Archive for the ‘reading’ Tag

There’s More Where That Came From   Leave a comment

“Inventing a universe is tough work. Jehovah took a sabbatical. Vishnu takes naps. Science fiction universes are only tiny bits of word-worlds, but  even so they take some thinking, and rather than think out a new universe for every story, a writer may keep coming back and using the same universe, sometimes till it gets a bit worn at the seams, softens up, feels natural, like an old shirt.” Ursula K. LeGuin, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories.

***

In addition to my rather low-keyed involvement with a couple of Facebook writing groups, I often peruse postings on a reader-oriented group, one relevant to my preferred genre, both as a reader and a writer. I speak of the Science Fiction Book Club – and if sci-fi in its many forms is your thing, I strongly suggest looking it up. (Fair warning to fellow indie authors: self-promotion is not permitted in the group, a policy I fully endorse. Also a warning to readers: prepare to see your To Be Read list explode.)

As you would expect from a group of any sort on the internet, on or off Facebook, opinions abound.  These opinions – and here we’re talking about opinions regarding authors and their books – are often expressed without the caveat that these are, after all, just opinions and not facts. They are stated in ways that clearly lead to the impression that objective characterizations of quality are being offered to the masses. I’m talking about statements to the effect that a book’s pacing is too slow, or that the characters are two-dimensional, or the sequel wasn’t as strong as the original, etc. An often encountered judgment is that a series started out strong, then lost steam. The author didn’t know when to quit.

When a series is mentioned in any context (but especially when not knowing when to quit is invoked) rest assured that someone will join the discussion by declaring that they won’t read a series. For such readers a series is generally seen as both a failure of creativity and a money grab by an author or publisher, an example of milking a literary cash cow. They’re particularly harsh when discussing someone on the indie side of things, such as yours truly. (And no, such a complaint didn’t prompt this essay. I’m sure there are readers out there who won’t touch War of the Second Iteration just because it’s five books long, but I have not yet seen such a comment aimed at my work. Watch this space.) For any author, especially one working on an incomplete series, writing a series is also often viewed as a sign of laziness. Indie or traditional, they say the author obviously can’t be bothered to develop truly new material. And this idea is usually expressed with a sort of off-hand contempt that insinuates that the author is in some way a failure.

It apparently doesn’t register on these self-appointed critics that some of the biggest names in this (or any) genre have written or are working on a series of books. Anyone out there really think Ursula K. LeGuin is a failure? Or how about C.J. Cherryh? Readers are still buying each new installment in Cherryh’s Foreigner series. Whether you care for their work or not (just your opinion, after all), any writer who can write so many successful stories in one imaginary universe can’t by any honest definition of the concept be considered a failure. And the authors cited as examples are anything but exceptions to the rule.

Contrary to what critics of multi-volume stories believe, producing such work is hardly a sign of laziness, much less a failure of imagination. When a writer creates an imaginary universe it’s only natural to explore its depths. The endeavor doesn’t become more or less creative because you don’t start from scratch every single time. It’s possible that you’ll only pull a story or two out of what you’ve built. However, if you go to any trouble at all to create cultures, ecologies, technologies, and histories to support one tale, you have, by default, laid the foundation for more. If you are gifted with sufficient imagination, there may be many more stories in there, waiting to be told. While there’s no obligation to build on that foundation, if there’s room for more stories, or for one story to go on beyond a single book, why not? A universe, real or imagined, is by its nature boundless. For a teller of tales this means possibilities. More stories. Chances for existing characters to grow and change. Writing a series does not show a lack of creativity; quite the opposite. A writer who continues to explore new stories in a universe of their own making is displaying an awareness of potential, and a willingness to explore it.

As for the bit about milking a cash cow, what of it? If series didn’t sell, there would be far fewer of them. Last time I checked this was not the case – not by a long shot. Seems to me that those who turn their noses up at a series, and snub the authors of such, know very little about the publishing world. They’re also no more than a vocal minority in the world of book readers. When I read such commentary, I can’t help wondering if I’m being trolled. The way such views are aired, it often feels like little more than an attempt to stir the proverbial ant hill.

But that, of course, is just my opinion.

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

Winner of three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel:

2016  The Fifth Season

2017  The Obelisk Gate

2018  The Stone Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honest Sensitivity   1 comment

One aspect of this writing business always seems to take newly published authors by surprise. For some it’s a matter of “I never thought of that” puzzlement; for many others, it’s a serious shock to their creative impulses. What I’m talking about is this: the realization that, once you’ve published something – be it a short essay or a full-length novel – in a certain sense, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. To be very clear, I’m not talking about copyrights. I’m talking about the story and the reader’s experience of it. It’s your story when you write it, but it becomes their story as they read it. You no longer control the development of the story as it comes to life for readers, and how they react to the story as they read, interpret, and internalize the experience is entirely up to them.

Far more often than not, and assuming you’ve told the story at all well, readers will be on the same page with you, page after page. This is especially true of readers who already know your work. But there will be a few – and there will always be a few, for anything you publish – who have responses to the work that will puzzle you, or perhaps even shock you. “What,” you may well wonder, “brought that on?”

It’s a good question.

Reading and writing are flip sides of the literary coin. Heads you write, tails you read – which does rather strain a metaphor, but you get the idea. The coin itself consists of a lifetime of experiences, all the good and the bad; of being there and doing that, and having the essence of who and what you are shaped by these things. Reader or writer, you are that which exceeds the sum of those parts. Heads or tails, you bring all of that with you when you write and when you read. It will inform what you write, or your reactions to what you read. For some of us, meaning writers, it works both ways. Either way, it can’t be helped.

So, consider just the reader, for a moment, as seen by the writer of something that has invoked in that reader something of a negative reaction, be it distress or offense. What, indeed, brought that on? Nothing less than the sum of all those parts; those experiences that shaped the who, what, and why of the reader holding your book – or throwing it at the wall. A reader may like your work, and merely interpret it in an unexpected – or even embarrassing – way. But from time to time a scene or character touches a sore spot and triggers a stronger reaction than you intended, anything from emotional discomfort to actual anger or outrage. As a result, you might find yourself the recipient of a one-star rating and an angry rant for a review. You might even endure a public attack on your personal character. In a worst-case scenario, you might find yourself dealing with a snowball effect in the social media, as people sympathetic to that reader’s sensitivity respond to that person’s outrage by piling on, without bothering to read for themselves whatever it was you published. Suddenly, your work is getting all the wrong sorts of attention. And yes, I know a famous person once declared that there was no such thing as “bad publicity,” but there was no internet back then. Need I say more?

Anything you write and publish runs the risk of such a reaction, and if you want the general public to read what you’ve written, you really have no choice but to accept that risk. This isn’t to say you can’t be somewhat proactive when you write. Being slow to offend and slower still to take offense is always a fine policy. Deliberately writing something with the intent to cause hurt feelings or invoke anger in someone is difficult to excuse, and not a thing I’ve ever done. There’s rarely an excuse for trolling in any venue. But the possibility of giving offense exists nonetheless, regardless of your intentions.

So for my own part, I don’t seek the sort of reactions from readers that amount to being poked in the head with a sharp stick. And yet, for any sort of writing to be worth a damn, the reader absolutely must react to some degree to that arrangement of words. Where’s the point of balance to be found? Aside from not deliberately making that sharp stick and poking people, I’m not sure there really is one. You write with the best of intentions and hope readers see that this is the case. And you accept the possibility that not everyone will do so, as a sort of occupational hazard.

When I write, I’m guided by the belief that the story must be told honestly, and to the best of my current ability. That means that whatever the story requires to succeed, I’ll put into the most readable arrangement of words I can produce. There are lines I will not cross. For example, I won’t set down a graphic account of sexual violence. What if the story requires it? No story I ever write will require anything like that; I just don’t have that sort of imagination. For me to attempt such a scene would violate my principle of writing honestly; I would be faking it, writing something that simply does not come naturally to me. I might place such an event in the background of a character, to explain why that character behaves as he or she does. And I might hint or insinuate that a character is that sort of bastard, capable of such abuse, but you won’t witness any of his or her acts. To those who insist that such grim realities are a part of the real world from which we all must draw our inspiration and material, I like to point out that the same is true of bowel movements. But by all means feel free to define your own storytelling honesty – so long as you’re willing to accept the consequences without complaint.

There are a few other things I won’t include in a story. I won’t use the notorious “N word”, and I do my best to avoid obvious stereotypes regarding gender and race. However, as I write, I don’t work at being endlessly mindful that there are people out there who flinch easily at, for example, the use of profanity, or descriptions of characters enjoying alcoholic beverages. There is no way I could possibly write readable fiction while trying to keep my eyes open for every conceivable offense or objection that could be raised. It wouldn’t help if I did. Remember all those readers with all those wildly varying life experiences? I don’t know any of them personally. How can I possibly know about everything I should avoid for their sakes?

Whatever I write, there is almost certain to be someone who reads it and finds something objectionable. More often than not, I’ll never know about it, but I get just enough feedback of that sort to know it’s happening. So I write as well and honestly as I can, and I work within the assumption that a minority of readers will flinch at something, meaning the smaller number of readers, and not those who happen to belong to a group considered a minority.

You might take exception to something I write. Your life experiences may well leave you sensitive to one thing or another, and I just happened to put something in that story that touched the sore spot. It came too close to home, and something unpleasant was triggered. As you react, be assured it was never my intention to do so. Stories that are true to life will sometimes hold unpleasant things, for someone, whatever limits an author might embrace.

It’s like juggling eggs. No matter how good I manage to become at this writing thing, for some readers, I’m going to drop an egg or two. I didn’t mean to make that mess, but there it is.

The Book That Changed You   Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s yours?

What Just Happened?   Leave a comment

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Winner of the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Some might consider what follows to contain spoilers. If you have not yet read this book and believe you might do so someday, proceed at your own risk.

Science fiction has a seemingly endless fascination with a particular set of ideas, and perhaps foremost among them is the dream of encountering an intelligence not of this Earth. I can’t begin to count the number of such stories I’ve read over the years (many years, now) that I’ve been a fan of the genre. Whether it’s a first contact tale or we step right into a well-populated universe, the so-called aliens are there, story after story. The popularity of this trope seems to me to be a modern manifestation of an ancient desire to seek and discover the “other,” even if we might fear the consequences. We are, after all, the animal that invented gods.

Whether humanoid in form or not, these aliens are usually reflections of us, of humanity. Depending on the author and the nature of the story, the motives and behavior of these imagined beings may be more or less human in appearance, even when stretched and strained to be something unusual. It’s rare that the tale is told with aliens involved that are utterly incomprehensible, though these are the most interesting such tales of all.

One of these, the first of the sort I ever read, is Rendezvous with Rama, by the late, great Arthur C. Clarke. Here we have a tale of an alien encounter without the aliens. A great ship appears at the edge of the solar system, on a course that will take it around the Sun and sling it back into deep space. A mission is sent to intercept this gargantuan object and, if possible, enter and explore it. The crew succeeds in doing so, gaining access to a vast inverted world of wondrous sights and often dangerous mysteries. At first inert and filled with darkness, as the object they now call Rama approaches the sun its systems are activated. It lights up and comes alive. An inner sea thaws out and fills with apparently synthetic life forms. Creatures that may or may not be robots prowl the interior. The intrepid adventurers endure storms generated by the differential heating of the inside of the cylinder. They gather data, take pictures, and manage to escape Rama before it shuts down and speeds from the solar system. They leave the encounter with more questions than they had when they first approached Rama. And they never find an unambiguous sign of the builders of the artifact.

Aliens of some sort built the thing and sent it on its journey among the stars, that is clear. But who did this? Why did they do it? The artifact itself, while providing plenty of interesting experiences, reveals next to nothing about its origins, much less its purpose. The aliens behind it are not revealed, although hints are provided. We have an encounter with their automated emissary, and following the adventure of the encounter, are left scratching our heads.

The sketchy account of the story I’ve just provided might give you the impression that this isn’t a book worth reading. What’s the point, after all? There are several points to this book, including the adventure of exploring the unknown and the tale of those explorers and how they react to the artifact and interact with each other in the process. But the main idea here, to my mind, is to illustrate the possibility that what we find as we venture forth out there may simply be incomprehensible. Our motives may not be their motives, our ideas of purpose may not have common ground with theirs, and there are bound to be cases in which – should we ever meet anyone in the first place – this will be true. Rendezvous with Rama is such a tale, an adventure experienced by humanity that shows us plainly that we are not alone, while at the same time leaving us to wonder what it all means. An encounter that leaves us guessing. Science fiction has a tradition of asking the question “what if?” To my mind “What if we can’t figure them out?” is as legitimate a “what if” question as any. In this case it generates a science fiction adventure that deserved the award it received and its continued popularity so many years later.

Of course, the big questions left hanging at the end of Rendezvous with Rama are answered in the sequels that followed – or I assume, having not yet read any of them. While I need to get around to that someday, it is I believe a testament to the strength of this story and the wonders that unfold in it, that I’ve only ever been mildly curious about the sequels. Rendezvous with Rama works as is, and is as satisfying a read now as it was when I first picked it up more than forty years ago.

The Gods Themselves   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1973

In the early 1970s the range of science fiction available to me increased enormously when I joined the old Science Fiction Book Club. My personal library didn’t exactly explode in size – I was earning just enough money with odd jobs to keep ahead of the membership requirements – but the variety of science fiction I had the chance to read increased significantly. This led to a deeper appreciation for what science fiction could be, building on the eye-opening experience of reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. In fact, reading Dune was part of the motive behind joining the SFBC. I wanted a more durable copy of that book, having read the paperback to death, and although book club editions were hardcovers only by a technicality, it was an acceptable compromise.

The SFBC did more than broaden my reading range. One of my first acquisitions, along with Dune, was the two-in-one volume of Hugo Award winning short fiction edited by Isaac Asimov, one of my favorite authors then and now. The Hugo Winners was a feast of ideas and imagination, and Asimov’s science fiction convention anecdotes left me with a powerful desire to attend such an event, one day. I enjoyed those stories so much that any book offered up by the SFBC that had received the award was immediately ordered. I’d read a few Hugo award-winning novels before, but not until then had there been any context. Knowing what the Hugo Award was, and what it meant to science fiction fandom, made all the difference.

Not that I needed such incentive to pick up Asimov’s The Gods Themselves when it became available. I was quite familiar with the work of Asimov, by then; a big fan of both his fiction and nonfiction. The Early Asimov began my fascination with writing short fiction of my own. I’d read the iconic story “Nightfall,” a number of the robot stories, and all of the Foundation Trilogy before picking up The Gods Themselves. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find it something of a departure from the work I knew. That impression came back to life when I recently reread the book a short time ago.

There are two points of view used by Asimov in The Gods Themselves, one human and the other that of truly alien beings in a parallel universe. This is by far the most notable departure. With the exception of some of his earliest short stories, I can’t recall anything else by Asimov in which the point of view is shared by a nonhuman being. (Some would argue his robot stories fit this bill, but I disagree. His robots are far too human to be considered alien life forms.) The plot involves predictably short-sighted motives of pride and profit on the human side, and a desperate bid for survival by the parallel universe aliens. The alien biology and the culture that evolved from it are drawn simply, clearly, and plausibly, creating a fascinating contrast to the more familiar human realm. Due to difference in the life spans of the aliens, and a difference in how time works in the parallel universe, there are more human characters to keep track of than alien, but the author handles this aspect easily enough. Overlapping sets of human characters hand off the tale across the years, finally ending that side of the plot on a lunar colony.

The colony Asimov imagines puzzled me. His speculations were always based on the real science of the time, and are generally well thought-out. This lunar colony, as described in the novel, doesn’t exactly inspire the reader to dream of a lunar life. Cramped living conditions, food of limited variety (mostly grown from algae and yeast) and visible dental health problems – seriously, you’re going to plant ten thousand or more human beings on the Moon and forget everything that was known in the ‘70s about hydroponics? And neglect to bring along a dentist or two? The lunar setting ended up, in some ways, feeling less plausible than the biology and sociology of the aliens.

Where this novel works best is the material detailing the parallel universe aliens, and their struggles to survive as their world dies around them. It is one of these beings, a misfit in a highly ordered society, who is the real hero of this story. She is moved to risk everything for the sake of strange beings in a universe parallel to her own, about which her people know almost nothing, and who are endangered by the very struggles of her people to preserve their own species. This basic conflict is the true heart of the tale, and is handled well.

Lunar distractions notwithstanding, I’ve always found The Gods Themselves to be one of Asimov’s best novels. In terms of style it’s a bit of old school sci-fi persisting well into the time of the so-called “New Wave,” and yet held its own in terms of innovation. Well enough, at least, to earn its author the Hugo Award in 1973.

It was several years after reading both the Hugo Winners and The Gods Themselves before I made it to a science fiction convention. It was the 1978 WorldCon, otherwise known as IguanaCon II, held in Phoenix, Arizona. I watched Frederik Pohl received the Hugo Award for his novel Gateway at that convention. I grabbed a copy in the vendor’s hall before the weekend was out and read it before the convention was a week behind me. But I have a few novels between that one and The Gods Themselves yet to reread for this series of essays.

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.

The Process, Part Four: What a Bunch of Characters!   2 comments

Previous Installments:

Part One: The Stuff Of Which Daydreams Are Made

Part Two: Blazing A Trail

Part Three: The Lay of the Land

It’s a common joke, among writers at least, that part of the reason we do what we do is that we somehow never outgrew having imaginary friends. We don’t, of course (maybe I should say “usually”) call the imaginary people inhabiting the stories we tell “friends,” but we do get to know them pretty well. How they come into being, and sometimes surprise us, is a less than straightforward process, one that varies from author to author. For me, the characters often become companions of sorts along the trail I follow, on the journey of discovery that results in the story I’m trying to tell and in which they have their entire existence.

There’s always a character, sometimes two or three, right there when I start cutting the trail. The character (or characters) appearing on the first page usually figured prominently in whatever bit of daydream sparked the story idea in the first place. Nameless, sometimes genderless at the very beginning, these beings have an experience in my imagination and a story starts to unfold. Something has happened to them that must be explained, with suitable embellishments. That first bit of daydreaming usually evolves rapidly, if it takes on a life of its own at all. (Not all of them do so.) By the time I’ve thought it through far enough to establish the trailhead, these vaguely realized characters have usually acquired names and genders, as well as a general appearance – height, weight, skin and hair color, and so forth. In a matter of a few pages, personalities begin to emerge, as I experiment with how to show them as individuals, usually through their interactions with each other.

I’m in control of this, as I am of all other aspects of the process of writing fiction. I don’t, however, sit down and sketch out a dossier for each character; it’s a more organic process than that. The background that I invent to explain each personality evolves with the story, being shaped by it and, to a degree, shaping it as I extend the trail ever further. Along the way I often find myself describing things or creating dialog that wasn’t part of the plan a few hours or moments ago. It’s as if the characters, having evolved to a certain point, develop some sort of emergent property, a degree of self-will – hence the jokes about characters “speaking” to us, or taking charge. They don’t, really, in my case; the effect is the result of a certain logic involving what I’ve already done to create a character, which then dictates how they should respond in a particular situation, which in turn can cause me to reshape the story for a better fit. Being an organic, evolutionary process that isn’t always operating on a completely conscious level, the results often surprise me. I’ll add elements to characters, put words into their mouths, thoughts in their heads, all of it on the fly, and then set them into situations that call for a reaction. How would this person react to such circumstances? What would make sense, at that point in the story? And – more challenging still – does it still make sense in the context of how they started out back at the trailhead? The answers to these questions can lead to significant revisions, as changes propagate forward and backward through the story, suggesting more depth to the characters and changing the direction of the trail I’m blazing.

Think of it as a form of co-evolution. As characters develop ever stronger and clearer personalities, possibilities suggest themselves. All too often these possibilities, which occur to me late in the first draft, would be best applied nearer the beginning. The story, as a result, evolves as a whole, the characters along with it. Characters can (and should!) change over the course of a story, as a part of the story itself. But they require a degree of consistency, as well. As companions along that trail to story’s end, this can make them seem a touch psychotic at times, because their existence is equally valid at both ends of the first draft, even when the ends don’t match. And it has to match. I take who they are when I’m done and tweak them at the beginning to make sure the whole thing makes sense. If these imaginary friends of mine were in any way real, they’d experience moments of deep confusion, when I clean up the trail we’ve cut together. They might not recognize themselves from one draft to the next.

An imaginary friend with an identity crisis. That could only happen to a writer!

A Deeper Appreciation   Leave a comment

Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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