What a Disaster!

Today I’m exploring the world of disaster fiction. There are many, many stories dealing with disasters, from local misadventures to world-wide calamities. I’ll discuss frequently occurring themes in disaster fiction, as well as the reasons people read it. That might help you decide if you want to write such a tale.

DisasterFirst, no disaster story is truly about the disaster. If you want to write about disasters, try non-fiction. As I’ve said before, fiction is about the human condition, so your disaster story is really about the characters, their attempts to cope with the disaster, and how they grow or change as a result.

I’ll make a distinction between disaster stories and post-apocalyptic stories. In the latter, the disaster has already occurred and people are trying to handle the aftermath. In the former, the disaster occurs during the story. I’ll discuss post-apocalyptic fiction in a future blog post.

Types

Though disaster stories are about people, we can still classify them by the type of disaster that occurs, and there are plenty to choose from. You might think all the best disasters have been taken already and the reading public won’t go for one more disaster novel. You’d be wrong; since the stories are about people, there are always infinitely more stories to write.

Disasters can be natural, as with floods or tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, other significant storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme climate change, asteroid or comet collisions, etc.

The disaster could be an accident, such as a shipwreck, airplane crash, train wreck, industrial accident, etc. A car crash probably wouldn’t count, since the disaster really should involve a large number of people.

There are other disasters that aren’t natural, and aren’t really accidents either. Let’s call them calamities, and separate them into plausible and less-plausible scenarios. The plausible ones include pandemics, terrorist attacks, major wars, economic collapse, and loss of electricity.

The less-plausible calamities (my own risk assessment; yours might differ) include: alien invasion, uncontrolled release of technology (such as nanotechnology, robot uprising, creation of a black hole, creation of a super-disease or super-creature, etc.), zombie apocalypse, “return” of vampires or werewolves, and attacks by menacing (usually gigantic) animals.

Themes

You’ll find some common themes in disaster stories. Here’s a partial list.

• Despite how far humans have progressed, we need reminding we are small and weak creatures in a big, dangerous universe.
• As disaster looms, people will react differently, going through the Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ at different rates.
• A large-scale disaster will collapse the normal societal structure, and other structures will form.
• A disaster brings together strangers who must form a team with a common purpose, such as survival.
• A main character must overcome a personal fear or other psychological flaw and rise to the situation.
• A former leader cannot cope with the disaster; a new and unlikely leader must take charge.
• Often the protagonist’s main goal is either survival (of a group) or rescue of others.
• There are good and bad human reactions to disasters, and the characters who react badly often (though not always) meet a bad end. For example, preparation is better than assuming an unchanging future; clear thinking is better than panic, teamwork is better than uncaring self-centeredness; natural leadership is better than using a chaotic situation to claim power; focusing on the goal is more productive than blaming or finding fault.

Purpose

Why do people read disaster stories? These are among the reasons:

• It’s a chance to “experience” the disaster in a safe way, without having to endure it for real.
• The stories can be taken as metaphors for how we can deal with the smaller-scale mishaps of daily life.
• The tales can be metaphors for some perceived societal defect, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
• The stories offer lessons in preparation as old as the ant & grasshopper fable.

Conclusion

51aDCvEwjvLI would classify only one of my stories as a true disaster tale. “The Finality” appeared in the anthology 2012 AD by Severed Press. In it, a scientist discovers that time itself is coming to an end, not just on Earth but throughout the universe, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But just maybe the Mayans were trying to tell us something about that.

May all your disasters be the written kind; that’s the hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 30, 2014Permalink

As Hobbies Go…

For me, writing fiction is a hobby. Maybe it’s the same for you. I figured I’d do a little comparison of writing to other hobbies you (and I) might have chosen instead.

hobby montageWikipedia defines a hobby as “an activity, interest, enthusiasm, or amateur pastime that is undertaken for pleasure or relaxation, typically done during one’s leisure time.” The entry categorizes hobbies as Collection, Competition, or Observation hobbies, with indoor and outdoor subsets of each. Writing, though it usually occurs indoors, doesn’t fit cleanly in any of the prime categories, since it’s not really about collection, competition, or observation (though it has elements of each).

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive study of the most popular hobbies, and the various website lists are all different. On the lists I’ve found, the following hobbies seem to keep cropping up as the most prevalent: Reading, Watching TV, Family time, Fishing, Going to movies, Gardening, Computer activities, Walking, Team Sports, Exercise, Renting movies, Listening to music, Golf, Traveling, and Entertaining.

I was intrigued to see Reading as #1 in a couple of lists; great news for writers! I also noticed how the most popular hobbies are low- or no-cost activities; no wonder they’re popular!

I found a list of hobbies that actually make money, and writing comes in at #3 on that list: Web design, Photography, Writing/Editing, Crafts, Coaching sports, Playing guitar, Organizing, Baking, Walking Dogs, and Shopping.

By definition, hobbies are for pleasure and relaxation, not necessarily for earning money, but it is an added bonus if your hobby pays you. And writing certainly can. For many writers, their dream is to shift their hobby to their livelihood, and that is possible.

How, then, does writing stack up against other hobbies? Some may consider these to be its disadvantages:
• It’s solitary
• It’s sedentary
• It requires some talent, or the willingness to develop talent
• It may take years before you’re published, or paid for your writing

Regarding those first two, you could always supplement with another hobby to make up for them.

On the positive side, writing has the following advantages:
• As discussed already, you can earn money
• It’s relaxing
• It’s a wonderful outlet for creative impulses; you create people and worlds
• There are few joys that can compare with getting a story accepted, and then seeing your name in print

As hobbies go, writing may not be for everyone, but you might end up loving it as much as—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 23, 2014Permalink

The Story behind “Time’s Deformèd Hand”

You were wondering about this new story of mine, “Time’s Deformèd Hand,” so I’ve written this blog post to answer all your questions. It’s the least I can do to satisfy your curiosity. Luckily for both of us, the post contains no spoilers.

Q: What’s the book about?

A: Here’s a short book blurb: “Time for zany mix-ups in a clock-obsessed village. Long-separated twins, giant automatons, and Shakespeare add to the madcap comedy. Read it before it’s too late!”

Q: What’s with the weird title, and why is there a grave accent mark in the word ‘deformed?’
A: The title is stolen from Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” In fact, I pretty much ripped off the Bard’s whole play. The story has many, many references to time, clocks, and calendars, and all the sorts of errors associated with time measurement, so the title is appropriate. The grave accent mark (`) means to pronounce that usually-silent ‘e’ as you would in ‘scented,’ to make the poetic rhythm come out right.

Q: What made you think of writing it?

A: I got the idea, somehow, to combine Shakespeare and clockpunk. I wanted the tale to be lighthearted, so I picked one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Having raised a set of identical twins myself, I was drawn to “The Comedy of Errors” due to all its mistaken-identity gags. Rather than two sets of identical twins separated at birth, I thought I’d have just one set, but each young man has a clockman, and all clockmen are identical.

Q: What are clockmen?

A: In my story, clockmen are clockwork automatons, invented by Leonardo da Vinci a century before my story. They’re eight feet tall, with an outer shell of wood covering the metal gears, ratchets, and cogs. They display a clock on their chest, and have a large, wind-up key protruding from their back. Due to a special property of a certain kind of wood, clockmen are sentient, though they seem dull-witted.

Q: What are the story’s strangest characters?

A: First, I’d have to say the town’s Wachmeister, or constable. Wachmeister Baumann is pompous, and also overconfident, considering he can’t seem to correctly pronounce any policing terms. Then there’s the proprietor of the city’s clockman repair shop, a certain William Shakespeare. Herr Shakespeare had moved from England to this Swiss village. For a repairman, he has the rather odd habit of speaking in iambic pentameter, and a deep understanding of human nature.

Q: What do you mean by ‘many references to time?’

A: The setting of the story is a Swiss village called Spätbourg (“late-town”). It is shaped like a clock, with twelve streets radiating out from the center. It contains the Tempus Fugit Restaurant, the Oaken Cuckoo Tavern, and the Sundial Inn. In addition, the story includes several clock jokes, clock mix-ups, as well as clock and calendar paradoxes.

Q: When and where can I buy it?

A: Thought you’d never ask. The book is launching today! You can buy it here, here, and here, and soon it will be available at Gypsy Shadow Publishing and other places.

What? You have more questions about “Time’s Deformèd Hand?” Better leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 16, 2014Permalink

The Reviews Are In, and It’s About Time

My new story, “Time’s Deformèd Hand,” is starting to garner some interesting praise from reviewers. Here’s just a sample:

  • “I laughed, I cried, I winced, I snorted my milk in my cereal.”

Houston Chronometer

  • “If you read only one book set in 16th Century Switzerland…well, if you read only five, this should be one of them.”

New York Timer

  • “In ‘Time’s Deformèd Hand,’ Steven R. Southard manages to take Shakespeare’s ‘A Comedy of Errors’ and update it all the way from 1594 to 1600.”

Baltimore Sundial

  • “Your book, ‘Time’s Deformèd Hand,’ is a completely inaccurate portrayal of Switzerland. There is no such town as Spätbourg and never has been. The Swiss people are not as obsessed with clocks as you describe. You will be hearing from our lawyers.”

Swiss Ministry of Tourism

[Note to self: Not a book review. Remember to delete before publishing post.]

  • “It’s like Shakespeare meets the Marx Brothers, in a clock factory, and they’re all on a caffeine high.”

Greensborough Watchman

  • “One character in the story uses da Vinci wings to fly. Really cool! I want those wings. Second, I’ve got to have one of the eight foot tall clockwork automatons. I really want both of ‘em, but I’m not gonna be greedy.”

Allthingsclockpunk.com

Remember, the book is scheduled for launch in two days, on November 15th. With reviews like those, nothing more need be said by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 14, 2014Permalink

Time for a Story to Launch

I just learned my next story, “Time’s Deformèd Hand,” is scheduled to be launched by Gypsy Shadow Publishing in just three days, on November 15th. It’s the 12th book in that What Man Hath Wrought series everyone’s talking about.

Here’s the blurb: It’s 1600 in an alternate Switzerland, a world where Da Vinci’s mechanical automatons and human-powered flight almost work, thanks to magic trees. Long-separated twins, Georg the reluctant groom and Georg the clock thief, roam the clocklike village of Spätbourg, beset by more time and date errors than you can shake an hour hand at. Will Georg get married after all, and repair the town’s central tower clock? Will Georg—the other one—purloin more timepieces, or give up his pilfering ways? Will William Shakespeare lend a hand, and some iambic pentameter poetry, to reset the cogs and gears of this zany comedy? Only time will tell…or maybe not, in this ultimate clockpunk tale of mistaken identity and temporal mix-ups.

I’ll be sure to let you know when “Time’s Deformèd Hand” is launched and where you can buy it. You know if there’s one person who’d never leave you uninformed, it’s—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 13, 2014Permalink

The Trick Is…

Remember the TV show ‘Cosmos?’ No, not the new one starring Neil deGrasse Tyson (though I enjoyed that too). I mean the original Cosmos, starring Carl Sagan. There’s a brief part of one episode that’s stuck in my mind for all the decades since that show first aired.

CosmosTCYou can see the episode here and the part I recalled is from time 41:45 to 42:30.

In the clip, Carl Sagan is standing in a library. He says, if you read one book a week, over a normal human lifespan you can read only a few thousand books. (50 books per year times 70 years would be 3500 books.) He then paces off a distance across some library shelves to indicate that many books.

After remarking on how that’s only a tenth of a percent of the content of a library, he then says, “The trick is to know which books to read.”

That’s it. No follow-up. He goes on to discuss other things.220px-Sagan_planetary_orbits2

Thanks, Dr. Sagan, for clearing up that mystery of the universe.

How about telling us which books? Is there a list somewhere? Don’t just leave us with “the trick is…” without solving it for us!

Okay, okay. I do really like Carl Sagan, and loved the show. And I get what he was saying. His main message is that our lives are too short to permit soaking up all of human knowledge. As you choose books to read, go in with the understanding that you ain’t gonna read ‘em all.

Moreover, there can’t be one right answer to the question of which books to read. There are billions and billions of answers. (Yes, I had to say that.)

But allow me to take up Dr. Sagan’s challenge, and to set up some criteria for selecting books to read, given that you can’t read ‘em all. Here’s my answer to “which books to read:”

  1. Read books you think you’ll enjoy. This is the most important criteria, since if you don’t like reading, you’ll stop. You’ll never come close to reading a book a week for life.
  1. Read some classics, on occasion. They represent the greatest wisdom of the ages, and they have persisted because their value and relevance is timeless.
  1. Read way outside your interest area, on occasion. This helps broaden your knowledge, and you never know when one such book might spark a new passion for you. Try to eventually cover the whole Dewey Decimal System, and all fiction genres.
  1. Read both fiction and non-fiction. You can choose the percentage of each according to your preferences, but I think there’s value in both.
  1. Read books by authors you enjoy, and also give different authors a chance. There’s a strong temptation to keep reading books by the same author. After all, you liked the previous one; chances are you’ll like the next one. That’s fine, but it’s okay to read books by authors who are new to you, every once in a while.
  1. Give each book you select a chance, but don’t be afraid to abandon it. Read past page one; often the value of a book won’t become apparent until later. However, if you’re well into the book and getting nothing out of it, stop and get another. Your lifespan is too limited and there are too many better books for you to slog through reading a bad one.

That’s it, my attempt to respond to Dr. Sagan’s challenge to all of us, to figure out which books to read.   They may not be the best criteria in the cosmos, but they’re good enough for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 9, 2014Permalink

That’s Classic!

Today’s lesson is: how to write a book that becomes known as a classic. Good news—we can identify some attributes of classic literature. Bad news—no book becomes a classic in the author’s lifetime, so you won’t find out if your book made the list until after you’ve been dead awhile.

ClassicsI’ve blogged before about the attributes of good, quality short stories, but today’s question is about the few books that attain true classic status. These must pass a more stringent test.

Easy, but Unsatisfying Definition

Many people say that a classic is that which endures, stands the test of time, and which people still read long, long after the author is dead. In his book Antifragile, Hassim Taleb states that you can make a rough prediction about how long a book will remain in print. The average time a book will remain in print from this point on is equal to the time it has been in print so far.

To me, this definition of a classic, though true, doesn’t really settle anything. It begs the question, why do readers today still want to read this book? Let’s accept that a classic must endure, but I want to explore why this is so.

Other Folks’ Definitions

I’m not the first to knock on the door to this party; in fact I’m way past fashionably late. Many people before me have come up with great definitions of what makes a classic.

  • Italo Calvino says you can’t feel indifferent to a classic. That definition makes it a personal connection between book and reader. However, that’s not so useful to an author trying to write a classic.
  • Blogger Chris Cox builds on Mark Twain’s definition. There are two kinds of classics, those we’re embarrassed not to have read yet, and those we nag others to read. Funny, but again it concentrates on the reader-to-book connection.
  • The French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve said the author of a classic “….has enriched the human mind…caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered…who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.” This is closer to what I’m looking for—let’s hold those thoughts.
  • Goethe said it’s not a classic because it’s old, but because it’s forever new. I like that one.
  • Some blog commenters have said a classic had some impact or effect on the age in which it’s written. That may be true for most classics, but not all such books endure.
  • Others say a classic is that which is new or innovative in its time. But, again, it’s not clear to me why such books would necessarily stand the test of time.
  • Jonathan Jones, a writer for The Guardian, says a classic must be elastic. That is, it endures despite plagiarism, satire, criticism, etc. Hassim Taleb would hasten to add that such pummeling of a classic makes it stronger, more enduring, and to use his word, antifragile. I like this attribute too, but it’s more about the reaction to a book rather than the writing of it.

My Definition

Borrowing the attributes I like and rejecting the rest, here are my rules. A classic for the ages must:

  • capture its time
  • be well written
  • say something profound and permanent about the human condition

There you have it. Write your book that way, and it might become a classic someday. Something for your great-grandchildren to enjoy. Currently at work on a classic, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 2, 2014Permalink