Category Archives: Creativity

Writing Pitfall: Cool Solution Looking for a Problem

There are many ways that a writer can screw up their story. One that I am susceptible to is the “I have a cool concept, now I need a story to fit it.” or worse, “I have a cool solution. I need a problem to fit it.”

Why a ship? It’ll make sense eventually

The “cool concept” one is, I feel, far less risky and can be pulled off well. Here we’re talking about high concept stories like the classic Arthur C Clark stories Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End. In “Rama”, an extraterrestrial foreign body is tumbling through our solar system; let’s go investigate. In “End”, aliens have arrived to shepherd humanity to our next level of evolution. Both are easy to quantify and catchy pitches.

Even then, “Rama” didn’t offer a lot of satisfying conclusions, instead opting for a soft cliffhanger ending (literally, “wait, there’s more!”). I know many people were disappointed with Childhood’s End, but I’m not among them, and in some ways the disappointment seems generational.

But the “Cool Solution looking for a Problem” pitfall is one I’ve seen a few writers fall into, and it is a deadly trap. Here’s the problem with this approach. Your solution has to be either the only viable solution or the simplest. Otherwise when your readers come up with a better solution than your protagonists do, they will hurl your book against the wall.

I … speak from experience.

I’ll be vague here…

I read a book about a decade ago. It made me scream in frustration. I threw it against a wall, and later burned it in a fire pit. I’m serious.

Let’s take a non-book example, then get back to this book.

Someone has a cool idea for a movie and needs to brainstorm it:

Let’s put rough and rowdy oil field workers in space and have fun.

OK, how do we do that?

Maybe an asteroid is coming and NASA needs to blow it up? They need these guys to drill a hole for the bomb?

Couldn’t we just train astronauts?

No, no, no “it’s easier to train drillers to be astronauts than to train astronauts to be drillers” Really?

That doesn’t sound right.

Come on, it’s a movie. They’ll love it. How many viewers are going to be both experts in drilling and space? No one! We’re safe!

For the “Cool Solution looking for a Problem” to work, the experts in your story need to be smarter than your target audience, which means you need to be also.

Back to that infernal book…

Its cool solution was a huge space station orbiting Earth, with the elite of the elite surviving a disaster. The problem it wanted was all the political intrigue that would go into making it.

The problem that the author settled on was that biblical-level flooding was going to wipe out the Earth, covering it with water.

So, if you had a story where a known flood was going to happen (everywhere, so evacuation isn’t really feasible) what would be your first solution?

I’m sorry, Couldn’t hear you mumbling at the back of the class. Did you say, “boats?”

I know I did.

In fact I started imagining converting a PanaMax cargo vessel into a floating farm, with people living below decks, wind or solar as a source of power. Hell, a few thousand of these and you could save a decent sized city. (In this book, only a few hundred people would be allowed to survive on the space station).

Then think of all the smaller ships that exist and could be converted, like the tramp steamer pictured at the top of this page. With no land to go to, their engines don’t even need to be that great. You just need hulls with integrity to convert to little oasis of tenancies.

You could build a whole economy afloat, with smaller sailboats acting as fishing vessels. Scavenging the flotsam and jetsam of our society might be productive too.

In short, the technology to do this solution was much more feasible, mostly already existed, and would have allowed for an order of magnitude increase in the number of people who survived.

But in the story, NO ONE, not one of the ‘genius’ advisors gathered to ‘save humanity’, mentioned boats or ships as an option.

And that’s why that book got hurled and burned. I won’t buy another book by that author (caveat: I’m not sure I remember who the author was now). As a reader, they’ve lost me not only for that story but for all future outings.

And that’s a huge problem with a poorly executed “Cool Solution looking for a Problem”. You lose readers, not just on this one title, but on all going forward.

Author Brand Identity

I recently participated in an author’s workshop where a very well-established, multiple-title-best-selling indie author offered advice to the rest of us. One point in particular struck a nerve with me, because I’m not sure that it was good advice for me (I know, you ignore advice at your own peril), but it certainly got me thinking.

Image from Pixabay

The advice was to find a very narrow niche and write to it exclusively, to basically re-write the same story again and again (different characters and situations, but the same basic plot). “Your readers will love it. They’ll know what to expect when they buy one of your books.”

And I understand that as a marketing/branding idea: You buy a James Patterson book, you get the typical James Patterson story. There’s a template.

But there are many successful authors for whom this singular expectation isn’t true.

Robert Heinlein’s most successful stories were Starship Troopers (Military Sci-fi), A Stranger in a Strange Land (a very Kurt Vonnegut-esque discourse on religion and sex), and Friday (a cyberpunk story).

Frank Herbert’s follow-up to Dune was a book called Dragon in the Sea (re-released as Under Pressure), a World War III submarine warfare story. He also wrote books about human/alien interactions (there are no aliens in the Dune universe).

John Scalzi came to prominence with a military sci-fi series, Old Man’s War. His next most famous project was Red Shirts, a spoof of Star Trek. He’s written near-future medical thrillers (Locked In and its sequels) and flat out space opera (The Collapsing Empire). His next book is about kaiju (Godzilla-like monsters).

These very successful science fiction writers didn’t limit themselves to a narrow niche, and they didn’t lose their audiences by jumping around.

So maybe ‘narrow niche’ isn’t the way to build your brand and readership, in this genre at least. Maybe we get more flexibility if you don’t stray too far outside of the rather large SF/F arena.

Or maybe there’s another element to branding – be it voice, theme, or style.

Robert Heinlein’s stories often explored the status quo, the power structure behind society. Religion is an oft-repeated motif throughout the works of Frank Herbert. John Scalzi’s draw is his voice, a tone that is flippant, sometimes sarcastic, always light.

Then there’s Michael Crichton.

His books ranged from The Great Train Robbery (historical fiction) to Rising Sun (a police thriller) and Jurassic Park (sci-fi techno thriller). He also create the TV show ER and co-wrote the film Twister (yes that one, with Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt). Other than being entertaining, what’s his brand? He’s certainly not contained by a niche genre. Perhaps his brand is about exploring human interaction with (often new) technology.

Whenever writers on Twitter ask if it’s OK to write in more than one genre, I respond with the fact that Ian Fleming didn’t just create James Bond, he also created Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

That’s all well and good, but how does this help me? I don’t write in a narrow niche. What’s my brand?

I have thoughts.

The stories that I’m developing now or taking notes on to write later, range from a parallel Earth fantasy, a space opera, a military scifi, a time-travel series, a high fantasy and a techno-thriller. It’s a very wide niche, basically covering the whole spectrum of SF/F.

My stories can be situational (plot-driven) but are usually character-driven. So I (try to) write characters that you will care about and empathise with, flaws and all. Then I put them through hell, given them conflicts and conundrums and see how their morals adapt. Sometimes, I kill them.

I’d like to think that my stories reward a second (or third) reading, that elements and conversations that seem inconsequential early in the story pay off near the end, and a reader on their second pass would see the pieces more clearly.

Plot Threads versus Sub-Plots

Like many of my blog posts, this one comes from my Twitter feed (@stephengparks)

A question was asked about whether sub-plots were distracting, and it became obvious that we weren’t all using the same definitions of sub-plot.

Some stories, including one that I’m working on, have many threads of the same plot. This is different from sub-plots and I want to demonstrate with examples.

In my example, a team gets scattered and must work individually to re-unite. This is a multi-thread story, it’s not a sub-plot.

The Lord of the Rings includes a multi-thread story. The fellowship falls apart, gets scattered in an attack. But each member keeps doing what they can to ensure the outcome, each trusting that the others are doing the same.

For examples of sub-plots I would often picture a sitcom.

Let’s use an imaginary episode of Friends as an example. The main plot is that everyone is afraid of Ross’ pet monkey. it keeps terrorising them but only when Ross isn’t looking, so he doesn’t believe them until it turns on him too.

The sub-plot is that Phoebe’s twin sister is impersonating her and doing bad things in her name.

The two stories aren’t related (Aaron Sorkin refers to these as A Plot, B Plot and maybe even C Plot, each lower plot getting less screen time).

A well-written sub-plot can impact the main plot.

Again from TV, I’m thinking of Castle. In that show, there would often be a sub-plot involving his family. In some well-written episodes something that happens in the sub-plot triggers a realisation about the main plot, leading to the resolution (solving the crime of the week).

Often the only thing that plots and sub-plots have in common is that the resolve themselves in the same timeframe. But handled well, a sub-plot can inform the main plot, emphasising themes or revealing insights useful to the protagonist.

Can Cinemas Survive?

A forum that I participate in was asked the question, “This pandemic aside, are cinemas still relevant to our entertainment experience or has TV supplanted them completely?”

I … had some thoughts.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

From a technological perspective:
TV has caught up to and even overtaken cinema – TV screens are huge, Dolby and other cinema-quality audio streams are available, and streaming bandwidth and/or blue-ray allows for the delivery of better picture quality.

From the social perspective
TV offers greater flexibility in timeshifting, pausing, rewinding to catch a missed piece of dialogue. or continuing at another time. Theatre’s main advantage is the “experience,” which other than seeing a picture in a crowd, is also being improved upon by consumers watching TV at home.

From a content perspective:
Theatre’s exclusivity window keeps shrinking. So movies can be enjoyed at home sooner. Certainly, the pandemic has accelerated this, as studios have product they want to monetize and theatres can’t fulfill that desire.

As for the quality difference between movies and TV shows, that’s been dwindling for some time. For me, HBO’s Rome was the first indication that TV could supplant movies as the home of epic storytelling.

I think many studios are coming around to the idea that serialized TV is a better format than movies. Look at how characters like Jack Ryan are migrating from movie releases to TV seasons. Marvel’s various forays into TV series have shown them that the format was viable for something cinematic like WandaVision.

From the studio’s economic perspective:
Movie theatres aren’t owned by studios, so they have been until recently a necessary middleman between the studios and their profits. If the studios can build streaming services, then they own the middleman’s share of profits as well.

From a consumer’s cost perspective:
Taking a family to the movie theatre twice a month could easily set you back $100. How many streaming services (with massive libraries) could you sign up to for the cost of taking your family to see those two movies? Yes, buying the components of a home theatre are not insignificant, but they’re coming down, and it’s a sunk cost – this commitment isn’t only used for home theatre, it plays many other entertainment, informative, and potentially educational roles.

So for consumers, I think the shift from movie theatres to home theatre experience is inevitable. And I think studios realize it and are planning accordingly. If any of you are old enough to remember theatres before the megaplex concept, then you know that theatres have been losing audience for a long time and have been trying to reinvent the traditional experience.

However, we need to acknowledge that there’s also a socio-economic consideration here. While the price of entry for enjoying cinema is coming down, it’s still:
A) a good TV;
B) Broadband internet; &
C) The ability to afford streaming services or purchase Blu Ray discs and own a player.

Not everyone has the funds to support that kind of infrastructure.

Will theatres disappear completely? Probably not, but I would expect they’ll end up more like the DVD-bongs that thrived in Korea in the early 2000’s – a small room that you rented to view a movie with a hand-chosen audience.

Mass capacity theatres may be preserved for special premiers in select cities, or they may just join vaudeville as castouts of modern society.

You Can’t Tell Which of Your Stories Will Be Popular

I’ve written perhaps thirty short stories, at least as many dribbles (100-word stories), three full-length novels (in excess of 100,000 words each) and somewhere in excess of half a million words set within my own fictional worlds. Add on top of that my years as either a journalist, a copy-writer, or a fundraiser, and I’ve written a lot.

I want to tell you about three of my short stories and how their existences have been different from what I would have predicted. The stories in question are “Last Breath Day”, “Graceful Degradation”, and “The Maiden Voyage of Novyy Mir.”

When I wrote “The Maiden Voyage of Novyy Mir” five years ago, I thought it was the best story I’d ever written, and up to that point it may have been. I’ve submitted it to perhaps fifteen publications since then. (Each submission ties a story up for months).

This was the first story I wrote that got personalised rejections. What this means is that the magazine editors read it and seriously considered it. Then, when they decided not to use it, they still gave free editorial feedback on it. This is rare. But with Novyy Mir, it happens a lot. People like it, just not quite enough to publish it.

Three years ago, I wrote “Graceful Degradation.”

This story is such departure for me. It’s not easily categorised as science fiction. It’s a short story about a man reluctantly breaking the law in an attempt to honour his dead wife while living in a repressive society. I love this story. It’s still my favourite.

Just like Novyy Mir, it gets held for consideration and ends up coming back to me with kind notes from editors. The last time it came back to me, the whole editorial board (5 people) had offered individual feedback because they felt moved enough by that story.

Still, neither of those stories has sold.

In between these two, about four years ago, I wrote “Last Breath Day.” This is a very short story, about 1,300 words long. It’s good, but not my favourite by any stretch. Three years ago, in the autumn of 2017, I submitted it to an open call from a UK publisher.

They bought the story. It became my first professional sale and appeared in the Alien Invasion Short Stories anthology, published in March 2018 by Flame Tree Press.

Tall Tale TV

Shortly after that, it was picked up and record for a podcast, Tall Tale TV. (It’s episode 64).

Just today, it’s been accepted into another anthology, this one supporting literacy during lockdown.

That one short story, the middle child of my greatest hits (to date), has done so much for me:

  • It’s my first qualifying story for membership in the SFWA (Science fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Association).
  • It got me listed in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.
  • It got me listed on GoodReads
  • It got me listed (with a typo, grrr) on Amazon.
  • It qualifies me for membership in a couple of closed writers’ groups.

I still have stories that I love more, but it’s hard not to respect Last Breath Day, a story that’s done a lot of heavy lifting for me.

Dead Not Dead – a Trope that Needs to Die

This article contains spoilers for Jurassic Park, The Rise of Skywalker and The Last Emperox. You’ve been warned.

There’s a trope that appears in fiction that drives me crazy, but I’m not sure I don’t violate it myself. So let’s deal with some examples, then I’ll let you know what I’m trying and you can decide if I’m being hypocritical.

Many years ago, I read Jurassic Park before I saw the movie. There’s a mid-point in the story that everyone knows: the T-Rex attacks the jeeps for the first time. In the book, the narration keeps shifting perspective so that you never see the attack from the person being attacked, but from the eyes of someone else present. Because of this slight of hand, Crichton appears to have killed off four or five people, including the children.

At that point in the book, I thought, “wow, what a brave writer, killing the kids!” Of course they weren’t dead. He spent the next fifty or so pages revisiting the scene to explain how just about everyone you thought he’d killed actually lived (except the lawyer).

I was so disappointed.

Fast forward to 2019 and what would turn out to be a very disappointing end to the Skywalker saga. The Rise of Skywalker contained a scene at around the forty minute mark where we believe that Rey has accidentally killed Chewie.

Hey it was the last episode in the series, and Chewie had been killed once in Star Wars canon already (now “legend” and no longer canon) so why not be bold and do that? I was thrilled to see that moment with all its emotional impact on both the audience and Rey. Not two minutes later we learn that was on a different ship. Yep, he was dead, not dead.

I love Chewie, and feel that The Force Awakens was the best presentation of him as a character, but killing him in The Rise of Skywalker would have given so much more weight to the fact that this was truly the end of the journey, that everything was on the line (Esquire agrees).

To the present: So I’ve been reading John Scalzi’s The Last Emperox, the final book in the Interdependency trilogy. I honestly haven’t enjoyed it as much as the first book, and have been struggling to complete it. Then, Scalzi “kills” the second female lead. I was skeptical. He doesn’t often kill off characters, they tend to have too much plot armour*.

Sure enough, two chapters later, she’s alive. Her enemies have conspired to fake her death and kidnap her, although exactly why doesn’t seem to be clear or sensical.

Now, a little further into the book (I haven’t finished it yet) Scalzi appears to have killed off the lead female protagonist. I’m skeptical about this one, too**. She’d just been talking with a shape-shifting AI about giving it a more prominent role in the current crisis. Her funeral was a closed casket, Scalzi makes sure to emphasize this.

Yeah, I’d bet dollars to donuts that she’s not dead either.

And I’m getting tired of this.

– – –

Now let’s look at what I’ve done and see if I’m not the biggest hypocrite going.

Two of my second tier characters, let’s call them T and M, get kidnapped by a ruthless enemy. One, M, is graphically tortured in front of the other, T, dying gruesomely for the pleasure of said enemy. That enemy then looks at T and says, “you’re next.”

We never see or hear about T’s fate after that. Nobody even claims that he’s dead. He’s just missing, lost, presumed dead. However, in the sequel we learn that he was never tortured, but kept prisoner to be used as a bargaining chip.

I don’t think this fulfills the “Dead Not Dead” trope because he’s never seen as dead, just threatened with a very powerful existential threat of death by torture.

What do you think, am I being a hypocrite?


* Plot armour is the trope that you can’t kill the star of the show, no matter how grave the danger appears to be. It’s very common in episodic TV shows, and when violated, like the death of Lt. Col. Henry Blake in M*A*S*H, can be shocking.

** I’ve finished the book. No spoilers for this ending, as the book’s only been out a few months. The more I think about it the less I like the twist.

“Real” Writer vs Imposter Syndrome

Alien invasion by Flame Tree Publishing
I’m in this book

I’ve been writing for most of my life. That’s a number of decades, if you can’t tell from my profile picture. In grade school I told my teacher I wanted to write and direct a play. She gave me the go-ahead, but I never finished the play and it never happened.

In secondary school I started drawing my own comic books – more vignettes than full fledged stories. Our school didn’t have a newspaper, and frankly yearbook seemed less about creativity than sentimentality, so I avoided that too.

Then came university… Our newspaper wasn’t particularly open or inviting to people who weren’t part of the clique. So I started my own very sarcastic one-page newsletter, published whenever the mood struck me. That might be once or three times per week. It turned out that the school newspaper was making enough enemies that another group started a second newspaper, and one of the founders sought me out about joining it, as he’d enjoyed my one sheet newsletter. So I became an associate editor of a new newspaper, wrote sarcastic editorials, news stories, short fiction, and learned all about desktop publishing, back when it was new. Eventually I became the editor. Along the way, I also wrote and directed a play (finally). It ran for five or six performances over four days (I’m not sure if there was a Sunday matinee). It sold out the Friday, Saturday and Sunday night performances. And I started two different novels, both conceived as epics, one fantasy, one space opera.

So I must be a writer, a real writer.

I’ve written a play, some short fiction, many editorials and a poem or twelve. I’ve got two trunk novels in my desk and a bunch more under development. After university, I went on to be the editor of a weekly entertainment newspaper, a copywriter for hire, and a communications manager for an educational charity. I’ve had big name clients (think pharmaceutical companies, expensive cars, large financial institutions).

So I must be a writer, a real writer.

SpecklitI’ve had six very short stories published on a curated website, and one longer short story included in an anthology published in the UK.

So I must be a writer, a real writer.

So why do I keep saying this? Because I suffer from imposter syndrome as much as the next writer. And it sucks.

I don’t feel like a real writer. I feel like a wanna-be. A friend of mine recently said of my writing career, “It’s really more of a hobby, isn’t it?” I don’t think she knows how much that hurt.

Book in book store
For sale in my favourite bookstore!

I can counterbalance that with an experience I had last year. The UK anthology that contains one of my stories showed up for sale in my local bookstore here in Malaysia. There it is, a book with my story in it, for sale to anyone who walks in. I almost cried (seriously) it was such a re-affirming experience. Hell, that one story also got me entered into the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

So I must be a writer, a real writer.

Why don’t I always feel like it?

Fever Dreams

It all started with open-heart surgery.

Yes, an odd spot to start. I was the recipient of that surgery. Afterwards, lying in the ICU recovery room, a very uncomfortable tube stuck down my throat, I started dreaming, perhaps hallucinating.

In this dream was a young man, looking like a cross between Harry Potter and Matt Smith’s Doctor Who.

Tonally, it was kind of Peter Pan for twenty-year-olds. It was innocent and playful, and just a little bit naughty. Other stories that I could compare it to would be The Magic School Bus and Carmen Santiago, with some Terry Pratchett mixed in.

He was walking on air, feet not touching the ground, spouting weird little limericks and other poetry-stubs. A lot of them were about how Meghan Markle is misunderstood. Some of them were about her blonde friend. I tried to remember them, I did, but I had no writing utensils, no digital tools to record what was unfolding in my mind.

The tighter I tried to hold onto the memories, the more they slipped away (or were replaced by a new one). The common denominator was that they were irreverent and fun. As much as I can’t remember the details, I remember the feeling it gave me.

And in my head, there was a word: Spybrarian.

One of the first things I did after being discharged from the hospital was to register Then I started writing down anything I could remember, but so much of it was lost.

I may not be a good enough writer to capture the fanciful tone and fantastical elements of my fever dream, but I hope I am a good enough writer to recreate, as best I can, what it made me feel. And, of course, they won’t be about Meghan Markel. Instead they will be about his interactions with two women, a blonde historian and her friend who has a passing resemblance to Meghan.

Character Intro: Char Osbaldistan

I doubt it’s a surprise that I’m working on a book. I’m actually working on a lot of them – a duology, a stand-alone novel, a novella and a five-novella sequence. Oh, and a few short stories, too.

The five-book sequence follows the crew of a ship as they get into a series of escalating adventures. I’d like to introduce one member of the crew here. Her name is Char Osbaldistan, and when we meet her here (in a flashback), she’s a smuggler, freshly captured by the Interplanetary Union (IU). But when we actually meet her in-universe, she’s a full-fledged member of an IU crew.

Char was first mentioned (but not seen) in the short story Dee, For the Win which you can read here.

Let’s meet Char Osbaldistan:

It was an office, why an office, Char didn’t know. Usually court rooms looked more like, well, court rooms and not offices. Yet there he was the tired old magistrate sitting behind a pompous desk, flanked by an inquisitor. The room was plush, velvet and wood against gold highlights. It spoke of power and authority, order and rigidity.

The inquisitor spoke first. “How many identities do you have? Your ship … what’s it’s name?”

“Why do you ask?” Char chafed against her bindings. There was a very comfortable chair in front of her, but sitting in it like this would be awkward.

“Your ship, for one, appears to have four different registrations.” Char bit back a smile – there were seven, but they’d only found four. That was good.

“For the record, what is your ship’s name?”

“What do you want it to be?”

“Don’t play with me, girl.” The judge’s contempt spoke of impatience. So, time to go slow.

“Woman. Twenty-seven. Clearly, I’m a woman.”

“I have grandchildren your age, child.” The judge dismissed her response with a wave of his hand.

“Still, woman.”

“You, yourself,” The inquisitor ignored the exchange, “appear to have five different identities, all of whom,” He spoke in an aside to the judge, “pay taxes, by the way.”

“Seriously?” Char always left the money laundering part of the operations to the experts. All she knew was that she got paid her share, and it was a nice share.

“Yes, it’s an efficient way to look legitimate – pay taxes on income earned from fictitious jobs to cover that it was actually earned illicitly.” As if he needed to explain it to her. No, he was stating it for the record. This was being recorded, surreptitiously.

“I pay my taxes. Still, you arrest me?”

“You pay taxes for five people, at least four of whom are fake. Before we finish, you will tell us exactly how and from whom you got those identities.”

She chuckled. “Probably not.”

“What’s with her ship?” The judge asked.

“It’s a little planetary system slug modified with a hyper drive.” The inquisitor read from a note screen. “Slugs are everywhere, working boats that might move cargo pods, align construction segments, move a hulk around. They often hitch rides with cargo carries from one system to the next. It’s so common, and so universal, that a new one in a star system would never raise suspicions. It’s the perfect smuggling vehicle.” He turned back to Char.

“From your vessel’s logs, we’ve learned that you’ve worked in the Hadriatik Republic, the Triple Alliance, the Non-aligned territories and around Melakka. The ship’s history appears to suggest that it originated in Melakka, which would tie you to the identification of Char Osbaldistan.” The inquisitor nodded toward the judge. “Thus we have determined that for the purposes of this hearing, you will be identified as such. Miss Osbaldistan, do you object?”

“Of course.”

“Then what name would you prefer?”

“No, any name will do. I object to being captured. I object to being tried. I object to my ship being confiscated. I object to it being the bloody useless Interplanetary Union that arrested me and not some respectable government. This isn’t a real judiciary, you have no authority. This is a kangaroo court.”

“Char Osbaldistan, you’re charged with illegal operation of a vehicle, four counts of impersonation, smuggling, piracy and theft. You will learn to respect this court’s authority and you will do so quickly.”

“Oh, please.”


“You want me, you want people in general, to respect your authority? You don’t know the difference between smuggling and piracy.”

“Both act outside of the law.”

“So does speeding. You don’t equate it to piracy … bloody kangaroo court, full of amateurs.”

— 30 —