Friday, June 12, 2020

Structuring a Collection of Poetry

Whenever I decided to write a collection of poems supposedly written by the protagonist of my last two science-fiction novels, Temporary Planets for Transitory Days, I knew that organization would be a big challenge.

First, I had a lot of poems I had already written over the years. But ever since I started writing novels I had gotten away from poetry. (Poetry was my “creative escape” during my busiest years of teaching.  But I much prefer writing novels now.) These were poems on a number of topics, and I felt that I could easily adapt them to this new project. I based my protagonist, Mykol Ranglen, a lot on myself, so I didn’t think it would be difficult to make them fit this new persona. But the poems did go in many different directions, and I needed a few organizational subjects to group them under. 

Second, I also knew I’d be writing a lot more poems directly connected to Ranglen’s futuristic world of space exploration and planetary adventures. Would these be separate or hooked up with the others? How would I manage to blend all of them together? 

Third, I also had the two novels published now and I wanted direct connections to incidents or characters in both of them. This involved both writing new poems or adapting old ones to fit the situations. 

This sent me off on a binge of creating organizational schemes, several lists of sub-topics under which I could put the poems. The task involved a lot of “pondering” time—and a large number of repeated attempts to come up with just the right “list.” My desk was littered with various approaches on flurries of scrap paper, and one file on my computer was nothing but wildly off-beat phrases for the headings. 

Finally, I came up with the following, and it wasn’t easy. Indeed, the list kept changing during much of the writing of the new poems and the editing of the old. So, out of the 90-100 poems I finally aimed for and selected, here’s the ultimate list of seven categories:

1.      “Nights on Alchera” – poems related to the people, places, and events of the planetary setting from In a Suspect Universe, my last novel written. Reading that novel isn’t required to understand the poems, but someone who has read the book will probably see some connections (or maybe not, for they are sometimes obscure).

2.      “Rocket Punk” – where Ranglen delights in the imagined outer space created by the popular science fiction of the past. He makes comparisons between the hopes for space travel as seen in the SF of the twentieth century and the attitudes toward space in his own day. (I had a great time writing these—“Loving the Spaceport” is a real favorite.)

3.      “Planetary Romance” – poems about Ranglen’s past loves, especially Mylia from In a Suspect Universe and Mileen from The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes (though you might not be sure which poems refer to whom). One long poem dealing with Mylia originally was meant as a chapter in the novel. Feelings for other characters too, some obvious, some not so, and some purely “fictional” (in this world which is already fictional).

4.      “Tales of Old Earth” – the forsaken and yet beautiful planet of humanity’s birth, its legends, its stories, its settings, its myths. Some of these are based on my own travels and interests, but I imagined Ranglen as growing up on Earth and loving its landscapes, as well as its history of popular culture. (You can tell he loves figures from old comic books.)

5.      “Riley’s World” – an imagined life for an admired character, now lost to him, from In a Suspect Universe, especially creating (or maybe imitating, it’s hard to tell) a possible child she gets to watch grow up. These poems suggest strange connections between multiple universes, since Ranglen’s imaginary life for Riley oddly mirrors what really happened.

6.      “Dark Galaxy” – frightening secrets and imagined scenarios of the stellar past, of the warring civilizations in the galactic dawn, and the dark hints of current interstellar doings. These were meant to be Ranglen’s commentary on the present state of his galaxy, and especially of how its earlier races have influenced it, for better or worse. It’s the most cynical, and biting, part of the book.

7.      “Sanctuary” – an autobiographical self-regard, with personal hopes revealed, longings expressed, and a final somewhat settled conclusion: Ranglen in his most sensitive and revealing mood, about his hopes and fears for himself and his future. A fitting closure to the entire book.

As said, this particular choice of topics did not come easily, and it went through many variations. Among the headings that were discarded are:  “Adventures on Other Planets,” “Nightsounds,” “The Man From Reality Maintenance,” “Borderlines,” “Solitudes,” “Suspended Revelations,” “Exiles of Space,” “Safehouse,” “Existential Aloneness,” “Nights and the Galaxy,”“In Border Spaces,” and “The Affected Earth.” (Hmm, I think I can make a poem out of just these phrases alone.) In writing, you often discard as much as you gain. But these titles give you some idea of the moods and directions of the poems themselves. 

Know that I was very happy with this final assembly. In some ways, an entire collection of poems makes for one long poem itself, arranged with structure and cadence, development and suspense. And I think this carefully wrought organization provides an almost latent “plot” to the book, or at least a “movement” or “arc,” from recent events he’s still dealing with, to a final calm acceptance of his past.

I hope you enjoy it. Pre-orders are available here, and not only will they come early but they’ll have a free insert that points out a connection between a prose segment in the novels and a specific poem in this book.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The "Notebook" -- From One Work of Fiction to Another

In my science-fiction novel, In a Suspect Universe, Mykol Ranglen, the protagonist, often had with him a small notebook.

He showed it to no one.

But during the story, another character named Riley snuck a peak into the book when it fell out of Ranglen’s pocket while he was sleeping. She didn’t trust him at the time, so she was looking for information about any secret plans or plots she felt he might have, or “dirt” about him. But she found in the notebook only poems. And the revelations there were either more personal or more oblique than what she wanted. Since she was in a bad mood at the time, and very suspicious about Ranglen, she was neither ready for, nor appreciative of, any poetry. So she quickly put the notebook back.

Throughout the novel, the two characters never spoke of the notebook or the incident, and Ranglen never indicated what it might contain or what it meant to him.

But Temporary Planets for Transitory Days, a work soon to be released by Dog Star Press (and available here for preorder), IS that notebook.

It’s a collection of the private poetic statements of Mykol Ranglen: comments about his world, his adventures, his past, his dreams, his regrets, his longings—the wonders he’s seen and the heartbreak he’s felt. And except for Riley’s sneak peak, only he has ever seen these personal jottings.

Until now.

In this new published collection, the poems are revealed for the first time. Ranglen apparently decided, through a sudden impulsive move that was maybe based on a further feeling of loss and longing, that it was time to discard them, to let them go, to not belabor them or hide them away—maybe in order to free himself so he could move on with his life. He stopped writing in the book and then passed it over to a publisher—like a spy bestowing secret knowledge.

How that happened is summarized in the editor’s introduction to the collection—which I wrote, speaking in the voice of an imagined editor from at least a century in the future. (And, by the way, it was great fun writing the introduction to one’s own written book, in the voice of a careful and restrained editor who doesn’t want to impose his own “interpretation” onto the work, or to lead any of his readers into how to accept it.)

The things we see then in this collection are all the topics that fascinated Ranglen. And no matter how big—or small—some of them might be, like the grand vistas and galaxy-wide subjects of science fiction, they are described here from a strictly personal viewpoint, through the eyes of a character who’s lived through two novels already (and who will appear in at least two more). These poems are links to his deep past, to old planet Earth, to the worlds of his present, to the planets he’s visited, to the stories we’ve seen, to the people he’s loved, and to the tales yet to be told. Secrets are revealed, known characters explored, settings opened, and mysteries explained—or, in some cases, made more complex.

It’s been a great thrill creating this book. I’ve been on a writer’s new kind of adventure—presenting an imagined world through equally imagined eyes, or placing a fictional science fiction into an equally science-fictional frame.

Leaping from one work of fiction to another! It’s been heady stuff. 

To summarize, and conclude, I’ll quote the last lines of my own faux editor: 

        . . . I present to you the contents of “the notebook” as it was given to me, with its assigned title, structure, and sub-headings, exactly as Mykol Ranglen wanted them. I added no footnotes, since I have no authority to write them. My own speculation is no more valid than any other reader’s.
        But be aware—or “beware”—the works are inconclusive. They tease. They absorb as much light as they shed.
        Which, given our troubled and contrary times, is maybe appropriate.
        I hope you enjoy them.

Monday, May 18, 2020

"Protagonist Poetry"

A project that has fascinated me ever since I first got the idea for it is soon to be released by Dog Star Books (on June 20, but it’s available for pre-order now with a special offer for a free insert—see my previous blog post or click on the link.)

Temporary Planets for Transitory Days is an anthology of poems supposedly written by Mykol Ranglen, the main character from my two science-fiction novels, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes and In a Suspect Universe (he’ll be the protagonist of at least two more books, one of which I have in draft already).

The poems relate to his experiences, some of which can be seen in the novels, biographical details of his life, his thoughts on what’s happening in his 22nd century,his feelings, his adventures, and the many wonders he’s seen in outer space.

This concept was exciting to me because, in the novels, Ranglen has always been tight-lipped about his emotions and his past.  He’s not very revealing in either his dialogue or his private thoughts. Whenever I wanted to open him up a little, he seemed, uncannily, to shut me down, saying, “No, sorry, not yet.” So maybe these very personal poems were waiting inside both of us, brewing, cooking.

And now, about to be published, they are ready to be viewed, and thus to reveal more of him.

And here’s the clincher:  I found that revealing him in poetry was much easier than in prose. (Or maybe, rather, he’s more revealing in poetry than in prose. It does get peculiar at times, as if you’re dialoging with your own created character.)

But do be aware that he still can be obstinate. He maintains a number of mysteries, and he maybe even adds to them. Yet a reader will know a lot more about Ranglen and his interstellar worlds after reading the collection, his ties to different planets, his reactions to the past, his hidden interests, the deeper parts of his personality, his emotions, doubts, dreams, fears, and his loves. Many notions raised in the previous books are clarified—and a number of further questions are introduced. Some poems, seen only in fragments in the two books, are here presented in their complete forms. So aninteresting and stimulating connection among all three works can sometimes be seen (and I even made a few ties to the novel I’m writing now). You don’t need to have read the first two books to follow the poems since the anthology stands completely on its own. But the works do enrich each other and thus give the reader a deeper view of Ranglen himself.

Incidentally, the preorder giveaway deals with these connections between the books, illustrating a particular tie by showing both a passage from the novel and several lines from the poem.

So, all in all, I do recommend trying this experiment. If your main character is a bit too reticent and tight-lipped with you, then maybe write some poems from that character’s point of view. It unearths and stimulates the viewpoints the character might not want to share, and you might then even learn the reasons why the person is so reluctant.

The anthology was a true pleasure to write, an exploration, a creative quest. I’ve never felt so close to, or so lost in, a created character. It’s been intriguingto plot out the byways of the man’s past—and how he’s dealt with it—as well as his longings and hopes for his future. And equally intriguing how he would express them, what he would say, the words he’d use.

I can’t wait to share it!

The book will be released by Dog Star on June 20, but you can pre-order it now and receive a copy sooner.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The "Preorder Extra"--Linking Book to Book, Prose to Poem

Even though COVID-19 has banned face-to-face book signings for a while, Dog Star Books still has a special treat for those who preorder a newly released text, and it’s a gift unique to the book itself.

My anthology of poetry, Temporary Planets for Transitory Days, will be released on June 20 with a special online reading and interview. But it’s available now for pre-order and it comes with a special giveaway treat.
The poems are supposedly written by Mykol Ranglen, the main character from my two science-fiction novels, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes and In a Suspect Universe (he’ll be the protagonist of at least two more books, one of which is drafted already). The poems relate to his experiences, the details of his life, thoughts on what’s happening in his 22nd century, his personal adventures, the worlds he’s visited, the people he’s loved, his “triumphs, sorrows, regrets, joys, and the sheer wonder and terror of his universe.”
But some of the incidents and people he writes about are from the two earlier novels, connected directly, or tangentially, or very obscurely, to them. So I thought it would be enlightening and entertaining to see how the creative process works and to provide an “insider’s view” of how several poems came about. Therefore, each preordered text will include an insert giving the passage from the novel that inspired a particular poem, and it will be followed with several lines from the poem itself so the poem can be found in the anthology. The inserts will look like this (the faux-snowflake shape is appropriate for the subject, by the way):


Some of the connections between the passages in the novels and the poems will be obvious (several poems are actually referred to in the two books), but others are not so straightforward, and even with the two alongside each other, the connection might not be immediately clear. So there’s also an element of mystery and puzzle-solving with several of them, and you’ll need to read the full poem to see more of the actual tie. And, though you’re given the title of the novel, you’re not given the title of the poem, so some reader-friendly exploration might be needed if you want to find it immediately.
So I hope you enjoy these “extras.” I’d say “Collect them all!” but that might be extravagant. However, I will identify here one of the poems that was used—it’s the last in the collection, and that tie is a very interesting one. 

Just trying to tantalize you a bit. 
Hope you like the collection.  The book , with the insert, can be preordered here

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

What Makes a Good Cover for a Novel?

How do you react when you see the cover of your new novel for the first time? And what if you’re a stickler for what you feel should be good covers, exceptional covers?

All cover artists are usually fantastic at what they do, producing a stimulating and informative image. But not always. I won’t give examples, but I’ve seen a few that would cause a reader to be disappointed, even angry, at not finding in the book the mood, situation, or characters implied by the packaging. 

But I’ve been very fortunate for my own books, because all my covers have been produced by the excellent Bradley Sharp. I still remember how hesitant I was when I got the email showing the cover for my first book The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, because I hadn’t seen Brad’s covers yet, so I was pretty terrified. My experience with art (and I’ve had some) actually made me more nervous—I felt too qualified, that I surely would nitpick it or judge it to death. 

But I opened the file, and . . . I was delighted! And now, after two more books, I’m still impressed. Indeed, this third cover is maybe the best:

Before talking about it, let’s ask:  what’s needed in general for a cover to be “good”? 

  1. Accuracy of subject matter. It should not mislead the reader. The visuals do not have to be exact (it’s almost impossible to depict precisely what’s in the author’s mind, and often those mental pictures are much more vague than one assumes). An artist should be allowed to go in the best creative direction to make an appealing image, which an overly-exact rendition might not be. But the cover still should be tied to the subject matter. The spaceship shown does not need to be the same as the one described by the writer, but it still should be a spaceship. 
  2. Accuracy of mood. Even more important is the accuracy of the book’s emotion. The cover for a horror novel should not be “cheery.” An adventure story should have adventure. And a romance book should be . . . romantic. The cover should suggest what the reader will feel, the primary emotion and mood of the story. And if there’s a whole assortment of contradictory moods instead, then that too should be suggested. Artists can play and tease with expectations—sometimes the shock of surprise is useful. But then the idea of contrast itself should be expressed, like the pleasant yellow smiley face on the front of Watchmen—with a streak of blood slashed across it.
  3. Visual appeal. Some aspect of the cover needs to stand out to catch attention, to grab someone perusing the bookshelves or browsing online, an item or detail that calls quick attention to itself. The call can be subtle—a visual whisper instead of a klaxon shout, a hint of a breeze instead of a hurricane—but the call still needs to be there. You want to look again, to be sucked in, by the single red leaf in a field of green, or by the baby doll that has the expression of a murderer. 
  4. A creative spark, a difference, a uniqueness. Even when the cover seems to be doing exactly what it should, there still should be something that’s new, that has maybe never been seen before, a surprise, the unexpected, a hint that “You’ll get a different experience in this book.” It's hard to define, and you might not notice it at first:  a subtle visual surprise, a raised question, a hint of difference, a promise of a reading adventure. It’s the odd reflection in a perfect eye, the use of black-and-white in a world of color, or a playful visual connection with the words of the title itself. 

The cover by Bradley Sharp for my latest, Temporary Planets for Transitory Days, a collection of poetry “written” by the protagonist of my two earlier books, satisfies all four of these requirements.

The subject is accurate. A poem in the book called “As It Fell” is based on a scene from In a Suspect Universe (my previous novel) and Brad has used the description from the novel and not just from the poem as the landscape for the cover. The ice lake, the darkness of night, the overhead stars, are all part of the original scene in the novel and of how it’s presented in the poem. 

The mood is accurate. The poems in the book express many emotions—love, wonder, admiration, desire, fear, regret, pain—but the one I believe comes across the most is “longing.” And, oh, how this picture glows with that emotion. The book is science fiction, and you can see that a strong emotion is “wonder”—with the several worlds, the star-clouds in the sky, the spaceship landing on the ice, the distant exotic peaks. But more than anything, I see longing. That figure wants that sky, the night, the alien planet. 

There’s visual appeal. The design of the picture, the symmetry, the receding perspective,  pulls you in. You identify with the figure, placing you into the scene, and the figure being partially transparent allows you to see what he is seeing too, causing even more identification. But what really grabs attention is the very well-chosen green color of the first world. Its bright and rich tone contrasts well with the darker purple-pinks around it. That choice of color alone is perfect, and it sets up a gradual distancing effect with the less vividly colored worlds behind it. 

And there’s a creative spark. After seeing the cover, you shouldn’t be surprised that  a poem in the book is named, “Touching the Night Sky.” The image is a visual rendition of that very title. The figure reaches upward and figuratively touches the first planet. And then  the shadows of the fingers also touch the next world.  Subtle, and yet so obvious and appropriate.  And, of course, these worlds mirror the “Temporary Planets” of the words in the title itself. 

So, all in all, an outstanding picture. 

If a novel conveys the experience of life, of actions, arcs, movements, and accomplishments, then the cover to a novel is a single act of magic, a crystallized “presto” image that distills the effect of the entire book.  It’s a brief but eye-catching harbinger of what’s to come, a herald, a flag. 

Yeah, I liked it!