Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Most Useful Writing Advice Book Ever Written?


When you are depressed and it all seems hopeless, go back to the library and consider all those books, all those writers who made it.  Find the place where your own books will be shelved, and then go home and get to work.
-- Kate Wilhelm

I've taught at all three Clarion workshops -- Clarion West, Clarion South, and Classic Clarion -- so I can make the claim to know something about how to teach writing.  However, whenever I find myself in a situation where I'm going to teach, I always go to Gregory Frost first for advice.  He's taught so much more than I have, read so much more about how to teach, thought so much more about the enterprise, that I'd be foolish not to. 

Recently, I participated in a StarShipSofa seminar (or "webinar" as it was called) on how to write and afterward Greg told me that part of his really quite brilliant presentation on how to open a story was based on Kate Wilhelm's book Storyteller.  He showed me his own copy, every page of which was heavily annotated.  Then, because he had a spare and because he's a Mensch, he gave me a copy of the book for my own.

So I've been reading a book on teaching writing by a woman whom the guy who knows more than I do about teaching writing acknowledges knows more about the subject than he does.

Wilhelm's book is both a memoir of her 27 years teaching at Clarion and the distillation of everything she learned during that time would be useful for new writers to hear.  The parts of it that touch on SF history are amiably written (if Wilhelm has any axes to grind, she clearly felt this was not the place to do so), and of great value to those like myself who are interested in SF history.  But the bulk of the book consists of advice to writers who are trying to make their work publishable.

Every word of it is true.

Let me repeat that:  Every word of it is true.  This may be a record for a writing book.  But, having read hundreds of unpublishable stories and pointed out their every mistake to scores of unhappy writers, I can say that without hesitation.  Wilhelm (to nobody's surprise) really knows her stuff.

The advice in this slim  (less than 200 pages) book is organized by topics, but it comes in great tumbles, one dense and useful observation upon another.  Your characters have to do things they do not want to do or make choices that are hard.  If you're using your own unfictionalized life for material, you're writing autobiography, which rarely works in the context of fiction.  (Note that "rarely"-- Wilhelm knows there are always exceptions and can explain why that's usually irrelevant.  And when it's not.)  Beginning writers often confuse predictability with inevitability. 

I chose those sentences almost at random.  There are literally hundreds of pieces of good advice -- which means that it will often be hard to put into practice -- in this book.  A new writer is going to come to the end of it with an aching head and a sense of being waterlogged with ideas.

That's good.  Nobody learns how to write in the time it takes to read a book.  This is a book to be bought, held handy, referred back to often, and applied to every near-successful story until its lessons have been learned and the new writer is not only published but writing as well as he or she possibly can.

It may well be the most useful writing advice book ever written.   I honestly can't say.  But in any case, a new writer who wants to make a serious mark in the world's literature and is willing to work will find much in here to shorten the way.

Storyteller is published by Small Beer Press.  You can find their website here.  I note that they've got links to a couple of excerpts, so you can judge for yourself.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 61


A productive day and page.  First, a note whose import I have completely forgotten:

his throat, to buy time, "an excellent horseman"

Clearly something I was working on.


Let me out of here
I'm serious I got claustrophobia
Mabel!  Where are you?
I'm over here Izzy can't you . . . 

Which sounds familiar.  I may have actually written that story.

Finally, the dimensions for something, possibly a picture I needed to buy a frame for, and a list of what I was working on at the time:

American Holocaust
Libertarian Russia
Pushkin the American
The Angel
The Fall of the Zeppelin Gods
Trains That Climb the Winter Tree
[current novel chapter]
The Dala Horse
Darger and the Dragon Lady
Passage of Earth

Most of those are finished.  "The Fall of the Zeppelin Gods" became "Zeppelin City."  It and "The Trains that Climb the Winter Tree" were collaborations with Eileen Gunn.

Also a couple of stickers, stuck in for no particular reason.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tom Purdom on the Nook


You can't live in Philadelphia and be involved in science fiction and not be a big fan of Tom Purdom.  Seriously.  We got a local ordinance passed.  It's the law.

Tom sold his first two science fiction stories in 1957 and more than fifty years later, he's at his peak form.  I liked "A Response from EST17" in the April/May 2011 double issue of Asimov's tremendously and, as always, I'm looking forward to whatever he writes next.  Plus, Tom is one of the most genial men you'll ever meet and a raconteur to boot.  What's not to admire?

Of course, all writers have their little quirks, and Tom's is that he's a fervent proselytizer for the Nook.  He bought one, fell in love with it, and wants everyone to do likewise.  So when the time came for me to buy an electronic reader (as Neil Gaiman told me once, they're "inferior to any book but superior to any library" because they allow you to throw a few hundred books in your carry-on when you travel), I bought a Nook.  Alas, under questioning it turned out that I wasn't planning to buy all my books in e-format from now on -- only disposable books and those needed strictly for research.

I have been a terrible disappointment to Tom. 

Recently, Tom has begun experimenting with e-publishing for the Nook and the Kindle.  If you go here, you can find his Nook publications of several novelettes, a collection of three stories, and the first two installations of his literary autobiography When I Was Writing.

WIWW starts with Tom's first published story and goes forward from there, telling where the ideas came from, what he set out to accomplish, and anything that was happening in his life at the time that was relevant to the fiction.  If you like this kind of thing -- I emphatically do -- then Purdom's memoirs are a must-read.

There have been ten installments so far and you can read them for free on Tom's website here.

Last Friday I bought the two installments available from B&N and took the Nook with me to the Philadelphia Fantastic reading I did with Tom and Darrell Schweitzer.  Then I whipped out my Sharpee and got him to autograph the back of the case.

Oh, and the guy who gently corrected my German the other day . . .

. . . was Ulrich Elkmann.  The reason he contacted me privately was not from a desire for privacy but because Blogger won't allow you to comment unless you've joined up with Google or Facebook.  Now, since he's okay with this, I can openly say:  Thank you, Ulrich.

I'll post his message below, for those who are interested.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 60


Okay, Adventures in Androgyny was a pretty snarky thing to write under that book promo card.  But I swear to God when I first saw it, I thought that was a particularly muscular woman's body.

It caught my eye, though.

Down at the bottom:  A piece torn from an envelope returning developed film.  How old-fashioned it looks today!


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 59


December 9, 2008

This was an uncharacteristically introspective entry.  It begins with a pep-talk to myself:

I am, it seems clear by now, working very hard to avoid writing the novel.  But why?  Has its time not come?  Or am I anxious to avoid popular acclaim?
Then notes toward a thought which came so swiftly I had to leap over sections to get it down in the instant of inspiration.  I don't think I ever did anything with it, and so we'll never know exactly what that thought was:

God bless these ribbons which . . . the nuns of St. Francis Xavier . . . sincere, profound, in no way an affectation.  We're talking about women who probably washed with Ivory Soap.

Next, what seems to me a pretty good question.  I changed the pronouns to second person midway through, so it would be clear that it was the question that interested me, rather than my own relationship to it

Posit:  If I were religious and had a large house, I'd be tempted to set aside one room as a chapel.  Question:  If you did so, would you be guilty of religious gluttony?  Would it violate the sumptuary laws?

Penultimately -- noble word, 'penultimately!' -- a pop quiz I abruptly pulled on myself.  Luckily, I had a good answer:

Q.  What was the last worthwhile thing I learned?
A.  How to deflect an asteroid.

And finally notes toward Dancing With Bears:

D & S

Darger truckling.  The ambassador [something].

Darger straightened.  "Well.  Nothing in his life so ill-became the noble prince as his leaving of it.  Still, we should try to remember him as he once was -- noble, commanding, and --"  He cleared


Monday, March 28, 2011

Famous Philadelphian Cat Bloggers (First in an Endless Series)


Yes, I've been lax in getting today's blog post up.  But look how busy I've been!

On Friday, I did a reading for Philadelphia Fantastic with Tom Purdom because we were both in the recent Asimov's Science Fiction double issue, he with his stunning A Response from EST-17 and I with my incredibly moving An Empty House With Many Doors.  Just before going on, we realized that Darrell Schweitzer was in the same issue with his poem Monsters of the Stratosphere and since he was present, we recruited him to read as well.

On Saturday, Purdom's Raiders met in our house for the first time.  A terrific social success.

On Sunday, Marianne and I went to an invitational furniture show at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  

And today I began a story tentatively titled Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown, in which the Devil throws a martini in the young protagonist's face.

So it's perfectly understandable why I haven't had the time to blog today.  Which is why I want you all to welcome guest-blogger Miss Helen Hope Mrrlees, shown above hard at work on today's post.

I'm sure she'll have something for you soon.

Above:  Her royal self, hard at work.  


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 58


This speaks for itself.


Friday, March 25, 2011

A Death in Roxborough

My next door neighbor Frank died yesterday.

Frank was what we Philadelphians would call a stand-up guy.  Not in the mob sense, but in the person you'd want to live next door to sense.  He was there, he was reliable, if you needed his help you had it.

Many years ago, when Sean was a little boy, we acquired Shadowfax, a young cat, hardly more than a kitten, who escaped from the house the night before Christmas Eve.  We were driving to Pittsburgh for Christmas with Marianne's parents in the morning.  And though we combed the neighborhood for blocks around, he was nowhere to be found.

Late that night, as I was loading luggage into the car, I heard Shadow calling for help from the engine of Frank's car, which he'd climbed into, looking for warmth.  So I went next door, knocked, and said, "Frank, our cat is in your car's engine.  Could you pop the hood?"

Frank got his coat, came out, popped the hood, and there Shadow was, tucked behind the battery in a location where starting the car would have decapitated him.

"Holy cow," Frank said, "there really was a cat in there!"

Which is when I realized that Frank had thought I had gone completely crazy.  But had gone along with my madness because, crazy though I might be, I was still a neighbor.

That's the kind of man Frank was.  And now he's gone.

God bless you, Frank.  Rest in peace.  The neighborhood is a poorer place for your absence.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 57


Here is my deep trove of righteousness, resurrection, and debauchery! The Congo River turns out to be less treacherous than the dogs that sniff and [something] and the dogs that grind them so the Clash have created their own scrapbook.  Neophytes must stand up in sea salt.
A dollar bill in a scrapbook suggests more than we accept might be.  [Something] bad gardeners are [something] for dirt.  How can a garden be made of plants?  What other writer would
I ran about agreeing, amplifying, hurrahing the Revolution -- and all the time I knew no more than a lizard on a wall.  Equality?  Huzzah!  Liberty!  Huzzah!  Fraternity?  Well, as long as you're not trying to get into my club, then the more power to you.

  Reading the above, I thought at first I was listening to something on the radio and transcribing it as fast as I could, skipping ahead whenever I lagged behind, to see what the result would be like.  Parts of it sound like me, though.  So I think I was extemporaneously composing a rant while simultaneously trying to write it down, falling behind, and then skipping ahead whenever I lagged.

It's a kind of thought exercise.

Down at the bottom:  Cyrano de Bergerac returns to S.F. at last! and It's great to see Cyrano writing S.F. again at last, after too long an absence.  [Something] is a

I'm still trying to write that blurb.  Those things are more work than most people realize.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Land Tugs of the American Empire!


Behold the Mathilda, last of the land tugs!  Eighty years ago, land barges were the primary means of cargo tranfer in the United States.  They were slow to get started, but once started they were unstoppable.  The roads were thronged with such barges once.  But, alas, containerized cargo put the kibosh on them.

And I have a new story out . . .

It's on Flurb.  You can find it here.

And meanwhile, back on StarShipSofa . . .

The latest Darger & Surplus public service announcement of ways in which you can make a fortune by running a con is online.  You can find it here.

Above:  You can see the Mathilda in Kingston, New York, if you wish.  Or you can take my word for it.  Not that anybody ever does.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 56


Found doodle.  I picked it off the floor from an Asteroid Deflection Conference I attended in DC.  I was only allowed to attend the open half of the conference.  For the half where they discussed the use of nuclear weaponry, you needed clearance.

Any time the guys with clearance had reason to refer to nuclear weaponry, they referred to it as "tried-and-tested 1950s technology."  I've got to presume that today's weaponry is even scarier.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Most Important Copyright Decision of This Century

Justice has been served.

New York federal district judge Denny Chin has ruled against the notorious Google Books settlement, which would give Google the right to sell electronic editions of virtually all books in existence without permission of the copyright owners.  This extraordinary power power grab had a lot of writers -- including yours truly -- feeling alarmed and outraged.

Here's the case in a nutshell:  Years ago, Google launched on a program to scan as many books as they could in order to make them available on the Web.  They cut deals with some major libraries and ran everything the libraries had through their machines.  Everything.  Books still in copyright not excluded.  These virtual books were put up on Google Books, where "snippets" of the in-copyright books were available to the on-line reader.  Because they were not offering payment to the authors for these snippets, the Authors Guild sued.

So far, straightforward.  But then the Authors Guild had a brainstorm.  They offered to settle the case by giving Google the right to publish and sell e-books, with the Authors Guild acting as the agency which would distribute royalties.  Google would make a fortune.  The Authors Guild would get a taste.  And -- as I understood their explanations -- the people doing the actual work, the officers, would be paid very satisfactory salaries.

I was at a presentation by AG and Google a year or two ago.  The Authors Guild people condescendingly explained that this took care of the "problem" of out-of-print books -- and that anybody who didn't want to participate could simply sign up with the program and then set the price of his or her books so high that nobody would buy them.  The Google rep explained that an "opt-in" program wouldn't work because the cost of registering books one by one would render the program unprofitable.

This agreement, had it been approved, would have changed copyright law entirely.

Fortunately, it was not.  Here's the abstract of the judge's opinion:

OPINION  05 Civ. 8136 (DC)
THE AUTHORS GUILD et al., Plaintiffs,
- against
GOOGLE INC., Defendant.

CHIN, Circuit Judge
Before the Court is plaintiffs' motion pursuant ,to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for final approval of the proposed settlement of this class action on the terms set forth in the Amended Settlement Agreement (the "ASAH). The question presented is whether the ASA is fair, adequate, and reasonable. I conclude that it is not.

While the digitization of books and the creation of a universal digital library would benefit many, the ASA would simply go too far. It would permit this class action -- which was brought against defendant Google Inc. ("GoogleI1) to challenge its scanning of books and display of "snippets" for on-line searching -- to implement a forward-looking business arrangement that would grant Google significant rights to exploit entire books, without permission of the copyright owners. Indeed, the ASA would give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission, while releasing claims well beyond those presented in the case.

Accordingly, and for the reasons more fully discussed below, the motion for final approval of the ASA is denied. The accompanying motion for attorneys' fees and costs is denied,
without prejudice.

You can find the entire decision here.  And you can read a news item about it here.

And a while back, I attempted some freehand German . . .

Not long ago, I titled a post "Ich Bin Ein Flussratt!"  Not stopping to reflect that coining an entire sentence in proper German might require a little more than Babelfish and long-faded memories of my college language requirement.  One in which I did the exact opposite of excel.

One of this blog's readers very kindly informed me that, mice and rats being generically female (regardless of individual gender), I should have written "Ich Bin Eine Flussratte!"  Which, however, would sound unidiomatic to a German speaker.  Therefore, he recommended the more common "Wasserratte," which, he pointed out, "would carry no negative undertones, being affectionally applied to anyone who, like Mole and Rat, loves messing about with boats."  He then went on for about a paragraph to explore related terms, from harbor masters to ballet rats.

God, I love hanging out with smart people.

My correspondent contacted me offline, probably for fear of embarrassing me in public.  I, in turn, haven't mentioned his name because I don't know if he wants it published.  But I am genuinely grateful.  Thank you.

I went back and changed "Ein Flussratt" to "Eine Flussratte" so the grammatical error would not be left hanging there.  I refrained from employing the (much more charming) "Wasseratte," in order to avoid making myself look like I know more than I actually do.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 55


But without lies, nobody would say anything at all.

Sometimes you have to write out a notion in order to discover you have nothing to say:

A merchant collects water bottles, fills them with tap water, and sells them.  Is he then as big a fraud as the original company was when they filled the bottle with tap water?  At least he's recycling.  His product adds nothing to the waste stream.

And three entries from a visit to a modern art museum:

* Flying Folly (Disparate Volante)

  Los Disparates, Plaza 5
               -- me

* Claes Oldenberg
   Apple Core

Paolozzi:  Donald Duck meets Mondrian


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No, Not Too Soon


Stephen Notley (by whose kind permission I post the above) reports that his latest Bob the Angry Flower cartoon was received with understandable non-enthusiasm by his editor at Vue, who felt that it was too soon for tsunami humor.  And to be honest, that was my initial reaction.  For about ten seconds.

Then I thought of the first time I saw that astonishing flaming-buildings-being-swept-inland footage.  It was followed immediately by the usual photogenic newsreader saying, "More astonishing visuals after this commercial break!"

I turned off the television.  Because I didn't want to be entertained by the devastation of property and humans lives.  And that's what I'd been offered.

It's good to know that I'm not the only person who noticed that.

You can find Bob the Angry Flower here.   If this is your first exposure, I recommend scrolling down to the bottom of the page and checking out Schrodinger's Fridge and Lord of the Ringz.

And I'm still on the road . . .

As I will often be in the coming months.  I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.  On the one hand, it's distinctly wearying.

On the other hand, driving up I-95 toward NYC, a bald eagle flew low over the car.  That was pretty good.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 54


Now, this is what a writer's notebook should look like!  Intriguing, cryptic, all but unreadable.  Bravo, me.

Now I'll ruin it by transcribing what I wrote:

In the Land of La, everything is other than it is here.  People are trees and walk upside down on the yellow grass of the sky.  George Bush is worshiped as a god.  Mother Teresa was a war criminal.  Politics is rational.  Religion tacks its sails to the prevailing winds.  Oh, happy land!  Where poverty is enough to get by on and wealth cannot buy respectability.  Where all men are judged by their character and women respected for their accomplishments.  Where [something] you and I, architecture is music and music is dance.  I'm confused -- and so are you.  We [something] both of us know what to do.
But how does that differ from any other day?

Can't figure that one out at all.  But I do recall that it had a specific point.  If I'd ever intended to publish it, I would've written a second draft in which that would have been made comprehensible.

La is an obvious echo of Oz, and possibly also of La-La Land.


Monday, March 21, 2011

The Decline and Fall of Western Culture Part 7,432


At Lunacon last Saturday, Esther Friesner reported seeing a Lord of the Rings slot machine.  Surely, I thought, it was a slip of the tongue and she was talking of a pinball machine.

As witness above, no such luck.  

And since you asked . . . 

"You're totally mad," Gardner Dozois told me at the Pen & Pencil Club Friday.

"We'll see," I replied.  And the very next morning got up at dawn, let Marianne pour me into the car, and tackled the ten-panels-in-thirteen-hours iron man schedule that Lunacon had assigned me.  Which is, taking into account that industry gives you a half hour lunch hour and two fifteen minute breaks during the day, means I was being challenged to squeeze one and a half work days into one long burst of adrenalin-fueled verbal brilliance.

Here's how it went:

9:30 a.m.  Arrive at convention, find registration, find pro registration, receive badge, schmooze friends, hand out copies of Song of the Lorelei, find first panel.

10:00 a.m.    Don't Change a Thing!  --  A discussion of editing, what works and what doesn't.  Which quickly turns into exchanges of horror stories alternating between the insane behavior of editors and the insane behavior of writers.  We are all brilliant.  I hand out a few chapbooks.

11:00  Free time.  I take a swing through the huckster room, talking to friends, handing out chapbooks, signing a few autographs.  

12:00 noon   The Biggest Mistakes New Writers Make -- This was an easy panel because new writers make so many and varied mistakes.  It was easy for us all to be effortlessly brilliant.   

1:00 p.m.      Biographies  -- There were only two people on this panel, myself and Daniel Grotta, who had written a biography of Tolkien.  Even so, we outnumbered the audience at the beginning of the hour.  But our audience was both passionate and well read on the topic, so we began a discussion with him. Then several more auditors drifted in.  This was easily one of the best panels of the day.  

Continue to give away the chapbooks.  Luckily for me, Marianne has planned ahead and stuffed some granola bars and a couple of hard boiled eggs (with homemade celery salt!) into my attache.  I have time to scarf down an egg before my next panel.

2:00 p.m.      When Magic Goes Away -- An entertaining  panel.  I was still in good form and Esther Friesner revealed that she had just seen a Lord of the Rings slot machine

I manage to eat the second egg before I have to speak again. 

4:00 p.m.      Weapons of Tomorrow -- I'm still doing well.  If I'm not quite as sharp as I was earlier, the other panelists make up for it.  The audience is large and almost entirely male.  They are also quite opinionated.  Nobody on the panel is surprised or dismayed.

5:00 p.m.      Writing Across Genre Lines -- The panel begins a bit disjointedly and then . . . A streak of luck!  When I mention that nobody "here" is a romance writer, a woman in the audience raises her hand.  I have the presence of mind to invite her to join the panel and she pumps a great deal of energy and insight into the hour.  Everyone, including the panelists, is interested in what she has to say.  Alas, by this time, I was too tired to jot down her name, and so cannot give her full credit.

6:00 p.m.  Free time.  I grab the last half-bagel in the Green Room and eat it.  There's more food in the Con Suite, however, and I put together a handful of cheese cubes, a half dozen cherry tomatoes, the last three slices of zucchini, and a small bag of potato chips.  Then Marianne gently leads me outside and we walk about the margins of the parking lot, enjoying the near-spring air.  I'm pretty washed out by now and confess that I'm not at all sure I'll manage to make every panel.

7:00 p.m.     Short Fiction and Its Nine Lives -- I'd been looking forward to this panel, but there are only two people on it, myself and the editor of Clarkesworld.  He has a great deal of intelligent things  to say about the state of online zine publishing, and a lot of people in the audience are intensely interested in the subject.  We agree that in a year everything will be changed.  Nevertheless, by now I'm so tired that I cannot hold up half of a panel and make it sizzle.  I do my best, but I wander a bit.  I hand out more chapbooks.

8:00  Defeat.  "I can't do  two more panels," I admit to Marianne.   Which meant I had to abandon Is Society Anti-Science? (a subject which, admittedly, I did not have a great deal to say about)  and "Real" Folklore and Mythology in Fantasy World-Building.  The latter is something I'm rather knowledgeable on.  Nevertheless, I'm on the point of collapse.  I need food, and I need rest.

Gardner is right.  I was completely mad to think I could do this.  Twenty years ago, maybe.  So I let Marianne help me into the car and drive me away.

I gave it my best, though.  I'll give myself that.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 53


More notes from the conference.  But now -- thank God! -- my mind is starting to wander.  Something somebody presented about electronic "stamps" started me thinking about the possibilities of intangible art that you'd have to go someplace physical to collect.  (I'm sure real artists have been doing this for some time.)

Then there's a note for a steel point etching: "Allegory Enlightening the Masses."  But, as I noted, I'd already used this idea.  In The Iron Dragon's Daughter

Finally, an impassioned explanation of how young people are the desired audience, and that they're drawn by "something happening" caused me to write:  Nobody Worth Having's the audience drawn by "Nothing Happening."

I could work that last into an interesting paragraph.  It's true what they say-- sarcasm is indeed the mother of art.

Or perhaps it's boredom I'm thinking of.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter


On my way to a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at St. Stephen's Theater yesterday, I ran across a Toynbee tile.  That's it above.

And what the heck is a Toynbee tile, you ask?  In an increasingly wired world, it may well be the last mystery.  You can read about it here.

Or watch the trailer for the indie movie:

And once again . . .

I'm on the road!  Saturday I'll be a Lunacon.  Then it's off into the wide and mysterious world.  More next week.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 52


This is better!  At the top it says Drunken Bird.  That might be a title I was playing with.  Or it might be something somebody else had created that I meant to look into.  Your guess is as good as mine.

The card was a promo for a series of comics by Marvel, in which they dumped their superheroes into a 1930s noir universe.  The success of superhero comics is a puzzle that baffles nobody more than those who create them.  As witness the fact that some of the best superhero series (Watchmen comes to mind) are deconstructions of the whole s-hero thing.

I wrote a fictional note on the card:

Welcome to Terra Noir.  Her's your raincoat.  Here's your gat.  You are now officially a dick on a case.  Here's your bottle of gin -- you keep it in the third drawer of your desk.  Your going rate is a hundred dollars a day plus expenses.  The expenses never come to much.  Nor will your love life.  But there will always be another blonde bombshell, another gunsel, another (something) go gun down.  You'll love it.  It'll keep you out of trouble.  Now skedaddle.
Love, God

Which I kinda like.  Works best with the graphic.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ich Bin Eine Flussratte!!!


Who am I?  Where do I come from?  I'll tell you.  I'm a Winooskadian.  I come from an ugly, ugly town, and possibly the only ugly town in Vermont.  I come from Winooski and I know what it's like to be a despised minority.  The kids from Burlington, across the river, used to throw rocks at us.  They called us "river rats."

More than a decade ago, I went back.  I brought with me my family.  "Don't get me wrong," Marianne said. "But where is the good part of town?"

"In Burlington," I told her.  Only later did I realize that she meant the good part of town.  Which was in Shelburne, some miles beyond Burlington.

"What did you do here?" my then-teenage son asked, aghast.

"Well . . . on Fridays we used to take the bus into Burlington to hang out on the street corners," I replied.  He thought I was kidding, but I was not.  We really did.

So I'm particularly glad that somebody put together the above photos of the Winooski waterfront in a montage that makes my old stomping grounds look beautiful.  The walkway wasn't there in my day.  And the spiffy-looking buildings were tired old mills reaching the end of their lifespans.  Never mind.  It tugs at my heart.  It speaks to the love I had for that place.

As for you rock-throwing Burlingtonians?  It's been a long, long time, hasn't it?  Half a lifetime.  I extend my hand to you.

You'll notice that the first, second, fourth and fifth fingers are folded down.

And I have a West Coat appearance!

Bowing to popular demand, I've booked a room and bought airfare for Norwescon, this April 22-24.   Haven't yet determined whether I can squeeze onto the program at this late date.  But I'll be there.  Being expansive and giving away small but desirable signed-and-numbered limited edition Darger & Surplus booklets to those who ask.

I'm hoping to do something in San Francisco later this summer too, but that's still up in the air.

And I'll be at Lunacon two days from now . . .

I'll be working hard and (again) handing out booklets for those who'd like them.  I'm only there on Saturday (I have to go up the Hudson River Valley for the big secret nonfiction book project),  but I'll be emphatically there.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 51


More notes from the conference.  Very dull, and for that I do apologize.   But I go to all sorts of events in an effort to expand my range of reference.  Sometimes it works out well.  Other times. . . well.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spring is Icumin In, Lhude Sing Huzzah


Marianne and I played hooky yesterday and went down to Bombay Hook, Delaware, looking for birds.

Those I saw:  Canada geese in great abundance, mallards, two tundra swans, wood ducks, a vast flock of snow geese (they can be recognized in flight because, since they have black wingtips, the whole flock seems to flicker), northern shovelers, coots, green-winged teals and ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, mergansers, ruddy ducks, a field of robins (they retreat to the woods in the winter and are just coming out now; soon they'll be in our yards), pied-billed grebes, turkey vultures galore, northern harriers, red-tailed hawks, three bald eagles -- one mature which we saw twice; two different immature, one of which had effectively gutted and was eating a rabbit while a turkey vulture and a murder of crows tried hard not to look like they were anxious to move in on it -- laughing gulls, a mourning dove, a red-bellied woodpecker, an eastern phoebe, American crows, European starlings, tree sparrows, chipping sparrows, song sparrows, white-crowned sparros, juncos, a red-winged blackbird, great blue herons, house sparrows and several bluebirds.

Plus a few birds we couldn't get a good enough view of to identify.  And pigeons, which we scorned to count.

But the chief thing we discovered was that Spring Is Coming.  Look at the flowering buds on that branch above.  Swear to God, the trees were budding as we looked at them.  We saw our first daffodils, in the middle of the brown wood where a house had once been.  That sense of change . . . of hope . . . of new possibilities is upon us.  The puddles by the side of the road were cloudy with frog eggs.  Their song was everywhere.  As witness the brief, shamefully amateur video here.

By the way, that black spot up in the trees?  An immature bald eagle.

When I was a kid in the 1950s, you rarely saw hawks or vultures or eagles.  Thank God for Rachel Carson.

And soon . . .

I'll have more substantive things to say.  For the moment, it's all eagles and frogs.  Did I mention that I played hooky yesterday?


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 50


The one-page comic by Robert Crumb and his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb was printed somewhere to promote a show of Crumb's art at the ICA here in Philadelphia.  Great show.  I cut up a picture in an art magazine and pasted scraps of it over the comic to create something new (and spoil the page as a cartoon) so I wouldn't be in violation of copyright.

Up at the top, it says prob. ought to read The Tipping Point.  I probably should still.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 49


The Big Canvas

These are notes I took at a regional gathering of arts administrators, who gathered to see what ideas people had to promote the arts in a time of economic difficulty.  The short answer was:  pretty much none.

So I will only transcribe a few of the notes.  After the fact, I cut random phrases from a newspaper and pasted them over the page to make it into a kind of found-concrete poetry.

Barnes activists occasionally get up and hold up signs.

It's a long and sad story how the Barnes Foundation, a truly wonderful institution, bankrupted itself in a series of pointless and avoidable lawsuits.  In the aftermath, they were bailed out by public money and a new museum is being built for the fine art collection on the Parkway, in Philadelphia.  A number of people near the old Barnes felt strongly that it should have stayed where it was.  They've continued fighting, long after the war was lost, bitter and self-righteous people with some of the most cluttered protest signs you've ever seen in our life.

In the bottom left corner is a doodle titled Fishing Within and annotated, Internal Hook of Conscience.  I don't know why I like to make jokes about the agenbite of inwit, but I do.


Darger & Surplus Teach You . . . How to Run a Con (First Lesson)


I'm playing hooky today!  Off into the wilds of New Jersey or it may well be Maryland, to look at birds.  But rather than leave you without entertainment, I'm honoring a request one of this blog's readers made -- my apologies for not having the time to dig deeply enough into old posts to credit you with the idea; why don't you reply to today's entry and figuratively take a bow? -- to post the scripts for the series running weekly on StarShipSofa in which Darger & Surplus teach you . . . "How to Run a Con."

I asked Tony C. Smith, StarShipSofa's helmsman, if it was proper to do so, and he very graciously gave me the go-ahead.

Today, the very first script.  If you'd like to hear  Gregory Frost and me perform it,  click here to go to the podcast.  Simply scroll to the bottom of the page and click either play in new window or download.



“First Lesson”

Darger:  Hello, this is Darger.

Surplus:  And I’m Surplus.  And we’re here to teach you . . .

Together:  . . . how to run a con.

Darger:  Before we begin the instructional part of this series, we thought we should address the question of consequences.

Surplus:  Which is to say, incarceration.  Durance vile.  Loss of freedom.  In short, jail time.  Because if you’re going to devote yourself to a life lived by one’s wits, you’ve got to take into account that even though a smart enough individual can beat the odds, nobody escapes unscathed every single time.

Darger:  Amen.  Now, I myself have never been jailed, but –

Surplus:  Whoa, whoa, whoa!  What about that time in Vienna?

Darger:  That?  That was a case of mistaken identity.  I wasn’t arrested for anything I’d done but what somebody I was taken to be had done.  So it hardly counts.

Surplus:  And in Stockholm?

Darger:  If you’ll recall, that was part of our original plan.  I was in that prison strictly for business purposes.

Surplus:  You were still jailed.

Darger:  I was in jail.  There’s a difference.  So were the warden and the guards but you’d hardly say they were incarcerated, would you?  It was simply a condition of my employment.

Surplus:  Which, to be fair, was our original thesis.  That practitioners of the confidential arts should be prepared for the occasional involuntary stay in substandard government housing.

Darger:  Indeed.  Well, we could go on and on, but I think our point has been made.
Surplus:  So do I.

Together:  If you can’t do time, don’t do crime!

Surplus:  That’s all for today.  This is Surplus.

Darger:  And I’m Darger.  Teaching you .  . .

Together:  . . . how to run a con.


Surplus:  What about that time in the Wurmenthal?

Darger:  Please.  I was swallowed by a dragon.  It was hardly the same thing.  Anyway, it was also a luxury hotel.

Surplus:  Which you weren’t allowed to leave.

Darger:  It served an excellent pate de fois gras.  Does that sound like a jail?

Surplus:  Point taken.

Above:  Not mine, alas.  I swiped the image from the Web.


Monday, March 14, 2011

The Man Who Walked Around the World


It was a quiet, mildly social weekend.  On Sunday, Marianne and I went to a double reading hosted by Philadelphia socialites Trillian Stars and Kyle Cassidy.

Carolyn Turgeon read from her new novel Mermaid (characterized in an enthusiastic review in Publisher's Weekly as a "surprisingly dark retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid" -- whoever wrote those words cannot have read the original), and Jeanine Cummins read from The Outside Boy, a novel about a young Irish Traveler in the 1950s which Booklist declared "a deeply moving and elegiac look at a vanishing culture."

The day before that, I went over to Gregory Frost's house to participate in a how-to-write Webinar run by StarShipSofa.  (Which is, you'll recall, podcasting the Darger & Surplus Explain . . .  How to Run a Con series every Wednesday.  You can find StarShipSofa here.)  That's Greg, above, doing an exemplary job of explaining how to begin a story.

Tony C. Smith, who hosted the Webinar, made several jokes beforehand about having glasses of whisky at hand.  So afterward, when Greg gave me a ride home, I poured him a glass of the good stuff.

Ah, you say.  The good stuff.  Laphroaig, you mean?  Glenfiddich?  Highland Park?

Oh, please.  The good stuff.  Johnny Walker Blue Label, I mean.  It tells you just how highly I esteem Gregory Frost that he got a drink from that hoarded and very slowly dwindling bottle.

During our conversation, Greg told me about the existence of a six-minute-long commercial.  And not an ordinary one either.  A commercial that aspires to the status of art.  One with an astonishing performance by Robert Carlyle.

Here it is.  Enjoy.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 48


Two items:

1.  "to keynote" -- This was clearly the first time I'd encountered this particular agrammaticism.  I despise people who go about promiscuously verbing innocent words.

2.  A full-page article I wanted to save, folded and pasted into the notebook.  I added a sticker for complexity.  Then I failed to scan it open for reasons of copyright.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Signed, Numbered, Limited, Infinitely Collectable . . . and Free!


This is all about promoting Dancing With Bears, my fiendishly entertaining new novel.  But stay with me.  It's actually pretty interesting.

I was looking for something I could give away that people would actually want to receive.  If you go to the freebie table at any convention there are lots and lots of postcards, bookmarks, novel excerpts on CDs and the like and hardly anybody picking them up.  Which, considering not only the hard work but the genuine love invested in them by their creators, is a terrible pity.

Fortunately, I am married to self-styled nano publisher Marianne Porter, sole proprietor of Dragonstairs Press, one of the newer and unquestionably smaller publishing houses that are actually worth your attention.  Together we cooked up a series of four small chapbooks (that's them up above), extracted from "Smoke and Mirrors:  Four Scenes from the Postutopian Future," which was a single story made up of four stand-alone (but sequential) short-shorts featuring those dashing rogues, Darger & Surplus.  (Originally published in Live Without a Net, edited by Lou Anders.)

Each booklet is lovingly crafted, hand-sewn, and very nicely designed.  I changed a few words in each of the flash fictions so that this version of the stories will be unique.  And they are issued in a limited edition of one hundred.  They were all numbered sequentially, and then autographed in a color ink coordinated with the cover.

The four short-shorts are:

Song of the Lorelei
American Cigarettes
The Brain-Baron
The Nature of Mirrors

And I'm giving them away.

Starting at Lunacon one week and a day from today.  I'll bring a big handful of the first booklet with me, and anyone can have one simply for the asking.

The next convention or other public appearance I go to, I'll bring a batch of the second.  And so on, until they're all gone.

I think they're wonderfully collectable.  But if you want a complete set . . . well, it's going to take work.

And while we're on the subject of Lunacon . . .

I've got my schedule.  Since I'm only going to be there on Saturday, March 19, I asked them to work me hard.  So they did.  Here's what I'll be on:

10:00 a.m.    Don't Change a Thing!  (on being edited)
12:00 noon   The Biggest Mistakes New Writers Make
1:00 p.m.      Biographies (actually a pretty interesting topic)
2:00 p.m.      When Magic Goes Away (about stories where this happens, not careers, thank God)
3:00 p.m.      Borrowing From the Past (researching & using historical data)
4:00 p.m.      Weapons of Tomorrow
5:00 p.m.      Writing Across Genre Lines
7:00 p.m.       Short Fiction and Its Nine Lives
8:00 p.m.       Is Society Anti-Science?
10:00 p.m.     "Real" Folklore and Mythology in Fantasy World-Building

That's ten panels in thirteen hours -- more than any human being has ever been exposed to before!  Will my brain explode?  Will my body implode?  Show up to find out!

And don't forget to ask for a booklet.

Above:  The first version I shot of that picture had a cat-foot in it.  Miss Helen Hope Mrrlees wandered by to see what was going on.


Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 47


A rather rude doodle of some random tumescent cosmic power holding the Earth in a cup.  At the top, it says:

Nobody understands Calculus or Physics or Life.  We do our best and ditch the rest.

Two-thirds of that is certainly untrue and the rest may be as well.  I was obviously trying for some kind of simplistic vulgarity -- to what end, I have no idea.

Down at the bottom, I wrote:

Is none of this obvious to anybody but me?

And below that, upside down:

If not, do I have an obligation to explain?

You know what?  I honestly believe I don't.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 46


Another story written extempore over a newspaper photo.  Also a scaled-down Xerox of a collar bill I found on the ground.


Me! Me! Me!


Years ago, I ran into William Gibson at the end of a convention where he was guest of honor.  "Last weekend I was out with friends riding dirt bikes up and down huge piles of rocks and on Monday I felt great," he said.  "When I get home from this thing I'm going to have to lie down in a dark room with a damp cloth over my ego and wait for the swelling to go down."

That's one of the drawbacks of writing.  Promoting your work wreaks hell on your quest to cultivate the Buddha nature.  Nevertheless, periodically you have to go out and promote it.

Which is what I'm about to do.  I'm entering into a season of promotion for my novel.  Here's the very preliminary schedule.  More appearances will unquestionably be added.

 March 19          Lunacon -- Rye Brook, NY

March 25         Philadelphia Fantastic (reading) -- Philadelphia, PA

May 19-22        Nebula Awards (technically not promotion; but I'm the toastmaster) -- Washington, DC

May 27-30         Balticon -- Baltimore Maryland

June 7               NYRSF Reading -- NYC

July 15-17         Readercon -- Burlington, MA

Sept. 21            KGB Bar (reading)  -- NYC 

And if you drop by any of those events . . .

Say hi.  I'll have something to give away to promote the book.

Above:  I took this shot in Edinburgh years ago during the Fringe.  It has nothing to do with today's post.  But what's a blog without an illo?


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Scribbledehobbledehoyden: The Magpie's Eye: Page 45


December 5, 2008

D & S -- Hand... hand... special effects (circles of light)
D & S -- cough/distraction/whatever
Write Teller and ask

Notes for to-be-written bits of Dancing With Bears.  I can make no sense out of them.  Did I really plan to write Teller, one of the living masters of the art, and ask his advice on sleight-of-hand?  That seems pretty nervy, even for me.

"Spoken, She Said, Like A Gentleman"

Actually, a pretty good title.  A pity I didn't have a story for it.

A snatch of speculative prose:

There is always worse, there is always more grotesque, there is always another step down.  Which being so, why should we ever glance in that direction?

Sing, goddess, of insignificant things;
of toothpaste, shoelaces, and gum
Of grocery lists and plastic bags
And {habits?] of which we are [something].

And, not a fragment, but a complete two-sentence fiction:

The cockroaches wrote a manifesto which, unfortunately, I did not read.  In my defense, it was rather stained by big spots at the time.


Thinking About Heinlein


I've got things to do, ephemera to write, a book to promote, and promises to keep before I can sleep.  Much less get back to writing fiction anytime soon, dammit.

So of course any reading that is not to the immediate point is wasted time.

I've been wasting time rereading William H. Patterson, Jr.'s biography of Robert A. Heinlein.  Or, rather, volume one of his biography -- there will be more, and this one only gets him a few years beyond WWII.  It's a book that makes me like Heinlein the man a lot more than I expected it would.  Behind the rather starchy, aphorism-spouting facade was an interesting and quirky fellow who was knocked flat by life several times in his early years and always got back up and re-entered the fray with genuine zest.

It's a pity that Heinlein so carefully pruned his past, burned his letters, destroyed every trace of himself that ran contrary to his carefully-constructed public image.  Because every indication of fallibility,  every suggestion of human weakness needing to be overcome, every agonized cry of "What the hell does Campbell want?" just made me like him the more.

Those of you who are planning to be culturally significant might want to keep this in mind.

But if I may, I'd like to call Patterson to task for a sentence in which he says that Heinlein repackaged Jack Woodford's writing advice when he wrote "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction," which includes his famous rules:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

All of which, save for number 3 are gospel truth.  And even that one is only wrong in a nuanced way.

The thing is, though, I've read Woodford.  He was an interesting guy.  Woodford had two careers as a writer.  The first was as the king of soft-core porn.  At a time when things you could say to your mother today couldn't be put into a book, he was the master of implying all manner of perverse sexuality without ever giving the censors anything to cut.

His second career was as a writer of how-to-write books.  Trial and Error was a major hit, and Heinlein learned a great deal from it.  Chiefly, that writing is a business and that the way to succeed at it is to treat it as such.

I read Woodford back when I was an aspiring writer and years away from being publishable, and I'm here to tell you that his advice (except for that which was badly dated and so obviously so it wasn't a problem) was good.

What Heinlein did was to take the gist of Woodford's advice, run it through the smithy of his soul, and come up with something new.

I admire both men, and I have enormous reservations about each.  But credit where credit is due.  Heinlein's essay was far more than a repackaging of Woodford.

So I must take exception to that particular sentence.

The rest of the book, however is excellent.

And just in case you're thinking of looking up Woodford's work . . .

Be forewarned.  Woodford became rather a crank as he continued to pen writing advice books.  More and more space was devoted to rants about Communists, Catholics, feminists, "fags" and the like.  If you look into his books (and parts of them are excellent) you should be prepared to be offended.

Jack Woodford is dead now, and I must ask you to be gentle with his memory.  He had a hard life.  His relations with the daughter he adored were not good, and he died in a mental asylum outside of Williamsburg, all but forgotten.  Let us remember the good he did and the enormous help he was to young Bob Heinlein.  His prejudices died with his body.