Mark Niemann-Ross's Blog: mnr2U
December 24, 2015
and "bop" when it stopped.
"Whirrrrr" when it stood still
I never knew just what it was
and I guess I never will.
- Tom Paxton
The July 2013 issue of Stupefying Stories includes "The Music Teacher", my story about an unfortunate musician in possession of a maddening object. The story started as a challenge to my sci-fi peers over their use of an implausible plot device, but as I progressed, I found a deeper theme.
The Music Teacher is now available as part of my collection of stories titled "Humanity By Proxy and Other Stories."
The Language Gap
My initial inspiration for writing the story came from Star Trek and other space operas. I've always found it maddening when Our Hero beams over to an alien spaceship, sits down at the controls, and after a minutes worth of fiddling restarts the main power.
Seriously? An alien device is going to be, well, alien. If you - a real person (vs a fictional character in a televised space opera) - were to drop into aforementioned space ship, you wouldn't recognize the language used by the ship. You wouldn't recognize the user interface icons. You're not going to recognize the purpose of anything on the ship. You're certainly not going to just flip a switch and power up.
I voiced this discrepancy in The Music Teacher during dialog between two of the characters; Beth and Eric. Here's the meat of their conversation...
“I’ve wondered if it's trying to do something we don't have words for," Beth continued. "Like if Ben Franklin somehow found a cellphone. It wouldn't work like a phone because there wouldn't be cell towers to support it. Then if he could figure out how to make it do anything, it would probably play Tetris, but Franklin wouldn't understand what it was doing because he wouldn't understood the rules. Then it would run out of batteries and he'd never know what it was really for. It makes me wonder what else is laying around that we might not truly understand.”
In the 2012 movie Prometheus, David the android flies an alien spacecraft. Unlikely - but at least the writers had David study a massive number of foreign languages during the voyage to the planet. The writers also provided him with a recording of the Engineers starting the craft. A mildly believable difference from the Star Trek inspired one-minute-of-fiddling to bring the main reactor back online.
Believable Dialog is a Reflection of Cultures
This is where The Music Teacher starts - how would we react to an alien device with no context in current society. I could have written it as a lump of inert technology with no battery power left, but that wouldn’t have been much of a story. I left it’s power intact, but I left its actual purpose unstated. We know it inspires music in the possessor - but in an alien sort of way that only other infected musicians understand. It isn't clear why it inspires music - maybe it's trying to teach language. Or starship navigation. Or letters in an alphabet. In the end, it's an alien device and we simply don't know.
I've had the good fortune of attending lectures by Doctor Richard Rohrbaugh. He is a true biblical scholar - one who has studied the Bible in its original languages and will point out translation errors from one edition to the next. He has a depth of understanding that shames million-dollar TV evangelists.
His lectures stress that understanding the Bible requires you understand ancient the norms and ethics of society. The parables, psalms and stories are written in language specifically meant for an agrarian audience, rather than our industrial society. Property and family have vastly different meanings in the two cultures. Likewise, I don't think we will understand alien technology until we understand the culture responsible for its creation.
The characters in “The Music Teacher” use their personal experience to give Mr. Flat Five context. They take a nameless, ethically inert device and overlay it with their own interpretations. Their interpretation is most likely wrong.
By the Way: Thanks Bruce
Finally, a note of appreciation to Bruce Bethke, the editor of Stupefying Stories. He originally rejected this story with my favorite of all time response...
Thanks for giving us the opportunity to consider your story, "The Music Teacher." After reading and discussing it, and then holding it for further consideration, we've decided to pass on it.
I must admit, I do so with considerable reluctance. We see a fair number of music-based SF/F stories come through here, and most of them are total crap, written by people who wouldn't know the difference between E diminished-seventh and a ham sandwich. Your story starts off a bit rocky, but once it hits its stride on page 3, it is just *terrific* -- until it doesn't so much end as disintegrate, somewhere around page 11.
If you can figure out a real ending for this one -- not a D.S. al Coda, "repeat and fade out," but some kind of satisfying finale -- we'd love to see it again.
Editor, Stupefying Stories
Bruce was right. The original story had Josh and the narrator riding off into the sunset. It was a weak ending and a weak story. After I finished laughing about the ham sandwich, I ripped the story apart and rebuilt it, this time with a real ending. Writers - hear this. Savor every rejection letter, especially those with feedback.
December 17, 2015
- The opening of Star Wars (The Force Awakens)
- A rainy December 17th in Portland, Oregon
- My birthday
- The first day of my commitment to this novel
I've written several short stories, but this idea requires a larger venue. It's a novel, and I'm not happy about it.
The first time I wrote this thing was during NaNoWriMo in 2011. I won, having completed 50,000 words about a murder mystery solved by a refrigerator. After finishing the task, I did what every NaNoWriMo participant should do; shelved the pages until January.
By January, life got in the way and it wasn't until 2014 that I was able to restart. I started by reading the original 50,000 words and was appalled. The characters were tremendously polite, the murder was inept, the concepts of the story were poorly portrayed. I am proud to say I threw those 50,000 words away and started over.
I had a meeting with myself, and we agreed to stop writing a novel that would sell. Instead, We would write everything that agents and publishers hate. I would write in the voice I heard, and show the concepts I was happy with.
I had a meeting with the characters in the story and apologized for trying to be polite. We agreed to be honest. Some of them left, disgusted with this new direction, looking for tamer novels, possibly young adult. Those that chose to stay are morally ambivalent. Some have changed sex. Some have revealed defects. When everything is written, you probably won't be inviting them out for dinner.
I had a meeting with the audience and gave them permission to leave. I firmly pushed them away, pointing out the difficult parts of the book and my flaws as a writer. I might not be able to pull this off. To my surprise, they decided to stick around for the ride.
I've been trying to decide on where to go with this difficult piece of writing. I could continue, or I could mark it up to a grand and glorious learning experience and trunk the whole mess. Smart friends tell me I should continue.
So here goes. Maybe you'll like this story. I've decided not to care. Best of luck to you...
January 23, 2015
September 1, 2014
I consciously pulled in my son.
I apparently pulled in my sister.
I pushed across a self-imposed literary boundary.
Apparently there was a more to the story than I realized.
Let's start with Roger. He's just a guy in a hardware store. Roger isn't a hero. He's plays video games and doesn't aspire to greatness.
I've come to accept Roger for who he is. Some of us need to wash dishes and make beds. There's no shame in that, although I used to point out to my kids that menial tasks were the result of no education. That might be true - but I should have also pointed out that everyone deserves respect.
I majored in Industrial Education, and one of my instructors gave a lecture on the practical side of teaching. His best advice was regarding Job One on Day One - introduce yourself to the janitors. They know everything about the building and the people in it - and they have ALL THE KEYS - literally and figuratively. Need to get into a storage room? Find the Janitor. Need to get into the politics of budget planning? Find the Janitor. Janitors are the honorable part of society.
Roger is one of these honorables, aspiring to finish the day. It's unlikely they will appear in a history of the world - but they don't care. Maybe historic immortality isn't the end game.
Roger is introduced to an opportunity. To his surprise, he seizes part of it; possibly the best part. Roger could have followed the flow of events and wandered into space - instead, he actively chose a path. And that's the message I want to share; be active with your choices.
Even though my youngest son, Aaron, worked at Hankins Hardware, Roger isn't his doppelganger. Roger is a conglomeration of the stories I heard after Aaron returned from work - and the stories from his co-workers. I want them to know their lives are honorable.
My sister, Christine, is a dancer. When I was ten, I went with my Dad to retrieve her from Saturday morning ballet practice. We would arrive before the end of the session and wait in the balcony of the converted church. From the balcony, I watched dancers stream across the floor. At the time, I didn't internalize the grace and athleticism displayed below me. Grace isn't something a ten-year-old understands until forty-five years later.
Three of the dancers would surge across the floor, north-east to south-west. Three steps, leap, recover, two steps, then turn to wait. Immediately, three new dancers would move northwest to southeast, repeating the same flow.
I'm unable to describe that experience without falling back on cliches. But power and grace are the best words. Power, as in physical strength. Grace, as in physical beauty, smoothness of lines, the completion of an idea you are just beginning to grasp. I watched dance make music physical. I watched music resolve to a pleasing chord, expressed as movement through space. I wasn't writing about my sister in this story - but she is clearly part of the backstory of Sara Ferrous.
As a writer of science fiction, I'm allowed to jump outside boundaries, so why not declare an alien's primary mode of communication to be physical, instead of verbal? Why not use dance as primary communication?
I've always been opinionated about how aliens might communicate. The Hollywood notion of English as the lingua franca is just too convenient. We barely understand the communication of animals we live with on a daily basis, so why would we assume a "superior" race would have the interest - or vocal cords - to reproduce human language?
How would a culture communicate if the atmosphere was too thin to effectively carry sound waves? Why is it odd to think of sign language as a primary vocabulary? Why would sign language be restricted to hand motions? This is the world Sara Ferrous occupies - movement is communication. Nothing odd about that.
Science fiction has a bad reputation about aliens. Green, bug-eyed monsters stealing bikini-clad women.
The physics, and costs, of interstellar travel quickly eat into the ROI of enslaving humans, or stealing water, or invading the earth. There's plenty of ice floating around the universe. Efficiency experts tell us humans make crappy slaves, and the earth is too far from anywhere to make it worth invading. If aliens are visiting earth, it's to gather something completely unique.
We're unique because we dance, we sing, and we tell stories. Hopefully we do it well. Wouldn't it be ironic if the arts are the gateway to the heavens? Wouldn't it be a surprise if the green-skinned aliens laugh at our feeble attempts at math, but are wowed by our artwork? What if our best artists don't measure up to the intergalactic virtuosos? We'll be trying to trade our Picassos for warp drives, only to be told our palettes are "limited and immature"!
Historically, earthly invasions are done for land or resources, rationalized by politics. Unexpectedly, cultures intermingle. Songs are exchanged, religions cross-pollinate, genes are swapped. Ireland, for example, has been repeatedly invaded, yet still exists and continues to give us a stream of song and dance. They aren't remembered for their land - they're remembered for their culture.
The alien trappings I create in Plastic Thingy try to obey the laws of physics and chemistry. Sociology, unlike physics and chemistry, is far more fuzzy, so I'm allowed to stretch the edges. That said, there are limits. It's not reasonable to assume aliens speak English. It's not reasonable to assume they are bipeds with sensory organs clustered at the top of their torsos. It's not reasonable to assume they experience the same emotions. Or, perhaps they do. Like Roger implies, we don't know what we don't know, so it's reasonable to assume we are exhibiting our ignorance. Plastic Thingy follows these assumptions, presenting my idea of aliens and their behavior.
By the way - Hankins Hardware is a real place. It's at 1720 SE Hawthorne in Portland, right across the street from McMenamins Barley Mill Pub. If you visit the Barley Mill Pub, you'll understand why I refer to it as Jerry's Bar. But be sure to walk into Hankins and proudly exclaim "I need a red plastic thingy". The friendly folks working behind the counter will smile and welcome you into the club.
March 31, 2014
March 17, 2014
February 23, 2014
August 21, 2013
(This is obviously a rhetorical question. If you don't understand why, call me and I'll explain.)
My sons suggested I record Janell and place her voice in the GPS. Wouldn't she feel better if the GPS was using a familiar voice? How would I feel?
How much of our humanity do we place in the circuits of our machines?
I've been a Software Product Manager and am familiar with the design, testing and release of complex products. From the outside, software engineering is a boring process of endless meetings and isolation in front of a monitor. From the inside, it's an emotional and creative endeavor, sometimes involving loud voices and tears - certainly frustration. Walter, Jonathan Benally and Monty Cohon, three characters in the story, are distillations of the people I've met during this process and their passion is in the story. I felt honored by this comment from Stanley Schmidt when he bought the story for Analog...
"I reread this and was freshly impressed by how well you convey the flavor of engineering--which is seldom appreciated, much less understood, by the many who've never done any but take for granted the fruits of its labor."
Honestly - this comment made the entire story worth every keystroke. (Thanks Stan).
~ ~ ~
The first of the three stories, centered around Tiffany Stott's encroaching dementia, was also the first segment I wrote. It was supposed to be the only segment. I explored the idea of technology echoing someone's previous relationship and considered the short story a finished topic, only requiring three-thousand words. I shared it with Rick Lovett who informed me about the nuances of word count in the traditional Science Fiction publishing world. Three-thousand words was too much for flash fiction and not enough for most short-story buyers. Besides, Rick felt there was more to be said.
I wanted to sell the story, but I liked it as is. Adding a character, or a sub-plot, or extending Tiffany's final confused walk wasn't working for me. If I was going to extend the story, I needed something unexpected. I looked around for a part of the existing story that might have interesting potential. Officer Renfro wasn't part of the story just yet, which left the Doctor, the Roomba and Walter.
I realized Walter was worthy of further exploration. But, since Walter was dead in Tiffany's story, Walter's tale would happen before Tiffany's. However, I liked Tiffany's story as it was; adding an additional story prior to Tiffany's would require a re-write - the ending just wasn't strong enough to carry both Walter and Tiffany. The not-so-obvious solution was to have Walter's story appear after Tiffany's, but set chronologically before it.
After I decided this was to be a two part story, the middle segment exploring the military background of the L.A.S.S.I.E. came to mind. But it needed people - the stories are about human relationships, not technology. Additionally, those people needed to relate to Tiffany and Walter; the overall story was developing two threads: L.A.S.S.I.E, and the relationships between the characters. I enjoyed the emerging challenge, but realized I needed to start taking notes to keep things straight. The characters were intertwined, and their lifelines needed continuity with each other. Here's the resulting timeline...
Creating a timeline was essential to this story. If you are a writer, continuity is essential - your readers will demand it; losing track will mark you with a big "R" - for "Rookie". I had to tweak this table several times to get it right.
~ ~ ~
Since I've never been in combat, the middle story required quite a bit of research and caution. I have no experience with automatic weapons and certainly no idea what it's like to take cover from enemy gunfire. All of my war experience comes from the U.S. Army's Stories of Valor (www.army.mil/valor), "Saving Private Ryan", and Wikipedia articles about the M16 Rifle.
True-life Army stories give me shivers, but peering through the dispassionate account of the creation of the M16 rifle makes me extremely uncomfortable. The Wikipedia article on the creation of the M16 includes a chilling statement; "The number one predictor of casualties were the total number of bullets fired." Thinking like a Product Manager, I find myself breaking the problem down into features, benefits, priorities and dependencies. How can I maximize the volume of projectiles delivered by a soldier? That question fails to connect to the person targeted with the maximized volume of downstream projectiles; the humanity has been washed out of the story.
The L.A.S.S.I.E., unlike the M16, still has elements of humanity on it's motherboard. Private Renfro knows his Grandfather and Benally were instrumental on the project, but is unaware his improvised repair works because of their engineering ethics. Which is one of the messages I hope appears throughout the story - the ethics of engineers, in contrast to the popular myth of the amoral scientist.
The war segment may be the most exciting, but it's main purpose is to glue the first and last segments together. I will note I couldn't have written the last segment without having already written the second segment.
~ ~ ~
I'm not sure I would recommend this reverse chronology type of story-telling. It worked for "memento", but I probably confused some readers. Stan asked if I would add dates to the story to segment the sections. The additional date in the Karakoram Mountain segment was also his suggestion to clarify the sudden shift in perspective. It's all very tricky and Jo-Anne Odell with Tangent mentioned in her review "I felt tossed through a succession of hoops."
There are wisps of personal experience scattered throughout the stories, as well as appearances by many of my co-workers, friends and extended family. All characters appearing in this work are aggregates of cherry-picked mannerisms. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is only temporary. Since L.A.S.S.I.E. isn't a person, I'll admit it was directly inspired by the Big Dog robot from Boston Dynamics.
After writing this story, I worry I may not have anything else worth saying. I've incorporated most of my personal experiences, used up a lot of good quotes and emptied my storage locker of all the good characters. Perhaps everything I write from here on is just a re-hash of these themes.
But then, along comes a story like "A Cup of Dirt". I guess I have more stories in me...
May 28, 2013
If you haven't already read "A Cup of Dirt", you'll find a short story set on a space station orbiting earth. Enzo, an engineer from Italy working on a space station module install, gets bored and accepts a challenge to create dirt - soil - on the station. What's the challenge? Space stations are industrial clean rooms. Dirt ruins experiments, clogs filters, breaks machinery, and ultimately threatens lives, if not profitability. Enzo is actively breaking the rules on a dare. We've got secrets. We've got intrigue. Finally, we've got young station workers in search of romance. Forget the dirt - romance is the main problem.
The story is written in my comfort zone of hard science fiction. No laser weapons, no faster-than-light travel. Everything works according to common laws of physics. At some point, I may stray outside of these self-imposed rules, but for this story I chose to operate in an entirely predictable world. It does mean I have to be careful with staging. Space station employees can't just walk across the room unless there is gravity - and since we haven't discovered artificial gravity, I have to be sure that my scenes acknowledge this fact.
At one point, two characters go to visit a third character in a maintenance room. Pressurized room on a space station is at a premium, pressurized rooms with gravity even more so. The easiest way to create gravity is with a hub-and-spoke spinning station, which places gravity rooms on the outside of the hub. Maintenance rooms are mostly likely located in one of the spokes. In-between are passageways with gravity that reduces as you climb "up" towards the center. Knowing the Analog crowd, I did my research to make sure the characters would do the appropriate actions. I did find a benefit - a floating ponytail plays an amusing part in the ensuing love triangle.
I originally conceived the story in the fall of 2010 when Janell and I were visiting World Fellowship, a camp she worked at during her college years. The camp staff maintain a collection of gardens, growing local produce and using them to produce incredible meals. There is nothing like the intense taste of a locally-grown tomato and for whatever reason, I transported the camp to the confines of a space station - including the staff and their love of fresh food.
A challenge of science fiction is to find the excitement hiding in the dry world of research. Science can be tedious - research requires repeatability and documented results - which implies doing the same thing over and over and over. Not as exciting as a high-speed chase through an asteroid field. My solution as an author is to look alongside the science at the people who do it and are affected by it. Yep - sociology is an exciting field when people's lives actually depend on it. In Cup of Dirt, I accepted the tedium of life on a space station. Any competently-run station will be a boring place. Regulations and double-checking every checklist is job one. Nobody wants drama in space and you're not allowed to make microwave popcorn - smoke from burning popcorn in a space station is a big, damn, deal.
The camp we were visiting provided me with a staff of twenty-somethings ripe for some interesting sociology. Shakespeare did wonders with this demographic and if you're even halfway paying attention, you'll notice I was inspired by his comedic romances.
The characters were almost handed to me completely fleshed out. With some tweaks, you'll find the 2010 summer staff of World Fellowship well represented in this story. I've never met them - but I do have their pictures from the staff wall. I've found that once I can find the photo of a character, writing their backstory is easy. Writer tip: use google image search to find portraits of your characters.
I had assumed space stations would have international staff and would include Russians, Americans, Japanese, French and Italians - probably more nations as well. So I dived in. And blundered around, making a terrible mess of the whole thing. I had Russians shouting "Skol!", and mispronouncing swear words. When I first submitted the story to Analog, Stan Schmidt kicked it back, requesting that I check my use of the Russian language. It takes a village to fix ham-handed language mistakes; in my case, Alex Shvartsman, writers from the codex writers forum, neighbors and friends. It was actually a lot of work getting everything fixed up and believable.
I've been accused of portraying the women in the story as vacuum-headed sexpots. Granted, there is a lot of sensuality being traded around. But don't get me wrong - I'm solidly in the camp of realistic portrayal. Nobody goes outside in a flimsy spacesuit, no matter what kind of body they might have to show off to the bug-eyed aliens. That would just be bad space-station policy.
But the Sidorova sisters are sexy - and smart - and human. Just like the twenty-somethings I hung out with during my summers at Camp Widjiwagan in Northern Minnesota. Of course, they are amped up - it's a short story after all and everything needs to be louder, brighter and quicker than in real life. Take a look at Captain Jerwin if you think all the women are objectified. I'd strongly advise you don't mess with her during a Senate hearing - or on the Judo mat.
Finally, I am really pleased by the reviews. Locus, SFRevu, and Variety SF all gave it favorable comments. Another bonus writers dig on.
Good results give me energy to keep going on other projects. Next up - more back story for the murder mystery!
January 30, 2013
Traditional children's book publishers will laughingly point out the rules broken by Patches Catches the Sargo County Cattle Rustler. I'm assured there is no chance it will ever hit the mainstream. I understand. After all, I can recite hard and fast rules used by the software industry to predict wins and failures. The rules exist for a reason.
For example, "Patches" uses 1,775 words to relate it's story about a young man, his Border Collie and a cattle rustler. That makes it roughly 500 words longer than optimal length for a picture book. It's 24 pages long - eight pages shorter than the optimal 32 pages for an easy reader book, but twelve pages longer than optimal for a toddler book. According to the rules used by the publishing industry, it needs to be shortened. It needs to use smaller words. Or it needs to be longer with fewer illustrations. Or it should just be a manuscript with no illustrations. Poor Patches, you do not fit a mold.
Bucking good advice, Patches is available in print. You think I'd know better. Actually, I do know better. But I went ahead and self-published. Here's three reasons.
One: I've already been turned down by traditional publishers.
In truth, I haven't been turned down; I haven't received any physical rejection letters. Rather, I've simply never heard back regarding any of the manuscript submissions I've sent out. Not surprising: I'm an unknown author, they were unsolicited manuscripts and I am not represented by an agent. Experienced editors will agree those three strikes are common to most submissions and are deadly. If I'm lucky, one of those manuscripts is located in a stack of paper four feet high - along with 3,000 other hapless submissions. If I'm average, that four foot pile of haplessness was sent to the shredder long ago.
Writers get turned down - that's part of the deal. I have a friend with a goal of ten rejection letters for every story he writes. Experienced writers agree; unsolicited, un-agented manuscripts have no chance, but send them anyways. If you're not failing, you're not trying. So - I'm trying.
Two: Publishers cater to the widest profitable market. Patches doesn't.
Publishers are successful when they've found a profitable market, have a clear idea of market requirements, and know how to deliver successful books. No small feat - book markets are incredibly competitive and profits are shrinking. Good editors use all the above-mentioned rules of thumbs to keep on the profitable side of publishing. Careless editors find new jobs.
Patches might find a profitable niche. The cost for me to find that sweet spot is almost nothing. If I'm lucky, I find it and Patches becomes a household item.
Three: I think it's the right book.
I like the story. Kids like it. It's a well-crafted book with professional illustrations. The story deserves to be printed.
I'm lucky. I don't need Patches to be a raging success. I wrote the story on a whim, the illustrator needed a project (make no mistake - there is no way I could have afforded the quality of artwork he created) and I have the skills to produce the project. It all came together and felt right, so it happened.
Will I be published by a traditional publisher? Possibly not.
Should I have abandoned Patches? Certainly not.