Wednesday, April 19, 2023

"Haunted Stars," Audio Recordings of Chapters 1, 2, and 3

These audio recordings of Haunted Stars are embedded mp3 files. They were read by myself, using Quickplay and iMovie. (The pause controls work better if you click on the "pop out" command. But if you can't restart, just refresh. And you'll notice a few seconds of repetition near the start of Ch. 2 that didn't get deleted when I did the editing--just keep going.) They were a lot of fun to do, as well as a lot of work, so I hope you enjoy them. And thanks to the folks from the Teaching and Learning Center at Seton Hill for being so helpful. 
Click on the book cover in the sidebar for more information about the novel and for where it can be purchased. 

Chapter 1: "In a Lonely Bar on a Lonely World" 

Chapter 2: "The Raid" 

Chapter 3: "Politics and Money" 

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Visual Inspiration, Narrative, and Starting a Novel

 In Conversations with Mark Frost (by David Bushman), Frost, the co-creator with David Lynch of Twin Peaks, explains how he and Lynch, two very different kinds of film-makers, worked together: 

 “And because [Lynch is] first and foremost a visual artist, he worked in visual ideas, like a giant or Josie in a doorknob. I don’t think he worried about what they meant intrinsically. So I tried to take these arresting images, ones that were rich with mythic overtones, and incorporate them into the narrative. That’s one way in which our different natures and interests manifested.” (p. 140, Kindle edition)

 Lynch produced mysterious visual imagery and Frost logical story telling. (You can see this difference in the latest manifestation of Twin Peaks, “The Return.” Both Lynch and Frost worked on the scripts, but Lynch as director included unexpected visual impressions which Frostthen devised tentative narrative logic for in his two books, The Secret History of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier.)

 But in reading Frost’s passage, I found the mingling of different styles not to be surprising—indeed, to be both familiar and inspirational. It’s the very action that’s necessary before one can start writing a novel.

 In another blog entry (#21), I argued that three “catalysts”are important before one can begin writing a book:  an idea (for a sustained conflict and narrative), an image (a visual inspiration for the mood and tone of the novel), and an inciting incident (the occurrence from which the entire narrative proceeds).

 For me, having a specific and “arresting” visual picture is crucial. It provides the imagination’s spark needed to create events that then, with logic, can be made believable and well-motivated. These images might be as varied as two strange derelicts in space (what inspired The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes), or an unknown man falling from the sky onto the hood of an archaeologist’s jeep (In a Suspect Universe), or an old space-prospector in a “lonely bar on a lonely world” waiting for a dangerous business contact (the current Haunted Stars).

 These images generate both an intangible creativity—a wonder, a sense of awe or fear, an emotion—that then inaugurates a series of causal events. Such pictures are crucial, even though when they come, they might have little meaning (as they often do in Lynch’s work). But the logical mind, like Frost’s, then negotiates with this blunt inspiration to make it fit a logical narrative. It’s difficult, yet heady and rewarding, and so necessary to creating a novel.

 This is why I believe strongly in the visual stimulation that photographs, drawings, or even images in dreams, can bring to a writer—why I occasionally post “Prompts from Pictures,” images that can call up embryo ideas for plots. And—wonderfully—they won’t be the same for every viewer. They’ll produce many moods, insights, situations, concepts, and the wilder the better—logic can come later. For now, at the start, surrender to the imagining eye and indulge in what it sees, whatever that might be, and let it become a “vision” for a developing narrative.

 Pictures  into words, moments into stories.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

What Makes a Good Cover? The example of "Haunted Stars."

I once wrote a blog on “What Makes a Good Cover,” establishing four criteria and applying them to Bradley Sharp’s wonderful artwork for my book Temporary Planets for Transitory Days. (See the image in the sidebar.) My current novel, Haunted Stars, is again privileged to showcase Brad’s work, and, though I believed the last cover could not be topped, this new one is now my favorite.

 The criteria for a good cover are these:

1.      Accuracy of subject matter. It should not mislead the reader. The visuals do not have to be exact (it’s impossible to depict precisely what’s in an author’s mind, and often the author is more vague than one assumes). An artist should be allowed to go in the best creative direction to make the image appealing, but the cover should still be tied in some obvious way to the subject matter of the book.

2.      Accuracy of mood. Even more important is to match the book’s emotions. The cover for a horror novel should not be “cheery,” and a romance book should be . . . romantic. The cover needs to suggest what the reader will feel while following the story, the primary tone and mood of the book.

3.      Visual appeal. It needs to catch attention, to grab someone perusing bookshelves or browsing online. This call can be subtle—a whisper instead of a klaxon shout—but a hook still needs to be thrown. The viewer must look again, be intrigued, by a single red leaf in a field of green, or a baby doll that has the expression of a murderer. 

4.      A creative spark, a difference, a uniqueness. Something new, a surprise, the unexpected, a hint that “You’ll get a different experience in this book.” Such a quality is hard to define, and you might not notice it at first:  a raised question presented visually, a promise of a unique reading adventure.

In all respects, Brad’s latest effort excels. For a larger view of it, go here

Without giving away specifics of the story, I can attest that the cover is accurate in terms of the novel’s events. From the red sun and the yellow orb beneath it, from the mountain and the jagged white formations below, to the single human protagonist in a landscape of varied vegetation—all these are taken directly from incidents in the story.

 And the mood of the picture is a perfect fit, “haunting” in all sorts of ways—the strange eye on the surface of a planet, the mysterious undefined whiteness of the spiked horizon, the layers of mist in the landscape below—all these suggest the unknown that will confront and baffle the viewer. The first book in the series was called The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, and this motif has been carried consistently by Brad through all four covers—a lone adventurer in space who lives to encounter more alien wonders. The solitary figure is both the protagonist and the reader, for both are led into peculiar and different worlds.

 As for the visual appeal, the picture is rich and varied:

·         First, note the symmetry. You can draw a line down the center of the image and both halves almost mirror each other. The sun, the orb, the mountain, and the figure on the raised mound all form a vertical line-up. Symmetry in nature is surprising and mysterious, and thus adds to the unsettling mood.

·         This vertical thrust is balanced by strong horizontal features, from the blue-black ground at the bottom of the picture and the soft lines of distant white mists, to the hard edge of the thin cloud on the mountain (a touch I really like), and, most fitting, the horizontal banner of the title. These two directions sew each other together in an organized display.

·         And then there’s the contrast, which works perfectly. The strong white letters, the sun, the world, and the mountain stand out strongly against the dark background, as does the whiteness of the spiky formations in the center. And then, reversing the darks and lights, the bottom half of the picture uses dark foreground objects that contrast against the white background to make the figure and vegetation stand out.

·         And finally the color scheme. It’s primarily cool blues and purples, with frosty whites and intense blacks, in both the foreground and background. But then, again to provide contrast, the central globe is swirled in warm yellow-orange, and the red sun is a hot glowering ember in the sky. So there’s dynamic difference in color as well as tone.

 And for the creative spark or uniqueness, one could argue that just the design of the picture itself, how all the straight lines (in the figure at the bottom, in the jagged white formations of the center) lead to the central eye, the big ominous question of the picture, and then further upward to the title—exactly where they should lead. But the eye itself, of course, is what stands out, the spark, the grabber, the deepest mystery. What’s an eye doing on a planet?

Wow. That’s a lot for just one picture. But it all ties together.

And I’m so proud that it’s my novel which gets to wear it.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Structuring Series Fiction - What You Can Do

When writing a series, the simplest structure is the most obvious: chronological—one  protagonist with many stories, given in the order in which they happened.

Of course, the protagonist has to have a profession or interest that generates recurring plots which lead to resolutions—an investigator, explorer, skip-tracer, “fixer,” consultant, body-guard, discoverer, trouble-shooter (even cook and librarian). Then each novel’s independent story takes place after the previous book’s completed narrative.

As long as the protagonist’s personality is consistent and interesting, and the encounters with different events remain plausible, this is the most useful and common format. (Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe.) Let’s describe it as: Changing plots/Unchanging protagonist.

But if the lead character remains too much at the same age and in the same state of personal development, the series can become unrealistic. After a while the protagonist seems frozen in time, more a narrative device than an actual person, even though the plots are still changing and unique.

So a way to counter this sameness is to have the protagonist also change and develop—through aging, varying relationships, marriage, divorces, deaths of close friends, moving up the ladder of rank and position, temporary or even permanent changes of location. These developments make the protagonist seem more like the reader, growing over time. (Joe Leaphorn, Anna Pigeon, James Aubrey, George Smiley.) Most series today fall into this vein. Let’s call them Changing plots/Developing protagonist.

Another series variation is to have a recurring background plot that grows too, a “deep story” lurking behind the surface events of each volume’s independent story that does reach a resolution—like, for example, repeated encounters with a particular antagonist (Moriarity, Karla, Luthor). You then get  independent stories along with the hook of a continuing plot. Furthermore, if the protagonist’s development is dependent on how that deep story eventually, or never, resolves, then even more interest can be generated (the uncovering of parentage, unknown spouses, secret past motivations, old mistakes and present consequences— as in The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Broadchurch).

Let’s describe these as Changing plots/Developing deep plot/Developing protagonist.

In all these cases the movement is still linear and chronological. You might encounter an occasional flashback here and there, even a whole book that relates a major past event, but still the series is based on a forward movement in time.

Yet a series can also go in both directions—back in time to pick up significant events, and then forward  to lead to greater resolutions. The “deep story” in this case occurs in both the past and the future, leading into a set of complications that unveil what happened in the past and determine what occurs in the future. This series would not be a linear arrow but more a spiral, a focusing in on major revelations about the deep mystery plot but also, in conjunction, unveiling how the changing personality of the protagonist (related to both the past and future) is also finding itself.

This is the very thing I’m trying in the series I’m writing now, the “Mykol Ranglen” set of science fiction books. The order in which they were published is not the order in which the stories occur. The series began “in the middle” with The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, then went back in time to speak of a near forgotten event in the protagonist’s past, In a Suspect Universe. Then the following book wasvery different, a collection of poems supposedly written by the protagonist himself (he’s a writer), Temporary Planets for Transitory Days.

These poems were mostly independent but they referred to events in both novels—and to events in books yet to be written. The collection itself, in the fictional world of Mykol Ranglen, is meant to be “published” after the events of the first novel, though this isn’t indicated in the collection. The current novel that will be released soon, Haunted Stars, is both a sequel (to In a Suspect Universe) and a prequel (to The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes). After that, the next two novels planned to be written (I’m halfway through one of them now) will finally be actual sequels to the first book.

Complicated? Not really, since each work tells a stand-alone story. But the series has been fascinating to write because it re-evaluates and re-establishes itself, raising new questions about both the protagonist and the world(s) he lives in. The stories can be read for strictly their “face” plots, the independent sagas for each book. But if one is willing to look a bit more closely (like, for example, at the connections between the prose events and the poetic reactions to them), then a deeper form of narrative play and understanding can result.

Series fiction is like genre fiction. A writer must always provide what the reader expects (more information and plot about a known protagonist), but at the same time balance this with what can surprise the reader. As in genre fiction, one walks the line between being different and being the same, always needing to answer the plea from the reader: “Give me more of what I like, but also surprise me.”

So, if an arrow is too straight and uniform for your set of stories, then maybe try a spiral. It’s still a series, but in a tantalizing different way.



Friday, June 12, 2020

Structuring a Collection of Poetry

Whenever I decided to write a collection of poems supposedly written by the protagonist of my last two science-fiction novels, Temporary Planets for Transitory Days, I knew that organization would be a big challenge.

First, I had a lot of poems I had already written over the years. But ever since I started writing novels I had gotten away from poetry. (Poetry was my “creative escape” during my busiest years of teaching.  But I much prefer writing novels now.) These were poems on a number of topics, and I felt that I could easily adapt them to this new project. I based my protagonist, Mykol Ranglen, a lot on myself, so I didn’t think it would be difficult to make them fit this new persona. But the poems did go in many different directions, and I needed a few organizational subjects to group them under. 

Second, I also knew I’d be writing a lot more poems directly connected to Ranglen’s futuristic world of space exploration and planetary adventures. Would these be separate or hooked up with the others? How would I manage to blend all of them together? 

Third, I also had the two novels published now and I wanted direct connections to incidents or characters in both of them. This involved both writing new poems or adapting old ones to fit the situations. 

This sent me off on a binge of creating organizational schemes, several lists of sub-topics under which I could put the poems. The task involved a lot of “pondering” time—and a large number of repeated attempts to come up with just the right “list.” My desk was littered with various approaches on flurries of scrap paper, and one file on my computer was nothing but wildly off-beat phrases for the headings. 

Finally, I came up with the following, and it wasn’t easy. Indeed, the list kept changing during much of the writing of the new poems and the editing of the old. So, out of the 90-100 poems I finally aimed for and selected, here’s the ultimate list of seven categories:

1.      “Nights on Alchera” – poems related to the people, places, and events of the planetary setting from In a Suspect Universe, my last novel written. Reading that novel isn’t required to understand the poems, but someone who has read the book will probably see some connections (or maybe not, for they are sometimes obscure).

2.      “Rocket Punk” – where Ranglen delights in the imagined outer space created by the popular science fiction of the past. He makes comparisons between the hopes for space travel as seen in the SF of the twentieth century and the attitudes toward space in his own day. (I had a great time writing these—“Loving the Spaceport” is a real favorite.)

3.      “Planetary Romance” – poems about Ranglen’s past loves, especially Mylia from In a Suspect Universe and Mileen from The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes (though you might not be sure which poems refer to whom). One long poem dealing with Mylia originally was meant as a chapter in the novel. Feelings for other characters too, some obvious, some not so, and some purely “fictional” (in this world which is already fictional).

4.      “Tales of Old Earth” – the forsaken and yet beautiful planet of humanity’s birth, its legends, its stories, its settings, its myths. Some of these are based on my own travels and interests, but I imagined Ranglen as growing up on Earth and loving its landscapes, as well as its history of popular culture. (You can tell he loves figures from old comic books.)

5.      “Riley’s World” – an imagined life for an admired character, now lost to him, from In a Suspect Universe, especially creating (or maybe imitating, it’s hard to tell) a possible child she gets to watch grow up. These poems suggest strange connections between multiple universes, since Ranglen’s imaginary life for Riley oddly mirrors what really happened.

6.      “Dark Galaxy” – frightening secrets and imagined scenarios of the stellar past, of the warring civilizations in the galactic dawn, and the dark hints of current interstellar doings. These were meant to be Ranglen’s commentary on the present state of his galaxy, and especially of how its earlier races have influenced it, for better or worse. It’s the most cynical, and biting, part of the book.

7.      “Sanctuary” – an autobiographical self-regard, with personal hopes revealed, longings expressed, and a final somewhat settled conclusion: Ranglen in his most sensitive and revealing mood, about his hopes and fears for himself and his future. A fitting closure to the entire book.

As said, this particular choice of topics did not come easily, and it went through many variations. Among the headings that were discarded are:  “Adventures on Other Planets,” “Nightsounds,” “The Man From Reality Maintenance,” “Borderlines,” “Solitudes,” “Suspended Revelations,” “Exiles of Space,” “Safehouse,” “Existential Aloneness,” “Nights and the Galaxy,”“In Border Spaces,” and “The Affected Earth.” (Hmm, I think I can make a poem out of just these phrases alone.) In writing, you often discard as much as you gain. But these titles give you some idea of the moods and directions of the poems themselves. 

Know that I was very happy with this final assembly. In some ways, an entire collection of poems makes for one long poem itself, arranged with structure and cadence, development and suspense. And I think this carefully wrought organization provides an almost latent “plot” to the book, or at least a “movement” or “arc,” from recent events he’s still dealing with, to a final calm acceptance of his past.

I hope you enjoy it. Pre-orders are available here, and not only will they come early but they’ll have a free insert that points out a connection between a prose segment in the novels and a specific poem in this book.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The "Notebook" -- From One Work of Fiction to Another

In my science-fiction novel, In a Suspect Universe, Mykol Ranglen, the protagonist, often had with him a small notebook.

He showed it to no one.

But during the story, another character named Riley snuck a peak into the book when it fell out of Ranglen’s pocket while he was sleeping. She didn’t trust him at the time, so she was looking for information about any secret plans or plots she felt he might have, or “dirt” about him. But she found in the notebook only poems. And the revelations there were either more personal or more oblique than what she wanted. Since she was in a bad mood at the time, and very suspicious about Ranglen, she was neither ready for, nor appreciative of, any poetry. So she quickly put the notebook back.

Throughout the novel, the two characters never spoke of the notebook or the incident, and Ranglen never indicated what it might contain or what it meant to him.

But Temporary Planets for Transitory Days, a work soon to be released by Dog Star Press (and available here for preorder), IS that notebook.

It’s a collection of the private poetic statements of Mykol Ranglen: comments about his world, his adventures, his past, his dreams, his regrets, his longings—the wonders he’s seen and the heartbreak he’s felt. And except for Riley’s sneak peak, only he has ever seen these personal jottings.

Until now.

In this new published collection, the poems are revealed for the first time. Ranglen apparently decided, through a sudden impulsive move that was maybe based on a further feeling of loss and longing, that it was time to discard them, to let them go, to not belabor them or hide them away—maybe in order to free himself so he could move on with his life. He stopped writing in the book and then passed it over to a publisher—like a spy bestowing secret knowledge.

How that happened is summarized in the editor’s introduction to the collection—which I wrote, speaking in the voice of an imagined editor from at least a century in the future. (And, by the way, it was great fun writing the introduction to one’s own written book, in the voice of a careful and restrained editor who doesn’t want to impose his own “interpretation” onto the work, or to lead any of his readers into how to accept it.)

The things we see then in this collection are all the topics that fascinated Ranglen. And no matter how big—or small—some of them might be, like the grand vistas and galaxy-wide subjects of science fiction, they are described here from a strictly personal viewpoint, through the eyes of a character who’s lived through two novels already (and who will appear in at least two more). These poems are links to his deep past, to old planet Earth, to the worlds of his present, to the planets he’s visited, to the stories we’ve seen, to the people he’s loved, and to the tales yet to be told. Secrets are revealed, known characters explored, settings opened, and mysteries explained—or, in some cases, made more complex.

It’s been a great thrill creating this book. I’ve been on a writer’s new kind of adventure—presenting an imagined world through equally imagined eyes, or placing a fictional science fiction into an equally science-fictional frame.

Leaping from one work of fiction to another! It’s been heady stuff. 

To summarize, and conclude, I’ll quote the last lines of my own faux editor: 

        . . . I present to you the contents of “the notebook” as it was given to me, with its assigned title, structure, and sub-headings, exactly as Mykol Ranglen wanted them. I added no footnotes, since I have no authority to write them. My own speculation is no more valid than any other reader’s.
        But be aware—or “beware”—the works are inconclusive. They tease. They absorb as much light as they shed.
        Which, given our troubled and contrary times, is maybe appropriate.
        I hope you enjoy them.

Monday, May 18, 2020

"Protagonist Poetry"

A project that has fascinated me ever since I first got the idea for it is soon to be released by Dog Star Books (on June 20, but it’s available for pre-order now with a special offer for a free insert—see my previous blog post or click on the link.)

Temporary Planets for Transitory Days is an anthology of poems supposedly written by Mykol Ranglen, the main character from my two science-fiction novels, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes and In a Suspect Universe (he’ll be the protagonist of at least two more books, one of which I have in draft already).

The poems relate to his experiences, some of which can be seen in the novels, biographical details of his life, his thoughts on what’s happening in his 22nd century,his feelings, his adventures, and the many wonders he’s seen in outer space.

This concept was exciting to me because, in the novels, Ranglen has always been tight-lipped about his emotions and his past.  He’s not very revealing in either his dialogue or his private thoughts. Whenever I wanted to open him up a little, he seemed, uncannily, to shut me down, saying, “No, sorry, not yet.” So maybe these very personal poems were waiting inside both of us, brewing, cooking.

And now, about to be published, they are ready to be viewed, and thus to reveal more of him.

And here’s the clincher:  I found that revealing him in poetry was much easier than in prose. (Or maybe, rather, he’s more revealing in poetry than in prose. It does get peculiar at times, as if you’re dialoging with your own created character.)

But do be aware that he still can be obstinate. He maintains a number of mysteries, and he maybe even adds to them. Yet a reader will know a lot more about Ranglen and his interstellar worlds after reading the collection, his ties to different planets, his reactions to the past, his hidden interests, the deeper parts of his personality, his emotions, doubts, dreams, fears, and his loves. Many notions raised in the previous books are clarified—and a number of further questions are introduced. Some poems, seen only in fragments in the two books, are here presented in their complete forms. So aninteresting and stimulating connection among all three works can sometimes be seen (and I even made a few ties to the novel I’m writing now). You don’t need to have read the first two books to follow the poems since the anthology stands completely on its own. But the works do enrich each other and thus give the reader a deeper view of Ranglen himself.

Incidentally, the preorder giveaway deals with these connections between the books, illustrating a particular tie by showing both a passage from the novel and several lines from the poem.

So, all in all, I do recommend trying this experiment. If your main character is a bit too reticent and tight-lipped with you, then maybe write some poems from that character’s point of view. It unearths and stimulates the viewpoints the character might not want to share, and you might then even learn the reasons why the person is so reluctant.

The anthology was a true pleasure to write, an exploration, a creative quest. I’ve never felt so close to, or so lost in, a created character. It’s been intriguingto plot out the byways of the man’s past—and how he’s dealt with it—as well as his longings and hopes for his future. And equally intriguing how he would express them, what he would say, the words he’d use.

I can’t wait to share it!

The book will be released by Dog Star on June 20, but you can pre-order it now and receive a copy sooner.