The Story Behind “To Be First”

ToBeFirstWheels5As the launch date for “To Be First” and “Wheels of Heaven” nears (this Tuesday, July 1st), and excitement builds, I think it’s time for me to reveal the story behind “To Be First.”

A few years ago, I watched an episode of the TV show Mythbusters where they replicated a feat supposedly performed by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi in the Ottoman Empire in 1633. Çelebi is said to have constructed a rocket chair, launched himself into the air, and flown down safely using a wing-like apparatus. The event was intended to commemorate and honor the birth of the Sultan’s daughter.

The Mythbusters team considered the myth busted, but it got me to thinking. What if such a marvelous flight had taken place? What if the Sultan had understood the geopolitical and military implications?

LagariThink of it. Manned rocket flight in the 17th Century. Defensive city walls and high castle walls would mean nothing to a country with armed rocket-men. Rather than expanding and then beginning its slow decline to finally die with the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire might have spread much more quickly and farther.

Had the Ottomans also embraced the science behind rocketry, they might have hastened other technical achievements, and been the source of those advancements rather than watching America and the rest of Europe prosper.

It seemed like an interesting basis for an alternate history tale, so I wrote one. In my version, it’s 1933, three centuries after Çelebi’s flight, and two Ottoman astronauts (called lunanauts) are returning from the first manned flight to the Moon. Yes, I said 1933, not 1969.

Nuruosmaniye_MosqueI imagined their space capsule being about the same size as the Apollo capsule, but dome-shaped with a central spike like the roof of an Ottoman mosque.  The capsule would have a couple of windows and there would be some of that beautiful, flowing Ottoman Turkish writing on the outside.

As the story commences, the lunanauts encounter a strange ionic storm in space, and their capsule passes into an alternate universe. The tale takes off from there.

My central characters, Yazid and Kemal, hold differing views on what it means to be an explorer. What are the motivations behind those who roam beyond all prior journeys, who probe far into unknown regions? Do they do it for the money? For fame? For love? Or is it something simpler?

If you read my story, perhaps you’ll be motivated to become an explorer, and you’ll write your own gripping story of heroic and fantastic adventure. You, too, can manage ‘To Be First.’ At least, so says—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Story behind “Wheels of Heaven”

ToBeFirstWheels72dpiWith my story “Wheels of Heaven” about to launch on July 1st, I thought I’d tell you how I got the idea for the tale.

The series What Man Hath Wrought consists of alternate history stories involving technology. Basically, they’re “what if” stories that ask what would have happened if things had gone differently. While doing some research on interesting ancient technologies, I came across the Antikythera Mechanism. Or perhaps I saw a mention of it on a documentary on the Science Channel, Discovery Channel or History Channel.

300px-NAMA_Machine_d'Anticythère_1It’s a fascinating machine, advanced well beyond what anyone gave the ancient Greeks credit for. Moreover, until x-ray tomography was conducted on the device in recent years, no one knew what it was for.

Intrigued by the mechanism, I then had to think of an interesting way to fictionalize it. Some outlandish, but really fun, ideas occurred to me, but other authors had already explored notions such as the device being a time machine, teleportation machine, or even an alien communicator.

My story ended up being more plausible. I portrayed the mechanism as being exactly as it really was, a device for computing the position of the sun and major planets—the wheels of heaven.

In 1900 and 1901, divers discovered the device amid other shipwreck debris off Antikythera Island. “Wheels of Heaven” is my fictional account of how it came to rest there. An arrogant Roman astrologer will discover he can make predictions with greater speed using the device, but will come to question the connections between people and the stars.

rimtradeWhen research revealed the wreck to be a Roman merchant ship, I checked out what those ships were like. They differ from trireme warships in interesting ways. The carved neck and head of a swan which I describe in the story was actually a common feature of these ships.

For the most part, of course, “Wheels of Heaven” is about the struggles people have, the struggles we still have today. If you were certain you were right about something, an idea about which you’d formed a long career, and you found out it was all wrong, could you accept it? Are we all slaves of predetermined fate, or do we have free will?

Go ahead, take a trip through time to about 80 B.C. and voyage with my characters Viator and Abrax aboard the Prospectus. I know you’ll enjoy it; that much has been written in the stars by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Launching July 1st

It’s the event anticipated all over the world and throughout the known universe, and it’s happening July 1st. For those not in the know, that’s the date of the launch of my newest ebook.

ToBeFirstWheels72dpiIt’s part of the celebrated What Man Hath Wrought series published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing, and once again you’ll be getting two alternate history stories for the price of one.

“To Be First” follows two space voyagers from an alternate universe as they return from the moon, in 1933. In their timeline, manned rocketry began in the Ottoman Empire, which advanced and spread. When these Ottoman lunanauts end up orbiting our comparatively backward world, they have a choice to make, one that will forever change their future and ours. Along the way, one of them will learn something about why humans explore.

In “Wheels of Heaven,” an arrogant Roman astrologer finds a geared Grecian machine for predicting the positions of celestial bodies. Today we know the device as the Antikythera Mechanism. On the voyage back to Rome, the seer meets a sailor who dismisses astrology, an astonishing notion in 86 B.C. But when the sailor’s prediction is right, and every one of the astrologer’s is wrong, he begins to question his most basic beliefs.

The star-studded cover, designed by Charlotte Holley, not only demands attention, but it illustrates the connection both stories have to outer space.

You’ll be able to purchase the book in all the usual places: Gypsy Shadow Publishing, Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, etc.

Now you’re caught up with everyone else in the universe. No need to thank me. It’s all part of the service provided by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Are You Fictional or Real?

Fictional characters differ from real people in interesting and important ways. Thinking you’re one when you’re really the other could have significant and disturbing consequences. Therefore, it’s vital to know which one you are. That’s why, as a public service, I offer the following easy quiz you can take to determine the answer.

Fictional or RealIf you think you’re fictional, but your answers to some of these questions tend to show you’re real, or vice versa, don’t despair. Fictional characters and real people share many characteristics. There’s a large amount of overlap because authors try to depict realistic characters, to some extent. I’ll show you how to score your answers at the end.

And now, the quiz:

1. True or False:  You never say “hello” or “goodbye” when talking on the phone.

2. T or F:  You’ve never said “um” or “er” in conversation.

3. T or F:  You drive either a flashy sports car or an old jalopy.

4. T or F:  You may have been inside bathrooms, but you’ve never actually, shall we say, done a Number 1 or Number 2.

5. T or F:  For you, things seem to go from bad to worse, then suddenly everything turns out okay.

6. T or F:  You have a friend who’s constantly with you and to whom you must explain everything. Either that, or you are a sidekick for someone else.

7. T or F:  Your full name is melodic and memorable, and ether your first name or last name is unusual.

8. T or F:  You are either purely good, or purely evil.

9. T or F:  Your dull, uneventful hours rush by in a blur, but your busy, intense hours pass slowly and meaningfully.

10. T or F:  You’ve long felt a sense of being watched all the time. You’ve had that sense so long you no longer think much about it.

If you answered True to less than six questions, you are a real person. Sorry about that. Real people tend to lead more boring lives than fictional characters. If you thought you were fictional and are just now discovering you are real, I suggest you accept it, get over your disappointment, and learn to fit in.

If you answered True to six or seven questions, this quiz can’t tell you the answer. Observe the people around you and see which behaviors they exhibit. Whichever they are—fictional characters or real people—you are too. The two types don’t seem to mix much.

If you answered True to eight or more questions, you’re a fictional character. If you thought all along you were real and are just now discovering you’re fictional, I’ll offer my congratulations. Your life will rarely be boring. Thousands and maybe millions of real people will thrill to your escapades. Even if your life ends up being short, you’ll be reborn innumerable times and may live forever.

It’s my hope this quiz has been informative and hasn’t caused you any life-changing distress. If it did alter your understanding of reality, I still think it’s better to know than to keep living in ignorance. And, really, where else on the web are you going to get this kind of service? Who else offers this sort of helpful quiz? No one else, but—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Too Much to Remember

Looking back over my 200 blog posts, I see I’ve presented a lot of rules about writing. The question might be occurring to you beginning writers—how am I supposed to remember all that? And you’re thinking, if I have to keep all those rules in mind, it all seems too hard. I’ll never be a writer.

Remember RulesYes, you can be a writer, most likely. If there’s a story in you that you feel passionate about, then your knowledge of all my previous ‘rules’ is secondary. Conversely, even if you’ve memorized all the rules I’ve presented, there’s little hope for you if you aren’t driven to write by something powerful inside.

I recommend, therefore, that you use that powerful drive, sustain your strong passion for the idea, and write the first draft without regard to any rule. Forget all I’ve said about using active sentence structure, showing and not telling, not overdoing dialect, etc.

Then, in your second and subsequent drafts you can edit to make sure you’re following the ‘rules.’ Write them down if you have trouble remembering them. That list of rules can be your ‘editing list’ which will help you recall what you’re checking for as you edit.

If you find your critique group, or editors, or reviewers, pointing out a certain common defect in your stories, you can add that defect to the editing list and make a point of correcting that problem in subsequent stories.

Over time you may find a funny thing begin to happen. You’ll break fewer rules in your first drafts. You’ll be able to remember more of them as you write. Or maybe not remember them consciously, but somehow know them as you madly scribble that first draft.

It’s the same phenomenon that occurred when you learned to ride a bicycle, drive a car, or play a musical instrument. The task that seemed so complicated and daunting at first, that skill you thought you couldn’t master because there was so much to remember, somehow became easier. Things you once had to concentrate on became things you do without thinking.

Recently I heard an experienced author at a writer’s conference say she could no longer turn off her inner editor while writing a first draft. She does subsequent drafts, but there are fewer things to correct than there were with her first books. If that ends up happening to you, perhaps the final step will be to give up subsequent drafts entirely, and let the first draft be the final one. Isaac Asimov claimed he didn’t edit or write second drafts. Perhaps you’ll achieve that level of skill.

Remember, you don’t have to keep all the rules in mind during the first draft. When writing that one, don’t think about rules at all; just write. Now, if I could only recall how I’m supposed to end these blog posts…so much to remember. Oh, yeah, I just sign it—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Ex-Out Deus ex Machina

Strange term, that ‘Deus ex Machina.’ All it means is ‘the god from the machine’ and if your story’s got one, you probably don’t want it.

Deus ex MachinaAlthough the concept comes to us in its Latin wording, it dates from the plays of Ancient Greece. Performed in amphitheaters, these plays sometimes featured an actor playing the part of a Greek god, who would descend into the final scene apparently from the sky by means of a crane with ropes. The ‘god’ would solve the play’s central problem by means of magical powers.

Over time, the phrase came to mean the late and unexpected introduction in a story of a character, ability, or object that seems to resolve the story’s conflict in some miraculous way.

     Not Recommended
You’ll want to avoid Deus ex Machina (DEM) in your stories because it’s the mark of an amateur writer. You get positive points for burdening your protagonist with difficult dilemmas to solve. But you lose those points and more when you’ve painted your hero into a corner and you can’t get her or him out without resorting to some external savior entering the action at the end.

The presence of a DEM cheats the reader, who is expecting a story about the human condition.  The reader has, therefore, invested some emotional energy in your protagonist, following that hero along through all the conflicts, both external and internal. The reader is wondering how your protagonist will prevail. To introduce a DEM, therefore, is jarring and disappointing.

     Difficult to Avoid
Sometimes you’re working along with your manuscript and you find you’ve put your protagonist in such trouble that, try as you might, you can’t think of a way out. You like the story otherwise, and really don’t want to rewrite in a way that lessens the difficulty and allows your hero to win the day through innate virtues.

These are the times you might be tempted to call in the aid of a DEM. Again, for reasons noted above, it’s best not to do so. In most cases.

     When It’s Right
In the hands of a master storyteller, DEMs can work in two situations I’ve discovered: (1) when the author is making a larger point, and (2) in comedies.

For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the French army conquers the town, enters the Inquisition, and frees the narrator from his horrible prison. But Poe is making a larger point about life and the freeing of the soul to enter heaven when the clock (pendulum) of life ceases.

In H.G. Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds, it’s true the invading Martians are defeated by tiny bacteria. But Wells is making a statement about Britain’s encounters with cultures having primitive technology. He’s saying that, but for the microbes, even mighty Britain would have been annihilated.

In Monty Python’s movie “Life of Brian,” Brian is saved from a deadly fall by a passing alien spaceship. The DEM literary device is used here for comedic effect.

     A Final Example
If you’re really, really good, go ahead and use a Deus ex Machina. Otherwise, best to avoid them. Let your characters figure their own way out of their jams.

Hmm, as I write this, I have no idea how to end this blog post.

Enter Poseidon, appearing out of nowhere.
Poseidon: “Silly mortal. Just write ‘Poseidon’s Scribe’ below your other babbling text, the way you’ve signed off every other post.”
Me: “Oh, hehe. Thanks Poseidon. You mean like this:

Poseidon’s Scribe.”

Writing the Tough Scenes

Blank Screen BluesSometimes, you need a certain scene for your story, but you just can’t write it. Has that happened to you? Something about the scene gives you the Blank Screen Blues. Words won’t flow. The idea of writing the scene repels you. You invent excuses not to write.

Most likely the problem is one of the following kinds:

1. There’s a ‘story problem’ where the plot isn’t fitting together, or you need a character to do something that character wouldn’t do, or the scene’s setting is wrong.

2. The scene involves a subject or action you find disgusting or abhorrent.

            Story Problem

This blog post provides a good five step process for overcoming ‘story problems’ that keep you from writing a scene. Here are the steps in brief, though you should read author Rocky Cole’s more detailed descriptions:

1. Determine why you need the scene.

2. Decide what characters are in the scene and what they want.

3. Decide on a location and time for scene.

4. Figure out how the scene starts and ends.

5. Write the dialogue first, then fill in the rest.

            Distasteful Topic

There are certain topics that are difficult to write about. These vary from writer to writer, of course, but can include abuse, alcoholism, death, rape, sex, suicide, violence of other kinds, etc. Some writers find it easier to write about violence to a human than to certain animals.

Sometimes the act depicted in the scene is necessary to the overall story, so you know it’s coming up as you write along. You figure you’ll be okay when you get there, but then comes the day to write that scene and it’s just not happening. You can’t bear to put the words down.

You might be tempted to take the scene offstage. That is, don’t write it, but continue with the following scenes, where the characters recover from or react to an event that happened during an interval between the last scene and this one. You figure that, with enough context, the reader will fill in the gap.

According to the advice offered on this site, that’s a bad idea. The whole idea of fiction, the thing that keeps it interesting to readers, is the notion of characters in conflict. If you take the conflict offstage, you’re keeping your reader from seeing how your protagonist reacts to real difficulties.

I agree with this. Say you can’t seem to write the fight scene where your hero faces the villain. In a way, your own bravery is in question, more so than that of your hero. You need to face your villain, the unwritten scene itself.

Commenters on a Nashville Writers Meetup forum agree too, and recommend just buckling down and using the emotions you’re feeling to write the scene. One quotes novelist Sarah Schulman as saying “If it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t doing it right.”

Along with other blog posts on the subject, this one by author Kelly Heckart emphasizes the need for you to force yourself to do what’s right for the story.

In this forum site, one contributor suggests you might be focusing on your own emotions, your own reaction to a disagreeable act. Instead, concentrate on the reactions and emotions of your characters; that might give enough detachment to allow you to write the scene.

Speaking of detachment, author Linda Govik recommends that you set the whole story aside for awhile, even a year. You might find it easier after that time to write that troublesome scene.

Yet another way to achieve the necessary detachment is offered by the author of this post who recommends thorough research of the disagreeable topic as a way to gain more comfort with the notion of writing about it.

You know what they say: “when the writing gets tough, the tough get writing.” Well, maybe they don’t say it, but I’ve heard it said by—

Poseidon’s Scribe