The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes
Wednesday, April 19, 2023
"Haunted Stars," Audio Recordings of Chapters 1, 2, and 3
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)
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.
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.
· 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.
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
Thursday, June 4, 2020
The "Notebook" -- From One Work of Fiction to Another
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.
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.
. . . 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.