Category Archives: Writing

On a pale horse — no, it’s a white horse, but that wasn’t good either

Gotta say, if I were editing Revelation, I’d tell John that having a white horse and a pale horse makes it hard to distinguish the characters …

The bowman on the white horse is plague (at least in some interpretations) as in this image from the Cathedral de Agnani. The potluck we had a couple of weeks back apparently planted a seed in TYG, who spent this week with the 24-hour bug, only it lasted around 96 hours. I’ve been feeling draggy the past two days but nothing more than that’ hopefully it won’t get any worse.

But between extra dog walks, errands for TYG and feeling wiped out, I did not get much done. I did complete my quota of Leaf articles, so I made the money shot as it were. Southern Discomfort, though? I did get past the scene that blocked me last week, but not much further. We’re getting to the point where it’s mostly new material and it’ll take seriously harder rewriting to finish it. I suspect at this point I’m going to have to push my deadline back to October 31 instead of the end of September.

I spent a lot of yesterday lying around (in between helping TYG). and most of today lying around.  And I intend to spend much of the weekend lying around, though I will have some shopping to do (I think we’re running out of food for Wisp). Usually when I feel this exhausted, simply going inert and relaxing does the trick. It’s certainly preferable to the hacking TYG has been suffering.

Wish me luck. And TYG a swift recovery.

#SFWApro. Image is public domain, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, Southern Discomfort, Time management and goals

The Story Behind the Story: The Spider Strikes

The Spider Strikes is the third story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook). Like the others in the collection, I wrote it with an eye to setting things up for (the still-unfinished) Brains From Outer Space. Specifically, this would introduce Steve Flanagan, my primary protagonist, and introduce him to Gwen Montgomery who appeared in the initial story in the collection. It proved a lot of work, because there was a lot to introduce.

For one thing, in the two years since Atoms for Peace, Gwen’s becoming a science investigator for the Technology and Science Commission. The federal government has decided that to avoid the kind of mad-science research that figured in the first story (or in movies such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Fiend Without a Face), researchers must apply for a federal license. The TSC reviews them, deciding thumbs up or down. This can be based on potential risks (nuclear research is very unlikely to pass muster) or the character of the applicant (will they follow the rule). The guys behind the TSC (Senators Jack Kennedy and Richard Dorman pushed the bill that created it) realized that some researchers might just go ahead unlicensed, or start exceeding parameters once they got the license. Someone needed to investigate and prevent that, so the TSC suddenly acquired an investigating arm.

While I don’t go into a lot of detail, I had to explain the basics. And then there was Steve, whose backstory is a lot more complicated than Gwen’s or Dani Taylor’s. He and his brother Tommy grew up in a tenement, got taken away by social workers (this was largely accepted practice until decades later when it began affecting middle-class Americans) and raised in an orphanage (their parents, by the 1950s, are both dead). Tommy was a good, quiet kid; Steve pushed back against bullies, including the bullies on the staff. He got beat up a lot and went for  couple of short stays in reform school. After he realized the orphanage doctor was putting something bad in the shots he was giving the kids, he tried to smash all his equipment. That got him a long stay (what was in the injections? Well, that’s a key part of Brain).

Tommy got adopted by two Soviet agents who were caught working against the country. He disappeared. Steve, now all grown up, is determined to find him, somehow. While following up a trail in Philadelphia, he winds up helping Gwen against a killer robot spider. He doesn’t know it but his life path just changed …

One of the reasons Gwen recruits Steve to help her is that while some branches of Science Investigations allow women agents, they all insist on pairing them with men who can handle “the rough stuff.” Gwen is perfectly capable of handling trouble, but rules are rules; with her partner hospitalized early on, the only available alternative is a sexual harasser, so no. Telling her boss she’s found someone to handle the “rough stuff” so the harasser can stick to his current investigation solves that problem.

Throughout the book I’ve tried to acknowledge the sexism of the time without making it unpleasant to read. Hopefully I found the sweet spot (I feel better after reading  Robert Jackson Bennett’s argument that “realism” isn’t a good reason to show lots of rape).

*A minor alt.history point is my reference to the computer company Eckert-Mauchly. It’s named for the inventors who built ENIAC, the original computer, but wound up losing control and credit for their work. In this timeline they hung on to both. Philadelphia’s “Engineers’ Row” will wind up becoming the Silicon Valley of this timeline.

*A true history detail is the derogatory “slopie” for the North Koreans (Steve’s a Korean War vet). It occurred to me people might think it’s some kind of mutant, but no, just racist slang of the day.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, rights are mine.

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Filed under Atoms for Peace, Brain From Outer Space, Story behind the story

Life came out swinging. I took a dive

So instead of a bad Friday, the entire week was a mess for writing I think by Wednesday I’d unconsciously thrown in the towel.

It didn’t help that the next section of Southern Discomfort needs serious changes. When I got to the second scene (a confrontation between Maria and FBI Agent Rachel Cohen) I realized Cohen’s actions didn’t make sense. I’m not sure what will work, which made it very easy to wander off mentally.

Monday, disruptions in TYG’s schedule led to me sitting up in bed in the early morning with the dogs. I’d intended to write, but they positioned themselves so there was nowhere to place the computer. I settled for research reading instead. And gave way and spent the whole day (other than my Leaf articles) finishing the book.

Tuesday, I’d had my second Alexander technique class. As noted at the link, the technique is supposed to counteract bad posture and body-tensing habits, like the ones that put such strain on my voice. Taking the class, then practicing the exercises at home definitely has a good effect, though I’m a long way from incorporating them into my everyday movements.

Wednesday I woke up from a very bad night of sleep. I also had to meet with an electrician for a light-repair job. He’s efficient, but I still lost some time. And dang, I was soooo tired. So I did some work, but not much (except, again, the Leaf. That’s the money stuff at the moment).

Thursday I had to go back to my eye doctor to check on my floaters. They have receded back to normal levels so I can relax — my retina’s not about to fall off. But I’d forgotten the checkup required dilating my eyes; I arrived home in no shape to stare at a screen. Instead I took a nap, then started cleaning (which I normally do on the day the dogs are in day care). And just kept cleaning: fridge shelves wiped, spices sorted, old stuff in the back corners of the closet thrown out (sun dried tomatoes from 2013!), storage containers tidied up. It was productive, but not the kind of productive I’d planned to do. But I just couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm for writing, even after my eyes recovered.

Plus the cat that gave birth in our compost bin is still hanging around, and so we’re going to get it spayed. Working out the details with a local clinic consumed some time, and today I left work early to pick up a cat trap. Now let’s just hope the cat actually goes into the trap (we’re baiting it with tuna).

With the rewrite blocked, I went back to some of the early Southern Discomfort chapters and read them aloud to make final corrections and word-choice edits. So far I haven’t found anything that needs more work.

Oh, and I put in more time than I should on a new post at Atomic Junkshop on what comic books were like on Earth-Two. Was there a Superman in comics in a world where he was also in the newspapers (spoiler: yes).

Ah well, occasionally slacking off won’t kill me. If anything, blowing stuff off once in a while is kind of liberating. But next week I’d better do better.

#SFWApro. Cover by Carmine Infantino, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Filed under Personal, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Time management and goals

Story Behind the Story: The Claws That Catch

In The Brain From Outer Space I introduced Dr. Dani Taylor, National Guard medic and girlfriend to my protagonist Steve Flanagan. I referenced her fighting something in Boston called the Devilfish, so for this story I decided to focus on that incident. That would also explain how she came to be a medic.

My template for the story was a straight 1950s SF: radioactive accident mutates lobsters, creates a race of humanoid Devilfish. They swarm into the city, killing and destroying. Dr. Danielle Taylor, daughter of Paul Taylor, distinguished founder of Taylor General, finds herself cut off with a young intern, a candy striper, a black doctor and her husband. They hole up in a department store; attempts to get anywhere invariably run into the Devilfish. Rather than run, they develop an improvised clinic for other strays — tourists, an injured National Guardsman, a pregnant woman.

As I fleshed out the story, it developed something of a Cloverfield tone. These aren’t the heroes fighting the monsters, they’re ordinary people struggling to stay alive and keep others alive. The battle we’d see in the movies is taking place somewhere off screen.

This gave me a much better handle on Dani’s character. She’s a daughter of privilege, her life clearly mapped out for her. She’s been following the map even though her parents died in the Invasion a couple of years earlier. Now, for the first time, she’s starting to see a different path, and she chooses to walk it.

She’s also very bad at triage. She wants to save everyone; as the story opens she’s given their last morphine to a dying guy instead of saving it for the living. That forces Dani to go out and scavenge for more. That’s definitely something I want to work into Brain From Outer Space when I rewrite it.

I’m also pleased with the period details in this one. Senator John F. Kennedy showing up. Smoking in hospital rooms. A passing reference to the then-current bestseller The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Dani’s awkwardness at working with a black doctor. Like I said in last week’s post, writing racist protagonists doesn’t come easily to me, but I try not to write them as too modern either.

I also included several continuity references showing how things have developed since Atoms for Peace: hearings confirming the AEC corruption, another rogue experiment with a nuclear powered rocket (the sort of thing that shows the need for Science Investigators). I’m pleased with it. Hopefully whoever buys the book is too.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Friday was only moderately inconvenient

In contrast to the July Fridays, I only suffered a slight inconvenience with added dog care this morning. And I’d already put in extra time this week, just in case, so no time lost.

The big accomplishment this week was getting Atoms for Peace released. While Draft2Digital makes it easy to format the ebook and get a CreateSpace-friendly PDF, having to get a table of contents for the paperback meant doing two slightly different versions. That proved more time-consuming than I expected, especially getting the ToC looking right. So rather than think about the stuff I didn’t get done (as I was doing this morning) I shall take pleasure in having accomplished a demanding job (Michelle Berger’s comment on this morning’s post helped). And now it’s done. Finished. Nothing left to do but watch the dollars pile up as it flies off the digital shelves (I can dream).

I got about 3,000 words further on Southern Discomfort which is good, given I didn’t get anything done Monday or Tuesday (so I could get Atoms out before the end of the month). I did my usual quota of Leaf articles (if you need to know the difference between general liability and public liability insurance, just ask!). A couple of them were higher-paying long-form articles, which took more time than I wanted. As they pay three times as much, I want to finish them in no more than three hours, which is three times what the normal article takes. I took a good deal longer than that. It’s the same problem I had when Screen Rant bumped up articles to a minimum twenty entries — finding that much more information takes a lot of time. I need to fix that or stick with shorter stuff.

I did get some new short story stuff written: I have an unfinished, untitled first draft so I worked on that Thursday. Friday I got past a block in the first draft of a short story involving the Tarot and 1930s Hollywood. That made me feel much better, even though neither one is anywhere near even rough-draft level yet.

And I went to a smaller writer’s group this week and got some feedback on one of the new-this-draft chapters of Southern Discomfort. The feedback was very helpful.

For no particular reason other than I think it’s cool, I’m closing with this glorious image of Earth After Disaster from Jack Kirby’s Kamandi comic.

 

#SFWApro. All rights to the image remain with current holder.

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Filed under Atoms for Peace, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, The Dog Ate My Homework

Goals for July, accomplished (and not)

Sigh, only 56 percent accomplished. I can blame this mostly on added doggy-parenting requirements off and on, and on being really tired the first couple of days of this week.

That said, I did get the key ones done. I released Atoms for Peace and got to 52,000 words total on Southern Discomfort‘s final draft. I also completed the latest draft of Undead Sexist Cliches.  I still can’t seem to get far on my short stories though. Though that’s partly because I had to spend a lot of this week finishing Atoms for Peace. I also wound up blowing off lots of little projects, such as submitting stories, pitching article ideas and the like.

I held a writer’s work day at my house, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while.

And I relaxed a lot, watching movies, reading, getting out to the movies, going on our Mensa trip. And finally getting around to signing up for BritBox so I can watch more Doctor Who.

I got really sloppy about applying sunscreen, which is a big no-no at my age. It was so overcast that even knowing that cloudy weather doesn’t eliminate the need, I just shrugged it off. More generally I’m falling behind on some of the everyday paperwork tasks I need to keep up with (in fairness that’s because several new ones kept popping up).

So no particular deep insights, just one month with fewer goals completed than average. Nothing as startling as the scene below (art uncredited)

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The Story Behind the Story: Atoms for Peace

Woot! Atoms for Peace and Other Stories is available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and other retailers such as Barnes & Noble as an ebook. Unlike Atlas Shagged, the stories in this one are all tied together, part of an alternative 1950s in which movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Creature With the Atom Brain, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them! were all real. While I’ve covered most of the stories in early Story Behind the Story blog posts, I started this blog after the first story had come out. So here’s the odd tale of how the book and the first story came to be.

Back in the 1990s, Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, declassified the reports about U.S. radiation experiments on unwitting patients (they weren’t told what the doctors were doing, or given an option to consent). That started me thinking (at least I think so, the exact chain of reasoning is a bit blurry after so long) about how that mirrored so many SF films of the 1950s, like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (and gives the lie to every How To Write SF article that declares mad scientists experimenting on innocent people could never happen in real life). And then it hit me: what would the US be like if those movies had been real? If by the end of the 1950s we’d been under attack by multiple aliens, radioactive mutants, pod people and reanimated dinosaurs?

Hmmm …well scientific research would be tightly regulated, of course. With investigators to double-check nobody was doing illegal experiments on the sly. The National Guard would be busy fighting mutant horrors. And maybe we’d have made it into space years earlier than we did. Now if you throw the effects of one of those radiation experiments into the mix …

I liked it. But back then I had a day job, so The Brain From Outer Space took a long time to work on. Finally I had it in reasonably satisfactory shape around 2008 or 9. Then it hit me the first chapter, written to show investigators Steve Flanagan and Gwen Montgomery on a case and so introduce my world, worked pretty well as a standalone short story. So I tweaked it a little and sent it out.

The Big Pulp website liked it and accepted it. Then they suggested I write a series of stories leading up to it, showing how my world came to be so different. I jumped at the chance. The stories are still up there, if you’re curious. Unfortunately some of the elements and relationships in the book no longer fit the backstory. I’d also discovered problems in the story that really needed fixing. The book needed a major overhaul … and to date, I haven’t been able to fix it.

But the stories are still worth it.

The first story, Atoms for Peace, takes it’s name from the post-war slogan: sure, the a-bomb was terrifying but nuclear energy, turned to peaceful uses, was our friend! Wonderful things would come from it (check out the book Nukespeak for a look at the sunny nuclear utopianism of the era). The Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) was supposed to both regulate and promote the industry; it usually came down on the “promote” side and did its best to minimize the risks of radiation.

I decided that would be the basis for my story: the first documented case of “rogue science,” using ordinary people as guinea pigs. My protagonist would be Southerner Gwen Montgomery, former OSS agent. As the story opens in 1954, Gwen thinks she’s done with adventuring. But then she found the strange half-man half-lizard under the street light …

It’s a good story and I think it’s a good book. It’s a lot whiter than I’d do it today (I hope), but I know from Southern Discomfort that simply switching some of my characters to black or Latino would take lots of work, especially in a world where segregation is still the norm. As I wrote this to reuse old work, not start fresh, I kept it as it was. Though I’m pleased with my female representation as Dani, Kate Meara, Gwen and Claire all get a good share of the adventure.

I’ll have more to say about the book next week. Hopefully you’ll all have bought it by then.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, all rights are mine.

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Filed under Atoms for Peace, Brain From Outer Space, Short Stories, Story behind the story

Two books that didn’t work, and why

A slightly different version of Is Our Writers Learning? this month as I look at two books that disappointed me and the reasons for it.

MEDUSA’S WEB by Tim Powers was a big disappointment because I usually love Powers’ work. Like Lisa Goldstein, when Powers doesn’t work for me, I’m surprised.

After their Aunt Amity commits suicide, Scott and Maddy, who grew up with her after their parents died, reunite with cousins Claimayne and Ariel. The quartet’s dysfunctional relationship is complicated by the supernatural element: a spider motif that when stared at detaches your mind through time. You can wind up in your own body in the past or future, or in someone else’s. As Scott and Maddy start using the spiders again, they find themselves visiting famous figures in Hollywood’s past who’ve dabbled in the magic. Claimayne, however is using the spiders for evil; Aunt Amity hopes to time jump into Maddy’s body for good; and rival groups obsessed with the power see Scott and Maddy as potential threats.

All of that is vintage Powers. What isn’t typical is that the dysfunctional quartet and their relationship plays a large role in the story and the characters just don’t work. Scott’s a bitter burn-out, Maddy’s a New Age burn-out, Ariel’s bitter and vicious and Claimayne’s just an evil cripple stereotype. While Powers does beaten-down, burned-out characters well (“Scarecrow” Crane in Last Call for instance), his books don’t usually focus on the characters relatiionships as much as this one. That may have been smart.

Plus the magic really doesn’t hold together the way Powers’ powers (ROFL) usually do. I never quite saw how the power enables Claimayne and others to steal youth from people or how Amity would use it to take someone’s body permanently. And the happy ending involves Maddy jumping back in time to live with Rudolph Valentino even though the time-jumping power of the spiders is supposedly broken by then.  I like eucatastrophe endings, but this one doesn’t make sense — and Maddy’s just not interesting enough to care she’s happy.

A minor problem is that while we get references to Hollywood history and appearances by a few people, Medusa’s Web doesn’t immerse itself in history the way Declare did. That makes the mythos much less vivid and interesting.

MJ-12: INCEPTION by J. Michael Martinez, however, is a whole ‘nother level down from there.

The premise: in post-war occupied Germany, Allied forces discover a mysterious energy thing which when disturbed sends out waves of dark matter across Central City — no, wait, that was TV’s Flash, wasn’t it? But the effect is the same, as people spontaneously develop meta-powers. The government recruits a number of “variants” (and man, am I tired of everyone trying to come up with a new name for superhumans — variants, post-human, evos, etc.) for MJ-12, a new black ops agency. However the Soviets have their own Variants and when the U.S. team goes into the field, it’s time for a Clash of Titans!!

By that point I’d already lost interest. Martinez spends half the book doing nothing but set up. He sets up the premise, then introduces us to all the characters before we finally get going on the plot. That would be maybe workable if the premise or the characters were riveting but no. Sure, I’m a comics fan so “superhumans working for the government” is old news. But even if all I ever watched was TV, the premise is old news: Agents of SHIELD‘s Inhumans, Heroes’ evos, the metas of Flash. It doesn’t take much set up any more. And the characters are stock: tormented healer, tormented living Cerebro, racist transmuter, tormented empath. Even more stock, we learn at the end of the book that future volumes will give us mutie-haters—er Variant haters—and a Variant supremacy movement. That’s old hat too; the first X-Men movie was almost two decades ago.

Spending half the book to set up a formula situation born of a formulaic concept does not a winning novel make.

#SFWApro. Cover design James Iacobelli, all rights remain with current holder.

 

 

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What did I do to make Friday hate me?

I must have done something because since I got back from Indianapolis, none of them have been productive. First TYG was out of town so I had the dogs to deal with. Last week I was distracted by running the car in to fix the engine (even though it turned out I didn’t need to). And then today …

Early this morning, TYG had to focus so she asked me if I’d watch the dogs for a quarter-hour. Foolishly I took them up to the bedroom without bringing my computer so I couldn’t do any work. When the 15 minutes stretched into 45 minutes, I volunteered to walk them. Plushie was up for a long walk, so we got back after about an hour, me feeling very sweaty. Then up we jumped again for a play date with Lily, Trixie’s bestie.

This took an unexpected and undeniably cute turn when we all ran into Carmela, a five-month-old puppy living down the cul-de-sac (regrettably she’ll be off to college with her owner in a few weeks). Carmella’s at the very friendly puppy stage, eager to play with Trixie and Plushie. The Plush One, as often happens when other dogs (besides Trixie) initiate play, backed off. Trixie didn’t back off, but didn’t seem entirely happy to have a puppy jumping on her. With Plushie or Lily there’d have been a tussle, so I’m guessing she was reluctant to wrestle a little puppy.

However the end result of all that hot humidity and being on my feet for more than an hour was that I felt completely wiped out. I didn’t really get my shit together until a little before noon. Then I had to devote the afternoon to a new Leaf project, 1800 word articles (three times the length, three times the $). Probably because I was still wiped, it used up the rest of the day. At least I hope that was it; if they’re all this labor-intensive, I may have to go back to shorter stuff.

For the rest of the week, let’s see …

I’ve now finished 52,000 words of Southern Discomfort. That’s better than I’d planned, but as I anticipated, it’s slowing down the further I go. Still, I think I’ll be able to finish before September, as I planned.

I finished proofing and editing Atoms for Peace. Now I just have to upload the revised text and make sure I’ve fixed all the formatting problems I had last time. And for the print version, include a table of contents.

I finally got to sit down and think about the revisions I need to make to No-One Can Slay Her. There’s still a couple of weak points I have to fix to set up the big finish, but overall it’s much stronger. Unfortunately I didn’t get to write any this morning, so I’ve only revised a couple of thousand words.

And I have another post at Atomic Junkshop, about rereading comics.

Not a bad week, but I sure would have liked more progress on No One.

#SFWApro. Photo is mine, credit for Carmela’s cuteness goes to her parents and God.

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Filed under Atoms for Peace, Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals

Sherlock Holmes, tea and schedules

Back at Mysticon I saw a mug from the Philosophers Guild covered with Sherlock Holmes quotes (my favorite is “Mediocrity acknowledges nothing higher than itself. True talent always recognizes genius.”). I didn’t have space in my luggage, but I finally got around to ordering it a couple of weeks ago. It now alternates with my usual German porcelain stein as my tea mug of choice.

In other (and completely unrelated) news, I’m finding the last 90 minutes of the day becoming frustrating. It’s probably the lowest point of my work day so I’ve been using it for low-intensity stuff such as proofreading and email. But if I don’t have any of that to do, I often find it difficult to switch to something more creative. Particularly if Plushie’s been in my lap a lot. I’m not sure if it’s the way I have to sit to manage him and a computer or the feeling that I’ve had no personal space all day, but my brain wears out.

I could take the time off and resume work in the evening, but a lot can depend on TYG’s schedule, whether she wants to chat, and whether the dogs are really fidgety. So I prefer to avoid evening work.

But perhaps I need to change that. I’ll give it some thought.

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