Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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The Writing Desk Post

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Here’s a post I guest-posted on Tony Riches’ fabulous blog:

I’ve long loved the science fiction classics, like Dune, Foundation, Rendezvous with Rama and Fahrenheit 451. But I didn’t start out writing science fiction. I began with fantasies, westerns, mysteries, thrillers and literary fiction, none of which I published. I’ve also written legal books, newsletters and articles for many years. Those pay the bills but don’t provide the sort of comfort a good piece of fiction does.

The Devereaux Dilemma didn’t start as science fiction, but as a philosophical novel. I was curious about what would happen if someone proved there was no God. I thought that would be a fascinating question to explore. However, most of the people I discussed it with hated the idea of such a proof, so I was forced to re-think the concept and eventually I transformed it into a futuristic story about the nature of religion and its place in our society.

I thought at first that The Devereaux Dilemma would be a single book exploring the question of faith, but I realized as I was writing it that I had a much deeper story to tell, something that required a trilogy. And I wanted to write it as science fiction because the very best science fiction serves as a commentary on the present. It provides us with a warning of where we’re headed, showing us possible futures if we don’t change our direction.

I also wanted to write realistic science fiction. Hyper drive and aliens don’t really interest me. I’d much rather explore where humanity is going, what we will be in fifty or a hundred years. We may be less than a century from the point where we can create humans of any sort we like. Already many of us have non-human parts in us or genetically enhanced parts. When do we stop becoming human and become something else, something new? When will our growing understanding of how the mind works allow for unscrupulous people in power to manipulate our minds?

With my background in legal writing, it would be natural for me to warn of what we might become in an essay or article that is grounded in facts and predictions, based on our collective history.

But one thing I’ve learned through all my years of writing is that it’s the characters who make the story what it is. Detailed descriptions of technology are meaningless without the connection to what is human in all of us. Reading statistics about the holocaust, for example, one can easily fall into a jaded mindset. The numbers are too vast, the deprivations too horrifying to fully grasp. Yet when you put that into the context of one well-defined life, you understand it much more completely.

Think about how deaths in faraway places hit us compared to the loss of a loved one. It’s never the same. Yes, it’s terrible that all those people were killed by terrorists in Syria or Iraq or New York City, but if you don’t live there, if you don’t have friends or family there, it doesn’t have the same impact as the tragic death of someone close to you.

That’s where fiction generates its power. That’s why a science fiction novel with great characters can have a much greater impact than gloom-and-doom predictions from some physicist or social scientist. We grow attached to those characters and root for them, agonize with their defeats and cheer their victories.

So The Devereaux Dilemma and The Devereaux Disaster, though occasionally dark, also offer up hope. The future is not completely dystopic in my writing. It is firmly grounded in a world much like the one we live in today, with good and bad elements. I want to show readers my vision because I want them to think about where we’re headed and if we should be moving in that direction. Forewarned is forearmed.

Writing Dialogue

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

There’s a real art to writing dialogue. You want it to have the feel of a real conversation without it actually being a real conversation. Real conversations are often deadly boring because of all the extraneous words tossed in (um, er, you know, but, see, like).

So what you really want is verisimilitude – something that has the appearance of being true.

You also want to, whenever possible, let the reader fill in the blanks rather than spell everything out. For example, Henry asks June: “Do you know where the suitcase is?”

June could answer, “Yes.”

“Where is it?”

“Over there in the corner.”

This is ponderous and unnecessary. Instead, have June answer, “It’s over there in the corner.” This tells the reader that June indeed knows where the suitcase is. It not only saves words, it saves deadly dull words.

Another trick to good dialogue is answering a question with a question. This raises the tension of a scene. You can’t do it all the time, but it can elevate your story. Now when Henry asks June about the suitcase, June can answer, “Where are you going?”

And Henry can say, “Why do you care?”

We as readers get sucked in to these kinds of conversations. We want to know the answers to these questions also. Take a little time with your dialogue; think about ways to make it pop off the page and your story will become much better as a result.

Outline or not?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Some writers outline. Others don’t. Should you?

One of the benefits of outlining is that when you begin to write, you have a framework that you only need fill in. You know where the story is going, who the antagonist is and how the tension/mystery/action will be resolved.

It’s easier to stay on track and work toward the conclusion you have already prepared when you’ve outlined it in advance.

One of the costs of outlining is that the structure forces the story in ways that might not be beneficial overall. For example, a character might encounter something that changes her, making her less likely to pursue the path you have set for her. How do you address that? Do you have her consider and reject it? Do you ignore it? Do you have her commit to the change? If so, how does that affect the story you pre-crafted?

One of the benefits of not outlining is that you have the freedom to explore your characters’ growth. When they encounter situations that change them, you are free to allow them to do what seems most natural and you don’t have to worry about how that will alter your ending.

On the other hand, a story that isn’t outlined can seem unfocused, as if it’s headed nowhere in particular. This approach can work well with a story that centers on character, but it generally doesn’t work as well in something like a mystery or police procedural.

Perhaps the best solution is to have a broad outline that lacks specifics – something that allows for character growth and change but still demands the resolution you intended from the beginning.

And of course nothing prevents you from changing the outline or the story. But you have to remember that if you do that, you need to go back and revisit all your characters’ motivations and all your plot points to determine if they’re still consistent. I hate it when an inconsistency (that character would never do that) pulls me out of my suspension of disbelief.

You should be doing revisiting the story multiple times anyway, so this doesn’t necessarily add a step. But it does require you to be extra-careful with your revisions. Happy writing.

Style vs. Substance

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Is it better to be a master stylist, with beautiful, flowing prose and a relatively limp story or a decent technician with a wonderful story?

Obviously you want both, but that rarely happens. More often, you’re reading a story and thinking it’s very well written; I wish the story were better – or, I love the story; I wish this author could craft a better sentence.

So what’s the answer? It depends on why you’re reading the story in the first place. If you enjoy the craft of writing, you’ll probably wish for the former, and if you just want to be entertained, you’ll likely prefer the latter.

I tend to be more intrigued by substance than by style. I’ve read many beautifully written books that go nowhere, and after a time I grow weary because nothing exciting is occurring on the page.

That said, something that’s all action but poorly written frustrates me. I want to shake the author and say, “This needs more editing, more revision, more clarity and better flow.”

Work at your craft; become at least a serviceable writer; then you can concern yourself with discovering a brilliant story – or, find a brilliant story and write it down; then revise it and edit it and revise it again, taking out everything that detracts from it until only the pure essence remains.

The most important part of any story

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The most important part of any story is character. You can have a wonderful idea, completely fresh and original, something that’s never been seen before, and if you can’t sell it with interesting, sympathetic characters, it will die on the page.

Too many authors are intrigued by landscapes and evocative descriptions, and yes, they have value, but without some sort of connection to a human (or human-like) character, they won’t grip the reader like they should.

My readers have told me they identify with Jeremiah Jones, not because of his amazing abilities, but because he’s worried about the same kinds of things they worry about, because he’s put into difficult situations and is forced to do things for the greater good that he wishes he didn’t have to do.

He’s a killer, but a reluctant one. He’s generally selfless. He’s intelligent, but not in an overbearing way. And he understands that he’s not better than anyone else. In fact, he believes he’s worse than most everyone else because he’s a killer.

But he believes in himself too and trusts himself to do what’s right. And he’s relentless. Once he starts on a path, he will not deviate from it unless further action will harm innocents.

When he makes mistakes, he owns up to them. He doesn’t lay blame elsewhere.

All these qualities help make him someone we can admire. That is the best hook any writer can hope for—a character who makes you care, who makes you want him or her succeed.

Negative vs. Positive Emotions

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It seems to me that most, if not all, negative emotions come from wishing the world was other than it is, while many positive emotions come from experiencing the world as it is.

Why is it so difficult to just accept the world without wanting to change it? Is it that so many of us are actively working to change it that we need to fight back against that unwanted change?

Optimism vs. Pessimism

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If you expect the worst but hope for the best, does that make you a pessimist?

And if that makes you a pessimist, shouldn’t everyone be one? Isn’t it better to prepare for the worst, just in case, rather than be completely blindsided by it if/when it comes to pass?

Thinking only positively seems to leave one unprepared for hardship, which comes for us all at some point in life. I embrace my pessimism.

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Every Breath You Take

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With every breath, our lungs take in molecules breathed by Jesus, Stalin, Ghandi, Hitler and Buddha, so each of us embodies the full range of human history – each of us needs to be aware of our place in the world and the impact we can have on others.

If we can keep that in mind, perhaps we can act a little nicer, a little more like the people we admire than we otherwise would. We need not descend to the lowest common denominator.

Write On! Radio Interview Transcript (edited)

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Edited Transcript from Write On! Radio Interview with Ian Graham Leask ~

IGL: This is the first book in a trilogy – what’s the ambition of it?

 SM: The trilogy essentially follows Jeremiah Jones and a society on the edge of collapse due to religion and disease. The first book – The Devereaux Dilemma – examines the question of faith in society, religion and self and what happens when that faith is tested. This is essentially a quest story. Jeremiah has been sent to capture Walt Devereaux so that the president can determine if Devereaux has created the bio-weapons he’s been accused of making.

 IGL: What inspired the book?

 SM: It’s interesting. This book didn’t start as science fiction, but as a philosophical novel. I was curious about what would happen if someone proved there was no God. I thought that would be a fascinating question to explore. However, most of the people I discussed it with hated the idea of such a proof, so I was forced to re-think the concept and eventually I transformed it into a futuristic story about the nature of religion and its place in our society.

 IGL: You pay a lot of attention to style and clarity. It’s not a literary style, not drawing attention to itself, but it’s very clear writing. I like that.

 SM: I think science fiction writers sometimes focus too heavily on technology. By the same token, literary writers sometimes focus too much on style. There’s a middle ground where you try not to let the style get in the way of the story. Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card are good at that. You don’t want to come up with a flowery sentence that pulls readers out of the world you’ve created. You don’t want them to say, “Wow, that’s a beautiful sentence. Now, where was I?” You always want to keep the reader trapped in the story.

 IGL: You don’t mess around too much with technologies. You use more implication and finesse. How long did it take you to get to that point?

 SM: It took quite a while. I learned over time that devoting too much space to descriptions of technology turns off readers who aren’t fascinated with science fiction. And all the great sci-fi writers of the past allow readers to supply imagery – people like Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein and C.S. Lewis. And I love that older science fiction, which I think my writing is closer to than the newer science fiction.

 IGL: There are two kinds of science fiction – one that’s reality based and one that’s more fantasy – yours is more realistic. Why did you choose to go that way?

 SM: I wanted to honor the laws of physics. It can be a little harder to do write in a realistic style in some ways because you don’t have inventions like ansibles that allow for instantaneous transmissions across light years. And those can be great because they allow the author to move the story along more quickly, but I also find them a bit distracting because they’re not reality based.

 IGL: Do you have any feelings about where we’re heading?

 SM: We have lots of potential problems – governmental and religious – that don’t seem to go away no matter how far we seem to progress. And we also see lots of disease-based science fiction. The difficulty is in knowing which obstacle will be the one that brings us to the brink of disaster. I chose to use a man-made virus, but there could be any number of other crises that could lead us toward Armageddon.

 IGL: Talk a little about Susquehanna Sally

 SM: She plays only a small role in The Devereaux Dilemma. But she (or he or they – we don’t know for certain who Susquehanna Sally is) is disgusted with humanity and wants to eliminate people from the face of the Earth. Her solution is to create a virus that will destroy the people who have been harming the planet.

 IGL: Tell us about Jeremiah Jones

 SM: He is the main character through all three books. What I like about Jeremiah is that, like me, he doesn’t claim to know what the answers are. He’s more concerned with the questions, whereas a character like Walt Devereaux believes he has the answers for humanity.

 IGL: How do you write about characters that are unlike you?

 SM: That can be difficult. But if you like the characters and feel passionately about them, it’s much easier to understand where they’re coming from and easier to put yourself into their point of view.

 IGL: You set the book partly in Minnesota. What was the appeal of that?

 SM: I placed it in a fictional area near Rochester. I thought it would be fun to set it in an invented area rather than an existing place. That allowed me to create a town (Crescent Township) that suited my needs without offending anyone or limiting myself with respect to the story I wanted to tell. The future books are not set in Minnesota. In fact, they get much more macrocosmic than this one.

 IGL: You’ve also written a number of law books. Is there a carry over from that kind of writing to this?

 SM: I’m always striving for clarity in my writing. The difference between the two is that in non-fiction, you always know where the story is going (what the court held or what the legislature enacted, etc.), whereas in non-fiction, I don’t know where the story is going to take me and that’s a lot of fun.

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