Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Faraway Dreams of God

Luis stood at the bus stop as the bus drove away.  The diesel fumes eddied around him.  He coughed, but the soft salty breeze from the ocean soon blew the fumes away.  He sat down on the bench to wait.

A palm tree’s fronds rustled overhead in the wind.  A Palm Beach County sheriff’s car drove by.  Luis ignored it.  The deputy sheriff driving ignored Luis.  Luis felt his heart beat faster.

Even with the sun setting, it was hot.  Sweat trickled down his back and his armpits.  He wished he could take off the light jacket he wore, but the jacket concealed his pistol and the kilo of cocaine he carried.

To the west, the red, yellow and pink of the sky faded to black as night fell.  Luis looked up.  Against the orange glare of the street lights he could only see a handful of stars.

An elderly black lady sat down at the other end of the bench.  She did not look at Luis.  He looked at her from the corner of one eye, and then ignored her.

A bus came, and the lady got on it.  The driver glanced at Luis, shrugged, and closed the door.  Once again diesel fumes swirled around him.

Traffic passed.  Luis did not look at the cars.  Across the street there was a two-story building made of cinder blocks.  There was an old car in a parking lot next to it.  It was not much of a car, but Luis did not have a car of his own.  It seemed like a fine automobile to him.

Two hundred dollars, he thought to himself.  Swenson promised me two hundred dollars to act as courier.  I will save most of it, and in a few months I will have a car of my own.

Of course there was the matter of the papers and the insurance and the driver’s license, but Swenson, who was from Luis’ country despite his Anglo-sounding name, would know how to get around these details.  Swenson was very smart.  Swenson had survived for seven years in South Florida, even though much product passed through his hands and into the streets and up the noses of the rich gringos.

Luis passed a hand over his mouth.  The hand was wet with sweat.  He felt the tremor of his hand with his lips.  He wished for a cigarette.  He wished for a little, just a little of the product he carried with him.

Such thoughts were not good for a courier.  Swenson had made that clear.  “Your neck and your other bones will bend a little,” Swenson told him.  “But how far will they bend, my friend, until they snap?”

The waiting was bad, because then there was time for thoughts.  There were many thoughts, and many of them were bad.

A gleaming convertible passed by.  The driver was a woman, whose hair was long and blonde and stirred in the wind as she passed.  Luis dreamed of having such a woman, of driving a car such as that with such a woman beside him.  The kilo of cocaine he carried would buy such a car and such a woman, for a time.

“The temptations are many in this trade,” Swenson told him.  “Women, women are terrible temptations.  There are many beautiful women here in south Florida, rich bored beautiful women with old fat husbands, young poor beautiful women looking for excitement.  Many of them enjoy Latin men, and you are handsome, my friend.  Add to that a few lines of cocaine and you have no idea how many legs will open and reveal their secrets to you.  Buy all of this you want with your own product, but do not buy it with the cocaine you carry for me.”

Luis watched the blonde woman in the convertible drive past and thought of what he would do someday, of what Swenson was doing, sending money back to their country in the secret ways, there to have a fine house and horses and cattle.

Two teenagers sat on the bench next to him.  Young Spanish men, not much younger than himself.  They eyed Luis and edged closer on the bench.  Luis allowed his right hand to drop into his lap and shrugged his left shoulder.  There, just visible under the lapel of his jacket, was the butt of his pistol.  Luis did not look at the young men, for that would be a challenge.  The young men looked away from him and stopped moving closer.  They talked for a bit, in English.

Then another bus came.  They got on the bus and left.

Luis waited, as the traffic went by, as the moon rose on his right.  He wished to see the moon rise from the sea some day.  He had not yet had time to see that.  In his country, the moon rose from behind mountains.  That was beautiful, but he wished to see the light of the moon upon the waves of the sea, and perhaps the light of the stars.  His grandmother always said the light of stars were the faraway dreams of God.  With the lights of the city one could see few stars, even in the latest hour of the night, when the sun was far away.

Perhaps God did not dream in this well-lighted city.

Another police car drove by.  Luis’ heart pounded.  He crossed his legs, and wiped his sweating palms upon his pants.

Down the street to his left he saw a car pull up to the curb.  A man got out.  The car drove back into the street.  It passed Luis, but the driver looked straight ahead.  The man who had gotten out of the car sat on the bench.

“Hola, Luis,” he said softly.  “How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks,” Luis replied.

“You are ready for the trade?”

“Yes.  You have the money?”

“Of course.”

A bus came down the street.  Luis and the other man got on it, and rode to the next stop, a park.  They got out and went into the park.  In the shadows of the large palm trees the man handed Luis a thick bundle of bills, and Luis handed the man the kilo of cocaine.

They reached the north end of the park.

Further to the north, an orange light grew and lit half the horizon.  From the orange light came a streak of flame.  The flame was so bright there was a halo of brilliant light around it, brighter than the orange light surrounding it.  The light climbed into the sky.

“Mother of God!” said Luis.  “What is that?”

“Oh, that’s the space shuttle,” said the man.  “They launch about once a month.”

Luis watched the light ascending into the sky upon its trail of fire.

“Adios,” said the man, and walked away.

Luis watched the space shuttle.  The light of its rocket engines were visible until it curved away and vanished over the horizon.

How could that be? Luis thought.  It was climbing, and then it seemed to fall, fall below the horizon.  How could that be?

Luis looked around.  He was alone in the park, but he was carrying much money, and he felt suddenly naked.  Besides, he must catch the bus.

He walked to the bus stop and sat down.  He looked up again.  The light was gone but there, glowing in the moonlight, blown into jagged zigzags by the wind, was the trail of smoke left by the rocket.  Luis watched the smoke trail slowly disperse, thinking of the rocket, beyond and high above the far horizon, lit by the light of the faraway dreams of God.

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Kristen Lamb is funny, interesting and absolutely BRILLIANT even if I don’t always agree with everything she writes. This blog contains a crucial insight into book marketing that all us writers would do well to consider! –Tom Burkhalter

Kristen Lamb's Blog

 

Last summer I wrote a rather controversial post The WANA Theory of Economics. I explained why traditional marketing doesn’t sell books. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it will sell some books, but it lacks the ability to mobilize the fat part of the bell curve–that HUGE population of folks who would normally not define themselves as readers (but they LOVED Hunger Games and bought the whole trilogy, went to the movie and bought all the action figures and a Mocking Jay lapel pin off Etsy).

Sorry. Traditional marketing cannot give the Hunger Games Effect. I didn’t make the rules. Anyone in publishing more than a minute will tell you that the only way to created the Harry Potter Effect or the DaVinci Code Effect—which is a mass mobilization of the fat part of the bell cure—is 1) good book and 2) word of mouth. Ads, commercials…

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Writing “Tech”: Science Fiction

Science fiction is my first love.  The very first book I ever bought for myself was Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and his Ultrasonic Cycloplane.  The first “serious” hardback I ever bought – in 5th grade – was Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel.  If I needed any other impetus to begin the affair, I don’t remember it.

A few days before writing this I got the notion to reread Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer.  I was sure I had a copy around the house – certain I’d bought one recently at a used book sale – alas, no go.  Ended up borrowing a copy from the local library, and read it overnight.  It’s probably been thirty years, at least, since I read it last.

When I finished, I looked at the original publication date: 1956.

If you’ve never read The Door Into Summer it’s well worth it, even if it’s a little dated in some ways.  The funny thing is that in others, we still haven’t quite got there.  The action of the story takes place in 1970 and 1971 – years I remember all too well – and 2000 and 2001, years also stored in my memory.   The protagonist, Daniel B. Davis, is a mechanical engineer and inventor who decides it’s his mission in life to create true labor-saving gadgets for the automated house.

I’m sure at least some of you have seen the “Roomba,” a robotic vacuum-cleaner.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the website:

http://store.irobot.com/home/index.jsp

Interesting that they call it “irobot,” eh?  You don’t get the reference, other than the movie with Will Smith?  So google “Isaac Asimov.”

I remember the first time I saw a Roomba the first thing that popped into my mind was “Wow!  Hired Girl!”  That was the name of the floor-cleaning robot that was Dan Davis’ first invention in The Door Into Summer.

Some of you may remember when computers took up whole rooms and were called “mainframes”; you may even remember that a lot of their commands and programming were stored on magnetic tape.  Heinlein, in designing his “future tech” mentions “tapes” and something he calls a “Thorssen memory tube.”  A “tape” in this context refers to what we, today, would call “software” and a “Thorssen memory tube” is pretty obviously a hard drive – or even a thumb drive.  For the rest of Hired Girl, Heinlein uses “off the shelf components”: “…a floor polisher used in army hospitals, a soft-drink dispenser, and those ‘hands’ they use in atomics plants to handle anything ‘hot.’”  Otherwise, “the whole thing could be built with standard parts ordered out of Sweet’s Catalogue…”

I googled “Sweet’s Catalogue.”  There really is such a thing, which began in 1906 with architectural materials and expanded to 38 volumes, including parts for mechanical and electrical engineering.

I mention this simply to show Heinlein’s intriguing attention to detail.  Yet the point is less the detail of existing “engineering art” but how Heinlein artfully weaves together “what is” to show “what may be” in just a few more steps.

There are several other ideas for inventions mentioned in The Door Into Summer that are noteworthy: Drafting Dan; dictation software; and the “hydraulic bed.”

We would call Drafting Dan by the name of AutoCAD and it wouldn’t be a typewriter-like machine as Heinlein describes it, but software you load onto your computer.  Nonetheless, the idea of automated design is the same.  It would be interesting to know if the software engineers who wrote the original code for AutoCAD were inspired by Drafting Dan, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were not.  Inspiration for that idea would be as simple as noticing that it’s pretty easy to make a straight line, or a series of straight lines, appear on a screen; now, hmm, let’s see, what if you could make a perpendicular to the line, and, ah, yeah, maybe some curves?  That’s really all there is to the basic idea, the 1% inspiration that Thomas Edison spoke about, and all those endless hours of writing and refining code belong to the 99% perspiration part.

Dictation software is alluded to by Heinlein, a “secretary” machine, so to speak.  I’ve used several versions of software of this sort and read or heard reviews by others.  Maybe it’s my Southern accent, y’all, or maybe they’s a few bugs to be worked out.  Nonetheless, the basic idea is there, and is more or less practical, even if to me the execution still leaves something to be worked out.

The idea of the “hydraulic bed” is mentioned briefly in The Door Into Summer and somewhat more extensively in what is arguably Heinlein’s most famous work, Stranger In a Strange Land.  This might be one of those urban legends, but I heard that Heinlein held the patent for a hydraulic bed – we know them as “water beds.”

One point I must make before continuing.  I don’t want to leave the impression that accurate prediction is a requisite of hard science fiction.  What we think of as “hard science” today may or may not still be around in another hundred years – or it may be considered as laughably antiquated as the notion that the world is flat and borne through the Cosmos on the back of a giant turtle.  My favorite hope and cherished dream in this direction is that contemporary science will be proven wrong about the possibility of superluminal travel, despite the almost-universal chorus of “IMPOSSIBLE” from the last three generations of physicists.

Accurate prediction could be considered in a different sense, however.  What if one interprets the phrase as meaning accurate in the sense that it can be used to predict social behavior in some sense or another, in response to some fictional invention or discovery?

In another Heinlein book, Space Cadet, Heinlein goes to considerable lengths to describe Hohmann orbits, their uses in space travel, and some of the various methods to achieve them.  Accurate, yes, but what’s the point?  Isn’t this a little much?

Maybe.  Here’s a question for you: do you know why they’re called “Hohmann” orbits?  As one might guess, a mathematician named Walther Hohmann described them in his book titled The Accessibility of Celestial Bodies – which was written in 1925.  The technical definition of a Hohmann orbit is, according to Wikipedia (see “Hohmann Transfer Orbit”), “an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different altitudes in the same plane.”  In effect, it’s the most fuel-efficient means for a reaction-driven space vessel to travel from one planet’s orbit to another.  Therefore reaction driven space vessels are likely to use them – have done so, in fact.

Heinlein wrote that, for a passage in Space Cadets, he spent two weeks with his wife Virginia, reputedly a much better mathematician than the Master himself, working calculations and graphs to be sure that the astrogation particulars he described would actually work in real life.  Well, at least, would if such vessels existed.

Now of course we know that such vessels exist; the Apollo Program put astronauts on the Moon and NASA, along with other space agencies, has sent dozens of probes to Mars and the outer planets, using either Hohmann orbits or other astrogational techniques pioneered by Hohmann.

Note again the date of Hohmann’s work: 1925.

It’s worth noting here that the Russian space pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, began his pioneering work in astronautics – including the need for and descriptions of such esoteric as space suits and air locks – prior to 1900.

The important point to grasp is that Heinlein is describing human behavior – i.e., how space ship crews will get from one planet to another – using scientific discoveries that were, at the time he wrote, about thirty years old.  The only “fictional” aspect of his work was the space ship itself.

But maybe the real piece de resistance of accurate technical detail – as accurate as it may be possible to get in fiction — is an obscure story by the great Dr. Werner von Braun, titled Project Mars: A Technical Tale.  This book is half science-fiction story and half technical manual and anyone who knows anything about the early history of the Apollo program and what Dr. von Braun tried to do – establish a permanent manned space station in orbit to serve as a way station not only for the Lunar flight but as a stepping stone to the other planets – will see at once that it was first outlined in this book.  Essentially, the technology of Dr. von Braun’s book, in a form only slightly more developed, took us to the Moon and back.

Here’s the kicker: Project Mars: A Technical Tale was not published when it was originally written, but the Author’s Preface was written sometime in 1950.

I remember people reacting to the entire notion of space flight and astronauts as if it were something new, something part of the post-World-War-II Jet Age – but the basic ideas of space flight were in development a full half-century before the first Moon landing, and science fiction writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were exploring them in fiction and making them real to a generation of new dreamers, who went on to be the engineers and scientists who put men on the moon and built the Space Shuttle and sent Pioneer, Voyager and Viking, among others, on their way.

This leads me to my point: “hard” science fiction in the sense of “technically accurate” is not merely the stuff that dreams are made of, but brings one to the very edge of the reality of dreams.  That question demands a corollary inquiry: if the fiction were not technically accurate, would it be as effective?

Here we may intrude upon matters of taste.  In purely historical fiction my answer to that question would be “No” and I believe I could defend it pretty well.  In fact I’m working on a post to that effect.

But science fiction might, arguably, be different.  The reason for that might be contained in Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that science, sufficiently advanced with respect to the percipient, is indistinguishable from magic.  I would argue that “sufficiently advanced” doesn’t necessarily mean the difference between 1900 and 2000.  In the 1930s my grandfather was an electrician for Georgia Power Company.  He told me that one of his favorite things was to string a power line from the main feeder up some little hollow to a farm house where they still used horses to draw plows.  When he installed electricity and a light fixture the last thing he’d do would be to turn on the light, and leave the farm family staring at the brilliant bulb as darkness fell outside.  Just a simple little thing like that, something we today take as a given of our existence, and yet so short a time ago it was, if not magic, then magical.

But that illustrates the principle upon which Clarke’s maxim works, and some of its subtlety.  If my grandfather, an electrician, appeared at the very least as a sorcerer’s apprentice to these families, then how might a contemporary, say the quantum physicist Neils Bohr – or the mathematician Walter Hohmann – appear to my grandfather?

Ray Bradbury is arguably one of the great science fiction story tellers, and it was enough for him that rockets existed, that you could fly through space in them, and go to strange places like the Mars of his The Martian Chronicles.  He could probably have cared less about the technical details.

It could be, then, that art, sufficiently advanced, like science, can appear magical.  Since there’s evidently a place for each let’s leave it at that.

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On the “Rules” of Writing: “Know Your Audience” and “Conflict”

On the “Rules” of Writing: “Know Your Audience” and “Conflict”.

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The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction

The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction.

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The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction

I started writing this post about a week ago.  I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to say but as I wrote I realized the old symptoms – my ideas were evolving as I wrote.  Something about writing, actually putting words on a page (digital or print, either way I see them appear, letter by letter, in front of me), catalyzes my thought processes.

Maybe it’s that additional sense of reality seeing words on a page gives to thoughts.

At any rate I realized my post had now become two separate ideas, and this post is one of them.

Some years ago I read an anthology by Richard Bach consisting of articles he’d written for Flying magazine, among others.  I don’t remember the title of the anthology now, and a quick search of my bookshelves didn’t turn it up, either.  There was, however, one article in there that brought me endless hours of pleasure.  The article was titled “The Pleasure of Their Company.”

Without Bach’s article I never would have read some of the best prose ever written about aviation, nor been introduced to several of my favorite writers.  Hemingway once wrote that a writer, early in his career, should read “all the great books.”  He didn’t specify any titles under that heading, and as writers and as readers the subject is one that might be debated endlessly, passionately and without satisfactory resolution.  Regardless of that, many of the books Bach recommended became my “great books.”

In passing I would reiterate that Bach’s article did not appear in a literary journal or any other venue more likely to be dedicated to an appreciation of literature.  For those who don’t know, except for the odd article like Bach’s, Flying is generally dedicated to technical and how-to types of articles: new devices for instrument flying or radio communication, new air traffic control procedures, weather flying, descriptions of airports or fly-ins, etc.  There used to be a great column in back titled “I Learned About Flying From That” wherein people would describe something that happened to them in an airplane that taught them about that territory wherein angels fear to tread, much less mortal pilots with physical wings.

But Flying is definitely not a literary journal, however well-written and interesting its content.

I read Bach’s article in 1977, not long after I graduated from college, and in the next two years I managed to track down and read every book on his list with one or two exceptions, like Sir Frances Chichester’s A Rabbit In the Air, and those exceptions were simply because I couldn’t find them, either at the local chain bookstore or in the various used bookstores I haunted in those days.  The books I did read included Ernest K. Gann’s Fate Is the Hunter; Nevil Shute’s Round the Bend, The Rainbow and the Rose, and Pastoral ; Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars and The Little Prince; and Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising.  There were others but those come most readily to mind.

If you haven’t read them you won’t know that, with the exception of the three books by Nevil Shute (better known for his excellent if depressing On the Beach), those books are all non-fiction.  In fact, out of the shelves and shelves of books I own on aviation and aviation-related subjects, a quick glance assures me that non-fiction is disproportionately represented in that field.  Whether or not this is more generally true in that world beyond my bookshelves I can’t answer.

It would be easy, and possibly even true, to say that there’s no need to invent stories about aviation when non-fiction is just as plentiful and besides, well, factual.  Pilots, especially the various professional pilots (military, airline, charter, etc.) as a class would rather read technical manuals or factual accounts that might be of some use to them than fiction.  Most pilots, in addition, are hypercritical of mistakes made in fiction by fiction writers.  There’s probably a good reason for that: professional pilots who make mistakes end up killing themselves and their passengers.  Most pilots, therefore, tend to approach information from a skeptical point of view.  Think of it like this:  Oh yeah?  Well, tell me this: is that guy going to be in the cockpit with me when I’ve got to do what he recommends, or is he going to be sitting somewhere nice and safe, with his feet propped up, thinking about lunch?

Other than Nevil Shute I can only think of five authors who wrote respected fiction about flying:  Richard Newhafer, James Salter, Stephen Coonts, Mark Berent and Tom Wilson.

Newhafer is an interesting writer.  He was a Navy pilot who flew Hellcats during World War II, and wrote one of my favorite novels about Navy flying during that war, titled The Last Tallyho.  Newhafer was an ace and participated in some of the battles he writes about.  When he got out of the Navy in the 1950s he not only wrote novels but got into screenwriting.  If you can track down any of his books they’re worth a read.

James Salter wrote maybe one of the best novels about combat flying I’ve ever read, titled The Hunters.   It’s set in the Korean war, where the protagonist, Cleve Connell, flies F-86 Sabres against the Communist MiG-15s.  To me, the interesting thing about this story is the climactic dogfight scene where Connell shoots down “Casey Jones,” the MiG pilot who has claimed many of Cleve’s squadron mates.  The Hunters was made into a film starring Robert Mitchum which, despite some really good aerial scenes, almost universally elicits groans from pilots because of a scene that was tacked on by Hollywood.  Connell (played by Mitchum), after shooting down Casey Jones, ejects to save his wingman who’s just been shot down himself.  Why?  Because Connell’s in love – platonically – with the guy’s wife.  I imagine the thought process in the mind of most fighter pilots, in rejecting this scene, might go something like this: Let me be sure I’ve got this straight.  Connell, a good stick who’s just waxed some Commie badass, loses his wingman because the dumb bastard can’t be bothered to watch his tail.  Big surprise, the loser gets his ass shot off, whereupon he punches out and has to make a run for it through the boonies.  Too damned bad but that’s Darwin in action at 25,000 feet and Mach 0.9.  Connell then does what?  He punches out, ejects from a perfectly good airplane, in a day where you were lucky if the ejection didn’t kill you?  To save his loser wingman?  Just because Connell wants to get in the guy’s wife’s drawers?  And THIS is the story you want me to believe?  Jesus H. Christ, only in Hollywood, pal.  That’s why they call it the Land of Dreams.

If you’ve heard of Stephen Coonts it’s probably because of his book, Flight of the Intruder.  Most of the Navy pilots I’ve talked to will actually grant that book the ultimate accolade, a grudging admission that, yeah, that’s pretty much the way it was.  Not too surprising, since Coonts was an A-6A Intruder pilot during the Vietnam war.

Mark Berent and Tom Wilson both flew in Vietnam, in the USAF.  Berent begins with a book titled Rolling Thunder, where his protagonist flies F-100 Super Sabres on ground-support missions.  Throughout the series Berent writes with the same characters, introduced for the most part in Rolling Thunder.  Berent’s  focus is a little broader than just the air war, since one of the main characters, Wolf  Lochert, is a Special Forces officer, while the rest of the characters, including the protagonist, Court Bannister, are Air Force.  Tom Wilson, in a trilogy beginning with Termite Hill, writes largely about the war of the F-105s flying out of bases in Thailand against targets in North Vietnam.  OK, Wilson is kind of a favorite of mine, partly because I think the F-105 is one of the absolutely coolest-looking airplanes ever built, and some of the ballsiest pilots who ever lived flew those missions against North Vietnam in F-105s.  Wilson also writes about the pilots and EWOs – aka “Bears” – who flew the F-105G “Wild Weasel” against North Vietnamese SAM sites.  There’s an old adage among fighter pilots that you never duel with the antiaircraft types on the ground, but the Weasels did just that, and took corresponding losses.

So there’s all sorts of good aviation fiction, but with the exception of Coonts, I don’t recall that any of these writers are either well-known or even remembered.

What makes for a good aviation story?

First, something that’s hard for outsiders to grasp, is that aviation, for pilots, is more like a love affair than anything else.  Less charitable writers might with reason liken the love of flying to addiction, obsession or disease; indeed, aviation shares with malaria the trait that while it might go into remission, once you’ve got it, it never really leaves you.  Maybe this is why grafted-on love stories in movies, like the one in the film version of The Hunters, seldom if ever ring true.  Bob Stevens once did a great cartoon of how different people see an airplane; the wife’s view of the husband-pilot’s airplane was of a sexy, curvaceous mistress.  No writer who doesn’t understand this can understand the aviation story.

Second, the usual source of conflict, “good guy vs. bad guy,” is almost never present, even in stories about military aviation.  The enemy isn’t necessarily a bad or evil person just because he wants to kill you.  In Duncan Grinnell-Milne’s Wind In the Wires, written about flying in World War I, Grinnell-Milne is forced down behind German lines by engine trouble and captured.  He is taken to a German aerodrome where the pilots go out to look at the wreck of his machine and commiserate with him on his bad luck.  Indeed, Nevil Shute, perhaps one of the best writers I know of, doesn’t  rely on this sort of conflict; man against nature, or against some relatively insoluble problem, is his theme.  Read any of his books, not just those about aviation.   Even in Newhafer’s The Last Tallyho, the Japanese ace the protagonist fights at the climax of the novel isn’t presented as an evil man, simply as a patriot serving his country to the best of his ability.

Third, there is that interaction between man and the machine that takes him into an otherwise inaccessible environment that, oddly and perhaps even paradoxically, sparks something deeply spiritual inside the pilot.  Edwards Park flew with the 35th FG in New Guinea in World War II, and wrote of this in Nanette: Her Pilot’s Love Story, his account of flying at that time and place:

“…I had, momentarily, become part of Nanette – one and indivisible – and the two of us, in our ecstasy, had come very close to dying. … No plane is a person; no person a plane.  No person is anything but a person – a single entity, in charge of his own mind and body and to some extent his destiny.  But there are times when the interplay between [the] two is so intense and absorbing that they do indeed seem fused into one.  And I think one of the two can be a machine. … I knew, flying onto the strip that marvelous day, that I had touched something strange and secret.  And I also knew that somehow it all had to end now for us.  I was – we were – exploring something incredibly dangerous.”

In almost every flying school or aviation museum or pilot’s study or den you will find, prominently displayed or tucked away in a corner, the poem “High Flight.”  The poem was written by John G. Magee, Jr., a young American in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was killed in training at the age of 19 – but not before he wrote the most famous and revered poem about flying yet penned.  I remember hearing that poem when I was very young and allowed to stay up late, until the TV stations shut down for the night, and the poem was read over the air as an F-104 Starfighter performed aerobatics on screen.

So in the end perhaps the aviation story is about something deeply and personally spiritual, something that most pilots, who generally see themselves as the morst material of people, will usually deny.  Charles Lindbergh himself wondered whether or not flying was too “godlike” and whether that might be behind some of the airplane crashes he knew of.

Nowadays flying has become mundane and prosaic.  There’s even talk, which will probably come true, that pilots will be replaced by computers.  I think that’s beyond sad, and I can tell you why.

I’m the merest neophyte as a pilot; if I cobbled all of my logbooks together and was generous with rounding the minutes I could probably boast 50 hours of total flying time.  But about twenty of that is in sailplanes, and the last flight I took in a sailplane – over thirty years ago – found me cast off from the tow plane at 3000 feet above the ground, between two clouds that were catching the rays of the setting sun at just the right angle to produce a subtle change of luminosity and reflection as I turned slowly between them, completely unaware of flying the aircraft, and so flying without effort.  Then I turned west into the setting sun, and heard something over the sighing of the wind over the wings and the canopy.  I can only describe it as a choir, singing a single sustained note.  I held the sailplane there, just above stall speed, with my eyes on the red ball of the sun and my ears alive to that faint summons; and I believe I could have flown on like that forever, if I hadn’t chanced to look at my altimeter, which told me I barely had the altitude to trade for the airspeed with which to get back to my airfield.

But even so I turned for home with that song in my heart, where it sings still.

Perhaps someday I can write a story worthy of it.  I just don’t believe a computer ever will.

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On the “Rules” of Writing: “Know Your Audience” and “Conflict”

When I began writing this post it was about the elements of a good aviation story, and in the middle of that I had some insight into one of the things one sees put forward as one of the “rules” of successful commercial writing, usually rendered as “know your audience.”  As it progressed I found I was also thinking about “conflict” and how it is usually (i.e., conventionally) approached.

I’m going to keep this in the theme I originally wrote about, i.e., the aviation story.  I know a little bit about aviation, so this comes under the heading of the “rule” regarding “write about what you know.”  (I’ve always wondered just exactly how that was supposed to apply to science fiction, but that’s another post, maybe.)

What, exactly, is conflict in the dramatic sense?  Most of us have an instinctive feeling for this.  As kids we know when trouble is brewing on the playground between two rivals.  Maybe that’s as good a source as any.  And of course there’s the best known conflict of all: “good” versus “evil.”  In time of war the propaganda battle between the two sides revolves around efforts to cast the opposite side as “evil.”  Oddly, it seems that one’s own side is good mostly by contrast.  Most people have a pretty good idea of what constitutes “evil” – but by contrast very few people can say what they mean by “good.”  “Us, not them” is an interesting definition of good vs. evil; reminds me that for most small tribes, the name of the tribe usually is the name for “people”; that is to say, “us, not them.”  In his excellent and informative study of the factors motivating killing in combat, Col. Dave Grossman, PhD, identifies dehumanization (“WE are people; THEY are NOT”) as one of the enabling factors.

Sorry, I’m a philosopher at heart.  But perhaps, dear reader, you might pause and reflect upon this simplistic notion of conflict.  Granted that it’s a venerable storytelling device; going back as far, or farther, than the origin of the Hero Tale; but I might submit that to be the point.  The Hero overcomes some obstacle, and that victorious struggle enables the tribe to survive.  In other words, WE have triumphed; THEY have NOT.  I don’t object to this as a literary device, I simply urge a little more sophistication and awareness upon us as writers.

A conflict in a story might be nothing more than a problem, seemingly insurmountable, that the protagonists must solve in order to attain their desires.  Nevil Shute, in his novel The Far Country, uses this device.  In The Far Country Jennifer Morton, visiting relatives in Australia, falls in love with the émigré Carl Zlinter.  Their problem, in one sense, is simple economics; Carl was a doctor in the German Army during World War II, but cannot be one in Australia unless he wants to redo his medical training, which is expensive.  Jennifer, the daughter of an English doctor, loves Carl and Australia after being exposed to both, but refuses to marry Carl because he is a very good doctor, and if she marries him before he can manage to get back in practice, he will never be able to do so.  This generates the conflict between them, and it is well and gently and elegantly done.

In essence it’s Romeo and Juliet, but without the bloodthirsty Capulets and the equally sanguine Montagues.  The conflict in that play is simply that which lies in a name.

Conflict, then, is as simple as what the protagonists want, and the obstacles existing to the attainment of that desire.  The action of the story is overcoming the obstacles.  One problem with the G vs. E conflict is that we’ve seen it so very, very, very often that for “good” to triumph in any credible manner, the poor beaten-up hero has to endure trials that would bring Superman to his knees.  Think of any of the Bruce Willis “Die Hard” movies and you’ll see what I mean.  If it strains credulity, then it also strains that “willing suspension of disbelief” that we as writers strive so hard to attain.

This is, however, a good segue into the “Know Your Audience” element.

As I have heard over and over and over and ad-nauseam over again from all sorts of writing coaches, publishers, editors and agents, a writer who hopes to be published has to know the audience he or she is targeting.  But push most of them to answer the simple, logical question, “Well, how do I do that?” and you get some such answer as “picture the person you want to read your book.”  OK, and I’m willing to admit I’m dense and maybe even a little literal-minded, but I don’t see that as anything other than a rephrasing of “know your audience.”

Perhaps we could just admit that this “rule” is more something that has crept in from the marketing department of the major publishers – you know, the ones who would rather you do their work for them, so that your book will fit their marketing research – rather than anything that has something concrete to do with actually telling a story.  It’s a hoary aphorism in marketing to define your “target market” and tailor your advertising accordingly.  Please don’t tell me I’m the only one to see the rather suspicious similarity to the “rule” requiring a writer to “know your audience.”

Look at it this way.  There’s another aspect to “know your audience” which I have never – and I mean not ever, not once in forty-odd years – heard anyone mention: its fine to know your audience, but a good story is a good story is a crossover story that transcends genre and target markets.  What about J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series?  They might be targeted for the Young Adult market, but it was the cross-market appeal that made them runaway best sellers.  A good and well-told story will eventually find an audience.

Look at it this way: whether expressed as “target marketing” or “know your audience,” the principle translates into expectations of behavior based on assessments of a sample population whose completeness we cannot know, not with any certainty.  Recall how many publishers turned down J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before Scholastic picked it up; this was a good story well told; so my suspicion is that turning down the story was based on it not fitting any of the marketing research done at the time.  “Know your audience” is an aphorism for making some rule-of-thumb assumptions that sometimes work extraordinarily well and sometimes fall flat as a cow patty.

That being said, maybe we could think of the relationship between “genre” and “know your audience.”  Genres exist in the first place because a significant number of people – which is, ahem, nothing more than the sample population listed above – like that genre.  “Romance” novels are a great example, if only because as a genre label “romance” is almost useless nowadays without a qualifier, such as “paranormal romance” or “historical romance.”  How these sub-genres emerged in their own right involved the discovery that significant numbers of readers liked stories written in that vein, which only goes to prove my point.

Since all I know about the romance genre is what I’ve learned from my significant other, I’m going to look at the audience that might read an aviation story.

In one sense you can think of aviation stories as techno-thrillers, and I’ve read novels that were pretty much that.  Dale Brown’s Flight of the Old Dog is one such, and almost any military aviation novel with any pretense to accuracy and realism written since 1984, when Tom Clancy essentially defined the techno-thriller genre with The Hunt for Red October, has to adhere to those standards.  Being military or ex-military gives one a real edge in that sort of writing – unless, like Clancy, you’ve studied the subject for years.

But let’s consider aviation stories that are concerned a little less with the gadgets and a little more with the people involved.  Essentially, any flying story set between 1914 and 1954 could qualify.  Nonetheless when I write an aviation story, I’d be well advised of two things that concern my potential audience: first, anyone with any aviation background whatsoever is going to be hypercritical of the technical aspects of what I write, and second, the overwhelming majority of the population isn’t going to have a clue to what I’m talking about in a technical sense.  Writing to either audience in this case means the same thing: write accurately and knowledgeably and incorporate technical details into the course of the story, informing without necessarily teaching, just like in hard science fiction.  Almost invariably when pilots talk about aviation fiction, its quality is judged less by story than technical content.  Contrarily, non-pilots will be more interested in the story, but also want technical content that “puts them in the cockpit” without bogging the story down.  So there’s a constant tension between the two that the aviation fiction writer must be aware of – and this is part of “knowing your audience.”

Aviation stories are about pilots flying airplanes that take those pilots to the very limit of what those pilots can bring to the airplane in terms of skill, knowledge and courage.  In an aviation story, quite often, the only conflict is within the pilot himself.  In a movie, we might see the beads of sweat on the pilot’s face, or his face contorted with fear, or the grunts of effort as he strives to haul back on the stick – but the challenge for the writer as storyteller in this genre probably goes back further than the Epic of Gilgamesh: whether a man strives within himself to bring out the will that means victory or survival, or strives with another, the challenge for the writer is to show a victory that does not seem foreordained, i.e.,  a mere decision by the storyteller that the Hero Shall Prevail.  We live in an uncertain world.  I once had a flight instructor who told me he’d rather be lucky than skilful, since luck can save you when skill will not; but in a story this comes under the category of “coincidence” which tends to appear suspicious in the eyes of our readers unless done (ahem) with skill.

Then there’s another problem: for those of us who are already in aviation, “love” is almost invariably a part of the process.  Sometimes that love goes so far back that one might wonder if there’s something genetic about it.  My parents, for example, argued about whether or not my first word was “airplane” or “light” – but both agreed that at the time I spoke my first word I was pointing my chubby little baby finger at an airplane’s running lights in the night sky.

I am not alone in this, by the way, but as a writer it brings up another problem: you can talk to those who share your love, and achieve comprehension among them in a few dozen words of matters of surprising technical complexity.  But what about people who know nothing about aviation?

I’ll give you an example.  I’ve worked as a tour guide in at least three different museums in the course of my life.  Two were aviation museums.  It is unusual, but not unknown, for adults to look at an airplane and say something on the order of: “Now…that long thing coming out of the thing in the middle…ah…is that the wing?”

It’s extraordinarily difficult for me to realize it’s possible not to know something so wholly fundamental and elementary.  But therein lies a caution on writing the aviation story:  even someone who has wings in their heart begins without any other knowledge.  I have seen the knowledge of that love dawn in a child’s eyes, looking at a particular airplane, and I have told their parents, be careful, because airplanes are like malaria, the disease might go into remission but it never, ever leaves you.  And I have seen people who look at an airplane, from something as beautiful as a Supermarine Spitfire or as historically significant as a Douglas DC-3, and scratch their heads, and visibly if nonverbally wonder what the hell the fuss is all about.

Someone at that level of ignorance is probably not going to be your audience, but you can never know that.  But this goes back to the tension raised by level of detail in your story.  In an aviation story, “level of detail” might be directly proportional to the level of the reader’s own knowledge.  The experienced fighter pilot, reading my account of a fictional air battle, might scoff at me for the detail I leave out, where the average reader who just likes airplanes would be thrilled.  So a happy medium may not be available, but therein lies the tension of the question for the writer.

So my conclusion is relatively simple.  In knowing your audience, be very careful to distinguish between the “genre” aspect and the “marketing” aspect of the term.  If you write within a genre you’ve defined your audience, but it may be that that is only the first step.  As illustrated above, each genre has its own audience at varying levels of sophistication, which in itself may raise difficulties for the writer.  As writers we are better able to solve those problems if we know about them.

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