Tag Archives: writing

601. Home Court Advantage

Jandrax was the second novel I wrote, and the first that was published, back in the late seventies. You can still find it in used bookstores everywhere. If you were to read it, you would never know that I wrote it twice.

The first time through, I wrote it in first person. It didn’t work for me. I agonized a bit about what was wrong, then bit the bullet and rewrote it from start to finish in third person.

By the way, this was before computers . No cut and paste, no spell check. Just an electric typewriter and gallons of correction fluid — that thin white paint that came in a small bottle with built in brush, and was a lifesaver for poor typists.

Also, I cheated. Two chapters sounded just fine in first person, so I left them that way. One is a main character reminiscing about his childhood, and the other is another main character, alone in a boat, talking to himself as he undergoes experiences that may or may not be real.

I have written fifteen novels, and only that lost iteration of Jandrax was in first person. I could give you good plot-based reasons for that, but the reality is that I like the distance third person put between the author and the work. That may be a mistake.

Recently, I have been analyzing what makes books readable and re-readable, and that has led me to my favorite SF writers, Heinlein and Zelazny. For all their differences, they share a few authorial traits, including the fact that both are masters of first person.

Each author has a stock character that recurs with variations. For Heinlein, it is complicated by the fact that his stock character often comes as a matched pair. There is an older, seasoned man of the world, cynical, with no apparent respect for authority. He will, nevertheless, hurl himself into danger for his own people while pretending that he is doing it for selfish reasons. He reads like your crazy uncle. The matching character is a young smart-ass in training, studying up to become like the oldster. But don’t accuse him of that. He would punch you in the nose if you did. Or at least, threaten to.

Zelazny didn’t limit himself to one stock character, but he did have one that recurred frequently. He was part way between the halves of the paired Heinlein character. He was young, but fully formed. He had the attitude of a smart-ass college student, an upper class-man who had already learned the ropes. The kind who knew which professors had something worth listening to and which ones were dopes. (There are a lot of dopes in academia.) There was a brightness, a newness, about his attitude. He seemed to take nothing seriously on the surface, but underneath he took everything very seriously. And he expected the reader to see this for themselves.

In the Amber series, Merlin was such a character. Corwin was similar, but older and more damaged by time. His responsibilities had risen to the surface, and he got a lot less enjoyment out of life. Consequently the second half of the Amber series is a lot more fun to read (and re-read) than the first half.

Merlin and his clones, and the Heinlein character whatever gender or age he/she happened to be, are what every American youth pretends to be. And what American oldsters claim they once were.

All these characters speak directly to the reader, but not honestly. They hide their nobility under a guise of selfishness, but they expect the reader to know that it is all a sham. They speak in first person. They say “I”, not “he”, and it works.

One suspects that Heinlein and Zelazny — the actual people — said “I” a lot, too. As Harlan Ellison put it, “The thing every writer has to have is arrogance.” And by any definition, Heinlein and Zelazny were writers.

When a writer chooses first person, she/he is giving him/her-self a tremendous home court advantage. If his character if full of sadness and self-pity, there will be readers to say, “That’s just how I feel.” If his character appears to have no fear, there will be readers who share the same pretense.

If the character is a smart-ass, that’s even better. We all have those cutting remarks we don’t make, in order to keep peace with family and friends. We are all smart-asses under the skin.

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600. Christmas in Paradise?

Back in November I finished Like Clockwork and made mention of the next novel in line. I’m still looking for it. I have nearly a dozen in the pipeline; some have fully developed characters, some have well developed worlds, but not one of them has a solid story. Yet.

Story isn’t everything, but if you don’t have one, you can write for a long time without ever getting anywhere.

A few days ago, I took time to reread The Cost of Empire, and now I’ve started rereading Like Clockwork. It is a way of jumpstarting a balky imagination. This morning I ran across a piece of writing from Like Clockwork, chapter 25 — which is actually the sixth chapter in a somewhat twisted book — and decided to show it to you.

And despite the title, this post — like the novel itself — is only a tiny bit about Christmas.

====================

Across Division Street, in the half of Outer London where the factories are, everyone was hard at work. They always were, but with more energy now than any other time of the year. It was late November and Christmas was only a month away.

Christmas Day is the most important day in Outer London. It’s odd that this should be so, in a place so aggressively secular, but it is true. On that day all the millions of candle sticks, and candles, and candied fruit cakes, and all the perfect white faced dolls in their perfect pinafores with their perfect pink ribbons in their perfect blonde hair, pass from the warehouses where they have been stored to all the Captains of Industry to be given to their perfect children. Their boys get toys, too, and the children of the workers get lesser toys, appropriate to their station.

The toys are played with ecstatically for a month, but by the end of January, most of them have magically and mysteriously disappeared. Those which remain are carefully programmed to degrade. By October, they are tattered. By November they become fodder for the ashcan. Thus want is artificially introduced. There arises a hunger for toys and games to fill the children’s empty hours. From want, comes anticipation, and on Christmas Day, want is relieved.

It is a beautiful system, a kind of circle of life. And by this late in November, want was keenly felt.

The day after Christmas every warehouse stands empty, but then the stream of merchandise begins again. Chairs and beds and blankets, dresses and trousers and coats, toys and games and diversions, fill every space as the year winds on. Everything is planned for. Every need is anticipated. Everything will be ready for that one day when all dreams are fulfilled.

It gives the workers a reason to work. It gives the Captains of Industry a reason to watch. It gives the Masters of Accountancy a reason to record what the Great Babbage calculates.

Just watch the flow of raw materials into the factories, watch the coal move down to the basements where it becomes steam, watch the steam engines turn it into motion, watch the motion flow from shaft to pulley to belt to shaft to belt.

Watch the lathes and spinners and looms and cutters and sewers as they produce the goods. Watch the painters and polishers and packers and finishers as they store it all away for the glorious coming of Christmas.

In every block east of Division Street there is a factory with vast spaces for workers to work, and near every factory there are tenements with small rooms where the workers live. Above every factory are boardrooms where the Captains of Industry oversee it all, and across town the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy keeps track of every tool, product, planner, and worker.

Every morning workers arrive, in their brown trousers and blue shirts, folded back to the forearm, all as alike as the bricks in the walls of the factory. Every morning the planners and counters arrive, as alike as all the zeroes in a million. With frock coats and waistcoats; with white shirts and blue ties and hard, flat-topped hats of silk.

They go in each morning at 7 by the Great Clock and leave in the evening at 6 by the Great Clock. They march in by the thousand every morning and leave again every evening like bats coming out of a cave. No matter how long the line becomes coming and going, they all check in at exactly 7:00:00 AM and out at 6:00:00 PM. A youngster named Albert manages this miracle, utilizing a fine point of difference between the mathematics of Newton and Leibniz.

And somewhere a man named Adam Smith smokes his pipe, rocks his chair, and smiles in contentment. Over his head is a framed sign that says, “Today is the Perfect Day.”

Perfection? From human hands?

Human hands pull the handles of the drill presses, but jigs and fixtures assure that every hole goes where it is needed. A human hand pull the lever that frees the stamp, that the steam drives down onto plaint clay, and every doll’s head comes out wearing the same smile.

Humanity and machinery and a Babbage to oversee it all. Perfection.

that’s all, for now

599. Wandering Quotes

This is a follow-on from Monday’s post, but it isn’t Part 2.
Either post can be read independently.

Louis L’amour left home early, wandered the world, then settled down to be a writer. Unlike many who came at writing later in life, L’amour was set on it from the first. He said:

My intention had been to write, and consequently I had made  no effort to acquire a trade . . . All I had to offer was considerable physical strength and two hands, but for most jobs that was all that was required . . . All the while I read. There was no plan, nor at the time could there be. One had to read what was available . . .

It would be hard to live such a life today. The hard work of the world has been outsourced — within America to undocumented aliens who fear INS too much to fight back against slave-like labor, and outside America, to a world-wide cadre of peasants, living slave-like lives. 

L’amour also said of his memoir:

This is a story of an adventure in education, pursued not under the best of conditions. The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office, or even a newsstand.

If L’amour were alive today, he would of course include the internet, with appropriate caveats.

L’amour’s westerns are full of slam bang action. There is no way to pretend that isn’t a large part of their appeal, but it isn’t enough to account for their huge popularity. There are plenty of shoot-em-ups that are briefly on the newsstand, and as quickly disappear from memory. Louis L’amour has proved as close to immortal as a genre writer can become.

I’ll take a stab at explaining why. Feel free to disagree. He was a “frontier philosopher”. Note the quotes; this term is actually insulting, but it fits. L’amour had read as widely as any author, and his understanding of human beings was profound. But when he made “philosophical” pronouncements, he couched them in simple language, and frequently put them into the mouths of uneducated characters. They sound wise, but without arrogance.

Have faith in God but keep your powder dry.

Adventure is just a romantic name for trouble. It sounds swell when you write about it, but it’s hell when you meet it face to face in a dark and lonely place.

A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.

Violence is an evil thing, but when the guns are all in the hands of the men without respect for human rights, then men are really in trouble.

Just because the NRA also says it, doesn’t make it wrong.

A mind, like a home, is furnished by its owner, so if one’s life is cold and bare he can blame none but himself. You have a chance to select from pretty elegant furnishings.

Knowledge was not meant to be locked behind doors. It breathes best in the open air where all men can inhale its essence.

When you go to a country, you must learn how to say two things: how to ask for food, and to tell a woman that you love her. Of these the second is more important, for if you tell a woman you love her, she will certainly feed you.

That one might not be politically correct any more.

It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense. For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.

Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.

Just because every New Age self-help book also says it, doesn’t make it wrong.

Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.

Do not let yourself be bothered by the inconsequential. One has only so much time in this world, so devote it to the work and the people most important to you, to those you love and things that matter.

If you want the law to leave you alone, keep your hair trimmed and your boots shined.

Okay, that last one could just as easily have come out of Heinlein’s mouth. I find those two authors to be much alike, each attuned perfectly to his own era, and both as American as the flag.

—- ALSO —-

When L’amour settled down to write, he tried his hand at many different genres, and stayed with the ones that paid the rent. Early on, he wrote poetry (and you know that didn’t pay the rent).

Many years ago I discovered that his poetry had been collected in a book that sold very few copies, and those only locally. I managed to get a copy on inter-library loan, and enjoyed it. I even copied a few poems and stored them in my computer, since I never expected to see the book again.

Then, in researching this post, I discovered that Bantam had reprinted Smoke From This Altar, so I immediately bought a copy.

If you have a liking for Kipling and Robert Service, you might give him a listen. The work is not all great, but there are gems. I can’t quote a whole poem, that would violate copyright, but I’ll give you a piece of one as a taste.

I turned the leaves of an ancient book
    A book that was faded and worn —-
And there ‘tween the leaves I found a rose,
    A tiny rose, and a thorn.

In truth, they aren’t all good, but I don’t mind digging through lumps of glass for an occasional diamond. Recommended, with reservations.

598. The Education of a Wandering Man

This is a fine book, but it falls into the not-for-everybody category. I stumbled across it years ago, read it, read it again a decade later, and its about time for me to have at it a third time.

The Education of a Wandering Man is an autobiography of Louis L’amour. It doesn’t revolve about where he went or what he did — although plenty of that creeps in — but focuses on what he learned. That includes from the old guys who were there, who told him what the west was like. It also includes from the books he read — a list that would make any book geek’s mouth water.

L’amour left home at 15 to make his way in the world. That would be 1926. One might be forgiven for thinking that the depression drove him to leave but the numbers don’t add up for that interpretation. The biography in his official website attributes it to hard times specific to his North Dakota home area, but the two biographies seem to diverge in details. That appears to be a matter of simplification, rather than concealment. Check Wednesday’s post for LL’s own statement.

The Education of a Wandering Man resonated from the moment I opened the first page. It sounded a bit like my own life. I didn’t leave home early, or leave school early, and I didn’t wander the world. I did start working about age eleven, pretty much full time plus school, but working on a family farm, sleeping in your own bed, and not going hungry does not describe L’amour’s experience.

The real similarity lay in being self-educated. I stayed in school through two masters degrees, but what I learned came mostly from outside the classroom.

Here’s what LL said:

Actually, all education is self-education. A teacher is only a guide, to point out the way, and no school, no matter how excellent, can give you education. What you receive is like the outlines in a child’s coloring book. You must fill in the colors yourself.

Yes, precisely. I went to tiny schools before college. The teachers worked hard, and I thank them, but ninety percent of what I learned came from reading beyond the textbook.

The Education of a Wandering Man is a feast. Here’s a snack to whet your appetite. First on education:

Byron’s Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea . . . Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro . . . Somewhere along the line I had fallen in love with learning, and it became a lifelong romance. Early on I discovered it was fun to follow along the byways of history to find those treasures that await any searcher . . . One thing has always been true: That book or that person who can give me an idea or a new slant on an old idea is my friend. And there have been many such.

Then on America, as L’amour saw it during his wandering days:

(B)efore the Depression, one must realize there was a great demand for seasonal labor, and much of this was supplied by men called hoboes . . . To begin with, a bum was a local man who did not want to work . . . but a hobo was a wandering worker and essential to the nation’s economy . . . During harvest season, when the demand for farm labor was great, the freight trains permitted the hoboes to ride, as the railroads were to ship the harvested grain and it was in their interest to see that labor was provided. Often this lot of wandering workers was mixed with college boys earning enough money for school or working to get in shape for football . . .
The Depression brought a different kind of drifter to the railroads and highways, and only one who bridged that period can grasp the depth of the change. The Depression hoboes had little of that carefree, cheerful attitude of the earlier hobo. They were serious, often frightened men.

You can read The Education of a Wandering Man several ways. It will tell you about the early life of a beloved author. It will give you a gritty, ground level view of the first half of the twentieth century that you won’t find in history books. It will give you an education in how to get an education. And it will give you enough wanna-reads to last a lifetime.

As L’amour said:

Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.

Yep, and thanks for this one, Mr. L’amour.

*    *    *    *

Louis L’amour wrote his novels until he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Then he finally took time to write his memoir. He was editing The Education of a Wandering Man the day he died.

597. Who Speaks for Us?

A teacher in a classroom in Sierra Leone.

I had a post written for today, which I will now boot on down the road, maybe a couple of weeks.

My wife and I frequently watch a morning so-called news program, mostly because the hosts are pleasant people. This morning (that would be two days ago, Memorial Day) they took a moment from time to time to “remember those who served”, and went immediately to the men of Big Little Liars and promised an upcoming interview with Lamar Odom. Then they were going to do in in depth piece on where to find the best Memorial Day sales.

Yikes.

I left quickly. Most mornings all I wait for is a hit of good fellowship, a touch of news and weather, and I’m on to other things. Like writing this.

Their treatment of Memorial Day seemed to strike somewhere between grabbing for cheap emotions and checking off a box, but I’m going to give them a pass. I am not the one to judge, because I can’t be satisfied on the subject. Every time Memorial Day comes around I find myself caught between tears and anger, no matter how well things are presented. I have great respect for those who fought for freedom, but I don’t forget the atrocities committed in America’s name. I know that most Americans are offering genuine respect, and that some Americans are using Memorial Day to push military agendas, and a few are doing both at the same time.

I’m just going to have to let go of Memorial Day for another year. 

Lamar Odom is another matter. Mind you, I don’t know the man, and I avoid any news broadcast containing the word Kardashian. He probably has a story to tell, and certainly has the right to tell it.  Nevertheless, he represents something ugly about America — the Redemption Tour.

You are nobody in America until you’ve hit rock bottom, and clawed your way back up, in full public view.

If you’ve simply lived a wholesome, useful life, you don’t count. But if you’ve ripped off a charity, gotten dragged down by drugs, or cheated your kid’s way into college, welcome to celebrity. America is crying out to forgive you, if you can first tell them a stirring tale of depravity to keep them entertained.

Lamar Odom isn’t the problem; he just set me off. He dredged up something ugly from my past.

I was teaching middle school and we all turned out for a rally. It was one of those manufactured teaching moments, half sermon, half vaudeville, but it went wrong from the start. The presentation was by a batch of ex-cons, who had come to the school to tell our kids to go straight. Supposedly. In fact, it was anything but that. They were strutting baboons, flexing their muscles in their tight T-shirts, showing off their tattoos, and tearing phone books in half.

And, no, baboon is not a racist dog whistle this time. These were all white guys. It’s just an accurate description.

They told the kids, “Stay in school, keep on the straight and narrow, don’t end up in prison cause the guys there will eat you alive. You don’t want to end up like us.”

And the teenage boys all said under their breaths, “The hell we don’t!” These parodies of masculinity were exactly what they wanted to become.

Then one of the ex-prisoners began to harangue a tough looking Mexican-American student. He said, “I know you. I know what you’re thinking . . .” But he didn’t. He didn’t even know the boy’s name. He had never seen him before, but that didn’t stop him from calling the boy out.

It was always like that. Whenever somebody came to our school to make our students into better people, they always zeroed in on Mexicans as the ones they planned to reform.

Any teacher in the room could have told you the boy’s name. A lot of them could have told you his parents’ names, and would have had a pretty good idea of their income. Many of them would have known his sisters and brothers names, and would have taught them in years past. Some of those teacher had probably been in his home.

Any teacher in that gym could have stood in front of those children and have given them good advice about their futures — in fact they did just that every day in their classrooms. But those teachers hadn’t been to prison, so they were in the bleachers while the ex-cons cavorted like movie stars.

If you think I don’t believe in second chances, that isn’t the point. I don’t believe in parading your failures like badges of honor and I don’t believe you have to go low before you can go high.

There is nothing wrong with not going to prison.

Just go high, without bothering to go low first. Nobody will ever notice you. They won’t put you on television or in front of a gym full of kids, but that’s okay. We can live with that.

596. Memorial Day

My father was the tenth of eleven children. He had brothers and sisters much older than he was, some of whom I never met. The ones I knew were my father, his immediate older and immediate younger brothers. All three were of an age to serve in WW II.

The older brother was a welder. He spent the war working at a bomber plant in Tulsa. I never knew which one. He would have passed through the war on a deferment for someone who was essential to the war effort at home, and so he never entered the military. I didn’t say he never served. Making bombers was service, but he got to sleep in his own bed at night, and nobody was shooting at him.

My father was drafted into the Army, and joined the First Division somewhere in France, not long after D Day. He stepped into the shoes of the ones who had already fallen. He fought across France and into Belgium, where he endured the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded shortly after. When he had recuperated, the war was over and he spent the occupation in Bavaria.

My father’s younger brother was also drafted, probably after VE day. He trained and was put on a troop transport. In his words, “they put me on a ship and sent me over to Japan to die.” While he was crossing the Pacific, America dropped two atomic bombs and the war ended. His service was spent in occupation of Japan.

None of my immediate relatives died in service, but when Memorial Day comes around, I still feel the weight of those who did. I think of Frenchy, a man I never met, who was my father’s friend before I was born, and who died somewhere between France and Germany.

It was a war that had to be fought, and a lot of men never came home.

Two decades later, I was quasi-drafted. That is, my draft lottery number was up, and I joined the Navy to have some kind of say in where I served. Times were different. Viet Nam was a war without justification.

I spent my time working at a Naval Hospital that sits in the middle of Camp Pendleton Marine Base, the place Marines were trained just before deployment to Viet Nam. I was head tech in the oral surgery section, which meant I spent my days chairside assisting our oral surgeons. Over three and a half years, I helped relieve about 5000 marines of their wisdom teeth, helped set about 350 broken jaws, and assisted in about a dozen maxilo-facial reconstructions.

I often wonder how many of the Marines I worked on never made it back.

594. Into Orbit

Fifty years ago last Saturday, Apollo 10 left for the moon. As you read this, depending when you click in, they are/were part way there. The mission’s big events will have their anniversary Wednesday, and that is when the main post will come.

Meanwhile . . .

From the fifties onward, there were dozens of books by people like Arthur C. Clarke and Wily Ley that explained in great detail how  we would go to space. I read most of them — at least every one I could get my hands on. There were a lot of people like me then. A lot of them spent the last decades working for NASA.

Now our knowledge of the universe is vastly greater, and most kids today know more than the best informed knew then. Still, some basic things get missed, because “everybody already knows them”.

Actually, they don’t. Here is an example, which I need to get out of the way before I talk about Apollo 10 on Wednesday.

Imagine, a rocket leaves Cape Canaveral with rocket engines flaming. The engines only burn for a  fairly short time, for reasons of efficiency; then the rocket coasts upward into orbit.

Right. And wrong. There is one more important thing that happens, but rarely get mentioned any more. A second critical burn has to happen at the high point of the initial orbit (apogee).

A rocket heading for orbit leaves the pad vertically, but it immediately begins to roll over. It needs to gain altitude to get above the atmosphere, but it also needs to gain velocity horizontally, so its upward path is a precisely programmed curve that begins vertically and ends horizontally (i.e. tangent to the surface of the Earth). This tangent is reached long after the rockets have ceased firing, at apogee, roughly half way around the Earth.

Caveat: everything in orbital mechanics is more complicated that the explanation you will get from someone like me. Nevertheless, this should be close enough for our purposes.

Let’s assume that the orbital insertion burn did not happen at apogee. Our craft would have achieved enough speed to reach its orbital altitude, but not enough speed to remain there. It would immediately begin to descend.

Think of a high fly ball to center field — up, then down again. Same Earth, same gravity, same result.

Such a rocket leaving Earth would burn up on reentry. If it were launched from an airless body like the moon, it would end up in an elliptical orbit with its low point very near the surface.

Instead, if all went well and the secondary burn took place when the rocket had reached its orbital altitude, it would change from a sharply elliptical orbit to a more nearly circular one. This is the normal way things get done.

You’ll need to have this in mind when we look at Apollo 10’s “dress rehearsal” on Wednesday.