The 7 Best Science Fiction Submarines

My recent experience moderating a panel on Science Fiction submarines at Chessiecon inspired this blog post. As a former submariner and current science fiction writer, I’m fascinated by the submarines of SF. Earth’s ocean, or oceans in general, are not common settings in SF, and I really enjoy such stories when I come across them.

Before I reveal the list of the seven best, here’s my chronologically ordered list of the more prominent submarines of science fiction. The list includes those from books, movies, TV shows, and some Anime. I included the Red October as a SF sub because of its advanced “caterpillar drive.”

Name Source (Book, Movie, TV, Anime) Year(s)
Nautilus (B,M,T) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1870 (B)

1916, 1954 (M)

1997 (T)

Wonder (B) Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat 1910
Rocket Submarine (M) The Undersea Kingdom 1936
The Iron Fish (C) The Beano 1949
USS Triton (B) Attack From Atlantis 1953
Jetmarine (B) Tom Swift and His Jetmarine 1954
Diving Seacopter (B) Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter 1956
Fenian Ram S1881 (B) Under Pressure or The Dragon in the Sea 1956
Seaview (M,T) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea 1961, 1964-1968
Flying Sub (FS-1) (T) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea 1964-1968
Unnamed (M) Atlantis the Lost Continent 1961
Stingray (T) Stingray 1964
Gotengo (M) Atragon 1963
Proteus/Voyager (B,M) Fantastic Voyage 1966
Blue Sub 006 (A) Blue Submarine #6 1967,1997-2000
Dyna-4 Capsule (B) Tom Swift and His Dyna-4 Capsule 1969
<Unknown> (B) The Deep Range 1970
Rorqual Maru (B) The Godwhale 1974
S.S. Cetacean (T) The Man from Atlantis 1977-78
Sea Trench (B) Aquarius Mission 1978
Blue Noah (T) Thundersub 1979-80
Red October (B,M) The Hunt for Red October 1984 (B) 1990 (M)
Seaquest (T) Seaquest DSV 1993-96
Gungan Bongo Submarine (M) Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace 1999
Ulysses (M) Atlantis: The Lost Empire 2001
UX (A) Submarine 707R 2003
I-507 (M) Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean 2005
Vorpal Blade (B) Looking Glass series 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009
I-401 (A) Arpeggio of Blue Steel 2009-Present
Hydra MiniSub (M) Captain America: The First Avenger 2011

To choose the best of these, I considered these criteria:

  • Vividness. How detailed was the description, or how thoroughly was it depicted on screen? Did the audience form a clear mental picture of the sub?
  • Technological Advancement. How much more advanced was the submarine when compared to typical submarines of the era in which the work was produced (not necessarily the time of the story)?
  • Necessity to Plot. Did the plot of the story require a submarine at all, or would the story have worked if set aboard a different kind of vessel?
  • Coolness. Was the depiction of the submarine aesthetically pleasing?
  • Memorability. Does (or will) the submarine in this fiction work stand the test of time? Can you recall details of the submarine and the story years later?

Here’s my list of the 7 best science fiction submarines:

  1. Fenian Ram S1881. This is the submarine from Frank Herbert’s 1956 novel The Dragon in the Sea (also published as Under Pressure). The novel is intense, and focuses on the psychologies of the characters, and how the submarine setting affects them. The Fenian Ram is a nuclear-powered “subtug” that sneaks into the underwater oil fields of enemy countries, pumps out the valuable oil, and tows it back home. Herbert took the name of his fictional vessel from the submarine built by John Holland for the Fenians in 1881.

 

  1. Proteus/Voyager. Most will recall the submarine from the 1966 film, and Isaac Asimov novel Fantastic Voyage. In the book and movie, the submarine was known as Proteus, but in the 1968-1970 cartoon it was known as Voyager. It didn’t go underwater, but was miniaturized and injected into a human body. You’ve got to love the many windows, and the bubble window on top. The movie version was designed by Harper Goff, a movie prop man I’ll mention again later.
  1. Sea Trench. Here is the submarine from the 1978 novel Aquarius Mission by Martin Caidin. The novel is not well-known, but I like that the book contained a foldout picture of the submarine, a complete side view depiction of its interior. This sub was huge, and well equipped for both exploration and military missions. Nuclear-powered, it had an observation deck with a window, an observation bubble that could be lowered, a mini-sub, torpedoes, nuclear missiles, and a handball court.

 

  1. FS-1.You’ll recognize the flying submarine from the 1964-1968 TV Show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” Nuclear-powered, it had windows, a manipulator arm, and room for two operators, plus perhaps a passenger. It launched from and returned to its mother sub, the Seaview. Oh yeah, and it could fly. It could land on water, on an aircraft carrier, or on a runway ashore.
  1. Seaview. Now we’ve come to the submarine from the 1961 movie “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and the 1964-1968 TV show of the same name. In the movie, it was USOS Seaview, for United States Oceanographic Survey, but in the TV show it was S.S.R.N. Seaview, apparently to indicate it was part of the US submarine fleet, but still a research sub. Nuclear powered, it could deploy the Flying Sub, as mentioned. It had observation windows near the bow. The bow had a distinctive shape, reminiscent of a manta ray. The stern looked like the back end of a 1961 Cadillac.
  1. SeaQuest. The second-best SF submarine is from the 1993-1996 TV series “seaQuest DSV” (or “seaQuest 2032” in the final season). Measuring over 1000 feet long, the sub could move at 160 knots thanks to its twin fusion reactors. Its shape resembled a squid, and its hull had a bio-skin coating to repel sea organisms. It could dive to 29,000 feet. Seaquest travelled with a cloud of unmanned undersea vehicles, with sensors and other capabilities. Its armament included torpedoes, missiles, and lasers. One member of the crew was a genetically enhanced dolphin that moved throughout the sub in water-filled tubes.
  1. Nautilus. The best science fiction submarine could only be the Nautilus, from Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Verne also mentioned it in his 1874 novel, The Mysterious Island. The story has been depicted in at least six films and there have been several spin-off novels and films featuring the submarine. With a length of 230 feet and a maximum speed of 50 knots, the vessel used a bow ram as its weapon. It could deploy divers as well as a small rowboat. It had a large “living room” with a pipe organ. Despite Verne’s meticulous description, there have been numerous different depictions of what the Nautilus looked like. The best, in my view, is the version Harper Goff created for the 1954 Disney movie.

There they are, the 7 best science fiction submarines. Did I miss your favorite, or would you have put them in a different order? Leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

When Is Your Story Ready?

On one hand, you’re anxious to send your story to an editor and see it published after its many revisions. On the other hand, you’re not sure it’s quite ready yet.

How do you know when you’ve truly finished a story?

writing-vs-sculptureWe could seek advice from accomplished authors. Unfortunately, the various quotes I’ve compiled run the gamut from the ‘don’t edit at all’ extreme to ‘seven revisions might not be enough.’

  • Robert Heinlein: “They didn’t want it good; they wanted it Wednesday.”
  • Laura Lippman: “You have to be able to finish. The world is full of beautiful beginners.”
  • Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
  • Isaac Asimov (paraphrased from my memory): I write a first draft and never change a word. If they want a five-thousand-word story, I type five thousand words and stop. With any luck, I’m at the end of a sentence.

Thanks, Famous Writers! Great quotes, but not particularly helpful. Next I turned to the blogosphere and came up with some useful posts on the topic by Chris Robley, Dr. Randy Ingermanson, Bryan Hutchinson, Jessica Clausen, and James Duncan. I recommend you peruse those posts at your leisure for more in-depth advice.

Here’s my distillation of guidance from those blog posts, mixed with my own experience. It boils down to your attitude toward the story:

  1. Are you proud of the story? Are you proud enough of it that you’d be happy to see it in print, with your name as the author? If so, it may be ready, so long as it’s not a false pride, and instead stems from the confidence that you’ve done all you can to make the story good.
  2. Are you tired of, or even sick of, working on the story? Your creative muse is aching to move on to something else, and the thought of spending more time on this story is depressing. If this is truly a reaction to working on the story, not the story itself, it may be ready. If you’re sick of the story itself because you think it’s terrible, or you can no longer summon up the enthusiasm you once had for it, it probably still needs work. In that case, it may be best to set it aside for a few weeks or months so you can look at it fresh later.

At some point, you need to decide: (1) submit the story for publication, (2) shelve it for a while and edit it later, or (3) abandon it. Sometimes circumstances will force your decision—things such as an editor’s deadline, the desire for publication, the fickle muse’s yearning for a different writing project, etc.

Sometimes, there’s nothing forcing you to decide and you’re still stuck in limbo, wondering if the story is ready. At that point, you might want to ask yourself whether it’s the story’s readiness that’s in question, or yours. Has the story become a sort of child, one you’re trying to protect from the harsh world out there?

If so, remember: you’re a writer, and writers create stories for readers to enjoy. Time to let that story out, and let it find whatever acclaim or obscurity it will, while you move on to write the next one. You can do this; take it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

I’ll Never Write As Well As They Do

It’s easy for your favorite authors to intimidate you. When you grow up enjoying reading, and when you study fiction by the world’s best writers in school, it’s natural to put them on a pedestal. They are geniuses, titans, specially gifted demigods with an ability beyond your understanding.

At some point, you might be tempted to try writing fiction yourself. Immediately you reject the notion out of hand. In your mind, you compare yourself to those great authors and dismiss the idea of creating any fictional work. Impossible. Laughable. Pretentious. You’ll never write as well as they do.

I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before, but I’d like to explore the problem in greater depth.

Just for fun, let’s give our intimidating scribblers some names. You have your own favorite, famous novelists in mind, but we’ll say that you idolize Bes Werdsmither, Gray Trighter, and Rhea Noun Dauther.

Okay, not the funniest puns, but they’ll do.

When I mentioned this issue in a previous blog post, I made two points:

  1. You can’t know today, before you begin writing, how you’ll eventually stack up against your imagined pantheon of Bes, Gray, and Rhea. Remember, all three of them started out as unknowns, too, like you are now.
  2. Even if you’re right, and you never end up writing as well as Bes, Gray, or Rhea, remember that there’s room in the world for lesser-known writers. You don’t have to aim for eternal fame or a mansion on your own island. You can still write your own stories, reach some readers, and make a little money.

Great writer comparisonEven though you worship Bes, Gray, and Rhea, I’d advise you not to try to imitate them, anyway. For one thing, why should readers read your copy-cat stories when they can purchase the real thing? Also, it’s best to allow your own inner voice to emerge, rather than attempt to channel some famed author.

Sure, you adore the characters, style, settings, and plots of Bes, Gray, and Rhea, but I suggest you strike out in a different, but related, direction. Write in their genre if your interests reside there, but make up your own characters, style, settings, and plots.

If you find some success as a writer someday, I assure you it won’t be because you copied someone else. It will be due to the separate and distinct course you charted, or the path your own muse led you along.

By the way, when your muse does whisper something outrageous (and she will), listen to her. She may implore you to write a story quite different from anything in the bibliographies of Bes, Gray, and Rhea. The muse might pull you in a strange and new direction you never imagined. Don’t ignore her. She’s your inner creativity, the voice of your soul calling you, so don’t hang up.

You can still enjoy novels by Bes, Gray, and Rhea, without dreaming of writing like those three. Your goal, one you should visualize, is to become the best author you can. It’s a process of continual improvement.

My personal geniuses, titans, and demigods are Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. As readers of my blog know, my stories aren’t like theirs at all. I’ve taken off in a different direction, a unique course steered by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Author Interview — Steve Cook

Once again Poseidon’s Scribe has landed a fascinating interview with a fellow author, who has a story appearing in the anthology Avast, Ye Airships! Today’s interview is with Steve Cook.

Steven CookSteve Cook is a part-time writer, part-time teacher, currently dialing down on the latter so he can focus on the former. He’s married and lives with his wife and cat in London, England.

At last, the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: When and why did you begin writing fiction?

Steve Cook: I began writing fiction in 2010. It was my first year working as a primary school teacher and I had prepared as much as I possibly could during the Christmas holiday. Then, the first week back in January, we had a record snowfall for the area and the school was closed. We happened to live opposite a Starbucks, which meant we were basically in there every evening. I just grabbed my netbook and took it over there and started to write, funneling all the readiness and energy into that instead. I rattled along writing chapters of a pretty terrible book idea, and then got into NaNoWriMo in a big way. That’s been responsible for most of my output over the last six years.

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

S.C.: The easiest aspect of writing for me is world-building. I probably spend too long on it, but it pays off when you can write something in that suggests a deeper, richer world beyond it. Short stories and flash fiction that flesh out the world are something I really enjoy doing. The most difficult aspect of writing is editing, without a doubt, and I get round it by showing my stuff to different people. Everyone has a different thing they look for: my wife is a designer and illustrator, for example, and she really focuses on the visual design of what I write.

P.S.: What genres have you written in, and do you have a favorite?

S.C.: I’ve written mainly fantasy and science fiction. I enjoy both of them! Most of my fantasy writing in the last year or so has been for the Dungeons and Dragons group I run; they’ve been playing for the best part of three years now. I’ve been doing a lot of writing for Noctis Point, which is the book I’m working on right now. It’s set a couple of hundred years into the future, and it’s really fun to take technology from today, or even theoretical technology, and apply it to that setting.

AvastYeAirshipsP.S.: You wrote “The Clockwork Dragon” for the Avast, Ye Airships! anthology.  Can you tell us a little about that story?

S.C.: “The Clockwork Dragon” is a story about some privateers working under contract to retrieve an artifact; they’re ex-pirates, so it’s not long before treachery and greed overcome the captain, who teams up with the cook and absconds with the loot. It’s up to the first mate to track them down in a chase in the skies of Ireland and Scotland. Like most of the fiction I write, it grew organically from one image, one scene: a giant clockwork dragon, bellows for lungs, canvas wings and so on, hovering over an airship in lashing rain. I actually own a clockwork dragon miniature, and it has made an appearance in our D&D game!Clockwork Dragon

P.S.: You participated in Nanowrimo last November.  Was that your first nano?  What was that experience like?

S.C.: I’ve been taking part in NaNo since 2010. I honestly can’t remember how I came across it, but it’s brilliant. It breaks up the writing into bitesize chunks and even gives me a little chart to let me know how much I’ve written, what my average is, that sort of thing. It also helped me to come across other local authors in the Milton Keynes area; several of us met up towards the end of the 2010 NaNo to write together. I didn’t make it the following year, sadly; a combination of a lack of enthusiasm in my story idea and a crazy work schedule meant that I fell short by a considerable distance. In 2012, I wrote Poisonroot, and built the world that my D&D group plays in, so that’s constantly being worked on. In 2013 I cheated slightly and wrote ten short stories set in the world of Poisonroot; that was even more fun because I got to play with different styles and techniques within the same body of work. I actually completed two NaNo projects in 2014, because I did Camp NaNoWriMo earlier in the year. That was the first version of what would eventually become Noctis Point, the bulk of which I wrote in November 2014. Finishing my most recent NaNo was a close run thing; I was working as a teacher still, and we had the inspectors come in. We had four days of twenty-hour work days, and writing just wasn’t a priority any more. I had to write 12,000 words in two days to finish. My NaNo author page is here.

P.S.: From your website, it appears you are into Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs.)  Do you find that helps your fiction writing, or takes time away from it?

S.C.: Definitely it takes time away from it! I’ve played a lot of MMOs, but for the last eighteen months I’ve been playing a lot of Final Fantasy XIV. It’s a real timesink, but it’s also a way to talk with my friends and be social. My wife and flatmate both play it as well, so there’s always something going on. There are some wonderful little bits of writing that are inspirational, but mainly I’m in it for the music, which I listen to when I’m writing.

Murder MatchesP.S.: You recently collaborated on a product called Murder Matches.  It looks like a murder story told from eight different points of view.  Can you tell us more about that?

S.C.: Nana Li is a good friend of mine, and incredibly talented. She had been working on an idea inspired by designer matchboxes, and wanted it to be a murder mystery where each matchbox contained a character profile or statement which, when put together, would help a reader solve the mystery. I love things that twist and I’m a real fiend for puzzles, so it was awesome to work with her on this. I can’t give away too much for fear of spoiling the mystery! Writing the characters was fun, as each one had a different voice. It was a real challenge, giving away a couple of clues in each one while at the same time trying to suggest a motive for everyone. We’re working on a sequel for release this year.

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

S.C.: I’ve read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, which is pretty much all I write. For fantasy, authors such as Trudi Canavan, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tolkien, Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett, Raymond E. Feist and Peter V. Brett have really inspired me. On the science fiction side, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Baxter, Stel Pavlou, Iain M. Banks and Dan Simmons are really high up on the list. I’ve read quite a lot of John Courtenay Grimwood’s cyberpunk books as well. The truth is I’ll read pretty much anything going! I can see little things that have inspired me from all of those authors, flairs or personal touches that strike me as being from that particular style of writing, but I try wherever possible to have my own style.

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

S.C.: Noctis Point is a science fiction story set a couple of hundred years in the future. Through war and economic collapse, the Earth has eventually been united into an Empire, which has begun to reach out to the stars for colonization. In the process, it has encountered an alien race living on the moons of Jupiter; imagine spider-centaurs and you’re halfway there. These ‘Spiders’ are initially peaceful, but things quickly turn bad when they ambush a delegation from Earth during peace talks, and battle lines are drawn. Another faction involved in all this is the psychs, living on Mars. They are humans who have evolved psychic powers when they turn sixteen, and more of them are beginning to appear every year. Partly in fear of them, the Empire has ordained that they should live on Mars, in a base known as Noctis Point, where they will be trained in preparation for joining the Empire’s armies as elite soldiers. The story follows two main characters: Alex, a boy who manifests the power and is sent to Noctis Point to train; and Imperial Princess Ariadne Cutter, the daughter of the Emperor, whose role as her father’s spymistress leads her into a terrorist plot that could have grave consequences on the war.

P.S.: Please tell us about your podcasting activities.

S.C.: I run a once-weekly podcast, Pocket Fiction, where I read either a short story or part of a longer piece. Up until just recently it’s been my own work, which has been really useful for me, but I’m looking forward to working with some of my fellow pirates in the anthology. I’m always looking for people to collaborate with, and producing Pocket Fiction is genuinely fun. Having more time recently has allowed me to go for better production values as well. I built a little recording booth and I’ve begun to add sound and vocal effects to deepen the immersion even further. Pocket Fiction is available on the iTunes store, but I also upload each week to Tumblr and to YouTube, where each video is played over a roaring fire. That was one of the initial ideas I had for the podcast; that it was tales told around a campfire, something to make you feel warm and relaxed.

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

Steve Cook: Tell people who you trust to give you honest feedback that you’re writing; they’ll help you and support you, and hopefully you can persuade them to read your work. Sometimes it’s good to plan stories out, but more often than not I find the characters somehow wrest control of the story away from me halfway through and we diverge. It’s ok for characters to be different on paper than how you initially imagined them. Probably the most useful thing I do is read my stuff out loud; having to read each word finds every mistake, every awkward phrasing, and sometimes you pick up on things that you would otherwise have missed.

 

Thanks, Steve! I’m sure you’ve enticed my readers to visit your blog, follow you on Twitter, and visit you on Tumblr.

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

Dear Robert Heinlein

Yeah, I know the records say you’ve been dead since 1988, but I figure you found or inherited some way to cheat the reaper, like your character Lazarus Long did.  By some weird and inexplicable means, I think you could be reading this.

170px-RAH_1929_YearbookOver my lifetime, I’ve read several of your novels and short stories.  In my high school and college days, I read “By His Bootstraps,” Time Enough for Love, Star Beast, The Man Who Sold the Moon, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, Farnham’s Freehold, and The Number of the Beast. In later years I read Friday, Grumbles from the Grave, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

I’m not sure what it was about your work that stuck with me most.  Maybe the cool future technologies.  Perhaps the gritty, wise-cracking, rough-and-ready characters, all of whom pulled themselves up from humble backgrounds.  The writing style, full of well-turned phrases, could have been part of it.  Or possibly the hard-nosed, no-excuses, freedom-loving philosophy undergirding it all.  I can’t say, and likely I’ll never know.

Though I didn’t realize this until later, there is some similarity in our backgrounds, yours and mine.  I was born about fifty years after you, but also grew up in the Midwest, also graduated from the Naval Academy with an engineering degree and also served in the Navy.  After leaving the service, both of us turned to writing fiction.

I’m not comparing my writing to yours, just pointing out reasons I can relate to your life experiences.  After I began writing, I began to appreciate your approach to authorship even more.  I liked your rules for writing with their linkage of hard work to eventual success.

I also began to see how different a writer you were from some of my other author heroes.  Jules Verne lucked into a new field; no one else was writing science fiction.  Isaac Asimov took the established model of the time (publishing short stories in pulp magazines) and churned out an enormous output following that model.

By contrast, you rejected the status quo and uplifted the whole genre.  You believed science fiction should be regarded as respectable literature and worked to bring that about.  Your success benefitted not only you, but other authors too.  Without question, your stories inspired generations of engineers, scientists, and writers.

When I pondered over my own portfolio of published work, I had to confess I didn’t see the Heinlein influence there.  My story themes and characters differ quite a bit from yours.  But when I thought about it more deeply, I realize now what I took from your example wasn’t a writing style, but the hope that a guy like me could sell stories.

For inspiring me to be a writer, not necessarily to write like you, thanks.  And if you don’t mind, I’ll ask a favor.  How about taking time off from shaking up the status quo in your current plane of existence, to sprinkle just a bit of your writing talent on—

                                                              Poseidon’s Scribe

November 11, 2013Permalink

Dear Dr. Asimov

You may have some difficulty reading this, since you’ve been dead for over 21 years, but I hope somehow this tribute finds its way to you nonetheless.  I just wanted to say thanks, however belatedly, for your books and the way they influenced me.

isaac-asimov2I started reading science fiction in the early 1970s, and by then you were a giant in the field.  I read dozens of your short stories, and some of your novels including Foundation, Fantastic Voyage, The Gods Themselves, The End of Eternity, The Naked Sun, and others.  Later I read some of your nonfiction books and essays and some of your non-SF fiction, including The Union Club Mysteries and Azazel.

In fact, I read more stories written by you than by any other author.  (Of course, there are more stories written by you than any other SF author!)

In the late 1980s or very early 1990s I had the opportunity to attend one of your speeches—a great thrill for me since I was then thinking of becoming a writer.  You had traveled (by train, of course, since you never flew) to my area to speak in a lecture hall.

Alone on stage, you began speaking in your thick Brooklyn accent.  “I’ve done a number of these things already, so to save time, I’ll ask the questions you would ask, and then answer them.  First question:  Dr. Asimov, how did you come to write so many books?  Well, I type ninety words a minute and before I knew it, I’d written five hundred books.  If someone wants a 5000 word short story, I type 5000 words and stop; with any luck, I’m at the end of a sentence.”

You gave advice to budding writers like me that day also.  “My first draft is my final draft.  I don’t believe in rubbing words together until they sparkle in the sunlight.  As my good friend, the late Bob Heinlein said, ‘They didn’t want it good; they wanted it Wednesday.’”

It was a great hour-long lecture, and you kept the audience laughing the whole time.  But that was just one hour.  Your impact on my life goes much deeper.

Your SF stories are based on sound science, and your characters confront bedeviling problems that spring from unalterable facts.  The science is a central part of each story.  I’ve strived for that in my stories as well.

Moreover, your tales are celebrations of science.  I don’t recall any stories where science leads humanity irrevocably astray.  Even your dystopian works end with hope for the future.  That’s true of my writing, too.

Others have spoken of your clear, uncluttered style of writing, and you’ve acknowledged that yourself.  My critique group tells me my style is similar at times.

Looking back over the list of my published short stories, I think I can see your influence in each one, to some extent.  Alas, I don’t type ninety words a minute, and I labor over several drafts, so I will never equal the quantity of your output.  But it’s my dream to write a story someday that approaches the quality of your fiction.

Here’s to you, Dr. Isaac Asimov!  Thank you.

Steven R. Southard

aka

Poseidon’s Scribe

October 20, 2013Permalink

Make Your Readers Cry

How can you cause your readers to cry?  No, I don’t mean crying about having bought your book.  That’s easy.  I want to explore how you should write so as to cause readers to experience a powerful emotional reaction, one you actually intend to cause.  It need not be sadness, but any powerful reaction.

I can’t find the precise quote, but Isaac Asimov once said the aim of writing good fiction is to maximize the emotional response of the reader.  That makes it sound so mathematical; simply take the multi-dimensional equation for reader emotional response, select the right combination of character, setting, and plot variables that result in a local maximum in the solution surface.

Right.

Except there is no equation, and none of those story elements are numbers.  In fairness to Dr. Asimov, I’m pretty sure he knew that too.

But what if we looked at this another way?  Maybe there’s some trick or shortcut that always works, some valve in the human psyche you can turn with just the right words, and cause tears to flow.

800px-Adele_2009Consider the singer and composer Adele, and her song, “Someone Like You.”  That song has a reputation for causing listeners to cry.  What is it about that song?

Over two decades ago, Dr. John Sloboda, a British psychologist, studied the phenomenon of music making people cry and concluded most of the sob-inducing passages (including, it now turns out, “Someone Like You”) contained a common element.

That common element is known to music scholars as an appoggiatura.  It basically involves delaying the resolution of a melody through use of an interfering note that creates a brief emotional tension prior to completing the melodic phrase with its logical conclusion.  There’s more to the definition, but I wanted to convey that this is a single, simple musical technique.

Really?  That’s all there is to it?  Composers have a simple trick by which they can make us cry, and there’s nothing we can do about it?  Of course it’s not that simple.  Appoggiaturas may be a part of it, but there’s also something about how the rest of the melody flows, the singer’s voice, and the powerful meaning of the words.  I believe it’s the combination of all those things that brings magic to “Someone Like You.”

Getting back to writing…is there, then, some formula for writing fiction that makes readers cry?  For us authors, where is our appoggiatura?  Here are some things that might work, but this can’t be an exhaustive list:

  • A character the reader cares deeply about.  (How to achieve that is a blog subject in itself.)
  • A “bad” event happens to that character.  Something like death, serious injury, divorce, leaving for a long time, etc.
  • A skillful management of reader tension, through use of words that jar a bit, and delay the resolution of emotion.  This relates to the appoggiatura in music.
  • Another character to experience the emotion intended.  I think this can be optional, since it’s the reader’s emotion we’re after, but it helps for the reader to experience the sadness along with a character.

I don’t know of any scientific studies of books that make people cry, analogous to Dr. Sloboda’s studies of music, but I suspect the above elements might be common features in anyone’s list of tear-prompting literature.

Please leave a comment on all this, if you can pull yourself together.  With a box of tissues by my side, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

October 13, 2013Permalink

Donkey and Elephant Stories

donkey elephantIs it wise for a fiction writer to inject personal political beliefs into his or her stories?  Or is the question moot; is all fiction in some sense political?  Let us roam with elephants and donkeys.

Arguably, both politics and good fiction are about ideas.  The ideas explored by politics surround questions like:  How shall people be governed?  What is the role of government?  What is the nature of power? Can we arrange governing systems for maximum benefit to all?

Fiction also deals with ideas, though these are not limited to political ideas.  Often they boil down to basic questions of philosophy:  What is beauty?  What is truth?  What is justice?  What happens after death?

But my real question is whether writers should make their political leanings obvious in their stories.  Some authors certainly do.  L. Neil Smith is very libertarian.  Robert Heinlein, too, leaned libertarian.   Isaac Asimov leaned to the liberal side, though not blatantly so.  Ayn Rand was passionate about her political philosophy, which she felt was new and different enough to have its own name—Objectivism.

In my view, there are dangers in making your political views obvious in your fiction.  For one thing, you can turn off at least half of your potential audience.  Those who disagree with your political stance won’t read more than one of your books.

If your intent is to persuade, consider this.  Have you ever heard anyone say something like this after a political argument: “Thank you.  I’ve come around to your side, based on the strength of your logic.  I see now that I’ve been voting the wrong way my whole life.  Thanks again, for helping me see the light.”  Almost nobody changes his party affiliations that easily.

Another danger in overt political fiction is predictability, and therefore dullness.  When the good guys believe as the writer does, and the bad guys are of the other political party, the reader knows who will win.  The reader can feel like she’s being preached to.  Clever and rare is the writer who can represent the opposite side in a fair and convincing way.

NightOfJanuary16thIt’s my view that Ayn Rand achieved this in her stage play “Night of January 16th.” The play occurs, for the most part, in a courtroom.  Near the end, the judge dismisses the jury to their room to render a decision. At that point it’s announced to the audience that they are the jury and will be allowed to vote guilty or not guilty.  (Either that or twelve audience members are selected at the start to play the jury.)  A vote of not guilty represents a tilt toward Objectivism, and a vote of guilty means the opposite.  There are two endings to the play, and the actors perform the one voted on by the “jury.”  I understand that, in all the plays performances since it premiered in 1935, the ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ outcomes occur about equally often.

My recommendation, if you’re set on writing overt political fiction, is to (1) do so in a subtle, metaphorical way without preaching to your readers, (2) poke fun at or lambaste all politicians equally, focusing on the separation between politicians and the rest of us, or (3) be as even-handed as possible, with bad guys and good guys on both sides.

What are your thoughts?  No, not about the last election—I mean about the prudence of putting politics in your fiction!  Leave a nonpartisan comment and let me know.  Steering well clear of donkeys and elephants, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

February 3, 2013Permalink

Being Prolific — Is That the Secret?

Should you aim to be prolific?  To be prolific as a writer means to be highly productive, to write a lot, and (one hopes) to be published a lot.  Should that be your goal? If so, what is the key to being prolific?

The ultimate aims of writers vary, but a short list of such goals could include:

  1. I want to be a famous writer, popular in my own time.
  2. I want my books to be remembered through the ages.
  3. I just have an inner need to tell a story.
  4. I want to maximize my financial earnings.
  5. I want to publish as many books as possible.
  6. I seek a combination of some of the above goals.

I was tempted to set up a graph with high quantity (being prolific) at one end and high quality at the other, and plot each goal on the graph.  For example, you might think goals 1 and 2 have to do with quality, while goals 4 and 5 are more concerned with quantity.  Such an analysis would have told you whether to churn out a lot of words, or self-edit like crazy to ensure each book is perfect.

Here’s the problem.  As Joseph Stalin was supposed to have said, (even an evil dictator can utter one true statement) “Quantity has a quality all its own.”  In a previous post, I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about becoming a genius in any particular field.  One element of that was practicing for 10,000 hours.  That implies quantity is a necessary step to quality.  To write well, you must first write a lot.

There are different ways to spend that 10,000 hours of practice, of course.  As I implied above, you might write your first draft, then do just enough editing to send it off and sell a mediocre story, then move on to the next one.  Or you could refine and polish every word, as a poet does, going over and over your story until you achieve earthly perfection.  At the end of that process, you might have a book that could satisfy goals 1 or 2 or both.

There’s a list of prolific writers and one of my favorites–Dr. Isaac Asimov–is on that list.  He’s not at the top, though.  That honor belongs to María del Socorro Tellado López, who wrote mostly under the name Corín Tellado.  She lived from 1927-2009 and wrote over 4,000 novellas.

If you hope to surpass her record, you’d better get busy.

Let’s examine the productivity of Corín Tellado.  She sold her first novel in 1946, when she was about 19.  Her publishing house contracted with her to write a novella every week.  When I read that, I thought, “Okay, I could see having a very organized schedule that results in a novella each week.”  But look closer at the numbers.  Say she wrote continually from 1946 until her death in 2009, a period of about 63 years, or roughly 3,276 weeks.  Only 3,276 weeks, and yet she wrote over 4,000 novellas.  She was cranking out a novella, on average, every 5.7 days.

Corín Tellado is the extreme example of being prolific.  You probably won’t go that far, but imagine the discipline required, the organizational and time-management skills, the need to fill all available time with writing.  Not to mention the necessity to dream up numerous plotlines and characters.  These are the keys to being a prolific writer.

Whatever your goals as a writer, whether you aim for quantity or quality, I think you’re still going to need (or at least aim for) the skills and attributes of a prolific writer.  Do you agree or disagree?  Leave me a comment.  But keep it short; I’m a busy man and have to finish my next novella in 5.7 days, or I’m not–

                                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe