In the Clouds with Friday Fictioneers

For the past several weeks, photo prompts for the Friday Fictioneers have come from among the Fictioneers themselves. As beautiful and challenging as Madison Woods’ photos have always been, I must say the other Fictioneers have challenged us as well.

Last week was my photo, and I thank everyone who wrote fascinating, lovely, thrilling, and engaging stories and poems inspired by it. There were lots of wonderful collaborations.

And we have an equally intriguing photo for today–an unusual cloud formation. I’m moved by clouds myself and have taken hundreds of pictures of them over the Blue Ridge Mountains, but today’s photo has a Jupiter-esque quality about it. I even spotted the equivalent of the great red spot in the lower right of the formation.

So, Jupiter. Space. Space travel. Science Fiction. The result is my story, “For the World is Hollow.” The title alone should tell you which old sci-fi show inspired it as well. (Or you can just look at the tags.)

To read other Friday Fictioneers’ stories, click on the frog-like icon after the story, and, as always, if you don’t see the link above, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of the page and select the story from the drop-down list.

Reality is Just a Crutch for People Who Can’t Handle Sci-Fi

The title of this post I took from a small sign I bought many, many years ago at a sci-fi convention called Balticon. I always put it in a prominent place in every cubicle or office I’ve ever had. I’ve loved sci-fi since I first started to read something other than Dick and Jane and endured ridicule for it from friends and family. My mother swore reading sci-fi would give me nightmares because covers of paperbacks books back then were pretty lurid–a lot of big-headed, bug-eyed, multi-limbed aliens menacing a buxom blonde. Many times, the story within had nothing to do with the cover, but covers sell the book.

And, of course, I gave writing sci-fi a try, thinking I was good enough as a teen to submit to the venerable sci-fi genre magazine, Fantasy and Science Fiction. The rejection didn’t discourage me from writing, but it did make me realize that I was a better sci-fi reader. One of my short stories, published last year in eFiction Magazine, has a sci-fi hint–it’s the story of a professor hired for what seems is her dream job, then she finds out it involves time travel. Since it was a character study, I didn’t need to go deeply into the physics of possible time travel.

I know I’m about to offend some, but to me sci-fi is space, spaceships, space travel, traveling to other planets, encountering aliens (“new life and new civilizations”), living or co-existing with same with the concomitant problems, and time travel. To me it’s not telepathic cats, even if they live on another planet, any form of elves, pixies, ogres, orcs, dragons, or quasi-medieval themes. That’s fantasy or its derivative, sword and sorcery. But Sci-Fi as a genre is very forgiving and has fans who are always open to genre smash-ups.

Now, I have enjoyed some fantasy–Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, Anne McCafferty’s Pern series, Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, Tolkien’s books, among others. I’m currently on book five of George R. R. Martin’s multi-volume A Song of Ice and Fire. But I always go back to what, again to me, is pure sci-fi. Bradley and McCafferty infused some sci-fi into both series, but the sci-fi aspects were always secondary, so far in the past, they were myths and legends, and I could never accept how women were treated in Bradley’s Darkover novels.

One of my favorite books of “pure sci-fi” is a collaboration by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye. This book involves a quasi-military, human space fleet sent on a first contact mission to a newly discovered planet with life. It’s a well-written and well-spun tale of the things that go right, and wrong, with a first contact, and Niven and Pournelle meshed so well as writers, you can’t tell two people wrote the novel.

A few weeks ago, another writer from my local group, SWAG Writers, approached me with an offer to collaborate on a sci-fi piece. I demurred because I still don’t think I’m a sci-fi writer, but his concept was interesting. Then, I remembered finding a snippet of something I wrote probably more than thirty years ago (I could tell it was type-written.), and I pulled it from its hiding place and re-read it. There was something about it that could fit with my fellow writer’s premise, and I transcribed it as is as a Word file and sent it off to him. What came back was great–excellent enhancements of what I’d written, including an incredible character name, and an addition of a blaster-battle (somewhat requisite)–and I riffed off that to the tune of about 2,500 words late on a Friday night.

I get it now that I don’t have to be an astrophysicist to write sci-fi, and sci-fi has always issued a wealth of memorable characters. So, I’m having fun with collaboration, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it’s going to go–short story, novella, novel, who knows? But that’s the anticipation, and the lure, of writing.

How about you? Have you ever collaborated in your writing? How did it go? Who are your favorite collaborators? Would you take up an offer to collaborate?

Reading and Writing

No, this isn’t a rant about the importance of the three R’s–reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic–but a chat about the connection between writing and reading. They go hand in hand, and some of the most helpful advice any writer can hear is, “If you want to write, read.” I’ll add, “Read. A lot.”

Of course, you say, my shelves are lined with writing self-help books, and I’ve read them all.

I’m not knocking any of these books. In fact, one of my bookshelves groans with the weight of them. What I mean is, if you write fiction, read fiction. Let’s go a little deeper. If you want to write romance, read romance; if you want to write science fiction, read science fiction, etc.

In an on-line forum I belong to, someone recently posted, “I’ve decided I want to write science fiction!!! How do I go about that?” I responded that the aspiring writer should read Asimov, Pohl, Dick, Bester, LeGuin, Butler, Atwood, and so on. “No, no. I don’t want to read science fiction! I want to write it.”

I washed my hands of it.

You get your best writing instruction on technique, mechanics, and what people want to read by reading what you want to write. And I have to caveat that–read good, established writers of the fiction you want to write. I’ll suggest, for now, in the fledgling state of your writing in a genre, read traditionally published writers. There are exceptions to this, of course, but if all you read is unedited indie fiction, it will only reinforce negative writing habits. I’ve posted about this before, so I won’t repeat my indie-writers-must-proofread-and-get-an-editor riff.

Reading what you want to write can be instructive in another way. You can learn the valuable lesson that a particular genre is not for you. For example, I love mysteries of all kinds–from Agatha Christie to Janet Evanovich–but I’m not sure I could write one that wouldn’t be a re-hash of something a better mystery writer than I has already done. The same with sci-fi. That was what I wanted to write when I first set pen to notebook to write stories about Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk when I was a freshman in high school.

The sad truth was, and is, sci-fi is not my forte. Granted, my short story published in eFiction Magazine last year had a sci-fi background. “Without Form or Substance” is about a young professor who finds her dream job, only to discover it involves time travel. I found, because this was a character piece, I didn’t need to go into the scientific details of time travel, which I doubt I could pull off. I learned that from reading Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin, among others.

Of all the reading I’ve done in my life, it was the characters who stood out most for me or, rather, the way the particular writer developed and wrote a character. Most of what I read is character-driven, and as a result, my strength is in the characters I’ve developed. I wouldn’t have learned how to make them “real” people if I hadn’t read great, character-driven works by authors across many genres.

Balancing reading and writing can be a chore, though. If I want to devote the time I need to writing, I can’t read all day long, which I can do at the drop of a hat. I’ve shifted the brunt of my reading to the weekends, though I still read a little in the evenings or when I need a break from staring at the blank computer screen. When I’m reading something I enjoy, which engrosses me, it’s the hardest thing to set it aside. I’m currently reading And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields. Not only is this a book about a writer, it’s a page-turner, and I regret every time I have to close the book and move on to something else I’m supposed to do.

Shields’ biography of Vonnegut is instructive on many levels. Not only do you see the mechanics of how to construct and research a biography, but you also get a glimpse into the life of a writer and how he wrote, what inspired him, and his struggle both to be published and to be accepted by other writers. I’ll give no more details than that because I want to review this book later.

I’ve found, for me, that when I hit a brick wall with something I’m writing, the best thing I can do is put it away. Then, I pick up a book and read.

What about you? What writers and what books have taught you how to write?