My Fictions and Fading Empires

The military SF novel that my agent is currently shopping around has two core concepts baked into its world building; that the nationalism does not die away and that the United States becomes a faded empire.

(Let’s set aside the entire debate over the word empire and the evilness of the United States. I am using the term ’empire’ in a generic sense for a vast and dominate political entity.)

All empires fade. This is a fact history has repeated over and over so the fading of the American Empire is hardly going out on a predictive limb. In my world building I decided that the United States took a wrong path in the early 21st century, never recovered it senses, and began a downward spiral that among the interstellar nations reduced it to a second rate power. My principal character in the setting is an American who serves as an officer in the European star forces.

Should the publisher that is currently considering the novel decided to buy it and in 9 to 12 months you end up holding a paperback copy that I think is likely to produce an interesting and false conclusion; that the novel is a critique of American politics as they stand now and in particular Donald Trump.

My agent read the manuscript and we became partners in the literary endeavor two years ago, long before anyone dreamt that a TV reality star might take the presidency. The idea is even older than that. I first began working on the concept, early short stories and th basic world building back in the mists of early time, 1988.

(I can pinpoint it even though I usually have a terrible sense of when an event in my past happened because its creation was at the same time that Star Trek: The Next Generation started its first season.)

A lot changed in the world building for my Nationalized Space setting. The world changed, I adjusted ideas but the two core concepts remained the same. So when you read a book, any book, you may find parallels to the world around you but that doesn’t mean that was the specific intention of the author or that work. Sometimes it really is just coincidence.

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Going on Vacation

Soon, Saturday, I will be heading out on vacation to see my family. I do not know how often I will update this blog. I will try to stay on top of it but there are no promises.

Given that flying coast to coast will be a five hour affair and that I am traveling solo for this trip I should at least be able to get some writing completed. (There are few vacations from writing.)

One project I hope I might get started and finished during the trip is a new horror short story. I shared the central premise with some of the writers of my writers group and it was well received, giving me encouragement that the conceit is new enough to be worth pursuing.

If I do get that story completed I’ll do a public reading of at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival next month. I will be attended as part of the literature horror panel along with a number of horror authors.

I am also working a big blog post, something else I may compose on the flight, going into detail as to why I find Star Trek: Insurrection the most offensive of all the Star Trek films.

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The Artist’s Most Important Trait

In a post some time ago I argue that the most important skill a writer could master was finishing. An uncompleted project moves no readers and sells no copies. Today I’m going to talk about the trait all artist’s should prize above others. That trait is not inspiration, creativity, or being a keen judge of human nature.

Above all else an artist needs to be honest.

Now, I do not mean that you tell cruel truths to people at parties. I do not mean that you argue and try to dominate all who disagree with you. There are light-years between honest and asshole.

What I mean is you must not self-censure. You must not silence the voice in your art. That is you voice and it is literally the only thing that separates you from everyone else in the art. Your viewpoint, your take on the world is the point of your art, it is your art. When you self-censor you decapitate your art turning it into nothing more that talented copying. It becomes a self forgery.

Always listen to your inner voice. Always know what it is you what to say and always, always say it.

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The Productivity, Practicality, and Camaraderie of Writers Groups

Monday night was the most recent meeting of the Mysterious Galaxy Writers Group. It is a support group that I have been a member of since its inception and one that credit for a substantial amount of growth as a writer.

Writers groups are not for everyone but I think that when they work they are tremendous tools for many writers. Ours runs on a fairly informal basis and focuses on live readings and immediate critiques. At each meeting anywhere from three to five of our members will read about 1200-1500 words of their material and then in round-robin everyone else will give their feedback. It’s roughly the Milford Method in that the author says nothing, except answering direct questions from the others, and there is very limited ‘open discussion’ among the others. Each person gives their feedback, usually taking just two or so minutes and then on to the next.

The benefits of such a groups really come down to three main areas.

Learning to give and take critiques. It’s an old saying but a very true one that the value of critiques is not the ones you get back but the ones you give out. Of course getting feedback on a piece can be powerfully useful. We all have blind spots about our material and those alternate viewpoints help. But learning to see what doesn’t work in other stories makes it easier to spot those same flaws in your own.

Being a member of a writers group can help make you more productive. In addition to the positive feedback when people like your work there is also the expectation game. If others are expecting more of a story then you are more likely to work your way though the rough patches instead of giving up and getting distracted by the next shiny idea. Truly I feel the most important skill any writer needs to master is the ability to get to the end of the tale.

And not least important is the friendship. Writing can be a lonely craft and one that is not easily understood by those who do not feel the call of the muse. Spending time with others who suffer the same troubles, doubts, and joys can be invigorating. Never underestimate the importance of morale, to an army and to a person, especially your own. The friendships I have forged through my group are powerful and I hope I have been as big as help to them as they have been to me.

If you form a writers group here are a few bits of advise I think you may find helpful.

Be collaborative, with the work and how the group functions.

Be Supportive, and if there are members who enjoy tearing down others’ work, do not suffer them. These things work much better if the member is there to help each other and not satisfy their own ego.

Find something praise in every critique. It’s hard hearing the bad stuff, make it easier with compliments on what did work.

Avoid saying that ‘this is wrong.’ and ‘that’s a mistake.’ Rather phrase things what did and did not work for you. This is art not physics.

And most of all, have fun, enjoy the process.

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Is The Doctor still The Doctor?

Toady the new lead actor for the BBC’s long running fantasy series Doctor Who was announced and for the first time a woman will be playing the eccentric Time Lord; Jodie Whittaker will be replacing Peter Capaldi. I have very little impression of Ms. Whittaker and so I will be approaching her performance free of expectations. (I was a Capaldi fan before he became The Doctor and knew he was going to give it a terribly good twist. He will be missed.) Given that every time The Doctor ‘regenerates’ into their new form it carries with it a new personality for the Time Lord, and that we have seen Time Lords flip sexes before, I have no issue with this coming incarnation. I am more excited by the change in show-runners. Moffitt has also been hot and cold for me and I am hoping that the new series will be more consistent in what I want from the show.

This new casting has brought to mind an age-old question about writing. Are men and women so distinctly different as to be two utterly separate types of people?

I know people, smart talented people, who insist that no man can adequately writing a woman’s character. The underlying premise in that view is that men and women are distinctly different, existing as unique categories. That is not my opinion but it is one held by a great many people and as a matter of opinion it is not subject to proof and objective truth.

However, if you believe that women and men are so different that they might as well be alien to one another and that their characteristics do not overlap, then when a Time Lord flips sexes they must cease to be the person that they were before. This is not a minor alteration in the matrix of their personality. Not a matter of being a little more silly, a little more jaded, a little more deceitful, a little more noble or any of that, but a change of a foundational nature as to make them alien to their previous self.

So, Is the Doctor still the Doctor or do we have a person with The Doctor’s talents, memories, and skills calling themselves by that title but is in fact an impersonation?

I think women can write men and men can write women and as such while the person may change somewhat, this is still the Doctor, but I wonder how someone with that other world-view reconciles the new Doctor against the Old.

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Fiction and Reality

A number of decades ago I first conceived my nationalized space setting. In this fiction future history the United States takes a wrong turn during the 21st century and begin its slid from being a world power to being a third rate power. In part this was inspired by the decline of previous empires, because eventually that is the fate of all great empires and nations, and it was also inspired by a hope that we might avoid such a turn of events.

Two years ago a publisher passed the first Seth Jackson novel set in this future history. That’s fine, as I have said in other essays, Rejection is part of the game, don’t play if you can’t handle getting the rejections and the dislikes. My agent has moved it on and another publishers is now giving the material a look. It’s strange to be consider more books in the series as I watch the current events around me.

The fiction was not about our current president. Hell, all throughout the election last year I was as certain as anyone else we would not end up where we have in fact landed. (And it a slim reed of hope to note that it was the greatest election misfire in history to produced this outcome.) As I continue to work in my fictional future I avoid making reference to current events, even though I do believe that the misfortune of today’s political climate will reverberate for a very long time. I think it is best to not date the material with too many current references and being too specific, particularly in SF, can be a self-inflicted wound, but it has me thinking about this nation’s future.

Is this what it is like to live through an empire decline?

I fear the answer may be yes. As a people we seem to be coming apart at the seems and as a nation we seem to be turning away from the exterior focusing on our selves to exclusions of the world. The ridiculous ‘border wall’ is such a symptom. It’s not about actually solving a problem. It’s about literally walling ourselves off and proclaiming that which is beyond the wall is unimportant. That didn’t work for Hadrian and it will not work for us. Our loss of ‘soft power,’ influence, and respect are attributes that cannot be rebuilt with a change of administrations. Nations are working around this presidency and discovery that perhaps the United States no longer is indispensible.

China is rising and perhaps the future of the world is the Yuan as the Reserve Currency.

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Rejection is not Failure

This year was the first time I applied for the Viable Paradise writers workshop. There were a number of factors that held me back from submitting in years past, primarily the financial aspects. A week off, a cross-country trip, the tuition, and room and board expenses were all great enough to present a considerable challenge. This year things are looking well enough that those considerations were now manageable.

Yesterday, while I was home nursing a minor sinus cold, the email came in letting me know that I had not been accepted into the Workshop. I was informed that there are only 24 students and the competition had been unusually tough and the number of applications high. The rejection did also say that the readers had enjoyed my sample writing and that it showed promise but had not won a consensus to get that coveted slot.

Of course not getting in provoked sadness. I wanted in. Even with all the expenses and the anxiety I had applied in hopes of winning, but this is the nature of the beast. Attempted traditional publishing means not just courting rejection, but marrying the old girl and living with her forever. However, rejection is not failure.

Failure is not attempting.

Failure is not learning.

Failure is not dreaming.

Rejections are reality and it is a harsh one. Even harsher is that acceptance does not preclude rejections it merely changes the nature of it. A manuscript is accepted by the agent, but still rejected by a publisher. A manuscript is accepted by a publisher, but rejected by award committees. A book is sold but rejected by readers. A book fails to gain a second printing. The list is nearly endless.

There will also be someone rejecting your work, even if it is just the one star reviews on Amazon. (That’s if you get reviews, and form of rejection, no one even bothers to comment.) Live with the rejection, embrace it, learn from it, but never let it stop you.

To my fellow writers who made the cut and are going to spend a week on Martha’s Vineyard, all my best to you; have fun, learn a lot, and do not let the fear of rejection ever stop you.

I will continue working, sending material to my agents, and if conditions are right next year, I will try again.

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Can I Switch it Off?

Last night I started reading a new novel. Now, this is not a beta read for a friend, or an ARC (Advance Review Copy) but a published and successful novel by a writer I enjoy and follow on social media.

Of late, and by that mean the last two years, my pleasure reading has been rather limited. After signing with the Virginia Kidd Agency I pretty much devoted all the time I could spare to working on my writing to the detriment of past time reading.

A side note here: back in the early days of this blog you can find book reviews; I have decided to not do those anymore. I think there is a question of conflict in striving to be both a writer and reviewer. As I have friends who are professional writer it would be difficult to avoid the issue of bias and there is always the potential to poison working relationships with fellow writers, editors, and so on. If I discuss a book by title and author here it will be positive because it’s something I thoroughly enjoyed and want to share. I will not be posting critiques or criticisms of those titles that do not work for me.

Anyway, back to the subject. So here I was reading this book, enjoying the story, but damn it I could not stop the impulse to look at the prose and want to change it around. I could not stop the desire to ‘fix’ it.

People in my writing group have said that there is a distinct style or voice to my writing, but I have always had a hard time seeing it. I think I can see vague outlines of my voice now. It’s certainly there in sentence construction and how I think they are best assembled for dramatic effect. This is what I was doing with the novel. Looking at a sentence and saying to myself, ‘oh, that would be better with those clauses reversed.’ This inner editor voice is making it difficult for me to drop into the story and forget myself. It is also making me doubt my feedback to writers in my critique group.

How much of what I am saying is good critique and how much is just me trying to force my voice on things?

Dang, I don’t think anyone warned me of this when i set out to write.

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Not Very Productive

Between migraines and software issues today has been a day where I have gotten very little accomplished. No blog posts of note, no editing on the novel in progress.

The good news is that the headache appears to have responded to mediation and after 23 hours has broken. The software now looks to be backing up properly so maybe later today I can get back to work.

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Mostly over Submission Anxiety

Well, it has been nearly a week since I submitted my application to the current class of Viable Paradise and I think my emotional state if almost back to baseline.

I will admit that yesterday did not feel good, but I had a mild migraine start up while I was at the day-job and it turns out the supply of medication I kept in my desk had been exhausted. I suffered through the entire shift finally making it home to grab the needed pills to banish the pain.

Given the level of pain, enough to disrupt my thinking but not severe enough to send me home, I was unable to compose new text for my novel in progress but I did manage to edit two chapters so work has progressed.

Here’s hoping that today will be a more productive day.

 

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