In the Heart of the Sea

An all too frequent lament I hear these days is that Hollywood is too obsessed with superhero blockbuster movies and remakes. They can’t seem to make anything original. A couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to discover a recent historical film called In the Heart of the Sea directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13 among others) and starring such bankable stars as Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Tom Holland (Spiderman Homecoming), and Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer). The movie tells the story of the Essex, an early nineteenth century Nantucket whaler whose story went on to inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. What was surprising to me was that I’d heard nothing about this film until I saw a preview for it in front of a superhero movie I was watching with my kids.

I am a big fan of Herman Melville’s magnum opus. I first read the novel in high school and had a difficult time understanding it. I was also disappointed to discover that the version I bought was an abridged version. After I met Ray Bradbury in 1983 and learned he’d written the screenplay for the 1956 film starring Gregory Peck, I vowed to give the novel another try. I sought out a copy of the unabridged novel and dived in. I read it in college and loved not just the main story, but all the diversions Melville took to tell us about aspects of whaling. I felt they helped me understand the plot much better.

Not long after I read the novel, I ended up taking a job on Nantucket, working at a small observatory. I got to visit the whaling museum there and experience the town that gave rise to an important part of early nineteenth century Americana. It’s fair to say Moby-Dick worked its way into my very bones. Parts of which strongly influenced my novels Children of the Old Stars and Heirs of the New Earth.

In fact, my first professional sale was a retelling of Moby-Dick in which the crew of an airship hunts dragons for the fuel that allows them to breath fire. It was published in Realms of Fantasy magazine in 2001 and is now available in a standalone reprint edition at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

Perhaps after all this, it comes as no surprise that I loved In the Heart of the Sea. It told the story of men hunting whales from little wooden boats, using hand-thrown harpoons. In the story, we already see that whales are becoming over-hunted and hard to find. This drives the crew of the Essex to attempt to hunt whales out on the open ocean where they find one angry whale that has grown large and isn’t going to put up with this hunting nonsense any longer.

I found it a powerful movie, well told. It was both exciting and thoughtful, which seems a rare combination in movies these days. It endeavored to be faithful to history. Sadly, the big name blockbuster stars didn’t really shine in this film, and it would seem they didn’t draw much of an audience, either. Reviewer Matthew Lickona of the San Diego Reader said the movie had “a strange decency and politeness for a film that strives to depict, in epic form, man’s dark and visceral struggle with the world and himself.” The thing is, that’s actually one of the things I find compelling about history is that often times people found ways to be polite and decent in the heart of darkness.

If you like good, historical fiction, I would recommend In the Heart of the Sea. It’s not an amazing film, but it is a good one, and a good change of pace from yet another superhero film. It gives me hope that I might find a few more good films out there, lurking under the surface.

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Treat Yourself to a Scary Read

This week, my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt is Lachesis Publishing’s Book of the Week.

In my novel, astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from the beginning of time collide at a remote observatory during a violent thunderstorm. You might ask why a professional astronomer who operates telescopes would set a horror novel at an observatory. There are actually several reasons I chose to present this as a venue for a scary tale.

First, one of the scariest movies from my teen years was Ridley Scott’s movie Alien. Part of the reason the movie was so effective was that I was a big Star Trek and Star Wars fan growing up. Alien allowed haunted house horror to encroach on the “safe place” of science fictional optimism and action. Sure, Star Trek and Star Wars had their scary moments, but those moments were soon relieved by the heroes escaping the scary situation, a logical scientific explanation, or even humor. In Alien, the scary moments never let up. What’s more, the space ship was dark, dank, and full of shadows, not like the bright and colorful ships of those other science fictional franchises. For me, having a monster on the loose in an astronomical observatory is very much a call back to Alien.

Setting a horror story at an observatory is also something of an homage to one of the masters of twentieth century horror, H.P. Lovecraft. He was fascinated by astronomy and actually wrote scientific articles. Of course, he imagined ancient creatures from the depths of space to be among his horrors that tormented those people who dared to look in dark places.

Arguably one of the most important reasons for setting a horror story at an observatory relates to the adage, “write what you know.” I’ve worked at observatories for twenty-two of the last thirty years. Ironically, I feel comfortable and even safe working at observatories. However, some of the scariest stories happen in places where we don’t expect horrific things to occur. It’s one of the reasons Ray Bradbury could scare people with a story set at a fun carnival, and why Stephen King could scare us so effectively with a resort hotel in the Rockies. If you watch science shows, you’ve undoubtedly seen an astronomer speaking about the mysteries of the universe. You don’t expect something horrible in that situation.

And yet, it’s never far from the back of my mind that horrific things can happen. We’re at a remote site with wild animals. Observatories have big industrial equipment that come with their own safety issues. We work in the dark, in big, windowless buildings. When the power goes out, it can be really and truly dark. I’ve made the mistake of going into rooms without a flashlight and having doors close behind me and becoming quickly disoriented. There are access hatches that open into big, open areas. Those of us who work at observatories have to be ever vigilant to make sure accidents don’t happen.

I’ve also spoken at some length about how some observatories have literal crypts in or near their structures. James Lick is buried in the pier of the 36-inch telescope and Percival Lowell is interred in a mausoleum just outside the 24-inch telescope where he observed the features he thought were Martian canals.

In The Astronomer’s Crypt, I dared to take a place I loved and then scared myself by imagining the worst possible things happening. This Halloween, I dare you to come along with me and peer into the dark places behind the scenes at an observatory.

Lachesis Publishing has sweetened the deal making this a great Halloween treat. They’ve reduced the ebook from $4.99 to 99 cents for the rest of October at:

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.

San Bernardino

News of the December 2 attack on the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California has been particularly sad for me to watch. I grew up there and still have friends in the area. A childhood friend even received treatment at the Inland Regional Center. No one I knew seems to be among the dead or wounded, but San Bernardino has been a town going through tough times for a while and I suspect this is going to make things even tougher as people associate the city with the incident.

My family moved to San Bernardino when I was 4. My dad was a General Locomotive Foreman for one of the city’s major industries, Santa Fe Railroad. The other two big employers in the area were Kaiser Steel and Norton Air Force Base. All of those were closed by the early 1990s. We lived in three different houses while we were there, but the house that sticks in my memory as “my” house is one my parents bought in the 1950s just a block away from the site of the original McDonalds. When my parents left San Bernardino for a time in the late 60s and early 70s, my grandmother moved into the house. So, it was a house I visited regularly from my earliest days. They moved back into the house when my grandmother passed away in 1974.

McDonalds Museum

I have a lot of good memories from my years in San Bernardino. It was where I discovered both my love for writing and for astronomy. I made my first attempt at writing The Solar Sea when I was in high school. That draft long since has vanished in time, but the novel that exists probably wouldn’t have been written if not for my early daydreams of riding a solar sail to the outer planets.

Those daydreams were no doubt inspired by a love of astronomy. I started by attending meetings of the San Bernardino Valley Amateur Astronomers when I was a freshman in high school. By the time I was a senior, I took an astronomy class at Cal State San Bernardino from Dr. Paul Heckert and went on to observe variable stars with him for several years.

Of the three times I had a chance to meet with and speak to Ray Bradbury, two of them were in San Bernardino. The first time was at Pacific High School when he came to speak to the students. I actually attended San Bernardino High School across town, but Pacific’s principal invited me to share lunch with Mr. Bradbury. I saw him a gain a few years later at Cal State. Not only did I get to meet Ray Bradbury, but I also got to meet Jerome Bixby, author of the short story “It’s a Good Life” which became a Twilight Zone episode starring Billy Mumy. Bixby also wrote several of my favorite Star Trek episodes including Mirror, Mirror and “Day of the Dove.”

Arrowhead

One of the things I really love about San Bernardino are the mountains. Above is Mt. Arrowhead and the arrowhead feature is a natural rock formation. The Arrowhead is on private land, but I had the rare privilege of being able to climb the mountain one Saturday during my high school years. As it turns out, the springs at the base of the mountain are where Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water gets its name. The nearby San Gorgonio wilderness area and Big Bear Lake provide even more breathtaking sights and I spent time hiking and camping with my family and friends in those areas as well.

My time thinking of San Bernardino as “home” largely came to an end in 1989 when Santa Fe closed their shops, my brother moved with the railroad to Topeka, Kansas. My dad had passed away in 1980, so my mom decided to move to Seattle. I went back to the house I lived in through my high school years, packed up all my belongings and moved them to Socorro, New Mexico. San Bernardino is a town on tough times and those times are even tougher now that such a tragedy has struck. The people of San Bernardino are very much in my heart this holiday season.

Visiting a Creative Writing Class

This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit my daughter’s high school creative writing class. The teacher had the students read my short story “The Zombie Shortage” from the anthology Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie. I followed that by coming into the class and talking about my process for writing short stories and how I put that into practice with “The Zombie Shortage”. As I pointed out to the class, there are exceptions to all of these ideas, but these are things that have worked for me.

Edgar Allan Poe

Write the story in a single sitting. Back in high school, I was introduced to Edgar Allan Poe’s statement that a short story is a story that can be read in a single sitting. A few years later, I came to realize that if I expect a reader to read a story in a single sitting, I should endeavor to write a story in a single sitting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I write a finished, polished story all at once, but at least I do my best to get a draft down in one sitting. Indeed, my most successful stories—meaning the ones that have sold for the most money or I’ve received the most positive feedback on—have all been written this way.

Focus on one coherent theme and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Again, the source of this idea is Edgar Allan Poe. The part about focusing on one theme is probably the part most people might question, but again, I’ve found my most satisfying stories do that. The problem of the story is laid out in the first paragraph and a satisfying conclusion is reached by the end. Now, a satisfying conclusion doesn’t necessarily mean a “happy ending.” It just means wrap things up so your reader feels like they’ve read a complete story and not a chapter in a longer work.

Ray Bradbury

Visualize your story. There are various techniques for this. When I met Ray Bradbury, shown here in a photo by Alan Light, he talked about visualizing as he wrote—following the characters and seeing what they did and where they went. Some people today talk about this as writing “by the seat of your pants.” For me that’s not the most effective way to work. I find I like to visualize a story before I begin. I like to get to know it well and think of the characters as real people in a real situation before I sit down to write. I like to see the setting and I write based on things I know.

Practice. When I first heard Ray Bradbury talk thirty years ago, he likened writing to shooting baskets. You have to do it a lot to get good at it. You shoot and miss a lot. Eventually swish you get the ball in the basket. The more you do it, the more that happens. For me, the most successful stories have indeed felt much the same as a ball going through a basket. I haven’t really had doubt they were successful stories. Nevertheless, the lesson here is to practice and keep practicing until you get there.

Finally, while I have “The Zombie Shortage” on my mind, I just learned that the collection Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie is now out in paperback! Here’s the link for it at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Zombiefied-Anthology-All-Things-Zombie/dp/0615910270/

Fabulous Blog Ribbon

Emily Guido, who has been a wonderful supporter of this blog, has honored me with a new blog award. This one is the Fabulous Blog Ribbon.

Emily is the author of the Light-Bearer Series and I was delighted to hear that she’s just signed a deal with PDMI Publishing. Her blog is in the process of moving over to its new home at http://authoremilyguido.com. If you’re into paranormal romance, be sure to bookmark her page so you can learn about this exciting series.

Having received the Fabulous Blog Award, I need to tell you about five fabulous moments, five things I love, five things I hate, and five blogs you should check out.


Five Fabulous Moments

  1. Holding each of my daughters for the first time. Admittedly, this is really two moments, but they were both equally fabulous. Nothing else even comes close.
  2. Receiving contributor copies of the August 2001 issue of Realms of Fantasy Magazine. Not only did it include my first professional sale, it was illustrated by the brilliant Mark Harrison and my name was on the cover between Harlan Ellison and Alan Dean Foster.
  3. Spending a day with Ray Bradbury when I was 16. The highlight of the day was when I told him about a story I had written and he looked at me and said, “Send your story to a magazine now!” I have been sending my stories to publishers ever since.
  4. Performing in Brigadoon during my senior year at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. I got to sing, dance, speak in a Scottish accent, and wear a kilt on stage. It was absolutely exhilarating, especially when I drew laughs and cheers for my performance.
  5. Returning to that same stage exactly twenty years later as a professional science fiction writer alongside people I admire, including Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek, Walter Jon Williams, S.M. Stirling, and Jane Lindskold. How many times do you get to return to your alma mater and see your name in lights? That was truly exciting!

Five Things I Love

  1. My two daughters. They are brilliant and beautiful. Truly they are my greatest inspiration.
  2. My wife, Kumie. She also is brilliant and beautiful, and strong, too. She keeps me in line and its her faith in me that keeps me going even in the darkest of times.
  3. Chile peppers. I absolutely adore flavorful and spicy food.
  4. Chocolate. I’m especially fond of dark chocolate and I even like it when you mix it with chile. One of my favorite foods is chicken molé, which is chicken in a rich sauce of chocolate and chile. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!
  5. I love writing—especially that transcendent moment when I no longer feel like I’m sitting behind a computer typing on keys, but feel like I’m experiencing a set of events and relaying them as they’re happening.

Five Things I hate

  1. Being sick. Not only do I feel miserable when I’m sick, but I often lose precious writing time. The last time I was sick, I had so little energy, I couldn’t even read. That was horrible!
  2. Irrationality. That’s a catch-all for everything from prejudice to people who simply won’t consider the opposing side in a debate. We have far too much of this today and it drives me crazy.
  3. Being trapped. At one time or another, I’ve been stuck in a broken elevator, stranded alongside the road in a car that has broken down, or otherwise felt like my freedom was severely limited for some reason. To me, being trapped is a terrible sensation.
  4. Writing rejection letters. This is a necessity as an editor of short fiction but as a writer, I know how it feels to receive a rejection. I’ve received enough now that the sting is pretty minimal, but it’s still there. The problem is, not hearing a response is even worse. Still, I find the process of writing rejection letters one of the most draining and difficult things I do.
  5. Olives. As I’ve grown older, my tastes have matured and I’ve learned to like a lot of things I hated as a kid—not the least of which are Brussels Sprouts. But for some reason, I have just never warmed up to olives. (I do like olive oil, though. Go figure!)

Five Blogs You Should Check Out

  1. http://wyrmflight.wordpress.com – a blog for dragon lovers.
  2. http://dabofdarkness.com/ – reviews of books and audiobooks, plus book discussion.
  3. http://ginikoch.blogspot.com/ – my favorite red-headed cowgirl and a darned good writer.
  4. http://mrockwell.livejournal.com/ – talented poet and novelist, Marsheila Rockwell.
  5. http://skywarriorbooks.blogspot.com/ – one of my favorite publishers and many good tips for writers.

Ray Bradbury, A Personal Remembrance

In May 1983, I was 16 years old and a junior at San Bernardino High School in California. One of my best friends, Rodney King, was a senior at Pacific High School across town. Rod told me that Ray Bradbury was scheduled to give a presentation at his school. I was on San Bernardino High’s newspaper and persuaded my teachers to give me permission to report on the presentation.

RAY BRADBURY Pictures, Images and Photos

On the morning of Ray Bradbury’s presentation, Rod picked me up and we went to Pacific High School. We were walking across campus, when we were stopped by the principal. She saw I was carrying a tape recorder and asked if we were reporters from other schools. I confirmed I was. She then said, “Mr. Bradbury is having lunch in the library, would you care to join him?” Of course, we leaped at the opportunity. We found Ray Bradbury in the library talking to teachers and administrators. He seemed pleased to see some students there as well and we joined in the conversation.

Once we finished lunch, we adjourned to the auditorium where Bradbury spoke and answered questions about his work. Afterwards Rod and I went forward to say goodbye and thank him for talking to us. He pulled us aside and said, “I’m going out for cocktails with some of the teachers after this. Would you care to join us?” Of course we agreed and spent another hour with him. It was truly a magical day. I remember he told the story of how he came up with the story “The Veldt” from The Illustrated Man. He read some of his poetry. He encouraged us to read and write everyday. All of that has remained with me over the years.

I next had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Bradbury about two years later when he spoke at California State University at San Bernardino. That was a brief visit and he signed a copy of Dinosaur Tales for me. What I most remember is that when I stepped up to him in the autograph line, he immediately recognized me, stepped around the desk where he was signing, and gave me a hug.

I didn’t see Mr. Bradbury again until early 1995. At that point, I was living in Tucson. He came out to speak at a writer’s workshop held at the University of Arizona. I attended with my wife, Kumie, and my friend, William Grother. He gave a wonderful presentation over lunch where he told us a person should read a short story, a poem and an essay every day. “Imagine how much you will learn,” he said. He also told us about his experiences in Ireland, writing the Moby Dick screenplay for John Huston. Again, I had an opportunity to visit with Mr. Bradbury. He gave me and Kumie hugs and we left him to speak to other fans.

ray bradbury Pictures, Images and Photos

After that workshop, Bill, Kumie and I decided to create a science fiction and fantasy anthology series called Hadrosaur Tales. We dedicated the first volume to Ray Bradbury and sent him a copy. He sent back a letter praising the stories along with signed photos for all the contributors.

A couple of years later, I saw a copy of Green Hills, White Whale, which collected Ray Bradbury’s stories of working for John Huston in Ireland. I remembered his stories from the workshop so fondly that I immediately bought the book and read it right away.

About that time, I was also reading submissions for Hadrosaur Tales. There were three in a row that told the story of a knight climbing a mountain to slay some hapless dragon. I found myself asking, “Isn’t there a fresh way to tell this story?” I thought of Ray Bradbury in Ireland, writing Moby Dick. The question occurred to me, what if teams of people flew out in airships and hunted dragons? I wrote the story of a young man named Rado who joined such a crew. Rado was named for Ray Douglas Bradbury. When the story was published in Realms of Fantasy magazine, I sent Mr. Bradbury a copy and told him the story of how I came up with the idea. He wrote back a few days later and said how much he enjoyed that day in 1983 at Pacific High School, how proud he was of me and that the “The Slayers” was a “fine story.”

Back in 1983, Ray Bradbury told the story of visiting a carnival when he was a child. A man called Mr. Electrico strapped himself into an electric chair. With lightning arcing all around, Mr. Electrico pointed a lightning rod at the young Bradbury and said, “live forever!” That’s the moment Ray Bradbury decided to be a writer, so he could live forever.

That day, Ray Bradbury pointed at me and said, “Live forever, submit your stories now!” I have lived by that ever since and now it’s my turn to point to you. “Live forever!”