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