Interviews with famous writers: In which we discover we haven’t been reading any of the right books

I decided, on a whim (don’t do this) to peruse the latest pressings of other blogs out there. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that sitting and reading your own posts over and over isn’t nearly as entertaining as it should be, and probably ventures into the realm of navel contemplation.

And I started to read an interview with a lady who had published a short story a zillion  years ago, and recently started publishing novels after a twenty year hiatus.

I read all that and thought, good for her! No, really, I did think that. I like to see people succeed and be excellent.

Then the second part began.  Q & A. Which stands for qualitative agnostics. Or question and answer. Same thing.

And it went something like this:

Q: What are your favorite books?

A: Well, there’s fourteen or so, I’ve been so influenced by the amazing humanitarian writings of Smith, Durango, and Mr. Denver, and oh, the feminist writings of Ariel, Aurora and Rapunzel.

Q: As are we all.  Especially Ariel. What influenced your recent writing?

A: [laughing modestly] There’s so many. There’s Johnson, and Smith, Williams, Brown, Jones, Davis, and Garcia, his work The Mosquito Lovers was seminal, and Taylor, Thomas, Hernandez, and Moore.  I’ve reread Hernandez’s work United eTicket Itinerary at least fourteen times last week and it’s so stunning.

Q: [also laughing modestly] Me too, I read it so often, and I cry every time. Soooo amazing.

A: Yes, it is.

Q: All your books are amazing and I love you.

A: And I love you too.

Well, crud. I’m sorry I read this. I clearly have been reading all the wrong things, besides this blog. I read stuff that’s about space and pew pew lasers.  Rattling good tales of the USMC in space (Ooo rah!).  Space operas. And apparently I was supposed to be reading Mosquitoes in Love every day or the United eTicket Itinerary.

Oh dear. I… am… a philistine!

Yes, I’ve not read all those amazing books. I probably won’t read them.  I’ve read Conrad, and a little Tolstoy–I’m still annoyed by the title character committing suicide around page 725 when there was another 500 pages to go, let’s dig up Tolstoy and kill him again for doing that, poor Count Vronsky–and I’ve listened to a bit of opera.  But I’m still a philistine.  Not nearly enough culture. I won’t be able to do one of them there interviews because it’d go like this:

Q: Mr. Cominius, what amazing books have you read lately?

A: It’s Coh-mean-ee-oos.

Q: Huh?

A: It’s pronounced Coh-mean-ee-oos, not like communist.

Q: I typed that. How do you know what it sounded like?

A: You don’t know Latin so you butchered it, I’m sure.

Q: Right. Well, books?

A: I read some.

Q: Which ones?

A: All the free amazon list stuff. There’s such variety. Just last week, I found a great story about this gal who’s a doctor and she’s accused of murdering her patient, and then she goes to Texas and falls in love with this guy who was one of the people who accused her of murder in New York.

Q: A famous author?

A: Not a chance. It wasn’t that great.  I did cry when she got together with him at the end, despite what the bad guys tried to do to pin another murder on her.  So amazing.

Q: Right. Any other things to say?

A: Yeah, Charlotte’s Web is far better in the book than it is in the movie.  I, um, gots kids.

I’m not anti-intellectual, I’m just lazy.

Dark Matter Never Seems to Show Up in Fiction Universes

Or not.  No snappy title. I’m sure you can see where a post about dark matter could bring bad titles, like weeds after rain.

We won’t go there.

Which reminds me of this awesome skit with Bob Newhart from Mad  TV, in which a psychiatric counseling session happens in a way most therapists would probably prefer:

“This is not Yiddish, Katherine, this is English.”

Anyhooooo, the purpose of this post was to talk about a like from the Science Geek over at  Mr. Geek liked my post on planetary mechanics.  This lead me to read about dark matter.

Whoa boy.  That’s a can of worms, and I even understood the arguments based on my recent attempts to understand Kepler’s third law (the one about orbits based on mass/distance/speed).  See, all the planets conform to Kepler’s third law.  But the galaxies do not. At least, they don’t based on the things we can see, so the postulated idea is that there is dark matter we cannot see that forms a majority of the galaxy.

I’ve not yet seen this incorporated into science fiction, or maybe all those guys just aren’t hard enough. Warp/worm gates? Lots of those. One, two, a dozen gas giants? Sure. Trinary star systems. But no dark matter, anywhere, to see.  See what I did there? You can’t see it. It’s dark matter. Heh.

Never mind.

The book started slowly and I didn’t have much hope, but it delivered

I confess I purchase what the hive mind deems commercially good for my kindle sometimes. I’ll look at #1-10 of a genre and buy those books and then see if they do with their craft what the critics say they are supposed to be doing.  [Commercial success is a viable indicator of that: Though most books get by on their merits, some of them have no business being a commercial success, and maybe there’s a lesson there.]

Something, I’m not sure what, happened in the last tale I read.  It started out a little infodumpy, and in first person. I didn’t like the lead character much.  Nevertheless, I pushed through the opening of the novel and it finally began to expand and I could see where it was driving me, and thus I finished it at 2 am last night. Giant space wars? Had ’em. Exciting protagonist? Had it. Conflict? All over. Set backs? Had ’em. Just when the situation couldn’t get worse, it did.  Pacing, 5 stars AFTER you got through the beginning.

At first I thought it was that book everyone warned me about, the one where the author didn’t know anything about what he was writing and gained dozens of legitimate one-stars. Thanks, narrow-minded Amazon reader villagers with pitchforks! This story, however, had not had a plethora of one stars, so the beginning baffled* me.  Bull through, I thought. It must get better or this wouldn’t sell so well.

The lesson? You can do well, even if parts of your book are marginal or barely adequate, as long as the rest of the prose is a proper roller-coaster. As Junie B. Jones would say, Probably.

* Please note that “baffled” is a term of art used by the media to refer to policemen, detectives, and law enforcement when they don’t know something.  I’m none of those things, but I didn’t know something so I’m going to use it anyway. Just like owning more than one firearm means you have an “arsenal.”

My outline is wrong. All wrong. Throw it out, start over.

I’ll bet you never thought that.  Heck, most of you don’t outline. That’s English class stuff, no application to the real world.

It’s okay, I agree. About the English class stuff. Application? Plenty.

How can you write a complex plot unless you have some map?  “It ruins the spontaneity, Pontius,” you say to me plaintively.  “And,” you add snarkily, “you can’t even spell spontaneity without a spellcheck.”  Got me there. But you’re not so clever! I’ve obviously got a spell check.  Strawman Snarky reader: 0. Pontius: 1.  Just in case you missed that.

I think I get what people are sayin’.  See, there’s joy in discovering a story as you go. You write and write and a few thousand words in, the characters are changing the story in a natural direction that feels right. It’s like you’re along for the ride and the story writes itself.

Or so some of the good writers claim. “Got my little fiction ouija board here, and it practically writes itself. I got discipline and creativity coming out of my back pores. I can’t help but write awesomely. Some days, I’m in awe of how the story writes itself. Then it’s down to the bank to cash that day’s royalty checks for a couple grand.”  It’s okay. We can hate them together, and be one with our envy.

So outline it is.  It’s faster.  Better. And because most of us aren’t geniuses, we need a process to outlet our creativity.

I’ve been processing. I thought I had a good outline. Now, I’m not so sure. Scratch that. I’m sure. It’s not good. It’s meh. Indifferent! Poxy and foul! To the scrap heap, and not one more word from you. No, reader, you cannot save it.  I will rebuild. Bigger. Better. Etc.

Pity all the conflict is in me battling my outline.  I’d be better in a story.

Show don’t tell… or not? Relativism of Writing

This whole writing thing is relativistic, not objective. That’s why it’s art.

I collect what people write about that art, because some things resonate with the reader better than others and I want to know what those things are.  If you’re a good writer, you’ll avoid mistakes made by bad writers and write well.

There’s all sorts of things wrong with that last sentence. Value words, such as good, bad, and mistakes, are relative to the person making the judgment.  One person may like a piece of writing, another may hate it.

Thus, we come to the bromide, “Show, don’t tell.”  No. Not a bromide. A stick. C’mere, writer. I’m going to hit you. It’s about your art. I don’t like how you did it. You should do it this way.

Why is showing better than telling? Who decided that? And why do some people get a pass on the SDT deal, and some don’t?

Ultimately, you write for your audience. If your audience is the tortured muses in your head, why, then, you’ll write what the tortured muses want.  If it’s for the Amazon .99 misers, then you’ll write what they want. And so on.

And those people, some of them, want SDT.

There’s still plenty of tales out there that are far more TDS.   But this is a thin characterization. 😀

Military non-fiction – first person accounts and what they’re not saying

I’ve read about 20% of They Were All Young Kids: The story of Lieutenant Jim Flowers and the first platoon, Company C, 712th Tank Battalion, on Hill 122 by Aaron Elson, and a few things leapt out at me.

First, this book is a compilation of first person accounts, mostly a transcript of interviews and it’s not quite as polished as, say, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.  And that lead me to a discussion about “Not all soldiers are authors” and “not many authors are soldiers” with my treasured spouse.  Oh! Logic! Hello, third grade. Let me Venn diagram this thing. Unbroken was written by an author who compiled many hours of questions/answers with witnesses and digging for information and you can see that process in the final product. This book was put together as a memoir of events by the author who was there and events narrated by other survivors surrounding an assault on hill 122 in Normandy during WWII.

Second, when recounting their experiences, soldiers don’t talk about the shooting of enemies so much.  Twenty, thirty years after this experience, they remember with clarity small odd events, conversations, and injuries.  And that’s the part they’re telling us.  The platoon leader, 2LT Flowers, for instance, is hit in one foot with shrapnel, crawls out of his tank, then gets shrapnel wounds in the other leg from an artillery barrage, and tourniquets that injury.  After a day lying in no man’s land and encounters with German Fallschirmjaeger troops, he makes it back to a field hospital, and is remembered decades later by a doctor who treated him because he was in really good shape for a guy who lost both legs.

It’s what they are not talking about that is interesting.  I understand that taking another life, in combat, is a huge deal, or should be. Most guys don’t want to talk about this. But to get the essence of that, in fiction writing, is that something that the writer needs to do?  I’m reminded of the scene in the Princess Bride where Count Rugen says to the Man in Black as he’s torturing him, “And remember, this is for posterity so be honest. How do you feel?” The absurdity of this person standing there with a clipboard recording the victim’s feelings about torture is kind of what I perceive the idea of delving into the personal experience of taking a life in combat.

Nevertheless, you bet your bottom dollar that if you don’t get those feelings written down correctly, someone with combat experience is going to call you on it, and probably give you a one star review and hate on you for a while.  After all, your character didn’t react like everyone else reacts when they deal with this.

Back to They were…

The third point, sort of subject to the second point, is that these soldiers all remembered in detail their injuries or the injuries that happened to others.  Those seem to be fair game for memoirs.  They don’t do it in a dishonorable way–some go out of their way to rain praise on all the soldiers they served with–but there is a considerable amount of detail on the personal experience of each soldier.  We hear what happened to him, how a hatch may have broken someone’s fingers, or the German medic who bandages a GI’s finger in the field, but didn’t have any water and turned his canteen upsidedown to demonstrate it, and so on.  The German medic was remembered by two different guys, and it struck me as odd that a German medic is helping allied personnel, in a sort of I’m-a-medic-and-you’re-injured-so-I-help-you kind of universal mankind helping each other.  Contrasted with the cause of the injury–the medic’s own people shooting at the allied soldiers–it seems to be… counterproductive, I guess?  You’re doing your best to kill the other side, and then when you’ve hurt a bunch of them, you’ve got your guys helping them.

I’m not trying to rag on the medic, it just struck me as strange and decently human, amidst the rest of the combat.

The fourth point is that in a book about war, there is little conflict in the writing.  That is, the way it’s written isn’t nail-biting what’s going to happen.  Perhaps that’s a product of intervening years and the mellowing of the people involved, so their accounts don’t have the gripping narrative, even though the events were quite horrific and there was people burning to death, tanks exploding, guys with terrible injuries and bullets flying, artillery exploding, and the hell that is war.  They talk about it, but it’s minimized and sanitized.

There is one conflict that we see: a tank commander sergeant, before the battle, claims that his tank threw a rod and can not move in reverse anymore, so the tank is sidelined for the battle. Forty years later, the platoon leader, at a reunion for the 712 Battalion, is angered by mention of the sergeant, and the veteran discussing it with him asks why.  The Pldr thought the sergeant didn’t honestly have a reverse problem and did it just to avoid the battle.  The veteran takes it on himself to correspond with some of the guys who know about the tank, and they vouch for the fact that the tank was really out of commission.  The veteran talks to the Pldr again and the sergeants memory is now vindicated: not a coward. Just a misunderstanding.

Infodumps and your personal opinions

I’m finding that I like to go back and do revisions on a piece as I go, rather than waiting for the End.

I look for tense problems, awkward working, MRUs, conversation that seems stilted or out of place, observations that do not contribute to flow of the narrative, infodumps (even microdumps) and the dreaded author’s opinion peeking out.

Using the cell phone standard which Dave Koster kindly tossed out at On Writing Dragons, the essence is that your reader needs to know only as much about the tech as an average ordinary person would know about, say, a cell phone.  We don’t know how they work, except you need a signal, there’s cell phone towers, and that’s about it.  Why explain more to your reader than necessary? An infodump or a pulpitdump both interrupt the narrative with non-flowing information or opinions which contribute zero to the process.

With that in mind, you wouldn’t write a story thus:

William looked at the phone in his hand. It’s amazing that this thing is a 4G phone and allows me to download so quickly! It was a difficult transition from 3G, but it’s really a great standard.

Yes, even in his thoughts, William is awkward. Some people think that way, but the average ordinary person might do this instead:

William looked at the phone in his hand. A text! He opened it. “I can’t wait to see you tonight, baby.”  This was unexpected. He didn’t know the picture or the name, but whoever she was, she was dynamite looking. Time to text back. “Where are we meeting?”  A moment later, the return chime signaled a response. “Who is this? William? I don’t no U. Don’t text me again.”

Raise your right hand and take the oath:

“I, state your name, solemnly swear I will not infodump if I can avoid it.  My text will only serve the purposes of the narrative. I will advance the narrative with only the information the reader needs. I will have my characters supply the information if I can, and it will not be awkward. So help me, God.”

You can put your hand down. Don’t you feel awesome?

Right, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about your politics and religion.

If you’re writing fiction, I should not be able to tell who you voted for in the last election. No special reason, although I don’t care comes in pretty handy for it. Your characters should not be you, and they should be written fairly. It’s no fair to put in a strawman and belittle the other side through your fictitious characters.  And there’s a fantastic reason why.  (“Why, Pontius, why!” you chant.)

Here it is. It is a disservice to the reader. I am not reading an opinion piece, it’s fiction. If you write your character beautifully, I may connect emotionally and maybe I’ll agree with their sentiments. That’s the beauty of it.  If you’re writing the book Pol Pot Goes to Hogwarts, then make me see through Pol Pot’s eyes and understand that even though he’s a vicious mass-murdering muggle, he still had a reason and a drive to wipe out thousands of his countrymen and then attend the premier wizarding institution in Britain. It isn’t writing a character that is easy to agree with that makes you shine, it’s the characters that are disagreeable and nasty and mean and immoral and who aren’t you who show your talent.

You can use a character as a mouthpiece, but we’re going to call you on it if you do. It’ll take your writing down a few notches and add it to the slush pile of average to barely adequate writing.  The narrow-minded villagers with pitchforks, a.k.a. Amazon laymen reviewers, will also come for your work with torches and burn it and you.

The next time you write and you start to pontificate, shut up.  Write substantively, eliminate the pontification, the moralization, and the opinions.  The only opinions I want to hear is your characters, and that done honestly. If the politics of the world you show are so messed up, let me draw the conclusions for why through the thoughts, speech, and actions of your characters.  I’m not stupid, and I will do the work necessary to see the entire canvas you’re painting without you drawing on it in black paint saying “see this part? Their politics suck.”

MCUs – Writing sample draft

The following text is a draft from the beginning of the novel. I’ve attemped MCUs, as much as I can. How’d I do? I also tried to sneak in some environment.  I have no idea how to better deliver the technical information about the ship than by slugging in a large paragraph.  Maybe that’s not necessary?

The alert occurred just as Captain Luke Advance of the Ruth’s Diamond received payment for several tons of guns and ammunition. Multiple audible alarms sounded, and the personal communication devices of the locals rang stridently.

His eyes widened and he glanced from his crewmember Anastasia back to the agent. “Should I be concerned about that? Overflowing Toilet?”

The agent smiled wanly and brought out her personal communication device and checked it. Her face registered shock, then anger. “It’s war!” she said.

“Then, yes, I should be concerned?” he asked peevishly.

“I have to go.” She replied as she hurried away.

Luke leaned against the spaceport wall and considered the credit in his hand.  This might not be a good place to get repairs and parts. We should leave as soon as possible.

“I’m going to a kiosk to get more information,” Anastasia said.

“I’m going back to the shuttle. It’s probably not an overflowing toilet,” Luke replied to her back. Or it could be. .9 gravity might play havoc with a gravity water system. He straightened up and walked back to the transshipment shuttle for the Ruth’s Diamond, checking the credit chip as he walked.  Cold, dry winds battered him as he left the building and walked across the tarmac. The last container of ammunition had been cleared from the shuttle, and was cordoned off from other supplies and equipment and protected by a pair of soldiers huddling for warmth in the cold winds. That was no longer his concern. His concern was war.

Anastasia returned a moment later and secured the shuttle ramp while he began the preflight check. “So, war?” he asked urgently.

“Sorry, was trying to hurry. Yes. A fleet of five non-imperial warships were detected entering the system. The local government believes they’re the American Confederation of Planets troop and warships, and they’re going to invade this place.”

“that’s better than Miss I’m-Vague-About-Important-Things-Agent. `War! Gotta go!’” he mocked in a falsetto voice. “A local war, interstellar war, intergalactic war, what? Has the Empire ever been at war?! I thought their version of war was to drop rocks on naughty populations.”

“We’re not supposed to panic. They said that,” Anastasia informed him. He questioned her with a look as she strapped into the seat beside him. “What?! Oh, the government, they said not to panic. It’s just in this system, as far as we know.”

He rubbed his temples, then grimaced. Doesn’t the Empire have any warships out this way? “If the Empire tells you not to panic, you should probably panic. That’s like saying, ‘Don’t panic, it’s the plague, but only you’ve got it.’ They knew this was coming.  We just delivered thousands of rifles, ammunition, and rations and there ain’t no such thing as a coincidence. The Imperial navy might be on their way, or hiding to do an ambush, or maybe the navy doesn’t exist anymore.  We need much better information and then move quickly, either profit or run.”

“What does some warship want with us? We’re civilians, we’re not anyone’s enemy.”

“Stasia, we have a commercial mega container ship that can tow umpteen zillion containers or bricks of ore through any wormgate in the Empire. An upstart government would love to have us join their fleet or destroy us so we cannot help the Empire.”

“We’re not joining anyone’s fleet!” Anastasia said.

“Merchant marine, however unwilling. We might if we stick around to find out. And they tell you, they don’t ask.”

“So… what about that HCA cargo we were to pick up?” Anastasia asked.

Heavy Combat Armor. Of course. This place manufactures the stuff, we were going to pick up a cargo of it for the marines. “That’s what the Amcons want.”

“The HCA?”

What else would they want with a planet in the third year of a fifteen year winter and no gas giant in the system? “Yep, I’m pretty sure of it. This place doesn’t have anything else of value, no gas giant, no planet teeming with life, just this icy rockball. Checklist clear?” He responded.

“Yeah, we’re green on everything. Seems like a lot of effort just to get HCAs, though.” Anastasia said thoughtfully.

He keyed his radio and notified the spaceport’s traffic control of their desire to depart, which was quickly granted.

“There’ll be a queue later, I suppose,” he mused, as they accelerated out of the planets diminished gravity.

The Ruth’s Diamond rested in geosynchronous orbit over the planet’s spaceport. Luke admired her lines as the shuttle boosted into orbit and closed with the docking port.  She was designed with minimal crew compartments, and had a massive long lattice work which was just barely the height and width of a wormgate and could handle everything from raw ore to large containers. Because the wormgates charged by mass, the unloaded ship travelled pretty cheap. The only constraint on cargo was to where it was delivered: if to a planet, it needed to fit in the ship’s shuttle or the planet’s transshipment shuttle, or it could not be delivered; if to an environment in micro-gravity, ore could be shipped in raw or smelted form, with the only limitation being safe maneuvering of large masses.  The ship was capable of transporting other ships in tow, as well.

“As soon as we’re back on the Di, contact the HCA orbital facility and ask if they still want to do business.” Luke paused, then said, “no, find out the ETA for the warships, and see if we have a margin to do the pickup, then call the HCA-Orbfac.”

“Got it.” Anastasia took a note on her personal data device.

“Maybe we can hook ‘em as we go by.” Luke snorted.

Anastasia looked amused. “Collisions in space tend to explosively reflect the relative speeds of the objects in involved. Most cargo doesn’t like massive acceleration or deceleration.”

“Shuttles and tugs are hardly a fast way to accomplish tasks,” Luke pointed out, as they docked with the command capsule of the Diamond.

“Figure out a better way, –“

“—and you’ll be rich.” Luke finished.

[~990 words]

Planetary mechanics. Please help. Physicists, Astronomers, People Who Study This Kind of Stuff

In a previous post, I wrote about the pretty cool Alternity universe creator for that RPG.

It occurred to me that many random readers may have experience or interest in the mechanics of the heat or lack thereof in a planetary mass, and how that would affect weather on that planet (assuming a lot of factors here).

So here’s the system:

The star is a Class K Red Giant Mature. Temp is 4500 K, mass is 2x Sol, radius is 30x Sol, luminosity is 200 x Sol.  The star is a monster, isn’t it?

So here’s the stats of the planet:

Deep system Orbit 16.03 AU Temperate zone Terran
Type Terran
AU 16.03
angle 331
orbit circular
Perhilion 15.9
Aphelion 16.2
YEARS 61.5

Axial Tilt (earth=23) 13
Rotation (hours) 36 hours
Mass (earths) 0.3
Diameter 11032 km
Gravity 0.9
water arid 20%
magnetism 1 gauss
Atmos: 4 PO

Does anyone just happen to have a planetary weather generator where you plug in the above numbers and it just sort of tells you what the average temperature is at different times? (I jest. Such a thing probably doesn’t exist.) If earth experiences a fluctuation in temperature just from the perihilion/aphelion orbital mechanics, wouldn’t a larger variation in the planetary path cause much wider variations of the planetary atmospheric temperature?

I totally get why authors might just have all the planets be Earth Standards with atmo, gravity, and temps the same.  The more extreme the environment, the more it factors in to what you write, because you have to protect your characters from the weather by telling the reader what you’re doing.  Or you gloss over it and invent a shield or piece of clothing that allows them to ignore the weather and go about the business of advancing the plot.  [There’s probably a trope name for that.]

Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.