More Writing Strategies, and Cory Doctorow’s Writing Tips

In my last post I detailed a few writing strategies that had worked for me, and I referenced a helpful article by science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. It’s a fascinating piece, with several intriguing suggestions, some of which I like and others, not so much.

As I said before, I love his idea about committing yourself to writing a certain number of words per day. However, I disagree strongly with the idea of writing an exact number of words. If I’m inspired I want to continue writing for as long as time permits. On the weekends I sometimes write as many as 2000 words per day on my primary project. Most days, though, I don’t have time to go much beyond my minimum 500; my day job takes care of that. If I were a full-time writer, though, I would need to balance my time between writing new material and other activities such as researching, editing, and promotion. I would probably either set a maximum word count or a time limit.

Doctorow’s reason for stopping at an exact word count – even if it means quitting in the middle of a sentence – is so you have a continuation point in your brain for the next day. That’s a good argument, but for me, it’s not necessary. I rarely get stuck on a story, and if I do, I’m obsessive enough that I think about the problem while doing other activities, such as walking the dogs or driving to work. I almost always come up with something.

Another of Doctorow’s rules, which I arrived at independently, is “don’t research.” More precisely, he means to keep your writing and and research times separate. Part of the trouble with Fidelio is that, being in the steampunk genre, which requires a lot of historical research to do correctly. I love history and could spend hours reading about it- but it doesn’t get your writing done.

When Doctorow is writing and needs to reference a fact that he doesn’t currently know (the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, for example), he doesn’t stop to research that fact. Instead, he inserts the abbreviation “TK” into the text, to remind himself to insert the information at a later time. He uses “TK” because the combination appears in very few English words, making it easy to search. During my July experiment I began doing something similar. For my own place marker I use a descriptive phrase in curly braces, such as {name of spouse.} As a software developer I use braces all the time, but when was the last time you saw them in fiction? The advantage of my scheme over a fixed marker such as “TK” is that I don’t forget what kind of info I need to substitute in any particular place.

Now for another of Doctorow’s point that I don’t like: dump the word processor. He suggests using a plain-vanilla text editor such as “emacs” rather than a word processor like Microsoft Word. It’s true that word processors can be distracting with all of their formatting features, but there’s also an advantage in ease of use. Besides, I use very few of these features until the entire work is done. I’m a Open Office partisan myself; it’s simpler than Word but much easier to use than emacs, which I appreciate from a programmer’s standpoint, but not for prose. Features like word wrap and double spacing make the text easier to read, which means easier to edit, and jobs like paragraph indenting and converting quotation marks are done automatically.

That brings me to a rule of my own that was not in Doctorow’s article– I like to plan in advance what my primary writing project will be for the upcoming month or two. If I didn’t, I’d be tempted to jump around from project to project and not finish any of them. For example, when I started Diana’s Fury at the beginning of July (to be honest, I’d already written one scene, but lets not quibble) I didn’t allow myself to switch projects it was finished. However, to ensure I wouldn’t stray from Fidelio for too long, a set a drop-dead date of August 1st. Luckily, I finished the rough draft of Diana a week early, so I then took the opportunity to work on an urban fantasy story I’d started and abandoned in 2011. Although I haven’t yet finished that story, it’s next in line after I’m done with the rough draft of Fidelio.

These simple rules have helped me vanquish a problem that has bedeviled me since I’ve started writing seriously- my obsession with working in a totally linear fashion (that is, writing one book at a time.) That’s what almost killed my enthusiasm for the craft. I spent many months writing my first book, Centrifugal Force and many more editing it. During the editing phase I had many cool ideas I forced myself to forgo. Eventually I got so burned out on the book that I had to put it aside for a few months. Now that I’m doing two or more projects in parallel (one for just writing, another for editing, and a possible third for research and/or outlining) that doesn’t happen to me any more.

So now you have them, my “top secret” writing tips, which you can modify to your own liking. Remember, the most important rule is not to write at any particular time of day, it’s just to set a regular time and stick to it. Also, be sure to check out articles and blogs by experienced authors. To a writer, newbies are not competition, they’re comrades.

Top Ten Libertarian Science Fiction Books

Why are libertarians attracted to science fiction? Is it simply that the genre promotes a more open mind? In any case, it seems that science fiction has more than its share of writers who advocate freedom. The following list is what I, in my humble opinion, feel are the ten best science fiction books written. Most of these have won the coveted Prometheus Award for liberty-oriented science fiction or at least made the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Many have garnered the Nebula and/or Hugo Awards as well.

10. The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

Originally this was comprised of three books: The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan, which are now available combined into a single plump volume. It’s a hilarious, satirical book that ties in practically every conspiracy you’ve ever heard of. Shea and Wilson satirize everything, including Objectivists and libertarians – of course, any healthy movement should be able to laugh at itself. Illuminatus helped inspire a host of conspiracy-oriented works, such as Chris Carter’s X-Files, The Da Vinci Code, and (my personal theory) the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse. It popularized the Discordian religion, which worships Eris, the goddess of chaos- certainly a faith an anarchist could embrace. Another of its cultural contributions is the word fnord, which represent an insidious subliminal message inserted into all mass media. Illuminatus won the Prometheus in 1986.

9. The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin

This is the story of a society of outcasts on a (barely) habitable moon orbiting Tau Ceti; the settlers are anarchists and other radicals exiled from the larger primary world. The book explores some important concepts such as societal organization and the status of property in an anarchist system. Another important plot element is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about how language may affect or restrict human thinking. (This was the principle behind 1984’s “Newspeak.”) LeGuin is perhaps best known for her brilliant book Left Hand of Darkness, about a hermaphroditic human society, which I also recommend highly. The Dispossessed won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards in 1974 and 1985, and was named to the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1993.

8. V is For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (illustrator)

Yes, this is a graphic novel, but its effects on the liberty movement, and Western culture in general, have been so profound that it deserves to be included. For those few who aren’t familiar with it, V is For Vendetta describes a popular uprising against a totalitarian British government, which is inspired by a single mysterious individual. Part of what makes the book so compelling is that its protagonists,the masked, anarchist “V” and his young companion Evey are not ideals but deeply flawed human characters. Additionally, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by “V” throughout the store has become a worldwide meme representing rebellion. The movie version by the Wachowski Brothers was also wildly popular, but unfortunately blunted some of the graphic novel’s harsher aspects, which led Moore to eventually wash his hands of the project. In any case, Prometheus agrees with my classification; the book won a spot in their Hall of Fame in 2006.

7. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

This is Stephenson’s third novel and in my opinion, his best, even though it’s not as polished (or long-winded) as his later books such as Anathem. This one contains some of his greatest ideas, many of which predict the (probable) political future of the world. Snow Crash draws heavily from the “cyberpunk” genre and has significant elements of satire. The setting is a United States fractured into many thousands of sovereign enclaves. Its central plot was a “mind virus” in the form of the ancient Sumerian language. Another element I enjoyed was a character who was labeled a “sovereign” – a bad-ass biker who traveled with his own personal nuclear weapon. Snow Crash has been nominated for both the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C Clarke award. Stephenson won a Prometheus award not for Snow Crash, but for his novel System of the World, in 2005.

6. Probability Broach by L Neil Smith

I’ve never seen L Neil Smith’s books in the mega-chain book stores, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile; they’re just not commercial enough. This is the book that began his “Gallatin Universe” series, which describes an alternate North America that has an extremely minimalist government. The protagonist, Denver police detective Edward ‘Win’ Bear, is transported from the real world to this alternate version, where he uncovers a plot from our universe to conquer this wonderfully under-governed territory. Of course, after experiencing utopia, Bear is hardly inclined to return to our messed-up world.

One of the best things about Smith’s books is their author. He’s is a tireless activist and a long-time feature of the libertarian movement who never minces words. My favorite L Neil quote: If you’re not a little bit uncomfortable with your position, it isn’t radical enough.” Incidentally, Smith founded the Prometheus awards in 1979, and Probability Broach won it in 1982.

5. The Stars are Also Fire by Poul Anderson

This book is the second in Anderson’s Harvest of Stars series. It depicts the struggle of the Lunarian race (the descendents of human colonists genetically altered for life in the moon’s low gravity) to achieve and maintain their independence. Their adversary is the Terramind, an all-powerful computer which controls human society “for their own good” and refuses to allow any group to slip outside its control. As such, the books is a powerful argument for liberty. The Terramind is not motivated by human power-lust, but that doesn’t make it any more reasonable. Any tyranny, no matter how well-intentioned, is still tyranny. One of the most interesting things about this series is how the Lunarians become a separate race of humanity, tall and slender like Tolkien-esque elves, speaking their own artificially constructed language.

During his lifetime, Anderson received three Nebula and and seven Hugo awards for his novel. The Stars are Also Fire won the Prometheus award in 1995, and Anderson received a Prometheus lifetime achievement award in 2001.

 4. The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod

A native of Scotland and a self-proclaimed socialist, it’s ironic that Ken MacLeod has written one of the best and most entertaining libertarian novels ever. MacLeod is fascinated with different political systems from Trotskyism to anarcho-capitalism, and his novels reflect that fascination. The Stone Canal addresses a future in which some members of the human race have evolved into an electronically-based super-race (a manifestation of the so-called “technological singularity.”) The super-beings open up a wormhole to a nearly-habitable planet known as “New Mars” which is terraformed and settled by humans of the more traditional variety. New Mars is an anarcho-capitalist society in which people coexist with intelligent robots. This book addresses fundamental questions of human identity. The protagonist, Jonathon Wilde, exists both as a cloned copy of his original biological self and as a sentient robot known as “Jay Dub.” Both entities have his memories and personalities, which is the “real” Jon Wilde? In another plot twist, Wilde’s former best friend has cloned Wilde’s deceased (for the time being) wife as his personal sex toy, also called a gynoid (a female android, of course.)

MacLeod is fond of intellectual puns; the Stone Canal (which in the book is an actual stone-lined water channel) is named after an anatomical feature of the starfish. My favorite MacLeod pun is the name of another of his books- The Cassini Division, which is both a gap between the rings of Saturn and a human security detail based in the outer Solar System. The Stone Canal won the Prometheus award in 1996.

3. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

No list of libertarian books would be complete without something by the great master. Most of Heinlein’s books have liberty-related themes, but this is one of the best, having won a Hugo award in 1967 and of course a Prometheus award (belatedly, since the award didn’t exist until 1979) in 1983. Like The Stars Are Also Fire Like The Stars Are Also Fire, it involves a revolt of the Lunar colonies from control by the Earth. (If you detect a rebellious theme running through a number of these books, you’re correct.) Unlike Poul Anderson’s version of the lunar rebellion, Heinlein’s book has an intelligent, self-aware computer who happens to be one of the good guys. Strictly speaking, this book seems to advocate minarchy as opposed to anarchy, though one of the characters was reportedly modeled on “rational anarchist” Robert LeFevre.

One of my favorite things about Heinlein is his creative character names, such as female rebel Wyoh Knott, and of course, the computer, HOLMES IV. (I won’t spell out the acronym here.) This book popularized the very libertarian phrase, ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” or TANSTAAFL, which became the title of a 1975 book on free-market economics by Milton Friedman. (Heinlein did not, as I’d formerly believed, invent this saying. According to Wikipedia it has been appearing in print since at least 1938.)

 2. A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

A Deepness in the Sky is possibly my favorite book of all time. It’s an amazingly conceived, brilliant, moving novel. The scientific premise is fascinating in itself: a periodic star which is “off” for all but 35 of its 250-year cycle, giving rise to a unique ecology in which all forms of life hibernate for the two-century winter. In this unusual star system, human explorers encounter an intelligent race resembling giant spiders. (“Deepness” is what the spider race call the underground chambers they use for their long periods of sleep.) The human visitors include a group of free-market traders, called the Qeng Ho, and the Emergents, the representatives of a nearby totalitarian human society. The deceitful Emergents attack and enslave the Qeng Ho, while plotting to exploit the spider world. The surviving Qeng Ho struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds to throw off their captors and save the spiders, not only from the Emergents, but from a planetary arms race. This book features elements of nanotechnology, which is used by the bad guys as part of a ubiquitous spying apparatus.

The only gripe I have with Vernor Vinge, a retired professor of mathematics, is that he’s only written eight novels. I had the honor of meeting him at a science fiction convention in San Diego in the early 1990’s; he seemed to be a very down-to-earth person. By the way, it’s not a coincidence that prolific sci-fi/fantasy author Joan D. Vinge shares Vernor’s last name, because the two were once married. (I assume they must have parted on relatively good terms, since she kept his surname.) Deepness in the Sky won the Prometheus award in 2000, as well as the Hugo and Campbell awards.

 1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Published in 1957, this was Ayn Rand’s fourth and final novel, and in my opinion, her best. Among other things, it outlined the philosophy of Objectivism and introduced the iconic character John Galt. Probably the world’s best-known political book, Atlas Shrugged is not always considered to be science fiction. Rand herself described it as a “mystery” or a “romance.” Jeff Riggenbach has made a persuasive case for the book being sci fi, considering that three inventions: John Galt’s motor, Henry Rearden’s metal alloy, and the governments “Project X” weapon, played significant roles in the book. It is certainly speculative in the sense that Rand envisioned that the world’s most inventive and creative people would “go on strike” thus breaking the despotic rule of the corrupt collectivists who run America. Who could forget John Galt’s (in)famous 70-page speech, in which he berates all the parasites of the politcal class. He does this by hacking into the broadcast system – a rather modern sci-fi nontion.

Though reviled by progressives and the intelligentsia, Atlas Shrugged is surely one of the most influential books of all time. Numerous conservatives and libertarians, including politicians and pundits such as Paul Ryan and Glenn Beck, have proclaimed it to be their favorite book, or the book that inspired them to become political. There are a number of elements in Rand’s message with which I disagree strongly. She was certainly no anarchist, she was far too deferential to the military, and her writing frequently has a judgmental tone that can easily match that of the most fervent fundamentalist preacher. What I love about Atlas Shrugged, though, is its unashamed celebration of the individual, and its complete rejection of the pan-religious cult of self-sacrifice. This latter has, in my view, been responsible for most of the misery of human existence, by giving sociopathic liars who call themselves “leaders” the ability to harness the minds of backs of their fellow human beings. Atlas Shrugged earned Rand a posthumous place in the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1983.

 0. Honorable Mention: The manga series Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (illustrator)

Technically, it’s not science fiction, as the plot is driven by magic, but with a well-defined set of rules. At the beginning of the story, high school honor student Light Yagami finds a mysterious black notebook. The inscription within explains that the act of writing a person’s name in the notebook will cause that person to die of apparent natural causes. The notebook has been planted by a shinigami, a sort of Japanese Grim Reaper whose boredom inspires him to do this as a prank on humanity. Light sets out to use the book for good ends, ridding the world of murderers, rapists, and other contemptible criminals. Unlike Superman, who enjoys god-like powers but never intentionally misuses them, Light is quickly corrupted by the ability to kill from afar, and sets himself up to rule the world. Soon he begins executing anyone who threatens his reign in any way. There is an animated version of Death Note; I’ve only seen the first episode but it appears to be true to the quirky darkness of the original, albeit a bit less subtle in its message. This series should be loved by libertarians because it illustrates Lord Acton’s maxim, “Absolute power corrupts absolultely.”

Free Downloads of Centrifugal Force

In celebration of Phoenix Comicon, I’m doing free downloads of my novel Centrifugal Force on May 24-26th. Some of  you may already have seen it, but if you know of anyone who might be interested, please spread the word! This will likely be the last time I do free
days on CF, because I’m letting my Kindle Select expire so I can finally publish the Nook version. Thanks to everyone for your support!

Sci-Fi Pros and Cons

Recently I attended the 39th Annual Leprecon in Mesa, Arizona. No, it wasn’t an Irish festival, but a science fiction convention, so named because it was originally held around March 17th. I have attended several of these events in the past, and this one was a good time as always. Unfortunately, Leprecon’s attendance seems to have fallen off in recent years, and 2013 was no exception.

As far as I can tell, these conventions haven’t changed much over the years. There are still lots of interesting people and activities. There are sci-fi and fantasy related panel discussions, signings by authors (including, this year, yours truly), a game room, dealer room and art show, and a theme dinner on Saturday night. The average age is increasing, though. Most attendees appear to be to be baby boomers or Gen X’ers. I’ve noticed a similar trend at Coppercon, which is the Phoenix area’s other annual sci-fi convention. Coppercon has been traditionally held in September, but for 2013 it will be August 8th through 11th.

It seems that these small, local gatherings are being upstaged by the mighty Phoenix Comicon (Phoenix Convention Center, Memorial Day Weekend), which has always been jam-packed with people of all ages whenever I’ve been there. Of course, it’s a fraction of size of the mother of all Comicon’s in San Diego. Contrary to its name, Comicon isn’t just about comic books; there are strong elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror in all media. In the past they’ve hosted talks by Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, the cast of Star Trek Next Generation, and Max Brooks, author of World War Z.

Perhaps this is just part of the overall trend of consolidation, in which small stores, organizations, and events are being supplanted by larger ones with a national or international scope. Happily, there’s another side to that story. Anime (Japanese animation) conventions are now quite popular. In the Phoenix area there are at least two – Saboten-con, which is held in September and Taiyou-con in January. Here, the attendees are overwhelmingly in their teens and twenties. Of course, anime is not the sole focus; they also focus on manga (comic books) and video games. It’s not completely Japanese, either. Recently they’ve been swarmed by legions of Homestuck fans. For the benefit of you older folks, this is a wildly popular web-comic created by an American, Andrew Hussie. At anime cons you will see hordes of teenagers dressed as the Homestuck “trolls,” which involves lots of gray skin paint, rainbow-striped “horns” glued to the forehead, and t-shirts bearing zodiac signs.

This brings me to another point – at anime conventions, cosplay (costume play) is huge, as much or more so than any stereotypical Trekkie convention. Homestuck is not the only series that fans flatter by imitation. Another extremely popular theme is the anime series Hetalia, in which characters represent the different countries of the world. Older folks (myself and girlfriend included) also enjoy dressing up, especially in the “steampunk” genre. The Dark Ones, a local sci-fi-related social group, made this the theme of their biennial Dark-Con in 2012. I have not yet made it to the steampunk-oriented Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, but I’ve been hearing great things about it. Yet another costuming craze is the “furry” scene, in which people don full-body animal costumes. (Yes, you may have heard tales – or should I say “tails” – of rampant kinkiness in this group but a friend assures me that those “creepy furries” are a small minority.) Phoenix will host a “Fur Con” this October. It sounds interesting but personally, I’m too claustrophobic to want to wear a cartoon animal head for any length of time.

Despite my initial worries, I don’t think the sci-fi/fantasy convention scene is going away any time soon. It’s just changing and adapting with the times. Since my convention experience is, at the moment, confined to Arizona and Southern California, I welcome comments from my readers about their own perspectives. Are the traditional sci-fi cons dying out? Are fan gatherings with a costume-related theme on the rise? I’m quite tired of seeing only spammer-generated comments for genuine cheap imitation designer handbags, so if you’re out there, please respond!

Calling All Space Cowboys

The Western genre, so popular in my youth, has fallen out of favor in recent years. It survives mainly in “shoot ’em up” video games like Red Dead Redemption. Yet it has had a lasting influence on other genres, especially science fiction. Though despised by sci fi purists, so-called “space westerns” have attracted legions of fans.

Combining sci fi and westerns seems like a weird idea until you consider the historical context. The 1950’s were in many ways a “coming of age” for the science fiction genre, arguably being the latter half of its “Golden Age.” At the same time, cowboys were everywhere in the popular culture. It’s only natural that there was some cross-pollination. Also, when there’s a high demand for any type of fiction, the market is bound to attract lots of hack writers. People will think, why not combine the two genres and make it even more popular? That’s probably why space westerns have such a bad rap. Galaxy Science Fiction magazine satirized them in a 1950’s ad campaign for an imaginary series based on a character called “Bat Durston,” a name which still pops up in sci fi circles.

Two sci fi TV shows, both which generated their own cult followings, proved Galaxy to be wrong. One was the Japanese animation Cowboy Bebop (1999); the other was Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002.) Both combined space exploration and western themes artfully and both, unfortunately, lasted just a single season. Older fans often mention Wild Wild West (1965-69) which has its own enduring following, especially among steampunks. This one, however, being a historical adventure series with sci fi elements, does not fit the “space western” description, being more properly called a “sci fi western.” All three of these series demonstrate that combining disparate elements can create good fiction.

When you look beyond the disparity in settings, sci fi and western fiction have a lot in common. The two genres are dominated by American writers and publishers. Both feature characters and plots which espouse the American themes of individualism, self-reliance, and justice. Both have an element of the frontier, with its central conflict of man against nature. There is a strong element of escapism in the two genres.

The purists are free continue to judge space westerns harshly. If so, they are missing out on some very creative and original work. The rest of us will continue to ignore their opinion. In closing, I’ll quote the ending screen from Cowboy Bebop: “See you space cowboy.”


Red-Headed Stepchild

Science Fiction is one of the despised genres of literature, loved by the masses and derided by intellectuals. Perhaps I am being oversensitive, but it seems that the critics consider genre fiction to be less important than ‘literary’ fiction. Yet as Samuel R. Delaney once observed, science fiction is one of the least respected forms of writing, about on par with comic books and pornography.

Admittedly, ones perception of sci-fi as despised depends on the definition of the category. One I recall from a writers’ workshop I attended long ago (sorry I don’t recall which one) is that it is fiction in which technology is a crucial element. My own concept is broader, more akin to that of speculative fiction: something about the story, plot, or characters is outside the normal realm of experience. Fantasy is also speculative, therefore science fiction is that portion that is plausible according to the known or extrapolated laws of the universe (that is, it excludes magic and the supernatural.)

Even the first, narrower definition encompasses a number of classics that are not normally considered science fiction. For example, works like 1984, Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange are often considered dystopian fiction, but all are technology dependent, as wel as speculative. Likewise, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is seen as a political novel and Crichton’s Andromeda Strain as a thriller. Third-world novels with speculative or fantasy elements are classed as “magical realism.” Thus, sci-fi’s most outstanding works are re-classified as something else.

Part of the problem wit sci-fi is, I believe, political. Many famous science fiction writers (such as Robert Heinlein) would be considered right of center or libertarian in inclination, as opposed to left-leaning academics and intellectuals. In the Golden Age of the mid to late 20th Century, there was a theme of American triumphalism running through a lot of old-school science fiction, which has since become politically incorrect.

Perhaps science fiction is despised because, like its close relative fantasy, it’s escapist. It’s too much fun. Literary fiction is supposed to portray the day-to-day struggles of ordinary people, and well within the boundaries of acceptable thought – in other words, boring. It reminds me of a politically correct critic who attacked Lord of the Rings as “racist.” Indeed, it must be very offensive to the orc and troll lobbies.

All of this is no big deal to those of us who love science fiction, fantasy, and the other speculative realms. From Star Trek and Star Wars to the numerous movies adaptations of Phillip K Dick’s stories, sci-fi is loved by the masses, who vote with their dollars in far greater numbers than for some critically-acclaimed snooze-fest. Thus are the low-down exalted. Glory to the nerds!