Three Things I Learned from Anne McCaffrey

Prolific author of fantasy and sci-fi, Anne McCaffrey

I read my first Anne McCaffrey book when I was twelve.  It was one of those “omnibus” editions from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club — Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon, all in one huge, poorly-bound book.  Being twelve, I picked it for the cover: a female riding a huge golden dragon.  But it was a good choice.  Right at the age when I’d started to think of myself as a writer — when writing started to compete with reading as my favorite activity — I started reading Anne McCaffrey’s books and picked up a few things.

#1: A Heroine Doesn’t Have to be Nice
Dragonflight’s protagonist, Lessa, isn’t out to win any popularity contests.  Nor any beauty contests, for that matter.  The last survivor of a slaughtered aristocratic house, she survived to adulthood on her wits and lives only for revenge.  The last thing on Lessa’s mind is making herself attractive to a good man.  No, Lessa wants vengeance on Fax, the man who killed her family, and then restoration to her proper place.

Now before you say, come on, it’s 2011, we’re all post-feminist here, stop and consider much of the current fiction out there.  For every character like Hermione Granger, who spent years more interested in schoolwork and heroics than in romance, there’s yet another — cough, Bella Swan, cough — who goes into the fetal position when her romance goes south.

Lessa is written with the same dignity as a male character.  She has her own life, her own pursuits, and a willingness to be disliked as long as she gets what she wants.  Too often as writers we agonize over whether our female protagonist is too smart, too tough, too independent, too sexually liberated.  Ever written a male character and paused to wonder, Does he come off as too tough?  Am I making him seem slutty?  Probably not.

#2: Tell A Story
I don’t have the article at hand, but years ago, when I was about 16, I read an article Anne McCaffrey wrote called “Advice to Budding Novelists.”  Her chief point: tell a story.  Flowery, poetic description is fine, she said.  Beautiful words strung together in elegant sentences is fine, too.  But a book that is all clever writing and no plot is like a brand new Mercedes-Benz without an engine.  Pretty to look at, but taking you nowhere.

#3:  Starting With Confidence Is All the Hook You Need
One of the more frustrating, yet ubiquitous, rules of writing is, be sure to start with a good “hook.”  And there’s a reason.  Newbie writers tend to beat around the bush.  Often they begin where the character might begin telling his story, rather than a place which will secure a reader’s interest.  And yes, that’s a foible that has to be overcome.

On the flip side, desperation to create first-sentence hooks had led to some pretty terrible crimes against fiction.  Here’s an example:
Weaving in and out of Boston rush-hour traffic, Special Agent Leroy “Bud” Lincoln refused to think about his crazy ex-wife or his bleeding ulcer, at least while the red Ferrari stayed on his tail.
Oh, yes.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen an unpublished (or unpopular) manuscript start with something like that.  The rationalization will be, it’s a perfect hook!  Instant action, introduction of the protagonist and setting, a couple of character details, and the implication of danger.  Yes … but it also sucks.

I can quote you the first line of Dragonflight from memory:  
Lessa woke, cold.
The book’s been in print for more than forty years.  Just tell a good story from the right starting point.  That’s hook enough.  Thanks, Anne.  Rest in peace.

6 thoughts on “Three Things I Learned from Anne McCaffrey

  1. Fantastic post! I particularly like her take on telling a story. Something I've said over and over again (usually in reference to "literary fiction"). And that hook from Dragonflight? Pure stroke of genius. Heck, Anne McCaffrey was a genius and she will be missed.

  2. She had so much to teach. I am pretty sure we read these about the same time, because I think I remember (But since am mentally ill, so this may not actually be correct!) one of our earliest conversations was about them. I think the lessons you mention are among her most important. And yes, we may be in the post-feminist era (although, as you note,it often does not seem so), but this character AT THE TIME? Lessa was a whole new kind of woman, one we could wish to see reflected in ourselves.

  3. I will never read a book that moves me like White Dragon. What I learned from Anne–it's all about the character. If you can't place yourself in the protagonist's shoes, it doesn't matter what exciting twists you place her in.– Mac

  4. I was also a member of the very same book club, and discovered Ms McCaffrey's work when I was about 15. Dragons and heart-racing adventure–what more could a young sci fi/fantasy reader wish for?Rose

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