The Spark of Life

The first time I experienced the muse was in about 1977, while I was walking across the UNC Chapel Hill campus to meet Diane, who was getting her PhD in mathematical statistics. I didn’t know what the muse was then.

I had been thinking about writing a book-length story, instead of the short stories of which I had sold only two. This story would have the trappings of science fiction. The anti-hero would be based on my shadow, the Jungian opposite of who I was. He would arrive on another world, in his search for a thing (I would find out what it was later) which would make him wealthy enough to get out from under his father’s financial thumb. He was a remittance man, that is, his father paid him to stay away from home. That’s all I knew.

The story came to me in a series of unfolding scenes. This was the main plot, the core of the story, from beginning to end. It ran through my mind in only about twenty minutes. I knew there would have to be more, but I needed to remember what had come to me, so I ran through it again, and a third time. Diane and I got home, I sat down and wrote out a kind of outline. It was a list of what would be accomplished in each of the scenes, but not how it would be done.

I put it aside because I had a draft of a novel which I was struggling to finish, and I spent some weeks on it. I needed a map of the city, and I already had one, but it had to be altered to fit the story. I needed more scenes to flesh out the setting, the characters, the culture, and the songs that would be playing through my hero’s head. I had to figure out how to put those scenes in the appropriate places in my list. I wish I still had it.

When I finally started writing, my muse wouldn’t let me stop, not even to work for my landlord to pay my rent. I wrote 75,000 words in eight and a half days. I took the half day off, then I began to revise and correct and make the story ready for submission. That took a while. I sent it to an agent who had been recommended to me and, after another while, The Planet Masters was published, by St. Martin’s Press, in 1979.

I didn’t know until many years later, that the stories which I had written while inspired by my muse were far better than those which I had worked out intellectually. I learned where my muse lives, deep in the back of my head. I learned how to let my muse come to me, by not looking for it. I learned that pushing on my muse drives it away. Inspiration is for the art of creation. What I know about the craft of writing is for revision, correction, and development, after I have the full story.

I have written stories without the guidance of my muse. They all seem to lack a kind of vital spark. Some of them have been published, and may be well written and well developed, but they lack life. They lack spirit. Because my intellect got in the way, and I didn’t let my muse work for me. It’s my muse which gives my stories the spark of life.

A Hero Gone Wrong

The original hero of what would eventually become The Black Ring was male, super-competent, brave, and strong. I wrote a long novel and, with the idea of doing a series, I drafted two sequels. I was going to do a third when I realized that my hero was boring. Everything was too easy. He was like a weight-lifter on steroids, a martial arts grand master, and he never made a mistake. Overdone, implausible, unsympathetic, and boring.

I had spent years telling myself stories and tales and episodes about this hero. I never wrote any of them down. They all started from a dream I had, when I was about thirteen, with myself as a hero. I had never been a hero in my dreams, and have never been one again. My youthful wish-fulfillment fantasy, inspired by that dream, grew from being something like me at that age. He gained super powers, and physical augmentations, and became a kind of heroic monster. 

Those stories failed because of that character, who was not a living hero after all. The stories didn’t work, and they never would, no matter how much I tried to rewrite them. In fact, after a while, I couldn’t force myself to read them, even to harvest plot ideas. I threw away something like three hundred thousand words.

I had filled notebooks over the years, with ideas about fantasy weapons, carriages and ships, strange races, stranger worlds, groups of good companions, and hierarchies of dangerous enemies. I didn’t want to throw those away, so I asked myself, What about a hero who was the opposite of the boring one who was never challenged by anything? What if my hero was like, say, a young Sally Field….

In that instant my hero became clear to me. She would be small, young, over-protected as a child, never independent a day in her life. Everything would be a challenge for her. Nothing would be  easy. She would have to grow, and learn, and change, and slowly become a hero, in order to serve the story I wanted to tell.

The writing was so easy that it almost wrote itself. It was as if I was an actor portraying my character. I felt with her when she found herself in a strange place. I let her, as if she were a real person, try several times to solve a problem. I didn’t interfere when she made mistakes, and knew how she felt about it when she when she did. 

I didn’t do what I would do, but I played the role as if I were she. That’s very different. I followed her as she learned and grew, as she discovered her strength, her courage, her intelligence, her leadership, her sense of duty, none of which had ever been tested before. And more than once I was surprised — I didn’t know she could do that!

I let it be that way with all the other characters, though less deeply. They each had their own part to play, and I didn’t interfere, I let them make their own decisions. I got to know them as they carried the story for me, and some of them surprised me. And some of them died. 

They were all, of course, only figments of my imagination. Or, you might say, products of my muse. I have learned, though it wasn’t always easy, to trust my muse, and to not let my intellect interfere. If I made my characters, major or minor, do something that was against their nature, the story died. I still sometimes forget, but I’m getting better at that as the years go by.

My Characters Live in My Head

New writers are frequently told that they should create brief biographies of their characters. Name, age, gender, nationality or ethnic origin if it matters. What they look like, what they wear, where they work, their immediate and (sometimes) extended family. How they get along with people, their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, the secrets in their past … and on, and on. 

You can spend a lot of time doing that. I’ve done it, and it’s a powerful distraction from the story itself. But as soon as I start writing, if I’m paying attention to my characters, they come alive, and surprise me in many ways, and the biography proves useless. I learned this, after wasting hundreds of thousands of words, by making my characters comply with the biography, instead of letting them behave according to what I have learned about real people. It is that which enables my characters to come to life, and to feel real, because somewhere, somewhen, I have seen that behavior in real people.

When you go to any kind of gathering, for business or pleasure, you may meet new people. You know nothing about some of them. What they look like may suggest something about what they are like but, too often, those suggestions can be misleading. You may strike up a conversation, which may last more than a few minutes. You may enjoy talking with these people, and look forward to your next meeting, when you can have other conversations with them.

I attend science fiction conventions, and meet and talk with a lot of people, and everyone I talk with adds something to my understanding of human nature. I get to know some people quite well, but only as what they are like are at the conventions. I know almost nothing about their background, occupation, influence on the world, even their families. Sometimes, when I ask, I learn that he’s a heavy mechanic in a ship yard. She’s a physicist involved in deep space exploration. He’s a truck driver who’s daughter was born on the same day and year that my daughter was. She’s a small press publisher, displaying her authors’ books as well as her own. That is all interesting to me, I talk with them about it, and I want to know more.

But if my characters have backgrounds like these, how will that help them to deal with typical fantasy enemies, situations, obstacles. Can the physicist handle a sword? Can the truck driver deal with a dark magician? Can the mechanic make a choice about who to kill and who to save? The publisher, maybe, as she has read a lot of that kind of fiction, can draw upon that knowledge. But how about a successful advertising agent? 

My characters must all act and behave as they really are when they are just people. And like the people I meet at conventions, I will only learn who they really are by spending time with them, watching them deal with the story’s situations, putting them to the test, so that they can discover their unknown strengths, weaknesses, and deeper nature. What my heroes, male or female, become in the course of the story, may be a complete contradiction to who they thought they were before the story began.

My characters do not live in static biographies. They live and grow in the story in my head.

Beginnings

Beginnings are always difficult for me, as they may well be for many other writers. I don’t mean just the hook, the first few words which make someone want to read on for at least a page or two. For example, “He went out onto the balcony, and knew, by the way she was leaning on the rail, what she was going to do. He climbed up on it when she did.”

I used something like that in a story called called “Dorian’s Choice.”

What I mean is that the beginning of a story, of a chapter, even of just a scene has to establish a setting, some characters, a situation, in a way that informs readers, as well as making them want to read more.

Sometimes it’s not so hard, if the setting is familiar. How about a tree-lined residential street. That’s enough that most people can almost see it. The situation might be instantly understandable, for example, “Geoff went out onto the porch, waited for Marian to get her coat, then they went down to the sidewalk.” There’s a hint of something leading to this. We can find out more about who Geoff and Marian are and what they look like in later paragraphs and pages. But there should be something to make readers ask questions, something like: “The car screeched around the corner, jumped the curb, and crashed into the tree at the end of their front walk, just three feet from them.”

There are plenty of questions here to draw readers in, and they will get answers, and find more questions, the more they read. And maybe they’ll discover that this was just a precursor to a larger story, as in Star Wars part 4.

But how about this: “The portal opened to what looked like, but might not actually be, some kind of a ruin. It was partially over-grown with shrubs and grasses of strange colors, but they could have been planted there. And there were crawlers and jumpers everywhere, some of them as big as a hand. Janae and Lef-Korak, his Chenatsch partner, went through the portal which closed behind them. Had they come too late?”

But what can readers see, or hear, or smell? What is a ‘crawler’? And how long would it take to describe all that without losing the reader’s interest? Does any of it mean anything?

That’s where I sometimes spend hours, or even days, working on a beginning that will let readers visualize and understand what I’m telling them, without it being a data dump or a textbook description, and do it clearly enough to arouse their curiosity and make them want to read more. Of course, some readers would have put it down at the first sentence — they thought Ill met by Moonlight was going to be a romance.

Take my two examples, and see for which one it is easier to write the next paragraph. The second one is more like the stories I choose to tell.

A Pile of Notes

I used to run a writers workshop at science fiction conventions. It was very simple. I told those who attended to write the first hundred words of a short story. I gave them ten minutes, then I asked each in turn to read their exercise aloud. I and my panel would comment, trying to help them understand what they had done well, and where they could improve.

We could not comment on one person’s exercise, because it wasn’t the first try at a narrative hook, it was just notes. I thanked the writer, then told the class that this was really the way to start working on a story, with ideas. They may be for a possible start, or for what an ending might be about, or about characters, setting, situation, obstacles and conflicts, or anything else which came to mind. I don’t have trouble remembering what the over-all story is about, but I find that notes about details like these, and other plot elements, are essential.

Story Eight for Star Kings is what I’m beginning to work on now. What I have done is to let my imagination (muse, if you will) run free, and to write down, in longhand, whatever comes to mind. These ideas may not be in order, I may not know who does what, or who is speaking, or what the setting looks like. I may throw some of these away. I may add some. But that’s okay. I have what I need.

Next I will take these ideas and develop them, turn bare notes and rough ketches into narrative, dialogue, description, and a coherent plot. Once I have a very rough draft,  I’ll know a lot better what to do next. After all, I write organically, not by design. Most of the time. 

If you prefer to create an outline, then that is what you do. This is what works for me.

Two Instead of One

My heroes, who I describe as being human, want to become traders within the Cold Star Cluster, and later out in the limb of the galaxy. It is a long, slow process of education, training, and growth, of which I have shown only small critical moments.

Traders in the Cluster have to know how to deal with twenty some different peoples on other worlds. They range from one or two who are barely out of their stone ages, to three who have star travel, each using different technologies of their own invention. None of these peoples are human, though some are sort of similar. Not all are mammaloid, though all are warm-blooded, which I declare to be a necessity for developing any kind of technology beyond sticks and stones. Our octopi, for example, despite great intelligence, will never master fire.

These are not actors in rubber suits. Each of the peoples my heroes meet is an original creation — physically, culturally, psychologically, socially — based on what I know of biology and physiology. I have done my best to make them all plausible, if they are not perfectly realistic. I have modeled their societies to some extent on what I know of sociology and anthropology, but they are all their own people. 

It is this creation from scratch, making the strange worlds and peoples, and making them plausible that takes so much effort. It has nothing to do with plot or story, but with context. It is like the immense, creative effort that went into making the Death Star for Star Wars, just so that it would look like a real thing. Or like any part of Lord of the Rings. If my stories were told in my time and place, they would be easy, but perhaps not as interesting. Star Wars is, after all, a western in disguise. It is the galaxy far, far away that makes it different.

I had intended to have only one primary character (i.e. “hero”) and to tell the stories in third person from his point of view, except when I had to pull back, like a movie camera, and become a narrator. But when I am writing at my best, it is organic, and grows on its own. I refuse to be a slave to preconceptions. Sketches and outlines are tools, not straight jackets or prisons. I know writers who depend on them absolutely, and that’s what they need. My stories, being organic, grow of their own accord. It is up to me, as the writer, to make them work as readable fiction.

There was supposed to be only one viewpoint character. There turned out to be two, and that is a challenge I had not anticipated, and I will not deal with it in the conventional way. 

From Birth to Birth

I wrote three short stories which were published in magazines. I reprinted them in my collection, A Closet for a Dragon, and Other Early Tales. But I also wrote stories for the six Elf Quest, Blood of Ten Chiefs anthologies. TOR published the first five volumes, but though we had been paid for the stories in the sixth, TOR did not publish it. No one knows why.

I was happy with those stories, and for a long time I wanted to write stories like them, in a world of my own making. It would be about a people, in a far future, in a galaxy so far away that George Lucas never dreamed of it. They fled their home worlds when they were attacked by those who wanted to steal their advanced technology. They found refuge in what they called the Cold Star Cluster, a clear space in the Great Cloud, which was just above the galactic limb.

I had lots of characters, strange settings, bizarre situations, prolonged conflicts, tremendous obstacles, powerful enemies, and grand objectives. I created lots of stuff, and even more than that. But the stories I tried to write never seemed to go anywhere. The great adventures which affected the whole my people did not work. I had lots of writing but no stories.

It took me years before I realized why. My Ten Chiefs stories were, unlike all the other stories, about a peaceful time for the Elves. There were no great conflicts. They were just ordinary people living their ordinary Elvish  lives. My stories were about who they were, how they lived, their culture and world, and how they coped with the occasional small but interesting interruption. Wendy Pini liked them.

I threw away all that I had written about the people of the Cold Star Cluster, and started all over again. This time they were, in their own context, ordinary people, living in an artificial world between the stars, doing just what ordinary people do — work, play, love, grow. Except that the setting is truly bizarre, the other peoples of the Cluster are not human, everything has to be invented from scratch. It is not Star Trek, or Star Wars, but something far else. 

It’s going well, it’s hard work, and it’s slow, especially now when I can work only three or four hours a day. But I like the six stories that I’ve finished so far. I don’t know how many stories there will be in the cycle, but it begins with the birth of the hero, and ends with the birth of his first child. It’s called Star Kings

I’m a Storyteller

I was eighteen when I first realized that what I really wanted was to be a writer, and I’ve called myself a writer ever since, regardless of my day job. I’m listed as a writer on LinkedIn. I put down “writer” whenever I’m asked for my occupation. And I always called myself a writer in conversations. 

A short while ago I realized that I wasn’t just a writer, but that I really was a storyteller. Writing is just the tool I use to record my stories for publication, just as a hammer is a tool a carpenter uses when he creates something — he’s a carpenter, not a hammerer.

I’ve told myself stories all my life. None of them go anywhere, but it’s part of the learning process, and I’m still learning. I tell stories, as a raconteur, about whatever comes to mind when I talk with people. What I write is stories, short or long, not advertising copy, user manuals, magazine articles (though I’ve done that), non-fiction of any kind (though I’ve done that). I write fiction: Science fiction, fantasy, and other strange things.

I tell stories, and most of them are still available. See Allen Wold’s Books to find out what they are.

Book Six: The Ring of Five Stones

Leslie Ann Drover is not like Jeanette. She is younger, she is completely independent, and she has been supporting herself since leaving home at seventeen. She is conscientious about her job, accepts responsibilities, and is a natural leader, by example rather than by direction. She is respected by both her superiors and her subordinates. 

She has been given the black ring. Despite the terrifying experience, and her doubts about her sanity, she understands fairly well what it means, and what she has been asked to do. The woman in the snow sacrificed herself to give it to her, and she cannot let her down.

She has no companions, no guidance that she knows of. Still, she is able to deal with those Arkenomes and wannabes to whom she is sent. She learns, and grows, and becomes strong. But she is alone. She needs help, and she can go no further without it. 

Jeanette’s surviving companions, each in their own world, are aware of Leslie Ann as the new hero, and can feel her need. They come to her as they are able, bringing with them the boots, the dagger, the belt, and the sword. Now she is able to go on.

And there is the ring of five stones, which Jeanette had cut from the hand of an Ecliptor. The hero’s black ring is only a link to those higher beings who need human aid in suppressing the depredations of the enemy. The ring of five stones was created by Kada Barros to give an Ecliptor certain powers, to enable him to go to places outside reality, and to give direction and power to the Arkenomes. 

It is this ring that gives Leslie Ann the ability to get past the obstacles put in her way. Though, at the last, she must again go on alone, it is this ring which enables her to confront Kada Barros himself. He is childishly envious of the way his younger brother has made certain worlds better. It is his feeling of inferiority which made him destroy those cultures which his brother had touched. 

She cannot kill Kada Barros, or destroy him, and would not if she could. But she can help him to discover that he is able to do something that his younger brother can not. It is something of which he can be proud, and that makes him an enemy no longer. 

There is no more need for another hero. Her tokens no longer have special powers. Now she can go home. And finds that she can not progress in the way that she had hoped. 

A companion comes to her then, and offers her something far more satisfying. They can go off together, and make a new life.

Book Five: Hero Transcendent

Everybody is changed by their experiences, and hopefully they grow. Sometimes it is a small change, or subtle, and sometimes it is a larger change, and profound. Sometimes these changes don’t become fully understood until much later.

Jeanette never wanted to be a hero, and she has suffered many changes — physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is her sense of duty, but more than that, it is her compassion for the enemy’s victims which keeps her going. She is even willing to give up her life. But she is getting tired.

She has met and talked with beings who exist within the reality which contains her physical world, and that changed her; with others in the greater reality which contains hers, and has been changed even more; and with those who dwell beyond the greater reality, and she has come away changed yet again. And though she is no longer truly human, dealing with the depredations of the enemy remains a challenge.

She has met and overcome Arkenomes, though she has not always had to kill them. She has met and neutralized Ecliptors, one way or another. She has met the enemy, called Kada Barros, and has escaped at great cost. She has met some beings of an even higher order, whom Kada Barros cannot understand, and sometimes fears. All this has changed her too.

She is taken to a special place of heroes, where those who have reached their own limits can wait, if they choose, until the threat of the enemy is at last ended. There she learns that she has reached her limit, and will not be allowed to finish. There is still another choice to be made, or she can just stop. 

She chooses, and will do what she must, but this is possible only by transcending her mortality. It is the highest price she can pay.