Archive for September, 2012

Revisiting an Old Classic

I just finished reading one of the world’s great classic novels, Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.  This isn’t the first time I’ve read it, nor the second or the third.  I can’t say exactly how many times I’ve read it because the first time was a long time ago, probably when I was in high school or thereabouts.  I do remember reading it a couple of years ago too, but that’s all I can say about that.

Like I’ve done with Stevenson’s other well-known novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I’ve also read several times, I pulled out Treasure Island because I wanted a break from the dry, almost scientific books I’d been reading over the previous couple of weeks.  In fact, I’d just finished a book about detecting planets around other stars and had begun one about Mars when Treasure Island, sitting unobtrusively–yet at the same time quite noticeably–in its place in the bookshelves in my living room, caught my eye.  I pulled it out and began to read, telling myself that I would only peruse the first couple of chapters because I liked the way Stevenson illuminated the characters and the settings: Jim Hawkins, the Admiral Benbow Inn, the Old Sea-dog, Black Dog, Dr. Livesey, old blind Pew, and others.  But I got caught up in the swirl of fascinating descriptions and memorable action as Jim discovers the map to treasure island and he and his friends set out to claim the gold.  I decided to forsake the science books and get lost in the romance of a great adventure novel.

I’m not sure I can completely describe why Treasure Island, or Jekyll/Hyde for that matter, is such a great book.  Treasure Island has been around since it was first published in serial form in 1881 and 1882, and then in book form in 1883.  Most likely, it’s not one thing that defines its lasting potential; several factors enter here: the great descriptions, the fast-paced action, the romance of a sea voyage and the chance to discover buried treasure, the fascinating language of the pirates that contrasts so intently and so effectively with that of the English gentlemen who undertake the voyage, the strong undercurrent of tension and conflict from the first page.  It’s what we today would call a coming-of-age novel, of Jim Hawkins who confronts not only the outward threats to his life by associating with the likes of Long John Silver and his mates, but the inward pressures to learn the ways of a man and negotiate a narrow path between associating with the mutinous crew on the one hand and his friends from England who conspired to establish the expedition in the first place on the other.  He’s the only one in the story who can make that interchange, the only one who doesn’t have the preconceived notions of what it is to be either a gentleman or a pirate.  It’s the type of story that’s been around since stories have been told and will continue to entertain us for many years yet to come.

In fact, I think the characters are what make the book.  I know very little about sea-faring men of the late 18th century, but the characters are portrayed as realistic and genuine.  Long John Silver is the most complicated of the lot.  On the one hand he’s a bloodthirsty pirate who doesn’t hesitate to lead his men in a mutiny against Jim and his friends, yet he’s honest enough, even affable and likeable, to make friends with Jim and protect him from the others of his own gang.  Jim even persuades the authorities not to prosecute Silver for mutiny, and Silver eventually steals a small boat and escapes.  That’s perhaps the only downer in the book; we expect Silver to pay for his actions.  But wouldn’t that ruin the story?  No.  Silver has to get away.

In any event, that’s certainly not the last time I’ll read Treasure Island.  And you may lay to that, matey!

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Best of the Best

What’s the biggest, most important invention/discovery/development ever in your lifetime?  Of everything that’s happened since you were born, what do you feel has been the most significant for mankind and the world in general, not just for you and your family?  Or, to put it slightly differently, after you pass away, what will people say was the biggest thing that happened during your era?  For me, there’s been a lot that’s happened since I was born and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it for several years.  The development of the computer?  The development of a vaccine against polio?  (Don’t laugh, the two polio vaccines have undoubtedly saved millions, perhaps billions, of lives since they were put into use.)  The complete elimination of smallpox from the earth?  The establishment of the United Nations?  The ability to control a nuclear chain reaction, as in an atomic power plant?  The uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction in the New Mexico desert in 1945?  Something else?  The first issue of Playboy?

For me, I gravitate toward something else.  My pick would be the development of manned spaceflight.  As I look back over what’s happened in my lifetime, that’s the one thing I can say I’m proudest to have been alive during its development.  I think that’s partly because it was a tremendous development that utilized the best and the brightest of the world’s scientists, but partly because it’s just the beginning of a big explosion in spaceflight that will take humans (and maybe a few cats and dogs) to other worlds and planets and moons, and, yes, even stars.  We’re on our way, and nothing is going to stop us.  We may encounter stumbling blocks along the way–and here I’m thinking not only of disasters like Columbia and Challenger, but funding issues and even a lack of commitment and disagreements among political leaders–but we’re on our way and I’m proudest to be able to say I was alive during that time in our planet’s history.

Science fiction has even played a role in that too.  Many of the outer space adventures we’ve had over the past fifty years or so were first described in science fiction stories.  Artificial satellites, spacesuits, moon walking, a manned space station, you name it and it’s appeared in science fiction at one time or another.  It’s been a great time to be alive, and a couple hundred years from now people will look back on what we did and some will ask, “What was so great about being alive at that time?” and others will answer, “They got to actually see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon!”  They’ll do that in the same way some might ask what was so great about being alive in the late eighteenth century?  And we’ll answer, “They got to see the War of Independence and the invention of the United States.”

I would love to have been able to meet George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.  Or Neil Armstrong.

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The Theme’s the Thing

Back in high school and even junior high and probably elementary school, we used to have to write “themes.”  Remember those?  I used to hate those damn things.  Many times they only had to be a page or so, though sometimes more, but I hated to have to do the research that was necessary to put them together.  I couldn’t have been less interested.  And once the rough draft was done, the next step–ostensibly–was to read through them again and fix anything that seemed wrong.

Read them again?  Are you out of your friggin’ mind?  Holy horse manure, Herman you gotta be kidding.  Once I wrote the damn thing, I figured I was finished with it.  Done.  Finalized.  Terminated.  After all, that’s all there is to writing isn’t there?  Just put the words on paper (no computers back then–after all, Joan of Arc was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs) and be done with it.  As far as I was concerned, proofreading hadn’t been invented and I wasn’t about to take that step.

But the situation has changed in the intervening years.  How many years I won’t say, and it isn’t important, but my feelings about writing have taken a radically different turn.  Now, after I put words on the screen and save them to the hard drive, I can’t wait to go over them again.  And again and again.  I proofread almost interminably.  I actually want to go back and read again.  I want to make it better, to make it as good as I can.  Perhaps it’s due to writing all those scientific papers during my career as a scientist that instilled in me the need to re-write.  Those papers had to be perfect before they were sent off to the journal for publication.  Now I want the sentences to be just right, to have just the right words at just the right places.  I want the metaphors and similes to be perfect and project the right image.  I want the paragraphs to be complete within themselves, and to have each chapter to end properly and leave the reader wanting more.  Don’t you like to read a chapter that pushes you into the next one so you can’t put the book down, and, in the meantime, the dinner that’s bubbling on the stove is allowed to burn because you didn’t watch it?  What a book.  Even this blog won’t get by without several read-throughs and corrections and re-adjustments and a spell check.

I like what I’ve written, usually.  I enjoy reading and re-reading what I’ve written, and making changes when necessary.  However, that brings up another problem where all the re-reading and editing can become destructive in the long run.  There’s always something that needs attention but there comes a point where you have to give up and just stop.  The hardest part of writing for me is not putting the words down in the first place, as challenging as that may be, but forcing myself to stop the incessant re-reading and changing and fiddling and tinkering that I could do if I wanted.  I could go over my novels ad infinitum, but I’ve found that the best medicine to counter obsessive re-reading and re-editing is to write something new.  To write a new short story or novella or novel or, in a few cases, a poem.  A new rough draft is welcome where the need for correcting and editing and messing around is really necessary.  In short, keep those rough drafts going.

Okay, now it’s time for the spell check.

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Outlining or Freestyle?

Last week I posted my thoughts and comments about the Bubonicon 44 convention in Albuquerque the last full weekend of August, 2012.  I attended a number of author presentations, and in one presentations, I heard someone talk about how they write the novels they’re famous for.  The author said he/she starts out writing not knowing how the book is going to end.  That may sound shocking but it wasn’t all that new to me.  I’ve read enough about writing and about how others write that I’ve come across that concept before.  But it got me to thinking about how I go about putting words down on paper.  Actually, on the computer screen.

There are two schools of thought about how writers view a novel prior to actually writing it: outlining and freestyle.  (I made up that last term; I’ve never heard anyone else use it in this context.)  An outliner creates a complete delineation of the novel before he/she even begins, like the outlines your teacher in school made you do before you wrote a theme.  (Remember themes in high school?)  Authors who outline know what’s going to happen every step of the way in their novel.  The final result may not adhere to the outline in every detail, but it’s close.  I admire writers who can do that.  I don’t, tho.

Those in the other camp, the freestylers, simply sit down at the computer or desk or whatever and begin to write, not knowing where they’re going, what the final plot will be about, maybe even who the characters will be.  On the one hand, that simplifies the progress of the novel, not having to think up and write down the outline in consummate detail before hand.  On the other hand, it seems to me it invites wandering, digressing into side tracks, and roaming where the novel need not go.  I sometimes wonder if freestylers have to cut a lot before they get to the final novel.  I also admire those who can write a tight, controlled and disciplined novel in this manner.  But I don’t do it that way, either.

I’m somewhere in between.  Like the outliners, I have to know where I’m going with a novel.  I must have the ending in sight before I start.  In fact, I frequently have the ending in mind before I know how to get there, that is, before I know how the characters will achieve that ending.  But I don’t write a detailed outline.  I do write a lot of notes, though, and these notes may run into forty or fifty pages of handwritten scribblings before I sit down and begin the novel.  I work out the characters, plot twists, etc., beforehand.  Many of the notes turn out to be contradictory, and not every thing I put down in my preliminary musings will make it into the novel.  But I always know how the novel will start and what the ending will be.  I can’t imagine writing a novel and not know what the ending will be.  I’ve got to know the ending.

Yet, along the way to writing a novel, I find myself editing and changing things.  I may realize that, although I decided to have the plot go in a certain direction, when I get to that point, the story just won’t work that way and I have to change it.  Maybe a certain character wouldn’t act that way, or a fact of life or science prevents them from doing something.  Changes always occur, and the novel is always the better for it, so I go with the flow.  But it’s fun along the way.

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Bubonicon 44

Well, Bubonicon 44 has come and gone.  That’s the local (Albuquerque area) convention of fans and authors of science fiction that took place August 24-26, 2012.  Always lots of fun, this year didn’t disappoint.

I went to a lot of the sessions and talks this year as I do every year, in fact I was at the Con for virtually all the time it was in progress (except for a short lunch or dinner break).  The theme of the Con this year was “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” related to the Mayan prediction that the world will end in 2012, though it hasn’t so far.  Oddly, this year I found myself going to more of the “reading” sessions, that is, when a (usually) well-known author reads from his/her work for almost an hour.  (It’s not as boring as it sounds.)  In years past, I’ve been to reading sessions where only two or three people showed up, but all the reading sessions I attended this year were far better attended.  The session with George R.R. Martin was attended by, I estimate, several hundred people.  You can imagine why.

In going to all those reading sessions, I missed many of the panel sessions which are usually interesting and fun, but I made that choice deliberately in an attempt to get a feel for the various types of writing of many of the Con guests, perhaps to subconsciously absorb some of their technique.  After all, they’re all published authors and I’m on that track too.  But so much of science fiction today is fantasy (magic, kings, sorcerers, dragons, demons, rings, swords, etc.) and even the Guest of Honor, Brandon Sanderson, was a well-known fantasy author.  But I write straight scientific-type science fiction, and in many of those sessions I felt somewhat out of place.  Not that the writing wasn’t high quality, certainly it was, but the only thing that kept me in my chair was the fabulous ability of the authors to string words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, and so on.  One more, I guess, of the tribulations of writing True Sci-Fi.

I went to one workshop at the Con, given by Jane Lindskold, on writing the ending to a story.  Mostly directed at the ending of a novel, the advice she gave could be applied to any story from a short-short story to a G.R.R. Martin epic.  I have trouble with endings, largely in short stories though, not so much in novels, and her best comment was, if you are having trouble finding an ending, look back at the initial impulse that drove you to start the story in the first place.  In the ending is the beginning and in the beginning is the ending.  Find your passion about the story–what is it you want to say?  An ending must do two things, it must draw the story to a conclusion, but it also must bring a sense of closure.  Those aren’t the same thing.   I’ll be sure to try it some day on some of the short stories I have still sitting in a drawer that are driving me nuts because I can’t construct a good ending.

Well, I better end this rambling essay before it gets too big.  I’ve reached my self-imposed limit of around 500 words for blog posts.  See you at the Con next year.

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