Author Interview – Eric Douglas

For this interview we go under the sea with diver and author Eric Douglas.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

My name is Eric Douglas. I was born and raised in Cross Lanes, West Virginia. Attended Nitro High School and got a degree in Journalism from Marshall University. As a newspaper reporter, I learned I was pretty good at telling human interest stories. Fiction didn’t come along until much later, though. In 1998, I got a job working in the recreational scuba diving industry, editing a magazine and working as a technical writer in California. That led to another position that gave me the opportunity to travel all over the world. Much of that travel became the inspiration for my books. I still write some nonfiction, but all of my fiction work has a scuba diving/ocean/environmental aspect. My main character in my series of novels is Mike Scott, a photojournalist who travels the world and gets involved in stories – many of which involve diving.

Were you a diver first who got involved in the industry, or was it a job that became a passion?

I was first certified to dive in 1990, just after I graduated from Marshall. I didn’t go to work full-time in the industry until 1998. One of my original motivators for learning to dive, aside from the legacy of Jacques Cousteau, was I thought it would add something interesting to my resume. My dream job then, and now, is to work for National Geographic. I thought being a diver might make me more interesting to them. Still working on that one.  My first job in the dive industry was as a technical writer and editor. So, my writing fueled my opening into diving as a profession.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

I published four books last year, but one came in November and the other in late December. The November book is called Dive-abled: The Leo Morales Story. It is a biography about a young man who lost his leg to cancer and then used diving to regain his life. He has set two world records as a disabled diver.


The December book is called Turks and Chaos: Hostile Waters. It is a novella in my long-standing series. It is set entirely onboard a liveaboard dive boat near the Turks and Caicos islands. For the last few years, I have been attempting to release a novel and a novella in that series.

Dive Pic

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

Most of my books are thrillers. I’ve always loved action stories with real heroes. I cut my teeth on James Bond movies and loved the Jack Ryan/Tom Clancy books as a teen/20-something. I’m a big fan of Clive Cussler as well and get a lot of comparisons to his Dirk Pitt books.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

I will often start with a dry erase board by my desk. I will plot out the basic story there. Not a true outline, but the major plot point. I’ll stare at that for a week or so to make sure I am comfortable with it and to see if I come up with anything else. From there, I use Scrivener for my first couple drafts. I set up chapters with major plot points and then start writing.  I am often surprised where the story goes. Once I get a complete draft down, I will export it to my tablet and read it/mark it up there. From there, second round of revisions. After that, I usually send it to a group of Beta readers and editors. In all, I got through five or six rounds of revisions before it is done. The last couple rounds, once I get input from others, is all done in Word.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

My main character is a tribute to a friend. One of my best friends from high school and college is Mike Burnsworth. He died from cancer my senior year at Marshall. His middle name was Scott, so that’s where Mike Scott comes from. I do it in memory of him.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

For my last full-length novel, I sent a note to a friend who is a Ph.D. chemist. I asked him about a poison that could kill by aerosol and was available in the 60s. He came back with “Why would I know something like that?” Once I told him it was for a book, he understood and we concluded that Sarin gas had just been created a couple years before. That shows up in The 3rd Key.

Keys cover 2017 V.1 web

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

It is a grind. I do it because I love it, but writing is a lot of work. Especially about 2/3rds of the way through a project. That is when you really hate it and want to quit. That’s probably why so many books go unfinished.

When you get to that point where it seems like things are falling apart and it’s not worth finishing, how do you push through? Is there a book that was particularly difficult in that respect that turned out really well?

I’ve never been a big believer in writer’s block, but there are definitely times I get stuck. When that happens, I always turn aside to a new project. I was having a lot of trouble getting started on my latest novel. I just couldn’t find the mojo. So, I gave myself a new assignment. I ended up writing a short story set in Charleston in 1855. It was something  completely different and totally removed from anything I had  done in a while. As a further challenge, I wrote the first  draft entirely on a tablet instead of on my computer. That did  the trick. I am now cranking out the new novel and the block is gone.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I would travel more and do more “location research.” I need to get back to the islands. Its been a couple years and I have the itch.


What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I’ve recently read a couple books by Wayne Stinnett. He writes in my genre and I enjoy them, although I tend to break out of reader mode with him and think “I wouldn’t have written it like that.” Which is why I don’t read a lot of people who write similar stories to mine. I love thrillers, but I try to avoid those with an ocean/diving theme. A favorite of mine as well is Huntington author Sheila Redling. I love her Dani Britton books and hope she releases another one soon. In fact, she agreed to do a cross-over with me and I used Dani in The 3rd Key.

What do you think your next project will be?

I just fired up Scrivener for the next full-length Mike Scott novel. The dry erase board stage was a couple weeks ago. I expect this one is going to involve Russian hackers, undersea mining and all sorts of intrigue. Hold on to your hats!

Is there an end in sight for Mike Scott? Or will his adventures go on so long as you keep getting good ideas of how to get him into trouble?

I’m working on the 10th Mike Scott story right now, not counting a couple short stories he is in. After this one, I plan to write a novel completely separate from Mike and diving. It’ll still be a thriller/mystery, but I want to branch out into something else. That said, I’m sure I will come back to Mike Scott afterward. Like with the short story, I think I need to refresh and stretch my wings a bit.


Or, Just Be a Fan of the Game

The old saw goes that things that matter little lead to the deepest, angriest arguments. If nothing else, sports proves that over and over. Let’s be honest – unless you’re actually on a professional team or work for the organization, whether one group of super wealthy athletes beat another on the field/court/pitch/track doesn’t really change your life.

To be clear – I’m not shitting on sports in general. I’m a big sports fan, although my tastes tend to run more toward niche sports (hello soccer and non-NASCAR auto racing!) than the American big three. Does it give me a little thrill when DC United wins a game or my alma mater makes a deep run in the NCAA tournament? Of course! Does it ruin my day if they don’t? Of course not! Did I mention DC United? If their success was really tied to my mental health I’d offed myself years ago.

One of the things that most riles up sports fan – even more than the evergreen battle of artificial turf versus natural grass – is when people who haven’t “paid their dues” with a particular team jump on the bandwagon when they do well. They’re usually called “fair weather” fans, since they flee the team when they have a downturn. It’s the sports equivalent of a person with loose sexual morals – you’ll root for just about anyone, won’t you?


Over at The Atlantic, Derek Thompson argues in favor of this kind of sports libidinous. He’s a sports slut and is proud of it:

But I’m done apologizing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m right and everybody else is wrong. Rooting for winners is more than acceptable—it’s commendable. Fans shouldn’t put up with awfully managed teams for decades just because their parents liked those teams, as if sports were governed by the same rules and customs as medieval inheritance. Fans should feel free to shop for teams the way they do for any other product.

What I’m proposing here is a theory of fluid fandom that would encourage, as opposed to stigmatize, promiscuous sports allegiances. By permanently anchoring themselves to teams from their hometown or even an adopted town, sports fans consign themselves to needless misery. They also distort the marketplace by sending a signal to team owners that winning is orthogonal to fans’ long-term interests. Fluid fandom, I submit, is the emotionally, civically, and maybe even morally superior way to consume sports.

I kind of like that approach and, if done openly, I don’t think most sports fans would have a real problem with it. I think most fans have problems with bandwagon jumpers not because they’re there, but because they sometimes imply that they’re enjoying a team’s success as much as someone who’s suffered through years of defeat and disaster. Honesty can go a long way.

Along that like I’d like to lay out a third course, one that I frequently follow, particular when it comes to racing. It’s simple – be a fan of the sport, not a fan of a particular team. In other words, don’t turn yourself into a Cavs fan as a reason to watch the NBA Playoffs; watch the playoffs because you’re a fan of basketball (or the NBA’s version of it, at least) itself.

I’ve done that with racing for years. I’ve never really had a favorite driver and, beyond a nominal attachment to Ferrari in Formula 1, never really had a favorite team. I tend to root for underdogs, but that naturally changes from year to year (and even race to race). I’d like to see Haas do well, since it’s been so long since there was an American presence in F1, but my life doesn’t rise and fall on their exploits. For everything else – Indy cars, sports cars, touring cars – I just want to see good racing.

Same goes for soccer, largely. I do have favorites – DC United for the US, Leeds United for the rest of the world (like literary rights) – and, of course, I pull for the United States national teams (men’s, women’s, and youth). But that only takes in a tiny fraction of the amount of soccer out there. Truth is, I’ll watch damned near any soccer game I can find. Do I care who wins the Champions’ League semi between Roma and Liverpool? Not really, but I’m damned sure going to watch it. Same with this summer’s World Cup, since, sadly, there’s no American rooting interest. Even if not rooting for either team might make law enforcement suspicious. See, US v. Manzo-Jurado, 547 F.3d 928 (9th Cir. 2006)(among the factors cited by cops to justify stop of defendant was that he and his friend were at a high school football game but were not rooting for either team).

What I’d say to Thompson, then, is that you’re not doing anything wrong, but you could do it better. Unless you have a genuine interest in a particular team or player, just give yourself over to the pleasure of the game. It’s what you’re most interested in, anyway. And you won’t piss off those losers for whom this stuff is life and death.

Besides, it frees your mind to ponder other things:


Author Interview – S.G. Redling

This time we head to Huntington, West Virginia to talk to the genre hopping S.G. Redling.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m Sheila Redling, writing as S.G. Redling. I live in my hometown, Huntington WV. I write all kinds of stuff but I make my living writing thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, and urban fantasy.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

I’m making my first foray into self-publishing this spring. Wow, that is a LOT  of work. I’m putting out the next two books in urban fantasy Nahan series. Book One was Ourselves; Book Two is The Reaches; Book Three is Empire. Book Four is just a twinkle in my eye.


What made you decide to self publish your latest books? What one thing about it surprised you in terms of being more work that you expected?

I’ve been sitting on Books 2 and 3 of the Nahan series for some time. It’s a strange series (like most of the stuff I write.) The relationship with the original publisher didn’t quite go the way I liked so we parted ways after Book 1. I decided that I missed the characters and I might as well put them out into the world. As for the difficulty, honestly, I was surprised at how easy it is to get a book online. I was expecting to be exasperated at every turn but I found a great cover designer and formatter. KDP and Create Space made the launch incredibly easy. Now SELLING the books may be a different matter.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

Genre definition has been a big problem for me. I like weird, not-entirely reality-based thrillers. That’s what I like to read, that’s what I like to write. However, most of my thrillers are traditional and reality based. As for why I chose what I chose, I wish I knew. The stories choose me.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

Man, I wish I could. I have completed over a dozen full-length manuscripts, seven of them sold to publishers, three are in the pipe for release on my own time, and the rest will probably never see the light of day. Every single time I start a book, I feel like I’m starting at the very beginning of my career and skill set. Every book is different; every story has new and aggravating challenges. It often feels like I don’t even know how to type.

The consistent parts of my process are showing up, making notes, daydreaming a lot during long walks, and easing myself into a writing schedule. I base my schedule on word count – daily, weekly, monthly. At the beginning of a book, I’ll keep the count low – 500 words a day X 5 days a week. Usually that’s enough to get a story to catch on fire. From there, I average 2500 words a day, seven days a week. I write quickly and forward, with only the slightest edits as I go. Once the manuscript is done, I read through, make changes, and then share it with some trusted readers. I enjoy rewrites; I feel they are the do-overs we don’t get anywhere else in our lives.

Are there stories that have chosen you that have been more difficult to write than others? What made them difficult?

(Sobs into hands) Uh, yeah. I have a thriller I’ve been working on for months that is going to be the death of me. I love puzzlers and twisty stories and unfortunately am writing one that is outwitting me at every turn. While it’s terrifying and frustrating and often demoralizing, I think it’s important to always write at the very edge of your ability level. You should always be writing a book that you’re not sure you can handle. It makes you a better writer.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

That’s a tough question. I do really love my characters, with all their triggers and questionable hygiene. At the risk of sounding precious, they have broken my  heart more than once. The one I’m fondest of as a human being is Loul Pell, the comic book nerd from the planet Didet in Damocles. Of all the characters who have walked in my head, he had the largest heart and the greatest faith in humanity. He is the only character I’ve ever written that I miss the way one misses a dear friend.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

You should probably ask my sister, Monica, this question. As a nurse, she is my go-to for all questions about medical issues. (How long can you hide a body in a wall before it smells? How quickly does an adult male bleed out?” How much pressure would it take to nail a foot to the floor?)

But my favorite research adventure was the discovery of a highly flammable epoxy. My friend (and fellow WV writer) Lynne Squires recommended the epoxy when I knocked my side mirror off. When I looked at the box, the directions were basically just “Squirt and stick.” The rest of the packaging was covered in tiny print with the pages of warnings of flammability. I had to know just how flammable. So I sat in my driveway with a steel bowl, a box of matches, paper and cardboard, a bucket of dirt, a bucket of water, and a fire extinguisher. Long story short – the epoxy was insanely flammable and proceeded to play an important role in the finale of my latest thriller, At Risk. My neighbor deserves a medal for all the foolishness she puts up with sharing a fence with me.

JD – This is definitely the “winner” so far of this question!

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Writing is too much work to do for anyone but yourself. Be careful to the point of paranoia about whom you let in your head. Trust your gut. Write what you love and remember that even when you hate it, you love writing. If you don’t love it, don’t do it.

Redling 1a

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I guess there’s only one way to find out. *watches for check in the mail*

Until then, I suppose it would greatly improve my technological landscape which is currently like an outtake from the original Mad Max.

Who am I kidding? It would all go to wine and cat food.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I recently asked the Facebook Hive Mind for recommendations for alien invasion stories and was not disappointed. One of the happiest takeaways for me was the discovery of Wil McIntosh, whose books Defenders and Faller were two big highlights of my reading list.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

Right now I’m focused on this new territory of self-publishing the next two Nahan books. I’m writing the next Dani Britton book and there has to be at least one more after that because I owe Eric Douglas a crossover with his Mike Scott character. I’ve got the first of a new mystery series waiting in the wings and most of a completely insane thriller finished. As it stands now, my immediate future holds gallons of coffee and wine, barrels of chocolate, miles to walk, and enough typing to break my shoulders. It’s a good plan.

Have you found it difficult to find an audience that will follow you from genre to genre?

Did my agent ask you to ask me that?

It has been challenging. One of my biggest setbacks is that I don’t effectively brand myself. At least not in an easily commercialized way. I think I have a type – mind-bending, usually violent, with complex female leads – but unfortunately there’s no section in the bookstore with that title. All I can hope is that readers will keep taking a chance on me, that I’ve earned their trust in delivering a quality story.

Keep up with S.G. at her Amazon author page and click here to find out more about The Reaches.

My Ten Albums

There’s been a thing going around Facebook for the past few weeks where, for ten days, people posted cover from a different album that made an impact on them and they’re still listening to. The whole point was to not explain the choices – but there’s too much blog fodder here to pass up. So here are my ten, in the order they went up – which is to say, pretty much randomly as pulled from my brain. I should point out these aren’t necessarily favorites or “best” albums by these artists, although they’re all pretty great (your mileage may vary, of course).

Genesis – Selling England By the Pound (1973)


 I can’t say that this is the first Gabriel-era Genesis album I heard (my brother, Todd, had most, if not all, of them), but it is the one I first fell in love with. It was, to use an analogy I’ll come back to later, my gateway drug for progressive rock. Swelling mellotrons, soaring guitars, lyrics that were completely beyond comprehension to a grade schooler living in 1980s West Virginia – how could I resist?

Yes – Yessongs (1973)


Growing up when I did my music delivery vehicle of choice was (and still is) the CD, but I was just old enough to catch the end of the (first) age of vinyl. I actually bought a few LPs, this being the one that stood out. Not only because it’s 3 albums full of Yes in its prime, but because of that amazing Roger Dean gatefold sleeve. Appreciating album art is one of the great lost joys of the modern streaming generation.

Rush – Grace Under Pressure (1984)


This definitely falls into the “not my favorite” category (although I like it just fine), but this album makes the list because it was the first “new” album by a favorite band I ever bought. On cassette, no less. Sitting down to digest any album that’s new to you is fun, but digging into a completely new one by a favorite artist is a real treat, particularly back in the pre-Internet days when you might have little idea of what it actually sounded like!

IQ – Tales From the Lush Attic (1983)

 Lush Attic

 It’s no shock to say that progressive rock is a niche genre, at least since the heydays of the mid 1970s. That means that finding albums for me has rarely been as simple as heading down to the record store and hunting for something interest. Mail order catalogs and web retailers are a must. This album makes the list because it was in the first order I ever made from a mail order catalog (along with Camel’s Mirage and Gentle Giant’s Octopus) – not even over the Internet! There are better IQ albums, but it’s a landmark for my exploration of prog. And the cover’s cool.

echolyn – as the world (1995)


Mail order aside, sometimes you stumble across something that seems interesting and you take a chance. When I found as the world in the bin at the mighty Discount Den in Morgantown back in my college days I knew, vaguely, that they were a prog band. And I saw that this album released on a major label and had a big suite in the middle of it, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Took it home and was hooked on this band from the first track (which is all vocal harmonies and strings). Sometimes you get lucky, so it’s worth playing the game now and then.

Marillion – Afraid of Sunlight (1995)


You’re rarely lucky enough to discover a favorite band when their brand new. Usually, you come in somewhere in the middle of things, where a band’s heady back catalog can make the prospect of new music from them both tantalizing and a little worrying. Will the new stuff measure up to the old? Afraid of Sunlight was my first “new” Marillion album and, at the time, I didn’t care for much of it. It’s since gone on to be one of my favorite Marillion albums (favorites period, really), but the experience of being uneasy with it to begin with it something I’ve repeated many times over the years.

Radiohead – Kid A (2000)


I didn’t know I needed Kid A until I saw Radiohead perform “Idioteque” on Saturday Night Live. I’d come late to OK Computer and knew their new album wasn’t supposed to be anything like it, so I wasn’t all that interested. That performance changed my mind, in more ways than one. Not only did it cause me to buy the album, it caused me to open up an entirely different area of music to check out. Kid A was, for lack of a better word, my gateway drug to electronic music. I wouldn’t make the conscious choice to explore Kraftwerk or OMD or The Orb for another couple years, but this planted the seeds.

Spock’s Beard – The Light (1995)


These days we take for granted the ability to sample music on the internet and buy with a press of a button. It was not always so. The Light was my first experience with internet commerce and it was a little rocky. I took an hour or so to download a few 30-second clips from songs (it was the guitar break in “Go the Way You Go” that sold me), then had to actually mail a check to California. It came back – twice – requiring a phone call from guitarist Alan Morse. When he found out I was at WVU he sang me a chorus of “Country Roads.” We got things straightened out and I became a Beard fan for life.

Sanguine Hum – Diving Bell (2010)


One of the great things about going to prog festivals is that I get exposed to lots of new bands. I’ve bought a lot of albums over the years because of that, but this one is special. Going into Sanguine Hum’s 2012 performance at ROSFest I knew nothing about them. I went in as cold as could be, completely ignorant. I didn’t just like what I heard – I was completely blown away. Ironically, I wound up getting this, the band’s only album at the time, from Amazon because the vendors had sold out and the band’s stash didn’t make it from the UK (I wound up snagging a couple EPs from the band’s prior incarnation, the wonderfully monikered Antique Seeking Nuns). Fresh, exciting, powerful new music is out there, even in the 2010s.

Premiata Forneria Marconi – Storia di un Minuto (1972)


Progressive rock is an outgrowth of a particular time in the UK, but it spread across the globe and resulted in some really rich regional scenes. Italy, in particular, was an early hotbed (Genesis and Van der Graff Generator both hit it big there first). This was the first album I got that was really “foreign,” without any English to be found, either in the lyrics or the liner notes (two times over – it’s a Japanese pressing!) and it convinced me that wasn’t going to be a stumbling block to discovering some wonderful music.

Why You Should Be Reading Saga

I didn’t grow up reading comic books. I can’t say why. They weren’t verboten in our house and their residence in the same ghetto as science fiction and fantasy, but for some reason I never really dove in. Maybe it was because I perceived comics as being about super heroes and they never interested me much. It wasn’t until I got to college and my roommate corrupted me with some Batman did I get a chance to read them.

Even then, I didn’t really get into comics or graphic novels (I prefer waiting for a bunch of issues to get collected – makes for a more satisfying reading experience) until I got exposed to a pair of the traditional gateway drugs for the genre – in other words, stuff so good that even people who don’t read comics read them. One was Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a deconstruction of the entire superhero genre; the other, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which follows the exploits of Morpheus, the god of dreams, and his extended family.

While both of those are great ways for readers not familiar with comics to dip their toes into the graphic waters, they’re both “classics” by this point, held in such reverence that people might risk approaching them like you would Homer or Hemingway – things you should read because they’re important and exemplars of the form, but maybe not just for the enjoyment of it.

Thus, allow me to suggest another gateway, one that’s fresh, ongoing, and just released its 50th issue – Saga.

Created by Bryan K. Vaughn (words) and Fiona Staples (images), it’s a sprawling science fantasy saga with a heavy helping of just plain weirdness. Vaughn and Staples take full advantage of their chosen format to give the story a scope and a visual sense that would be impossible to pull off in another format. In the same way that 2001 epitomizes what a motion picture can be (an completely immersive audio-visual experience), Saga is the apex of what comics can be.

As amazing as Staples’s art is, Saga wouldn’t be worth reading without a compelling story and characters we care about. The basic setup is simple – a world, Landfall, has been at war with its moon, Wreath, for years. In the middle of the war, Alana (from Landfall) and Marko (from Wreath) fall in love and produce a kid, Hazel (who is the narrator), who really shouldn’t have been able to happen. They try and survive in a world where damned near everyone wants to hunt them down, from soldiers to bounty hunters with sentient lie-detecting cats.


Along the way, as they blast from world to world in a spaceship that is also a tree (did I mention this is science Fantasy? Definitely a capital “F”), collecting other outcasts to form a very bizarre, very fractured, but very sweet extended family (as this article points out, Saga is almost impossibly diverse in its characters). Vaughn has said that’s what Saga is really about:

I now have two kids. I first starting thinking about this while waiting for our first kid. And I always used writing as an outlet to talk about my fears, concerns, and passions. I really wanted to talk about creating new life. And I found talking to my friends who are strangers to the fatherhood experience—I would watch them start yawning or looking at their watch–difficult. If you’re outside of that world you don’t really give a shit. When you’re living in it, it’s really exciting. So I wanted to find a way to make people who don’t have kids or who never intend to have kids feel what it’s like to be a parent.

That’s where Saga was born.

Not having kids I can’t say whether having them makes Saga more meaningful, but it does emphasize the foundation of the story. All the amazing art and “holy shit” concepts don’t add up to much if the characters aren’t ones we care about in the first place. That’s true of good fiction in general, but particularly good speculative fiction. At bottom, it’s a story about love, fear, and survival. The tree ships and arachnid bounty hunters are just gravy.


What I’m trying say is that Saga isn’t something I recommend to comic newbies because it’s a classic (although it’s on its way to becoming that) or because it’s something, to channel one of my high school English teachers, “that well read people know.” It’s because it’s a great story, involving people you will care deeply about, told across a stunningly inventive backdrop. I mean, really, what else do you need?


At Long Last, the Entire Saga of The Water Road In One Handy Package

Very happy to announce that how, instead of buying three separate books to digest the entire story of Antrey, Strefer, and The Water Road, you can now get them in one convenient package. Presenting The Complete Water Road Trilogy box set:

2017-525 3d render on transparent Website.png

This is the series readers have called “magnificent,” “excellent,” “exciting,” and “engrossing.”

This version is only available in eBook format. And for April, it’s on sale for just 99 cents! Get one in your preferred format at the links below.

Barnes & Noble

Weekly Read: Children of Time

One of the great things about speculative fiction is that you get to write about characters who aren’t human. One of the hard things, as a result, can be making readers care about characters who, at least on the surface, aren’t anything like them. To be able to pull that off is something special.

Children of Time starts off with human characters who seem all to relatable. A ship is in orbit around a planet that’s been freshly terraformed. A scientist is making ready to start a bold experiment – seeding the planet with a group of monkeys, followed by a spiffy nanovirus that will help jumpstart and guide their evolution. To “uplift” them, in the David Brin sense of the word.

Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. The experiment is disrupted before it’s really begun by a quasi-Luddite faction that things humanity going to the stars was a mistake. The monkeys burn up over the planet. The nanovirus . . . well, what becomes of the nanovirus is what Children of Time is all about.

You see, just because the monkeys didn’t make it to the planet doesn’t mean other life didn’t. Instead of finding its intended host, the nanovirus finds a species of spiders into which it can insert itself. It does and, for half the ensuing chapters in Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky puts us in the brains of various spiders as their society develops over thousands of years. That society itself is a supreme feat of imagination on Tchaikovsky ‘s part, but what really matters is that you come to care for these non-human beings, creatures that are more likely to conjure nightmares than sympathy.

That’s certainly true for the crew of Gilgamesh, the humans who make up the other half of the chapters. After the experiment at the beginning of the book goes awry humanity itself follows suit. Eventually, the only humans left alive are the crew of Gilgamesh and its “cargo” – hundreds of thousands of people in suspended animation.

It’s no spoiler to say that the humans and spiders have a coming together (two of them, sort of) and while the ultimate confrontation is wonderfully done, the paths they take getting there are equally fascinating. While the spiders slowly develop a technologically advanced society (the things they do with webs), humanity on board Gilgamesh is slowly falling apart. As seen through the eyes of a “classicist,” who gets woken up every so often to observe another crisis, it’s like the entire universe is falling apart at the seams. By the time the end comes the desperation among the humans is palpable.

Along the way, Tchaikovsky uses his characters to explore lots of big issues in a classic sci-fi way – religion, politics, and the like. More than anything, however, it shows how two intelligent groups can nearly destroy each other based mostly on the fact that they don’t have accurate information about the other group. The ending keeps this from being completely depressing, but it is kind of bleak. The day is saved by something the real world doesn’t have, after all.

There’s a lot to unpack in Children of Time. It doesn’t shy away from the fairly bleak state of the human condition, while suggesting that it’s not something specific to humans. And it does offer some hope, for while the source of the ending isn’t real, the effects could be. Either way, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a while (and I don’t see any way to adapt it to film). I was completely blown away. Highest recommendation, of course.


Lessons Learned from Swimming Blindly Through the Aural Seas

When I write I have some idea of where I’m going. As you can see from my experiment with trying to go free form, I need some structure when I write. Nonetheless, when I write I’m acting with intention and purpose – I see where I want to go and try to get there.

When I make music, it’s almost completely the opposite. Essentially, music comes about in one of two ways. First, I get a flash of inspiration when a riff or rhythm or something pops into my head (and, hopefully, onto the computer). Second, I take whatever winds up on “tape” and fiddle around with it, adding things, taking things away, and generally just figuring out what works. I very rarely come to a song idea with a clear conception of what the end product should be.

In other words, when I write, it’s like setting out to sea in a boat, with charts, a destination, and a plan on how to get there. When I make music, it’s more like diving in head first and seeing where the tide sees fit to deposit me. Swimming blindly, if you will.

That’s not to say that the drifting, searching musical creation doesn’t require making choices. Sometimes, those choices are relevant when it comes to thinking about writing, too.

I’ve been thinking about this lately after finishing a new song with the deviously serious title of “Dummy Tickle” (it’s embedded below). I have no idea where that title came from, because this song, all not-quite-four minutes of it, began five years ago.

Which brings me to lesson number one I’ve learned from making music – creativity takes time.

The DAW I use has a metadata field that lets you put just about anything you want in it. I always put (1) when I started the song; (2) when I finished “writing” it; and (3) when I got it in final form (mixed down, etc.). It’s a very rare thing when a song goes from idea to completion in a week or a month. Usually it takes a while, but not five years.

What was I doing with “Dummy Tickle” for five years? I’d like to say I tried out dozens of different things to try and bring the basic idea (that lazy, bouncy bass line and equally laid back melody) to bigger, better life. Nothing really clicked, nothing seemed right. I let it go for a while, but every time I went back and listened to unfinished tracks I thought “there’s something there” and marked it down as something to finish.

Finally, a few weeks ago, something clicked. I don’t know precisely what or why then – maybe a session of playing with the puppies trigger up some kind of endorphin rush or something. How couldn’t they?

Anyway, the damn burst and I started making progress. It just took some time to get there. Patience really is a virtue, especially when it comes to creative things.

Still, it wasn’t a matter of just banging out a few more notes and being done with things. I was in need of ideas for a transition, a middle section, and started playing around with a couple of chord progressions.

Then I hit on the second lesson I’ve learned from “Dummy Tickle” – sometimes, simpler is better.

I have a sign tacked to the wall in my studio:

Monphonist Pic

I put it up when I realized that a lot of the early electronic music I like – from ethereal Tangerine Dream to the synth-pop of The Human League and OMD – was done by people with access only to monophonic synthesizers (that is, ones that can make only one sound at a time). That is, they can only make one note at a time. By contrast, without even getting into the virtual synths in my arsenal, I can bring to bear 150 voices! At once! I only have 10 fingers, after all.

My point is I tend to think in chords, even thought single notes are often what’s called for. After struggling to find the right sequence for this song, I backed off and gave it a fresh look. And I looked at my sign. The heart of this song was that simple bass line, the simple melody. Don’t mess that up by building it up unnecessarily. Take the simple route. Thus, that middle section was composed entirely of monophonic lines weaving together – as was the rest of the song.

None of this is Earth shattering. Still, as creators sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the vision of more – more words, more notes, more colors – until you disappear up your own backside in search of your next complexity fix. Sometimes you have to step back and think about what works for the song, book, or whatever it is you’re making. Some of them are just simple little things that don’t have airs on being anything more.

“Dummy Tickle” is like that. A little goof of a tune, a good mood wrought by bouncy synths. Enjoy!