There was a time when I fancied myself a pretty good fiction writer. I have always written and created stories in one form or another, I suppose I got that from my mother who, for many years when I was young, worked on various mystery novels that she intended to get published. While she never did, and gradually lost time and interest in it, I worked alongside her, pounding out my own stories on an old manual typewriter.
When I wasn’t writing mysteries, or science fiction that came along later, I was heavily involved in tabletop role-playing games, where, when I wasn’t playing through other people’s adventures, I was carefully crafting my own. One thing I was always certain to do was make my tales logical, I wanted them to flow intellectually from one scene to the next, I never wanted a player to point out an inconsistency in a character or a situation. I also encouraged my players to act naturally, do what they thought their characters would actually do instead of what the story seemed to call for. I refused to railroad my players or drag their characters around by the nose. If my scripted story called for the characters to go left and they decided to go right, that was fine with me, I’d just re-write on the fly and come up with something else. Having a good story that made sense, didn’t feel forced and didn’t make anyone stop and scratch their head was my goal.
While I haven’t seriously done any tabletop role-playing in many years, I have still kept writing, off and on. There was a period about a decade or so ago when I started seriously kicking around the idea of getting a book or two published. I had been writing stories within an original tabletop role-playing sci-fi universe for a very long time, I knew every nook and cranny of the universe and therefore, I concocted the idea of writing a series of books within that universe, but not as a directly linked set of sequels, but independent, stand-alone works that simply happened in the same world. I had already written a couple of books in that vein, the first two were a duology, plus an entirely separate, stand alone superhero book.
I have a friend who was, at the time, a literary agent for one of the leading sci-fi imprints. I sent him the first two sci-fi books, just to see if he liked them and, to my amazement, he did. He told me that, with very little editorial work, they were certainly salable, but as we talked further and I told him my plans for putting disparate works in a single universe, we agreed that those books were not the right vehicle to launch a series of books. They occurred in the middle of a war and, had they been stand-alone books where the beginning or end of the war were unimportant and would never be seen again, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, but because other tales from the war may be told in other books, it would probably confuse readers. We decided that a better first novel should be entirely stand-alone and should give a better explanation for the foundation of the universe. I actually wrote that book too.
Yet one thing I really valued from my friend was his honesty. He told me that I’d hate writing for a living, or even writing for publication at all. Luckily, he knows me and knows what drives me. First, there is very little money in getting published, unless you are a big-name author or getting movie deals. For a $10 retail book, for instance, the author may be lucky to get 50-cents out of it. There are no big-dollar contracts unless you’re an established author selling millions of copies and that’s becoming less and less prevalent these days. Secondly, the publisher really does very little for you, other than sticking your book on bookstore shelves. You are expected to do virtually all of the publicity for your book, at your own expense. You are usually expected to set up your own website and get the word out so people buy your book. You are expected to attend, and often arrange, book signings, convention appearances, etc. I really have no interest in doing any of those things. I am a writer. I write. I do not do public appearances. I don’t want to be on TV. I don’t want to sit behind a table at a convention and hawk stuff. I want to write. What happens to it after I write it, I really have little interest in.
See, when I used to hang around with a lot of prospective writers, the overwhelming majority just wanted to walk into a bookstore and see their books on the shelf. I’m not like that. I have very little ego. I don’t need anyone to like me. I don’t need anyone to agree with me. My purpose in writing books is much like writing this blog. It’s a great mental exercise and it’s a way to get something out there that you enjoy.
Wait, you say, a mental exercise? Most certainly and this is one of the reasons I wrote this post. There are a lot of books, not to mention TV shows and movies, that are just bad. Oh, not bad in the sense that they’re poorly written, I suppose, just that it’s clear they were pounded out very quickly without the time spent actually thinking about what was going on. I write about this repeatedly, how many stories require the heroes to be stupid and overlook blatantly obvious clues because it’s required to get to the intended ending. That drives me up the wall when I see it and it’s far too commonplace for professional writers, regardless of their schedule, to engage in.
This is especially true in science fiction. When I create a new piece of technology for a story, I put a great deal of thought into it. I understand, at least in the broad strokes, how it works. I know it’s limitations and I make sure they’re logical. I also think about how that new piece of technology fits into the existing universe to make sure that, with a little creativity, someone can’t do something wholly absurd by combining it with other already-established tech. Yet this is not the case in plenty of science fiction writing, TV and movies.
Take Star Trek, for example. It’s pure sci-fantasy. All of their technology is just magic hiding behind technobabble. They have no real idea how it works, since it couldn’t, but they also have never considered the ramifications of the technology on the universe. I remember way back when Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired, I spotted massive holes in just the first couple of episodes. I’m going from memory here (yes, I did look it up), but it seems to me that in the seventh episode “Lonely Among Us“, they established that the transporters could recreate someone, in this case Captain Picard, from their buffered data and bring them back to life, albeit a life slightly younger than the one who died. In episode #2×07 “Unnatural Selection“, they demonstrated that the transporter could take DNA from a single strand of hair and re-generate a person from it, editing out disease and genetic damage, as was done with the doctor. There was another episode that, for the life of me, I can’t remember enough about to find, where a character had their mental patterns put into a younger transporter-created version of themselves, thus making them a younger but mentally identical version of themselves.
Which, you know, reminds me of an old and very funny commercial…
So why is there death in the Star Trek universe? Why does anyone die? Oh sure, it might be expensive, but with that kind of magic technology at your disposal, death and disease should be virtually unknown. So why isn’t it? So long as you have a person’s buffered data, and we know it can last in a buffer without being saved to some storage medium for decades or more, why can’t you just stick a sick person in a transporter and have it interpolate the healthy DNA and simply recreate the person without cancer or without disease? Heck, why not send everyone through the transporter on their 20th birthday? Keep the buffer records saved somewhere and when you get old, send you through again, pull out your mental patterns, reintegrate them with your 20-year old self and you’ve got a fully-educated modern-day you with a 20 year old body. No disease, no death, no hassle. So why doesn’t it exist in the Star Trek universe? Because it destroys the story so they just don’t talk about it. Nobody stopped to think when they wrote the three episodes above how their story would impact the overall Star Trek universe.
But I do. I know what the ramifications are when one piece of technology is mixed with another. In fact, I’m looking for interesting interactions that I can make plot points out of. If something can be a horrendous mess down the line, I change it from the start so that those interactions cannot happen. I put in the time early in the process so I don’t have the headaches down the line. I actively try to break my universe and I enlist lots of smart friends to help me. More than helping me proof-read or read for content, I have people read for continuity. I want them to point out potential problems so I can head them off at the pass. I care that much about what I write, even though I don’t get paid for it. Why don’t people who do make a living at it give a damn?