2015 in Review

I feel obligated to sum up the year. I mean, everybody else is doing it, right? That’s what you do at the end of the year.

So let me try my hand at this…

Let’s see. My new year’s resolution for 2015 was to get more aggressive with my writing aspirations. Not just to write more, but to submit those writings to publishers, to hone my craft, and to better satisfy my own internal requirements to call myself a writer. Lots of people would look at what I’d done at the beginning of 2015: two NaNoWriMo novels, a portfolio of short stories, even, going way back, a college scholarship for poetry, and say, “Dude, you’re a writer. Get over it.” But each of us has our own internal dialog on such things, and mine still had a few checkboxes to check before I can say that to myself. As of Jan 1 2015, and to a lesser extent still now, I call myself an IT person who writes on the side.

How did I do on that resolution? Not too bad. I hit the ground running and in January I submitted my first story to Fantasy and Science Fiction egged on by the news of a new editor and online submissions. I got my first rejection letter a few weeks later, and while that may sound discouraging the feedback was major shot in the arm. I didn’t just get a form letter rejection, I got feedback about what did and didn’t work for the editor. That says to me I got passed the first cut, and the editor took the time to read the whole story. That was WAY more than I expected. There’s something to be said for low expectations.

The second thing I did was take this blog a bit more seriously. It sat in an old Microsoft Live account that converted to a WordPress.com free site about 3 or 4 years ago. I registered hjmiii.com, fired this site up, and cut ties with the old. I can’t say I’ve been prolific writing here, but it’s more regularly updated than anything I’ve done in years.

I also took a concerted effort to reconstruct my social media presence (I say that like an IT guy). I still keep some personal and IT related accounts separate (LinkedIn and Google+ mostly), but the rest of my social media accounts became Harry Meier the author. I even bit the bullet and opened a Facebook account, albeit one I check about once a month to connect with my local NaNo crew. I spend most of my time on Twitter. And on other things like Tumblr and Instagram I’m mainly a consumer of info rather than a creator. Most of my connections in those author accounts are with others in the field. I’m learning the trade through their eyes, collecting tips, and links to more places to send my work.

In the editing and development dept. I got back on Scribophile, but I need to work a lot harder at that. I also commissioned an artist to work on cover art for my novels. If for no other reason I feel like having a visual of the books will help me edit and bring those to life.

Lastly I branched out and wrote more eclectic things. I wrote a children’s book, and last but not least I wrote another novel, or at least most of one. This time in NaNoWriMo, as I’ve written before, I took the approach to challenge myself. I wrote something for a younger audience and not specifically in the sci-fi genre.

Where did I fall short? Well, I still can’t say I’m putting out publishable material since I haven’t been published. While I went hard out of the gate with that short story submission, I haven’t submitted more than that despite having a trove of work I could polish and send out to the world. I still suck at editing. I now have three novels to finish and edit.

What can we do for next year? I think time management will play a big part in getting my asspirations off the ground. I know from November that I can produce content, but I can’t sacrifice my family and friends like that year round. I think I have a middle ground where I can slowly but consistently write and edit, but it has to take 3rd seat to family and day job.

What about the rest of 2015? It had its ups and downs. As for Ups, I got to have a nice double vacation with family in the spring. My daughter turned three, which is a pretty fun age. The place I live had a mostly mild year, weather wise, save for some record heat in the summer. Work life has been productive. As for Downs, we had a few losses this year in a beloved uncle and a beloved pet passing away. But in the category of silver linings, due to the passing of my uncle, I and my daughter got to go back to Pennsylvania and meet a lot of family I hadn’t seen in years, some in decades, and who my daughter never met. It was a bittersweet homecoming for me, but one that was overall happy. I hope she enjoyed it and remembers it.

The rest of the world had some tough times, but there’s a lot of hope out there. If you focus on the negativity in the news the good things happening will slip right by. More of the world is better off now than at any time in recorded history, and even while we’re fighting the good fight to make it better and quelling the fires of hatred and suffering it’s important to appreciate how far we’ve come. I posted this to Twitter, and I’ll post it here too. Here’s a nice look from Bill Gates at some really good news you may have missed in 2015.

Happy New Year everyone. Have a safe and joyous end to 2015 and many happy new times in the year to come.

Gatesnotes: The Top 6 Good-News Stories of 2015

On Heroes and Tropes

I recently saw a literary agent on Twitter ranting about the types of books that are a turnoff for them, and it struck me, exactly because my most recent book fit right into one of those categories.

Now, I’ll freely admit the book I’m writing is a story that’s been told countless times, and I could see how the market could be flooded with them right now. At its heart there’s a normal kid who discovers superhuman powers exist in the world. They come to grips with this and grapple with their own humanity and those who have lost their humanity. Yadda yadda yadda. Big whoop dee doo. That could be the tagline for any number of comic book tales from the last century. I completely get where this agent was coming from.

Why then do people keep writing them? And why do people keep reading them? Things become overdone and cliché for a reason, right? Are there any super powers that haven’t been explored? Are there any personal stories that haven’t already been walked? Are we just at the point of mixing and mashing up these combinations to see what sticks?

Over the last month I’ve written over 50,000 words. (BTW yay I won NaNoWriMo again!) I just spent those words walking in the shoes of a kid who just wants to do whatever kids do. It just so happens that their geeky and mischievous endeavors have landed our protagonist with a super power. Again, how many existing characters have I just described?

This kid’s power is interesting to ME though. I’ve heard from many authors telling me to write for your first audience first. The first person who’s going to read my book (over and over again) is me, so even though I’ve heard the countless tales of kids getting superpowers this one interests me. So it passes the first test in my book (pun intended).

So what’s this kid’s power you ask?

Well, they can’t fail. That’s it. The kid literally can’t fail as long as they listen to what the power tells them to do. The power is basically a guide. Whatever our hero wants to accomplish the power will tell/show/guide the hand and voice and body to whatever needs to be done. The trick is whether or not the thing they want to accomplish is worth the actions that need to be done. Brain hurt yet?

Let me put it this way. If that item you covet can be yours, you just have to betray those who help you, abandon your family, commit crimes, etc. how far would you go before saying, “No Thanks, I didn’t really want that.” How far would you go before even realizing you didn’t like that path? How far before you’re past the point of no return?

One thing about this character that interest me is exactly who it reminds me of. In that regard it is riffing on something that’s been done in another book, and several movies for that matter. The character, this kid who can’t fail, either subconsciously or not on my part, shares a lot of traits with the Kwisatz Haderach of Dune. The power is prescience, knowing the golden path to save humanity. In the original Dune Chronicles books there were at least three such people, Paul, Ghanima, and Leto II who each took the power down a different path.

Dune, however, is on a totally different plane of time and space, literally. Paul never had the chance to be a kid. The events of the Dune Chronicles are tens of thousands of years in the future exploring the worlds of the known universe. This one is in a typical urban town of the here and now. Paul only knew what had to be done, and through the power of being born to a duke and a Bene Gesserit priestess had the training, resources, and upbringing to follow through. My character has the resources of an upper middle class kid, and a power that’s more, shall we say, hands-on.

So the power’s been done, but in a totally different way. The kid is a trope, but so is every kid. Repeat after me, “We’re All Individuals.” That’s why people keep writing these stories. The realm of infinite possibilities lay before us writers, if we can pull off a good story.

So what makes a story, which is more or less just a mashup of stuff that’s already been done, into something compelling? And what makes it fall short?

As most lovers of comics and sci-fi I’ve got a pretty deep library of nerdtastic history in my head. All the movies,TV, comics, games, and books I’ve read through the years should give me an idea of what works and what doesn’t, right? You’d think…  So the first test for me is, “Would I want to read it?” Stephen King in his book On Writing says to walk away from your book and don’t look at it for 6 weeks after you finish writing. You need to look at your work with a fresh set of eyes that are more tuned to reading good books than to writing this story. And believe me after living this story in my head for over a month it’s time for a break.

So after taking a break, reading a few good books by other authors, maybe writing or editing something else by me or others on Scribophile, I take a look back at the story, the premise, the characters, their journey, and I ask myself, “Self, Is this a good superhero story, or just another one for the heap?” To which I reply to myself, “Self, First off, define good in this context. Second, stop it with the ‘Self’ joke already.”

So what is a good superhero story in this context? Where have stories in this genre taken off, and where did they flop in recent memory?

Obviously Marvel holds most of the superhero cards these days. They have the advantage of a near-century-long catalog of successes and flops to draw from. They pretty much know when they reintroduce an old hero to a new audience, as they’ve done regularly now for a few decades, that the hero needs to draw from the best that character offered in its history, and leave behind the chaff. Can an author do that with a new character? Why not? We’ve already established that the character is a mashup of old ones anyway.

How about the flops? Even Marvel has had a lot. Just because they can print their own money today doesn’t mean they didn’t try, and try again, and again over the decades. Who would think you could re-invent Guardians of the Galaxy? Did you know that Ant-Man was an abusive spouse?

How about one that just can’t seem to get it right no matter how much it tries?

One that comes to mind is Heroes. Even though a good deal of its failings come from the TV industry and the writing and constraints that go with it, still Heroes is a quintessential example of a super story that left a lot of people disappointed. What went wrong there? Well, I’ll leave the bulk of that to IO9. Rob Bricken does a great job of displaying the heights and the deep never-ending pits of despair that come with being a Heroes fan. (And the linked posts are just from the Reborn miniseries. Don’t get me started on the original.)

My shorter take on that trainwreck is this, like I said above, the TV industry’s constraints are a big part of the issue. Even if I give the writers the benefit of the doubt, and I assume the budget, actor contracts, studio execs, and in the case of the original series, a poorly timed writers’ strike, were the bulk of the problems, then I’m still left with characters that just consistently fail to stay consistent, characters that lose all their mystery and jump from fumbling with their powers to fighting the superbads overnight. I’m left with villains that make no sense, or at best leave me with an eye rolling, “not again.” And I’m left with climaxes that just feel anticlimactic. One thing the writers do well, unfortunately, is hook people with the initial build up. They’re really good at that origin story and the confusion that follows. They fall apart when all the supers try to work together, or against one another as the case may be.

So are there lessons here?

  1. Learn from the past and use what worked.
    1a. Keep it fresh if you’re recycling old tropes.
    1b. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but let’s face it, it’s probably been tried in one way or another. Do your research. READ.
  2. Hook the reader early with a compelling origin and character.
    2a. Maintain the mystery.
    2b. Let the reader grow with the character.
    3c. Keep your characters consistent even as they grow.
  3. Don’t let outside influences drive your plot.
  4. Keep it interesting. When there’s a climax, make it Climactic.

OK, time to read…

NaNoWriMo 2015

Like many other authors out there I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo again this year. In other words, don’t expect much from me this month. When I’m not in a caffeine induced craze of keyboard abuse I’m either sleeping (less than usual), working (less than usual), and/or (usually and) thinking about my novel.

This year I wasn’t sure until almost the last minute if I was going to make another attempt at writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Both of my past attempts were “successful” by NaNoWriMo standards, but I’ve never been able to get them past that standard and to a point where I’d say they’re publishable.

In 2011 I poured the anticipation soon to be fatherhood into a pretty decent bit of sci-fi. I consider it “code-complete” in software development terms. It’s sitting in Scrivener at a comfortable 87,000 words, and it has all the elements I want to have in the story, but it’s full of bugs in more ways than one. (Trust me that last statement is hilarious if you’ve read any of it.)

It still graces my editing desk whenever I have time to write (outside of November), but 4 years later I know much more about writing than I did back then. Today I can see its very obvious flaws and editing/rewriting needs as something as big or bigger than the effort to originally write the thing. Where is NaNoEdMo when you need it?

Last year I took another crack at a new novel, and I did it again. This time I made it to 57,000 words (Winner!) but sputtered out before the story was complete. This time I think the parts I did write were much better. I was more prepared. I actually had the whole thing plotted out. Plus I was challenging myself to grow as a writer by picking something not easy. I attempted to write dark comedy, and about 80% through the story it was just dark. Needless to say now that one too graces my computer screen on a regular basis.

This year I made a resolution to get better at writing throughout the year, to make more of an effort toward putting out publishable material. To that end I wrote more short stories. I even sent one to a publication. It got rejected, but with great feedback. When you get any feedback from those things it’s a bit of an accomplishment. Form letter rejections are the norm, so feedback means you made the first cut.

This year I also found myself writing to a younger audience. The beetle story is pretty much done, and I think it’s awesome. It needs a publisher and an illustrator. There’s all sorts of opportunities for that thing that have me pretty excited. And so with NaNoWriMo this year I’m challenging myself again, this time to write YA urban fantasy.

I had an idea sitting in my catalog that I marked as “novel worthy”. In fact it’s multi-novel worthy if I pull it off right. It’s a bit of a cross between Harry Potter and Indiana Jones with a bit of Highlander mixed in. I won’t go too deep into the plotline here, frankly I should be writing it instead of this right now, but our main character is going to gain powers by obtaining an object. There are several such objects in the world and many are questing to get them and fighting to steal them from one another. The character will start out young, a pre-teen in the first book, and we’ll follow along as they come of age. I think I can get a separate book out of every object of power.

The other thing I’m challenging myself to do is write in the first person with a genderless narrator. Since the character is starting out young I don’t need to get into topics that concern gender identity in the first book. (S)he is whomever you want to transpose. If you as a young reader want to hear the main character in your own voice, then it shouldn’t matter who you are. I’m taking a few cues from John Scalzi on this one. His recent novel Lock In involved a character embodying a robot, where the gender of the character was meaningless to the story, and so it was left out. He went so far as to have two readers, one male and one female read the audiobook editions. I love that.

So that’s it. I’m a week into the madness and humming along on schedule. Wish me luck. See you in December.

Beetles and the Sun

A few weeks back I was toying around with the idea of a brain “connectome”. This is the concept of a complete map of all the interconnections in a brain. To date computer scientists working with neuroscientists have been able to take small-scale structures, like insect or mouse brains, and map them with very good detail. The technology is still in its infancy, nevertheless, if it the connections in our brains turn out to be what defines us and stores our memories, the implications could be huge. For a taste at what people are thinking, just read this amazing piece in the NY TImes by Amy Harmon.

I wasn’t going there. Brain mapping in sci-fi is a topic that’s been beaten to death a few times over. I’m more interested in the little things that we’re closer to achieving. If we’re already able to reverse engineer insect brains and simulate them in a supercomputer, then how far are we from mapping them onto mini robots to do tasks that the bugs do naturally? Add a little of our own programmatic secret sauce, and voilà robotic dung beetles to clear sewers. Save millions of gallons of water. Power them with fuel cells that can catalyse the methane in the dung. Make them plant the dung balls in fields as fertilizer.

It’s a fun, though slightly smelly idea, but how to write it? What’s the sci-fi angle? Who are the characters? The bugs? Is this a children’s book? What if the bots have some unpredictable quirks from latent bug brain connections we don’t understand.

What if it’s something rooted in ancient history? I went searching, and boy is there a treasure trove of dung beetle mythology. Prime example:


The ancient Egyptians believed that Khepri renewed the sun every day before rolling it above the horizon, then carried it through the other world after sunset, only to renew it, again, the next day. Some New Kingdom royal tombs exhibit a threefold image of the sun god, with the beetle as symbol of the morning sun.

From <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dung_beetle>

So, what if the latent beetle brain connections give the bot the urge to roll the sun? This almost writes itself. The main character – Capri (cross between Khepri and Caprice) is a capricious beetle bug bot. (Ok this is definitely going to be a children’s book.)

But a dung beetle? Kinda gross topic for a kid’s book. Probably perfect… Is there any precedent of dung beetle children’s stories? Back to wikipedia, and holy $#!* yeah there is.

In literature

In Aesop’s fable “The Dung Beetle and the Eagle”, the eagle kills a hare despite the beetle’s appeals. The beetle takes revenge by twice destroying the eagle’s eggs. The eagle, in despair, flies up to Olympus and places her latest eggs in Zeus‘s lap, beseeching the god to protect them. When the beetle finds out what the eagle has done, it stuffs itself with dung, goes straight up to Zeus and flies right into his face. Zeus is startled at the sight of the unpleasant creature and jumps to his feet. The eggs are broken. Zeus then learns of the beetle’s plea which the eagle had ignored. He scolds the eagle and urges the beetle to stay away from the bird. But his efforts to persuade the beetle fail; so he changes the breeding season of the eagles to take place at a time when the beetles are not above ground.

Hans Christian Andersen‘s “The Dung Beetle” tells the story of a dung beetle who lives in the stable of the king’s horses in an imaginary kingdom. When he demands golden shoes like those the king’s horse wears and is refused, he flies away and has a series of adventures, which are often precipitated by his feeling of superiority to other animals. He finally returns to the stable having decided (against all logic) that it is for him that the king’s horse wears golden shoes.[28]

Aristophanes alluded to Aesop’s fable several times in his plays. In Peace, the hero rides up to Olympus to free the goddess Peace from her prison. His steed is an enormous dung beetle which has been fed so much dung that it has grown to monstrous size.

From <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dung_beetle>

Ok, my beetles are tame by comparison. This is definitely happening.