Archive for November, 2010

Thanksgiving Weekend — Thoughts

November 24, 2010

Okay, it’s high time I posted here. What is a blog without any new posts, right? Though I must say, I deeply appreciate everyone sticking around during the quiet stretches, keeping the blog alive in the comments section. I’m reminded again and again of how it is our blog.

More about World Fantasy is still coming. But for this entry, I feel like simply talking — no unifying theme (unless one emerges) — just a stream of the state of things for me as we move into the Thanksgiving weekend.

I could have called this post “In the Smoke,” because I’m in that exciting place right now with revisions of The Star Shard. I’m doing some intense rewriting of the climactic scene. Up till this point, I’ve kept a clear tally of how far I’ve been getting through the manuscript, following my editor’s extremely helpful notes, adding in some new¬†ideas of my own. But at the climax of a book, all cold calculation dissolves, and you just ride the avalanche on your surfboard. [How’s THAT for an analogy?] There’s no seeing or hearing anything but the dust and the roar until all the inevitabilities settle into place. So, for about the next three days, that’s where I am. It’s one of the most exhilarating times for a writer. It’s a good place to be on Thanksgiving weekend!

And just before the deadline, too. I’ve been working steadily toward my deadline of December 1st, when I have to turn the book back in to my editor. The timing should work out just right, Lord willing. But this close to the deadline, it’s suspenseful, isn’t it? It’s like the scene in Apollo 13 when the capsule with the exhausted, harried astronauts has re-entered the atmosphere, and no one knows whether they’ll make a safe splash-down or whether they’ll be incinerated in the atmosphere. There’s the expected zone in which all radio contact is lost. Silence, silence, the cameras scanning the skies . . . silence, silence, the attempts to hail them met only with silence. Gary Sinise standing there in Mission Control, a frown on his brow as he strains to hear a reply through his headset. Silence, silence . . . and then a burst of static, the voice of a living astronaut, and the glorious, blessed opening of a parachute.

Um, that will be me at the end of this month. Lord willing! ūüôā “Houston, we have a book! We have a book!”

Orion is dazzlingly clear tonight (as is the moon, a little past full), and I saw the bright cloud of the Pleiades. A friend back home who keeps me informed of what the Farmers’ Almanac says¬†tells me that this was the Full Beaver Moon we just witnessed.
My writing class went really well today! [I warned you this would be rather stream-of-consciousness!] For the second time (at least¬†the second time; maybe it’s happened more often) this semester, we had perfect attendance, which is really hard to do with a class of 31 upper-classmen. 31 university students is hard enough, but during a cold season (flu & colds going around), with all the job interviews and school visits and practice teaching and special seminars that seniors go to, it’s amazing that everyone can be there. And God helped! I prayed right before class that I would be able to teach clearly, and I think it was a very clear lesson. The topic today was essay structure, particularly the thesis statement and the body of the essay. After passing back homework papers and doing the Quote for the Week, I gave a brief lecture on essay structure using a big diagram on the board and a sample essay handed out to the students, in which we identified the various parts. Then, for the main part of the class, students used the information they collected last week from interviewing a partner. I gave them a worksheet I’d made: one side of a piece of typing paper with a blank line for a title and then five big rectangles representing the introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion. There were more blank lines in the appropriate places for the thesis statement and the topic sentences of the paragraphs. Our focus today was organization, so the students didn’t have to be so concerned with grammar and spelling. I instructed them to look at the information in their notes about their partner and try to sort it into material for three separate paragraphs. They filled in the worksheet accordingly, writing notes inside the rectangles to show what content they would put into each paragraph. And they had to write a thesis statement for the whole essay as well as topic sentences for the body paragraphs. (We didn’t officially do anything yet with the intro and the conclusion–I haven’t taught those yet–but some students tried it anyway, which was fine.) As they worked, I walked around to help them individually. I could really see the light going on for some of them as they got the idea that the three body paragraphs develop different aspects of the thesis. Days like this are fun!
Of course, I had a lot of papers to check through tonight, since I collected those at the end of class! 
So, I suspect a lot of us saw the latest Harry film this past weekend. (Don’t worry — absolutely no spoilers here. And don’t anyone dare spoil anything for me! I don’t yet know how this story is going to end.) I went to the delightful after-midnight showing at my local theater, which is the way I experienced many showings of The Lord of the Rings. [Twice, if I remember correctly, I’ve had to explain to patrolling policemen that I’m walking home from the movie theater at 3:00 a.m. — really! Police officers here don’t have a whole lot to do . . .]

Every single time I experience more of Harry Potter, either reading one of the books or seeing one of the movies, it messes me up emotionally. I don’t think I will ever fully get over my envy and the anxiety it sets off in me as a writer. I really, really want to write something that good, that big, that deep, that complex, that moving . . . I want to write a story that will far outlive me, that zillions of people around the world will embrace and enjoy–to create (sub-create, Tolkien would rightly say) a world that readers will want to live in. No other books/movies set me off in the same way. It’s partly the widespread success of the books, completely unprecedented in the history of the world; and it’s partly that J.K. Rowling is so close to my own age, and our careers were pretty much parallel until her books started taking off the way they did. (She even taught English as a Second Language¬†overseas. Dragonfly and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out at about the same time.)¬†It’s partly that I also write YA fantasy using magical creatures, dark mysteries, etc. Even a lot of our naming sense is very similar. It’s hard for me to deal with the fact that she really got it all together. The lightning bolt of inspiration struck her, and she pulled together just the right combination of ideas, storytelling, timing, etc., to produce a series of books for the ages. I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do as a writer than to make something like that! If it were totally beyond my ability, it wouldn’t bother me. (It doesn’t bother me, for example, that¬†a friend of mine¬†is a fantastic violinist. I can appreciate classical music as a fan, pure and simple. It’s not something I have any talent for, so I can just listen and enjoy it.) But creating a wonderful series of fantasy books seems so close, so much within the realm of possibility . . . but it’s finding that right, perfect combination. Or perhaps, that right combination finding us. I think it was more a case of Harry finding J.K. Rowling than the other way around. I believe she’s even said that, as have many other famous writers about their famous works.
One thing I’ve been thinking about is trying a more disciplined approach to plotting. J.K.R. said in an interview that she spent an entire year plotting the whole series before she ever started writing the first book. And that’s how she achieved that marvelous unity and coherence, that seamless quality — that steady improvement of the books. Instead of “trying to top” her previous books, she was steadily building one story toward its climax.
I have always taken the other approach, the one used by Stephen King of discovering the story as I go along. I know that can work very well — obviously! Stephen King knows what he’s doing. But I think plot — and especially plot as determined by character — is a weak area of mine, and I need to consciously spend more time on it. Focusing on people . . . on putting them into situations that threaten and test them to the max . . . on being true to their emotions, their reactions, their interactions. For me, I think the “cool settings” and place descriptions will always come naturally — but a book needs to be a lot more than that to resonate with readers. It HAS to be all about the characters. I really want to try something with many layers, with story threads in the past and the present. To do that, I think a writer has to be very conscious of the structure — that is, s/he has to plan it out — it’s much harder for a multi-layered story to happen “accidentally.” I think I’ve been leaving too much to chance.
If an artist is truly a genius, I think the “chance” approach is more likely to work. Such a genius can just “start writing,” and an awesome book will emerge — but what’s really happening is that the writer’s subconscious¬†and instincts are¬†doing all the work that us lesser intellects need to do more consciously.

Anyway, Thanksgiving is here! I always enjoy it in Japan. No one else is celebrating it. There are no turkeys, no feasts, no gorging on far too much food; so it’s much easier to focus on the essence of the holiday: giving thanks for the amazing blessings we have. (And yes, I usually find a way to work some sort of Thanksgiving-reminiscent food into my diet, whether it’s lunch from Kentucky Fried Chicken [a similar bird], or a turkey breast sandwich from Subway, or some cheese [a rare commodity here].)
When I was a kid, I associated Thanksgiving with reading for some reason. I have powerful memories of being curled up with a book while the aromas of Mom’s cooking wafted through the house. I think that’s a picture of Heaven — to be completely at peace and free, with no responsibilities; but to be in the midst of loved ones; to have the unending feast of the Lamb all laid out before us; to be full of excitement and creativity and Story . . . “And we’ll all go together, / Where the wild mountain thyme / Grows amang the bloomin’ heather . . .” (That’s from the traditional song “Wild Mountain Thyme,” as performed by The Tannahill Weavers on their album Dancing Feet — perhaps my favorite song of all time . . . perhaps . . .)

“Okay,” as we used to say¬†during D&D sessions, “that’s about a turn!” That’s about a blog post, I reckon. Talk to you again soon!

Happy Thanksgiving!

World Fantasy Convention 2010, Part I

November 8, 2010

I’m back from Columbus, Ohio, and as usual, World Fantasy was fantastic and productive! I’m sure I won’t get it all talked about in this first posting, so I’m calling this “Part I.”

About the trip itself: Chicago lived up to its nickname of “the Windy City.” I had a brief connection layover there, and because of high winds, our plane was ordered into a holding pattern before it could land. We were about a half-hour late getting down, and it was a wild ride. I was sitting next to a young, very cute Chinese mom and her restless little two-year-old girl, and the mom seemed really upset and half sick from the bumping and shaking. When we finally got on the ground, she dazedly asked me why the landing had been so rough, and I realized she hadn’t been able to understand the English announcements. I explained to her about the wind, and she said “Ohhh” with an air of revelation. She must have been thinking that American Airlines planes and/or pilots were really bad! The connecting flight was also about thirty minutes late taking off, so it all worked out. The flight schedule monitors at the airport showed nearly every flight DELAYED DELAYED DELAYED DELAYED. Anyway, there were no disasters, so it was a good trip for all of us passengers.

Remember how, at the Con, they give you a bookbag stuffed with free books that publishers are trying to promote? My convention-going friends and I had a good laugh over a distinct pattern on book covers this year. What’s extremely hot right now are books about a tough female protagonist who usually isn’t completely human. She’s half-fairy or half-vampire or half-werewolf or half-something else. She has a big-time rivalry/love interest with a brooding, mysterious guy who is also not human. And here’s the funny part — I am not making this up! — you can lay the books out side-by-side and see this pattern: the tough, beautiful girl is on the cover, but you don’t see her whole face. You see her from about her nose to her knees. She’s invariably wearing close-fitting leather and carrying some kind of formidable weapon, either a big knife or a big gun. Her chest is right about in the center of the cover. And the book’s title very likely is some combination of the words “Angel,” “Dark,” “Moon,” “Blood,” and/or “Hunt.” Heh, heh — if Dragonfly had been published this year, it would have been called Dark Blood Moon Angel Hunt, and Dragonfly would be gasping for breath in her tight corselet. And she would be older than 10/11, at least on the cover!

So, where to begin? I won’t try to do this in any particular order. For several years, I’d been wondering about Arkham House. I hadn’t heard a peep from them, and it was hard to tell from their website whether they were still there or not. Well, talking to some friends in the dealers’ room, I heard that they’ve been going through a rough stretch, a dormant period, but that new life has just been kindled in the embers. On the last morning of the Con, I walked into the dealers’ room for a final time, and my friend Michael (who, I was honored to learn, actually reads this blog!) told me there was someone who wanted to meet me.

It turned out to be a distinguished gentleman named Dr. George A. Vanderburgh, who is one of two editors dedicated to getting Arkham House back on its feet. He shook my hand and pinned an Arkham House pin onto my shirt. We talked for a while. He gave me a photocopied letter explaining the new focus and direction of Arkham House. I’ve since heard from him that Dragonfly is still in print with AH and is still selling slowly — which, eleven years after its publication, is none too shabby! He told me that April Derleth, the owner and publisher of AH, speaks very highly of me, and he said that if I have any unpublished dark fantasy, he would like to have a look at it. I was most honored to meet him and thrilled to see that AH is in good hands, that it is moving forward. It’s the last remaining small-press publisher of weird fiction from the classic pulp era, so it’s a treasure we don’t want to lose. For any blog readers who don’t know: April Derleth is the daughter of August Derleth — who, with Donald Wandrei back in 1939, started Arkham House as a way of getting the works of their friend and mentor H.P. Lovecraft into book form. I have corresponded directly with April Derleth — so I’m just three persons removed from H.P.L. himself! Back in early 2005, I drove through Sauk City, Wisconsin, in a rented car on my way to Illinois. Sauk City is the home of Arkham House. I was there late in the day, so the publishing house was closed, and I hadn’t given them any warning that I was coming. But I saw the entrance driveway and the picturesque cemetery where August Derleth is buried. And¬†the physical layout of Sauk City, combined with my own hometown, became the setting of “The Bone Man,” which I wrote that fall.

But I digress. What I’d really like to do in¬†the near future is write a sequel to Dragonfly and submit it to AH. The book was written with full expectation of a sequel. “So many books, so little time . . .” Anyway, meeting Dr. Vanderburgh was one highlight of the convention for me!

Two guys at different times brought me their copies of the hardback Dragonfly to sign. (I believe they were SF Book Club editions, as the covers were slick, not the¬†ordinary paper finish of the AH edition.) One was at a publisher’s party and one was at my reading. And my book-dealer friend Otto had four copies of the hardback that he had me sign, so that he can sell them as signed copies.

My readings went well! The first was Saturday night at 8:10. I went to dinner with the JABberwocky Literary Agency at 6:00. JABberwocky kindly invites all its clients who are present to dinner one night during the Con, so that we can get to know one another. Because of my readings, I had to bow out before any of the food came — but my very gracious agent Eddie later came to my reading and brought me a box of leftover pizza from the dinner — above and beyond the call of duty!

Anyway, that first reading was for Black Gate Magazine. Editor John O’Neill put together a mass reading of BG authors. We all had a ten-minute time slot to read from our stories in BG. This was another real highlight of the Con for me. Since so many were reading, the room was packed — it was wonderful to read to an actual audience! Some friends came to support me, too. John knew about my own reading, scheduled for 9:00, so he went out of his way to let me have an early slot. I was the second reader, right on the heels of the now-famous James Enge. I couldn’t have asked for a better time — the audience was warmed up, but they weren’t tired yet. I read a selection from my story “World’s End,” forthcoming in BG #15 (the very next issue!). I think it went over well — several people sought me out afterwards to tell me I’d done a good job, and one editor of a small-press magazine gave me his card and said he hoped I’d submit some stories to him! (I wouldn’t want to be on a panel, where you have to sound intelligent and be erudite; but give me an audience and something scripted, and I’m in my element — a fish in water, a salamander in the fire!)

My own reading was at 9:00 in the Knox Room. I liked the room a lot better than the venue I was given last year, which was the middle of a corridor. A Con volunteer brought me a name card. Instead of the high desk, towering over the room, I opted to stand down on the floor just in front of the audience. I had nine people in attendance, exactly the same number as last year! This year five of them were close personal friends: two from Minnesota and three from Pittsburgh. The sixth was Eddie; the 7th and 8th were a young married couple I know from previous Cons [I was grateful they came!], and the 9th was a gentleman I didn’t know. He asked me to sign his hardback Dragonfly before the reading. He just wanted my name, not a personalization, so I assume he means to re-sell it. But he did stay for the reading!

During the Q and A after the reading, my friend S. asked me a good question: How am¬†I¬†able to write from the perspective of women and girls? (Dragonfly, The Star Shard, and Agondria are all¬†from the perspective of female protagonists.) My answer had two parts: one, on the whole, I prefer the company of females. If I’m going to spend a whole novel in someone’s head, I’d rather be with a lady. But two, answering more seriously: there’s really nothing I change about myself to write from a female perspective. I’m not sure what that says about me! Dragonfly is essentially written from my own perspective at ages 10-11. Are 10-year-old boys that different from 10-year-old girls? I don’t really think so. Cymbril in The Star Shard is basically me, and she’s about 12. The women of Agondria are me. I guess the ultimate answer is that I don’t think gender is that big of an obstacle. Novels such as Corin Booknose and The Fires of the Deep have been written through the POV of a male character. “A Tale of Silences” has a male protagonist, as have most of my Cricket stories. The characters who find me are sometimes male and sometimes female.

I think this is a good place to end Part I. More will be coming in a couple days.