Saturday, December 10, 2011

An Illustrated Account of the Last 6 Weeks

The novel burbles along. The deeper I get the deeper it gets. Hope I can pull it off. I'm getting pretty sure of the title and I feel like I can divulge it. My novel in progress is called Tribulation Camp. Also, my main protagonist is now named Hadrian Haden. We'll see how long that sticks.

Here in Interior Alaska we got a head start on winter. The last two weeks of November took a nose dive, and we got down to minus 41. We broke six all-time record lows, five of them on consecutive nights. The photo above is of my wood yard. I'm having to buy firewood this winter, and what you see represents a two-cord delivery of 8-foot logs.

Last I heard, the Occupy Fairbanks diehards are still camped in the park and have maintained a continuous presence through the two weeks of extreme cold. In my last post I incorrectly identified the park as being a city park. It's actually a borough park (our boroughs are like your counties) and the official dealing with them is the borough mayor. The campers have two arctic tents with stoves. So far the mayor has resisted calls to clear the park and says the campers have 1st Amendment rights to assemble. Good for him.

I'm still working on the cover to "The Wedding Album" ebook. I started to feel like I was over-thinking it, and I'm still open to hiring a real illustrator when I can. In the meantime, I've spent countless hours browsing the sites with Creative Commons, public domain, or reasonably priced images including: Wikimedia, Flikr, Deviant Art. This last one, Deviant Art, is an amazing community of incredibly talented artists, many of whom I'd like to hire someday.

The last I posted, this was the stage the cover was at. (click on photos for larger size) I asked for and got valuable feedback from some of you. My main problem with it was that nothing about the image was science fictional. I did locate some Photoshop tools and filters I had been unaware of and spent some time sexing up the rings.

But in the end, the objection was the same, not SFnal enough. I kept browsing.

I found this wedding cake topper featuring elegant robots. I fell in love with it and tried to make it work as a cover image. But it's just too whimsical for the story, and I had to let it go. If I ever get married again, I'm sure to have a robot cake topper. I encourage you to visit the online store of the artist, Pete, and see all the other robotic accessories he sells.

I took another tack and the image above is the current iteration of the cover image. I'm liking it a lot. It evokes the story quite nicely. And I think it says science fiction. What do y'all think?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy Fairbanks

Just returned from the Occupy Fairbanks march. I wasn’t dressed for the weather, a clear, relatively mild day (13 °F), and had to bail before all the speeches were done. About 40 people marched, pretty much the same crowd I saw when I protested the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike those protests, this time I didn’t see any passers-by flipping us off or screaming insults. There are a few people camping out in a city park in solidarity with other protesters around the world, but they are having problems with the city and police. Nothing major yet. I've read in the news how other cities are holding their fire against Occupy protesters because they think the coming winter weather will do the job for them. It seems to me that Fairbanks protesters might have some cold weather expertise to share.

Though the Occupy movement has no generally accepted list of demands yet, I agree with most of the ones I’ve heard: breaking up financial institutions that are too big to fail, bringing criminal charges against the managers and executives of institutions that caused the recession with illegal activities, ending the wars, ending corporate welfare, and so on.

My biggest beef is with the Supreme Court that, beginning with the 14th amendment in the 19th century, declared corporations to be persons with civil rights. I’m concerned about the political power that major corporations are able to muster with large amount of money, of course, but being a science fiction writer, I can’t help projecting my worries beyond the current situation to the not-to-distant future when science has invented true Artificial Intelligence.

Corporations are cleverly crafted machines, and machines do not have to be sentient to have an agenda and the means to pursue it. Their ultimate purpose is profit, not providing products or services. Products and services are merely the means to that profit. They have no inherent interest in human affairs, the planet, justice, or any other issue insofar as it doesn’t turn a profit. They are eternal entities but not very good at looking at the long-term consequences of their actions. A corporation will catch and sell the last fish in the ocean before it wonders where all the fish have gone. Supposedly people drive corporations, but it seems clear to me that the bigger and more successful a corporation becomes the more the corporation drives its board of directors and executives. If they do not serve its purposes (profit), they are discharged.

Thus the corporate model is a perfect, ready made immortal “body” for an immortal AI to move into. When AIs arrive on the scene, I imagine they may have a hard time winning their own civil rights at first. The same people who give corporations a pass on social issues will object to conferring equal rights to soulless, unchristian AIs. However, enterprising AIs will be able to incorporate themselves and step right into personhood. In this sense the coming Singularity may look something like a hostile takeover.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Steve Jobs

Of all the tributes I've heard this week, I was most moved by people who told how the works of this man changed their lives. I must raise my hand and declare myself one of these.

Back in 1986 I was in bad need of a job. Both my private business and marriage had just failed. Counter intuitively, I felt that it was a great opportunity to finally quit stalling and begin to work on my dream of becoming a published author. But I needed income, something to get by with while I took the time to write.

I interviewed around town for a job. My most marketable skill in those days was as a graphic designer. I had worked at the local paper for a few years. They had turned my boyhood training in fine art into a rough and ready commercial art skill. I sold and laid out auto and real estate ads, a lot of them full-page ads during those boom times. The newspaper taught me the skills to manually lay out a mechanical, a blueprint of sorts in different colored inks on tissue paper. The typesetters, compositors, camera, and others in production used them to build the ads, Within the confines of the medium, I grew to feel quite proficient, if not artful.

So in 1986, I was lucky to interview with the owner of Express Copy & Graphics for a job. She had a full time designer position to fill, one of the earliest Mac computers, laser printers, and version 1.2 of PageMaker.

Thus I arrived at the ground floor of the digital revolution in printing. Desktop publishing, launched on Apple's machines, eventually brought down an entrenched giant of an industry--traditional printing. And I was not only witness to the complete upheaval, but served as a grave digger. It took me almost a year to translate my manual layout skills onto the Mac, and I never looked back. What with practicing, teaching, and free-lancing, I earned my bread and butter for over 20 years in graphic design on ever-improving models of Macs.

The fall of traditional printing was followed by the fall of traditional publishing, a revolution we are witnessing these days with ebooks. In this the iPad, revolutionary in so many other areas, is running a distant third (I'm only guessin) behind Kindle. The Kindle Fire, just released, could be the final nail in the coffin of print books as big business.

But by far the newest technological revolution Steve Jobs cast upon the world has been largely unnoticed in the press. I'm talking about Siri, the personal assistant on the new iPhone 4S, which was released on the day before Jobs died. I wonder if he had any free attention in those last hours to marvel at the little wonder he had just tossed into the world. I've heard that people were expecting Apple to announce the iPhone 5 and were disappointed when it didn't. Don't they know that the lucky owners of the iPhone 4S will hold in their hands the first iteration of . . . wait for it . . . the first iteration of the belt valet? Trust me, boys and girls, this is major. Even if Siri flops, like the Newton tablet did, the AI assistant cat is out of the bag. Thank you, Steve Jobs. We won't soon forget you.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The New Book Cover

I've gotten some helpful feedback on the cover in the comments section. It provides gist for a few blog entries starting with this one. Renelle (one of my first readers) asks:

It's a nice cover, David. Do ebook covers serve the same purpose as (real books? meatbooks? what the heck do I call them?) printed book covers? Does it need to stand out in a crowd? Pique your interest?
She also says: How many sizes is it going to be viewed at? How small will it be on, say, an iPhone?
These are all great questions because they reflect the revolution going on in media, with the rise of the phones and tablets (the fifth and fourth screens, respectively, in the life of the modern consumer). If paper books are truly going away and ebooks springing up to replace them, then what of the cover? Is the ebook cover the same or is it different from the paper book cover? (I don't know what else to call them either--traditional books, hard copy books, eventually POD books.)

It seems to me that all commercial covers, whether traditional or digital, must stand out on the crowded rack. Their purpose is mainly to sell the book. The method they employ is usually to be somehow evocative of the subject of the book while piquing the reader's interest. In this the digital book cover is no different than the traditional one, except the crowd it needs to outshine is digital. That is, the ebooks I'm doing will have no POD incarnation and will only be sold online. The online racks belong to Amazon, B&N, and others, and they display covers in sizes ranging from about 60 pixels to about 200 pixels in width, depending where on the site they are displayed. A 60-px cover is really tiny. Here's an early attempt at the cover for My Morning Glory at 60 px. You generally can't read any of the text at this size, not even the title. Objects are hard to distinguish. You may have only a shape and a color. But if you've already looked at the cover in a larger size, then this one acts like a little icon or trademark (a glyph).

Here's an intermediate size that appears on some Amazon pages. (I'm basing these on the Amazon site. Other sites have own sizes. And I have no idea how they appear on a tablet or smart phone.)It's 100 px wide, and at this size you should be able to read something, probably the title, maybe the author name. Object should be discernible.

And finally the size on an individual book's main page. As far as the buying experience goes, this 200 px size cover is the largest that will appear. Sometimes, you can click on a cover and see a larger size, or you can click on "Inside this Book" and see a larger version of the cover, but I would guess that most people don't. So this size has to do all the work.

You should be able to identify objects portrayed and read the title, author's name, and maybe the pitch line (subhead). IMO, there is no place for sub-sub heads.

That's on the sales side. On the reader's side, e-readers also display the cover at about the size of a paperback book. The older Kindles displayed in B&W, but the iPad and Nook are color, and now with the introduction of the Kindle Fire, it seems to me that color will rule on the cover as well as inside the book. The insides of print books have only been shy of color in the past because of the cost of extra print runs that color entailed. But e-color is free, and I believe that ebook designers will embrace it.

More discussion later.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Still here

I seem to have missed a week or two of posting. No excuses except that I have been mightily distracted by the Rat Race. Anyway, I have been plugging away at trying to come up with the cover for my next ebook. The image above is the current candidate. I'm not too jazzed by it because the background is brown, a no-no in graphic design, and because it looks so mundane. I'd much prefer a SFnal image that evokes the future, the Singularity, AIs or almost anything else. But I'm at the end of my rope. I've spent weeks browsing wedding images online and in bridal magazines, and this is the best I have come up with, given my limited illustration skills.

So, how about some feedback. Anyone like this cover?

Also, is there anyone out there who's read "The Wedding Album" and has a better idea? I'm all ears.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

I recommend this book

I am totally engrossed in a book of SF theory called The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence, by Alexei and Cory Panshin. What the authors lay out in this tome (of 685 pages) has provided me insight into what I am doing with my life. So it’s an important book to me, and I’d like to tell you about it.

Chapter one begins: “Science fiction is a literature of the mythic imagination. In science fiction stories, spaceships and time machines carry us outside ourselves, outside our world, outside everything we know, to distant realms that none of us has ever seen . . .” Here is outlined the two chief themes of the book, myth and transcendence.

Transcendence can be defined as moving beyond the range of normal human experience to realms that are irrational, elusive, wonderful, and never completely to be known. The label used throughout the book to denote normalcy is “the Village,” the place we spend our daily lives. Transcendent reality, the land of mystery and wonder, is denoted by the title, “The World Beyond the Hill.” Most humans throughout history have been content to live out their lives in the relative safety of the Village while yearning to glimpse the World beyond the Hill. For most of human history, that outer world was occupied by supernatural forces, gods, and demons. Direct experience of that world was never a good idea, was mediated by shamans and priests, and required sacrifice and prayer.

A myth, by popular definition, is a false idea or belief, such as the myth that corporations are people or that lowering taxes can spur employment. In popular usage, mythology is the study of a belief system that is as ancient and dead as the gods of Greek mythology.

A more scholarly definition of myth is a little more complicated. A myth is a set of principles (or collection of stories) that, using the best, most reliable knowledge of the day, explains transcendent mysteries: who made us? where did we come from? what does it all mean? where do we go when we die?

Because there is a tendency for people to not recognize the tenuous nature of their own belief systems, they tend to call their view of reality the truth and everyone else’s a myth. It’s easy today to dismiss Mount Olympus and its cast of titans, gods, and mortals--Zeus, Cassandra, Achilles--no one believes that stuff anymore. It’s myth. What we too often forget is that, during its own time, Greek mythology represented the cutting edge of knowledge and helped explain everything from lightning bolts to love. We also forget that our own era’s myth of science, no matter how rational it seems to us today, may well be supplanted tomorrow by a whole new set of operating principles and that our truths may then seem just as quaint and dead.

This book, then, follows the rise of the myth of science through the lens of fiction. From the Ages of Reason and Romanticism, through the Age of Technology, to the Atomic Age, the authors trace the decline of the myth of spirit in the West in favor of the new myth of science. Part world history, part chronicle of seminal works of fiction, this book creates a framework for understanding the genesis and effect of major works of science fiction (and proto-SF) such as Frankenstein; The Time Machine; War of the Worlds; Looking Backward, 2000-1887; “Who Goes There;” I, Robot; and hundreds more.

Through this book, I have been able to view my own scribbling as part of a grand tradition of myth-making. Now I see why I am drawn to writing SF and not your everyday, Village-centric, mainstream fiction. My only disappointment is that the authors stopped their critique of history at the year 1945, the dawn of the Atomic Age. How I wish they’d take up their pens and resume their analysis to include our current era, the Information Age.

I have only one quibble with the book: the authors seem to presume that the myth of science reins supreme everywhere in the West, that everyone agrees that spiritualism and supernaturalism are as archaic as the Greek gods. I don’t know where the authors live--in Europe?-- but here in the U.S. the vast majority of people still have at least one foot firmly planted in the Dark Ages. When leading presidential candidates refudiate the “theory” of evolution, claim Jesus as their personal savior, or believe a guy named Smith dug up heavenly golden plates that only an angel could interpret, science gets short shrift. It occurs to me that the sustaining force motivating me to write my current novel is the desire to finally and fully bust the myth of the supernatural.

Good luck with that, dude.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

That's Hadrian, not Adrian, if you please

Another hour before the library closes, and since I'm in an updating mood, I'll spill the latest news on the novel-in-progress. When I posted a couple of weeks ago that I was about halfway through the first draft, something happened, and I couldn't seem to make any forward progress. So I did something long overdue; I did a synopsis of what I had written so far. This entailed skimming the several hundred pages of manuscript and summing up each scene in a line or two, adding notes, and rearranging scenes. Gave me a good idea of what's what and what's missing. It took about a week and a half to do, and by the end I was able to continue pushing the story forward with a better clue as to what I was writing. Am pretty pleased with it too, if I can risk tempting Fate.

A few posts ago I mentioned that one of my main protagonists was still going by the acronym HAD (Hunky Alaskan Dude). I found myself writing HAD so many times that I got to like the sound of it. So I'm auditioning the name Hadrian for this character. A Roman emperor, the name suits him. Hadrian Hudson, maybe, the attempt by his parents for alliteration. There's the bonus twist that everyone keeps wanting to call him Adrian and how he responds to it. Imagine going your entire life having to correct how people pronounce your name. Wait a minute, that's what I have to do. Looking up Hadrian on a baby name site, I find that it's not and "never was" in the top 1000 popular baby boy names in the U.S., whereas, Adrian is in the top 100. So, if this hunky dude character catches on with future readers, it can be a distinctive name.

The photo at the top is from my McCarthy trip of last month. It's the ruins of the mill at the Kennecott copper mine. The ore came down from the mine, another 5000 ft straight up, by tramway. The ore underwent processing by four different methods that extracted 98% of the copper. The mill today is owned by the National Park Service, which is stabilizing and renovating it for future tours. Click on the photo for a larger size.

Ebook Update

The image above is the cover of my upcoming ebook. It has taken me an inordinate amount of time to create it, the cover, that is. The content was quick, a matter of reformatting a word processing file. This ebook contains my three "flash fiction" stories that appeared in the British science journal, Nature, on their "Futures" page. When it's ready to go, I'm going to publish it for the Kindle and Nook, and it will be free. (I'll also offer it for free on this blog.) It will point the reader to my novella, also upcoming, "The Wedding Album." But before I can finish the first, I have to have the cover of the second ready to go, and that's what's holding me up.

I have worked as a graphic designer, not an illustrator, and so I generally need a photo or image to get started. The one above is a photoshop melding of two images in the public domain I found on Wikimedia. The execution was simple, once I had the concept and images, but that took me about six weeks to develop. Too long. Now with "The Wedding Album," which is a more important work, I'm in the same boat. Concept, images, integration, layout--my head hurts.

If any of you have read and liked "TWA" and have ideas or images (plus the rights to use them) to put on the cover, I would most ardently appreciate it if you contacted me. I can't offer you a lot of money, but you'd get an acknowledgement and, if you're a professional artist, an ad at the end of the ebook to advertise your business. In any case, stay tuned for the release of these two ebooks.

Like me, or don't, but just "like" me.

I have just created a "page" on FB, as opposed to a "profile." I've done this because there's a setting that will automatically add whatever post I put here, on my blog, to my page. It's supposed to go to the "notes" area of my page, but I see that there's a default option that adds it to my wall as well (or instead). I don't know; I'll use it for a while and see what happens. I intend to keep this blog as my main vehicle for doing updates and news. If I can write stuff once and have it magically propagate to the world at large, I'd be happy.

I encourage all my "friends," friends, and fans to "like" me on FB if you wish for my weekly postings to appear on your wall. Here's my page address (as best as I can tell).

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Snake Oil in Heaven

Barnes & Noble--You gotta love a bookstore that encourages you to read their magazines and books in a comfortable atmosphere with no pressure to purchase them. They’ll even sell you food and drink to enjoy while you’re reading. Free wifi, and if you have a Nook, you can read anything in the store on it for free as well. I don’t know about their other stores, but the one here in Fairbanks has an open fireplace in which the fire burns all year, even in August (when our nighttime temps are already dipping into the 40s). I sure hope this company survives the Great Recession because I would miss it if it closed.

Anyway, when I visit the store, I sometimes pull two or three bestsellers off the rack, find a comfy armchair in front of the fire, and read the first chapters. I do this to keep up with what’s selling and to try to soak up whatever quality it is that makes a book a bestseller. If I read enough bestselling first chapters--or so goes my thinking--maybe I too can write a bestseller.

Last week I picked up a worthy exemplar of the genre, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. There are over 4 million copies in print, Sony is developing the movie, and the book is being translated into 30 languages. So this is no slouch of a bestseller. In the corner of the cover is a cute little boy in a funky yellow sweater vest smiling at the viewer. As well he should--he’s one little boy who’ll be able to go to any Bible college he chooses.

The book is by a Protestant pastor in Nebraska who’s son suffered acute appendicitis shortly before his fourth birthday and underwent emergency surgery. During the next few years, the boy described to his father a heavenly journey he made while under anesthesia, strictly uncoached, of course. He described Jesus, the saints and angels, dead relatives (including a miscarried elder sister no one had ever told him about and a great grandfather who died 30 years before the boy was born). I found all of this so convincing, so utterly believable, that I have dropped my long-held atheism in favor of Christianity. Yes, I accepted Jesus as my personal Savior at Barnes & Noble. How could I not? Only truth can come from the mouth of a babe (and his totally genuine garage-door selling, pastor father), right?

Things I have always wondered about are now clear. For instance, everyone in Heaven (excepting Jesus and God) has wings! (Because obviously, divine beings need wings to stay afloat up there.) And they all wear white robes just like they did in the olden days, even Jesus, with colored sashes. Jesus is the only one with a purple sash, and Jesus has a beard, just like he does in the pictures. Plus he’s white and has blue eyes! I am so glad that the Bible storybooks have gotten this stuff right. Plus God is really big and sits on a throne. As I said, utterly convincing.

As you may be able to tell, I read more than just the first chapter of this book, but how can you blame me? What price salvation? And here’s the most astounding information in this whole astounding story--unbaptised, unsaved babies do go to heaven. As you may know, we Christians have debated this issue for centuries. Since the Bible clearly states that only the saved go to heaven, and to be saved one needs to confess one’s sins and accept Jesus as one’s Savior, pre-verbal babies are pretty much screwed, not to mention unborn fetuses. (If you don’t believe me on this point, ask your pastor.)

Where do all these dead, unsaved souls go? We’re not sure, especially since the Catholics (who are kinda like Christians) refudiated the teaching of Limbo last year. But real Christians know, and it takes a lot of pastoral sand to say it out loud, that babies, including the 40 million aborted ones, spend eternity in Hell! Kinda harsh, I agree, but our God is a just God.

Now, thanks to this book, we can be assured that unsaved babies do go to heaven after all. This kid met his miscarried sister in heaven. So that clinches it. Case closed.

I should have stopped reading right there and left the store floating on angel wings like four million other lucky readers. But no, I had to turn to the back to read about the author’s ghostwriter (or “collaborator” as they’re called now). Her name is Lynn Vincent, and it turns out that she was Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter for Going Rouge: An American Life. Now, I’ve read that book, also childlike in its innocence, also a multi-million-copy bestseller, but patently fiction. It makes me wonder, could this book be fiction too? Oh, damn, when everything was becoming so clear.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Speak, Memory

One of my favorite authors is Vladimir Nabokov. His Lolita remains in my top ten fave books of all time. It's about a truly horrific man, a child molester. But starting with his name, Humbert Humbert, the protagonist/narrator presents himself as a captive of his own abusive proclivities in a most engaging, humorous, and literary stylistic way. It's a testament to Nabokov's skill to pull this off, not exactly creating sympathy for the monster but allowing the reader to enter his headspace at all.

Anyway, I'm currently reading his incomplete final novel, The Original of Laura: Dying is Fun. It's less a novel draft than a look at his writing "process." The process of writing seems to be of perennial interest to aspiring writers. At every writing event I attend someone invariably asks the guest authors about it, as though following the proper process will guarantee literary success. Do you outline? Do you use one of the novel-writing computer applications? Do you have a daily word quota or work for a set number of hours? I love these questions because they are so easy to answer. Also because I, too, am curious about how other authors work. And I've always been curious about Nabokov's method because he was famous for writing his first drafts on 3 x 5 index cards. Moreover, he would shuffle the cards to change the order of the narration. A neat and difficult trick.

And now I can see the cards themselves in holograph. The book (pictured above; click to enlarge) by Knopf reproduces the 132 cards Nabokov was working on when he died. In fact, they are printed on card stock--both sides of the cards--making a very thick book. The preface says the cards are perforated so that you can tear them out and shuffle them yourself, but the edition I checked out from the library have the dashed line guides but no perforation. (Perhaps they printed a special library edition.) Why Nabokov wrote this way makes no sense to me. You can get only a paragraph or two on each card. And there must be other ways to shuffle scenes.

I get a lot of grief from fellow writers when they learn that I write my first few drafts in longhand. I've been told that that's why I write so slowly. Of course that's absurd. I write so slow because I think so slow. Duh. Over the years I've tried to come up with reasonable sounding arguments why writing in longhand is superior to using a word processor. The strongest of which, IMO, is that drafting on a word processor tends to "lock in" the text prematurely. The art of writing is in the rewriting, and the whole point of word processing is to free the author from rewriting. You can massage text with a word processor, auto-correct (purported) typos, and cut and paste whole strings of text, but that isn't rewriting. I don't know any author who keystrokes their entire books from scratch for each draft (as some authors did in the days of typewriters).

My argument may sound unconvincing, but that's OK. Now I can simply point to Nabokov and say that he not only wrote in longhand but he wrote on index cards.

I say "purported" typos above because auto-correct tools are maddeningly conventional, and I know Nabokov would have hated them. (He died in 1977, a year after the first software-based word processor, Electric Pencil, was released.) You can't play with words when your computer keeps changing them back to accepted usage. In the first paragraph of this post, I wrote "fave books," and this word processor changed it to "face books." One processor I used kept changing "windows" to "Windows™." Need I say more? I can just see Nabokov keystroking "Humbert Humbert" and his computer deleting the redundancy. (And, yes, I know you can turn the auto features off.)

I never knew the circumstances of Nabokov's death. In the preface to this book, his son, Dmitri, wrote about it. Nabokov was chasing butterflies, his lifelong passion, on a steep slope in Davos in 1975, when he fell and wasn't able to get up by himself. Dmitri identifies this event as the beginning of a series of illnesses that ended with congestive bronchitis and three final gasps in 1977. While I dare not dispute his son's reckoning, the timeline conflicts with my own memory. In 1974 (not 1975) I read a newspaper article about Nabokov's ill health. In those days I worked as an orderly at Bartlett Memorial Hospital in Juneau, AK. It was the graveyard shift in the intensive care unit, and mortality was on my mind. I was afraid my face author (oops, fave author) would shuffle off before I could express my appreciation. So I dashed off my first fan letter (in longhand) thanking him for so many hours of reading enjoyment.

One last observation about the index cards. I notice that when he crosses out a word or phrase, he obliterates it, making it impossible to know what it had been. I guess when a word is wrong, it deserves capital punishment with no chance of parole.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Voices in my head

I saw an article that fascinates me and has a direct impact on writing fiction. Scientists at the University of Glasgow have found that when reading direct quotations, the brain "hears" the voice of the speaker. This is something that you may have known intuitively, but now there's data to back it up. I know for myself that when I read, the voice I hear conforms to any hint the author has given about the character's voice: accent, tone, phrasing. On the other hand, if I happen to know the author, I hear their voice when their characters speak. Some more than others. Whenever I read Pat Cadigan's work, it's almost as though she's reading out loud to me.

When I read Nick Hornby's novel, Juliet, Naked, I somehow got it into my head that the book's narrator was Hugh Grant, and I heard him throughout the book. It was hard not to.

Knowing about this phenomena, an author could take steps to fix a particular voice in the reader's "inner ear." Maybe when a new character is introduced, the writer could describe it in an evocative way and reinforce it a few times.

An even more interesting device might be to recruit a well-known voice, such as that of a popular actor, to serve as a character's voice. It wouldn't be hard. "Joe Entwurst, despite his slight build, had a deep, rich, resonating voice, like the actor James Earl Jones. 'My children,' he crooned. "All of you are my precious children.'" Hmm, you'd probably have to phrase it properly and use appropriate diction. But it could be done. I think I will try it out in the current novel. I wonder if there are persona/trademark issues. Can you copyright the voices in our heads?

The photo above is of me standing inside the frame of the teepee we built during our recent trip to the Park taken by my niece Jenn.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What's in a name?

High frequency, for one. Amazon does some interesting content analysis of the books they sell, including word clouds and textual readability and complexity scores, not to mention numbers of words and sentences. From this I learn that there are 15,287 sentences in my novel Counting Heads. More interesting—the five most frequently used words in the book are character names. I don't know if that's typical in a novel, but it would suggest that name choice is serious business. You don't want a stinker of a name showing up on every page.

What makes a good character name? What makes a memorable one? Dang if I know. I do know that I seem to always employ a large cast of characters in my stories, and so I have many opportunities to come up with names. The way I usually do it is to start writing the story and let the characters' names drop in as they may. Some appear early and some late. In the meantime, I give characters temporary names or initials. I may try various names out on a character for a few scenes to see if any fit.

In my novel-in-progress I already have a handful of characters with solid names, none of which I can divulge here. But one of my three main characters is still operating under his temporary appellation--HAD. It stands for Hunky Alaskan Dude. It was the placeholder my former Anchorage collaborator and I used for our protagonist candidates while we were brainstorming Sarah Palin story scenarios.

My own HAD is in his late 20s or early 30s, has lived in AK for about 10 years (up from LA), and worked for the NPS as a ranger for about 7. He's of the "partnership park" persuasion when it comes to the park service mission. He's a self-effacing young man, an atheist, a lover of French women, and a lover of the wilderness. No name has presented itself yet for his use. That's OK; there's time.

There's time because I'm only about halfway through the first draft. The middle of the first draft is both an exciting and scary time for me. I don't know how novel writing is supposed to work any better than I know how to name characters. Mostly I write down scenes as they present themselves to my mind's eye and trust that they are true and that more will come to me later. There is no outline, just a vague idea about the direction I'd like to go. Every other day a character says or does something surprising that changes the course of the story or reveals connections or fault lines or comedy or previously unknown facets of their personality. There's a point when the products of a sustained act of imagination--fictional stories and characters--acquire the feel of reality. Then I seem to remember them as much as imagine them. Until then it's a game of chasing shadows in the fog and hoping something worthwhile emerges.

The photo at the top is a street scene in McCarthy. One of the original buildings during the boom times, the hardware store now houses the Wrangell Mountain Center, an educational non-profit that sponsors summertime courses and field trips in the park. It would seem an unlikely building to inspire science fiction (at least before the genre-bending movie Cowboys and Aliens). But the truth of the matter is that ghost towns are a lifelong fascination of mine, and although they're not unique to Alaska, they may be the part of Alaska I find most inspiring. Deep-pocket captains of industry have come up here to extract fish, gold, copper, and oil for quick bucks. They tear up the wilderness, plop down instant communities, pile up fortunes, go bust, and leave on the last train out (before pulling up the rails behind them). They leave with what they can carry and they abandon the rest. Buildings weather and rot. Thirty years later, the coffee cup and sugar bowl are still sitting on the dining room table where the last resident left them before hurrying to the train station.

On my first day in Alaska, in July 1973, I met a man who gave me a job. He and his business partners owned the derelict Superior Cannery on Chichagof Island. It was closed in the 1930s, I think, and the owners liked to have a watchman on site during the summer to keep passing boaters from landing and stealing all the brass fittings. They loaned me a dog and a rifle and sent someone out from Tenakee Springs to check on me once a week and drop off groceries. The dog and I had a whole industrial ruin to ourselves to explore. I have stories from that time I am still trying to tell. With any luck, some of them can be put to rest with this book.

Here's another McCarthy picture. The pickup trucks are probably parked according to the last time they were in running condition. The building was made of poles nailed to a frame. Not a very stable construction method, but an accommodation to the state of the local timber. Because of the dry climate and historical wildfires during the copper mine heyday, the trees in nearby forests are skinny. Traditional log cabins around here are made with imported logs. Too bad no one's invented a willow bush cabin construction method.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

AK Bush Trip--The Spike

I'd like to say we planned it this way, but we didn't. It was sheer coincidence (or heavenly influence) that when we arrived at the subdivision, the first person we should run into was Mark V, its only full-time resident, who informed us that a centennial ceremony was planned in the mill town of Kennecott on Saturday to commemorate the completion of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway in March,1911.

During the original ceremony a century ago, the symbolic spike, which in railroad tradition is made from gold, was replaced by one cast of copper taken from a creek near the Bonanza mine. One hundred years later, the ceremonial spike, seen above, is made of iron and is plated in Rust-Oleum Antique Copper.

At least the spike under the copper paint looks like an authentic Carnegie iron spike from the CRNWern. There are plenty of them in circulation today, thanks to a gift to the McCarthy Museum from Carol M in memory of her husband, Harold M. Harold died last year at the age of 99. Carol donated his horde of railroad tie spikes, pictured above, for fund-raising. The museum was selling them for $2.00 each. I couldn't believe the low price. It took Harold over 20 years to build this tower-o-spikes, and when they're gone, they're gone. $20 each would be closer to the mark, IMO. If anyone out there collects historical artifacts, dig this. While NPS rules make it a federal offense to remove Kennecott artifacts, which are literally lying in plain sight, you can legally pick up a genuine CRNW spike for $2.00.

I used to have a small horde of CRNW spikes myself. I earned them the old-fashioned way in the early 80s. My ex and I spent parts of several years at Long Lake (mile 45 McCarthy Road). In those days the road was little more than gravel laid over the rail bed. The straight rails had been scavenged in the 1940s for the war effort, and the curved rails had been pushed into the brush alongside the tracks. The cross tie spikes, seven inches long, were left where they fell. The spikes have a preternatural shape that enables them to "float" to the top of a gravel bed. That means that each time the McCarthy Rd was graded, a new crop of spikes would surface. The surface of the road was pretty primitive to begin with. It ate tires and tore suspensions clean from the frames. The spikes added another dimension of fun to the McCarthy trip. Look closely at the copper spike above. Notice that it has a large lip on only one side of the spike. This is another deadly feature of their unholy design that makes them into ideal little tire mines. At speeds above 10 MPH, the front tire runs over the lip, flipping the spike up to the perfect angle to gore the rear tire to death.

After driving for hours at 10 MPH on a gravel road, the eye acquires a knack for spotting spikes. The custom on the road was to stop and pick 'em up as you spotted 'em. Harold's tower-o-spikes, therefore, took a lot of trips in and out to build.

BTW, Mark told us that last year, shortly before his death, Harold spoke to him about dying at age 99. He had been hoping to make it to 100, and when it was clear he wasn't going to, he said that, technically, he was already enjoying his 100th year of life since birth, so it was OK to go at age 99. Harold always saw the sunny side of things.

These days, with Princess Tours bringing busloads of tourons through the valley, the gravel road is kept in terrific shape and seems safe in places to drive 45 MPH (though the speed limit is 35).

The spikes rise no longer (though surely a few of them must lurk below the gravel surface, biding their time).

Saturday, July 16, 2011

AK Bush Trip--part 1

A couple of days after the 4th, we headed out of town, driving south and east approximately 360 miles, to our lot in the Park. It's a full day of driving, and the goal on this route is to leave Fairbanks by 10 AM, with the hope of pulling into the subdivision by 7pm.

However, we usually don't make it out of Dodge by 10 AM. Always that last minute glitch. (And that's how it was this time too.) My travel companions were my niece Jennifer Brenner and my friend Drake Boswell. Our ride was DB's commodious classic Alaska Pipeline truck, an 1987 GMC 3500 Sierra 3+3.

Jenn's from Portland, Oregon, where she works as an accountant and specializes in non-profits and small businesses. This was her first trip to Alaska. She shot the three photos below (on her Android MyTouch 4G). Double click the photos for a larger size.

This is a view of the Copper River looking northwest toward its headwaters. We are on the Edgerton Hwy, still a few miles outside the Park.

It shouldn't have surprised me that other authors have already set fictional stories in the Park. I'll bet there are more than the two I've found. As I said in an earlier post, Dana Stabenow has set her wildly popular Kate Shugak detective series in the Park. Kate is an Alaskan Native, and her fictional town of Niniltna seems to be a Native village with a population of several thousand, including members of diverse peoples: Ahtna, Upper Tanana, Eyak, Tlingit (and Yupik??). Niniltna seems to be located where McCarthy should be, near a historical copper mine. But it's obviously not McCarthy, which was a white town that served as "Sin City" to the company town of Kennecott. Stabenow has renamed other landmarks. The Copper River is the Kanuyaq (if this is a real word I haven't been able to find its definition) and Glennallen is Ahtna. The river has been moved east 100 miles to cut the park in two rather than serve as its western boundary. The Wrangell Mountains are the Quilak. Most tellingly, Stabenow doesn't even name this park where she has set 18 books but refers to it simply as "the Park."

The other author I have found is Kris Farmen, whose worthy first novel, The Devil's Share, is set there. He uses actual Park names and only invents a few of his own. All of the action takes place on the northeastern border of the park where it butts up against the Canadian Kluane game sactuary in the Yukon. I've never seen this part of the park, which is understandable since the park covers over 20,500 square miles. I haven't seen the coastal portion either (the park elevation goes from sea level to 18,000 feet and includes 160 miles of coastline and nine of the sixteen highest peaks in North America).

BTW, The Devil's Share is a great read. It follows the misadventures of a young man born in a remote cabin that was later confiscated by the Park Service, launching him on a lifelong quest to right that wrong. The author calls his character a "wild animal." I would call him a sociopathic serial killer. I still have a few pages to read, but I'm liking this book for its fearlessness and ferocity.

Click for an interactive map.

Authors probably change place names in their fiction for a varitey of reasons. For me at least, the biggest benefit is freeing up my imagination. I know a lot about McCarthy and environs that I hope to integrate into my story, but I don't want to be pinned down by disgruntled readers for (purposefully) mixing up dates and places. So I am following Farmen's lead and using actual place names, with a few exceptions. I am reinventing McCarthy as McHardy (big change, I know) and I am planting a whole new mountain, Solitude Mountain, south of it, rearranging several rivers to do so.

By setting a novel within a national park, the author must come to grips with how to portray the National Park Service. While most Americans might view the NPS as a mostly benign governmental agency that fosters and manages our treasured national wild places, Alaskans tend to hold a more jaundiced view. Consider these numbers; the state of Alaska covers an area equal to one-sixth of the area of the contiguous United States. That's huge. But only about 1 percent of Alaskan land is in private hands. The bulk of Alaska's land is owned by the Federal government, Native corporations, and the state. These giant landlords have strict policies that often conflict with residents' use of the land for subsistence, recreation, and development, not to mention commercial resource development. Tension between the feds and the state is a given.

Nationally, the Park Service itself has long operated under a mandate, official or not, of squeezing out any private inholders within park boundaries. Their methods, whether legal or extralegal, have enraged private property owners and their advocates throughout the country for decades. (I've just googled "national park service malfeasance" and gotten 266 million hits.) In Alaska, the relationship between individuals and the NPS was supposed to change in 1980 with ANILCA, the second large land claims act, and the establishment of the park. After all, contained within the park's 20,500 square miles are over a million acres of private land, a history of mining, and traditional land use going back generations. ANILCA mandated that the NPS respect the rights of these inholders and activities. Consequently, in the 1990s the NPS developed a new model for the land under its stewardship, the so-called "partnership parks" that views humans and traditional human activity as part of the landscape, to be celebrated, not expunged. Wrangell-St. Elias, by virtue of its size and history, is the ideal test case for this new philosophy. And for the most part the park service seems to be a benign neighbor, IMO. But over the years there have been a number of cases in which its older, more logical attitude, has resurfaced in attempts to harrass inholders. This is not limited to W-St. E. There's a trial awaiting a verdict in Fairbanks today about an incident last summer in another park, the Yukon-Charley. Two park rangers behaved like dicks there while performing boating safety inspections. They were newly assigned to Alaska and perhaps hadn't heard about their agency's kinder/gentler policy because they tried to board an elderly man's boat in a tricky part of the river, forcing him to make a landing at gunpoint, and tackled and arrested him when he did. Pretty much the whole state is up in arms about this and watching closely how the judge rules in the case.

Stabenow seems to take a benign view of the NPS and has a sympathetic reoccuring character who is the park superintendant. Farmen takes the opposite view, painting the service as tyrannical and its rangers as hired thugs. In my own novel-in-progress I have two ranger characters, one of whom embodies the new partnership park philosophy and the other, his supervisor, who espouses the old jerk-around-the-inholders policy.

Here's a view of my back while standing out in the subdivision. Jenn seemed impressed by the number of mosquitoes I attracted moments after taking off my rain jacket. This was a particularly buggy trip. The head nets provide relief even if you use deet repellent (which I don't).

I suspect that the word "subdivision" carries a lot of connotative baggage for most people. It evokes the suburbs, architectural conformity, urban sprawl, and the like. Out here subdivision is still a bunch of lines on paper. Here's a view from one of the subdivision's main streets.

I'll be putting up more pix soon.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Off to the bush

We are inholders in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest park in the national system. The park sits in the southeastern corner of the Alaskan mainland and bumps up against the Canadian border. It's a 13 million-acre swatch of mostly wild land and boreal forest, with mountains, glaciers, vulcanos, an ice field the size of Rhode Island, gold, copper, bears, moose, lynx, dall sheep, and only a few dozen year-round human residents. We're going to spend about a week on our lot, clearing and prepping for a cabin. I'll try to get some good snaps.

Since deciding to set a novel here, I have run across a couple of other writers who have already done so. In the case of Dana Stabenow, a cool 18 novels. It's the setting for her famous Kate Shugak mystery series. I'm only reading my second book in the series, and I can tell that it's not the park I know.

I've only recently heard about another novel set in the park, a first novel by an Alaskan author. More on that when I've had a chance to look at it.

The photo above is from the McCarthy footbridge. It shows Bonanza Ridge. To the left is Root Glacier. On the lower right flank of the ridge is a cluster of roofs belonging to the old Kennecott Copper Mine. (Double click the image to see a larger size.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

What I Am Working On--Part 2

I’ll tell you as much about my novel-in-progress as I dare.

There must be at least a few good reasons to say nothing about one’s current project. I’m not sure if all of them are legit. Some are surely superstitions.

(By the way, confession is a powerful practice, especially for someone raised old-school Catholic like me. In my May 19 post, I confessed to having two stubborn superstitions. One of them was feeling compelled to read the entire Help Wanted section in the local paper each Sunday so that I never have to apply for a job again. The following Sunday morning, I sat down with my 20-oz., 4-shot Americano and a copy of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner at the coffee shop and realized how stupid the whole Help Wanted ritual was. I didn’t feel the need to read it then, and didn’t, and I haven’t read it since. Just like that, another flea crushed.)

(As for my last remaining superstition, I have no desire to reveal or eliminate it. It’s rather homey and sweet.)

When someone asks me (and I think this holds true for other authors) what I’m working on, I usually reply in very broad terms, such as, “on my third novel,” or “on my latest science fiction novel.” I avoid detail. I never reveal the plot.

I do this for these reasons:

  1. When I talk about a work-in-progress, the talking seems to dissipate the story’s energy, leaving not enough juice for the difficult work of getting it down on paper.
  2. Fear of having my ideas ripped off by revealing too much.
  3. Even small details can give too much away.
  4. Talking about something like a plot or character can “lock it in,” sometimes too soon.
  5. At some point the whole project might implode and I stop working on it (it’s happened). Wouldn’t exactly like to do this live online.
  6. It’s bad luck.

In my May post, I brought you up to Nov. 2010. What have I been doing since?

I have been working on a novel that pretty much combines the essences of most of my recent “failed” projects. Fresh from the composting heap of my mind to yours.

There is a working title, but it gives too much away, and I can’t say it.

I can say that it’s my first Alaskan novel. It seems impossible to me, but I’m fast approaching my 40th anniversary as an Alaskan. I guess I’m gaining a long view of the place. You’d be surprised at the variety of stories you can collect about a place over a course of 40 years. And it’s about time I get some of that down on paper. About time I laid claim to this wild territory in my memory. So I’m setting the story in a very special corner of Alaska, a place I’m going to visit in about ten days--the largest National Park in America. (more on that later)

It’s also my first E.T. story ever. I’ve never published a story with an alien character. As one who sides with the great, late Mundane SF movement, I dismissed alien contact as improbable and thus not mundane enough to write about. That’s why I never invented an alien character, only posthuman clones and sentient AIs.

These days I think, why the hell not? Aliens are fun, and they have traditionally served a number of purposes in SF fiction (more on that later), one of which is: Alien as Foil. That is, through interaction with non-human sentients, we gain insight into what qualities make us human.

This seems especially fitting, since a major theme of this book is . . .

. . . the neurological basis of Faith. I have not given up my desire to explore in fiction a cool idea I have about religious faith. What better way to speak to that issue than aliens in the Alaskan bush? (more on that later too, I guess).

S and T Palin may or may not play a role in this book. Probably only a cameo. I don’t know. Maybe they provide the plot a McGuffin.

Although I’ve been working on this book since Dec. 2010, and despite about 400 longhand pages of a first draft and 120 pages of notes, much of the story is still obscured in the mist of possibility. I simply do not know what happens. Every day or so, another puzzle is solved, and a rush of invention follows. At this point I have a good idea where the story is headed, but I don’t know how it gets there, and am making everything up as I go along. When I get stuck and can’t proceed, sometimes it means that I’ve gone off track, and I have to back up to firmer ground. I delete whole chapters or entire characters or story threads. I go back to the last sure text and restart from there. This is the way I seem to work, rather than outlining the whole story before beginning to write.

What else do I dare reveal? Here’s one. There’s a dog character, a mixed German shepherd named Crissy Lou. Her owners, in Glennallen, Alaska, were high bidders in a fundraising auction for 49 Writers last year. For their winning bid, Crissy Lou gets to do a cameo part in the novel. Well, she’s in there already, and it looks like she may possibly play a plot-driving role. Maybe a heroic part like Lassie. I don’t know, but it could very well happen.

stay tuned for more--

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Pirates

What to do about pirates?

I have Google Alerts set on the titles of my books so that whenever they appear anywhere on the open internet, Google sends me an email with a link. This is a good way to track reviews, mentions, and buzz. It’s also a good way to track piracy. Lately I’ve been getting notified that ten or so pirate sites are offering a download of an audible version of my second novel, Mind Over Ship. As far as I know, no legitimate audible version of this book has ever been produced. I can’t imagine that some fan has made his or her own recording (14.5 hours unabridged) and posted it somewhere for download, but I can’t think of any other alternative. I’ve got to wonder if it’s professionally made or is doing more harm than good to my book’s reputation. And why would someone do something like this without asking or telling me?

As an added bonus, Counting Heads, the pirated download, is getting increased traffic as well.

As I said in an earlier post, I’m not a big fan of the “open culture” which says that everything digital wants to be free. But I, myself, read way more books that I check out of the public library than ones I pay $24.95 for. So I don’t know how to react to the piracy of my work. It’s not like authors can go on tour like musicians to recoup the value of our labor with paid live performances. (And please buy a CD on your way out.) To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, the enemy of a writer is not piracy; it’s obscurity. This is especially true when everybody and his cousin thinks he’s a writer and Amazon and B&N (and others) make it so easy to self-publish. So I guess I should be happy that someone felt moved enough by my novel to spend 14 hours reading it into a microphone. I can only hope they did a bang-up job.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Exploring the Intertubes

With my return to blogging, I am trying to formulate some “big picture” understanding of what the internet is today and where I can best apply my energies. In this endeavor, I have asked you, my readers, for input, and I have received some valuable leads and insights here and in private emails. I have also scoured the new book section at the local library for titles on the topic. I found three: Pull, The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform your Business, by David Siegel; You Are Not a Gadget, a Manifesto by Jaron Lanier; and Say Everything, How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters, by Scott Rosenberg. Since this is the public library, “new books” tend to be six or more months old by the time they hit the shelves, and, indeed, these books were published a year or two ago. Which is a long time in the ongoing transformation of the Web, but hey, it’s a start.

The first one, being a book on how to improve one’s business, I can dispatch rather quickly. The panacea for business success is--metadata. Pay attention to the particular metadata that your industry attaches to your product or service, and you too can harness the power of the semantic web. I read the chapter about the publishing industry and pretty much ignored the rest. I learned a few things about marketing in traditional publishing, but not much I can use.

The second one is the chewiest of the three. Lanier was an early developer of virtual reality and has toiled in Silicon Valley for a long time. His views on software engineers and the early days of the personal computer are interesting, as is his take on the state of the internet today. It’s a book I’d probably have to read again to fully understand. But who has time to read anything more than once these days? And I fear I might not be able to understand it better with a second reading anyway. That’s because of Lanier’s writing style. It’s rather choppy. Ideas are introduced and dropped without, first, an adequate explanation of what he means by them and, second, any way to tie them into a larger picture. Even words like “person” get short shrift. (“Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.” Yeah, right. So why’d you bring it up?) Also, he likes to illustrate abstractions with more abstractions. I’m not sure there is a point to the book other than the impression that Lanier is disgruntled and slightly wary of the state of technology today.

But I almost did get something valuable from his manifesto that relates to my novel-in-progress. That is, in disparaging the Web 2.0 and its “cybernetic totalists” with their vaunted open culture, Creative Commons anti-context file sharing, and derivative mashups of a previous generation’s work, he implies that there is an opposing point of view. I, myself, have looked askance at the whole open culture paradigm (hey, I want to be paid for my work), but I didn’t know there could be a counter position, other than the old, dead, litigious rearguard of the music industry (suing grandmothers for pirated music on their hard drives). So I eagerly read on in hope of discovering what this other camp might be, only to be left in the dark. Likewise, he speaks of the Singularity as being a religious tenant of the cybernetic totalists. I have taken a contrarian POV toward the Singularity in my two novels (not that anyone noticed), and I touch on it again in my current book. So I was keen to hear how a modern technologist might argue against it. But again I was disappointed. Lanier seems to be a dualist at heart, though not necessarily a theist. He seems to be saying that humans are the exceptional animal; though a part of Nature, they participate in the ineffable (i.e. they are “spiritual but not religious”). Might as well go to a UU meeting.

The third book, Say Everything, was the one most germane to my investigation, and from it I’ve drawn several valuable conclusions. First, I’m probably not a blogger, and this blog may not be the best way for me to reach my PR goals. Blogging is a form of writing in itself. This is not to say there’s a single approach to blogging. There are three, more or less, and there may be more variations in the future. One of the original impulses in blogging was the first-person, self-revelatory, diarist approach. Ordinary people were suddenly presented the tools necessary to publish their thoughts about everything and anything to their friends and the world at large. No more gatekeepers. Rag on your employer, reveal family secrets, obsess about your body parts, chronicle the family vacation. Whatever you like. When I asked my readers for feedback about what you’d like to see in my blog, one of the replies I got was to steer away from this True Confessions/home-movie type of blogging style.

A second approach, exemplified by the excellent Boing Boing blog, is to make a digest of links to interesting stories on other sites.

A third is to offer up a running commentary on a particular topic, like politics, religion, collecting sports memorabilia, or whatever, usually with a highly personal POV. This type has been commercialized, as with Gawker. When attached to a news/magazine site, like Salon, HuffPost, and the Atlantic, they take the form of essay or commentary.

None of which I’m interested in doing. Why? Because it takes time. It has taken me two days to write each of these few recent posts (except for the previous one on foreign releases). That’s two days I should have been writing fiction. Also because it’s not my preferred form of writing. I am totally wrapped up in writing the long fiction form--the novel. The hours I spend working on a novel each day make me feel good. I think that my mind is especially shaped to excel at novel writing, that novels can be things of lasting value. Having my name on a finished novel is fulfilling. So, that’s what I should focus on. And with any luck, the novel form will survive in this ever-accelerating world. Short stories might not. They’re in the same length niche as blogs and other forms of web reading. But the long form is a form unto itself, and people like to sink themselves into unfamiliar universes every now and then.

So why am I keeping this blog? Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll quit. I laid out my goal for it a few posts ago. Traditional publishing is dead. I may have to publish my next book myself, and if I do, the one skill I lack is promotion. There are 300,000 or so new books released in this country every year; who’s going to even hear of mine? And with the gates to epublishing thrown wide open, there’s bound to be two and three times that number soon. YouTube made everyone a videographer. The Kindle and Nook are making everyone an author. You can download thousands of books for free.

OK, I’ll keep updating this blog, at least until I find something better. One of the things a fellow suggested in the comments is that I start a forum. I’ve given that a lot of thought, and I like the idea. Not that I would start a forum myself. I don’t think I could pull it off. Rather, I’ll look around the web and find the most popular science fiction forum going, and I’ll join that. More on that later.

Where do you go to chat about science fiction? Let me know.

The photo at the top is a demonic moose that visited me last December.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Foreign News

I don't think it's possible to run into a German born after WWII who doesn't speak flawless English. For that reason, I believe, none of my work has ever been translated into German—until now. So, it is with great pleasure that I announce the release next week of a collection of my most popular short fiction by Golkonda Verlag in Berlin.

Another translation has just come out, this one in French. It's the quarterly (I think) anthology of stories previously published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Gordon Van Gelder. It includes French translations of stories by Paolo Bacigaupi, Robert Reed, Carolyn Ives Gilman, and others. My own contribution is "Osama Phone Home," or "Oussama téléphone maison." I announced on this blog that that was one of the stories I would self-pub as an ebook, but a few days later, the Dark Prince bit the big one, and I changed my mind. I figured the story had seen its day. But it's nice to see it get a final outing in France.

Closer to home, my novel Counting Heads has, at long last, been released by Tor as an ebook.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What I've Been Working On: Part 1

I feel pretty lame to promise to keep readers informed about my current work and then to produce no updates for two weeks. The fact of the matter is that I came down with a case of viral meningitis. Boy, does that knock you on your butt! I NEVER want to get that again. I'll spare you the gory details except to describe it as like having the worst pounding migraine headaches in your life while you also have the flu, and to spend so much time on your back you herniate a lumbar disk and for days and nights are unable to find any comfortable position standing, sitting, or lying. The whole business lasts 14 days. Besides the pain, the worst part for me was that I wasn’t able to write or do anything for two weeks and may not have the creative stamina for another couple of days. On most days the most I could accomplish was to check my email; on some days I couldn't even do that.

I’m not telling you this to earn your sympathy (well, maybe a little) but to encourage everyone to cultivate the habit of disinfecting shopping cart handles before you use them and to never touch the “T” on your face (eyes, nose, mouth) without first washing your hands. Seriously, people!

I want to thank my friends here who found out what was going on and checked up on me daily and who, along with my daughter and son-in-law, helped ferry me to my appointments and keep me supplied with food, water, and stuff.

I titled this entry “What I’ve Been Working On: Part One.” In it I will reveal, much more than I have on any public forum, what I’ve written since 2008 when I delivered the final draft of Mind Over Ship to Tor. This will explain why you haven’t seen anything new from me since that book. In Part Two I will reveal to you as much as I dare about what I am currently working on, my brand new, hopefully outrageous, poignant, and darkly humorous novel.

OK, first off, unfortunately, I have to disappoint some of you. Some of you think that I’m working on the third installment in my Counting Heads series. I’m not. Except for a few notes on the next book, I am taking a hiatus from that whole universe. I think you have got to agree with me that for all its good points, that universe is unrelentingly bleak. And if it was bleak for the reader, just imagine what it was like for me to dwell in it for so long. As you may know, much of the writing process takes place not while the author is actually writing but while doing other things. The ideas don't conform to a schedule. They act spookily, at least in my case, like an obsession. I started developing the universe and characters in 1993, with five short stories, starting with “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy.” I didn’t start Counting Heads, the novel, till the winter of 1999, when “The Wedding Album” came out. So by the time I wrapped up Mind Over Ship in 2008, I had occupied that world of slugs and nasties and aff conspiracies for 15 years. I decided I needed a reality break, especially since I had other stories I wanted to tell. Will I ever go back to Book 3? I honestly can’t say.
The Holy Family
In 2008, I started a novel titled The Holy Family. From its title you can glean that its major theme was religion. As an atheist (proud and loud), religion has always fascinated me. As some of you may know, I was raised a Catholic in a big family (7 sibs) mostly in the Midwest. At the age of 14, I entered the minor seminary for the priesthood (a cloistered high school). What I learned there was probably the opposite of what they thought they were teaching me. That is, I discovered that religion is a wholly human invention, with no divine involvement whatsoever. This revelation matured over the years and on my 19th birthday I renounced my religion. Still, I wasn’t an atheist. I set off on a 30-year journey of spiritual exploration, from Eastern mysteries to New Age and create-your-own-reality silliness. It took that long before I could say that I am free of all the fleas of faith, except for a few harmless superstitions. (Such as, I read the entire help wanted section in the Sunday paper. When people ask me why I explain that it's a good way to take a pulse on a community. The real reason is because if I do, I'll never have to apply for a job again. Fortunately, it’s not a large section in the Fairbanks paper.)

Yet, after all my exploration, I understood nothing. I had no difficulty refutiating religion (to use my ex-gov’s neologism), but what about faith? And why do nearly 90% of my fellow Americans cling to religion? Could everyone (but you, my dear readers) be stupid? And not just Americans, but all cultures in all of history? At one point I concluded that people weren’t stupid, per se, but psychologically immature. After all, if I could fight my way out of the papist brier patch, why couldn’t they fight their own culture's fairy tales? I know how elitist this must sound, and by 2008 it was no longer adequate an explanation for me. So I began to research and read all the “militant atheist” books by Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, et al, but I felt they were barking up the wrong tree. They were largely engaged in polemics, not analysis. It seemed to me they were trying to browbeat a world of right-handed people into becoming left-handed, and none of their strictly biological arguments moved me much. (But as a member of their choir, I enjoyed reading them anyway.) I read other theories; the ecstasy of nuns at prayer or theta waves during meditation seemed unrelated to faith. The God Gene theory has long been refutiated (I seem to like that word.) Even the book’s author hesitated to claim there was an actual gene, and it was his publisher who gave the book that title over his objection.

Then, while I was reading a popular science journal article at Barnes & Noble about a recent discovery in neurobiology, everything started falling into place. I suddenly understood why faith is so prevalent in the human animal. What a kick in the head! The explanation was similar to something Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion, but it took it farther than he did and, from my readings, no one has quite come up with it. I could easily be wrong, but it may be an original idea. Or at least an uncommon one. (Though my big idea might be false, it passes the test for a good science fiction story--plausibility.) And it did not denigrate faith or people of faith, or non-believers, for that matter.

I literally plowed into my story, which I set in a mixed-faith family in the generic Midwestern landscape of my youth. But, as some of you who know me can guess, I wasn’t satisfied with writing a mere book. The Kindle had recently been released, and I envisioned my new novel to be wholly digital. Also I knew that my agent, Ralph, had a Kindle of his own. He had started loading his clients’ manuscripts on it to eliminate the burdensome reams of paper he used to carry on his daily commute between Manhattan and Long Island. So in 2009, I bought a Kindle. My book would have illustrations and internal and external links. It would have an attached website where fans could pin their own fan versions to the text at appropriate places (controlled by me so as not to distract from my story) and download monthly updates to the novel. The genre wasn’t exactly science fiction but fictionalized science. I wrote most of the “scientific” articles that under gird the story, but I also linked to actual articles in popular magazines like New Scientist and Nature. It was great.

My plan was to write and polish part 1 (of 4 parts) and send it in Kindle format to Ralph. This took me an entire year. I sent it off and nervously waited for his reply. When it came, I was devastated. He wrote, “I do not understand what this is you sent me.” And I hadn’t even revealed the most outrageous part. That is, the internal illustrations would gradually take over from the text, and the entire 4th part would transform into a comic novel. This was not a gimmick; the story required it.

Ralph’s disapproval was not enough to sink the project. What did sink it in the end was a niggling realization in the back of my mind that I had stepped over the line from fiction to didacticism. I wasn’t spinning a yarn; I was giving a lecture and pounding my fist on the lectern. I had my big idea; but I didn’t yet have my story. So sad. I put it in a drawer and dreamt about what might have been.

And, no, I’m not going to reveal my big idea. Read the upcoming “What I’m Working On: Part 2.”

What Choice Did We Have?

Somewhere around this time, a respected editor asked if I had a short story for an anthology of his. I had only one in the pipeline, and I agreed to push it along. It was of novelette length and eventually took the title “What Choice Did We Have?” It was a fantasy, my first. It was also set in my generic Midwestern city. I sent him my finished piece, and he rejected it.

Some years ago at a con, someone told me there was a rumor going around that if a story of mine was rejected even once, I abandoned it. I’m sorry to say that the rumor is mostly true. I realize that that’s no way to try to earn a living writing fiction, and that’s why I still live in a crummy cabin and drive a 20-yr-old pickup. At least I have the freedom to write what I want, which I believe is at least as important as money. Anyway, although he had suggestions on how to improve it, I withdrew it from consideration. He wrote back encouraging me to revise it and that he’d like to see it again. I thought, what the hell, why not? I revised it, completely changing the ending to make it more clear what I was after. In the end, he rejected it a second time but assured me that another editor was bound to snap it up.

I do believe it’s good enough that another editor would take it, and if not, I could self-pub it, as I’m doing with my older stories. But I deep-sixed it anyway. There’s a thread running through it that now makes me uncomfortable. The thread is so essential to the plot that there’s no way I can think of to extract it. And so the story sits, completely finished and polished and sparkly and new, occupying a few hundred KB of hard drive, and it will never see the light of day. So sad. But I am master of my own career, even if it's a leaky dinghy.

Queen Sarah

You might get a kick out of this next one. In late 2009, I was attending an educator’s conference event for authors and having drinks with authors from around the state. I opined, “You know what would make a million dollars? A counter-autobiography of Sarah Palin.” Her own fictional autobiography, Going Rogue, was about to come out. People around the table chuckled and went on to other topics. But the next day, one of them quietly approached me and asked when could we begin. We began at once, laying out our collaboration agreement at the banquet table.

Here what was going through my head. I’d never particularly wanted to collaborate with another writer, with a few exceptions. One being, to work on a project I wouldn’t consider doing myself or was a newbie at (like a screenplay). And this one fit the bill. We were both competent writers, and while I enjoyed the polishing process, she could draft at least twice as fast as me. Writing is usually such a lonely process, I thought it might be fun to work as a team, albeit living in two different towns.

Also, and this may sound petty and vain to some of you, though I’ve been publishing quality fiction from Fairbanks for 18 years, up here I’m not actually considered to be an “Alaskan” author. I’m not asking to be made state writer laureate or anything, but geesh, it would be nice to be recognized as an Alaskan writer whose topic just happens not to be Alaska, or her land, people, history, beauty, or wildlife but rather an Alaskan writer whose subject is the attack of brain-melting nano-goo. I might be overreacting but it’s a personal pet peeve of mine. This book would fix all that in one swoop, even though we planned on releasing it under pseudonyms.

We set ourselves a two-month deadline to come up with a killer idea. The counter-autobiography fell by the wayside early on. Going Rogue hadn’t come out yet, and it was possible that we’d be unable to come up with anything wackier than her own words. Whatever it was to be, it would be political satire, using our knowledge of the state and current affairs. We worked hard, bouncing encrypted emails back and forth every day. We followed the anti-Palin blogs, read and annotated Going Rogue (what a chore), tried formats like in Stuff White People Like. (Entry: Wasilla, the whiz stop on the way to Denali Park) Despite our best efforts, at the end of two months, we didn’t come up with an idea we had confidence in. Meanwhile, other projects were beckoning my partner, and so we dissolved the collaboration and parted on friendly terms.

I was left contemplating what I should start next.
Two things occurred around this time. Another writer friend, this one in Fairbanks, told me in passing that she had an entire novel on the gov finished and almost ready to go to an agent in NYC who was eagerly waiting to read it. I told her about my and the Anchorage writer’s project. We marveled at the coincidence. Secondly, I learned on the blogs that Palin was in talks with a cable network to produce a series on her life to be called Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Boy, this chapped my bum! Now she was claiming the whole state as hers? What an insult.

Back when I was writing Mind Over Ship, I watched an episode of The Apprentice and wondered how men named Donald felt about Trump appropriating their name for himself. As in “the Donald.” I thought I’d do Donalds everywhere a favor and reclaim their name for them. That’s why I named the space station line of clones, “the donalds,” and drew them as so unappealing. No Donald has yet thanked me for this, but that’s OK. It was a freebie. Now my half-term governor was claiming my entire state. That was intolerable.

While brainstorming about my next project, I found I couldn’t wean myself off the Palin blogs. They were deliciously vile and informative, and I continued to browse them every day, mainly, which is a compendium of the Queen’s many sins. (I realize that by now I may have alienated all Christians and Palin supporters reading this blog. Sorry, the migraines made me do it.) A couple of months later, the Fairbanks writer emailed me to say that her agent asked for revisions to her Palin novel. We met at a coffee shop to discuss her novel, and before long we agreed to collaborate on a completely new Palin novel. I shouldn't have done it. I was learning that collaboration between writers, as opposed to artists in completely different fields, like writer and illustrator, is an iffy proposition, much like a marriage. The Anchorage author, with several collaborative novels under her belt, was able to guide us through the rocky patches, and we emerged on the other side unscathed. I knew in the back of my head that the Fairbanks author and I might have less than complementary writing styles, maybe even incompatible ones, but in my eagerness to save Alaska, I ignored any warning bells and jumped right in.

Our strategy was to write a realistic novel, an alternate biography, but with a snarky tone. Our model, except for the tone, was the 2009 bestseller, The American Wife, which is a fictionalized biography of Laura Bush. As in that book, all the names would be changed, and we invented a new Wasilla that was a composite of various Alaskan small towns we knew well. Thus we “owned” it in a literary sense and could write about it as experts. As in my earlier train wreck, THF, we would draft and polish Part 1 (of 4 parts) and start shopping for an agent. Since my agent didn’t like THF, I didn’t think he’d want anything to do with this one either, but we would give him a crack at it.

I was totally engaged in the work. I was having fun, a reason to jump out of bed each morning. And we made decent progress. Unfortunately, our personal differences started to show up and interfere. Still we mushed on. It took us nine whole months, but we produced a good reader draft of part 1. But just as we were passing it around to our first readers for feedback, the collaboration imploded from shear incompatibility. Probably my fault more than hers. I guess I’m not easy to work with, to put it mildly. So we quit, it never went to the agent, and that was that. Palin won again, dang her; Alaska was still in peril.

That pretty much catches us up to November, 2010. Failed literary masterpieces: 3. David: 0. Time elapsed: 3 years. But wait! Is that a phoenix I see rising from the ashes? Is a new day dawning? All I can say is: Watch the skies, my friends. Stay tuned and look for “What I’ve Been Working On: Part 2.’ Coming soon on this blog.

And now for some crass PR. If you are enjoying my new commitment to keeping you in the loop, why don’t you press the Subscribe To link in the sidebar so you don’t miss an episode (even if I do). And if you have friends who appreciate my work, or you think might like to read me, for God’s sake, tell them about this blog. Sorry if that sounded too strident. It’s the migraines.

And now for some really crass PR. You can’t have all read my Playboy story by now, “She Was Good--She Was Funny," but the Kindle store stats say you’re not buying the ebook version (and they know who you are). What’s the matter? Don’t you have an e-reader yet? Are you dwelling in the past? Today's financial section says that Kindle announced that since April 1, they've sold more ebooks than paper, even when the free ebooks are not counted. If you’re waiting for the Nook version, that was delayed by my illness but is coming very soon. Also you can download free Kindle and Nook apps for your phones, tablets, and computers. True, the story isn’t science fiction, but it’s a hoot, and it’s set in Interior Alaska! Not Sarah Palin’s Alaska but in David Marusek’s Alaska. Where else can you find such world class entertainment for only 99 cents? Anna Nicole Smith was on the original cover, for crying out loud. It was translated into Dutch, and Drew Barrymore was on that cover. It’s cosmopolitan, people. The protagonist was a Brit--in Alaska! On the Italian cover was Shannen Doherty with doves perched on her knees! What more can you ask? Don’t do it for me; do it for Alaska.

I think I need a nap.