Monday, September 3, 2018

Writing Prompts From Classic Writers


            I’ll be teaching classics of European Literature throughout this academic year, and whenever I’ve dealt with such writers before, I’ve always been fascinated by a sudden twist of phrasing or a gem-like statement that makes me think, “Gosh, this would make such a great writing prompt.”  They pop up anywhere in classic texts.  Some meaningful, some obscure, and some so quirky or poetic or blunt that you feel—or hope—it could really stir the creative juices.

            So this is what I hope to do throughout the academic year:  Give brief quotes, on Twitter, label them as “Prompts from the Classics,” and throw them to all you busy, struggling, and devoted writers of fiction out there as possible goads to your inspiration, inventiveness, imagination.  A few helpful words that might lead to an idea, a plot, a character, a theme, a mood. 

            All of these lines I’ve found intriguing, so I just want to share them. 

            And here’s my first batch. I was reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first major works of literature, from Sumeria or Mesopatamia (present-day Iraq).  It tells the story of a half-divine ancient king whose habits are so bad he’s given by the gods a half-animal friend—Enkidu—to keep him occupied. All’s well with them (together they go off to kill monsters) until his friend Enkidu dies.  And then Gilgamesh encounters, for the first time, the fear of death.  He goes on a quest for immortality, and though he learns much during his travels (by following the sun beneath the earth, speaking with a bartender at the end of the world, and begging secrets from a survivor of the Flood), he does not gain immortality.  He returns home, much wiser, but still mortal.

            While reading the epic (in translation, of course, this one by Benjamin R. Foster), a few lines stood out, the shorter of which I’ll send out in Tweets for instant wide-open prompting.  Take from them what you will.  But I hope you get, from these brief but sometimes haunting phrases, a responding idea, a scenario, a character, a scene, a mood, a setting, anything at all. 

            Good luck!  And let me know if it works.          

  •        What kind of a person, or what would that person have to do, to see “the       wellspring, the foundations of the land”?
  •        Who would have the label, and why, of “The Distant One”?
  •        What would cause the following: 
                                   Aghast, struck dumb,
                                   His heart in a turmoil, his face drawn,
                                   With woe in his vitals,
                                   His face like a traveler’s from afar . . .
  •        What situation would lead to: “Even the great gods are kept from sleeping at   night!”
  •        What kind of creature would this describe: “His maw is fire, his breath is death.” (Don’t make it a dragon.)
  •        Imagine a landscape with thirteen winds:
                                  South wind, north wind, east wind, west wind, moaning wind,
                                  Blasting wind, lashing wind, contrary wind, dust storm,
                                  Demon wind, freezing wind, storm wind, whirlwind . . .
  •        What would create this scenario:  “Will he not share tiara and scepter with the   moon?”
  •        What would be the duties of this job:  “meat carver of the netherworld”
  •        And imagine the background for this:  “The scorpion monster called to his wife”

            Hope you get some ideas. All quotes are from The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, 9th ed., vol. 1. 

            Next, The Odyssey

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Up and Coming: After the Novel


What’s next?  Following In a Suspect Universe, what books and stories will come after?  Or, what am I working on now? 

The next book in the Mykol Ranglen series is a collection of poetry supposedly written by Ranglen himself, the notebook of poems referred to in the current novel and occasionally even quoted.  That notebook will comprise the third book in the series, and it will be called Temporary Planets for Transitory Days: Poems by Mykol Ranglen. All of the poems quoted briefly in the current novel will have their complete versions in that collection. And readers of both works will be able to play the interesting game of identifying passages and scenes from In a Suspect Universe that are connected to or outgrowths of Ranglen’s poems. 

I’m working on the book now and it’s developing very well. Indeed, I can even give a hint of what it covers by listing here what I believe will be the headings for each grouping of poems in the book (“Alchera” and “Riley” are references to a place and a character from In a Suspect Universe): 

Nights on Alchera
Rocket Punk
Planetary Romance
Tales of Old Earth
Riley’s World
Dark Galaxy
Sanctuary

And I think it’s safe to say here that a few of the poems might make a reader question  assumptions about the events from the novel.  One might learn things are not what they seem.  (But nothing more about that until both books come out. :-)

After the poetry collection, I originally intended to do a sequel to the storyline from The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, but I now have another Ranglen story to tell, so there should be at least two sequels. 

This happened because I wrote myself into a corner when working on In a Suspect Universe (which writers are wont to do). 

I described in the first novel the story of how Clips were found.  Clips are tiny storage devices hidden throughout the galaxy by an ancient race called the Airafane. The first was found on Earth in the 21st century and provided the secret of faster-than-light travel.  The second was found on another planet and supplied the technology for anti-gravity.  The third, discovered by Mykol Ranglen, contained the blueprints for a habitat in space, eventually built and called Annulus (which Ranglen likes to think of as “his” world).  The fourth Clip was also found by Ranglen, but no one knows this except a few high-placed people in government, and the Clip has been kept “under wraps” since being found. The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes covered all of the above, in summary, then told the story of how the fifth Clip was sought, found, and fought over—and how Ranglen, at first reluctantly but then persistently, helped in that chase. 

I planned In a Suspect Universe to go back and tell the story of how Ranglen found the fourth Clip, what happened to him in doing so, and how he turned it over to the government. But I created such a dangerous Clip in writing the story that I realized that Ranglen would never turn it over—indeed, he’d make certain all governments never got near it. 

So I still had the story to tell of finding the “fourth” Clip.

And that’s what the next book, after the poetry book, will do.  This time it’ll really tell that story.  That would technically make it another “prequel,” running right up to the start of The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, but it’ll be written more in the style and format of that first novel. Indeed, it will be a fast-paced thriller—a chase, a revenge story, and then a rush to a dramatic conclusion.  (Working title:  Contested Space.) 

And finally, I’ll get to the actual sequel that’s been planned all along, the true follow-up to the first book, telling how Ranglen goes on a search for a missing person and discovers . . . well, I’ll say no more, except that some large questions get answered, and that Ranglen has to confront some very big and difficult issues.  (Working title: Galaxy Time.)

And after that? 

Who knows. I’m sure I could come up with more ideas for Ranglen books, but I also have at least one other novel in mind that’s not part of the Ranglen saga. A fantasy story, about floating cities. 

But that’s way down the road.

So, there you have it.  I look forward to bringing all these plans to their conclusion. I’ve loved writing the books in the series already, so I’m eager and ready for more.

And, again, I hope you enjoy them.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Different But Useful Format


            This is for all the readers who truly liked the story of the first novel.

            The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes has a straight-forward linear plot.  It begins with a hook, sets up the motivation and conflict, builds to a crisis, accelerates to a brief interlude and then a bigger second crisis, followed by more build-up, bigger developments, more crises, then the really big crisis, falling action, and conclusion. A tried-and-true dependable plot structure, the standard for most stories.

            In a Suspect Universe plays with that a little.First of all, it’s in three parts.  It begins with a confrontation and builds to a crisis at the end of Part I.  But then Part II goes back in time, shifts point of view, and shows what happened before the events that led up to the confrontation at the beginning of the book.  We follow that story in a typically accelerating linear structure that leads to a bigger crisis at the end of Part II.  Then Part III jumps ahead and we pick up the story from the end of Part I.  And from there we develop, migrate, skip and scurry (time and space get a little unusual) to the last big crisis, then falling action, and conclusion.  (I really liked the ending, by the way.) 

            So, it’s different, and I want loyal fans of The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes to know this. But I promise that this other format (it’s not really experimental, just the only way to tell the story) is both satisfying and in many ways more interesting than the original. I’ll return to typical straight-forward sequences when I get to the sequels (more about that in the next blog), but I think the unique structure here makes this book a stronger stand-alone novel, special for both its subject matter and its way of telling the story. 

            That structure allows the author to give you more about the main character and the events in the first book than a standard “sequel” could.  It’s a revelation of a buried past, a “prequel,” and thus it provides a picture of Mykol Ranglen that he probably would never share (as the beginning of the book indicates, he’s never told this story).  And all that he refuses to divulge here will become essential to the later and real sequels, hinting that the Mykol Ranglen story is more complex than what the first book ever suggested.  So this book is crucial for the development of the whole series.

            And, I confess, it’s very special to me.  I’ve had the idea for it for a long time, long before I wrote the first book.  So I was thrilled to tell it finally, and even more thrilled to make my main character a part of it. 

            The story permitted me to take Ranglen to places he had never been before, to have him deal with emotions that the standard mystery-plot, the structure for the first novel, could not let me show.  Ranglen experiences here quite a range of feelings—hope, despair, longing, regret, desire, heartbreak, guilt, tragedy, and a final reconciling serenity.  He becomes what he is in the course of this story, the Ranglen we know from the first book.

But we also get suggestions on what he will become.  So this story prepares him for the rest of his story. 

            And, as we learn from this book, his story has surprisingly deep and serpentine roots.

            Ultimately, as said in the previous blog, I wanted the readers to feel they were getting a very privileged and private view of their hero.  The three-part structure allowed me to do that, to make the book a series of revelations, the unveiling of secrets, all seen through a very private observation port (both himself, and someone outside of him). Providing that exposure required a narrative that was non-linear and not always in Ranglen’s point of view. It resembled the solving of a 3D puzzle instead of the running of a 2D quest. 

All this discussion, of course, is no substitute for the book itself, and I think that all I’ve stated above will be obvious once the book is read.  It’s hard to talk about the arrangements of plot until the story is completed. 

So come back after reading it and we’ll talk about the structure more. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A Poet and his Poetry


            Experts on media publicity recommend that when a new novel is released, you should write in your blog about something “cool” concerning the novel, something that makes it different or special. 

            Mykol Ranglen, the protagonist of my novel In a Suspect Universe, is a writer, explorer, space adventurer, loner, and . . . a poet.  Some very brief poems of his appeared in the first book, TheMan Who Loved Alien Landscapes.  But for this second book, I wanted to use several more parts of his poems, not to “add” to the book, and certainly not to “prettify” or “decorate” it (like some poems or songs do), but to make them significant aspects of the plot and character development. They wouldn’t be quoted at the starts of chapters to act as epigraphs or headings—and thus be easily skipped.  Instead, they’d function as integral parts of the narrative, “secrets revealed.” Reading them would be like sneaking a look over someone’s shoulder, digging into an unknown past, or, as one character says, getting the lowdown and “dirt” on someone. 

            They’re used sparingly (they fall mostly in just two chapters), and when they do appear they represent important plot points. Indeed, some poems even created certain aspects of the plot.  None of them are given entirely—only fragments—but they reveal parts of Ranglen’s character that people in the story get to see only through the poems.  Ranglen, as in the previous book, is still not too talkative or revealing of his past.  So the poems act as revelations of character, and a means of weaving even more mystery into the story.

            They also set up a tie to the next book in the series, which will be a collection of poems supposedly written by Ranglen himself (with an “editor’s introduction” by an alleged publisher in Ranglen’s future world). The full versions of all the poems quoted only briefly in the current book will be included there. The “notebook” referred to in this novel will purportedly become the collection that’s published.  I’m working on the volume now and it’s progressing very well—indeed, I’m in that ideal writer’s state where I prefer writing to pleasure reading—a wonderful “zone” to be in.

            I won’t say much about how the pieces-of-poems used in the book contribute to the plot. That would be giving things away—which shows how much the poems are not simple “window-dressing.” The only quote that is used as a traditional epigraph is the one that appears at the start of the book, and its slightly ominous tone, leading up to the book’s title, is very intentional:

It’s annoying, alarming,
Sad, and perverse,
To learn one lives
In a suspect universe.
            --Mykol Ranglen, Temporary Planets for Transitory Days

(Yes, that’s the title of the poetry collection being writing now.)

            Including these poems and using them to advantage in the book was exciting. Though brief, they allowed for levels of plot development, subtle openings into the main character, hints of explanations and unknown events that could not be introduced in any other way, and even tiny “info-dumps” of necessary information to provide foreshadowing, suspense, possible threats, and privileged knowledge for the reader.

            And I enjoyed writing brief reactions to them by one of my characters, which included exasperation, bemusement, impatience, when she didn’t understand what really was being revealed.

            So I invite you all to share in them,to see the practical benefits of using this device in writing a novel.  It allows for aspects of story-telling generally out-of-bounds to a narrator, and it supplied pleasure, entertainment, and a new tool for a writer’s box of tricks. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Elevator Pitch, the Blurb, the Descriptions


            You’ve all heard them, and many of you have written them.  Describing the story of your book in one line.  “The Elevator Pitch”—so you can describe it to an editor you just happen to meet during a brief encounter.  (Not an exaggeration. I once wound up in an elevator with Tom Doherty of TOR Books. Unfortunately I didn’t have a book to pitch.)

            “High concept” is often part of it, taking a well-known idea, like the story of a popular film or novel, and marrying it to another idea.  Like “Lawrence of Arabia on another planet” (Dune); “Marines in space” (Aliens); “a Disneyland where the visitors get eaten” (Jurassic Park); “Lord of the Rings from the Orcs’ point of view” (The Black Company).

            And then there’s “the blurb.”  The short-paragraph description that goes on the back cover or that's used for publicity. Not quite as hard to write as the synopsis, but close. Every word really counts.  
 
            And finally,there are just the cute little quickie summaries that one plays with, maybe for fun, but good gems for conversation and interviews, and a creative way to come up with a new angle on a work you’re becoming too familiar with.

            So, here goes.   
          
            The novel is In a Suspect Universe, releasing on Aug. 15:
           
            The high concept: “Adam Strange meets The English Patient, meets H. P. Lovecraft, meets Philip K. Dick.”
            (Okay, that’s going overboard, but it’s darn accurate.)
           
            The elevator pitch:
            “A space adventure of mystery and romance becomes a dark planetary noir.” 
            (Clever, but people might not understand what “planetary noir” means.)

            “A jaded spaceman finds the world of his dreams but it then fades out of his reach.”
            (More to the point, but too much a downer, and not representative of the pace and feeling of the story, which is more thriller than elegiac tragedy.)

            “A solitary explorer of alien worlds has a dark secret in his past. It’s now revealed.” 
            (Not too informative, but I love the mood and the hook that's hanging at the end.)
           
            The blurb:
            “In this planetary adventure of mystery and romance, Mykol Ranglen, the space-wanderer from The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, finds the planet of his dreams and the future he desires. But he learns they come at too high a price. The terrors of a mysterious alien ‘Blight,’ the plots of ancient galactic civilizations, and the hidden surprises of a ‘suspect’ universe, conspire to stop him.  From out of this buried tale in his past, the secrets revealed, and the chances lost, will haunt Mykol Ranglen forever.”
            I liked this, and it does have good specifics.  But, darn, it’s never the exact experience of reading the novel itself. It’s only a snapshot, of a preview of a preface. 
           
            Here’s an alternate approach, breaking it down into the characteristics of fiction, but keeping things simple and not too explanatory:

The setting:  two exotic alien worlds, with many glimpses of more.
The plot:  in this order—a meeting, a suspicion, an escape, an adventure, a romance, a quest, a chase, a confrontation, and then a conclusion (slightly ambiguous).
The characters:  a man, a woman, another woman, another man, and one more woman.
The theme:  so many, but I’ll pick the most lyrical—“saudade,” the deep yearning for wonders past.
The emotions:  great hope, great disappointment, great longing, great loss.  
The style:  clipped, lush, accelerated, ominous, descriptive, terse, poetic, ironic—not all in the same paragraph but usually in the same chapter.

I’m not sure if that helped much.  So here are some quickie descriptions, a bit of play, but not entirely tongue-in-cheek:

·         Pulp adventure gets serious.
·         John Carter loses his way, but then finds it.
·         A planetary romance becomes interstellar tragedy, becomes . . . something more.
·         A happy life on another planet demands the loss of a reassuring universe.
·         Classic SF (the human colony on a distant world) confronts a multiple postmodern reality, or unreality, where Dreams walk, where the Dragon, the Spider, and the Serpent live, but only to torment the people who believe in them.
           
            Okay, that’s enough.  I think I’m getting too extreme now.  As we used to say at the desperate endings to old high school “book reports,” where we just gave plot-summaries and ended half-way through the story, “You’ll just have to read the book.” 

            Sorry about that. But I do think you’ll enjoy it!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Why I Wrote This Novel


Since In a Suspect Universe is about to be released (August 15), I want to address here why I wrote this novel.

When working on The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes (publ. 2014), I naturally thought of more books dealing with its protagonist, Mykol Ranglen.

The story of the first novel is science fiction that takes place about 130 years in the future, and it concerns the finding of “Clips,” small storage-units of information hidden by an ancient galactic race that is now extinct.  Everyone seeks the Clips, because the new technological information brings great wealth to the finders.  Ranglen, an adventurer/writer/poet, who’s quite a loner, discovered the third Clip, which gave him many advantages and many problems (see the novel for details). The book told the story of how he got involved with the dangerous pursuit of the fifth Clip.

After finishing that book, I knew I had an eventual sequel to the first story, and possibly more after that.  But I wanted to do something else than just tell the consequences of finding the fifth Clip, or just retell the original story but in a different way, which many sequels often do. 

And I felt that, in the first book, not enough was given about the background of my main character, who of course is the man Who Loved Alien Landscapes. I purposely wanted him to be mysterious, reserved, romantic (some reviewers compared him to a classic noir detective), so I made him private, solitary, and a bit of an enigma to the other people in the book.  And to the reader.

Though all this was intentional, I now wanted to say more about him in a second novel without compromising the mystery of who he was. I had a story idea from long ago (I won’t share details because it would reveal an important plot element), and I thought I could use it for an event in Ranglen’s past, deeply hidden and almost forgotten, that yet had a major influence on his later personality.  It would explain his actions in the first novel, why he was so private, why a loner, why he wants to “get away” and lose himself in alien worlds, why he’s paranoid—and why he has so much trouble with romantic relationships.

It thus would be a prequel, taking place before the events of the first novel, but told almost as a sequel, as a further exploration of the protagonist in the first book. 
 
This was getting interesting. I could reveal secrets yet maintain them, show someone’s past but explain his future, tell of events no one knew about but create the beginnings for stories still to come—revelations behind reticence, why we are the way we are, digging into dirt, cuddling up to the reader and whispering, “Let me tell you a secret.”

Definitely interesting!  What gets writers excited.

And this one big “story of Ranglen” would be privileged information for  just the reader.  Ranglen would have only a dim recollection of the whole event (for reasons to be explained in the novel), and yet the reader would get all the details, the real low-down.  And thus the reader could form a special bond with the protagonist, feel a sense of “I wish I could tell you what I know, but maybe it’s right you don’t know”—a private sympathy, a silent compassion.

I loved this!

And on top of that, I could tell more about events from that first book that were unrelated to Ranglen—the deep past of the galaxy, the one-time war between ancient races, the legacy of the Clips and the mysteries behind them. And I could raise questions too, build on the secrets, hint that more was going on than what anyone knew about, even the ancient races themselves. I wanted to suggest that the underlying story of all the intended Ranglen books was complex, tricky, enigmatic—more a “Deep Story.”  Though I could provide many answers in this second book for standing questions, I also could introduce issues that would not be touched again until later in the series.

Yeah, I was hooked.  The story was getting bigger and better.

So come along with me and let me tell it to you. J

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Planetary Romance Meets Planetary Noir


At one time, science fiction was referred to as “scientific romance.” This was the term applied to the stories of H. G. Wells. “Romance” meant, not love or relationships, but a narrative based mainly on adventure and entertainment, a tale of the “marvelous or uncommon incidents” (the term was first used to describe the long Medieval tales of knights and their fantastic adventures).  So a story with a scientific background or inspiration, like what happens to a traveler on a machine that can move through time, got the label “scientific romance.”  Generalizing away from romance to any story or prose narrative (serious, comic, short, or long) and you get the more familiar “science fiction.” 

Then, a popular sub-genre of science fiction that started in the 1930s and 40s was “planetary romance,” in which, as Wikipedia says (bless its easily accessible heart) “the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterized by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds.”  And a strong characteristic of this sub-genre is that such “planetside adventures” are more the focus of the story than the mode of travel to get there, or the hard science of the planet, or its technology.

The legacy examples are Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars and Venus novels, and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (when he was on Mongo). But these works are more credibly labeled now as “sword and planet,” where cultures use the sword as the basic weapon of force, and any technology included is just there to extend the adventures.

Purer examples of “planetary romance”—adventurous, entertaining, and filled with sense of wonder—were those written by Jack Vance, Leigh Brackett, Poul Anderson (though he does include science), Andre Norton (her SF), David Lindsay (A Voyage to Arcturus), Anne McCaffrey (the Pern books), Frank Herbert (Dune), Dan Simmons (Hyperion), and selections from the old pulp magazine, Planet Stories.

And, my latest novel, In a Suspect Universe.

The novel intentionally fits the planetary romance category, though it does add its own unique twists. I’ve described it—in “high concept” terms—as Adam Strange meets The English Patient meets H. P. Lovecraft. 

The story begins as obvious planetary romance:  a man’s desire for escapist adventure takes him to an exotic alien world where he encounters what he’s always wanted, a planet of wonder and mystery, and a woman he comes to love with whom he can experience it.

But he discovers that this great scenario comes at a very high price, and the story then turns into “planetary noir” (my own term, I believe), a dark and highly emotional confrontation with dangerous surprises, with secrets out of the galactic past, and a realization that even the nature of the universe is not what it seems, that it’s a “suspect” universe. The protagonist—Mykol Ranglen, and this is the second book about him—finds that the world and its people have their hidden stories and frightening enigmas.  Once having experienced his dream, he learns it can never be repeated and never returned to.  Then H. P. Lovecraft encounters Philip K. Dick. 

So the best way to describe the book is “planetary romance meets planetary noir.

And I loved how these differences confronted each other, how they came together and evolved, how the varied traces of pulp fiction and classic SF coupled with the darker narratives of today, how the familiar tale of a space colony met contemporary post-human uncertainties, how the strong space heroes of the past (only male then but also female now) fared in entering today’s dangers and new physics.

It’s a heady brew of romance, adventure, tragedy, and longing. 

I loved writing it. Working on it was my own personal escape.  

And I hope it becomes yours too. 

Enjoy!