Interesting Writing Problem: Screen to Book

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Before I speak on-topic, let me just mention that there’s an interesting exchange of comments on creationism versus evolution going on under the Faith and Rationality piece, which you can scroll down to (or click on, in the right column). [Does anyone know if there’s a way to set this blog so that comments show up with the original posts? Some of your posts are more interesting than mine.]

That said, I want to talk about writing for a bit. The craft, not the business. As readers of this blog know, I’m currently working on a novelization of a big frakking science fiction TV miniseries, and I’ve been intrigued by some of the differences between writing my own stories and writing a story from the screen. There are the obvious things, of course—the plot and dialogue already exist, and while I can elaborate on them where it seems appropriate, I can’t do much to change what’s already up there on the screen. In some cases, this poses minor challenges, such as explaining away scenes that don’t make sense (or have elements that don’t make sense). Less obvious may be the difference in the voice that a novelist uses, compared to the filmmaker’s voice.

For example, take a scene in which the camera moves from one character to another to another, not just showing what is happening, but also revealing (as much as the camera can) the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Sometimes there’s a long tracking shot, in which the camera isn’t just moving among the members of a group, but actually passing
through what you might call mini-scenes, involving groups of characters who aren’t necessarily connected. It can be a very smooth and engaging effect in the film or video. But how do you translate that to narrative prose?

One could, of course, simply jump from viewpoint to viewpoint in quick succession, or adopt an omniscient narrator point of view, where you look into everyone’s thoughts. But I’m not generally a big fan of this kind of voice, which I often find jarring—and which jolts me out of that fine state of suspended disbelief, which is another way of saying it breaks the spell for me. (Tolkien got away with it sometimes, but only because his writing was so powerful in other ways.) I’m personally more comfortable writing, and reading, from one point of view at a time—sharing that one person’s thoughts and no one else’s, at least for the duration of the scene. For me, that lends an immediacy and intimacy to the narrative that the omniscient narrator doesn’t, because we feel that we’re sharing that time, whether it’s long or short, with one individual on stage.

So I’ve chosen that voice, mostly, as I write this story-from-screen. As a result, I’ve been finding myself facing, over and over, unexpected decision points as I start a new scene: whose viewpoint am I going to tell this one in? The answer isn’t always obvious, and I sometimes wonder—would I have written a better scene if I’d chosen a different character? Once in a while, it’s simply been impossible, such as scenes with a bunch of different spacecraft, and no one anchor point to tell it from. In those cases, I’ve tried to tell it the way the camera does—as a free-floating, all-seeing narrator, but limited in what I can tell about what anyone is thinking or feeling. Once or twice, I’ve briefly emulated the long tracking shot. It’s tricky. Very tricky. (Especially when you’re writing fast, under tight deadline!)

I hope you’ll all tell me, next year when the book is out, how well you think I did.

April Near-15th Blues

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How anticlimactic. After neglecting my other work for several days, not to mention the blog, in order to do my taxes, I find I have to file for an extension. An arcane problem with the reporting on a retirement account, which will require an even more arcane solution. (And time.) Blast. Frak. Whatever.

I think I should take up juggling. I’ve got a new piece of consulting-editing work to do (algebra, data analysis—how exciting, I can hear you say), and I’m running somewhat behind schedule on the novelization. I’m up to about page 80 on the manuscript, which is projected at about 400 pages. Lessee—I’m 43 minutes into a 3-hour miniseries (4 hours, minus the commercials), which means….. (don’t rush me, I’m thinking) …………………. I’m not quite one-fourth of the way through the story.

Better get cracking.

Blues Begone

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Strange as it may seem, I have a contribution in a new book by country singer Tanya Tucker, called 100 Ways to Beat the Blues. I was the first SF writer to contribute to the book, but not the last. She scored an entry from Sir Arthur C. Clarke, as well.

I haven’t actually seen a physical copy of the book yet, but I know it’s out and available wherever fine books are sold.

Here’s a link to it on Amazon. (If you buy it through my link, I actually get a nickel or two on the deal. Which is not by itself reason enough to buy it. But the strangeness of seeing me in the same book as George H.W. Bush might be.)

The other book you’ll see below is perhaps even odder in the sense of my being in it. Cows: a Rumination is a collection of photographs of…cows…each with a little story, poem, newspaper clipping, etc. One of them is mine. It’s a pretty cool book, I think.

What’s in a Title? (Writing Question #4)

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So I’m feeling a little grumpy today, and the reason is that, once again, one of my titles has been stolen. Stolen. Well…not stolen exactly, but used by another author before I could finish the book I was planning to use it on.

The first time was last fall, when I learned that Greg Benford had a new book coming out by the name of The Sunborn. My stomach flip-flopped when I heard this. Anyone who’s been following my work knows that I’ve been working, roughly forever, on the fourth book of The Chaos Chronicles—said volume to be titled, Sunborn. I often struggle to find titles for my books, but this was one of the rare ones that came to me like a gift from Heaven as I was outlining the story, about a century ago. And now here it is, on the cover of someone else’s book. (Benford’s novel The Sunborn has been published, to good reviews I believe—which is unsurprising, since Benford’s an excellent writer. My novel, Sunborn, remains in my office as a rough draft, with a great deal of heavy rewriting standing between it and publication.)

I suspect no foul play, I hasten to add. Writers come up with the same or similar titles all the time. Titles can’t be copyrighted, and some of them get recycled over and over. (In fact, it was only after my novel, Strange Attractors, was published that I learned the title had been used by young adult SF writer William Sleator, and by Australian SF writer Damien Broderick.) Still, I was plenty frustrated.

Today it happened again. I was reading some industry press, and what do I see but a new book from Robert Reed, called The Well of Stars—which just happens to be the title I’d already given to the not-yet-written sequel to Eternity’s End, or close to it. (Journey to the Well of Stars was how I’d put it in my notes. Another title that I knew was just right: Eternity’s End, er, ends with a distinct pointer toward a future journey to a place called…mm…the Well of Stars. You can read it—it’s right there in the book.) Augghhhh! How does this keep happening? I sent an exasperated note to my editor, who also is Reed’s editor, saying, roughly, “Gahh! Robber! Thief! Criminal activist!” I got back a note saying, “Gosh, sorry, I’m the one who gave him that title, didn’t know you were planning to use it. Next time, tell me.” Gaahhhhhhh!!! I know exactly where his subconscious got that title to pass on to his other author—from me, because I did tell him. Gahh!!! That was when I wrote back and promised to do terrible things to him for his sins.

Which, of course, I would never do, because we’re friends and we’ve worked together for years and he’s done plenty of good things for me. (But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a strong desire to wring his neck.)

So. What’s a title worth? Should I throw up my hands and concede the territory and think up new titles for both of my novels? Or dig in my heels and say, no, those titles are perfect for my books, and I’m going to use them no matter who else has used them first? Honestly, I don’t know, and I have a while before I have to decide. Legally, there’s no issue. Ethically, ditto. It’s more a matter of perception. Do I want it to look like I’ve copied someone else? By the time my books make it into print, will anyone even remember, or care? Will the titles evoke what I want in readers perusing the shelves? Will they sell copies? I dunno. I just dunno.

Writing Question #3: Will They Steal Your Work?

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Blog-reader Harry put the following question to me:

You mention that critiques are important and how you’ve used a writing group to get feedback from all your work, including what gets published. Are you ever worried that someone in the club will steal your work and publish it? It sounds crazy given the success rate of the business but is it a real worry? How do you deal with it? Hard copies only with watermarks or just the honor system?

Aspiring writers want to know…

I’ll give a short answer, then a long answer. The short answer is, no. I don’t worry about it in the least, because I trust the people in my writing group. They’re my friends, we’ve been together for years, and if I didn’t trust them with my work I wouldn’t trust them to critique it, either.

Okay (I can hear you thinking), easy for you to say. You’ve been with a group for years, but what about me? I’m just thinking of joining a group. How can I know whether to trust these new people?

Fair question. Clearly any writing support group, especially a new one, must set out guidelines for treating members and their work with respect, and clearly there is an element of trust involved. I can’t tell you who to trust; you have to use your own instincts for that. I guess I’d say that if your instincts are causing you unease about the group you’re in, maybe you should look for another group. But that’s true whether or not you are worried about them stealing your work.

So let’s look at whether it’s a realistic worry. Suppose some new member had you all bamboozled about being trustworthy and decided to steal your story. What are the chances that he or she would get away with it? Pretty damn small. You’ve got an entire group that saw the piece and knows you wrote it. If someone did take your work, submit it to a publisher, and get it published (a very long shot in itself), wouldn’t all hell break loose when someone (like one of your friends) noticed that your story had just appeared under the name of the other person in your group? Imagine what that would do to the thief’s future career when the publisher was informed.

Does it ever happen? Yes. (But not within a writers’ group, so far as I know.)

I’ll tell you about it, because it happened to me. One of my stories, a novelette called Reality School: In the Entropy Zone, was plagiarized after it was published. A student at a university took the story, changed a few words, and submitted it as her own work to an online student anthology, put up on the web by the English Department. I think it was there for about a year before someone came along, read it, and thought, I’ve seen that before. Thanks to the web and the SF community, word eventually reached me that I should take a look. I did–and within a week, the student was up before the deans for disciplinary action. (She also had stolen another writer’s work. Though I was never officially told the disposition of her case, due to confidentiality rules, I have good reason to believe she was expelled soon after.) A sad irony of this particular case is that the university decided to prohibit future web-publication of student work. The irony, which I guess escaped the administrators, was that if the story had not been published on the web, the plagiarism would never have been discovered.

So didn’t that change my feeling about showing my work to my group? Why would it? After all, this happened after publication, and the perpetrator was a complete stranger. Which, if you think about it, makes a lot more sense than stealing from someone you know. If you’re going to steal.

So basically, I’d say: read my short answer again.

Comments on Faith; Videos; Not Enough Sleep

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There have been some interesting comments posted to my entry below on faith and rationality. If you don’t ordinarily look at the comments, I recommend you scroll down and take a look at those. Maybe you’ll have something to say in response. Please feel free.

Meanwhile, I’ve just come off editing a year-end video piece for the school wrestling team (a sort of wrestling music video)—which was a lot of fun to do, but involved some late-night video-editing sessions. Now, I’m back to organizing a year’s worth of receipts to do my taxes (let’s hear it for Turbotax), and still cranking away on the miniseries novelization. That’s fun, too. Oh, and I’m about to start a new round of consulting editing (I edit and do rewrite on educational web content, for teacher professional development—if you should happen to sign up for a PBS Teacherline course in high school algebra, there’s a good chance you’ll be coming across material that I worked on). So…that’s why not enough sleep.

That’s also why not enough entries in the blog. But I’m trying.

An Easter Tale

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Many years ago, in our small freshwater aquarium, we had a tiny crab named Kremlin—so named because of his aggressive behavior toward the fish in the tank, mostly neon tetras. Kremlin would rest quietly on the bottom of the tank, waiting for a passing fish, which he would attempt to snag with a claw. I don’t think we ever actually caught him in the act of catching a fish, but the population of the tank was slowly decreasing, and we had no doubt who was responsible. We had mixed feelings about the little fellow, but he was far and away the most interesting inhabitant of the tank.

From time to time, Kremlin made himself scarce, hiding among the rocks or plaster formations. We got used to his being unseen for a day or two at a time, but on this occasion, we’d missed him for longer and were starting to fear that he’d gone to meet his maker. And then…one morning I walked into the room—Good Friday, it was—and saw the empty remains of his shell. Ah, Kremlin. This time his disappearance was for real, then. Gone. Dead. His remains eaten by the algae eating catfish, we presumed. I mourned him, but life went on.

Easter morning—I went to feed the remaining fish. There, to my astonishment, scuttling along on the bottom of the tank, was Kremlin! Back from the dead, full of life and vigor, and determined to have fish for lunch. This was impossible, it was a miracle!

It took me a few minutes before I realized, with some embarrassment, that he was about one shell-size larger.

Kremlin molted two or three more times before he really did go to meet his maker. And each time, the silly little crab took us by surprise. Or, maybe, it wasn’t the crab who was so silly.

Thanks, by the way, to my daughter Julia, for reminding me of this story in time for Easter.

Thoughts on Faith and Rationality

posted in: religion, science 0

This being Good Friday, it seems like a good time to set down some of my thoughts about faith. (I’ve already spoken about faith and writing in a general sort of way, in an essay on my web site, Faith and the Difficulty of Writing. But that didn’t focus specifically on faith in God so much as on faith in the Muse, faith in one’s own abilities—with a kind of pointer toward a deeper underlying faith. It’s that deeper faith that I’m thinking of now.)

I once received an email from a reader, who said he’d been stopped cold by a scene in my science fiction novel Eternity’s End, in which a character who happens to be both an alien and a doctor speaks of her Christian faith. It’s just a small point in the book, a bit of characterization, and a low-key way of saying that neither Christ nor religious faith have gone away in the future. Beyond that, the novel says nothing explicitly about Christianity (though the beliefs of the author are probably detectable in other ways). My reader was an avowed atheist, and he couldn’t believe that anyone who took a scientific view of the world could also believe in anything so stupid.

How (the reader asked) could I just dismiss the scientific method, and the evidence for the Big Bang, for evolution, for…well, I forget what else, but you get the idea.*

After picking my jaw up off the floor, I wrote back: Where did you get the idea that any of that was true?

Some considerable exchange followed, but I don’t think he ever got the point that, yes, you can believe in science and in God.

Data points: I believe the scientific method is the best tool we have for understanding how the universe works. It relies on evidence, on cross-checking, on testing hypotheses to see if they stand up, on rational and critical thinking. Sometimes evidence that appears to support one explanation turns out to support a different explanation just as well, or better. I believe in the Big Bang, at least until a better theory comes along. I believe in evolution, same deal. I believe in God, a personal God who created the universe and each of us, and in his son Jesus.

Whoops. That last sentence may be in the wrong paragraph. That’s not about science, that’s about faith. And faith is different from science. But wait—they’re both about ways of knowing, and of forming belief. So I guess they both belong in that paragraph about my beliefs, after all.

It’s all about different ways of knowing:

  • I believe in the findings of science because when I read about the research (I’m an avid armchair scientist), I know that people are checking each others’ work and testing for reproducible results. Sometimes scientists lie and fake data, but they’re always caught in the end. Sometimes they’re wrong; sometimes results seem really cool—cold fusion, for example—but then don’t pan out so well in the cross-checking. It’s a continuing, changing story.
  • I believe in God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, because of my personal experience of them. Is my belief rational? In part, yes. I was not able to believe, as an adult, until I convinced myself that God was a plausible hypothesis. I arrived at that point through studying the Bible and other books, and through many discussions with people who had knowledge and insights that I didn’t. Only after I could accept the rational possibility was I able to be open to the real presence of God in my life, and to feel that presence. Does it happen that way for everyone? No, but why should it?

The point is, I see no contradiction between my faith and science. Why did God use the Big Bang to create the universe? I don’t know, can you think of a better way? Why did God use evolution to create humans (and dogs, and dolphins and whales, and cats, and rhinos, and dinosaurs)? Maybe it appealed to his sense of artistry. Why did Jackson Pollock make paintings by throwing and dripping paint onto a canvas? I’m pretty sure God has a terrific sense of humor; anyone who’s lived with a cat or a dog (especially a boxer!) knows that.

And so…I’m not sure where I was headed with this, but I wanted to share some thoughts that I’ve been meaning to write up into an essay, but never got around to. Good Friday just seemed like a really good time to start.

Maybe next I’ll write about faith in God and writing.

*Note: my reader didn’t ask if I was a Christian, he just assumed I was because a character in my book was. Guess what! Authors and their characters are not the same people! In this case, the character was a Christian, and so am I; the character was offended by profanity, but I am not; the character was an amphibious Narseil, but I am not. Or I wasn’t, the last time I checked.

Still Alive

Well, they haven’t killed me yet, and I guess they’d better not, because now they’re counting on me to get the book written in time. I’m a’crankin’ on it. It’s interesting to see the difference between writing something in someone else’s universe, and writing in your own. It’s a lot easier to do someone else’s story. For one thing, you don’t have to make everything up. (In this case, I’m taking a storyline that’s already set in celluloid and, er, binary digits, so the plot is already there.) When you want to know a technical or background detail, you can ask someone else. (That doesn’t mean you’ll get an answer, or at least a quick answer, but you can ask.)

The changes in technology have affected the process of doing this kind of writing, I’m guessing. Instead of just going by memory, and by a script that’s *way* out of date as far as the final show on screen is concerned, I can have the whole thing readily at hand. I’ve loaded the DVD right onto my hard drive–both on my desktop and my laptop–so I can simply toggle between my work and the video. I can get the dialogue right (for that matter, I can get the scenes right–you’d be amazed how much it all gets moved around and changed in final production and, I assume, the editing suite). I can look closely at the set, and the characters, and their mannerisms. I can also move on from that to add the layers of depth and texture that distinguish prose fiction from a visual production.

The trick may be to keep from getting too tied into that. I do, after all, have to write this book quickly. But you know something–I’m having fun.

A Hint

Okay, I’ll say this much. I’m writing the novelization of a really popular SF miniseries, one that has spun off a regular show.

That’s it. I can say no more. I’ve already said too much.

They’ll probably have to kill me now.

Blast. I’ll miss you all.

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