August 31, 2008

WRITING ADVICE: Reflections on Writing a Series

It seems, friends, that Series Sell!

And why not? I enjoy series books. I like the security of going back to the same place, seeing the same people and experiencing a comfortable, comforting read with few real surprises.

Most people can spout off any number of series they’ve enjoyed: DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN (McCaffrey), CHRONICLES OF NARNIA (Lewis), HARRY POTTER (Rowling), MITFORD (Karon), THE UPLIFT UNIVERSE (Brin), SPECIES IMPERATIVE (Czerneda), ATEVI books (Cherryh), MILES VORKOSIGAN (McMasters Bujold)…I could go on.

But how can I write a series? Luc Reid, an online friend of mine, has this to say about series: “…both in terms of pleasing readers and pleasing a potential publisher--doing both things: leaving enough open at the end of the story that there's plenty of room for a sequel, but providing a full and satisfying resolution to immediate events. For instance, in The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman ends the main character's quest to save her friend and resolves major questions, bringing her to climactic scenes with several characters and resolving major subplots, but also ends with a new and surprising turn that doesn't provide any specific plotline but definitely whets the appetite and tweaks the curiosity.”

I will be embarking on a series of YA novels that take place on an asteroid-sized spacecraft exploring the Solar System. While that may be interesting, I also needed a storyline to carry the series. The storyline has to be the “arch” from which the other stories depend (NOTE THE "EXAMPLE" ABOVE!)

For example, in C. S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, the “arch” from which the other stories depend is Aslan’s salvation plan for Narnia. In the ATEVI series of C.J. Cherryh, the “arch” from which the novels depend is Humanity’s minority integration into a majority alien society. So the “arch” from which the novels of HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES depend will be the discovery and defeat of an alien intelligence older than Humanity. Every novel in the series will have characters and problems that become more complicated and are finally resolved, but there will also be characters and problems that will NOT be resolved until the last book.

I think that this is what makes an enduring, attractive and ultimately satisfying series. I hope HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES draws others the way the VORKOSIGAN SAGA has drawn me!

August 24, 2008

Slice of PIE: “By Schism Rent Asunder” – Giving Credit Where Credit is Due and Stuff That Bugs Me About David Weber’s “Off Armageddon Reef”

In an interview with, David Weber says that if I read “Off Armageddon Reef” as an anti-religion book, it “would be a mistake”. My question is, “How so?” (This is hardly a vehement denial, I notice.) I think it IS anti-religion. I offer my arguments below:

He says that his beef is with “any ideology or belief structure [created] to manipulate, control and coerce. In the case of Safehold, it's religion; it could have been communism, fascism or any other brand of authoritarianism or totalitarianism.” The other question I have is: WHY didn’t he use communism, fascism or any other brand…? Herbert (DUNE) and Cherryh (THE FADED SUN) took on organized religion in effective and memorable ways. For Weber, fascism might have been amusing – consumerism perhaps even more so (care to argue the point that consumerism isn't totalitarian? =)

My answers: Bashing Christianity is popular and nicely acceptable by most people who read SF. Creating the Church of God Awaiting is a cash-generating way to get back at the Church for whatever perceived or actual wrongs it has committed and have Publishers Weekly proclaim it “Engrossing…”

But the REAL thing that set me off on Weber’s book is the non-attribution of the second and third books in the trilogy: “By Schism Rent Asunder” and “By Heresies Distressed”. Those who are familiar with old Christian hymns recognize these lines as coming from verse three of the 1866 hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation” by Samuel John Stone. On GOOGLE, the hymn that the titles were taken from is not mentioned until the 50th entry. Has he made an assumption here that "orgainized religio"us people won't read his books? I’d paged through the new “Schism” in a B&N, but I checked today to make sure: nowhere in “Schism” does Dave Weber acknowledge that he lifted the titles from a Christian hymn, whose FIRST line is “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord”.

I would suggest that this use without attribution in books whose premise is anti-religious is disingenuous at best. A simple note at the beginning or in the indicia would have helped me back away from making the “mistake” of reading Dave Weber’s books as attacks on the Christian Church (By the way, I don’t believe he’s attacking “organized religion” as he claims. These books are full of saints, angels, organ music, hymn singing, and priests – there’s not a Buddhist, Hindu or Shinto tradition in the lot. So what other organized religion is being held up for critical scrutiny here?)

Last of all, on page 251 (Tor paperback), Weber states, through the “compassionate, caring” voice of Bishop Maikel: “…that to truly know God, they must find him in themselves and the daily lives they live.” This confirms in the mind of readers that TRUE religion is all about us finding god in ourselves. That’s the gospel that Dave Weber is clearly preaching in his massive trilogy. Oddly enough, the Bible was ready for this because Paul wrote to one of his disciples in 2 Timothy 3:5 (CEV): “Even though they will make a show of being religious, their religion won't be real. Don't have anything to do with such people."

As I am not Muslim, Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu or Jew, I cannot speak with authority for them. I can speak with a bit more authority for Christianity. While books have been written reflecting Christian thought on religion, contemporary Christianity is STILL all about God coming down to Earth and saving me. No amount of striving on my part will get me to heaven – that’s what God did simply because He loved the people of Earth so much.

And THAT about sums it up for me.

August 17, 2008


I’m not the only one who will be skipping the latest entry to the Star Wars Empire.

Lots of people, especially those who actually stood in lines two blocks long for three hours to see the ACTUAL (and I am shamelessly and intentionally using this number) Star Wars Episode One, are not even going to bother with STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS. And it’s not because it’s an animated film (OK, OK, a film whose images are entirely computer generated is not “animated” in the classic sense). It’s not because we’re not interested in what happened during the Clone Wars. It’s not because it seems like Lucas is out to make yet another buck by dragging into the Empire a generation birthed with TOY STORY, MONSTER’S INC. and SHREK.

It’s because there’s nothing there any more.

The first SW was born into a recession, the Energy Crisis and America’s waning world influence. I went to see Luke, Leia, Han and Chewy because I wanted to escape – sheesh, I was barely nineteen and I wanted out of the world of Gray and into a world where everything was black and white: good guys over here (cheer for them), bad guys over there (boo for them). They were people with whom I could connect. They had heart. They had purpose. They made me FEEL that there was hope.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a founding member of Human Actors Only. I fell in love with Woody and Buzz and Mike Wazowski and Donkey. Those characters made me feel, too. But I felt nothing about young Anakin Skywalker except that he was painfully cute and was tugging so hard on my heartstrings that instead of making me weep because I felt his pain, he made me weep because HE was such a pain. When we got to the false Episode One, Star Wars had lost its heart and was just some movie that someone did about some characters that were vaguely related to the REAL Star Wars Episode One. Vacant and lifeless.

What about the argument that Star Wars will inspire hordes of people to read “real SF”, that’s something, isn’t it?

*(insert the alphabetic representation that Opus used to make for a raspberry sound)*

About all youngsters watching this newest branch of the Star Wars Empire will do is run out and buy the PSP game, play it for a week then move on. Few of those kids bother to read Star Wars novels let alone check out DUNE or even ON BASILISK STATION (though it’s easily available from Baen’s free online library).

So what am I saying? *harrumph* In plain language: Lucas’ latest offering is purposeless and proves only that Star Wars is DEAD. It no longer serves the purpose it was intended to serve: escape from a dreary real world of gray choices and gray people in gray situations.

Excuse me while I go watch PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN.

August 10, 2008

WRITING ADVICE: Character from Addiction & Grace

A year or so ago, I read a book called ADDICTION & GRACE: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions, by Gerald G. May, MD, Psychiatry in which May delineated how virtually anything could become an addiction and no amount of huffing and puffing (pardon the pun) on our part would "make us better".

While he himself, is a Christian, he draws both examples and advice from many spiritual traditions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, secular philosophy and psychotherapy. His ultimate conclusion is that we can do nothing alone -- we must become part of something larger than us. To find that "something", he urges us to explore the Spaciousness, that place in us that does NOT include our addictions and attachments. Once there, we will not only find it uncomfortable, but downright terrifying! But we will also find cleansing and freedom.

It occurred to me then, that this book might be a goldmine for me as a writer -- what more interesting quest could there be than a human stranded in an alien society who also has to deal with his attachment to (take your pick of attraction and aversion addictions):

(ATTRACTION) anger, being loved, eating, lying, marriage, music, popcorn, reading or winning...

(AVERSION) anger, being judged, independence, intimacy, people of different beliefs, slimy creatures, vulnerability

How might these addictions/attachments affect his or her performance of some critical duty among aliens? How might these addictions/attachments manifest themselves in an elf? (Are aliens and hobbits even SUBJECT to addictions or attachments? There's a story waiting to happen right there!)

Adding a layer of personal struggle to outward confusion has ALWAYS been the hallmark of great writing both mundane and speculative. Where would Toshio have been in David Brin's award-winning STARTIDE RISING if he hadn't been wrestling with self-worth and age issues? I'm currently reading OFF ARMAGEDDON REEF by David Weber (at the recommendation of a former student-now-friend) and the characters there not only have to deal with an alien race out to destroy them, but a colonial founder with an addiction to being loved AND an aversion to intimacy -- his solution? To make himself a god. His conflict formed an entire society which now must deal with the aftermath.

If you want a handy, slim book to spark character development, then skim through this one.

You won't be sorry.

August 3, 2008

A Slice of PIE: The LEFT BEHIND Store?!

Mass executions. Imprisonment and death by burning. Torture, murder, lies, fake IDs, website hacking, defiance of authority, and blasting the True Enemies Of God with Direct Energy Weapons.

All these and more, the Religious Right protests regularly when they appear in “secular” video games. All these and more, the Religious Right celebrates at an online store dedicated to books and movies that depict those very same things.

Non-Christians read the LEFT BEHIND© SERIES (if they bother at all as the writing itself is patchy at best, inept and intellectually insulting at worst) as SciFi (“At least they’re readin’ books sanctioned by Ja-heezus!” the farthest Right might claim.) and for some time now, Christians have been able to visit the LEFT BEHIND STORE to order all their tapes, books and DVDs to give to those heathens in their lives to make them converts to...well, I'm not sure what they'd convert to if their sole exposure to Christianity is these books. As well, the LaHaye cartel currently has a LEFT BEHIND 10th Anniversary edition which has “Special features in this commemorative issue include a full-color, pullout timeline with LaHaye's prophecy notes, behind-the-scenes commentary from Jenkins, and letters from readers whose lives have been changed by reading ‘Left Behind.’”

The Irreligious Left has every reason to be amused, affronted and horrified. The Christian Right should give pause to wonder, “Why should I buy ‘LaHaye’s prophecy notes’ when I have the original 'notes' in the Bible in my lap? What can Tim LaHaye tell me that Jesus and the Holy Spirit can’t? (In fact, the LEFT BEHIND books and products – in particular the “pullout timeline”, are in direct contradiction to Scripture. Matthew 24:36 says quite clearly: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”)

With a combined 40,000,000 LEFT BEHIND books in print, [This represents a conservative, $320,000,000 spent by American Christians to purchase these works of dubious literary quality rather than sending their money to an organization like World Vision ( where the cash might have done some real good.], these men and their LEFT BEHIND STORE have made a mockery not only of Christianity, but of Christian writing as well. Carol Balizet, in 1980 did the End Times thing in her book THE SEVEN LAST YEARS ( with economy, dignity and decidedly better writing (as well as a lot less open space on each page (grrrrrr)).

Novels featuring Christian characters that actually make a difference in the lives of the people they come in contact with – as opposed to murdering, lying to, hacking websites of, defying authority of, and blasting with DEWs and that have the respect of the non-Christian community – are out there. LORD OF THE RINGS, CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, C. S. Lewis’ SPACE TRILOGY, the works of GENE WOLFE, Connie Willis’ THE DOOMSDAY BOOK are just a few that have Christian characters in them who don’t blow people away in Jesus’ Holy Name.

And why don’t we hear about them?

Well, if you had over a quarter of a billion dollars to flash around, wouldn’t you hire the best publicists, too? (BTW, What’s a “prophecy product”?)