Archive for the ‘experience’ Tag

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.

It Works That Way, Sometimes   Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Return to Known Space   Leave a comment

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1971

World-building is a term used to describe what science fiction and fantasy authors do to create the setting for the story being told. Any work of fiction requires some degree of world-building, of course, though in a murder mystery or a work of historical fiction this can be accomplished by describing the real world. In science fiction and fantasy, the world of the story may have few connections with the real world, and quite likely would have no connection to it at all. We often build worlds “from scratch,” so to speak. The “world” built for the story sometimes provides little more than a backdrop, but more often than not it becomes a powerful tool for moving the plot forward. It may even be the central element of the plot to begin with. To say that this is the case in Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning novel Ringworld would be an understatement.

Ringworld is a classic example – perhaps the best-known example – of world-building that results in the so-called Big Dumb Object (BDO). The first use of the phrase is usually attributed to British writer Roz Kaveney, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It was apparently intended as a tongue-in-cheek expression, but science fiction is a genre not afraid of playfully making fun of itself, so the phrase is now used on a regular basis. The idea is that you have a plot element, and often it’s the plot element, take the form of something mind-bogglingly huge and complex. The BDO is frequently (though not exclusively) of a nonhuman origin, and the humans who discover it generally experience a serious “holy crap!” moment when they do so. Then they begin to investigate, and therein lies the tale. The BDO can be done to great effect, as seen in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and John Varley’s Titan. And of course, there’s the ever popular “That’s no moon!” – the Death Star of the Star Wars Trilogy. Science fiction has an impressive collection of BDOs, but few – the river world in Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go comes to mind – can compete with the Ringworld for sheer scale.

The artificial world Niven builds for this novel is beyond the range of the superlatives of the English language. It’s an astronomically large band big enough to wrap around its star at about the distance that Earth orbits the sun. Its foundation is an impervious substance that defies analysis by the story’s heroes. This ring structure is broad enough that oceans larger and deeper than anything on Earth can be found within, and standing in the middle of it, you can’t see all the way to either side. Big Dumb Object, indeed, although I’d debate the “dumb” part in this case, tongue-in-cheek or not.

The Ringworld is one of the grandest examples of world-building you can find in science fiction, and Niven puts it to marvelous use in the tale of the first investigation performed on the object. He drops a curious cast of characters in the now decrepit Ringworld – the builders’ civilization having collapsed thousands of years ago. Two are human, a man who has lived two centuries and “seen it all,” and a young woman born lucky, which is a story of its own.  With them travel two aliens, one of the warlike Kzin, and a cowardly two-headed Puppeteer who happens to be the leader of their expedition, which is soon stranded on the Ringworld. To find a way off, they must cross to one of the edges, a journey that involves crossing a distance that would encompass all the continents on Earth. Along the way many things are revealed, of the Ringworld itself and the universe of which it is a part, and of the characters and their respective species.

For fans of Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, the Ringworld adventure, and its sequels, form a sort of hub. So much of this tale touches on other works of Niven from that universe that you have the pleasant feeling of things tied together into a network of storytelling. And yet, for someone who stumbles onto Ringworld without prior Known Space experience, the novel stands on its own quite well.

I’ve reacted to previously read Hugo Award novels a number of different ways since I started this project. There have been numerous revelations of ideas missed, and disappointments that tales haven’t withstood the test of time. This rereading of an old favorite has started an episode of rediscovery. Ringworld brought me back to a sci-fi universe that I enjoyed immensely once upon a time, and a long time ago at that. So many comments and asides from the characters invoked half-remembered tales in the same universe that I find myself pulling old paperbacks off shelves, and hunting down copies of Ringworld sequels that I never got around to reading when they were new. Aside from the Hugo award winners for these reviews, I don’t reread fiction very often. There’s so much new (and new to me) to read! But I’m going to make an exception here, and revisit in a big way one of the first multi-book sci-fi universes to ever grab my attention.

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 Two   1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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