Thursday, June 28, 2007

Enter at Your Own Risk

It's very tempting sometimes to try to rush a story for one reason or another. Case in point: I'm currently working on a story that I think would probably fit the guidelines for the Chizine short story contest, but with two days left, I just don't think it's going to happen. It would be far too easy to try to force the story or manipulate it into something that it's not, just for the sake of entering the contest. I think this story has the potential to be pretty good, but there's still a lot to be worked out and it needs to be more organic. I feel like I'm forcing, so that's probably an indication that it won't turn out as well as I'd like. Besides, it's just a contest. There's one on just about every corner. Or maybe that's a Starbucks I'm thinking of...


Today's top book find: a signed first edition hardcover copy of Bernard Cornwell's Enemy of God. Not bad at all.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Unforgiving Middle

No, not my unforgiving middle, although after a few days of Cindy's birthday cake, my middle is also quite unforgiving. It's the middle of my current story that's unforgiving. I'm very pleased with the story's opening (slightly over 1000 words) and have a pretty good idea of how the story will end, but the middle could go in several different directions. Could be that I'm afraid the middle might lead me to a different ending, which might not be a bad thing. We shall see.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Playing Favorites, Installment # 6

Installment #6 - "Dallas" (Jimmie Dale Gilmore) - The Flatlanders (1972/1992)

Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?
Well Dallas is a jewel, oh yeah, Dallas is a beautiful sight.
And Dallas is a jungle but Dallas gives a beautiful light.
Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?

Well, Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you're down.
But when you are up, she's the kind you want to take around.
But Dallas ain't a woman to help you get your feet on the ground.
Yes Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you're down.

Clearly Jimmie Dale Gilmore has a wonderful love/hate relationship with the city. If the lyrics leave any doubt, listen to the song. It starts as a sort of upbeat alternate country (before there was such a thing) song, but the more you hear, the sadder – heck, almost tragic – the song gets. Then the saw starts. No, not a chainsaw, but an actual warbling saw, giving the song an otherworldly (if not underworldly) feel. By the time we get to the song's bridge, you really feel for the poor schmuck singing it:

Well, I came into Dallas with the bright lights on my mind
But I came into Dallas with a Dollar and a dime.

And the third verse leaves no doubt – Dallas is one cold, heartless dude:

Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eye
A steel and concrete soul with a warm hearted love disguise
A rich man who tends to believe in his own lies
Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes

Says writer Gilmore: "The hook line of the song occurred to me while I was actually flying into Dallas. The line just presented itself to me. I had all those mixed feelings about the city and the song just came gradually. I've never felt that I've got it down right, though. I've always been a perfectionist about that song.... I've had a strange relationship with the song. I've had periods when I wish I'd never written it, then I've rediscovered it, looking at it through different eyes."

The song (and several others) was recorded in 1972 for an album, but the record company released a promotional single of "Dallas" first. It did nothing. The album was abandoned and available only in the 8-track tape format until Rounder Records bought the rights and released it on CD in 1992, creating an immediate fan base and a huge problem: The 1992 release was warmly embraced by the alt. country crowd, yet they forgot that the music they were hearing was already twenty years old. The Flatlanders, while still around, have stylistically moved on.

They've released other discs, none of which have matched the popularity of the album which "Dallas" opens, appropriately titled More a Legend Than a Band.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Contest News

I just found out that my YA novel Fortress came in second place in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Speculative category in the Maryland Writers' Association 2007 Novel Contest. (Scroll down - SF/F/S is at the bottom.)

Second prize carries no money, alas, but that's okay. The contest normally has several entries, a number of them from out-of-state, so I'm very pleased. I'll get critiques back from the judges that hopefully will help me polish the novel before trying to sell it.


AFI's Top 100

AFI's latest list of the 100 greatest American films of all time. Sorry, I just can't give full credit to any list that includes Titanic (sorry, Dr. Phil) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But with most of the other choices, I can't complain.

So what films aren't in there that you'd include? Off the top of my head, I'd put in

My Darling Clementine (1946)
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
The Conversation (1974)

Let your voice be heard!


Good progress this morning on a new story. It's nice when things start to come together. It's not so nice when you hear the trash truck coming down the street and realize you've completely lost track of time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Writing, Talent and Mozart

I was somewhat stunned yesterday when I opened my "Stories Sent" spreadsheet and saw that I have only two stories (and one novel) in the pipeline. Could be that I'm taking more time with stories, more than I used to, which for me is a good thing. In the past I've been too quick to send something out before it was in sendable shape. Some people might think it's a good idea to send out stories that aren't quite polished, thinking that they'll get some good comments on how to tighten them up.

For my money, it doesn't work that way. First of all, it's not the editor's job to critique your story for you. Second, they don't have time for it. Unless you're working on a story for a specific contest, what's the hurry? I've been teaching myself to take it slow, to make sure I really know the characters/setting/tone/etc. before putting stamps on envelopes (or hitting the "send" button).

But I still write stuff, either freewrites or exercises that will probably never develop into publishable ideas or see the light of day. But that writing is still important.

On a somewhat related note, I read something interesting in Steve Olson's Count Down: The Race for Beautiful Solutions at the International Mathematical Olympiad. Olson cites several studies comparing talent vs. hard work. University of Exeter psychologist Michael Howe (author of Genius Explained) argues against "the idea that just a few people are born with a special mental capacity that enables them to achieve high levels of performance in a particular field." Hard work and persistence are what matter, says Howe.

Howe notes that even with the advantages of growing up in a musical household, Mozart had to work and work hard. He gives Mozart's practice time a very conservative estimate of three hours a day. From age three (when he supposedly began to play) to age six (his first musical tour of Europe), Mozart would have had 3,500 hours of practice. "That's about how long it takes for a young performer to become a very good amateur," says Howe.

Howe goes on to state (This is paraphrased, mind you.) that to achieve a recognizable level of mastery in any field requires roughly ten years of methodical, disciplined practice. After all, Mozart's first concerto that was recognized as a masterpiece is his Piano Concerto No. 9 in Eb Major (K. 271), written when he was 21, well more than a decade after he started composing.

If that's true, that it takes a good ten years of work before you produce anything good, then I've got about a three-year grace period. I don't know if I'd put all my eggs in Howe's basket --- I tend to agree more with Ray Bradbury's assessment that it takes writing a million words (which hopefully would come to pass before ten years would) before you produce anything good. Whatever the case, I know that I'm gradually getting better at this writing thing and that it takes time; you can't rush it.

So...what's the word count for today?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Post-Vacation Post

Back from a true family vacation consisting of Cindy and me, Cindy's two sisters and their families and Cindy's parents all staying in a rental house on Cape Cod, Mass. In addition to Cape Cod, Cindy and I hit a few other places including a bit of Boston (Pizzaria Regina is well worth your time.) and Plymouth (Plymouth Rock isn't.)

One of the major highlights for me was at the Chatham Seaside Links, where I played nine holes of golf. It was the first time I'd played golf since 1980. I've always given my brother-in-law Dave a hard time about golf, saying that it isn't a sport, it's a game of skill and you don't have to be an athlete to play, and other such derogatory statements. But he asked if I wanted to try it and even brought along extra clubs for me, so how could I say no?

I must admit, golf is highly addictive. And I did okay, at least that's what Dave told me. I still contend that golf is more a game of skill than an athletic activity (I'd put it at 60% skill/40% athletic ability.), but it does require more athletic ability than I'd originally thought. Who knows? Maybe I'll pick up a set of clubs soon and see what happens.

Food? Yes, food. Lots of it. Ridiculous amounts of it.

Here's a breakfast of cinammon swirl pancakes with strawberries that I had one morning. When I ordered I figured there would be maybe four strawberries. Wrong.

We also had lobster rolls, tons of other seafood, desserts, you name it. Man. My stomach hurts just thinking about it.

A few other shots for your viewing pleasure. More on writing next time.

Friday, June 08, 2007


Ballista, a British magazine of supernatural short fiction, just bought my story "Your Picture with Satan" which will appear in the April 2008 issue. A nice way to start the weekend!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

May Books Bought and Read

Okay, so I didn't get as many books read in May as I did in April, but I didn't buy as many either, which is a good thing. All of the books bought were purchased "on the cheap" (half-price or better) which is also a good thing.

Just for fun, I thought I'd give my justification for each purchase plus a little about each book I read. As always, recommended books are linked.


The King in the Window (YA 2006) - Adam Gopnik
This purchase was based solely on Elizabeth Hand's review in F&SF a few months back. In most cases, her recommendation is good enough for me. For more on Hand, keep reading.

Last Summer at Mars Hill (collection, 1998) - Elizabeth Hand
Well, here she is! I enjoyed Hand's latest collection Saffron and Brimstone so much that I strongly suspected I'd like this older one. I stood inside Wonder Books in Hagerstown, MD reading the first two paragraphs of the title story and knew it was worth the $5.95 they were asking.

Some of Your Blood (1977) - Theodore Sturgeon
I'd read good things about this one when Millepede Press came out with a new edition last year. Unfortunately this is an old mass market paperback without the Steve Rasnic Tem introduction, but I was still glad to find it. Plus my friend Kelly told me this one's a winner.

The Faces of Fantasy (NF/photography, 1996) - Patti Perret
Apparently a companion volume to The Faces of Science Fiction, The Faces of Fantasy includes photo portraits and short thoughts from several important writers in fantasy. Interesting to see how some of these people looked 10 years ago. Some haven't changed much. Some have.

The People of Paper (2005) - Salvador Plascencia
Matthew Cheney had some very nice things to say about this one on his blog. That's good enough for me.

The Millennium Problems : The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time (NF 2002) - Kevin Devlin
Anyone who knows me well is rolling around on the floor laughing hysterically at this point. Like I'm gonna solve one of these.... But I've been reading a few "Math and Science for Morons" books lately and I thought I might enjoy this one.


Lisey's Story (2006) - Stephen King
Many people panned King's latest novel, but I think it's very good. In fact, I'd go so far as to put it firmly in King's Top Ten. It's a superb mix of fantasy and reality, something King has always done pretty well, but the emotional impact of Lisey's Story just never lets up. I don't think I've cared this much about a King character since Johnny Valentine Smith in The Dead Zone. You'll read reviews saying that this one's too slow, too touchy-feely, King getting in touch with his feminine side... For what it's worth, I saw it as a lovely tribute to his wife Tabitha.

The Speed of Dark (2002) - Elizabeth Moon
Although there's a good bit of science in this novel, Moon (the mother of an autistic son) focuses mainly on what it's like to be an autistic person trying to make sense of the world. Very moving, very well-written.

What the Dead Know (2007) - Laura Lippman
When I travel outside the Baltimore/Washington area, I'm always stunned at how many people don't know about Laura Lippman, one of today's best mystery writers. What the Dead Know is a stand-alone book (not part of Lippman's Tess Monaghan series) and one of her best.

How to Think Like a Millionaire (NF 1997) – Mark Fisher with Marc Allen
I literally read this while brushing my teeth. (Not all at once; that would be a record.) Really. It's very short. In spite of the title, the book has very little to do with money and more about goal-setting, visualizing success, that sort of thing. Not a bad read. My teeth enjoyed it.

Mississippi Sissy (memoir, 2007) - Kevin Sessums
Kevin Sessums and I both grew up in Forest, Mississippi, but he was a few years older than me, so I didn't really know him very well. This is an outstanding memoir of loss (Kevin and his two siblings lost their parents at an early age) and growing up gay in the Deep South. A bit graphic sexually, but an extremely moving memoir by an outstanding writer.

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (NF 2005) - Rob Bell
What does it mean to be a Christian? Bell has some interesting and somewhat controversial things to say on the subject. A good book to read after you've read Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz.

You Don't Love Me Yet (2007) - Jonathan Lethem
A bit of a disappointment. Some good moments, some very funny stuff, but not his strongest. I don't know, maybe he wanted to do something different; he's entitled to that. Motherless Brooklyn and Gun with Occasional Music are two of my all-time favorites - maybe I just set the Lethem bar a little too high.

The Green Glass Sea (YA 2006) - Ellen Klages
An absolutely beautiful book; I loved every page of it. It's the story of two girls living in Los Alamos during WWII. Their parents are scientists who can't talk about their work when they come home, which isn't often. All the girls know is that they're helping to build some type of "gadget." While the adults are building to destroy, Dewey and Suze are building something more important and permanent: friendship. Everything about this book works and it works without being sappy or sentimental. A must-read.

Not a bad month. More next time.


Thanks to everyone who commented, emailed and called about my mom. She's doing much better. Thankfully nothing was broken during her fall, but recovery from any kind of fall when you're 77 is a challenge. Cindy and I have taken several steps to help prevent another fall, but if one should happen, we've made it easier (and faster) for her to get help.

I could probably write a book about caring for aging parents, but each case is different. And you learn something new every day. Maybe I'll post about that some time, but for now, we're just thanking God that this instance wasn't any worse than it was.

Friday, June 01, 2007

No posts for the next few days - My mom fell and is going to need some help from me and Cindy until she's better, so that's where I'll be.