Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Deep Places: the Fascination of Caves

I recently was asked to moderate a panel at Confluence (Pittsburgh’s SF/fantasy convention) dealing with “Deep Places: Caves, Dungeons, Holes in the Ground.” It was a good discussion, with fellow panelists Gail Z. Martin, Christopher Pisano, Ken Chiacchia, and Tamora Pierce. We all had a fine time presenting our takes on the subject, from actual real-world spelunking to subterranean tunnels under modern cities.

My own fascination with the subject of caves started long ago with a reading of Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth, which I read soon after seeing the film version made back in the 60s. There were radical differences between book and movie, but they both awoke a fascination with crystalline chambers inside the Earth, mushroom forests and living dinosaurs underground, a subterranean ocean that had to be crossed on a raft, and—in one of the most rousing climaxes you’ll find to a story—returning to the surface by riding up a volcano eruption.

And being on the panel made me wonder exactly what characteristics of caves we find so captivating (since, too bad, I don’t think we’ll find any living dinosaurs).

Here’s my list:

Absolute Darkness: On the surface of the Earth, darkness is never completely dark. We’ve all experienced dark nights and dark interiors, but the blackness in a cave is absolute. It’s so overwhelming (where you truly can’t see the hand in front of your face) it can give you vertigo, a sense of choking, and a commanding fear of moving in any direction. Nevada Barr, in Blind Descent (an excellent novel detailing the experience of being in a cave) gives a frightening description of it: “the darkness began to harden around her. It was not a mere absence of light, it was a substance, an element, a suffocating miasma that filled her ears, clogged her nostrils, bore down on her shoulders and chest. . . . she could feel the black leaking like raw concrete into her brain . . .”

Disorienting Perception. On the surface, you have a big sky naturally above you, a wide horizon encircling you, and a foundational ground beneath. Up and down are well defined, and clearly distinct. But not so in a cave. There the ceiling is often no different from the floor. They extend into each other through stalactites and stalagmites that often merge into towers and curtains. Both up and down are made of stone, and much of the cavity in between. And thus no defined reference points allow you to gauge distance. Objects are fractal: a ten-inch-wide nearby formation can look the same as a ten-foot structure further away. And the lack of distance-indicators can give you agoraphobia as strong as claustrophobia. Even lamps create as many shadows as illumination.

Imaginations Go Wild. Caves are not usually experienced through devices like telescopes, deep-sea immersibles, or hovering remote cameras (though they can be). More often you go there, get up-close-and-personal to bare rock, uncharted and labyrinthine acid-carved non-linear chambers. And thus you get a greater sense of your self. The only sounds you hear are your own, the only light is what you bring, and the undefined nature of what you encounter makes your imagination quickly overactive. The imagery we use to describe caves— “yawning pits,” “gaping mouths”—can make you feel you’re being swallowed, that the Earth is hungry, seductive, and beckoning. The darkness gets filled with your own projections and irrational fears. What lurks in those shadows ahead? What lurks behind? What lurks beneath, above, alongside? You meet, in darkness and undefined space, some of your own hidden terrors.

The Uncanny. Solid rock seems to behave in peculiar ways, creating unexpected formations. What appears to be lace is made of stone, snowflakes are composed of hard crystal, finely tinted translucent curtains are as solid as marble. The ceilings/walls/floors look melted, polished, decorated, poured, flowered, overgrown—and yet they are lifeless and motionless, unchanging in time. For example, Tolkien in Lord of the Rings has Gimli describing the abundant—yet beautiful—strangeness of the formations in the caves behind Helm’s Deep: “folded marbles, shell-like, translucent . . . fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-coloured floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces!” It’s all just rock, but the intricate surprises that the rock can manifest through age-long dissolving-and-deposits suggest plants, forests, cities, clouds, castles, animals, bones, and stars.

Deep Time. To go down into the Earth is to go back into the past. No wonder the earth is where we place time capsules and buried treasure—they’ll be preserved. And it’s no surprise that Verne placed his mastodons and dinosaurs into deep caves. Caves feel incredibly old, like some ancient attic. They change imperceptively, but only over long-stretching periods of time—centuries and eons. Ursula LeGuin described the underground sense of time in her marvelous The Tombs of Atuan (where a good part of the book occurs in the total darkness of a subterranean labyrinth): “The dust was thick, thick, and every grain of it might be a day that had passed here where there was no time or light: days, months, years, ages all gone to dust. . . . No light; no life; no least stir of spider in the dust or worm in the cold earth. Rock, and dark, and time not passing.”

I’m sure more characteristics can be added, but this list is a good start on just what makes caves fascinating. They’ve certainly held an attraction for me, especially in how they turn up so often in SF and fantasy stories. One of my favorite writers who developed my interest in science fiction was Andre Norton, and the middle section of many of her books took place “underground,” whether in caves, artificial tunnels, or labyrinthine ruins. And even now, in my own The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, there’s a chapter called “The Underground,” where the protagonist awakes in the bottom of a forest which is so tall and thick that he thinks he’s under the earth, and he encounters all the disorientation, active imagination, sense of age, and uncanny beauty that go along with the experience of a cave.

So maybe another characteristic of caverns should be “inspiration”—to write a story.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Myth of Mastery, in Writing

At the Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fictionat Seton Hill University, we have at each of our on-campus Residencies a central theme, something to provide focus for the workshops and discussions. In the past, these topics have been issues like, “Why do you write?” (see blog #36 for that one), “On being an apprentice,” “What writers should read,” and “The emotional connection between genre fiction and its readers.”

For this summer’s residency, the topic decided was “The Myth of Mastery.” We wanted to show that there is no such thing as a mastery of writing, that standards, skills, and genres change too much and too quickly. And that writers change too. Interests, and even preferred genres and forms, can modify and adapt. So, to all beginning writers we wanted to say: You’re never done developing your craft; even after publishing many fine books, you’ll still be working for something better; and if you’ve written only one chapter, or a thousand of them, the next chapter should still be a challenge.

Being the Director of the program at that time (I stepped down recently), I introduced this theme on the first night. And then, at graduation on the last day, I reminded the students of it in the introduction to Commencement. (Which is another role the theme provides; it forms a set of book-ends for the Residency, used at the start and then coming again at the end.) And thus, at that last graduation, here’s what I said about this theme (and I hope it provides some inspiration and thought):

      If luck is with you, and if the Faculty and the Registrar agree, you graduates should receive soon your Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction. However, before you get too comfortable with that achievement, let me remind you that any so-called mastery is never complete, that your writing skills are never final, and that your learning curve never plateaus. You’ve worked hard to reach this point, writing, completing, and defending your book, and you deserve the reward of the degree. You are at a summit and you should enjoy it. But by the end of the day, and certainly by tomorrow morning, you should be asking: What now? What’s my next step? The last few years have allowed you to find much skill in yourself. But it also showed you what still can be developed and enhanced.
      Mastery is not an achievement, it’s a process. It never stops. What you’ve done today looks very good—it looks great—but, for your own sake, it should not look as good tomorrow. Soon you should ask yourself: How can the next novel be better? How can I reach, entertain, enlighten, and move my audience even more?
      So keep looking for goals. Keep tuning up and empowering those sentences. Stay hungry. You’re not done yet. You never will be. There’s a writing assignment next week; it’s just not us who’s requiring it.
      A writer is not someone who is. A writer is someone who does. A piece of writing might be completed, but a writer is never complete. So keep going, folks. We know about this novel. But now let us know about the next. And the next and the next and the next.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

More on Fables: Closer to the End.

When I wrote my last blog on Fables I had yet to reread Cubs In Toyland and Snow White (volumes 18 and 19) and I had not read Camelot or Happily Ever After at all (20 and 21). Having now completed those, and still reeling from the experience, I’m compelled to write more, prior to the 150-page finale in July. ALERT: major doubleplus-ungood spoilers ahead. If you haven’t read the volumes mentioned don’t dare read further.

The comments in the previous blog now seem pale in gauging the impact of the series, since it’s reached a higher level of seriousness and intricacy. Cubs In Toyland was disturbing and almost painful to read, with Theresa’s fall into near bestiality, and then Darion’s suicide in order to replay the Fisher King scenario, the blood sacrifice to cleanse and restore the land. (The death of a child is bad enough, but to be self-impaled with a cue stick is a drastic way to satisfy a myth.) The volume ends with Theresa’s return home—she’s aged now, having lost both innocence and her childhood—to ask that ominous question, “Where’s Dad?” (A question vividly answered in Snow White.) So the emotion in this volume was strong, the cost of sacrifice unbearably large, and the two-sidedness of “toys,” that can cause either fun—or death—will haunt any memories of play.

The theme of redemption mentioned in the previous blog is even more strongly portrayed here, especially in Camelot, but it’s also more complex and ambiguous. The toys in Toyland (a place also called “Madland”) are redeemed, providing a host of second chances, but one has to wonder whether the price was too extreme (the lives of two children, one physically, one experientially). Theresa, so far, never seems to smile and always wears a cloak, as if draped in sorrow, or shame.

Rose Red, the designated agent of Hope, states openly the theme of salvation—“I am the paladin of second chances”—and she rebuilds the Round Table and gathers knights for it, many of whom need a second chance (like Brump and Lancelot), and who supposedly will provide such chances to others. Also, the apparent death of Bigby seems, when it happens, to have an “out,” since Ozma and the 13th floor witches say immediately that a spell powerful enough can put him back together. But the restoration gets complicated when he’s then used as a tool of destruction—possibly even the death of his family. And Rose’s idealism creates a big disagreement with her sister Snow, when Rose decides to give Brandish, Bigby’s murderer, a choice of redemption. Snow utterly disagrees, and the bond between the sisters is broken.

Every writer knows that “only trouble is interesting” and that the soul of any story is conflict. But a good story-teller has to be careful that the heroes and villains are not clichés, not overly good or overly “bad.” The point of a conflict is to make it realistic, where no one does anything out of simplistic “villainy,” where everyone has reasons, which even the villain feels are worthwhile, or “good.” The conflict that arises in Camelot between the sisters is near perfect: they both believe they’re doing the best thing. Rose insists this is her big chance to save herself, that for once she really is being responsible and that, finally, she can be trusted—that controlling and saving Brandish is almost her duty. But Snow White is protecting her children, and she’s heard Brandish swear to kill them—and the reader has seen that he has no heart, literally. With her family endangered, Snow can allow no chance for Rose to do wrong. “I’m Snow goddamned White,” and if Rose chooses Brandish over Snow, then the relationship is sundered forever.

So, whither this moral conundrum? Do the good thing according to Rose, or the right thing according to Snow? Or should those adjectives be reversed? Willingham has raised this moral razor-blade before (when the goblin Brump ate the talking squirrel in the volume Witches, with the argument that it’s “just his nature”), but this one, being laced with such high stakes and filial bitterness, makes the conflict realistically—and humanistically—complex.

And then there’s the theme of fate, or the fated stories of fairy tales taking over the living characters of Fabletown. The story of Camelot comes predetermined with betrayal and murder, to the point where the characters start seeing themselves in the various roles: Rose Red as King Arthur, the restored Sir Lancelot as Guenever, Morgana as Merlin (interesting twists there, since both Lancelot and Morgana were part of the original story), and Snow White as Mordred. Also, the old tale of the daughters competing against each other for the tontine inheritance is shown to rule the lives of the two sisters—as said in Happily Ever After, they are cursed to fight each other, doomed to have one be both survivor and murderer of the other.

For all my admiration of the series (and I think it’s been profoundly interesting) I’m concerned at how these old stories and fates seem to be taking over the ending. Before, the characters were made fascinating because they were seen as roles that also became human, fairy-tale figures portrayed with the complexity of humanity. The ongoing conflicts between Snow White and Rose Red had all the believability of sibling rivalry, culminating in the hopeless stand-off of the Brandish question, with both of them fighting for what they believe in most. But now the conflict seems artificially heightened by the spell-cast curse that’s on them. Instead of the roles becoming real people, the people seem to be taken over by the roles.

So I hope that the humanity of the series doesn’t get lost beneath the Ragnorak-like apocalyptic scenario that’s hinted as upcoming. (Or is this just a big red herring?) I want human personalities walking away at the end, not fairy tale clichés. For example, I hope someone has a few words to say about the death of Beast (and even, for that matter, of Ozma). Boy Blue’s passing was made poignant by how everyone reacted, but no one’s said a word so far about the death of a character who had a large part in the story, which makes the death feel a bit insubstantial, unreal. And I hope Rose Red will respond to the classic tragedy she’s brought about—the man she allowed to go free has just killed Lancelot, her recent lover.

But I believe in this series. I have faith—or big golden Hope—that Willingham will pull all this off and leave us satisfied. It might not be your fairy-tale ending (after all, that’s the whole point of the series, fables made real—and the volume entitled Happily Ever After has certainly been dark and ominous). But I’m sure that everything said here will be rendered short-sighted by that upcoming final volume.

Indeed, I look forward to it.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

The End of Fables

Woe and alas! The long-running graphic-novel series, Fables, is coming to an end.

Why was it so good?

Its art was clean, direct, umembellished, simple yet elegant, with just the right touch of quirky unreality. Mark Buckingham at the helm (inked by Steve Leiloha and Andrew Pepoy) was great at depicting basic realism with a twist of fantasy. And a number of guest artists were equally impressive (like P. Craig Russell, Inaki Miranda, Michael Allred, Gene Ha).

Its covers were fabulous, each an accomplished individual painting by James Jean or Joao Ruas. Jeans had such an impressive run that his covers were collected into a hardbound text. And Ruas replaced him with a similar evocative and haunting style. They both had a tragic, humorous, and aesthetic vision that was unique.

But its writing . . . oh, the writing. Bill Willingham carried the project through 150 issues since 2002 (issue #150 comes out in June, and that will be the last). He did not rely on the often strained, over-the-top, gaudy dialogue of many graphic stories, or high-powered fist-fests amid skyscrapers or invasion fleets in the stratosphere. His dialogue was snappy, original, eloquent, his plot-twists came with elaborate plays on reader expectations, and instead of dealing with larger-than-realism superbeings, he presented simple identifiable human personalities—even when those characters were fairy tales. Their longings, problems, contradictions, heart-aches, loves and losses, pulled in the reader so effectively that once you got familiar with them, you never wanted to leave. Like watching a great ensemble cast on a long-running realistic TV show, you lived their lives right along with them. Their fairy-tale nature hardly mattered—you knew them as people, and you knew them quite well.

(Warning: spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the books. But I’ll refer to events in only the first three-fourths of the series, nothing that’s recent. I started re-reading all the collected volumes two months ago but that’s only how far I’ve reached. And I won’t be too revealing even in what I do say.)

The fundamental idea for the series was charming. Fairy-tale figures, all well-known from storybooks and legends and calling themselves “Fables,” live in hiding in a corner of Greenwich Village in N.Y.C. They disguise themselves as the “Mundies,” the natural human beings who surround them, because they had to leave their own Homelands (a place very similar to the background setting of most fairy-tales, rustic and Medieval) in a parallel world which was taken over by the Adversary, who’s determined to track them down and destroy them.

So, though they do fight back, they are in constant danger, and King Cole, the mayor of “Fabletown,” even says at one point that their only real strategy is retreat, or running and hiding, and they have to do a lot of that in the series, though they do make courageous and very well-planned stands and attacks (indeed, they take the battle to the Adversary before he brings it to them). The practical ingenuity of how they survive is one of the attractions of the series. They use every means they have: Sleeping Beauty causing people to fall into coma, the “high ground” surveillance from Cloud Kingdoms reached only by towering Beanstalks, the Beast’s transformation into a powerful fighter (even though he’s become a bit cowed from Beauty’s nagging), Bluebeard’s greed, Prince Charming’s physical prowess, even Cinderella’s eye for fashion. And they’re very thoughtful in how they face their constant dangers—rational, calm, methodical, and creative. Even Hope herself says that “hope is not a strategy” and must be backed up with real plans. Though Pinocchio at one point tries to put together a team of superheroes, it’s more a joke than serious (the witch Ozma finds her super-costume childish, but she does like the short skirt and boots). They do what they can, and that’s always the point: when the situation requires it, they manage to find the necessary strength inside themselves to face their troubles.

This brought a realism to the story that contrasted delightfully with the fairy-tale ambience (Snow White is a no-nonsense deputy mayor, and the Big Bad Wolf—or “Bigby”—chain smokes to take away the smell of too-near edible flesh). Two of my favorite issues are parts 2 and 4 of the collected volume, Sons of Empire, where, first, the Adversary gives gruesome detail about how he’ll invade Earth with four devastating legendary plagues: pestilence, fire, winter, and famine. Based on the detailed scenario, you feel that humanity has no chance against such powerful magic. But then his advisors, more realistic, describe the likely response: that the Fables would form an alliance with the Mundies and attack right back with modern weapons. This scenario shows wizards killed by long-range sniper fire, fire-breathing dragons destroyed by fighter jets, and spell-protected imperial fortresses exploding beneath aerial bombardment. The ironic contrast is quite impressive. The Adversary decides more planning is needed.

A recurring notion that Willingham favored was showing how anybody can become heroic—from the simple janitor Flycatcher who becomes a king, to the servant monkey Bufkin who defeats the vicious Baba Yaga (even when too naturally weak to lift the killing sword). The theme of redemption is strong throughout the series, the belief that people who are broken, fragile, or compromised can still find the strength to save themselves and others. Rose Red rises from her self-indulgent depression to resume her duties as leader of the Animal Farm (and more). Even Prince Charming, the womanizing cad, becomes a capable and respected military commander. None of these start out as heroes but, when they’re needed, they become heroic.            

And the poignancy! Some of the Fables do die, and not like they do in Game of Thrones, to shock the audience and keep viewers on edge, but to demonstrate the need of self-sacrifice. You remember their loss with dignified respect (I won’t give the names of those who go, but each one leaves a pall of sorrow). Yet then these tragedies are countered by other upbeat and pleasant moments. I confess the event that hooked me completely was the reluctant romance between Snow White and Bigby (reformed from being a “bad” wolf). When volume 3 of the collected issues (Storybook Love) brought them together, I was doomed to read everything from there on.

And now it’s all ending! Like Prospero burying his book of magic—or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman burying his.

We do get close to these long-lasting graphic novels, don’t we?

Ah well, I guess I can always reread the entire 22 collected volumes. I’m doing it now. Like I did for Powers, Hellboy, Sandman, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and especially Planetary.

But, gee, for it all to end. Nuts and darn. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Review of The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes

Christopher Wilk, while finishing his novel in the MFA Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill, wrote for one of his class assignments a book review.  And he happened to choose my own novel to write about, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes.  He showed me the review, and since his own blog will not be up for a while, I offered to post it here.  It’s a bit of shameless huckstering on my part, but I really did appreciate his review—I was impressed by what Chris had to say about the "milieu" and especially the style of the book, which in many reviews does not get addressed enough, the words on the page and how they make meaning.  So, with his permission, I post the review here, and I hope you enjoy it.  Many thanks, Chris, for all your insights! 

Ancient Aliens Create a Milieu for Interstellar Wonder, Intrigue, and Passion

- a book review by Chris Wilk

Albert Wendland’s story begins with interplanetary travel and the discovery of two strange derelicts, one of them sinister, jagged, and thorny, and the other a peculiar looking spaceship with three murdered people aboard. Along with the bodies, clues are found for the location of a Clip (Carrier-Locked Integrated Program). A race of ancient aliens have hidden an unknown number of Clips. The Clips, only four of which have been found on different planets and an asteroid, contain ancient alien technology that has propelled the human race toward interstellar expansion at a society-disrupting pace. Clips provided light-space and FTL travel, artificial gravity, instructions on how to build a planet-sized habitat, and secrets of a military nature kept classified by the government of Earth. The prospect of riches for the finders of the fifth Clip drive five disparate characters on a dangerous, life-threatening, galaxy-wide hunt involving four governments, several corporations, and the enduring genocidal conflict between two ancient and extinct alien races.

One of the key components, making this story so engaging as science fiction, is its milieu. Milieu is more than simple setting. It is the author-created world in which the characters are immersed: the totality of the physical, social, cultural, governmental, legal, technological, interstellar, and alien influences. In Alien Landscapes’ Wendland’s milieu causes characters to act, react, and interact in ways only possible in his story’s world.

Wendland’s setting is interstellar in scope. The story unfolds in the deepness of space, moves to Annulus (a planet-sized habitat created by an alien Clip), and continues to evolving planetary systems in search of a Clip. His descriptions convey a sense of awe by vividly presenting the motifs of his world, both artificial and natural, from the  minutest detail of a fluorite shard to the immensity of galactic travel. Scientific and poetic prose are employed by Wendland to give the reader a picture and feel for the environment of his characters.

He is adept at showing in terms of angles, distances, mass, tectonics, and astrophysics, and he includes such ideas as hyperbolic energy, light-space and time-space, a higher-dimensional analog of a mathematical theorem, fumes laden with sulfur, and 2000-degree lava streams. Though the reader may understand only 90 percent of the Sci-Fi talk, the context and comprehensiveness of the descriptions elicit a full sense of wonder and dramatic, captivating images.

Poetic prose complements and amplifies scientific narrative. As inspiring as the Sci-Fi talk is, the poet in Albert Wendland takes the reader to an even deeper level. “. . . the viewscreens brought out structure, milky dyes floating in ink: oxygen’s fluorescent greens, hydrogen’s excited reds, reflected dust’s gossamer blue.” “. . . lifts and ramps and cranes, in a slightly curved splendid bouquet, [from which] sprouted the great interstellar ships, the harvest crop of this spaceport’s activity.” “A line of fire fountains squirted lava . . . seemed almost gentle, like flame creatures preening themselves . . . ”

But Alien Landscapes is not a poetry book or science manual. It is an action-packed science fiction novel, with elements of a detective mystery, fast-paced thriller scenes, and a touch of romantic suspense. The plot, subplots, and conflicts are heavily influenced by the milieu generated by the discovery of Clips. The Clips-based world provides the impetus to find more Clips. It is the source of both human and alien (Airafane and Moyock) conflict. It supplies the means by which characters pursue their goals and the interstellar stage for the various plots and subplots to play out.

Perhaps more importantly, Alien Landscape’s milieu shapes the three main characters: Mykol Ranglen, Mileen Oltrepi, and Reese Balrak. Their actions, reactions, and interactions with each other would be impossible outside of the world created by Wendland. Ranglen (a writer and poet) and Mileen (an e-painter) are ex-lovers, whose artistic attraction to alien landscapes brought them together for a time. Before they separated because their relationship became too intense, they “drank in their worlds as deep and long as they drank in each other.” Ranglen, a Clip discoverer, possesses secret knowledge about how to find Clips. When Mileen disappears to pursue the Clip-location clues found on the derelict spaceship, Ranglen tries to find her. Balrak, a smuggler and human trafficker, wants to control them both for reasons associated with the Clips and the ancient aliens.

The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is a multi-layered literary work with multi-genre attributes, including mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, and most recognizably, science fiction. Though its milieu places it squarely in the science fiction genre, it can be enjoyed by readers of nearly all genres, even including literary fiction.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Getting to Where You Are, Part 3: The Job

Continued from the previous blog: 
I’m hired by Seton Hill. All my reasons for initially saying “no” evaporate. The Teaching of English course is developed successfully, and I handle it for years and even enjoy it.  
 And I love teaching English at SHU, especially literature. I’ve managed to cover almost all my favorite areas: the whole sweep of British literature, 20th century American lit, Shakespeare, Romanticism, poetry as well as novels, the modern short story, European literature, Russian literature, and even some writing from the Ancient world. On top of that, I’ve also taught courses in the reading and writing of science fiction. And, covering my other interests, I’ve given courses in the graphic novel, lectures on art and astronomy, a whole class on the Sublime, and even history courses, Western Cultural Traditions I and II.  
It’s been great.  
I even learned, eventually, that two factors which fascinated the committee that hired me was my interest in science fiction, and that I had a Bachelor of Science degree instead of a BA. So you never know what will be appealing to the people hiring you. 
And the event I’m most proud of at SHU is the creation of the graduate program in Writing Popular Fiction.    
When I started, Seton Hill was only a college, but the decision was made to change it into a University. So the school was in search of graduate programs. Dr. Lee McClain, my colleague in English, had an interest in the romance genre, so she proposed the idea of a Masters in Writing Popular Fiction. She shared the notion with me because she knew I had a background in SF. So she and I worked together to create the program, and ultimately to get it accepted. And it’s been very successful. She was the Director for the first half of its duration. Then I took over, with the task of moving it from a Masters degree to a Master of Fine Arts. And that task has been accomplished. (I’m about to step down from Directing myself and Dr. Nicole Peeler will be taking over.)            
Seton Hill has been very supportive of the program (remember that they hired someone obsessed with SF). And this is not common at all universities, where there’s often a prejudice against popular fiction. Seton Hill, thankfully, has been open to new and innovative programs—at the time, few online classes existed, and we proposed the bulk of our instruction to be online. And I know, having been on the committee that hired Dr. McClain, that one of her qualities appealing to us was her having written a genre novel—in the same way that my SF and BS degree fascinated my committee. When we established the program, we sought to hire genre writers specifically: Dr. Michael Arnzen (the Stoker-winning horror writer) and later Nicole Peeler (writer of urban fantasy).  
A good example of the quality and success of this program can be seen in the anthology Many Genres, One Craft, edited by Michael Arnzen and a graduate of the program, Heidi Ruby Miller. Nearly every writer in the anthology has been part of WPF as either a teacher, mentor, student, or guest speaker. The book has won awards and is used often as a text in fiction-writing courses.  
We also now have an undergraduate Certificate in Writing Popular Fiction. We’ve always had an undergraduate major in Creative Writing, but we’re applying our expertise in genre fiction to make an opportunity for undergraduates too. All this demonstrates Seton Hill’s unique support, and belief in the worth, quality, and career-focus of popular fiction.  
And then, finally, to bring this story to a very pleasant personal close . . .  
I said in the first installment of this blog-trilogy that I always had the desire to write science fiction. Though I became very caught up in teaching (and administrating and creating programs, the natural activities of academia), being involved in Writing Popular Fiction brought back my longing to write fiction, and that desire was eventually fulfilled. Though I had played with writing short stories and novels over the years, I became more serious and applied myself strongly to writing an entertaining genre novel whose publication I would pursue.   
And just last year the novel was published by Dog Star Books, and released at our WPF summer Residency: The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes. It’s a straightforward SF novel—I’ve described it as a murder mystery that turns into an interstellar treasure hunt. One critic described it as “space noir,“ and I heartily agree. It combines all my interests in the subjects of SF: other planets, outer space, the future, space travel, interstellar mysteries, wonder, the sublime. And a hero who’s always seeking, questioning, searching, exploring—the embodiment of so many characters I loved in both literature and popular fiction.  
There’s a prequel being written right now (In a Suspect Universe), a collection of poems supposedly written by Mykol Ranglen, the protagonist of these stories (called Temporary Planets for Transitory Days), and eventually a sequel to the entire sequence (tentatively titled Galaxy Time). I’m thrilled to be working on these books, and to bring my long-held childhood interests to such a practical and valued conclusion.
In writing these three entries I went far beyond the little summary I gave to the freshman English students about how I got to where I am. But the “themes” I started with are still valid: 
  • You never know where you’ll end up. 
  • You need to be prepared for sudden openings and chances in order to shift your gears quickly. 
  • Do not short-change your interests no matter how “childish” they might seem—they could take you to a career you’ll love. 
  • And watch for institutions that are compatible to those interests, that are good “ground” for your own growth—because not all institutions are.
I hope these three entries were interesting, enlightening, and maybe even useful. 
Good luck with your own journey of “getting to where you are.”  
Best wishes!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Getting to Where You Are, Part 2: The Career

This story continues from the previous blog, and this part concerns graduate school.

After graduating from Carnegie-Mellon with my undergraduate BS (not a BA) in Physics and English, I knew I would need to go to graduate school for study in English. So, in some ways, any career/work/day-job decision was nicely delayed. Indeed, I believe many people then went to graduate school for, at least one reason, to delay the really big concern of “what am I going to do?” I attended the University of Pittsburgh, where I got a position as Teaching Assistant and then later as Teaching Fellow—so my tuition was covered, and I even made a little money.

I gained tremendous experience from teaching (two sections each term) and the many papers a graduate student writes. But I wasn’t enjoying literature as much as I did as an undergraduate. This phenomenon might be inevitable, because when you become a graduate student, your study of books grows more regimented, demanding, competitive. An uncomfortable self-justification creeps in, making the once wide-open excitement almost embarrassing, a feeling of “I have to leave that behind now.” I’m not criticizing graduate school, but the new professionalism automatically brings a self-conscious perfectionism that colors what you do.

And maybe because of that, to this day I still feel that my major role as a teacher is to instill the excitement of learning into my students—that great thrill I had when an undergraduate myself. And I’m so happy that the one positive evaluation comment I most often get is, “He was excited by what he taught.” Long do I hope to be!

And maybe also because of this frustration, I turned again to my original interests of art, science, and popular fiction, even comic books, and especially science fiction. Though I had kept reading my favorite authors (Norton, Clarke, Heinlein, Anderson), I found new and fascinating developments in the genre (the New Wave had left its influence, authors like LeGuin, Delany, Aldiss, and Ballard were doing their best work, and for the first time I encountered Stanislaw Lem). And suddenly, because the genre was spawning new interest, writing literary criticism about science fiction didn’t seem so ludicrous anumore. Maybe I could get grad-school mileage even out of my old interest too.

When it came time for me to propose my dissertation topic, I took the plunge and said, science fiction. Very luckily, some faculty were interested and I got the topic approved. I thus managed to write one of the earliest critical works on science fiction, and it was eventually published by UMI Research Press, which specialized in bringing selected dissertations to print (I was published in a series that included Kim Stanley Robinson’s groundbreaking work on Philip K. Dick).

I perhaps aimed too high in what I tried to do, setting up a huge theory of SF that dealt with “experimental” and “conventional” modes. But the second half of the study, on the scientific and stylistic means of “alien-creation,” held up well, and I’ve returned to the ideas there in later works. Some of it will be elaborated, from the writer’s point of view, in a future study I hope to do on Description in Popular Fiction, much of which will probably appear first in this blog.

But back to my story, and an interesting “fated” occurrence—that wasn’t fate at all.

Seton Hill (it was a college then), in Greensburg, PA, not far from Pittsburgh, was looking for an English hire, and a member of their hiring committee asked a professor she knew at Pitt if he was aware of any possible candidates. He wasn’t, but—very luckily—the first person he asked was the head of my dissertation committee, and I had just received my Ph.D. She passed the information on to me immediately.

I called the college. But I learned that, as well as teaching literature, the person needed a background in Secondary Certification for English to create and teach a Teaching of English course for potential secondary teachers. I didn’t have that background.

But I felt the interview would still be good experience, so I asked if I could come anyway.

Maybe assuming that I’d never be hired made me very relaxed and confident (my presentation was on the use of science fiction in teaching writing), for they told me, a week or two later, that I was their first choice.

I was totally unprepared. I had been certain I wouldn’t get it. I even reminded them about my lacking secondary certification. But they felt I could learn enough to design a course on the Teaching of English. I certainly knew about the subject, but I was nervous about high school expectations. And so, because of that (and for several other personal reasons—I was reluctant, for example, to stay in my home territory), I said no to the offer.

There was one big problem. The minute I hung up the phone I knew—I knew!—I had made the wrong choice.

I agonized for days. Finally, after about a week and feeling I had to face my shame, I called back and asked if I still could be considered.

Very luckily, the search was still open, and eventually, after more visits and interviews, I was accepted into the English faculty of Seton Hill.

I’ve never regretted it.

This entry, like the last one, has gone on long enough. I’ll stop here and pick up the next segment (which will be the last, I promise!) in the next blog.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Getting to Where You Are, Part 1: The Interests

I just attended a class of undergraduate English majors at Seton Hill University where I and a number of my colleagues were asked to share our past experiences and to show how we arrived at the career that we did. The point was to give to the students an “inner picture” of what really happened for several English majors in becoming their faculty, and to provide a better idea of the decisions made along the way.

When my turn came to summarize my road to where I was now, I mentioned that the story offered a few actual themes—to make the comments more than just a lot of reminiscing:
  • The route to a career can go in many directions (you don’t know where you’ll end up) 
  • You need to be prepared for the sudden chance, ready to leap when the moment is offered (or, as Hamlet said, “Readiness is all”) 
  • An interest in popular fiction—in my case, science fiction—can take you far 
  • And the special nature and understanding of Seton Hill University (hey, they were SHU students, so I wanted them to know they made a good choice) 
I repeat the story here, first to put it in writing for next year, but also to show just how accidental, and yet fated, any career seems to be.

My first interest was art. As a kid I made a lot of drawings, and though my talent was not great, it was good enough to sustain an interest. Though I moved from colored pencils to painting in oils and acrylics, I never excelled, so I knew it wouldn’t be my career. (Yet if I realized I would end up in academia and that teaching would become my profession, I well might have followed art history—if I couldn’t teach literature that’s what I’d do now.)

Another early interest was science—very different from art. And I especially loved astronomy (with geology a close second). I studied astronomy so extensively that I felt, someday, it would be my career. I wasn’t sure how likely that was (I knew even then there weren’t a lot of positions for astronomers out there) but that’s what I hoped for.

On top of these interests were comic books. I loved them. Imagine: an entire portfolio of art for a dime. Incredible! But graphic art cannot be separated from the story that’s told, so I became even more involved with reading fiction. And since the comics I enjoyed most were science fiction, the interest I followed all my life became quickly and firmly established: the reading, study, teaching, and writing, of science fiction. Even when preoccupied with other subjects, I always come back to it: spaceships, other planets, future technology, alternate cultures, stellar vistas, the galactic sublime—I couldn’t get enough. And I wanted to write it—though my early efforts were horrible.

By the time I went to high school, the reading interests grew. I read other popular genres besides SF: mysteries, spy novels, historicals. And then, rather suddenly, I got hooked by literature. I had felt until then it was too “out of reach,” too difficult, too deep, too complex, but suddenly it made sense to me (I guess I had grown old enough). I related to Dr. Zhivago, I understood Lord Jim, Raskolnikov was fascinating, and even Hamlet’s dilemma seemed familiar—literature sucked me in, completely.

But I still believed that a scientific/technical career was the best to follow (my father had a lot to do with that). So my ideal was that astronomy would be my day job and writing science-fiction my night job (or “alternative” job, since astronomers work at night too). But there weren’t many colleges where you could major in astronomy as an undergraduate. Most schools said to major in physics instead (or electrical engineering), and then go into astronomy in graduate school. I enjoyed science more than engineering, so I chose physics. That was the plan, and I went to Carnegie-Mellon and majored in physics—though I took all my interests in reading with me.

I did okay in physics but I wasn’t outstanding, and it bothered me that I was pursuing a career in which I couldn’t excel. Yet, at the same time, I was doing very well in the few English courses I could take. Things weren’t right; I was working too hard for mediocre results. But I did nothing about it until the end of my sophomore year, when matters became obvious enough that I needed to make a change.

At the end of the semester, I had four final exams (and they were quite demanding at CMU, lasting three hours each): two in physics and two in English. I studied for a total of 50 hours for the two physics finals, and I got two C’s. I studied for a total of 5 hours for the two English finals, and I got two A’s.

I realized the universe was trying to tell me something, and I better listen.

Luckily, the physics program offered a double major in Physics and English—you decided which subject you wanted to pursue after graduation, and all your electives were taken in that subject. So I chose to double major, with the intention of pursuing English after graduation.

And I was immensely happy. Though my career seemed much less certain, I felt I could worry about that later. I lavished in literature. All the interests in art, science, and especially SF were still alive and strong, but for now they were secondary to my ravenous consumption of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Blake, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Vonnegut, Shakespeare, Borges, the Romantics, the Realists, the Modernists, the Existentialists, and so many more. Comic books I had left long ago—branded as “kid stuff”—but even those were not forgotten, just on “hold.” I was too happy discovering what I felt were the great voices of humanity.

But the career? What was I going to do?

Continued in the next blog . . .

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Cover Reveal: Liz Coley

I want to give a plug for Liz Coley’s latest release, the start of a new trilogy for her. 

Liz is the author of Pretty Girl-13, an international best-seller (and I loved comparing all the covers of the foreign editions).  It’s a psychological thriller that’s appeared on two select lists for 2014, including Best Fiction for Young Adults.  Her other publications include the alternate history/time travel/romance Out of Xibalba and teen thrillers in her new Tor Maddox series. 

Her latest work is part of that latter series:  Tor Maddox: Unleashed.  The story involves 16-year old Torrance Olivia Maddox, a “self-confessed news junkie,” who figures out that a mysterious and deadly New Flu is spread by dogs.  She then wonders, “if the danger is that obvious to her, why hasn’t the government revealed the truth and taken action?”  Good question.  And her search for an answer takes her farther than she ever would have guessed.  But then again, she never imagined that man’s best friend could become public enemy number one, that men in black might show up in her cozy suburban neighborhood, that she’d spend her sixteenth birthday as a teenaged runaway, and that her effort to save one dog would become a mission to save them all.”

And, though I’m sure you’ll never find a cover like this on any of my own SF books, I have to show it here because, well, you just gotta love it.  See it and enjoy:

I’m showing this to my teen nieces immediately! 

You can visit Liz at her website, LizColey.com, and you can follow her as LizColeyBooks on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Again, enjoy!  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Writing a Prequel

I’m currently writing a prequel.
But it’s not really a prequel.  Think of it as a long “flashback” instead.
A true prequel, along with taking place before the events of a previously published novel, should also be self-contained, separate, readable on its own.  It can contribute to the first book, helping us to understand the events and characters in it, but it shouldn’t matter if you read the first book or not before reading the prequel.  (I use the phrase “first book” to refer to the first-written and first-published novel).  Indeed, some readers insist on reading the prequel before getting near the first book. 
But I really don’t want people reading the prequel first.  The original novel, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, is the true start of the Mykol Ranglen series (of my special adventurer, poet, and loner in space).  The prequel’s events are related to the events of the first book, not in the sense that they provide the foundation for what occurs in the first book, but that those events are more understandable if the first book has already been read.  Though it’s not required for approaching the prequel, the reading might be more significant and rewarding if the book written first is also read first.  
The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is like the first movement in a musical composition that has four parts:  a relatively fast and direct opening (the first novel), a flashback to crucial events in the character’s past (the prequel, In a Suspect Universe, which I’m working on now), then an “experimental” musical section that will be a published collection of Ranglen’s own poems (called Temporary Planets for Transitory Days), and then an ultimate “sequel” which will comprise the conclusion of the whole Ranglen epic (tentatively entitled Galaxy Time).  
Or, at least, the conclusion for now. 
The first novel even ends with two hints of both the prequel and the sequel, and we’ve already been told in that book—and shown—some of Ranglen’s writings.    
So the preferred order of reading is this:     

1.     The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes -  first written novel in the series
2.     In a Suspect Universe – prequel or flashback
3.     Temporary Planets for Transitory Days – poetry collection, authored by Mykol Ranglen, the protagonist
4.     Galaxy Time – sequel and conclusion to the series (for now)
But even with this careful plan, all the problems of writing a prequel still arise, and need to be kept in mind when structuring and working the manuscript: 

·      make sure the events (and resolutions) of the first novel are not “given away” in the prequel,
·      do not contradict anything that happens in the first novel,
·      be very clear about your timelines when composing the book—make sure that the prequel has enough time and space for the story to unfold before the events of the first book. 

The temptation for any writer is to explore, in the prequel, more aspects of what has been created, the characters and their worlds.  But these cannot contradict what was learned about them in the first book, and we can’t reveal too much more knowledge of both the villains and the main characters because that might modify—subtly and unexpectedly—what occurs in the first book. 
I’m lucky, because the story, the specific events, for In a Suspect Universe do not take place on the same planets as The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes.  This helps to control any latent contradictions between the prequel’s “later” worlds (in terms of composition) and “earlier” worlds (in terms of chronology). 
And I have several narrative rabbits hidden in my author’s hat to counter paradoxes or subtle inconsistencies that still might arise.  Which—sorry!—can’t be discussed here. 
The biggest point to remember is that

·      you often have to hold back your creativity instead of encouraging it. 

The best plot twist might mess up the future and render the events of the first book impossible.  The most interesting detail about your character’s past might change the later personality of that character.  And the really fascinating new information about your world you might need to subdue, because it could transform your later setting into a different place. 
In writing a sequel, you feel like a person from a time-travel story who has gone into the past and must be very careful you don’t do anything to change your own existence in the future.  If, let’s say, your protagonist prevents his parents from getting together, then—good-bye,  protagonist.   So you’re not just governed by realism and believability when you write prequels, but also the need to keep the whole galaxy together, to avoid paradox and contaminated reality.
All in all, when producing a prequel, you still think about character and setting and plot and style, all the normal stuff you consider when writing fiction, but you also have to keep causality straight—you don’t mess with the Schrodinger equation. 

·      You have to be more than a novelist, you have to be a god controlling your universe. 
Oh, the tall orders of authorship. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Why Do You Write?

            At the graduation ceremony for Seton Hill’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction, I give, as co-Director of the program, several introductory remarks to the audience at the start of the ceremony.  The remarks this time involved a common topic that had been introduced for the entire Residency.  We provide such topics for each of the on-campus stays to provide focus for the activities that week, especially for the writing workshops where time might allow for more discussion. 
            The topic for this last January Residency was the question, “Why do you write?”
            At the opening Orientation on the first night I introduced the question and had the students write an answer.  I would have used their responses in my speech at the Commencement, but I need to write these remarks before the Residency takes place (in order to allow the administration enough time to review the script before the event).  So, when composing the remarks, I searched online and found a wonderful website, “FictionAddiction,” that already had collected a large number of answers to that same question.  I read through the answers there and used several of them, with some modification, for the Commencement. 
            The resulting mini-speech was successful enough that a number of students asked if I would reprint it here in my blog.  And it appears below. I hope you find the collection of responses as interesting, illuminating, and inspiring as my students said that they did.

            Good afternoon.
            We began this Residency with a question:  “Why do you write?”  And the responses to that question are many and varied.  “I write because I love stories.”  “I write because I like to build things.”  “I write to make up time I never really had.” 
            These replies vary from the simple, “I write because I can’t dance,” to the eloquent, “I write to dwell in compassion, to love the unlovable, to understand the humanity of those with whom I would disagree.” 
            Some answers are practical and blunt:  “No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money” (that was quoted from Samuel Johnson, by the way), or “I write because I enjoy having a world I can control.” 
            Some are playful, “I write because you look funny if you talk to yourself,” and some are serious, “I write to stop time.” 
            Some contradict and yet oddly support each other, “I write to define myself” and “I write to get a break from being me.” 
            One of my favorites is, “I write because if I don’t I become narrow-minded and forgetful.”  And, perhaps the reason most direct, and yet profound, “I write because I have to.” 
            But a reply most pertinent to our ceremony today is, “I write because I can.” 
            You’re here to receive a Master of Fine Arts in writing because now you can.  You’ve done it.  You’ve written, revised, packaged, presented, defended, and concluded, the novel that you wrote.  And maybe you wrote more than one. 
            So, you can.  You did.  And, though there might be as many responses to the question “Why do you write?” as there are graduates here today—and as many as the large number of writers in this room right now—this graduation guarantees that one of your responses will always be true:  because I can.

            And to all you writers out there, I repeat that simple and yet wonderful statement: 
            You can.

The responses “quoted” (not always exactly to make the style consistent) came from the following writers, listed here to tally with the paragraphs above: 
1.     Amy Brill, Edmund White, David Whitehouse
2.     Diana Spechler, Ru Freeman
3.     Joshua Cohen, Adam Wilson
4.     Anna North, Jennifer Gilmore
5.     Said Sayrafiezadeh,  Allison Amend
6.     Caitlin Campbell,  Ann Napolitano
7.     A. Igoni Barrett
The full version of their answers can be found at: