Prayer

Years ago, I visited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Woodstock, New York. It was my first visit to a Buddhist temple, and it was glorious — the designs and decoration on the temple itself, the many essentials in its construction (it must face a specific direction; it must have an unobstructed view; there must be running water nearby; etc.), the massive golden Buddha at the far end of the worship space, the multiple full offering bowls across the altars, the hangings, every detail was memorable. But through it all, there was one bit that stood out. My husband and I were among a small group of visitors being guided around the site by a friendly, somewhat distant Buddhist nun. Among the visitors was a Buddhist monk from another temple in another city. I don’t remember his name; I do remember that he was dressed in the saffron and burgundy robes I have always associated with that faith’s clergy. I also remember that he held a string of beads, running them smoothly through his fingers throughout the entire tour. He never spoke, nor asked any question, but simply listened to the nun with a peaceful half-smile on his face the entire time. Finally, at the end of the tour, our guide asked if there were any questions. I raised my hand, and when she called on me, I turned and addressed my question to the quiet monk: “Do you use those beads to pray?”

“Yes,” he smiled, fingering another bead.

“Are you praying now?” I asked.

“I am always praying,” he responded, moving to the next bead without hesitation.

“Even when you sleep?” I queried, astounded.

“Even when I sleep.” Next bead. He must have heard this question before.

As a child, I knew prayer was an important part of my relationship with God. But as an adult, when I converted to Wicca, I began to question that perception. If the Gods are greater than I, surely they knew my thoughts, even before I did, I reasoned. And I stopped praying.

Years later, I found myself in the midst of a period of doubt and longing in my faith. (What serious seeker has not experienced such a time, at least once?) In my frustration, I found myself spontaneously talking to the Divine as if She were a close friend and not a parental figure.

“Look,” I began. “I’m really stuck here, and I could use your help. Where the hell have you been?” And it was as if She was truly there. I felt some of the answers I sought coming, slowly but definitely; and I knew that the rest would follow when it was time. That moment of unplanned prayer brought me a great sense of peace, one I desperately needed at the time. Thinking back on that moment, I was reminded of the poem about the seeker who asked God to speak to her, and a lark began to sing, but she did not hear; she complained that she could not see God in her daily life, and a flower opened at her feet, but she turned away; she cried because she could not feel God’s presence, and a soft breeze caressed her cheek, but went unnoticed.

To this day, I still talk to the Divine in everyday conversational tones as if She is an old friend. I figure She knows me best, so why put on airs? She doesn’t always answer in ways I expect, nor in ways I want. And even silence, or a lack of obvious response is a reply, is it not? Some things we have to learn on our own; the lessons cannot be handed to us any more than we can ride a bicycle simply by watching someone else do it. And for some life circumstances, the only way out is through. In those times, I speak to God as if I am speaking to myself, working out my problems aloud to an “empty” room or van, and knowing She hears. It always helps.

Talking to God, whether aloud or silently, is indeed one way to feel a closer connection to that divine energy. But it is my firm belief that this is only one form of prayer. My mother always taught me that our actions speak louder than our words. With that in mind, I try to live my life as if it were a prayer. After all, what better form of gratitude can we possibly show the Divine than to walk our talk and demonstrate our growth? There seems to me no better way to inspire ourselves to continue along what can be a difficult path than to see for ourselves that we can be taught and, in seeing this, realize that the difficult times have meaning and purpose.

— Drema Deòraich (from April 2008)

 

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Harper Voyager, © 2016
ISBN 9780062569400
Print length 384 pages, $16.99

This stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, begins 28 minutes after a sentient AI personality has been transferred from the body of a ship to a human-like body. Nothing could have prepared her for such a drastic change—where she used to have wide-ranging vision and sensory input all through and outside the ship, now she is limited to input provided by her smaller body, her visual range reduced to a “cone” of visible space directly in front of her face. Not only is she completely unprepared for the adaptation and totally naïve in the ways of the world, she’s on the run from the authorities. Encasing an AI in a body kit is highly illegal. She has no idea how to navigate as a human through the colonial settlements without giving herself away, which could make things problematic. Except for her friend Pepper, she would never survive. At Pepper’s direction, she takes a human name (Sidra) and a job (working in Pepper’s junk shop), and begins learning what it means to be human.

In a second storyline, we meet Jane 23, a young slave child in a factory run by the Mothers, anonymous robots who keep the girl slaves in line and see that the quotas are met each day. 23’s simple thoughts range into dangerous territory, wondering about esoteric questions like the world beyond the factory until one night she finds herself outside the building and, when the Mothers discover her escape, running for her life. But 23 doesn’t know how to survive on her own. She’s hungry and cold and in fear of the wild dogs that roam in packs until she stumbles onto an old downed spacecraft whose AI, Owl, still functions. Together, Owl and 23 survive the harsh conditions on the planet until they can find a way out together.

Seemingly two separate tales, these stories collide in ways both subtle and direct. Chambers once again nails the interpersonal relationships in an intimate way that stirs the imagination and the heart equally. Rather than focus on war or crime or violence, the plot in both Chambers’ novels centers on the characters; but Closed and Common Orbit gets even closer to shine a warm light on their most vulnerable moments.

The story is told through the eyes of Sidra and Jane as each navigates her way toward salvation, contentment and safety. Though not directly connected to the initial book in the Wayfarer series, Common Orbit is set in the same universe and shares many details. If you loved the interaction with other species so prevalent in Long Way, you’ll find plenty more here. Sidra’s home with Pepper and Blue centers on an interplanetary market, of sorts, which is introduced in book one. It’s a place where almost anything can be bought.

Through Jane and Sidra, Chambers explores prejudice, personal rights, sentience, and what it means to be human. Once again, there’s no specific antagonist; instead the enemies are the Mothers, the dogs, failing equipment, the laws that would separate Sidra from her body and penalize Pepper for daring to help her in the first place. Sidra’s predicament forces others around her to see in new ways, and to realize that one’s own perspective is not so easily or comfortably thrust on another without consequences.

Common Orbit continues the feeling of Long Way in that it’s a moving, inspirational tale that takes an honest look at interpersonal relationships and challenges our authenticity—to ourselves and to each other. It was truly an enjoyable and uplifting read.

An Education In Craft

That first summer I worked with Paula on editing my manuscript, I read more than I wrote. Some of the books I read were helpful, and still sit on my shelf for future reference or inspiration. But the three that really stood out for me were Larry Brooks’ Story Physics and Story Engineering, and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. All three point out how to plot a storyline—that’s right people. That’s when I left behind my “pantser” ways and became a “plotter.”

Okay, maybe not totally, but at the very least I added plotting into my wayward pantser process.

Books on the craft of writing marketable fiction seem (in my limited experience) to take one of two positions: a three-act plan or a four-part plan. Vogler takes the first; Brooks takes the second. If you are familiar with the great American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, you’ll understand the concept of the Hero’s Journey. That’s the structure that underlies Vogler’s planning tactics. And it works. I can see it in every book and movie (try watching Star Wars or the Matrix series without seeing the Hero’s story arc). It’s a timeless, classic method of storytelling that really works.

Brooks’s four-part plan in Physics and Engineering is essentially the same thing, just broken down differently. He teaches that the writer needs four major plot elements: a hook and three major plot points where everything changes for the protagonist. But he still breaks it down to the hero’s journey: the hero’s world changes, the hero reacts, the hero takes an active role, the hero succeeds, even if success doesn’t look anything like what she expected. Of course I’m oversimplifying here; the point is that there is a “formula” (I know, that’s a dirty word for pantsers) that works. What’s important to remember is that following a formula does not mean the story has to be predictable or boring.

For me, it’s sort of like using a map to plan a trip—it shows all the routes available to get a traveler from point A (her starting point) to point B (her destination). Once she knows her options, she can then select the route most suitable for her purpose. For a direct trip, perhaps interstates would be best. However, if she wants a scenic journey, the traveler might choose the most roundabout path. Either way, knowing the route ahead of time helps her to plan effectively.

It’s the same with writing a story. From the starting point (Scene 1, my hook, how my book will begin), I decide how I want my story to end. That final scene is my overarching goal, my objective. Knowing this helps me to aim my story’s course with every scene, every action and word from every character pointed in the right direction for maximum impact.

That doesn’t mean my characters can’t divert onto side roads, as long as those detours tie in to the main storyline in some meaningful way. Remember: publishing houses have very specific expectations on word count. Too many detours without meaningful connections waste those precious words that might otherwise be used to tighten and embolden the hero’s main journey. They detract from the reader’s focus. How many books have you read where the writer seemed to meander from the main plot without any rhyme or reason? Did you love it or hate it?

Think of it this way. An archer can’t really be effective without a target. That’s what a beat sheet (one of Brooks’s plotting tools) does: it offers a series of targets at which the writer can aim her scenes.

I said in a prior post that my old ways of writing left me not knowing from moment to moment what any given character would do, or how, or to whom. Having a beat sheet is, for me, like having a story skeleton, onto which I can then layer the flesh of characterization and scenes and twists. Without the underlying structure, the rest becomes a shapeless blob. I even use it for short stories now.

I won’t say plotting is easy. It ain’t. What I can say with confidence is that Brooks’ method of pre-planning through a “beat sheet” has been an incredible help for me! (Larry Brooks also has a blog called “Story Fix.” Check it out at http://storyfix.com/ to see more of his instructional writing.)

There are a ton of books out there on the craft of writing, and just as many on technique. If you’re looking to learn more, shop around. Read the reviews. Then check one out from the library. If you like it, buy it—mostly to support the writer, but also because you’ll want to keep it around for later reference. Just remember that every writer has her own process, her own style. Even if none of the books offers a usable recipe, you will have learned the necessary ingredients to create your own, one that will fit with the publishing industry’s wish list. And for those of us seeking publication through traditional avenues, that’s as good as the recipe for the philosopher’s stone.

Where It All Went Wrong

How hard can it be?

Remember that? Yeah. (Nostalgic sigh.) I must admit I was overwhelmed at the thought of reducing the 800K-word tome I’d produced to the manageable 120K draft manuscript recommended by an agent. After only a day or two of lingering freak-out, I took the figurative scissors to my draft and chopped out bits relevant to the main character—Alira—then laid them end-to-end and read it through.

No good. I’d relied too much on that other content to bring sense to Alira’s story in the larger tale. So I added in relevant details until it made sense, tweaking it along the way. In the meantime, a fellow writer had recommended an editor in Texas (Hi Paula!) who could help. I contacted her and worked out an arrangement by which she could give me advice and take me on as a client. When I thought it was ready, I sent her my manuscript.

Needless to say, it was garbage. My characters were flat, their reasons for doing things unclear. Overall, the story had no passion on the page. Those aren’t the exact words Paula used; she was much more diplomatic, much more encouraging. Still, hearing that I’d have to completely rewrite the whole thing was like a blow to the gut. I cried for two days. (Laugh, published writers. You know exactly what I’m talking about.)

When I stopped crying, I started reading. Paula gave me a string of books on the craft of writing, which I’ll talk about in a later post. I read—and learned—all summer, and when I finally put the books down, I picked the pen up. (Figuratively speaking.) I felt supercharged. This time, I’d get it right!

I wrote all through the Fall and Winter, and by late Spring, I had another draft for Paula. All during the few weeks she had My Baby, I filled my hours with things I didn’t normally have time to do, like visit friends, go to the beach, see a movie, spend time with my husband. It was almost like a mini-vacation, back then. (Since then, I’ve learned that a writer never stops writing. If it’s not on one project, it’s on another.)

Finally, Paula was finished. I read through her comments, and rejoiced: No Need to Rewrite!!! The manuscript did, however, require a lot of work. Paula suggested a few more books and resources, which I dutifully explored, then I got back to it. When I “finished” that draft, I enlisted beta-readers (Thanks, Laura! Thanks, Dominique! Thanks, William! Thanks, Hubby!), who gave me their unvarnished opinions and comments. I, too, re-read it and marked up the copy.

By the time I gave it back to Paula the next Spring, I loved the story even more than I had to begin with. All that work, all that focus, all those tears and late nights and lost sleep had resulted in a tighter, more fleshed-out version of my characters and their various worlds. Paula had offered to read the first 100 pages again without further fee, and you better believe I took her up on it.

Her response? It’s ready.

Can you see me happy-dancing all over my office? Can you imagine the squeal of delight? The power is real, my friends. Fiction-writing, along with my characters and the worlds that have blossomed and born fruit in my mind, has shoved its roots so deep in me I may never again leave its stony path.

My point is this: the writing was easy. Making it an acceptable piece of marketable fiction is proving more of a challenge. If a writer wants to make this business their career, it has to be an all-or-nothing approach. Presenters at this year’s writers’ conference all seemed to be pointing out the same theme: this is a business. Agents are looking for new clients, yes; but for every single client slot, there may be hundreds, nay thousands of writers angling for an opening. Every single word I write must shine, or no one will even notice my work. At least, not at first. Even once I make it (as of course, I will), I can’t stop striving for excellence. An old friend used to challenge me whenever I expressed weariness: “What, you’re going to sit back on your laurels? How far do you think that will take you?”

My advice? If you’re a budding writer (as I still am), find an editor, someone who comes recommended or someone you know and trust. Then—and this is the most important part—LISTEN TO WHAT SHE SAYS. Yes, it’s your story. Yes, you get final say. But unless you’ve been in the business a while, she’s likely to know more than you. You’re paying for her service. Stand back and let her do her job.

Don’t forget to keep writing, and never—NEVER—give up!

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

HarperCollins Publishers © 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-233451-0
880 pages, $35.00

When the moon blows up for no apparent reason, people first wonder what happened. Then the fuzzy, expanding cluster of seven enormous boulders that once made up Earth’s sole satellite becomes a curiosity. But once the scientists realize what’s going to happen next, the novelty quickly turns to fear.

Dinah MacQuerie and Ivy Xiao, stationed aboard the International Space Station or “Izzy,” soon learn that they’ll never be able to set foot on land again. That they’ll spend the rest of their lives on Izzy, in weightless space. That the families they’d left behind are as good as dead. From the moment “Doc” Dubois understands that exponential collisions of moon debris will bring down a “hard rain” of bolides which will destroy all life on the surface of the Earth, the race is on. Experts predict humanity will have two years to find a way to live in space until it’s safe to return—at least five thousand years.

I’m not giving anything away by revealing these details. The moon’s demolition happens in the opening sentence. Understanding that the further degradation and spread of its remains will eventually render the surface of the Earth uninhabitable comes close on the heels of that first, almost unnoticed disaster. Seveneves isn’t about that destruction. It’s about the frantic plan to save as many humans as possible by getting them off the surface before it’s too late. It’s also about the strength—and weakness—inherent in all of us, and the price everyone pays for one person’s hubris.

So much of the story takes place on Izzy that she almost becomes a character in her own right. Stephenson does an excellent job of portraying life there, as well as the experience of weightlessness and the quirky problems and challenges it presents. As Izzy fills up and builds out, her residents new and old learn to handle crowded living conditions, safeguard their fragile and vulnerable habitat and now scarce resources, and shortening tempers. In most cases, those involved grow closer, more bonded. But human nature will not long be denied and when it surfaces in the survivors’ tenuous setting, it starts a chain of events that eventually lead to one of the major plot points of the book.

Seveneves is definitely hard sci-fi; Stephenson does a good job of explaining the physics of orbital mechanics and the technological details of living in space, most of which even I understood enough to follow. I must admit, however, that some of his explanations seemed to plumb unnecessary depths, and I skimmed past before I could fall asleep. Even so, the premise of the story is fascinating, delving into sociological as well as cultural obstacles and solutions, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book.

The last third jumps ahead 5,000 years. Humanity has created a complete habitat ring in space around the Earth, and evolved into very different and distinct races. Life as it was pre-zero is only a memory and an Epic taught to the children. I found Stephenson’s description of this new human society fascinating and, in many ways, relatable, but somehow in the shift, he lost me. Perhaps it is because, in my opinion, he told me what the characters were thinking and feeling instead of showing me through the characters themselves. The end could have been much more compelling. Plenty of exciting things take place. Still, I didn’t feel what I imagine the characters were supposed to feel. When the monumental twist came, it fell flat for me. I was left unsatisfied and unmoved.

I’ve read other reviews of this book that disagree with my opinion here, so perhaps it is only a matter of taste. As this is my first Stephenson read, I can’t say whether this is a normal part of his style. I do know I enjoyed it enough that I won’t let it stop me from reading another of his novels. I encourage you to read it, and decide for yourself.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

HarperCollins Publishers, LLC, © 2014
ISBN 9780062444134
Print length 467 pages, $10.81

When Rosemary’s feet leave Mars for the first time, it’s to take a cramped pod shuttle to rendezvous with her new employer, Captain Ashby Santoso, aboard the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that digs passages through space, shortcuts for travel throughout the Galactic Commons. While Rosemary is running from family problems, she finds that she has run to a new home, one she won’t want to leave behind.

Long Way is character-driven space opera at its finest. The capable but quirky crew consists of Captain Ashby, pilot Sissix, algeist Corbin, techs Kizzy and Jenks, clerk Rosemary, medic and cook Doctor Chef, navigator Ohan, and the ship’s AI Lovey. Their ship, Wayfarer, is a hodge-podge of cobbled-together parts and equipment that somehow, through the expert ministrations of Kizzy and Jenks, functions at or near optimum. Still, its small stature and low-end tunneling equipment suit it only for small jobs. Ashby has occasionally dreamed of taking his ship and crew to the next level, but credits are tight and one does not just step operations up a notch without the proper equipment.

So when a prime new job practically lands in his lap—not just any job, but one that would significantly boost the crew’s and the ship’s credits, status and capabilities—Ashby says yes. Their assignment is to connect the Galactic Commons to a distant, newly opened territory. No problem, except that there’s no pre-established tunnel, nor any anchor in the new space toward which they can aim a new passage. The Wayfarer must travel to their destination without shortcuts. A year of close quarters, idle hands and potential risks all seem worthwhile—until they arrive.

But that’s not the point of the story. While the climax helps to drive the narrative, Long Way is really about the characters. En route to their goal, Wayfarer stops at various ports of call to make essential purchases, to relieve the long-haul boredom, or just to visit with friends and family. It’s these episodes that make the story more interesting as we learn more about the characters and their various species and cultural norms. The crew, inter-species though they may be, are indeed a family of the heart. Through good times and bad, they stick together and support one another as family should. More than once, I had tears in my eyes as I read moving emotional sequences.

Author Becky Chambers takes on a lot in this uplifting, hopeful tale. In a Galactic community, where species are as different from one another as it is possible to be, somehow the powers that be have managed to find and maintain a delicate balance. Humans are new to the mix, adding volatility that had been resolved long ago by the more traveled races; what’s important to note is that Long Way takes on issues critical to such a melting-pot social setting like ethical questions, moral quandaries, gender issues and cultural differences between species, the sorts of things that humans can’t seem to master in this world. Chambers clearly holds strong, positive opinions on these and similar topics, and they shine through in her narrative.

There is no one set protagonist or antagonist in this book. Instead, the reader sees through the eyes of each crewmember at one time or another, but for me this did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. I found myself cheering the crew as they prospered, or laughing at their hijinks, or holding my breath for their safety or resolution in tight situations. Although humans fill a small space in this larger tale, the other species also wrangled with issues that would be familiar to any of us. I had no trouble relating to non-human characters. My only criticism is that I would have liked to see more about the physical appearances of the various species so I could imagine them as I read. Chambers does a passable job in this area, but she so excels in the rest of the story I can forgive this small shortcoming.

Overall, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the most enjoyable read I’ve experienced in a long time. Its positive attitude and the compassionate outlook of the characters truly lifted my spirit. I can’t recommend it enough.

It’s a Love Thang (or How I Fell In Love With My Characters)

Writers are omniscient, at least within their own worlds. They know who’s doing what to (or with) whom and why, what the probable outcome will be, what price will be paid by those involved, and where all the action is taking place. Ask any author about the city where her story takes place. She can tell you without hesitation where the seedy dives are located, where the upper crust population shops, where you might find black market bargains, and which streets are safe to walk after dark. Not that all those details ever show up in a story; most likely, they won’t. But the writer has to know them, nonetheless. Just in case.

When I put that same principal to work on my characters, it was love—the same sort of love I imagine any creator has for her creation. I know each of my characters intimately; all their flaws and secrets lay bare before me. Their accomplishments make me proud. Their quirks make me smile (or make me want to smack them silly, depending on the sitch). Sometimes they surprise me but for the most part, I know which ones will be strong, which ones will falter and where or how. I understand their motivations, whether or not they are acting in accordance with what I would personally do. Even my antagonists have reasons for their foibles.

Years ago, a friend gave me a canvas tote that says, “Please do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you off.” While I haven’t done that (yet), I can sympathize with the idea. Many of my characters are a conglomeration of real-life people, usually (though not always) friends or family members—this one’s musical ability and happy-go-lucky attitude and that one’s philandering, wrapped up with criminal tendencies and a dark streak a kilometer long make up Bardo, one of my favorite lovable bad boys who is actually one of the good guys. Mix one friend’s hedonism with another’s desire to ignore problems until they bowl her over, sprinkle in a generous amount of surprises hidden deep beneath the surface and voila! Magdalene appears! Even people I have never met are fair game; in fact, if you see me sitting back sipping my coffee in a public place and staring at someone, I’m probably watching for stealable traits.

So yes, it’s true. I love all my characters, even the ones you will (hopefully) love to hate. I can’t help it; they’re real to me. They have to be, or I can’t make them real for you. I wrestle with showing their strengths and weaknesses through words on a page, even though I know what they are by virtue of the fact that I created them. That struggle fleshes out each character even more for me, making her that much more solid, so that when the plot bits come together and dictate that one of them must die, it’s a sad day for me, even if they “deserved” it. That’s part of the omniscient writer package. Sometimes, no matter what I do or how I twist the details, there’s just no other way it can reasonably end. (It makes me wonder if the Universe has the same problem sometimes, laying out the threads of our futures. Things that make you go “Hmmmm….”)

In the long run, the characters in my current storyline will take a back seat, and new ones (like the budding characters in a future crime drama or dystopian future tale) will shift to the front. The inhabitants of the Umani’s universe will never leave me; they’re my first created beings, and will always have a special place in my heart. Besides, their stories are ongoing, and hold fodder for a lifetime of tales. I hope I’ll have the privilege of all their Tellings.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

Spectra Publishing, © 1990
ISBN 978-0553283686
Mass Market Paperback, 481 pages, $6.82

In a dark and foreboding universe, Hyperion is only one among many terraformed human worlds, though it may well be the oddest. Home to the Time Tombs, which move backward through time, Hyperion is also home to the Shrike, a horrific monster said to guard the Tombs. Some hate the Shrike. Other worship it. All fear it. Yet legend has it that the monster grants audience to pilgrims who come on foot in groups of prime numbers, and that it hears all petitions and grants one wish. The catch—there’s always a catch—is that most people who encounter the Shrike die in unspeakable ways.

With humanity on the brink of war, and Hyperion a central focus for both sides, future pilgrimages are suspended. One last group makes its way against the tide of evacuations as the enemy draws nearer. Knowing they are likely marching to their deaths, each of these final pilgrims tells their tale of connection to the abandoned world, revealing bit by bit the connection between them all and what ties them to the Shrike.

Though this review only covers the first book in the series, the Hyperion Cantos is actually a four-book series. The first two volumes, Hyperion (1990) and The Fall of Hyperion (1995), take place in the same era. The last two, Endymion (1995) and The Rise of Endymion (1997), follow the story 272 years later. Further reviews on those books will follow as I read them.

There’s a lot to love in this book. The characters project rich backgrounds and unique personalities, especially with their stories, each rife with details that explain not only why they’ve come to the pilgrimage in the first place but why they are who they are. Some of the characters are easy to like. Personally, I loved Sol Weintraub’s tragic saga of his daughter. The Consul, too, caught my sympathy with his tale of a love carried out across time differences. Other characters—the poet, Martin Silenus, for example—left me cold. If I happened to meet Silenus in real time/space, I would want nothing to do with him. His tale, however, is intriguing, as are they all. In fact, the pilgrims’ accounts are both the strength and the weakness of Hyperion. They draw the reader in and snare her on the details, on wondering how this connects to the larger narrative; at the same time, just at the point where the reader is most engrossed, the pilgrim’s tale ends, and the reader is thrust back into the larger story of their trek. I found it a bit jarring, a la Canterbury Tales, but not enough to put down the novel, thank goodness. It was worth my time.

I will say that this book is not an easy read. Nor is it suitable for someone who enjoys only light sci-fi; Hyperion is a true space opera. Time-debts (differentials in the passage of time between those on a planetary surface and those engaged in space travel) play a key role in the story overall, which is a bit confusing at first. Technology in the Hegemony of Man is (no pun intended) light-years ahead of contemporary Earth civilization. Farcasters connect distant worlds through portals (WorldWeb) which I envisioned to be gates, similar to those in the old Stargate television series. Humans are allied with AIs, who inhabit and run the TechnoCore and control all mankind’s high tech. Some humans have data ports in their brains so that they can be plugged into the Web on a constant basis. And that’s just the basics. In most cases, Simmons offers no explanation for terminology such as “the hive” and “treeship,” leaving the reader to imagine it on her own. In addition, some characters are centuries old — due in part to available medical technology.

Readers who love such imagined futures in sci-fi will love this classic. But don’t just get the first book; get all four. I wish I had, since this is not a standalone book. If you want to know how it ends, you must read on.

Overall, I found this to be a most enjoyable read, and look forward to continuing the saga with The Fall of Hyperion.

Going with the Flow

As I said last week, my initial foray into writing fiction was flawed. In the science fiction market, the genre for my first novel, acceptable manuscript word count tops out at around 120K as a maximum for a first-time author; mine was greater than 800K and still going with no signs of ending any time soon. But I’m pretty sure it was a launch problem, not a design problem. I’m still convinced the story itself has real potential.

See, writing fiction has power—power over its audience, surely (hopefully!), but also over its writer. The ability to design my own world(s), plots, character-driven and plot-driven crises and resolutions or lacks thereof, even the research I did to make the scenarios realistic, as well as the opportunity to say something worthwhile within my storyline, rooted in me so deeply I didn’t give the rules much thought, if I even knew what they were. I just wrote.

And wrote.

And wrote.

At the time, I told people, “I hear voices in my head. They’re going to make me rich.” (Yeah, experienced writers. Laugh. You know you want to.)

Apparently, in the world of professional fiction writing, there are “plotters” and “pantsers.” Plotters map out their entire story from beginning to end, knowing where every detail will happen and how it will affect the scenes to follow, as well as where the crisis points will take place and how it will all end. Pantsers sit at the other end of the spectrum, winging every single scene, handing the reins over to their characters and their plot and the worlds they’ve built and saying to themselves (and their agents), “Let’s see where this goes.” I was (past tense) definitely in the second camp, so far to that end that I had no idea how or even if the darn thing would end. My characters would dictate story so loud that I sometimes had trouble sleeping, and so fast that my fingers could barely keep up. I was as surprised by what they did as anyone who read my work. Every time I finished a chapter, a small crew would gather to hear it read aloud, then offer their critiques and comments. It was great fun, and a wild ride, but that was only the beginning.

Most writers, I’m told, fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes, plotting the major points while allowing some degree of creative flexibility in the plan; their characters are given some leeway to drive the engine along controlled segues and side-streets, as long as the whole train ends up at a reasonable and believable juncture in the end. I think that’s where I’ve landed, at least so far. I have no illusions about coming to rest on any particular process this early in my writing career. My education continues.

I still hear the characters in my head, just not all at once. The crowd has thinned, so to speak. Those other characters, the ones I don’t hear so often any more, haven’t left the building. They’re just in another room, waiting their turn. The secret I had to discover is that one book should be about one protagonist, two at most, and the prevailing conflict that separates her from what she wants. I started working with an editor (hi Paula!), whose brutal guidance assured me that I had to cut out 75% of my content, and focus what was left. Two years and four drafts later, she finally e-mailed the words that prompted my happy-dance: “It’s ready to pitch.” My current draft sits at 119K words, and is awaiting an agent’s attention.

It’s not perfect, not yet. But I think it’s ready for representation. Books two and three (that’s where some of those other characters will get their shot) are in the planning stage; if book one takes off and my agent thinks it would make a good series, I can move forward on them. Otherwise, they can become stories in their own rights for later books. In any event, I continue to learn and grow into this craft. Because yes—writing is a craft. It takes guidance, education and practice, practice, practice to get it right (or is that “write”?).

Letting My Inside Voice Out

Nobody takes fiction writers seriously.

That’s what I used to think. As a volunteer journalist and editor on a small non-profit press for more than ten years, I snorted at the suggestion I should write fiction. Why, if I wrote something as superficial as a novel, no one would ever buy my non-fiction books, which simmered happily on the back burner of my creative imagination. (Still do, actually.)

Then our family income level dropped, and I had to go back to work. Standing for 6-8 hours behind a register in a retail chain clothing store has its charm, I’m sure, but it was completely lost on me. After more than a year of dealing with thoughtless, sometimes even hostile customers on a daily basis, I revisited the idea of fiction. Maybe I could write a short story. I knew absolutely nothing about writing fiction or, more importantly, what it took to get my work to market; but if I could get one published, it would be a small income. Then I could write and publish others. Repeat as necessary. Really, how hard could it be?

If you’re a writer, you’re probably laughing your tuchis off right about now. How hard indeed.

That little short story became the manuscript that ate New York. Running about 800,000 words, it would still be going if someone—an agent at a writer’s conference who, to her credit, did not laugh in my face when I quoted my word count—hadn’t stopped me. I’ll talk more about that in a later post.

My point is that the fiction bug infected me with its fiery allure and ardent expression, because let’s face it; you can’t write good fiction if you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing. My characters came alive in my mind, spoke often and loud about what “they” wanted to happen, and endeared themselves to me almost as much as the “real” people in my life. I understand from other writers that this is common; fictional characters, especially protagonists and antagonists that drive the story, demand your focus. If you don’t give them 100% of your attention, they can’t fully manifest into three-dimensional beings that live and breathe in the reader’s imagination. Who would buy a novel without that?

I sat down to write that “short story” in 2008. Here it is, early in the year 2017. I’m not yet published, but I’m so much closer than I was, and what a ride it’s been! Just as with any newbie, I devoured one book after another about story structure, publishing, and the art of writing in general. I sought advice from one advisor after another. I attended classes and conferences in an effort to find the “right” way to write. What I’ve discovered so far is that everyone has an opinion, sometimes at opposite ends of the spectrum, and most of them insist theirs is the only “right” way.

I’ve come to believe that ultimately it’s up to the writer. As long as our methods work for us, and we’re able to get our work out there to our readers, I’m not sure it matters whether we follow methods of a writing guru or create our own path to success. Besides, with so many ways to publish these days, options are unlimited. I’m currently trying the traditional route. We’ll see where it goes.

But hey, like I said, I’m new to this business, learning as I go. Who am I to say what will or won’t work for you? (I’m not even sure what works for me, yet.) I’m sure I’ll hear comments from both sides of the argument on that score. I will say that most agents I’ve heard from tell me that publishing is a very subjective business, that what works for one agent or publisher won’t work for another, and that you should keep trying and don’t get discouraged.

Never give up, never surrender!

My adventures in writing have all proven educational; I don’t look for that to change any time soon. Now that I have a website and am seriously querying and branching out in my writing endeavors, I want to journal about them here, so that you can follow along, if you wish. Keep in mind as you read that I am a new writer, and am writing from limited personal experience. Your mileage may vary, and I encourage you to share your own constructive or helpful input here in the comments.

So come along for the ride! I hope to share my discoveries so far, as well as my ongoing adventures into the realm of traditional publishing (as they occur) in coming posts. Stay with me, and we’ll find out what happens together!