May 02, 2002
A friend of mine sent me the following message in an e-mail. I don't know if it's already made the rounds twenty times on the Internet, and I don't know who originated it, but I love it, so I'm sharing:
When Mark Shuttleworth (the very rich space tourist) returns from space, everybody dress in ape suits. It will only work if we all do it.
Pass it on.
I recently served as a judge for a writing contest. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was the final judge. I wasn't just selecting which short stories went on to the next level... I was picking the winners.
This is the second time I served as a judge for a writing contest. The first time was last year, for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference (PNWA). I wasn't a final judge that time, thank goodness. This year, it is for a different organization (but I shan't discuss details since the contest isn't officially over yet). Both experiences have been a major learning experience for me.
If you are a writer and you submit your work for consideration, here are a few things I learned by being a judge:
1) Write well. But, you already knew that. If you don't write well, you won't win.
2) Eight out of ten entries are awful. So, writing well gives you a big advantage.
3) Alas, two out of every ten entries are great, so writing well isn't enough. You know what else matters? The tastes of the judge who arbitrarily is selected to go through the pile where your submission happens to land. The mood of that judge on that day. And then...
4) There are some very tough calls. It can, and often does, come down to "I have three excellent stories for the last slot on the winners' circle, but I can only choose one." That kind of decision is excruciating to a judge. But, there's no science to how that decision will be made. You've cleared the first few hurdles... you've written well, you fit the judges' tastes, and your piece happens to fit with the mood of the judge who is reviewing it. But.
You're playing musical chairs with one or two other excellent pieces, and there's only one chair left. Do you win? Depends upon when the music stops and where you are at the time that happens. It has little to do with your chair-snatching skills.
In short, that final decision between winning the contest and not winning can be pretty arbitrary, even if your work is excellent.
On the one hand, this is a message of hope. If you submitted and didn't win, that doesn't mean you weren't good enough to win. It's entirely possible that you made it to that last decision and luck simply didn't favor you on that occasion.
On the other hand, it's a message of disquiet. That while winning is worth something -- while it may validate that you're *among* the best -- it does not establish that you *are* the best. And at the same time, it's disquieting to know that you may well be amazingly good, but that a simple matter of whim or taste could keep you out of the winners' circle.
I dunno. I'm still going to submit to writing contests here and there. But I'm not so sure whether I want to judge so often.
May 03, 2002
Who are these people I've listed in my links section?
John Aegard -- A fellow member of STEW ("Society of Tastelessly Evocative Writing" or "Seattle's Truly Eclectic Writers" or whatever we happen to decide it stands for on any given day), a writing and critique group in the Pacific Northwest. Johnzo is not only a talented writer, but also computer gnurd and a Clarion East alum.
Jeff Anbinder -- The second best announcer that the Cornell Big Red Marching Band ever had. He and I shared a writing class at Cornell, and he's a much better short story writer than I am. Of course, that's not saying much. I'm still eagerly anticipating his first book. Then again, he could say the same about be. Fellow musicologist and a damn fine radio guy.
Philip Brewer -- I've never met him face to face, but we began to correspond during our respective stints at Clarions East and West in the summer of 2001. His website began as a journal for his adventures at CE, and now tracks his writing progress and observations about the world in which we live.
Sabrina Chase -- Another fellow STEWnik who is a highly trained physicist and an underutilized talent working for my former employer in Redmond, WA.
Everett Dolman -- Went to grad school with me at University of Pennsylvania... but, unlike *some* people, he actually finished his PhD. He's a smart guy, regardless. Buy his book on Astropolitics, available through online booksellers everywhere.
Anne Dunning -- Fellow former producer of A Night at the Asylum comedy radio show, and currently pursuing her PhD. [sigh.] I tried to warn her. Never had a chance to introduce her to Everett, though. *That* might have scared her off....
Karen Fishler -- Fellow STEWnik and a fine, fine public speaker. This link is her business site; she works as a professional coach, and is highly recommended. She's a Clarion West 1998 alum, and current member of the CW Board.
Eric Francis -- Eric and I go back to 1984 or so, when he first turned me loose on a parody issue of Generation magazine. He is a brilliant writer, a dazzling cook, a dangerous reporter, and a professional astrologer. Well, at least he was never silly enough to pursue a PhD.
Neile Graham -- Fellow STEWnik and a poetry goddess. Buy her books; they're amazing. She's also one of the administrators who holds Clarion West together.
Howard Greenstein -- A fellow former WVBR conspirator, and also a fellow ex-Microsoftie.
Nicole Husen -- First met her when I lived and worked in the Boston area. She now lives in California, where she's a pottery enthusiast and rabid hiker. Geez, I sound like a game show host.
Tom Johnson -- Unlike Everett, Tom had the sense to leave UPenn before getting his PhD. But, then again, Tom eventually took me on as a business partner, so who's really the wiser? He has been forecasting the economic crash since about 1995, and I'm pretty sure he's going to be right, one of these days.
Samantha Ling -- Webmistress extraordinaire and fellow journalist for the Clarion West class of 2001. Be nice to her, or she'll kick your scrawny little butt.
Traci Morganfield -- An inmate... uh, class member of the Clarion West 2002 workshop. I enjoy the eloquence of her journal entries.
Dustin Moskowitz -- Fellow Cornell alum, WVBR alum, A Night at the Asylum alum, former housemate, and best man at my wedding. After 9/11, my wife and I and Tom Johnson drove from Seattle to Princeton, NJ to attend Dustin & Linda's wedding. And, you know what? His website is effing lame.
Hilary Moon Murhpy -- The keeper of Clarion Ex Machina (the definitive site for all things Clarion and Clarion West) and just an all around nice person.
Benjamin Rosenbaum -- Of all my Clarion West classmates, Ben has enjoyed the most publishing success... so far. He lives in Switzerland with his beautiful family and gets more writing done in one hour than I can manage in a day. Hell, the guy can talk more in one hour than I can in a day. Those of you who know me know that's no small feat.
Kiini Ibura Salaam -- Kiini is a short story goddess who I was fortunate to have as a classmate at Clarion West. Check out the essays on her web site.
Sandra Schneible -- Another friend from my days in Boston and a wonderful person to have on your team when you're building a business from the ground up. Cool beaners.
Jehan Semper -- A kick-butt web developer who's not afraid to call bullshit. I should be so lucky to have someone like Jehan on my team in the future. Oh, and she designed the original engine that launched this site.
May 08, 2002
Friends, Romans, Countrymen. I need a new title. I don't like my current 'backup' title, and I can't use "The Do Over" since that is now the title of a forthcoming television show with the same premise as my novel.
Premise of novel: systems analyst in his late forties wakes up back in his own blue-collar past at the age of twelve with all of his life to live over again and all of his memories (relatively) intact.
The working title of the novel has been "The Do Over". I'm sending out the novel to my first agent-of-choice on May 15th. I have until then to come up with the new title.
Any suggestions? Feel free to post them here or e-mail me directly at email@example.com. If you have questions about the novel that you think might help to come up with a title, please ask away!
May 16, 2002
Hi, all. Just dropping a quick note to say that the first three chapters of the novel have gone out this morning! My first-choice agent usually responds within 6 to 8 weeks, with either a "Thanks, not interested" or a "Please send me the entire manuscript."
There's still work to do on the novel, of course, but this is a major milestone. It's finally out there.
...and it's about time.
PS: thanks for all the amazingly excellent title suggestions y'all have posted and/or e-mailed me. What was the final verdict? Stay tuned....
May 22, 2002
I just returned from a business trip to Dallas. Before heading out, I had finally met my goal of sending out the first three chapters of my first novel to an agent. So, naturally, as I read on the plane, I was acutely aware of all the things I had not done as wonderfully as the author of the book I was reading.
The book in question was Hearts in Atlantis, and the author was Stephen King, and let us be clear on one point from the outset: I know he's had more practice than I have at this whole fiction writing thang. The premise of the five stories that comprise Hearts ("Low Men in Yellow Coats," "Hearts in Atlantis," "Blind Willie," "Why We're in Vietnam," and "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling") is quite different from any of the story lines that run through the novel I just completed. There are, however, some similar themes (about how life passes by, about how good intentions don't always map to good behavior, et al) and there is a strong streak of nostalgia that runs through both books.
In my case, the nostalgia centers upon Buffalo during the early 1980's. Now, don't confuse nostalgia for romanticizing... evoking that town at that time means capturing the details of both the racism and the philanthropy, the pollution as well as the purity. My goal was to bring the reader to a specific moment in time at a specific location in place, so as to let the events of the story unfold against an understandable background. To paraphrase Dickens's excellent observation, they were the best of times and the worst of times because they were, in short, times much like these.
My novel may or may not be, in part, "about" the dawning of the age of Generation X; I guess that depends upon how you read it. While that wasn't one of my main points, however, Stephen King clearly set out to bring us through the coming of age of his generation, The Baby Boomers.
He did a fantastic job of grounding the reader in that time (particularly 1960 and 1966) and in that place (small town Connecticut, a college in Maine, Tam Boi in Vietnam, the streets of New York). The details, dropped with just the right frequency and just the right specificity, made the setting all the more real. It's not just what songs are playing on the radio or what movies are playing at The Empire Theater... it's the way the webbing on Bobby Garfield's Alvin Dark-model baseball glove was starting to come loose, the way Bobby's mother kept pronouncing Ted Brautigan's name as "Mr. Brattigan" in order to show her very New England disapproval of the man.
The two best stories in Mr. King's book are the first two. "Low Men" clocks in at 323 pages -- a novel in and of itself -- and captures the summer of 1960 as seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old. And yet, King manages this without the story becoming a juvenile. I *loved* that. This is a very adult story about a kid. It was while reading this that I was most painfully aware of my concerns about the novel I've just sent off. My story, too, centers primarily in the world of twelve-year-olds, but I can only hope that it is seen as an adult story and not a young adult story.
King accomplishes this feat with apparent effortlessness. It all comes through.
His second story, "Hearts," is only slightly shorter than "Low Men," and it takes place on a college campus in 1966. The peace sign is only just beginning to make the rounds, and a young "Goldwater Republican" is beginning to contemplate Johnson's war in Vietnam. Against this backdrop, a group of college freshmen jeopardize their college scholarships (and, in turn, their place in college, which means they risk being drafted) on the altar of a long-standing card game in the lounge of their dormitory. Hence the title, "Hearts in Atlantis."
As an avid card player (including Hearts) who has been known to get caught up in a game or two, I was completely drawn into this story's excellent feel for how one can know what to do, know what the risk is of not doing it, and yet continue to not do it, anyway. The story also hints at the consequences of events that played out in the first story.
The third story centers upon a Vietnam War veteran who has picked a most interesting form of penance... not for whatever he may have done in Vietnam, but for what he did in 1960 as a high school student in that small town in Connecticut. This was refreshing, because while being a Vet is integral to Blind Willie's character, it is not the ultimate source of his personal hell. Thus is a very tired cliche avoided. And here, too, I can only hope to make a left turn when approaching cliche-ville the way Mr. King has, although only time will tell. (Har, har, har.)
The final two stories have an element of cuteness to them, but they don't ring true. Here, too, I can learn from Mr. King, albeit by way of counter-example. In "Why We're in Vietnam," King has a couple of Vets at the funeral of one of their buddies was philosophical while remembering nasty events in which they took part during the war. Welcome to cliche-ville. I was particularly disturbed to hear the one Vet bemoan to the other something along the lines of, "What happened to us? Our generation could have changed the world, we had it in our hands, but we sold out...." These are not the thoughts of a former soldier who did his time in Vietnam, but rather the thoughts of one of the flower children who had thought he/she knew better. I have known former flower children to talk in these terms (and I therefore assume that King may have been among them), but I have never heard former soldiers or former non-participants (either in the war or in the protests) say as much. Perhaps I haven't been privy to such conversations, but now I'm curious.
The final story ties together a few loose threads and tells us something about how the grown-ups owe their lives, for good or ill, to the children they once were. But it is otherwise inconsequential and not, in and of itself, a complete story.
I learned a lot from reading Hearts -- about writing, about one take on the sixties and the Baby Boomers, about the insidiousness of addiction, etc. -- and enjoyed it immensely, even with the hollow parts toward the end. It may well be some of King's best writing. And like all good writing, it also begs a lot of questions and issues a number of challenges... both for me as a writer, and for me as a child of my own generation.
Hey, any of you Baby Boomers out there: Do you feel like your generation could have changed the world and blew it's chance, instead? Did the Vietnam War define the way you look at the world and your role in it, or was it something that played out in the background? I'd love to hear from you.
May 24, 2002
So, I mailed off the first three chapters of my first complete novel to my first agent of choice on the morning of Thursday, May 16th. Yesterday, I had it back.
The agent's address had changed.
I knew this, of course. I had both his "old" (pre-move) business card and his "new" (post-move) business card. Lucky me, I just happened to use the wrong one to fetch the address. So, it was returned with a stamp "Moved, no forwarding address," and the postal carrier where I live managed to mangle the package pretty good by shoving it into our small mail cubby. It was so mangled as to be unusable to resend to the agent. So I printed it all up again (updating his address and the date) and mailed it out this morning. I called his office to verify that I was using the correct address, so I'm all set on that front.
Gotta reset the 6-8 week countdown for hearing back from the agent.
Because I managed to at least keep my commitment of sending out the manuscript by last Thursday (finally), I decided to practice making and keeping more commitments. This past Sunday, I committed myself to 1) beginning a brand new short story, and 2) sending out at least one short story -- both of which I committed to having done by Tuesday, May 28th.
I haven't written any new stories since I left Clarion last summer, although I have rewritten a couple and sent them out for consideration. I also didn't have any ideas for new stories I wanted to write. Thus the commitment to begin writing a new one wasn't trivial -- it's time to get the creativity engine engaged again.
Yesterday, I decided to allocate one hour to doing nothing but generate ideas for a new story. For ten minutes, I fidgeted. My eyes kept getting drawn to my bookshelf, and to a bunch of Dilbert books in particular. "Go ahead. Open up a Dilbert book at random. You'll find inspiration there," said a little voice in the back of my mind.
"Why?" I thought. "How could there possibly be inspiration in a three-panel comic strip?" Then I thought about The Dilbert Future, which contains a series of humorous essays about what the future might be like. There's one essay in there that was always my favorite, about how "The Future Will Not Be Like Star Trek." Scott Adams argues that if we ever invented such a thing as Holodecks, nobody would ever get work done ever again because we'd be too busy playing in simulated worlds... and that would be it for the human race.
...and *that* gave me an idea for a story. After fifteen minutes, I had it. I spent the next hour or so writing.
This is all by way of saying that there's power in making a commitment to yourself and then taking that commitment seriously. I'll write more on that subject (making and keeping commitments) soon. In the meantime, I'm going to have to decide which story I want to send out next....
May 28, 2002
So, yes, I went out and saw Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. It is much better than The Phantom Menace was. In fact, it was much better than Return of the Jedi, in my not so humble opinion. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it even included some innovations for movie space battles.
It still had some really stupid moments, but to tell you about them would be to reveal some spoilers. And as you know, I haven't been inclined to publicize spoilers since lo those many years ago when the outgoing message on my answering machine (remember answering machines?) told callers: "Have you seen 'Presumed Innocent?' The wife did it. Leave a message."
As we discovered by watching the movie with folks who had seen the previous installment several times and folks who had not, Attack of the Clones makes more sense if you are already familiar with the settings established in The Phantom Menace.
The writer in me was also amused to note just how much easier it is to continue adding details to the same canvas over and over again than it is to create a new universe every time you set out to create. ("World-building" or "Universe-building" is a writer's term for creating a backdrop against which the story is set, independently of whether you are working on a literal sci-fi "world" or "universe.") This is the combined advantage and disadvantage of developing a "franchise" in your writing. You can have fun adding layers to the world-building you've already done, but you are also trapped with a landscape that contains flaws that cannot easily be painted over.
Sorry for mixing the metaphors there. My point is that Jar-Jar Binks is still annoying, even if he does become an ironically tragic figure rather than a pathetic comic hero. And, while it's easy to maintain a "holier than thou" attitude toward the retreading of the Star Wars universe, the fact of the matter is that I'd be all too willing to sell out if the masses offered me the kind of money that brings George Lucas back to the trough.
Formula? Sure. But fun formula in an ever richer context.
Well, I didn't get ready the story that I'd hoped to send out this week. Nonetheless, I did mail out *a* short story which I sent to a science fiction monthly. Keeping commitments is a good thing.
Hmm. What commitment should I make next to further my writing career? I know. That new short story I began last week... I'll have it ready to submit to my writing critique group by Friday. How's that? A new short story completed by Friday.
I must be insane....
May 29, 2002
Have you noticed that, aside from babbling about writing projects, my web site has been relatively content-free lately? Are you wondering why I'm getting into this weird kick about "commitments?"
There are many reasons for that, but I guess it's time to 'fess up to the biggest reason of them all. I've been mum here on the website on pretty much the most important thing going on in my life, because I wasn't ready just yet to introduce this "new" factor into public discussion whilst I was in the middle of dealing with it. But it's hard to hide now:
Paulette and I are expecting our first baby this summer. In fact, the due date (I'm told that only four percent of births happen on the "due date") is July 4th.
Eight months into the pregnancy, and everything seems to be going smoothly (says the male portion of the team)... at least, as far as the baby's and mother's health are concerned.
Now, the fact that we're broke, and that one of our cars just died (permanently), and that my vertigo problems haven't gone away, and that working from home is about to get *much* more complicated, well... maybe "smooth" isn't the most appropriate term to describe the situation at Casa Rousselle.
Nonetheless, balancing baby, finances, "job" career, writing career, personal commitments, spiritual and intellectual health, and physical health -- not to mention the all-important Relationship between Paulette and me -- should make for interesting times.
I'm looking forward to being a Dad.
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