Thursday, June 18, 2015


When people ask me what advice I'd give to new writers, the first thing out of my mouth may seem counterproductive, but it's essential.


Read, read, read, READ.

However, there's a catch.

Read what you're interested in writing...but also read everything else. Why? Simple. To learn.

I've learned story structure from literary types like Mark Twain and Raymond Carver. I've learned unusual devices from the beat writers. Nonfiction has given me all sorts of insights into how the world works, but also personal experiences of all types. Never, ever underestimate the personal truth recorded in a memoir. For the longest time I binge-read how to and self help books, not just for entertainment value, but because I was fascinated. I just couldn't shake the feeling that even if they didn't change my life, I might be able to use some of that information somewhere.

 Horror has helped me learn to build tension, Sci-Fi has taught me when to rely on research and when to go with the romance of the situation.Anthologies have given me access to authors I never would have known otherwise. Romance has taught me the up and downside to writing with a formula in mind, as well as when research would have helped a plot along and given characters more to do.

Here's the thing. By writing, you learn by doing. By reading, you also learn by experiencing. You make the journey from acknowledging that something doesn't feel quite right in an author's pacing to realizing just what the bump in the road is (in your opinion, anyway). You discover different ways of approaching the same genre or the same theme. You're allowed to see what tropes are overdone, and you might get insight into how you could change things up a bit, or discover something that hasn't been done enough. By reading everything, you can see what's out there, but also slowly discover where you fit into the giant scheme of things.

I've discovered some beautiful descriptions and stories in short folklore narratives and poetry. I've found amazing storytelling devices in comics and graphic novels, things that aren't usually applied to traditional fiction. Same with the format of long-running manga and even (dare I say it) fanfiction. Think of it - there has to be reasons that certain things appeal to people, so by taking a peek you can see how you can make that work for you.

You also can get an idea of things you aren't comfortable with, or maybe, find hope in examples of how you could approach styles that you never would have tried on your own. Nancy A. Collins and Clive Barker gave me courage to be more graphic in my horror, and Neil Gaiman gave me permission to go back to my love of folklore and start using that as a foundation in my various fantasy work.

You just never know what's going to help you until you start looking.

With that in mind, don't neglect the acknowledgements. People drop some interesting references and names in those at times. I discovered Ray Bradbury, my favorite author, because he was mentioned in a forward in a Stephen King collection. I collect all sorts of industry names by perusing these sections. Pay attention if an author gives you backstory in a short story collection. Places, events, little asides - all of these may turn up gold.

Even if you're not a writer, read everything. By doing this, you slowly expand your comfort zone and your awareness.You'll fall in love with other worlds, open up emotions in yourself, maybe see things in slightly different ways. Why is that important? I'd like to think that it expands tolerance. You never know whose story you're going to end up relating to and who will change your life.

Years ago I passed by the new arrival section in the library and glanced up at the Nikki Sixx photography book/memoir This is Gonna Hurt. At that point in life, I had some fairly strong opinions about Motley Crue. I loved the music, but interviews I read left me cold. I couldn't look away from the cover of that book, though, and as I flipped through it, I was thunderstruck. I think I read that thing in less than a day, then read it again. And again. I still go back to that book because it encourages me in an aggressive way to be more creative, to be better, and I need that. It made me realize that by pre-judging the author because he was in a certain band with a certain stage persona, I was acting in a way that was against what I believed in: empathy, tolerance, and giving people a chance. It gave me back my love of Motley Crue, actually, but it also led me to others. By name dropping artists like Lita Ford, it made me realize that rock isn't just a dude's game, which helped to further get the chip off my shoulder. It introduced me to people like Amy Purdy, who modelled for the book, and the challenges she's overcome in her life - plus, that provided research for a title I was working on, as well. I've gotten so much gold from that book over the years, and it never would have happened if I'd just wrinkled my nose and walked on by.

I'm not saying you have to love everything or even finish everything. Just get out of your comfort zone and read, read, read.

So what do you love to read? What else could you be reading? What's your favorite title? Do you have something that came out of nowhere for you, something that you never dreamed you'd like until you read it?

What are you reading?


As an aside, I will also be here Saturday, June 20, with books in hand and MMP swag at the ready. If you're close by, come see me at the Midwest Authors Syndicate table!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The ups and downs of "message sci-fi"

And, here I am again with another movie review.  This time, a family-friendly science fiction adventure from Disney:  “Tomorrowland.”

I don’t usually go in for this PG-rated goody-goody stuff.  (The fiction I write tends more to the dark side.)  But, I was pleasantly surprised by this film.  It’s gotten luke-warm box office returns and mixed reviews, but I enjoyed it tremendously. 

It’s premise and plot are unconventional (which hasn’t earned it too many fans) but I found its eccentricity refreshingly original and endearing.  It introduces itself with a bit of self-satirizing banter between the story’s two main protagonists, arguing with each other as to where the story really begins.  They decide to begin it at a 1960’s world’s fair, with Frank Walker, a young boy who seems to embody the scientifically pioneering, forward-looking, dreamy-eyed spirit of the America of an earlier day.  The kid has invented a jet pack (which doesn’t work in any practical way, but is still loads of fun) and dreams of bright future eras of scientific advancement.  A mysterious little girl entices him into a fantastic adventure, transporting him as if by magic into a futuristic utopian world that is everything he’s ever dreamed the future could be.  That was then.  Of course, we all know, America’s dream didn’t come true.

So, half a century later, the starry-eyed boy whose dreams failed has grown up into a grumpy, embittered, cynical, eccentric scientist (played by George Clooney, if you can believe it, ladies) living alone in a run-down house, protected by his futuristic gadgetry and cut off from the outside world.  The current crop of young dreamers is represented by Casey Newton, a feisty teenaged girl (played by Brit Robertson) whose father works as a space engineer for NASA.  As the space program’s budget dries up, her dad’s career spiraling into a black hole and America’s capacity to dream following suit, Casey rebels, refusing to believe the spark of imagination is truly dead.  Contacted by the same mysterious girl (who turns out to be an android) who reached out to Frank Walker back in the day, she glimpses the future world he once saw and sets out on a cross-country adventure to find him, pursued every step of the way by killer androids from the future.  “Terminator” on a Disney road trip.  What more could you ask?

The special effects are imaginative and beautiful, making artful use of an imagined holographic technology.  You see an illusory world, while walking blind through the real one, bumping your head against invisible walls.  Memorable scenes include the young heroine transported in her mind into the future world while riding in a seemingly invisible car or walking chest-deep into a lake, two worlds merging, dream-like.  The film has something for everybody, but to an aging sci-fi buff like me, it hit close to home.  As in a scene where Casey’s quest leads her to a sci-fi curio shop run by a way-out, freakishly eccentric couple who satirize the science fiction lovers of this world.

The film is a rebellion against the post-apocalyptic science fiction which is currently popular, reminding us of the more optimistic brand of science fiction that was popular in an earlier day.  Back when we still dreamed of better days ahead, still daring to believe that human beings are capable of reaching for the stars through our own ingenuity.  The message of the film is summed up in a quaint riddle Casey learns from her dad:  Two wolves fight.  One embodies despair, the other hope.  Which wolf wins?  Answer:  Whichever one you feed.

The film is the most fun when it turns into a wild chase story which takes us from the U.S. to Paris, France.  The joy of this film is in its sheer wackiness.  Parts of it reminded me of Doctor Who.  Other parts reminded me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the DaVinci Code.  From a butt-kicking, yet endearing artificial intelligence that outwardly looks like a twelve-year-old girl, to the absolutely absurd idea that the Eiffel tower is actually a gigantic antenna build to receive sub-space radio signals from other dimensions, it’s a wonderfully fun and wild romp through the impossible.  We’re told that Gustave Eiffel, Thomas Edison, Jules Verne and Nikola Tesla headed a consortium of geniuses who wanted to create a utopian world of pure scientific research, free of the interference of greed, war or politics.  We see the Eiffel tower split open, revealing a hidden rocket silo beneath the streets of Paris.  Our heroes launch into outer space and slip into another universe, where the utopian world of scientists abides.  Or, rather, doesn’t.  The dream of a better world has failed.  The question is, why?

Turns out, Frank Walker killed the dream.  How?  He invented a machine that reveals the future.  And yes, the future is dystopian.  Global warming, ecological collapse, war.  Walker had figured that if the disbelieving masses could be shown that their present path led inevitably to disaster, they would do the right thing and change course, creating a better future.  It didn’t work.  The leader of the failed scientific utopia (the villain of the piece) explains that showing people the apocalypse breeds only despair, not hope; it makes them feed the wrong wolf.  “Showing them the apocalypse only made them embrace it,” he explains.  “They wrote books and made movies about it.  It became a culture.  They lost all hope.”

This hit home for me, too.  I’ve attended a lot of strategy sessions with ecological activists debating about what is the most effective strategy for educating the public about the dangers of pollution and ecological damage.  There are basically two schools of thought:  one which advocates frightening the public with disconcerting scientific evidence, and one which says that a more positive approach is more effective.  I’ve personally leaned more to the former, while this movie advocates the latter.

The film ends in a typical sci-fi action film way, with the citadel of evil collapsing in a cataclysmic explosion.  But, the failed dream is rekindled, bright young minds from all over the world recruited to build a better future.  Hope springs eternal.

This film is never going to know the success of Harry Potter, but it certainly deserves an “A” for effort.  It’s a kid’s film on the face of it, but it carries a message very much for adults.  An important message which, sadly, many will simply shrug off.  The ambition of a writer to convey a message to his or her audience through fiction is a difficult challenge:  To make the story the conveyer of the message in such a way as not to alienate the audience by being “preachy.”  Some writers make the attempt.  Most who do fail.  But, it’s a noble endeavor.  And, hit or miss, you might put on a great show trying.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Summer Challenge for You

You have heard a lot about my challenges. Now, I have one for you! I'll even join you.

Let's do some Spring Cleaning this summer...okay,yeah--technically, not spring. But I want to inspire you to go to those files on your computer and take a look at them. Are you a writer too? If so, there are probably at least a few WIPs somewhere on your hard drive.

Let's revisit them. Are they something that you can finish? If not, are they something you can re-purpose? If not, are they something that you really need? If not--use that little key up in the corner, and delete them. (I know...that's very hard to do--if you can't quite bring yourself to delete, move them off the computer onto a flash drive. If you still haven't looked at them in six months...revisit deleting them.)

Next, does your office look like this? (This is one of the reasons I do my work on a table in front of the bigscreen instead of in my office. Another reason is...bigscreen.)

I am going to be working on cleaning this too this summer. Let's get our offices in shape for NaNoWriMo in November. That gives us a goal, and a deadline. I'll tell you how far I get, you tell me your progress. :)

Do we have a deal?