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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

3 Ways Kindle Can Help Write a Sequel or a Series

Even though I'm currently an Indie (independent--i.e., self-published) author, and I'm finding it very hard to get attention for my newest book, I love Kindle. For Indie authors, especially those of us who write sequels and/or series, Kindle offers unexpected but tangible help with all parts of the writing process.

As a writer who depends on pixels rather than pencils, I have come to enjoy reading on the screen at least as much as and sometimes more than reading a physical book. Although I don't have a physical Kindle, I have the app on my computer, my tablet, and my phone. The beauty of the app is that it allows you to save the farthest reading point across all devices, so you can start Chapter 12, say, on your computer, and finish it on your iPhone while waiting online at the post office. "I can't read on a screen!" I hear you protest. "Give it a chance!" I reply. You may be amazed at how easy it is, how natural it comes to feel. If you can't sleep, rather than turning on the light and disturbing your partner, simply turn on your tablet and slip into the world of another author's book. Because there are so many free books for Kindle, it's a simple matter to find other works in your own genre, giving you a good idea of what the competition is.
Even if you don't use the Kindle for reading other people's work, you may find as I do that it is an extremely useful tool for crafting your own writing. For example:

Did you know you can highlight passages in books while you read them in Kindle? I found that out while writing Pandora's Promise, the third book in what turned out to be a trilogy. The first two books were published originally in paperback, then migrated to the web a few years ago. Since the first books came out in the 1980's, not all the details were fresh in my mind. How could I make sure that the new book would correctly follow from the first two, and that someone who has, say, green eyes in the first book does not end up with brown eyes in the third?

Instead of taking notes with a notepad and pencil, which was my original plan, I highlighted while re-reading the books in the Kindle versions. After a little experimentation, I highlighted everything that I thought I might possibly need for the third book. After I’d highlighted most of the first book, I found a post on Indiesunlimited that explained how to find a list of all the highlights for a given book and PRINT THEM OUT.

The printout saved me measurable time. For example, while editing the manuscript for the new book I found I needed to refer to the number of brothers Evvy had. Rather than go back and re-read or skim the first chapters in Pandora's Genes, the first book, I simply went to my list of highlights and found this fragment, referring to Evvy’s mother: “from the looks of the woman a seventh was on the way.” (Five boy children, plus Evvy and an unborn sibling.) Five brothers!

In addition to highlighting, use the search function to find specific names and phrases. Highlighting and search can be done on all Kindle apps, including the desktop, and of course the Kindle device itself.

A number of free software programs allow you to turn your manuscript draft into a mobi (Kindle) file and then to put that work-in-progress into your Kindle library. The program I used is called Calibre, and though there's a bit of a learning curve, if you can write a novel you can convert it to a mobi file. Once your work-in-progress is actually on your Kindle or Kindle app, you can easily read it through, seeing it as it will appear in readers' devices, and highlighting or making notes in the places where you want to change things. If questions arise in the process of reading, the search function will usually answer them instantly.

In future posts I intend to write about other software that I've used in specific ways to help write. If you have a favorite program or app, please feel free to share it in the comments.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Show and Tell

Every writer has been told by a writing teacher or editor to SHOW rather than TELL.

A simple way to understand this precept is to use synonyms. To “tell” something is to summarize  it. To “show” something is to illustrate it. In both fiction and nonfiction, if you want the reader to feel an emotional impact, show the reader what is going on. This is harder than simply summarizing, but always well worth the effort.

Here is an example of the difference between telling and showing from my first novel, Pandora’s Genes. The first passage is a summary of a short but crucial scene about halfway through the book. The second passage is the scene as it appeared in the published book.

Passage A:
Zach was sent away as his wife, Leya went into labor. He knew that she was in danger of dying and was very upset. To take his mind off his anxiety and sorrow he chopped wood.

Passage B
    It was a cloudy summer day, not really hot, but so humid with an impending rainstorm that the least exertion left him sweating and feeling tired. He positioned a log on the chopping block, brought the axe up above and behind his head, then swung it, thunk. He did this again and again, the movements easy from long years of practice. Wood chips flew around him, stinging his bare chest and arms. Cut wood piled up around him, and his breathing grew heavy as his arms began to tremble with the effort. He did not dare to stop, afraid to lose the comforting sound of the axe blade biting into the wood.

   After a time, his muscles stopped responding, and he was forced to rest for a moment. The sounds of the woods became deafening. He heard birds calling their territorial limits to one another; insects scuttling in the leaves; the warm breeze before the storm, pushing the branches of trees. He shivered as the wind took the sweat covering his skin. Sighing, he sat on a log and examined the axe minutely. He had made it himself from an old pre-Change axe blade, and a stout piece of hardwood he had carved himself, carefully fitting it to hold the metal, and binding the two pieces together with strong new-vine ropes. The ancient blade was as shiny as it must have been when it was new: he took care to keep it clean with fish-oil, and sharp on his whetstones. There were nicks and scores in the metal, but it was probably, he thought, in nearly as good condition as when it had been made, untold years ago. He ran his fingers over the blade and looked for signs of wear on the handle. This was the fourth handle he had made for the blade, carefully carving and polishing during long nights in the cabin while Leya read or worked on her projects from the Garden.

   He stood, already feeling stiff, and began to gather the wood he had cut into bundles of seven to ten each, tying them carefully with new-vine, and placing them to the side of his work area, in a small shelter he had constructed. A squirrel suddenly clambered down from a tree behind him. He turned, startled, to see the little animal poised on its hind legs, its nose vibrating with its breath, every nerve in its body stretched as it tried to sense possible danger. It looked at him, its black eyes as shiny as the axe blade, then just as abruptly it ran up the tree and disappeared along a leafy limb.

   Zach picked up the axe and began again to swing it, cutting the wood as if he could cut out everything else that was happening. Never had he worked so long and so hard. Soon there would be enough wood cut to last the Garden through the entire winter. And there was already more than enough for him and Leya. He became aware of another sound and realized that it was his own breath, rasping, wet, and too rapid. Still he did not stop, not even when the raindrops finally began to fall, washing away the dirt and sweat, then soaking him as a summer cloudburst developed. He could scarcely see what he was doing through the falling water, but still he swung the axe back and up, then down, splitting each precisely placed log as he did so, stopping only to move more wood into position.


   He turned, the axe half-raised, poised to split another log. Her head and shoulders covered with a dark shawl, the old woman stood looking at him. Her face was composed and without expression, and as soon as he saw it he knew the worst had happened.

When you have finished writing a story or novel, go over it for places where you can change summaries into illustrations. For example, if you have a character “crying hysterically,” think how you might show that. (Jodie’s chin began to tremble and her mouth turned white as she bit down on her lower lip. But the trembling spread, from her face to her throat, and then to her lungs as she began to gasp, tears now spilling down her cheeks and onto her hands.) 

One of the greatest compliments I've received about my writing was in a review by Eoghann Irving of my short, gritty novella, The Ptorrigan Lode, which begins: 
If you want a great example of showing and not telling, then this is it.

As a short story it doesn't have much space in which to both create a futuristic world and set up a plot and yet the author Kathryn Lance makes it looks easy.
It wasn't easy, of course, but I'm glad it worked. 

For more on the difference between showing and telling, see #2 in my five-point revision checklist.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

What Makes Science Fiction Different from Other Literary Genres? #SFWApro

I don’t think science fiction is what you think it is. I have adored science fiction since I was a child. It is interesting and exciting because it answers questions that begin “What if?” Though the genre has a reputation for being less-well-written than some other genres, that is not true. As with any fiction, some is good, some is bad, some is ordinary. Still, there are several major differences between sf and other genres, and I believe it is these differences that persuade many people that they don’t like or won’t like anything labeled sf.
1. Science fiction stories often begin in the middle
In the early eighties I took a graduate seminar in literary analysis. On the first day of class, the professor gave us a sheet of paper with the beginning lines of several novels. Most of them were enigmatic, and, as the woman sitting next to me noted, seemed to come from the middle rather than the first part of a book. The other participants too seemed baffled, sure that this was some sort of trick. I, on the other hand, had no problem at all: “These all seem to be the opening lines of science fiction stories,” I said.

The professor was impressed, and began a discussion pointing out that more than in other genres, science fiction stories start in media res, simply plunging into the world where the story takes place. This adds to the verisimilitude of sf stories; after all, how likely would you be to read further in a mainstream novel that began by explaining that the story takes place in the twenty-first century, in a mid-sized city in a nation called the United States? That unremarkable information is assumed in mainstream fiction, and similar facts are assumed in science fiction also; any background material that is needed for understanding is filled in as needed later in the narrative.

2. Science fiction makes demands on the reader
A science fiction story is, in a way, a compact between the knowledgeable reader and the author. Part of the fun of reading an sf story or novel is trying to orient yourself and figure out what is going on. The best sf writers can be trusted to eventually give you enough information that you will be able to fill in the background for yourself. In this way, science fiction is like detective fiction, in which you trust the author to feed you all the clues needed to solve the mystery.

3. Sometimes science fiction stories can’t be figured out
A few science fiction stories, like many mainstream stories, leave some answers unresolved, but the remaining questions themselves become part of the story. The best example I can think of is Roadside Picnic, the award-winning short novel by Soviet writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which tells about a future earth in which mysterious, never-identified aliens have left contaminated zones filled with dangerous but valuable artifacts. We never find out who the aliens were, nor why they visited, but the story itself is fascinating and gripping, and the fact that we never find out what is really going on tells us even more about the world of the story.

4. Science fiction helps us adjust to a changing world
I was once fortunate enough to interview Isaac Asimov for a magazine I worked for. My editor wanted his opinion on “What is the purpose of science fiction?” The great man thought for a moment, then said, “Science fiction accustoms us to the future.”

No matter what happens in our often-scary new world, I’ve seen it before in science fiction, and often in works published or produced long before the present day. Suicide bombers and random assassins? These were the “muckers” in Stand on Zanzibar. Genetic manipulation of humans? Brave New World (published in 1931!).  iPhones and the Internet? Star Trek and Speaker for the Dead. Deadly climate change? Mother of Storms.

In my newest novel, Pandora’s Promise, I write about a dangerous world 100 years after modern technology is wiped out by a recombinant-DNA disaster. But my story ends on a note of hope--for the human race and the remaining creatures on earth. I can’t reveal here what that hope is (the “Promise” of the title), but I can tell you that my wish is for it to come true, as so many other science fiction predictions have done. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Five Techniques for Effective Flashbacks

In a long work of fiction, what’s the best way to insert crucial background information without boring or confusing your readers? This common writing problem is especially acute when you are writing a sequel or a series. There is no one right answer for every scene, but each of the following techniques can be effective.

1. Use a straightforward flashback. In old movies, flashbacks were fairly common, and were usually introduced with a musical crescendo and a wavy dissolve to the scene being revisited. In fiction, the transition is often made with a character musing about something that happened in the past: “Jeb couldn’t help thinking about his brother, and how the two of them had often arm-wrestled to decide who would go first in a game of Risk….” [Seque to flashback scene.] The problem here is making the introduction to the flashback seem natural. I have found that a straightforward flashback works best if the transition itself has emotional resonance that the reader is aware of. For example, in my latest novel, Pandora’s Promise, Zach has been conscripted to fight a battle, and he doesn’t know what to expect. As he waits nervously in the pre-dawn with his fellow warriors,
Zach had a few bites of the porridge. He knew from experience that he fought better on an empty belly. After eating he sat on a rock just outside the tent, drawing on a pipe of newsmoke as he watched the early morning sky and thought of the battles he had fought.
The fights against the President’s men had been the easiest, in a sense, because he and Will had been so certain they were in the right. He still remembered his first battle—a skirmish, really—a carefully-planned assault by Will on one of the President’s more remote, but strategically located, outposts to the west by the river.
The plan had been for Will’s men to surround the installation before dawn, then storm it before the defenders were fully awake…. [Seque to the scene, which is crucial to understanding Zach’s attitude toward fighting as well as his relationship with his brother Will.]
    This simple technique can work well, as long as it isn’t overused.

2. Reveal crucial information in a conversation. This technique is very common, both in printed fiction and in movies and television, and the temptation to use it is often overwhelming. However… and it’s a big however, it must be used with care. If you want to impart background information by having two (or more) characters talk about it, don’t have one character tell another something they both know. Ever. Under any circumstances. This elementary rule of good writing technique is frequently violated,  especially in television shows, and especially in soap operas, to often ludicrous effect. For more on what I call “The Soap Opera Rule,” see How to insert background information in dialogue.

If you want to reveal information in a conversation, it’s essential to have one character remind or reveal information that he and we, the readers, know is new to the other character.

3. Write a prologue. A lot of writers use prologues, and I have done so myself, most notably in Pandora’s Children, the second novel in my Pandora’s Trilogy. At first glance, a prologue--incorporating a summary of what came before the new book begins--seems like the perfect way to join the previous book with the new one. Soon after Pandora’s Children was published, however, I read that most readers do not like prologues and simply skip them. (You mean to tell me that all the care I lavished on that prologue was wasted?) With some distance, I re-read the beginning of the novel and realized that the prologue hadn’t been necessary after all; that the bits of crucial info were few and could have been done another way that was more organic to the story.

I wrote a prologue to my new novel, Pandora’s Promise, but no matter how carefully I tried to craft it, I realized that it was simply slowing the story down. Yet the information--an event that takes place between the end of the previous book and the beginning of the new one--was crucial to the entire plot and had to be imparted somehow. But how?

4. Use a physical object to connect two points in time. The more I thought about the information I had to get across, the more I realized that Zach didn’t need to be present for its revelation. The information, that an important character from the previous two books, had committed suicide, rocks Zach and sends him on what turns out to be a life-changing quest. But though we readers know that something emotionally wrenching has happened to Zach, we don’t find out what until a scene that takes place six months later, between the other two lead protagonists, Will and Evvy. The physical object that ties the two points in time together is the suicide note the dead man left for Zach, which is reproduced in full in this scene. In the note, he talks about a “trinket” he had found that he left for Zach. That trinket proves to be key to the book’s most important plot point.

Toward the end of the book I used another, more startling, physical object to lead to an important flashback. In this scene, the Principal (Will) is sitting alone in his office, awaiting an important meeting:
On his lap, where he could easily drop it into a desk drawer in the unlikely event that someone should enter without knocking, was a long, soft coil of hair... Evvy’s hair, which was all that remained of her.
This hank of hair, which (erroneously) has convinced him that Evvy is dead, is the gateway for a lengthy flashback that ties up all the plot points that are not directly connected with the ultimate conclusion of the story.

5. Find a unique way to bring the past into your story.
Since Pandora’s Promise is the third of three novels, there was a great deal of earlier information that I felt had to be included sooner or later in the new book. But I didn’t want to stupefy my readers with flashback after flashback. And then I hit upon the idea of the empathic elephants, who are able to read the “sense-images” in Zach’s mind and project them to other humans who are present. This perfectly solved my problem, because not only was I able to incorporate several scenes that would otherwise have seemed out of place, but because the elephants themselves turned out to be warm and believable companions--several readers have told me their chapters are their favorite parts of the book. Here’s an example of how I used this technique. In this scene, [Rushing River], the elephant, expresses curiosity about how Zach and Evvy first met.
Zach had never before shared the story with anyone. He paused to set his thoughts in order, then began to tell [Rushing River] how the Principal had sent him to procure Evvy from her parents, nearly seven years ago, when Evvy had still been a very young girl. At first Zach simply spoke aloud, so that Jonna and Billy could hear him too, but as soon as he formed words, [Rushing River]’s curiosity opened a series of vivid sense-memories, as if his words had created a library of images for [Rushing River] to peer into. Though he had participated in the events, he was shocked at how detailed the memories were; not only could he see all that had happened, he could hear and taste and smell as he had done at the time. He realized that his memories must have been formed in far more detail than he was consciously aware of. Next to him Jonna gasped. “I can see it, Zach! I can see everything you remember!”
Throughout the rest of the elephant scenes, the humans and elephants continue to exchange thoughts and memories and even philosophical musings.

As for what the elephants are doing on the Great Plains and how they became empathic, you will have to read Pandora’s Promise to find out.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Does Pandora’s Promise Foretell our Future? ( #SFWApro )

Mind-reading elephants.

Giant snakes devouring their worshipers.

A love story of such intense passion, it outlasts the catastrophic wreckage of a frightening future society.

All this, and much more, is found in Pandora’s Promise, the much-anticipated third novel, just released, in my “Pandora” trilogy, which in 1985 took the post-apocalypse genre to a new place.

A catastrophic oil spill sets off my imagined dystopic future. The cleanup, using genetically altered bacteria, leads to the total destruction of modern technology. Experimental life forms escape from germ-warfare labs. Extinctions and mutations -- both plant and animal -- spread around the globe. Tattered remnants of civilization struggle to endure, as a new disease selectively kills women and threatens to exterminate the entire human race.

Throughout the trilogy, pro-science survivors scramble to save their world, fiercely opposed by forces of ignorance and religious fundamentalism. In the new Pandora’s Promise, the effects of galloping climate change compound the many perils originally posed by “The Change.” Yet now, as the story reaches its conclusion, an unexpected ray of hope can be seen, hinted at by the mysterious “Eye,” whose symbol beckons only those with sufficient wisdom.
On its original release in 1985, the first book in the trilogy, Pandora's Genes, received the “Best New Science Fiction Novel” award from Romantic Times, and was named to that year’s “Locus Recommended List.” In the years since, the second book, Pandora’s Children, as well as the first, have become cult classics.

The first two books closely examined societies that develop disparate ways to deal with the lack of technology and the critical shortage of women. In the new book, readers encounter a cult of primitive snake-worshipers...villagers who re-enact ancient sporting events they have transformed into lethal struggles...and families of telepathic elephants, descendants of those that escaped from zoos, circuses, and animal refuges. These empathic elephant “Dream Tasters” are perhaps the most endearing of all my imagined future animals. They eventually team up with the book’s main characters to offer wisdom and perspective, as the humans race to preserve what is left of civilization.

As with all my sf novels, I used my scientific background and research abilities to mingle a character-driven plot with fact-based action. I am a long-time member of Science Fiction Writers of America and the author of fifty other books, both fiction and nonfiction -- along with dozens of articles -- on science and technology, medicine, health and fitness, nutrition, consumerism, and lifestyles.

It’s hard to say what I like best about Pandora’s Promise, but probably most appealing to me is the story’s complicated love triangle, among a poet-warrior, a headstrong political leader, and a beautiful young scientist whose bravery is matched only by her brilliance. Of everything I have written, this is by far my favorite book. But I give full credit to my characters, who really wrote it for me. Once they came to life, they seemed to create the plot, their interactions, and the outcome. All I had to do was listen to them and write it down.

I am available for print, internet, and radio interviews. Contact me at

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Five Ways to Know When You’re Finished Writing

On Friday, February 20th, my new novel, Pandora’s Promise, will be officially published: available for download from Kindle and other venues. Unlike the first two novels in the Pandora’s series, I am self-publishing this one, which means I didn’t have an official editor to tell me when it was ready to show the world. (I did have two excellent editors, but they were not paid by a publishing company.)

So, how did I know when my book was finished? How does any writer know when any piece of writing is finished? The truth is, it’s very hard to be certain, especially when you have written something very long (108,000 words) and complicated, like Pandora’s Promise (four separate sections, three protagonists). With a short story or novella, it's easier to tell--when you can't cut anymore, it's done. With a long novel, though, there is always more you can cut, but SHOULD you? Have you already cut too much? Does continuity suffer? Should you rearrange chapters? Divide some of the longer chapters? At some point, you may be tempted to throw up your hands and write "The End."

I’m afraid there is no easy way to know when to stop writing, but I’ve found that answering the following questions can be very helpful:

  1. Can you cut anything longer than a paragraph without hurting the continuity or flow? In a long work like a novel, you can usually lop off a paragraph here and there to tighten--and thereby improve--the book. But if in re-reading you discover that a whole scene or even chapter could go without disturbing the structure of the book--then go ahead and cut it. If you find you’re keeping something in just to make sure your novel is long enough, you aren’t finished.
  2. Do you have repetitive sections? This seems obvious, but it usually isn’t until you are very close to done with the book and have some distance between your original writing and what will be the final product. For example, in Pandora’s Promise, I had a scene I liked between Zach, the main protagonist, and a fellow-mercenary in a fighting contest. The scene had been fun to write, and imparted a piece of information that would be important later. But on re-reading it after I had finished the first draft of the book, I discovered that the scene was repetitious of a previous scene between the two men. My choices were to combine the scenes, putting the important information in the previous scene, or write something new. I chose the latter course, creating a scene between Zach and a camp follower, which not only included the wanted information but gave me a chance to add some humor and flesh out a bit player.
  3. Do all your plot points make sense? If you have an uncomfortable feeling about anything in your novel, pay special attention to it during your final revision process. An important section of Pandora’s Promise takes place in a large wilderness area, where Evvy is trying to find a comrade who has disappeared. While writing that section I’d had a nagging feeling that Evvy’s wanderings weren’t quite logical--there was too much reliance on luck and coincidence to get her where she was going. My main editor emphatically agreed and pointed out that Evvy’s trip made no sense at all. Though it took a lot of effort, I completely reworked that section, adding a clearly-marked trail that had been left by the missing comrade and reducing the area that needed to be traversed.
  4. Have you tied up all the plot points? Although I always know where a novel is heading, I’m often surprised by how it gets there. In a large novel with many characters, it can be easy to forget to explain exactly what happened to so and so, or how such and such an event was resolved. In Pandora’s Promise, I used one of the last two chapters not only to bring a conclusion to a protagonist’s story, I also tied up and explained the lingering questions about other characters that readers might experience. (How I did that is a subject for a future post.)
  5. Do you have anything else to say about your characters or the situations they are in? If so, you are not finished with the book. Tell the complete story before you write “The End.” I generally do not have this problem, because I write the ending in my head when I’m about three-quarters through with the book. But in the case of the Pandora’s novels, I found out--as I detailed in a previous post--that I had two more novels’ worth of things to say about my characters and their lives.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How I accidentally wrote a 300,000 word trilogy

When I first started writing PANDORA’S GENES, back in the early eighties, I had no idea that the book would consume not the year that it took me to write, nor the three more years it would take till publication, but rather--off and on--a chunk of the following thirty years.

I have written previously about how the book began as a mysterious dream, in which I had a hazy vision of a good man who was about to do something very bad for what he thought were good reasons. When I started writing I really had no idea where I was heading, and let the characters take me where they wanted to go. My original ending, which seemed logical to me, had the three main characters, Zach, Will, and Evvy, marrying each other in a triad, which was the most common form of marriage in the society I wrote about.
This is the first original cover for the paperback; at the insistence of a major bookbuyer it was withdrawn and another cover was made.

After I turned in my manuscript, I was shocked when my editor--who had bought the story as I had written it-- told me that the reading public was not ready for a marriage between two men and a woman, and I would have to change the ending accordingly.

So I changed the ending as requested, having Evvy agree to marry Will for the good of civilization, though we readers all knew that Zach was her true love. My editor pointed out that there was plenty of room for a sequel, so I wrote PANDORA’S CHILDREN, in which I detailed, through "artful" flashback, much of the story that occurred before the start of the first book. When  I turned this manuscript in, my editor made me take out almost all of the prequel material, which my subconscious and I continued to chew on.

Thirty years later, my editor was long since retired, the imprint I’d published with had disappeared, the entire publishing industry had changed, and I still couldn’t get the Pandora’s story out of my mind. I decided finally to write the story I wanted to write, PANDORA’S PROMISE. It starts a few hours after the close of the second book. Though Evvy and Will are still planning to marry, nothing has happened yet, and events propel a new story, following Zach in new adventures, while Evvy and Will become involved in quests of their own.

An entire section of this new book (about 1/4 of the whole thing) is devoted to the prequel--how the Change happened, and the ultimate connection of our characters with its early days. This time I wrote it in a way that is organic to the story, rather than as a traditional flashback. In the main story, Evvy sets off on a dangerous quest with Baby, her empathic fox-cat; while Zach meets some new animal characters, including  the River Clan of elephants, who now freely roam portions of the Great Plains. Along the way I got to explore some new societies, including one organized around a brutal futuristic form of football, and another that is connected with the mysterious Eye, which may or may not be a myth. And nobody made me to take these plot elements out!

For the record, I did have an excellent editor, who suggested many, many changes, most of which I incorporated. 

I feel that this book is by far my best, and that it encapsulates all the things I have most cared about in my life. It has turned out to be a more intense love story than I imagined, and I realize now that its seeds were sown more than thirty years ago when I imagined that unknown man riding into the yard of a poverty-stricken family, where he meets Evvy, the extraordinary young woman who becomes the heroine of the series. *

* (The original book, Pandora’s Genes, won an award from Romance Times in the year it was published, as “Best new Science Fiction of the Year.” I had not realized until I was notified of the award that I had also written a romance story.)