Category Archives: Writing

Characters and Plot

The science fiction genre has often been accused, like much genre fiction, of being so focused on plot and setting that it actually becomes detrimental to character development. Indeed one of the criticisms often levied upon Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest and most prolific sci-fi writers to ever live, is that many of his characters seem like mere caricatures. The old tired tropes seemed to be all sci-fi writers used for character stock: the damsel in distress, the heroic and righteous starship captain riding in to her rescue, thinly veiled xenophobia in the form of aliens that are just a little too human but “not,” etc.

Cyberpunk did a good bit to turn those tropes on their head. The razorgirl Molly Millions, for example, in Neuromancer is far from a damsel in distress. Case is far from heroic and righteous.

I like to think I have a good grasp on character development. I’m a student of the human condition, a watcher if you will. From my earliest years I absolutely loved people watching and still do to this day. Some psych classes in college gave me an even deeper understanding of the human condition, and honestly economics has a lot more to do with human behavior than most people realize. After all, the economy is a human construct: wealth, money, competitive advantage, inflation, etc. are all simply human concepts, thus the study of these concepts must necessarily involve understanding people and what makes them tick.

Science fiction can absolutely be literary, and I like to think I’ll have the ability to write “high brow” science fiction while melding it with the pulpy plot-driven aspects that many sci-fi fans truly love. At least that’s my goal. I guess I’ll have to get published and get some reviews to know if I can actually do that. 😉

 

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Why I write sci-fi

Over the last several days I’ve been trying to piece together where my interest in science fiction grew from. As a child I was a voracious reader, but I don’t really remember reading much science fiction. I saw the Star Wars movies and watched some Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad when I was really young. While they were cool to my young (5-6 year old) mind, they didn’t really capture my imagination.

Same with Jurassic Park. I saw it in theaters in 1993 and, while it is technically science fiction I suppose, I just thought of it as a really cool dinosaur movie. And I still hadn’t really read any science fiction, even though I was a regular at the local library (I vividly remember bringing home stacks, literally STACKS, of books from the library every couple of weeks and motoring through them. But I don’t remember any sci-fi standing out).

Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin changed all that. I stood in line with my father for a couple of hours to see a little film called Stargate  in 1994 when I was nine years old. It captured my imagination. It set of sparks in my head that I’d never experienced before. I wanted to be Kurt Russell’s character (the depression and suicidal tendencies kind of went over my head at the time, he was just a cool soldier guy!). I wanted to visit this far off world.

I watched a bunch of science fiction movies after that. Blade Runner, Alien, Logan’s Run, and what seems like a million more. In 1996 Emmerich and Devlin again resonated with me in their send-up to War of the Worlds, Independence Day. Looking back on it now I can see the plot holes and action-driven nature of the plot, but it nonetheless captured my imagination.

I read Frankenstein, regarded by many as the first properly science fiction novel, the same year. I picked up some H.G. Wells too, and began to explore many of the classic science fiction writers. My first Clarke book came the same year, a tattered old paperback copy of Rendezvous with Rama that my father bought sometime in the mid-1970s.

But 1997 was my first exposure to new science fiction. 1997 is when I mark my true infatuation with science fiction as literature; while I had dabbled in reading some of the old sci-fi greats before that I saw it more of a movie form than a literary one. Peter F. Hamilton changed all of that. My parents bought me the two-part paperback edition of The Reality Disfunction for my 12th birthday. I remember reading the first half, Emergence, in one day. To this day I don’t think I’ve read another book in a single day (especially one of that length; even split in two each half of it weighed in at about 500 pages).

That was a game changer. I was voraciously reading science fiction and science fiction alone from then on. Asimov, more Clarke, Heinlein, Alistair Reynolds, William Gibson, and a myriad of others all crowded into my head with their visions of the future. Gibson in particular struck a chord, as I covered in the previous blog entry to an extent.

In 1998 I began my first venture into writing science fiction by joining an online writing collective where each contributing author built an entire civilization and wrote stories within it and interacting with the other civilizations. Sadly I believe these early writings may be lost forever, I would love to go back and see my 13 year old take on writing science fiction, but it nonetheless let me sink my teeth into science fiction.

Over the years since I’ve floated away from science fiction in my writing, or rather tried to get away from it. Even as I wrote short stories and even attempted longer pieces that weren’t at all science fiction, I found sci-fi ideas rolling around in my head trying to crowd out all else.

I sat down to write The Selenian Quarantine primarily because my brain wouldn’t let me write anything else. I was in the midst of a piece of literary fiction when the idea grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I spent an entire day staring at a chapter heading of From Within a Deep, Dark Place, literally my entire waking day, unable to even think about that novel. Ideas for science fiction kept crowding out any efforts to think about that work.

So I’ve decided I have to get it out of my head. And that’s why I write science fiction I suppose: my brain won’t shut up about it. As good a reason as any, I guess. 🙂

Is cyberpunk relevant today?

Before getting into the meat of today’s post I want to wish luck to all the others out there participating in NaNoWriMo this year. I wrote about 2,800 words yesterday and, once I finish this blog post, will work on my writing for this evening. I hope the writing is going well for all my fellow NaNoers (though I must confess, given that the daily minimum to hit 50,000 in November is less than two hundred words more than the daily minimum I’ve set for myself already, the shine has come off the challenge a bit and it doesn’t feel quite so daunting).

The science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk took the mid-to-late 1980s by storm following the publication of William Gibson‘s Neuromancer. Many writers have spoken at length on what cyberpunk is and why is struck a chord with the 1980s counter-cultural movement. In the years since cyberpunk has become integrated into the vast continuum of science fiction and its tropes have become part and parcel of many types of science fiction.

I consider my current work in progress a piece of cyberpunk fiction, though as with any subgenre born nearly thirty years ago there have been so many permutations that I wouldn’t dare call it PURE cyberpunk. But at its core The Selenian Quarantine is thematically a work of cyberpunk.

Being born in the mid-80s–indeed, Neuromancer’s publication came more than a year before my birth–I was never really exposed directly to the culture that spawned the punk movement and with which the book, and ensuing genre born around it, resonated so thoroughly. Nonetheless I consider Gibson, Sterling, Rucker and the other cyberpunks to be massive influences on my writing right alongside the traditional big three of science fiction.

The singular “flaw” of cyberpunk, as I see it, is the fact that given its near-future time frame and extrapolation of current technologies into that future, we very quickly diverged from the technological paths taken in those early works. Today’s iPhone seems more powerful than the decks of Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, though lacking of course the immersive cyberspace environment. That is in no way an indictment of Gibson’s work, indeed much of the technology and lingo we have today was born out of trying to create real world applications of the technologies he envisioned nearly thirty years ago.

But given this flaw, people often ask if cyberpunk can be relevant in today’s world. I say yes, yes it can and indeed it is. Not necessarily because of the technological future it builds for us–after all, what science fiction author can ever be said to get the future exactly right?–but rather because of the themes it explores. 1980s America was a corporate smorgasbord during the Reagan/Bush Sr. years. 2000s America was a corporate smorgasbord during the Bush Jr./Obama years, culminating in our more modern case with the spectacular collapse of our financial markets late in the decade.

With occupy protests across the nation, people in the top 1% basically doing their best Marie Antoinette impression from the rooftops of their skyrises (let them eat cake!), and a growing distrust of both multinational corporations and an ever bloating government, one can’t help but imagine the cultural forces that shaped the 1960s and 1970s and led to the rise of the punk movement are once again on the move.

Likewise the Great Recession mirrors the gas shortages of the 1970s and the general feeling of malaise and decline–American exceptionalism was no more, our noses were bloodied and we seemed powerless to stop the bleeding–is as palpable today as it was during the Carter years. America seems on a crash course with its own downfall, as it was then, and that is almost exactly the cultural zeitgeist that spawned the punk movement that latched on to the work of an unassuming debut novelist born in South Carolina.

The lessons cyberpunk taught us then are just as relevant and revelatory today. The world seems to function in cycles, and though the economic success of the 1990s tended to push aside cyberpunk and replace it with a less dystopic post-cyberpunk and downright optimistic cyberprep, it appears we are cycling back to a low-point. Punk rises again.

In suffering we find creation, and cyberpunk is a manifestation of the suffering we all feel. Though steeped in the technological extrapolation that is its trademark, at its core cyberpunk is the story of human suffering in a world that has gone to shit. It is a story of people abandoned by the world, forced to find a way to eke out a life in a world that is at best apathetic about them, and at worst downright hostile toward them.

Those are themes I think many of us can relate to in these times.

Happy Halloween

First off, before I get into a rather lengthy rant about Halloween that transforms into a bit of a rant of political correctness, I want to wish you all a safe and happy Halloween! Be safe, don’t eat already-opened candy, and egg any houses that give you pennies instead of delicious sweet treats. 😉

Halloween has long been one of my favorite holidays. One of my first truly vivid memories is of a Halloween party when I was three or four where my parents dressed me up as Dracula. It was a wonderfully fun time and in the years since (and I’ve dressed up almost every year, save the last couple) I’ve come to appreciate it more and more as a holiday. Not once have I ever seen it as a pagan or satanic type thing. In fact I genuinely feel sorry for kids who have parents that are so hypersensitive about religion as to treat Halloween like some evil, horrible, devil worshiping holiday and thus forbid their children from engaging in the fun.

I don’t really care about the history attached to Halloween (though I’m well aware of it, you can read more about it here), in modern usage Halloween is a time to let your imagination run wild and dress up as the scariest, funniest, craziest, and in some cases raunchiest thing you can imagine. The kids go around and get candy from the rest of the neighborhood (if for no other reason than to foster a sense of community within a neighborhood, I think Halloween trick’or’treating should be encouraged rather than dying out as it seems to be around here), the adults go have drinks with each other while dressed up, etc. The vast majority of people don’t in any serious way link Halloween to Satan as a lot of hardcore Christians try to, it seems.

Not to say I don’t think they have every right to feel uncomfortable with their children participating. They’re the parents, the decision should be theirs. If they’d rather their child attend a (very poorly named) Jesusween event or any of a myriad of “fall festivals” in lieu of celebrating Halloween, more power to them. But don’t attack others as godless heathens because they disagree with you. The free and open exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of this nation, and one I believe in very strongly as a writer. The marketplace of ideas is where I want to make my living, and if that marketplace is choked off by bigotry, incivility, and general hatred then we are all the poorer for it.

Political correctness is, to me, just as dangerous as hate speech. If we’re not allowed to refer to things in any manner but euphemism, we can’t ever really deal with those problems. It genuinely angered me, for example, when there was talk of removing “nigger” from Mark Twain’s works, replacing it with the more innocuous “slave.” Not because I have anything against African-Americans, quite the contrary. If we decide to (forgive the term) whitewash our history and go back and sanitize older works (particularly Twain’s, which were in large part meant to skewer the racist attitudes of the reconstruction-era south), how in the hell are we ever going to learn from our mistakes or see just how far we’ve progressed?

150 years ago black people were considered property in much of the nation and today we have a half-black man as president. That is a wonderful thing, whether you agree with his politics or not. Should we just ignore all the struggles in between that made his rise possible? I don’t think so. Our nation has a pretty ugly history with regard race relations; trying to go back and pretend that never happened by revising classic literature dealing with the issue is, in my opinion, far more offensive to African Americans than the usage of “nigger” in the text of his work. Of course I say this as a white man, so take the statement with a grain of salt I suppose.

And don’t think I’m simply fixating on African Americans. We treated the Native Americans horribly as well, we interred the Japanese during WWII (Jamie Ford can tell you all about that in his wonderful novel), we distrust Hispanics and even go as far as calling them invaders simply because some come here seeking a better life for themselves, and as far as I’m concerned being gay in America today is pretty close to being black in America in the 1950s: tacit acceptance in places, but with a heap of bigotry and intolerance being spewed all over the place. I can’t help but think we NEED those old, “non-PC” texts, even disregarding their vast literary merit, simply as a reminder of our own screwed up past.

But the reason I come back to racism/slavery specifically with regard to African Americans is because of an article making the rounds about hockey player Raffi Torres going to a Halloween party as Jay-Z. There are people calling him intolerant and bigoted. In the article linked a blogger named Thomas Drance went so far as to say such a costume is entirely off-limits. I hate to break it to Mr. Drance, but nothing should be off-limits. When you start making things off-limits, you degrade society and choke off the marketplace of ideas.

For the record, here is a picture of the “offending” costume:

I’m sorry, but I don’t see that as anything approaching the Vaudevillian “black face” that triggered such hubbub and stands as a throwback example of racism. If you want to see REAL “black face” in a Halloween costume, take a look at this picture of my own family from 39 Halloweens ago. It was Savannah, GA and a different time so I can’t take them to task too harshly for it, though I did tell my mother–who isn’t one of the two children in black face here and, indeed, based on her facial expression it looks like she wasn’t having the best of times (she’s the tallest one in the picture)–how terribly inappropriate that costume was when I found the picture.

That is inappropriate. That is offensive. That is in bad taste. But even that shouldn’t be OFF-LIMITS. If someone chooses to do something like that, they should simply face the consequences of their action. Scorn them, tell them they’re ignorant, but don’t try to deny them their right of free choice. Because as soon as you tell one person it is illegal to have a certain opinion or dress up a certain way, you open up a Pandora’s box that cannot be closed.

And ultimately as a writer, I think the most important thing we have is the ability to express ourselves freely without worry of legal backlash. We can be sued for the things we write, sure, but we should never be censored or banned (the fact that book bans are still so prevalent in our supposedly free nation drives me up a wall, but that is a topic for another day). The good and righteous ideas will rise to the top, the hate-filled and ignorant ones will fall to the bottom.

Enforcing a schedule

I was talking to my best friend this afternoon, trying to help him work through some self-esteem issues and generally get him back on his feet, when a piece of advice I threw out to him actually resonated quite well with me. Sometimes I surprise myself with such things; I pull things out of seemingly nowhere that actually make sense and are helpful. The collective subconscious? Something I’d heard once, filed away, and forgotten about until I need it? Who knows, I’m just glad that I can impart kernels of wisdom every now and then (at least I think they’re wisdom, could just be a bunch of drivel I suppose).

My advice to him today was that he needs to set a schedule for himself and stick to it. He’s been working on creating daily task lists for himself but hasn’t really been putting himself into a position to complete those task lists. Time management is his biggest issue and mine as well, so it was a subject that hit pretty close to home in our conversation. So I told him that, rather than simply give himself a task like “look for a job on Monster,” he should add a timeframe for that. Either a certain number of hours spent doing that, or a certain SET of hours within the day (i.e., “look for a job on Monster from 2pm to 4pm”). No matter what he does or doesn’t find in that timeframe, at least he spent it doing a task on his list.

Partition off every task like that, and before you know it you’ve got a full day where you’re actually DOING something rather than just sitting around wondering what to do next or how long the next task on your list will take you. Even as I write this blog I think I’m beginning to coalesce in my mind where the advice was pulled from:  I’ve been hearing for years now that in order to write successfully one must actually dedicate time to writing. Some people set specific wordcount goals for a day, other people simply set a specific amount of time aside to write, and yet others do some kind of mixture.

I’ve tried to apply that to my own writing habits with varying degrees of success. I will say that I definitely agree with the sentiment, as I said in my earlier blog on procrastination if I don’t write every day (or nearly every day) I tend to lose touch with the story I’m working on and find myself having trouble maintaining a consistent voice throughout. Having realized this, I’ve gone on to endeavor to write 1,500 words a day or for two hours, whichever comes LAST (i.e., if I hit 1,500 words in an hour I keep going until I get to two hours, or if I’ve  hit two hours and only have 800 words I soldier on until I hit 1,500).

In that same spirit of time management I’ve decided to enforce a schedule for myself on this blog too. A month into it now and, as you can see looking over the calendar to the right, I’ve been admittedly a bit scattered in my blog updates. As I try to move from “writer,” aka guy who likes writing stories, to “author,” aka guy who likes writing stories then makes a business of selling them, I’ve been reading tips on building a social network. One of the things I’ve seen over and over regarding blogging is that a consistent posting schedule, combined with worthwhile content of course, is a major key to having success in this vast and varied blogosphere.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to enforce a posting schedule for myself. With the exception of any spectacular news I just can’t wait to share with you, dear readers, from now on I’ll be posting four times a week.

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday will be my weekday posting schedule. These blogs will be on a fairly wide variety of subjects, though primarily writing, food, or hockey related (go Stars!), or some combination thereof. Starting tomorrow I’ll be using Saturdays to post up Science Saturday: a weekly compiling of links to various science/science fiction articles I’ve read and found interesting during the preceding week. Some Saturdays it will only be one or two things, others it might be a dozen or more; it all depends on what happens in science during that particular week.

An added benefit of this Science Saturday concept is the fact that it will force me to keep up with scientific knowledge. Given that my desire is to write more or less hard sci-fi, I think it will be a good use of my time even though some of it may not be directly related to writing.

I look forward to pushing forward with this blog in a more consistent and interesting fashion, I hope you’ll enjoy the ride as well.

My Writing Space

A lot of writers seem to have dedicated offices that they toil away in. I’ve read about how several writers pin rejection letters to their desk/wall above their monitors to encourage them to work that much harder. Negative reinforcement and the such. I’ve got to imagine that with the rise in laptops, netbooks, tablets, and the like, the number of writers toiling away in a dark room separated off from everyone else has decreased over the last decade or so. And with so much of the communication going electronic, do they now pin rejection notices to their computer’s desktop instead?

I do my writing out in the open on my ~5 year old HP laptop with my feet propped up on the ottoman. It’s comfortable. Sure I can be distracted more easily than if I locked myself away, but it just forces me to focus in on my work even more. Typically speaking I just throw in some headphones, plop down, and get to writing. I’m accessible but distant, because I’ve made it clear that when I’m in writing mode not to distract me unless it is genuinely important. I know I’m in a groove when the girlfriend takes a shower, walks the dog, and cooks dinner without me even being aware she’s moved off the couch.

My writing space

Maybe someday when I’m a rich and famous writer I’ll have a dedicated writing studio off my house or something, I don’t know. As it is right now my arrangement is as much necessity as choice unless I wanted to turn the closet or bathroom into an office. Studio apartments don’t really leave much room for segmentation and isolation. I’m just glad I can work in such conditions.

The Final Goodbye

I’m a bit of an insomniac sometimes. Case in point: it’s almost 7am on Saturday but I refuse to accept that it is Saturday because I haven’t been to bed yet. Until I sleep it is still Friday, damnit!

But while I was sitting here, unable to write anymore for the evening as my brain hit that cut off point where it was too tired to do anything but  not tired enough to sleep, I was reading back through a few short stories I’d written over the last couple of years. I came across one I remember particularly enjoying writing (though until I stumbled across it buried seven levels deep in my writing folder I’d forgotten about it entirely), so I thought I’d share it (especially since it has a bit of a Halloweenesque slant to it, and it is that time of year).

Now I would note that according to my computer (hooray file created/last modified dates) I wrote this about three years ago. But I still like it, even if it is a little rough in places.

The Final Goodbye

by J.S. Joyner

The blanket rose and fell slightly with each breath. I watched it for a long time that night, softly backlit by the streetlamp’s fluorescent glow seeping in between the cracks in the blinds. I knew that it should have brought me comfort and eased me off to sleep, yet I lay wide awake staring at the rhythmic movement for hours. In hindsight I wish I had appreciated that evening; I wish I had understood the significance of that life force pulsing next to me. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I would have relished that evening more, but as it was I simply cursed my brain’s inability to shut itself off.

We had been married for three years, long enough for the honeymoon phase to be long dead but still too early for the monotony of married life to siphon off the romance completely. I still brought her flowers on occasion, not as often as I should have, and there was still passion in our lovemaking. Our marriage was no different than that of any number of other young couples, and yet it was destined to end abruptly.

The morning of the eighth day of May began like any other. I rose from bed shortly before dawn, cursing what little sleep I had gotten the previous night. Stumbling through my morning routine half asleep, I shaved, showered, and dressed for work. Had I known it would be our last day together, I would have done more than simply look in on her. I would have taken her up in my arms and lavished love upon her and held her. But instead I simply smiled in the doorway at her sleeping form, the blanket still rising and falling in a slow, gentle rhythm. Then I was gone, out the door and in my car sipping the morning coffee from my travel mug as the sun broke over the horizon.

It was a beautiful sunrise, the sky exploding into shades of purples, reds, and oranges as the sun made its fiery presence known in a nearly clear sky. Looking back on it now, it must have been the type of sunrise that has inspired painters and poets for centuries. But at the time all I could do was grimace and grope in my center console for sunglasses as I squinted into the fireball rising ahead of me, there was no time to enjoy its inherent beauty and awe inspiring power. There never was.

Even now I am unable to fully explain what happened next, there are some moments in our lives so unbearable that even the healing power of time cannot allow our minds to make sense of them. It began with an all-too-familiar screeching sound and I felt my body tense instinctively. The collision itself has been blocked from my memory, all I have is a snapshot of the moment that the other vehicle rode up over the top of my car’s hood, blotting out the sun that had been burning itself into my eyes a moment earlier. Then there was darkness, an inky black that enveloped me completely. Rather than hearing the carnage happening around me, I could hear nothing but the low, almost electric hum of my own body that we hear only in those moments of the most abject and total quiet.

I couldn’t say how long this state persisted, there was no sense of time passing as I was surrounded by this complete sensory depravation. It could have been seconds or hours, I had absolutely no way of knowing. It was an indescribable sensation, the best approximation I can offer is that it was like sensing that you can sense nothing. I am well aware that statement is itself a contradiction, and I can offer no clarification for it. I was simply existing in a state of nonexistence, I knew only that I existed because I thought that I must exist. Descartes would have been proud.

Eventually, or perhaps instantly since as I said before I had no concept of time, the veil of darkness lifted and I was standing at the foot of our bed. My wife lay before me, still fast asleep, looking exactly as she had when I left her that morning. For a few moments I simply stood there, trying to reason away what had happened as a dream. But deep down I knew that this was no dream, and I wouldn’t be able to stay for long. I stood there a moment longer, just looking at her, then spoke softly.

“Sweetheart?”

She didn’t stir at first, but after a moment she turned over and mumbled something. I moved to my side of the bed and slipped gently down next to her. With tears in my eyes I reached out and wiped the hair out of her face, causing her to stir again.

“You’re going to be late for work,” she mumbled without opening her eyes.

I smiled slightly and curled up next to her. After a moment I spoke again in a soft voice, “I don’t think that will be a problem. I want you to know that I love you, I always will.”

I put my head down on the pillow and looked at her face. I felt tired, more tired than I had ever felt in my life. My eyes traced her form and came to rest on the blanket, rising and falling exactly as it had been the night before, backlit now by the morning sun rather than the streetlamp. I mustered all the energy I could and whispered quietly, “I just wanted to say goodbye, sweetheart.”

Just then I felt myself receding away, leaving the bed empty save for her as I floated upwards.

“What the hell are you…” she trailed off as she opened her eyes and found herself alone in the bedroom. As I receded further she rolled over and sat up, reaching for her cell phone to call me.

But I was already gone.