Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

Saturday, October 30, 2021

National Novel Writing Month


November is National Novel Writing Month – NoNaWriMo – where tens of thousands of writers and would-be-writers challenge themselves to write a 50K word novel in the month of November. There is a website for the project where you can sign up and I guess report your daily word count and compare it to others. I’ve never done it. However, this year…

As planned, I took the summer off from writing fiction to try to come up with a longer, more ambitious novel than the ones I’ve been producing recently. My Nine Star Nebula Mystery/Adventures have been fun to write, and hopefully fun to read, but they’re what I consider “stories” rather than “novels.” Light reading -- not that I want to write anything too heavy, just a story with a little more depths and expanse. However, I didn’t come up with anything worth pursuing, and now summer is gone and I'm left without a writing project to fill the dark winter days.

Well, here we are at the start of November, on the verge of six months of a Wisconsin winter, a long season that will keep me indoors all day, most days. Now, I’m already a level 93 Klondike “Champion” in MS Solitaire, so I really need something else to fill my days with a bit more, well, productively? I really need a story to write. I had started the sequel to Keiree, got 5,000 words into it, and decided that I didn’t like the way I had planned for it to go, so I put it aside. I have an alternate plot, but not in enough detail to start on it. So, it’s on to plan C…

Play C is The Aerie of a Pirate Prince (working title), a Nine Star Nebula Mystery/Adventure. I had wanted to put that series into hiatus, but it is doing well in the Google Play Store, if not anywhere else. Nothing is doing particularity well anywhere else. In any event, over the last several weeks I have worked out a mystery adventure story featuring Rafe d’Mere and Kee in my head. With the last story I wanted to give it a bit of Gothic air, and this time around we’re shooting for a hard-boiled detective noir air. I’ve got the action taped out for the story, but it's hard at this point to estimate how many words it will take to tell the story. But I think it should land in the 50-60K word range. With all the action set pieces plotted, I think I should be able to finish this one.

So, while I am not going to sign up for NaNoWriMo -- I don’t like word count goals, I’m content just to put in the time and let the word count take care of itself,  I am going to try to finish the first draft of this story by the end of the month, or at the latest, mid-December. We'll see how it goes. Six weeks for a 60K story is not all that much of a reach for me, if I have the story well in mind before I start. I think I have the story in mind, but you never know... We'll see. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Sound of Silence


I’m typing this without music in the background. And it’s a little bit eerie The reason for the silence is that Spotify up and eliminated my “Unlimited” tier, which I’ve had for the last ten years – ever since Spotify arrived in the US. For $5 a month I enjoyed the full Spotify, except for being able to use it on mobile devices. Not that my smartphones never had the bandwidth for it anyway -- when I have it on. Now I either have to pony up an extra $5 a month or put up with ads on the free tier. With 2 minutes of ads every 10 minutes, the free tier is a non-starter. And that extra $60 a year… well, we’ll see. I may get used to silence.

Still, silence is a big change for me. For the last twenty years and more, I’ve listened to music whenever I was painting, writing, or working at my desk using my Tivoli Audio Model Two as speakers. Back in the waning days of the last century, I stayed up late on the weekends to record three hours of Jazz With Bob Parlocha, a mainstream jazz radio show broadcasted by our state’s public radio network. I converted each hour into a mp3 track and burned those shows onto a CD. I ended up with a hundred disks of about 10 hours each so I could listen to them when I was fully awake and painting.

That changed when the online music service Lala became available and I signed up for it. With Lala I was able to listen to every tune once for free. Then, if I wanted to add it to my streaming library I paid a dime per tune. If you wanted to buy it, it was the usual $.99. Listening to Lala introduced me to a wide variety of  music genres, expanding my taste in music far beyond jazz. In the few years it was available, I acquired a small streaming library which I recorded using my handy-dandy iRiver mp3 player. Luckily, I still have those tunes, so if silence gets too eerie, I can turn back time a decade or so to my Lala days. Apple bought up and closed down Lala, and I haven’t forgiven them for that.

Ten years ago, Spotify became available in the US and I signed up immediately. All my books have been written with Spotify playing in the background. I continued to explore many facets of music, while avoiding others, like country, rap, and most classical music.

The strange thing about all this is that I’m not an audio-focused person. I can’t just sit and enjoy music as audiophiles can. Music doesn’t hold my attention. My wife will often remark about something that she hears – a dog barking, a bird singing – that I no doubt heard, but it never registered with me. And for the most part, this is also true of the music I listened to when I’m writing at my desk. Oh, sometime I’d pause and listen to it – but much of the time it goes in one ear and out the other without leaving a trace. Indeed, I have a whole playlist – called “Favorites” – of songs that actually caught my attention when I was working -- songs that for some reason resonated with me. Nevertheless, I have collected many days worth of songs in different playlists – soundtracks, piano music, some European jazz, and semi/modern compositions, that I enjoy, but yet, will mostly drift by without me consciously noting them.

And yet, I can feel its absence as I write this piece, so music must do something. I want my full range of music back. But I’m willing to hold out until I get some incentive to began paying Spotify again for it. What makes this decision a bit easier is that I’m not actually writing fiction at the moment. My Molly, Mons, and Mars story is on hold, though I'm planning to start a new Nine Star Nebula mystery/adventure story on 1 Nov -- and unofficial NaNoWriMo effort. We'll see how it goes. In any event, these weekly blog posts  have been about my only exercise in writing all summer. Still, I guess I can slouch on until Spotify becomes desperate enough to get me back and offers me a deal I can’t refuse.

In the meanwhile, I will just revisit my old music, all those Lala tunes, and if I can find a CD player that works, all those Jazz with Bob Parlocha tunes as well.

By the way, if you have Spotify and are curious to know the music behind my stories, you can find some of the playlists that I made public on my profile – charleslit is my user name. Many of the playlists are just collections of songs or albums that I don’t want to lose track of – they are not artistically arranged.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Pushing Ice, by Alastair Reynolds A Review


All the cool kids on the SF booktube, Media Death Cult, I watch have been reading Alastair Reynolds books, so when I found one at a local charity shop, I picked it up. It happened to be Pushing Ice, one of his stand alone books. Below is my review of that book. Unlike Reynolds’ book, I won’t spoil the review in this prologue.

Pushing Ice

By Alastair Reynolds

The reviewer’s bias: I prefer stories with well developed, pleasant characters. I like writing that is clever and witty – entertaining in itself. I prefer first person narratives, or close third person narratives. I dislike thinly disguised fanfic or stories with gaping plot holes.

Pushing Ice begins with a prologue set 18,000+ years in the future – a future with thousands of human inhabited planets. A politician wants to honor the “Benefactor and her people” are who are “still out there and moving away from us,” far away, but less than 18,000 light years away. The Benefactor is Bella Lind.

The first chapter then introduces us to comet ice mining rocketship Rockhopper, the actual story set, according to the back cover blurb, in the year 2057. I am always amazed at the optimism of science fiction writers. To have nuclear powered space ships pushing around comets 52 years from the date Reynolds wrote this book is pretty damn optimistic.

The Rockhopper is captained by Bella Lind, the eventual Benefactor. As the story opens, a minor moon of of Saturn proves to have been an alien artifact by breaking free of its orbit and heading out of the solar system. Captain Lind’s Rockhopper is the only (non-Chinese) ship in position to intercept and investigate the artifact for the few days they would have before having to turn back, and only if they push their ship hard. They are tasked with the mission and agree to head out to intercept the artifact.

The prologue basically tells the reader that they succeed in intercepting and gathering enough data to eventual create an interstellar human society. And it also tells us that the Rockhopper never returns to the solar system, since it is still moving away, 18,000 years later. So the reader knows “who did it,” leaving the story to tell the “how.”

Foreshadowing is once again used several chapters in. He begins a section with the line: “No death in a spacesuit is ever good, but Mike Takahashi’s was especially bad.” And proceeds to spend the next 13 pages describing the failed rescue attempt in great detail. 

Since the reader already knows that the Rockhopper will not return to the solar system, as planned, the only question is what goes amiss? As it turns out, there is an onboard accident that suggests that the fuel tanks have less fuel than what they should have according to ship sensors. How did this happen? It is suggested that the numbers were tampered with by the ship’s owners back on Earth via a software upgrade or bug fix. I can’t say for certain if this is the cause, since I did not get much farther in the book. I found that I couldn't believe this, and gave up around page 125 out of 780 pages. This may've been a red herring, but it doesn't matter, they don't return.

So why the DNF? I like character driven stories with at least a few pleasant characters. Reynolds introduces what seems like several dozen characters in the first couple of chapters in a shotgun spray of conversations laced with dense techno-minutia details and fragmented backstories. My wife will write down names of characters in books to keep them straight, but I’m not one to do that. When there are too many characters tossed at me at once, willy-nilly, I just don't care about any of them. They all tend to fall under the category devices designed to provide background info and world building rather than people. Basically, they’re interchangeable, and while they may become more distinct later on, I’m still not likely to care about them. And this criticisms includes our main protagonist, the Benefactor, Captain Bella Lind.

While Bella is presented sympathetically, I felt that she was not in the story enough at this point to anchor the narrative. First, she’s in and out of it, with all the other bit players speaking their parts, often on tangents (at least in the first hundred twenty plus pages of the story). Secondly, Reynolds has her do something that doesn’t seem in character, no doubt in order to set up a conflict. After that accident aboard ship, on day 11, Chapter 4, Bella’s best friend aboard the ship is the person who discovers the apparent discrepancy between what the fuel data says now and what it said before it was altered. Bella doesn’t entirely believe her and contacts the managers of the mission on Earth regarding the discrepancy – who, of course, deny it is possible, and suggest that the person reporting it has gone off the deep end. To check on it herself, she and the corporate guy who is second in command, go down to the section of the ship to collect this data themselves – while Bella’s best friend is sleeping. As the captain of the ship, there is no reason why they needed to do this behind her back. The captain would have every right to investigate the issue herself when her friend was on duty. Indeed, you would expect a captain to do just that. The only reason for witting this scene this way was to set up a conflict. This was the part that sent my book flying, if not across the room and into the wall, but across the table next to me. I found that I couldn’t like any of these people and didn’t care what happened to them.

Reynolds is an astro-physicist who writes like one. His writing is very dense. It is nondescript in the sense that it doesn’t get in the way of the story, save that all the techno-minutia and snippets of dialog between lots of characters make for slow going. He is very interested in both tech and big sweeping ideas. He seems to use people as talking points, like many classic SF writers did. Now on one hand, all this techno-info may serve to build his world, but on the other, because the characters are pretty nondescript at this point, I found myself thinking “Who cares?" get on with the story." To that end, I found myself constantly skim reading. In short, it’s slow, heavy, unengaging reading for a reader like me. Your mileage, will, of course, vary.

So, to sum it up for me – I felt that Reynolds' use of foreshadowing diminished not only the suspense of the story, but my desire to push on, knowing how it ultimately ends. "Mind blowing" ideas and revelations are not my cup of tea, I simply didn't care what they will find on the artifact. There were no characters that I liked. I felt that he was setting up a lot of conflict within the crew which would make unpleasant reading for a reader like me. I didn’t believe for a minute that the managers on Earth could add 16% more fuel to the ship's log without someone onboard noting the change in readings. Not to mention that fact that the people on Earth could ruthlessly send the ship and people on a mission that they knew was a suicide one. In short, a lot of unpleasantness. 

Goodbye, Alastair Reynolds, it’s on to D E Stevenson’s The Two Mrs. Abotts.

Thursday, October 14, 2021



Not exactly swearing

I recently watched a Youtube video by an author discussing swearing in books, and I thought, damn, I can use that subject for my weekly blog posting. So here we go.

I have nothing against swearwords. I’m not morally offended by them. Swearwords are just words, which is to say, they are tools that are used to convey information or emotion. Swearwords, for the most part convey emotions – surprise, anger, threats – and are not to be taken literally. Sometimes they act as merely grace notes, peppered unconsciously throughout a conversation, as in, “Shit. Pass the fuck’n salt. This stew tastes like crap.” They add color to the language.

While I think that they certainly have a place in storytelling, I don’t think they are necessary in telling a story. For a number of reasons, I rarely use swearwords, and the ones I use I mostly use as are grace notes to define characters.

The first reason I generally avoid the over use of swearwords is that words on a page are tone deaf. They are without inflection. If I uttered aloud the phrase above, its swearwords would likely pass unnoticed by most people. But written, a reader notes every one of them. They are heavy words. They come with the burden of being “forbidden” even if commonly used and the reader does not find them offensive. And because of this, I think they should be uses thoughtfully.

Character is the key here. Who uses swearwords and how often depends on the characteristics of the character. In most cases, it would be hard to write the above phrase as casual dialog without using some crude language and make it sound like dialog. “Pass the salt, this stew tastes bad,” doesn’t sound like casual conversation. However, in polite society someone might say, “Please pass the salt, this stew seems rather bland.” In both cases crude words are avoided, but one sounds wrong, the other right, in a certain circumstance.

It is possible for the frequent use of swearwords to be used as a tag line for a character. But if every character uses a lot of swear words – if they become a commodity and lose a lot of their value.

A second reason I generally avoid swearing is that swearing is associated with crude, uncouth people. While the use of swearwords is hardly confined to uneducated and uncouth people, given the weight of swearwords in the written language, the frequent use of them in text would tend to make any character sound uncouth, if not uneducated. On the other hand, if it is the writer’s intention to make a character uncouth, or threatening, then the use of crude and harsh language is one way of creating that character. So swearwords have their uses. 

A third, and very significant reason why I don’t make extensive use of swearwords, is that most of my stories are set in the far future. The distant future I envision as being a post-religion society, one where religion has faded from memory. People may still be superstitious, but an organized religious structure and afterlife are long gone. Thus, concepts like god, hell, damnation, etc. and with them, phrases used to describe those ideas have all faded away as well. A word like “goddamn” would have no meaning whatsoever in a future without a concept of a god who's a guy who toys with the people he makes. A great deal of swearing involves god, hell and damnation.

Still, there is perhaps a need for similar phrases. In my Nine Star Nebula stories, I substituted “Neb”, short for nebula, for “God” with the idea that the all-encompassing nebula might have a perceived presence or personality – a lingering superstitious human trait.

Once you’ve taken religion out of swearing, you are largely left with sex and sexual ancestry. Sex probably isn’t going to fade away. However, the problem with using sexually orientated swearwords and phrases is that they often sound contemporary. Sex in the future isn’t likely to change enough to create a whole new class of swearwords. And if it does, they probably wouldn’t resonate with today’s readers. Now there may well be authors who can invent swearwords and phrases that sound futuristic while still conveying the heaviness of swearwords on a page, but I’m not one of them. Indeed, I’m not good at inventing cursing and swearing, period. And since I’m not good or creative at swearing, I’m content just to have the narrator mention that a character is swearing, and then doesn’t bother transcribing it. This is not squeamishness on my part, just a lack of talent in that field of writing.

So, to sum it up. I don’t have a lot of swearing in my books. This is not a result of any objection to swearing on moralistic grounds. Nor any desire for a YA audience (Heaven forbid!). It is the result of wanting to use what swearing I do include to it greatest effect. And a desire not to kick readers out of the future I am trying to build by slotting in phrases that sound too contemporary.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

A New Old Cover

The newer, but now old cover for the paper edition

Nothing exciting to talk about this post – just like every other post. One thing that is new – is that I have a new cover for the paper version of The Bright Black Sea. I had updated it this summer, twice, in fact. The cover above was the second version. I flipped the cover art and changed the title to light blue to make it easier to read. However, I had time on my hands, and seeing that's the devil's playground, I decided play around with it. My major incentive was to rewrite the back page blurb, but it was mostly just for something to do. Since I rarely sell any of the paper version of any of my books, making changes to them is almost pure art – an exercise in creativity. In the process of revising my blurb box I came across all my old designs and decided to see how I might redesign the entire cover using the art I used for the first edition.

I thought I might well go through the steps of creating the new cover art, so below is the actual starting point of the art for the cover, As you can see, it is not a space scene, but a rather abstract rather Chinese style landscape.

The original painting in its original orientation.

In the image software program Gimp, I take this rather abstract landscape, and “inverse” its color, flip the image and then rotate it to change the image into this:

Colors inverted, flipped and rotated. The house is still visible in lower right hand corner

I smudge out the house, adjust the color brightness and contrast to get the image to "pop" a bit more, and then add a glowing star in the center of the nebula using the “nova” filter in Gimp to get this image:

This was similar to my original cover art.

I wasn't quite happy just yet, and playing around with the filters in Gimp, I found one that adjust the color temperature of the art, making it a bit warmer, richer toned, to get it to look like this:

A slightly warmer, richer tone, a bit more inviting, I think.

Below is the finished cover, after I eliminated that white rectangle and adding the title and the new back cover blurb box. I used the same art rotated for the back cover. 

The new cover with the old, original art.

For comparison, below is the original ebook cover. At the time of first publication, I did not offer paper books.

I will keep my current ebook cover, as I like it, and since it is usually only seen in thumbnails, the larger title comes in handy. However, I don’t think that large text would work well on a paper book.