Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cadaeic Cadenza

The Cadaeic Cadenza by Mike Keith is a story in which the lengths of the words are all dictated by the digits of pi. It's very neat if you're into that sort of constrained writing.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pete Abrams Interview

Sluggy Freelance was one of the first webcomics I was ever exposed to, and it's gone from a very light gag-a-day affair to an intricate and interwoven labyrinth of a thing with highs of slapstick and lows of really genuine darkness and drama. I like it, but I've known folk for whom it was less their speed, and it's a huge commitment to read the 13 years of 7 day a week back archives. Still, I like seeing discussions of process, and that's there in this interview.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing! Without any presents at all!

A lot of people assume because I'm a single, atheist, anti-consumerist type person, that I'm going to hate Christmas. And it is true, I kind of fit a profile. But I don't just not hate Christmas, I really love it. I love all the goofy old songs, and the crazy light displays, and the gingerbread and turkey with cranberry sauce. I love getting together with my giant family. We all get along well. I have parents who love me and nephews whom I can spoil. It doesn't mean anything to me in a religious sense, but I enjoy the feeling of togetherness and tradition you really only get around the holidays. Everybody on the street knows the words to the same songs you're singing, and all the adults are winking and telling wild stories about flying reindeer and an obese anti-burglar who somehow still fits down your chimney. It's full of this whimsical collective make believe you hardly ever get as a grown up, and all around are these reminders not to take things for granted and to work to make the world a slightly better place. Things get a little hectic, but all that stress pays off in smiles from your friends and time off work.

So Merry Christmas out there, or whatever your celebrate! And if you don't celebrate, do something to make the week special. 'Tis the season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beautiful Individual Snowflakes

I've used the Snowflake Method to good general success. People who don't approve of outlines have told me it looks like it will strangle all the fun and creativity out of writing, but I find a solid outline frees me up to do more of the prose and thematic stuff that make me happy. And I like how this oscillates between plot and character, making sure they both grow together.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Horror

A while back I wrote a science fiction piece that centered around cannibalism. Some of the people who initially read it, including my dear friend John, told me that it was nice, but it was really more of a horror story than a science fiction one, which took me completely by surprise. Yes, I'd put some kind of graphic bits about dismemberment into the piece, but I'd done my best to present them through the eyes of a character who saw absolutely nothing weird about it; within the context of the story, almost no one was bothered by it. The point was to highlight the desensitization and play it against a pretty innocent adolescent love story that provided the bulk of the action. None of the characters were in any jeopardy, or even had any particularly intense moments outside of love sickness. Folk seemed surprised to learn that I hadn't thought of the story as horror at all.

I have some ambivalence about horror. Actually it's the exact same ambivalence I have about comedy, when you boil it down. Both genres are working to elicit a very specific and subjective emotional experience: respectively terror and a good laugh. It's a very tricky thing to do. Tastes vary and presentation is at least as important as content. It's a smoke and mirrors show in which surprise is a vital factor, and it's easy to get disastrously wrong. A story that isn't funny or scary runs the risk of being everything from banal to obnoxious to downright offensive.

Add into that mix that what constitutes "horror" in fiction is a wide and varied rainbow of dark stories. I tend to like the Lovecraft flavored horror best, because so much of the real menace happens out of sight- just flashes in the corner of your eye of something huge and horrifying- and because I dig the fundamental terror of a universe that is at best apathetic to human concerns, and at worst openly hostile. By contrast, there's a vein of horror that tends not to do much at all for me, in which a main character will go about being as terrible as possible a person, and then in the end get their just desserts through some supernatural means. On the one hand, it's not necessarily my bag because I tend to dislike the main characters enough that I don't want to follow them long enough to see them get killed, but on the other, this feels less horrific to me because the basic premise is that there's a just universe, and bad things ultimately happen to the people who deserve it. It's a bloody but comforting thought- one that doesn't instill in me a sense of disquiet and uncertainty. I feel like the best ghost stories make you a little afraid, somewhere in the back of your head, that the ghost could be coming for you. That it doesn't matter if you're good, or if you do what you're supposed to- or if it does, it takes only the tiniest slip to make yourself vulnerable. Perhaps I have an unduly high opinion of myself as not deserving celestial vengeance, but it's that potential for random unmerited terror that gets my blood racing.

But as I said, tastes vary.

That's true too of the level of gore. For me, how much ripping flesh and rotting viscera makes it onto the metaphorical "screen" doesn't directly correlate to being scary. You can write a good menacing yarn without any of it, or you could stuff your story to the gills with gore and actually have it achieve the opposite effect. The blood and trauma can become desensitizing and almost slapstick, if they're hung on a frame that isn't sufficiently robust to hold their weight.

It's certainly not something I have down to an exact science, or even a concise thesis (as you can probably tell from this post). These are my best guesses for what makes good horror for me:

1. Evil will triumph. Even if your character escapes momentarily, something fundamentally antagonistic to clean, decent humanity is going to win out in the long run.
2. There is a sense of menace to the reader, however hypothetical or indirect it may be. It certainly doesn't need to be spelled out in "La Llorona comes by the night for children who walk unsupervised by the river" terms but perceived safety undermines the feeling of horror. And if it's not a warning about the thing that might be under your bed, then your story's just a record of things that happened.
3. It incorporates a problem far out of the ordinary. Ordinary problems can be solved rationally. You can get your head around them. The problem need not be paranormal- there's great psycho horror- but it can't be normal.
4. It plays off fundamental and universal fears, as much as that's possible. Darkness, violence, the unknown, tight spaces, falling, blood, jeopardy to loved ones, clowns, whatever you like. People have visceral buttons and part of the fun of horror is having them pushed.

Anyway, those are my genre thoughts. I don't, in practice, consider myself a horror writer per se, but that's where the money's coming from, and I'm as happy to wear that hat as anything else, I suppose.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

An Ostentation of Peacocks

I recently wanted to know the names for groups of birds, and the internet yielded up to me a bounty too rich not to share.

Addendum: And for animals in general:

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Five Year Plan, Comrades

I stopped by Tim Pratt's website, and he mentioned both his birthday and the goals he'd set for himself back in his college years. He also mentioned he'd sold his hundredth story recently. It got me thinking about where I am now and where I want to be as a writer.

So, here it is, starting with my birthday (coming up next month) because that's a nice, easy, memorable date.

Year One (January 2012):

Have 30 short stories in circulation (I list "in circulation" because that's the aspect I control of. Ideally some of these will be published as well).
Have 1 novel in circulation.
Attend at least two professional conventions.
Be eligible for and purchase SFWA membership.

Year Two (January 2013, assuming inaccurate Mayan doomsday prophecies):

Have at least 70 stories in circulation.
Have 2 novels in circulation.
Attend a nice writing workshop (I wish you didn't have to quit a job, basically, to go to Clarion, but I've heard good things about Viable Paradise.)
See if I can get on a panel at a convention.

Year Three (2014):

Have enough short stories previously published to be able to pitch an anthology.
Have at least one novel written that I think is awesome and clever.
Have met Neil Gaiman.
Have had previously published work solicited.

Year Four (2015):

Have acquired an agent and sold at least one novel. Have earned an advance.
Write a novel on contract
See if I can get someone to pay for me to be at a convention (room and entry).

Year Five (2016):

Have had a book published.
Have achieved enlightenment/happiness.

I don't know, I actually start to get a bit nebulous more than a few years out. I mean, I don't know what else will be going on in my life. I can't anticipate windfalls or serious setbacks. I'm probably missing some steps or approaching things naively, and examining it, five years seems like an awfully long way away.

Still, I guess if you're going driving it always helps to have a map.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tom Robbins

When asked who my favorite author is by someone who doesn't seem to have an hour ready to listen to me ramble, I say Tom Robbins, which is as true as an uncomplicated answer can be.

Tom Robbins writes zany, madcap novels that are generally billed as "magical realism", though that's a term I've never grown to love. The books tend to have a pretty hippie sensibility, an undercurrent of paganism, a healthy dash of polyamory, and some of the most delightfully playful prose running free across the open market.

The books of his I've read and can personally recommend are:

Another Roadside Attraction. This was his first book and in some ways it's still my favorite. The first line is "The magician's underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami." It's got a fun set of characters, fabulous little asides, a flea circus, a baboon, a character answering to the name of Marx Marvellous, and a blasphantastic premise.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues- When Sissy Hanshaw is born with freakishly large thumbs, she turns lemons into lemonaide and becomes a paragon hitchhiker. This book features extensive philosophical talk about race, douching, and the anal temperature of oysters. That last one is actually how it opens. There is also a character who answers to the name Bonanza Jellybean.

Jitterbug Perfume. This book is about immortality, transcendance, industrial espionage, and beets. It also features a conversation between Pan and Tarzan.

Skinny Legs and All- There's a really sweet love story in here, wrapped up in a hot bacon shell of fun instalation art. There's also an animate spoon, sock, and can of beans, all of whom are major viewpoint characters. This book also has one of the absolute best climactic scenes I've ever seen in a novel in terms of buildup and payoff that's worth waiting for.

Fierce Invalids From Hot Climates is about looking at life from a different angle, and follows a secret service agent who is left in a wheelchair by a shaman's curse. There's also a hacker granny. Switter, our dashing hero, is really quite a charming man.

Like I said, this fellow's one of my heroes. He takes some daring leaps and there's always spectacular verbal acrobatics. If you're of a social conservative bent (or particularly religious), I think there's a chance the subject matter itself will tend to be upsetting, but otherwise I heartily recommend them.

Thanks and Happy Non-specific Winter Holiday to all of you!

Friday, December 3, 2010


I love the short fiction audio podcasts. I'm arriving more than fashionably late to this party, because, as a consequence of being both poor and credit-averse, I tend to fall well behind the gadget curve. But a good friend of mine lent me the iriverclix she no longer uses, and for a couple of months now at jobs where I'm encouraged not to speak to anyone or during long drives, I've been listening to some of the big ones. The ones I've listened all, or at least most of the way through are: (Fantasy). My friend John introduced me to Escape Pod, but I gravitated first to PodCastle, probably because the first story was by one of my all time favorite authors, Peter S. Beagle. If you're just sampling, I recommend from this the stories "Come Lady Death", "The Cambist and Lord Iron", "The Fiddler of Bayous Teche", "The Narcomancer", "The Behold of the Eye", "The Annals of Eilen-Ok", "Cup and Table", "The Run of the Firey Horse", and "Hell is the Absence of God". I do think its worth a straight listen all the way through. The fiction skews contemporary, and there's a fair chunk of not-straight-white-male stuff (which has apparently alienated some of the people who came in looking for Conan, just to give fair warning). (Science Fiction). The grandaddy of fiction podcasts, which spun off PodCastle and PsuedoPod and boasts about 270 individual episodes. Steve Eley hosts for most of those, and has a lot of really fabulous musings on genre and genre publishing. If you're just doing a quick scan through, I recommend "Exhalation", "Kin", "Joe Steel", "Will You Be an Astronaut?", "Nano Comes to Clifford Falls", "Eros, Philia, and Agape", "Skinhorse Goes to Mars", "On the Eyeball Floor", "Cinderella Suicide", and "The Clockwork Atom Bomb". There's really a lot more to recommend, but if you start at the beginning, please be patient with it. It's something that's really grown as a market in the five years it's been running. You can also sort for just Hugo nominees, which are almost always all on the show. (Flash). Drabblecast does both genre and non-genre, but it's emphasis is on short and weird. Not to downplay the stories, which are often awesome, but the best part of this podcast is the host, Norm Sherman, and his hilarious intros and outros including news about giant squid and mutant hogs, sketch comedy bits about news, purple prose rambles about his podcast becoming the oral history of generations of post-apocalyptic underground mutants, and more than all of these combined, his fabulous musical stylings. Some of the absolute choicest episodes include "Clown Eggs" (if you listen to nothing else in this whole entry, listen to Clown Eggs!),"The Worm Within", "Sleep Age Economy", "Jelly Park", "Annabelle's Alphabet", "Babel Probe", "Apologies All Around", and "Synesthesia"

In addition to being a fabulous way to pack my life full of clever fiction, these podcasts have also been a good way to learn about the markets. All three of these are primarily reprint markets, and most will make a note of where the story was first published, as well as almost always where the author has been previously published. It can help one get a feel for which markets are more likely to take which type of story (obviously not as good as actually reading the magazines, but if you're short on money or eye-time, this can be a way to help).

Thursday, December 2, 2010

National Novel Writing Month Debriefing

I was pretty behind coming down to the wire, but after one month of writing I have 50,000 words of a sort-of novel.

As to the state of the project itself, I feel like there's a good novel in there. Somewhere. There are basic plots, characters, and situations that hold up, and if they can be shuffled into the proper order, attached to a good solid outline, and buoyed and buttressed by extra scenes that do some of the exposition and world building duty, it could really be something decent. My monster creation currently has members of itself that are nothing more than naked bone, and some where rich, fatty flesh is hanging like tumorous overripe fruit off the thinnest little phalanx. I'm not entirely sure about the pacing either. But I'm a little surprised, honestly, how much I really do believe in it.

Ultimately the frustrating difference for me between short fiction and a novel is how much more needs to be in focus in a longer work, and how much each of those things needs to hold up to scrutiny. If you want to write a short story in which a waiter fights off zombies with his server tray before eventually managing to sling them into a conveyer oven, all you really have to get across is that your character is a waiter and there are zombies. What's important is the immediate situation, not why he became a waiter or where the zombies came from. The size demands that the peripheral details have a soft focus and don't distract from the matter at hand. But in a longer work all those things become important, because without them your focus points seem detached, lifeless, and unbelievable. It feels like the difference between being able to throw a killer fastball and being able to juggle. I don't think they're really the same skill.

My plan from this point is to finish out the rough draft of the main plot, then put it down and read a good novel, in the rough vein of what I'd like mine to be, paying some extra attention to structure and supporting detail. Then I need to come back, reread what I've written, and make a detailed outline and novel bible (I need, for example, to nail down some distances, solidify my ideas for the city police force, and remove and correct a number of placeholder names.) Once I have an outline plan to work from, I can fill in extra scenes and tweak the pacing and events until they're solid. Then I can give it a pass for the beauty of the language and then, it ought to be a book.