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

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.

The Horror of Time Management

My daughter recently wrapped up another semester’s midterms in college, which presented her with a nearly overwhelming set of projects and exams. On top of that, she has a job with its own set of responsibilities. At the same time, I’ve been juggling quite a few projects as well. I’m drafting a novel, shepherding an anthology through its final phases of publication, promoting those books that are already out. Of course, I also have the “day” job of operating telescopes. Included in my job duties is oversight of the telescope operation manuals, which keeps me busy by itself. Given our different time management challenges, we had a good discussion about the subject and how to move forward without feeling overwhelmed.

The photo shows me with both of my daughters a couple of years ago at Gator Chateu in Jennings, Louisiana. The picture is kind of a metaphor. If you think of projects as alligators, they’re easy to handle and kind of fun when they’re small. The challenge is when they get big and you have several of them at once!

I’ve been seeing several articles in recent months that suggest multitasking is counterproductive. I can believe it. To extend my alligator metaphor, it’s like trying to go up against all the gators by yourself at once. You’re more likely to get eaten than get something useful done with the gators. Not multitasking sounds great until you’re confronted with the reality of several big projects and looming deadlines.

The first thing to realize is that it’s actually rare for all deadlines to fall at the exact same time. Even when deadlines do occur at the same time, there’s nothing saying you can’t finish one project early if possible. The first thing I like to do when confronted with several looming projects is figure out which things need to be done first. Also, some projects require more complete attention from me while others require me to contact a person and then wait for a response. This part is like getting your alligators into separate enclosures so you can deal with them one at a time.

To step back a little and make this more concrete for writers, this is why I think it’s invaluable for a writer to have good, regular writing habits. For me, it’s much easier to write productively in a small block of time if I have been writing routinely every day. If I take a long break from my writing, that’s when anxiety starts to build regarding what I’m going to write about. That’s when I spend long periods of time staring at the computer trying to figure out what words I’m going to be using. If I’m writing regularly, I can look at my outline, see the scene I want to write, then sit down and get it done in the block I have available. If you write by the seat of your pants, you won’t be looking at an outline, but you might think about the last scene you wrote and decide where you’re going.

Editing and book promotion can both involve some amount of writing emails or making phone calls and then waiting for responses. A daily routine that often works well for me is to wake up, check my email and see if there’s anything I need to deal with right away. I take care of what I need to, and then set aside those tasks that either don’t require an instant response or can’t be finished instantly. At that point, I turn off my email program and turn off the ringer on my phone. I write to the goal I have set myself. That goal varies depending on the project, but it’s often a thousand or two thousand words. Once that goal is done, I turn the phone back on and restart the email program, check for messages and move on to longer term editorial work.

Now, you’ll notice, I’ve not addressed the observatory job. One thing I like about my job is that while I work long hours at the telescope, I only work for about six or seven nights every two weeks. So, all my work taking data at the telescope and drafting manuals happens at the observatory and is only occasionally done at home when there’s a pressing deadline or a safety issue that needs to be dealt with right away. This kind of schedule isn’t for everyone, which means you need to adapt your schedule to your routine. It may mean smaller blocks of time every day for every job you do, or it may mean you do some jobs on some days and other jobs on other days.

After awhile, it starts to look like multitasking, but really I try hard to focus on one job at a time as much as possible.

I also didn’t mention family time in the equation, but for me, that’s perhaps the most important time of all and the least negotiable. It’s also probably a better reason for showing a photo with me and my daughters than a silly alligator analogy. When I’m at home, I typically stop work at 6pm to be available to my wife and daughters as they need. There are exceptions. Among other things, sometimes my younger daughter has after school activities or homework that take her attention for a while. Sometimes she works on that while I work on a project. When I’m at the observatory, I’m away from home, but I make time to Skype with my family every day and I’m available to take calls as needed.

So, to sum up, if I’m working on several long-term projects with deadlines, I like to prioritize those projects with earlier deadlines. I block out my day so I make progress on all my projects, taking it one thing at a time. I try to build up good habits so that limited blocks of time are productive. I recognize what I need to make myself productive at each type of project and try to maintain those conditions.

All of that said, yeah, I still get overwhelmed at times. Sometimes then, the best thing to do is take a break, go for a walk, clear my head and look at it all afresh. Sometimes then, those alligators don’t look quite as big as I thought the first time and I’m able to wrestle them into their compartments and get on with my life.

Worlds of Words

Last weekend, I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, which brings together authors of every genre imaginable from around the world to talk with readers about their work. The entire University of Arizona mall is taken up with tents occupied by vendors selling books and exhibiting products, services, and information. There was also an area called Science City which focuses on STEM literacy.

I love walking through the festival and seeing the books for sale and meeting the authors exhibiting their wares. Bookmans Entertainment Exchange is a chain of used bookstores in Arizona and one of the sponsors of the festival. They had a large tent and it was especially fun to go in and discover they had a copy of my novel Owl Dance for sale. What’s more, it was sitting on top of a copy of Bridges of Longing by my friend Marsheila Rockwell. As it turns out, I’d just spent time visiting with Marcy and her husband Jeff Mariotte a few minutes before at a tent where they were selling their books.

Fun as it is to visit the vendors, my favorite part of the festival are the tremendous panel presentations. On Saturday morning of the festival I joined J.L. Doty for a panel on Scientists Writing Science Fiction. I discussed how science influences my writing and editing. For example, science brought me together with Steve Howell of NASA Ames Research Center to assemble Kepler’s Cowboys, a collection of stories about planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. I also noted that working in science doesn’t always influence my science fiction. The 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak is a big, spooky building, especially at night and it inspired me to write my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. We also discussed bringing the discipline we learned in science to our writing. In that context, Jim mentioned how he writes without an outline. On the other hand, I do use outlines. In both cases, we think carefully about what we’ve written and plan our next writing sessions so we do any required research ahead of time.

I also moderated a terrific panel on building fantasy worlds. The panel included my friend Gini Koch. I was also delighted to meet Samantha Shannon, Erika Lewis, and Brian McClellan. We discussed the process they go through when creating their alternate worlds and how they keep track of the places within those worlds so they’re believable to the readers. I thought it was especially interesting to hear that Samantha was a fan of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, because I saw some influences in The Mime Order. That said, she noted that she’d actually removed some of the more overt influences because she didn’t feel they were working in the context of her work. The photo above was taken after the panel was finished and we gathered to sign books.

By itself, a terrific weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books would have done a great job of recharging my batteries so I could continue work on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. However, just a couple of days after the festival, I was delighted to find a new review of book two of the series, Lightning Wolves posted at Geek-o-Rama. Reviewer Katrina Roets wrote, “Do you want to know how you know that you’re really enjoying a book? It’s when the power goes out and you curl up on the couch with a flashlight so that you can keep reading. Seriously. This happened to me last night.” Knowing that I wrote fiction that kept a reviewer reading through a power outage gives me a great, warm fuzzy feeling and makes me ready to write even more.