Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Running Sucks

I hate running. I really do. Before yesterday, I hadn't run in about three months, just enough time to let the beer and pizza find a nice, comfy place in my system, blood stream, etc. My cholesterol is even down to a good level for me, 235.

So why run when I hate it so much? After a few weeks of it...heck, really after only one or two runs...I love how it makes you feel. (AFTER the sore muscles.) And I want to be in reasonably good shape by the time I'm 50, which is a heck of a lot closer than it used to be.

On to a more pleasant subject: writing. I'm very excited about two projects - actually three - going on now. I started a new short story on Sunday that I've been thinking about for the last three days and can't get out of my head. I'm also taking some time to work on what I hope to be a YA novel based loosely on one of the stories I wrote at Clarion.

The third project is the DC Writer's Way workshop. I participated in the workshop in 2002 and have been fairly active in the readings. Earlier this summer I was asked to lead the Capitol Hill workshop which starts in a couple of weeks. The workshop participants are usually beginners who are looking for direction, how to get started, that sort of thing, but there are often some writing veterans present. Should be a lot of fun. I have no doubt that I'll be the person who learns the most. You always do when you teach.

Now Playing = The Forgotten Arm - Aimee Mann

Monday, August 29, 2005

Andy Duncan's Beluthahatchie

I had read several of these stories before going to Clarion last year, where Andy was an instructor. I recently read some of the stories I hadn't covered before and re-read others because they're so good.

"The Map to the Homes of the Stars" is probably my favorite Duncan story. In it, Jack lives by himself in the same town that he and his best friend Tom were dying to get out of as teenagers. Both Jack and Tom hungered (lusted is probably more accurate) after nearly every girl in town, but many they considered out of their league for several reasons, some of which were imposed upon them by the small thinking of the townspeople. After Tom and a girl do escape, Jack is haunted with their ghosts and the ghosts of what might have been in his own life.

The story succeeds on so many levels; it's a great story in its own right and contains many laugh out loud scenes that all teenage boys (and maybe some girls) can relate to. But on a deeper level, it's a chilling horror story that haunts deeply. The opportunities we had and didn't take. For some, that's terrifying to consider.

I absolutely loved "Liza and the Crazy Water Man" and can't wait to read it again. Andy not only knows how to capture wonderfully wacky Southern characters, he also knows his history, and in this case, his music history. "Liza" contains such great writing that even though you wonder for awhile where the speculative element lies (It is there), it's such a joy to read, you don't care about anything else.

"Fortitude" is, I believe, a masterwork. General George S. Patton sees himself placed in battles and situations he's already experienced. Like "The Map," "Fortitude" is a haunting story, but haunting in a different way. In one extraordinary scene, Patton lies wounded in a foxhole carrying on a conversation with a soldier and the ghost of his father. I don't know how Andy pulls this off – maybe I'll study it one day – but the scene (like the entire story) is extraordinary.

Now Playing = Young Americans – David Bowie

Friday, August 26, 2005


Wednesday night Cindy and I completed our pilgrimage of the three local baseball stadiums. We'd seen the Bowie Baysox early in the season, so early we almost froze from the fifth inning on. The team isn't very good, but the price was right and it's a fun atmosphere.

About a month ago we went to Baltimore and saw the Orioles beat the Yankees (pre-Palmiero steroid controversy), which was a lot of fun. Watching thousands of obnoxious Yankee fans reduced to shame at the very end: priceless.

Then Wednesday night we saw the Washington Nationals beat the Cincinnati Reds 5-3 at RFK Stadium. So here's my comparison of Camden Yards vs. RFK Stadium:

Parking: The nod goes to RFK – Much easier to get in and out of, plus you don't have to deal with parking garages.

Concessions: Camden Yards – You can buy food and/or drink from the street vendors for much less than they charge at the stadium AND Camden lets you bring it in. Not so at RFK. Four bucks for peanuts? Try two on the streets of Balto.

Security: Probably a little better at Camden, although they're a little uptight about it. I expected RFK to be more anal, but they were actually pretty cool.

Fans: Orioles were pretty catatonic. Maybe they were intimidated by the Yankee fans until the final inning. Nationals were much more spirited; of course it's their first year and they're doing surprisingly well, so why not yell your head off and act a fool?

Ticket prices: We were given our tickets to the Nationals game (Thanks, John and Lera!). We paid $8 or $9 for upper level at Camden; RFK upper level is $5.

Entertaining roving vendors: Much more colorful characters schlepping beer and peanuts at RFK.

Overall I'd have to hand it to RFK.

Now I'd love to do the same comparison for the Ravens and Redskins. Anybody got any tickets?

Now Playing = "Stop This World" – Diana Krall

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Another Novel?

I wrote my first novel in 2002. Don't worry; you'll never see it. For several months I've been tempted to write another, even though I feel I haven't even come close to learning what I need to know to write a good short story. But that pull is there.

I got about 20,000 words into a new novel a few months ago and realized I wasn't ready for that particular story. There's too much about the characters I don't know yet. I'll come back to it, but I've recently started another that I feel more comfortable with. I'm really excited about it for a couple of reasons:

1) It's based on a story that I've been thinking a lot about, one I did at Clarion called "His Greatest Performance" about a weird old silent movie actor who lives across the street from a twelve-year-old boy. I think it's got possibilities and it's a story I'm excited about. At least for now the story is flowing very well; it sure doesn't feel like work.
2) I think I've finally got a process I can work with. Kelly Link uses this method; I think Michael Swanwick does too: Start the story, write what you want (or think you want). When you go back the next day, spend some time with what you've written - read it over and edit. Add some new stuff, but don't edit. Let it flow. The next day, start at the beginning. Keep editing. Get to the point where you stopped. Add new stuff. I think this allows you to edit and polish as you go and not wait until the end. Sure, I'm sure I'll go back and change stuff, but what I've written seems a lot more like a finished product than it did before.

Seems to be working for the beginning of the novel and a new short story I'm working on as well.

Almost finished with The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens, most of which is very good. After Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, it's nice to read some short fiction.

Now Playing = "The Crippled Lion" – Michael Nesmith

Monday, August 22, 2005

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

A few months ago I read the first hundred pages of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and gave up. It was frustrating going, but the problem was mine, not Susanna Clarke's. It all started when Kelly Link recommended the book to me at Clarion last summer. She recommended several books to me and every one that I read I enjoyed tremendously. Back then, it was just another book on the list. I knew little about it. (I didn't even know that at the time it was still awaiting publication.)

I saw it come in when I was working at Barnes & Noble and was shocked at its staggering size. I tried to evade all talk/reviews/rumors about the book, but over and over I heard the inevitable "Harry Potter for Adults" tag being thrown around. I wanted to read it, but didn't want to shell out $28.00 to see if I'd like it. After all, I'd never read anything by Clarke.

When it finally came to my library, I had to wait. A long time. Then as I was ambling around the library one afternoon, there it was. So I grabbed it, took it home, fed the dog, and settled down to Part I: Mr Norrell.

After 100 pages, I turned it back in to the library.

I think most of the problem was with me, but possibly part of the problem was in the book's promotion. Bloomsbury heavily promoted the book, milking Neil Gaiman's "Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years" quote to the nth degree, setting the book up to a standard impossible to meet. This combined with the "Harry Potter for Adults" (which was probably NOT devised by Bloomsbury) probably had a lot to do with my expectations for the novel.

In short, I expected something to happen during the first 100 pages.

Well... it doesn't. And it does.

When you think about it, Clarke has done something extraordinary. She's created a world out of a country – England – and then created a world within a world, the magical realm. It's also a lost world. At the beginning of the book, the York society of magicians laments the fact that magic, real magic, has vanished from England. With elegant language, rich description and a very light touch, Clarke creates a world (You could almost call it an alternate history.) that does not contain flashy, sensational 4th of July tpye fireworks, but nonetheless is magical in its atmosphere and characterizations. The world she creates and the characters that inhabit it reminded me of the world of Jane Austen: very proper, very British, and never, ever in a hurry.

Not exactly what you'd expect when you hear Gaiman's quote or the "Harry Potter for Adults" blurb. That's a different expectation.

The second time I picked up the book, my expectations were different. I felt more comfortable in Clarke's world. I didn't expect fireworks. I still didn't think a lot happened in the first 100 pages, but I was willing to go with the author.

My patience paid off. I suspect yours will too.

The book is not so much about what happens (Much of the "action" takes place off-stage until about the last third of the book.) as it is about what is suggested and implied. It's important to get inside the characters of Norrell and Strange. Just as importantly (maybe even more so), readers have to know how the rest of the characters will react to them. And since so much of what happens is implied, the reader is forced to look at the bigger picture of what's going on here. The implications of the story are quite large if you spend much time thinking about it (and you should).

Clarke has spent a lot of time and effort in getting the details just right. Sure, sometimes she goes overboard. Several of the footnotes could be sliced for my tastes; others are essential and engrossing. The most fascinating aspect for me was the books that were mentioned. Dozens of books of magic are alluded to and they're all fascinating. (I dare you to not speculate on just what types of wonderful things are lurking inside those volumes...)

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a book that requires patience. It's not a page-turner. It took me about a month to get through it. Any expectations of Harry Potter, Tolkien, high fantasy, or just about anything else will have to be abandoned if you're to enjoy the book. Don't compare it to anything else because there really isn't anything else to compare it to; in this, Gaiman is correct, and if that's what he means by his blurb, I'm inclined to agree with him. In this fast-food culture we live in, Jonathan Strange is a multi-course dinner to be savored. Pace yourself. Eat slowly. Enjoy.

Now Playing = "Nevada Fighter" – Michael Nesmith

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A Few Good Films

Sometimes it's nice to take a break from reading and watch a movie or two. I've seen some pretty enjoyable ones during the past few weeks.

First, Cindy and I went to see War of the Worlds on Saturday. It's been out for a few weeks, so I was pretty surprised to see a packed theatre. (Of course it was a Saturday and it was also hot as blazes outside.) I'm a sucker for Spielberg; I'll pretty much go see anything he does (although I haven't seen them all). There are some incredible visuals going on as well as good storytelling. Not a "great" film, but quite good.

I didn't really expect much from the Battlestar Galactica mini-series (on DVD from NetFlix), but was pleasantly surprised. The effects were quite refreshing, especially for a TV show. Sure, most of it is formula - not only formula, but formula generated to 1) get the SciFi Channel to back at least one full season and 2) to get you to watch it - but it's formula done well. I'll probably rent at least the first disc of Season One.

The real viewing experience of the past week has been The Decalogue. I've only watched Decalogue One, but it is an incredible film. The first film was so sad, yet so well done I have an inner struggle whether to watch it again or go on to the second film. It's hard to describe. The film deals with human problems, problems for which there are no easy answers. You won't leave the film and wander around the house looking for something to eat; it'll stay with you, it'll make you think, it'll make you ask yourself many questions. You may not like the answers, but The Decalogue is a collection of films you can't ignore.

Sort of makes Must Love Dogs look like dust bunnies in your basement.

Now Playing = "Space Oddity" - David Bowie

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Clarion Journals

Even though it's been over a year since Clarion, I'm geared up to put my journal online. I've read a lot of good ones from years past and from those who've just finished. I know that reading the journals from others helped me tremendously. I'm just returning the favor. I should start posting in the next few days.


Thursday, August 11, 2005

A 20-Minute Story

Some days you go out scouting for books to sell and nothing shows up. When that happens, there's only one thing to do: Buy books for yourself.

I was in the neighborhood, so I decided to check out Daedalus Books in Columbia. I immediately found one book that Kelly Link had recommended at Clarion, The Cutting Room by Louise Welch. I was tempted to pick up a new edition of The Complete Stories of Eudora Welty, but I already have an earlier (beat up) edition. So I schlepped around the store some more...M.T. Anderson's Feed was there, but I was looking for Thirsty. The only spec fic that really tempted me was F. Paul Wilson's The Barrens and Others, but I decided to pass on it. (I've got two of his other books waiting for my attention as it is.) I also passed on Sharyn November's Firebirds, only because it was a book club edition.

Then I saw an anthology of short stories (literary) including several short shorts that writers had written in 20 minutes. I didn't read any of the stories, but I did go home and try to write one.

Now I will normally spend about 10 – 15 minutes on a freewrite. (For those of you new to the term, a freewrite is simply an exercise in which you write for the allotted time without stopping to think, rest, or most importantly, edit.) Usually a freewrite will yield one or two good ideas or maybe even one good line for future use, but it's never a complete story.

But this time I decided to write a completed story in 20 minutes. (Plus Malcolm is looking for submissions for The Journal, so I hoped to kill two birds with one stone. Sorry...sometimes only a cliché will do.)

It wasn't bad. I gave it to Cindy and she pointed out a part that was confusing. I decided to sleep on it and fix it the next day, which I did. So I sent it to Malcolm a few minutes ago. Even if he doesn't accept it, it was fun and it allowed me to free myself from some of the other stories I've been bogged down with.

Now Playing = "If Not for You" – George Harrison

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Bullet/Some Thoughts on Writing Bleak Stories

We found out today that our greyhound Bullet does not have bone cancer. We took him for X-rays today and he definitely has arthritis, but shows no signs of cancer. We're so thankful he's okay. We can treat the arthritis and have a couple of options. Bullet has been sleeping like rock, but the doctor said he should be less groggy tomorrow. Can't wait to see him jumping around, ripping up and down the stairs, acting like a big goof.

I was a little nervous about submitting a story to my Clarion buddies, but I finally did. Even before they critiqued it (a story called "The Post-Game Show"), I knew it wasn't the best I could do. As John S. mentioned, it is a bleak story with no hope at all visible anywhere. I guess I see so many people who have no hope, have nothing to believe in and I guess that hopelessness is what I wanted to portray. But John's right, there should be some ray of light in there. I also think I'm still trying to throw too many ideas into my stories, clouding the main theme(s).

My first thought was, "Man, I didn't learn JACK at Clarion; my writing still sucks!" But I think I'm able to see things that I know are problems now, if I step back and look at my stories from someone else's eyes. That's hard for me right now, but I think it will come. I also have to train myself (other writers may disagree) to move on to something else for a time when I'm stuck on a story. I did that today and got a great opening for a new story.

10:20....read or watch Twilight Zone? Hmmm......

Now Playing = "Diamonds and Rust" – Joan Baez

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Night Moves/Twilight Zone

The latest entry in my continuing series of Forgotten 70's Films is Night Moves [1975](which was a film at least a year before it was a song by Bob Seger). Gene Hackman plays Harry, a private detective hired by a middle-aged, second-rate Hollywood starlet to find her missing daughter (played by a VERY young Melanie Griffith). Harry takes the case, despite the protests of his wife (Susan Clark).

The film is part Sunset Boulevard, part Raymond Chandler, part Elmore Leonard. For some reason, the film has been largely forgotten, which is a real shame. Directed by Arthur Penn (who will always be remembered for Bonnie and Clyde, and rightfully so), Night Moves is a way above-average detective flick with great acting, characters, and direction. Penn is excellent at making his camera convey character information. There's a great shot where the four leads are all in one room, trying to sort things out. They're all in one room, but Penn has positioned them in such a way that we see their individual isolation, loneliness and utter helplessness. The last ten minutes of the film, while a little confusing, are edited very well. When you see it, you'll understand how important an editor can be to a film.

Book sales have been going pretty well, so yesterday I treated myself to buying the first season of The Twilight Zone (at Costco, of course). I immediately watched two episodes last night, "Long Live Walter Jamison," one of my favorites. The audio commentary with Kevin McCarthy wasn't so great, but the episode looks sharp and clear. Really a nice job, considering these episodes are over 40 years old. I also watched "A World of Difference," just because it had been years since I'd seen it. Can't wait to jump into some of the real classics like "Time Enough at Last," "Monsters are Due on Maple Street," and many more.

Now Playing = The Older Stuff – Michael Nesmith

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Why Are We Here/End of the World/A Purple Giraffe

It seems that several of the stories I've read lately have to do with The Meaning of Life/What are We Here For? Today as I was waiting at the doctor's office (to get a tetanus shot, thanks to an old bed frame I moved), I read a couple of stories from the new Hartwell/Cramer Year's Best Fantasy 5: Dale Bailey's "The End of the World as We Know It" and David D. Levine's "Charlie the Purple Giraffe Was Acting Strangely." I thought both were well written and effective.

In Bailey's story, a man wakes up to find that everyone he knows is dead. Also dead are the telephones as well as all television and radio stations. A part of the man continues going through the motions, realizing that the world has probably just about run its course, but still he follows familiar routines. Levine's "Charlie" is more comical (although Bailey's story is not without humor): a purple giraffe comic book character comes to realize what he actually is, a character in a comic book. He can't get anyone else to believe him – his friend the orange squirrel or the rhinoceros doctor. "There are no readers," they tell him. But if they don't exist for the readers, why are they there?

Both stories seem to ask the question "Why are we here?" I think it's enormously interesting that writers are still asking the question. The answer says a lot about your worldview. Is life just a cruel joke? Is there a purpose? Is there a God? (I believe there is.)

I suppose these would be labeled "postmodern" stories. I enjoy reading them and I've written a few that I would consider postmodern. However you classify them, these are good stories and ask questions that people want answered. Interesting reading.

Now Playing = Blood on the Tracks (The New York Sessions) – Bob Dylan [Thanks, Trent!]

Monday, August 01, 2005

Late-Night Reading/Afternoon Reading/24

I should have been able to sleep last night. Cindy and I spent the day spackling and sanding the new room in the basement, then went to Home Depot to buy primer, paint and other fun stuff. Then we tried to figure out how our Murphy Bed is assembled. (No instructions.) Plus I worked on a story. (That's the strenuous part.)

Anyway, I couldn't sleep. So I got Gregory Frost's new collection Attack of the Jazz Giants off the bookshelf and read the first story, "The Girlfriends of Dorian Gray," a wonderful twist on the Dorian Gray tale and a commentary on dieting, weight, relationships and more. Good stuff.

But I eventually drifted off to sleep. Until my greyhound Bullet got me up at 5:15 to go to his "area." Was wide awake, so I tried a story from the new Hartwell/Cramer Year's Best Fantasy 5, John Kessel's hilarious "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence." Great characters, small-time thieves who stumble on a secret passageway while robbing a house. Kessel has a lot to say about our comfort zones. The story especially resonated with me as it seems to partially address the way we sometimes think too small. Wonderful story.

This afternoon I got to read the first part of one of my new stories at a Writer's Way reading at Malcolm X Park in DC. It was fairly well received for an audience that usually does not consist of any spec fic readers. I also met a couple of people who are interested in signing up for the workshop I'll be leading on Capitol Hill this fall, which should be a lot of fun.

Received The Year's Best Fantasy and SF for Teens (Hayden and Yolen, eds) and Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners, which I've already begun to devour. The title story, "Magic for Beginners" is pure Link: a wonderful, un-put-downable story that works its own magic as a story, but demands to be read multiple times for the depth and richness she's so good at. Plus it's fun.

Cindy and I also started watching the first season of 24 last night. (Okay, so we're a little bit behind.) With two episodes down, so far it's pretty good. It's good to be back with Netflix.

Now Playing = Elephant – White Stripes