Five things I learned writing Advisor
Bestselling author Chuck Wendig runs a great website. And one of his regular posts is called “Five things I learned writing [book title].” Here’s a recent one. I would love to be featured on his site, so I wrote a piece about Advisor in the appropriate style and format and present it to you here (with the hope *crosses fingers and takes a deep breath* that I will someday be featured on his site).
Teague de La Plaine: Five things I learned writing Advisor
When things in deep space go sideways, a Recondo is exactly the sort of intervention you want…
A violent attack on a remote human colony. A corrupt colonial official. And a lone special operations advisor sent to uncover the truth and ultimately save the colony.
Chief Warrant Officer Rave Dekko, Space Force Reconnaissance Commando (Recondo), might be just the kind of warrior monk you want to see dropping out of orbit when things on-planet are getting out of hand. But what if the problem is of your own doing? Rave lands on a remote colony planet on orders to investigate an attack on the colony by indigenous creatures called skwatch. Believing the attack to be an isolated event, Rave soon discovers that human-skwatch interactions are more pervasive—and sinister—than he was led to believe.
Now he has two problems: prepare the colony for defense against the indigenous creatures, and navigate the political landscape where corrupt officials and unscrupulous colonists take advantage of every resource available. Ultimately, Rave and his rascally rule-bending AI starship have to sort out all the issues before the skwatch decide to attack again.
The best thing about writing sci-fi is that you can just make shit up. Sort of? You also have to write what you know. Because if you’re writing something scientific, for example, and you’re not a scientist (spoiler alert: I am NOT a scientist), you might stick your pen in your ear. Or cut off your nib to spite your quill? I lost my train there and mixed my methamphetamines. The point is this: even though you can literally make shit up in sci-fi, you still have to make up shit you actually know about (or could know about, based on your experience, intellect, and education).
*sigh* All that to say this: I’m a marine, so I write military sci-fi and Advisor is definitely a military sci-fi story with a very marine-like protagonist.
Stories are about people, even if they’re not human people.
While I am definitely not a scientist (just to make that crystal clear), I am a human (surprise!), with human experiences. And guess what? Humans in futurey sci-fi are pretty much like humans in the present day. Just with more…sci and fi. Anyway, I write military sci-fi with very human-like humans. With human-like wants and needs and drives and biases, etc.
Human stories are the stories people want. Every story and character archetype is built around human experiences. Without the human element, readers tend to have difficulty connecting and reading the story. Even in stories about aliens or robots or non-sentient deep-sea slugs, writers tend to drizzle humanness over the characters and environments in order to make the otherwise unrelatable characters and places easier to swallow.
We’re pretty much doomed to keep doing things over and over again.
This is where I found my rhythm in the story. Underneath the AI and the starships and the cool weapons, the humans (and the aliens, it turns out) are pretty much making the same mistakes people made a thousand years ago, a hundred years ago, and even today. And that’s actually great, because readers (human ones) can identify with these kinds of behaviors. Mistakes and failures (and good choices and triumphs too) resonate with readers.
I think everybody already knows this, so I won’t go into any examples. But, I have decided that everything I ever write from here on out will be about humans and the messes we make. (Don’t hold me to this.)
Size actually does matter. But not in the way you might think.
I struggled writing my very first novel back in 2015. You see, I finished the thing and it was pretty good. Needed revisions, of course. But the story was complete, there was some character arc going on, the pacing was good. And I liked it. But there was a problem: it was only about 25,000 words. Far short of the minimum 40,000 required to enter into the Realm of Novels. [cue diabolical laugh]
I spent nearly a year padding the book with scenes (which ultimately I thought were slow and boring) just to get to 40,000 words. In the end I made it, went through some revisions, and published it on Amazon. I even sold a few copies. Yay! I was a published novelist!
But I really didn’t like the book. And I was exhausted. So I took a four-year break, as writers do.
When I decided to start writing again (full-time, thanks to my sugar momma, er, wife), I really took a hard look at what I had done before. I sat down to write two stories I wanted to tell: the military sci-fi Advisor and a literary piece called The Sea at Sunrise. I had my rough outlines, knew where the stories were going, and just dove right in. It was a blast. I would work on one, then jump to the other to take a break. When I was done, I had two good, complete stories. And guess what? They were both around 20,000 words.
*bangs forehead on table*
Great, now I had another two years’ worth of writing left to pad the stories enough to make them minimum viable novels (MVNs—I just made that up [shrug]).
Then I had a thought. “Wait a second! Who says I have to write a novel?” I looked around and didn’t see anyone. Literally no one was telling me I had to write a novel (or write anything for that matter).
“Whaddya call a story that’s not as long as a novel?” I asked myself. “A short story?”
*searches for word count and book length on Wikipedia*
So, I’m not a novelist. I’m a…novella-ist? Novellist (with a double-l (like Bond: Double-L-7!))? Doesn’t matter: I’m an indie writer. And that’s enough. Write what you’re comfortable writing. Don’t listen to anyone. Even if literally no one is telling you anything, don’t listen.
There are no new stories. Just retell ones you like the best you can.
A lone gunman wanders into a Wild West town. Folks are mixed up with the Others who live over the ridge. The gunman helps sort things out in spite of the corrupt mayor (whose son is even more corrupt) and with the help of the local sheriff, who turns out to be a good dude. Together, the gunman and the sheriff help prepare the local folks to defend themselves against the Others, who have been wronged by the mayor’s son. The townsfolk prevail. The mayor and his son get justice. The gunman gets the girl, briefly. Then he rides out of town as the sun sets.
That’s Advisor. Only, it’s set in a human colony on a distant planet and contains lots of sci and fi. But it’s more or less the same. And I’m not ashamed of retelling a great story in my own way. What’s important is to craft your stories in your own voice and own them.
It’s the same with songwriting. The first time I went into a recording studio to make a record, one of the engineers was singing the theme song to the old television show, Cheers, as I played one of my tunes. It was remarkable. My song was certainly different, but it had enough similarity that he could more-or-less sing over it with the other melody. Not that I had copied anything, but there are only so many songs out there—just like stories. Just make it your own and run with it.
Don’t write for money. But know what your writing is worth.
We’re tempted as emerging writers to give our work away for pennies—or nothing at all. It’s a mistake—and a trap. It’s a trap! (Sorry, Star Wars moment.)
We spend hours every day over the course of years to create a book. We deserve to be recognized for that—and rewarded. I know, in the beginning it’s hard. Nobody knows us. The book isn’t selling. But don’t compromise your book’s worth. Do the research. Charge something reasonable, something approximating other books like yours. The only time you should be giving anything away is when you’re doing some sort of marketing campaign, or publishing on a free site to build readership, or trying to get readers to sign up to your mailing list.
So, put your eBook on Amazon for $5.99, and your paperback for $14.99 (or some reasonable amount). Let your email list know it’s out there. Tell everyone you run into during your day. And then start writing the next book. There’s no magic number, but around the time you have about a dozen good books for sale, people start to take notice. Especially if you’re out there promoting and talking a good elevator pitch to a coffee shop patron. Did I mix my morphines again?
*turns back to laptop and keeps writing…*
Teague de La Plaine is an indie writer and Chief Creative Officer at Storyslinger. He is a former Marine, merchant sailor, performer, and globetrotting, seafaring, adventurous rapscallion. He is the author of the Paranormal Activity Research Center books, the Space Force Recondo series, several standalone stories, and lots of short stories and songs.
He lives near the sea with his wife and their little rascals. And he’s still a rapscallion.
Teague de La Plaine: Website