Author Archives: alonia

Theatre of the Mind

Recently, I was chatting with my cover artist (Javenny and Transient City) and Dan commented he really enjoyed working on my novels because they ‘read like a movie’. Aside from being quite flattered, I examined why this was so. I certainly visualize each scene in my stories but does it always translate to the page and even more importantly, to the reader?

An essay on writing I read many years ago by Samuel Delany, advised his technique is to describe in detail what the character is touching, seeing, doing, hearing, etc. while they move or are engaged in dialogue. We can’t all be Delany but when I remember to consider his method, I try to incorporate it.

But there are the pitfalls and the forgetful moments. Looking at pieces where I’ve not created a sufficient visual, I see a few reasons. First, when I’m creating first draft, often I’m writing flat out; I see action and dialogue but don’t have time for the descriptive details, fearing I’ll forget where my enthusiasm is taking the story.

A second excuse no doubt stems from my background writing short stories where idea, plot and character may take centre stage. Descriptive background is a victim of brevity. This isn’t always true; one of the shorts I’m proudest of, Knights Exemplar (On Spec #90, Fall 2012) is a very visual tale. The environment plays contrast to the gathering fighters, one more opponent for them and the townspeople to combat.

The third culprit may be a lack of ‘seeing’ the setting. I haven’t exploited the panorama of the story to its full potential. A recent critique of a fantasy novel observed some of my scenes suffered from ‘white room syndrome’. In this book, I have a very clear vision of each scene but my execution was obviously lacking. I need to revisit those weak points and immerse the characters in their environment and with economy of words paint a better picture.

This visual dynamic is a talent I demonstrate, if my artist is to be believed (and I take positive comments very seriously!), but to improve my consistency is the goal. If my readers can imagine themselves not just reading words but seeing pictures, then the prose is more memorable.

Theatre of the mind is a phrase often used to describe radio drama. Unique in media, radio employs only sound to paint its pictures, the listener creates the theatre from the voice inflections of the actors and the sound effects. Occasionally a narrator may intrude but the break is brief. Many historians point to its visual competitor, television as the executioner of radio drama, citing even bad TV held more interest than superb radio. Not entirely true: the British, Canadian and other radio drama departments continued to thrive up to the present. American radio drama died because the networks sold more advertising on TV than their abandoned radio departments.

My appreciation of OTR (Old Time Radio) does help in trying to create an image in as few words as possible, and using dialog and narrative both to accomplish same.

This added depth isn’t merely a ‘nice-to-have’, I see it as another tool in the writer’s kit to be used well. To stand out from the many other excellent books and stories my audience could be reading. Get them to come back, even if they don’t examine ‘WHY’ in detail, entertainment value for their time and money investment is what I strive for.

Finding the Juice

I’ve experienced a mushroom cloud of creative activity over the last few days (thanks a lot, two A.M. brain!) and it’s spurred me to consider why.

The ideas for a new novel assault me when I should be asleep. I see plot, character, setting, twists, science and more in many levels which will intertwine in the final product. Is it because my mind at oh-dark-thirty is more receptive to the writerly slave working in the back room who isn’t allowed to take a night off for slumber?

Or is it more? I’ve spent the last two months revising and proof-reading Transient City (May 2016 publish date, see previous post on Reveals Part 1), rewriting my sequel to Javenny (working title Rebuilding Javenny) and evaluating recent critiques on a fantasy novel. Writing but not creating. So perhaps the subconscious is flexing its muscles and readying for the next novel-building marathon. I also took 2 weeks off from nearly all writing for a warm vacation.

The initial idea arose from squatting in the surf on Kameole Beach in Hawaii, waiting for the next good wave. California surf-buddies imparted a rule-of-thumb years ago that every sixth wave or so is a magnitude larger, i.e. the best one to catch. I have observed decent similar periodicity on the west coast of Canada but my observation in Hawaii don’t support it there. Nevertheless, I began noodling a short story idea around a sporting pursuit opening the dialogue between human and alien. “Waiting On The Sixth Wave” would be the title and I made no more notes than that.

Post-vacation, post-proofing final Transient City PDF copy, more ideas begin to come. The initial idea I recognized as unoriginal and would need a couple of Ken Rand’s 90 degree turns before I’d feel good about spending time on it. But then these nocturnal ideas came tumbling down. I think there’s a novel in it, and one which will be neat to write. The ‘wave’ in the title somehow got switched to a specific geometric term. A bit of mathematical refreshment added to the mixture and to deepening plot threads.

Recipe: The right brain wants what the right brain wants, I can only keep in down for so long during editorial revision stretches. Take an occasional break from all writing without guilt—I will be the richer for it.

Transient City Reveals part 1

My next novel from Bundoran Press, Transient City, will be released in May, 2016 (available to pre-order now, see links on Novels page).

A science fiction, noir, diesel-punk whodunit, I indulged in a bit of self-referencing fun in character names and chapter titles. For those who want to ‘get it’, here’s a reveal on some of the character names.

For any fan of hard-boiled fiction, the names Gault, Gruber and McGivern all are known and revered. I used the surnames of three of the Bureau’s detectives in homage to authors I respect outside the writers accorded the most adulation (Hammett and Chandler).

William Campbell Gault, whom I acknowledge in the frontispiece of the novel had two distinct but contemporaneous writing careers. I discovered his juvenile fiction in my elementary and junior high school libraries, primarily his car and motorcycle novels. Not as gritty as Henry Gregor Felson, Gault’s coming-of-age in a car or bike stories were filled with the passion I felt for the day I’d have my driver’s license and own vehicle, either 2 or 4-wheeled. He also wrote a number of straight sports novels for football players, which I was most definitely not, nor likely to become. Size didn’t matter when it came to wheeling a race car down the quarter mile or around Indianapolis. Gault’s hard-boiled creations Brock Callahan and Joe Puma would fill another shelf. Above all, Gault was a professional, who appeared to like being a writer and entertainer. And to give young readers a reason to pick up the next book, whether it be his or not.

Frank Gruber scraped through the early depression years writing and being rejected. After ‘breaking in’ in 1934, he proceeded to write more than 300 stories for over 40 pulps and more than sixty novels (source: Wikipedia). A one-man fiction factory all-but forgotten in the mainstream today.

William P. McGivern wrote some science fiction early in his career but settled on mysteries as his primary field. His background as a police reporter served his novels well and they hum with accuracy and the seamy side of law-enforcement. In later years he wrote a lot of movie and television scripts.
The McGuffin character, Raoul Field takes his name from another prolific Black Mask contributor, Raoul Whitfield.

I urge interested readers to check these writers out.

To come: Reveals Part 2.


In August, I had the good fortune to attend two conventions back to back. First, the 5th annual When Words Collide in Calgary, then the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention, Sasquan, in Spokane.

WWC is a genre-focused festival embracing SF, Fantasy, YA, Mystery, Horror and Romance. Writers, editors and publishers from North America participate in numerous panels, pitch sessions, launches, readings, signings, parties and general comaraderie. The limit of 500 registrants keeps the convention personal. The organizers’ reputation and hard work, attendees’ commitment to their craft and Calgary’s friendliness ensure top guests. Check out the list here:

WWC also schedules pre and post-con workshops offering in-depth writing and business sessions.

The modest size allows WWC to fit in one hotel; the smallish dealers room and con-suite ensures you’ll see everyone at least once over the weekend and it’s an easy venue to make new friends and contacts.

I’ve had the privilege to participate in 3 book launches this year and last, adding to the satisfaction of membership. WWC is a cozy-con, a relaxing experience or an exhilarating, exhausting one. It’s the attendee’s choice.

WorldCon is a much different beast, though no less passionately attended, just by thousands rather than hundreds of fans, readers, gamers, costumers, cosplayers, plus all of the above. WorldCon focuses on speculative fiction and my first SF con of this magnitude staggered the mind.

The organizational army produces 5 days of panels and workshops across a dozen or more hourly venues from 10:00 am until the wee hours. This is not a convention for sleeping. The four main sponsored hotels connected the patrons to the Spokane Convention Center via 20 minute bus intervals.

Guests attend WorldCons from all over the globe. I attended one panel with one of Japan’s rising star authors, Taiyo Fujii. Though English was not his first language, Taiyo ingratiated himself easily to the crowd with his humour, humility and enthusiasm. Sasquan’s headliner guests join in the marathon with pleasure. They’re always ‘on’ and seem to enjoy themselves.

The contrast between the two conventions for me was significant. One’s a night or two at the bar with close friends, the other a test of endurance. The similarities are greater though. The feeling of community exists no matter what the scale (Sasquan was a really big scale). Immersion is the key to satisfaction and I learned I should stay at the venues for the full experience (we have a summer place 30 miles outside Spokane and I chose to commute—limits the late night involvement). The professionals are there to help us burgeoning pros and to demonstrate the responsibility which accompanies success.

The dealers’ room is massive. I got the feeling with chatting to the vendors, they are present as much to meet new friends and speak with old ones as to sell their wares (the bigger publishers being the exception).

Also on display: a huge artist gallery, a really cool photography exhibit featuring B/W head shots of well-known writers, artists, editors and fans. A historical walk through memorabilia from every WorldCon beginning in 1939 was a glorious way to spend a half hour or so, absorbing the legacy of the genre and its fandom.

Add continuous auctions, opening speeches and the ultimate announcement and celebration of the Hugo Awards (not to ignore this year’s controversy but better explained elsewhere) and one cannot forget WorldCon is the giant.

Fortunately, there are conventions to choose from nearly every weekend across North America: small, medium or large. With the enthusiasm of the guests and participant, none disappoint.

Hope to see you at WWC in 2016!


My wife and I viewed the March 20, 2015 total eclipse of the sun from Vagar in the Faroe Islands. We chose the venue first, in conjunction with a bonus week in Iceland, checking off bucket list items galore. The Faroes have been a destination wish since reading William Trotter’s “Warrener’s Beastie” and Simon Winchester’s “Atlantic”. A desire to visit Iceland goes back much further since seeing the 1959 version of “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. When we discovered an eclipse might be visible from admittedly an often-overcast bucketlist location, we were in.

Unlike many of our fellow pilgrims, we were total eclipse virgins. I’ve done many partials over the years, even as a kid staring through doubled-up exposed film negatives (127 – mother’s box camera), and later pinhole projections for my kids and office mates. The trip and location were so fantastic that even had we not seen totality, there would have been no disappointment. The weather on the Faroes leading up to March 20 was variable: rain, cloud, fog. First contact was due at 08:38. It was raining while we had breakfast then donned our gear to venture outside next to the airport. 8000 eclipse chasers had descended on the 49000 residents leading up to the day but our viewing area consisted only of our TravelQuest group. We huddled and clutched equipment, watching the skies break and close. Then, first contact was visible. More cloud. A break opened at around half coverage, the moon’s disc invading the sun’s glow. A crescent sun but shaped unlike the crescent moon, I could imagine the moon between earth and sun, not just a flat image. As totality neared, the light became silvery grey around us, shadows sharpened to knife-edge clarity (the sun no longer being an illuminating disc), the temperature dropped, cheers and awe greeted the diamond ring, Baily’s beads, and suddenly: totality. The eclipse glasses came off so we could view the corona through binoculars, telescopes, cameras and the naked eye. The next two minutes felt like six seconds, but seconds I will never forget.

As one of our tour astronomers put it, “the total eclipse experience cannot be reproduced by technology”. It has to be witnessed firsthand. I fully appreciate the passion of those who have travelled around the globe to see them. And more importantly, to share this ‘sense of wonder’ with others. I wasn’t merely sharing it with the others standing in awe around us, but with our ancestors: the ‘primitives’ who invented math and science to explain the world of natural phenomena; the calendar-makers who sought to predict not just seasons so critical to survival, but planetary and other cosmological events; and the story-tellers who created legends to explain the occasions in their gods’ terms. The lineage of ‘those who look up’ joins us in recognizing that in these times of continuous technological wonders, nature will always impress more.

We are no longer newbies to the club. We’ve seen one spectacular total eclipse, it won’t be our last. I understand the addiction. I understand the connections. And it was really neat.

Science Fiction Under the Sea

The human body, reduced to its Arrakis constituents, is approximately 60% water. Water acting as a solvent, carrying a lot of stuff around with it. The body’s fluids are saline, similar in concentration to seawater. Oceans cover about 71% of our planet. Yet the highest evolutionary animal developed on land (for those who prefer to argue that humans may not be the current apex, you can stop reading now); arguably the second-highest evolved on land, then returned to the seas. Sea mythology goes back to and may pre-date the first mariners. Humans have been telling sea stories for thousands of years. Science fiction writers have entertained readers for over a century. Is the sub-genre still relevant 145 years after Jules Verne first published the granddaddy of undersea SF?

My first exposure to science fiction stories set under the ocean was Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. My apprehension was fostered by CBC Theatre 10:30’s excellent adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes (Out of the Deeps). My fascination, however, began with a 3-part Worlds of If serial published in 1967 by Hal Clement. Ocean On Top was later released in 1973 as an early DAW paperback with a great Jack Gaughn cover.

Why the fascination? Apparently, I’m not alone. An internet search of undersea science fiction leads to many sites and lists. The covers sell it (or art-Frank Tinsley lovingly portrayed all kinds of future habitats in many speculative articles for Mechanix Illustrated); the words embellish it. Whether it be sleek submarines hovering over domed cities under the waves, or surgically-altered gillhumans riding sharks (Kenneth Bulmer), the images are compelling. The sea floor is the unknown. Humans at best interact with the epipelagic photic zone on a regular basis. The abyss beckons and threatens. It’s dark and cold; fatal to humans outside a pressure-protected environment. The lure of being able to interact tactilely with whatever denizens of the deep may exist is strong to the exploration-minded. A truly alien environment.

Alien environments are great settings for science fiction exploration. Extra-terrestrial survival requires similar gear to undersea survival: suits to contain and protect the fragile human form. Yet there is a fundamental difference despite the morphologic parallel. Survival in outer space requires keeping the earth’s environment inside the suit or living quarters. Establishing an outpost in the depths of earth’s oceans requires keeping that environment at bay. Surviving under immense pressure may still be easier than in a radiation-charged vacuum.

Every generation of writers returns to the water. Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson’s YA classic Undersea trilogy has been re-issued many times. Kenneth Bulmer did his take with City Under the Sea and To Sail the Silver Sky. Frank Herbert’s Under Pressure is another 1950’s vision. Michael Crichton’s Sphere brought the subgenre (or submarine genre) into the 1980’s and Peter Watts drove a spike into its heart with his disturbingly brilliant Rifters saga at the close of the 20th century.

To return to the question of relevance, science fiction is often a cautionary tale forum. Ecology and overpopulation were brought into the SF readers’ consciousness by such authors as Ursula Leguin (The Word for World is Forest), Harry Harrison (Make Room! Make Room!) and John Brunner (Stand On Zanzibar). The oceans can be as fragile as terrestrial ecological systems so the literary opportunity to examine issues, options and solutions is very relevant to 21st century life. Overpopulation isn’t going away and the oceans feed those nations who can afford to harvest from the sea.

I suspect I’ve missed some recent SF undersea novels and that the genre is alive and thriving. I hope so.

Motivation and Time Management

Often I hear my fellow writers lament the lack of opportunity to write. Or write as much as they desire. The issue isn’t lack of motivation (but I’ll get to that, since it’s in the blog title), but where to squeeze writing in with all the daily demands on their time. Family should come first, I’m on board with that. Neglect family and you might end up with none to neglect.

Recently, I returned from a year-and-a-half of 2 ½ day work weeks in my ‘other’ career (the scientific one what pays the bills) to a 4 day week. Yikes. My first reaction was (in the words of Ward), holy priceless collection of Etruscan snoods, I’ve got this novel to write, this novel to rewrite, this novel to polish and this novel to market. How the hell am I going to maintain my productivity goals when my writing week no longer runs from Wednesday noon to Sunday evening? (just to note, my second reaction was, I appreciate the additional cash flow). I realized I could no longer ‘relax’ my writing goals for Mondays and Tuesdays, since I couldn’t make it up on Wednesday and Thursday. I had to improve my efficiency and exploit all of my potential writing windows.

My plan became, what can I do during my morning and evening public transit commute and my lunch hour on the days I worked? I can carry printed pages of chapters to edit by hand; I can write by hand from scratch; I can read and make scene summaries for outline revision and future drafts. I can then word process the changes at noon or weekends in a binge. I never deny that the slower pace of writing in longhand can often result in superior prose—my brain has more time to think of the right word or phrase.
So how does motivation play into this? For me, using visualization techniques gives me the incentive to establish the above routine. I’ve finished the 2nd draft of a novel in 3 weeks in January and completed a scene by scene go forward action plan for another. Before I mount the bus each morning and afternoon, I’m already visualizing ‘Al the author’, hard at work on his next literary masterpiece. Dave Darrigo created a wonderful comic book series called Wordsmith, the story of Clay Washburn, a depression era pulp writer. When I’m really lacking the oomph to pick away, I become Clay, or Lester Dent, or Frank Gruber, writing because I have to.

I’m not a ‘binge’ writer. I find it difficult to pull a 3 or 4 day sprint, then be drained for a week or a month after. Here’s my tip, as much to remind me as to offer advice to anyone else, you can’t finish a story or novel by writing zero words per day. You can by writing 100 words a day. It may take longer than you envisioned when these marvelous characters/plots/scenes presented themselves, but you will establish the work/reward routine which will become your motivation.

Writerly Routines

A recent link from a friend to this: reaffirmed Kipling’s notion that when it comes to processes, including writing, ‘there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays. And every single one of them is right!’
I would often approach professional, productive authors with the question, “What is your routine?”, hoping for the secret to applying seat of pants to chair and fingertips to keyboard. The magic ‘routine’ for starting, continuing and finishing the next opus didn’t pop out in any consistent method. The common answer usually contains the phrase ‘whatever you find which works for you’.

What worked for me when it came to short fiction, was a binge approach. I would note ideas for stories: plot, character and setting kernels. The next step involved the percolation in the subconscious or fringe of consciousness of the ideas until sometime later, the vision and arc of the complete story would manifest in my brain. Then, I couldn’t wait to get the story onto paper in a weekend or week-long frenzy. Sitting down every day with no ready ideas seemed unreachable or at the very least, if I did attempt the daily routine, a series of unremarkable stories.

Novels were begun but often the momentum ceased between 20 and 30 thousand words. I wrote a number of marketable short stories but never satisfactorily finished longer works.
The opportunity to change the routine came with cutting back in my professional career to a 2 ½ day work week. My writing week now begins Wednesday at noon. Novel writing became the goal and I had to find a process which worked. I have. The energy to write every day either comes out of the process or drives it, I’m still unsure which. The key for me is to set writing as priority-one Wednesday noon thru Sunday. It’s the hard duty but the correct one. Chores, internet and email distractions are all easier; I let those be my reward.

So, write first. I make a daily list, not too specific but the general form might be: write, exercise, lunch, write more, shop/household stuff/motorcycle ride, etc. Solving plot issues while running often happens in the temporary ‘down time’. Creating first draft novels by visiting them every day surprises me with ideas which spring forth while I’m typing. I don’t over-outline; I begin with pretty detailed arcs and an overall plot. The interesting subplots appear as I write though no doubt the subconscious processing is at work. The key for me is not to spend eight hours in a day in the first-draft creative process as I’d run out of the neat surprises. Write, reward, write, reward. If I get 3 to 4 hours per day of initial draft completed, I’m happy and still creative the next day. I don’t go back and revise during this stage. I will read earlier scenes for reference and note where I need to make changes to set up later new ideas. I retro-outline scenes each day which become my second draft revision guidelines. Each scene outline has a summary of events, POV character noted, other characters involved and how it ties to overall arcs and theme. I leave space for revision notes to one side. Second drafts are heavily laden with the same creative process because I’m still adding new things. The 3 to 4 hour days with reward breaks continue. Third and subsequent passes are less creative and more editing focussed so the daily hours can be stretched without losing spark.

Short stories still fit into the routine, though I try write them in the gaps between novel drafts.
As an almost-full-time-writer, the distractions of the profession linger: website maintenance, marketing and publicity, submissions, blurbs and synopses, critiquing fellow writers’ work, research. Add these to normal life duties and it’s little wonder that I tell people I’m semi-retired and working 7 days a week.
I love it.

Edmund Scientific – The Heyday of Science DIY

In various bio sketches, I’ve mentioned my early discovery of science. It began with an older brother’s microscope when I was in elementary, followed by a Porter Chemistry set (#608, if anyone’s keeping notes) acquired when I was 10, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on summer vacation (my saved allowance over the previous many months).

The big expansion came in grade 7, Junior high School, when, golly-bob-howdy, SCIENCE was a stand-alone subject from Mr. Anderson (don’t let his one wonky eye fool ya, the man saw everything). We captured protozoa from pond scum and watched them twitch and move under a microscope; we learned about osmosis with a hollowed-out half potato and maple syrup; we marveled at the explosive wonder of spontaneous combustion courtesy of flour, a drinking straw and a candle: I built dry-cleaner bag and birthday candle hot-air balloon UFO’s. Reading Popular Science Magazine led to those great advertisements from Edmund Scientific. “Space Conqueror Telescope” for the lofty (to me) price of $29.95. Unobtanium. But the catalogs were free.

Digest-sized, 100+ pulp pages of optics, science toys, chemistry and lab equipment, electrical gizmos of all descriptions, war surplus componentry, the singular Spilhaus Space Clock and more, it was the burgeoning mad scientist’s one-stop shopping venue.

The semi-annual catalog changed in small increments. The first task each six months was to determine what was new, and what had gone up in price.

The telescope pages were the highlight for me. The 3″ Space Conqueror reflector; the 4 1/4″ Palomar; the 6″ Space Challenger with choice of manual or clock drive equatorial mount. The refractors, elegant in their classic design.

By the summer between grade 10 and 11, I’d saved enough from my paper route for my first motorbike (Honda S65, used) and the mighty F/10 3″ Space Conqueror. I’ll give to Edmund, they may have skimped a bit on the wobbly wooden tripod ‘semi-equatorial’ mount (if you lived on the 40th parallel) and the 3X finder scope, but they tossed in a whack of literature. A wheeled star-finder, a paperback copy of The Handbook of the Heavens, various how to use your telescope booklets. And the telescope worked. My first backyard explorations of lunar craters, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter and its 4 most visible moons, Venus’ changing disc to crescent, M31, M15, M57, double stars in the Big Dipper, Orion’s nebula. My sense of wonder never went away, even after moving on to bigger scopes (Edmund supplied the mirror kit and Foucault tester I used to grind, polish and perfect an 8″ F/8 mirror. With the help of their literature, old Mechanix Illustrated Amateur Telescope Makers’ pages and ideas of my own, built a very usable ‘scope).

As all things from our youth, Edmund Scientific changed from that cornucopia of evil genius delights to laser shows for would-be rock concert promoters. The company founded by Norman Edmund in the 1940’s and carried forward by son Robert, still exists under the Scientificsonline website. Ordering from Canada became complicated in the 1980’s by the emergence of an associated company, Efston Science, based in Toronto. Canadians had to order from them (at much higher cost, I believe), rather than the New Jersey home.

I wish I’d kept some of those old catalogs of wonder (last time I checked on Ebay, they go for outrageous sums), but they went in the recycler with the Estes and Centuri model rocketry catalogs, the Autoworld model catalogs, and the gum cards.
Norman W. Edmund passed away in 2012 at 95. Pretty neat combination of entrepreneur, science educator and inquiring mind.

Some links:

Writing What I Like To Read

This is a guest post I did for The Fictorian Blog.

“Write what you know.” One of those pieces of advice intended to get you focused. Or, to keep you from writing. I mainly write speculative fiction, so in my case, it’s “write what you don’t know, but wish.” Then add another layer. I write what I like to read. Sounds simple; but what do I like to read?

What draws me in and what authors do I return to and why? How do I know the experience and invested time will be worthwhile?

I like to be immersed in a world which the author has taken time to know. It doesn’t have to be detailed excruciatingly but one can tell if the author has worked it all out so that the setting, (physical, economic, social, political, etc.) works, in the background. This provides the stimuli for the characters to act and react realistically.

So we begin with a consistent, believable setting. The effort to create this in mystery and even conventional horror genres is different than SF or fantasy. The setting must be no less contradictory to what the reader knows or expects. Now, I’m immersed in the author’s world, my disbelief is suspended, what’s next?

Character and plot arcs which intersect, in conflict. Goals which matter; inaction will be fatal. Big points for originality.

I desire characters who exhibit psychological realism. The protagonist may be flawed, may be damaged beyond retrieval, but I want to see their actions and motivations portrayed believably. Their flaws are often the main reason they are in conflict with their environment. They find themselves in conflict willingly or not, but inevitably. Now the writer shows his or her talent by solving the issue through exploiting the character’s weaknesses but building on their strengths as well. And I believe the protagonist should have some strength, otherwise why should I care about them? Making me care about them is the tough art. Put them in a familiar quandary, something universal for the reader to identify with (broken relationship, loss of a loved one or thing, financial hardship, disease, injury, injustice).

I read for entertainment. I write to entertain. I read to learn, not to be converted. I write to teach, not preach. The best writers let me take away their interpretation of an issue of importance. Not necessarily to convince me, but to stimulate my own thoughts on the subject.

The other lure for me is the book containing a ‘big idea’. Hard to define in absolutes but some authors consistently produce a concept and character(s) which transcend the genre; epic in design and originality. Think “The City and The City” by China Mieville.

So much for ‘critical reading’. Sometimes I read for sheer brain candy. Reading to decompress from life. These are the books with no hidden message but I still have my standards. Natural storytellers (Robert E. Howard, William Campbell Gault, Lester Dent, Walter Gibson) can create a setting and characters in conflict in a dozen strokes of their writer’s brush; like a pen artist creating a portrait or landscape in the simplest of lines. They make it look easy but like the artist, it took many false strokes and many wrong words before it became ‘natural’. They apprenticed under the gun of a penny or less per word in the pulps. They learned quickly because they had to eat. I don’t read them critically, as I would the aforementioned China Mieville, William Gibson or Peter Watts (three of the more consistent and original writers working in spec fic) but I do analyze passages which work well. Again the fewest strokes of the brush technique to paint the picture before getting on with the action, which is why I dropped by in the first place.

Summarizing, I appreciate and look for: a consistent background which functions almost as another character, widening the options for the protagonist’s conflict; psychological realism where the characters behave consistently within their limitations and strengths and use both to resolve the conflicts; and originality. I hope I succeed at some level incorporating these attributes in my own writing.