In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


My First Flash Fiction Experience

UntitledSince my writing career has started to gain some traction, I’ve had a few interviews and conversations in which I’m asked why I became a writer. I usually answer that I always remember clanking out stories on my mom’s old Smith Corona and mention Robert Heinlein’s “A Tenderfoot in Space,” or some of the other golden age writers whose work inspired me. All of that it true, but none of it is the truth. I didn’t realize this until recently, when I was updating my daughter’s MP3 player and noticed a familiar title. She doesn’t know this was released in 1971. She just knows compelling narrative when she hears it.

Wanna know why I started writing? Very likey, more than anything else, this is it. Dewey Bunnell‘s, “A Horse With No Name.”

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After nine days I let the horse run free
‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
there was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with it’s life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

300 words. Flash before it was a thing.

Leave a note and tell me why you do what you do.


A Small Tirade

Where do people get the idea that any long sentence is a run-on, or that a sentence can be “a bit of a run-on?” Is our educational system really so far gone?

A run-on is a sentence in which two or more independent clauses are joined without appropriate punctuation or conjunction. By definition, a sentence containing one or more appositive phrases restating a single independent clausfragmentimagese cannot be a run-on. No sentence containing only one independent clause can EVER be a run-on. It may be too long. It may be confusing. It may suck, stink, and make the reader wish he or she had learned to read on some other, more erudite planet, but it can never, by definition, be a run-on.

Not that the name of a stylistic gaff is so all-fired important. But run-ons are so very basic, and I see this term mis-used so very frequently by people who should know better, that it begins to get my dander up. It’s like a physics teacher confusing mass for weight, or the owner of the gaming store who doesn’t know what AFK means, or a chef who orders piping hot gezpacho soup.

Stop. Just stop. Learn the vernacular of your profession.

Tirade Ends.



Thanks for stopping by. Leave me a note and tell me, what get’s your dander up?

A Narcissism Test? Really?

Some Facebook friends were recently discussing a video about how co-dependents “always” fall in love with narcissists, to which someone replied with a link to a video suggesting a sort of narcissism litmus test. The suggestion is that a narcissist cannot answer the question “What about yourself would you most like to change,” or experience a normal, human, empathic reaction to movies like Bladerunner and Good Will Hunting.

Now, I don’t know jack about codependency or narcissism, but after taking the Phillip K Dick lure, I was left thinking they might be on to something. If narcissism is what is described in these videos, and if codependents really need such a test, then they are suffering from some serious psychological brokeness.

My radar might must be calibrated a bit lower than others, but to me, long before you get to clinical narcissism, you pass through a whole deteriorating spectrum of self-absorption and delusion and personality nasties sufficient to set me running. I stopped dating a girl once because she wanted to coordinate the outfits we wore on our dates.

Instead, I married a girl who taught science not because she had no other choices but because she thought the world needed more girls who love science. She had joined the army reserves because she felt she needed to grow a spine. She was assigned to a medical clearing company and had just started school to become an army combat field medic when the busload of cheerleaders she was chaparoning came upon a car crash on a rural Louisiana highway.

She ran through the wreckage and found two survivors: a middle aged woman, pinned behind the wheel with trauma to the face and neck, and a teenage girl, presumably her daughter, laying across the far lane in a smatter of blood-soaked brain matter.  An ambulance appeared, but the drivers were not paramedics, just drivers paid by the nearest town and trained in basic first aid. They ran over with a stretcher and started trying to revive the girl as if she had been pulled from the local swimming hole, not hurled fifty feet onto concrete with blown pupils and a crushed skull and a heart too stunned  to quite know to lay still.

The first thing every combat field medic learns is triage, the art of sorting out the doomed so the living might be saved. So she explained that and had them free the mother, reminding them how to protect her spinal cord. By now the woman’s throat was swelling shut, so she walked them through the second thing she had learned, an emergency tracheotomy. Then, when they had the poor woman stable and ready to transport, she told them the third thing she had learned: when a woman on the precipice of death opens her eyes and asks after the daughter already cooling in the morning sun, you lie.

The ambulance pulled away. She walked back past the buses, sending the girls back to their seats before a car or a snake or God knew what could come along, and in the ditch behind the buses, threw up. Some of the others brought water with which to wash, a blanket behind which to change, and a giant T-shirt to replace her blood stained clothes. She wouldn’t board the bus in front of the girls until the shaking stopped.

Narcissim? Fuck that.

Blog Hop: #MyWritingProcess

I don’t often do these blog hops because they quickly take on the character of a chain letter, however, Gibson Michaels was kind enough to tag me, so I’ll dip my toes in the pool. If you’ve been following #MyWritingProcess, you know that this one is four little questions about the process of writing, and they are pretty good questions:

#MyWritingProcess: What are you working on now?20140409 - ASI - WOTF - WRITERS WORKING ON 24 HOUR STORY _1MW3960
Stuart: EVERYTHING. Winning Writers of the Future sort of threw me for a loop, because now I have a book to promote and marketing and social things to attend to that I didn’t expect until a bit later.

Writing is a little like mountain climbing. You start with a little bouldering, find out what skills and tools you need to master, and then move on to more challenging terrain once you’re fit and ready. I’ve invested a lot in my craft–gone back to school even. With my skills list in mind, I hadn’t planned to return to serious work on novels for another year, but I’m adapting. Turns out, that’s on the list, too.

In the last six months, I’ve started a new novel based on my winning WotF story, built a new website, met and become active in new writing and social groups, and kept busy with signings and appearances. I’m also working on several shorts, am in a new anthology (Tides of Possibility) and am co-editing it’s sister fantasy anthology. Despite all this, I’m still reading and learning all I can.

#MyWritingProcess: How does your work differ from others in the genre?
Stuart: I’ve been praised for the creativity and sophistication of my stories. I’d like to think that’s valid, if only for the effort I put into research and story detail. I always say that even a short story has to take place in a logically coherent world–just don’t weigh down the pages with that world’s crust and beach sand.

I grew up on an airbase on the prairie in South Dakota. At night, you could see the spine of the Milky Way. You could watch satellites pass overhead and wink out as they crossed the terminator. In the morning we’d hike past ghost towns and gold rush relics to find dinosaur bones in the mountains. It was a place of remarkable contrasts, where ancient and modern, scientific and mythic all crashed together. I grew up thinking about the connections between those worlds, and that affects how I approach story craft.

I was heavily influenced by the golden age of scifi, by Heinlein and Clark and Asimov. I try to start from the character of that breathless time in mid-century, when the future seemed so clear, but with the textures of today’s culture folded in. It seems to me that man is forever poised between greatness and doom. It’s my job to dance along the precipice, muse at the echoes, and try to have some fun along the way.


#MyWritingProcess: Why do you write what you do?
Stuart: The little people in my head have to get out somehow. I mean, have you seen the points on their sticks?

Seriously, though, the first story I ever sold arose from a friend’s idle comment–a careless sentence so evocative and beautiful, all the literary neurons in my brain lit up. I kept thinking about it for months until first a character, then a conflict, then a concept evolved around it.

It’s been said that all writers are arrogant, that writing is an inherently arrogant act. I think I’d agree. I mean, if you aren’t writing because you think you have something to say that the world needs to hear, I don’t know why anyone would do it. It’s hard and it’s lonely, and not very profitable for most people. That’s not the question, of course, but it’s related. I write the stories I do because I think they need to be written. I make them the best stories I can, filled with humor and adventure and struggles to tug at the heart strings and soul. But when it comes down to it, I write the stories that emerge around me, like dinosaur bones washing out of a cliff face. You find something like that, and you want to dig it out and know it, to understand and share it–because you can, because you’re the one who stumbled on it.

So yeah, I’m a treasure hunter, and when I find something cool, I want to shine it up and share it before it’s lost forever. And then there are the we little STICKS! 😉


#MyWritingProcess: How does your writing process work?
Stuart: There’s this box, see, and in the box are gears which I lubricate with fingers greasy from pop-corn eating , and inside the box is Lon Chaney’s brain and… no wait. Different process. Forget I said that.

Some people try to plan the work, some people try to wing it. I like to plan the work and then wing it. Each story begins with an idea, maybe just an image, maybe a scene or premise. I start writing what I have, and as I do, the characters and world take shape in remarkable detail–far more than I need to write down on the page. I focus on just the details needed to help  really envision that world or that character. Then, when I’ve got a good start, I go back and assemble whatever I have and make sense of it. I organize around an idea, and that suggests plot, and that suggests concept.

There’s a lot of cutting and taping and bleeding and chocolate. There is no chocolate. The concept and plot suggest more scenes and ideas and characters, and I go write those I’m most excited about, then the cycle repeats. Then I pull down the shelves and graph the story arcs and pacing across the walls. I don’t really do that. That would be crazy. Why are you looking at me that way? Often, the beginning and ending arise fairly early. Just as often, they change dramatically. It’s a very iterative process. I wish I could do it all much faster. I need to go paint my walls. Do you know how to get permanent marker off the rafters?


So there you go. Writing makes you crazy. Or is a perquisite. The rule book is not clear on this.

If you are following the #MyWritingProcess hop, drop by to see fellow scifi author, Kyle Russell at, or go check out last week’s victim,

Doing It With Authority

A writers group to which I belong recently got into a discussion of common “mistakes” that lead readers to bail from a work. I pointed out that it may be a mistake for those in the businessaad094e93c9593a4612cac7155fc568a even to attempt self-guidance in this reguard, as the things that drive writers and editors batty may not be the same things at all that typical readers care about.

For example, did you notice that I put even in the grammatically preferable position in the previous sentence? I rest my case.

Lists like this are invaluable, but it’s probably counterproductive to think of anything in writing very prescriptively. Novices (at anything) are apt to take such lists too much to heart, and the result can be crippling.

Dave Wolverton talks about “writing with authority,” writing in which the author’s intelligence, command of the language, and intent are immediately clear. I think I know what he means, and if you read very much, you probably do to–or you will now that you’re looking for it. It’s that intangible something so often missing from otherwise fine stories up for critique, invariably present in the Hugo and Nebula winners, and which is often enough to justify my patience with whatever pet peeves a particular work may violate.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “dark and stormy night” is universally derided in the business today, yet it pleased enough readers that we’ve all heard it. Dachiell Hammet founded an entire genre on static character description and copious repetition. Games of Thrones has a prologue.

Whether you are a writer or not, in the end, you must choose what kind of artist you are and what kind of work you are aiming for. The best advice I can give is, learn from the very best.

ApolloCon X

I just got back from ApolloCon where I made some friends, learned a few things, and surprised local Wrbarbarianiter’s of the Future finalist DL Young with some swag.

This nice barbarian let me take his picture, but the mean evil Star Fleet officers beamed up from the other end of the conference center before I could catch up to them.

One of the highlights was a talk by David Gerrold, one of the original Star Trek writers who gave us “The Trouble With Tribbles” and more recently, The Martian Child.

Gerrold says he loved and respected Gene Roddenberry, a man “loved by everyone who never worked for him.” He said Gene had a knack for assembling just the right team of just the right talent–and then not listening to any of them. He “could always take a crappy story and make it into a good script, but could also take a great story and turn it into a good script.”

He said the fans probably shouldn’t have blamed the network for the show’s cancellation. “They knew Star Trek was bringing in a demographic they wanted to reach, they were just sick of dealing with Gene.” It didn’t help that by the third season, Gene was working on other projects and brought in Fred Freiberger to produce the show. Gerrold said the first words Freiberger ever said to him were “I screened Trouble with Tribbles this morning. I didn’t like it. Star Trek is not a comedy.” It’s worth noting that others have stated that Freiberger did everything possible to boost the show but that, as Nichelle Nichols puts it, “Star Trek was in a disintegrating orbit before Fred came aboard.” Still, he was wrong about the tribbles. The through-line of humor, respect, and idealism, is what made the show (TWT missed winning the Hugo that year by three votes, it lost to Harlan Ellison’s script for the Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”).

For Star Trek, Gerrold said, he bigger problem was Gene’s lawyer, “an evil man who enjoyed hurting people,” and he said the man (Leonard Malzish) had said as much in his presence. I won’t repeat some of what Gerrold asserted about Malzish, but he said it’s funny that even when Gene and Majel were having financial troubles “the lawyer never was”. It’s a fact that, near the end of Gene’s life, Malzish was banned from the Paramount studio where Star Trek TNG was being filmed.

By that time, Gene’s health was in decline and Gerrold had quit the show. Malzish, he said, “was afraid others were trying to take control away from Gene, so what he was doing was undermining everybody that might be a threat. But I wasn’t trying to take anything away from Gene,” Gerrold told us, “I was trying to win him that Emmy he so deserved (and never got).”

It’s all a bit sad. Ironic too, because Gene had supposedly brought in William Shatner to captain the Enterprise because Jeff Hunter (who played Pike in the original, un-aired pilot) had an overbearing wife who annoyed people on the set. The meek may inherit the earth, but it apparently takes ego to get things done. On the bright side, it was fan uproar over Star Trek’s cancellation that helped give rise to the modern era of cons and fandom and the ready market for the franchise and it’s extended legacy, so you just never know how things will turn out.

Gerrold didn’t just talk about Star Trek. He said that as writers, our jobs are to shake things up. “I realize that some of you here may be offended by some of my remarks,” he said, “and if that’s the case, let me say, good!” He also said the caliber of scifi being written today is astounding, that “scifi is becoming not just a genre but literature.” For that alone, I went up and shook his hand. As a new writer and current Writers of the Future winner, I told him that if that’s true, its because the bar has been set very high.

I Love People Who Love Reading

Okay, this isn’t a real blog post. I just copied this from Levar Burton, because it’s just THAT AWESOME. Seth McFarlane is kicking in a cool mill in matching money to help Reading Rainbow. I manned up with my (mumbled into sleeve) dollars. Have you done your part yet? You have? Yeah? Well I donated BLOOD yesterday, so…yeah.

Project Update #22: MORE BIG NEWS! Kickstarter’s Most Successful Projects (Pebble, OUYA, Pono & Veronica Mars) Are Here to Help!


LeVar again. It’s Friday, June 27, and we’ve now got just four days left in this campaign. But the response to Seth’s $1,000,000 matching offer has been incredible.

Hundreds of you have written and commented to tell us that you’re increasing — even doubling — your pledges to take advantage of the matching. That means everything to us, and I hope you’ll be proud of what we accomplish together.

And guess what: this afternoon, I’ve got even more amazing news.

With the renewed momentum, we are now one of the TOP 5 Kickstarter Projects of All Time:

That alone would have been incredible news, but the real news is even better. 

This afternoon, the teams behind every other Kickstarter in the Top 5 – Pebble, OUYA, Pono and Veronica Mars – are all stepping up to help us go even farther. Every single one of them.



I got a letter yesterday from Tim Powers, the man who wrote “On Stranger Tides,” who’s sold options to Disney, who in his youth, used to chauffeur Phillip K Dick around Southern California.Issue03_powers_241x303

I had posted him a note, so he posted me back, just a little line of encouragement.

Deep down inside, I must be a Lutheran. You know, the deep-in-the-pores, Lake Wobegon sort who knows the world is nothing but other shoes just waiting to fall. I can’t tell you why I write – you probably wouldn’t want to know – but it isn’t for money or fame. I’m not that naïve. And so for the first part of my journey, I could tell myself it was just a hobby, like sight-reading chords in Chopin’s preludes or puttering around with the house’s plumbing. Then I win Writers of the Future. I meet all these souls who have dreams a lot like mine, some of whom are just starting out, some of whom have trudged the trenches and written the guidebooks.

And that’s what it’s all about, really. When Tim Powers tells you you can do it, that he’s pulling for you, that he looks forward to being able to brag on having taught you, what can you say?

Yes sir, Mr. Powers…Tim…I’m on it.


Sirens Through the Window

My daddy was a professional killer. Oh, he never actually did the deed, at least not on purpose. As a navigator-bombardier on a B-52, he may have killed a few soldiers hidden in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos, but that’s about as impersonal as killing gets. War may be hell, but for the most part, hellfire was a distant backdrop to the daily business of husbanding a complex aircraft through the gauntlet of checklists and maneuvers that made up each day-long mission. Often, the closest he got to combat was watching a string of overlapping shock waves, eerie and beautiful, as they rippled across the misty landscape far below.

He wore zippered nylon in jungle green, but his was basically a desk job, even if it was at 30,000 feet. He snacked on crackers and cheese provided by the women’s auxiliary, drank good coffee from a thermos, and cooked foil-wrapped TV dinners in an electric oven bolted next to the cockpit steps. When his work was done, he’d tinker with his navigational slide rules, start on the mission reports, or nap in the companionway–snug in his long johns till the fuel transfer started and the nose pitched down and the blood ran to his head.

Occasionally, a cluster bomb would get hung up on its shackle. Then he’d climb out onto the bomb bay doors and tie it off with bailing wire, hoping to hell the guys up in the cockpit didn’t hit the wrong switch while he worked. Sometimes, he heard approaching missiles through the radar set and could only pray the electronic warfare guy was on top of his game. Eventually, the Vietcong got their act together and missions had to drop beneath the radar. Then they flew through bone-shaking thermals above the treetops—within reach of hostile ground fire. Colleagues, then friends, started to die.

This was all a sideline, though–what the Strategic Air Command called “temporary duty.” Daddy’s real job was to deliver Mark-28 and Mark-36 thermonuclear bombs to targets within the Soviet Union, there to rip from the cold war machinery a few hundred thousand of its cogs — people with jobs and pets and children whose schools and dreams were little different from mine.

This was what he trained and drilled for. When he wasn’t overseas bombing the jungle, he served regular week-long tours in a half-buried bunker studying war plans and playing cards and waiting for the klaxons that would send his squadron running out onto the runway and charging off to ignite Armageddon.

He brought home a bulky appliance of chrome and gray, a forerunner of the text pagers that came a decade later. We were never to touch it, but if it ever squawked, he said, he would have to leave without explanation, and we were to pack at once and head for Grandmom’s farm.

This was our world. Daddy made wooden toys in the basement, and when he drove onto base, rifle bearing soldiers snapped out crisp salutes. When my sister and I played camp between the living room chairs, it was under a big rubber training map showing bombing corridors through the San Bernandino Valley. Sesame Street was sometimes preempted by congressional hearings or the latest news from Vietnam or Palestine. The world was gray suits and horned rim glassed, but we were Air Force blue. Everyone in our family hailed from a different hometown, but when the national anthem played, we all turned in unison — our hands raised together over stiff, proud chests.

The years moved on. The marriage didn’t survive the Carter administration. We’d all seen it coming — as much a part of Air Force life as water rationing and jet noise. While I was in high school in Shreveport, Daddy transferred to Great Falls and retired. Soon, tobacco did what the Vietcong could not. I went to college and made my way into a world newly freed from the threat of nuclear attack. The last time I saw my cold warrior daddy, he was in a metal box — air-force blue — and boys younger than I was were firing a last salute.

Then one day, I was ordered to Little Rock to assist with a corporate re-engineering effort. I stopped in one of the lush, green valleys between the mountains north of the river and bought new shoes and a sport coat, a uniform appropriate for a few weeks in close quarters with the company president and his directors. I joined them in a company-owned house in a middle-class neighborhood north of downtown. The living room was furnished with metal folding chairs. Yellow Post-It notes plastered the walls. The kitchen was stacked with pizza boxes and catering trays and equipped for popcorn and coffee.

A director led me to a back room to discuss a computer program he needed my help with. Outside was a neatly-mowed yard, sunny and calm and filled with birdsong. We’d just set to work when the birds fell silent and I heard through the window a familiar sound from decades past, and the hairs stood up on my neck.

On base, when I was little, there had been a community garden. One evening close to sunset, while we were planting peas, the sirens went off. All the fathers looked up at a yellow metal tower I had never noticed before, and at its flashing crimson light. Hushed, urgent voices passed along the rows. Hoes and shovels banged together and into the trunks of cars. Footsteps quickened. Children were swept up into hurried arms.

This all came flooding back as I sat in that window, listening to the familiar wail. My director explained about the weekly tornado drills. I explained about the garden. We laughed and continued our analysis, one small job in the great American drive for efficiency. I paused, though, while sweat still dampened my forehead, to remember the very different job that had been my daddy’s.

A decent, rather ordinary man, he had been given the lunatic task of saving the world by wielding the power to destroy it. He never talked about that power — never told me of the computer fault that once sent his squadron to within minutes of its failsafe point — the point beyond which keys would have been turned and envelopes opened and the flight could no longer have been recalled. Had it come to that, I believe he would have done his job. He would have flung his bolts into the heart of civilization, just as he was trained to do. He knew, far better than most people at that time, what that would have meant.

The sirens through the window recalled that time in the garden and the somber, purposeful reaction of airmen whose paternal instincts had been co-opted to drive them from their families and running to carry hellfire off into the night. It might have been a drill, it might have been the end of the world, but no one hugged or exclaimed or swore. The wives knew their duties as well as the men, and fell to established procedure.

In that moment, the war that could not be won had come home, in the battle for forced calm and delayed tears and in a hundred conflicting duties tearing through a generation. I knew nothing of war or duty. I could only look up at the purple sky and see my big, tall daddy and what no little boy should ever see written in his father’s eyes: the stoic resolve of a front line soldier, beyond the reach of hope or fear.