Tag Archives: science fiction

Evil vs. Hope

Several years ago, I participated in a book signing at a Hastings bookstore in some far corner of my state, and while I was waiting for the session to start I found myself chatting with a store janitor cleaning the aisles. When this man found out I was there to autograph copies of my latest fantasy novel, he mentioned the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling’s stories were then new and wildly popular, and this man was unsure about them. The popularity of the books worried him. He wasn’t sure about their themes of magic and sorcery. He was concerned about children reading the stories and how those stories might influence young minds to turn to the darker side of human nature. Most of all, he feared the villain he’d heard about.

My answer to him was as follows:  If you don’t write about evil in a story, how can you dramatize good overcoming it?

It made him think in a new direction. He went back to sweeping and I resumed signing books. My answer was a valid one because fiction needs a villain to test the hero and force the hero to change and/or grow; however, the janitor’s concerns should be taken seriously and not brushed aside. In the years since, they have stayed with me.

This morning I was reading an article called “Why We Need Utopian Fiction Now More Than Ever” by Eleanor Tremeer. It’s about the growing desirability for utopian themes to return to science fiction. As our real world careens through a climate of uncertainty and anarchy, it needs hope.

The author raises a good point; however, science fiction has a long history of reflecting the current times and whatever fears the population has. For example, the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear attack generated numerous stories about mutant monsters such as Godzilla rampaging against a helpless population. Our current glut of dystopian settings mirrors concerns about climate change and societal unrest.

Even so, I confess that I’m ready for some optimism in my fiction. I find myself worrying about the present state of so-called children’s fiction where it seems that anything goes. Do middle-grade children need to read dark, edgy stories that feature violence and disturbing anti-social behavior? If I stand on my answer to the janitor, yes. Books need evil in them, providing it’s overcome.

But if it’s allowed to prevail, what are we doing?

As I pick up book after book in the kids section at my local bookstore, I find myself sharing that janitor’s concerns. In children’s fiction, we need to take care. I’m not recommending that we censor books unilaterally, but shouldn’t we be asking ourselves: What does this story have to say? How will this affect a child reader? Will this provoke a child to ask questions? Will this influence a child to be more sensitive to the feelings of others? Will this inspire a child to be braver, more honest, and emotionally receptive? Will this frighten a child? Will this teach a child that lying is okay? Will this desensitize a child? Or will this make a child think, so that in the future the child can make connections and understand bigger, more challenging themes or issues in part because of having read this book?

Such issues used to be called the responsibility of authors toward child readers. Publishers, librarians, and teachers were gate-keepers that steered young readers to stories they might be ready for and away from stories that were perhaps too intense or confusing for them at their particular age. It went hand-in-glove with broadcasting’s prime-time regulations for television content, stipulating that certain programs could not be aired until 9 p.m. when children were in bed. There was a general agreement that children were to be protected–not just by their parents, but by all adults. At the same time, middle-class American society permitted any adult to reprimand a child for improper behavior anywhere at any time.

Having grown up in that era, I enjoyed a childhood with a bubble around it. I was protected yet given considerable freedom to play and roam just about anywhere in my community. My mother knew that the elderly lady down the street would phone her if I was doing something I shouldn’t. And I knew that if I ran into trouble I couldn’t handle, I could seek help from an adult. The single warning criteria repeatedly stressed was never to get into a car with someone I didn’t know.

That is not our world today. It is not the world that children grow up in now. The bubble has been shattered. Chide a misbehaving child in public, and you run the risk of having her parent attack you like a ferocious she-wolf. Helicopter parents guard and hover over their children, who rarely set foot outdoors and seem managed constantly. Stranger Danger is the lesson kids are taught, and they are so shielded from adults that all grownups are perceived to be a) monsters or b) totally without authority or relevance.

I find it odd that despite so much parental protection, no one seems to be watching the content of children’s books. They are troubling due to their tone, the behavior of the characters, the rudeness and profanity that now sprinkle the pages, the inability of a child protagonist to stand alone, thus gaining self-reliance and independence, and–most alarming of all–their lack of conclusive endings where evil is met, confronted, and defeated.

When stories don’t dramatize the termination of villainy, they are themselves, in their cumulative effect, villainous.

Which brings me back to Tremeer’s point about our current need for hope in fiction. When you do not feature a true villain that can be confronted, outwitted, and defeated, you are serving defeatism.

You are writing a pessimistic story that leaves nowhere for readers to go. You are saying, this is a bad situation and it can’t be fixed. It will go on and on without end, without resolution. Just survive it as best you can.

That’s not the approach to fiction that I know or love or believe in. It’s not the approach to life that I want to have. It’s not what I want to see spoon-fed to children as entertainment.

Do you?

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Book Announcements

A bit of news to share …

After a considerable delay, THE SALUKAN GAMBIT, the sixth title in my SPACEHAWKS science-fiction adventure series previously published in paperback by Ace Books several years ago, is finally uploaded to Amazon and should be live in Kindle format in a day or so. It ties in closely to #2 in the series, CODE NAME PEREGRINE. I am considering using THE SALUKAN GAMBIT as a potential launching point for resuming the series with new adventures, but that project is still in the planning stages at this time.

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Also, my current new work in progress now has a completed rough draft. Woo hoo! I am editing it now, and will provide more specific information about it as it nears publication point. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, my summer’s writing plans went somewhat awry, so I’m especially pleased to be making progress on this project. It is entirely new material, and after spending such a long span of time bringing up my backlist to digital e-book format, something new is a welcome change that’s given my imagination a boost.

I hope each of you is likewise having success in whatever you’re working on, whether a long story or a short one, a screenplay or a novel.

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Book Diary

Ever hear of a company called Victorian Trading Co.? Every December it sends me its paper catalog in hopes of enticing me back as a customer, and every December I thoroughly enjoy leafing through its offerings and wishing I could buy a lot. I never do, but the wishing is fun.

This year, I had to laugh when I turned a page and lo and behold, they have a book diary.

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The catalogue description reads as follows:

“Includes sections for book lists, record of books read, books wanted and purchased, shared books, book group notes and comments, favorite titles to remember, significant passages, and address of book stores, libraries, and clubs. 144 p. Laminated hardbound gift book. 5 x 7” No. 9977          $14.95

http://www.victoriantradingco.com

Ph: 800-800-6647

Now, I’m not recommending that anyone purchase this particular diary. All you techies have probably already created a log on your computers. The rest of you may be happy with a $1 composition notebook or the luxury of a little Moleskin book. Whatever.

It’s just that once I focus on a particular topic, I seem to become magnetized and all sorts of  related material gravitates to me. It happens when I research for a book, and it’s happening now. I’m sure this means that I simply become more aware of items or details that I previously ignored.

Am I buying this book diary? Nope. I don’t like to be organized by someone else. But it’s a pretty notion, and I like the intention of it.

Another good source for this kind of thing–especially if you’re seeking a high-end gift for a writer or reader–is Levenger’s.

So browse, seek, fantasize, wish.

Meanwhile, I’m reading READY PLAYER ONE.

 

 

 

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Another Backlist Title Published

Just announcing that another SPACEHAWKS series title is set to be published on Amazon Kindle by tomorrow.

THE ROSTMA LURE (under my Sean Dalton pseudonym) is number four in the sf military adventure series. Originally published by Ace Books in 1991, it is now spiffed up, lightly revised, and decked out with new cover art. I have been combing through the scanned draft for OCR errors, so if any are found it’s due to my missing it.

I’m trying to decide between writing a new spin-off series of Spacehawks adventures or more in my Nether/Mandria fantasy series. Does anyone have an opinion or vote?

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Roaming Writer

As a writer, I’m always seeking a new, fresh experience — which can be as simple as leaving my house, my home office, and getting away from my computer. Routines, while effective, can tend to become ruts. It’s important to borrow a bit from Taylor Swift and “shake it off.” In this context, however, shake off the staid and mundane things once in a while. You don’t have to invest in a trip to Paris — although what an inspiration! Just get out and see with a different perspective — even if it’s only taking an alternate route home.

I spent Memorial Day 2015 returning from the land of cotton to the open prairies. I was driving a vintage pickup and pulling a trailer along miles and miles of lowest-bid built interstate highways, listening to whatever tolerable music I could tune up on the FM, non-satellite radio. Give me pop; give me bluegrass; give me R&B; give me funk, or give me Mozart, but I can’t abide most rap, and that seemed to be my choice other than modern country music or classic country. I chose the classic, because it was featuring a lot of boot-scooting and/or patriotic songs, and it reminded me of my childhood when I learned to listen to George Jones whether I wanted to or not.

My favorite tune of the day was Elvis belting out “Dixie.” It’s wonderful, but it also seemed right while I was driving along the top of a levee road and gazing across flooded fields, out-of-bounds rivers, and swampy woods that only ticks and chiggers could love.

Now I haven’t pulled a trailer since my teenage days of showing horses on the itty-bitty local saddle club circuit, so I was definitely rusty and taking extreme care with a twelve-foot U-Haul filling my rear-view mirror. I wasn’t sure how Ole Red would handle a big trailer either. Back in the day, this Ford could pull anything, but the pickup is four years shy of becoming an official automotive antique and hasn’t towed since its operation (emergency installation of a new engine). It did fine, especially once I crossed the state line and could buy real gasoline instead of ethanol. Since I was trying to scoot into central Oklahoma before the late-afternoon boil of severe thunderstorms, heavy rainfall, and/or tornado activity — the delays caused by wimpy fuel due to poor acceleration, struggling wallows over hills, and more frequent stops to refill — proved exasperating. Still, with real gas finally in the tank, Ole Red was able to zip out of range of a tornado roaming the east side of the state, and then there was only a severe thunderstorm to hunker through on the roadside shoulder before cruising on home.

In between these modest highlights of my day-long road trip, I had plenty of time to think about plot and characters.

Bing! I have a new protagonist for a new spin-off science fiction series.

Bing! I figured out how to simplify and shorten the storyline for my current fantasy project, in case I don’t want to write yet another trilogy.

Bing! In my head, I wrote a new scene to be inserted into my WIP.

So although it’s easy to pull my introverted-writer card and shy away from anything that might draw me from the comfort zone of my computer and imagination, I took on a physical challenge and vanquished it. I managed to thread my trailer through the hazards of fast-food parking. I met a delightful couple by sharing a table at a super-busy Braum’s where there weren’t enough tables for the crowd of holiday travelers. I even chatted with these folks and learned that there are no summer mosquitoes in Mount Nebo, Arkansas, which was where they were planning to spend a few days in a lake cabin. Who knew there were any mosquito-free zones in Dixie?

Now how could a day be more productive than that? I just wish I’d thought to attach a US flag on the truck to honor America’s fallen warriors.

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Description: Love it. Use it.

Without description, fiction becomes cold and abstract, and readers find it difficult to visualize the setting, characters, or character reactions. Nor can they bond with character emotions if those emotions aren’t described. Such problems create a sense of detachment, which makes it easy for readers to lose interest and drift away from the story.

On the other hand, description slows down story pace. Too much description can sink a story or cause readers to skip passages. If readers skip, they’re likely to miss important information. If they miss that, a few pages later they don’t understand where the story’s going. Once they stop understanding, they lose interest. Unfairly, they may declare that your characters are “stupid” or your story just doesn’t make sense.

Therefore, when dealing with description writers need to focus on three factors: utility, vividness, and position.

Utility:
Before incorporating a passage of description into your story, ask yourself what purpose is it going to serve. Is it creating a sense of place, showcasing your world building, introducing a new character, or conveying character emotions?

Sense of place:
How easy it would be if writers could just tell readers that the story is taking place in London at 4 p.m. and leave readers to supply the rest.

Screenwriters have an advantage over prose writers in this area because of the camera. Movie or television audiences can see a vista or a house or a neighborhood or a menacing robot looming from the shadows of a poorly lit alley. It’s there on the screen. No need for the writer to expend words and energy depicting it.

However, prose writers must work much harder in conveying sense of place. We don’t want to ramble on and on, because readers will grow tired and skip our lovingly crafted paragraphs. Therefore, we need to put the image across quickly, economically, and effectively.

One of the best ways to do so is through the physical senses of your viewpoint character. Don’t just rely on the visual. Does the setting have a putrid stench? Is the air extremely cold? Are factory pistons pounding away at a deafening sound level? Does the drugged coffee have a bitter taste?

Dominant impression:
Don’t throw all the sensory impressions at your readers at the same time. For any given setting, determine the most prominent detail you want to convey and focus on that. It should be a logical one in terms of what’s happening in the plot. For example, perhaps you’re writing about a home invasion where the homeowner–your protagonist–pulls a handgun from his nightstand drawer and exchanges gunfire with the individuals who have broken into his house.

In this situation, what would be the dominant impression to describe during the gunfire? That’s right: sound.

Afterward, when the situation is over, what might the dominant impression be? Probably the smell of cordite.

By utilizing a dominant physical sense, you can describe on the fly–briefly and effectively–without employing a long, rambling passage that will slow down the story’s movement.

Vividness:
Painting a word picture requires strong, specific nouns and active verbs. Avoid the flabby qualifiers of adjectives and adverbs.

The big red dog walked slowly along the sidewalk.

How large is big? Does red mean the dog is a burnished color or does the dog have red paint spilled on his coat? Is he moving slowly because he’s fat, or is he limping, or is he frightened, or is he weak, or is he lost and unsure, or is he lazy?

Do you see how vague description conveys very little? No wonder readers grow impatient with it.

A mixed-breed dog roughly the same size as a bull calf and sporting crimson splotches of glistening paint on its head and shoulders roamed along the sidewalk.

Hmm. Is this vivid or confusing? In an effort to be unusual, the writer has jammed too much information together. The images clash and crowd each other. It’s not effective.

An Irish setter–red coat gleaming like a new-minted penny–ambled along the sidewalk.

Here, the writer has used the dominant impression of color to convey the dog’s appearance. The verb “ambled” indicates movement that’s content and unhurried.

However, if the writer really wants to describe a dog that’s been in the paint, let’s try that one again.

The stray dog–its head and shoulders glistening with splotches of red paint–fled down the sidewalk, spattering drops in its wake.

Don’t you expect that animal to pause under some nice old lady’s clothesline and give itself a good shake?

Now, are some of you jumping up and down, eager to remind me that I didn’t mention the dog’s size?

If the size is more important than the spilled paint, then focus on that with dominant impression. Otherwise, let that detail wait.

Position:
Where you insert description matters to your story’s dramatic (or comedic) effectiveness.

Pause Points:
Remember that description is perceived by readers as slowing down the story action, even if momentarily. Therefore, savvy writers place small passages of description in natural pause points.

For example, a new character enters the room where other–already established–characters are talking. Everyone stops and turns to stare at the newcomer.

This is a natural pause point in the story action. Insert a paragraph of description, thus introducing the new character to readers.

Or, to return to my example of the home invasion. After the shooting is over, there’s a natural pause point as the protagonist emerges cautiously from cover, switches on the bedroom light, and stares at the shambles. The wreck of the room needs to be described to readers. Certainly the character’s emotions need description here.

Suspense Points:
However, you don’t always want to put a slow passage at a slow spot in the story’s flow.

Sometimes writers deliberately slow down their stories in order to build anticipation for a coming event or to heighten dread toward a threat that’s about to drop.

Let’s say that your protagonist has been coerced into fighting a duel at dawn. He’s not feeling confident. You want readers to worry, to anticipate the danger and action about to explode across the page once the fight starts. But you don’t want to hurry the anticipation because readers enjoy it. Well-built and well-placed anticipation draws out and intensifies story suspense, thus providing readers with more entertainment value.

Sitting in the gondola, listening to the soft chuckle of water beneath the oar, Noel cradled the rapier beneath his cloak and gazed at the narrow buildings rising up from the gray mist of dawn. The cold air stank of fish. Overhead, veins of pink and turquoise faintly marbled the sky, which was lightening from gray to pearl. The clouds were soft. Across the indigo sea, the sun climbed slowly. Its mantle of gold and coral blazed with magnificent radiance. Before it, the sea changed color, becoming turquoise curling with lacy foam. A fleet of galleys floated in silhouette upon the harbor, their sails furled, their masts at rest.

Slow? You bet! That paragraph, taken from my science fiction novel TERMINATION, is static. There’s no action other than from whoever is rowing the boat toward the assignation. Had the passage been placed in one of the story’s pause points, it would be dull reading indeed. Instead, it’s spinning out anticipation of the duel that’s about to take place. The description of a Venetian sunrise has been positioned deliberately to heighten suspense.

The greater the impending danger, the slower you can be in letting your characters approach it.

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Whimsies–A Science Fiction Christmas

I know that we’re already a week into the new year, and Christmas 2012 is behind us. But writers must keep their inner child alive, bright, and happy. Here’s one of the ways I did that during the recent holidays.

This year, my home office desk supports a tacky little white artificial Christmas tree. It’s loaded with atomic-age robot, rocket ship, astronaut, and alien blown-glass ornaments.

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I was in a Christmas shop in early December, seeking a gift, when I saw these crazy 1950s robots hanging on a tree along with T. rex ornaments covered in bright glitter. It was obviously a tree designed for a little boy’s room, and in some whacky way the dinosaurs and space ships worked together.

Maybe childhood nostalgia hit me (although I’ve never pined for the return of the 1960s). I thought of Robbie the Robot from the classic science fiction film, FORBIDDEN PLANET. Mainly, though, I was smitten by the glittery pink robot. It was goofy.

pink robot

I smiled. I resisted. I nearly escaped the store unscathed.

Then it hit me … I write science fiction and fantasy. What a perfect tree to set up in my office!

But how absurd. How nonsensical. How impractical.

How utterly enchanting.

The stark reality of my Visa bill is still an abstraction of the future. Meanwhile, I spent a fun hour that day picking ornaments. From that point, my OCD kicked in and everywhere I went thereafter I was tuned in to robots. Why hadn’t I noticed before that Target was carrying STAR WARS ‘bots? I skipped over Darth Vader and C3PO (too gold!) but came home with R2D2. Then I found cool ‘bot ornaments at Hobby Lobby and snagged the last tread-tracker a split-second ahead of a little boy’s admiring fingers.

(What kind of Scrooge notices that a child wants robot ornaments and reaches for them faster? Do I feel guilty? Not at all! The kid got the last rocket ship ornament. Drat!)

The next step was determining what kind of tree to hang this loot upon. A green tree? I’d already put one up in the living room–very traditional and pretty. I didn’t want to buy another tree. I’d splurged enough on this impulse.

Then inspiration hit me. Stored in my garage is one of those old aluminum trees, circa 1964.

When I was a child, we aquired one of these shiny foil atrocities. My grandmother owned a big one for a while, complete with color wheel, but then it disappeared. My mother, however, loved her little one. She put it up, year after year. It was quick and economical. She had no intention of wasting money on one of those gorgeous cut trees at the grocery store.

I hated the aluminum tree. It was weird. When I was old enough, I landed the annual chore of putting the thing together and hanging shiny red balls on it. When eventually it no longer graced our living room, I still wasn’t rid of it. Mom decreed that it would be put up in my dad’s office reception room, and so I continued to suffer seeing it, in all its shiny silver ugliness, year after year. When I went to graduate school and was too poor to buy a tree, she gave it to me. Ungrateful, I tossed the thing in a garage sale.

That’s when I discovered–too late–that aluminum trees had become highly desirable collector’s items. These mutants were valuable. Who knew?

So out of guilt–and because Mom never quite forgave me for selling hers for $5–I tracked one down and stuck it in the garage.

Realizing it would be perfect for my extraterrestrial space tree, I dug it out and assembled it with glee. It proved to be too fragile to safely support the breakable ornaments. I gave it a cold, objective stare.

It was a moment of honesty. I didn’t care how collectible aluminum trees are. An atrocity is still an atrocity. Age and trendiness can’t change that. I’m glad it wouldn’t work for the ‘bot project. Out it went.

Still, I needed a tree. My garage is like Aladdin’s cave–full of treasures and junk. A few years ago, during the height of the Shabby Chic decorating movement, I had purchased a small white tree at a post-season closeout sale. Never used, lacking any lights, it proved to be perfect for my ‘bots.

Like the proud owner of a new puppy, I took pictures and sent them to my closest friends. These individuals may think I’ve lost my mind, but they’ve been too kind to say so. Writers are, after all, inclined to be a bit–um–peculiar.

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Although it’s my custom to take down the decorations on New Year’s Day, I’m loath right now to part with my space tree. It makes me smile every time I look at it. And this was an emotionally rocky Christmas when I needed all the smiles I could garner.

It reminds me that no matter how adept I may be at writing technique, I should keep my imagination–my fey spirit–blithe, impulsive, and ready to have fun when I sit down at the keyboard. Like most artists, I need frequent doses of whimsy to keep me going.

If it’s not fun, writing is just too hard a task to pursue.

What’s whimsical in your writing life? Are you indulging it or ignoring it?

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