Teaching Writing

I’ve noticed on Facebook recently some postings from at least one (possibly more) famous author(s) that are essentially advertisements for writing programs that purport to help the person who responds to the ad learn to write novels like the famous author.  Some even say “I’ll teach you to write like me.”  I’m a little concerned that this may lead people who read the ad into thinking that once they take the course they’ll end up being able to write novels that will sell millions of copies and make them as famous as the originator of the writing course.  I hope most people already realize that isn’t going to happen.

Taking a writing course, whether taught by a world-famous author known for selling books, or by a much less well-known author who resides comfortably on a publisher’s midlist, isn’t guaranteed to endow the student with the ability to write spectacular, prize-winning, top-selling novels.  Those programs are designed to teach the student the basics of writing, and even some of the more advanced concepts.  It’s up to the student to produce a novel of his/her own design.  It’s my opinion that regardless of what the famous author says, writing a novel that sells millions can’t be taught.  All you can do is learn the basics, and then it’s up to you.

That famous author, indeed all famous authors, are famous for their style, their flair, their innate ability to string just the right words together into sentences and paragraphs and chapters that condense into novels that are a reflection of themselves.  Contrast Faulkner with Hemingway, for example.  That’s what a novel is; it’s a reflection of an individual.  It’s as individual as a reflection in a mirror.  J. K. Rowling can’t teach you to write like her even if you did learn how to “show” and not “tell,” and what the difference is between first and third person POV.  If you learned music from Beethoven, you wouldn’t necessarily compose great symphonies even though you might be able to put notes on treble and bass clefs that produced lovely, lilting, ethereal music.  Learning art from van Gogh wouldn’t teach you how to paint great masterpieces, even though you could apply paint to a canvas in a beautiful and expressive manner.  There’s more to writing than the basics; more than putting one word after another.  If you want to take the course from the famous author, by all means go ahead.  I have no doubt the course(s) is/are legitimate.  You may learn a lot.  But you aren’t likely to write a best seller with your first novel, and you sure as hell won’t write just like the famous author.

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Pike’s Peak Meeting, 2016

Well, I’m back from the 2016 edition of the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference which was held in Colorado Springs around the middle of April.  Always a good meeting.  Plenty of good workshops to attend, speakers to hear, and people to talk to.  I usually have something to say in this venue about one or more of the workshops I attended, but this year I’m not going to single out any one or a few of them, except to say that the most intriguing one was a discussion on contracts.  Assuming you get a publisher to agree to take on your book, you have to sign a contract with the publisher that spells out what is required on the part of the publisher and what you get in return.  Contracts can be tricky, though large parts of them are negotiable.  The tricky part is knowing what is and what’s not.  I can’t go into details here because I’m far from expert in this matter.  All I know is that contracts can have clauses in them that, if you’re not careful, can get you into areas you probably don’t want to go.  Like, for example, binding you to one publisher for the rest of your career as a writer.  Or not paying you what you really deserve.  I’m more likely to go to an agent to interpret the contract and advise me about what to negotiate and what to leave alone, though it should be said that an agent isn’t always necessary.  You takes your chances.

That being said, the most significant thing that happened to me at the conference was the meeting I had with an editor from a major publishing house.  I go to the Pike’s Peak conference largely for the chance to pitch my science-fiction novel to an agent or editor.  This year I selected an editor to pitch to rather than an agent, because I felt she might be most receptive to my particular style of sci-fi writing.  She was, to a limited extent, and asked me to send her the first fifty pages of the novel.  I did that immediately after I got back.  But what was most interesting about this editor was that she seemed more impressed with my credentials than anyone else I’ve met in the publishing business.  I’d heard many times that writing and publishing scientific papers was largely unimportant in the mass fiction market.  It doesn’t make any difference, they said.  It’s not relevant to publishing fiction.  But having a PhD degree, and some experience in meeting deadlines, familiarity with proofs, and a brand that can be drawn on when it comes time to market and publicize the book, seemed to carry more weight with her than with anyone else I’ve met.  The real question is, how will my book (or at least the first 50 pages) do?  Is it good enough?  We’ll see.

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It’s All In The Head

Last week I posted a segment on the lack of imagination in science fiction today, with a view toward how so many sci-fi characters are humanoid in appearance.  Now I want to take a short look at what I’m talking about when I say “humanoid.”

In the evolution of animals over the past two billion years or so, there’s been a tendency for the sensory organs to become concentrated in the head.  This is true for all the higher animals—and by that I mean basically those with a backbone and a large nerve cord running down the back—but it’s also true for some lower animals, such as insects and other arthropods.  This is called cephalization, and it’s what is so often copied by us sci-fi writers when we devise characters to populate planets far, far away.  This process has put four of the five traditional senses in the head: sight, hearing, smell, and taste.  (The sense of feel, of course, is present throughout the body, we don’t have just one organ for that.)  Why this should have happened evolutionarily, I’m not sure, but it may have to do with keeping the nerve fibers that run from the sense organs to the brain as short as possible.  That may, in turn, have been to allow the information collected by those organs to be processed as rapidly as possible.  If our eyes were in our kneecaps, for example, the nerve fibers would have to run all the way up the body to the head.  Might be some loss of information in that long a trip.  Secondarily, in a long, slender animal, such as a fish or a cougar, having the sensory organs up front could allow the animal to detect things ahead—food, danger, a mate, whatever—as immediately as possible, and shorten the reaction time to whatever’s out there.  Always a good idea.

But for whatever reason, this is how humans are constructed.  And so are many of the characters in science fiction.  The Roswell “little green men” are shown this way, and this is the most likely reason they’re not real.  Any time I see a purported visitor from outer space that looks like it’s been based on humanoid features, including most prominently the cephalization of sensory organs, but also including two arms and two legs and a large brain case, I know it’s almost certainly a fake.  There’s no reason I can think of to believe that life—and I’m including intelligent life here—on other planets or worlds will be based on that principle.

Having said that, of course, I can’t rule it out either.  Of all the trillions and even quadrillions of planets that must exist in all the galaxies in our universe, could there be a planet or two where evolution has taken the road to cephalization?  To put it more simply, are there beings that actually look like us?  Definitely possible.  But considering the variations of conditions that exist on the planets we’ve detected so far in our galaxy, (and that’s an extremely tiny proportion of the total) it’s much more likely that life will be quite a bit different in appearance than anything on Earth.  We may not even recognize it.

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A Serious Lack Of Imagination

I believe there is a serious lack of imagination in science fiction today.  At least in one particular facet of the genre.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at some recent results that have come from the world of astronomy.  For more than four years, the Kepler Space Telescope has been observing a star called KIC 8462852, looking for planets that might orbit it.  The telescope has not merely identified a potential planet it by the tiny dip in the amount of light the star emits when the planet moves across the face of it—as seen from Earth, of course—but has actually recorded a remarkable variation in the light emitted, much more variation than could be caused by the transit of one planet.  What’s caused the variation?  No one really knows, but some astronomers think it could be due to a swarm of comets or other asteroidal material around the star.  Or it might be might be variations in the light from the star itself.  But the explanation that became the most popular, and the one the press jumped on, is the possibility that the variation is caused by the inhabitants of one or more planets around the star building a Dyson sphere, and their partially completed structure is responsible.

To this I say, nonsense.  It’s possible, of course, and I don’t have any information to rule that out, but what concerns me is the lack of imagination that brought that possibility to light.  If there is as civilization on one or more planets around KIC 8462852, the chances are that they would be so vastly different from ours that the possibility of a Dyson sphere might never occur to them.  The concept of a Dyson sphere originated here on Earth.  We’ve never seen a Dyson sphere anywhere.  Why should we be so arrogant in our thinking as to ascribe it to a totally alien civilization?  We see some variation in the light from a star and we automatically say “Dyson sphere.”  If a civilization exists on a planet around that star, they may have other ideas, ideas that might never occur to us.

Let’s look at this from another viewpoint.  I’ve been watching the older Doctor Who episodes recently, and it and other well-known sci-fi programs such as Star Wars and Star Trek have one thing in common: the aliens are overwhelmingly android in appearance.  That is, they are just variations on the human anatomy.  Even the aliens that supposedly came from the spaceship that crashed near Roswell, NM, are android in appearance.  Green in color, but generally human.  No matter where Doctor Who went, the aliens were largely humanoid.  Again, extremely unlikely.

I think we have to keep in mind, both scientifically and science-fiction wise, that aliens from other planets are not going to look like us, either exactly—think of Luke Skywalker—or only vaguely, as the Roswell aliens.  They’ll be wildly different in anatomy and physiology, so different, in fact, we may not even recognize them if we see them.  And if they’re different in anatomy and physiology, they’ll be different in their ability to conceptualize too.  A good example is H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.  The creatures inside the pods that blasted London back at the turn of the 20th century were not humanoid at all, and I’m surprised more authors didn’t jump on that idea and continue the trend.  I suppose it may be easier to get readers and movie viewers to identify with an alien if they’re generally human in appearance—think of the cantina scene in Star Wars-A New Hope.   But each instance of that just perpetuates that (most likely) erroneous concept.

I have to admit that I’m as guilty as anyone in adopting that notion.  All three of my science-fiction novels use aliens from other planets that are generally humanoid in shape and structure.  I did write a novelette about two humans (from Earth) caught by aliens who were not humanoid at all, but as yet I haven’t gotten it published because it’s hard to get a story of about 22,000 words published when you haven’t published anything else in sci-fi at all.

In short, forget about running into Klingons out there.  It isn’t going to happen.  We need more stories about non-humanoid characters.  I suppose in the movies, especially, it’s easier to get an actor to dress up in a monster costume than it is to construct a non-humanoid one and mechanize it so precisely that it looks like it could be real.  Admittedly, that could be very expensive.  But in books and short stories, authors aren’t bound by that limitation.  The characters take shape in the reader’s minds, and that’s not limited to anything.

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A Trip To The Bookstore

I usually write these blog posts on Sunday afternoon, after my regular stop at one of the local bookstores in the Albuquerque area.  Today was no exception.  The first thing I check after entering is the magazine rack of news journals to see what people are saying about national and international politics.  (Right now that’s the 2016 election.)  Then I begin to wander around the store, examining such areas as the hobby magazines (especially model railroading and woodworking), beginner’s guides to the increasingly sophisticated electronics products out there (phones, tablets, computers, cameras—you name it and there’s a magazine for it), some of the art and artist magazines, and eventually I wander into the book sections.  My first stop is always the science-fiction area.

And what an area it is.  One of the largest sections in the bookstore.  I especially check the new SF/F.  I tend to pay little attention to the regular stacks of books because they don’t appreciably change over weeks and months, though I might scan them just to see if anything has been added.  It’s the new releases which interest me.  For two reasons: primarily I want to see what’s just come out, but secondarily because they’re the ones my books will be competing against if I ever get them published.  At first glance, that can be daunting.

Science fiction and fantasy seems to be a booming genre.  The colors of the various book covers, often in shades of red and black, compete with the customer’s eyes for attention.  I get the impression that most of the books are either fantasy, with lots of swords and knights and jousting and killing and all that, or dark sci-fi wherein wars are being fought and planets destroyed or decimated in some way.  I tend to look for the less violent titles.  I’m interested in internal conflict, as opposed to external warfare, but I’m not sure that’s too much in vogue at the present time.  It’s so easy to write about wars and monsters and so forth, and more difficult to write about the battles and hostilities that take place within the human soul.  But that’s what my books are about.  (I have to admit, however, the third book in my Anthanian Imperative series does have some battle scenes.  Small ones, though.)  Warfare sells, I guess.

But the sheer volume of new titles in SF/F brings up another point, that of competition.  Can my books, I ask myself over and over, compete with all these new titles?  Eventually, I expect my books will be new, too.  So, how will they fare next to those in the present display?  That can be disheartening, seeing all those books and expecting mine—one more in a rack of fifty or more others—to compete.  But then, I tell myself, that’s the wrong question to ask.  The real point to be made here is not so much that there is intense competition among authors for the sale of their books, and there certainly is, but that each book should be considered as a title all by itself.  Of course mine can compete, I say.  I maintain that what is important is not whether a book competes well against established authors, but whether it is any good in the first place.  Books—and I believe many people will agree with me here—should be judged by themselves, not as a contestant in a race for the highest sales that can be obtained.  I trust my books to be the best I can make them.  And if they sell, all well and good.  If not, then I’m back to the drawing board and I’ll try again.

Then I go to the Starbucks in the back of the store and look at all the goodies.

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Too Many Facts

Well, we’re embroiled in another presidential campaign season in the United States, and facts, figures, and allegations are flying around the multiverse like bees defending a hive.  I’m not much of a politician (I don’t want to be) and I try to avoid political conversations, though I do have very definite opinions about most of the current political and economic and humanitarian situations that routinely find themselves on the evening news.  Having an opinion is one thing, though, and bolstering that opinion with all the relevant facts is quite another.  And that’s the one thing that annoys me most about politics.  Facts.

Politicians have definite opinions, to be sure, and I assume most US citizens do too.  But behind those opinions should be the true facts of the case.  And we are absolutely inundated with facts.  My disquiet with facts is neither the lack of them nor the absolute glut of facts we encounter daily, even hourly.  My problem is with the accuracy of those facts.

I’m too much of a scientist to let these “facts” go without a comment or two.  Each presidential candidate has his/her own opinion, of course, and so often those opinions are backed up with what they throw out as “facts.”  Dropped before us like pearls before swine, those facts may look and sound good when taken at face value, but rarely are they backed up by any real evidence that they are what the candidate says they are.  Facts are too often the fodder for pundits who massage them and manipulate them into being what they want them to be.  I, personally, would like to know whether the “facts” presented by a candidate are true or not, not how that person is using them.  Political candidates aren’t the only ones using facts.  Facts are put forward by all sorts of organizations intent on making their own case for something or other.  Yet, rarely are those facts actually verified.  I want to see more verification.  A lot more.

I wouldn’t doubt that in this country, there is no one—not one single, solitary person—who can verify every fact presented in the media.  There’s just too many.  I’ve seen some fact-checking reports after the presidential debates, and many times those “fact-checkers” sound legitimate.  But no one can check everything.  We’re swimming in facts, facts that can be used by anyone or any group to make their own point.  How do we know who to rely on?  Who’s accurate and who’s not?  I’d like to see the facts behind the facts.

When I wrote scientific papers, I had to use a lot of facts, some of which I generated myself, some of which were taken from other papers.  And I had to reference all of them at the end of the paper in a section titled “References,” or in some cases, “Literature Cited.”  All the facts had to be verified, and any conclusion(s) I drew had to be supported by the facts.  Considering the importance of the President in US society, why shouldn’t presidential candidates be subject to the same rigor?

So many facts; not enough verification.

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All-Time Worst

This is an admittedly unscientific poll, but I’ve noticed over the years that the most common grammatical error across all types of writings seems to be the confusion of the word “you’re,” with the word “your.”  Most of the time it occurs as the use of “your” when the writer meant “you’re.”  But it pops up everywhere.  I’ve seen it in all sorts of writings, especially on Facebook posts and in other places where the writer was either in a hurry or didn’t stop to proofread his/her writing.  Even once on a Post-It Note.  Not long ago I saw it in a commercial on TV.  And that’s someplace where the error was shown nationwide.  All because the writer (and the marketing or advertising firm behind the commercial) either didn’t proofread or didn’t know one of the simplest of grammatical rules.

At the risk of boring those of you reading this with some information you already know, the word “you’re” is a contraction for “you are.”  As in, “You’re my sweetheart.”  (After all, today is Valentine’s Day.)  On the other hand, the word “your” indicates possession or ownership, such as,  “Here’s your valentine today.”  That shouldn’t be too difficult to remember.

I’m not so sure that many of the errors we see of this type are because writers don’t know the difference, and I suspect many do, but I wonder if the main reason is that sometimes people don’t think about what they’re writing.  (Don’t get me going on there-their-they’re.)  I wonder if the error comes as much from the tendency nowadays to scribble something down and not go back and re-read it.  Just zip through and get it down.  I suspect a lot of Facebook posts are like that.  Many Facebook posts contain errors of other types too, though the “your/you’re” boo-boo seems to be the most common.  I always proofread my Facebook posts, even if it’s only a few words in response to someone else’s post.  I’m sure some mistakes have gotten through over the years, but at least I try.

Is life in our society so hurried that people don’t have enough time to think about what they’re putting down on paper or on a com screen?  I guess it is.  But the person who can use the rules of grammar correctly has the edge in one of the most basic of societal needs: that of communication.  We are immersed in an absolute of glut of forms of communications nowadays, and knowing how to use them properly is almost mandatory.  Watch what you’re writing.  Proofread.  Everything.  You’ll be better off for it.  Surely you don’t want your grammatical errors shown on nationwide television.

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