Saturday, June 28, 2014

Signing Your Book, and What It Really Means

I’ve just had the pleasure of experiencing a book signing for my first published novel, and the event was so exhilarating that I need to follow up with a few comments.  It occurred at the In Your Write Mind Workshop, run by the alumni of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University.  The novel was The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, and I was thrilled that the publisher, Dog Star Books (a branch of Raw Dog Screaming Press) sold out of the large batch of copies that they brought—and I believe we could have sold half as many more.  This fact alone was enough to make me feel great, but a host of other feelings came as well. 
Before I go any further, however, let me make one very important statement:  a hearty and sincere “thank you” to all the people who purchased the novel—I hope your kindness and generosity are fully rewarded by an entertaining and stimulating read.
At times the line was long at my table and I wrote frantically in the books to keep up.  I wanted to write a truly individualized message to each person, since I knew most of the buyers as students or alumni, faculty of the program, or family and close friends.  (An unexpected family reunion occurred behind my table, which I wish I could have participated in more.)  My writing of messages was happening so fast that I got concerned over whether the statements made any sense—I certainly didn’t get a chance to proof-read them.  And it was important to me that I at least try to indicate how much I appreciated each person’s contribution, and that each of them would feel unique and special.  But in the heat and pace of the moment, I doubt if I accomplished the task effectively.  So this blog post is an attempt—if a general one—to make up for that. 

For example, I was furious at myself when I couldn’t remember a person’s name.  I’m sure this is common at all book signings, but I don’t have a good memory for names anyway, and since I was on medical leave all semester I’ve been more than “out of touch.”  I didn’t want to ask a person’s name but I do apologize when I had to (especially to my recent undergrad student who knew my bad memory already since every week I asked her for the current date).  Since I’ve blaimed my medical condition this semester for just about everything, I’ll put this set of “brain freezes” down to that term-long Ice Age too.
To all the following groups of people I hope I expressed just the right gratitude I wanted to show.  The students and alumni in the Writing Popular Fiction program (a program co-founded by myself and Dr. Lee McClain, which I am exceedingly proud of) are always remarkable for their devotion, support, interest, and enthusiasm for all things related to writing.  After all, it was the alumni of the program who started the book-signing in the first place.  And I hope all of the students and ex-students know just how much I value them, and that I wish them the best for their own projects and manuscripts.  We’re a community of writers, and I’m touched that I’ve contributed to it and that I’m a part of it.  Ultimately, I’m not surprised they buy so many books—they realize what it means to write them. 
And I want all members of the WPF faculty to know how much I am grateful for their help, their camaraderie, their wonderful conversation, and their sharing of their own writing experience.  I feel I’ve been mentored by the best, and the oh-so helpful professional advice of Michael Arnzen, Lee McClain, and Nicole Peeler has been wonderful, as well as the gems of information provided by our adjunct mentors, all professional writers themselves.  (No wonder the group of them have produced an award-winning anthology of advice for writers—Many Genres, One Craft.  We in the program don’t need to go far to find experts—we’re surrounded by them).  Just getting to know them and listen to them has been as helpful to me as it is to the students. 
And I also want to thank my two administrative “bosses” for both attending the book-signing and for being so supportive of my work, Provost and Dean Mary Ann Gawelek and Associate Provost Terrance DePasquale, who never fail to be wise, dependable, and excellent guideposts for us Directors.  And they’ve been especially understanding during this medically troubled semester for me.  I am so grateful to both of them. 
Finally, I want to mention my family and friends.  I’m glad my own circle of “Al supporters” was a sizable group of “outsiders” at the signing, and that they contributed to the interaction, activity, and business at other tables.  The statements I wrote in their copies were the most personal, which means they probably missed-the-mark most or simply sounded confusing.  So:  to my sisters, I love and treasure you (and each one of you is my “favorite”), to my sisters’ children I cherish the memories of you growing up and the wonderful people you’ve become (and I’m so happy that with one of you I get to share my interest in photography), to my sister-in-law’s daughter I am forever grateful for your kindness and the family you brought into my life—all of you are a constant delight—and to my sister-in-law’s son I am utterly grateful for your generous help and know-how (we also share a fascination with western landscapes).  To all others, like my wife’s cousin’s daughter who is so friendly and close, and to all those who couldn’t attend (my sister-in-law, niece, various aunts, cousins, neighbors) I am warmed by you all.  And for my wife, who not only was there but had to be my chauffer because of my medical issues, I am indebted for not only help, but for life itself, and the joy that fills it. 
A book signing is maybe too often seen as just a business event, a means simply to sell books.  But of course it’s more than that.  The authors’ direct contact with the readers provides a chance for more personal interaction, for a one-on-one participation.  All of which allows a writer and reader to come closer together, and to be seen as “human” again and not just a voice. 
But there’s another advantage too, the one I speak of here.  A book-signing provides the chance for a writer to “give back,” to show the appreciation for the people who have helped, guided, and sustained the writer’s own quest in reaching the end of the book.  During this event we get that chance—even if hurried, garbled, and seldom proof-read—to show how important are the people who might never feel they had anything to do with holding the pen or pushing the keys that actually produced the book.  But they too matter.  And this is our chance to remind them of their value, and what they mean to us. 
Long may we do so!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Alien Landscapes in Pictures, III

            Continuing right along from the previous blog, let me bring up three more pictures (I cheated the last time and included four) from my “Alien Landscapes” file.  All images on Earth, of course, but, hey, they do inspire a sense of the otherly.  
            This first particular photograph was done with a telephoto lens, and luckily the sun was bright enough that a tripod wasn’t needed (which I didn’t have with me anyhow).  I saw the vista from a car window in Badlands National Park in South Dakota, and insisted that we pull aside and park on the road.  Then I ran out to photograph as many shots as I could.  (And I must have gathered attention from other cars passing by for soon a bunch of them were parked behind us—in a rather dangerous stretch of road.  But no one stayed as long as we did.)
            Here’s one from along Interstate-70 in Utah, where it crosses the San Rafael Reef (an ancient and wide structure of exposed sedimentary strata).  I love photographs of such hidden areas that seem to open up into vast underground chambers, holes that suggest caves that suggest whole buried cities, hidden depths in the cavities of the earth.  I believe the rock formation is Navajo sandstone, which has that lovely pale ocher tint and which weathers into such smooth and mysterious hollows.  (Unfortunately, these rocks were at a rest-stop and not contained in a national park, so vandalism—in the shape of graffiti and carved initials in the stone—had defaced a number of the most attractive sections.) 

            I mentioned in the last post the spectacular Canyon of Yellowstone National Park.  And it is spectacular, though its most alien characteristic is not its waterfall or black-green river at the bottom of the canyon, but the unbelievable colors in its steep walls.  The rock is rhyolite, a volcanic mineral that is generally—in this case—yellow-white (which provided the name of the park).  But in the cavern walls so many other minerals intrude, and the rhyolite has been changed by both heat from volcanism and weathering effects, that the colors become more varied—in the stunned words of Rudyard Kipling when he visited the park in 1889:  “crimson, emerald, cobalt, ocher, amber, honey splashed with port-wine, snow-white, vermilion, lemon, and silver-grey, in wide washes.”  I’d need more pictures to get in all those colors but here’s a good start.

            And last (I’ll cheat again and add an extra), here’s a place that really surprised me.  I knew of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.  We had walked to it along a demanding uphill trail that was very popular.  But I also knew of another easier trail that led to a view of it from a different and distant perspective.  Since we didn’t want to walk the big trail again we decided on the easier one, and frankly didn’t expect much from the view.  But when we got to the end of the trail, we found an overlook that was sublime.  We could see Delicate Arch along the ridge about a mile away, but I didn’t know of the incredible canyon we would find lying between us, nor the vast rock formation that rose in the middle of it, nor the precarious cliff that we now stood upon, feeling like birds looking across immensity.  We were poised on the edge, all right--precarious, vertiginous.  But we loved every moment of it.  (Take away the greenery and the blue sky and there have to be places like this on Mars.) 

(Don't forget the book signing at Seton Hill on June 27.  See the link for details.  You'll come away with a lot of great books but you'll also get to see more of these "alien landscapes.") 

Alien Landscapes In Pictures, II

            I had a blast collecting photos for my running slide-show of “alien landscapes” (see my earlier post for May 5), created to accompany the book-signing on June 27.  The McKenna Center at Seton Hill University will be filled with authors selling and signing their works, and I hope to have a slide-show running on my iPad at my table to promote the feelings of my own book, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes.  (I’d secretly love a big HD screen to be set up behind me, but that might be overdoing it.) 
            Over a thousand pictures are in the slideshow, so I’m certainly not giving anything away by sharing some here.  I showed three in the May 5 post and here are four more. All of these are terrestrial scenes—nothing interplanetary or interstellar (how I wish!).  But the point is the mood that many of the photos convey, the sense of strangeness, the “pause of reason” (as Samuel Johnson defined “sense of wonder”), the unfamiliarity, the delay before one can orient one’s perception, and the occasional vague hint of the sublime. 
            This first one is from Badlands National Park in South Dakota.  My wife and I were driving through, late in the day when the sun was low, and I suddenly yelled out, “Stop here, stop here!”  Carol, used to me doing this, pulled over and I quickly jumped out and soon was running all over the mounds for views and angles of the incredibly colorful and well-lit views.  The formations are clayey mud deposits that are easily weathered by rain—which seldom comes to this dry realm, but when it does it has a strong corrosive effect since there’s little growth to hold back erosion.  Most of the colors of the mounds are gray (bentonite is the predominant material), but bands of red and, in the lower levels of the park, yellows appear from traces of iron oxide—and the lowering sun added to the heat and mellowness of the scene. 

            This next views are from Yellowstone National Park, and I can’t imagine all the geysers, hot springs, and mud pots making a more “alien” impression.  The various geyser basins make up only small regions in a park dominated by more expectable pine forests, open fields, and mountains (and one utterly magnificent canyon), but walking through the geyser areas makes you feel you’re on another planet, negotiating a crust that is boiling beneath you, that breaks out in peaceful or not-so-peaceful cauldrons of hot activity, right before your eyes or right beside you. You can feel the subterranean steam and hot spray.  And some of the pools are so pristine and blue (and hot) that I started calling them, “the eyes of the Earth.”  You can see what I mean in just these two pictures:

             Last is a cliff in the Grand Canyon.  This is a view from Moran Point on the South Rim.  I could have used many stunning vistas of the entire canyon itself, but I found this one scene so appealing because, even in the stark white-out of mid-day light, the colors of the strata were still glorious.  They were distant and thus paled, so I did increase the contrast to bring out the tones (done to nearly every digital picture), but the colors are accurate--and altogether stunning.  The Navajos call parts of their Arizona realm “the land of the sleeping rainbow,” and you can find thousands of visual examples for that line. As in this image here.
            I hope you enjoy.  

            And since I found so many possibilities for inclusion while doing this, the next post (which I’ll start writing in minutes) will be on three more such pictures.  See you there. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Let No Inspiration Be Lost

In the previous blog post, I mentioned finding a strange-looking piece of driftwood on a North Carolina beach one day, which I saved and eventually used as a model for a peculiar spaceborn object in my novel.  Here’s a picture of it, with colored directional lighting for illumination and the background darkened out (using Microsoft Paint and not Photoshop, where I’m sure it would have been a lot easier).   

The wood was black as tar when I found it and downright ugly, pock-marked and infested with marine growth and scurrying critters.  I didn’t want to touch it—but I knew I wanted it!  The labyrinthine hollows and curves, the holes that led inward into “caves,” the delicate and bony arches, the vague and disturbing Rorschach associations, the overall sense of massive abuse, and the feel of being ruthlessly pulled inside-out—all this was appealing.  I imagined it as some vast asteroid which could hide a pirate’s fleet, or where you could explore for years and never find all that was hid (a civilization could be buried in there), or a setting for some military skirmish where thousands of hiding places would make tactics and deployment very dangerous.  (It could be 3D scanned and made into a setting for a potential video game:  “War in the Labyrinth!”)  I knew I could use it. 
Here’s another angle, with more sinister lighting:
All of these pictures (I took several more) I sent to my cover artist, Bradley Sharp, as reference material, and a stylized modification appears on the cover as the dark object in the center (see posting 14 in this blog, or,).  Though these visuals, in both the cover and my photos, are ambiguous enough, I knew no painting or photograph could convey the ambiguity one could suggest with just words.  The words would take any attempt at quaint, quick visualization and explode it with references to Kaluza-Klein and Calibi-Yau structures, suggestive names like “fist of thorns,” metaphors like “melting fingers,” and elusive lines like “it reminded you of a visual representation of a mathematical theorem that had gotten out of hand.” 
As you can see, I was enjoying myself. 
The point of all this?  Never reject the moment of inspiration.  When it’s offered to you, go for it!  That object when I first saw it in the wet sand was drop-dead hideous, like thickened black slime or the snot of a whale, and I didn’t have surgical gloves for handling it.  I was afraid tentacles might shoot out and lock my hands, pulling them into a tooth-lined parrot’s beak—a genre writer’s high-key imagination, you know!  But I was sure it had wondrous possibilities. 

As Henry James said, to be a writer you should be a person “on whom nothing is lost.” 
So I took it, debating on the wisdom the whole way back to where we stayed, and I left it on the deck to dry in the sun.  It faded somewhat to a drab brown crusted with white, still unattractive but not as grisly as the hardened lava look.  And, except for the spiders that soon emerged and quickly abandoned it, nothing came out to bite me or suck my blood.  And I knew, I was certain, this would be used in a future story. 
And it was.  The object—or at least what the object inspired and evolved into—has a star position in The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes. 
I leave you with one last impression, which really brings out the lurking sense of a demon mask.  (But flip it instead and you get a landscape in grim distress.  Ah, the possibilities!) 

Find that inspiration, folks!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Three "Catalysts" Needed Before You Start Writing Your Novel

            I was recently invited to a “storytelling night” at Riley’s Pour House in Carnegie, PA (near Pittsburgh).  Hosted by the horror writer Lawrence C. Connolly, it was to be an evening of “Writers on Writing” telling stories about the writing life.  Because the event occurred too soon after my back surgery I sadly was unable to participate.  But the invitation got me thinking about what story I’d like to tell.  And I thought of how so many of us believe we have the potential for stories inside of us (“I could write a novel!”) and yet we seldom reach the point of actual writing or finished work.  What exactly is needed to make one finally able to write, even after a lot of conscious or unconscious preparation?  What brings everything together to make one ultimately say, “Okay, I’m ready!”  What’s the catalyst?  And is there more than one?
Thinking back on my recent novel, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, I realized that the ideas for the book had percolated in my brain for quite a while, but I was never quite “there” yet to feel comfortable writing.  And then, suddenly, it happened, and—boom!—I knew I was ready.  I plunged into writing, and I didn’t stop till I got to about chapter 10 (where I had to regroup, but that’s another story). Could a close look at my own experience help in pinning down the factors which are necessary to move from pre-planning to true writing?
It didn’t happen until three unrelated factors came together.  And since they were three different types of ideas, maybe they could be generalized into three categories for what’s needed. Of course, you can start writing a novel anytime, but the point here is to define that moment when you know—you know!—you’re ready to begin and that you can keep on going.
One of the ideas came from geology.  I’ve always been interested in geology so I knew of plate tectonics, continents riding on huge tectonic plates that make up the earth’s crust like a huge puzzle.  Where they run into each other, mountain chains form; where they move apart, oceans occur.  These plates are moved by huge circular currents in the mantle which take several million years to rotate.  And I was struck by the notion:  what a great hiding place!  You could drop something in a subduction zone (where one plate slides under another), and, if it survived (it would need to be nearly indestructible) it would pop up again millions of years later in a volcanic mid-ocean ridge in the center of a spreading ocean where plates pull apart.  No one would find it in the intervening centuries.  I imagined ancient alien races from way back in galactic history burying secrets, messages, new technologies.  It was the old idea of buried treasure—but this was buried treasure extreme!  Why would they do it?  Why hide things for so long?  And hide them—from whom?
I knew I could get mileage out of this notion, and I wrote a short story using it.  But I wasn’t happy with the story and felt that the concept deserved a novel.  So the idea sat there, waiting for a longer work to come along and contain it. 
One day I was walking a beach in North Carolina and came across a piece of convoluted and very abused driftwood.  It was a little over a foot in length and a bit more than half in size (my next blog post will have pictures of it).  It was so wet and ugly that I at first thought it was a hunk of dried tar.  I pulled it from the sand and it looked hideous, with knobs and holes and arches and spikes, crusted with tiny shells and inhabited (I found later) by spiders.  But I immediately decided to clean it up and save it.  It looked like a miniature alien landscape, like an emaciated asteroid that had been in a very bad war, blown inside out and abandoned.  I quickly imagined it as an object in outer space—and that generated another thought.  I have always loved the old needle-nosed spaceships from the 1950s as seen in Flash Gordon, Rocky Jones, Tom Corbett, and the comics of Wally Wood.  They were an idealized form of rocket, streamlined, highly polished, fantasized.  And the image of the two objects together struck me:  two derelicts floating in space, one the perfect silver spaceship, the other my twisted horrible object:  beauty and beast, sheer perfection and chaotic mess.  Just hanging there together.  No explanation.  Empty.  Mysterious. 
I knew I had to use it! 
And then came an incident, which turned out to be the inciting incident.  I had been reading mystery/thriller/spy novels, and I noticed that a number of them started with the old idea of police (or other authority figures) coming to the home of the protagonist, with subtly threatening and suspicious questions, about a friend or relative of the main character who has gone missing, or is murdered, or who has become an object of police investigation.  It’s the classic notion of the big dangerous outside world invading the safe and restricted private world (think Gandalf telling both Bilbo and Frodo, “Well, I’m sorry, but you have to do this”).  And the protagonist is clearly holding something back, which makes the police even more suspicious. Then, right after the police leave, the protagonist knows—knows—he has to do something, to help his friend or to clarify what’s going on or to set things right.  He or she is clearly reluctant, but it has to be done.  The important point is that from this particular moment on, there’s no turning back—the decision’s made, the road is taken, and you can’t go home again.  A perfect start to a novel.  I had just read a particularly effective form of this beginning—in John LeCarre’s Our Game—and it brought back to me just how useful this opening is.  And I knew immediately how to begin my novel.  (Actually, this beginning became the second chapter of the book—but that’s another story.) 
Once those three elements came together, I could begin. 
How they connected up isn’t important; the story simply gelled when all three notions were made to depend on each other.  The point I want to make, or what I feel can be generalized from all this, is the claim that at least three different things are needed before a book can be started:  an idea, an image, and an inciting incident.  The “idea” was of burying objects in the subduction zones of plate tectonics, a basically conceptual notion that struck me as clever and original enough that I could warm to it, make it mine and elaborate on it and follow its consequences.  The other necessity is more tactile and sensual, an image, a picture, in this case of a perfect idealized spaceship floating beside a huge, ugly, inexplicable and threatening object, the one a near fantasy, the other a peculiar but hard reality—both of them derelicts, floating in space with pale starlight reflecting on their dead flanks.  And the last thing needed is an incident that starts off the engine of the novel, that gets the plot rolling, that makes the protagonist decide and act (and not stop acting) to generate the motion and acceleration of the story.   
Those are the three things I believe you need before you can start a novel.  Many writers might add “a protagonist.”  I had my protagonist from a long way back, so maybe I can’t judge, but I do know that he alone was not enough to get me writing, and that his contribution did not help the alignment of the three elements.  In the end (or in the beginning) what got things started was the coming together of a good idea, a provocative image, and an inciting incident.  So when you get all those I hope the same spark occurs to you—that you suddenly want to “get out of the way” and just let the words flow. 
Have fun!

The novel discussed throughout this blog, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, will be released on June 27, at the In Your Write Mind book-signing at Seton Hill University, 7-9 p.m., Greensburg, PA.  A lot of books will be promoted there in all the popular genres, so if you’re in the area do stop in for a fun and book-filled event.