Tag Archives: Scott Westerfeld

7 Writing Lessons from Scott Westerfeld

Cover of Uglies by Scott WesterfeldAs a writer, I’m always reading. When I can slow down enough to appreciate the art behind the book, I take mental notes. Here are some that made it out of my head…

Scott Westerfeld writes SF&F for a YA audience. His stories are fast-paced, action-focused, and very YA-minded — not at all like what I write, and not what I read most of the time. Which means they have something to teach me. So I’ve just finished reading one of his SF series — Uglies, Pretties, and Specials. (Yes, I know about Extras. More about that later.) Here’s what I learned.

(I’ll flag any major spoilers, but not minor ones.)

1. Start late, end early.

Westerfeld will often start a scene by jumping right into a conversation or an activity. The reader has to wait for a page or two to learn how his POV character, Tally, got there from the last scene or what happened in between the two. I tend to include transitions at the beginning and/or end of scenes to orient the reader, but now I see they’re not always necessary. And he’s careful to make the scenes emotionally engaging right from the beginning, so the reader is swept along instead of trying to puzzle out what just happened.

2. Use ALL the senses.

You’ve heard this before — don’t rely just on sight and sound if you want to create a vivid scene. Westerfeld is really good at this, especially touch. He’s always describing the experience of heat or cold, aching muscles, or the feel of wind against Tally’s skin. That makes each scene and setting come alive.

3. To speed up pacing, try writing scenes that span multiple (short) chapters.

You try putting a book down in the middle of a scene — it’s almost impossible. So writing chapter-spanning scenes makes a book fly by. Other tips from Westerfeld’s writing: minimize internalization and description, write short paragraphs, and of course, don’t forget the power of cliffhanger chapter endings.

4. When writing SF or F, don’t forget the “wow, that’s cool” moments and details.

Early in Uglies, we’re introduced to hoverboards — basically flying skateboards — and crash bracelets, which stop you from getting hurt if you fall off (by slowing your momentum). They’re just plain fun to read about. But Westerfeld doesn’t stop there. Hoverboards and crash bracelets come back over and over throughout the series, for different purposes and with different resonances. He gets a lot of mileage out of those two devices. At the same time, each book in the series introduces new technology to get excited about.

5. Make sure conflict has consequences.

#4 is important, but books are about characters, not cool details. Westerfeld is good at this too. (SPOILERS…) He makes Tally choose between her community or clique (represented by a friend, such as Peris or Shay) and her boyfriend, over and over again. The boyfriend usually represents the “right” choice, the moral one, the hard one. But whichever side she chooses, there are big consequences for her relationship with the other. The result is that by the end of Specials, we really feel like we’ve come a long way along with Tally.

6. Give your POV character a relatable, immediate goal, especially if there’s a reason your readers might dislike them.

(SPOILERS…) In Pretties, Tally has been brainwashed to be stupid, but she’s still worried about fitting in and being accepted as part of the group, and she keeps saying the wrong thing and being awkward — all very relatable problems. (It helps that the audience knows something Tally doesn’t: that she’s actually undercover and waiting to be rescued by the Smokies — a great example of dramatic irony.) There’s a similar setup in Specials, to great effect.

7. Know when to stop.

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t read the fourth book in the series, Extras. Why? Several reasons. (SPOILERS…) First, the end of Specials felt so final, so perfect and complete, I didn’t really want to disturb that feeling. Second, I peeked at the beginning of Extras, and it introduces a new POV character  sneaking out of her dorm, just like Tally in Uglies…and I feel like I’ve been there and grown out of that already, like Tally. Third, the situations and technologies in the first chapter seem like they’re going to revolve around different themes than the first three books, and they’re not themes that float my personal boat (YMMV). So, possible lesson here: know when to end a series (or a book). Though I will readily admit I might have stopped too soon…

(And, Extras notwithstanding, you can bet I’ve got Westerfeld’s steampunk series — Leviathan, Behemoth, and Goliath – on my TBR list!)

Your turn! Have you read Scott Westerfeld? What did you take away from his writing? Should I rethink my decision not to read Extras?

If you liked this post, you might also like 7 Writing Lessons from George R.R. Martin.

Defining Steampunk

Welcome to Media Monday! So far we’ve had one movie post and two book posts. This one will be…well, a little of everything, because we’re talking about steampunk.

What is steampunk?

See, there’s the problem. Where to start?

Jake Von Slatt steampunk computer

Photo by Jake Von Slatt, found via floorvan's flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/f7oor/564663403/

Steampunk is a science-fictional re-imagining of the 19th century. As you might imagine from the “punk” part of the name, it’s meant to be subversive. It asks the question, “What if the Age of Steam had unfolded differently?” The trick is that there are as many variations on that question, and as many answers, as there are people.

Some steampunks (i.e., people who “do” steampunk) focus on technology — What if the inventors and engineers back then had taken the steam engine and used it to create more than they did in real life? What would that look like? How would it work?

Others focus on society — What if the nineteenth century had offered more opportunities and power for women, people of colour (more), and other marginalized groups? What if the political or social maps were redrawn? What would that look like? What would they do? What would they wear? How would the events of the century unfold?

Of course, all of these questions — and the answers put forth by various people — feed into each other. They don’t exist in a vacuum; they exist in a dialogue.

The tricky thing about steampunk is that it’s not based on a single fictional world (TV show, or movie, or author, or what have you), the way most fandoms are, even though steampunk can be viewed as science fiction. In some ways it has more in common with a subculture based around music and fashion, like goth or punk — except that these lack the shared-world aspect that’s so integral to steampunk. (Giant disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know anything about this kind of subculture. I come from the science fiction and fantasy side.)

So what is steampunk?

For some people, it’s a subgenre of science fiction — Gail Carriger‘s Parasol Protectorate series and Scott Westerfeld‘s Leviathan series are probably two of the best-known examples of books, and there are movies and TV series that could fall under steampunk as well. Here’s a contribution by me — “Engine Dreamer”, a short story in which the British Empire has expanded to outer space. (Available free from Turtleduck Press.)

For some people, it’s a lifestyle and an aesthetic — they decorate their homes and dress up at every opportunity. Along with this comes the opportunity to (1) invent a persona that fits into an alternate 19th century of your own devising, a role that can be played at steampunk meetups and conventions and online hangouts (and another for Canadians), and (2) make items of both beauty and function, everything from retrofitted computers to elaborate outfits to many kinds of art.

For some people, it’s a musical genre born out of these personas and outfits. There are bands and hip-hop artists devoted to steampunk. I don’t know enough about the musical side to say whether there’s an identifiable musical aesthetic — if you do, please enlighten me in the comments!

One of the best, and most fascinating, things about steampunk is that it can be so many things to so many people. There’s a lot of room to play, which is glorious. It’s sort of a fuzzy set — or in plain language, “you know it when you see it”. But that also leads to frustration when you’re staring at the face of a person who has only just heard the term for the first time, and you don’t know where to start explaining.

If you’re familiar with steampunk, how do you define and explain it to others? What part of your understanding did I leave out? If you’re not familiar, did my explanation make sense…or at least make you want to know more?

You might also be interested in my follow-up post about steampunk books.