Monthly Archives: September 2015

19. Guest Editorial by Mark Twain (2)

Mark_Twain,_Brady-Handy_photo_portrait,_Feb_7,_1871,_croppedfrom Those Extraordinary Twins (post 2)

Mark Twain’s words, begun in the last post, tell how The Prince and the Pauper began as a small story and escaped his control to become a novel .  . .

“Much the same thing happened with “Pudd’nhead Wilson.” I had a sufficiently hard time with that tale, because it changed itself from a farce to a tragedy while I was going along with it – a most embarrassing circumstance. But what was a great deal worse was, that it was not one story, but two stories tangled together; and they obstructed and interrupted each other at every turn and created no end of confusion and annoyance. I could not offer the book for publication, for I was afraid it would unseat the reader’s reason. I did not know what was the matter with it, for I had not noticed, as yet, that it was two stories in one. It took me months to make that discovery. I carried the manuscript back and forth across the Atlantic two or three times, and read it and studied over it on shipboard; and at last I saw where the difficulty lay. I had no further trouble. I pulled one of the stories out by the roots, and left the other one? a kind of literary Caesarean operation . . .”

Don’t misunderstand me – I have no pretensions to rank with Mark Twain, but I do understand what it means to have a story stand up on its hind legs and fight back. I have boxes full of unpublishable manuscript created when I tried to go east while my story demanded to go west. Some good writing ended up on the cutting room floor, and I will share a bit of it in later posts.

Meanwhile, the rest of Mark Twain’s story of Pudd’nhead and the Twins is too funny to leave hanging, and too long to share here. Come back next post and I’ll tell you where to find the full version. For free.


18. Guest Editorial by Mark Twain (1)

Mark_Twain,_Brady-Handy_photo_portrait,_Feb_7,_1871,_croppedfrom Those Extraordinary Twins (post 1)

Most science fiction readers want to be writers. They mine blogs like this for inside information. Fair enough; here’s the straight story from the old master, Mark Twain, presented over two posts with a third post to tell you where to get the rest of this little known gem, along with thousands of other free works to download.

I include this because I am of the Mark Twain school of writing. That is, I jump in with both feet and rarely know where it will all end. Twain says:

“A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel. I know this from experience. He has no clear idea of his story; in fact he has no story. He merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality . He knows these people, he knows the selected locality, and he trusts that he can plunge those people into those incidents with interesting results. So he goes to work. To write a novel? No? – that is a thought which comes later; in the beginning he is only proposing to tell a little tale; a very little tale; a six-page tale. But as it is a tale which he is not acquainted with, and can only find out what it is by listening as it goes along telling itself, it is more than apt to go on and on and on till it spreads itself into a book. I know about this, because it has happened to me so many times.

And I have noticed another thing: that as the short tale grows into a long tale, the original intention (or motif) is apt to get abolished and find itself superseded by a quite different one. It was so in the case of a magazine sketch which I once started to write? a funny and fantastic sketch about a prince and a pauper; it presently assumed a grave cast of its own accord, and in that new shape spread itself out into a book . . .”

More follows in the next post.

17. Nostalgia from Space

A few months ago I was using the satellite view on Google maps to look at the place I live now, when I realized I could look in on the farm where I grew up. I typed in ***, Oklahoma and navigated the few miles out of town. I could give you directions, but I’m not going to.

The house is still there, but it has a new roof, and it looks like the owners have expanded. What used to be farmland and pasture is growing a crop of houses, so the outbuildings surrounding my old home have no more reason to exist. The round granary that I built from a kit with the help of a hired hand when I was a teenager is still there, but rusted badly. The machine shed my dad and I rebuilt after a tornado took out the original is still there, too. I remember carrying ten foot recycled railroad ties on my shoulder to build that shed when I was about fifteen. It was good to be big, young, and strong. A year later we built a hay barn together. Now, the dairy barn where I spent my childhood is rubble, and there are trees growing through the roof of the hay barn.

I hadn’t realized how much I missed the place.

The fact is, my life there was hellish in many ways. That’s all I’m going to say. I don’t whine; I write novels. But the echo of those times runs through them all.

I never thought I would write a blog, but here I am, trolling the internet for readers. It’s a little like a baker standing out in front of his store giving away donuts, saying, “If you like the taste, I’ll tell you where to get more.”

The biggest surprise of blogging is how much fun I’m having. To get you interested in my writing, I have to tell you about the life that made me a writer. The good stuff, that is. You don’t want to hear the rest, and I don’t plan to tell it.

So I find that I am writing, for the first time, about all the good things that happened on the farm and in that little town, and I am enjoying it immensely.

Who would have thought?

Into the Storm

Into the Storm stands alone and without apologies, but it was intended as the opening of a longer story. Here Michael and Lydia have a relationship that is set but unstable. The strength of the story comes from the tensions  generated. If you want to know where all this might have gone, you will find a postscript here.

Into the Storm

Lydia spread her pinions as the pylon shivered beneath her. Dizzy with height, she swallowed back familiar bile and squeezed her eyes shut for one last moment of selfness.

“You are the eyes of my soul.”

She ignored Michael’s voice in her head and drew on all her strength to quell the shivering of her muscles. Thunderheads piled up in the west, clouds tumbling over one another in their haste to eat up the prairie. She retreated from confrontation to a safe, quiet corner of her mind, denying self and opening her mind to Michael while he waited with leashed impatience. The pylon swaying beneath her became as a great ocean swelling. With her quietude established she whispered, “Now, Michael,” and he filled her.


Spreading their wings to the coming storm, he pumped quickly twice, rising from the pylon and settling again. Accustoming himself to her body. She rode on the left shoulder of his mind, bright eyed and frightened, but ready. Her gift to him; a pledge of her love. It filled him as he filled her and the gestalt threw tremblings through their shared body.

The storm was striding across the prairie, a juggernaut of cloud with lightning for eyes and skirts of rain.

He spread their wings again and brought them forcibly downward. They cleared the pylon railing and fell, spreading their wings wide to catch the updraft. Upward then, with a beating of wings augmented by the rising tide of air. His mental picture – Daedalus rising with wings rooted in his flesh. Hers – a frail human suspended from synthetic wings, powered by servos and the rising wind.

Two hundred meters they rose as Michael churned the air with wings meant for soaring. Then he rolled gently left and volplaned toward the city below. Even in the heat of summer he would find an updraft there. The sky was impossibly blue, the sun hot on their wings in these last moments before the storm broke. They caught the updraft and circled the city – a jumble of glass, concrete and solar collectors. She retreated from seeing, concentrating instead on the steady beat of her arms as Michael swung them through the fastest rising currents. Michael was an artist at this; he had only fallen once.

He was neglecting his body. She sent her consciousness down the shivering wire of thought that bound them together, found him breathing slowly, his heart rhythm slow but steady, and returned. Cutting figure-eights against the sky above the city, Michael gained altitude, but she had almost waited too long. She sensed his impatience and shielded her memory so that he would not catch a picture of her clinging in terror to the ladder between the fourth and fifth levels while a gust shivered the pylon. Had the monitor seen her then, he would have ordered her off the tower. What would Michael think if her weakness denied him his one chance at ecstasy? 

In word and deed, he demanded nothing of her, but when his soul cried out, she was bound.

She sensed his apprehension at their lack of altitude, and his hesitation, for this was her body that he piloted. Restraining her fears, she whispered, “Go ahead,” and felt the warm rush of his unspoken gratitude.

He banked away from the city, out over the open grain fields, fought the first gusts and rolled to enter the storm.


They passed through a veil of rain into the heart of the thunder. The sudden wind tore her hair to shreds and the crackling static turned it into a puffball of startled tendrils. She felt the current, like her fear, and the lightning cut the clouds above and below them. Michael arched their back in exultation as he caught the first rising wind, but it died quickly and they were plunged downward.

She felt his fear as a sudden beast leaping from the bush; not like her own familiar companion.

“Michael!” Her voice and presence drew him back from the memory of that mad plunge when his skill and power had not been sufficient to match the storm. That was then; this was now. And as quickly as she spoke, he mastered his fear and thrust it away like a secret shame. He threw their arms wide to catch the air and beat their wings unmercifully to escape the downdraft. She felt the pain in her arms and shoulders, and cried out.

Their descent eased as he shunted them sideways toward an interface. She thought that she could sense the ground just below them, but he kept their eyes skyward. Then they passed through shuddering turbulence into a cell of rising air. Gently at first, then with gut-wrenching acceleration, the winds tossed them upward and she felt Michael’s animal cry of delight escape her lips.

How far upward? The altimeter spun at the edge of their vision, but Michael refused to look at it. There was no altitude for Michael short of the ultimate. Through the roof.

But not this time. They passed upward through the layers where lightning bolts play tag and on out of the rain, through the sleety layers where hail is born and into the eternal gray night of the upper storm. There Michael turned them in a lazy arc, resting and reading the instruments as he prepared for the slingshot.

These were the moments she treasured. Here, fear could take its silken claws from her throat for a moment. Floating high, serene and spent; knowing that what had passed would never come again, yet knowing that in the moments and years to come, it would repeat in endless variation. Sated.

In her languor she sent tendrils of half formed thoughts in caresses of shared selfhood through Michael’s mind. Now they were intrusions, but he would remember and treasure them in the days to come. This she knew in their great sharing.

It seemed a small thing to give him, when she longed to ease his burning. But that was denied by his shattered body.

He chose adjacent cells with care and dove into the well of a downdraft. They fell with wings spread just enough to catch the falling air and throw them toward the earth. Past the hail, past the lightning, and into the rain. Outspeeding the raindrops so that they smashed against her face like upward falling rain.

100 klicks, 200 klicks; speeds not to be measured on instruments; not for an artist; a master. Not for a man who had only fallen – once. He sensed their speed in the groaning of her titanium pinions and the growing strain on her arms.

She closed her eyes against the pain to come.

He arched their back and spread wings against their fall, arcing them upward and sideways through the turbulence of the interface and into a rising cell. The servos took the strain, but they communicated a portion of it to her. Pain, the instructor, the feedback; the pain would become unbearable before the fabric of her wings failed. Just before.

They shared the pain, but pain had become his world and this was his rising above it. His exultation. And it was her gift to him that she lent her body to this, for to her the pain was only pain, and she cried out against it.

Then they were climbing faster than ever, from the momentum gained in their plummet. She drew her pain in and made it a private thing that Michael could not feel. Later another, softer Michael would feel remorse for her pain. With hands and mouth, for his lower body was paralyzed, and with full knowledge that his own burning could never be satisfied, he would ravish her, putting all of his frustrations into her ecstasy. That he gave her freely, as she gave him this.

That was the Michael of endless nights and bitter days; but now, for one long moment of exultation, he was the Michael that had been, before misjudgment and arrogance had hurled his body to the ground.

Now, he soared.

Through the roof he called it. Augmented by the momentum gained in falling, propelled by the even beating of mechanical wings and buoyed by the rising cell of air, he took her through the rains and the lightnings and the pit-cold region where hail is born, upward through the thinning edges of the storm to where the air is still and the sun still shines. Through the roof.

With the last erg of upward force expended, Michael rolled over to float above the storm. From here the thunderheads were pearly white; billowing fields and valleys of cloud as peaceful as the sleep of childhood. They looked as if a man could walk across them to the end of the world. The sky was the dark blue of high altitude and the gray ring around the sun was itself encircled by a rainbow.

Hovering like some great eagle, above the tumult of the storm, with their height disguised by the carpet of clouds, her fear left her and her joy began.

For long minutes they glided, and she felt Michael slipping away. His ecstasy had ended. To dive again into the storm would be foolhardy; whatever Michael’s vitality, it was Lydia’s body they rode and she had reached her limit.

She felt his hesitation and knew his temptation. Just one more thrust into the clouds; just one more plunge to ecstasy and death.

She knew this and said nothing; and in her calm he found the courage to turn away from the storm and glide downward, carrying with him his tired and precious burden.   finis

16. Computer Lust (post 2)

In the beginning was the void, for there were no computers, and I wanted one badly. Then out of the void came Atari, and Tandy, and KayPro, but I couldn’t afford them.

Then the nascent mind of Microsoft was grafted onto the body of the old giant IBM, and the others were cast into outer darkness. (Vaporware had a lot to do with that, too, but since I don’t want to get sued, you didn’t hear it from me.)

Then the Woman ate the Apple, put on her running shorts and raced through the auditorium carrying a big hammer, and Mac was born.

About that same time I realized that if I kept writing full time, I was going to starve to death. I had written Spirit Deer, Jandrax, A Fond Farewell to Dying, multiple versions of Valley of the Menhir, and an early version of Cyan. I had shoved about 6000 sheets of paper through the old typewriter. I had two novels published by major publishers in America and one in Europe, and I wasn’t making enough to pay the rent.

I went back for my teaching credential. I worked a year at half salary, just before that became an illegal employment practice, then I got my first full paycheck in years. My colleagues were complaining about how little teachers were paid, but I thought I was rich.

After a couple of years of patching up the holes in my bank account, I finally bought a Mac SE. I may be prejudiced by first love, but I think that was the first “real” computer. The Mac graphic interface was already the ultimate game changer, and the SE was the first Mac with an internal hard drive. The practical advantages of that cannot be overstated.

The computer changed everything. It didn’t make writing easy, but it made re-writing easy. I still write multiple drafts, but I only type a small fraction as many words. I correct, rearrange, tweak, amplify and delete, but I never have to retype a complete page again. And again. And again.

Two things happened about the time computers took over writing. The average length of paperback novels doubled. And suddenly, everybody was writing.

There has to be a connection.

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT. If you read A Writing Life without also following Serials, you may not realize that To Go Not Gently, the novella from Galaxy which is an excerpt from A Fond Farewell to Dying, begins today in Serials. Check it out.

15. Computer Lust (post 1)

In the beginning was the void, for there were no computers, and I wanted one badly.

When I was in the Navy, before I had any intention of writing novels, there was a time when I thought writing non-fiction articles and books might be a good way to pick up a little side money. I began with a book on woodworking projects. I still have the prototypes I designed and built, but the book went nowhere. I did sell two articles, one on ”A Basic Toolkit for the Home,” for Woman’s Day, and one on bicycle camping to Travel and Leisure.

I used the money to buy a Smith Corona electric typewriter and retired the portable manual I had used through high school and college. Three years later, just out of the University of Chicago, I was ready to write novels. (see 2. Turn Left at Chicago and 3. It was 40 YearsAgo Today)

Those were good days. Writing was a joy and selling had not yet turned sour. My cat China Blue spent his time draped around my shoulders. Leonard Cohen, on vinyl, kept my mood carefully balanced between ecstasy and depression, as only he can. I had a head full of characters, images, and ideas, and time to write them.

Unfortunately, my fingers spent most of their time arguing about who was going to go first, which doesn’t make for smooth typing. In high school typing class I used to brag that my speed was sixty mistakes a minute.

There are so many conceptual and artistic errors in any first draft that fumble-fingered typing is not a real issue. Eventually, however, you get to the final draft.

I couldn’t afford a professional typist and the correction technology of the day was crude. My TYPEWRITER had a function that allowed me to BACKSPACE and shift to a white RIBBON which would OVERSTRIKE the previous letter, if the paper had not shifted on the PLATEN. If you recognize those words, you are of my generation and you have my sympathy.

I didn’t just want a computer, I needed one.

More next post.

14. Axial Tilt

Earth’s inclination causes our seasons. It would be hard to find a more ordinary fact, or one less valued. Yet everything about the Earth derives from that inclination, even our religions and our philosophy . . .

Those are the words of Gus Leinhoff from the upcoming novel Cyan.

I like axial tilt as a means of individuating planets, so much so that I have run the bases, hitting all the possible extremes. Cyan, the planet from the novel coming out in January, has no axial tilt and no seasons; Stormking, around Sirius in the as yet unwritten sequel Dreamsinger, lies back at a Uranian inclination and has seasons you wouldn’t believe. Harmony, from the novel Jandrax has a tilt of 32 degrees resulting in heavy glaciation with a narrow habitable band around the equator; it has two summers and two winters each year.

So does Earth – at the equator.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that. One of the great pleasures of world building is finding things you should have realized, but missed. This is one of them.

Let’s imagine the changing tilt of the Earth as the seasons progress. Of course I know the tilt doesn’t change; it only appears to do so from an earthbound perspective. But twenty-seven years of teaching science to middle schoolers has taught me that casual language gets the message across better than an excess of formality.

Today is the equinox, autumnal in San Francisco, vernal in Sydney. The sun lies above the equator at noon, and will (seem to) move southward in the coming weeks. I won’t waste your time telling you what you already know, but consider what you know from a new perspective.

Today at the equator the sun is overhead (call it summer) and for the next three months it will move southward until it gets as low and ineffective as it will ever be (the equivalent of winter), then it will come north for three months until it is overhead again (summer), and continue northward to its other lowest position (winter again), and so forth. Two “summers”; two “winters”.

Earth’s dual seasonality is masked by local conditions, at least in its oceanic regions. The world in the novel Jandrax has a stronger tilt and its oceans are tied up in glaciation. The refugees naturally settle at the equator, where summer and winter really do come twice a year.

13. Jandrax

Here is a story so old that I have no idea where it originated. A group of Irishmen were sitting in a bar, solving the world’s problems. One of them asked the rest, “If a cataclysm were to destroy all the poets in Ireland, how many generations would it take to replace them?” One of the others simply held up his hand with a single finger raised. (If you know the origin of this, let me know.)

You will note that this is not an ethnic joke, but a comment on how the Irish view themselves. It is also true – and not only about Irish poets, but about any of those human traits that lie latent in all of us until circumstances call them forth.

That includes the capacity for religious controversy.

Before Martin Luther made his opinions stick, there was a long history of dissent within the Catholic Church. Dissenters were called heretics, and they were usually burned at the stake. Look up Jan Hus (AKA John Huss). Once Luther opened the floodgates, here came Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and good old Henry VIII with his political and personal agenda.

Quakers, Shakers, Anabaptists, Methodists – you get the picture. As someone once misquoted scripture, “Wherever two or three of ye are gathered together, there will be a fight.”

When I needed a religion for my first science fiction novel Jandrax – available battered and cheap in used bookstores everywhere – I came upon Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. I read the introduction, saw the notion of the monomyth, and the entire religion I needed exploded in my mind, complete in a heartbeat. I closed the book and never went back to it, not wanting to dilute the purity of that flash of inspiration.

Some hundreds of years in the future, Louis Dumezil, a scholar with a self-imposed mission of peace, collates all the world’s religions, winnowing out the common core, and setting it down in his Monomythos. His hope is that a common religion for all men, carved out of mankind’s various faiths, will bring an end to sectarian fighting. Fat chance. In fact, Dumezil unwittingly sabotages his own work by coming out with later, updated editions of his Monomythos.

You can guess the result. His initial success at setting up a pan-human religion based on the Monomythos breaks down into warring sects killing each other over which Monomythos is the correct one.

In Jandrax, the title character is a disillusioned former zealot who lost his religion in the sectarian fighting on Hallam’s world, and now finds himself marooned on an unexplored planet with a shipload of purists.