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March 4, 2015

Rubin Johnson: Fiction Writing is Not a Marathon, It's an Ironman Race

Cyberbully Blues
Writing fiction is an endurance activity. I say this as an athlete who has completed multiple marathons, a single-day two hundred mile bike ride, and four Ironman triathlons. The training involved pales in comparison to learning to write fiction. Scrap the notion that well-crafted grammatically correct language is sufficient. Drop the idea that readers want well-conceived narrative summary. It’s not enough!

Learn how to hook your readers from the start. Write to compel them to keep reading. Show them how likeable and interesting your characters are. Rope them into your story. Then drive the plot onward and upward as your characters clash and conflict. It’s not the writing; it’s the story.

So far, I’ve penned two near-future science fiction novels, Well Oiled and Cyberbully Blues, of a series I call Mayberry Multisport Adventure stories. The protagonists have been active teenagers whose involvement in athletics explains the multisport label. The adventure tag is self-evident. That leaves the question: Why Mayberry?

My stories are set in Mayberry because of my views of fiction, science fiction, and optimism. For me, there are three relevant parts to fiction: the story, the storytelling, and, finally, the writing.

The story is characters and plot – what they do as well as when, where, and why. Solid likeable complex entities, people who want something and go after what they want, characters with agency are key. In my process, it takes imagination, research, and time to craft interesting characters and a plot that works. Sketching the story takes me far longer than writing the first draft.

Storytelling is how the writer conveys the story. Selecting point of view characters, deciding what details to show – descriptions of settings and people, and the use of foreshadowing, suspense, and pacing – all these elements matter. Good storytelling can’t save a bad story, but bad storytelling can spoil a good one.

The third element is the writing. In my opinion, good writing is like a lamp shining on a page. Readers shouldn’t be pulled away by bad spelling or grammar. Instead they should read clear and concise prose that makes them feel the writer respects their time. Editing, critique groups, re-writing, beta readers, and re-writing some more can improve a piece but still, not even strong writing can save a weak story.

I agree with John Gardner’s notion that good fiction creates a continuous vivid dream. That requires the writer to use words to convey emotion and tickle the senses. Much like coders program computers, a writer programs the reader’s imagination. Good writing illuminates a good story being told well.

For me, science fiction is special. It’s what made me love books. Now that I write SF, my goal is to explore technology’s impact on society by showing how it affects people you care about, specifically, characters in my stories. I write about the future, but to quote SF author William Gibson (he coined the term cyberspace): “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” So my futures include existing and new technology, but nothing that violates scientific principles. On the other hand, I push technology, sometimes to illogical extremes.

When technology is pushed, bad things can happen. Nuclear power inspires nuclear apocalypse. But we don’t have to imagine horrible outcomes; we can simply look around – global warming, privacy breaches, cyber-terrorism, and more. There are so many motivations for dystopian sci-fi. Alas, I grew up with space operas, an expression of space exploration’s hopefulness. So my third point: I decided to buck the dystopian trend with optimism, so I stumbled ... into Mayberry.

So for all of you — welcome to Mayberry, an idyllic southern California town of the near future that shows technology’s promise more than its pitfalls. My goal is to imagine what might go right while telling stories that expose the not-so-nice underbelly of a suburban paradise. Even without world-ending catastrophes, technology enables the best and worst of human nature. That’s what I write about.

Since I code and have done multiple Ironman races, both novels have heavy doses of computer programming and triathlon multisport references. I also touch on geocaching and bitcoins. I invent holos – combination cell phone-computers with holographic displays; homebots – household computer-telecom centers, and Stabilization of Life units – a realization of medical technology where quality of life has been sacrificed for quantity.

My first novel, Well Oiled, explores oil extraction issues based on plans to once again drill in my city, Whittier. I set the conflict in Mayberry, in the context of a story of teenaged cousins, Frank and Joey Wilson. They’re smart and athletic but have their challenges. Frank is especially troubled about his father’s mysterious death ten years ago.

My second novel, Cyberbully Blues, a prequel, ends where Well Oiled starts. It is a coming of age story of a technology-challenged teenaged girl, growing up with just her mom. Dakota has to deal with bullying, in real life, and in cyberspace. In addition, this novel offers a positive role model for girls to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), especially computer science. You may have heard of an organization called Girlswhocode.com, This novel shows how such a group might work.

I am currently sketching out plans for another novel to be set in Mayberry, perhaps a little further into the future – 2045. There is a good bet that a massive cyberattack will be featured.


Buy Cyberbully Blues at Amazon


About the Author:

Rubin Johnson has been focused on writing science fiction for the past several years, building on a career in engineering and software development. He earned his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley after graduating Harvard College. Following his studies, Rubin backpacked for over a year -- first across Africa, and then across Asia. He is an avid endurance athlete having completed multiple Ironman distances including IM Canada and IM Lake Tahoe. When he writes, his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Hunter, is often nearby.
website  *  blog  *  Goodreads


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