Help the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop

Speaking of great causes, if you like science fiction that actually gets the science right, there’s nothing better than the annual Launchpad Astronomy Workshop, which since 2007 has been training writers in the basics, as well as some of the finer points, of astronomy. In the early years, when I attended, Launchpad was paid for by grants from NASA and NSF. Now, funding is scarce, and the workshop needs a helping hand from people who care. Science fiction, after all, provides inspiration for future generations of scientists, as well writers, artists, and readers of all kinds. 

If you’d like to help, there’s just one more day left to make a donation to the crowd-funding of this important program. There are all kinds of free books available to reward donations—all donated by author or publisher-alums of the program (like me!) Check out the donations page and get a free book while helping a great cause!

Nature’s Reset Button

Amazing how the writing mind can bounce back with a little time away, and some exposure to nature.  The last two days have been great.  Here are a few pix I took of, and around, Quechee Gorge in Vermont.
That bridge you see way down is Vermont Rt. 4, but was originally the bridge for the Woodstock Railroad. 
Downstream of the gorge. 

Another shot downstream, but this one with accursed Japanese bamboo weed in the foreground.  I hope it hasn’t taken over by the next time I visit. 
Forest along the gorge.
This sculpture replicates the movement of an eagle’s wings when maneuvering in a steep bank prior to diving.   If you walk between the two bars and glide your hands along the metal with arms outstretched, your arms move in a reproduction of the eagle’s wing motion.
  
A cool wind sculpture near the nature center, caught in three different positions. 

And now I head home, with hopes that I can keep some of this lodged in my forebrain for a while.

After Bread Loaf, a Retreat

The New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf was a tremendous success. It always is, but I’d been away from it for five years, and felt pretty rusty going in. Though I arrived frazzled, and was exhausted most of the time (we had a very busy workshop schedule), it was an enormously rewarding experience. This conference selects over two hundred talented and motivated high school-aged writers, and they were a wonderful bunch of kids. One of my students came all the way from Paris for the workshop—a half-French girl with an Aussie accent and a great sense of humor. Another turned out to be the son of a horror writer I once did a bunch of book signings with. As always in the past, I enjoyed getting to know the other writer-teachers (there were about twenty of us), who were of all stripes and genres, but all very friendly. And my reading of an excerpt from Neptune Crossing to the whole conference was very well received.

Allysen, meanwhile, put her foot down and said she wasn’t letting me come home until I’d taken a few days for myself. Thanks to her diligent research, I am now holed up at an inn near Woodstock, Vermont and Quechee Gorge. First goal, to rest and decompress. Second goal: start wrapping my head around The Reefs of Time again, and start finishing that sucker.

Off to Bread Loaf!

I’m leaving shortly for Vermont and the New England Young Writers Conference, where I’ll be one of a couple dozen writers of all types and genres working with high-school student writers. I’m returning after a five-year hiatus, and I’m hoping for it to be a good time.

We finished moving everything out of Allysen’s mother’s condo this week, and the closing for the sale went off yesterday. So that big job is behind us. Fay herself will arrive while I’m at the conference, and should be moved into her new place at the retirement village by the time I’m back.

See you next week!

Off to Arisia

I’m heading off shortly to Boston’s Westin Hotel on the waterfront to spend some time at Arisia, currently New England’s largest regional SF/F convention. I’ll be on a bunch of panels related to writing and ebook publishing. Tonight at 10, the subject is “Self-editing your SF/F Novel” —self-editing being the first step in rewriting a manuscript, to be combined (preferably) with critique from trusted readers, followed by more revision as needed. I happen to have a self-edit checklist just for the purpose! (If you don’t catch the panel, you can always read my checklist at writesf.com—click the link for Rewriting.)

Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about “Punching Up the Action,” “Self-publishing” (particularly, from my point of view, as it relates to self-publishing one’s backlist), and “Plot and Structure.” If you’re in the area, come on down!

I’m also eagerly looking forward to seeing the art show. The artist Guest of Honor is Roger Dean, creator of all those wonderful Yes album covers (which were in fact one inspiration for my novel Panglor)!

The Next Big Thing — Work in Progress

Today I’m diving into an author meme that’s circulating around the net this month. It’s called a Blog Hop. The idea is to post some tantalizing information about your work in progress, to get folks (that’s you) psyched about what’s coming down the pike—and then to link to some of your writer friends and colleagues, and encourage the same folk (you, again) to go check out what they’re doing.

Here goes. First question, please:

1) What is the title of your next work?

The Reefs of Time.

It’s Volume Five of The Chaos Chronicles. Or, to put it another way, it’s the long-awaited sequel to Sunborn. It’s also still very much a work in progress, and I don’t have a publication date for you, unfortunately. Some of you have been waiting a long time for this book, and I very much appreciate your patience.

2) Where did the idea come from?

It continues a story inspired by chaos theory, which began years ago with Neptune Crossing, the opening volume of The Chaos Chronicles. The series chronicles the adventures of one John Bandicut from Earth, a survey pilot out on Triton (moon of Neptune), whose journey starts with a search for relics of life from outside the solar system. He finds it, in the form of a quarx—a noncorporeal alien who takes up residence in his head—and the translator, a powerful machine or being of equally alien origin. A lot happens after that—four books’ worth, in fact. Worlds in danger, starting with Earth. Reluctant heroes. New friendships and loves where least expected.

In The Reefs of Time, we are hundreds of years further into the future, out at the edge of our galaxy. There’s a calamity in the making, of truly galactic proportions. Li-Jared’s homeworld is involved. The starstream is involved (see From a Changeling Star and Down the Stream of Stars). The Mindaru are involved (see Sunborn). The inspiration for this volume came not just from chaos theory, but time theory, as well. The human element was inspired by… well, I’m not really sure, to be honest. My own feelings of awe in the face of a seemingly chaotic universe, perhaps.

Each of the books is a story complete, while building a much larger story arc.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Sounds sort of like science fiction, doesn’t it?

4) What actors should play your characters in the movie?

I’d never thought about that until now. Well, okay, this sounds nutty, but actually Tom Cruise, toned down, might not be bad as John Bandicut. Chris Pike could be good, too. Or Jeremy Renner, or Mark Ruffalo. He has to be smart and capable, but also a little crazy. He’s got actual, alien voices in his head, and he’s loyal to those he loves, and when pushed, he’s willing to take some enormous risks.

Most of the characters in this book are aliens, and that’s a tough casting challenge. Willem Dafoe was great as Tar Tarkas, and he might be a pretty good Ik (an alien). Lynn Collins (Deja Thoris in John Carter) could be the beautiful, four-breasted humanoid, Antares. Or Lena Heady. For Julie Stone, human… not sure. Someone smart, competent, cute, reminiscent of Allison Mack (Chloe in Smallville); but I’m not sure she’s quite right. Someone similar, though. Summer Glau? Too exotic. Piper Perabo? Too adorable. I think this part is still open. Li-Jared and the robots, I really have no idea.

5) Give us a one-sentence synopsis. (Go ahead, try!)

When a time distortion opens a channel from the center of the galaxy in the deep past, to the outer galaxy of now, it also opens a path for a malevolent group of cyber-entities to come forward in time, threatening thousands of civilized worlds. It falls to John Bandicut and his alien companions to find a way to close the timestream. And if Bandicut survives, he might just learn that Julie Stone has made it to Shipworld, out at the edge of the galaxy, and that she has played a part in the mission.

Okay, I made it in three sentences. But it’s a whole lot more complicated than that, really.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It is slated to be published by Tor Books, who have been waiting patiently for the long-overdue manuscript.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Ouch. Five years or more in, I’m nearly finished with the massive first draft. I expect the rewrite to go a lot faster, though it will be a huge job, involving a lot of weaving and a lot of cutting and tightening. 

8) What other books would you compare this story to?

That’s a hard one. It has some of the epic proportions of Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky. Maybe some kinship with Gregory Benford’s galactic core books. Or Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God. Or Samuel R. Delany’s Nova. Or Niven’s Ringworld. A bit of Heinlein, a bit of Clarke. It’s character driven, but probably comes in somewhere between hard science fiction and galactic space opera.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

James Gleick’s book, Chaos. An article in The Planetary Report about chaos in the solar system. An image of a man, a pilot, driven a little mad by the loss of his cybernetic implants, as the first human to encounter an alien.

10) What else might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s a great, sprawling adventure with characters I find very interesting (humans, aliens, robots), a complex plot spanning half the galaxy, and—oh yes—time travel! I can’t wait to read it. And I really can’t wait to finish writing it. The Reefs of Time. When it’s done, the readers of this blog will be the first to know.

All six books that connect to it, by the way, are readily available as ebooks. (That includes four books of The Chaos Chronicles, plus the two Starstream novels mentioned above. Paper books are also available, though you might have to go to the used market for some of them.)

If there are no more questions, why don’t you check out what some of my fellow authors have to say about their works in progress? (Some might be posting over the course of the day, so if you don’t see anything, check back.)

Richard Bowker http://richardbowker.com/
Ann Tonsor Zeddies http://pointoforigin.livejournal.com/
Lois Gresh http://loisgresh.blogspot.com

The next bunch of writers are all colleagues of mine at Book View Café:

Patricia Burroughs http://planetpooks.com/the-blog/
Katharine Eliska “Cat” Kimbriel http://alfreda89.livejournal.com/
Pati Nagle http://patinagle.livejournal.com/
Steven Harper Piziks http://spiziks.livejournal.com
Deborah J. Ross http://www.deborahjross.blogspot.com/

Others will be posting on December 19. I’ll try to get some more links for you then.

If you’re a writer and have posted your own “Next Big Thing” (or want to do so right now), please go ahead and post your link under Comments!

Harwich Writing Retreat

I’ve actually been on Cape Cod for the last couple of days. First the whole family came for a family retreat, and we relaxed and brainstormed about some things we want to pursue in the future as a family. Then wife and daughters went back home, and I stayed holed up in the nice little B&B here, working on the Julie/Ik subplot of The Reefs of Time. (For those of you who are waiting to see if Julie and John will ever get back together, no, that’s not a spoiler about a romance between Julie and Ik; however, they do embark on a challenging time-travel experience together. The logic of it has been driving me a little nutty. The Bandicut/Li-Jared subplot, meanwhile, is drawing toward its resolution. And Antares? Well, she has her own problems, but at least she has Napoleon for company.)

And that’s all I’m giving up in the way of plot hints. The main takeaway here is that I’m indeed marching this book toward its thrilling, multi-part conclusion! (And then, on to rewrite!)

Will It All End in Gloom and Doom? (or) What Kind of Writer Am I, Anyway?

Every once in a while, if you’re any kind of artist, I think it’s good to reflect on the question of what you’re trying to bring to the world.

I got an email the other day from a reader of The Chaos Chronicles. This fellow—let’s call him Q—had read and enjoyed the first four books (bless him), and was wondering about the next one, which I’m currently writing. Q wanted to know if I was intending to follow the path of other once-favorite writers who had let him down, saying:

“One class of authors have determined that you are not a professional writer unless you rip your heroes to shreds in the end.  [My once favorite] author subscribed to that theory and turned [his] protagonists into really rotten people ready to kill each other.” Was I planning, he wondered, to do something like that with my characters—and if so, could I let him know now, so he could save himself the trouble of reading my next book? 

Although I might not put it in such stark terms, I’ve noticed a similar trend in current entertainment. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read about the upcoming season of a TV show, or a sequel in a movie series, promising: “This next one will be darker. You’ll lose some people you love.” Examples include even comic book fare such as the Batman movies, and Superman (both in film and in TV’s Smallville). And I just recently read that we can count on the next Avengers movie being “darker.” Darker is better, so often goes the thinking. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the trend. I don’t find it all that entertaining, or a particularly wonderful world view; and when it’s done just for the sake of being dark and not for sound storytelling reasons, I don’t see it as necessarily contributing much to the human endeavor.

Not that darkness is never warranted, or is always wrong. There are great tragedies, obviously. (Though on balance, I’m way more drawn to humor than to tragedy.) But in SF terms, take BSG, with which I was peripherally involved as a novelist. That certainly went dark and gritty, plumbing the depths of its primary characters’ pain. It was so well done, and for the most part justified psychologically, that I kept with it (though my daughter dropped out of watching it, saying enough is enough). Certainly there was realism in it: If your race has been nearly exterminated, and you with the final remnant are being pursued across space by an implacable enemy, things will probably get pretty dark. At the same time, there’s a fine line that divides dramatic exploration from wallowing, and at times I felt BSG sheared pretty close to that line.

So how did I answer Q?  Here’s what I said, more or less:

“I do not subscribe to the school of thinking that all roads lead to misery, or that all good characterization leads to corruption and degradation. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have viewed the journey of my characters as being one of growth and maturity. Obviously there’s sacrifice.  But if there isn’t a sense of hope and redemption at the end of the story, you have my permission to shoot every one of my characters and put them out of their misery. I don’t promise no pain, loss, or grief. But if something good doesn’t come out of the pain and loss, then I’m not doing my job as a writer, as I see it—which is to bring a ray of light into the world.  I do not want the reader to feel depressed at the end of one of my books.  Sad maybe, grieving at a loss maybe, but never dark or depressed. Uplifted, preferably.”

Think the end of The Lord of the Rings. There’s a kind of ending I aspire to.

Why do I feel this way? If I said it was because I think uplifting is better than down-dragging, healthier for life and better for us as an audience and as a planet, that would be true. If I said it was because I think God gave me some talent as a writer so that I could bring a little more light and life into the world, hope rather than despair, that would be true. If I said it was because those are the kinds of stories I want to read, that would be true.

So take your pick, whichever works best for you. They’re all me.

The Last Day

For the last day of my writing retreat, I opted to spend the afternoon at the Cape Cod National Seashore. Communing with the ocean where the waves meet the shore has always been, for me, a great way to center my thoughts and find perspective. A great way to remember that I am something small (not unimportant, but small) in a reality much greater. A great place to listen for the whispers of God.

When I’m away from the ocean, I forget how beautiful it is! And today I found possibly the greatest beauty in a place I’d seen before—stopped and looked at briefly before—but never taken the time to walk around and absorb. That’s the salt marsh estuary behind the National Seashore Visitors Center.

There’s something about the peacefulness of a salt marsh that’s almost spiritual. It’s God-breathed, teeming with life, a biologist’s dream, and a remarkable buffer between land and sea that has elements of both. Grass, fish, birds, amphibians, fresh water and salt, the open ocean just beyond the protective spit of sand. You can almost close your eyes and see the millions of years of geologic change and biological evolution that brought you this place of quiet ferment, this thing of beauty that helps clean the sea and protect its young, and at the same time shields the land from the sea’s fury. On this occasion I didn’t see any charismatic birds or other animals, but in quiet contemplation I did feel the hint of divinity, and of the deep works of time.

Interestingly, I also perceived more clearly some things that have been eluding me, details that might well be important to The Chaos Chronicles, and to the story behind The Reefs of Time. In the salt marsh I saw some things I needed to know about the translator (this will make sense only if you’ve read at least one of the books), and even about the enemy that makes life in the galaxy so fraught with danger in this new book. I also realized I probably need to add a couple of new chapters in the next draft, chapters set way back in deep, deep time. So you see, sometimes the quiet, personal times like standing and contemplating the ocean’s edge are exactly what the writer of far-flung futures in space needs. I’m grateful to have had the chance.

Here are a few more pictures. The open ocean over the dunes was pretty wonderful, too.

(And considering that I was holding my cellphone camera at arm’s length and aiming blind, I thought the “self portrait of the artist” came out pretty well.)

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