Category Archives: Rules for Genres

2014 Christian Novel Contest

Well, the move is finished now. (The move out, the move in is a gradual process…) I just felt like reminding any readers who come by about the novel contest I help judge. (I probably should have said something sooner. 🙂 ) The deadline s in a few days, September 3rd. If anyone has a novel they wrote and think they can win, you can see the submission details at that link. That’s it for now, but considering that the move is more complete, I should be posting more interesting things soon.


Magneto and Two Rules for SciFi

So, here is some more unsolicited advice to potential entrants in ACM’s annual novel contest which is now accepting submissions through September 1st . Of course, the advice can be useful for writing any kind of fiction and for any contest or purpose, and also, of course, you as the author has every right to ignore it just as I, as a reader/contest judge have every right to think the product is flawed if you do :).

As I sat in my rocking chair, and enjoyed a little Wild Turkey bourbon (101 proof…) I stumbled upon a tragic realization, Magneto should have died in the latest X-Men film, X-Men: First Class. He should have been shot, just like that at the end. Shot dead.

You see, we all know where Magneto’s ability comes from, magnetism. Wikipedia states this (based, no doubt on observation.): ‘The primary application of his power is control over magnetism and the manipulation of metal – ferrous and nonferrous.’  This makes a sum total of no sense at all. Magneto is not telekinetic, he uses magnetic fields. So how does he manipulate the non-ferrous metals such as… bullets?

That said, I am not really here to complain about Magneto, I am sure there is some ultra-complicated and dumb sounding rationalization of why he can manipulate non-ferrous metals. (Oh, there it is… in Wikipedia again… something about manipulating a unified field both gravitational/magnetic…. Which I guess begs the question why isn’t he telekinetic.) The important thing here is that this brings up a rule that is super-ultra-mega important for the science fiction genre. This rule is that everything must be self-consistent, and make sense for the world you (if you are an author) have created. If magneto uses magnetic fields, he cannot make bullets swerve (although he probably can move the guns themselves). However, if he manipulates a SciFi style unified field, he should be telekinetic and be able to manipulate plastic, wood, water and so forth. Since he cannot, his powers do not play by ‘the rules’. By all means, make the rules whatever you want them to be, but do not break them once made. If you need to change a rule for one scene, make sure it is changed for all scenes.

This discussion leads rather naturally into a slightly more nuanced rule. Think of it as a practical application of Occam’s Razor. So, Occam made the case that all evidence being equal the most simple explanation was probably the best one. Since in fiction you can make all the evidence equal, you should try to give the simplest explanations. For instance, back to the Magneto conundrum. You could say that Magneto’s power is the ability to manipulate a sort of unified field, but he psychologically cannot move anything other than metal, because of this that or the other reason. However, this explanation is very complicated, with the better thing to do is make Magneto’s power to be manipulation of the electromagnetic field and no more. Hence, he would conceivably be able to move the gun, not the bullet. This is a simpler, better, and more masterful solution so it is more difficult to write this way. It is much easier to give crazy complicated explanations and write like an amateur. It is much more difficult to give simple explanations since they constrain the plot, you cannot do just anything and then wave your hand over it with an explanation.  However, constraining your plot devices to a bare minimum is like constraining your characters to always act in their own personality it makes the novel more alive and less like a Frankenstein’s monster.

The One Rule that Rules them All

There is one rule of writing fiction that is the key rule, the Pendragon of rules. I will illustrate it with the genre of Historical Fiction, the easiest genre in which to find this rule broken. There are many shades and subtleties that refract from the rule, but it boils down this: Do not lie to your reader! The positive form is equally important: Tell your reader the truth! (Which, of course, is not quite the same thing.)

Taking the example of historical fiction, and the excellent negative example of The Da Vinci Code we start. The Da Vinci Code is perhaps the most egregious example of a filthy, lying, novel. (It piles on the fables another layer of deceit with mostly fraudulent footnotes too, but that is another topic entirely.) Let us consider one major thesis of the ‘history’ that Dan Brown tells his reader.

Remember, the goal of writing a good novel is to never lie to your reader (and to tell the truth). That means especially for historical fiction that the historical narratives and the events around your fictional events are accurate to history. This also means that when building up your knowledge of history you follow the gold standard of believable sources. This is, briefly, that primary sources trump secondary sources which indeed trump tertiary sources, and anything beyond that deserves to be laughed at as a source. Also, sources whose potential bias is known are more valuable than sources of unknown biases. Lastly, when hostile sources and friendly sources agree, and they are both primary in nature, you can be fairly confident that this is the historical truth.

Returning to Dan Brown, therefore, we investigate his claims that, for instance, the council of Nicaea only excluded the gnostic ‘gospels’ because they undermined the churches authority etc. as well as the related claim that these gnostic ‘gospels’ are of equal or greater value in determining the events of Jesus of Nazareth’s life.  I put these assertions together because they fall to the same criticism. The Council of Nicaea on AD 325 knew quite well what historical scholars know today, that the gnostic ‘gospels’ were written later by at least 100 years than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and were written by people who could never have even met of known Jesus, nor even known people who know him. (Which would constitute a secondary source.) This information means that for all intents and purposes, either Dan Brown did no research, or he lied to his audience, breaking this rule.

(On an interesting side note, he also got the teaching of Gnosticism wrong. Orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus is the Messiah, and that His nature is true God and true man, together.  There are, and were for most of the Church’s history, heresies that taught that Jesus was only a man, which is what Dan Brown claims the Gnostic gospels prove. However the alternate heresy, that Jesus appeared as a man but His essence was only that of God, is actually what Gnostics believed.)

So ultimately, this means that authors must write about what they know, or research and come to know what they wish to write about. If the author wishes a character to go crazy, he needs to know in decent detail, about craziness. The flip side of the coin, the one that tells the author to tell the truth, I describe to some extent in ‘The Right Story told True’ and will likely revisit again as it interests me.

The Harloth-tìrath: and Other Rules of Fantasy

In view of the upcoming third annual novel contest at ACM, I figured I would start a ‘rules for genres’ theme. These things are those things that I find distract the reader and are hallmarks of poor writing. I don’t know how many potential applicants might read this blog, and this post and upcoming posts. However, I will remind those reading that I am a judge for this competition and a mentor for several finalists each year. (Finalists in the competition have a few months to work with an assigned judge to rework their manuscript. Us mentors do not read for grammar, but try to help the author eschew distractions, tighten the story, and make it even more interesting.) And of course, many authors in the library fantasy section are blatant violators of these rules…

Without more introduction, I will plunge right into this post’s topic: Rules for Fantasy. Of course the rules are ‘more like guidelines’ but the higher the number of broken rules and the more egregiously they are flaunted the more likely the book (that you are reading or writing) is not worth the time.  Fiction in general has rules like: Don’t treat your reader like an idiot, they can remember things from page to page. Follow the rules you make. Characters must be true to the personality you gave them, if they change there must be a reason. (Having characters acting or talking out of character is a terrible jolt for the reader.) etc.

Here are three rules for good fantasy: (For instance: The Eyes of the Dragon)

1. No Elves (Or dwarves, or shadow/fire demons …)

In general, as soon as elves appear, the story becomes transparent. Inserting mythical beasts, alternate races of sentient beings, this all has either the campy feel of fan-fiction or the plagiaristic feel of… plagiarism. In general, stories with elves use them to distract from the gaping inanity of the plot or boring meagerness of the characters.

This rule applies even to those stories that do not explicitly have elves. If there is a set of people, or a race of people, who have elvish characteristics, it has almost the same effect. For example, Orson Scott Card (who has some really good works) has a series about Alvin Maker which start with the book Seventh Son. The first book or two are good, but then, all of a sudden, it turns out that the Indian tribes are actually very, very, elf like (in tune with nature, special woodland related powers, odd and profound wisdom… everything except pointy ears.) At that exact moment, the books begin to spiral down and down into ever more vapid displays of cliché.  (And I usually like O.S.C.)

So, in summary, Tolkien used elves because he was brilliant. Everyone else who does so, seems to do it because they lack an imagination of their own. Until such a time when I read a novel (other than Tolkein) with both elves and originality, I will believe this the immutable first rule of fantasy.

2. No invented languages

Unless the author is a philologist, brilliant, and Tolkien, invented languages are just nuisance and pretentions. Tolkien actually invented languages with strict and realistic grammar based off of the ancient languages he was master of like old Norse, old Welsh etc. etc. When reading any other book that has an invented language, it is distracting and unconvincing. It is very like the author thought, ‘well gee… what should I call this? I know… I will call it the klÃ¥kkakûla. (K’s are for dwarvish… it’s a convention of bad fantasy.) The same thing in elvish is harloth-tìrath, and in the ancient language of Man: ombundium, and in orcish: zkartzik…. English? you ask. In English it means ‘boring’.

3. Last rule for now. You cannot give straight off, modern sensibilities to characters in a fantasy world. This rule is even more important for historical fiction, and dystopian fiction. However, in fantasy, it would be generally jarring to meet a sexually liberated communist feminist in a world of swords and patriarchy. Basically, your setting has to feel self-consistent, and if you put your characters into a historical-like setting, the people need to be believable too. This does not mean that the women in your story have to be non-entities, or in the metaphorical kitchen. (Witness Eowyn, and back further, Britomart, and even further to Antigone.) Just let your characters speak in a ‘real’ fashion, without the idioms and platitudes of modern speech.

Now, of course these rules can be broken. And if anyone reading this wants to submit a story that breaks one or two of these rules or whatever, of course that is fine. Just remember that you cannot break these rules in lieu of plot, interesting characters, originality, and conflict.  For those who do submit a novel, semifinalists get good solid feedback, and finalists get rigorous feedback, and winners… well they win.

Update: A negative example just occurred to me. The horribly plagiarist and predictable Eregon books are violators of every rule here, and then some. If you want to know what garbage looks like when transmuted into fiction, they are a prime example.