21 September 2022

The Lure of the Image

They say the waiting is the worst part, and I would have to agree.

After the thrill of the first spark of ideation, the workhorse charge through a plot, the clever asides and welcome humor, the tragedy and the pathos, the love and beauty, the words of wisdom and the coming together of different paths in a satisfying unification just as our breath starts to wane . . . comes the waiting.

They say to set aside your manuscript for a couple weeks, minimum - a couple months is better - before looking at it again. Let the story settle. Forget it a little. Then you can read it again with fresh eyes and, it is hoped, you will see things that need attention - flesh out thin scenes, cut unnecessary paragraphs, add a line or two of dialog, clarify some details, re-check facts, correct typos and lapses of continuity, perhaps add a side quest to explain the sidekick's obsession with bunnies, whatever.

Meanwhile, you ring up your friend the artist and ask for cover art - or you hire a professional to design a book cover that reflects the story's genre but doesn't give away too much of the story. In my experience, book covers seldom fit exactly the story that's inside. Sometimes, it's aggravating they don't match. With fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, the image on the front cover is typically so lavish that I find myself pausing among the pages to gaze back occasionally at the image on the cover, searching there for details from the pages.

I remain amazed at the power of the image to catch us, draw us in, hold our attention, evoke our fantasies and fill our dreams . . . even as I, being the writer, labor to create with words what the artist creates with color, line and form, light and shadow, and special effects that further enrapture the viewer. It is magic. I know many writers collect pictures from magazines, the internet, or they photograph their own just to look at them while typing out a textual description of the scene. Conversely, a cover artist often works from a textual description of the design idea which the author provides.

I am now in that canyon of limbo. Everything is out of my control for a while. All I can do is wait and hope everything will work out just right. I submitted a work order for a book cover and have gotten the finished product. As far as I can tell the cover design follows my description, my idea, what I asked for. However, I find that, holding a proof copy of the book in my hands, the cover art doesn't quite "pop" as they say in the industry. I blame myself; I got what I asked for. Perhaps I should have given the artist more free reign to imagine a better design.

This experience reminds me of the power of the image over the textual. It seems unfair to me that before any reader starts to read even the first page, the reader must first be intrigued by the image on the front cover. Pick it up from the bookstore shelf. Gaze upon the picture, pondering the story represented there. Satisfied, the reader flips over the book and reads the back cover. Either there is a short description of the story, composed in such a way as to further intrigue the reader, to persuade the reader to take the book straight up to the cashier . . . or there are a few quotes from critics I don't know, whose opinions have no effect on whether I will like the book.

No matter how well written a story is, no matter how compelling the story is, no matter how well crafted the plot and its twists and denouement are, a reader will not even begin the reading experience without first being hooked by mere image. Before reading the short blurb on the back, there comes first the cover art.

Imagine deciding to go to a concert only by seeing the poster advertising the concert and reading a textual description of the music. Yes, if you know the music, you can decide based on the memory of having heard it before. Otherwise, a description of how the piece begins, what instruments play here and there, what effects the percussionists add, will not likely prompt a concertgoer to go. Would a lavish picture on the poster help persuade the concertgoer to attend separate from the words on the poster? Perhaps. It may suggest to the concertgoer that the organization cared enough about satisfying their customers to add the image. I'm only speculating, being both a reader and a concertgoer.

The book world is different. And as we move steadily forward into a world without pages, without text, it is the image which will carry civilization forward - much as mere images did in ancient times when the image of a book was the word for book. Or a scroll of papyrus or clay tablet, you know what I mean. 

Ars longa, Vita brevis.

(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.

05 September 2022

The Trilogy Epidemic

Dear Readers, potential readers, and the merely curious,

Today I wish to address the issue of the trilogy - a series of novels consisting of exactly three volumes and comprising one continuous story or some combination of stories related in such a way that they may be marketed as a series.

I'm not suggesting there is a problem - other than the great proliferation of trilogies, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genre. In other genre, related books are sometimes considered a trilogy, usually because they have the same characters or setting, even though they may not have been considered a trilogy by the author.

For me, I have achieved a kind of trifecta - three trilogies (two completed and one in the process of being completed) - which gives me special status...and not much else.

My first trilogy began as a stand-alone book, THE DREAM LAND, which involved a young couple's misadventures through an interdimensional doorway and how they learned to function in their new realm while often trying to return home. Given the setting - an entire new planet - the possibilities for further stories were endless. I immediately began the second volume upon completion of the first, but I stopped when I ran into a plot conundrum. Then life got in the way, as it may for writers, and I did not finish that second volume (or publish the first book) until ten years later. When I resumed writing on the second book, I decided it had to become a trilogy, and I wrote the third volume straightaway as I concluded Book 2, DREAMS OF FUTURE'S PAST. The idea of a trilogy was not a thing in itself but merely a result of writing three novels involving the same principal players in the same setting. I simply enjoyed the story and kept writing, even with a comet approaching our favorite fictitious world in Book 3, DIASPORA.

I wrote two stand-alone novels after that sci-fi trilogy (A BEAUTIFUL CHILL and AIKO). Then, goaded by the Twilight series' portrayal of vampires, I wrote my own version, based on the finest medical research I could research. A DRY PATCH OF SKIN was intended as another stand-alone, a one-off tale of realistic vampire horror. Yet the ending kept nagging at me: more what-if questions. And so, a few years later, after writing two more stand-alone novels, I picked up the vampire story once more with the idea of making it a trilogy from the start. Titled SUNRISE and SUNSET, respectively, I picked up the story of my vampire hero a few years into his future - and our future - in the second volume and much further into the future in the third volume. I failed, however, to have characters mention the pandemic of 2020-2022 as they recounted their adventures since the first volume's 2014 setting (also written in 2014). (Upon finishing the trilogy, I contemplated a fourth book, making it a tetralogy. I started and then set aside a novel concerning the next generation.)

Then I returned to writing stand-alones.
 First I wrote a semi-biography based on a real person's life with fictionalized conclusion (A GIRL CALLED WOLF), my most-reviewed book. Then, challenged by my fantasy-writing friends, I wrote an epic fantasy involving dragons (EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS), which is my longest novel - not counting trilogies as a single story. But then I returned to the vampire story and wrote volumes two and three and consider it finished with no threat of a volume four.

After completing the vampire trilogy, I wrote a new novel (EXCHANGE) and I finished a previously written book which I had been revising forever (YEAR OF THE TIGER), as well as completing a sci-fi novel which I had left unfinished for several years (THE MASTERS' RIDDLE) which is told from the point-of-view of a non-human alien hero. So far, so good. 

Then we experienced that pandemic, had lockdowns and virtual school, and I thought it would be the perfect time to write a pandemic novel, a kind of post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama of some kind. I started something by describing my own experiences with the virus then fell silent. I couldn't actually write about something so serious while we were actually dealing with it in such a serious way, so I set it aside.

And then I retired from teaching English (literature, composition, linguistics) and had nothing much to do. So I picked up the pandemic novel scriblings and took another look at it. The main thing for me was to find the right way into the story - something more than coming up with a compelling first page. When something totally unrelated sparked an amusing idea, I knew I'd found the key to enter the story. Even then, I imagined a stand-alone book about a boy and his mother and her tuba fighting to survive in a lawless land. However, before I was very far into the first volume of FLU SEASON: THE BOOK OF MOM, I decided the story would continue into a second - and the inevitable third volume - making it a trilogy. Darn trilogies! Just when I think I'm back to stand-alones the trilogy pulls me back in!

One interesting aspect of my pandemic trilogy is the way Book 1 is actually two books. They make the journey from a chaotic city to the relative sanctuary of a coastal island, which was the story I intended to write when I started. They would reach safety and that would be that. (Sorry if this is a spoiler.) But what happens when they reach that place? I couldn't just leave them there and 'so that's all, folks!' So writing about their uncomfortable experiences on the island was practically another novel. Hence, the two sides of this first novel make it a little on the thick side, but it ends at a better place - and sets up the next book, which is FLU SEASON: THE WAY OF THE SON, which continues our characters' story. The third book will be titled FLU SEASON: DAWN OF THE DAUGHTERS to complete the FLU SEASON TRILOGY. Have you ever had so much flu season?

However, the second volume of
FLU SEASON is more traditional in its structure and does not comprise two separate but related stories like the first volume, and therefore is thinner. In fact, compared to THE DREAM LAND and the vampire trilogy which has come to be named for its hero as the STEFAN SZEKELY TRILOGY, this second volume is shorter than the second volumes of my other trilogies, which tend to be longer because of much more complex things going on. If you look at other trilogies, including in movie series such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, the second volume features the characters going on separate journeys, hence a dual story which comes together by the end.

The final point I wish to share is that this so-called pandemic trilogy was conceived as a trilogy almost from the start. Unlike my first two trilogies where the first book was written as a stand-alone, FLU SEASON is conceived and plotted as a trilogy, which is a different way of writing for me. However, such a project, seemingly vast in its early stages looking forward, has been a fairly easy and delightfully horrific story to write. I know my readers will be happy to know I enjoyed writing it. It has not been a harsh effort, a droll task to be accomplished, yet I do not relish the abuse and horrors I put my cast through. In FLU SEASON: THE BOOK OF MOM you will find a story told 'close to the vest' in as realistic, contemporary, visceral manner possible, a story which could begin wherever you happen to live, say, in the next couple weeks - although in the trilogy the pandemic has been going on for six years when the first book opens and begins its ninth year as Book 2 ends. 

Happy ending? Like life itself, there is good and bad to everything that happens and it is in that light that we must carry on. My only regret is that there will not be a fourth volume. Maybe another stand-alone will follow. We shall see.

Thanks for your support. Please leave a review on your favorite book review sites.

Your Humble Narrator

(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.

20 August 2022

FLU SEASON : a pandemic trilogy

Contrary to rumors, I have not been mindlessly lazing away my summer. I have been writing and editing the second volume of my pandemic trilogy, titled The Way of the Son, which as of this blog is around 75,000 words with about 30,000 to go in order to complete the story. It is a continuation of the first book, obviously, but do not allow that fact to be a spoiler.

Now that I finally have the cover artwork, I can continue the process of production and begin marketing this newest science fiction novel of mine. Here is a summary (as much as I can reveal) of Book I:

I. The Book of Mom

In the beginning was the virus and the virus was with us. Or something like that. Just as you and I experienced in 2020. We faced uncertainty, fear, the unknown, and reacted to what politicians and scientists thought was the best way to deal with the emergency. What we know now in 2022 may be different than our initial thoughts and actions. But what if it continued unabated? We feel safe again, returning to some kind of normal life yet with some elements not quite the same as we knew them before the pandemic. Yet what if we were in a longer crisis?

In FLU SEASON, a stand-alone novel that has blossomed into a trilogy, we follow teenage son Sandy as he accompanies his mother in fleeing their city. With the pandemic in its sixth year, everything has collapsed into an unbearable situation. Mom decides it's time to leave the chaos of the city for what she believes will be relative safety at her parents' farm. After the struggle to get to the farm, however, they find the chaos has invaded the rural areas, as well. Violence and the stark reality of survival hit them hard. What to do? They cannot return to the city.

They will go to Mom's older sister's house in another city. But everything there is also not what they expected and not a good place to stay, so they travel on to the other sister's home. There they face a big turning point in their plans, one that shapes the rest of the trilogy. Along the way we experience as they do the ways the world has changed, what the new normal actually means with random violence, no law and order, lack of food and fuel, as well as the on-going pandemic and the necessary precautions everyone must take. We follow how they figure out how to live in this altered world. They encounter others along the way, who represent various views of what is happening, some who have a better chance of surviving than others.

Ultimately, Mom takes Sandy and his cousins to the barrier island where the family has a beach house, a place they often visited when Mom and her sisters were young. It is a place with special memories for Mom - memories which she has kept hidden from Sandy all his life. On the island, however, are already people who are trying to survive. Their leader has set the island community on a path to become some kind of utopian society, but one that is not very appealing to Mom. But what can they do? Endure the strict rules for a year or so then leave when the mainland is safe again? Or can Mom make the island community into a safe place for as long as sanctuary is needed?

Our narrator is 19-year old Sandy but his focus is on his 36-year old mother, a single, never-married woman who had a wild side during his childhood yet became a professional tuba player and music professor. Her precious tuba is a family heirloom, not to be left behind or mistreated. Music saves her and she relies on her tuba in times of stress. Sandy doesn't get it; all he knows is his Mom has been his whole life, the only person he has been able to rely on. The pandemic suddenly throws everything out of balance and he grasps at whatever stability he can find while struggling with his Asperger's syndrome (high-functioning autism) and his Mom's often erratic behavior.

FLU SEASON : Book I. The Book of Mom is coming this fall...which is only a few weeks away...available in paperback and for Kindle.

[NOTE: FLU SEASON contains scenes of violence and adult situations but none are gratuitously portrayed.]

You can read the blog post introduction to the FLU SEASON trilogy here.

Read about the challenges of writing a disaster story here.

The writer as main character (or not), using FLU SEASON as an example, is here.

Tying FLU SEASON to the long line of apocalyptic fiction is discussed here.

How to write Young Adult Erotica, like in FLU SEASON, is explored 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.

15 June 2022

On Writing Young Adult Erotica

FLU SEASON - a pandemic novel, part 5

For years I've been teasing fellow writers with my plan to write "YA erotica" which on its face seemed to be a misnomer. How could I dare write about young people engaged in the wild throes of lust? Or, more realistically, how could I not?

It's all in the details. How much to tell - or, as we say in the industry, how much to show. While many novels include romantic relationships, some also depicting sexual encounters, the line between "ordinary" love and affection and true erotica has been a matter of explicitness. How graphic are descriptions? Are we reading a nuts and bolts level of instruction? Is flowery, poetic language used - which may soften the otherwise rough exhortations? Where is the focus and, indeed, the intent of the writing? Is it to further the plot and character development or simply to titillate the reader? These are questions which define whether the writing is mainstream fiction or the genre of erotica.

In my first published novel, AFTER ILIUM, a young college graduate meets an older woman on a post-graduation trip to the ruins of ancient Troy (also known as Ilium). It features quite romantic descriptions which, seen through his inexperienced eyes, are ridiculously written in lusty metaphors. Yet the scenes could easily be considered erotica. It was my first intentional writing deemed erotic. However, both were adults at the time of publication.

I've had love scenes in every one of my novels, some more than others, because expressing love and making love is a natural activity for humans. It must be part of the plot, but fit plausibly with the character's normal behavior within the framework of the story. A character may change, of course, and acting lustful or becoming less interested is also part of a normal character arc. But the actual descriptions in the scenes remains the issue: how much to show or how far to go?

Shakespeare set the standard, I believe, in his play Romeo and Juliet. While the principal characters seem to be in their teenage years, film depictions typically show Romeo as being, say, 16 and his love interest Juliet as being 13 or 14. (No more than 18 and 16, respectively, I'd say.) At any rate they are not considered adults in the play or in films. Yet they meet, fall in love, and...consummate their love (well, on celluloid). In the 1968 film we get a waking up in bed together scene, complete with a bit of gratuitous nudity. Nudity in a scene is not, in my estimation, a marker in itself of erotica.

I was too young to see that film when it came out, given its rating, but seeing it later, as a youngish curmudgeon, I thoroughly enjoyed the depiction of young love. Only after a few decades did I realize that what "got to me" was the sense of memory the film brought out in me: the flashes of love I recalled feeling at this or that moment in my youth. Having always been a Romantic, I was more interested in a love-interest than merely a sex session - but that's a discussion for another time, likely in my therapist's office. A stream of "young sex" films shot forth during the '70s, culminating in the borderline kinky Blue Lagoon.

In writing my forthcoming novel, FLU SEASON, I willingly took myself back to that fateful time in junior high school when I had my first "crush". It was magical, to say the least. At the end of the school year, the whole class (a small school) had a field day at the local lake, and we suddenly found ourselves walking hand in hand down the tree-shaded trail...but with her jealous gal pal following us so we couldn't have a moment to ourselves. But when she got fed up with her friend not giving her any attention, she stormed off and we finally had a moment for that glorious first awkward kiss. But I digress....

In short, we were all young once, and in love for the first time, and that experience, good or not so good, sticks with us. If we have pushed it back out of the way, closing the door to that room, as it were, then the right story or a movie may unlock that door and there we are: back in that flash of feelings that once overwhelmed us. That is the beauty of youth, of first encounters, of that frozen moment in time which is not naughty or vulgar but a confirmation of our existence and our ability to love beyond ourselves. It is a necessity in our development. Without certain milestones in our development, according to psychologist Erik Erikson, we do not develop normally. 

So I finally did it! My forthcoming "pandemic" novel FLU SEASON features what I think is a nifty teen romance - what could be called YA erotica. In my defense, I believe I've balanced quite well walking the tightrope between a believable encounter between two young people and what may make readers uncomfortable. The narrator of the story is a just-turned nineteen year old son of the main character ("Mom") who meets his 16 going on 17 year old cousin and falls instantly in love. But, fleeing the chaos of a city ravaged by pandemic, times are hard, and hard decisions need to be made, as his 30-ish single Mom keeps reminding him, the product of young love himself. As the story of fleeing danger and seeking sanctuary unfolds, the love story also unfolds, in a sweet way, then with more urgency, both characters recognizing their feelings for each other and eventually doing something about it, something which will change everything...and give us a trilogy rather than a stand-alone novel. 

But enough spoilers. FLU SEASON: The Book of Mom comes out later this year. Cover reveal soon. Look for it on your favorite YA erotica shelf. And remember: nobody will know what you're reading; they will only see the cover, which suggests an apocalyptic sci-fi story, not the steamy exploration inside - or Mom's constant teasing of her son about needing to repopulate the world once the pandemic ends.

(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.

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 M√ľnchausen 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.