Hearing My Own Words

Last week, I finally had the chance to hear the audio book edition of my novel Owl Dance. It might surprise you to hear that I didn’t get a chance to listen to it until after it was released, but by contract, my publisher has the right to create an audio edition and there’s nothing in the contract that says I have a right of approval. My approval process wrapped up when the publisher and I agreed the novel was ready for print.

It might sound like I’m complaining about the process, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a lot of work goes into writing, editing, and promoting my books…not to mention my other full-time job operating telescopes. It was actually kind of nice to let my publisher handle all the logistics behind arranging the production and proofing the final product. I was glad to know another edition of my book was coming out and I didn’t have to add another task to my plate to make it happen.

So, what did I think of the final product? I think narrator Edward Mittelstedt did a fine job. He had a great range of voices and a nice delivery speed that was clear and understandable. His pronunciation of names like “Fatemeh” and “Maravilla” were somewhat different than mine, but they weren’t wrong. In particular, he pronounces “Maravilla” in a kind of a South American accent, which suits the character.

Recently a friend asked if I had a difficult time enjoying the books I read. Her thought was that as a professional writer and editor, I might be so busy critiquing books I read that I couldn’t just sit back and enjoy them. My answer was that I’ve reached a point where I can read books critically, but still enjoy them. The critical part of my brain is sort of like a background task I can access when needed.

That said, I found listening to my own book was much more difficult than listening to books by other authors. Time has passed since I wrote the book and I have gained a new perspective on my words hearing them read by another person. I found myself critiquing my word choices, plot, and character decisions all through the story. Despite that, my overall impression of the book was positive. I felt like I heard the kind of story I like. That said, there were word choices and particularly some repeated phrases I wouldn’t mind revisiting if the chance ever presented itself.

I’ve come to the point where I strongly recommend writers read their work aloud at some point during the edit. It helps you hear phrases you use too often or too close together. I hadn’t quite reached the point where I was doing that regularly when I wrote Owl Dance and I caught a few places where it showed. I’ve taken the lesson to heart and will be applying it as I go forward. Hopefully these issues attracted my attention because I was listening at a more detail-oriented level than most listeners (or readers) will.

If you’d like to travel back in time to an 1877 that wasn’t, but could have been if a sheriff and a healer started wandering the West together while a visitor from the stars encouraged the Russian Empire to unify the world under one leader, you can read a sample chapter and find links to all the books editions at http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

Gordon’s Alive!

This weekend I’m at El Paso Comic Con in El Paso, Texas. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop by. For most of the weekend, you’ll find me at booth A77 in the Vendor Hall. You can learn more about event at http://elpasocomiccon.com/

Just over a month ago, I mentioned having the opportunity to meet Sam J. Jones, who played Flash Gordon in the 1980 movie of the same name. I bought this lovely Alex Ross poster based on the movie and he signed it for me.

Ever since then, I’ve been renewing my acquaintance with Flash Gordon. I first discovered the character watching the serials on Sunday afternoon television. I remembered them fondly enough that I was eager to see the Dino De Laurentiis film in 1980. The problem was, I was exactly the wrong age for the film. At that time in my life, I took my science fiction way too seriously. I loved Star Trek because of its serious approach to the future. Star Wars was fun, but I almost found it a guilty pleasure. The camp approach of Flash Gordon was just way over the top for me at the time.

Over the years, the 1980 Flash Gordon has grown on me. I’ve come to appreciate how fun the film is, especially with Max Von Sydow and Topol chewing the scenery as Ming the Merciless and Dr. Hans Zarkov respectively. In my most recent viewing, I even spotted a young Robbie Coltrane, best known to most people today as Hagrid from the Harry Potter films in a bit part. In a bit of twist, given my love at the time, Deep Roy who plays Keenser in the new Star Trek films even has a bit part in Flash Gordon.

Since watching the movie, I found a lovely collected edition of Alex Raymond’s original comic strips from the 1930s. I’ve been pleased to discover that the 1980 movie is, in many ways, a very faithful adaptation of the material. Really, my one disappointment is that Prince Thun of the lion men gets such a tiny moment in the film, and he’s not much of a lion man.

It strikes me that it’s very fitting to rekindle my interest in Flash Gordon at a steampunk convention. Flash Gordon really epitomizes what we mean when we talk about “retrofuturism.” Reading the original comics is a view of the future as people saw it thirty years before I was born. The 1980 movie worked to recapture that retrofuturistic perspective.

I also see a lot of the high octane excitement that fuels my adventure stories whether they be set in the future or the past. Hopefully I do slow it down a little bit. Whereas I try to make sure something exciting, or at least interesting, happens in each chapter or section of a chapter, the comics literally work to assure something exciting happen in every panel. It’s a little stunning to see how often the word “suddenly” appears leading a panel of narration.

I should note, these strips are as much or perhaps more over the top than the 1980 film. I nearly lost it when Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov are suddenly beset by Squirlons—flying squirrels from the Planet Mongo whose bite induces madness! Also near the end of this volume, Flash Gordon goes on to don essentially the same outfit Zapp Branigan would wear in Futurama. Reading the comic also informed me that Jabba the Hutt makes Princess Leia do a Dale Arden cosplay in Return of the Jedi. Dale wears almost exactly that infamous outfit throughout the first half of the book.

It’s clear Flash Gordon flying around in rocket ships with fins and battling dinosaurs, dragons, and shark men isn’t serious science fiction, but it sure is fun. As I’m writing Owl Riders, I hope to emulate some of that fun as ornithopters and air ships fill the sky and Apache battle wagons give the cavalry trouble in Arizona. In the process, I hope to make it just a little more plausible so you might wonder if it really could have happened. Meanwhile, I hope to use a few less adverbs in the process. Although I might have to sneak in at least one “Suddenly” as a tribute.

El Paso Comic Con 2017

Next weekend, I’ll be at El Paso Comic Con in El Paso, Texas. The event is being held from Friday, April 21 through Sunday, April 23 at the El Paso Convention Center. Special guests for the weekend include Alan Tudyk who played Wash in Firefly, Lou Ferrigno who played the Incredible Hulk in the 1980s, and Nicholas Brendon who played Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There will be cosplay, vendors, and panels all weekend long. You can get more information about the event at: http://elpasocomiccon.com/

Through much of the event, you will be able to find me at booth A77 in the vendor hall. I will have all my books available for sale and I’ll be happy to answer your questions. Also, on Sunday, April 23 at noon, I’ll join authors Gary Wilson, R.S. Dabney, and Natalie Wright for a special Q&A session in Juarez Panel Room 2. Be sure to bring all your questions for us!

In other news from this past week, I discovered a nice mention of the anthology A Kepler’s Dozen on Physics Today’s blog in an article about the state of exoplanet science fiction. Physics Today is the flagship publication of the American Institute of Physics. In the article, they discuss the stories written by Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and Steve Howell. In summary, they say “the stories represent a glimpse of where science fiction might go if real exoplanets are taken as inspiration.” You can read the entire article at: http://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.5.3049/full/. You can learn more about A Kepler’s Dozen and order a copy for yourself at: http://hadrosaur.com/kepler.html.

Of course, a follow-up collection is also out, called Kepler’s Cowboys which you can get here: http://hadrosaur.com/keplers-cowboys.html

The Danger of Honesty

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King writes, “Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all … as long as you tell the truth.” And this perhaps, is one of the scariest aspects of writing fiction, especially if you create a fictional world close to the one you inhabit.

In my most recent novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, I write about an astronomical observatory similar to several I’ve worked at. There is always a danger of creating characters in a setting where you work, especially when that setting is a relatively small community. People will have a tendency to draw comparisons between characters in the book and real world characters, no matter how carefully I tried to assure that no one had the same name or exact characteristics of someone I know.

Another challenge is that in my experience, astronomers tend to be idealized in fiction. They’re often portrayed as heroes, or at least people who always try to do the right thing. Sometimes they’re portrayed as selflessly devoted to the pursuit of science. If they err, it’s because they put science ahead of everything else.

Of course, we also live in an era where certain politicians want to vilify science or scientists. They want to dismiss well established findings to justify their actions or lack of action in the political arena. It’s important, though, to understand that the process of science is designed to preserve the integrity of science in spite of the personalities of individual scientists.

One of the things I was committed to in The Astronomer’s Crypt was portraying the astronomers as real, fallible human beings. Some are good guys, some are selfish and arrogant. They all have real human problems which both motivate them and lead them astray. Because the media has given us strong preconceptions, I suspect some people will look at the book and see me putting scientists on a pedestal. Some will look at the book and see me as talking trash about people I’ve known.

In fact, my goal was simply to follow Stephen King’s advice and tell the truth as best as I see it.

If you dare to take a walk on this dangerous journey through the truth, you can learn more about the book and find places to order at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Warning Signs

In last week’s posts I discussed reading for the Nebulas and the reality of my “day” job operating telescopes vs the perception. In point of fact, operating telescopes involves a lot of time sitting at computers and reading is also a job usually done sitting, unless you want to walk into objects and people. Of course, I also write, which is another activity that involves sitting at the computer. This is pretty typical of what I look like at work:

This may sound like I’ve set myself up to be quite sedentary, but, I do move around quite a bit and I like to take long walks. In fact, my normal daily walk when I’m at home is usually right around four miles. In short I’m not in terrible shape for my age and I walk often enough that I’ve experienced more than my fair share of leg cramps when I haven’t properly hydrated or stretched beforehand.

Last week, around day four of my shift, I started experiencing some terrible leg cramping. The only weird part is that I hadn’t been walking much for the past few days. Mostly I’d been sitting at the computer and working on a project and doing some reading for breaks. Normally, I find that leg cramps subside very quickly. I stand up, walk around a bit and they settle down. This wasn’t like that. Instead, the cramp just kept getting worse for about 24 hours. After that, it started subsiding, but very slowly.

Checking the Internet, I scared myself reading about the dangers of deep vein thrombosis, which is when a blood clot forms in your leg, which can then break loose and travel into the brain, heart, or lungs. In some cases, these things are known to kill people. However, my impression from the reading I’d done was that deep vein thrombosis doesn’t get better. The fact that my pain got better led me to believe it really was a nasty muscle cramp.

Also, I grew up with parents who might be described as hypochondria-phobic. As a kid, if I complained about pain, they usually told me I was imagining it and to “tough it out.” For me, the result is that I have a hard time admitting to pain even to myself. Sometimes I even have a difficult time distinguishing between levels of pain. So, I was already prone to tough it out and follow up later if it didn’t get better.

By the time I got home, the cramp was mostly gone, but I still had a persistent knot in the back of my leg. I assumed this was the muscle that cramped up and gave me problems. When the knot hadn’t gone away, my wife and I decided I’d better see the doctor. I figured he’d tell me it was a cramped muscle and there was little he could do for me. At which point, I’d make an appointment with a good masseuse.

The doctor took a look at my leg, pointed out it was swollen and sent me off for an ultrasound. Sure enough, the diagnosis was thrombosis. Fortunately, it wasn’t in the deep vein that’s the most serious, but my doctor pointed out that it’s a warning sign. He’s helping me take measures to deal with the current clot and to help me minimize the chance for new ones.

In a very real way, this is a first-world problem. It’s a medical issue caused by work that demands I sit too much. There are a lot of people around the world that would look at me and wish they had my problems! That said, this is a case where I should have listened to my body. I really should have called in sick to have this checked out right away instead of trying to tough it out. It’s frightening how serious this could have been.

Despite this unexpected excitement, I’m pleased to report that I haven’t fallen behind on Owl Riders, book four of the Clockwork Legion. I didn’t get ahead as I hoped I would this week, but I’m making good progress. I’m also doing my best to take breaks, and get up and walk around, so this doesn’t happen again!

For those who want to catch up with the first books in the series, you can check out the Clockwork Legion series at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

All the books are available in ebook and print, plus Owl Dance is available as an audio book, and Lightning Wolves is in the final stages of audio production.

Research in Writing: Reality vs Perceptions

I don’t think any sensible person would question that a responsible writer should do their homework and research any facts that go into their writing, even if what they’re writing is fiction. However, over the years, I’ve learned that getting it right doesn’t always mean that the people reading the story will think you’ve gotten it right. The reason is that not all readers have done the homework and come to a story with a set of preconceived notions. If you violate those preconceived notions they may actually think you’ve made a mistake.

For example, I’m an astronomer who works with telescopes for a living. When I say that, I know a lot of people might picture this dude from a Bud Light commercial a few years back:

In fact, we don’t wear lab coats. We don’t spend all night standing at the back of a telescope. Telescopes have been using digital cameras, feeding pictures into computers since the 1980s. Even in the days when we did work at the telescope, you were more likely to find us wearing heavy coats and we’d be working in the dark all night long blasting loud music to try to keep ourselves awake. In fact, this is what the control room at the 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak looks like:

And you’ll notice there’s not a lab coat in sight. Why would there be? It’s not like we’re working with dangerous chemicals or anything.

I play with this very idea a bit in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt when gangsters from a Mexican cartel show up at the story’s observatory to track down a missing drug shipment. They come to the place with preconceived notions they gained from television, but learn that the real astronomers they meet aren’t much like what they believed.

I run into this dichotomy when writing weird westerns and steampunk. People think they know the history of the old west because stories like the Gunfight at OK Corral or the life of Billy the Kid have been told in numerous movies. Even I get caught off guard. A while back, I was watching Doctor Who’s version of the Gunfight at OK Corral and they introduced a character named Phin Clanton. From all the movies, I knew Ike Clanton and his brother Billy, but who the heck was Phin? Sure enough, I looked it up and Ike and Billy had a brother named Phineas who was not at the famous gunfight. In tribute to my newfound knowledge, I gave Phin a role in Lightning Wolves.

In the end, this raises something of a question. Is it better to write to the facts, as best as they can be known, or to write to people’s perceptions? My take on this is that you should absolutely do due diligence researching the facts. You’ll bring an air of authenticity to your work and you’ll likely be able to bring better and richer details to the table. However, you should also see if pop culture has addressed your topic and how it’s been portrayed. If the facts seem to contradict what you’re seeing in the more pop cultural references, you may want to find a way to address the dichotomy in your story. Otherwise, you might get a rejection from a well meaning editor or a poor review from a fan who thinks you got the facts wrong despite your hard work.

Good Writing Requires Good Reading

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot since this year began. I agreed to moderate a panel at the Tucson Festival of Books in March, which required me to read books by each of the panelists. Soon after that was the voting deadline for SFWA’s Nebula Award and I wanted to read as many of the nominated works as possible before I cast my ballot. This was a great exercise because it introduced me to quite a few good books. The ones below are a sample of those I read for the Festival of Books panel.

The stack there is nothing compared to my Kindle, which feels like it should be bulging at the seams from all the great books I added to it. This has proven to be a great time to do some extra reading, because I’ve been working on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel. It might seem counter-intuitive to be busy reading when I’m also busy writing, but in my mind, the two activities go hand in hand and one is actually essential for the other.

I’m not the only one who says this. In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests that anyone serious about writing should have a book along so they can read in any spare time available. I was in the audience at a writers event in Tucson some years ago when Ray Bradbury suggested that someone serious about being a writer should read one poem, one essay, and one short story every single day.

It might seem like it’s tempting to steal ideas from writers when you do so much reading. I’ll be a little provocative and suggest that’s exactly the point of reading so much. Okay, yeah, lifting whole passages from another book into yours is plagiarism. Don’t do that! That said, when you’re writing, you might have difficulty finding just the right way to describe a series of events, knowing how much detail to include, or making a character feel really alive. By reading others, you can see how other writers have solved those problems which might suggest solutions to you.

The converse of this is also true. By reading a lot, you see pitfalls other writers have stumbled into and paths you don’t want to go down. In fact, while reading the Nebula-nominated books and stories, I become aware that even the best authors write passages that don’t work for me. It allows me to see that the piece might work in spite of a slight stumble. Sometimes when I think about something that looks like a stumble, I realize “fixing” a minor problem might result in either clunky prose, or might cause the writer to tell an entirely different story than the one they set out to tell. It also reminds me that I don’t have to be a perfectionist. Imperfect books are sold and even get nominated for awards all the time!

At this point, it might be tempting to invoke Sturgeon’s Law, which usually claims “90% of everything is crud.” Often a stronger word than “crud” is used, but that was Ted Sturgeon’s original word and I’ll stick with it. It’s become fashionable in fandom to bandy this “law” about and cynically state that this applies to any set of books or movies you might want to name. Now, I’m here to say that of all my reading in the last three months, hardly any of it was crud. Most was quite good. Some wasn’t quite as much to my taste as others. Some of the stories and books worked better for me than others, but I saw value in all of it.

In fact, it’s important to realize that “Sturgeon’s Law” was not meant to be invoked about absolutely anything. Originally, Theodore Sturgeon referred to it as “Sturgeon’s Revelation” and it was an argument against people using the worst examples of science fiction film and literature to demonstrate the worthlessness of the genre. His point was you can find bad examples from any art form or genre and use that as an excuse to vilify it.

Sturgeon’s Revelation came about because Ted Sturgeon was not only a great science fiction writer, but he was also a science fiction fan who loved to read. He hoped to encourage people to dive in and find the good stuff science fiction and fantasy had to offer. In short, that’s what I’ve been doing and I hope to see it pay dividends in the writing I produce.