Monday, June 25, 2012

Read "A Giant Mess of Darkness" in Ray Gun Revival Today

A science fiction story I wrote called A Giant Mess of Darkness goes live today on the Ray Gun Revival website. Like everything they publish, it's completely free to read (however if you like the magazine and would like to support them, you might consider donating or purchasing a kindle subscription). 

For those keeping score, this is my first paid publication. I already did my share of bragging when the sale was announced, but I'd like to say again how pleased I am to have scratched this goal off the milestone list. Not to mention, I'm extremely proud to have my first real publication credit at the hands of RGR, a magazine that I've been enjoying as a reader for quite some time. If you like stories that hark back to the golden age of pulp science fiction, it's probably right up your alley.

Now I figured I'd post a bit of commentary on the story for those interested. If you haven't read it yet, I'd encourage you to do so before reading on, as spoilers are inbound.

On "Darkness" (spoilers ahoy) . . .

This story's backbone had been floating around in my noggin for quite some time before I actually sat down to write it. It started, like many of my stories do, with the smallest sliver of an idea. I wanted to write about the human instinctual response to darkness. As it happened, I'd just finished the first draft to a taxing fantasy story, so I was ready for some good ol' scifi when I decided to scratch that itch.

The story's concept as it originally came to me was quite different--there was no Dyson sphere. My initial idea involved an astronaut who has an accident while on an EVA mission and begins to drift away from his vehicle. I pictured a scene in which the astronaut had his back to the craft and faced total darkness, with only a small piece of debris floating in front of him reflecting the ambient light behind him. He grows uneasy as the reflective surface of the metal begins to spin away and the shining beacon leaves him.

While I loved this image, it didn't take long to realize there were some plausibility issues there. Why would there be such imposing darkness if he were so close to his craft? Why wouldn't he have a light mounted on his suit, as our astronauts do today? Why wouldn't his crew mount a rescue effort long before he started losing a grip on things? As I toyed with the idea, I eventually realized this story would work better combined with another idea of mine that I'd set aside involving a Dyson sphere, a hypothetical construct named after theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson

The Dyson sphere concept has always fascinated me, so I leaped at the opportunity to finally toy with it a bit. Not only did it address most of my plausibility issues, but it brought an entirely different flavor of mystery and menace (and let me play with certain other concepts as well). The rotating debris became the flickering flashlight, and the original spirit of the idea--overwhelming darkness penetrating the mind of our poor astronaut--still got to reign supreme at the heart of the story.

I hope you enjoyed A Giant Mess of Darkness, and I'd love to hear what you thought of it. If you found your way here from RGR, feel free to stay a while and say hello.

And no . . . I'm not telling you if she was real or not.

Monday, June 18, 2012

10 Things on My Desk That Help My Writing

Experienced professionals in just about any field will tell you your work environment can be critical to productivity and performance. One of the nice things about being a writer is that we get a great deal of control over our workspace. Some writers carry their work around with them in laptops and notepads, writing on porches or in coffee shops. Others prefer a wide-open room with a breathtaking view. Some, like myself, prefer a private office with a cozy desk in the corner.

Whether you choose to write in bed or out on the beach, you can tweak your output by surrounding yourself with sights and sounds that assist and inspire. Today, I thought I'd give you a glimpse at some of the elements of my workspace that help me forge worlds and breath life onto the empty page.

  1. It's tough to make out in this picture, but taped above my monitor is this image, which reminds me that there's no time like the present to put hammer to steel.
  2. My army of external hard drives. As you might have guessed, I'm a bit of a data hoarder. This works out well for my writing though, which is backed up twice locally and twice on the cloud.
  3. This one's hard to make out as well, but that's a pink post-it note that says, "Fix it in revision!!" I have a tendency to over-edit while I write, so this reminds me to cool it down until I get at least a few words on the page.
  4. Oh, come on. You know what this is . . . sweet, sweet coffee. Rocket fuel for writers.
  5. Music is a big component of writing for me (in fact, it will likely be the subject of a future entry). Since I do all of my writing late at night, the headphones stay close at hand.
  6. When you get in the zone and lose yourself in the universe at your fingertips, sometimes it's easy to forget basic needs. It's always a good idea to keep plenty of water within arm's reach.
  7. This is my printer, though I like to call it the Mangler. Not only because it seems to have a mind of its own, but something about it just feels inherently evil. Maybe because I use it to print all of my rejections (filed into the folder that rests atop it like a wicked crown).
  8. I know what you're thinking. How on earth is a video game controller helpful to writing? Think of it as the carrot dangling before the mule. It serves as a reminder that a reward is in store if I meet my nightly goals.
  9. The iPad becomes my auxiliary screen when Word (or lately Scrivener) is open. I don't allow myself to hit the minimize button once the writing begins, so if I need the internet for impromptu research, I use this. My work stays on the large screen that dominates my field of view.
  10. An ergonomic keyboard and mouse keep my wrists and fingers in action without cramping up. Pay no attention to the second mouse up top--that one's for shooting zombies.
So there you have it. That's my workbench. What about yours? What are some of the things you surround yourself with when it's time to put pen to paper? I'd love to hear about it (or see it; pictures welcome). 

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a carrot to eat.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Power of a Writing Routine

It's almost poetic that today's entry is a couple of days late. Since last month, I've been trying to get new entries up each Monday. Because of my odd work schedule, this sometimes means that I actually have to sit down and write them on Saturday night. Well, I'll be honest with you. This past Saturday I did a whole lot of nothing. I just wasn't feeling it, so I willfully broke my routine. Now it's Tuesday night and I'm still paying for it. Instead of starting my new story, I'm catching up on the blog.

Is there a lesson in this? Of course. Shamefully, it's a lesson I've already learned. Procrastination is not alien to me--it's practically been my middle name since I was a kid. But I thought I'd already slayed this particular beast, at least as far as writing is concerned. I suppose this just goes to show it can rear its ugly head at any time if you let it.

So how do you prevent that? Well, there are a lot of answers to that question. But this entry is going to focus on one of the most powerful ways to address it: establishing a firm routine (and sticking to it).

Act Like a Professional

If you've been following my blog closely at all, there's a good chance at some point you've heard me singing praise for The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It's a book that's helped me tremendously as a writer, in more ways than one, but primarily it taught me to start treating writing like an honest-to-goodness profession. And the true mark of a professional is not the number of checks he's cashed or the accolades he's acquired. It's the amount of hard work and elbow grease he's willing to put in to achieve his goals. It's the respect and professionalism he's willing to apply to his craft. But first and foremost, it's taking that initial step out of amateurville and saying, this is not just a hobby. Only then can you stop treating it like one.

What does that mean? Well, think about it for a second. When do you write? Do you find the time to write or make the time to write? Do you write whenever the muse calls or do you schedule a daily meeting at your desk and show up whether she does or not?

Let me put it another way. My most practiced hobby is definitely video games. I play them to death, but only when the mood strikes. I would never "make" myself play video games. I don't schedule a gaming time and then set aside whatever else is going on to make sure I adhere. I just play whenever I feel like gaming. If this description of my video game habit sounds like your current writing routine, you're most likely still in amateurville.

Let's contrast that with my writing schedule. Every night by midnight at the absolute latest, I strive to be at my desk, hands on keyboard. The only exception is when my job interferes, and if I got my way that would never happen (a fellow can dream). When I let my playful id get the best of me and put my routine aside . . . well, then my blog goes up two days late, among other things. If it happened every day, I wouldn't get anywhere near as much writing done. I'm no Stephen King, but I'm easily twice as prolific now as I was just a few short years ago, and I owe that productivity to my nightly routine.

A Challenger Appears . . .

Now I won't sit here and pretend that we're living the same life, with the same challenges and obligations. I'm sure more than a few of you tilted your head at the fact that my writing sessions begin at midnight. And it is undoubtedly more difficult for some than for others to balance a professional writing routine with the demands of their daily lives. I assure you, it's the honest effort that counts. Even if you don't have time for more than a few hundred words a day, the important part is that you found a way to get your butt in that chair, hell or high water.

Speaking of challenges, I think I'll end this entry by issuing one to my fellow writers. If you've yet to try writing to a set routine, I challenge you to give it a try. Come up with a daily schedule for the next two weeks, setting aside as large a block of time as you can for a writing session, and stick to it. I'm willing to bet you'll see a marked improvement of output. If you take me up on it, be sure to let me know how you did. Leave a comment, tweet, or what have you.

In the mean time, I'll do my best to follow my own advice. Hopefully, I'll see you next Monday.

photo credit: badboy69 via cc

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

IWSG: To Hell with Woe

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which means it's time for the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in moments of insecurity. This is only my third IWSG entry, but I'm going to be changing things up a little with this one.

I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own frustrations and insecurities when it comes to writing, these posts are going to start sounding very similar every month. So I've decided that I'm going to move away from "woe is me" and focus on the motivation and encouragement side of IWSG.

So from now on when the first Wednesday of the month comes around, I'm going to share a motivational quote from someone inspiring. It might not always be from a person in the writing world, but I'm going to make sure I only share words that I feel possess that unique combustible property that makes excellent rocket fuel for writing. Hopefully you'll find the same encouragement in them that I have.

Today's quote comes from one of the most celebrated and influential writers of our time, Ray Bradbury:

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

This quote comes from Bradbury's excellent book Zen in the Art of Writing. I'm not going to go into the context of the quote in the book itself, just what the quote means to me and how I use it to keep my gears moving. Besides, every writer ought to get around to reading Zen at some point, regardless what kind of writing you do. It's page after page of sage-like advice and inspiration.

For me, these words serve as a reminder that you are not your day-to-day. In other words, you are not your day job. You are not your stack of bills, your overdrawn bank account, or your two o' clock dentist appointment. This is starting to sound like a Tyler Durden rant, but the point is that life is filled with things that can distract you from what you really are at the end of the day, what your life is really made of. And those kinds of distractions, for writers, can become deadly poison if you let them.

In my experience, the muse can be very selfish. Even if you show up to your meeting place at the usual time, she probably won't be feeling very cooperative if you show up with baggage in hand. But that doesn't mean you need to square away your problems before sitting down to write. Instead of trying to unpack all that baggage before you get to work, just set it down and let the muse do it for you. Before you know it, you'll be sitting down at that desk every night like a drunk on a barstool, looking to forget your troubles. And the best part is that you won't wake to a hangover the next day--you'll have a new story, or a nice chunk of that novel completed.

In my first IWSG post, I talked a bit about the desperation I feel when I have to trudge into the job I hate. Bradbury's quote reminds me that the source of--and solution to--that desperation is waiting at home, at the writing desk. When I'm sitting here with hammer in hand, forging galaxies and populating worlds, I forget all of that other stuff. If I didn't have writing, reality might have destroyed me long ago. In one way or another, I've been drunk on it for years.

So the next time you start to feel life clinging at you, threatening to pull you apart like Despenser the Younger, don't give in to woe and despair. Just get a little drunk.

Edited to Add:

Photo by Alan Light
I wrote this entry around midnight Tuesday night, and it got me thinking about how influential Ray Bradbury has been in my growth as a writer. Along with a few other greats, his work instilled a love for science fiction (and great fiction in general) from early childhood. When I decided to start using inspirational quotes for my IWSG entries, I knew his would be the first I'd use.

Then today, I woke (in the afternoon, due to my vampiric work schedule) to find that news broke this morning of his passing. I'm blown away. When I was writing this entry, I even did some shopping to find some of his collected works that I don't have anymore, and when I was checking his bibliography on wikipedia, I remember seeing how old he was and remarking to myself that it was good he was still with us. Now, we come to find out that he no longer is. What a loss. We'll miss you, Ray.

Ray Bradbury 
August 22, 1920 - June 5, 2012      

Monday, June 4, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: In Space Everyone Can Hear You Kaboom

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for an entry in my speculative fiction tropes series. Today we'll be taking a look at the infamous use of "noisy space" in science fiction.

One of the most famous scenes in movie history is the climactic battle at the end of Star Wars: Episode IV, in which the ragtag rebel armada executes a cunning tactical assault on the Empire's super-weapon, the Death Star.

Taking advantage of a fatal design flaw, their plan culminates in a surgical strike along the trench-like surface of the base, in which Luke Skywalker "uses the force" to fire a proton torpedo into a small thermal exhaust port, sparking a chain reaction. As the good guys race away in the nick of time, the Death Star explodes brilliantly against the blackness of space with a resounding KABOOM.

As awesome as that scene is, there's one tiny little problem. There are no resounding kabooms in space. For that scene to be portrayed realistically it would have to be completely kaboomless. Now, I know what you're thinking. "But, hey, aren't the stars practically made of kabooms? Space must be a pretty noisy place." Well, most of Hollywood certainly seems to think so. But I'm afraid this is one of the many things they often get wrong.

Sound, as you probably remember from grade school, travels in waves. This might lead to the mistaken assumption that sound can travel through space. After all, light also travels in waves (kind of) and it obviously has no problem making it through space, otherwise we wouldn't be able to see all of those kaboom factories in the night sky. Sound waves are very different though, in that they need a molecular medium of some kind (i.e. air) to reach your dog's confused little ear drums and make him tilt his head all funny like. Unfortunately for Hollywood directors everywhere, space is a vacuum. That means there are no molecules floating around to carry the vibrations of a sound wave. And that means . . . no kaboom.

Most are willing to give George Lucas a pass on inaccuracies like this one, since Star Wars is pretty much one big homage to sci-fi film serials of the '30s and '40s.

But what about a series like Star Trek, praised by nerds everywhere for some of the ways it handles speculative science? Well, turns out Roddenberry got it right in early episodes. Supposedly, meddling network executives stepped in insisting that silent space is boring, and the franchise went on to develop some of the noisiest space on television. It is worth noting, however, that J.J. Abrams' 2009 film addresses this beautifully in some scenes (like the one at right), even while keeping those kabooms.

In A Giant Mess of Darkness, the story I bragged about in my last entry, I address this trope pretty directly. In fact, I use it to play around a little with the expectations of the reader. And that's what I like about tropes like this one, despite how silly they are. When a writer chooses to look them dead in the face in their work, it's almost like sending a wink and a nudge to those reading or viewing without breaking the fourth wall.

I think at the end of the day, this is one of those tropes that science fiction fans are so used to rolling their eyes at that we hardly notice it anymore. In fact, the exceptions tend to stand out more than the adherents. I just hope that our space-faring descendants remember that we meant well with our kabooms, otherwise they might think we were all idiots. And let's face it, they'll have plenty of other reasons to think that. No need to give them one more.

Recommended Reading:
Hunting Party by Elizabeth Moon
Pegasus in Flight by Anne McCaffrey
Space Viking by H. Beam Piper

Recommended Viewing:
2001: A Space Odyssey
Robot Jox

Recommended Gaming:
Dead Space
The Orion Conspiracy
Mass Effect 2