Avians Update

The book marches on. Editing is complete. The senior editor has passed the manuscript on to the publisher. I feel a massive sense of relief. I no longer have to fear that I will be asked to make unbearable changes. The story really is good enough, and it will be told. One aspect took a day to sink in. My editor isn’t mine any more. He’s on to other things now. Other stories, other authors. I feel a strange sense of loss, as if summer camp is over and I must get ready for school.

Sure enough, the next email I got was from the publisher. They like a photograph I sent them. They’d like to use it for my author profile, maybe even the back jacket of the book. I am left shaking my head in wonder. Sure, I’ve pictured my book as a physical thing, with a cover and a title. It just never occurred to me that my photograph might be on it. Let alone squinting, with my eyes nearly shut. I sent that photo in a sense of amusement. It shows me writing in the back of one of the planes I fly. Before you ask, the plane is on the ground, parked. It was taken by one of our other pilots as we sat around and I typed. My tablet and keyboard are propped up on the table that unfolds for the passengers to use. I know this is not how most writers work. I thought it was funny. But the folks at Five Rivers seem to think it illuminates me; shows everyone what and who I am.

I hastily sent a better picture, in which my eyes are actually open. This time, the cockpit is in the background. Casual observers will see the overexposed sky, and might conclude that I have vacated the cockpit while the aircraft is in flight. Pilots will note that some of the instruments are displaying gyro flags, indicating that the plane is shut down. So please take my word for it: the picture was taken on the ground, while we waited for our passengers to do their thing and return. It shows me getting set up to work on the final edits on Avians, though, so that’s pretty appropriate.

The publisher likes this one, too. While I’m at it, she adds, could we have you write a blurb for the back cover? Make it sing, she says, we’d like something scintillating. Oh boy. I’m okay at telling a story, I think. I can keep the action moving and I can evoke a mood now and then. But write a compelling tease in just a couple of hundred words, that introduces a character, a situation and a conflict? Umm. Better give me a couple of days. On my computer, I have a disjointed document that is the digital equivalent of a waste-paper basket full of crumpled sheets. It goes back months, nay, years. I tried different angles. A version that plays up the conflict between Raisa and Mel as they struggle to relate as equals instead of master and servant. A version that focuses on Raisa’s jeopardy and desperation. And a longer version that tries to do both.

Right now, I’m leaning toward a blurb that starts with some very short sentences. It doesn’t sing, it shouts. It doesn’t scintillate, it takes a swing at your face. If I can complete it, and flesh it out with the character/situation/conflict thing without losing momentum, it’ll be good. Or perhaps I’ll have to go back to the drawing board.

One other thing. Antipodean SF has accepted another bit of my flash fiction. So I get something published this year after all, despite being preoccupied with the big novel project most of the time. “Zeta Series” will appear in October. I hope you like rats.


NaNoWriMo, Week Four.

I did it. I wrote 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. Plus five extra words because sentence.


For NaNoWriMo 2015, I set out to write a bare first draft of Bandits of Celadon, without sub-plots and with minimal description. I finished that two days early, as I closed in on 47,000 words. To qualify for NaNo, I then wrote an extra chapter from one of the sub-plots. That got me to within 200 words of the goalpost with one day to go, so I  wedged in a few sentences where I thought the narrative was jumpy.

Bandits is not a finished product. If I was building a china cabinet, I’d say we haven’t done the glass, the stain or the fancy handles yet. But you can see the overall shape of the piece, and get an idea of how the wood will look. I’d say it’s coming along nicely.

As you can see on the ramp graph above, I stuck very close to the par value of 1667 words per day. That’s an unprecedented amount of writing for me. My first novel, Avians of Celadon, didn’t hit 50,000 words until at least seven months in.

During the month, I uncovered some plot problems and found ways through them. I got help with metal-free barrel construction from a master cooper I met recently, and my trusty volcano expert came through for me as well. I still have some tweaking to do on the time-line; in this version, things tend to happen too fast.

The bad guy is a bandit chieftan on horseback, and the main character is a girl who hears voices from a higher (technological) power. I was struck by a sudden notion for a pitch: Genghis Khan meets Joan of Arc. I’m fighting the temptation to put an arrow through her shoulder.

Thanks to an Odyssey course, I was able to show more and tell less. I’m also pleased that I included smell, sound and touch and occasionally taste as I went along, rather than leaving the senses for separate pass through the manuscript. Now I’m going to let Bandits ferment for a while before returning with my angry red pencil.

I also began to develop ideas for Caravans of Celadon. In particular, Raven and Denver are going to find ways for the Avians and Caravanners to work together. I’m looking forward to that.

I had better pick up the pace on submitting short stories and querying agents; I got neither of those things done in November. One of the few stories I still have out in the market was rejected last week after a pro publication took a very long look at it. It was a nice rejection letter, one of my longest yet. Sigh.

In December, I’ll be revising the opening scenes of Avians in preparation for a submission opportunity in January. My critique group gave me some great ideas for that, and I’ll be meeting them again in just two weeks.

Let’s see if the work ethic I found for NaNo can be maintained.

NaNoWriMo, Week Three.

This was the toughest week. I fell behind for the first time on Monday, because I spent most of the day and half of the night driving to Winnipeg and back for a meeting with my critique group.

It was worth every minute because I got an awesome suggestion for writing a whole new opening for Avians. (Avians of Celadon is complete, but unsold.) If I can pull it off, I’ll have gliders, airships and conflict all on the first page.

Thought about that on the drive home, and made comprehensive voice notes on my smart phone.

Tuesday, I was badly behind and seriously short of sleep. I managed about a thousand words, which left me floundering along to maintain par. I was forcing myself to write in the afternoon and evening, rather than my preferred wee hours. Then I hit a bad stretch.

I was working on some middle-of-the-book stuff that wasn’t well planned or extensively visualized before I started. I painted myself into a corner, making it impossible for Raven to get the help and supplies she needs to carry on. I checked my outline, to try and get back on track, and found the outline vague and contradictory.

Then winter arrived, and I had to make time to change tires on Saturday. I struggled to keep up, with hopes fading for regaining a lead. I ground out words as I left Raven struggling without relief. Denver, her would-be savior, shows up empty-handed. I wrote some dull expository dialogue.

Today, I went for a long walk and decided to throw Raven and Denver into the fire. Now the bad guys are in pursuit, and a deadly obstacle blocks their progress. Boom. Over 2100 words today, putting me almost a thousand words ahead of schedule.

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have a pretty clear idea of every scene to come as I head into the climax, and a good idea of how to handle the resolution.

Bandits of Celadon is going to end like The Empire Strikes Back, with the heroes in disarray, struggling to pick up the pieces.

It will lead perfectly into Caravanners of Celadon, the third book in the series. Believe it or not, that book was only a title before NaNoWriMo 2015. Now ideas are starting to flow. Flood, even.

So this week has been harsh. I’ve put in long and sometimes miserable hours. But I ended in a good place, and next week will be fun.



What is Science Fiction, anyway?

A lot of people tell me they aren’t really interested in SF. They’re wrong. The problem is that SF means different things to different people. James Bond movies draw huge audiences, but I’d be willing to bet that if you hung around the concession stand and polled the people waiting in line to buy popcorn, nine out of ten would look puzzled if you suggested they were fans of SF.

Ahem. Dr. No: evil plot with atomic powered laser. You Only Live Twice: evil plot to abduct spacecraft. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: evil plot to deploy biological warfare through brainwashing. Diamonds Are Forever: evil plot to use orbiting laser weapons platform. The Man With the Golden Gun: evil plot to suppress solar energy. The Spy Who Loved Me: evil plot to provoke nuclear war and build future utopia. Moonraker: evil plot to wipe out humanity with nerve gas from space station. A View to a Kill: evil plot to destroy Silicon Valley and monopolize microchips. GoldenEye: evil plot to negate Electro-Magnetic Pulse defenses and subvert satellite weapons.

There is a huge disconnect, I think, between what is SF and what is marketed as SF. No-one has trouble identifying Jurassic Park as SF. DNA has science like rice has white. But Michael Crichton markets his books as best-sellers, avoiding the SF label and the geek shelves in bookstores. Margaret Atwood would rather be known as an author of literature than SF, although The Handmaid’s Tale is every bit as dystopian as The Hunger Games.

The strictest definition, espoused by people like Canadian SF icon Robert J. Sawyer, is that Science Fiction is fiction about science. It’s a simple and elegant definition, but it can be surprisingly exclusive. Rob argues that Star Wars is not about science. He considers it Fantasy, because the Force is essentially mystical. Yes, there is a veneer of scientific technobabble to justify it, but it’s lip service. By the same rigorous standard, he rules out most of Anne McCaffery’s work. Pern may have been a lost and regressed colony planet, but that wasn’t essential to the story. Which is not to say he didn’t like Anne, they were friends. By the way, Rob does his homework, and if you want to read something that showcases his take on SF, I was blown away by his melding of science and characters in Wake, Watch and Wonder, aka his WWW series.

I have an online critiquing partner who is vigilant in looking for supposed SF stories that could be retold without the science. This is useful, but if you take it to extremes, even Asimov’s I Robot could be redone as a fantasy about Golems, with three binding spells of Golemics providing the plot foundations.

What of Star Trek? TOS got off to a strong start, the first episode was about silicate life-forms. Later episodes about the shoot-out at the OK Corral, Nazi Germany and the Roman Empire pretty much fell off the wagon, in my view. For me, the entire franchise got obsessed with pitting Team Logic, founded by Spock, and joined by Data and Seven, against Team Passion, led by McCoy and handed off to Worf and Tom Paris. The Captains served as referees. Much of the science strayed far into make-believe territory, with random results attributed to “rifts in the Space-Time Continuum” and so on. None of this stopped me from watching and enjoying it, by the way, and I may be the only man alive who was more entertained by Seven’s dry wit than her skintight costume. Whether Star Trek’s science was good or bad, the series and the franchise had an enormous influence.

Does Science Fiction have to be about science? I’m not convinced. Many pioneering SF authors were more interested in futurism and exploring social trends. Overpopulation came up a lot: Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”, Ellison’s “Make Room, Make Room” (led to the movie Soylent Green), Nolan & Johnson’s Logan’s Run, Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Science was portrayed, and it played a part, but I hardly think these writings were about science. My high school considered offering Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as an SF addition to the curriculum. I wasn’t fooled for a minute. It wasn’t about science, it was about literature. Did Kurt Vonnegut write about science? If he did, I was too busy laughing to notice. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ditto. Should we deny that these are SF? Some perhaps, but not all.

Nowadays, the term Speculative Fiction is becoming more widespread. It solves the problem of differentiating Fantasy from Science Fiction by lumping them together. Conveniently, it shares the initials of SF, and saves us from writing SF&F or SFF. It also allows authors who dabble in both to keep all their books on one shelf in the bookstore.

A more useful and specific term is Space Opera. It’s a handy label for stories that involve spaceflight (usually faster than light, without explanation) and plots that feature planet-hopping and, dare I say it, rayguns. Unfortunately, Space Opera can have negative connotations. It usually implies a form of SF light, and I suspect that John Scalzi, author of the Old Man’s War series, would frown if it were applied to his work.

The label Hard SF is also tricky. Used precisely, it separates Ringworld from Gravity by applying a math test. Yet many casual afficionados might lump both those works into the Hard SF subgenre because science is central to both. All orbits are not equal, and you cannot actually cause a chain collision of satellites as if they were all on the same freeway.

Whoa, I’m coming up on a thousand words, and I’m going to wrap this up. I posed a question, and I don’t have a definitive answer. I won’t say of Science Fiction that “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.” I may not be able to define it, but I’m also not always sure when I see it. People who don’t like Star Wars may say they dislike Science Fiction, and still enjoy one of those James Bond movies listed above. What they really mean is they don’t like Space Opera. Many books and movies that are marketed as Science Fiction seem more like Horror to me. Alien, for instance. Earlier, I mentioned Jurassic Park, which I think also fits the monster movie subgenre-it just has a trendier setup than Godzilla. I urge you to think about what Science Fiction means to you, and to be specific about what you like or don’t like. I suspect that in one form or another, there is Science Fiction for almost everyone.

Can-Con: Friday

Can-Con got underway this evening. People were lined up at the registration desk before the staffers were ready to go, but once things started moving, it seemed to go pretty quickly. I was near the front of the line, and was the first person to sign up for two opportunities to pitch my novel. There are actually four publishers taking pitches at this con, but one (Renaissance) only publishes work by Ottawa area authors, and another (Chi-Zine) favours the dark side of SF, leaning toward horror. I’m way too cute and bubbly for them. But I’m getting ahead of myself – the pitches aren’t until tomorrow afternoon.

Scheduled events began at 7:00, and my pick for that time-slot was a debate on whether writers should focus on short fiction instead of novels. I was personally interested because my short story efforts seem to be gaining more traction than my novel. However, that panel was actually cancelled, so I went to some readings instead, and heard some fascinating excerpts.

8:00 was a no-brainer for me. ‘Rejectomancy’ was presented by Gabrielle Harbowy, the Editor Guest of Honour, who is here on behalf of Dragon Moon Press and who also has ties to Apex Publications. This was a fun power-point presentation on the standard rejection letters, and what they do and do not mean. The most basic rejection letter may include kind phrases like, “not quite what we’re looking for,” but you shouldn’t get too excited. That letter may go out to authors who missed the mark by a small margin, but it also goes out to writers of the worst drivel. Even an invitation to submit again may be a meaningless pleasantry.  Apex has a policy of informing writers when their story has passed the first round of screening to be forwarded to the managing editor. That form letter actually means something, and I received one recently. It could still go either way, of course, but it’s nice to know that people who read slush for a living think your story is one of the better ones.

9:00 was the start of the evening’s gathering, and tonight’s get-together was hosted by Bundoran Press. Remember, I’m from out of town, and have only personally met one or two of the convention attendees before. Of course, I also know some people who would know some people. You’d be hard pressed to achieve seven degrees of separation between any two SF people in Canada. For instance, I did get a chance to say hi to Sandra and Matt from Chi-Zine; their Winnipeg based colleague Samantha edited for me on a freelance basis. But actually, I had so much fun talking to several complete strangers, about everything from blogging to movies vs. books, that I stayed longer than I planned. Thanks for making me feel welcome, Ottawa!

Internet karma

People and information are closely entwined. Usually I think about this in the context of privacy issues, but this coin does have two sides. My debut novel, Avians of Celadon, is finished. Not published yet, but editing is complete. One thing that has been worrying me is the need for more thorough fact-checking on my science. Once it goes into print, errors are irreversible. It’s science fiction, and while that leaves room for creativity on the speculative scientific developments, that’s no excuse for sloppy world-building when it comes to the parts that bear on atmospheric science, aviation, or good old-fashioned volcanoes. I’m a career pilot, so I know something about air and airplanes. Volcanoes, not so much. I’ve visited some volcanic areas, I’ve seen a bunch of documentaries, and I’ve read a ton of articles on the internet, but for some things, you really just need to pick the brain of a vulcanologist. If you’re making a joke about mind-melds right now, I’m glaring at you. Maybe I’d better stick to spelling it volcanologist.

Geologists who specialize in volcanoes. Where to find one. I scoured some of those internet articles for names and universities, and found an email address for a likely seeming guy, but he never responded. He’s a little bit famous, and he’s probably pretty busy, and anyway his university is likely in summer hiatus, so he might be away or something. It was a long shot.

So I tried Twitter, specifically #volcano. Oho! Volcanologists tweet stuff. I followed some of the more likely looking people and organizations, to see if they ever mentioned sites where you could Q&A with an expert. I wanted to know weird and rather obscure stuff, like is there a supersonic shockwave from a volcanic eruption? How far does it go? What about volcanic bombs, those blobs of lava that come flying out when a volcano erupts – the slopes of volcanoes are littered with them, but can they fly as far as an artillery shell, or are they more local?

I didn’t find any dedicated Q&A sites, but I did see some fascinating Twitter profiles, including one Jamie Farquharson, a student of Geography/ Volcanology who is working on his PhD. His passions include both volcanoes and SF.  He’d be great to talk to, I thought. A couple of weeks later, he followed me back. That was courteous of him, and it also allowed me to send him a direct message. So I did, thanking him for the follow-back and mentioning that I needed help with volcano science. He was enthusiastic, and said he’s a fan of my blog. I presume he means this one. I think what happened is, he saw the notification that I was following him and checked out my profile, like you do. I tweet about this and that, but he would only have had to read a handful of tweets to find a link to one of these blog posts. So there’s a kind of payback for putting yourself out there on the web. I often find it rewarding – one of my other blogs, icepatrol.ca, got a lot of hits this spring – but now I feel rewarded.

Perhaps Jamie concluded that I was serious about writing, or amusingly witty. Or a half serious half-wit. Whichever it was, he invested a huge effort in answering my questions. He read excerpts of my book. He sent diagrams and photographs and videos of volcanic eruptions to illustrate his answers. Better than that, he spotted some things that I had taken for granted about volcanoes that are wrong. Even fresh lava does not glow bright red by daylight. So many documentaries take advantage of twilight or night shots that brightly glowing lava was fixed in my mind. Best of all, he answered my emails overnight, so that in under a week I had all the information I had despaired of finding for months.

For the record, supersonic shockwaves slow down and die out rapidly, usually within a few kilometers. Volcanic bombardments, too. Perhaps the most useful thing he told me is that volcanoes are all different – eruptions don’t follow a set pattern, they are notoriously unpredictable. Sucks if you are a volcanologist, but rocks if you are a writer!

This is my little thank-you to Jamie, my new geology guru. It is also my tip of the hat to the internet and it’s potential to connect people. When we share information we are all building something together. It’s bigger than our previous collaborations, like cities. It’s as big as civilization. It may even BE civilization. Bring a brick.

Prose and Cons

I had a very good weekend at KeyCon in Winnipeg. I can’t say my ship came in, but I would say I found my way to the wharf. I should begin at the beginning.

It would have been easiest to drive from Kenora to Winnipeg on Saturday morning, but I took a vacation day on Friday so that I could do the full weekend. The main reason was that on Friday evening, Chadwick Ginther and S.M. Beiko were doing readings together, and they both got nominated for Aurora Awards this year. Besides, Samantha recently became my freelance editor (just before I found out she was nominated – bonus!) and this would be my first chance to say hi in person since we began working together.

Also on Friday night was a presentation on aero engines by Lindsay Kitson, and I feel a special kinship with her because like me, she is writer and a pilot. Interestingly, if I understand her right, she views her Dieselpunk as being more fantasy than SciFi. Even at a Speculative Fiction event, I sometimes feel like I am the only Science Fiction writer in the room. Unless Rob Sawyer is there. Then I feel like he’s the only Science Fiction writer in the room.

Saturday was a whirlwind.

Chatted to G.M.B. Chomichuk, who was working on a large painting right by the grand staircase.

Said hi to Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who did a ten-minute blue-pencil session with me at last year’s KeyCon that led to some good changes to my book. Told her so.

Went to the art show, looked for potential cover artists. Met one guy, got website info on another.

Bought books from Leia Getty and Clare C. Marshall.

Went to ‘Locally Grown’, an impressively large panel of Winnipeg Speculative Fiction authors and illustrators.


Jonathan Hatton, Adam Knight, Lenora Rose Patrick, Laurie Smith.


Samantha Beiko, Gregory Chomichuk, Chadwick Ginther, Lindsay Kitson, Karen Dudley, Leia Getty.


Said hi to Karen Dudley because she did a fun reading at Word on the Water in Kenora last fall. Mentioned how happy I was to have Samantha editing for me. Karen asked, ‘Are you the author Sam was raving about on facebook?’ I didn’t know how to answer that; I don’t have a facebook account, and I wasn’t sure what Sam might have said.

Spotted my nephew and his family at lunch, so I actually got to eat with them. Wonderful to have a little grounded time with them, it was a interlude of tranquillity in a day of commotion.

Got Rob Sawyer’s autograph in Wake, told him how much I liked his character Caitlin, who is probably the youngest of his protagonists.

Learned more about teaching from G.M.B. Chomichuk. Specifically, I noticed that not only did he answer a question with bang-on material from his own work that led to a fascinating discussion of a whole new topic, he made sure to conclude that topic by explaining how it answered the question, keeping us all in the relevancy loop.

Went to a panel on Indie/Small Press/Big Press because Silvia, met Lenora Rose Patrick, who wrote a novella, and Adam Knight, a former pro wrestler turned author. ‘It’s all story-telling,’ he said. Decided on the spot to go to more of his panels.

Some would say that the social evenings are the heart of conventions. When pressed, I make excuses, but the truth is, I have ascetic tendencies. That’s a fancy way of saying I’m a wet blanket when it comes to partying. Or a polite way of saying I’d rather talk to you when you’re sober. Whichever you like, I finished my day at KeyCon at the unfashionably early hour of 1800.

I went for dinner with my wife and an old friend. Donna has a facebook account and a smartphone, so while we were waiting for food, she looked up Samantha Mary Beiko so we could see if her ‘ravings’ were about me. Wow. They were. I don’t think anyone has ever said anything so nice about me behind my back before!

After dinner, in the peace of Donna’s living room, I checked something on my own smartphone. Months ago, I entered a writing contest held by NOWW (Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop) because the genre category this year was Speculative Fiction and the judge was Robert J. Sawyer. I figured it would be a chance to get him to read one of my short stories, if I could get it short-listed. The judge, you see, only gets to read the best six entries as selected by a screening panel, but I figured it was worth a shot. I had heard nothing from NOWW except a reminder that the annual meeting (at which the winners would be announced) was the day before KeyCon. I could not swing Thursday off as well as Friday, so I could not make the trip to Thunder Bay. I was checking the website on my smartphone to see who won, and if I got an honourable mention, which might imply I was short-listed.

I won. First place in Speculative Fiction for my story ‘Fermi High’. The first thing that crossed my mind was not that I would get some money, or even that my story would be published in the NOWW newsletter. It was that I had shaken hands with Rob Sawyer just hours ago, and neither of us knew that he liked my story. That is to say, he didn’t know who wrote it, and I didn’t know that he’d read it, much less chosen it for top prize. Apparently, the contest judging is so rigorously anonymous that the only way Rob could have seen who the prizes went to was to look it up on the NOWW website like I did.

With good things happening on both the novel and short story fronts, I went to sleep with a grin on my face.

By Sunday morning, Rob had retweeted my tweet about winning the contest, and a little later he added his personal congratulations. I ambushed him on the way into his reading to thank him personally, and we had a short conversation while people were taking their seats. He said I should send ‘Fermi High’ to Analog or Asimov’s Science Fiction and mention the contest and his name in the cover letter. Then he introduced me to the whole room before starting his reading, which was a cool look at a work in progress.

Went to the market again, bought a nostalgic Andre Norton paperback, one of the ones she wrote under her (rare) Andrew North pseudonym. And an old copy of Fantastic Story magazine, which I picked up because of the cover, but hey, Ray Bradbury and Henry Kuttner.

More readings: Karen Dudley, because she’s always a blast and she’s just releasing her newest. Adam Knight to see what he’s about. He read fearlessly from one of his prologues, and explained why he uses them even though they are unfashionable. Different voice and different perspective were good arguments.

Last, a panel on Marketing & Publicity by Rob and Samantha. Short version: don’t push. Slightly longer version: don’t push your book on people who probably will not like it – you will waste their money and lose their respect, which will build nothing. Rob answered my question about what a big publisher can do that an indie cannot; not in vague terms like ‘placement’ and ‘connections’, but solid examples like transit and newspaper advertising, and book tour support.

On the way out, before leaving, I had a few more words with Lindsay Kitson, who I hope is on the brink of success, and Holly Geely, who is funny and must not quit.