Monday, October 1, 2018

Defining Writing Success

       I’ve written 19 books now and hundreds of articles. I’ve won book and magazine awards. Respected literary bodies—not to mention friends, fellow writers, and colleagues—have favorably reviewed my work. My audience, however, remains small, as does my bank balance. Am I successful? What defines success for a person compelled to write? These questions inevitably plague thoughtful people; no matter where they reside in their travels from the first compulsion to express themselves in words to their—final draft—shall we say.
            I find myself asking the following questions:
1.     Has writing made you happy and/or fulfilled?
2.     If one goal of writing is to communicate, have you successfully touched others?
3.     If another goal of writing is therapy, have you healed yourself?
4.     How important is the elegance of craft among your writing goals? Should that supersede the mere act of effective communication—or are they inseparable?
5.     How important is the need to be recognized for what you do—as either reflected in monetary success or number of readers reached?
I like the process of using words to tell stories. Human beings excel at this process. In fact, writing (and speaking) defines our species. We chronicle our successes and failures and send them into the future with our children and tribe members, and thus evolve culturally with a speed that far outruns genetics. So yes, writing fulfills me because I have a talent for it that I have groomed and exercised, producing a body of work I can be proud of. I am as happy about that as my temperament allows.
      If awards and assignments are any measure, I have communicated successfully with at least a select group of individuals. In the past, writers wrote and others who believed in that writer saw to it that the words found an audience. Today, writers are expected to disseminate their own production. Some find that much easier than others. Do we fail at writing if we fail (or fall short) when marketing? Perhaps. But I think we are in danger today of losing some voices (and delightful words) that may be elegant and on point, but crafted by timid souls. Noise should not be mistaken for music.
Regarding writing as therapy: I remember one poet from my youth who claimed that he didn’t care if anyone saw or heard his words. The act of creating them was enough. Perhaps the creative act either aroused him—or healed him—in some way. Writing can be therapeutic, not to mention titillating. You can kill your enemies in fictional stories, say everything elegantly on paper that dies on—or tangles—your tongue in face-to-face encounters, engage in all kinds of carnal acts or change the way somebody else perceives the world with your words. Skillful writers become non-invasive brain surgeons, subtly changing the chemistry along the neurons of their targets.
Have I healed myself? To some extent, I suppose. At least I haven’t had to spend money on professional shrinks and have not shot any friends, strangers or neighbors. I leave my craziness on the page.
The elegance of craft. Writers are invariably readers too. The writers I choose to read are those who make me gasp, or cry, or tremble, or my heart change rhythm. We learn by doing, by being told, by example—but we remember everything better or with more clarity when the message is beautiful as well. So, I would feel less than successful as a writer if I didn’t struggle sufficiently with telling my story just right. I want to make my writing a work of art—something to admire not just for the information residing there, but also for the turn of phrase that turns information into rapturous epiphanies.
I confess. I have always liked the teacher’s kind words or a pat on the head. I like getting rewarded with allowances and grants for work well done. But those rewards are insufficient. I wouldn’t want to write the same things over and over, even if people paid me well to do it. I like the process of learning and creating something new. I like admiring something original gleaned, but transformed, from all the other human and original things generated by those who came before me.
Would I write again if granted another incarnation? Yes. To that extent I consider my writing to be successful. The act of writing, especially when it rises within you like lava ejected from a volcano, is an exercise worth repeating—and a very human thing to do.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Novel solution with an end in sight

Eureka! I experienced an epiphany of sorts yesterday: I discovered, after writing 111 double-spaced pages (28, 515 words) in my novel, a potential pathway to a satisfying conclusion. That doesn’t mean that I will follow that pathway without variation to the end, but it does mean that a solution is within the realm of possibility—that I have created characters that can interact, solve problems and grow and a plot that can sustain their actions and motivations. Of course, I had some inkling of where I wanted to take this creative effort and with whom, but I never know for sure if I can reach that destination until I spill some of the contents of my subconscious onto the page.
I’ve read various people’s approaches to writing novels. Some work from an outline from the beginning. Others start with a character and some event and then write their way to some meaningful (or not) ending. My technique involves a little bit of both. I settle on one or more major characters, squint my eyes to see a destination in some distant future, then enjoy the organic nature of writing fiction until narrative roots take hold and push up a shoot pointing in the right direction.
I figure I’m somewhere close to half way done. I have lots of work to do, but the work is fun. I look forward to sharing an imagined future with characters I feel confident can lead me to some enlightening place. If the destination is as rewarding as I think, I can further sculpt the entire piece to a finished form.
Currently, in my novel the mind of Rudy Goldstein, a 21st century genius who survived death with the help of a sentient AI named Mnemosyne, merges with the mind of Twill, a shaman descendent a million years in the future. The merger is painful. Rudy says:

Sorry, kid. This is going to be hard on both of us. I am sharing your brain now—I’m not just a voice in your ear. You will know my thoughts and memories and I will know yours—although we both can’t be in charge all the time. We wouldn’t be able to function. I know this seems like magic, but it isn’t. I don’t believe in magic, at least not the supernatural kind, and—deep down—I sense that you are a skeptic, too. We’re both human—at least you are and I was. We’ll get through this. We may be in Master Morticue’s cage at the moment, but we have some surprises for Mr. worm guy.

And both these characters have more surprises for me, too, because novels represent an accommodation, sometimes painful, between a writer and the story he is capable of writing and the readers he hopes to reach. But writers must write and readers ache to hear new stories. I know we will get through this together, now that the end is firmly in sight.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Character Harassment

Fictional characters often harass their writers in unpredictable ways. Usually, this is a good thing. When a character starts to write their own dialogue, it usually means the writer (or at least his or her subconscious) has researched and processed the character to the point where that character starts asserting their own point of view—sometimes to the point where plot lines must change—perhaps creating more work for the writer than they had prepared for.
I first really discovered character harassment with Neesha, a young female protagonist in my book, The Deep Time Diaries. Her voice often rang in my ears, telling me what to say. Of course, Neesha was loosely patterned after my wife, so I had Neesha’s original template close at hand to remind me of her ‘voice.’
In my most recent book, I’m not quite sure who Twill is patterned after—perhaps a younger version of myself—but Twill has been harassing me of late, getting his ancient mentor, Rudy and Rudy’s protector, the AI Mnemosyne, into more trouble than I thought I had intended. In the following example from a recent chapter, Twill warns Morticue not to mess with Spider Woman (Mnemosyne), although, at the time, he is chained to a bench and apparently just a primitive wild groupie (human) not in a position to make demands:

“I see no danger to ‘Jadderbadian kind’ in you, scruffy ape.” Morticue gestured with one arm, reminding Rudy of a maestro in front of his musicians. “You squat in primitive huts near what appears to be some ancient construct of some kind. Even as we speak, Captain Edelphine leads a military convoy to the base of the artifact you surround. Can I assume this mysterious Spider Woman you venerate is a local deity?”
“Do not underestimate Spider Woman.” Twill pointed a finger at Morticue. “She has guarded my homeland for generations and has now sent Great Uncle Rudy to guide me.”
“Let’s not do a lot of ad-libbing, kid,” Rudy whispered.
“Great Uncle Rudy?” Morticue’s mouth orifice fluttered, exposing ivory barbs beneath, and his chromatophores pulsed in a tepid yellow. “Where is this Great Uncle Rudy?”
Twill forged on, evading the question. “Spider Woman is wise.” Twill paused with a shaman’s good sense of theatre. “Spider Woman knows about the star gate through which you entered our world…and she knows it is not of your making.”
Morticue paused in mid gesture. His mouth orifice froze momentarily before he spoke again. “The star gate. Your Spider Woman knows about the star gate?” The alien turned toward his computer screens and activated them with a voice command. “Link me with Edelphine.”
Twill continued. “Spider Woman has many powers. She weaves many complex webs. Do not underestimate her.”
“And don’t over play our hand, my boy,” said Rudy
“What do you want, scholar?” Edelphine’s voice burst from a speaker on a nearby console. “I’m rather busy.”
“Proceed with some caution, Commander.” Morticue twisted on his bench to face the speaker. “This creature knows more things than he should. He knows something about the star gate and how we use it.”
“I knew it!” Edelphine spluttered. “This artifact is a threat. In the name of Great Mother, I will reduce it to dust.”
“I wouldn’t,” yelled Twill, rattling his leg chain in the process.
“Is that the monkey?” Edelphine’s voice entered a higher register. “How dare he address me directly?”
“Spider Woman says, ‘It is always best to speak clearly to fools before they step in their own poo.’”
Rudy groaned. “No ad-libbing, kid. No ad-libbing!” Rudy glanced at the screen. Edelphine’s mouth orifice seemed frozen in an ‘O’ configuration, fluttering at the edges like an aspen leaf.

So, Twill seems determined to up the tension and get me into situations my other characters need to resolve. In the end, character harassment has the potential to make a book more real, more complex (and harder to complete) than it might otherwise be—but if the writer is surprised by what’s going on, the reader should be too. The reader will keep reading. The writer will keep writing. They both want desperately to find out how this implausible fiction will end.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Is there intelligent life on Earth?

Comedians, tongue only partially in cheek, may say, “There is little evidence of any,” but how hard would it be to recognize an “intelligent” species if you met one? Biologists are often inclined to ask a modified version of that question: “In what ways is this creature intelligent?” This reflects the fact that all organisms alive today on our planet represent terminal lineages of 3.5 billion years of survivors. Their lines were all intelligent enough to beat their competition and endure.

In my novel-in-progress, tentatively called Pet Stories: A genius groupie in the kennel of Master Morticue Ambergrand, aliens come to Earth and find a species of primate that remind them of pets they left behind on Jadderbad. They discover evidence of million-year-old ruins, but don’t connect those artifacts with the primates they discover. Instead they make pets of them. Here is an excerpt where Morticue, a Natural Philosopher interested in the alien artifacts, ‘explains’—in the presence of his pet groupie (human) named Fum—the requirements for intelligent life:

“Well, Fum, point one: it’s obvious that any intelligent creature should be one that delays sex until after metamorphosis. The passions of sex—from what I’ve heard of the published reports of adults who have made the transition—and taken the time to record their experiences—those passions cloud the mind to the point where rational thought disintegrates. I’m sure you would agree. I’ve seen you rutting around the neighbor’s female groupies, deaf to commands.” Morticue paused and scratched his hide with several available hands. “But animals undergoing metamorphosis on this planet are few and small-brained creatures. Could they have a collective hive mind greater than the sum of its parts?”
Morticue shrugged most of his shoulders. “Point two: Intelligent life most likely needs a dispersed nervous system like Jadderbadians—various sub brains to handle routine bodily functions. That frees the primary Great Ganglion for rational thought.” Morticue looked at Fum who had picked up some sort of polished stone from the box and was holding it with one hand while stroking it with the digit of the other. “And yes, point three: Intelligent life needs many manipulative organs to handle the environment. Two obviously stunts mental growth.”
Fum smiled as he stroked the stone.
Morticue raised his third leg from tripod stance and ambled over to Fum with the remaining two legs. “What do you have there, boy?” Morticue extended his right lateral second row arm and Fum placed the stone into his hand. “Ah, a worked and polished fossil. Probably a trinket of some ancient craftsman.” Morticue sniffed the object carefully, viewing it in detail with all three eyes. “Marble. The fossil of some sort of shelled sea creature. I see some unusual markings in the ultraviolet. Of course, that leads to point four: Any intelligent life needs a broad spectrum of sensory input. That’s the problem with you groupies, after all. Very limited olfactory lobes; vision ends in the purple wavelengths somewhere.”

As humans, we prize our own skills and talents: The use of symbolic language, acute vision, the ability to imagine alternate realities, recognition of our social peers (and their motives) and some talent at logical deduction—but had birds, for example, taken a slightly different evolutionary turn and African primates become extinct, would they admire the same kinds of attributes? It can be fun to think about.

Monday, September 19, 2016

What's on an alien's mind?

One of the fun challenges of writing science fiction requires getting inside the head (or equivalent) of an alien intelligence and writing suitable dialogue. A writer needs to meet the same challenges of writing dialogue for humans—such as coming up with original content and mixing it with stage movements and observations about the surroundings—while also viewing the world through a different set of sensory organs.

The aliens in my story, for example, do have eyes, but they have three of them. I envision them being able to focus with binocular vision with any pair, but then being able to use the third to observe other things—just not with the same depth perception. Their peripheral vision might approach 360 degrees. What would that be like? Also, I want them to be much more odor-oriented. Consequently, they would pay much more attention to smells and other chemical cues and their language would reflect that.  Think of how our language reflects our visual preoccupations. “See you later!” “Would you look at that?” “Good to see you again.”—and so forth.

Even if vision is important to an alien, they may see more of the electromagnetic spectrum than we do. Bees can’t see the color red, for example, but they can see into the ultraviolet. Many flowers accommodate insects’ ultraviolet vision by producing markers only seen in UV light to lead insects to the center portion of a floral bloom where the insects can help flowers have sex with other plants.

And alien conversations will reflect many of the same things that preoccupy humans: things relating to social status, health, physical needs and other things. In fact, some scientific wag said the three critical questions any organism must ask of another in order of importance are: Will you kill me? Can I eat you? Can I have sex with you? One might also add: Can you help me?

That last question may be one of the central ones in my book. Cooperation among living things is one of those underappreciated aspects of biology on Earth. We humans depend on a hundred million microbes to keep our own body functioning properly, for example. We didn’t even have to ask for that cooperation. It was in place when our brains turned some critical corner and allowed us to imagine impossible (or at least improbable) things—liking having conversations with extra terrestrials.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Creating plausible aliens

The aliens (Jadderbadians) in my novel adopt remnants of the human race (a million years after a catastrophic asteroid impact) as pets. Because I want my title alien, Morticue, to be a complex and sympathetic character, I needed to develop a background for him—one that included his natural and well as personal history. 

To make things a little easier on myself and to provide a situation in which both Jadderbadians and humans could comfortably live together, I postulated a species from an Earth-like planet—although one a third larger than Earth and with even more water. I used my background in biology as a primary resource. Most SF writers do, in one way or another, draw on the biology of our native planet. We have no other option. Thus, the horrific alien in the movie, Alien, was patterned after the lifestyle of wasps and similar insects who lay their eggs inside hosts. The young eat their way to maturity and the outside world.

Here’s my attempt to describe Jadderbadian biology and natural history. Although every detail will not be used, I will have these notes to refer to as I develop my characters. The details, of course, will be subject to change, should a bolt of inspiration strike me. Such are the god-like prerogatives of SF writers J

Morticue (Emerald 31) & Selaea (Amber 86) (Tripodians from a planet, Water, circling a dwarf yellow star near the belt of Orion)

Biology/natural history:
Tripodians measure roughly 2 meters tall. They have internal skeletons, bilateral symmetry, tri-radial arms and legs. They possess coarse, hairless skin, somewhat mollusk-like in texture. Their home world is Earth-like, though one third larger (with roughly one third more gravity) and 75% ocean. Races vary in skin color (emerald, amber, and turquoise varieties), eye decoration and arrangement of sensory pili on their skin. They possess certain insectoid features, including a succession of larval phase transitions that add limb whorls. They are born as simple tripodal aquatic creatures with a small head and incomplete self-awareness. The first molt produces a functional, trainable and fully terrestrial tripod with its first set of 3 manipulating limbs. The second and third molts produce progressively larger adults with 6 and 9 limbs, respectively. The progression typically takes 400 to 450 years.  Tripodians don’t transform into sexually active forms until after third molt metamorphosis, but they do take companions before this time and are serially monogamous. The sexual phase lasts just 1 year for males and 10 years for females, during which time adults must mate, females reacquire juvenile gills, lay and protect their egg cases and young tripods before they die. Tripods that survive their time in the ocean wade ashore before first molt. Second stage (6-armed) adults arrive at breeding grounds and adopt two or more “Firsties” to raise and educate. “Seconds” & “Thirdies” pursue careers in art, science, technology, and philosophy. Many Thirdies serve as judges, spiritual advisors and philosophers until their final molt into adults. Thirdies aspire to wisdom and accomplishment before giving themselves over to the pleasurable excesses of a brief adulthood.

Tripodians passed through mental phases not too unlike those of humans, though stretched out over 5 million years rather than a million. These phases—that involved a progression from creative tool use to self-awareness and consciousness and from innovative art to primitive totemism, religion and natural philosophy—were, also like humans, stimulated by especially violent, concentrated cycles of climate change. Tripodians discovered rational thought processes that led to what humans would describe as “scientific inquiry,” though tripodians relied more on intuitive insights to spark new explorations. Thirdies, who left extensive recordings prior to their final molts, more often made these insights.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The games SF writers play

Readers and writers of science fiction tend to be science nerds of one flavor or another. By definition, SF is fiction, but it is fiction extrapolated from the natural laws and phenomena that scientists have distilled from their experimentation with nature. Thus, writers are constrained knowing that E always equals mc2 and objects in free fall will suffer collisions based on the particulars of mass and gravitational forces. Readers also know about these constraints and delight in discovering that a writer may have failed to do his homework. SF writer Hal Clement, known for works like Mission of Gravity, explained the kind of games SF fans play with each other in an article he wrote in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1950s:
“Writing a science fiction story is fun, not work...The fun...lies in treating the whole thing as a game. I’ve been playing the game since I was a child, so the rules must be quite simple. They are: for the reader of a science-fiction story, they consist of finding as many as possible of the author’s statements or implications which conflict with the facts as science currently understands them. For the author, the rule is to make as few such slips as he possibly can.”

            The writer makes the first move in this game by telling a story. The reader makes all the other moves in the game, trying to see how the writer may have gotten the science wrong. Clement played his part of the game so well, that readers still devour his work today. Mission of Gravity, along with related fiction and commentary, appeared in 2002 under the title, Heavy Planet.
            Clement was famous for creating believable aliens. In Mission of Gravity aliens subject to the immense gravity of a rapidly spinning Jupiter like planet called Mesklin evolved flattened, centipede-like bodies to accommodate gravity that varied from 3 times Earth normal at the equator to 700 times Earth normal at the poles. He designed a biochemistry for his creatures based on methane as the key solvent rather than water.
            My new book will also feature aliens, although not quite from so exotic a world. Nevertheless, I must fashion the world they come from in a way that is consistent with what scientists know about Earth’s biology and ecology. In particular, I will feature some of the knowledge science is rapidly acquiring about microbiomes: the mostly hidden world of microbes that coexist with the cells of complex organisms like us and provide many of the biochemical services we must have to survive. A key question becomes “Whose in charge?”—us or our microbial infrastructure? Undoubtedly alien worlds will have similar relationships between the first simple life forms that evolved on their planet and any complex ones that developed later.
            The next blog entry will feature some of the specifics of the world of Morticue Ambergrand and his kin. It will be up to you to see if the world I create is plausible. Let the games begin!