July 31, 2012


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.

I’m doing something different today – I’m taking the Trope of divination (usually associated with fantasy, soft magic) and adding same CURRENT EVENT and doing a different genre for each idea. Last week was Fantasy; this week, it’s Science Fiction…

Trope: divination (especially water (how Stephen King got his start))

Moke “Keo” Khanthavong  and Kyeh Sang-mi were just 16 when their parents left on an expedition to Mars along with fifty other families. Robotic builders have been at work and despite an unexpected scarcity of water, everything is ready.

Now newly turned adults, Moke and Sang-mi have been sent on a water search mission fifty kilometers up an unexplored canyon branching off of the massive Valles Marineris. They’ve trained for the mission for months – and nearly lost it when three other older adults balked at letting “teenagers determine the fate of the colony”...

Moke’s mother had argued, “What do you mean, you’re afraid they’re going to screw up?” she snapped at the tall, muscular physicist, Damon Eglesias. “They have more invested in a future here than you or I do!”

The colony was built at Capri Chasma, on the eastern end of the Valley. They’ve been assigned to explore a branch of Coprates Chasma...

“It’s foggy,” said Keo, squinting at the view screen. He fiddled with the controls, zooming in and out; in and out. Sang-mi made as if to slap his hand. He yanked his hands away, exclaiming, “I’m not a little kid!”

She sniffed, “Could’a fooled me.”

“Hey! We’re supposed to be working as a team here!”

“We are. You’re doing annoying things and I’m trying to teach you that someday, someone’s going to kill you when you do stuff like that.” Leaning back and crossing his arms over his chest, he sulked until she said, “Now you really are acting like a child – instead of just being annoyingly inquisitive.” He didn’t move. She sighed and added, “Which is both one of your most endearing and useful characteristics.”

Keo tried not to grin, but failed, leaning forward to start fiddling again. Sang-mi said, “I’ll still kill you if you don’t leave the focus alone!”

He stood up, comfortable in four-tenths Earth gravity and unlikely to bounce around like some of the adults did, and pulled something from a long pocket on his overalls.

“What’s that?”

“A dousing rod,” he said.

“A what?”

“Dousing rod,” he said as he tapped one end and gently pulled it in half until it reached the middle of the rod and stopped.

“To find water by divination?” Sang-mi said, rolling her eyes to the roof of the marsbug. “You have got to be kidding!”

He shook his head, “What can it hurt? The probes couldn’t find the water they were hoping for, neither had the other survey crews. It’s a simple concept.” He shrugged, concluding, “Besides, if it doesn’t work, who’s gonna know?”

“Me,” she said, dropping into a seat. “Rest assured I’ll let all of my friends know if this flops...” Both of them blinked in surprise as the dowsing rod bent to the left of the ‘bug. Sang-mi snapped, “Cut it out!”

“Cut out what?” Keo said, his voice cracking, “I’m not doing anything!”

July 29, 2012

Slice of PIE: Am I Crazy?

“As time goes on, I realize
“Just what you mean to me.
“And now, now that you're near,
“Promise your love that I've waited to share
“And dreams of our moments together.
“Color my world with hopes of loving you.”


When I was in high school, these words sounded more profound (not to mention making a longer song). Lately, I’ve started to realize several things.

One of those things is that I’m in a minority when it comes to plans for the future. It sometimes sounds like my peers are talking about winding down; retiring to do whatever they want, usually including travel, relaxing and entertaining themselves.

For me, I’m looking at the possibility of a career taking off and winding UP, doing what I’ve been doing all along, maybe traveling, working harder than I’ve ever worked before and entertaining others.

My question: Am I Crazy?

I’m not talking about getting VICTORY OF FISTS published and then hanging it up. Karen Grencik, with Red Fox Literary made this statement a few days ago: “I’m thrilled that this will be your second novel, in the event an editor would like to have a two-book deal.  Unfortunately, though, Guy, it isn’t quite ready for me to read.  I can see lots of areas where you can polish and tighten.  So, if you don’t mind, rather than wasting my time at this point and having to read it again after you polish some more…”

Lonnie Plecha at CRICKET wrote: “I’m not proposing a massive overhaul – more of an enhancing of what you have. You can email the revision to me…”

I’m not seeing much leisure in my retirement – if I choose to follow the course I’ve set myself. I’m seeing lots of work – today’s economy does NOT allow publishers a huge promotion budget for their darling writers! The effort comes from the writer – as to the promotional items, tours, interview opportunities and travel arrangements – not the publishers; certainly not from agents.

Really? I could just drop it now. Today. Stop, reboot and starting planning for Caribbean cruises, planting roses, looking into condo communities, living my life through my children and grandchildren, talking to people about my prostate, procedures and how things “used to be” more often than about vacation plans, the future and prospects for my career advances.

So “dream of moments together” (‘cause, don’t you know, “old men will dream dreams” (Joel 2:28) or “Color[ing] my world” with hopes of all SORTS of things?

July 26, 2012

Serious Writers and Advanced Alien Worlds...

Working frantically reading something like 50000 words each night from my fabulously productive SERIOUS WRITERS and discussing fascinating ideas in ADVANCED ALIEN WORLDS -- so I've been unable to keep the blog. Expect a return on Saturday!

image: http://images.mylot.com/userImages/images/postphotos/2579367.gif

July 22, 2012

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: On This Tour – The Luck Myth and An Overnight Sensation

This past week, I have been incredibly lucky!

No, I didn’t go to the neighborhood convenience store, buy a scratch-off and strike it rich! No, I didn’t take the free bus to the local casino, slide my cash card, yank a one-armed-bandit and have cash come flooding out (or whatever they do these days). No, Ed McMahon (or whoever) did not come to my front door to announce that I had finally won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse ten gazillion dollar award. Lastly, I was not the one millionth customer at the Mall of America and awarded a thousand dollar gift card for every store there.

Nah, my luck was better than that, even!

I got a literary agent and I sold a story to CRICKET magazine!

Hmmm, a single, dying cricket chirping and a lone, laconically clapping person are pretty much all I hear out there. While the Earth has moved under my feet and those close to me are thrilled, the rest of the world goes on pretty much as it always has, waiting for its luck to turn.

In the Fall 2001 issue of The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America [v35 #2, Whole No. 151, Fall 2001], multiple-genre author, Laura Resnick said, “...luck is very elusive—far too elusive to form the foundation of a career plan—and therefore mostly irrelevant in the overall scheme of a filthy pro’s life.” In the same article, Catherine Asaro adds, “I wouldn’t say luck played any part in my writing career. Persistence and hard work were the determining factors. I never gave up...”

I’d have to agree. I started my writing career in seventh grade right after I finished John Christopher’s THE WHITE MOUNTAINS trilogy. I began my own novel, called (strangely enough) THE WHITE VINES, and it was born from my adolescent mind as I looked out across seemingly endless fields of corn. Lost in the mists of time (or the bottom of an adolescent’s locker), that novel was the first manuscript in a long line of manuscripts that culminated in my YA contemporary novel called VICTORY OF FISTS. VOF finished in the top fifty of the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and caught the interest of Red Fox Literary agent, Karen Grencik.

Total number of manuscript submissions prior to that? At least 800 (when I started keeping accurate records in 1990), most likely 1200. I would not call writing those 1200 manuscripts with pencil, pen, Underwood manual typewriter, second-hand Selectric, brand-new Word Processor, Apple IIe dot matrix printer, and all the others; over a span of 42 years...a stroke of “luck”. As Kevin J. Anderson noted in the same article, it might possibly be called “foolish stubbornness”.

Hot on the heels of connecting with Red Fox Literary, I got news yesterday that CRICKET magazine will publish another short story of mine called “The Penguin Whisperer”. That was after a 12-year hiatus from them with only a few minor sales in between. I don’t know what the future holds, but there’s a chance that I might become an “overnight sensation”!

As to that, literary highlight Edith Pearlman (BINOCULAR VISION (2012), numerous Pushcart and O. Henry Awards) quoted Danny Kaye in an interview in The Millions, “Did you ever hear Danny Kaye’s comment when he became a success and somebody said he was an overnight sensation? He responded, ‘Yes, after 20 years in the Borscht Belt.’ I’m not an overnight sensation, but at the moment I’m in demand. It won’t last forever, so I am responding to it.”

Last of all, I teach a week-long class for gifted and talented students called Writing To Get Published. In it, I point out that the only way to become a writer is if you write things and send them out. I also tell them – Thursday afternoon – that they will ALL be rejected! Quite a shock for people so young! I then parade notable authors like Dr. Seuss, JK Rowling, Madeleine L’Engle, Stephanie Meyer, Jack London, and George Lucas (all of whom suffered a large number of rejections before their most notable works were accepted) before them and point out that if these luminaries can be rejected; “Everyone in this room will be rejected as well!”

My lessons this week: Persist. Submit. Expect Rejection. Submit more.

Oh, yeah: and Celebrate Success!

July 19, 2012


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, click on the label to the right. The FIRST entry is on the bottom.

Tommy Hastings and Freddie Merrill had to stay through the funeral, standing at the back of the church while Lt. Edwina Olds, Women’s Army Corp, retired stood up front with the six other people from her family.

Both boys knew that everyone saw them when they came in, but Ed had told them they couldn’t sit in the balcony. Mostly because the little church didn’t HAVE a balcony. Tommy had whispered to Freddie, “My church at home has a balcony. It’s way bigger than this little thing.”

Freddie elbowed him. They stood or sat or pretended to sing for the entire twenty minute service. When it was over, Tommy said, “Let’s go wait for her out at the truck.”

They headed for a little door toward the front of the church, trying to get past all the other people who were heading to the back. The pastor caught them as he walked past. He said sternly, “Not so fast boys. Where do you think you’re going. There’s the after service.”

Tommy looked at him and said, “I’m a Lutheran. I didn’t know nothing about an after service.”

Freddie nodded and said, “Me, too.”

The pastor grunted, scowled at them, then broke into a smile. “Sorry for teasing you boys. The after servicer here is that we eat. There’s tables full of food downstairs. Feel free to help yourselves.” He raised both eyebrows and headed downstairs. He paused before he disappeared and said, “You did, after all help Edwina get the body here.”

Tommy looked at Freddie, whose eyes grew bigger than the bottoms of cupcakes. The boys followed the pastor down the stairs.

An hour later, they were sated with hot dish, apple pie, mashed potatoes and gravy, baked chicken, Jello®, Tater Tot® hot dish, plus pickles, bread and cold tuna rings all washed down with an entire bottle of Coke for each boy. Ed had grabbed each boy by the upper arm, steering them out of the circle of elder women to many disappointed cluckings.

Outside, she laughed as loudly and harshly as any man and said, “You certainly charmed your ways into their hearts!”

“All we did was eat!” Freddie said, rubbing his stomach.

She threw her head back again, laughing at them. “Exactly!” She sobered quickly though as they made their way to the truck. “I still have to get these logs up to Thunder Bay by dawn tomorrow.” She glanced up at the sky. “Nearly noon by now, so we’re going to have to go right away.”

She jumped up into the truck, starting it right away. A huge cloud of blue and black diesel smoke blew up from the stack as she cranked the engine. The pastor came out to see her off. The boys hopped up into the cab with a bit of help from the man this time. Ed waved and called, “Later, Mattie!” She ground the gears and they were slowly off again.

Freddie, sitting next to Ed this time, leaned to Tommy and said, “I could never call our pastor by his first name.”

Ed must have heard him and threw her head back, laughing again, and said, “Why shouldn’t I? He’s my brother!”

“Your brother?” both boys said together.

“Sure, he’s got his job. I got mine. I grew up here. Why I like to work here!” She concentrated on her driving as they slowly built up speed until they were moving somewhere around forty-five miles an hour.

Tommy nudged Freddie and whispered for him to check the speedometer. Freddie leaned farther and farther over until Ed suddenly snapped, “You’re not falling asleep, are you, sonny?”

“No! No!” he paused. “Tommy wanted to know why we’re going so slow.”

Tommy elbowed him and they would have gotten into an argument except that Ed cursed abruptly.

“What?” Freddie cried.

“Some idiot in a little sports car is trying to pass us!” she exclaimed, cursed again. “He’s gonna try it now! Hang on in case I get the urge to run him off the road and into the forest!”

She didn’t, but once the little car had passed them, a gorgeous woman was standing in the seat, looking back at them. Tommy grabbed Freddie’s shirt and yanked him to the floor the second he recognized her. Freddie cussed then shouted, “What’s wrong with you, idiot!”
Tommy grabbed the back of his head and pulled his friend closer, “It’s Bonnie and Clyde! They followed us from Duluth!”

July 17, 2012


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.

I’m doing something different today – I’m taking the Trope of divination (usually associated with fantasy, soft magic) and adding same CURRENT EVENT and doing a different genre for each idea. Last week was Fantasy; this week, it’s Horror…

H Trope: divination (especially water (how Stephen King got his start)

Between Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama; in the former Republic of West Florida, a separate and sovereign country with its own Constitution, ruled by the first and only Governor Fulwar Skipwith – Connor and Caroline Perdido, brother and sister and descendants. Annexed and invaded by the United State of America, it was one of the smallest victims of the new American Imperialism.

Connor and Caroline don’t CARE. Both of them want to escape their tiny town of Perkinston, nestled between two arms of the De Soto National Forest – Connor would have commented, “You mean squeezed like the neck of murder victim in the hands of a strangler!”

Caroline rolled her eyes and said, “You don’t have to be so dramatic.” Staring into the gloom and fog that wrapped the city, she sighed, “Except that you’re the most dramatic thing this burg has ever seen.”

Heading for their karate class in nearby Wiggins, Caroline is practicing driving – Connor’s already got his license – on their way. It’s foggy, but that’s normal. They’re pretty much zoned out when everything STOPS being normal. They see an old man on the side of the road. “Is he hitchhiking?” Caroline asked.

“Weird time to be hitchhiking,” said Connor. “It’s raining and miserable.”

“No, that’s just you. But then you’re always miserable.”

“Ha, ha...” The man on the side of the road turned toward the ditch, pulling what looked like a giant slingshot out from under his coat. He held it out in front of himself and it looked like any stick. Suddenly the point arrowed down. The man looked startled then appeared to struggle against the stick. The ground snapped open and he disappeared. “What the heck!” Connor exclaimed.

Caroline slammed on the breaks, echoing his exclamation. The car skidded a little on the wet road and came to a stop. There were no other cars in either direction. The two piled out of the car and ran back to the spot where the man had been. “What’s that?” Connor said, pointing to the ground. A jagged crack pulsed red in the rising shadows of the De Soto Forest, the sunning falling toward dusk.

“No idea. It was like the stick pointed down and the Earth...ate him.”

The ground tremble slightly, the crack opened and with a roar and a cloud of steam...

July 15, 2012

WRITING ADVICE -- SL Viehl #6: Secret Agent No More!

I stumbled across the writing of Sheila Kelly (aka SL Viehl, Gena Gale, Jessica Hall, Rebecca Kelly and Lynn Viehl) about eleven years ago with the publication of her first novel, STARDOC. I was looking for a the work of a current writer to replace one of my favorite kinds of science fiction – human doctors in a space hospital working on aliens. I discovered this genre as an adolescent in Alan E. Nourse’s STAR SURGEON, followed it into James White’s SECTOR GENERAL books and A.M. Lightner’s DOCTOR TO THE GALAXY. S.L. Viehl’s books satisfied that itch – but I learned about a year ago that she is so much more than just a “space hospital” writer! The bits of writing advice in this new ten part series are used with her permission. This one is from: http://pbackwriter.blogspot.com/2009/07/vw-7-agents-and-writers.html

I’ve been working to find an agent for a long, long time. I usually felt like there was someone out there who’d be interested in my writing, but as far as I could tell neither me nor the agent knew who the other was. It was a big secret.

Those of you who know me are aware that I write a lot of different kinds of things. My publications run the gamut from using science experiments to illustrate Biblical truths to hard science fiction about aliens invading Earth through genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

I have written thirteen novels, four easy readers, four picture books and forty-something published short stories, articles and curriculum lessons as well as having one collection of science experiment children’s sermons (which is still available!  http://www.amazon.com/Simple-Science-Sermons-Little-Kids/dp/0788012940) out since 1998.

I’ve been searching for an agent for decades.

But that’s not all I was doing. I’ve been writing and sending things for just as long. One of the things that SL Viehl mentions in the essay above is this: “There's one more point I'd like to touch on, and it's the frequent accusations writers make of agents as the root of all their career woes. It usually goes something like this: ‘My agent isn't selling me to the right publishers’ or ‘My agent doesn't care if I'm successful’ or even ‘I'd be a big name now if my agent hadn't sat on books and did nothing for them.’ Agents are people, and granted, people make mistakes...[but] to hold the agent solely responsible for your career woes is completely passing the buck…Your agent is not the chief navigator of your success in the biz; you're supposed to be in charge of that.” (emphasis mine).

About a year ago, one of the members of an online writers group I’ve been with since 2005 posted an agent call for clients he’d seen in Publisher’s Weekly. I didn’t have any SF or F finished at that time, but I did have a YA novel I’d written because another agent had said my previous novel wasn’t “edgey” enough. Muttering, “I’ll show YOU edgey!” I wrote VICTORY OF FISTS – adequately described as FIGHT CLUB meets Ellen Hopkins and started sending it around.

No one was interested.

I entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest in January of 2011 and by April, it was in the top 50 out of 5000 initial entries. It didn’t win, but I got a review from a Publisher’s Weekly that said: “A fascinating and endearing protagonist powers this poignant urban coming-of-age story…the exceptional characterization, intelligent storyline and inclusion of numerous thought-provoking references and quotes make this a page-turner that is not only entertaining but enlightening.”

But I still didn’t find an agent and so I kept sending it out. When the CODEX writer posted that Karen Grencik at Red Fox Literary was looking for books, I sent a query with a few pages. She liked it and asked to see the next fifty pages. Then she wanted to see the whole book.

I was thrilled – but I still kept shopping it around as well as writing my next projects. And the next and the next. I didn’t stop working because an agent was interested in one of my books.

The denouement came almost as a surprise when, after two complete rewrites with no commitment to “represent you” on Karen’s part or an agreement to “accept representation” on my part, Karen said that we’d gone as far as she wanted to go without editorial input and that it was ready to submit.

I had to email her and ask if that meant she would be my agent. When she said, “Yes!”, I was stunned…but I haven’t stopped working on other projects. I still have manuscripts in the mail and while she and I will be working together on VICTORY OF FISTS and now EMERALD OF EARTH, I still have to sell my short stories, submit various and sundry manuscripts and keep track of all that kind of stuff myself! Getting an agent is certainly no reason to kick my feet up, push off the tennis shoes and socks, lace my fingers over my (ample) belly and take a nap!

It’s been a long trek and it’s nowhere near over yet – but the sense that I’m on it with another professional has just made it seem a bit easier.

I’m sorry to unmask here in my blog, but Karen Grencik is no longer a SECRET agent!

July 12, 2012


The idea for this starts with a story I tried to write about a thieving monkey who took keys and used them to unlock its cage. That was it. The story was called BRIGHT FLASH THE MONKEY’S PAWS. It was my third or fourth attempt at writing a picture book – and it was really bad. With the advent of the genre of steampunk, I started rethinking the story. Here it is –

Clementine was up and out of bed in a flash! She ran to thank her mom and dad. Dad was cooking lunch. “Dad! Thank you so much for the metal monkey!”

Dad waved his hand, “Later, Sweet Pea! I am busy.”

“Where is Mom?”

“She’s gone to work. We can talk later, Sweet Pea.”

Clementine was sad. She left the kitchen. Sitting in the hallways was the monkey, steam softly puffing from his ears!

She went to her knees, she leaned down and hugged the monkey. “Oh, monkey, you’re the only one who cares!”

July 10, 2012


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.

F Trope: divination (especially water (how Stephen King got his start)

While not “current”, it’s interesting to note that horror writer, Stephen King became a writer because of water dowsing (also called, “divination”): “explains his childhood fixation with the imagery of terror and horror, making an interesting comparison of his uncle successfully dowsing for water using the bough of an apple branch with the sudden realization of what he wanted to do for a living. While browsing through an attic with his elder brother, King uncovered a paperback version of the H.P. Lovecraft collection The Lurker in the Shadows, which had belonged to his long-since-departed father. The cover art—an illustration of a monster hiding within the recesses of a hell-like cavern beneath a tombstone—was, he writes, the moment in his life which ‘that interior dowsing rod responded to.’”

Sui Fun Fong Eu and her boyfriend Chang-Lin Chiao are New York natives, two generations separated from their Chinese heritage – neither one speaks Chinese, likes Chinese food or has any desire to be anything except another invisible New York, high school seniors. They aren’t brilliant, both have older brothers and sisters who are lawyers, doctors, physicists and a pro-basketball player; so no one expects anything for either of them.

Both of them plan on “going to college”. Neither one knows what they want to major in except, “business”. They are comfortable with their lives and they are comfortable with their relationship – sexy, but not crazy (a pregnancy outside of marriage would STILL be a “bad” thing for them).  They are simply, COMFORTABLE and happy to be that way.

That is, until they’re walking through Central Park one afternoon and see someone with a white stick – a slender single end splitting half-way up and the elderly man holding the two ends in his hands, intently studying the ground.

“What’s he doing?” Fong asked.

Chiao shrugged and went back to scarfing his McDonald’s fries. He finally glanced at the old guy and stopped walking, squinted and said, “I think he’s looking for water.”

“In Central Park?”

Chiao shrugged again. “None of my business. Just another crazy New Yorker.” He kept walking, but Fong stopped to stare. He reached out and tugged her sleeve. “Don’t do that. He might be a mugger.”

“I don’t think some old geezer can hurt me from, like, the middle of the park,” she said, laughing.

Suddenly the old man looked up. The dowsing rod plunged to the ground like he’d caught a hundred pound tuna. He shouted angrily then the ground fountained up into the air, throwing him back. Something large, dark and insubstantial – like oil smoke – spewed from the ground. A limb of the smoke speared the old man in the chest. He spasmed once, then lay still. The cloud slid across the grass and before it reached them; before they could move or even scream, Fong could see that the grass beneath it curled into brown deadness.

Chiao said, “I think we should get...”

The oily smoke...

July 8, 2012

A Slice of PIE: Alien Worlds From Real Ones

As a slush reader for an anthology, I’ve been reading lots of stories lately. Mostly, I’ve been rejecting them out of hand for things like hideous grammar, obscene behavior (including but not limited to child rape, necrophilia and nonconsensual beastiality), stories that go absolutely nowhere and stories in which I can predict the ending by paragraph four.

One story offended me more than usual lately.

In it, a character somehow got into a slum on another world. The writer’s description of the slum was not only cursory, but offensively cursory and filled with such a deep lack of understanding that I rejected the story with curses...(Of course, the executive editor would likely simply reject the story without my curses, but they made me feel better.)

Why did it offend me?

The author took no time at all to describe the slum with anything approaching detail, attention or veracity. I would quote it, but my contract says I can’t. Suffice it to say that the writer not only glossed over the suffering of the individuals in the slum with glib stereotypes, they clearly had no desire to give any consideration to what (for them) appeared to be a simple backdrop – but for that world was a cesspool of suffering and a found of creative energy.

Besides the fact that I’ve been to slums in Lagos, Nigeria and Monrovia, Liberia; and I spent a day in a Libyan refugee camp on the Cameroon/Libya border; I recently finished SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts. In it, he fictionalizes his own experiences in Bombay, India in the early 1980’s. Reading it, I underlined and dog-eared it extensively for one reason and one reason only: he was so clearly describing an alien world, that even though I felt as though I was there, I was light years from the Bombay he described so lovingly – and so gruesomely.

The same thing happened when I read ROOTS (Alex Haley), CITY OF JOY (Dominique Lapierre), THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN (Anne Fadiman) and THROUGH GATES OF SPLENDOR (Elisabeth Elliot). All of these books described the experiences of the author in such detail and presented cultures that were so different from the one I live in that I felt as far from Earth as I would have had I been reading PERDIDO STREET STATION or DUNE.

While the short story often precludes creating a world exhaustively, science fiction authors can use a sort of literary shorthand when placing a story on some alien world. What it requires – just as it did for Haley, Lapierre, Fadiman and Elliot – is a keen eye and careful “observation” of a specific action, place or thing that Earth Humans take for granted that in the imagined world is radically different.

An example from a recent Nebula winner, Eric James Stone’s, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”:

“The Sol Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had only six human members, including me and the two missionaries, but there were forty-six swale members. As beings made of plasma, swales couldn’t attend church in the chapel…”

Another from an old short story that changed the face of science fiction, Bruce Bethke’s “Cyberpunk”:

The snoozer went off at seven and I was out of my sleepsack, powered up, and on-line in nanos. That's as far as I got. Soon's I booted and got-CRACKERS/BUDDYBOO/8ER
 -on the tube I shut down fast. Damn! Rayno had been on line before me, like always, and that message meant somebody else had gotten into our Net-- and that meant trouble by the busload!”

With a few keystrokes, both authors let you know that you are no longer in the world you know and love best. Within paragraphs of reading ROOTS or THROUGH GATES OF SPLENDOR, you are certain that you can’t possibly be on Earth.

Every science fiction author is under obligation to create truly alien worlds. There are countless resources out there besides the author’s imagination. The author had better make dang sure they use the resources at their fingertips! When that SF author chooses to take us “where no one has gone before”, they’d better make sure that those places are more alien than anything we can find on Earth – and they’d better make sure they show us the place clearly!

July 6, 2012


I read the play version of Daniel Keyes’ FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON when I was in eighth grade. It has stayed with me for decades, a haunting symbol for both the overwhelming possibilities of the human intellect and the overwhelming impossibilities faced by a profoundly challenged human mind. I’ve started and stopped this novel a half a dozen times in eleven years. I want to bring the original idea into the present millennium. To read RECONSTRUCTION from beginning to here, click on the label to the right and scroll four pages back until you get to the bottom.

“What’s at home that you can’t get here?” CJ Hastings asked. He whispered, standing right next to his adopted sister’s hospital bed in Intensive Care

“The cure,” said Mai Li Hastings.

“What kind of cure are you gonna have at home that Dr. Douchebag…”

“My brain is worth about ten thousand of his!” she snarled, her new-old “I’m-smarter-than-anyone-on-the-planet attitude splashing out and all over everything.

CJ – who was only thirteen, after all – snapped back as he hissed, “So who’s gonna do this when I say ‘no’, ‘cause you’re treatin’ me like I was your servant?”

Mai Li leaned forward and grabbed a handful of his T-shirt and yanked him closer to her and said, “I’m gonna haunt you from the grave if you don’t…” She suddenly released him and fall back into the pillows. Her monitors didn’t go into the bells and buzzing and creeling of cardiac arrest, so CJ knew she hadn’t died. But her breathing was heavy when she said, “You know I’ll haunt you, kid, so you better just surrender and go get my magic formula.”

“What kind of magic formula? The same kind that made you smart and that’s taking all the brains back? You think I’m gonna go all the way to the house and then come back here with a drug that’s gonna kill you?” CJ’s voice hadn’t gotten louder, but the pitch had gone up until his voice abruptly cracked into the soprano of a third graders.

Mai Li smiled weakly then said, “You’re so passionate, little idiot brother, you make me laugh.” She paused and lay breathing lightly and said, “It’s my last chance. If it works, I should stabilize at this level. If it doesn’t work, then I just keep on deteriorating until I’m back to my original brain capacity.” She looked straight at him and said, “Either way, I win.”

“How’s dying gonna…”

“I’m not going to die, Chris. I’ll either be your obnoxious older sister with an IQ higher than Stephen Hawking and Madame Curie combined, or I become your dependent, Toasty-O-eating, mentally and physically handicapped, adoring sister again.” She touched his knuckles, which were white on the side rail. “I’d rather be the former, but I can live for a long time with the latter.”

“You remember that?”

“What? You force-feeding me dry, unsweetened cereal? Of course I do.” Her grin and the unexpected look in her eyes made CJ choke up. He nodded and headed for the door. Mai Li said, “Don’t you want to know what to look for?”

Blushing from forehead to T-shirt, he came back to the bed. “What am I looking for?”

“A blue squirt gun.”

“A what?”

“Remember the squirt guns Mom got for your tenth birthday party?”


“Mom saved a couple in your Life Box.”

“My Life Box? When did you go through that?”

“Never mind. I took one of them and created a soup of nanomachines that should stop the present brood in my head that are busy reassembling me to my former splendor. I put them in your squirt gun in the freezer. And just in case anyone was snooping, I filled up the other six she had with various liquids.”

“How am I supposed to know…”

She lifted her the cussing finger of her left hand. Each of her fingernails was painted a different color. The only she lifted was green. He nodded and started for the door again. He stopped, spun around and pointe an accusatory finger at her, saying, “Don’t even think about dying before I get back!”

Mai Li weakly lifted both hands in surrender. They sank back to her sides as her eyes closed and her head rolled to one side. CJ tip-toed out of the room, hesitated next to Job then thought better of it. If this was going to be his last mission for Mai Li, he was going to do it alone. Besides, Job couldn’t ride anywhere NEAR as fast as CJ could. Glancing at Mom who was asleep on a couch, he padded silently to the elevator and headed down.

July 4, 2012


(The Daughter is leaving for New Zealand in a few hours, so my timetable is screwy right now. Sorry for the missed day...) 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.

SF Trope: all major historical figures are aliens or work with aliens

This is a bit of a twist, but with just the right twig, THIS might happen:

Rain Li is a Canadian studying in the US – Bemidji State University to be exact.

Boston Fournier is also Canadian, though he’s an exchange student from Quebec studying at the University of Minnesota.

At a Junior Student Research Paper Conference hosted at the U, they meet as the news breaks that not only do people think that Obama would handle an alien invasion better than presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, there is evidence that SOMETHING is happening on the surface of Titan (http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/underground-sea-liquid-discovered-saturns-moon-titan) as Cassini has reported massive geysers of ice and water seemingly exploding at random from the surface of the moon.

With elections only a few months away, political pundits and journalists alike begin to speculate. Of course, the WEEKLY WORLD NEWS – The Only Reliable Source Of News On Earth –  reported that, like HG Well’s novel, WAR OF THE WORLDS…

“…with the amazing intelligence of a huge outbreak of incandescent gas upon the planet. It had occurred towards midnight of the twelfth; and the spectroscope, to which he had at once resorted, indicated a mass of flaming gas, chiefly hydrogen, moving with an enormous velocity towards this earth. This jet of fire had become invisible about a quarter past twelve. He compared it to a colossal puff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet, ‘as flaming gases rushed out of a gun.’” (Chapter 1)

Neither one paid it much heed, but certain quarters began to trumpet the end of the world; the end of the world as we know it; the dawn of a new age; the dawn of The New Age; proof that We Are Not Alone and proof that the invasion of Earth was drawing nigh…

Along among the delegates, Rain and Boston were the only Canadians (and Boston considered himself the only REAL Canadien), and really didn’t much care about the Americans, their election or whether Obama or Romney would be a better “Alien Hunter” (though Rain confided to Boston in French that she thought Barack Obama: Alien Hunter had a better ring to it than Mitt Romney: Alien Hunter). They were discovering each other.
It’s just that Rain accidentally got a text not meant for her, from Boston to one of his friends that read, “She’s just an American in Canadian drag. Homely at that. She’d never be willing to crack a fingernail in our cause…”

Cause? What cause? Did it have anything to do with the story buried in Section C of StarTribune.com about a recent uptick in the number of terroristic threats by the old mouvement national liberation quebec? Who was this kid, anyway and what had she gotten herself involved with?

And what about the cluster of weird lights in the sky in the direction of the bright, star-like object that Boston pointed out was Saturn?

July 1, 2012

Slice of PIE: A Road Trip Into The Wilderness...

Yesterday, on the way to a wedding, I got lost.

As things turned out, I got lost in order to learn a couple of things. One had to do with my life as a breast cancer survivor’s husband (if you’re interested, read the post here: http://breastcancerreaper.blogspot.com/2012/06/road-signs.html).

The other had to do with “getting lost”.

That phrase has taken on a new meaning for me in this 21st Century. The new car (as opposed to my 1993 Chevy pickup truck), has a tiny, digital compass inside the rear-view mirror. I also had a paper map – but only of the state I was coming OUT OF rather than the stare I was going into. The thing is that I needed to intersect with a north-south highway, so (I reasoned) as long as I was going EAST, I would cross the highway.

Long story, shortened: I found my highway and reached my destination on time.

The longer version has a darker tale wound within, however, but for it to be significant, I need to back up about 20 years.

Shortly after we were married, I took a “correspondence course” with a division of the Long Ridge Writers Group, The Institute of Children’s Literature. Plunking down my $600 (which was a LOT of money in those early days of marriage!) I diligently completed the course and got the diploma. The novel I began and eventually finished was called ALIEN SUMMER and it detailed a Human farmer charged with raising the young of two alien races long at war.

The farmer is visited by his city boy nephew – who both finds out what’s going on and gets involved.

That novel went nowhere, but that was because I was inexperienced and (frankly) not a very good writer.

Lately, I’ve been toying with the idea of reviving the story. The current working title is LOVE IN A TIME OF ALIEN INVASION. Cool, huh? The basic plot will likely be the same, but a problem I had with the initial book continued to nag at me: “How could this possibly, really take place? There’s nowhere on Earth that is remote enough, close enough and safe enough at the same time for this to take place…”

Enter my trip into Wisconsin yesterday.

After missing my initial exit due to not reading the GOOGLE map closely enough and road construction, I exited some 30 miles north of where I was supposed to be. Thinking that it was just a matter of getting on the next east-west county road and heading east, I felt it was a good bet I’d intersect the road I wanted. It turns out I did – but not before seeing the following:
These country roads, while they had numbers and towns along them, rarely marked either until you were right on top of it. For example, one strange town with a name that shall remain unspoken, had an intersection. As near as I could tell, there were two houses, the volunteer fire department’s garage and a microwave relay tower. The asphalt road turned ninety degrees at the intersection and dove into the *ahem* State Forest. Thinking City Thoughts (perhaps more specifically Minneapolis thoughts), I drove straight onto the dirt road. I realized my error when I passed a long, cinderblock building on my left. It had a pull-through covering a single gasoline pump – but it would have been impossible to do so as a six-foot-tall, green wire Christmas tree blocked my way. A neon sign in the window of the building proclaimed at some “Lite” beer or other was available inside.

I left in a hurry, creeped out in ways I can’t even begin to describe.

That departure put me into the heart of the Forest and while I was indeed travelling east, I never passed another vehicle except the red, rusty pickup delivering mail to boxes along the road. Those boxes fronted properties that ranged from idyllic, gingerbread scrollworked B&B’s to mobile-home junkyards with children playing among the wrecks and ruin; modern dairy farms and shacks that would have been unremarkable in the Appalachian Mountains...

Could my alien combatants foist their newborns off to be raised by Human round-the-clock nannies in this area?

Whoa...I still had niggling doubts until I reached State Border Road.

This track of unmarked, uneven asphalt wound through a forest dense enough to qualify as temperate rainforest – and it was here that I didn’t cross paths with a single vehicle and the only life I noticed was of the bug variety and two turkeys crossing the road. Weeds and bushes grew to the very edge of this near-bike path (I’ve seen City bike paths wider than this road), and I was certain that if I plunged off the road into one of the marshes or ravines, no one would find my body without flying an infrared search and rescue mission...

So there you have it; one trip in which I was sort of lost equals grist for not one but TWO writing endeavors.

Oh, one final thought in passing, the people who live in these remote places; those whose farms or junkyards or homes are far from...what? Prying eyes? Governmental interference? Spy planes? My uncharitable thought as I meandered through that overgrown hinterland was that anyone who CHOOSES to live so far form everything – must have something to hide...