Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Iron Dragon's Daughter Is Now An E-Book!!!!


This is Wednesday's blog post. It's put up one day early because this is news I want to be sure you hear from me.

For years, people have been asking me when The Iron Dragon's Daughter would be available in e-book format. And for years I've had to mumble that my agent and I were working hard behind the scenes to make this happen. I know this has been frustrating for some of you and I sincerely apologize for that.

But good news! Today... Today, the e-book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other ebook retailers.

And not just The Iron Dragon's Daughter. Courtesy of Open Road Integrated Media, there are also e-books of:

Bones of the Earth

In the Drift

Jack Faust

Vacuum Flowers

and the short story collection Tales of Old Earth

I'm excited to have these works available for purchase online. You can find Open Road's homepage for these books here.

(Jeffrey Ford's collection The Fantasy Writer's Assistant is, obviously, not by me but included on the page because I wrote an introduction to it. Jeff is a fine, fine writer, and I was proud to write the intro. If you're on an e-buying spree, I recommend his book.)


Monday, May 30, 2016

Lock Up Your Chickens and Podcasts!


Every true reader has a short list of books and stories that can be read over and over again for pleasure. It's pretty rare for a writer to include one of his or her own works on that list. But I have exactly one -- "Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters -- H'ard and Andy Are Come to Town!" Which, through no coincidence at all, was co-written with master fantasist Gregory Frost.

The Philadelphia Writers' Conference has a podcast with Greg and myself which is largely about that very story. If you'd like to hear it, click here.

And it's Memorial Day! So I'm off to a barbecue being thrown by a vet.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Baltimore! City of Magic! City of Light!


As always, I'm on the road again. This time I'm going to Baltimore. I'll be at Balticon, where I'll be teaching a writers' seminar on Saturday. On Sunday, I'm scheduled for a panel, an autograph session, and a reading. If you're there, be sure to say hello.

Above: Mis Hope has figured out that a suitcase means we're going to leave her in the care of the Son for the weekend. So, as always, she is taking action to prevent this from happening by camping out on top of the suitcase. If she's sitting on it, we can't pick it up. And if we can't pick it up, we can't leave.

It's a flawlessly logical line of reasoning. And yet, somehow, it never works.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

My Writing Workshop at Balticon


Years ago, I gave up on one-day teaching gigs because they made me feel like a fraud. I felt like I was not so much teaching the students as talking at them.

So why, you might reasonably ask, am I running a writing seminar at Balticon this Saturday?

Simply because the seminars (and there are a lot of them; and the students have to pay to attend; so I'm guessing it'll be a small group) have a format, designed by Chuck Gannon, that's new to me, and one that sounds like I'll be able to be genuinely useful to the students. Here's roughly how it goes.

The first hour or so is a group discussion. Each student brings several concerns or questions or problems they're having with their writing, and I address them. Then there's a break for lunch with informal discussion of the issues raised. And finally, there's one-on-one discussions with the instructor. Those who want privacy can request that they go last. But since there's nothing inherently shameful about learning to write, this apparently rarely happens.

The usual writers' workshop format consists of intensive line-editing. This works well at Clarion or Clarion West, where there's enough time to get to know the students (particularly since I bully the administration into sending me copies of everything they've written previously, so I can gauge how rapidly they're learning), but not so well in less intensive settings. But this format sounds like it can be of genuine value.

I'm looking forward to finding out.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Writers, Podcasts, and Jailbait in a Rowboat


Sunday, I did a podcast with Gregory Frost for the Philadelphia Writers' Conference. We talked about a number of things of interest to writers, but chiefly about our collaborative story "Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters -- H'ard and Andy Are Come to Town!" Which recently (ahem!) won the Asimov's Readers' Award for best novelette.

I've explained before how the characters of H'ard and Andy were inspired by Howard Waldrop and Andy Duncan -- chiefly by their speech patterns, but also by their sharp intelligence and innate decency. In the interview, I also explained where the third main character of the story came from. Just to set you up, here's her first appearance in the story:
At that moment, a slim girl with a tremendous mass of red hair and freckles to match slid into the booth alongside Andy, locked eyes with H’ard, and said, “I’m not wearing any underwear.”
 “Heaven help us,” Andy said.  “What kind of a way to begin a conversation is that?  No how-dee-do, no ‘Hi, my name is –,’ no big sunny smile that declares as good as words that you hope we might all of us wind up as friends.  No, just a bald declarative sentence that combines a complete ignorance of the social niceties with a distasteful disregard for the importance of personal hygiene.  I don’t know when I’ve ever felt half so offended this early on in an acquaintanceship.”
 H’ard grunted.  “Let’s start over.”  He extended a big hand across the table.  “Name’s H’ard.  My friend’s Andy.  What’s your name, sweetie?”
 The girl took his hand and shook.  “It’s Jezabel.”
 “Oh, it is not,” Andy said.  “Nobody’s going to believe decent Baptist folk gave their daughter any such ridiculous name as that.  I don’t believe it, H’ard here don’t believe it, and I don’t believe you’re fool enough to believe for an instant that we believe it neither.  Your real name is probably Susan or Ellie or Mildred or something sensible like that.”
 The girl turned as red as her freckles.  “It’s Lolly.  And you ain’t no gentleman for forcing me to admit to it.”
 “Pleasure to meet you, Lolly,” H’ard said.  “Now why don’t you tell us just what it is you’re up to, talking to two strangers on no pretense at all.  Not that I object.  But I am curious.”
 “I intend to get the hell out of this nothing-happening town.”
 “Ambition is admirable in a child,” Andy said.  “Only, exactly how is talking with us going to accomplish that?”
 “Gonna hook up with you two.  I’ll let you pop my cherry in return.”
 “What in the name of God’s little green apples are you talking about, girl?  Your lips are moving but listen hard as I might, I don’t hear a single syllable of sense coming out from between them.”
 Lolly scowled.  “I don’t see what’s so difficult to understand.  Y’all got a car and I overheard my father saying that you’re obviously criminals of some sort or other.  We can come to terms.  I’ve got a few heavy petting sessions under my belt and I’m ready to move on to unfettered moral depravity.”
 “Heaven help us,” Andy moaned.  “Could this situation get any worse?”
 H’ard, who had been listening intensely, said, “Tell me something, little darlin’.  What exactly does your daddy do for a living?”
 “He’s the sheriff.”
 “Heaven help us!”

The original for Lolly was a girl somewhere between fourteen and sixteen years old who lived near Williamsburg, Virginia, where I went to college. She had discovered sex and had a thing for older -- but not too much older -- men. Which is to say college students. She was not shy about expressing her ambitions. And, yes, her father really was a sheriff.

One summer, a friend of mine was working props for The Common Glory, and open-air theatrical for tourists, which involved him sitting quietly in a rowboat on Lake Matoaka for over an hour before towing a fake warship into view. One evening, a girl's face popped up out of the water and she said, "Hi. Can I come on board?"

My friend, who at that time was madly in love with a woman who would not have him and thus not even remotely interested in anyone, else said sure, and into the boat she surged -- totally naked, obviously jailbait, and ready for action.

All my male friends at that time were long-haired libertines and it would have made a duck laugh to see the terror she caused among them. The women I knew were certainly amused.

If you're curious about the Philadelphia Writers' Conference, you can find their website here. I'll let you know when the podcast goes live.

Above: Gregory Frost. Photograph by Kyle Cassidy, portraitist of greatness.


Friday, May 20, 2016

Small Lives

I found a cat -- a beautiful thing, black with white boots -- lying dead in the driveway this morning. Probably it was struck by a car and had been looking for sanctuary when its heart gave way.

By the condition of its fur, the cat was well cared for, and I'm sure its owners are desperately looking for it. If they put out signs, I'll call them with the sad news, so they'll know. In the meantime, we buried this stranger in the back yard.

Our yard is very small and we've had several cats over the years. When I dug the hole for the grave, I turned up the skull of Miss Hope's predecessor, Shadowfax. His fate was very different from the stranger's... He died of old age, resting in Marianne's lap. In his day, Shadowfax claimed the entire neighborhood for his own, patrolling it daily, fighting all comers to preserve his territory, occasionally leaving a dead mouse or (in five memorable cases) an eviscerated opossum on the back porch. So he had as good a life as a domestic cat can have.

We let these small creatures into our lives and give our hearts to them. They, in turn, share some fraction of their existence with us and keep the rest hidden away where we will never see it. And in the end, they return from whence they came, into darkness and mystery and the earth.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Writer Plays Hooky


I was recently asked what I would do if I could spend an entire week doing anything but work. I replied, "Sit in a dark room and write."

Writing is not only my avocation, but also my hobby (that's where the monographs on Hope Mirrlees and James Branch Cabell came from) and my recreation.

So today, when I should have been working on the novel but just couldn't face the drudgery, I declared a mental health day, booted up an old story that had hung up on a point of plot years ago, and started to play with it.

I think I've got the problem solved. But that doesn't really matter. Everybody needs a day off now and again.

The story is called "Starlight Express." Here's how it begins...

Flaminio the water carrier lived in the oldest part of the ancient city of Roma among the popolo minuto, the clerks and artisans and laborers and such who could afford no better.  His apartment overlooked the piazza dell’Astrovia, which daytimes was choked with tourists from four planets who came to admire the ruins and revenants of empire.  They coursed through the ancient transmission station, its stone floor thrumming gently underfoot, the magma tap still powering the energy road, even though the stars had shifted in their positions centuries ago and anyone stepping into the projector would be translated into a complex wave front of neutrinos and shot away from the Earth to fall between the stars forever.
Human beings had built such things once. Now they didn’t even know how to turn it off.
On hot nights, Flaminio slept on a pallet on the roof. Sometimes, staring up at the sparkling line of ionization that the energy road sketched through the atmosphere, he followed it in his imagination past Earth's three moons and out to the stars.  He could feel its pull at such times, the sweet yearning tug that led suicides to converge upon it in darkness, furtive shadows slipping silently up the faintly glowing steps like lovers to a tryst.
Flaminio wished then that he had been born long ago when it was possible to ride the starlight express away from the weary old Republic to impossibly distant worlds nestled deep in the galaxy. But in the millennia since civilization had fallen, countless people had ridden the Astrovia off the planet, and not one had ever returned.
Except, maybe, the woman in white. 

And for the rest, you'll have to wait for the story to be finished and then published. Late this year or early next, I'm guessing. 

Though I'm really not in a hurry.

Above: This image comes from History.com, the website for the History Channel. A fun place to wander through. Give it a try.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Lock Up Your Chickens and Readers . . .


The 2016 Asimov's Readers Awards were given out Sunday at a breakfast awards ceremony during SFWA Nebula Conference in Chicago. And the award for Best Novelette went to...

"Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters -- H'ard and Andy Are Come to Town!" by Gregory Frost and (ahem!) me.

One pleasant aspect of writing a collaborative story is that if it wins an award, you only have to be half as modest as if a solo work wins. So I can tell you that I am extremely happy with this honor because I love this story. Greg and I were in complete accord as to what this kind of thing should be like and together we crafted something that suited our shared vision completely.

The story is set in a fantasy version of the dust bowl and features two con men loosely based on Howard Waldrop and Andy Duncan. That's them above. I took that shot and for a month kept showing it to people, saying, "Don't they look like two old-time grifters?" Until finally I realized that my subconscious was trying to tell me there was a story to be written.

To give you an idea of what the story's like, here's a bit of dialogue that comes right after the local sheriff tells our two heroes that he's going to telegraph the State to see if they're wanted for anything. Greg wrote Andy's lines and I wrote H'ard's:

“Well, I don’t mean to be negative, sir, but I’ve got to tell you:  I just simply do not believe in the telegraph, and that’s a fact.  New-fangled nonsense device like that is prone to breaking down exactly when you need it most.  Why, wires get broke and then all the electricity goes astray and flies helter-skelter all over the place, frightening horses and inconveniencing honest citizens.  Fella writes down a two-dollar message and a puff of wind blows the paper right out the window.  In all the confusion nobody even remembers who sent the darn thing or what it said.  No, sir, put not your trust in machines.  One man, one mule, and a leather sack of paper envelopes with a magenta two-cent George Washington stamp and a hand-cancelation on the front does the job best, is what I say.  Takes a little longer but a dozen times more sure.”
 “If you want our particulars,” H’ard said, “just ask.”

Now, either you like that or you don't and I like the entire story quite a bit. But for my money, that riff that Greg came up with is just the best part of the whole damn thing and no amount of reasoning on your part is going to shift me on that.

So thank you, Greg. It was a pleasure working with you.

And we're not the only ones happy today...

There are also those who won the Nebulas. It was a good slate and a good set of winners, both. And there are also our fellow Asimov's Readers' Award winners and our cousin Analog Analytic Laboratory winners. As follow:

Asimov’s Science Fiction
Readers’ Award Winners

Best Novella:               “Inhuman Garbage” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (3/15)
Best Novelette:              “Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters—H’ard and Andy Are  Come to Town!” by Michael Swanwick & Gregory Frost (4-5/15)
Best Short Story:         “Tuesdays” by Suzanne Palmer (3/15)
Best Poem:                  “1,230 Grams of Einstein” by Robert Frazier (6/15)
Best Cover Artist:        Maurizio Manzieri

Analog Science Fiction and Fact
Analytical Laboratory Winners

Best Novella:               “Builders of Leaf Houses” by Catherine Wells (12/15)
Best Novelette:            “Racing to Mars” by Martin L. Shoemaker (9/15)
Best Short Story:         “The Museum of Modern Warfare” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (12/15)
Best Fact Article:         “Challenges of Manned Interstellar Travel: An Overview” by Nick Kanas (5/15)
Best Poem:                  “The Impending Apocalypse Helps Me Maintain Perspective” by Steven Dondlinger (3/15)
Best Cover:                  May 2015 by Donato Giancola


Friday, May 13, 2016

The Chief Thing To Remember About Proofing nd Copyediting


I've been working all day on the galleys of Not So Much, Said the Cat, my new collection of short fiction forthcoming this summer from Tachyon Publications.

This time, as so rarely happened, the text has been edited with a light hand, and so the value of a second pair of eyes is obvious. Because the damnedest mistakes pop up. A female character is referred to as "he." A simple sentence like "He looked at her" has inexplicably become "He looked her." Words from earlier drafts linger long after the sentences that once sheltered them have been excised. Duplication of of propositions happens.

Sometimes you get a proofreader or a copyeditor with literary ambitions. Someone who wants to turn you into a proper writer through rigorous revision. This can be maddening when you've been writing for decades and fancy that you've begun to get somewhere as a writer. Particularly when your tormentor (for there is no kinder word) takes it into his or her head to insert grammatical errors into your text.

A kind of rage enters into you then, and you write STET in big bold letters next to every suggested change, even when you're in the wrong.

That's the chief thing to remember: Sometimes you will be in the wrong. Because errors -- typos, linguistic misuses, the mot not juste -- are like cockroaches. They want in. And they're almost impossible to keep out. So sooner or later you're going to have to systematically hunt them down and kill them, every one.

That's when it's good to have someone at your publishing house on your side.

Above: Tachyon is making a change in the title of the collection, incidentally. The quotation marks will be taken out. So many little adjustments go into a book!


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Those Who Do Not Learn From The History of Science Fiction...


Over the years, I've taught occasionally at Clarion West, Clarion South, and Old Original Clarion. Literally every time I've taught, a student has come up with a story dealing with the folklore of Appalachia. And every time, I asked the student, "Have you read Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories?" the answer was no.

"You should," I invariably said."It would teach you a lot about how this sort of story should be written."

I was talking to an editor recently who was complaining about the newest generation of SF writers. "Not only do they not know the history of science fiction," he-or-she said. "They don't want to know. It's of no interest to them."

Well, I get it. Life is short, and there's a lot of science fiction to read. I belong to the last generation of writers who entered the field having read literally every significant work of science fiction there was -- because that was the last time such a feat was possible.

Still, it's a foolish strategy for two reasons. The first is that if you're going to reinvent everything from whole cloth, your stories are necessarily going to be less accomplished and far less interesting than the works of writers who are going into literary battle fully armed.

And the second is that if nobody reads what came before them, who is going to read your work when you're gone?

End of sermon. Go thou and sin no more. Write better stories.

Above: M81 Galaxy. Photo courtesy of NASA. False color, of course. A bit of astronomy would be another useful thing for new writers to learn.


Monday, May 9, 2016

How to Read Gene Wolfe


Gene Wolfe turned 85 over the weekend. In honor of this, I'm posting here an essay I wrote for a special GW issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction back in 2007, to accompany Gene's story "Memorare." It is meant to be a sort of beginners' guide to the great writer's work.

The very best way to discover Wolfe is to pick up a copy of The Shadow of the Torturer, which is the first volume of The Book of the New Sun., which is (with the possible exception of a select few of his short fictions) his most beguiling and easiest-to-fall-in-love-with work, and read the first chapter. But if you don't have a copy of that on hand and you're sadly unfamiliar with his fiction, the following may be useful to you.

The Wolf in the Labyrinth

All fiction is lies, of course.  But the best fictions tell useful lies, ones that help us make sense of an often confusing world.  The congressman and frontier yarn-spinner Davy Crockett claimed to know of a buffalo so large that it took three men to see all of it.  Gene Wolfe is something like that wonderful buffalo.  His virtues as a writer are so great and so many that a recitation of them tends to make him blend into the sky.

Here’s the short version: Wolfe is so extremely smart that he stands out even in a field that routinely attracts savants, autodidacts, brilliant loners, and wild talents; he writes both novels and short fiction with complete mastery; he’s endlessly inventive and endlessly surprising; he fills his works with what programmers call “Easter eggs,” puzzles and secret treats for those who care to fossick them out; he dares to take chances; his writing covers an astonishing range of subjects and styles; he creates people you care about; his research is meticulous and his facts reliable; he has the slyest sense of humor imaginable; and his prose is as good as prose gets.  Plus, he’s prolific.  To be prolific at any level is to be beloved of God.  But to be prolific and write like Gene Wolfe does is to be one of the Elect.

You see?  I’ve left you with no picture at all of the man or of his work.  Worse, I’m treading on the edge of the great fallacy that Wolfe’s admirers so often fall into: That of making him sound so elevated that there’s no hope of a mere mortal enjoying his work.  It’s an easy mistake to make, though.  Cresheim Creek, near where I live, flows into the Wissahickon creating a deep spot that’s called the Devil’s Pool because, so the folklore goes, it has no bottom but goes all the way down to the devil.  A Gene Wolfe story can be like that – even the seemingly simplest can turn out to be potentially bottomless.

Take “A Solar Labyrinth,” first published in this magazine in 1983, which at first glance seems barely more than a whimsy.  A Mr. Smith builds a labyrinth of isolated objects – lamp posts, statues, a retired yawl canted on its side with masts jutting overhead – scattered about a lawn, so that the walls defining its passages are not physical but shadows.  It’s a puzzle that can only be solved, moreover, by realizing that the shadows shift with the sun, opening and closing lines of escape.  The vignette explores the differing reactions of adults and children to the maze and ends with Mr. Smith and one solitary child chasing each other down its lanes in the waning afternoon.

Lovely, I thought on first reading it.  But later, looking back over my metaphorical shoulder, I felt the shadows lengthen and darken.  The imagined shrieks of the child sounded less like laughter and more like terror.  I could not help but think of Lewis Carroll, who was from one perspective the best friend a child could ever have, and from another a very frightening man indeed.  I could not help but think that the child’s predicament was a lot like life itself.

From this point, the analysis can go on and on.  Google the story and you’ll find that many think it’s a Christian allegory, while others prefer to interpret it as a key to the reading of Wolfe’s masterwork, The Book of the New Sun.  For those who care to do so, the exploration can be followed as deep as human ingenuity will take it.  Gene Wolfe is notorious for never explaining his stories, so there’s no telling at what point interpretation ends and invention begins.  A lot of people have gone to the devil, trying to track this particular wolf through the labyrinth of story and back to its lair.

There’s nothing wrong with the critical impulse, of course.  But it’s a very big mistake to think that simply because a story has deeper levels, its surface meaning can be ignored with impunity.

I’m thinking here of the response to Wolfe’s recent novel The Wizard Knight (for reasons of length, lightly revised and published as The Knight and The Wizard) in which a teenaged boy finds himself transported to a beleaguered fantasy world and into the body of a physically powerful adult, and in convincingly short order makes himself into the perfect knight.  The world creation is a brilliant conflation of Norse mythology and Christian medieval theology, with just a touch of Relativity thrown in for seasoning.  Many readers have gone haring up and down the levels of invented reality, gleefully identifying sources and hidden implications, while completely ignoring the central concern of the novel.  Which is: What qualities make somebody a good knight?  This is an interesting question even before you’ve given it serious thought.  But by the time Wolfe is done examining and expanding upon it, it’s revealed as one that has serious applications for how you and I should lead our lives.  The Wizard Knight is one of Wolfe’s wisest books, and one I know I’ll return to often.

Some time ago, in a short essay titled, with disarming modesty, “What I Know About Writing (in no particular order),” Wolfe wrote that "Almost any interesting work of art comes close to saying the opposite of what it really says.”  Which is almost a Zen koan in how straightforwardly it can be stated and yet how complex it is in application.  But it helps to remember that Wolfe is a practicing Catholic, and that to a Catholic all human beings are engaged in an ongoing struggle for salvation.  There is good in the worst of us and evil in the best, and nobody knows which side will land uppermost when the final coin is tossed.  Which can make Wolfe’s characters unnerving in the way that real people are unnerving, and unpredictable in the way that all good literature confounds our expectations.  There are no heroes who can be trusted unequivocally, no villains beyond redemption, and nine times out of ten, the difference between a tragedy and a comedy is crucial but slight and occurs in the final pages.

For those who are still feeling intimidated (and, looking back, I see that I haven’t done a very good job of allaying your fears), all of the above can be boiled down to three simple rules for enjoying his work:

1.  Look for hidden implications. 

2.  Remember Poe’s purloined letter, and pay serious attention to the obvious.

3.  Never forget that people are human.

“Memorare,” in this issue, is a good example of everything I’ve said so far.  The surface story, sufficient in itself, is an extremely good science fiction adventure.  Note the careful engineering of the suits and cenotaphs.  Note the craftsmanship.  Nearing the end I thought for sure there was no way Wolfe could wrap it all up satisfactorily in the little space left.  But of course he did.

So read the story first for the excitement of the ride.  Then, if that’s your bent, you can look deeper.  I personally think (but you should be aware that I have a long history of creating clever theories that turn out to be wrong, so take this one with a grain of salt) that on a symbolic level Kit and Redd and even Kim, who pops up near the end, are all aspects of the same woman, so that the entire history of March’s marriage is folded through the story.  Fiction can do that, you know.  There’s nothing that says it has to limit itself to a literal reading of what’s on the page.  But you don’t have to accept my version of what’s going on.  Wolfe always leaves room for multiple interpretations in his work.  Feel free to roll your own.

Or don’t, if that sort of thing gives you the pip.  But you should definitely reflect on the moral significance of the story.  I don’t mean that it has a “moral,” a tidy little platitude that you can reduce it to and maybe embroider on your handkerchief.  Wolfe is too good a writer for that.  But almost all serious fiction is about how we human beings live and, if only by implication, how we ought to live.  When a story is titled “Memorare” (I suggest you look up the prayer to see what Wolfe left out) and is played out pretty much literally in the shadow of the grave, you know that it’s not about trivial matters.

A minute ago, I reduced this essay to three rules for appreciating Wolfe.  But if I had to boil it all down yet further, into a single guideline, it would be:  Most of all, have fun.  Disgruntled writers confronted by a bad review are fond of quoting Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s aphorism that “A book is like a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to peer out.”  But the reverse is true as well.  If you’re a good reader, as I presume you are, sometimes the image that peers murkily from a badly-written story is unworthy of you.  It as good as calls you an ass.  Which insult, thrown in your face when you expect it least, is where the anger comes from when you find yourself flinging a book or magazine at the wall.  But you don’t have to fear that here.  You’re in good hands with Gene Wolfe.

He tells the very best lies.

Essay copyright 2007 by Michael Swanwick.