Friday, December 30, 2011

Tricks of the Trade

Describe all externals in your story—settings, objects, other people, etc.—through the eyes of a character instead of through the "neutral" eyes of the narrator. 

This technique accomplishes three things:

1)      It keeps the narrator out of the picture. (The writer’s goal is to stay invisible.)
2)      It’s a time-saver: Readers get necessary descriptions of the character’s surroundings while learning about the character. This moves the story along faster.
3)      It’s a handy way to weave in back-story unobtrusively, without resorting to longer flashbacks that can break up the “now-ness” of the story.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What If...?

The question “What if...?”generates a lot of speculative fiction.

  1. FACT: A 1992 TIME magazine article on the 53-centuries-old “Ice Man” discovered in the Alps reported that women had inquired about the possibility of having his baby. What if... we found a frozen, pregnant Neanderthal shaman and could transplant the embryo into a modern surrogate mother? =  Ember from the Sun.

  1. FACT: Anthropologists have determined that the Chinese voyaged to South America centuries before Columbus. What if... the Chinese had established a colony in the Amazonian mountains—hidden, until now? = Down to Heaven.

  1. FACT: Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, believed the genetic molecule was intentionally “seeded” on Earth from another world. What if... mitochondria, the power-plants of our cells (mitochondria contain their own, separate DNA) are actually life-seeds from another galaxy? = Second Nature

  1. FACT: Angela Jolie wore a few drops of her (former) husband’s blood in a pendant around her neck. What if celebrities sold their living skin cells in growth cultures that fans could wear as jewelry or trade like trading cards.

  1. What if... people existed as neuter sexes until they went into heat—then they became whatever gender is appropriate to the mate who made them sexually aroused. = The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin.

  1. What if... nearby stars was about to go super-nova, and the human race found out it had only a year left to live? Two years to live? Ten years to live?

  1. What if... we received a message from space saying “By the time you translate this message, our ambassadors will be among your population.” But the rest of the message is hopelessly garbled? Are they ambassadors of peace, or are they forward military scouts? Why won’t they make themselves known?

  1. What if... we would quickly sicken or die if we didn’t have sex daily? How could husbands or wives go away to conferences? Would there be emergency sex stations (gives Jack-in-the-Box a new meaning)? Or what if, it wasn’t sex that was necessary for survival, but to be in a relationship, such that people would actually wither and die from being single? Popularity would be genetically selected, because unpopular people would die from loneliness before reaching reproductive age. You could call the short story or novel, Popularity Contest.

  1. Nietzsche said, “Whatever does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” What if... by physically torturing someone you love, you could make them stronger/healthier? By nearly killing them with pain, you could make them virtually invincible? What if it was emotional torture that fortified your loved one? How far would you go to enhance their survivability?

  1. What if... an intuition-enhancing drug called Empathy enabled people to see into each other’s minds for a few hours. Great for lovers? An alternative punishment for criminals?

  1. What if... to stand out in a crowd of young people with multiple tattoos, the “cutting-edge” types will need to go far beyond—into decorative scarring, branding and mutilation? (This particular speculation is already starting to manifest.)

Vary the intensity of verbs

Opening of a classic Harlan Ellison short story, “Along the Scenic Route”:

            The blood-red Mercury with the twin-mounted 7.6 mm Spandaus cut George off as he was shifting lanes. The Merc cut out sharply, three cars behind George, and the driver decked it. The boom of his gas-turbine engine got through George’s baffling system without difficulty, like a fist in the ear. The Merc sprayed JP-4 gook and water in a wide fan from its jet nozzle and cut back in, a matter of inches in front of George’s Chevy Piranha.
            George slapped the selector control on the dash, lighting YOU STUPID BASTARD, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING and I HOPE YOU CRASH & BURN, YOU SON OF A BITCH. Jessica moaned softly with uncontrolled fear, but George could not hear her: He was screaming obsenities.
            George kicked it into Over-plunge and depressed the selector button extending the rotating buzz-saws.

Let’s take the first paragraph and weaken Ellison’s verbs (leaving the adjectives untouched) to see how it deadens the intensity:

            The blood-red Mercury had twin-mounted 7.6 mm Spandaus. It was driving aggressively when George first saw it. The Merc was moving sharply; first, it was three cars behind George, then the driver started accelerating. The boom of his gas-turbine engine was coming through George’s baffling system without difficulty. It was like a fist in the ear. JP-4 gook and water came out of the Merc’s jet nozzle, spraying in a wide fan. Suddenly, the Merc was a matter of inches in front of George’s Chevy Piranha.

But don’t make every verb glaring and howling for the reader’s attention. Choose you the tone you need for the scene and VARY THE TONE accordingly. Some scenes call for quiet prose and static description.

Here’s the opening to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

            It was 11 o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard, wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Good prose, like good music, is a matter of balance. Use strong verbs when you need them, the way a composer uses loud, dramatic notes when he needs them, if only to make the hush of the soft ones more restful.


Reader Reviews of Down to Heaven

From Amazon:
  • FAST AND STEAMY: Rivals Ember from the Sun. A must-read for fantasy fiction lovers. From the copter crash on page one through the story's end, Down to Heaven rips along taking the reader on a wild, deep, sexy ride. Read it!
  • FANTASTIC: I read this book a few years ago (I'm 22 now) and I still think about it once in a while. I've recommended it to most of my friends, as well as Canter's other work. I'm an avid fantasy-reader and Down to Heaven is an absolute MUST READ. It is so difficult to put down and resume one's life (but don't worry, that's a good thing!).
From Good Reads:
  • Belongs to my list of “adored-and-reread books.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

More stuff to keep in mind

SETTING: Take your reader to new worlds and introduce them to fascinating people interacting within an unusual environment and culture. I’m not necessarily talking about “world-building” as found in science fiction and fantasy. Chinatown, New York City, is an exotic world if that is not your home. Life is in the details—so give the details (of Chinatown, East L.A., South Beach, Sitka) that will surprise and delight your readers. As a rule of thumb, if you’re able to (without a total re-write) transport your plot to another location, you are not using the unique qualities of the story’s setting to your advantage.

ACTION: Readers cheer for characters who take things into their own hands. Not someone who merely reacts to events going on around her; or worse, hangs back, reflecting philosophically about it all. It’s not what happens to the character that makes her interesting, it’s what she does about it. Passive characters are boring, and the story has no emotional power. Most of us have read “post-modern” short stories in which a lonesome urban apartment dweller perches on a windowsill gazing below at the river of strangers, and... does nothing... for five or six pages. A college press or "literary” magazine might publish such plot-less fiction, but it won’t find commercial success.  

HIGH STAKES: Bestselling fiction involves weighty outcomes. The stakes don’t have to be literally earth-shattering—say, Flash Gordon preventing the destruction of the galaxy. If we care about the character, and she has been trying for years to get pregnant, whether or not she conceives a child (by resorting to magic, or science?) matters to us. We care because we care about her. As a rule of thumb, short stories can get away with lower stakes than a novel. If the villain’s plot is to poison pigeons, readers are not going to care enough to sustain a 400-page novel. But a character who is a pigeon-lover trying to prevent a bird-hater from killing pigeons might hold us for the length of a short-story. Or, in a novel, it could work as a sub-plot. In any genre, all your main characters must have clear goals, so your reader can know whether the character has won or lost. In fact, each scene should have a goal (for more on this, read the post on “Story Questions”).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women

Jenny Crusie is a successful romance author whose thesis for a PhD in Literature focused on romance literature. She has a great website that includes a "For Writers" blog. Her essay "Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women" is subtitled: "Romance fiction as an anti-toxin to patriarchal literature." This essay inspired me to join Romance Writers of America.

Here are the first three paragraphs; click the link to find the complete essay:

© Jennifer Crusie (used by permission)

A funny thing happened to me on my way to my Ph.D. As part of my dissertation research, I read one hundred romance novels and discovered a brave new world of feminist fiction. Well, not so new—a hundred years ago Nathaniel Hawthorne was complaining about those "damned scribbling women" outselling him—but it was new to me and so exciting that I became a romance reader, and then a romance critic, and finally a romance writer.

I had to because I'd come out of my reading transformed, feeling more confident and much happier than during all my years of historical, canonical reading. The literary tradition I was familiar with hailed female characters like Hester Prynne as great feminist heroines. You remember Hester, a woman who, after grasping at happiness and sexual fulfillment, realizes the error of her ways and spends the last sixty years of her life celibate and serving others so that when the townspeople who have reviled her gather round her deathbed, they say, "The Scarlet A? It stands for Able." As far as I was concerned, when the townspeople gathered around my bed, I wanted them saying, "The A? It stands for Adultery, and she was damn good at it." I wanted the recognition that I'd lived my days fully and freely and drunk life to the lees, but it wasn't until I read romance fiction that I found a reflection of that defiance and celebration.

That's when I understood why romance owns 50% of mass market paperback fiction sales. Seventy percent of book buyers and eighty percent of book readers are women, and like me, those readers are tired of serving and losing and waiting and dying in their fictional worlds. The romance heroine not only acts and wins, she discovers a new sense of self, a new sense of what it means to be female as she struggles through her story, and so does the romance reader as she reads it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bragging Rights, Part 2

Reader reviews of Ember from the Sun copied from

  • REALITY IN FICTION: Ember From The Sun is one of those stories you get caught up in. The atmosphere was so authentic I felt like I lived right there. I was amazed to later learn that Mr. Canter had never actually been to the great northwest. The premise is unique and intriguing and so well written I had no trouble suspending my belief. It's hardly even science fiction these days to think of implanting an embryo frozen for thousands of years. I totally bought his story of a modern day Neanderthal. It was such fun to discover Ember's history, her mystical family tree and be moved by the drama and ultimate showdown. This novel was a delightful surprise. Couldn't put it down.

  • GRABBED ME ON THE FIRST PAGE AND DIDN’T LET GO: I went to a book-signing with a friend, felt guilty about not buying a copy because the author was so nice, bought the book, went home, opened it up and didn't put it down until the wee hours of the morning. I lent it to my son's girlfriend the following day, she opened it, began to read, and finished it up about 2:00 a.m. The storyline grabs you at the very first page and soon you become so enthralled in the plot that you can't put it down. You are sure that you will hit a slow spot, but that spot never comes. A definite "must read."
  • Love this book, I can't wait for somebody to snatch the movie right and make a blockbuster. It's got it all.
  • I thought this would be a great Thanksgiving long weekend read but--------I started it yesterday and could not put it down. I was blown away that this is Mark Canter's first novel. It grabbed me from the first few pages and held me till the end. Thank you Mark Canter for writing this magnificent book. It is now getting passed around my circle of friends and you can be sure we will be watching for your next book.
  • CAPTIVATING STORY: This was a great book. I am like some of the other reviewers, I like King and Rice, and can be easily let down. This book did not let me down. It was very entertaining, and I liked the blend of history and fiction. Would definitely read more of his novels.

  • EMBER STILL GLOWS: I first read Ember From the Sun about 6 years ago. Twice more I've reread it with pleasure. I have just finished it once again and it still holds a special place in the treasure section of my heart. Fantacy? Truth? Myth? I don't care. It's a good read.

  • SCIENCE AND MYSTICISM COMPLEMENT EACH OTHER: As a scientist and a mystic, I eye both warily when i read novels. I found the anthropology believeable and the mysticism--though slightly unique--enhanced the humanity of this novel about a barely human protagonist. Liking and relating Amber is easy, and understanding her genetic make-up follows logic. Soon I forgot about the science though, and got lost in a story as sweet and gripping as any I have read. I typically read a book slowly, but this one prevented the lawn from getting mowed and the history papewrs from being graded as I read voraciously, engrossed in the people, the places, the anthropology, and the mystery.

  • FANTASTIC BOOK: I won't give away the story line but will say that this is a marvelous blend of adventure, mystery, science, prehistoric peoples and the lives of wonderful characters.

  • A CAMPER WHO PICKED UP YOUR BOOK: To Mr. Canter, this being your first novel, I have found it very good. I am a hard reader to please and this novel has kept me interested for the entire book. I have read the reviews after I read the book and tend to agree with some of them. This was too broad a subject to place between the pages of this novel. This subject could have been a trilogy. However, I totally disagree with the review of it being too much new age "voodoo". You have talent and promise. Write a sequel and give use hard pleasers something other to read than Ann Rice!

  • AN EXCELLENT BOOK: This book was a great book that let you experience the emotions that the character was going through. The book was an open book that could be taken from many different angles. The plot was interesting and kept you inside, it differed from other novels I have read in the past. The idea was so original and captivating it will leave you wanting for more.

  • ME HA ENCANTADO: Me cautibó ya al principioy como dijo otro de los que han dejado "constancia" no quise que terminara de hecho cuando llegaba a este no esperado final hacia pausas en mi lectura para que el final no llegase tan rapido, la verdad que la historia de Ember en cierta forma le identifica de una manera muy especial, porque cuando uno no se ha sentido algo "diferente" y haber refleccionado sobre el verdadero sentido de la propia "existencia", por otro lado el libro deja esa "querer" de que realmente exista esa Ember en la tundra nordica; me asombró que fuera la primera obra del autor ya que la vi tan "completa" que me resultó dificil creermelo, sin más sinceramente recomiendo éste libro ya que a parte de una preciosa historia lleva a la reflección y lleva a otros interesantes reflecciones y a otras lecturas que leyendolo despertaran en uno....;)

  • EXCELLENT FIRST NOVEL. Mr. Canter does an excellent job of holding your attention. He tells a superbly plotted story in a great way. His characters are, for the most part, well drawn and real. My only criticism in that regard is that I didn't get to see enough of them once I got to know them well. The story is good. It is told crisply, and I came to know the characters well. His descriptions placed me with precision in the scene where he wanted me. So, why do I feel there is something missing? I have given this question some thought. I think Mr. Canter tried to tell too big a story in too small a book. He should have taken more pages to develop the story a bit more depth. He should have kept me more in touch with his characters as they fade in and out of the plot. I lost track of Yute and his sister. I lost track of Ember's "mother and father." ALL OF WHICH IS NOT TO SAY THAT THIS IS NOT A GOOD - VERY GOOD - BOOK. Well worth the time and money. I highly recommend it. I look forward to Mr. Canter's next book and hope that he is able to overcome what I perceive is a tendency to create really good characters, only to set them aside and forget them for too long. As a reader, I would hope he can keep all his extremely well-crafted characters, especially those I come to like and/or am interested in, involved throughout the story.

  • A TOUCHING STORY: A wonderfully written novel, both in historic content and the connection between past and present. The reader enjoys the excitement of Yute's discovery of the lady frozen in ice for millions of years. Excitement is not enough, however, to control destiny, or the future of Ember, the child born to a mother she would never know. As Yute struggles to protect and study Ember and her life, Ember struggles to find a fit for herself, a fit where her talents are respected and her differences are understood. The book takes the reader to new heights of understanding what Ember feels to be different. It sparks the age old question of tampering with knowledge and abilities we have today, and the effect this knowledge might have on reaching into the past to find answers. Was Yute doing the right thing? For the development of the future, or the demise of the past? This book seems to answer the question correctly, perhaps as the "Listeners" knew, it might be best not to be discovered at all rather than to discover without understanding. Consider the link between the past and the present, then consider the emotion. Truely an excellent, and reflective book.

  • AN INCREDIBLY FAST, HYPNOTIC, HAUNTING AND PLAUSIBLE READ: For a first Novel, Mark Canter has reached into the depths of the human (and even more miraculously) the female psyche...and created vividly and credibly..a human being born 25,000 years out of time...and made her rich with the gifts of intuition and caring...and subject to all the human emotions. You care deeply about Ember...and the problems related to *not quite fitting in*. Her sense of caring and responsibility make her journey all the more poignant. The love of her family comes through loud and clear and with truth. If you have any question about whether to read this book....I can simply say....READ IT!!

  • GOOD TALE, DOESN’T LET YOU DOWN: This book was my kind of sience fiction! It was believable, but intriguing and kept my attention throughout. Sometimes these kinds of books let you down at the end, but this one was true to it's story and I loved the ending. Amazing first book!

  • FASCINATING! I HATED TO BE FINISHED: I couldn't put this book down. For a first novel, Canter was brillant. I was captivated by the first two lines of the cover description and purchased it immediately. The tale is one of our own beginnings. It will be compared to Jean Auel's sage except that this Neadrathal has been brought to our time. Ember is born from a 25,000 year old embroyo that was preserved in her mother's womb to be found and implanted today. She grows up dealing with the cruelty of youth, being different looking and having strange dreams and visions. Upon trying to discover her history, she leads us on a wild ride through the Pacific Northwest and up to the tundra lands. I don't want to give anything away that would take from the pleasure of this book. Read it today!
  • AWESOME. COURAGEOUS HANDLING OF DIFFICULT EMOTIONS: This is a gripping novel that manages to constantly and generally truly believably confront very difficult emotional situations. Motherhood. Rape. Kidnapping. Greed. Clash of cultures and values. Violent discrimination. Sexual unfaithfulness... All with very human, very believable characters. A wild ride. I cried some tears at times reading this book. And felt for all the characters. It is seductive in that it appears as a light read and then tears your heart.

More reader reviews of Ember from the Sun copied from the Internet:

from Good Reads

  • A really good story that has stayed in my mind; a wonderfully imaginative story.
  • Full of that magical, awesome marriage of science and art.
  • The premise is awesome and I still think about it some 10 years later.
  • Listened to this book driving to San Francisco. It was amazing! Made the time just fly.
  • This story is so fantastically utter fiction---and so wonderfully beautiful!

From Paperback Swap

  • This is not normally the type of book that I read. I didn't think I would enjoy it; instead I fell in love with it! I was glued to it from start to finish.
  • I don't usually do any reviews on books, but this one was just one of those that I could hardly put down. I loved it! It's well written, and keeps you turning the pages!
  • Good. Creative. Keeps you wanting more.
  • A modern day Jurassic Park in human DNA terms. Quite believable.
  • Very different book filled with intrigue, scientific theories and suspense. I was recommended this book by a friend. I loved every minute of this book, it’s different. You will love this if you love suspense!
  • Stunning concept!
  • Very good story.
  • A very unique and interesting story.

Bragging Rights, Part 1

Professional Reviews of Ember from the Sun

Madeline L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time: “Fascinating.”

Linda Lay Shuler, author of She Who Remembers: “A remarkable achievement, passionate, lyrical, stunning in concept. Rich in background detail and exciting action, this extraordinary novel lingers in the memory.”

Paul McAuley, Interzone: “Like many high-tech thrillers, Mark Canter’s Ember from the Sun seeks to depict the triumph of humanism over the soulless empiricism of science; and like Michael Crichton, the author plays on unease about the hubristic powers of biomedical technology. But while Ember starts out as a tale of an arrogant scientist brought low by his own creation, it undergoes a sea-change informed by a deep sympathy with the estrangement of its eponymous heroine, a Neanderthal girl born into the end of the 20th century…Canter’s portrayal of this Neanderthal orphan, not as a shambling brute but a golden-skinned child of nature with heightened hearing, sight and sense of smell, and an acute affinity with wild animals, is romantic yet convincing.”

Lisa Dumond, “I am never more astounded than when I encounter a new talent that seems so refined as to be mistaken for an old master. Having sampled and savored his first novel, Ember from the Sun, I am only more hungry and greedy for the next. The story moves easily from chapter to chapter, almost in the style of a campfire storytelling. In fact, the book reads so smoothly you forget that it takes a honed talent to arrange words in such a manner.”

Booklist: “Unique and appealing, with an engaging heroine, furious action, and intriguing tidbits of history, archaeology, and Native American culture.”

Library Journal: Unforgettable.”

Publishers Weekly:
Canter emphasizes the human rather than the scientific aspects of Ember's story... In essence, this story is a classic fairy tale in which an outcast child learns her true nature when she discovers that her real parents secreted her with commoners.”

Kirkus Reviews: “Neanderthals get a new lease on life in this impressive, engrossing debut novel…An effective blend of scientific fact and shamanistic fancy, one that weaves a genuinely magic spell.”

San Francisco Chronicle: “Canter gains the reader’s wholehearted sympathy for Ember and her plight. The characters are what make this story work.”

School Library Journal: YA. A well-written thriller set in the 1970s. The story begins as Dr. Yute Nahadeh discovers a well-preserved, frozen Neanderthal woman in Alaska. As he studies the woman, he discovers that she was pregnant at her death. He decides to implant the embryo and create a Neanderthal to study firsthand. He finds a hungry, homeless teenage couple to serve as the surrogate parents. After the birth of the child, the couple decide that they cannot give her up and raise the baby girl named Ember. Neither of the parents knows her history. As Ember grows, she begins to question her heritage because she looks and acts so differently from other girls her age. The folks in her hometown either shun her or worship her for her differences. Ember eventually seeks out Dr. Nahadeh and they travel to the area where the frozen corpse was found. Ember's search for her people, Dr. Nahadeh's fanatical study of the Neanderthal, a modern mining project, and greed bring this novel to a surprising end. Readers will learn lots about the Neanderthal, contemplate the power of science, and enjoy a fast, good read.” 1997 Linda A. Vretos, West Springfield High School, Springfield, VA

Monday, December 12, 2011

Science Fiction and Fantasy Contrasted

            Science fiction and fantasy, like all other fiction, is storytelling. All fiction can be defined as characters with a problem in search of a solution.  Science Fiction and Fantasy are related genres, with many authors writing in both fields.
            Science fiction is not fiction about science; it’s fiction about characters who are affected by science. The characters could be humans, aliens, machines, sentient rocks—whatever. But since we are human writers and readers, the problems that challenge the characters will necessarily be “human” problems (even if your protagonist is an extraterrestrial).
            The key to the definition of science fiction is that the story’s problem could not happen except for the science. That is, some aspect of technology, or a future or alien society or environment, challenges the characters. If you remove these science-based elements from the plot, you don’t have a science fiction story.
            This is close to the definition of a fantasy story, where characters face some aspect of the paranormal, or a magical society or environment. The characters must cope (learn and grow) in relation to the supernatural challenges they face.
            The difference between science and fantasy fiction is that the latter stories contain elements that are known to be impossible (f.g., a magic watch that stops time, enabling the hero to walk through a “time-frozen” world). Science fiction contains plot elements that might be possible someday—the technologies don’t violate the known laws of physics.
            If your hero gains the power to read minds through a magical incantation, or by allowing a female wizard to inhabit the left half of his body, your story is sheer fantasy. But if the power to read minds comes from an abrupt evolutionary mutation, or from genetic engineering, or computer-brain interfaces, then it’s not magic—it’s perhaps possible—and your tale is science fiction.
            Both science fiction and fantasy require the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, for while science fiction is based on explanations and extrapolations of known science, common story elements like faster-than-light travel or “sub-space” communication fall into a gray area within the genre.
            Ursula LeGuin, who excels at both genres, says of fantasy:

It’s affinity is not with daydream, but with dream. It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic, but surrealistic, super-realistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction.

            In both fictions, metaphors often lie at the heart of the tale. Take the metaphor, “edge of the world.” Science fiction could tell of an immense artificial habitat that rings a star, constructed of material from its demolished solar system. In Larry Niven’s Ringworld, the “edge of the world” is a thousand-mile high curving wall that holds in the atmosphere.
            A fantasy, on the other hand, might be about a world with a sharply defined edge, beyond which there is only the abyss. Magical folk have settled Border Town, built along this brink. Their houses have windows and doors only on the side overlooking the Known. All, that is, except Quest House—which has windows and doors facing the Unknown.                   
            Beware Techno-babble: The jumpship carrying medicine to combat the Vlorg Plague at New Tokyo Colony develops a phase uncoupling in the wave intolerator. The clock ticks down as the hero rigs a Lipschitz wave-bridge out of a laser spectroscope, a rectal thermometer and an ancient Bic lighter. The colony is saved!
            Big deal. The problem was imaginary and so was the solution.
            On the other hand, one could imagine a story about a ship rushing medicine to a colony infected with a deadly virus, in which the time-pressed crew must deal with the real problem of the effects of high acceleration/rapid deceleration on human bodies, and in which the solution is not techno-nonsense, but a tragic personal sacrifice. 

We do not invent language...

We do not invent language, we inherit it.  Language has its own genius that re-creates itself through our use of it.  We are the means by which it grows and keeps itself alive.  Like a god, it speaks through us and survives us.  Our minds are created by language; our thinking is made possible by the structure it provides, just as our bodies know only what our senses are capable of perceiving.  And if we give ourselves to the language, embracing it, cherishing it word by word, laughing as we name the world, we may take on something of its grandeur and its majesty.  I want to say that we receive its "grace', for we enter into the community of mind that crosses time and place, containing them. Every true poem, by its very nature, is a celebration of its inheritance—the language—which is never ours, though we, in our passing, partake of its ongoing grace.

(From “On Wording,” an essay by Robert Pack in Writers on Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini, p.192)


The author’s voice, the narrative voice that delivers the information, is a kind of extra character.

Examples of "voice":

She was not a forensic expert, but it appeared that the laser-beam had penetrated his body from behind.

She was no expert on this stuff, but it looked like he got blasted from the back.

We read stories written in many different voices: eloquent, casual, sassy, hip, melancholy, cynical, and so forth.

Different stories may call for a different narrative voice. The voice I aimed for with my first novel was, “A good story, plainly told.” Also, “Spare, vivid prose.” I kept both those notes on my computer.

Don’t worry about “finding your voice.” Just tell the truth, as you experience it. Write like you talk.

The same is true for “style.” It emerges naturally, like an apple from an apple tree.  You don’t have to do anything to force it.

Tao of first drafts

  • First, write from the heart, then edit with the head.
  • Lao Tzu said, “Do without ado.” (Get out of the way of the process.)
  • Don’t concentrate on your writing. Tell the story. That is, one scene at a time, focus on the characters and their situation.
  • Stories are greater than words because people and events are greater than words. Therefore, don’t focus on the words. FEEL the story and let the words happen.

The Correct Way to Get Laid

I made these dummy notes to fix my own grammar on this quirky English verb.

The verb is lay. It takes a thing. (mnemonic: lay thing = plaything) Laid is its past. Laying is its present.

Lie means reclining. It does not take a thing. Its past is lay. Its past (with “have”or “has”) is lain. Its present is lying.

I am laying the book on the table. The guy is laying the blame on him.

I am lying in bed. I am lying on my back.

WRONG: He is laying on the beach. I am laying down. He lays on the beach all day. I will lay down.
RIGHT: He is lying on the beach. I am lying down. He lies on the beach all day. I will lie down.

I laid the book on the table. The guy laid the blame on him.

He lay on the beach all day. He has lain on the beach all day. I lay down yesterday. I have lain down all day.

I will lay the book on the table. The guy will try to lay the blame on him.

I think I will lie down and take a nap. I’ll lie on my stomach for a while.

The Tao of Writing ('wei wu wei" is Chinese for "do without effort")

Wei wu wei.
Do without ado.
Let the songs flow through
as through hollow bamboo.
I am a flute the Tao plays.
Do without doing.
Wei wu wei.

Themes I like to write and to read

While I cannot be accused of writing the same book over and again, I have noticed that I tend to return to a set of themes that are tattooed in my soul.

 ·    Reluctant hero/reluctant messiah. Ordinary persons thrust into extraordinary events must rise to meet       great challenges.

·        Outcasts. A character who doesn’t fit in because of some extraordinary trait (werewolf, Neanderthal, giantism, psychic abilities) learns to accept and love herself while coming to terms with other people. These abilities cause self-conflict. Often the character is afraid of her own power and tries to keep it secret. By the end of the story, the character has usually learned how to cope with her powers. I loved Tarzan: The Legend of Lord Graystoke.

·        Larger-than-life characters. Similar to above. The character is a musical genius, a painter, an explorer, a gladiator.

·        The underdog. The character is abused, but at last wins justice (or revenge) and triumphs.

·        Discovering an extraordinary world (lost civilization, alien race, etc.) or a revelation which shows this world to be more beautiful and terrible than had been noticed (the wake-up slap to the head).

·        Love will find a way = characters who fall in love and stay together despite major differences (the professor and the waitress, the prize-fighter and the gentle vegetarian, the rationalist and the mystic, etc).

Requirements for success as a writer

1)      Talent (Vision)
2)      Craft
3)      Experience (reading, writing, critiquing and editing—plus life experience).
4)      Attitude (perseverance, intensity)
5)      Luck

Factor 2: Craft

The main focus of this blog is mechanics: the tools of the trade. This, and other creative writing blogs or classes (plus reading like a writer), will tuck these tools into your tool belt where they will remain handy to you. You’ll find that these skills become second nature the more you use them.

Reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing are the only ways I know to work on your technical chops. This blog offers peppy advice only to boost your resolve to GO FOR IT (that is, write, write, write).

Factor 3 & 4: Experience and Attitude

A couple tips about experience: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Aristotle). That’s why we reflect and read and write. “The unlived life is not worth examining.” That’s why we’ve got to live large.

This invitation to live large means to be unafraid of life—to be unafraid of pain and pleasure---to be on friendly terms with the maggots and the stars. Freud talked about “pleasure anxiety”—even too much pleasure is scary. It might just overwhelm every structure you think you are. I’m not recommending that you go out and try everything, no matter how destructive. I’m only recommending that you be completely born. Don’t hold back. Life is not a dress rehearsal. Being fully here—paying attention to the taste of water—is living large.

Joseph Campbell famously said, “Follow your bliss.” First you have to know what makes you blissful, and be very honest about this. Once you know what lights your lantern and you have followed your path for some time, you can finally obey the sage advice to "Write what you know."

Factor 5: Luck
Of course, nobody owns Lady Luck. But producing compelling stories coupled with hard-headed perseverance tend to (sooner or later) twist fate in your favor. Thanks to the remarkable connectivity of the worldwide web and its venues for "discoverability" through social networking, luck is not so "iffy" a factor anymore.  

Factor 1: Vision

Once you’ve completed your writing apprenticeship (Five years? Ten years?) and developed your craft and gained some depth and breadth of experience—then what?

Then it’s all vision, baby. And nobody can add a penny to your treasury. Although many others may help awaken you to yourself, what you find when you open your eyes is uniquely your own.

The tools of writing are secondary. These pliars and hammers and trowels are only here to enable you to convey your VISION. Vision is the first factor—it’s primary.

Who are you?

What is your experience?

Oh, stop it with the clichés and the conventions. I said, What is your experience? Who are you?

So you can see the double edge to this art. Orson Scott Card says, “Tell the truth well.” I wrote this down on a Post-It note and for years it hung on my computer monitor. Both edges have got to be sharp enough to cleave bone. “Tell the truth; and tell it well.”

That means that simply reaching deep—going beyond cliches, finding your vision, becoming an authentic human being—is not enough to complete your transformation into a writer. Such work might turn you into sage—or an interesting nutcase—but vision alone won’t make you a successful writer.

Your writer’s gift to us is to get us to see life as you see it. For this you need the craft to make us feel your hopes and fears and loves and hates. With enough skill, you can tell the truth about who you are in a thousand ways, so that we get a better idea of who we are.

Nobody said it was easy. Or that it pays the rent. My advice to beginning writers is to marry someone in a health profession.

If you feel compelled to write as a career… Damn! Better sleep on it and see if the emotion goes away. But if the drive to write won’t pass—then I agree with Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.”

And welcome us to your universe.

Ray Bradbury's advice to writers

Q: What are you passionate about?
A: Everything. If you’re in love, you’re in love.

Q: There is a scene on “Dandelion Wine” where a young boy is lying on the ground and is suddenly intoxicated with the wonder of the world. And he thinks, “I’m really alive!” Was that a strong sense you had from an early age?
A: Absolutely. That particular event occurred when I was 13 years old and I suddenly looked at the shiny hairs on the back of my wrist and I said, “My God, why didn’t somebody tell me about this!”

Q: What kind of advice would you give beginning writers?
A: Fall in love and stay in love. Don’t intellectualize. Explode.

Notes on plot

Plot is motivated action. The hero is driven by a purpose.

“Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and tries like hell to get it out.” Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Otherwise, it’s not a story, but just a vignette—a “slice of life,” where nothing much happens. Or, it’s a case history—that’s a story in which the issue—date rape, drug abuse, spousal battering, abortion, terrorism, etc.—is more important than the people it happens to.

Some famous editor said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

One avoids case histories by writing about particular people. Real people, not stereotypes. The character must act for her own reasons, not the needs of the story, or the author’s message.

The queen died and the king died.  That’s reportage, not story (no drama).
The queen died and the king died of grief.  That’s story.

So ask yourself, before you begin writing:

  • Who hurts? ----  that’s the protagonist. (If several characters are hurting—say, a group of POWs, who hurts the most, who changes the most, who has the most opportunity to do something about the situation?)
  • Why? -----------   that’s the conflict
  • What does she do about it? -- That’s the plot—or motivated action. In other words, the hero doing something to cope with conflict creates plot. Slam-bang action for its own sake is not conflict. In fact, as a rule of thumb, an inner conflict will carry a story farther than an outer conflict.

Science fiction and fantasy plots: When a new technology or magic is developed, people have to deal with the unintended consequences. These unforseen ramifications make science fiction and fantasy humorous or sobering. Just as in real life, it’s not what’s planned and predicted, it’s all the unanticipated stuff that happens that makes it a fascinating ride.

“What a long, strange trip it’s been.” The Wright Brothers flew in 1904. They were in the air for 12 seconds, and flew less than the wing span of a 747. In 1969—a mere 65 years later—Americans stepped forth on another celestial object, a different world.

Isaac Asimov: “Science fiction tends to exaggerate developments in the short-term and underestimate changes in the long-term.” 1950s Popular Science magazine. No one anticipated the personal computer or the Internet. No one anticipated nanotech.

Examples of Plots:

  • The Person Who Learns Better. A strongly held idea or principle turns out to be wrong.
  • Girl Meets Boy. Someone gets emotionally involved with someone or something else.
  • The Little Tailor. A character goes through a change in status and must cope with it.

Literary Litany II

Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite writers (and an excellent teacher of the craft of fiction), reminds us that as novelists we are biographers of our characters.

Keep in mind that you are writing biography: a detailed exposition of your character’s thoughts and words and actions, their past, and their motivations (desires and fears). Scene by scene, let your characters reveal themselves through their thoughts, words and actions.

Literary litany: take this advice as sacred truth

  • Nouns and verbs tell the story.
    • Nouns and verbs are the power words in every language.
    • Nouns and verbs provide the clarity of detail and the drama of action. (Think of how headlines can convey an entire tale: PITBULL BITES BOY. FATHER STRANGLES DOG.)

  • Use adjectives sparingly.
    • Tiny doses add texture and color. Overdosing distracts from the power words (nouns and verbs) that tell the story of people and things interacting.

  • Weak verbs need the crutch of adverbs. Strong verbs stride on their own.
    • She set down the mug angrily and coffee spilled over.
    • She slammed down the mug and coffee sloshed out.

  • Vivid writing is concrete, not abstract.
    • Choose specific (not generic) nouns and verbs. Even with metaphors and similes, select precise nouns and potent verbs. "She eats like a bird." What kind of bird? A sparrow, a vulture, a falcon?