Thursday 26 May 2016

Sequel - yes or no?

An interesting conversation came up the other day at my writing group.  One chap lamented the dreary labour pains he suffered trying to write a sequel to his first book.  That novel didn’t have any cliffhanger ending or other factor that required a sequel, so he speculated on whether to bother with the effort.  

This position gave me my biggest gobsmacking moment of the week.

He explained that he felt horribly strait-jacketed by the previous book.  All the details and history and characters established as his world’s reality now hung on him like chains.

Well, let me say I am having the literal, 180 degree opposite reaction to the sequel to “Home on the Strange”.  I certainly enjoyed myself creating the fictional flatlands the Brewster sisters rode, no question there.  However, when I began the sequel, I practically giggled when an unexpected sensation of comfort came over me.  I can only liken this feeling to that moment when you’ve finished moving.  The truck is gone, the furniture is all arranged and the boxes are unpacked.  Now you can relax in your wonderful new digs and admire the view.  The combination of new possibility and secure cosiness sent sparks of energy flying from my fingertips and into the keyboard.

I can actually understand the other writer’s misery…but only if he was creating the tenth book in a series.  By then, I have no problem imagining the cozy new home is starting to feel cramped.  Many tales from literary history relate of famous authors being sick to the fargin’ teeth of their successful series, yearning not to write another one.

But the second book?  That’s too soon for me to even begin to puzzle out.  Obviously, anyone who feels that way should not write a sequel, no matter how much the marketplace fads favour them.  If it hurts that much, the pain and drudgery will ooze out of the prose and ain’t nobody gonna be happy.

Sunday 22 May 2016

"Spin" by Robert Charles Wilson

“SPIN” by Robert Charles Wilson
First published 2005

(I can't promise the following will be spoiler-free)

Spin is arguably the crown jewel of Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson’s work.  A nice sack of awards. Lots of four and fiver star reviews on Goodreads.  

I cannot deny the work is skillfully written and takes hold of some big SF concepts.

Yes, there’s a “but”…

For me the grand SF concepts became buried under an overlong examination of mundane human affairs.  There is no question that any SF story needs some rounded, real characters interacting with each other, but there has to be a balance.  I’m reading this genre for the spicy bits.  I found the final dish to have too many beans and not enough chilli.

And the bowl was too big.  That’s the nub of my complaint.  Spin needed to be 450 pages the way I need five spoons to eat.  350 pages would have made for a much more engrossing experience.

For the last 15 years, give or take, books have suffered bloat.  Forget about the obesity plague sweeping the citizens of the world, put novels on a diet!  Unlike many authors, Wilson’s writing talent is sharp enough that there is no obvious slabs of fat to easily slice away.  The pruning would have to be “surgical” and carefully done, but it definitely needs doing.  

The span of the book covers some thirty-five years, all done thru the, frankly, dreary viewpoint of Tyler Dupree.  When an unknown intelligence encases the entire Earth in a barrier bubble, there is a strong case to be made we need to stay grounded with the viewpoint of a pretty standard human.  In my opinion, this is one case where following the formula of major disaster books and movies might have been the way to go.  Multiple points-of-view from various walks of life around the world.  But that’s getting into the zone of an entirely new recipe-dish.  Let’s stick with this meal.

The other gimmick that burns my biscuits is time skipping.  I hate it.  I hate the gimmick the way TV overuses it and I didn’t enjoy it in Spin.  Right away, we’re thrust (as we later learn) near the end of the saga.  First, we’re left log-rolling in a confused effort trying to understand who’s what and what’s where, but we’re game to try.  We piece together that Tyler and Diane are fugitives in Asia, attempting something very risky with drugs.  At this time, we have no idea who these people might be, but they’re staunch allies and friends, at the very least.

And then, a chapter break to “35 Years Earlier”.  SIGH.

And by word count, the flash backs are not flash backs, but the main event.  We spend more time in the linear days starting from the first appearance of the spin effect barrier while tripping over these chapters in the future every now and then.

This choice turns many themes and moments of tension into flaccid yawns.  The story generates a speculation whether Tyler will ever reunite with his childhood crush Diane in any meaningful way?  Well, yes, yes they do.  So, all the pages we have to read about Tyler pining at some level for Diane is a waste of our time.  The author has told us they get together.  A sharp scene occurs with Tyler driving cross country with Diane dying in the back of the car.  Will he make it?!  Will she?  Well, yes, he will and she will because the author has already told us.  Yawn.

In some stories where this time bounce stuff happens, there will be some sleight of hand trickery.  It turns out the flash forward Tyler and Diane are robot duplicates or aliens that have stolen the humans’ identities or something.  But, not in Spin.

Well, I wanted to enjoy this book.  It came highly recommended.  The super science concepts really charged my imagination.  But, I guess some people just love a lot beans overwhelming the meat and spice.

Saturday 21 May 2016


A decade or so ago, I took a creative writing class.  One of the top drawer teachers around, being knowledgeable and full of open-minded energy.  I, of course, submitted a science fiction themed story.  It amused me more than frustrated me that she had red pen circled “hyperspace” (and a few other similar SF terms), citing I need to explain such things in the story.

These last couple of months I attended a class in Canadian Science Fiction.  The class had a full spread of folks, from zero knowledge about SF to a couple like myself who have a black belt in the genre.  As a result, each class did at least one dance step around confusing terms and jargon words.

Jargon.  There is certainly no list of words to use without explanation or definition.  Where is the line?  It is a fascinating question to me.  What is the base level vocabulary a reader needs before jumping into the pool?

It is not a question endemic to Science Fiction.  Every genre requires a specialized vocabulary:

“Saddle up a cayuse and go check the dry wash in the north for stray dawgies.  Better pack some iron in case those bushwhackin’ polecats is still in these parts.”

“The COD for the vic was a single gunshot to the chest. We found prints and residue on the vic, so it was up close and personal execution.”

Westerns and crime-mysteries have an advantage in that movies and TV depictions are pretty in-line with their book cousins.  The rip-roarin’ space adventures that make up 90% of film science fiction are only a slice of the available material in books.

SF also suffers additional handicaps in that much of its jargon is totally made up.  Somewhere in the back aisles of time, some author had the privilege of coining the term “Hyperspace” for the very first time…and explaining it to his readers.  (hmmm…I wonder who that was?)  If there is any focus on the ‘science’ of science fiction, making it hard and crunchy, then the reader has to be something of a polymath to follow a story devoted to exploring biology, a story involving engineers building a ship and a story revolving around astrophysicists finding a new planet.

I guess the key safeguard is to have quality beta readers to go thru that first draft to not just spot structural holes and plot flaws, but to circle “Slip Space” in red pen and say it needs defining.  Clumsy writers stop the story to stiffly explain the term.  Good writers slip in hints and context so I somehow know what Slip Space is without even being aware of being taught.

Friday 20 May 2016


Real people or shambling villains?

Like any new (or veteran, I imagine) blogger, I keep an eye on visitor traffic.  Not a lot of data is provided, but I suspect a goodly portion of my visitors are ne'er do wells.  Those quasi-literate minds that throw temptation into comment threads, dangling visions of huge wealth to be made in the comfort of one's own dwelling while lonely naked slavic beauties rub one's shoulders.

I can only guess that these arch criminals send their minions (breathing or digital) to peek into blogs for potential marks.  I can only further guess that they have no interest in a blog without comments, in the way a pickpocket wouldn't waste time wandering an empty pasture.

And so I wait, speculating if that click from Portugal is a citizen or a scoundrel...

(this doesn't count as a post, for anyone counting)

Monday 16 May 2016

"Arkwright" by Allen Steele

Alrighty.  This blog's theme is the creative process with a general emphasis on writing stories.  It doesn't feel like a huge departure to toss in a book review.  Being a member of two writing groups here in the city, analyzing and critiquing fellow members' work is part of the whole gig.  So why not for the established authors?

"ARKWRIGHT" by Allen Steele

Tor Publication, March 2016.

(I can't promise the following will be spoiler-free)

Rather flat cola, all in all.  This is a great pity, because I like Steele's work (well, not his "Coyote" material so much).  As the dust jacket blurb tells us, the "Arkwright Foundation" is a long term project established by Grand Master Science Fiction writer (in this parallel Earth) Nathan Arkwright.  Its goal:  send a starship to another world.


What the cover fails to tell us, and I always forget to check the fine print on the copyright indicia page, is that is a "novel" made by welding together several short stories.  I got lucky in this book that I've never read the stories as printed in magazines.  (This hasn't always been the case.  I do not enjoy buying a new book only to discover I've seen half (or more!) of it already)  Spared the grumpiness of chewing old material twice, I still found the repetition annoying.  A series of short stories printed over a span of months or years requires the author to slip in some material to remind, or inform, readers what has gone before.  Surely some editing could have been done to eliminate this dead weight in its new novel format?  I can't help but roll my eyes when I keep having to read the same explanation of the Arkwright Foundation's goal of sending a starship off and away.

The first section is great fun.  It revolves around introducing us to Nathan Arkwright and how he is a peer to Asimov, Heinlein and the rest of the Great Names.  Some flashbacks to 1939 and other time periods are vivid word pictures of being a fan and writer Back in the Day.  It culminates with Nathan's estranged granddaughter having to make a big decision.

That I enjoyed.  Complicated human interactions with interesting people, imagined and historical.

The second section moves into the next generation.  However, the new viewpoint character is a slacker.  An aimless, useless slacker.  I don't need Dash Riprock hero to millions for a character, but it is hard to be engaged with a shapeless grey blob of a human.  He eventually comes into focus, but I never felt too sympathetic with the guy.

It also feels a bit...thin.  That Steele just didn't want to explore the ramifications of a private enterprise constructing some cutting edge technology in the near future.  It's a pretty big bite to chew, granted, but I expected all manner of background information on the technical, social and political efforts required.  That material seems almost mandatory for a hard SF novel like this.  I'd have enjoyed more words on that and fewer on the characters trying to score legal pot for a party.

I didn't give a squeaky fart about the third and fourth sections (aka half the novel).

The third section/generation is startling in that the Arkwright Foundation drops the ball in a ridiculously uncharacteristic fashion.  Again, it feels Steele is just being lazy in his description.  He wanted the descendants struggling to keep the dream alive.  If that meant a startling lack of foresight on the part of the earlier characters to provide adequate funds and staffing structure for the long haul, well, so be it.  And then, if a thudding deus ex machina is needed to save the day...why not?

The fourth and final section continues the downward slide to a big shrug of indifference.  We see the end result of the whole starship effort.   Considering the thousand and three things that could have gone wrong, the success is entirely too sunshine and lollipops.

Obviously my continued banging on about "thin" and "superficial" comes again from welding short stories into a novel.  Each section was written with the limitation of, what, a 7,000 word count.  So, elements are glossed over or ignored.  No other way to do it in that amount of space.  However, some 400 pages of "glossed over and ignored" makes for a most unsatisfying book.

Friday 13 May 2016

Have you read...?

Abigail Maye "Blackie" Brewster can't believe her luck—schlepping around in the summer heat as the assistant of a high-maintenance movie producer.  When did her life become a mix of flat and irritating?  What's a world-wandering nomad from Saskatchewan to do?

Abagael Mae "Magpie” Brewster can't believe her luck—spending the summer sailing the skies in a prototype steam blimp, flying a circuit of the Western Domains, engaging in a little light espionage.  What more could a University of Saskatchewan Academician desire?

Blackie's life veers in a direction that threatens to snap her mind.  Magpie's light-hearted spying takes a hard and dangerous direction that threatens to snap her spirit.  When the paths of these identical twins born of different mothers intersect and tangle together, their lives become a race across a rolling prairie landscape both familiar and strange.

Home on the Strange is a rootin'-tootin' daredevil tale of far-fetched fiction in a west that does not share our history.

Learn more about the book and buy an ePub copy!

Wednesday 11 May 2016

nods and winks

All writers do it.  Inside jokes and appreciative nods.  In my last book, my wife inspired the name for a grand airship.  The scientific theory explaining the root of the tale is named for two of my favourite classic SF authors.  One of the businesses on a bustling street is apparently owned by a good friend (or his alternate Earth counterpart).

But, musing off the top of my melon here, when do "nods" become some flavour of "plagiarism"?  I recently heard tell of an author that named a planet "Trantor", supposedly as a nod to Isaac Asimov and his "Foundation" works.  My first kneejerk reaction was "nice".  Then I began to wonder.  Naming a planet after a famous planet has a whiff of someone attempting to bask in reflected glory. Even if the moment is "lampshaded" between the characters, referencing Asimov and explaining the name choice, it still feels a case can be made of the author glomming a little free street cred from the SF Grand Master.

Is that what I did when I cited the "Laumer-Leinster Theory"?  It wasn't my overt intention.

Or am I making far too big a pile of rocks from a few pebbles?

Another aspect of sly references and nods is whether they are plot-crucial or not.  Well, they certainly should not be crucial.  Nobody had to be familiar with the works of either Leinster or Laumer to understand the flow of my book.  I hope this other author wasn't so crass as to expect every reader to immediately recognize "Trantor" and therefore be able to appreciate subsequent plot points.

I recently read a pile of skunk vomit disguised as a book.  My great guilt is that I finished the thing.**  This author does nothing but reference other works; songs, movies, books, games.  A paragraph does not go by without such a mention.  I guess these weren't "nods", per se.  This guy hung his entire story on the reader being as savvy as himself for 1980's (predominantly) pop culture.  Damn, it was bad writing.

I reckon, whether it's a clever inside joke or wholesale borrowing, as long as the oblivious reader's experience isn't diminished, then the reference is probably A-OK.  A baseline of enjoyment has to be maintained.  Every reader should hopefully get an "A" experience.  The reader who gets the nods and winks has an A+ ride.

**I won't go into names and titles, to keep the discussion on track.  Someday I may start reviewing books here.  Then names will be named.

Thursday 5 May 2016

TK or not TK?


Only recently did I become aware of this writing method.

As I understand it, TK is used to notate spots in a manuscript.  The letter combination is not used in English*, so it is stands out with a simple “Find Word” search.  Today, I’m pondering on its use to highlight spots in the text that requires further research.  Apparently there are writers who do not wish to interrupt their flow and will insert something like:  “TK-how far can a horse gallop?  How far can a human on horseback travel in a day?”  Hours, days, weeks later they intend to return to the TK list and do the actual research for the answers.

I think it’s utter drivel.

I will grant that my occasional side jaunts into the forest of research occasionally sees me still skipping down the shady paths much longer than intended.  Such gathering of information can be seductive and distracting.

HOWEVER, it is essential.

One example seals my argument.  In one passage I had the heroes tromping thru the wilderness in early April.  I was about to start a snow storm, but then I paused.  I had to admit I didn’t know the climate-weather particulars of this part of the world.  Where I live, a late snowstorm in April is entirely possible, but a few minutes of research revealed this was not the case where the scene was set.  Rose petals and jelly beans were as likely to fall from the sky as snow in early April.

If I had “TK’ed” the moment and instead pressed on with "my writing flow", I would have wasted HOURS and PAGES describing characters struggling thru a freezing white-out.  A belated TK research would have transformed a “good day’s work” into a “fargin’ waste of time”.  It would all have been scrapped and rewritten.

BUT THERE’S MORE!  That same moment of research also revealed early April in this part of the world can see the beginnings of a rainy season with some real downpours.  I had been fully engaged in “snow or not-snow”.  I hadn’t considered rain.  So, not only did I not waste time with unrealistic snow, I was inspired with a purely fresh notion of the heroes slogging thru muck and water.

Procrastinating with a “TK Moment”  means pissing away valuable creative juice.  From the annoyance of having to re-describe a character’s costume to the horror of watching an entire plot collapse due to a missing horseshoe nail.

Not only does spontaneous research keep my work from foundering and sailing true, but the odds are extremely good for a happy factoid tidbit to enrich the writing.

So, flog your TK notions elsewhere!  I’ll have none of it!

(*Unless, of course, one is a writer and devotee of science fiction.  Then "TK" is often used as an abbreviation for "telekinesis")

Monday 2 May 2016

Music history

“Today’s music is crap.”
“Har-de-har-har!  You’re old!”

That kneejerk reaction is so irritating.  It is a big bucket of slop drowning out any rational discussion of merits and analysis.

Then I began to think a little harder on the subject recently.  Where derives this scorn for older ears not being able to appreciate the current teen idol pop music?  It comes from the mid-1950’s and early 1960’s.

That is when human history began to stand on its head with the veneration of youth.  When teenagers suddenly had economic power and status.  When the market place began to target them directly, without any intervention of older decision-making.  It’s when “rock & roll” came to life.

What was the time period like?  Humans who had grown to adulthood in the previous era which had valued age and wisdom found themselves marginalized.  Their radio was being eaten away by this “simplistic kiddie noise”.  A quick scan of playlists of the time show old favourites like Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra vying directly with Elvis and Bill Haley.

This was THE Generation Gap.  This is when the criticism of “you’re too old to get our tunes, daddy-o!” became common.  And it was true.  It was a huge paradigm shift for so many adults and most could not cope.  They lashed out at the music, the fashions, the hair lengths and whatever lay within reach.  And this clash reverberated thru the ensuing generations as much as any world war, still aftershocking the modern day.

Okay.  This is all simplistic history.  My treatise today is that “you’re too old” really doesn’t apply to people born since that paradigm shift of 1955-ish.  We grew up as the Venerated Youth.  The music all around was our music.  The music I scorn today is not a radical departure that unsettles me.  It is not me clinging to the horse and buggy, unable to cope with the automobile.  It is me being fully comfortable with the car and, walking around the latest model for this year, noting the new colour choices and stylings, finally deciding it isn’t up to much.

The music of today is nothing but honed and polished versions of what the recording industries have learned in my younger days.  This combination of beats, this reverb overlay on this level of alto voice, sent out under a “Level A-2” marketing blitz is a formula that brings Top 40.

“You’re too old to get modern music”.  “I don’t listen to that old music”.  These are involuntary dribblings by empty-headed drones.  They are challenges that have no merit.  We didn’t listen to our parents’ music because it was fully different than what we liked.  Kids today that don’t listen to the last 50 years of pop tunes do so because...unless they have any “student of history” impulse in them, they have enough current stuff saturating their day.