Archive for May, 2008

DRAGONFLY: The Commentary Track

May 30, 2008

Dragonfly was conceived and written on two continents, on opposite sides of the world. Come along with me on the official fan tour of historic locations relating to the book! What you’re looking at here is one of two “Birthplaces of Dragonfly.” This is the one that’s easier to get to if you live in Japan. This little grove of trees is in front of the Humanities building at Niigata University’s Ikarashi campus. As the story goes, I had come to the university that day with two friends who were attending a special seminar on how to make kimchee. This is so far in the dim past now that I don’t remember why I tagged along, since I had not intended to go to the kimchee session. While my two friends were indoors learning how to bury cabbage and spices with the full intention of digging them up again, I was wandering around in the location you see, and the ideas for the book began to flood over me. It started, as I recall, with the two names Dragonfly and Mothkin. I glimpsed in my head something like a cutaway diagram of cellars or levels descending into the Earth. I knew Dragonfly was a girl who was going to journey down and down into a place that would be peopled with werewolves, vampires, and other Hallowe’en boogey-folk.

An early idea that I later discarded was that Dragonfly would spend much of her life in Harvest Moon —DRAGONFLY was conceived in this evergreen grove near the statue known as VICTORY. that she would live, have a job, marry, and have children there. I imagined her pulling a cart with onions to sell. The phrase “Onion Years” swirled around in my mind. In the finished book, Dragonfly does get into a bit of agricultural commerce with Sylva, but she doesn’t become the mother of a new generation of werewolves. (If they had had a child, what would they have named the little one? Maybe “Glamis” after Grandpa Cawdor, in keeping with the Macbeth theme? Or perhaps it would have been twins, Mac and Beth?)

What follows here are some views of fall in the place I grew up. This is what autumn looked like to me as a child. So this is the other half of the tour: the sights and settings that colored the (overabundant) descriptions in Dragonfly. I loved the fall — not as much as summer, but I loved it — and Hallowe’en was its crowning glory. I’d already be thinking of costumes in July or August. I’d figure out what I wanted to dress up as. It was usually something from whatever book I was reading: a Skull-Bearer from The Sword of Shannara,  Gandalf, C-3PO, the shark from Jaws (those are all real examples). . . . Mom and Dad would lend their grownup engineering expertise. Dad would build things like Skull-Bearer wings, and Mom would open the trove of ancient family clothing and props. She also knew how to shop the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores for excellent costume raw materials–such as the Styrofoam dinosaur head that I wore in one Hallowe’en parade, or the shaggy fur coat that, when snipped and re-stitched in the right places, became a wondrous full-body gorilla suit for my gradeschool-sized body. Dressed as the gorilla, I emerged from the darkness near Memorial School where people were lining up for the annual parade, and I remember some kids reacting with a bit of genuine fear.

What a wonderful holiday! The parade is a long tradition in our hometown, going back well before my time. When I was little, one family heirloom was a hideous rubber crone mask — wrinkled brow, melancholy eyes, cucumberish nose, jutting warty chin, etc. My maternal grandmother used it once to freak out her husband. He was a Taylorville policeman. On the night of the Hallowe’en parade, he was directing traffic at the parade lineup. His wife, my grandma, approached him in full costume, wearing the mask (which apparently he didn’t know about), and proceeded to “get fresh” with him–patting his face, being very clingy, etc. I smile to picture this proper, serious policeman (in the black-and-white photo I’ve seen of him, he wears his uniform, a pair of glasses with tiny round frames, and a Hitler moustache) beginning to squirm as his unknown “assailant” begins to cross the line from holiday merriment into “This-is-most-irregular.”

I could never stop with just one costume for the Hallowe’en season. I’d develop at least two: one for trick-or-treating and one for the school party. (Sometimes there’d be a third for the parade.) Although I knew full well the costumes I’d be making would be cooler than anything “off the rack,” I could never resist ogling the bright, simple suits that a lot of kids bought last-minute at the stores downtown. (People bought things downtown in those days, from the stores all around the town Square. This was long before we had a Wal-Mart.) You know those costumes, I’m sure: the face-masks secured by an elastic string around the head, the garish two-piece attire whose designs and colors don’t even try to simulate what the character is supposed to look like. For example, Frankenstein’s monster–instead of wearing ragged, mismatched, stolen clothing, the dime-store monster wears a shiny yellow shirt with his own menacing portrait on the chest, and scary-letters proclaiming him “FRANKENSTEIN!”

Well, I’d generally beg my mom to buy me one of those. If my cousin was visiting, he’d ask for one, too. Mom never indulged us in this request. She’d say, “No. You don’t want one of those sleazy costumes. We’ll make a better one.” Kids, of course, are always on the lookout for the proper names of things; I latched onto the term “sleazy costumes” and assumed it was the proper name for that type of dime-store costume . . . perhaps even a brand name. My mom often told the story of how my cousin and I ran after her along the bustling sidewalks of our town, both of us wailing, “I WANT A SLEAZY HALLOWE’EN COSTUME!” (We never got them. We ended up with not-at-all-sleazy costumes.)

Anyway, I wrote the first 80 or so pages of Dragonfly in Japan on my Ricoh N-10 word processor, a machine about the size and weight of a microwave oven. Most of the rest, as I recall, was written in Taylorville that summer, some at our dining room table, some at my aunt’s house, and some outdoors on a card table set up just behind “the cave,” the root cellar/storm shelter you see pictured here. (That may have been the year I bought the 75-foot extension cord to enable me to write outdoors. All through my twenties, I loved the idea of writing out in the open air, in the wondrous lights of nature — the golden sunlight, the purple shade, the green glow of leaves.)


Here’s the General Education building at Niigata University as it appears today. This is where I do most of my teaching and a fair amount of my writing-related thinking.

Naming (especially in fantasy) is fun. To this day, I’m still struck at odd times with names for Untoward pairs and wish I’d used them in the book. I honestly don’t know why Dragonfly (the character) has that nickname. I liked “Mothkin” because of its suggestion of someone “kin” to the fluttering moths of the summer night, winging out of the black to beat against the screens or cling there. It seemed a good image for a dark, streetwise Agent of the Peaceable Kingdom as Mothkin is. Angels, I thought as a kid, shouldn’t all be dressed in pristine white with never a hair out of place. And in church Christmas plays, they shouldn’t be portrayed by the blonde girl. I always wanted to cast an angel to look more like a veteran prize fighter, more like a pirate. Finally with Mothkin, I got my chance.

“Sam Hain,” of course, is a sort of joke based on “Samhain,” the Celtic Lord of the Dead. (I know that the Celtic name isn’t pronounced like “Sam Hain” looks. But Hain himself wouldn’t be above adopting such a name as a pun of his own, so I think it’s justifiable.)

Uncle Henry was based on a character of the same name, appearance, and profession in my first real short story as a legal-aged writer, a piece called “Maybe Tonight” (which makes a good performance piece to be read aloud on Hallowe’en night). But it later occurred to me that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz also had an Uncle Henry. I don’t think it was a conscious homage. It’s more a tribute to the first name of one of my two favorite college professors. Uncle Henry’s appearance is based on the psychologist who evaluated me for the Volunteer Youth Ministry program to determine if I was fit for living overseas in a foreign culture.

Sylva’s name, of course, is meant to evoke woodlands and wildness. Eagerly Meagerly — well, my idea there is the juxtaposition of eagerness — to the point of being ravenous and rabid — with meagerness, a state of inadequacy or lack. If you think of a skeletal ghoul tormented by an insatiable hunger, you’ll have pretty much the picture I intended. Mr. Snicker: the double meaning of “laughing” and the onomatopoeic closing of a pair of scissors — he’s “one who snicks.”

“Noyes” is another of my favorite names in the book. It struck me as perfect for a vampire. First, it sounds like “Noise,” and he is a whiny, verbose character. Second, it’s a combination of “No” and “Yes,” which seems right for one who is undead–both dead and yet animate.

The two biggest influences on Dragonfly? I’d say Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn — particularly the part about the Midnight Carnival.

Until next time! 



May 24, 2008

When C. S. Lewis was beginning to make the transition from unbelief to belief in Christianity, reportedly one of the primary avenues for him was the mythological connection. Lewis found Biblical stories irritating in what they asked listeners to accept and believe, but very similar stories in other ancient myth cycles didn’t bother him in the least, though they were also accepted and believed by other groups of people in other times — rather, these other cycles appealed to him. Noticing this, Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien said something to the effect of, “Well, Christianity is just another mythology — only it’s one that happens to be true.” And (again, so I’ve read) a light began to glow for Lewis.

During the past year, I’ve started reading the Bible in a new way. Always before in life, I’ve read the Bible in bits and pieces — “lessons” — usually determined by the church’s lectionary calendar or the appointings of this or that devotional booklet. But it dawned on me that, as one who places such value on Story, I ought to explore the aspect of Scripture as Story. That is, I ought to see what might be seen from reading entire books in order, watching the events unfold naturally and cumulatively. One of my favorite college profs liked to point out that “history = His Story.” The Bible we have today looks like a book. It’s bound like a book. It fits into our bookcases. Maybe we keep it there. But oddly, we don’t usually read it like a book, starting at the beginning of a story and seeing where it leads us, appreciating the characters, what they do, and what happens to them.

I can see you all shaking your heads and slapping your foreheads, thinking, “Duh! It’s taken you more than four decades to get around to this approach?” Well, well, whatever. We’re never too old to learn. So anyway, I started with the four Gospels. I read John, then Luke, then Matthew, then Mark. Then I went back to square one and read through Genesis. (A pace that works for me is reading a chapter almost every night. If I’m too busy some nights to read a chapter, I don’t get down on myself. The book has been around for a long time — I know it will still be there the next night.) Then I went on into Exodus, and that’s where I am now, in the midst of the plagues upon Egypt. (It’s really making me want to rent The Ten Commandments, which I used to watch every year on TV when I was a kid. One network would put it on at Eastertime to compete with Jesus of Nazareth on the other network. I wanted to watch The Ten Commandments for the seventh or eighth time, and my parents wanted to watch Jesus, so we’d do a lot of switching back and forth whenever a commercial came on on one network. [Yes, in those days, homes usually did have just one TV set. . . .] How many of you used this line with your parents on a school night? — “Just let me stay up until the parting of the Red Sea!” — Bring back any memories? I won’t ask how many of you played The Ten Commandments on school recess. My friends and I did . . . probably convincing the playground teachers that we were insane. Of course, we’d conditioned them: in the years before The Ten Commandments, we played Planet of the Apes.)

Boy, do I digress! Here’s the point I set out to make: I’ve been noticing a fascinating parallel between Genesis/Exodus and Homer’s Odyssey. Let’s compare the Biblical Jacob with Odysseus. Jacob’s name means “He Grabs the Heel,” because he came out of the womb grasping the heel of his brother Esau. We’re told that Esau was a great hunter, a man of the open country, but Jacob was a quiet man who stayed among the tents. The Trickster is a common figure in world mythology, and I’d venture to say that Jacob is the closest figure the Old Testament gives us to The Trickster. He uses his head. He’s shrewd. He’s not above doing things that are, frankly, out-and-out dishonest. He skillfully gets his brother’s birthright. He deviously (in cahoots with his mother) gets his aging father’s blessing that was meant for Esau. He does something so tricky with the livestock that even I’m not sure I understand what he did, but he greatly increases his herds at the expense of his uncle and father-in-law Laban.

Odysseus is wily, too. That tricky hollow Horse was his idea. And how about how he gets his captured men out of the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops? After he’s blinded the Cyclops, he has his men cling to the bellies of the sheep as they leave the cave. Polyphemus touches each passing body and feels only the fleeces of sheeps’ backs. Isn’t that eerily close to that stunt Jacob and Rebekah pull in Genesis 27, when they put goatskin on Jacob’s smooth arms so that his father Isaac, nearly blind in his old age, thinks he’s feeling the hairy arms of his firstborn Esau? Odysseus is always coming up with clever ways to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to hear the Sirens’ song, but he knows hearing it can be maddening and fatal, so he has his men lash him securely to the mast so that he can’t jump into the waves, no matter how enchanted he becomes. The men all plug their ears, and their captain alone gets to hear the alluring song. And when he comes home, he doesn’t do so with a fanfare; he comes home in disguise at first to see how things are going in Ithaca. It’s only when he can “scour the Shire” in one fell swoop that he reveals himself.

Then there are the gists of the stories themselves. Odysseus is proud of himself for that Horse innovation, and his hybris offends the gods. Poseidon decides to teach him a lesson; and thus, the Odyssey: it takes Odysseus ten years to get home — ten years, in which he’s tried and tested and subjected to all sorts of things before he comes again, at last, to Ithaca and his beloved Penelope. [He does some slaughtering of rivals who have moved in and are attempting to take over.]

Genesis/Exodus is also a coming-home story. It seems so easy for the sons of Israel to run down to Egypt again and again when they need to buy grain during those years of famine. Then they take up residence down there, and then they become slaves, and then God sends Moses to deliver them. But on the way home, they grumble and lose faith . . . and so Exodus becomes an Odyssey. The children of Israel have to wander for forty years in a wilderness that was so easily crossed before. But when they’ve learned their lesson, when they know that God is God, the promised land awaits. [Like Odysseus, they shed quite a bit of blood to reclaim the land.]

What’s all this doing in a discussion of the writing life? The point is, it pays to notice connections. There are truths, elements, and patterns that resound throughout history, throughout cultures, throughout diverse media. Look for the patterns. You’ll be a better writer for it.

I’ll go one final step and suggest that we pull back with our “Google Earth” buttons — zoom way back outward from Genesis/Exodus to look at the Bible as a whole. The entire Bible is a coming-home story: human beings wander away from God on a long, dark path, and God brings them home. Homecoming, reconciliation, redemption . . . all themes to keep in mind when we write our magnum opuseseses. They make great stories because they reflect the greatest story.

Working Titles, Titles that Work

May 19, 2008

How does it work for you as a writer? Do you tend to know the title of the piece you’re writing from square one, or from early on? Or are you more like me, still struggling with the title long after you’ve done all the damage you can possibly do to the whole rest of the story? I heard Madeleine L’Engle say that she had no idea what to call A Wrinkle in Time, and it was someone else who finally suggested that title to her after the book was finished. There are quite a few funny stories out there of now-famous books that their authors had intended to call something else, until fortunately a.) they came to their senses, or b.) a sensible agent, editor, or friend said, “Wup-wup-wup waaaiiit a minute. . . .” [Gee, I wish I could remember some of those examples! Maybe you can–help me out here! I seem to recall that The Great Gatsby was one of them. All I can think of right now is that Charles M. Schulz wanted to call his Peanuts comic strip Li’l Folks.] Almost all my own stories have worn several other working titles before finding their ways to the ones they were published under. Here’s a list of a few — finished titles first, followed by working titles:

Dragonfly — The High Dark Shelf (That change was the editor’s idea; I didn’t really agree, but here was a publisher offering to give my long-wandering novel manuscript a home. If he’d wanted to call the book Wombat Boy and the Pink Lollipops, I probably would have seen it his way.)

“The Bone Man” — “The Hallowe’en Parade” (My idea, once I got about halfway into the story.)

“The Star Shard” — “The Star-Shard” (The editor changed that one, too: I tend to hyphenate everything that isn’t nailed down.)

“The Fool Who Fished for a King” — This was the original title as well as the finished one, but for awhile, during a second rewrite phase requested by the editors, it was called “The Fish of Heavensdrop.”

“Here About to Die” — “The Arena” (There are several other things called “The Arena.”)

“The Bones of Oron-Dha” — “Land’s End” (Just watch: a new maker of stylishly rugged clothing will emerge and call their line “The Bones of Oron-Dha.”)

The Witching Wild — The Cry of the Nightbird — Halcyon Fey (My agent actually said, and I quote: “Any title would be better than ‘Halcyon Fey.’ Can you imagine a bookstore clerk trying to type that into a computer to search for it, or a young-adult reader trying to spell it?” Although I knew he had a point about the store clerk, I said, “Why would a reader have to spell it?” The conversation went rather downhill from there.)

The Fires of the Deep — Lachii (But this title needs to change again before the book ever sees print. It’s been pointed out that Vernor Vinge has a book called A Fire Upon the Deep, and mine is close enough to cause confusion.)

Anyway, here’s my question for discussion: of all the titles you’ve encountered in your life (we can include movies as well as books, if you like), can you name one, two, or three that you think absolutely rule?–that is, they seem the perfect title for the work in question? To be perfect, they have to be an ideal fit for the work as well as to “sell” it — to be eye-catching, perhaps haunting, fascinating, whatever–it has to be a title that grabs hold of your imagination with both hands.

So, what are they? To what handful of works would you hand out prizes?

I’ll be bold and narrow my picks down to just two. My mind is not made up for all time. You may be able to convince me there are better titles out there. And again, in case you came in late or skimmed over all that rambling about my own titles, I’ll re-emphasize [See? I hyphenate everything! Don’t stand too close, or you may go home wearing a hyphen.]–I’ll re-emphasize that these are not my favorite books. I’m only talking about titles here. I’m naming the winners of the FSD Best Title Award:

First runner-up: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

And the winner: The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. I haven’t read this book. And what’s really funny is that a good friend just told me she was reading it and absolutely hates it! In Japanese, it was released under a title that translates to The Great Cathedral. A friend in Japan liked it, but she said the characters all seemed too smart to be normal people. Anyway, regardless of the content, doesn’t that title simply rock? I have read some different articles about the building of medieval cathedrals. (One such article about the construction of Chartres directly inspired my story “The Gift.”) What struck me was how important raising these cathedrals was to the communities that erected them. People quite literally gave their lives in the construction. They’d fall into the foundation-pits and die in the fall; they’d tumble off the high scaffolds; they’d get smashed under stones. Children in the area would die of malnutrition because the people had sold their cows to buy building materials and pay artisans. These people were completely devoted to creating these magnificent structures as houses for God on Earth. It was an era in which faith lay at the center of existence, and everything else took a back seat.

So . . . doesn’t The Pillars of the Earth capture that colossal importance, that centrality? The image is of mighty pillars holding up the Earth itself. That’s what faith was to the cathedral-builders, who willingly gave up their pennies, their livestock, their health, and their children to build these marvels of architecture.

Cast your votes! Also, if you’re a writer, feel free to add which is your favorite title from among your own works, and tell us why! As for me? My favorite of my own titles is “Glory Day,” which has long been a sonnetesque poem I wrote back in my college days–and is the working title of a short story I’m working on right now! (I just sold my cow in order to buy some typing paper.)

“Glory Day” is, of course, a name some people call the Fourth of July. For me it has wonderful associations of summer heat, freedom, fireworks, memory, nostalgia, and childhood imaginings. Yes, “Glory Day” is the title . . . until an editor comes along and changes it to “Six Days of the Avocado.” Or something.

Unveiling, and Some Introductions

May 16, 2008

What’s that I just handed you? It’s a virtual cigar! (Well, my avatar just handed it to your avatar. Trust me. I saw them talking under the virtual streetlamp up the block.) Why am I handing out virtual cigars? Why, to announce the birth of my all-new website! You are the first to know about it! It’s so new, not even the Web crawlers have sniffed it out and slithered back to report it to their master, the Lord of Search Engines. If hit counters are to be believed, you can still be among the first hundred visitors! The URL is:

I appreciate all constructive comments! (I appreciate them almost as much as enthusiastic support!)

Next, I’d like to tell you about three names to look for–three writers to watch. I can name names, because they all have public presences on the Web. In fact, they’re all just a mouse-click away, over there at the right of your screen, in the Blogroll. See them? We’ll go in alphabetical order:

Gabriel Dybing is a scholar just finishing up his Master’s. His passion and expertise lie in the epic sagas of the ancient North. Yes, I mean Vikings. His blog can tell you all about it, but he’s done a tremendous amount of research in this field, and he brings it all to bear when he weaves fiction of the mists and the rocks, the dark fjords, the enchantments and monsters. He tells us of hardy folk who–with sinew, blood, valor, and honor–wrest a living from their mysterious and starkly beautiful world. The great teachers of writing tell us to write what we know. Gabe goes one better: he knows his subjects, certainly–but more, he writes what he is. These tales are of his heritage and in his blood.

Nicholas Ozment has been called a “Mark Twain for our times”–if Mark Twain had had an even darker, more twisted side, and more of a penchant for ghosts and things that snarl in the night. Nick is adept at both long and very, very short forms, and his material ranges from science-fiction to horror to fantasy to poetry to humor to dramatic scripts to podcasts [pause for deep breath] . . . to pop-culture reviews to scholarly essays to literary fiction. . . . In short, he writes pretty much everything, and writes it well. He has been widely published in both print and on-line venues. He’s a college professor and, oh yes, also the editor of the magazine Ozment’s House of Twilight.

Michael Tresca knows the world of role-playing games (both on- and off-line) like no one I’ve ever met. He is the prolific author of gaming materials, articles, and reviews. His fiction includes fantasy, horror, and humor. Moreover, he delivers nail-biting suspense in a genre that blends technology, Lovecraftian horror, politics, and conspiracy theory.

Yes, I have the honor of calling these three guys friends, but I’d be reading them regardless. Watch for their names. I predict that you’ll be seeing a lot more of them, and I don’t mean in my blog.


May 12, 2008

When you live without a car as I do here in Japan, you pay a lot of attention to the weather. What the weather is doing makes about a forty-minute difference in what time I leave my apartment to get to work. It makes a difference in what I wear (all the way down to my shoes), how I pack my book-bag, and what I carry.

So, here’s a glimpse at the first twenty seconds of my day: my alarm clock rings. I struggle free of my futon, shut off my alarm, and then cross the tatami-mat floor to my window. Instead of curtains in my sleeping room, there’s a traditional wood-lattice window covered with opaque white shouji paper. I slide it open (standing a little to one side to peek out, since I get enough attention from the neighborhood without showing everyone what I wear to bed)–and I take a good look at the sky and the pavement. Is it mild and sunny, or are leaves, cats, and small children blowing down the street in a white squall?

This morning, at about 6:40 a.m., I glanced out at the precise instant an elderly man was walking his two bulldogs. You know how people say that pets and their owners begin to resemble each other over time? This was certainly the case–this man and his dogs clearly belonged together, all businesslike gait and bouncing jowls. Yes, yes–I know that with my kewpie-like futon hair I looked a lot funnier than anyone outside–but I had shouji to hide behind. Anyway, the scene got my early-morning mind to thinking.

If I’m doing the math right, there are 86,399 seconds in the day when I’m not looking out of my window. I don’t mean that it’s miraculous that I saw a man and his dogs. There’s a steady flow of traffic up and down my street throughout the day. If I’d looked out at another time, I’d have seen something else. But the point is, that particular man, those particular dogs and I all converged at 6:40 on this particular Monday morning.

Even when fully awake, one has to wonder to what degree such “chance” alignments are purposeful.

I remember being a little kid on car trips, looking out the back window at the Midwest farmlands flashing by; and I remember being staggered more than once by this thought: I’d pick out some house on a side street of some tiny town–or I’d find a lone tree growing far out at the edge of some field–and I’d marvel at the idea that the people in that house had lives of their own. They had whole histories, families, lifetimes of experience–but they had nothing to do with me. If you grew up with siblings, you likely weren’t as amazed by this revelation as I was, being an only child. It was eye-opening for me to figure out that entire vast populations of the world were getting along fine without ever knowing or interacting with me. I’d look at the tree in the field zooming past, and I’d think (with a bit of wistfulness) that I’d never stand beneath it; I’d never climb it or know its shade. I’d never see what the world looked like from just beside its trunk.

My point is, isn’t there something wondrous–something numinous–about the intersections that we do experience in life? I’ve always had a strange, inexplicable sense that I’m living at precisely the time and in the place that I was meant to live. Perhaps it’s just that old only-child egocentrism at work . . . or perhaps it’s not.

Tolkien’s work is built on the underlying belief that certain things are meant to happen. Bilbo was meant to find the ring; thus, Frodo was meant to have it. . . .

At the end of the film The Untouchables (the one with Kevin Costner), a reporter asks Ness for a comment on his triumph as the man who brought down Al Capone. Ness says, “I was just there when the wheel went ’round.”

We live every instant in that moment: the time when the wheel comes ’round. I certainly feel it with the students I meet in my classes. Each of our lives is like a looping, curving line going in all directions, but all those lines intersect, for one brief semester, in a particular classroom. That’s something not to be taken lightly. What we do with our time matters.

For us as writers, too: we each bring our own unique background to the writing table. We are the only people in history who have done exactly what we’ve done up to that point. We’ve grown up on our side streets; we’ve seen the world from under our trees. At any given time of life, there’s a story we can write then and only then.

Need I say more? I’ll grab my pen if you’ll grab yours!

Madeleine Stories

May 10, 2008

Today my editor and I were swapping our Madeleine L’Engle stories, and it occurs to me this is something worth blogging about.

I met Madeleine on three different occasions. The first two were at the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conferences in Bloomington, Illinois, when I was a junior-high and then a high-school student. In fact, the inspiration for what would become my first novel manuscript came while I was sitting in Madeleine’s workshop. As I listened, I was doodling in my notebook. Without thinking much about what I was drawing, I sketched a dense grove of trees, and then for some reason, I superimposed an iron-bound door floating in the air in front of–or against–the tree trunks. It was standing open, and I later began to think about why a magical doorway would open in a grove of trees. . . .

Anyway, that first time I attended Blooming Grove, I was enrolled in Paul Darcy Boles’s fiction workshop. (An excellent quote of his that I gleaned then, which I still use every year with my writing students, is: “We [writers] are all storytellers, sitting around the cave of the world.”) Mr. Boles was a great encouragement. I’d written a little Tolkien-derivative story called “Where Lies Adventure,” and he told me the Dwarf in it was “a really good Dwarf.” “You don’t poke fun at your characters,” he said. “This Dwarf isn’t Disneyfied.” He recommended the movie Dragonslayer to me, which I’d seen, and which made him all the cooler in my teenage eyes. And perhaps best of all, he signed his wonderful book Night Watch for me with the words, “For Fred: A fine writer who knows about enchantment.”

But I digress. The conference was scheduled so that I could sit in on both Boles’s lectures and L’Engle’s, which I did.

The second time around, I enrolled in Madeleine’s young-adult fiction workshop, so I was able to submit a manuscript which she critiqued for me. I’ll never forget her wise, diplomatic comment: “I suspect you’re one draft away from being able to send this around.”

Heh, heh, heh! Isn’t that funny, if you think about it? I took it as great encouragement, which was what she hoped, I’m sure. High-school kids who want to write are to be encouraged. But that comment could be made honestly about the very worst pieces of writing. Anything could be “one draft away” from being a work of Shakespeare, if enough were changed in the rewrite.

Finally, the third time I met her was when she did a book-signing at a bookstore in Chicago, when I was a college student. I waited through the line, and when she was signing my book, being the over-eager, excited young idiot that I was, I asked if she remembered me from the Blooming Grove conference. (I would never ask such a question today, and the mere memory of it makes me blush!) Again, ever diplomatic, Madeleine answered, “Probably, probably.”

Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh!

Float Like a Butterfly, Write Like a Bee

May 6, 2008

Supposedly there’s an old saying that the bumblebee, an aerodynamic impossibility, doesn’t know it can’t fly, so it goes ahead and flies. (Which is not unlike the physics of Saturday morning cartoons, in which as long as you don’t know you’re standing on thin air, you don’t fall.)

To be a writer requires, I believe, a certain amount of forgetting that you can’t do stuff. You have to blot from your mind the awareness of all those zillions of people who are writing out there, competing for the same limited space in magazines’ inventories and in publishers’ project schedules. You have to forget that they’ve all read more than you, have better ideas, are more eloquent, and are way smarter than you. (Okay, okay, I’m speaking for myself–sorry!)

Another old saying asserts that God looks out for children and fools. That’s comforting–I fit quite snugly into that category. You do, too, if you’re determined to write–fool!

But seriously, there are times when ignorance pays off. Let me tell you how Dragonfly got published. Just about everything that I might have done wrong when submitting it, I did. First, I should say that Arkham House was about the 12th or 15th place I sent it to. I no longer remember the exact figure, but it was more than ten, less than twenty. I’d been getting some pretty good rejections, as rejections go–personal scrawls from editors saying, in so many words, “Almost.”

Well, when I’d written down a long list of places to try from the pages of Literary Marketplace in the library, Arkham House was near the top of the list, because it began with “A,” but I didn’t send the book there until I’d tried at just about every other place I’d written down. Why? Because I didn’t think it stood much of a chance there. I knew Arkham House as the venerable and legendary publisher that had brought the works of H.P. Lovecraft to the world in book form. What would they want with my novel?

Finally, nearing the end of my list, I tried sending the book to Arkham House. If I’d done just a bit of homework, I never would have done that. After I’d sent them the package, I started reading up on them (brilliant methodology, eh?), and I found out that, 1.) they generally considered only agented manuscripts [I had no agent]; 2.) they typically didn’t publish novels, but rather collections of stories; and 3.) they were not the place for unknown writers to try, since they published works by the old masters of the genre.

But somehow, when editor Mr. Peter Ruber fished Dragonfly out of his slush pile, he liked it enough to go to bat for it, to persuade the other decision-makers that the book was worth doing all sorts of things they didn’t normally do. (I met the internationally-acclaimed critic and Lovecraft scholar Mr. S.T. Joshi at the last World Fantasy Convention, and he remembered me as the guy who sent the unagented novel manuscript to Arkham House over the transom.) Interestingly, when the “we’re-seriously-considering-it” letter came to my U.S. address, my mom glanced at the return address and supposed that “Peter Ruber” was one of my college friends–so she waited to forward the letter to me in Japan until she had some other stuff to send!

The point is, we can’t worry too terribly much about doing things right. The important thing is to do them. Out of the blue, my parents–some years after they were both retired–took a painting class. They told me what they’d learned, and for a couple years, we all had a great time painting pictures. We never stopped to consider the fact that we couldn’t paint–we just did it.

When I was a kid, it was my best friend’s mom who helped me over the last hurdle to riding a bicycle without training wheels. She started out running along behind me, holding onto the back of the seat so I wouldn’t tip over. At some point, without telling me, she let go. When I figured out she wasn’t there, I’d been riding the bike for some time, all over the yard.

I believe things happen that are meant to happen. I believe they happen when they’re supposed to happen. If you want to write, yes, learn all that you can–but in the end, just write. Don’t stop to consider how impossible or insane it is. Harrison Ford said something like that about acting. The guy who gets the part is the guy who’s there, who doesn’t go away.

A Slovenly Source

May 4, 2008

Because of my book Dragonfly–okay, and because of stories such as “The Bone Man”–I’m sometimes considered a horror writer. As such, the editors of Erebos: Journal of the New Darkness asked me, not long ago, to write a piece for them about the most important horror book I’d ever read. What follows is, in part, what I wrote, with slight modifications for this blog:

The assignment is, of course, impossible. What is the most important fallen leaf in the forest, among all those leaves that fall each year and become part of the rich compost from which new life springs? Can any writer choose one single book? I guess I could name any one of dozens and commend it as eloquently as possible. I could make any number of choices, and as Kipling said of the ways of doing the tribal lays, every single one of them would be right.

Mind you, I’m talking specifically about horror here. My selection, then, which must stand as the representative for all the fairy tales, all the grand and dark adventures, is an unlikely one in that it’s not a story at all: my choice is Der Struwwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffmann.

Titled Slovenly Peter in English, the book is a set of cautionary tales designed, supposedly, to teach children how to behave (or perhaps more importantly–how not to). The children in the stories–just like us, except that they’re more German and wear clothing styles of long ago–all get fair warnings. Don’t play with matches. Eat what’s on your plate. Don’t torment animals. Watch where you’re going. Don’t tip backwards in your chair. And whatever you do, Conrad, don’t suck your thumb! Not only do the children receive instructions–in some cases, they even hear the dire consequences of ill-advised behavior.

Do they listen? Yeah, right. As I said, they’re just like us–that’s what makes the book so effective. The lucky ones just get dog bites (which, in the illustrations, spew bright blood), lose their satchels in the ocean, or take a lump on the head. The less fortunate ones are burned to cinders, waste away to nothing and die, become grotesquely disfigured . . . or, in one of the most traumatic dolings of punishment, have their thumbs snipped off by a very frightening stranger.

I’ll never forget that image: little Conrad, happily sucking away on his thumbs while his mother is out of the house–the door flying open, and the “great tall red-legged scissor-man” bursting in. This cruel-faced intruder (with his long, streaming hair, his flying coattails, and his twiggy limbs) is a tailor, we’re told; he certainly has the giant scissors to prove it. He doesn’t deliver ultimatums, doesn’t offer final chances: he’s just in through that door (at a dead run, judging from the picture), SNIP, SNIP, and out again–and Conrad is left with stumps for thumbs. Stumps which, yes, spout blood in two neat fountains to his left and right. He looks unhappy.

I’m not sure to what degree Mr. Hoffmann really intended his book to correct behavior. I don’t know, of course. But if I had to speculate, I’d be tempted to think he knew he would fascinate and delight his young readers as much as he would terrify them. As a child, I was afraid of the scissor-man, but he held an undeniable appeal. I came back to the book again and again, just as we all always go back again and again to the campfire where the scary stories are–as we always climb to the dark attic or descend the cellar stairs.

Der Struwwelpeter hit me at an impressionable age. It didn’t sugar-coat the horror. The horror’s consequences didn’t dissolve in the morning light. In its gross hyperbole, the book also delivered honesty. The dangers do lurk; they’re out there. Accustomed patterns can dissolve at any moment. We live in a world of trapdoors. That scares us, but enigmas that we are, we also celebrate it.

Anyone who’s read both Dragonfly and Der Struwwelpeter will know exactly where the villainous Mr. Snicker came from: he’s lifted whole-cloth from Hoffmann–he is the great tall tailor, with a haircut and a few extra pounds around the waist.

There’s a little bit of Der Struwwelpeter in every horror story I write.

Writing Space

May 2, 2008

Writers tend to love their tools. As a kid, I wrote with a certain type of very soft-leaded mechanical pencil. When my pages were stacked together, the graphite on them would smear, so that in time, the words became almost indistinguishable on the sheets of uniform, cloudy gray. (This problem was exacerbated by being left-handed, with my writing hand always dragging across what I’d just written.)

I loved my IBM Selectric typewriter in college. When I got a Smith-Corona word processor the summer before I came to Japan, I thought it was the greatest invention ever. My first computer was a PowerMac, and I ended up collecting six different keyboards for it. Keyboards are the tactile interface between writer and machine. I relished the differences among them–some big, some small; some standard, some ergonomic; some with firmer resistance to the keys, some with softer; and each with its unique, satisfying click-click-click. The old Mac gave up the ghost after ten years of faithful service, and now I have a laptop PC starting its third year on my desk (with only two keyboards besides the one built into it).

A few years back, Jill Krementz came out with a book and related calendar, The Writer’s Desk, which offered glimpses into the places writers worked. I really enjoyed seeing the austere, converted boathouse in which E.B. White wrote…the comfortable clutter around Stephen King…the long table with Isaac Bashevis Singer ensconced at one end…. I’ve long been fascinated by the actual, physical spaces and conditions writers choose for themselves. (I see that the book is still available on-line.) So I thought you might be interested in seeing my current writing space.

Here it is! I like a full-sized keyboard, so that’s a Microsoft ergonomic laid on a wooden plank I bought at a hardware store. The plank rests on four wooden spools from my mom’s sewing drawer. It’s fitting that an artifact of my mom’s is present to hold up my keyboard, since it was Mom who taught me by example the process of writing stories and sending them out, submission after submission.

The picture was taken in February of this year. I was keying in line-edits to my novelette “Lucia’s Quest”–that’s the manuscript you see to the right of the computer. In a way, though, it’s misleading to call this my writing space: I do a lot of writing here, but I do just as much on a kitchen table, using an AlphaSmart Dana. I do write almost entirely by keyboard now. Gone are the days of gray graphite hands!