Friday, April 30, 2010

Writing A Big Stack of Horror Poetry

Today is the last day of NaPoWriMo, A Poem A Day in April. I have succeeded in producing thirty poems this month, although the quality varies dramatically from "this is a solid poem" to "this has no redeeming features." Not a surprise, naturally.

My overall focus was horror, with an attempt to hone in on the more gruesome moments of childhood. I wasn't able to produce only horror, since sometimes the muse just does its own thing. Still, of thirty poems, twenty had a horror, weird, or speculative theme. Ten of those were specific to childhood horror. I am pretty pleased, since that ten produced about eight that have a solid core and related emotional context. With a few additions and some aggressive editing, I might actually produce that chapbook I was aiming for when I started a month ago.

Art like "I Did Not Do It" was perfect inspiration for this project. As I go forward, I'm going to continue to use the same general procedure to allow the art to move me to write. Here's my process.  I specifically look for art and images that raise questions in my mind. In this case, what is really happening in this picture?  It appears that the not-so-innocent looking child his hiding a knife. Is that her hand print or that of a victim?  And who is she trying to hide all this from, anyway?

After asking these questions of a piece of art, I take a step back and see if I can put my finger on what it is that makes the particular work quite so horrific. Where is the emotion centered, the discomfort, the nasty surprise? What is she feeling? What is the possible victim feeling (assuming he or she can still feel)? How about the person standing out of our view, possibly scolding the child?

And then I take another step back, and try to forget about the specific art itself. My goal isn't to try to duplicate the art in words. My goal is to use the emotional power and the situation as inspiration. So I call up other places, other settings, in which the emotions might be similar. I imagine twists or variations within childhood that hold the same charge. Sometimes this leads me right out of the genre entirely, and I end up writing a poem that has little to do with the art in question. That's fine. The same piece of art might generate inspiration for a dozen poems that to a reader appear completely unrelated either to each other, or the art.

But because I continue to focus on similar feelings, there are some poems coming out with related emotional turns.  So I am going to continue to follow this line, adding to my child-horror poetry until I get a set that seems to play out a coherent emotional arc.

Well, it all sounds good on paper.  Now I have to see if I can really do it.  Then comes the fun part of researching how one might publish a chapbook of horror poetry, which I have never done.  Comments and advice are always welcome ...


Credit Line:  I Did Not Do It by red-riding on deviantArt.

My Comments: This is the sort of horror art that really holds my attention. Gore and shock factor are low, and the creepy factor is high. The piece asks more questions than it answers. The art is disturbingly clean and clear, with judicious use of color. There is the barest hint of humor in the context. And most importantly, the emotions expressed on the face of the child are really strange - she appears to be a bit insane, but not so crazy that she does not have some appreciation for the horror of her own situation. The piece is dense with ideas.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Prompt the Muse #7 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Stained Glass
A great deal of our culture, science, and overall mode of living is driven by the cycle of day and night. Imagine a planet with a much longer, or shorter, diurnal cycle. How does the length of this cycle manifest in the sentient beings that call the planet home? Put some of your musings into 200 words.

Image Credit:  Stained Glass from Wikimedia Commons

Monday, April 26, 2010

Completing the Circle - Finishing That Novel

Humans have a fascination with rings and circles. I think part of that fascination stems from our enjoyment of things being finished, connected, and complete. A circle often symbolizes completion, or a 'whole' rather than a 'part' of something.

I'm thinking of the idea of 'completion' as I push through the ending of my current novel. I've written books before, but this one is being stubborn. It does not want to finish itself. Now, sometimes that is because the writing is telling you it isn't done yet. When you get that feeling, the only cure is to keep on writing until it is really done. That may be part of what is happening here, a need to fill in the gaps. But I think the other part is a subconscious desire not to finish.

At least for me, writing the first draft is always my favorite part of the whole process. That's when the ideas are flowing, the fingers are flying, and the world disappears. When I'm done writing, I get to do the hard parts of editing and then querying. That all happens in the real world, which as a fiction writer is not where I like to spend most of my time.

So to motivate myself to push through this thing, I thought I'd post some tips on what has worked for me occasionally in the past.  Both to share with you, and to remind myself that I have to pick one or more of these, do them, and get that book finished.  (I re-read and see all my tips start with an "R." I didn't mean to do that. Weird.)

  1. Reassess the Outline.  When I'm having trouble finishing, this is my first approach. Sometimes my outline for the rest of the novel is simply too vague. I have a tendency to keep my outlines as bare as possible, because my characters write better stories (and endings) than I do. I hate to box them in. But sometimes you have to be firm, "Okay guys, let's wrap it up. If you want to keep running around we can write another book, but this one has to end." So I map out the ending in more detail, and that will often be all I need to get the job done.
  2. Reconsider the Goals.  We all know the standard idea of setting large goals, and then breaking those goals into small, manageable pieces. Those small pieces are the weekly or daily goals that make the big goal attainable. There are times I have trouble finishing a large project because I haven't broken the goals down quite enough. I don't usually spot this in the beginning, since things do change over time. What worked when I started the book might not work at the end. So I take another look at the small goals, and break them into even smaller pieces, so that it all seems much less overwhelming.
  3. Recruit a Friend.  And there are times when what I need is either support or accountability. I find a friend to read a chapter or two, tell me how great the book is and how much they want to read the rest of it. Very motivating. Other times I find a friend, tell them my goals, and have them check up with me to see if I'm meeting them. I prefer the first approach, but sometimes you need the sound of a whip to get off of your duff. Or, in our case, the sound will get us onto our respective duffs and keep us writing.
  4. Revisit the Beginning.  By this I mean going back to the reasons I wanted to write the book in the first place. Sometimes I need to take a mental trip back to when the book was still an idea that I was dying to write about. I do this and try to conjure up the excitement and sense of purpose that I felt at that time. This can help me put some of the fun back into the work of writing that last bit.
  5. Reset Priorities.  This means that I might need to put aside all other writing projects. Normally, I have several projects going on at once (like this blog, say). Going from one to another keeps things fresh. But it also provides places to hide. I may have to drop all other projects until I get the novel finished. If I'm within ten thousand words, it would probably be a good thing to do. If I am en fuego (on fire) I can write ten thousand words of draft in a day. The thought of finishing this draft in one day is tantalizing, indeed.  

I think I'll write another post or two in the future about writing motivations, in general. So I'm doing this kind of backwards, by starting at the end. But this what I needed right now to keep myself moving towards my goal.

Additional suggestions for how to push through to the ending of that novel?


Image Credit:  Art: Ringed Blue Planet And Moon by CommanderEVE on deviantArt

My Comments: I was at first attracted to the luminous color of this piece. And then I kept looking at the rings and circles: the halo around the planet, the rings of the planet, the bright ring of the moon, and the stars in the background. It all seems very orderly, gem-like, and perfect. Sure would be nice to get that feeling at the finish of my novel.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Hubble Space Telescope - Science Feeds Fiction

Image: Crab Nebula at HubbleSite 
Today is the 20th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. The impact that this instrument has had on the field of astronomy can't be overstated. Hubble, which images in visible light and the near IR, has taken data that has truly revolutionized our view of the universe. And for those of us who write science fiction, Hubble has provided an infinite well of inspiration.

With a zillion fantastic images to choose from, I chose the Crab Nebula. I did so because this image is tied to an actual observation of an event. The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, a swirling collection of gas and dust thrown off of an exploding star. This explosion was witnessed and recorded by Japanese and Chinese astronomers in the year 1054 CE. There are not very many astronomical events of this magnitude that have been seen and then recorded by humans.

This brings home some appreciation for the vast scales and distances in the universe, as well as the mechanics for how things work out there. The Crab Nebula is about 10 light years across. Gas and dust can't move at the speed of light, but still, they were thrown outwards at an incredible velocity. If the nebula is 10 light years across (5 light years in radius, from the center to the edge), then a little math tells us it is expanding outwards at 0.005 or 1/2% the speed of light. One half a percent of the speed of light is 149,900,000 cm/sec for you astronomers or 3,355,000 mph for you English-unit types. Check that again; the nebula is expanding at 3.3 million miles an hour. And that is 200 times slower than the light itself.

The Crab Nebula is about 6,000 light years from Earth. So the light from the explosion took 6,000 years to get from the star to our location. In that time, we looked up and saw nothing amiss, and then one day in 1054 the light washed past us, and we saw the explosion. It's been about another thousand years since then, so anything within about 7,000 light years of the original star now knows that it blew up.

But our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across (or a bit bigger, people are still arguing about that.) Here's a little mock up I did, i.e. the image of the galaxy at right. Let's assume this galaxy is the Milky Way, at 100,000 light years in diameter (This isn't the Milky Way, of course, it is NGC 4622, a nice face-on spiral that I thought would do the job. Our galaxy has more arms, and the central section is more oval-shaped). The circle is drawn to scale at 14,000 light years or so (light expanded from the explosion outwards in both directions, so twice 7,000 years.) The positions of the Sun (lower, yellow diamond) and the crab nebula (upper, pink diamond) are about right. The symbols that represent them are not to scale, as they would be too small to see. But since the positions are correct, you can get an idea of how much of the galaxy you can cover moving at light speed for 14,000 years.

So the only people (assuming there are people other than us in the galaxy, for the sake of fiction) who know that this star has exploded are those inside the circle. Anyone else in the galaxy that happens to be watching has no idea. They see the star as it appeared in the past - the universe is its own kind of time machine.

I think about these scales a great deal when I write science fiction. The bulk of my writing does take place with civilizations on a galactic scale. It is important to remember that a major event in one part of the galaxy won't even be seen in another area for tens of thousands of years. If you have faster-than-light travel in your story (mine usually do), this can cause some interesting phenomena. Someone can look into the night sky, see a perfectly 'safe' place, and choose to travel there. And when they get there they find out the hard way that it exploded a few thousand years ago. I enjoy the way this time and space bending can influence a story.

Anyway, Happy Birthday, HST.  Send more pictures.


Image Credits:
Crab Nebula - NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)
NGC 4622  - NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI and AURA)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Good and Bad of Writing in the Ivory Tower

I haven't posted an update on my writing projects in a while, so I am taking some space at the beginning of this post to do just that.

April is still chugging along with my writing a poem a day for NaPoWriMo. The poems need editing, of course, but I'm surprised to see that most of them have a solid emotional turn that I can develop into something more substantial. I'm also pleased to see that my "theme" seems to be working, more or less, which was to write poems inspired by horror art. A nice set of the poems are coming out with a strong emotional connection to one another, and I think a chapbook of a dozen or so pieces may be the result. That would be a great outcome - I have not tried to produce a chapbook before. All the poetry I've published so far, about two dozen or so pieces, has appeared individually or as features in small press markets.

Still, publishing poetry wasn't actually what I was trying to accomplish since I set my mind to publishing my fiction late last year. But poetry gets in your blood ... you can't stop it. I'm beginning to realize that I can't put that kind of a constraint on the muse, "Okay, you there, only short stories for now. And all fantasy. Got that?" Har har.

But I shouldn't be too upset with all the poetry, it has inspired me to do some work with the SFPA on a possible poetry contest. I'll have to see where that leads, but for the moment, it looks like it is going someplace interesting. When/if it becomes more concrete, I'll post about it.

And the story writing and publishing is still going along. Poetry seems to get me to sit down at the computer, but it is the fiction writing that keeps me there. Especially when the internet connection goes down. I put in 10K words yesterday, in spite of the withdrawal symptoms from no intarwebs.

Anyway, about the ivory tower. What I mean to discuss are a couple of the pros and cons of writing in isolation. I spent several years very deep into my "day job," and did not do much reading or even movie watching. So anything I wrote in that time was written in isolation of whatever was going on with other writers in the genre. In fact, it was written in isolation of anything in the popular culture, as well, since even now I do not watch TV, read the newspaper, or look for headlines on the internet. Before that time, I was very involved with the genre, and now am in the process of reading much more, and keeping an eye on what is getting published and what isn't. So that in comparison with the in between time has given me a look at the pros and cons of writing in one's own ivory tower.

The major 'pro' of this, from my perspective, is that my ideas were not largely influenced by what others were writing. Most of my ideas came from inside, not outside, so I could generate some unique concepts. Another 'pro' is being able to avoid the pressure of writing what is popular or trendy. I still write only what really interests me, and that's it. And another 'pro' - keeping myself somewhat secluded helps me concentrate on what I am doing, not someone else.

Each of these has an associated 'con' and then some. There are ideas which are so pervasive, and so obvious, that many people think of them with no cross-talk necessary. There were times I imagined I had a neat angle on an old theme, and then found out I'd accidentally joined a bandwagon. And while I like ignoring the trends and writing whatever I want, that is not necessarily a good approach to getting published. I like to write Space Opera, for example. Some people are kind of sick of it. So I don't know yet what success I might have in publishing those pieces. 

And the last major con, as I see it, is that isolation is lonely. I enjoy working with people and I like to be a member of a community. That was part of the reason why I started this blog, and started looking for like-minded writers. Of course, every minute we are not writing is ... well ... is a minute we are not writing. But I'm no longer at the point where I begrudge that. I simply want to make sure my non-writing time is as fruitful and enjoyable as possible.

How about you? What is your philosophy on isolation versus immersion? Do you try to keep your pulse on the genre at all times? Do you go on writing retreats? How do you keep up to date?  How to you separate yourself when you need to?


Image Credit:  The work "Monoptropolis" is used with generous permission from the artist BlueRogueVyse on deviantArt

My comments: Looking at the scale of the buildings on the hill, it seems that these towers are actually cities unto themselves. In spite of a manufactured origin, they seem to remain so organic, growing up from the rock and having abundant vegetation. Are these reserved as cities of the gods, or are they the common cities of normal mortals? What in their culture inspired this kind of architecture? And what is it that is lurking, almost out of view, in the skies above?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Prompt the Muse #6 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Art: Alien Statue
Looks like I'll be moving the writing prompts to Wednesday; it just seems to work out better with my posting schedule. I don't like to 'spam' followers with multiple posts in one day. I've always had a posting philosophy of longer but fewer. I had originally intended to post twice a week on Fri/Sat and then another around Mon/Tue, so a Thursday prompt made sense. And yet, it seems when Thursday rolls around I have a post just itching to go. So prompts will come out on Wednesdays for the time being. Unless that really cramps your style - let me know.

Anyway, the prompt ...

"There were many very strange and ancient artifacts there. One was a copper statue. When we looked at the statue closer, we were amazed to see ..." Finish the sentence and write another 100 words.

Image Credit:  EonWorks

Monday, April 19, 2010

Wherein Dragons First Appear

It has been brought to my attention that I have been remiss in posting fantasy art. A friend indicated that I had posted plenty of science, horror, and science fiction, but not not enough fantasy. Being a scientist, I immediately trotted off to collect the data, choosing appropriate bins. Here it is, by number of works of art/photos, and subject:

14  Science (NASA, night sky, and such)
13  Common (pens, cups, etc.)
11  Science Fiction
03  Abstract/Fractal
02  Speculative/Psychological
02  Horror
01  Fantasy

Well, indeed, we see a bias. Or several, actually. The preponderance of "common" themed art is a result of my not yet having hit upon the idea of looking for more original and thematic pieces to go with my posts. So that's fine. I'm also not surprised about the number of science photos, since it has been my intention to have a nice selection of real science/astronomy on the blog as a source of writing inspiration. Also, NASA photos are open for non-profit use, since we as U.S. taxpayers have already payed for them.

But my goal is to have at least moderately equal representation of science, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genres, with the abstract/fractal and speculative/psychological pieces likely to overlap with all of them. I'll note that the person who inspired me to do this analysis was incorrect in the implication that horror was well represented. It appears to be suffering in similar ignominy to fantasy. That would be yet another bias discovered by my research :)

The cure for not enough fantasy is of course to post a dragon. I needed a good one, so I offer "Solace" by dragonicwolf. This fantastic dragon can only be appreciated properly by going to the source site and seeing it at full resolution. I quite like dragons; they are one of my vices along with vampires. By the way, the only other cure for "not enough fantasy" is to post a unicorn. :) So next time I get a comment about the art I post, I'll find the fluffiest, sparkliest, most rainbowy unicorn and share it here. It will hurt me more than it will hurt you ...

There is simply no amount of "overuse" of dragons that will make them stale, at least not for me. Human civilization at large apparently feels the same, since dragons of one type or another have appeared in stories and myths around the world. Some of these stories are thousands of years old. This fascination has continued into modern times with the birth of the current standard view of the "European" dragon (as opposed to "Asian" Dragon) - brought to us as Smaug by Tolkien. This is the giant, evil, winged, red lizard, sitting on top of a horde of treasure, and waiting to roast and devour adventurers.

Since then, dragons in literature have diversified. The dragons of Heinlein's 1955 Between Planets were intelligent and friendly scientist-types. They lived on Venus. McCaffrey's series The Dragon Riders of Pern, which started in 1966, has dragons portrayed as an integral part of fighting off a planet-wide threat. There is the luckdragon Falkor in Ende's Neverending Story, 1979, who is both a friend and a mode of transportation for the main character. There was apparently a Marxist dragon in Foster's Spellsinger series, 1983.

After that I stopped keeping track. The 1990s had so many dragon books and kinds of dragons that the idea of a "typical" dragon stopped being of much use. They can be tiny, huge, powerful, weak, intelligent, dumber than a sack of hammers, covered with feathers, covered with scales, have wings or not, and on and on. Yet still, somehow, a dragon is a dragon. They still intrigue readers, and inspire writers. They retain a mythical sensibility regardless of the indignities we put them through. I'll admit another bias, dragons appear in one of the books I'm working on.  So I'm not likely to completely pan them, am I?

How about you? Tired of dragonkind yet? Or do you think there is still something worth exploring, there? If yes, why do you think they remain so compelling?


Image Credit:  "Solace" is used with generous permission from the artist dragonicwolf on deviantArt.

My comments: Art like this makes me sit up and take notice. I want to be there - what is that dragon thinking, anyway? Is it good or evil, or something more complex? What is the nature of the world it lives in? Is it solitary? Social? Will it give me a ride and eat my enemies?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Another New NASA Space Plan - Fantasy or Reality?

"Distant Shores" by Pat Rawlings  NASA/JSC   
The President has come forth with his plan for NASA. This is not a surprise, since presidents are always coming forward with a plan for NASA. Every administration finds a need to do this; to put forth their personal vision for American space exploration. NASA is a high visibility agency, with a reasonably good reputation. It has lost some face with the general public in the last fifteen years or so, but it is still one of the more favorably viewed of the agencies that come under ".gov" on the internet. A president who can create a workable, exciting plan for NASA creates a vast deal of good sentiment for his/her administration.

I will admit my biases up front:  that I very much want NASA to succeed in its endeavors, that I very much want this particular President to succeed, and that I want NASA to support basic research, not just human space flight. And so my little review of his plan, here, is going to be influenced by that. I'll also point out that this, as with most of my other posts, is an opinion piece - I am not a specialist in federal budgets and the like. Nor do I specialize in technology. But as with many in my field, I've worked with NASA for years doing research and education, and so I can't resist the temptation to post about this new plan.

Summarized, in a nutshell, from a news release on the Planetary Society page:

In his speech at Kennedy Space Center, President Obama clearly laid out his goals and a timetable for NASA:

  • By 2015 – Finalize a heavy-lift launcher design and begin to build it.  This would give us a deep-space rocket years earlier than estimated under Constellation.  The President has allocated $3 billion to do the work.
  • By 2025 – Begin the first crewed missions beyond the Moon and into deep space.  The final choice of destination is not immediately made, but will depend on technology advances.  A near-Earth asteroid is a possible choice, with increasingly demanding targets to follow.
  • By mid-2030s – Send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.
  • During the President's lifetime, people will land on Mars.

Ambitious, very ambitious. I have to say I am skeptical, but still optimistic. One of the reasons for that is because even if this plan does not reach full fruition, it has appropriate intermediate steps that will produce some good technology and some good science.

We do indeed need to develop the technology for a heavy rocket. The U.S. does not have a heavy rocket - at all.  In fact, rocket technology has fallen a bit by the wayside. (A fine allegory for which was an old Saturn V rocket laying by NASA Road 1 in Clearlake, Texas, rusting away.) But can we build a new rocket for $3 billion?  I don't think so. My prediction is that this will cost more, and run out at least another five years.

Choosing asteroids as intermediate landing targets seems wise for a number of reasons. We'd like to know more about asteroids anyway from an impact hazard point of view. Low gravity means easier landings and liftoffs. But they will not make perfect analogs to a planetary surface landing, nor for "living" on the surface. We really need the Moon for that.

As far as crewed missions beyond the Moon, that is tricky. The Moon is only three days away, Mars is months away. I believe the major hurdle is keeping the crew protected from radiation all that time. Right now, we don't have a good shield. Well, lead is a good shield, but a bit heavy to launch into space. There is no predicting if this will happen on schedule or not, since you can't predict technology advances that require ideas people haven't come up with yet.

In the mean time, with all of this happening, will NASA be able to keep its commitment to research science? Without basic research, the rest of NASA's program falls apart. We can't afford to become myopic, and focus so tightly on Mars that we let the scaffolding for exploration collapse. That scaffolding is built by the individual research projects that use spacecraft data to figure out what is actually out there. We can't send people anywhere if we don't know the characteristics of the target. And we can't create a new dream for exploration if we are not always pushing the boundaries with new robotic missions, new telescopes, and by continuing to fund the research using those data.

Will we see people on Mars in the lifetime of the current President? I think the answer is yes, IF the plan actually gets funded, and stays funded. The frustration of NASA is that it is in the executive branch of the government, so directly under the finger of the president. When a new one comes in, the old plan goes out. Progress made towards that plan is not necessarily lost, but might become irrelevant. Bush's plan is out, which is fine by me, but the emphasis on lunar work has already been partially funded.  It will be a shame to see the plug pulled on any of that.

Still, I'd get behind almost any realistic plan at this point, if I thought Congress would stay behind it, too. I'm afraid I've become a bit jaded, with plans for people on Mars coming and going since long before I was born. In fact, I was so certain as a kid that I was the perfect age to be in the crew to go to Mars. And now, like so many others, I'm just hoping to live to see someone else do it.

And they wonder why we write fiction ...


Image Credit:  "Distant Shores" by Pat Rawlings via NASA/JSC Program Art

Thursday, April 15, 2010

World Building: Blog Posts of Note

Every SF blog out there has a post (or ten) about "world building".  It seems like a good way to start my own exploration of world building is to point out a few of the more interesting posts I've encountered while researching the topic.

To start, let's define world building - my working definition is that world building is the process of creating the full setting for the story.  In the case of speculative fiction, we have the benefit (and burden) of being able to create an entire universe from whole cloth.  So building our worlds can include a huge host of topics that must be investigated; religion, climate, technology, language, biology, ecology, social values, genders (multiple or lack there of ...), social structures, and much more.  World building is working your way through all of these areas, to some extent, and ensuring your characters have a self-consistent world in which to operate.

A good post which introduces world building is "About the Details" by David Weber.  One great point made in this post is:  "I think it’s wrong to tell someone that he or she should only “write what you know,” because too often that’s taken to mean that you should write only about something you have personally experienced."  "... very few of us have ever been starship captains, amnesiac government assassins, elven warrior-mages, or artificial intelligences. In the sense of telling a prospective writer that he should write about subjects upon which he is informed, on the other hand, writing “what you know” makes wonderful sense."  When writing speculative fiction, research is key.  As noted, we really can't get "personal experience" with most aspects of our universes, but excellent research and good world building will still result in intriguing and consistent settings for our characters.

Being trained as a planetary research scientist, I fall naturally into that aspect of world building.  I enjoy delving into the topics of geology, technology, climates, biology and lots of other 'ologies.'  But as much as I enjoy developing the cultural aspects of my worlds, I have less training for that.  Jo Walton provides an interesting means of investigating the day to day lives lived in our worlds-to-be in a post titled "Real world building for fantasy writers."  She advocates the reading of history, our history, as the basic starting point.  "History is real and solid, and if you know it you can make changes from a point of knowledge, not ignorance."  She isn't talking about getting a specific idea from these books, but instead understanding the big picture view of what it means to really delve into and be able to describe the daily lives of people, no matter their world, time, or culture.  "Read widely. Compare things across cultures where possible. Think about why things are the way they are, think about the way things fit together, think about economics and geography."  "So the questions I ask are “OK, how did it get like that?” and “OK, what are the implications of that?

If you are a perfectionist like I am, there is always the question of "how good is good enough?"  There is no world, even our own, that is free of inconsistencies.  How perfect, how consistent, does your world building really have to be?  John Scalzi gives his own answer to that question on his blog in a post called "Worldbuilding, Briefly."  He believes he satisfies about 90% of readers by being two questions deep.  That is, "you make your creations robust enough to stand up to a general question and then a more specific followup question."  I'm not certain that is enough for me, being a rabid world builder, but it is nice to see any kind of metric.  Otherwise, it's hard to know when to stop and actually get to the business of writing the story ...


Image credit:  "Tripartite" by guitfiddle on deviantArt.

My comments:  This is one of those nicely detailed pieces I could stare at for a long time, and let my imagination go.  I see a world with three specific types of terrain/climate something like desert, temperate, and polar.  Their juxtaposition already seems artificial, then we note the sides of the cliffs show some kind of mechanical constructs.  Perhaps there are people living inside, or the 'continents' are themselves constructs.  Perhaps the entire world is a construct.  Puts a spin on the idea of 'world building' more like Douglas Adams.

Prompt the Muse #5 - Thursday Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Meteorite under Microscope
The picture at the right is a microscopic image of a meteorite under polarized light. Take a look at this image and then write down ten things it just might be picturing. Let your mind wander; be imaginative, and don't worry about being literal or concrete. I've put my list below, for fun, but make sure you have yours written out before you read mine.

Image Credit:  Tim McCoy, USAP, ANSMET, Smithsonian

Stained glass window
Alien virus
Scales of a dragon
Chunks of glass at a recycling plant
Fish in an aquarium
Gems in a treasure chest
Plan of attack
Nebula dust
Reflections off of iridescent fabric

Monday, April 12, 2010

Art Imitates Life - Ideas for Speculative Fiction

Art: "Trip to Mars" by Fiery-Fire  
As I was looking for additional inspiration for writing, I came across the artwork featured at right, "Trip to Mars." It caught my attention for a number of reasons, one being pretty obvious - it has an uncanny resemblance to what one might see on an actual trip to Mars, as long as one is willing to look very close up.

Just in case you are not familiar with the images from the NASA (MER) Martian Exploration Rovers (still) operating on Mars, I provide here a close up of the "Martian blueberries" imaged by a rover. These are small spherules of hematite formed by hydrothermal processes. They therefore indicate the presence of both heat and water sometime in the past geologic history of Mars. How far back is not certain, and in this case "far back" might also include "more recently than we expected." Even though hematite spherules exist on Earth, finding them on Mars was quite the eye-opener.

Before these minerals were imaged by NASA, I would never have looked at the above piece of art and thought of something so very concrete.  I would not have thought of actual minerals.  I might have considered it only in the context of providing a general feeling or mood of space travel or planetary exploration.  Instead, the real universe has once again provided something stranger than fiction, and art imitates life in a whole new way.

This has me looking at art and thinking, what if this were a close up, or an extreme zoom out?  What if this were a different color, or upside down?  Then I re-evaluate what the image means to me, or could possibly represent.  And conversely, I'm looking at the real images and doing the same.  What if that image of the blueberries, above, were really intended as an allegory for space travel?  What if it were a shot from above of the domes of a space colony?  Perhaps we are seeing are turtle-like creatures carrying shells on their backs?

Thinking in new directions is not only a great exercise for the brain, it provides a chance to put something really different or original in a story.  We all know the standard tropes in our genres.  These are not bad plots or poor devices for storytelling, they are simply plots that have often been seen before.  If you can put a new spin on them, they can carry great power as they call to mind compelling stories of the past.  But if you can't make them original, then they very quickly become boring to the reader.  I strive to find ways to twist the old tropes, or find untrodden territory when I am writing.  It isn't always possible, partly because I love some of those old tropes, especially space opera, ray guns, dragons, vampires, and other oft encountered phenomena in speculative fiction.  Still, bending my mind around is a good way to help make it less likely I will present those tropes in old, stale ways.

Do you have a favorite means to keep ideas fresh?  To generate new ways of looking at favorite themes?


Martian Blueberries:  NASA/JPL/Cornell via Science reported by MSNBC
"Trip to Mars" used with generous permission by the artist Fiery-Fire on deviantArt

My comments:  "Trip to Mars" is an evocative piece of fractal art with embedded 'marbles.'  I enjoy this kind of art for its insistent symmetry, and when that symmetry is broken it makes such a strong statement.  One idea that came to me when looking at this art was another trope, but still, an elegant one - that all the spheres, big to tiny, are universes embedded in a never-ending repetition.  Note that the artist had not seen the images from NASA before creating this piece.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The End of the World in Fiction - Ideas from Past and Present

With this post I will have somehow written my third installment in an 'end of the world in fiction' series. I think, however, that this post will get the apocalypse out of my system ... at least for now.

In my first post I talked about the aspects of an 'end of the world' scenario that inspire fear and obsession. (I also mentioned why in reality, worrying about these scenarios was probably not as productive as worrying over more likely forms of our demise.) Yet, people still enjoy contemplating the end of the planet when reading and viewing fiction. For example - this piece of art named "Ensanguined Verdict." The artist provides enough of the back story that motivated the piece that we know this is no natural disaster. This is one alien civilization attacking another. (And we might be either one, I suppose.)

My second post in this 'series' discussed the elements a writer might use in a story about the end of the world. These elements are based on the topics from the first post that seem to most enthrall readers: risk of large scale disaster, sense of the unknown, lack of control, religious or spiritual overtones, and of course a good dose of excitement.

With all of these together, it looks like the 'perfect' plot is one where our Main Character does not know what is about to happen, but it is going to be nasty. Something big. It threatens things the character cares about, and he/she cannot control important aspects of the event. There are hints of omens, foreshadowing, and portents. Something that makes the character think they might be the one; the person who can control one or two elements, and make a difference before or after the disaster.

Hmmm ... sounds like it's been done. Several times. Yet inside every overdone story is an untold tale waiting to be sculpted by a master. Right?

One of the oldest works of apocalyptic literature that comes to mind is found in the Bible. I'm not going to discuss the Bible as 'real' or 'fiction.'  Some people regard the Bible as literal truth, while others see it as allegory, and others an expression of common myth. I'm not going break open that can of worms. I'm simply going to look at the parts of the story, and show how they include all the elements I mention above - in this case, the story is that of Noah and the Ark. This is certainly a world-shattering disaster, with the threat of the entire planet flooded and almost every creature wiped out. The spiritual element is obvious, with God telling Noah what he needs to do to save his family, his species, and all the species of Earth. Noah has no way to stop the flood, only the means to save a select group. For days, the Ark floats, with Noah hanging on to faith through the unknown.

This is of course the archetypal "saving some select part of the world from disaster" story. We've seen the ark redone as ships, domes, special habitats, rockets, underground fortresses, or what have you. This theme has really been explored, and explored again. But people keep using it, including '2012.' It can still work, as long as the story has some unique aspects, and is moving, exciting, and powerful.

Another story that comes to mind is H.G. Wells, "The War of the Worlds." This time an invasion by Martians threatens humanity. Again, it contains the large scale threat, religious portents (most concretely through the character of the curate who believes the Martians are here as the vanguard of Armageddon), a menace out of the main character's control, a constant sense of fear of the unknown, and plenty of suspense as we follow the narrator on his journey around the country.

A more modern story would be "Lucifer's Hammer" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In this novel a comet smashes into the Earth and results in the now-standard devastation and de-evolution of society back to feudal times. The religious element is provided by the evangelist Henry Armitage. The calamity is unexpected, and beyond anyone's control. In the aftermath, several characters attempt to reform civilization to follow their vision, either light or dark, with tension peaking in the final, decisive battles.

All three of these stories have the same elements, but each uses them in a unique way, and gives the reader something unexpected and compelling. My analysis of what makes us obsessed with these disaster stories is, I think, pretty consistent with the body of literature already present. So I certainly won't dismiss the topic out of hand as not worth revisiting. But before I write my apocalypse novel (if I ever do) I'll be sure to know the themes that worked before, why they worked, and consider how I can give readers something really original as part of the package.


Image Credit:  "Ensanguined Verdict" used with generous permission from the artist julian399 on deviantArt.

My comments:  Another great piece.  As with most of Juilan's art, you have to go to the site and look at the higher-res image to appreciate the amazing detail.  In this case, there are tiny ships swarming near the surface of the doomed planet.

Artist comments:  A bit of back story, "a new dawn has come before us... let their world burn into cinders; do not cease til every single grain of sand is but glass!"

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Prompt the Muse #4 - Thursday Speculative Writing Prompt

Image:  Weary Knight
A knight has found himself at the end of an epic battle. Who or what was he fighting?  Did he win or lose? What is the next issue he must deal with? Write your response in 200 words or less.

Image Credit:  EonWorks

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The End of the World In Fiction - Writing What Will Entertain

Art:  "Apocalypse" by Chris Martin/Velvet--Glove    
If you haven't already, please take a look at my first post on this topic, "The End of the World in Fiction - Obsessions and Responsibilities." It provides a little background for what I am going to write here. And that post makes it clear that I don't have any desire to hype works of fiction at the expense of the public's true perception of risk in their lives.

People want quality entertainment that appeals to their interests and tastes. When it comes to science fiction, fantasy, and horror, there are a lot of options for very entertaining 'End of the World' scenarios. How can a writer provide the best reading experience for people who enjoy this kind of subject?

Looking at the post from last week, it is clear that we need our main character to lead the reader through some of their own fears and misconceptions. Consider the idea that perception of control reduces sense of risk. If that is true, then our character or characters cannot be in complete control of the situation, or there is no tension, no sense of risk.

The second factor I mentioned was scale. A larger scale event is going to be considered more horrifying. Does that mean the galaxy being threatened is worse than the world? Or the entire universe being threatened is worse than just the galaxy? I am not certain about that. There still needs to be some innate understanding of what is in jeopardy. For most people, the world is everything.  What happens around other stars does not feel real enough to inspire fear. So if a writer intends to use the 'End of the World' scenario at truly huge scales, the reader must buy into the concerns of the characters, and must understand what is at stake.

Religious overtones will work well for some readers, and not others. While it seems that the inclusion of some kind of spiritual element, such as a prophesy, will generally increase the tension, the writer can't count on it working for all readers. Still, if your main character believes it, and within the context of the story prophesies can come true, then the reader may suspend their own disbelief and come along for that ride.

Naturally, the fear of the unknown is a huge driver in all of horror, mystery, thriller, and perhaps everything within the speculative genres at large. There has to be some element of the unknown, or readers will quickly become bored. In my experience, it isn't enough for the character to not know things, the reader must also not know things. Yet, if there is no structure at all, or no information given, the reader will become ungrounded, lost, and frustrated with the story. The writer must strike a balance.

And as a commenter noted on my last post, there are many other items to consider, such as the excitement/thrill factor, and the idea that one is living in a unique time or place. The former will come from a story that handles issues of control, the unknown, etc., with validity and good pacing. The latter is an interesting twist that can be included in any story, but has to be used with great care. It can feel much too contrived if our heroine has been destined from birth to Do Something Great. Writers must be more careful about how they bring the reader along, and make the reader feel special just for reading the book.

Next post I'll take a look at a few classic stories that do or do not follow these issues. Therein may (or may not) lie some insight into how to put together a story like this, and not just write the same old thing.


Image Credit:  "Apocalypse" used with generous permission from Chris Martin, Velvet--Glove on deviantART.

My comments: This work of art is dynamic, full of energy. The tones are of stone and earth, with lightning and a sense of lava. The movement feels like grinding, mixing, breaking, and the results are cracking and fire. The repetitive swirling elements impart a sensation that this continues on and on, or is part of a cycle of destruction. A great conceptual piece that leads to the idea of the 'End of the World' without literally portraying it. That gives us, the writers, lots of leeway in how we let it inspire us.

Artist comments:  " ... as I explored the possibilities of merged trap shapes and textures further it morphed into something resembling an end-of-the-world scenario. Not my usual thing at all but I actually quite enjoyed developing the atmosphere and drama of this image."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The End of the World in Fiction - Obsessions and Responsibilities

The popularity of the movie '2012' is just one more indication of our collective obsession with the end of the world. As a SF/F/H writer, I believe this is all well and good.  But as a scientist, I have some concerns about how people view global disaster scenarios, and what that means for their overall perception of risk. After all, if people think the most likely cause of their personal demise will be an asteroid impact, they will think about it, vote around it, and change their lives because of it. Since I know it is far more likely that any individual human will die of cancer than an asteroid impact, I'd suggest they spend more time thinking about how much fiber is in their diet. But popular culture often wins out against common sense.

There are a vast host of scenarios for the end of the world, such as a solar flare, pandemic disease, climate change, and the old standby, massive impact. The art offered here is Solar Wrath illustrating the fate of two planets being cooked by an active star. The point isn't to try to say these events are impossible; of course they are possible, they are simply very, very unlikely. I love to read and write stories about various speculative ideas, disasters included, but I know where the fiction ends and science begins. You might want to take a look at a previous post (The Norway Spiral and the Difference Between Fiction, Lies, and Truth) for more of my ideas on that topic.

So what are the factors that cause us to be obsessed with global disaster scenarios? What inspires our sense of fear? I'd like to highlight four issues I think are important: perception of control, scale of event, religious overtones, and confronting the unknown.

Perception of Control.  The Fear - Some people have become almost hysterical when thinking about the plots of movies like '2012' and 'Deep Impact.' Yet the concept of a house fire, for example, does not generally cause this kind of reaction. People believe they have a measure of control over their fire risk. They can buy irons with an automatic shut off, they can stop smoking in the house, they can ensure matches are safely stored away from small hands.

The Reality - Yes of course, these actions will lower the risk of fire. But you can't control how your neighbors act, you can't see through your walls to the state of the wiring, and you can't keep people from pitching lit cigarettes out their car windows into your yard. In the end, it is still more likely you will have your house burn down than be killed by an asteroid, no matter what you do. Lifetime odds of dying by fire or smoke - 1 in 1,116; and for asteroid impact - 1 in 200,000. (source for data)

Scale of Event.  The Fear - Asteroid impacts are seen as more horrific than car accidents - one accident can only kill so many people. A big asteroid can take out the entire planet. So even though people are afraid of car accidents, they hold a more deep seating, horrified sort of fear for global disasters. Large scale disasters could destroy whole cultures, populations, and ways of life. These are the things people look to in the hopes of having a legacy beyond their own demise.  If these can be lost, then there is truly no hope for any kind of legacy, progeny included.

The Reality - Again, this has nothing to do with the real risk. We are more proportionately concerned with the bigger event, but it is that much less likely to happen. Odds of being killed in a car accident - 1 in 100. Now that's scary.

Spiritual Overtones.  The Fear - Many people had their first exposure to the idea of the end of the world in a religious or spiritual context. Several religions have writings describing the end of the world, and some have tried to predict it. There is a part of our psyche looking for a 'deeper meaning' to all events, and religion is how many of us express, investigate, and fulfill that need. On top of this is a current cultural idea that 'Mother Earth' is not pleased with how we have been taking care of the planet. There is an article in USA today which talks about people who are likely (and literally) to "buy" the plot of '2012'; those who believe "humanity is creating its own ecological disasters and desperately needs ancient indigenous wisdom." Of course this may be true. But we need to be careful about where we look for that wisdom.

The Reality - The issue with '2012' is that the plot is built from a misunderstanding of the ancient wisdom of the Maya, whose long count calendar comes full circle in 2012. It is a misunderstanding because the end of the world was not what the Maya predicted. They planned a big celebration to mark the end of one long cycle and the beginning of another. It is "a complete fabrication" that 2012 would be a "doomsday or moment of cosmic shifting." (from the USA today article). Apparently, the Maya would be rather surprised at our interpretation of their calendar.

Confronting the Unknown:  The Fear - As scary as a house fire might be, it is a much more known quantity than a solar flare. The unknown is a basic source of worry for all people, with a strong evolutionary driver. You can't predict or prepare for the unknown, by definition; you simply have to trust in your own resources and resilience. In a society as risk-avoidant as ours, where anything you own can be insured, unknown and unpredicted events and risks are abhorrent. Is your home insured against a solar flare? Most of us can't even get good flood insurance.

The Reality - We imagine something familiar or known as predictable, and therefore less scary. Let's consider cancer, something some of us know about all too well. Odds of dying from cancer - 1 in 7. This is far more worthy of getting hysterical over, in my opinion, than that 1 in 200,000 risk of asteroid impact death. Like I said, eat more fiber.

So what to do with this information?  I do not believe the answer is to stop writing stories or stop producing movies. There is certainly a function served by letting people consider their fears and issues in the context of entertainment. But I do think we need to keep an eye on our responsibility to impart correct information when the situation calls for it. Our fiction may take us anywhere, including doomsday type events of disaster and destruction. But that is the fiction. When dealing with people in public, in workshops, press events, book signings, and such, we should be up front about the truth. "So glad you liked my book. No it isn't reality, it is a science fiction story for entertainment. Here is the real deal (blah). Are you getting enough fiber?" (that last bit is a joke, in case you are a literalist) In the end, good education is what we need to rely on to be certain the general public knows the facts. And we have some responsibility to provide that education by representing our ideas in the correct context when the situation calls for it. I'm sure you'd agree that if we have to do actual fear mongering to sell our books, then our books just aren't very good.


Image Credit:  The above art "Solar Wrath" is used with generous permission from the artist, cilios, on deviantART.

My comments:  This work is simple and effective. While the scale is not true to life (for our solar system, say) the ejection of material from the star seems very realistic. The color of the primary grades from yellow to a searing, white hot. I like the way it imparts a sensation of movement and activity, and yes, the sense of doom. I do write horror, after all.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Horror + Humor = Disturbing Dissonance (In A Good Way)

Today, April 1, I start my month of writing a poem-a-day as a part of National Poetry Writing Month, or NaPoWriMo.  (And no that's not an April Fool's joke, although it sounds like it should be.)  I considered several themes around which to base my poems, but could not shake the very first one that came into my head - to use horror art for inspiration.  And not just any horror art, but that genre of horror art that has embedded within it a humorous twist.  The kind of art where the humor and the horror rely on one another to achieve the full effect of the piece.  Given that this is the 'humorous' day of April Fool's, and that I am going to be steeping myself in horror art for the next month, I thought it would be appropriate to lead it off with a horror-humor post.

To be more specific, the kind of horror-humor I am talking about is not the overt kind.  It isn't the kind of horror that is so bad it becomes funny.  It isn't the kind of horror used only as a backdrop for a comic story.  

The kind of art I am talking about is the sort that makes you feel creeped out when you look at it, and then feel creeped out about yourself for enjoying looking at it.  For example I offer TheSadDemiseOfLucyAndTeddy.  I am looking at it right now ... and I am smiling.  I am also horrified.  Creeped out.  And I am feeling bad that I think the impending doom of the clearly unsuspecting girl and her stuffed friend is at all amusing.  And yet the art carries the unmistakable imprint of humor.  The end result is that I am disturbed.  Disturbed with myself and with the art.  I find that very strangeness to be compelling.

Another example is much of Tim Burton's work, as I posted about here earlier this month.  We are alternately repulsed and attracted to his sympathetic and disgusting characters - like the Corpse Bride, whose head is full of maggots, and whose eye keeps falling out.  And yet, having seen the Bride "in person" at Burton's art exhibit, I was taken aback by her beauty.  The figure is really stunning in form and detail.  Looking at her in her entirety, we are forced to reassess our idea of beauty, or at least expand our definition of it.

There is one other artist who comes to mind immediately when I think of this kind of art, and that is Edward Gorey.  I was introduced to Gorey's art by a friend who adored his book The Gashlycrumb Tinies first published in 1962.  This is a truly macabre little book of rhyming couplets describing the demise of twenty six children in alphabetical order.  Gorey is also known for his animated work appearing before the series Mystery!  I was always amused by the heroine in that animation who finds herself upon a stone platform with only her feet tied together.  Instead of using her hands to free herself, she nearly faints, and then waits for some dubious rescue.  The point, of course, is that the humorous element is obvious, and yet so is the dangerous setting.

There is something in this kind of work that asks one to go a little deeper into themselves.  To go inside to the place where we grapple with dissonant emotions (perhaps the same place where 'bitter-sweet' dwells.)  The horror element has a bite we simply can't ignore, but the comic element allows us to linger there, soothed by our amusement long enough to abide.  And then we can once again step back, away, and go look at something else not quite so demanding.

How this might translate into poetry for me, I am not certain.  My first few outlines and concepts seem to be leaning heavily on the side of twisted, strange, and macabre, with very little humor at all.  It may be that my writing will not reflect the humor of these pieces, but instead the darkness that dwells beneath.  I'll have to wait for the end of April to see what the muse insists on producing.  I imagine it will be a very entertaining, and disturbing, ride.


Image Credits:  "TheSadDemiseOfLucyAndTeddy" is used with gracious permission by the artist, zilla774 of deviantART.

My Comments:  I find the piece riveting.  Lucy is small, unsuspecting.  The monster is outrageously huge and slavering.  Although, if not for the title, I might have read any number of possibilities into this piece.  Perhaps Lucy is a bit twisted herself, and this is her demonic friend.  Or her slave?  A beast summoned by her mighty power?  Lucy might be a nasty sorceress in training, you know.  Wonderful ideas for poems and stories abound ...

Artist Comments:  Of this piece the artist says amusingly, "Also known as 'lucy and teddy get pwned. srs bsns.'  Every now and again I seem to get the urge to do this style of art. Isn't it odd how i can swing from one style of horror, to this. Is this my softer side coming out? Go figure." (Even the artist thinks of this as the softer side of horror :)

Prompt the Muse #3 - Thursday Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Saturn's rings
Finish this sentence, and add another 200 words, "The April Fool's Day joke was on us when our first probe arrived at the planet's ring system and we found that, instead of rock and ice, the rings were amazingly made of ..."

Image credit:  NASA - Saturn's Rings, enhanced color