Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Seeing the Cover of Your Book for the First Time

Though in my past few posts I’ve talked about my recent stay in the hospital, I want to describe here a great event that took place toward the end of my time there:  I received through email a copy of the cover for my upcoming science-fiction novel, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes.  And—oh!—how that made my day.  (It was just “revealed” formally today at http://dogstarbooks.blogspot.com/2014/03/cover-man-who-loved-alien-landscapes-by.html, so tune in there to see it yourself, but I also include a copy and some quotes about the story below.) 
I’ve done work in photography, especially landscape photography, and I’ve even dabbled in visual art—like drawing and oil and acrylic painting, though I haven’t learned enough Photoshop to do fully digital work (I intend to someday).  I’ve also studied art history and have given lectures on Romantic painting, the sublime in art, modern art, graphic novels . . . and SF covers.  So I like to think I have some small knowledge of the “visual sense” for illustration and composition, especially how it relates to SF imagery. 
Thus, getting ready to see my cover was a bit scary.  I wasn’t certain exactly what I hoped for the book—I wanted to leave all that to the artist—but at the same time, I knew many types of covers that I didn’t want.  So, when it came, a long deep breath of appreciation flowed out of me.  I thought the cover looked wonderful.  And, what really knocked me over was how much it “showed” the book in a way I hadn’t seen before.  When the author of a book sees his work in a transformative way because of the cover, then you know the illustration has succeeded on many different levels. 
I had viewed the work of Bradley Sharp before, on other Dog Star covers, for example, and I had been deeply impressed by the clean lines, the subtle color, the restrained and yet tense moods, the elegance of the composition, the quiet but clear reaching for the viewer’s attention, not through bludgeoning mayhem or gore but through a thoughtful combining of elements that led and encouraged readers instead of forcing or dragging them into a story. 
Since many of the novels he’s provided covers for had a near-future cyberpunk flavor, I was curious how the “planetary wonder” sense of my own book would be depicted, with its ring-shaped habitat in space and travel to several exotic and fully natural worlds.  I had pondered what the cover might contain (a landscape from one of the worlds, an impression of the “fist of thorns,” maybe “Annulus” the space habitat, and a figure or two within a wide landscape), and the picture did convey those notions.  But what so impressed me was how thoughtfully and originally it was done.  This wasn’t just an illustration of events in the book, but a visual “summation” of what the title itself was trying to convey, the book’s whole theme—the sense of off-world mystery and adventure, of wonder, of danger, and yet of “loving” all these beckoning and threatening components. 
And that was the very suggestiveness behind the cover. The sense of other-worldly majesty, the solitude of the protagonist and yet his strong emotions (conveyed so simply and yet so clearly in the dark simplicity of the image), the ghostly “alienness” of the forest on the different planet, the foreign and vaguely ambiguous object in the sky, and even the hint of an annular structure in space—all of these conveyed an emotional longing that I felt was the core of the story.  And it was right there on the cover, plain as could be.  I wouldn’t have believed such emotion could have been suggested so well, and so subtly, by just the few visual elements of the image. 
You can make other connections to the events of the book, like how the trees and cliffs and central peak are depicted, as well as the choice of color for the title, but I’ll let the reader find those connections.  I made enough ties of my own to be fully happy with the picture.  A cover for any book is not supposed to be viewed for only its accuracy (though this cover is accurate), as if the artist was supposed to be a futuristic reporter snapping pictures of the story’s happenings.  A successful cover suggests through its different medium of visual art the same “impression” that the prose novel conveys; it just uses a different medium.  It’s like interpreting prose into another language, and if the translation is too literal, then the second language can sound like gibberish. The translation has to be “redone” into that second language, so that it conveys an impression of the original but also takes advantage of the communicative power and unique strengths of that second medium itself. 
My protagonist is a loner who carries memories and secrets from a past that have made him wary of others and of the universe itself.  And yet he yearns for contact, for reaching other worlds but also other people.  Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he does not.  And in the course of the novel he’s plunged into a situation that is dangerous not only to him but to his only friends (and to the whole human race), that is unexplained, mysterious, and haunting, that leads to different worlds both beautiful and deadly, that speaks of forces far bigger than himself and even bigger than human history.  And his adventure, though terrifying, is also filled with wonder, deep longing, a need for “the other” and an eagerness to explore all that’s new and different to him. 
Now it took me a whole paragraph to say that.  But Bradley Sharp did it in just one picture. 
So, yeah, that was a great day when I got the cover.  I showed it to all the nurses, doctors, and visitors who came to see me then.  And all of them were as thrilled as I was.

Here’s the cover itself and some commentary on the book taken from the announcement.  Thanks to both Diana Dru Botsford and William H. Keith for their kind and insightful words.  And a big thanks to Bradley Sharp for the fine artwork. 

What could draw poet, explorer, loner and paranoid Mykol Ranglen away from the relative peace of his own ring-in-space habitat?

            He has no choice in the matter as one by one acquaintances are murdered or disappear altogether. Propelled by ever changing and deepening mysteries Mykol embarks to uncover secrets which could make people rich beyond their wildest dreams…or tear apart human civilization.
            The escalating quest takes him through worlds of many dangerous extremes, leading him to confront the deadly alien Fist of Thorns, extinct species refusing to give up their power over the future, and those racing against him to uncover the secret first. But in the course of his pursuit, he must also face his own secrets. And some of these are even more dangerous.

The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes by
Albert Wendland
Cover Art by
Bradley Sharp
Foreword by
William H. Keith
Space Opera Paperback coming from
Dog Star Books in June 2014

What They’re Saying About The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes

"Mystery, heart-pounding adventure, and the dazzling wonders of far-flung space play significant roles in Wendland's breakout novel, all while gifting us with a mesmerizing tour of alien landscapes destined to get under your skin and remind you of the very reason science fiction exists: Not to escape to other worlds, but to find ourselves within them."
--Diana Dru Botsford, author of THE DRIFT and FOUR DRAGONS

Inside are alien worlds and titanic space habitats and a brilliant and paranoid hero, all skillfully blended together with long-vanished galactic secrets. Science fiction… good science fiction, by a college professor of literature who loves good SF."
--From the foreword by William H. Keith, New York Times Bestselling Science Fiction Author

Monday, March 10, 2014

National Parks, and the Hospital

           As mentioned in the previous post, I was in the hospital lately, and feeling—predictably—miserable. This came from physical pain in both my neck and lower back, which at times was strong enough to make me flinch. I couldn’t see well from double vision, so everything in my room was either doubled, or overlapped with another image and formed a new one (I swore there were three containers on a counter across from my bed, until one day I realized—no, there are only two; the one in the middle is an overlap). And I felt the mental/emotional distress of uncertainty—at first the doctors seemed to have only inconclusive ideas on what was bothering me, or they felt they knew what it was but they couldn’t find confirmation for it, which led to test after test, many of these painful.  
           I couldn’t read much or find the right material to read. Watching television was too difficult for my vision, and there too the programming was never right. Conversation seemed always to go back to the serious issue of not knowing what was happening to me, and any humor seemed forced and artificial—and laughing hurt, as well as coughing, blowing my nose, washing myself, and leaning over to put on socks. And talk on “outside the hospital” topics came across as too irrelevant. I mentioned in the previous post that several times I was able to write a little, which made me feel alive again, but, by necessity, these were only small moments of satisfaction, though deeply appreciated.
           So, yes, I was pretty down.
           But along with the writing, something else finally did help me.
           I had several fellow patients in my hospital room, coming and going, with various problems. One patient, who was about to be released the next day after surgery, I got to talking with in the evening, and I found we shared a major interest: we both liked to travel to National Parks. We talked long on possible trips; we both had suggestions for each other; and it was an altogether satisfying discussion for two people in a hospital—optimistic, escapist, and filled with the promise and hope of great places preserved and left available for people to visit and enjoy. What a great hope for two medically-challenged and confined travelers longing to be someplace else.
           He left the next day, with good wishes offered between us, and I had no roommate for a while. Then I awoke in the middle of the next night and couldn’t get back to sleep. Whether this was from pain or worry or a sense of hopelessness, I can’t remember. The bed was infuriatingly uncomfortable. I found sitting in the hardback chair better, though not the ideal position for making myself drowsy enough to get back to bed. Not wanting to read, longing for different books on my iPad, I just sat there, absorbing the strange mood of nights in the hospital: the hallways dark but often full of activity, the nurses coming in at bizarre hours to check vitals, everyone quiet and efficient with only small greetings and few words traded. You feel shut off from the outside world; weather, local temperature, and news mean little to you. It’s like being half-awake, or only partially into a weirdly undefined dream-state.
           But then I remembered that in my Netflix cache I had the Ken Burns’ documentary series on The National Parks.
           Oh, perfect!
           I started watching at about 2 a.m. or so, and I was transfixed.
           Given the rather strained emotional state that lurked inside me during that stay (I really did feel at times my life was threatened), the message of the series nearly choked me up. The National Parks as “America’s Best Idea,” the preservation of grandeur for your children, and then their children, the passing down of majestic experience from generation to generation so it would always be shared, the John Muir quotes that were haunting (“the beauty about us, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal”), and the notion of “restoration” and “rebirth” that went along with visiting a National Park (a notion I very much needed at the moment)—all this was quite moving.
           There in the semi half-light of a hospital room at night, I let the wonderful views of Yosemite and Yellowstone and all the other Parks wash over me (from that small but well-defined screen on my iPad-mini), along with the quotes and comments about people’s responses and experience: “the immensity and the intimacy of time,” “the universe unfolding before us,” “the insignificance of our own lives,” the feeling “this is still the morning of creation,” the personal “repair and reconciliation,” the finding of “an anchor and a beacon,” the feeling of being “born again,” having one’s “memory and emotion attached so securely,” and “a peculiar exalted sensation that seemed to fill [one’s] whole being.”
           Given the overly sensitive, often frightened, and “on the edge” state I had been in for several days, all these ideas resonated in me and reminded me that, yes, there’s something I still can be connected to. I too had memories of visits from the past, of a country-crossing trip with my parents where I planned most of the route because I knew the geology in the Parks, of being awe-struck before the Grand Tetons, of feeling bombed-out by the stark deadly beauty of the Badlands (talk about “alien landscapes”—in National Parks is where that “love” got started), of being mesmerized by the sheer rock grandeur of Zion and Bryce. And then I had been able to share these experiences with others, passing them on, like giving that same trip to my nephew who now is passing it to his next generation.
           I watched for as long as I could before eventually getting tired enough to go back to bed. And I now fell asleep easily because I had become more satisfied, reconciled, anchored, reborn, and in touch with something larger again.
           I slept well that night.
           And then, after the next day of tests, late in the evening, I watched a bit more.
           Thanks, Ken Burns. And thanks to all the people everywhere who established the National Parks. You knew what you were doing. Just knowing those places were out there meant a lot to me in those long, desolate hospital nights.

All quotations were taken from The National Parks, American’s Best Idea: an Illustrated History, by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (New York: Knopf, 2011).

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Writing, and the Hospital

A recent stay in the hospital, which took me away from this blog for a while, revealed something about writing that I never would have expected. 

I went into the hospital to find the cause and hopefully the cure of severe neck pains and double-vision (both the cause and cure of which, after over a week’s worth of tests, were still being debated).  These both prevented me from doing work and, obviously, having much of a life.  I couldn’t drive (because of the double vision), I couldn’t relax, focus, or concentrate (because of the pain), and due to other related aches in my back (we believe they’re related), sitting for any great length of time was impossible, and any real physical effort (walking a lot, lifting anything) was prohibited.    

During the long stretches between tests, I found time-filling activities to be difficult.  The double-vision was worse in the distance—everything looked like a psychedelic fun-house—but in the close-up range, where the doubling wasn’t too bad, I sometimes could read.  Yet a headache would soon develop, and because of that and the general discomfort, I could read in only small spurts; any sustained reading, and anything requiring close attention and thought, I couldn’t handle.  For watching television I needed an eyepatch, but I couldn’t get used to monocular vision (which makes one focus on only the center of one’s visual field, instead of being able to sense all of it as when both eyes are working).  So, after one attempt to see the Superbowl, I stopped watching television too.  I enjoyed visitors, but I felt so weary and sore that conversation was a challenge, so I frankly discouraged company—except for my wife, who knew just how much attention, and lack of attention, I needed.  I didn’t want people to see the way I looked anyway, and, honestly, laughter really did hurt.  I was trying to keep up with email, but I didn’t want to leave my laptop in my hospital room so I used just my iPhone and sometimes an iPad, but the keyboards for both of these frustrate me (my thumbs and fingertips become inches wide when I use them), and struggling with them didn’t help any headaches or pains. 

So there I was, trying to get comfortable in a hospital bed which only made me more aware of my aches, looking forward to the sole pleasant sensory experience of eating a meal, or counting the hours to the loopy haze of the next pain pill, which, in the perverse way of pain medication, doesn’t so much eliminate the pain as mask it.  It’s still there, just muffled, as if stuffed under a blanket—which also causes your awareness to becomes clouded and listless.    

Then, one night, after my wife left and lights were going out in the hallway, I noticed I had a tentative table of contents, on two sheets of paper, for a poetry book I’ve been working on (the sheets were brought in accidentally with some other papers I needed).  And I started rearranging the selections, playing with schemes of order, moving poems for better effect (I only had the titles, not the poems themselves).  Then, inspired, I started writing an introduction for it—the collection is supposed to be written by the main character of my SF book that will be released this summer, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes—a future editor writing a future introduction for poems written by a fictional future character. 

And, it hooked me.  I suddenly found myself doing something I enjoyed.  I was preoccupied—I even forgot my pain.

Now, please know, I wasn’t pounding away at a computer churning out copy. (When I did have my laptop brought in for an afternoon, I found that working on it also gave me a headache and that I still couldn’t do anything sustained.)  This was hand-writing on scribbled-up lined yellow pages, and held very close to my eyes to prevent the visual doubling of words.  And it was done in pencil, which hardly could be seen in the dim indirect lighting of my room (I couldn’t reach the switch for the strong overhead).  But it was a shock to realize:  I was suddenly happy.  I was doing something.    

And the point of all this?  The realization that writing has a redemptive power. 

We all know some aspect of this idea, like “I have to write, to get it out of me,” or “Writing can be therapeutic.”  These are true and related to the same notion, but what struck me here was that, no matter how miserable I was (and I confess I felt that even if I did survive, my quality of life would be severely diminished), writing got my mind focused again.  With only these few paragraphs, cramped onto ragged sheets of already used paper, I felt alive, my brain charged, doing something that—shock!—seemed actually worthwhile.  It was a value, a direction, and a self-involvement that reading, watching, listening, talking, walking, eating, or taking pills, was not giving me. 

This wasn’t the use of personal experience that we writers all know about and constantly take advantage of, getting writing mileage out of adverse or positive happenings, using the details of, for example, staying in a hospital, for the next time our main character has to visit a hospital.  We writers all know how direct experience can, and should, be applied—as perfect examples of showing instead of telling. 

This was deeper.  After writing just those few paragraphs, and getting to enjoy creativity once more, with just a barely sharpened pencil (it was only about four inches long, with no eraser—I can’t remember how I got it) on a ragged legal pad with just a few pages left in it, made me feel I was “living” once again, still part of a larger world, functioning yet once more, “redeemed.”

I didn’t get much done.  Just two or three paragraphs.  But the next night I took them up again and played some more, elaborated on a few ideas, nothing substantial, nothing that took long enough for me to become too weary.  And though I eventually did become tired, maybe it was a bit less quickly than was normal then, and maybe I felt a bit more comfortable, as I sat there with the pad of paper as close to my face as the adjustable meal platform allowed me (it makes a terrible writing table—unsteady, flimsy, and rolling out from under you). 

But it was something.  It helped. 

And it showed me that writing can mean more to us in yet more surprising ways.  

Believe me, I was grateful.  There in the hospital late at night, with my little toy joke of a pencil, I chugged away.  And I’m sure I had a smile on my face.

(So let me end with this somewhat triumphant, if embarrassing and humorous, photograph of me in my hospital room, standing in my newly fashioned back-brace in showing-off pose.  Believe me, I didn't feel as chipper as I might look.  I entitle the image, "Samurai Suture." You gotta love the socks.)