Saturday, January 29, 2011

Xax's Journal

I've been toying with the idea of scattering some excerpts from the journal of the wizard Xax throughout my fantasy novel, mainly because without them the novel is purely fantasy with the readers getting little idea of the sci-fi roots of the story. My feeling is that agents who read the story as it stands will keep rejecting it on the basis of it not seeming original enough. Would the journal excerpts make a difference?

I began typing out entries in the 'journal'. This one below was the first, but it doesn't feel authentic to me. After all, Xax already knows the history behind the journey to the new habitable planet, so why would he bother writing about it? He would write from his own perspective, even if that is less illuminating for my readers.

Excerpt from the Journal of Artyom Komarov

It was the first habitable planet found by the new Hubble/Yi VII telescope, or as close to habitable as 97.8% certainty can provide. And it was less than eighty light years from Earth. Who could resist? China began building the first generation ship, and a Mormon sect led by trillionaire Trev Johnson started the second, naturally called Mayflower II. They had no clue that they would be beaten to the punch by poor, corrupt Russia.

Even our own government was surprised by the turn of events. It had secretly funded our group, nine of the best Russian scientists along with an Icelandic geneticist, a biologist from Bosnia, and a Danish molecular engineer, for more than three decades for the purpose of perfecting new military clones. On the side we called ourselves the ‘Immortality Club’ and set about figuring out how to digitize a dump of all data from a living being’s mind and reinject that data back into the empty brain of the being’s cloned body. Thirty-three years it took us, along with enough chimpanzees to repopulate the Congo, but we succeeded. We proved there was no such thing as a soul.

Immortality was our primary aim. We were all getting on in years, with Kostya nearing eighty. It took twenty years to properly prepare a human clone, so all of us were impatient to set a few copies baking. We began taking new snapshots of our brain data each week, so we could always have nearly up-to-date versions of ourselves ready to go.

It was Volodya who gazed up at the two generation ships lighting up the nighttime sky and imagined another use for our new technology. We could automate the cloning and reconstitution process using super-advanced crèches on a small, fast ship and beat the Chinese and Americans, claiming the new world for ourselves. We didn’t even tell our bosses what we were up to, since we dared take no chances they would strip away our funding.

It’s an odd feeling to wake in a fresh young body more than three centuries later and know that another version of yourself may still be living back home on Earth.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Writing and Story

One of my terrific critting buddies, Matt Rush, made a comment recently that got me thinking about the differences between being a good writer and knowing how to craft a good story. The more I think about it the more I believe this is a very important distinction for most new writers to learn.

Most of us who have started down this road toward publishing a book are pretty decent at writing. Some of us are really good at it. My feeling is that most of us are good writers but not necessarily good story tellers yet. I see blog after blog talking about improving our writing, but while this is truly important, I feel what most of us really need to improve more than anything is our story telling.

We can all string together words in a sensible and sometimes beautiful fashion, and when we look back at the drafts we have created, we are understandably proud of what we have accomplished. Often we think we are close to having something that could sell. Now I think that the number one thing we could do to reach that selling point is to understand that writing really well isn't enough. We need to dramatically improve on the craft of laying out a great story.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Little About Me

I just read Elana Johnson's blog post in which she tells the readers a bit about herself (she admits she got the idea from Ali Cross's blog), and I thought it wasn't a bad idea since I had never really done this myself. Perhaps no one is interested, but who knows?

So, a little about me...

I grew up in Arizona. I've been shy all my life, and perhaps even antisocial. I love being social, actually, but only with people that I really connect with. Small talk drives me nuts. I became passionate early on with both reading and music, but when I was 8 I discovered soccer and was completely in love. I was better at it than at anything else that mattered to me at the time. My brothers convinced me to join a baseball league one year, where as the starting pitcher I won every game and we won the championship, but it just wasn't my thing. I loved soccer and did very well at it. At the age of 16 a scout tried to convince my mom to let me sign for a pro team in Mexico City, but she wouldn't allow it.

Since there was no soccer in college at the time I finished high school, I suddenly had nothing to do. So, I started up three new hobbies -- guitar, basketball, and chess. I still love all of them, but when I shattered my left hand playing football in Beijing I could no longer fret properly, so guitar is pretty much out now. Chess became the thing I was best at, and it changed my life. I had been studying computer engineering in college, but since all the best chess grandmasters were from the Soviet Union, I switched my major (after 3.5 years!) to Russian Studies. Talk about changing one's life!

This led to me taking a job with the US State Department after graduation and going to work at the embassy in Moscow. This still ranks as my favorite time in life. I arrived in October, 1993, just as the coup attempt failed, with the tanks blasting away the Russian Parliament (which is right across the street from the embassy). Russia was a mess, but it was exciting there. I met so many fantastic people, including the two who remain my best friends to this day. I got to play chess against some great players, such as world champions Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Vladimir Kramnik, and British champ Nigel Short.
Me against Garry Kasparov
We weren't allowed to date Russians for the first two years I was in Moscow, so social activity was limited. I traveled a bit with friends, the highlight being a trip to London to see Pink Floyd and Stone Temple Pilots in a couple of fantastic concerts. When they finally changed the rules and allowed us to date Russians, I was introduced to the amazing woman who became my wife. We're still perfect for each other fifteen years and two sons later.

In 1997 I went back to the states since we were about to have our first child. I got a job as an IT consultant for Compuware Corporation in Phoenix. It was a great company that treated me better than any other ever has, but I got bored with living in the US after the excitement of life overseas, so in 2001 I applied to go back to the Foreign Service. 2001 turned into a high point in my life, as I tied for first place in the US Amateur Chess Championships in Tucson with an undefeated score.

Zagreb, Croatia
After a year of training in Washington, we moved to Zagreb, Croatia. I can't speak much about my job online, so I'll just say that it is great to get a chance to travel around. The US is so large and far away from most other countries that it is nice to be in Europe where so many other great countries are nearby. In 2004 we moved to Beijing, China, which was an interesting and odd experience. Three years there was more than enough. While there I finally took up writing. I had always been good at writing in school, but I never thought I would actually get around to really writing a book.
At the Great Wall
In 2007 we got to move to a fascinating place -- Reykjavik, Iceland. I heartily recommend that everyone experience at least one New Year's celebration there, as they have the best fireworks display in the world. I finished my first book there, incorporating some of the flavor of where I was living, and we moved on to Baku, Azerbaijan in 2009.

I thought I would get to play chess again here in Baku, since three of the top 15 players in the world are from here, as well as this being the birthplace of Garry Kasparov, but I haven't been able to play at all here. The highlight so far was a vacation to London to see Green Day and Pearl Jam in concert. I've started my second book, but it is slow going as I keep procrastinating too much. The best news, though, is that we are heading for the gorgeous city of Budapest next summer for a three year tour. I already know the chess is great there, since I played in a tournament there in 2003, and the beauty of the city should be conducive to writing.

Have I bored you all enough? Did anyone actually get this far? Any questions?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Top Ten Music Bloghop

From Alex J. Cavanaugh's blog comes the Top Ten Music Bloghop. Please visit all of these blogs to see our wonderful community music tastes in action.

Okay! How to pick just ten songs? This seems crazy, because I live and breathe music. I love so many songs that I couldn't even begin to describe them to you. It's even worse to imagine trying to describe why I love each song, as most of what I love about them simply cannot be put into words. Well, here goes...

1. Black Dog by Led Zeppelin -- Led Zeppelin's fourth album was the first music to catch my full attention as a young boy of 3. I had heard music before, of course, but this was the first time I ever listened to the music and consciously thought about it and loved it. I love this whole album, but the sound of Jimmy Page warming up his guitar at the very beginning has stuck in my mind ever since. A close second is the amazing drum intro to the second track, Rock & Roll. Not on this album, No Quarter is my favorite Zep song.

2. Get Back by The Beatles -- After Led Zeppelin kick started my passion for music, The Beatles quickly became my first true love. I could listen to Zep IV forever, but I could listen to the whole Beatles catalogue and never get tired! I love so many Beatles songs that I won't bore you by listing them, but this one always held a special place in my heart. The driving beat is addictive in a beautiful way.

3. The Council of Elrond by Enya -- I am not a huge Enya fan, but this one song (my own edited version that cuts out the long musical interlude after the lyrics stop) is so gorgeous and sweeping that it sits way ahead of all other songs atop my Most Played list in iTunes (and it's not even close). When I am in the mood for beautiful, I sometimes put this one on a loop and play it over and over again. It doesn't hurt that it is about Lord of the Rings, which is my favorite book ever.

4. Memories of Green by Vangelis -- This is my favorite piece of music from one of my all-time favorite albums, Vangelis's Blade Runner soundtrack. I love the movie and I love the music from the movie, and so should you all! The only flaw in the album is that it is lacking the song Main Titles & Prologue, which is my second favorite after this one. Get the album and track down Main Titles (which should be track one) and you have a perfect set of music to play when you want to lie on the couch (or sit at your computer) peacefully and be swept away by beauty.

5. Time by Pink Floyd -- As a kid I foolishly thought that I could be forever content to listen and be loyal to nothing but Zeppelin and Beatles. How silly we are when we are kids! The soaring guitar solo in this song brought on my love affair with the amazing music of Pink Floyd, which led to me starting to play guitar. I spent the next several years learning to play all of my favorite Floyd and Zeppelin songs.

6. New Year's Day (Live at Red Rocks) by U2 -- Similar story to the above. Hearing this ringing, glorious anthem got me hooked on U2 before most people (at least in my area) had heard of them. I spent several years listening to almost nothing but them.

7. Pinball Wizard by The Who -- The guitar on this song always blows me away, and I am always amazed that I somehow never really heard The Who as a kid. I guess it is the fault of my parents. They have so many other great songs besides this one, such as Behind Blue Eyes and Baba O'Riley.

8. Searching With My Good Eye Closed by Soundgarden -- The song that started me down my heavy rock kick. I actually first heard it live, when Soundgarden was the opening act for Guns n Roses, and I thought Soundgarden stole the show. I edit off the silly intro and have it fade in with the devil scream, but the slow, heavy dropped-D riff at the beginning is one of my favorites.

9. Father and Son by Cat Stevens -- I heard the amazing Tea For the Tillerman album many times as a kid, but it took several years for me to realize how much I really loved it, and this is my favorite song on an album where every song is fantastic.

10. Alive by Pearl Jam -- The glorious opening riff introduced me to a new band that I instantly loved and have never let go of (I even went to England this past summer to see them in concert). I love other Pearl Jam songs more than this one (In My Tree, Unthought Known, Tremor Christ, Green Disease, Yellow Ledbetter, etc.), but this one started it.

*Sigh* There is no way I can leave it there and be true to myself. I simply must add on a few others.

11. Right in Two by Tool -- The song Aenima was the one that hooked me on this amazing, heavy band. Metal music with soaring vocals like I had never heard before! This is my favorite song, though many others are close.

12. Thomas by A Perfect Circle -- This one follows directly from Tool, as the singer is the same for both bands. This is my favorite song from their first album, but there are so many other great songs by APC, such as Magdalena, Sleeping Beauty, Blue, and Thinking of You.

13. Plush by Stone Temple Pilots -- The song that introduced me to STP, which had the best two albums of the 90's, in my opinion. I flew all the way to London in 1994 to see them in concert.

I'll end with this album, Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, because though no individual song beats my favorites above, the entire album is so wonderful and beautiful that no one should miss it. Kathy's Song, Homeward Bound, El Condor Pasa, The Boxer, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Scarborough Fair Canticle...heck, every song on this is great!

It hurts to leave off so much great music. I keep thinking of more and more...Don't Fear (The Reaper), Panama, I'd Love to Change the World, Layla, Hey Joe, Band on the Run. Agh! Somebody stop me!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Empty Canvas

If you put the word 'Tolkienesque' into Google and then filter by 'blogs' you will find any number of posts disparaging people like me. I came across a couple that called writers who write Tolkienesque fantasy 'lazy' and 'unimaginative'.

I view the Middle Earth works of Tolkien like a painting that a great master began, completing just a tiny portion of it before dying and leaving it unfinished. That one tiny part is so brilliant that some fall in love with the possibilities that it offered. It is so vivid that we can accurately envision what the finished painting might have been like.

The critics have a right to their opinions, but they are wrong to consider writers like me lazy or unimaginative. They don't understand the depths of passion we have for that incomplete painting. They would be right to say that only that master could have finished the painting, but they miss the point. Those of us with the deep love for the tiny portion of the master's work that exists are pained at the thought that no more of the painting can be revealed to the world. We desperately want to see more of it and not just in our imaginations. So the painting can never be finished. However, it eases the heartache for us to even add another tiny patch to the painting, to bring to life another story that adds just another brush stroke to illuminate a tiny bit more of the master work.

Let the critics say what they will, I intend to spend the bulk of my writing life working on my own imaginative, non-lazy vision of what I see in that beloved painting. Most writers out there want to go their own way and create their own paintings, even knowing that they can never rival the great master. I have already found the one painting that I love more than all others. It's just a few brilliant brush strokes in the bottom corner, and I want to try my best to fill in just a little more of that empty canvas.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Divided States of America

The divisiveness in America these days is just plain depressing. It feels like no one will ever put aside selfishness to try to hammer out their differences with the other side. One has to wonder about anyone who goes into politics -- they must be insane, stupid, or power hungry.

This leads to one of my recurring daydream fantasies, in which the fed up citizens of the country decide enough is enough and split the country in two. It could be just like the old Risk game, with the Western U.S. and the Eastern U.S. Everyone gets ten years to move, if necessary. The conservatives get one half (I'd give them the west, since Utah is already there and we all know how much the Republicans would love to get their paws on California, but then again they have such a disdain for our friends coming to visit us from south of the border, I think they would be better off with the east) and the liberals the other. Ooooh, I can just see all the trade agreements collapsing within the first decade!

Neither side is perfect, of course, but I simply cannot imagine that life would be anything other than utterly horrific in a country populated by nothing but conservatives. A real bowl of laughs there. At least the liberal side would have most of the artistic types and scientists.

Ah, well. I can dream, can't I?

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Odd Case of the Missing Dwarves

One thing that has always struck me as strange in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was that we had this vast evil that was threatening to take over everything, yet almost all races were just blithely going about their normal business without a care in the world. Gondor had no choice but to get involved. Rohan didn't seem interested until Saruman took that choice away from them. The hobbits would have done nothing at all if it weren't for Bilbo and his ring. No other humans did anything (except for the ones who joined in with Sauron!). The great hero races of past ages, the elves and dwarves, seemed content to send off a single representative apiece while the rest of them went on with their lives as if nothing much was happening.

I wonder if this was Tolkien's perception of the rest of the world while World War I was raging? Did it bother him that this horrific conflict was tearing up much of Europe while the rest of the world's citizens went about their daily lives? I still think the blasé approach to the end of the world by all the races in Middle Earth is simply incredible. There should have been alliences, leading to armies of dwarves, elves, and men marching toward Mordor, but we all know that this would have undercut the strength of the story that Tolkien wished to tell.

I can kind of understand the elves, as they were in their twilight years in Middle Earth and were basically marking time until they all hit the Gray Havens and departed. But, on the other hand, this Sauron fellow had been far more than a mere thorn in their side for thousands of years. You would think that they would have some final settling to do with him.

Were the Middle Earth dwarves really so dense as to think Sauron would leave them in peace once he had conquered Gondor and Rohan? I guess all I can imagine is how the US must have looked to the European countries during both WWI and WWII when we sat back and tried not to get involved while much of the civilized world was drenched in blood. Any thoughts?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tolkien vs. Howard -- High Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery

I read an interesting little essay today about looking at today's fantasy through the filter of both Tolkien and Robert Howard. The idea was that readers generally view the two writers as being at the extreme poles of fantasy -- Tolkien with high fantasy and Howard with sword & sorcery -- but that when it comes down to it, the two have more similarities than most would care to admit. I recommend reading the essay.

What it made me think about, though, was my own unswerving difference of opinion with many fantasy readers. So many keep saying that they never want to see any more Tolkienesque fantasy, and they also seem to define Tolkienesque fantasy as having to be the super-complex, world-building, epic journey that Tolkien gave us with LOTR. To me this is just plain silly. I like to imagine Middle Earth as a real place, and further imagine what Tolkien might have done had he had a lifetime more in line with his immortal elves rather than the short life that we mortals must endure. He gave us just the barest taste of Middle Earth, a whisper of what could have been. He laid out so many possible epics in his historical outline The Silmarillion, yet he gave us only one (LOTR).

I like all types of fantasy story. I love the setting of Middle Earth, mostly because it was reinforced by my love of Dungeons & Dragons. So, I would love to see all types of stories set within a Middle Earth-style setting. I want low fantasies, sword & sorcery, epics, and high. This is why the essay about Tolkien and Howard resonated with me. So what if LOTR was high fantasy. Does that mean that there are not denizens of Middle Earth living life more along the lines of Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser? I love to imagine the more down to earth tales that might take place in cities such as Tharbad or Lond Daer. They each have their own gritty tales to tell.

Tolkien's most famous work was epic high fantasy. Does that mean that given a much longer life he wouldn't have written other tales of Middle Earth that were not epic in scope? I see no reason whatsoever to say that a story cannot be Tolkienesque while having almost nothing to do with high fantasy other than having some of the same races in it. This is what I want to do with my Tolkien-style world. I want to write any kind of fantasy story that I wish to tell, only set within a realm that reminds me of what I loved so much in Tolkien's works. I want to write stories that Howard might have been proud of, only with a high fantasy tinge to them.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Cultures in Fantasy Novels

While writing my first fantasy books I have been fully conscious of the fact that the great J.R.R. Tolkien was slammed quite a lot by critics for his fictional cultures being a bit too homogenous. When he did have dark skinned races, they always showed up as dragon fodder in the bad guy's armies.

In my world the tribe that became the Greatlanders and occupies the Known Lands became different from all the others because they welcomed the arrival of a ship from Earth (rather than responding with fear or attacks as other tribes did), so they gained the benefits of what the Earth scientists were willing to teach them (the wheel, stirrups, etc.) while other tribes languished in relative barbarity. Eventually these other tribes banded together and drove the advanced tribe away, which is when they found the sheltered land that they now call the Known Lands.

The problem is that this leaves me with a kingdom that essentially has a single race. I run the risk of having critics roast me the same way they did with Tolkien. I do use the barbarian tribes to the east a bit, but the ones who live nearby are relatively similar to the Gauls and Celts of ancient Europe, so they don't help me a whole lot as far as diversity goes.

In my second book, I have been toying with the idea of including a couple of characters from far to the south, an arid plain where the nomadic tribes are olive skinned and of a very different culture to the Greatlanders. The problem I am having so far is that these characters don't have a natural part within the storyline as it currently exists in my head, so I would have to enlarge and complicate the story to make them fit. I don't think it is a huge issue, as once I start to write them in, the story will naturally change to work with them. But, it does make me wonder about our politically correct atmosphere these days. Have you ever altered a perfectly fine storyline just so you could stave off any potential criticism from the PC police? Have you forced a strong female role into a storyline, or made some characters fit into racial types that aren't your own even if the story didn't need it?

I see a lot of good in making people be considerate of racial and sexual issues, but I admit to some trepidation about overdoing political correctness. If, say, a Mongolian writer wrote a great story about Mongolian society, we would laud him or her and never dream of saying that he or she must include other races in the story, yet if a writer is white then he or she is almost expected to have to do so. This is what has always bugged me about the critics of Tolkien. It seems natural to me that most people are interested in writing about their own cultures. I am certainly most interested in European-type cultures, because my family background is English and German. I have some interest in other world cultures, but they don't resonate much with me when it comes to my writing. I read a book now and then about non-European cultures, but the ones that I really love are always about ancient Rome or England or the Middle Ages in Europe. I don't feel I should have to apologize for being most interested in my own ancestral history.

So, will I use these nomad characters? I think I will, if I can make the story work. If I can't then I will cut them out. What about you, has political correctness ever affected your writing?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Back From Vacation

Last night we arrived back in Baku from our vacation in Thailand. We had long layovers in Dubai each way, so we are exhausted. The vacation was terrific and the weather was so nice to us.

This photo was taken just before we left Azerbaijan and shows a mud volcano near Baku. Very strange, huh?

We spent the first five days in Bangkok. Here is a shot of my eldest son and my wife with me at the Grand Palace.

Below are my two wonderful sons at the Grand Palace.
Below is a shot of Wat Arun, also called The Temple of the Dawn. It is just across the river from the Grand Palace.
And here is a shot my son Anton took of me climbing Wat Arun.
For New Year's we went to Jomtien, near Pattaya, since it is the nearest decent beach to Bangkok.

 Here you can see me standing on Jomtien Beach.
 I wish you could see the sunset we saw there, but I didn't have my good camera with me (I didn't feel like bringing it because it is too bulky). The sun was a huge blazing red ball. My son's little camera reduced it to what you see here.
We took elephant rides at Pattaya, which my family thought was great fun. Here my wife is taking a picture of me. I hope you all had a great holiday season. May this next year be our best one yet!