He'll never sit quietly through all that, I predicted. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Well, my estimation of the time and effort it would take to get through the editor's changes, questions, and instructions turned out to be woefully light. I figured I could do it over a weekend. Instead, I started working on it when it arrived the Thursday before last, got into it seriously last Saturday, and finished only last night -- two half days plus a week of 8 - 12 hours a day grind. But finished it is! Now it's the publisher's turn to examine my work and decide what, if anything, additional needs to be revised before the wording is deemed final.
So what are the changes? If you count raw numbers, the vast majority were minor formatting or style adjustments, for instance undoing italics which the editor felt I had overused. I didn't quibble with (hardly) any of those. There were some word choice changes and minor sentence restructuring, all of which I agreed with. There were some questions where I made minor revisions to clarify points the editor found vague or ambiguous.
And then there were some overhauls. Not many, none that fundamentally altered the story or any scene, but substantial nonetheless. I posted previously the addition I made to raise the profile of Michael's resurrected cat. He also had me enhance the presentation of Vicki early in the book. He had me intensify the roots of Michael's water phobia. He had me trim passages that had some importance but were not essential to the plot. And he had me elaborate on things like the island rescue plan, which he felt was not spelled out well enough in advance.
Being a graduate of Arizona State University, he aslo had me alter a few of my descriptions of that state. Working on those made me tremble in fear about the problems he would call out in the Texas section, as that's where the publisher is located. Miraculously, there were none. :)
All of these changes were improvements. I had some trepidation when the publisher told me the overall length needed to be addressed, which was before the editor read the book. As it turned out, it will be about the same length as the original. Apparently the editor felt, having read it thoroughly, that the length was justified. I had been prepared for some serious cutting, and it was a relief not to have to go into things that invasively. If a book is good I prefer a long one to a short one, and it's gratifying to know the editor felt it was worth the extra printing cost to tell the story as I wrote it.
I had been particularly worried about edits to the Boston section, which started as one convoluted chapter about Dan Hendrick's physics theory but expanded to three chapters to clarify points my readers group found confusing. He'll never sit quietly through all that, I predicted. I couldn't have been more wrong. The editor loved it, making practically no changes through that entire section. Having worked that material to death during the writing process, I wasn't looking forward to another round. The editor's happy assessment took me totally by surprise.
The editor made his notes as he was reading, reflecting his impressions from a first-time reader's perspective. That was critical, because knowing the whole story blinded me to some ambiguities. He got frustrated at certain points, mostly the same ones as my readers group, but like them, by the end of the book he felt they had been satisfactorily resolved. I'm content with those frustrations so long as the reader feels satisfied once the veils come down. I knew there was risk in hiding answers readers would be pining for, but I felt it necessary in order to reward them with a gratifying sense of triumph by the end.
There is one outstanding issue. The editor wanted the nature of Charlie Paris to be disclosed earlier than it was. Looking for ways to do this, I wasn't able to come up with an approach I felt would improve the book more than damage it. I've laid out my reasons in the returned document, and I'll go with whatever the editor decides.
It was exhausting and sometimes emotionally painful to go through 600 pages of questions, changes, and criticism. But it was appropriate and necessary, and it gave me the sense of being a "real" author for the first time. While the process was taxing, it was humbling and inspiring to have a professional editor take so mucn time and effort with my work. It's a better book for it, no doubt. I can't wait to see it finalized and out the door so people can see the improvements first-hand. :) - Mark
A Peek At The Edits
Michael swallowed. It was all he could do to hold back tears of his own
I'm about 2/3 the way through the publisher's edits now and should be done no later than the middle of this week. I underestimated somewhat the extent of their changes and the amount of effort it was going to require from me--there are after all more than 600 pages, with at least something altered on almost every one. But my initial assessment remains valid that nothing fundamental is involved and the vast majority of it is barely noticeable stylistic tweaks. Most the "on every page" comes from alterations like inserting a space before ellipses or converting the "M-dash" style I used to the one the publisher prefers.
They are having me make a small number of substantive revisions, and I thought you might like a practical example. Below is the most significant change I've made so far (just three paragraphs long). They felt that Michael's reunion with his childhood pet Alex, the Siamese cat who becomes a powerful panther in the Afterlife, needed some emotional foundation. So I have added this little subsection into the scene in Chapter 8 where Michael ends up paying for a stranger's pet bird to have surgery. "Beaker" is the little parrot involved.
"Michael swallowed. It was all he could do to hold back tears of his own.
His comprehension of the man's suffering went beyond empathy. It evoked acute
memories of a tightly bonded pet in his own life, an atypically warm and placid
Siamese cat named Alex that had been rescued by his mother when a co-worker
moved to an apartment that forbade animals. Like Beaker, Alex had been a family
pet not intended specifically for Michael or his brother, both in grade school
at the time. And like Beaker, the cat had nonetheless of its own accord, and for
reasons that defied discovery, adhered with obvious preference to one person in
It had matured into a joyous, life-affirming symbiosis. Wherever Michael
went the cat could be found, perfectly content as long as it could be near him.
Alex had established ingenious habits to manifest his affection in ways
unobtrusive yet intimate, nesting himself in Michael's lap while he watched TV,
squeezing into the gap between the chair and the small of Michael's back at
homework time, draping himself on Michael's pillow each night like a set of
warm, hypnotically breathing earmuffs around his master's
Then, when the boys were in high school, Alex had developed lesions. A
patch of skin on his left hindquarter had erupted in a bloody sore the size of a
quarter, which gradually grew into an obviously agonizing malignancy affecting
the entire limb. By that time the cat could only drag the leg around
dysfunctionally. Nothing could be done, and at last Michael's near-hysteria at
the thought of life without his companion was overtaken by a resolve to end his
misery. Michael had insisted on accompanying his friend to that terminal
appointment with the vet, and as it turned out, when the day came only Michael
was able to go. Alone in the parking lot afterward, Michael had collapsed onto
the asphalt in a seizure of anguish, his keys hanging from the car door, such a
forlorn spectacle that the receptionist had abandoned her desk to come out and
hold him reassuringly until he regained enough composure to
It's great after such a long emotional relationship with the book to be experiencing this tangible evidence that it really is going to be published. The work that remains is taxing, but it's a good kind of work to have. :) - Mark
The Final Edits!
It almost feels like this is really going to happen now. :)
This morning I received the editor's annotation of The Just Beyond manuscript. The changes are extensive by count--I believe there is at least one change on every single page. :) But the vast majority are minor, tidying up a word or phrase here and there or correcting a few typos I and my Readers Group somehow missed. I haven't gotten through the whole thing, but what I've seen so far is mostly small improvements.
They do have some changes for me to make on top of the ones done by the editor. For the most part the purpose is to clarify things for the reader or to more prominently emphasize key elements. They certainly don't change the story in any substantial way, they simply make the delivery better.
The instructions from the publisher are to go through the editor's work carefully, make the suggested changes where acceptable, and for anything that doesn't look right to me, give an explanation of my objection. So they are not simply telling me "all of this has to be done", they are allowing me to participate meaningfully in the final decisions. I have to tell you, I'm not inclined to challenge the suggestions of an experienced fiction editor and I expect to raise a handful of points at most. But it's nice to feel respected in this way.
Surprisingly, they don't seem to have made, or directed me to do, the kind of wholesale trimming I expected from their initial comment that overall the book was too long. I can only assume that upon careful inspection, the editor felt that the length was necessary after all to tell the story properly. While I was fully prepared for extensive pruning, I do think the basic length concern that publishers have has more to do with business risk than with serving the reader. It's completely understandable that a publisher wants to minimize their costs in introducing a new author with no track record of sales assuring them of profitability on the release. From a reader's perspective, I invariably prefer long books to short ones. (Provided, of course, that they're well written. The Land of Painted Caves by Jean Auel, which takes up something like 50 CDs of unabridged audio, I found to be an excrutiating bore that begs the question why it was written at all unless the sole purpose was to bilk revenue from unsuspecting fans of Clan of the Cave Bear.) For me, a good, long book creates a nice, deep immersion and a kind of emotional investment and satisfaction that a short novel doesn't have time to build. And, of course, it's nice that the published version won't be so different from the story and pacing I felt was appropriate while writing it.
I expect to have my review and revisions done by the end of this weekend, and barring anything I do that fails to satisfy the publisher, that should be the last step before the physical publication process. I still haven't seen anything on the cover art but it looks like things are finally coming together. I'm very excited. It almost feels like this is really going to happen now. :)
By the way, the image above is just a prospective "back cover" I did when consulting with the publisher on cover ideas. It's not the art that will appear on the actual book, but something close to the description of the story it includes probably will.
I'll post an update here as soon as I've finished my work on the edits--look for it. :) - Mark
The Challenge of Originality
108 billion humans have lived since 50,000 BC
The details of the overall plot for the Beyond trilogy are reaching critical mass. Yes, I should be focusing mainly on the book I'm writing, the second volume in the set called The Far Beyond. And I am. But as that part of the story fleshes out, it necessarily creates ties to The Just Beyond and implications for the final book. And this is important, because it helps assure two things: 1) that the narrative will maintain an intimate, logical, and consistent flow, and 2) that I'll finish writing it. :) Even with publication of the first book, writing the other two is a daunting challenge. Writing is a struggle for me to begin with, and on top of that I am perpetually aware that one well-received book is no guarantee for the others, even as they follow the over-arching theme begun in the first.
With regard to The Far Beyond specifically, the middle book of a trilogy is often the weakest, and I'm consciously working to overcome that phenomenon. I mean, The Two Towers is entertaining and critical to Lord of the Rings, but it certainly lacks the excitement of The Fellowship of the Ring or the satisfaction of Return of the King.
Which brings me to a point about writing. Lord of the Rings is my unqualified favorite work of fiction, and its appeal sets the standard to which I aspire. An unfortunate side effect, at least for me, is a tendency to write something that parallels LOTR to an uncomfortable degree.
According to a calculation by Google, the total number of books ever published (mostly in the modern era) is around 130 million. The Population Reference Bureau calculates that a total of 108 billion humans have lived since 50,000 BC (equating to one book per every 831 people, which doesn't account for writers who produce multiple books). The arbitrary starting point makes this a dicey statistic, though: somthing like modern civilization is said to have commenced only about
10,000 years ago when the last great Ice Age ended, or even later with the Ancient Egyptians around 5,000 BC. On the other end of the spectrum, human ancestry can be traced to around 100,000 years back or as far as 2 million, depending on how you define human.
Which is a tedious and twisting setup for the statement that it's devilishly hard to come up with an original story. At the archetype level, every conceivable scenario has been written about over and over and over, and probably better than I could hope to do. How can one writer among a world population of 7 million generate something, if not a completely untried premise then at least a distinctive variation, that hasn't been done before? Even in heavily trodden, formulaic genres like Western and Romance, publishers want to know what makes your book stand out. And as a first-time author, you'd better have an answer.
When that question came, I told publishers that what distinguished The Just Beyond and its successors was a fearless depiction of the Afterlife. As noted on this site's home page, I aimed to transcend the prevailing approach of leaving the nature of the world beyond death "to the imagination". Nothing in fiction is more disappointing than a story that leads you down the garden path only to invoke this cop-out at the end. I've never read another book that handles this subject quite as I did, and my research didn't turn up anything too dangerously close...but how can you know for sure?
And in spite of my good intentions, that old compulsion to ape my favorite material seems to have slipped in while I wasn't looking. I began this posted not intendng to compare the Beyond books with Lord of the Rings. Yet as I consider it, some parallels pop out. In both sets the protagonist is an unassuming personality with empathetic and courageous tendencies, capable of extraordinary feats when called upon. Both tales begin with some necessary background and then launch a desperate, stealthy flight hounded by ghoulish enemies. Upon reaching a safe haven more of the plot is revealed, sending the hero on an even more harrowing path that results in a critical death. Powerful truths are revealed, unlikely allies emerge, formidable enemies are bested, and the most fearsome foe of all is finally confronted in an epic battle involving a sword of immense power. Prominent side characters are wed to their loves, and our hero sails off to a surprising but well-deserved reward. I never intended nor even recognized these shared elements; obviously my subconscious had the upper hand.
Ah, well. Any originality issues raised by my trilogy probably won't matter, since the first book has been judged viable enough to print. That's good, because I'm not sure I could do better. If I'm fortunate enough to develop a solid writing career, I'll certainly try. In the meantime, faintly echoing a classic is hardly the worst problem I could have. :) - Mark
Running to Cover!
should or should you not "judge a book by its cover"?
Here is the actual source image of fashion model Melissa Baker that I used to create the placeholder cover art for The Just Beyond. The particularly attentive may notice that I distorted her face slightly on that cover for compositional reasons.
She does, well, look like a model, and that's appealing enough in itself, but it's not why I chose the picture. Nor is it because she fits my mental image of Vicki, or Beth, or the apparition on the stairs, whichever the cover is supposed to depict (lol), because she doesn't. If you must know, I envision Vicki as more of a Sandra Bullock, and Beth maybe as Nicole Kidman--too bad they're both a touch too old to play those roles in the Oscar-winning movie that will no doubt be made. *cough* No, Ms. Baker appears on my cover simply because this photo is supposedly in the public domain. I sort of wonder if that's actually true, but ultimately it doesn't matter because my cover, and Melissa Baker specifically, will NOT be used with the published book. The publisher is assigning a staff artist to do that and I'll be happy with whatever they think has commercial appeal.
Which brings up an interesting question: should or should you not "judge a book by its cover"?
We all know the timeworn maxim. And it's good advice as a metaphor. But, ironically, when taken literally, the advice "don't judge a book by its cover" is ludicrous. We all judge books--actual books--by their covers. Not ultimately of course, that is if we proceed to read them, but cover art is absolutely a factor in picking up a book at all. We've all seen book covers that suck you seductively in, as well as those that leave you wondering what the publisher was thinking. :) And they can't help but color our expectations.
It's even more true in the ebook world. In a bookstore you can (and I always do) leaf through the pages and see if the writing style, content, and format appeal to you in addition to reading the blurb on the back. While it's often possible to do that online, it isn't always, and when it is, it can't be as convenient and intuitive as it is with a paper book. For myself, in a store I ALWAYS look at a few pages inside a book I'm pondering to buy, and online I NEVER do this. So the impact of the cover art, for people like me, is magnified in the electronic sphere. In fact if the cover art is bland or unappealing, I often won't give the thing a second look. It seems counterintuitive that virtual covers are more important than paper ones, but for me, they are.
And I, for one, believe this is warranted. Sumptuous, engaging cover art tells me two things completely apart from what they may reveal about the volume's content. First, it tells me the publisher felt enthusiastic enough about the book's commerical prospects to pay for a talented and probably expensive artist. Second, it tells me that the publisher, and therefore most likely the book itself, is of high quality. Now, I'm not saying a crappy book never appeared on a shelf dressed up like a lipstick-wearing pig. I'm not saying a great cover guarantees a great read. What I am saying is that cover art DOES influence the purchase decision and CAN express something meaningful about the work. If it didn't, why would publishers go to such lengths to get it right?
Which brings me to some welcome news about The Just Beyond. Initially the publisher thought the cover art would be delivered in the middle of January, but obviously that didn't happen. I spoke with them this morning and was informed it hadn't been assigned yet. They're ready to do so now, however, and wanted to know if I was partial to any particular concepts. I sent them the covers I've made and said the only element I had a real weakness for was the girl's face in the background. I'd like the rest of the image to convey a sense of otherworldliness, but I don't have a clear preference as to how that be done and I'm sure their artists will have better ideas than I would anyway.
And pleasantly, as of now, it appears that's the direction they'll go. They're on board with the faded face concept and the artist will figure out the rest. If it proceeds that way it's great, because, while I am in no way of the opinion that I should have any say in the cover art at all, I was obviously hoping they would do something I would be happy with or at least not displeased. Now it looks like they're going to preserve the concept I've had in my head all along, which is a nice and thoroughly unexpected surprise.
So things are moving slowly, but they're moving. :) It seems like a lot more than three weeks have gone by since the pre-publishing work commenced, but that's all it's been and there's absolutely no justification for anxiety or concern. But I can't help feeling some of that. At least I know intellectually that it's irrational. And honestly, as "problems" go, it's a pretty darn good one to have. :) - Mark
And Life Goes On
There's no chance I'll get rich from The Just Beyond any time soon, so yeah, I still need to work the consulting gigs.
The blog took a rest the past few days, and regular readers may be wondering why. The immediate reason is that I got about 3/4 the way through a post concerning my feelings about art, specifically a particular feature of some art that I find highly annoying, and I realized I wasn't satisfied with the way I was describing it. Whenever you criticize any piece of art, or genre, or type of content, you are guaranteed to offend the people who appreciate that very thing. And it was important to my point to make sure that, while I don't expect nor even desire to change anybody's opinion on the matter, it was important that what I was saying at least be understood. So I put off finishing that, and I had spent 11 hours doing field work for my consulting business that day so I ended up too tired to knock it out, and then the weekend came and it just got set aside. It still isn't done, but the draft is out there and I'll post it when I'm content with the end product.
There's no chance I'll get rich from The Just Beyond any time soon, so yeah, I still need to work the consulting gigs. :) Two fairly involved ones came up last week and I spent much of the weekend working on them. Aside from that, I've been testing a new computer game creation tool, which comes with The Legend of Grimrock and is the perfect platform for making games like the much-beloved Eye of the Beholder dungeon crawl. And I've been playing Far Cry 3, the sequel to one of my all time favorite games. You may have noticed a nonfunctional link on the main page to a "Far Cry 2 Play Guide". I plan to complete that when time permits too. So there's a lot going on, and though I've been shocked at how pleasant blogging has been for a guy who generally dislikes writing at all, it's impractical for me to post something new every single day. I will do so whenever I can--the whole point of this website is to develop interest in the book(s)--but putting something out there just because the clock is ticking would inevitably compromise the quality. So keep checking--when I do add new posts I will do my best to make them worth your time.
If you've miss these posts and haven't read them all since the first one released at the beginning of this month, you can always look at any of them either by paging down or using the sorting tool at right to bring up only those you're interested in. Assuming you're interested at all, something I don't take for granted and am lucky and humbled if you do.
The publication process for The Just Beyond of course is still in progress, but nothing new has emerged the past few weeks so from a reader's perspective (and mine, since the publisher's process is opaque to me), it's kind of in suspension. That doesn't mean I have nothing to say, and when it's something interesting enough, it will appear here without fail. In the mean time, thanks for your patience. - Mark
Whatcha gonna do?
A billion years is a very long time--almost twenty times as long as it's been since the dinosaurs went extinct--but compared to Eternity it's not even a nit.
The Just Beyond asks what has always seemed to me a natural question, deceptively hard to answer. If there really is an afterlife and you're fortunate enough to get there...what are you going to do?
The question is probed at greater length if not more eloquently in the book, but to boil the problem down, it goes something like this. When you think about it, everything we do in this mortal life is bound up with our physical bodies. Note, I didn't say everything we care about, I said everything we do. I can think of plenty of moral and artistic values we care about that seem primarily spiritual. Back to that in a moment, but to finish the first point. Suppose, as most believers do, that in the afterlife the body and its requirements are transcended. No more pain, no more injury, no more disease, no more fatigue, et cetera. Having surpassed the physical, there's no need or reason to eat or drink, or sleep, or arrange for shelter, or have sex. Presumably no babies are born in the afterlife, so that last is doubly useless. (Is that really an afterlife I want to live in? I'm not so sure. lol)
You don't need money, because you don't need anything at all just to survive, so you surely wouldn't work at anything you didn't find worthy on its own merits. But would you even do the worthy things? For a while, sure, assuming you could; maybe for a very long time. If you've always loved skiing, maybe you climb the highest mountain and schuss down it one zillion times. No lift needed, you wouldn't get tired and you'll never run out of time. But what's the cutoff point? At a zillion and one, have you finally done down every possible path, had every possible experience, maybe had each of them a thousand times, or a million...does the compulsion to do this at some point stop? The same is true of any activity. How many songs can you write or paintings can you make before you're out of ideas or enthusiasm or both, a billion? A trillion?
And what are you going to paint or sing about? If the Earth is behind us, the sick are made well, there's no more poverty, war, hard luck, or romances gone bad, what's your material? Even if you have an answer, how long can you stretch it out? A billion years is a very long time--almost twenty times as long as it's been since the dinosaurs went extinct--but compared ti Eternity it's not even a nit.
Most people when they think of afterlife envision themselves communing with loved ones or acquaintances long lost. That is a terribly noble and worthy picture. But think about it. After a while, and I mean a long, long period of doing that...what are you going to talk about? There won't be any family secrets or celebrity scandals. There won't be any politics or issues of general concern. There won't be any news, either about the world or about you and your loved ones; given enough time, everything that can be said will have been, and there's no more coming. No marriages or births or deaths or misfortunes or runs of increble luck. All that stuff arises from the mortal human condition.
I know people who imagine themselves just standing in the Heavenly pews singing praises to God as their afterlife activity. I'm not going to argue with that, it sounds nice, wholesome, worthwhile, enchanting, and probably well-advised. :) But the same analysis applies even there. Are you going to do nothing but sing in church for all eternity? Is that really what your whole existence was all about?
The Just Beyond begins to answer this question, and the trilogy when complete will give the most logical and satisfying answer I've been able to work out--and I've given this a lot of thought. :). Even so, I've been harboring a terrible secret. Because I realized somewhere along the way that my answer, as reasonable and carefully constructed as it was, ultimately fell to the same criticism I've outlined above. My scenario works for a long time, a very long time, and explains everything from the purpose of mortal life to the ultimate fate of good and evil...but then, after all that has been said and done, philisophized about and settled...in comes Eternity again. And it's just about impossible to think up a scenario that truly conquers ALL time.
I knew this, and I thought the books would come close enough to feel they had achieved it as far as one reasonably could, and I had set the problem far aside, on a small table in a dark basement room in another house, never to be thought about again. :) And then, suddenly, it came to me...an even better way. An answer that went beyond my hard-crafted paradigm, as full and coherent as it was. An answer that seems like it could be eternal, and if not, comes close enough to blur the distinction between perfect and very, very, very, very good. :)
What is it? Read the books. I hate to leave it at that, but on the other hand this is the sort of thing, obviously, that can't be fully revealed until the final pages of the final book. With any luck I'll have that written by the end of next year. Meet you at Beyond All Else, and you can let me know how I did. :) - Mark
In Memory of Theia
the truth turned out to be so outlandish no one would have even suggested it.
Theia was a real planet, about the size of Mars, that orbited our sun when the solar system was new alongside Venus and Mercury and the Earth. We don't talk much about it now, because we don't see Theia as she was. But Theia is still there.
It would be cool if I could tell you that Theia was obliterated in a mighty collision that blasted her wreckage into the rocky ring between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter that we call the Asteroid Belt. Alas, science has pretty much proven that the asteroids aren't remnants of a planetary explosion but just bits of flotsam left over from that same era, kept from ever forming a planet in the first place by Jupiter's gravitation.
No, Theia didn't fracture into a ring of invisible smithereens. Theia's story is much more intimate to us. Theia crashed into the Earth.
The Earth has been hit by large astronomical bodies many times. But this one was unique. The sheer size of Theia puts this cataclysm in a class all its own. Compared to Theia, the six-mile thick chunk of stone that killed the dinosaurs and ravaged Earth's climate for a million years was a BB.
It took analysis of mineral samples brought back by the Apollo flights to reveal this amazing story. Before then, the origin of the Moon was a matter of educated speculation. The most accepted theory was that the Earth had "captured" a passing planetessimal that wandered into its gravity well by chance. There were problems with that theory, but there were worse problems with every other theory. And without physically examining the Moon up close, the mystery could not be solved.
To make a long and complex story short, here's what the chemistry of the Moon rocks revealed. Some time more than 4 billion years ago, when all of the sun's terrestrial planets were lifeless worlds of fiery meteor showers and violent vulcanism, Theia and our Earth crashed together. But Theia didn't become our Moon. Earth was larger, but Theia was large enough to hold her own in the contest, and both planets were severely disrupted. Theia did shear into molten fragments, but the crash also blew out a huge section of our planet. As gravity sorted the pieces, the heavier minerals of Theia merged into the Earth, and the lighter minerals from both of them scattered out into space. It was this material--the lighter stuff from both worlds--that ultimately coalesced under its own gravity to become our Moon. The bulk of Theia is still with us...we're walking on her. :)
Theia's name is borrowed from the ancient Greek Titan of Light, said to have been the mother of the Moon. In that scenario its father was the Earth itself, and now the two lunar parents are bound in an embrace that will last till the end of time. And we can thank her for our seasons. It was the Theia collision that knocked Earth's rotational axis off-kilter from the plane of its orbit around the sun, creating the variance in sunlight that changes summer into fall, winter into spring.
With all the wild theories of the Moon's formation that predated Apollo, the truth turned out to be so outlandish no one would have even suggested it. Scientific discoveries so often go that way. Good fiction tries, but half the things that have been discovered in the hundred years since Einstein would have been laughed off the page if someone had made them up for a book. The cosmos itself will probably always be the world's best storyteller. - Mark
The Limits of Imagination
The Cygnus X1 black hole is 7 billion times the mass of our sun and has a diameter the size of the orbit of Pluto.
I've always been fascinated with the night sky. As a kid I used to take my guitar out into the front yard and night to sit on a brick step and play where nobody could hear me but the stars. It was an inspiration like no other. Now I have a decent amateur telescope, a Meade Polaris 6-inch reflector, and live in one of the least populated areas of the country where the heavens shine in all their glory undiluted by city lights. I grew up in a small town with relatively dark skies, but living in Seattle for decades I had forgotten just how brilliant and stunning the cosmic scene could be.
One of the first things I did when we got settled down here was grab my star atlas and look for
the Andromeda galaxy. It's the one in this picture, the iconic Hubble Space Telescope image, the galaxy we tend to picture in our minds when the word is mentioned.
Among the billions of galaxies we know about, Andromeda is remarkable in several ways--unique, in fact. First, it is the closet major galaxy to our own (discounting two small satellite galaxies that revolve ours like moons). Second, it's the only galaxy outside our own that can be seen with the naked eye--though you need ideal conditions and a good idea both where to look and what to look for.
Third, and this is the one I find the most mesmerizing: Andromeda is not receding from the Milky Way. It's heading toward us.
The world was shocked when Edwin Hubble discovered in 1923 that some of the amorphous blobs in the night sky were actually "island universes" separated by unimaginable distance from the one we live in. The aftershock was just as great six years later when Hubble found that the univese was expanding: every galaxy in the cosmos was racing away from us at tremendous speed.
Well, not every galaxy. Andromeda, of the same class and somewhat larger than the Milky Way, is on a collision course with us. It's going to happen. One day in the distant future Andromeda and the Milky Way will collide, eventually fusing into a single system with each of its constituents' original shapes obliterated by the crash. It's nothing we should worry about though: significant gravitational contact between the galaxies is four billion years away, and by that time our sun will be starting to run out of hydrogen and preparing to explode. If the human species survives to see the galactic fusion, we'll need to have found someplace else to live.)
Andromeda isn't too hard to find. Everybody knows the constellation Cassiopeia, the big W, and the second dip in the W points right to it. Part of the constellation Pegasus lies just a short ways (visually) below the W, looking like a very long, thin V lying on its side with a bend in each spoke like knees on a pair of legs; and if you look just above the uppermost knee, the one closest to Cassi's W, Andromeda is there, looking like a very faint grey oval splotch.
I can find it now without the telescope, and even that gives me the same shudders I felt when I first caught it in the lens. It scares me. Andromeda is 2 million light-years away--so what we're really seeing is how it looked 2 million years ago--and the fact that we can see it at all over that astonishing distance gives an indication of what a truly massive object it is. The enormity of it gives me the creeps. And the knowledge that it's bearing down on us--that one day our entire sky will fill with an image like the one above--is mind-blowing. There are nights I can't even look at Andromeda because the sight of it shakes me that hard.
Honestly, though we can see it, I don't believe we can't really picture it, how vast and complex and full of secrets our neighboring galaxy is. And Andromeda is hardly alone in inspiring that kind of awe. I read a lot of science books and I recently finished one about the discovery of pulsars and confirmation of the existence of black holes in the 1970s and 80s. You don't have to delve far into that subject matter to find things even more frightening than a galactic crash. The very first black hole discovered--a massive X-ray emitter in the constellation Cygnus--is just terrifying. It wasn't discoverd first for no reason: it is GIGANTIC. The Cygnus X1 black hole is 7 billion times the mass of our sun and has a diameter the size of the orbit of Pluto. There's not time or space here for me to give a full explanation of black holes and what these statistics imply, but if that description doesn't drop your jaw then you don't understand it or you're not paying attention. :)
I don't think the human mind is capable of truly comprehending things like galactic distance or the reality of black holes, just like we can't picture a four-dimensional object or truly understand concepts like time and infinity. And there's the tie-in to The Just Beyond. The book deals with these subjects, and the trilogy, primarily the final book, is going to involve black holes and cosmological topology in a way that's intimately integrated into the plot. And the reason for that, it will be no surprise, is my utter fascination with these concepts that strain our mental capacity. I find them every bit as awesome and humbling as the concept of God...and, like the professor Dan Hendrick in the first book, what it really comes down to is that I see them as the same thing. We don't need movies and novels to expose us to divine power beyond our ability to reason: the night sky surrounds us with it.
The science fiction of its nacent years gripped me in a way that most of today's writing does not, and it's not just because I was young. Under the pressure cooker of the Cold War, with the Apollo Program placing space exploration front and center on the human agenda, and with the rash of new discoveries and speculations about concepts like black holes and extra dimensions creating a pervasive sense of dark mystery, those stories made it feel as though a reality right out of the Twilight Zone might confront us around every corner. And the thing is--if you really make an effort to understand what science has revealed over the past century--it has.
I'll never be an Asimov or Clarke or Bradbury. I don't have that kind of genius. But I'm shooting at least to create a similar feeling with the Beyond books. And I will make at least one more attempt to write a solid straight science fiction novel. I'll do it as soon as I'm confident I have The Right Idea. With my science books and my telescope, the bright image of Jupiter gazing down through the window when I wake up at night, there's no lack of inspiration. :) - Mark
The Far Beyond--Planning Ahead
I'm not sure Lewis Carroll had any idea what was going to happen on the next page as he wrote the Alice books
Yay! I can upload images again. The one at left makes me want to read the book. :)
You may have noticed that I promised imminent release of the first chapter of The Far Beyond (to my readers group, that is). The reason I haven't done so already is that it's not finished. I have been working on it, but mainly not writing per se. Mostly what I've been up to is fleshing out the story in my head. This is solid practice--I produced The Just Beyond the same way.
In my mind, planning is critical. It would be fun to make everything up as you go, and many authors have tried it. I'm not sure Lewis Carroll had any idea what was going to happen on the next page as he wrote the Alice books. :) But as a general rule, you can't craft a great novel without planning. The Just Beyond has several twists and revelations whose impact depends on setting them up earlier. And, of course, the book as a whole sets up the rest of the trilogy.
I'm not saying the author should never experience surprise at where the story leads them or add unexpected content that occurs to them midway through. These situations embody the magic of writing. :) But planning the whole thing in outline or chapter form is the most powerful way to make the story coherent and convincing.
It took two years to flesh out The Just Beyond before the writing started, and the idea for it first occurred to me about six years before that. Writing The Far Beyond will take much less time--I expect to have it done by the end of this summer. Partly that's because I learned a lot about how to write fast and efficiently in doing the first book, but even more it's because of the planning and note-making I did for it while writing its predecessor. It's all good, it's ALL good. :) - Mark