Tag Archives: science fiction

Writing Process Blog Hop

I’ve been assigned by the Planetary Defense Commander to join the Writing Process Blog Hop. The Commander is tasked with defending the planet from bad science fiction, and we’ve never been more in need of his services. Take a look at his site for a rather different approach to reviews. Meanwhile, the idea of the Blog Hop is to get inside the heads of writers, to find out what makes them tick by asking four basic questions:

1. What are you currently working on?

Hmm. Motivation, mostly. I’m still refining Infinity, the novel that got me going on this journey (not counting the two decades I spend collaborating on a ridiculously over-ambitious Blake’s 7 fanfic). I finished the novel nearly a year ago, but since then my query attempts have not gotten me anywhere, so I’ve been doing massive revisions in an attempt to make it more marketable. Some people tell me to stop and just go with what I have, but I do think I keep making it better. Other than that, I don’t have anything on the front burner, mostly because my teaching job eats up a lot of time. I’ve tossed out a couple of short stories I need to revise and shop around, and I have two other novel ideas, one “Young Adult,” the other definitely not, and I really should start working on one of them in earnest.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

That’s a hard one to answer. I’m not particularly well-read, and these days I don’t much enjoy reading. I know, that’s heresy for a writer, but I read so much in my job that it makes it very hard to read for pleasure. Beyond that, I’m so infamously disenchanted with the state of Young Adult fiction that I can only say my book differs in that it’s basically not like that stuff at all. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all YA is “garbage,” as some people assume. I just think it could be so much better than it is. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there, and readers deserve better. I am sick of all the darkness, and so my book is upbeat and fun, because that’s what I’d want to read. It’s largely free of violence, and what is there has profound emotional and moral consequences. On the other hand, there’s nudity and sex, and I’m trying to present that in a fun and positive way as well, something also uncommon in YA.

My non-YA stuff is, I suspect, right in line with current trends in science fiction, as it’s quite dark, but in what my readers call a “beautifully sad” way. But it’s not particularly violent, and is more about the human condition, and the human spirit.

3. Why do you do what you do?

In terms of writing? The difficulty of the last question makes this one easy. I want to offer something different from all the paranormal angst and dystopian despair. I firmly reject the oft-repeated mantra that says that writers write because they love to write, and that’s really the only reason to do it. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, that’s a rather self-indulgent attitude. It also sets a very low bar, if you are only writing to please yourself. I write because I have a story to tell and I want people to hear/read it. My book is nothing without readers.

But more than that, I write as response to the problems I mention above. I want my book to be an instrument of change, to be the vanguard of the rejection of all the darkness, to be a setter of a whole new trend in hope and humor and bringing fun back to teen books. That, I think, is the best reason to write. Great writers write because they want to change the world with their words.

This attitude, by the way, has met with great hostility. The ever-supportive folks on Agent Query Connect responded to my negative opinion of YA fiction by informing me that I was insulting every single writer, publisher and reader of YA out there by not loving it exactly the way it is right now. They couldn’t be more wrong when they accuse me of having “contempt” for YA readers. It’s the publishing industry that’s selling readers short, by assuming they won’t read anything unless it’s about teens just like themselves dealing with experiences that can all be correlated to going to high school and stuff, and I want to offer something better. When I expressed my desire for my book to bring about change within the genre, I was told that that was an extremely arrogant attitude, and that I was doomed to fail. An odd thing for one writer to tell another, don’t you think? It may go a long way to explaining how YA has gotten the way it has, if it’s being written by people who want nothing more than to just contribute more of the same, with no real vision, and no desire to shake things up.

Obviously, I don’t go to Agent Query Connect anymore.

4. How does your writing process work?

I start with some sort of observation, which then ferments in my thoughts for a while while I’m doing other things, until I have a basic story idea. Then I just sort of start writing. I wrote one short story loosely inspired by an old Star Trek episode that got me wondering how a multi-generational colony ship would actually work. Another story had its genesis when I saw a breathtakingly beautiful little girl in the supermarket and found myself wondering how her parents felt about that (and about the fact that I was probably not the only person noticing her). My not-yet-started YA novel Hayley and the Aliens came into being because, on a whim, I Photoshopped a crashing spaceship into a photo of a girl looking out at the ocean, and realized that was the beginning of a good story.


Time Passes is a direct response to my opinion of Young Adult fiction, which led me to wonder why we even have to call it a genre. Why we can’t just call Harry Potter “fantasy”; why we can’t just call Divergent “science fiction”; why can’t we just call The Hunger Games “horror”? Why do we have to attach the “Young Adult” label and put it in a special section of the bookstore? We never used to. And why then don’t we target books specifically to thirty-year-olds, or fifty-year-olds, or seventy-year-olds, all of whom have unique perspectives and experiences every bit as profound as teens have. So I set out to write “Old Adult Science Fiction,” with a story that touches on the experience of middle-agers trying to still be relevant in a world that seems to have passed them by. Nothing autobiographical about that.

Once I have the basic story concept, I sketch out the characters a bit, then start writing. With short stories I write the whole thing in one sitting (generally). With a novel, I bounce around, writing anything that has a clear picture in my head. This timey-wimey approach confounds many of my fellow writers, because I can be simultaneously working on chapter four and chapter twenty-seven. But I find this really helps maintain continuity and ties the story together. This only works because I know the end point of the story (although I may no know exactly how I’m going to get there). That’s what’s stalled Time Passes, because the end point is still fuzzy.

That’s surprising because it has my most blatantly autobiographical character, other than the one in a short story I wrote about a frustrated writer who builds a time machine so he can go back and stop himself from trying to be a writer. But the thing is that my characters are real to me, and, as they develop, they take more and more control of the story, sometimes surprising me. I have a key scene in Infinity because one of my characters (the one who’s generally the loudest in my head) insisted. Literally as I was writing, she butted into the dialogue and said, “We have to do this.” The other characters considered, then agreed. And I was sitting there thinking, “Great, now I have to write a whole new sequence.” That’s exhilarating when it happens, but what’s funny is that, in the recent massive rewrite, the sequence got totally restaged, so I no longer have the scene where she insists on doing it. That worked better played out between two other characters. But it was still her idea.

I revise as I go (a side effect of jumping around), so when I’m done with the “first” draft, it’s really already had a fair amount of polish. I bounce ideas off of critique partners and take problem passages to my writers’ group. And sometimes a whole new idea will pop into my head that leads me to make significant adjustments. I’m facing that right now with Infinity. The hardest part, I suppose, is finally declaring it finished. I really thought it was done last fall. But then the query process so thoroughly undermined my confidence that I’ve gone back in, and I wonder if I’ll ever reach a point where I’m happy with it again. I suppose that’s why people say you should just write for yourself; you’re the only one who isn’t going to reject it.

Oh yeah, and I always have my famously eclectic iPod playing as I write, sitting right next to whichever caffeine-delivery system I’m using at the time.

Okay, now I’m to tag fellow writers (and friends):

Cheryl Mahoney writes clever, slightly subversive re-imaginings of fairy tales and classic literature, and her stories are delightfully free of violence and brutality. She’s also as well-read as I am not and offers great insights on that on her website. And she gets most of my obscure sci-fi/fantasy references.

Kelly Haworth, despite being a voracious reader of YA, writes things that are anything but. Dark, twisted stories that challenge your conceptions of identity, especially when it comes to gender. With characters who are all extremely damaged. And Kelly loves aliens (if you know what I mean…).

Andrea Stewart is the closest I know to an actual professional author, her quiet, poetical stories having appeared in legitimate anthologies and landing her an actual agent and everything. She’s prolific to a degree that makes my head spin. And she paints. In the words of Tom Lehrer, “It’s people like that who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.”


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Writing Habits: A Questionnaire

One of my recent visitors, Jodie Llewellyn, posted this little exercise, and it sounds like fun and might get me going again.

1. Typed or Handwritten?

Typed.  Word processor, actually.  Forget writing anything by hand.

2. Cursive or Printed?

See above.  But when I do write by hand, it’s print.  I put the curse in cursive.  According to my signature, my name is Ro& P Gm&&&.

a cool pen3. Show us your favorite pen.

Heh.  Okay.  This one is a combination flashlight, laser pointer, counterfeit money detector, and stylus.  Oh, and you can also write with it, I assume.

4. Where do you like to write?

Basically at my computer.  It’s a laptop, but it’s so old and creaky that I’m scared to move it.  I wrote a short story (autobiographical science fiction) where the climactic point is probably that computer being smashed on the floor.

5. Who are your five favorite authors in terms of authorial style?

Hmm, tough.  I’m nowhere near as well-read as I supposedly should be.  Here’s five I consider to be good writers: Douglas Adams, Dave Barry, Ray Bradbury, Jack L. Chalker, Arthur C. Clarke.  You might have noticed there are no “young adult” authors on that list.  Uh huh.

6. What are you your three favorite books on writing?

Don’t really have any.  I’m not sure it’s something that can be learned from a book.  I got partway through Stephen King’s On Writing, but eventually realized it would more accurately be called On Stephen King.  We writers do love to talk about ourselves.

7. Have you ever competed in NaNoWriMo?

No.  For one thing, it comes at a bad time of year for me.  Further, making myself write has not been a problem in the past.  I’ve written complete short stories in the space of an hour or less.  I’ve cranked out multiple chapters in a single afternoon.  If it’s coming, it comes.  And I prefer not to try to force it into a mold.

8. Have you ever won NaNoWriMo?

No.  Didn’t even know you could “win”?  What’s the prize?

9. Have you ever had anything published?

Um… how to put this?  No.  No, I have not.

10. What projects are you working on now?

Trying the change the answer to #9.  Revising the opening chapter on the assumption that it’s one of the reasons I’m getting rejected.  I should sit down and revise a short story I recently wrote, so I can try submitting it places.  I shared it with writers’ group and they all liked it.  And I wrote the first chapter of a time-travel novel, in a genre that I am inventing called “Old Adult Science Fiction.”  If we can target a thousand crappy books specifically to teens and their “unique” concerns, then it sould be possible to put out some good ones for people like me.  I really should try to get it going.  The writers’ group liked it as well.  Too bad none of them are agents or anything…

11. What is your soundtrack to writing?

Oh dear.  My iPod is famously eclectic.  Everything from classical to jazz to old school prog to grunge to bluegrass to Hawai’ian to novelty songs.  But these days I have been getting lots of play from the Star Trek Original Series Soundtrack Collection.  At this moment I’m being serenaded by the legendary Vulcan fight music (you know what I’m talking about!).  It’s just great music and a lot of the cues fit nicely with different scenes I’ve written.  And during my recent two week pause to wallow in Olympic figure skating, I found myself mixing together a four-minute sequence that I think would make a great program for ladies’ free skate. Specifically the cues called. “Enter Miranda,” “Alien Ship” and “Big Fite,” for anyone nerdy enough to be familiar.  I’m serious.  Isadora, are you still out there?

12. Do you have a writing pump-up song?

Not really.  That said, I’ve been very motivated by Ambrosia’s “Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled.”  It’s a cool song, and lyrically it perfectly sums up the motivation and experience of three of my main characters.  I like it so much I worked it into the book.  Then one of my crit partners basically said, “You’re referencing a song from 1974 in your Young Adult novel?”  Then she stared at me.  Followed but somewhat more contemporary alternatives.  Yes ma’am.

Okay, any of my writer buddies want to try this?


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Science Friction

My efforts to find an agent for my book continue to be unrewarded.  My friends tell me to hang in there, that it’s simply a matter of finding the right agent.  I suppose, but in the meantime it’s not inappropriate to try to consider reasons why I have so far been unsuccessful.  The query process is brutal, and there’s much to be said about that, but that’s for another day.  I can’t rule out the possibility that my word count is too high, at 100,000, although there have been quite a few very successful debuts higher than that.  I have to wonder how much the fact that I am a man trying to break into a genre that is overwhelmingly dominated by women plays into it.  All of these are considerations, but not what I want to examine today.

I want to look at genre.  I’m presenting my book as “young adult science fiction.”  I’ve not been reticent on my dissatisfaction with the young adult genre (and yes, it is a genre, not a “category”).  For starters, I’m increasingly of the opinion that it is arbitrary, irrelevant and ultimately counter-productive.  I’ve been going back and forth on whether I should even call my book “young adult.”  But, again, that’s for another day.  Instead I want to focus on the other side of the equation: science fiction.

I’ve always been a science fiction fan.  But the genre is amorphous and covers more ground than we might think, so it’s worth laying out how I see it.  And bear in mind that this is purely my take on it.  Any writer who talks about writing, or fiction genres, is merely giving his personal opinion and it should never, under any circumstances, be taken as authoritative.

To begin, what got me started thinking about this was a recent examination of a website where agents present their “wishlists,” the kinds of things they would love to get queries on.  Why they say they are looking for these things when they then turn around and reject them in favor of yet another cookie-cutter dystopian vampire romance is beyond me, but people rarely really want what they say they want.  I base this on the fact that I have investigated agents who say they are looking for books with such and so characteristics, and my book fits them perfectly.  Yet when I queried and specifically pointed out the ways my book was exactly like what they said they wanted, I got a form rejection within a day, noting that my book doesn’t fit with what they currently represent.  Uh, yeah, wasn’t that the point?  Weren’t they looking for something different?  The answer, of course, is “Not really.”  But it was illustrative (and discouraging) to see that none of them, by which I mean none at all, had science fiction on their wishlists.

Okay, that’s an oversimplification, and to understand it better, I went searching for examples of “young adult science fiction.”  Most of what I came up with fell into two categories.  First, there were recently published books called that.  Without exception, they were dystopias like Hunger Games and Divergent.  And dystopia is on the way out (they say, but I see no evidence of that actually being the case).  In other words, for agents and publishers, science fiction means dystopia, and, because they are tired of dystopia, they aren’t interested in science fiction.  Oh the humanity.

There is so much more to science fiction than dystopia.  I was reminded of that by the other type of works that turned up in my search.  All sorts of things.  And they, too, had something in common: they were published years ago.  One well established author, David Brin, offered a list of great science fiction for young adults (not “young adult science fiction”).  His list was heavily weighted toward older books, some going back as far as the 1950s.  And many of them would get laughed out of an agent’s office if you tried to pitch them as “young adult.”  Asimov’s Foundation series?  I don’t see any teens in there, David.  I’m not saying he’s wrong about the books he listed being great reads for teens (they were when I read them as a teen).  But it’s a mistake to try to connect them to a genre that didn’t exist when they were written.  This has been done to books like The Golden Compass and Ender’s Game, and it’s why the movies based on them did poorly; they were marketed as being something they are not.  Just call them science fiction.  And they are great reads.  For everyone, teens included.

When I was a teen, I took a class in high school called “speculative fiction.”  We read Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein, and Childhood’s End by Clarke, and many different short stories.  What we came away with was how diverse science fiction is.  So what is it?

If we focus on the “science” part, we see can conclude that there is some basis in scientific thinking to be found.  Okay, not a bad start, but limiting.  Some science fiction deals with the application of various scientific concepts, either real or projected.  Space flight, time travel, cybernetics, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, virtual reality, the list goes on.  A young man in my writers’ group writes what the rest of us have affectionately dubbed “techno porn,” which has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with wallowing in hardware and physics concepts and the sort of stuff that makes most us have our eyes glaze over after a few pages.  But we all agree that he’s doing it well and there is most definitely an audience for it, even if most of us don’t fall in it.

But that’s only one angle.  There’s a scale of science fiction, ranging from “hard” to “soft.”  His work is “hard.”  I will illustrate using the example of a time machine.

Hard science fiction:

Stan:  I have invented a time machine.

Bob:  Interesting.  How does it work?

Stan:  It’s complicated.  Please have a seat while I bring you up to speed on the current understanding of quantum mechanics.  Then, in the next chapter, I’ll discuss the theoretical ways that quantum entanglement can be postulated to allow the manufacture of artificial singularities by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow.

Soft science fiction:

Bob:  I have invented a time machine.

Stan:  Cool!  How does it work?

Bob:  It’s simple.  You sit in this chair, enter the date on that dial, pull the lever, and off you go.

My work definitely leans in the latter direction, although I have managed to work cosmology and quantum theory into it, sort of.  Indeed, I play so fast and loose with the science that my book could well be called “science fantasy.”  I’m okay with that.  The issue is what you are reading for.  People who read hard science fiction want to be blown away by amazing concepts, and in fact will be riveted by a book that consists of little more than two people sitting in a nondescript room talking about stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in a graduate seminar at Cornell University.  Believe it or not, that’s the gist of Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” widely considered the best science fiction story of all time.

On the other hand, people who read soft science fiction want a ripping story and enjoy when it’s dressed up with a few sciencey trappings.  A lot of science fiction is barely scientific.  Consider Ray Bradbury, who only grudgingly accepted the classification for his stories, which were about the human condition and just happened to take place on a planet that bore no resemblance to the real Mars.  I’ve mentioned Star Trek before, and I value Gene Rodenberry’s dictum that they would never explain how things work.  Later incarnations of the franchise lost sight of this and had an unfortunately tendency to engage in “technobabble,” stuff that sounds good but doesn’t mean anything.  I say, either get the science right, or else don’t try to make it anything more than background.

Both angles are valid, and the best works combine both, but there’s nothing wrong with ones that lean one way or the other.  Some classic science fiction has generic plots and cardboard characters, while other equally great science fiction has embarrassingly bad science.  It’s not worth arguing about which is “better.”  Great stories are just that: stories.  This is true in any genre.  When writers forget this, and just offer books that focus on a setting through which the characters bounce like pinballs, or offer non-stop scenes of action and barbarism, the results should be disappointing for them.  Alas, this is not the case, not with the way the publishing industry has been made an arm of the film industry, which has learned that you fill theater seats by offering mindless spectacle.

But great stories are about people, dealing with ideas.  More to the point, they are about us, dealing with ideas that are relevent today.  I don’t mean they are specifically about teens navigating the perilous world of hormones and peer pressure, or teen girls in the bloom of first love, or whatever limited characterizations are now required in the young adult genre.  I mean that they are characters who would fit in our world.  This is true in historical fiction, which fails when it presents historically accurate characters with motives and experiences we can’t connect to.  That’s why a western created in 1950 is markedly different from one created in 1990.  They are products of the time in which they were written and have little to do with the real “Old West.”

The same holds for science fiction, which may pretend to be about the future but is really about the present.  It says a lot about the time in which it was produced.  Authors use it to comment on some element of today that should be examined in a new way.  It reinforces our values and ideals, while at the same time interrogating and challenging them.  That’s why the preponderance of depressing, dystopian crap makes me so sad.  I don’t like what it’s saying about who we are today.  I don’t think it reflects reality in any way that’s healthy.  That’s why I want so badly for my story, which is hopeful and optimistic, to get out there, and why I feel even worse that it’s being blocked at every turn, as though people don’t want hope and optimism.

I am sad at the way hopelessness has become so pervasive that it’s colored the ability of people in the publishing industry to see science fiction as anything else, at least in the young adult genre..  It’s limited thinking.

Mind you, when has that ever stopped anyone?


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