Archive for May, 2013

The Alien’s Point of View

Most of you who read this blog know that I write science fiction, and that includes short stories as well as novels.  Many of my stories involve aliens that either come to Earth or find themselves face-to-face with humans on, say, another planet.  And many times I will write the story either wholly or in part from the point of view of the alien.  That’s right, from the alien’s point of view.

This isn’t too unusual, a lot of stories present part of the story from an alien’s POV, but it does bring up some unusual challenges for the writer.  What I’m specifically referring to is, how objective does the writer have to be when it comes to describing the humans and the other animals and Earth-related objects as the alien sees them?  Suppose an earthling is wearing blue jeans.  From the alien’s POV, he/she/it probably wouldn’t know what jeans are.  But would he know what pants are?  Would he even know what clothing is?  Or would it be appropriate for the author to go into exquisite detail and describe the blue objects covering the lower half of that persons body?  An alien may not even recognize “coverings” in the sense we use the term.  The reader would certainly grasp the idea immediately, and a substantial description of “blue jeans” might be boring and superfluous.

Likewise, actions of Earthlings.  Say an earthling is digging a hole in the soil on an alien planet.  Would the author describing this scene need to describe the actions–from the point of view of an alien–in serious detail?  Again, that might be boring and superfluous.  Should the author even describe the implement (i.e., the shovel) and go into detail describing a simple object the reader already knows about?  Would the reader understand the author’s intent in this situation?  It may sound like a relatively simple and easily solved problem to a non-writer, but it requires the author to walk a fine line between over-describing and insulting the reader on the one hand, and having the alien be knowledgeable about facts that he/she/it wouldn’t actually know if, in fact, the situation were real that is, if the alien really did come from another planet.  How many aliens out there know what blue jeans are?  Or a shovel?

Anybody want to attempt a comment?

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For this week’s post, I want to return to a favorite topic of mine, the presence of life in the rest of our galaxy: where is it?

On the one hand, with around fifty billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy (of which we are a member) and an average of eight or perhaps ten planets orbiting each of those stars, plain ordinary common sense should tell us that at least one and probably hundreds if not thousands or millions of them should harbor intelligent life.  (I’m talking intelligent life here, not just jellyfishes swimming in a primordial sea.)  By intelligent life I mean a civilization capable of understanding that there must be other life besides them in this galaxy, and capable of reacting to a signal sent their way.  That is, someone just about as scientifically literate as we are on Earth.  That’s not unlikely.

So, where are they?

SETI people have been listening for signals from outer space for as long as I’ve been alive (almost), and haven’t heard anything that could even remotely be called a definite signal.  Every few years or so they remind us that it’s only a short time, they believe, before they will hear a legitimate signal that will prove someone out there is trying to reach us, long distance.  But nothing has happened and no signal has arrived.

Some physicists tell us that time-travel is possible, though no one really knows how to do it.  Going faster that light is one way, but Einstein’s theories absolutely reject the possibility of faster-than-light travel and Einstein’s theories have held up to scrutiny time after time.  Other ways to travel in time may be possible, though, but if time-travel is possible, however unlikely, then where are the time travelers?  No one has ever convincingly demonstrated he/she has ever met a time traveler, fans of Dr. Who notwithstanding.  Several possibilities exist.  Either the time travelers have decided–for one reason or another–not to come to this region of our timeline, or, if they have, they’ve been damn good at not making themselves known.  It’s more likely, I believe, that time travel is not and never will be possible, except in fiction.

Then there’s the search for earth-like planets surrounding other nearby stars.  The latest attempts to identify planets around other stars has been remarkably successful, identifying over a thousand candidate planets in just the past few years.  This in itself is a fantastic scientific achievement, and I consider myself lucky to be living in the dawning age of extra-terrestrial planetary discovery.  (So should you.)  The number of planets discovered, scaled up to the size of the galaxy itself, implies a huge number of planets total, as I mentioned above.  And a few of the planets discovered have been found in the “habitable zone,” where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface, essential for carbon-based life.  Yet, none of them, for one reason or another, are really likely.  Earth-like planets just haven’t been found.  Will they ever?  Perhaps.

In short, we seem to be alone in this arm of the galaxy.  At least so far, we haven’t demonstrated the presence of even a planet that could hold extra-terrestrial life, and we may never.  I’m willing to believe the latter, though it doesn’t bother me as much as it does some.  If we’re alone, then so be it.

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Writers as Promoters

The face of publishing is changing.  At least that’s what they tell me.  As an unpublished author I guess I don’t have much say in how things change or stay the same, and I’m taking a risk here of annoying or upsetting or just plain pissing off possible agents, editors, and publishers, but I thought I’d make a few comments on the subject.  From reading articles on this topic, hearing people talk about it, and talking to those who’ve gone down the publishing road, I’ve found authors are being required to do more and more of their own promoting, marketing and selling of their finished product.  That’s the way it is, so you’d better get used to it, they say.  Publishers don’t do that anymore.  Authors are even supposed to work up a marketing plan with their book proposal or fiction submission.

Fair enough.  But I’m not a marketer.  I’ve never studied marketing or selling or public relations and don’t know the first thing about any of those subjects.  I’d have to take time off from writing to study marketing in order to figure out how to devise a marketing plan.

Writers are, as I’ve also been told over and over, solitary creatures.  That’s my experience too.  Sooner or later, even the most extroverted, outgoing, gregarious author has to sit down in a quiet room and write.  He may be an absolute marvel at marketing, have zillions of friends on Facebook, produce YouTube videos by the dozen, Tweet a hundred times a day (and be followed by everyone in the known universe), but he’s got to write something to begin with and send it out there.

Now, I’m not saying I’m against marketing, just that I don’t know much about it.  I’m not against Facebook and other social media, just not very good at it.  I’m not against selling my own books, though I’m willing to try.  I doubt that I could produce a decent YouTube video; it might repulse more people than it induced to buy.  I do have a blog (well, if you’re reading this, that’s obvious).  I’ve got about the bare minimum foundation for an author in this century of exploding social media, but that doesn’t allay my concern.  My problem is related more to the fact that I’ve been required to do it because no one else will.  With the big publishers abandoning marketing and promoting, it falls to the author to do it, and he/she is, in the main, one of the least qualified.  It’s like asking Homer Simpson to run a nuclear power plant.

Some authors are great at social media and make a decent living selling the books they’ve written.  More power to them.  But not all are, and requiring them to handle all of it themselves makes no sense whatsoever.  My biggest fear is that authors will eventually be judged more by the quality of their marketing than by the quality of their writing.  That so many lousy books will be sold because they were promoted (as Lisa Simpson would say) so shamelessly.

I find myself wondering what the famously reclusive Harper Lee would do if she submitted To Kill a Mockingbird to a publisher today.  I can’t see her doing a YouTube video.

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Pikes Peak Writers Conference

I just returned from the 2013 Pikes Peak Writers Conference.  (Here’s a question for trivia lovers: Why is the name is spelled Pikes Peak?  Shouldn’t it be Pike’s?)  Great place to go for a writer in almost any stage of his/her career.  For the first time at any writers conference I’ve been to in quite some time I got to meet agents and editors and hear them talk about the craft of writing.  Granted, I’ve read magazines and books and websites and blogs about writing and publishing, but in none of those venues can a person ask questions of the author (except perhaps in a blog where occasionally an expert will answer a question).  Getting feedback directly from someone is much better, like being in class at school.  Talking directly to someone allows you to hear the nuances and shadows within the answer, not always apparent in a written response.  I strongly recommend a writers conference to anyone who is serious about his/her writing.  Especially if that person has never been to one.

I can’t give a complete overview here, there certainly isn’t time or room.  The conference was divided into seven concurrent sessions on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday so I couldn’t begin to attend every session.  I picked only those that seemed to offer something that might help solve my particular writing problems.  I learned how to hone your voice, which is your signature way of telling a story; I heard how to talk about your book, how to pitch it, how to write a log line (a short 1 to 2 sentence summary of a book); I heard how to build a world for fantasy and science fiction stories; and I heard one author talk about how to write a protagonist that is really a bad person at heart even though he’s the “hero” of the story.  All that was on Friday.

Saturday was my day to pitch my novel to an agent.  Unfortunately, that didn’t go as well as I’d planned (but then, when does it?).  The agent wasn’t too excited about the story line and had some criticisms of it, but she did ask me to send her a synopsis and the first chapter.  I did that as soon as I got home.  (I’ve heard rumors, not only at this meeting but at others, that many people who are asked to send something to an agent, don’t.  I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.)  Later Saturday, I attended sessions on detailed point of view and how to stick to it; on short story structure; and on the various genres and how they are divided into larger categories.

Sunday I heard about character building; about plot structure and characters; and about pacing.  The information and ideas came at me so fast and thick I’m not sure I caught everything that was thrown my way.  I took notes as fast and furiously as I could, and I learned a lot.  Now, however, is the time to try to put some of those ideas into practice.  That will be (if you’ll pardon the last in a series of clichés) easier said than done.

When it all comes down to improving my writing, the meeting was certainly worth it and I have no regrets on spending the money.  As to whether I’ll return next year, that will depend largely on how things turn out over the rest of this year.  If I can con an agent into taking me on, perhaps I’ll skip.  But who knows, the muse is fickle and time is running out.  Time to get back to work.

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