Category: Writing

Vikings at Dino’s!

VikingsAtDinosCover I’m pleased to announce that my novel, Vikings at Dino’s, is now available as both a trade paperback and a Kindle e-book. Should you read it? Of course you should!

Vikings is a fantasy novel (unless it’s a science fiction novel) set mostly in the present day. The tone is mostly light (the epigraph is from Douglas Adams) but it isn’t farcical. It concerns one Michael Henderson, who just wants to eat his lunch in peace:

When the Viking war party burst through the front entrance of Dino’s Burgers & More, it was second nature for me to slide quietly under my table. When you’re small for your age, it’s often useful not to be noticed. Once on the floor I waited on events, peering out as best I could past the swivel seats, and wondering what was going to happen. Vikings are not a usual sight at Dino’s. I could tell they were Vikings, because they were wearing bear-skins and helmets with horns on them. There were six or seven of them, all heavily armed. I use the word “heavily” with precision—the battle axes they were toting so nonchalantly looked too big for me to lift. I admit to being suspicious of their motives. Most people I see walking into Dino’s, I figure they are there to eat something. Vikings, well, you have to assume Vikings are there for plunder. The big question in my mind was, were they planning to plunder the living or the dead?

Michael’s lunch is thoroughly spoiled by the incursion; and yes, I’m well aware the horned helmets are questionable. Trust Me; All Shall Be Explained.

The Latest Stuff

Just an update on what’s been going on.

First of all, April was lousy. No major tragedies, mind you; just of a lot of little grinding unpleasantnesses, including the joy and pleasure of getting a tooth crowned for the first time.

Some people find that they feel pretty good the day after getting a tooth crowned. Other people might find that the pain lasts for couple of months. I am not the former, alas, but also not the latter (and there was great rejoicing). And you know how toothaches seem to move around in your jaw, so that it’s not always clear which tooth is actually the culprit? I was more or less convinced for a week or so that I’d be getting a second crown immediately after the first one. This now seems not to be the case (and there was great rejoicing).

All of my hopes for Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ book Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word. I’ve been getting up early every day to spend time in study ever since Easter Tuesday (including Saturdays and Sundays!), and I’m regularly astonished by the blindingly obvious things he pulls out of each line of the text—blindingly obvious after you’ve seen them—that I had never noticed before. I’m keeping notes of my reflections; some of them may appear here in the future. (As some kind of indication of the depth of Erasmo’s writing…50 days after Easter, I’m not quite to the end of the third chapter of Matthew’s gospel.)

Finally, I’m still working George’s Saga, my RPG, in which George, a naive but promising young man of low birth and high destiny, encounters such characters as the grim Sir Fred, Hogworth the peasant, Cyneros the dark wizard, Magister Mayhem, and Princess Floribunda. The game is becoming increasingly goofy. When George applies to Magister Mayhem for quest, he is told:

Magister Mayhem looks at you sourly. “Another adventurer,” he says.
“Just what I needed. Well, at least the Sewers have been restocked.”

He harrumphs a bit more, and then says, “OK, let’s take it from the top.

“The town of Floobham is in desperate straits. I’ve not had breakfast,
and everyone knows that I get nasty when I’m hungry. So you just go
down to the sewers, and see if you can find me a Tasty Egg Maguffin
in one of the chests. Bring it back to me, and I’ll see what else I
can think of.”

He doesn’t look enthused at the prospect. As you turn to go, he adds,
“I’m sure a naive but promising young man like you will have no trouble
finding the entrance to the sewers. You can, heh, keep anything else
you find down there.”

Later, George travels the short distance to Floob Castle, where Princess Floribunda is in dire straits. George goes speedily, eager for a quest that doesn’t involve sewers.

It seems that one of her father’s guests has unleashed cosmic evil within the castle. The princess could resolve the problem easily, she says, had she her magic ring…but she dropped it, and it fell down a grating, and, well, it’s in the palace sewers:

Sewers. More dirty, stinking, filthy, rat-infested sewers. Just what you
needed. You take a deep breath, out here where the air is clear.

“Very good, your Highness. So how do I get into the sewers?”

“Well, that’s the problem,” she says, still staring at the grating.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to go through the palace.”

She turns to look at you.

“Good luck,” she says. “You’ll need it.”

Belief in the Future

Some while back, author Sarah Hoyt offered to do a blog tour in support of her upcoming book Darkship Renegades. I should say, in support of her then upcoming book Darkship Renegages, because said book came out some while back while our Sarah was afflicted with the ‘flu. She asked me for a topic, and I proposed “science fiction and religion”. Here’s the post she was kind enough to send me. Meantime, I liked Darkship Renegades, the sequel to Darkship Thieves; see my review of Darkship Thieves, and if it sounds appealing go get ’em both.

And with that, here are Sarah’s comments on science fiction and religion, with special reference to Darkship Renegades and also to A Few Good Men, a related book.

Belief In The Future
by Sarah A. Hoyt

Science fiction and religion don’t work well together. Our fore-writers seemed to hold on to the quaint notion that in a sufficiently advanced future there would be no religion. That notion was, I grant you, pleasing at least at the time, but religion and humans don’t seem to interact that way. There is no such thing as a knowledge of science vast enough that it banishes the ache of being human which religion addresses. Those who think they are free of religion are merely transferring their fervor to something else – religious, ethical – sometimes ironically the very denial of religious feeling.

And although this is by no means always true, most of the time religion is brought into science fiction it is in opposition to science, or as the foe to be conquered.

This is also not always true or a given. To some extent, early science progressed hand in hand with religion. All religions might go through an anti-science phase, or be anti-science in certain regions or times, but the same curiosity about something bigger than ourselves, in the end, extends to both religion and science.

Only, of course, religion is not logical. It is not logical because it’s not meant to be, because the questions it answers (and gets out of the way) are those that typically have no answer, like “What is the purpose of life” and “what is the sound of one hand clapping.” (Okay, the last one is not, that I know, part of any religion, but it IS the type of imponderable religion addresses.)
The problem, then, with most religion – even the most respectful – brought into a science fiction world and created by a science fiction writer is that the writer usually tries to make it logical.
Look, we can’t help it. We try to make our magic logical, we try to make our history logical, and perforce, if it’s going into a book, the religion we just created gets kicked, shoved, and made – by gum! – logical. Which means unless it’s not a real religion, but something, say, dictated by a computer, or aliens, it won’t impress any religious reader as a true religion.
I had a strong advantage in this, because frankly I don’t write in a logical fashion. No, please, don’t assume this means my world building makes no sense, or that thought doesn’t go into it. I mean that after I do all that planning work in advance, I’ve found it’s more productive to let my subconscious drop its bombs in. I’ve found that often, when I don’t know what I’m doing my subconscious does.

I have, in other circumstances, referred to this as plotting by fits of brilliance. Oftentimes those fits of brilliance end up having to be written out in the final draft. Sometimes they get left in to pad the world. And sometimes, years later, while I’m Standing On the Corner, Minding My Own Business, a forgotten bit of brilliance will explode into a full story.

To an extent that was the case with the Usaian religion in the Darkship world. I hadn’t planned on having religions. Or rather, they’re mentioned, but my main character, Athena Hera Sinistra was not, for logical reasons when you read the book, brought up religious. In fact, she makes a fine muddle of all religions in her mind.

So, there it was, in the outline of the first book, Darkship Thieves, a little scene where Athena sells a gold ring to a pawn shop. My intention was to have this be the moment when she realizes there are practical as well as ethical advantages to not conning and lying your way through life.

I wanted the shop keeper to radiate integrity, even though he deals in “shady” and his entire community is probably illegal. So it occurred to me to make him a member of a proscribed religion. Because I didn’t want to offend any existing religions, and because (though Communism is a religion in that world) I didn’t want him to be a Communist because, well… he’s a merchant and clearly a good one, so I blithely made him a Usaian. (The name coming from the fact someone had just used it, derogatorily at me.) I had great fun having Athena think the eagle is a war god, and such. Fine. A piece of whimsy. Right.


My subconscious had other plans.

I had for some time planned to write a revolution in that world. Or rather, I wanted to write several revolutions, one of them being modeled after the US. Only… Well, I believe in the constitution because while I think our system of government is horrible, it’s the best the world has come up with, as far as I can tell.

However, in a far future, when history has been distorted and vast portions of it erased, why should anyone fight for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?

And there, in my mind in both Darkship Renegades and A Few Good Men were the Usaians, who carried those principles through the ages as received wisdom and with them the certainty that G-d intends them to rebuild the republic.

We get the religion through the eyes of someone who is being converted to it. (There will be more in twenty five years, the last book – not twenty five of my years, I hope – through the eyes of someone raised in it.) So what we hear is what his mentors believe, which might not be an accurate depiction of the faith, as such.

What we do get is gloriously contradictory. While the character is assured he doesn’t even have to believe in the afterlife, later in the story there is a family ceremony to consign someone who’s died to being born again in a free land (not clear if it’s reincarnation or another world.)

Of course, every religion has the official theology, and a “low church” of superstitions and ways of doing things that have accrued as folk religion, sometimes borrowed from other, older faiths.
It is the little contradictions that makes the religion feel real.

But there is something else – through their imperfections and struggles, it is the religion that gives the characters the sense of duty and the sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.

This made up religion, born of a moment’s whimsy, gives my characters’ dignity and strength that even I can’t mock. It makes them decent, even when they don’t want to be. It lifts them above themselves.

I’m not about to convert – I already have a religion – but their religiously-formed family life and their ordered existence even in the middle of chaos, revolution and war, made me feel a kindred with them.

And in that too, their religion feels real.

Whether it feels real for others, I don’t know. But to the author, it felt authentic.

Tolkien’s Diction

The Lord of the Rings (Lord of the Rings #1-3)John C. Wright links to a fabulous post on how J.R.R. Tolkien uses diction to convey mood and character in The Lord of the Rings. Along the way, the author shows how literary criticism really ought to be done. Here’s one quotable bit out of many:

As these critics lose the ability to understand a text, they focus all the harder on the minute details of the text, and lose the benefit of context. This seems paradoxical, but it is, alas, not hard to explain. The ‘New Criticism’ was invented by men who had not the cultural literacy to see why literature is not and cannot be a science. In the interest of scientific objectivity, they banished the author’s intentions and the reader’s reactions from their purview. But literature is inherently a subjective art: it is an act of communication between a writer and a reader, and if you leave either of them out of account, the whole art form becomes strictly meaningless.

On Writer’s Block

For those of you occasionally afflicted with writer’s block, you might be interested in this paper (from the National Institute of Health) on the self-treatment of writer’s block. (Note: it’s a PDF.)

Victory! Victory! Victory!

So I’ve been working on this novel for the past year or so, with the intent of reading it to my kids. They knew I was working on it, but they didn’t know anything about it. A couple of weeks ago, I judged that it was, if not finished, at least ready to share with them; and just a few minutes ago we finished it.

Now, I’ve read them many, many novels, by many different authors. I didn’t make any kind of fuss about this one; I just told them the title, and read it to them. And when we were done, my eldest asked, “Is there a sequel?”

I said, “No, I haven’t written it yet.”

You wrote that?”

In fact, it took a while to persuade them that I am, in fact, the author.

Color me very, very pleased.

(For the record, it’s still not quite done; whilst reading it to them I identified a number of over-used phrases, typographical errors, continuity problems, and such like. I’ll keep you posted.)

You’re the Doctor

In my previous post I noted that you can only write like yourself (Read that one before this one). You have to follow your own muse, not anybody else’s. Ultimately, no one else’s opinion matters.

And yet, it does. Criticism from knowledgeable, trusted people is essential to growth in any craft. The trick is knowing what to do about it. And the trick is this: your critic is the Patient. You’re the Doctor. Your critic says, “Doctor, it hurts right here.” Or, “Doctor, your treatment is working mostly, but the side effects are awful. I keep falling asleep.”

In short, if a trusted critic tells you that you have a problem, you have a problem. Constant Readers can tell when something isn’t working, and you should listen to them. But you’re the Doctor. You know the story you’re trying to tell, and you need to figure out for yourself what the right fix is. This is harder than it looks, because your critics will usually express their criticism as a suggested fix without actually pinpointing the real issue. In effect, they are saying “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” It’s up to you to diagnose the underlying problem, and to determine the appropriate prescription. And in the end, this will usually be something other than what the patient suggested.

I’m not advising that you ignore the suggestions you receive. Sometimes they will be spot on—and if you find a critic who can reliably tell you what’s wrong and how to fix it, glom onto them with both hands and a rope.

“So where did you learn all this,” I hear you asking. “You’re not a published author…how much experience with this can you possibly have?” That’s all true. But on the other hand, I’m a software engineer, a mathematical modeler, and a skilled technical writer with twenty-five years of experience. I’m not sure I’ve put Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” into technical writing…but I’m not sure I haven’t. And all that time, I’ve relied on getting the best criticism that I can get. Fiction writing isn’t the same craft…but it’s a craft, just the same.

You Can Only Write Like Yourself

I’ve written a couple of novels, and I’m in the middle of revising a third (the first is on-line here, if anyone is interested). And every so often I’ll be reading a book, and be struck by the quality of the writing, and I’ll say, “Oh, I simply can’t write like this! I wish I could write like this!” I’ll sometimes have the same experience while reading blogs. I’ll read a book review by Julie or by Lars and think, “Gosh, they do this well. Why should I bother?”*

But here’s the thing, and it’s the most important thing I’ve learned in fifteen years of on-line activity: you can only write like yourself. I can’t write like Steven Brust or Terry Pratchett or Lois McMaster Bujold or Roger Zelazny…but then, they don’t write like each other, either, and I wouldn’t want them to.

But I can write like me. I can write so that my prose pleases me, so that it when I read it aloud it flows smooth as molasses. I can write it so that it makes Jane laugh, and makes me smile when I come back to it.

In the end, I have to trust to my judgement, to my sense of what works. I have to write for me. And if other folks like what I write (and they do seem to), that’s gravy. Tasty gravy, and I like it a lot…but the meat and potatoes are in the writing.

* I’m not fishing for compliments, here, nor is this evidence of some kind of crisis of confidence. I’m just reflecting.

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