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

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.

Time Traveling through Books

Susan over at the Dab of Darkness blog tagged me in a post about books and time travel. This seemed like a fun topic near and dear to my heart and a good way to start a new week.

What is your favorite historical setting for a book?

jani-greater-game

The hard part about this one is that I love history and I usually find something to enjoy in any historical setting I explore. However, I think if I had to pin down one era it would be the Victorian era that’s so near and dear to the steampunk I write. In fact, I’m delighted to have added a signed copy of Gail Carriger’s Changeless to my collection. That said, although I do enjoy a good novel set in Victorian England itself, my favorite books are ones set in other places of the world at the time, including the Wild West such as Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels or India, such as Eric Brown’s Jani and the Greater Game or even the Africa of Jack Tyler’s Beyond the Rails series.

What writers would you like to travel back in time to meet?

There are lots of writers whose work I admire, but two of the writers who most interest me are Robert Louis Stevenson and Lafcadio Hearn. Stevenson and I share share two initials, a birthday, and a love of pirate stories. Hearn was captivated by the stories of the places he immersed himself in from New Orleans to Japan. Not only have their writings inspired me, they both traveled extensively at a time when it was not always easy to do so and I’d love to hear some of the stories they didn’t have a chance to write down.

What books would you travel back in time and give to your younger self?

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The books I’d point my younger self to actually existed back then, but I’d kick myself and actually get myself to read them! I would go back and hand myself Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. I had preconceived notions that I wouldn’t enjoy King’s work because it was horror, but I would have loved his spooky tale of vampires and I would have been captivated by his great use of characters. I could have learned a lot from reading that book which took my many years to figure out on my own—that I’m still figuring out. Discovering King at a younger age would have started that process a lot earlier!

I’d also encourage myself to read Heinlein’s young adult novels. I remember them on the bookstore shelves when I was a kid, but for some reason never took them home. I would have had a blast with them and their sense of adventure.

If I had to pick a contemporary novel to take back in time, it would have to be a steampunk novel. Clementine or Ganymede by Cherie Priest would have been good choices that my younger self would have liked. It might have kickstarted the idea that I could write steampunk earlier than I did. (Although arguably I started pretty early since I sold “The Slayers” in 2001!)

What book would you travel forward in time and give your older self?

I’d give myself a copy of James Cloyd Bowman’s Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time. That’s the book that started my love of tall tales and strange stories set in the wild west. It’s actually a book I don’t own, but have recently discovered it’s still in print, so I do need to remedy that. It would be fun to go back and see how Bowman’s version of the Pecos Bill story and the wild west inspired me.

What is your favorite futuristic setting for a book?

It depends on what your asking. Would I like to live in that futuristic setting, or do I think a good story is told there? There’s lots of futuristic settings that make a good story, but I wouldn’t want to live in that world! The Star Trek universe is an example of a futuristic setting which both has great stories, including many great novels, and where I’d like to live. The same is true of A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes novels. Both give generally optimistic visions of the future while suggesting plenty of adventures and many worlds to explore. I’m also fond of Ray Bradbury’s Mars, where the past meets the future in a kind of rustic setting on an alien world.

What is your favorite book that is set in a different time period (can be historical or futuristic)?

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The hard part about this question is that so much of what I read is set in a different time period, it’s hard to pick just one! However, I’m going to pick The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. I love its mix of engaging characters, politics, and attempt at examining the hard realities of making a colony on another world. This is one I remember enjoying a great deal and is one of the books that inspired me to sit down at the keyboard and actually try my hand at writing. It has been a long time since I’ve read it and it’s one of the books I’d like to go back to and see how well the book stands up to my memory.

Spoiler Time: Do you ever skip ahead to the end of a book to see what happens?

I used to do this all the time when I was a kid, but I stopped. I’m not exactly sure when that happened. My best guess would be during my college and graduate school days when most of my reading swapped over to comics and graphic novels for a time. In those, a glance at the end can be a major spoiler!

If you had a Time Turner, where would you go and what would you do?

It would be seriously tempting to go back and “fix” painful incidents in my life. For example, I could take some modern textbooks on cardiac care back to doctors who were tending my dad in the 1980s. However, I’ve read enough books cautioning about the dangers of time travel to know how fraught with peril these kinds of well-meaning things can be! Even Hermione Granger was cautioned about interfering with her own time stream.

So, with that in mind, I’d probably use the time turner to give myself some extra time to work on writing at home while I’m also operating telescopes at Kitt Peak. Heck, using the time turner to go back a few hours and get some extra sleep would be pretty amazing.

Favorite book (if you have one) that includes time travel or takes place in multiple time periods.

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Of course, the original and classic is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, but perhaps my favorite is The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. Instead of avoiding possible time travel paradoxes, Gerrold embraces them and looks at what happens when someone tampers with time, including his own timeline. The book’s open discussion of sexuality kind of freaked me out as a kid raised in a conservative, Christian household, but it also opened my eyes to other lifestyles than the one I was told was “correct.”

What book/series do you wish you could go back and read again for the first time?

I think it would be Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I hate to admit, but I still haven’t read all of them and those I’ve read have been in kind of a haphazard fashion, so I’d love to go back and make a real dedicated reading of the complete series.

Inviting others to play along.

I’m always a little hesitant to tag lots of people in these kinds of posts since I don’t want to make anyone feel obliged to play along. Also, it’s always possible someone was already tagged by someone else and I just missed their post. That said, if you’ve read this post and would like to take a crack at the answers, you’re more than welcome. If you tag me as the guy who inspired you and let me know, I’ll mention you here.

The following people have tagged me back, so go check out their answers!

The “Monsters” of Star Trek

I remember the first episode of the original Star Trek I watched. I must have been around five or six years old and Captain Kirk was being chased around the desert by the largest, most ferocious green lizard man I had ever seen. Monsters-Star-Trek When the creature first appeared hissing and growling with its strange, segmented eyes, it would have sent me to hide and watch from behind the couch if our couch hadn’t been backed against a wall. Scared as I was, the episode hooked me and even made me feel a little sorry for the green lizard man when Captain Kirk finally beat him. That likely was not only the beginning of my love of Star Trek but my love of monsters as well.

In 1980, soon after the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a book appeared at my local bookstore called The Monsters of Star Trek. It was a thin book clearly designed to capitalize on the new movie. On the cover was the Gorn—the lizard man from my childhood—so I had to pick it up. The book discussed mind-bending aliens such as the Talosians from the series pilot and Sylvia and Korob from Star Trek’s twisted Halloween episode “Catspaw.” It talked about dangerous animals such as the giant space amoeba and the ape-like Mugato. Browsing through the pages today, it strikes me that the original Star Trek dealt with vampires not just once but twice. In the first season, they met a salt vampire, then in the second, they met a vampire cloud that Kirk obsessively hunted. No doubt this contributed to my own vampire novels.

Of course many of Star Trek’s monsters prove to be misunderstood aliens or aliens who don’t understand humans. The most recent Star Trek movie, Beyond had an alien that definitely fell into this latter category—a swarm-like race led astray by an outside force. (I won’t say more, lest I give spoilers). I’ve always found swarms a bit scary, since they’re a large force with a single purpose, operating like one organism. For me, the best zombie stories work from this basis. One zombie is a little scary. A bunch of zombies working in concert is really scary! You can find my zombie stories in the anthologies Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie and Zombiefied: Hazardous Materials from Sky Warrior Publishing.

As it turns out, zombies aren’t my only look at the scary swarm. In Owl Dance, I introduce Legion, a swarm of microscopic computers who decide to help humans evolve in the second half of the nineteenth century causing near disaster. Legion clearly took some inspiration from Star Trek. In fact, one of the chapters in The Monsters of Star Trek is called “Androids, Computers, and Mad Machines.”

I never really thought of myself as a horror writer or even a horror fan until I started reading Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft as an adult and writing my first vampire stories. That said, it’s interesting to look back and see how scary stories were influencing me even from an early age. Still, it should really be no surprise. I’ve often said my interest in science fiction novels began from paying attention to the writer credits on the original Star Trek. One of those writers was none other than Robert Bloch, a writer mentored by H.P. Lovecraft who would go on to write the novel Psycho. Bloch wrote the Star Trek episodes “Wolf in the Fold” about an evil entity who possessed Scotty and made him a murderer, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” which featured Ted Cassidy from The Addams Family as a decidedly creepy android, and the aforementioned Halloween episode “Catspaw.” If you’re looking for some good creepy TV, you could do worse than hunt up copies of these episodes on video!

The Earliest Sunsets

With winter solstice just a little over two weeks away, I have long working nights at Kitt Peak National Observatory. In fact, this week we’re having the earliest sunsets of the year, which means rushed dinners before heading out to observe for the night. The nights will continue to get a little longer through the solstice itself, but next week, the sunsets will start being a little later. I always consider that a big milestone. Not only do I get a little more time for dinner, but it tells me the holidays are just around the corner.

So far, this week has involved imaging with the One-Degree Imager at the WIYN telescope, so we’ve been taking a lot of long exposures of distant objects. This has allowed me time to work on my final read-through of the current draft of The Astronomer’s Crypt. I hope to return the novel to my editor this weekend if all goes well.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is told from the perspective of a telescope operator like me, who works at night alongside visiting astronomers from all around the country. However, I do note in the novel that observatories require a lot of support from people who work during the day. As it turns out, there’s a great video which looks at Mike Hawes, the daytime facilities supervisor here at Kitt Peak and the great job he does:

The observatory in The Astronomer’s Crypt is smaller than Kitt Peak, as such the staff is a bit smaller. In the novel, the character Jerome Torres does for the fictional Carson Peak Observatory some of the job Mike does for Kitt Peak, but he also does some of the job my boss, Dick Joyce does.

One of the challenges of a novel like The Astronomer’s Crypt which is based on my career in a selective and competitive profession such as astronomy is to create characters who are not exact analogs of people I know. I want to highlight what makes an observatory a great place to work, and depict professional people like Mike Hawes, but I also want to accurately portray some of the more, shall we say challenging and colorful personality types I’ve worked with as well.

I start by thinking about a person and their circumstances. The character Jerome Torres is an Apache who worked his way through college. He’s a serious guy who appreciates his heritage, but also finds science fascinating. When you read the book, I hope you won’t read about Jerome Torres and think he’s just Mike Hawes rewritten. Instead, I hope you’ll believe that he’s a different guy believably doing a similar job with his own style.

By the same token, you’ll meet some characters who feel superior to others, have vices, and succumb to temptations. None of these people are based on specific people I know. That said, I have known people over the years who have those personality traits. More than a few of them have also worked in astronomy.

In the dedication to It, Stephen King writes, “Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie…” In The Astronomer’s Crypt I hope I have told a thrilling lie while at the same time telling the truth about a field I love.

A Week of Editing

My third Clockwork Legion novel, The Brazen Shark is due at the publisher in just under a month. Ten Percent Solution In the memoir, On Writing, Stephen King says, “Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails.” One of the tools I’m using to clarify things in the second draft of The Brazen Shark is a little book called The 10% Solution by Ken Rand, shown here in front of my keyboard.

Phyllis Irene Radford, my editor on Lightning Wolves introduced me to The 10% Solution and I now see that Sky Warrior Books recommends that all authors apply the book’s methods before submitting a manuscript for publication. In short, the method is to use your word processor to highlight the adverbs, the over-used words, and the wishy-washy verbs and adjectives like “was” and “very” so you can evaluate them, so you can decide if you can say them more clearly or in a stronger way. Lightning Wolves clearly benefited from the technique and I feel The Brazen Shark is getting stronger as I work through it using Ken Rand’s methods.

Not only am I editing the novel, I recently received notes from an editor about a story I’d submitted to an anthology she’s editing. In essence, her notes went right to the same point. She was working to get me to be more clear and precise. I’d written the story before I read The 10% Solution, but after going through her suggestions, I’m guessing the story would have needed less work if I’d applied those lessons ahead of time. Fortunately, she likes the story enough that it’s likely to appear in the anthology. The first moral of the story is that a good story can sell even if it needs work, so don’t worry too much about making it perfect. The second moral of the story is that your chances greatly improve the better the story is the first time around!

Tales10-4-cover

Finally, I’m in the process of editing Tales of the Talisman volume 10, issue 4. This will be the last issue before we take a break. Stories will be going out to the artists early next week. At this point, I suspect we’ll get the issue out in June. Although it’s a little sad to think about this phase of the magazine coming to an end, I have been excited to think about the directions we might take in 2016. Once I get The Brazen Shark turned in, I hope to start making more definite plans. Stay tuned!