Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Leiningen Versus the Ants

Did anyone else ever read that Carl Stephenson short story? I read it quite young (though long after it was published--it dates back to 1938). It made a deep impression on me, although I failed to remember the title, and only found it again years later by asking around.

For those who don't know the story, it's about a determined fellow in the Amazon (the real one, not the dot-com one) who is foolish enough not to flee when the Army Ants come.

We're not dealing with Army Ants here. We're dealing with Argentinian Ants. Smaller. Not as vicious. But relentless.

It's been raining bucketloads here in California. Yeah, yeah, already. England's buried under snowdrifts. Well, bring out the violins. The whole crippled-children-begging-in-the-snow gig is traditional, scenic, and literary. Swell. Here in SoCal, it's swampy, and the ants are coming into our houses by the bazillions.

Argentinian Ants are everywhere these days. Unlike most ants, where one colony fights against another, these tiny little weasels recognize their brothers. Imagine for a moment that the Israelis and Palestinians formed a united front. Oh, sure, it sounds like a good idea at first. But think about it. If they weren't harrying one another, who would they be harassing?

Answer: Somebody else.

Similarly, the Argentinian Ants. They've decided to embrace the brotherhood of Argentinian Antdom, and look where it's left us. They don't have warring "anthills." One colony merges into another, not unlike suburbia in the USA. And it isn't just here. There is supposedly a supercolony of these little bastards that now stretches from somewhere in Spain to somewhere in the Netherlands, which ought to be a bit of a worry to to Dutch, who spent considerable blood and gold throwing off Spanish overlordship a few centuries back.

When I was young, one of the banes of my childhood existence was "Red Ants." These locals were bright orange (red being a misnomer) with ferocious jaws and a mildly venomous bite.

You don't see Red Ants much anymore. Why? As it turns out, they've been overrun by the tiny little Argentinian Ants, who overwhelm them by sheer numbers.

And the common lizard of my childhood, the California Horned Lizard, or "Horny Toad" (not to be confused with the bar of the same name in Bangkok), is now severely endangered in California. At first they blamed urbanization, and that hasn't helped...but what did Horned Lizards eat?

Yep. Red Ants.

Meanwhile, the Argentinians continue their march. They don't fall for the standard poisons or ant traps. Even boric acid doesn't work. New Zealand has been invaded by the little creeps, and has done the best research on the topic, and none of the standard tricks work.

We're about to go on vacation. We're hoping that the house is still here when we return.

There has to be a cure. Bolos? Pampas Grass? Screenings of Evita? Sanctuaries for Nazi leaders?

Maybe if you British types would give back the Falklands, these ants would all move there.

Leiningen had it easy. Those were big fat stupid Army Ants. These are devious, relentless, tiny, innumerable ants.

What kind of a name is "Leiningen" anyway?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Suitable for Kindling

I suppose I ought to note that Shock and Awe is now available on the Kindle. It can be picked up for $7.78 in the US, but costs a bit more (£5.45) in the UK.

But, then, doesn't everything?

Well, except healthcare.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Caution to Female Readers

A quote from O.S. Fowler's Sexual Science (1875):

Novel reading redoubles this nervous drain begun by excessive study. What is or can be as ruinous to the nerves as that silly girl, snivelling and laughing by turns over a 'love story'? Of course it awakens her Amativeness...It is doubtful whether fiction writers are public benefactors, or their publishers philanthropists. The amount of nervous excitement and consequent prostration, exhaustion, and disorder they cause is fearful. Girls already have ten times too much excitability for their strength. Yet every page of every novel redoubles both their nervousness and weakness...Love-stories, therefore, in common with all other forms of amatory exctiement, thrill. In this consists their chief fascination. Yet all amatory action with one's self induces sexual ailments. It should always be with the opposite sex only; yet novel reading girls exhaust their female magnetism without obtaining any compensating male magnetism, which of necessity deranges the entire sexual system. The whole world is challenged to invalidate either this premise or inference. Self-abuse is worse, because more animal; but those who really must have amatory excitement will find it 'better to marry,' and expend on real lovers those sexual feelings now worse than wasted on its 'solitary' form. Those perfectly happy in their affections never read novels.

I was unaware that girls have ten times too much excitability for their strength, but I am glad to have solidly based scientific data on that point. Alas, the author fails to reveal the amount of excitability boys have for their strength, but he seems to be suggesting that we have considerably less excitability relative to our strength. Assuming that girls have, say, four times as much excitabilility relative their strength, I guess that gives us boys an average excitability-to-strength ratio of 2.5 or so.

So, Girls, read if you like; but keep in mind the risks of exhausting your female magnetism without obtaining any compensating male magnetism...though I suspect the latter can be obtained by settling onto the couch with a case of beer and watching sports for a weekend or so. So if you must read a novel, set aside some beer-and-sports time to suck up some male magnetism.

The dangers of novel reading are made starkly clear by his statement that "every page of every novel redoubles both their nervousness and weakness." Redouble? Every page? Even in a Large-Print Edition?

My copy of Anna Karenina runs 961 pages. If in fact nervousness and weakness is increased by a factor of two (the meaning of redoubled) by every page, then by the end of that book, a Girl's nervousness and weakness would have been been increased by 2 to the 961st power, which is (rounding after five digits) an increase of 19,491,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000 times, which is a whole lot more nervous and weak.

If you are more sensible and avoid the Russians, selecting instead, say, Jane Eyre at 284 pages, a Girl will still end up 2 to the 284th power worse off--that is, 31,083,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times more nervous and weak. Still quite a bit, though.

It is good that the Creator in His wisdom made Girls weaker as they become more nervous. If a Girl could read a novel and become a million times more nervous but also a million times stronger, we would have a problem of horror-movie proportions on our hands.

As to his last assertion, I can easily believe that those perfectly happy in their affections never read novels, as I have never met anyone perfectly happy in anything. Perhaps I just run with the wrong crowd.

But I am sad he doubts I am a public benefactor.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why Real Life Isn't a Good Guide to Good Fiction

Actually, I don't have anything to say at the moment. But Rufi Cole's blog has a nice post on the whole problem of why we aren't allowed to make fiction as strange as life.

I am friends with both Rufi and her mother, writer Kimberly Cole. They live in a duplex in Corona del Mar, with Kimberly in the upstairs unit, and Rufi in the downstairs unit.

Uh-huh. Mother and daughter, living adjacent to one another. And both novelists. Yeah, sure, that's a believable setup.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Link to Myself

Those of you who don't normally visit the Macmillan New Writing blog may want to wander over there to read my entry in the Round Robin interview series, where I respond to questions posed by Doug Worgul.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Welcome the Lady's Slipper to America

Deborah Swift's The Lady's Slipper has arrived on our shores in a big way. Here's the Huntington Beach Barnes and Noble superstore (shelving about 120,000 titles).

And here, up in Fiction and Literature, sitting next to Jonathan Swift (any relation?) is The Lady's Slipper--face out, what's more, and a half-dozen copies to boot.

All of the other B&N's seem to have it as well, so when you add in the Borders and a couple of indies, there are probably about 150 copies within 25 miles of my house. Keeping in mind that this is Southern California, more noted for surfing than reading, that's a strong showing indeed. (The real reading towns, like Portland, Seattle, and NYC, must be swimming in copies.)

Congrats, Ms. Swift. May you sell a million copies!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Historical Accuracy...and the Joys of Inaccuracy

I'm not a writer of historical fiction. Indeed, I find the idea of writing historical fiction quite intimidating. To be honest, I find the idea of even writing about historical fiction intimidating.

So my hat is off to all of you who actually have the nerve to gird your loins, bite the bullet, bell the cat, or whatever cliche you prefer, and actually venture forward and write the stuff. The thought of writing it might intimidate me, but I love reading it.

And one of the joys of reading good historical fiction is when the writer manages to evoke the time-machine sense of reality, from the chronological details on down to locutions, smells, meals, and attitudes. One of the standard criticisms of a work of historical fiction are either that the timeline has collapsed or that an anachronism of some sort has crept in and both are hard to avoid.

In general, I apply the same standards to historical fiction as to fiction in general: I know it's a lie, but I demand that the lie seems to tell the truth. And often this truthfulness seems to involve stretching the facts a bit...even in historical fiction.

In an author's note preceding one of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin novels, he points out that each novel covers a fairly large span of time, and that since he had written more of the novels than he'd ever imagined at the outset, soon he would be forced to resort to hypothetical years, such as 1812a and 1812b; there simply wasn't enough Napoleonic War to encompass the story he had started to tell.

Well, I was willing to forgive that fiddling with chronology in favor of the story. I'm also willing to forgive Massie's Augustus for having the Romans speak in something like modern phraseology, even though I sometimes found it a bit jarring, and I'm far more than happy to have Alis Hawkins have her Medieval folks speak in something that I can comprehend rather than forcing me to work through it as though it were Chaucer. (Deciding how to represent the speech of another time and culture is a tricky issue. I've always been amused at the tendency of American WWII movies to have the Germans speak English with a rather tight-assed British accent--foreign enough to seem foreign, but still immediately comprehensible.)

At the other end of the language and diction spectrum from Alis and Massie is the problem John Fowles faced in The French Lieutenant's Woman. I read an interview with Fowles where he said he deliberately made the characters speak a somewhat older English than the Victorians actually spoke, because almost no one realized how much spoken Victorian English sounded like the English of the twentieth century. He was asserting that accuracy would have undermined the feeling of authenticity. And, of course, what writers of fiction all know is that the sense of authenticity is more important than authenticity itself; with the exception of the late lamented David Foster Wallace, most of us fictioneers don't use footnotes.

Though, if you're skilled enough, you can make a fine career out of violating people's historical expectations with real authenticity. (Okay, okay. "Real authenticity" is a hideous, seemingly redundant term. Yet I'm contrasting it with a "seeming authenticity," which sort of means "fake authenticity." The language isn't adequate for this sort of thing.)

As I was about to say before I got trapped in that parenthetical comment, one of the admirable things about Faye Booth's historical fiction is how she violates our preconceptions about the period in which her stories are set. How she gets away with this and makes it believable is a mystery to me, as she can't exactly whip out charts and graphs and keep the story moving. It's conviction and skill, I guess, and is sort of the opposite of Fowles' approach. Fowles said to himself, the readers won't believe it if I stick to the facts; Faye said, to hell with it, life then didn't work the way you believe: here's how it was, and you'd better take it and like it.

And, you know what? Both approaches work just fine.

Ahem. That's nine paragraphs before getting to the point of this post, which might be a Personal Best for me.

All this rumination on historical detail was set in motion by watching the DVDs of A&E's Nero Wolfe series. Rex Stout's Wolfe novels were written over nearly forty years, and although the early novels are solidly planted in the 1930s, as the series progresses it loses lock on time. There are stories that are definitely set during World War II, and others that are set in the McCarthy period; and certain technological innovations creep into the pages. But Goodwin and Wolfe apparently remain the same age throughout, and how they dress and the cars they drive also seem frozen in time.

So how was this handled on film? Very much as in the books, but with variations. The cars and sets suggest the 1950s, but Goodwin's and Wolfe's dress and dialogue are more 1940s, and characters and situations suggest everything from the late 1930s to the mid-60s--and not in any particular order. In one episode, Archie is in the military and trying to be sent to fight in Europe rather than serving stateside; in another, one of the characters talks much like a beatnik, but dresses as if she skipped over from Twiggy-era Carnaby Street.

Rather than worrying about matching the time period of the stories, the teleplays include whatever elements make the adaptation most diverting. And, oddly, I found that it works. Like the books, the teleplays take place in a sort of Neverland, where the main characters continue on virtually unchanged. (The fact that most of the stories take place inside Wolfe's house make this easier to pull off.) I find myself noticing that Archie is wearing a Sam Spade hat while talking to a woman in go-go boots and Dippity-Do hair, but I don't find myself objecting. This unchanging cast of characters and attitudes is somehow satisfying--a kind of comfort food for the brain.

On thinking it over, I realized I had other favorite diversions that also fit this mold, notably Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster tales. The television adaptation of those stories stuck to a single time period, but the stories themselves, like the Wolfe stories, started out rooted in time but gradually drifted off into their own universe, a universe that has a chronology in the sense of A happening before B, but not in the sense that any quantifiable period of time passed between them.

These two examples break two oft-quoted rules about writing fiction. First is the simple rule against anachronism--a good rule for historically grounded fiction, but inapplicable in the familiar yet separate universes of Wodehouse or Stout.

Second is the rule about the importance of character arc. Neither Jeeves nor Wooster nor Goodwin nor Wolfe has one. All four of the characters are rounded out over the course of their stories, but no one would claim that they had really changed.

Which proves what, exactly? I'm not sure. I think it proves that an overriding rule is: Entertain your readers enough and none of the other rules apply.


PS Rex Stout's Wolfe novels provide one of the most amusing (and ridiculous) examples of readers engaging in the biographical fallacy. Because the character Nero Wolfe is obese and obsessed with food, many readers assumed that Stout himself was overweight. (This was probably subconsciously reinforced by his surname.) Stout was anything but--from pictures I've seen of him, I think the best word for his physique is probably "lanky."

This also challenges the view of fiction as wish-fulfillment on the part of the writer, as I seriously doubt that the author really wanted to be obese but couldn't achieve it.

PPS Nero Wolfe provides a good touchstone for how bodies have changed over the 20th century. Wolfe stands 5 feet 11 inches and weighs 272 pounds (which Archie often calls "a seventh of a ton"). That's certainly obese, but today it wouldn't be the source of astonishment it was at the time; in the books, people stop and stare, and Wolfe has special chairs designed to support his elephantine bulk. He's less than 100 pounds overweight according to his BMI--a lot of extra weight, but no longer circus-freak quality. Today he probably couldn't even get a slot on The Biggest Loser; he's too svelte.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cutting Down a Tree

Over the past three weeks or so, I've been cutting down a rather large banyan tree (ficus microcarpa) in our front yard. Now, I'm not fond of tree-killing, though I seem to have done more than my share over the years; but the damn thing is cracking our neighbor's wall and patio, and they aren't happy about it. Our front yard is ridiculously overarboreal anyhow.

Banyans do have a tendency to spread. Despite what the Little Prince thought, it's banyans, not baobabs, that can take over planets. (The photo is a banyan on Maui, not in our front yard. But you can see how our front yard might look in the not-too-distant future.)

Cutting it down over three weeks? you ask. Don't you just take out a wedge on one side, cut through from the other, and cry, "Timber"?

One might. But that approach works better with pines and firs, the classic pole-shaped trees. A banyan spreads easily as wide as it is tall, so lopping the branches after it is toppled is a risky proposition.

Plus, I'm an incrementalist. Rather than drag out the chainsaw first thing, I climb up into the tree with a pruning saw and, well, prune. Little branches and then bigger branches and finally major branches, until at the end the two-and-three-hundred-pound branches are the last to fall. All that takes a while, especially if you're doing other things. In this case, it has taken weeks.

So, it's a process rather than an event. I don't even think of it as chopping down a tree. I think of it as editing. Really aggressive editing.

A new X-sport for writers. (Next week on Extreme Editing: Reginald pares down a rampaging Bull Elephant.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Violin Face

I've been remiss in not posting this sooner, but, as I've already admitted, "Remiss" has been my middle name for the last couple of months.

I blogged some time back about Australia's Seizure Magazine, which publishes serialized novels, both online and in hardcopy. The magazine's stated goal was to later publish the best of the books as full novels--a modern version of how Dickens' publishers went about things.

Well, they've done it. Rufi Cole's The Violin Face was published in hardcover in the US on the first of September. At present, it's only available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble online, but it will be making some appearances in the brick and mortar world soon--no mean feat for an upstart press from Down Under.

The novel is a bit of a structural marvel; each first-person narrator passes the baton to another character who serves as first-person narrator for the next chapter, and only one of the narrators makes a second appearance, bookending the novel. Rufi manages to make each narrative voice distinctive, yet maintain a tone for the novel as a whole (no mean trick).

The book follows a sequence of interconnected events around a nucleus of friends, family, and lovers in 1990s Central California. For those not familiar with nuances of Californian sociology, many parts of Central California have continued as white-trash heaven long after the days that Stenbeck chronicled, and The Violin Face has its roots in rather gritty soil. Yet it's still modern California, so there are minor Land-of-Fruits-and-Nuts touches, as well as elements of low-life drug and biker culture. And did I mention that some of the narrators are barely post-pubescent?

So I guess I'd have to call it a New-Age Trailer-Park Young Adult Literary novel.

Don't look for that section in your local bookstore. But do look for the book.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Interesting Factoid For All You Crime Writers

My sig other, Pamela, recently volunteered for a program where you mentor an economically disadvantaged, college-bound teen on their journey from the 8th grade to (one hopes) college.

(Since 8th through 12th grade coincides with the period where parents are most likely to consider shoving their little darlings in front of a passing bus, this might at first seem like signing up for five years of hell. But the job is made easy by the well-known fact that to teenagers, anybody seems cooler than their parents.)

Although Pamela's the ideal mentor for this sort of thing--grew up in a large, low-income family, and made it all the way through her PhD in geophysics with no financial support from her parents--she had a bit of trouble getting approved as a mentor. In fact, it took the better part of a year.

Why? Because they need to do a background check to make sure you aren't a child molester, murderer, or insurance salesman.

When you have a name like "Pamela Blake," you can't exactly Google it and come up with anything but confusion. (10,800 hits, including Pamela Blake the movie star; Pamela Blake, the MD and director of the Headache Center of the Northwest; Pamela Blake of the Women's Royal Naval Service in WWII; Pamela Blake of the Sweatlodge and Shamanism Circle...well, you get the idea.)

So, the obvious thing to do is run her fingerprints through the FBI database, right?

Yes, except for one little problem. Pamela doesn't have fingerprints.

Here's the promised factoid. According to the policeman in the fingerprint lab, "A lot of people lose their fingerprints as they get older."

Now, she hasn't exactly lost her fingerprints, at least not in the sense that you might lose your car keys. But after a number of tries, on a number of different days, there isn't enough of a distinctive structure to her prints to scan them into a data system for identification. It's as if she's worn them off from overuse. So be forewarned and stop touching everything.

Here's another interesting detail. While she was in the identity laboratory, a policeman entered with a black Labrador police dog. He was there to have a picture taken for his ID badge. But not the policeman's badge. The dog's badge.

Can anyone--even a dog's owner--tell one black Lab from another in a mug shot? (Description: 26 inches in height, 45 pounds, short, glossy coat, snout enlongated but square. Floppy ears. Hair: Black. Eyes: Brown. Teeth: White. If you see anyone answering to these particulars...)

Pamela was eventually approved by doing a background check on her name--which, as far as I can tell, means you send her name to the FBI, and they run it through Google.

Meanwhile, Pamela's off on a crime spree. Hey, the odds are on her side now: She's got no fingerprints.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

In Which I Interview Myself

I was lucky enough to find myself in my comfortable book-lined office. Over a glass of Petite Verdot, I was kind enough to respond to my questions.

Q: You seem to have been, ahem, missing from this blog for some time now. Two months, I believe. Where have you been?

A: I've adopted the Pentagon approach: Don't ask, don't tell.

Q: Been getting any writing done?

A: Define "writing." I've been doing a lot of writing...

Q: I meant fiction.

A: You would, wouldn't you? Hardly any. I've been working, but haven't written a word of my novel since August.

Q: I thought you were happy with how it was going. What happened?

A: Work, work, and then some more work. Even last week, when I went on what I laughingly call a vacation, I worked about 30 hours.

Q: You seem out of sorts.

A: You're wickedly insightful, you know that? You ought to consider doing this professionally. Of course I'm out of sorts. I haven't been writing, I've been working on this ridiculous deadline, and--

Q: I notice your foot is in some sort of big orthopedic boot.

A: Nothing gets past you, does it? Yes, I've been clomping around like Boris Karloff for more than two weeks now. I overstretched my Achilles tendon and it responded by pulling this exquisite little crescent moon of bone off the back of my heel.

Q: From running in Vibram Five Fingers, I suppose?

A: Nope. In fact, my injury is from yoga. In some positions, they tell you to "let your heels yearn for the floor." Shows what an unrequited yearning can do to a guy.

Q: So, you're not getting any work done on your novel right now, and you're not even managing to post on this blog...

A: ...and I'm in the middle of cutting down a tree in our front yard and haven't been able to finish it, and I'd torn off some sections of woodwork on the outside of the house that needed replacing and of course the clouds have been dumping water on us, and I can't really do much about fixing the hole in our house with my foot like this. And even though it's the weekend all these geniuses in London and Singapore and Hawaii are pestering me with e-mails asking complicated questions about arcane aspects of the work that I'm not finished with yet. It makes me think of a poem...

Q: Yeats, no doubt. "Things fall apart..."

A: No, not that one. I was thinking of Richard Brautigan's At the California Institute of Technology:

aaaaaI don’t care how God-damn smart
aaaaathese guys are: I’m bored.

aaaaaIt’s been raining like hell all day long
aaaaaand there’s nothing to do.

Q: That's odd. Because you just gave me the impression you had too much to do.

A: Well, the answer to that is a stanza from another poem:

aaaaaNow it's over
aaaaaI'm dead,
aaaaaand I haven't done anything that I want
aaaaaor I'm still alive
aaaaaand there's nothing I want to do.

Q: You're fooling no one. That's not really a poem, that's the chorus from the song Dead by They Might be Giants.

A: They also have a song called My Evil Twin. If you're so damned smart, why don't you write the next post?

Q: I just might.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

California Grievin'

aaa“You gotta car?”

aaaI shook my head, trying to be cool despite the fact that, in SoCal terms, she’d just asked, You gotta penis? and forced me to admit, Nope, ain’t got one.

That's a short exchange out of a novel of mine, written from the POV of a 15-year-old boy in 1960s California.

It goes without saying that we're a car culture here; even in car-mad America, California stands out as obsessive. In California, especially in Southern California, cars are nearly a necessity. For many (though I am not one of that number), they are also a deep source of pride and identity. Particularly in Hispanic Cruiser Culture (okay, amongst Pachucos), cars are decorated like shrines. (The word is chosen with deliberation. Sure, there may be fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror, but you are also likely to find a St Christopher medallion dangling beside them, and a statuette of the Virgin Mary on the dash.)

The custom of having the name of the boyfriend calligraphed on the driver's-side door, and the girlfriend's name on the passenger-side door even spread as far as Hawaii. (One car I saw in Honolulu had its doors labeled "Driver" and "Passenger," which I thought was pretty amusing.) That's one of the reasons that the song says Breakin' Up is Hard to Do; you need to have names scraped off, and that isn't cheap to accomplish without ruining the paint job.

Black American culture may be the source of the phrase "pimping your ride," but they are late in coming to the game. From flames on the side to faux-fur seats to hydraulic-lift struts to spoilers on the trunk, the Mexican Americans were there first.

And, of course, they were also the first to adopt custom rear window decals. These are large affairs, two to five feet wide, white lettering and designs on a clear backing. They might say any number of things--the name of the owner, the name of the owner's car club, the name of the car; the usual stuff.

But for the last decade, it has been common for rear-window decals to say things like

Grace Yglesias 1957 - 2009
Gone but not forgotten

embellished, of course, with a few angels and rays of light. And the practice seems to be spreading out of the Mexican-American community and onto the rear windows of all manner of other Californians.

At first, this seemed weird, and not just because it's odd to drive around in a cenotaph. (I've been waiting decades to use that word.) I mean, cars don't last forever. Are there tearful scenes when it's time to trade them in? ("But--but the Chevy is all we have left of Grandma!") Is there a scraping-of-the-decals ceremony? Do the cars have lower resale value because they seem haunted?

But then I understood. On average, most people keep their cars four or five years. That's a suitable, perhaps even excessive, period of mourning. But it's a way to get, as the psychobabble people have it, closure.

Trade in the car and close that chapter. One can't grieve forever.

Of course, this raises other issues.

"I can't believe he already sold the Jag--she's hardly cold yet!"

"I say she's still not over him. She's driving the Volvo around town, but I saw the Beemer is still parked in her garage."

As attractive as closure through trade-in might be, I think we ought to take a tip from the Vikings; when someone dies, we put them in their own car, set the thing on fire, and send it rolling down a symbolic stretch of freeway. More impressive by far, and a move that would certainly be supported by the automakers.

Of course, the California Air Resources Board isn't going to be too happy with this idea...

A Minor Yet Perplexing Problem

Remember the Tommy Tutone song Jenny? It's the one with the refrain, "Eight six seven, five three oh nigh-ee-ai-yine..." Naturally, many listeners decided to call that number, driving quite a few unfortunates insane in every area code.

Hence the convention with which all American movie audiences are all familiar: In movieland, all phone numbers start with a 555 prefix. That's never a working prefix except for connecting to certain phone-company phones (555-1212 is information in many area codes).

The Jenny problem makes many writers (and their publishers) leery about citing phone numbers in books. Some degree of caution also applies to addresses; some cite them quite cavalierly, while others take some pains to ensure that any specific address cited is nonexistent. (A lot of novels set in Manhattan are fond of giving street addresses that run beyond the end of the street, thereby situating the house or apartment somewhere in the river.)

We're pretty casual about made-up names in the US, which is a good thing, as no matter how improbable the name, someone out there probably wears it already. (One of my characters was named Boyce Hammond, which seems like a reasonably unusual name to me, but checking the web I find that there's at least a few out there.)

My current problem is one I haven't seen before. I've got a scene set in a columbarium (which sounds like a fancy name for dovecote, but is actually a series of vaults with niches for holding funeral urns). And my faithful protagonist is, for reasons irrelevant to our discussion here, seeking out a few particular niches--which need to be identified by their, erm, addresses.

The columbarium I'm using in the story is a real place. Any 'addresses' I might use will either be 1) already occupied, 2) empty and unassigned, 3) empty but already purchased by someone, or 4) nonexistent.

Damned if I can make up my mind the best tactic to take. If the address is 1), I may bother someone by asserting that someone else is stored in Grandma's niche. If the address is 4), anybody informed or curious enough to check will complain that there is no such place. And, if unoccupied, there's no way for me to tell whether the niche is 2) or 3). (And, presumably, all 2)s will someday become 3)s... )

It's a silly thing to worry about, I suppose. But it's a useful way of avoiding finishing the chapter.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Revenge of the Words

I don't exactly pine for them, but the years 1965-1974 had some advantages. Well, at least one: People used to listen to music. I mean really listened. It wasn't uncommon for someone to arrive at a party with a new album, and all conversation would cease while everyone present sat around and paid attention to the music.

Well, you might say, that's because of all the acid and hash and marijuana. And you might be right. The Age of Uppers which followed--a wave of cocaine that worked its way down into our present era of bathtub meth--almost inevitably ushered in multitasking and increased multichannel input, and all the other elements of Short-Attention-Span Theatre, and the consequence was one of the most ghastly inventions of all time, the Music Video. At last: A way for people to decide what music they liked by the way it looked.

Yeah, yeah, I know--some good directors learned their chops in the music vid business, blah blah blah. Well, HIV was good for the condom business, too, but that doesn't mean it was any kind of net boon to the world.

Over the last couple of years, however, music videos have been hoist on their own petards (and no mean trick, that, given how scarce petards have become). Words are now having their revenge through the medium of Literal Music Videos.

For those few who don't know, a Literal Music Video is one where the lyrics of the song in a music video are replaced with new lyrics that describe what is happening in the video--which, as we all know, usually has only a remote connection (if any) with the original song.

When I am overexposed to music videos, either from a party where they are playing on a television, or from foolishly watching the video of the theme song of the movie in the DVD extras, or after I've been around any of my nieces or nephews, I head for the computer and watch a few Literal Music Videos to wash the taste out of my mouth.

LMVs are like everything else: most are mediocre, some are appalling, and a few are outstanding. The masterpiece of the field is still David A. Scott's version of Total Eclipse of the Heart:

A picture may be worth 10,000 words, but a few words can reveal how pretentious a picture is.

And where, apart from the captions on a Literal Music Video, can you find lines like:

And they shouldn't fence at night
Or they're going to hurt the gymnasts... ?

Oh, sorry. You're right. Schizophrenics say things like that all the time.


Extra credit question: Why are so many of the funniest LMVs takeoffs on Jim Steinman songs?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

How Long is a Novel?

Writer Tikiman posts that his 52,000 word manuscript was rejected by an agent because it is too short to be a novel.

So, how long is a novel, anyhow?

A lot of sources used to peg it as a work of more than 50,000 words (and NaNoWriMo uses 50K as their definition of whether or not you have completed your novel in a month).

In that case, rounded to the nearest hundred words, The Great Gatsby (50,100) just barely qualifies, and neither Farenheit 451 (46,100) nor Slaughterhouse-Five (49,500) are novels.

On the other hand, Bradbury and Vonnegut are both arguably science-fiction writers, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America define a novel as a work of 40,000 words or more.

A lot of agents and publishers now seem to believe that 70,000 words is the starting point for a novel, and one publisher who takes submissions over the transom refuses to consider works shorter than 80,000 words. Even a baseline of 70K would exclude some rather wonderful books; right offhand:

The Color Purple (66,600)

The Hours (54,200)

Lord of the Flies (59,900)

A Separate Peace (56,800)

The Sun Also Rises (67,700)

It's still possible to find advice from publishers, literary agents, and writers advising "beginners" that to be published, they should keep it short--certainly under 80K. These same sources usually note that novels 100K and over should be avoided.

The problem with such advice is that it was usually either written in the 1960s and 1970s, or was written by people who last paid attention to the world in the 1960s and 1970s. The world has changed.

In the 19th century, the whopping great long novel was the style: Crime and Punishment runs more than 200,000 words, Middlemarch more than 300,000 words...and let's not even talk about War and Peace.

But in the 20th century, both literary fiction and pulp fiction began to run far shorter. Next time you're in a used bookstore that carries a lot of paperbacks, look at the mysteries and sci-fi from the 60s and 70s--slim little volumes, typically running about 200 pages. Longer books might be accepted for literary merit, and bestsellers tended to run long (even To Kill a Mockingbird approaches 100K), but the bread-and-butter of the industry was in the range of 40-70K.

It no longer is. Cozy mysteries run short, as do some of the categories of romance; but I'd guess that a typical non-cozy mystery nowadays is over 80K. Thrillers seem to average 100K or more.

There was a time when a unknown writer would have been considered insane for submitting a novel of 120,000 words. I'd guess that length is now about typical for first fantasy novels.

It's odd that, in a time where everyone talks about the shortage of time and the competition between books and other media, that novels seem to be getting longer. I can only conjecture that those people who still bother to read want something they can curl up and live inside for a while.

Another possibility is that books are now so expensive that publishers don't feel that the public will feel it is getting its money's worth from something slim. How this will balance out against rising paper costs in the longer term remains to be seen; but, then, in the longer term, we may all be reading on Kindles and Nooks anyway.

Which may offer hope to our pal Tikiman: In the future, length may vanish as a major consideration. Today, so much is constrained by the production and distribution costs of a book. So far electronic books are a sideline in the industry, but if they become the dominant form, life might be quite different.

There's nothing better than a good novella, but marketing considerations have driven them from the shelves. There may come a day when we'll see novellas and short novels as the market leaders. Right now, size matters. Tomorrow could be very different.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Giving My WIP the Treatment

I'm incapable of outlining a novel, because I never know what the heck the story is until I'm writing it. I'm hardly unique in this regard. (Ryan David Jahn has a nice post on the problem.) Someone at a writing conference once claimed to have done a survey, and had determined that two-thirds of writers outlined, and one-third didn't. I'm not sure if this was a survey of writers in general, published writers only, or what. The writers I seem to know aren't outliners--though some of them do plan in some fashion or another.

One thing I think would be nice about an outline is that you could see the shape of your story. That's very appealing. But since I discover my story as I write it, that isn't an option.

This time, however, I'm trying something new. (New for me, that is. I'm sure others have done it before me.) With 14 chapters now in hand, I'm writing something very much like a story treatment--those short narratives that describe the proposed course of a screenplay. These are invariably written in third-person present tense, and so I am doing likewise, hoping that the kazillions who have gone before me will have worn a path in the fabric of existence in which it will be easy for me to plod along.

What I'm doing is laying out the narrative with each chapter taking up a single, numbered paragraph. And, that now done, I'm using the white space beyond my current chapter to add notes about where it is going--things I now know are inevitable, things I'm toying with, things that might happen, questions to myself. The sort of stuff that used to show up in my little pocket notebook, but now laying out there as possible extensions to portions of the treatment that are already "in the can," as Hollywood has it.

It's far from a pre-writing outline, but I'm finding that it's nice to be able to scan the shape of, as the Prince Valiant comic strip used to say, Our Story So Far.

Perhaps I'm just fuzzy-minded, but I find that when I'm in the middle of a novel and think back on what I've already written, I don't have much sense of the proportions or patterns the plot is following. This gives me a little bit more of a clue.

Those authors of more stable mind probably don't need to be reminded of what they have only recently written. It seems that I do, and this little "treatment" is what I'm trying for the moment. If that doesn't work, I'm going to try the tattoo approach used by the fellow in Memento (see photo).
I'm hoping I can get by with my current methdology, as the tattoo approach could get expensive.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Further to "Everything Happening for a Reason"

On the Comment trail, Frances suggests that this whole question revolves around whether or not one is religious: If there is a God, then things happen for a reason; if not, then there is no overseeing power, and the answer is that everything is random.

I'm not sure that the question is as simple as the existence of "God," however, as monotheism accompanied by omniscience and omnipotence is only one option. Even the Old Testament Jehovah seems to be rather less than omniscient--he's always discovering, invariably to his displeasure, that something has happened without his awareness.

The Romans, for example, were often quite religious, but they were polytheistic, and recognized the idea of foreign gods they had never met. Sometimes it was a matter of 'my god can beat up your god,' and they were quick to adopt new gods and bring them on home. And the Greeks, of course, had a reasonably consistent pantheon, but interacting in an ongoing soap opera--and one god was often doing something while another was distracted.

Even so, it's not at all clear that the Romans or Greeks believed that everything happened because one god or another willed it. Their gods didn't necessarily pay much attention, nor did they seem to have a "plan" for humankind. They became intensely involved in the affairs of certain groups or certain individuals at certain times, but that's quite different from any sort of masterplan.

The idea that "God" is responsible for every detail of every thing that happens, with individual angels plucking leaves from trees at some predetermined moment, is very much a medieval Christian theory. Many Buddhists are quite religious but manage to get by quite well without a detailed plan from God; and, in Thailand, where the dominant religion is Buddhism well-supplied by Hinduism and whatever other pantheistic beliefs happen to appeal, there is a belief that prayer and sacrifice can influence events, but that doesn't mean that god(s) determine everything that happens. Sometimes they get involved, sometimes they don't.

Thailand is also a hotbed of astrology, and astrology presetns some interesting questions. Astrology doesn't always assume a god or gods. Nor do all forms of astrology assume the predetermination of events, despite the emphasis on timing. Some forms of astrology claim that certain 'flavors' of events will happen at certain times--for example, that one will go through a creative spurt, or will be physically challenged--but they attribute this to something more like the underlying laws of the universe, for which the movement of the planets is a sort of large clock.

In the view of some astrologers, we are on boats floating down a great river. The cosmic clock is able to tell us the sorts of things we will encounter as we float down the river--at this time there will be turbulence, further on the river will widen and smooth out--without attributing agency and purpose.

As to the people who RDJ meets in Los Angeles who say that everything happens for a reason--well, I suspect that most of them are vaguely New-Age California types, who would describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious,' and don't believe in god or gods in the traditional sense, but have some sort of belief in a big soft fuzzy benevolence on the part of something out there somewhere.

Me, I believe in the Norse Gods and the Frost Giants. Ragnarok is Coming!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Everything Happens for a Reason"

On his blog, Ryan David Jahn tells a fascinating true-life tale about a recent encounter in Los Angeles. (Go read it. It's a slice of life cut at a very strange angle.)

After recounting the incident, RDJ observes:

But it doesn’t mean anything. There are no epiphanies to be had. You want there to be some purpose to life and the things that happen in it. This is why people say obviously false things like “Everything happens for a reason” when something shitty happens. But I think most of us know everything doesn’t happen for a reason.

Well, I dunno. I'm not too sure how the universe is organized. Maybe everything does happen for a reason.

My problem with people who say "Everything happens for a reason," is that I suspect all of them are starting from the premise that the universe is not only purposeful (as reflected in their mantra), but that it is also:

1) Benevolent, and
2) Gives a damn about us as individuals, and,
3) Doesn’t dislike them in particular, and
4) Is essentially fair.

There are other, less comforting hypotheses that explain all the facts while still assuming that "everything happens for a reason." Here's a dozen. I'm sure anyone can add more.

1) The universe is malevolent and is messing with us, and in situations where that appears not to be the case, the universe is setting us up for a really big, nasty surprise.

2) The universe is highly personalized, as in the case of the Old Testament Jehovah, and huge volumes of suffering, pain and death occur just so God Almighty can win bar bets with Satan (cf. Book of Job, and also Archibald MacLeish's play J.B.).

3) The universe cares strongly about certain people at certain times and is quite willing to wipe the floor with the rest of us. Much like what we as writers do with our secondary characters. As the Qabalists say, As Above, So Below.

4) The universe is gradually evolving a species of superwasp that will wipe out all life on Earth before colonizing the rest of the galaxy, and everything that happens is in support of that.

5) The universe is run by an evolving power that presently has the overall maturity and attitude of a very young human, probably male. The Bible tells us we are created in God’s image. Why should we be surprised when he/she/them/it decide(s) to pull our wings off and stomp on us?

6) The universe ensures that everything happens for a reason, but a universal idea of what constitutes ‘a reason’ doesn’t quite agree with ours.

7) The Egyptians (or perhaps the Yanomamo in the Amazon) worshiped the only true gods, and we are all heretics who are being punished.

8) There’s a reason, but it’s based on the branch of quantum physics called statistical mechanics, and it doesn’t care much about the trajectories of individual particles.

9) Sartre and Camus were right; everything happens for a reason, but it’s up to us to create that reason.

10) HP Lovecraft was right. Nyarlathotep and Azoth and The Old Gods are still out there and dreaming, and sometimes they roll in their sleep and one of us gets crushed. Despite this, be glad they are still asleep; were they awake, they would flay you and hollow out your bones to make pipes upon which they would play, among the gibbering half-mad spirits in the cold spaces between the stars, as your soul twisted in eternal torment.

11) God is sloppy. There are innumerable instances of this in the Bible, where The Lord gets annoyed with an individual and wipes out whole cities. Precision isn’t his forte.

12) There is a reason for everything, and the universe is essentially benevolent, but it’s run by a bureaucracy whose performance leaves much to be desired. The wages of sin are death. Quit whining and be glad that the taxes of sin aren’t a bigger percentage of your paycheck.

I don't know why I took the time to post all this. But I figure it happened for a reason. Probably because it's time to go upstairs and write Chapter 14.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Further on Long Shadows in the Genres

Many genre writers may feel smothered by the overwhelming effect that a single successful writer may have on a field; in some cases, that writer may seemingly end up owning the entire field.

This kind of success, can actually prove beneficial to those who swim against the tide--once again, Tolkein case in point. One can get a certain amount of notice simply by establishing a fantasy world that is distinctively and actively non-Tolkeinesque.

Of course, there is room in the genre of fantasy for any number of worlds. The process is more clear in other genres. Take Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, which almost single-handedly created and then dominated the spy thriller field in the 1950s and 1960s. There had been novels of espionage and international intrigue before Fleming, of course; writers as great as Conrad and Greene had dabbled in it, and Fleming owed a good deal to John Buchan. But Buchan's Richard Hannay is a far cry from Fleming's cold, competent, hedonistic, jet-setting Bond.

Now, Bond--love him or loathe him, as Frances would have it--and his glossy-surfaced world cast a huge shadow. Not only was he widely imitated, the Bond movies turned him into an imitation, and then a caricature of Fleming's actual creation. The Bond of the books is, despite a certain degree of surface polish, something of a bright thug. (In this regard, the recent "reboot" of Bond in the movie Casino Royale is closer to the original character than the other movies--and far closer than any of the post-Connery Bonds.) There's actually very little gadgetry in the books, and although the Bond of the books is rather chilly and glib, he doesn't use every bullet or bomb as an opportunity for a wisecrack.

One of the consequences of this kind of success, though, is that it creates opportunities for writers who initally define their work by way of contrast. There is no doubt that much of John Le Carre's success with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is owed to the fact that it is the Un-Bond--unglamorous, downbeat, and disturbingly realistic. Initially publishers would have nothing to do with it; and most of those who picked it up looking for a Bond imitation were either furious or bored. But word of mouth (plus great reviews from critics who were sick to death of Fleming wannabees) eventually gained the book a huge following, and it had a built-in hook: It's a spy novel, and it's nothing like Bond.

Without icons, iconoclasts have nothing to shatter.

Friday, July 2, 2010

On Ephemerality

I was pondering on the ephemeral nature of human endeavor the other day—yes, I really do spend my time that way, whenever I’m not surfing the web for free porn or spray-painting DI wuz hea on freeway overpasses—and it occurred to me that I’m laboring in the most ephemeral of all the genres. Thrillers—and other sorts of crime novels to various extents—have the advantage of being able to address issues of the moment. The reverse side of that coin, though, is that thrillers probably have the shortest shelf life of any sort of novel—with the possible exception of science fiction that predicts the near future.

(Oddly enough, the trick to writing near-term predictive science fiction that survives seems to be naming the book after the year it is supposed to take place: 1984 and 2001 still stand up quite well despite the fact that those years have come and gone. Oh, sure, you can argue it’s because they are outstanding novels, and I wouldn’t disagree. But it’s also curious that they are both named for years now past.)

Now, this set me to thinking about which genre has the longest shelf-life. And it seems to me that it ought to be historical fiction, which doesn’t risk being overtaken by events or fashion. But historical fiction risks assault from those within its own ranks (our Faye Booth is a case in point) who want to give conventional views of the past a good shake, and say, no, it wasn’t like that, it was like this.

It occurred to me that in principle fantasy novels ought to do best, since they don’t risk being overtaken by any aspect of reality whatsoever. (Though even then I suppose they have to worry about revisionist works like Wicked reconstituting the Oz novels.)

But in a post a while back, Tim Stretton pointed out that influence in literature, and especially in genre works, has a bi-directional time flow. Before you think I’m referring to some sort of quantum effect, let me hasten to explain: Tim was simply saying, rather more eloquently than this, that while it is obvious that books affect other books that come after them, it is equally true that how books are seen is greatly affected by later books. This is true for each reader—which is why Tim cautions that re-reading favorites is a risky business—but also true for the story-consuming public as a whole.

Tim mentions the case of Tolkein, who offers a fine example. Now, I think Tolkein’s achievement was staggering—a fusing of ancient threads and themes with certain examples of striking originality. He also stands as a monument to monomaniacal devotion, and, quite possibly, to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. To a great extent, he created the modern fantasy novel.

Tim’s point is that when Tolkein is re-read, he is re-read in the context of what has happened since, both in the wider context (writers rebelling against the Tolkein template), and in our personal experience (including everything we have read since, be it fantasy or lit-fic or noir).

I happen to know a lot of writers younger than me, and a fair proportion of the really young ones are fantasy writers. And I’ve known some of these fantasy mavens when, after growing up on fantasy novels and movies and comics, finally read LOTR for the first time. In general, they weren’t impressed. Why? Mostly because of context. These people had been reading stories with elves and dwarves—whose modern personae were largely codified by Tolkein—and orcs and wraiths and hobbits (who were all invented by Tolkein), for the whole of their reading lives. They also took for granted the inclusion of tons of maps, and appendices, and invented languages, and elaborate mythologies. I mean, that’s what fantasy writers do, isn’t it?

Well, not until Tolkein, they didn’t. And even today, I find it hard to point to anyone who did it at his level of detail (probably because he cared more about the history and linguistics of his invented world than he did about any given story placed in it).

In effect, what my young friends were saying is similar to the old joke: I can’t stand Shakespeare; the guy uses too many clich├ęs.

There is a danger in casting too broad and long a shadow: those who grow up in your shadow may take it as the normal level of illumination. And in a way, I guess this shows you just can’t win. Write something ephemeral, and you disappear; but, write something iconic enough to influence all that follows after, and you may find yourself blending into the furniture.

Well, I need to go upstairs now, and work on my ephemera.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What I meant was...

Alas, the terminology of writing is far from universal. Frances has mentioned that my preceding post might be clearer if the reader knew what exactly I meant by "close third-person POV." I suppose it's clear as mud without a definition, so here goes.

"Close third-person narration" to me is identical to "third-person limited." (There's a definition that wouldn't clarify much for most people.) The narration is written in third person, but there is nothing even approaching omniscience on the part of the narrator. The narration is married to the POV character's perceptions; the narrator doesn't tell un anything that the POV character doesn't know.

We don't see expressions on the POV character's face, for example, because the character has no means of watching his own face. (Well, except for mirrors. But that trick tends to make editors, no small number of readers, groan.) A character can feel a silly grin spreading on his face, for example, but such a character can't "look stunned." (The character can conjecture that he might or even must look stunned, but this can't be reported as fact, or we being to move away from close third.)

It's very subjective narration that stays close to the consciousness of the POV and never backs up for wide shots. It may get so far from the inside of character's head that it needs to worm its way back in via "he thought" until we are clearly established (after which thoughts can be directly reported).

Shock and Awe was third-person multi-POV. In most cases, each chapter 'belonged' to a single viewpoint character. The book wasn't written entirely in close POV, although much of it was quite close; there was a distinct narrative voice that sometimes took a wide view before modulating down into a POV character's thoughts and emotions.

Shock and Awe required multiple POVs simply because of the architecture. I could have written multiple first-person, but multi-first tends to be stressful for both reader and writer.

My WIP has only one POV character. This is more common in mysteries than in thrillers, but it's not unheard of. Thrillers often up the suspense by showing the reader mounting dangers of which the protagonist is unaware. This requires either omniscience or multiple POVs (or both).

Mysteries, on the other hand, often have only a single POV character--often the detective, but sometimes a Watson or an Archie Goodwin. This restricts the reader's knowledge to what the POV character knows. Some argue that this is inherently less suspenseful than letting the reader see dangers while keeping the protagonist in the dark.

I'm not taking a position on this, as some artists have done both in different works. For example, Alfred Hitchcock's movies achieve suspense thrugh both tools. Hitch was fond of letting the viewer see the bomb ticking away under the dinner table while the protagonist sits ingorant with his feet inches away from the explosives; but in some of his most gripping scenes in Psycho the camera remains fixed on the POV character, who is unable to see around corners or up beyond the top of the stairs.

Lee Child is unusual in that some of his Jack Reacher novels are written in third person, while others are in first person--and the dividing line seems to be whether or not they require multiple POVs. If he wants us to see the bad guys at work, then the whole book will be in third person; but if he doesn't need any "meanwhile, back at the ranch" scenes, then he'll stay with Reacher's POV--and do it in first person, to boot.

So here I am, writing in a single POV, and staying very close, without a hint of omniscience. And I'm wondering why, as long as I'm staying tied to this one person's perceptions, I'm not just letting him tell the damn story. It's already very much in his voice, and I'm beginning to think that the mechanics of presenting his thoughts and moving exposition along would be far easier if he just told the damn story himself.

I'm a bit confused as to why I'm in third person to begin with. I'd like to think I had a reason.

The character is quite a bit younger than me. Maybe I didn't feel ready for that level of impersonation--similar to the way that some people are reluctant to go first-person on characters of the opposite sex.

Or maybe I just didn't think it through. It wouldn't be the first time, and I'd venture it won't be that last.

I comfort myself with the fact that rewriting in first would be easy, and would probably be more fun. Well, if I decide to go that way. I'm still hopping from one foot to another.

A pause for head scratching

Okay, so you're writing from one POV in a novel. And it's pretty close third-person POV throughout.

First person is more sympathetic. First person doesn't require reminders and tags when you modulate from narrative voice to internal reflection. And first person eliminates a whole slew of pronoun problems.

So remind me again: at page 100, why am I writing my current WIP in close third? I'm sure there's a reason...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Plot versus Story versus Godzilla

One of Aliya's posts on plot and literary fiction had me responding at enough length on her Comment Trail that I realized I ought to bring what I had to say over here, rather than inflicting it on unwary visitors to her blog. In other words, I plan to inflict it on you--but I'm assuming that by this point in our relationship, anyone arriving here is a wary visitor.

At the risk of getting off into abstractions, I'd like to distinguish between "story" and "plot."

I do tend to require that novel-length fiction has a story of some sort. For me, "story" boils down to either characters experiencing conflict (within some setting or parameters), or characters on some sort of journey. (Helps if the journey involves some conflict rather than just being a travelogue. But the entirely episodic, picaresque novel has a long and honorable history, and sometimes we're just along for the sightseeing. Hey, if it works, it works.)

Even some of the most purely "literary" fiction that manages to engage me has some sort of conflict. In much of Beckett, it's a matter of someone in conflict with himself, or in conflict with meaninglessness, but you can still say, "This is a story about..."

"Plot," for me, is another matter entirely--it's the mechanics of how the story unfolds. And the mechanics can be big and loud and obvious, or so extremely subtle and apparently minor that people might assert the story is "plotless." (In a successful stream-of-consciousness novel, the 'plot' is disguised as free association; but the mechanics are still put there by the author, who decides what thought will stir up what new association. Thinking about horses and then segueing into a childhood carousel ride flashback is just as plotted as having a man walk in with a gun.)

If you can still say, "This is a story about a man who can't muster up the motivation to get out of bed," then you have a story. Probably not much of an evident plot. Whether the writer can make such a story interesting to the reader is another matter, and I think has a good deal to do with whether the writer is actually engrossed in the story (including the character) to begin with.

I believe that plotless stories tend to become boring when the writer doesn't care about the story or the conflict, and is only writing to watch his or her own cleverness at laying down verbiage. When a good writer cares, it drags the reader right along. But in the worst forms of lit fic, the writer really doesn't give a damn about the story.

I will concede that Joyce probably didn't care all that much about the plot, such as it is, of Ulysses. But he cared powerfully about the characters and what they experienced during the course of that long journey through a day. (Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, doesn't seem to me to have a story anyone cares about; it really is a lot of self-referential cleverness. Some of which is incredibly clever and fun to read aloud, mind you, but it no longer feels like a story. I'm not even sure I consider it a novel: more like an alien artifact.)

It is quite possible to write genre fiction that commits the same sin of not caring about the story. In genre fiction, this usually happens when the writer cares primarily about the plot, but not about the characters except insofar as they serve the plot--which is another way of not really caring about the story.

There's all kinds of ways of breaking the rule that you have to care about the story, or have a story. Borges did it routinely; so did Donald Barthelme. And I adore much of their short fiction. But expand any of those didactic or satiric short pieces to novel length, and you'll find me dropping the book on the floor somewhere around page 20.

On the genre side, the same thing holds for puzzle mysteries--such as the 'locked-room' mysteries which were so popular in the early years of the 20th century: I can enjoy them (well, actually I don't, but I can imagine that someone might) for ten pages or so, but there isn't enough story for a book; it's all plot.

I guess what I'm saying is that I dislike reading hundreds of pages of fiction unless the author gives a damn about something other than his own precious self.

Of course, giving a damn isn't sufficient; there's a lot of heartfelt fiction out there that is just plain awful because of lousy execution. But I'd argue that caring about the story you're telling is a necessary prerequisite to any kind of success in reaching a reader.

Probably the reason that so many lit-fic writers fail in this regard is that they sat through too many classes where professors said things like, "What Shakespeare is teaching us here..." or "What Tolstoy is trying to tell us..." (Many teachers seem to have truly great works of literature confused with Aesop's Fables or Rudyard Kipling's Just-So stories.) Then these students move on to other classes where someone's prose experiments are praised, simply because they are experimental.

No wonder so many MFA students write such lousy novels.

And where does Godzilla fit into all this? Well, what Godzilla was trying to show us was...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Writing and Peripheral Vision

I've made no secret of the fact that 2009 ranks as one of my least favorite years. My health issues so contaminated the novel I was writing that I had to set it aside entirely; even now, it exudes a miasma that seems unhealthy. Since publication of Shock and Awe at the end of 2007, I've completed one novel (Earthly Vessels, which, alas, is entirely unsuited to my MNW autorial persona), and had two others grind to a halt 100-200 pages on in glorious 2009.

I'm not ready to return to those WIPs, though I think both of them are potentially good novels. So I've been working on something new, based on a single opening chapter I wrote some time back. And, to my amazement, it's going swimmingly, and I'm eight chapters along. (Well, as swimmingly as writing has ever gone for me, which is to say 'flounderingly.') I've found I can even write and maintain something akin to normal blood pressure as long as I eventually get up from my desk and go do something reasonably fierce in the way of exercise to blow the tension out of my system.

Since I'm not much of a plot-ahead kind of guy, there are always what-happens-next roadblocks, both large and small. Once I've written a couple of chapters and the characters are alive and contributing their suggestions, I have a good sense of the general direction I'm heading, but the details remain fuzzy. With apologies to Aliya Whiteley's brother and sister characters in Mean Mode Median (and to Tim Stretton for citing a fantasy character with an apostrophe in his name), the best analogy I can come up with is that used by Paul Muad'Dib in Dune when discussing seeing the future: You can get a glimpse of a few hilltops and ridges in the distance, but you have no idea what awaits in the valleys between them.

And, of course, most of one's time is spent traversing the valleys, and sometimes they aren't the valley you're expecting: Instead of the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant, you find yourself in the good old Valley of the Shadow of Death. But there are constant what-happens-next-and-how questions, large and small.

Which brings me, in my typical blabbermouthed fashion, to the point of this post. Very seldom can I solve a story problem by focusing on it. It isn't math(s). Staring longer doesn't allow me to break it down into logical steps.

I should add that it isn't that I'm incapable of coming up with something to happen at the next major undecided point. It's that I can come up with several things, each of which, on careful interrogation, turns out to be unsuitable in some way.

(First ideas for solving intermediate plot points are almost always stale, derivative, or obvious. Well, I speak only for myself, there. Perhaps your first ideas are always strikingly original. I sometimes have strikingly original ideas, and when I get them early and easily, it's almost always a sign that they are striking, and original, and unworkable.)

A certain amount of staring is needed to get the problem fixed in my mind. This can often be achieved by pinpointing exactly why your proposed solutions so far suck. But after that, I have to count on peripheral vision--the answer that is handed to you when you are apparently paying attention to something else.

When I'm lucky, what I'm paying attention to is the writing; the answer to a given plot issue will often pop up--sometimes because some minor element I've written in along the way turns out to be more than merely descriptive, or will fulfill dual roles.

When I'm less lucky, I have to resort to some kind of activity to occupy a part of my brain. The physicist Niels Bohr was famous for solving conceptual problems by fixing the issue in his mind and then forgetting about it by going to see American Westerns--just diverting enough to keep his frontal lobes distracted, but not so complex or emotionally involving as to take over too much of his subconscious mind. (So who says that movies that are all fluff aren't useful?) And I know one oft-published novelist who says that any movie at all will work for him.

Not so for me. Sometimes home-construction tasks will turn the trick, but these can also become so demanding that they take up too much of my all-too-limited brainpower. Gardening works well sometimes, but not always, and that old standby, the shower, sometimes produces results--but one can only spend so long in the shower.

For me, physical motion seems most effective. Walking often allows solutions to pop up; hiking is good, too, except that there is usually a long period where the scenery pushes everything far down, and there is the added problem that when you've solved your problem you are anywhere from ten to a hundred miles away from your keyboard.

Joyce Carol Oates claims to get her best work done while she is running, but Ms Oates is built like one of the more slender species of antelope, and running for her is probably like walking for me. If I could muster up the focus to work on a story issue while running, I would no doubt resolve most of my plot issues by having all my characters sit down and gasp for breath.

Long drives can help, and I find that drives in heavy, high-speed, freeway traffic work best--for some reason, knowing that it's life-endangering to make so much as a note seems to encourage the subconscious to become especially fecund.

The protagonist in my WIP solves urgent problems by thinking hard about something else. This has given me the challenge of coming up with complete non sequiturs for him to contemplate, and "now think of something completely unrelated" isn't as easy as it sounds.

Luckily, my protag doesn't need to get up and move around for this to work. I hope to learn something from writing him.

But meanwhile I need to go exercise. My protag has raised my blood pressure enough for one day.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Prince of Persia--a flap over nothing

I haven't seen Prince of Persia, nor am I in any great haste to do so. But I have noticed, as many probably have, the huge flap on the web over the fact that "a white actor" is playing a Persian.


Persia, of course, is largely that area now called "Iran." ("Persians" incidentally, always called the place "Iran." The Greeks are the ones who called them Persians.)

Hands up, anybody who knows where the name "Iran" comes from? Anybody? Yes, Ashley?

That's right. "Eran" which in Latin was "Arianus," which in English, is "Aryan." Yep. Hitler's master race. The white people. The Aryans were the root race of what we call Persia.

Now, things changed a bit when Alexander tromped through and his troops inseminated many of the Aryan women there. Though, being Greek and following Alexander, they may have inseminated more of the Aryan men.

And, of course, the Mongol hordes passed through, and killed about a zillion of the Aryan men, and, of course raped many of the women.

And, fairly recently as such things go, the Arabs stormed into the place, killed about a zillion of the men, raped the women, or, worse, married them, and converted everyone to Islam at swordpoint. So now there is a lot of Arab blood running in modern Iranian veins...along with an occasional touch of East Asian that can be seen in the eyelids (the same effect you sometimes see cropping up in Eastern Europe and Germany), as well as some Greek genes, which is why--no, wait, I already did the obvious Greek joke.

I've met many Iranians, and, yes, some of them look a good deal like Arabs. But I've met many who look like total honkies, because--well, if you buy any of the Aryan race crap, they are the spring and lifeblood of honkydom. Which the Germans long recognized, and why Germany and Iran/Persia/Whatever, have long been so cozy.

The Jews and Arabs are the Semitic peoples--or, as Hitler and his gang called them, "mud people." The Persians are the Master Race (and some of them actually believe it).

So, the outrage over casting Jake Gyllenhaal as a mo-fo honkie haole fishbelly ghost person Aryan strikes me as pretty weird. (Plus, the guy isn't as white as, say, Paul Bettany. I've seen lightbulbs that looked dark compared to him.)

Look, I understand that for decades white actors were cast as other races, pushing aside some excellent actors in the process, and that's reprehensible.

On the other hand, I've always enjoyed it in modern film and theater when someone is cast in a different gender--Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, for example--or a black man is cast in what is a white role without any comment whatsoever, such as Denzel Washington playing Don Pedro in Branagh's production of "Much Ado About Nothing." So I've always hoped that in the future, no one would much give a shit.

I understand the urge to redress wrongs. But I think the lines often get drawn in the wrong places, and I think this is a great example. I think Jake Gyllenhaal can play an Aryan without any issues whatsoever being raised.

The funny thing is, if they had cast an Arab or a Turk in that role, I don't think we'd be hearing any noise whatsoever--even though racially that's just as extreme as casting Marlon Brando as an Okinawan. (Bad idea, that one--but it was done.)

Then again, I think about it and realize that most Americans think Iranians are Arabs. Hell, the other day I heard someone bitching about all the Middle Easterners moving into his neighborhood, and, after asking a couple of questions, realized he was talking about people from India. So I guess a lot of people are all riled up because they think Jake Gyllenhaal is going to be playing an Arab. Or an Indian. Or, well, one of those kind of people, and a Persian should be played by, like, you know, an Arab or Indian or Mexican or somebody, well, ethnic.

Here's the real problem. The US is filled with people like Miss Teen South Carolina.

I'm much more bothered when Hollywood rewrites stories so that the races of the original characters are changed to white (whatever the fuck that is). There's the problem.

Jake Gyllenhaal playing an Aryan? No problem. Though if I were king, I'd have gone with Jude Law.


PS There was also a lot of outrage when Jonathan Pryce--a great actor, IMHO--was cast as a Eurasian in Miss Saigon. I couldn't really get that wound up about it. People are pissed that a European was playing a Eurasian--because they thought it needed to be an Asian? Umm, big disconnect for me. "Eurasian" is typically what Hawaiians call "hapa"--50:50.

I can't wait to see what happens when they do a Tiger Woods biopic. Because my guess is that Asian actors won't even be auditioned--even though plenty of Cambodians, Indonesians, and Malaysians look more like Tiger Woods than most black Americans do.

I think they'll probably cast Will Smith.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

That special time of the year...

Christmas in June? No (although the excellent but generally forgotten band The Young Adults had a great song called Christmas in Japan in July). And not summer vacation, either, although I guess it's that time of the year.

No, it's the annual Rancho Mirage Writing Workshop, in the blasting heat of the California desert. A baker's dozen of writers working together and critiquing, under the sharp-tongued guidance of Raymond Obstfeld.

This had become an annual event for me...except for last year, when my health problems kept me from attending. Not so this year. I'm annoyingly hale and hearty, and have my nose and consciousness buried deeply in my latest novel.

We've all received 20-35 pages of each other's manuscripts, and we'll start off with a round-robin critique at 5 this evening. There's some good stuff here, and some very odd stuff, and some familiar stuff that is farther along (pages 540-560 of one manuscript that I last saw many pages back). Some of the writers are veterans of this little workshop, others are fresh meat. This loooks like fun.

So I'm looking forward to a week of nothing but writing and critiquing. Well, along with a few drinks in the evening. And heaving myself into swimming pools to try to dump some of the heat.

"But it's a dry heat," the apologists all say. Yeah, well it's still 110 frigging Farenheit. And with all the golf courses in the area (this is right next to Palm Springs), it ain't really that dry anymore, either.

But it's a dry heat. Yeah, Satan probably says that about Hell, too.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Philip Space, Kelly Day, Ben Dover, et al.

I've just been musing on character names. I put a good deal of time into selecting names for my characters--perhaps more than I ought--and I'm not sure sometimes where to draw the line.

It's clear to me that, as in everything else, we have less latitude in fiction than the degrees of freedom granted to reality. I don't know that there is a Philip Space or a Ben Dover out there in the real world, but there are certainly Kelly Days (most of them probably unaware they are bearing a punning name). Joke names in a novel strike me as a little too sophomoric, but it's amazing how far some writers have pushed that envelope in comic novels. Although the characters Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil in Pynchon's V. aren't exactly punning constructions, they go far beyond the limits of credulity; but, then, Pynchon clearly didn't want us to be involved in his story in any traditional sense.

Here again, reality has us at a disadvantage. If I had an actor as a character in a novel, even a comic novel, I wouldn't name him something like "Rip Torn." But Mr. Torn (whom I admire) is only the latest in a family of Torns where the older males were nicknamed "Rip." In life, it's a conversation starter. In a book, it would be a bit silly and distracting (cf. Benny Profane).

To take another example, until recently the CEO of the Boeing Company was a man named* "Harry Stonecipher." Could we get away with that? No way--not unless we were writing a sequel to V..

But there are milder forms. I have a good friend named "Steve Steele." That's a fine name, but iffy in a novel (and, in my opinion, only serviceable if the character is not any kind of action hero). "Steele" in its possible spellings is a common surname (although famous Hollywood producer Dawn Steel inherited the surname from a father who changed it from Spielberg). But use it in a book and it seems as if the writer is trying to make some not-too-subtle point.

I used to know a fellow named "Bob Dollar." That's a fine, solid surname deriving from the Celtic. (It means, roughly, "from the dales," and has no connection with currency.) Nothing wrong with "Dollar" in real life. But it would be poison in anything but a comic novel, and maybe a little sketchy even there.

There are some names that, for me, land right on the line. "Billy Pilgrim," for example, in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, is a feasible and undistracting name for a protagonist--except that it is a little too, as they say in screenwriting, "on the nose." (It also seems to be begging the critics and scholars to dissect it.)

I would never intentionally give a character the initials "J.C.", though writers from William Faulkner to Stephen King have done exactly this, quite purposefully and thematically.

Even though readers will suspend disbelief, at some level they remember the writer is up above the stage, pulling the strings. Names carrying too much obvious baggage or portent seem to aim the spotlight away from the stage and up at the writer. (Which a writer like Pynchon probably desires.)

I can enjoy preposterous and unlikely names as long as they aren't overly burdened with meaning. To take one of Vonnegut's recurring characters, how can one not like "Kilgore Trout"? Dickens was especially delightful and prolific in this regard, although some of his wonderful surnames are so marvelous as to be distracting. (Honeythunder? Pumblechook?)

Many writers can't resist saddling minor characters with real but unusual surnames. I've encountered the English surname "Gotobed" at least a hundred times in novels without ever bumping up against it in the real world. This is never laden with meaning; the writers have simply been amused by the name, and decided they needed to use it someday, somehow, for something. (It always knocks me out of the story by making me think of the Monty Python skit featuring a fellow named Smoketoomuch.)

Of course, what is unremarkable for one reader may be startling for another. An Iranian friend of mine told me that when he first moved to England for college he cold hardly resist laughing every time he met someone who was named for a color: Mr. Green, Mrs. Black, Mr. Brown, Miss Grey...

I'm rambling, here (and, yes, I'm stuck for a surname in my novel at the moment).

I prefer names to be somewhat evocative, but more enigmatic than emblematic. One of my favorites is Orwell's "Winston Smith," a pedestrian surname preceded by a Christian name with aspirations. It's a name you can spend some time considering, but also a name you can skate right across without a second glance. If you want to read something into it, you can, but it doesn't demand anything from the reader.

Ultimately, though, I pick names because I like the way they sound--and because, in my mind, they fit the character. By that I don't mean that they fit the character profile, or the character's thematic role. I mean that in in my mind's eye, if I call the character by that name, they answer.

* n.b. English versus Americanlish:

An interesting divergence of usage has emerge in how our two countries use the word "called" with respect names. In the UK, "named" and "called" are apparently used interchangeably. In the UK, it seems that "In the village lived a man called Smith..." means nothing more than that there was a fellow whose name was Smith.

In Americanlish, "called" is generally used to identify a label for a person which is not the person's given name--that is, the person is named one thing, but called another: "The man named Smith was called Little Smith to distinguish him from the three other Smith families in town in the town..."

BRIT: "In the village lived a man called Smith..."

YANK: "Why did they call him that?"

BRIT: "Well, because it was his name, I suppose."

And a unassailably good reason for calling him that, too. But to the American ear, it seems as if an element of the story is being left out...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Babies and Stories: The Dirty Harry Effect

A rather long article in the New York Times Magazine discusses recent research on the moral sense, if you can call it that, of infants. The psychology of babies is a fascinating but relatively new field. (Q: Do I get points for not calling it an "infant" field? A: No, not if I go ahead and say it anyway in this parenthetical.)

I don't plan to summarize the whole of the article. Instead, I want to concentrate on how babies' innate moral senses affect our sense of satisfaction with stories. (As to how babies preferences are determined in this research, you'll have to follow the link and read it there.)

The basic setup is this: Babies are shown a character attempting to do something. Two additional characters are then introduced: one who assists the character ("the helper"), and one who does things that frustrate the character in achieving its goal ("the hinderer").

First result: Babies tend to like the The Helper and to be repelled by The Hinderer. Simple enough. Surprising to those who think babies have no real consciousness, perhaps, but not to the rest of us.

To complicate matters, now introduce two other characters: The Rewarder and The Punisher. (These two characters either provide or take away treats from other characters).

Second results: Babies prefer The Rewarder to the Punisher. Again, not surprising. The Rewarder is being nice. The Punisher is being a bit unpleasant. The Rewarder is like The Helper, and the The Punisher is like the Hinderer.

But now it gets more subtle. First, let The Rewarder and The Punisher interact with The Helper. One might easily predict the outcome. The baby likes The Helper, and is also biased to like The Rewarder and dislike The Punisher, so naturally the baby approves of The Rewarder's actions, and is repelled by the unfair Punisher. Stands to reason: who's gonna like somebody who is mean to the nice one?

But the results are much more interesting when The Rewarder and The Punisher interact with The Hinderer. In this case, babies prefer The Punisher to The Rewarder. Even though they don't like The Punisher much as a character, they want to see The Hinderer punished (and, presumably, are driven a bit daffy if they see The Hinderer being rewarded).

I think of this as "The Dirty Harry Effect," from the iconic Clint Eastwood movies. Harry Callahan isn't anybody you might like, much less anybody a baby might like. He's brutal, breaks the law whenever his sense of justice demands it, and is about as far from being The Rewarder as one might imagine.

When the movie Dirty Harry first hit movie screens in the US, pundits attributed its popularity to many factors: The growing insecurity of white males, the sense of chaos in our urban centers, the frustration with the ineffective and uneven adminstration of criminal justice. Some even warned that the movie would spawn a wave of vigilantism in the country. (I think it had much the opposite effect; as with pornographic movies of the day, I suspect the viewers, erm, got it out of their systems in the theater.)

This new research shows that the appeal of the Dirty Harry setup runs deep. Even babies want to see the bad ones being punished--even though they are instinctively repelled by The Punisher. This appears to be innate in the human personality rather than something that is taught.

In some ways, this research is inspiring, suggesting a deep sense of justice and fairness in human nature. Before we break out the champagne and start toasting ourselves, however, other baby research reveals some rather disturbing further information. All things held equal, babies prefer others who are similar to themselves. As the article reports:

There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

At an abstract level, we like justice; at a more concrete level, our reaction is to side with our tribe in the most simplistic ways, and justice be damned. Hello, Lord of the Flies.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Is Obama Moby Dick?

First of all, let me say that I would have been happy to vote for Obama regardless of his race. And I suspect that there are many out there who would have been happy to vote against Obama regardless of his race. Nonetheless, it would be disingenuous to pretend that his race isn't a factor in how he is perceived.

It's weird to me that Obama, who is half Caucasian, is always referred to as "black;" but, then, Tiger Woods is always referred to as "black" rather than "Cambodian," so I guess any percentage black still trumps all in the eyes of both blacks and whites. But what is odder yet is that the world's most famous black man seems to be turning into the world's most famous White Whale.

Now, by the nature of the job, the President of the United States can't help but be something of a symbol. But in Obama's case his symbolic capacity seems limitless; people project a bewildering array of attributes and motives on to him. At first this seemed simple enough: the liberals saw him as a symbol of hope and progress, and the far right saw him as a symbol of creeping socialism and of the first days of The Last Days.

I find it exceedingly peculiar that Obama is perceived by the right as being either anti-Christian or even Muslim, while the left seems to overlook his deeply Christian religious history. Obama has far more Christian credentials--and fundamentalist Christian credentials at that--than a poseur like George W. Bush. But I guess it isn't really that odd in America: people with no combat experience or real military service, like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, are seen as "tough guys," while real combat heroes, like John Kerry or George Bush, Sr., are seen as "wimps." In light of all that, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised by Obama's White Whale status.

But the projections onto Obama seem to be at a whole new level of weirdness. I'll give just three examples.

1) Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, speaking to a crowd in Manhattan, described the Obama administration's push for a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem as an effort to "undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel," and on Fox News (where else?) said, "I believe the Obama administration is willing to throw Israel under the bus in order to please the Muslim nations." Since every US adminstration I can recall has pressured Israel on the settlements issue, it's hard for me to understand this level of hysteria over something that is merely business as usual...except in the context of Obama as Symbol. Of something.

2) Listening to the radio yesterday, in the aftermath of the riots in Greece, a reporter was interviewing a young, angry business student who was criticizing the IMF's bailout terms. In broken English, which I won't attempt to render here, he said, "It's all because Obama wants to destroy the Euro so he can have a stronger dollar!"

Ill ignore the raw stupidity of the conjecture that the US is pushing for a stronger dollar at the time that we're trying to increase exports and cut imports. What's striking about this idea is that it's conceived of as Obama's doing. I've heard all manner of world-domination-via-the-IMF accusations hurled at the IMF and at perfidious American plutocrats or the shady New World Order, but I can't recall hearing anyone attribute US strategies vis-a-vis exchange-rate policy to the President personally. (I suppose this is something of a backhanded tribute to Obama. No one would ever have accused his predecessor of formulating international economic policy.)

3) Last week I was walking in downtown San Francisco and a young man with a clipboard accosted me on the sidewalk. At first glance he looked like a Greenpeace fundraiser, but he opened by saying, "Do you want to help save the US Space Program?"

Still walking, I offered that I had nothing against the US Space Program, but that I was on my way to an appointment.

He responded by shouting, "If you want to save the US Space Program, the first question we need to answer is: Where was Barack Obama really born?"

That makes my Top Ten Non Sequitur List--unless the young man was about to argue that Obama was in fact born on another planet and wanted to discourage space exploration for fear it might reveal his extraterrestrial origins. (That wouldn't be a non sequitur. Insane, maybe, but a logical train of deranged thought.) I almost regret not stopping to hear out his crackpot reasoning, but that would have violated one of the key commandments of living in California (#7: Never stop to talk to someone on the street in the Bay Area, even if you have to walk out into traffic to avoid them).

Critics have argued for decades now about the meaning of the White Whale, but, like any good symbol, Moby-Dick remains always present yet elusive. As for myself, I hope that I can some day introduce into one of my stories a symbol as powerful and yet open to interpretation as our first Black President.