Archive for the ‘experience’ Tag

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.

The Process, Part Three: The Lay of the Land   3 comments

I’ve always thought that the trickiest part of blazing a trail in the real world is trying to decide how to best make your way through the landscape. If the idea is to make the trail worth following for others, you need to lay it out in a way that appeals, and draws future travelers forward. That goal hangs in the balance every time you confront an obstacle. You can seek a path of least resistance, of course. That might get you where you want to go, and the trail you leave behind will surely lend itself to being followed by others. But if it misses the more eye-catching parts of the landscape and offers nothing of interest, no challenges, why would anyone bother? Should you cut through this thick underbrush or go around it? Do the latter and you might miss something wonderful hidden in the trees and shrubs. And then there’s that steep slope. Go around, or carve a switchback and hope the view will be worth the effort for later travelers? There’s a right answer each time, but the only way to find it is to make a choice, a commitment, and move forward. Each decision has consequences that affect the trail you leave behind, sometimes diverting it from the course you meant to follow. Turns out just making the start, the trailhead, isn’t the toughest part after all.

Writing a novel or short story works the same way. With the first pages or chapters of a rough draft set down, and the story begun, it’s tempting to say the hardest part is behind you. After all, you’ve made that start, and now you’re moving forward. But as you move away from that attractive opening, all the possibilities inherent in any nascent work of fiction begin to manifest in your brain. And that’s when the trouble begins. Bushwhacking through this metaphorical underbrush quickly proves more of a challenge than most people expect. To be sure, the way is sometimes very clear, and the view is immediately fantastic, exciting. Just as it is in cutting a trail in the real world, the ground is sometimes bare and all you need to do is stride forward, perhaps piling cairns of stones or laying a few branches along the side to guide the way. But it’s inevitable that obstacles will present themselves. Numerous choices arise, like a thicket of trees with dense, tangled underbrush. Go around it? But what might you miss inside? If you plunge in you must decide what to cut and what to leave growing beside the path you want to create. Each stroke of the machete, each decision, moves you forward by eliminating a specific shrub or plot option. Cut this branch – say you decide a character says “Yes” to a relationship instead of “No” – and the trail bends this way instead of that way. Is that the right way to go? The only way to know is to cut through the rest of the brush and see what lies beyond.

You do so. Now, is this where you want to be? Never mind where you might have intended to be at this point. The path you’re trying to cut will often take you in unintended directions and this can be a good thing or bad. If the result is acceptable you carry on, striding forward, nipping off a stray thought here, an idea there, leaving them on the trail behind you for later clean-up. If not, it’s back into the thicket of possibilities for another try. Fortunately, this is a fast-growing metaphor, capable of almost instantaneous regeneration. This, also, is both a good and bad thing at times. You remain unable to see exactly where it is you need to pass through the thicket, but now that you’ve glimpsed the other side, you’re not totally clueless. So on you go, cutting a new path and hoping this will be the correct route.

Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s just good enough for now, and you move on anyway, and that actually is the best idea more often than not. You can come back to the awkward kinks in the trail and fix things for good and all later. It’s generally a good idea to keep moving whenever possible because some other feature of the story landscape, revealed later, might help resolve the situation. Looking back from higher ground can often be revealing.

The arm will grow weary of swinging the ax and machete. So will the mind while writing your way down a new trail to story’s end. Either way, it’s sometimes tough work cutting a trail through an untouched wilderness, even if that wilderness is “merely” an image in the mind’s eye or a sequence of ideas. But if you are true to this process, you will keep going until you reach the journey’s end. How long must you endure? Depends on the story in you, and the choices you make as you blaze the trail. In other words, it’ll take as long as it takes.

One Last Heinlein   Leave a comment

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1967

I have strong memories of books I read in younger days. I was not a particularly sociable youngster, being on the small side and relatively thin-skinned, and often uncomfortable around my rowdier small-town peers. I became something of a loner, which was not encouraged in that place and time, and very quickly came to place a high value on having time to myself. Reading is a natural fit for such a frame of mind. Finding such solitude was remarkably difficult between long days at school and living in a small house with parents and four siblings. There was often only one place to go to get away from everyone and get any peace, especially in winter, when being outside was rarely an option – inside my own head. This may have been what rendered me imaginative. It’s certainly what turned a desire to read into a compulsion.

Fortunately, there were other readers in the family, and seeing in me a kindred spirit, they did what they could to provide me some space (reminding siblings that it was rude to distract someone while they were reading) while keeping me supplied with books. If a birthday or holiday season passed without at least a couple of books being unwrapped, the occasion felt incomplete. This almost never happened. Since one of these relatives, an aunt, was a die-hard science fiction fan, I was introduced to the genre very early, and among the first novels I read were those by Robert A. Heinlein that would these days be considered YA. These books had an enormous impact on how my imagination developed. I practically memorized stories such as Red Planet, Between Planets, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel ­– the last being my favorite in those days. Since I responded so eagerly to these Heinlein novels, it comes as no surprise that this same aunt, when I was a few years older, produced copies of Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as gifts. Both novels fascinated me, and were read multiple times. One of these books, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, was the last novel by Heinlein to ever win the Hugo Award.

When I read these works by Heinlein as a teenager I was, well, a teenager. Typical of someone that age, my frame of reference wasn’t exactly expansive, so when I read fiction it was in a rather superficial way. This didn’t start to change until I was well into high school and became more aware of (tempted to say sensitive to) subtexts in the fiction I read. This explains the effect Dune and The Fellowship of the Ring had on me, at the time I read them, and timing really is everything. I first read Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress well before reading Dune, and this gradual increase in awareness had barely begun to develop. I enjoyed both, but was mostly blind to anything beyond the central plots. As a result, when re-reading Starship Troopers a couple of years ago, I was rather startled by my reaction to the book. The political subtext was anything but subtle, and the preachy quality was blatant enough that it almost spoiled the book, and cast a shadow on some old memories. So it’s not surprising that I approached The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (and before that, Stranger in a Strange Land) with a bit of wariness.

Stranger in a Strange Land survived the test of time, and so did The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.As was the case with Strange in a Strange Land Heinlein’s personal philosophy and political beliefs inform The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but in this he is really no different from any other author. If it serves the story, it can work for me, even if I don’t entirely agree with that particular philosophy. Of the Heinlein I’ve re-read, only Starship Troopers blatantly subverted the story to drive home a message. In Stranger in a Strange Land the story carried his points without becoming pointed, and so it was with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This is not to say that I came away from this reading with the same impression I had when I was fifteen years old. The author’s Libertarian-style point of view is easy to see all through the book, but in this case he uses these ideals to build a civilization that, while it exemplifies that school of thought, isn’t a deliberate application of it. Heinlein imagines, in the development of the lunar culture in the book, a society that is essentially libertarian in nature, but not by design. Survival in that deadly lunar environment dictated certain traits and behaviors, and the society depicted in the novel is a consequence of that.

When I read the book early in high school, I was fascinated by the way the lunar revolutionaries orchestrated their complicated conspiracy. Knowing human nature a bit better these days, I find it all a little less plausible, almost naïve in the way it unfolds so well. Never mind deliberate betrayal, inevitable human error and simple bad luck play roles that would more than likely unravel the scheme if it went on too long. I get the feeling Heinlein realized this, because his lunar revolution, when it comes, does erupt abruptly and before the narrator believes they are fully prepared. Less easy to overlook was his characterization of the two sides involved in the conflict, and it’s here that I could see his politics most clearly. The colonists are, for the most part, competent, self-reliant people. Stereotypical rugged individualists, the myth of colonial America set on the Moon. The administrators of the lunar penal colony, along with their handlers on Earth, were equally, if negatively, stereotyped as over-reaching and often inept government bureaucrats, clearly lesser beings, and blind to anything but the need to remain in rigid control of the lunar population. Heinlein manages once again to avoid preaching. Use of first-person narrative helps here, which is ironic since he used the same style of voice in Starship Troopers. But he stopped that story dead in its tracks to deliver a sermon. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it just comes across as the way one Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis happens to perceive the world and the people who share it with him, and the story keeps rolling along.

There was one element that I just couldn’t buy, as an adult reader of fiction. As is so often true with Heinlein, and other authors of that time period, the interactions between males and females sometimes have a juvenile quality to them that, in this more sensitive era, comes across as sexist. I try to make allowances for sensibilities changing over time, when I read older books, but now and then I run into something that leaves me shaking my head. Heinlein attempts to describe how the curious sexual dynamics of the lunar colony developed, and why, and it approaches being plausible. But in the end a minority population of women dressing like it was a day at the beach and encouraging – even expecting – wolf whistling, eye-rolling, and foot stomping recognition of their beauty strained my ability to suspend disbelief.

Even with that wrinkle, though, I managed to enjoy revisiting this old novel. And with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I leave the work of Robert A. Heinlein behind, as far as the Hugo Awards are concerned. Heinlein did very well with the Hugos, winning four and being nominated for ten. He remained popular and productive almost to the end of his days. And yet, at some point in the 1980’s his work began to lose its appeal for me. The last Heinlein novel I read that I truly enjoyed was Time Enough for Love. After that there was something of a sense of having been here before one time too many, and later on, too often a sense that the author was being more than a bit self-indulgent. People would grow excited about a new Heinlein novel, and sometimes passed copies on to me when it was clear I lacked the motivation to buy one for myself. I usually gave those books a try but – and here The Number of the Beast comes to mind – I generally ended up setting them aside unfinished. They didn’t hold my attention. The times changed and I changed with them, altering my tastes in food, in music, and in fiction. Nothing against Heinlein, to be honest. It just sometimes works that way.

A Slice of Sky   Leave a comment

For all my good intentions, I still don’t go out stargazing as often as I did in the years before I launched into self-publishing. It’s hard to justify spending time on a hobby when there are so many stories trying to claw their way out of my head. But the night sky can be insistent, and the urge can become overwhelming. A few days ago it became irresistible.

It was a clear evening, typical of the desert in springtime. The constellations of winter, Orion most prominent among them, were low in the west and slipping away. Sirius blazed and glittered in the southwest. Gemini was high in the west, and Leo was straight overhead with Jupiter just within reach of his paws. The arrangement of planet and constellation brought to mind a kitten chasing a toy, a strange fate for the King of Planets. Rising in the east were the constellations of spring and early summer. Boötes was almost horizontal, as if not quite ready to rise and shine from a long seasonal sleep. The Big Dipper was high in the northeast, and the North Star was, well, where you always find it. Plenty to choose from, in terms of targets, even with the narrow bit of sky I can see from the backyard these days.

In 2003, when I bought the new telescope and began to re-educate myself in the art and science of visual astronomy, setting up on the back porch was a workable option. I lost some of the north and northwest sky to the mesquites growing in the back yard, but there were only a handful of constellations I couldn’t reach. In the years since, the trees have responded to our care by doing what trees do best – growing. Twelve years later, setting up on the back porch leaves me with somewhat limited observing options, which has regrettably discouraged me from observing from home base. That night I was reminded that even a narrow slice of an infinite universe is a busy place.

Using a four-inch refractor under moderately light-polluted skies requires careful target selection. No galaxy hopping this time ‘round; I needed bright lights in the night sky. I went for familiar double stars and spent a lot of time looking at Venus and Jupiter. It was a cool, quiet evening that started out a bit windy, but settled to mere whispers of a breeze. The atmosphere was fairly steady, what astronomers call “good seeing.” The twinkling of stars that you sometimes see, famed in song and nursery rhyme, is actually a bad thing for stargazers. If I’d been able to look up that night and honestly recite “twinkle twinkle, little star,” I’d have gone back in to work on the next book. That didn’t happen, so I gazed the evening away, and was satisfied the time was well spent. If you’re at all moved by the sight of stars, just being out on a clear night will do it for you. I spent as much time seated and looking up, eyes alone, as I did at the eyepiece, relaxed and unworried for a while by recent events.

The Muse, however, is never silent, and for all that I focused my attention on Castor and Pollux, Mizar and Alcor, and the moons of Jupiter, the current work in progress was ever present. Bits of dialogue crept into my thoughts. An idea for resolving a plot wrinkle came to mind. Notes for the book appeared among the observing notes regarding the ruddy gold double star in Leo designated Gamma Leonis. The Muse nudged, but it was gently done, for a change, something always there, but otherwise leaving me at peace under that slice of the night sky. A fact of life, if you’re a writer. It never really stops. I felt no conflict between writing and stargazing as this went on, and that’s likely because amateur astronomy is such a blend of knowledge and imagination. Objects in the night sky are utterly beyond my grasp, and so I can only look at them with my eyes or a telescope, touching them with my thoughts alone. I consider what I’ve read about these things, about how long a star in a double system takes to orbit its companion, about the stars being born in that patch of light beneath Orion’s belt, and they assume a reality of sorts for all that they are far beyond my physical reach.

Telling a tale is much the same thing. The worlds I’ve invented are as unreachable, in their way, as the stars. They are built of knowledge and imagination, but they are real in my imagination, as real as the Orion nebula, because I have what I need, through a lifetime of reading and living, to make them seem tangible. And so it seems perfectly natural that, as I look up at the stars, I take their measure even as I imagine people living out there and having adventures. Stars and stories go together and always have, and I am hardly the first to be moved to tell tales while seated beneath them.

The Process, Part Two: Blazing a Trail   3 comments

Find part one of this series here: The Stuff of Which Daydreams Are Made

If you give a daydream a long enough leash it will become a story. If you let go of the leash, it’ll run away from you and find someplace suitable to thrive and grow. If you’re a writer, you have no choice but to follow it to that place.

There’s rarely a clear-cut trail that leads you to where the stray daydream finally comes to rest. You have to blaze the trail for yourself, even if the daydream left you with only a vague idea of which way to go. The process of bushwhacking your way to the destination the daydream-story has created is called writing the first draft.

Most writers I know face their greatest challenges while revising and editing a book. Some go so far as to proclaim anything from distaste for, to outright hatred of, this aspect of writing. For me, it’s just the opposite. The first draft puts the grey in my beard. Once I’ve got the first draft done the real fun begins. The trail to what that daydream became is open. The route to the destination that is the story’s ending can now be followed and reshaped to reach its greatest potential. That’s the destination I have in mind when I begin the journey that becomes a book. Once I’ve cut the trail to this place, I can set up camp and go back along the trail to clean it up. After all, I do want others to follow me. This is more easily said than done, so I can understand to a degree why some people feel the way they do, but for me this particular challenge is what it’s all about. As my Kentucky great-grandmother liked to say, “It isn’t work if you enjoy it!”

But I have to get there first, and establishing the trail head itself is the biggest challenge involved with blazing that trail. It isn’t unusual for me to start a project, get a chapter or two into it, and realize I’m headed in the wrong direction. When that feeling of having gone astray begins to develop, and I recognize it all too well, there’s nothing for it. I back up and start over. I may incorporate some of what I’ve written somewhere along the line, mostly by keeping the ideas in play, but I might start completely from scratch. Even after I’ve worked out of a false start and gained momentum, I very often find that the real trail head was some ways off from where I thought I needed to begin. It’s not unusual for me to cut out the very first chapter of a book when preparing it for beta readers. Sometimes the biggest mess of all is the trail head itself, and a better one needs to be found. So let’s say we start the journey by strolling down the hillside, instead of jumping awkwardly off that rocky outcrop.

You don’t make a journey like this alone, of course. Right from the start there’s going to be a character or two at the trail head with you. The characters that inhabit the daydream are, at this point, mere sketches. I know I need a man here, or a woman there, along with a situation that allows me to set their identities and begin the process of character building. I start out with a fair idea of who these companions are, and what they’re about, but as I cut my way through the wilderness and get to know them better, I often find out I’m wrong. They change with the journey, and that’s as it should be. Experience should show, and the best characters in fiction are always those who are at least a little different in the end from who and what they were in the beginning. Sometimes you learn more about them than you wanted to know, but in the end, the story is the stronger for it.

You don’t come at this task barehanded, of course. You need the proper tools to cut through the undergrowth and then clear the trail. The daydream spun itself out of who and what you are in the first place, and you are the sum total of all your experiences. Everything I’ve ever done, seen, heard, and felt; everything I touch or taste; every pain and exaltation, and all the people I’ve met and either cared about or despised; every book I’ve read – especially the books – all come ready to hand as the trail grows ever longer. Even the research I do is based on what I already know, which provides the frame of reference for the questions the story raises as I work my way to the trail’s end. And yes, I sometimes find myself shaping the right tool for the job and giving it the sharpest possible edge even while I work.

Now and then, from some high place along the way, I can see something of what’s ahead. That’s useful when it happens, so I always take notes! It often looks strangely familiar, even though I’ve never really passed this way before. But then, it was my own daydream, after all.

 

The Little Book That Could   1 comment

It’s a milestone. It’s also something that was quite likely inevitable, and in time may well become permanent. Now that it’s come, however, I find myself with mixed feelings about it.

Mr. Olcott’s Skies: An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession is no longer my number one seller. My novel The Luck of Han’anga has overtaken it. It’s by just a couple of copies, for the moment, but I’m so accustomed to the memoir outselling the first book of the sci-fi series that the realization that this is no longer the case feels rather odd.

Before any thought of self-published ever occurred to me, I gathered together material to use as a series of astronomy-related essays, intended for posting on the Cloudy Nights amateur astronomy forum. The project was never completed. As I was cleaning up the novel that eventually became The Luck of Han’anga, I realized that I had enough of this material to publish a small book of early astronomy memories. Doing so would provide valuable experience, and if I screwed up I would do so on a relatively small stage. Damage control, it seemed, would be easy, from what I knew of such things at that time. So when I turned The Luck of Han’anga over to beta readers, I began to work on the memoir in earnest, with the idea of using it as a sort of experiment, or a toe stuck in the proverbial waters. During the writing, it took on a life of its own, becoming much more than a test. On March 21st, 2011, I uploaded the book to Kindle Direct Press and Smashwords. It was quite the learning experience, indeed, and it did smooth the way for The Luck of Han’anga, which followed in June of that same year. By then, I’d seen a gratifying number of copies of the memoir sold, but fully expected the novel to go past the memoir in fairly short order.

That’s not what happened. Instead, the memoir sold steadily, and maintained the lead its head start gave it over the novel. It even held on to that lead when the next two novels were released, driving sales of the first novel in the series. Feedback from readers, along the way, both surprised me and helped explain what was happening. This little “experiment” was selling outside the intended niche market. While most of those who discovered Mr. Olcott’s Skies were in fact fellow amateur astronomers, a fair number had no such interests. Some of the non-astronomers were people who had encountered me in various social media venues. Others I can’t account for so easily. Either way, a couple of bucks – for the eBook version – apparently sounded like a small price to pay to satisfy their curiosity, so they gave it a try and found themselves reading a book that reminded them of quieter times in their own lives. It’s a book that apparently takes readers back to memories of their own childhood adventures. To say that this is gratifying would be an understatement.

For more than two years, Mr. Olcott’s Skies led the pack. A small slice of life set in words, an attempt to learn self-publishing, aimed at a niche market and going happily wide of that mark, this little experiment has been one of the real joys of my self-published journey. In our household it came to be known as The Little Book That Could – a reference to an old and revered children’s book. This year, The Luck of Han’anga finally started to eat away at that lead. As the gap began to close, I found myself rooting for the little guy. Perhaps that was foolish, but I couldn’t help myself. Every time a copy sold, I found myself grinning. Still in the lead! Way to go, Little Book That Could!

And now it’s in second place, and that leaves me feeling a bit melancholy. Silly, really, since the book is still “in print,” and will be for as long as I have anything to say about it. (One of the true advantages to being self-published is that you can keep a book out there indefinitely, no matter how slowly it sells.) It will sell additional copies. There will be more readers sharing that starlit journey with me. It may even regain the lead. You never know! And yet, I’m sitting here feeling the way I do when the team I root for loses the World Series. Yes, there’s always “next year,” but still …

The Process, Part One: The Stuff of Which Daydreams Are Made   4 comments

I once heard an author declare that the most bothersome question you could ask a writer of fiction was “Where do you get your ideas?” This happened at a science fiction convention sometime in the middle 1980s, during a panel discussion. The other authors present wore knowing smiles as they nodded in agreement. A long conversation followed, and an interesting one, that provided the audience with plenty to think about, but no real answers. In the time since I’ve resumed writing fiction, I think I finally understand why they failed to provide a definitive answer.

There really isn’t one.

Imagination is a thing poorly understood by science. The same is true of creativity in general. All human beings are capable of dreaming, and by that I don’t mean visions in your sleep, but dreams in the waking world, in which we ponder how things might be different, perhaps better, in our lives. Such dreams lead people to set goals and test limits, to see whether or not, or to what degree, their dreams can be made real. They have practical dreams, firmly set within a real-world frame of reference that entices them with the possibility of something potentially attainable. It seems doable, and so they get to work.

Artists, musicians, and writers go further. Their daydreams may have, upon realization within their respective media, practical consequences. After all, I’ve always dreamed of being a successful author. I still do. But that isn’t really the motivation. Rendering imagination, the daydream itself if you will, into a tangible form, drives the process. If you are of that inclination, you can’t avoid pursuing the vision, whatever it is. As a good friend was fond of saying about writing, some years ago, you can’t not do it. I learned the truth of this the hard way. I stopped writing fiction. I told the daydreams to leave me the hell alone. They refused to comply. It was an awkward and deeply unsettling episode in my life. Artists, musicians, and writers take it further, because the real ones have no choice.

So here I am, a writer with a head full of ideas and no clear way to tell you how they come into being. I daydream, and the daydreams become stories. Sounds pretty simple, but how does it work? And why? Why do I dream the dreams I do, about civilizations in the future, ships and swordsmen, hostile aliens, and worlds like our own – only different? Why does my imagination generate such things and not, for example, innovative business plans or experimental protocols? For that matter, why words and not music, or pictures? Why do I even have such a fertile imagination in the first place?

I can provide no solid answers to any of these questions, only the sort of speculation that comes from looking back across the years. I’ve always been this way. For the record, it really is a blessing, not a burden – which is not to say it’s always easy. As a youngster, before the idea of writing fiction ever occurred to me, I had a penchant for spinning yarns and windy stories. I’ve always related to the kid in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip because I lived in a similar imaginary world, and all too often the line between reality and imagination faded away. The consequences of that fade were sometimes awkward. It might be honest and accurate to say I was born with that style of imagination, that the root of it all is in some quirk of gene expression, but by itself that doesn’t explain the way the phenomenon manifests itself. The way my imagination works may be a consequence of the times in which I spent my childhood, the Sixties and early Seventies, when the race to the Moon was on and Cold War nuclear paranoia was palpable – even if you were too young to really understand the rhetoric. “What if,” was the big question on those days. The “what if” scenarios were not always pleasant.

I was also a skinny kid, and not terribly sociable. Being a bit of a misfit, the urge to escape was natural, and having a lurid imagination being fed by equally lurid speculations regarding space travel and nuclear war, you can easily guess the direction in which I escaped. I read mostly science fiction, adding fantasy somewhere in high school when I discovered Tolkien. The addiction to print was an early development, and the inclination to write in a similar vein just seemed to co-evolve. And maybe that really does explain it all.

Or not. As explanations go, it still feels incomplete. And even if it’s adequate for those reading these words, it says nothing about the creativity and imagination of others. It’s all surely variations on a theme, but others are writing those themes. This is just me.

These musings merely touch at the roots of a process that becomes, for me, a novel or a short story. Roots grow into places dark and fertile and strange. Maybe this is as deep as I should dig, for now.

Stranger from a Strange Time: Reflections on “The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel Ever Written”   3 comments

After my recent experience rereading Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award winning novel Starship Troopers, I approached his third Hugo winner, Stranger in a Strange Land* with a certain amount of trepidation. As was the case with the former, the latter was one of those novels that made a profound impression on me as a young reader of science fiction. I was disappointed by Starship Troopers as an older and more experienced reader. The contrast between my impressions of the book, then and now, was stark. I was in my late teens – a little older and a bit more experienced, though not perhaps as much as I believed at the time – when a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land fell into my hands. I remember being strongly affected by the book back then. With this rereading of another old favorite, was I about to be disillusioned yet again?

The answer, I’m pleased to report, is no. While I certainly responded to the novel in a very different way after forty years of life experiences, I came away from this reread with a favorable impression. The novel is a strong enough character-driven story that it held my attention to the very end, even though these days I don’t read a novel and take its contents at face value. (That was very true of me in younger days.) To my relief, Heinlein resisted the urge to simply use Stranger in a Strange Land as another glorified soap box for his political views. I was able to read it and be entertained, even though his beliefs and attitudes do come through, at times loud and clear. Some of what comes across strikes me now, as a more mature reader, as an oversimplified take on human nature, but Heinlein’s views on such matters never derailed the storytelling process, as I saw happen in Starship Troopers. They were part of the tapestry he wove into the story, and for the most part the story worked.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the tale of Valentine Michael Smith, a young man raised by a very alien culture on Mars, who is then returned to Earth where everything humans consider normal is completely new to him. He discovers himself as a human being while observing all aspects of the human experience through that thoroughly alien frame of reference – one that, by the way, gives him superhuman abilities. Smith has no reason to simply accept his humanity as a given, or to accept blindly the rationalizations of those around him regarding the human condition. And thereby hangs a tale. Through the experiences of Valentine Michael Smith, and the people who become involved with his life, Heinlein examines who and what we are as human beings. This is a common theme in science fiction, and grows none the worse for the wear through constant reuse. Heinlein puts it to very good use in this book. To my mind, this is one of the best novels Heinlein wrote. Some would go further than that. The cover of the old paperback I read proclaims the book to be “THE MOST FAMOUS SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL EVER WRITTEN.” (And yes, it’s all capitalized on the book cover.) I’m not sure this is literally true, but it surely is one of the most best known novels in the genre, in part because of the way it seemed to anticipate the “counterculture” of the 1960s. Oh, and for its famous prediction of the waterbed. (Can’t leave that out!)

Stranger in a Strange Land is sometimes dismissed by modern-day readers as – among other things – sexist. By today’s standards, the book could indeed be seen that way, though I doubt it would have seemed sexist in quite the same way more than fifty years ago, when it was published. The female characters of this novel certainly are comfortable with their own sexual appetites, and show a level of assertiveness not usually seen as completely acceptable in popular fiction of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. And yet these same characters also seem to carry plenty of 1950s happy homemaker baggage, which really doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) play well these days. To those who read old novels without considering the times in which they were written, this seems a mixed message. When this book was written, however, our society was stepping none too steadily out of one societal norm and into the next. Sometimes, while rereading the book, I got the impression Heinlein was a man standing with one foot in each epoch, not at all sure which way to go.

The strongest complaints regarding sexism seem to center around the character Jubal Harshaw. Jubal’s treatment of and interactions with the women he employs toucha nerve with many modern reviewers. Harshaw’s openly and bluntly sexist behavior toward these women would be cringeworthy in modern society, heard without a proper understanding of the context. But there is a context, and even a casual read of this book should reveal the understanding that exists between Harshaw and these women, and his obvious respect and affection for each of them. This is apparently missed by some modern reviewers, who interpret the material as being a typically sexist portrayal of women as brain-washed objects. (The character Anne, by herself, should dispel such a notion.) That seems too harsh to me, especially after reading Harshaw’s lecture to Ben Caxton regarding the sculptures La Belle Heaulmiere and Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone. Not exactly the attitudes of your average insensitive male sexist pig.

For all that I believe some modern readers judge the book too harshly, I can understand, up to a point, why they react as they do. However, as I read the book I didn’t get the feeling that the author intended to belittle or diminish the value of female human beings. Quite the contrary, he seems more inclined to glorify them, although in a somewhat awkward, adolescent way. This explains why I could enjoy the novel, even though I often found myself shaking my head and thinking, “Really?” Heinlein’s portrayal of women obviously remains rooted in a time when some things we now consider sexist were seen as normal and acceptable. We no longer see things that way – well, some of us, anyway – and so whatever he intended is sometimes lost on modern readers. Perhaps because of this, I’ve seen reviews of the book that go much too far in their response to the apparent sexism, suggesting that the book should be shunned or heavily edited, because it does not match modern sensibilities. Such an idea makes me almost as uncomfortable as the degree of gender-based inequality that stubbornly persists in our modern times. The works of the past should not be dismissed, or worse, altered, because they do not reflect the beliefs of the present day. We need these books – and films, and whatever else from the past might draw such a response. We need these things in order to provide a perspective that can help us to judge how far we’ve come, a perspective that provides the only realistic measure of how much further we have yet to go.

*I read the “uncut” edition of the novel, released in 1991, but realized afterward that I really should read the one people actually voted on thirty years before. The original is the book discussed here. I didn’t see that the uncut edition added anything of substance to the story.

 

Stars in the Balance   5 comments

On the 27th of August, 2003, Mars and our Earth passed as close to each other as they’ve been in recorded history. No one alive will see such a thing again. This was all treated as headline news, at the time, and spawned one of the most persistent internet hoaxes I know of, that being the claim that any given August Mars will appear as large as the Full Moon in the night sky. The event also marked a turning point in my life, since it changed astronomy from a fondly remembered teenage obsession to a present day pursuit of wonders in the night sky.

I was employed by a lab on the U of A campus that summer and saw an article in the campus newspaper about the close approach. There was an announcement of a related public event in that article, viewings of Mars from the campus mall on the weekend before and the weekend after opposition, hosted by the Flandrau Science Center and the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. Mars that close, viewed through a telescope? For free? No matter how low a level my astronomy interest had reached, it was too attractive a notion to pass up, so my wife and I attended the first viewing. The desert monsoon was in progress, and the clouds left behind by afternoon thunderstorms left us with mere glimpses of Mars, though I did wander the field examining telescopes and speaking with their enthusiastic users. It made me nostalgic for times past, to say the least. It was also a strange and wonderful feeling to actually look through telescopes of sizes and powers I could only dream of owning as a teenager.
The following weekend, just a day or two after the actual opposition, the weather was clear. We decided to give it another try, and were well rewarded for our effort. There were more telescopes on the mall, and more people had come out to have a look. It was a noisy event, punctuated by excited shouts as folk unfamiliar with telescopes had their first looks at Mars or some other celestial sight. I saw Mars as I’d never seen it before, and will never see it again. By the time we were home I’d decided on two things: the Old Scope was coming out of the box, and ownership of a newer, larger instrument was in my immediate future.

If you’ve read my short amateur astronomy memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies, you already know that this is exactly how it unfolded. Now I find myself sitting here, ten years after that event, contemplating the changes that have come since then.

For a time, amateur astronomy was everything. I bought gear, I bought books, and I joined the local club. I immersed myself in the hobby, attending star parties and outreach events, writing reviews and observing essays for the Cloudy Nights forum, on which I also served as a moderator and then an administrator. I wrote instructional material for the local club and helped run their beginners’ program for a time. Amateur astronomy became the major focus of my free time. This was possible because I’d given up writing.
I’ve mentioned that sad decision in this blog in the past, so suffice to say that after nearly two decades of selling ever fewer magazine articles, and not a word of fiction, I quit. There was no way I could continue to justify the attempt, especially knowing as I did that it was getting harder all the while for new authors to break in. I quit, but the creative energy was still there, scratching and clawing at me from the inside, seeking a way out. Astronomy provided that outlet. The planning and study required for observing, the interactions online, the reviews and observing reports, all these aspects and more soaked up that energy and then some. Because of this, some of the most creative times in my life involved no writing at all, or writing as incidental to astronomy, a tool to communicate and share my love of starlight and moonlight with others.
Along came the Kindle, and then Nook and Kobo. The digital revolution had finally caught up with publishing; it did so all of a sudden and in a big way. As a writer, I found myself with options that hadn’t (and couldn’t have) existed when I stopped trying to sell my words. When I realized there was a new reason to hope, a reason to write in earnest, writing experienced the same sort of revival that astronomy did in August 2003. Regrettably, this has happened at the expense of star gazing.

An unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of the writing revival has been a reduction in the amount of time spent at the eyepiece. For the last couple of years I’ve put all my spare time and energy into books and stories, and felt very good about doing so. As a priority, it’s a no-brainer. To have any chance of success I need to produce material for publication, balancing speed of output with quality. But here, a few days after the 10th anniversary of my return to my youthful obsession with star gazing, I find myself seeking a balance of another sort. I must write, for this is the very definition of my being. But I must find the time to go out and point lens and mirrors at the sky, to gather and focus ancient light on my eyes and imagination. The spirit in me craves both. The challenge before me is to placate the muse, and somehow manage to keep looking up.

Either Way, It’s Reading   1 comment

It doesn’t take much of an effort to find weblog pieces and online discussions filled with curmudgeonly commentary on the possible elimination of “real” paper books. Books printed on paper, the curmudgeons fear, will soon be rendered extinct, unable to compete with the convenience of eBooks and magazines available on laptops, tablet computers, and dedicated ereaders. This looming apocalypse clearly arouses the disgust of many book lovers, with a few foolishly adopting the “cold dead hands” rhetoric for which NRA activists are known. Most are merely resigned to the changes in progress, shaking their heads (and sometimes fists) and grousing in fine curmudgeonly fashion that the world that follows this apocalypse will be inferior to the world they knew.

For lovers of books and reading, it will surely be a different world. But inferior? I don’t buy that. I’m eager to own my first ereader.

Now, like the curmudgeons bemoaning the sad fate of “real” books, I’m a heavy reader. I understand their love of reading. Books have been a major element of my life for as far back as I can remember. It wasn’t a proper Christmas unless one of the packages contained books, and when asked my preference for a birthday gift I usually had a title or two in mind. (If I didn’t, the adults in my life were very good at picking out volumes that pleased me.) So I can say with complete sincerity that I love books and reading. I love the feel of a book in my hands, the smell of books, and the sound of the pages turning. Most of all, I find the interaction between the words and my mind and imagination enormously gratifying – I always have. And in the joy I so often feel while reading, whether for entertainment or edification (or both at once), I have found an understanding of why my reaction to eBooks is acceptance, not resistance.

I love to read. Reading, not the book itself, is the thing. Flipping the pages, smelling the paper, feeling the weight – all of these things are sensations I associate with reading, but they are not the act of reading. The central matter is my mental and emotional interaction with the words, and through them the ideas and stories presented by the authors who arranged those words in the hope that someone might one day read them. Whether I’m adding to my knowledge of history or science, or escaping reality for a few minutes or hours, it’s the reading that does it for me. That’s the experience that counts. Once I’m into a book, the sounds and smells of bookishness are lost on me. It turns out that this happens as readily for me with an eBook as one made of paper. So whichever way the reading world turns in terms of delivery methods – and it’s pretty obvious where things are headed – my reading habit won’t be affected. In fact, the most likely effect will be an increase in the amount of reading I do. I’m not getting any younger, you see, and I feel an ache in hands and wrists when I hold a substantial volume, and it’s ever more common for me to set a book aside because arthritis is having its way with me, and not because I’ve run out of time to read. But all books weigh the same when in a digital format, and a good ereader weighs next to nothing.

The books I currently own will stay where they are; I won’t be replacing many volumes with digital counterparts. Except for a few frequently used references, I can’t see any point. But many new books, especially works of fiction, will come my way in a digital format. I’ve already used the Kindle and Nook reading apps on my laptop to discover new authors, and this process will only accelerate when I have a dedicated ereader. I see myself, in years to come, buying either paper books or eBooks, whatever suits the needs of the moment, and for as long as both exist.

But if paper ever does go the way of the dodo, I’ll still be reading. I’ll be reading eBooks.

Curmudgeons will no doubt read these words (assuming any of them read weblogs online, which come to think of it is rather unlikely) while frowning and shaking their heads. I’ll leave them to it. There’s no point arguing with those who espouse a lost cause, and eBooks are not going to be a “fad” as so many predicted when the Kindle first hit the market. As evidence of this, consider the UofA student union, in which I am typing this entry. Yesterday I strolled through the union and kept a count of people I noticed reading. Those reading something on a laptop only counted if I saw nothing animated on the screen, a small number. I found 58 people reading, and 33 of them were using ereaders of some sort; you really don’t need to do the math to know what those numbers reveal. Of greater interest to me was the fact that readers of print and eBook alike had the same fixed stares of readers everywhere when lost in a story. There was no visible difference between readers of books and eBooks; the experience seemed the same for them, either way. The current generation of eBooks has succeeded because, for those who desire the experience of reading, they ultimately provide exactly the same thing. Being hung up on the superficial aspects, paper crinkling and the scent of ink, often amounts to little more than grasping after rationalizations to hide a knee-jerk reaction to change.

Study history and you will soon learn that it’s the nature of human civilization to change. And when you understand the pervasive nature of social change you realize there are only two ways to react. You can embrace change, work it and direct it and try to mitigate its less savory aspects. Or you can dig in your heels, hit the brakes, and circle the wagons. But history also teaches us that those who simply try to prevent change are eventually swept away and rendered irrelevant. Those who argue against eBooks and ereaders, especially those who try to prove there’s actually something harmful in such things will, with their objections, soon be forgotten. Their point is already moot, as my informal count in the student union yesterday showed. Books in digital form, or whatever eBooks evolve into, will be the way people read in the near future. And since I plan to read in the future, I will read eBooks.

Posted February 27, 2013 by underdesertstars in Books and Writing

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