Giftwrapping an Idea

Most gifts are tangible things, items that occupy space and have weight. But writers tread the realm of visions and dreams, thoughts and imaginings. You can’t give those things as gifts, can you? Well…

Author Andrew Gudgel and I were exchanging gifts at holiday time a few years ago. He’d been talking (for well over a year) about a story idea he had. I thought it was wonderful and kept urging him to write the story. Instead, as a gift to me, he said, “You write it.”

There were some tangible things he also gave me, the notes he’d compiled while preparing to write the story. But the real gift was the idea, and he’d given it to me.

I know, I’ve blogged before that ideas are the easy part, the trivial part, the dime-a-dozen part, and I’ve said the hard part is actually scribbling down the story and polishing it until you can sell it.

Let me caveat that now. Some ideas are more valuable than others are. Some are gold. Some are more valuable to a writer other than the one who thought of them. Such was the case with Andrew’s idea; he sensed I loved it more than he did, and that I would not hesitate to run with it. For him, it was in the ‘I’ll get to it someday’ bin.

From Andrew’s idea came my story “After the Martians.” In partial payment to him, I named a character in the story after him. If you add the value of that to the value of whatever silly gift I gave him that year, you’d still fall far short of what he gave me. I was out-gifted, plain and simple.

As Andrew so eloquently put it in his blog: “’Ideas rot if you don’t do something with them,’ said the writer Edd Dumbill. I agree. By keeping a creative idea locked away in your head/on your hard-drive/in your notebooks, it’s not free to enrich the world. Think about it this way: you may be fated to conceive of the idea and to give birth to it, but not to be the one who raises it to maturity. That may be someone else’s task. So, if after a period of sober reflection, you come to the conclusion that you’re not going to make use of an idea, give it away—throw it to a creative friend, put it on your blog, launch it out into the public sphere—and give someone else the opportunity to enrich the world with it.”

For completeness, I should mention another, earlier example of giving an idea as a gift, though this still causes me anguish and shame.

Many years and several critique groups ago, I was in a group with Raymond (not his real name). Each month, Raymond contributed a new chapter of the novel he was writing. One day, we found out Raymond had died. I don’t recall the circumstances, whether illness or accident, but he was far too young.

I got a letter from his widow saying that in his final days, Raymond had told her he wanted me to finish his novel, and she was asking if I’d do that.

Wow. Tough dilemma. On one hand, I couldn’t refuse a request from the widow of a friend and fellow writer, could I? She wasn’t asking for that much—just complete the story he’d almost finished and send it out for publication. She wasn’t asking for a portion of the payments, if the novel made money.

On the other hand, I didn’t have the passion for the story that Raymond did. I didn’t think I could do it justice. The novel involved a plot and genre type that had already saturated the market. It didn’t seem to me that readers were begging for another such novel.

In the end, I turned down the offer, with regrets. Perhaps I should have taken it, but I didn’t. Raymond’s idea deserved a champion who cared about it as deeply as he had. I was not that writer.

As you can see, it is possible to get wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows around something as insubstantial as an idea, a whim. If you’re struggling to do it, and can’t quite figure out how to cut and enclose, fold and tape the darn thing, if you need an expert guide, call—

Poseidon’s Scribe

After the Martians—the Story Behind the Story

It’s the question readers ask authors most often: “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve blogged about that before, but today I’ll reveal the birth of the idea behind my just-launched book,AftertheMartians72dAfter the Martians.”

It wasn’t my idea at all.

My friend, fellow author, and critique group partner, Andy Gudgel, thought of the idea. Heaven knows where he got it. At one of our critique group meetings, he mentioned he’d like to write a sequel to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but his story would deal with the aftermath, with dead Martians lying around, but also their technology. After all, the tripod fighting machines would be still standing where they stopped. The assembly machines would be intact and stationary near the landing sites of the Martian projectiles. Even a few flying machines might be available.

Andy’s idea was that humans would then use these weapons in a very different version of World War I.

This notion captivated me, and I urged him to write the story. Each time he sent us manuscripts of other tales, I’d ask him about the Martian story. “This one’s good, Andy,” I’d say, “but when are you going to give us that War of the Worlds sequel?”

Then at one December meeting, (at which we exchange little gifts to each other), I unwrapped his gift to me, and there were all his notes, and his copy of H.G. Wells’ novel. A note stated he was giving his story idea to me. I should write the tale, since he would not likely ever get around to it.

Wow! That could be the greatest gift one writer could give to another.

I say ‘could be’ because of an emotionally painful event that happened to me some twenty years earlier. At that time, I belonged to a different writing critique group. One other group member had written more than half of his novel. As I recall, it involved a modern-day (well, mid-1990s) nuclear attack on the United States.

Sadly, this writer died young. He had not completed writing that novel, let alone sent it to any agents or publishers.

His wife wrote to me to say how much her husband had appreciated my critiques of his work, and said he’d wanted me to finish, and seek publication of, his novel.

With a heavy heart, I had to decline the offer, but found it gut-twisting to tell his widow that. To write a story, I must have passion about it and care deeply about it and about the characters. I just didn’t feel that way in this case. Moreover, even if I’d had that enthusiasm, I would have had to rewrite large portions of the other writer’s novel to make it mine, and would have felt terrible about not honoring the deceased writer’s wishes exactly, or not living up to his hopes.

In the case of Andy’s WotW sequel, he hadn’t started writing yet. He’d compiled some notes and a rough outline, but I decided to take the story in a different direction than he’d planned. I didn’t feel badly about that, since he hadn’t begun the actual writing and my passion drove me toward the story that became “After the Martians.”

That’s the story behind the story written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Author Interview—Andrew Gudgel

Today I’m happy to welcome another fellow author who contributed a story to the Hides the Dark Tower anthology. It’s Andrew Gudgel, science fiction author, Chinese poetry translator, and a past winner of the Writers of the Future contest.

Andy GudgelHere’s the interview:

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

Andrew Gudgel: I got interested in writing in high school–essays, poetry, stories. You name it, I tried writing it. I wrote a lot, all the way up through college. Then I went and joined the Army. For ten-plus years I did other things. Fortunately, writing was still waiting for me when I came back.

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

A.G.: I’m not sure I could nail it down to just a couple of authors because I feel a writer should be influenced by all the things he or she reads. But just to pick an example at random: Jorge Luis Borges’ “Ficciones.” He wrote such interesting stories, not only in terms of theme, but in style. Reviews of books that don’t exist. Descriptions of infinite libraries. Fictional worlds that become real and begin invading ours. Borges made me aware of possibilities in fiction that I’d never imagined existed.

I also think a writer–any writer–should read broadly in categories outside his or her preferred genre of writing, and for pleasure as much as for writerly education. For example, I read as much poetry and as many essays as I can, simply because I enjoy both.

P.S.: You recently completed a graduate degree at St. John’s College in their Great Books program. How has that affected your fiction writing?

A.G.: One of the best things about St. John’s is that you read the Classics in philosophy, religion, science, literature, politics, society and history. You learn that there are questions and themes that are eternal in literature and in life. (Plus it gives you plenty of neat ideas and material to snitch for use in your own stories.) It affected my fiction writing by making me more focused on character and what happens inside each and every one of us as we move through life. SF has the advantage that you can create situations and characters that don’t (or don’t yet) exist, which allows you to explore your characters and the human condition in ways other genres simply can’t.

P.S.: Your primary genre is SF, correct? How did you become interested in writing in that genre?

A.G.: I do primarily write SF, but will follow a story wherever it leads me, be that SF, fantasy or literary. I fell in love with SF early on–my father used to read Ray Bradbury stories to me and my brother on summer nights when we were little. And when I read H. Beam Piper’s “Space Viking,” it made enough of an impression that I still remember it, forty-odd years later. Plus I’ve always been fascinated by science, technology, and gadgets.

P.S.: What other authors influenced your writing?

A.G.: In terms of science fiction, Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Charlie Stross, and Robert Heinlein. As for prose style, Seneca and Sir Francis Bacon. Both were writers of the short, pithy sentences I aspire to.

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

A.G.: I’m very interested in the human/character side of SF: how we interact with technology, how we’ll be different/the same in the future. I hear about these cool–but true–uses of technology that are completely unexpected, and that gets me excited and fired up to write. For example, in India, a tech company is using hand-woven silk strips for their diabetic test kits because it’s cheaper than imported plastic. That’s a low-tech/high-tech solution. Low tech in that it’s local weavers and hand-made fabric. High tech in that it’s a creative human solution to a pressing problem. When I write, I try to concentrate as much people on and how they solve their problems as on the technology itself.

P.S.: In Hides the Dark TowerPageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00001], your story is “The Long Road Home,” an exciting story involving an immense alien tower. Can you tell us about the protagonist?

A.G.: Wang Haimei is a “Tower Diver,” a person who uses parachutes and hydrogen balloons to explore the inside of a hollow building that’s ten-thousand stories tall. There’s nothing left of the aliens who inhabited the tower, except for the very rare artifact which makes the finder instantly (and incredibly) wealthy. Haimei has just the right combination of meticulous attention to detail, love of adventure, and desire to get rich that all true tower-divers have. But she lost her fiancé, Moustafa, in a tower-diving accident a year ago, and this trip is her first one back since then. When a jealous competitor sabotages her gear, Haimei decides to try and walk back up to the exit at the top of the tower, even though she knows she’ll die long before she gets there. She discovers a kind of quiet courage that keeps her from giving up. As she walks, she discovers she’s being followed—perhaps by an alien that’s remained behind, perhaps by the shade of one long gone. She comes to appreciate the company, though, and uses the time spent walking to come to terms with death–both Moustafa’s and hers.

P.S.: In addition to writing fiction, you translate Chinese poetry. Have you found that your translation work improves your writing of stories in English, or is there no connection between these pursuits?

A.G.: I’ve found that translating, and translating poetry, has had a big influence on my writing. Knowing another language lets you see the world in different ways and makes you aware of connections you might never have thought of. For example, in Chinese nouns have measure words. (They’re roughly equivalent to the word “cup” in “one cup of coffee.”) But every noun has a measure word in Chinese, and they’re often reused. Which groups nouns into “categories.” Snakes and rivers use the same measure word; clouds and flower blossoms share one, too; so there’s a linguistic relation between certain nouns in Chinese that doesn’t exist in English. Being able to see—and make—new connections has made my writing richer. And poetry is a compact, image-rich art form that requires you to pack a lot into a small space. Perfect for learning both imagery and economy of words.

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

A.G.: I’ve got a couple of irons in the fire right now—revisions, that sort of thing. The one I’m currently working on is an alien invasion novel/novella, which focuses on different peoples’ experiences of the event, and in which the aliens are only ever glimpsed at. I was inspired by the fact that you never see the whole shark until near the end of “Jaws.” So the glimpses the characters get throughout the story—are they the aliens or just alien technology? I was also very interested on the effect of such as big disaster would have on people—both as individuals and in groups—and not making the aliens central to the story allows me to focus more on that aspect.

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

Andrew Gudgel: I’m a big fan of aphorisms and mottoes, so I’ll keep it short:

  1. Nulla dies sine linea — Pliny (“No day without a line” i.e. write something every day.)
  2. Read as broadly as possible.
  3. If you try, you might fail. But if you never try, you’ve failed already.
  4. As long as it fits the guidelines, don’t self-reject a piece by not submitting it.
  5. Write, submit, repeat as necessary.

These are all the old saws, but there’s a reason they’re still around: they work.

 

Thanks, Andrew! All my readers will want to surf over to your website to learn more about you.

Poseidon’s Scribe

January 24, 2016Permalink

Remembrances of Hallowread 2015

Several authors whose stories appear in Hides the Dark Tower, participated in Hallowread this year.

Here’s yours truly, Hallowread 1Poseidon’s Scribe himself, signing a book for an adoring fan. Either that, or I’m defacing somebody’s copy of the book.

 

 

 

 

Fellow author Hallowread 4M. J. Ritchie spooks the attendees with a section of her story “Soul for Sale.”

 

 

 

 

 

Andrew Hallowread 3Gudgel reads from his story “The Long Road Home,” with Poe’s raven gauging the audience’s reaction.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s beret-topped JHallowread 5eremy M. Gottwig reading his tale “Who Abandon Themselves.”

 

 

 

 

 

Co-editor VHallowread 2onnie Winslow Crist, behind a row of some of her books, entices the audience with a short blurb about every story in Hides the Dark Tower. I don’t have a pic of co-editor Kelly A. Harmon, since she wielded the camera.

 

 

 

 

In the end, it turned out everyone really came for tHallowread 6his:

 

 

 

 

 

“It’s the tastiest book I ever ate,” proclaimed—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 1, 2015Permalink