Writing What You Know, What You Don’t Know, and What You Know That Just Ain’t So

The current work in progress (66k words and counting) has taken me into very unfamiliar territory indeed – a few months ago I would have sworn black and blue that the only subgenre I was less likely to venture into than romance was military science fiction, and here I am writing it. Which has led to some musings on the whole question of writing what you know.

Now obviously, we genre writers don’t know what it’s like to pilot spaceships or cast spells or fight battles in powered armor, or any of the other staples of science fiction and fantasy. Some of us have experience in related fields – it’s no coincidence that a lot of the big selling mil-SF authors have military experience, or that their experience shows in their fiction. That’s one flavor of “what you know”.

I’m using a different flavor: since my characters are the descendants of a group of stranded Teutonic Knights (in space!), they’re organized along the lines of the Teutonic Knights. Their strategies have a lot to do with the balls-to-the-wall charge into battle and slaughter the pagan scum techniques their ancestors used, albeit updated for advanced technology and slaughtering slave-trading lizard scum instead of old-fashioned pagans.

The result, according to first readers who are getting snippets as I write, is different in a good way. This is the best outcome of writing what you don’t know in a genre or sub-genre you’re not intimately familiar with: you can potentially approach the familiar tropes with a fresh perspective (it helps that I’m not completely unfamiliar with mil-SF – just familiar enough to find some of the standard tropes a bit irritating *coff*NapoleonicWarsInSpace*coff*)

The worst that could happen is, well… The Handmaid’s Tale. Or certain science fiction or fantasy romances where the author had no idea how SF or fantasy actually worked and tried to reinvent that wheel, with hilariously awful results.

These are also salutary examples of What You Know that Just Ain’t So – particularly in the repeated insistence from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale that it isn’t science fiction because it lacks space squid or other tentacly things.

Clearly Ms Atwood Knows that SF is a genre of steel-jawed, blue-eyed heroes defending the Earth from the horrors of the tentacly monsters from outer space, and no doubt she’s seen any number of pulp covers along that theme. But SF is a lot more than just that. I mean, my evil monsters from outer space are reptiles, not tentacly things. So obviously they’re different (actually they’re not so much evil monsters as from a culture that is absolutely Not Compatible with ours, and isn’t likely to change any time soon. Or ever. But that’s another matter).

Silly asides aside, SF covers everything from grim dystopias through space operas with convolutions enough to put the average soap opera to shame to science fiction so hard if you hit it with a hammer your hammer would break – and absolutely everything imaginable in between, including space fantasy (and let’s face it, Star Wars is a space fantasy in space opera clothing) and things it’s next to impossible to classify. And what won’t fit in the very big SF tent sidles quietly over to the even bigger Fantasy tent where it orders some ale and pretends it always belonged there.

Honestly, I think of SF as a subset of fantasy anyway. It’s a subset that focuses on possible futures and (sometimes) scientific accuracy rather than on past or present and magical events, but it’s still fantasizing about things that don’t currently exist.

Anyway, it’s the things you know that ain’t so that will bite you. Every. Single. Time. And the only way to avoid getting it hilariously or horribly wrong is to keep an open mind and pay attention to the facts. Even if you don’t like them – or especially if you don’t like them. Because if you don’t like them, that can be a signal that they’re crashing into something you thought you knew and breaking your brain.

Welcome this and use it to learn. It’s an uncomfortable process, but it’s worth it.

132 Comments

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132 responses to “Writing What You Know, What You Don’t Know, and What You Know That Just Ain’t So

  1. A friend of mine who only knew science fiction from the movies was surprised to learn it wasn’t all super heroes and space battles. It’s tragic what people don’t know.

  2. Christopher M. Chupik

    “Clearly Ms Atwood Knows that SF is a genre of steel-jawed, blue-eyed heroes defending the Earth from the horrors of the tentacly monsters from outer space, and no doubt she’s seen any number of pulp covers along that theme. But SF is a lot more than just that.”

    You’re going to seriously confuse the Puppy-kickers, saying things like this. 😉

    • Mike Glyer

      That quote did leave me wondering how agreeing with Brad Torgersen could be regarded as a bad thing around here.

      • Is there a bell that rings somewhere any time the word “puppy” gets posted here?

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        I guess the urban legend is true: say “Sad Puppy” three times in the mirror and Mike Glyer will appear and leave passive-aggressive comments on your blog.

      • And that statement leaves me wondering if you actually read what Torgersen wrote.

      • Kate Paulk

        Actually, Mike, it’s really easy. Over here, we’re mostly able to accept that people might disagree with us. We disagree with each other a lot, but we don’t turn that into eternal hatred or anything like that. We just accept that what one person sees in the facts might be different than what someone else sees in them.

        It makes for a really interesting comments section, without much name-calling or other nonsense.

        Of course, someone who’s used to people who always have ulterior motives and spin and are trying to parse through to what’s really meant is going to have trouble understanding how we work.

  3. “The worst that could happen is, well… The Handmaid’s Tale.”

    Agreed, that is literally the worst that could happen. I mean, if I deliberately set out to write a worse story than that, I would fail. I don’t think I could hold that much ugly in my brain long enough to write it down.

    Maybe Margaret could top herself. I mean, being a Celebrated Literary Genius and all.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      And we’re getting a TV adaptation. So be ready for a million Mary Sue, Tor.com and io9 articles about how we’re one executive order away from Gilead. Joy.

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        “Trump-Era America is Literally Gilead!”

        “Melena is Literally Offred!”

        “Trump is Literally the Commander!”

        • I have made a concerted and deliberate effort to keep that particular book, its characters and plot -out- of my brainspace. I heard the general plot outline in a TV interview or some such, with Margaret blathering on about the Deep Meaning behind it all, and swore never to read it.

          Since then, I have lived in blissful and carefully maintained ignorance. Another Atwood Canadian Literary Classic I shall never experience, right next to the dusty shelf full of Marian Engel. Truly, I must be a barbarian.

        • Kate Paulk

          I’m too tired. I read this and wondered where the hell Offler the Crocodile God got involved.

      • Whee. Can you imagine a CBC production, with the appalling lighting of The Starlost? That would serve her right.

        Maybe they could get Kier Dullea to be in it.

    • Sadly, The Handmaid’s Tale is pretty much the most readable thing Atwood ever wrote. Her entire career since then has been an series of successful attempts to write something more obtuse and unreadable

  4. “And what won’t fit in the very big SF tent sidles quietly over to the even bigger Fantasy tent where it orders some ale and pretends it always belonged there.”

    Naw, it gets drunk and wanders between tents singing rude songs really loud. ~:D Woo hoo!

    • It goes to the desert, a moose for to find?!

    • TRX

      Compare how much money the top fantasy writers make to how much the top SF writers make, and it becomes apparent the SF writers aren’t in it for the money…

      • Unless they go indie. SF writers make more in indie. It’s almost as if the market, without push, favors SF. Who’d have thunk it?

        • SF writers in indie make more than SF writers in trad. Fantasy writers in indie also make more than fantasy writers in trad – once you throw out the outliers: J. K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, and the Tolkien and Jordan estates. This is a reasonable thing to do, because those outliers only come along once a decade or so, and we haven’t had one since indie publishing really became a thing.

          As for push: Every Big Five imprint in the genre thinks of itself as an SF publisher, not a fantasy publisher. And when they acquire a book for prestige value, and want to push it on the public to demonstrate their superiority to the illiterate mass of readers (yes, I know), it is nearly always an SF book and never fantasy. Where is the fantasy equivalent of Ancillary Justice?

          • “Where is the fantasy equivalent of Ancillary Justice?”

            Please, don’t give them ideas!

          • Nathan

            “Where is the fantasy equivalent of Ancillary Justice?”

            Probably in some Japanese light novel…

          • Tom, don’t make me give you a list. It’s just their fantasy tends to shade “horror.”

          • Also, you wouldn’t say they think of themselves as SF publishers if you ever tried to sell them SCIENCE FICTION, particularly space opera “That doesn’t sell. Fantasy sells.”

            • Hrmm… Tales of the Space Unicorns ?

            • “SCIENCE FICTION, particularly space opera”

              I just finished reading all of the Expanse books. (There are three more planned, even, though the six books out have a decent resolution.) That obviously sells, and it’s obviously space opera. It apparently hasn’t twigged to these folk that a well-done space opera that has its own TV series* proves that space opera does sell, as long as it is done well.

              *The TV series is produced by the folk who wrote the books, so even with the significant variations between the book and the adaptation (of which I approve, because it translates better to visual with the changes), they kept the sense of the characters true enough that it feels right.

              • Draven

                The people who write the books aren’t the only producers, they have (several) experienced producers doing a lot of the day-to-day producer work. ‘The authors are producing it’ is practically an urban legend at this point.

                • True. I understand that but didn’t make it clear. I think the experienced TV types are why it’s made the transition so well, and the authors are there to make sure the characterization stays true.

                  • Draven

                    Sorry its a particular peeve of mine because a lot of people talkign about the expanse and to hold it up as a model for indie production are purposefully ignoring the experienced producers and/or acting like they are unnecessary, despite the sheer number of them the show has.

            • Of course they don’t want to sell space opera. That won’t win them Hugos and Nebulas, or get them fawned on at the right sort of cocktail parties.

              There is a foolish belief that science fiction is Hip and Intellectual and Demanding, and fantasy is all rubbishy prolefeed. (Frankly, Ma’am, you sometimes talk as if you shared this belief, and this thread has been one of those occasions.)

              In Texas in the old days, a rancher who had two cows and a hundred sheep called himself a cattleman, not a sheep rancher, because cattle ranching was an honourable profession and sheep ranchers were dirty Mexicans who destroyed the range. Publishing imprints label themselves ‘SF’ for reasons of prestige, not for money. But that chasing after prestige likely causes them to publish more> SF than they would if they were solely in it for the money. They’re just very bad at picking SF that will actually sell, because they’re not picking books for that purpose.

              • Eh. you’re reading too much in what I say. TEMPERAMENTALLY I prefer Science fiction. I was raised on Heinlein. I don’t think EITHER genre demands more than the other.
                There is an incredible amount of SJW rubbish in both sf and fantasy. And there are good works in both genres. Right now, market wise, fantasy is overserved with readable stuff, and sf underserved. So there’s more money in indie sf.
                Me, by preference, I write sf, though I get ideas for both. You have to excuse me, though, having been kept from writing SF for several years because “sf is done” if I question your premises. I mean, I actually worked for three houses over 15 years and know what I was told

                • I was kept from writing at all for many years because ‘fantasy is done’ (unless it’s urban fantasy with lots of teen werewolf porn). I, too, know what I was told. And I did not need to be inside the industry to see which books they pushed hard for prestige reasons, and which ones they would have preferred to sell in plain brown wrappers.

                  • Ah, yes quest fantasy etc was “done”. I’m not going to defend the crazy of publishing. I’m just going to say that when it comes to science fiction we were told (even by Baen, even now) that “it just doesn’t sell.” Prestige ? Maybe. But I’m in this to make a living. And neither you nor I will ever be prestige. Wrong politics, m’dear.

                    • A handy guide is to assume anything that’s fun, popular and selling well will be declared “done” and “we can’t sell that” by traditional publishing. Hence, quest fantasy and space opera, for instance. (This is not helped by the fact they think Ancillary Noun is Space Opera.) This is often facilitated by their first publishing everything that comes in with that classification, and because they think ludic literature is beneath them, exerting no quality control whatsoever. They’re now declaring Urban Fantasy is done, partly because they never got that UF and Paranormal Romance were not the same and also because they published a lot of porn under both of those classifications.
                      BUT the advantage of indie is that they are NOT capable of shutting off spigots and in fact leave large areas of indie opportunity in the wake of their insane edicts.

                    • Matthew

                      UF dead?

                      Heh, somebody tell Jim Butcher that.

                      Yeah, that ought to be an amusing conversation…

                    • I am published with a small press that *specifically* doesn’t care about genre. Their goal is to publish books that aren’t good fits for the current publishing genres—hence my no-magic YA fantasy (which would properly be called “medieval romance” if the “romance” bit would not be wildly misinterpreted), my friend’s paranormal urban romance based on fairy tales, and so on.

                      The idea is to sell these things to the proper markets. The publisher has already indicated my book is going to be prominent when she goes to Renaissance Faires…

    • Somewhere I was reading a history of military songs, specifically “Stand to Your Glasses Steady,” and the writer (late 1960s folk music type) mused that in a few centuries, somewhere in space, some crewman would get drunk and sing an updated version on the PA system of a starship, and everyone who could get away with it would join in on the chorus. “Now stand to your glasses steady/The world is nothing but lies;/Here’s a drink to the ones dead already/ and a cheer for the next one to die!”

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      There are lines running from one tent to the other. Sheets hang from these lines.

    • Kate Paulk

      That’s after it’s ordered the ale and enjoyed it a lot.

  5. Regarding Military Science Fiction–does anyone else get tired of the “Clueless Kid Goes To Boot Camp And Gets Yelled At A Lot” scenes? Sure, it worked in Starship Troopers, and Sgt. Zim was a fun character, but it seems to me that a lot of authors feel the need to put in a similar scene just because it’s expected.

    Yes, I understand that going from a civilian to a soldier is an important life transition, but so is getting married and I don’t see authors who write about married couples feeling the need to write a wedding scene.

    Maybe I’m completely in the minority here, and I do realize that it isn’t every single Military Science Fiction novel, but it just seems that a lot of them, usually around about chapter three, put in a “I remember my first day at basic….” and my eyes glaze over and I think, “This again?”

    • The vast majority of David Drake’s novels refrain from such. Most of Weber’s works are missing such, though a few do have short stretches of such. I don’t recall much of that in Amanda Green’s mil-SF series. Paul Honsinger’s space opera was free of such, IIRC.

    • Its the Hero’s Journey. Plus, every American who’s been in the military went through it.

      Some of us have a different reaction, of course. The Canadian Forces doesn’t really do it that way. Their basic training is a lot more running and pushups, a lot less mind-games and pointless horseshit. You do what the Sergeant says because that’s what you’re supposed to do. If you argue, or you’re an idiot, they send your ass home because you’re fired.

      Being sent home from the Forces is a life-long disgrace. It’s like having “loser” branded on your forehead.

      Canadian military never had conscription, so everybody who’s there wants the job. It’s also SMALLER. So much smaller. The New York National Guard has more guys in it, I think. Very different institutional atmosphere from the USA version.

      • Yeah, but you guys have that martial art that tries to kill people in seconds, and you invented blitzkrieg in WWI, with all those motorcycles and stuff.

        Americans just want peace and quiet, unlike you bloodthirsty Canadian killer types!

        (That ought to keep the thread busy….)

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          The Great Enemy to the North!

        • The Germans discovered the folly of annoying people whose national sport is ice hockey. Twice. One wonders about the Germans, sometimes.

        • Matthew

          Look up the origin of the word “stormtrooper”

          We do occasionally rock..

        • I might have fallen for this seemingly frivolous comment a few months ago, but now I’m reading a book about how fighting with our ancient enemy Canada shaped the American way of war. Pretty amazing stuff, actually. It’s called Conquered into Liberty.

          • The War of 1812. The Battle of Stoney Creek happened not that far from Chez Phantom, and the Cayuga court house still has the cannon out front from when it used to be a fort guarding the Grand River.

            American historians have a tendency to skip over the part when the British Army (Canadians) burnt down the Capital and a portion of Washington DC.

            Of course Canadian historians like to skip over where colonial troops from the 13 Colonies took the “untakeable” French fortress of Louisbourg. That happened in 1745, and was one of the major causes of the Revolutionary War.

            • There were many times when this American would gladly have invited the Canadians back to D.C. for a repeat performance.

              • Kate Paulk

                Like the last 8 years?

                (is an equal opportunity offender. Will take the piss out of anyone, anytime)

            • Robin Munn

              Heck, I mostly found out about it because of the comedy song by Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie:

              The White House burned, burned, burned
              And we’re the ones that did it!
              It burned, burned, burned
              While the President ran and cried.
              It burned, burned burned,
              And things were very historical,
              And the Americans ran and cried like a bunch of little babies, wah, wah, waaaah….
              In the War of Eighteen Twelve!

              Note: I typed that out from memory, and got only one thing wrong. In the line “While the President ran and cried”, I had written “Americans” instead of “President”. Great song. In fact, why don’t I give you a link so you can hear it for yourselves:

              • When I was a kid, we still had dramatic pictures of the Burning of the Capitol, or of Dolly Madison saving the treasures of America. When I got to high school, that was not a thing anymore.

                When my dad was a kid, though, it was a thing to talk about the Massacre at the River Raisin, whereas now the term has been scrubbed from Wikipedia. (How can you find information if the correct search terms are scrubbed from memory?)

      • mawz

        Just to be correct, Canada has had conscription during both WW1 and WW2. It in fact caused major political crises in 1917 and 1944 as the Anglo’s supported it while francophones were very opposed.

      • Draven

        ‘the Canadian military never had conscription’

        Except during World War I, and World War II.

    • Luke

      There’s comedy gold in them thar hills.
      Boot camp sucks, it’s a major inflection point, and it’s also frequently absurd. Or exhausting. Or frustrating. Or all of them all at once.

      Better, it’s something a decent percentage of the population can identify with that will automatically make the character sympathetic for them. And since we all have our own stories from boot camp (and it’s largely an unknown but weird and scary place for the rest of the population) there’s an extra layer of willing suspension of disbelief in the mix.

      • Meh. Half of them also have the MC mess up and get someone killed. Stay in by the skin of their teeth. It’s hard to do in a fresh new way.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      I think Kratman had something to say on the subject. IIRC, lots of people do the basic training, but few people have the background to do a really good job depicting the advanced training.

      There’s a fair amount of stuff that no longer works for me because it tries to cover the same things as Kratman and falls obviously far short.

      • Tom Kratman

        I’m a tough act to follow, military training-wise or writing about military training-wise. That’s not arrogance; it’s God’s truth.

        I am going to be doing a presentation at Libertycon this year on how to do the one so you can do the other. This one I hope to get recorded so we can podcast for the enlightenment of the great unwashed.

        • Kate Paulk

          Ooh. This great unwashed really hopes you can do that because (sadly) Libertycon isn’t in the plans for this year.

      • Luke

        Also, it’s that more advanced training doesn’t normally lend itself to ridiculous or exaggerated stories.
        Sure, I have stories from SOI, but the ones that are entertaining aren’t accessable, and the ones that are accessable aren’t entertaining. (I also have some that are neither. It turns out that mile 14 of humping a crew served weapon is the perfect place to geek out over metamorphic rocks. Who knew?)

        Heck, I could describe the distorted photocopies of photocopied maps (which weren’t accurate in the first place) they issued us, but I can’t make you believe it. Trying to force the issue would kick lots of people out of the story.

        • Tom Kratman

          Amazon Legion, when Maria is handed a doctored map.

          • Luke

            It’s somewhere in the pile.
            Fortunately, the pile is mostly digital, so I need not worry about getting physically buried.

            Was there some ulterior motive to that crap, just sadism, or rank incompetence?
            I’d studied cartography before signing up, had spent much of my life wandering in the wilds, and had astronomy as a hobby, so I was permanently stuck as squad navigator. I mustered out almost 20 years ago, and I *still* want kick someone’s *** over the crap I regularly got handed. (S-3 thought it was absolutely hilarious when I tried to bribe them to get something better.)

            • Tom Kratman

              No, it’s neither sadism nor incompetence. When you’re selecting people for combat leadership, and the selection means they either do get the training, position, and life or death responsibilities of leadership, or they do not, then it’s very important to select out people who are easily discouraged, or cannot improvise, or lack determination, or simply don’t really want it that much.

              • Luke

                Excellent commander’s intent.
                That requires a hell of a lot more supervision.

                😉 I say this as a terminal Lance who heard the explanation “Because we know you’ll make him look good.” entirely too many times.

                • Tom Kratman

                  Not so much in quantity, but you need to bring a particular kind of commander’s intent to bear. Sometimes, you can’t even tell the troops the whys of the thing, but have to force it through and then let them figure it out later. That takes a _lot_ of will.

    • Perhaps the best treatment of that was to make it the main thing: No Time For Sergeants (1958 film).

  6. Hunting Guy

    No comment about The High Crusade by Poul Anderson?

    • Is that about the Libertarian quest to legalize weed?

      • Javahead

        No, it’s about extending White Privilege and Religious Imperialism to the stars, oppressing not just other races but other species – then brainwashing them enough that they’re *happy* about it.

        And – since the Normans, at least, were descendants of Vikings – it also embodied Anderson’s Scandinavian-Centric privilege. Or something.

  7. “I would have sworn black and blue that the only subgenre I was less likely to venture into”

    I misread that as “I would have sworn black and blue was the only subgenre I was less likely to venture into” and spent some time wondering what the heck is the “black and blue subgenre”… beatings and bruises? cops in space??

    In my defense, today’s caffeine is yet to come.

  8. Worse than The Fifth Season (see my review in Tightbeam, available on request)? That sounds…challenging. Mind you, I have read Pel Torro Galaxy 666, and in my opinion the Fifth Season was worse. However, amusing aside, when the Puppy Kickers gave The Fifth Season the Hugo, they gave the Hugo to a piece of MilSF. Better yet, superhero MilSF.

    • The Fifth Season. I bounced -hard- off the cover blurb. Opinion confirmed on the first page. Looked no further.

      WorldCon awarding that the Hugo was 100% inevitable, and everything Sad Puppies has been complaining about. I though the wooden assterisks were a particularly apt cherry-on-top. The best part, they thought they were making fun of -us-.

  9. I am perfectly happy to have “The Handmaid’s Tale” _not_ be considered SF/F. Really.

  10. Hey, if we matrix what you know, what you don’t know, and what you know that just ain’t so with what your reader knows, what your reader doesn’t know, and what your reader knows that just ain’t so, we’d have nine boxes to fill! Room for almost everything!

    • Nine boxen? It’ll all to come to noughts… and crosses.

      • Tictactoe! Sure, three in a row. Or we could try for bingo, but we’d need a couple more categories. Maybe what you might or might not know? A bit of uncertainty goes a long ways… it’s all zeros and ones to me.

        • BINGO? I know there is more acceptance and calls for ever more acceptance of non-traditional preferences and practices which doesn’t really bother me, but I suspect a BIsexual-only Non-Governmental Organization might just be considered discriminatory.

          • There was a farmer had a dog… then I was wondering what the rest of the song was. And there isn’t any? Just BINGO… yeah, stay away from government agencies. Even NGOs can be scary. Oh, bi NGO? No!

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