Monday, December 29, 2008

Back from the Blazing Desert

Well, not really. Actually we ended up with a White Christmas.

Here's the view from our hotel of Mount San Jacinto (known locally as "San Jack," though given the Spanish name I suppose they really ought to call it "San Hack"). Of course, since San Jack stretchs up more than 10,800 feet (3,300+ meters for those so inclined), snow atop the mountain is nothing to get excited about. It can be blistering down on the valley floor when when the mountaintop is snowy.

The Southern California mountains are island ecosystems, where the Ice Age vegetation retreated uphill as the climate warmed. You can travel just a few miles (usually rather strenuous miles) and go from cactus and palm trees to towering pines and trout streams. California is truly one of the most dramatic and diverse of the world's landscapes; all of this elevation is less than 100 miles from our house down at sea level. Of course, there's a price to pay: the amazing elevation changes are a result of the fault-fractured geology; the hot mineral springs beneath our hotel are generated from snow melt sinking down through the sands and being cooked in the famous San Andreas fault, which runs from here 500 miles northwest to create the big hole known as the San Francisco Bay. There's some real knock-you-on-your-butt earthquakes in these parts.

I grew up--well, insofar as I did grow up--about forty miles from here, which by California standaards makes this my back yard. My favorite bit of it--especially in my drug-addled teens--was Joshua Tree National Park (which back in those days wasn't a National Park yet; just another part of the Big Empty). Here's a pic of some of the endless acres of rock formations at Joshua Tree. A Salvador Dali landscape; mix in some psychedelics for a little color and you're in Max Ernst country.

If any of this looks familiar from gun battles in cowboy movies, that's because plenty were filmed around here--even though they were usually pretending to be in big flat places like Texas or Kansas. And although you can picture sweaty gunslingers in this scene, in fact it was intolerably cold, and when we drove just a few miles further towards Key's View, the ground was covered with snow:

Somehow Joshua Trees just don't look right in the snow. Maybe a few Christmas ornaments would help?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sam's A to Z

I've been meaning to plug Sam Hayes' great series of posts on writing ever since a post by Neil Ayres pointed me to them some time back. But, then I've also been meaning to lose some weight, pick up all the books piled next to our bed, and mow the side yard, and those haven't happened either.

But sending you off to her posts is something I can do without too much trouble, so here it is at last. Her first in the series is A is for Agent, and an impressive tale of rejection it is, even to hardened, jaded types like myself. She's up to F is for Foreign Rights now. (There's a sidebar on her blog that allows you to click through to any of the posts in the series.)

Sue Grafton*, author of the Kinsey Millhone alphabetic mysteries, once said she wished someone had reminded her that there were twenty-six letters in the alphabet. (Janet Evanovich faces an even more daunting task, as there are an infinite number of integers, and she's only up to Fearless Fourteen. One can only look forward to such titles as Sesquipedalian Sixty-Seven and Excessive Eight Thousand Eight Hundred and Eighty-Eight.) But twenty-six blog posts isn't an insurmountable challenge for a steady blogger like Sam, and I imagine she'll get through it in a year or two.

I'm looking forward to the remaining twenty.

Meanwhile, we're off to Miracle Hot Springs in the nearby desert, where we will be soaking in hot water and staring at the stars until the Xmas madness subsides. Happy Holidays, y'all.

*I enjoy Grafton's novels, but I was disappointed when she didn't title her third book C is for Stupid. How often do you get a chance like that?

She's out around "T" these days, I believe, and there's much speculation on the fast-approaching "X".

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Question I'm Sure We're All Pondering

As the holidays arrive and 2008 draws to a close, I'm sure that most of us, at least in North America and Europe, are all pondering the same eternal question: Which is the dumbest Christmas song?

Now, I'm not asking myself which is the most annoying. That's a matter of taste, and my feelings shift each time we venture out into public places. (At the moment, I'd have to say that I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, with its smarmy faux-naive kid voice and sappy tune is the most annoying...but that's because I was recently exposed to it in a store.) But dumbest seems as is it ought to be quantifiable.

Any song (and there are quite a few) that requires the chorus to sing "Ding" "Dong" "Ding" "Dong" is a clear contender for dumb. But that's a rather pedestrian form of dumbness. I'm looking for something more preposterous.

Do You Hear What I Hear? is a serious contender. I have problems with this song first because the meter and beats of the chorus:

Do you hear what I hear?
aaaaa(Do you hear what I hear...?)
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy?

fit so perfectly with the annoying late 1800s Polly Wolly Doodle:

Polly Wolly Doodle--
aaaaa(Polly Wolly Doodle...)
Polly Wolly Doodle all the day...

(Try singing it to the melody of Do You Hear What I Hear? Fits like an epidermis.)

This oddity doesn't necessarily make it dumb (though it does make it annoying, as it leaves me humming Polly Wolly Doodle all the day--at least until some other brain-worm forces it from skull). What makes Do You Hear What I Hear? genuinely stupid is the lines:

A Child, a Child, shivers in the cold;
Let us bring him silver and gold,
Let us bring him silver and gold.

Uh-huh. Good thinking. Makes sense the same way that if you heard about a baby starving, you'd rush to bring him a skateboard and a philodendron. Silver and gold? Something in the way of a blanket or little footie pajamas or a hot water bottle might be nice. Furs, even, if you need to engage in conspicuous consumption. Ice-cold metal isn't going to do anybody any immediate good. Dumb.

But in my estimation, the dumbest song has to be The Little Drummer Boy. Just think about it for a minute. First of all, we have to accept the idea of some impoverished urchin wandering the streets of Bethlehem beating on a drum. This doesn't sound charming to me; it sounds deranged. Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum? No. Drums go BOOM-DA-BOOM-DA WHAM WHAM WHAM! or, in the case of snare drums, RATTATTA-TATTATTA-TAT-TAT-TAT! This kid would have been nabbed long before by the residents and taken out and fed to the wolves. You can't have both Silent Night (which I rather like) and The Little Drummer Boy, not in the same universe.

And then we have an exhausted Joseph and Mary, who've been forced to bed down in a stable because there's no room at the inn (be sure to make reservations over the holidays). Mary, without the benefits of modern medicine or happy pills, has just given birth, a process I am given to understand is a bit trying under the best of circumstances.

Mary and Joseph might make allowances for Three Magi bearing expensive gifts, even if they'd really rather not have visitors. (What happened to all those valuable gifts, by the way? The gospels than mention the Nativity--giving rather conflicting accounts--don't say what happened to the loot. I mean, did it go into his college fund, or what?)

Magi bearing gifts? Fine. But there has never been a mother anywhere who would have tolerated some kid banging a drum near the fragile pink ears of a newborn. I'm aware Mary is supposed to be a Saint and all, but I know Moms. That's just ridiculous. (And so is the idea that the ox and lambs kept time.)

There may be a dumber song, but I'm voting for Little Drummer Boy.

Oh, well. Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Quick, Watson: They're Gone, Baby, Gone

Just a bit ago I jumped over to the PacMacmillan website and burrowed down to the MNW imprint pages to grab a link--to me and my book of course--to post in an e-mail. Imagine my surprise to find I was no longer there. I tried sorting by Author's Name, Title, Pub Date...Nope. No Isaak, no David, no Shock and no Awe. Totally 404. Address not found. Closed, cerrado, sayonara, much aloha.

Now, I was recently in London, and met up with many of the people associated with the MNW imprint. I thought it was fun, even amicable. But who knows? The Brits are a notoriously inscrutable lot (or maybe that's the Japanese? I seem to remember this is true about people on some largish island. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro has permanently confused me. Plus they drink tea in both places.) Perhaps I unknowingly offended someone powerful and vengeful, and have been cast into the outer darkness.

I decided to get Sherlock-Holmesian. I arranged the books in reverse chronology on the web site and began paging back through them. Everything seemed fine until I reached the place where Len Tyler's first book ought to have been. Herring-Seller's Apprentice? Missing. One step further back and Cover the Mirrors by my evil twin Faye Booth is also AWOL September, October, November. Obviously not someone who has a grudge against me in particular; just someone who hates autumn. Or, more specifically, Autumn 2007, since the 2008 Fall Lineup is still in place.

Mystery solved? So it might seem, but that's merely a Red Apprentice, because also missing from the list was August's Great North Road by Annabel Dore, suggesting that we are dealing with someone who thinks autumn starts in the heat of summer. But it's harder to explain the absence of Brian McGilloway's Borderlands (April), and Matt Curran's The Secret War (January).

Now, what do all of these have in common? They are all published in mass-market paperback (by Pan, except in the case of Annabel, who is with Picador, and Matt, who is with Tor. So perhaps the books are gone because they don't want the hardback competing with the paperback.

Mystery solved? Well, not really. Alis Hawkins' Testament is also coming out in paperback from Pan next month, and the hardback is still listed--but listed as out of stock. Of course, as we've learned, 'out of stock' in this business doesn't necessarily mean there are no books left; it can mean that the stock has fallen beneath some reserve level. And to confuse matters further, Eliza Graham's Playing With the Moon has been in Pan paperback forever, but she's still for sale in hardback.

And, if you look further back into the mists of time, there are now books missing from the MNW list that have not moved into paperback; they're just gone. So I'm not sure there's a pattern.

My conjecture is that when your book truly goes out of stock and they are sure they won't be printing up more, and that they won't be receiving a truckload of returns to restock, you vanish from the imprint's list. You may still be in print at another imprint (type my name into the searchbar and it will send you to the Pan paperback), but you aren't on the MNW list any more. Initially this might be a bit of a shock, until you recall that the list isn't supposed to be a museum, but rather a place to order books, and if you aren't orderable (is that a word?) then you don't belong in the display window.

I'm afraid I can't declare this singular mystery--which was not without certain aspects of interest--solved. The conjecture above is my best guess.

My stint as Holmes hasn't been terribly successful, has it? Next time I'll try John instead of Sherlock.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Book Trailers

I'm not a big fan of video previews of books. Some of the simple, home-grown, made-on-a-shoestring videos are enjoyable and have a certain arty flavor, but most of the professionally rendered book trailers are simply awful, and make me want to steer as far from the book as possible.

There was always one exception in my mind--the book trailer a group of Italian film students did for Neil Gaiman's Coraline. It is slickly done but imaginative and intriguing. Perhaps there are other gorgeous trailers out there; since I don't spend a lot of time looking for them, I may have missed out.

But with the Spanish trailer for Testament that Alis Hawkins just announced, I'll have to amend my former judgement. There are at least two marvelous professional book trailers out there.

Odd that the two I like are rendered in Italian and Spanish, respectively. Is it a Mediterranean medium?

Monday, December 15, 2008

More on why writers are crazy, and why that could be useful

Long ago as time is measured in the blogosphere, Roger Morris posted a note on the topic of Learned Helplessness. You can go check out the Wikipedia entry on the topic, but in essence if you make an animal feel as if they have no control over events--if you remove their sense of personal efficacy--then the animals sink into a state indistinguishable from clinical depression.

Roger's pal Andrew Tallis (another writer, of course), pointed out that this is exactly the state of mind in which writers spend much of their time. The only control we really have is over the words on the page, and the quality of these seldom seems to have much relationship to what happens on the business side of things.

Not surprising, then, that so many writers are manic-depressive, or at the minimum strongly cyclothymic. If it weren't for the manic times, we'd never have the enthusiasm to get anything written.

But bestselling novelist Jennifer Crusie has a slightly different take on the topic. Crusie's beliefs are also based on lab research with learned helplessness:

When I read about this study, my first thought was, “Thank God, I'm not a rat.” Then I realized I was.

Crusie points out is that it's not really about control, it's about the perception of control. Simply believing makes a huge difference in outcome, even to rats.

I won't try to summarize Jenny's arguments--you should read her post on how to become Rats With Islands. But I think she's right. Our perceptions, even if delusional, can have a real and measurable effect on outcomes. And, c'mon, this should be easy. We're novelists. Delusional is our middle name.

Back from Nowheresville

We've been away for a while. Where? In Fresno, California.

Fresno is one of those joke towns. It has no obvious redeeming features. It's an overpopulated flat place in the middle of California's San Joaquin Valley. It fancies itself the gateway to the high Sierras, but all that really means is that it is between people and the high Sierras. "In the way" might be a good way to describe Fresno's relationship to the Sierras.

In one of my favorite books, Science Made Stupid (now sadly out of print and hard to find), the author has a diagram of universal distances from the Earth, reaching to the edge of the solar system, on to the nearest star, to the nebula in Orion, on out to the radio galaxies at the edge of the known universe. Beyond that, he has an arrow that reads "Fresno."

We were in Fresno because John, a good friend of ours, is in the hospital there after crashing his plane. He shattered four vertebrae in his back, as well as breaking his legs, ankles, one arm, four ribs, his sternum--well, you get the idea. But he's alive, and all signs suggest he'll have a full, if slow and painful, recovery. There were three other passengers in the plane--his girlfriend Kris, her boy Benntt, and Bennett's dog. Bennett broke his legs but is okay.

Kris and the dog are fine. Here's a picture Kris took of what used to be a plane:

Being supportive types, we went up there and hung around for a few days, harassing John, and suggesting that if he insisted on crashing his plane again that should he do it in a less annoying locale (we're suggesting Catalina for future crashes--it's only 30 miles from here by hydrofoil, and has more well as sand dunes, which are better suited to crashing into.)

As to the accident itself, he was pulling up from an aborted landing after seeing it was too foggy to land. (The Central Valley is famous for impenetrable, low-lying tule fogs.) But the engine suddenly died.

He was flying a Beechcraft Bonanza. Just a few days later, another Beechcraft Bonanza went down in the Central Valley in almost identical circumstances. The NTSB has hauled the wreckage of both planes off to a hangar somewhere to play Compare and Contrast.

John is a careful pilot; if he can go down hard, then it could happen to anybody. So be warned. Flying is dangerous. You could end up in Fresno.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Propositions 97, 98 and 99

I'm in favor of the idea of direct democracy, and the referendum system that has long been in place in the West Coast states is about as direct as you can get: Any bunch of clowns who can gather up enough signatures are able to submit laws directly to the voters.

I admit there's some problems with this process. These laws can be confused, or confusing--sometimes deliberately, but more often because the people who drafted them have IQs that span the range of readings on a rectal thermometer. Outside money can flood into the state, as in the case of recent Proposition 8, where the campaign was mounted as much from Utah as from anywhere within the state boundaries.

The Mormons were the main backers of Prop 8, asserting that marriage has been universally and traditionally recognized as a union between a man and a woman. Now anyone who has studied anthropology knows that contention is a crock of shit. Delve back into history or prehistory and it's clear that the most common form of marriage is between a man and multiple women, and we're not just talking about obscure jungle tribes here: We're talking about the Bible. (The Bible also says that a man is duty-bound to marry his brother's widow, which would make guys a lot more opinionated about their brother's dating choices.)

There's plenty of other arrangements in various cultures, including polygyny and, yes, gay marriages, and even family systems where children are raised by a woman and her brother (which turns out to make a lot of genetic sense if there's any doubt about paternity [and there always is]; a brother shares a lot of genes with his sister's children.) But polygamy is widespread, and an element of the Jewish/Arab cultures that spawned Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So the Mormons, who were polygamists from the start (until they suddenly found out that God changed his mind), were probably on the right track in terms of universality and tradition. ("Tradition" in the United States means "my personal impression of what was normal in the past based on the television shows we saw in my childhood.")

My theory is that Mormons don't really oppose same-sex marriage. It's just that the law spoiled their own fun, and so now they want to ruin someone else's day. Legislative Schadenfreude.

Note that most of the billowing smoke around this tiny fire is about the word "marriage." California already has a strong domestic partnership law, and no one seems to be attacking domestic partnerships. (At least not these days. But the poor Disney Company--they get assaulted by the left for perpetuating inappropriate stereotypes, and by the religious right for offering same-sex-partner benefits before required by law.)

In any case, I'm here today to clear up both the California referendum mess and the Calfornia same-sex marriage mess. After these three propositions pass, I, like Cincinattus, will retire from Rome to my farm, and engage in politics no more.

Proposition 97. People may not be paid to gather signatures to put propositions on the ballot in California. I'm all in favor of referenda. If the people feel strongly about something, it ought to be brought to the people without the inteference of the politicians. But the people should feel strongly enough about it to gather sufficient signatures through volunteers. As it is, any damn fool thing can--and does--get on the ballot if someone is willing to pay millions of dollars to minimum-wage workers to carry clipboards and stand in front of supermarkets and lie about what the proposition represents. Anything can--and does--get on the ballot in this state if there is enough money behind it. The framers of the state ballot initiative never intended this to become an industry--and it's a dead certainty that they didn't intend for millions of dollars to flow in from businesses or churches in other states to influence California elections.

Proposition 98. While a law may be passed by referendum with a simple majority vote, any amendment to the California State Constitution will require a supermajority. Amending the US Constitution requires approval by two-thirds of the Senate, two-thirds of the House of Representatives, and then the amendment must be ratified by the individual states. But in California an amendment to the State Constitution may be made by a referendum that wins by the barest majority vote. Although Prop 8 proponents keep talking about their "landslide," Prop 8 got only 52% of the votes. You shouldn't be able to amend the Constitution with a tiny margin. Amending the Constitution ought to be a damned serious affair that demands overwhelming support.

Proposition 99. 'Marriage' will no longer have any legal standing whatsoever in the State of California. Marriage is a confounding of religion, tradition, and legal rights into a mishmash that makes no sense and causes endless headaches for the court system. So Prop 99 will make marriage a matter of personal belief and get religion out of the public domain, in alignment with the founding principle of this country's separation of Church and State. If you want someone--anyone--to inherit your money, or make medical decisions when you are incapacitated, then designate them by legal contract. Why should those be the same person in the first place?

Our current discriminatory laws unfairly privilege married heterosexual couples over same-sex couples. But extending the muddle of interlocking laws governing marriage to same-sex couples isn't the only fair solution. Toss it all overboard. If people want to announce publically that they are 'married' and claim that 'marriage' is some sort of sacred state, let them. Some people assert that because they are baptized, or circumcized, or never cut their hair but instead wind it up in a turban, that they are in some special sacred state. Let them believe that if they like, but keep it between themselves and God as they conceive Him or Her or It or Them. The State should get out of the religion business altogether and come up with a rational set of laws.

But, I hear you cry, what about child custody and support, what about spousal health benefits, what about inheritance? Well, child custody and support is already an intractable mess that uses up uncountable hours of court time, the health system is clearly broken and needs fixing anyway, and any large inheritance ends up being contested in any case. Marriage involves people signing a contract affecting all of these without actually examining the terms of the contract. That might work out fine...if people stayed married. Ha. (And conservative Christians get divorced more than anybody in this country.)

There. Three simple propositions. If these pass, not only will it settle the whole 'marriage' controversy once and for all, but we will have hardly any further propositions on our ballots.

I think having vastly fewer propositions in California would benefit not only the long-suffering voters of our state, but also non-Californians across the country and around the globe, who at present have to listen to endless news about California ballot measures.

Once 97, 98, and 99 are law, I can stop writing blog posts like these, and you can stop reading them. It's a win-win sort of thing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"The Septic's Companion" by Chris Rae

Disclaimer: This post will be of interest mainly to English-speaking North Americans.

Septic? Why ‘septic’?

If you had this fine book, you’d be able to look it up and discover that to some in the UK it means ‘American.’ The origin is from rhyming slang, ‘Yank’* = ‘septic tank.’ Which might be taken as somewhat uncomplimentary, but could be worse, and is certainly preferable to being called ‘Residents of the Great Satan,’ (or, what--‘Great Satanians’?)

The author of this slim volume, Chris Rae, writes, “I'm banking on the cosmopolitan modern American not minding being called ‘Septic’. The wife thinks this is mistaken.”

Chris runs a very useful website that used to be called (and now goes by the name Although the dictionary he has compiled is extensive, it makes no claims of completeness: “I’ve tried to restrict myself to words which are known and understood throughout the whole of the UK. When talking about British language idiosyncrasies some people delight in trotting out phrases that no Brit would ever have heard unless they lived in a particular part of Dorset, in a particular street, and were present at a particular incident in the fourteenth century.”

Chris invited those who found the website useful to express their appreciation by using PayPal to buy him a pint, and then posted pictures of himself drinking the pint in question at various locations around the world. (My pint donation was consumed at the Peppermill Casino in Reno, Nevada.) A few of the pints were consumed by his wife, who, incidentally, looks stunning in a toga (see the pic on the page in question).

So, if the whole dictionary is still on line, why should you shell out for the book? Well, aside from the basic good karma, the first 30-odd pages explaining how the UK works range from nicely put (“Gaelic is a soft, cooing, mellifluous language that sounds as if it were invented mainly for soothing animals”) to a bit more acerbic:

The 2001 survey showed that just over 1% of Scots spoke Gaelic. They were all, without exception, irritating bearded people who want to drone on about heritage and force the government to spend millions of pounds making dual-language road signs that nobody ever reads. The census showed they lived with their mothers, and at home they secretly spoke English.

(The author, of course, is a Scot, so he can get away with this. His bionotes indicate he now lives in Seattle; one has to suppose the rest of the US was too sunny for him.)

This is a perfect gift for any North American headed for the UK, and is a hell of a lot more useful than most tourist guides. Where else can you find a wholly candid guide to going our drinking that not only explains the complex rules of pub etiquette, but also describes in detail the technique for carrying four pints of beer simultaneously?

You can buy this fine book from Amazon, or you can buy it directly from the author. It’s cheaper from Amazon, but if you buy it from the author, he offers not only sign it, but to also draw a picture of anything you request on the inside cover (even Goldsboro Books can't match that). Since he confesses his "artistic skills are inferior to those of an inebriated monkey," this is an offer difficult to turn down.

*I’ve had people in England apologize for using the word ‘Yank’ instead of ‘American.’ For the record, I happen to like ‘Yank.’ The term ‘American’ could logically refer to anyone living between Baffin Island and Tierra del Fuego, and it’s nice to have a have a word of one syllable rather than four (or, in the case of ‘effing Americans,’ six).

‘Yank’ has its drawbacks. To most people in the US, “Yankees’ are the inhabitants of the six states of New England, those itty-bitty ones stuffed into the upper right corner of the country. These states account for less than 5 percent of the US population, and less than 2 percent of the land area, so referring to everybody as ‘Yanks’ is a bit like referring to everybody in the UK as ‘Welsh,’ but the only people likely to take offense are Southerners. (Southerners tend to refer to people from any state that opposed slavery in the Civil War as ‘Yankees,’ with said term often preceded by a colorful adjective. People from the South usually aren’t too keen on being called ‘Yanks,’ but it’s nicer than some of the other things they're called, so I think they ought to smile and leave well enough alone.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Umbrellas and the Balance of the Universe

Okay, here's a great piece of trivia: Which major US city buys the most sunglasses per capita?

Ask this question, and people usually suggest Miami, Honolulu, Phoenix...or the really crafty ones try San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The correct answer is gloomy, cloud-covered Seattle. Why? Because Seattlites don't need them for months at a stretch, and so they get buried and can't be found. And since people aren't used to picking up their sunglasses as a matter of habit, during the sunny season they leave them on restaurant tables, on buses, in waiting rooms...or walk out of the house without them for a day sailing and have to buy another pair down at the harbor.

I mention this because I have a similar problem with umbrellas. I'm constantly traveling without them and finding I need them; and once I have one, I'm bound to lose it.

But not this time. For once, I remembered to take an umbrella to London, and I resolved not to lose it. Be mindful, I told myself. Remember to pick up the umbrella. You're sitting down at this table. What are you going to do when you stand up? Look for the umbrella.

And it worked. I passed three full days in London with the umbrella along everywhere, and I arrived back home for once with the umbrella I set out with. (Or should that be 'the umbrella out with which I set'?)

However, I was so conscious of the umbrella the whole time that I left a present I'd bought for Pamela in a coffeeshop, never to be seen again. (The present, I mean. Not Pamela or the coffeeshop.) I could have bought a whole crate of umbrellas for the price.

The lesson, as is so often the case in bad science-fiction movies, is that one should not tinker with the cosmic balance of things. My role in the ecosystem is to provide umbrellas to something which presumably eats them (otherwise we'd all be up to our knees in the umbrellas I've lost). Deprive the Bumbershoot Beast of its natural prey and it will turn to other, more costly items.

From now on, I'm not going to pay any attention to keeping my umbrella, and if I still happen to have one toward the end of a trip I plan to place it on some sort of altar--a park bench would do--and sacrifice it to propitiate the Beast. I run into enough problems on travel already without deliberately courting cosmic retribution.

Monday, December 1, 2008


'England and Ireland are small islands on the farthest western extremity of the world,' said another monk. 'They are so close together that they can scarely be distinguished; birds flying at a great height may land on one rather than the other.'

aaaaa--Patrick O'Brian, The Thirteen Gun Salute

So indeed it appears from a distance, in the same way that people from New York often assume that because you live in Los Angeles, you might know their cousin who lives in San Francisco. From California, it's easy to assume everyone in the UK drops through London on at least a weekly basis, and that all MNW writers bump into one another frequently and toddle off together for a pint. Not so; and it's probably easier to get from LA to San Francisco than from, to take a wholly random example, Sheffield to London. So I count myself lucky to have met up with so many Macmillanites on my recent trip.

I arrived at Heathrow quite early Wednesday morning, and passed through immigration and customs in unusually short order, as United informed me on arrival that they had lost my bag. Well, they hadn't exactly lost it; they knew precisely where it was. But where it was wasn't Heathrow. So, not needing to wait for my luggage, I jumped on the tube and rattled off to Russell Square, where my hotel informed me at 9 am that despite a request for early check-in on my reservation, the best they could manage was 1 pm. Could I come back then?

Had I any choice? But one of the finer things about London is there's always something to do; and a poster on a passing bus told me there was a major Francis Bacon exhibition at the Tate Britain. Screaming Popes in the midmorning after an overnight flight? That'll keep you awake.

Now, I don't claim to like Bacon; his paintings aren't exactly likeable. His work is fascinating and compelling, but it's far more disturbing than other dark artists such as Bosch or Giger. There's something raw and slightly mad in his brushstrokes (and frottage, and scrapings) which gives the paint on the canvas an internal motion. The motion is most pronounced in his rendering of faces. Have you seen Adrian Lyne's movie Jacob's Ladder? In the darker, most horrific scenes, the denizens of the hospital corridors and subways are shown with flickering, wobbling, distorted heads. I don't think there's any doubt the production designer pulled his inspiration from Bacon.

It was an outstanding (and massive) exhibit, and I'm glad I had the chance to go...but by the last room I confess I felt a bit seasick and was overly aware that my consciousness resided in a shambling pile of meat. A nice start to any trip.

On Thursday I gave the final presentation--about three months later than expected--on the unfortunate project that has been eating my life (and stalling my novel) for the better part of this year. I arose the next morning, Friday, feeling as if several tons had been lifted off me. Net result: life was better, but I still felt flattened, like a cartoon character who has been accordioned by a falling safe.

I had a good meeting with Will, of which I'll say more another time, and then went off to meet Alis Hawkins for coffee. We compared notes about the travails of the writing life, and she impressed me no end with the fact she'd just cut more words from her work-in-progress than most people manage to write in a year. She's quite comfortable to be around, but the fact that she can take that many manuscript pages out into the back garden, shoot them, and bury them under the rosebed bespeaks a hidden ruthlessness (at least with her writing). I'm impressed.

Then, of course, off to the wilds of Islington for the MNW gathering Len Tyler had organized. I arrived a quarter-hour late, having misjudged the mileage (kilometerage?), and everyone had already assembled: Will Atkins, Dave Budd, Matt Curran, Frances Garood, Eliza Graham, David Headley,Tim Stretton, Aliya Whiteley, and even Brian McGilloway, who had to cross the wild Irish Sea to attend. And, despite the fact we were on small islands on the farthest western extremity of the world, many of these folks had never met one another.

One of John Updike's poems begins:

Though authors are a dreadful clan
To be avoided if one can...*

*(Full poem available on request. )

and I must say many writers I've met are part of a prickly and maladjusted tribe. But the MNW crew are some of the most easy-going, approachable folks I've ever come across. Since we in some sense already know each other through our books and blogs and e-mail, as Tim Stretton notes, it's much "like resuming a conversation broken off the same day."

Len and Ann really know how to lay on a dinner party, including great food, a never-ending stream of libations in the sequence Our Creator intended (champagne before, choice of wine at dinner, and then port, whiskey or brandy after)...and a dining table that seats twelve. The aplomb with which they managed all this was explained when we discovered they'd been professional overseas diplomats. Since the skills at entertaining around our house run about as far as slicing cheese, unboxing crackers, and, to liven things up, spilling red wine on our guests, I was quite impressed, and I'm grateful to our hosts for a memorable evening.

Tim's post contains a picture of the gang around the table, in sort of a Last-Supper arrangement with Len as You-Know-Who. (The person hiding behind David Headley on the left is Eliza Graham, International Woman of Mystery.)

The camaraderie of the MNW crowd is striking. Faye Booth long ago began referring to us as 'imprintmates,' by analogy with the 'labelmates' of indie music companies like 4AD. I gather that a sense of belonging to an imprint largely vanished in the days of Maxwell Perkins, yet that feeling seems to be thriving amongst this bunch.

The only disappointment of the evening is that it was far, far too short to accomodate all the conversations I'd like to have had (especially with Eliza and Brian, whom for logistical reasons I never really managed to monopolize). But, then, who wants a twelve-hour dinner party?

I walked with Tim, Aliya, Matt, and Dave as far as the Angel tube stop. I gather Aliya thereafter missed a train somewhere. Since I was on foot I didn't miss any trains, but I did confidently round the corner and head south without paying much attention to the fact that I was at a V-junction, and that Rosebery Avenue heads off southwest, but that Goswell Road heads distinctly southeast, and I headed off down Goswell Road with a spring in my eye and a sparkle in my step or some combination thereof until my internal compass made me realize that my present trajectory would eventually, after a bit of a swim, put me in either Calais or Dunkirk rather than Bloomsbury. So I altered course due west, or as due west as you can manage (i.e. not very) in that part of the city, which took me back through some surprisingly lively areas of town. Initially it appeared that many people were electing to dine al fresco despite the plummeting temperature, but I eventually realized these were smokers banished to outdoor tables.

Most impressive, though, was the startling number of young women in very short skirts, apparently unaware that summer had long since fled and that Santa was damn near on his way. A hardy race, the English.

Monday, November 24, 2008

My Synopsis

I've spent the last three days (taking time out for meals, of course) writing up an outline of my novel Earthly Vessels. I showed the results--12 single-spaced pages (with blank lines between paragraphs)--to a friend who has been an editor, and she assured me that, yep, that's what the outline of a novel looks like. And grim going it has been.

Readers of this blog may recall I'm doing this because an agent asked for a 50-75 page partial, and an outline of the rest. He's the only agent I've targeted so far, and he seemed like a good candidate because he's specifically looking for literary fantasy, and lists people like Italo Calvino and Kurt Vonnegut amongst his favorite writers; to me, this bespoke a certain flexibility of mind and excellent taste in literature (which, in my probably deluded frame of reference, suggests he might be interested in Yours Truly. Looked at that way, it's clear I've lost my senses.)

Earthly Vessels doesn't condense or synopsize well. It's by turns goofy and faux-erudite. It's digressive. There's an intrusive unidentified (and possibly unreliable) narrator who elbows his way into the flow of the story at seemingly inappropriate moments and holds forth on matters only tangetially related to the action scene he's interrupting. But a description of the plot gives no clue about all that.

So I took a risk and let some of the tone of the book come out in the query letter:

All cultures have a legend of a Chosen One, a Messiah, a golden child who will be born to redeem them. But thirty-something Arby Keeling is not that guy, and Earthly Vessels is not that story.

To his credit, the agent didn't let my rather flip cover letter put him off, and he then presumably read my synopsis:

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaEARTHLY VESSELS

For the Gods, incarnation has always been a risky business. Gods thrive on worship and on human emotion, and there’s never really enough to go around.

It’s a God-eat-God world out there.

In New York City in 1969, love child Crystal Keeling participates in an occult sex rite with the Children of Pan—a rite that, unbeknownst to her, is designed to bring a God down into manifestation. Annoyed with the cult, she disappears to Oregon, unaware she is pregnant with an entity from the Inner Planes.

The child she carries isn’t the Hero, the Chosen One of the Children of Pan. Instead, because of a metaphysical snafu on the Inner Planes, her son Arby is a manifestation of the tarot card The Fool, the force of improbability and randomness in human nature.

Arby grows up unaware of his heritage, and tries to lead a normal life—a tricky project, when your essence makes things go haywire all around you. But in 2005, thirtysomething Arby unwittingly makes others aware that some unknown God walks the earth. The most powerful incarnated God, Benedikt von Fleischer, sends minions to destroy him; other, lesser powers send their members to try and recruit a new ally.

Rescued by a mysterious blind woman, Arby is led through a series of physical and metaphysical adventures in Rome, where the very earth still twists with all the ancient emotion invested in the Empire and in the Vatican (powerful energy sources for those who know how to feed on them). They escape to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the emotional power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs lives on in the soil. Here Arby finds a community of misfit minor Gods united against von Fleischer’s expanding empire.

From Los Alamos, Arby ventures onto the Inner Planes, learns how to reclaim his essential self; and is driven at last to a confrontation with von Fleischer—a battle that destroys them both, but, through another metaphysical wrong number, results in Arby being born yet again.

Along the way, this novel answers the Big Questions. We learn about the mechanics of penile erection, how reincarnation really works, why when you summon bees you also get rattlesnakes, how Mayan civilization fell, how the fabric of space and time can be modified by extended metaphors, and why, on the most rarefied levels of existence, Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors Ice Cream sells only vanilla.

I know you’ve spent sleepless nights pondering these matters, especially the bit about rattlesnakes. This novel has the answers. Honest.

I have to say that anyone who can read through the foregoing--which includes an editorial 'we', fer Chrissakes--and still want to see parts of the book in question...well, that's my kinda guy.

You need not tell me that I'm breaking the First Commandment of looking for representation, which is Thou shalt not submit material to only one agent at a time and then sit idly by twiddling thy thumbs awaiting an answer. But this is my second time around, so I won't be wearing white at my wedding, and today I'm not looking for just any agent. I'm looking for an agent who, like, yanno, pretty much gets it.

Wish me luck. Or, to be more specific, wish me good luck.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Somewhere Between Too Much and Not Enough

An agent has asked me for an outline of my peculiar lit-fantasy novel Earthly Vessels. I'm already familiar with the unique pain of writing synopses, but an outline is new territory for me.

As I understand an outline, it's supposed to be a fairly bald, chapter-by-chapter accounting of What Happens Next. This is certainly an easier proposition than composing a synopsis, which is an artform of its own. (And one at which good novelists seldom excel.)

I have to confess, however, that Earthly Vessels isn't the sort of book that outlines well. Yes, there is a this-happens-and-then-this-happens throughline. But the book purports to explain all the mysteries of not just the universe but the multiverse. Sorta. And it isn't clear how much of that needs to go in the outline.

The process of outlining brings the whole issue of balance to the fore. In one of his fine essays on writing fiction, Lawrence Block quotes a musician as saying, "The worst thing in the world's when you're singing dirty blues and not going over, and you're not sure if it's 'cause you're too clean or too dirty." When you have something eccentric with potential truckloads of outlandish detail, should you try and keep the detail to a minimum--or should you view it as the whole point of the work, and give it full rein? Some of the novels I like best are stuffed with potentially self-indulgent detail: O'Brian's endless nautical jargon, the faux-scholarly footnoting in Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Fowles' obsessive Victorian trivia in The French Lieutenant's Woman.

The answer, as always, is the Goldilocks Optimum: neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. Easy to say, hard to achieve.

Earthly Vessels runs about 115,000 words. Outlining the chapters makes me think I have rushed the end (a recurrent sin of mine), and perhaps been a little conservative in larding on the details. Even though 115K is a hefty book, I'm afraid it's a little shorter than it ought to be.

Unless, of course, its problem is that it's too long.

There. That clears things up. I'm so glad we had this little chat.

Friday, November 14, 2008


In a post earlier this week, Alis Hawkins said the hardest thing for her was opening a scene. She asked if others had problems with this--and if not, what our own 'hardest thing' was.

I'm happy to say that openings are the easiest thing for me. I love writing openings of any sort--novels, chapters, scenes--because I am less boxed in by the flow of prose, less limited by the preceding paragraph and the other sentences on the page. It's a mini-opportunity to start all over again. As Joan Didion said in her Paris Review interview:

I start a book and I want to make it perfect, to turn it every color, want it to be the world. Ten pages in, I’ve already blown it, limited it, made it less, marred it.

What she says about books applies to chapters and scenes, too.

Openings are so unconfined. One of the things I like best is that you have choices in psychic distance. When you are in the middle of a scene, moving in deeper or backing out for a wider view have to be done with utmost care so as not to upset the balance of the POV. But after a full break of any sort, you have a chance to begin again from whatever distance you choose--you can start from a birds-eye descriptive view, and then zoom in, or you can start in very tight, with a fierce, disorienting effect.

For those of us who tend to write in reasonably disciplined POV, openings--especially chapter openings--are one of the few places we can go omniscient without anyone crying foul. We can drop in some broad exposition, some description, any number of observations that are not quite from the character's viewpoint. No one seems to object to a wide shot before descending into the character's perception, but getting back out again is nearly impossible. Once in a character's head, it's easy to modulate in closer, laying out thoughts in direct narrative, or pulling back a little so the narrative voice takes over again; but it's very difficult to jump back up to a wide, non-personalized perspective. Tight POV is a bit of a bog, and it's hard to get your boots back out of the mud once they've smooshed their way up to the ankles.

(One of the few places where writers seem to pull back from tight POV into wide shots is at endings--of scenes, chapters, or whole novels. This is especially clear when the POV character has just died!)

So, I love openings. And I like writing endings, although in my first draft I often rush them.

The second-hardest thing for me is middles. I'm overly conscious of the paragraphs and sentences just behind, and even as I discover new things to say, I fret. Does that really belong? Am I running too long here? Why am I even writing this scene? There are days when it flows like any low-viscosity simile you care to insert here, but more often there are days when the middle of a scene feels like an airplane ride in high turbulence, with an underlying sensation of sickness and fear you do your best to ignore.

The fact that I am so happy to start but so reluctant to soldier on says something about my personal character. Something rather unflattering, I'm afraid, but there it is.

If all I had to do in life is write openings, I'd be one very happy fellow. Sadly for me, you have to write the rest of the scene. And the rest of the chapter. And the rest of the book.

Oh, yeah. I said middles were the second-hardest thing for me. What's the hardest? I can answer that without hesitation: Deciding what scene needs to be written in the first place.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Accidental Titles and Proverbs

The BBC World Service used to sign off its late-night broadcast by saying, "This is the end of the world news." Anthony Burgess was listening one night and parsed it a little differently, hearing "the end of the world" as a compound adjective. It became the title of one of his most interesting novels, The End of the World News.

I was once involved in planning a conference to be held in Dallas, Texas. We were trying to work out conference logistics and decide which hotel would be best, and I kept pointing out that Dallas really had two airports, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Love Field. Annoyed, my boss at the time said, "David, listen, that's true, but keep this in mind: Love is a small airport."

That stopped me dead, because it sounded so proverbial. Love is a small airport. How true, one says, nodding, how true that is!...people come and they go, no one really dwelling there, and you have to buy overpriced items you really don't want to break the monotony, and...until one stops and says, "Hunh?" It flows easily into a title, though I'm not sure what novel it ought to squat atop: Love is a Small Airport.

A couple of years ago, my friend Kimberly was telling me about a date she went on; the guy decided it would be unique and romantic to take her whale-watching. I'm not sure how romantic the idea is, though the whales at the time were heading south to Baja to congregate at their birthing grounds in Scammon's Lagoon. I guess it depends on where pregnant whales rank on your eroto-meter.

Whether or not you find gravid cetaceans arousing, the date was sort of a bust, since no whales showed up to be watched. In the middle of describing this minor debacle, she started a sentence with, "So, in the absence of whales, we..." at which point I totally lost the thread of her discourse. In the Absence of Whales. Or perhaps Love in the Absence of Whales. How about Whales in Absentia? What the hell, maybe Harry Potter and the Absence of Whales.

I have a stock of other odd proverbial and/or titular phrases people have dropped around me. And I find that many of my chapter titles--at least for the novels where I use chapter titles--come from something a character has said in that chapter's dialogue.

Suspense writer Stuart Woods's explained on Backstory how he came up with his best title ever when he encountered an ad for a trained Labrador Retriever: Excellent Working Bitch. Inspired by the title, he wrote a book to match. Sad to say, although his editor took the book under that title, he eventually had a meeting with the CEO of HarperCollins who made him uderstand that while he had the right under his contract to use that title, he could expect less-than-enthusiatic support from their publicity department unless he changed the title. Hence his novel Orchid Beach. (I'm morally certain that's also how Jincy Willett's hilarious Winner of the National Book Award came about: title first.)

Do you do this--find yourself stumbling across phrases and wanting to turn them into titles, even though you have no corresponding book in mind?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Child's Play

One of the things you've got to admire about the English language is the way tightly related terms can have nuances that are fundamentally opposed.

For example, take "childlike" and "childish." (Okay, after a solid ten seconds of thought those were the only two that occurred to me; but, since they are what I thought of before I started this post, they'll do just fine.)

"Childlike" seems to have connotations of wonderment, innocence, and originality.

"Childish" reads as fussy, unable to cope with simple realities, and an unwillingness to adapt.

Both of them probably apply to writers.

Most small children I've known love to hear the same story over and over. Many of them can detect even the slightest deviation from the sacred text. And some of them seem to get more out of it each time, as if knowing what comes next enhances the intensity of the peak emotional moments, be they funny or tragic.

That's me. There are books I read again and again, and movies or stage productions that I'll immerse myself in until any sane person would wonder if I didn't have a serious problem. It's as well that I don't live in London or New York, as some long-running stage production would push me into destitution far quicker than an addiction to crack. Books at least have the advantage of being cheap and taking up huge spans of time, in which you are prevented from pursuing other addictive behaviors. I've read Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, all 20 of them, three times through, and some of them more often. Let's not even discuss how many times I've read Tolkein's trilogy. Or Gatsby. Or The Sun Also Rises. Or Zelazny's Lord of Light. Or the usual suspects, like Pride and Prejudice. And the number of standalones I've read three and four times is embarrasing, if only because it indicates how many new books I'm not reading.

I like to think of it as "childlike" rather than "childish," but sometimes I wonder. I always assumed most writers had this habit, but lately I've met some who seldom re-read. I even know one who is a voracious reader but has almost no books in her house; she reads them and then sells them or gives them away, as she doesn't read books twice. (I don't think she's ever seen a movie twice, either.)

Tim Stretton refers to the books we revisit as "comfort books," and I see what he means. True, each time I revisit them, I come away with something new--either a deeper understanding of their genius, or a greater awareness of their failings (and many of the my favorite books have their failings, which should give hope to those of us who are flawed). But when I stop and consider rereading objectively, it strikes me as odd. With all those other books waiting to be read for the first time, why do I do it?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Farewell, Michael Crichton

In all the US election hubbub, the annoucement of the death of novelist Michael Crichton (Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, Congo, and a host of others) today went largely unnoticed. Although he had apparently been in a long battle with cancer, his death yesterday at 66 was referred to by his family as "unexpected."

His prose never drew much attention, either positive or negative, to itself. But what an imagination! The guy practically invented "high concept." He could make a thriller out of anything that happened to intrigue him.

His blockbusters weren't my favorites of his works (though admittedly I haven't read everything he wrote). I think his two historicals, The Great Train Robbery and Eaters of the Dead, were the most fun. The former, of course, is based on real events, and the latter is an interesting speculation on the truth behind the Beowulf story. (Long after it was first published, Eaters of the Dead was made into a so-so film titled The 13th Warrior, but the movie failed to convey the interesting nuances of the novel.)

Michael Crichton wasn't one of my favorite novelists, but it's difficult to imagine a publishing world without him. He's been one of the monsters of the bestseller list since the Andromeda Strain back in 1969; I mean, we're talking pre-Stephen King here, folks. In publishing terms, he was an entire industry of his own.

But the real take-home lesson for writers is: Pick a slow-news day to die.

Crichton did better than Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis, though. Both of them died on November 22, 1963. The death on the same day of two literary figures of their stature would have been much remarked on--had they not chosen to die on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Champagne Time

It's only 9:55 pm Pacific Time, but we just popped the cork. Obama won. And, best of all, McCain conceded in a gracious, nonpartisan fashion I found truly touching (despite some of the booing from the utter creeps he has attracted over the last few months).

When this campaign was in the late primary stages, I couldn't have been more pleased. Although I was committed to Obama early on, when I looked at the line-up of realistic possibilities and found Obama, Clinton, and McCain, I said, hey--any of these would be an improvement! In the case of McCain, I didn't always agree with him, but I thought he was forthright and willing to stand up to political claptrap. In other words, I thought he was that rarity in the USA (and perhaps in the world), a principled politician.

Alas, when he named Sarah Palin as his running mate in an effort to cater to the worst elements of his party, I think he sold out. And I think the New York Times, in their editorial just after Mr Obama won, sums it up quite nicely:

Showing extraordinary focus and quiet certainty, Mr. Obama defeated first Hillary Clinton, who wanted to be president so badly that she lost her bearings, and then John McCain, who forsook his principles for a campaign built on anger and fear.

McCain's concession speech went a long way towards redeeming him.

Now, everybody's making a big deal about the fact that Obama is an African-American. I'd never vote for or against someone because of their race, but I'll admit it's a nice bonus. What makes me happiest is his educational background. After the Bush years, it would be good to have a Constitutional scholar in office, and Con Law is Obama's specialty. Maybe he can patch the poor old document back together.

One of the things that drove me mad about Bush was the way he kept claiming, as he stripped away our civil liberties and set the NSA to spying on us all, "My first duty as President is to protect the lives of the American people." Well, you know, I checked. That isn't his first duty as President. Here's the Oath of Office in full:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Not to protect lives. To protect the Constitution. Lives are valuable, but still expendable in certain causes, and many were spent to give us that document.

Obama has so much to do. And many of the things he needs to do would limit Presidential powers (especially so-called 'signing statments,' which Bush invoked in 1,100 instances to say that he as President felt free to ignore laws passed by Congress if they interfered with his executive rights). Now there's a real test of character: Is the first thing you do on assuming power is try to limit your own power?

I think Obama may be up to it. I hope so.

Well, enough of that. Time to watch all of our weird California ballot initiatives.

Cheers, everybody.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Can I Buy You a Drink?

I'm passing through London once again, for a meeting on November 27th.

I'll be around on the 26th (though probably worse for wear, having just arrived that morning). At the moment, I have Friday the 28th free. If you're around and available, I'd be happy to knock back a glass of something with y'all.

LATE NEWS: This is cross-posted over on the MNW blog. Len Tyler has kindly offered to locate a venue for Friday evening.

If you're around but Friday evening is out for you, drop me an e-mail and maybe you and I can meet up during the day. Though you'll miss out on the rest of the gang!)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scary Movies, Thai Ghosts, and Your Favorites

Our blogospheric pal Jen Ster has posted (glancingly) on the topic of movies that still scare the bejeezus out of her, and, it being Halloween, I thought I ought to do the same.

But first I thought I should say a few words on the real topic of her post, which was how the whole world of scary ghosts and demons fits into the Buddhist tradition. Jen concludes, quite rightly, that at the theological level, while Christians may get their chastity belts in a knot about the eternal conflict with the unseen forces of darkness, Buddhist doctrine denies the reality of such forces and their desires.

True enough. But in on-the-ground practice, neither of these faiths looks much like their theories. I mean, tune in to an evangelical Christian radio station in the US, and you'd never know Jesus had ever said anything about love or kindness or tolerance or mercy.

Similarly with Buddhism on the street (Yo, Bodhisattva! Howzit, homie?). I've spent a fair amount of time in Asia, and a good deal of the Buddhism there is infused with animism, pantheism, and just plain superstition.

And, wooooo-baby!, although they are Buddhists, do they ever love ghosts in Southeast Asia. Though they have a way of looking at it that seems quite off-kilter to a Western sensibility. For example, I worked with a young Thai woman--sharp as broken glass and honed to a nanometer edge by Bangkok's top university--who was named 'Puntip.' But her birth name was 'Puntib.'

Why the spelling change? Her sister had died when Puntib was still young, and so she changed the spelling of her her sister's ghost couldn't find her.

I'm not sure why she feared her sister's ghost. I mean, I'm sure Puntip wouldn't have done anything to antagonize her relatives, or anybody else. She had a formidable intellect, but her only characteristic that anyone might think was out of the way was her ongoing habit of trying to bend the fingers of her hand backwards as though she hoped her nails would touch the back of her wrist. Why? Because having fingers that bend way backwards is very sexy for women in Thailand; traditional Thai dancers can flex their fingers way back (without tugging on them). I gather it's attention-getting, sort of like our female dancers who can put their feet behind their heads. Though I have to admit retroflexive fingers is a bit more subtle.

But the finger-bending thing isn't nearly as odd to my mind as the idea you can evade your sister's ghost by changing the spelling of your name. What's up with that? I mean, how do ghosts find you? The phone book? Social Security records? People in Thailand had better hope ghosts haven't figured out how to search on Google, because when the ghosts search on "Puntib" a bold blue underline is going to pop up at the top of the screen asking Do you mean "Puntip"? and then the game is up.

I have two sisters: both of them are younger than me, and apparently healthy. But if I were worried they planned to haunt me...But, wait. Why should they, anyway? Is it a chick thing? Maybe sisters are more prone to haunt one another, because of borrowing one another's sweaters and stretching them out, or not getting out of the shower soon enough when the other one like totally has someplace important to go.

I'm not saying sisters don't have issues with their brothers. I'm just saying they know any subtlety would be wasted on us. Their spirits might come back and give us a swift kick, or even dump a plate of lasagna in our laps in a restaurant when we're trying to sweet-talk a first date. Who wouldn't? But as far as 'haunting' us, on an ongoing basis, sisters know they really ought to reserve their good stuff for each other. The subtle stuff would be wasted on me, plus I never borrowed any of their clothes. Well, not without asking first.

In any case, if I were trying to hide from the ghosts of Amber or Kristie, I'd try the false nose, mustache, and glasses thing first. I don't see that changing my name to Davud would fool either of them. But, then, I'm not Thai, so some of the tricky nuances of the animist/Buddhist stuff go right over my head. Our ghost stories probably seem weird to them, too.

And down in Indonesia, where they are Muslim, their ghosts--ghost is 'hantu' in Bahasa, one of their interesting borrowings--are equally weird. Though they seem to worry more about 'pontianaks,' which are sort of witches who steal children. (It's easier for them to steal children if the children sleep from daylight into darkness, which I totally undertand. If you fall asleep in the afternoon and wake up in the dark, it just feels wrong. Keep your kids awake through twilight.)

What was my point? I'm sure I had one here somwhere...Oh. Yeah. Christians got ghosts, Muslims got ghosts, Buddhists got ghosts. Jews have annoying in-laws..and golems, too. But what really scares you is not only cultural/religious, but also deeply personal. Jen's creepfest is apparently Amityville Horror (though I think she's the one who pointed me to the awesome Thai film Shutter. Must be a Buddhist thing.)

My personal fave--the one that makes me horripilate while watching, and sleep uneasily that night? That would be Nicholas Roeg's inscrutable Don't Look Now. Disturbing, ambiguous, and ultimately unresolved.

Roeg was one of the few loose wheels on the Great Hollywood Freight Train, and his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Don't Look Now is one of those films that couldn't have been made a few years prior or a few years later to its release date of 1973. The sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie is legendary, and reputed to be real rather than acted; it's easy to believe the legend, because the scene is so damn striking, and so, so un-Hollywood.

When Pamela and I were in Venice, we stayed in the (then) only hotel out on the glass island of Murano, out past the Cimiteria, the Isle of the Dead, where I visited Stravinsky's grave. We're night people. though, so every evening ended with us blundering our slighly inebriated way though the dark, echoing, dead-ending maze of Venice to get to the northern docks where we could catch a late vaporetto for Murano. A few times we kept bumping into dead alleys and uncrossable canals, and I felt myself cursing Roeg...

I'm pretty immune to gore and standard horror. Don't Look Now scares me, because it seems to mean something, and I'm not sure what. Dreamlike, horrible, and horribly unresolved. It probably isn't the best horror film ever made. It's just the one that scares me the most.

And, by the way: Is Daphne du Maurier one of the great unsung writers in the English language, or what?

Oops. There I've rattled on again. It's Halloween! What movie scares the hell out of you?

The Global Electoral College

Even though the entire world population is affected by the choice of President in the United States, they don't get to vote. (In fact, in the last couple of elections, the Republicans have done a good job of making sure that many US citizens don't get to vote, either.)

The Economist has taken a step towards remedying this, by establishing The Global Electoral College, where anyone can drop through and vote. (If the page zooms in, click on the World Map widget to see the whole globe.) Votes regisetered here aren't binding, but they sure are interesting.

I don't think anyone would describe The Economist or its readership as left-of-center. But those who've bothered to cast votes worldwide are supporting Obama, with 85% of the popular vote and 97% of the 'world electoral vote.'

Of the roughly 180 independent nations in the world today, McCain is carrying exactly 6: Algeria, Congo, Iraq (!), Myanmar, Namibia, and Sudan. It's interesting that four of these six are in Africa, and that three of the six are predominantly Muslim. Do you suppose the Obama strategists are worried that McCain is making inroads into the global black, Arab, and Muslim votes?

Of course, McCain has been contending for some time that "our enemies" want to see Obama elected. If true, this global poll suggests that almost everyone in the world qualifies as one of "our enemies." It also seems at odds with the fact that Al-Qaeda's endorsement seems to have gone to McCain. (This seems only fair given the noise McCain's camp made when Hamas apparently endorsed Obama back in April.)

Oh, and The Economist* formally endorsed Obama today. About what you'd expect from a Commie publication like that. Hell, even their logo has always been red...

Oops. I forgot. The Republicans are the Reds now, aren't they?


*Who cares about Presidential endorsements from a British paper? As it turns out, half of The Economist's worldwide circulation is now in the US; it has more readers than the Chicago Tribune, and seems likely to overtake the Los Angeles Times in the foreseeable future. (In both cases, that excludes the Sunday edition; who can compete with the weekend comic strips?) The Economist's subscriber base in the UK is now only 20% of its world total.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Success: Talent 99%, Persistence 99%, Craft 99%, Other 99%

What's that make, 396%?

Emma Darwin touches on the topic of persistence (and the fact that it isn't enough) in a recent post. (Her post is a bit more profound than the old issue of talent versus persistence, however: its real focus is the need to confront the void.)

But that set me to pondering on the matter of who succeeds in this odd racket of ours.

The public at large seems divided into two major camps: those who think it's all about talent, and those who think that any fool can write a good novel. (Most of those in the latter group tell you that they plan on writing one themselves once they get a little spare time.)

Writers, teachers, editors, and agents are quick to point out that persistence usually trumps talent; everyone in the business has seen too many talented people who never lived up to their gifts, and everyone has also seen people of seemingly modest talents become important writers. Ralph Keyes quotes editor Edward Chase: "If they really stick at it, eventually--like salmon swimming upstream--they are going to make it."

I've lived in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, so I've had plenty of time to observe salmon runs. I have some unfortunate news: many salmon, maybe the majority of salmon, never make it to the spawning grounds. They get gobbled by seals at the mouths of rivers, get tangled in garbage-strewn creeks, get smacked out of the water by hungry bears, or simply tire and die before they complete their journeys. I can hardly think of a less-encouraging simile. (Not to mention that when they finally get to their destination and spawn, they promptly roll over, die, and float rotting downstream.)

Talent is necessary, but luckily talent is common. Often deeply buried, perhaps, but common.

Persistence is less common than talent, but persistence is also widespread. The main problem with persistence is that it is often directed to the wrong end. There are writers who persist, year after year, in trying to get the same bad novels published. There are writers who persist in bad writing habits no matter how often they are given feedback that tells them to fix their approach.

Persistence that allows a writer to improve is useful. Persistence in something wrongheaded isn't an asset at all.

One of the outgrowths of persistence can be a command of craft. It's hard to tell, looking at a well-written manuscript, whether one is seeing the result of 'native talent,' or whether the book is the product of persistent work that has made the writer a master of the craft. (What's more, readers don't really give a damn how the book was produced; they only care about the product itself.)

But even if a writer has the right combination of talent and persistence and craft, this doesn't guarantee success in the marketplace. There's also another amorphous, indescribable element, which we'll call 'other factors.' Other factors are what is variously labeled 'timing,' 'fate,' 'destiny,' or 'randomness.'

Melville's Billy Budd lay unpublished for decades, Lampedusa's The Leopard was pronounced unpublishable by publishers, Toole's Confederacy of Dunces wasn't published until a dozen years after his suicide. The fact that these books were eventually published long after the deaths of their authors could be used by true believers as evidence that all good books eventually find their audience, but I'm more confident in the existence of the Easter Bunny. To me, when we have widely acclaimed books that nearly never saw the light of day, it suggests there are probably at least as many great books that are now lost, and a huge substratum of merely good books we'll never know about.

Although plenty of people claim in retrospect that Harry Potter, or something like that series, was inevitable, I'm not convinced. I don't think it was at all obvious in the mid-90s that children around the globe were hungering for thick books about magic school. It wasn't clear to me or anyone else I spoke to at the time that children were hungering for books at all. And Rowling was rejected by a bunch of agents, and then a slew of publishers turned down the book, and when they bought it they did so for a rather small advance. The initial print run was 500 copies. If the book had been first published in America, or had been published two years earlier or two years later, or if JK Rowling had selected the wrong agent...

Some degree of talent is necessary for success, but I can point to certain writers who demonstrate that the minimum amount can carry you far. Craft is needed, too, but here once again we can find plenty of examples of successful writers whose craft is on the primitive side even after an editor has put their hand in.

But persistence is needed by the truckload. Banging out even the world's most inept novel is a time commitment most people can't face up to (hence the legions of people who plan to write a book 'some day'). In binary terms, many writers put the Persistence/Talent ratio for success at 80/20 or even 90/10.

Where does that leave other factors, though? Persistence/Talent/Other at 70/20/10? Or at 40/10/50? Maybe 10/1/89? (Looks like a birthdate, doesn't it?)

And what the heck do we mean by 'success,' anyway?

[Notice the clever use of the editorial 'we' there, implicating all of you in my question. Of course, on a blog, where readers can toss in their comments, using 'we' makes good sense.]

Friday, October 24, 2008

My Secret Vice

Neil, the male half of the Veggiebox twins, has launched a meme over on their blog. Unlike many, though, this is a single, simple question: What's your Secret Vice? (Neil admits to soap operas--in particular one I've never heard of.)

Well, that's easy. Dumb movie parodies, in the vein of Airplane. I think many of these are better than people think, because buried beneath the silly jokes and gags, they often show a real understanding of the craft involved in different film genres. Plus, I like dumb jokes and gags.

Airplane is not by any means my favorite, though. I suppose I'd have to go with Top Secret, Val Kilmer's first (and finest) film. (Kilmer is an amazing singer and dancer--talents he doesn't often display, but showcases in this film. Though, come to think of it, he did a pretty good Jimmy Morrison in The Doors.) Top Secret is a gorgeous mess--half Elvis-y rock movie, and half intrigue behind the Iron Curtain...exccpt that the Eastern Europeans all seem to be WWII Nazis, and the partisans trying to overthrow them all seem to be members of the French Resistance. Oh, and the movie Blue Lagoon somehow gets wound into the plot, too. My favorite interchange:

Dr Flammond: I am a prisoner here, just like you. A year ago, I was close to perfecting the first magnetic desalinisation process--a process so revolutionary, it was capable of removing the salt from over ten million gallons of sea water a day. Do you realise what that could mean to the starving nations of the earth?

Kilmer: Whoa....they'd have enough salt to last forever.

But there's some runners-up. My nephew Zack, who had the best cinematic taste of anyone I've ever known in the 12-14 age group, insisted I watch Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the 'Hood, a fine parody of the conventions of the gangsta movie, and Zack and his sister Dar dragged me along to the more recent Not Another Teen Movie, which had some hilarious moments (and had Jamie Pressley in it, and she's always funny). The first Scary Movie had some good things about it, too.

I know. Silly, puerile, unsubtle. But funny. And even if three-quarters of the stuff in any given movie misfires, they move along so fast there's something coming along to amuse me soon enough.

Sad, but true.

Oh, and what the hell: here's a clip of an impossibly young Kilmer singing Tutti Frutti in Top Secret.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Civilian Reader

Someone named Stefan Fergus--I don't know him, but he clearly has excellent taste--has given Shock and Awe a kind review over on Civilian Reader.

The glories of the internet--you can get new reviews when you hit paperback! Thank you, Mr Fergus.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Save the Cat!

I read books on writing in much the way that other people idly flip on the television--it's a way to pass a few moments. Most of them are mediocre, Every so often one is quite good, but in general it's just a way for my conscious mind to muse about writing while my subconscious gets a little work done.

I don't, however, read many books on screenwriting. There are two reasons for this: 1) I'm not a screenwriter, and 2) most screenwriting books aren't even good enough to be classed as mediocre.

But there's one slim book on the topic that I keep encountering, Blake Snyder's slim little volume called Save the Cat! The book has enough buzz around it that I decided it was time to see if the buzz came from bees around honey or from flies around something a little less pleasant.

I found Save the Cat! to be one of the more stimulating reads I've had in a while--perhaps because Snyder's whole approach to constructing a story is the opposite of mine. (Mine is called "groping around in the dark," and I doubt that a book extolling my method would ever become very popular.)

You know those things called loglines--the one-line summaries and hooks that are supposed to convey the essence of a story idea? Snyder starts his projects with the logline. Yes, starts there, and shortly after polishes his elevator pitch (that short summary you can blurt out and hopefully catch people's attention). And he road-tests these by approaching strangers in places like the line at Starbucks and asking if he can take just a minute and run something by them--his theory being that if he can get a complete stranger interested in his pitch, then he's onto a story people will want to hear.

Fine, I said, that's how Hollywood works, and you have to be catchy if you want to sell a script.

But Snyder isn't polishing his pitch so he can buttonhole producers and sell them idea (though I'm sure that comes in useful alter on). Snyder is trying to pin down exactly what his story is about before he takes even the smallest step toward actually writing it. Once he has established this, he establishes a title that echoes the story, and then sets about deciding what kind of protagonist is best for that sort of story, what themes need to run through it and be reinforced...

And then he moves on to decide what category or genre he's writing in, becasue each has different kinds of rules. But Snyder has his own categories, which don't include "romantic comedy" or "police procedural." His categories are:

1) Monster in the House
2) Golden Fleece
3) Out of the Bottle
4) Dude with a Problem
5) Rites of Passage
6) Buddy Love
7) Whydunit
8) The Fool Triumphant
9) Institutionalized
10) Superhero

The list is deliberately provocative, and Snyder open his discussion by claiming that the category and therefore the story dynamics of Die Hard, Schindler's List, and Titanic are essentially the same. (Whether these categories are valid and useful, I'm not sure; but they certainly are an interesting change from the usual groupings.)

After running through category basics, Snyder then moves on to the usual screenwriting stuff--three-act structure, beats, color-coded index cards. It's not clear to me that any of this is really useful to a novelist; even a skimpy novel is usually far more complex and involves many more beats than a screenplay does. But Save the Cat! runs through these elements so adroitly and entertainly that you've finshed them long before you begin to sigh at the inapplicability of most of it.

Stephen King asserts that writing a novel is a process of uncovering a prexisting story, and uses the simile of a paleontonogist excavating a fossil--you don't know what you've got until you've freed it from the stone. Blake Snyder inhabits the other extreme of the spectrum, where concept comes first and the story is crafted around it.

I don't think I could write a story in that fashion. But it was fun thinking (and, yes, fantasizing)about an entire different way of working. Even if it's one I could never adopt.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Financial Crises and Novels

I'm not much of a financial maven. I have a suspicious nature, and tend to prefer assets I can touch. We have a lot of money in CDs, but they are the kind of CDs that have music recorded on them. Over the years I have known, and listened to, too many people who lived through the Great Depression. I don't trust boom times.

I suppose this has cost me a good deal of money. The modest sum I have in my retirement account was in a mutual fund until 1997, when the Dow first topped 8,000. I moved my holdings into money-market funds because I thought stocks were overvalued relative to any rational measure, such as the P-E Ratio. And they were, in my opinion, and still are, but that didn't prevent them from soaring to unprecedented levels, as this instructive P-E graph from a New York Times article on Bubblenomics shows:

I'm still waiting for the Dow to hit 8,000 again (it almost got there). Then I might buy back in. (At which point the idiot herd would no doubt keep the market down for the next ten years in spite of any actual signals from the economy.)

I'm sitting in a house we bought in August of 2001. We thought long and hard before buying it; it's a lovely place, and perfectly suited to us, but we were sure we were buying at the top of the market. [Time out for prolonged laughter.] We decided we could deal with the 25% drop we anticipated, sucked in our bellies, stuck out our chests, and put down our money.

Of course, over the next few years the house more than doubled in market value, and even now, after the real estate bubble has supposedly popped, it is still valued at 50% above what we paid for it. Do I expect it to go down further? You betcha. Houses have been valued at prices that make no sense relative to people's incomes, and now that people are losing their jobs, and a gazillion houses are in foreclosure, I don't see how things can't slump further.

In other words, I think we are still in bubble-land, in both stocks and real estate, and the fact they are desperately being pumped up to get back to "normal" makes me fear this is going to drag on for a while.

And how does this relate to novels? I'm not sure. But after 9/11, if you recall, we had that disturbing "non-fiction" moment, where it appeared no one wanted to read fiction ever again.

Over on his blog, David Thayer makes the argument that bad times for the economy means good times for crime fiction, and he may be right. After all, insider-trading scandals and misstatement of profits haven't made for a very exciting crime-fiction environment--

OUR DETECTIVE: ...but then you, Olsen, passed those losses on to the two offshore subsidiaries to prevent them showing in the current account. But that dame in accounting got wise to you, didn't she? The minute she saw you'd switched from straight-line depreciation to sum-of-the- years-digits, she started checking, and then she realized there were all those other assets that had been expensed rather than depreciated, and--

OLSEN: She was like a madwoman! I tried to reason with her, tried to pay her off. But even backdating her stock options wasn't enough--she just wanted more, and more--!

OUR DETECTIVE: And so you decided you had to get rid of her, right, Olsen? Get rid of her permanently...

OLSEN: Yes! Yes, it's all true! I--I called in some shady venture-capital people I'd heard about, and we spun off her whole division in an overpriced IPO. Not just her. Her whole division...

OUR DETECTIVE: Even though your corporate mission statement clearly stated your primary goal was to preserve and promote shareholder value...?

OLSEN: Oh my god...what have I done?

Even though mergers and acquisitions people call their published statement a "tombstone," it really isn't the stuff of gritty crime fiction. I'm hopeful that Mr Thayer is correct, and this economic downturn will get us back in the gutter where we belong.

If we're in for a slump, what other genres might enjoy a renaissance? Judging from the Great Depression, when Astaire-and-Rogers movies ruled the world, there's also plenty of room for pure escapism. If you could manage to be the PG Wodehouse of the 21st century, you'd be in good shape. And pulpy science-fiction may be in for a big upswing, but the emphasis would have to be on pulpy. It may not be a good time for science fiction that is realistic or relevant. In fantasy, it's hard to say; the genre was near unto nonexistent back in the 1930s. At first glance, it might seem that fantasy would be the perfect escapist vehicle, but as Tolkein pointed out, even when fantasy is not allegorical, it is often very applicable, and good fantasy might not be as escapist as the public would like.

Me, I'm switching over to Time-Travel Romances. And with the rise of audiobooks, I don't see why we can't have musical-comedy novels...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Her Majesty's Government Feel and I Does Too

The variations in the American and British takes on the English language are always a source of fascination to me. Which shows how little of real import goes on between the vertices of my pointy little skull. My hat, it has three corners, three corners has my hat. And had it not three corners, it would not fit my head...

On some matters I can't make up my mind. For example, an American will say different from, while in the UK you will typically hear different to. If you think about this one for a while, neither sounds quite right. Why not different with? Different in? Different at? All in all, it's best left alone; I just accept that we will continue to use the phrase in a fashion different through one another. Different along each other. Different upon one another. Differently.

The somewhat-archaic American use of "gotten" is rather handy, as it allows a neat distinction between acquisition (I've gotten a headache) or coming to (I've gotten as far as Las Vegas, and I'll call you when I get to Reno) and mere possession (I've got a headache) or state (I finally got here). I've gotten to like the word...though gotten is one of those words you shouldn't stare at too long, or it starts to look very peculiar and foreign. Gotten gotten gotten. Maybe the British are right to avoid it. Gotten. Too Wagnerian-looking, sort of begging for an umlaut.

On the topic of whether a unitary body composed of individuals should be treated as plural, however, I have to vote for American practice. Shell Oil, for example, is not the collection of individuals who work there. It is a corporation, a body formed by law to act as an individual . It may be a legal fiction, but it's a singular legal fiction, and no matter how often I read The Economist, the phrase Shell Oil believe strikes my ear much like What do Bob thinks?

I'm willing to make an exception for Her Majesty's Government because of the royal we. But I never want to hear the phrase The White House think. (But, then, the White House don't think, do him?)

But there's one British locution where I'd like some advice. Here in the US, a university of any sort is something you go to. And while you are there, you are at it, or even in it (and might be kicked out of it). But in novels by, say, Evelyn Waugh, people are constantly going up to Oxford or coming down from Cambridge. Even if they start or end somewhere well north of those schools, or at higher elevation, while they are there they seem to be up, and when they are back they seem to be down.

Does this connote loftiness? Are you up at all universities? Or only those two? Are you up if you attend equally venerable institutions abroad, such as the Sorbonne, or Heidelberg? Are you also up if you teach there--a sort of permanent professorial high--or are you up only if you are being educated there?

Are you also up at other sorts of schools? Is there a distance or age factor involved? Can you also be up at a Montessori pre-school class?

Do seven-year-olds sigh wisely, and say, "It was all quite different when I first went up to creche..."?