Characters at the Edge

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

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

Image from pixabay.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poseidon’s Scribe

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

December 18, 2016Permalink

Happy Birthday, H.G. Wells!

Science Fiction pioneer H.G. Wells was born September 21, 1866, 150 years ago. Although he died in 1946, his works live on and inspire us today.

The novels of his I’ve read include The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, and The Sea Lady. Most of those remain classics today.

h-g-_wells__c1890
H.G. Wells

As readers of my blog know, my main author-crush is with Jules Verne, but Wells gave us several archetypal story themes and ideas that Verne did not explore.

The two authors approached their writing differently, too. Verne strove for scientific plausibility and accuracy, but Wells concentrated on telling a good story and gave only a passing nod to the science.

After Verne read The First Men in the Moon, which includes an anti-gravity substance named cavorite, he wrote, “I sent my characters to the moon with gunpowder, a thing one may see every day. Where does M. Wells find his cavorite? Let him show it to me!”

Despite my preference for Verne’s stories, I have to say, “Lighten up, Jules. If a scientist does invent an anti-gravity mechanism, your criticism will look antiquated. Further, you knew your gunpowder cannons couldn’t really launch men to the moon when you wrote From the Earth to the Moon, so you’re not a paragon of accuracy, yourself.”

As discussed by Steven R. Boyett, this dichotomy between scientific exactitude and telling a good story with a smattering of sciency stuff persists today in the arguments between hard and soft science fiction.

Returning to Wells, you do have to overlook his personal life and philosophy as you read his books. A believer in socialism, anti-Semitism, and eugenics, he also led a sex life that was, well, complicated. Fortunately, his early, less philosophical works don’t give hints of any of this.

afterthemartians5My readers know that Wells’ The War of the Worlds inspired my own story, “After the Martians,” so I owe him a great debt.

So, happy birthday, Herbert George Wells! Your legacy is looking great after all these years. Your works remain classics today, read and enjoyed by millions, including—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 25, 2016Permalink

Twain’s Attack on Cooper

In 1895, Mark Twain published “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” a lengthy criticism of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing, especially his novels The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. Since it’s one of the more famous examples of literary criticism, let’s explore it, as well as the overall reasons for such criticism.

Twain vs CooperIn Twain’s acerbic style, he starts by accusing three Cooper-praising reviewers of never having read the books. He then lays into Cooper, saying, “…in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” Twain asserts there are 19 or 22 rules “governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction” and says Cooper violated 18 of them. He lists those 18 rules.

Twain scorns Cooper for over-using certain favorite “cunning devices, tricks, artifices.” He also slams Cooper for some improbable events involving shore water undertows, cannon ball rolling, and footprint erasure by erosion.

At length, Twain ridicules Cooper for creating a forest stream of varying breadth, for conjuring a boat so big as to be unlikely to navigate the stream, and for having five Indians lay in wait for this giant craft and yet miss it when attempting to jump aboard. For several paragraphs, Twain then takes Cooper to task for scenes involving implausible target-shooting with rifles, and eyesight beyond human capability.

In Twain’s judgement, Cooper’s dialogue is inconsistent, and his word choices “dull” and “approximate.”

That’s the summary version of the “Literary Offenses.” Twain’s writing style is humorous and satirical, making the essay fun to read and accounting for its lasting popularity.

Once published, Twain’s essay itself became subject to criticism, and one fine example of this is “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses,” by Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.  Schachterle and Ljungquist take Twain to task for attempting literary criticism while accomplishing little more than sniping at the physics of certain scenes. Twain, they say, gets some of his physics wrong, and in the case of the river craft and the awaiting Indians, fills in his own details to prove that Cooper’s scene wouldn’t work.

Laying aside the particulars of the criticisms, why would Twain write such an essay at all? Cooper couldn’t respond, having been dead some forty-four years. (In fairness, Twain didn’t reserve his barbs only for deceased authors. He criticized his contemporaries George Eliot and Robert Louis Stevenson as well.) That gap in time is illustrative, since Cooper wrote in the Romantic style, a style no longer in vogue in Twain’s time.

Was Twain trying to tarnish Cooper’s reputation? That was unlikely to suffer, Cooper having become a best-selling author whose works remained popular well into Twain’s era, and even now.

I suspect Twain, like many writers, chafed at the inexplicable popularity of other authors who didn’t write the way he did. In a sense, he’s criticizing the book-buying public. He’s saying, “Americans, here are the rules for literature, and I adhere to them in my stories. Why do you keep buying books by Cooper, who violates them at every turn?”

Still, who can explain why readers line up to buy certain books and ignore others? What makes a book popular? Strict adherence to Twain’s self-imposed rules doesn’t seem to be the answer; otherwise, we’d be reading little else but Twain.

Similarly, Jules Verne criticized H. G. Wells’ book The First Men in the Moon for using a fictional anti-gravity metal. Wells did not obey rules Verne imposed on himself, and Verne couldn’t understand why readers would accept that.

Authors are free to comment on other authors, of course, but should be wary of applying their own criteria of merit on others, or of assuming readers use those same criteria in their book-purchasing decisions.

I must admit, I’m glad Mark Twain never had the chance to criticize any books by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

One more thing: remember Smashwords is selling many of my books at ½ price through the end of this month. These deals don’t come along often. Buy two or more!

Genre Switching for Profit

It’s just not working. Try as you might, you’ve been writing like mad but not seeing any success. You’re seeing either lackluster sales or none at all. This isn’t how you imagined writing would be. What do you do?

There may be many reasons you’re not attracting readers, some due to the genre you’ve chosen. That genre may be unpopular or out of style. It may be saturated which makes it tough for new authors to break in. It could be that your stories are too similar to those of other, more famous, authors in that genre. Perhaps you’re trying too hard, focusing on staying within genre limits rather than telling a good story.

If the problem is due to one of these reasons, have you considered switching genres? Maybe you could try that just for a while, to establish a faithful readership, and then switch back to your favorite genre.

switching genresYou might have rejected the idea of switching genres already. I can hear your reasons now:

  • “I’m no quitter. What happened to the virtue of persistence?”
  • “I hate all the other genres. My favorite is the only one I’d ever want to write in.”
  • “Right now, I might be on the brink of success. What if my next story is destined to be a bestseller?”
  • “There’s no guarantee I’ll succeed in any other genre, either.”

There’s some merit in all those reasons, but on the other hand, no one awards prizes for banging your head against a wall. Sisyphus was forced to roll that stone up a mountain, but you have a choice; you can leave the stone alone and walk away.

Here are some advantages you might experience if you try switching genres:

  • It could give you a fresh perspective. You’ve been looking at the craft through the lens of your favorite genre. With your view broadened, your writing may improve.
  • You will learn new things. As you research your new genre, you’ll benefit from the increased knowledge.
  • Whether due to the new perspective, or what you’ve learned, the experience of writing in the new genre might enable you to write better and more saleable stories in your favorite genre.
  • You might become a huge success. Sometimes, in life, you find you’re quite good at things you hate doing. Of course, phenomenal sales might make you re-evaluate whether you really hate that new genre as much as you thought.
  • You may discover that this experimental method of discarding things that don’t work and trying alternatives, is applicable in other areas of writing besides genre. It applies to writing techniques, book marketing methods, story lengths, etc.

The writing biz is full of examples of writers who achieved success by switching genres:

Author Name Initial, failed, genre(s) Success genre
Agatha Christie Spiritualism, paranormal Mystery
Horatio Alger, Jr. Essays, satirical poetry Rags-to-riches boys stories
R. L. Stine Children’s humor Children’s horror
Dean Koontz Science fiction Suspense thrillers
Louis L’Amour Adventure and Crime Westerns
Mickey Spillane Comic books Detective fiction
Mary Higgins Clark Historical fiction Thriller
Jules Verne Historical adventure Science Fiction

Regular readers of my blog know I’ve dabbled in various genres myself. Although my favorite is alternate history (especially steampunk and clockpunk), I’ve written fantasy, horror, science fiction, and even some romance. The most successful in terms of sales has been my horror story. I’m not attracted to that genre, and it’s likely that the great sales are due to other stories in the anthology besides mine. Therefore, it’s questionable whether I’d really attract more readers if I switched to writing horror.

Has this blog post caused you to consider switching genres? If you do switch, please comment and share your results, whether successful or otherwise, with—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 13, 2015Permalink

Body Dialogue

Some say our bodies speak more clearly and honestly than our mouths do. I don’t know about that, but I think it will help your fiction if you show your characters using appropriate body language from time to time.

Body DialogueWhy? For one thing, body language helps break up long strings of dialogue quotes to keep the text more readable and interesting. Body language allows you to show internal conflict within a non-Point-of-View character by contrasting that character’s words with some clashing body language. Also, body language can emphasize the emotions of a character by going beyond mere spoken words.

Body language, or kinesics, includes such things as facial expressions, body posture, gestures, and tone of voice. Subdivisions of kinesics include Oculesics (body language of the eyes), Haptics (body language through touching), and Proxemics (body language using distance).

Author Amanda Patterson, founder of Writers Write, has provided a convenient online table that provides the typical body language expressions for many emotions.

There are a few ways you could use this resource:

  • As-is. Just find your character’s current emotion, and have the character display some or all of the body language manifestations. This may contrast a bit with what the character is saying, and that shows either internal conflict or deception.
  • Characteristic body language. For one of your main characters, establish a pattern where that character displays a particular body language much of the time, thus establishing a character trait and linking it to a predominate personality trait. Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo often crossed his arms, denoting aloofness, distance, and defensiveness.
  • Given that the table provides typical body language, consider showing one or more of your main characters exhibiting slight variations on those common traits. Those variations may say something about your characters’ personalities.

It’s not clear if body language is common across all countries, all cultures, or all time periods, so be careful and do some research before assuming a character would exhibit the body language you do.

Lastly, don’t overdo it. Just like long strings of dialogue get boring, so does too-frequent use of body language.

Jumping up and down while pumping my fists in the air, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 29, 2015Permalink

Author Interview—Anatoly Belilovsky

You’ll enjoy reading my interview of Anatoly Belilovsky, another author whose story appears in the anthology Hides the Dark Tower.

Anatoly BelilovskyAnatoly Belilovsky is a Russian-American author and translator of speculative fiction. His work has appeared in the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology, Ideomancer, Nature Futures, Stupefying Stories, Immersion Book of Steampunk, Daily SF, Kasma, Kazka, and has been podcast by Cast of Wonders, Tales of Old, and Toasted Cake. He blogs about writing here, pediatrics here, and his medical practice web site is here. He was born in what is now Ukraine, learned English from Star Trek reruns, worked his way through a US college by teaching Russian while majoring in chemistry, and has, for the past 25 years, been a paediatrician in New York, in a practice where English is the fourth most commonly spoken language.

Here’s the interview:

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

Anatoly Belilovsky: I vaguely remember writing fanfic as a child, at least in my mind: a prequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a sequel to the original Lost World of Arthur Conan Doyle, apocrypha of Strugatsky’s Inhabited Island. Nothing I’d ever want to show anyone.

I did publish a couple of stories in my college’s annual magazine, one of them acquired by Gordon van Gelder [editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction] back when he himself was an undergraduate. Nothing I’d want to show anyone these days, either.

P.S.:    What genres have you written in?

A.B.: Alternate history is probably my favorite. When I write SF and fantasy, they tend to skirt very close to mainstream/literary. In humor, I prefer character-driven comedy to situational comedy — a mathematician who can only think of mathematics in terms of Russian swear words seems to have had the greatest impact so far, though an epidemic of otaku based on Russian cartoon characters, and Wagner leading a musical invasion of France in 1870, both got a few chuckles here and there.

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

A.B.: I doubt I am the only one who acknowledges a debt to Gogol, Chekhov, Nabokov, and Poe as their major influences. It isn’t as common as Delany and Le Guin, but certainly not unique. There are several excellent bilingual writers, several physician writers I am proud to call twice-colleagues, several of anything I can ever be labeled as. I guess this is a question best asked of my fans. Shouldn’t take too long to interview both of them.

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

A.B.: Characterization is easiest: I seem to have a good handle on subtext which is what characterization is all about.

Plotting is the hardest. If I do my characterization right, the characters will pick proper fights with each other, the Universe, and the absurdity of existence. If not, they go through the motions, listlessly.

P.S.:    You’ve had many short stories published. Have you written any novels or do you intend to?

A.B.: I have not so far been chosen by a novel to be the instrument of its creation. Also, plotting: novels seem to depend on it more than short stories do.

P.S.:    In describing yourself, you cite your Russian childhood, Star Trek, chemistry, and pediatrics. How do you weave each of those threads of your life into your stories?

A.B.: Well, I learned English from Star Trek, so that’s huge. The chemical principles of self-assembly and tertiary structure — if you think about it, that’s how the best stories work, the characters and their worlds interacting organically, friendships and conflicts never feeling forced or synthetic. Pediatrics — after 30 years, subtext is second nature, you get to read whatever is left unsaid, tease out the meaning behind the exact phraseology used. And growing up speaking a highly inflected language I think gave me a heightened understanding of structure and mechanics of English.

Also, seriously, when everything you say can be used by Big Brother against you, subtext becomes a way of life. I was beta reading a story once that had this exchange:

A: “We hunt dragons.”

B: “There are no dragons.”

A: “That’s because we killed them all!”

My suggestion was to change it to:

A: “We hunt dragons.”

B: “Dragons are extinct.”

A: “You are welcome!”

Same idea, but I think communicating it through subtext made the speaker more matter-of-fact and therefore more believable.

P.S.:    Your stories often contain literary references, some perhaps unfamiliar to American readers. Are your tales intended to be enjoyed on several levels by the casual reader, the well-read bibliophile, and the researching puzzle-solver?

A.B.: Yes. In fact, this is exactly what several reviewers and a number of beta readers said. “Because of your story I googled [X] and wow [X] is now my new favorite thing and likely the name of my firstborn and my next band” — this is what writers live for!

Examples: I wrote a story about Night Witches, a women’s night bomber unit in the Soviet Army in WWII. Got an email from a reader who happily discovered the unit actually existed! Another reader now peppers conversations with Russian swear words. Mea maxima culpa! And Chrestomathy, the patchwork alternate literature story, got a whole bunch of conversations going about Pushkin and Gogol and the nature of ethics.

P.S.:    Your Twitter stream abounds in puns. What is it about that form of humor that intrigues you?

A.B.: I immigrated to US with my parents in 1976, and by end of high school and start of college in ’78 my English was fully functional, but no more. It was on a winter day in 1979 that I felt an almost audible *click* as English became *my* language, and the first manifestation of that was that I started making puns. I scribbled in the margins of my notebooks, Q and A jokes, knock knock jokes, shaggy dog stories ending in a terrible pun —

Also, I always liked math. And math teaches us that the shortest distance between two puns is a straight line.

One of my multilingual idols, Vladimir Nabokov, excelled at puns. Pale Fire has to be one of my favorite books of all time.

P.S.:    Your story in Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00001]Hides the Dark Tower is “Deep Into That Darkness Peering.” Can you tell us what inspired that homage to Poe (with a nod to Chekhov)?

A.B.: Well, Poe is… Poe! I mean, who else can write such purple prose and get away with it? “Deep Into That Darkness Peering” is actually one of three Poe’s purple prose pastiches I perpetrated, the other two published in Stupefying Stories Showcase. Melodrama, bathos, run-on sentences from hell (in my son’s estimation) — and I’m getting paid for it! MWAHAHA! [clears throat] Umm, where was I?

I also admire Poe for what has to be the biggest Deus Ex ending ever. Remember how “The Pit and the Pendulum” ends? The French enter the city and save the protagonist! Agency? Who needs agency when you have the French army! Now I don’t have to feel guilty for how I ended “Deep Into That Darkness Peering.”

Chekhov, by the way, is the author of the best bit of subtext ever written. In “The Lady with the Dog,” a man approaches the lady and the dog. The dog bristles. Quote follows:

“He does not bite,” she said and blushed.

Think about it.

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

A.B.: An alternate history in which Tsar Nicholas II caught the bullet meant for Prime Minister Stolypin in 1911. No WWI, no Revolution. Murder mystery involving several characters born before the point of departure and famous in our timeline for — blimey, I better go and write this, what?

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

Anatoly Belilovsky: Don’t only take writing advice from writers who wrote stuff you wish you’d written. Even people whose writing you don’t find appealing can help you develop your own voice. And if then you develop taste for their work — well, growth happens.

 

Readers aching to find out more about Anatoly Belilovsky (you know you’re one of them) can visit his website and follow him on Twitter.

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 4, 2015Permalink

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

Secrets of the Past

Is it possible that some amazing things happened in historical times, but never made it in the history books? Today I’ll discuss the subgenre of fiction known as secret histories.

Wikipedia’s entry provides a good definition: “A secret history (or shadow history) is a revisionist interpretation of either fictional or real (or known) history which is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed, forgotten, or ignored by established scholars. Secret history is also used to describe a type or genre of fiction which portrays a substantially different motivation or backstory from established historical events.”

With secret histories the author can deviate from actual history as far as she’d like, but she must return things to status quo or else explain why historical accounts don’t align with her story.

For this reason, secret histories are not to be classified as alternate histories (as I mistakenly did here.  There is no permanent altering of history. Rather the world returns to the one we know. The thrill for the reader is seeing how close the world came to actually changing in some dramatic way.

Secret histories work well as thriller stories with assassins or spies, since they work in secret anyway. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle are two examples.

I’ve written secret histories myself, but my stories involve technology, not spies or assassins. In each one I leave it to the reader to speculate how much further ahead we’d be if some inventions had occurred earlier.

9781926704012In “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” an inventor creates a submarine in China in 200 B.C. There are obscure references asserting that something of that sort actually happened, and those references inspired my story. The tale ends in a way that explains why more submarines weren’t made as a result of this invention.

steamcover5My story “The Steam Elephant” (which appeared in Steampunk Tales magazine) is a secret history in which a traveling group of Britons and one Frenchman are enjoying a safari from the vantage of a steam-powered elephant invited by one of the Brits. They get caught up in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. This is intended as a sequel to the two books of Jules Verne’s Steam House series.

WindSphereShip4In “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” Heron of Alexandria takes his simple steam-powered toy and uses it to power a ship. If there had been a steamship in the 1st Century A.D., it boggles the mind to think we could have had the Industrial Revolution seventeen hundred years early and skipped the Dark Ages.

LeonardosLion3fAnother secret history is “Leonardo’s Lion” which answers what happened to the mechanical clockwork lion built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1515. In the story, humanity comes very close to seeing all of da Vinci’s designs made real, which would have advanced science and engineering by centuries.

TheSixHundredDollarMan3fI’d categorize “The Six Hundred Dollar Man” as secret history too, when a man fits steam-powered limbs on another man who’d been injured in a stampede. The story takes place in 1870 in Wyoming and it’s pretty clear by the story’s end why that technology didn’t catch on.

RallyingCry3fRallying Cry” is a tale about a young man who learns there have been secret high-technology regiments and brigades in wars going back at least to World War I. Members of these teams cannot reveal their group’s existence, so it fits the secret history genre.

ToBeFirstWheels5In “Wheels of Heaven” I take what is factually known about the Antikythera Mechanism, and weave a fictional tale to explain it.

As you can see, I like writing in this sub-genre. Imagine something interesting and imaginative happened in history, write about it, then tie up all the loose ends so that our modern historical accounts remain unchanged. Leave the reader wondering if the story could have really happened. History that might have been, courtesy of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 7, 2014Permalink

First to Land on a Comet?

This week the European Space Agency (ESA) announced they will choose from among five sites on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for the Rosetta spacecraft’s robot laboratory Philae to land, as reported here, here, and here. Crop_from_the_4_August_processed_image_of_comet_67P_Churyumov_Gerasimenko300px-Rosetta

Philae_over_a_comet_(crop)They claim this will be the first time a human-built spacecraft has landed on a comet.

I beg to differ.

I’m aware of an alternate universe very close to our own, a universe in which an actual manned—not robotic—landing has already occurred.

In 1897.

It’s all documented in my story, “The Cometeers,” a story to be launched tomorrow by Gypsy Shadow Publishing. Yes, that’s tomorrow. The 1st of September.TheCometeers72dpi

That means you don’t have to wait for the ESA to take their sweet time choosing a landing site and preparing to send down the Philae probe. They’re not even attempting their landing until mid-November. That’s not for two and a half whole months!

Who wants to wait that long? You can be witness to a manned landing on a comet as soon as tomorrow.

Also, in my story, the comet isn’t some benign rock way out there at some safe distance.  Not at all.  It’s huge, and it’s hurtling toward Earth.

A planet-buster.

Further, the heroes of “The Cometeers” don’t have fancy computers, or Ariane 5 rockets, or robots, let alone nuclear weapons. All they’ve got is gunpowder. And a big cannon. And their ingenuity.

And a few sticks of gum.

I’ve got nothing against the fine folks at the ESA. Really. The Rosetta mission is exciting, and it has the added benefit that it’s really taking place in our own universe.

Sometimes, though, alternate universes can be fun, too. Read “The Cometeers” and see if you agree. Jules Verne said, “Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.” It looks like the ESA will soon make something real, something that first blasted like a cannon shot from the imagination of—

Poseidon’s Scribe