Thursday, July 2, 2015

Guest Post: "Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk?" by LJ Cohen; ITHAKA RISING Book Giveaway

For the last four years, I have been privileged to participate in an online critique group with nine fantastic writers. Not only do we live from one end of the country to the other, but we write in several different genres. Science fiction is the specialty of LJ Cohen. LJ has just published ITHAKA RISING, the second volume of her Halcyone Space series, a YA Space Opera:

A derelict ship and a splintered crew are not the rewards Ro had hoped for when she helped disrupt her father's plans to start a war with smuggled weapons. But with the responsibilities of full citizenship and limited resources, she's forced to take her father's place working as an engineer on Daedalus station while she and Barre try to repair their damaged freighter, Halcyone. Barre's brother, Jem, is struggling with the disabling effects of his head injury, unable to read or code. His only hope is to obtain a neural implant, but the specialists determine he's too young and his brain damage too extensive.

When Jem disappears, Barre and Ro race to find him before he sells his future and risks his mind for a black market neural implant. But locating The Underworld along with its rogue planet Ithaka has political consequences far beyond what Halcyone's crew imagine, pitting Jem's life against deadly secrets from a war that should have ended forty years ago.

As LJ is also an accomplished poet, I asked her how writing poetry and writing science fiction might be related.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

LJ Cohen

. . . or how is writing poetry related to writing science fiction?

According to Lewis Carroll, there actually isn't a true answer to his nonsensical riddle from Alice in Wonderland, but I do have an answer to my question.

Having been a poet for a far longer time than I have been a writer of fiction, I maintain that poetry - or at least the tools of poetry - underlies all effective writing. Not only that, but in writing speculative fiction, those tools can enhance world building and reader immersion in fundamental and crucial ways.

The poetic tools I'm going to focus on are specificity, musicality, and comparisons. All three can heighten the reading experience of your novel, especially novels of speculative fiction.


Not only do I read and write poetry, I also teach poetry writing with school aged children and the first thing I tell them is that poetry is like orange juice concentrate: it's all the 'pow' of language without any of the water.

Which is a more vivid way of saying that in poetry every single word counts and needs to more than carry its own weight. This is where specificity becomes crucial.

This is the opening sentence from ITHAKA RISING:

Barre turned up the music, and it transformed his mind into a concert hall with perfect acoustics, transporting him more than a dozen wormhole jumps and a few centuries away from the ruined bridge of the broken ship.

It would be hard to read this as anything other than science fiction. Why? Because of the specificity of the language: transformed, transporting, wormhole jumps, centuries, bridge, ship. Any one of these words could be used in many contexts, but putting them all together, and the ship is a space ship.

A few lines further down is this:

The ancient symphony soothed him, and as his hands did the grunt work of stripping wires and creating splices, his mind composed a more modern counterpoint, weaving synthesized computer tones though the main theme.

Again, the key words are ancient, modern, synthesized, and computer. Along with the specificity that clues the reader in on setting are descriptive words of the character's physical actions. Barre isn't just working, he's 'stripping wires and creating splices.'

The English language is rich with synonyms. The one you choose to convey an action or a description will carry with it layers of meaning and resonance. Sure, your character can walk, but she can also skip (is she a child?), saunter (is she running a scam?), limp (is she injured or disabled?), lurch (is she drunk?), or stumble (is she clumsy?).  Drill down until you find the right word for the specific situation/character/action that will convey the most information in the least space. That's a key essence of poetry and it works well in fiction, too.


You might have guessed from the two sentences above that one of my characters in ITHAKA RISING is a musician. Barre is a composer, and used a neural implant device to create and play back music. He also uses it to communicate with the ship's artificial intelligence.

Yes, that's Science Fiction, but we also use musical language to communicate. The rhythm, tone, and feel of language helps convey added meaning. Many English words come from two distinct linguistic heritages: Latin and German. Latinate words tend to be long, smooth words. They can slow the pace of a piece of writing, or create a sense of ease in the text. Germanic words are short and sharp. They can speed up the pace and enhance tension.

Some examples: Relinquish is Latinate. Leave is Germanic. Commence (Latinate) vs. start (Germanic). Purchase (Latinate) vs buy (Germanic). Prohibit (Latinate) vs ban (Germanic.) I think you get the idea.

Here we see a series of short, sharp words used to create a sense of urgency and change from the prior, more languid sentences:

An alarm tore through the music. As Barre jerked up, his head clipped the bottom lip of the console.

tore/jerked/head/clipped/lip are all words that add a staccato rhythm to the sentence. These changes in rhythm work on a very primal part of our brains to signal us to pay a different kind of attention to the language. Again, a poetic tool enhances the reader experience.

Comparisons - simile and metaphor

This may be the most powerful weapon in a writer's arsenal. (And yes, that is an example of a comparison: a metaphor.)  A simile is a comparison that uses 'like' or 'as'. A metaphor compares two things by superimposing them without using like or as.

Comparisons are so common in our everyday language, we often don't even notice them. Cool as a cucumber, white as a ghost, poor as dirt are some examples of similes. Metaphors are even more pervasive: have you ever been dog tired? Spent time? Has a remark ever been out of bounds? Those
are all comparisons we use all the time. We rarely even stop and think about where they arise from, but they are often culturally relevant.

It is that cultural relevance that makes comparisons such a powerful tool in speculative fiction.

In this segment, Jem Durbin is sneaking out of his family's quarters at night, and is concerned that his parents will find out.

Jem let the tablet dissolve on his tongue, hoping it would at least take the edge off. He ran his hand along the wall of his room toward the door. Pausing, he listened. It was well into third shift and his parents would be long asleep, unless one of them was on call and there were emergencies. Well, if
he didn’t take the jump, he’d never make it out of local space.

That final sentence is a metaphor that is completely in line with Jem's life and his experience as a child of the space-faring diaspora.

And in these two sentences, Ro Maldonado is struggling to deal with her anger and frustration. Here you see another space-related image:

Instead, she compacted the anger into a tiny black hole and added it to all the rest. Someday, it would eat its way through her, leaving emptiness behind.

Even in the dialogue, I chose to create expressions that are similar enough to current usage that they would be familiar, but also would comfortably fit in the universe of Halcyone Space. For example, the characters might say 'Holy mother of the cosmos' as an exclamation. Or 'seismic' for cool.

Each of these individual choices help to build a believable world for the reader and create an atmosphere where the story becomes real.

And that is the power of poetry.

LJ has generously offered two copies of ITHAKA RISING, one trade paperback, one ebook, for a random drawing for US readers. Leave a comment below with your name, email address and format preference by 11 pm PST on July 11, 2015. Winners' names will be drawn at random and posted by Monday morning, July 13. Good luck!

You can learn more about LJ Cohen and her work at her website. She also blogs regularly at Once in a Blue Muse.

ITHAKA RISING is available as a trade paperback and in all ebook formats  from Amazon, BN, Kobo, iBooks,  and Google Play. It is the companion novel to DERELICT, which New York Times bestselling author Lynn Viehl praised as "an edgy, nonstop flight into an audacious SF future." Publisher's Weekly says, "Cohen has real talent with character development and interaction, and prickly, defensive Ro is a sympathetic and interesting heroine."


Marc said...

I really liked the first book, and would love to win a copy of the second!

If I'm one of the chosen, I'd prefer an ePub version of the book.


(marc_d_long (at) hotmail dot com)

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks for entering, Marc. Sorry for the delay...I was away for a few days.

Julianne Douglas said...

Marc, you are the winner of Lisa's book! I will forward your address to her and she will contact you in order to deliver your prize. Thank you for entering. I hope you enjoy ITHAKA RISING!