Archive for the ‘changes’ Tag

On Being Hobbitish   Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flights of fancy, indeed. You just never know.

The Book That Changed You   Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s yours?

The Process, Part Seven: The More Things Change   Leave a comment

One of the best bits of advice a writer can be given is that you need to finish the first draft. No matter what doubts you harbor regarding a story’s quality or eventual fate, you really have nothing on which to base decisions until that first draft is in your hands. Going back to the beginning to start again and fix things can be a trap, a neverending loop of increasing self-doubt. Following this advice is easier said than done, something I know all too well. But it’s essential.

I’ve become fond of the phrase “discovery writing” to describe that first journey to story’s end. (When you think about it, “discovery writing” applies whether you’re an outliner or write by the seat of your pants as I do.) No matter how clear your vision for the story was at the start, the reality of putting the words down in the right order will be an altogether different experience. Telling the tale will lead you to thoughts and ideas that could not emerge until you started thinking of things at that level of detail. That sometimes makes it a difficult trail to find and clear for readers to follow. Along the way you might very well become lost and confused. You’ll doubt the worth of what you’re doing. The machete you’re swinging through the underbrush will seem to have lost its edge.

Just keep going. Trust the story, trust yourself (the same thing, really) and finish the first draft no matter how rough and unsatisfying it might be. Stay the course, straight as you can, and finish it. The quality of the first draft does not matter, completing it does, because now you can do the revisions that make it work.

For me, the process of revision itself has two phases. The first is generated by my own perception of that first draft and its problems, some of which I noticed while writing it. My first drafts are usually sprinkled with notes to myself to address problems or to expand on ideas, among other things. I do this to avoid constantly going back and forth over the same material when I really need to be forging ahead. When I have a first draft completed I go back to the beginning and read through the entire work. Doing this immediately means I have the end of the tale firmly in mind, allowing me to judge whether or not the story begins the way it should. I often discover that the trailhead for this journey isn’t in the right place. Having finished the entire story, I have the knowledge I need to guide me to a solution to that problem. Having verified that the book or story starts in a way that will remain consistent with the internal logic of the tale all the way through, I continue to read through the whole thing. There will be rough spots and loose threads – this is when I find and fix them. There will be debris to clear from the path, often marked by the notes I left to myself, usually unnecessary exposition, sometimes a stray subplot that adds nothing to the tale. I sometimes need to “colorize” parts of the story, having forgotten to describe things in ways that will bring a passage or chapter fully to life. I tweak dialog, clarify character traits and motivations, make sense of plot devices so things don’t seem to spring into being without context – in short, changing anything that stands out in a less than positive way. I’m clearing the bumps and trip hazards of a rough-hewn trail. For me, this revision phase usually takes longer than the first draft to complete, and (again usually) is where I realize that whatever doubts I harbored during the discovery writing were either unfounded to begin with, or are amenable to changes that increase my confidence in the quality of the work.

This pass through the first draft is where I most enjoy this process. Most writers I know dread editing and revising a manuscript. For me, this is where I get to see the full potential of a project begin to show itself. It’s a uniquely satisfying feeling to find a flaw in the story, wrestle with the problem, and then sit back realizing you made it work. Discovery writing is the hard part. Revisions are where the fun begins.

Having completed that pass through the now not so rough draft, I seek the editorial input that will make possible the next phase of revisions. So far this has, for me, come entirely from a crew of willing and able beta readers. At some time in the future I do want to add a professional freelance editor to the loop. However it is done, once I have that input and have had time to consider it, I make one more pass through the manuscript. What I change at that point, and to what degree I change it, depends on the amount of consensus I see between beta readers. If more than half are troubled by the same thing, that will likely lead to a major revision. But I sometimes make a change because one person’s comment caused me to rethink something. This part of the revision process often takes longer than the previous clean-up. Some of the flaws found by beta readers (it never ceases to amaze me, the stuff I miss) are serious and require a lot of work to address.

The biggest challenge of them all, regarding revision of any story, long or short, is knowing when to quit. Perfection being unattainable in the real world, there comes a point when you need to say, “Enough!” and move on. It’s a tough call. When revisions consistently become minor tweaks, and when I can read the work aloud (a powerful proofreading tool, by the way) without stumbling over an awkward phrase, I’m done. Your mileage may vary.

At this point just one thing is left, and that’s proofreading. That’s done in-house with the assistance of my wife, who rarely misses a misplaced comma or hyphen, and who has a better than average understanding of this language I so gleefully abuse for my own purposes. With a little formatting, the proofread manuscript is then prepared for publishing and promotion. At this point my task as a writer, this time around, is essentially complete. Time for me to sharpen all the trail cutting tools and start writing the next book.

As for the book completed and released for sale to the general public, it is now part of an altogether different process, one of examination and assessment that is solely in the hands of readers. It’s not for me to determine the worth of a book I’ve written. I have a certain amount of confidence in my work, but whether or not I’ve succeeded or failed, that is for you to decide.

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

The Process, Part Five: Devils In Those Details   1 comment

Part One: The Stuff Of Which Daydreams Are Made

Part Two: Blazing A Trail

Part Three: The Lay of the Land

Part Four: What a Bunch of Characters

 

A story requires a plot and characters – the trail you cut to the ending and the traveling companions who make the journey with you. But there’s more to it than just a new line drawn on the map of your imagination. You saw things along the way, things worth pointing out to those who will follow after you. After all, when you cleared the path for others to follow, you were passing through a world. It’s a world of your imagination, but one that must come to life in the imaginations of others if the work is to have any meaning in the end. So, as you cut the trail that charts the plot of your story, and grow acquainted with the people you push into those situations that comprise the plot, you need to look around at the world, the setting. You need to see the forest and the trees – among many other things. This part of storytelling is, appropriately enough, called world building.

There’s a lot of work involved in world building, an understatement if ever there was one. This is true whether the setting for the story is as narrow in scope as a single room, or as broad as all of time and space. Whatever the scale, I’ve found that the single biggest challenge involved with the concept of world building is knowing when to quit. If you have any imagination at all, and have paid attention to the real world, you know that any level of perceived detail rests upon a more fine-grained reality. A range of tree-covered mountains is composed of rock and trees. Look closer and the trees have leaves, and among those leaves are birds that fly from branch to branch gleaning insects to eat. The stone of mountain is layered, and in each layer there are flecks of various colored minerals. You could look ever closer, down to the subatomic realm – if you wanted to be ridiculous about it. (Although, if the story demands it, then it isn’t really ridiculous.) Whatever level of detail you choose, that’s a lot of stuff to keep track of. (Spreadsheets for the win! Trust me on this.) And there’s the proverbial rub. How fine-grained do you need to be for the story you want to tell? And how do you make that level of detail blend in as a part of the story, rendering it an integral part of the whole, and neither a mere backdrop nor a distraction.

If you’re too sparing of detail, the world of the story may amount to little more than the painting at the back of a stage. I used to have that problem, years ago. A fellow writer in a fiction writing group I once belonged to summed it up by comparing my work to watching a black-and-white copy of The Wizard of Oz. She kept waiting for the color portion to unfold, but it never did. I spent years trying to overcome that defect, and seriously over-compensated. I went as fine-grained as I could, the sort of writing that draws the dreaded complaint of “info dump,” in which the story pretty much stops dead while the author paints a high-definition picture of the scene (or of a character). The first version of The Luck of Han’anga would have been an example of serial info dumps, but for the honesty of beta readers.

Frankly, I think the term info dump is sometimes used too often and freely by readers who are actually just covering up for their short attention spans. But the “info dump” is a real thing, and can turn a ripping tale of swashbuckling adventure into a fictional narrative history. Finding the balance between too much and too little exposition is the real trick, and one I find cannot be addressed effectively the first time through a new story. What I call cutting the trail to the story’s end is otherwise known as discovery writing – a very apt phrase indeed – and it isn’t until I know the length of that trail that I can turn back and see that the trail I’ve discovered is lacking in breadth.

I start from the beginning and work through the story again, trying my best to see with my mind’s eye this “reality” inhabited by the story and its characters. What are the colors, the sound, the scents? Everything from clothing styles to the height and breadth of mountains, the temperature of the breeze and the colors of stars – it’s all relevant. Or can be. The trick is to make sure it really is relevant. Does it serve the needs of the story in a way that aids in moving it forward? Another way to think of this is to ask, does the reader need to know these things for the story to come alive and make sense? (There’s a related question: does the reader need to know this now? Timing is everything.) If the answer is “yes,” I need to find a way for the reader to experience, rather than merely receive the information. Sometimes it can be woven into events as they unfold, and at others it can be imparted through conversation between characters, or seen through their eyes and reflected in their reactions. Inevitable, I find a spot where I just need to paint a picture. I usually employ a combination of these techniques before all is said and done, meaning I’ve concluded a workable draft of the story.

By this point in the process of writing a story, be it long or short, I’ve had the daydream that set it all in motion, and made the trip necessary. I’ve found my way through a landscape of possibilities, from trailhead to destination. I’ve met and worked with (and sometimes worked over) the characters of the tale. And I’ve built what I hope is a plausible reality in which the story can unfold. It’s an organic process, with all of these aspects co-evolving as I go. Some of the world building happens during the discovery writing, and character development is altered by the evolution of the world I build during subsequent passes through the material. These aspects can be identified separately, but they very rarely (for me) operate truly independently of each other.

I’ve also been through the story at least two times, sometimes three – or more. It’s becoming difficult to see the forest for the trees.  In a way, I’m too familiar with it all. It’s time for me to step back and seek some feedback. Time for someone else to follow the trail and tell me what they see.

A Deeper Appreciation   Leave a comment

Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970

Science fiction has always been a genre that embodies change. A genre built on the question “What if?” could hardly be expected to remain static, after all. By the time I was a teenager something called The New Wave had already swept over and through the sci-fi landscape, altering it forever. I’d already traveled through some of that altered landscape, having read Frank Herbert’s Dune, among other books. If I noticed that the genre was changing, however, I have no recollection of it. Frankly, my adolescent frame of reference didn’t give me the perspective I would have needed to notice the transition. My reading was too random – old works and books more recently published all jumbled together. I just knew that the more sci-fi I read, the better I liked it – somewhat to the distress of my parents and my home town librarian. Looking back and considering the times during which I grew up, I can understand that discomfort to a certain degree. Some of the fiction I devoured back then, especially by the New Wave authors, asked “What if?” questions that most of the people around me would rather not see asked, much less answered. Questions regarding human sexuality provide an example that looms large in my memory (I was a teenager, after all), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness serves as a case in point.

I was coming up on being finished with high school, and looking forward to having it a thing of the past, when I first read anything at all by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness was my introduction to her work, and it was one of those instances in which one book made me a fan of the author while altering my impression of what science fiction was – or could be – all at the same time. It was an experience much like my first reading of Dune. This book was different. It made a very deep impression on me at the ripe old age of 18 years, and I was just old enough to appreciate some of the things the author was saying. It felt that way at the time, at least. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness at the somewhat riper old age of 60, I have to admit that more went past me, back then, than into me.

This isn’t an indictment, of course. After all, I had the frame of reference of an 18-year-old from a small Illinois town. I was also something of a loner and misfit, into the bargain. Having made very few (mutual) emotional attachments outside my own family, the very human interactions of the characters that populate The Left Hand of Darkness involved levels of relationship that were pretty much outside my experience. For instance, it did not register on me until this rereading that the relationship between Estraven and the Ekumen envoy Genli Ai could be considered a love story. Not a conventional romance, but the story of a deep, complicated, confusing, and powerful bond; a love that grows between two intelligent people who never quite seem to recognize how they feel. And yet, they somehow come to accept each other’s humanity, in the face of their profound physical and cultural differences.

In a nutshell, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of a man sent to be an ambassador of sorts from a starfaring civilization to a planet just emerging from its rendition of the Industrial Revolution. All human worlds are the result of colonization by an earlier, lost civilization, and the envoy of the story is part of the slow process of bringing all these worlds back into contact with each other. The world called Gethen (a.k.a. Winter – so named for its Ice Age conditions) is populated by a race of humans who are a form of hermaphrodite. Gethens are, most of the time, androgynous. Once a month they become either male or female. Which gender develops is influenced by situations and relationships, but no one Gethen tends to become either male or female with any consistency. This civilization is divided into a pair of competing nations, one a sort of constitutional monarchy, the other bearing a strong resemblance to the collective society the old Soviet Union thought it was. (The people in the story don’t get it right either.) How the envoy navigates through the cultures that have evolved under the influence of the planet’s conditions and the reproductive biology of the natives makes up the plot. Along the way, the story examines the very nature of gender perception and relationships between genders in a way that is remarkably timely, considering what we see in the headlines these days.

There’s a depth and meaning to this story that I simply could not have understood when I read the book in 1974. (And I can’t hope to do it justice in one essay. That such a slim volume could have such depth is a tribute to its author.) The memories I could call up from that earlier reading centered on the adventure of Estraven and Genly Ai crossing the great glacier that dominates the landscape. What the book said about how we see gender in other human beings, and how that perception shapes us as individuals and members of a culture, went right past me. This time around my understanding of, and appreciation for, what the author had to say was very different. I think that this time, I get it. But maybe I’ll have to read it again after another twenty or thirty years of experience, just to be sure.

 

Book Five and the End of the Beginning – Part One   2 comments

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.

In early 2011, following certain revelations regarding an alleged revolution in self-publishing, I pulled an old manuscript out of an overstuffed file cabinet. The title of the book was The Way of Leyra’an. It was the first and only novel I’d written since completing a long-delayed B.S. in plant biology in 1998. Before my return to academia I’d written half a dozen novels (and rewritten all of them at least once), and enough short stories and magazine articles that I can no long remember the count. I’d sold some of the nonfiction, but not a single novel or short story. The sort of fall-back work I’d been doing while writing was wearing me out physically, so I went back to school to increase my range of options. As soon as the degree was done, I went back to writing fiction. Although it was easily the best thing I’d written to that point in my life, by that day in 2011 The Way of Leyra’an had spent the better part of a decade in that cabinet, and came very near to being my last work of fiction.

The first publisher to see it rejected it. This came as no surprise, since the odds are overwhelmingly against any given publisher saying “yes.” The rejection letter intrigued me, however, and encouraged me. It wasn’t a boilerplate response with a hastily scribbled signature at the bottom. It was an expression of regret. The editor liked the book! Unfortunately, he didn’t believe his company could find a viable market for it. They already had too much of that type of story in the pipeline. Bad luck regarding the marketability, but at least he liked the book! So I bundled The Way of Leyra’an up and sent it to the next publisher on my short list of those still accepting un-agented manuscripts – a list that has grown steadily shorter in the years that followed, or so I’m told. I waited and went about my business – working on student loans and getting accustomed to mortgage payments – and lo and behold, there came another rejection letter. It said essentially the same thing. Third time’s the charm, so they say. Whoever “they” are, they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. The book bounced that time, too, with essentially the same letter coming along for the ride.

The message seemed clear – I needed to be better than every other aspiring writer, luckier than the rest, and have the psychic power to see into the future and avoid writing books that would be unmarketable by the time I finished them.

Knocked down three times, get up four, some would say. Persistence is easy to preach, but by that time I’d been knocked down and around by rejection letters for more than twenty years. I’d had enough. I didn’t send it out a fourth time. I packed it away, closed work-in-progress files on my computer, and quit. It was time to find other ways to spend my time when I wasn’t busy working to pay off those debts.

The consequences of this decision were not immediately apparent. In fact, for a few years it felt like I’d recovered from a long illness. I spent more time in the garden and returned to the world of amateur astronomy. The latter in particular soaked up a lot of creative energy, and the time I’d originally devoted to writing. It was (and is) an immensely enjoyable and rewarding hobby. But the feeling of emancipation didn’t last. At some point in 2007 I became aware that my basic attitude toward life had shifted in the wrong direction. I was more sarcastic and cynical, and more likely to see the negative side of things. A comment from my wife started the process of realizing I was headed for trouble. She said that I didn’t laugh as much as I used to, her way of asking what was wrong without making a complaint of it. Given the amount of humor that was a hallmark of our relationship, I was baffled and unsettled by the question – and I didn’t see it her way, which represented a hefty dose of denial on my part. Then I started to have the nightmare. It was a dark dream that repeated along variations on a theme, the central element being that I had gotten myself lost and, for some reason this was worse, couldn’t come up with a reason for being there. What purpose did it serve, I’d ask myself. And the answer would come: “None.” I’d then be seized by chest pains that lingered when I woke up in a cold sweat, leaving me to wonder if this time the heart attack was for real. It was never real. It was frightening nonetheless, and as the frequency of the nightmare increased, it started to wear me down.

That sense of being without direction or purpose was corrosive. I wasn’t as much fun to be with or work with, and I lost any sense that the work I was doing was worth anything or was going to take me anywhere I wanted or needed to go. I was considering asking my doctor to refer me to someone qualified to throw me a lifeline. Depression? No doubt about that. Nothing made much sense, fewer and fewer things seemed worth doing, and I couldn’t figure out what to do about it. Oh, life wasn’t uniformly bleak. There were good times that diverted me and provided some relief, but more and more often, especially in winter, I would awaken to a black mood and the firm conviction that none of this was worth a damn.

All the while, Amazon and its Kindle e-reader were turning the world of writing and publishing upside down. I’d heard of the Kindle; being book-oriented regardless of what else was going on, I could hardly miss it. I remember my amazement the first time I saw and held one. There’d been e-readers before, but they were big, clunky disasters. This thing was like a gadget out of Star Trek. I was fascinated, and I immediately wanted one, but I had no clue regarding the effect it was having on the world at large. So I couldn’t have predicted how e-books would ultimately influence my life.

That changed when my wife and I had lunch with a couple I’ve known for quite a few years, one of whom had recently published her first novel with a small press outfit. Over lunch this friend mentioned her plan to self-publish her next book. I’m afraid my mind translated “self-publish” into “vanity press,” since the two had been nearly synonymous for many years. I tried not to react openly to this, but she knew what I was thinking – it was such a predictable reaction. The explanation that followed acquainted me with e-book direct publishing and print-on-demand paperbacks, developments that had passed me by because I’d stopped paying much attention to the publishing world. It sounded way too good to be true, but I looked into it anyway. What I learned sounded promising, and next time we were with these friends I said as much. The suggestion was made then that I pull out an “old” manuscript and try self-publishing it to see what would happen. Of course, I pulled out my most recent attempt, The Way of Leyra’an.

What came next will be the subject of the second part of this essay.

Watching For The Bus   Leave a comment

If you’ve ever been at the mercy of public transportation, you know this feeling. It happens when you’re a minute or two behind your normal schedule and hurrying to the bus stop. If the bus is even a minute ahead of the usual time, you’re screwed. So you hurry. You walk briskly toward the bus stop, peering at the cross street as if you could see around or through the buildings at the corner where the bus will appear. You lean forward over your center of gravity, ready to make a run for it, even though you know that by the time you see the bus, it’s already too late. It’s a peculiar form of anxiety, waiting for the bus to cruise by and leave you stranded. It could go by at any moment. You can almost feel it coming.

As I wrote the final volume of the War of the Second Iteration I felt a strange sensation building; a quiet, formless and yet strangely familiar anxiety that could never quite be banished. At first I dismissed it as a consequence of the constant troubles of the past year. I never seemed to be able to stay focused on the book, and the longer that went on the more concerned I became for the quality of the finished product. But when I thought about it I realized worries over quality didn’t fully explain what I felt. One afternoon, while feeling the aches and pains left over from a traffic accident, I realized what was bothering me. This anxiety gnawing away at me was the fear of not finishing this book at all. Of not being able to finish it. So many problems had struck out of the blue in recent months, including that automobile accident – which could have been so much worse – what was next? Would the next calamity be disabling? Or something more terrible? And wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony of my life to get four of the five books done and then be taken out by some pointless accident or illness? It would have seemed a far-fetched concern a couple of years ago. By the middle of 2015, thoroughly shaken out of whatever complacency had crept into my life, it felt otherwise.

It felt like I was running a little late, and the bus could roll by at any moment.

Overreaction? Morbid thinking? Some would certainly say so, and council a more “positive” outlook, but I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I’m a realist, and to me the possibility of such an irony is all too real. The troubles of last year merely reminded me of something I already knew. I took them as warning shots. It just makes sense to be mindful, and to not take life for granted.

I quietly celebrated my 60th birthday not long ago. The simple reality is that I probably have more years behind me than ahead of me, at this point. The chance to get into print via the modern version of self-publishing came to me rather late in life. There’s a positive aspect to this. At a time when many people would be winding life down and wondering what to do with their “gold years,” I’m launching something new and – for me at least – tremendously exciting. I’m being challenged in new ways and dealing with new situations. I’m told this is a good thing, a healthy change, and it certainly feels that way! But I have a lot of books in me, a multitude of stories, and I have – how much time left to write them? Does anyone know? Can anyone know? To make the assumption that I have the time I need would be, to put it mildly, foolish. Too many people at or near my own age have suddenly come to an end, of late. People I’ve known or known of have died, cut down by something they couldn’t have seen coming, much less prevented. Over and over again I mutter, in response to news from a friend or news of the larger world around me – “Too young! Much too young!” It’s happened recently to the daughter of an acquaintance. Living her life as usual and suddenly gone. No one saw it coming. It’s the sort of news that makes you rethink many things. It made me write this piece.

I have no reason whatsoever to believe that I am exempt from the possibility of an untimely demise. I’d be a fool to assume such a thing. So I’ll keep moving briskly forward, ever mindful of that bus. The War of the Second Iteration is, for all practical purposes, done. But there are other books, other tales to tell. The clock is surely ticking.  I need to write faster. But then, doesn’t everybody, really?

Isaac Asimov was once asked, in an interview, how he would respond if he received a terminal prognosis. “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” Though it was said with tongue-slightly-in-cheek, there’s truth in those words, so I’ve always been inspired by that statement. There’s been no bad news from my doctor, but it could happen. Or something worse could occur in the proverbial New York minute. Brood about it? No, absolutely not. I’ll use these reminders that life is a chancy business, and that there are no guarantees, as motivation.

And I’ll type a little faster.

This Past Year, and Then Some   Leave a comment

You try not to let it happen, but some degree of complacency often creeps into your life, over time. It’s hard to cope with a day-to-day routine without falling into the proverbial rut and just following it along. The pattern provides structure, and structure appeals. It can even be productive. For me, four of the past five years fell into a comfortable pattern that provided several hours each weekday in which to write. I’ve made good use of that pattern and produced four novels, a couple of short stories, and a brief memoir while following it. Unfortunately, the complacency encouraged by a comfortable pattern can come back to bite you without warning. In January of 2015 I started the fifth and last volume of the War of the Second Iteration series, ready to swing through that comfortable routine and get another book done by the end of the year. I was a month into it when the pattern suffered the first of a series of disruptions, turned on me, and bit hard.

At the end of January, 2015, my father died. His health hadn’t been great the previous year, but the last time I talked to him there was no indication that things were getting worse. I very much suspect he was keeping things to himself, in a misguided effort to avoid worrying us. In the middle of the month I received word that he was in the hospital, and barely a week later, in a hospice. I got to Phoenix in time to have a talk and say goodbye. I brought a copy of my latest book release, knowing he’d been looking forward to seeing it. He took the copy from my hands, clearly delighted. He’d read all three existing volumes, by then, and set aside the new book after examining it, “To read later.” And of all the sources of pain that tangle together and equal the loss of a parent, the thing that rose then to wrap around my throat and choke me up was the realization that he would never know how the story ended. Not the most rational response to watching a parent die, perhaps, but what reason is there in grief?

His death a few days later shut me down. Some writers can work through grief, but I’m not one of them. It took a long time to catch my breath and resume work on Book Five. The comfortable pattern seemed restored.

In short order, however, the pattern was twisted twice more. My wife took a tumble and broke a wrist. Not a horrific injury, though it required surgery to repair, but it caused us both great distress and took her out of action for several weeks while leaving me to take up the slack. I did this without question; that’s what you do, and she has certainly not counted the cost when I was the one down and out. This time the creative energy wasn’t balked so much as diverted, since I needed so much energy, and time, to keep things on an even keel for all concerned. While we were coping with the wrist injury, we were in a traffic accident. This left me with an injured leg that shut down a lot of activities, and slowed me down to the point that I could barely keep up with any obligations. The process of writing the book became a less organized and cohesive activity, with lengthy gaps between writing sessions that often left me feeling that I’d lost the thread of the story. I’d certainly lost that comfortable pattern, that’s for sure.

I did the only thing I could. I kept picking away at it, hoping that I’d be able to sew it all up into one neat bundle – eventually. For surely this run of bad luck couldn’t go on indefinitely – could it?

And in a way, it didn’t. Something more insidious took the place of accidents and injuries as the summer passed, a slower distortion of life’s pattern. My wife’s 89 year old father’s condition began to deteriorate, a slow but steady downhill slide that saw us spending ever more time and energy helping him cope. The pattern of daily hours for writing, barely re-established to begin with, became rather shallow. For a time, it was all at least predictable, and an adjustment could be made. Things moved slowly forward yet again. The first draft was finally completed and sent off to beta readers. While they worked it over, her father lost the ability to drive, which upped the ante quite a bit. Memory impairment also worsened, requiring more of our time still to help him manage. Then, as 2016 started to unfold, his physical health declined to the point that hospitalization was required and, ultimately, the dreaded “change in residence” loomed over us all.

This, as the revision and copy editing process began in earnest. I kept revising, in fits and starts. My wife, who does the proof reading (and is very good at it, as those who have read my books may have noticed) kept at it when and as she could. With her father in a tough spot, the book assumed a decidedly secondary status.

As you might imagine, this all added up to a year and more of ongoing frustration, and not just as a writer. Frustration, but no anger. No one (except the driver of a certain green SUV) was in any way culpable. These things just happened, and happened to string together in a series of disruptive events and circumstances. All you can do with such a run of bad luck is, well, put your head down and run with it. Rearrange the priorities appropriately to do what must be done, then just keep going. I did that, or at least, did so to the best of my ability, writing and revising only when I was free to do so. It made for slow progress, but the work did move forward.

Lately I’ve I found myself looking back on that year of disruptions and circumstances, thinking that I really need to be less dependent on any given pattern of hours and days for writing. There was a time in my life when I was able to write whenever an hour or two became available. I didn’t need that much structure – the writing was always right there, ready to go, for a paragraph or a page, whatever the moment permitted. But even as I began to chide myself for having grown so complacent, I thought about Book Five – so near, now, to release – and realized that this is exactly what I spent the past year doing. The pattern was thoroughly disrupted, and yet somehow, the book happened anyway. In paragraphs and pages at a time, writing when I could, without leaving the people in my life feeling like they were secondary priorities. Perhaps the complacency hasn’t set deep roots after all. I find that reassuring, and I cling to that reassurance. I need to be able to write that way, because you never know what comes next, and 2016 already promises to be its own sort of adventure. I’ll need all the flexibility I can muster.

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