Ray Bradbury’s Gabriel’s Horn and the other side of Sci-Fi

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It’s common in the ol’ realm of science fiction to have spaceships. To have lasers and stars and monstrous alien creatures battling hordes of space marines in galaxy-spanning wars. Technology is often at the core, and devices that would seem like magic to us are used like we use our phones now. The story starts well past the point of familiarity with these wondrous things, and is more about the characters and setting than it is with the technical wizardry on offer. In Star Wars, the idea of jumping to lightspeed or death by a thousand lasers is treated with as much surprise as waking up to a refrigerator in your kitchen. In Ready Player One, the idea of the Oasis is already cemented in the minds of the characters when we meet them – its purpose is clear, and the knowledge of how to use it is well-ingrained in society.

Gabriel’s Horn, a Bradybury short story, illustrates the other side of sci-fi, where new technology and ideas are introduced to a society with strange, unusual effects. In this case, the “technology” isn’t even all that wondrous – a tribesman finds a trumpet, something he believes is a great weapon, albeit one he cannot understand. It fails, after all, to kill deer on a hunt. Fails to protect him and his tribe when blown. We, the audience, know that a trumpet isn’t going to ever kill anything, but if you saw a rounded metal object that looked similar to the guns your enemies used to hunt your friends, you too might believe a trumpet capable of grievous harm.

It would be easy to turn the story into a comedy – a play on how dumb these people must be if they can’t figure out the purpose of a trumpet. Instead, Bradbury takes pains to show that his characters are as clever as they are desperate. Willing to try anything to save themselves from mysterious invaders, who come periodically to hunt their defenseless prey. Gab, the primary protagonist, observes the invaders, puts together plans to outwit them, and demonstrates more than enough intelligence to get the gist of what a trumpet might be used for… which is when you grasp the real sci-fi element of the story: a civilization exposed to something of which they have no conception.

Gad does not understand the concept of music, so he cannot know the trumpet’s true purpose.

And so we see, instead, what other uses might be made of something so far away from its intended place. It’s fun, it’s clever, and Gabriel’s Horn is a reminder that sci-fi can work just as well with the characters learning about their world, rather than already enmeshed within it.

A couple things:

1. March in Wisconsin is a strange time when you rediscover your lawn is a half-frozen mess of yellowed, dead grass. As if to spare you the horror, nature will hide it with snow from time to time throughout the month, giving you time to adjust to the ugly view outside your windows until, in April, rains come to turn it into a muddy soup. Knowing that you’ll be disheartened by these events, the temps play around the 40-50 degree mark during the day, tempting you to step outside without a heavy jacket, breath fresh air for a few moments, and remember that there is, in fact, a world outside your own house.

2. I remain convinced that Peanut Butter Patties are the optimal Girl Scout cookie. I also remain confident in, and nauseated by, my ability to eat a box of them in a day.


Tomb Raider and character through action

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We’ve seen so many of them – the fast-moving sequence where a character dashes, dodges, darts and dives through one stunt after another, with maybe a pinch of violence thrown in there to spice things up. It’s hard to find an original action sequence these days, and harder still to find one that helps build up character in the process.

Films and stories often do this through dialogue peppered in the action – accusations, questions, and flat exposition while two people slug the crap out of each other. It’s more fun, though, to learn about a character by what they do.

In Tomb Raider, there’s a sequence early on where our protagonist, Lara, is riding a bike as part of a contest, pursued by other bikers. At a certain point, desperate to evade capture, Lara lifts her bike into the back of a moving truck and hides with it. This, while perhaps not strictly against the rules, is definitely against their spirit. We learn, in that moment, that Lara isn’t above doing a bit of cheating to get what she wants.

This might not seem like a big deal, but the move reinforces Lara’s prior actions and shows she’s not afraid of the consequences of being caught. She’s wild, she’s free, and she’s willing to risk her reward entirely for a better chance to win. Those traits come back again and again throughout the movie, and we’re not confused or put off when Lara tries similar gambits in much greater danger, because the story has set us up to believe that’s who she is.

What I really like, though, is the extra thought that goes into how Lara would act in a certain situation. It’s easy to put together an action scene in your head, to plug the characters into their positions and let the movement run. What’s harder, and far more rewarding, is taking that same situation and viewing it through the lens of your character’s eyes. How would they see what’s happening in front of them? How would they, with their worldview and life experience, react?

It’s a challenge. One that, when successful, allows your audience to believe in a character’s actions even when they’re in a setting so far outside the realm of everyday life.

Like, say, an island full of maniacal madmen and mysterious tombs.

A couple things:

  1. Starshot, my next book, is almost done with the editing process (and it’s sequel is closing in on first draft completion). I’m trying a slightly different method with these – namely, writing the first few before releasing any, because it’ll be more fun for readers if the sequel is days away instead of months or years. Either way, I’m having a grand time exploring this strange universe.
  2. Now that it’s warm outside, our cats are clambering to go outside again. We’re not a fan of decimating local bird populations, so we leash them to a stake that lets the two kitties prowl around our little garden and firepit, where they can sunbathe but are otherwise mostly harmless to wildlife. What it really means for me, though, is that every breakfast for the next six to seven months will be eaten to the melodious song of desperate meows from a pair of cats that want nothing more than to sniff their way through grass. It’s a true delight.

What “Last Week Tonight” teaches me about Exposition

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Wait, I hear you saying: this here is a nonfiction show! It’s got comedy, sure, but the crux of what Oliver’s doing is spreading facts!

Guess what, folks: Novels, short stories, and comics are in the same business. The sole difference is the world to which those facts apply.

For folks who don’t know, Last Week Tonight (which I’m shortening to LWT for the rest of this post) is essentially a weekly adaptation of The Daily Shows’ comedic news format, though I’d argue that LWT is more serious its predecessor really was. A big portion of this comes from the show’s format, in which half or more of its running time in a given week is often devoted to a single story. We’re often talking 15 minutes or more on one subject, and often these aren’t headliners – a week ago, LWT spent a long time going over the Italian election, which is undoubtedly important to the world, but doesn’t quite have the attention-grabbing focus (in the US, anyway) of, say, gun control or North Korea.

In a graceless pivot, these segments parallel what most authors and screenwriters have to do to immerse audiences in the worlds they’re creating. In the stories they’re telling. You, as the creator, need the audience to sit there and absorb information about your piece, especially at the beginning, and be entertained at the same time. This challenge increases the farther away from ‘reality’ your work gets – consider, say, the opening crawl of Star Wars. Lucas effectively shoves paragraphs of floating space text at you to give just enough context, and, thanks to a rousing score, you manage to stay awake long enough for the spaceships to start shooting. Harry Potter opens with a tease about normalcy, which, since the cover talks about a magical stone and shows a wizard, you’re not really buying, and its at the start of the 3rd ‘graph where it drops the word secret. Now you’re intrigued – what secret is so terrible that these ordinary folk can’t bear? That holds you long enough to find out about the boy, and then we’re off.

Learning is hard. Gathering new information and making sense of it all is hard. Constructing a new reality on the fly to match the needs of a work of fiction is, well, work.

LWT makes this process easier by interjecting comedy. It leverages jokes, intercut breaks, and sometimes-random segues to keep you engaged. If you’re chuckling every couple of minutes because an expose on a mining CEO is being delivered by someone in a squirrel costume, you’re going to pay attention when the real points get delivered. If you know, at the end of Oliver’s next spiel, there’s going to be something funny, you’re more likely to listen so that you’re in on it when the joke eventually drops. In that way, LWT keeps you engaged even while delivering a straight shot of information to your mind.

The challenge, in fiction, is to keep that same loop of information and entertainment going. You want your audience to know what the Shire is, and how hobbits work, but if they’re going to bother learning about that, you have to tease them with a magical ring and a distant dark lord first. If you’re going to introduce a vast world of warring families, kingdoms and power struggles, maybe in the middle of that you have a boy catch some brother-sister loving and get shoved out a window. Keeps the audience invested.

So next time you’re looking at how to get an audience engaged in your world, take a cue from LWT and interject some action, comedy, or dialogue that doesn’t require knowledge of your universe to understand. It’ll help relax your readers, and buy you time to pass along the crucial, need-to-know details of how your world works.

Squirrel costumes are a bonus.

A couple things:

  • I’ve found it slightly ironic that I selected paperless for some tax documents, only to have the CPA require them in paper form, so now I’m printing them off (using the paper, and paying for my own ink) just to put them all together in an envelope and send. I cannot wait until everything is just done through secure electronic submission. Please oh please.
  • I read this review of a new Chrysler minivan and immediately went back to my childhood, thinking about how awesome it would have been with one of these. As a childless adult, I’m not ashamed to say the tech in minivans these days is pretty amazing. Who wouldn’t use a built-in vacuum?

Lester Dent and Formula

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Productivity and creativity are two concepts often placed at odds with one another – the idea being that good art takes time. This isn’t really borne out by evidence, and a statement I rather prefer is this one: The art takes the time the artist requires.

Lester Dent, a pulphouse author from the late 20’s and 30’s, is a grand example of this – the man churned out story after story for monthly magazines at an astounding rate of speed (especially when you consider the pen-and-paper/typewriter equipment he was working with). He wrote well over 150 novels in a 30 year career, plus many, many short stories. These weren’t Epic-Fantasy tomes, but Dent wrote over 200,000 words a month, as this piece states and which seems in the realm of possibility, considering his output, that means an average of 6000 words per day. An average paperback page contains 250 words or so, meaning Dent cranked out 24 pages every day of fiction. Equate this to an artist like, say, Bob Ross who could put together a complete landscape painting in a single 30-minute show.

Dent and Ross don’t get their productivity through some magical incantation. They didn’t, to my knowledge, perform some ritual sacrifice or discover a fallen meteorite that granted them superhuman abilities. Rather, they used formula. They kept their work, mostly, in line with a template that worked for them. Knowing when certain things had to happen for his characters let Dent focus on setting and dialogue. He could merrily type away, note when he’d reached a certain part of his story, and then kick the next section off without pausing to ask “what happens now?”.

The point I’m taking away from this isn’t that, to be productive, we all need to follow what Dent and Ross did. Instead, we might look to them for inspiration, for the drive to find a formula that works for us, whether we’re writing fiction, making movies, or even just knocking out a day’s worth of tasks. There’s value in making templates, even if you don’t think one could apply to your situation/goal. Give it a shot. See what you can come up with.

I mean, if I could come up with a formula for wrangling my cats consistently every day so they didn’t destroy my house, that’d save me so much time. And furniture.

A couple other things:

  • Dent also managed to snag a pilot’s license, climbed mountains, and passed electrician/plumbing exams, at least partly because of the time he saved by adhering to his process. I’m sure, with that extra time, I could play more with my overlords; the cats.
  • I’m late to the game, but the current workout show of choice is The Americans, which is proving to be a fascinating, fun dive into an early 80’s thriller. I love that their ‘day jobs’ are as travel agents – something that gives plausible excuses for being active at all hours and often away from the office. Wonder what current-day spies prefer to have as their undercover gig of choice – remote software developer? Uber driver?

A Snowy Morning

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There’s a thing with March in Wisconsin (and, I imagine, with anywhere in the chillier parts of the world) where the ground can go from muddy grass to covered with a half-foot of snow in an evening. It remains beautiful for a few days before descending back to its brown sludgy awfulness.

It’s still gorgeous now, and it’s still snowing.

My back is already dreading the shoveling to come.

Couple other things:

  1. Like that Shape of Water picked up Best Picture and Del Toro Best Director. Both are risk-takers, and both explore themes and characters too often left aside in favor of more standard, safer things. Cool.
  2. Finished N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth trilogy. Generally enjoyed it, and the last book, and overall structure, is a great example of making the past relevant to a current story without dragging the reader through onerous flashbacks.
  3. Editing through book one in the new series, which is a return to space-action science fiction, but with an alien twist. Working on completing the first three books or so before number one comes out, which is why this is taking longer, but it’s a cool new universe to explore. Archivos has been instrumental in helping keep track of everything, so make sure to look at that if you’ve a need for a world-building toolkit.


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There are interesting phrases that come up in NK Jemison’s Broken Earth Trilogy (and this happens in virtually all Sci fi and Fantasy novels) which have, from time to time, broken immersion for me. Concepts that are so layered in the current “Earth” history that to present them as things characters would know or use in other worlds is a cheat that, for the most part, is easy to overlook.

Take, for example, the concept of measurement. It’s useful to say how far away something is when you’re describing it. Or how high a character stands. However, saying a character is six feet tall is a strange thing in a fantasy world – unless you assume that they, too, would decide to make the basis of their measurements the “length of an average man’s foot” and, for the yard, the length of a man’s nose to the end of his arm. If your world is dominated by alien species and dragons, such measurements seem especially arbitrary.

Or the verbal cues used by characters – phrases that clearly come from the author’s cultural experience or background. Even in narration, these idioms and other turns of phrase would seem natural to someone talking today, but assuming they would develop independently in a world so unlike our own seems like a stretch.

But what is the solution? To scrub a manuscript of anything remotely resembling current-day English?

No. While I don’t think relying on quips and sayings common now (because they may not be common tomorrow) is a great plan, using general concepts at the expense of teeny bits of logic is worth it. Your reader, after all, is the primary audience. If they can’t understand what’s going on because you’ve developed your own metric system and speak entirely in self-developed turns of phrase, well, they’re going to hate you a lot more than if your reptilian worm monster refers to its height in yards.

But I do think, as authors and creators of anything, it’s important not to hedge on key things. It’s important that your characters are authentic to their setting. That they talk and act like someone in your world would, and not like someone in, say, your local mall.

Do that, and readers will happily let you fudge the little things. After all, I keep coming back to Jemisin’s trilogy, which is excellent, inches and all.

Archivos and World-Building Tools

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The Internet is, in many ways, like an island on which random chests of treasure appear. While wandering its jungles, you might stumble upon something new, something incredibly value and entirely not what you thought you needed.

The most recent treasure for me is called Archivos. It allows you to strew about all the little nodes sticking around your mind from your stories and connect them all. Like one of those maps with pins and yarn going between every sticking. You put pictures on your characters, on your races and your events. Sort them all into a massive timeline and then upload maps that you’ve hand drawn to ruled notebook paper so everyone can see the exact distance between the calamity and the heroes awakening.

It’s quite neat. There’s a certain thing that happens when you start writing: your brain, after a minute or so of warming up, begins to spew forth such a racket of randomness that it’s nigh impossible to keep straight over whole novel, let alone two or three or four. Continuity errors start popping up, from the minor (she was a blond a minute ago, now she’s a brunette) to the major (didn’t he die in the last book?). To chase down and confirm these potential story-bombs, you have to hunt through your previous work to see just what you called so-and-so, or what the name was for that alien, or when the big balloon blast occur?

Archivos, provided you take the time, which is not insubstantial, to enter all the data in the first place becomes a repository for the randomness. It allows you to take the things that would normally be carving up your brain and put them into a friendly, web-based interface. You can look them up later, and even attach fancy photos if you have an image in your head.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Archivos is very similar to the StoryShop app I wrote about earlier. Like StoryShop, Archivos isn’t really accessible off-line, at least that I’ve found. But unlike StoryShop, I don’t use it for writing. You can’t, really. It’s there for storing knowledge. A story bible creator, and in that it works just fine.

Which means I’m now making due with a bunch of tools, which I’ll list out here:

  1. Archivos for story bible/tracking
  2. Scrivener for writing.
  3. Dragon for dictation.
  4. Photoshop for graphic design.
  5. Vellum for print/ebook formatting.
  6. WordPress for things like this blog and my publishing website
  7. Hootsuite for social media jazz (just because it saves time and allows effective cross-posting)
  8. MailChimp for Newsletter jazz.


New Covers, because I like fire, apparently

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Branding is a toxic word for me. It comes loaded with connotations, with expectations of corporatized life where the creativity has been sucked away by a vacuum, taken outside, and beaten into oblivion by a bunch of faceless goons.

This, of course, is stupid.

Branding (I tell myself), is better thought of as the way in which you help your audience find you.

Branding is the scattered bread crumbs in the vast forest of content that help your readers find their way to your newest book, article, latte foam art, etc. And it can take pretty much any form you want it to. Trademarked logos are popular with big companies (or companies that wish they were big). Ad jingles worked back when more people watched TV with commercials (or listened to broadcast radio) – you’d hear a few notes and immediately know just what was going to be talked about.

For authors, our best shot at branding comes from the book covers we get to display on store shelves or, more likely, in little thumbnails on the internet. Which means we don’t have a lot of real estate to use to capture eyeballs. Now, I bet if you look at your favorite authors, you’ll see that they (or their cover designers) tend to compose their books the same way. James Patterson jams his name in with huge fonts. On many Stephen King covers, the KING is enlarged and looks clear even at a distance. You know who wrote that one in a single glance.

With all of mine, I endeavor to slot my name towards the top. It’s not that large, though readable from a thumbnail if you try. That’s mostly because my name, alone, isn’t the point of the covers. I’m not a celebrity (I wish. Or do I?), so blowing my name up on the cover might not be the best tactic. A reader seeing that wouldn’t really know what to make of it (again, yet. this strategy might twist around if I ever achieve some modicum of fame).

The title is another “written” part of a cover and, odd as it may seem, does more with how it’s presented than with what it actually says. Take my cover up there. “Riven”, in and of itself, doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s a somewhat obscure way to say that something’s split in half, but that doesn’t really convey genre or setting. Put it in a bold sans serif font, at a slant, like this: RIVEN – and you’ve got something that could work as a sci-fi or thriller novel. Presented as it is above, with the etched, somewhat “pen and ink” letters, and it conveys a more archaic, fantasy vibe (at least, I hope so). Point being: when it comes to branding, the words of the title are often second to how they’re presented in telling the reader just what they’re getting.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the cover image. If you look at N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, you’ll see that each book has a somewhat indecipherable close up of some intricate ruins. There’s no clear relationship between those photographs and anything happening in the book, but they convey solid rock, and with the carvings, an old fantasy. Each one also, easily, relates to the others in the same trilogy. If you glanced at the three of them next to each other on a book shelf or web page, just by their covers, you would be able to tell they’re related. With the Riven Trilogy, I’m doing something similar with the new covers – each has a different color flame, a different center image, but the organization is the same. It’s easy to tell that they belong together.

With the end goal being, of course, that the reader can find their way easily from one to the next.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisen

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For Christmas, for my father, I purchased the Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemison. It’s a fantasy, but with a fair bit of steampunky-sci-fi stuff in there too. Floating obelisks and post-apocalyptic societies and whatnot. The blend of settings works, though, and if you can make two disparate concepts mesh together, well, I’ll pay attention.

The title of the trilogy aptly describes the setting – a continent constantly broken apart by aggressively shifting earth beneath. People who can touch that rock manipulate it to further their own ends, and everyone else hates them for it.

I didn’t know much about the trilogy before I bought the books, wrapped them up and put them under the tree. Partly, I do things like this as an excuse to get books that I know my father, or others, will read that I can then borrow. And my father did exactly as I hoped. In the five days that we were there, he tore through the first two books, allowing me to snag them on the ride home. I’ll be back for the finale shortly.

Jemison does something neat with these books, something that always stands out to me when I see it, and then I haven’t yet tried myself. She uses present tense, and it makes you feel as though you are in the events as they occur. Rather a narrator looking back to the past and reciting what happened. Her writing has immediacy. A character talking about their movement as it occurs brings you into the scene, though it can sometimes feel little as though you’re reading stage direction.

And yet, skillfully done, as it is here, present tense possesses a verve that past tense can’t quite capture. You know when you read it. Since you’re moving around with the characters in live action. Makes it easy to get in the scene, to hear the thoughts as they happen. It doesn’t hurt that Jemison does a wonderful job of blending description and back story with the perspectives of the characters, including one written entirely in second person which is a feat in and of itself. Second person present tense? How often have you seen that one?

I’m not yetthrough the first book, though I’m making fast progress and hope to finish it soon. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to check it out. It’s a great, mysterious story thus far and, if nothing else, it will expose you to a form of writing seldom seen.

Thoughts from Holiday Travel

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There are so many costs to travel: Long plane flights and shifting time zones kill sleep. The lack of one’s usual spaces in which to do things like, you know, spin wild stories about adventures through time and space and magical worlds. Turns out those are easier to come by when staring out your own window rather than scribbling in a cramped airplane seat with a large man next to you snoring his day away.

There are benefits too: All the (friendly) people. The laughter. New places, foods, sights and sounds. Fodder that twines its way into the next story without you really realizing it.

And there are, of course, the things beneath the surface. I think travel represents an opportunity to get back in touch with yourself. You’re removed from your routine, so it’s easier to look back what you were doing and address inconsistencies, flaws and the parts that you’ve proceeded to ignore. To come to epiphanies. To form hypotheses that, far away from your home where you can test them, flourish and morph and refine themselves into something that you’re actually excited to implement upon your return.

Of course, that does mean you can set yourself up to fail. You can come up with some sort of grand idea on the road that, when actually executed, proves far beyond what one can normally handle. What you want to handle.

So I suggest this, based off of my own myriad experiences stopping and starting any of a 1000 different lifestyles:

Go forth with malleability.

Leave things flexible.

Allow your goals to bend, if not break.

This isn’t to say give yourself excuses, but rather to allow those things you have no control over, those moments that demand your time even if it’s unscheduled, to occur and not feel bad about them. Spend one night in an airport due to an airline’s mishaps, and you’ll see the value of this kind of zen attitude.

Life is going to change. All the time, whether you want it to or not. Accepting that gives you the greatest chance of moving towards where you want to go.