Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Report: Thud, by Terry Pratchett

I find Pratchett books are like peanuts: one just leads to another. In this one, Sam Vimes, the commander of the Ankh-Morpork city watch, discovers the murder of a Dwarf by what appears to have been one of their ancestral enemies: a Troll. But nothing is ever the way it seems, especially in a police force that includes a werewolf with pre-lunar tension, a reformed vampire who goes by "Sally," and Corporal Nobby Nobbs, who carries an I.D. card that certifies him as probably human. A colony of ultra-conservative Dwarfs are digging for something under the city, something that drove its previous owner mad. It could trigger open warfare between Dwarfs and Trolls, catching Sam Vimes, his coppers, and the entire city between them. Even if Sam solves the murder, what the Dwarfs awoke in the mud-filled tunnels under Ankh-Morpork might just kill him anyway.

Pratchett tends to write his Discworld books in series based on a recurring cast of characters: the Witches, the Guards, the wizards, with the occasional stand-alone novel in which these casts appear as bit players. Of them all, I think books about the Guards are my favorite. The cast is consistent and fun, the action always exciting, and the mysteries always as interesting and twisty as anything you'd find in the mystery section of the bookstore. Plus there's exploding dragons, domesticated werewolves, Dwarfdom as a religion as well as a race.

Ulysses Rating: 5- I'll read this again and again.

Book Report: The Truth, by Terry Pratchett

Reading Pratchett is like a ground-state for me. His are the books I turn to when I want something I know is good, a fast read, and contains characters with whom I enjoy spending time. So in the midst of Mr. Spence's treatise on the mythology of "the Red Man," a little (or a lot, for preference) of Pratchett is just the thing.

This one follows William de Worde, disgruntled scion of a wealthy family who finds his career as a newsletter writer for various international notables disrupted by the arrival in town of a group of Dwarfs and their printing press. As always, Pratchett packs this book with incident, humor, insight into human nature, politics, the "free" press, and a gaggle of quirky characters. I would say that The Truth is one of my favorite books, even on this fourth read, but I could say the same about all of his works.

Ulysses Rating: 5 - I'll read this again and again.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

State of Play

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence... and also a couple of other books that are NOT non-fiction treatises written at the turn of the last century in which overblown language (from a modern sensibility) and inherent cultural prejudice are on full display. Fortunately.

Inspirational Quote: "When a man is wrapped up in himself he makes a pretty small package" -- John Ruskin

That's it.

I've had it.

Listen to me, thou packagers of children's toys, for thou hast aroused the ire of cunning Ulysses who once did nasty things with a wooden horse (er... that didn't come out right). Listen as I wax full wroth! (And believe me, Wroth is not one who likes to be waxed, either).

Cassandra, as a 5-year-old girl with certain sensibilities, has a soft spot for dolls, ponies, stuffed animals and "-sets" (tea-sets, play-sets, picnic-sets, etc.-sets). Santa was quite kind to her this year, but it is obvious that he's pretty upset with the direction-challenged king of a small Achaean island because he's inflicted a devious kind of torture on me.

Toys come in cardboard boxes with nice plastic window-fronts that let perusers see the contents laid out in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, if not actually practical. Very pretty. Very appealing. And you get to see exactly what you're getting without all that mucking about looking at pictures on the box (although there are a lot of those too... mixed with some print on warranty and liability so fine that reading it would blind an eagle.

Once you open it, though, your appreciation for its presentation vanishes. Inside, things are laid out on a cardboard slide crimped and folded and secured with so much transparent tape that neither knife nor scissors will part it. I had to use a saw. A table saw, because I don't like doing things by half-measures.

Once you've extracted the slide, there are the plastic bubbles to remove*. These things are often layered so that, once you've removed one, you discover that the cups, plates and cutlery you were hoping to extract are actually still embedded in a second layer and can only be popped out by the application of manual force which, because the aforemention pieces are often more fragile than the packaging in which they arrived, runs about an even chance of reducing them to bits. We lost a plastic jockey that way. His plastic horse is still in mourning, won't eat any of his plastic food, and there are no instructions on how to notify the family... not even in the finest print.

But once the plastic bubbles are gone, the fun is only starting. Because one of Santa's elves seems to have a wire twist-tie fetish. They're everywhere. Two hundred of them are used to secure the average Bratz Kid to her packaging. They're wrapped around wrists and ankles and waists and necks and tangled in hair and tightened so much in these places that I keep getting the creepy feeling that bondage plays some part in package design. In fact, at one point, I had to open a dress in order to untangle things. I apologized to the doll in question, of course, but it still left me red-faced and unable to meet Penelope's gaze. To keep the ties from pulling through the cardboard, they are often slid through spacers, these little plastic tabs with holes in them that look like beams from a cheap Meccano(tm) set, and the wires are so crimped and tangled that pulling them out through the spacers is nearly impossible. In fact, these wires are not just twisted together in a sensible, civilized manner, they are wound tight enough to make an anal-retentive boy-scout proud, and then they are doubled over and twisted again. That they aren't actually knotted seems to be an oversight in the plan, but those responsible for the twist ties have done some miracles within that restriction.

And, of course, the twist-ties are held down with transparent packing tape. Yards of it. As if their contents were expected to struggle and free themselves. It's a disturbing image: millions of toys bound and helpless as they're distributed across the planet against their manufactured wills.

So: cardboard, tape, twist-ties... Ah, yes. That brings me to elastics. These aren't you're plain, honest, sensible office-style elastic bands. These are stealth bungies, transparent, nearly undetectable, and stretched so tight that (again!) mental images of unwilling bondage cannot be held at bay. It was one of these that cost our poor artificial jockey his abdomen. Penelope didn't see it, and figured it was only the encompassing plastic dome that was preventing her from freeing him. She yanked, and now he's no longer capable of mounting his horse. He needs a medical cart or travois capable of transporting the injured. No, he's no longer a jockey, but I did see him starring in a re-creation of the death of Qui-Gon Jinn from the Phantom Menace (Cassandra has diverse tastes. There is an insight to the schizophrenic zeitgeist (two German words in the same sentence! Is there a medal?) that can only be obtained by watching a little girl dressed in a princess dress with a magic wand in one hand and a light-saber in the other). He plays the part of Darth Maul post Obi-wan's revenge.

Elastic bands so thin and so small and so tight that it often looks as though the toys are held by force-fields. And untangling them is something that would bring tears to a sailor.

ENOUGH I SAY!

When the packaging requires more imagination to penetrate than the toy requires to enable play, it's time to stop. When more time is spent opening the box than is actually spent enjoying the contents, it's too much. When the total real-estate occupied by the box, it's full frontage, is FOUR THOUSAND TIMES greater than the surface area of the toy inside, it's time for an intervention.

So stop it. What I want is a box, a simple, six-sided carton of pressed boxboard within which the toys are seated securely using tissue-paper... or even allowed to rattle around since THEY OUGHT TO BE TOUGH ENOUGH TO SURVIVE SHIPPING IF THEY'RE GOING TO SURVIVE TEN MINUTES WITH A LITTLE GIRL WHO'S DEFINITION OF PLAY FREQUENTLY INCLUDES THE WORD "IMPACT."

Less packaging please. More recycle-friendly materials. Listen, or someday I swear you will wake up to find a large wooden horse drawn up outside your door, and THEN YOU'LL BE SORRY!

* Yes, I'm aware I could cut and tear, but I like to separate things for easy recycling... which brings me to my belief that packaging, when properly compressed, should not occupy several hundred times more volume than its contents.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Those Who Do Not Remember the Past are Condemned to Repost It

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: "To provoke dreams of terror in the slumber of prosperity has become the moral duty of literature." -- Ernst Fischer

Over a year ago, literary agent Nathan Bransford put up a blog post entitled Things I Don't Need to Know in a Query. It got my attention, somewhat as a red flag to a bull, or possibly like praising Taco Bell in front of a Mexican (I've seen this happen, folks, and it's not pretty). My response is below, because it has been over a year, and because queries have caught some interest lately, and because I liked it.

Dear Nate-Dog:

I've taken sixteen years to write my fictional magnum opus: "Sixteen Years of Writing," in addition to a good fifteen minutes researching the material on Wikipedia. I love it. My mother loves it too. My Dad hates it, but he suffers from papyrophobia and so this is to be expected. "Sixteen Years" is my fourth fiction novel. The other three are currently in the smallest room in my house, where their pages are occasionally read before being recycled. Amazon's Breakthrough PW review said, "This is probably a book." Stephen King's publicist's secretary's assistant said something about "restraining order violation," but I know he liked it. Although Agent X rejected this work, she said, "The words, taken individually, are not bad," so you know I've got some talent.

The book explores themes of loneliness, heartbreak and misanthropy through the revealing lens of a man whose allergy to wood keeps him isolated from his forest community. In addition to being didactic, pedantic and preachy, the novel teaches the reader the value of cheese (particularly gouda) as an alternative building material, and how true love can reduce household expenses.

I think this book would be a great fit for the publisher of "Thirty Days in New Jersey," and "Starting Religions for Fun and Profit." They could do it up with a cover featuring a Martin Short look-alike and a Chihuahua. In red, because that stands out on the shelf. A homeless guy near my house thinks the local bookstore would make a killing stocking only this book and selling coffee. It has "New York Times Bestseller" written all over it. In crayon, for now, but we can change that. Take this on, and we'll make enough money to visibly embarrass Oprah when she has me on her show. You'll have to swing that, though, because her producer's assistant's nephew's lawyer mentioned the same restraining order Mr. King's publicist's secretary's assistant did.

I don't have any psychological issues, as the attached court documents prove. My age is irrelevant, since my Mom and Dad can't agree on that anyway.

I am willing to provide a short synopsis of the book. Also, a summary. Or an outline. I've got an abstract as well. I can also send pictures of me and my shoes. And short videos of a play I did in second grade. And, well, any of my possessions, actually, although you'll have to give me an itemized list if you want someone else's possessions.

Obviously, "Sixteen Years of Writing" is completely different from everything else out there. For one thing, all those other books have already been published. For another, none of them have been dictated to me by the monster under my bed.

Sorry for wasting your time, but I don't have any of my own to waste.

Sincerely,
Ann Arthur

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Short Story Markets - Noise Made

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: ""To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there." -- Kofi Annan

There are several differences between myself and John Scalzi. In fact there are so many differences that, were you to contrast us, you'd save yourself a great deal of time by concentrating on the similarities. There aren't many: we're both married heterosexual males, we both write, and the amount of hair on our heads is not increasing as a function of time.

Other than that, though, we're not much alike. Another difference: when I question the return on sales to short story markets, the world takes no notice. When he does it, the world goes bananas.

Mr. Scalzi's point, as I understood it, was that he disapproved of a new short story market: a publisher putting out four magazines paying $.0020 a word for material. His opinion is expressed and clarified in the following blog posts:

In the spirit of the pulps and paying even less.
Black Matrix Publishing responds.
Aspiring writer Stockholm Syndrome.
My short fiction rates.
Presumably final notes on rates, markets and blah-blah-blah.
Addendum 3

Within his posts are links to those who debate him by saying, essentially, "Money isn't everything." His response is, "No, but publishing is a business, and someone's making money. If it's not you, then are you sure what you're getting is worth your work?" I think he's got a point.

I've also tracked down the following professional, semi-professional, amateur and etc. posts that deal with the fallout (most linked to by SF Signal).

Black Matrix Publishing.
Wheatland Press.
Jennifer Brissett.
Rachael Swirsky.
Douglas Cohen.
Nick Mamatas.
Cat Rambo.
Jim Hines.
Ann Leckie.
Neil Clarke.
Sarah Monette/Katherine Addison.
Clint Harris.

My two cents, after considerable thought:

1) Supply and demand. The problem that publishing has which most businesses do not is that the supply of written work exceeds demand by a considerable factor. Authors want to be read. Readers want good stories. Unfortunately, especially since the rise of the Internet, readers suffer from a breadth of choice that terrifies, and much of it (although poor) is free. If readers don't pay, publishers don't make money. If publishers don't make money, writers don't get paid. Too many writers, too few paying readers, and the price per word becomes so depressed that the word "laughable" can be used.

Retail businesses base their price on production cost plus profit. Were writers to demand a better monetary reward for their production, magazines would be forced to increase their prices, which would drive many readers away. Those few magazines which survived would be paying good rates. Writers won't demand this, however. The last thing we want is a smaller market for our work. It's hard enough getting published as is. That, and getting the universe of writers to agree to such a thing would require a miracle of the "air into gold" variety (the quote is from Watchmen). If it has not been said before, I'm saying it now: you can't organize crazy people (and anyone who's glanced through a slush pile knows how many nuts are in THAT bag of trail mix).

2) What are writers in this for? Money? Prestige? Building an audience of readers? You've got a "being published" fetish? Depending on the answer, submitting to markets that pay nothing, or close to it, may make sense. However, research your markets and make sure you know whether your chosen target can actually deliver the payback you're seeking. Then ask yourself if what you're getting in return for the six weeks of heart-rending effort you put into your work is worth what you've given up for it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Feedback Loop

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment." -- Jim Horning

How did I react to the query critique I received?

Short version: facepalm.

Visual version:


Verbose version: Um... I knew all that. I did. I really did.

I've read agent blogs like Query Shark and Evil Editor and Miss Snark and Nathan Bransford. I know what makes a good query.

But, as Morpheus said, "There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path," and in this case, I busted my GPS and walked off into the wilderness. I had thought I was providing sufficient detail. I thought I was providing concrete incidents from the work. I thought I was providing a coherent, succinct summation of the plot. Yet I was uneasy. It just didn't seem right to me, and I couldn't see why. After reading through the Rejectionist's comments, I could see why.

I believe I've said this before, but the best criticism is the stuff that echoes what a little voice in the back of your mind has been trying to tell you.

Some might find her tone insufficiently gentle. I disagree. It is difficult to make a point with sufficient force to penetrate a writer's natural defenses while not arousing the whole to general warfare. For me, her intended audience, the tone was perfect - enough humor to keep it light, but sufficient acid to etch the important points into my consciousness. She did not spare my feelings (nor did I ask them to be spared). She told me what I needed to hear, and for that I'm grateful.

So: my reaction? "Jeeze. I can't believe I wasted a good opportunity by sending in this piece of crap." Then I got over myself and reread the agent blog posts about queries and googled "query letter" and thought about things a long time. And then I started from scratch and wrote a couple dozen MORE versions of my query. What resulted is the query that I really wish I'd sent instead of this one, because it contains less suck, and I really feel it needs only a tiny nudge, a change of perspective, an insight, that could move it to suck-free.

This is a delusion, of course. It too is sucktastic, and further feedback might help me turn it into something merely lame, but at some point I have to start listening to that voice at the back of my head, grow up and start developing my own ability to recognize quality. To that end, I suspect I have more reading and writing to do before this thing ceases to be loserific.

And thus, like Edison, we approach success by beating failure to death.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Gentle Hand of Correction

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: "Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." -- Gene Fowler
"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." -- Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith

I announced last month that I had won a contest. The prize was a query critique. The query and its critique by the Rejectionist are presented below for the edification of all who might find it edifying. I realize that, should the work described below ever make it to the bookstore shelves, those with long memories and an eye for detail will find that I've outed myself. To them, I say: well, there you go.

Dear Agent Awesome:

I am seeking representation for my 86000 word fantasy, Aria. [Insert bits here indicating that I'm familiar with Agent Awesome's list, preferences and/or favorite cheese].

A modern-day act of piracy taps into a magical storm and throws sailor Ken Williams into a dimension where islands float in the air, ships fly and the four elements have taken human form. He lands on a ship filled with escaped slaves including N'gali, Mother Earth.

Ken is forced to assume command in a race toward a distant mainland with the vast armadas of El Diablo del Fuego close behind. If they catch N'gali, El Diablo will use her power to create a fiery new world where her people will be slaves forever.

It's Ken's chance for redemption, but saving N'gali may take more than even his considerable skill.

My short stories have appeared in [print]. Further information about me can be found at ulysses-ithaka.blogspot.com, and at [url redacted because I like the word "redacted."].

Thanks for your time.

--Ulysses, Ruler of Ithaka, Hero of the Trojan War, Blinder of Cyclopses, &c, &c...

Alright, sirrah, here you are. We subscribe to the ruthless-but-loving school of critique, in case you hadn't guessed, so be warned.

Dear Agent Awesome:I am seeking representation for my 86000 word fantasy, Aria. [Insert bits here indicating that I'm familiar with Agent Awesome's list, preferences and/or favorite cheese].

Yep, good. One thing that always pleases us when a query comes in is something along the lines of "I'm a huge fan of Feminists are Delectable by your client Rejectionist Doormathater and think you might be a fan of my similarly witty and incisive take on the postmodern," or something--not just "I know who your clients are," but "I am doing something in a similar but distinct vein and that's why I am approaching you." Agents eat that up with a spoon. Favorite cheese might be a little stalker-ish, but it's your call. Don't SEND ANY cheese.

Now, as for the following, it seems a little bit to us like what happened is you wrote an awesome, epic novel, with a complex and lively plot and lots of different interesting things going on, and then you thought OH F*CK I HAVE TO MAKE THIS INTO A TINY SYNOPSIS NOW and then your brain came out your ear a little bit. It's okay, these things happen.

A modern-day act of piracy [fantasy piracy? what modern day? are we originating in a world of fantasy, or this world, which then goes into a world of fantasy via the magical storm?] taps into a magical storm and throws sailor Ken Williams into a dimension where islands float in the air, ships fly and the four elements have taken human form. [okay, good. That's interesting. We are intrigued.] He lands on a ship [space ship? boat ship?] filled with escaped slaves including N'gali, Mother Earth.[What?!? N'gali is a person? Mother earth is a person? Mother Earth is an enslaved person? WE ARE LOST NOW.]

Ken is forced to assume command in a race [forced by whom? why is there a race? what mainland?] toward a distant mainland with the vast armadas of El Diablo del Fuego [who is this? why is this person/entity issuing armadas in pursuit? is this the person who was enslaving them previously?] close behind. If they catch N'gali, El Diablo will use her [N'Gali's or El Diablo's?] power to create a fiery new world where her [again, which her?] people will be slaves forever. [but they were escaped slaves? who was enslaving them before? HELP US WE ARE FLOUNDERING IN A SEA OF BEWILDERMENT]

It's Ken's chance for redemption, but saving N'gali may take more than even his considerable skill. [Skill at what? Redemption from what?]

My short stories have appeared in [print]. Further information about me can be found at ulysses-ithaka.blogspot.com, and at [url redacted because I like the word "redacted."].

Yep, great. The "redacted" is just for us, we are assuming. We like that word too.

Thanks for your time.

Also great.

So here is some good news for you: you have more room than this. We don't really have a Magical Word Count, but think of it in terms of a cover letter. You can give yourself a nice fleshy paragraph to sum up your novel. Like:

"Ken Williams, interstellar pirate and man of no morals, didn't plan on sailing into a magical storm that would catapult him out of this world and into a universe where islands float in the air, ships fly, and the elements have taken human form; but intergalactic adventure is par for the course in the life of a scoundrel like Ken. He lands on a ship filled with slaves escaping the infernal demon queen El Diablo; among those slaves is the foxy and mysterious N'Gali, a woman whose powers can lead to the creation of a new world--or, in the wrong hands, the destruction and enslavement of her people."

Etc. etc. With fewer semicolons. We do over-love our semicolons. Anyway, you have room in which to breathe. You're telling us about more than the plot of your book--you're telling us why we should care, what's interesting about these characters. Have FUN with it (we know, we know, a fun query? Kind of like a fun visit to the urologist?). Try writing the Most Ridiculous Query for your book imaginable, be totally silly and over-the-top, see what happens. What happens might be delight and wonder.

Something that's always nice as well is a little moment at the end where you tell us why we should care about this book--i.e., "More than just an epic and intricately plotted fantasy, Aria is an examination of the politics of slavery through one man's journey from ne'er-do-well scallywag to leader of the free world." Obviously that is a little silly, but something along those lines. A query is not just about your book--it is your chance to show off your pyrotechnic capabilities as a writer and make us love you. We want to see your sly and charming personality shining through; it's things like that that make us open a query letter and say THANK GOD FINALLY YES YES MORE OF THIS ONE. Be yourself, be pleased with yourself, and we will be pleased with you. We know a query is a crazy shit-ton of pressure, we know we know. But we also know that you, sir, can be funny and charming, or else you would not have won our contest. So be funny and charming. Be Ulysses, not Generic Panicked Writer. Act like you are in charge.

Many thanks to The Rejectionist, who sponsored the contest, followed through on the prize, and graciously consented to allow me to post her critique.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Now's a Good Time

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: "We should not let our fears hold us back from pursuing our hopes" -- John Fitzgerald Kennedy


I've been reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Freelancer's Survival Guide. I recommend it even if you're not planning on starting your own business. She always raises at least one point that makes me think deeply. This week's post was on, to paraphrase, when to start pursuing your dream. Her opinion is "now."

As a father and husband, a man of responsibilities, I find it difficult not to protest. But, I say, what about the mortgage, the children's education, bills... What I'm doing pays for my life and that of my dependents. So what if it's uninspiring drudge? Following my dream is unlikely to lead to financial reward. And all of that is true.

Yet, if not now, when? When the kids are grown? When the mortgage is paid? When I retire? The problem with putting off anything until tomorrow is that none of us know when there will be no more tomorrows. I draw your attention to the quote at the top of this post, which came from a man who pursued greatly and achieved much, but ran out of tomorrows before he could achieve all that he might have. Wil Wheaton writes about the same sort of thing when he urges his audience to "Get Excited and Make Things."

So I find myself thinking about all I would like to do, and looking with some discouragement at what I am doing. It's the biggest contrast in my life. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People asks readers to imagine their epitaph, and although my thoughts on that vary from moment to moment, one thing I never want said of me is that I left my dreams unfulfilled. It also discusses that frequent confusion between those things that are important and those things that are urgent. Most of us spend our whole lives fighting the most visible fires, while leaving the most important ones to smoulder unnoticed. The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch, is all about how Pausch achieved his childhood dreams. It contains observations, inspiration and instruction given in the shadow of the knowledge that one of his dreams -- watching his children grow up -- was one he could not live to fulfill.

A life with no room for the pursuit of dreams is a tragedy. A waste. And in the face of uncertain tomorrows, how can anyone put off pursuing their dreams? How can anyone, regardless of their responsibilities not say, "Now?"

But in a life already short on time, making room for dreams requires recognizing the difference between urgent and important. It requires letting a few of the urgencies rage on and turning attention instead to the smaller, hotter fires that are more important.

And I do that now, because tomorrow is an uncertain thing, and I hope that whatever your dream, you find the courage to do the same.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thursday's Musical Interlude

There is no upper limit to the Muppet content of this blog, but this does approach the upper limit of awesome.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book Report: Now and Forever, by Ray Bradbury

It's been some years since I last read Bradbury. I believe it was the Martian Chronicles. I don't remember much, so this time I was coming to this Grandmaster as though I were a first time reader, and I was surprised by what I found. I expected science-fiction in the Asimov vein: heavy on the science and intellectual development, but light on character and spare of style. What I found was quite different.

Now and Forever is a compilation of 2 novellas: "Somewhere a Band is Playing" and "Leviathan '99" The first is compelling, a story about immortality that is full of image and poetry and conveys the same feeling as the last days of summer: a mix of regret and nostalgia. It's beautiful. The second is basically a retelling of Moby Dick with a killer comet standing in for the titular white whale. I was considerably less enthralled by this because I had difficulty with Moby Dick and this is written in much the same style. The story is little changed, and there were no surprises here once I found the answer to "How's he going to pull this off?"

All in all, a read that owes little to "Science" Fiction and a great deal to whimsy, wonderfully carried off.

Ulysses Rating: 3 (I Loved "Somewhere," and struggled with "Leviathan," so I split the difference).

Monday, November 23, 2009

In Which My Collective Unconscious Freaks Me Out

Last night I dreamed was in a Chineses restaurant and I had finished my meal and was still hungry. One of the people I was with whipped out two of these things that looked like steamers and set them on the table. Apparently, I've been watching too much early-morning television because she launched into a spiel that would make Ron Popeil proud. These things would whip up any meal in just five minutes. It had an inner bowl divided up into sections, and little flags in the middle to tell you what sections were done. Genius. So she stocked these with won-tons, chow-mein, rice, noodles... all the good stuff, and told me to wait five minutes.

Now here's the weird part. I fell asleep.

I woke up when the timer dinged, so I didn't miss my second helpings, but that's not the point. I actually dreamed about falling asleep.

I'm notorious, in real life, for my ability to fall asleep. It's not narcolepsy (had that checked out professionally), I just get bored or sleepy or both and have a cat nap. It's a little embarrassing in meetings (I once dozed off in front of my boss's boss). But this is the first time I've ever fallen asleep WHILE ALREADY ASLEEP.

Is it just me, or is that more weird than usual?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Seismic Disturbances in the Force

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: Thank you for sending me a copy of your book - I'll waste no time reading it.

A couple of interesting things happened in the book world last week.

First, Sarah Palin's memoir became available. I had originally planned to say something witty and pithy about that, but given that every other comedian on the planet has weighed in, I feel outclassed and will settle for just saying, "Oh, really?" with a raised eyebrow.

Second, Harlequin abandoned ethics. I can't help wonder where in the corporate structure this idea originated and how on earth it made it to the executive decision level without anyone going, "Jeeze. That's a stupid idea guaranteed to antagonize every professional organization on the planet." On the other hand, I work for the largest bankrupt telecommunications firm on Earth, so I guess my question ought to be not, "how did this happen," but "why did it take so long to happen?"

Cynicism, folks, it's what's for breakfast.

In other news, it's almost December and my lawn is still green, growing, and visible. Tell me again that climate change is a myth. There's something disturbingly anachronistic about people putting up Christmas decorations while raking leaves.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pondering Success

Current Reading: Now and Forever, by Ray Bradbury

Inspirational Quote: "Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions." -- the Dalai Lama

I received word this week that I have been picked up by the company that is purchasing my employer. This is good news, because it means nothing has changed. This is also bad news because it means nothing has changed. The known paths are the safe paths, but you never discover anything new if you only ever tread familiar ground. (Hey... that's good. I should write that down).

To quote Forrest Gump: "...and that's all I have to say about that."



I've been thinking about success, about my own, about others and about the success of those closest to me. Kristine Kathryn Rusch (spelled right this time) finished that part of her Freelancer's Survival Guide that dealt with success and, inspired by her words, writer Brad R. Torgersen decided to commit his definition of success to pixels.

What resulted was a list of achievements which certainly looks to me like a ladder to some considerable success and I wish him very well. However, after discussing things with Penelope at some length, I found myself having a couple of reactions.

First - I'm not one man. I'm eight, I think, and I'm sure there's more. I'm a writer, yes. But I'm also a husband, a father, a member of my community, an employee, a blogger, a friend... My measure of success for each of those people is different. I'd like to see the Magnus Somnium in print very much, but I couldn't count it a success if it cost me my marriage. So when I think about success and the milestones thereof, I'd better be thinking about priorities, about what's important. "What if a man gaineth the whole of Art, but loseth his soul?" (That's from Educating Rita, paraphrasing the bible).

Second - Milestones are measures of achievement: I've done this. I can't quite put all the words around it yet because I'm still thinking, and possibly because I'm just not wise enough, but it seems to me that a list of achievements somehow sells a life short. It's nice to be able to point to something and say, "I did that," but I think it would be better to point to myself and say, "I am this." I tell my sons that I am proud of them (and I am) not because of what they've done, but because of what they are.

Like I said, I'm still thinking this one through, and I think I'm treading ground that would be better served by Lao Tzu, Plato, or the Dalai Lama.

Third - Once I've defined success, I have to be prepared to accept failure. Do I need to separate myself from both those things? In the same way I refuse to call myself a failure because I have failed, should I also refuse to call myself a success because I succeeded?

I think a whole book could be written about success (and I know many have) without adequately addressing those questions. I also suspect entire lives have been spent without adequately addressing those questions.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Statistical Improbability

My goodness.
It seems I have won a contest.

Personally, I think reading the list of rejections is prize enough.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Storytime

Current Reading: Now and Forever, by Ray Bradbury

Inspirational Quote: "The more you give, the more you get in return." -- Dave Thomas, Founder of Wendy's Restaurants and an adoptee.

Let me tell you a story...

Once upon a time (Cassandra tells me that all good stories start this way), there was a husband and wife who very much wanted children. Unfortunately, for reasons no-one could explain, they remained childless. They decided to adopt and registered themselves with the local Children's Aid Society. Years passed, for in the olden days, adoption was a slow process and Rip-Van-Winkle could have had a nap in the time between registration and adoption finalization.

Then one day, they received a phone call. A sibling group had become available, two brothers, who needed to be moved from foster care right away. The husband and wife were given four days to decide (very unusual and against established process). They did not sleep much during those four days. In the end, they said "Yes," even though they had no prior experience with children, because... well, because they believed in themselves and in each other and because they believed this opportunity coming at this time was something like destiny, or the will of God, or synchronicity or whatever words you like to use to describe things that just happen, but feel as though they were inevitable.

So two boys, six and nine, moved into their rather small home and all four of them tried to figure out how to become a family. It wasn't easy. Mom and Dad had no idea how to be parents. The boys had begun their lives in a home of abuse and neglect, and had only begun to think of their foster home as "home," when they were pulled out of it and placed with complete strangers who were, so far as they understood, just another set in a long line of people named "Mom and Dad."

Time passed, because it does that no matter how much you wish it wouldn't. There were a lot of hard times. The emotional damage they suffered had left them moody, uncommunicative and sometimes violent. The family used all the resources the CAS could offer, and sought support from other adoptive parents. They learned that they could not change the past, but they could make a good future. They learned how to cope, not necessarily with grace or without occasional bouts of despair, but with tenacity.

And there was love, always. And time wore the jagged edges off all of them, and they fit together about as well as families ever do.


There is no end here because we're still in the middle of it. Nor is there a moral because real lives don't have those. There is, however, an appendix:

My sons are thirteen and fifteen now, on the edge of becoming young men with all the storms and madness that accompany that stage of life. There are things that, as adoptive parents, Penelope and I have had to deal with that ordinary families cannot understand, and probably can't imagine. It's hard sometimes, but they are my sons. They may not have started their lives with me, but I shall end mine with them and I believe the latter is far more important. Although I see myself, my sense of humor, my sense of right and wrong, reflected in them every day, it is their impact on me that I feel every moment, especially as I look back on the previous seven years and look forward to the next sixty.

November is Adoption Awareness Month. Whatever your situation, single/married, gay/straight, childless/childful/childish, consider adoption (or even just fostering). You really can make a difference in a child's life, and they will make a wonderful difference in yours.

(For the curious: Cassandra was born 14 months after the boys moved in. Yep: 3 kids in 14 months, with 10 years between the oldest and the youngest. I always say I had my children in an avalache. I can't say I recommend it, but it's worked for me).

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Putting a Big Box Inside a Small Box

Current Reading: Now and Forever, by Ray Bradbury

Inspirational Quote: "Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." -- Howard Thurman

Well, in theory, this is my last week of waiting to know my employment fate. In reality, who knows?

I've been writing a query for the Magnus Somnium. The novel is not ready to approach an agent yet, but I thought I'd post a query to Critters as a way of requesting readers for the manuscript. Anyway: writing a good query? Harder than it looks.

It's the literary equivalent of trying to pull your whole house inside-out through the front-door keyhole.

I mean, describing the story in 250-or-so words? You've really got to figure out what the important points are. I can do it in a sentence, but that's easy. You just drop everthing but the protagonist and the conflict. But when you have to add in some details, maybe an event or two, the whole thing blows up into unmanagable proportions.

It's like there's no middle ground.

Of course I lie. There is middle ground. Successful writers find it every day. It's just a skill in which actually writing a novel gives you no practice.

Book Report: Escapement, by Jay Lake

This is my first Lake book, and I enjoyed it tremendously. It's the story of a girl with a gift who ranges far from home to find a place for herself and it in the world. She ends up finding her place both closer to home and farther away than she ever dreamed.

This is a sequel to Lake's Mainspring, which I have been unable to acquire (haven't tried too hard, mind you), but it seems to be an independent story with independent characters, and shares only the world and the situation with the previous book.

And what a world.

Taking steampunk thought a little further than I ever bothered to imagine, Lake imagines an Earth divided at the equator by a wall. This wall rises straight up into space where it forms a gear by which Earth fits into the clockwork of the solar system. At night, the characters are able to look up into the heavens and see the distant massive cogs that form their Universe. That's a perspective that would definitely impact your world view.

My least-favorite part of the book is the plot, I'm afraid. Perhaps things would fit together better for me if I read Mainspring. Perhaps not. I was left at the end with so many questions: what happened to the English attempt to drill through the wall? What happened to Boaz, the metal man, or the Mask Childress and her renegade Chinese submarine crew?

This leaves a great deal of room for a sequel, but I was disappointed that in a book which seemed to have so little direct follow-on from its predecessor, so much would be left unresolved.

Still, a great book. Lake's prose is wonderful, providing the perfect concrete details that make his world come to life.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Braindump

Current Reading: Now and Forever, by Ray Bradbury

Inspirational Quote: "I believe that we are here for each other, not against each other. Everything comes from an understanding that you are a gift in my life - whoever you are, whatever our differences." -- John Denver


Success
I've found myself thinking more and more about the definition of success. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a great deal of analysis, in several parts, that indicates why the idea might be worth some contemplation.

I've never felt like a success. I got through university, I eventually got a job which led to other jobs and to about as much financial reward as could reasonably be expected. By that measure, I guess I'm doing alright (although that could change in the next three weeks. Yes, I know, but I've been told that deadlines have slipped and dates are approximate. My happiness is immeasurable). I've got a working marriage and a family that clunks along without actually flying apart, so I guess that could be considered success of a sort.

However, I feel less like a success than as though I simply haven't failed.

But that judgement demands I define personal success. What am I reaching for that I haven't achieved? I haven't finished thinking about that. Until I have, I guess worrying about whether or not I'm successful is a fool's exercise.

Musical Interlude, Part I
I feel bad about this: more than 20 years after hearing "Summer of Sixty-Nine" the first time, I've realized that I don't like Bryan Adams's music.

Please, don't tell anyone. They'll revoke my Canadian citizenship and I'll have to move to somewhere foreign, like Andorra.

I could just move to Quebec, but I refuse to worship Celine Dion and that may cause greater difficulty than my lack of French fluency.

Politics
No modern politician has had as significant an impact on my country (Canada, not Andorra. Not yet.) than Pierre Trudeau. The Toronto Star asked Pierre's son, Justin Trudeau, to review the second book of his father's biography. Interesting reading.

Musical Interlude, Part II
October 12th was the anniversary of the death of John Denver, a musician, writer and actor who was everyone's kid brother during the 70's. As a teenager, my favorite albums were Star Wars (by John Williams and the LSO), and Greatest Hits Volume 1 (by John Denver). This is perhaps greater testimony to my innate oddity than any other single fact I could relate.

And of course he had numerous appearances on the Muppet Show.

He lost me when he began turning to New Age concepts and away from the sort of grass-roots innocence that informed his early work, but that's the way it goes.

For those of you who expected a teen-aged Ulysses to an angst-ridden fan of rebel-music, metal or counterculture, I'm sorry to disappoint. I'm too shallow for any of that.

Anyway, here's Calypso in memoriam, a piece which never fails to stir my nostalgia.

His description of a moment of subconscious creative breakthrough (a conscious mind becomes saturated with a problem it is unable to solve despite complete concentration, it distracts itself with some other activity only to find the subconscious providing a complete solution during that activity) should be familiar to creative people in any field.

Monday, October 19, 2009

We're All Unique. Except Me.

Well, this is interesting enough to bring up:

A discussion about writing by some of the writers attending the International Festival of Authors.

Two big takeaways for me:

1)I'm not the only one who procrastinates.

2)I'm not the only one who kicks myself for procrastinating.

Y'know, it's a wonder anything ever gets done by anyone.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Existential Dilemma

Current Reading: Escapement, by Jay Lake

Inspirational Quote: "If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion." -- George Bernard Shaw

I am tense. I am stressed. My thoughts have scattered and are hiding in the divot just behind my left ear while my nerves are so tense they're humming Puccini.

Sometime in the next three weeks, I will be told whether I'll continue to have a day job (which affords me little comforts like food, shelter and Hawkins Cheezies. Although the freedom of unemployment is nice for about a week, after that, it sucks.

So, pardon the lack of a substantial post. I promise I'll come up with something pithy, witty, or at least worth reading as soon as I can string three coherent thoughts in a row without wanting to scream and take a belt sander to the kneecaps of the nearest corporate CEO.

Whilst I prevaricate, discuss: is it better to pontificate or to ruminate? And while doing so, be sure to mention what you consider to be proper protective clothing for your chosen activity.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Talking Turkey

Current Reading: Escapement, by Jay Lake

Inspirational Quote: "An optimist is a person who starts a new diet on Thanksgiving Day." -- Irv Kupcinet

Here in Canada, it is Thanksgiving. It's what happens to the archetypical pagan harvest celebration when it's co-opted by Puritans and then transplanted north by Loyalists. For some reason, it traditionally involves the slaughter of turkeys. If you have no experience with turkeys, then there are only two things you need to know about them.

They are:

1) Stupid. The story that a turkey which looks up during a rainstorm will drown is likely apocryphal, but certainly they seem stupid enough to not look down when they feel their lungs filling up. I've seen entire flocks of wild turkeys wait to cross a highway until they're sure a car is coming. It was my car. One of them bounced off my windshield and left deep scratches across the driver's side. I think this might be a turkey's way of playing chicken. Which is just fowl.

2) Delicious. I find the meat a little dry, but this is usually compensated for by a few spoonfuls of turkey gravy and cranberries. Oddly enough, I don't find either turkey or cranberries edible unless in combination. Turkey gravy, however, makes a great stand-alone dish.

As happens any time food is involved, relatives tend to gather to make polite chitchat, stuff their faces, and fall asleep on the couch. The chemical responsible for the post-gluttinous nap is called tryptophan, and it is why Uncle Bernie no longer has a moustache. One of the things families often do that does NOT involve whisker trimmers is talk about all the things for which they're thankful.

This year, in honor of the holiday, I thought I'd present a short list of things for which I'm thankful, in no order:
1) Pie. Especially Lemon-meringue.
2) My family. They know me best, and are the only ones allowed to make my life miserable without having me wish they'd go away.
3) Employment. It's good work, if you can get it.
4) Canada. If it weren't for my native country, the U.S. would stretch all the way to Baffin Island and the Innuit would have no socialized medicine.
5) Autumn. Ithaka is the most amazing, colorful country when the leaves turn. And it's nice to have a season's worth of warning before winter smacks you in the gob with a fist made of ice, snow, and heating bills.
6) Readers. If someone laughs at any of this, then I feel my existence is justified (a bit, for a little while). Thanks, folks.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Book Report: Symir: The Drowning City, by Amanda Downum

A necromancer/spy goes to a city/state recently conquered by an expansionist empire. She's supposed to arrange financial and material support for the rebel factions, but finds herself personally involved in the rebellion.

It's an interesting world, and the city is like New Orleans by way of Afghanistan or Iraq. I found the story intriguing, and the characters were well drawn. I also found, however, that Downum's style isn't for me. Technically, it's fine. It's just a style I found difficult to read.

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I had a tough go.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Epic Fail

Current Reading: Symir: the Drowning City, by Amanda Downum

Inspirational Quote: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." -- Thomas Edison

"One hundred percent of the shots you don't take don't go in." -- Wayne Gretzky

Synchronicity. It's more than just an album by the Police. It's when events occur which, although causally unrelated, are related in meaning. This week, I've experienced a synchronicity of people talking about failure.

If you don't know what failure is, then good for you. Here's a bazillion illustrated examples to help you figure it out.

If you're afraid of failure, then congratulations. So am I, so we both have company. We can also include Moonrat in our group. But I think failure is an underappreciated experience in our society. I'm not saying that failure should be embraced. I'm certainly not saying it should be encouraged.

I'm definitely not saying it should be rewarded. I think that the stupid American banks should have been allowed to collapse. I think GM should have been dissolved. I realize that both these things would have hurt people, but I think that the collapse of these institutions would have been the correct consequence for their mismanagement. If those who actually mismanaged things could then somehow be on the hook for the financial penalties (instead of earning millions in bonuses), then the world would be an altogether better place. As it is, their failures were rewarded, and there appears to be no incentive not to fail even more spectacularly in the future.

Now, doesn't that give you hope for tomorrow?

My brother-in-law is a teacher. He's frustrated. Most good teachers are. He can't fail anyone. Those who set policy believe that the harm done to a child's self esteem when they fail is greater than the harm done to their self esteem when they get to high-school without being able to read. It doesn't matter how big a discipline problem a child is. It doesn't matter what natural difficulties a child has that may make them slow to absorb lessons. It doesn't matter whether a child puts any effort into their education. My brother-in-law is under enormous pressure to pass them. This past weekend he brought up failure in a conversation we were having. He's infurated by having to deal with the results of this policy: kids who believe that not learning is okay because they'll get through school either way.

Aeneas is a bright kid, but last year he would have rather been "cool" like some of the slackers in his class. As a result, he put in no effort he wasn't forced to (oh, those were some fun nights). I wish his teachers had failed him, so that he could experience the consequences of being "cool," so that he could discover for himself the price he was paying for his attitude. Instead, we have no guarantee that this year is going to be any different from last year.

Kristine Katharine Rusch has a fair bit to say about failure (check out the videos she posts), its benefits and place in the development of capable human beings. I agree very strongly with every point she makes.

I think one of the problems that will face the next generation (and is already starting to trouble this one) is a lack of experience with failure, a desire not to accept the personal consequences of personal failure, and ignorance about what needs to be done to recover from failure.

Because that's the where you'll find the value in failure: what happens after.

I have a friend who's a very good painter. A couple of years ago, she entered an art competition that rejected her work in a brutally unprofessional manner. She hasn't picked up a brush since. She's learned that she didn't want artistic success if it meant having to endure what she endured.

On the other hand, over the years, my short stories have been rejected in dozens of places. I've learned that those places weren't right for those pieces at those times. I've learned to study the markets more deeply. I've learned to target my marketing better. My failures are helping to lay the groundwork for my eventual success. And even if there is no success, I've learned to keep my perspective in the face of rejection and I've learned to take out of those failures whatever knowledge or wisdom I can and apply it to my next attempt.

What should happen after is that we pick ourselves up and try again, or try something else. The single most valuable thing we can learn from failure is that it can't stop us.

Because that's what we should really fear: giving up.

(Footnote: study of the life of Mr. Edison is fascinating. Here is a man who embraced failure with a feverish energy, hounding it until it surrendered the secret of success.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Hi Ho Everyone."

Current Reading: Symir: The Drowning City, by Amanda Downum

Inspirational Quote: "And now a man who needs no introduction, so what am I doing out here?" Kermit the Frog

I missed Jim Henson's birthday, which should be celebrated every year by gluing half-ping-pong balls to your mother's old socks.

However, in a belated celebration of the creator of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy, Rolf, Dr. Teeth, Animal and too many more to name, I direct your attention here.

And, in memoriam, this seemed appropriate:

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Boot to the Head

Current Reading: Symir: The Drowning City, by Amanda Downum

Inspirational Quote: "Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds." -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

It's nice to have someone around to give you a kick when your thinking diverges too far from considerations of reality.

Take last week's post. I raised my points to Penelope and expressed my general discouragement with the state of short-story markets. She nodded and then said, "Well, yes, but what do you really want out of publishing them anyway? Recognition? Readership? Feedback? It can't be money, because you know nobody can make money writing short stories."

Um. Well, yeah, but... Um.

Okay, I hadn't been thinking like that. I hadn't been thinking sensibly. What I want out of my short work is to have them published and read. I want them to be out there as visible reminders to me that my efforts to string words together aren't hopeless. I want people to see them and think, "Hey, I liked that. I wonder what else this guy's done?" As measures of my ability, I want to see them pass editorial standards and succeed.

Note that, despite my assertion last week about wanting to be a "professional," there's no mention of money in the above. Nor should there be, although I'd welcome some negotiable currency in exchange for producing publishable material. For my short work, money isn't the primary motivator. I should stop thinking of it as such and just put my work out there in whatever venues are willing to publish it.

In related news:

I notice that Fantasy magazine is looking for slush readers. Now THAT would be an interesting (unpaid) job. I'd apply, but I'd need to add a few hours to my day because the standard 24 are already stuffed.

In closing, a clip from The Frantics (a Canadian comedy group from the '80s, headlined by the inestimable Rick Green) set to an animation of Transformers because everything is better with giant Japanese killer robots. Let it serve as a reminder that the Hand of Correction is not always a gentle one.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Death of the Short Story

Current Reading: Symir: The Drowning City, by Amanda Downum

Inspirational Quote: "I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries theshort story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing." --William Faulkner

I have short stories, and I'm having a hard time figuring out what to do with them.

I like to think of myself as a "professional writer" in the same sense as Kristine Kathryn Rusch intends when she uses the phrase: I sell my words. I don't give them away free.

However, the glossy print magazines I remember from my 90's foray into publishing have shrunk to digest-sized, and circulations have dropped dangerously low (http://io9.com/5302638/has-the-print-magazine-circulation-crash-started-to-level-off). Most of the magazines to which I marketed my work (and most of which subsequently rejected said work... but that's the writing life) no longer exist. Their decline has spurred the advent of webzines, which is wonderful, but these are most often run on such a tight budget that you can't honestly write for them and say, "I did it for the money."

The problem is a lack of paying readers for short speculative fiction markets. If readers don't pay, how can publishers? I think part of the reason is the nature of the web. If a reader wants to read short fiction, they don't have to pay for it. It's out there, and not just the grammatic abominations and spell czech disasters that are the usual run-of-the-mill, but high-quality stuff (www.sfsignal.com gives a list several times a week of places where professional writers and publishers have posted free work on the web). As the old saying goes, why buy the cow when you're getting the milk for free?

If I'm not going to get paid, I could post my work here. A lot of professionals are doing that, raiding their existing work for material to put up as a kind of loss-leader to entice readers to buy their books. It makes sense if you have a published book, and if you have a name or marketing prowess sufficient to drive traffic to your site.

I don't have a published book, and some days I couldn't drive traffic to this site with a bullwhip and a fog horn. I suppose I could post some short stories to entice readers to free magazines wherein they could find other short stories. The net return there approaches zero by a roundabout route, but still gets there in the end.

I've been approaching the professional markets as approved by the sfwa (www.sfwa.org). They pay, but the stuff I've been putting out lately hasn't really been the kind of thing they prefer to publish. (Enormous ego moment: it's good enough, it's just not "right for us." Thank-you, yes, only the truly great can afford to be this humble. Remember to genuflect on your way out.)

I don't know.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Book Report: Best New Fantasy, ed. Sean Wallace

A collection of short stories by up-and-coming writers like Jay Lake and Holly Phillips compiled by one of the editors behind Fantasy Magazine (http://www.darkfantasy.org/fantasy/). It's an interesting collection, covering everything from a spin on Japanese myth to a campfire tale that ends badly. Most of the stories are dark fantasy which, like horror, is not a genre I usually enjoy much. Many of them present bleak or tragic stories in which hope dies by degrees. They're well done, though, and the occasional lighter story breaks up the tone. Every one of the stories is brilliantly executed. My personal favorites are Pip and the Fairies and Summer Ice.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fairy Tale Endings

Current Reading: Best New Fantasy, ed. by Sean Wallace

Inspirational Quote: "The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy." -- John Galsworthy

"So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending." -- J.R.R. Tolkien

"Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending." -- Maria Robinson

Happily ever after.

That's the way fairy tales always end, with the witch defeated, the princess rescued and prince having earned her hand in matrimony. That's it. Story over. Close the book. We're done. Nothing more to see here, move along.

It's the nature of human existence that we see everything in terms of our own mortality. We are born, we live, we die: beginning, middle and end. The stories we tell reflect that, but that's about as accurate as the reflection gets.

The stories that we live rarely come to an end. One "adventure" just leads to another, and the chapters of our lives don't come to an abrupt stop. If they stop at all, they trail off. Friends lose touch, events become memories. The chapters terminate in an ellipsis.

There's really only one period in a life, the full stop, "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns," as Shakespeare put it. It's an ending, but it's not often a happy one.
By that definition, human life is a tragedy. Everything ends with a death, whether deserved or not, a passage that is mourned by those who are left behind to carry on. In the story of their life, the end of the protagonist's story eventually becomes a memory, a chapter that trailed off and is left behind.

But, as Santayana said, "There is no cure for birth or death, save to enjoy the interval between."

I think we write stories to change all that, to present a world with happy endings. We put periods in. We write the end. We give characters a happily ever after that trails off into imagined bliss. When death occurs, it's necessary for some higher purpose. It serves the plot by spurring action, provoking sympathy or punishing the villain. More often, the end of the story is an affirmation of life, of the potential of human existence. The reader is given the illusion that the characters have a blissful life beyond the end of the book, an immortality of sorts.

It's a nice illusion.

Other things on my mind:

The 2nd was my twentieth anniversary. Ulysses took twenty years to return to Ithaka, where Penelope waited. I've been around the whole time, but I still look forward to coming home. It hasn't exactly been twenty years of bliss, because you can't tell how strong something is unless it's stressed. It has, however, been strong and comforting. It's a refuge in which two people who know each other as thoroughly and intimately as two people can somehow still manage to think better of each other than they do of themselves.

Telemachus started high-school today. That can't be right. He's only... what, nine? Ten? Who the heck is this stranger who left my shaving stuff all over the bathroom and set off for school this morning with his hat on backward? Nope, sorry. Aliens arrived last night, took my boy and left a young man in his place.

When I catch them, I'm going to give them such a kick...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pictures of Inspiration

Current Reading: Best New Fantasy, ed. by Sean Wallace

Inspirational Quote: "No thinking - that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is... to write, not to think!" -- William Forrester (Sean Connery).

I guess it's not that odd, given that all films must begin life as a story that someone writes, how many movies have writers as main characters. Writers are told to write what they know, and one thing they certainly know is how to be a writer.

There exist some films which I've found inspiring. They didn't teach me anything. I didn't walk away from them being a better writer, but they did make me feel like becoming a better writer. They gave me a little motivational boost. Their titles are below.

Are there some movies or films that have inspired or motivated you (I think in terms of writing, but anything will do)?

Finding Forrester
The Dead Poets Society

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Things I Find Amusing

Current Reading: Best New Fantasy, ed. by Sean Wallace

Inspirational Quote: The Carson/Johnson Law of Human Behavior: 80% of all questions that begin with the word 'why' can be answered with the simple sentence 'People are stupid.'


I saw a real-estate sales sign on my way home this afternoon that said, "reduced," but the house looked the same size it always had.

Like most modern homes, we have a cordless telephone in addition to the one wired directly to our telephone jack. We like the convenience of being able to take and make our calls from anywhere in the house instead of always needing to be within cord's-length of the main set. Penelope just made a call to her mother over the cordless and has settled in for a long conversation three feet from the wall phone.

The Whole Story

Current Reading: Best New Fantasy, ed. by Sean Wallace

Inspirational Quote: "To understand all is to forgive all." -- Various, possibly Buddah or a French Proverb.

Only crazy people confuse reality with written fiction. There are lots of reasons why this is so, but they all boil down to the fact that written fiction presents a world idealized and abstracted and without all the contradictions and surprises that make up normal human existence.

In reality we never know the whole story.

An example: a Toronto woman is held in Kenya despite numerous protestations and reams of evidence that she is a Canadian citizen. It's a horror story that has a happy ending, or at least an ending in which the mistake was cleared up although the victim is certainly not happy. One wonders what prompted representatives from the Canadian High Commission to look at all that evidence and deny the identity of the woman in front of them.

They have yet to be publicly identified. They have yet to tell their story, but I don't think what people tell us is all of the truth anyway. I don't think people can know all of their own truth. People tell us what they think happened, a thought shaped as much by their own perceptions, fears and beliefs as by the actual facts. If I've uncovered any truth about human behavior is this: all of us act the way we do for one reason -- it seems like a good idea at the time. Whoever those officials were, they had what they believed to be sufficient reason, within their own minds, to doubt Suaad Hagi Mohamud was who she said.

They were wrong.

Why they concluded what they did is something we'll never really know. We'll never understand. The mistake seems pretty obvious to us, so much so that one wonders if there weren't some nefarous motive behind this case of misidentity. But it only seems obvious because we can't be there, in their minds, following their trains of thought, knowing what they knew or believed they knew.

Written fiction gives us a world of understandable human beings. We can enter their minds, follow their thoughts, understand why they reach the conclusions they do about the world around them. We can understand fictional characters in ways we simply can't understand real people, not even those with whom we share a life. Between the covers of a book, we are allowed to understand.

In the real world, Ms. Mohamud is taking steps to obtain what she believes is justice, or as much justice as is allowable by law. We'll never know if the result is truly just, or if it's only what the people who make the decision on her suit believe to be just.

We'll never know the whole story.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tidbits

Current Reading: Work-related documentation. Sigh.

Inspirational Quote: "Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it" -- Robert Frost

I see Ann and Victoria have survived another legal challenge to their work, and come out laughing. That's always good news.

I have this to say about the Google Books settlement: No. Also: Hell no. Authors should get paid for their work so long as they or their heirs can collect. The digital age has created an environment where a book can still be available (in print) even though no printed copies of it are currenly available.

I've almost completed another draft of the Magnus Somnium. Yay me. I think, when I've finished, I'm going to buy myself a new desk chair. This one sucks.

And now, Ithaka reviewed by two true professionals...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Book Report: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

I haven't read much Gaiman. I caught his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens (the nice and accurate prophesies of Agnes Nutter, witch) a number of years ago, but I've never read more than a single issue of Sandman (it was good, though). I'm beginning to think I ought to start reading more of his work. His latest, the Graveyard Book, is a multiple award-winner.

Anansi Boys is the story of a timid and uninteresting man who discovers his father was the African trickster god Anansi, and that he has a brother who inherited the god powers. Their meeting sets in motion a terrible case of sibling rivalry and a plot to settle a vendetta as old as the world.

It's a strange book, mixing humor with dark fantasy that borders on horror (although I didn't find myself the least bit scared by it) and Gaiman has a flair for pointing out the absurdity of human behavior that made me laugh several times. This is a told tale, and the narrator intrudes several times, especially during the denouement, which took me out of the in-the-moment immersion I enjoy in a book. On the other hand, since the book is also about stories, the intrusive presence of a narrator is a necessary bit of thematic reflection.

The characters are entertaining, each having depths and unexpected quirks that provide a sense of verisimilitude. The plot moves quickly, with plenty of twists, and the themes could not be larger than the nature of stories and the place of people in them.

Neil Gaiman's Home

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Perspective


Current Reading: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Inspirational Quote: "Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world." -- Arthur Schopenhauer

I love flying. Penelope hates flying with me because I have to have the window seat and tend to pout when I don't get my way (women get a free child with every husband married). I don't care if there's nothing to see but clouds. I have to see them. If there's some interesting stuff, like lakes and rivers and mountains and cities and other planes (waaay down there), I can stare out the window for hours.

That I'm an acrophobe tends to complicate things a bit. Most of me knows that I'm fairly safe, surround by several tons of fuselage and the latest in operational safety gear. Unfortunately, the part of me that's afraid doesn't realize all that stuff prevents me from just falling out of the plane.

The first few moments are difficult, when the wheels leave the tarmac and everything starts to recede. It's also tough when the plane banks within the first few thousand feet. After that, though, there's a weird moment during the ascent when my perspective changes. Things just seem to go from being close enough to kill me to being too far away to worry about. The view becomes about as scary as a big ol' Google Map.

I was reminded of this on Saturday when a friend took me up in a two-seater ultralight with Plexiglas doors.I spent twenty minutes 2000' over my town.

He offered me the stick. I declined. Although I was comfortable enough to rubberneck constantly, I had a death-grip on the harness straps and only let go to take a few very fast snapshots.

It was a beautiful sight: Patches of forest separated fields scalloped into patterns by farm equipment. The river, much of it hidden at ground level by trees, winding its way through the countryside with its islands and coves and sand bars. The roads, trying hard to run straight and never quite succeeding as the land forced compromises on it.

The interesting, generic observation I got out of all that was how much a simple change of perspective alters our view of both ourselves and the world around us.

I'm never alone. I'm always part of something, if not a group of people, then a place.

And if I'm not seeing something beautiful, it's because I'm not looking the right way.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Brain Dump

Current Reading: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman.

Inspirational Quote: "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right." -- Henry Ford.

Stuff that's been on my mind lately:
  • Comic Con occurred over the weekend, and I wasn't there. Anticipation (aka World Con) is going on next week. I won't be there, either. I haven't attended a convention since Ad Astra, sometime in the 90's. This is something I really ought to remedy... but of course, I'll be surrounded by the new generation of geeks and nerds wondering who the old guy is, and why he's dozing off during the "Steampunk: SciFi or Fantasy?" panel.
  • I keep hoping they'll invite me as a guest of honor, but apparently you have to have some qualifications for that.
  • I took my sons to see Harry Potter. They liked it. So did I. Like all movies, though, it wasn't much more than the skeleton of the book from which it was taken. It left so much unexplained that I think someone who hasn't read the books must have spent the entire time scratching their head and wondering who the new characters were and why they were doing what they did.
  • I also took Telemachus to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It was a movie full of explosions, bullets and the crash of heavy metal. And Megan Fox. It also had more plot holes than a new graveyard, and so many moments of fridge logic that I got frostbite on my nose. And Megan Fox. I was hoping for a story that made sense, but as Penelope pointed out, "then why did you go see Transformers?" And Megan Fox.

    Honestly, entire scenes of that film existed to show off Miss Fox's physical attributes. From my observations, adolescent boys didn't need to be hit over the head with her charms. They were entranced from the moment they saw her movie poster. I found it a reminder that I'm not twenty anymore, and look for something more from actresses than eye-candy.
  • As the company for which I work gradually dissolves out from under me, I find myself wondering what new careers exist for a middle-aged geek. I've decided to try my hand at freelance writing. I sometimes think this is the equivalent to saying, "I've decided to skip straight to last-desperate-chance, ignoring all the obvious and sensible options." Most of the time, though it seems like a good idea. John Scalzi and Kristine Kathryn Rusch both seem to do alright.

    Of course, I'm not them, and the decision scares the crap out of me.
  • My most recent submission to the Critters critique mill seems to have gone over well enough. They've pointed out a few flaws that I'm beginning to suspect are systemic in my work. This is good. I have high hopes that this one will sell to a market that actually pays.

    'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Show and Tell

Current Reading: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Inspirational Quote: "Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream." -— Mark Twain

Show, don't tell. If there's an older or more oft-repeated piece of writing advice, I can't imagine what it would be.

If a member of Critters critiques 10 pieces of writing in a week, they get an Award. I earned one last week. Ten short stories. Over 50K words read. Over 6K words of critique written.

It was an interesting spectrum of work, from very raw to quite sophisticated. My most frequent suggestion was show, don't tell. Self Editing for Fiction Writers has a great section on this, going into detail on when it applies (almost all the time) and when it doesn't (in summary). The Elements of Style (4th ed.) alludes to it in Rule 16: Use definite, specific, concrete language. Cohen's Writer's Mind: Crafting Fiction has it as part of chapter 8. Burroway's Writing Fiction has it as the 3rd section.

It's everywhere, but not everyone GETS it.

Example: "Rosemary was beautiful."

It's one of those tricky words. If I say someone is beautiful, everyone knows what I mean. It's a nice short way of conveying Rosemary's charms.

Actually, nobody knows what I mean. "Beautiful," is a vague word, a summary word. It sums up a set of impressions and presents a conclusion to the reader. However, the reader can't work back from the conclusion to the impressions that created it, and those impressions are important. Beauty is different for everyone.

"Beautiful" is a telling word.

As a reader, I'd rather read something like this:

Rosemary walked into the diner in a single, long, lithe movement that drew my gaze from the list of eggs done every which way. I set down my menu and stared as she pulled on an apron and tied up her curls with a fuzzy pink elastic. Her eyes were blue and they shone all the way down inside me until I thought I could feel my toes glow. She came right to my table, her smile turning to a laugh when she had to ask "What'll it be?" three times before I realized she was speaking to me. I ordered the first thing I saw when I glanced back at the menu. I ended up with rice pudding and a side order of bacon, but the indigestion was worth it.

The author doesn't have to tell the reader Rosemary is beautiful. They can figure it out from the narrator's reaction, and they know what the narrator found beautiful from his description of her. The author doesn't conclude for the reader, but presents the evidence in the form of images, word choice, description and action and allows the reader to come to the conclusion.

Do your readers a favor. Be vivid. Be concrete. Be specific. They want to see and hear your words within the theater of their imaginations, and they won't be able to do that if all your giving them is summaries and conclusions.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Beach Reading

Current Reading: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Inspirational Quote: "A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." -- Albert Einstein

I'm on vacation.

I've needed one for a while, but you know how it is... there's always some work that needs doing, and if it's to be done right, you must see to it. So for one week, I'm taking time to stretch outside the normal confines of my life and see some things that I've meant to see all along but always put off for more immediate sights.

Southern Ontario is a remarkable place. This summer more than many others. The weather is "unsettled," which means cool for July and more rainy than sunny. But the sky... beautiful layers of cloud: cirrus, cumulus, stratus lying in runs from horizon to horizon. In the evening, when the sun is high enough to fall on the tops of the lower strata and low enough to light up the bottoms of the higher strata, turning everything gold and pink and blue. Wow. We have hills and forests and the crazy broken terrain of the Canadian Shield not far from the palace. We have lakes (oh, boy do we have lakes... so many that God had to put a few on top of hills because he ran out of room anywhere else) and rivers and wetlands full of birds. It may not be the greatest place in the whole world (how would I know if I haven't seen the whole world?), but it is a great place.

Cassandra and I have been walking in parks a lot, conservation areas and provincial parks and just about any other place we can find when we have time. It's great to spend time with her because sometimes I can see through four-year-old eyes and the world becomes, for just a moment, a far more wonderful place than my forty-three-year-old mind is allowed to imagine. It's a better rest than a few hours in bed.

Although I'm giving some thought to obtaining a hammock because a few hours in bed out under the sky should never be considered a bad thing.

Just a reminder: sometimes the most important thing we can do for others is take some time for ourselves. Everything we do for others, for work, for family, for friends, takes energy and time. If we don't set aside time for ourselves, to relax and recharge, we'll soon have nothing left to give anyone.

So, here's to a few days off.