Month: June 2015

The Moral of the Story

A recent conversation reminded me of something I’ve long considered to be a very significant event in my life… something that affected my early moral development in a more basic, emotional level than anything else.

Ever.

Now, I do want to say that my family had a great influence on my moral development. They did this largely through teaching by example, rather than edict. For instance, I never heard my father speak ill of another person in my life. That wasn’t something I consciously recognized as a kid, but the older I became, the more that behavior stood out in my mind as an example of being a fundamentally decent human being. I admire my dad deeply and miss him every day.

Kenneth L. Wales, my dad.

But this event went the other way. It showed me examples of another sort. The event itself was a movie I saw when I was seven years old, in the theater, with my twenty-two year-old sister. I thought I was going to see a cool, kung-fu movie. And I was. But the plot revolved around extreme bigotry and racism. It was not, in fact, a movie meant for seven year-olds. The film was Billy Jack.

No… no indication here that it came out in ’71.

I can just imagine the horror on my sister’s face as we sat there watching an extremely violent film, which included a rape and a guy getting shot between the eyes. It was after we left, though, that she discovered what in the film had truly affected me.

I remember saying to her, “Are there really people in the world who believe the things those people believed, and treat others like that?”

And she looked down at me, her face sorrowful, and said, “Yeah, honey. I’m afraid there are.”

In that moment, I began to die a little, inside.

This is the face of a boy who doesn’t yet know how awful humanity can be.

You see, racism was a totally new thing to my young mind. This was 1971 and I lived in a very small town that was pretty much entirely white. It was surrounded by many other small towns that were also mostly white. I never saw racism because of that relative homogeneity.

It wasn’t the violence that affected me. It wasn’t seeing bare boobs. Rather, it was watching racists verbally and physically abuse non-whites, of watching them humiliate these people in public, and in some instances, outright murdering them. Just because of the color of their skin.

So yes, I died a little inside that day. But another part of me woke up. I learned that day just how powerful an impact made-up stories could have on someone. That day, it was a movie, but in later years, it would be novels.

I have always tried to write stories that have that sort of effect on people, stories that present unusual concepts or different viewpoints, and of course, stories that stress acceptance of those different from ourselves. In a very real way, all that is because of Billy Jack.

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Why I Don’t Write Science Fiction

My first major in college was astronomy, believe it or not. If you’re happy that I’m a writer, you can thank calculus. My poor relationship with higher math wasn’t the only reason for the change of majors, though. The truth is, I’ve always loved science and found it beautiful, but I really never wanted to be an actual scientist.

In truth, I just wanted to look at heavenly bodies.

Most of the books I read as a teen and through my twenties were science fiction, and the more a story relied on actual science, the more I seemed to like it. So, one would imagine that, when I started writing, that’s what I’d do.

My only science fiction efforts were in high school, in the form of short stories that were published in our school’s monthly “newspaper.” And wow, were they terrible. Seriously. Just awful. And not even “real” science fiction, as the science involved was pretty vague, to put it mildly.

Okay, calling it “real” science fiction is a poor choice of words. Sci-Fi can be broken down into lots of categories, of course, but the two biggies are “hard” and “soft.” (Kinda like porn… but not.) The difference between the two is that “hard” science fiction is that very sort I mentioned, where the science is accurate and a crucial facet of the story. “Soft” science fiction would be where the science is basically just given a nod, whether accurate or not, and often just incidental to the story.

At any rate, when I finally found my voice and started writing novel-length stories, I didn’t go for science fiction. I’ve done fantasy. I’ve done “social science fiction,” in the form of a dystopian future story, but that’s not the same. And I’m currently in the middle of a superhero memoir trilogy.

See previous caption.

Now, the Dynamistress books actually do say “science fiction” on the covers. It’s not accurate, of course. Stories about super-powered individuals technically qualify as fantasy. But because I indulged myself and really got detailed with the science behind Dyna’s abilities, I labeled it science fiction. (Besides, most people think of fantasy as being along the lines of Tolkein and such.)

The question remains, though, if I love hard science fiction so much, not to mention science itself, why don’t I write it? And I have to admit that the answer is that I feel intimidated by the very idea. And there’s the fact that I don’t even have any solid ideas for such a story. I have a notes file with a few concepts I’d want to include in a Sci-Fi tale – some of which did make their way into the Dynamistress books – but nothing more than that.

Truth is, I’ve always had a particular gripe about hard science fiction. In my experience, the more focus there is on the science, the less memorable the characters are. Arthur C. Clarke was good at incorporating hard science. But the most memorable character he ever came up with was made of silicon, wires, and plastic.

Previous captions do not apply.

One of the most brilliant series of books I’ve read, science-wise, was Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy, Red MarsGreen MarsBlue Mars. I can’t think of anything else I’ve read that incorporated so many fields of science so thoroughly or so well. But again… his characters don’t stand out in memory. Robert A. Heinlein, on the other hand, created plenty of memorable characters, but the science content of his stories was never close to being equal to Clarke or Robinson.

Heinlein, though, has certainly been the writer whose work most affected my own story-telling. So if I ever write a “real” science fiction novel, I think it’s safe to say that it’ll have memorable characters. Whether that happens or not… just wait and see.

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Five Facts About Wish You Were Here

This is the first of a few “behind the pages” looks at my books, sharing some little known facts about the works. This week: Wish You Were Here.

Fact #1 – Yes, the Title is From the Pink Floyd Song

No, there isn’t a scene depicting this in the book.

I’m often asked this, so there’s the official confirmation. The original book, as written, contained the lyrics of five songs worked into the story. These were removed prior to publication because I couldn’t afford to pay for the rights to reproduce them. I’d certainly like to issue an updated edition one day that had the songs worked back in (along with the remainder of the accompanying scenes during which the songs are played in the story). The novel itself is divided into five “books,” each one named after the songs, although there’s no indication that this is the case. For the record (and in order), the songs are:

  • “What Am I Doing Here?” by The Moody Blues – Not one of their better known songs and only available (as of this writing) on Caught Live + Five (vinyl) or Prelude (CD).
  • “Night Vision” by Suzanne Vega – I first heard this as the B-side of her 1987 hit, “Luka.” It turned out to be the perfect song for a scene in the book.
  • “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd – What is there to say?
  • “Land Ho” by Roger Hodgson – Released on his second solo LP, Hai Hai, this particular song was written back in his Supertramp days.
  • “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits – Another song that just fit the story beautifully.

Oh, and yes, there is in fact a complete soundtrack to the book. The remaining songs that round it out are all instrumental pieces. Perhaps one day I’ll share those with you, too.

Fact #2 – My Cover Artist Saved Me From Embarrassing Myself

When my cover artist was reading the book to get a feel for the sort of cover she was going to do, she caught a boo-boo in the story. There’s a scene where the protagonist is watching someone field dress a rabbit. I got an email from her saying, “That’s not how you do that.”

Uh, no. Wrong kind of rabbit. Wrong kind of dress.

She’d caught me in a moment of lazy writing. I typically am good about researching things. For that book, I learned more about horses and herbology than you’d believe (and have, of course, forgotten most of it, now). But I didn’t look up how to field dress a rabbit. My bad.

Fact #3 – It’s a Damn Long Book

To my amazement, the book clocks in at more than 300,000 words. This makes it a good bit shorter than the complete The Lord of the Rings, but longer than the second and third books of that trilogy combined. Or for the Harry Potter fans, a bit longer than Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire combined.

I should really charge more for this book.

As I said, this amazed me when I realized it, because I believe (and others have told me) that the book reads very quickly.

Fact #4 – The Book Was Published at a Very Bad Time

The original edition of the book (there have been two) was released in August of 2001. Yes, just a month before a rather infamous event in U.S. history. And the simple truth is that consumer spending dropped considerably in the wake of 9-11. No, it didn’t last long, but another truth is that I wasn’t particularly motivated by that time to try to get people to buy the thing.

No words.

The second edition was released after my second book, One Nation Under God, had gained a lot of great reviews. (But again, since I hate marketing, it’s not as well known.)

Fact #5 – It is the First Book of a Planned Trilogy

Yes, I just said the first book was published in August of 2001, which is very nearly 14 years ago, as I write this. And the second book (which is, in fact, begun) probably won’t be published until 2020. With luck, book three in 2023. Those are just guesstimates, of course.

Besides, I’ve got another trilogy to complete, first.

Though, if she continues to piss me off, I may not finish her books.

 

 

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