My first novel series was space opera. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a sub-category of science fiction that can be described as a blend of space warfare, epic good vs. evil tropes, and adventure tossed with a little romance. Think Star Wars.
The books feature a telepathic healer and an interplanetary intelligence agent. There’s a good bit of survival fiction in my stories, which I’m comfortable writing about from my own experiences camping, climbing and such. There are some complicated medical scenes, which I’m comfortable writing about based on my own training as a medic. But there’s also a good bit of military action, which I’m much less comfortable writing about since I’ve never served.
Every fiction writer ventures into unfamiliar territory. It’s the nature of the beast. But if we use constructs that will feel familiar to the reader in some way, we owe it to them to be authentic wherever we can. Getting your military scenes right, even if you’re writing about an imaginary, intergalactic military, requires a few things. Here are my top three tips:
In my books, the dogfights may be with spaceships, but people on Earth are still quite familiar with the concept of a dogfight, so it’s important to make the reading experience feel authentic. I played flight simulator videos, researched World War II aviation, and got sucked down the internet rabbit hole learning about current US naval fighter jet technology.
All Earth based military organizations have hierarchical structures. Representing that in some way felt important to me, so I did some research there too.
Of course, things will be different in your futuristic military. I felt free to take some liberties with mine. That’s some of the fun of it. But our goal is not to pull readers out of the story with something that feels too far-fetched within the context of the world we’ve created. Researching those things that feel familiar to readers, and presenting them authentically in our storytelling helps.
Follow Your Own Rules
If you write fantasy, you get to use magic. If you write futuristic science fiction, you get to invent technology. Yes, I’ve rewritten a few rules of physics. My characters can communicate across the galaxy instantaneously. But the key is to follow your own rules. Whether they relate to how the ships fly, or to environments of the planets you’ve created, be consistent. Readers will notice if you aren’t.
Get Beta Feedback from Experts
Because I’ve never served in the military, I felt it was important to get feedback from a reader who did. He understood this was science fiction, and knew his job wasn’t to critique my use of advanced stealth technology. Rather, I needed him to tell me that in the heat of battle my soldiers’ behavior felt authentic. I asked him specifically to evaluate the culture and characters I’d created. I asked if anything pulled him out of the story. His feedback was constructive, relevant, and helped me deliver a much better final draft.
Where there are battles, even in space, there’s often a military involved. With research, effective feedback, and consistency in your world building, you can give readers an exciting, authentic experience.
I write because I finally believe I can.
That may sound a little strange. I definitely write because I have stories to tell. And I write because it’s exciting to create something from my own imagination. It’s satisfying to watch the thread of an idea weave into a complex world filled with characters I’ve invented and adventures of my own making. I write because I love to, even when it’s hard and feels like work.
When I was a little girl, if you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say writer, then astronaut, then writer, then archeologist, then writer again. It was there all along, this desire to create something with words. I wrote poetry, horse stories, and adventure tales. Later, I wrote research papers for school, documents for work, blog posts, and sometimes more poetry.
But, somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I couldn’t write a whole book, that I couldn’t possibly carry a story arc from start to finish, that I didn’t have the required skills or the discipline to do it.
Then several years ago, I took on a year-long writing project for work, and I issued myself a challenge. Since I had to establish a daily writing habit around this project, could I also write something creative every day? Could I actually finish a manuscript?
At the end of nine-months, I had a quality report for my job, and I had a finished draft of my first novel. It was a very rough draft, pretty terrible in fact, but it was enough for me to finally believe I could be a writer.
Maybe we ought to challenge our own assumptions. Who knows what we can accomplish when we believe we can?
When I began writing several years ago, the idea of pursuing my passion felt like an exciting adventure. But when it came time to share my work with the world, other emotions joined the party, including vulnerability who showed up as an unexpected, uninvited guest! Besides my husband, the first group I felt safe talking about this with was my female tribe, many of them artists and writers themselves. But recently, when I wrote about it in my newsletter, the overwhelming response came from male writer and artist friends. I think this theme of feeling vulnerable crosses gender, age, and orientation. I think as artists we often feel exposed. We all know the sting of rejection. We’ve all questioned our own talent. My experience with the writing community, especially the sci-fi/fantasy crew, has been one of support and encouragement. I’m inspired by all of you who dare to bare your souls to the world and create your art. Even if we’ve never met, I feel like we are walking this path together.
Something unusual has happened to me since I started writing. I find myself feeling rather vulnerable, and with some regularity. I had a different career before this – one where I was confident in my abilities and proficient in my day-to-day work. Of course I made mistakes, and I grew and learned from those mistakes, but this isn’t the same thing. This vulnerability is raw and unsettling.
And, to my great discomfort, it’s been creeping into other areas of my life. I’m more emotionally fragile with my husband. I’m less secure in a crowd of new people. I’m sometimes hesitant to talk about my work. I barely recognize myself. My own sense of identity has been completely challenged. And yet…
I can’t imagine doing anything else. The artist side of me is someone I haven’t recognized or honored in a long time. She feels like a different version of the person I knew so well and worked hard to cultivate – but she’s been in there all along. Now I have to acknowledge her, and I have to find a way to balance the discomfort of vulnerability with the joy of creativity.
During a recent yoga class, my teacher and friend played us a portion of a TED talk given by Brene Brown. It was titled: The Power of Vulnerability, and I highly recommend listening to the whole thing. The one piece that serendipitously resonated with me was about people Brene called “whole-hearted.” These were the people from her study who had a strong sense of worthiness, love, and belonging. And all of them had a few things in common – they had the courage to be imperfect, they had compassion for themselves and for others, they created connections by being authentic, and they fully embraced their own vulnerability. I’ve been really sitting with this last one for a while. The healthiest, most well adjusted people in the study were those who fully embraced their own vulnerability. Huh.
My older kids are choosing careers in the arts. One is pursuing film acting and the other screenwriting. We’re all storytellers in our own way I guess. We’ve had thoughtful conversations about what it means to be true to your voice, but appreciate constructive criticism; how to be confident in your talent, yet constantly seek to improve your craft. In some ways they have an advantage – they’ve been putting themselves out there all along. They’ve learned to deal with the critics, the naysayers, and the failures with good grace. They’ve learned to embrace their vulnerability.
My husband is a singer and songwriter. A while ago he said to me, “Honey, it’s time to stop singing in the basement and get booed on stage.” This was around the time I’d finished an exhausting round of edits for my first manuscript and needed to send my book-baby into the world. I was terrified. As a musician, he understood my fear right away, but that didn’t stop him from giving me a gentle shove. After all, he doesn’t sing in the shower or in the basement – he sings on a stage. He shares his love of music with anyone who wants to listen, and risks getting booed.
In the face of self-doubt, failure, and sometimes-callous criticism, why do we push on? Why do we continue to create? Perhaps because it is immensely satisfying to touch another person’s soul with something we’ve made. Perhaps because the world needs its painters, storytellers, sculptors, photographers, musicians, dancers, and actors. We need them not just to entertain us, but because the mere fact that they exist at all says something powerful about being human. Perhaps because it is uniquely human to create art, and we’re willing to open ourselves up to the world to do it.
Any artist in any field understands that to share our work is to be vulnerable. We’ve risked opening our hearts to strangers – with words, in images, with a paintbrush, on a stage. We’ve put something of our private selves out into the world. Even my stories, full of spaceships and evil villains, myths and magic, have some of the real “me” in them. People who know me well will recognize those pieces. But it’s worth it to tell the story. And, finally, I’m learning to make peace with the discomfort.