So You Say   Leave a comment

I’m a member of a science fiction group on Facebook, in which a vast array of books in, and around the edges of, the genre are discussed every day. I have found it to be a useful source for book recommendations and news about authors well known and otherwise. As is true of any other gathering in the social media, it is also a veritable font of varied opinions and manners of expression. This has made it an interesting study in reader habits and attitudes.

Especially of the attitudes. For example…

In the years that I’ve “hung out” with this group, I’ve routinely seen books reviewed by readers in no uncertain terms. Those who thoroughly enjoy a book often shower it with hyperbolic praise. Those who dislike a book try to bury it with hyperbolic scorn. It’s not at all uncommon to see the same book receive both treatments from different participants in a given discussion. Start a discussion by telling people this is the best book ever by a particular author, and you can be assured that a response will soon be posted (you rarely need to wait long) saying that the same book is nothing but garbage. It isn’t always expressed that politely.

In either extreme, the opinion is expressed as an absolute. The lover of said book has essentially declared it a literary masterpiece, while the detractor considers it a literary disaster of the worst sort. Whichever side is expressed, rarely will you see phrases such as “In my opinion,” or “I found it to be,” or any other acknowledgment that this is an opinion, not an objective measure of quality. It is what the reader declared it to be, period.

For those who were enchanted by a particular work of fiction (or any other sort of book, really) the tendency to gush at least a little is understandable. Equally understandable is the desire to express an honest opinion regarding a work that did not please the reader. Unfortunately, it’s apparently not usually enough to say that the book fell short in some manner. The book is often described harshly and, again, these terms are expressed as absolute measures, and not just one reader’s personal opinion. The concept of “your mileage may vary” is not often applied. You’re told the book is worthless, in terms that make it clear you should just accept this as the fact of the matter.

It’s especially interesting to see such an assertive thumbs-down applied to a book that is enjoying considerable popularity, and receiving glowing praise from readers. The negative opinions are then expressed all the more harshly and in an almost defensive way, as if the good reviews are seen as some sort of rebuke. And I’ve seen some positive reviews that were exactly that, efforts to put negative reviewers in their place, with the review of the beloved book becoming a secondary concern. In an unmoderated discussion (fortunately, the group of which I speak is moderated, and angry exchanges aren’t allowed to go too far), such reviews become exchanges of insults, more about the reviewers and their perceived beliefs than the book in question. I’ve seen book discussions of this sort (elsewhere) go so far off the rails that a latecomer might not even guess that the subject of the dispute was ever a book in the first place.

We all react to what we read, and for many of us, finding some way to express that reaction is inevitable; it’s just how we roll. What isn’t inevitable, of course, is confusing your opinion, based on how you reacted to the book, with some sort of unalterable law of nature. You say you loved the book, and I say I found it unenjoyable, but neither of us is really telling the world (or each other) that the book is good or bad. And while there are some truly amateurish works out there among those independently published (using the word amateur in the popular pejorative sense), I’ve read books that I would characterize as amateurish, and yet are enjoyed by many other readers.

If a book is rife with typographical errors, formatting problems, continuity errors, and the like, that’s an altogether different matter. These are technical problems that could have been corrected, if not avoided. Such things can be evaluated objectively; you can count them. But quality of character development and world building? Plot and pacing? Such things very often seem poorly done to one reader, but are satisfying to another. While it’s possible to botch such things so badly that almost everyone can agree on it, such books don’t often come up for discussion. If they’re indie in origin, they simply aren’t visible enough (due to such failings) to draw much, if any, attention. And if they’re from the traditional side of publishing – well, they probably wouldn’t have been published that way in the first place. Such works really don’t enter into a discussion of this sort. Books that do merit strong opinions – indie and traditional – have usually been put out there with some degree of professional attention.

For such books, all you can really say is whether or not you enjoyed them, and why. And you should do so, whether in a review at Goodreads or LibraryThing, elsewhere in the social media, or wherever you purchased the book. Let the world know what you thought. But if you do, consider paying a little more attention to doing so politely, in full recognition of the fact that this is, after all, just your opinion.

Posted January 25, 2023 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

From the Old School: Thoughts on The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1980   Leave a comment

At its heart, science fiction is said to be a literature of ideas and extrapolation, typified by the question “What if…?” For this reason the genre is sometimes referred to as speculative fiction. (Current use of the phrase being a bag of angry cats I’m not going to open today.) And although the genre has certainly grown and evolved over the decades, the ideas behind the stories, and the “What if…?” questions those stories explore, remain an integral element of the genre.

For me, as a reader, the most obvious change in the genre – at least, since I started reading science fiction in the mid-1960s – has been the rise of truly character driven fiction, in which center stage is shared – not always equally – between the people created to make the tale come alive, and the ideas and “What if?” scenarios that challenge them. You don’t need to read much sci-fi from the 1940s and 1950s to appreciate this difference in styles, or to see how character-driven fiction opens the way to examine what it means to be human in ways that strictly idea-driven “What if…” stories find difficult to embrace. It could be argued, and I would certainly not disagree, that the genre is richer and more interesting as a result.

This is not to say that the writers of that earlier age failed in any way. Theirs is the work that laid the foundations for what came later, the work that inspired following generations to take the genre further. To ask new and different questions, and to present them in unique ways. That this is true can be seen by how many old-school authors managed to remain relevant in later years, without fully embracing these changes. By way of example, consider The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke, winner of the Hugo Award for best novel in 1980.

The Fountains of Paradise is as good an example of a story written for the sake of a Big Idea as any I can think of, and the construction of the first space elevator surely counts as such. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising, then, that the characters in the story seem to take second place to the swirl of “What if?” questions that surround such an idea. Clarke focuses on the project of the elevator and its construction, while the characters involved dutifully fill their roles without taking the focus away from the idea of building an elevator to near-Earth orbit. Each necessary role is filled by a character, but these characters themselves stand for the ideas of what sort of people would be involved in such a massive undertaking. They are often stereotypes, and little more. There’s a visionary engineering genius, a benign spiritual leader, a journalist, a world-weary ex-diplomat, and a religious zealot, to name a few of the more prominent examples. They are all clearly and carefully drawn, but only the engineer and the diplomat come across as having any real depth. The journalist, in particular, is about as two-dimensional as a character can get. Which, come to think of it, may have been a deliberate dig at that profession by the author.

So, it’s the idea and its “What if?” questions that are the core of this novel. This is not a bad thing, Clarke being one of the true masters of such fiction. Clarke’s prose is, as always, steady, clear, and unadorned, getting the job done without distractions. The story develops over years, dealing with the major challenges assumed to be involved with technology on such a scale, but at the same time sending the clear message that such a thing is believed – by the author, at least – to be within the realm of future human accomplishments. There’s a steady current of “yes, we will, someday” optimism in this story, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it, even though it felt as if it might have been first published in an earlier age.

One aspect of the old-school approach that did stand out for me was the use of female characters. Or, rather, the lack of such. Aside from the journalist – who comes on the scene occasionally and has one major adventure during the development of the plot – and a faithful housekeeper, there are no female characters to speak of. This was typical of science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, when female characters generally lacked any real depth, if they appeared at all. I’ve grown so accustomed, in these later days, to major roles in science fiction being assigned to women, that their near-absence in this book, published in 1979, stood out. This says nothing about Clarke and his work in general, since female characters are anything but absent in his other books – Imperial Earth and Rendezvous With Rama come to mind – but their scarcity in this novel struck an odd note for me. It was a puzzling after-thought, though, and not a spoiler. I might have noticed this oddity sooner, while reading the book, if the story had actually been character-driven. But the people weren’t really the point of this story, and I only came to this realization after reading the book, and sitting down to evaluate it for this essay.

Clarke’s work in science fiction is always about the Big Idea, with the characters involved placed there to serve their roles as people necessary for the fictional setting. Someone to deliver the dialog, in other words. Science fiction has largely moved away from this style, but there was still clearly room for such a tale by one of the old masters in 1980. And for all that this style does stand in contrast to so much of what’s out there today, The Fountains of Paradise remains a readable and entertaining work of science fiction. It’s the story of a Big Idea and a host of “What if” questions told by a writer who clearly knew how to imagine the future.

Posted December 16, 2022 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

New Book Release: Where A Demon Hides   Leave a comment

Where A Demon Hides: War of the Second Iteration – Coda

The war is over and Humanity has prevailed, but victory came at a terrible price. The weapon used to bring down the enemy killed or injured as many people as it saved. One of the unintended casualties, Alicia MacGregor, has existed in a medically induced coma for two years while her neurological injuries were repaired.

At last, to the relief of family and friends, the time has come for her to awaken and rejoin the world. She is healed physically, but the trauma she endured in that final battle left deep scars in her heart and mind. As she copes with the burden of horror and grief left by the war, Alicia discovers that she is haunted by something far worse than bad memories. Something that first threatens her sanity, and then her life.

Currently available in ebook format from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

TusCon 49   Leave a comment

I will be participating in TusCon 49, this year’s rendition of “The Best Little Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Convention in Arizona.” The event will be held November 11th – 13th, 2022. 

I will be there most of the three days, but the best day to catch up with me will be Saturday, November 12, when all of the convention programming I’m involved with will be held:

Reading: Where a Demon Hides

Saturday – Panel Room 2, 1:00 pm 2:00 pm

I will give a reading of the first chapter of my newest novel, Where a Demon Hides: War of the Second Iteration – Coda, and maybe a short story or two – time permitting.

Panel Discussion: Killing Off Characters

Saturday – Ballroom, 4:00 pm 5:00 pm

Some authors love to do it. Some authors hate to do it. But you have to do it. Characters must die. But why? And how do you do it well? Panelists include Carolyn Kay, Jeffrey J. Mariotte, Jennifer Roberson, Marsheila Rockwell, Marty Ketola, and yours truly.

Autograph Session

Saturday – Autograph Area, 5:00 pm 6:00 pm

I’ll be with fellow authors Cameron D. Blackwell, Kristyn Merbeth, and Mona Ventress, available to sign books and meet readers in a casual setting.

What’s Up over TusCon

Saturday – In the central courtyard, near the pool, 8:00 pm 9:00 pm.

Once again there will be telescopes set up for your viewing pleasure. Jupiter promises to provide an especially good show, this year, and the Pleiades will be rising. (This event contingent on clear skies.)

Where a Demon Hides: War of the Second Iteration – Coda

The war is over and Humanity has prevailed, but victory came at a terrible price. The weapon used to bring down the enemy killed or injured as many people as it saved. One of the unintended casualties, Alicia MacGregor, has existed in a medically induced coma for two years while her neurological injuries were repaired.

At last, to the relief of family and friends, the time has come for her to awaken and rejoin the world. She is healed physically, but the trauma she endured in that final battle left deep scars in her heart and mind. As she copes with the burden of horror and grief left by the war, Alicia discovers that she is haunted by something far worse than bad memories. Something that first threatens her sanity, and then her life.

Posted October 30, 2022 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

BUT WHAT IF…?      Leave a comment

After my last essay, I received an interesting question. What if, no matter what you do, you just can’t get the story all the way through to the end of a workable rough draft? All well and good to say you absolutely must finish it in order to refine it. What if you literally can’t find your way to the end?

This is a situation very different from one in which you finish the draft and are tumbled into a state of deep self-doubt and depression over a perceived lack of quality in the result. As I pointed out in the previous essay, this is actually to be expected. With the completion of a rough draft, the work has just begun.

But what if you can only get so far, and then stall out with the story obviously unfinished? It’s an unpleasant situation. Been there and done that, although to date I’ve been able – eventually – to get things rolling again. I have seen other writers run smack into such a wall, and not regain their footing as easily. That’s an apt metaphor, hitting a wall, to judge by how people react when it happens. It’s a shock to the creative system. You’ve got this story idea in your head; it starts out with great promise and develops a certain amount of momentum, and then it just stops. Thus far and no further shalt thou go, it seems, no matter how hard you try.

The most common advice I see given to those in such a quandary is to set the story aside. Stop trying to force it to move forward. In baseball there’s a thing called “pressing.” You’re not getting hits, so you try ever harder, usually by swinging at more pitches. The strikeouts add up and increase the frustration you already feel. “Pressing” – trying too hard – is an easy trap to fall into. Instead, stand down for a while. Set that story aside, and let it simmer on the back burner of your imagination. When I get hung up trying to develop a plot, I might turn my attention to a household project, or do something hobby-related, anything that has nothing to do with writing. Taking a break works, if you’re really a storyteller, because the internal process that drives the evolution of a story will still be working. It’s not a 100% percent conscious effort.

However, for some writers, taking a break is a perilous thing. It’s so easy to become distracted by other activities and then realize it’s been days or even weeks since you last did any real work. If you’re afraid this will happen, there’s an alternative to consider. Write something else, such as a weblog entry or a different story.

Very few storytellers have only a single tale to tell. While I normally try to stay focused on one story at a time, if that story drags I often sketch out an unrelated storyline, or a work of nonfiction, just to give my mind something else to do. I have a number of files on my hard drive that preserve the seeds for new stories that occur to me on a regular basis. Fleshing out one of these can provide the sort of diversion I need, while keeping me writing and possibly giving me a head start on the next project. If the diversion turns into a current work in progress, I just go with that flow. I can always pick up the one that went off the rails another time.

Many writers hold themselves to arbitrary measures of progress, such as a daily word count, and such a commitment can aggravate your situation. The story is stuck, and you aren’t making meaningful progress toward that number, rendering you ever more aware of, and irritated by, the problem. So, redefine “meaningful.” Sit down, look at where you left off – maybe read a few pages – and then add the first things brought to mind by what you read. It doesn’t need to be story material moving the plot forward, just any thought about the story that occurs. Let it go at that and don’t be too hard on yourself for doing so. Even if what you add amounts to no more than a sentence, you’ve made some progress. It may be a tiny increment, but if you do that every day at least once, things start to add up. You may end up deleting that stuff when you get going again, but in the meantime you’ve kept your head in that story. It’s better to add a few words a day than nothing at all. And it’s very possible that while doing this something will click, and away you go again, meeting that word count as if nothing ever went wrong.

None of these idea are mutually exclusive, and over the years I’ve employed them in varying combinations. It’s very common, for example, for me to add short bits to a story as they occur, even though I’m taking a break by working in the garden. More than once, I’ve found myself with an active work in progress while also writing a weblog essay. You do what works, in whatever combination suits you.

It’s also possible that none of the above – or any of the other terabytes of advice you can find on the internet – will help you at all. Maybe you start a new story, and the same thing happens. You just don’t find a way to follow through. What then?

Ask yourself this: why am I trying to write a story?

The question of motive can be a sticky business, and is one for another time.

It’s Going To Be Rough   1 comment

Over the years, I’ve been involved in several writing critique and support groups, some face-to-face and others via the social media. The best of these have been groups representing a mix of experience levels, from people who have published – traditionally or independently – to those who have yet to put down their first complete sentence. All of us in the former category were once upon a time in the latter, and received advice and encouragement from more experienced writers. We benefitted from the experience of those who went before us, and now some of us hope to pass our experiences, based on that mentoring, on down the line.

A frequently encountered problem, expressed during group meetings by writers new to the craft of storytelling – and such a person can be anyone from a teenager to an elderly retiree – is the feeling, as they write, that they are doing it wrong. They can’t get a sense for the plot’s direction, don’t have a clear idea about character motivations, or reading what they’ve already set down just leaves them with the feeling that they’re hopelessly inadequate wordsmiths. “It’s just not working!” is the summary, stated with varying degrees of desperation. And sometimes, “It stinks!”

Well, maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. A beginning writer, being new to this art, is rarely in a good position to make such a judgment call on their own work. What you are usually hearing is a lack of confidence being expressed, and not an actual measure of quality. When I’ve read a few pages or chapters written by someone feeling desperate over the paltry quality level they perceive in their own work, I usually find myself in disagreement with that assessment. After all, I’m quick to point out, it isn’t a finished product. This is just your first draft. The rough draft, as it’s often called, and for very good reason.

The mistake being made here, and it’s a common one, is the confusion of the final product – books they’ve read by other authors – with the process of creating that work. When all you see is the end result, it’s all too easy to embrace the idea that it just works out this way. You tell the story, maybe get someone to read it for errors that a spell-check program won’t pick up, and there you have it. A story, written and ready to read. Which is not at all how it goes, and some, when they realize their current best effort is not producing such material, quite naturally want to know what they did wrong.

The answer is: nothing. Not a damned thing. You’re hacking out a rough, first draft, and such are rarely ever publishable right off, much less perfect. Whether you outline a story or not (outlining is advice frequently given to writers in such straits, though not by me) you have to tell that tale a first time. In a sense, you’re telling yourself the story. Whether it’s your first story, your fifth, or your fiftieth, you have to do that first telling to fully understand what you’re trying to accomplish, and how to make it work. And because of this it is absolutely imperative to finish that rough draft – even if you think it’s horrible, perhaps even beyond redemption. Starting over may seem called for, and I’ve done so a time or two myself, but if you find yourself backing up repeatedly, you may be stepping into a trap. One that will keep you from ever advancing toward your goal of being published. Only a finished work can be published, after all, and the only route to that result is straight ahead. You keep writing.

This often means forging ahead even when you’re not entirely sure you’re on the right path, or at least don’t have both feet on it. Doubts are understandable, but you had a good idea at the start, good enough at least to be a starting point. If you reach a point at which you realize X should have happened earlier than Y, don’t go back and start over. Go back to an appropriate point and add a note to that effect, and then go on as if you’d already done X instead of Y. If you get stuck wondering what comes next, but you have a scene in mind for a little further on, skip ahead with a note in the gap to the effect that Something Needs To Happen Here. It’s very likely that, as you continue, the material needed to bridge that gap will be made obvious by what you’re doing after that part of the story. It’s okay to go back and fill that gap, at this point. This isn’t the same as starting over.

Pursue the story to what at least seems a logical conclusion. Only then can you sit back and consider what you should have done. Again, such insights often don’t come right when you need them, but develop as the story does. By forging ahead regardless of doubts, you’ve now given yourself what you need to shape the story into what you hoped it would be. You have a rough draft suitable for revision.

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not, especially if you’re new to writing fiction. This business of telling tales takes practice. But that’s the way of all things worth doing. There’s a learning curve, and like getting through to the end of that rough draft, there’s only one way to deal with a learning curve: you start climbing. And be prepared to stumble, now and then. It’s okay to make mistakes, since most of them will never be seen by anyone but you. You can fix those, and doing so is how you learn to tell a story well and truly. Sometimes you need to do it wrong to make it right in the end.

There’s More Where That Came From   Leave a comment

“Inventing a universe is tough work. Jehovah took a sabbatical. Vishnu takes naps. Science fiction universes are only tiny bits of word-worlds, but  even so they take some thinking, and rather than think out a new universe for every story, a writer may keep coming back and using the same universe, sometimes till it gets a bit worn at the seams, softens up, feels natural, like an old shirt.” Ursula K. LeGuin, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories.

***

In addition to my rather low-keyed involvement with a couple of Facebook writing groups, I often peruse postings on a reader-oriented group, one relevant to my preferred genre, both as a reader and a writer. I speak of the Science Fiction Book Club – and if sci-fi in its many forms is your thing, I strongly suggest looking it up. (Fair warning to fellow indie authors: self-promotion is not permitted in the group, a policy I fully endorse. Also a warning to readers: prepare to see your To Be Read list explode.)

As you would expect from a group of any sort on the internet, on or off Facebook, opinions abound.  These opinions – and here we’re talking about opinions regarding authors and their books – are often expressed without the caveat that these are, after all, just opinions and not facts. They are stated in ways that clearly lead to the impression that objective characterizations of quality are being offered to the masses. I’m talking about statements to the effect that a book’s pacing is too slow, or that the characters are two-dimensional, or the sequel wasn’t as strong as the original, etc. An often encountered judgment is that a series started out strong, then lost steam. The author didn’t know when to quit.

When a series is mentioned in any context (but especially when not knowing when to quit is invoked) rest assured that someone will join the discussion by declaring that they won’t read a series. For such readers a series is generally seen as both a failure of creativity and a money grab by an author or publisher, an example of milking a literary cash cow. They’re particularly harsh when discussing someone on the indie side of things, such as yours truly. (And no, such a complaint didn’t prompt this essay. I’m sure there are readers out there who won’t touch War of the Second Iteration just because it’s five books long, but I have not yet seen such a comment aimed at my work. Watch this space.) For any author, especially one working on an incomplete series, writing a series is also often viewed as a sign of laziness. Indie or traditional, they say the author obviously can’t be bothered to develop truly new material. And this idea is usually expressed with a sort of off-hand contempt that insinuates that the author is in some way a failure.

It apparently doesn’t register on these self-appointed critics that some of the biggest names in this (or any) genre have written or are working on a series of books. Anyone out there really think Ursula K. LeGuin is a failure? Or how about C.J. Cherryh? Readers are still buying each new installment in Cherryh’s Foreigner series. Whether you care for their work or not (just your opinion, after all), any writer who can write so many successful stories in one imaginary universe can’t by any honest definition of the concept be considered a failure. And the authors cited as examples are anything but exceptions to the rule.

Contrary to what critics of multi-volume stories believe, producing such work is hardly a sign of laziness, much less a failure of imagination. When a writer creates an imaginary universe it’s only natural to explore its depths. The endeavor doesn’t become more or less creative because you don’t start from scratch every single time. It’s possible that you’ll only pull a story or two out of what you’ve built. However, if you go to any trouble at all to create cultures, ecologies, technologies, and histories to support one tale, you have, by default, laid the foundation for more. If you are gifted with sufficient imagination, there may be many more stories in there, waiting to be told. While there’s no obligation to build on that foundation, if there’s room for more stories, or for one story to go on beyond a single book, why not? A universe, real or imagined, is by its nature boundless. For a teller of tales this means possibilities. More stories. Chances for existing characters to grow and change. Writing a series does not show a lack of creativity; quite the opposite. A writer who continues to explore new stories in a universe of their own making is displaying an awareness of potential, and a willingness to explore it.

As for the bit about milking a cash cow, what of it? If series didn’t sell, there would be far fewer of them. Last time I checked this was not the case – not by a long shot. Seems to me that those who turn their noses up at a series, and snub the authors of such, know very little about the publishing world. They’re also no more than a vocal minority in the world of book readers. When I read such commentary, I can’t help wondering if I’m being trolled. The way such views are aired, it often feels like little more than an attempt to stir the proverbial ant hill.

But that, of course, is just my opinion.

The First Ten Years   Leave a comment

I honestly can’t recall what aspect of my childhood instilled in me such a fascination with telling stories. Before I could write effectively, I told all sorts of windy tales to anyone who would listen. That so many of the adults around me seemed entertained by my childish flights of fancy kept me at it, completely oblivious to how they were humoring me. At some point I went from talking to writing things down. I have vague memories of turning scratch pads and scrap paper into “books.” That I was so serious about these efforts surely amused them all.

That I was encouraged from the very beginning to embrace literacy, both reading and writing, as things wonderful to do for their own sake, surely set the foundation for these habits. That a career as a writer was not what the adults were trying to set in motion only became obvious many years later.

Just before I finished high school, I sold a short magazine article to an aquarium hobby publication, about how to keep crayfish alive in a fish tank. I sent it with the idea of sharing ideas, not of getting paid, so imagine my surprise when the publishers thanked me for my contribution by sending a twenty-five-dollar check. Imagine their surprise when they discovered that my father had to co-sign the publishing agreement. I was all of seventeen years old.

That check put a dangerous idea into my head. Dangerous, that is, from the parental point of view. The idea was that you could make money doing something teachers and parents alike told me I was pretty good at. (I honestly thought they would approve.) At about that same time I read Isaac Asimov’s combined memoir and short story collection that chronicled his earliest career efforts as a writer of science fiction: The Early Asimov, or Eleven Years of Trying. Writing and selling fiction suddenly seemed doable. The idea became considerably more hazardous when I decided to write fiction; it became a goal, and one that started out much further ahead of me than I could possibly have imagined.

For the next thirty years or so, I made sporadic efforts to pursue this goal. I say sporadic because a succession of life changes and other distractions kept me from being as focused, or as disciplined, as I now know I needed to be. Still, in the late 1970s and through the mid-1980s, I made some money flipping the nonfiction side of the authorial coin. This didn’t last, as toward the end of that time the sort of publications that bought what I wrote were either merging with other publishing concerns, or dying outright. My markets slowly dwindled, and each year that passed saw me more reliant on the proverbial day job. I didn’t stop writing, though, and focused my efforts more on fiction, of which I sold not a word.

More life changes took place, including getting married and then deciding to finish the degree I’d left hanging when I moved from Illinois to Arizona. I did very little writing at all while working on the degree, except, of course, what was required for the classes I took. After graduation, I wrote yet another novel that I couldn’t sell. As I’ve told the tale elsewhere (in The Process), the market-based reason the book didn’t sell, combined with other unrelated problems, shut me down for several years. I just couldn’t see putting all that work into something that was apparently going nowhere.

Ebooks, print-on-demand, and being able to publish directly to the public changed all of this. Talk about a life changer! I took that novel the editors said they couldn’t find a market for, and self-published it. That last sentence covers a lot of details, and many intermediate steps before publication occurred, but suffice to say it was quite the learning curve. I climbed it, and on June 7th, 2012, The Luck of Han’anga became available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Ten years have passed since that day. The War of the Second Iteration turned out to be a five-book series, not a trilogy. A story about a multiverse that contains science so advanced it might as well be magic unfolded in my mind, and I wrote a story about gryphons that were anything but mythical (The Gryphon Stone). A character from the Second Iteration series decided he had another tale to tell, and I obliged by writing All That Bedevils Us. And then there’s the one about the dog who needs a ride home, Toby. Most recently, I gave writing a love story a try, one with a fantastical twist, and so Variation on a Theme came into existence. These and others add up to ten books in that ten-year span. I’m immensely pleased with that output, but even happier with the receptions they have received.

Yes, the books sell, and that’s a thing that can only be gratifying. Some of them sell quite well, in fact, and this indie thing is easily paying its own way. But – far more important to me – people like what I write. There are readers out there urging me to write more, to get another book out – which I’m more than happy to do. I’ve even heard from a few readers who said something I wrote helped them get through dark times, by allowing them to escape for a while and come back to reality refreshed and better able to cope. Toby has led to a few dogs (and cats) finding forever homes. If there’s a better way to describe success as a writer, I can’t imagine it.

And now, about the next ten years…

(At the time of this essay, in celebration of a decade of successful indie publishing, all of my full-length novels in ebook format are marked down to just 99¢. Prices will return to normal June 30th, 2022.)

The Hugo Hat Trick: Thoughts Prompted by The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Winner of three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel:

2016  The Fifth Season

2017  The Obelisk Gate

2018  The Stone Sky

**Although to date I’ve written about Hugo-winning novels in chronological order, I’ve also read a few recent winners (some before they won) and rather than waiting years to get around to them, I will occasionally jump ahead.**

Far more often than not, I discover a new-to-me author through recommendations from acquaintances who are fellow readers. In fact, this process so dominates book selection that I can’t remember the last time I bought one just because it looked interesting.

The Broken Earth trilogy stands as a curious exception to that rule. I picked up the first book, The Fifth Season, because someone disliked it. It was the manner in which that reader expressed his dislike – in phrases that I frankly found offensive – that prompted me to take a look. It was only then that I discovered it was a Hugo winner, having lost track of the winners in recent years. Also that it was the first of three successive winners of the award. That a trilogy could achieve such success while prompting someone to treat it so harshly only increased my curiosity. By the time I finished The Fifth Season I owned copies of The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky. In due time I read them all. To say I do not share that reviewer’s opinion of the trilogy would be an understatement.

The story is set in a world prone to repeated, violent seismic upheavals. So frequent are these events – called “Seasons” by the inhabitants of this world – that everything about their civilization is geared toward preparation for the next inevitable occurrence. Some people have special abilities that allow them to influence such things as earthquakes using inherited psychic powers, and although you might think that would make them highly valued members of a society built on shaky ground, you would be wrong. They are called orogenes, a term that is used in ways that bring to mind cruel words in our own world, used to insult and belittle those who are different. Orogenes are instead, and ironically, feared for their abilities, discriminated against and often murdered without consequence to their killers. The fear that drives the hatred behind such acts is rooted in a time long past, and is a matter of belief, not of reason. Some members of this marginalized group are taken away by an agency known as the Fulcrum. In its hands they are trained and used for their abilities, but while they are protected and usually well cared for, they are little better than slaves. They are also entirely expendable.

The story blends science fiction and fantasy in a way I’ve rarely seen done, and even more rarely done so well. Many of the magical elements (not sure what else to call them) seem to be expressions of one of Clarke’s Laws, the one stating that any technology, sufficiently advanced, would be indistinguishable from magic. In the distant past of this world there existed a form of technology that might as well be magical. The present day events and troubles are the legacy of questionable use of that technology.

The heart of the story deals with the trials one orogene, who has for many years managed to conceal her true nature. The start of a new Season comes on, just in time for her family to self-destruct when her husband discovers that their son is an orogene – resulting in the boy’s murder. What follows is a backstory and history told in flashbacks, and a present time quest to rescue her remaining child, a daughter. The girl is also an orogene, but one of particular strength and power. The quest to rescue this girl takes place in a time of complexity and chaos, during which an already dysfunctional society is coming unraveled.  N.K. Jemisin writes some strong stuff, spinning this intricate tale, and pulls no punches. For me as a reader it was absolutely compelling. As a writer, I can’t help admiring – among other aspects – her ability to weave all the disparate threads of this tale together in the end.

The trilogy is unconventional in storytelling style, switching back and forth from first person present tense to a more ordinary narrative point of view as things unfold. Many readers find this not to their taste, which is quite all right. No writing style will ever have universal appeal. But the criticisms that led me to take a closer look at The Broken Earth trilogy were not confined to expressions of dislike regarding the narrative structure, although such are regularly seen in reviews.

The world built by N.K. Jemisin to hold this story could be our own Earth in a distant future, a thing not explicitly stated, although it’s all too easy to imagine it evolving from our real one. I say this because the people in it, especially their attitudes toward others who are not acceptable to the mainstream, are all too real. Change and crisis so often bring out the worst in people, especially when a marginalized population such as the orogenes is available as a target to be blamed, and punished. Our own very real history is filled with such tragedies, as are current events.

It’s this theme that that I believe triggers a negative reaction in some readers. They resent the mirror these stories seem to hold up, uncomfortable with what is reflected there. They react badly to a story that doesn’t shy away from depicting bigotry for the evil it truly is, and it seems to me they resent being reminded of its painful reality. They complain, as did the reviewer I recall being the most spiteful, that they want to read fiction, and not be “preached at.” For the record, saying that these books are at all preachy in the way they employ certain themes about inequality and prejudice goes beyond overstatement. It’s dishonest. Yes, the themes are there, and as I said earlier, the author pulls no punches. And I have no trouble believing that these themes are informed by the life of the author. How could it be otherwise? We all write from where we are, informed by our own life experiences. That’s simply how it works. That how it should work.

Grounded   1 comment

In a previous essay, I told of a friend who asked how I was coping with the sense of isolation experienced by so many, while trying to stay safe from the Covid-19 virus. My flippant response at the time was to remind her that I’m a writer. Isolation is just part of the job. It was said in jest, but this is a case where the thing is funny because it’s true.

The idea that isolation is just part of my job description reflects a fundamental truth of my profession. Writing is a thing generally done alone. The focus required to turn ideas and, sometimes, dream images into strings of words can be pretty intense. It’s no small thing to arrange words in such a way that they convey not only mental images and information, but also feelings. Sometimes powerful emotions, indeed. Interruptions are not in the writer’s best interest. For most of us, such focus can only be achieved in isolation – although in my case that isolation merely involves listening to epic music through a pair of headphones. Necessary as isolation may be for most writers, it can be costly in terms of mental stamina, and mental health. That stamina will at times need restoration; the mental health must, of course, be preserved.

How? By not writing.

In December of 2021, just days after releasing my most recent novel – Variation on a Theme – I found myself entirely lacking in motivation for writing. Variation on a Theme had been a challenging project, one that wore me out, and the last thing I wanted to do was launch into the next story I had in mind. Although this is the first time in ten years it happened with writing, I’ve experienced such a loss of motivation in other contexts in the past, and recognized that I needed a break if I wanted to avoid full-blown burnout. So I shifted my attention for a time to other things, activities for which isolation is not required.

There are plenty of ways to spend time away from writing, and any writer will tell you that one of the challenges we face is to keep these things from feeding the natural tendency to procrastinate that bedevils many storytellers. As dominant as the need to create is, I’ve always known that I need a diversity of interests to properly feed that creativity. And so, when it came time to take a break, I was anything but at a loss for things to do.

In general, when I’m not writing, I’m gardening, reading, studying natural history, stargazing, or cooking, to name a few prominent uses of my time. Of these, gardening filled the most time during this mini-vacation in which I indulged. Over the ten years during which I’ve pursued the indie publishing option, few activities have kept me more firmly connected to the real world. Grounded, in other words. And yes, there’s the possibility here for a lame pun, but I’m going to exercise uncharacteristic restraint and leave it to your imagination.

In terms of day-to-day activities, cooking comes in at a solid second place to gardening. Talk about a creative activity! (It helps that I’m pretty good at it, or so says my ever-supportive wife.) While cooking is about as real-world as it gets, gardening still beats it as a means to stand completely in the real world, while feeling rested and relaxed. Mentally relaxed, at any rate. Gardening does often involve hard work, but that’s something that I find actually enhances the restorative power of the garden. The experience of gardening produces such a powerful here-and-now state of mind for me that the stories in my head – very few of which involve the here-and-now – leave me in peace, without being lost entirely.

In December of 2021, I set those stories aside for a good three weeks. I worked in the garden. There were other things done, of course, but it was mostly the garden. By the time the New Year was at hand, I was back at the keyboard and ready to work. The garden was, and still is, out there when I need it, a need I know from experience to be inevitable.

Posted April 18, 2022 by underdesertstars in Books and Writing, Essays, Gardening, Life, writing

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