Monday, December 15, 2008

Some new stories at Anthology Builder

I decided to add a few more of my reprints to Anthology Builder. My Nemonymous story, "Word Doctor," is now there, as is "City of Games" from the Sporty Spec anthology and "Hope Games" from The Sword Review (now MindFlights), making for six of my stories that you can add to personalized anthologies you may want to create.

The available fiction includes some pretty impressive names and stories, and when added to some of the plentiful cover art, you can get a nice, personalized Christmas present for those on your list...and introduce all your family and friends of the sheer whimsical genius of this humble writer... Something like that.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Schismatrix, the novel

A bit later than planned on this, but...

The story of the book is really the story of Abelard Lindsay's life. It doesn't have a standard plot progression or arc but is almost more a picaresque, tagging along as Lindsay sundogs around the solar system. Smaller segments of his life have their own arcs, of course, such that it has a vaguely episodic feel to the book. While that's neither complaint nor recommendation, it does contribute to a sense of "Where is this leading?" as his life segues from one role to another, which might be a bit off-putting for some. Even when characters are prominent over more than one segment of his life (his childhood rival, his wife, etc.), their piece of his story is only fragmentary, ending abruptly or veering away without it forming a part of a typical climax or denouement.

On the other hand, it's quite possible that this is an intentional break from expectations--the lack of an overarching narrative ties in with what seemed to me to be the strength of the setting and stories: life changes. Life in space will only change more. Metanarratives are useful for a few decades, but what would have once been an entire generation is now only a brief time in these long lives.

Lindsay is a self-made success, repeatedly...and a runner, fleeing (or sundogging it, which is a great expression in the book) when situations change. Numerous times he comes into a location with little, but he's up for the challenge of establishing himself, and he's especially gifted (and lucky) in insuating himself into the power structure. But once established, he doesn't fight for that power when it gets threatened, but merely flees. This allows the story to move around vastly different parts of the solar system, as well as contributing to the episodic nature of the story.

One thing about that keeps niggling at me, and I think it's the way he's so often a part of the local powers. This adds to my sense that it doesn't fit what I think of as cyberpunk. Again the label itself isn't the issue--I'm not trying to define or limit the subgenre--but the image I have in my head for all the various -punk incarnations and what gets me excited about them is their focus on those outside of power. Is that a requirement? No, probably not. But it's what draws me to them. I mention this less as a complaint about Schismatrix itself and more as an encouragement to writers, whatever they're writing, to turn the focus at least in part on those powerless ones...as well as for readers to seek such works out (and perhaps recommend me places to find them). I guess it's somewhat related to my comments on steampunk a month or so ago.

Returning from that tangent, as the book progresses, by necessity a key theme is aging and generations. Technology allows the characters to rejuvenate their bodies, and the methods of both the Shapers and Mechanists extend lives even without that. But Sterling manages to balance this amazing advance with a recognition that long life and rejuvenation might make a person look young and even act young for years at a time, but there's still a difference between older generations and new. Early in the book Lindsay is part of the younger generation, rebelling against his home's mechanically preserved old ones. Later he's the old one, despite everything done to him to keep him physically young--experiences still age him. It's in the playing out of this theme (as well as the themes of constant change that I mentioned about the stories) that the book rises above being simply an exciting futuristic tale, though it remains that as well.

All in all an enjoyable book. It makes me curious to seek out other cyberpunk works--I read the manifesto several years ago, but I've not read Neuromancer or Snow Crash or probably most other works considered central to the movement. Other books it reminded me of at different times, both of which I enjoyed but neither that I've heard referred to as cyberpunk, are Justina Robson's Natural History (absolutely loved) and Iain M. Banks's The Algebraist.

Other participants:

OF Blog of the Fallen
Adventures in Reading
Post-Weird Thoughts

Monday, December 08, 2008

Schismatrix Plus

I wasn't able to get a hold of the book for the last Blogger Book Club (started at OF Blog of the Fallen), but I did manage to get this book in time, so I've decided to participate. I'm a bit torn what exact approach to take here--a formal review? an Amazon-style what-I-liked-and-what-sucked paragraph? drive-by, 5-word reviewing?--but I guess this will fall under reader response, more conversational (and unstructured) than I might for a formal review. Because of time and the fact that I'm not in the habit of reviewing novels here, that seems best.

The book contains a novel (Schismatrix) as well as a handful of stories that take place in the same future setting. I read the stories first, which matched how Sterling wrote them. So first a few words on the setting, since that's the one thing that connects them all. They take place primarily within our solar system, where humans have expanded to populate moons, asteroids, and constructed habitats. The main factions are split by how they want to advance the human race: Mechanists go for mechanical upgrades while Shapers prefer genetic manipulation and mental training. Earth itself is quarantined (which was the one thing about the backdrop that felt a bit contrived).

What Sterling does well with this is to create a believable sense of how fluid and transitory all these things are. Political alliances dominate, seem poised to control everything for a long time...and then crumble, often very quickly. Even the arrival of the aliens, which is undeniably a deus ex machina in the novel, doesn't change the underlying uncertainty and sudden reversals, though the characters seem to think it does for awhile. The nature of aging and rejuvenation is a big part of this milieu as well, but really as a theme of the novel itself, so I'll get to that in a bit.

The stories

(I ought to note that I had to return the book to the library already, so I don't have character names and such handy as I write)

"Swarm" brings a human Shaper to an alien world, basically a swarm of mindless aliens from many races that have each evolved to fulfill a particular role within the hive-like subterranean world (a large meteor, I believe). The Shapers had sent a field scientist earlier, and the new arrival joins her in this truly alien environment. That environment is a big strength of the story--complex, allusive, and truly strange. One complaint I'd have is that while the female is clearly the stronger character, better able to adapt and understand the situation, the way they interact felt decidedly old-fashioned (perhaps a factor of it being written in the early 80s?). Other than that, though, it's a fascinating story, especially in its final argument that intelligence and curiosity are an evolutionary blip, one that survival of the species will eventually remove from us as it has so many other species.

The other stories didn't affect me quite as deeply, though I didn't find any of them uninteresting. They form a diverse picture of a complex and interesting space future. "Cicada Queen," I suspect, is the one most likely to appeal to die-hard SF fans, full of momentous developments and frontloaded with lots of jargon. I did enjoy the grounded-in-character view of terraforming in "Sunken Gardens" as well. I remember wondering as I finished it, though, in what way are these stories cyberpunk? I don't really care too much about labels, but it does make me curious--I haven't read a lot of cyberpunk, so likely the image in my head of what defines the genre is inaccurate. Whatever they're called, though, I found them to be enjoyable stories. Taken as a whole, their greatest strength is evoking that sense of constant change, of social structures and political constructs constantly evolving. It's an excellent antitode to what I've complained about before in big fat fantasies where empires last thousands of years and both alliances and rivalries maintain unbelievable continuity for nearly as long.

I'm afraid this could get too long, and it's getting late, so I'll post this much tonight and return for the novel itself tomorrow. So far I haven't seen any other participants for this... (echo, echo) I'll add links when they go up. The organizing blog for this time around is Post-Weird Thoughts, so for now, keep an eye there.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Running With the Eagle"

This poem, the first of three that will be appearing at Every Day Poets, is up today! This is an older poem, one I wrote for a poetry class in college--I believe we had a choice between an academic research paper and writing a dozen or so of our own poems. Hmmm, wonder how long I weighed those options...

At one level, this is very much a literal memory of the first time I saw a bald eagle in the wild, canoeing down the Little Muskegon River when I was a camp counselor. Early in the 3- or 4-hour trip, I saw a large bird fly around the bend, wondered if it was an eagle, but then dismissed the possibility. Much later, as we neared the backwater of the Croton Dam, I came around a corner and finally realized that this really was an eagle. It flew downriver from us a pair of times, but the third time it simply perched on a high branch and ignored us as we floated underneath. In the meantime, it had frightened a great blue heron, and the rest of the trip to the backwater, the heron took off, screaming at us, each time we rounded a corner. I've never, before or since, heard a heron make any such vocalization.

I set myself up a bit by dedicating this to Hopkins. I mean, where do I get off mentioning his name alongside my poem? The poem itself doesn't feel like a Hopkins poem, and so I just want to say that it isn't meant to. In certain places, I made conscious word choices to create a brief feel of his poetry, but otherwise it is not meant as a pastiche or imitation at all. The opening line, though, is meant to be a response to his "Windhover," which begins, "I caught this morning morning's minion..." and is also about a bird of prey (sort of). And that's all I'll say about that.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In Iowa for the week

I'm out in Iowa this week--I didn't bother posting announcements on forums I'm part of because I should have as much access to the Internet as usual. I might be online a little less, out of a desire to not seem anti-social, but I should get messages and such no different from normal. So, you know, any editors who read this blog and might be worrying that I won't get the acceptance email...well, accept away...

The trip was good, and the kids did surprisingly well. When we did have to stop, those stops ended up quite a bit longer than they otherwise would have been, but besides that I don't think they really slowed us much. It isn't the most exciting trip--on I-80 for almost the entire day--but the most interesting thing was probably the number of mammoth windmill blades we saw being transported west. They look like pieces of alien spacecraft. Wind energy is an exciting and vital development, so that makes it doubly interesting.

Now to see how much writing I can actually get done while visiting...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mindflights contributor copy

My poem "Exile, Self-selected" was one of those chosen for the quarterly print issue (I think they choose roughly a third of their online content). And my contributor copy just arrived this evening--it looks very nice. It includes all the winning- and honorable-mention poetry as well as a number of stories (presumably those the editors considered the best of the quarter).

It's Lulu-printed, and I still have my annoyance at the ridiculous amount of packaging they use when they send things out, but they certainly do a fine job of the printing itself. So, I read most of the poems as they came out, but I haven't read the fiction yet...but it looks well worth checking out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Episode 6 complete

I finished the rough draft of episode 6 of my serial project a few days ago. I set that as a first goal post, because in looking at TV series as a model, I found that often studios commit to six rather than an entire season. If things are going well, then they'll green-light the rest of season one. (Presumably they make the decision well before episode 6 has aired, but six remains a benchmark.)

So I'm taking a brief break from writing new episodes (probably no more than a week or two off) while I think about what I've got, give people a chance to read it (thanks, Lindsey and Narcissus!), and get other stuff done--I've already done revisions on a handful of other stories and submitted six stories in the past three days. And I may try to write a completely unrelated short in here too.

So...any grand wisdom from what I've got so far? Not really yet. I do see that some parts are turning out more like chapters in a novel than episodes. I also was looking more at internal arcs and stories...developing them through external events, but the externals don't always have as consistent a plot direction as perhaps they should. If I think of them as episodes anyway, rather than chapters. And the other thing is I've been writing these way too slow--2-3 weeks per episode, when I'd like to be down to about half of that. So for the question about whether to allow this more chapter-like feel to continue, I'll let that simmer for a while before deciding, but when I come back I definitely hope to be more efficient with my writing and speed up the process. Presumably, Bloons Tower Defense will not come out with a fourth edition of their game soon, so that'll help me keep on track...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sale to Every Day Poets plus table of contents for Cinema Spec

My poem "Knot" has sold to Every Day Poets. It's a sister site to Every Day Fiction, which has bought a couple of my flash stories. The poem itself is actually an older one, dating back to college, but one I remained pleased with. I'll write more about it when it gets published.

Also, Karen Romanko has announced the order of the table of contents for Cinema Spec, and once again my story will be the anthology's closer. That makes three anthologies (out of three I've been in) that my story was the final one...usually a good sign that the editor thinks it's a good story to leave readers with. At least I hope it's that and not that they think it's a good story to tuck in the back and hope no one ever notices... The tentative plan is to release the anthology in the third quarter of 2009. I think it'll be a very fun one (just as Sporty Spec is), so keep an eye out for it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What interests me in steampunk stories (and what really doesn't)

So recently we've had Strange Horizons' review of the Steampunk and Extraordinary Engines anthologies. Then Fantasy Magazine this week is running a whole series of articles and commentary and comedy around the topic of steampunk, and to top it off, a writer on a forum I'm part of asked yesterday what exactly steampunk is--she'd seen it in guidelines but didn't really know.

This has me thinking. I don't identify myself as purely a steampunk writer or reader (or DIY designer), but I do dabble in it and enjoy it. But it seems there are a lot of pieces to steampunk that a person might latch onto and think, this is why I like steampunk.

So the first obvious thing I like is just the gadgets--the gears and steam valves are simply fun. There isn't a whole lot more to this than fun, no philosophical reason why despite some attempts fans have made to assign deeper meaning to it. As a teenager I loved swords. Now that feels somewhat childish, perhaps because of the romanticism some place on swords...but really liking clockwork and steam engines is no less childish and no less susceptible to silly romanticism. So I really haven't matured, I've merely hidden my childishness behind other objects.

Before moving on to the other things I like, let me just get out what doesn't interest me--Victoriana itself. I mean, I like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I like the era's book and graphic design, and I like other literature from the time period, but it isn't London itself that attracts me. It isn't the specifics of the historic time period. It's the underlying systems and the interesting way an author might transpose them and juxtapose them with other ideas and settings.

Which begs the question of what those underlying systems are. I've set stories I've written in many different time periods, from hunter-gatherer societies to early cities, late Bronze Age through early industrial and on into the future. And to a certain extent, I'd say the same about each of those settings--it isn't the historic specifics (I'm not trying to recreate an actual Mesopotamian city-state and if I want to evoke castles and manors, it isn't out of fascination with, say, Norman or Celtic history) but with how those specific practices develop and change and influence the people living there. For the early industrial era, then, I like the sense of change, the tension between exciting newness and the things that are lost. Change is, of course, inherent in any time period, but the industrial revolution seems especially suited to explore that. It's also an era of immigration, of country people moving to the scary cities and of people traveling to new lands for different opportunities. Both situations are ripe for interesting stories and tough tensions. Add in there the growth of tensions between factory workers and owners and the early glimmers of environmental awareness when faced with the devestation of coal-burning factories, and you have some great dynamics to work with.

That attitude probably reflects back to what I was saying a few months ago about setting and escapism--issues of justice, immigration, environment, these are contemporary matters that demand thought (and action), and divorcing them from today's real world connotations lets me (in writing or in reading) examine them without taking a knee-jerk response and really give them the thought they deserve.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Zeppelin!

I haven't gotten into the zeppelin craze as much as many other readers and writers...but I do find them a fascinating image for the imagination, both imagining what it was like for the historic airships and imagining how they might have continued developing in an alternate technological timeline. So this article about modern-day zeppelins as a tourist attraction in San Francisco is very cool. I wonder where else they might be able to run sight-seeing zeppelin runs...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Birthday Cake

So, a brief rundown of my life in the past week goes:
  • Prepare for birthday party for 4-year-old
  • Host party for something like 15 kids (and their parents
  • Clean up after party
  • Likely because of someone at the party, come down with a cold on the same day my wife gets a cold
  • And because of the cold and my own kids, get three consecutive nights of next to no sleep
I don't typically say a lot about my personal life here, but the week-plus absence made it feel worth doing. I'm mostly over the cold already, and hopefully I'll be able to get more writing, more critiquing, more revising, and more blogging over the next week. For now I'll leave you with this picture of the cake my wife made for the party:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

So close...

A disappointing rejection this morning. Well, an encouraging one in some senses--the story nearly made it in, and the email response included some of the back and forth of the editors/slush readers or whatever they were. The first of those was full of incredibly high praise. S/he absolutely loved it and compared it (in one aspect at least) very favorably with some big name novel writers. Which is interesting, as it's a flash piece... The second was more ambivalent, though s/he appreciated it, and the third seemed to actively dislike it.

So...it's thrilling to see those kind words about it, and the editor too said that he's sure it will be published soon somewhere. This is the second time with this market that I've had a near miss where one or more readers seemed strongly in favor, but that wasn't enough to get it in. So where's the market that has that type of reader as the decision-maker instead of just part of a committee? (Well, for all I know the one who liked the earlier story was the one who disliked this...or maybe they have different readers all the time.) And two (out of three so far) subs to this market making it that far is a pretty good sign that I should keep trying to break in to it.

This is a story I definitely believe in, so I'm going to keep trying with other top-tier markets for now (this was the first market I'd sent it to). At 800 words, it would be surprising if got anything more than "thanks, but not for our publication" from many of the places that would otherwise be my first choice. But it'll be going back out as soon as I decide where...

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A lovely Strange Map

This was posted a few days ago, but I just noticed it today, The Semicolonial State of San Seriffe. I don't want to say any more so I don't affect how you approach it, but do go learn the wonderful history of this little Indian Ocean island.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

An old book

At various times I've mentioned Lord Dunsany here as a writer I enjoy. A fair chunk of his work is available at Project Gutenberg, but I decided I wanted to check out a physical book of some of his stories instead. Our local library has only one collection, but the library is part of a bigger grouping of libraries throughout northern Colorado that share their holdings without a lot of restrictions. Once in a while a request will come back denied because the book is one that the library isn't willing to send out, but generally it's as if I have an account with dozens of different regional and city libraries.

So I requested two Dunsany books that I found there, one a recent collection from Penguin Classics. The other was listed as a book from 1906, and its title, Time and the Gods matched the book published then, but I suspected it was a later reissue, or that if it really was from 1906, then the library would deny the request. Wrong on both. The book isn't in great shape, isn't even in good shape, but it's beautiful nonetheless. The illustrations are themselves a wonderful part of it, and there's something about the smell of an old book I love.

As a college student I worked in the school's library, so I've held older books, and likely rarer books, but that in no way dimishes the pleasure in holding this, in carefully leafing through its pages, and in reading these stories.

Dunsany is frequently referred to by fantasy writers. He's honored by writers as diverse as LeGuin (whose writing I greatly admire) and Eddings (whose...well not so much) plus many others whose works I've enjoyed--Lovecraft, Moorcock, Beagle, Borges, Gaiman... And apparently in earlier decades there was a bad tendency to try to write like him...usually with predictably awful results. But I frequently get the sense that most fantasy readers today haven't read him. Many of his works are here at Project Gutenberg, so do check him out.

According to the Penguin Classics intro, by the way, it's pronounced dun-SAY-knee, which surprised me. I'm still trying to roll that name around on my tongue to get used to it.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Bar Book Club report

Scramble and confusion seemed to be the themes last night for our book club gathering...

Beer of choice--well, I'd ordered an Existential Porter, but apparently they'd just run out of it and rather than coming back to ask what I'd rather have, they substituted something completely different for it. That wasn't the end of the confusion, though. They then gave Cask-conditioned Punjabi Pale Ale to me and the other person who'd ordered the porter and gave the rye ale they had decided to offer in place of the porter to two others in our group (who'd ordered the Punjabi). I like the Punjabi Ale--it might have been my second choice if they'd asked--but you'd think they'd at least ask. We didn't make a big deal of it, but I'm still unimpressed.

We'd read Annie Dillard's The Living, a historical fiction novel set in colonial Pacific Northwest in the second half of the 19th century. It ends up centering roughly around one character, who goes from a rather shallow young man to a more thoughtful part of his family and community, but really I'd say it's more the story of the location and time period than about any particular character. Not many of us had read the entire book (and even I only did because I sped-read some pretty big sections...for which I blame how engrossed I'd been in Wolfe's Return to the Whorl so I didn't start this soon enough). Those of us who did had all read her nonfiction as well, and all agreed that she's a better nonfiction writer than fiction. That sounds overly critical--we really did enjoy this book, and it's not bad at all, but it just didn't seem quite up to the high mark of her nonfiction. It did seem a bit over long, and the antagonist (as much as there was one) seemed a bit contrived, but the development of Clare Fishburn and the evocation of the milieu and such were very well done.

The next part of our confusion was in who was supposed to bring the next selections. The person we'd been expecting to bring them was in Chicago for a conference. Of the other two whose turn we though it must be, one has a newborn and couldn't very well leave, and the other send a message midday yesterday that he couldn't make it either. So in case no one else brought anything, I grabbed a few on my way out the door. And good thing too. So our next book will be The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia. Hopefully next time they can handle our beer orders better.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When writing veers off

Progress has been very slow for my writing this past week and a half. I'm working on episode 5 of my serial project. It was one that I'd planned to offer a slightly lighter tone than the episodes around it...and I just wasn't feeling great about it. I had it all planned out though, and sometimes that's the main part--if I can just tell myself, "Suck it up--once it's written you'll see it's not as bad as you feared," then I can often get the draft finished and surprise myself. Not necessarily that it suddenly is brilliant, but that it works better than I thought and that what doesn't work so well now has a concrete solution rather than a nebulous doesn't-feel-right-ness to it.

So plugging along, in the second scene I threw something in that completely changed the dynamic, an interaction that was supposed to be antagonistic became neutral. That pretty seriously changes the entire arc of the episode...but I much prefer the surrounding events that make things neutral. And I could get rid of some bits that had seemed fluffy and superficial. Problem is that then I'm stuck, unsure how to move on through the remaining scenes. I don't think I've added more than a few paragraphs in the past week, and in the past couple of days I've done little more than rewrite the last sentence and delete it over and over.

I've just written a new sentence that will make it veer off even more...but I think it gives me an angle to continue. I hope.

(On the other hand, I have been getting a lot of stories out on submission over the past week, so I can chalk part of the lack of writing to getting all those polished and out there.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Changing My Name to Chrysler"

I don't claim to be an expert on the economy, but the crisis on Wall Street has me singing along with Arlo Guthrie:
Since the first amphibians crawled out of the slime
We've been struggling in an unrelenting climb
We were hardly up and walking before money started talking
And it said that failure is an awful crime
Well it's been that way for a millenium or two
But now it seems that there's a different point of view
If you're a corporate titanic and your failure is gigantic
Down in congress there's a safety net for you
(actually by Tom Paxton, but I know it from the Precious Friend CDs that pairs Arlo with Pete Seeger)

Check the song out on YouTube.

Monday, September 15, 2008

(Pseudo) Victorian clip art

So I've been having fun continuing my little serial fiction project. One of the things I've been playing with is arranging the story, once a second draft is complete, in a way to mimic an old newspaper. Not fully--I've read through enough archives to know that many newspapers had five or more columns rather than the three I'm using and much smaller font. So I'm trying to balance readability with atmosphere. Playing around with old-looking grunge fonts has been fun, and I like how episode one looks when I export it from Open Office as a pdf.

One part of that atmosphere that I believe I mentioned here awhile ago as one idea is that I'm inserting fake period ads in with the text. Steam-powered chimney sweeps, government health warnings, clockwork maids, exotic travel... I'd like to have more art included with those, but my scouring of clip art sites has led to very few that will be suitable. I don't want cartoony, in fact I can't use color at all. But I'd like things that have the feel of a 19th-century woodcut, and I haven't found a lot. The subject matter could be pretty broad, though the focus would be on commercial things of interest to city dwellers, so not nature scenes. If anyone has any leads on where to find such (preferably for free use), I'd love to hear it. There's something of a steampunk flavor to this project, though I hesitate to label it that way, so what things I've found have often been through searching for steampunk-related art.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Story idea

This article on a "new art form" makes me want to create a story that's entirely built of fictitious reviews of a fictitious collection of poetry. It's only a small step from other things I've done, stories that incorporate poetry as part of the secondary world the story is set in. It wouldn't necessarily be seen as especially original, but more of a variation on/homage to Borges. In fact I seem to remember reading a short story (perhaps from Farrago's Wainscot?) that was very similar, though I'm not sure what the reviews in that story were of. [Edit: They were reviews of a book: "Praise and Criticism for M. Rekling's The Bottle" by Alex Dally MacFarlane] But even so, it's the type of thing I would find very fun, imagining not only the snippets of poetry but the reactions of many to that poetry, letting those reactions reveal the way people in an imagined city think about such things as poetry and art and...really everything.

I'm not planning to write this story at the moment. It's such a bare bones concept now that it's hardly even a story idea. Maybe a story ghost. But if it keeps haunting me in the coming months, maybe I'll try to turn it into something fun.

Friday, September 05, 2008

A non-partisan musing

This is inspired by the coverage of Sarah Palin, but it isn't meant to be political really. I mean, I'm an adamantly unaffiliated voter with generally moderate views on many issues (though certain governmental actions have radicalized me on some) in one of the crucial swing states, but I haven't been undecided for this election for a very long time, so it has no bearing on my vote and isn't meant to influence any else's.

But why even bother to include "she married her high-school sweetheart" in discussing someone's biography? What's the romanticism behind that phrase, really? I mean, what's it say about a person? My first inclination, when I think back to how much I changed as a person from high school until the end of college (and even since then), is to wonder if this fact implies a certain static nature to the person's beliefs and ideas, especially if they were high school sweethearts but then apart during those formative college years. I was incredibly sheltered back then, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as you do come out from that shelter and learn something of the world, but what kind of judgment would I have had then on the kind of person I could live with? And if the judgment proved true, would it mean I was especially wise or just that I didn't allow myself to be influenced by later experiences?

When I consider it more, I recognize that that isn't totally fair--I know people who married their high school sweethearts (if I must use that phrase), and they did grow and change together after that. And, too, I married my college girlfriend, and we've each continued changing during my wife's medical school, having children, moving to a new state, residency... But for me those college years were so drastically formative, and I do see people I knew from before then who don't seem to have changed at all, don't seem to have allowed themselves to be open to new ideas or experiences that it makes me leery to focus on something so banally irrelevant. Should it really make any difference in how people see a person if she married a college beau or a friend of a friend or an online contact or some dude she met in a bar?

Again, this is not an attack on the candidate--I try to keep politics away from my blog for the most part. This is an attack on attaching romantic resonance on something so trivial...and if meaningful, possibly even suspect.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Story to Cinema Spec!

I got an acceptance email last night for my story "City of Facades," a flash piece that I wrote specifically for Cinema Spec. I'm excited about that--it's a story loosely related to the one I had in Sporty Spec, riffing again on Dunsany and Calvino with a touch of Milorad Pavic in one part. Sporty Spec was great fun to be a part of (and is a great anthology, full of whimsy and wonder...so, you know, go buy a copy if you haven't yet), so I'm really looking forward to this one as well.

Monday, September 01, 2008

5K run

My wife's work was sponsoring a local running event and strongly encouraging their associates and staff and families to participate. I enjoy running, and I've frequently run much further distances...but I've actually only raced that distance once, and that was in high school.

To add to my uncertainty, most of my exercising of late has been pacing back and forth with my daughter, not running. I've done some biking, some stroller-walking, and some pick-up basketball games, but I think I'd only been running two or three times since she was born in April. My hope is that once my son starts preschool (tomorrow, actually...yikes), then I'll have some chances to take my daughter out in the jogging stroller, but that doesn't help much when it comes to preparing myself for the race this morning.

So I had no idea what kind of time I might get. At my peak mileage in college, I always suspected that I'd be able to go 16 minutes pretty easily and with a few races to get used to the pacing, probably even faster, though of course that was just guesswork based on the pace we did on much longer runs. The pace I'd been going with the jogging stroller (and a 35-pound child), though again for further distances, would have put me at something closer to double that.

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit my time--it was no where near 16 minutes. I'd only just passed the 2-mile mark by about then. But it wasn't as bad as double either, and I enjoyed it. Hopefully I can do the kind of running I'm envisioning over the next few months, and then maybe I can try another race in November or so.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Escape, answer #3--Curiosity

While answer #2 is the main response I'd give someone questioning me, as I was thinking about the fact that I enjoy real-world stories set in unfamiliar cultures, it occurred to me that curiosity is really a big part of why I like the stories I do. You see, when I say "setting" and when I think about worldbuilding, a bit part of that for me is cultural. I like surprising and evocative geography--a world that's made of hedges, a city that's suspended on chains, a nation carved into the sides of a giant cliff, a city that consists of a handful of trees, each big enough to house millions--what especially interests me, what especially makes me curious is how that aspect of geography influences the cultures that spring up there. I want to dig into their assumptions, their rituals, their habits, and see what these might mean to them.

Similarly in the real world, I'm curious about peoples and cultures that are different from my own. I've read books that I've enjoyed set in all kinds of sub-cultures and settings, and those experiences have expanded my understanding of people...and even of myself.

There's a danger in being drawn to such different types of settings. What I don't want is for it to be a kind of patronistic touring of these exotic others. Whether they're a real-world group or something imaginary, that's not something I want to encourage in myself. I'm not sure I have any short-cut way to avoid that, but I suppose the key is to be aware of this pitfall and to actively try to understand these various cultures, to insert myself into them and see what that ends up saying--about them, about myself, and about being human in general.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bar Book Club

A brief break before my last response to the idea of escape, because last night was our latest book club meeting.

Beer of choice: Existential Porter--this is one of the beers they have periodically, not a one-time thing but also not one of their standards that's always available, and I really like it.

Book discussed: My Story as Told by Water by David James Duncan. This was a book I'd suggested, and one I'd read before, a collection of nonfiction pieces focused on environmentalism and the wilderness. Most of the others felt that while it had some snippets of incredible writing--beautiful prose evocations of the wilderness or deep-cutting insights--as a whole it lost its power by being too strident, lacking in nuance or practical responses. I can see that in places, though actually in the course of discussing it, we kept finding more and more that we'd appreciated about it.

In keeping with the writing theme of this blog, here's a great essay of Duncan's on non-advice for writers: "My Advice on Writing Advice." One snippet:
My very best, most financially useful writing advice to those who show extra spirit, the way you're doing, is this: If you want a sane work life, economic viability, happy family, home, flat abs, nice ass, reliable car, health insurance, and teeth, DON'T TRY TO WRITE BOOKS AT ALL! STOP NOW!"

That often ends the conversation, or at least moves it on to happier topics, such as viruses or STDs.

Then once he gets through the very funny attempts to dissuade writers, he explains how "fun" is the basis for all his writing:

If you think, by the way, that the "Have Fun on Paper" concept is a recipe for self-indulgence, if you think I've just outlined a self-indulgent life, then your imagination is dozing, partner—because living with nothing but paper, day in and day out for years, is not easy. If you can learn to find fun all day with nothing but paper, you could probably have fun with nothing but yesterday's laundry, or with a small pile of dirt, or with the dead flies that collect on most writers' windowsills. If you can learn to find fun with nothing but paper, you might have fun with a pile of plain nothing, after you die.

We had a number of interesting books brought by another member of our group for our next selection and chose Annie Dillard's The Living. I'm looking forward to it. I've read a number of poems, essays, meditations and assorted non-fiction by her--The Writing Life, For the Time Being, Holy the Firm--but I don't think I've read more than a snippet or two of her fiction. So that should be good.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Escape, answer #2--Removing assumptions

In a sense this is how escape isn't necessarily a negative thing either, except that this one defines what you're escaping from (and to). When I hear Tolkien's quote that I mentioned last time, this is what I think of now...though I'm not sure it's exactly what he would have meant.

The idea here is that by removing a story from the average, mundane setting of your readers--whether that's through a fantastical secondary world (preferably not pseudo-medieval, McEurope, of course), a largely unknown culture or sub-culture of the real world, or some distant imagined future--what you're escaping is the assumptions and trivialities that keep people looking only at the surface of the real world around them. It's a powerful way to look at the underlying aspects of the real world, the ideas and assumptions that allow a more profound understanding of our own culture and that of others.

I'm leery of allegory in its usual sense, where Meaning comes first and the thinly veiled tale is twisted and nailed onto that frame. A nuanced story, though, one that doesn't start with the author determining the meaning but that begins with the author aiming for some sort of truth or understanding, exploring an idea or image and trying to understand it even if no understanding ultimately comes...that's the kind of story I love.

Fantasy and SF and stories set in unfamiliar locales are ways, good ways, of achieving that kind of re-examination of what it is that makes us who we are. I'm making no claim that they're the only or even best way to do so, but I know that they're the best way to get me to that kind of place.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Escape, answer #1--Escape is not a bad thing

Tolkien's famous answer is that no one reprimands a prisoner for trying to escape. Even that, though, is a phrase that could be interpreted different ways. So I think of this one rather as the Robert Frost answer. I owe it to a college prof of mine who had published a book on high, epic fantasy many years before I was in college, John H. Timmerman (1983, according to Amazon). It's long out of print, and I can't say what I'd think of the discussion within it today, but this was his comparison in that book.

In Frost's poem "Birches," the speaker dreams of climbing the trunk of a birch tree and then, swinging from the drooping tops, find himself back on the ground. "I'd like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over." And then the key, the thing that makes escape not a negative thing is in the next lines, "May no fate wilfully misunderstand me / And half grant what I wish and snatch me away / Not to return. Earth's the right place for love..."

Stories set in a secondary world, by this argument, do offer escape from the real world, but it's a temporary escape that allows a reader to return once again ready for whatever might be happening. A negative escape would be to climb those trees and refuse to take that swinging plunge through the air that ultimately brings a person back down. (Italo Calvino might argue that even that isn't ultimately negative...but then I think we might be starting to mix metaphors, which wouldn't help.)

It is possible for two readers to read the same text and react differently, one in the cover-my-ears, I'm-not-listening-to-the-real-world way and the other in an OK-now-I-can-deal-with-this-way, so I don't think this answer relies on the text so much as on the reader...but that will probably be true of all of these responses I give.

I'm not fully satisfied with this one, but I think it's a good starting point.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Setting and Escape

I'm very influenced by setting in my reading. I don't mean landscape only--though a good, weird landscape can draw me in--but all the aspects of an interesting cultural and social backdrop. I certainly enjoy good (as in well-rounded, believable) characters, an interesting plot, and depth of thought, but if I happen to find the setting intriguing, much else can be forgiven. That's probably a large part of my draw to speculative works--give me a secondary world that isn't cookie-cutter, pseudo-medieval; give me a far future colonized planet with intriguing societal structures; give me a post-apocalyptic story with believable repercussions (or just a narrator who begins his story, "On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig...").

Even in mimetic fiction, I'm much more likely to want to read something set in a culture or subculture that I'm not familiar with, or at least that I didn't grow up with. Whether it's set in Argentina, South Africa, India, Afghanistan, or China or whether it takes place among a subculture within North America, something that is by choice or force or location isolated from the mainstream--those are the stories I tend to enjoy. What I have very little interest in is stories about middle-class, white Americans dealing with the ennui of suburbia.

This preference opens me up to accusations of escapism. Is reading something like this merely a way to stick my head in the sand and ignore the world around me? I don't believe so, and I have three possible responses to that over the next few days. They aren't mutually exclusive, though there's one that I probably best reflects how I go about reading. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Olympics

I happened to catch the 1,500m run prelims last night, and that got me excited about watching some running here. The 800 was my race in both high school and college, so I definitely hope to catch that. But I think when it comes to drama and excitement, the 4x400 is the greatest event. That's the one that gets me pumped up, wanting to race myself. In college I did run that event, but always on the B team. Our A team won nationals one year, so I think cheering for them helped build that kind of anticipation for me. That plus the fact that I put way too much pressure on myself in the 800, while there was none in the 4x400--for an 800 runner, a single lap is just a sprint with no worries about strategy or pacing, both things that ended up twisting me up before my 800 races. My favorite experience from the 4x400, though, was one time that we had a 4xDan relay.

So I know nothing about anyone competing in it for any country, but I'm hoping to catch it regardless. I've been conditioned to see it as the final event of a meet, so after watching it, I'm sure a part of me will feel the Olympics must be over, whenever it ends up taking place.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Oh yeah, WorldCon

Nearly a week later, and I still haven't given any reaction to the convention. I apologize. It was good--I met a number of other writers and a few people who are in some sort of editing role for different venues, plus I got to sit in on some good writing-related panels.

Which panels? Let's see if I can remember... (OK, had to get the booklet to get the exact titles and participants correct)

Short Fiction: On it's way out or a way to break into the market? David Levine, Ellen Datlow, James Patrick Kelly, Lisa Mantchev, Sheila Williams

I wasn't sure about this one, as it seems a conversation that comes up so often online, and I didn't expect a lot of new insight from this, but I was interested in seeing some of the panelists in person. And I was right that it didn't really change my opinion, but it was interesting. There was some condescension toward Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld that I found silly (not from Lisa Mantchev, of course, who's been published in both and whom I met afterward briefly, but mostly from JP Kelly, if I remember correctly). There seemed a decent awareness of things like podcasting, more than the Big Three often get credit for at least. But, really nothing earth-shaking here. It was disappointing but to-be-expected that when they asked for hands both for how many in the room write (or hope to write) short fiction and how many read short fiction...there were more hands for the first than the second. How do you expect to write it if you never read it?

Creating a Mythos. Elaine Isaak, Julia Phillips, LE Modesitt, and David Zindell.

I was impressed with the well-thought-out observations and questions of Modesitt, whose books I haven't read yet. Basic question was about how do you convey the mythological underpinnings--not just religious, but the assumptions and patterns of thinking--of an invented society. One of the things Modesitt said is often the best way to convey that to a reader is to introduce a character who actively opposes or disbelieves what the majority holds as given. Elaine Isaak also had some good things to add, so I may be checking out some of her writing too.

Fandom and SF outside the English-speaking world. Alvaro Zinos Amaro, Christian Sauve, Rani Graff, Sarah Hoyt.

I really enjoyed this one, giving the perspectives of such places as Spain, Quebec, France, Israel, Portugal...and with the help of some audience members, Finland, Sweden, and Russia. Part of the discussion was about how fandom and cons are similar or different...which didn't especially interest me since I'm only just discovering that subculture here in the US so I don't have a lot to compare it to. But I was very interested to hear what they had to say about the types of stories being written by native speakers of the various countries. I'd love to read some of any of those countries (though Spain would be the only one where I could read the stories without translation).

Storytelling and the Oral Tradition. Bill Mayhew, James Nelson Lucas, Patrick Rothfuss, Randy Smith, Uncle River.

This panel had some interesting points about oral cultures and the nature of storytelling. It was dominated by bearded males (not the audience, though--clearly interest in storytelling extends beyond that demographic). It would have been interesting to have a bit more diversity within the panel to get other perspectives. With my background in the camp industry, I've come into contact with the storyteller subculture before, so not much was new here, but it was a good reminder of the importance and nature of stories.

Later we went to a variety of parties. The Viable Paradise party was a lot of fun, and I met a number of other writers there. I'd never even heard of VP, but they throw a good party. The official party floor of the con, though...all duds that night. I suspect some of the publisher parties on other nights might have been more interesting, but the Thursday parties were not. At all. Oh well, the rest of the day was very good. I have no idea when I'll get to go to another con (MileHi? I don't know yet), but I look forward to it.

Friday, August 08, 2008

"Exile, Self-selected"

I'll have to find time in a little while to report on my experiences yesterday at WorldCon--at the moment I'm exhausted, because of a combination of that and things going on here, but I wanted to direct you to my poem, which is now published at MindFlights, "Exile, Self-selected."

This was written specifically for the contest, which had a theme of exile. It seems that immigrants have been showing up more and more frequently in my writings lately, and this is no exception--it was imagined as something of an homage to the migrant workers I used to work with in the onion fields and Christmas-tree fields of Western Michigan. For six summers beginning at age 9, I worked for two different onions, carrots, and parsnips farms in the rich soil of what had once been a shallow lake that was drained by early settlers. We could jump on some of the fields and feel the entire ground shake because of the water that was still there in pockets. About twenty years later, and much of that soil is drier, far less rich. Then for two summers I worked swinging a machete all day long to trim Christmas trees. So this is for H├ęctor Sr. and Jr. and all the rest.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

World Con

So I'm going down to World Con for the day tomorrow. This'll be my first time attending a con. I have vague fears of high school-style boredom, standing around with no one to talk to or nothing to say to those I am by, wondering how long until the next class, err, session, so I can at least be doing something... But I'm also excited to get a taste for what these things are like and hopefully meet a few people here and there. I'm riding down with Jeremiah, and he'll introduce me to many people, I'm sure. So I know it won't really be a repeat of my freshman year of high school. That doesn't stop some animal part of my brain from dredging up long-buried feelings, though.

It'll be especially strange to be away from the kids for an entire day, especially since my wife has been back to work these past two weeks.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Dr. Julius T. Roundbottom

I've mentioned this fun serial fiction project by fellow Fort Collins-ite Jeremiah Tolbert, but now I want to point out that new dispatches are being added with a new storyline. This is a steampunk text-and-photo project (or photonic captures) patterned as if from the field notes of a scientist in a world of clockwork and steampower. So read the latest, and circle back to see what's gone before--today's is the second of the latest storyline, so it may be worth reading last week's first actually. Or start at the very beginning. You know, however you want to go about.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

"Called Out to Snow Crease Farm"

It's taken me until today to read this past week's story in Strange Horizons, but I really enjoyed "Called Out to Snow Crease Farm" by Constance Cooper. It's the story of a new vet working with animals she wasn't trained on, animals that she grew up considering evil. Out in this poor, frontier-type region where she was sent to work, though, the animals serve an important function. I think it was really the fact that on this frontier, people end up with lichen growing on their faces, and there's no way to stop it that drew me in. What does that say about me?

The story definitely has the feel of a setting that could give rise to many fascinating stories, so I hope there are more someday. (Cooper has a pretty extensive bibliography, it appears, so perhaps there already are more...maybe some detective work is in order.) Go. Read it.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Honorable Mention

The winners have been announced for MindFlights' poetry contest, so I can now reveal that my poem is an honorable mention in the short form. The theme of the contest was exile, and my poem "Exile, Self-selected." I'll say more about the poem when it's published sometime in August. There are some names I'm proud to be among in that list of winners, so it's good to see the announcement.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

One more book received


I received this book in the mail the other day--Escapement by Jay Lake. It's a sequel to Mainspring, which I haven't read yet, that I won in a drawing at FantasyBookSpot. I'll have to get my hands on Mainspring sometime soon and read it before I pick this one up. I've been hearing both good and bad about the book, but even the bad for one particular reviewer or another has seemed to be things that wouldn't make the book bad in my opinion, so it has been on my list of books to read for a while.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An airplane cemetery

On something of a whim a few months ago, I subscribed to the magazine Pulse. I haven't really paid as much attention to it as I thought I might, but I got an email this morning linking me to some web content, including an upcoming single for the band Calexico. I'd never listened to them, but it's a good song. Also on the page is a teaser video for their upcoming album--just an instrumental in the background, a guitar style that I like, but that could be from just about anybody. What caught my attention, though, is the video shots of the airplane cemetery, all these old aircraft sitting out in the open field. Very cool.

Well, the Romantics had something for graveyards and old ruins (both of which fit these images really), and I get that...though I don't necessarily identify myself as a Romantic. I'm probably more influenced by Romanticism than I recognize, but at the same time I find a danger in romanticizing things too much and in certain aspects of writing that the Romantic mindset can lead to. So I'll actively work against that in my writing at times as well.

None of which stops me from enjoying the footage in that video.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Interactivity that's inane

Yes, interactivity is good, but can we please call a halt to news programs reading the email reaction of some random viewer? It simply adds nothing to the product. I, as another random viewer, am not the least interested in what some stray person lurking on their computer thinks. It's not that I don't care what others think, but without knowing more about the person, there's simply no context to convey anything more.

At least with online forums incorporated into, say, the local newspaper's website or the local news, then there's the potential to create a little dialogue and perhaps to learn more about regular posters to put comments into context. Often that degenerates into extreme childishness, especially on sports and politics sites, but there's a potential for more. Reading silly emails, not so much.

If the local news feels a need to incorporate opinions in their broadcasts--they certainly schedule enough time that they need to fill up--give me a reason to care about the person's opinion. Experts are fine--forget the fear of elitist complaints, and give me someone with intelligence and an understanding of the issue that I lack. Or, if you want to convey what's going on with average people in the area, gather a group for a bit more in-depth reactions, and keep that group changing every week or every day...but devote enough time that it's not a meaningless sound bite.

Otherwise it's no more than an empty gesture, a pretense of listening just so you can fill the bloated time slots.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Two book purchases



I just received these two books in the mail today from Clarkesworld Books. I'd tried to buy Wolfe's Bibliomen last summer, had it in my shopping cart at Clarkesworld and then was pulled away from the computer. By the time I came back later that same day, Clarkesworld had the announcement that it was no longer selling except in large quantities to other sellers. So as soon as they opened for their brief July-only sale, I checked if it was still available...and quite pleased that it was. In the meantime I'd tried to get my library to buy a copy--no luck--and then to inter-library-loan a copy--no luck either. In fact, they only found one library at all that had a copy, and it was the even rarer, limited edition from the 80s...they weren't about to lend it. Just recently I'd noticed that Small Beer Press is selling this edition of it as well and was about to buy it through them when I learned about Clarkesworld's sale. Amazon lists its lowest price for the 80s edition as $165 and for this edition as $30.

The other is K. J. Bishop's Etched City, which I've already read (from the library), but I really enjoyed it and had been considering rereading it anyway. I chose the Prime edition--I like the cover of the Spectra re-issue quite a bit, actually, but this one is even better. It'll probably be a while before I get around to rereading it, but already I'm looking forward to it.

I'd tried to get Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory as well, but someone beat me to the last copy.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Character Opinions and Subtext

I'm reading a book now, overall an enjoyable one, a post-apocalyptic story where it's clear that for a long span of time humans lived in isolated communities, giving rise to many visually distinctive ethnic groups. One thing bothers me, though--the main character judges people very much based on how much they resemble her own ethnic group. On the one hand, it makes sense--given the far-future (but not technologically advanced) settings and cultures, things that make the book work on many levels, it's logical that she'd identify immediately with those who look like her. In fact it's probably an honest acknowledgment of something we all do to some extent.

So it isn't that exactly that bothers me...but the fact that the story so far, and I'm nearly done with it, does little to undermine that opinion. There are some kind and trustworthy people from other ethnic groups and some treacherous people from her own, but very few. And those who prove kind are those the main character trusted on first seeing them, while the treacherous prove those she immediately dislikes on seeing them. So the underlying subtext seems to be to trust our prejudices.

Given the author, I'm certain this wasn't an intentional subtext. Yet it seems to be there, pretty prominently. Maybe in the final 75 pages something will seriously undermine it, so no final judgment on it yet. But for now it has me thinking about making genuinely honest and believable characters who don't share your values without making it look like those are your values. As well, it brings to mind all the things an author might unintentionally reveal about their own biases through subtext...except I'm hoping that I'm misinterpreting that in this case.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bar Book Club

We met last night at the microbrewery for our latest book club. Beer of choice was a new one, Bourbon Barrel Stout--very good. It's a dark beer with a lot of flavor (which is exactly what I prefer).

We'd read Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which was a bit of a strange experience for some in our group...and I think earned some snickers from some spouses and such (Yeah, they call it a book group, but they're reading a comic. What geeks). Actually the guy who suggested it had read it for a communications and culture class in college some 10 years ago, and he was the one whose sister-in-law had called him a geek.

So I enjoyed the book, and we ended up with a good discussion on it. I didn't read comics growing up, and I think for those who did the book would be even more exciting--it's like it validates the type of thing you liked reading when you were younger while giving it greater depth, weightier topics, more adult themes or approaches. I can see the same thing for some of the books I do read, that they make it OK again to enjoy whatever it is that you're sort of embarrassed that you liked back in those awful early teen years...

The other thing that jumped out at me because I've been trying to expose myself to more graphic novels and the storytelling techniques of them is that this was a lot more bound by the traditional panel-by-panel storytelling than some things I've read. I wonder if that's a reflection of how things have changed in the 20+ years since it was published. There were certainly times when this broke away briefly from the panels, and I had the feeling (whether true or not) that I was seeing the early forms of that kind of experimentation.

It was my turn to bring suggestions, and I brought these:

City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco

Plus one nonfiction book because I think some in the group tend to be intimated by the fiction I like, My Story As Told By Water by David James Duncan, and that's the one they chose. It's a re-read for me (as the VanderMeer and Helprin books would have been), a bunch of essays on environmentalism and the natural world and spirituality. It came down to this, this Eco and Sedia books, so I'm a bit disappointed as I would have loved to read this with the group and discuss them, but I'm hoping to read both of them soon as well.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Pilot episode done

The first episode of my serial project is finally done. It took a long time, but I'm hoping that's mostly because I was still getting a feel for the characters and setting and voice of the writing. I'm pleased with it at the moment, but not ready to share it with anyone in my writing groups yet--I'm hoping to do at least a bit of polishing on it before I do that. I've started some planning for the second episode now--my hope is to have it done within 2 weeks, but at the moment that seems a bit daunting. So we'll see.

I've also managed to do some major rewriting for a different story, one that I wrote right after the baby was born. I'm planning to send it to an anthology that opens next week, so I'll be polishing it one more time (at least) before I send it in. This is quite different from my usual writing--I think in ways that will make it good for this particular antho, but...well, once again we'll see.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Cave dwellers singing

I love to find articles about life and cultures of peoples from all eras, and this one is especially cool. Turns out the cave pictures correspond to the places in caves with the best acoustics, and some of those locations required them to crawl through low tunnels to find. I especially like the idea that they may have relied on essentially echolocation to find these--I've seen some fascinating stories about blind people training themselves to rely quite nicely on echolocation. Also, the fact that the echoes at times resemble the animals in the pictures is very intriguing.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Little Goth girl

One treatment for thrush (a common infection babies get in their mouths) is gentian violet, which is basically a purple ink. So we've had to treat Anneke with it, turning her lips a very Goth purple, but even though my wife has seen patients bring in their 2-month-olds with already-pierced ears, it's not something we'll be doing. And she has very pale skin, but we won't be dying her hair black, nor does her typical wardrobe much go with the Goth look (they just don't make 0-3 month leather jackets, steel-studded, alas). Even so, it makes me laugh every time I see those lips...

Monday, June 30, 2008

New books (and a CD)

I had an Amazon gift certificate, so I just received two books that I'm looking forward to reading: Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place and Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow. For years I've listed Beagle as a favorite author, based on The Last Unicorn and The Innkeeper's Song primarily, but I hadn't read this, which I know some consider his best. And I've been hearing good things about Sedia's book. I may be saving them until our next book club meeting, because it's my turn to bring a book, and I suspect either would be an acceptable suggestion.

I also got a CD I've been keeping an eye out for years--John Kay's Heretics & Privateers. When I was living in West Michigan, there was an independent, non-commercial radio station that played an incredibly diverse mix of music, but at the time leaning toward folk/singer-songwriter-type music (with a fair amount of jazz and blues as well). John Kay was the singer for Steppenwolf (well before my time...), but solo he sings a sort of folk-blues. The title track begins:
Work and worry's all she's known
Lived golden rule since the day she was born
Through all these troubled years
She raised her family, there was no time for tears
She's done her best, the kids are grown
She prayed each day for a life of her own
Last night she disappeared
She's joined another tribe, the heretics and privateers.
And shortly after that is this cutting line that I love, "God bless the company / for two weeks severance pay."

I've never found another station that plays this music--it's too recent (early aughts) for classic rock-type stations but too much like older music to find a comfortable home on other stations. I imagine it had some airplay on NPR and similar stations at the time, but if so it's not one I've heard since moving away from Grand Rapids. So, thanks WYCE.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A chance to breathe

Last two weeks have been rather crazy with first my in-laws and then my parents out to visit the baby, and on top of that, everything wrapping up with my wife for residency. It's always great to see family and spend time with them, but it can also be quite stressful with all the planning and such that goes along with it. So I didn't really try to do any blogging with everything else going on.

The next few weeks, though, should be good for writing (and blogging?)--my wife has a few weeks before she starts her new job, so we're both home with the kids, and we have no intention of any big trips anywhere or anything that requires lots of planning and juggling (though we may consider doing some little things to take advantage of that time off).

So big congrats, of course, to my wife for graduating. For the past three years, federal law has required that she never work more than 30 hours in a row and that her weeks on average don't go over 80 hours of work...and there were certainly times when a given week or a given shift pushed against those limits. So it'll be nice to have a more sane schedule, even after those weeks off are over.

More on writing-related and other stuff in future posts.

Friday, June 13, 2008

New story

I wrote a new story the other day, completely unrelated to my serial project. It's just a bit of flash, something I wrote almost entirely on notecards as I was walking around. There was a discussion on a writers' forum about dramatic monologues, so I decided to give one a try (not the first one I've done, now that I think of it, since I did one that's similar in some ways about a year and a half ago--but that one was more whimsical and light than this one).

When I think of dramatic monologues, I think of Browning's "My Last Duchess," so that was my jumping off point. I ended up with a genocidal psychopath who appreciates the art of all the peoples he's destroyed. But then when I looked back at it...I had this vague sense that I'd read something similar before. Or maybe just read a review for a similar story. I'm not worried if it's just vaguely similar to something else, but with how short it is, I'd be a bit worried if the central conceit of the character revealing his past atrocities while showing off an art collection is the same as something else.

Ring any bells?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Serial fiction as episodes

One of my models for this serial project is TV shows, as I've mentioned. I don't want to be completely tied to that idea, but so far it's been useful as a way to frame the project (and a way to give my mind a pattern to aim for). So one of the things I did as I was debating how to proceed was to look not just at how individual episodes flow but at how TV seasons are structured.

I don't watch a ton of TV, so some of this is perhaps more obvious to people who do, but I found that in the US a typical season, at least on network TV, is 22 episodes long. They'll contract for the first 13 including the pilot and then do an additional 9 if the opening run is successful. Cable dramas recently have been using a straight 13-episode season recently, though. And even that is simplified, since recent shows have ranged from 6 to 26 (and a few decades ago the typical season was 29-39 episodes).

22 episodes seemed somewhat of a stretch for me to plan out right now. So I decided to plan out the first 13 with a definite arc and a definite season-ending finale, but that leaves things open as to the overall arc that I have in mind for some of the characters. Who knows, maybe as I get going through the first few episodes, I'll see the potential expand and add in another 9 episodes...but I'd have to add them in to the middle somewhere rather than tacking them on at the end. I'm thinking it more likely that I'll just save up any other ideas for later seasons.

Really it's probably silly to worry a lot about that kind of long-range planning as I'm still working slowly through the first episode (the pilot, I guess). I fully expect the pace of writing to pick up, though, both as I get a better hang of the tone and such and the structure of the episodes and as I get the hang of finding writing time with 2 kids. I was doing 3-4 chapters a month with my most recent novel, and I expect I could set a similar pace with the episodes eventually. Plus...I find it fun (and useful) to challenge myself to think of writing in a completely different vein like this.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Stay-at-home dad again

My wife is going back to work today, so I'm at home with both kids, including a baby who seems to find getting her food from a bottle as personally insulting, even though it's the same she'd be getting otherwise. Fortunately it's a relatively easy 2 weeks she's back to wrap things up with residency and then she's off again for 5 or 6 weeks before her new job starts.

Still...wish me luck.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Review of my story from Fictitious Force

The review of FF #5 went up yesterday at The Fix, and it has good things to say about my story. "An odd, allegorical tale," Jim Stratton calls it. The Fictitious Force website still hasn't updated to reflect the new issue (and the subscribe page still hasn't been updated to show the cover of issue 4), but it is available, so go check it out!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Poem live at Raven Electrick

"Machines Tend the Abandoned Fields" is up now. I had submitted this for the February, 2007 submission window, and Karen warned me that it would be this long before it got published. So that meant that while I always remembered that I had it forthcoming--Raven Electrick is frequently one of the zines I mention in cover letters, after all--I hadn't remembered much about the poem itself. I'd even forgotten the title until I had to look it up a month ago.

So it was fun to reread the poem this morning when it went up. As to the origin of this, I remember that I'd decided to write a speculative poem that day (a rather unglamorous inversion of the muse and inspiration, I know). I stepped outside during my son's nap to do some yard work and saw our admittedly gnarled and far-from-perfect rose bush outside (inherited from the previous owners...and I know nothing about caring for rose bushes). The first line came immediately to mind--"In neat rows the rose bushes lie"--with an image of endless fields of identical plants, and when I came inside I expanded on that image.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Ads in a fictional world

I mentioned the other day an idea that came up to incorporate in the serial fiction work--ads as if from the secondary world interspersed with the text. I love little details and items that are supposedly from a secondary world, like the excerpts of historical or other texts that writers use to introduce chapters and the ads that are in the back pages of some of Jasper Fforde's books for the Goliath Corporation, for T.O.A.S.T., and others. And even getting into actual physical items from the setting, things like Ambergris beer.

On the advice of a friend, I'm patterning the structure of each episode (for now, loosely) on the structure of TV shows, so basically four sections or scenes with commercial break between...which got me thinking of what kind of things would go in those commercials. If I did this as a podcast, it could be a lot of fun to create faux radio ads for those places. And then I started thinking that even if I keep it print, I could lay it out as an old newspaper and put newspaper-type ads alongside the text. Either way, there's a lot of room for fun.

One thing I'm debating, though, is whether to make them ads as if from the time of the stories (it's a vaguely steampunk setting, so 19th century) or sometime later as if these stories are actually being recorded within the same city at a later time (say when radio becomes widespread 50-100 years later). That would clearly influence the types of things that might be offered in the ads. I think that question might come down to which format I end up deciding on--a podcast format would fit the radio model, and therefore after-the-fact, better; while a print version could play on Victorian newspaper stylings (a quick bit of research gives early 1800s as the start of the kind of mass-produced, cheap-paper newspapers that jump to mind).

I'm not doing any work on this aspect yet until I have a better grasp of the shape the project will take. But it's always fun to imagine.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Bramble Wolf in New Myths

My story "The Bramble Wolf and the Hunter" is now live in issue 3 of New Myths (I can't link directly to the story, so click on issue 3 and go down to the table of contents).

This is loosely related to the first novel manuscript I wrote--so loosely that no one else would likely suspect even if they'd read that. I imagined it as something that happened in the same location but centuries earlier, in a culture that disappeared by the time of the novel, either died out or absorbed by other cultures (there are hints in the novel, never explained, of an earlier people in the region). The title of the story came first--I think the idea of having a story about a hunter was inspired in part by Kelderek of Richard Adams's Shardik.

There's also an interview with each of the issue's writers--click on my name on the story page and then scroll down to the interviews (which area in alphabetical order).

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Writing a serial

This is really more of a writing process in general post. At various times when I've been faced with writing something quite different from what I'm used to, I've forced myself to approach the writing itself in a different way. So when I started learning journalistic writing in college I was used to writing everything out longhand and then typing it up (or sometimes typing it up plus the next few paragraphs). To jar my mind into the very different writing mode of journalism classes, I forced myself to write articles entirely at the computer. For a while I maintained that distinction--computer for articles, pen and paper for essays and fiction (and pencil and paper for poems).

I still rarely compose a poem at the computer, but I've moved into most other writing at the computer with occasional exceptions. Sometimes I'll still force myself to use a different font to approximate the same effect.

With the new baby, though, I knew there'd be times when I would want to be able to write things out long-hand (for one thing, it can be done with only one hand free--typing with only one hand is ridiculously slow). At first I was trying to remember to carry a notebook around with me, but that got a bit tedious as well. Then I saw Jeff VanderMeer mention on his blog that he often uses notecards for jotting down ideas and scenes and background, etc. So I grabbed a stack of notecards that my wife had left from medical school and I've been carrying them around.

Mostly I've been putting background info on them--characters, episode ideas, info about the city setting. I wrote one completely unrelated poem on one, so it's been useful for things beyond this particular project, and this morning I was out and came up with a random idea that I might weave into the project (more about that later, perhaps).

Now I'm at the stage of writing out the first episode. I've gone back to my usual fiction mode of late, doing it at the computer...but I am wondering if that's a mistake. Maybe I should stick with long-hand (either on the cards or back in the notebook). I'll have to see after doing a bit more on the episode if that would make more sense. I do have the episode planned out on cards in much more detail than I usually do for short stories. It's going slow, but part of that is simply that I'm still playing around with what kind of voice I want for the project.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Major trip...3 1/2 years ago

Anneke is now 5 weeks old. When Caleb was that age, we were already half a week into a 2-week trip across the country so my wife could apply to various residency programs. We crammed 6 interviews in 3 states (plus Thanksgiving with her family) into those two weeks. Caleb did fine with the driving--he pretty much slept the whole time...which meant nights were his time to be awake. So her interviews were often on very little sleep. It seems amazing now that she got into a program that regularly has 15-20 applicants for every position. And it seems even crazier to imagine trying to do anything like that now with a second child.

That's today's trip down memory lane. Next post should be more about my serial fiction project.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Book Club Report

Last night was our latest book club meeting at the bar, to discuss Wallace Stegner's Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Beer of choice: Horsetooth Stout (plus a sample of one of their new beers, Jezebel Strong Ale, which had a good initial flavor, but a sour aftertaste that I didn't care for).

Overall consensus was that it was too long for what it was trying to do. It's the story of Bo and Elsa Mason and of their two boys from the early 1900s through mid-Depression or so. Over and over (and over) Bo comes up with a scheme to get the family on easy street. He's a hard worker, charming, and amazingly talented, but lacks the patience for anything that might require dedication for modest returns. It's an interesting look at the era...but ends up feeling a bit repetitive. The final 100-150 pages, though, brought things together as Bruce, the younger son (and apparently the book is quite autobiographical in many ways, so the stand-in for Stegner himself) reflects on what home is, on the relative strengths of his parents, and what he has inherited from each. That makes it sound like he's just sitting around thinking for 150 pages, which wouldn't be quite right...but there are shades of that.

One of the guys in the group had read a number of other Stegner books, and he strongly recommended the others. He does a good job of evoking the West and the eras he sets his stories in, and then using those things to really explore who we are. I'm not sure if I'm sold enough to seek others out, but I will be open to it.

Next book, a fitting surprise given my post right before this, is Frank Miller's Batman, the Dark Knight Returns. It'll be interesting not only to read it myself but to see how the others react to a graphic novel/comic book.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Graphic storytelling

One thing I meant to point out in my last post was comic books and other graphic novel-type series. Many of those have certainly found a way to make serial stories work.

Now I wasn't a comic book kid at all. I've often been fascinated by the idea of visual storytelling, but it seemed that when I dipped my toes in (admittedly very randomly), I was often disappointed. The things I found might have good stories, but they often seemed to fail to take full advantage of the unique medium (as well, they seemed to usually fail to engage my mind on anything deeper than the that's-so-cool level). But over the past year or so, I've been more deliberate about finding works that did appeal to me on more levels and that did take full advantage of using their images to draw the reader in to the story, rather than simply speed readers along. The Flight anthology series helped a lot, as did some individual titles that I had recommended to me here and there. Often my favorites of these were the purely visual ones with no words at all--they force the reader (if that's even the right word) to actively engage with what's going on.

So actually, as the idea for doing some kind of serial project grew in my mind, one thought was that it could be a graphic novel/comic series. (I hesitate using the word 'comics' since I think it still has a connotation for many people that wouldn't fit what I'm envisioning...but it's not really a novel either, so graphic novel wouldn't fit either.) Well, when that vague idea ran into my artistic abilities, especially considering that the graphic approaches that tend to appeal to me have quite an accomplished, elaborate style to them...plans changed.

Still, that genesis of imagining it as a graphic series is influencing how I continue to imagine it. I'm still a writer, in love with words for themselves, so it isn't a matter of me writing it in prose only because I can't draw it (or lack the funds to turn it into a TV series). But I find it helpful to keep both the comics model and the TV show model in my mind as a framework as I develop this thing.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Serial fiction

I've been thinking about serial fiction recently. Can it still work in a prose format? It works for TV, of course, and for internet shows that use basically a low-budget TV approach. I don't know of any audio shows that take a similar approach (radio or podcast), though I know that some writers have had success essentially serializing their novels as podcasts. But I wonder if serial fiction that isn't simply a novel or novella chopped up would work too, something more open-ended, even if it has a definite overall arc to the story, like some TV series do.

To be clear--I'm not asking this from the standpoint of "let's bring back the wonderful old pulp days when short story writers were rolling in the dough with serial characters." Partly because I think that's mostly a wishful, imagined past rather than the reality, but mostly because I actually like the type of short fiction that gets published today. Places like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Fantasy, and others frequently have good stories, and I'm not trying to change that. But I am curious about serial fiction as well.

Michael Chabon last year published a novel in serial form, and I have the (now complete) book checked out from the library, so it will be interesting to see how he handles it...but that again brings it back to the question of a chopped up longer work vs. an open-ended approach.

Mostly I'm doing this because I like to shake up my own approach to writing at times, just to see what happens. So I'll be posting more entries about the process as it goes along. But I'd be interested in any other thoughts on the idea of serial fiction, whether in written form or podcast form since I'm leaving that possibility open for now as I work on the project.