easy to write!

10. Aliens who are so advanced they couldn't care less about humanity. The Q'Roth, the Tla Beth, etc. Sister Esma (arch villain with a penchant for Mozart) accuses humanity of being narcissistic, and I tend to agree with her. Aliens won't be humaniform, speaking English, and probably won't be empathic, let alone sympathetic, and are likely to be way ahead of us (various blogs on this - see 'what makes a good alien character?').

So, if there are any authors reading this, #1 is the most important rule. All us struggling new writers need to make a mark, by finding our strengths, and wall-papering over the weaknesses (I have many!), and being a little different from the rest. Not easy. My only other rule is to enjoy writing. It takes so long to do properly, you have to enjoy it, or find something else to do. See 'Writerholics Anonymous' on the Stories part of my website if you're not sure...

The Eden Paradox is available on Amazon in ebook and paperback, and from Barnes & Noble, Ampichellis, and Waterstones UK.

Eden's Trial is available on Amazon in ebook, paperback later this year.

The finale, Eden's Revenge will be available Xmas 2012.

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