Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaNoWriMo 2011 Begins

Image:  NaNoWriMo 2011
Midnight, the start of November 1, 2011.  Which of course means NaNoWriMo is underway.  For the first time I have an outline worked out for the novel I intend to write (or start writing, anyway) for a NaNoWriMo.  Fifty thousand words is short for a novel, especially one of mine, given how I like to crank out text.  So NaNo is really an opportunity for me to get a story out and rolling.

It's also an opportunity to reach out to other writers, new and old, local and distant.  It's a great place to look for blogs and tweeple to follow.  (I can't even believe 'tweeple' is a 'word.')  Hanging out on the Forums is also a great source of time-wasting amusement.  Seeing as how the daily work of a writer can be so solitary, NaNoWriMo provides a way to include more interaction.  As well as some fun.  Good luck with the writing ...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Real Zombies, Immortality, Mad Science, and Overreacting - Part I: Exhibitionists

I picked up the August 2011 edition of Rue Morgue magazine because it had "Fright Night - Revisited and Revamped" on the cover.  Yes, I am a vampire fan, and that is one of my favorite vampire movies of all time.  So I nabbed the magazine for later perusal.  Took me a month and half to have the time to open it, and then when I did, it wasn't the Fright Night article that demanded my attention.

Instead, it was an interview with Gunther Von Hagens, the force behind the creepy, fascinating, and provocative "Body Worlds" exhibits.  The article is subtitled, "On morbid art, controversial science and facing his own mortality."  I am a scientist, a speculative fiction writer, and a patron of romantigoth.  My mind is trying to reconcile the meanings and implications of Body Worlds, the process of "plastination," and the person of Gunther Von Hagens all at once, and the cognitive dissonance is going to make my head es-plode.  (See photo, zombie person, mouth wide.)

I'll try to hit this one step at a time.  Today, Part I - Exhibitionists ...

It's October; the month for us horror buffs to reach forth and express ourselves to our personal utmost.  For me, that includes holding a haunted dinner party, checking out bizarre art on deviantArt, and allowing my interests to roam places that normally squick me.  Like Body Worlds.  My interest in horror tends to romantigoth, as I've mentioned.  Goth is not about death, as much an outsider might think it is.  Goth is an aesthetic.  Romantigoth in particular is filled with shadows, mystery, longing, and a deeply emotional sensibility.  The icons might be spiders, skulls, blood, fangs, and black lace, but the goal is the creation of an atmosphere that matches the emotion.

Body Worlds is anything but romantigoth.  It is brightly lit, with the mystery of the inner workings of the human body laid bare.  There are no secrets here, as there wouldn't be given that the stated purpose of Body Worlds is to "educate the public on anatomy, human physiology, health and wellness."  And yet there is no escaping the comparison to horror - zombies at the least.  In Body Worlds, the skinless dead are shown riding horses, having babies, ice skating, and having sex.  Yes. (See photo, plastic person, mouth wide)

Anecdotes suggest that some people do leave the exhibits, after seeing diseased lungs and livers, and give up smoking and drinking for the rest of their lives.  I also have no doubt people know a lot more anatomy after they leave, as well.  But I cannot get over the fact that these are real dead people, not mock-ups or models.  I can't even handle a visit to the mummy exhibit in the Louvre.  I can't even look at the mummies of cats in the Louvre.  First of all, it makes me sad.  Dead is dead, after all.  Second, it seems so 'not right' that we have taken bodies from burial sites without their permission and turned them into exhibits.

This exhibit, as well as the mummies in the Louvre, say, are hardly the first time human remains have been displayed (even used as art) and promoted for general viewing.  For example there is the "Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins" cathedral in Rome.  A few lines from Wikipedia - "The church is most famous as an ossuary, known as the Capuchin Crypt, in which is displayed the bones of over 4,000 Capuchin friars. The bones are fashioned into decorative displays in the Baroque and Rococo style. The popularity of the crypt as a tourist attraction once rivalled the Catacombs."  I don't think education about skeletal structure was the point, here.  We humans want to find a means to go on forever, and whether it is our agreeing to be mummified, or others using our remains to create art and educational exhibits, I think a large part of it stems from that desire for eternity.

Now, the people whose remains are exhibited in Body Worlds did indeed leave permission, so that part at least is fine with me.  Strange, but as a scientist,  I understand that people would want this; would want their remains to go on teaching after they have no more use for them.  In the past, such bodies might have been used for dissection, or have individual organs removed for examination, etc.  Until recently, the idea of leaving your entire body behind, infused with plastic forever, was not an option.  According to the site, there are about 11,000 donors for "plastination" currently on record, about 1000 already dead and another 10,000 who are still living.  I think it is unlikely that all of these people have education of future generations as their major goal.  Instead, I think for many this is another attempt by the human mind to achieve a form of immortality.

After all, humans have been fascinated forever with the questions of what is death, what happens after death, what can we do to put death off as long as possible, and why is it zombies eat brains, anyway?  Okay, so the plastic people on exhibit are not really zombies.  But even the idea of zombies itself comes from our continued fascination with death and undeath.  For some, I imagine zombivication is their ideal choice (as I said, I'm more the vampire type.  Zombies are gross.)  Being bitten by a zombie usually means you become one.  It is immortality, after a fashion.  Hopefully they really, really like brains.  (See photo, man attacked by zombie cat, mouth wide.) 

Image Credits: Zombie, on Flikr via Creative Commons, CC 2.0, Plastic Person, Available free download for students at the Body World site.  Zombie kiteh by Icanhazcheezburger.com

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Touching Science, and a bit of Sci-Fi, in the National Parks

Image: Postcard in French of Sci-Fi Titan Trip
I'm spending the week in Nante, France attending an international planetary science conference.  This year we are having a joint conference between the European Planetary Science Congress, and the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.  I'm looking forward to getting updated on the latest mission results, but even more, I relish the chance to interact with people who over the years have become as close as family.  It's always a great geek fest.

I am a strong advocate of the involvement of scientists in education and public outreach, and have long been a fan of natural settings to bring science and people together.  Planetary science and public engagement has a perfect nexus point in the National Parks.  Many of us have looked upon the geology of Earth in these places and seen there the landscapes of other planets, real and imagined. 

I noted a poster presentation here at the conference by Tyler Nordgren that focuses directly on this subject.  I had not realized, but Nordgren published a book on just this topic last May entitled Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks.  I haven't yet had a chance to peruse a copy, but I'm looking forward to checking it out. 

The picture above is featured on Nordgren's poster presentation and conference abstract (1).  It is quite eye catching, and one of a series that uses a mix of old travel posters and a bit of science fiction as a hook to engage the viewer.  It also illustrates the ways in which science and science-fiction are merging in planetary sciences today.  This trip hasn't happened yet, but it is easy to imagine it.  Looking at the landscapes of Earth, it becomes that much more clear what visiting other worlds might be like.  Comparative planetology has always been a strong tool, and Nordgren notes the example of "the relationship between geysers in Yellowstone National Park with recently discovered geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus" as a way to create a touchstone between here and there.

The sci-fi fan in me wants to go on that trip in the poster.  Really really badly.  That's part of why I became a scientist to begin with, so I could get that much closer to such a dream.  In the National Parks we have another means to get "that much closer" - the dark skies and evocative landscapes of everyone's favorite planet, Earth.

Credit:  (1) Image and abstract - T.E. Nordgren, EPSC Abstracts Vol. 6, EPSC-DPS2011-1175, 2011 EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Memories After a Decade

Photo: Tuning Fork
I don't usually post drafts of poems on my blog, since that makes them generally unpublishable in any other medium. But this one has been living in my files in one form or another for ten years, obviously, and I think today I'm going to put it right here. 


on the skin of the planet
if you put your head down
and try to rest, you can hear it.
The prongs of a tuning fork
suddenly struck; a note rumbling
deep into the earth
rumbling into the core
of the earth,       rumbling.
It’s the sound of millions
of hearts, pounding like
the feet of an army
going to off to war.

This was how I felt at the time. Restless and afraid. Unable to sleep, and hearing a rumble like war. It was actually war, of course. This kind of hatred made no sense to me. It still does not. When I write science fiction or fantasy, I wonder, is this condition a human one, or will my 'alien' people suffer from it, too? Often the answer is yes, since it is through them as a lens that I see and expound upon my own perception of humanity.

Although after ten years, my personal focus has changed. I'm glad to see it, too. To use this as a means of seeing what is positive in our species, and our planet. My facebook status said this:

My tribute today is to think of friends and family, concentrate on the present, and remember that even mountains eventually fall. Today, sitting on a lanai in view of the Pacific, I breathe. "You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty." - Gandhi

Nothing else to be said.  Once you've played the Gandhi card, you better be done talking :)

Image Credit:  stimmgabel on flikr via Creative Commons, CC 2.0

Monday, August 8, 2011

Trilogies - Why Do We Finish Reading, or Not?

Image: Covers for The Coldfire Trilogy
As a fan, the answer to this question does not really matter to me.  After all, my reading time is limited, and if I'm not feeling compelled to continue a trilogy I won't.  I don't sit and analyze why I haven't gone out and picked up #2 or #3 yet, it simply does not happen.  There is a host of great speculative fiction out there and I read what grabs me.  I'm not the sort of person who feels compelled to read a third book because I've read the first two.

But as a writer, the answer to this question definitely matters to me.  What is it that keeps a person reading through a trilogy?  What is it that leads a person to stop, even after investing the time of reading the first one or two?

The trilogy that comes to mind as an example is one from a favorite author, C.S. Friedman.  I thought In Conquest Born was a great novel, and I list The Madness Season on my list of top ten sci-fi books.  I'll generally give anything she writes a try without looking at reviews, since I know that her style and content appeal to me. 

Now, every trilogy needs a great first book.  It won't go anywhere without a lead off that makes people want to come back for more.  The formulaic story-in-itself seems to remain powerful.  A book that can stand alone but that also leaves some curious loose ends usually makes for a solid first book.  This naturally creates a challenge for the second book, and again, the formula of 'darker and deeper' usually works.  This would be like The Empire Strikes Back, where the story has our heroes lose over and over yet it leaves the door wide open for a triumphant return.

I picked up Black Sun Rising without knowing it was to be the first part of The Coldfire Trilogy.  I liked it, even though one of the protagonists isn't very likable, himself.  It had an interesting premise, and a new twist on the intersection between fantasy and sci-fi, which is something the author does well.  It followed the pattern of a great novel that could stand alone, but that had some very intriguing loose ends.  I was motivated to get the second book.

There my interest waned.  I was surprised, since again the book followed the pattern of 'darker and deeper' with a character getting killed off and some unhappy events that make a reader desire to see a little justice.  But I never bought the third book.

Sitting back and looking at the reason why, after all this time, I realize that I was truly turned off by said bad-guy protagonist.  There is also a good-guy protagonist, and that was adequate balance in the first book, but not the second.  The bad-guy protagonist is the more interesting character of the two, which is not a surprise, but he is so loathesome in the second book that I could no longer relate to him nor care what happened to him.  Hints are given as to what conflicts will arise in book three, and perhaps even to a change of perspective for bad-guy, but I wasn't sufficiently interested to read and discover how it all turns out.

Now, given the success of the series, I'm assuming my opinion is in the minority.  This was years ago, of course.  Had I started the series recently, perhaps I would have kept on with it.  Still, it interests me as a writer that I chose to stop reading when I did.  I thought the world and premise were interesting.  The trilogy seems to follow established patterns.  It was something about the characters.  Perhaps I have a low tolerance for protagonists that are also antagonists.  One can't write a trilogy that will appeal to each and every reader, after all.

I note that this did not dissuade me from picking up other books by the author.  I will take a look at any new book she has - I recently bought the first of another series.  I'll let you know how it works out for me, in a second post that is 'darker and deeper' than this one.

Image Credit - Covers for the Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman, open source promotional image.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Trying to Tweet, and How That Changes Everything

Photo: Song Sparrow in Song
I've heard it so many places, now, that writers need to create a robust online platform.  It took some time to really understand what was meant by "platform" in this context, and what would make it "robust."  I was glad to see that a blog was included, since I enjoy reading and writing blogs.  I was less than thrilled to see that both Facebook and Twitter were considered essential.

I am on Facebook, but my presence is spotty and sporadic.  It is also purely social.  At this time, I do not see my using that as a major tool to connect with other readers and writers.  So I turned to the other medium to tackle it first.  Twitter.  Given my preference for writing longer, fewer blog posts instead of the sort of daily-two-paragraph approach, the idea of tweeting seems a bit non-intuitive.

After some thought, I decided to simply sign up and see what I needed to do to put myself out on Twitter as a means of making connections with other real fans of science and its fiction (and fantasy, the weird, etc.)  I was surprised to find that the attempt to write a 160 character bio had me thinking about the entire basis for why I write in the first place.  It shouldn't have been a surprise, since writing a good haiku makes you reassess your view of reality.  And yet, well, I was surprised.

There are a plethora of "how to write a good twitter bio" articles out there, so I read many of them.  That is my natural approach to a problem, being a scientist - do research.  In this case the research tells you how to write the bio great detail, but you of course have to step away from that and into yourself to find out what you really want to write, and why.  I wanted to create a pithy, good bio, that included the keywords that would allow me to connect with like-minded folk.

In order to do that I had to think about this blog, my stories, and why I write anything at all, either fact or fiction.  I've written novels, textbooks, articles, papers, proposals, poems, and other words that start with "p."  All of it is me, what drives me, and what makes me want to share with others.  For some reason, taking a good, in-depth look at this is hard.  After a few attempts to write it down in sentences, I started simply writing the keywords.  What were the words that would match me to a potential reader of my tweets, my blog, my books, and what would match me to others, so I could read their stuff?

The first string was easy, since I have it in my title here - astronomy, science, science-fiction, horror, speculative, fantasy, writer, reader.  Was that it?  Hmmm.  What was packed inside those words?  What were the aspects that really appealed?  So astronomy and science generated geology, biology, planets, universe, and cosmos.  Then adding science-fiction generated space, space travel, space exploration, and technology.  Horror interests me most when it is paranormal - about ghosts, vampires, and demons.  Fantasy is something that I like in almost any flavor, but gravitates to the sort of high fantasy that seems medieval with monsters, swords, and dragons.

At this point I felt I was getting much too specific.  After all, it isn't the swords that really matter, it is the story - story, myth, legend, tale.  What drives it all, what makes it work, is how we bring our understanding of this world, the real world (as we see it) into the fabricated worlds - history, culture, psychology, philosophy.  It is about character, life, humor and all other emotion.  How do we think, laugh, know?  What part does the writer play as an educator, a communicator, a translator, helping our readers jump the gap to a new way of thinking that entertains them, inspires them, but also helps them see the real world in a new way?

So as a list, it is merely a basic starting point, but it taught me something important about what I want to write, and why.  It comes down to that last sentence - seeing myself as a communicator, an educator, a story teller, and that desire to share that spark, the smallest glimmer of a new way of thinking.

And now to condense this into 160 characters, including spaces ...

Image Credit: Alan Vernon, Song Sparrow in Song, on Flikr via Creative Commons, CC 2.0.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bookish Inspiration

The British Library in London has an amazing display of old, even ancient, classic books and texts.  The exhibit takes up only one room, but it is impressive anyway given what is in there.  I do not usually take notes when I am browsing a museum.  I like to feel as though I can do whatever my muse dictates, and not feel self-conscious about my meanderings.  But this time I felt compelled, since I knew I would not remember all the details of the fascinating works if I didn't record a few specifics.

One of the oldest items to catch my attention was a copy of the "Gem Hup Sutras" dated from the 3rd century AD.  I was drawn off at that point by a special room dedicated to the Magna Carta.  Four copies of the Magna Carta still survive; issued first in 1215 and revised a few times until 1297.  This was the document that presented the idea that the law was a power in its own right, and even the King was subject to it.  The library also exhibits an original copy of the 1410 Canterbury Tales, of which apparently 80 copies are in existence.  The illuminated text is definitely more impressive in person, as always seems to be the case.  (I remember seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time, wondering 'why is this so famous' and then getting up close.  It is, in fact, rather spectacular.)  One presentation case was dedicated to Leonardo di Vinci, and had a notebook and loose papers with dates from 1496 to 1508, including Notes on Arithmetic, Studies of Mechanics, and Notes on Architecture.  The collection included music, like the earliest known draft of Handel's Messiah, dated 1741.  It is fascinating to me to see such drafts, where notes are inked in, then crossed out and replaced with others.  Unlike a single word in a novel, we know each and every note of the melody of these pieces today.  And then there were some of Jane Austin's original notebooks and journals dating to around 1792, from when she was 12-17 years old.  Looking at these works is so inspiring - books are powerful.  As a group they represent so much human thought, history, and culture. 

While I don't imagine to produce something as profound as these works, seeing them still motivates me to write, and to dream.  I'd love to hold a hardback book in my hand, something I wrote, with intriguing space/fantasy art on the cover, great quality paper pages, and that distinct, exciting new-book smell.  I want to sign them, give them to my friends and family, and say, "Meet these people I care about and go on this adventure with them.  I hope you love it."

Image Credit:  Canterbury Tales, Public Domain

Friday, May 6, 2011

Mr. Hyde Claims His Name

Photo: Mary King's Close
My post is actually about reading Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, but I have to start with mentioning that I am in the process of phasing out my pen name, and using my birth name for my writing.  I had chosen a nice comfortable pen name to simplify my life into categories, but it has actually made things much more complicated in the long run.  So like Mr. Hyde, the time has come for me to let go of the created persona.  Bryce Ellicott will always be part of my mind's internal writing committee, but for the time being anyway, I've chosen to post and publish my speculative fiction under J.A. Grier.

Speaking of speculative fiction - I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that my education is lacking in the area of speculative classics.  I haven't read either Frankenstein or Dracula from cover to cover.  But I can at least say I've finally read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (J&H, hereafter).

Edinburgh celebrates its most famous authors with a museum dedicated to writers.  I was a little disappointed that it didn't highlight more of the writings themselves, but instead concentrated on biographical information.  I was, however, able to purchase a copy of Stevenson's famous novel and read it while I was in the country.  It felt like something of an obligation especially given that I've already admitted to reading very little Burns.  

Stevenson is perhaps best known for Treasure Island but all of his books have some aspect of adventure or the unknown in them.  I was expecting J&H to be more of a standard horror story, but instead it reminded me of other, more psychological works like the Metamorphosis or Crime and Punishment - books that examine good and evil in the human condition.  It paints a detailed picture of the relationship between the main characters, and the shock they experience at finding out that (spoiler here, if you happen to be living in a speculative-fiction-free-cave) J&H are one in the same person.

I've posted a bit recently about how a location or experience might inspire a writer.  Certainly a visit to this location inspired me as a reader.  Let me explain a bit more.  Earlier in the day, I had visited an Edinburgh attraction called "The Real Mary King's Close."  This attraction is a relatively new, 2002-ish, tour under the city of Edinburgh where there are still buried streets and dwellings from centuries past.  The researchers have done a good job of presenting both the factual and more sensational aspects of life in those times to maximize the entertainment value.  Given my own occasionally squeamish nature, I found the whole thing horrific, alarming, creepy, and thus good fodder for stories.

There are rooms in the Close where they know the names of specific people, and how they died of the plague.  There are other rooms where they point to the 17th century plaster and tell you it is made of horse hair and human ash (True or not, it's still creepy.  Do not lean on walls.)  How about the apartment they don't let visitors into anymore since they found the walls were treated with arsenic?  Let's keep going.  Apparently all human excrement, including the blood from animal slaughter, was tossed into the narrow streets to run down to the river.  This was a popular shopping avenue, too, so patrons apparently would stand around inches deep in ... well ... nasty stuff ... whilst buying their daily provisions.  OK, it is not as if I have not encountered descriptions of such life before.  I am a reasonably educated historian.  But it never had the same visceral impact until I toured the streets themselves - the narrow, dusty, dark, foreboding underground streets.  Very effective.

Fast forward about six hours, to my reading J&H in my dimly lit accommodations.  What might have been a mildly creepy story became a very alarming and horrific tale of science gone wrong.  The environment in which the story took place would have been far more like the old streets of the Close than the open streets of the Royal Mile where one now finds stores named "Real Scotland." 

It makes me wonder, how can I as a writer bring that "I am really there" sensation to my reader, especially when the setting is a fantastical one?  An author might take the Tolkien approach and dedicate whole chapters to describing the setting.  But that generally makes me want to keep skipping ahead until something actually happens.  There are schools of thought that suggest saying as little about the setting as possible - just sliding in a word here or there to imply the nature of the atmosphere.  But that also does not work for me, since I like to feel far more grounded when I read.

What is your approach?  How do you try to get the reader to really feel like they are present in the setting?  Well, aside from photos.  I don't think I could stomach that with this particular subject matter, literally.

Image credit: Mary King's Close, public domain, wikipedia

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Muggle in King's Cross Station

Image:  Chapel of the Thistle
As I mentioned in my last post, my mind has been on the topic of how environment and location can serve as writing inspiration for speculative fiction. I thought I might have spotted a bit of J.K. Rowling's inspiration when I visited Saint Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Here one can find the Chapel of the Thistle, home to the Order of the Thistle. Faded light leaks through stained glass illuminating the intricate carved seats, each of which holds the coat of arms of its current owner. I can see how something like this might influence the overarching mood of the ruling structure of the magical world. It is easy to imagine the High Mugwump in the center seat, while grave conversations of magical import lie heavy in the air. There may also have been inspiration here for the Order of the Phoenix as an "heraldic order" of knights errant.

Our trip from Edinburgh to London ended at King's Cross Station. Pulling in on platform seven meant that looking for platform 9 3/4 was almost an obligation. We certainly love the idea of doors to another world. Walking through a wall, a mirror, or an old wooden wardrobe full of fur coats - it is basically all the same desire to be instantly transported someplace new, amazing, and full of adventures. We are captivated by the idea that it might happen so fast, that it might be just around the corner, if only we knew what to look for.

As it stands, the "entrance" to platform 9 3/4 is actually on platform 8, and is a mural painted on the wall with half a metal cart sticking out. This might be a result of all the construction going on, or the fact that platform 9 can't be reached without a valid ticket. But I was not disappointed - you and I as speculative writers are supposed to be of a strong imaginative bent, right?  And it was great fun to stand in a short line of other fans waiting for their turn to get captured on film, pushing half of an immovable cart against solid cement.

I left thinking this - that speculative fiction is the muggle version of magic. Our imaginations create something that is real for us, alone, and then our pens (or computers) make it real for someone else. The magic is that starting place, where one person sees a wall, and another sees a door. Casting the spell is what comes after, when the second person writes a story that lets that first person see the door, too. Even more magical is that no two readers who choose to walk through that door will end up in the same universe. Our spell books have a power we don't quite understand, ourselves.

Definitely magic.

Image Credit:  snigl3t on Flickr via Creative Commons, CC 2.0.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Few Poetic Musings

Image: Scott Monument, Edinburgh
National Poetry Month continues unabated, as months will do. My posts, on the other hand, have something of a more stochastic nature. I am late in thanking poet Laura Stophan, of Author Amok, She has been posting a poem a day from Maryland writers, including one of mine called Shower Sprite on April 16, that originally appeared in The Newsletter Inago years ago. Her blog is a great place to find poetry that is accessible to readers of all ages.

I've had the good fortune to have lately visited the land of poet Robert Burns. I'll admit that his poetry has always been difficult for me, since parsing the dialect takes a dedication I've never applied. Visiting the country, however, does provide plenty of motivation. It's amazing to see how the Scots love their writers, particularly Scott, Stephenson, and Burns. You are probably aware that he has his own night of happy reading and revelry on January 25th. And it turns out his poetry is a bit easier to parse after a "wee dram" of whiskey.

Or two.

There is a wonderful, mournful sensibility to be found in the damp castles and misty cliffsides of Scotland. I wasn't expecting to find inspiration for my own horrific and fantastical poems, which seems obviously misguided in hindsight. Certainly on the train ride in, with the green hillsides full of young lambs and searingly bright yellow flowers, I wasn't thinking fantasy. And then you get the chance to walk through the narrow stone streets of Edinburgh, thick with fog, and your imagination starts to roll. (Even though many of those walks were a search either for afternoon tea or Indian food.)

I'm curious to know what locations you have found the most inspiring for your speculative fiction writing. Any theme - horror, fantasy, sci-fi, the weird, whatever. A specific place? City? What venues do you find get your imagination flowing?


Image: My own picture of the Scott Monument in the heart of Edinburgh.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Some Science in the Writing: Elemental Poetry

Image: Gold as an Element
You may recall I conducted an interview with scientist Andrew Rivkin a little while back.  It turns out that this scientist, like many of us, has a not-so-secret artistic bent.  Certainly part of what motivates me to write science fiction is my interest and enthusiasm for the underlying science itself.  And at the same time, being a science fiction fan makes the science more interesting - it makes me wonder what really can or cannot be done, and in what time frame.  Will I live to see humans on Mars?  Workable fusion power?  And where are those flying cars, anyway?

I've strayed a bit off topic, here.  The topic is the intersection of science and art, and the specific example is Andrew Rivkin's music blog, Imperturbable Music.  A place where he usually posts his own music creations, but for the month of April each year is the place where he posts his poem-a-day.  This year he has chosen to write each poem about a chemical element.  Part of the fun is that after the first two poems, he's decided not to put the name of the element in the title, so there is a bit of a guessing game involved.

The rest of the fun is in the poems themselves.  Here is an excerpt from "Metal and Metaphor."

You may think it more metaphor than metal:
shades of blonde and best-sellers,
and high-limit credit cards,
but most of it ends up in junkyards
inside rusting-out beaters.

As I understand it, platinum is used in catalytic converters.  There isn't much of it in one converter, and the energy to remove it from old cars isn't worth the amount of platinum you would get out.  But over time, apparently quite a lot of the stuff is being reallocated from the Earth's crust in rocks to the surface of the Earth in junkyards.  It's quite possible that if and when we get our limitless fusion energy, people will go back and mine the rusting cars for platinum, since it will be easier to find it there than to go mining for it anew.  The idea of the future mining of ancient junkyards is certainly a great idea for a story.

The poet notes here how the word "platinum" is so overused that the first visions it brings up have nothing to do with the element itself.  Platinum albums, platinum blonde, platinum Visa.  Gold is apparently just so passe.  And platinum is headed in that direction - I think titanium is going to be the new cool metal to reference.  Perhaps this underscores part of the narrator's point, that eventually the once highly prized platinum is going to end up in tiny flakes, scattered through the trash of our society.

We are already drinking flakes of gold in our Goldschlager, and we know where that ends up.


Image Credit:  gold7 by Mrs. Pugliano on flickr via Creative Commons, CC2.0

Monday, April 4, 2011

What Makes a Good Writing Prompt - Interview with Writer and Poet Amy Grier

Image: Amy Grier and a wax Patrick Stuart at 
Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, Las Vegas, NV
Writing prompts have been on my mind. I find a good prompt to be a good tool, and that is part of the reason I am creating my own archive of general writing prompts on this blog. During April, many poets post lists of daily prompts to help keep writers on their "poem a day" schedule. I had a conversation with writer and poet Amy Grier on the subject, and gleaned some great ideas, and new insight, into what makes prompts effective for any kind of writing.

Amy possesses an eclectic background that informs her many styles and platforms of writing, from plays and memoirs to poems and textbooks. She has two MA's, one in Literature and Writing from Rivier College, and another in East Asian Studies from Washington University. Her BS is in Music Education from Clarion University. Her most recent publication was the poem "The Feeling of Autumn" in Poetry East, No. 60, 2010. She has also had a short story published in Dream International Quarterly, has produced content for a series of textbooks for teaching English to Chinese middle school students, and is a certified professional resume writer (among much else). She enjoys blogging, and is planning a revamp of her successful site "Living Poetry."

Bryce: "What do you think makes for a good writing prompt?"

Amy: "A good writing prompt must spark imagination, emotion, and intellect. The prompt should make you go “Oh!” and immediately deliver an imaginative focus. It needs to prod you to start thinking organically and naturally, not something that feels like homework. Not every prompt will do that for everybody, but a good prompt should attempt it."

Bryce: "What sorts of prompts can spark that kind of engagement? What needs to be present or be avoided?"

Amy: "Prompts must be specific, not vague. A prompt that is too vague won't help you go someplace that allows you to explore where you are psychologically in this moment.  For example, the prompt "write a poem with a profession as the title" is not as helpful as the prompt "write a poem about your first experience with nursing." This immediately sparks ideas. Some people will think of breastfeeding, others about their own time as a nurse, while some people will think about their first surgery and a specific nurse that was there. This creates the opportunity to prod imagination, draw on emotion, and engage the intellect. The word "nursing" is both comfortable and threatening. The intellect might generate thoughts of caretaking, being elderly, parenthood, illness, medical procedures, and more. The word “Nursing” activates your brain in all these ways."

Bryce:  "Tell me a little more about engaging the intellect."

Amy: "Always use a word or words in the prompt with power, a word that has many associations. The prompt "write a poem about an experience you have had with a needle" might seem to border on vague, but the word "needle" is very powerful.  It generates thoughts of sewing, drug use, vaccinations, even needles of minerals in gemstones. The mind will consider the definition of "needle" as well as the historical and cultural implications. You can get an untold number of poems from that prompt, or short stories, material for a novel, or whatever."

Bryce: "Can you leave us with a few specific examples of poetry prompts that you like?"

Amy: "Write a poem with a line in a foreign language. Write a poem that starts and ends with a line of dialog. Write a poem about a nightmare you had as a child. Include a cartoon character’s catch phrase in your poem. A common prompt is to take your favorite poem and use its last line as your first line. This sounds lazy, but it can work, because it gives you a concrete place to start. It gives you something to build around. Ultimately, if that line is dropped when you edit the poem, that’s fine.

Bryce: "Thanks!"

Did you like this little interview?  Useful?  I would be happy to do an interview, guest writer, or other type of blog swap on a topic of mutual interest, just drop me a note in the comment line.

Pax, Bryce

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Alive Like Grass That's On Fire, Even

Image:  Life In Me Book Cover
National Poetry Month is upon us, and I am once again hoping to join in the madness.  I have a few different schemes in mind to get involved.  The first actually started last year - I mentioned in earlier posts that I had a poem selected to be part of a poetry anthology.  The book is now out and available as of the first day of April.  I am so very pleased and honored to be included in this project.

The book is entitled Life in Me Like Grass On Fire: Love Poems.  It was produced by the Maryland Writers Association (MWA), and edited by Laura Shovan.  More than fifty poets are represented, with over 90 poems, so there is a wonderful range of style, subject, and voice.  I have always enjoyed reading anthologies.  I know (or imagine) a concerned editor has cherry-picked a diverse collection of powerful poems, and that the odds are good I will find one that will become enmeshed inside me forever.  I had the great fortune to hear several of my fellow "Life in Me" authors give readings today, and it was the best poetry reading I have attended in some time.  There is some great poetry coming out of the state of Maryland these days.

Love poetry (without some kind of strange speculative quirk) hasn't been the top of my list for projects.  But just at the moment I was becoming aware of the MWA, they were looking for poems for this book.  And I also happened to have several poems I wrote within the last few years that were right on topic and had yet to find homes.  My poem "Officemate" has now found its permanent place of residence.

But I have no intention of straying far from my speculative genres of choice.  Last year for National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo - A Poem A Day In April), I chose to write in the theme of "the horrors of childhood."  I gleaned ten workable poems from that experience, and am two days into the same plan for this year.  Poetry seems to be a very effective platform for the subject - direct and with a strong emotional punch.

What are your plans for writing in April?  Any poetry reading or writing in the lineup?  I'm planning to push through with my poem a day plan, but also keep working on my current fiction writing project.  With that and the blogging, I'd say it was shaping up to be a very full month.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Prompt the Muse #28 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Image:  Dense Object with Rays
A door has opened from here to there. It might be a wormhole in space, a magical wardrobe, or an actual door frame saying "abandon all hope ..." Consider the doors you have seen in speculative fiction, and try to think of something new, or an original twist on a gateway that people have already encountered in literature. Give yourself 150 words to describe your new portal to the unknown.

Image credit:  NASA/Spitzer

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Prompt the Muse #27 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Art: Lake and Castle
Consider a scene that seems ominous and foreboding when experienced at night, but feels beautiful and serene during the day. Describe the elements of the environment that appear different depending on if they are viewed during the day or night. Now consider a scene that is the opposite, one that seems frightening during the day but feels safe and peaceful at night. Again, what are those elements that are perceived differently based on day or night? What is it about these elements that alters the viewer's perceptions? Take 250 words to answer the questions.

Image Credit:  Lake with Castle on a Hill, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Prompt the Muse #26 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Iapetus
There is something dark covering the land, and a character has stumbled across this phenomenon. How did he/she find it? Is it malevolent, beneficial, or neutral? What is it made of, and what does the character plan to do now that this discovery has been made? Answer in 250 words.

Image Credit:  Saturn's moon Iapetus, NASA/Cassini

Saturday, February 19, 2011

New Projects Amidst the Snows and Melts

Photo: Crystal Grotto in Snow
While I wasn't surprised at the usual December rush and January catch-up, I was indeed surprised by the overall magnitude of catch-up. So while the snow variously piled up and melted away (iterate) outside, I was busy inside, trying to finish edits to my novel and keep up with paperwork for a poem to be published in an anthology.

Although I did not keep my blogging schedule, I can at least say I kept my overall writing schedule. But since this blog, and your blogs, remain very important to me, I have once again renewed my commitment to blogging, and have returned - hopefully refreshed and invigorated to tackle the challenges of 2011. Or to continue to tackle them, since the year certainly started off in the fast lane for writing projects.

My novel with the working title "A Warm Day in Hell" is now edited and ready to go for further critique, if necessary, and publishing, if I can hone in on the skill and luck necessary to make that happen.  I'll be taking it to "The Muse in the Marketplace" conference in Boston later this spring.  It should be a great meeting for networking, learning more about how to approach the issue of publishing, and hopefully a chance to get my novel one step closer to the printed page.

Late last year my poem "Officemate" was selected for publication in an anthology being produced by the Maryland Writer's Association.  The book is close to rolling off the presses, so soon I should be able to tell you more about it.  I can already say the Association has been quite proactive in setting up readings, events, panels and more to give area poets a chance to meet, mingle, and present their art.  I am looking forward to participating in a reading or two in the spring and summer, and perhaps attending a writing conference if my schedule permits.

In addition, of course, is this blog.  I have really enjoyed my association with other writers in the blogosphere, and want to expand that.  I've forged a few good partnerships on deviantArt and I think the art helps keep my posts fresh, interesting, and useful (definitely for me, anyway, and hopefully for you, too.)  I've wanted to make sure my own project updates were included on the blog, but were not the focus.  The focus is on writing.  Along with that I did want to continue my 'weekly' writing prompts.  My goal is an archive of about 100, to use as an educational tool, a fun activity, and to keep my own creative wheels turning.  I thought it would take two years to build, but given the pace it is looking like three or four.  They call that the 'Planning Fallacy'  :)

Those are my most concrete goals for the year, but other ideas continue to percolate.  I am working sporadically on two other novels, one a stand alone book, and another a part of the sci-fi series I've been kicking around for so long.  I've been trying to produce a body of short stories to publish, say 25 or so, as a means to hone the craft and get some name recognition, but that goes slowly.  I have eight right now, and I have not worked very hard to get them out on the street.  As always, I'd rather be writing than anything else, and that is not too practical if the goal is publication.  Otherwise, I have my eye on producing a chapbook of poetry centered on my theme from last year, 'the horror of childhood.'  I have about a dozen good drafts in the theme, and want to work through NaPoWriMo (A poem a day in April) to see if I can manage to get the number up to two dozen.  And of course I'll rifle through my ideas and outlines for novels come November, and jump in once again on NaNoWriMo.

That is enough.  It is certainly plenty.  And yet I actually hope I can do more.  I've been kicking around an idea for a workshop for other writers.  This would be something I would offer to writers of science fiction, given my own background in planetary science and astronomy.  One idea was a workshop about why water is considered necessary for life as we know it and the basics of astrobiology, so sci-fi writers can be more informed about the topic when they create their own life, alien or otherwise.  It would be an enjoyable way to meet other writers, and to give something of value to the community.  So the first question for you, is this ... if you as a speculative writer could attend at workshop given by a professional astronomer-type, what subject would most grab you?  What do you hope you'd walk away with?

I'm interested to know how others have set up their goals for the year.  Has 2011 started with a mountain of projects, or has it moved in nice and easily?  What are your major milestones, and your 'if everything goes perfect' plans?  Any meetings or conferences in the works?  Plans for your blogs?  I'd love to hear it ...


Image Credit:  Crystal Shrine Grotto, Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0