Friday, February 19, 2016

Journey of a Writer

     I have been observing writers lately at all stages of development, mostly through the Facebook posts of my fellow indies, and I've been relating some of their comments to where I was back in 1969 (wow -- 47 years ago!)  Shortly after I began to publish in 2011, somebody made a comment that I seemed so confident.  I guess that's because I already had over 40 years' experience thinking of myself as a writer and I really didn't feel insecure about the craft.

     I did go through some of the same stages, however, that neophytes experience.  I'll present them here, along with some advice for beginners.

1. Hey, I just discovered that I really can write a story!
      It's such a thrilling novelty to discover that you CAN construct a story and write it down. This happened to me in 1969, after I first read Tolkien. The idea that his elves were immortal struck a chord and I began to wonder what an immortal race would really be like -- how would it affect their view of life (you can see that the psychology of the human, or elvish, condition was already something I was interested in).  I became fixated on the idea of immortality and it dominated my writing all the way through two constructed worlds (see The Blessing of Krozem -- FREE on Smashwords).

2. Becoming obsessed with writing
     It's all you want to do, 24 hours a day if you could, and you resent anything that gets in the way, which can make life stressful for the people you live around.  Believe me, I've been there.

2. Dissatisfaction with the results
     My first efforts resulted in an endless and out-of-control plot.  I discovered that it's not enough to have a beginning and an end -- you've also got to have something decent to put in the middle.  I discovered what is my bane (maybe not other people's) -- the curse of improvisation:  too many subplots, too many fascinating new characters who just beg to be developed.  This leads to endless editing, frustration, and a final recognition that that first story can never reduced to anything publishable.  Unfortunately, that problem still persists for me, although not as uncontrollably.

3.  I see a lot of people who don't realize that this first effort isn't good enough to publish.
      There is no shame in abandoning your first piece.  A major piece of advice I would give the beginner is ... don't be in a rush to publish!  When I began, there wasn't any self-publishing except vanity presses and no real way to promote those boxes full of printed books.  Fortunately, I didn't make the expensive mistake of employing a vanity press -- I just kept sending out to regular publishers and collecting rejection slips.
    Anyway, my advice to the beginning writer (especially ones young enough to be able and willing to wait a few years) would be to let your book cook!  Don't just assume that this story you love so much is the great American novel or even a respectable piece of writing that will be enjoyed by a decent number of people.  It's fine to employ beta readers as long as you can keep the relationship friendly!  Or set the book aside -- write something else. Then go back to the first one.  Try editing it, changing some things (I rewrote the beginning of my first piece so many times that I now can't remember which version was supposed to be the finished one).  Try to look at it critically.  If it never really grabs you or moves you after a period away from it, it probably isn't as good as you thought it was.  Avoid those nasty one- and two-star reviews by being absolutely sure that what you've produced is worthy of critical analysis.

4.  Practice, practice, and then practice some more!
     It's not only musicians who need to pay attention to this advice.  It doesn't matter if you accumulate a drawer full of manuscripts, or I should say a computer full these days.  You might be able to go back and resurrect some of the earlier material after you've developed better technique or better insight.  In fact, I'm in the process of doing that right now.

5. So what kind of books should I write?
     This depends on what you want to achieve.  If you're looking to be wildly popular and make a decent amount of money, then write whatever is trending at the moment.  Vampires -- zombies -- dystopias -- space opera -- whatever.  Just be sure you have some kind of twist that sets your book apart, and don't forget the importance of characters who aren't cliched, because if a reader can't muster up some affection for that handsome space captain or that sexy blonde vampire, you'll get indifference or some of those one- and two-star reviews that stress writers out.
     But if you want to be different, then go for it.  You may never become widely popular, because you have to find other people who think like you do, and frankly that's not always easy.  But you will feel more satisfied with what you've achieved.

6.  Develop a routine and a methodology that works for you.  
     Find a routine that suits your lifestyle and leaves you time for the other people in your life.  Right now, I have nobody in my life and haven't had any since 1997, and frankly I don't think I could have written what I have (mainly the termite stories) if I had still had family responsibilities.  But if you do, just make sure you keep your priorities straight.  I think the hiatus I took from writing from 1983 to 1997 probably benefited my later efforts.  I certainly ended up with a more complex outlook.  I gave up on the immortality theme, for one thing (I discovered that Highlander: The Series had just about covered all bases on that subject).  And my termite series turned out to be a real joy to write, and (according to some reviewers) to read.

7. Finally, don't be a slave to the rules of writing.
     I was an English major, with considerable graduate work in the subject, but I never took a course in creative writing.  I never had any intention of becoming a writer until I was 29 years old.  I think the best background for a writer is familiarity with well-regarded books down through the ages, from Homer to the present day.  Also, knowledge of the English language (usage, grammar, punctuation, spelling -- the whole nine yards) is so important. Make the dictionary your best friend!  And utilize the internet!  A Google search of a grammar question usually will yield an answer.  Just yesterday I checked out the rules for how to form a possessive with proper names ending in "s" and I found that the jury was still out.  I decided in my case that "s's" was the way to go.
       As for the rules of style, I break a lot of them.  Frankly, I had never heard of the "show, don't tell" thing that everyone is so hung up on these days.  I write in a manner that seems proper and necessary to the context and to what I'm trying to achieve.  If you become too self-conscious about what you're doing, it will probably make your work stiff, boring, and artificial, although you should be sensitive to anything that feels awkward.  I'm not going to apologize for including pieces of historical explanation when it's the only logical way to bring the reader up to speed about the past.  I also don't apologize for using lots of dialogue.  People communicate through dialogue and one thing I'm always interested in is communication.  As for POV, I agree that one should try to be consistent, but sometimes a shift is the most effective way to move the story along and reveal character.

       So those are some of my thoughts on the subject of becoming a writer.  Pontification over!

Monday, February 8, 2016

What a Difference Thirty Years Makes!

Tentative cover for Part I of MWFB
I have no artwork for Children
of the Music yet.
I'm in the process of formatting The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars for publication, and at the same time I'm scanning into the computer my early piece called Children of the Music. Yesterday I worked on MWFB in the morning and then scanned and edited another chapter of Children in the afternoon.

Viewing both books in such close succession caused me to be impressed by how my style has changed. Children was written in the late 1970s and MWFB was written somewhere between 2006 and 2010, after I had written the termite books. In the late '70s I was still under the influence of Tolkien -- heroic fantasy was the order of the day. Children is laid in an imaginary world with two races of humans who exist at a level of technology that is fairly primitive, agricultural or pastoral in nature. My style at times verges on the grandiose, and I use a lot of description of setting (I was impressed by how successful these descriptions turned out to be). By 2006 I was definitely a realist, writing about the future of Earth. This started in The Termite Queen and persists into MWFB.
And yet I feel both styles are equally effective for the purpose intended. In fact, I was impressed by the chapter of Children that I worked on yesterday. It depicts the invasion of a pastoral people by a horde of "barbarians" and it stirred me emotionally, which is a good sign. (It's been more than thirty years since I read the manuscript.) It has a feel of both high fantasy and realism.  And I consider the straightforward narrative technique of MWFB to be equally compelling. I'm going to give you an example from each book so you can compare them.

From Children of the Music:

The good weather held, with a flawless blue sky above their heads and a dry northwest wind from the mountains that blew briskly down the neck and whipped the long manes across the horses’ eyes.  At night the cold sharpened, but the days warmed enough to have made life pleasant if only the wind could have dropped.  In the early morning the east was hazed with river mist, but elsewhere and at other times the air was like crystal.  Always the white bluffs barred the west, drawing closer as the caravan progressed southward, and in their breaks the Epanishai could see the ruffled horizon of dark silver mountains. 
In his impatience Daborno pushed the caravan faster than usual, only to suffer on the morning of the fourth day a broken axle on one of the oldest wagons.  After heated contention with the wagon’s family, he ordered it to be abandoned.  “We haven’t time to repair it, by the god of this world!  Where do we get seasoned ash for an axle, tell me that?  What do I care if this wain was made in the south?  Load your goods on the oxen, curse it!  Disperse them among the other vans!  Sirrah, I don’t suggest – I command!  Get this line moving, you snails’ spawn!  “
“What’s the rush, Daborno?” asked Leftis irritably, when they were underway again. 
The Chieftain glanced darkly at Rashemia and made no reply.  Leftis followed his eyes and did not repeat the question.  The High Codian had uncharacteristically taken no part in the altercation and now she rode three or four paces ahead of them, head held high, face pale and eyes farseeing – hoodless, with the wind tearing at loose strands of her hair.  The sight of her imperious otherness made Daborno quake with apprehension.  So they rode, past midday, into the afternoon. 
Suddenly, in a silence of weariness, a low cry came from Rashemia’s throat.  She drove her heels into the brown gelding’s flanks and dashed toward a long, sere brake of alder and birch that seemed to mark the line of a dry watercourse.  After a moment’s hesitation Daborno spurred after her, with Leftis and his wife not far behind. 
The Chieftain crashed through the brush and reined up beside Rashemia, rising in the stirrups to look where her hand pointed.  Before them lay hay fields, with neat, round ricks ready for winter.  Some eight furlongs beyond, in the valley of a lucent silver stream, was a shepherd village surrounded by its frail palisade, its flocks scattered over the slightly rising ground to east and west. 
Along the bluffs not half a league from the village, the woodland of bare birches and hazel thickened, punctuated by the brilliant darkness of cedars.  Amidst the white and gray hatching of the trees, against the chalk brightness of the bluffs, an indistinct lattice of heavy, black shapes teased the eye. 
It was into that distance that Rashemia’s sight strained, but Daborno’s was nailed southward, on the broad, bare knob of land that rose beyond the stream. 
“Aftran.  Aftran!  Rashemia!  Is this it?” He clawed at her arm, her horse’s mane, its reins, half beside himself. 
“Yes.”  The confirmation came, blunt, toneless, crushing down the emotion. 
“Aftran!  Aftran!  We are here!” The words roared from Dabornos throat as he pivoted his astonished stallion.  Then the rowels were buried in the beast’s side and it leaped forward, streaking across the fields, with the other three behind. 
On the north side of the brake, the caravan heard and there were whoops and war cries of disbelief, of elation, of ecstasy.  Everyone who was mounted coursed through the trees and followed the Chieftain.  The drovers screamed at their cattle, stampeding them into the brush; the wagoners beat the oxen with their goads, heaved the wains with shoulder and hip and hand, slashed at the trees with axes to clear a path – shrieking, weeping with frustration at being left behind – abandoning the more hopelessly wedged vehicles to pound on foot after their lord. 
Through the fields east of the village the ragged line of riders and wagons hurtled, hoofs shaking the earth, cloaks flying in the wind, the bound hair of women loosening and streaming behind like black banners.  The wild yelling scraped across the ancient, sunlit air, raw and terrifying as the music of an untuned viol.  The foremost horsemen dashed helter-skelter through the stream; the drovers and the wagoners gave up their charges on the north side and forded on foot; every human creature of the Axe and Owl beat their way up the slopes of the round, bald hill. 
The cavalcade had passed not two furlongs from the easternmost flocks, paying no attention to the two shepherds who rose up with fright on their faces, stared momentarily upon the careering wildmen, then turned and sprinted toward the village to the west.  

Now here is a scene from The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars (a little background   will help: The SkyPiercer Project, flying a starship beyond the solar system for first time, has just been made public.  Robbin Nikalishin, who is to pilot that mission, feels compelled to call his mother after this revelation.  His relationship with her is strained and difficult, owing to a dire misunderstanding that took place during his adolescence):

Robbie called his mother when Kolm wasn’t there, because he knew his public charm would vanish the minute he had her on the link.  When she came on, she said immediately, “Congratulations, son.  I know this is what you always wanted.  You made it happen.  Like you said in the news conference, you saw the stars and you never let anything stand in your way.”
“That’s – not exactly what I said, Mother.”
“Well, it’s the truth, isn’t it?”
There was a silence.  Then Sterling said, “Are they going to give you any leave before you fly in August?”
“I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so.  I don’t think they want us having open contact with the public.”
“So … you won’t be able to come home then … ”
“Probably not.  I’m – sorry … ”
He heard a sound at the other end that he couldn’t identify.  “Mother?”
“What if you get killed?” she said harshly.  “You could, I’m quite sure.”
“Mother, a person can walk out the door and fall down stairs and get killed.”
“Don’t give me that trite old probability crap!” she retorted sharply.  “The chances are much greater of dying in what you’re doing and you know it!”
He made no answer, clutching the side of his head, feeling paralyzed of will.  Then he said, “Mother … how can you … really want to … keep seeing me … after all that has … ”  His voice petered out.
It was her turn to be silent.  Finally she snapped out, “I want to wish you a lot of luck, son.  I’m gratified that you’re accomplishing your dreams.  It makes all my hard work and sacrifice worthwhile.  I only hope the rewards you reap will be as great as you think they will.  And just in case something does happen to you out there, I’m going to say ‘Goodbye’ and I suggest you do the same.  You may never find the time to ring me up again before you go and it would be a shame for a son to die without having said goodbye to his mother.”
“God almighty … ” said Robbie in utter misery. 
“Goodbye, son,” said Sterling.  “Say it!  Say ‘Goodbye’ to me.”
“No, I won’t!  I won’t say goodbye …  Dammit, I’m not going to die, Mother!”
But she had cut the connection.  Robbie stood for a moment clutching the com piece, and then he turned and threw it as hard as he could across the room.
When Kolm tapped on his door later that afternoon, Robbie didn’t answer.  Alarmed, Kolm banged harder.  “Robbie, are ye in there?”
“ … ’s not locked … ”
Kolm opened the door and came to a dismayed stop.  “Holy cry, man, what are ye doing?’
“Working really hard … at getting rotten drunk … ”
“Damnation.”  Kolm hastily closed the door.  “Where’d ye get that bottle?”
“Over at … Base Exchange.  … sell the stuff, you know … ”
“Ye walked right in and bought it, afore god and everybody?  What if somebody reports you to Lara or to Teeter?”
“Yeah, I walked right in … could do it then.  Don’t much know if I could do that at the moment … ”
Kolm went to where Robbie was sprawled on the couch and jerked the whisky bottle out of his hands.  “Whatever in Mairin’s name provoked ye to break training like this?”
“They have no right … tell us we can’t drink.  Sometimes a man has to do something … sometimes there are things … a man can’t stand … ”  Robbie squeezed his eyes shut, his face contorting.
Kolm knelt beside his friend.  “Robbie, did ye ring up yer mother?”
Robbie twitched his head.
“Man, this is the worst.”
“That’s right.  The worst.  Goody, I’m never calling her again … don’t care what you say to me.  I can’t stand it.  I hope I never talk to her again … never see her the rest of my life.”
Kolm took Robbie’s head hard between his hands.  “Robbie, I don’t understand, but I feel terrible bad for ye.  If it takes such a radical thing to keep ye from goin’ to pieces like this, I guess I’d have to say I’m for it.  But it’s a terrible sad thing and I wish I understood about it, but I know I never can and that’s all right.  Now, are ye just gonna lie there, or are ye going to get up and let me pour some coffee down ye?  It’s for sure that ye’ve got to be over this by tomorrow mornin’, or the jig’s up.”
And so Kolm was able to pull Robbie together and no one was ever the wiser about his lapse.  But Kolm remained on guard, and if Robbie got particularly moody or seemed to be withdrawing into himself, Kolm made a special effort to stay close at hand.  Robbie knew this and was deeply grateful.  He understood all too well that the masonry on which his character was founded was not the most stable and he relied heavily on his friend to be his keystone.

So do you like one better than the other?
Or do you like them both?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Realism and Fantasy - How My Writing Has Evolved

FREE on Smashwords
    I've been comparing my enthusiasm levels between the present day and November of 2011 when I first started to self-publish.  I have to say that in those four years I've lost a lot of stamina and certainly a lot of enthusiasm for self-promotion.  I assume my encounter with chemotherapy last spring is partially responsible for that.  Still, I intend to keep going -- nibble away at forming a larger fan base as best I can.  I wouldn't know what else to do.
      I've also become more aware of just what kind of literature I write, and I don't mean cut-and-dried genres.  I think I've lost my taste for typical heroic fantasy.  Elves, ogres, dragons, evil sorceresses, superheroes -- unexplained magic in general -- don't seem to appeal to me these days. I prefer the dark recesses of human (or perhaps one should say, sophont) psychology. 
    When I got my new computer, I added a printer/scanner with OCR capability, and I've begun entering a work I wrote in the 1970's which I liked a lot at the time, and which is standing up fairly well so far.  And I discovered that even in the early days when I was more under the spell of Tolkien, I never was really completely comfortable with the whole heroic fantasy panorama.  My very first endeavors were quite Tolkienesque.  They included a race of immortals, with a wizard very much like Gandalf, white beard, staff, and all.  They also included a villainous Sorceress who wreaks havoc on the lives of the main characters.  That story went on and on but never really developed into anything I will ever be able to publish.  
       But the way I described it at the time was "realistic imaginary world fantasy."  I considered that this was what Tolkien was writing.  My writing included magic, but I never really was comfortable with something that can't be explained by natural processes.  
       But then I turned from that and wrote Children of the Music, the book I'm currently scanning. It's a prequel to the big earlier piece, and it doesn't really include magic.  It's a world like our own, with overtones of the supernatural.  This is a setup I still use.  My termite books include a lot about Seers' prophecies -- certainly supernatural happenings -- and a descent into the Underworld, which is a requisite element of any retelling of epic myth.
     However, I always leave wiggle room.  When Ki'shto'ba and Bu'gan'zei return from the World Beneath, the Companions have an argument about whether what they experienced was real or a dream.  The three rationalists in the group -- Di'fa'kro'mi, Wei'tu, and Za'dut -- never become completely convinced that it was real.  They think it was a vision induced by drinking from the Pool of Memory.  They point out that the King of the Dead never answers any question where Ki'shto'ba could not have already held the answer in its mind.
     Anyway, I discovered that I wrote in a similar way back when I started.  Children of the Music is laid in an imaginary world for sure, one that includes elements of the supernatural -- a holy spring, a people who are simple and good and who live in the flow of the Music, which symbolizes the basic holiness of all life and time.  Unfortunately, however, reality always has to intrude.  Nothing so wonderful as the Siritoch people can last forever.
       Now when I was writing about this world, something else bothered me.  It was vaguely meant to be on a different planet, but it was exactly like our own world -- the geography, the plants and animals, the pastoral lifestyle, etc.  I hadn't fully developed the constructed world (conworld) mentality.  I had not at this time begun writing conlangs, although the book includes an extensive naming language, with a couple of words of the Siritoch tongue translated (Thran, the name of the village, means "bald," from a nearby treeless knob of land; and Wal or Walanath means "Grandfather" or "Grandpapa").
      By the time I abandoned that world completely and went on to Ziraf's World depicted in "The Blessing of Krozem" (FREE on Smashwords), I had begun constructing a milieu much less like Earth. Everything is blue, there are two moons, there are spirit beings that live alongside the humans, and there are four gods who control everything that happens.  I also worked more on the language, although it still consisted of simply a vocabulary with only minimal grammar.  But the basic premise of a realistic depiction of an imaginary world was still there.  And dealing with the dark recesses of human psychology was a major element.
      After I started writing again in 2000 after a hiatus of 17 years, I turned to science fiction.  The worlds have to work on scientific principles, even when elements  of the supernatural are included.  And I became interested in future history -- how is the civilization of Earth going to evolve?  I've never liked dystopian stories much, so even though I gave Earth its Second Dark Age, I also used the optimistic ploy of allowing humanity to rejuvenate itself and come back more rational and stronger than it had ever been.  No magic here!  But still I leave room for the supernatural, particularly when I write about other planets.
       And so we come to The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, which I'm going to be working on simultaneously with Children of the Music.  It's definitely science fiction, laid on 28th century Earth and dealing with space travel, but it occasionally includes hints of the supernatural, and it definitely deals with the dark recesses of the human mind.

Four of my ebooks are on sale for 99 cents
through Friday, Feb. 5, 2016