Ray Bradbury Gives Writing Advice

I recently came across this article, which seems to have been one of many I found when researching the life and works of sci-fi great Ray Bradbury. The source is Open Culture, an online magazine dealing with cultural and educational media. And like many other publications, they chose to honor the passing of Bradbury by publishing a series of articles which dealt with the man’s monumental influence on science fiction and writing in general.

This particular one deals with his 2001 keynote address at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Writer’s Symposium By the Sea, where he treated audiences to the benefit of his accumulated wisdom by boiling it down into 12 tips. As a newbie writer, I can tell you that many of these spoke to me as if they were written with me in mind! That’s the true mark of a great and relatable writer though, isn’t it? Their words somehow seem to transcend the page and all distance between you and get you right at your core.

And even if you’re not an aspiring writer, or an established one, I recommend reading through this list and digesting some of these nuggets. Their value goes beyond mere writing, I tells ya! But don’t take my word for it, read them yourself:

  1. Don’t start out writing novels. They take too long. Begin your writing life instead by cranking out “a hell of a lot of short stories,” as many as one per week. Take a year to do it; he claims that it simply isn’t possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row. He waited until the age of 30 to write his first novel, Fahrenheit 451. “Worth waiting for, huh?”
  2. You may love ‘em, but you can’t be ‘em. Bear that in mind when you inevitably attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to imitate your favorite writers, just as he imitated H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and L. Frank Baum.
  3. Examine “quality” short stories. He suggests Roald Dahl, Guy de Maupassant, and the lesser-known Nigel Kneale and John Collier. Anything in the New Yorker today doesn’t make his cut, since he finds that their stories have “no metaphor.”
  4. Stuff your head. To accumulate the intellectual building blocks of these metaphors, he suggests a course of bedtime reading: one short story, one poem (but Pope, Shakespeare, and Frost, not modern “crap”), and one essay. These essays should come from a diversity of fields, including archaeology, zoology, biology, philosophy, politics, and literature. “At the end of a thousand nights,” so he sums it up, “Jesus God, you’ll be full of stuff!”
  5. Get rid of friends who don’t believe in you. Do they make fun of your writerly ambitions? He suggests calling them up to “fire them” without delay.
  6. Live in the library. Don’t live in your “goddamn computers.” He may not have gone to college, but his insatiable reading habits allowed him to “graduate from the library” at age 28.
  7. Fall in love with movies. Preferably old ones.
  8. Write with joy. In his mind, “writing is not a serious business.” If a story starts to feel like work, scrap it and start one that doesn’t. “I want you to envy me my joy,” he tells his audience.
  9. Don’t plan on making money. He and his wife, who “took a vow of poverty” to marry him, hit 37 before they could afford a car (and he still never got around to picking up a license).
  10. List ten things you love, and ten things you hate. Then write about the former, and “kill” the later — also by writing about them. Do the same with your fears.
  11. Just type any old thing that comes into your head. He recommends “word association” to break down any creative blockages, since “you don’t know what’s in you until you test it.”
  12. Remember, with writing, what you’re looking for is just one person to come up and tell you, “I love you for what you do.” Or, failing that, you’re looking for someone to come up and tell you, “You’re not nuts like people say.”

Rules one and two are especially important to me right now. I began trying to write novels and found the process overwhelming. Today, full-length novels constitute the majority of my unfinished works, cluttering up my inbox folder and making me feel like I’m a slow writer. Bah! Who needs that? Rule two is like gospel; though you may have writer’s you wish to emulate, do not try to be better than them. It will only lead to unfair comparisons and rob your work of originality. It put’s me in mind of what the poet Basho Mastsuo said: “Do not follow in the footsteps of the masters, but seek what they sought”. That’s right, I read a poem, try not to faint!

The rest all blend together for me in that they all ring true. If they could be boiled down into one simple rule, I’d say it would be “do what you love, and screw the rest!” Best advice I ever got, from J.M. Straczynski of all people (creator of Babylon 5). As long as you’re doing that, you can do no wrong, and your natural passion and dedication will yield results, sooner or later. And if it doesn’t, who cares? For in the end, its about you and not what others think, right? Thought money, fame and recognition are kind of sweet…

Until next time, RIP Mr. Bradbury and here’s hoping myself and my colleagues can acheive a small iota of the respect and recognition you did in your lifetime. I promise that we will stick to short stories for the time being, and that we won’t try to beat you, even if we do try to emulate you 😉

Upcoming Mars Landing

I recently came across this story on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, a science show dealing with all things science and tech related. Somehow, with the recent passing of Bradbury, Canada’s 145th birthday, and my obsession with colonization, this story just spoke to me on so many levels. For those who’ve been monitoring the news or NASA’s regular updates on their website, the Curiosity rover is on its way to Mars and is schedules to land on August 5th.This Martian rover is slated to roam the surface for years, looking for signs of life. And it just so happens that this vehicle carries a special Canadian instrument.

Curiosity’s position and distance to Mars as of July 4th, 2012 (NASA)

The Curiosity spacecraft, artists rendition (NASA)

Once it arrives, the Curiosity, the largest rover ever sent to Mars, will execute the most complicated powered landing, in the roughest area, that a robotic lander has ever attempted on Mars. The landing site is the Gale Crater, 155 kilometres across, with a mountain rising 5 km from its centre. Curiosity is aiming for a pinpoint landing on the crater floor, right at the base of the mountain. Once there, it will begin by exploring the lower slopes of the mountain (named Mt. Sharp after a NASA geologist) and spend the next two years looking for signs of ancient water activity and possible Martian life.

The Gale Crater, the landing point indicated with a black oval (NASA)

Here’s where the Canadian technology comes in. In the course of conducting its analyses of the surface, one of the instruments that it will use is a an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer. This device was built by a team of scientists at the University of Guelph, Ontario, with Dr.Ralf Gellert acting as the principle investigator. With the help of this an other instruments and on-board mini-laboratory, the Curiosity will analyze soil samples to look for chemical signatures of past or present life.

As many people know, this elusive search has been ongoing, ever since astronomers first looked at Mars through telescopes and thought they saw artificial canals. Those hopes were quickly dashed when more detailed analyses indicated that the planet was sterile and the atmosphere too thin to support life as we know it. But once rovers began to be sent and soil samples examined, the hope of finding life once again became a matter of hard science. Though there might not be little green men dwelling on the surface, or in underground facilities, life of a sort does appear to exist within the Red Planet’s oxidized soil.

On top of all that, this information will prove useful in helping scientists to determine whether or not Mars could be terraformed to suit human needs. If that should prove to be the case, then Mars may very well become our home away from home in the not too distant future. Bradbury certainly thought as much, and look how popular he became 😉

The landing, and results it produces over the next two years, are sure to be exciting! In the meantime, check out this computer-simulation of Curiosity’s landing, as produced by NASA:

Another G5N Anthology in the works!

Don’t you just love it when things come together, and by things I mean talented people and a good concept? Well that seems to be happening once again. A few months back, I joined Writer’s Worth over at Goodreads, a writer’s group dedicated to promoting new talent and aspiring authors. We have since morphed into Grim5Next, an online community with its own site and members all over the world. Our first anthology, World’s Undone, is coming together nicely and should be finished in a few months.

But more recently, a couple of Grim5Next people got together and decided we wanted to get to work on another anthology. Maybe we’re all a little driven, but somehow, we just couldn’t wait for the first to be released. And with the departure of the master-singer of sci-fi, Ray Bradbury, and the news of the Venus transit, we felt ourselves inspired. In fact, it all began with a single conversation between Mrs. Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali and myself:

Khaal­i­dah: Four nerds verg­ing on geeks live in my house, of which I am one. One of our nerdi­est but fun con­ver­sa­tions cen­tered around the ques­tion “Would you rather go to space or the bot­tom of the ocean?” Hands down the answer was space. I once dreamed that my son, now 21, would one day go to space and walk on Mars. He is no longer a child who dreams of space, although it still intrigues, and space seems a dis­tant child­hood dream of his. But even for myself, at the ripe old age of 41, the idea of going to space is a bright hope, even though I know it is unat­tain­able and unre­al­is­tic. But, given the chance, I would go. This post reminds me of the awe­some­ness of our great uni­verse, of the chaotic ran­dom­ness, of the beauty of this world and the things we have to be grate­ful for, and of how utterly minus­cule we peo­ple really are in the grand scheme of things.

Me: Okay, you need to write this down. I fore­see you doing a story where a fam­ily does go into space. Ho boy, I smell another anthology here!

Khaalidah: An anthol­ogy about space, going to space or any­thing related sounds awe­some. I vote for you to be the edi­tor. What do we need to do to get started?

That’s how it all got started. After some initial brainstorming, we plotted out what we wanted this all to be about. Space and Colonization! In the near future, such endeavors might just become a reality. In fact, they might have to be if we want to survive as a species. And inspired by the dearly departed Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, I thought we ought to tackle some of the same issues he did, taking into account some more recent historical developments. Like Bradbury’s chronicles, it will be a series of interlinked stories, but told from different points of view in different time frames.

After some astrological research, your humble editor selected a location. 61 Cygni, the star system that sits roughly 11 and a half light years away from Earth. Though there’s no hard evidence to support the theory, it has been ventured that there may be a system of planets in the system, including three small objects, two gas giants, and one mega-planet. At right, you will see the little map I prepared for our, and your, viewing pleasure.

And in time, we picked up some more dedicated souls, William J Joel and Goran Zidar, who you may remember from Story Time fame (he’s the inventor). Already, these two have signed up for slots in the opening part of the anthology. Divided into four stories, Part I will tell the tale of how colonization is getting underway here at Earth in the not too distant future. And before it ends, it will address the issues of converting the new world over to human needs, and how the local flora and fauna are not too happy about it!

And of course, I got a few more people who’ve volunteered to help just as soon as they have the time. Courtney, Jinn and Doremy, I’m looking in your direction. You’re initiative is most appreciated and there’s still plenty of stories to be written and slots to be filled. And of course, Parts II and III are still in development, and slots remain open for more writers. Though it’s still in development, I know it’s going to be inspired, thanks to the people we got working on it. I also know we are going to have fun doing it.

Wired Tribute to Ray Bradbury

Here we see Bradbury seated in the NASA control center back in the 1960’s. Apparently, it was his contention, prior to the Moon Landing, that the United States was headed for spiritual ruin unless “dumb politicians” got out of the way and let Americans reach for the stars. Well, he certainly got his wish, didn’t he?

Unfortunately, this science fiction great did not live long enough to see the colonization of Mars, which was a recurring theme of his writing. But given the current state of the world economy and the space race, I wonder if any of us will.

But I didn’t start this post to be gloomy. Mainly I want to share an article which I came across today from Wired magazine. It contains Bradbury’s thoughts on a multiplicity of subjects, as expressed in his most famous quotes. It was a lucky coincidence that I found it, since my wife shared one of his oft-quoted lines with me once I told her the sad news.

Riding home in the car together, she turned to me and said: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Since she’s always encouraged my writing, I couldn’t help but feel that she thought I could draw some inspiration from this. Mission accomplished.

These and other quotes can be found in the article, just click on the link below. And remember, you got any cool thoughts, be sure to write them down. You never know, someday, somebody could be quoting you!

http://www.wired.com/underwire/2012/06/ray-bradbury-big-ideas/

Remembering Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)

Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012)

Yesterday, one of the greatest sci-fi minds of the 20th center, Ray Bradbury, died at the age of 91 after a lengthy illness. His publisher, HarperCollins, were apparently the ones to break the news to the world. Best known for his seminal dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury quickly joined the ranks of authors like Orwell, Huxley, Clarke, and Asimov, in that he was a speculative author who’s predictions rapidly came true.

Amongst such things were the emergence of ATMs, wall-sized televisions, interactive entertainment, and live broadcasts of fugitive car chases. In addition to Fahrenheit 451, he also penned the Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked this Way Comes, and over 600 other works of fiction, articles and essays. As such, his influence and legacy are truly immeasurable.

So, in honor of this sci-fi great, whom I waited a very long time to read, I shall delve into his best known works and try to explain exactly why they were so enduring and influential. Let’s start with the book that earned him his reputation in the first place:

Fahrenheit 451 (1953):
This dystopian piece of speculative fiction takes place in the late 20th century, when American culture has degenerated into a form of brutal escapism. Nuclear war looms on the horizon, books have been banned, and for the majority of people, cocooning in their homes in front of their wall-sized monitors seems like the perfect distraction.

The story takes place from the point of view of a Fireman named Guy Montag, who’s job consists of located offenders and burning their books. This is the role of firemen in the future, who instead of fighting fires are responsible for starting them. Montag is unhappy with his life and suffering from a deep sense of disquiet.

Until one night when a young woman named Clarisse shakes up his worldview. Whereas most people in Montag’s world seemed numbed and dead, she is vital and alive, and questions just about everything. Shortly thereafter, she dies in a tragic accident, which shakes Montag’s world up even more.

He too begins questioning the rules, he steals books from jobs he is meant to pull, and begins reading them. Realizing he is now in violation of the law, he seeks out other offenders for answers. This brings him into contact with Faber, a former English professor that Montag knows can help. In time, Faber is convinced to bring him into this confidence and reveals that he is part of a circle that is dedicated to the preservation of written knowledge.

Eventually, Montag is found out and must flee. His boss, it seems, has known for quite for some time what he is up to but extended him some courtesy because he knows what he’s going through. More enlightened than the average person, Montag’s boss explains to him why books have been banned and why they must destroy them. Rather than the result of forced censorship, the process was entirely voluntary. People chose mindless entertainment, distraction and fast cars over reading, reflection and learning.

Montag’s escape from his house and the police becomes the subject of the evening news. He manages to elude the authorities and meets up with the reading circle down by the river. Interestingly enough, he flees the city just in time to witness being destroyed from a nuclear attack. It seems the build-up to Armageddon has finally ended and nuclear war has come. Montag leaves with the group, who’s mission now has become one of preserving civilization as well as literature.

What was enduringly brilliant about this book was not so much the predictions about technology or the emergence of book banning, but the reasons for it. Capturing the zeitgeist of his age, Bradbury essentially felt that a shocked and fearful society would seek escape by the most convenient means available to them. And whereas most dystopian novels involve ignorance and illiteracy being forced by a brutal regime, Bradbury believed that the process would be entirely voluntary. In this respect, he captured the same essence as Huxley, another dystopian critic who believed man’s appetite for distraction would be it’s undoing.

The Martian Chronicles (1950):
Though written before Fahrenheit 451, the MC gained notoriety more slowly, but eventually became recognized as one of the great works of science fiction. A collection of loosely based stories rather than a single novel, the book follows the future history of colonization on Mars, dealing with all kinds of speculative, existential and scientific questions.

The overall structure of the book comes in three parts, punctuated by two catastrophes. The first is the near-extinction of the Martians, while the second is the parallel near-extinction of the human race. In first part of the book takes place at the end of the 20th century and details mankind’s efforts to reach Mars, and the various ways in which the Martian natives keep them from returning. However, towards the end (in the story “—And the Moon be Still as Bright”) it is revealed the majority of the Martians have died as a result of a plague brought from Earth.

This opens Act II, taking place in the early 21st century, where humans begin colonizing the Red Planet. On occasion, they have the opportunity to make contact with the surviving Martians, but mainly are concerned with building a second Earth. However, many settlers begin to pack up and leave as looming nuclear war on Earth causes them to want to get back and be with their families. The outbreak of this war signals the end of Act II and the opening of the third act.

In the third and final act of the book, all contact has been lost with Earth when the nuclear war takes place. As the war passes, those humans who have survived on Mars have began building a distinct civilization and having children who have only known life on the Red Planet, effectively becoming Martian themselves. This prospect allows the book to return to its beginning, as it is suggested that new waves of colonists will soon be coming and conflicts are likely to emerge as a result.

This book was not only brilliant in that it addressed a great deal of scientific and existential questions that are sure to come when actual colonization begins (if ever). It also managed to capture a sense of timeless truth and lessons which come from real history, or the “Age of Discovery” as its known. These included the destruction of native inhabitants, the push-pull factors which lead to colonization, severance from the homeland, and eventual adaptation as new people begin to embrace the new environment as their home.

Much like KSR’s Mars Series, this book should be required reading if ever any Ares missions get underway!

The Illustrated Man (1951):
Much like the Martian Chronicles, this book is a collection of short stories linked by a common theme. Through its exploration of humankind, the recurring theme is one of conflict between cold mechanics and technology and the basic nature of human beings. Many of these stories have been adapted into film over the years and been used in schools as educational tools. Some examples include:

“The Veldt” – in this story, we see a family who’s children have become terribly attached to the houses’ high tech nursery. Like a holodeck from Star Trek, the children use this to create virtual environments – in this case, the predatory environment of the African veldt. When the parents threaten to take it away, the children lock them inside and they are apparently consumed by the lions. thought it is not outright said, it is implied that the children have reprogrammed the unit to become real and have been “feeding” people to it for some time.

“The Other Foot” – in this exercise in turnabout, we learn that Mars has been colonized solely by people of African descent. When they learn that a rocket is coming from Earth with white travelers, they decide to institute a system of racial segregation similar to that of the Jim Crow Laws of the American South, in retaliation for the wrongs of history. However, when the rocket lands the traveler tells them that most of the Earth has been destroyed in a nuclear war and the people realize that discrimination is harmful in all its forms. They rescind their discriminatory laws and welcome the new crew as equals.

“The Man” – A group of space explorers land on a planet to find the population living in a healthy state of bliss. Upon investigation, they discover that an enigmatic visitor came to them, who they eventually conclude was Jesus (or some other religious persona since He was never named). Some decide to spend the rest of their days rejoicing with the natives, while another decides to continue on in his spaceship in the hopes of catching up with this person. While he spends the rest of his days in hot pursuit, always one step behind and never quite catching up to him, the other learn that “he” is still on the planet with them. Hello metaphor!

The Exiles” – taking a page (no pun!) from Fahrenheit 451, this story revolves around the concept of burning books and the immeasurable nature of knowledge being lost forever. It begins with stating that numerous works of literature have been banned and burned on Earth. The fictional characters of these books are portrayed as real-life entities who live in a refuge on Mars. These characters are vulnerable however since once all the books on a character are destroyed, that character vanishes permanently. When the group of characters learn that some people are coming for them, they stage a counterattack, but are foiled by the astronauts who burn the last remaining books from Earth, unknowingly annihilating the entire colony.

“Marionettes, Inc.” – A man attempts to escape his marriage by replacing himself with a robot to fool his wife into thinking he hasn’t left and tells a friend about it. The man comes back and tells the robot to go back into the box, and the robot disobeys him saying he has fallen in love with the wife. The robot then proceeds to put the man in the box and replaces him for real. Sound familiar?

“The Illustrated Man” – The namesake of the book, this story involves an overweight carnival worker is given a second chance as a Tattooed Man, and visits a strange woman who applies skin illustrations over his entire body. She covers two special areas, claiming they will show the future. When the first is revealed, it’s an illustration of the man strangling his wife. Shortly after this comes to pass, the carnival workers run the man down, beat him, and look at the second area, which shows an illustration of the same beating they are doing. Can you say self-fulfilling prophecy?

Most of these stories would probably sound familiar in one way or anther, but that’s because they’ve been adapted, copied and referenced by countless pop culture sources. I myself recall watching “The Veldt” in school and being chilled by its eerie and dystopian tone. “Marionettes Inc.” has been adapted into comedy format numerous times, and the theme of prophecy and fulfillment in “The Illustrated Man” has inspired countless stories, not the least of which are The Butterfly Effect and perhaps even PKD’s Minority Report.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962):
A somewhat off-beat work for Bradbury, who’s works consist mainly of speculative sci-fi, this fantasy/horror novel has nevertheless become a household name for fans of the dark and weird. Set in modern a day Midwestern town, the story revolves around a visiting carnival and its mysterious director, Mr. Black.

Enter into this the story’s protagonists, two 13 year old boys, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, who witness the arrival of the carnival and become immediately enthralled with it. They quickly realize that everyone who works there has been lured into Mr. Dark’s service through the promise of being able to live out their fantasies. For most people, these involve become younger, a gift he confers on several characters through his “magic” carousel.

In time, they come to realize that Mr. Dark holds these people under his sway and has a tatoo of each of them on his body, a symbol of his control. Charles Holloway, William’s father, looks into Mr. Dark’s past and realizes he can be defeated through love. It is unclear what this entails, but after the boy’s are kidnapped, he comes to the carnival and begins destroying it’s structures and Dark’s protectors by expressing laughter and joy. He and his son use the same tactic to eventually bring down Mr. Dark and bring Jim back from death, who was stuck on the carousel and rapidly aging.

Though different from most of his other works in terms of genre, this story did contain many elements which were present in his other stories. For example, the concept of the carnival and the tattooed man was the basis of “The Illustrated Man”. The nostalgic feel of the story was also to be found in his novel Dandelion Wine, and is often paired with this novel as presenting both the lighter and darker sides of childhood. And of course, the novels resolution, where good prevails through purity of heart, is to be found in many of Bradbury’s works.

Because of its focus on good versus evil, childhood, and coming of age, this story was to have a profound effect on several authors, the most notable of which is Stephen King. Citing Something Wicked as his inspiration, King attributed a debt to Bradbury for helping to write It and Dreamcatcher.

Final Thoughts:
In the end, Bradbury was known for many things: originality, depth, vision and genius. But the thing that sticks with the most about him was his views on the preciousness of literature and knowledge. Basically, he expressed several times over how when something is lost, it’s lost forever. I can only assume then that he would take great comfort in knowing that he left the literary legacy that he did. Though he may no longer be with us, his works will live on and serve to inspire many generations to come.

I think this is a lesson we could all draw from. Though our time on this Earth may be short, we have the ability to leave our mark and ensure that some trace of us stays behind. So make those footprints people, write those manuscripts, and most importantly, tell the people you love how you feel. Do not leave things unsaid or undone, because someday, we will be gone…

So than you, Mr. Bradbury, for your many, many contributions. You did it right, and now you go on to join the other greats of your time. Rest In Peace.