Tuesday, December 6, 2016

How Science Fiction Could Save the World (#SFWA Pro)

“We’ll be fine,” my Facebook friends say. “We survived W, we’ll survive this.”

But what if these friends are wrong? What if we don’t survive? What if it really is different this time?

I grew up in a science-literate household (my father was a paleontologist), and began reading science fiction in sixth grade. It has always been natural for me to react to major global and societal changes in terms of “what if,” extrapolating what might ensue from this or that event or trend. Today, as an adult science fiction writer, I can’t help looking at the current scene from a science-fictional what-if perspective.

The things that currently keep me awake nights are what seem to be too-likely consequences from the relentless destruction of our natural heritage, including coral reefs, a wide diversity of animals, and genetically diverse food crops;  or a precipitous global warming catastrophe, caused by the sudden collapse of the Greenland glaciers or the massive release of previously sequestered carbon in the permafrost; or, more dramatically, nuclear war, caused perhaps by careless talk from a national leader who does not understand either diplomacy or the devastating consequences of the detonation of nuclear weapons.   
The problem is that to avoid these horrible outcomes it is necessary to understand them, and for that a knowledge of science is essential. Unfortunately, most of our new leaders seem to lack any interest or knowledge of science, as well as the necessary imagination to read actual science. But perhaps they can be educated in a different way. Perhaps reading (and watching) good science fiction could help make a difference. Perhaps well-wrought stories with a scientific background might interest those who believe that science is all bunk or a left-wing conspiracy. Perhaps when science is explained dramatically in a plot point, some decision makers might be impelled to think twice:  “Maybe there is something to this after all. Maybe we should be careful about adding more carbon to the atmosphere.” Or, “I can see that if we continue to threaten to use nuclear weapons, we could end up destroying a lot more than our enemy’s cities.”

“What if?” is the starting point for many if not most science fiction stories. Reading science fiction might lead current non-readers to start thinking about the what-if’s implicit in their policy decisions. A few classic science fiction novels might be the spur we need. What if genetic manipulation led to a caste system on which social and work status are based? Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World gives us one plausible scenario. What if the “free world” were taken over by a highly technologized dictatorship whose perverse use of language destroyed its meaning? See George Orwell’s 1984. What if the world population continued to grow exponentially without any mitigation from social or political policy? Read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, which also features Shalmaneser, an all-wise computer that foreshadows the Internet. What if there were a very sudden global warming catastrophe? John Barnes’ Mother of Storms shows us the horrifying, too-believable aftermath. What would human life be like six hundred years after a nuclear war? Walter M. Miller, Jr., describes it in his award-winning classic A Canticle for Leibowitz.

There are many more examples, including two of my own stories:  The Pandora’s Trilogy, which tells how civilization was destroyed as a consequence of a massive oil spill; while my novelette “The Ptorrigan Lode,” shows the devastating consequences of out-of-control corporate greed that values profit over human life and art. I would be more than happy to donate copies of my books to any decision-makers who would agree to read them, and I imagine the same is true for other science fiction writers and publishers. 
Do I think that my solution will really make a difference to the "brave" new world that will soon confront us? Not really. But it could, and I think it’s worth trying. If you agree, send your representatives reading lists or even books. And who knows? A good story is seductive, and a few good science fiction stories might actually change some minds. For more of my musings on the value of science fiction, see this earlier post.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

What to Include and Where to Put It

I’ve led hundreds of classes/workshops on writing techniques. Even for someone like me, who has published dozens of books, every opportunity to write is an opportunity to work on craft, and the more you do it the better you will get at it. Take Facebook. While much of what is posted there is just seat-of-the-pants reactive verbiage, many posts are carefully thought out mini-essays. I have several writer friends whose pieces I look forward to reading, not just as a way of catching up, but for the pleasure of the writing.

A few weeks ago I wrote such a small essay on Facebook because something meaningful had occurred, and I wanted to share it with my friends in a way that might help them feel what I had felt. I revised what I wrote several times, and when I had finished I realized I had put as much thought into the writing and rewriting as I would have into a magazine article or part of a book. The post was successful and acquired many dozens of likes, and the comments showed me that many people had grasped the point I was trying to make. But how did I do that? By combining several writing techniques. I believe the most important one, for the maximum impact of such a short piece of writing, was my choices of what to put in and what to leave out. 

A big part of choosing what to put in is to remember to keep it simple. I wrote about this technique--which I call Less is More-- in a previous post. I used another writing technique, Showing Not Telling, in this piece, as I try to do in all my writing. I looked at all the parts of this relatively simple story, then chose the order in which to tell them for what I felt was maximum impact. I tried more than one order, then decided to move from the general (what happened) to the very personal (how and why it affected me). You might try this with a short piece of your own writing, and see how changing the order of the parts affects the whole.

Here are the facts. My younger brother died of epilepsy sixteen years ago. My husband and I were in a restaurant when a young woman sitting across from us suffered a seizure. I wanted to reassure the girl’s mother that we were not freaked out, and to help if I could. My husband and I stayed until the girl could walk, then assisted the two women to their car.

Here is the post, broken into five segments for commentary:

1) Yesterday at lunch my husband and I were getting ready to pay when we became aware that a woman at the next table was having an epileptic seizure, while her mother held her and kept her from slipping out of her chair. The seizure went on for quite a long time. I asked if there were anything I could do, and the mother shook her head no, but my husband and I decided to wait and see if we could help.2) As the young woman began to come out of it, the waitress and the owner of the restaurant packed up their mostly uneaten food, and my husband and I helped the mother gather her things into her purse. Then, when the daughter could walk, slowly, I took one arm and her mother took the other, and we helped her out to the car. I leaned into the car seat and talked to the daughter while her mother talked to my husband, then ran to the bathroom.3) I was wearing my usual bandanna, and the young woman asked me if I had cancer. I said no, I just have bad hair so I shaved my head. I took off the bandanna and showed her. She ran her fingers over my fuzzy scalp and laughed.4) They eventually left, with many thanks. My husband told me the mother had said her daughter was forty-five (she looked twenty years younger, but had probably never been out in the sun much). So this has been going on a long time. I can't even imagine what a nightmare that poor woman's life is. I'm sure she lies awake at night wondering what will become of her daughter if she predeceases her.5) I began crying when I saw the seizure, and the mother thanked me for "praying" for her daughter. All I could think about was my brother, who died sixteen years ago this coming Monday, of epilepsy.

In segment 1) I introduce the scene very simply, setting out the facts--where we were and the basics of what was happening. I could have gone into more detail about the restaurant or the seizure itself, but chose not to. I felt that the detail about the mother holding the girl to prevent her from slipping out of her chair told all the reader needed to know about the nature of a seizure.

In segment 2) I tell the rest of the basic narrative. I could have described how shaky and pale the girl was; how she and her mother had abandoned their food to deal with the emergency, and so on; but I chose instead to SHOW the girl needing the help of two people to walk to the car, and to SHOW the kindness of the restaurant workers in gathering up the food for them.

In segment 3) I show the girl as she comes out of the seizure-induced fog, and her childlike demeanor as she asks about my bandanna, then runs her fingers over my head. I did not need to say that the epilepsy had apparently stunted her intellectually, or that she probably could not function well on her own.

4) Now I segue to the personal implications of the incident, and my thoughts and empathy for the mother and her daughter. I also come to the real point of the essay, about how tragic this entire situation is for these two women and how their plight touched me.

5) In the last two sentences I show why the incident meant so much to me, personally. I could have started off--as I did above--with the news that my brother had died of epilepsy, but I believe it makes the piece much more powerful to save it for the end.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Why I want this book review to be my epitaph. (#SFWAPro)

My main aim in writing this blog is to reach other writers and would-be writers with hints and tips and reassurance I have collected in my many years as a pro writer. Though I do talk here about my own work, most of the time it's with the aim of  demonstrating something I have learned about the craft of writing.

Today, however, I just want to  share  the great news that my new book, Pandora's Promise, recently received a glowing review from Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I can't exaggerate how much this means to me. I've been a science fiction fan since grade school, when I began reading novels from the public library in Flagstaff, AZ, where my family spent a few summers. I also began around that time to read the great sf magazines, including Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, and Astounding, which later morphed into Analog. The names of the writers and editors of the stories I read were as familiar to me as those of my family and friends. I had always wanted to be a writer, and I couldn't think of anything better, more perfect, than being a writer of science fiction. I can still clearly remember many of those early stories, and the excitement I always felt whenever I started reading a new one.

In the roughly sixty years since grade school, I did become a professional writer and editor. My main success was in the fields of fitness and health, but in the mid 1980's I published my first adult science fiction novel, Pandora's Genes. Though it didn't become a runaway hit, it sold well and received the accolade "Best New Science Fiction" of 1986, awarded by Romance Times, which I had previously never heard of. I loved that novel. It meant everything to me just to have published it and to have finally qualified for one of the main goals in my life: to become a pro member of Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). I published the sequel the following year, and then my imprint folded. Thirty years later I went back to the world I had created and wrote a third book, completing the trilogy (see How I accidentally wrote a 300,000 word trilogy).

I self-published the resulting book, Pandora's Promise, last year, and received nearly thirty very positive reviews on Amazon. Imagine my delight and surprise when last week I discovered by accident that Analog had published a review of the book in December, by long-time reviewer Don Sakers. Here it is. This review is truly the culmination of what I have worked for all these years as a writer. And I seriously want the last two lines to serve as my epitaph.These lines affirm that my book is good, that I am a good writer, and most importantly that I am a good writer of science fiction. 
Pandora’s Promise
Kathryn Lance
         Genre: Post-apocalyptic, SF Romance
Here’s one that will appeal to those who like post-apocalyptic fiction, and also readers of romances. Pandora’s Promise is the concluding book in the Pandora Trilogy (following Pandora’s Genes, 2011, and Pandora’s Children, 2011).A century ago, a recombinant-DNA disaster wiped out all oil-based technology and caused the fall of civilization. Mutations abounded, and a mutagenic plague has seemingly doomed humanity to extinction.The two previous books followed the adventures of Evvy, a young geneticist on the track of a cure for the plague. Along with her soul mate Zach, a soldier-poet, Evvy moves through a world of nightmares and wonders in search of the final solution that will revitalize humankind.In Pandora’s Promise, the two are separated but both working toward the same goal. They encounter strange politics, odd religions, and a host of intelligent animals (including the Dream Tasters, a delightful society of empathic elephants). The love triangle begun in the earlier books gets settled, and all the loose ends wrap up as Evvy and Zach come together to find the enigmatic Eye. And I’m not going to tell you what happens next.Kathryn Lance paints beautiful word-pictures and has a fantastic sense for emotional truth. This is one trilogy that starts good and gets better with each book; Pandora’s Promise is the best.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The most important rule for writing science fiction #SFWApro

In an earlier post I talked about ways in which science fiction is different from other literary genres.  Today I want to show why it is the most versatile of all writing categories.

All other genres of literature, except for science fiction, must follow certain rules: mainstream fiction must conform to reality as we know it, even if that reality is presented from the point of view of a madman (Pale Fire).  Romance fiction must feature, among other things, a romance (Wuthering Heights); and mystery fiction must have a mystery to drive the plot (Farewell, My Lovely). With science fiction, things are not so cut-and-dried. In fact, there is only one real rule that sf writers ignore at their peril.

The most important rule for writing science fiction is that a sci-fi story must be self-consistent. You can write a story that takes place in the present, past, or future. You can write a mystery or a romance or both, within that sci-fi world. You can write an alternate history--what would have happened if Germany had won WWII? You can write an adventure that takes place on another planet or in another galaxy. In good science fiction, almost anything goes, as long as it is explained within the parameters of science as we currently understand it, or the science of another universe or dimension. As long as this rule is observed, sci fi writers have virtually unlimited freedom in what to write about. For example:

It may be science fiction, but it can take the form of a mystery, a romance, or a spy story. For example, in my science fiction series The Pandora's Trilogy, the driving motivation is a romantic triangle involving two men and a woman. The most common form of marriage in the Pandora's world (our present world about 100 years from now, after a genetic disaster destroyed all technology) is between two or more men and a woman (for the good reason that, due to a genetically transmitted disease women are vanishingly scarce in this world). 

You can explore any topics that interest you, as long as they fit the basic scientific premise of your work. For example, my future world has several empathic animals that can communicate more or less telepathically. I knew from previous research that some elephant scientists speak of elephants "as if they could read thoughts;" and there is a great deal of evidence that some animals including household pets possess seemingly supernormal abilities--finding their way home from a great distance, or sensing the approach of an earthquake or other disaster. I simply posited that in the world of my books these creatures had developed their latent abilities as a result of the genetic disaster.

You can express political or sociological points in a relatable way. Such famous dystopian novels as 1984, Brave New World, and Stand on Zanzibar seem to have eerily predicted the last part of the twentieth century. The authors had closely observed the society around them and extrapolated trends to create their science fictional worlds. One of the things that most concerns me in our present world is the massive, accelerating extinction of animal species. 

At one point in the third novel in the series, Pandora's Promise, Zach, one of the three viewpoint characters, proposes enlisting the empathic elephants in a military scheme to restore civilization. Another character, Jonna, replies that the elephants would not cooperate, because  "I do understand, and so do the elephants, that human civilization has meant nothing but misery for the animals of this earth.” “It is true that humans caused the Change,” Zach said. “But perhaps it has benefited the elephants, enabling them to develop advanced intelligence and to enter into other creatures’ minds.” Again Jonna was silent, and when she answered she sounded amused. “Why do you believe that the elephants did not possess those abilities all along, even before the Change?” 

Because it is FICTION, you can explore topics that might get lost in a nonfiction piece. Instead of writing an article about the terrible suffering of "trained" elephants in circuses and zoos, I can simply SHOW that suffering from the point of view of the elephants. (See [Rushing River]'s Story, from Pandora's Promise.) Thus a point that might be skipped or glossed over by a reader of nonfiction will be made viscerally, once the reader has become interested in the elephants as characters in a novel.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

How Reviews Can Improve Your Writing

Some writers claim that they never look at reviews. Others, like me, read them obsessively, whether they are professional reviews in a magazine, reader reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, or even feedback from friends and acquaintances on Facebook or in emails.

I don’t know if this is true for all or even most writers, but my writing is very much tied in with my ego. When a book I have written (or helped to write) is praised, I feel validated. When it is panned, I feel personally judged. I can’t NOT take reviews seriously, and I continue to ask for them and to read them. I have come to believe from years of leading writing groups that we can grow as writers by understanding how our work is received by the outside world.

For example, once when I was leading a fiction writing group at NYU, I gave the group a section from a story in progress. I was stunned that four of the six group members thought my main character was a self-centered, immature twit, when I’d pictured him in my mind as a free spirit who marched to a different drummer. I swallowed my anger and hurt, thanked everyone for the feedback, and after the group meeting gave it some thought. I eventually realized that those who didn’t like the character had been right, which brought to mind a maxim from my old friend, the late novelist Richard Brickner: “When three people tell you you’re drunk, lie down.” I ultimately abandoned that project, but I had learned a bit about creating character along the way, and I do believe that no writing is ever wasted, whether it sees print or not.

Those of us writing in the brave new world of indy (independent) self-publishing are fortunate that we have the opportunity to take reader feedback to a new level, and make changes in work that has already been published. My current consuming project is my Pandora’s Trilogy, which consists of two books traditionally published in the 1980’s, and Pandora’s Promise, the third book in the series. The first two were digitized several years ago, while the third was finished and published online a few months ago, with a more recent paperback version now available.

While I was deeply involved with finishing the book I re-read some negative reviews of the first two books, which had otherwise received glowing notices. A few readers had been deeply offended by the behavior of one of the three main characters, and I could see now that his behavior was beyond the pale when seen in the light of a 21st century sensibility. I could not go back and change books that had been published thirty years prior, but what I could and did do was change my originally-conceived ending so that the character was punished in a way that guaranteed he would never achieve the goals that meant the most to him. I considered, and tried writing, some scenes in which he was killed, but none of them worked so well as the solution I had come up with.

The bottom line:
  • Keep in mind that it is after all YOUR book
  • Appreciate good reviews
  • Don’t automatically dismiss bad reviews
  • If more than one reader has similar objections to a character or a section of your book, consider revising it even after it’s been published. It’s easy enough and not expensive to make the changes that will make your book the best it can be.

I’d like to end by quoting a new review of Pandora’s Promise by someone I do not know personally He not only enjoyed the book, he GOT the story, and by extension, he GOT me. This is the sort of feedback authors dream of, and that makes all the work worthwhile  

Just finished reading the Pandora books and enjoyed them very much. I enjoyed your take on football with the Pros; very inventive. However, I think the Dream Taster section is absolutely brilliant!! That section deserves some sort of award on its own. Thank you for writing it.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Pandora's Promise is Now a Physical Book!

I am very excited to announce that I finally have a paperback edition of  Pandora's Promise, the third novel in my Pandora's trilogy. The book is for sale here on the store at Create Space, an arm of Amazon that creates Print-On-Demand books, and also--already!--on Amazon, at this link.

The book is a big, 6x9 trade paperback, containing more than 110,000 words of crunchy post-apocalyptic goodness, with a heaping helping of romance. It is priced competitively with other books of its type, at $13.99.
I'm planning to have a bigger Official Launch later on, but for now wanted to let everyone know that the paperback is out. So if you have been waiting for printed letters to read instead of pixels, now's your chance.

Stay tuned for more info about the book, including a list of the people for whom I left Easter Eggs, and a contest or two. 


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Meet the Author: Kathryn Lance

I really liked this interview by Liza Shaw, whose blog The Reading Head reviews books and their authors. This interview appeared on   in  Meet the Author.

Today I’m very lucky to interview Kathryn Lance, author of Pandora’s Promise, the third novel in her Pandora’s Trilogy.

Hi, Kathryn, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I’ve been a professional writer since the mid 1970’s, but I’ve retired from fulltime writing to make a living and now just write things I personally care about.

When did you decide to become a writer?
I knew I wanted to be a writer as early as second grade, and that never changed. I didn’t realize till I was much older that you can actually make a living at it.

So, what have you written?
In my 40 year full-time writing career I published more than fifty books, both fiction and nonfiction, some under my own name, others ghosted for other people. I wrote several books on fitness and health, some for doctors. I also wrote dozens of articles on those topics, for various magazines. Before books and magazines, I wrote hundreds of soap opera scripts for four soap operas. For two years in there I worked as an editor and writer for Scholastic Magazines. The first in my Pandora’s Trilogy, Pandora’s Genes, won the Best New Science Fiction Award from Romance Times in 1985. Until I heard about the award, I honestly had no idea that in addition to a science fiction adventure I had written a romance!

Where do your ideas come from?
Most of my best ideas come from dreams. Pandora’s Genes started as a mysterious dream that I could not get out of my mind until I sat down and wrote it to find out what happened.

What genre are your fiction books?
Mostly science fiction.

What draws you to this genre?
I have loved science fiction since I was in grade school. It stretches the mind, answering the question “what if?” I have always felt that in many ways science fiction stories are more REAL than mainstream stories.

Do you have an interesting writing style or quirk?
I am rather laissez-fair about my use of commas.

Do you ever get writer’s Block? Do you have any tips on how to get through the dreaded writer’s block?
YES! There have been a few times when I was unable to write fiction. I cured it by forcing myself to write AT LEAST ONE SENTENCE every night before going to bed. The rules were that I could write more than one sentence—as many as I wanted– but I couldn’t go to bed till I’d done that one sentence. Very often I found myself writing several sentences; occasionally even a whole page or two. I actually wrote about half of “Going to See Grassy Ella,” a children’s comic adventure novel, using that method. I’ve recommended it to my writing students, and everyone who tries it finds it very helpful.

Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they?
Practice, practice, practice. Writing is like a muscle--it only gets stronger when you exercise it. If you have trouble writing at all, then use my One Sentence Before Bed method for as long as it takes you to put something together.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Bob Cenedella, a wonderful novelist and radio/tv writer, was my actual mentor. I worked for him on a couple of soap operas. The best advice he ever gave me was: “Never write anything you don’t believe. If it seems unbelievable, find a way to make yourself believe it.” This advice has been helpful in everything I’ve written since, from articles to face-lift books, to the Pandora’s Trilogy.

For your own reading, do you prefer e-books or traditional printed books?
I have come to prefer e-books, which I read on the Kindle app on my iPad and iPhone. Mostly the iPhone, actually.

What books have most influenced your life?
The Brothers Karamazov transformed me when I first read it at age sixteen. I ended up majoring in Russian in college, and once visited Russia on a study-tour. I re-read it every few years and find that I get something different—but profound—out of it each time. I am planning to read a highly-touted new translation on the Kindle app very soon.

What do you think makes a good story?
Character and conflict.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I live in Tucson, Arizona, so I love to do outdoors things. I’m a docent at two nature parks and lead tours as well as interpret plants and animals of the desert. I also enjoy bird watching and hiking.

Here I am, on the far right, leading a tour at Tohono Chul Park

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t despair; it’s all good.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Find a really good feedback group or writing class and attend faithfully. Practice. Don’t give up. Or start your own feedback group, but first get and read Writing Without Teachers, by Peter Elbow, which will tell you everything you need to know about creating a really useful feedback group.