Saturday, December 31, 2005

Getting Closer

Got a rejection from the Writers of the Future contest yesterday, but the good news is that I made it to the quarter-finals, as did Clarion 2005 alum Tom.

Thanks to this book, I'll probably spend way too much money in 2006. Posted by Picasa

Just What I Needed...

I didn't get it for Christmas, but I found a copy of Horror: Another 100 Best Books edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman at my local library.

Oh, it's dangerous.

The book is arranged chronologically from The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourner in 1607 to More Tomorrow and Other Stories by Michael Marshall Smith in 2003. Since I know so little of the horror genre, I figured it might be better to read about what's most current (and hopefully available) and work backward. So far, of the first five entries (or last, in this case), I must, I mean absolutely must read four of them:

More Tomorrow and Other Stories – Michael Marshall Smith (2003)
Since the cheapest price for this book on Amazon is $300, I was delighted to find it in a nearby library.

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
After reading Jeff VanderMeer's essay, I must read this, and soon.

A Haunting Beauty – Sir Charles Birkin (2000)
May be tough to find at a good price, but I'll find a way.

Reprisal – Mitchell Smith (1999)
This one appears the easiest to find/purchase. Amazon has it used from 1 cent.

And I've got 94 more to read about. Plus this is the sequel to the original 1988 book, so make that 194 to go.

Stephen Jones and Kim Newman - why do you do this to me?

Now Playing = Paris, Texas Soundtrack – Ry Cooder
Just Finished Reading = "The Man Who Drew Cats" from More Tomorrow & Other Stories – Michael Marshall Smith

Friday, December 30, 2005

This is about the only thing I DIDN'T eat over the holidays. Posted by Picasa

Bullet's cousin Sammy Posted by Picasa

Back from Georgia

Spent Christmas in the North Georgia Mountains at Cindy's parents. I actually got about 2,000 words written in between extended episodes of eating like a crazed lawn mower. Got some good loot – mostly some much needed clothes. Music – Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock and Ragin' Live by Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Two books – Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm (which is outstanding) and a book of Sudoku. (I thought I was doing pretty good at them until Cindy picked up the book and finished a puzzle in about two minutes.)

Here we are at New Year's Eve Eve – no resolutions to speak of, only to try to find a more consistent time for writing. I'm a morning person (I usually get up at about 5:30), so that seems the best and most productive time to work. I've just got to say "No email or Internet until I write." The worst feeling in the world is to realize at 11:00 PM that you haven't written anything the entire day. So mornings it is.

Speaking of which, I put down about 1,200 words today. All before 8:00 AM.

Now Playing = Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock
Just Finished Reading = "The Night of White Bhairab" from The Jaguar Hunter – Lucius Shepard

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Southern Comfort anthology available now Posted by Picasa

Southern Comfort Anthology Available Now

My story "Where the Vultures Feed" is now available in the Southern Comfort Anthology. You can order the print version or download it here. All proceeds go to Hurricane Katrina relief. Also check out Clarion bud Trent Hergenrader's story "Of Silver Bullets and Golden Teeth" in Animal Magnetism, another Katrina relief anthology.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

500 Greatest Albums of All Time

It seems like Rolling Stone Magazine revises their 500 Greatest Albums list about every three weeks, which is fine, but it's a real cop-out to include greatest hits discs. Even so, it's an interesting list.

I thought it would be fun to check a few stats. The Beatles, no surprise, have eleven albums in the Top 500. Heck, four of 'em are in the Top 10! But the honor is deserved. Dylan has ten (including one shared with The Band - The Basement Tapes), and the Stones have ten.

Now, let's take a closer look: The Beatles released twelve albums (UK – thirteen if you count the Yellow Submarine soundtrack), all of which are on the list except Magical Mystery Tour. Dylan has roughly thirty-seven (not counting greatest hits, compilations, or Bootleg Series releases), ten of which made the list. The Stones have roughly thirty-six releases, ten of which are on the list.

I'll agree that Exile on Main Street, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers are all undisputed classics. Okay, I'll even give you The Rolling Stones Now!. But Some Girls? No. Tattoo You? No way. Aftermath, Out of Our Heads, Between the Buttons are all fairly solid, but in the 500 Greatest ever? Don't think so.

Am I tasting sour grapes because Dylan doesn't have more on the list? No. He probably doesn't deserve to have more on the list. The ones on there are pretty worthy of Top 500 status. And I'll be the first to admit Dylan's released some real low-octane sludge in his time (especially in the 80's). But the Stones' most recent album on that list came from 1983. Both of Dylan's last two studio albums are on the list.

I firmly believe that when you speak of the greatest, most influential acts in rock history, there's only room for three: Elvis, The Beatles, Dylan. That's it, case closed.

Sure, the Stones produced some very good stuff, but they aren't in the top three. Ask yourself - Where would music be without Elvis? The Beatles? Dylan? If you think the inclusion of Dylan in a "most important" conversation is pushing it, just watch the No Direction Home DVD and see if you still feel the same.

(Having bashed Mick and the boys somewhat, I will say that their new release A Bigger Bang is their best work in...years? No, decades – like three of 'em.)

Anyway, check out the list. Happy holidays.

Now Playing = Solace - Xavier Rudd
Now Reading = "The Man Who Would Be King" – Rudyard Kipling

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Simon and Garfunkel's 1970 swan song - still a classic. Posted by Picasa

The Only Living Boy in New York

I'm still in the process of listening to all my CDs. (I won't even come close to finishing before January 1. But who's counting?) This morning I put on Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (which still holds up well). As soon as the soft guitar strumming of "The Only Living Boy in New York" sounded, I was taken back to 1970 when the record came out. I was just a kid, listening to my older brother's records while he was at college. I thought "The Only Living Boy" was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever heard.

Like a lot of songs I heard as a kid, I didn't really think much about the lyrics. Years later, I discovered that the song was sort of a "good luck" send-off to Garfunkel from Paul Simon. During the late 60's, Garfunkel was getting into acting. (In fact the filming of Carnal Knowledge delayed the Bridge recording sessions.) At the time Simon wrote the song, Garfunkel (referred to in the song as "Tom" from the days when the duo were known as Tom and Jerry) was about to fly to Mexico to film Catch-22.

The song is a touching tribute. Garfunkel's single contribution to the song consists of the "Ahhh" backing vocals. I wonder if he even knew what the song was about? Maybe Simon planned it that way.

Aside #1 – I just watched Garfunkel in Nicholas Roeg's Bad Timing (1980), a very powerful and somewhat disturbing film co-starring Theresa Russell. Russell's performance is so strong that Garfunkel often comes across looking uncertain. Although in his scenes with Harvey Keitel, Garfunkel really holds his own. I don't know much about Garfunkel's acting career after this film, but I wonder if it was all he thought it was going to be. Just think how much more he and Simon could have done. Ah, the possibilities...

Aside #2 – A film with the title The Only Living Boy in New York will be released in 2006.

Monday, December 19, 2005

"Zora and the Zombie" by Andy Duncan: An Appreciation

"What is the truth?"

Those are the perfect words to open Andy Duncan's "Zora and the Zombie." Truth is exactly what writer Zora Neale Hurston is looking for in 1936 Haiti, any type of truth she can use as potential story material. When she learns of a woman thirty years dead wandering a local road, Hurston knows she's found her material. (Along the way, of course, she'll find a whole lot more.)

The stunning thing about the story is that it could all be true. We know from her non-fiction book Tell My Horse that Hurston did visit Haiti, did meet "zombie" Felicia Felix-Mentor, and did become the first person to photograph one of the living dead. As for the rest of the story, if it didn't happen the way Andy Duncan writes it, it sure feels like it did.

It feels true because Andy knows his setting and characters so well. Sure, all good writers know how to make setting and character come alive, but Duncan's stories don't feel researched, they feel lived in. For all I know, Andy Duncan has observed a drum-frenzied truth ceremony, has ridden in a crowded tap-tap bumping along a dusty, pothole-ridden highway, and has probably met a coven of red-robed cannibals on an abandoned moonlit road.

Duncan latches onto historical details, savors them, and sprinkles them in exactly the right places. Even if you can't find Haiti on a map, as you read the story, you know exactly what it feels like to be there. If Andy had been around in the 1940's, I Walked with a Zombie producer Val Lewton would have no doubt hired him as a consultant.

Duncan also understands the essential relationship between setting and character. The arrogant doctor, the frightened housekeeper, the temptress Erzulie – they're all perfect extensions of the Haitian setting. But it's Zora who's the stranger, and the story's most fascinating character. With masterful strokes, Duncan shows us Hurston's brazen confidence in the presence of the arrogant Dr. Legros, her boldness in standing toe-to-toe with a goddess, and her subtle use of sexuality to get what she wants. By the end of the story, you know this character.

Writing historical figures into fiction can be dangerous, but Duncan has previously done so in expert fashion with Abraham Lincoln ("Lincoln in Frogmore"), General George S. Patton "Fortitude"), and several others. With Zora Neale Hurston, the results are just as impressive. In the introduction to "Zora and the Zombie" in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Eighteenth Annual Collection, Duncan states, "If this story inspires others to seek out her work, I'm happy."

Anytime a historical figure appears in a work of fiction and leaves the reader hungering to learn more, the writer has done his job. Duncan has done that and told a great story in the process. Thanks, Andy. And thanks, Ellen, for sharing it with us.

Read "Zora and the Zombie" here

Read appreciation on main site

Read other SCIFICTION story appreciations

Friday, December 16, 2005

A small sample. Posted by Picasa

15 Things about Books

Inspired by Clarion buds John, Trent, and Dr. Phil, here we go...

1. I love books. As goofy as that sounds, I really do love them. I can spend hours in libraries and bookstores, salivating over shelf after shelf of great reading. I remember loving books even before I could read them. I have vivid memories of picking up my older brother's science fiction paperbacks (the only size I could hold) and thrilling over the colorful covers and delighting in how I could fan the pages back and forth. There's just something right about the feel of a book in your hands. It still feels that way now.

2. Books are really simple, when you think about it. I mean every aspect of it is simple from inception to completion. Someone thinks up a story, some publisher prints the book, some store puts the book on a shelf, and someone buys it and reads it. It's really simple. (Until someone -- or some corporation -- makes it complicated.)

3. It's also simple – and amazing – that I can sit in my study and pick up The Iliad (or any classic) and read the thoughts of someone who lived centuries ago. Homer never dreamed that some clown in a place called Maryland in a country he'd never heard of was going to read his words and become captivated by them. And yet I can read a story from a collection by Dale Bailey (which I did last night), someone who's living right now, and email him about how "The Resurrection Man's Legacy" affected me. Books have an incredible power.

4. A book can be used, worn, ratty, falling apart -- and it's still valuable. CDs wear out. So do movies. But even if someone rips out every single page of my copy of Till We Have Faces and spreads it out on the floor, it's still going to be precious to me. Forever.

5. Having said that, I do treasure the few signed first editions I have from authors I deeply respect and admire. It's like having a bit of them with you always.

6. And the books that I treasure I put in Brodart protective covers. (You should too.)

7. I love hearing about books from people who are passionate about them.

8. I love discovering a book that someone else has led me to, a book that they've loved.

9. I love giving books.

10. Maybe it's the teacher in me, but there's nothing that gives me more joy than watching kids' eyes light up they buy a book or their parents/grandparents buy them books. That's magic.

11. There are so many of them. And so many types. Eugene Corporon, Director of Bands at the University of North Texas, has stated many times that programming music for the Wind Symphony is extremely challenging, not because there's not enough great music, but because there's too much of it. I actually heard him say once that he struggles with which pieces to record – he's concerned that he only has a limited amount of time on this earth and it's not enough to program all the great music that's already been written, much less the great new works that are constantly being written. I feel the same way about reading books.

12. Thank God for audiobooks. I can "read" twice as much now.

13. Whenever Cindy complains about my book addiction, I always remind her that I'm not addicted to drugs, booze or gambling, don't run around with other women, don't get arrested, and don't stir up (much) trouble. "I can't argue with that," she always says, as I step up to the bookstore counter.

14. I want to become close friends with someone who builds beautiful bookcases.

15. Books will never die. Never.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Best of 2005 Part Five: Novels

As usual, I didn't read nearly as many new releases as I would have liked, but I did run across several good ones.

Tor was responsible for two of my favorite reads of the year, Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania, the first in what promises to be a wonderful trilogy featuring gorgeous writing and complex characters. I didn't want Andreas Eschbach's The Carpet Makers (translated from the German by Doryl Jensen) to end, but when it did, I was blown away. Eschbach is one of the few writers who can successfully combine elements of sf and fantasy. Let's hope we see more of his works translated soon.

In horror, Tom Piccirili's paperback original November Mourns is an extremely creepy tale of revenge in the Deep South. I don't know how much time Piccirili's spent down there, but he knows the true horrors that can be found in backwoods areas you'd rather not visit. A lighter, yet effective read was first-time writer Cherie Priest's Four and Twenty Blackbirds, which is actually an expansion of an earlier novella. Priest is a writer to watch – she's got a great voice, the right mix of humor and tension, and the ability to keep the pages turning. The ending was a bit of a disappointment, but don't let that keep you from giving it a look.

I don't normally read Romance, but I'm glad I picked up Clarion buddy Marjorie M. Liu's first novel Tiger Eye. This paranormal romance is a great ride, full of fun, adventure, danger, and of course, romance. Plus the writing is fantastic. Keep 'em coming, Marjorie!

Jeffrey Ford's The Girl in the Glass came out this year and I liked it, but I loved his 2002 novel The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque. If you haven't read Ford, this is a great place to start.

I didn't read very many mystery/detective novels, but I did enjoy Michael Connelly's The Closers, even though 2003's Lost Light is a better book.

Some of the other books I enjoyed this year:

Motherless Brooklyn (1999) – Jonathan Lethem
The Plot Against America (2004) – Philip Roth
The Good House (2003) and My Soul to Keep (1997) – Tananarive Due (I don't know why more people don't know about Due. She's fantastic.)
Declare(2001) – Tim Powers
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004) – Susanna Clarke
Tainaron (2004) – Leena Krohn
Veniss Underground (2003) – Jeff VanderMeer
The Things They Carried (1990) – Tim O'Brien
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) – Ken Kesey
Dracula (1897) – Bram Stoker
The Dying Earth (1950) – Jack Vance

Monday, December 12, 2005

Best of 2005 Part Four: Short Fiction

I'm afraid you won't find many stories on my list that were actually written in 2005. I wish I had more time and money to keep up with current stories. Yeah, I know, it's a lame excuse, but I do subscribe to F&SF and try to pick up a few magazines throughout the year. It's just easier to read a couple of the Best of the Year anthologies. (And I haven't even finished those yet!)

But of the stories that came out in 2005, I'd have to say my favorites are both by Kelly Link, "Magic for Beginners" and "Stone Animals," both of which are included in her collection Magic for Beginners. These are stories that I can't wait to read again, soaking up everything in them. (And there's a lot in them.)

Other stories I enjoyed:

"Coming to Terms" – Eileen Gunn (2004)
"Madonna of the Maquiladora" – Gregory Frost (2002)
"Singing My Sister Down" – Margo Lanagan (2004)
"Sergeant Chip" – Bradley Denton (2004)
"The Baum Plan for Financial Independence" – John Kessel (2004)
"The Voluntary State" – Christopher Rowe (2004)
"The Calorie Man" – Paolo Bacigalupi (2005)
"The Best Christmas Ever" – James Patrick Kelly (2004)
"The Revenge of the Calico Cat" – Stephen Chapman (2004)

And a few older ones:

"The Day Before the Revolution" – Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
"The River Styx Runs Upstream" – Dan Simmons (1982)
"Salvador" – Lucius Shepard (1984)
"The Jaguar Hunter" – Lucius Shepard (1985)

Out of genre, I enjoyed several stories by T.C. Boyle, Ann Beattie, Kevin Brockmeier, and my absolute favorite Southern writer, Flannery O'Connor.

I read several good collections this year, the best of which are:

Magic for Beginners (2005) – Kelly Link
Attack of the Jazz Giants (2005) – Gregory Frost
Black Juice (2004) – Margo Lanagan
The Fantasy Writer's Assistant (2002) – Jeffrey Ford
Beluthahatchie and Other Stories (2000) – Andy Duncan

Next time: Novels

Saturday, December 10, 2005

At Clarion 2004 Posted by Picasa

Best of 2005 Part Three: Young Adult

I read more YA titles this year than I did in 2004 and most of them were very good. YA is a hot market right now, but it's also packed with some extremely talented writers.

The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens (2005, Jane Yolen and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, eds.) was a very welcome volume featuring some great stories, but for some reason, Tor has decided not to continue the series (although apparently sales are very good.) Hey, Tor – WAKE UP! This is a book that's actually needed! Not only does the anthology introduce readers of all ages to some great spec fic, it also suggests further reading with each story. I just can't imagine not making this anthology an annual event.

Up until last week, Thirsty (1997) by M.T. Anderson was the best YA book I discovered this year. It's a very dark book, but does a great job of capturing the utter confusion and despair of adolescence. It was at the top of my list until I read another Anderson book, Feed (2002).

In the future, all children have a feed (sort of like a computer chip) in their heads. The feed is like a little computer – you can link with your friends to chat, you can look up information, shop, just about anything. Companies also use the feed to show you (based on your previous purchases and desires) what products you need when you need them. (Sound familiar?) Feed is an outrageously funny, yet terrifying look at where we as a society are going. Or maybe we're already there.

I've talked to some people that didn't like Feed because it's somewhat bleak and uses a lot of profanity, neither of which bothered me. Some teenagers' lives are bleak; it's the world we live in. That goes for language, too. Anderson really knows how kids talk and he's not afraid to present it.

Here are some other outstanding YA books that I enjoyed this year:

Growing Wings – Laurel Winter (2000)
The House of the Scorpion – Nancy Farmer (2002)
Midnighters 1: The Secret Hour – Scott Westerfeld (2004)
The Devil's Arithmetic – Jane Yolen (1988)

Now Playing = A Christmas Song – Russ Taff
Now Reading = Vellum – Hal Duncan (Hey, it's a long book, okay?)

Friday, December 09, 2005

Best of 2005 Part Two: Non-Fiction

My non-fiction reading is really all over the place. So many subjects grab my interest and there's so much written about each topic that it just gets frustrating. Sometimes I end up reading nothing about a particular topic because there's just too many choices (and not enough time).

As of this writing, I've read 80 books this year. 20 of them have been non-fiction. I don't know if that's a good ratio of fiction to non-fiction, whatever a good ratio would entail. Some of the non-fiction titles were about writing, some were about topics that interested me for only a brief time. Some I could have done without completely.

The most disappointing non-fiction book I read was His Excellency by Joseph Ellis, a short biography of George Washington. The problem: it was too short, too generic. Plus the writing wasn't very engaging.

Also disappointing was Frank M. Robinson's Science Fiction of the 20th Century, an over-sized history of sf/f magazines. The photos of the old magazine covers were fun to look at, but the text was pretty convoluted and often a downright mess. It seemed that Robinson tried too hard to cover the history of the century's magazines, stories, writers, artists, and publishing trends. When you try to cover everything, sometimes nothing comes out right.

I've really gotten into baseball over the past couple of years, but was embarrassed that I knew so little about it. To help correct my baseball shortcomings, I read and enjoyed Johnny Bench's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baseball. So many of the Idiot's books I've seen aren't very helpful, but this one covers much more than the basics and actually makes you want to read more on the game. (Bench does, however, spend too much time lauding his beloved Cincinnati Reds. But hey, it's his book.)

Faithful by die-hard Red Sox fans Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King (Yes, that Stephen King.) was a pretty good chronicle of the Sox's 2004 championship season, but didn't convey enough of the excitement of the postseason (especially the ALCS) for me.

Oddly enough, the most enjoyable non-fiction book I read this year was Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't by Jim Collins (author of Built to Last). Collins and his research team studied hundreds of U.S. companies over a period of several years and determined the ones that made the transition from a good company to a great one. Only eleven companies made the cut. What they have in common is fascinating and sometimes surprising. For me, the book was more about how you treat people than building businesses.

Next time = The Best Young Adult Books

Now Playing = Blue - Joni Mitchell
Now Reading = Vellum - Hal Duncan

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Best of 2005 Part One

First, I should qualify my list by saying not everything I read/watched/listened to this year was actually from 2005. Especially with reading, there's so much old and new stuff I want to read, it's tough to make choices. So you'll see quite a few things on the list that didn't come out this year, I just experienced them for the first time in 2005.

I wish I had time to see more films on the big screen, but I just don't. I only saw about a half dozen movies in the theatres. Of those, the best of the lot was Crash, overdone in some ways, but still powerful.

On DVD, I really liked two films from 2003 and 2004, respectively, House of Sand and Fog and a Korean movie recommended by my friend Kelly Shaw, Oldboy.

I've talked to several people who are indifferent towards Bob Dylan, yet were glued to Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home, chronicling Dylan's life and music from 1961-66. In the first few minutes, Scorsese delivers the acoustic Dylan and the electric Dylan, then shows you how they both came to be and how each changed music (and popular culture) forever. I've watched it three times and can't wait to see it again.

I don't buy a lot of new music and probably should expand my listening territory more, but here's what I liked in 2005:

Everybody Loves a Happy Ending - Tears for Fears (2004)
Like a lot of their stuff, it's very approachable pop, but miles better than most of what passes for "pop" these days.

Van Lear Rose – Loretta Lynn (2004)
Fans of Lynn and Jack White (from the White Stripes) probably never dreamed a collaboration would work, but this album has several great cuts. "Portland Oregon" is downright contagious and "Miss Being Mrs." is one of the loneliest country songs ever (and that's saying something).

Now Here is Nowhere – Secret Machines (2004)
Nobody I've talked to has heard of these guys. They're very loosely classified as an alternative Led Zeppelin, but that tag doesn't really fit. If they don't go too commercial, they should continue to produce more good stuff.

No Direction Home: Bootleg Vol. 7 – Bob Dylan (2005)
What can you say? All of the Bootleg volumes are great and this one's no exception, combining some of Bob's early stuff with some nifty alternate versions.

The Way Up – Pat Metheny (2005) Love everything the guy does.

As much as I enjoyed all of these somewhat recent discs, nothing blew me away like Kelly Joe Phelps' Roll Away the Stone (1997), featuring wonderful acoustic blues and powerful vocals that sound like Kelly's stood on the brink of disaster only to find the miracle of redemption. Man, this is good.

Next – Books and stories

Now Playing = Oscar Peterson Christmas
Now Reading = Four and Twenty Blackbirds - Cherie Priest (almost finished)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Learning from Rejection

Got a rejection over the weekend that actually helped. The editor seemed to think "Fingerpaint" is a pretty good story, but passed on it because the setting needed a little more explaining. That actually helps tremendously. It confirmed something about the story I already suspected, so it was not a big surprise. Plus I know how to fix it...always a plus. Ain't life grand?

Now Playing = Sunday's Child - Phil Keaggy
Now Reading = Hmmmmmm....I have both The Iliad (Fitzgerald translation) and M.T. Anderson's Feed on CD from the library...I have a feeling which one Trent will recommend...

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Holiday Tunes with a Vengeance

Since Cindy can't stand 99% of all Christmas/Holiday tunes, I've decided to listen to them only in the car when I'm by myself. I also thought it might be fun (I have a twisted concept of "fun.") to see what tunes are played the most...or are the most obnoxious...or both.

Here are the most played holiday songs in the Baltimore/Washington DC area...according to my car radio:

1. "Last Christmas" – Wham

I wish this tune had stayed with last Christmas, or the Christmas before that. I have an uneasy feeling that it will be with us Next Christmas, forcing This Christmas to be Last Christmas, looping forever into a Christmas Wham-O-Rama.

2. "Same Old Lang Syne" – Dan Fogelberg

It just barely qualifies as a holiday song, but that doesn't stop stations from assaulting the airwaves with what is undoubtedly one of the worst songs of all time (holiday or otherwise). Sorry, Dan, but this one is excruciatingly bad. (And I was a Fogelberg fan until this came out. I think a lot of people were.)

3. "Jingle Bell Rock"

I really don't mind listening to this one, either version. And the best thing about it? As long as it's playing, "Last Christmas" and "Same Old Lang Syne" aren't.

I have yet to hear the David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" and have only heard "I Believe in Father Christmas" once. I've also yet to hear "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," for which I'm thankful.

More on this story as it deteriorates.

Now Playing = Pieces of the Sky – Emmylou Harris
Now Reading = Vellum – Hal Duncan
Four and Twenty Blackbirds – Cherie Priest

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Books Everywhere/Research? Fun????

Just finished a great book I heard about at WFC, The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. It's several years old, but time has not taken away the book's power. It's a time-travel/Holocaust book, but that description hardly does it justice. Hannah, a Jewish teenager from 1988 New Rochelle, NY, goes back in time and finds herself in Nazi-occupied Poland. She thinks her presence there is just a dream, but she finds it harder and harder to remember the "real" world and who she was in it.

In this scene, Hannah is a prisoner in a concentration camp. She and another girl, Shifre, are forced to scrub burned bits of potato from a cauldron. To escape the drudgery, the girls imagine what they wish they were eating.

"An orange, I think," she (Shifre) said slowly....

"An orange," Hannah echoed, pleased with the novelty. "I'd forgotten oranges." ...

"How!" Hannah said suddenly.

"What is pizza?" Shifre asked.

"It''s...I don't know," Hannah said miserably, fingers in her mouth, blurring the words. "I can't remember. I can only remember potato soup."...

"Well, do not cry over this pizza. Tell me about it."

"I can't," Hannah said. "And I'm not crying over the thing, whatever it is. I'm crying because I can't remember what it is. I can't remember anything."

Yolen does a great job of portraying what it must have been like for the Jews in concentration camps trying to grasp the thinnest vapors of their former lives. It's a tremendous book.

I also finished Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground a few days ago, a book that just knocked me out with its combination of raw power and beautiful language.

I'm working on a new story and doing some research for it...and (Let me look around the room...nobody in the closet...) I'm actually enjoying it. Maybe I'm just excited about the story.

Next time I'll have my report on the most obnoxious holiday tunes of the week.

Now Playing = Secret Story - Pat Metheny
Now Reading = Vellum – Hal Duncan
Four and Twenty Blackbirds – Cherie Priest

Friday, November 25, 2005

One Story Down...

"Where the Vultures Feed" has been accepted by Southern Comfort, an upcoming sf/f anthology. None of the authors will be paid, but all proceeds from the sale of the book will go to Hurricane Katrina relief. I'm very excited!

Now I think I'll go write another story...after I have some more turkey...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Just Two Words...

New story, new rejection. "Fingerpaint" got rejected this morning (via email) by Lone Star Stories.

I think for some reason e-rejections are easier, at least for me. It's sort of like spam – you're not exactly sure what might be in there, so you check it with the hopes that it'll be good news. It's not, so you print it for your file (You DO keep your rejections, right?) and delete it.

A rejection via snail mail seems more like a formal pronouncement from on high. "Your story has been weighed in the balance and has been found UNWORTHY! Here! Here's official documentation from the hand (or copier) of King Editor (or humble servant slush-reader*). Send this drivel to someone else!"

Actually, it's not that bad. I was on a web-site the other day reading about all the traumatic experiences people have with rejection. Don't get me wrong, rejection isn't fun, but it's not as bad as a root canal either.

I don't really mind rejection letters if I can learn something from them. When an editor says "It was too this or too that" or "I didn't understand this or that" I usually know what I have to do. Even when an editor says "Interesting, but the story did not appeal to me enough to accept it," that tells me I haven't yet read that magazine/ezine enough to know that editor's tastes. That takes more time and effort to correct, but it can be done. (Assuming that you want to adjust your story to a particular market, as opposed to finding the right market for your story in the first place.)

It's the rejection letters that tell you absolutely nothing that frustrate me the most. I know editors/readers don't have the time to give a critique to every story, but two words would be nice. Every rejection I get from Strange Tales has two words at the bottom in red pen. A horror story I had rejected contained the words "simple madness" at the bottom. Okay. That tells me something. Another had "confusing story" at the end. That's all I needed; two words. I knew I had to make it less confusing. And the editor didn't have to give me a dissertation; just two words.

In the P.O.E. Writers' Group, critiques were five minutes each. At Clarion, two minutes. I'm proposing a two-word critique for all editors/readers. Just two words. Even if they're "This sucked," that helps. Just two words. "Read more," or "You idiot," or "drop dead," or even "Subscribe now".... okay, forget that last one.

Just think...two words could revolutionize rejections for thousands of writers. No longer would egos be crushed like teachers' chalk on the last day of school. No more despair, no more suffering, no more dark, bottomless pits of misery due to lack of feedback...

"Dream on."

Now Playing = My Funny Valentine – Chet Baker
Now Reading = Veniss Underground – Jeff VanderMeer (almost finished)

* JJA – The Slush God - is the exception.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Creature of Habit

Yesterday I felt like I was aimlessly wandering around the house, not knowing what to do. It felt weird not being down at Capitol Hill, leading the workshop. Our final session last Sunday went very well, as did the entire ten-week workshop. I miss hearing all the great stuff the participants created each week. I hope they'll all continue their writing.

Malcolm (the director of DC Writer's Way) has asked me to lead another workshop in January, so I'm very pleased about that.

Sending two stories out tomorrow. I'm about 1,000 words into a new one. If I can just get "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" out of my head....Just what is the new old-fashioned way?

Now Playing = The Way Up – Pat Metheny Group (can't get enough)
Now Reading = Veniss Underground – Jeff VanderMeer (Wow!)

Friday, November 18, 2005

It's Here: The Music You Love to Hate

It's a milestone that I "celebrate" every year. This year's winner is "Sleigh Ride" by the Ronettes. That's right: it's the first Christmas/Holiday song I've heard this year.

I could have been worse. Paul McCartney's awful "Wonderful Christmastime" would have gotten stuck in my head for at least two weeks. Or it could have been Elton John's "Step Into Christmas," which I did step in just a few minutes after I got off the sleigh.

Man, I just hope I'm spared anything from The Kenny G Christmas Album.

Some songs I actually look forward to hearing. I rarely hear the David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth." Although if I heard it enough times, it would probably enter into the Most Hated category.

Cindy absolutely despises any of the Chipmunks Christmas tunes, which I can understand. She also hates John Lennon's "Happy Christmas/War is Over," which oddly never really grates on my nerves, despite the chorus of kids.

There are a few songs that enjoy hearing, but don't get much air time. The ONLY John Denver Christmas song I like is the almost never-played "Christmas for Cowboys." A great anti-Christmas song is Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "I Believe in Father Christmas," which also doesn't get much play. (The version you'll hear, if you hear it at all, is usually the big overblown orchestral production number version.) "O Holy Night" is my all-time favorite Christmas carol, but not many singers can pull it off. (Nor should they try.)

How about your faves and least-faves? Send 'em in.

Now Playing = Anything but Christmas music
Now Reading = Paint cans, that's about it. Kitchen's almost finished.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Adventures in YA Land (and a Brief Discussion on That Potter Kid)

One of my New Year's Resolutions (begun a couple of months early) is to read more YA spec-fic. Why? I enjoy it, for one thing. For another, I've been wondering if this is the audience I should target in my own fiction. Many of my stories lately have had YA protagonists. We'll see.

Anyway, I've read maybe ten or so YA novels this year, most recently Scott Westerfeld's Midnighters Vol. 1: The Secret Hour. Teenager Jessica Day and her family move from Chicago to Bixby, Oklahoma for what could yield nothing but extreme culture shock. Big-city Jessica is suddenly elevated to the top of the popularity list at Bixby High, but a few of the stranger kids are keeping their distance. They know something's not right about Jessica.

Jessica discovers that she's a Midnighter, one of a select few who can live in a secret 25th hour each night at midnight, while the rest of the world is frozen in time. Weird things happen during this hour and not just to Jessica. But Jessica seems to be the only Midnighter who doesn't know her purpose in the 25th hour.

Midnighters is my first experience with Westerfeld and it's overall a good one. He sets up a creepy atmosphere and places in it teenagers that act and talk (for the most part) like real teenagers with real problems. The pacing is good and the story imaginative. I was never bored and I cared about the characters.

And it has depth. The novel takes a look at what it means to be a teenager no one understands, no matter how hard they try. In a way, they are alone in their own complex world and Westerfeld understands this. I think many teens will read this book and relate to it, far more than they relate to Harry Potter. Which brings up a brief digression...

Casual readers (usually parents) ask me all the time what I think of the Harry Potter books. They're good reads, I tell them. The pages turn, you have fun and you put the book down. But there's no depth. There's no great use of language. Nothing sticks with you.

There are so many YA books being written today that DO have depth, that DO utilize wonderfully written prose, that DO stick with you because they MEAN something. (Don't tell me Harry Potter "means" something. Every kid in the world feels like he's walking in a world of Muggles.)

Westerfeld does a pretty good job in all of these areas. Yet as much as I enjoyed the book, I could never get away from the feeling that The Secret Hour's entire premise was to discover Jessica's hidden power so that the series could really get going in future volumes. I suppose that's just the way things happen in introductory books: you learn where you are, who the characters are, and what's at stake. Westerfeld gives us all of that, but I have a feeling that the really good stuff will be revealed in Book 2 and 3.

Now Playing = Secret Story – Pat Metheny Group
Now Reading = Veniss Underground – Jeff VanderMeer

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I Must Be Learning Something...

I got "Results May Vary" rejected from Asimov's yesterday – after a 99 day wait – and read through the story with excitement. Wait a minute, your story got rejected, pal. Yeah, but now I know what's wrong with it.

Really. I started reading through the story and thought, "That doesn't belong there. This doesn't flow. That isn't what I meant. This setting doesn't reflect the main character." I saw where things should go, what was weak and needed changing; probably not everything, but quite a bit.

I guess I've learned a thing or two during those 99 days since I sent the story out. Learning is a wonderful thing.

Library Rant

Our county really has a pretty good library system, so I shouldn't complain. But I will:

I went to the largest branch today, about five miles down the road from where I live. I sauntered down the sf/f aisle (one aisle, front and back) to see what was new. A few things, nothing I couldn't live without. I did notice, however, nine copies of Jasper Fforde's Lost in a Good Book. Nine copies. I've read the book (and it is good) and enjoyed it. But do we really need nine copies of a book that came out two and a half years ago? If so, I'd expect about 78 copies of The Da Vinci Code. (Give me strength.)

Oh, there's more.

I found that The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 18 is a Young Adult book. Yep, that's right. Not only that, Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners is in the non-fiction section. Instructional, I suppose.

The CD section is a real dinger too. Anything by Emmylou Harris is filed under "E," which is embarrassing, but understandable. Also The Alan Parsons Project is under "A." Also understandable. Other artists – most of them – are correctly filed under the first letter in their last name. So my question is why is Johnny Cash filed under "N" ?

Now Playing = The Way Up – Pat Metheny Group (filed under "M")
Now Reading = (about to start) Veniss Underground – Jeff VanderMeer

Monday, November 14, 2005


It's hard to believe that so much can be packed into so short a book, but at 124 pages, reading Leena Krohn's Tainaron is like a crash course on the depths and intricacies of life. Krohn is a Finnish author whose novella is available in English from Prime Books. Its list price is a bit steep, $30.00 for such a short book, but I found it worth every penny.

The book is a series of thirty letters sent from a city of insects. The visiting narrator relates in these letters not only the unusual customs and practices of a strange city, but also something of what it means to truly live, die, and face change. We learn about this strange city, which is fascinating in itself, but we also learn about the narrator and, more importantly, ourselves.

Tainaron, like all great books, is multi-layered and rich. You can examine it from several different angles, all of which yield wonderful little treasures. And the language is beautiful. (There are a few instances of typos and awkward translation, but not many.) You can read Matthew Cheney's excellent review of it here.

Now Playing = The Way Up – Pat Metheny Group
Now Reading = Midnighters: The Secret Hour – Scott Westerfeld (YA)

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Nooooooo! Say It Isn't So!

I'm really bummed out. It's the end of SCI FICTION. No more new fiction after the end of 2005. You can read the bad news here. Editor Ellen Datlow's farewell message is there too.

What a lousy way to start a Saturday...

Friday, November 11, 2005

World Fantasy Report Part Two: The Panels

As I mentioned last time, some of the panels were good and some were pretty good for catching up on sleep. A couple of them were very good. I could give you a detailed rundown of the panels I attended, but it would take too long and I'm too lazy, so here's the flash fiction version of each:

Gender-Bending in Fantasy
Gender-bending (the term recommended over "feminist") fiction, while recognized and lauded by the James Tiptree, Jr. Award , is a hard sell to many publishers and magazines. The Tiptree committee is basically looking for work that explores gender roles. They've sure picked some great stuff in the past and are seeking to recognize more.

The State of Fantasy and Horror
Rough, especially if you're in the UK or Canada. If your last name isn't Clarke or Gaiman, good luck getting published. Seek out the small presses and magazines. People who read fantasy novels usually don't read fantasy short stories. Fantasy SS writers have few markets (F&SF, Realms of Fantasy) and almost no SS tradition, while horror has an extensive SS tradition. In fact, horror writing is probably at its best in the short form.

Working On Your Craft: Writing as an Evolving Process (Part I)
To join a critique group or not? To have a first reader or not? The panel was pretty much divided. L.E. Modesitt remarked that critic's comments usually reflect more of them than of you the writer. Joe Haldeman says when critics consistently see something wrong with your work, that's probably what's right with your work. Interesting. He insists that characters, not plot, generate stories. Bottom line: keep writing and try to write something better than you did the last time.

Curse Words & Other Ways To Tell It Isn't a Children's Fantasy
"What's the difference between children's books and Young Adult books?"
Children drink Coke. Young Adults snort it.

The YA market is hot, mostly in the fantasy realm, but you can't push the limits like you could in the 90's. Some adults are just beginning to recognize that much YA writing is very good. YA writers get very offended when adults say things like, "That YA book was actually good. When are you going to write a real book?" The writer's response should be "Do you ask pediatricians when they're going to start treating real people?"
Just write what's appropriate and true. No kid says "Shucks" anymore; don't write it.

Good vs. Evil: Philosophy in Fantasy
A real snoozer until two panelists almost came to blows. Some boxing gloves and a ring would've solved the whole thing (and been much more entertaining).

Fantasy in Unexpected Places
No, not THAT kind of fantasy in THOSE kinds of unexpected places. While the "sub-Tolkien maggots sell," the use of language can lift traditional fantasy to another level (Clarke, Wolfe, etc.). When we're in the world of the strange, but not quite sure what's going on, that can be exciting. When your reality is challenged, you want more. Try to distance yourself from what's traditional. Push your stories into experimental directions.

The Art of Review and Criticism
Writers, be nice. Jerks get bad reviews.

The Reader: Foundation of Fantasy
One of the good ones, well moderated by Ann VanderMeer. Anytime a writer promises to give the reader entertainment value, the work is usually dumbed-down. You have to learn to read well; exercise your reading, read things that are difficult. Read structurally, look for shapes and patterns. Good writing intrigues readers.

What does the writer owe the reader? To make the story work on every possible level. There the obligation ends. Jay Lake states "I don't owe you (the reader) anything. If I try to write for you, I've failed. All I owe you is what I owe the story."

Dark Fantasy for Kids (As opposed to light fantasy?)
How dark is too dark? Jane Yolen: "I don't mind the torture, just don't show it fingernail by fingernail." Some kids' comfort levels are in different places. Dark can show where you have or haven't been. For some, the darkness is a cup of borrowed courage. For others, it's recognition. For still others, dark stories are a path away from their own darkness, a reminder that you don't have to remain stuck in the same place.

That's it! Enough!

Now Playing = "My Funny Valentine" – Chet Baker
Now Reading = Tainaron – Leena Krohn

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

World Fantasy Report Part One

If you blink, you'll miss it. At least that's the way it seemed at WFC 2005, a whirlwind, but a good whirlwind; I'm still recovering from lack of sleep, too much food (and yes, drink) and too many books brought back. (I believe the final count was twenty books, seven magazines. Plus I brought eight to get signed.) I would have bought more, but I waited too long to pick up Charles Coleman Finlay's new collection and Stephen Jones's Horror: Another 100 Best Books.

Seven members of the Clarion Class of 2004 showed up (one more than last year). We had a great time getting together again and a hard time saying goodbye. (More on these wonderful folks next time.)

The panels were mostly good; some were tolerable, some were good, some were very good. The two best were "Fantasy in Unexpected Places" and "The Reader: Foundation of Fantasy" moderated by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer, respectively. Both moderators did a great job of keeping the panels focused and on-task, which I greatly appreciated.

Although I'm normally very passive around people I don't know, I did meet some really great folks, bringing the total number of people I've met in my life to around, oh, say eighty-two?

Many more details to come. Right now I've got to make some room on the shelves...

Now Playing = "Medicine Hat" – Son Volt (Many thanks, Trent)
Now Reading = You name it
Just a few of the new books I'm looking to make room for =
Perfect Circle – Sean Stewart
Weapons of Mass Seduction – Lucius Shepard
Veniss Underground – Jeff VanderMeer
Tainaron – Leena Krohn
Dead in the West – Joe R. Lansdale
Vellum – Hal Duncan
Black Juice – Margo Lanagan
Greetings and Other Stories – Terry Bisson
The Last of the O-Forms – James Van Pelt

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

World Fantasy 2005

World Fantasy 2005 is only one day away! It'll be great to see my old Clarion partners-in-crime again – eight of them, hopefully – as well as several of our instructors from Clarion 2004. I'm also looking forward to meeting my email friend Kelly Shaw, who's started writing book reviews for Strange Horizons. (Check out the great stuff on Kelly's blog, too.)

Of course Madison, WI will be a bit colder than Tempe last year, but it doesn't matter where they hold the con. It's just a great feeling knowing that for a few days out of the year you're among friends, people who love what you love, who are just as strange as you are (or stranger).

So no blogs for a few days, but I'll have a full report when I return.

Now Playing = The Pines of Rome – Respighi – Berlin/Karajan

Monday, October 31, 2005

Margo Lanagan/10th Time Around

If you haven't heard of her yet, you will soon. Her name is Margo Lanagan and she writes stories so good I'm in awe. She's published several books in her native Australia, but so far, the only book available in America is her collection Black Juice. Good luck finding it, though: it's being marketed as YA, and while the protagonists are young adults, these are definitely not stories only for YA. (I've yet to find it at the usual bookstores, although it is available on Amazon. I hope to pick it up this week at WFC.)

I've only read the two stories she has in the eighteenth edition of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, "Rite of Spring" and "Singing My Sister Down." Both stories involve rites of passage, in a manner of speaking. The characters are at the same time ordinary and extraordinary, familiar and completely foreign. While reading them, you have the sense that you're in another world, yet right in your own backyard. And the writing is absolutely spellbinding. Seek Lanagan out.

How many roads must a story walk down before you call it a loser? (Sorry, Bob.) I just sent out a Clarion story (revised, of course) called "Where the Vultures Feed." It's been rejected nine times previously. That's right, nine.

Why do I keep sending it out? I don't know, maybe because it's a story that's very personal (Aren't they all?), one that I believe in very strongly. It generally got good comments at Clarion and I believe the revisions have strengthened it. Maybe I'm too close to it, but I still think it's a good story. But if it gets rejected again, it's time to retire it. I've got too many other stories to write.

Happy there any candy corn left?

Now Playing = Bitches Brew – Miles Davis
Now Reading = Why Should I Cut Your Throat? – Jeff VanderMeer

Friday, October 28, 2005

Lucius Shepard's "Salvador"

I haven't read that many stories by Lucius Shepard, but the ones I've read, I've read over and over. Right now I'm studying "Salvador." (You can find it in his collection The Jaguar Hunter. More recently, it's appeared in Dozois's The Best of the Best anthology.)

The first two sentences provide a great example of why beginnings are so important. In the sentence, Shepard introduces a character, a setting, and cause for incredible tension. No specific details – you don't really know who Dantzler is or what he's doing in a place called Tecolutla, but you know enough. All in twelve words; a very simple sentence, too.

The second, much longer sentence, is loaded with description of the setting, insight into Dantzler's character, and a feel for the tone of what's to come. Plus it advances the plot. It's long (76 words), but it's still just one sentence.

I studied those first two sentences for a long time and kept coming back to them throughout my reading and rereading. Shepard really sets the framework of the whole story with those two sentences. When you filter the rest of the story through them, it works powerfully. And when you get to the end of the story, you know that Shepard has not only played fair with you by remaining true to those first two sentences, but he's also taken you somewhere with them that he could not have taken you without them. The guy's good.

Think I'll be spending a little more time on my own openings...

Now Playing = "A Foggy Day" – Chet Baker

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Creativity - Train, Plane or Boat?

This morning I started reading Dylan's Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks, an examination of not only the presence of the seven deadly sins in Bob Dylan's music, but also the four cardinal virtues and the three graces. (Can you name them all? I couldn't.)

The book presupposes that the reader has

1) something of an appreciation of Dylan
2) something of a knowledge of Dylan's music

In the first chapter, Ricks mentions that while he obviously believes Dylan is a superb writer/poet, Bob's probably not conscious of all of the subtleties and shadings present in his own work. He includes this quote from Dylan:

"As you get older, you get smarter and that can hinder you because you try to gain control over the creative impulse. Creativity is not like a freight train going down the tracks. It's something that has to be caressed and treated with a great deal of respect. If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You've got to program your brain not to think too much."

This is very much in line with what Jeffrey Ford taught us as Clarion. I constantly labor to shovel coal into my little train, to follow the track, to make all the proper stops at the proper time. Jump off the train. Instead, jump into a boat (no motor, no oars) and let it take you where it wants to go, at least during the first draft. Maybe this is so hard to do because I spent so many years teaching, analyzing what a student is doing wrong and trying to fix it. It's a perspective shift that's hard to overcome.

But overcome it I did, at least for awhile – The first draft of my short story "Fingerpaint" is finished, coming in at just over 3,000 words.

Now let's see where this boat is going.

Now Playing = "I Looked Away" – Michael Nesmith
Still Reading = Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
The Best American Short Stories of the Century – John Updike, ed.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Speed of Stories/Movies for Halloween

It's a nice feeling having a story that just seems to flow out of you. The story I'm working on now is doing just that. It's been so long since that's happened (pre-Clarion) that I'm almost scared of the way it feels. I'm about 2,000 words into "Fingerpaint," a story that probably will end up being a little less than 3,000. I don't know if I should second-guess myself and the way the story's progressing, or just let it continue. I can always second-guess during revision.

Thanks to my friend Kelly for recommending some good movies to rent for Halloween. I'm particularly looking forward to Dead Birds. Some movies that I've enjoyed gearing up for Halloween:

The Old Dark House
The Bride of Frankenstein
The Fearless Vampire Killers
Evil Dead 2
The Haunting (original)

What's everyone's favorite movie to watch during Halloween?

Nine days until World Fantasy!

Now Playing = The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings
Now Reading = Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
From Ghetto to Glory: The Story of Bob Gibson

Saturday, October 22, 2005

New Printer/New Story/New World Series

My old printer crapped out this weekend, so I gnashed my teeth and went out to purchase another one yesterday. I almost stopped at Best Buy first, but I've had trouble getting people to help me there in the past. I've also heard others through the years voice the same thing.

I'd read in Good to Great how Circuit City is one of the eleven "good to great" companies in that book's study. (If you have ANY interest at all in business, I highly recommend the book.) So I tried Circuit City.

This particular location wasn't good, great, or even awake. I had to chase down someone in a red Circuit City shirt and even after I snagged him, he was no help. I wiped the dust of that place off my feet and waltzed down to Best Buy.

Man, things have changed around Best Buy. Long story short, I got great, fast, friendly service. The guy helping me even gave me his card and said to call him if anything goes wrong. Best Buy will get my business from now on. (And to top things off, Best Buy had free sampler CDs of Bob Dylan at Carnegie Hall 1963.)

Started a new story tonight tentatively titled "Fingerpaint." Will try to finish it and send it out before WFC so I'll have at least three stories out there.

Ah, a new World Series starts tonight! This should be fun. For once, I like both teams.

Now Playing = "Lush Life" - Chet Baker
Now Reading = Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

Thursday, October 20, 2005

David Lynch's Eraserhead

About 20 years ago I saw Eraserhead for the first time. I was in college and didn't really know anything about the film before I sat down to watch it. Come to think of it, I didn't know anything about the film after I watched it either.

But in later years I began to appreciate Lynch's talent through films like The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and most recently Mulholland Drive. So I decided to give Eraserhead another try.

The first thing that strikes you about the film is Lynch's visual style. The stark black-and-white images literally burn themselves into your skull and you start believing in this depressing post-industrial wasteland you're watching. The sounds of the film add another level of depression and creepiness. I can't imagine the film without the sound effects.

The DVD I saw contains a long (almost an hour and a half) reminiscence with Lynch on the making of the film, which is interesting, but reveals nothing of the film's meaning. Only at the very end does Lynch state that no critic or viewer has ever come close to grasping his interpretation of the film. I'll give my thoughts in a minute. (If you haven't seen the film, don't read any further.)

First of all, many people poo-poo on the movie because it was a film school project. So that means you can't take it seriously? I don't think so. I certainly admire the risks Lynch takes in the film. Whether you think it works or not, you can't ignore the power of what's on the screen. So forget that it's a "student" film.

Second, it sets the stage for later Lynch. Roger Ebert lambasted Blue Velvet for not playing fair with the audience because it contained what Ebert thought was inappropriate humor in such a disturbing film. Humor is in Eraserhead as well, mostly in the first third of the film. I think it's somewhat absurdist humor, but it tells us a little about Lynch's (or the main character Henry's) world.

What does the film mean? Good question. Most people (if they finish viewing the film at all) walk out with WTF expressions on their faces. I can understand their feelings. You can't really watch Eraserhead once and expect to understand it. I don't even pretend to have the thing figured out, but I believe I've picked out some of the film's themes that work for me:

Fear of fatherhood. Although he does try, Henry (John Nance) doesn't really know to take care of the "baby" (one of the most disgusting children in film history). His fear is evident in almost every frame and especially the moment before and after he picks up the scissors (what an awful scene), foreshadowed earlier by the chicken incident.

Fear of marriage/responsibility. You see this early in the film.

But for me, the biggest theme is Henry's always wanting to find a woman who understands him. I may be way off, but it's no mistake that the film contains three very different women. Does Henry find the woman that's best for him in the end? I don't know. Does the assembly line of pencils in the dream sequence signify the sameness of industrialized humanity? Does the eraser symbolize that everything in our lives can be wiped out and brushed away? Does Henry go to heaven with the Radiator Woman?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions. But that didn't take anything away from my enjoyment of the film. And I plan to see it again. Someday.

Hey, maybe I can do my hair like Henry....

Now Playing = "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" – Bob Dylan
Now Reading = Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
Stable Strategies and Others – Eileen Gunn

Monday, October 17, 2005

Creepy in Vermont/Notre Dame/Baseball

Just finished Joseph Citro's Shadow Child, a creepy little book set in rural Vermont (Citro's home state). Citro makes good use of the Vermont winter, rural isolationism and local folk tales to create some really nice tension. I read most of the book while on vacation in Vermont and even though it was autumn, it felt pretty spooky reading the book at night.

Citro's style is very readable, very natural; nothing fancy. He wants you to turn the pages and you do, but he's not the type of writer you typically associate with "page turners." He also uses multiple POVs, which works for this story quite well. I had a pretty good idea where the story was going, but the way Citro led me was somewhat surprising and satisfying.

Speaking of surprising, I was hoping that Notre Dame would pull out a victory over USC (University of Spoiled Children) on Saturday. Man, that ending was a real shocker. Wouldn't you know it – the one time I pull for Notre Dame, they lose. I normally don't like Notre Dame because of the incredible bias the media and sportswriters have for them. Even when they're mediocre, they're lauded into the Top 25. (I remember one year they got invited to a bowl game with a 5-6 record. Come on!)

But I was pulling for them on Saturday. Weis is a good coach. In the long run, he'll figure out a way for ND to emerge stronger as a result of Saturday's loss to USC. When Weis gathers a little more talent and a couple of his own recruiting classes at ND, watch out.

And how about baseball? Some weird officiating (especially in the ALCS), but some great games! We already know the White Sox are going to the World Series and it looks like they'll play the Astros. Would that be a pitching battle or what? You probably wouldn't see many games with more than four runs, but with such great pitching, who cares?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

My Trip to Vermont


Back from our trip to Vermont, which was somewhat a disappointment in the foliage department, but a definite food and drink fest.

The fall colors weren't as varied as Cindy and I would have liked – a few fiery oranges, fewer reds, mostly lighter yellows – but still beautiful. Everywhere we traveled in Vermont (mostly the west/central part of the state) offered great scenery, inviting attractions and a welcome lack of gaudy signs and franchise overkill. More on some of those attractions in a moment; first the food.

On Monday night I had a wonderful free range oven hearth chicken with asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes and a super-smooth vegetable gratin. Heaven. Neither Cindy nor I could find any room for dessert, so we went back the next night for a chocolate bomb that was the bomb.

The next morning I got zipped up by sampling the various maple syrups at The Maple Museum. I never realized that the best of the syrups you can get in stores consist of only 3% maple syrup. Vermont (100% maple) produces syrup grades:

Fancy – light amber, mild maple flavor
A-Medium Amber – a traditional maple flavor
A-Dark Amber – a heartier maple flavor than A-Medium
Grade B – Very strong maple flavor, really stout stuff

They're all great and we bought some of all of 'em! (Just drop on by our house for pancakes anytime.)

Some of the touristy stuff was pretty good, as touristy stuff goes: The Norman Rockwell Museum, The Calvin Coolidge Museum, The Vermont Country Store (a really fun place) and the Robert Frost Trail. This last one is a great idea, mainly because it honors a writer. It's an outdoor trail interspersed with Frost's poetry every few yards. (It's ironic that there's a signpost at "The Road Not Taken" that points the correct way to go. You actually could walk in the other direction.) I'm not a huge Robert Frost fan, but just the thought of having poetry posted along a nature trail is way cool. I wonder if we'll ever see the Ursula K. Le Guin Nature Trail or the Kelly Link Rosebud Garden Path. Wouldn't that be cool?

(Cool also was Frost's cabin where he spent several summers writing, although you can't go inside).

We visited two breweries, the Long Trail Brewery and the Otter Creek Brewery, both of which have excellent offerings. I liked the Otter Creek Octoberfest beer best of all.

A lot of the really great stuff in Vermont you have to find on your own, but it's worth the effort. I met a guy that owns a used bookstore in Middlebury – he actually used to live in Bowie, MD (just five miles down the road). He sold me a Lucius Shepard book* and told me about a great restaurant in Middlebury called Tully and Marie's, where I had an absolutely succulent leg of lamb with carrots and potatoes.

The cottage where we stayed also served meals Wednesday thorough Sunday, so we ate there during our last evening in Vermont. The ribeye was exceptional, but the maple flan for dessert absolutely took me to another plane. Man....

So all in all, a great trip. Great food, great attractions, great used and independent bookstores, great people. I'm a Vermont fan for life.

Now Playing = "Sophisticated Lady" - Duke Ellington (America's greatest composer)

* I also discovered Vermont writer Joseph A. Citro's work (horror/suspense) which I highly recommend.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Blog Vacation

No posts for the next few days. Cindy and I will be driving to Vermont this week; my first time. (To go to Vermont, not to drive.) Hopefully some fun stuff to report.

Now Playing = Biograph - Bob Dylan
Now Reading = Looking for something to take on the trip...maybe Eternity and other Stories - Lucius Shepard

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Flightplan (Spoilers) and a Small Rant about the Current State of Filmmaking

I suppose I'll see just about any movie starring Jodie Foster. Don't get me wrong, I'm no John Hinckley. I just think Foster's a talented actor who usually picks good films, so it was inevitable that Cindy and I would check out Flightplan.

As the film opens, Kyle Pratt (Foster) is flying from Berlin with her six-year-old daughter and the body of her recently deceased husband; they're taking him to America for burial. Did I mention that Pratt is also an engineer of this particular jet? (Hmmm, I think that might be important...)

Pratt, her daughter, and about 400 other passengers board the plane without incident. Mom takes an innocent enough snooze and wakes up to discover her daughter missing. Pratt checks around and no one's seen her. In fact, no one saw her board the plane. Sure enough, she's also not on the flight manifests. "Mrs. Pratt, have you recently had a traumatic experience?" the captain asks.

"Why, yes, my husband just died."

"Hmmmm...could're IMAGINING your daughter was on this flight?"

And so it goes. Now you'd immediately think you've got the story figured out and you may be right. Here's the deal: (SPOILER ALERT from here on.) With this type of missing persons story, located in an extremely isolated area, there's only two choices: either Pratt is delusional or someone's nabbed the kid. It's either one or the other. If Pratt is delusional ("And it was all a dream...") the audience should demand their money back and never see another film by director Robert Schwentke. If she's not, then obviously someone on the plane is lying about not seeing the kid. It's just a matter of who did it.

The "who" is pretty easy to figure out. Go with your gut feeling. Foster's character should have been smart enough to do this; I mean, come on, she designs jet engines...that's almost rocket science.

Still, up until this point, Flightplan is an acceptable thriller. Just barely acceptable, but worth your time. But when the motivation for the kidnapping comes to light, plot and believability fall completely apart.

I didn't believe one iota of the motivation of the kidnappers. First of all, their elaborate scheme is far too much trouble. To pull off this kidnapping would require the kidnappers to spend more money and resources than they'd see from the kidnapping. It would also require an inordinate amount of time, research and just plain dumb luck. It's just not feasible or believable.

And by the way, the Arab terrorist suspicion subplot is unnecessary, pathetic and downright embarrassing. Completely unacceptable.

So what we've got for our $9.00 is a good performance from Foster, a couple of good dialogue exchanges, and a lot of views of the inside of a plane. Cheaper than a plane ticket to Cleveland, but also about as exciting.

So this brings me to my latest rant: (If you've spoken with me or read my blog, you've probably heard this already. Bear with me.) Why, why, WHY do we as moviegoers continue to put up with bad scriptwriting? If I'd read a novelization of the film, I'd have thrown it across the room. So would you, I'd bet. The major American studios obviously believe the moviegoing public either doesn't care about good writing or are idiots. But for the most part, we continue to accept illogic in our films (and television) that we would never accept in our novels.

I know someone's saying, "Well, you're talking about two different groups. Most of the people who see movies don't read novels." Okay, maybe so, but they can think. To have a film set up a premise then completely ignore that premise is illiterate filmmaking and I'm on a campaign to expose it for such. Be on the lookout for it. You don't have to look very far.

You really have to search for intelligent films these days. You can often find smart, good independent films and foreign films that don't follow the Hollywood "formula." Seek them out. When I discover them, I'll gladly point them out. And I'll continue to expose illiteracy in film. You're welcome. Glad to be of help.

Now Playing = "Visions of Johanna" - Bob Dylan
Now Reading = The Blue Girl - Charles de Lint

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Busted by Neil Gaiman

Went to the Neil Gaiman book signing Sunday night at Borders, Baileys Crossroads, VA. That store brings in a lot of big-time writers, but since it's a pretty long drive for me, the only other time I'd been there was to see Orson Scott Card. But since I was already in DC (only 15 minutes away) and I wanted to see Gaiman, I decided it would be worth the effort to go. It was.

About an hour before the event, I bought the new Gaiman book Anansi Boys and visited with my good friend John, talking books, music...all the important stuff in life.

Gaiman finally came out – wearing all black, of course – gave a brief intro., then read the dedication of the new book. He said he'd already started the tour by reading portions of the book from the beginning, so we were treated to a scene from Chapter Two. With 300+ people in front of me, I couldn't see Gaiman too well, but I did see everyone around me, following along in their copies as Gaiman read. I don't know – it reminded me of watching the first day of classes as a college freshman or kids in catechism class or something. (Take that for what you will.)

I couldn't hear most of the questions during Q&A, but heard most of the answers. Gaiman's early influences were The Chronicles of Narnia and Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer. (And later Delany, Zelazny, Ellison) His school library had battered copies of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, but not The Return of the King. So when he finished the first two volumes, he read them again. Two years later when he won the school's English prize, the judges told him he could have any book he wanted. "The Return of the King!" he demanded.

John and I finally got to meet Gaiman at about 11:00 PM. He was visibly tired (The event started at 7:30.), but still very cordial and courteous. I handed him my copy of Anansi Boys to sign and also an advance reader's copy of Stardust. Gaiman took one look at the cover of the ARC and froze. "Just a moment," he said. "I've let this go on too long and I'm going to do something about it right now."

Oh crap, I thought. He's got something against signing ARCs. I'm in for it now.

He calls for his agent and she comes over in an instant. "Look at this," he says, pointing to the cover of the ARC. I'm looking for the nearest exit, figuring Gaiman is going to rip up/batter/put a blowtorch to my ARC, but I want to figure out how to grab my copy of Anansi Boys away from him so I can at least survive the experience with something.

"This cover," Gaiman says, "was never published except on the advance reader's copies. This is a lovely cover. Can we get this cover on the next edition that comes out?" The agent made a note of it and nodded vigorously.

Gaiman gave me a smile that seemed to say "I'm glad we got that settled." So was I. He signed and I exhaled.

He handed the books to me and I thanked him. "You're very welcome," he said.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Carter Family

Anyone who says they love country music and has never heard of The Carter Family just flat-out doesn't know what they're talking about. It's like someone claiming to love Rock 'n Roll who eschews The Beatles or Elvis.

In the mid-1920's, the tall lanky A.P. Carter from Clinch Mountain, Virginia began roaming the countryside searching for folk songs. He learned them from mountain folk and arranged them for himself, his wife Sara, and their sister-in-law Maybelle. It was literally a local family act. Nobody had any idea anything would come of it.

The Carter Family's music by today's standards seems primitive and simple. A.P. sang bass (badly) and sometimes played fiddle. Sara had a lovely backwoods voice that once you hear, you'll never forget. It's beautiful, sad, haunting. Sara also played autoharp and occasionally guitar. But Maybelle was the one with the true instrumental gift.

Maybelle's playing style continues to influence country and bluegrass guitarists. She had a way of playing the melody on the bass strings while strumming chords that still amazes me. On many songs, you can hear some great blues licks. I don't know what she listened to in those Virginia mountains, but something spoke to her and stuck. She was incredible.

The Carter Family songs are usually dark in tone and often deal with lost love, a dead or dying family member, death in general, or a longing for an afterlife better than the life they lived during the Great Depression. Starkly simple, yet amazingly powerful songs. They still pack a wallop 70+ years after their release. I suspect they always will.

At the time, radio stations in the U.S. had fairly strict limits on broadcast strength. Mexico, however, had no such restrictions, so when the Carters signed on with a Mexican radio station, their music was heard all over the United States. At the height of the Great Depression, the Carter Family's music reassured down-and-out people that they were not alone; the Carters knew their hurts, their pains, their broken dreams.

Even after their success was assured and the Depression was over, the Carter Family couldn't escape another type of devastation. Sara separated herself from A.P., but still remained a part of the musical act. Yet A.P. continued to love her until his death. It's a heartbreaking story, well documented in the excellent book Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?

Most of the Carter Family recordings from their early years (1928-35) are available on CD in sets or individual discs. The Rounder label released several individual discs years ago, but these are often hard to find. Many excellent import compilations are available. I bought a five-disc set (which I'm listening to right now) from JSP Records in London, very reasonably priced on Amazon:

The Bear label in Germany also has a set for sale which can run you up to $300. Even with 12 discs and a 220-page hardcover book included, that's a lot of money.

I don't care for the single-disc Can the Circle Be Unbroken, which consists largely of re-recordings of tunes from the late 1930's that they had recorded better in the late 1920's. But for a first-time listener, it's probably a good place to start:

Okay, that's two long posts in a row. A shorter one next time. Or maybe not...I'm going to a Neil Gaiman booksigning tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


A few of the Clarion Class of 2004 have been knocking around the pros and cons of self-publishing. Although self-publishing has experienced an enormous amount of growth during the past few years, my friends and I agree that:

1 – Self-publishing is not the route we want to take.
2 – Self-publishing may be good for special projects (especially non-fiction), but it's probably not going to get you long-term wide exposure/recognition.
3 – In most cases, Self-publishing is a cheat.

Let me explain each point:

1 – Only one of us involved in the discussion could name a self-published sf/f book that was very good (and it was eventually picked up by a major publisher). The traditional route – while it often provides little room for feedback on what you're doing right or wrong – still accounts for 99% (or more) of the significant sf/f fiction being published today. Having said that, a friend of mine who is a very good mystery writer insists on self-publishing. He's also very much a people person and enjoys promoting himself 50 weekends out of the year. Self-publishing works for him and he's very satisfied with it. But I believe he's the exception.

2 – My friend Trent has a relative who self-published a non-fiction work that he was passionate about, but realized would probably have very limited appeal. I think in those cases, self-publishing is probably the way to go, especially if you can target that limited audience by word-of-mouth, conventions, web sites, whatever. I've got a book for first-year band directors that's about one-third finished. The market for that book is so limited, self-publishing might be an option. (But first I have to get off my ass and finish it. That's another topic for another time....)

3 – The biggest problem I see in self-publishing is that many writers either don't know the truths of the publishing industry or else they're running away from them. As one of my friends commented, many writers probably think "Hey, my stuff is just too different; that's why it's not being published." Could be. Could also be because it's not very good. But my shunning the traditional channels, most never learn that.

I know that many writers send work out through the traditional channels, get a few rejections and think "Screw this." What a lot of them have never been told is that there's a process that you have to learn. It's not an easy process. I certainly haven't figured it all out yet or I'd have stuff published on a larger level. But even long-time published writers still get rejection slips. (And conversely, crap still gets published every day.)

The first thing you have to know is what an editor wants. Sometimes even a magazine's guidelines aren't much help. Reading the magazines you submit to certainly helps and reading good writing helps. But as some famous coach once said, somebody's got to tell you what you're doing wrong or you have no chance.

An old band director mentor once told me, "To have a good band, you've only got to go through three steps: Step 1 – Know what a good band sounds like. Step 2 – Know what your band sounds like. Step 3 – Know how to get from Step 2 to Step 1.

How do you do that? Read good work. Study it. Imitate it for awhile if you have to. (Just don't try to pass off someone else's work OR style as yours.) Go to conventions, meet editors, talk to them, ask them what they're looking for. They'll tell you. Really, they will.

Find good readers who will give you an honest assessment of your work. Not Mom, not Aunt Susie, not a family member. Find a first reader who you can run things by.

Send stuff out. Send more stuff out. Keep sending it out, even after it gets rejected. I've got stories that have been rejected eight or more times. I still send 'em out. (But eventually you've got to either rework the story or forget it and move on.)

I know, the form rejection letters tell you nothing. But if you've got a first reader, if you're studying good work, if you're giving yourself to your writing, if you believe in yourself, EVENTUALLY you're going to get a different kind of rejection letter. It will not be a form letter, but a typed or hand-written note from an editor. It will convey that fact that you're close and getting closer. When that happens, throw a party. You've made a major step.

Maybe I'm crazy (just ask Cindy), but I think the journey is the fun part. If it was easy, everybody would be a published writer. My rejection slips show I'm getting better. I'm much better than I was this time last year. I'm getting closer. I'm just afraid that writers who self-publish never learn any of the lessons you learn from going down the traditional route. Sure, it's frustrating. Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it's depressing. Sometimes you even regret what you've done to trees. But you keep trying and keep believing. Keep on keepin' on. Hang in there.

Now Playing = Atomic Funk – Various artists