Post #39 – A French Writing Adventure, Part 2

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9/20/18

Last week I detailed a laptop battery issue that kept me from writing for several days while on vacation in Paris. Before leaving the U.S., I had grand plans of writing every night once the family went to bed. Since that wasn’t happening, what’d I do instead? I read! And it was luxurious.

I don’t get much free time to read. I don’t get much free time at all. What little I have I mostly use to write. From a reading standpoint, I’ve been working my way through the same two books all year. For some reason, I tend to read a physical book and an ebook simultaneously. I hope to finish reading both by Christmas. Then I can get an early start on my two for next year.

I also have subscriptions to two sci-fi magazines: Galaxy’s Edge (it’s free to read online) and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (purchased a year’s electronic subscription on sale for $5 on Amazon). Before this trip, I don’t think I’d made it through an entire issue of either.

I’m pleased to report I’ve now read an entire issue of Galaxy’s Edge. I’m still working on the MFSF issue. Even once I resolved the battery issue, I continued reading in the evenings after everyone went to bed. Following a day of walking and chasing two kids around the beach (we’d moved on to Aix-en-Provence and finished in Antibes on the French Riviera), I was too tired to write at night; or the logistics of our accommodations didn’t permit me to keep a light on. (My next laptop needs a back-lit keyboard.) I usually could finish a story or two before nodding off.

as an aside, before kids, when vacationing, my wife and I each would take a book to read and then we’d share a third book. Even then, we often bought one or more books from a local store. We were prolific readers. Good times.

Once in Antibes, we stayed at a great Airbnb with a second story terrace. There, during a couple nap times, I managed to hammer out a few more words. The three painters we experienced in Provence (Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Picasso) were not that inspiring for my writing, but the opportunity to write in the open air on a terrace was. I finished the first draft of a short story that had languished for a while and started a flash fiction piece. I also wrote several hundred words for the latter on my phone while waiting for takeout one night. Got to take advantage when the inspiration strikes.

Words written in Provence = 5000. (Some of these I wrote on the flight home, but I’m still counting them as written in Provence.) Words written on the entire trip = 6500. Not a novel, but I’ll take it. This will go a long way towards meeting my quarterly goal of 12,500 words.

Let me know in the comments how you relax on your vacations. For those writers, do you write, read, or a mix of both?  Or do you focus on eating, drinking, sleeping, and being merry?

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Post #38 – A French Writing Adventure, Part 1

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9/13/18

I recently took a trip to France with the family. Keep in mind, any time traveling with kids is a trip not a vacation.

We traveled to Paris and Provence. Though I’ve been to Paris before, I was excited. I don’t normally take my laptop transatlantic, too much weight, too likely to lose or damage, and too likely to get searched upon arrival into the U.S. This time I decided to do so at the last minute. My fantasy football draft would happen while I was abroad, plus I could write in France!

Think of the company I’d share–Dumas, Voltaire, de Saint-Exupery, but most importantly Jules Verne. I could write in the birthplace of the grandfather of science fiction!

We planned to stay near the Eiffel Tower because my oldest daughter was enamored with that piece of architecture. Having booked our hotel well in advance, we set out. Going transatlantic is always difficult. It’s essentially a red eye. It’s harder with kids because they sleep on the plane. Normally, I do too but not this time.

We arrive at the hotel at 8:30a (or 2:30a by our internal clocks). Somehow they have a room available. It’s not what we booked, which was one with two double beds. There are four of us. Instead what was ready, and what we readily took due to exhaustion, was a room with one double bed and a trundle bed, meaning two singles, one on the floor that tucks under the one at sofa level. I didn’t know it was called that. My wife had to tell me.

I was excited because we were on the 11th floor, and there was a small table next to a window. I instantly fantasized about writing there overlooking the city.

After seeing a couple things that day, including the Eiffel Tower from street level, we went to bed early. The next morning the family slept and slept. Conveniently positioned on the sofa, I got up and decided to write. I finished a flash fiction story and added two scenes to my novella-in-progress. All that was missing was some French coffee.

Once the family final woke, we left and took in some more sites. Only when we got back did my wife look out the window and note we had a view of Notre Dame and the Pantheon, two of the sites we saw that day. The window had a weird angle, which we thought was odd, until my wife looked to her left. That’s when she notice we had a great view of the Eiffel Tower! I spent the entire morning staring out at beautiful Parisian rooftops when I could have moved the table a little to view the Eiffel Tower. I know, rough life.

Here’s the bad news. I didn’t bother plugging my laptop in that morning and drained the battery. When I went to recharge it, it wouldn’t cooperate. I have one of those sets of travel plugs to convert various outlets around the world and the accompanying surge protector. Using both, the battery would charge for a couple minutes and then stop, but it worked fine for our other electronics. I was devastated. How would I write? Do I hammer out words in the note app on my phone? Do I buy a notebook and try longhand?

For two days, I tried different plugs in our room and changing the angle of the plug converter, surge protector, and laptop plug. Nothing worked. Then my wife said something that made me realize I didn’t need the surge protector. Sure enough, plugging the laptop cord directly into the plug converter worked. The laptop began to charge! Crisis averted.

The final tally from my four days in Paris: 1500 words written. Without the recharging debacle, exhaustion, and a sick kid the last night, it likely would have been more. I’d have to make up for it on the rest of the trip. We were on to Provence to be inspired by three great painters.

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Post #37 – Paradoxes and Other Fatal Flaws

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9/6/18

The first two short stories I wrote involved time travel. I know, it’s arguably a tired trope, especially how I used it. There was no grand scientific achievement. No new method of defying Einstein’s theories. I merely used time travel as a plot device, a way to set up conflict for the characters.

Using such a routine sci-fi trope didn’t bother me, but both stories also featured a paradox caused by the time travel. The paradoxes in these stories did bother my beta readers and at least one magazine editor I submitted them to. My first reaction to their reaction was, it’s time travel. Paradoxes happen. Get over it. How do we know how time travel will work? Nobody has done it yet.

I was partially vindicated when a magazine accepted one of these stories for publication. I say partially because the other story has not yet found a home. The latter story was part of the novella I’ve spent much of the summer on. I saw was because I’ve since made it a stand alone story again.

When my copy editor (my very understanding wife) read through the novella, she pointed out the paradox. She had pointed it out when she read the original short story, but I hadn’t done anything with it. However, this time she commented that if I took out a particular sentence then the paradox was not so apparent. That got me thinking. If I tweaked a character’s reaction in one scene to be a little more ambiguous, I could avoid the paradox altogether and at the same time foreshadow how a forthcoming dilemma was resolved. So that’s what I did.

Of course, this made me wonder why I hadn’t considered it before. Wasn’t it a fatal flaw in the story, or did I just not view it as such? A criticism of almost every time travel story is it can’t work because of a paradox. I assumed a paradox was inevitable and accepted that without considering ways to avoid it.

Have I accepted other fatal flaws in my stories, knowing or unknowingly? I hope not. None of my beta readers have pointed out similar flaws in other stories. They’ve provided valuable feedback, but nothing along the lines of this story won’t work because of [insert fatal flaw here].

That’s why I have beta readers. Given the number of typos my wife finds after I’ve been through a manuscript however many times, I know how important a second set of eyes are. My beta readers’ eyes are needed to detect those fatal flaws I don’t see because I’m too close to the story. I’ve said it before, but thank you beta readers for your support and for keeping my stories from failing.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve written a fatal flaw into a story and whether you realized it or needed it pointed out. And let me know if you still ignored it or fixed it.

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Post #36 – The Dearly Departed

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8/30/18

The speculative fiction world already lost at least three well known members this year, and we still have many months to go. First Ursula Le Guin went. Then Gardner Dozois. Most recently Harlan Ellison passed. For those with a morbid curiosity, there have been other genre author passings this year, and Locus maintains an obituaries page.

Some of these you may know, some maybe not. Everyone probably knew of Le Guin. I own The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dipossessed. The psychological depth to these books astounds me to this day.

Let’s also not forget her Earthsea series, most of which I own. The world she created there was so rich and interesting I think it rivaled that created by Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. She could have played in that sandbox for decades with no trouble finding stories to tell. I was sad that she didn’t. I long term goal of mine is to create a world that interesting.

I also knew of Harlan Ellison. His short story, “‘Repent Harlequin,’ said the Ticktock Man,” is a classic. I own it as well.

I was not familiar with Dozois, but his bio reads like I expect mine too if I ever become a better writer. He primarily wrote short stories, with only a couple books spread over a decades long carrier. He spent the end of his carrier as an anthology editor. While I don’t expect I’ll head down that road ever, it makes sense for a short story author to move on to editing collections of short stories. Mike Resnick, the editor of Galaxy’s Edge, has a nice tribute to Dozois in issue 34 (September/October 2018).

So whose next? Mike Resnick noted in one of his recent The Editor’s Word columns for Galaxy’s Edge Magazine how many sci-fi greats are of advanced age, e.g in their 70s or 80s. He calls out Robert Silverberg, who’s 83, as one example. Names I pulled out of a hat include Joe Haldeman, who is 75, Piers Anthony, who is 84, and Alan Dean Foster, who is 72. Resnick himself is 76. Statistically, we could lose any one of these at any moment.

These are major contributors to sci-fi literature, and they will be missed. In the past, when titans of the genre passed, others emerged. Who will emerge now?

They probably already have emerged, and I don’t know it. I don’t have time to read the Nebula and Hugo winners every year, though I assume that’s a good place to start. I really wish I did, since I’d like to win one or both of those.

The only sci-fi author that blew me away in recent years was Dan Simmons with his Hyperion series. Those four books were phenomenal. And he’s primarily a horror writer! The last in that series came out in 1996, and he’s also 70. So neither are very new.

If you know of a more recent sci-fi author I must read, let me know in the comments. I’m looking for those future legends who will fill the void when our current ones depart for the great supermassive black hole in the sky.

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Post #35 – Exposition, My Old Nemesis

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8/23/18

Like any new writer (and maybe any old writer?), I regularly fall prey to the exposition trap, or info dump. I feel I need to set the stage, so I end up writing paragraph after paragraph, if not page after page, of backstory. My first flash fiction piece was 1000 words of exposition.

Not surprisingly, editors haven’t accepted my stories containing lots of exposition. Benjamin Kinney, an editor at Escape Pod, always provides me with one or two sentences of critique when rejected a story. For two such stories, the critique focused on too much exposition bogging the story down.

When I reviewed those stories again, he wasn’t wrong. One began with four pages of exposition, the other a modest two. I revised this latter story to spread out the exposition. A little at the beginning, a little in the next scene, and then the remainder in a third scene. And the story is better for it.

The story with four pages of exposition is more of a hard sci-fi story, and I’m struggle with how to avoid the info dump. Then I saw this article published by Writers Digest.

First, I’m pleased that others recognize how difficult it is to avoid the info dump in sci-fi. When a writer cannot assume a reader knows certain things about a setting or even a people, more exposition is needed for a reader to understand the where, when, how, and who of a story. That’s the problem faced when writing sci-fi. The story often doesn’t take place in the here and now with the usual suspects. It takes place in the future, on a planet in a distant solar system, inhabited by four-armed aliens.

Second, page after page of exposition used to be the norm. I recall many classic sci-fi stories written this way. I remember entire chapters of exposition, and that didn’t bother me. Apparently, that’s not what readers (or is it just the editors?) want to see now. Readers are writers’ customers. If we don’t satisfy our customers, we don’t get published. So now we writers must be more sophisticated with our exposition.

Remember the flash fiction piece I mentioned above that was all exposition? One beta reader pointed out that issue and suggested I expand the story by telling it from the viewpoint of the antagonist, who was mentioned only in passing. That’s what I did, and I’m pleased with where the story went. I even added to that story, which is part of the novella I planned to submit to Tor earlier this month.  Alas, as noted in Post #34, I didn’t quite nail down the ending to that expanded story; so it remains a work in progress.  Once I do, I believe I’ll have a better novella ready for submission somewhere.

I also began revising the story with four pages of exposition.  I took the paragraphs in those pages and spread them, one or two at a time, throughout other scenes.  I haven’t yet cleaned up the flow of those paragraphs.  Right now they read like someone picked them up from elsewhere and dropped them wherever they landed, which is mostly true.  It’s on my to do list, and once again I believe the story will be better for it.

I have a plan for the next time I write a piece with an intricate backstory or complex setting or characters.  I’ll write out the exposition but keep it to the side.  Then, as I draft the story, I’ll drop in pieces of that exposition as I go.  I did something similar when drafting the sequel to the story with four pages of exposition.  Since I already knew the backstory, I could easily insert that in nuggets as I went along drafting the new story.  This technique made writing the sequel much easier.  I hope the same holds true when drafting a completely new piece.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve struggled with how to handle exposition and how you mastered it (or still are working to master it).

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