Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

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.)

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.

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.

On Being Hobbitish   Leave a comment

My wife and I just spent another desert spring morning digging up garden soil, getting seriously dirty and sweaty in the process. Birds were singing as we worked. The local covey of Gambel’s quail lurked in the bushes looking for the bird seed we set out, and really wished we would go back indoors and out of sight. Flowers elsewhere in the garden bloomed bright and fragrant, attracting a variety of butterflies and bees. A gentle, fitful breeze cooled us, and white clouds drifted through a high blue sky. Our project involved restoring a long-neglected garden bed that had lost its raised-bed frame and become seriously weed-infested. Hard work, but gratifying in the end. The soil from it needs to be lifted and sifted to remove Bermuda grass roots – a seriously invasive weed – and piled nearby. In due time a new raised-bed frame will be set in place, the soil returned and properly amended, and tomatoes will grow there. Growing plants being the point of a garden, of course. We can buy tomatoes suitable for our cooking needs, but those we grow always taste better, and in any case, watching plants grow and thrive under your care does wonderful things for stress reduction and the improvement of general morale.

There’s a moment early in the expanded film version of The Fellowship of the Ring that shows the look on the face of a certain hobbit gardener as he works with a flowering potted plant. As the narration extols the hobbitish love of things that grow, you see the face of someone following his bliss. I know that feeling well, and it’s a good one. Gardening really can do that for you, if you let it. And don’t mind sometimes getting seriously dirty and sweaty.

I would have no trouble living a hobbitish lifestyle. Some would say I’m doing so now, and I wouldn’t argue. Gardening and cooking (and eating) are among the things that serve to keep me thoroughly grounded while I spin flights of fancy and set them down in words. That process of writing, by its nature, keeps me pretty close to home, and to be honest I’m perfectly fine with that. Well, within reason. The occasional adventure can be beneficial, especially if one manages to avoid interactions with dragons. But for all that there are some trips I’d like to take – more than a few actually – true wanderlust is a thing I rarely feel, and it’s easily satisfied without any need to travel to the ends of the Earth. A need to see mountains again? I have some practically next door, so no problem there. I just go outside and look either north or east.

I can honestly say that if, as life unfolds, I find myself spending the majority of my time in this house writing, and out in the yard around it working a garden and watching things grow, I’ll be okay. I’m enough like a hobbit that such a fate would feel like the right way to live, and not like a set of constraints. The value of home is a thing you never need to explain to a hobbit, and I can certainly relate.

A few more nights out under dark and star-filled skies would be nice, but such a need for starlight is also quite in keeping with being hobbitish. After all, some well-known members of the halfling race were rather fond of night walks with folk of an elvish nature. I suppose such would be considered adventures of a quiet sort, and certainly free of dragons, unless you count a certain arrangement of stars in the northern sky.

Of course, no matter how I live, I’m a little tall to pass for a hobbit. But then, growing up, I had a fondness for forests and trees. Growing up in Illinois, I spent much of my childhood wandering the nearby woodland. Perhaps an Ent crossed my path one day and shared a bit of Ent draught. My parents did seem, for a time, taken aback by how quickly I grew.

Flights of fancy, indeed. You just never know.

The Book That Changed You   Leave a comment

People often ask me to name the writers who have influenced my own work. It’s a question writers of fiction are asked almost as often as “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s an easier question to answer, believe me. When you’re focused on a given genre, science fiction and fantasy in my case, the question tends to be asked by fans of that genre, and they expect to hear familiar names. More often than not, they do hear them, from me, at least. Committed writers of science fiction and fantasy are readers of the same. To tell such tales well and honestly, you need a lot of experience reading stories written by others. That familiarity with a genre is necessary, if you want to produce anything new in it that fans of science fiction and fantasy will want to read. A long familiarity allows you to do this without producing work likely to be branded as derivative, since you will generally recognize when something sounds just a little too familiar.

So when I’m asked that question, recognizable names come readily to mind. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.R.R. Tolkien, David Brin, Gene Wolfe, Larry Niven, C.J. Cherryh, Anne McCaffrey – I could fill many pages with nameable influences on my development as a story teller, but by now you surely get the point. But whichever recognizable names come quickly to mind in a conversation of this sort, I invariably add other authors names that in most cases do not provoke a nod of recognition. Authors of work lumped under the broad heading of nonfiction have had as much of, and as long-lasting, an influence on me as a writer as most of the fiction I’ve enjoyed over the years. The historian Page Smith, Isaac Asimov (again), naturalist Edwin Way Teale, Annie Dillard, John McPhee, and Stephen Jay Gould, among a great many others, have altered my way of perceiving and thinking about the world time and time again. There’s no way I can talk about the multitude of influences on my own writing, that have come to me through reading, without mentioning authors such as these. It’s all storytelling, after all.

Because I’m a writer, anything that has directly influenced me as a writer assumes great importance in any discussion of my work. But the influence of things read, be they books or shorter works, can and does affect how a person lives in a more general sense. I grew up reading various works of science fiction aimed at younger audiences: the Tom Swift Jr. adventures and certain works by Heinlein come immediately to mind. These set a lifelong habit of reading fantastical things firmly in place, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1973, when I first read Dune by Frank Herbert and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, that I realized that good fiction could do more than provide a few hours of escape from the pressures of so-called real life. It could be said that those books changed me as a reader of fiction, encouraging me to read more and more widely, and in that change opening me up to endless possibilities. You could say those books changed my life.

You could say that, but to be honest, a change in reading habits would be the equivalent, for most people, of a side hustle. Real life – whatever the hell that really means – can go on, with all its cares and concerns largely unaffected by altered tastes in literature. That might well have been the case for me, all other things being equal, but because I cast a wider net at that time, I found myself including short story anthologies in my reading, something I hadn’t done until then. And because of such inclusions, ended up reading a book that literally changed my life.

I may have been given a copy of this book, or may have purchased it myself; I can no longer remember clearly how I came to read it. But I read this collection of short fiction and the autobiographical anecdotes included by the author, and my love of writing changed from a pastime to a career goal. The book – especially the autobiographical material – made me realize that being a writer in the professional sense was an achievable goal, and one well worth pursuing. It might take a long time (Oh, I had no idea!), but it was doable. This anthology provided an example of how it might work, and inspired me to give it a try.

The book in question is The Early Asimov or, Eleven Years of Trying by, of course, Isaac Asimov. These are his first published stories, accompanied by the stories of his life in those time, and how all of that led to the stories being written and published. And I was, indeed, inspired to give writing a try as a profession because of this book. Would I have gone on to be a writer anyway? There’s no way to know, and the question is moot in any case. I did read this book, and it did prompt me to type up my first ever short story and send it off to a magazine. What followed took considerably more than eleven years, along with a technological revolution of truly sci-fi proportions into the bargain, but here I am at last placing my work out there in view of the reading public, and acquiring readers.

One book made me decide to give this a try, and that life-long effort to produce worthwhile stories and find a viable means for their distribution, has shaped or influenced almost every aspect of my life ever since. Everything that has happened to me since then has happened because where I was and what I was doing at that time was influenced, to some degree, by that decision to make writing the focus of my life. Every major decision has been made with writing added to one side or another of the balance. This is no exaggeration. My life decisions have all been made with thought given to how they might influence the writing I did at that time. Even my ill-advised decision to quit writing fits this pattern, since there would be no need to contemplate defeat if I hadn’t been in the fight in the first place. The Early Asimov actually changed the path my life followed. It was the trigger, and provides proof a single book – almost any book – can alter the trajectory of a life with profound consequences.

That’s my book, the one that set it all in motion.

What’s yours?

SOME STILL HEAR THE ECHOES   Leave a comment

Musings Prompted by Rereading The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1976
(Mild spoiler warning.)

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman was not a book I picked up in a timely fashion, and it was already considered a classic of modern science fiction when I first read it in the mid-1980s. The 60s and early 70s were still relatively recent history for me, then, and so I had no trouble drawing the connections between this story and the Vietnam War so many, including the author, have pointed out. Having witnessed first-hand the consequences of PTSD in a Vietnam veteran I once knew, these connections resonated more strongly than might otherwise have been the case.

The story is told from the point of view (first person) of a man conscripted to serve in an elite military force meant to defend the human species from a hostile alien life form. Contact with that other species did not go well, although the recruits are a little unclear as to how and why it went wrong. Chosen for their unusually high intelligence, they are put through a basic military training that is as brutal as it is dangerous. Mistakes and mishaps can be immediately lethal, and casualties are all too common. Their first engagement with the enemy turns out to be a battle with a largely defenseless foe, and becomes an uncontrolled massacre. The enemy responds by upping the proverbial ante with lethal consequences for humanity as the war spreads. After surviving the required tour of duty, the narrator returns to an Earth so changed by the passage of time that he and his comrades simply cannot fit in. They are used as propaganda tools and then rejected by the society they fought to protect. Unable to navigate through a strange new world, the narrator and his closest comrade and lover re-enlist. Sent on separate missions, they are lost to each other due to the same temporal displacements that put them so out of touch with the Earth. (These displacements are caused by the style of space travel employed.) The narrator becomes a man out of synch with the times in which he lives, and cannot relate to the people he now commands in any effective way. The conflict in which he and the others are trapped alternately escalates and then stalemates, and even though the plot is complicated by the sci-fi trope of the relativistic consequences of interstellar travel, it all sounds horribly familiar.

As a story in its own right, The Forever War deserves its status as a classic. It’s a powerfully human story, full of the sort of speculations and imaginings that make science fiction what it is, a genre of ideas generated by the iconic question, “What if…?” The big what if question raised by this book, it seems to me, is what if we leave the confines of this world before we learn from the mistakes we’ve made here? What might the consequences be? The potential answer presented in The Forever War is all too easy to believe.

Many of us who grew up when I did, and more to the point, those somewhat older than me who were directly caught up in the Vietnam War, see the parallels here between fiction and reality all too clearly, from the false assumptions that led to the conflict all the way through to the dislocation and rejection of the veterans of that war. The Forever War is a mirror held up to our recent history, one that reflects it all too clearly.

Rereading The Forever War for this essay, I was at first quite surprised by how well it had “aged.” It still seems so relevant, even today. Then I realized I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. We are a society that places little value on history, our own or others, preferring mythologized versions of the events that made us what we are today to the truth, with its blemishes and all too frequent contradictions of dearly held beliefs. Because of this we are, again as a society, very slow to learn the lessons of even the recent past. There’s an old saying, that those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat that history. This is all too true, and although the bells and whistles and the power of the bombs may change, the song remains eerily familiar. It’s also said that those who do come to understand the lessons of history are doomed to watch humanity reiterate its mistakes, often feeling powerless to prevent the repeated cycles, even as they listen to the echoes of their own recent past.

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