Friday Flashback: Demon Seed

A supercomputer traps its creator’s wife and impregnates her in an effort to study man. Demon Seed was penned by Star Trek writer DC Fontana. Of course, the iPhone in my pocket has more processing power than the evil mainframe in the movie. “Siri, knock up my girlfriend.” “I’m sorry. I can’t do that. Here is a list of fertility clinics.”

 

Foundation by Peter Ackroyd

Foundation by Peter Ackroyd Between Dan Jones and Peter Ackroyd, the two have covered English history from the days of the Norman Conquest to the Glorious Revolution that marked the waning days of the Stuarts. Peter Ackroyd takes it one step further in Foundation by going all the way back before Stonehenge. There are many tales of how aliens or the supernatural created England’s most famous monument. This ignores the fact that much of what defines English culture today had already formed in the late Stone Age.  The lands of the tribes that eventually became the Britons developed borders that closely follow the modern borders of counties in England and in Wales. Many modern highways and roads follow pathways used at the time Stonehenge was built, and villages and towns stand on the site of prehistoric settlements. It is hard to study these because modern cities sit over sites that date back as early as 10,000 years ago. The first invaders were the Celts, followed by the Romans. By the time both groups arrived, they found the island of Briton to be largely English before anyone knew what that meant. Successive waves – the Anglo-Saxons, the Danes, even the Normans – found themselves adopting the farming methods begun by the Britons and adopted by the Romans and Celts.

So the theme of Ackroyd’s sprawling history is continuity. We tend to think of the English as a thoroughly modern culture, but its roots go very deep. From the Romans to the kings of Wessex to the Normans, Ackroyd shows how would-be conquerors would concentrate their power the capitals of previous regimes. By the time he reaches the Plantagenet era, we find a royal line and nobility prone to violent infighting yet not interested much in a land initially called “Angle Land.” Indeed, until the rise of Henry Tudor (Henry VII), English kings going back to those of Wessex ran the country as a private enterprise. Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror, and the hated King John were basically the ultimate landlords. Many kings, up to the Wars of the Roses, didn’t even speak English. They saw themselves as French overlords of several backwards people. And yet the monarchy, parliament, and the English way of educating and its independence of Rome are now hallmarks of English culture. A

Hey, Shortie!

edited manuscriptWhen I did crime, in the before time, in the long long ago, there was still the mindset that you had to write short stories to get noticed before publishing a novel. Back then, self-publishing was not considered a viable path to success (and it still remains elusive, as my lack of sales numbers attest.) Also, there were no platforms but magazines and, at the time, webzines to get work out there while you shopped and sweated getting an agent and a publisher. And then 500 (now over 1500 or more) channels, realistic video games, and social media pretty much killed magazines. Oh, they’re still out there. but fewer in number. And if you can score a slot in an anthology, more power to you. But shorts don’t sell all that well on Amazon and the other platforms. There was a curious flirtation with “single servings” on Kindle that still rears its head on occasion. It’s likely something Amazon keeps in reserve in case trends shift on them.

So I’ve had little reason to sell short stories. I wrote a few thinking I’d be able to crack the SF market. In an earlier post, I even talked about “gray listing” certain markets. Analog takes a long time to reject or accept unsolicited work, and Fantasy & Science Fiction (at least the last time I submitted) wanted old-fashioned snail mail submissions. A lot of waiting and a lot of work for a small chance at pay-off. So I “gray listed” them. Meaning I’ll wait until I’m invited. It means they’re expecting me, and it’s worth my time to make the effort. Saves me having a story languishing in the slush pile forever, a trip to the post office, and, on the side of these publications, one less submission to slog through for some bored intern who could care less that I think I’m the new Neal Asher. (Actually, I seem to write closer to John Scalzi with less politics. You’re welcome.)

But I’ve left off writing shorts for a while. “Head Space,” set in the Compact Universe but barely related to the current novellas or the Amargosa Trilogy, is the current freebie for my newsletter – Sign up now! – but it’s about to be replaced by No Marigolds in the Promised Land.

But with the recent and sudden death of our friend Andre Polk, several of us on the Space Opera: Writers group have come together to work on an anthology in Andre’s memory. At first, I thought I’d just dedicate Marigolds to Andre since I haven’t written a short in almost two years. But then the itch came. Andre’s claim to fame was his Question of the Day, often a breath of fresh air amongst all the sullen writers complaining about writing woes. I don’t remember if he asked this one, but I found myself answering the question, “How much does music play in your writing?” At the time, I was listening to John Fogerty’s memoir on Audible. Fogerty explained how a lot of Creedence classics came about, so I listened to all those great albums (and one not-so-great album) again. Sidenote: John’s a bit hard on his brother, who ultimately veered off into a Brian Wilson-like fog without the parastic shrink, and the other guys in Creedence. I’ve heard Tom Fogerty’s work, and Doug Clifford isn’t bad at all. That said, no one should ever have to listen to Stu Cook sing. William Hung would be offended. </off-topic rant>

“Fortunate Son” really resonated. After all, JT Austin, the protagonist of Gimme Shelter and The Children of Amargosa is the ultimate fortunate son, but he’s hardly a shining example of one. Those two books are about Austin getting humbled. He’s cut off from his military dad, and his silver spoon lies on the tarmac of a spaceport back on Earth. But the bias is still there, and so “Fortunate Son” opens with a drunk ranting that this son of a wealthy whore is responsible for Amargosa’s woes, unaware JT is that self-same son. I’m pantsing it. I’ve tried outlining shorts, and it always turns out like crap.

I did set a goal to write 10 shorts this year. I’ll have to return to ralan.com and start from the low end this time to get sales. I started by aiming high, in my believe-everything-Tony-Robbins-says mindset, thinking that aiming high will land me somewhere better. It conveniently forgets that Clarke’s World and Asimov’s and those two gray-listed markets want to see a track record before they give up one of their rather small number of slots to an unknown. But I need a way of reaching readers. Cons are one way. I now have business cards for the first couple of cons I go to and an offer of a comp table at Cleveland’s NEO-ComicCon in August. Shorts are another way to draw attention as well as showcase my work.

No Marigolds – I Think I’m Alone Now

surface of mars

I am now three installments in, two uploaded to the betas. I will start revisions on Installment #1 next week. The newsletter copy will (likely) go out on April 1, fool!

The biggest challenge is that John Farno, my Robinson Crusoe on something resembling Mars, has only experienced a couple of days of his low-rent apocalypse. I started this a month ago and am taking breaks between installments. So I have to remember that he’s still processing the fact that he’s on a dry rock cut off from humanity. Help is not 140 million miles away. It’s 40 light years. He’s only seen one dome, or what’s left of it, and mentions having a temper tantrum in his downtime between log entries. So to deal with it, he is in denial. He even makes an anachronistic comment about asking your doctor if denial is right for you. That might have to be rewritten, but I thought it was funny.

No Marigolds in the Promised LandSince this is going to be the freebie for the newsletter, I decided to check my sign-up page and subscription confirmation. My sign-up is two years out-of-date, and there is no confirmation. Ha! Rookies. Only I was the rookie, and I forgot to go back and maintain this. No wonder sales are sluggish or non-existent. People have been snagging “Headspace” and saying, “Thanks! See ya!”

I will be back at it next week. Right now, my focus is on a short story, “Fortunate Son,” about JT’s experiences on Amargosa having to train much older civilians how to shoot straight. It’s a role he never thought he’d have.

Pantsing It

pants

Pants! Youngderek619 by Creative Commons

Once upon a time, I would sit down at the keyboard, open a vein, and let the words pour out. I even typed with my eyes closed sometimes. That was a long time ago. The younger me could spin stories out completed or half completed. That’s not to say I didn’t need a rewrite, but it seemed like the ideas flowed. I think watching a lot of television back in the day helped. Or movies. Mind you, my writing in the days before I became crime writer Jim Winter leaned on a lot of movie tropes. I seemed to have an innate sense of how television episodes and movies were structured.

As I got older and my brain power got tapped by multiple sources, the free-flowing stories dried up. I had ideas, but I needed to complete them properly. So I began to outline. This got clunky at first. How do you outline? Do you do “I.” for a chapter and “A.” for a scene? One person was so pedantic that they told me that was exactly it. (She was also fond of the telling me “You need a paradigm,” which came from a book that was later largely discredited.) So what is an outline?

The way I came to outline resulted in something resembling a treatment for a movie script. Essentially, I told myself the story in broad strokes. Told the story of the story, what happened in it. It could be called a sketch, but the long (sometimes five pages) work that came out amounted to a lengthy synopsis of a story that did not exist yet. The Children of Amargosa is one. It’s follow up is another.

And then we come to No Marigolds in the Promised Land, my freebie being published on the fly. I don’t want an outline. I actually have no clue how it will end. Up front, it looks like The Martian on an interstellar scale, but eventually, it’s going to have to link up with the rest of the Compact Universe. How that will play out I don’t know yet. But it’s not going to be outlined. I’m back to pantsing. Feel the breeze, baby!

Between installments, I’m working on other projects, including a short story. I’ll talk more about shorts later this week, but one thing is certain. I can’t outline a short. I need a well-developed idea for those to work. It’s not going to happen otherwise.

Friday Flashback: Damnation Alley

In 1977, 20th Century Fox had a major blockbuster on its hands. We humbly present that blockbuster, Damnation Alley.

Inish Carraig by Jo Zebedee

Inish CarraigAlien invasion and dystopian fiction are the rage these days. Is anyone surprised? But it’s usually set someplace like Chicago or London or New York. The Hunger Games took a different tact, setting part of it in Appalachia. Jo Zebedee takes a different tact. She sets it in Belfast. Belfast knows disaster when it strikes. It was ground zero for The Troubles, the ethnic strife that gripped Northern Ireland from the founding of the modern Irish Republic to the end of the twentieth century. The Troubles have subsided, but the divisions that drove it remain. So does the undercurrent of violence, even if it’s suppressed by a more prevalent attitude these days of “Screw you. We’re Ulster!”

So imagine how residents of Belfast will put all that to work for them when aliens invade. When the story opens, Earth is under the rule of the Zelotyr, who originally came to gestate their young. They slaughtered millions of humans in the way, destroying larger cities like London and New York because they didn’t even consider humans sentient. The ruling Galactic Council decided otherwise, and the Zelotyr become the unwanted protectors (ie. – oppressors) of humanity. The story opens with John and Taz heading out and avoiding patrols to do work for a local gangster to get food for their families. They’re assigned to deliver a package to a specific spot. Taz, thinking it’s drugs, tastes the contents and immediately gets sick. They deliver the package, and overnight, the Zelotyr flee Earth, sickened by a virus that is killing them. Earth is immediately placed under the protection of the dog-like Barath’na. John is arrested to be tried by the Galactic Council for genocide, having been a participant in the slaughter of millions of Zelotyr.

He is aided in his fight against imprisonment in the newly built Inish Carraig facility by Carter, a police inspector who maintained an uneasy truce between humans and Zelotyr when the latter was finally forced to consider humans people. The Baran’tha aren’t quite as forgiving. And as John tries to survive prison and escape, his family is taken to a safe house. Only his sister Josey, who takes responsibility for the younger siblings while John’s away, is abducted by the same gangsters to keep her from revealing their part in the genocide. Between her and what John learns of the Baran’tha’s true intentions while in prison, Earth is either threatened with the extinction of humanity or the exile of the Baran’tha.

Zebedee, first and foremost, is writing about Belfast. It’s her home. So all that The Troubles has imprinted on Northern Irish culture makes its way into the story. The whole Protestant vs. Catholic divide takes a backseat, an acknowledgment that the Troubles were more ethnic than religious. But what that taught to the children and grandchildren of the Unionists and the IRA comes to fore here. It doesn’t matter if the aliens are Zelotyr or Baran’tha, they’re interlopers. They need to be gone. And to John, Josey, and Carter, all the world is Belfast.

John is simply a kid trying to survive and caught up in something he has no control over. Josey is the real survivor in this, resisting her captors and trying to hide when she escapes. Carter is the most interesting character. Having worked to keep the peace, he’s seen as a collaborator, which is a dirty word in Belfast. He has to walk a fine line between his duty to humanity and keeping his bosses happy. And his bosses may be the real collaborators.

The Baran’tha and Inish Carraig itself maybe the most interesting part of this story. Dog-like instead of the bipeds favored by hundreds of SF writers (including your humble narrator), they are nonetheless utterly alien. Zebedee gives them a pack mentality that is absolutely eerie. And the technology used to keep order in Inish Carraig is, in and of itself, frightening. Implants that enforce emotional equilibrium. Walls that can liquefy and swallow up prisoners in a sadistic form of solitary confinement. And pack attacks on unruly prisoners. It’s hell on Earth, but not of this Earth.

It’d be interesting to see more from this universe, but Inish Carraig strikes me as better off as a standalone. Zebedee nonetheless has a great imagination.

The Tyranny Of The To Do List

To do list

Adam Diaz by Creative Commons

I have a dual problem. I grew up flirting with a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD or whatever they call it now. I’m pretty sure someone dropped the ball on that one as one symptom is being a chatterbox and occasionally speaking loudly without realizing it. I’ve gotten it under control, but it’d have been nice to get my neurons to fire in formation when I was 9 instead of 45. Might have helped my career. Unfortunately, in the course of learning to control this problem, I’ve developed some really bad OCD tendencies. I’m not too compulsive, but I have a need to make or recite lists, and I’ve become more and more organized as I got older with things I can’t organize drifting into hoarder territory until I get sick of looking at it. We’re all neurotic and have to make trade-offs to keep those neuroses under control. One way I got around this was to make a to-do list.

I’ve had a text file that’s lived on various thumb drives and now up in the cloud since about 2005. Usually, this is a good thing. And I’m not as compulsive about it. I know one guy who schedules his bathroom and smoke breaks. That’s a bit ridiculous. However, I find myself scheduling my morning routine.

Every morning.

I also find myself overscheduling myself some days. “I have to get all this done!” Then I find myself missing out on things or putting them off because I schedule forty hours of work in a single evening. I am now dating a woman who believes life should be spontaneous. It might even have helped wreck my marriage as I was married to one of the most spontaneous women I’ve ever known. I’m writing this on Sunday. If my stepson had not begged off of our usually meet at the watering hole, I’d still be working on web design and writing stuff this evening. Yikes!

I need a way to keep track of what I want to do on a given day, but do I need to schedule it down to the second? One thing I find myself overscheduling is reading. I somehow wedded myself to reading 25 pages of a book in a sitting. Sometimes that’s 45 minutes of reading when I really need to be doing other stuff. Like writing. Or exercising. Or paying attention to my family and friends. Or even relaxing. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even know how to sit in front of the TV and just watch a show anymore.

So the to-do list is going on a diet. It’s lighter. It only contains what I know I want to accomplish that day. Well, it does two weeks out. I’m weening myself off what I already scheduled. As a given day gets closer, I have less to change as my plans change.

At least I don’t schedule my bathroom breaks. My coworkers and I make each other chili. Yeah, that’s not gonna work.

 

No Marigolds Update

surface of mars

batmanhoaxInstallment 1 is with the betas. (Hint, guys, I kinda want that back this week. 8-D  ) Installment 2 is sitting on the hard drive. I do need to get back into it before I lose the story, which will really defeat the purpose of doing the story this way. But while I wait for notes, comments, and “Well, it doesn’t suck” messages, I went ahead and subjected it to public humiliation. On the private group Space Opera: Writers, we have what’s called First Page Friday, where those brave enough put page 1 of a work in progress. Now before some of you less informed web denizens get your knickers in a twist, this does not void your copyright or give it to Mark Zuckerberg in perpetuity. It just doesn’t. It does negate first publication rights, but this will initially go out to the newsletter, so, um, what am I doing wrong again?

Anyway, the Space Opera scribes seemed to like it so far and asked a few questions I hadn’t thought of. Nothing that has to be fixed right away but things that might need to be addressed eventually (like Installment 3?) It was also fun going back and forth, and almost everyone, even the person who said they hate the diary format (in general, not me specifically), wants to know how my Robinson Crusoe on Somplace that Looks Like Mars is getting out of this one.

My main concern now is that poor John Farno is not sufficiently freaked by his predicament. Or maybe he is. Since I only write 500-1000 words at a time, I may simply be immersed too much in passages that the reader will blow through in minutes. “Wait! I haven’t mentioned he can’t breathe without an oxygen supply since last week!” That may be true, but the readers going to notice that only three or four scenes have gone by and already have a pretty good idea why the government of Mars spent good money on naming a planet after something in an Edgar Rice Burroughs story.

No Marigolds in the Promised LandAs this story is an event obliquely referred to in The First One’s Free/Before Amargosa/The Magic Root, I have to debate whether the Gelt show up at all. And this takes place about a nine months before Warped. So, is it deux ex machina if Burke, Okada, and Tripod ride to the rescue on the Challenger, telling their idiot boss back on Earth “Screw this. We gots warp drive. We’re finding out what happened!”? After all, at some point, this will become some readers intro to the Compact Universe and the Amargosa Trilogy. Writing on the fly and from inside the series, it’s hard to tell.

On the other hand, writing on the fly is like running a space mission simulation. From Houston to Moscow to Beijing to, I suspect, Elon Musk’s secret lair in California, there’s a breed of engineer that lives to torture astronauts before they go into space. Just when a pilot thinks he’s figured out the Dragon or Shenzou or Soyuz capsule, one of these sadistic bastards will throw the most unlikely scenario in. Quite often, the astronauts “die” in the simulation. Don’t laugh. This kind of simulated murder got Apollo 13 home and saved a Soyuz crew from an exploding booster during launch.

I have a couple of beta reads I owe other writers, and a short story I need to write, then I will pick up this story again. I’ll spring Installment 2 the betas tomorrow. Looks like the newsletter subscribers will get this the last week of the month.

In the meantime, I started this story with a dedication. Usually, I wait, but this is going up as it is written and revised, so a dedication is almost necessary from the get-go. However, a dear friend of all of us on the Space Opera: Writers group died suddenly last week. Since I forgot to dedicate Broken Skies, my original choice will have that book dedicated to him. (Soon as I score a new cover image and rerelease.) No Marigolds in the Promised Land will be published in memory of Andre Polk. We miss you already, buddy.

Andre Polk

Andre Polk
1988-2017
Long you live and high you fly

Breaking Up Before Amargosa

The Magic RootBuy NowI have a dilemma. I have two stories, both rather short, that precede The Children of Amargosa. I tried selling them as The First One’s Free, but that didn’t really work. In fact, the stories were combined on what seemed like good advice at the time. Readers thought it was confusing, that the stories never really met up. So [Cue Tim Allen voice] I rewired it. Ah ha ha ha ha.

I split up the stories, tacked on Gimme Shelter as a third entry to give the book some heft and called it Before Amargosa. Which confused readers and killed sales of Gimme Shelter. Well, crap. That backfired.

So now I’m breaking up the whole shebang. The story in which “Marq” brings the potato to Kai and Tishla and set them off into a journey of sorrow and woe (and hot tongue-to-navel sex to make it worth their trouble) bounces from Kai’s point of view to Tishla’s to Laral Jorl’s. Add to that the story of Douglas Best’s misadventures with the cult to Marilyn Monroe, and things get a little meandering, even if you split them into separate parts of the same volume.

Buy NowThe MarilynistsSo I’m splitting them up. They’ll be ebook only. Too short to print. But The Magic Root and The Marilynists will both stand alone like I originally intended. (And professionally edited. I got that part right in the beginning. Thanks, Stacy!)