Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Solstice Fire!


It's Christmas time and you need something rare and all-but-unobtainable for the bibliophile you love.  But you don't happen to be rolling in money.

I have the perfect gift for thirteen of you.

Every year Dragonstairs Press, my wife Marianne Porter's "nanopress," sends a  Christmas chapbook to its friends and patrons.  Twelve months later, those chapbooks remaining are put up for sale.

Solstice Fire, comprising three seasonal works of Solstice-related flash fiction, has just gone on sale at the Dragonstairs website.  There are exactly thirteen copies available.  You can buy one for five dollars.

Why so cheap?  Well... When Marianne resolved to create hand-made, carefully-crafted collectibles in very small numbers, she asked me to use my small press contacts to help her set a price.  The first expert I consulted breezily said, "Fifty dollars!  Anything less and the serious collectors won't touch it."

The second (hi, Lawrence!) said "Anything above ten dollars and people won't buy it on impulse."

I passed the first price along to Marianne and she was horrified.  The second she liked better.  But finally she went with what she called the "Beanie Baby Model."  Beanie Babies, you'll remember were small and lovable stuffed toys that sold in limited editions for only five bucks a pop. Their business model was that if somebody wanted to buy a child a Beanie Babie (or a child with an allowance wanted to buy one) the price was so low they would.

Similarly, if you want a signed and numbered chapbook, one in an edition of a hundred, with a holiday theme, you can buy Solstice Fire for only five dollars.

Just don't roll it up in a cylinder and stuff it into a stocking.  Your beloved bibliophile will grind his or her teeth at you if you do.

You can find the Dragonstairs site here.

Above:  Sometime in the future, collectors who won't touch anything below fifty bucks are going to be offering serious money for this chapbook to someone who bought it for love of words. That makes me happy.



Monday, December 15, 2014

The Holy List of Antioch


If there's one thing my house suffers from more than it does books, it's paper.  I have boxes, bags, and piles of the stuff, and it's particularly hard to organize because every piece has to be read, judged, and filed, stored, or recycled separately.

I was going through a bag of papers yesterday and I came across the above.

It doesn't look like much, does it?  Just a mimeographed list of typewritten names with my own indented and asterisked with the notation "I approve," signed D. Jenkins.

That was my permission to take Honors English 201 despite the fact that it was a sophomore level course and I was a freshman.  This was at the College of William and Mary and somehow, within days of arriving, I had sought out Dr. Jenkins and convinced him that I absolutely had to take the Creative Writing course he taught right away -- now! -- rather than waiting a year.

That took chutzpah.   Also a submission story, which I had either written over the summer and had in hand or else wrote on short order to get into the class.  The story was titled "The Theoretical Man," and it was, of course, science fiction.

There was only one creative writing course in all four years of college, though you could take it for two semesters and it existed only because Dr. Jenkins wrote fiction himself.  It was taught as a workshop.  You were expected to write a story every week, the department secretary typed them up and mimeographed them, and only those who had submitted a story were able to comment on those written by others.  I forget if Dr. Jenkins' critique came before or after the comments.  But I know that every fault pointed out to me was received politely.  After which, I would go to my room and, in a fury, rework and rewrite the story completely in such as way as to avoid making the suggested changes.  If the dialog was bad, I'd write all the dialog out.  If the description was long-winded, I'd find a way to tell the story without describing anything.

It would be something like eleven years before I finally wrote something publishable.  But, my God, I learned a lot in that class!

A few years ago, Dr. Jenkins died and I went to a memorial held for him at the college.  One of his friends commented in his remembrance that somehow he always managed to find the students who had something special.  I hope it's not hubris to think that, in my own odd way, I was one of that that number.  Dr. Jenkins was certainly somebody special to me.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

dream diary

[December 14, 2014]

I spent most of the night letting tourists into my mind and showing them around.  This wasn't as onerous as it sounds because they were all apprehensive it would be a long-winded and pretentious tour.  So I simply showed them a poem I lad lying about and, after taking a few pictures, they would leave, relieved.

Friday, December 12, 2014

There Are Only 40,000 People in the World


So Marianne and I were in a B&B on Clontarf Road in Dublin some years back, when our landlady asked where we were from.

"Philadelphia," one of us said.

"Oh, the governor of Philadelphia stayed here once!"

"Um... I really don't think so."

"Yes, and she gave me a book as a present -- here it is."  Our landlady took a picture book of Pennsylvania from the shelf and showed it to us.  It was inscribed to her by Happy Fernandez.

Who was not only a one-time candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia, but a member of Marianne's then-church.

The other day, a friend commented on a historical article I posted on Facebook, that it was weird because she knew the people involved -- they were friends of her parents.  Well, these two incidents -- and a hundred more combined -- have convinced me that there are at most 40,000 people in the world.  Any more and such coincidences wouldn't be happening all the time.

I don't know who's arranged the fiction that there are billions of people on this planet, or why.  I only know that my version makes much more sense.

After all, have you ever met anyone from Ulan Bator?

Above:  Our large and sparsely-populated planet.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Writing, Blogging, Despair, and Becoming a Writer


New writer Adam Claxton posted a couple of intelligent questions to this blog on Monday.  The  second of which is:

Also, do you find it disheartening when, for instance, you post to your blog and you receive no comments?
 I do.

The answer to which is:  not at all.  I am a writer and therefore all my insecurities are tied up in my novels and short stories and occasionally, to a far lesser degree, my non-fiction.  The blog?  It's a pleasant way to keep in touch with friends, both those I've met and those I haven't, a way of making myself commit a fraction of my life to words in a sort-of diary, and little more.  

If you want your blog to have lots of responses, there are tricks for achieving this:  Ask questions ("Which genre writer pens the worst sex scenes?") or make lists ("The Ten Worst Lists Any Genre Writer Has Made This Year"), for example.  Use lots of flashy illustrations (see above).  Make controversial statements ("Robert Heinlein was the worst thing ever to happen to science fiction").  And on and on and on.  I'm sure there are hundreds of articles out there on this very subject.

But why?  Phil Foglio, in a statement I gather he now rather regrets having made, once famously wrote that "Winning a Hugo for fan art is the doorway to winning more Hugos for fan art."  The chief thing having a popular blog does is bring more people to your blog.  If you are, like John Scalzi, also a prolific creator of fiction then, yes, this does ultimately result in more sales.  But if you're at the beginning of your career, struggling to find time to write, struggling to improve your writing, struggling to sell what you write... why add another level of pain to your workload?  It's not going to bring you any closer to where you need to be.

So, were I you, I wouldn't bother with social media at all, except to the degree that it gives you pleasure or that the contact eases the sense of isolation all writers face at the beginnings of their career.  All your serious attention should be focused on writing and writing and writing.

The first question was (and here I paraphrase) how do I cope with the despair endemic upon being an unpublished or little-published writer?  And here nobody has a good answer.  You simply have to tough it out.  Jack Woodford (the onetime king of soft-core porn and author of writing advice books that are half brilliant and half abhorrent) once observed that learning to write was extraordinarily hard -- but that you should be grateful for this because it weeds out the competition.  Everyone wants to write.  But only real writers are willing to put up with the pain.  Or, rather, those who can't put up with it never do become real writers.

That's bleak, I know.  But until you succeed, there's no way of knowing for sure that you will.  All you can do is write, hope, and write some more.

Above:  The Flame Nebula in visible and infrared light.  From NASA, of course.


Monday, December 8, 2014

When To Take Writing Advice


This is for all the gonnabe writers out there.  It's possible I've said this before but if I have, it bears saying again.

There's a lot of writing advice out there.  In fact, there's a lot of good writing advice out there.  But not all of it is going to work for you.  This is because writing is not a single discrete thing but rather a diverse family of abilities which result in a superficially similar end-product.

There are writers who cannot begin a story until they know every twist and turn of its plot.  Then there are others who write in order to discover the ending.  Once they know how it all winds up, they stop writing -- even if it's before they've put the first word down on paper.  And I could go on and on.  Obviously, the same advice is not going to work for Franz Kafka and P. G. Wodehouse both.

So how can you tell what advice works for you?  You try it out.  If it works, you pat yourself on the back for having learned something today and place it carefully in your conceptual toolbox.  If it doesn't, you leave it where you found it without guilt or rancor.  It's just that simple.

Except, of course, when it's not.

Above:  This is what a writer's desk looks like.  Unless it doesn't.


Friday, December 5, 2014

Free Story Idea -- Take It Away!


Two things writers hear a lot are:  1) "Where do you get your ideas?" and 2) "I have a great idea for a story.  All you have to do is write it and we'll split the money fifty-fifty."

The answers to which are, 1) "I make them up." and 2) "Ideas are easy.  Writing them up is hard work."

We also frequently hear unpublished writers complain that they just don't have any ideas.  So, here for those of you who'd like an idea for a story is one I came up with this week and feel too lazy to write up:

"Community of Mind"

A psychiatrist checks in on a patient who had a neural stent implanted in her brain.  This allows him to monitor her mental health from afar, look in on her periodically, and offer useful advice.  This time, however, he discovers that she's connected her stent to the internet and shared input with a listserv of people interested in helping her run her mind.  So her head is full of contradictory voices working in a loosely hierarchic cooperative manner.

(You'll have to read a few books on how the mind operates first.  To all the obvious candidates I'd threw in When Rabbit Howls by Truddi Chase, the autobiography of a woman with multiple personality disorder.)

Some of the listserv personalities come and go.  Others stay almost full-time because they are bedridden or for other reasons have nothing better to do.  Most are hostile to the doctor, whom they see as trying to "cure" a woman great-spirited enough to share her own mind with them.

The doctor is genuinely trying to help her patient, but is hampered by the fact that professional ethics prevent her from discussing the case with the listservers.   She is also distressed by the fact that her patient appears to be hiding from her.

Eventually, the doctor comes to realize that the woman's personalities (or voices; I'm oversimplifying here)  are no longer in her head.  She has replaced them with outsourced voices.  In frustration, the doctor reveals that her patient (whom she now considers dead) was being treated for depression.  She has found a way of committing suicide without being detected.

The community, still in her mind, decide that the best way to honor their great-souled host is to continue as they are, leading her life for her, knowing that is how she would have wanted it.


Structurally, this will be a tricky story.  You'll want to establish two separate listservers as chief voices for the community.  You'll need to make their voices distinctive, as well as the doctor's.  And you'll need to come up with a scientifically plausible way for the original personality/ies to dissolve into nonexistence.  But it can be done.  I could do it myself if I didn't have many other things on my plate.

Above:  Another place science fiction writers get their ideas from.  Photo courtesy of NASA.