Nelson Mandela

Watching the news feeds over the past few days, it seems apparent Nelson Mandela may soon die. This would sadden many people, me included, but it won’t be unexpected. His health has been failing for some time now, and he is very old. He helped to birth a new, more just South Africa, although there is still a great distance they need to travel. It will be decades, but they will get there, and look back on Mandela’s life in thanks.
So why am I filled with dread? Not for his death to be sure. I am fearful because when he dies – now or years from now – I am terrified that the poor and hopeless blacks will rise up in violence, mostly killing each other. Upon the death of a man who struggled to free them, they will murder each other, and a few hapless whites as well.
Please, dear God in Heaven, please let me be wrong…

Revisions Revised

So I’m compiling the comments my wife and my friends gave me on my first draft of Bloodsun Rising. Most of the comments are useful, and I’ll be clearing up a ton of small points.

But what do I do if I disagree with them? How much weight do I give to comments that go against what I wrote? In other words, when it’s not a clear-cut issue like grammar, how much do I trust the comments my friends gave me? And what if they contradict each other? Which do I choose?

Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing says that you should have one person as your reader, and apply a lot of weight to their comments.MtRevision-Large-972x1024 Don’t accept everything they say, but at least consider everything they say? But I’m a new writer, and I don’t know whose comments are the best.

I understand that this is part of the process of becoming a writer, and I welcome it. I just wish I knew all the answers already. Yeah, I’m like that. One of my personal goals is to become more patient with myself. I’m working on that one…

So I have to make some decisions based on what they’ve said, and what I feel is correct. Everyone liked the story, and had positive things to say about it, so I’m confident in that regard: It seems I might actually be able to write decent novels. But I risk falling into the trap of second-guessing myself, of thinking perhaps my choice – which felt right to me when I made it – was wrong just because someone else thought it was wrong.

Quilt 2I’m getting the feeling that writing a novel is like quilting in a way. Here in Pennsylvania you see many quilts; quilting is ingrained in the local culture. And that’s a good thing, because a beautiful quilt is a treasure. But why is writing a novel like quilting? Well, two reasons really.

     1) They’re big, so if you make a mistake or two, it isn’t usually enough to ruin the entire project.

     2) They’re big, so if you make enough small mistakes, it may be hard to see where you went wrong, but it’ll be painfully obvious to everyone that you did go wrong. A bad novel, like a bad quilt, is an ugly thing.

But I can’t sit here and second guess everything I do. To quote my brother-in-law Jon, make a decision and move on. So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll try to take the comments into consideration, but I won’t let them stop me. I’ll trust that my skill as a writer – and my destiny to be a writer – is enough.

And if I’m wrong, I’ll find out when the rejection letters start coming in.

Wish me luck!

keep_calm

An Echo, Still Heard

Sundial in SandTime is a coat that we wear from year to year. But every year brings a new coat, and we never take off the old ones. Every year breath comes a little harder, and our limbs become a little stiffer. Every year the wounds of our youth are harder to reach, harder to change, harder to heal.

I’m not being negative on purpose, but I’ve had an interesting epiphany today, and I felt the need to share it.

I attended Kutztown University in rural Pennsylvania. Beautifulku aerial school, and I enjoyed my time there very much. But as I stride through my 40’s, I’ve become aware of pain and injury and loss that I wasn’t able to see when I was younger. Today, for no apparent reason, I realized I was terribly harmed by one of my writing teachers. A little background.

I studied Psychology – seemed a good idea at the time, but I never pursued it – and had a dual major in Related Arts. The Related Arts degree was a broad-spectrum course of study, and my major focus was vocal performance. I love to sing. However, as part of the degree, there were two areas of concentration. I choose theatre and writing, and as part of the writing concentration I took Creative Writing: Fiction.

I don’t remember the professors name, or even his face, but there are a few things I do remember. Keep in mind this was a fiction writing course. Everybody was making up everything they wrote. The settings may have been familiar – the modern-day or some well-known historical period – but the stories were all invented. There were about fifteen students total, and we would be given assignments which would then be discussed in class. Pretty normal stuff.

But professor what’s-his-name had an idea of what the course was about that didn’t match my expectations, and I learned this as I turned in my assignments. You see, I thought it was a fiction writing course, as in anything that was fiction, but apparently he was interested only in historical and real-world fiction. 

If you’ve read my blog for more than about 30 words, you probably realize I like magic and robots and time-travel and all the fantastic and super-science elements of fiction. It’s not the only thing I write, but those elements turn up again and again.

He just wasn’t going for it.

gray_elf

 

I remember clearly in class one day, a portion of one of my stories was read aloud. It wasn’t very good, but that’s not the point. The point was I
 had written about elves, the humanoid fey creatures so common in fantasy literature. I asked about capitalization, specifically when it was correct to capitalize the racial name elf, and my professor – a man paid by a university to teach inquiring minds – let out a long sigh and asked me if this sort of story was all I wrote. He suggested I write “something that mattered” instead of “so much nonsense.”

I was, as you might imagine, floored.

But that isn’t my epiphany. What I realized today was this: His closed-minded attitude, which I ran into plenty of other places as well, helped to convince me that the stories inside my head were junk. I don’t blame this professor directly, but he was part of a culture of judgement and snobbishness that prevented me from writing for many, many years. He was partly responsible for holding me back. 

And I let him do it.

He didn’t have any power over me; I gave him that power. And by giving him that power, I allowed him to control me. How many stories have died stillborn in my imagination because of him and those like him? Hundreds. Perhaps thousands. I’ll never really know.

And so I write now, having slowly cut myself free of all the shackles I let people place upon me in my youth. And I pray that someone may read this blog post – or anything I’ve ever written – and be inspired to create in their own way, regardless of what others may say, how others may judge. 

Their opinion doesn’t matter, and it never will. What matters is what you believe in your head. Writing is something you do for yourself and nobody else, and until you realize that, you won’t really be free as a writer. 

excellently-written-paperGo forth and be fruitful. Tell your story. Share your beautiful delusions. Spread your delightful lies. And don’t let professors, friends, family or society tell you what you have isn’t valuable. 

I promise you, it is, and the world will be more glorious for your presence!

 

Points of Divergence

GOTS coverRemember the time when white supremacists went back in time to 1864 and gave AK-47’s to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia? Or how about that time at the height of World War II when the aliens invaded earth?worldwar cover

Yeah, me neither.

turtledove

Harry Turtledove

But Harry Turtledove has written wonderful books about those topics. Not everyone is a fan of his writing because he sometimes gets to “military technical” and also because some of his scenes (the romance scenes primarily) aren’t exactly smoothly written. But I’m still a fan because he writes stories that ask the eternal question, “What if…?”

I ask this question in my writing, and when I write a historical-based novel, there’s always a what if. Perhaps some day I’ll write “historical fiction” but that day isn’t today. Tomorrow isn’t looking too good either.

I like stories where I can explore something that has no direct historical equivalent because I feel that frees me up as a writer to tackle topics I normally couldn’t. And I feel strongly that that is the very purpose of fiction. I am a fiction writer, and I chose that medium not because I’m some head-in-the-clouds dreamer (ok, I am, but that’s not the only reason I write fiction!). I chose fiction, whether fantasy, historical, sci-fi or some obscene abomination of the three, because I can deal with sensitive and difficult topics in a non-threatening way. It’s one thing to write a nonfiction book talking about why faith is important or why drugs can be so dangerous. It’s quite another thing to have those topics come up in a fiction story. It gives people who might otherwise be offended – or simply never think of that topic at all – a chance to explore the issue in a friendly, open way and to do so at their own speed.

So I write fiction. And I seek – getting back to the title – points of divergence. Where could something be different than it actually was, or different than the reader will expect it to be? Where can I change the rules of the story so you’ll pay attention?

I remember when I was a teen – and this goes back to the 1980′s, mind you – when I really began to “get” what books were all about. In my house growing up, my parents fought pretty fiercely, and I would retreat to a fictional world (whatever book I was reading at the time, or to my role-playing games) to avoid the pain.

During this time I became a big fan of Star Trek. Remember that Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t start on the airwaves until 1987, so my interest was primarily in the original series. In the early 1980′s I discovered Star Trek novels, and began reading them. By the time I had lost interest in those novels, I had read over 100 of them. Some were good, some were bad. But pretty much all of them did two things.

1) They kept true to the original story line up to that point (that point being where the original series ended)

2) They added something that hadn’t been there before

These two points are basically the same for any story that isn’t in a wholly invented world, and even then, only until the second story is written. If I invent a new setting (such as my three suns universe where Bloodsun Rising is set), then anything I write is correct. Doesn’t matter what it is. It’s going to be correct because it’s not contradicting anything that came before. And when I start hard writing on the second book, currently titled The Burning, I can write anything I want as long as I don’t violate the rules laid down in the first book. That is unless I chose a point of divergence.

The most striking place to see points of divergence is in time travel stories. The Back to the Future series of movies is a great example of this. Especially in the first and second movies you see time being changed and things that had or had not ever happened were changed. Biff became a wealthy and powerful man, Marty’s parents didn’t meet the original way, and Doc Brown ended up in the old west. But points of divergence happen other ways as well.

If a writer changes one element of a historical story, there is a point of divergence. If you write a story where FDR never had polio, or where Stalin never came to power because he was killed as a young man, that’s a point of divergence: That’s a “what if?” story.

I have a novel that is about half done called Exanimes where the Great Influenza of 1918-1919 happens – differently. Because I’ve changed a vector of the disease, I’ve created an alternate history.

So where do you see these points in your life? Do you prefer stories that stick to history, or do you like it when writers like me mix it up a bit? Does the term “Alternate History” excite you, or irritate your historical sensibilities? And how do you feel about reboots of existing settings?

Recently, Star Trek was rebooted by J. J. Abrams. Some of the fans were up in arms, furious that anybody would dare to mess with the Star Trek canon (and if you’re not sure what the word canon means, please look it up here.) What about the new movie Man of Steel? That’s a reboot of the oldest superhero story there is, and there have been some changes. Is that good for you, bad for you, or don’t you care? Because if you don’t care, you should know there are lots of people who will get red-in-the-face mad about even little changes.

In the late 1970′s there was a TV show called Battlestar Galactica – of which I was a big fan – which lasted about three seasons. In 2004 it was revived to much critical acclaim, including Peabody Awards and the Television Critics Association’s Program of the Year Award. Yet in spite of this, there are those who refer to the show at Battlestar Galactica: In Name Only.battlestar.galactica

There’s always someone you won’t be able to please.

I like points of divergence, probably to a fault. I love to think “what if?” thoughts. And I like to write them as well. Not all the time, but often. And I’m not alone. So I’ll keep writing what I feel I must, canon be damned. Actually, canon be totally respected, but changed to answer the question ever-burning in my mind.

What if?

Inspiration and Perspiration

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Codorus State Park June 19th, 2013

So I just got back from vacation and we had a wonderful time at Codorus State Park. Back to nature, hearing the birds, smelling clean air, hiking. It was good.

One night, while waiting for sleep to come, I became inspired. As some of you know, I’m doing a second draft of my first novel, and it was conceived of as a trilogy. I’ve been kicking around some ideas for the second and third books, but nothing firm just yet.

In fact, I was starting to turn my mind towards another book, a stand-alone novel that is part semi-historical fantasy and hard sci-fi and set in my far-future space setting. I was working on it, outlining, defining characters, starting to enforce some order on the chaos.

But then, Bam! Inspiration.

What I saw in my minds eye was how the second novel will start. I wasn’t trying to think this up, but there it was, an entire scene, in detail, and the perfect way to pick up the story after the events of Bloodsun Rising. This leaves me with a couple of questions.

1) Why did I think this up when I was supposed to be working on a different novel? I imagine it’s because my mind is still working on the trilogy story, and isn’t ready to move on yet. In other words, I want to finish all three books before I start something new. But that’s not what I was planning, so is it a good idea? Do I let my inspiration derail my planning and put the new book on hold?

And, related to that…

2) What really is the creative process all about? I’ve heard the saying – as I’m sure you have – “One percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Is this really true? Because I write from inspiration a lot. A whole lot. In fact, most of my short stories just rush and gush out of me. I don’t even revise them much. Ok, sometimes I do. I have this one short story which is the same scene told from four different perspectives, one after another. That one has taken lots of work because I have to synchronize the four views so they match up perfectly. But usually I don’t work that hard on them. The story I posted a few days ago, “Rainy Day Suicide Patrol” came that way. One sitting, one draft, check for spelling, publish.

Please don’t think I’m trying to make myself sound good here. In fact, I wish I was more meticulous as a writer. I wish I could pull a George R. R. Martin and plan 150 character’s lives in excruciating detail. But that’s not me.

Brandon Sanderson says there are two types of writers; Planners and Gardeners. Planners do just that, they plan. Gardeners explore, and discover stories buried in the dirt. I suspect I might be a third type, Thug. I’m the writer who comes upon my muse, beats her senseless, and goes through her pockets looking for story ideas.

In any case, back to the question. How much does – or perhaps should – inspiration play in the writing of a novel? A short story is one thing because they’re usually only a few thousand words. But a novel? Bloodsun Rising currently clocks in at about 75,000 words. And I did have days where I thought the last thing I wanted to do was write, but write I did. Those were perspiration days to be sure. Still, more days than not I felt inspired. I’d sit down and suddenly a scene would unfold before me, and I wouldn’t be able to type fast enough to keep up with my excitement. That seems to be the norm for how I write.

From those of you who have written novels already, is that normal for you? Do you know other writers who work that way?

And yet it gets stranger still.

I studied Psychology in college, a decision that has benefitted me little and cost me very much money. In my advanced classes I would argue with the professors about the so-called

pink freud

 

 

 “unconscious”. I honestly don’t see any evidence in my life to suggest it exists*, and I see nothing in others that I can be sure is some unconscious mind at work. It seems to be anecdotal evidence at best. In fact, my brother-in-law is studying psychoanalysis in Boston, and he and I politely discuss this topic at length. I’m sure he knows more than me, but I can’t shake the feeling that believing in an unconscious is a convenient way of letting yourself off the hook for your own actions. “Gee, officer, I guess I shoplift to deal with my mother berating me when I was nine!” There’s a little voice  in my head which says “Suck it up and deal with your life!”

This isn’t to say I don’t think counseling is effective, but I question psychoanalysis and a belief in an unconscious.

But here’s where it gets strange. You see that little asterisk up there where it says “I honestly don’t see any evidence in my life to suggest it exists”? Well, when I write, I sometimes catch glimpses of a mind at work that isn’t linked to me consciously. I’ll give you an example.

In Bloodsun Rising, there is a character I introduced at first simply as muscle. She was meant to be frightening and to be a challenge to the heroes, but that’s not how it worked out. I was writing a scene with her standing in a busy city square watching for the heroes, and a full back-story came to my fingers, a story so rich and deep that I was shocked. What was more shocking was that I know now she’ll be not just some muscle, but a bona-fide villain in her own right, and her presence will not only drive the action forward in books two and three, but she and her story will flesh out an entire section of the story world that I had never even thought about before.

Honest!

My entire trilogy changed slightly because of her, and became richer and deeper than I initially planned. And I didn’t have to work for it at all. It just came to me, whole cloth. And she isn’t the only character where this has happened. I’m not thinking about these characters and their back stories – at least not consciously – and their stories are probably better than if I would have planned them. So what does that tell me about my writing?freud sex

I’m not willing to concede my point on the unconscious yet, but my argument is now a little weaker because of these strangely complete displays of inspiration I have. And that brings me back to the initial point. How important is inspiration vs perspiration? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. I can tell you doing a second draft is perspiration, to be sure. That isn’t much fun. And if I rely on inspiration, I will have trouble planning. That doesn’t help me when I have deadlines, so in those cases I must perspire.pablo picaso inspiration

But as far as writing, I have to go with what feels right, and that’s trusting my inspiration. I’ll finish the second draft of Bloodsun Rising, then start on the second book of the trilogy and see where that goes.

Are you coming with me?

 

Vacation Break

Thank you for following my blog. I appreciate you being here, and I hope you take something useful away with you.
As a courtesy I want to let you know I will be on vacation at Codorus State Park in Pennsylvania until Thursday, June 20th, and I will have a new blog post up then.
If you have something you’d like me to blog about, leave me some suggestions and I’ll see what I can do.
Thanks again! See you Thursday.

Speaking With The Dead

vincent-price-1950_3x4So I was talking to Vincent Price today, and I had a revelation.

He’s dead.

Yep. He’s dead, but I was talking to him. He was speaking to me across the years, and I realized that is exactly what I do as a writer. It’s what any actor does on a film or musician does in the recording studio.

I was listening to Thriller by Michael Jackson. Say what you like about the man, his music was amazing. Or perhaps I just say that because I’m a child of the 80’s. Either way, near the end of the song is a poem read by Vincent Price. Everybody knows the part, and I’ve always loved the unique creepiness of his voice.

My mother was always a fan of his. I doubt if she saw many of his horror movies, but she liked his voice nonetheless. And it was from her that I learned to appreciate Vincent Price, in the same way that I’ve grown to appreciate and enjoy Johnny Cash from my father’s own interest.

So there I was, listening to him read this poem, and I could see him in the recording studio. He was leaning against a tall chair, headphones on, paper on a stand in front of him, mouth at the microphone. As I saw this image in my head, I could imagine what he was thinking, almost like he was standing next to me, talking to me.

He said “This is a gift. I give you this gift, Matt, never knowing what you will think of it. You might love it, you might hate it; I’ll never know. But I do know this: I hope your life is just a little better, just a touch richer than it was before you heard me reading this poem. I want to give you a little piece of myself, so that I may live on, and I hope you take something from this, something that you store up and treasure away. In short, I truly hope you like it.”

I was loading the dishwasher, of all possible things, when this happened, and I stopped short. I stopped because this is what I want to do myself. I write because words build up in my brain like water at a dam. Through my fingers I release some of these words. Through my writing, I relieve some of the pressure. That’s what I get out of it. But that’s just a need. I need to write. I don’t have any other choices (and believe me, I spent 25 years trying to ignore this!).

What I want, my desire in writing, is that one of you, any single person, might read one of my stories and be just a little richer, just a little happier than they were before. I simply, truly, honestly hope that you like what I write.

Not everyone will like what I write, and I’m no Hemingway or Joyce or King. I’m just Matt from Pennsylvania who was promised household robots and flying cars and spaceships and a cure for cancer. But I didn’t get any of those things – and don’t tell me a Roomba is a household robot. You know it’s not the same thing! And so I write. I write because there are stories inside me, stories to be told, stories to be shared. I carry on the tradition – however poorly – of the storyteller sitting at a campfire thousands of years ago, children and adults alike enraptured. the-storyteller-by-howard-terpning

Thank you, Vincent. Thank you for sharing that precious part of yourself with me. You, and others like you, have truly made me a better person. And may I be good enough to pass on what you gave to me, so others may be better as well.