Author Interview — Brian Trent

Today I interview Brian Trent, author of a story appearing in the upcoming anthology Dark Luminous Wings.

Brian is a science fiction writer with an interest in technology and society. His story “War Hero” was a winner in the Writers of the Future Contest. His work appears regularly in a wide array of publications, including Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Cosmos, Nature, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk, Galaxy’s Edge, Escape Pod, Apex, Daily Science Fiction, and more. He also writes nonfiction, with work appearing in UTNE, The Humanist, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and more. His works explore how human society, and indeed humanity itself, changes in the face of developing technology.

Now, the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: How did you get started writing fiction? What prompted you?

Brian Trent: Reading is what got me into writing. From a very young age, I cut my teeth on Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, but also on the Thousand-and-One Nights, Joseph Campbell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and plenty of Doc Savage. I was instinctively attracted to stories of adventure, exploration, dark wanderings, and possible tomorrows. I wrote my first stories on large lined Legal pads that I’d buy by the dozen, then graduated to a Brother 11 typewriter, electronic typewriter, and computer. Who knows what we’ll be using in the future?

P.S.: Who are some of your influences? What are a few of your favorite books?

B.T.: H.G. Wells and Jules Verne had a huge impact on me, as did Poe, King, Clarke, Lovecraft, Bradbury. A friend of the family bought me an anthology of Golden Age science fiction stories, and that helped propel me fully into the genre. When I’m interested in something, I really dive in; I read sci-fi from the pulps of the 1920s through the then-nascent cyberpunk revolution. I also studied the lives of the authors I admired, until it felt like I knew them personally. If there had been a celebrity gossip column for literary figures, I’d probably have subscribed.

Favorite books are too many to list, but I would count Ender’s Game, The Jungle Books, Snow Crash, Neuromancer, and especially The Stars My Destination among them.

P.S.: What are the easiest, and the most difficult, aspects of writing for you?

B.T.: Beginning a story is always the hardest part for me. Facing the glacial whiteness of a blank page and trying to think of a good entry point into the tale is always a challenge. For that reason, I rarely open my drafts at the beginning. Rather, I jump right into a scene or dialog that might take place anywhere other than the start!

The easiest part? That’s tough to say, as it varies from story to story. I love crafting the plot, building layers and setting them into place like the gears of a clock. And I adore exploring characters through dialog; you know when you’re on the right track as a writer when the characters are in full conversations that seem to spring directly out of their heads.

P.S.: You’ve written a considerable number of nonfiction articles in addition to your many fictional stories. How difficult is it to shift between the two types of writing?

B.T.: I have a background in journalism, which can help polish your writing. Steven King made the same observation way back: it encourages you to write to the point, and to write lean. Most of my reading is nonfiction, too. I find it an easy switch between the two styles, probably because a lot of my published nonfiction is in the field of science and technology, and has appeared in science fiction magazines — I’ve published nonfiction pieces with Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld, for instance.

P.S.: What is it about the science fiction genre that draws you there?

B.T.: Science fiction is a wonderful journey into unknown country. There are well-worn trails, sure, but plenty of uncharted territory as well. What I love about science fiction is that its speculations are often based in the probable: the “science” part is an essential part of the definition and scope. While I enjoy fantasy and I write in that genre as well, I appreciate the rational extrapolations of sci-fi more than “magic is the answer.” I’d say that the genre also serves the dual purposes of lighting hopeful beacons into the future, as well as sounding the warning bells on that same journey. It’s one thing to wonder about the potential dangers of, say, genetically engineered viruses, but it’s more effective (visually and viscerally) when you can read a fictional story that examines those ramifications. Really, it comes back to Wells (the pessimist) and Verne (the optimist). And both approaches are needed.

P.S.: Your story “Enchantment Lost” appears in the anthology Dark Luminous Wings. Please tell us about the story.

B.T.: “Enchantment Lost” is set in the far future, when a centuries-old woman hires a recovery specialist to undertake a rather unusual mission. As expressed by the story’s opening lines: “I need you to find my childhood. I know where it is. I’m hiring you to recover it, and return it to me.”

P.S.: What prompted you to write “Enchantment Lost?”

B.T.: I did a lot of ruminating on the anthology’s theme: Dark Luminous Wings. That can mean so many things. For me, the setting (which I won’t spoil) suggested itself immediately, as it exemplified all three words in the anthology’s title. When I set out to outline the tale, I built that theme into the aesthetics, the setting, and the underlying motivation of the characters. What does “flying” mean for us? It can be a destination or an escape, a nod to Icarus and also a promise of future travels. I ended up writing the story in a week, as things just clicked into place.

P.S.: Many of your science fiction stories contain historical references or are inspired by historical events and people. Why is that?

B.T.: I’m obsessed with history; I devour history books by the score. And I like to build my science fiction on the bones of history, as it springs off of known elements into tomorrow’s inventions, explorations, and developments. One lesson from history is that people don’t change: we are fundamentally no different from the people who lived in ancient Athens or Babylon or… well… the meltwater marshes of the Neolithic. The props change, the technology improves, political and cultural zeitgeists come in and out of fashion, but humanity remains the same. Even when we contemplate post-human futures (which is one of my favorite subjects) they still arise from an underlying human framework. In “Enchantment Lost,” the characters of Jack Saylor and Sylvia Tornquist are people who possess motivations we can understand, even if the world they live in is very different from ours.

I also love classical-era aesthetics. I dislike the monochromatic, sterile look of a lot of sci-fi, or conversely, the grimy patina on so much dystopia. I like color and vegetation infused with colonnades and vibrant agoras, while computers hum and glow in the background.

And lastly, I admire the zeitgeist of scientifically-minded eras like the Enlightenment, and the art-minded eras like the Italian Renaissance. I like to import both into my invented futures.

P.S.: In what way is your fiction different from that of other science fiction authors?

B.T.: I don’t know if it’s for me to say, really, but I do think my areas of interest (history, mythology, literature) infuses some different elements into my fiction. I do write across a wide array of genres and subgenres, from hard SF to steampunk, alternate history to space opera.

P.S.: The Published Works section of your website lists many, many published stories. Some are award or contest winners. What’s your secret for being so prolific?

B.T.: I habitually work on numerous stories at once, toggling from one to another so these batches tend to “grow up” together. And they’re usually very different from each other, so that I don’t burn out on one particular subject. If I’m working on a hard SF tale requiring lots of research and plotting, I like to balance that with a fantasy story, and balance that with a more action-oriented tale, with maybe a gothic horror story on the side. It keeps me on my toes, helps prevent stagnation, and it always keeps me writing: I don’t get bogged down in one story’s composition, because if progress is slowing for one project, I’ll alight onto another one and work there for a time. I guess my varied approach also matches my own interests: I don’t watch just one kind of film or read one kind of book. I’m interested in how things work, in the details of the universe I live in. Working on multiple projects comes naturally, as my daily imaginings, readings, and travels are all over the spectrum.

Another thing that aids this productivity is that roughly seventy-five percent of my stories are set in my “War Hero” universe. This universe is already a well-defined setting with its unique history, politics, and technology, so I don’t need to invent from scratch all those details any more: each new story in that timeline expands on the scaffolding that earlier stories have constructed. A lot of my stories will themselves suggest events that I’ll later explore. One recent example is in an upcoming novelette, where I make an offhand reference to a newspaper headline concerning an orbital heist. It has no bearing on the story other than serving as a local detail… but the story of that heist is told in my Galaxy’s Edge story “Breaking News Involving Space Pirates.”

P.S.: What is your current work in progress? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

B.T.: I’m continuing to write books in my historical fantasy series RAHOTEP; each book explores another episode in the life of a four-thousand-year-old entity from ancient Egypt. And I have a science fiction novel being published next year. I can’t say too much at this time, but details on that and other pending work will be released on my website, www.briantrent.com.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

Brian Trent: Polish your craft until it gleams. Open yourself up to learning from the greats in the field. Read, read, and read some more, seeing how others do it. And when you’ve done all that, strategize your approach to the industry. It isn’t enough to say “Never give up.” You need to look at the industry with a tactical eye. Never stop growing as a writer.

 

Thanks, Brian! Readers can get to know Brian better at his website and at his Facebook page.

Poseidon’s Scribe

Author Interview — Jeffrey G. Roberts

It’s been awhile since I’ve conducted an author interview, but Jeffrey G. Roberts recently landed a WW II Spitfire on the airfield here at Poseidon’s Scribe Enterprises. He and I both have stories appearing in the upcoming anthology Dark Luminous Wings. So I asked him a few questions.

Jeffrey’s Dad was a pilot in World War II, and that’s where Jeffrey got his love of aviation. He graduated from Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1974 with a Bachelor’s degree in writing and a Master’s degree in history. He’s lived in many places—Florida, New York, California, Ontario, Canada, and now Arizona. He started writing seriously around 1978. Since then, he’s written The Healer, plus seven novels of science fiction, fantasy, horror, as well as numerous short stories. Jeffrey says he’s attracted to the weird & unexplainable; he wrote his master’s thesis on the lost continent of Atlantis.

Now, the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: How did you get started writing? What prompted you?

Jeffrey G. Roberts: I started writing in college, Northern Arizona University. I simply have a creative imagination. My Dad did too, as he wrote for radio just after WW II. I like to create worlds that do not exist – but might; characters that are not yet in existence – but could be; and situations that never happened – but someday could. A writer is like a god – creating, destroying, altering, then creating again. I often wondered, in my overactive imagination, if, when I go to sleep at night, if my characters keep looking at their watches, frozen in time, waiting for the morning, when their creator will breathe life into them once again—to move, to love—to be!

 P.S.: On your website, you list some of your favorite authors as Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, James Thurber, Thornton Wilder, and H.G. Wells. If you could pick just two or three of these, what do you like about their fiction and how did they influence you?

J.G.R.: I’ve always admired Ray Bradbury for his surrealism and child-like fantasies, such as Dandelion Wine and The Halloween Tree. He explores that twilight world between dreams and reality, which I love. Douglas Adams, in his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, was a brilliant comedic wit, who I try to emulate in my work.

P.S.: When and why did you begin writing fiction?

J.G.R.: I dabbled in story writing in Junior college, but really began to explore my abilities when I attended Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff, AZ, where I eventually received a degree in writing.

P.S.: You’ve written some stories utilizing time travel, notably your novels The Healer and Cherries in Winter. What fascinates you about time travel?

J.G.R.: What might be, what could be; either in the distant future, or in an alternative future where everything has changed from what we know—like the American flag being red, white—and green; or interstellar travel as perfectly normal in 2017; or the geographical boundaries of nations are completely different than when we left on our journey of discovery—these are ideas and concepts which fascinate me, and whose depths I delight in plumbing.

P.S.: What are the easiest, and the most difficult, aspects of writing for you?

J.G.R.: For me, the easiest part of writing, ironically, is the writing process itself. The most difficult, undoubtedly, is the tortuous process of self promoting my novels and stories. It’s like blood-letting of the creative soul.

P.S.: Your story “One Day in the Hills of Milan” will appear in the upcoming anthology Dark Luminous Wings. Please tell us about it.

J.G.R.: I’ve always been deeply involved in the love of aviation. My Dad was a decorated ace in WW II, flying Spitfires, as an American in the RAF. So I guess I got the flying bug from him; soloing in 1968. And I’d always been fascinated by the fact that history has never been able to conclusively prove 100%, that Leonardo da Vinci did not fly his man-powered glider. Some accounts say his assistant actually did, breaking both kneecaps upon landing. And I thought – what if?

P.S.: What inspired you to write “One Day in the Hills of Milan?”

J.G.R.: The genius of Da Vinci has always fascinated me. How could he have been centuries ahead of his time? Perhaps he had ‘help?’

P.S.: In what way is your fiction different from that of other authors?

J.G.R.: At the risk of sounding conceited, I never start a story or new novel, if I know the concept has already been done. If it has, I tweak it, I twist it, and I present in an entirely new light; i.e., I try to march to the beat of a different drummer, creatively speaking.

P.S.: You have a book coming out titled In the Shadow of the House of God. When will it launch and what is it about?

J.G.R.: It will be out in May of 2018. Hatred has run amuck in our civilization. Blood is being shed planet-wide, as mutual animosities, suspicions, and antagonisms between the 34,000 religions on Earth (believe it or not!) threaten to erupt into Armageddon. And this is where the Devil devises an insidious plan to take advantage of all this hate, once and for all! So he makes a wager with God: “I believe humanity is basically vulgar, vicious, and filled with wondrous hate. I’ll wager, if you pluck one representative of every religion on Earth, and put them into a titanic edifice of your own design, beyond space and time, then eventually this beautiful hatred will cause them to slaughter each other!” God thinks for a moment—and accepts the wager! But every wager has a condition, or price. The stakes here? Creation itself! But there is something the Devil does not know. And for 3 people: a Hindu from India, A Christian from San Diego, and a bitter agnostic from Vancouver, B.C., what plays out in this interdimensional arena will forge lasting friendships—as the Devil and God look down on this cosmic chess match, to observe what happens next. A new age of peace? Or hell on Earth?

P.S.: What is your current work in progress? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

J.G.R.: I am currently working on another novel, The Horror on the HMS Cottingly.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

Jeffrey G. Roberts: My advice for aspiring writers is: A – have patience; B – Develop a thick skin, able to take rejection (Something I have to work on daily!); and C – Persistence. Someone once said that to be a successful writer, an aspiring author should go out and buy all the books on the art of writing you can; study them all—them throw them in the garbage! Because if you follow their advice to the letter, do you know what your book will be—bloodless, with no soul, no color, no voice. Your voice! Your style! How many writers in the past broke many literary rules? Writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Bradbury. But in so doing, they developed their own voice & style. Learn your craft well – then develop your own voice!

 

Thanks for winging your way here, Jeffrey! Though his plane has been fueled and is taking off, readers can find out more about him at his website, on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and LinkedIn. His novel The Healer is available here, here, and here, and you can watch a trailer video here (or here on some browsers). His novel Cherries in Winter is available here, here, and here. You can watch its trailer video here.

Poseidon’s Scribe

Book Review — Star Touched

Here’s a dystopian YA novel you’ll want to check out: Star Touched, by A.L. Kaplan. It contains fascinating characters, a challenging future world, and themes sure to interest teens and adults alike. Isn’t the cover intriguing?

The book immediately immerses you in Tatiana’s world, eight years after a meteor has wiped out much of the Earth’s population, and civilization is back to Nineteenth Century technology levels, without electricity. People struggle to grow food and survive in scattered cities, now walled to keep out invaders. While some work hard to restore good relations and a semblance of civilized society, others scheme at ways to take advantage of the weak.

The meteor did more than kill; it also left a small minority of people and animals “star-touched” with strange powers that are difficult to control. Eighteen-year-old Tatiana is one such person, along with her small dog, Fifi. Tatiana has lost her family and gone roving, finally settling in the town of Atherton, hoping to be accepted and to work for her food and lodging. Since most people fear and distrust the star-touched, she tries to keep her special powers hidden.

Author A.L. Kaplan

She finds work at an inn run by a kindly owner. But not everyone on the staff treats Tatiana well. Moreover, the corrupt town leaders are forming terrible plans for the future of Atherton. To make things worse, a new religious order is seeking out the star-touched, and Tatiana doesn’t know why.

Burdened by all these difficulties along with a ton of internal guilt over a long-ago death she couldn’t prevent, Tatiana will need to confront all her problems and find out if she has the strength of character necessary to endure.

Aimed at the Young Adult market, this novel touches on themes of being different from others, acceptance, maturity, and friendship. Readers will be perceptive enough to deduce the novel’s real message, a powerful and relevant one: we may not have superhero powers like Tatiana, but each of us is different, with our own special abilities and talents. We shouldn’t have to hide our gifts, and we shouldn’t hate the gifts of others. In a sense, each of us really is star-touched.

When the novel launches in October, I urge you to buy and read your own copy of Star Touched by A.L. Kaplan, published by Intrigue Publishing, LLC. How did I get an advance copy to read for this review? That’s a secret to be kept by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Steampunk’s Gentle Decline

The signs are there; steampunk is waning. Gear rotation is slowing; goggles are fogging; airships are losing gas.

Don’t get me wrong. Steampunk will always be. An enthusiastic minority will forever celebrate it. I’m not saying it’s dead and gone.

I just mean the mainstream public’s fascination with steampunk is declining as it moves on to other things. We’re riding the downward side of the curve now. Steampunk had its day, and we’re watching its sunset.

You want proof, I know. But the passing of a movement is hard to quantify. Others have proclaimed steampunk dead before and been wrong. All I’m going on is my general observation of the world. Internet searches of the term ‘steampunk’ turn up fewer new mentions each day. The number of steampunk movies, video games, and books appears on a downward slope.

So far I’ve been referring to the story-telling side of steampunk, the part that started the movement. That’s not all there is. There’s a side of steampunk that’s as popular as it ever was—fashion. When it comes to costumes, jewelry, and custom-made gadgets, that aspect remains in full swing, still going strong.

As a writer, I pay more attention to the literary side of steampunk and, frankly, it’s sputtering. Within the steampunk realm, there will always be stories left to write and movies left to shoot, but authors have explored the wide expanses of the territory pretty well. The map is there, the boundaries drawn, areas surveyed, most of the acreage settled. A few caves and swamps remain uncharted, but for the most part, it’s difficult to come up with a truly new steampunk story idea.

Personally, I’ve never cared for the magical, fantasy side of steampunk, with its vampires and werewolves. Still, that’s just about all that remains of literary steampunk. You want to write a steampunk story people will read?—think Bram Stoker, not Jules Verne.

I say all this with a tear rolling down my face. There’s no joy in reporting steampunk’s downward trend. I write steampunk stories and wish the genre could remain popular forever. But that’s not the way of things. A genre can only fire the public’s attention for a few years before fading into the background noise.

That raises the question about what’s next. What picks up where steampunk leaves off? My hope was that steampunk’s ‘children’ and ‘grandchildren,’ namely dieselpunk and atompunk, would strut their hour on the stage next. After all, these waves of nostalgic interest in retro settings seem to follow 20-30 year generational cycles. Like steampunk, both dieselpunk and atompunk come complete with a look, a style, a feel for the age. Plenty of ideas for the jewelry and costuming crowd.

Don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen it yet. Maybe we’re heading for a crest in Diesel Age or Atom Age fascination among the mainstream soon, but the signs aren’t apparent to me.

Maybe the term ‘punk’ itself is wearing out. Perhaps folks are tired of punking everything. Slapping ‘punk’ on a thing no longer makes the thing cool.

It could be that if dieselpunk or atompunk are to take off, they need renaming. They need a different descriptor, a better term to evoke the feeling of their times.

That’s where you come in. In the comments, let me know your suggestions for renaming dieselpunk and/or atompunk. Let’s find some catchy and appropriate tags for those movements—names free of ‘punk.’ How about it? Are you feeling creative and up to the challenge?

In the meantime, some of us soldier on. Still bravely writing steampunk stories, hoping that genre can beat the odds and return to past glory, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

6 Ways to Get Those First Words Typed

There before you glows that blank word processor screen. It’s staring back at you, mocking you. It’s daring you to type something, but you don’t know how to begin. It’s so intimidating.

You’ve been thinking about your story a long time, plotting it, developing the characters, working on the setting. You have notes, outlines, plot diagrams, and character descriptions up to here. Now it’s time to write, but no words are coming out.

Friend, you’ve surfed to the right blog post. I’ll get you through this. Most likely, you’re suffering from one of six conditions making it difficult to start. For each condition, I’ll suggest a remedy.

Condition 1: You’re so comfortable with planning your story that the idea of actually writing it paralyzes you. Remedy: Start writing an email to your Mom, or someone else with whom you correspond informally. Write: “Dear Mom, An odd thing happened today.” Then start writing your story. After all, it’s just an email to your Mom…or is it?

Condition 2: You’re looking for excuses to avoid writing. Remedy: Turn off, shut out, and eliminate all distractions. Then take five minutes to immerse yourself in your story notes again…regain the enthusiasm you had when this story was just a glorious notion in your mind. Then let words flow.

Condition 3: You’re afraid your writing will stink, that your first words will be so awful they’ll confirm your suspicions that you’re no writer. Remedy: You may have a misconception about first drafts. Trust me: your final story will look nothing like the first draft you’re about to write.

Condition 4: You believe, if the first words are this tough to write, the rest of the story will take forever. Remedy: Actually, the first ones are the most difficult. Beginning any task is the hard part. Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Accept this, and take that first step.

Condition 5: You’re afraid the hook (the beginning of the story) won’t seize the reader’s attention. You’re so worried about this that you can’t start. Remedy: Start writing a different section of the story. Come back to the hook later. You might even find that the “later” place you started is the real hook.

Condition 6: You believe you must write the hook first, and can’t imagine a way to entice the reader. Remedy: Okay, if you really must start with the hook, start by writing a bad one. Then write twenty alternate versions, trying diverse ideas and different ways to grab the reader’s attention. If none of those are any good, keep writing hook variants until you have one you like; you’ll know the one when you write it.

I’m confident one or more of these remedies will help you. When you successfully begin typing, take a moment to laugh in triumph at the once-blank screen that stymied you moments ago. You can tell it you won; you conquered it, with a little help from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Getting Through the 3 Filters

Let’s say you have a thought in your brain, a thought you want me to have in my brain also. Since you and I lack mental telepathy, we must settle for some other communication method. For our purposes today, we’ll say you’ve chosen written communication.

You convert that thought of yours into words of a standard language, a language you can write and I can read. You put those words into tangible form, either electronic or printed. Someone conveys your written document to me by some means. I read it, converting the words I read into a thought.

Will the thought in my brain match the one in yours exactly? Probably not. Considering the signal loss in the filters through which the thought passes on its way, it’s amazing two people can communicate at all.

The process is usually not as bad as the way I’ve dramatized it in the accompanying image. Still, it’s a less efficient transmission method than mental telepathy would likely be.

The part I’ve depicted as the “writing filter” consists of many things standing between pure thought and actual words. These include the clarity of your idea, your understanding of the meaning and connotation of words, your mood, your skill with language, your vocabulary, etc.

I’ve named the filter in the middle the “copying filter” and it represents any errors that creep into the text between the time you write it and the time I read it. For e-books, there could be a transmission error and some text becomes scrambled. For paper books, there could be smudges, spills, or torn pages that make some of the text difficult to read. Luckily, this filter usually results in negligible signal loss.

The “reading filter” is akin to the writing filter, but it’s everything between the words I read and the thoughts they cause in my brain. These include my understanding of words, my mood, my vocabulary, my ability to interpret meanings on several levels, my attention span, my life experiences, etc.

Remember, your goal was to create a thought in my brain matching the thought in yours. What can you do to increase the likelihood of the thoughts being identical? You can’t do anything about my reading filter; that’s solely up to me. You usually can’t do much about the copying filter, and it’s not much of a filter anyway.

Your focus needs to be on the writing filter within you, the only part of the process under your control. Work toward clear ideas, firm understanding of word meanings, mastery of language, increased vocabulary, and keeping your passing emotions from distorting your writing.

The best authors have nearly transparent writing filters resulting in negligible signal loss. That’s your goal.

I touched on this topic in a previous post, and neuroscientist Livia Blackburne explored these transmission filters in the context of getting bad reviews, in a guest post on Joanna Penn’s website, well worth the read.

Good luck, Writer! Improve the transparency of your writing filter so you can convey thoughts crisply to the world, and especially to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Creativity Boot Camp

Listen up, you dull, lazy, unimaginative bores! I’ve got exactly one blog post to whip your sorry, uninspired butts into the most steely-eyed, creative writers who ever scribbled for this great country.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drill_instructor

What’s that? Did I hear one of you say you’re just not creative? First of all, no talking in ranks. Second, you were creative once, back when you were three to five years old. You were uninhibited, freewheeling, and super-creative then. What happened to you? Get intimidated by a little criticism? Did adults often tell you that you were wrong? Did they tell you to stand or sit in neat, straight lines…?

Hmmm. Okay, new formation. I want you to sit, stand, or lie down facing in any direction you want. Still no talking, though. You will listen to everything I tell you. You will do everything I tell you, and you will become more creative. Do you understand? The proper response is ‘Yes, Drill Sergeant!’ I can’t hear you!

To allow for possible penetration into your feeble brains, I will keep these techniques simple. When faced with a writing problem, any writing problem, use these methods. They will work when you believe you can’t think of a story idea, create a compelling character, describe a setting, or get yourself out of a plot hole.

 

  1. Give me ten. No, not sit-ups. Write down ten ways to restate your problem. Sometimes seeing the question a different way helps in finding an answer.
  2. Give me twenty. No, not pushups. Write down twenty solutions to your problem. Do not stop until you get to twenty. Do not criticize your solutions, no matter how stupid they are. Remember, a stupid idea can inspire a good one.
  3. Move your lazy behind. I mean move Go for a run, or a walk. Your body and brain are one. Moving one will move the other.
  4. Go somewhere else. Move your rear end to a different place. A different room. Outside, maybe. Find a place that stimulates you, where you feel more creative.
  5. Doodle, or do focused doodling like the 30 Circle Test.
  6. Draw a mind map of your problem.
  7. Look at your problem from three perspectives. No, I can’t tell you which three without knowing your problem. It could be three characters, three physical directions, three time periods, or three other perspectives. You figure that out from the nature of your problem.
  8. Shut up. Literally. Go to a quiet place. No TV. No radio. No rug-rats. Quiet. Maybe you’ve been too distracted for the answer to come to you.
  9. Approach your problem using all your senses. You have five of them, most of you. Sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste.
  10. Quit sitting on your hands and use them to build something. Build a model of your problem, with an Erector Set, Legos, modeling clay, Silly Putty, Play-Doh, or Tinkertoys. If you see your problem in a physical way and shape it with your hands, you may think of a solution.
  11. Listen to music. What? How should I know what kind of music will work for you? That’s for you to figure out.
  12. Get help. We leave no writer behind in this outfit. Ask other writers you know, or members of your critique group, if you have one. They may think of answers you haven’t thought of. Remember to help them when they ask, too.

Do not think I came up with these ideas by myself. I got them from experts. You will visit their websites and review the information there. See the postings by Larry Kim, Michael Michalko, Christine Kane, Christina DesMarais, and Dr. Jonathan Wai. Also this article on WikiHow, and this TED talk by Tim Brown.

These techniques I’ve attempted to impart into your mundane, unoriginal skulls will increase your creativity. They will make you a better writer. They will make you feared by your competitors. They will save your writing career. Memorize them and practice them.

Ten-hut! You’re dismissed. Get out there and be creative writers. Never forget what’s been taught to you by your Drill Sergeant—

Poseidon’s Scribe

4 Rules for Assembling a Planet

Millions of my fans well remember when I first posted back on February 24, 2013 about assembling a planet. That seminal blog post dominated the news and captivated the world (our world, the real Earth, I mean).

Why revisit the topic, then? Has the process of world-building changed? Well, some links in that previous post don’t work, and it’s time for an update with some better information.

Pixabay.com, image #1275774

 

 

Here you are, ready to write a story set in a world different from ours, and you want to know how to do it. Or you’re partway through writing the story already, things aren’t working out, and you want to know where you went wrong.

You can get good information from reading the Wikipedia article on world-building. Roz Morris’ post on the topic encapsulates her advice into three rules. Ruthanne Reid posted a fine article discussing approaches to world-building. What follows is my view of the topic, but you should review these other sources, too.

Here are my four rules for creating a world for your story:

  1. Think through the consequences. You’ve thought of some interesting and original ways that your world is different from the real one…great. But have you thought through the ramifications? Think of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Arrakis, the desert world. Herbert thought through the implications of that type of climate on people’s behavior, clothing, lifestyle, and other animal life.
  2. Set limits on your magic or technology. Sure, it’s fun to imagine a world of amazing magic or super-advanced technologies. But add some constraints. If your protagonist is some all-powerful wizard, then she or he could simply wave a wand and resolve the conflict in the opening scene. Story over.
  3. Make your world clear to readers. Authors who set their stories in the real world have it relatively easy. They can assume readers understand the rules and norms. They needn’t spend many sentences describing the Earth we know. You don’t have that luxury. You’ll need enough (but not too much!) descriptive text to transport readers to your world.
  4. Be consistent. Sure, you’re thinking, you’ll remember the rules of your world as you’re writing your story. I wouldn’t add this as one of my rules if it were that easy. For some reason, there’s a tendency to forget and slip back into our own world.

Armed with my rules, you should now be ready to get out there and build your own world. It’s freely provided services such as this that makes millions around the world (the real one, our Earth) thrill to the mere mention of the name of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Characters at the Edge

Are your story’s characters living out at the edge? If not, maybe you should push them further out there.

What does that mean? In this post by author Steven Pressfield, he mentions a friend of his who considers fictional characters far more interesting, more worth reading about, if they operate at some extreme, if they’re desperate enough to act outside normal boundaries.

Image from pixabay.com

Only then is the drama enticing enough, the character fascinating enough, to make the tale worth the reader’s time.

Pressfield’s post cites examples including several movie characters played by Matthew McConaughey, as well as characters on cable TV shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.

Two thoughts I’d add to Pressfield’s post. First, he claims it should be as if a character is telling the reader, “Don’t take your eyes off me because I am capable of doing anything.” By “anything” I believe Pressfield means anything consistent with the character’s personality and motivations. The character should be at the edge, yes, but at the edge of a space bordered by that character’s nature and inner dreams.

Second, as one of the commenters pointed out, being at the edge doesn’t only mean rough-and-tumble actions such as picking fights, killing people, or driving 100 miles per hour.

For example, say you’re Arthur Conan Doyle and you want to write about a fictional detective. Taking that character to the edge means making him capable of deductive reasoning and powers of observations that are at the outer limits of human capability. Then, of course, compensate by giving that character weaknesses and flaws; you don’t get superhuman abilities in one facet without suffering in some others.

Say you’re Jules Verne and you want to write about a character desperate to complete a journey around the world before a deadline. Taking that character to the edge means making him fixated on time, exacting and precise, decisive and unemotional. Compensate by giving him faults as well, such as being uncaring and oblivious to the emotions of others.

Before writing your story, create a written description of your main characters, including each one’s physical appearance, motivation, personality type, goals, and dreams, etc. Then ask yourself if you can make those characters more extreme. Don’t worry about realism or authenticity too much. See how close to the edge you can push them.

If you succeed in doing this, your story’s action and dialogue will be fascinating and dramatic, your characters vivid and unforgettable.

Go ahead and push them out toward the edge…further…further… Out on that precipice stands your finest character, a big part of your best story. Now write that story.

One more thing. When your story succeeds, tell me about it by leaving an edgy comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Best-Seller Foreteller?

What if a soothsayer could tell you if your manuscript would become a best-seller? If you were a publisher, you’d hire that soothsayer, right?

Throughout the history of the publishing industry, editors and publishers had to make buy-or-reject decisions based on experience and gut feel.

Welcome to the Age of Big Data.

Crystal ball image from Wikipedia

According to an article in The Telegraph , researchers at Stony Brook University used computers to analyze writing styles and could predict whether a book would be successful with up to 84% accuracy.

Following up on that, Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers wrote The Bestseller Code, a book about their algorithm (the “bestseller-o-meter”) that analyzes character, plot, setting, style, and theme to make its predictions. According to an article in BBC Culture, this strangely named algorithm is also highly accurate.

More recently, I read an article in BuiltinAustin about a company in Austin, Texas called AUTHORS.me that has developed their own algorithm, StoryFit, which they market to publishers.

These algorithms chew on massive amounts of data—thousands of novels—and perform statistical analyses. After being given test data about past novels for which the success or failure results are known, the algorithm “learns,” or at least develops rules, to distinguish best-sellers from flops. You then apply the algorithm to an unpublished manuscript and make a reasonable prediction. A crystal ball for novels.

Could this lead to a world where publishers reject your manuscript because their algorithm said it wouldn’t sell? Or a world where authors could edit their manuscript to add in the aspects such algorithms judge to be indicative of success? Could the writing and publishing of novels be reduced to a numbers game?

Not quite yet, apparently. The Stony Brook University algorithm struggled to predict the success of books in one genre—historical fiction. Also their algorithm “predicted” Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea would flop. Archer and Jockers’ bestseller-o-meter rated The Help by Kathryn Stockett as meh. Further, the novel achieving their algorithm’s highest score (The Circle by Dave Eggers) was a commercial failure.

Certainly, these artificially intelligent systems will improve and get more accurate in the coming years. They’ll identify trends in how the reading public’s tastes are changing. Maybe the algorithms will never be 100% right, and some books they reject will succeed and vice versa. Every now and then, an author tries something new and it sells well despite being unlike the norm. They do call them novels, after all.

As publishers make increasing use of tools that predict a novel’s success, and as authors begin to use similar tools to tune their manuscripts for market success, could it be that overall novel writing will improve? Will that lead to an increase in readership, a renewed clamor for books by the buying public?

I hope so. In the meantime, my new big-data algorithm has just finished analyzing all my previous blog posts, and states there is a 99% probability I’ll conclude this one by signing it—

Poseidon’s Scribe