January 31, 2012

Dear Friends: Many of you will recall that in the first entry on this blog, I spoke of Tolkien’s idea about roads: that the same path which leads through Mirkwood and to the Lonely Mountain itself is the one that passes just outside the front doorstep of our hobbit holes; it’s all connected. The journey to far-off lands begins by stepping out through our own front doors.

Some of you have followed this blog since April 23, 2008. Others of you (as occurs in all great stories) have joined us along the way. We’ve marched through 140 posts and 3,598 comments!

And now we have come to a great Transition.

Students of classical mythology will recognize the name of Janus, the Roman god for whom January is named. Janus (also called Janus Bifrons) was the god of beginnings, openings, entrances, doorways, and endings. [January begins the new year but marks the end of the former.] In Roman myth, the place of Janus is secondary only to the place of Jupiter (Zeus).

Janus, the god of beginnings, endings, and doorways

In images, Janus is usually depicted as having two faces: one looking forward into the future, one peering backward into the past.

 We are crossing the swinging rope bridge from WordPress to my all-new, active web site, the new home of the blog. I’ve made efforts to make the new place feel like home to loyal readers. A few things will need ironing out, such as the issue of blog avatars (our snowflakes and quilt squares, to which many of us have become attached). I’m not sure exactly how this will work, but I am inquiring into how our accustomed avatars may be preserved.
Anyway, for now, I invite you to cross with me into this realm: It is a brave and beautiful new land. Giving me a web site is like giving a teenager a car. As one friend, speaking of me, put it: “You bleed web content.”
Come on over there, and I encourage you to do what it says: sign up to follow my blog. In the future, I’m going to write posts over there, and they won’t show up here. Slowly, we’re going to phase this WordPress blog out, and the new site will be my headquarters on the Web. It’s sad to leave these old digs where we’ve been for the length of a Presidency, but the new place is a brave new world which allows for a lot more. And we all signed on for adventure, right?
See you over there! The transition won’t happen all at once, but it’s time to start pulling up the tent stakes. Enjoy the new web site. Explore it. Follow its links. It’s a lot of fun. Try commenting on the new blog location, and we’ll see what happens. And I will try to keep you updated on the transfer of blog avatars!
“The road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow if I can!”

Quiz, Q and A, Goodreads, and Toponyms

January 14, 2012

I’ve been working over the past week through various channels to prepare the way for the swiftly-approaching publication of The Star Shard. It’s an exciting time!

As part of this initiative, I’ve set up an author page on Goodreads. If you don’t know about the site, this is an unabashed plug for it! Believe me, I’m not a fan of popular Internet time-drains. But I think most of you would agree with me that Goodreads rises above the morass. If you love to read, the site is worth checking out. It’s free, it’s easy to sign up for, and it’s a great way to connect with people who like the same kinds of books you do — or simply to find out about books that you may not have encountered yet. In the first twenty-four hours after I got onto the site and started rating books I’ve enjoyed and marking books I’d like to read, an acquaintance of mine (a friend of a friend) noticed one of the books I’d tagged and was delighted to discover it — he hadn’t known it existed, but he’d been wishing it did. That’s one way the site can work.

Anyway, I’ll end the commercial there. If you’re interested, you can explore the wonders for yourself. I just wanted to bring a couple things to your attention:

1. I wrote a quiz on Dragonfly that (I think) is a lot of fun. It has 13 questions, and some are apparently trickier than I thought — last time I looked, no one had gotten a perfect score. If you’ve read Dragonfly and would like to test your knowledge of the book — or even if you’d like to enjoy the questions and multiple-choice answers, which I had a GREAT time coming up with — then I’d encourage you to get onto Goodreads and take the quiz! I think the best way to find it is to look up Dragonfly on the site, click on the book, and if you scroll down on the book’s page, you’ll find the quiz.

2. Also on Goodreads, I’m leading a Q&A session from now until the end of January. I seeded it with four discussion threads, but discussion members can introduce new ones. If anyone is at all inclined, this is something I’d greatly appreciate your help with! I’m trying to generate a buzz for the new book’s release. If you can spare a few minutes to drop by and ask me even one question, that would help! If people start participating, I think it could get quite interesting. To find the discussion, either search for me on Goodreads or click on my name wherever you see me listed on the site, and on my page, (again) if you scroll down, you should come to the discussion; then just click on the topic you want to follow. If you’re able to help out with this, thank you very much!

Finally, let’s talk about some interesting words. (Yes, this is a groink, a major change of subject.)

I’ve been thinking lately about the phenomenon of toponyms, those words in our language that began as the names of places (topos is the Greek word for “place”). For example:

solecism — This has come to mean “an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence; also, a minor blunder in speech”; “something deviating from the proper, normal, or accepted order”; or “a breach of etiquette or decorum.” But did you know that the word comes from the ancient Cilician city of Soloi, where “a substandard form of Attic was spoken”? So a soloikos, an inhabitant of Soloi, was a “speaking-incorrectly-one.”

gasconade — “bravado, boasting” — This word has come from the Gascony region of southwest France, bordering Spain; the Gascons were apparently known for boasting and exaggerating their successes. The word became common in English in the 1700s.

Cimmerian — “very dark or gloomy; stygian” — The Cimmerians were a mythical people “described by Homer as dwelling in a remote realm of mist and gloom.” Another source I found adds that this land was “in the west” (from the Hellenic point of view), and that the Cimmerii (the people there) were nomadic and were mentioned by Herodotus.

laconic — “using or involving the use of a minimum of words; concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious” — I remember once reading a great story about the origin of this word. When the enormous Persian army came to the gates of the Spartan city of Laconia, the Persian envoy, in an attempt to get the Spartans to surrender, yelled: “If we take this city, we will kill all the men and lead the women and children away as slaves!”

The Spartan general returned the one-word answer: “If.”

As the story goes, the Persians were unable to conquer the city, and they eventually withdrew.

[The definitions I’ve written above are from my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.]

What got me thinking about toponyms was good old, which led me to a couple of these. So, yeah, I guess this is another commercial! In the brief time I’ve been receiving’s free daily word, I’ve written down several ideas for use in books and stories. I would highly recommend the word-a-day to writers and to anyone who loves words!

I’ll close with a couple more cool ones:

Words such as “sense” and “sensibility,” which have a common root, are paregmenons.

And the shape of a 20-sided die (a 20-sided polyhedron) is an icosahedron.

Yes, I get a little crazy when I haven’t written fiction for too long! I can feel the charge building . . . it’s going to arc any day now, and we’re going to have some lightning!

“The Skin Script”: Author Interview with Stephanie M. Loree

January 5, 2012

I hope everyone’s new year is off to a great start! Happy Epiphany!

The best stories make us feel as we’re reading them, and then make us think long after we’ve finished. We’re chatting with speculative fiction writer Stephanie M. Lorée, author of the newly-released story “The Skin Script” (details below). It was a great pleasure to meet Stephanie in person at World Fantasy in San Diego, and I’m very grateful that she’s agreed to spend a few minutes with us here in “the bloglight”! Her powerful and moving story kept me on the edge of my seat, and it’s my great pleasure to celebrate it on this blog and make more readers aware of this rising star on the fantasy landscape!

Stephanie reviews books and hosts giveaways on her blog (go to, and she co-hosts the blog-challenge of
Write1Sub1 ( with a handful of other great short
story authors.

Here is her OFFICIAL BIO:

Born and stuck in Ohio, Stephanie received her BS in Criminal Justice and works in a cubicle for The Man. She writes speculative fiction and moonlights as a vocalist/pianist. Though she prefers money, Stephanie will work for dark chocolate. Her stories have featured psychic tattoos, talking swords, zombie robots, or Things Which Cannot Be Said. You know, love sonnets. A SuperNerd who loves gaming, technology, good sushi, and bad kung fu flicks, Stephanie’s digital life is available for stalking at

ON THE STORY: “The Skin Script” is Stephanie’s first professional
publication, appearing in the anthology An Honest Lie Vol. 3:
Justifiable Hypocrisy from Open Heart Publishing. It was released in
November and is available in both print and ebook format from her web portal at Buying the anthology (and voting) counts as points for Stephanie toward a book deal as part of the publisher’s annual contest.

So, here’s my interview with Stephanie.

I’m always interested in hearing how stories are born. What was the first element of “The Skin Script” that came to you? Was it the characters, the basic premise, or something else?

Truth be told, I was chatting with my critique partner on the phone
when I had a vision of a guy with neon lights all over his skin. I
said to my partner, “What if you could see someone’s soul on their
skin? Like a soul map thingy.” Then I told her she could take the idea
and write it. About six months later, I changed my mind and told her I
was taking it back. She was kind enough to refund my idea, no charge.
Everything else about “The Skin Script” bloomed during the outlining

Would you care to tell us anything about the sources or inspiration for this story?

There’s a lovely writer named Jodi Henry
( who went out and actually *got a
tattoo* while I was writing the piece. I don’t have any tattoos
myself, so I had a lot of questions about the process. Jodi was an
excellent resource. She took pictures, procured a couple pamphlets,
asked the artist lots of questions, and fact-checked the story. I
mean, she got a tattoo for me. That’s dedication.

Additional inspiration came from researching “limners,” a word I
stumbled across by accident. Everything else fell from the recesses of
my brain.

[Interruption from Fred: It is amazing how single words can lead to stories. For any verbivores out there, I would whole-heartedly recommend, where you can sign up (absolutely free) to receive a word of the day in your e-mail in-box. I adore it! It’s like, free education and story ideas!]

Now, back to our interview . . .

In Japan, members of the Yakuza (the “Japanese Mafia”) often have elaborate tattoos that cover large areas of their bodies. I’m thinking also of the Maori of New Zealand. For those who haven’t read “The Skin Script,” what does full-body limning mean in the culture to which your characters belong?

In the setting of the story, everyone who is anyone receives a
full-body tattoo (an “illumination”). It’s taboo *not* to have a
tattoo, and they are a sign of privilege and beauty. But more
importantly, the tattoo artists (limners) are able to see the future
of a client, and by inking them, they design and seal that future for
the best. The process starts when a child reaches adulthood, because
the people have found that tattooing a child interferes with their
development. As you can imagine, a limner’s service is expensive (they
are also tightly controlled), and the rich and powerful have much
easier access to illuminations than the poor (called “empties” for
their lack of tats). There is also a sense that the rich in this story
are Mafiosos, and the Yakuza probably had a subconscious influence
while I was writing.

Was this an easy story to write, or a hard one?

“The Skin Script” was probably the easiest story I’ve written. It just
sorta flowed out of me. But it was a pain to edit, and I owe my
critique group a debt of gratitude. They helped me clean up the story
so that I expressed an entirely different world without boring the
reader with details.

Let’s hear it for critique groups! I couldn’t live without discerning and no-nonsense writer friends, either!

The story reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report in its exploration of, “If we know the future, we can act to correct it before it happens.” That leads to some difficult moral questions. “Who can define ‘correct’?” “Possessing such knowledge, what obligations do we have? What rights do we have?” You deal with the questions beautifully in the tale, facing them head-on. Without giving away the plot, I’d like to ask: Did you know from the outset what choices your characters would make? Or were you discovering the questions and the answers along with the characters?

Oh boy, no, I didn’t really know a thing. The characters told me. I
drafted up an outline and the conflicting choices I wanted them to go
through, but I honestly didn’t know what the ending would look like
until it happened. My characters often have a mind of their own, which
makes me feel crazy, like the voices in my head really are speaking to

When that happens for me, I usually take it as a sign that I’m doing my job right, staying out of the way.

One aspect of your story that fascinated me was this: normally, we would expect the one with the ability to see and control the future to be in a position of great power. But in your tale, it doesn’t quite work that way, does it?

Ah yes, the limners are the ones with power to see and seal a future,
but none of the power to control their own destinies. They’re bonded
to their owners like well-kept slaves. The story’s protagonist, Jules,
is a limner and “made man” under his boss. Poor Jules doesn’t get out
much. There are laws in place to keep limners under control. As I say
in the story, “You don’t allow fortune-tellers to make their own

Can you remember your first attempt at writing, perhaps when you were very young? What, if anything, was the common link with what you’re writing as an adult?

When I was 3 or 4, I wrote my memoir as a gift for my mother. It
started, “On August 4th, I was hatched.” My mom raised exotic parrots
at the time, and I’d seen baby birds born. I just assumed I came from
an egg. The common link? I still have to ask my grandmother how to
spell “hatched,” and I’m hoping I really did come from an egg. My
wings better grow in soon. Also: fantasy. I lived in the fantasy
worlds of Tolkien and Lewis and Grimms’ Tales. I still do.

A memoir at age 4! I love it! I determined to write a phone book at about that age, so you were way ahead of me. I got my parents to spell out the names of all our friends and relatives, and I painstakingly copied out their phone numbers. Then I looked at it and literally whacked myself on the forehead, and I groaned: “I can’t read!” That was a severe obstacle, until I got to kindergarten.

Tolkien, Lewis, and the Grimms! Yes!

Is there a particular element or aspect that you think the best fantasy stories have? As a reader, what do you read for?

The best fantasies have realism, which may be an oxymoron, but it’s
true. Characters should be real. The settings or themes should analyze
a part of our real world (though you may not know what you’re
analyzing while you’re writing it). Real people and real places aren’t
all of one thing, but a combination of many things: good and bad. I
like to see a lot of “gray” in books, characters with dubious
morals/agendas, or when an author turns a trope on its head. Realism
gets me emotionally involved in a story, connecting me with a
character, and that’s essential to any good book.

I couldn’t agree more! Do you prefer rough drafts or revising? Which part of the process is the most fun for you, or does it depend?

Revising, hands down. Even though “The Skin Script” was the opposite for me, I have a much easier time editing a piece than I do dumping words on a blank page. First drafts intimidate me. This is likely because I started my writing journey as an editor for others, not a composer of my own stories. I’m most comfortable with a red pen and a grammar hammer.

I think both first drafts and revisions have their separate joys and challenges, but I do see what you mean. With the revision, you know you’ve got something. You’ve got a certain level of “good” guaranteed, because it’s there, and you can focus on making it better.

Do you typically do a lot of editing, or do your stories come out nearly finished the first time?

Since I have such fear of the first draft and love to edit, I tend to
write very slowly, taking particular care with each sentence’s
structure and sound. This annoys the crap out of me, as I’d love to
vomit forth thousands of words every day. But I can’t. My writing
process is simply a slow one, and I’ve been told my work needs little
editing by the time I send it out. I don’t think this is a good or bad
thing compared to others, it’s just how I work.

Cool! Do you write your first drafts on paper or at a keyboard?

Keyboard. I’m a techie, and my handwriting is horrid. I can’t imagine
writing a book by hand. I’d never have survived pre-printing press

Are there any writing tools that you’re fond of? Hardware, software, a particular type of pen?

All my work is written in GoogleDocs so I can access it from work,
home, or on the go. I’m in love with Wikipedia and
Dictionary/, and I highly recommend a program called
FocusWriter ( for distraction-free
writing when needed. Oh, and I use Speak Clipboard
( to hear my stories in robotic voice (no
inflection lets words speak for themselves) during my editing process.

Also, coffee. Best tool in a writer’s toolbox, besides gin.

Some of the best editors I know read things aloud before turning a final draft loose. Thanks for those resources!

Would you care to describe your favorite writing space or situation? For example, most of my writing so far has been done on a computer at a kitchen table, usually in the evening or late at night, with people moving around, talking, occasionally interrupting me, but nothing demanding my attention other than the writing. How about you?

The deli in my office building. Lots of people around chit-chatting,
me and my critique partner sitting at a corner table with our laptops,
typing furiously, hot coffee and salad bar near at hand. We call them
our “writing luncheons.” It’s not where most of my writing happens,
but it is my favorite. I work best when others are around. Peer
pressure, maybe.

Could be peer pressure (since you mention a critique partner who also writes), or it could be the comfort of human presence, since writing is such a solitary activity. I love it when people are near, but are letting me concentrate.

What has been your best, most thrilling moment so far as a writer?

When my first publisher called to tell me I’d been accepted. I ended
up listening to the voicemail (which I saved) and jumping with squee,
giggling my head off. Not my finest moment, but fun! This is followed
closely by whenever I write “The End” at the bottom of a first draft.

Did you ever receive some particularly BAD writing advice from a well-meaning teacher, friend, etc.?

I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten BAD advice, but I have gotten CRUEL
feedback. Sometimes you need tough love, but there’s a difference
between a constructive critique that improves your writing, and a
destructive critique that does nothing but tear you down. You really
have to develop thick skin in this industry, and I got my armor early

Oh, also, whenever someone says “Never” or “Always” when talking about writing, they’re lying. What they mean is, “Until you know the rule, don’t break it.” There are no nevers/always in the craft.

Wow, that’s well-said! Everyone would do well to go back and re-read your answer. Then go back and re-read it again!

I remember one specific moment when I was critiquing a manuscript for a writer friend, and I realized I was criticizing him for not being me. I was finding fault because he wasn’t doing something like I would have done it. I’d like to believe, and I do believe, that I’m over that now . . . that I let other writers be other writers.

Which authors do you love? Who has been a big influence on you, and whom are you reading now?

I am a Jim Butcher fangirl. Someday, I will meet him, buy him a beer,
and talk nerdy with him. His stories made me fall in love with Urban
Fantasy and inspired me to write my own. I’m also a huge fan of Holly
Black, Neil Gaiman, Lauren Oliver, George R.R. Martin, and Ray
Bradbury. I’m currently reading Patrick Rothfuss’ THE NAME OF THE WIND, and Richard Kadrey’s SANDMAN SLIM, in addition to the number of shorts I read in magazines: Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Fantasy & Science Fiction are my favorites.

Imagine that, 150 years from now, you’re being discussed by a panel at the World Fantasy Convention. “Stephanie M. Lorée was a writer who . . .” What would you like to be remembered for?

…was a writer who conquered distant galaxies and ruled kingdoms with her mighty kung fu.”

Really, my goal is to entertain the reader. If you’re not having fun
in my stories, then I’m not doing it right. I’m not looking to jump on
my soapbox and endow you with deeper meaning, or wow you with my literary prowess. If you take away a deeper meaning or are impressed with my literary skills, all the better, but I just want you to have a good time. In 150 years, I’d like your great-grandkids to read my book and say, “Wow, this was awesome.”

Again, brilliantly-put! That’s exactly why I got into this. I want that future kid to be sitting under a tree, or with his/her knees propped against the edge of a desk, and to be engrossed in some world that came into our world through my fingers. I don’t care if the kid thinks about my name or not. It’s the world and the story that matter; it’s the reader’s enjoyment. Hear, hear!

What’s next for you? Can you tell us anything about what’s in the works?

I’m currently on contract for an RPG tie-in anthology, wherein I’m
contributing a story about a gun-toting widow who reincarnates seeking vengeance for her dead husband. I’ve got a YA fantasy novel in the pipeline featuring cannibal spirits and prehistoric bears. There’s also the dozen or so short story ideas floating in my head ranging from cyborg time-cops to obsessed golems and Italian steampunk sorcerers. Should be good times.

Greatly appreciate the interview, Frederic, and all your readers for taking the time to read!

Stephanie, the honor and pleasure are most definitely ours! Thank you for being here!

Naming the Gargoyles: Awards Ceremony

January 4, 2012

Welcome to a new year of the blog! We’re gathered here on this wintry night to give a heartfelt THANK YOU to all those who set their minds to thinking up pairs of names to fit these gargoyles:

The soon-to-be-named gargoyles watching the new year sweep around the prow of the blog

But before we get to the contest results, here are some fascinating statistics about the year-on-the-blog we’ve just come through, courtesy of WordPress. (These are provided automatically by the blog, so it’s up to the viewer how much to trust the accuracy. They seem reasonable enough.) Let’s go in reverse order, in keeping with the suspense-building of the evening. First, these are the awards for most popular posts. I assume the number of views/visits determines the “popularity,” though strangely, that’s the one statistic WordPress doesn’t tell us.


5. October Sun (written October 2011, 83 comments)

4. Artsy Stuff Going On (written January 2011, 128 comments)

3. Transition (written April 2011, 134 comments)

2. The Winchester Mystery House (written December 2009, 18 comments)

1. More Views of Niigata (March 2011, 151 comments)

I believe the reason for that post’s being #1 is that it was just after writing it that I left Japan and the tsunami struck. That post got revisited a lot as people were trying to figure out if I was all right, and where I was. Recently, a friend of mine living there wrote that the disasters of March 2011 have “set Japan back a hundred years” in many ways, and that things will continue to get worse for the country before they get better. Let’s keep all those who are suffering in our hearts and in our prayers.

Top Commenters of 2011:

I’m not sure of the accuracy of this list, because it counts comments according to the names people go by; if, for example, you use a varying sentence for your “name,” such as “I am difficult to count,” your comments wouldn’t be attributed to the same person. So I think this has an impact on who is really #1. But anyway, here’s the automatically-counted ranking:

5. jhagman (57 comments)

4. Daylily (63 comments)

3. Morwenna (64 comments)

2. I am Mr. Brown Snowflake (111 comments)

1. Chris (174 comments)

Thank you all! We’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it would not be the blog without you who comment. Long may the hearth-fire burn beside our virtual Table Round!

“I want a name!” . . . “So do I!” . . . “Get on with it, then!” . . . “Yes! Get on with it!”

Very well, then! Without further ado, let’s go to Fred’s Short List. Every name that everyone thought up was delightful, interesting, and fun to read — I can’t thank you all enough for the fun we’ve had over the past couple weeks! It was tough narrowing it down, but what follows are the names that I thought all deserved extra careful deliberation.

Fred’s Short List (in no particular order):
Urim & Thummim — (Preacher)
[Nothing like some Old Testament for antiquity, power, authenticity, and holiness!]
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern — (Mr. Brown Snowflake)
[The rose has its place in Christian symbology, and I like the fact that the other includes “stern.” And you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare!]
Gutter & Spout — (Binsers)
[I like the double meaning on “Gutter” — that’s one tough gargoyle!]
Lilith & Phantastes — (Binsers)
[I have these books on my shelf, too!]
Bjarg & Fell — (Swordlily)
[I love it when sound reinforces meaning, and vice-versa!]
Scry & Ruin — (Swordlily)
[I do love it when verbs are brought to bear! These are highly gargoyle-appropriate!]
Victor & Hugo — (Spam Man)
[These are pretty self-explanatory. In the spirit of full disclosure, I believe these were used for the names of gargoyles in a Disney movie; but I didn’t set any rule about originality.]
Maveth & Tsalal — (Shieldmaiden)
[My apologies for changing the forms back to the originals; I like them better! Please refer to the previous entry to review Shieldmaiden’s explanations of these. They’re well-researched!]
Roc & Hardplaz — (Scott)
[Woe to the evil spirit that gets between them! Little bit of Sinbad’s adventures thrown in there, too, with “Roc”!]
Turgor & Gygax — (Scott)
[These are names from our D&D campaign. Turgor came from turgor pressure, studied in our science class, and I always thought it should be a Dwarf name; and Gygax is the name of the inventor of D&D, Gary Gygax.]
Guard & Ian — (Swordlily)
[I love the fact that Ian is actually a name!]
Me & You — (Lance L.)
[Simple and direct.]
Gem & Eye — (Shieldmaiden)
[Additional to the Gemini pun, “Eye” makes a great name for a watcher!]
Doygan & Thurgur — (Hannah)
[I don’t know the significance of these names, but I like the sound!]
Strunk & White — (Philip)
[During some move over the past years, I lost my copy of Strunk & White — but I used to refer to it all the time!]
Irk & Vex — (based heavily on an idea of Shieldmaiden’s)
[Verbs again! Very nice verbs for gargoyle names! I like the shortness.]
Toss & Turn — (Shieldmaiden)
[Shieldmaiden suggested these as Untoward names, and have you ever heard any better names for Untowards?! When I do write the sequel to Dragonfly, I hope Shieldmaiden will let me use these! That precisely captures the character and spirit of Untowards!]
Nick & Nack — (the mysterious “E”)
[Another nice, short pair; very good for gargoyles-as-bookends!]
Sword & Sorcery — (Morwenna)
[I love this pair! If the gargoyles were in a bookstore, they should have these names and watch over the sword & sorcery section!]
Merry & Goround — (Morwenna)
[It would really be fun to write about gargoyles with these names! “Merry” is good for its irony, and “Goround” speaks for itself!]
Gog & Magog — (Jedibabe)
[Cool! This was also one of my first thoughts. Apparently there’s a lot connected with these names beyond the Old Testament, too, which I’m mostly unaware of.]
Fister & Twister — (50% from Swordlily)
[This goes along with my Bouncer & Trouncer. This is probably what the goblins call the gargoyles, like they call Orcrist and Glamdring “Biter” and “Beater.”]
Hugin & Munin — (Gabe)
[We have ex-Norse mythology buffs on the blog, and we have experts who stay current . . .]
Sky & Ward — (Swordlily)
[I like the mileage we get out of “Ward” on this pair!]
Fast & Furious — (Catherine)
[These would also be good Untoward names!]
Modi & Magni — (Catherine)
[I like the spelling and the sounds!]
Altar & Ego — (Daylily) [Apologies to Daylily: I changed the spelling of her “Alter” to make it fit the church they’re on top of! I think it might be hard to watch for centuries atop a roof if your partner was named “Ego,” but gargoyles are made of stern stuff!]
Gloria & Agnus — (Daylily) [Apologies to Daylily again! I changed her finalized “Agnes” back to “Agnus,” which she got it from; but I agree that it would be pronounced the same as “Agnes.” These gargoyles are sisters, and their surname is Dei.]
Goth & Roman — (Kate M.)
Bernardo & Ubertino — (Rich H.)
[Pulchra (mumble, mumble) innocentubera!]
Chris & Brown Snowflake — (jhagman)
[You have to love his reasoning! See previous post!]
*&^%$$&^!  &  #@#%^&! — (Chris)
[Yes, I can hear gargoyles saying that! Those are the greetings they give to evil spirits who approach the cathedral, particularly when it’s sleeting and the wind is out of the north and the pipe organ needs tuning.]

Our esteemed panel of advisors to the contest judge

Now, here’s the difficulty: I’ve studied these names up and down, back and forth, around and around, and many of them are so good that I cannot say one pair is clearly better than the others. You have outdone yourselves and have proven this is indeed a Table Round in more ways than one: there’s talent all around it!
HOWEVER, I did arrive at a way to determine two winners — and I believe two among you are deserving of special honor in this contest. So two of you are going to receive ARCs of The Star Shard. Just take a look at who made the short list more than anyone else. Shieldmaiden, with her long, deep thought and painstaking research is there four times! And Swordlily, with her amazing ideas, is there no fewer than five times!
So I believe that a close second place goes to Shieldmaiden, and first place goes to Swordlily! Congratulations to the two of you! And thank you all — truly, thank you all — for the incredible flood of fantastic ideas!
Perhaps we will never know precisely what the gargoyles’ names are; perhaps their truest names are kept forever in secret, so that no evil spirit may learn them and thus (according to the beliefs of some) gain power over them. Or perhaps their names are as numerous as the raindrops on the sloping roof, as unpronounceable as the moanings of wind around the clerestory. We now know a good many more of their names than we did when we started.
If you want to know my best guess, I will tell you. But like all of you, I can do no more than guess. The watchers, after all, are gargoyles, and gargoyles (like their cousins, the grotesques) are an ancient and inscrutable folk.
My best guesses are these:
Appall and Harrow
Appall: “greatly dismay or horrify”; from Latin origins, a verb meaning “to grow pale” gradually came, winding its way through Old French and Middle English, to mean “to make pale; to horrify.” In my story “The Gift,” first published in Mooreeffoc and later in Cicada, the gargoyle’s name was Appall. I always wondered if he had a partner, and what the partner’s name might be.
Harrow: “cause distress to”; this one is via Middle English from Old Norse and is obscurely related to the Dutch word hark, meaning “rake” — an implement pulled over the ground to harrow what lies beneath its teeth. In medieval Christian theology, there was “the Harrowing of Hell” — the idea that when Christ was crucified and descended into Hell, He defeated the powers of evil there and released the victims that had been in torment, awaiting His coming.
So that is what I think the gargoyles’ names might be; but who among the living can say?
Well-played, everyone! Well-played indeed! We will have to do something similar again sometime! Once more, thank you all, and congratulations to the winners!

"Appall?" . . . "Maybe. Who's asking? Harrow?" . . . "Maybe. Maybe not. What's the news?" . . . "Evil things are afoot." . . . "I guessed as much. Another night of watching, then." . . . "Aye. And a day to follow that." . . . "North or south, what's your preference?" . . . "Much the same to me." . . . "Well, then, let's get to it." . . . "Let's."

 (I’m late saying this, but Happy Tolkien’s Birthday! [January 3rd])

Name the Gargoyles Contest

December 19, 2011

How would YOU like to win your very own autographed advance review copy (ARC) of The Star Shard? How would YOU like to get the jump on all the fans who will be camped outside bookstores on the eve of February 28th, braving the sub-zero temperatures as they exchange Star-Shard trivia and speculate on how the novel will be different from the Cricket story? Granted, the ARC isn’t perfect — it was made from a draft before my final going-over, so there are a few continuity and formatting errors. And the ARC is a softcover; the real book will be a gorgeous hardcover. But it still has the wonderful color cover painted by Fernando Juarez. Also, there are so few ARCs that each one will be sought and prized by collectors in the future. So enter my Name the Gargoyles contest, and YOU may become the first reader to know what happens to Cymbril in those reams of extra pages  beyond the story’s first incarnation!

You remember my gargoyles, right?

The gargoyles on Broadway are waiting for names.

Here’s how it works:

1. You think up names for them.
2. You suggest the names in a comment.
3. I am the sole judge. They’re my gargoyles! I have to be convinced. If I don’t really, really like the names, it’s possible that there will be no winner, and I’ll introduce another contest to give away the ARC.
4. The deadline is the end of this calendar year. Get your entry in before midnight on New Year’s Eve — but the sooner the better, because if I fall in love with a pair of names before then, I’ll end the contest and the ARC will go out.
5. Chances are I already know your real-world address. If you happen to win the contest and I don’t know it, we’ll work out the details. If you are the winner, I will sign an advance review copy of the book and send it to you!
The name possibilities I’ve already thought of are:
Gog and Magog
Phobos and Deimos
What are you waiting for? Get those entries in!

Good King Wenceslas

December 9, 2011

My single favorite Christmas album is an old cassette tape given to me years ago by the friend who goes by “Marquee Movies” on this blog. Back during the years when I was attending Shirone Lutheran Church in Japan, I would often teach during the day on Christmas Eve (Christmas is just a plain old workday in Japan), then drive the twenty or so miles from the university to the little Lutheran church. Now, normally that drive wouldn’t take long; but Christmas Eve is a strangely special time in Japan. For whatever reasons, the Eve (not the day itself) has become, in Japanese pop culture, a time when two things happen: 1.) young couples go on hugely lavish dates to magnificent hotels or the upmost upscale restaurants they (usually the guy) can possibly afford; it’s the one night of the year when money is expected to pour out of wallets like Niagara Falls. And 2.) husbands come straight home from work so that the family can have a fancy dinner together (which is supposed to include Kentucky Fried Chicken among all the other feast items — expensive sushi platters, wine, cheese, caviar, etc. ) — and for dessert, there’s Christmas cake.

Stores take orders for Christmas cakes months in advance. If you haven’t ordered yours well ahead of time and try to search for one on Christmas Eve Day, you may be out of luck — the shelves in bakeries, department stores, and ice-cream shops are looking pretty barren. The cake can be of any flavor; it’s generally decorated beautifully. The point is, it’s CAKE — it’s what MUST be eaten on Christmas Eve, along with Kentucky Fried Chicken. (My students were always shocked and greatly amused to learn that these customs did not come from the U.S.A., since they firmly believed they were doing what all Americans do on Christmas Eve.)

Anyway, my point is that city streets and the roads to the suburbs are gridlocked with traffic starting in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Cars creep along, bumper to bumper. So my twenty-mile trip to Shirone Lutheran Church could easily take three or four hours on Christmas Eve. Enter that wonderful tape Marquee Movies gave me! I would settle in, thinking the joyful thoughts of Christmas (church service and trombone-playing ahead, followed by a Christmas cake party at church, followed by a late-night feast with friends, followed by presents — and all in celebration of the birth of the Savior, Who provides a point to everything). I would settle into this long, long car ride. The car was a little island of warmth in the cold and dark. Sometimes snow would be falling outside, drifting large and soft and feathery into the bare rice fields. Sometimes the moon would be glimmering on the Shinano River, which paralleled my road. I would inch my way to church, immersed in the best Christmas music that Marquee Movies could assemble. And my favorite among the selections was a carol that had fascinated me since childhood:

“Good King Wenceslas.”

The funny thing about it is that it’s become a good, solid carol, firmly entrenched in the canon, but it doesn’t mention the Nativity. It seems to be associated with Christmas because the song’s story takes place on the feast day of St. Stephen, December 26th. If you’re willing to trust my Internet research, the tune is of Finnish origin, from the mid-1500s, and the text was written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853.

Wenceslas was King of Bohemia in the 10th century — a martyred Catholic king, assassinated by his brother Boleslaw (whose name, I can’t help noticing, is just like “Coleslaw,” but with a “B”–it definitely sounds like Monty Python material). Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic, and his saint’s day is September 28th.

Bear with me, and I’ll include the words for you here. I hope they’ll carry you back to your childhood, as they always do for me:


Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight

Gath’ring winter fuel.


“Hither, page, and stand by me,

If thou know’st it, telling

Yonder peasant, who is he?

Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence,

Underneath the mountain,

Right against the forest fence,

By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”


“Bring me flesh and bring me wine;

Bring me pine logs hither.

Thou and I will see him dine

When we bear them thither.”

Page and monarch forth they went,

Forth they went together

Through the rude wind’s wild lament

And the bitter weather.


“Sire, the night is darker now

And the wind blows stronger;

Fails my heart, I know not how,

I can go no longer.”

“Mark my footsteps, good my page;

Tread thou in them boldly;

Thou shalt find the winter’s rage

Freeze thy blood less coldly.”


In his master’s steps he trod

Where the snow lay dinted;

Heat was in the very sod

Which the Saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure

Wealth or rank possessing:

Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing.”


That gives me gooseflesh even now! Christmas carols just don’t get any better than that. I love it for the way it gives us a glimpse beyond the walls of this world. In the ancient stories and songs, Saints are essentially magical people. They can perform miraculous feats . . . banish dragons (Saint Columba sent the Loch Ness Monster packing!) . . . and in this case, melt the snow underfoot and warm up the ground for us poor little pages who stumble after them in awe. I know that sort of happening appears in many tales. It reminds me most recently of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke; in that film, the Shishigami, the most sacred Wild creature/god of the forest, leaves hoof-prints in which flowers sprout up.

Back in our carol, I love the pure impulsive charity of this king who spies a wretched peasant and leaps out of the castle to go and help him. Sure, there’s a lot outside the borders of the song that cynics will be quick to note: what about all the other peasants out in the cold? And what about all the other cold nights of the year? Does the saintly king have a plan for improving the lot of his people, or is he just full of self-indulgent good cheer because it’s the feast of Stephen, and tomorrow it will be business as usual? “Pay your taxes, poor man!”

Clearly, the carol is focused elsewhere, showing us something better, something beyond our winter’s cold. It may not reference the Nativity, but there is Gospel here. I’m sure scholars have written about it more eloquently in the going-on two centuries that this carol has been around, but Wenceslas displays some Christ-like qualities here. He doesn’t send the army. He goes himself; the King becomes the bringer of help, down in the snow, out in the cold. He ministers to the one in need; he “fills the hungry with good things” by preparing a banquet, the best that there is. And more, he blesses and comforts those who serve him. “Walk in my footprints. I’ll press down the snow and I’ll heat the ground for you.” Why does Wenceslas choose to take only that page along on the mission? If they’re carrying food and firewood, wouldn’t a team of servants be in order? How about a carriage? How about all the king’s horses and all the king’s men? But Wenceslas chooses to make the trek with one faithful page. Interesting, huh? He doesn’t fault the page for his limitations, either — doesn’t mind that the page points out he’s about to collapse. Wenceslas simply says, “Come on. I’ll enable you to do this.”

My other favorite part of this carol is the explanation of where the peasant lives: a good league hence, underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain. That is evocative and atmospheric. It’s a Breughel or a Bosch painting. The peasant doesn’t live up on Route 8 across from the McDonald’s. This is a quieter, greener, greyer land, a country of shadows, dappled light, scudding clouds, and mystery.

I doubt it’s a very good thing in this kingdom to live “right against the forest fence” — on the doorstep of wolves, robbers, and evil spirits. The peasant lives there because he’s poor. (I had a discussion with a local friend about this on Monday: my interpretation is that there’s no man-made fence; “forest fence” means “the edge of the forest; the barrier that is the forest.” Do you agree with me? I grew up looking across the field at a “forest fence,” which seemed a green cliff, the boundary of another world.) The landscape is marked with such wondrous things as the fountains of saints — crosses and cairns, stones, pools, and boscages, each with its own legend.

What remains in this world of Wenceslas of Bohemia, in addition to a handful of facts in dusty tomes, is a song that is still played each year as the winter solstice approaches. The portrait that carol gives us is most likely anything but an accurate historical account; nevertheless, it preserves some enduring truths. Compassion is a quality to be sought after and practiced. We are empowered with a light and warmth that radiate from beyond this world; and in the best of our actions, we are in turn blessed.

That, and there’s a fantastically cool landscape of the imagination out there, hinted at in our old legends and songs, always ready to be tapped by the storytellers and celebrated by those who love them!

So that’s my Christmas carol story. A good discussion this month might be: What are your favorite Christmas songs, and why? Do you have any memories to share with appreciative listeners? — memories, perhaps, of great times spent listening to them, and/or what they meant to you? Any Christmas thoughts/stories/memories in general are most welcome!

Many Meetings: World Fantasy 2011

November 29, 2011

Doesn’t this sound like I’m describing a bizarre dream? I mean the kind you have at night, when you’re sleeping. Doesn’t this sound like one?

I’m walking and walking, but I can’t get anywhere. I can see the building I’m trying to reach; it looms in the near distance, behind a grove of dense jungle vegetation and some courtyards. The walkway I’m on doesn’t lead there. I cut through a gap onto a large expanse of concrete, its perimeter arranged with patio furniture. Famous writers, editors, and publishers are sitting in the shade of parasols. I walk to the plaza’s middle and discover it has no exits; even the gap I came through has vanished behind me. The palm trees are laughing. No . . . no, it isn’t the trees. It’s a party going on somewhere close by. It’s night now. I can see the warm glow of light from a verandah where the shapes of people are half-visible through the silhouetted fronds; I can hear them laughing and talking, but I can’t reach them. In a little fountain, stone lions spew water from their mouths. Suddenly there are archways all around me, leading off the plaza, each offering me a tantalizing avenue between hedge walls. I hurry along the most promising one, only to find a swimming pool blocking my path. I retrace my steps and follow another, which brings me to a snack bar that sells cups of coffee for one thousand dollars each. I know I’m staying here somewhere . . . this place is a hotel, and I have a room, but I’m not sure exactly where it is any more. I can almost swear the hedges and palm trees shift. For an instant, I’m sure I know the way now . . . but I come to a cast-iron fence. A few people wearing name tags the same color as mine wander along the other side of the fence. We stare at each other as if across a vast gulf that swallows sound. I can’t get to them, and they can’t get to me. We smile at one another and wander in our several directions. I glimpse Neil Gaiman on my side of the fence, not fifteen feet away. He’s clearly searching for a gate in it, too. I’m closer to the party now, farther from the lions. The palm trees are definitely chuckling. I’m not sure what day it is. Sometimes, just when I’m about to expire, I stumble into a suite staffed by wonderful volunteers where there’s free food and coffee. Now I’m back in my room on the second floor, looking down at the garden below, which is surrounded by a low wall with no doorways or gates in it. I tell myself that I can vault over that wall — it’s low enough — and then I can make another attempt at getting back to the building I was first heading for, somewhere beyond the hedges. There’s Neil Gaiman again, dressed in his customary black, a shadow flitting among deeper shadows. In my room, there’s a near-lifesize portrait on the wall of a little Victorian girl in a blue dress. She’s staring at me with piercing eyes. Wherever I go in the room, her gaze follows me. Somehow I understand that she alone knows the route through the mazes of this place where the stars blaze, where brown hills shimmer on the horizons, and where never a shred of cloud crosses the endless blue sky . . .

It sounds like a dream, yes, but that’s the experience (or part of it) of World Fantasy 2011. Don’t get me wrong: it was a wonderful time! I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to connect and reconnect with so many other fantasists. Professionally, this was my best convention yet. And it’s always, always a great and rip-snorting good time! I’ll try to hit some of the highlights here.

San Diego, site of the World Fantasy Convention 2011

 I’m not the only one who noticed the eeriness of the girl in blue. Apparently that same portrait hangs in ALL (or many?) of the rooms in this hotel. Con-goers were talking about her, and there are mentions of her all over the Internet, and not only by those who attended this convention. One blogger I’ve read hung her shawl over the painting so that the eyes wouldn’t follow her. Fortunately for me, the picture hung in my roommate’s half of the room, so she didn’t really bother me.

California: land of fantasy plants, brown hills, and a preternaturally blue sky

Before I forget: I’ve been thinking about steampunk again lately, probably because the book I’m trying to work on has some steampunk elements. [For more about steampunk than you probably want to know, I covered it in a blog entry two years ago–specifically:

Not long ago, I saw a brown T-shirt with these words on it: “Steampunk: When Goths Discover Brown.” I really like that. But a short while back, I came up with my own definition. “Steampunk is historical science-fiction for humanities people.” Don’t you think that’s pretty good? I’m not trying to exclude math and science majors who enjoy the genre — I know there are some of them, too. The point I’m making is that steampunk uses technologies that are comprehensible to non-scientists. Writers, poets, and artists can design fictional machines that we ourselves understand. All the parts make sense, unlike in real science. Steam technology and buoyant air bags that bear ships aloft are very satisfying to us laymen. See what I mean? Steampunk is the science of what should be. “This is how I’d build the airship, and this is how it would work in a romanticized world.” Irresponsible, you scientists say? Well, yes, on one level. But the story still has to work. It has to be engineered like the delicate clockwork mechanisms that steampunks adore.

But I digress! Groink! (That’s the sound of changing the subject with a monkey wrench.)

Groink-sssssssss! (That’s a steam-driven monkey wrench.) 

San Diego, October 2011

One of the best things I heard at this year’s convention was an anecdote told by Neil Gaiman. He’d just finished writing a major novel, and when he ran into the novelist Gene Wolfe (who has been called “our Melville”), he gleefully exclaimed, “Gene! I’ve finally figured out how to write novels!” He says Gene looked at him pityingly and said, “Neil, you never figure out how to write novels. You just figure out how to write the one you’re on.” That is most certainly true! I know the basic rules of “good writing,” but invariably, every time I’m working on a book, I find a host of reasons that I can’t apply those rules in this case. Maybe on the next book, but not on this one. See, this one is different . . . They’re all “different.”
 At an excellent panel on fiction for children and young adults, William Alexander said this: “I love books now, but I’ve never loved books more than I did then.” He meant “than I did when I was a kid.” So it’s an immeasurably worthwhile and noble and wonderful thing to write for that audience — to aim our work for the time in readers’ lives when great stories have the maximum emotional impact. That idea makes me happy, and it makes me tremble with the awe and the tremendous responsibility it involves. It makes me glad to be alive in this world with this amazing privilege, this calling. Think about it! Writing books for readers — including young readers. What else IS there? Where, I ask you, would you rather be? What would you rather be doing?
Did you know that what was HUGELY popular among Dickens’s work during his lifetime was not the works of his that are mostly read today? They’re not the Dickens books that we study in schools and turn into movies and read at Christmas teas. In his day, crowds thronged the docks in New York, elbowing and jostling, nearly pushing one another into the harbor as the ships pulled in — waiting for copies of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop to be unloaded. We don’t know for sure which books are going to stand the test of time. So take courage! Write the stories that you must write, and don’t worry about the market. History will be the judge. Do your best, writer — that’s all you need to do.
The sea is the home we cannot return to. That’s the fear and the allure of mer-beings. If you follow them into the waves, you drown. In the sea or in the air, we are vulnerable from all sides. (Yes, Steven Spielberg was onto something very big in Jaws. That’s why it remains the greatest film ever made.)
*     *     *
The ancient race of serpent-beings reportedly runs all through world mythology. Also this: vampires, werewolves, and sea beings that predate humankind — all world cultures have these myths.
*     *     *
Our treatment of what we don’t understand says a lot about us.
*     *     *
In the fiction of former eras, social class created the barrier between lovers. Now it’s often species. She’s a human, he’s a vampire. She’s a human, he’s a werewolf. Whoa! — my own flash of insight just now: he’s a human, she’s the Evenstar of her immortal people! Yes, Tolkien started it!
*     *     *
One panel posited that the main sources of the zombie craze are HIV and Alzheimer’s. Diseases that you can’t come back from . . . it’s your loved one’s face, but your loved one is no longer there. To defeat a zombie is to defeat death.
*     *     *
Do you see why I fight tooth-and-nail to go to this thing every year? As one long-suffering friend of mine put it: “Yes, I can see how that convention is Freddie Nirvana.”
“The Call of Cthulhu” was inspired by an earthquake that happened in the same year and season as when Lovecraft set the story! I never knew that. (My own “A Tale of Silences” was inspired in part by a series of earthquakes that rocked Japan.)
The constant, repeated cycle of building and collapse: Lovecraft was onto this. Sociologists and scientists of his day mostly thought that civilization was an ever-rising curve, that ours was better than anything before. Today, we’re increasingly aware of wondrous, fantastically-advanced civilizations that preceded ours — civilizations which have vanished. Lovecraft knew!
*     *     *
The things that survive the millennia are the dark fears of humankind. Someone asked at a panel what the panelists thought would be the equivalent of the Homeric epics from our own present time — what will be the literature that survives and is known a few thousand years from now, if the Earth is still here? Without missing a beat, Tim Powers said, “Lovecraft.”
I’d say he has a point. I’ve always taken great delight in the fact that our oldest work in any form of English is Beowulf — a monster story. (I’m dancing like Snoopy!)
Personally, one of my favorite panels was one on airships. That was quite important to me, because I seem to use so many of them. There’s one (albeit in a minor role) in the book I’m trying to get back to now. There’s the Jolly Jack in Dragonfly. And the airships are the real stars of The Fires of the Deep. It was designing them that got me started on that book.
Putting a sail on a fantasy airship wouldn’t make sense, you know. You can’t tack against the wind if you’re in the wind with no resistant surface beneath you. That’s the sort of wonderful nerd facts this panel was brimming over with. Yes, I took a lot of notes!
*     *     *
Trouble is our best friend as writers. (Trouble for the characters, that is.)
*     *     *
Did you ever think about the connection between The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings? In both stories, after the great adventures, we come home to a home that isn’t in its perfect state anymore. It needs cleaning up. There’s still some work to do.

Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle was another highlight of this year’s convention. What a truly astounding writer! I took along my copies from childhood of The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place and got him to sign them.  I’ll try to reproduce my conversation with him.
(He was wearing a shirt that said “What Would Buffy Do?” I knew from previous years that he is an enormous fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as am I. It’s a brilliantly-written series.)
Me: I like that shirt! I know you’re a great Buffy fan. Me, too!
PSB: I would have sold my CHILDREN for the chance to write for that show. And they would have agreed to it — readily.
Me: Ha, ha! Yes! [Pause. He begins to sign.] You can see I’ve brought along my old, treasured copies of these.
PSB: Yes! These old Ballantine editions are wonderful.
Me: I love Gervasio Gallardo. I’ll buy any book that he’s done the cover for.
PSB: Absolutely. [He is genuinely friendly and treats fans like people, smiling and making eye contact.]
Me: The Last Unicorn meant so much to me when I read it as a teenager.
PSB: It was a HARD book to write. Tamsin was fun. But this one was . . . like pulling teeth.
Me: Wow! Well, thank you very much!
PSB: You’re welcome!
One of the very best times at this year’s convention was listening to Peter S. Beagle’s reading on Sunday. When you hear Beagle read, you know you’re in the presence of a master. He read a new story of his in its entirety, and he is truly an enchanter with words. At the end, I was misty-eyed at the sheer wonder and aching beauty of it.

Charlaine Harris

There she is: Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse books, those Southern Gothic Vampire Mysteries. The TV series True Blood is based on those books. My agent introduced me to her — she shook my hand and actually chatted with me — very gracious lady!
*     *     *
I also got Tim Powers to sign my copy of Declare. He’s always super-nice and a real joy to hear on panels. We celebrated our mutual left-handedness.
*     *     *
And then there’s the man in black, the man of the hour . . . the creator of the Sandman graphic novels, books such as American Gods, Coraline, Stardust, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and others. He had a big hand in the screenplay of that latest Beowulf film, too. Here he is!

Neil Gaiman

So after I circulated through the mass book-signing on Friday night, collecting the signatures I had come after, talking with friends old and new, I went and got into Neil Gaiman’s long, long, long line. We were allowed three books apiece. I had bought three copies of The Dangerous Alphabet: one for myself, and one each for two dear writer-friends who couldn’t attend the convention this year. Waiting in line wasn’t bad at all. It was a chance to meet another writer and an artist (the people on both sides of me) whom I probably wouldn’t otherwise have gotten a chance to talk with. So yes — it was a historic night. I met Neil Gaiman face-to-face. We exchanged actual spoken words!

Neil Gaiman, October 28, 2011, San Diego

One of the funniest experiences this year was a completely unintelligible panel. I won’t name names, but we all settled down to listen in anticipation, because the topic promised to be highly interesting. And I’d guess it was, but only the panelists themselves know, because they had a mumbled conversation that no one beyond six feet away could hear! I’ve never seen anything like it. Very near the beginning, when it became obvious that not just the moderator, but everyone on the panel was mumbling, an audience member yelled, “WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!” The panelist who was speaking glanced up at the audience for one instant, then turned back to the moderator and continued mumbling. In ones and twos, people drifted out and left quietly and politely through the double-doors.

San Diego sunset

Another highlight was the evening — Saturday, I think — when some friends and I ventured into a part of San Diego where there were shops and restaurants. We had a delectable Mexican dinner, but the best part was getting to see a Zombie Walk! I’d heard about them before and seen my cousin’s photos of one, but the real thing was very cool to behold! What seemed like about a hundred people had made themselves up as zombies (this was the weekend right around Hallowe’en). Some looked basically like unkempt (living) people — rumpled clothes, messy hair, maybe trickles of “blood” on their faces or shirt-fronts. But some had gone all-out, with elaborate makeup and costumes. In a long, growling, glassy-eyed procession, they shambled down the crowded market streets, sometimes “devouring” a friend in the crowds of spectators. Children watched in delight. Babies cried. Dogs barked. Shopkeepers came out to admire. Many of these zombies were teenagers, but sometimes whole families had gotten into it. One lady was an utterly terrifying zombie bride, with a bouquet of wilted flowers, a wild nest of hair, a desolate face, a dusky dress that scraped along the pavement like dry leaves . . . boy, she gave me the SHIVERS!
But my favorite was a young woman with a ratty cascade of hair and an artfully-applied pallor — and blood, and ripped-up clothes; I’ve always had a thing for dirt-streaked women. She LOCKED her gaze onto mine as she approached, and her expression was what I can only describe as an undead come-hither look — very seductive. She turned her head to keep staring into my eyes as she passed me, and even after she passed. I think she could tell I considered her a highly attractive zombie. Boy, was that fun! Quite an erotic moment. If the zombie apocalypse really happens and we all die, I hope she’s the one who eats my brain.
*     *     *
Another great adventure was going to Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, which is ALL fantasy and horror (mostly fantasy)! Bookstores do not get any awesomer than that! Boy, do I wish we had one of those close to home! They have a permanent signing station built right in, a counter with a curved cutaway section and a chair for an author to sit in, with a great writing surface. Tamora Pierce was signing on the day we went, and she had an unending line of fans for the entire hour or so that we were in the store. I looked at the calendar of events, and they have giant-name authors coming all the time! Good argument for moving to San Diego: Mysterious Galaxy!
These two (above) pictures were taken on the way back from that store. We successfully managed the train and bus systems!
*     *     *
What else? I had wonderful and productive meetings with my agent and with the staff and friends of Black Gate. I met some amazing writers. Talked with friends I see only at World Fantasy. Made some new friends.
Okay, the best time of all at this year’s convention was getting to do my public reading. Oh, was that a good time! I had a fantastic audience this year! My heartfelt thanks go out to two excellent friends from the Dealers’ Room (you know who you are!); to the ladies I met on Friday night, who actually CAME on Saturday, as you promised — and brought a posse!; to my ever-faithful Pittsburgh compatriots; and to John O’Neill, editor and publisher of Black Gate, who not only attended the reading himself but gathered up several of his friends and dragged them along! To all of you who attended, laughed at the funny parts, sighed with happiness at the cool parts, and cackled with relish at the other cool parts, THANK YOU! You all made it an unforgettable convention for me, and you renewed my focus on who I am and what I need to be doing. Thank you!
*     *     *
Tinkerbell is mean in the actual book. She actively tries to kill Wendy.
*     *     *
Charlotte’s Web didn’t win the Newbery in the year that it was eligible; the book that did is now totally obscure. Kids still ask librarians for Charlotte’s Web, even when it hasn’t been assigned.
*     *     *
One panelist said, “Buffy is one of the most accurate portrayals of high-school life ever.”
*     *     *
Harry Turtledove pointed out that the rowers in the Greek and Roman ships were professional rowers, not slaves. Slaves weren’t used in that capacity until the Middle Ages! So, much as we love Ben-Hur,  his stint as a ship-rowing slave isn’t historically accurate. Which is okay — it’s still a great story. After Salamis, it was a badge of honor for Greek citizens to have scars on their bottoms from the rowing benches. They would go around showing off their bums to one another: “I was at Salamis! See?”
*     *     *
“You can be old and cool and funky and wonderful. Stop being afraid of death and decay!”
*     *     *
Neil Gaiman said: “We make our living telling lies, and the lies are all true.”
*     *     *
Oh! One panelist — in fact, it was Robert Silverberg — quoted my favorite line from The Aeneid: “One day we’ll laugh even about this.”
That’s pretty much the news from World Fantasy 2011 in San Diego. Did we all get out of the hotel maze, or are some people still lost there in the surreal dream? I hear the zombies are moving in. Hot zombie chick, if you’re reading this, you can send me one of your ears any day!

October Sun

October 18, 2011

The days of October tumble down and swirl away on the breeze, just like the leaves all around. I park my car under some trees that have been dropping bushels of leaves for a good month now, and they still have quite a few more to lose. I don’t mind at all that my car is always covered with the red, green, orange, and yellow foliage every time I go out to it. I clean the leaves off the windows and leave the rest (heh, heh, heh!) — they make a festive, autumnal decoration for my vehicle. On wet days, the leaves are pasted to the hood, trunk, and roof; on balmy dry days, they’ve mostly fluttered off by the time I turn the first corner.

I greatly appreciate the weather we’ve been having, with the warmth hanging on. I love not being cold. I love seeing the sun, though I noticed today how low it hangs in the sky in October, even at high noon. I’ve watched it slowly changing its mind on where to set. In summer, it went down behind the giant cross at St. Mary’s Cemetery; these evenings it’s falling into the woods.

On gray days, mist hovers and floats.

A dark day in October

I have new neighbors who moved in downstairs, and they’re very nice people! I’m glad the lower floors are occupied now. I feel less like a ghost haunting a vacant building.

Anyway, here’s another book that’s good for October:

A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny

A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny (Avon, 1993), comes to us courtesy of my friend Nick, who remembered loving the book years ago. It’s a little hard to acquire these days; but Nick, like another well-known adventurer/scholar, is — how shall one put it? — an “obtainer of rare antiquities.” He relocated a copy for himself and even an extra one for me, which he most kindly sent! The idea is that several of us are reading the book together (though we’re in far-flung places) during the month of October, after which we’ll compare notes.

The book lends itself well to that, because it’s divided into 31 chapters, named “October 1,” “October 2,” “October 3,” etc. Most are just a couple pages long, so it’s something even I stand a good chance of getting through (though not quite on time — I’m already well behind schedule). I’m reading a few pages just before bed each night.

Zelazny dedicated the book this way: “To — Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Albert Payson Terhune, and the makers of a lot of old movies — Thanks.” Pretty cool, huh? Isn’t that dedication quite an endorsement? The work also includes delightfully strange illustrations by Gahan Wilson.

Anyway, like some other October books we know, this one is a loving tribute to the Hallowe’en season: in particular, to the iconic characters of horror, mystery, and spookiness. In this tale you will find Jack the Ripper, a terrifying Count, a Good Doctor who harnesses lightning for his questionable experiments, Mr. Larry Talbot who keeps a close eye on the moon, a Great Detective who smokes a pipe, and even some betentacled Great Old Ones. Some of these characters are “Openers,” bent upon letting horrors out of mirrors and closets when the time is right, which will unleash devastation on the world; some are “Closers,” dedicated to keeping the evils locked away and the world safe for humankind. It’s fascinating to find out which are which — the book is full of surprises.

What caught my attention right from the start was the skillful rendering of the tale’s narrator, a watchdog named Snuff. This faithful and formidable canine deserves a place among the ranks of the all-time great non-human protagonists such as Hazel-rah and Chaunticleer.

I understand that it’s pretty expensive to buy nowadays, but there are perhaps library copies to be found.

Anyway, let’s head back on out into October (foggy nights and days of the lowering sun) with a few photos and random flotsam:

One of my jack-o'-lanterns this year, 2011

 From my story “The Bone Man”:

“John is a skeleton,

John is dead,

All bony fingers,

Bony head;

No life in him,

Not a breath.

Lazy in life,

He’s restless in death.

All bony fingers,

Bony head —

Hope he’s not standing

By your bed!”

The other of my jack-o'-lanterns, 2011 (If I'm carving two, I usually try to make a friendly, happy one and a darker, less charitable one; Good Cop, Bad Cop . . . a Closer and an Opener, if you will.)

From “The Bone Man”:

“The skull’s eyes and triangular nose were simply the orange of the paper showing through, but they suggested a glowing, infernal light inside, like a jack-o’-lantern’s flame. The mouth was an exaggerated comb-like grid of orange lines. The image triggered a memory . . .”

"Sometimes I would rest my chin on the warm lid of a jack-o'-lantern and gaze out over the waving millet, searching the blue crystal stars . . ." -- from DRAGONFLY

From “The Bone Man”:

“The skeleton was just standing there, close enough to touch, but not reaching out, not bending forward, not really even seeming to look down at the kid. Just standing, standing. No skin, no rags of clothing — just two or three wisps of hair stuck to the skull, wiggly black lines . . .”

"We gave them scary faces, happy, sad, laughing, scowling, crescent-eyed, zigzag, mouths fanged, toothless, froggish. Then, with the falling of the dark, we set them aglow . . ." -- from DRAGONFLY

From “The Bone Man”:

“It was dark ahead of him, though fire still hung in the vanished sun’s wake.”

"We definitely had a problem. There were unearthly noises almost every night, increasing in volume and frenzy as the lightless bottom of the month drew nearer . . ." -- from DRAGONFLY

From “The Bone Man”:

“All around him, it was as if veils dropped away, and Conlin was walking back into the streets of his childhood. Here, under the breeze-shivery maples and oaks slouching toward cold, it was no longer the age of the Internet and little phones in your pocket . . .”

Illinois oaks, 2006

“Besides the autumn poets sing,

A few prosaic days

A little this side of the snow

And that side of the haze.”

— Emily Dickinson

We’re still in the market for Hallowe’en thoughts, stories, eerie tales, descriptions, autumnal musings, howls, sepulchral mutterings . . . and to that we’ll add an invitation to quote us a passage from a well-loved autumn book (scary, beautiful, or otherwise [or both]) . . . a favorite Octoberish poem . . . or just to tell us about a time when a storyteller gave you a chill for which you were grateful!

Happy Hallowe’en!

Hallowe’en Comes Early

October 4, 2011

Hallowe’en has crept early upon the Uncanny City. I’m going to kick the season off with an unsettling personal experience that is absolutely true. So pause in your pumpkin-carving, shut down the cobweb-making machine just for a moment, and pull up a rickety chair. And you may want to toss another log on the fire, because the air is about to get noticeably chillier, and shadows will encroach . . .

Pittsburgh's sprawling and picturesque Allegheny Cemetery

These photos were actually taken a year ago, in very early November, as I recall.

The grave of Stephen Foster, American songwriter, 1826-1864

We have some amazing cemeteries here in Pittsburgh. Chief among the ones I’ve seen is the nearly endless Allegheny Cemetery, which seems to go on forever in all directions. Yes, Stephen Foster is buried there.

Autumn colors blaze in Allegheny Cemetery.

The true experience I am about to relate takes place in Allegheny Cemetery. It happened just a couple weeks ago, in mid-September.

Toward evening, shadows lengthen.

Some friends who are photographers were in the cemetery one afternoon to take pictures of the beautiful, somber, and intriguing work of many a stone-crafter, both mason and sculptor. And I was there, too.

Now, one of my friends has a two-year-old daughter, who also came along that day, playing and wandering among the headstones, rolling in the grass, enjoying the slanting light and crisp air of fall.

This little girl, whom I’ll call “Abbie” (not her real name), is a precocious two-year-old, who knows the names of many people, animals, numbers, and letters. She likes other babies and loves to point them out. When she sees a baby nearby, or in a picture, or on TV, she’ll announce, “Baby! Baby!” In some cases, when something looks like a baby, she’ll identify it as such. For example, when we watched Princess Mononoke and she saw the little forest-spirits with the hairless, rattly heads, she said, “Baby! Baby!”

Well, as we wandered through the cemetery that afternoon, every so often, Abbie would glance toward our right or left and say, “Baby! Baby!” But we could see no one there. We saw only grassy expanses, trees, and the unending rows of gravestones marching away over the hillsides. “Baby!” Abbie would say, never quite pointing. She seemed neither happy nor alarmed; she was just making an observation.

Mausoleum, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh

After a few minutes, she would look around quizzically and ask, “Where baby? Where baby?” She wasn’t seeing the baby any more. Then, another five or ten minutes later, she’d look to one side of the path and say “Baby!” We tried hard but couldn’t see anything she might be identifying as a “baby.” There were no cherubic statues, no baby photos on grave markers. Once, Abbie’s mother pointed at a seraph, a distinctly adult-looking angel statue, and asked, “Is that a baby?” Abbie displayed no reaction or interest.

It gets even more bizarre. This is probably the most photogenic and intriguing mausoleum in the cemetery. When we got near it — and only near it — Abbie did something I’ve never seen her do before, and not since. She raised both hands and grasped the hair above her ears/at her temples and began to stagger, moving in an aimless, disoriented path back and forth, almost in circles. Her face wore a dazed, puzzled expression . . . as if her head were filled with a sound she’d never heard before — a continuous, pervasive sound that confused her.

One of the other adults remarked that it looked as though Abbie were “being drawn by some force.” (Those were the exact words she used.) When we moved away from the mausoleum, this odd behavior ceased, and Abbie went right on playing and exploring.

Afterward, we theorized that children may be receptive to sights, sounds, and impressions that we adults are not. Does the passing of years place in us a “filter” that screens out the unseen world? What presence, visible only to Abbie, may have tagged along with us across the stone-lined lawns that afternoon, perhaps curious, perhaps glad for some company — perhaps, a carefree juvenile like Abbie herself, exploring the strangeness and wonder of an afternoon outdoors in autumn? And what hum or whispering filled the air around that crumbling house of the dead?

So there it is: the beginning of the Hallowe’en season here in Pittsburgh, and there, wherever you are. It’s time for the telling of tales. Does anyone care to contribute an unsettling account of your own? Every family has its share of weird tales — the thing that happened to Great-Uncle Bob that night out behind the horse barn, or that face Aunt Bonnie saw at the window of her house on Coal Street. You can change names freely and pretend it’s the experience of some other family; the important thing is the story! It needn’t even be something that happened to anyone you know. It could be a rumor handed down at your junior high school . . . something you read or heard or saw on TV . . . or perhaps just an impression you had. Remember that one house in the town you lived in as a kid? — that one house out by the railroad tracks where the woods began, that you were always sure wasn’t quite right. Describe a creepy place to us!

Let us tell tales, all you who delight in a good Hallowe’en yarn. I’ll jump in with a few more myself! If you’re absolutely stuck, you can throw out a “What if you . . .?” scenario — my anonymous friend Chris and I used to have hours of fun with that as kids! We’d try to come up with the eeriest, scariest scenarios we could, always putting the other person into them as the main character, always trying to top the one before. “What if you were out at night in the woods behind the pond, because you realized you’d left your mom’s jeweled brooch down there when you were playing earlier, and you had to get it back by all means, and then you saw . . .” [Never mind that we never played in those woods even in the daytime; or that neither of our moms had a “jeweled brooch”; or that either of us would have had any interest in playing with such — but THE POINT IS, you’re in the woods at night, and . . .]

So (almost) anything goes! What tales are there? Who will tell us a story for the long-shadow season?

Elegy for Paper

September 15, 2011

I was reflecting recently on how the business of writing, like so much else, has changed drastically over the past couple decades. I thought it might be fun to set down on this electronic page some memories I have of a world that has vanished.

I came of age as a writer in that brief day of the word processor. Does anyone remember that? It wasn’t a computer, yet it blew typewriters out of the water. It was a bulky machine that covered half the desktop, with a screen that swung up from its closed position against the keyboard to show about eight or ten lines of text — dark green against light green or dark gray against light gray, depending on how bright the environment was. It had one font unless you changed the plastic snap-in print wheel. I think I had two or three of those; but there was no way to get, for example, one word in a line to be in a different font (like this).

Still, I thought it was the greatest invention ever! I’d used a manual typewriter as a kid, an electric typewriter through college, and this machine was WAY better than those — I could correct typos or revise without once committing the text to a printed page, and when I printed, the manuscript would be glorious! I could store documents to be printed again — yes, to be printed all over again, without re-typing them! It sounds so laughable now. But then, these were miracles of technology. The tools of the writer had taken a quantum leap forward, and we could focus on the writing, not on the physical chores. We wondered how Tolkien, Dickens, and others had managed without these things.

There’s a quote from Mark Twain that gets reprinted now and then in the trade magazines. He’s waxing enthusiastic about the marvelous new device that allows you to get your words onto the paper as fast as you can think them. It sounds for all the world like he’s talking about a computer — or a word processor, if you read the reprint back in the eighties — but the machine he’s raving about is the new-fangled manual typewriter.

I wonder if the document survives in which some long-ago scribe is singing the praises of the miraculous new ball-point pen . . . or the fountain pen, the quill, or the hammer-and-chisel.

But back to my reminiscences: in that word-processor “era,” I was convinced that I would never need a computer. They were fine for the math and science people, but for those who wanted to write, the word processor was clearly superior. The WP produced documents that looked nice, as if they’d come from a typewriter; the computer, on the other hand, spewed ugly dot-matrix printouts, faint and rudimentary, with holes along the sides of the paper. Bleah! What serious writer would ever need a computer?

But as wonderful an electronic gadget as the WP was, we were still standing firmly in the world of paper documents. The function of the WP, remember, was to produce beautiful typewritten pages. Real pages. Paper pages. The WP didn’t connect to an invisible, interconnected world — for that matter, neither did computers quite yet.

I remember that one day my mom couldn’t get the document she was working on to save onto the diskette. (There was no hard drive: any saving you did was onto a little disk. I didn’t know you could save things onto a computer’s hard drive until several years after I’d started using one.) That was a moment of techno-glory for me, because I figured out the problem and solved it. The paper label that came inside the slipcase with every diskette had gone into the disk drive with the diskette but not come out again. The label was forming a physical barrier between the diskette and the drive’s reader. I discovered the paper in there, fished it out, and boy, was I proud of myself!

Paper . . . and my mom . . . Mom was a great conserver of paper. She would go through every piece of junk mail and save any sheet, large or small, that had a blank side. These would go into her stack of scratch paper beside her elbow at the kitchen table. They became her notepads for jotting ideas and rough drafts of stories or articles, usually early in the morning or late at night, when she had the kitchen to herself. Regulation-sized scratch paper, such as the blank backs of outdated manuscripts, occupied a drawer in her office, and would become the tablet for new, typed rough drafts.

And envelopes! Mom would save envelopes that came in the mail, too. Why, all they needed was a scratching-out of the old addresses, and they could serve again. All through college and my Japan years, I received weekly letters from home, invariably in second-service envelopes. For Christmas or her birthday, I would often give Mom boxes of brand-new business-sized or manila envelopes (a great present for a writer, and she loved getting them) — but I could probably count on one hand the times she used a new envelope out of the box. I’m sure it felt horrible to her, like shooting a buffalo and taking its skin, leaving the carcass to rot.

Mom even used recycled manila envelopes for story submissions to editors. Once a Cricket editor complimented her on her recycling.

The value was certainly passed along to me; that’s the way I did things, too. When it was time to submit a story to a magazine, I’d go to the cabinet, which was chock-full of used envelopes of every size. I’d look for two cleanish, respectable ones, make sure the old addresses were obliterated, and dutifully make my self-addressed stamped envelope to go inside my outbound submission. SASE . . . I wonder if writers younger than thirty have even heard that term? There was IRC, too, after I went to Japan: international reply coupon.

How did you find places to submit stories in the pre-Internet world? Well, you scanned the Markets sections in Writer’s Digest and The Writer. You made trips to the library and paged through Writer’s Market and Literary Marketplace. That last one is where I located the address for Arkham House, and Dragonfly finally found a home.

I loved printing out and signing those cover letters. I loved the heft of the hard-copy story and the taste of envelope glue (previously licked by who knows whom). I loved the drive to the post office and the satisfaction of plunking down a little money and watching the postmaster drop the story into the outbound bin.

But even more, I love how that era made us appreciate the mail. When stories were out on submission, I’d go to the mailbox with such anticipation, just waiting for that response from an editor. I guess the memory is colored by the fact of how young I was, dwelling in that magical time when I had yet to receive a single acceptance, and any day, the mail might change my life forever. The fondness is tied up with childhood and youth, checking a mailbox in the shade of great oak trees, with dogs around my feet, on halcyon summer days when my parents were hale and the world stretched limitless and kind before me.

To discover a heavy manila envelope in the box was bittersweet: you knew at once that the editor had returned the manuscript, but there might be an encouraging note inside, a request to try the magazine again with something else, and that took away much of the sting.

Better by far was a small, light envelope from the magazine’s office . . . not a recycled SASE in your own handwriting, but a new, crisp envelope, some pristine thing never before glimpsed, perhaps fallen from Heaven — because such an envelope couldn’t possibly contain your manuscript. It could only hold a letter saying “We here at *** have all read and loved your story, and we would be delighted to publish it.”

Ah, the age of paper! It was slower; it taught us patience. Yet patience is a quality that, as a writer, I’m glad I learned.

A writer friend of mine made the point not long ago that in a few hundred years, no one will be able to access the electronic data that we in the present are producing. Who among us now could go home and play back the music on an eight-track tape, watch a movie on a Beta cassette, or recover my first novel from those Smith Corona Power Word Processor diskettes? If our descendants don’t have the exact hardware we’re using today, where will our data be? And what’s the life expectancy of hardware these days?

For his epitaph, John Keats wrote, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Brothers and sisters, we are writing our legacy in water. It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Even now I save pieces of junk mail for memos. Still it hurts me to print on clean, new paper without a Very Good Reason. Still I don’t sleep well unless a manuscript — or even a manuscript-in-progress — is printed out (on scratch paper until it’s ready to go out and make good impressions). Here in the gentle light of my workspace, there will always be a place for paper. He is an old friend; and old friendships, as they say, are golden.