15 May 2022

What could go wrong?

FLU SEASON - a pandemic novel, part 4

We have all been through it, whatever 'it' may be: the lockdowns, the protesting, the looting, the shortages of food and supplies, the worry, the fear, the numbness of being helpless. It is the stock footage of most "post-apocalypse" novels and films. And our reality the past couple of years - and others back through time when things just didn't seem too good and people had to deal with their world.

When I started to write a 'pandemic' novel during the first lockdown period, thinking I could fill my time best that way (while teaching virtual classes for the second half of the semester), I realized my first mistake: trying to write about the very thing I was living through. It all seemed surreal to me and other sci-fi writers who had been through it before via stories we'd read. I did manage to start planning what became my pandemic novel FLU SEASON and, two years in, I've now completed it.

The first thing I did was think of what could happen in the actual situation around me. I refused to go full Mad Max or, as a working title, the A Boy and His Dog film version of a post-apocalypse situation. For us, it was a virus, hence pandemic (rather than, say, a nuclear holocaust) that shook up everything. But I didn't want to get into discussions of disease and health care, so I didn't want my main characters to be medical or science people but ordinary citizens.

So as society broke down around them, what would they observe? I imagined going two ways:

Less Freedom to move about, to purchase or otherwise obtain needed items such as food, water, fuel, medical supplies, toilet paper, weapons and ammunition.

2) More Freedom to move about, breaking into stores and homes, taking whatever was desired or needed, ruling the streets through might and fright, making your own laws. 

I suspected most people would fall into the first category. They would obey the laws, the mandates, the changing customs as best they could...until they stopped and refused to go further, at which time they would either revolt or succumb to hopelessness and death. Or they would flee a worsening situation - which makes a better story. Have an escape plan! At what point will you 'pull the trigger' and run away from all you have in the world for the lonely trek through a lawless landscape?

Those in the second category would get right on it, exercising their newfound command of the streets, law enforcement too strained to respond to everything. In films we typically see rioting, people protesting their mistreatment, demanding justice, eager to fight each other for a piece of soylent green or worse: actual, unprocessed meat. They would be less concerned for what may be corrupting the environment than those people in the first category.

But let's go with the people in the first category: They flee the harsh and dangerous city. They have a plan: go to the grandparents' farm to wait out the pandemic. It will be safe there. If they must, they can eat the farm animals. Then the story becomes what happens along the way. Unlike A Boy and His Dog, where our heroes traverse an empty nuclear wasteland, in FLU SEASON the trip out of the city is full of traffic jams and fighting among people trying to leave - but they know this will happen and so take to the lesser roads, winding through the rural areas where everything seems as it should be. You could almost forget there is a pandemic ravaging the world.

What can happen on the journey? We might first worry about our vehicle and its fuel, which will run out eventually and not be replaceable. Full tank to start with full cans in back as spares. Even electric vehicles will fail when charging stations (assuming there are any far from a city) are no longer supplied with electricity from power plants. You stock up and take food and drink and other supplies with you, but these will run out as you use them up. You will need to stop for restroom breaks - but what will be open given the situation? And would you trust this odd toilet during a pandemic? Drinking fountains and bathroom faucets would most likely be turned off - as many were from the start of the pandemic, discouraging people from sharing them. 

So far, it's not too different from the usual road trip. However, you are out on the road, where help is not too easy to come by. And even the 'help' may be dangerous: yes, there are good cops and bad cops, but which will you get when the lights flash and you pull over? They can do whatever they wish with you - especially with new laws regarding vaccination cards and face masks giving new excuses to harass travelers. Meanwhile, rioters, looters, and other criminals run rampant in the city but not so much in the rural areas. That doesn't mean the rural areas are safe: country folk may have their own ideas of right and wrong and see a lone vehicle as an opportunity to "get me some o' that".

Basically, you have one shot to make your escape: one fuel supply, one day on the road, hoping not to encounter anyone because you don't know if any of them is safe (not infected) or dangerous (violent). You must assume everyone is a threat. You think you can handle whatever may come at you but you have your teenage son with you. And you have your precious heirloom tuba that you'd rather not let get harmed. But you can make it to your parents' farm, expecting to find comfort from a difficult life in the city, and not what you actually find when you finally arrive there.

Then you'll need a new plan, one which takes you into even more dangerous territory....

NEXT: Setting up a New Community (a.k.a. Let's rebuild society in our own perverted style)

(C) Copyright 2010-2022 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

24 April 2022

The Schizophrenic Nature of the Writer

FLU SEASON - a pandemic novel, part 3

As I prepare my latest novel for publication, I consider each revision pass with different eyes. In fact, I'm forced to see each scene and the characters in it in a new light. Partly this is simply the product of an additional reading. It is also an opportunity to revisit an invention and reflect on where and how the parts of that invention originated.

I'm talking about the characters who inhabit this story of a teenage son and his mom (and her tuba) and their escape from a pandemic-ravaged city for what they hope will be relative safety in the country. I can sit back and know where I got bits of each character. The son is not based on me, however, and the mother is not in any way based on my mother. They are composites: part of this person I knew and part of that person I know. Other characters begin as stock figures, perhaps, but as their role in the story expands, they take on other traits borrowed from...wait for it: people I have known.

A common aphorism for writers is "write what you know". That may end up as an autobiography, or turned into a work of fiction by changing the names. Many writers' first novels are thinly veiled autobiographies, we understand. I think the idea is to write about things I know from direct experience. I may be an expert on those experiences, of course, but how can I say that people want to read about my exact episodes? Sure, we believe anything can be interesting if written in an interesting way...but really? You want to read about my tuba lessons? Don't worry, I can embellish them to make them fun to read. I'll admit it is a lot easier to write about something (or use it in a work of fiction) if I have experienced it myself. But a good novel needs more and that requires borrowing, inventing, or straight-up guessing (if access to research isn't available). But that could get a writer in trouble.

If we do not write about only what we know directly, we could be accused of borrowing (or "appropriating" in certain contexts) details we may include in a work of fiction. There are many easy examples. How can a male writer write a female character? is a common question, less so the reverse about how a female writer can write a male character. Usually I can answer both questions thus: writers are professional observers. We observe, describe, borrow from people we have known. The same goes for writing characters of different races or ethnicities from the writer. Or any of a number of categories like these. In most cases, I don't think the writer is trying to portray a different character in a deliberately offensive way, though it may result in such. Rather, the writer gives the best effort possible in depicting the character realistically within the context of the story.

So what we have as a bottom line is the writer is either writing from direct experience or writing as a phony. Let me suggest another answer: the writer is an actor, and inhabits each character as needed, essentially becoming that character for the purpose of acting in a given scene. I can understand that not all writers welcome this schizophrenia - recognizing the mental health condition as a serious malady and not to be used jokingly, of course. My usage of the term is merely to suggest the multiple personalities a writer may operate within in order to create believable and compelling characters. We want readers to welcome a character, no matter how close that character may or may not be to the author's true self.

In my forthcoming sci-fi novel FLU SEASON, I've realized how each major character is an act: me playing that character, seeing the world through that character's eyes, speaking through that character's mouth, acting in that character's body - as though I was indeed a puppet master pulling strings. That is, naturally, part of the fun of creation: I become this character for a while and rather enjoy it. It's often exhausting being that character, suffering bad things but also sharing in the joy of good things. It's really the reason writing a novel is an enjoyable endeavor, no matter how much I then need to work through plots and edit and worry about the details and whether anyone will want to read it.

If readers wonder how I know how this or that character would think, well, I'm imagining, certainly, but not absent any knowledge or experience. For example, the teenage girl character in the novel is based on the appearance and personality of a girl I knew in high school. The mother character has the spunkiness of the mother of a friend of mine during my high school years. Some of the townsfolk in the second half of the novel are based on people I have known, borrowing both their appearance and their way of speaking - which reflects their way of thinking. The story the vagabond in the pine forest tells our protagonists is actually my own experience with the virus. And the teenage son, although not based on me, I have let borrow some things from me and my experiences: for example, the tales of the Schnauzer and the bunny, as well as his Asperger's traits. Another 'borrowing' is when one character tries to set up their new society based on the society portrayed in a famous novel.

A good writer is a good actor, let us agree. Then comes the translation of the acting into words on a page. The story telling then the story writing. The idea then the craft. But it is all made easier when it's the same person doing all of it. I often feel lucky in having my particular set of quirks, which both entertain myself as well as, I hope, those who read what I put together as novels. Thank you for your continuing support; it makes the acting worthwhile.

UPDATE: The revision stage has come to an end and the cover art is starting. Publication is expected in mid- to late summer. Next post, I'll break down some of the events in the novel.

(C) Copyright 2010-2022 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

10 April 2022

5 Things every Disaster Story must have!

FLU SEASON - a pandemic novel, part 2

I grew up during the decade of the disaster movie. They were all the same: meet a cast of people who would become victims and watch them fight to survive or, if less popular, to die trying. What changed was the source of the disaster: overturned cruise ship, burning skyscraper, airplanes, comet/asteroid strike, volcano, earthquake, tsunami, or some disease.

With the exception of the 3rd book of my DREAM LAND trilogy in which our heroes deal with an incoming comet on another world than Earth, I have not tackled a novel with an on-going "disaster" until my current FLU SEASON, which follows the misadventures of a boy and his mom and her tuba across a lawless, pandemic-ravaged rural landscape, a trek eventually to a despicable island community that was supposed to be a sanctuary but has its own challenges.

I started to write a pandemic story in April 2020, right after the first lockdown, believing it was a great time to hunker down and get some writing done. I quickly learned I couldn't just sit down and start writing - especially when the subject of the story was so real at the same time. But by summer 2021, I'd found the way into the story of people surviving in a viral pandemic and went with it. The result is a contemporary story of regular people handling the crisis.

That premise isn't so sci-fi as most stories about pandemics tend to be. Usually we find the situation well advanced and the Earth mostly uninhabited, a kind of post-apocalypse scenario. That does make the cast smaller and easier on the movie budget. In my novel I tried to play it close to the daily news. The story (in my mind, the pandemic already going on for six years) could start for real next week. Even a couple months from now it still might start the following week. (I avoided firm time references, not wanting to be tripped up like I was with my vampire trilogy, written in 2014 and set in 2028 but failing to mention the 2020 pandemic.) That factor was crucial to the story; nothing fantastical could be a part of it, just real people acting in real ways to solve real problems.

In thinking back over the story, I realize what I had to do, what I had to come up with, to make it work. And I think all disaster stories must have the same.


Of course the place where the story occurs is a crucial element. It makes a difference whether it's a modern suburb, a medieval castle, or a space station. However, how the disaster happens must fit within the limits of that setting - obviously. An asteroid could take out any of those places but how it affects the people in those places would be very different. The people involved must have the knowledge typical of people in that setting or else they would not be able to handle the crisis; they wouldn't know what to do and be killed quickly, leaving us no story to follow.

In the case of FLU SEASON, my main characters leave their home in a modern city that is already suffering a breakdown of social norms - hence the reason for them to flee. We've all seen such situations play out in recent movies: traffic jams, people pushing grocery carts, people hijacking a kind driver's car, and most important of all: fuel, or the lack of it. Are gas stations empty? Are we at the stage where most drivers use electric cars? How does that play out with supply chain issues? And food? Same thing: supply chain issues, no products on shelves, looting, money apps not working due to the network being down, or - think conspiracy theory - the government restricts your banking app to your own neighborhood as a way to keep people under control. And nobody touches cash because it's covered in viruses.


As a young writer I focused on the "cool" what-if situations and little on who was involved, but in my MFA writing program I learned one thing: readers want to read about people (or dogs, robots, etc.) doing things, not so much the things themselves. So who is the story about? Who tells the story? Why that person? In other words, what does that character bring to the story that makes readers want to follow? Is it the character's expertise which is useful in the crisis? Or is it the character's innocence and lack of expertise which makes the story compelling? Will they survive? If so, how will they survive? If not, how far can they go before finally succumbing to the crisis - hopefully with some heroic self-sacrifice? 
How do they handle adversity? 

In FLU SEASON, I randomly chose a boy and his mom...riffing off that 1975 post-apocalypse film A Boy and His Dog based on a Harlan Ellison story...which itself is a riff on the innocent childhood tales of any boy accompanied by his pet dog. So, rather than a dog, I adding the boy's mother, thinking that would set up a quirky, awkward dichotomy; they could play off each other in an entertaining fashion. Of course the mother has to be a unique individual, interesting in her own right, ultimately with a dramatic back story. And the boy isn't really a boy but a teen, a young man, but he has autism - another element which comes to bear on the crisis: what might seem a hindrance is at times a benefit. And the mom insists on bringing her tuba, a precious family heirloom with its own back story, further complicating their journey. Neither of these characters is a doctor or medically trained but they run into people and everyone has an opinion or a personal story to tell so we get multiple views of the crisis. I focused on the Mom character - made her a tuba player, just to mess with her - but had her teen son tell the story, and his view is exclusively focused on what Mom does. (I explain the origins of this novel in a previous post.)


You have a disaster, so what are you going to do - assuming you're a character in the story? Only two choices, depending on what kind of disaster it is. You can stay put, build a fortress, hoard supplies, keep locked and loaded, and wait it out, hoping the crisis will end before you do. Or you go: you flee the bad situation with the hope of finding a safe place to...hunker down and wait it out (or perhaps you would be safe enough that a new life can begin). If the disaster is a viral pandemic, as in FLU SEASON, it's everywhere so where can you go?

Already we are getting accustomed to wearing face masks and some may go full hazmat suit and air in a tube to get through a dangerous area. Where can you hide, though? What will you encounter along the way? Think of the geographic challenges: everything from a road being washed out or getting a flat tire, or coming upon vagrants looting a store and they turn on you...to bad weather, to questionable shelters, to the ever-present need for food and water. Are your characters knowledgeable about surviving without modern conveniences or are they just quick-witted ordinary people from a city where everything is available (or used to be)? In such a story, detours to get supplies or to avoid trouble are inevitable.


If your characters choose to leave wherever they are when the story begins, where do they go? Do they arrive or do they die trying to reach the place? Or, perhaps more interestingly, what do they find when they reach the place? People leave a disaster zone to seek safety, either short-term (until the problem is finished and everything goes back to normal) or long-term (it will never go back to normal). We have adopted the term 'new normal' in our real lives, and a contemporary story like FLU SEASON, uses that concept, too. The main characters (boy and his mom) constantly compare their present moment to what's been the norm prior to their escape and to what they hope they will find at their destination.

Two kinds of stories: stay or go. I decided to write about both as two sides of the same coin: the journey and what happens when they arrive. (Is that a spoiler? that they do arrive? Forget that.) Actually, in the early stages of writing, I was only going to cover the journey - with all the incidents that happen along the way (Note: like any quest story in a fantasy novel, things happen and must be planned for or else the quest is a boring walk.). However, simply arriving there - after what they had been through - didn't seem a big enough way to end the story. So I felt I had to write on to tell what they found at their destination, which becomes a new story.


Disaster stories are meant not to bring us down but to illustrate and affirm the strength of humanity to survive anything (in theory). We like them because someone will survive in the end and that gives the rest of us hope. So in every disaster story, people must change, must learn something (e.g., tricks to get by, or something in their moral make-up), must find something (e.g., the one tool needed to solve the problem, or a realization within themselves) that helps them rise above the disaster. The main character(s) must change from going through the experience.

In writing FLU SEASON, being a "pantser" (i.e., writing by the seat of my pants; i.e., not outlining and planning first), I actually did not know what would happen next until I wrote it. Hence, I had no particular arc in mind at the start. However, as the characters became real to me and started to act on their own, they led me through their moral development and plot arcs. In revision I worked to highlight some moments which made their ultimate change more relevant, more plausible, and more satisfying to readers. In some ways, like real people everywhere, they change for the better but also change in some not so good ways. In the end, either the dominant traits present at that moment will lead them or else they can rationally analyze themselves and choose the righteous path, so to speak.

I've probably given away more than I should, but I'm keeping the details close to the vest. I recommend listening to as much tuba music as you can, in preparation for Mom's recital in chapter...which one was it? 

More juicy details next time....

(C) Copyright 2010-2022 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

19 March 2022

FLU SEASON - a pandemic novel, part 1

Now that my list of tasks has been completed, I can turn to blogging about my work-in-progress now forthcoming pandemic-themed novel. I have now begun my retirement from a career of teaching writing, literature, and linguistics. I've relocated to another state. I've dealt with the holidays, tax season, and a wedding. Through it all, going back to last August, I've been working on a new novel which is close to its final form as I type this blog.

When our favorite pandemic began in March 2020, I was still teaching. As we headed out to spring break activities, we were advised that we would be going to virtual classes for the two weeks following the spring break week. By the time spring break week ended, we were informed that we would have virtual classes through the end of the semester. And, as it has turned out, I never set foot in another classroom to this day.

I'd been searching for my next novel as I prepared to publish my new sci-fi novel THE MASTERS' RIDDLE, where we experience a story of anguish and redemption from the point of view of a wrongly captured non-human alien being. However, me being stuck at home, I felt the obvious topic for a novel was the pandemic we were just then starting to experience. I dove right in and quickly stopped. I wrote about my own experience with the virus. I also had a head full of disparate ideas based on several post-apocalyptic novels and movies but couldn't connect the ideas into a good story. I deliberately read a few post-apocalypse novels and non-fiction books on the relevant medical issues to stoke the fires of my muse.

Then, as life continued to go on, I got busy with other matters including, as I stated at the beginning here, arranging my retirement. I could've gone longer in my career, but suddenly the requirement for an old dog to learn new tricks in order to continue teaching but in a new way seemed too daunting for me to accept. As fate would have it, this push coincided with me reaching the age, the years of service, and the right viral conditions for me to make the decision to 'pull the trigger', as it were.

Eventually, I found myself toying around with a completely different idea, based on something I'd read or seen somewhere, and thought this new idea might be the perfect vehicle for telling the story of a pandemic - and my project was back on. 

I thought again of that B-movie A Boy and His Dog, based on a Harlan Ellison story, which follows the sordid adventures of the title characters across a post-apocalyptic landscape. Instead, I thought of a boy and his mother. I laughed at that. It would be awkward, I considered; awkward enough to be interesting. And let's make the mother a tuba player. How about that? Yes, quirky. I could work with quirky, especially if the overall theme is serious and our worldwide pandemic fit that theme. (To protect myself from whatever the future might hold, I set the story a little ahead in time from the actual year I was writing it and then never mention any years in the story. However, it's mentioned that the pandemic has been going on and off for about six years.)

"A boy and his Mom and her tuba" became the tag line for my working file. I planned for the boy - actually a grown son, age 19 - to tell the story of his mom, a kind of memoir of her in the pandemic, with all of her quirks. Amused, I labeled the draft file as MOMoir: Mom + memoir. Get it? Hah hah! (NOTE: The boy is not me and the mom in the story is not based on my mother; but I was indeed a tuba player.)

With no outline, I started in, letting my young protagonist tell about his life with Mom and her tuba - and then the pandemic hits and they decide to leave the city, a place where chaos is breaking down society, and travel to the grandparents' farm. That was as far ahead as I had thought it through when I started. Then I literally wrote scene by scene as I thought up each scene. Things happen along the way, of course, making the trip dangerous and arrival at their destination never certain. (As they go, we also learn about the tuba and sample some of the repertoire.)

When I write a novel, no matter whether it is contemporary or literary or something of sci-fi or fantasy, I think of it has having three stories (a few I've written have more) interwoven in it. There is: 1) the setting of the place and how it impacts and influences the characters and their actions; 2) the main character(s) and how that character changes through the story based on what happens during the story; and 3) the interaction between the main character(s) and other characters in the story, how they play off each other and influence each other. 

For "MOMoir" I had the son and I had the mother. They are together almost every scene so they could be considered as a single entity. They meet other characters, both good and bad, throughout the story and each encounter pushes, pulls, or otherwise influences their next move. Then we have the situation and the setting of the story: a pandemic, which itself consists of the viral dangers as well as the methods of mitigation and the government's efforts to both keep the virus in check and limit the population's activities. It makes for an interesting mix - a rich playground from which I could fashion a story of ordinary people trying to survive extraordinary circumstances beyond their control.

MOMoir didn't seem a suitable title for the novel so I considered other titles, settling on The Book of Mom. And with that change of title, and getting to the end of the draft so I knew how it ended, I pondered making this project a trilogy. A pandemic trilogy! More on these developments next time.

(C) Copyright 2010-2022 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

12 February 2022

The Mother of all Valentine Rants

As we approach that day of reckoning - the most dreaded day of the year for many people - perhaps it's of some comfort to realize that it's all based on someone being executed.

Yes, Mr. Valentine (a.k.a. Val the Officiant) was off'd for marrying couples in secret ceremonies against the wishes of the government. Romans, you know. So strict. Strange how what goes around comes around. At any rate, he paid for his crimes. And there is nothing more romantic than that, right? Dying for love, for the cause of love. So, well, there's that. 

Chocolate, flowers, tokens of affection, greeting cards, love notes.... Most of this slush funding comes as crass commercial putsch, of course. Marketing 101. It's all just a crummy money mill. Invent a season and sell stuff for the season - or else you'll be labeled a rube, called insensitive, shown the door as the truly despicable person you are! It's foolproof inasmuch as only fools prove it. And there are so many fools among us. I see one in the mirror each day. I fall for it every year. But not this year! I've finally awakened from my stupor.

So this love thing...what is it? Science tells us it's nothing more than a firing of neurons. It's a biochemical reaction to a certain stimulus. See a pretty face, feel happy. A pretty face is determined based on genetic programming and environmental quirks. We know what we like. For men, it's easy: there are ass men, boob men, and so on. For women...well, I've read they like broad shoulders and a non-physical attribute called confidence. Magazines can be wrong. Social media is more accurate these days.

Even so, it's a walking stimulus. Advertising is based on walking stimuli; Valentine advertising is based on sex-related stimuli. The problem is that today such stimuli exist year-round, so what's the big deal about one particular day of the year? Because, dear lovers of love, if you do not demonstrate said love to said lover on the day set aside for displays of love, you are a rube at best and an ex-lover in the making at worse. There is no middle ground, only a pit of ruin.

Yet never fear! We have the means to solve your problem. Commercials on radio and television and with increasing annoyance the Internet (every  !@#$%^&* web page!) foist  messages stating that you (me? yes, you!) have a problem. You did not know you had it but you do. And it will zap everything that makes you you from you! You do not want that problem, do you? Obviously not. So for a certain amount of money we can give you something which will solve that problem. Drug companies do this, too, and clearly have mastered the art.

You go along on your simple, unadorned life, thinking it's just a matter of getting older, not having quality sleep, suffering from a poor diet, or not having enough friends, or not enough cool, hip, advertising-worthy friends (but who can ever have enough of those?) and then...BAM!!! No, it's not your fault, so don't worry. Besides, we have a solution. 

Buy this! Plenty to choose from. Eat this! Drink that! Take this! Wear this! Drive that! Look this way! Pay me! Pay us! Pay all of us! Or else you are not the person you want to be. Or else you can never be the kind of person you think you are! Give us money and we will solve your problems. We will roll back time, give you a make-over, prep you for your big debut, help you sweep the lover of your dreams off his/her feet! We will make you a god/goddess! 

Give us your money and all will be resolved. It's that easy.

Oh, for shame. Got no money? Well, then you don't count. Never counted, in fact. And who would want you anyway? That is, without the money to buy all the solutions you obviously need to fix all the problems you obviously have in order to fit into this perfect, virtual society we have constructed and dutifully maintain for the glory of all who worship the almighty Valentine and the many minions of Münchausen mania! Only then will you be worthy of membership!

Just click off and log off the obstinate media and social media and return to your quiet humble existence. Perhaps cuddle up with a wonderfully understanding book boyfriend/girlfriend. Many do. It's not that weird. (I have 14 books I can recommend; see the top right corner of this page.) Three-hundred pages or so will definitely last longer than an awkward round of that sexercise thing you used to do - well, that was before the Valentine thorn in your side started to hurt, before the roses wilted.

Yes, I know I like to rant. Sometimes it helps. Sorry. Probably there's a pill for that. And I have some money squirreled away for just such a solution to such a problem - a problem I never knew I had, couched in a Valentine I never requested or expected, from a person I have yet to meet, smeared with chocolate melted in a hot car then re-solidified later. At least, I think it's chocolate. It counts.

(There do not seem to be any memes for "book girlfriend" FYI.)


P.S., For those who take this blog post as a desperate cry for help, I can confirm that I'm...yeah, kinda okay. Besides, I've got an unopened tub of ice cream just waiting for languorous consumption. And a backup tub in case I need it. And clear  directions to a donut shop. On the way to the book store.

(C) Copyright 2010-2022 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

29 January 2022

Year of the Tiger (2022)

Welcome to the Year of the Tiger in the Lunar / Chinese calendar! 

It promises to be a whole lot better than that awful Rat year we went through. I, for one, am looking forward to a much better experience than what I paid for in 2021 or 2020. (Yes, I feel a bit cheated.) I also want to remind you of my action adventure novel which is titled, not ironically, YEAR OF THE TIGER.

Although published in 2020, when I wondered if I would make it to the actual year in 2022, it remains a classic in my eyes and in the eyes of that tiger who serves as co-protagonist with the human he torments. 

In brief, our hero seems to share the same mind with a tiger (don't ask me how; it's explained in the book) and to rid himself of that awkward feature he plans to go to India and kill that tiger - that one particular tiger.

But first, he must escape from the mental institution he's been put in - because of his tiger hallucinations, obviously. He gets a young nurse to help him, then they run away to solve his problem. 

But other people have problems to solve, too. The doctor who helped put him in the mental institution fears he will tell all. The big game hunter will come out of retirement one more time to kill a man-eater. And the tiger, on a trek to kill the two humans who brutally killed his mate. Who will live through the final climactic scene?

Way back when, I first wrote a short story, which I expanded into a screenplay, which I then worked from to craft a full-length novel, then revised for years until I believed it was ready. Now, with the YEAR OF THE TIGER here at last, it is the perfect time to join the hunt!

You can read more about the journey from my initial idea to this finished novel here, and also here.

Wishing you the best that tigerdom has to offer this year!

Read more about the Year of the Tiger (the calendar) here.

(C) Copyright 2010-2022 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

19 December 2021

On the Compression of Time


Welcome to the last blog post of this year, a not so prestigious milestone in a year of diminishing blog posts. I've been busy deciding how best to do nothing. Writing is my only escape. That's my story, anyway. To keep the record consistent, however, I am uploading this post. Time flies, even with a broken wing, so this post is about time in fiction writing.

When I was writing my semi-biographical novel A GIRL CALLED WOLF, I was working from the events of a real person's life - a remarkable narrative, I believed, and worthy of telling and sharing with the world. I had gotten to know the story's real heroine via Facebook (we had a mutual friend), and I interviewed her about her childhood in Greenland and what followed. However, when transforming someone's real life into a fictionalized version, I was struck by the conundrum of how to end the novel since she would continue on in real life while the novel would have an ending.

Taking the events of a life, twenty-five years at the time, and hitting only the highlights and omitting the rest is often a recipe for a cheesy Hallmark movie, which was not what I wanted. I had to put myself in the mind of a child describing an unfamiliar world, then as a teenager with teenage problems, then be a young adult discovering new worlds and adapting constantly to changing conditions. That was the kind of narrative that intrigued me, hence my desire to collaborate on this "based on a true life" novel. (You can read more about this project here.)

I learned clever ways to compress the timeline, sometimes going medias res (starting in the middle of the action) and backfilling needed info, for example. I divided the novel into longer chapters which corresponded to phases in her life, based on different locations as she moved from one home to the next. It was rather like writing a fantasy quest story but set in modern times - albeit with primitive conditions at the outset. It begins in the arctic and it ends in the arctic. The ending I chose, approved by the woman whose story I was writing, brings us full circle and provides symmetry and offers a profound message about resilience. 

For those readers who wish for an update (no spoilers for the book), Anna is quite well, living her life in Winnipeg, Canada - from where we last saw her heading north in the book. She had a real arctic adventure (with better results than in the book) during the covid crisis in 2020 working med-evac communications from a town in Nunavut. All is well with her and her son - and a new baby. 

A timeline story like A GIRL CALLED WOLF is what I seem to be writing now in my work-in-progress, POST. The chapters and the scenes within chapters parallel the day to day experiences of the cast. Some days are more interesting than others. I expend more text on the exciting days and next to none on the routine days. Such is the quirk of narrative. It's whatever the narrator deems worth narrating. In this new novel - a post-pandemic / post-apocalyptic tale of a boy and his mom and her tuba - I recount how they fled from a chaotic city hoping to survive in the countryside but finding dangers along the way. Changing plans and directions several times brings them to a new destination but one where all is not what it seems at first.

So again I am faced with telling the story of a family and their activities day by day. To speed things up, I skip days. I compress time. I slow down for real-time narrative and go into overview mode to get to the next interesting thing that happens. It's rather like the opera method (read more here) where the scene with the moment by moment action is the aria - a full set piece that displays detail, emotion, and purpose - while the other parts of the story are needed only to move you to the next aria, what we call the recitative. I enjoy writing the aria scenes (though often complex and challenging) and manage to type out some kind of recitative during the drafting stage to be filled out better later.

I find that I'm starting scenes ("sub-chapters") in my new novel most often with dialog, even as a short phrase, then filling in what's needed to know via the ensuing conversation. Otherwise, I begin with a setting description. For important plot points, you have to write out the scene in the detail you would find if acted out on stage. Cannot compress time, cannot gloss over, cannot merely suggest or hint at. You must write it out as though choreographing every movement and every utterance precisely. All right, yes, you can skip over mundane talk: instead of exact speech in quotation marks (e.g., "I shall go forth and write," the bard proclaimed.) you simply say what the character said without having to write out what he said exactly (e.g., The bard proclaimed he would go forth and write). 

Where's my books?
At 95,000 words, I should be nearing the end of my new novel. However, the way the story is proceeding, I could follow the cast members' adventures forever. I only need to invent more things for them to do. If not, I shall have to end it sometime, somewhere, somehow. I'm currently wrestling with how to end the novel. I have three ideas: a happy, hopeful ending; a sad/tragic but inevitable ending; or the vague could-go-either-way ending full of profound meaning. Place your vote in the comments below...and then go have yourself a wonderful holiday season.

Many thanks for your continuing patronage!

(C) Copyright 2010-2021 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

16 November 2021

On keeping up with the Future

Most novels cover a certain span of time, and we see characters develop over that timeline, regardless of flashbacks or foreshadowing. Some science fiction is set in the future so we begin the story ahead of the present. For writers of science fiction, this can be tricky. Far enough in the future and the author will be long gone and perhaps the copyright expired and the work forgotten so it won't matter how the years turn over after the book is published.

However, writers setting a story in the near future - close enough that readers only a few years from the publication date will be able to look back and read of events which did not happen as the author wrote about them - are screwed. Unfortunately, I've fallen into that trap with the second and third volumes of my vampire trilogy. I failed to predict how the years 2020 and 2021 would actually unfold. 

My vampire trilogy begins with A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, which is the first symptom of vampire transformation our hero Stefan Szekely notices. The book is set in 2014, which is also the year in which I wrote it, and set in the same city where I lived. I actually "lived" our protagonist's experiences week by week so I was up-to-date with whatever events were happening. I included a tornado that actually struck my city. Then I wrote two more novels that were unrelated to this vampire novel.

Eventually I had pondered enough what may have happened to our hero 13 years later - thirteen being an ominous number. So I began writing the sequel,
SUNRISE. I knew at the time that it would be a trilogy and I loosely planned the third book (SUNSET) while writing the second book. With the second book beginning in 2027, I felt I was sufficiently far in the future that I wouldn't need to worry about the future catching up to me. But wait!

At one point a character from the first book reappears [trying to avoid spoilers] and because they have been apart for so long, the arriving character tells our protagonist what has transpired during the absence. The narrative switches to a first-person account of the misery the character has lived through. Remember I wrote this second book in 2018, with the story set in 2027-2028. (SUNSET opens in 2099 so we're good.) Then we learn in the pages what happened in 2020: nothing particular. No virus, no pandemic, no lockdowns, no vaccine - as we have seen play out.

Here's the scene, where Penny Park is explaining to Stefan:

Then I got the reality check for real: the mirror.

Remember the mirror, Stefan? We used to stand naked in front of that wide mirror in my bathroom, side by side, staring at ourselves. One woman, one man. You were slender, a geek. Me with no boobs. We were a couple. Those were good days. But you know mirrors can lie. You told me that more than a few times. Especially when you started poking at those dry patches on your face. You cursed the mirror. Then you turned them down or covered them, you said. You refused to look at yourself. But I saw you. I looked at you, Stefan. I was your mirror, and I saw you falling apart. Every single day. I still went ahead and put my eyes on you, no matter how bad you looked.

March 15, 2020. The next worst day of my life. I stared at myself in the mirror. I saw the patch on my cheek. Brown. Scaly. Itchy. Mottled edges, sort of diamond-shaped. If I had never met you I wouldn’t have a clue what it was or how I might have gotten it. I would try what you did, what I first suggested: apply some lotion. Dry skin needs lotion. And hydration. I can’t laugh anymore at how many times I told you to hydrate. Your skin was too dry, so hydrate. Remember?

You know me: I hydrate like a fish. So that was not my problem. I tried lotions, which softened the patch—patches, eventually, on my face, shoulders, back, also my chest. There didn’t seem enough lotion in all the stores of the mall to cover my needs.

But I did know you, so I had a clue. A creeping feeling started to run up my spine.

I know what you’re thinking: Why does she have this problem? She is not Hungarian. She doesn’t have those genes. And she eats a ton of garlic in that Korean food. I wondered that, too. It made no sense. But there I was, naked in front of the mirror in the bathroom, examining myself, staring at my brown-patchy skin, wondering what to do.

And my mother walked in!

“What are you doing?” she asked, half in shock to see me naked.

“I was about to take a shower,” I told her. “I was checking these . . . a few spots of bad skin.”

She stepped closer and took a look at them. She doesn’t have any medical training, but she is a mother. That must count for something, right? But she had no idea. Then it was déjà-vu all over again: “You better see dermatologist.” 

So she gets some medical problem, sure, but she doesn't mention the entire world having a medical problem. Yes, everything is serious in 2027, as though there is a world-wide problem, but nothing is mentioned about what we have all come to experience in 2020-2021. 

What to do? I could explain it away as her focusing only on her own personal issues and not bothering to say anything about a pandemic. I could go back and add a couple sentences to cover it, then republish the novel. Or I could let the trilogy fade into the sunset and write something new.

Well, my latest work-in-progress is about what happened in 2020-2021 and the years after. It's the pandemic novel I tried to start in March 2020 but didn't get far. We sci-fi writers are used to imagining scenarios, even truly awful situations. So when something awful actually happens, we may not feel that it's so real. I wanted to wait and see how it unfolded. More than a year later, I've seen enough that I can write my own version of a post-apocalyptic novel. This one is about a boy and his mother and a tuba. Should be out in 2022...if we live to see that day.

(C) Copyright 2010-2021 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

28 October 2021

On the Overwriting of Sex Scenes

As Ferris Bueller once said: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." Or, in my corruption of that quote, Life can bowl you over and leave you flat on the road. This month has been rather like that: a lot happening, most of it overwhelming in both positive and negative ways.

Last month I mused on my Epic Fantasy novel, the one with dragons, and I promised to regale you with other random musings. Given the busy-ness of this month, I've almost missed my chance to keep a perfect record of one blog a month. But as I work on my latest novel, a post-apocalyptic tale of an [adult] boy and his [young] mother and a [heirloom] tuba, I'm reminded of another older-woman/younger-man story.

Today I celebrate my first novel published, then published again, AFTER ILIUM, in which a young college graduate named Alex tours Greece and Turkey, especially the ruins of ancient Troy, also known as Ilium. He's a History major, after all. Also naive, innocent, idealistic, and romantic - four strikes against him.

The thing I remember most about this novella filled into novel status is the sex scene. I think I probably should have won an award for Most Overwritten Sex Scene. But I assure you the effect was entirely intentional - not simply a case of an undisciplined writer running off with the thesaurus. As everything is described from the point of view of this young, inexperienced lad in a tryst with an older woman, it seems appropriate to wax poetic in his interpretation of the acts proffered. 

After meeting on a cruise ship and suffering an awkward seduction, the woman named Elena accepts him - he might be amusing - and when they have the opportunity in a hotel she welcomes Alex into his first real sexual encounter:

“Shhhh,” Eléna whispered. She pulled him back onto the bed. “Let me enjoy you.”

He thought then that he was about to go sailing on a wild, stormy ocean. No telling what would happen! He expelled a big breath, freeing his anxiety, and the woman knew it was time to raise the anchor.

She guided him on a tour of her body, and he was willing to explore each port of entry, languishing there until she called him to continue sailing her fragrant seas. She invited him to climb her sacred hills and navigate himself into position so she could entertain him with all of the sweet delights from her bag of tricks. He found there a treasure trove of new sensations forced upon him. She coaxed him onward with sweet whispered words and dainty nibbles, and they felt the bed shaking, much like the swaying of the ship—just as ancient Helen and Paris must have felt as the two of them set sail for Troy, he imagined—now rocking them into a sacred rhythm, as her fingers raked his back and shoulders, as he willingly stretched then confidently pushed and forcefully strained and, with enraged power, released the iron gate to the gushing flood of life: all the books, all the classes, all the exams, all the rules of his parents and the stupidity of his fraternity brothers, and the church and the importance of perfect teeth and the essays for scholarships, and all the strict years and months and weeks of frustration and being a good little boy!—launching all at once into the deep, deep well of memories, lost forever in a swirling instant of naked, humbling ecstasy. She waited, shaking, until the memory had evaporated and he breathed once more, feeling the tension in his body flee in terror.

He continued collecting souvenirs as she directed him southward, showing him a lush garden of delicious, juicy fruit to sample, even daring him to taste the puckered kumquat. The festive banquet of Eden spread before him! She sighed in pleasure, like the wind in the sails, and encouraged him to gather all the treasures that he could. He responded by lapping furiously at the fountain of youth, growing not younger but older, gaining maturity. And when he feared he might finally be satiated, she called for him to return to port, to push hard into the harbor until his vessel was fully docked and his wares completely unloaded.

In the end, she was satisfied far more than she had expected to be, and much more than she had been for many years of married life. He listened to her confession as though it were a siren’s song. She had nearly forgotten how wonderful such a vacation trip could possibly be. She lovingly kissed her captain for what seemed endless days and weeks, and thanked him sincerely for the voyage. And he, spiritually exhausted and morally bankrupt beyond reason, reluctantly surrendered into her gentle hands his last ounce of gold.

However, the scene has always bothered me. Most likely, I worried what my mother might say about it. Scandalous, indeed. She was so proud, however, that she told all her church friends to read it. That would make it a bestseller for certain! Anyway, no complaints, no rough feedback. I imagined well-read folks would take exception with the lavish description, calling it pretentious, overwrought, or silly - it is silly, I'll admit, but for a purpose. 

At any rate, that was long ago in publishing time, but AFTER ILIUM still exists if you wish to read more of Alex's great adventure wooing Elena then losing her, then fighting his way back to her only to realize the catastrophic truth about the entire situation - a young man's best lesson.

I continue writing on my work-in-progress, POST, the apocalyptic story mentioned above. There has not yet been any need yet to write a sex scene, but some pre-pandemic incidents have been referred to in conversations. I know what's coming later in the book. Times are tough in an apocalypse, you know.

(C) Copyright 2010-2021 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.