About Writers, book promotion, inspiration, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

A Chance Encounter With Author Eric Michael Craig

Note: Eric Michael Craig is a successful sci-fi author and publisher. The following is about the man, as a writer.

+++“That’s the science fiction author, Eric Michael Craig,” wait-bot Sally answered me.
+++I’d asked because at 4:AM, he and I were the only two people left in the bar. Outside, the wind howled but that was why they called this planet The Howling. “Think he’d talk to me?”
+++Sally giggled, “He doesn’t mind talking. I mean, about his work.” That suited me. I had a deadline approaching and an author’s interview would keep my publisher happy for… minutes. So, I walked over to his table and unceremoniously plopped into a seat. “Why?” I asked him.
+++In the tavern lighting, Eric has a Hemingway look about him, solid, bald with a standard circle beard, a bit scruffy. He wore a workman’s shirt with the top buttons open and a braided leather necklace.
+++“Why do you write science fiction?”

+++“My Father. He wanted to be a sci fI novelist since well before I was born. In fact he completed two manuscripts but never managed to get either one accepted. He submitted the first one when I was maybe 5 years old and got a form letter rejection because he hadn’t followed the guidelines for submission. After that he kept writing but never again tried to get anything published. He wrote because he was a fan of the genre (back in the heyday of people like Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov).”
+++We both genuflected.
+++“When I was old enough to read the very first books he handed to me were Rocketship Galileo and Between Planets. I was maybe 5 years old when I started into those novels, and from then on nothing else I ever read held my interest like Sci Fi. Dad gently encouraged me to write, but his own rejection made him a bit more cautious in how he pushed me. Then when I was in 7th grade, an English teacher I had, wholeheartedly started shoving me in that direction. Together the two of them tried to keep me writing, but I was a typical teenager and I had the attention span of a flea … so of course I went off in another direction with my life.
+++I started flirting with the idea of writing seriously only after my father passed away and my mom gave me copies of the manuscripts that he’d written. I was about to retire at that point in time (I was 41), but it wasn’t until my mom was diagnosed with cancer and she and I were talking about losing our dreams (and how it had affected my dad when he gave up wanting to be a writer) that I decided to commit myself to it. For him and for me too. My mom lived long enough to read the first draft of the story that became my first two novels.
+++You could say, if you forgive how this sounds like an epic fantasy theme, that this was a destiny I inherited from my father and denied for most of my life, only to discover after the trials I faced that it was indeed my inevitable path.
But I usually tell people, it was me just being too damn dumb to know better.”

+++I smiled. Sally was right. “Marshall McLuhan once commentated that artists and outlaws are on the outside looking in. He also said they see things as they are while the rest of us are looking at the world through a rear-view mirror.
What effects do you hope your books will have on your readers?”

+++“Sleeplessness?
+++Actually I hope my story will leave the reader thinking (and if that thinking keeps them up at night, that isn’t entirely a bad thing). I want my writing to engage their mind, not just entertain them. I think it is far easier to simply tell a story than to inspire a reader to keep thinking about what they read. If I can leave them wondering, “what if it really happened?” … then I have reached my goal.”

+++“What kind of world do you like to create for your characters?”

+++“I guess I am different in how I write because I tend to think of my world and my characters as an integrated single thing. The world is not so far extrapolated from the one we live in, so I tend to leave the world building to the current headlines, and then I just broaden the perspective to paint a complete perspective of the action. I can’t say I liked building this world because I really didn’t build one… Instead I focused some light into the more hidden corners of the world we already know.
+++Stormhaven Rising and Prometheus and the Dragon are very complex stories with multiple character sets interwoven in very broad ranging story lines. I have over 150 characters in the two novels and it takes all of them to tell the story.
+++I didn’t treat the characters as individuals, although they are fully rounded in and of themselves. But it is probably easier to think of them as character groups that work and act together, and in some ways represent segments of a culture that has its own personality (and purpose).
+++I guess I kinda took the question sideways, but world building is not something I have done in my most recent books. You might say it is more of a process of analysis, than creation of a world.”

+++“You like to work deeper themes into your novels. What themes, and why?”

+++“Darker themes? Hmm I don’t know if I would call them darker themes. Sure the idea of facing the potential end of the world is dark in and of itself, and it is bound to bring out the worst in humanity, but it also brings out the best. I think that what I write is based on a fairly accurate extrapolation of the world we live in. If it feels dark, then unfortunately that might be a reflection on the current human condition.”

+++“‘Deeper,’ not darker. But I like your answer.”

+++“Oh you’re right, how Freudian of me. Of course deep down in the ocean it’s pretty dark (even if it is teeming with life). Real depth sometimes can only be found if you’re challenging the dark.
+++I know that as I wrote the first two novels of ‘Atlas and the Winds,’ I tried to keep a balance between both the heavier elements and the lighter and more uplifting side of the story. With only a few exceptions I think I balanced the tragedy with the triumph.
+++In my mind, balancing triumph with tragedy is something that has to happen in life. When that balance is lost in one direction, hope dies a hard and bitter death. When it is tipped in the other direction, the victories become easy and meaningless.
+++In some ways I believe suffering is essential to finding value in those moments when you come out on top. That’s not to say I like to suffer, but when I do finally triumph, it makes the victory infinitely more meaningful.
+++As to the whole concept of balancing highs and lows in my outlook on life, I can say … maybe. Although ultimately it is the darkness that allows us to appreciate the light (however dim it is).
+++However, in writing if you only focus on one side, the story never spins well. If my books only told about how everything pounded the characters mercilessly and relentlessly (or how the characters were all indestructible), then I don’t think there would be much point in reading them. The closer you can keep to the point where the plot could go either way, the more intensely the reader is drawn in and compelled to invest emotionally in the arc of the characters.”

+++Good stuff, I thought as dawn lit the windows. I thanked Eric and left, feeling that I had just met a man worth knowing.

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About Writers, Magic and Science, reading, Uncategorized

The Magic of Science of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” thereby wedging open the door between two things that are often viewed as being diametrically opposed: magic and science.

Trying to define science in the modern sense of the word would probably provoke a lot of hair-splitting arguments, but any reasonable definition would have to involve a description of the scientific method, which Websters defines as “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.” Magic, on the other hand, is defined as “the use of means believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.” In reductive terms, science attempts to understand the natural world while magic operates outside of it—even above it, as the prefix super- suggests.

My interest here isn’t really in semantics or even the scientific method, so much as the way the two are presented in two genres of speculative fiction: science fiction and fantasy.

Superficially, the two genres seem to be at odds. The former traffics in spaceships and rayguns, the latter in dragons and magic wands. But even on a deeper level, there is a fundamental difference: while both present events and processes that might seem impossible or unexplainable, sci fi works from the premise that such things will be possible and explainable in the future, while fantasy tends to ignore the whole question by labeling the extraordinary as supernatural: magic.

I know, this is simplistic, so lets dive in a little deeper by looking at some examples:

One)  The Enterprise is about to blow up. Never mind how or why or which Enterprise. Maybe it’s a subspace inversion or an innerspace subversion or a race of telepathic protozoa, but either way, they need a fix and fast.  Cue the Science Officer or Engineer: “Captain, if we depolarize the ophion emitter and detonate a platonic charge in the region of 25 thousand gigahertz, it might create a plasma shock. The resulting discontinuity would only a last a few seconds, but it might give us time to warp the hell out of here. It’s so crazy, it just might work.” (Spoiler alert: It works.)

Two)  Harry, Ron and Hermione are in transfiguration class. “Bloody hell!” Ron exclaims, slashing the air in an ungainly fashion. “This stupid spell doesn’t work. Portipot Vertigo! Portipot Vertigo!” A column of blue smoke rises from the thoroughly untransfigured toad, which croaks dismally. “Ron, you insufferable pillock,” Hermione huffs. “First off, it’s Proteo Fortissimo. And don’t swing your wand so. You aren’t beating a rug.”

Okay. I admit I’ve just made fun of two venerable franchises that I’ve always enjoyed (it was done with love, people!). But let’s examine each. In the first, we have what seems to be a science-based solution to a science-based problem. Scientific investigation gives us the parameters of the problem, and our advanced technology provides the means for solving it. But it isn’t real. I mean, some of the words might be real, and maybe the tech has at least SOME connection to real technology  (or at least the concept behind it)  but it’s only the trappings of science. The context—spaceship, computers, beams and rays, big numbers—gives the impression that this is science in action, but the mechanism itself is every bit as opaque as a magic spell. It works because it works. It might as well be magic.

In the second, we have the same thing in reverse. The spell they’re trying to learn involves saying particular words and making particular gestures. If you do it right, it works. Presumably, if you do it the same way each time, the results will be consistent and repeatable, which sounds suspiciously like science. The mechanism for how it works remains unknown, but as long as you know the recipe, you can make the dish.

Now before anyone thinks I’m bashing Harry Potter, I am not. I admire Rowling’s series a lot, and though I have occasional issues with her writing, the story is fantastic. I use it here only because it is surely the best known series of its type, and because it does typify some of the challenges faced by the average writer of magical fantasy.

Rowling does play with the notion that there are deeper, more arcane magics in the world. The protection that Harry experiences in the Dursley’s house, for example, is less the result of a spell and more the product of Lily’s self-sacrifice. (These deeper magics, it should be noted—the magic of family, of love, of loyalty—could be just as applicable in a story that didn’t involve any fantasy magic at all.)

But for the most part, these are not the kind of day-today magics that occupy the story. Mostly we see very specific spells with specific names and formulas for operation and we rarely get into theory. In fact, the actual learning of magic looks pretty rote most of the time. In the Deathly Hallows Harry casts the imperious curse without any difficulty at all, even though we know he has never performed it before. We’re told it’s a high level spell (as well as an illegal one) yet use seems to be as simple as pointing your wand and saying imperio. There are similar issues with the patronus charm, which, we are told, is very advanced, yet Harry has no trouble teaching the callow kids in Dumbledore’s Army to use it. Again, it seems pretty simple. Get in the right mind set, then say the words. No problem.

I don’t want to dump on Harry Potter too much. It really is a great story, and the ambiguity about magic that JK Rowling (eventually) develops and sustains for its duration is both intriguing and enjoyable. But I think it highlights a problem that writers of science fiction and writers of fantasy must face (in different ways). Sci fi can’t explain the science because—even if it is genuine—most readers would find it incomprehensible or boring. Fantasy can’t explain the magic because there is no explanation. That’s why we often end up with science that might as well be magic, and magic that is as mundane as science.

It’s interesting to consider how some of Rowling’s predecessors tried to account for the mechanism of magic. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings features surprisingly little magic, at least in the sense of spells and incantations. Certain objects have magical properties, obvously, but the powers are often vague. The one ring allows domination of all of the other rings, but aside from invisibility, it conveys no other definable powers. Neither does Gandalf wield much in the way of curses or conjuring. He stands off the balrog by literally standing in the way and forbidding it passage. He starts a magical fire at one point, but even there, he mostly seems to be calling fire forth by force of will and knowledge of the elvish language. It is not, in the way we normally think of them, and incantation.

Possibly, Tolkien’s use of magic is closer to Ursula Leguin’s in A Wizard of Earthsea. Earthsea wizards attend an academy (of sorts) and learn spells, but underlying all of the magic is the knowledge of the names of things. Knowing the true name of anything gives you power over it.

My own relationship with and presentation of magic has varied from book to book. In Flight of the Wren, the magic was in the magic carpets themselves. and a rider’s proficiency with various related spells mostly depended on how well they connected with their nearly sentient carpets. In Whisper Blue, the manifestation of Wysteria is given a plausible science fiction style explanation, but that is as much a quirk of the character of Miles Faber as anything else. Miles needs an explanation for the unsettling events of the story, but there’s no textual reason to assume that he actually got it right (or wrong, for that matter.) In Spark, the nature of the eponymous fleck of light remains conjectural right up until the end (though I plump for the shard-of-divine-entity explanation.) Does it matter? Only, I suppose, to the rare reader who cares to read beyond the surface events of the story. Hopefully the mystery is at least a little intriguing, a small source of wonderment. I’m not sure we can, or should, hope for more than that.

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reading, world-building, writing technique

Problems, Problems.

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Hmmm. None of the available images look too hot. I guess they do that on purpose.

This still is from the movie Camelot, in case you haven’t guessed.

 

On top of the push and shove of every day, we here have taken it on ourselves to try to write. To try to write something that matters. Something that goes somewhere. Something that will be read. Well, you can see what kind of mood I’m in. Sounds like a few of you are in the dumps also.

I’m struggling on many fronts. I’m pushing my way through chapters six and seven of Sly. (Used to be chapters five and six. Another chapter has magically appeared.) This story is a game of whack-a-mole. That’s problem number one.

My house is a mess, per usual. Work is slow, I’m short bunches of hours and it’s eating into my vacation time. It’s not yet May and my garden is already out of control. What else can go wrong? Oh yeah, my husband had a stroke. (A little stroke humor there, he’s doing very well.)

I should be counting my blessings. I need an attitude adjustment big-time.

This is the first year, after five years of trying, that my damn orange phlox has taken hold and looks like it might survive. My fifty dollars worth of an unusual yellow allium, planted last fall, seems to be coming up. I’ve been holding my breath all winter. You never know. Why did I sink fifty dollars into a plant I’ve never tried? That’s a big no-no in my book. I lusted after them, and the mail-order nursery wouldn’t let me place an order for less than fifty bucks. OK, this isn’t really what I wanted to talk about. I’m working up to it. I want to talk about Ursula Le Guin. She’s a problem for me also. Because I really expected she would be right up my alley.

I’m reading Worlds of Exile and Illusion, three short(ish) stories in one book. The blurb in the front says, “Le Guin is the ideal science fiction writer for readers who ordinarily dislike science fiction.” That’s me, all right. I like character-based stories, and that’s not sci-fi, in my experience.

So I’m reading Ursula and, guess what? I don’t like this much either.

Oh, I like her style. Literary. Poetic. Too poetic. Flowery as hell. A little of this for flavor, fine. But it’s on every page, and it’s wearing me down:

“. . . Yahan stood up with a lyre of bronze with silver strings, and sang. He sang of Durholde of Hallan who set free the prisioners of Korhalat, in the days of the Red Lord, by the marshes of Born; and when he had sung the lineage of every warrior in that battle and every stroke he struck, he sang straight on the freeing of the Tolenfolk and the burning of the Plenot Tower, of the Wanderer’s torch blazing through a rain of arrows, of the great stroke struck by Mogien Hall’s heir, the lance cast across the wind finding its mark like the unerring lance of Hendin in the days of old.”

“. . . in the pallid fog that surrounded them in a dome of blindness.”

“. . . the cold, ruinous, resplendent fortress of their race.”

The dialogue is too . . . I don’t know, too epic. Nobody talks like that. The charm wears off real fast. Try this on for size:

“I am Olhor, the Wanderer. I come from the north and from the sea, from the land behind the sun . . . I go south. Let no man stop me.” Okay, he’s speaking to hostile strangers in an unfamiliar language. But a little of this goes a long, long way.

I’m having trouble keeping my species straight. Some peoples are at the bronze-age level, some zip across the galaxy in induced comas, and return home barely older than when they left, though their loved ones are on the brink of death from decrepitude. Some read minds, communicate that way, some hunker around campfires in filthy rags and grunt at each other. These are not branches on a family tree. Where did these tribes come from?

And, this overload of information is not the information I would love to hear. Where are the stray thoughts that we all have, that I scatter through my own thing like the weeds poking up in my garden? (Those weeds are out there, doing their cake-walk through my beds, singing their heads off: It’s May! It’s May! The lusty month of May!)

Le Guin’s often medieval-sounding description is kind of like my tons of fake history, that has enough real embedded in it for one back on Book Country to tell me, “I can’t take any more of this. I didn’t know I was going to be plunged into a history class.”

Is this typical of her? I thought at first that I could learn from her, how to overdo on the detail (’cause it’s so much damn fun) but keep it from getting mind-numbing. Nope! I’m thrown back on my own devices. Which means, generally, lots of playful intrusion, to jolt you awake, in case you’ve zoned out. That’s my answer.

I’m stealing some neat words here. So that’s good. Byre, what’s a byre? Has something to do with cattle. Ah! A cow barn/cow shed. I can use that for Sly, for flavor. I’m all for flavor, but I don’t want to drown in it.

Now you all can explain to me how/why I’ve just made an idiot of myself. Le Guin is, after all, in the writer pantheon. She’s the one with the awards, and the legions of fans, not me. But this sort of heroic/epic quest/event-driven storytelling is simply not my style.

The tone feels Arthurian to me. Mystical. There are run-down castles and, instead of elves, various tribes of little people. We have a touch of magic in the mind-reading, and in legend-based premonitions. The framework is that this fairly primitive planet is brutally invaded. A hidden base has been established from which to launch a counter attack against distant forces. But that’s the least part of the story, coming in very near the end. The hero doesn’t reach the base until page one-hundred of a one-hundred-twelve page story. Most of the tale chronicles the lengthy trek across challenging terrain and, for me, it gets tedious, beautiful imagery notwithstanding. Maybe I’ll come to appreciate Le Guin more as I read on.

Her powers of imagination are incredible. I am mesmerized, if not necessarily delighted, by her dense description. I write little physical detail myself and am very conscious of that lack. I’ve been trying to rejigger my way of thinking in that direction for a while now, so far with very modest success. I have to see if I can incorporate some of this approach into my own style.

______________________________________________

My husband has just read Rocannon’s World and says it’s one of the best pieces of science fiction he’s ever read. I had to explain to him who Ursula Le Guin is, he’s never heard of her. (He has not read sci-fi for decades. He’s into history, politics, science, nonfiction generally.) He is very impressed with her world building, and thinks the plot being almost incidental is no big deal.

I will read her next story with that outlook. Maybe when you read her you have to park your expectations.

God knows I can relate to that.

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion

Facebook Street Cafe

My first two weeks:
The humanity cascading down my Facebook page needs filtering, of course. I want to learn from other authors. They get invites. **Purged are the space-wasters – haters, fanatics, scammers and whores may have their story but I am not here to write it. Everyone else is appreciated. Well, I occasionally knock off the loudly ignorant, the maudlin, the chanters of feel-good gibberish, a proselytizer or two, even the emotional yo-yos when they don’t know when to stop. Still, I have over 1400 “Friends.” Some are generous authors happy to share what they know while others would kill your mother for a Popsicle if they were hungry.
But what else should one expect from the crowds on Main Street, Earth?

I am not here to sell books. Happy as I am to see the hits jump on my book’s webpage, I came to see today’s authors and the books they are writing. Posting my book is just flashing my badge.
Most authors seem like myself. They like to write, they like being authors, they don’t sell many books but two out of three keeps them writing. Granted, I’m not friended with James Patterson, Steven King or JK Rowlings but I ‘could’ be chatting up a future Rowlings, King or Patterson. That thought keeps me respectful.

Social media, by its nature, skews the sample towards social people and social themes. There are more women authors on Facebook than men authors. Facebook authors are usually outgoing, happy to share books or thoughts on genres, plots, characters, publishing, marketing or any topic related to life as a writer.
I like them. I learn from them.

It’s a humbling experience. So many people who know more about any topic than do I are happy to set me straight. My reference to the War Powers Act was expanded in a reply from a judge who kindly explained why I was right but …not really on target. My comment in another discussion was labeled a “red herring” by someone who knew.

True, some here have unusual kinks in their DNA helix and always remember that you are talking with faceless strangers even when they put a face to the talk. I received a friend request from an active duty soldier. The photo showed a wholesome young woman in US Army uniform at her desk. Her account page said she was born in NYC, currently living in Damascus, Syria. Right.
Y’gotta love Humans.
**Addendum. Note: Do not use the word “purged” or the phrase “knock off.” My use of those elicited a happily rabid response from a fanatic agreeing on the necessity for “culling the rat fuck bastards” who can “be erased with the push of a button on a suicide vest.”
Apparently, word choice can be critical here.

Writing at my desk with Facebook but a click away is like writing while sitting in a sidewalk cafe where one only has to look up to engage people going by. Talking with people having similar interests is a refreshing break. So if you’re a lover of books, please send me a friend request. I’m in front of Ducky Smith’s SciFi Roundtable cafe. I’ll hold a chair for you.
+++– GD Deckard

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