Since the final project served a dual purpose (UAB graduate project/Peculiar People Books "Heirloom Chronicles" collaborative project), I've removed the link to the novelette at Amy Wiley's request. Many publishers consider posting works online as "previous publishing", which may impact the PeP project as a whole. Also, I'm planning a complete re-write, so that particular "version" may not be what is finally included in the PeP project. If that is the case (depending on legal agreements, etc.), I may post a link to the original UAB novelette later.
First of all, I want to reiterate the wisdom behind the oft repeated adage "if creative writing were easy, everyone would do it." There were times during the last four months that I swore I'd never try this again. But the more I wrote and thought and dreamed and struggled with managing time for research and work and school and family--and finally writing--the more I began to love it.
My previous creative writing experiences were either completely on my own time and therefore under no pressure to "produce", or were short enough that time management never proved to be an issue. If the quote above is true, then the other saying that seems to always follow is definitely true: "write what you know."
For a while I thought the biggest mistake I was making (i.e., causing me the greatest amount of grief and producing oaths of never writing anything beyond emails forever--and fewer of them) was I writing too far outside my "field", even though many of the elements in the story I was very familiar with. A more accurate assessment reveals that my fundamental error was I didn't fully rely on the step one: building a solid foundation with the outline.
During the twenty-month Information Engineering and Management program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I had the opportunity to read Eliyahu Goldratt's The Goal, a treatise on his Theory of Constraints told in narrative format. I thoroughly enjoyed the topic and was intrigued by his delivery format--most "business" books I had read were pretty dry. The Goal was inspiring.
Since this was my final project for an engineering graduate program, I naturally needed to address a relevant area of information engineering, and ethics was not a topic we had spent a lot of time discussing--at least, there wasn't a specific course or text on ethics, however discussions about ethics were plentiful. So, while trying to address ethics and technology while at the same time exploring the possibility of one day writing fiction full time, I needed to devise a scenario that I felt others would want to read. The first thing I did was rule out anything that didn't interest me, since it would be nearly impossible for me to stay motivated enough to produce something of quality. The genre of science fiction seemed a natural fit for the project and fulfilled the personal interest requirement perfectly.
But what "flavor" of science fiction? The earliest, most widely accepted science fiction novel was Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley during the unusually cool summer of 1816. Later that century we have similarly themed works by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. I would still classify these earlier works as "literature", just like Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, or Charlotte Brontë, since science played a minor role.
Later, especially during the 1930's and 40's, science played a prominent part in the emerging genre, yet the story construction reflected the popular "hard boiled detective" dramas of that time. Isaac Asimov's "Robot Series" is an excellent example. Another popular theme is evidenced by Robert Heinlein's which has the distinctively "military" flavor of post-World War II world.
In the 60's and 70's we find alien worlds and non-humans as the central focus. We also find the emergence of "hard science" fiction in which real science is used in imaginative ways or in a fictional setting. The 1980's and 90's brand of science fiction introduced a sub-genre known as "cyberpunk", a dystopian view of the future where technology has proven unwieldy, as in Bladerunner, The Terminator, Jurassic Park or The Matrix.
At heart, the core issues of science fiction are still essentially human relations. In fact, science fiction by its very nature has often been the vehicle of choice for exploring social phenomena, especially through alien civilizations. Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, and Isaac Asimov are among those who have used the freedom of stepping outside our familiar worlds in order to take a more objective look at ourselves.
With a rich history to sample from and a decidedly social theme of the ethical use of technology in a medical setting as my framework, I borrowed heavily from Asimov and Michael Crichton. In fact, I read Crichton's Prey and Next in search of examples of how to accomplish my goal. (Both are excellent books, although Next was far more disturbing as Crichton drew on recent court cases for his material.)
Once I decided on the type of science fiction story I wanted to write, I needed to "engineer" the story. I have traditionally been a "seat of the pants" writer who made everything up as I wrote, which often requires quite a bit of re-writing in the end as facts and subplots can lose continuity over time. I selected physicist and award-winning novelist Randy Ingermansen's "Snowflake" method for designing my novelette.
In a nutshell, the "Snowflake" method tackles the dual task of plot development and character development in an alternating style which begins with a small bit of information or idea (i.e., "A one sentence summary of the story") and through approximately eight stages, blossoms into a fully detailed outline, complete with scene descriptions and estimated word counts.
I was skeptical of the method at first. It appeared to be redundant in places and, honestly, a little "gimmicky". I followed the guidelines very closely until I got to the most detailed part of the system: the "scene spreadsheet". My first disagreement was with his suggestion that working with a spreadsheet was the best method (note: I'm probably being a little harsh here--Dr. Ingermansen readily acknowledges that his method is not a panacea for all writers and frequently reminds the aspiring author to "use what works best for you".) I admit, a spreadsheet is very convenient for working with data in a list format, but it is VERY UNFRIENDLY when working with/editing text. I modified his suggestion and outlined my scenes using Microsoft Word. Inadvertently, that was where my trouble began.
The moment I broke from "the program", I began watering down the process until I had very little detail in certain places of the scene outline to use later when I started writing the story. In some places in my modified scene outline, I over summarized the events, which I ended up spending a lot of time later having to rethink, requiring further changes to other sections, and before long, I was right back into "seat of the pants" mode, which was very uncomfortable with a project of this size and the schedule I had to work with.
A side effect of not being thorough enough with the scene outline was I ended up focusing far too much time on elements of the story that ended up not being important. For instance, in the beginning, the main character was a U.S. Navy pilot named Marc Jacobsen. I began researching everything I could find on what a U.S. Navy pilot does: how carrier based aircraft operate, what the mission of a carrier strike group was, etc. The first chapter was originally all about the final, fatal mission when Marc crash lands aboard the USS Ford. I literally spent a month researching naval aviation and in the end, realized it wasn't essential to the core story. I cut the whole chapter.
Second, I also realized I was telling the story from the wrong character's perspective. An unexpected treasure I found while researching the story was Orson Scott Card's How To Write Scince Fiction and Fantasy. I stumbled across it by accident at the library, and since it was such a small volume (170 pages or so), I picked it up for a quick review. It totally changed the project by clarifying the perspective problems that were plaguing me.
The central conflict of my story concerned identity and the ethical questions surrounding radically altering humans through high-tech implants, genetic engineering, and experimental drugs. I'll freely admit I took a lot of liberties with some of the technologies, but in the spirit of Dr. Michael Crichton, I made every attempt to ground them in real science. Still, I suffered many hours filled with anguish over "logistical issues" that just didn't make sense as long as I tried to tell the central story primarily from Marc's perspective. The solution was cutting a whole character (Marc's wife), augmenting his background a little, and focusing more on Daneal Oliver as the protagonist. It solved a lot of issues.
Finally, the last issue I struggled with (and probably will always struggle with) is keeping focused on what's essential. I love to explore and found myself chasing rabbits online for hours and hours, hoping to find that one tidbit of detail that would put the story "above and beyond". What I needed to do was to complete the essentials of the story and then if I had the time and energy, apply the "gold plating". One factor that caused some complication is this was essentially a "dual project", serving as my graduate project for my Masters of Engineering degree, but also a personal project for my friend Amy Michelle Wiley.
I hope the final outcome is first, something enjoyable to read, and second, causes the reader to think just a little. I make no claims to be the next John Grisham or Michael Crichton, but I do believe that anyone who puts his talents to work and tries his best will achieve success. Success for me at this point is learning the ropes. My plan for now is to focus on learning about writing well with a personal project so I can try the "Snowflake" one more time. I may even try telling more of the back story and include all that naval aviation stuff I didn't use. All in all, this has been a very valuable experience. It pushed me beyond my limits at times, which was painful, but also necessary for growth. The next time around will be a little easier, and the time after that even easier: definitely worth the trouble and something to look forward to as a possible career.
From December, 2008 through April, 2009, I must have read 15 books and thoroughly skimmed another 30, and lets not forget the 10 or so movies I watched. It was an awesome experience and has sparked a deeper interest in the area of medical ethics.
The primary inspiration for the project began with my son, Will, who was born with Down syndrome on Mother's Day (unlike the rest of us who were merely born on our Birthdays!) Although I have several years of professional experience and nearly completed a graduate degree in Rehabilitation Counseling, I never had much contact with anyone born with Down. Needless to say, he has changed my life in profound ways.
As I tried to find a way to bring all of my professional experiences together into something meaningful, I discovered the world of medical ethics, particularly the emerging area of integrating technology within the body and the possible implications of going beyond mere rehabilitation to enhancement. While doing research, I encountered the excellent movie Gattaca. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it on several levels. Simply excellent.
The following reference list is loosely organized and by no means exhaustive:
Although E. mortal is planned to be included in Heirloom Chronicles: I Will Be Found (a historical fiction collection of novelettes, following a wooden box carved by Jesus as it is passed down from one generation to the next), I asked my good friend Cory Clubb if he would design a book cover for the story. Here are the two beautiful designs he came up with:
I performed an informal e-mail survey with my classmates and most liked "the green one". My initial preference was for "the blue one" because it felt cold like the Icelandic setting of the story. I also imagined two different characters: Dr. Henrik Björn on the blue cover; Lieutenant Marc Jacobsen on the green.
I've found that searching the Web for images that fit the story I'm writing really aids me when providing details, as well as inspiration (in the same way many writers play "mood music" in the background while writing--I'm the opposite: I need absolute quiet, which is almost impossible in my house!)
This story was difficult to write for a lot of reasons—all of which are my fault! I fully realize it’s not Pulitzer quality and probably not even very original, but it’s from the heart and hopefully the beginning of many more (and better quality) works.
I’d like to first thank my family, but especially my wife, Renee, for her support and encouragement. Without her help, I would be in a huge mess!
I also want to thank the awesome faculty and staff of the UAB IEM program, particularly Dr. Dale Callahan who not only approved my final project topic, but discouraged me from pursuing anything I wasn’t truly passionate about.
Thanks to Amy Michelle Wiley, founder and director of Peculiar People Books, who has invited me to participate in several “PeP” projects, the latest of which is the work you just read (in my case, anyhow). E. mortal will be the final novelette in a collection of novelettes written by several PeP authors. Hopefully the collection will be published and available for purchase soon.
The incredible graphic work was done by artist and author Cory Clubb. Samples of his work can be viewed here.
Tammy Johnson provided invaluable critiques and suggestions which helped tremendously. Thanks for slugging through a really schizophrenic initial outline and first draft!
An unexpected source of inspiration came from Captain Jack E. Wright, USAF, who's excellent autobiography Crash and Burn I discovered while doing research. Captain Wright was kind enough to email me and proof portions of the story for accuracy. Thank you for your courage and service to America!
I also wish to thank my boss, Mark Schlosser and the great team of guys I work with—Cory Nabors and Michael Farren—for putting up with my crazy school schedule these last two years.
Last—but most importantly-- I want to thank God for giving me the talents I have. I am literally nothing without Him. I hope my efforts will somehow help lead others to a closer relationship with Christ. He has made all the difference in my life.
The work of fiction you have hopefully enjoyed is the result of the collision of two disparate worlds: the free-flowing, colorful world of creative writing I studied and enjoyed as an English minor at the University of Montevallo many moons ago; the other, a black-and-white/wrong-or-right world of Information Engineering that so often provides me with the immediate gratification my short attention span craves. Yet, while I am quick to describe creative writing and computer engineering as being polar opposites, they are really more alike than not. I discovered this truth during two of the most challenging years of my adult life (aside from the first year of marriage to my wonderful wife, Renee, and the first year raising my daughter, Claire, as a stay-at-home dad.)
In 2007, I enrolled in the Information Engineering and Management graduate program at The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Engineering. Although I had nearly a decade of computer and network systems administration experience, I’ve never considered myself and “engineer” (and still don’t—I’m just not wired that way). However, during those two excellent years of learning and growth, I had the opportunity to read Eliyahu Goldratt's The Goal, an excellent treatise of his Theory of Constraints told in a narrative format. I immediately wanted to find some way to incorporate my previous love of creative writing (I had been working on several collaborative fiction projects online with a great group of folks I met at Faithwriters.com in 2005) with my current pursuit of an engineering degree.
The obvious solution was science fiction. For my final project, I explored some of the ethical concerns surrounding the application of technology beyond therapeutic or rehabilitative uses. During my research, I discovered the theory of Extropianism, or Transhumanity—the humanistic belief that immortality can be achieved through applied science. Having worked as a rehabilitation counselor during the 1990’s, I was familiar with the goal of trying to establish or reestablish an adequate level of independence in persons recovering from a myriad of issues: serious mental illness, autism, head injuries, mental retardation, and various forms of depression and substance abuse--and often combinations of all the above within the same person. It was both very rewarding and extremely frustrating.
Add to that my own personal beliefs about God and the redemption of humanity through faith in Jesus Christ, and you can concoct an interesting cocktail of conflict. Many times I’ve wondered about the “problem of pain” (as C.S. Lewis explores in his work by the same name)—why would a God whom I believe loves His creation allow that creation to suffer? Why doesn’t God simply “make things right?” The answer I have accepted is rather complex and not entirely within the context of my project, so I asked another question: if God has decided not to interfere with the current state of humanity (for whatever reason), or if God doesn’t exist—should we take on the responsibility of “making things right” ourselves? Can we "save" ourselves? And assuming that the answer is “yes”, do we really want to live indefinitely?
The conclusion I drew is “no”. While I do believe science (in particular, medicine) should seek to reduce unnecessary suffering, suffering itself is necessary for emotional/spiritual—and often physical—growth. Therefore, in my opinion, the goal in life is not the removal of all suffering and death, but achieving Spiritual Maturity. If Christians look upon Christ as an example for how to live, then we clearly see he did not avoid suffering when he had the opportunity, but rather transcended suffering through total obedience to his Heavenly Father. Looking back not so many years, we can see how every humanistic attempt at creating a Utopian existence has resulted in its very antithesis—including attempts through “religious” ideals. It’s simply impossible to escape the “human condition” through a human solution; we need someone else to save us from ourselves.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 2 Corinthians 5:17 (New International Version)