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.


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.

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.