Sunday, May 29, 2011

Settings: The Moon

From Harrison Schmidt's Incredible Vacation Slideshow

Back in graduate school, I had the opportunity to see Harrison Schmidt talk about his trip to the Moon. As the last man on The Moon and the Apollo program's only astronaut scientist, he was fortunate enough to have spent more time on the surface than the most (Buzz and Neil only spent a few hours at The Sea of Tranquility), and as a result, his vacation slideshow was more entertaining than your vacation slideshow. One thing that strikes you about seeing an Apollo astronaut in the flesh is the undeniable fact that that human being, the one standing before you, has set foot on another world, another planet. From then on, that tangible world, easily seen with the naked eye, mountains, seas, craters and all, becomes a different muse. And the fact that human beings have walked, driven, slept, ate, and urinated planet-side, for me, only adds to the wonder.

The Moon in more exciting times
Lately, The Moon has taken a back seat to more exotic Sci-Fi locales (Mars has been the 'in' destination of choice for the past 25 years). There's a 'been there, done that' feel about the place, which I think is unfortunate. Besides Heinlein's seminal "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and Arthur C. Clarke's short story catalog (including The Sentinel, which would become 2001 A Space Odyssey), The Moon provides little more than a simple set piece for most current Sci-Fi (there are, of course, exceptions) and for those wishing for something more akin to Cameron's Pandora, it can fall a little flat.

The Moon, even a little boring for a recycled Sam Rockwell clone.
But I like to write plausible science fiction, and for myself, the Moon is plausible by the mere fact that we've already been there. If human beings are to build a future there, that gray dusty world will function more as a job site, and as a veteran of many remote, at times desolate, Earth-side job sites, I find The Moon churning with fiction opportunity, but not in the Buck Rogers space opera kind of way, more of an existential kind of way. So much so, my current novel is set there.

The Moon, as I would see it.
Watching 2001, there's a scene where Dr Floyd is on The Moon in a meeting to discuss the Monolith discovery. While a segue to other events, that windowless, somewhat stark, meeting room hinted at an everyday future where human beings work and make a living on the Moon. Basically, if I were to one day go to the Moon, or some one like me, it would be a business trip where I would spend my day couped up in a yawn-worthy meeting to review engineering data for some lunar-based satellite tracking hardware. I wouldn't be there to liberate a race of 9ft tall blue Thundercats from the military industrial complex, I'd be there complaining about the food, the shuttle delays, and the time-zone changes (28 day days are a killer). But taking the future for granted is what science fiction doe best, to marvel at the mundane.

If we are to become a true space-faring people, not just dabblers and one-offer, we will have to conquer the Moon. It's a journey will we have to take, and as a science fiction writer, that truth is undeniable. But how will we do this? What new technology will make this achievable? As it sits now, we neither have the inclination nor the financial incentive to exploit the lunar landscape. But that could easily change just as the human condition changes. Just as European empires could conceive of little reason other than gold to venture to the New World, right now human beings find little other reason to travel to the Moon than to say we've been. But I believe that's myopic and narrow sighted, just as I find defunding general scientific research narrow sighted. Ever onward, you never know what you're going to find.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Finding One's "Voice"

In much of writing and writing criticism there's this elusive nebulous thing called "voice". Reading the many writer/agent/editor blogs, there's a lot of reference to "voice" but little definition. There's also a much parroted opinion that nothing else matters besides "strong characters", toss plot, toss narrative, toss ideas, themes, concepts, etc... unless you don't have strong character readers can relate to, enhanced by your own personal voice , you're going to get rejected and everyone's going to hate your stuff. Beginning writers, go off into the wilderness and find your voice!!!

This may be true for the Literary Fiction adherents, but for genre, this notion differs quite a bit.

I like to think things are more complicated than that sort of rote advice. For starters it depends on what you're writing, and who you're writing for.... One easy place to start with the concept of "voice" is to replace the noun with "style." One reason "voice" gets substituted instead of style is that, in my humble opinion, there's a lot of first-person narrative novels in certain genres that get a lot more publicity than others. And when you're getting a chapter of witty sassy saucy Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones' Diary, the "voice" of the writer is obvious. But when you write in multiple viewpoint third person, the "voice" comes down to "style" and is much more difficult to characterize.

Having written one novel in first person, and two and three-quarters novels in third person, I would say establishing voice in the former is a lot easier than in the latter. So how would I describe my voice/style? That's a challenging question, and why I believe its more of an organic process that evolves out of influence and what you find works and what doesn't writing-wise. The marching order "go forth and find your voice!" is in my opinion unhelpful writing advice, despite certain agents/editors craven adherence to demanding authors with a "unique voice". It's a bit of Macguffin.

I write science fiction and while very conscious of character, I will admit "strong characters" is my weakness, but again, my favorite books and novels -my influences- have characters that are more established by circumstance than background. Case in William Gibson's Neuromancer, while loosely defined, is unapologetically two-dimensional. But Gibson's voice was his style, and as the seminal work of cyberpunk, he established a pithy street sensibility spiked with its own lingo and futuristic edge that worked outside its main character. Philip K Dick, one of my favorite authors, has novels filled with interchangeable characters that in themselves are not very memorable, but as representatives of the human condition, fit the everyman role that makes the novels work as a whole. You are Joe Chip in Ubik, you are Decker in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, what they look like, their nuanced mannerisms, their "fatal flaw"... less important as the idea as a whole, per se... I'm not making excuses, but my intention isn't to write the next Holden Caufield (which much to JD Salinger's credit, wasn't his intention either, ergo no "Catcher in The Rye 2: I Hate College Phonies Too."), it's to perfect and make more interesting the concepts and ideas I find interesting.

My voice is my style, and my style emulates more of the sensibilities of my influences than a first-person tone, although depending, that may evolve with the next project.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Empty Chamber: Part 2

Suffering under the yoke of thesis writing, my third year into graduate school, this post should really be called "The Winter of My Discontent: Part 2", but I digress...

Having passed my Phd qualifier my second year into graduate school, but broken of spirit, poverty worn, I decided to opt out, get my Masters degree and move on. So my third year in Wyoming was a strange one. My girlfriend at the time had broken up withe me the summer before and moved out of state, which if you've ever broken-up with someone while in Wyoming, it is a guaranteed dry spell of a year or more. (This statistics based on demographics and geography alone: 400K people, 100K sq. miles, it's almost Boyle's Gas Law at that point). So with another sub-zero, alcohol fueled, high altitude winter ahead, there was quite a bit of time to kill. Firing up Word 95 on the venerable 386, I sat down to write.

The Buckhorn Bar "The Buck" Laramie, WY
I still had the 3.5" floppy from my home-stint prior to Wyoming, with what would become the first chapter of THE EMPTY CHAMBER. So, I decided to add to it. It was an entertaining concept (see THE EMPTY CHAMBER: Part 1), something I could work with, lighthearted and fun and a welcome departure from the excruciating task of mashing together a Masters Thesis. BTW, if you want to read that gem, mosey over to the Wilson Science Library at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and look up "Microwave Remote Sensing of Roadway Conditions using Cascade Correlation Neural Network Architectures", it's a page turner.

This was 1998/99, a few years before the "paranormal" publishing craze that's now transmogrified into the whole Twilight phenoma/monstrosity/what-have-you. A decade earlier, the seeds were sown for the boom. It was only a matter of time. By indulging its tropes, I was not reinventing the wheel, not by a long shot. The angsty, but too whimpy for punk, goth sub-culture of the 1980's had carried over into the 90's like a hangover, thanks to Ann Rice, Vampire The Masquerade, customized fangs, and Bauhaus reunion tours.

Coupled with an almost religious sense of nostalgia, the wayward Fluevog/trench coat/eyeliner crowd  kept the candelabra fires alight. Goth pop-culture was on the verge of going mainstream. Merely an observer, not an emulator, I realized it would provide a nice fantastical twist to the college 'rock and roll' adventure I was attempting to write, like Hunter S. Thompson meets Bram Stoker. So I wrote, no outline, no sense of direction, the plot developing en route. It was, in no uncertain terms, a mess of a manuscript.

Writing away in my basement apartment, a raging high-plains blizzard outside, I was having a good time. Back then, before rejection and failure reared its ugly head, fiction writing was exploratory, something new, a much needed outlet. Conjuring every quirky 'what-if' I'd ever indulged, I tossed it in to the mix then threw it against the wall to see if anything might stick. I hadn't read one book on writing, nothing on style, this was pre-blog era, so no online advice to help me gauge the industry's status quo. And I think at the time it was for the best. Inundating myself with reality was not appropriate. I didn't really take it that seriously. Just to be able to say to folks, "yeah, I wrote a novel", would have sufficed. The whole cold-hard-brutal facade of the publishing world and its stark set of knife-edge statistics wasn't even a concern. I had bigger fish to fry, I had to get the hell out of Wyoming. 

So after I turned in my thesis, successfully defended, and packed up the U-Haul. THE EMPTY CHAMBER remained unfinished, to be completed later. Stay tuned for the Part 3...

NOTE: I do intend to put up a synopsis of THE EMPTY CHAMBER complete with illustrations at some  point. I think putting up the full MS for folks would be cruel and unusual punishment, that and the editing required to make it anything but a full blown embarrassment would be too exhausting. But never say never, I guess.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Settings: Red Desert Wyoming

America's Empty Quarter
Setting for stories... this differs wildly from author to author. Some camp out in their hometowns, endlessly mining off-beat nooks and quirky crannies for specific scenes. Familiarity breeds authenticity among specific writers (e.g. Stephen King's Maine, H.P. Lovecraft's New England, etc...) other writers create settings where most of their stories are based, rarely deviating (Robert E Howard's The Hyborean Age, Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom) while most writers use a gestalt of places real, imagined, or inspired by to create a specific setting for their stories.

Writers of science fiction are given a gift to extrapolate settings to their liking, stretch them into the future, break them off into a parallel universes, or inject them with whatever needed weirdness is required to create an affect. All creations are derived from personal influences, and throughout my 38 years, I've kept a catalog of places filed away for later use. These places, actually visited or virtually visited, proved evocative enough to leave their mark. Some I've already used for stories, others I intend to use in the future, some I may never use. So for the blog, I'll try to highlight a few places that have "stuck" for whatever reason...

Somewhere on I-80, East of Rock Springs, WY
The first place is what I call America's "Empty Quarter", the least populated stretch of territory in the least populated state in the contiguous United States. It's called Wyoming's Red Desert or The Great Divide Basin, and I first drove through it on my way to Laramie, Wyoming for graduate school. If you've done the cross-country drive, say from Seattle or San Francisco to the East Coast, you've probably passed through it via I-80. Living in Wyoming for three years I had the opportunity to criss-cross the expanse many times with that Wyoming tag line stuck in my head "Like No Place On Earth". And Wyoming, and especially the Red Desert, is so much so, it doubled as Planet Klendathu in Verhoeven's classic Starship Troopers (inspired by Heinlien's novel of the same name.) One can't help but expect to see Mad Max's V8 Ford Falcon zooming up in your rear view mirror while driving its empty highways, or see a radioactive zombie horde stumbling over the hardpan starved for human flesh.

Hell's Half Acre, Wyoming (aka Planet Klendathu)
I've always found vast empty places intriguing. They're blank canvases for the imagination and by their very nature typify one of Science Fiction's major tropes, to explore, colonize, and conquer the universe's vast emptiness. Gazing out over the rolling nothingness and tortured landscapes of the Red Desert, one doesn't see Earth, filled with its cities, people, plant-life, water, etc... one sees Arakis, Mars, Tattoine. I think wasteland creates fear in the human psyche. They're meant to be avoided, or crossed (the Mormon handcart pioneers were nearly wiped out crossing the Red Desert's vast expanse) and in this modern 20th/21st Century it also serves as a warning of things to come, especially in this age of global climate change, global nuclear war, and resource depletion.

To conquer a place in one's mind, is to conquer a place. I think it's the terrestrial version of stargazing. Just as we look up into the stars to marvel at our insignificance, we venture into wastelands to indulge our meekness. It's no wonder the world's prophets sought enlightenment from the desert, even an atheist like myself sees the spiritual attraction.

Anyway, I can't recommend a family vacation to the Red Desert, really. But if you're passing through, stop for ice cream at Farson, WY's infamous ice cream stand or buy a pair of "authentic" native american moccasins from Evanstaon WY's Little America, and take in the nothingness.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Furious 350...

Less background, more stuff about writing, specifically my personal writing habits...

Every book/blog on writing mentions something about "how much","when", and "how often", and the oft-loathed recommendation that one must write every damned day, day in, day out, forever, on and on, rain or shine, hell or high water 'til your fingers are nothing but hardened callouses... write even if its drivel, poorly thought out, self-indulgent nonsense poured into a moleskin writing notebook. Just write you fools, write anything, write, write, write!!! It doesn't matter what you're writing about!


Like everything, there's a happy medium, a workable pragmatism. To just write for the sake of writing, while a noble notion, isn't necessarily good advice in my opinion. I suppose if your goal is to keep a personal journal, or a personal blog (like this one!) yes, by all means, write whatever's on your mind. But if your goal is to one day become a published fiction writer, then my take is that putting words to paper should require a bit of pre-planning and thought.

I am an outliner, and while many view the outline as a painful shackle unnecessarily burdening the writer, I can't live without one. "I just let the characters take me wherever they want to go!" is an oft repeated retort among the anti-outlining crowd. And that may be fine, if that's what you're going for.... but this stream of conscious fiction writing, for me, is more painful than 'following the script'. I started out writing this way, but what ended up happening was a plot-holed mess that meandered needlessly, driving up word count unnecessarily, and creating a Sisyphean revision task I had no stomach for . So, I work from an outline for novel writing. It's painful at the git-go, yes, it's not fun, but it allows me to power through my "Furious 350"....

Most of my writing is done in my head, during the drive to/from work, spacing out in the shower, what some people call 'daydreaming.' Working within the context of a pre-outlined chapter, I know typically what constitutes 350 words worth of a scene. It's a manageable word count (BTW, "It's" in this sentence is word 350 of this post) and easily doable sitting down for an hour to an hour and a half each evening. I know what I need to accomplish so then it's a matter of just "gettin' the words out.". Of course that's the idea, some days are easier then others, others are downright tedious and excruciating.

I myself write everyday. Not because it's good for me, like drinking thirty glasses of water a day, but because really 350 words isn't that much to be honest. Professional writers typically crank out 1000 to 2000 words a day, but that's their day job. That sort of throughput nets them a novel in three months or so. Typical novels are around 80K to 120K, lower usually if it's the writer's debut novel. (First time novels above 130K words are very rare.) By my math, if I write 350 words a day, every day, I'm clocking in at 10K words a month, which will get me up to a novel length manuscript in 8 to 10 months....

Sounds too soulless? too mechanical? Perhaps. It's discipline. It's exercise. It's like going to the gym everyday. (BTW, I can't do the gym... I've tried, man, have I tried...). But when it comes to writing, I don't believe in the 'muse' or the need for daily inspiration/affirmation. It's simpler than that. I write my 350 when I've had a crappy day at work, I write my 350 when I'm 30K ft above Iowa, when it's Christmas, when I'm not feeling well, etc...

So despite my mocking of the "write everyday" Nazis, I do write everyday. Why? I wouldn't get anything done otherwise. A creature of guilt, to squander the opportunity after having landed an agent seems somewhat unforgivable. I doubt if I'd be trying to write a novel a year otherwise. The more novels on submission to editors, that many less novels I have to write to get published.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Empty Chamber: Part 1

This post should be called "The Winter of My Discontent: Part 1", but I digress...

After college, circa A.D. 1995, I went up to Alaska to work in a fish freezer near Glacier Bay. As opposed to hand-wringing about finding a career while idling away my first post-baccalaureate summer in Snohomish, unemployed and living with the folks, I decided to go Jack London and head up to the Last Frontier in the hopes of paying off student loans in one felll swoop, whatever 'fell swoop'  means (wikipedia it and leave me a post if you want.)... It was a noble thought.

Instead, I came home, paycheck in hand, and bought a bunch of ski gear, lazed about, hung out with old college friends, and had the odd job interview, all the while apathetically applying to graduate school. I'm pretty sure not one red cent actually went to Sallie Mae. Lots of time to kill, lots and lots of time to kill... So one day, I kick-started the parent's Tandy (I'm pretty sure it was a Tandy....) and after about thirty to forty minutes of hard drive lurching, I managed to get its word processor booted. Now, what to type? Start with what you know, they say. College, ah yes... let's write about college! Very original.

Not sure about everyone else, but my college experience was enjoyable, a significant upgrade from whatever high school was supposed to be, but it was still just series of quirky anecdotes and unrequited crushes lacking any central theme. I didn't meet my soul mate in college. I didn't triumph over adversity. There was no drunken /drug-addled late night odysseys worthy of Animal House infamy. A bit 'meh' overall and not very epic. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed college, that twilight zone where invincible youth and dreaming big teeter on the threshold of adulthood, but to milk it for a novel? Might as well give it a shot, I thought. So armed with a bit of nostalgia and longing for the salad days of yore, I wrote.

My first outing at a novel consisted of a twenty page episode hi-lighting a most exceptional meandering day of an enhanced college slacker. My intention wasn't to actually write a novel at the time, it was just to write. Inspired by comic books, a pseudo-angst gothic catharsis, self-aware coffee house conversations, and unrequited yearning for a true 'rock and roll adventure' as my late college friend Ben always referred to it, I embarked on what would become THE EMPTY CHAMBER. Written in amateurish first person (I intend to write a whole post on first person versus third person, and my writing philosophy there of...) it was an interesting experiment. As quickly as inspiration arrived, it left, and the embryonic novel remained a 20K artifact on a floppy drive for another two years.

Stay tuned for The Empty Chamber: Part 2...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Confessions of a Crap Artist...

Back in High School I wasn't much of a writer. I had no innate talent. After a few months, I could figure out what teachers liked to read in essays, enough to get B+/A- grades. But it was a struggle. I remember classmates acing essays they'd written late night the day before, while I struggled to surface in B range laboring days in advance. I'd dabbled in short story writing, but the number of short stories written in high school were only a handful. I also wasn't much of a reader either. This trend continued into college. I'd managed to pass my AP English exam with a marginal 3 (out of 5), which allowed me to skip English 101 and move on to honors level literature classes, focusing on the Greek and Latin classics, Homer, Dante, etc... Now in the major leagues, my essay grades at that point dipped into C+ range but by some magic, I managed to struggle through these classes with B- grades. Again, my fellow classmates managed to pull A+ 'exclamation point' grades from quickly rendered essays written in coffee shops prior to class, the miserable bastards.

So, clearly not talented, why bother?

Time to digress into the depraved geek world of role playing games, specifically TSR's venerable Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1st edition, the old 1979 rule books, the new editions are for posers), Top Secret by TSR, and later on R Talsorian's Cyberpunk 2020. While I enjoyed building and playing characters, the most rewarding part was playing the referee (aka Dungeon Masters in D&D). The crossover between novel writing and constructing adventures for your friends is surprisingly similar. Instead of entertaining one reader for 8 to 10 hours, the referee has to entertain a group of friends for 4 to 5 hours (depending on the volume of Mountain Dew consumed). And one's friends tend to be as harsh of critics as anonymous strangers, maybe even more brutal in their honesty. I enjoyed RPG's unapologetically despite their stigma and when the pool of willing friends dried up, left to my own devices, the need to continue to tell stories remained. So at that point, my writing picked up as my RPG outlets whithered. 

A once wise physics professor I had in graduate school by the name Glenn Rebka (of the famed Pound-Rebka experiment... look it up, it proved gravitational red-shifting, totally badass) told me solving physics problems is a matter of longevity. Which, like any personal endeavor, rings true. When it comes to art, I've always admired the talent-deficient die hard, either too stubborn or oblivious to realize his short comings, but willing to work to get their stuff in front of people good-bad-indifferent. Their stories are much more inspiring than the talent-rich do nothings. The world's filled those cats... I'm guessing of course, as I'm assuming those classmates writing last minute A+ essays probably aren't writing last minute novels destined for the Booker Prize. So if they are literary geniuses, no one will ever know.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why read this blog?

I intend to post/regurgitate my writing history starting at the beginning... but until then, some credentials...

I am an agented author, represented by a very hardworking group of folks in the big NYC. So I managed to navigate the rocky shoals of the agent-query process with a reasonable amount of success. They represent Hugo/Nebula nominees, which is a good thing, because I write Science Fiction and you need an agent who lives/breathes your chosen genre. 

One hard lesson? Having an agent is by no means the 'golden ticket'...

I have two novels on submission to the big imprints who publish Science Fiction/Fantasy exclusively, and as a result, I have a few kilobytes worth of personalized rejections from the best editors in the field. And why that doesn't seem like much of an achievement, to have gotten my meandering prose across the desk of a big name editor and to have wasted their time for an hour or two, its actually been extremely helpful. Most have given me the boilerplate "not for me", "didn't connect with the characters", but a few have given me very thoughtful comments/rejections. A few, I hope to share...

Also, I love Science Fiction/Fantasy. I read it almost exclusively, and have a pretty good head about what's worth reading and what's not. I tend to switch authors every book, which helps to expose me to different styles and sub-genres. I also try to skip decades. There's absolutely terrific stuff written all throughout Sci-Fi's century-plus history. I'm not a 'quick' reader, so my need for variety may be a result of my low throughput book-wise. I know a few folks who can read a novel every two days... I'm a little slower, a novel every two weeks typically. I wish I could read faster, but alas...

More reasons to come....

I've succumb to 'platform' pressure...

Stephen King once said "the first million words" are just practice...

With that bit of humbling advice, I'm clocking roughly 400K words spread over four novels (some finished, some unfinished, some abandoned) after roughly fifteen years of on-again/off-again novel writing (mostly off-again).

So why should you read my writing blog? 

Bored at work is probably the best reason, or if you have Google Reader feeding a smartphone and you're sitting at a bus stop or you're waiting for a plane at the airport. Second best reason? You're a writer too, or you're interested in writing, or you're brimming with Shauedenfruede and revel in the missteps of others (I'm guilty of this in spades).

After reading hundreds of blog entries by writers/agents/publishers roaring that one needs a "platform" in these harrowing days of the e-publishing, I've capitulated. Do I think it will help me get published? I'm not banking on it. But who knows... It's something to check off my list, an opportunity that I didn't squander, no regrets, etc...

So what am I planning on posting? 

Hopefully not self-indulgence, ala a 70's era progressive rock album, but a personal blog is self-indulgent by definition, so... in light of that, I'm sure I will be egregiously guilty on all counts. I guess with fifteen odd years of writing triumphs (very few) and failures (more so), if I can help out fellow struggling authors, or perhaps learn something from others, this whole thing will be a reasonable success...