May 31, 2015

WRITING ADVICE: What Went RIGHT With “Peanut Butter and Jellyfish” (CAST OF WONDERS, December 2011) Guy Stewart #18

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Since then, I figured I’ve got enough publications now that I can share some of the things I did “right” and I’m busy sharing that with you.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote above will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

I have been living with the really ALIEN WheetAh in my head for nearly a decade now.

They were the subject of the first science fiction novel for adults that I have ever written; they are the subject of four or five short stories that I have been trying to sell people on for almost as long as they’ve lived in my head.

“Peanut Butter and Jellyfish” was my first attempt to write about them from the perspective of teenagers – and so, it was the first thing I did right to sell this story.

Let me back up a bit: the WheetAh are mobile plants, descended from some sort of creature that resemble volvox ( Anyway, in this “universe”, Humans and the WheetAh are the only form of intelligent life. While Humans have never had any trouble eating plants, WheetAh have never had any trouble consuming small mammal-like creatures on their home world of Wheet. This is an obvious instant set up for conflict!

I wrote the novel INVADER’S GUILT with the intent of showing the conflict between Human and WheetAh coming to a close with our invasion of their home world – a story in which we are the alien invaders. It’s not done often – I can’t think of a novel in which we’re the bad aliens – and it’s not popular. I thought it should be done.

At any rate, I wrote “Peanut Butter and Jellyfish” long after I’d invented the WheetAh, their language, cultures, races, and ecology; therefore the second thing I did right was I used a place that I’d already carefully created. (This happened because I made a promise to myself that any world I invented I would not just “throw away”. I would use each one for at LEAST two stories. So far I’ve managed to do that!)

In “PB&J”, I also did right by creating a mystery. There was someone in the crew who hated the WheetAh on board. The WheetAh “teenagers” and the Human teenagers had won the chance of spending time on a research vessel on the oceans near Hawaii. Separated from police and others who could protect them, they had to solve the mystery themselves while avoiding the traps the killer set out for them.

The fourth thing I did right? I released the science geek in me as the crew and the “kids” of both kingdoms encountered bioluminescent jellyfish that I’d stumbled across in some science article or other.

Last of all, I persisted. According to my records, it took me seven submissions over twelve months to sell the story. Some of those subs were PAPER (yeah, those of you who were born into the electronic publishing era have no idea what it was like to send out paper submissions. I’ve read many weepy-whining about how long writers have to wait to hear back from publishers “these days”…when I didn’t find it strange to wait for a response for over a year.)

So – the five things I did right to get “PB&J” into the hands of a publisher – oh, and it was my first podcast, too! – are as follows:
  1. I wrote for teenagers.
  2. I wrote it in a world I’d already carefully built.
  3. I wrote a mystery.
  4. I wrote for myself as well as an audience.
  5. I persisted in submitting it until I found a market.

What did you do right when you wrote and finally published a story for young people?


May 28, 2015

(Young Authors Conference + Mom in Hospital…sorry I’m late!)

Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them.

Antonia Dobre said, “Vampires are imaginary and, to tell the truth, were overdone once second after Bram Stoker published DRACULA and someone else started a vampire story.”

Mihai Barbu said, “It doesn’t matter if I agree or disagree, I want you to tell me how many times in the last month someone has asked you if you ever seen a ‘real’ vampire as soon as they find out you grew up in the Transylvanian Mountains.”


Mihai busted out laughing, “See?”

“See what? That people who aren’t from Romania are idiots?”

He frowned, touched her arm and said, “Hey, Tonia, what’s wrong?”

She jerked her arm away, slapping his hand at the same time, “Don’t touch me!”

Mihai hooked his foot around the leg of a nearby chair, pulling it toward them. “Standing in the middle of the Transylvania Youth Hostel is no way to work out our problems.”

“I don’t have problems!”

“Not you!” he said, “Your disposition is always this sunny.” He snagged another chair and gestured for her to have a seat.”

She glare at him and finally cracked a sickly smile, dropping down on the chair.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mihai, sitting down.

She threw up her hands, than rotated one palm up. There was a bandage on it. “I got bit.”

“By what?”

She gave him an exasperated look, “A bat – what else?”

He shrugged, “A goat?”

That surprised a laugh from her. Then she grew serious again. “Really. The bat’s got to be sick.”

“Why’s that?”

“I’m not speaking or hearing right.”

Mihai suddenly realized that he hadn’t actually heard her speak the last two words. He’d read her lips as he did when his airline mechanic father had him working with him under the jet engines of at the airport. At the same time though, the hairs  on the back of his neck had perked up – just like they did when the sonar security scanner swept over him when he was being scanned before going into the same airport. He said, “Are you speaking ultrasonically?”

“I…” she stopped, eyes brimming, then managed, “I think so…”

Names: + Romania

May 24, 2015

Slice of PIE: Morals and Mayhem! (or Embedded Morality in Television Science Fiction)
I have a confession to wife and I are “binge-watching” the 2007-2011 television series, “Chuck” on Netflix.

While aware of Netflix, I only recently heard my 20-something daughter use the phrase. The only things my wife and I had watched before this, were individual episodes of “Star Trek”, “Bones”, “Sherlock”, or “Dr. Who”. We had NEVER watched an entire series over a period of days and when my daughter saw what we were doing, she laughed.


Anyway, I’ve discovered a couple of things while “binge-watching” this show.

First of all, the story arc becomes crystal clear when you see three or four episodes every evening. In “Chuck”, it’s obvious that the whole story is a classic science fiction “what if” scenario: “What if a regular guy had compressed data downloaded into his brain that was vital to national security – and the original was destroyed?” The creators, writers, and directors could have taken a dark path, but they chose to echo the much older TV series, “Get Smart” (1965-1970) and intersperse serious violence (REALLY serious violence!) with comedy.

The second thing I discovered is that like the best of television and movies, it’s possible to address moral issues AND entertain. Very few television shows have been able to pull this off successfully. Off the top of my head, only “M*A*S*H” comes to mind. Granted that there are more popular TV shows, but none of the others – “Friends”, “House MD”, “The Simpsons” – made such an intentional job of looking at the morality of the premise.

Zachary Levi played the perfect, unintentional, normal-person foil for something that all of us seem to accept – when you’re a secret agent (if there even ARE any such things), anything goes and anything is acceptable.

Levi, in the character of Chuck Bartowski, constantly questions the morality of what happens. In the episodes we watched last night, he brings to light whether it was really, truly “for the good of all” to humiliate his best friend; whether it was really, truly “for the good of all” for his undercover girlfriend, whom he’s fallen in love with, to have sex with anyone as long as it’s in the name of national security; whether it was really, truly “for the good of all” to kill someone in cold blood; and last of all whether it was really, truly “for the good of all” to stand to one side and let everyone else risk their lives for yours.

Moral issues like this aren’t just glossed over, either. Chuck struggles with them repeatedly.

Dare I mention that Levi himself is a Christian? Dare I suggest that his beliefs as a real person give the questions he asks as a fictional character a strong foundation in reality? I don’t know the moral orientation of the men women who created, wrote, and directed “Chuck” and I may be going out on a limb here, but it’s possible that they used the show as a vehicle to ask questions that plagued them – and proposed answers through the events of the show...but I have no evidence that that was true.

How can I apply this to my own writing?

“Easy” – I use my characters as tools to explore my own beliefs and the questions I have. I think I’ve been doing that lately, especially with my most recent short stories. But I’ll have to go back and look. That will be the subject of another PIE or Slice someday!

Your thoughts?

May 21, 2015

This series is a little bit biographical and a little bit imaginary about my dad and a road trip he took in the summer of 1946, when he turned fifteen. He and a friend hitchhiked from Loring Park to Duluth, into Canada and back again. He was gone from home for a month. I was astonished and fascinated by the tale. So, I added some speculation about things I've always wondered about and this series is the result. To read earlier SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH clips, click on the label to the right, scroll down to and click OLDER ENTRIES seven or eight times. The FIRST entry is on the bottom of the last page.

Tommy Hastings and Freddie Merrill rode in silence as the oars clunked and splashed slowly back and forth for a while longer. Tommy finally said, “Thanks for saving our lives.”

Nilson shrugged then said, “Your sister’s boyfriend probably saved someone’s life.”

“Yeah,” said Tommy, not sure where Nilson was going with this.

“His brother saved three men when their boat was hit by Jap fire!” Freddie said. “You wanna hear the whole story?”
He shrugged again. Tommy and Freddie looked at each other, nodded, and kept quiet. Finally Nilson said, “Sure. Sounds exciting. Better than my brother’s story.”

“How do you know his story?” asked Tommy.

“One of his buddies wrote us after we got the telegram he was killed in action. Told us how there were bombs everywhere and a Japanese destroyer was headed their way. He scrambled from his bunk, tripped and fell. Broke his neck.”

“Oh, man,” said Freddie. The sun had dropped to the horizon and as they slid forward on the calming water, shadows from a shoreline of towering pine engulfed them

Nilson shrugged. “Because it was during a raid and he wouldn’t have been running if it hadn’t have been for the attack – thirty sailors died during it – he was considered a casualty of war, but didn’t get an award or nothing.” He kept rowing and finally said, “What’d your brother do?”

Tommy opened his mouth, then closed it, then finally said, “Nothing your brother wouldn’t have done if he’d have been there.”

 Freddie opened his mouth to protest, but Tommy’s glare shut his mouth. A few minutes later, Nilson said, “We’re just about there. Remember, don’t pick no apples. Don’t want you to give Ma any surprises.” He snickered, snorted, then pulled hard three more times. The rowboat drifted a bit longer then scraped against the rocks underneath.

Tommy and Freddie jumped out then pulled the boat to shore. Nilson set the oars so they lay on the seats then climbed to shore. “Thanks, guys.” Then he looked at Tommy and stuck out his hand, “Thanks, Tommy. Come on in, Ma’ll feed us, then I can get you some underwear, pants, and shirts.” He looked up at the sky. “Sun’ll be down soon. Probably spend the night, I think.”

“No,” said Freddie, “We can’t...”

Tommy glanced at Freddie, then at Nilson, “Can we hitch a ride here tonight?”

“I wouldn’t count on it. This town rolls up the sidewalks and turns off the air in about twenty minutes. You might get a ticket from the sheriff if you walk too fast at night here.” He shrugged, “You can try, or you can try in the morning. Lots of trucks and stuff leaving then.”

Tommy looked at Freddie and bulged his eyes. Freddie said, “Sounds good. We’ll stay. But can we be in town before sun up?”

“No problem. Ma gets up early – makes we get up early, too. To take care of the place.”


“We run an resort – the Thousand Lakes Inn.”

Tommy and Freddie looked at each other. Tommy said, “Is there anyone staying here?”

“It’s usually pretty quiet during the week and it’s still OK here – but a resort a mile back has a crazy group of guys stayin’ there. They talk funny, but Ma says it’s Finnish.”

May 19, 2015


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them.

Fantasy Trope: Magic Realism

Navid Daisuke shook his head, "What do you mean, 'the centaurs are coming'?"

Ngc Mirjam scowled at him then said, "The centaur objects are sort of a hybrid between an asteroid and a comet -- not all of them are bare rocks like asteroid, not all of them are pure ice like comets. One of them, called Chiron, look like asteroids but have cometary halos. They're strange objects..."

"So then why are we talking about them? We're supposed to be getting ready for the IB Alchemy exam and right now, the only thing I can see that's IB is that 'IB gettin' ready to leave.'"

Ngc sniffed and took out her wand, tapped it on the edge of the mortar and pestle and said, "Fine then. How about we conjure some of our own centaurs?"

"I can conjure a centaur with some crushed ice, gravel, and a blowtorch."

"Only blowtorch in this room is the one standing next to me." With a flourish, she tapped the edge of the mortar. There was a flash and smoke. When it cleared, nothing had changed.

Navid snorted, "So, where's your centaur?"

"Shut up."
"Wasn't this supposed to be our interdisciplinary group 4 project -- you were the Alchemistry person and I was the mythology person."

"I said, 'shut up'. The centaur I was trying for wasn't the half-horse, half-man," she gave him a sidewise glance, "You're the only half-man I want in my life. I don't need one that clomps around not crapping in the restroom. I wanted to create the composition of the Chiron so I could examine its properties pertaining to chrysopoeia, which is..."

"I'm not a moron. I know what changing base metals into gold is all about. My dad majored in transmutational engineering in college."

“So you have a good idea of what I was trying to do. Now if you’ll shut up, I want to figure out where our centaur is…”

Navid turned away in disgust and pulled out his sorcTab and touched it with a finger wand. It expanded and started scrolling through his Favorites. He tapped a screen, scowling. Then his eyes went wide and he said, his voice a whisper, “I found your centaurs.”

“What did you say?” He didn’t say a word. He just turned his sorcTab toward her, tapping it to enlarge the image. Her eyes went wide as Hubble Telescope image drew into a close up: a long asteroid, rimed by a halo of frost was falling toward Earth. Wearing a spacesuit, astride the centaur, was another centaur, this one waving wildly as it plunged toward Earth…

Names: Vietnam, Estonia; Arabic, Japan