Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ 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.)

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

Winner of three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel:

2016  The Fifth Season

2017  The Obelisk Gate

2018  The Stone Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comfort Reads   Leave a comment

Recent troubled times – pandemic and politics – have tested the mettle and coping methods of us all. Although writing (see previous entry) provided me with a measure of escape, I remained anything but an exception to the rule. In some ways the pandemic, in its early stay-home-stay-safe phase, was less of a hardship for me than for so many others. I did miss gathering with friends, but as a writer, spending time alone is simply the way of things. You might say self-isolation was part of my job description. It certainly didn’t hurt that my wife retired just as the pandemic fell on us like a collapsing building. Being in the mess together offered a considerable advantage. Even the sporadic shortages, including food items, fall into the “It could be worse” category for us. Flexible menu planning – my wife and I both like to cook and have between us a respectable repertoire – prevented a major problem in that regard. And in that collection of recipes we have many that make you feel better about life just by cooking and eating them. They may not always be the healthiest eating, but some days it doesn’t pay to worry too much about that. You’re eating to relax and feel better about life, something that surely has therapeutic benefits, if not taken to extremes. Comfort food, in other words.

You can only eat so much, and stay healthy. When immersed in the writing process, I can ignore what’s going on, but I can’t write 24/7, and sooner or later I am out in the real world, coping. It wears you out. I doubt anyone reading this would argue that point. And so when I’m not writing, I seek other things to distract me without undue effort, and early in the pandemic one of those comfortable distractions was rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Returning to Middle Earth was a thing I did in my teens, when life challenged me in ways that made escape desirable. An old habit, then, brought forward to the present day. The feeling of comfortable familiarity provided enough relief that, when I turned the last page of The Return of the King, I found myself scanning the bookshelves, thinking of other works that had, in my teens and early adulthood, taken me from my troubles. I found myself making quite a list, and committing to rereading other old favorites while the troubled world continued to lurch awkwardly around me.

Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation Trilogy was next up, a work that seemed to age better as the reread moved from Foundation, to Foundation and Empire, and finally to Second Foundation. Asimov was learning and growing as a writer as these stories evolved, and you can see things progress in that regard. That’s probably why the last book seemed less naïve than the first. Not that the first wasn’t a fine example of comfort reading, of course. It was simply an interesting progression, one that didn’t register during earlier reads and rereads.

As the year 2020 went on, adding wildfires and continent-spanning plumes of smoke to our woes, I indulged in more comfort reads. Cities in Flight by James Blish, The Stone That Never Came Down by John Brunner, Tau Zero by Poul Anderson, City by Clifford D. Simak, and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, among others, all passed under my gaze for the first time in decades. 2020 ended, but 2021 seemed to look back and say, “Here, hold my beer.” So I kept reading – and writing.

Although some of the worst-case scenarios have not played out as we feared, the world seems inclined to remain a thing that challenges sanity, so this habit of pulling old favorites from the shelf and indulging in comfort reads is likely to continue. And if things ever settle down? To be honest, I’ll probably keep reading those old favorites. It’s been a fine thing to revisit these books that meant so much to me, once upon a time, and there’s no shortage of such books in this household. It will surely be a habit that endures past the pandemic’s end.

Posted September 5, 2021 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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A Way of Coping   Leave a comment

When lockdowns and “stay safe, stay at home” admonitions became newsworthy last year, a friend asked how I was handling the enforced isolation. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I pointed out that as a writer, isolation was part of my job description. Less facetiously, I reminded him that I was stuck at home with the right person, my wife of more than thirty years, and the two of us were coping pretty well.

But in truth, the comment about writing and isolation was all in jest. It wasn’t that I got through the disruptions of 2020 because I was accustomed to spending my time alone with the words that I write. Last year, the process of writing Variation on a Theme helped keep me sane. Pandemic and politics, along with a seemingly endless wildfire on the mountains that dominate the local landscape, provided reasons aplenty to be depressed. Writing that book gave me a way out for a few hours each day. The positive effect on mental health and morale was enormous. I’ve used the way I immerse myself in the writing process to ward off the stress of the real world at other times in the recent past. In the years since I launched this indie author career, I’ve lost two brothers, my father, and my father-in-law. Writing my War of the Second Iteration series, The Gryphon Stone, All That Bedevils Us, and Toby as all these calamities unfolded, being able to fully engage my mind with the process of creating these worlds and the people within them, made a very real difference.

Part of the reason this works so well for me is that, as an indie, I’m free to write what I want. While marketing of the work I produce is an important related activity, I don’t write with the market in mind. I don’t write a book wondering how well it will sell. Commercial success is a goal, and a worthy one, but if mine remains a modest success, I can live with that. I didn’t go into this with the idea that it would be easy money, much less with the expectation that I would make a living at it. I tell the stories that excite me and hope they interest others sufficiently that they’re willing to pay for the opportunity to read them. If that doesn’t happen it’s certainly disappointing, but I’m free to move on to the next story without the concern that my publisher will dump me because sales are low. I’m therefore fully engaged with these stories I decide to tell, not distracted by more mundane concerns such as marketability, and can escape into the process of bringing them to life. It can be an enormous relief to do so, and last year was yet another example of how that escape has kept me from needing mental health care.

Because I’m free to do so, I don’t write in the same market niche all of the time. That’s how Toby came into being. My next book – Variation on a Theme – also speaks of this freedom. It’s nothing like anything I’ve tried to do before. I enjoyed the challenge of making it work, vexing as it often was, and more often than not was able to focus my full attention on the first draft and the revisions necessary before beta readers could take their turn. (Did it work? Well, in the near future, you’ll tell me.) While it was being beta read, I was free to turn my attention to new stories in the Second Iteration universe – making a strong start on a four-book series. A literary agent would go nuts trying to deal with the way I slip from one market niche to another – assuming she lasted past the first two such books. A traditional publisher would show me to the door and lock it behind me.

So like everyone else caught up in the events of the year 2020, I coped. My wife and I stayed home, kept our heads down – literally and figuratively – and I wrote. All the while, pandemic and politics raged around us. I was aware of events, and of course I was worried, often deeply so. Writing isn’t a perfect escape from the real world, just a chance to let the worries slip away for a while. A chance to let the stress fade while I catch my breath and move on with life. In the process, a story that insisted on being written became a collection of well-ordered words. With any luck, distracted as I sometimes was – okay, make that frequently distracted – I got all those words in the right order, and created something people can relate to and enjoy. And just maybe it will give someone else, someone in need of a little escape, the means to get away from it all for a while.

Posted June 9, 2021 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

Remembering Gateway by Frederik Pohl   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1978

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Successfully Unsuccessful Garden   Leave a comment

Gardening is one of those things in my life that keeps me grounded, no pun intended. The garden is always out there, even when I don’t make complete use of it. There have been years recently during which little was planted, and less harvested, due to unfortunate circumstances, some of them beyond my control. And then there are years like this one, when the motivation was there, the soil was turned, and the seeds were planted. All else being equal, it then comes down to the weather. The weather came down hard in 2020.

Our 2020 garden started well enough. My wife and I replaced yet another raised bed frame, work that brought the entire garden back into production for the first time in far too long. We started three varieties of basil, two of tomatoes, and three types of bell pepper, and an assortment of flowers suitable for warmer weather. We set out these transplants a little later than usual, but not so late that it should have brought a disaster down upon the garden. Unfortunately, the summer of 2020 decided to take over from spring ahead of schedule, and seriously overstayed its welcome. April was as hot as we would have expected from June, and May followed suit. As June melted into July, we waited for the temperature-moderating influence of the summer thunderstorm season, the so-called desert monsoon. It quite literally did not happen, and we endured one of the hottest and driest summers on record. The ridge of high atmospheric pressure responsible for the heat, as well as suppression of storm development even when the moisture was present, persisted. August became September, and we stayed “unseasonably” hot; the previous record for days with triple digit temperatures in a single year was broken on September 30th.

The garden baked. The drip irrigation system kept the plants alive, but the heat stress prevented them from being productive. On hot and breezy days, the plants simply couldn’t take up water fast enough to offset losses through their leaves. It was all they could do merely to survive. Tomato and pepper plants can’t produce viable pollen under such conditions, so no fruit was set. The flowers struggled and either bloomed sporadically, or not at all. Only the heat-loving basil did at all well, becoming the single success in the 2020 garden.

Sounds pretty hopeless, and from a certain perspective, it surely was. And yet the garden succeeded on a level that had nothing to do with our intentions or expectations.

If my wife and I were still part of the workaday world, the full success of this year’s garden would have been missed. But now we’re both done working for a living, and with the Covid-19 pandemic a clear and present danger, we stayed home. One of the things that has helped keep us from going completely crazy during this episode of isolation has been the natural history in our suburban lot. We have several very large mesquite trees on the property, and that well-watered vegetable garden. We put water and seed out for the birds, and hummingbird feeders are maintained that also attract Gila Woodpeckers and fledgling Verdins in addition to the Anna’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds we had in mind. So, we live in an oasis centered on a garden. Being home all the time, we were given the opportunity to watch how this oasis, while not forthcoming in terms of tomatoes, made this hellish summer a little easier for local birds, reptiles, and insects.

Resident creatures that eat insects found plenty to work with. For them, the garden was amazingly productive. Lucy’s Warblers, Verdins, and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers foraged in the tomatoes, which were lush even if they didn’t set fruit. Abert’s Towhees and Curve-billed Thrashers scratched and shuffled through the mulch, seeking grubs – and finding them. When, during a “cold snap” (quotes denote sarcasm here) the tomatoes set a few fruit, a Phainopepla and a young Northern Cardinal took advantage. The Verdins apparent appreciated those tiny tomatoes as well, especially when damaged fruit attracted insects. The fruit being abnormally small and few in number, we left them for the birds.

When flowers did manage to bloom, they attracted and fed the few butterflies we saw this year. More common visitors were honeybees, solitary bees, and flies. Some of the tiny dipterid insects drawn to the flowers, gnats to you and me, were small enough to be caught and eaten by the Anna’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds that were drawn to our feeders. Bug snacks for everyone.

No matter what I intend, I rarely harvest basil often enough to prevent flowers from appearing. Common garden knowledge holds that allowing basil to bloom ruins the quality of the herb. I’ve never found that to be particularly true, but usually remove flowers anyway to encourage new leaves. Even with that motive, I don’t always keep up with this chore. I was especially lazy about flower removal this summer. It was so hot all the time that I had little interest in being out in the garden working, even early in the morning. This suited numerous insect species, including honeybees and ants, that found in the basil flowers a source of much-needed nourishment. When I fully realized the resource I was removing, I stopped snipping basil flowers altogether, and let the ants and the bees take full advantage. And when the plants set seed, the Lesser Goldfinches came in to feast. At times, so of these small yellow, green, and black birds were working the basil patch that it would seem a tiny wind storm was taking place in that garden bed.

Birds weren’t the only backyard residents sustained by the insects calling the garden home. The resident lizards (four species) were also in good shape. The dominant species in our yard is the collared lizard, some of which grow to be eight inches or so long, and of respectable girth. These lizards are territorial, and the back yard around the garden was divided into four small kingdoms that I was aware of. The biggest of the bunch lived on the back porch, adjacent to the garden. Most mornings we found this lizard foraging for insects in the loose mulch on the tomato bed. He was an accomplished climber, and many times a rustling heard high in the vegetation would turn out to be George, and not a bird looking for a six-legged snack. George? It just seemed like a good name for him. I may have been suffering from a bit of cabin fever at the time, but the name stuck. He became quite fearless, showing no real concern when I went around in the early morning, watering things that weren’t on the drip system. Unless he thought I was about to douse him. George hated being wet.

All the bird life in and around the garden, along with the birdbath, attracted the attention of the resident Cooper’s Hawks. Of course, the hawks sometimes made kills during their visits, feasting on the other birds in the yard while also raising three hungry offspring. This wasn’t always the most entertaining aspect of our little desert oasis, but that’s nature for you. Always beautiful in its way, but not always pretty.

We spent the summer from hell stuck at home, watching the garden of 2020 fail and succeed, depending on how you decide to look at it. In years past a garden this unsuccessful would have been a source of great disappointment, and nothing more. Wrapped up in day jobs, we would have, at best, glimpsed the full story during an evening, or on a weekend. And to be honest, we were aware that much was going on in the garden that had nothing to do with us picking peppers. Being here full time made it possible to deepen that awareness. The garden failed as far as our direct intentions were concerned but sustained a kaleidoscope of life that enriched our lives and provided distraction when it was sorely needed.

Posted December 9, 2020 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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