Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.
This week’s installment is by Carrie Patel, author of the new novel The Buried Life.
I love scuba diving for a lot of the same reasons I love speculative fiction: it shows me a new world. One I can’t inhabit but that I can visit for a while.
I still remember the first time I went snorkeling. My parents had planned a Caribbean cruise, and more than anything, I was excited about seeing coral reefs teeming with tropical fish. So I practiced, paddling around a swimming pool with a mask and snorkel and getting used to the feeling of breathing with my face in the water.
When the big trip came, I had a blast, but I remember peering into the depths and seeing divers with tanks strapped to their backs, the bubbles of their breath rising like clusters of jellyfish. They hovered near the bottom, not an arm’s length from the corals and anemones that I had to dive and hold my breath to glimpse. One day, I wanted to do that.
Eventually, I got my chance, and I still love scuba diving when I travel. The strangeness and wonder of the experience has never worn off, and there’s a lot that I connect to writing.
The most incredible thing about scuba diving is that it drops you into the middle of a world that’s otherwise inaccessible. You feel the currents ripple through your hair, you hear the strange hums and clicks of the ocean, and you see brilliantly colorful life mere feet from your face.
Part of a writer’s job is transmitting the sights, sounds, smells, and atmosphere of a place. It’s not just about telling a story, but about turning a scene into an almost tangible experience. You want the air to crackle with tension and the reader’s palms to clam up with excitement. You want her to feel your story while she’s reading it.
One Breath at a Time
As much as I love diving, I feel a little like I’m going to drown every time I put my head underwater, even though my teeth are clamped around the second stage. Taking that first breath is a fight against thousands of years of (very helpful!) evolutionary programming, and it always feels a little unnatural.
By the same token, starting a novel can feel like an impossible task. Ninety thousand words is a long way off when you’re starting from nothing. You have to trust that your story’s there and that your careful prep work—the outlines, the brainstorming, scene summaries, and character profiles—will keep you afloat when you start floundering midway through.
I once got to dive around a shipwreck off the coast of Vancouver Island. The dive itself was great, but there was a layer of murky water just below the surface that kept me from seeing anything beyond the rope in front of my face. It couldn’t have been more than a few meters thick, but it felt like it was going to go on forever.
Plot swamps can feel the same way. When you’re surrounded by subplots and losing track of your story, it often seems like you’ve lost your novel completely. Stuck in the mire, you can’t see where you began, and you certainly can’t see where you’re headed. All you can see is the next bullet in the outline. So you grab hold of it and pull yourself to the next one.
Sometimes, the trick is to avoid looking too far ahead and to focus on advancing through your story one step at a time.
When I go diving, more than anything, I look forward to seeing interesting animals. I love the many hues and shapes of reefs, but they don’t compare to watching a parrotfish peck at coral, spying an eel beneath the rocks, or seeing a ray glide over sand. The movement and personality of those creatures is what makes a dive most memorable for me.
Similarly, good characters are key to any scene. Deep worldbuilding is a marvel, and clever plots are delightful, but these things are ultimately backdrops. It’s watching characters navigate them that ultimately brings them to life.
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