Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

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 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.

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?

The Stars I’m Under: Observations of the Night Sky   Leave a comment

“I got into science fiction by being interested in astronomy first.”  – Terry Pratchett

When I first opened this weblog, it was my intention to include far more astronomical content than I’ve managed so far. The main reason for this not working out until now has been a dearth of observations to report. Until a few months ago the time and energy needed to be out under those desert stars was in short supply.

I resumed amateur astronomy activities in 2003, after a long hiatus, and did so for some less than straightforward reasons. On the surface, it simply seemed that the time had come. That’s true, as far as it goes. I’ve always looked back fondly on that episode in my life, when as a teenager I spent so many hours under dark, rural skies with a small telescope (a 60mm refractor). The desire to revive this pastime remained with me for many years, until at long last, in ’03, I found that I had the resources, and could afford a good telescope of respectable aperture. I lived in a city with enough light pollution ordinances that visual observing would be worth the expense of time and money. The time had come indeed, and the time was right. (The details of how this all came about are to be found in my book Mr. Olcott’s Skies: An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession.)

But there was was more to it than that, a matter that I did not include in the above-mentioned book. After almost twenty-five years of admittedly sporadic attempts to be published as a writer of fiction, I’d given it up. The indie publishing revolution had not yet developed, and I was heartily sick of rejection slips. So, I quit. Since so much of my life had been shaped around writing, I was a bit untethered, and astronomy proved to be just the thing to fill the gap. Long story short (see The Process, chapter ten), while astronomy provided the necessary outlet for a while, in the long run it wasn’t enough. I needed to tell stories, and holding back from that proved unhealthy. Fortunately, before things became too serious, publishing directly to ebook and print-on-demand gave me the outlet I needed, and I started writing fiction again.

It was like pulling a cork out of a badly rattled bottle of sparkling wine. Words burst forth, forming books and short stories that seemed eager to see the light of day. A couple of the books were even astronomy-related. The release of pent-up creative energy took several years to settle down from a flood to a steady flow. But although astronomy didn’t fade back completely into hiatus status, I was far more interested in spending the time I had outside the day job writing than peering into an eyepiece. And even when evenings were so clear and mild that they seemed to call me out under the stars, I seldom had the energy left over to set up even that 60mm refractor, which has remained with me since high school.

A dozen publications later, and with the need for a day job behind me, I find myself looking at things in yet another new way. The need has asserted itself for a life that balances energy aimed at writing and producing new fiction, with a different sort of need, that of a craving for dark skies and the light of the moon and stars. Writing is a more relaxed activity now, no longer crammed into whatever time I have after coming home from an office. I don’t finish the days as worn out as I once did. I still have a job, you see, but a job you love doing is far less taxing, and there’s often energy left after a day’s work to set up a telescope and observe celestial sights deep into the night.

And so, belatedly, I’ve begun to develop this aspect of the weblog. I will still write about books and writing, with more commentary on winners of past Hugo Awards. I will also use this weblog to help keep you up to date on new books and stories as they become available. In addition to all that, I will now invite you to join me from time to time under the peace and quiet of the night sky. There will be regular posts about what it’s like out there, and those posts will include a list of celestial sights. The idea is to give you a sense for the experience of stargazing, without boring non-astronomers with the details. The details, for those who are interested, will be found archived on the Amateur Astronomy page of this site.

This is all very much “under construction,” and how I proceed may change as I move forward. So please pardon the stardust underfoot while I work.

A Lesson Learned   Leave a comment

Gene Wolfe 1931 – 2019

As a writer, I’m not often troubled by the so-called impostor syndrome. I have enough confidence in what I do to move forward on the assumption that what I write will be worth a reader’s time and money. There are, however, practitioners of the art of storytelling who can leave me baffled by my own audacity. I read their work and find myself wondering what makes me think I’m in any way good enough to do this. (Mercifully, these spells always pass.)

One of those writers died on the day I started writing this piece (April 15, 2019). His name was Gene Wolfe.

Other greats in the science fiction world have passed in recent years, people whose work has entertained and inspired me, while also teaching me things through their work about how stories can be told. Like all science fiction fans, these losses sadden me, even as I reflect on their great legacies. But this loss comes closer to home. Gene Wolfe taught me something very important about storytelling, a thing that seems perfectly obvious when you hear it, but doesn’t always make itself plain while you work your way up the learning curve.

The lesson is this: there can be no deadwood in the story. Everything must contribute to the whole, whether it’s a detail in the world build, a major element of character development, or a twist in the plot. You don’t just drop things in and walk on, adding elements just because you think it will make the story trendier, for example. There needs to be a reason for it all, consistent with the internal logic of the story.

Obvious, right? It sounded so to me, but until Mr. Wolfe imparted that lesson, I’d never thought it through before. But it isn’t the soundness of that advice that makes his passing a source of personal sadness. It’s the memory of it. He told me this in person, using an element of one of my own stories by way of illustration.

This encounter took place at the World Fantasy Convention held in Tucson, AZ in 1991. The convention programming included a chance to have a completed short story critiqued by one of the published authors in attendance. I had a story ready to make the rounds, and delayed submission long enough to use it for that event. It was a pleasant November evening when all the participants gathered to see which pros we’d been matched with. As I recall, we were crowded into a hallway in the hotel, and one by one Big Names walked out of a room and called a lesser name forward. I was talking to a friend when someone said “Thomas Watson,” and turned to see none other than Gene Wolfe searching the assembled faces in the hallway. I made my presence known (I remember something simple, like saying “Here,” but my friend remembers me muttering “yikes” under my breath) and shook hands with him. We left the crowd behind and went out to sit at a table in the central courtyard of the hotel.

Many of the details from that conversation have faded from memory. I remember Mr. Wolfe being encouraging, but very honest. I still have the original version of the story. Today I can see that it needed a lot more work, but it was as good as I could make it, back then. There was no way I could recognize this in 1991, lacking as I was in essential feedback. The concept of beta readers was years in the future, and all the feedback I’d received for my fiction to that point had come from a small writing group (that had come to an end by then) and the rare personal response from editors as they rejected a manuscript. I was doing my best and hoping against hope that it would eventually be good enough.

That evening I received feedback in a big way. Mr. Wolfe found the story engaging but badly flawed. He enumerated the flaws and suggested new-to-me ways to look at storytelling that might help. He was direct in his criticism, but never let it become too personal. He didn’t come across as the seasoned professional talking to the wannabe; he did not talk down to me. It was a serious conversation between writers. Mr. Wolfe made it that by taking my desire to write seriously. Somewhere in that short conversation he brought up the concept that inspired this essay. Everything in a story should be in the story for a very good reason.

Beginning writers often leave deadwood scattered in their prose, anything from useless dialog that’s meant to be witty, to exposition that tells readers nothing they really need to know. In the years since, I’ve learned to recognize this, and such failings have made a number of books, for me, one-and-done for a given author. More to the point, I’ve been made more aware of the concept in my own fiction. Yes, it’s obvious, after you have it spelled out. Many things work that way. Anyone can swing an ax, but have someone show you the best way to hold and balance an ax and your chances of missing your foot go up significantly.

To illustrate the point, he asked a question about the story in hand. He asked why a particular character was an African-American.

At this point I need to commit a digression and offer spoiler warnings. First, the warnings. If you have a copy of my short story collection 179 Degrees From Now and have not yet read the story “Crossing the Pond,” be aware that I’m about to spoil it for you. Can’t be helped, so read on at your own risk.

Now, the digression, one that in our unsettled times is surely necessary to avoid readers turning away at this point. It has to do with Mr. Wolfe’s singling out that one character with his question. I was relating my experience to a group of fellow sci-fi fans and writers at a science fiction convention not long ago. I got as far as Mr. Wolfe’s question regarding the African-American character, and found myself handed a textbook example of “triggering.” A person in the group cut me off with a burst of outrage directed at the fact that the question had singled out the African-American character. “He shouldn’t have done that!” When I said there’d been a good reason for the question, I was told in no uncertain terms by a second person that there couldn’t be a good reason for singling out that character by his race, that it was wrong and racist. I repeated that there was indeed a good reason and that racism, to the best of my knowledge, had nothing to do with it, and was ready to explain why their shared assumption was off base. But the echo chamber around them was impenetrable by that time, and the explanation was never heard.

Listening to the world around you for the purpose of responding, instead of understanding, is a bad habit. Others have pointed this out before me. It clearly requires reiteration.

But perhaps you will reserve judgment and read on, spoilers or no. The question was asked in the context of all elements of the story serving a purpose, and adding up to a story that means something. In this particular tale (of which “Crossing the Pond” is a significantly rewritten version) the African-American character is a scholar who specializes in the life and times of Henry David Thoreau. The scholar is terminally ill and visiting Walden Pond one last time. Thoreau appears and asks the scholar if they have met before. (These elements were in the version of the story Mr. Wolfe read.) The answer is that they have not, and that Thoreau may be thinking of an ancestor of the scholar.

Mr. Wolfe knew enough of Thoreau’s story to know the man was an Abolitionist, and in fact was a “conductor” on the “Underground Railroad.” Somewhere in his writings, Thoreau mentions briefly encountering an African-American headed north. He gave the man some food and sent him on his way. It isn’t known whether or not this man was actually an escaped slave, or if he found his way to life as a free man. Reading of this encounter, my mind concocted a daydream that in the course of time became a short work of fantasy. Mr. Wolfe was looking to see if I’d been aware of these things while I wrote the tale. Had I chosen to make the character in question African-American because of this history and quietly woven this connection into the story? My answer of “yes” was what he hoped to hear; he was evidently pleased and favorably impressed, which certainly gave my confidence a much needed boost. The shade of Thoreau was there in the role of the Ferryman, helping yet another soul to a different sort of freedom. That very idea had been the germ of the original story. Mr. Wolfe picked out that character because the man’s fate and Thoreau’s history were the elements that gave the story its meaning. He wanted to hear me say I’d done this deliberately. The character’s race was important to the story, but was not in and of itself the reason the question of race was brought up.

I asked if I had failed to make the reason for the character’s race and Thoreau’s appearance obvious enough. He smiled and warned me against being too easy on readers, unless I wanted to deliberately insult their intelligence. I can honestly say reading Gene Wolfe has never insulted my intelligence, and those of you familiar with his work know exactly what I mean by that. To those who have not read this author, his fiction is frequently “no easy road,” to quote one of his own characters. I’ve endeavored to avoid belaboring the obvious in my own work ever since. Making sure each element of the story carries its weight is one way to accomplish this.

In every life there are moments that, when you look back on them, are revealed to be turning points. That all-too-brief conversation with one of the Grand Masters of the genre was one of mine, although it took the perspective of time passed to make this clear to me. Until that night, writing fiction had been a matter of shooting from the hip and hoping it sounded right. After that night I started looking at writing fiction as a controlled process. It was never again quite the act of unbridled spontaneity it had been, even if I never did start using outlines. I may still be writing by the seat of my pants, but these days I have a much better sense of direction. My conversation with Gene Wolfe made me think about how I do this thing I do, instead of just putting my head down and going for it. Once I started down that path, things were never the same again. I will always be grateful to him for that.

What Did I Know?   Leave a comment

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 1975

 

na·ive·té (noun)

  • lack of experience, wisdom, or judgment.

  • innocence or unsophistication.

In 1974 one of the featured selections of the old Science Fiction Book Club was a new novel by an author I was barely familiar with: Ursula K. LeGuin. A couple of years before, I’d read he award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness and enjoyed it, so when The Dispossessed appeared in the SFBC newsletter I decided to give it a try. I was in my senior year of high school, a standoffish nerd and misfit, with the majority of my life experience coming in the form of books I’d read. However, I was well-read for a kid my age, and had always cast a net wide enough to encompass history and current events, among other things, so it would never have occurred to me that this book would be a bit of a reach. I would not at the time have doubted my ability to grasp the underlying concepts of LeGuin’s latest (the first Hugo winner I ever read before it won the award). It was science fiction, after all. I would dig it.

When it came time to reread this Hugo winner, doubts emerged. I could recall very little of the book or what it was about. I usually do much better than that. That didn’t stop me from reading this classic of the genre, but I was not far into the novel before something became crystal clear. There was no way, in my teens, that I had even a clue regarding the basic themes of this book.

Those themes are big ones, if typical for LeGuin: anarchism, revolutionary societies, capitalism, socialism; male-female relationships; the freedom and burden of individuality. The Dispossessed takes these on through the story of one man’s naive assumptions about another culture, assumptions that are severely challenged when he visits that world and sees it in real life. At the same time, he is a living challenge to the assumptions made by the people he meets regarding his own world and culture, and how these shaped him. These matters provide the essential conflict in the story, as the character Shevek tries to be true to who and what he is, and the society he identifies with, while at the same time carrying forward research in physics that his own people see as being without real value. It’s why he’s left home, to complete that work. He is a man caught between the rock and the hard place when he must walk away from things he knows and believes in, and learn to live in an alien society that will allow him the freedom to make a major discovery – though for their own purposes. He is about to complete a theory that will change everything by allowing all the human worlds in LeGuin’s Hainish universe to communicate instantaneously regardless of the great gulfs of space between them. However, the grand cosmological puzzle Shevek hopes to solve seems a secondary concern to nearly all around him, as war and social upheaval shake the world to which he travels in the hope of completing the work.

Alternate chapters tell the story of Shevek coming of age on his collectivist home world of Anarres and his unsettling experiences in the capitalistic societies of the world named Urras, a planet that considers Anarres its moon. The story of personal conflict is clear enough – and the cultures and worlds LeGuin builds are exotic enough – that I surely enjoyed the book when I first read it. I certainly enjoyed the illusion of understanding it. Reading it again after 44 years, I was amazed and chagrined to realize much of the book never touched me at all. Big themes – anarchism, revolutionary societies, capitalism, and all the rest – and all of them passed under my notice, unable to really touch me in the naiveté of my adolescent years. All I was left with years later was the memory that, yes, I’d once upon a time read the words within this book. It would have been a superficial read at best.

This is not the first Hugo Award winner I’ve reread years after the fact for this weblog, and in each of those cases I was well aware of picking up things missed by my younger self. Life’s experiences accumulate and your perspective shifts; things are made clear that were muddy before or, worse, seemed clear but were not truly understood. But this is the first such book I’ve read that prompted me to look back across the years and realize that, in a sense, I hadn’t really read it at all in 1974. I read it for the first time, with full appreciation for the author’s work, this time around, more than four decades later.

Iacta Alea Est   6 comments

In a recent conversation, I said something to the effect of seeing much of my life in the rearview mirror. The friend with whom I had this conversation found this observation morbid and disturbing, and said so in no uncertain terms. A natural enough reaction for a member of a species acutely aware of its own mortality, a species that has built entire religions in denial of this simple and awesome fact. A reaction and a denial, and one that utterly missed my point.

I see nothing at all morbid about making such an assessment. At sixty-two years of age, and given the current average life expectancy of a healthy, non-smoking American male human being, it is simply the truth that more than half my time is now behind me. Barring miraculous medical advances that, being an average American, I wouldn’t be able to pay for in the first place, I need to be aware of that rear view. It isn’t morbid, it’s motivational. Now is not the time for relaxed complacency. Looking behind, looking ahead, and doing the math prompts me to get a move on. Time is not on my side, and there are things to do. There are stories to tell. More stories than I know how to count.

Writing is a time-consuming occupation, and when you count yourself among the independently published, you must add the time needed for various acts of self-promotion to the ticking clock ledger. It adds up fast. In the time since I first decided to give this a try – a decision made in late 2010 that I have not and never will regret – my chief limiting resource has been time. When I launched this enterprise I was unemployed and about all I did was write, sometimes three thousand or more words a day. That episode lasted fourteen months, and in the years since, I’ve balanced writing with a thirty-hour-a-week job. It seemed at first to be a good balance, and it did in fact work well, right up to the point that I released the last volume of War of the Second Iteration.

I’d waited on attempting meaningful self-promotion until completing that series, with the goal of launching such efforts with the entire project waiting there for readers to discover. It worked. Periodically making the first book – The Luck of Han’anga – available as a free download has driven sales of the subsequent volumes to a gratifying degree. But the time spent managing such promotions, minimal as they really are, does cut into writing time. To do more than my current promotional activities – and I truly need to do so – presents a quandary. If I’m doing that, I’m not stringing words together, and the timely release of new work (without of course compromising on quality) is as important as promoting previously released material. My attempts to find some sort of compromise allowing both activities to be done well has created only conflict and frustration. Existing books are selling, but sporadically and slowly. My promotional activities are a mere token. And the writing of my next book drags on and on…

Over the past year it became steadily more obvious that what I’m trying to do will never be accomplished under the current arrangement. The best it seemed I could hope for was to endure this state of affairs until I could retire in either 2021 or 2022, a truly depressing prospect.

It was decided to see if something could be done to close the gap. Numbers were crunched, financial strategies were altered and moved forward, and fingers were crossed. This past summer it was determined that we could, if we were careful, bridge the gap to my official retirement without relying on a regular paycheck on my part. The numbers were there, they were correct, and I held back. Having spent most of my adult life working to make sure I was working, letting go of that financial lifeline and taking even a relatively short leap of faith took more nerve than I expected. It was a solid month before I was at ease with the decision (as much as I’ll ever be), and longer before I took that deep breath and said the magic words… “I quit.”

It should be noted here that the decision was in no way an indictment of the job, much less the good people I worked for and with. Sure, there were conflicts, and there were a few people I just never could get on with. Show me a job where this is not true. My situation in total, however, was intolerable, and something had to give.

On October 31, 2018, I stopped staring into the future as if I stood with my toes over the edge of a cliff. I didn’t take a first step – I jumped. All or nothing. Time to be what I’ve always wanted to be, the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to be, no matter what diversions and distractions pulled me first one way and then another during my life. Time to turn from the mirror and face the road ahead. To be the writer, the teller of tales from this day forward.

Iacta alea est

It Works That Way, Sometimes   Leave a comment

A while back, in “The Process, Part One”, I very briefly discussed matters to do with imagination and where story ideas come from. What follows illustrates one way the tales I tell can get started. It isn’t always a daydream that points the way to the destination. On this particular occasion – and it has happened before – I had to sleep on it.

I’m currently under treatment for hypertension, and one of the medications I take has, as one of its few side effects, the tendency on my part to have “lucid” dreams. And they really are lucid. More than once I’ve not so much woken from such a dream as segued from the dreamtime into the dimly lit real world of the bedroom, early in the morning. Balanced between the two I am, for just a moment, convinced of the reality of both. All too often this segue comes as a relief, as the realization comes that it really was just a dream, and I don’t need to come up with a resolution for whatever awkward situation the dreamtime concocted for me that night. And these dreams are, far more often than not, weird. Some are seriously weird and even disturbing.

Sometimes they’re something more, posing puzzles that linger into the waking world, puzzles that I find myself thinking through whether it makes much sense to do so or not. Like the one last night, during which I was in the midst of an alien invasion. It was sort of a cross between the films Independence Day and Skyline. Strange machines in the sky, people in a panic, buildings collapsing under an avalanche of inexplicable lighting effects – you know, the standard Hollywood stuff.

Weird, yes, but after the fact, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that the dream took the form it did, considering how much of my time is taken up by reading and writing fantastical fiction. And I’ve enjoyed my share of alien invasion fare over the years. There was an oppressive quality to the dream and the waking-world residue that reminded me of the film Skyline, a movie I actually dislike because of its realistic hopelessness. Yes, faced with such a situation, it is unlikely humanity would prevail, but who wants that for entertainment? The aliens would surely have their way with us. All of which begs the question of why they’d want to have their way with us. Science fiction writers have, since the days of H.G. Wells, dreamt up a variety of motivations, the majority of which are most likely to be nonsense. Resources? Living space? Women? Please…

That’s the puzzle that lingered after the nightmare anxieties faded. It’s not a new question; I’ve heard and seen numerous readers and writers of science fiction raise it in the past. For some reason, this morning it was my time to tackle it, all because a weird dream triggered that train of thought. So – a species capable of traveling through the vastness between the stars would surely be able to tap the raw materials of the universe as needed. Why would they need to come here and make a fuss? There would have to be something about this Earth of ours they desired, something that didn’t accrete routinely from the interstellar dust from which stars and worlds are formed. Skyline was actually on the right track, in that regard, with the aliens after something you’d only find on a living world like Earth. (The way they employed their plot device struck me as being as biologically absurd as aliens wanting human women, but still…) Yes, it would have to be something very rare, if not unique.

There would also need to be a compelling reason to acquire that “something.”

And just like that, I had an answer. A thing we have here that might provide a motivation for aliens to come here, and a reason for them to want what we have, although perhaps not with hostile intent. In fact, there almost certainly wouldn’t be any hostilities. And with that answer, that idea, I found myself making note of a new place to go, and a trail in need of cutting to the destination that is a story’s climax, to reuse that metaphor I apply so often when I write about story telling.

I got up, went into the space I call an office, and jotted down some notes. Not sure when I’ll get to this one – it has a few competitors for my writing time – but the idea has been safely recorded, the trailhead marked for future exploration, and it will someday become either a long short story, or a novella. Because now that I’ve glimpsed this new story, I’ve got to write it. For me, there’s really no choice about it.

Crazy, perhaps, that it came about as it did. And yet, it just works that way, sometimes.

Book Five and the End of the Beginning – Part Two   1 comment

It’s been my goal, from the beginning, to keep these pieces on the short side, to make them quick and easy reads. This entry refused to cooperate, so it’s being posted in two parts.

When I pulled The Way of Leyra’an from the file, my intention was to go through it to check for typos and such, and clean it up for self-publication as soon as possible. While doing so, I continued my investigation of the so-called “indie” author movement. What I learned convinced me that simply cleaning the manuscript up and turning it loose probably wouldn’t do. I needed outside input on the story, its qualities and shortcomings. Professional editors had been impressed by the book, but that wasn’t exactly a critique. Hiring an editor was not an option. My employment situation had become precarious and I had good reason to believe I would soon be unemployed. (I was, unfortunately, proven correct in this.) I needed to set money aside, not spend it. I latched onto the concept of beta readers, and pondered how to make use of it. All the while, I read through The Way of Leyra’an, correcting errors and making notes as ideas came to mind.

At the same time, I pulled together some amateur astronomy material I’d written for, but never posted to, my favorite astronomy forum. With some work I was able to blend it all together into a short memoir of my experiences as a star gazer in my teens, and how I came to pick up the pastime again as an adult. The idea had occurred to use this small book to test the waters of self-publishing. It became Mr. Olcott’s Skies – An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession. While I revisited the novel and began to first revise and then completely rewrite it, I used the memoir to learn what I needed to know in order to actually make a book. You know, those little things like fonts and formatting, cover art and design, product descriptions and tables of contents. (Actually, this part was a journey unto itself, and I found myself exploring things that I’d never considered would be part of the publishingg experience. That’s worth an essay to itself, someday.) The experience proved valuable down the road.

Meanwhile, The Way of Leyra’an became another book altogether. Rereading and reworking it, I discovered a different, and longer, story in the material. Cleaning up or even just expanding the book wouldn’t do. This was a trilogy, no doubt about it. On the day that this thought occurred – I’d been working with the original manuscript for more than a month – I decided to take the original idea and just start over. The Way of Leyra’an had served its purpose, and it was time to write The Luck of Han’anga. As I gained momentum and a story began to evolve, I remembered how deeply I’ve always enjoyed the process of making words do what I needed them to do. I remembered how good it felt to write. Life seemed less bleak and purposeless.

One day, while working on this new novel and enjoying that feeling of having gotten a scene just right, there occurred one of those moments of absolute clarity that we all experience a few times in our lives. I understood something and knew this thing absolutely. The gloom of the previous years was well and thoroughly banished, the lack of purpose completely expunged because I was writing again, and doing so not only with the intention of publishing but in full knowledge that it would be published. In that moment of clarity I understood the nightmares and the black moods. When something defines you, when that something exists as the very core of your being, as writing has always done for me, it’s more than merely disappointing to leave it aside and walk away. It is, for some of us at least, impossible to do so without harm. The moods and bad dreams were a manifestation of the mental and emotional damage being done by my attempt to walk away from writing. The new world of self-publishing came along just in time, and I’m pleased to say no permanent damage was done.

These feelings of relief, of finally being back on the right track, were heightened with the publication of my very first book. Mr. Olcott’s Skies was released in March of 2012 and was well-received. By then I’d completed a draft of The Luck of Han’anga and found some beta readers, all of them people I knew well enough to expect they would provide honest criticism. They did; some of it made me cringe a bit, but when I read what they said and re-examined the book, I couldn’t argue the points. So I made revisions and tried to learn from it all, with my eyes already on the next book. My wife went though the final manuscript and checked it for errors, resulting in a very clean copy and a much stronger ending for Book One. I applied the knowledge I’d gained publishing the memoir and hit the publish button, and the first book of the War of the Second Iteration series went live on June 7, 2012.

By then I was well into the first draft of Book Two, and was having trouble figuring out how to end it in a way that would allow the next book to wrap up the trilogy. I actually sat down at one point and sketched out a sort of timeline to illustrate roughly the sequence of events I needed in order to reach the final scene, which was already fixed in my mind. To my surprise the overall story arc fell into not three but five sub-arcs. This was more than I’d bargained for, but I accepted what the story was telling me and forged ahead. I couldn’t help myself. There was no angst or hand-wringing involved; I was having too much fun.

And so it went, through books Two, Three, and Four. The story evolved as I wrote it, and each book built on those that came before. I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of the details and maintain continuity. By Book Four I was rereading material in the previous volumes, in self-defense. I’d had no idea what I was getting into and the climb, while manageable, was pretty steep. Then it came time to write Book Five, and it was like heading straight for a wall.

How do you end a story that’s gone on for so long? I’d done so, in a manner of speaking, four times by then. But in each of those cases there was a next book ahead to carry things forward. There was no going forward after this, and I felt oddly constrained as I wrote. (The fact that the year in which I wrote Book Five was a troubled time surely didn’t help.) I needed this to work, to be the grand payoff, and I’d never done anything quite like this before. Previous experience with individual books just didn’t seem to carry any weight. How to stop this train without turning it into a train wreck?

The story itself eventually gave me the answer. As I wrote and figured out more of what the implacable foe was and could do, and led the characters through the discoveries they needed to make within the plot, the end shaped itself. And then it was written, beta read and revised – and the end of the process seemed to come on all of a sudden. I’m satisfied with how it turned out, and rather pleased to have pulled it off. Whether or not I truly succeeded, well, you’ll have to tell me!

When I hit the button and published Setha’im Prosh, it was a strangely anti-climactic experience. Yes, it was enormously gratifying, and yes, I feel a great pride in what I’ve accomplished, but… How is it possible this is really all said and done? This has been the center of things for more than five years. Where are all those characters I’ve come to know so well? It feels strange to walk around and not be wondering what tune Robert MacGregor should play on the bagpipes next, or what new tricks the Faceless have up their sleeves. The impulse to do such things has not abated, but this story is done. Where am I supposed to go from here?

Elsewhere, of course. Into another imaginary universe, of which I have no shortage, believe me. And I already know which one it will be.

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