Forgive yourself for giving away your writing

Worried writer

Stop worrying about getting paid and keep writing.

A well-known editor slammed Entertainment Weekly recently for offering writers the chance to publish on a high-traffic website in exchange for “prestige” instead of money. Scott Meslow of The Week called the move “a deeply cynical decision that feeds off the dreams of inexperienced writers who are hoping to make a name for themselves in entertainment journalism.” In his view, only EW benefits from this arrangement. The writing community suffers economically, because “free” drives down the price (i.e. compensation) for writing, and creatively, because the site will be flooded with poorly written content that hurts quality all around.

Meslow is right, and he is wrong.

A company with the resources of Time-Warner, which owns Entertainment Weekly, ought to be ashamed of itself for such a blatant attempt to exploit the aspirations of (likely) young people who (probably) don’t know any better. New writers are eager to make their mark, and Time-Warner apparently sees this ambition as an easy way to cut its costs. Low or no-pay also encourages other publishers to follow suit. The practice could lead to lower pay rates for experienced writers, driving them out of the marketplace because they can’t pay their living expenses. In the long run, readers are presented slapdash work that drags all journalism down. Continue reading

Review: ‘Grumbles’ is a bit of fun at the greens’ expense

Grumbles The Novel cover

Grumbles: The Novel, by Karen Faris.

The environmental movement lacks a sense of humor. Too many greens resemble fire-and-brimstone preachers who threaten you with eternal damnation if you don’t clean up your act and come to Jesus. Activists have a point: Climate change, industrial pollution, and unfettered genetic modification technologies pose real threats to humanity. It’s hard to tell a joke as the earth succumbs to man’s stupidity. But campaigners’ dourness gets in the way of the message. Who wants to listen to Cassandra night and day, even if she’s right?

Author Karen Faris cuts across this grain with Grumbles The Novel: Take A Pill, the first book of a three-part scifi series that puts a humorous spin on the world’s biggest environmental challenges. Pettie Grumbles is a retired special agent with the U.S. Postal Service in a future upstate New York town of Prêt-a-Porter. Climate change has a firm hold on the planet, though most people don’t seem to notice, because a mad scientist with the sobriquet “The Weatherman” has managed to fix it with a constant forecast of “72 and sunny.” Grumbles is called back into service by her old boss, Tellmemydoom, to defeat this evil, and she’s off on her quest, dodging rivals tossing bombs made of stinking cabbage while reluctantly caring for homeless waifs.

Grumbles is part art project, part therapy for Faris, an activist for good government in Rochester, New York. It’s a short distance from concerned citizen to wing nut, and writing satire is no doubt good for Faris’ soul. For the reader, Grumbles is a chance to step back and see the damage we’ve done to the environment as another facet of the human comedy. It you can’t laugh at life, even the scariest bits, you might as well drink a vial of benzene and be done with it.

Review: Is ‘Noah’ an allegory for climate change?

Noahs Ark

Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat, by Simon de Myle. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Darren Aronofsky’s enjoyable film Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the biblical patriarch, challenges the Children’s Bible imagery of the Great Flood myth by portraying Noah as a borderline cult leader. He loves animals, admonishes his children to take from the earth only what they need, and listens to voices in his head, which he takes to be the Lord telling him to build an enormous ship in the outback. If he lived in the 21st century, his neighbors would complain to city planners about his McMansion-sized boat, and his children would be snatched by Child Protective Services. But in the world of Aronofsky’s fantasy film, and the Bible, he’s a prophet.

What is he prophesying? In the biblical story, he foresees the destruction of mankind by a flood because humanity has turned its back on the Lord, who, above all things, hates to be ignored. But check your Bible at the door; this is not your pastor’s Noah. Aronofsky adds a modern moral message to the story: If humanity fouls its own nest, it’s bound to destroy itself with its ignorance and foolishness. Aronofsky has encouraged this interpretation, citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report in a CNN interview. A few commentators have lumped Noah into the new genre of “climate fiction,” or “clifi,” although it’s the weather that’s unhinged in Noah’s world, not the climate.

The environmental tailspin portrayed in Noah is a reflection of Noah’s descent into madness. He may have been favored by the Lord, and given a chance to escape humanity’s fate while serving the Lord’s purposes, but he realizes that he shares the same human-ness as the terrified masses outside the Ark’s hull. If they are punished, he deserves the same punishment. He’s an isolated man, driven by a vision he barely understands. It’s not even clear why his family follows him, though trust within this tight-knit group is strong. Once Noah sees what he has in common with the damned, he becomes suicidal, and threatens to take his family with him. In Hollywood fashion, the tragedy is averted, but not without a cost. He considers himself a failure, but it’s his fall that saves him.

Excerpt: Extinction and Kapitan Gore find a target

Image taken through a periscope

Kapitan Gore and Extinction find a victim.

In chapter 20 of Carbon Run, Brother Martin Scribb of the Penitents of Saint Francis is rising in the ranks of the corsair submarine Extinction. The sub prowls the Arctic Ocean, searching for ships carrying a valuable, illegal cargo. In this excerpt, Kapitan Gore finds what he’s looking for.

The decision to accept Kapitan Gore’s offer of “freedom and wealth” came easily to Martin. He had known plenty of the alternative since his disidentification, and although he still held hope of finding Molly Bain and the possibility of redemption in the eyes of the larger society, Martin saw Extinction as a way to hedge his bets. Gore would extract some sort of price for his generosity, though Martin had no idea what that price was.

One day, the captain invited Martin to the control room, where every officer, male and female, greeted him with contempt. Martin recognized Nelson, whom Gore introduced as his executive officer. Lurking near a holo-console was Reason, Gore’s tactical officer and well as chief thug. Continue reading

Review: A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists

cover image

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists

I remember a lecture in a college philosophy class about a medieval scholastic who wrote that if you can imagine something, it’s possible for it to become real. The artist Picasso took the idea a step further by declaring, “Everything you can imagine is real.” But what happens if you imagine something, and then destroy it, like a painting or essay that won’t come together? Does it exist somewhere, but only partly? That’s among the questions author Jane Rawson asks in her novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. Thwarted desires to finish the undone lie at the heart of this charming, if puzzling work.

Rawson tells the story of Caddy, a 30-something Australian widow of Harry, a man killed in a horrific accident that destroys her physical home and her emotional life. She lives on the streets of a 2030 Melbourne ravaged by a warming climate that magnifies the extremes of rich and poor, leaving Caddy living in a shack, surrounded by an odd assortment of friends. She’s also a writer, working on a story as she barters her body for food and water. In a fit of frustration, she throws the unfinished story away. Continue reading

Carbon Run II: Does Antarctica rise?

Antarctica without ice

Antarctica without ice as envisioned by the British Antarctic Survey

I’m planning a second novel with a climate change theme under the Carbon Run title. The new project doesn’t have a working title yet, although it’s definitely a Carbon Run II. Let’s call it CRII for short. It’s not a sequel, in that I’m not interested in following most of the character’s lives after Carbon Run ends. I’d rather start with a fresh set of characters. I’m not averse, however, to having a Carbon Run character show up in CRII.

Here’s the basic premise of CRII: Around the year 2100, global warming has gotten so far out of control that only the lands above 60° north latitude and below 60° south latitude are friendly to humans. In the north, that leaves the Arctic Ocean surrounded by the extreme northern lands of North America and the Eurasian continent. In the south, the only land below 60° south is Antarctica. All the earth in between, where almost all the human population lives today, no longer supports humanity. It’s either too hot or the weather is too extreme for agriculture on a large scale, although the vagaries of the climate allow small pockets of people to survive. Continue reading

Cli-Fi Novelists Writing Process Blog Tour

Climate fiction bookshelf

A climate fiction bookshelf

I’m participating in the “Cli-Fi Novelists Writing Process Blog Tour,” which so far includes the writers Risa Bear, Lisa Devaney, Karen Faris, and Clara Hume. Look for more contributions on the Clifi Books website and Dan Bloom‘s blog.

What are you working on now, or just finished? I’ve recently finished Carbon Run, which is a science fiction / climate fiction adventure set in the mid-2050s. The story begins when Bill Penn and his daughter Anne run afoul of the feared Bureau of Environmental Security. An accidental fire at their ranch destroys an endangered species, a capital crime in the mid-21st century. Bill, now a fugitive, is pursued by BES Deputy Inspector Janine Kilel, who takes Anne halfway across the world as bait to draw out her father from hiding. I’m now shopping Carbon Run to agents and publishers. I’ve also started a second book in the Carbon Run series, about an impending war between the people who live on the last inhabitable places on earth: The north and south polar regions. My other unpublished novel, The Vault of Perfection, whose main theme is genetic engineering, is now in the hands of beta readers.

How does your work fit into the cli-fi genre? Climate change is a fact. Until recently, most science fiction writers have either ignored the subject or avoided it. Or publishers have said No to manuscripts for reasons known only to themselves. No matter how you feel about the politics or the science, the changes we’ll see in the coming decades are ripe ground for storytelling, and I’ve been surprised at how little fiction is published with climate change as a central theme. Margaret Atwood, Nathaniel Rich, and others are showing the way, and I’m hoping to make a small contribution to the growing cli-fi genre.

Why do you write what you do? It’s great fun, and I’ve made good friends over my career. Writers are the coolest people ever.

How does your writing process work? For my novels, I work up a basic outline of plot and characters, and then get right into the text. I like George R.R. Martin’s continuum with architects on one end (they plan everything down to the last detail) and gardeners on the other (they plant a seed, cultivate it, and hope for the best). I’m somewhere in the middle. Spending excessive time on planning leaves me frustrated, because I want to get into the story. And I need a destination and a basic road map to reach the end. None of that is important, however, if you don’t practice. Like anything, you can’t get good at something if you don’t work every day. Name one well-regarded writer or artist who hit pay dirt with his/her first work. Not many, I bet. That’s because most practice for years before they are published or get recognized.

Check out my Six Rules for Writing Climate Fiction.

Excerpt: The truth about Anne Penn’s mother

Lauren Carr photo

Image courtesy Lauren Carr.

In chapter 18 of Carbon Run, Deputy Inspector Janine Kilel of the Bureau of Environmental Security visits the Penn Ranch, which is next to a wildlife refuge destroyed by a fire. Kilel believes Anne Penn’s father, Bill, sparked the blaze caused the extinction of an endangered bird. But her suspect has escaped, and Kilel hopes Anne will help her locate the suspect. But Anne is hostile, as is her friend, Gary Schmidt. During her visit, Kilel picks through belongings Anne salvaged from the fire, which also destroyed Anne’s home.

Kilel studied the holo-pic. The image was familiar. But it was faded and grainy. “Who is this?”

Anne cooled down. “My mother.”

Kilel tried to place the woman’s face. “What’s her name?”

“Molly. She died when I was very young.”

Molly! “She’s dead?”

“Yes! Why are you asking me about her?”

“What was her name?”

“Molly Penn.” Anne said the name as if Kilel were dense as stone.

“No, her maiden name.”


A shock went up Kilel’s spine. She had to check against something objective. She called up the BES database in her minds-eye and the answer came back almost before she finished composing the query. The photo in the database wasn’t the same as the holo-pic. But it was an image of the same person taken a few years later. Kilel addressed Anne. “Your mother is Molly Bain.”

“That’s what I said. What are you getting at?”

“Molly Bain is an environmental criminal. She was convicted of crimes related to the Spike. She escaped disidentification by turning state’s evidence against Martin Scribb.”

Anne looked as if Kilel had told the young woman that her mother was alive. “You’re wrong!” Anne said. “She died after the Spike! Because of the Spike. That’s what my dad told me. It was a flood or something.”

“Molly Bain, formerly Mrs. William Penn, with one child, Anne Penn, was an AI researcher who programmed the drilling robots that failed on all the Algid Project methyl hydrate sites, causing a massive release of methane. The release started a cascading failure of the entire methyl hydrate bed in the Barents Sea, releasing millions of metric tons into the atmosphere, doubling its capacity to retain atmospheric heat for nearly a decade. Your mother killed 20 percent of the wild species on the planet. Your mother caused the worst mass extinction in 65 million years.”

“Stop it!” Mike stepped in front of Anne, blocking her from Kilel’s view.

The inspector shook with anger. She looked away from Anne and Mike, fearful she might lash out with her fist. A primal part of her wanted to strike Anne for the part of Molly Bain in the young woman, even if it was only a strand of DNA. She wanted to visit punishment on Anne for the sins of the mother for her environmental genocide.

“Stop it!” Mike repeated. “Anne was a baby. She had nothing to do with the Spike or what her mother did.”

Kilel breathed in and closed her eyes, fighting to regain control of herself. “You’re correct, Mr. Schmidt. Anne had nothing to do with the Spike or her mother’s crimes. And unlike her father, she’s not responsible for the fire that wiped out a species. But she is her mother’s daughter, and her father’s daughter.” Kilel glanced at the snag with the magpie nest. “That much is clear.”

Kilel turned on her heel and returned to the car. I can’t be here. I can’t control myself when I think of what that family represents. Sweat trickled down her neck and back, soaking the blouse under her tunic. She punched in the unlock code and the car came on. A blast of hot air blew out of the vent, before the artificial breeze cooled it to an office-like temperature. She ordered the car back to the highway and it kicked up dust from the unpaved driveway, leaving a cloud that obscured Kilel’s view of Anne Penn and Mike Schmidt in the rear view monitor.

Read more excerpts from Carbon Run. What do you think?

Review: Futurecoast is crowd-sourced science fiction

Storytelling has changed little since the advent of the printing press, despite the technological revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries. The product is still linear, that is, one damn thing after another, to paraphrase Elbert Hubbard. And stories are largely the product of a single individual, though that person may head a team, such as film director. But artists and designers haven’t given up on non-linear storytelling. One example is Futurecoast, a project by game designer Ken Eklund.

Climate change is at the center of Futurecoast. It assumes a warmed world with rising sea levels that modify the world’s coasts. The world exists in a infinite array of possible futures which appear in the present as “chronofacts” that rain down as “chronofalls.” The facts manifest themselves as elegant, transparent forms that resemble the Spirograph disks I used to play with. The forms are themselves coded messages that one character describes as “leaks in the voice mail system of the future.” In the context of fiction, they are snippets of dialog between future lives that the audience eavesdrops. Individual voice mails are compelling, such as one from a woman in Alaska in 2050 discussing a new house built on a man-made island, or one from 2055 Seattle about a scientist hearing stories from his grandfather describing salmon runs that have gone extinct. Continue reading

Review: In Ark warns against benign eco-ideologies

In Ark cover

Aidana WillowRaven’s cover art for Lisa Devaney’s In Ark: A Promise of Survival

Most books in the emerging genre of “climate fiction” fall under the label after the fact. Margaret Atwood, author of the Maddaddam trilogy, has embraced the “cli-fi” label, though she prefers “speculative fiction.” Climate activist and book lover Dan Bloom and editor Mary Woodbury have attached the label to dozens of books published as early as the 1960s. In contrast, London-based author Lisa Devaney’s In Ark: A Promise of Survival, is one of the earliest works to adopt the term up front as a way for readers to identify its dystopian worldview and ideological themes.

The story follows the core rule of climate fiction, that is, climate change is the driving force behind the narrative. In 2030, digital archivist Mya Brand lives in a New York City where everyone must wear protective clothing against heat that is destroying the planet. Though fresh food is scarce, and social life happens literally underground, the irrepressible culture of New York thrives. But the overall social trend is downward. Continue reading

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