Archive for the ‘Books and Writing’ Category

It’s Going To Be Rough   Leave a 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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Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre   Leave a comment

Winner of the 1979 Hugo Award for Best Novel

I’ve read Hugo Award-winning novels that I greatly enjoyed, and in a few cases, changed the way I see the genre. I’ve read others that left me frowning, wondering how the book could have risen to such prominence. (Very few of these, I’m happy to report.) Until now, there’s never been anything in the flatland known as “Meh.” If asked before now, I’d have maintained that such a reaction was highly unlikely. So imagine my surprise to find that the winner of the 1979 Hugo for best novel – Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre – left me without a strong reaction one way of the other.

The story takes place on a future Earth that, at an unspecified time in the past, was ravaged by a nuclear holocaust. The event is recent enough that spending time in a still radioactive crater can have lethal consequences. The descendants of the war’s survivors have adapted to a changed world, splintering into well-defined groups: desert nomads in the arid lowlands, clannish scavengers, scattered communities of town folk in the hills and mountain valleys, and a single city of high-tech xenophobes who have maintained a tenuous connection with an off-world civilization. (Whether or not these “off-worlders” are human was never clear to me.) One splinter of the human population is made up of Healers, who travel the region providing health care. Each of them is a sort of medical knight-errant. In addition to mundane healing skills, these Healers carry with them genetically engineered venomous snakes – an albino cobra, a diamondback rattlesnake, and the eponymous dreamsnake in this case – that are living pharmaceutical factories. These altered snakes can be used to provide anything from vaccines to cures for cancer. The dreamsnakes, one of which is assigned to each Healer, have a more specific purpose. They are alien creatures with a venom that has mind-altering properties, used to ease the ending of a life when death cannot be averted. The dreamsnakes came to Earth from that off-world civilization. They are difficult to breed and are therefore scarce and greatly valued. Without one, a Healer isn’t really a Healer.

While tending to a cancer-stricken child of desert nomads, a Healer named Snake – a name that is rarely bestowed upon one of her calling – badly misjudges the people she is helping. This results in the death of her dreamsnake, a gentle creature named Grass. The loss of her dreamsnake is devastating, leaving Snake unable to perform one of her most important functions. Snake’s quiet confidence runs headlong into her overwhelming guilt over the death of Grass, leading to a complicated combination of self-doubts and determination. What follows is a quest for redemption and understanding, as Snake seeks to replace Grass. Along the way she must endure a stalking lunatic, and comes to the rescue of an abused child.

Meanwhile, a young desert nomad, guilt-stricken over the crime his people committed in killing the dreamsnake, follows Snake with the intention of defending her reputation when the Healer community learns of the loss of Grass. The handling of this character weakened the story for me. He appears too seldom to make for an effective subplot, and the relationship between the two characters is rather sketchy, based essentially on a single scene at the beginning of the book. As he follows Snake, she goes on a quest to seek aid from the high-tech City, where she and her adopted daughter – the child she rescues – are coldly rebuffed. By pure chance, that event, and an encounter with the “crazy” who is following her, leads Snake to a very dangerous solution for her problem. The young nomad never really figures into any of her darker adventures, so until the very end I was never quite sure why he was in the story at all. How he does fit in at the end, I’ll leave readers to discover and judge for themselves.

All of this takes place in a landscape that came across to me as little more than stage dressing. Much of the setting is described only in broad strokes, with a sprinkling of details. As a result, for me the setting never really develops a life of its own. It’s just there, decorated with such exotica as tiger-striped horses, otherworldly seasonal storms in the desert, and – of course – dreamsnakes. The story seems to drift through this imagined landscape without the two really coming together as parts of the whole.

Fiction that works best for me balances world building with character development and plot. When this doesn’t happen, I find the story overall just sort of slips by me. I never fully engage. And that’s what happened when I read Dreamsnake. There were moments of interest and a lot of intriguing concepts – such as the ability of people, through training, to control their own fertility – but the balance of character, plot (the young nomad was a sporadic distraction that never quite gelled as a subplot), and world building wasn’t there for me. I don’t regret reading the story – it was an unusual tale and otherwise well-written – but I’m afraid that Dreamsnake goes on that list of books for which a single reading was quite enough. As for winning the award, this is a novel that would have stood out in the late 1970s on the strength of its unusual concepts, and the main character Snake. I’m not too surprised that it won. And so my recommendation is to read it for yourself, and see what you think.

The Latest – Variation on a Theme: A Fantasy in Four Moments   Leave a comment

When I decided to self-publish fiction a little over nine years ago, I started with a space opera that turned into the five book series War of the Second Iteration. Science fiction was already my default setting, so I led off with the sort of fiction I know best. This was followed by The Gryphon Stone, a story that blends science fiction and fantasy. From the very beginning, I knew I would not limit myself to space opera style sci-fi. How far from this default setting I might stray wasn’t clear even to me until I published Toby, a story that has nothing of fantasy or science fiction in it at all. That project made it very clear to me that I should stop referring to myself as a science fiction writer and simply think of myself as a storyteller, one not overly concerned with genre constraints. It’s a more comfortable and, I believe, more honest assessment.

My newest book clearly reflects that decision. It’s not science fiction by any stretch, although two of the main characters are serious fans of that genre. Variation on a Theme is a fantasy, one set in the real world of the late 1970s. The fantasy element has nothing to do with any epic themes. There are no sword-swinging heroes, axe-wielding dwarves, or ancient wizards. It’s more of a metaphysical fantasy, one built around a very old idea. What would you do differently, given the chance to relive part of your life? What would you be willing to give up, to take that chance?

An old theme to be sure, and here is yet another variation on it.

Remembering Gateway by Frederik Pohl   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1978

I went through a phase as a reader when short fiction – science fiction specifically – was my thing. Publications such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Galaxy, made up the bulk of my reading. For reasons I’ve now forgotten (this was at least forty years ago), I’d become fascinated by science fiction in its short form. Because of that fixation (one that I’ve never entirely lost) I came to read a serialized novel in Galaxy entitled “Gateway” by Frederik Pohl, one of the masters of the genre. I’m no longer sure what sort of impression the serialized version of what became an award-winning novel left on me, but it was strong enough that I recognized the title on the list of Hugo Award nominations when I started receiving material from the 36th World Science Fiction Convention.

I had such literature showing up in the mail because I’d acquired a membership and intended to attend. How could I not? It was being held in Phoenix, Arizona, the city to which my entire family had relocated two years before. No travel needed; even a hotel room was unnecessary. I’d read so much about WorldCon, as it’s generally known, mostly through the Hugo Award short-story anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov. I wanted to see one for myself. I stumbled over the fact that the WorldCon was happening in Phoenix when I start patronized a bookstore devoted to the genre (that, in itself, being a mind-blowing novelty for a small town guy). Long story short, when the Hugo Award for Best Novel was bestowed, I was there to watch it happen.

Though I read it as a serial, the version of Gateway that I now remember is the book, recently reread for this essay. If there were changes from magazine to book forms, they are lost to me. Picking it up again after so many years, all I could recall was that it had something to do with abandoned alien starships, a guy with serious issues, and a black hole. That proved accurate, as far as it went, though the novel turns out to be considerably more complex than those vague memories gave me to believe.

In a nutshell, Gateway takes place on a near future, somewhat dystopic Earth, that at the time I read it surely seemed a plausible extrapolation of the late 1970s. Human society is even more stratified than we see today, and poverty is an all-too-common way of life. The main character, Robinette Broadhead (who regularly reminds the reader that he is male, name notwithstanding) is a man from such a background who gets lucky in a lottery. He uses the money to buy his way into a place called Gateway, an asteroid full of alien technology left behind by a race humans have decided to call the Heechee. Among the artifacts, and central to the story, are hundreds of preprogrammed starships. People try their luck making voyages on these ships, hoping to return with artifacts or knowledge worth significant sums of money. And a great deal of luck is involved. Very few strike it rich, missions frequently return empty-handed, and death is an all-too-common fate for those who take the risk. In spite of the danger, there’s no shortage of volunteer “prospectors,” and Broadhead decides to be one of them. That is, until he arrives and finds out just how dangerous being a prospector can be.

The structure of the novel alternates chapters of Broadhead’s life after his Gateway experience, during which he is undergoing serious psychotherapy, and the events that took place while he was aboard the asteroid. (Sprinkled through the tale are “sidebars” made up of mission reports and personal ads from Gateway that add significantly to the world building.) It’s obvious from the start that Broadhead is a mess, and as the halves of the story, present and past, alternate, the reader gradually comes to understand the mental health issues he brought with him, to which Gateway added a massive burden of guilt.

Robinette Broadhead comes across, to me at least, as something of an anti-hero in spite of himself. He has the best of intentions, but his courage almost always hangs by a thread, and when the tension causes him to snap, he proves to be a danger to himself and others. He is also a man of considerable compassion, and has a capacity for love that is often at odds with his insecurities. All of this conspires to lead him into some poor decisions, and therein lies the tale. He does eventually take flights aboard three Heechee spacecraft. The first is a bust, he succeeds in spite of himself on another, and on the last – well, that’s where the black hole comes into it. It seems a standard of science fiction that black holes almost never do anyone any favors. And this one, while it leaves Broadhead a wealthy man after all, also bestows that burden of guilt I mentioned earlier. A burden that leads to the therapy that makes up half the story.

The story ends with Broadhead finally accepting an unpleasant truth, even as he manages to hold it all at arm’s length, ambivalent to the end. It feels as if the story dangles somewhat loosely instead of coming to a firm conclusion, but as this turned out to be the first book of a series, that’s understandable. The story doesn’t really end here. I’ve read the others, and if you like this one, they’re definitely worth your time.

The 1978 WorldCon, known also as IguanaCon II (even though there’s only ever been one of them – go figure) remains the only WorldCon I’ve ever attended. It represented a turning point in my life. Through it, I made a connection with the science fiction fan community in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, resulting in friendships that have endured to this day. Many memories from that event are held dear, and among them stands the one and only time I watched a book I’d read and enjoyed win one of these Hugo Awards.

Honest Sensitivity   1 comment

One aspect of this writing business always seems to take newly published authors by surprise. For some it’s a matter of “I never thought of that” puzzlement; for many others, it’s a serious shock to their creative impulses. What I’m talking about is this: the realization that, once you’ve published something – be it a short essay or a full-length novel – in a certain sense, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. To be very clear, I’m not talking about copyrights. I’m talking about the story and the reader’s experience of it. It’s your story when you write it, but it becomes their story as they read it. You no longer control the development of the story as it comes to life for readers, and how they react to the story as they read, interpret, and internalize the experience is entirely up to them.

Far more often than not, and assuming you’ve told the story at all well, readers will be on the same page with you, page after page. This is especially true of readers who already know your work. But there will be a few – and there will always be a few, for anything you publish – who have responses to the work that will puzzle you, or perhaps even shock you. “What,” you may well wonder, “brought that on?”

It’s a good question.

Reading and writing are flip sides of the literary coin. Heads you write, tails you read – which does rather strain a metaphor, but you get the idea. The coin itself consists of a lifetime of experiences, all the good and the bad; of being there and doing that, and having the essence of who and what you are shaped by these things. Reader or writer, you are that which exceeds the sum of those parts. Heads or tails, you bring all of that with you when you write and when you read. It will inform what you write, or your reactions to what you read. For some of us, meaning writers, it works both ways. Either way, it can’t be helped.

So, consider just the reader, for a moment, as seen by the writer of something that has invoked in that reader something of a negative reaction, be it distress or offense. What, indeed, brought that on? Nothing less than the sum of all those parts; those experiences that shaped the who, what, and why of the reader holding your book – or throwing it at the wall. A reader may like your work, and merely interpret it in an unexpected – or even embarrassing – way. But from time to time a scene or character touches a sore spot and triggers a stronger reaction than you intended, anything from emotional discomfort to actual anger or outrage. As a result, you might find yourself the recipient of a one-star rating and an angry rant for a review. You might even endure a public attack on your personal character. In a worst-case scenario, you might find yourself dealing with a snowball effect in the social media, as people sympathetic to that reader’s sensitivity respond to that person’s outrage by piling on, without bothering to read for themselves whatever it was you published. Suddenly, your work is getting all the wrong sorts of attention. And yes, I know a famous person once declared that there was no such thing as “bad publicity,” but there was no internet back then. Need I say more?

Anything you write and publish runs the risk of such a reaction, and if you want the general public to read what you’ve written, you really have no choice but to accept that risk. This isn’t to say you can’t be somewhat proactive when you write. Being slow to offend and slower still to take offense is always a fine policy. Deliberately writing something with the intent to cause hurt feelings or invoke anger in someone is difficult to excuse, and not a thing I’ve ever done. There’s rarely an excuse for trolling in any venue. But the possibility of giving offense exists nonetheless, regardless of your intentions.

So for my own part, I don’t seek the sort of reactions from readers that amount to being poked in the head with a sharp stick. And yet, for any sort of writing to be worth a damn, the reader absolutely must react to some degree to that arrangement of words. Where’s the point of balance to be found? Aside from not deliberately making that sharp stick and poking people, I’m not sure there really is one. You write with the best of intentions and hope readers see that this is the case. And you accept the possibility that not everyone will do so, as a sort of occupational hazard.

When I write, I’m guided by the belief that the story must be told honestly, and to the best of my current ability. That means that whatever the story requires to succeed, I’ll put into the most readable arrangement of words I can produce. There are lines I will not cross. For example, I won’t set down a graphic account of sexual violence. What if the story requires it? No story I ever write will require anything like that; I just don’t have that sort of imagination. For me to attempt such a scene would violate my principle of writing honestly; I would be faking it, writing something that simply does not come naturally to me. I might place such an event in the background of a character, to explain why that character behaves as he or she does. And I might hint or insinuate that a character is that sort of bastard, capable of such abuse, but you won’t witness any of his or her acts. To those who insist that such grim realities are a part of the real world from which we all must draw our inspiration and material, I like to point out that the same is true of bowel movements. But by all means feel free to define your own storytelling honesty – so long as you’re willing to accept the consequences without complaint.

There are a few other things I won’t include in a story. I won’t use the notorious “N word”, and I do my best to avoid obvious stereotypes regarding gender and race. However, as I write, I don’t work at being endlessly mindful that there are people out there who flinch easily at, for example, the use of profanity, or descriptions of characters enjoying alcoholic beverages. There is no way I could possibly write readable fiction while trying to keep my eyes open for every conceivable offense or objection that could be raised. It wouldn’t help if I did. Remember all those readers with all those wildly varying life experiences? I don’t know any of them personally. How can I possibly know about everything I should avoid for their sakes?

Whatever I write, there is almost certain to be someone who reads it and finds something objectionable. More often than not, I’ll never know about it, but I get just enough feedback of that sort to know it’s happening. So I write as well and honestly as I can, and I work within the assumption that a minority of readers will flinch at something, meaning the smaller number of readers, and not those who happen to belong to a group considered a minority.

You might take exception to something I write. Your life experiences may well leave you sensitive to one thing or another, and I just happened to put something in that story that touched the sore spot. It came too close to home, and something unpleasant was triggered. As you react, be assured it was never my intention to do so. Stories that are true to life will sometimes hold unpleasant things, for someone, whatever limits an author might embrace.

It’s like juggling eggs. No matter how good I manage to become at this writing thing, for some readers, I’m going to drop an egg or two. I didn’t mean to make that mess, but there it is.

The Box Tipped Over: Writing a Story Called Toby   Leave a comment

The phrase “outside the box” may rate as one of the most over-used (if not actually abused) metaphors of our time. It’s all too often a glib admonition issued by a person passing the proverbial buck and expecting someone else to solve an intractable problem for them. If you’ve ever worked for a living in any capacity at all, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve heard it and heard the smug sarcasm that goes with it.

Used correctly, when faced with a situation in which others have failed to arrive at a solution to a problem, or when a creative person wants to pursue a new and innovative form of self-expression, the mental habit labeled “think outside the box” can be a powerful tool. It becomes a way to focus skills and imagination in a way that has the potential to create something new. I certainly have no problem hearing the phrase used in this context, being a fan of, and a participant in, the creative world myself. There’s definitely a place in the world for those who think outside the box. Or, more specifically, those who write outside the box.

Although the bulk of my writing has been in the science fiction genre, I haven’t exactly felt constrained by that single genre. Or even to the writing of fiction; my first book was the amateur astronomy-related memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies. I’ve also written short fiction of a darkly fantastical nature that might play well on a remake of The Twilight Zone, some of which can be found in 179 Degrees From Now. But I’m not sure any of this could honestly be referred to as writing outside the box. Rather, it’s more an indication that the box I’m sitting in has plenty of room in which to move around. After all, science fiction, fantasy, and astronomy are all, in their own ways, out there.

But I have now, beyond any realistic doubt, written outside that roomy box. Reached so far over the lid the damned thing tipped right over.

My most recent book, Toby, is neither sci-fi nor fantasy, and for sure has nothing to do with amateur astronomy. It’s a tale of a boy and his dog. Okay, so the main character has a few too many years on him to wear the label “boy” easily. And it isn’t his dog. Therein lies the tale. Or the tail, as the case may be. Like all the fiction I write, Toby started out as a handful of unrelated daydreams: images and scenes that just sort of coalesced in my imagination. Happens all the time, these daydreams. I’ve been an unrepentant woolgatherer all my life. Just ask any of my middle school teachers. In this most recent case, however, the usual elements of science fiction never materialized. This time it started with an ordinary guy confronting a large, growling dog, who it turns out isn’t growling at the guy. There’s this bear, you see. From that point, things get complicated.

Anyway, as sometimes happens, the daydream started to roll like a short film in my head, and all that stuff that builds up inside your brain due to life happening started mixing in. The guy was there for a reason, and so was the dog. The reason, once I puzzled it out, became the vague suggestion of a story. Closer examination led to questions about who they were, and why they were in that situation. Ideas rose into view. Some lent themselves well to the trail I needed to blaze, and others were best left to one side and forgotten. The meeting between man and dog turned into a journey, and once they were on the road, I quickly developed a clear sense of direction. To put it another way, the story developed a life of its own, an internal logic that directed its development. In other words, it told itself. I just worked the keyboard.

Okay, that doesn’t really happen, but that’s the way it feels, when it works just so.

All the way through the process of writing this short novel (or novella, depending on which definition based on word counts you prefer) I felt a growing sense of surprise and delight. Where was this all coming from? How was it that I was to be this tale’s author? It was, for me, a very different writing experience; fresh and new and exciting, writing of a sort I’d never even considered in the past. It was also a revelation of sorts, that I could write this way, that I could write outside of my comfortable and familiar box. There was a sense of greater possibilities than I’d considered before. I’ve written in the past of my writing process being something like exploring new lands and cutting trails through them for others to follow. Writing Toby was like traveling to a different continent and starting the process there.

The box is tipped over on its side now, and I’m sitting out on one of the flaps, quite comfortable and very pleased by how this all turned out. I wonder what else is outside the box, waiting for me? Well, while I ponder that one, meet Toby, a very good dog.

Toby_final

Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple Books, as well as in paperback.

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