Writer's Workshop

Writing Tips

I’m reposting this from an article at eco-fiction.com and will pin it to this site for a while. Feel free to suggest other tips. Thanks!

Based upon talking with many authors in the past four years, and spotlighting their works, I have come up with writing tips. This review also reflects the writing topics accepted at Dragonfly.eco, which consist of literature about the natural world around us, including ecosystem risks like climate change. How do you write what might be considered advocacy in fiction without preaching? How do you tackle something like climate action in fiction without being didactic? Should fiction be prescriptive at all? How do you even write tips without acting like it’s some kind of manifesto? This is not that, by the way. These tips are open-ended, free to add to and explore.

But one fairly logical thing I’ve realized over and over is that story impact is greater than author intent, which leads to tip number 1:

Writing tip 1: Be creative with intent. Tell a great story first and don’t preach it.

Art is art first, not political nor cautionary. If the follow-through happens, so be it. I like what Nancy Butts writes in “Perils of Preachiness“:

Arthur Levine, the Scholastic editor who brought Harry Potter to the US [said], “I don’t feel that a writer should focus on trying consciously to empower kids per se. Empowerment happens as a side effect of reading; therefore, what a writer needs to do is write a darn good book.”

But writing about climate change is tough. It has been described as a hyperobject by Timothy Morton:

Entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place. Morton explains what hyperobjects are and their impact on how we think, how we coexist, and how we experience our politics, ethics, and art.

As the LA Review of Books eloquently put it: “Hyperobjects are pervasive and don’t allow you to rationally divide and resolve them with our human artifacts called Science and Art.”

Writing tip 2:  No matter our intentions, whether to warn, give hope, or frighten, our stories won’t resolve a hyperobject problem. It might help, for the story’s sake, to look at one portion of the hyperobject by zooming in on that more recognizable aspect, such as what Barbara Kingsolver did by looking at Monarch butterfly migrations being changed due to climate-change-caused flooding in their normal Mexican habitat—in Flight Behavior. She didn’t stop there, of course. She also wrote a story about human relationships and the slow passage of older ideology progressing to a more scientific viewpoint.

Some tend to see climate change in fiction as a separate subject/genre rather than an integrative reality. (This spotlight series explores climate change in fiction but is not prescriptive with genre labels.) As James Bradley wrote in the Sydney Review of Books:

Instead we should begin to think of these new literatures as the embodiment of a deeper transformation, no less profound or pervasive than that engendered by modernity itself. They are, I would suggest, better understood and described as the embodiment of a tangible condition, perhaps one we might describe as post-naturalism, or the post-natural. Or, as McKenzie Wark quipped a while back on Facebook, all fiction is Anthropocene fiction now, some of it just hasn’t realised it yet.

What we’re seeing in the modern era is that authors are blurring old genres. Old literary devices are evolving. Like my colleague Michael Rothenberg wrote in the foreword to the Winds of Change anthology, “Science fiction is now a love story.”

Writing tip 3: Don’t get hung up on genres, and don’t write to fit a genre. Various genres are valid for climate storytelling, and modern digital systems catalog using metadata, which captures many ideas at once. Break free. Dance out. Blur genres. Climate change is not a separate aspect of our reality; like Margaret Atwood said, it’s everything change.

There’s also the issue of climate change being seen as a disaster issue that we can solve. If you recall my spotlight on Ali Smith, I quoted the insightful article in The Nation, which argues that novels depicting climate change often borrow from the disaster genre, which has a rigid narrative. And that, second, viewing climate change as a disaster event limits it to something that is a technical issue, something that can be managed. The article points out that climate change storytelling often depicts one or more apocalyptic events, when, in reality, global warming is a “war of attrition whose consequences have accumulated slowly enough to be almost imperceptible and through the repetition of millions of individual actions.” And, instead of looking at the disaster as something technical, it is really “an existential question that concerns us all.”

Writing tip 4: Stray from the rigid narrative. Disaster is not always solvable, and writing about climate change can result in a story that notices nuances and subtleties of change instead of all-out apocalyptic disaster events. Recognize the “war of attrition” and don’t be afraid of tackling the subtleties rather than big blockbuster disasters, which are common tropes.

Speaking of disaster, my interview with Cory Doctorow, on his novel Walkaway, brings up one bright side of disaster, where he said:

We have a narrative about how disasters unfold, that when they occur people turn on each other and attack each other and loot and pillage. It’s a widely accepted idea and is something that appears a lot fiction too. It’s often a lazy trope of fiction, that a breakdown in technology or a natural disaster immediately spurs a breakdown in civil order. But as Solnit shows, by examining contemporary first-person accounts from these disasters, by and large, people are incredibly good to one another in times of crisis.

Writing tip 5: Be careful to not write lazy or clichéd disaster tropes and, at the same time, don’t forget about redemption and the “best in people”. Look at disaster in all its layers. Don’t forget the human story and conscience.

Moving away from disaster tropes, let’s look at nature and science and biology in all their wildness and beauty and mystery. When I interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, we talked a little about author intent and, on the other side, the building of story—in this case within weird fiction. He said:

These are in a sense transitional forms, between animal and plant, that are incredibly complex and which we don’t quite understand in all of that complexity just yet. So often it’s not that you go out to explore ecology through weird fiction, but that the weirdness of the real world suggests certain impulses in your fiction. The Southern Reach is just the most personal exploration, and thus the dark ecology content probably is more intense and more front-and-center. This is largely because the setting is highly personal—North Florida wilderness—and certain elements, like the (at the time) seemingly endless spiral of the Gulf Oil Spill that kind of took up residence in my subconscious.

Reading VanderMeer’s fiction is like entering a new realm. His fiction reflects the natural world—much like the organisms writing on the tunnel wall in his Southern Reach novel Annihilation. He dances into the weird, the horror, the literary, the science fiction, and the fantastical–meanwhile staying literary and contemporary in the sense that the hyperobject is a moving thing, spatially and temporarily. And his stories are becoming movies and making best book lists. When the New York Times reviewed Borne, it stated:

This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the 21st century will be as good as any from the 20th, or the 19th.

Writing tip 6: Get wild, reckless, and breathtaking in your descriptions. Go on a word hike. Get to know the natural world around you and bring it into the story in such a way to exalt it, explore it, and examine it. Bring the uncanny incredibility of natural ecosystems into the story. Don’t be afraid to use allegory. You can write about science without regurgitating facts. Blow your readers’ minds and give nature the reverence it deserves. Eco-fiction, by definition brings the natural world into the story, not just as an aside. Wilderness and environmental objects become characters, plot movers, and necessary elements for the story.

The hyperobject moves temporarily and spatially and isn’t one thing but many. Climate change is also a crisis of our human condition, and in it we may find an alien world, a haunted world, a charnel ground, a world of unrecognizable change.

How do we get our minds blown but still find something we can relate to? At a Climate Change and Storytelling panel I sat in on this Earth Day earlier this year, at the West Vancouver Memorial Library, it seemed overwhelmingly true among the panelists that the way to reach readers, about any subject—climate change notwithstanding—is through their hearts. My spotlight on Peter Heller showed how his story succeeded in doing this, because, damnit, you laugh and you cry when reading it. You love the main character Hig.

Writing tip 7: Write stories that speak to readers’ hearts. Build something readers can relate to and empathize with even if you traipse through an alien forest. Redemption and heart-warming tales can exist in even the most dystopian worlds. Don’t be a robot giving lip service to an issue like climate change that is overwhelmingly worth deep exploration.

Which brings me to a discussion I’ve run into often—do we have to have hope? Is it better to write utopian or dystopian stories? I’ve written often that these two realms overlap, that the utopian is a world we want and dystopia is a world we do not want—but within utopia is often a burgeoning evil and within dystopia is often a gang of misfits fighting evil–the latter also being preferable. In my talk with Cory Doctorow, he touched upon this with the following statement:

If the most ready stories we can call to mind when contemplating a disaster are the stories of our neighbors coming for us, then it’s likely to be the prediction that we make when things go wrong—and things always go wrong, even in a society that is as utopian as you can imagine, where everything works well, is well-distributed and robust and resilient and well-designed, and everybody is happy. Even that society is subject to exogenous shocks, you know, sun flares knock out the electronics and earthquakes make the buildings fall down and your belligerent neighbors invade and your microbes mutate and make everybody sick. And unless your society performs well when it’s failing, it really doesn’t matter how well it performs when it’s succeeding. So I wanted to write a utopian novel that was utopian in the sense that it was about a society that was failing well, not a society that was working well.

Failing gracefully is a beautiful idea.

Electric Lit recently published the article Ursula K. Le Guin explains how to build a new kind of utopia. Le Guin compares the two types of literature as needed, as yin-yang, with the idea:

Both utopia and dystopia are often an enclave of maximum control surrounded by a wilderness — as in Butler’s Erewhon, E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Good citizens of utopia consider the wilderness dangerous, hostile, and unlivable; to an adventurous or rebellious dystopian it represents change and freedom. In this I see examples of the intermutability of the yang and yin: the dark mysterious wilderness surrounding a bright, safe place, the Bad Places — which then become the Good Place, the bright, open future surrounding a dark, closed prison . . . Or vice versa.

Writing tip 8: Recognize that opposites attract, that nature has a duality. That history and progress are often a tug-of-war between these two things. In literature, the same duality happens. There is no such thing as black and white, only varying shades of gray. Good literature is full of tension and drama, so the struggle needs to come forth in moving toward one shade from another. Dystopian and utopian tropes need each other.

Then there’s world-building. I have read some interesting  and intricate stories whose plots, on the surface, seemed outlandish at first, but whose authors were so successful at suspending my belief and drawing me into the fantastical or unbelievable that I came away mind blown. Take Brian Burt’s Aquarius Rising series. The series focuses on human-dolphin hybrids called Aquarians, who have built thriving reef communities among the drowned human cities along the coasts but are caught in an escalating struggle with human scientists determined to restore the continental wastelands at any cost. Human-dolphin hybrids? Okay. But it worked, in an award-winning way as well. And what about Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne? A flying bear in a biotech-infused, post-apocalyptic world with scavenging humans and another baby biotech creature named Borne, who grows and learns things and who is both adorable and scary. It worked, too, and amazingly so.

Writing tip 9: Be incredible in world-building. By incredible I don’t mean uncredible (because involving climate change tropes in fiction should involve a credible science as opposed to a “climate change isn’t real” kind of agenda). I mean suspending belief enough to establish tension, mystery, and love. The reader should end up loving the story. Love happens when the incredible happens. Remember that love can happen anywhere, even in dystopia. Love is the candle that lights the darkness.

Finally, going back to my first point, intent, I think all of us who write about climate change are motivated by environmental problems in our world, and though we should concentrate on telling a great story over being didactic, writing fiction that tackles climate change is part of an age-old tradition of writers who document the natural world through story and art, building on old myths and creating new ones, and taking part in the vast continuum of humankind’s ancient tradition of storytelling.

We worry about dwindling wild spaces and species. We’re concerned about ocean acidification and loss of coral reefs. We regret industries that contribute to global warming, such as cattle and fossil fuel industries, and those that deforest and pollute the soil, water, and air. That we have these concerns means we are awake. Our eyes are open. So intent is important, and so is the care and concern. This brings me to my final tip.

Writing tip 10: Read. Read a lot. Not only environmental literature but classic and contemporary fiction. Take notes of what works for you in a story. Figure out how to bring entertaining, informative, heart-warming, and other elements into your story by reading how it’s done in other stories you actually enjoy and are inspired by. If you need help with finding some of the best eco-novels throughout the ages, start here with our database or narrow it down by reading interviews, and spotlights on authors who tackle climate change in fiction. After you read and find out what works, create new stories and new myths using your voice.

Other References

The featured image was taken by article author Mary Woodbury on a trail run in British Columbia.

 

2 thoughts on “Writing Tips

  1. Robert

    Thank you, Mary, for the valuable advice that goes to the heart of what we’re trying to do. Tip #3, on genre issues, seems especially thorny for those trying to get ecology, nature, and wildlife fiction into the mainstream market. I suspect my experience with agents and major and mid-size publishers might reflect the struggles of other ecology writers: the market gatekeepers are not very responsive, or downright indifferent, to work that does not fit tidily into a specific genre. While I would agree that we shouldn’t get hung up on genres, we “hybrid” writers typically are left with narrow options: a long-shot acceptance by a small press (your Moon Willow, Ashland Creek, among a few other eco/nature publishers willing to read non-agented work); or we can go the self-publishing route (I’m told it now accounts for 30% of the market). It seems fair to say that most writers would still prefer to find a publisher versus self-publishing, in order to reach more readers and get on to the next project with minimal distraction.
    In writing tip #10 … read, read a lot, I’m reminded of a book that many of our ecofiction writers might find of interest: “Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction” by Jim Dwyer (U. of Nevada Press, 2010) who cites and summarizes 2,000 works of nature-based fiction published mostly in the last half-century. I would have blogged about Dwyer’s book some time ago, but as yet I’m not into blogging … At any rate, it’s a work that reinforces the idea that ecofiction comes in humungous forms and genres.
    Best,
    Robert

  2. Mary W. Post author

    Thank you, Robert, for your thoughts and book suggestion. I was sad to learn that Jim Dwyer has since died. One of his friends let me know about a year ago.

    On genre issues, I think some small publishers do have a niche for publishing this fiction, but larger publishers are starting to come around too. And I really think that self-publishing is a valid way to publish, more so than ever.

    Cheers and thanks again.

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