December 28, 2008

SLICE OF PIE: Shortened Lives and the Real Culprit

Walter M. Miller, Jr. (A Canticle for Liebowitz); H. Beam Piper (Little Fuzzy); Alice Sheldon – aka James Tiptree, Jr. (the Tiptree Award and “The Screwfly Solution”); Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian, et al); Thomas Disch (guru of the New Wave) (

All of these SF/F/H writers have something in common: they left this world before their time. I do not doubt that before or after their memorials or funerals, someone wondered out loud, “Why did God take him/her so young?”

I was at a funeral recently of a young man who had been a student of mine. One of a pair of identical twins, he was an off duty police officer who lost control of his car during a blizzard and hit one car which knocked him into the oncoming traffic where he was struck by another. Someone I know said, “Why did God take him so young?”

I could try to be sensitive and politically correct about my response to this, but I don’t feel like it: God didn’t “take him”. God didn’t “take” any of the SF writers above. They didn’t take their own lives, either.

The real culprit, Satan, the Devil, the Deceiver took them early, because he hated them, just as he hates everyone who is human.

God is NOT in the business of cutting lives short, careers short or anything short. He doesn’t get a kick out of thwarting our futures. He knows the plans He has for us and if we choose to walk in His will, those plans will unfold. Few people would argue that H. Beam Piper had more than a few good stories left to tell. Walter M. Miller, Jr. was never able to finish his edits of the sequel to Canticle, which was passed off into the capable hands of Terry Bisson.

God the Comforter opens his arms to those crushed by acts of Satan. He offers a shoulder on which to cry. He offers to weep with us NOT because He can’t control Satan, but because Satan was granted control of this world long ago by our ancestors. Satan remains in control when ANY person makes a conscious choice to perform a true act of evil. He will remain in control until we choose together to cede control back to God. Until then, He offers comfort and joy to those who want it.

So when you’re around me, please stop blaming the God of the Universe for the acts of a petty local tyrant. It’s Satan, not God, who is the culprit that kept us from the rest of the Little Fuzzy stories God had planned for us…

December 25, 2008


It occurred to me this morning that other bloggers like Nathan Bransford and Bruce Bethke have somewhere stored, a Christmas blog they trot out each year to look at and revisit. Below is my attempt at this venerable tradition…

Like many people, I have Christmas traditions.

I watch Jim Carrey’s HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. I check out a copy of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL (the version with Patrick Stewart, Star Trek:TNG’s Jean-Luc Picard playing Ebenezer Scrooge). I snuggle up to the TV to listen to Burl Ives sing in the animatronic version of RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER. Of course I read the Christmas story from Luke 1:1 – 2:20, but I dig out my old December 1997 issue of ANALOG and reread “Easter Egg Hunt: A Christmas Story” by Jeffrey Kooistra. I also find time alone to watch the video tape of a Christmas musical I scripted with music and lyrics by an old, old friend of mine, Lynn Bell. The musical was called “Just In Time For Christmas” and was a children’s time-travel version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL with a couple of twists. Performed twice by a huge cast of kids from my church, it included both my son as an Outsider-sort of angel and my daughter as a shepherd who was watching her fields by night.

I conclude then that for me Christmas is about the past. It ranges from ancient times in far-away Israel to present day kerfuffles about what to do Christmas day when my sister is in Virginia with her “other” family and our get-together last Saturday was postponed because of a frigid blizzard and moved to January sometime and will include celebrating my mom’s 75th birthday and the fact that I’ll be working most of today at Barnes & Noble and Mom and Dad are coming for Christmas Eve dinner and I won’t be around to help get ready. This past includes my daughter’s concern about the commercialization of Christmas that led her to ask us to spend the money we would have used on her to get a sewing machine for an organization that teaches women in northern India to sew for a living.

On the other hand, my son loves to seek out just the right gift for each person and disdains gift cards – he loves the giving part of Christmas. He started the small avalanche of gifts under the tree right now when he set out his college-student-meager presents.

My wife was talking to a cashier at a local warehouse grocery story a few hours ago and asked what the day held for her. The woman said that she hated working Christmas Eve because people were so crabby – they yell at cashiers because the store is out of “stuff” and if anyone bumps their cart, they explode into anger. As we walked out into a flurry of gently falling, diamond sparkling “crystal rain” (see Tobias Buckell’s fabulous book, CRYSTAL RAIN to discover the origin of that phrase), we talked about the cashier’s observations.

Under the guidance of Our Father Below (, we have taken a simple attempt to remember the birth of the Son of God and have turned it into a tension-filled extravaganza of over-spending, over-eating and secular glitz that eclipses the original pagan ritual from which it sprang. The original event also included a kerfuffle as well as a brush with governmental bureaucracy, so maybe it was only natural that we perpetuated Mary and Joseph’s search for a place for her to have Jesus by our searches for the perfect gift, food or event.

Take a deep breath, Guy. Perhaps I need to go a bit further back in time; maybe to the announcement the angel made to Mary: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Luke 1:37. Maybe that’s the message I’ll take from this season – that no matter what happens: kerfuffles, angry shoppers, divergent gifting and traditions; nothing is impossible with God.

Peace on Earth? He can bring it.
Deep security? He can give it.
Salvation for everyone? He did it.

“For nothing is impossible with God.”


December 21, 2008

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Can A Truly Passionate Book Fail?

Absolutely and over and over again.

Let’s say I pour my heart into a novel (of course, this is purely a mental exercise) and I finish it, do several drafts, polish it when I can’t think of anything else to fix and then send it off to an editor or agent. Whichever one gets it, reads it, likes it and soon sells it. Marketing departments get behind it (at least they don’t object to it), cover art is commissioned, turned in and the book is put together. A Big Name, Recognizable Writer agrees to say something nice about it for jacket copy. There’s a short wait and then a dramatic launch! Ten thousand copies are printed, the author lines up a book tour around their personal Five-State-Area. Excitement is high, initial sales are good (not Stephen King good – but good nonetheless). Bloggers chat it up, it gets nominated for something or other…And then it’s done: 2356 copies were sold (1254 to your mom), the rest remaindered…those go on the B&N Bargain Racks…and finally it becomes Used Bookstore Fodder.

Cue: crickets chirping, warm muggy air, faint fog swirling around neatly lined up headstones, dead silence

Cue: bass line from Queen’s classic, “Another One Bites The Dust”

Dejected but undefeated, you get another idea, sends it to the editor who politely returns it and says, “Doesn’t look like you talked to anybody. Got anything else?”

What happened to the fervor, passion and excitement of the initial publication – nah, even the initial ACCEPTANCE for publication?

Readers got bored.

Why? Because you didn’t feed one of their causes/vices/political agendas: not titillating enough, not revealing enough, not drugged enough, not about something they already know about and read, not short enough, not “their” political flavor enough, not Harry Potter enough (oh, I already said that), not blood spattered, naked chick, with an exploding vampire wizard enough, or not Obama enough.

Norton Award winner Justine Larbaleister points out: “…the size of your advance says nothing about your capabilities as a writer. It speaks only to your publisher’s assessment of your market value. They can get it wrong. How a book does is very often a crapshoot.”

Passion has nothing to do with writing and getting readers. Giving people what they WANT is what it’s all about. The Bible even has something to say about this: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” 2 Timothy 4:3.

In these flagging economic times, writers are worried (as is everyone else). At least one major publisher has laid a moratorium against buying new work -- . But has anything really changed? Nah – it’s just more of the same. I’m sure if the next J.K. Rowling popped his or her head up, they’d buy. If people said they wanted something, New York would listen and give it to them. So save your passion for the boudoir and find out what readers want and ignore what you want.

Then you’ll be famous – and only then.

December 15, 2008

Guest Columns: The Ranting Room (Bruce Bethke)

Guest Column
Michael Shaara: Wishing for "The Killer Aliens"

Old friend Guy Stewart regularly blogs at Possibly Irritating Essays: Thoughts on Christianity, faith, science fiction and writing. Awhile back I gave him an unusual book and a challenge. Herewith, the result.

Michael Shaara: Wishing for The Killer Aliens
by Guy Stewart

He never won any awards with us. No Hugo, no Nebula (oh, that’s right, he’d stopped writing SF by 1966 and gone on to pen seventy stories for people who read those silly magazines like Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and The Saturday Evening Post), no Locus Poll (oops, those didn’t start until 1971, and Shaara was long gone by then); he left us almost nothing to remind us that we’d had a great writer doing his apprenticeship among us, the SF community. Somewhere around 1954 he wrote a story that Galaxy, F&SF, and Astoundingrejected out of hand after publishing seven other stories of his; Shaara himself thought, “…this may be the best I’ve ever done.” But we didn’t want it. Published finally, grudgingly, inFantastic Universe in 1957, Shaara had already started moving toward people who enjoyed what he was writing.

That story, “Death of a Hunter”, wasn’t the best he could do. Twenty years later, the world saw the publication of his Civil War novel, The Killer Angels. An intimate novel of the Battle of Gettysburg in the style of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Angels became his best. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the award came as a stunning surprise because the book had been a commercial flop — and then went on to became a full-length feature film after his death in 1988, and has been required reading for more military organizations than you can shake a stick at ever since.

The SF world lost Michael Shaara because in part, the editor at Galaxy thought his readers wouldn’t like “Death of a Hunter”. They wouldn’t like it because he thought it was, “too serious, too gloomy.” Of course, the SF of the time tended toward the positive salvation of humanity through the application of technology. Shaara’s work didn’t flow in that vein — it wasn’t about glittering machines and conquering the planets, the stars, and the galaxies. His work was about people and their responses to the forces in their lives. That phase of popular SF didn’t arrive for another twenty years.

Admittedly, Shaara also wrote better after 20 years of practice. Compare these two descriptions of the alien:
“It was a great black lump on a platform. The platform had legs, and the thing was plodding methodically upon a path which would bring it past him. It had come down from the rise and was rounding the gorge when Dylan saw it. It did not see him. If he had not ducked quickly and brought up his gun, the monkey would not have seen him either, but there was no time for regret. The monkey was several yards to the right of the lump on the platform when he heard it start running; he had to look up this time, and saw it leaping toward him over the snow.”

(p. 32, “Soldier Boy”, 1954)
“To be alien and alone among white lords and glittering machines, uprooted by brute force and threat of death from the familiar earth of what he did not even know was Africa, to be shipped in the black stinking darkness across an ocean he had not dreamed existed, forced then to work on alien soil, strange beyond belief, by men with guns whose words he could not even comprehend. What could the black man know of what was happening? Chamberlain tried to imagine it. He had seen ignorance, but this was more than that. What could this man know of borders and state’s rights and the Constitution and Dred Scott? What…”

(p. 180, The Killer Angels, 1974)

Both passages are one hundred and eleven words long, but it is clear that Shaara had come into his own by the time he wrote Angels. The prose vibrates like a quartet’s string bass played in an intimate curtained chamber, while “Soldier Boy” twangs like a banjo in a clapboard dance hall.

Is there anything we could have done to keep him with us — perhaps allowing the growth of an early Mary Doria Russel, or Stanislaw Lem? Unlikely. SF hadn’t matured enough by then to admit to literary aspirations. Shaara himself alludes to this in the afterword of Soldier Boy, the only collection of his science fiction ever printed. He says, “Very little I wrote has ever moved me so much as being with Neilson when he killed those two in the mountains. I felt for the first time in my writing life, that maybe I was growing up, and maybe I’d done something truly worth doing…”

Fifty-eight years later, Shaara’s work has stood the test of time, as The Killer Angels enjoys consistent sales and continues to illuminate one of the bloodiest battles in American history. As good as it is, though, I cannot help but wonder what Michael Shaara might have given the SF community, had we encouraged him to explore the darker reaches of humanity’s battle with technology.

December 14, 2008

WRITING ADVICE: Lin Oliver: Learn and Practice Your Craft

(To see all the articles on writing, click on WRITING ADVICE label to your right.)

“Learn and practice your craft before you are published – create work product!”

At least I was doing that, right? I’ve been writing stuff since I was thirteen years old! I’ve generated more work product than you can shake a stick at. I have paper files full of product! I have floppy disks full of product! I have hard drives full of product!

Or do I?

Not to diss on journals, blogging (what’s this you’re reading right now?) or other forms of writing for myself, but do the exercises I do from the books I read on writing, my blogs, my diary, my notes to myself, angry letters to God and doodle actually count?

Or is Lin trying to get at something deeper?

For me, it’s deeper. If you read my blog, you know I’ve been experimenting with flash fiction. In April of 2008 ( ) I started writing flash fiction in earnest. But I wrote about short-short fiction in one of my first blog entries, so the thinking isn't new. I’m wondering if what Lin was talking about was writing PRODUCT. The word implies that it’s something I’m going to sell. If I’m doing that, then I’m not writing to please myself but to please an audience, an editor first and a reader second.

With that realization, I took a step in that direction by revising and making two of my flash fiction pieces “Wereworm” (from THREAT) and “Streetwalker” (from THIRTEEN) into submission manuscripts and firing them off. Both came back pretty quick and I made it a rule a long time ago not to submit anything during the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years holiday season. I’ll start again in January.

Any other thoughts?

December 13, 2008

Guest Column Is Up At THE RANTING ROOM!

At the request of my old friend, Bruce Bethke, I read a collection of science fiction stories written by Michael Shaara -- who is far better known by his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, THE KILLER ANGELS and its movie, GETTYSBURG -- and wrote an article on the ensuing thought process. The article is on Bruce's website, THE RANTING ROOM, here:

Bruce opens my guest spot like this:

"Old friend Guy Stewart regularly blogs at Possibly Irritating Essays: Thoughts on Christianity, faith, science fiction and writing. Awhile back I gave him an unusual book and a challenge. Herewith, the result."

Read it, enjoy it and comment if you'd like!

December 7, 2008


What if my worst nightmare came true and a novel I’d written and gotten published inspired my church to excommunicate me – and excommunicate my wife because her sin was implicated by marriage?

This is exactly as terrifying as it sounds, though it happened to someone else. The entire incident made me look at my own writing more closely – as well as the state of the church and the publishing world…far more than I can cover in a simple SLICE OF PIE. So I’ll stick with one bit…

Several years ago, a short story of mine was published in a major children’s magazine and it included some strong language. The character was a high school kid who had no real contact with church. He used the language of the kids in the high school I teach in. Some friends of mine wondered about the use of the language and after I was done being defensive, I had to think about what I as a Christian, planned to do when I wrote about characters who were emphatically NOT. If I’m writing about high school students, do I have them use the language of high school students or do I edit it down?

In VICTORY OF FISTS, a novel I just finished writing, I have my high school characters use all “the words” except one. (I just couldn’t bring myself to have them say it so I’d have to write it.) My daughter, who writes and draws manga in which characters use strong language and commit violent acts, and I have talked about this. Neither one of us is aiming our work at the “Christian” market. In fact, both of us feel called to share the love of Christ with people who are not Christians. “Jesus talk” doesn’t work with them because it’s not a language they understand.

I am NOT bashing the Christian market! I love the work of Jan Karon, Randy Ingermanson, Bill Myers and Frank Peretti. It’s just not the market I’m called to reach. I have made a conscious decision to have my characters speak in ways that non-Christians speak and I make no apology for it. I don’t use strong language myself, but I know Christians who do. I don’t believe using strong language, have characters commit violence, writing about vampires, demons or aliens are SALVATION issues.

Paul is clear on this: “If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake – the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” I Corinthians 10:27-33 (emphasis mine)