Thursday, January 28, 2010

Inspiration

I love this cityscape. Common kitchen jars and boxes, canisters and utensils as buildings is a great conceit. Those who've read a lot of my writing know that I have a fascination with taking something normal and making it huge, in a way that leaves the reader uncertain if it's the objects that are big or the characters who are much smaller than humans really are. I wish I could say that I trace it to a childhood love of this book, but the truth is that while Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are was an important book for me growing up, I didn't discover this one until much later. But reading it to my daughter (over and over and over), I recognize a similar impulse here, one that really resonates with me.
More online fiction

I sometimes forget to include Tor.com in the online zines for short fiction that I read, so since I missed a lot of these stories last year, it's good to see a post that lists all of their 2009 stories. I hope to catch up on some of these in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

Strange that my favorite short story I read this week was a vampire story, but there it is--"The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" by Holly Black. I am not a vampire fan usually, but I think what I like about this is the sense that she manages to create plausible effects of a vampirism outbreak. Some governments try an all-out war; others stumble into an uneasy truce. And though the story (thankfully!) makes no attempt to romanticize being a vampire, she manages to capture how even as awful as it is, some people will still romanticize it. In addition, it's just an entertaining story, which, you know, is a good bonus.

Full truth, this wasn't quite my favorite short I read this week, because I (re-)read a story in a collection I own. After finishing Jeff VanderMeer's wonderful Finch, I went and read "Corpse-Nose and Spore-Mouth" from the Secret Life collection, since it works as a self-contained story but is also a sort of early scene of the novel before the novel became something very different. The story is also online, I realize now, along with Jeff's commentary about how the story fits with the novel. So I certainly recommend that as well, both for the story itself and for the glimpse into how a scene can change so dramatically in style and focus.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Nemonymous revealed

I can now reveal which story in Nemonymous 9 was mine: "The Rude Man's Menagerie." Here's one review that had some nice things to say about the story:
Some of the tales use the image of chalk figures like the Cerne Abbass giant. One such story is ‘The Rude Man’s Menagerie’, in which Rebs, working on the remains of her late father’s Michigan tree farm, discovers the chalk figure of a man who appears to have drawn various animals to himself. The man appears malevolent, and Rebs resolves to free the animals — but how? This is a satisfying piece of fantasy that runs on its own internal logic; by the time reality comes gently free of it moorings, one is happy to go along.
Why were there multiple chalk figure stories? This may not be clear to someone picking up the anthology, especially someone from the US who doesn't know about the Cerne Abbas giant, a chalk figure also known as the Rude Man. The subtitle "Cern Zoo" was listed as "Cern(e) Zoo" on the submission page, as an anagram of the previous "Cone Zero" and "Zencore." Much of the discussion I stumbled across relating to the anthology focused on the CERN aspect, so I decided to take the Cerne aspect. But what kind of story could I, a US native who's never been to Cerne Abbas...or anywhere in the British Isles for that matter, write about the chalk figure?

It took me awhile to answer that question, but when I did, I felt that the process of writing the story fit perfectly in the anonymity of the Nemonymous series of anthologies. It was a story, I remember thinking at the time, that anyone familiar with me through my writing would not guess from me. But because I set it very concretely in the West Michigan I grew up in, with all kinds of geographic details from those fields and obvious familiarity with what it takes to work trimming Christmas trees...well, anyone who knew me growing up would pick that up right away. In fact, my brother was paging through the book when he was visiting, not even reading anything in detail yet because he'd just picked it up, and he picked out my story at a glance.

I rarely set stories in the real world--creating and taking advantage of particular differences from our own world is a big part of what I enjoy in writing--but it was fun to try to use my childhood without resorting to either nostalgia or the sort of small-town mockery you often get when writers try to revisit where they grew up.

Cern Zoo also includes one story that will be reprinted in Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of 2009: "The Lion's Den" by Steve Duffy.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Inspiration

While I may not usually write what most would consider the more science-fictional end of the SF-fantastic continuum, and while I never really enjoyed science classes when I was in school, I find myself frequently reading the science, space, and tech articles in popular press venues. Little interest in the specs of such things, but the fact that they can do this or have learned that is fascinating. Probably my two favorites are archaeological findings and biological discoveries, especially zoological and botanical. New animal species, new understanding of evolutionary trends, new plant mechanisms, rediscovered relics and foundations and the things they say about those who lived there...

So while I don't have any new insights from any nonfiction books this week, I will link to one article, about an armor-plated, deep-water snail, nicknamed the iron snail. The article is primarily about how the snail's armor could inspire new approaches to bullet-proof vests and similar things, which is interesting itself--it seems we're constantly finding new things in the plant and animal kingdoms that then influence technology. But also, just the snail itself inspires me to refresh my memory on the fascinating ecosystems that have evolved in places like deep sea vents. Really, even the most imaginative SF stories are no more wild and strange to human imagination than places like that, far underwater.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

I'd read a few short stories this past week, and some of them I enjoyed, but none were really jumping out as something I had anything to say about. So I decided to just pick one today that I hadn't read yet, and that would be the one I'd make mention of here. I've enjoyed various stories by Aliette de Bodard, so I chose her "In the Age of Iron and Ashes" in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

I enjoyed the story. It's a dark story of gathering doom...that isn't relieved a lot in the end. Yudhyana, the protagonist, gives a good foil to the darkness of the war with his caring for the recaptured slave girl and his conviction that he's a man for peaceful times, not capable of handling the war-time duties given him. Which gives the ending even more punch... The dancing, the magic of an earlier era now lost, the various gods all add some good touches to the overall mood and feel of the story.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Book Club at the pub

Just got back from our latest (roughly) monthly book club meeting. I used to do little reports on those here, so I suppose I'll resume that. It's a great group of guys: a few engineers, a banker, a small-town paper reporter, a university psych prof, an OB-Gyn doc... with a 30+ year age range between the youngest and oldest, so we get a lot of different perspectives.

Beer of choice tonight: Bourbon-barrel porter. Very good beer.

Book: In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. I've already blogged about the book twice, so no need to say more. But the discussion was good.

It was my turn to bring suggestions this month, so from the seven or so I brought, we chose The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I've been wanting to read that for a while, so I'm looking forward to that. I've been saving up a collection of titles that I thought would be good for the group and now suddenly have all of them out from the library, so I hope to get to at least a few of the others as well...but that always depends on how much time I find for reading.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

New Gormenghast novel?

I just saw this news about Mervyn Peake's highly idiosyncratic masterpiece. I have the omnibus edition of the Titus books, so I've read the little scraps of the story included there. I'm glad it's not some later writer who was asked to complete the manuscript or anything along those lines--hopefully his widow would have had a good feel for what he wanted to accomplish with the story. I'm somewhat concerned with whether the book will live up to the earlier ones, but I'm pretty sure I'll read this once I get a chance, despite those concerns. I've reread the first book fairly recently, but I ought to reread the second and third soon too.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Inspiration--the Monkey of the Inkpot

This week for this feature, I'm going to write a bit more about the story of the Essex, which I've just finished.

One thing that strikes me is just how bloody the business was. I mean this should be obvious--they're butchering a whale, after all--but it doesn't strike home until you read an account like this just how messy and awful the process was. I'm no hunter and would have a hard time butchering regardless of the animal, but I'm also not opposed to hunting in principle--I'd argue that carefully monitored hunting of deer, for example, is an essential part of maintaining a balanced environment, since we've basically replaced the deer's top predator in many locations. But reading this gives me a lot of sympathy for the Greenpeace efforts to stop the Japanese whaling ships (admittedly I was already disposed to sympathize). Do I still feel like I want to write a whaling story after all of this? Much less so at the moment...though at the same time maybe removing that romanticism of whaling is a good reason to incorporate into a work of fiction.

Another thing that strikes me is just how extreme hunger and thirst can be and the effects on the bodies and minds of the survivors here. I've read in many fantasy (and other) stories about the main character(s) in dire straits, without food or water and struggling through a wasteland or something similar. Few if any of those stories have managed to fully evoke a true sense of the terrible effects of such deprivation. Fiction writers would do well to understand better the stages of hunger and thirst.

Last, I'll leave this quote that I found interesting. Not a quote from Philbrick, but one he includes from his sources. It's the patter of a mate on one of the whaleboats (once whales were spotted, the whaleships would lower their smaller whaleboats, usually three, to close with the whales). As Philbrick says, these were whispered words so as not to startle the whales, but spoken with what he calls an "almost erotic bloodlust":
Do for heaven's sake spring. The boat don't move. You're all asleep; see, see! There she lies; skote, skote! I love you, my dear fellows, yes, yes, I do; only take me up to this whale only this time, for this once, pull. Oh, St. Peter, St. Jerome, St. Stephen, St. James, St. John, the devil on two sticks; carry me up; O, let me tickle him, let me feel of his ribs. There, there, go on; O, O, O, most on, most on.
There's something weirdly hypnotic to this, almost poetic, but once you realize the incredible violence of the situation...there's just such a dissonance, such a juxtaposition that it draws me in.

I'm tempted, after reading this book, to read Moby Dick. Having read various excerpts of the book in lit classes over the years, I fear I'd greatly regret giving in to that temptation, however...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

My favorite short story I've read this past week is Carol Emshwiller's "Above it All" in Fantasy Magazine. I've read some of her other works--including her novel Mount, which I definitely recommend--but I wouldn't say I've read enough to make any comparisons with others of her work. This one is light in tone, maybe because while the narrator is older, the real main character is her adopted daughter, going from birth to teenager. The lightness certainly doesn't turn the story into fluff--its images resonate. Some of them hover along the edges of allegory, but it's the good kind of allegory that brings to mind a variety of metaphorical connections but doesn't try to force the story (and reader) into knots so that it can map to that metaphor. It's the story of a girl who seems to always want to escape the earth, to climb or float up...somewhere. Until the time when she decides she doesn't want that at all, that she wants instead to be just like everyone else.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Monkey of the Inkpot

In Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges describes a monkey that enjoys the taste of ink. Some years ago, before I started this blog, I made a comment on my Myspace page (long since abandoned) that the image would be a fun way to imagine a muse--leave too little ink for the monkey to drink, and you get writer's block. Use the wrong kind of ink, and you end up with poorly constructed prose or flat characters.

I'm resurrecting that image (with a fancy new logo--oooh) for a regular feature to talk about inspiration. That might mean inspiration in general, but mostly it'll be to highlight whatever I happen to reading or learning about that's influencing my writing, or other things that I'm finding inspirational at the moment.

I'll keep this short this time. I'm reading a nonfiction book about whaling, In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. It's the story of the whaleship Essex, which was a partial inspiration for Moby Dick. The little details of how they organize the ship, the social organization that develops both on board and back in their home actually, is fascinating. It's not something I could incorporate into my main project right now--revising my serial project--but I did play a bit with whaling for a writing exercise this week. The whalers would be gone for two or three years, so complex systems evolved on the ship, and their absence certainly affected life on shore too. In future posts in this feature, I'll look for specific anecdotes or tidbits that I find especially inspiring, but I'll save that for next week.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Zinsser's On Writing Well

The topic of writing guides came up today, specifically books that help with style and the craft of writing, and I remembered this book from my journalism classes. Google revealed a few good links related to it: an excerpt from an early edition and an article from last spring telling the story of the book and all its various revisions

The book is full of excellent advice. It's geared toward nonfiction writing, but its lessons apply to fiction as well, especially to writing short fiction where being concise is key. Many fantasy writers suffer from word bloat, and this book is an essential weapon against that. As I mentioned to the person asking for advice on writing guides, after absorbing the advice of this book, you may still choose to write flowery sentences, but those flowers will have stems made of steel and will serve a genuine purpose, not just to make you look smart (or to fail at making you look smart, as the excerpt argues).

I took that journalism class back in 1997 or 1998. I've skimmed the book since then, but after reading the excerpts, I can see that I ought to read it in full once more, and the article on the various editions makes me want to check out the newest one when I do. I recommend you do too.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

There are some great online magazines of free fiction, so my hope is to write a bit every Tuesday about some story I've come across. I'll be focusing mainly on the four zines that are my favorites: Strange Horizons (every Monday), Clarkesworld (1st of every month), Fantasy (every Monday and sometimes one more during the week), and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (every other Thursday). There are probably a half dozen others I periodically read, so I might pull something from one of those sources, but mostly it'll be a story from here.

These are not going to be reviews. More recommendations...but even that is less what I have in mind than the idea that short fiction ought to be discussed. The more conversations going on in scattered points of the web, the better for all these excellent zines (and the better for all the writers appearing in them and aspiring to).

With that into out of the way, the first thing that jumped to mind when I opened up these magazines the other day was that one writer had stories in two of them--Megan Arkenberg's "All the King's Monsters" in Clarkesworld and "Four Lies from the Mouth of God" in Strange Horizons. That's a pretty sweet 1-2 punch for any writer, so without being really familiar with her writing, I decided to check these stories out first.

Both are well worth reading. Readers of my blog are likely well familiar with how much an evocative setting often influences my opinions on stories, and in this sense the Clarkesworld story stands out more, but I enjoyed both. "Monsters" has cool mechanical constructs and intrigue while "Four Lies" has a censored book that frightens those in power and both have political resistance movements.

One thing that strikes me with each of these is that the main characters are drawn in because of their relation to a figure in the resistance--it isn't so much their own actions (initially at least) as the fact that the enemy knows of their relationship with someone important, someone who might have been the hero or protagonist in a different kind of story. There's a sense of realizing that the "hero's" actions and stance against tyranny or whatever has other effects for those around them. I remember another Strange Horizons story last year that played on that fact as well...something about "Salt's Father"? I'll have to look through their archives. I remember really enjoying that aspect of the story.

Anyway, that's all I have time for tonight, if I want to get this out while it's still Tuesday. Take a look at these stories, if you get a chance. Or, if you've stumbled on some other story that's worth my notice, let me know.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A lost year then?

I don't want to give the impression that last year was a miserable one or that I achieved nothing. In fact, if I'd broken down my goals last year as I did this, I would have greatly exceeded my goals. I've blogged various times about the serial fiction project I started a year and a half ago. I finished up what I called season 1 last March or April and then left it alone for half a year. During that time I wrote some short fiction, including one I'm hoping to revise shortly and have high hopes for, and I also wrote an extensive novella-length story that I hope to weave with a group of other stories and poems to create a mosaic novel of sorts. That has a lot of work needed, but I'm pleased with what I accomplished.

And then November came...and with some hesitation I decided to do NaNo. I chose the second (and final) season of my serial project and wrote close to 55k words during the month. Then I nearly finished the rest of the season during December (and just now finished writing the climactic scene of the final episode--another 1k-1.5k to wrap things up, and it'll be complete). So I'm very excited about that and have been exploring some things to do with the story.

It's been the public aspect of my goals that ran fallow last year. Being very clear and specific in my goals now should help with that as I move forward. My next post should be the first in what I plan to be a weekly feature here.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Well then...

I'm hoping to get back into blogging again. I don't want to think of this as a New Year's resolution (though Happy New Year to anyone who's still following this after so long or who stumbles upon it anew), because resolutions are so easy to break. It's a goal, though, part of a much more wide-ranging set of goals I have for this year and beyond. In fact, it's part of a plan, all meticulously mapped out, of what I hope to accomplish this year and within the next five years.

I've been hesitant to do such detailed planning in the past. I think I'm at a point, though, where it will be valuable to me. I have a copy here of Jeff VanderMeer's Booklife, which I'd been planning to get for Christmas ever since it came out, and he argues pretty convincingly for creating some kind of strategic plan. I've broken my plans and goals down into what I want to accomplish creatively; what I want to accomplish from a visibility/publicity/marketing kind of standpoint; and things I'd love to achieve but have little control over beyond constantly submitting stories and queries and the like.

So this blog fits in the middle category. I'm not going to suddenly turn into a publicity hound or do crazy things just to get attention--that's just not me, and if I tried to do that with my blog, I'd quickly become disillusioned. About a year ago was when I stopped blogging regularly (after some two and a half years of generally pretty regular posting)--I just became so overwhelmed with all the ways it seemed I should be marketing myself, between Twitter and Facebook and blogging and LJ and various forums and... It just became too much, so I shut down even what I had been doing. Unfortunately that included losing touch with people as well, which is probably my biggest regret of the past year, and something I also hope to repair. In most ways, then, this blog will simply return to the kinds of posts I was creating in the past as I dip myself back into the online world.

I do have a few more specific themed posts that I plan to begin next week, though, a bit of structure to help me post even when nothing comes to mind. So the goal for now is to have at least two posts a week and see where it goes from there.

I think that's enough of an intro to 2010. Happy New Year (again) and now back to writing (and picking up toys, and loading the dishwasher...).