Heaven’s Library (Blast from the Past: June 2009)

All right, it’s time to get in the wayback machine and revisit a post from long ago. This one should be especially interesting to you aspiring writers out there, as well as the seasoned writers who need an extra gut-wrenching wake-up call from time to time. I know I certainly do.

Today was the first day of BYU’s writing conference, and it was great! The speaker in the last workshop, Dandi Mackall, was exceptional. I don’t have my notes with me and the BYU library closes in twenty minutes, so I’ll recap the best part of her presentation.

She said that once she had a dream where she died and went to heaven (thank goodness!). When she got there, the angel who greeted her offered to show her around, and asked what she wanted to see first. Her answer? The library, of course!

In heaven’s library, she found shelves stretching as far as she could see, full of the very best books. She picked out a few and recognized some of her favorites, the ones that had impacted and changed her life.

After a while, though, she started to get a little disappointed: all of the books in heaven’s library were books we already had down on Earth. Why was that? Didn’t heaven have anything new–anything we hadn’t already seen down below?

“But all these books were here first,” said the angel.

Still, she couldn’t accept that as an answer, so the angel took her down a long, winding, narrow corridor. The deeper she went, the narrower and dustier it became, until she started to feel uneasily. This part of the library was dark and dirty. It was clear that hardly anybody every came down here.

Finally, the angel led her to a door covered in cobwebs. He brushed them aside and opened the door. Here was a room many times larger than the first, with old, dusty bookshelves stretching out of sight.

She picked out a book and started reading through it. It was one she’d never heard of, but it grabbed her. She could tell that it was really good. She picked up another one, and realized that it was just the kind of book that one of her friends would have loved. She picked up another one, and realized that this one could have helped out another friend through a terrible crisis she’d recently been through.

“Why didn’t we have these books?” she angrily asked the angel. “They are just as good as the other ones. Why didn’t they make it down?”

“These are all the books that remain unwritten,” the angel answered. “Each one of these is a book that a writer, somewhere below, has in them but fails to write down.

“This one is by a writer who won’t let anyone give her the criticism she needs to improve her craft. This one is by a writer who doesn’t have the discipline to finish what he starts. This one is by a writer who doubts herself and doesn’t think she can ever get her story to work.”

Humbled, she followed the angel back to the main hall. Just before stepping through the doors, she saw one last book. The name on the cover was her own.

For some reason I don’t understand, fate, God, or genetics (or some malicious combination of the three) conspired to turn me into a writer. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m making a mistake trying to turn this passion into something that will feed myself and my future family. Looking at the millions of other writers like myself, it’s easy to feel anxious. Only a tiny fraction of us will ever make a professional career out of this. Do I even have a chance?

But then I hear a story like this one and I remember why it is that I write. Not for fame, fortune, publication, personal gratification, or even just because I can’t not do it. It’s because storytelling itself is important. It helps us connect with the world around us, to see its beauty and wonder. It helps us to appreciate ourselves and understand others. It stimulates our imaginations and lifts our eyes to see the divine potential that is all around us. It helps us to grow and to heal—to live and to love.

May you find your book in heaven’s library and bring it into the world!

The Gulf Between the Generations (Blast from the Past: February 2012)

Here’s a post I originally wrote in 2012. Given how most political commentary tends to lose relevance over time, it’s remarkable when something from the past is even more relevant now than when it was written.

Not that this post is overly political: more just a series of observations, including some red flags that, at the time, were still on the distant horizon. In recent months, those flags have drawn much closer.

Such a crazy world we live in. Stay safe, and thanks for reading.

I just watched a fascinating interview with a 1960s White House intern who claimed to have an eighteen month affair with President John F. Kennedy. But the most interesting thing wasn’t the affair itself, but the way the President’s staff, the “fourth branch” of government (AKA the media), and the entire general public of 1960s America seemed more intent on keeping the secret than on facing the truth about JFK’s many affairs.

It seems that my parents’ generation had so much trust in their government that nobody would even raise the question—that to raise doubts about the integrity of the man who held the highest office in this country would itself be unconscionable. Rather than face the facts, the American public seemed unwilling to do anything that would shatter the gilded image of the man who led the free world. And that, quite frankly, is a mindset that I simply cannot understand.

In contrast, my own generation has very little trust in our government. We’ve been raised in an age of ambiguity, where the enemy doesn’t wear a uniform or pledge allegiance to a flag, but live quietly among us, until they strap a bomb to their bodies or turn a commercial airplane into a weapon of terror. Or at least, that’s the excuse our government gives us for an increasingly invasive security regime that infringes on our basic liberties, enables the military to hold us in detention indefinitely, and sends our soldiers overseas to fight increasingly senseless wars to “liberate” the people of oil-rich nations who don’t even want us there. As if that weren’t enough, the economic crash has taught us that all that stuff our parents taught us about equality and opportunity is really just a pack of lies—that the rich get bailouts while the rest of us foot the bill, and all that stuff about changing the world and being whatever you want to be… yeah. Lies, all of it.

My Dad had an interesting rebuttal to all this, though. He said that it wasn’t his generation that put the president on a pedestal—it was his generation that tore the pedestal down. During the 60s and 70s, the Vietnam era and the rise of the hippy movement, his generation fought back and made it acceptable for us to question the president, or to criticize the government, or to do all the things that we take for granted today. In fact, he said that we’re the ones who are backsliding into complacency, with our deafening echo chambers, our social media inanities, our reactive attachment to corporate brands and advertising, and our almost religious sense of entitlement.

I’m not totally convinced he’s right, but I do think there’s a fundamental gulf between these three generations. Our grandparents’ was the silent generation, where people were expected to keep to their own business and not rock the boat. Our parents’ generation was one of top-down media, where ABC, NBC, and CBS ruled the airwaves and told us all what to think, buy, and believe. Ours is a much more peer-to-peer generation, but I worry that we’re turning into a collection of mindless herds who are turning the culture wars into a messy riot where we abandon civil dialog and rational thinking for a much more destructive mob mentality that isn’t really building anything, but tearing it all down.

Sometimes, it gets so frustrating that it makes me yearn for the days of the frontier, when you could leave it all behind and reinvent yourself somewhere out in the west. That’s probably why I’m so drawn to science fiction, where space is the final frontier. There really are times when I wish I could go to the stars and escape to it all. Writing about that is the next best thing.

Maybe that’s why I feel so compelled to write Star Wanderers. It’s not all rosy, of course—space can be a cold, dark, and lonely place—but so can this world, when you’re lost and you don’t really know what you’re doing with your life.

I don’t know if I recognize anywhere as my own country anymore. Like Van Gogh, all I can say is the sight of the stars makes me dream.

A political rant

There is no meaningful difference between Clinton and Trump.

Both are narcissists.

Both are habitual liars.

Both are corrupt.

Both have a tendency to blame others for their failures instead of taking responsibility for their own actions.

Both treat the people underneath them poorly or with outright contempt.

Both think they are above the law, and seek to use the law to put down those who stand in their way.

Both are masters of saying what their audience wants to hear without saying anything of actual substance.

Both have flip-flopped 180 degrees on major national issues.

Both want to accelerate the same fiscal irresponsibility that got us into the Great Recession and prolonged it for so long.

Both are perfectly willing to order the military to do things that violate their sacred oath to defend the Constitution.

Both believe in an authoritarian government that violates constitutional principles and the basic rule of law.

I cannot, in good conscience, vote for either of them.

My greatest political fear is that our Republic is about to be overthrown and transformed into an Empire. We have a system of checks and balances to prevent that from taking place, but that system has been steadily eroded ever since the New Deal (or arguably the Civil War).

Eight years of economic stagnation have created a tremendous amount of restlessness. Looking at global trends, it seems that things are going to get worse before they get better. Historically, this type of chronic restlessness tends to lead to war, as leaders seek to either deflect it toward an outside enemy or channel it for their ruthless ambitions.

And both Clinton and Trump are nothing if not ruthless.

Everything old is new again. The authoritarian ideologies of the 20th century have resurrected and taken on new forms. Every day, I hear echoes of the deadly drumbeats on social media and the news.

Fascism is back. Communism is back. The 21st century equivalent of bookburning is taking place on campuses across the nation. The class warfare that started with the Occupy movement has taken on some decidedly racial undertones. If we’re following history’s playbook, a strong leader will soon emerge, promising security and prosperity at the cost of liberty.

Both Clinton and Trump promise to be that strong leader.

There’s a long tradition of doomsday predictions among political commentators in this country. At the risk of sounding paranoid, I’d like to chime in with some of my own. After all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that everyone isn’t out to get you.

First, the gobal economy is about to suffer a massive downturn. China, Russia, the Eurozone crisis—it’s all headed toward collapse. The US will come out on top, but only because we won’t fall as hard as everyone else. We’re still going to take a fall.

Healthcare in this country will continue to be broken and unaffordable for the next four years. Best case scenario, Obamacare collapses and the gridlock in Washington prevents us from replacing it with anything else. Worst case scenario, socialized medicine stiffles innovation, costs and inefficiences skyrocket, and committees are formed to decide who lives and who dies, just like every other nationalized healthcare system.

The originalists on the Supreme Court will be replaced with activist judges who will dismantle the checks and balances of the Constitution, causing it to hang by a thread. Frankly, this is the thing that scares me the most. It’s already starting to happen with the controversy surrounding Scalia’s replacement, and he won’t be the only Supreme Court justice who passes in the next four years. This will be the ultimate legacy of whoever wins the presidency in 2016.

The world is about to get a lot less safe for Americans abroad. It’s already a lot more unsafe after eight years of Obama, but it’s about to get worse. The chaos in the Middle East will spread. Terrorist attacks will accelerate, both abroad and at home. The wars and rumors of wars will increase.

There are a number of unlikely but plausible scenarios I’ve been mulling over. The most frightening of these involves a second American civil war, in the form of an insurgency, and the true nightmare begins when the UN sends a peacekeeping mission into this country much like Lebanon or the Balkans. Like I said, I don’t consider it likely. But it’s just plausible enough that it would make an excellent novel—the kind that later generations laud as being written before its time.

In short, I predict another four years of economic stagnation, fiscal irresponsibility in Washington, cronyism, corruption, and collapse. If America becomes “great” again, it will only be the Empire at the expense of the Republic.

So what am I doing about it?

Stocking up on food storage. Growing a garden. Learning how to be a responsible gun owner. Striving to be as independent and self-sufficient as possible.

And you can bet that all of this is influencing my writing. There’s a war of ideas that’s raging right now, one that may influence the ultimate outcome of our era more than any elected official. As a writer, I see it as my responsibility to play a role in that battle, not through message fiction per say but through stories that reflect truth. I have no idea if any of my stories will be as influential as 1984 or Les Miserables, but I intend to write them as if they could be.

It appears we’ve been cursed to live in interesting times. Let us rise to the occasion and write timeless and interesting stories.

Excited for a new old project

So a couple of weeks ago, I picked up the manuscript for a novel I’d written years ago, looking to see how much work it would take to salvage it. It’s a direct sequel to Bringing Stella Home, with James McCoy (again) as the main character. Long-time readers of this blog may remember it as Heart of the Nebula.

I wrote the first draft in 2010-2011 (started it almost exactly four years ago, in fact), and right from the start I could tell there were a lot of problems with it. I tried to throw in a romantic subplot that backfired horribly, and several of the major plot points weren’t thought out very well. I pushed through and finished it, though, and in spite of a few extra arms growing out of weird places, there was a lot of stuff in there that I liked.

(Come to think of it, I think this was my NaNoWriMo attempt back in 2010. That would explain why I pushed myself to finish the thing, even though I knew it had problems. I dropped it before the end of November and didn’t pick it up again until March, but since the only other books I had going on at the time were Desert Stars and Bringing Stella Home, I forced myself to finish it just so I had another one. This was back when I was under the impression that every book needs at least five or six revisions to be any good, and that most of the work in writing is actually revising. I no longer labor under those myths).

Over the next few years, I went back to it from time to time to dust it off and run it through a revision pass. Unlike my other novels, though, this one was so broken to begin with that revising wasn’t enough. I changed a lot in the 2.0 revision, cutting out most of the worst problems but not really replacing them with anything better. In the 3.0 revision, I mixed things around a bit but didn’t substantially change the story. Then I went through a bunch of incomplete revision attempts, tweaking scenes and rewriting sentences, but not really changing the story as a whole.

Then last year, I read through all the sundry drafts that I’d written of this story and put together a massive set of revision notes for the 4.0 draft. This time, I tore into the heart of the story itself, reworking plot points and adding new subplots to replace the ones that didn’t work. I went through the whole thing by chapter and scene, making a list of bullet points for all the changes that needed to be made. I also made notes for scenes that I needed to write entirely from scratch, and other notes for scenes that I needed to recycle from previous versions.

It was a massive undertaking, and I got about halfway through it before putting it on hold for other projects. That was nine months ago. Between then and now, enough time passed for me to more or less forget most of my ideas for it.

So earlier this month, I had an opening in my schedule and decided to take a look at this one again. Instead of picking it up where I’d left of, I decided to start from the beginning. Immediately, I was struck by how much better the story was. This wasn’t the three-armed baby I’d stuffed into the closet back in 2011–this was a really compelling story, with an intriguing hook and great potential to go places. The further I got in it, the better it became.

There were a couple of scenes early on that just didn’t work. I could tell that I’d reworked them to death, so I threw them out and wrote completely new ones. This time, they actually worked! By completely getting rid of the problem scenes, amputating those mutated limbs at the base, I was able to free the story from the mess in which it had spawned. For some of these scenes, revision is not enough–they need to be tossed and rewritten from scratch.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve really gotten excited about this project. Not only do I think it’s salvageable, I think I can make a really awesome story from it. I just got to the middle of it today, past the part where I’d stopped back in February. For the next few chapters, I think I’m going to throw out the revision notes entirely and just see where the story goes. I’ll probably write toward the stuff I know I want to keep, but throw out everything else.

So yeah, you can expect to see Heart of the Nebula come out sometime next year, probably in the spring. I still want to run it past my first readers, but I don’t think it’s going to need any major revisions after this one (at least, not any that should take more than a week). Keep an eye out for it!

The Writer by Dosshaus on deviantART

I love these trailers

Holy cow, I cannot get enough of this trailer for Civilization: Beyond Earth! It’s like something from a book I would write. There’s the classic Science Fiction story about leaving Earth to colonize the stars, but there’s also a deeply human element to it. And I love the religious element to it, how the colonists take the old religions of Earth with them to the new world. Awesome.

This definitely looks like a game I want to play. I grew up with Civilization 2, perhaps the most classic title in the series, and discovered Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri in college. In a lot of ways, Alpha Centauri shaped my love for Science Fiction, and gave me many ideas that later influenced my stories. Genesis Earth is, in some very key ways, a response to the vision of humanity’s future presented in SMAC.

While on the subject of awesome trailers, it’s worth pointing out this one for the new Christopher Nolan film, Interstellar:

Again, this looks like a fantastic story–the kind of one that I’d love to tell just as much as I’d love to hear. And with all of our modern problems like climate change, resource depletion, wealth disparity, terrorism, and global war, it strikes frighteningly close to home. Are we as a species on the verge of driving ourselves extinct? What will we do if our home planet can no longer support us? Where could we go, and what could we hope for?

So much awesomeness. I really, really, REALLY want to see this movie and play this game! But even more, these trailers make me want to write an awesome story along those same lines. I’ve already written at least one novel that addresses these issues, and it’s definitely part of the background of the Gaia Nova universe, but I want to revisit these same issues again.

Maybe in Starship Lachoneus? Who knows?