Space Opera With a Twist

Month: March 2015

Milestones and Wasted Weekends

I’ve just passed the 100,000 word mark on The Path of Duty and I’m in the home stretch for the first draft.  If I keep with it, I’ll be done by Thursday, just in time to enjoy the Easter holidays without feeling the need to write.  It’s been a long slog, and I’ve spent every weekend since just after New Year’s writing.  I don’t think I spent that many hours on my second job when I was still active in the Army Reserve – at least that was only one or two weekends a month and one night a week, not every weekend and every evening.  Mrs Thomson did warn me, when I hung up the uniform, that I’d find something else to occupy my spare time, since my character quirks do abhor a vacuum.  I just didn’t imagine it would take over my life quite as thoroughly.  I can’t say I’m wasting my time off from my day job, that’s for sure, although I have a hard time imagining that I can keep this pace going until I retire from my day job in three years and can devote those eight hours a day I give my employer, to my writing.  I suppose that when the good weather is here, the backwoods trails will be calling me, and my weekend writing will drop accordingly.  After a nice long summer Sunday’s hike through the hills, I’m really not good for anything else for the rest of the day.

Speaking of milestones, Mrs Thomson was commenting on how fast time flies as she pointed at a picture on the wall above my computer this morning.  It shows me and a few of my colleagues at a military event, back in 2008.  I would retire from the Army three short years later.  While it doesn’t make me feel old, it does remind me that tempus fugit – time flies.  And time has surely flown over the last few weeks.  I can recall celebrating the 40,000 word mark on the second Dunmoore, when it didn’t even have a working title, early last month, and now the finish line is in sight.  I think I’ll leave it where it stands for today and enjoy a few hours off before supper.  Perhaps a nice glass of red wine as a reward would be appropriate.  The final battle is brewing, the enemy is in sight, and Siobhan Dunmoore is finalizing her plan to deal with him, so she can get her crew and her ship home.

More Origins

I was working on The Path of Duty in my small home office the other day, as I do pretty much every day and was finding it a slow, hard process to squeeze the words out of my brain and onto the page.  As I often do when procrastination or writer’s fatigue hit me, I let my mind and eyes wander.  Sometimes they wander into my web browser and I surf until I’m ready to squeeze some more.  Sometimes I look over the room I’m in.  You can probably picture it.  A computer on an Ikea desk, with Ikea bookcases along the walls.  This being the room officially termed “The Home Office,” the bookcases contain mostly non-fiction.  Besides professional tomes, books on scuba diving and the normal reference volumes, they also hold a large part of my military and historical non-fiction collection, with books ranging from Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Guderian’s Achtung Panzer! and everything in between.  The cases also hold my favourite military fiction stories, in particular WEB Griffin’s many series.  What struck me that day was the sight of a very old favourite among favourites, and mandatory reading in some military organisations, Anton Myrer’s most excellent novel Once An Eagle.  I had forgotten it was there, piled on top of Liddell Hart’s histories and some old aide-memoires from my cavalry days.

For those who have never experienced Once An Eagle, I call it the most inspirational study of leadership, albeit fictional, ever written.  I was first exposed to it in my early Army days, and have read it every few years since then.  Naturally, I also own the mini-series based (quite faithfully as Hollywood goes) on the novel.  Staring up at the faded, creased spine of the book while trying to shed a renewed bout of procrastination, I realized that I owed more than a bit of Dunmoore to Anton Myrer’s seminal tale of two officers, each rising through the ranks during war and peace, but in very different ways, owing to their very different natures, and the conflicts they experience.  I’m not saying that Dunmoore is patterned on either of Myrer’s characters, but that the lessons I absorbed reading Once An Eagle and the reflection of its main message that I saw during my time in the Service helped me form the protagonist that is now Siobhan Dunmoore.  She’s not Sam Damon, but she shares his sense of honour and duty.  And yes, I’ve met Sam Damons and Courtney Massengales in my time.  Fortunately more of the former than the latter, and I’ve always known which ones I would follow gladly.

It’s been a few years.  Perhaps it’s time to spend a few evenings with an old friend – after the first draft of The Path of Duty is done.

Sunday Thoughts on Fate and Time

A colleague at work attracted my attention to this article the other day, after our discussion on the current project went off on a tangent, as these always seem to do.

Being a science-fiction writer, my first thought of course, was how to weave this notion about retrocausality into a story.  I’m sure an idea will come at the most unexpected moment, and likely not in terms of time travel fiction, a genre I always find hard to enjoy – with a few exceptions.  I guess part of my not being a fan of time travel fiction stems from seeing the 1960 movie The Time Machine, based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name, when I was quite young, certainly younger than ten and thus highly impressionable.  The Morlocks gave me nightmares for a long time, and even though I’ve never seen it since, I can still remember some of the scenes with frightening clarity.  As I grew older, my memories of the story shifted from the horror of the Morlocks to the more existential horror of human civilization essentially destroying itself over and over, which is probably why I’m not fond of post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction either.

You have to admit, the notion that both the future and the past can influence the present is interesting, if mind-bending.  It’s almost as if my future as a best-selling author is influencing my ability to write today.  Just kidding.  Or am I?

And on that note, back to The Path of Duty on this bone-chilling Sunday.  Act IV is turning out to be very dense with details, but at this rate, the first draft will be done before Old Man Winter leaves us.  You’ll have noticed that I’ve posted a picture of the cover already.  It’s by the same artist as the cover for Death Comes but Once.   I’ll likely post the usual back of the book blurb in the coming weeks.  It’s fermenting in the back of my brain.


No Rhyme or Reason

Writing isn’t much like my day job when I look at the two in terms of the output. My employer expects me to deliver a constant stream of completed work, no matter how crappy or happy I feel, for a given amount of hours per day. Since, for all intents and purposes I’m my own boss when it comes to writing, you’d think I would apply the same work ethic, i.e. putting out a constant stream of work for a given number of hours per evening or weekend, especially seeing as how the sales of my novels bring in a modest, but welcome extra income stream. It doesn’t seem to work out that way. Since I already know where the story is going and what the events are going to be, creative inspiration isn’t an issue, not when the first draft of the second Dunmoore book is over two thirds done. I should, in theory, be able to put out 2,000-3,000 words a day (yes, I’m a touch typist, so I can work the keyboard almost as fast as I dream up the dialogue), but I’ve found it impossible to keep any sort of regular work schedule. Some days, when I’m feeling particularly beaten up by the endless cold that’s been plaguing me for weeks, I can be extraordinarily productive, such as yesterday, when I wrote over 3,600 words – a chapter and a half – after a regular day at work. Whereas last Sunday, when I had nothing to do but write, I struggled to produce more than 1,500 words, and on Monday, I produced nothing. Some days when I feel just fine, I can’t bother myself to open the manuscript and pound the keyboard. I find it somewhat ironic that after all the years I’ve lived in a highly disciplined environment like the Army, and with my current employment in IT, I’m not able to discipline myself to write at a consistent rate. Writer’s block happens, but not when I know how the story will go. Doing simple math, if I could write consistently 2,000 words a day, five days a week, I could have a first draft done in twelve to fourteen weeks. Interestingly, my very productive days still seem to make up in large part for the days I’m too lazy to write, and I still have a good chance of seeing the first draft completed by Easter. Should I hit that target, it means I’ll have used fifteen weeks, give or take, and that includes a rewrite of the first 100 pages, when the story meandered along a path that actually started to bore me, so you can imagine how much it would have pained a reader. Strangely enough, when I did that rewrite, I was very much contemplating shifting the story’s focus to a different plot device, yet as I continued writing, it pulled me back to the original MacGuffin, only better fleshed out, with more twists and turns. Yesterday, I firmly fixed that MacGuffin into place by writing the last chapter, or at least the important part of the last chapter, thereby ensuring that I wouldn’t lose focus as I write the last hundred or so pages between where the story is now, and its conclusion. I figured with all the red herrings swimming the star lanes, I had better make sure I didn’t try to get too cute. The final confrontation between Dunmoore and the story’s antagonist(s) is about to be written, starting as early as this weekend. I’ll be interested to see how my output fares. Plotting heavy action scenes is always harder for me than writing snappy dialogue, and I need to make sure that I don’t grossly violate physics or military principles while doing so and yet not end up with a Staff College treatise on deep-space combat operations either. The temptation to expound on tactics can be great, especially when one has read so many stories where the military commanders make decisions that defy logic in an attempt to advance a plot. I figure if I have to justify to myself why I’m having Dunmoore or her foes make the decisions they make, I’m on the wrong track. For an experienced starship captain, fighting should come naturally, and the writing needs to reflect that. As well, hiding behind devices like a bad guy’s lunacy to explain boneheaded decisions won’t fly, hence my statement that plotting the heavy action is more work for me, especially if I want to do it with any sort of intellectual honesty. It needs to be on a happy middle ground between ‘See hill, take hill’ simplicity and Clausewitz, with a dash of Sun Tzu for flavouring. I may get lucky and have a stream of consciousness driving my writing of the culminating confrontation, or I may struggle to put words to paper in a coherent fashion. Either way, the next two weeks will be harder than the last eight, but having already committed the book’s last chapter to the page, I’ve given myself the incentive to plow through. The ending also nicely sets up events in the larger universe and will serve to drive future episodes of the life and times of Siobhan Dunmoore, Commonwealth Navy, and therefore I can start thinking about the MacGuffin for Book Three when I’m not actively working on Book Two.

Life Happens

Writing this week has come to a halt, not for want of inspiration, but because life (and death) intervened. The health of one of our beloved dogs had deteriorated rapidly over the last two or three weeks, and while we’ve known for a few months now that the chances of her seeing another summer were diminishing, we weren’t quite prepared to say goodbye so quickly. She made more trips to the vet in her last two weeks of life than in the entire previous year as we tried a number of tests and medication to fix what was ailing her. It didn’t dawn on us until earlier this week that we’d been giving her palliative care, and that nothing was going to cure her from dying. The vet, of course, knew but had to let us come to that realization ourselves. Although she turned 13 last November, her breed could be expected to live a few years longer, as evidenced by her older brother, who is turning 15 in April and even though he’s deaf as a post and mostly blind, is still in good health. But our little girl has had some health issues in the past, including major surgery for cancer, so it wasn’t exactly unexpected that she would not live for a full span of years.  However, logic has nothing to do with emotions. On Wednesday, Mrs Thomson came home for lunch and found that our girl, who’d been barking and bouncing at breakfast, was struggling to breathe. Her body, after a brief burst of morning energy, was shutting down and doing so very quickly. The end had come. I was in a business meeting when I got a text from my wife. Even before I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check, I knew that it wasn’t going to be good news. All she wrote was: “At the vet. Saying goodbye.” That’s when I realized how deeply one courageous little dog had touched my heart. By the time the meeting was over, a second text told me she was gone. I haven’t much felt like writing since then. We try not to be too sentimental about our dogs, but they are an integral part of our lives, even when they’re exasperating, as terriers can often be. It comes with the strong character. We’ve not opted to keep her ashes in a tiny urn or encumber ourselves with any other such memorials. Our pint-sized dog’s spirit is gone wherever good dogs go when their time with us is over, and that is that. But last night, I decided that I might remember her valiant little heart in some other fashion, so don’t be surprised if a small dog gets a line or two in one of my novels. That’s about the closest thing to immortality I can give a creature that gave us so much love. Rest in peace, little one. I’m sure Dunmoore and crew aren’t objecting to the hiatus, even if I left them hanging at the very moment they’re attacking.

Titles and Genres

I’m approaching the two-thirds completion mark for the first draft of Dunmoore Book 2. I’ve tentatively titled it The Path of Duty, and so far it’s unfolding pretty much along the lines I indicated in an earlier post. I’ve also started work on developing the cover, and the artwork I’ve chosen should fit well.

As I’m writing, I’ve been reflecting on genres and categories, and how it’s not always easy to pigeon-hole a story. I write science-fiction, that’s clear, and by the definition of space opera, my stories fit into that sub-genre, no question about it. Where it gets interesting is where Dunmoore (and Decker for that matter) fit within the realm of space opera. My stories are in part military SF, for sure, but they also contain healthy doses of mystery and intrigue, and have less battle scenes than many novels in the military SF sub-genre. Whatever that sub-sub-genre is, it seems to have plenty of readers, and that’s great. I personally don’t enjoy military SF where it’s just one battle after another. War has been described as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, and while one doesn’t wish to bore the reader, I enjoy reading (and writing) about the build-up to those moments of terror, because they’re all the more exciting by being anticipated. Too much of one thing and it becomes like the parable of the teenager cranking up the volume on his mp3 player: at some point, you reach the limit and it doesn’t go any higher. Let me tell you, it isn’t easy writing it that way sometimes.

Right now, I have the climax of the story rattling in my brain, the battles that will bring those moments of terror, and I can see the Stingray swooping in for the kill. But I have to get there, to stitch a logical sequence of events together that set the stage for the action, and not be boring about it. I try to avoid techno-babble and information dumps, but at some point, I do have to paint the backdrop and set the stage. Finding the right balance is an art. As I’m nearing page 200 in the manuscript, I’m beginning to realize that the earlier chapters were perhaps too bare of texture, as I compare them to the richer scenes I’m currently writing, and that’s mostly due to the fact that I wanted to get to the action as soon as possible. Now, I’m more interested in creating the depth necessary to make the action understandable as well as exciting and to slowly reveal the mystery behind the intrigue. The first rewrite is going to be curious, as I can see myself adding rather than subtracting, although the subtracting will come in the second rewrite, I’m sure. I’m also discovering once again that my antagonists have more depth to them than I thought, and that their motivations aren’t as clearly good or evil as one often sees in the genre. The danger, of course, is to turn everyone into various shades of gray, and where is the visceral fun of that?

Back to The Path of Duty. I’m still on track to have the first draft done by Easter, even if some days I’m utterly uninspired. I make it up by having really productive days in between. If, after the first rewrite, I’m reasonably satisfied with the first chapter or two, I might just post them here as a teaser.