Monday, December 8, 2014

Voices From The Past 2: The wannabe sci-fi writer ... what it taught me ...

On my last article I was talking about how I've discovered a box of my old writing, and how looking through them has been an interesting exploration ...

What I was really excited about though were a set of old exercise books that I found which have various ages on them.  The oldest date back to when I was 13, and are my attempt to write a "story bible" for the universe of space opera stories I tried to write.  Those ones are pretty dreadful - they describe the Space Scout Fedaration, and a starship called Zeko (there are a lot of words beginning with "z", classic bad sci-fi).  The whole thing reads like such a bad fusion of Star Wars and Star Trek, that I had to check the cover to make sure it was my name there, and not JJ Abrams (nope, not a big fan of what he did in Star Trek, so not looking forward to Star Wars VII).

What interests me most is how different the style is now compared to then.  A lot of that change came from my first writing coach who was my mother who gave me feedback to get better.

I would see something in my mind, and I wanted to describe exactly what I saw, so another person would see the same.  But the problem is it was kind of dreary.

For instance, if I was writing Star Trek fiction, it'd be "the starship Enterprise moved into orbit around the planet.  It was a large spaceship some 300m long, with a large saucer front section which housed its many crew which connected to a large engineering cylinder which housed two large cigar-shaped engines on struts just behind the main saucer".  Ouch.

Thanks to my mum, I learned to let go of trying to cram that kind of detail into people's heads.  It's confusing - most people know what the Enterprise looks like, and in actual fact it's typically not that important to reading a story.  However I felt I needed that detail "just in case".  Really you don't - if your ship has been hijacked in engineering and your bridge crew need to battle down there, you can always have someone go "but Captain, the engineering section is 13 floors down, and we don't have control of the turbolifts" (obviously someone has a fear of stairs).  If you really need to, you can have someone explain something (as with that "13 floors down" statement) as a method to explain to the audience.  In Star Trek The Next Generation, everybody seemed to need to explain everything in this manner to Riker - he always seemed a bit slow on the uptake (and he kept wondering why they stopped offering him his own command).

Some of this of course came back during Let;s Test Oz, where we had a workshop on communicating with Joanne Perold and Carsten Feilberg.  The aim of the exercise was as a business owner I had to describe a Star Wars ship to my team, and they had to build it from Lego.  Yup - we were back in "describe the starship Enterprise" territory as above.

For the first round - describing Luke's landspeeder, I just played along - "it's a vehicle like a bath tub, with half way down sitting for two people behind a glass windscreen ... there is a rocket either side at the rear, and another one above on a strut".

In the second round, the subject was now a pod racer from The Phantom Menace.  This time I decided to using my mother's teachings - I'd not describe in detail, but I'd give an overall impression of it and "leave it to the team to be inventive".  We'd actually been on a tour of Weta workshops recently, and it seems when a director such as Peter Jackson or James Cameron ask for a prop, they tend to explain what it does, and overall look and feel, but the fine detail is left to the designer ... because he's a designer and designing things well is what he has experience of.

And hence I went to my team with this, "I'd like you to think of Ben Hur ... in space.  Imagine a sci-fi chariot, only instead of horses, it has these two massive, and I mean giant rocket engines.  And tethered behind is a small cockpit being dragged behind by the poor guy brave enough to pilot this thing".  The team loved the challenge, and what they built really looked amazing (damn that I didn't take pictures).

There is of course a point of this, and it links back to testing.  Throughout this year we've been discussing scripting - when it's useful, and when it's not, together with the question of detail.  A lot of people will say "include a lot of detail, because then it leaves nothing to chance".  But although you can read my starship Enterprise description and agree it's technically correct, at the same time it's just not very helpful at all.  On the other hand, Douglas Adams in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy described the starship Heart Of Gold as "a sleek white running shoe".   And I tend to think what was good enough for Douglas Adams ...

For me a real awakening came in 2003, when I happened to be in a test lab during UAT, and heard someone reading aloud a script I'd written in 2000.  I'd come off an automation project, and felt that "loads of detail = GOOD".  But hearing it, knowing I'd written it, my heart sank, because it was dreadful and overdetailed.  Knowing the system better now than then, about a third of the description was really necessary.

This is why we live, we learn, we do better next time ...

Yup - I really did think is just this much detail ... but did a reader really need to know it?

Yup - this was how I described the starship Zeko at first.  A couple of years later I'd got better, and described it as  "a large, city sized disk, bristling with so many terrifying weapons".  Which I bet you can read ...

Because if you're building a ship that big, you're not going to walk ...

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