January 18, 2010
Like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln before him, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a powerful writer whose words transcend the time and place that they were written.
Listen to the words of this speech. It astounds me that they were even necessary, and that the dream has not yet quite been achieved.
But we're getting closer, my friends.
November 03, 2009
Now available in bookstores... both brick & mortar and online:
The Trouble With Heroes
Edited by Denise Little
My story is the one about Jason and Medea... unless, perhaps, it's really about a sports figure whose initials are O. J.
The title? "If I Did It."
Makes a great holiday gift, so be sure to stock up now!
October 04, 2009
I very much enjoyed the writing of the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica series that ended it's run earlier this year on the Sci Fi channel. The series was dark, sure, but it was a classic epic journey that displayed more nuance and moral ambiguity than most similar narratives. The writers set up a great many fascinating character and story arcs, and pinned the promise of fascinating revelations on the series finale.
Then, they blew it.
This essay contains spoilers regarding the most recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica on television. If you think you might one day want to watch the series, do so with the knowledge that I think you'll be similarly disappointed when you reach the ending, but don't read the specifics of why, because I'm about to spoil the ending for you.
The problem with the ending is that it does not satisfactorily resolve a substantial number of the major plot points. At first, it seems to. There's a big battle at "The Colony", Galactica jumps (with Starbuck at the helm) to a solar system that can support human life, and the rest of the fleet meets up with Galactica at its final stop. The fact that it's *our* solar system provides the symmetry we've been expecting all along (the pilot episode tells us they are on a mission to find Earth, so they delivered on *that* promise, at least).
Then, the writers undo any of the good that they had managed to perform up to that point by unraveling the entire story by trotting out the machinery of the Gods. Deus Ex Machina. God did it.
Given the political and religious themes that the series had explored all along, I was primed for the possibility that the answers to some of the plot points would indicate the machinations of a higher power. That's fine. But this went over the top. Everything was all about God's Plan. This breaks all the rules of good storytelling, because once you bring in the Deus Ex Machina, you take out any real drama on behalf of the characters.
Everything is arbitrary.
Starbuck's ship blows up, Starbuck returns, and spends a year screaming, "What am I? What does that make me?" And for a year, we went along. It's a mystery! How will the writers satisfy *this* interesting twist? And at the very end, we learn: Starbuck is merely a plot contrivance. She was a contrived part of God's Plot, nothing more. When it was inconvenient to have her die, she came back. Once her character satisfied the needs of the plot (at least, the plot regarding Earth), she was unnecessary, and >poof!< she disappears.
This was the biggest crime of the writers of the show: they gave great, great set up, and then cheated us of the payoff. For example: the show set up right from the beginning that Apollo and Starbuck were going to get together. All of the traditional clues and foreshadows were there. Then they hooked up with (and married) other characters. And as the series wound down, those characters were killed off (or maimed off, in Anders' case) just in time for the ending we were promised.
And then, was the ending delivered? Did they get together? No. Because the Deus Ex Machina was done with that Plot by the time we reached the resolution.
There was the mystery of who/what Starbuck was. Great set-up. No payoff.
The rise and fall of Gaeta promised, for a very long time, a "redemption" as it were. No.
Right from the beginning, we were given the clues and foreshadowing that promised a profound retribution for Baltar's (and "Caprica Six's") role in the destruction of civilization. Instead, they were among the few characters that made it out alive at the other end, not only relatively unscathed, but even portrayed as some kind of heroes of the resistance.
THEY WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATHS OF BILLIONS OF PEOPLE ON TWELVE PLANETS, AND THEY LIVE OUT THE REST OF THEIR DAYS IN PEACE, WITH GOD'S AND MAN'S APPARENT BLESSING.
With all of the pill-popping that Adama was doing during the fourth season, there was a suggestion that we might see a twist on the old "a dying leader shall bring them to the promised land, but shall not enter" prophecy. Instead... nothing is mentioned of it again.
And with all of the fascinating, interwoven relationships among the many different groups and sub-groups, we are told at the end that everyone simply agreed to walk away from it all and head off in onesies and twosies to mingle with the natives. Not only is this completely unbelievable and unfathomable, it betrays the investment the writers (and viewers) made in these complex and interesting relationships. "That's all, folks. Nothing more to see here. From now on, everyone wanders off and doesn't know each other any more."
What happened to the promise of Baltar's followers? Where did they go? Great set-up, no payoff.
Okay, so that's my biggest problem. By pulling out the Deus Ex Machina, all of the wonderful set-up and promises are dropped with no payoff. The only two threads that get any real resolution are: the fleet finds Earth, and Hera's importance is fulfilled.
Here's the other major, major problem I had with the finale. After all this excellent science fiction-y set-up, the main voice of reason at the end (Apollo) sums up the moral of the story as being that SCIENCE IS THE PROBLEM. Science and technology caused this mess, and humanity would be better off if we just ditched it all and went back to living off the land like, well, cavemen:
"If there's one thing that we should've learned, it's that, you know, our brains have always out raced our hearts. Our science charges ahead. Our souls lag behind." -- Lee "Apollo" AdamaSo, instead of of us trying to be better people, to improve our proverbial souls, we put the blame on science. That bad, bad science.
Here is where the writers betrayed me. Betrayed us all. It's bad enough that they failed to fulfill the many promises they made, but then they took it a step further and said that when people do bad things, it's not because human nature has flaws, it's because SCIENCE IS BAD.
People don't kill people. Guns kill people.
It's a message that is inherently wrong, and I must deny this idea to the last. Science is a method of better understanding the world in which we live, through testing, experimentation, and reasoning. Science is a tool that can produce other tools (technology). What we do with those tools is where we make choices. But whatever tools we have at our disposal, we will always be faced with those same choices, and the only way to improve how we make those choices is to improve how we deal with our own nature, both for good and for ill.
To use a Biblical story, Cain did not have (or need) a gun (or sword or bazooka or bomb or num-chucks or martial arts training or taser or Cylon Centurion) to kill Abel. Going all the way back to that story (and further back to the legends of Gilgamesh, if you'd like), science and technology are not the problem. Good problem solving skills, or the lack thereof, are the heart of the matter.
If you want to have an element of God in your story, that's fine. I've read a lot of very satisfying fiction where spiritual elements of one sort or another play a part. The problem here is that the payoff didn't match the set-up. We were given a mystery that was never solved, a love story that was never resolved, a redemption that was never fulfilled, a retribution that was never extracted, and the very genre we were led to believe we were watching (science fiction) was abandoned for another genre (pig-headed, woo-woo, New Age foolishness).
I was talking this over with a friend of mine, who asked if the ending was bad enough to ruin the rest of the series for me. I'm not quite sure, yet. It's happened before... Anne Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief was so bad, for example, that it completely ruined everything about the three previous books in her "Vampire Chronicles", which I can never read again.
But I remain curious about the new series from the same people, Caprica, and I know I want to see the upcoming Battlestar Galactica movie, The Plan. I think that it is, in fact, possible for me to forget the finale happened and watch The Plan. But it's going to have to fulfill any promises it makes. I don't know if Caprica will have that luxury, since the writers have already shown that they are not above giving a great series-wide set-up and then just... ignoring it.
The lesson I take away from BSG is this: no matter how great your writing is, no matter how great the set-up, you have to deliver the goods in the ending, or you will have pissed off your audience and may have a very hard time getting them back for your next work.
June 02, 2009
Now available in bookstores... both brick & mortar and online:
Edited by Denise Little
My story is the one about Custer ("Last Man Standing"). Buy early, buy often, and enjoy!
March 27, 2009
Recently, a fellow writer on one of the writers' networks lists I'm on posted a question about the delineation between different genres. I wrote up the guide below off the top of my head. Since apparently some other writers occasionally peruse my blog, I thought I'd include it below for your edification:
Allan Rousselle's Partial List of Genre Definitions
- Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. That's romance.
- Boy meets girl, girl offers her honor, boy honors her offer, it's honor and offer all night. That's porn.
- Boy meets girl, boy and girl talk a lot. That's chick lit.
- Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy (or girl) dies. That's tragedy.
- Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy saves the world from alien invasion. That's science fiction.
- Boy meets dame, dame brings nothing but grief into boy's life. That's crime noir.
- Boy meets girl, boy goes off to war, boy dies. That's a Lifetime movie.
- Boy meets girl, boy or girl is a vampire/werewolf/ghost. That's paranormal romance.
- Boy meets girl, boy and girl speak with British accents. That's Jane Austen.
- Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, car eats boy. That's Stephen King.
I hope this helps all of my fellow aspiring writers out there. A friend on the list had a great addition; I'll ask for his permission to include it here. Do you have any additions *you* want to make? Please add them via the comments.
March 09, 2009
Apparently, in addition to the regular readers of my blog (both of them!), people sometimes stumble upon my site and post questions in the comments section. Here is a recent comment that was posted to news about the upcoming anthology, Swordplay (out in paperback in just a few months!):
I'm an aspiring author. I have several pieces I've begun to put together, however, being somewhat of a beginner, I know they aren't as great of quality as they could be. As a professional author, is there any advice you might give to a young novice?
I'm just starting out myself... even though I've been writing in one form or another since high school. It was only a few years ago that I began to take my fiction writing seriously enough to pursue it as a career. There are many others more qualified than I am to help you along your way, but I'm happy to pass along some advice anyway (beyond the "Wear Sunscreen" variety, which is always worth keeping in mind):
- First, keep practicing. That means, keep writing. If you write a story and it doesn't work as well as you'd like... save the manuscript, open up a new, blank window, and write it again from scratch. Or, open up a new, blank window and write something else. Each time you sit down to write, think about what one thing you're going to work on this time -- for example, voice, character, language, plot, pacing, orchestration, setting, sensorial details, etc.
The guitarist, the gymnast, the radio announcer, the basketball star all get better by practicing their craft. Each time they practice, they try to address one or two areas where they could stand to improve. Same is true for writing. It's okay if you write crap, just as it's okay for the aspiring concert cellist to practice and it sounds like crap. Keep working it. You'll become pretty decent faster than you might expect.
- Meet with other writers. You'll find these other writers at cons (conferences and conventions), at readings at your local bookstore, and at workshops and university classes. I posted an article about going to cons on my blog here a couple of years ago. Talking with other writers is a great way to learn more about the field and about how you want to define your place in it. I'd also advise you to regularly touch base with writers both at your current level and beyond it. For that matter, help out those who are coming up behind you. I have benefited from having some great mentors, and it's only fair to likewise offer what support I can to other fellow aspiring writers.
You'll also find like-minded writers at your local chapter of the Mystery Writers Association or the Romance Writers Association. And while the best place to hang with SF writers is at the cons, some metropolitan areas do have an active writers community you can tap into. In Seattle, for example, there's the Vanguard group and the Clarion West parties and readings held each summer.
- Attend workshops. It is a bad idea to spend *too much* time and money going to workshops, but attending one or two now and then is a great way to sharpen the proverbial saw and help advance your technique, let alone meeting fellow travellers who will become your support network as you go. Beware: some classes and workshops may drive home the point that there are things you *shouldn't* write. These workshops are poison, and can be very difficult to recover from. (I took a class at college that put me off of certain fiction writing for years.)
Allow me to recommend, in particular, the Clarion-style workshops (Clarion West in Seattle in particular, but also the Clarion workshop in San Diego and Odyssey in New Hampshire) and the Oregon Coast Writers Workshops. For writers who are not yet sending their work out to editors, I recommend the "Kris and Dean Show" at the Oregon Coast. If, however, you are already sending out your work, or if you've already attended a Clarion-style workshop, then you should seriously consider the "Masters Class" at the Oregon Coast.
- Form or join a critique group. This is particularly useful for beginning writers. You need to make sure the group is a good fit; that you can learn from the critique without giving too much fuel to the editor in your head who will trash everything you write. My best advice here is to find/assemble a group of people who share your goal of improving your craft and who want also want to share their work with the world. Writers who write for the sake of assembling words on a page are fine, fine people; but, if you want to become a published author, you'll find more useful critique from people who also want to become published authors.
I know I wrote up a little article about the do's and don'ts of critique groups. I'll have to look for that, and post a link here when I find it.
- READ! Read anything and everything you can get your hands on, but especially read "the good stuff." I don't mean read literary work. Literary does not necessarily mean good. I mean, read "Year's Best" compilations -- not just in your field, but across genres. Read best sellers... again, across all genres. Are you writing romance? Stephen King still has something to teach you. Mystery? You can still learn from Nora Roberts. Read the classics, but don't shun the contemporaries. Read for pleasure.
In fact, Laura, here's an exercise that I think you'll find worthwhile. Go out right now and pick up a copy of the Year's Best Crime & Mystery Stories and then write a crime story. Next up: Year's Best Science Fiction. Then, do the same with Year's Best Horror. I don't know what genre(s) you are interested in, but do this exercise. You'll learn something from it, I promise you. I certainly did. (I never wrote historical fiction until the piece I did recently based upon Custer's Last Stand, which is the story I sold to the aforementioned Swordplay.)
- Cruise writers and editors and agents blogs. Eventually, you'll find yourself returning to certain blogs on a regular basis. Read for insight. Read for inspiration. Read for good word, uh, usings.
- As you write, so shall ye submit! Once you write it up, send it out there. You are writing in the hopes that someone will want to read it. So, submit your work to editors! They can't buy it if you don't send it to them.
- You are the worst judge of your work. Your job is to write it, not to decide whether it's any good. Let the editors and your readers decide for themselves.
Thank you, Laura, for allowing me the opportunity to get all didactic. It appeals to the teacher in me. But, all that said, the best advice for aspiring writers is always this:
Drop by from time to time and let me (us) know how you do, okay?
February 17, 2009
Friday, February 20th, he will be at Third Place Books at 6:30. He has an entire slew of readings in other towns up and down the left coast (including Powell's in Beaverton, OR and Borderlands in San Francisco) throughout this week and next. You can check his website for times and locations.
Ken is an amazing writer as well as a great guy. I've had the opportunity to start on this novel, and I'm enjoying it a great deal. A mutual friend of ours who has been a "first reader" for Ken says that he has seen the first drafts of the next two books, and they just get stronger and stronger. So, go meet Ken if he's coming to your neck of the woods, and definitely buy his book regardless. (And, if you're a fan of science fiction and fantasy, you might even read the book.)
September 07, 2008
Here's an update on the status of two of my short stories that I'd mentioned here previously:
According to Locus Magazine, the Denise Little anthology Swordplay is scheduled to be published by DAW Books in June of 2009. My short story, "Last Man Standing" is slated to be included, along with several excellent pieces by other authors I've had the chance to read.
No word yet on when The Trouble With Heroes (which will include my short story, "If I Did It") will hit the shelves, but I've been told that the Table of Contents is close to being finalized, so it will probably be published a few months after Swordplay.
Meanwhile, I need to get back to work on my novel....
June 23, 2008
Random news that's fit to print:
* Andrew James continues to be the (current) cutest baby in the world, just as Alexander Benjamin continues to be the (current) cutest almost-six-year-old in the world, and Nolan Theodore continues to be the (current) cutest three-year-old in the world. I'll post more pix soon to prove it.
* I have recently signed a contract for my third pro fiction sale, "Last Man Standing", for the upcoming Swordplay anthology coming from DAW Books. Three short story sales to a pro market makes me eligible to join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America -- a union that (I've been told) would put me on the invite lists for other upcoming "invite only" anthos and also allow me to vote for the Nebula Awards.
Also of note, this was my first attempt at writing historical fiction (not that I don't have some background in history, mind you). I'm very happy to have sold it right out of the gate, since there are few markets for historical fiction.
* I have even more recently signed a contract (and received a check!) for my fourth pro fiction sale, "If I Did It", for the upcoming The Trouble With Heroes anthology, also coming from DAW Books. I'm very excited about this sale, as this was a tricky piece of writing. It's a very short story (only 2,400 words or so), but I try to pack in as much humor, wry social commentary, and *story* as I can in a tiny little package. Satire is typically hard to sell, but it's something I *want* to get good at, so it's nice to see my practice may be paying off.
* Last night, I finally, finally, FINALLY began work on my new novel project. Wow, did it feel good to get that started. This beast is going to be much, much better than my first novel-length project (The Do Over), if only because I learned so much from the many things I did wrong on that one.
* More advice to Kevin (see my previous post on "Valedictory Advice") will be posted here shortly.
* M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most talented film directors working today, but his latest offering, The Happening, is so anti-science that I could scream. He tries to make a catch phrase out of "...just a theory!" That he does this in a flick ostensibly about ecological calamity is bizarre. When Paulette gave me a Father's Day pass to go see a movie without the kids around, I shoulda seen Iron Man instead. Grrr.
More later, potaters.
June 12, 2008
Around this time last year (and again this year), traffic to my site increased partially because there are a lot of folks out there searching Google, Yahoo!, and other search engines for ideas regarding "Valedictorian speeches." An essay that I posted here a couple of years ago ("Worst Valedictorian Speech Ever") ranks high among the search results. I guess there aren't a lot of us former Valedictorians who have posted our speeches, even though I *know* that there are many, many, many better examples out there of the species than my own feeble creation.
That said, I've received a couple of different kinds of reactions, neither of which I expected. One was a series of responses (both in public comments on the site and private e-mails) from people who were there, giving their [favorable] reactions (over two decades later, granted). The other kind of response I've received has been from kindred spirits currently facing the same kind of dilemmas I faced back then: given an opportunity to deliver a speech to the entire graduating class, its teachers and their administrators... now what?
"Kevin" posted the following just a few days ago:
Hi Allan, i am in a similar situation and seek some advice. i am valdictorian at my school and i've written about 3 first drafts of my speech by now, but every time it gets shut down [by] the principal because it is too negative and will make the school look bad. all i want to do is speak the truth about the injustices taking place and i am still debating whether or not so speak about the injustice. well, i would like to know if you feel it was worth it?
Well, now you've done it, Kevin. You've asked an old fart to give you adivce. Here goes.
First, congratulations on earning the top spot in your class. You certainly must have done an awful lot of busy-work homework assignments well in order to have filled that slot. My heart goes out to you. You will never be able to get those hours of your life back. But, then again, you wouldn't have been able to get them back if you had spent that time playing Nintendo, either.
Second, when you send out your college apps and resumes, be sure to capitalize your 'I's. [Sorry, Kevin, I couldn't resist.]
You ask if I feel it was worth it, delivering the speech that I did. Your question brings up dozens of thoughts, often conflicting, so here are a few in no particular order:
* As I mentioned in my essay, I'm embarrassed by that speech now, and by how bitter it makes the younger me out to have been. Never mind that I'm even more bitter now. Possibly. But bitterness isn't attractive. It doesn't get you the girls. Trust me, I know. From cruel, bitter experience.
* I gave that speech in 1986. I'm now forty years old. The events that led up to my writing and delivering that speech, and the fallout afterward, have had no lasting impact on my life that I'm aware of.
* I am not aware of my little speech having had any lasting impact on anyone else, for that matter. I got on stage and said my piece. As one teacher had remarked, I rained on some people's parade. Did the teachers and administrators kiss and make up as a result? No. The administrators continued the path that they were on, of favoring discipline over academics, and my alma mater's educational scores plummeted. Some very good teachers left the school, while other very good teachers stayed and did the best they could. Did any of the teachers change their approach to teaching or their relationship with the administration or how they handled their students? I don't imagine so, and I've never heard anything to imply otherwise.
* As The Man said so much better than I ever could (granted, he was speaking about other things, but the words are just as true now): "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here...."
* I'm proud that the speech mostly holds up after all these years, a few awkward phrases notwithstanding. If you agree it holds up, then I suspect it's because the speech was not specific about incidents, but about particular issues. Those issues apparently still resonate, even though the incidents that brought them to light are long since moot. [I told you my feelings are conflicting. Embarrassment and pride at the same time?]
* As a result of my speech, all of the valedictorians who came after me had to have their speeches vetted by the principal. So, I guess there was that one legacy. Since I'm opposed to censorship, I'm not proud of that legacy. Then again, what's the point of free speech if you aren't free to say something that makes the Establishment uncomfortable? Kevin, it's individuals like you who have individuals like me to thank for the fact that your speech has to be vetted. I'm sure the same would be true if our chronology were reversed.
There's more, but it's late, and I have [paying] work to do before I call it a day. More to the point is your own situation: unlike my situation, you have to have your speech vetted by the Establishment. Your principal is either hoping to make sure the event goes smoothly for all concerned, or he's covering his behind, or both.
You speak of injustice at your school, but of what nature? Racism? Favoritism? Socio-economic classism? Religionism? Were people expelled because they wore black trench coats [as has happened at some schools] or wrote violent essays? Was someone offended because they saw a Christmas tree and they don't believe in trees?
What was the severity of the injustice? Were the victims made to feel bad about themselves? Were they given lower grades or fewer privileges? Were they drummed out of school? Were they physically harmed?
Who is your speech aimed at? Your fellow students? The administration? Parents? The janitorial staff?
These are important questions that will shape your approach. The thing is, your message can be expressed in either positive or negative terms, and you have the choice of being humorous or serious.
Comedy is much, much, much more subversive. It is also harder to pull off. I've spent most of my "adult" life (including my time at high school) absorbing and practicing comedy. But as I learned recently, I can still miss the mark badly. I wrote a self-deprecating piece about my Irish heritage a couple of weeks ago, and managed to offend family members in the process. This is the exact opposite of what I wanted to do (and I'm still working on the apology -- a well-crafted apology is even harder to employ successfully than comedy, which is hard enough). I knew when I wrote my valedictorian speech that I was neither in the mood nor did I have the chops necessary to write humor for that particular audience at that particular time. Your mileage may vary.
If your target audience is your principal, you've already delivered your message, and it has been rejected. So, move on. If your goal is to upstage your principal, you can always have him vet one speech and then deliver another. Note: I am *not* recommending this. Unless you see your principal as a villain, it's reasonable to assume he has good reasons for steering you in the direction he is. Allow me to suggest you work with him to address his concerns but still address yours, as well.
If your goal is to give a memorable speech, allow me to recommend stand-up comedy rather than the aforementioned pointed humor or deadly-serious approach. There are several examples of this approach available on the web.
[Then again, they come up higher in the search engines than my speech, so since you found me, I'll assume you've already decided to consider other-than-stand-up-comedy options.]
BTW, nobody will remember your speech. Sorry. But you can post it online later to remind them. When you do, send me a link.
I knew my speech would never have been approved if it had to go through serious vetting. As was pointed out in the comments section of my post on the subject, I wrote the speech at the last minute with the collaboration of my writing partner of that time (and with whom I later went on to edit a college humor magazine). Had I written my speech in collaboration with the school principal instead, I couldn't begin to guess what form it would have arrived at. It might have been a fine speech. But it certainly would have been different.
But my goal wasn't to upstage the principal; nor was it to rain on my fellow graduates' parade. I knew that was going to be the result, but that wasn't the point. I truly wanted to say something worth saying. In retrospect, I'm still not sure that I did.
You ask my advice, but here I am yammering "It depends! It depends!" Here's the deal, Kevin:
- eighty percent of communication is non-verbal. Tone of voice and body language convey more meaning than the words being said.
- sometimes, some well-placed silence, employed strategically, can speak volumes more than words ever can. [Along those lines: if I had had more time, this essay would have been much, much shorter.]
- if at all possible, work with your principal in good faith on the message, especially if the principal is working with you in good faith.
- practice, practice, practice the delivery.
March 10, 2008
I've been ramping up the writing again. Which is why I haven't been posting here after a flurry of entries a couple of weeks ago. See, I started ramping up the writing, and then began writing some projects that I hope to sell soon. Part of that ol' "professional writer" scene is actually getting paid for one's writing. (Not that I don't love writing for y'all for free, mind you.)
One of my new short stories has already been bounced in the best possible way (and I will likely develop it into a novel); another is likely to be sold (although one doesn't count one's chickens until they've come home to roost) -- I was asked for a minor revision, which I've done, so now I just have to wait and see if it passes muster -- and I just completed a third story which I feel pretty good about and I've submitted it to its intended market.
As is always the case with selling short fiction, it is likely to be weeks before I know anything about the disposition of the two that are still in play, but I feel good just getting stuff out there. Oh, and the piece that has already been rejected for its intended market is going to go back out to other markets shortly, even though I still plan to write its novel companion.
In the meantime, some light humor that I collaborated on with a friend of mine back in our *high school* days is about to be included in an anthology that will be published this coming April 1st. It's not my best stuff -- for that matter, it's not the best work that I produced in collaboration with this particular writing partner -- nor is it the material I would have chosen for the "Best Of" that it's going to appear in, but it's a book with a print run of 5,000 or greater, so it's still a publication credit.
And as a recent writing workshop reminded me, we are often not the best judges of our own work.
I'm glad to have finally gotten that third story finished this morning. I'm pretty sure that means my output for this year has already surpassed my fiction writing for all of 2007. Now let's see if there are some folks out there who would like (to pay) to read it.
January 07, 2008
As regular readers of my little missives here are aware (both of you), I occasionally suffer from bouts of insomnia. There are other occasions, however, when I enjoy them, instead.
The insomnia that's been plaguing me since the beginning of the year has been more severe than usual, and I've given up trying to fight it. As is typical, I find it difficult to do productive work during these bouts, so in the wee hours of the morning I'm now catching up on my backlog of DVDs. These include the first couple of seasons of the new "Battlestar Galactica" television series.
The new incarnation of this series is clearly an effort of my generation to reinterpret the television sci-fi of our parents' generation. And allow me to say that when it comes to sci-fi dramas (like BSG, or Firefly, or Babylon 5, or Heroes) or, for that matter, even mainstream dramas or crime shows (such as Law & Order, or anything by David Kelley or Joss Whedon, and a few seasons of ER), my generation is *so* good when it comes to writing. The dialog, the pacing, the story, the character arcs -- the best of the current and recent crop of shows more than holds its own against the best of the past. The original Star Trek? The Fugitive? The Prisoner? Amateurs. The original Battlestar Galactica was hokey. The new version is a masterpiece.
(At least, so far. The finale of the first season is still fresh on my mind, and it was amazing. I'm almost halfway through season two, and the standards keep improving. Wow.)
Even shoot-em-up serials like "24" have a punch that at the very least matches the best of its predecessors. The tagline for "24" should be: "We've upped our stakes. Up yours."
And yet, as much as my generation has learned about telling a good tale and setting up a good crime scene, we apparently don't know shit about sit-coms. "Frasier" was the last sit-com to have any kind of even half-way decent writing and innovation, but when you get right down to it, the Bill Cosby Show and Cheers (both of which were modeled after previous sit-coms and neither of which were particularly innovative) were the last of the "great" traditional sit-coms.
Why is that? Why can't my generation write a compelling situation comedy? Or, perhaps, why can't my generation produce/finance one that's well written?
My thought for the day: if one wants to make a name as a television writer, re-visit the sit-com. Study up on the classics, like the Dick Van Dyke Show or Bob Newhart or Mary Tyler-Moore, and then open up a can of Generation X Whoop Ass on it. Snark fests are not comedy, and back-talking children are not interesting. Bring on the intelligent, thoughtful, poignant humor like the greats once did, and aim those guns at the twenty-first century.
I'm told that "Arrested Development" started to go down that path (I haven't seen it, yet, but I plan to -- and I worry that it may be a bit on the snarky side), and I'll point out that the writing on Bab5 is what paved the way for the even better writing of Firefly or the new BSG. I'm inclined to think that we're almost there; that my generation is ready for laughter that doesn't come from a can.
What do you think? Am I missing any truly great situation comedy that's being produced today?
April 28, 2007
WARNING: THIS ENTRY CONTAINS "SPOILERS" REGARDING THE MOVIES "SOMEWHERE IN TIME" AND "THE LAKE HOUSE". And "Sliding Doors". And "Romeo & Juliet". And a few others. If you have any interest in seeing these movies but haven't done so, then you are advised to rent and see them now and return immediately to read my timely comments.
Heh, heh. I said "timely."
I've been thinking a great deal about fiction and the defense of the status quo, lately. To wit: most (but not all) commercially successful popular fiction, be it in print or film, ultimately embraces accepted social norms. This is important to me right now, because of the novel that is brewing in my head and threatening to spill onto the electronic page before too long.
Stephen King wrote an excellent essay in his non-fiction book, Danse Macabre, in which he points out that the horror genre is particularly conservative (that's "conservative" as in: defending tradition and demonizing -- literally, in this case -- any departure from the status quo). His point is very well made, and I highly recommend you seek out his comments. In short: the horror genre is all about doling out punishments for breaking the rules.
Most other genres are about doling out rewards for following the rules, which is what makes horror the flip-side of the mainstream coin: it's a focus on the negative, but it's still supporting the status quo.
Consider navel-gazer movies like "The Family Man" or "Me, Myself, I", where the protagonist gets a chance to compare "what if?" lives of having pursued career versus having pursued love and family. In all such movies, the protagonist ultimately realizes that even though their life in which they pursued the career was fabulously successful -- bringing them fame and money and a fantastic quality of life -- still, it's better to have the life of mired suburbian mediocrity with the noble-yet-imperfect mate and the infants who pee on you and all the similar joys of middle-class conformity because, hey, it's more emotionally fulfilling than driving fancy cars and eating at the best restaurants and wearing tailored clothes.
In short, these movies are pandering to their Western Civ, middle-class audience. "Hey, you there! In the middle-class! You made the right choice! Don't you feel affirmed?"
Occasionally, you'll see an excellent and commercially successful story that doesn't pander. The movie "Sliding Doors" has a similar "what if?" opportunity to see a life go in two different directions at a decision point, and the ending of the story is quite satisfying while, at the same time, it doesn't hand the audience a pat judgement on how love always triumphs and all that rot. Actually, it had quite a different premise: that, when all is said and done, we will be who we will be... that single decision points do not a life make.
Since there is such a thing as excellent, commercially successful fiction that also manages to not pander to the audience and endorse the status quo, I need to come to terms with how that works. I want the novel that I'm working on to be such a story; to challenge certain societal norms and still be compelling and satisfying.
I was hoping to find such a story in the movie, "The Lake House." This is a recent flick that falls into the "time-travel romance" sub-genre. The previews implied that it might have a subversive take on the status quo.
Of course, in the romance genre, the rules are: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. If the story is a comedy, the successful conclusion of the formula is kisses and happiness ever after. If the story is a tragedy, then the last piece of the formula (boy wins girl back) is thwarted, and everyone dies as punishment. See "Romeo & Juliet".
Both the comedic and the tragic variation are satisfactory endorsements of the status quo, since successful completion of the formula means life and goodness, and failure to live up to the terms of the formula means death and sadness. If only Juliet dies and Romeo goes on to live a happy life of debauchery, then the status quo is not supported, and the audience gets mighty cheesed.
When a story is successful even though it doesn't pander, it is because the story still resonates with Truth. To bring up "Sliding Doors" again as an example, it is satisfying because it acknowledges that the consequences of our choices are more complicated -- and more interesting -- than simply "good" and "bad". The movie endorses hope, even while it denies the "happily ever after" myth.
Which brings me to "The Lake House", which I had picked up for a few bucks at the local DVD store's sidewalk sale. I was hoping to see some interesting choices in the storytelling, because the premise is kinda neat. Boy doesn't meet girl, because boy and girl are living in two different time zones. As in: two years apart. They correspond via a magic mailbox, fall in love, and get really, really frustrated with their timing woes. Surely, this must resonate with middle America. Isn't the middle-class all about frustration?
[As a side note, I'd like to recommend that the designers of the back cover of the DVD case be arrested and sent to a Turkish prison. The blurbs on the back cover keep saying, "Can the two ever meet?" while half of the photos show the two main actors together in the same scenes. I mean, what the intercourse is up with that? It's like putting on the back of "The Empire Strikes Back" the question, "Is Darth Vader really Luke Skywalker's father?" with a picture of Vader holding up a baby photo of little Luke nestled serenely in young Darth Vader's arms.]
The problem with the Lake House is not simply that it violates all concepts of time-travel causality. This wasn't supposed to be a science fiction flick, strictly speaking. Rather, its fatal flaw is that it tries so hard to pander to the audience ("Love rulz! Woo-hoo!") that it violates its own sense of Truth. It tries to give us the Happily Ever After ending, even after it very clearly set up the tragic death ending. The movie held open the possibility, right up until the final scene, that there could be an interesting, sophisticated Truth that would allow one character to live on while the other one dies. Instead, we get this pandering message: because he "waited", everybody lives happily ever after, after all.
Oh, by the way, that was the spoiler I warned you about.
Pander, pander, pander.
When I was a young'un, there was a movie called "Somewhere In Time" that also had the ill-fated time-travel romance kink going on. It starred Superman and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and the story was, as in "The Lake House," cleverly laid out right up until the last scene. "Somewhere in Time", however, managed to pull off an emotionally satisfying resolution without pandering *too* much. It managed to have both its tragic cake and happily eat it, too, by allowing the boy to die *and* get the girl. Oh sure, it was a sappy reunited-in-death kind of thing, but dude... the guy's death was *so* satisfying that it made the whole thing work. I don't think it would have worked as well if it had only the tragedy, nor only the happily-ever-after. What it did was offer us a third alternative: rather than "love is good" versus "losing love is bad", we got "love can make you lose your mind as well as your appetite. And then you die." Now *there's* a Truth that resonates.
Now that I think about it, "Sliding Doors" also managed to have both the tragic ending and the (nominally) hopeful ending all rolled up together. And the guy died in "Ghost", too, and that was popular. And same for "Titanic". Hmmm.
But not "The Lake House." It sets up for both possibilities, but then instead of choosing a third alternative, or even the more plausible tragic ending, it short circuits itself and makes a break for the happy ending. It doesn't work.
As an extrovert, I'm inclined to throw my ideas out there and see what shape they take. While my original intention of writing this little missive was to rail against the maddening ending of "The Lake House" -- I mean, really, all that wasted set-up! -- I realize now that this is really about the novel I'm constructing. How do I make it commercially viable and still not pander?
The answer is simple. It's not enough that I'm going to kill two of my main characters. I'm also going to have to add a romantic element. And pathos. [sigh.] Writing is such hard work.
January 10, 2007
One of the many rules of thumb when it comes to being a writer is this:
NEVER READ YOUR REVIEWS.
There are three likely scenarios in reviews of your work:
- The review makes an unflattering remark about your work, and so you break down, feel worthless, and stop writing.
- The review makes a flattering remark about your work, and so you get greedy, go looking for more, and then encounter an unflattering remark, and you break down, feel worthless, and stop writing. That, or the reviews will get something wrong about your work, and that will send you into a tailspin of despair, and you'll stop writing.
- The review makes a bland reference to your work that is non-evaluative -- or, even worse, makes no reference to your contribution at all -- which leaves you feeling empty and hollow and overlooked, and you stop writing.
What you are supposed to do is NEVER READ YOUR REVIEWS and, instead, let trusted others cull them for you, passing along only the praise and leaving out the rest.
Alas, while I wholeheartedly subscribe to this philosophy, I nonetheless fail miserably at practicing it.
My pro fiction publications thus far appear in two anthologies (Hags, Sirens, and Other Bad Girls of Fantasy and Cosmic Cocktails). The first antho, which was published this past summer, received many reviews, most of which either neglected to mention my contribution in particular, or mentioned it by way of a general list that gave a quick description of all or most of the stories. Of course, that stands to reason: out of twenty pieces, only a few will stand out; mine was a lighthearted take on the subject, and nothing more. There were far more compelling contributions than mine in the book.
There was *one* review that called my story as one of the highlights of the anthology. But, unfortunately, the review in question is in Swedish. Do any of you faithful readers know Swedish? Here's how an online translation engine interprets the passage into English:
"Band of Sisters", of Allan Rousselle, am acting in short gott if they four sirenerna. This story each both almighty funny and almighty shrewd. For that nots mention cruel. And then am meaning self cruel of the heartless battle.
Woo-hoo! Thanks! I think.
But all along, I had felt that my story in Cosmic Cocktails was a better piece, so I was waiting for that one to come out before I started nudging my friends to read my stuff. It turns out that some reviewers liked that one as well. SFRevu.com reviewer Ernest Lilley, for example, was kind enough to say:
... On the other hand, "Everybody stops at Boston's" does both right. It doesn't have to take place on Copernicus Station, orbiting Saturn after the Earth turns to nano-goo, or even in a bar where everybody on the station winds up...though it doesn't hurt. The intersection of time travel conundrum and human response is exactly what SF should be and this story at least hits the spot.
Amazon.com quotes Publisher's Weekly as saying:
... Others recall the mind-bending neo-noir of Philip K. Dick, as in Allan Rousselle's intoxicating story about a hired killer traveling back in time to terminate the inventor of a time machine.
For those of you who are not familiar with science fiction writers, being compared to Philip K. Dick like this is a happy thing. Having such a mention from Publisher's Weekly is even happier.
I also enjoyed a favorable mention in The Davis Enterprise, where book critic Kristin L. Gray said:
Allan Rousselle’s “Everybody Stops at Boston’s” also stands out. This is a time travel story with a chaser of assassination and a twist at the end. It asks a very simple question: Are certain inventions so inevitable that, no matter what happens, they’ll be created?
Are you intrigued? Then buy the book! Cosmic Cocktails is edited by Denise Little and available at fine bookstores everywhere. (Heck, special order it if they don't already have it on the shelves!)
As for me, well... I'm so happy with the reviews, I've stopped writing.
December 05, 2006
Now available in bookstores, both brick & mortar and online:
Edited by Denise Little
My story is a rather dark one, blurbed on the back as being about a 'time-traveling assasin', entitled "Everybody Stops at Boston's." I hope you like it!
November 15, 2006
You a writer, or an avid reader of fiction? You dig story? You dig movies?
Stranger That Fiction is a writer's movie, and a pretty good one, at that. If you writes much, or reads much, I think you'll dig it.
Don't ask why. Don't ask what it's about. Just check it out, and get back to me later.
September 01, 2006
I'd originally written the following artlce for Clarion West's alumni newsletter, The Seventh Week. After I put it together, the editor and I decided it was more a review of the kind of information disseminated during the six week program than it was a presentation of information new to CW grads, so we agreed to cut it from the newsletter. Nonetheless, this is information that writers who are new to the field might find useful, so I present herewith:
Clarion West and other writers workshops are dedicated to improving the craft of writing speculative fiction, but for the person who wants to sell his or her stories, there's also the matter of learning the business. Just as software engineers, plumbers, and law enforcement officials have trade shows where they can network and learn the business side of their trade, so too writers have conventions.
The mere mention of science fiction conventions conjures up images of men and women dressing up as Klingons and Jedi and -- these days -- students from Hogwarts going to masquerades, playing board games, and arguing over plot points from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But while these conventions (typically referred to as "cons") can have their fan side, they also often have their professional track, as well.
Cons provide a number of ways to ground the writer in the professional community. For newcomers to the field, panel discussions by established authors on subjects like "Things I Wish Some Pro Had Told Me When I Was Starting Out" or established agents on "Electronic Rights and the Future of Book Contracts" are a great way to not only learn something of interest, but also to get to know who the experts, up-and-comers, and old-reliables are in our field. And while not all panelists fit into those categories, the newcomer who pays attention will quickly get a sense of who is in-the-know and who leans to pretending.
While panels are a great way to sample some of the trends in the industry, most writers who attend cons emphasize a more important career building exercise: networking.
"I go to network with other writers," says Irene Radford, the Con Liaison for SFWA, "often from different locations I would not normally get to meet. I get to network with agents and editors."
Jay Lake, winner of the John W. Campbell Award in 2005, agrees. "You're not there to sell or do business, you're there to network -- with your peers, with better established writers, and with editors, agents and reviewers."
While much of this networking takes place at the hotel bars and the pro parties, there is also a unique opportunity offered by many cons known as the kaffeclatch. Many cons will set aside a room with several tables that each feature a prominent professional for fifty-minute (or hour or hour-and-a-half) conversations. Because seating is limited at each table, and because the idea is to allow actual interaction to take place, there are typically sign-up sheets for each scheduled kaffeclatch. One can learn a great deal by sitting down to conversation with a favorite author or editor and ten or so other interested individuals.MORE...
July 04, 2006
Here is an excerpt from a document written on July 2nd, 1776 by Thomas Jefferson and then slightly revised and endorsed by a collection of radical Americans at a clandestine meeting two days later. Mr. Jefferson was far from a perfect man or even a perfect leader, but the guy sure knew how to write:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence indeed, will dictate, that Governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.
Still resonates, does it not?
June 29, 2006
Now available in bookstores... in fact, it's already on the shelves in the major chains:
Hags, Sirens, and Other Bad Girls of Fantasy
Edited by Denise Little
My story is the one about the Sirens ("Band of Sisters"). It isn't high art, by any means, but I nonetheless hope you find it entertaining.
June 20, 2006
Subtitle: Do People Change? Part I
It's that time of year again. The time of year often referred to as "Dads and Grads" -- when Father's Day and Graduation Day collide. What better time of year for me to trot out the Worst Valedictorian Speech Ever?
There are a number of reasons that this should come up right now; several different conversations between and among colleagues of mine, past and present, converged upon my recent discovery of a copy of the Bennett High School (Buffalo, NY) valedictorian speech for 1986. It is a crude document, and I don't even know if this copy is a first draft or the piece as it was delivered. I do know that starting the following year, Bennett's valedictorians had to run their speeches by the principal before they were to be delivered.
By way of background, I'll tell you how my thinking led up to this particular speech. [I'd considered posting this speech anonymously, but I'll cop to it. I wrote it. I'm embarrassed by it now, but I wrote it.]
Valedictorian addresses tend to be 1) long, 2) boring, 3) filled with homilies about how "we are the future" and all that nonsense, and 4) otherwise devoid of a point. I therefore set out to write a speech that was: 1) short, 2) not boring, and 3) offered no pat epigraphs nor advice for the future and 4) made a point.
That said, I could have gone the comedy/humor route and accomplished those goals, but I since the point I wanted to make was not funny, I ended up going down the crabby route instead.
Also by way of background: the teachers and the administration were actively and openly fighting each other during my last two years at the school, which had some very direct and very personal consequences for a few of my classmates.
I am not proud at all of this speech or my choices in making it. But it is what it is, and I was who I was at the time. I can be every bit as crabby these days as I was back then (although, to be fair, I'm not *always* crabby), but I'd like to think that I have a more delicate touch these days, when I choose to use it.
Allow me to set the scene: it's 1986. Summer in Buffalo. Hot. Sticky. The graduating class of 300 or so adolescents is rowdy. Each grad having been allowed up to four guests (and many finding a way to sneak in more than that), the auditorium is packed. I took the stage. I waited for everyone to quiet down. After I stood there for a few moments, they did quiet down. Silence. Then I read a short note that went something like this:
So ends four years of high school.
What can I say? There are many things I'd like to say, but I don't know where to begin. Some people have said they think my speech should be positive while others think I should talk about the negative side of Bennett. The fact is that there are both positive and negative aspects that we should consider . . . about Bennett, and about leaving Bennett.
When I decided to come to Bennett, I though that high school would be a place where administrators and teachers worked together to raise the level of education of the students . . . an institution where creative thought was fostered and intellectual and athletic pursuits were encouraged. Well, I didn't find quite that here at Bennett, but I did find several experiences which will serve me well in my future endeavors. None of us are leaving Bennett without an education, although much of that education was received outside the classroom. In fact, most of the knowledge we have gained here is based upon our experiences with the politics of a high school culture. It has become clear to me that the students who pursued knowledge were able to find it. Keep in mind that even though we are graduating, we should still pursue an education.
To my fellow graduating students, I wish you farewell. There is no warning I can give you that you haven't already heard; no advice that hasn't already been offered; no profound thought that would make a difference at this time. I have come to know some of you and found friendship with a few of you.
And so, here I am, with a great opportunity to say all of the things I've been wanting to say, but I'm leaving most of it unsaid. I am concerned about too many things. If I told you everything that bothered me, nothing positive would be accomplished and it would give you an inaccurate view of my opinions of Bennett. If I talked about Peace, Love, and Kindness, it would no doubt make you throw up in those silly little hats they make us wear at these ceremonies. Yes, I'm leaving a lot of things unsaid.
So ends four years of high school.
When I finished, you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. I don't recall there being any applause. A teacher later mentioned to me that after I left the stage, she leaned over to a colleague and said, "If I ever hold a parade, remind me to invite Allan over to rain on it." Or words to that effect.
Did I really say "throw up in those silly little hats they make us wear?" I shudder to think that I may have.
But if I was bitter at the time, I will note that history vindicated my displeasure. At the time I entered BHS, it had only recently been the spawning grounds of the City Honors school. After a few years under the reign of Principal W., it became one of the worst rated schools academically in the state of New York -- a dubious distinction that it continues to maintain, despite the departure of the aforementioned principal a couple of years ago.
BTW, I like Ms. W. as a person. She was kind and supportive of me, and certainly presented a laudable attitude toward the school. I just thought at the time (and still think) that her priorities for running the school were contrary to providing a sound education.
As another side-note, I will also mention that my dearest friend and academic rival from my high school class has offered a credible claim that a math error in calculating our class standings falsely reversed her (salutatorian) and my positions within the ranks. In other words, she has a compelling case that she deserved the valedictorian position and I the salutatorian. [Our respective GPAs, adjusted for giving honors classes a stronger weight, were a statistical tie, with naught but a sliver of a sliver of a percentage point separating us. It could easily have gone either way. The official results gave me the edge. My friend's contention is that the official results are based upon an ever-so-slight math error in the calculation of her adjusted GPA.]
If her argument is true (and I suspect that it is), it throws my acceptance into Cornell (and later, UPenn for grad school) into doubt, not to mention any subsequent edge I may have enjoyed in employment opportunities because of my degree(s), cascading into a domino effect that could mean that I *should* be a very different person today than I am. [How do you like that lead-in to my "Do people change?" subtitle?]
I am certain that my high school rival's speech, had she the opportunity to have written one, would have been far more eloquent than mine. BUT... would she have had the guts to rain quite so hard on our graduation parade?
Look for more thoughts on these and other questions in an upcoming post...
May 30, 2006
My rejection letters continue to get nicer and more encouraging. I have a few editors now who have asked me in their own handwriting to keep sending them stuff, including two editors who have done so for the first time in the past few weeks.
Of course, I'd rather receive a check and a contract than a handwritten rejection, but the handwritten rejection is yet another step in the right direction for my budding career as a published fictioneer.
Earlier on these electronic pages, I'd noted that my second pro sale (also a short story) would probably see the light of day during the second half of 2007. Well, things are moving faster than that. According to Amazon.com, Cosmic Cocktails by Denise Little (editor) from DAW Books will go on sale December 5th of this year. I've read several of the stories that will appear therein, and they were all excellent. My contribution is entitled "Everybody Stops at Boston's."
March 19, 2006
I'm happy to report that my first "professional" short fiction sale (as defined by SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; five cents per word or more, from "qualifying" publishers) is going to the presses. My short story "Band of Sisters" will appear in the anthology Hags, Sirens and Other Bad Girls of Fantasy edited by Denise Little and published by DAW Books. My story is the one about the Sirens.
Quoth Amazon.com: "This title will be released July 5, 2006." But naturally, you can buy it in advance now.
Sometime in July, several of the authors and I hope to be at a signing event to celebrate the release of the book. More news as it develops...
In the meantime, I have just recently learned that I've sold another short story at pro rates. I'll post the details once the publication info is finalized (it's for an anthology that is likely to be published in the second half of 2007, but titles, release dates, and other details can change quite a bit in that amount of time).
Now, if only I could find more time to write....
February 02, 2006
I'm on a listserv where someone sent out a link to a list of "best first lines" of novels. A few of us on the listserv noted that in some cases, lines were included because they were from great novels, not because they were great lines. (I might even take issue with the idea that some of those novels were great, but they certainly are all respected for one reason or another.)
As much as I thought several "best lines" were missing from the list, it was a great conversation starter. So, let's play! Before I go into a long list of best lines that should have been included from *my* favorite novels, let's start with just one author in particular. I've already played a similar game with Robert A. Heinlein. In fact, that had started with another essay I'd written about first lines in general (when a fellow writer posed the question of what a first line should accomplish).
Let's play "Best First Lines" with today's guest author, Stephen King. I've culled the list down to what I arbitrarily consider to be the "top twenty":
The morning I got it on was nice; a nice May morning.
From 'Salem's Lot:
Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son.
From The Shining:
Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.
From "Night Surf":
After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was on the air, we all went back down to the beach.
From "The Mangler":
Officer Hunton got to the laundry just as the ambulance was leaving -- slowly, with no sirens or flashing lights.
The guy's name was Snodgrass and I could see him getting ready to do something crazy.
From "The Ledge":
"Go on," Cressner said again. "Look in the bag."
From "The Lawnmower Man":
In previous years, Harold Parkette had always taken pride in his lawn.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.
From "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption":
There's a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess -- I'm the guy who can get it for you.
This is the story of a lover's triangle, I suppose you'd say -- Arnie Cunningham, Leigh Cabot, and, of course, Christine.
From "The Mist":
This is what happened.
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years -- if it ever did end -- began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.
From The Dark Tower:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
From "Secret Window, Secret Garden":
"You stole my story," the man on the doorstep said.
From "The Library Police":
Everything, Sam Peebles decided later, was the fault of the goddamned acrobat.
From "Dolan's Cadillac":
I waited and watched for seven years.
From "The Doctor's Case":
I believe there was only one occasion upon which I actually solved a crime before my slightly fabulous friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
From "Why We're in Vietnam":
When someone dies, you think about the past.
From "L.T.'s Theory of Pets":
My friend L.T. hardly ever talks about how his wife disappeared, or how she's probably dead, just another victim of the axe man, but he likes to tell the story of how she walked out on him.
I love these lines because they do what a first line should do: make you want to read the second line.
January 07, 2006
Funny thing. We finally got around to sending out year-end letters to friends and family, and for many of the news items we noted that the reader could find more details by visiting my website.
At around the time as we started preparing the letters, I stopped posting to the website. Which means that if anyone has been visiting my site of late, they've found nothing new except lame wishes for a pleasant end of the year.
It hasn't been for a lack of things on my mind. There's been more than enough subjects I've been wanting to comment on. The current bribe scandals unfolding in both houses of Congress, the continuing nonsense being referred to as "Teach the Debate", the idea that I should make up some New Years Resolutions, parallels between the war in Iraq and the Spanish-American War, the status of the Patriot Act, and possibly the most profound recent event, Jessica Simpson's pending divorce*.
No, it's been fear. All writers occasionally bump into a block of some sort. Some find themselves daunted by the blank page. Others find themselves bereft of ideas. Still others are thwarted by the internal censor. "No, don't write that. You could get into trouble for writing that." Therein lies my own block. The internal censor has been my bugaboo.
The internal censor has been warning me lately not to dive too far into the issues that touch upon religiosity. Don't want to offend any of my family or friends who feel passionately about their beliefs (or disbeliefs).
Likewise, because I find myself simply overcommitted with work and family commitments, I am not taking the time to be as well informed on contemporary political issues as I would like to be. So my internal censor cautions me against political punditry lest I make a fool of myself.
The problem has not been confined to my blog -- although, certainly there are many topics I'd like to present to you that discretion dictates I make just a wee bit less public than this House of Cards. But private and semi-private means of communication are also proving to be a challenge for me these days.
Having occasionally been chastised for being too informal in my dealings with clients and coworkers, I often find myself writing e-mail messages complete with very direct communication about how I feel regarding a certain course of action, only to delete that message and write something a little less forthright. (This kind of self-censorship might be referred to as "maturity".) This is probably as it should be, but it fits as part of a larger pattern: it has created a habit that has extended to my online journal entries. I've got about five posts I've written that currently reside in my content management system in "draft (unpublished)" mode because, after writing them, I thought better of making them public.
I'm on several listservs where participants have practically begged to be slapped upside the head, but after writing my little rejoinders... I delete them and simply let it go. Better to let someone else do the e-slapping, and take the resulting heat that follows.
What the hell is that all about? Who am I, and what did "they" do with the real me?
Someone on a listserv I'm on checked out this website after I'd mentioned that photos of Alexander and Nolan appear here, and they were kind enough to say that I'm "interesting." How messed up is this -- I've been afraid, ever since, that I might post something that is not interesting. The internal censor again:
"Dude. Don't talk about your 'Solipsist Manifesto'. It won't be interesting enough. No more baby pictures! They're not interesting enough!"
So, yeah. My writers block has been fear -- the Internal Censor that kills with a thousand paper cuts.
Okay. Now that I've admitted my insecurities, let's move on. At least I've posted something. I'll leave the task of posting something *interesting* for another day.
September 02, 2005
As part of my high-tech whirlwind database life, I occasionally travel to locales far and wide to teach accountants and IT professionals at law firms how to use a database language called SQL (structured query language). Sounds exciting, doesn't it? This is excitement personified.
When a law firm hosts one of these classes -- which is to say, when they provide the training facilities and allow others to attend -- they are accorded a couple of "free" seats in the class. Typically, the employees of the host law firm who attend the class run the risk of getting less out of the class than their counterparts who travel from nearby towns to attend.
Why? Because when a person attends training within their own firm's offices, he or she is often called away for a quick-emergency-meeting or to put out this-one-little-fire or something along those lines. Their training time is not respected by their colleagues because -- Hey! -- they are there at the office anyway, so what harm could it be to pull them out of the class for one teensie-weensie-moment.
Attendees who pay full fare and come in from another firm are not at their office mate's (or boss's) beck and call, and therefore can't be pulled aside to attend to a quick little problem.
For lack of a better term, I'll call this the "locals' lament". It's convenient geographically and economically, at least, for you to be the host but the distractions of being on your home turf keep pulling you away.
So it is for me and this year's North American Science Fiction Convention. My wife and I attempt every year to attend the annual World Science Fiction Convention (typically held during the days leading into the Labor Day weekend) because it features a strong track for professional writers in the field. When "WorldCon" is held outside of North America (this year's was held in Scotland), there is a smaller version held on our home continent, the aforementioned "NASFiC". This year's NASFiC is being held in our home town.
Should be convenient, no? Should make our lives easier, because we don't have so much to arrange in terms of travel and taking care of the kids and all that stuff, right?
Nope. Just as we missed the World Horror Convention when it was held here a couple of years ago, we find our attendance at this year's NASFiC very, very challenging. Difficulties and distractions at the office and at home have led me to miss all of the ceremonies, panels, and parties thus far. Yesterday, I left work in time to make dinner with some friends in town for the Con, but that's the most I've managed so far. Instead of our annual week-long participation, it looks like Paulette and I will be able to get two days this weekend at the most.
Next year's WorldCon will be held in LA. We look forward to having it away from home again (as usual), so that we can once more take full advantage of it.
July 25, 2005
I'm currently working on a novel (well, if I could make time to write, I'd be working on a novel) which takes a highly unlikely proposition that many people nonetheless believe and examines it along the lines of: what if it were actually true? What would that mean to our society, to the world, and how would it shape the way we look at our past and our future?
A friend of mine recently completed a novel that will appear very soon in print that works along similar lines. His novel asks: what if Sasquatch existed? What would that mean to our society? Who would be affected, and how? Because he brings such vivid scientific and forensic detail to his novel, the story is very compelling. If Sasquatch did exist today, then what does that imply about our past? About our future? What kind of evidence would be necessary to establish the existence as fact, and who would believe it even if it were available?
The medical, anthropological, historical, and zoological detail of the novel is fascinating. The author's understanding of the battles within academia are beyond reproach. And the inner workings of the government as depicted in the novel ring true, but who am I to say? And yet, the story doesn't get bogged down in detail. It sings along at a very fast pace.
July 07, 2005
One of the most influential American authors of the twentieth century, Robert A. Heinlein, was born on this day (that would be July 7th, for those of you not too sure of today's date) in 1907.
Insofar as my previous post was on the subject of first lines in fiction, I thought I'd celebrate in part by listing a few first lines from Heinlein short stories and novels. Not all of these may be of the "grab you by the lapels and shake vigorously" variety, but I think you'll agree that they at least suggest enough to make you want to see the line or two that follow. Favorites include:
from Beyond This Horizon, his first published novel:
Their problems were solved: the poor they no longer had with them; the sick, the lame, the halt, and the blind were historic memories; the ancient casues of war no longer obtained; they had more freedom than Man has ever enjoyed. All of them should have been happy --
from The Day After Tomorrow:
"What the hell goes on here?"
The act was billed as ballet tap -- which does not describe it.
from "Magic, Inc.":
"Whose spells are you using, buddy?"
from "The Roads Must Roll":
"Who makes the roads roll?"
On a high hill in Samoa there is a grave.
from "The Long Watch":
Johnny Dahlquist blew smoke at the Geiger counter.
from "The Green Hills of Earth":
This is the story of Rhysling, the blind singer of the Spaceways -- but not the official version.
from The Puppet Masters:
Were they truly intelligent?
from "Jerry Was a Man":
Don't blame the Martians.
from The Door Into Summer:
One winter shortly before the Six Weeks War my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut.
from Have Space Suit -- Will Travel:
You see, I had this space suit.
from "The Year of the Jackpot":
At first Potiphar Breen did not notice the girl who was undressing.
from "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag":
"Is it blood, doctor?"
from Stranger in a Strange Land:
Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.
from Time Enough for Love:
History has the relation to truth that theology has to religion -- ie, none to speak of.
from The Number of the Beast:
"He's a Mad Scientist and I'm his Beautiful Daughter."
from The Cat Who Walks Through Walls:
"We need you to kill a man."
from To Sail Beyond the Sunset:
I woke up in bed with a man and a cat. The man was a stranger; the cat was not.
And lastly, a first line that certainly makes *me* want to read more, from "It's Great to be Back!":
"Hurry up, Allan!"
July 06, 2005
A fellow writer is teaching a section on first lines for a creative writing class, and asked her colleagues for their thoughts on the role of first lines in fiction. I am not as well-published as the other folks in the group (yet), but I nonetheless have an opinion (doesn't everybody?).
It seems to me that the purpose of a first line is to get the reader (be he/she/it a consumer, an acquisitions editor, an agent, a student, a bookstore manager, or whatever) to want to read the next few sentences. That's it. Hook the reader enough to keep reading a few more sentences.
Whether the author accomplishes this by introducing and/or developing sympathy for a character, a setting, or a plot point is immaterial. The point is to get the reader to keep reading.
The purpose of the next few sentences, naturally, is to compel the reader to read the next few paragraphs. And those few paragraphs, in turn, should establish the kind of relationship with the reader such that the reader naturally wants to take in the rest of the book.
Now, the first few paragraphs typically must contain specific elements in order to accomplish the desired goal. But the first line, it seems to me, has an incredibly simple job and can accomplish it in a wide variety of ways. (That, of course, is why writing the first line is so hard.)
Typically, though, the successful first line compels readers to keep reading because they pose a question in the readers mind:
Who did? How? Why?
"Call me Ishmael."
"It was a pleasure to burn."
It was? For whom? What's being burned? Why?
"Once upon a time, there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith."
Oh? How'd that happen?
Some of my favorite first lines can be found in William Gibson's Burning Chrome. Pick any story from that collection and read the first line. Lots of action, lots of drama packed into quick, compelling sentences that all beg the question: Why? They all establish a need in the reader to know more.
Most people think that the purpose of a resume is to get you the job. It isn't. The purpose of the resume is to get you the interview.
Likewise, the first sentence doesn't need to sell the story. It's entire purpose is to get you to read just a little bit more. Let the next few sentences establish a setting or a character or a problem (or all three). The compelling first line simply establishes one need in the reader: you want to know more.
Now, if I can only convert these pearls of wisdom into professional sales, I'll be all set....
April 08, 2005
One particular bright spot this week came on Monday, in the form of a check in the mail for my writing.
My first professional fiction sale.
My short story "Band of Sisters" will appear in an anthology from DAW Books, although the publication details are still pending. Naturally, I'll post the title and release date once we get word on when, in fact, it's going to be published.
Other submissions to other editors appear to be getting more favorable notice, as well, even if they haven't yet generated more checks. I've finally made it off the slush pile for two pro markets I've been trying to crack for years (ie, I'm being personally rejected by the editor with a thoughtful note, rather than with a form rejection note or an assistant editor's bounce), and I'm pleased to note that it's taking longer, in some cases, for certain periodicals to bounce me than they used to. Yes, it's a funny sort of progress, but progress, nonetheless.
It's taken a while to get to this point. Do you know what happens next? Now, I need to work on my second sale. It's a long process, but this is how one builds a writing career.
June 02, 2004
Joseph Haines put on his website an invitation to post made-up memories, taking the lead of a similar request on another website (Jed Hartman's). Joseph is a fellow writer, and was previously a police officer in Los Angeles.
He asked that the imagined memories be posted to his site in the comments section. I may have taken some liberties with the assignment. Here's what I posted:
I'll always remember the time Joseph and I got to know each other during that trial in LA. The FBI had me under witness protection because I was the star witness in a big money laundering scheme, and Joseph was one of the cops assigned to take care of me while I was hidden away at some flea-bag motel.
I remember the way we used to play cards until the wee hours of the morning. Joseph said he felt a little awkward, "playing" while on the payroll, but that kind of duty still takes away your time, does it not? As for me, I was playing with counterfeit money, so what did I care?
I remember Joseph's big hearty laugh as we would swap stories about life on both sides of the thin blue line. The raw intensity of his compassion for the people he worked so hard to help; his no-nonsense attitude toward the scum who would dare to harm them.
And I'll always remember the way he listened -- really listened -- whenever I told a story of my own. About the joys and perils of the outlaw life. About the outrageous things you'd get away with, and the small things that would trip you up. About the goofy things that crooks do, or the small but clever ways big crimes could be hidden in plain view; like the way we hid that large sack of money in a department store window for all to see.
And, of course, I'll never forget the time he was late for his shift that last Friday, and how someone had tipped off my former partners-in-crime, and how they tracked me down, and that big shoot-out in front of the hotel.
I'll always remember how I heard -- later, while I was recovering from multiple gunshot and stab wounds over at County -- that Joseph had retired from the force and just up and moved away to somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, never to be heard from by his fellow law enforcement officers again.
And I'll never forget how once I had finally healed enough to walk and talk again, and the trial finally concluded and I could once again walk the streets as a free man, how almost all of the places I'd stashed the money I'd been skimming off the top had turned up empty. Joseph had expressed his doubts about the wisdom of the hiding places I'd told him about, and I guess he was right. Funny that the one I'd forgotten to mention to him hadn't been touched. Maybe if he'd known about that one, he wouldn't have been so skeptical.
But mostly, I guess what I remember best about Joseph was the look on his face when I turned up at his doorstep three years later, and the way his face turned red with rage and the veins seemed to pop from his taut skin as he knocked me to the ground and stepped on my neck and told me to never, NEVER darken his door again.
That, and his exquisite taste in carpeting.
April 21, 2004
We've all heard how Blahbity Blah famous novel was rejected eighty bazillion times before it was published, so you just have to hang in there as a writer and brave through those rejection letters, blah, blah, blah, and eventually, you, too, may find success.
Here's one such rejection letter of one such famous novel, posted on Ursula K. Le Guin's site. The novel in question, for those of you who might not be familiar with it, is considered a classic in science fiction -- one of the "must reads". You might agree with the editor, or you might disagree, but the novel nonetheless has survived the test of time.
So, you out there! If you're a writer . . . you gotta just keep on sending it out! All you gotta do is find that one editor who sees the genius in your work (or at least someone willing to give you a nice advance), even if the others don't. . . . :)
January 26, 2004
"So, what are *you* doing up so late?" I typed.
"I am writing a really boring short story."
She continued: "I'm trying to get to 2750 words tonight to make it an even 500 words for today"
She doesn't like to use periods at the end of her sentences. At least, when we are instant messaging.
I tried to imagine how a boring short story would begin:
A Boring Short Story
by Author Withheld
It was the first paragraph, and very little was going on. The passive voice was used to kick off the first sentence, and then the obvious was stated in the follow-up.
The second paragraph, though shorter, was also bereft of action or punch.
She thinks I can extrapolate this into a full-length story. I'm not so sure....
October 17, 2003
So I spent the first two weeks of October at the Oregon Coast Writers Workshop in Lincoln City, OR. OCWW offers a few different programs throughout the year, and I attended the two-week intensive "Master Class," which is targeted at people who want to pursue writing as their full-time career.
I had a great time.
The workshop features two main tracks: the business of writing, and the craft of writing. The typical day included lectures/discussions in the morning, homework assignments of vary degrees of complexity and effort, and an evening session called "The Game" where the participants play the simulated roles of professional writers trying to avoid having to go back to a day job. The evening sessions tend to focus mostly on the business and living aspects of being a professional writer, while the morning sessions spend time both on the business and the craft of writing.
The thing I appreciated most about the master class was the experiential nature of the training. I don't want to give too many examples -- well, actually, I *do* want to give too many examples, but doing so might spoil the effect for any of you who might be interested in taking the master class yourselves, so I will give away as little as I can.
But I will allude to one example of how and why I found this such a successful use of my time.
I've been told in many, many writing courses that when writing, one should learn to tune out "the critical voice". That's great advice. But how do you do it? Several of the assignments (plus the ability to talk about such issues directly with the instructors) helped me to figure out exactly how my critical voice was interfering, and *that* was what helped to figure out how to deal with the problem.
You can talk about theory all you want, but some things can't be figured out just by talking about them or taking notes on the subject. You have to stare a hard deadline in the face, sweat and strain with a problem, resist it, give in to it, and kick your own ass a few times before you finally get the point.
This particular issue (the critical voice) has been a stumbling block for me. The block hadn't been destroyed, but now that I recognize it, I have started to break through it. And this is only one of several examples where I gained valuable insight into how to improve my writing.
Anyone else taking this two week will probably find other issues that they are able to work on that I completely missed. This is, for me, the value of experiential "learning by doing." You learn what you most need to work on because you are working on specific targets against specific deadlines. The stuff you have no trouble with doesn't get your attention because the pressure naturally exposes those areas where you *are* having problems.
The exercises were all eye openers, but I particularly enjoyed the way they all came together toward the end. One exercise, in which we learned (note: not "we were told", but actually *learned*) part of the job of an editor made it much more clear to me what I need to do with my story openers to make them "pop."
This is not the kind of thing that I can get with lectures about how "your first page must grab the readers attention by setting the scene and the character and the conflict and juxtaposing and blah blahbity blah blah . . . ." No. Now that I've had a taste of the experience, I finally get it. (I think. :-)
One thing I should stress is that I resisted some of the lessons I most needed to learn. But once I got past them, I removed an incredible restraint in my writing. Woooooo-hooooooo!
If a writer is intent upon becoming a professional writer and is interested in learning new tools (or perfecting their existing tools) to get them there, I highly recommend this class.
But enough about the class. Let's get back to talking about me.
About two days into the class, I discovered that a pain in my right ear had gotten so bad that I could no longer ignore it. I took some time away on day three to go to the local emergency room where the doctor told me I had an ear infection *in both ears*. It was just so bad in my right ear that I didn't even notice the problem with my left.
So, I was given ear drop antibiotics (that would take ten days for the entire prescription) as well as prescription painkillers (which I was hoping I wouldn't have to use, but eventually found out that I very much need them . . . ear infections HURT). By some great grace of luck and timing, I managed not to miss any class time on that particular day.
Oh, and I called home to chat with Paulette almost every day (I think I missed only one or two days total), and we would talk for a half an hour to an hour.
I mention these two facts together because I wanted to note that even though going away to this workshop was supposed to, in part, get me away from the time constraints of my daily life, life still managed to intrude. I had to take time out of my day three to four times (for roughly twenty minutes to a half hour each time) to take care of the ear drops, another half hour to hour to talk with Paulette once a day, and then there was dealing with the pain of the earache for several days (almost a week) . . .
. . . and yet I still managed to do the homework. Dammit, I was going to grab this opportunity that the master class offered me and squeeze every last ounce from it that I could.
Yes, I did cut corners in the sleep department on a couple of occasions. But the point (for anyone entertaining the idea of taking the course) is that the course did not demand anything of us that couldn't be done even with unanticipated time-outs and distractions.
Oh, wait. That's not about me. That's about the master class again. :-)
I may post more about the master class in the future; if you have any questions in particular, please feel free to post them in the comments section of this site. In the meantime, I'll conclude by noting that I wrote well over 20,000 words in two weeks, read well over ten times that amount, took an entire legal pad's worth of notes, and made some great, great friends -- we are now all egging each other on to advance in our writing careers.
It was great to learn that I'm capable of pushing myself up to a higher level of both quality and quantity of output. Now that I've proven I *can* do it, the trick is going to be to sit the Germanic-slang-word down and Germanic-slang-word-ing do it.
September 27, 2003
Sorry I haven't written much lately. It's because I'm going off to write.
As many of you know, a couple of years ago I attended a six-week intensive writing workshop called Clarion West. I am now going to attend a two-week even-more-intensive writing workshop. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there was a bit of homework associated with preparing for this workshop, and I've spent the bulk of the last two weeks just getting ready to go.
Unlike my days at Clarion West, I won't be keeping a live journal of the workshop as it happens (although I may or may not keep a journal that I can post later) because I won't be accessing the Internet during the workshop. No e-mail, no web, no nothin'. This will be a bit of a test for me, insofar as it's hard for me to go so much as a couple *days* without Internet access. We'll see how it goes.
The things I do for my art.
There will be much to talk about upon my return to the Internet, so be sure to check back soon.
September 13, 2003
When I was writing the novel formerly known as The Do Over, I frequently recalled an idea that a friend of mine had asserted, that modern day America is a science fiction premise.
The friend in question was a grad school colleague, and he was referring specifically to the idea that any political scientist in 1959 who would have speculated upon the political ramifications of sending manned space flights to the moon would be laughed out of the Academe. Such fanciful notions were relegated to pulp science fiction because they could never be considered as a possibility in the real world. But once Kennedy gave his speech enjoining the nation to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely within the decade, the science fiction premise became, well, real.
While I was working on my novel about a man who travels to his own past -- his teen years in the mid 1980's -- I had fun exploring some of the anachronisms created by his memory of history and the reality of 1980's America. In one scene, he tries to confide in an old, dear friend about his plight, but his descriptions of the future do little to convince her. They have one such conversation while attending a hockey game, and the protagonist is asked by his friend if their team (the story takes place in Buffalo, so we're talking about the Sabres) will ever again be contenders for the Stanley Cup.
Imagine explaining to someone in the mid-1980's that your hometown hockey team will eventually make it to the playoff finals because they will have an amazing Czech goal tender named Dominic Hasek, who had also led the Czech team to take the Gold Medal that same year in the 1998 Olympic Games, but that Hasek and the Sabres ultimately lose the Cup to the Dallas Stars.
Your 1980's friend might point out that: a professional hockey player wouldn't be eligible to play in the Olympics, because only amateurs can play in the Olympics. Come to think of it, how could a Czech have enough time to win the Olympics, defect to the United States, go pro, join the NHL and then go to the playoffs? Oh, and why would anyone ever put a hockey team in Texas, given the recent collapse of professional hockey in Atlanta (remember, we're talking about the Atlanta Flames in the 1980's, not the Thrashers that play there now).
The whole idea is a science fiction premise.
But wait, you say. The player doesn't have to defect from Czechoslovakia to the US because there is no Czechoslovakia by the time all this happens (only fifteen years in the future), and the US by then will have had a long standing tradition of allowing players from former Iron Curtain countries to play in the US without having to change their citizenship. You explain that the Olympics will allow professional athletes to compete by then.
Your friend in the 1980's interrupts. The Olympics can't be held in 1998. Olympics are held during election years (as in, US Presidential elections). That would mean 1996 or 2000.
So you explain that the Olympics are now staggered, with winter games and summer games alternating every two years. And then you try to explain that the Dallas Stars came down from Minnesota, but before you can get into that, your friend realizes what you said about the Iron Curtain falling and that there's no longer a Czechoslovakia, and she asks you if there's going to be a war.
Well, yes, you say, but not between the US and Russia. The Cold War ends without bloodshed, you explain, and the Soviet Union just disappears.
And this is all just to explain about the Czech goalie who leads your team to the Stanley Cup finals in about fifteen years in the future. This story is the kind that any self-respecting science fiction writer would have a hard time coming up with: that in order to explain why one hockey team makes it to the playoff finals against an other team that doesn't yet exist, you would involve the radical redefinition of the Olympics, the bizarrely non-violent fall of the Iron Curtain and the peaceful end of the Cold War, the ensuing changes to US immigration law, and the inexplicable rise of hockey as a popular sport in hot-climate cities. And that all of that would happen within fifteen years.
Well, I just heard about something yesterday that sets a new standard for science fiction premises. It's a fundamental change to a cherished institution that would certainly have defied prediction by any prognosticator even as recently as a couple of years ago. You think the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union came out of nowhere? Try this on for size:
The libraries in King County, Washington (ie, Seattle, Redmond, et al) now feature coffee bars in the book section.
Yes. You can buy a coffee and drink it *IN THE LIBRARY*.
What's next for the libraries? Live jazz bands on Thursdays? Open mic poetry?
Although, in retrospect, I can see how this kind of change to our local libraries makes sense in the context of our evolving society, I'd have had a hard time predicting it could happen. The idea of Crystal Pepsi becoming popular was more likely than libraries opening cafes in the book section.
It's a crazy, crazy world in which we live, no?
August 12, 2003
As part of a homework assignment for an upcoming writing workshop I'll be attending, I have a list of eleven books to read by the end of September. I received the homework assignment a few weeks ago, when there was still roughly ten weeks to go before the workshop. If I managed to read at least a book a week, I'd keep a steady pace and get the homework done on time.
There is another component to the homework assignment, which is to *not* talk about these books with our fellow workshop attendees, with whom we are all in contact via e-mail. This is a mild form of Chinese Water Torture for those of us in the group who love to talk about books after we've read them.
...Especially when we are all reading these books, and they all end up striking a nerve of one kind or another. There are so many things to talk about; a subplot about writing here, a theme about how people sell out their own best interests there, writing style, standout scenes. The instructors assure us that there is a good reason to wait until the workshop begins before we talk about these books with each other. Since I'm putting my faith in the instructors to help me improve my writing, I'd be foolish not to do the homework.
We're allowed to talk about books, just not with each other. There are many points I've thought about that I've wanted to post up here on my website, but now that my fellow workshoppers know about this house o' cards, I'm worried that if I post something and they read it, I'll be spoiling the purpose of the exercise we've been assigned.
So I guess my book reviews will have to wait. However, I want to share two things with you, in the meantime.
First, reading a book a week has proven to be absolutely exhilarating. I'm a very slow reader. I scrutinize fiction the way I *should* have read text books when I was in college. I know people who can read Stephen King's It in one day and answer questions (correctly) about it later. This is not a skill I have. For me, a book a week is an awful lot of work, not so much because it takes so much effort to read, as it takes so much *time*. Finding the hours has been very difficult, and that means I've had to sacrifice something else in my schedule.
And yet, this intense (for me) period of reading has boosted my energy level and enabled me to get by with less sleep quite easily. I am, in fact, rather an insomniac these days, but that doesn't bother me at all. More time to read. My head is filling up with all sorts of ideas, even when (perhaps especially when) the writing or the story isn't terribly great.
The second thing I want to share with you is a funny (not funny ha-ha) coincidence. In one of the books that I just read, a fictional serial killer had chopped up one of his fictional victims and stashed the fellow's remains in a dumpster right outside the very real building where a former girlfriend of mine used to live. It is bizarre to be reading a book that takes place in a large city you don't know all that well and have one of the few streets you *do* know well described rather specifically as part of a (fictional) crime scene.
Read enough stories that take place in a city you've spent time in, and I suppose something will eventually happen on a street with which you're familiar. In fact, that's already happened for me several times: I've lived all over New England, and I read a lot of Stephen King. But this one resonated a little bit more. It was about a crime that took place outside the building where someone whom I cared about used to live. (Last I heard, she didn't live there anymore, so I'm sure she's safe from the fictional "Curry Hill Carpenter".)
My advice to any of you who would like to avoid such serendipity in your own lives: don't date anyone who lives in New York City. The place is simply too ubiquitous. Date people from Buffalo or Cleveland. Nobody writes novels that take place in Buffalo or Cleveland.
But enough about that scene in NYC. I've finished that novel and it's time to move on to an ironclad at the close of the Civil War....
June 13, 2003
A friend of mine forwarded a link to me, and my mind reels with the quality of writing. The verve! The simplicity of lines! My heart breaks to read such beautiful prose.
How can I hope to compete? How could I even conceive of attaining such mastery? I may as well give up all hope of becoming a well known (and well liked) author. I have met my match.
"Roy Orbison in clingfilm," indeed.
March 14, 2003
In connection with one of my new writing projects, I have decided to dissect the structure of a couple of Stephen King novels. The project I'm working on is not horror, but my goal is to approach the structure of this new novel differently from the way I pursued the novel-formerly-known-as-The-Do-Over.
In the course of re-reading The Shining, I decided to rent the television mini-series version that King scripted a few years ago. While watching it, I was struck by how similar it was to Rose Red, that nasty mini-series (also scripted by King) in which I was a backgrounder.
* Well, they're haunted houses. Duh.
* The ghostly inhabitants desire the psychic powers of a young (alive) prodigy who is a guest there.
* The ghostly inhabitants pursue the young prodigy by attempting to get one of the other living occupants to go crazy and kill same.
* The living inhabitants all know that staying there is a bad idea, but are convinced by the crazy one that they should stay.
* When Glenn Miller is played, Very Bad Things happen.
There were many, many other similarities. But there were some key differences, too. For example, the third act in the Shining miniseries was actually well made and surprisingly scary. The horror arose from the brutality committed by a person, not the building or its ghostly inhabitants. It was scary because the director finally stopped showing parlor tricks (oooh, the chandelier moved, spooooky) and started showing real terror (Wendy finds that Jack is no longer locked in the pantry). The Shining also worked because, in the end, you can see that Jack is struggling to try to redeem himself. Rose Red had no such personal stakes. It's brutality was based in nothing real. It was all parlor tricks, from beginning to end.
For what it's worth, I still prefer the Stanley Kubrick version of The Shining to King's own interpretation of his novel, but let's leave that for another day. Suffice it to say that as bad as the first two acts were, the third installment of the mini-series was profoundly good.
After having viewed this remake of King's story, I chatted with Paulette about Rose Red and The Shining. She pointed out that one was a hotel, and the other a house. "But," I noted, "Rose Red was a very big house."
"Of course," she said. "Nobody's going to be scared by a haunted cottage."
This led us to talk about the diminishing returns on haunted log cabins. And haunted outhouses. ("Well, that one might keep you on the edge of your seat, I suppose.")
Hmmm. Maybe there's a short story in that. Couldn't sustain a novel, of course, because there's only one act in an outhouse. Well, two. But I digress.
In summary: horror may be most effective when the personal stakes are high. Horror can also result from really, really bad puns.
March 13, 2003
Friends, Ropersons*, and Countrypersons*:
I have recently been declared a rat. A Webrat. The Webrats are a loose affiliation of speculative fiction writers who keep online journals. That, or they are an affiliation of loose speculative fiction writers. Or, they keep loose online journals. Or something.
To learn more about the order of the Webrats, click here. If you read it, you'll know at least as much as I do. About Webrats, that is. :-)
I think I was originally recommended to the rats by two of my Clarion West classmates about a year and a half ago. Wacky.
* I'm told that the politically correct replacement for "Romans" and "Countrymen" is "Roperchildren" and "Countryperchildren" because the word "person" has "son" in it, and must be replaced with "child", but I think that's going overboard, don't you? Wait a minute. Have I used this joke on my blog before? Hmmm.
March 02, 2003
I love to sing solo, but I also love to harmonize. Singing with a group or with accompaniment offers a different kind of enjoyment from performing on your own. You have to be attentive to different things, more in tune with your fellows, which in some ways can limit where you can go but in other ways expands the reach of your performance.
Writing solo and writing collaboratively is much the same. I find writing alone to offer unlimited possibilities, but the discipline of writing with someone else helps me to hone skills that might otherwise go undeveloped. I've been fortunate to enjoy several strong writing partnerships in the past, so when a friend of mine who writes screenplays asked if I'd like to collaborate on a project, I said, "Yes."
Jamie and I mapped out a show "bible" and pilot episode for a proposed television series based upon some concepts he'd been wanting to explore. The work we did on the screenplay was a fantastic learning experience. Jamie and I squashed each others' weak points (mine is a tendency toward exposition, in case you couldn't guess) and played off each others' strengths. We were both happy with the results, as were a number of readers whose judgement we trust.
We had such a good time that now we're exploring the possibility of working together on a novel. We're also working on some humor projects together. While working on the television script, Jamie also pulled me into a project he was developing that pokes fun at the high-tech stock bubble and the current state of mutual funds.
We posted the finished product on a web site: The Mattress Fund. We're in the process of putting together a smaller version that will stream faster, but if you have a good connection and a few minutes to kill, please check it out and let me know what you think. Oh, and if you have any problems downloading, please let me know that, too.
February 10, 2003
Been busy tonight. Spent much of the evening into the wee hours typing. I've been revising and otherwise cleaning up a short story of mine called "Suspicious Activity" that I'd first put to paper during my time at the Clarion West workshop two summers ago. (catching breath after such a long sentence.) I'm optimistic that this one might finally, uh, get me off the slush pile.
I'm beginning to see that the key to success in writing is to lower your expectations while you raise your standards. :-P
January 11, 2003
It's been months since I've mentioned anything here about my various writing projects, but that doesn't mean nothing's happening.
Regarding the novel, it alternates between two different working titles as I send it out to different prospects. After the television series that recently began airing with the same title as the original working title of my novel, I'm a little hesitant to post the title until the book finds some traction with either an editor or an agent. Hmmm. I wonder if I could have worked the word "title" in that sentence a few more times. Anyway, I've sent it (the novel, not just the title) out to three agents so far, none of whom are interested in representing the project. I must send it out again, and will do so within the next two weeks. When I send it out, it'll go to at least an agent and an editor at the same time. Industry norms frown upon submitting to multiple agents or multiple editors at the same time, but the long lead time in getting a response seems unreasonable to perform the search for representation or publication serially.
I've had a few short stories out for consideration in 2002, and while none of them were picked up, the responses have generally been encouraging. I haven't sent anything out in the past month or so, and yesterday I just received the last story that was "in play" back with a rejection letter. The next week or two will involve me sending out each of the stories that have been in play back out for consideration, plus one more story that's almost ready.
It's frustrating to keep sending out stories and getting back rejection letters. I know many other writers who are more talented and prolific than I am who have been at this for decades with few, if any, publications to show for it, and that does little to take the sting out of my own lack of success (so far), even after only a year or so at it.
The most recent two projects I've completed were collaborations with a friend of mine who I met during my days at Amazon.com. As with all of the good collaborations I've enjoyed in the past, my work with James Osborne has helped to bring out the best of my abilities while downplaying those areas where I'm not so strong.
One of these projects is a television series "bible," outline, and pilot script. We completed the project just in time to submit it to a Hollywood scriptwriting contest, and we should hear back from that one in February. Initial feedback from James' friends in LA is favorable, and we'll be seeking representation for our scriptwriting talents soon.
I'm excited by the idea for the television series not only because it has been a fun collaborative effort, but also because it's given me a chance to explore possibilities with story telling that are not available in novel or short story writing. In many ways, it's a more compressed method of story telling that allows, to some extent, greater sweep.
The other project is a one minute parody commercial that Jamie came up with. While I contributed a few lines here and there to the script, the real collaboration was in the production of the commercial. James was the director, while I had a chance to perform on screen. In many ways, working on this project was like working on a number of collaborative parodies I did for radio back at WVBR in that it was synergistic and fun. Jamie has finished the post-production work on it; now we're preparing a corresponding web site around the concept. I'll be posting a link to the finished product here within a couple of weeks.
Hmmm. I keep saying "in a couple of weeks." Maybe I should check some of this stuff off of my list of "things to do" this weekend....
July 29, 2002
It's been over two weeks since I sent out my writing to anyone. I have three or four short stories out there -- not much, by any means -- and my novel, and I haven't heard anything back from anyone regarding them.
Which means they haven't been rejected yet. Yee-ha!
Usually, the way it works is: I send out a story in the morning, and receive the rejection letter by that afternoon.
In the meantime, I have a short story to polish that I'd written at Clarion West and then I'll send it out, I have a pre-Clarion story to finish, and I also have an idea for a new story. I may have mentioned this... it's a horror story about stress, sleep deprivation, and a baby who starts talking long before he should be able to do so....
July 15, 2002
No baby, yet.
But I did make some spicy jamalaya tonight, just in case that might help. :-)
In writing news: everything that I have that is ready to go out there is currently out there. The novel and several short stories are making the rounds. When they come back, I send them back out. I have another short story I hope to send out by the end of this week. It's probably the only pre-Clarion West story that I'll end up sending out any time soon.
Stories being out there means I'm opening my writing up for more rejection. Stories kept safely at home means I'm not going to get published. So, out they go!
July 05, 2002
The baby is past due.
The "due date" for the baby was July 4th, but "Dependence Day" came and went and there's been no change in status. Paulette is still pregnant.
In other news...
* My stories keep coming back rejected. Haven't written anything new in a couple weeks.
* My Passat is still broken, and is likely to take about a month before it can get back on the road again.
* I've been doing a lot of research lately on certain aspects of philosophy and religion in general, the Bible and Judeo-Christianity in particular, rhetoric, and history. Much of this research is for my next novel, and much of it is simple intellectual curiosity. Alas, research shouldn't take the place of actual writing. However, I've been enjoying the thinking that goes with the research....
* A friend from Clarion West had an excellent story recently published in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. Another friend, from Cornell, had a novella recently published in Analog. Yet another friend, from my high school days (although she didn't go to my high school), was also published in Analog a few months ago. I think this is all great. And/but I'm ready to join their ranks, durnit!
The weather is beautiful. Wish you were here.
June 28, 2002
My first agent of choice sent me a very nice letter regarding the first three chapters of my novel I'd sent to him. He tells me that I've got some smooth prose in my manuscript, that he likes the way the novel opens without set up or a lot of back story. Alas, he would nonetheless prefer to see more of the central conflict right up front, and he is therefore passing on representing this novel.
This is probably the most professional and, at that, helpful kind of rejection letter one could hope to receive. Of course, I wasn't hoping to receive a rejection letter, but I'm nonetheless glad that he told me *why* he is choosing not to help me sell my novel. It gives me the opportunity to decide whether it's worth re-writing before I go to the streets with it again.
My current plan is to try, try again. I'll query another agent or two or fifty. Not all at once, of course. That's considered bad form. Fortunately, though, the response was quick from my first agent of choice. Given the two upcoming television shows that have a remarkably similar premise to my novel, I need to move as quickly as I can in order to still be "timely."
In the meantime, a number of short stories that I've started to circulate are coming back to me with "Good writing, but I'm going to pass" letters, as well. Nonetheless, I keep sending them out, and writing new ones to send out. My goal is to get another new one out into circulation tomorrow.
Writing is hard work. Getting published is proving to be at least as hard as writing.
For those of you following the saga of getting my novel to market, I'll also mention that the title "The Do Over" is now officially retired. I won't be posting the new title here until I have representation for it, owing to the fact that titles can't be copyrighted and also owing to my paranoia that has resulted after the WB decided to create a show with the same title as my novel (and the same general premise, set in the same year, etc., etc.). However, I had a chance to market test it at an author reading last night and it went over well. E-mail me in private if you'd like to know the new title. :-)
For the record, however, allow me to state that receiving a rejection letter or six hasn't deterred me... but it hasn't made me happy, either.
June 07, 2002
Sending out my first three chapters of my first completed novel was an important milestone. Sending out my first professional short story submission was another.
Today marks another important milestone in the career of a would-be professional writer: I received my first professional rejection. The short story I'd recently sent out, which also lost two prestigious contests, also failed to interest the slush-pile reader of a well known science fiction magazine. Yee-ha!
Time to send out another one... and to resend that first story. Hmmm. I wonder where to send it next.
The story that I submitted to my critique group last Friday receives its crits on Sunday. I'll polish it up and send it out next week. So there!
May 28, 2002
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 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 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 02, 2002
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.
March 01, 2002
So, the answer is: No, writing a novel has no meaningful analogy in the birth-giving process.
Because, you're never really done. I can now print out a document and say, "Here is a novel," but it's still not done. It needs a lot of work, and I'm doing that work. But I don't think it'll ever *stop* needing work. I guess, at some point, I simply stop working on it... but it'll still need work.
There is a definitive point when giving birth is over. That's when one job ends and another job begins. Not so with writing. Completing the first draft and then polishing it into a second draft and then editing it for submission or publication or whatever... it's all the same job.
It's like running a marathon that has no finish line. It's like Sysyphis (sp?) pushing that rock. It's like an Alanis Morrisette song on infinite repeat. It's a lot of work, at first, but then you realize that IT NEVER ENDS.
Actually, some would argue that the same would be true even if you just played the Alanis Morrisette song once.
Jeez, if I wanted to be in an environment where my work is never done and every day it's a question of just grinding, grinding, grinding... I could have stayed in the high tech industry!
More later. Got some work to catch up on.
February 22, 2002
I kept saying that I was "done" with a first draft of this chapter, and "done" with the first draft of the next.
What is "done," anyway?
At 2:30am, local time, on Sunday morning, I was "done" with the first draft of my novel. Was I relieved? Did I party? Did I collapse, basking in the glow of a job well done?
Nope. Because this milestone was just a milestone, and I'm still cruisin' down the highway. As soon as I finished the first pass at my last original scene (at least, it's my last original scene in theory), I scanned through the document and noted, "Oh, I still need to clean up this," and added to my running list, "Don't forget to take care of that." I futzed around with the names of a couple minor characters, began some formatting work, and so on.
In short, work continued without so much as a hiccup.
I must confess, I did take Monday off of the project, entirely. And I haven't been driving myself as hard this week as maybe I should have. But, here is it 3:30 am on Friday morning, and I'm back at the old routine (of the past month). I've finished another polishing pass at the second chapter. Earlier this week, I gave Chapter 1 another polish. Later today, I'll ask for a sanity check of the novel so far, and I'll give Chapter 3 another pass.
There remains a possibility that I may still make my arbitrary deadline of sending out the first three chapters to my first agent of choice by the end of this month. Either way, it's going to happen soon... unless my sanity checkers get back to me and say that my novel is utter rubbish. Always possible. :-(
Thank you all for your occasional e-mails of encouragement!
A friend sent me e-mail a few days ago noting that Wil Wheaton -- of "Wesley saves the ship!" fame from Star Trek the Next Generation -- posted on his web journal that he auditioned for a role in the TV pilot, Do Over.
Another friend was kind enough to point out that there are at least two other novels that have been published directly to the web that have a similar premise and a similar title to my novel-near-completion. So, yeah, the title is going to have to be replaced. :-)
* John Carpenter's The Do Over
* Groundhog Life
* Wish Fulfillment Premise #3
* The One Where The Guy Lives His Life Over Again
I've always wanted to write a book called Ibid, just to see it referenced in footnotes.
Gotta rename my main character, too. Brian Williams, I've been told, is a popular news anchor on MSNBC. Did I just type "popular" and "MSNBC" in the same sentence?
Possible replacement names:
* William Bryant
* Tyrone Poppolopodous (a great Buffalo name)
* Stephen King
I should go to bed. More later!
February 13, 2002
Is this what it's like to give birth?
Early on in the gestation, you're not really sure that you've got something going on, but it seems that there might be. Increasingly, some of your energy is syphoned away. You're not as at ease as you used to be; there's some nagging idea at the back of your head that your time is not always your own, and you don't cut loose as much as you used to.
But, for all of that, you really have nothing to show for it.
Eventually, however, it becomes obvious that you're committed. It becomes a serious topic of conversation, and everyone has advice on what you should do. Professional examination reveals that things are starting to come together, that previously ambiguous blobs are now starting to coalesce into coherent and distinct parts. You are, at turns, excited and daunted by the possibilities.
You think about what to name it.
You reach a point, however, when you're ready for it to just be over with. Done. Finished. Sleep becomes a bit rarer, and anxiety becomes more common. Discomfort, even more so. Anybody brings it up, and you get cranky. Yet, it's something you really want to talk about, too, at times.
Gestation is long and uncomfortable, but in different ways throughout the process. Labor is shorter, and even more uncomfortable.
This is it. You're close. Very close, and you're really, really ready. But, oh, it's so much WORK! All of your energy is now focused on this one task. You can't help it; it's involuntary. If you're fortunate, you've got people who matter to you urging you on constructively. Push. Push. PUSH!
And then, finally, out it comes. All at once. Bwluoop, just like that, a big gushy mess. Slap it or tickle it to make sure it's alive, clean it up, and officially give it a name. But the hard part is over. Soon you'll be dressing it up to take it out into the real world, and you're gonna give it all the support you can.
Is that what it's like?
Let me describe the labor pains of delivering a novel. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Nothing else that I'm working on at this moment is occupying as much of my attention as the novel. Maybe that's not the way it's supposed to be, but that's the way it is. I do the things I gotta do when I must, but all available time is spent thinking about or working on the novel.
I've started to fall into a rhythm of sorts, where the pressure builds up all day long until sometime around 6pm or 8pm or so, and then I have no choice but to sit down and writewritewritewritewrite. I get tired, and I keep writing. I get a second wind,and I keep writing. Sometime around midnight, I fix myself a bowl of Campbell's Soup (one of the Cream ones), pop open a can of Dr Pepper (notice there's no period in that name) and writewritewritewritewrite some more. Most days, I write until about 4 or 5 in the morning.
This is not a labor of love. It's involuntary! I've come too far at this point and it's a little late to turn back.
Why the hell am I telling you this, anyway? I should be writing! Oh, I know why. I'm taking time to breathe before the next big PUSH, which will resume tonight sometime around 7.
I want to thank you all for your encouragement and support. It's close now; close to being done. How close? I have no idea. But I'm going to keep pushing until this thing is out and ready to meet the world.
As for a name, well... still working on that, too.
January 29, 2002
Saw parts of Rose Red on TV. The first hour of Sunday's installment, and maybe forty-five minutes or so of Monday's.
I dusted off the rabit-ears especially for this event. Our reception is pretty bad here, what with the mountains and all, and we kicked the cable company and the satellite providers out of our house with a vengeance. As a result, we don't watch much TV, and that's just fine with us.
But, as I said, I pulled out the rabbit ears and managed to tune in the ABC station across Lake Washington to get a somewhat fuzzy broadcast of ABC's televised premiere of Stephen King's Rose Red. I was under no delusion that it would be the pinnacle of television movie making. Rather, I had worked as a backgrounder during the filming in Seattle, and wanted to see how the final product of all that work. Not all my work, of course: I was just a backgrounder. But, after seeing all of the work of the cast and crew toiling away to make Pioneer Square into a believable 1907 version of Seattle, well... I was curious as to how well they pulled it off.
For all that, the flashback scenes to 1907 Seattle looked just fine. It was also nice to see my friend dressed up as the constable who clubbed a man in front of the saloon where I, dressed as a workman, was loading a coach with crates and barrels. Note: I do not appear in the final cut of that scene. But, it was still kind of cool to see three seconds of that footage finally make it onto the television screen after going through take after take after take. My friend the constable looked right good and menacing, so there's something.
(It's possible I appear in other scenes; I recognized many of the shots in which I was a backgrounder, but the reception was so fuzzy, I couldn't tell if I actually appeared in any of them.)
Given how little the flashback scenes in Seattle added to the final production of the mini-series, I'm curious as to why they bothered at all. Those were VERY expensive shots they took, and the computer work necessary to eliminate some of the buildings in the background and add some others, well, that couldn't have been cheap. Yet, those scenes felt like an afterthought, and it's hard to imagine why they thought they added to the telling of the story.
But that's not my big beef with what I saw of Rose Red. My big beef is: it's just plain awful! The character development for which Stephen King is known? Completely absent. The acting talent? Missing in action. Originality? None to speak of.
None of this surprised me in the least, of course. Previous ABC movies based upon Stephen King works -- including those with a screenplay written by the man himself -- have been near universally weak. Still...
We know that good movies can be made based upon SK's work. The Shining (Kubrick's version), The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, and even The Dead Zone worked quite well. I'm told Stand By Me was also excellent, but I haven't seen it. Creepshow had some fine moments, even if it was primarily camp. Carrie remains a classic. And, as television mini-series go, the original Salem's Lot wasn't half bad.
Yet ABC manages to turn out one weak turn after another. The Tommyknockers. It. The Stand. The Shining (remake). Storm of the Century. All of these had the potential to be excellent. All of them failed.
(Although, truth be told, none of them are as bad as some of the worst theatrical releases made, such as Christine, Pet Semetary, Sometimes They Come Back, Children of the Corn... well, okay, there was one big stinker. The Langoliers. That one was pretty awful.)
So, what's the deal? If ABC is intent upon blowing the money to make a big production of a Stephen King story, why don't they do it right? One would think that The Stand or The Dead Zone or Hearts in Atlantis would make for excellent mini-series treatment.
I don't have an answer to this question. I don't know enough about how television movies are made, nor do I think it would matter even if I knew. But, sometimes, it's kinda nice to think...
What if Peter Jackson (director of the Lord of the Rings) filmed a trilogy of movies based upon The Stand?
What if Frank Darabont (director of The Green Mile) took a stab at a multi-part Hearts in Atlantis? (note: the recent movie "Hearts in Atlantis" is really only the film version of one of the five shorter works that comprise the book, "Low Men in Yellow Coats." It doesn't even contain any of the elements from the title short story.)
What if M. Night Shyamalan (director of The Sixth Sense) attempted The Dead Zone?
How about James Cameron directing The Running Man?
Mmmm. Those could be good.
Then again, what if Woody Allen directed Needful Things? Ack!
When I sell the movie rights to The Do Over, I'll have to be careful... to go to the highest bidder, of course.
November 18, 2001
We had several friends over today (mostly writers, as well as one friend who used to work in the movie biz) for dinner and a critique session for the movie The Godfather. So, of course, we had to watch the movie in order to be able to critique it.
What I found fascinating in studying the structure of the movie is how completely rich every scene was with detail (setting and emotion) as well as with plot implications.
Having recently read the book, it was also very cool to see just how much of the detail in the movie related to parts of the book without being dwelt upon. Every gesture in the wedding scene that opens the movie, for example, is a significant reference to some scene in the book. Exquisite. The character of Al Neri from the book is actually present in every scene he's supposed to be in when you watch the movie, even though he isn't introduced by name to the audience. A nice touch that works well.
What was also cool was getting together with a bunch of friends to eat lasagna, garlic bread, and salad (plus a wonderful dessert!), and talk about the importance of family, the problems with job interviews, and the concern over the latest events in the news.
All in all, a pleasant way to spend an evening.
October 24, 2001
1. Do the goals/ideals of feminism mesh well with the genre of science fiction? Why/why not? Does science fiction offer any special opportunities for feminist writers? Or, does it present any special difficulties?
The first part of the question assumes that there is a coherent set of goals/ideals associated with the term "feminism" -- an assumption that I think is dubious. The term is generally considered to describe "the doctrine advocating social and political rights for women equal to those of men." (This is the definition found in the Random House College Dictionary) I favor this definition.
However, Gloria Steinem and Camille Paglia, among many others, show just how divisive the moniker "feminism" can be. There are several major schools of thought pertaining to the advocacy of social/political equality for women, and they are often bitterly opposed. The legality of abortion, for example, is both fought and defended by camps claiming to defend feminist ideals. Some feminist camps deride the choice that some women make to become mothers or housewives, while other camps maintain that women do not have to pursue careers to the exclusion of family in order to become "equal".
Since (unlike my friend in grad school) I am not a student of feminist theory and am therefore not certain which aspect of feminism is being favored as the "true" school of thought, I'll simply refer to feminism as defined by Random House, above.
There is also the problem of defining science fiction. There is a very long and hard fought disagreement among those who discuss this field as to whether a story must rely exclusively upon scientific principles in order to count as sci-fi. For example, since several of Ray Bradbury's stories in The Martian Chronicles do not *have* to occur on Mars in order to still be coherent, do they count as sci-fi? Again, I'm going to defer to the definition I find in my dictionary, rather than go into this argument here. Random House defines science fiction as "a form of fiction that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation." I read this to include the works of Ray Bradbury and Ursula LeGuinn, even though others may disagree.
The ideals of social and political equality for women clearly mesh well with the genre of science fiction. The genre encourages authors and readers to consider not only what life and human nature is like now, but what life *could* be like, given any number of opportunities, environments, or histories. It allows us to speculate on the good and bad results of living in a world where equality is supported or denied. It affords us the chance to consider "What if...?" As we imagine these different possibilities, it also allows us to imagine that they are possible, and that we might well pursue and attain them.
In general, stories in the genre tend to favor the ideal of a society in which women and men are socially and politically equal.
That said, while the genre meshes well with the ideals of feminism, it does not always conform to the ideals of feminism. Because this is a literature of speculation and free-thinking, it also includes stories that endorse or advocate views opposed to those of feminism. Given the definition that feminism is an advocacy for equality among the sexes, the fact that science fiction includes some works that do not share that point of view reveals that the goals of this genre *can* mesh well with those of feminism, but that doesn't mean they always do.
Science fiction does, however, offer many special opportunities for feminist writers. Like other genres of literature, it enables authors to tell stories that embody or challenge ideals of human relationships -- political, social, and otherwise. But, what is unique to this genre is the ability to extrapolate behaviors from settings; to distill ideals to their purist forms and tell stories that evoke much more vividly the concepts that are being presented.
While there are historical fiction stories that may display the grit and resourcefulness of a female protagonist, or mainstream novels in which equality is shown to be preferable for all concerned than inequality, science fiction can challenge our assumptions on a more basic level. For example, Ursula K. Leguinn's classic The Left Hand of Darkness takes us to a society were members are inherently equal with regard to gender because they do not express/embody gender except during mating season, and even then, they may change from one gender to another as they move from one mating season to the next. In a society where gender is not a given, we look look to other cues to explain characters' behavior.
When I'd begun writing this essay, it seemed to me that science fiction presents a particular difficulty to the feminist author, however, that other genres do not. There has long been a general precept in science fiction that something has to happen -- that action must take place -- in order for the story to move forward. This is not a requirement imposed by other genres, where it may suffice for a story or novel to simply describe a setting or a society without much activity on center stage.
Milan Kundera's literary novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the social and sexual roles of men and women (and has a very strong female protagonist) against a backdrop of invasion and war... but, the characters never do much of anything. They talk a lot, and it is through these conversations that their gender roles are explored. But action? Forget it. I even learned recently that in the movie version, the director had to substantially cut back on the battle footage montage because it stole attention away from the non-action of the rest of the film. There could never be a science fiction equivalent to Kundera's work.
Science fiction, conventional wisdom states, requires action. This is not to say that lizards need to eat their way out of our favorite characters' bodies, or that kickboxing robots are necessary to blow up large buildings. Nonetheless, characters need to be going places and doing things.
The more I've considered this idea, however, the more I realize that it is not entirely accurate. There are counter-examples. Flowers for Algernon, one of the genre's best examples of an intensely personal exploration of the meaning of identity, is hardly action-packed. The conflict is ultimately, as it is in Unbearable Lightness, internal to the characters.
That said, I suspect it is nonetheless harder for a writer to present the "people talking" style of story within science fiction than in the more mainstream genres. Is this a "special difficulty"? Perhaps not. This tendency toward action within sci-fi has not discouraged writers from "talking" at length in their stories about the points they are trying to make (Robert A. Heinlein and Ayn Rand leap to mind).
Sheesh. I sure can leap into that stuffy old academic tone of voice when I want to, no?
Tune in tomorrow, when we address the second question in the series. :)
October 22, 2001
A friend of mine is taking a feminist theory course in grad school, and she plans to write a paper about feminism and science fiction. Toward that end, she has sent out a survey to several friends with the following questions:
1. Do the goals/ideals of feminism mesh well with the genre of science fiction? Why/why not? Does science fiction offer any special opportunities for feminist writers? Or, does it present any special difficulties?
2. Have you read any feminist works of science fiction that influenced your own political ideas? Do you think it is possible for a work of science fiction to change someone's mind about feminism/gender?
3. Do you see any difference between 'woman-centered' (ie, with a woman as the main character) science fiction and 'feminist' science fiction?
4. Do you think the field of science fiction has been welcoming to feminist authors?
What do *you* think? I'll be posting my answers here this week, but I'd love to hear yours, as well (and I'll be happy to pass them along to my friend).
October 15, 2001
So, a font walks into a bar.
The bartender looks up and says, "We don't serve your type here."
October 09, 2001
I'm having some difficulty advancing the many projects I'm working on these days. The problem is, they all demand a lot of time and attention, and I don't seem to have that much time or, quite frankly, that much attention.
What projects? There's finishing the novel (still tentatively entitled The Do Over, but that's likely to change), polishing several short stories that I want to send out, completing work on a new 10-foot-wide bookcase I've started building in my den, preparing the house for an upcoming house party, fixing up my car (needs a tune up and some maintenance work)... oh, and finding a new income stream with which to pay the mortgage.
That last one is a particularly tricky one. I'd assumed that once I left my place of employ, this could potentially mean more time for writing. Instead, it has had the net effect of *reducing* the amount of time I have to write. I'm not sure how that happens.
I still manage to write one new scene for the novel per week, but work on short stories has ground to a halt -- with the exception of getting one story sent out as a submission -- and the novel is not really any closer to being ready to send out to agents now than it was a month ago. October was originally when I'd hoped to send it out.
All I need to do, I have been reminded, it set aside time in my schedule each day to write. Set aside one hour. Everybody has an hour in their day... right?
Somehow, it's not working out that way.
I was able to be very productive at Clarion West because I'd managed to put pretty much my entire life on hold for four of those six weeks. Now, I can't get away with that.
Or... can I?
What if I took every other month and just disappeared to write? Hmmmm.
What are *your* thoughts? Any suggestions?
June 09, 2001
I have only one week left at work -- and home -- before heading off to Clarion West 2001. This is my last free weekend for a while. As much as there is for me yet to do in preparation, I'm excited by the prospect of my upcoming adventure. Six weeks devoted to exercising the writing and story-telling poriton of my brain. Woo-hoo!
One of this year's instructors, Nalo Hopkinson, has just been nominated for a Hugo Award. The nomination is for her second novel. Not too shabby.
Awards are cool, and I'm all for recognition of doing good work. Perhaps, someday in my not-too-distant future, I might have the honor of standing alongside these wonderful writers at the winners podium... and that would be most excellent. The Hugo is particularly cool, because it's an award that is voted on by the fans.
I have to say, though, that there's another award that I'm much more interested in pursuing: the well-paying publishing contract. If the fans award my work with their hard earned cash, that's plenty award enough for me. I'm so easy-to-please.
Before I can pursue that, I have to finish the novel and get a few short stories under my belt. Writing is a very weird profession: you have to do all the work long before you find out if you'll ever get paid. Kinda risky. As a friend of mine has often pointed out, I seem to be a glutton for doing the most amount of work for the least amount of pay. C'est la vie.
Regardless, for six weeks I am going to be a dedicated writer. Should be quite an exciting time.
May 20, 2001
Friends and family:
As you know (or, at least, as I *think* you know), Paulette and I are both finishing up our final session of the Advanced Commercial Fiction Writing Program at the University of Washington, where we are each working on a novel. As a part of that class, we will be participating in a public reading of our works-in-progress at the University Bookstore in Bellevue on Thursday, May 24th.
Would you like to come see us read? Would you like to hear a snippet from our respective novels? Then, please come on down to cheer us on! (There will even be copies of New Voices IV with scenes from each of the class participants available for sale, too. Or, at least, that's the rumor.)
- What: Public reading of excerpts from Katrina's Touch and The Do Over
- Who: Paulette, Allan, and several other members of our writing class
- Where: The University Bookstore, 990 102nd Avenue NE, Bellevue WA 98004, (425-462-4500)
- When: 7:30pm, Thursday, May 24th
- Why: Because we like you!
- How much: Free!
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