Friday, January 11, 2008

On Writing

As most of you regulars know, my post naval retirement goal is to become a writer full time.

I've wanted to be a professional writer my whole life. Like many folks with that particular personality defect, I started scribbling stories down on paper in my teenage years. As a longtime lover of the science fiction genre, naturally I wrote tales of adventure set in the distant reaches of space. When other kids were writing about what they did on their summer vacations, I never wrote an English assignment set below Low Earth Orbit (in those days, we called it English not Language Arts, which to me sounds like paper mache sculpture made from chopped up dictionaries, but I digress). This did not endure me to my teachers, and even the ones that taught Creative Writing weren't much thrilled with science fiction submissions. And I'm pretty sure my parents were less than thrilled with my obvious mental aberration, and blamed each other for the defective genes that caused it.

I wrote a lot, and no matter what I wrote all those stories had something in common. They all sucked.

Remember that scene in Throw Momma From The Train where Billy Crystal is listening to one of his students recite her latest work? "The Captain said, 'Dive, Dave.' And Dave pulled the thing that makes the ship dive, and the ship dove..." or words to that effect. Yeah, a lot of it was like that. Shudder. If you want to tell a good story, then you should write what you know, the problem was I didn't know shit. This is not a condemnation, most teenagers don't know shit, that's part of being a teenager.

Now, it's thirty years later and I'm retired from a life in the Navy. I've got a college degree, and advanced training in a dozen or more arcane specialties. I've been around the world, literally, more than once. I've lived on three continents. I'm a father, and a husband, an artist, a woodworker, and a fair chef. I know shit.

So, I set out to discover if I actually could, you know, write.

This blog was part of that, along with a couple of other projects, such as Deep Thunder. And I think I can actually do it, and can do it well enough to make a living at it. My wife and I have agreed that I will take this year and make the attempt. Ultimately, only you people will determine whether or not I'm any good at it.

With that said, I promised you a sample of my current work, The Iyes of the Dead. As I've mentioned elsewhere, my formal writing voice is vastly different from Thunder and this blog, which you will see in the sample below the fold. Iyes is nominally a locked room murder mystery, told more or less in the traditional mode where you see the murder happen in great detail - and yet may not immediately grasp what happened exactly. Throughout the rest of the book you follow the investigation, traveling along with the investigator and his assistant. Nearly every paragraph contains clues, some obvious, many not. The astute reader will have enough information to solve the puzzle in the first five chapters, but will have to be careful not to venture down false pathways, of which there are many. There's an obvious suspect, a not so obvious suspect, and a cast of characters, some human and some not, with their own strange pasts who may be suspects themselves. All have reason to commit the crime and many things to hide in the fashion of Murder on the Orient Express. The 'locked room' is a colony far removed in space and time. The technology is both benefit and bane, and is a mixture of the old and the far edge of the possible. Eventually all the suspects will be gathered together and we'll find out if the butler did indeed do it in the drawing room with the candlestick.

The following is excerpted from the first Chapter. Motive is key to the story, and each character is driven by their own personal history. In fact, despite taking place in the 'present' of 2361, much of what has happened in the period between now and then plays an enormous role in the shaping of each person, and the society of the colony. Some of the characters come from civilizations vastly different from our present one, and they've been shaped by disaster, war, and desperate necessity. It was therefore necessary to tell some of that history, here and there, throughout the novel. I despise the contrived conversational asides (I.e. "Say, Bob, even though you and I have lived through these events, I'm still going to explain at great length things you and I both know..."). I've chosen instead to weave that background information throughout the events of the novel - similar in technique to the way George R.R. Martin wove the history of his Federal Empire into his Double War/Integrum stories, such as The Dying of the Light (Which if you haven't read, you really, really should). In essence, the novel is really three stories, the central murder mystery, exploration of a new world, and the disastrous war that led to the present situation and explains many of the things that happen in the story.

The following excerpt comprises the last quarter of the first chapter. It is a bit of background for one of the primary characters. The only setup you need going in is this:

Henry Stonekettle has been castaway for a very long time. Stranded alone on a distant world with only his wits to keep him alive. Anyone else would have given up long ago, but not Henry. Here's part of the reason why.

[Note: copying this in from MS Word has been a huge pain. The formating codes in word are playing merry hell with blogger's embedded HTML engine. Some words have been dropped, and paragraph formatting is acting strangely. I'm tired of screwing with it. Read it or not, and try to ignore the formating issues. I may fool with it later, depending on how much time I have, but at this point I've wasted too much of my morning already. - Jim]

[And again, okay the font is seriously pissing me off. Word Press looks better to me every day. If below the fold you see little, itty bitty, times new roman letters but can't actually make out what they're saying, well, you're not alone. I'm trying to fix it]


[Excerpted from Iyes of the Dead, by James L. Wright. All rights reserved. No portion of the following may be reposted, printed, or reproduced without the express written permission of the author.]

Henry Stonekettle had known for some time that he must be insane by normal standards. It troubled him greatly; his mind was all he had. He was suddenly afraid that the final slide into the abyss had begun, because as he stared stupidly at an impossible black silhouette on the white snow he realized that it was moving, lengthening rapidly and swinging around like the umbra on a sundial.

Comprehension bloomed. His heart was suddenly hammering and with badly shaking hands he rubbed at his eyes. When he opened them again, the moving shadow was still there, still creeping across the snow. Unbelieving, he pivoted slowly around on the heel of his good leg.

Without regard for the temperature, he pushed back the hood of his parka and lifted his eyes to the heavens.

His mouth fell open in shock.

“Son of a bitch,” he said at last, in the strangled voice of a man punched in the stomach. Then he said it again, each word spoken softly, unbelieving, separate and distinct. “Son. Of. A. Bitch!”

When Henry Stonekettle was a young man, full of wind, shit, and excitement, he had done a foolish thing.

He entered a race.

In the year 1925, dog sled mushers raced with desperate speed across what was then the Alaskan Territory, up a frozen coastal trail in relay to the small northern village of Nome. They carried cases of carefully packed serum for a town dying of diphtheria. They made it, barely in time, and saved the townsfolk from certain, grisly death. They became instant legends, those old mushers and their dogs, books were written about them and movies were made for years afterward. The event, like so many others of the Alaskan frontier, might have faded quietly into the oblivion of the past, except that Alaskans were funny about their history. Fifty years after the epidemic, a crusty old sourdour named Joe Redington resurrected the desperate crossing and turned the epic into what he called “the last great race.” He named it The Iditarod for an ancient abandoned ghost town, one of waystations along the historic trail. In February every year, at the height of the northern winter, mushers and their dogs raced nearly twelve hundred miles from Old Anchorage across the vast land to Nome. The event was run every year, without fail. Though in 2129 during the darkest years of the Long Runout, the year Old Alaska became Alyeska and the last bastion of high technology civilization on Earth, there were only two teams and neither finished. By the time Henry Stonekettle was twenty-three, a graduate student in Planetary Sciences at the University of Alyeska, Fairbanks and dreaming of the stars, the Iditarod race spanned three hundred years of unbroken tradition. Henry had been mushing dogs since he was a child growing up at Pump Station Five on the Gasline. He had mushed the ancient Yukon Quest twice, finishing in the top ten, and had placed second in the grueling Skinny City Run. He had just returned from a couple years of fieldwork in ravaged mainland Europe and compared to that, entering the Iditarod seemed like only mild adventure.

The Iditarod had long been a purist’s race; engineered dogs were not allowed, and mushers carried no radio, no beacon, and no satellite navigation receivers. Henry would make the dash to Nome with nothing more advanced than map, magnetic compass, and his wits.

The first eight days were magnificent. The snow cover was light that year, a consequence of Earth’s disastrously fluctuating climate, and so instead of the traditional start in downtown Old Anchorage they mushed out of Willow, thirty miles to the north. He occasionally ran behind the sled, but spent most of his time riding on the runners as they hissed through the snow and listened to the excited panting of his team. On the second day, he lost control of the sled on a down slope in the dark and shattered a runner, and he lost two hours replacing it, working bare handed in the subzero temperatures by the light of his headlamp. A day later he surprised a bull moose just outside of McGrath as he rounded a bend on the frozen Kuskokwim, and spent another hour untangling harnesses and traces after he’d managed to run the beast off. He had to stitch up two dogs, and leave one at the checkpoint in McGrath to be flown back to Anchorage by tilter. These were normal hazards of the trail and Henry spent little effort worrying about lost time. During rest breaks he slept exhausted beneath the Aurora Borealis, wrapped in a powered survival bag, the one bit of advanced technology allowed, on the cold ground beside his animals unlike most other mushers who slept in the checkpoint cabins. The other mushers called him ‘Stone Cold’ with some amusement. He was considered a bit odd, but then oddball characters weren’t uncommon on the trail and some were
much odder than Henry Stonekettle. Over the week he passed through tiny, ancient villages with such romantic names as Susitna Station, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass, Farewell Station, Cripple, Unalakleet, and White Mountain.

It was glorious.

The storm hit on what was to have been his last day on the trail. As he rode out of Safety Roadhouse, on the last leg to Nome, the sky was turning black with snow-laden clouds and the world was fading away into whiteout conditions. In the early years of the race officials might have turned the mushers back, made them wait it out at the roadhouse. But the First Tenet of the Alyeskan Constitution reads: “
Every adult human being, sane or not, is solely responsible for the consequences of his or her own actions.” And so they could not prevent him from leaving. The older, more cautious mushers called it a race; they boarded their dogs and hunkered down in the lodge to await a flight to Nome or back to Anchorage on the bush tilters.

They didn’t know it then, but that year would mark the beginning of what climatologists would come to call the Post Runout Global Minima. And it was to be brutally unpredictable. Henry Stonekettle and four other teams rode out into what would become the worst blizzard in seventy years.

For six endless days he huddled in a snowy dugout, thirty miles from Nome, while the tempest raged overhead. The survival bag power cell exhausted it’s hydrogen supply sometime during the third night. With little food, and only the dogs for warmth, he knew that he would most likely die. He had left Safety with thirteen dogs; when the storm broke, only seven remained.

Seven dogs and Henry Stonekettle.

A day later he staggered into Nome behind the empty sled. He lost another dog on the trail. He was the only finisher that year, and by default the winner, but there was no joy in it. Of the four other teams who had left the final waystation a week earlier, he was the only survivor. Three of those mushers had been long time friends. In all, he lost nine dogs, four toes, three fingers, parts of his ears, and a piece of his nose to the cold. In true Alyeskan fashion, the racing committee held him accountable for his actions and he was banned from racing for life. He was penalized not for risking his own safety, but rather that of his dogs. He spent a week in the hospital only to learn that they lacked full cosmetic regeneration facilities; he would have to return to Wasilla in order to grow back the missing body parts. And, just to add insult to injury, he missed the Trapper’s Ball and they had to mail him his trophy – though that was probably for the best, since the Ball was a fairly grim event that year.

Afterward, alone, swaddled in bandages and a little drunk, standing in the middle of Main Street at four o’clock in the frigid arctic morning, he had looked up at the hard, unblinking stars and felt unaccountable wonder.

“Son of a bitch,” he whispered to himself. “I’m alive. I made it. I made it. Son of a bitch!”

Ten decades and four light years later, Henry Stonekettle stood once again alone, crippled and freezing, beneath those self same stars and squinted unbelieving at a glowing line of diamond blue fire in the sky. It was a violet spear, tens of miles long and so bright that it cast shadows on the snow hundreds of miles below.

It was a blazing beacon in the heavens that could only be the plasma plume of a large fusion-powered spacecraft.

After twenty years castaway, salvation was at hand.

“I’m alive,” Henry Stonekettle shouted at the stars. “I made it. Son. Of. A.


  1. I liked it, but it leaves me really wondering what's in the rest of the chapter. I scrolled down looking for comments before I read any of it and my first reaction was, "Jeez. Lotta words today". Then I remembered you'd said you would post part of the book. :-)

    One quibble. In the intro, you say he's been castaway on a distant planet. Then at the end, you say he's staring up at the same stars. Shouldn't they be different stars from what he saw in Aleyska? Or is this one of the clues you mentioned.

    Also, for everybody else. If you're using Firefox, click on "view" and then you can increase the text size. Yes, Jim, they were teeny-tiny letters.

  2. According to Jeri, I was probably having the same problem as you getting a post up in my site.

    She suggested converting it to simple text, copying and pasting that and then re-doing stuff like italics, etc. Worked great.

    I've been looking at WordPress, and I'm not so sure anymore. I did a test run importing my blog there and I couldn't figure out how to work a lot of the stuff. Also, the templates are kinda cheesy.

  3. Nathan,

    The phrase "self same stars" is correct, though some folks may think I've made a mistake (this quibble has been pointed out to me before). The world in question circles Alpha Centaurus A (an unlikely place to find a habitable world, but that is explained in the story elsewhere). The Alpha Centauri system is not visible from Earth's northern hemisphere(i.e. Alyeska), and in the context of the story, Sol is not visible from where the protagonist stands. With that said, 4.2 light years is not enough distance to significantly change the appearance of the heavens, so for all intents and purposes, they are indeed the 'self same stars,' Though I understand that phrase may confuse some folks without an astronomy background, I like it and I'm keeping it - unless, of course, some editor offers me a shitload of money to get rid of it, in which it's toast. :)
    I know I can change the font size using FF, but it pisses me off that you the reader would have to. I'd prefer you didn't have to screw around to view my site, I try to be a good host, unreadable fonts aren't very friendly.

    I've used the text stripping technique Jeri mentioned to you. There's also a quicker method, which is to paste the text into blogger directly from Word, then click on the 'Remove formatting from selection' tool (the little eraser icon, then go back in and format as you please. I've had mixed luck with both methods. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. I don't know why.

  4. Damnit, let me add one more thing - I don't arbitrarily just like the phrase 'self same stars.' I phrased it that way deliberately to tie Henry's past and present together, which is critical to the story line.

    Though, without the rest of the chapter, and the chapters that follow, this is not readily apparent.

  5. Unfortunately, I am unfit to comment upon SF, so I shan't.

    But I will comment upon things about which I know stuff.

    1) To get rid of evil Word formating, paste the selection into Notepad, for no formating may live in notepad.

    Copy and paste from notepad into your destination document.

    No formatting! Win!

    2) The reason the Word Press templates are so bland, is because it's *really* easy to change the formatting to something you like. Heck, I'd even be willing to share the two templates I tweaked and modified to get the looks I wanted. (One black, and one white.)

  6. Michelle, I've tried that. In fact that's exactly the technique I used to past this excerpt into blogger with. But it doesn't always work right for me, especially regarding paragraphs. Several times, using the the notepad trick, I've had the subsequent paste into blogger result in one giant paragraph with no breaks, and sometimes not. There is no rhyme or reason that I can tell and I chalked it up to either a bug in blogger or a conflict with the template I'm using. When I get some time I'll look into it more closely.

  7. The (unfunny) unfunny followup is that when I posted to you so proudly about the simple text fix, I had successfully posted the chapter and checked to make sure it worked. Ten minutes later, my GF told me she was trying to read the chapter and it froze up on her.


    I've just finished retyping it from scratch directly into Blogger and it seems to be working.

    Fingers, toes, ankles...every damn thing I've got is crosses.

  8. RE: the "self-same stars"

    1. you're explanation totally holds water.

    2. yeah, it is a nice phrase.

    3. It does establish a kind of "right where I started from" sort of moment.

    Is there a reason that his present location is unstated? Had I understood that he's looking at the same stars from a somewhat different angle, it wouldn't have be jarring.

    BTW, having dealt with mushers and their dogs on Iron Will, I really liked that whole element.

  9. Is there a reason that his present location is unstated? It is, only that's in the part of the chapter I didn't post. :)

    I really liked that whole element. Well, I could have done it a different way, but 'write what you know' right? And I wanted the whole sled dog thing because I needed to show what kind of man Henry is, but mostly because I couldn't think of another scifi novel with sled dogs and I thought it was about time we had some.

  10. ::1950's voice announcers::

    "Space mushers from the 21st century and beyond..."

    I'm there.

  11. Well...

    Your next option would be to *save* to text in notepad, close the file, and then reopen it... no... wait a second... lemme check something...

    Here. Much easier:

    Okay, WORDpad has a Paste Special feature. So try pasting he text into WordPad using Edit -> Paste Special and then selecting the option Unformatted Text.

    You should then be able to paste into blogger without any stray formatting.

    (Word and HTML to NOT play well together. Word embeds so much crap into its files, it's nearly impossible to deal with Word generated text outside of word without using Paste Special to delete the extraneous formatting. [Dreamweaver 8 has a pretty strong Paste Special to ditch Word formatting.])

  12. Jim,

    Very nicely done! The only thing that was a bit jarring was the Iditarod history bit, the flashback containing a history exposition was a bit jarring and dropped me out of the story for a bit.

    Otherwise, it was very readable, very interesting, and I'd certainly keep turning the pages.

    My disclaimer, of course, is that I'm not a published writer, just a wannabe and an avid consumer of how-to-write fiction books, so my advice is not worth much. :P

    PS... my novel also contains sled dogs.

  13. I think long ago when I put my first novel on the web, I used OpenOffice to save it as HTML and then I went through and hand edited some of the tags, because, you know, I was a web professional and I could stand to do that kind of drudgery. (That same HTML can now be cut and pasted from the web and put into my WP blog without looking fugly.)

    I'm waiting for someone to make a writer's IDE that allows you to save your text in any format including vanilla HTML for export. This IDE should use XML to style the text and you should be able to assign your own XML tags that describe text as either narration, dialog (which character is speaking should be identifiable) so that your novel or short story could be easily podcast using canned voices from your computer.

    Ok, I'll stop Geeking out now. I liked the story, want more.

  14. I liked the story, and it makes sense now why your blog is called "Stonekettle Station." Hehe.

    I like the Iditarod tie-in also, and hope that Henry's new planet has sled dogs, too.

    And what does "Iyes" mean?


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