Category Archives: Books

Release Date

What with everything going on this May, (two birthdays, prom, two graduations, etc!), I have decided to release my novel in June. So the official release date for my e-book Dragon Venom will be June 29, 2017.

That’s the feast day of my patron saint, incidentally, which is why I picked it. But it also gives me some time to do the umpteen million things that I have to do between now and then and still have time to get the book completely ready for your reading pleasure. So, wish me luck, I will be very very busy for the next several weeks and I will need every bit of energy that I can muster to get everything done.

I’m excited!


Progress and The Idiot

The thing about chronic illness is that it plays merry hell with your writing production.

I was reminded of this powerfully this month, not only because I have spent the past six weeks suffering through this stupid cancer treatment and a very bad arthritis flare simultaneously, but also because I finally finished reading Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot.”

In my own life, my arthritis flares start with fatigue so all-encompassing that I could easily sleep 20 hours a day if I wasn’t forced out of bed to deal with reality. And when I am out dealing with life, I am functioning about as well as a zombie might. Once the fatigue passes, the pain begins, and typing is just one of the many things that becomes nearly impossible.

Dostoyevsky wrote “The Idiot” during a turbulent period in his life, and it’s possible to watch his own illness come and go in the quality of the plotting and writing. Some sections of the novel crackle with energy and the plot hums along without any hesitation. And then there are the sections where there’s hesitancy, redundancy, and a slight bewilderment in the plotting. Those periods are followed by chapters that suddenly introduce a narrator, who digresses about authorial intent and writing techniques. All in all, “The Idiot” is an at-times bizarre mess of a novel.

But it’s a grand mess, a touching long rumination about the nature of goodness, the difficulties of living in the real world with real sinful humanity all around you, and it also functions as a venue to explore the worries and fears of a man who was afflicted with epilepsy (as was the titular character.) It took me months to read through it, mostly because it required concentration and a lot of patience. The more confused chapters are difficult to get through, and whether or not Dostoyevsky purposefully wrote them that was as a reflection of his character’s mood or if it was an unconscious reflection of his own mental state, they’re very hard to get through. Once the characters leave Petersburg for Pavlovsk, the narrative meanders and doubles back according to whimsy.

I have started working again, although of course I am more than a month behind on my goals and stated ambitions. And I can only say that sometimes Reality steps in and makes its own goals the primary ones. Getting through each day, trying to get the very basic things of life done, it leaves no time for art or craft. If you can’t even remotely figure out how you’re going to cook dinner or make it to the dentist without falling apart, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re not going to be working at any sort of artistic high point.

So, I will continue to work. And I will update when I am done. It shouldn’t be too long, however. My birthday is soon and I want to be out with the old and in with the new, so to speak. Getting these old projects off my to-do list would clear the decks for more new things.


Alright, Alright, Alright! Story Update

L1009540So, I found the copy of that story, the one I had intended to publish as a standalone short story for your reading pleasure, A Dagger In the Rain. I have it converted into Word (which was a royal pain, thank you Adobe for trying to scalp us continually for cash) and it’s ready to be edited, reformatted, and published.

SO, my Valentine’s gift to you all will be a FREE version of this story, available from February 14th until the 1st of March. I will have a link for you to download it from, and you can have it completely without charge until March. Just keep my name attached to the story if you pass it along to someone, and maybe send them to one of my websites if you’re feeling particularly friendly.

I will then be publishing it, along with several other stories, as a short story collection Unfinished Tragedies: Tales of Ghosts, Curses, and Revenge.

So, I expect to be extremely busy for the next month or so, but I will of course be checking my email so if you have any questions, feel free to shoot them over to me. The hardest thing is going to be training my younger kids what it means when Mommy is working– I haven’t worked as a writer in so many years that they can’t understand that “Mommy at the computer” doesn’t necessarily want to answer six hundred questions and have you cling to her knee, whining, when she’s not paying attention to you! But I don’t doubt that they’ll figure it out just like their older siblings did.

Excited!


truly, madly, deeply

I will be honest with you– in the past, I have been guilty of writing things that weren’t truly reflective of who I really am. I’ve written things just to try to sell them, just to try to break into a particular market, and written things that don’t actually reflect my ideals, thoughts, hopes, and morals.

Which is why I don’t really like to dig back into my past and publish my old stories and poetry. There’s very little in there that I am actually proud of, very little that I would want my grandchildren to read, so to speak. I wrote things that I thought would please my “market” and they are embarrassing to me now. Why did I write that, I ask myself. Was it really that important to sell a short story?

Some writers will tell you that writing “to a market” is just what you do. It’s the accepted practice– if someone wants to publish an anthology about freaky hermaphrodite clowns, then you write a story about freaky hermaphrodite clowns, even if you heartily wish that clowns were all stripped of their red rubber noses and forced to work at the DMV.

In some cases, the ideas spawned by certain markets, like anthologies and magazines, may, possibly, once in a blue moon, actually rouse your best creative force and you can write a heartfelt tale that sears the page in its beauty and passion. But mostly you’re just hurriedly grinding something out in the very slim hope that the editor will like it. Even though the editor is mainly counting on their friends and acquaintances to fill the anthology and is only holding out one or two slots for unknown writers, of course. And then you’re stuck with a story about freaky hermaphrodite clowns, which you now have to try to foist off on another market. (Those other markets know that this will happen, and cringe for months reading freaky clown stories.)

Sometimes, though, you’re just writing in a certain genre and you absorb the mores and cultural assumptions that are common to that market. Cultural appropriation is terribly common in science fiction and fantasy (ask me sometime about alien worlds who all seem to have desert areas with heavily draped peoples who call the area Something-istan. I start to foam at the mouth, I have heard.) So is writing about gay characters even if you yourself are not gay. Being progressive sells, that’s the heart of the idea.

I wrote a story once about a young woman in 1600-1700s Indonesia who was banished from her village, became bonded to a cursed knife, and then had the problem of how to remove the knife. Long story short: she gets her hand cut off, but decides, with the help of her lesbian lover, that the cursed knife must be destroyed for the good of her people. Because of the religious powers that were in that particular region at that time, I ultimately had my character pray to the Islamic god for his help in destroying the knife.

Now, if I was writing the story today, I would have found a way to leave Islam out of it ENTIRELY. Not simply to avoid offending the people of that faith (although that would be part of it) but also because it was just a hasty addition at the end, written under time pressure, and it wasn’t a very satisfying ending to the tale. I would have preferred it if the woman could have found some other ghost of her own people to banish her vile uncle’s spirit.

I guess it was satisfying enough to sell it, anyway– it was published in 2002 in a cd-rom anthology called “Extremes 5: Fantasy and Horror from the ends of the earth.” For, hah, an equal share of the profit. Sadly, after the editor had taken out his expenses, there was no profit, so basically all I got for tacking on this hasty religiously ambivalent ending was a copy of the cd-rom and a cramped hand from signing the sleeve inserts. Oh, and I was out about ten bucks for postage.

I would have made it more clear, I think, that the main character was only “gay” in the sense that she was heartbroken and suicidal and that she was responding to the other woman’s kindness and love. Two broken people clinging to each other in a storm. If it had been a man, she would have probably run in fear after her lifetime of abuse by men. Situationally, the gay character made sense. I don’t regret putting it in, because it was true to the character and the story basically wouldn’t have worked without there being someone else there to help her. She would have just given up and died, otherwise. I wanted people to feel that sorrowful weight upon her, and then to see at the end that she was, in fact, still broken– the love had not fixed the wounds in her heart. It just enabled her to endure the pain.

So I have decided that this week, in celebration of the idea of doing things “right” and true and writing from your passion and not your fear, I am going to republish this story, A Dagger in the Rain, on Kindle. I will be doing some editing to it first, fixing that problematical ending with the unneeded influence of an outside god. As an outsider writing about a distant historical place, and about ghosts in that place, nothing is ever going to be perfect. Even Joseph Conrad had to read several books about the Indonesian peoples before he dared to write about them, because he knew he wouldn’t get everything right without years of experience that he didn’t have.

The first step is going to be to find the disc. I know I just moved it into my closet right before Christmas! Then a quick edit and rewrite, and I will make it available for a nominal price on Amazon’s kindle page. I’d start tonight but I can feel my Ambien kicking in and my typing is starting to fall apart.

I am excited, I think, to try to make a story closer to my true vision for it. There are not many stories that I would bother fixing in this way– mostly my ghost stories, for those have always been the ones closest to my heart. When you’ve lived in a haunted house, ghost stories are always interesting ones.

My novel, thankfully, is only “not me” in one respect: I wrote it with a male protagonist. In hindsight, I still feel that he’s the best character for the job. I definitely wouldn’t want to put a female through all the stuff those guys get up to in their desert journey. But the fact that I wrote this novel to fit in with MY vision of what a fantasy hero should act like and do and feel and dream . ..  that makes it so pleasing to me. I didn’t sell out for this novel. Raban and Valerius are just who they need to be, where they need to be, doing what they need to do. And it was a labor of love to get them there.

I’ll announce the release when it posts. 🙂


Last Post . . . no, I mean the novel

So, I had urgent business that I had to finish before I dusted off my novel and got it ready for publication.

I had to finish reading Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy “Parade’s End.”

You see, the fourth novel in the book, “Last Post,” is a hard slog at first. You’d think that, after having hacked your way through the thickets of confusing prose in the first three novels, the fourth would be a breeze, but you’d be wrong. Because suddenly Ford throws a curve-ball and abandons his protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, leaving him entirely out of the book until the last two pages. So we’re thrust into the point of view of a bunch of people who have mostly been in the background, and the epic study of one obstinate man becomes more of a gossipy pursuit of truth through the various bits of information these characters reveal.

It’s jarring. But, having resolved to finish the book, I kept at it until I found the groove. Which came, oddly enough, from the one completely incurious character in the novels.

The other characters are always wondering about something, obsessing about something, sifting through memories and possibilities until you’re quite certain that all of them are more than a little bit crazy. None of them are introspective; they’re constantly obsessed with the actions and possible actions of others. When we finally get dropped into the POV of Tietjens’s sister-in-law, it’s refreshing. She’s completely incurious, to the point where it’s ridiculous. After so many hundreds of pages devoted to worrying about people, here is a woman who just wants to bottle some cider. Properly, the French way.

Graham Greene famously hated “Last Post” and tried to strike it from the tetralogy completely. It’s easy to see why– it’s so different in tone and style from the first three novels that it seems like an ugly duckling. But by the end of the third book, the only real “change” that Tietjens is capable of making has been made. We know him, we know how sentimental and hard-headed and absurd he is. What we haven’t seen before is the resolution of the conflict between the women of the novels and the fallout from WWI. Those are both messy topics, and not in the least anything that Tietjens himself would want to even think much about. It’s a much prettier ending to end the series with the third book– it has a classic romantic ending– but it’s much more psychologically satisfying to see the whole darn mess for what it is.

And that’s what “Last Post” gives us: a real conclusion. And I couldn’t move on from Ford’s books, mentally, until I’d moved past them. After the horrible shadow of jealousy and despair was dismissed, well, we can all move on. Until then, the reader knows that there’s no actual happiness in that romantic ending, because the banshee of Sylvia’s desire is going to keep haunting Tietjens and all his affairs.

Now that I’m finished reading the series, however, my lovely excuse for not working is gone so I’d better get busy.

Reading novels like these, however, does set the bar that little bit higher. How can I be happy with my work if I don’t try for “art?” I can’t, of course. But it helps to remember that Ford wrote dozens of novels, of which only this series and “The Good Soldier” are actually given any renown. Not everything we write really hits the mark. And sometimes, like this novel, it may hit it for some people and decidedly NOT hit it for others.

 

 


Books, books, books

So I had a library fine on my account, 60 cents, for four days late fee on a book that I forgot to return last week. No biggie, really, except that I have about 15 books that are due to return tomorrow unless I renew them online.

And our library, as yet, doesn’t let us pay fines online.

So, at 8pm, I made a quick trip downtown to our renovated Central Library. It’s usually pretty nice, with a (relative) abundance of books compared to the other branch libraries in town. Hubs came with me to see the place.

Of course, as we walked in the door, hubs realized he’d left his wallet at home. And I had no cash on me . . . .

Luckily, there were still two quarters in the library bag, and between us we scraped up ten cents in pennies to pay the rest of the fine. So, we walked in . . ..

And the central air conditioning was out. Ugh, it was like a sauna in there. No wonder the librarian who took my sixty cents was such a jerk. Or maybe he’s just a jerk– dunno, first time I’ve ever seen him. Anyway, I paid my fine, which freed me to browse the new books section.

Oh man, it’s like turning a pill-addict loose after-hours in the Walgreens.

I found Pope Benedict’s Infancy Narratives, which I’ve been waiting for for ages. And a book about art forgery. And one about life in the fall of czarist Russia. And one about dragons. And a book about ducks and geese. And a new Ruth Rendell book. And a thriller. And something about a librarian with Tourettes.

All lovely new books with the infinite promise that unread new books hold. Now, I shall be toddling off to read, probably for much longer than is good for me.


Gratuitous Gore in Game of Thrones

Caution: Extensive Spoilers Ahead! For both the Song of Ice and Fire books AND the Game of Thrones HBO series! Abandon Hope, All Ye who Enter!

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So, anyway, last night I finally caught up with Game of Thrones on my DVR. What can I say, it’s been a busy week. Anyhow, I was generally pleased by the changes that the tv series has made to the book storyline– at this point, I am almost ready to call it a completely alternate universe of Westeros and be done with comparing the two universes. Most of the main characters have been improved hugely beyond their characterization in the texts, and many of the pacing problems of the books have been avoided. One tiny little thing niggled at me, though, when the show was through . . . a tiny pinkie finger, and the torments thereof.

You see, in “A Storm Of Swords”, the book that Season 3 of the show is mostly following, we do not see or hear of the fate of Theon Greyjoy. He basically disappears from the text, only reappearing in the later books, transformed utterly by the experiences he’s had in the interim. Those experiences, at the hands of the bastard of Bolton, are essentially tortures that are almost unimaginable in cruelty and sadism. Thankfully, GRRM doesn’t subject us to every detail of them. The aftermath, and the slow reveal of all Theon’s missing appendages and broken bits, is horrifying enough.

The television series, on the other hand, has subjected us now to several scenes of graphic torture. I have to say that I entirely disapprove of this– not just because torture is sickening to watch (which it IS), but because it’s a lousy choice to portray something so graphically for such an extended time. Eventually, the audience recoils– if you’ve ever watched the movie “Casino”, I bet you can remember the point at which you sat back and said “Now, this is just sick for sickness’s sake.” There comes a point where the mind, in order to protect itself, just shuts down the empathy section and refuses to care about these characters anymore.

A lot of people had that reaction to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, so it’s not just mobster movies that can tilt the emotional pinball machine. By choosing to hit us with graphic scenes of torture, both physical, as in the first scene of having his feet broken in the screws and the later scene where his finger is flayed, and psychological, as in the mind-boggling false escape and the later game of lies, the television series risks the very real possibility that the audience will just dissociate themselves from the events. I’ve read several comments on various websites that lead me to believe that a lot of people are having that reaction already. They’ve gone from squirming in their seats in horror to just walking out of the room to get a soda or something.

In a way, it’s a sort of PTSD of TV. Not to trivialize the very real disorder, but for sufferers OF those types of disorders, especially, these scenes may be unbearable even to read about.

I think GRRM chose the right path in his books. By letting us slowly see the results of torture instead of the torture itself, we are allowed to gradually build up some feelings for the broken betrayer of the Starks. He’s done hideous things, but what was done to him was, in a way, his payment for those crimes. The Theon at the end of Book 5 is not the Theon of Book 1. He’s been shattered and is slowly piecing himself back together. It’s one of GRRM’s better pieces of characterization.

By showing us the torture, perhaps the show’s directors felt they were making sure we knew that Theon paid his dues in the dungeons of the Dreadfort. I think it’s too much of an appeal to our worst sides, too much like what people call “torture porn.” There’s a faintly lascivious air . . . which is made even more apparent in the final scene of torment of the episode “The Climb” . . . a scene that I knew was coming but was very nauseated by anyhow.

I had a feeling that the character of “Ros” on the show was due for a death– she had no more real role to play in the events to come, and her usefulness was pretty much over once Sansa and Littlefinger went on to their next destination. I was expecting her to be written out . . . maybe not expecting her to be explicitly shown to be the harlot that Littlefinger sent to an unpleasant demise at the hands of a sadist. But her death scene, in her ripped clothes and cross-bow-crucified pose, was another instance of “too much” in the graphic (and sexualized) violence scale. Mercifully, the scene was brief, but the image lingers in the mind. It’s reminiscent of the queerly obsessive attention that we still pay to the Jack the Ripper Murders. Murder, when it involves a prostitute, seems to become another sort of “service” that they’re providing for the public. By being paraded around by the media in pictures (or carefully positioned and shot in a television reenactment), the public is led to what is, essentially, another exploitation of them.

Yes, yes, it’s all for the audience, and we keep watching so it must be okay with us . . . but will we keep watching? As the thousands of books, websites, and magazine articles about the Jack the Ripper case can attest, we probably will. The scenes of Littlefinger’s whorehouse are, mercifully, now at an end as he moves off to court Lysa Arryn, but the camera’s lustful eye will soon turn to Dorne and the scantily-clad southern women, to Meereen and the scantily-clad women, to Braavos and, well, more scantily-clad women . . . and then there’s the torments ahead for our various heroes and villains. How many more torture scenes with Theon do the directors expect us to endure? The one in this episode dropped my own internal rating of the show down. Any more, and I’ll be strolling to the kitchen instead of sitting on the couch . . . and I’m pretty sure that’s not what the people at HBO want me to do.

Cut the torment, Game of Thrones. Have some mercy upon your viewers, even if there is none (story-wise) for poor Ros and Theon.


Dialectical musings

No, no, not philosophy. I survived my college philosophy and ethics courses by the very skin of my teeth, made all the more difficult by how hard I had to bite my tongue over each semester. I’m talking about dialect, that sometimes-clumsy method by which we writers try to capture the spoken word on the page.

We quite often fail . . . and part of the reason is that it’s very hard to continue to empathize with a character who is portrayed as so overtly “other.” We want to bond with characters– it’s what keeps us reading about them. Bonding, however, is broken every time a clumsy bit of dialect knocks us out of the story and makes us try to figure out what the person is saying.

For example, I’m reading “Little Bee”, the story of a Nigerian refugee who has gone to Great Britain. The main character, the titular Little Bee, leaves a refugee processing center with a woman who speaks in a broad Jamaican accent. It’s probably going to be a difficult conversation, sure– neither one of them speaks a “perfect” version of The Queen’s English, but a very localized slangy version of it.

Still, it’s distracting that every time the Jamaican woman says “people”, the author spells it as “pipple.” On the page, it looks like nothing so much as “nipple.” It doesn’t give us a better sense of how the Jamaican woman speaks, it simply complicates the matter by making me think of mammary glands.

It’s funny, in a way, that such a weird little dialect-related bumble keeps tripping me up in a book that’s largely devoted to the interplay of language and culture. It just goes to show that, when playing with dialect in your dialogue, you’re playing with fire. It may sound perfectly right to you, the writer (you’re speaking it in your head and sometimes aloud while you write it) but the reader is going to come at your creation with their OWN dialect firmly in place, rendering your imagined pronunciations moot.

It reminds me of a Facebook conversation one of my friends had the other day– she wanted to know how many people say “M(egg)an” for “Megan” and how many say “M(ay)gan” . . . coming from where I do, I’ve never heard anyone say “Maygan” . . . it’s always eggy for Megan. Even just halfway across the country, people can speak in ways that sound so odd to our ears. You don’t have to complicate it too much to capture a dialect– a word or two will do it. Our imaginations can fill in the rest. 🙂


Writing batteries

I’ve spent the past few weeks pondering the nature of blogging, as well as my unfortunate habit of acquiring books and then forgetting to blog for several months. I can’t really apologize, because, well, I’ve read 30 books in the past 3 months, and some of them were decidedly excellent page-turners that kept me up way past my bedtime. Only one of them was actually Bad, as in “the kind of bad that you read only to try to understand how this shit got published, ever”, and even then I came away from the experience wiser.

I have discovered that, yes, you DO have to build the characters up for the readers BEFORE you put them into emotional situations. If you don’t, well, the readers simply won’t care. You can’t tell your readers that your character is a good person worth caring about. They won’t just buy it. Especially if you show the characters acting like total jerks and/or idiots and still tell us they’re great. Mostly it will get your book tossed across the room, or, even worse, you’ll have a page on Goodreads with NO comments or juicy forum posts.

The things that make for juicy forums and busy Goodreads pages– details left unresolved, hints and clues, ambiguity, and characters with muti-layered personalities, as well as dense plotting.

Those things are hard to create, especially when one has been plowing through novels at a headlong pace. So, no, I have not been writing lately. I have been gorging on spy novels and crime television, glutting myself on the Big Fat Fantasy greats, and wading through schlocky romance books in search of something to replace several good series that have ended (alas, I still haven’t found a GOOD romance/family intrigue/dramatic series. Most of that stuff is phoned-in instead of actually written.)

Someday, I will write again. But, well, Game of Thrones is going into Season 3 soon . . . and in May, AMC will be playing Season 3 of The Killing. . . and, well, I used my birthday money from my dad to finance my space opera habit to the tune of several Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds novels, as well as the game “Fallout: New Vegas” which I will undoubtedly sink 60-80 hours into.

So, will I ever write?

I think so . . . I feel ideas budding inside my head, but they’re just not ripe yet. The idea of fusing genres is tickling at my nose, leading me through old spy novels from the Cold War and histories of WWII. There’s something there, something that’s going to be important in my next novel, but I have to finish digging it out. I know it will make for a much richer and more layered story than I’ve done so far. So I have to chase these ideas down for a while.

And then, I’ll write.


Very Special Snowflakes

Authors, I mean. I’ve been delving back into fandom recently. There seems to be a huge blind spot in fandom, wherein the members don’t acknowledge/admit that some of the author’s decisions were made simply to make the story work. There must be some REASON that all of the things written in the book happen. It must MEAN something larger. Conspiracy theory time!

Yeeeech.

Sometimes, we just make decisions based on “what has to happen to get the story to work.” Take GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example. In order for the plot to work at all, Tywin Lannister had to sit on his ass for 16 years, staying out of any political involvement in Kings Landing, just minding his own business at Casterly Rock. Otherwise, the Hands of King Robert wouldn’t have started investigating the king’s bastard children and threatening the stability of the Lannister’s hold on the throne.

Does it make a lot of sense that Tywin, who had already been a very successful Hand for several decades, would sit back and watch Robert piss away his grandchildren’s inheritance for 1 1/2 decades? Not really. Knowing Tywin, I’m seriously surprised that Robert didn’t have a lethal accident about ten years ago, with Tywin deftly stepping into the role of Regent at that point.

But, the whole setup of the novel wouldn’t work if that had happened. So the author left Tywin moldering on his Rock with Tyrion fixing his drains and ignored realpolitik for an unconscionably long time. This was, we were told, a man who was seething because Aerys had replaced him as Hand at the end of his reign. I don’t really believe he’d have let three more Hands serve without putting pressure on his daughter to at least get him a council seat. BUT . ..  for the author’s purpose, he had to act as he did. There would have been no series otherwise. But it’s still just an authorial decision. It’s not history. It’s not gospel. It’s just something the author manipulated to set things up for the plot of the book. If you ask “Why?” the only answer that matters is the author’s “Because I said so.” But it still is just a setup.

Similarly, he made Ned Stark have no close living uncles or brothers or sisters. If he had, then a Stark would have been in Winterfell the whole time. Again, ruining the plot of the stories. But authors aren’t more special than other people… they’re just better at telling stories. Stories can be amusing, entertaining, inspiring, and moving. In the end, though, they’re all just pretty lies. And the author is the Liar in Chief, making decisions ruthlessly just to advance the story he or she has in mind. Why do the characters do what they do? If they’re good characters, they’ll have motivations and reasons and justifications. But the author decided to put that particular character in just THAT place at THAT time, remember. It’s all a pretty mummer’s show. 🙂