Category Archives: A Writing Life

400. A Forgotten Classic

This is a shortened version of the post introducing what I call the Rip Foster book, which I had considered serializing. See the previous post for why I changed my mind.

This book is one of the best of the “this is what might actually happen” style of science fiction. I wrote Cyan in the same style. Unlike the Rick Brant books, the science in this book stands up to modern scrutiny, except for the fact that Rip’s solar system has alien life on several planets and moons.

Even though I decided to continue presenting my own work in Serial, this classic deserves to be read, even today. I recommend it to adults and boys alike. Girls, I apologize. No girls were allowed in juvenile science fiction in the fifties. Sorry. Don’t blame me; I was just a kid back then.

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Today, in Serial, I (had planned to begin) the presentation of a mostly forgotten classic.

The author was Harold Goodwin. I’ve talked about him before. (see 60. Thank You Harold Goodwin and 195 Boys at Work: Rick Brant) and I have suggested downloading this particular book from Project Gutenberg.

This novel was written under the pseudonym Blake Savage. It first appeared in 1952, published by Whitman, titled Rip Foster Rides the Gray Planet. This is the edition which Gutenberg has available, with illustrations by E. Dean Cate. The same year, the novel was released in England as Rip Foster Rides the Grey Planet (note the British spelling).

The novel was again published by Whitman in 1958 as Assignment in Space with Rip Foster. That was the version that lit up my childhood. Denny McMains’ illustrations were superb. Golden released a paperback reverting to the original title in 1969.

If you want a copy today, a Gutenberg download will come free. An ebook version of Assignment in Space with Rip Foster is available through Amazon, with the wonderful Denny McMains illustrations, for under a buck. The novel also appears at the end of the Tom Corbett Space Patrol Megapack, without illustrations.

Original copies show up from time to time, more often in antique stores than in used book stores, for prices ranging from pennies to “you gotta be kidding”.

By the way, Rip is the nickname of Richard Ingalls Peter Foster. It was a clever way to get a cool first name without going over the top. Donald Wollheim used the same acronymical schtick a few years later when he called the character Michael Albert Richard Sampson, Mike Mars. (see 357. Mike Mars and Project Quicksilver)

Most of the authors from my youth are still in print, or in libraries. Of the books that I loved then, which have since been forgotten, Rip Foster stands out as the best by far, as well as being the only one which was not part of a series. It deserves to be revived, and this seem(ed) the right time for me to do that.

And, yes, it is in public domain. I don’t steal from other authors.

399. I Changed My Mind

No, I did not change my mind about cutting back on posts in the A Writing Life blog. Since I made that decision, I have outlined most of, and written the first six chapters, rough draft only, of a new novel. The title is still in limbo so I won’t say more until I can name it properly. The decision to cut back was a good one.

I am actually making a change in Serial. I had planned to run a guest novel. I had written two posts explaining why and giving a bio of the author, Harold Goodwin. I had also reduced the first several chapters of that novel to serial posts, enough to carry through mid-September, and positioned them in the queue, ready to publish.

So, why? First, why a guest novel — then why did I change my mind?

Since 2015, Serial has been a place for me to present short stories, a novella, presentations from Westercon, long and short excerpts from novels, and complete novels.

Christmas week of 2015 I presented five classic poems that have inspired me. Otherwise, everything in Serial has been something I have written.

The cupboard isn’t empty; four novels remain. Valley of the Menhir, Scourge of Heaven, and Who Once Were Kin, are complete fantasy novels. They deserve to be held back to be presented in a more traditional way. Symphony in a Minor Key is a complete novel about teaching. I’m quite proud of it, but it didn’t seem right for this blog, which has been largely aimed at science fiction readers.

I argued with myself through the month of June. Should I run a classic SF novel that is unknown to today’s audience, or should I run a novel of my own about teaching. It was a big decision, since once committed, it would be six months before I could change course. I opted for the SF novel.

One the decision was made, I placed the first 20 posts in the Serial queue. Then I went on with my life, still mulling over the decision. Spirit Deer began appearing, and you all kept reading. I found no reduction in reader’s responses. Hmmm. You had stayed with me through Raven’s Run and through Voices in the Walls as well. Hmmm, again.

I started this blog to reach two audiences. First, I was looking for lovers of science fiction and fantasy who might want to read my novels, if I could make them aware of them. Second, I expected the blog to be read by new and would-be writers.

I found both but, clearly, in reverse order. Ok, I hear you. I never was comfortable with a guest novel, anyway.

New plan — I will post Symphony in a Minor Key. But first, I need to buy time. It takes many hours to turn a novel into a serial (see 245. Serializing), and my guest novel was due to start today.

No problem. I have several pieces that were published in Serial before anyone was reading this blog. I’ll recycle one or two — no one now reading has seen them, anyway — while I am preparing the next novel.

And so, PRESENTING—

Blondel of Arden, beginning in Serial today.

398. Summing Up Spirit Deer

Today Spirit Deer ends with a short post. Tim is home and all is well.

Here’s a short summing up for those who missed the start. Spirit Deer has appeared in two major forms. It was first a book for adults, with a thirty-something Tim Carson, who had a wife, a job, friends, and included various events which have since been excised. It was a carefully chosen story that offered me no research difficulties. The entire purpose of the original Spirit Deer was to see if I could write day after day until a novel length manuscript emerged. I could. It did. And I never stopped writing.

Years later I pared it back to its core story and recast it as a juvenile, which is what I have presented here.

Writing Spirit Deer was so enjoyable that I did not reapply for a Ph.D. program in Anthropology, as I had intended. Also, in full disclosure, I had come to the realization that, although Anthropology as an intellectual endeavor fascinated me, the idea of sitting in an Indian (South Asian, not Native American) village and taking down daily gossip as field work did not appeal. Not even a little bit.

So I kept writing, had some success, had a long dry spell for sales during which I still kept on writing, and now my new book Cyan is available. On the basis of that publication, I just came back from Westercon where I served on panels, met a batch of young authors, and was struck by the kernel of a new steampunk novel that I am working on as you read this. My second published novel was set in India, and made use of all those years studying Anthropology. My next one is built around an obscure event in the history of British India, turned inside out and backwards in an alternate steampunk universe.

Its been a good ride, and a rough ride, but I wouldn’t have had it it any other way.

397. University of Steampunk

Here I am, quoting myself, from Golden Age of Science Fiction:

Recently I have been reading Neil and Neal, Gaiman and Stephenson, but I know I must have missed a feast of others. I have probably missed more than one feast. Is there a Golden Age of Steampunk? Probably, but I don’t know the sub-genre well enough to talk about it.

Since I wrote that, I have interacted with a bunch of steampunk authors, done a lot of research, and concluded that, “Yes, I was right. There is a golden age of steampunk and it is now about a century and a half deep.”

I love steampunk. i already knew that. But now I have a better handle on what steampunk is, and I am continuing to pursue my education. Let’s call it University of Steampunk (self-inflicted) and I am inviting you to come along. And don’t hesitate to use reply to tell me when you think I’m wrong.

Not only am I immersing myself in steampunk research, I am also writing my first steampunk novel. Since Westercon, it has tumbled out onto the screen. I have it fully outlined, with initial drafts of the introduction and first two chapters.

The rest of this post is drawn from the draft introduction.

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This novel, as yet unnamed, working title Durbar, is steampunk, pure and simple, and designed to be so. It differs from other steampunk novels only in that it emphasizes strong scientific and historical excuses for the prevalence of steam power and pseudo-Victorian culture.

My literary introduction to that age on our own planet did not come from Austen, the Brontes and their ilk. My literary Victorian/Edwardians were Holmes and Watson, Hannay and all his friends, and Davies and Carruthers; in other words, the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, and Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands.

I can tell you the exact hour the new novel was born. I had gone looking for understanding of the steampunk phenomenon. I was aware of the movement; it seemed to always be in the periphery of my vision, but it wouldn’t come clear. Certainly Jules Verne, especially Twenty Thousand League Under the Sea, was steampunk before steampunk. So was the Wild Wild West, and both were staples of my childhood. I had stumbled onto Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn while teaching middle school. It was a fine novel which seemed on the verge of steampunk without completely fitting the mold.

Add a few inspiring steampunk short stories off the internet and childhood memories of reading my grandfather’s copy of Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle — also steampunk before steampunk — and I was ready to write something of my own. Still, it is foolish to write in somebody else’s genre without understanding the boundaries.

I visited a series to panels on steampunk while I was at Westercon 70. I found an inviting openness and nobody seemed interested in defending boundaries. I also came to appreciate the culture of steampunk (their term) and the joys of cosplay. Appreciate, not join in; I’m the guy in the corner, not the dressed up dude on the stage.

The panel which saw the birth of my new novel was called The Science of Steampunk: What Makes the Gears Go Round? As it turned out, there are steampunk authors who are perfectly happy to write their novels without caring what makes the gears go round, and there are also hard-science types who just can’t live that way. This panel had about an equal mix of those two.

They all had fun with the question, but the only scientific underpinning for some kinds of steampunk is magic. I enjoyed the interchange, and I want to thank Ashley Carlson, Bruce Davis, Steve Howe (not the guitarist), Susan Lazear and David Lee Summers — and Ryan Dalton who moderated — for the education.

As I was listening to the science types trying to find an equation for magic, it occurred to me that is would be great fun to write a novel which did tie up all the scientific and historical underpinnings of a steampunk world, neatly and realistically.

That was when two bombs went off in my head. I’m not ready to go public with what they were, but In the course of an hour, the new novel had gone from nonexistent to a full blown embryo. My thanks to the panel, but don’t expect any royalties.

396. Fire Again

It was nine o’clock at night upon the second of August — the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God’s curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open wound lay low in the distant west.      ACD

Talk about atmosphere. I was copying those words from His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle, a story about how Holmes and the opening days of World War I, when the helicopters started going over.

I was a teenager and then a draftee during the Viet Nam War, although I didn’t actually go there to serve. For many of my generation, helicopters are like the four horsemen. We don’t run out to smile and wave at the pilots when they go over because, for us, they represent death from above.

I’m about to change my mind about that. My new impression of helicopters is tied to the red and white Cal Fire ‘copters, with those huge steel buckets hanging down, which drop down to local lakes to carry water to fires. I’ve certainly seen plenty of them lately.

This decade, where I live, has been a decade of fire. I wrote a post on that subject less than a year ago, and here I go again.

In the previous post, I opened with a picture taken from my front yard. I am opening this post with another, also from my front yard, taken a few weeks ago. In both cases, there is a lake between my house and the fire. The first fire burned 677 acres. This fire started in nearly the same place, but this time it burned 81,826 acres, so far, destroyed 63 homes, and threatened to destroy two nearby towns.

The day it started, my wife and I went down to watch the aerial ballet as DC 10s dropped fire retardant, spotter planes orbited high overhead, and Cal Fire helicopters carried tank after tank of water from the lake to douse the fire. This time they couldn’t stop it, and it eventually took thousands of firefighters to do the job. It still isn’t really over.

Then another fire broke out ten miles north of here and caused damage and confusion for two days. A day later, another fire broke out in the same area, and it is still burning.

Those helicopters I told you about? They weren’t part of any of those fires. They knocked down a fire less than a mile from my house. I heard them, closed my computer, and drove by back roads to a place I knew I could look without bothering the fire fighters. I needed to know if I should start loading the car to evacuate.

Nope. When I got to my overlook the helicopters had already knocked the fire down. To my eye, it looked like about twenty acres. When I turned around to come home, I saw a battalion of firetrucks arriving.

The helicopters got my attention at 4:55. I saw the knocked down fire at 5:05. It is now 5:45 and I am about ready to post this for tomorrow.

There aren’t enough words to thank firefighters, aerial and ground, but I do have two things to add:

I now keep my computer backup forty miles from here, and —

I’m thinking about moving to the rain forest.

395. The Sum of Fears

If you haven’t read today’s Serial post, go read it first.

We all have our fear-inducing creature, and for me, it is bears. Sharks? Nope. Wolves? I’d pet a wolf if it would hold still for it. But bears have my number.

It all started when I was a kid. The old black and white TV carried two stations, and one of them carried the program Cheyenne. I was eight years old when the series premiered, and big, quiet, gentle, soft spoken, confident Cheyenne Bodie became my picture of what a hero should be.

But there was this one episode . . .

Something was terrorizing the region. No one knew what it was, or even if it was human, animal, or supernatural. It came out of the dark night and killed, but there were never marks of claws on the crushed and mangled bodies. It scared the crap out of eight year old me.

Cheyenne set out to rid the ranchers of the curse. The thing hated campfires, and always attacked those it found around them, so Cheyenne went out alone, built a campfire, and took his place in a tree with rifle in hand. The night wore on — and wore on my nerves. The campfire burned down. Cheyenne left his rifle in a crotch of the tree and climbed down to put on more wood. As he was crouched over the fire, it appeared. Cheyenne reached for his six-shooter . . .

After the gun smoke cleared, we all found out that it was a giant grizzly, his claws burned off from a cubhood encounter with a campfire. Perfectly logical.

That bear still lives in my dreams. Be careful what you watch when you are eight years old.

And if that weren’t enough, there was the Bible. The old prophets who lived there were as real to me when I was a boy as the people who lived in my town. Every Sunday morning I avoided the boring sermon by looking attentive in the back pew, with downcast eyes and my bible open on my lap. There are a lot of exciting stories in that book, and one which was particularly troubling. I quote:

And he (Elisha) went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.

And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. (2 Kings 2:23-4 KJ Version)

Yikes! I was a fervent Christian back then and now I’m a card-carrying bald guy, but it seemed then, and seems now, a harsh fate for a bunch of kids who were just calling a bald guy bald.

Bears still scare Hell out of me, all out of proportion to their actual danger. So when I decided that Spirit Deer needed a demonic adversary to carry it through to the end, there was no question what it would be.

Two Hands and a Knife, which was always in my mind while I was writing Spirit Deer, was a boy’s vision of a long, adventurous vacation in the woods. Spirit Deer is more like what it would really be like if it happened. Two Hands and a Knife, was a perfect boys’ book; mine partakes of the realism I don’t ever seem to be able to shake.

So, a bear. I introduced him early, kept him simmering in the background until needed, and he will be there in a few more days for the climax, when . . .

No, that would be a spoiler.

394. Today, everything changed

Today, everything changed. Those were Ramanda’s words when Viki picked up a chipped stone and the explorers of Cyan discovered that they were not alone.

Today, things will change in this blog, but perhaps more meaningfully for me than for you.

On the last day of August, 2015, I released the first post in A Writing Life and the first post in Serial. I immediately began a program of five posts of fiction and four mini-essays each week. It wasn’t long until I trimmed Serial to four posts a week to keep the two halves of the website in synch, and I have kept that schedule with very few breaks for nearly two years.

The early AWL posts were short, about 350 words, but they quickly grew and now they are typically about 700 words. Occasionally I repeated old posts, for various reasons, so my best estimate of how much I have written for A Writing Life (the blog) has reached over 200,000 words.

That’s the equivalent of a long novel or two short ones. I have never run out of material, but there have been times I have come close.

The content of Serial was already written, but even that takes a lot of time to convert into serial form. (see 245. Serializing)

I started preparing A Writing Life six months before its rollout. And yes, I know that it was dumb to name the overall website and one of the two posts with the same name. But I didn’t know it when I started, and it’s too late to fix it now. AWL (the website) came about when Cyan was accepted for publication, as a way to see that it didn’t die quick and quiet like A Fond Farewell to Dying had done. FFTD was a good novel. It deserved an audience, but it never found one.

It took a long time from acceptance to publication, but Cyan finally came out this April. In July, I went to Westercon to tell everybody who would listen that they ought to buy it. That’s how we do things these days. Hemingway would puke.

Where was I — oh yes, changes. I have spent so much time on this website that it has curtailed my actual writing. That can’t go on, but this site is how I met all of you, so I can’t quit it either. So here is the plan.

Starting today, I will no longer post on A Writing Life (the blog) to a schedule. When I have something to say, I will. For example, there will be a post August first about bears, and why they are in Spirit Deer.

If you haven’t followed me yet, this would be a good time to start, so you will get notification when I post. I will still have a lot to say, just not four days a week. This will get the schedule monkey off my back. I have a couple of sequels to Cyan that are calling me.

Serial will continue. Spirit Deer will be finished in early August. I will follow it with one of my favorite Harold Godwin novels from my childhood, now largely forgotten and in public domain. That will carry us most of the way to Christmas. Then we’ll see. There will be a post explaining all that on August 14, here in A Writing Life.

I’m not going away, I just won’t be around quite as often.

Download Cyan, or order it in paperback. If you like it, write reviews for Goodreads and Amazon. Tell your friends. Then in a year or so, you can tell them about the sequel.

In many ways, A Writing Life (the blog) has been less of a blog and more of a magazine. From now on it will be more like most blogs, with news, events, and updates of ongoing writing. But the magazine style mini-essays won’t disappear. They will simply stop dominating my life, so that I can get back to my novels.