Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Idea Train and the Alluring Countryside

Work was slow this evening, and I had ample time to think about writing and life as I priced a seemingly endless pile of books. I got several ideas for stories and solved an impasse I had in one that I am trying to complete right now. The idea train was chugging along, which was nice, but then I turned to some practical considerations, such as timetables for writing, noting to myself that, during Nanowrimo I had done a decent job of putting words on the screen, but since the end of that exercise my fiction writing had slowed down. The stories I've been working on have not flowed as well as the initial novel-writing had in November.

I started thinking about why this was so. It was partly due to illness (myself and the kidlet both has stomach bugs, and she got a second one), and partly due to the season. There was more to it than that, though; my work habits had not slipped, but I was much less productive with the short fiction in the time that I wrote. One problem? The gods-cursed internet!

It came to me a little while later, as I noted to someone earlier this evening, that when I am writing non-fiction, the internet is both more necessary for research and sourcing, and less of a distraction. When I am writing fiction, however, it is hugely diverting, like losing yourself watching the endless countryside roll by. The idea train barreled along with no problem, but when it came to settling in with the idea, distraction was a given. At the time, I wasn't sure why I had thought of that, or why that might be the case, but as I pondered this conundrum on the way home from work, some ideas came to mind.

Non-fiction is relational, links much more to external matters, and does not come from deep inside me, unless it is some sort of memoir. And non-fiction is easy for me; after years in academia I can formulate arguments, outline papers in my head, calculate paragraph proportions, and put the puzzle pieces into place quickly. I can theorize, criticize, and analyze adeptly. But fiction is more creative, comes from inside, and is more contingent on a combination of confidence and interior generation of material and structure. Fiction is more personal, comes more completely from me, and having not written much of it in the last decade, I am both getting back into the groove and rediscovering my voice now, unearthing ideas and meanings and connections that are dependent on me much more intensely than a piece of criticism.

And my confidence in that process is rather shaky.

When I feel particularly distracted I usually get off the main laptop and pull out another machine to write upon (longhand is not really an option, given my horrid handwriting and the speed at which I write) that is not connected to the internet. That helps sometimes. But what I need to cultivate more is confidence and a sense of groundedness in my creativity. Nothing in my life has done more to keep me sane and happy than writing, and more than ever I am committed to writing as much as I can, to get published, and to live the life of a writer as fully as possible. It is easy to lose that anchorage when you're careening down the tracks and there are so many interesting things outside your window. It is easier to watch the world go by. But that is not the point of the ride.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Few End-of-Year Thoughts

With the closing of the calendar year comes many things. First, my final Forces of Geek column. After over 18 months in residence, it was time to move on. I really enjoyed writing the column, and I think I wrote some good ones (and a few, well, OK ones), but I felt a bit like the oddling out there, sandwiched between TV show discussions and viral videos. I am very appreciative for Stefan's support, however, because the column got me back into writing.

It was the confidence I gained from writing that column that made me take up Jason Sizemore's invitation to write for the Apex Book Company blog, where I had the, ahem, honor of writing the the Christmas Day entry this year. A totally random honor, you understand, but it made me think about celebrations, stories, and endings. I tend towards the dark and critical perspective on some things, and I tried to write something a bit brighter, but still smart. It was a bit of a challenge and a lot of fun to write.

And now I am moving on to something bigger, in three senses. First, I will soon be the newest columnist for a website that is much more my cup of tea than FoG. It should be set up by the New Year, and I am extremely excited to be writing for these folks. Second, I am at the critical point in writing my novel, just over the 50K mark, and I have had an avalanche of ideas come crashing down on my head, and I am currently digging my way out of the pile and figuring out how to put all of this material together in a strong narrative edifice. Third, I will have two stories ready to send out after the first of the year, perhaps three if I can get past my thinking that it's "not my kind of story."

I am writing more, and more seriously, now than ever. It is so gratifying to be doing the work, even if I still need to work on consistency and discipline a bit more. For the folks who read this wee blog, and my work, and for the support and comments you have sent my way, thanks. 2010 was difficult, but productive, and I look forward to 2011 being much better in every way.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Since Everyone Else is Doing a Fraggin' Top Ten List. . .

. . . allow me to jump onto the bandwagon!

I've been meaning to do some reviews for a bit, but NaNoWriMo and illness delayed them. So, I can banish two daemons with one incantation via a Top Ten List. These are the ten creative works (not all released in 2010) that I most enjoyed and admired this year.

The List, in no particular order:

---The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: A rich and provocative book that takes the fantasy tale and brings out new features for us to marvel at. I love the world-building and the care with which Jemisin put this book together. It is wonderfully written, enjoyable, and thoughtful all at the same time. I am looking forward to The Broken Kingdoms, which I just received, to see what happens next.

---Blood of Ambrose/This Crooked Way: I discovered James Enge through his story in the Swords & Dark Magic anthology, and I am so glad that I did. His work has rekindled my love for sword & sorcery through its combination of vigorous action, depth of character, and crisp prose. People who call his prose "slick" are missing some of its deeper pleasures, such as his economy of description, his deft characterizations, and a cavalcade of fascinating ideas that are woven together unassumingly into a cultural fabric that makes his work both warm and visceral. He takes the basic heroic mode of sword & sorcery and expands upon it even as he plays with it. His books have a classical heft to them, but are neither stiff nor dated. He refreshes the genre by taking old roads and then suddenly going off into the misty woods beyond, making new paths that wind in and out of our expectations. Really top-notch stuff!

---Haunted Legends (Tor, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas): This is the best anthology of the year in my book. It is a collection of literate, evocative, well-crafted stories; even the few stories that did not appeal to me were well-done, just not my cup of oolong. What makes this collection so great is that many of the stories are not what you would expect; this is not a compendium of spooky ghost stories or tales of bloodcurdling horror. Most anthologies have a thematic that you expect will be directly reflected in the story. In this anthology, the theme is far more inspirational than that, and is taken in many different directions by the contributors.

The great pleasure of this anthology is that you find so much that is unexpected; stories that are not just about spooky monsters or strange folklore but about people, about regret and loss and wonder expressed and explained through parables and yarns of the unconventional and the painful. In many of these stories legends integrate anguish, the unnerving, and the inexplicable into our lives. Our trespasses against each other and the world, or those of others, becomes the stuff of chagrined, sad tales. Our feelings of suffering and powerlessness are explained by forces outside our control: our loneliness both revealed and, sometimes, combated by strange fables that integrate the cryptic and peculiar aspects of the world around us into something culturally manageable and socially connective.

---Agents of Atlas/Agents of Atlas: Turf Wars/Agents of Atlas: Dark Reign: These three volumes contain some of the best comics I have read in a decade. Writer Jeff Parker takes a group of forgotten characters and makes something fresh and lively out of reuniting them to help their erstwhile leader become reborn and deal with a family legacy that would make the Corleones flee in terror. It's consistently quirky, almost campy at times, but leavened with fast pacing, delightful twists, and genuinely likable characters. Comic-book soap opera is left by the wayside, as are most of the more tired cliches of the superhero genre. Parker instead goes for smart, punchy stories mixed with intrigue and humor. Leonard Kirk, Gabriel Hardman, and Carlo Pagulayan all do excellent work on the art, although Kirk is my favorite artist for the Agents.

---Farthing: Jo Walton is a treasure. She writes great books and perceptive criticism, and her love and critical appreciation for speculative fiction comes through in all of her writing. Farthing demonstrates this in a curious way: by reproducing an entirely different genre (the English country-house mystery) packed with speculative twists that are so well blended into the narrative that you feel transported into that other world. Her deep understanding of the genre comes out in the careful crafting of this novel, which is note-perfect in tone and consistently subversive. I don't like mysteries, but this book is much, much more than "just a mystery." It is an astute, engrossing novel that makes you think hard about what we take for granted.

---Who Fears Death: Nnedi Okorafor's book was a revelation for me, in ways that I am still pondering. As I wrote in one of my FoG columns, the book "mingles destiny, brutality, and liminality in the story of a young woman's coming-of-age in a harsh, dystopian future. Despite a few missteps, the book is 'without preachiness or didactic overkill,' and demonstrates both Okorafor's gift for storytelling and her ability to create deeply grounded stories out of folkloric traditions and speculative insights." It is a very hard book to read sometimes, challenging and discomforting, but consistently engaging and often poetic.

--- Wizardry & Wild Romance: This is a re-issue of Moorcock's extended ruminations on the history and state of epic fantasy. As I said in another review "Moorcock employs detailed discussions of older, sometimes obscure works and weaves them into larger literary trends and literary-historical forces to produce a critique of fantastic literature and its niche in Western cultures. Moorcock's analysis is fun to read and persuasive, and made even a devoted Tolkien fanboy like me start to question what I find so compelling about his work. What this book does best is get under the skin of both individual works and broader ideas and engage the conundrums contained within them. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, Moorcock makes a compelling case for viewing fantasy critically and productively that will help you read the genre with discernment and inquisitiveness." I am still chewing over this book, and will for some time.

---Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, And Society in Saga Iceland: This book is simply fascinating. William Ian Miller takes the sagas and legal codes of old Iceland and performs a stunning act of legal and anthropological interpretation on them. He teases out assumptions, inconsistencies, and deeper meanings in both story and conduct and outlines the interrelations between law, culture, and myth. It is an intelligent analysis that is also a joy to read, and that spends most of its time on the source material instead of theory. I learned a lot from this book that I am applying to some of my fiction.

--- Apex Magazine, Issue #18: This was the Arab/Muslim issue that came out in November, and Cat Valente did a stellar job of assembling and editing this issue. The three short stories were wonderful, and the implicit themes of identity and authority heightened the intensity of the works. The poetry was gorgeous and evocative, and the inclusion of a Turkish fairy tale rounded out the offerings and gave the issue a definitive continuity and context. Certainly the best single-issue periodical I read this year.

2010 was a good year for reading, personally. I read much more than I have in several years, and I feel that I read a lot of good work. Best of all, I found a lot of inspiration in what I read; not just ideas, but creative energy as well. I'm looking forward to tackling my big stack of To-Be-Reads in 2011.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

An Assortment of Merriments, Confabulations, Imagos, &co.

1) Been poleaxed by a stomach bug for most of the week. Today is the first full day of a regular food menu and normal functioning. Still rather drained, but pretty much back up to speed.

2) I have not had a drop of coffee since Tuesday. I think that some of the feeling unenergized (and feeling down as well) may come from a level of caffeine withdrawal. Not sure if I will try this out a little longer or not. Coffee has some cultural and symbolic significance for me, I've found. It's hard to not want to pick it back up again.

3) Books obtained in the past week:

The Alteration is going into my reading queue right away. It just sounds far too naughty and odd to miss.

4) As a result, not much writing. I re-read the first half of the novel draft last night, and made a few notes (and got some good advice from Will Shetterly and my friend Judd about it). Tonight I am wiped from a super-busy day at work and I think I will crawl off to finish James Enges' excellent This Crooked Way. I was a bit trepidatious about the book at the start, especially when he used a bit of slang that shattered the suspension of disbelief for me, but it's full of fascinating ideas and driven by a solid story.

5) Want a bit more excitement? Go over to Blake Charlton's website and witness his snarkfest with Sam Sykes. 'Sfunny.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

STORY EXERCISE: "The Woman Who Was Worried That She Was Half-Chimpmunk: A Tale of Woe"

So today on twitter an acquaintance tweeted the following:

"I woke up with a swollen face-I look like half a chimpmunk!! That's it. I'm going back to bed."

We then had a joking exchange about a story title I made up based on the tweet (the one in the title above). It was amusing, but I could not get it out of my head. I decided that it might make a good seed for a writing exercise, so I set one up and the result is below.

The rules I made were: write for 40 minutes twice (it was originally 45 minutes but my daughter woke up a little early from her nap), then edit for 15 minutes. That's it. Nothing amazing emerged but it was a great loosening-up exercise. I ended up using some pretty traditional tropes, but it was enjoyable to write something quickly that did not have a lot of expectations hovering over it. The result is below:

She looked in the mirror again. It was the eighth time she had examined her face since she had gotten home. The pain had subsided. . . well, the physical pain had. Now she had to deal with this:

The reflection of her left profile was her: lustrous skin over high cheekbones, sparkling green eyes, and burgeoning, supple lips. Well, OK, the lips were a bit thin and the sparkle was contacts, but still, it was her. No question.

The right profile was completely different: puffed-out, reddened cheek; a squinty, dull eye; lips almost completely gone, enfolded by the fleshiness around them. And for the love of all the holiest things, her left incisor seemed to be poking out! As she looked at the reflection the eye twitched, and her nose, also a bit puffed-up, did the same.

And . . . was that a small, dark hair, under her nose, starting to poke out?

She shook her head; no, that was ridiculous. It was just a bit more root-canal swelling than usual. She resolved to stop worrying and get on with the day.

Until she came downstairs and her husband, returning home early from a meeting, burst into laughter upon seeing her. She snarled at him, and then immediately wondered why that had come out of her mouth rather than the snappy reply she had intended. He did his best to control his mirth, and opined that, perhaps, spending the rest of the day in bed was a good idea.

She shrugged; that had been her thought anyway. She glared at him as she went back upstairs, and stifled an irritated chitter when he chuckled again.


The next morning she awoke and looked at the clock with surprise: she had slept for almost 18 hours. She still felt exhausted as she got out of bed. Her husband was still asleep, but she decided not to wake him yet. She went into the bathroom to check on the swelling.

The right side had changed overnight, but in a way that contracted her stomach. The cheeks were not just puffy; the skin's texture had changed, and was that . . . fuzz appearing on her face? The little hairs under her nose were now numerous, longer, and black. They felt strange, as if she could taste the air with them or something. Her nose was darker too, and the teeth. . . she shook her head. No, the incisor couldn't be longer. . . .

She turned on her heel and marched out of the bathroom. Now she was worried; at the very least the swelling should have gone down, but it looked as if that side of her face was more than just puffy. It was different.

It was changing.

She shook her head again; no, she was just too anxious about the puffiness. That had to be it.

"Oh, that's not looking better," her husband said, sitting up in bed.

She stopped, cocked her head, and twitched her whiskers at him. "What do you mean?"

He yawned."Still puffy, and there's something over your lip." He put his index finger under his nose to emphasize his point.

"That's it?" she asked, trying to not bounce on her feet.

He shrugged, and squinted at her. "Your makeup looks awful."

She made sure to flip him the finger twice as she went out the door, once before and once after putting on the hoodie.


The dentist's office had just opened, and there were no patients when she arrived. It was five shades of taupe and suffused with hammered dulcimer music clearly playing off of a cassette. She had not realized how boring and old it felt.

The receptionist smiled up at her when she came in. "Can I help you?"

Her speech was bit funny with the odd-sized teeth, and her tone was guttural. "I want to see the doctor, please."

"OK. Do you have an appointment?"

She was about to answer when a door opened down the hall and out came the dentist. He was short, wiry, and moved with. . . she could only call it a sinister grace. How had she not seen that yesterday?

"So, what time is. . ." he stopped speaking and walking when she saw her, still hooded, but a bit of light glinting off the incisor. "Ah, good morning." There was silence for a good ten seconds. "Mrs. Yuen, please tell my 8:30 that I have an emergency patient." He gestured for her to follow and headed into a room on his right.

She narrowed her eyes; something smelled wrong about this. But she went down the corridor and went into the open doorway. As the door was slammed behind her, the tang of something bad hit her whiskers, and she turned and grabbed the descending arm of the dentist, which held a creepy-looking hypodermic needle with. . . fins? She squeezed with her right hand, and he squealed and dropped the needle, which shattered when it hit the floor. She spun him around and slammed him into the cabinets behind him.

"What have you done to me?"

"What, what, what are you talking about?" he said, with absolutely no sincerity.

"If you don't tell me, the last thing you will see before you lose consciousness is the room spinning as I slam you into a wall and turn your clavicle into a jigsaw puzzle!" She ooked at him to drive the point home.

He stood up straighter and tried to surrender with dignity. "Well, seeing as you're so upset, and incredibly buff, I'll tell you." He dramatically closed his lab coat; she flexed her left eyebrow and he quivered. "OK, fine. I gave you an experimental genetic growth hormone."

You . . .WHAT?!?!?"

He tried to smile, but her combination of human and simian rage was unnerving him. "A new medication, designed to encourage rapid healing and dental health." He again tried to recover his composure. "I mean, it was approved by the FDA . . ."

She took a step towards him and he shrank back. "This . . . is . . . CANADA, you idiot!"

"Oh, right," he smiled again, and the light reflected strangely off of his glasses. Were they fake?

In a flash, she leaped at him and grabbed the collar of his lab coat. "WHO ARE YOU?" she chitter-roared.

"I'm. . . I'm. . . "his voice started to rise, get weirdly squeakier, "I'm just a dentist. I was born in Montreal, Calgary!"

With a bellow that would have done Mighty Joe Young proud she lifted him off the floor by his lapels. As she started to shake him, he undid the remaining button on the coat and fell out of it. As he hit the floor he went onto all fours and scampered, quite ferret-like, for the door, glasses and wig falling from his head as he zipped out of the door.

She threw the coat to the floor and gave chase, but by the time she got to the lobby, he was gone. The receptionist had stood up and looked at her in terror. She turned to the receptionist and showed her some teeth. "So, what's your story?"

* * * * *
The story was that the receptionist had been hired the week before, that the dentist had very few patients, and that when the cops were called they looked at her funny and said that she should sue. They filled out a report and escorted her out of the building. When she called the next day the phone was disconnected, and a trip over to the office found it completely cleaned out. A few days later she noticed the swelling and other aberrations abating. By then she had been checked out by three doctors who shrugged and called it, in order: an allergic reaction, a random mutation, and obviously some kind of weird experiment gone awry. And then she looked fine, and her tests came back with no problems, and that was that.

Until exactly 26 days later.

She decided to take a walk in the cool night air, which didn't seem to bother her much anymore. The only thing that really annoyed her was that the incisor never completely grew down. She had a permanent scowl, but it proved useful sometimes. So what was she? Child of the night? Alien experiment? Victim of a global humanimal conspiracy? She shrugged at the sky, looking at the moon, not yet full. Whatever it was, in a few days it would give her a good excuse to stay in bed.


The ending is abrupt due to time constraints; next time I should spend a few more minutes on getting to the end and see if I can improve it. As I said, a lot of recognizable tropes. It puts me in my of some recent writing advice I read that said you should discard the first three things you think of in a story, to get the the better, deeper ideas. I might try this again, with the same title, and take it in a different direction, and see if that notion bears fruit. Hopefully it's enjoyable to read, raw as it is. Comments are encouraged.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Damp Books, Undampened Spirit (A Roundup of sorts)

So I finished Nanowrimo last night at 40,153 words. That is not a win in Nano terms. However, it was a personal win as I now have the core of a novel and have demonstrated to myself that I have the discipline to put words on paper just about every day. This makes me happy. The next step is to build on this momentum, which means working on some short fiction I put off during the month and then going back to this 40K lump and shaping it more, which will mean cutting a fair bit out as well.

I have gotten some books in the last several days:

Sadly, the Lady Churchill's and my copy of Haunted Legends are now both slightly water-damaged due to the torrential rain we had today. I did not realize how utterly soaking the weather would be; usually my trusty courier bag keeps things safe, but by the time I got to the bus stop I was thoroughly drenched and the bag was saturated, even though I had protected it as best I could. I was so miserable and dripping on the bus that I did no reading, but I am looking forward to some reading time at breakfast.

Off to write now.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Magic of the Update

1) Still NaNoWriMoing, still behind. But I am at about 34K, so I may not make the magic 50, but I have been more consistent and inspired in the past month than, well, almost ever. Making the time is difficult, but the experience has been rewarding and heartening. The trick will be to keep at it after November 30.

Once it's over, I am going to put the novel aside and take a hard look at my short fiction. I have one story that needs editing, one that needs finishing, and three that are in the foetal stage and are screaming to be born. I would like to start submitting pieces (finally!) after the holidays, and start racking up the piles of rejection slips. I am, weirdly, looking forward to it.

2) I did my usual Apex and Forces of Geek posts. I really like the former, and want to get more into it. The latter was a bit rushed, but I would love to expand it.

3) I just finished re-reading Jo Walton's Farthing, which is a fine piece of literature and one of the best alternate-history novels I have ever read. I recommended it in my "Diabolical Dozen" guest post over at Culinary Carnivale and just had to go read it again. It's so well done that I forget that I don't like the sort of novels it is based upon, the dreaded "country-house mystery."

I am nearly done with Haunted Legends, the new anthology edited by Ellen Datlow & Nick Mamatas. Holy carp it's good! This is for me the best anthology of the year, because it fulfills the promise of the title in unexpected ways, and the authors write stories that are soulful, visceral, and that find the truths of life in the legends they use as their inspiration. Even the few stories that I did not like I still admire for their writing. I will definitely be putting up a longer review once I finish the last few stories.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Little Flash For Friday

I revised this piece last night and thought that it would make for a good #flashfriday piece:

"The Wonders"

She lay there on the ground, breathing deeply, sifting the soft alien sand through her fingers.

Why doesn't this atmosphere hurry up and kill me, she thought, taking another deep, rattling breath.

The shuttle had crashed into a dune with colorful featherlettes waving cheerfully from its crest. No dust had been kicked up by the sudden impact; rather, little fey motes had streaked away from it in terror, and now they clustered on the crumpled landing gear, sparkling and chirping in the waning light of this world’s day.

She gasped; her lungs were about to seize up. About time.

She was tired of it; tired of all the wonders. Her eightieth exploratory landing (ninth crash), her twelfth planet discovered on the tip of the Spiral Arm. And still her bones were tired, and she couldn't get laid, and her dog had died a hundred years ago, so far away that the light from this world’s star would not reach his little gravestone until she was a memory of dust. If this world had dust. . . .

Racing light was for suckers. Fuck the wonders! C'mon already, oblivion!

"What is this. . . oblivion?" something whispered in her ear.

"Buddha wept in a cantina!" she shouted. She leapt to her feet, coughed, and her knees buckled. Dammit, just some chlorine in the air, this would all be over. . . .

There was nothing but a voice, a reverberation in the air. Hallucinogens in the atmo; great! Now she could sink into delusion before she died; that should make dying easier. . . .

"You will not transition," the voice said carefully, as if language was something new and delicate to manipulate. "You cannot achieve unearned discorporation here."

Hell I can't. Her lungs were blazing and her pulse fluttering. It sure felt like dying. . . .

"No, our world will adapt to you momentarily. Your form will not release your essence." A pause, and then, an invocation. "It is so."

With one last rattle, her breathing cleared; something surged through her bloodstream. The sky went from weak squid-ink to a faint, faint blue. The featherlettes danced in a sudden light breeze, and the fey motes shifted in their swarming and their sparks dimmed.

Crap. She took a deep breath, and it was sweet and restorative. “Please,” she said to the planet, “ I would just like to die.”

She felt a presence mimic the equivalent of shaking its head. "I am apologetic, but no. You must earn your end here."

She felt the presence fade. The sun shone brightly, and off to her left, the featherlettes wilted, and something like an apple tree began to spring up. Shoots of many colors began to rise and uncurl from the earth, and somewhere in the distance something like a bird began to sing.

Fuck the wonders, she thought, watching the tree begin to grow branches. Maybe I can hang myself from it in a couple of days.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

On Writing Crap, & Loving It

So, NaNoWriMo this year has so far been a brutally wonderful experience. While I am behind, I am writing more consistently and with more confidence than ever before. There are two reasons for this that immediately come to mind: first, I am setting aside time to write and doing my best to just write. Currently, that means 1-2 hours each evening (after 8PM, when either my daughter has gone to bed or I get home from work) and two dedicated pockets of 90 minutes on Sunday morning and during my laundry run. What makes me pleased about this is that, for the first time, I feel horribly guilty when I am not writing during a designated time. I have the compulsion and the desire to use that time to write.

The other reason, which partly buttresses the first one, is that whether I am writing a description of a city, a fight scene, or a diplomatic exchange, that I regardless of what I am writing, I embrace the fact that I AM writing, and that even the worst crap, the most awkward prose, the lamest idea, is progress. Everything is forward motion.

That doesn't mean that everything I write has inherent utility. In fact, when I look at some of what I have written, I find awful passages, stilted dialogue, and vague descriptions full of cliche. I also find promising writing, but what is important at this stage is to accept that I am doing the basic task of getting words on the page/screen. If I am writing crap, that crap has to be written to clear the way for the other stuff that is rolling around in my imagination. I used to refuse to write when things got difficult, but what I am learning through this exercise is that getting the flow going, getting the mind working, and stimulating my creativity is what is important. And as a result, good stuff comes out, and other ideas come out that can be improved or that can serve as a gateway to others emerging later.

I was thinking about this last night after encouraging a friend to wade through the crap, regardless of how it might feel to do so. I was having a bit of trouble as well (and did not make my word goal last night), trying to work through a flashback scene. I took a sort break, and happened to see that Holly Black's NaNoWriMo pep talk had arrived in my email inbox. It was not merely inspirational, it was a blueprint for how to change your thinking about the process, how to see the struggle as necessary to get through to the accomplishment of finishing. The idea that most resonated with me right then was "You don't have to believe you can; you just have to do it." So, instead of staying bogged down, I started on the next section, and found that I had worked out an idea that could be expanded later, and that had given me some insight into the plot that led to a much more interesting scene that provided some of the texture that I have felt lacking in the novel to this point.

Of course, this sort of fortuitous situation does not always occur; sometimes, crap is crap, and just needs to be exorcised from your brain and from the page. Once you see word count and the task of writing as not just abstract goals, but a concrete part of the process, the notion of crap itself can change. Writing crap is setting yourself up to get to the good stuff, to utilize your artistry and work up an intellectual sweat, to get yourself into a groove where the words that come inspire something better, or create a moment that makes you smile. Taking the hard work seriously, and realizing that the results of your efforts will vary and need shaping, means affirming to yourself that crap has a place in your process, and that it will always be there, and that dealing with it will make you more disciplined and more productive. Writing crap, and loving it, means that you are a writer.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fabulae of the Reconstruction

So, my Nanowrimo work is proceeding apace. I am behind but catching up, and there is more flow than blockage, so I am happy. It's choppy as hell, but the characters are fleshing themselves out and I am getting a sense for how some of the sections are fitting into the larger story arc. Best of all, I am carving out the time to write, and feeling a more consistent rhythm. The plan now is to catch up and finish NaNoWriMo, and in December get at least two stories ready to send out.

At the moment I am cleaning up the blog and doing some reorganizing, re-tagging mostly. Some older stuff is coming down, other things will shift about. And then it's back to writing misinterpretations, reviews, and WIP.

For now, here is a signal boost for my last Forces of Geek column on superheroes and the grotesque.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Genre-love, Genre-fail (?), Genre-rage

I was on my way here to post a link to a guest blog I wrote about "Must-Read" fantasy books, when I ran smack-dab into a couple of highly relevant pieces on, essentially, the problems of genre. Jo Walton wrote a great post on SF's problematic aspects as a genre, which I thought was well-done and brought up a number of points about how we both categorize and stigmatize stories. I no sooner read that than I saw Cat Valente's long excoriation of steampunk on her blog. Both are strongly-argued discourses on the problems in the definition and application of the bundles of tropes and ideas that constitute a delineated genre classification.

They are also both noteworthy for the way that they show the effect of sociality on genre. The nigh-inextricability of SF/spec fic/fantastika from the socio-cultural trends and practices of the moment comes to the forefront in both pieces, albeit in different ways. Walton argues that SF is a sponge that is sensitive to the world around it. Valente takes steampunk to task for being too much about the social and the aesthetic, and not enough about the writing or the stories. While coming from different angles, both pieces trenchently take apart commonly-reproduced assumptions about genre. Which I find to be edifying, as discussions like these push me to look more critically at my own writing.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rounding Up Them Doggies

Lots of writing going on:

1) New Forces of Geek column. Some rambling about NaNaWriMo.

2) So, yeah, I am participating in NaNoWriMo this year. I am working on some background stuff and a very basic plotline in the days running up to the start of the marathon. Check out my profile there and feel free to "buddy"me.

3) I decided to work on a sword-and-sorcery idea after writing my latest Apex column. A brief exchange with Will Shetterly gave me not only an idea for a longer column about S&S, but also made me think of a story idea I have been banging around for awhile, and NaNoWriMo is a good place to get the guts of it out onto the virtual page. Michael Moorcock's Wizardry and Wild Romance was also an inspiration for this project. I will have to write a review of that soon, mostly to get some of the insights I gleaned from it into better form for further cogitation, and to argue with some of the ideas I did not agree with in his essay.

The working title of my project is A Crown of Crusted Blood. Here is the initial blurb:

The Dread Shepherd Gromkidach is dead, and the Bound-Lands have been freed by a band of revolutionaries who must now figure out how to bring peace to the Lands while dealing with the fragments of empire left in his wake (as well as rival rebels eager to capitalize on the chaos). As one of them decides whether to take up the Shepherd's Mantle and the Scarlet Crown, the rest of the band must decide how to deal with a rigid society in turmoil and an ancient, corrupted alliance held together only by old magics, fear, and entrenched traditions.

I'm sketching out some of the contours of said society, nailing down characters and establishing a basic progression for the story. The WIP I posted earlier is a possible opening for this work. I've started reading Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland , by William Ian Miller, which has some useful insights into the workings of law without an elaborate state apparatus. I'm thinking about ways to create a polity that is not the usual Empire; in this case, the Bound-Lands, a group of allied and subjugated communities and peoples who are "protected" by the Shepherd (who was not always "Dread"). I am also considering how my little band of revolutionaries succeeded in toppling him, and what immediate ripples this would create in the political and social fabrics.

That is as much fun as writing the story for me. I'm pretty juiced about writing this story.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Two Openings

I started this blog as a "writing blog" to naively "get my work out there" and it has turned into something more (and better, I think) than that. But I have not shared much of what I am working on in some time, mostly due to life-stuff, but I would like to share two brief excerpts from (gasp!) work in progress. Both are draft zero bits, unretouched so far.

1) This is the opening to a longer story, sword-and-sorcery with some twists, currently untitled:

Her hand was so slippery with the dying man's blood that she dropped the poinard she had just pulled from between his ribs. He gasped, his rune-hemmed cloak glowing intermittently, his attempts to command it interrupted by the silvery poison traveling through his body. She grunted and fell to her knees, watched him writhe with her remaining eye. She felt the pain of assorted burns and cuts, and the stab wound just beneath her heart that was already closing. She swallowed the blood running from her chewed-apart lip; she had bitten into it desperately to release the healing spells inside the tiny crystals planted beneath it. Many times she had not bitten hard enough and nearly lost her life to a dagger in the liver. What an embarassing way to die, she thought.

The cloak stopped glowing, and the man stiffened. She tried to reach into one of her bandolier pouches but her arm wouldn't work immediately. She lifted it slowly and saw that it was not just the blood that has caused her to drop the blade; the shoulder was swollen and impeded by her armor. She moved it slowly, grimacing and cursing, until she found the packet she wanted. She took it with her good hand, shifting the blackburr wand it already held into the crock of her thumb, put the packet to her mouth, and tore it open, tossing the contents over the body.

Her timing was good; some of the salt settled on a form in the air over the corpse. The form shuddered, then shrieked as the salt dissolved it. The noise made her close her remaining eye and bow before it. Then, with a sizzle, it ended, and the remaining salts fell onto the corpse, a few bits smouldering when they contacted vestiges of life-energy still present in the withering body.

"Any other tricks?" she whispered gutturally. The air in the room ticked like cooling metal. The place became darker as blades dimmed, gems lost their inner light, and dweomers dissipated. She began to feel her wounds more acutely; even with the diandsteels doing their work, she began to feel dizzy from shock and pain. The only thing that did not hurt was her eye socket; the spell that had burst her eyeball had singed the nerves and blood vessels and rendered them insensible. She got up carefully, swaying. The corpse coughed, but then unclenched and seemed to fall into itself.

She bowed her head. The moment has arrived. She stood there, unsure what to do.

The door burst open. She spun and levelled her wand at the opening, its tines unwinding and beginning to spark. In the doorway, a woman with short black hair, skin just a shade lighter, and emerald armor stood. arms crossed. Behind her was some massive creature with a head rather like that of a woolly bison, peering over the woman's shoulder. When she saw them, she dropped the wand and started to laugh, but could not finish expresing her mirth, as she collapsed and smacked her nose on the cobbled floor.

2) Short story opening, currently titled "The Zombie Menace":

Timbo was sure that this was the hottest day yet; of course the fucking zombies would choose today to go nuts. The reflective tarp was useless; in the shade you roasted, in the sun you broiled. There was no escape, not from anything out here on the border.

The fences were all down except the electrified one. They had been coming so fast this week that the repair crews were almost a month behind. Someone had tried to get Timbo's unit out there to fix some of the them but the Sergeant just whipped out his 'pad and showed them the contract. "We shoot zombies. That's it." he told the National Guard guy. The thin little shit just swallowed hard and nodded, and took off.

Back in the big town to the north the Army grunts sat in their little cubicles and watched it all unfold through their monitors. They didn't really care about the fences; they were more concerned about the automated machine guns, the tankbots (stupid name, they were about as big as a pony), and the new things, the panthers. But they always made a show of caring, as if that would make the forward positions feel better.

It didn't. Timbo could have told them that, listening to his contract-mates day after day, bitching about the pay, about the job, about the new Mark 7As always jamming, about clean-up (which WAS in their contract). About the screaming. They trained you for a lot of things at the three-week Border Legion boot camp, but not for the screaming. Zombies screamed. More than you would think.

Thoughts are very welcome.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Few Reviews

I keep meaning to write reviews of the books and films I have read and watched over the past few months, and then get bogged down in other matters, including sketching out a monstrously long review of Swords & Dark Magic that is far from done (and is rapidly becoming some geeky manifesto about sword-and-sorcery). But now the time has come! Let there be kudos and criticisms!

---Swords & Dark Magic (the brief review): While characterized as "[a] truly breathtaking new anthology," I was able to hold on to my breath for most of the stories. The introduction sounds quite promising in its attempt to reinvigorate the idea of sword-and-sorcery as a distinctive offspring of fantasika, but, like a number of the stories, there is little innovation and a lot of rehashing. This is not inherently bad, but I felt that the introduction raised hopes that were mostly unfulfilled in the volume.

The "classic" stories were the ones that I enjoyed the least. While Moorcock's Elric tale was serviceable and well-written, it trod a well-worn path in the cursed albino's saga and offered little new insight into the mythology of the character. Glen Cook's Black Company story similarly seemed like the Same Old Thing, but with a tone that made it feel more like a modern military yarn than sword-and-sorcery. Robert Silverberg's Majipoor tale was more diverting, but light on both the multi-leveled literary action and ornamentation that makes the best tales of this world shine. After an amusing start, the "fully authorized" Dying Earth offering (written not by Jack Vance, but by Michael Shea) just fell into an uninteresting rut that played out like a one-shot D&D adventure.

Some of the more original stories also felt uninspired, despite the talent of their authors. Like Moorcock, Gene Wolfe's story was not poorly written, but seemed to meander in intention and did not fire my imagination. Joe Abercrombie's offering has some good dialogue and earthy characters, but I felt that there was little at stake in the plot and not much tension in the story's progression. Bill Willingham's brief tale was too predictable, with little detail or finesse to divert you from that fact. Even the excellent Greg Keyes' Fool Wolf entry was not very original, despite an intriguing start.

More promising was Steven Erikson's gritty tale of a dead-end town and some weary soldiers. While increasingly predictable, Erikson's story drew you into the lives of the characters deftly, even as the action became increasingly unrealistic, leading to an ending that was very promising until the last few lines, which shattered all that had cared about in the story. Garth Nix's story was a pleasant diversion, and K. J. Parker's "A Rich, Full Week" was both amusing and intriguing. The story by Tim Lebbon was a nice spin on several sword-and-sorcery themes, and kept me guessing until the end. Tanith Lee's allegorical excursion was a lot of fun, even when it felt too self-absorbed.

The standout tales came from two established authors and two newer talents. C. J. Cherryh's "A Wizard in Wiscezan" was holistically satisfying, with characters rendered fully human in a few lines and a story that, while not new, was invigorated by engagement with the characters and by the way in which magic was used. James Enge presented a tale of Morlock the Maker that took the best elements of classical sword-and-sorcery and knocked them ass-over-teacups. Scott Lynch also did a lovely job of twisting some old ideas into vibrantly new shapes. Both of these stories did what I was expecting of this entire collection: inject new life into sword-and-sorcery by drawing on the essential elements of the genre and applying new sensibilities and possibilities to its conventions.

But hands-down the finest tale in the collection was CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan's "The Sea Troll's Daughter." In it she takes one of the most well-worn conventions of sword-and-sorcery and makes it both human and mythic simultaneously. From inversions of gender and status to the upending of the facile simplicities that often plague genre stories, this narrative undermines your expectations while refreshing your vision of what sword-and-sorcery can do in the hands of skillful, sensitive writer. It balances fatalism and frailty, the earthy and the grotesque, and delivers a piece of writing that is both adventure and fable, a rollicking meditation that provokes and entertains.

(And yes, that IS the short review!)

---Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees: I wasn't sure what to expect of this book, despite having read several reviews. None of them prepared me for the actual experience of reading the book: it was sublime, trippy, eccentric, droll, measured, and fabulous. The writing is sometimes too formal and stilted, but the prose pulls you into the world of Dorimare, where fairy fruit is banned and where the town of Lud-in-the-Mist is about to find out the cost of prohibition. I find it hard to say what the book is about, because there are so many ways to interpret it. It could be an absurd, subversive comedy that comments on bourgeois sensibilities or a mannered yarn about the foibles of convention and the need to acknowledge, not stifle, our inner impulses, or it could be a hallucinogenic meditation on the clash of pastoral and gentrified worldviews. . . the book goes in many directions, some of them more mystified than others. While there are few likable characters, you end up caring about the fate of this world's inhabitants, and the journey that the book takes you on is both absorbing and enchanting. I highly recommend it, and hope that I someday find enough folks who have read it to talk about the experience and make more sense of it.

--- Avatar: I knew going in that this would be a hard film for me to like, after the hype and the dissection of it in countless reviews and blogs, but I wanted to see what James Cameron was trying to accomplish. The result of all his work was a bad movie, all image and no soul. Amazing graphics? Sure. But who cares? The characters were little more than slightly-active scenery, a more complex image than the flora and fauna of Pandora. The movie was all surface and no heart, preachy with nothing to say, and sloppy in its transitions and development.

The story was a morass of cliches, with a pacing that was sublimated to the need to put amazing graphics on the screen frequently. It was hard to believe that this was the same filmmaker who made characters you cared about, who felt human, in films like Aliens and The Abyss. Those films had their problems, but they were not the utter mess of image overload that Avatar is.
I found myself wishing that it had been a faux documentary on the wonders of the planet, rather than a poorly-executed action film, because that format would have accentuated the need for the hyper-detailed visuals and removed a lot of what made the film painful to watch.

---National Geographic: Collapse: Based on the book by Jared Diamond (and featuring him prominently throughout), this documentary uses a science-fictional frame to discuss the possible fall of modern civilization. Moving between a fictional scientific expedition of 2200 CE and civilizations of the past, the film discusses a number of factors that, if not addressed, could (and likely will) result in the catastrophic dissolution of the modern world-system. The documentary looks at what made past systems fail; basically, as one archaeologist puts it, "they overshot."

This line condenses and essentializes the problem of collapse; large human systems plan poorly for the future, and as a result are unprepared when the system encounters one or more large predicaments. As Daniel Gilbert says in the film:"what's so curious about human beings is that we can look deeply into the future, foresee disaster, and still do nothing in the present to stop it." Collapse returns to this idea of looking deeply into the future as a possible solution to our ills, even as it demonstrates that every other large-scale society has failed to do so. While the looking-backwards frame does little more than provide transitions between the litany of problems, it keeps the film moving and also allows the viewer to pretend that there will be a future. Whether that is effective in getting people to think harder, and to act, is uncertain. For me, the film confirmed that without drastic action, without embracing that ability to look deeply into the past and future and access the enormous amounts of information we have to find principled, powerful solutions to our problems, we will follow those other civilizations into ruin.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pachycephalic Kakorrhaphiophobia

I got some nice compliments on the FoG column today. I was a little worried that it would pass unnoticed, but several people, including James Enge, Paul Jessup, and Cat Valente responded in some fashion to it (For example, Cat boosted the signal after declaring her happiness at being on the list). I was pretty nervous about this column, and I am still not sure why. Maybe because I put a lot of work into it, or perhaps because I thought that it might not work. To date most of my columns have been extemporaneous; this one required a lot of planning and reading, more than I had thought it would require.

But I learned a lot from it. First of all, I am still as anxious as crap about a significant piece of writing until someone responds to it. I am usually not too concerned about my FoG columns because, honestly, I don't know if they are widely read. Comments are often sparse on the site anyway, but particularly for my columns which are far less pop-culture oriented than those of my compatriots. I am usually more nervous about the reception of my Apex blog posts, which are read more closely (as I found out in particular with the postmodernism column). This column, however, meant a lot to me in terms of the care put into it and, well, the love.

I love speculative fiction, fantastika, SF, fantasy, widdlezingsongwubble, whatever you want to call the array of fantastic literatures. I would be a very different, and I think much suckier, person without the influence of imaginative fiction on my life. While it has not saved me from myself (and really, there's nothing that can do that, except you yourself), it has been lens and comforter, puzzle and joy for over 3/4ths of my life. While I hope to write a lot more about it (and a lot more OF it!), this assignment required me to look hard at the literature I love and think about what makes it resonate for me, and how that might be a quality that others, who may not share that love, can appreciate. I find it to be both a daunting exercise and a sort of cultural duty to show people what fantastika has to offer, because I feel that it has done so much for me.

I'm quite happy that people liked the column, and that my thick-headed fear of failure was unwarranted.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My brain hurts. . .

. . . after finishing my latest column at Forces of Geek. I had no idea when I decided to talk about some writers that it would be so hard to describe thirteen different artists' unique capabilities in a way that (hopefully) would appeal to a more pop-culture readership. My thesaurus will never forgive me.

I went completely lit-geek on Cat Valente's entry. I did that entry last because I was struggling to articulate what her writing is like, and why it is important and enjoyable to read her work. I found it easier to wax rhapsodic on her writing after dealing with the rest. I think there's sufficient contrast between the entries; it was difficult to not just say "OMG so good! Read read read!"

There is so much good fiction out there that gets buried under the pedestrian epic fantasy and urban paranormal and Star Wars novels. It would be great if just a few people tried something new after reading the column.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Aetheric Ephemera: Read, Write, Outta Sight Edition

1) It's Banned Books Week, y'all. Make sure you read something that some idjit has tried to get removed from the shelves of the local library.

2) Jo Walton introduces us to The Suck Fairy, one of the meanest little fey to come down the pike.

3) Paolo Bacogalupi is "one incredibly determined motherfucker." Best point: a writer must have "the willingness to accept failure and not let it stop you, and to not let that define you."

4) My new Forces of Geek column is up. It's about writing!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Aetheric Ephemera: Festschrift for Molten Intellects Edition

1) An engaging, pointed interview with China Mieville. I found it to not only be a very provocative interview, but a meaty laying-out of how one writer sees their fiction, as both vocation and production. I'm particularly struck by the notion of the irreducibility of one's worldview in writing, and his contention that storytelling is not some wondrous impulse or healing force, but just something that we do, that may not always be a good thing.

I found this useful to ponder as I work on my next Forces of Geek column and my next Apex blog; the former is entitled "Fiction and Friction" and discusses the inherent value and problems of participatory versus directed narratives, inspired in part by some of Paul Jessup's recent posts on his blog. The latter piece doesn't have a title yet but is an attempt to tackle the varieties of realism that seem to be popping up (often horribly mutated or cliched) in recent fantasy.

2) I was quite saddened to hear that MadCon will be Harlan Ellison's last convention, and that he is apparently in very poor health. I would love to be able to go and just thank him for a lifetime of inspiration and instigation. His work has influenced me as a writer and critical thinker (yes, warts and all!) over the years, and few short stories mean so much to me as "Repent, Harlequin, said the Ticktockman."

3) Via Patrick Rothfuss, a website showcasing (and selling, by the look of it) antique maps. Lovely little cultural artifacts, aren't they? I often wonder what kind of mind it took to produce these kinds of geographically-imaginative schema.

4) io9 does the hard work and comes up with a list of "The Chosen Research Areas of Mad Scientists, 1810-2010." A good basis for a submission to the Annals of Improbable Research, perhaps?

5) I have finally gone back to finish Lud-in-the-Mist after leaving it sadly unloved

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Aetheric Ephemera: Gilded Robots of Clockwork Tyranny Edition

1) Jay Lake is cancer-free. Suck it, cancer!

2) Via the aforementioned wordwright: "The Death of the Book has Been Greatly Exaggerated." A reasoned piece that points out how irrational a lot of the exuberance is over the end of books. Certainly this trend will develop, but all of these people who seem eager to watch the book disappear are being pretty premature in their mocking eulogies for the printed word. In this vein, Paul Jessup reminds us of other trends that were supposed to transform/eliminate the book

3) At the same time, the market fluctuations, driven by the specific changes in the trade and larger shifts in national and global economies, have created a glut of books. While this article is from the UK (and the photos are a pretty egregious example of what's going on), there is no doubt that there is a contraction going on, and used bookstores are at the end of the chain. I can testify that this dynamic is alive and well in our local market, where we daily get large loads of books, so many that we can be extremely picky about what we buy, particularly as people now just leave books behind rather than lug them back home. It's strange, and a bit unsettling, even as it means that we have better books to sell and this attracts more patrons to our store.

4) A literary critic reflects on bad reviews and the writer/critic dynamic.

5) Welcome to the family, Kosmoceratops!

6) In other news, I just finished reading Swords & Dark Magic, and I'll post a review on the weekend. In brief: I liked a lot of it, but I am still not sure there was a large amount of "new" in this sword & sorcery. A few standout stories, several enjoyable tales, and a couple of meh entries. I'm working on my Apex blog entry and a couple of these stories will feature in it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Aetheric Ephemera: Coded Conundrum Consonance Edition

1) Jess Nevins finds some fascinating portrayals of robots in the 1920s. I think Robot Madam is the best.

2) Apex Magazine's editor fantastique Catherynne Valente has announced that the November issue will focus on stories and poetry from Muslim and Arab perspectives. "It will show how Islam is as much a part of the human experience as any other faith or story system that writers of the fantastic draw from," she says. The focus is in response to Elizabeth Moon's recent diatribe about 9/11 and the Muslim cultural center being planned in Manhattan.

3) Charlie Stross discusses why he will never, ever write high fantasy. I completely agree with the problems he sees with doctrinaire fantasy, but I think that makes it a ripe target for messing with, for making new stories that push against the monarchical model and still make compelling, exciting tales. And I can't guess why his alt-history proposal might not be interesting in 2002.

5) A Devastator is no substitute for narrative process: Paul Jessup lays out an argument for video games having an effect on our apprehension of narrativity itself. I find the argument compelling, but I don't think it's all about the way narrative works. Why do we engage it in this way, and what factors (cultural, social, political-economic, aesthetic) condition how these participatory narratives are used? This sent me diving into the syllabus for my fandoms class, to look at a few things I had in the archive about fantasy and displacement.

6) A hilarious chapbook for charity, based on one of the strangest pieces of geek art in recent memory. I downloaded it and made a small donation, and so far it's a lot of fun!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Aetheric Ephemera: Words Fall From Electric Skies Edition

1) I have only very recently started listening to podcasts (yeah yeah, me am Philistine blah blah blah), and the latest one from SF Signal is both enjoyable and a bit thought-provoking to hear. I just wish these things came with a transcription. . . .

2) I also really liked the new one from Jonathan Strahan's Notes from Coode Street, a long chat with Gary K. Wolfe that ranges all over the SF landscape.

3) This is one of the best (and chronologically extended) bibiliographies on fantastic criticism I've seen. I love that it starts with Kepler. . . .

4) Ancient astronomy. REALLY ancient.

5) We're threatening the sky! Great, what's next? Trashing up Mars?

6) An NYT article on the transformation of bookselling. Sobering, but whether it means The Death of the Book, or just the next stage in its life, is hard to say.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Aetheric Ephemera: Maudlin Graces and Crazy Pixel Demons Edition

1) At least he admits that he missed "I hunger, coward!"

2) I'm thinking about realism at the moment, partly as a reaction to having just written about postmodernism, but also because I am finishing up Swords and Dark Magic (which I will post a review of when I finish it) and pondering how fantasy writers deploy certain sorts of realism, or specters of realism, to create effects of suspension of disbelief and emotional resonance in their work. This essay by Clark Ashton Smith gave me some food for thought.

3) Margaret Atwood admits that she writes "speculative fiction." MWAHAHAHA!!!! I am amused by the admission, and by how she contextualizes it. I was pointed to this via the September 2010 edition of Ansible, which just won a British Fantasy Award. Tip o' the hat to Mr. DeNardo at SFSignal for highlighting Ansible.

4) Jaym Gates has a brief, provocative call-to-apocalyptic-arms up at the Apex blog. I responded, and the more I think about it, the more I believe that the apparent paucity of such writing is because we are so close to danger, and would rather have stories of unlikely or displaced apocalypse than ones that directly echo what is happening now. I think there is rich material for stories here, but will people want to write it?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I Did A Thing. . .

. . . over at Apex today. They were looking for an extra post, and boy howdy did I give it to them. 1600 words later, I overexplained the idea of postmodernism and its relationship to fantastic literature. I am sure that it will not be hard for people to take my definition (and contentions) to task, but then again, that's pretty postmodern. . . .

Given the flexibility of postmodernism, and the difficulty of defining it, I think I did a good job. We'll see if the two authors whose ideas I discussed feel the same (or if they even give a crap). While I agreed with VanderMeer that Sanderson's essay was problematic, I thought that the misconception that suffused Sanderson's use of the terms was partly a result of trying to simplify ideas that are all about resisting simplification. But I found Sanderson's contention that the new generation of fantasy authors are trying to retask essential tropes and conventions to make more interesting stories to be a valuable idea worth more consideration, and thus I could not dismiss his essay out of hand, which some commenters (including VanderMeer himself) seemed to do.

What bothered me about both initially was how they naturalized and immediately decoupled postmodernism as a literary mode from the larger history and insights of postmodernism (as the discrete movement to historicize the problems of modernism). It looks like "postmodern literature" itself has done this by being codified into a combination of meta-genre and subdiscipline of critical writing. Both defined it implicitly as integrated into the wider literary landscape, which is the case to some extent, but which still misses the point. Just because a term has been appropriated or modulated in literary discourse does not mean it has lost all connection to its past, or its more incisive potential to influence the present.

Having said all this, I have to say that I am a tentative postmodernist myself; it's the anarchist in me I'm sure. It and deconstruction are so open to abuse and misinterpretation that I embrace some of its ideas while not using all of its methods. Regardless, more precise use of these terms, and more reflective understandings of what they signify and question, are necessary to having better conversations on how literature works, and how writers and readers can improve their interaction with the texts that compel our attention and invigorate our imagination.

Edit, 9/15/10, 9:55PM: I just posted a longish response to Jeff's concerns over in the comments section of the essay, but I wanted to reproduce it here to cover Jeff's comment here as well:

Jeff: It was absolutely not my intention to take your words out of context, or to give offense with this essay. The point was to discuss what I believe is left out of conversations on postmodernism in fantastic literature, in a very germinal formulation. My response to your piece, in retrospect, was less well-developed than to Sanderson’s, and also hyperbolic in its characterization. I was not trying to misrepresent what you said, because there was resonance there with what I was heading towards in my piece, but I was making the point, perhaps in too limited and unreflective a fashion, that the focus on technique missed some aspects of a postmodern standpoint that I think need more consideration.

My objective was not to denigrate what you were saying, but to proceed farther with it. I did miss the important distinction you highlight regarding your comment on elitism, which I am happy to correct in the piece. I think some rather excessive language and not enough attention to your post as a whole weakened what I was trying to in that section of the piece. So yes, I think we are pretty much on the same page, I just needed to make that clearer and use more positivist discourse than deconstruction. :-)

As for the observation that I did not take comments into account, that is quite true. I did not get into comments from either post because I wanted to focus on the two essays themselves, and talk about the interplay between them. It is obvious from the erudite avalanche of comments on your site that a very rich conversation is taking place, which is precisely what I was talking about at the start of my piece. The engagement that you started, and that I was working to extend, has flourished into a muscular exchange of ideas. Thanks for getting that going, and for inspiring this essay.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Yeah Yeah. . . .

Here is the latest FoG column. It was a bit frustrating to write, just because I was striving to be succinct, but hopefully people find it informative or ponder-worthy.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Very Cool!

Check out the latest Mind Meld over at SFSignal; it features a question that I suggested . . . and that John DeNardo made me answer as well! There are some great responses, which I plan to comment on in more depth later today. I am pleased by the breadth and wit of people's submissions, from Sue Lange's Book Singularity to Gary K. Wolfe's delightful outlining of the New Cacophony. The answers are great fun to read and thought-provoking to boot!

I really enjoyed writing my own response, which turned into a bit of mission statement for my own work. I am finding that writing my columns is paying off in terms of reflecting on my fiction and on what I want to do in the next phase of my life. In the personal realm a lot of changes are happening and I find myself questioning decisions and paths not taken, and working out where I want to go next. I am in a very contemplative place right now, one that will hopefully feed my fiction as I get back into writing it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

They Are Two, and They Are New

Just wanted to let folks know that both my Apex and Forces of Geek posts are live. They are a bit related, both worrying at an idea that I want to examine more thoroughly. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Yes, sadly, it has been some time between posts. I am in flux at the moment here in the Real World, but should be resettled soon and I will post more frequently and in-depth.

I did get my Forces of Geek column out last night. I'm trying to hone in on some of the essentials of SF, and tease out some of its significance for me as a reader and writer. I've never put my thoughts about the shape and content of the genre down in words before, and it is a reflective, enjoyable exercise, because I am not trying to be a rigorous critic, but a fascinated, curious observer.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Two! Or Three! Or Maybe More!

I just finished my latest Forces of Geek column, for your enjoyment. It put me in mind of this little bit of fiction I wrote some time ago:

"The Wonders"

She lay there on the ground, breathing deeply, sifting the alien sand through her fingers.

Why doesn't this atmosphere hurry up and kill me, she thought, taking another deep, rattling breath.

The shuttle lay nose-buried in a dune with colorful featherlettes protruding from its dome. No dust had settled; rather, little fey motes had streaked away from it in terror until it stopped groaning, and now clustered on the crumpled landing gear.

Well, her lungs were about to seize up. About time, she thought.

She was tired of it; tired of all the wonders. Her eightieth exploratory landing, her twelfth planet discovered. And still her bones were tired, and she couldn't get a date, and her dog had died a hundred years ago.

Racing light is for suckers, she thought. Fuck the wonders! C'mon already, oblivion!

"What is this. . . oblivion?" something said in her ear.

"Buddha wept in a cantina!" she shouted. She leapt to her feet, coughed, and her knees buckled. Man, she thought, if there were more chlorine in the air, this would all be over. . . .

There was nothing there but a voice, perhaps a twinkle in the air. Hallucinogens in the atmo; great! Now she could sink into delusion before she died; that should make it easier. . . .

"You will not transition," the voice said carefully, as if language was something new and delicate to manipulate. "You cannot achieve your goal of discorporation here."

Hell I can't, she thought. Her lungs were blazing and her pulse fluttering. It sure felt like dying. . . .

"No, our world will adapt to you momentarily. Your form will not lose your essence." A pause, and then, like an invocation. "It is so."

With one last rattle, her breathing cleared. She felt something surge through her bloodstream. The sky went from off-pink to a faint, faint blue. The featherlettes danced in a sudden light breeze, and the fey motes shifted in their swarming and their lights dimmed.

Crap, she thought. Please, I would just like to die.

She felt a presence shake its head. "I am apologetic, but no. You must earn your end here."

She felt the presence fade. The sun shone brightly, and off to her left, the featherlettes wilted, and something like an apple tree began to spring up.

Fuck the wonders, she thought. Maybe I can hang myself from it in a couple of days.

My Apex blog contribution is also up, on time! An exciting two-parter! I was trying to find out what had been said about this idea before, and could not find very much. I found a lot of material on time-travel, but that's not what I want to talk about. My goal is to explore the idea of time (and of being-in-time) and how that differs between science fiction and fantasy. If anyone has seen any writing on this, please let me know.

In other news, my entry into the Great Cephalopod Contest was a sad failure. Well, I still like it! I guess it was too Cthulhuan for Mr.VanderMeer's taste.

Onward! Next up: a revision, an expansion, and a new story for an anthology.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Aetheric Ephemera: Language's Beautiful Limits Edition

1) Go right now and read Lucius Shepard's "The Taborin Scale." Right now! Holy carp it's good. I saw the Subterranean hardback at Readercon, but only well after I had (over)spent my book allocation. I was thrilled to see this up on their site for free, and it is fantastic. The Dragon Griaule stuff is rich and enticing, some of his best work. And Subterranean produces lovely books (although the shipping is a bit hefty for their titles). Go browse and drool. . . .

2) I posted an entry to SF Signal's contest to win copies of Kraken and The Third Bear. Here is what I posted:

"SUCCINCTLY: THE QUIDAMIOUS LACHRYMALIA (published 1557, [Gregorian 1938]):

The MEROVINGIAN AMMONITE: This venerable dux ducis is cowled in a luminous, aureate planisphere shell whose hue manifests its disposition and counsel. It's scintillating scarlet tendrils are reminiscent of the hair of King Dagobert II, who fashioned it an aquarium of pellucid vitaenium. The imbibement of its tenebrous, delphian tears allowed him to foresee assassination and preserve his bloodline to this day. Similar in size to but more ostentatious than Regent Churchill's cuttle-king, with it's murky, unadorned shell-pate, its limpid cirri guide the fate of one-fifth of humanity."

I like the idea behind this. There's gotta be a story in there somewhere. . . . I spent too much time on this, doing a bit of research, condensing phases, and choosing evocative words. It may have too much flash and set-up to win, but it was fun to ponder. I wonder if the squiddies are aliens, Cthulhuan beasts, or mere curiosities used as political window-dressing?

Winner has not been posted yet. Sad Ogre is sad. . . .

3) A nice reflection on Style in fantasy fiction. I think I need to write about temporality and "timelessness" for my Apex blog this month. It would be interesting to tease out the disjunctures between science fiction (often very "timely" and temporally-bounded) and fantasy (with this idea of timelessness combined with being out of "real time").

4) Did you ever think you would see the word "new" to describe Stonehenge?

5) Boardgames are awesome. Even the Financial Times thinks so! An homage to game-playing, with a dash of ethnography.