Behind the Writing: Journalists in Space

Writers hear this question a lot: where do you get your ideas? In two previous posts, I told you where the inspiration came from for two of my main characters: Talie Tappler and Mr. Cognis.

But those are just two characters. The original inspiration for Tomorrow News Network as a concept and as a short story series is a far more interesting tale. It begins with a conversation I had with one of my old English professors.

I’d been out of college for a year or two, and I’d landed a job at a local TV news station. News is a high stress industry, and truth be told, it does not pay well. I knew that going in.

What I did not expect, and what really took a toll on me emotionally, was how little time or energy I could spare for my own writing projects. Work left me so drained. I could barely string a sentence together. Writing a novel? That dream was slipping away fast.

My teacher listened to my worries, offered advice and encouragement, and as a sort of passing thought, suggested that maybe my experiences in the news business might sow the seeds of some future writing project. She knew I was in to science fiction, and she said she foresaw me one day writing an epic adventure about some sort of outer space news organization.

I think I mumbled something like, “Yeah, maybe.” But honestly that idea didn’t excite me. I mean, how would space news be different from regular news, aside from being in space?

Jy21 Space News Channel 10

Okay, I guess there’s some comedy potential, but not enough to carry me through a major writing project.

But as I said, this was just the beginning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my favorite professor from college had just given me half of an idea. The other half would soon follow.

A Cog in the Machine

Last week, I told you about the inspiration for Talie Tappler, the morally ambiguous main character of Tomorrow News Network. She’s a journalist. She’s a time traveler. And she does not time travel alone. The original inspiration for Talie’s sidekick, the cybernetic cameraman Mr. Cognis, dates back to a much earlier period in my creative life.

My latest illustration of Mr. Cognis in his cybernetic exoskeleton.

My latest illustration of Mr. Cognis in his cybernetic exoskeleton.

It was high school. I had to write a short story for English class, and I decided I wanted to write science fiction. I was a nerdy teen; what else would I want to write?

I came up with a story idea about a man of the future, a man with cybernetic enhancements grafted to his body and his brain. Due to the laws and customs of his day, this man was forbidden from having emotions.

I named this man Cognis, because all too often he felt like nothing more than a cog in the machine. But this name had a double meaning, because Cognis was intelligent enough, cognitive enough, to question his lot and seek some deeper meaning in life. Which would lead him to “experimenting” with “illicit emotional simulation programs.”

I thought I was being clever, packing my page-and-a-half story with symbolic allegorical stuff, casting society as the bad guy, and making a not-so-subtle allusion to drug use. Just the kind of stuff my aging hippie of an English teacher would love, or so I thought.

As I recall, my teacher gave me a C, which was probably generous of him, given how pretentious and angsty my little story was. And that was the end. I never wrote another word about Mr. Cognis, the emotionless cyborg who got addicted to emotions. At least, not until I started developing Tomorrow News Network and realized Talie needed a cameraman: a cameraman who might, on occasion, meddle with history when he wasn’t supposed to.

Excerpt from “The Medusa Effect,” story #1 in the Tomorrow News Network series:

“You were feeling compassion, weren’t you?” Talie said. “Don’t deny it. Look, there’s nothing wrong with emotions. I have a whole bunch every day, but you have to use them responsibly!”

Cognis flicked a switch on his forearm, and a crestfallen expression formed on his face. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Oh, turn that thing off,” Talie snapped.

And thus began a long and proud tradition in Tomorrow News Network of salvaging my old, abandoned story ideas.

More Golden Than Gold

Inspiration can come from totally unexpected places at totally unexpected times.

I was in church. I probably should have been paying attention to the mass, but there was a woman several rows in front of me. A very pretty young woman who kept playing with her hair.

I know, I know. Why would a good Catholic boy like me notice such a thing during mass? How shameful. Let’s set that aside for a moment. More than anything else, it was this woman’s hair that caught my eye, and for whatever reason it really got my creative brain going.

She was blonde, but not like any blonde I’d seen before. Maybe it had something to do with the low lighting, or the haze of incense, or the strange colors cast by the stained glass windows, but her hair seemed to sparkle in the darkness. It was almost luminous.

“A color more golden than gold,” I thought to myself. After mass, I hurried out to my car and wrote those words down on the back of an envelope. I’d been struggling with a new story concept, and I needed a main character. I wanted her to be both beautiful and terrifying, the kind of person readers could love and hate at the same time. I wanted to do a lot with this character, and I had no clue where to start.

Other character traits would come later: the violet eyes, the blue suit, the cunning smile and profoundly insensitive sense of humor. Eventually, my new character would get a name and become the morally ambiguous Talie Tappler, reporter extraordinaire of the Tomorrow News Network.

My first attempt to draw Talie, dated 2011.

My first attempt to draw Talie, dated 2011.

But it all started with one central image that appeared before me—miracle-like—while I should have been paying attention in church.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow…

This blog and the writing project that goes with it have languished for too long.

It’s time to fix that.

Be warned: Talie Tappler is watching you...

Be warned: Talie Tappler is watching you…

I’m currently in the process of rewriting and reediting all the stories in the Tomorrow News Network series. There will be a relaunch, coming soon.

In the meantime, I’m taking the stories down from this website. I do not make this choice lightly, but I believe it is the best thing I can do for the series.

Over the next few months, this blog will document my journey through the revision process. The plan (fingers crossed) is to republish the Tomorrow News Network stories in ebook form. This will be an entirely new experience for me, and I’m more than a bit nervous.

... and Mr. Cognis is recording your every move.

… and Mr. Cognis is recording your every move.

Stay tuned for updates on my progress. Hopefully I won’t go down in flames, as so many of Talie and Cognis’s victims—I mean, interview subjects—have done.

Four Questions for the Writing Process Blog Hop

A special thank you to Shelina from “A Writer Inspired” for inviting me to participate in “The Writer’s Blog Tour” or “The Writing Process Blog Hop,” whichever name you prefer.  Shelina’s blog has become one of my favorites, doling out writing advice with a quirky sense of humor.  Also, please check out Shelina’s short story series, “Ava’s Interpreter Diaries.”  I promise once you start reading, you won’t be able to stop!

The Writing Process Blog Hop is all about getting inside the heads of our fellow writers to find out what makes them tick.  This is accomplished using four seemingly straightforward questions.  So without further ado, here are my answers.

1. What are you currently working on?

In July of 2013, I dropped from a full time job to part time employment in order to focus more on my writing.  The transition has been much more complicated than I expected, and it’s taken me almost a full year to get my head straight.  Right now, I’m working on Tomorrow News Network, Volume One, an anthology of the T.N.N. stories from 2012.  Each story has to be polished and re-edited, and I’m also writing ten brief bonus stories to help tie the original stories together.  The final product should be available through Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace by the end of this year.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

The Tomorrow News Network series revolves around one central character: Talie Tappler.  What’s different about her is that she’s not the protagonist.  She’s not the antagonist either.  Talie is a journalist who travels through time, arriving at newsworthy catastrophes before they take place.  She never lifts a finger to help anyone, but she also has a way of passively allowing the bad guys to get what’s coming to them.  At best, we could call Talie morally ambiguous, and I think that’s what keeps people coming back to read more about her.  As one of my readers told me, Talie is the kind of character we hate and love at the same time.

3. Why do you do what you do?

The answer to this is surprisingly personal.  Back in 2011, I became dangerously ill.  I won’t go into details here, but I could barely walk, I spent all my waking hours in agony, and it was a struggle to concentrate on anything for a prolonged period of time.  Yet somehow, I managed to write what became “The Medusa Effect,” the first of the Tomorrow News Network stories.  I have no medical evidence to back this up, but I believe T.N.N. saved my life.  At the very least, it gave me something to focus on to help me overcome the pain, and it gave me a little extra motivation to get better.

4. How does your writing process work?

It’s complicated.  It involves calendars and checklists and pie charts.  It involves praying the Rosary and, every once in awhile, eating a bowl of alphabet soup.  There are many weird and wacky aspects of my writing process (or “writing strategy,” as I like to call it), but here are three of the more important ones.

  • Aimless Research: I just completed a five-page outline on how the Sun works.  Nuclear fusion, the photosphere and chromosphere, the so-called “long walk” that photons take as they meander through the various layers of the Sun’s interior… it’s all in there, and I currently have no plans to ever use it for a story.  Instead, I wrote this outline as part of my ongoing self-education in science.  I want to ensure that I’m as familiar with as broad a range of scientific knowledge as possible so that if something like the “long walk” ever does come up in one of my stories, I’ll already feel comfortable writing about it.
  • Word Hunting: Sitting down in front of a blank page can be intimidating, so instead, I curl up with a dictionary and/or thesaurus and start hunting for interesting or unusual words.  I often search for words related to a specific concept, something relevant to the scene or story I intend to write, and then start compiling a vocabulary list.  Soon, without even meaning to, I start stringing phrases together, then complete sentences, and before I know it, I’ve got several chunks of my story scribbled down on bits of scrap paper and the backs of old envelopes.
  • Editing with Friends: A lot of writers will tell you that writing is an inherently solitary activity, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  A tradition has evolved among myself and a handful of close friends.  Whenever I finish a story, I invite my friends over for dinner and throw an editing party.  After we eat, I read my story aloud while they follow along on hardcopies, often interrupting me with questions, comments, or suggestions.  They’ve called me out on mistakes I never would have noticed, and they’ve also praised me for stylistic devices I never realized I had used.  This is beta reading as a social activity, and the advantage is that as we go through the story I get to see in real time which parts my friends find confusing, exciting, or boring.

As part of this blog hop, I’m supposed to invite some other bloggers to participate next week.  I don’t want to put any pressure on anyone, but if these bloggers are interested, then it’ll be their turn to answer four questions on Monday, May 26th.  And if they don’t, then I still get to post links to their amazing blogs.

  • Soliloquies: a gentle mixture of writing and philosophy from Michelle Joelle.  Ever since I discovered this blog, I have had a lot to think about (especially after our comment thread last month on modern day slavery).  Click here to visit Soliloquies.
  • Planetary Defense Command: a blog about defending the Earth from poorly written Sci-Fi novels.  The illustrious commander of our planetary defense force has turned book reviews into a whole new art form.  Click here to check out our planet’s defenses.
  • Linda Frindt: Linda is a good friend of mine and a regular at my editing parties.  She’s currently writing a children’s book about cats… or possibly a cats’ book about children.  I keep forgetting which.  Click here to visit Linda’s blog.

Why I Wrote “The Orion War”

I was reading a Sci-Fi novel a few years ago in which a group of primitive aliens were discussing their various religious beliefs.  One of these aliens turned to the human protagonist to ask about religion on Earth.  The human responded, rather snobbishly I thought, “Oh, we outgrew that stuff.”  I’ve known more than a few people who longingly await the day when religion is tossed upon the ash heap of history, and this attitude seems to be pervasive among science fiction authors as well.  “The Orion War” is my response.

1.3 Orion War

“What good has religion ever done for us?” these anti-religious individuals might ask.  They’d then point to the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the current discord over evolution, gay marriage, and stem cell research.  They might also point to the ongoing threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.  Given all the trouble religion has caused us, wouldn’t it be better to simply eliminate the whole institution?

But let me ask who would Martin Luther King have been without his faith?  Or Gandhi?  Or Nelson Mandela?  I was once an agnostic; then, I became a Christian.  Although I still remain skeptical about many details of Judeo-Christian mythology, I have found a deep sense of peace and well being since my conversion.  Religion is not 100% good, I admit that, but it is not 100% bad either.  To think that we will simply “outgrow” it is, I believe, a narrow-minded attitude.

In “The Orion War,” I wanted to portray both sides of this debate.  The story is set in the distant future at a time when religion is outlawed.  The process of hunting down and uprooting secret religious communities has turned into a new Inquisition almost as ugly as the one once conducted by the Catholic Church.  But by the end, the persecuted Community of Christ is not without sin.  Though they start off with the best of intentions, these exiled Christians soon turn violent, waging a holy war for control of the Orion Nebula.

Today, I am posting the latest revisions to “The Orion War.”  I wanted to slow the pace of the story just a bit to give it some room to breathe.  Never before nor since have I written a short story on such an epic scale (with the possible exception of “The Wrong Future”).  I hope you will find the new version to feel less rushed and less hectic than the original.

Click here to start reading “The Orion War,” and please let me know what you think in the comments below.

Revisions

1.1 Medusa Effect

It’s been a while since I updated anything on the Tomorrow News Network website.  I’ve been neck-deep in revisions of the 2012 stories for the last few months.  When I started writing T.N.N. over two years ago, I was very much a novice.  I’m not going to claim that I have since mastered the art of writing, but I am far more competent at my craft than I used to be.

I have also started working with an editor who has taught me the difference between “borders” versus “boarders,” “prescribed” versus “proscribed,” and “farther” versus “further.”  My editor has also called my attention to a number of other embarrassing errors that I am now in the process of fixing.

Today, I am happy to announce that the revised versions of the first two Tomorrow News Network stories are available here on the T.N.N. website.  Revisions of the third story are coming soon.  In fact, I had a meeting with my editor today concerning story #3, “The Orion War,” and she tells me that the updated version is much stronger than the original.

1.2 99 White Balloons

For those of you who’ve read these stories before, I hope you’ll take the time to read them again and see how they’ve improved.  And if you’re new to T.N.N., I beg your indulgence as this revision process goes forward.  Any typos or grammatical errors you find will be corrected in due time (probably).

Please click here to start reading the new version of “The Medusa Effect,” the “pilot episode” of the series.  Click here to read the new “99 White Balloons,” which focuses on the true story of Roswell.