Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu


Okay, before everybody runs screaming from the building, some pertinent facts about the current flux-du-jour.

Nobody knows how deadly the Mexican flu is, vis a vis "normal" flu yet, because nobody knows how many people have it, and the fatality factor is a percentage of that. Influenza kills a lot of people every year, always has, and this new triple-threat version -- bird/human/swine might or might not be any worse than any other strain.

Why is it killing more people in Mexico than here is still up for grabs. Air pollution might predispose people to lung complications; or maybe the bug has already started to mutate. They do that, which is why there has to be a new vaccine every year.

If you get the flu, there are things you can take to lighten the effects -- Tamiflu™, for instance, but good luck finding it now. And it only works if you take it early in the course of the illness -- first couple days. Stay home, drink a lot of clear liquids, rest, ibuprofen, like that. Not just to keep it from spreading, but to keep from catching something worse while your resistance is down. Mostly what kills people with the flu are secondary pneumonias.

You can't get it from eating pork. The Egyptians are killing all their pigs. They are idiots for doing so. Somebody carrying it is already walking around looking at the pyramids right now, you can take that to the bank. We live in the jet age, and you can seal the borders, but it's usually too late.

And most people won't catch it from pigs, either. It's spread the same way other viruses of like ilk are spread -- in the air, penumonically, and by contact and auto-innoculation. That is, somebody who's got it coughs in your face, or you shake hands with them, and then rub your nose or eyes and give it to yourself. Gets in through the mucous membranes.

You can't get it from a toilet seat, unless you, you know, bend down and put your nose onto the ring and rub it around. If you do that, you deserve whatever you catch.

The best way to avoid this flu -- and others -- as well as most viral upper respiratory infections, is to wash your hands frequently. By which I mean, after touching anything or anybody that might harbor the bugs. Somebody sneezes on their shopping cart and then you wheel it around, you might, for a short time, get something on your hands. Wash them before you touch your face with your fingers.

If somebody sneezes on your shirt, change it.

If your darling grandchildren or children are sniffing, sneezing, have a fever and you want to comfort them, do so at your own risk, and wash your hands afterward. I can trace most of my colds over the last ten years to the darling grandchildren, and it's my own fault.

In the medical community, there is a practice called "sterile technique," sometimes "aseptic technique." You wash your hands, you don't let people sneeze in your face, and if you are in areas where the air is likely to be highly-contaminated, you mask up. Surgeon's mask, even a painter's throwaway will usually do the job.

I worked in a family practice clinic for five years, and during flu season, we saw hundreds of patients every week who had it. I never caught it, never once got sick with something contagious brought in by a patient because I was fanatic about sterile technique.

If you can't wash your hands because you are somewhere it isn't feasible, carry a little bottle of Purell, or alcohol towelettes like you use to clean your glasses. The latter will dry out your hands if you use them too often, but they'll disinfect in a pinch, because the active ingredient is alcohol.

Hot water and soap and a clean towel works better.

They are making this sound scarier than it really is. Don't panic. It's not the Bubonic Plague.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Village of the Happy Nice People


Bad Day at Black Rock

The Village of the Happy Nice People. This is from Richard Walter's book on screenwriting, a work I sometimes use to illustrate his point about how dull it would be to live in such a village, and how, if that's all you wrote about, you wouldn't have much of an audience. You must have conflict.

That said ...

In the Real World™, sometimes virtue comes up short; the killer gets away with it, the crooked politician escapes justice, and bad things happen to good people. All you have to do is look around to see this -- anybody with four neurons to spark at each other knows how things work in the Real World™.

In the world of fiction, however, writers can fix such things, right wrongs, and can end a story with "... and they lived happily ever after."

As a romantic, I think this is a good idea. If I want reality, I'll look out my window, or watch a bunch of news on TV -- and then try to separate the wheat from the chaff, and wish me luck.

As somebody in the writing biz, I know it's a good commercial idea to offer up happy endings. They don't have to be perfect every time, but upbeat and hopeful triumphs downbeat and hopeless all to hell and gone. Happy endings sell. Unhappy ones don't -- least not enough to pay your rent in genre writing. Mainsteam? Yeah, but you can count the number of writers who make good livings writing mainstream fiction on the fingers of your hand, with one left over to stick in your ear. If that's what you want to write, go away, I'm wasting your time.

Guy spends his beer money on a mystery or SF&F or western, he does not want to read: " ... and then after their herculean struggles, the Hero and his Girlfriend died horribly and the Villain got away with it."

Trust me on this.

Yes, I have spoken to the notion of tragedy, and you can get away with this. Bill Shakespeare did it a time or twelve and made a living at it. If, however, you are in Bill's class, I got nothing for you, either; move along. You're not the writer I'm looking for.

Even then, "tragic" is the not same as "futile," and you should avoid such endings like _______
(fill in your own cliche here.) There simply aren't enough people who like this second kind of stuff to give you a market, and no market, no career.

Look, for instance, at the current New York Times Bestseller List. Hereunder, the current top five books in the hardback and mass market paperback categories:

1. JUST TAKE MY HEART, by Mary Higgins Clark
2. LOOK AGAIN, by Lisa Scottoline
3. TURN COAT, by Jim Butcher
4. LONG LOST, by Harlan Coben
5. THE HOST, by Stephenie Meyer

1. TRIBUTE, by Nora Roberts
2. WHERE ARE YOU NOW?, by Mary Higgins Clark
3. ANGELS AND DEMONS, by Dan Brown
4. FROM DEAD TO WORSE, by Charlaine Harris
5. NOTHING TO LOSE, by Lee Child

Break 'em down -- A mystery, a mystery, a fantasy, a mystery, a vampire love story. Then, we have a mystery, a mystery, a techno-thriller, a vampire love story, and a mystery/techno-thriller.

The lists change, the proportions vary, but this is typical. Genre fiction rules, and in genre fiction, the old saw tends to hold true: The only two things worth writing about are love and death. Readers want the former, and want to vicariously risk, but avoid, the latter. Mysteries are about the restoration of order. Science fiction, fantasy, romance novels, westerns, gothics, horror -- they almost always have the good guys win, the forces of truth and justice prevail, because that's how people would like it to be.

I didn't go see Brokeback Mountain. I had read the story upon which it was based, and had no desire to see it. Not because it was about gay cowboys -- but because they didn't get to live happily ever after. A little tragedy, like Naga Jolokia -- the Ghost pepper, at a million or so Scoville HU, goes a long, long way.

There are some other award-winning movies I skipped for the same reason. Hey, So-and-so gave a bravura performance! Great acting! Yeah, it was about a depressing descent into total misery about a self-centered asshole who fucked people over left, right, and center, and everybody hated, but he was so good at it!

Yeah. Right. And I need to see this ... why?

We don't live in the Village of the Happy Nice People, nor are we likely to any time soon. But people like to visit it now and then, and if you take them there and you can entertain them, make them forget about the grit and grime of reality for a few hours, root for the good guys and smile when they win, you'll do okay as a writer.

If you can't -- or worse, don't care to -- probably you should pursue another line of work ...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rainy Self Defense

After an evening of steady rain, and showers most of the day, I thought this one might come in handy for you weapon-nuts who have everything ...


Monday, April 27, 2009

Handmade

A maker who specializes in instrument bows, Ken Altman. Starting at around $2800 for the basic violin version, and going up ...

Guitars were represented by at least a dozen local makers. (Above, Jay Dickinson, Portland Guitar.)

There were violins, fiddles, violas, cellos, double basses, flutes, lutes, ouds ...

Mandolins ...
High-end tuning machines ...

Small, medium, large, and all manner of shapes ... (Mark Roberts made the four ukes on the left, Abe Su'a, the two on the right.) 

The pictures are from the Handmade Musical Instrument Exhibit, held this past weekend at Marylhurst University, just past Lake Oswego, Oregon. My wife and I try to make this one every year. Just walking around in the big room is a treat -- the sights, sounds, smells.

As part of your three-buck admission fee, you can cross the walkway to the BP John Building and the Wiegand Performance Center, which was once a chapel, and listen to the mini-concerts. These are generally twenty-minutes sessons, wherein a player will demonstrate a maker's instruments to the audience. Room holds a couple hundred people, and they all sit there quietly listening. Anybody makes a noise, the whole audience turns around and shushes them.

We went yesterday, and caught five of the sets: Steve Tool, playing an acoustic steel string by Michael Propsom; followed by David Franzen on a classical guitar by George Smith; then Craig Alden Dell on a ten-string classical by Michael Elwell. Dina Fergurgur and Maria Olaya played a pair of classicals by Keith Rhodes -- one a cedar-top, the other a double-top spruce. The last player was Jeffrey Ashton, on a classical by Jeffrey Elliott. (I've mentioned Elliott here before. Staring price on his guitars is about twelve grand. The waiting list to get one is about twelve years ...)

All the players were adept. They did pieces by Bach, some Renaissance lute stuff, a piece one of the women composed herself with a South/Central American flavor, and composers like Villa-Lobos, who wrote thousands of pieces but only a score of them for guitar.

The guy playing ten-string had gone through a series of surgeries over the last year -- both shoulders, both hands -- and was supposed to be wearing a brace, which made his performance impressive. And a ten-string's resonance? Oh, my.

My favorite was Ashton, a man who was adept and into the music, and whose composition of Moorish/Spanish variations was a delight, including, for you players out there, an ending series of pinch harmonics going all the way to the second fret ...

The only problem was that my hearing aid kept cheeping feedback at me, so I had to remove it, but I was still able to enjoy the music with the good ear ...

Writing Alchemy

Dave Duncan, who writes fantasy novels, has a series set in an alternate-history Renaissance -- pretty much they all take place in Venice, Italy. In the books, which run to three so far, the protagonist is Alfeo, an impoverished young nobleman who works for Maestro Nostradamus, who, cranky and arthritic, has relocated to City of Canals.

The books are essentially murder mysteries, ripe with arcane history, and Alfeo, as Nostradamus's apprentice, does all the legwork and more than his share of the detective's reasoning, too.

They are fun reads. I won't detail the plot of the most recent volume, but ...

In the latest one, The Alchemist's Pursuit, there is a throwaway line, on p 106, in which Alfeo is doing research, digging in their files, and finds one, which he describes as " ... thinner than a portrait painter in Constantinople ..."

I can't begin to tell you how much I enjoyed that line. It presumes a knowledge on the reader's part that made me grin when I read it. It is from a writer who wants his reader to have done a little work, and presumes that s/he has.

Comedians sometimes talk about being too smart for the room, and it's a tricky line to keep from crossing, but sometimes I love being the only guy in the audience who laughs, knowing I was the one from whom the joke was crafted.

(One of the reasons I like talking to audiences at science fiction conventions: No matter how esoteric something I say might be, somebody in the group will get it.)

People here -- some of them -- will get it, too. Such assumptions are one of the reasons I do this blog ...

P.S. Oh, and an amusing link for writers ...

Friday, April 24, 2009

I Can't HEAR You!


In Ear (above)


Open Fit

Got another ear infection -- the cost of being able to hear by having one of those high-tech digital hearing instruments stuffed into one's ear canal is that you have to keep the sucker clean. Now and then, if you get in a hurry and jam the aid in without making sure it is pristine? In the warm, wet, and dark environment thus created on a daily basis, you turn your ear into a petri dish ...

Fortunately, I have some of those expensive antibiotic drops left from last go-round. I mentioned those here once -- hundred and twenty bucks for a ten ml. bottle, and fortunately insurance covers most of that. A couple days with that and a cotton ball plug and I should be right as rain.

In the interim, though, I am effectively deaf on one side, and it is surprising how much you notice you can't hear when you suddenly have half the input stopped up. Before, I could hear the dog's hearts beating from across the room, but now, I can barely hear that five feet away ...

Next round, I'm gonna go for the open-fit style, since I'll probably have to have two anyhow. Rides behind your ear, and the amp-bud doesn't touch the inside of the ear canal. Better for stopping feedback, too. Latest version apparently uses something like Blue Tooth, so two of them can talk to each other and automatically adjust for various noise levels in something like a hundredth of a second.

Bionic Steve, and welcome to the future ...

When people ask me if listening to loud rock and roll or shooting guns damages your ears, you know what I answer?

Ehh?! Say what? Excuse me ... ?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Family Matters

Radio Operator George Perry
Aboard the USS Norris, 1945
South China Seas

Destroyer, USS Norris

So my father, in his eighties, developed pneumonia and had to be hospitalized a few days ago. My sister called, and it was serious -- ICU kind of serious -- but the doctors  seem to think he was not quite ready to shuffle off, and no need to gather the family to say good-bye.

After repeatedly pulling out his IVs, his breathing mask off, and being his usual cantankerous self, he got well enough to be transferred off the ICU to a room, and, is eating, walking around, and being his usual cantankerous self. Will probably be released to go home in a couple days.

He has Alzheimer's, doesn't exercise at all, doesn't eat much, and is still smoking cigarettes, though he' s down to half a pack a day.

After sixty-odd years of coffin nails, he does have emphysema, which is why the pneumonia was dangerous, but why the cigarettes haven't killed him by now is purely genetic. I had to guess, we're probably talking somewhere north of four hundred thousand cigarettes smoked. (Every time somebody tries to get him to quit, he points at his grandfather. Great-Grampaw Johnson lived into his nineties, died from pneumonia he developed in the hospital after he fell and broke his hip, and smoked Camels and drank Old Crow up until then. Puffed away for more than eighty years, started with hand-rolled before he could afford the store-boughts, and none of those sissy filter things ...)

I have mentioned that the lack of oxygen to Daddy's brain due to smoking probably hasn't helped his mental state, but he's not gonna quit, and that's that. 

My sister, bless her, has been running around taking care of things, shuttling my mother back and forth, and the like, and calling me daily to fill me in. What she gets for living near our parents.

I'm gonna have to fly down there once things settle a bit, and see what the situation is. My mother is hardly in shape to be taking care of my father as he loses his ability to think, and I believe it's time for my sister and I to talk about eventualities.

My father was never an easy man to be around when I was a boy. He had a short and hot temper, no patience, and came from a generation in which the men earned the livings and the children were raised by the women. I have to reach to find some fond memories of hunting or fishing or doing man things. There are a few.

He was a better grandfather, and an even better great-grandfather, from what I hear, mellowed some, but he knew everything and was never, ever wrong. My job, from the time I could remember, was to keep the peace, to keep things calm so Daddy wouldn't get upset. And the quickest way to upset him was to disagree with him about anything. 

One of my favorite stories is when I went home to visit and my mother and I were discussing birds. I told her about the magpies we have in eastern Oregon. I described the critter, and my father allowed as how it was some kind of barn swallow. My mother went and fetched the birdwatcher's book, probably Peterson's Guide, and showed it to him, to which my father said, "The book is wrong!"

I grew up with that. 

But, he's my father. And I'm the oldest son, so I need to go and see what's what.

Tolstoy had it: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way ...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Una limosnita por el amor de Dios


Agustin Barrios-Mangore (1885-1944)

Composer Agustin Barrios-Mangore (usually just called "Barrios," by guitarists) was born in Paraguay, and lived the final years of his life in San Salvador, El Salvador, where he played and taught guitar.

One evening, while teaching at home, the story goes, an old woman knocked on the door, begging. "Una limosnita por el amor de Dios," she supposedly said -- "An alm, for the love of God."

Supposedly, that knock on the door inspired Barrios to write a new piece, the tremolo masterwork named after what the old woman had said.

The music has a haunting, sad tone, and is considered one of the best examples of soulful tremolo on a classical guitar.

Barrios wrote the piece -- his last composition -- then died a month later.

Watch Ioana Grandrabur play this, and marvel not only at the sound, but at the fact that she is blind -- and has been from birth ...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Another Dud

Just finished a new novel by a writer I enjoy, does snappy mysteries, cops and bad guys, like that. It was a fun read, right up until I got to the part where the bad guy has a Desert Eagle revolver with which he likes to menace people.

Look at the picture. That look like a revolver to anybody here? 

And there's a  thank you at the end of the book to the writer's gun guy. Want to bet that the gun guy never said that, and that the writer just threw it in without thinking about it?

Kill Your Darlings


Ole "No Man but a Blockhead" Sam

It's attributed to William Faulkner, and in a slightly more clever version to Samuel Johnson:

"Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

What it means is, when you are telling a story, any piece of it, no matter how good you think it is, no matter how it warms your heart to read, or makes you feel clever as a wordsmith, if it doesn't serve the tale properly, has to go.

And what I mean by serving the tale is that it has to move things along, either the characterizations, plot development, setting, or tone in such a way that to take it out would be like slicing away muscle. But: If you can cut it and it the story will work just as well -- or better -- then you have to do so.

Well, okay, you don't have to; but you should -- for at best, like a vestigial appendix, it will serve no purpose save to sicken your story. Get rid of it. 

This is one of the hardest things you as a writer will have to learn. 

If you have a scene wherein Your Hero is on a roller coaster at age twelve and so scared of it that he pees himself, that might not have anything to do with the plot per se, but it could be absolutely necessary for his character development.

If you have a scene in which Your Hero is kicking ass and taking names to get to the bad guy, and you love the action, but you have two other scenes just like it of equal-sized obstacles, then you probably don't need it. The obstacles should get bigger and harder as you go.

A while back, a publicist sent me a zombie novel for potential review. I read it because the buzz on it was hot, but I didn't like it. Once you have a herd of zombies attack and get blown away, you need to vary things, and this writer had the same sequence repeated five times. After the second time, you are thinking: Oh, look. Zombies-by-the-numbers. Yawn.

Yeah, it's about zombies and you have to have exploding heads and faces getting eaten off and all like that, but you need to be creative, and you need to ramp up the jeopardy and peril.

In my current work-in-progress, Bristlecone, I have a scene I really liked. In fact, it was the sequence I posted on my blog introducing the main characters -- a bunch of bad-ass young covert ops getting told to step carefully or the old folks would hand them their asses. I thought it was a way-cool scene, if a bit talky, so I cleaned it up and crafted it so it moved faster, and was quite pleased with myself.

Reading over it today, I realized it was completely unnecessary. All that stuff I told my reader, I had already shown them leading up to the scene. It was redundant. I could have made it the prologue, but then I would have to give up the one I had, which was necessary to set the tone for the villain. So, much as I liked Wilson and the boys going on about how Hull and Khadra were bad fuckers and would stomp heads if somebody bothered them, I had to cut the scene. I didn't want to cut it, understand, but your first responsibility as a writer is to serve the story, not show how you can craft a cool -- and useless -- scene.

Another darling bites the dust.

Oh, drat.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Silat Resources

Got a query from a new silat student south of here, and I thought it might be useful to offer what I told him. He was asking about books and vids and such:

Silat is such a big tent that the only thing some of the styles have in common is that they are from the same part of the world.

The seminal work on silat in English is Donn Draeger's Weapons & Fighting Arts of the Indonesian Archipelago. There are various versions of this around, you can probably pick up a used version in trade paperback. He has a couple other books on the subject, like Javanese Silat, but they are just okay.

O'ong Maryono's English version of his book, Pencak Silat in the Indonesian Archipelago is good.

You can download Ian Wilson's thesis from the Murdoch University School of Asian Studies, in Western Australia (2002), The Politics of Inner Power: The Practice of Pencak Silat in West Java. Wilson lived in the country and speaks the language.

Most of the books and tapes out there have some use, and though I'm not too impressed with some of the Paladin Press stuff, my teacher did a video for them on Bukti Negara, the daughter art Pendekar Paul and his senior students created, drawn from Sera. It's good for what it is.
Paul did an eight-tape series on Bukti, but I haven't seen it for sale on his site for years. Might find it used online somewhere.

There is material out there on some of the blades -- best books on the keris are from Holland, with a Dutch/English side-by-side text and hand-glued in pictures, but they are spendy: De Kris, by Tammens, three volumes.

Best guy to see for buying the hardware lives in Australia, Alan Maisey, there's a link to his page here.

Lot of YouTube stuff on the kerambit.

Also Bobbe Edmonds silat videos on YouTube are good. He spent some time in the old country training, knows his stuff, despite the fact he came down with yesterday's rain.

Best general work on weapons: Traditional Weapons of the Indonesian Archipelago, by Albert van Zonneveid. A coffee-table sized book and also expensive.

You can get Maha Guru Plinck's vids from Joe Daggy, at Lexington Films:

http://www.lexingtonfilm.com/serak-description.htm

And, of course, you can order my e-book, But What if I Did This?! and get a PDF for $5, if you don't already have it. Just click on the PayPal button up there under the header.
There are bits of history and philosophy on our art ladled into my musings ...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Yoga


My dear wife, who has for forty or so years had a hit-or-miss yoga practice, buckled down last year and began training to become a teacher. She found a local school and started classes, twice a week, sometimes thrice, plus an intensive week-long session at the school's HQ, in NoCal at the end, and then a test.

She passed that yesterday. Got her certificate this morning, and flew home this afternoon. All she has to do now is register with the national organization that does such things, and she is good to go.

Whether she ever does it to make money or not doesn't matter. It was the focus of doing it that was important.

I couldn't be any prouder of her. Smarter than I am, and if I don't watch it, fitter, too.

Self-Defense

Swirling around within the recent Pirates of the Indian Ocean ride is a notion I thought I'd explore a bit. It has to do with something that seems so basic to me that I stopped thinking about it long ago: The right to defend yourself.

We don't live in a civilized world. We still have pointed teeth, and there still is a need for them, alas. But in the more -- relatively speaking -- civilized portions of our planet, the laws recognize the idea that, if somebody attacks you with the intent of causing you harm, even unto death, why, you are allowed to try and stop them.

What a novel concept this seems to be to some people.

Legally, ethically, morally, the basis of common law rests upon the idea that unjustified initiation of force is wrong. Now, there are a million and one arguments about what constitutes "justified," and these depend on whose ox is being gored. Or who is doing the goring. But in the end, all power comes out of the barrel of a gun, and I'm not speaking metaphorically. Governments maybe be elected democratically, but that's a voluntary agreement.

In the land of sheep, the wolf is king. Unless, of course, the sheep have guns or knives and the wherewithal to use them ...

I hear, in the ongoing walla about the pirates, the rationalization that, well, you know, people have been dumping radioactive shit into their waters and treating the country bad and all, so somehow this makes it okay for them to sally forth and rip off the non-third world countries rich enough to own ships.

There's a term for this. Let me see if I can nail it down precisely ... oh, yeah ...

Bullshit.

Of course, one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, that's always been the way of it and likely will continue to be be so, but if you are merchant marine sailor listening to machine gun fire rattling against the hull plates of your ship, you might be excused for taking the small picture view. These guys aren't freedom fighters, no Ragnar Danneskjöld, they are armed robbers, thugs at best.

The notion of self-defense is that, unlike the missionary about to be boiled in the cannibal's pot who says, "Bless you, my child, you are but a product of your environment," you have the right to jump out of the kettle and haul ass, and anybody trying to stick a fork in you as you do deserves anything he gets to cause him to cease and desist.

If you don't embrace that basic belief, you can't learn self-defense that will do you any good. You can have the biggest gun in town, and if you won't shoot it come the need, it might as well be a canoe anchor.

Yeah, yeah, you aren't allowed to bend down and cut the villain's throat once he drops his fork and goes fetal, the law only permits sufficient force to stop his attack. But being the guy in the pot, you are the fellow who must determine that on-site, and -- despite what anybody has to say about it otherwise -- it is better to have to explain it to a jury than having somebody discover your wedding ring in a pile of scat. If you are one of those people who would, you know, rather be alive and than dead, that is. Run if you can, always. If you can't, do what you need to survive.

Not that complex a theory, is it?

I am perfectly copacetic with the notion that few U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers sailing in the waters off Somolia should light up assorted pirate craft as soon as they fire a BB at a merchant ship, send them to see Davy Jones, and AMF. Like the death-penalty, it might not deter other pirates from trying again, but it certainly would deter that particular bunch of ne'er-do-wells real good. There is a time for the speak softly part, and a time for the big stick.

I'd guess that they'd run out of pirates before the Navy ran out of ammo.

And to all those folks who say, Well, it's not that simple, I say, Yeah, it is.

The idea that a mugger wants my wallet isn't surprising. The notion that I don't have to give it to him ought not to be. And if I have the means and mind-set to keep my ass intact, why, I believe I will give it the old college try.

You are a child of the universe. You have a right to be here. If you aren't willing to defend that right, who else will?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Lights! Camera! Cut!

So I took my little digital cam to silat class today. The cam, an old 4-megapixel Canon, can take rudimentary AVI's, and uses flashmem cards I can download into my computer and burn onto a CD. There are bigger cards, but I usually keep a one or two-gig size in the camera, plenty enough to shoot a bunch of one- or two-minute vids, which I did -- 23 of them, 462 MB. Those numbers are still amazing to me, coming from the days when I ran a computer off a 256 K floppy disk ...

Um, anyway, we have been playing with knives, and I figured it would help me to be able to review the lessons, slow them down, like that, to see what blew past me during class.

(And before anybody asks, no, I'm not posting any of them, not here, not on YouTube. If my teacher wants to offer such things, that's his prerogative, not mine.)

It is useful, to see it played back in slomo. If you are studying an art and your teacher will allow it, consider the notion of taking a video now and then. Way better than notes, a picture being worth a thousand words and all. 

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bias


There are few areas in life wherein bias can't be found. The nature of people seems to be to sort each other into us and them; the more you look like us, the better we like you.

In writing, some of this you can get past, because -- in theory -- an editor is judging the story and not the writer. If they love the piece, they say, it won't matter if it was written by a little old man from Fairbanks, or a fourteen-year-old girl from Auckland. The story is supposed to stand on its own. So they all say. 

But: there are biases, and they set in before the editor reads the tale.

A couple of quick examples: If you are trying to sell something to a two-fisted men's magazine, or for a male action series like, say, Slaughterers Army, and your name is Janelle Louise Beaumont, I'd bet money your chances aren't very good. 

If you are writing a sweet romance novel about first love aimed at young women readers, Dick I.M. Hardwick is probably not the name you want to run under the title. 

This is because a lot of men, especially younger ones, don't think a woman can write action/adventure with a male viewpoint. And a lot of women -- any age -- don't think a man can write romance novels from the female head.

Not all readers, but enough so that an editor in that field is going to have to be blown out of her socks to get past that; you start with a strike against you. And if they do love it, don't be surprised if they ask you to come up with another name to put on the cover.

You can fix this easily -- a pseudonym does it. "Dash Riprock" might be over the top, but a man's name if you are a woman writing hard-hitting action with a male protagonist saves you the first unearned strike. Ditto a woman's handle if you are doing romance.

Should it be this way? No. Is it? Yes. There are examples out the wazoo, James Tiptree was Alice "Racoona" Sheldon; C.L. Moore was Catherine Lucille. I know a guy who writes romance novels under a woman's name -- I won't rat him out, because he is still doing it. 

Some years ago, a mid-sized city symphony orchestra decided to hire a new player. The details of the the town and instrument escape me -- Minneapolis? Milwaulkie? -- but the gist was, they decided to do blind evaluations, because some of the committee believed there was a bias against people of color or women. 

Hard to imagine that artists would feel that way, hey?

So, the players sat behind a curtain, the judges making the evaluation couldn't see them, had no information, they had to judge strictly on the musical performance. 

Wouldn't that be a loverly world, where you were judged on your ability and not your race or gender or age? 

Turned out the best player was a woman, and they hired her. One of the judges later admitted that he didn't think women could play whichever instrument it was as well as men, and allowed how, if he'd known, he might have been more critical of her audition. At least he was honest about it.

It's out there. If you are going to write, best you snoop around and see what the conventions are, and what you can do to shade the odds in your favor. Yeah, the story still has to work, but it might get a better chance if the editor isn't set against you going in. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

McGyver Would Be Tickled

Watch this video:


More on Attitude

Now and then, the importance of mind-set, of the willingness to stand and deliver when attacked comes up, and I'm generally quick to offer that enough attitude can offset a great deal, including fighting skill.

So while I was talking to somebody about this, I wondered about some of the stories I've heard lately about unlikely resistance -- little old deaf grannies and all like that. So I thought I'd check it out.

Now, we aren't talking about victories, necessarily, in the sense that the mugger gets his ass whipped and granny escapes unscathed; more often than not, Granny gets roughed up or cut or otherwise damaged, but she does manage to survive.

So I googled it thus: "Granny fights off mugger." And came up with 7420 hits.

When I changed that to "Woman fights off mugger," the number of hits was 220,000.

Attitude. It matters.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Man Hears What He Wants to Hear

One of the problems you will have as a writer is that you will offer your story to people who never go anywhere but that they bring their own baggage. We all do this, it's the nature of living in the world that we develop attitudes and opinions, likes and dislikes, and when folks arrive at the tale you have created, they will have those axes with them.

Sometimes they will see stuff between the lines that isn't there. (And sometimes, it will be there, even if you didn't intend it to be.)

There is not much you can do about this, save try to be as clear as possible in your writing. You may be sure that if there is any ambiguity in what you say, at least some readers will choose the path opposite the one you intended. Even if you flatly say something and think there is no room for misinterpretation, trust me, it will sometimes be misinterpreted.

Because sometimes people will see or hear what they think is there and not what really is.

Two stories:

When I first moved to L.A., I got a job working in the Follow-up Department of an aluminum company that bought large quantities from the mills and then sold smaller amounts to the aircraft companies. It was part of my job to answer queries, either by phone, or though the Telex system (aka TWX), which was the old-style version of email before the net. Usually these were simple requests: Where is our order you promised to ship already?

I had to track it down, see if it had shipped or not. If it did, I had to find the carrier and a way bill number, and get it back to the customer. If it hadn't shipped, I had to tell them when it would, and how. So a typical response went like this:

Dear Mr. Dunstan:

Your order for PO XXXXX, Pioneer's part # PA-XXXX, shipped from our Kent, WA facility on 3/2, via Transcon, their bill # XXXX-X. Should arrive approximately 5-7 shipping days, by 3/9.

Or this:

Your order for PO XXXXX, Pioneer's part # PA-XXXX, is on back-order and will ship approximately 4/1, via Yellow Line Freight.

I did a lot of these, thirty, sometimes fifty a day. They were all handwritten on a TWX form and delivered to our Telex Operator. But each one of these had to be initialed by the head of the Follow-Up Department before I put them in the out basket. He would do this without looking at the contents, and I asked him why he bothered, since he didn't read 'em.

Well, because you might write "Go suck a rotten egg," to one of our big clients and they probably wouldn't like it. You'd be fired, of course, but the company would want somebody higher up to blame, and that would be me.

Oh, I said. Got it.

From that point on, until I left Follow-up and moved up to the Order Board, each and every TWX I wrote had, at the end of my message GSARE -- for, of course, Go Suck a Rotten Egg. Well over a thousand such messages.

Nobody ever noticed. At least not enough to ask what it meant. Not my supervisor, none of the clients, who might be forgiven for that because they could think it was some kind of internal code. But the other branches of the company -- we had two, one in Kent, WA, the other in Marietta, GA, knew it wasn't some internal code, and they used to get copies any paperwork we sent that shipped from their locations. And they didn't ask, either.

Oddly enough, at the same time I had that job, a buddy of mine was working for Western Union. Back in the day before the net and web, people would sometimes send telegrams rather than telephone. His job was to answer the phones and take down messages to be sent. He got, he said, between a hundred and two hundred calls a day.

He was supposed to answer the phone: "Western Union. How may I help you?"

After a few days, and feeling like a robot, he stared fiddling with the message.

"Western Onion. How may I help you?"

Nobody caught it.

So he ratcheted it up a notch:

"Eastern Onion. How may I help you?"

People blew right past it: "Yeah, I need to send a telegram to my mother ..."

Finally, he started saying stuff like:

"Easter Onion. How may you help me?"

At which point he said, maybe one out of twenty or thirty callers would say, "Excuse me?"

Whereupon he would say, "Western Union. How may I help you?"

"Oh. Sorry. I thought you said something else."

Those other people? They expected to hear something, and they heard it, even though it wasn't being said.

I remember the first time I called long-distance directory assistant and got a bored operator who droned out "City, please."

What I heard was "City Police." I'm still not sure if that's what she said or not ...

So, how to make it as clear as you can?

1) When possible, use precise, even exact language: "Corvette" is better than"Chevrolet" is better than "car," if what you mean is the big muscle machine for guys looking to bolster their masculinity. And the year and model number, if appropriate. C1? C2 Sting Ray? C3 Stingray?

2) If it is important, repeat it, and three times is the rule. If you have called it a "Corvette" thrice in a story and somebody thinks it's a Thunderbird, then it's their fault and not yours.

3) Realize that no matter what you do, some people are going to miss it, and let that go. Unless you are writing for a journal, the point is communication between the writer and the reader. You can make them work a little, that's okay, but some of what you do is gonna sail right over some of their heads. You won't be their at their elbow to explain what you meant. Best you come as close to saying what you mean as you can. Strive for clarity, but don't expect perfection ...

When Life Hands You a Lemon ... Om ....

I have a cold.

Yeah, yeah, no big deal. I used to go ages without catching one, but nowadays, I seem to enjoy at least one every year. 'T'is the job of grandchildren, to bring home the bugs with which to lay grampa low ...

For those of you who have never had such an affliction, fie upon you and your progeny unto the seventh generation.

Western medicine offers this remedy: If you go to the doctor and take the antihistamines and decongestants and ibuprofen she offers, along with plenty of clear liquids and lots of rest, you probably will recover within seven to ten days. If you don't do these things, why, in that case it will take you at least a week, week-and-a-half, to get well.

Symptoms they can treat, the cause, not so much. Read: Not at all.

Those of you who have endured the minor, but annoying, misery of viral upper respiratory infection know the symptoms of the malady and there is no need to minutely detail them here: runny-this, stopped-up that, fever, body aches, and a voice that has gone from my usual sturdy baritone/tenor to basso profondo. I can sing Leonard Cohen's Tower of Song, but pretty much anything beyond a four-note range, my voice cracks like a choir full of twelve-year-old boys trying to sing The Star Spangled Banner. Reach higher than that, the vox vanishes entirely. No Frankie Valli skying into falsetto today.

No, today, I could om with the Tibetan monks and make them sound like sopranos.

Understand, this doesn't put me into the same category as my sometime-collaborator Michael, who had almost completely lost his ability to speak coherently as part of his Parkinson's Disease. He's better, by the by; they discovered that they can improve his voice by injecting collagen directly into his vocal cords.

Think about how pleasant that must feel.

Now and again, I plug in the Samson mike, light up GarageBand, and record myself singing and playing. It really helps your practice when you can hear and see how you sound and look. Most of the time, this is a single-track, i.e., I sing/play and it goes into the program together. The nature of recording today no longer requires such a wholistic process. If the band isn't getting along, they can go into the studio one at a time -- or can get off-the-shelf software like Pro Tools, and hardware, build their own studios in the spare bedroom, record, then email the tracks in, where an engineer can mix them.

They never have to see each other. This is how much of the last couple of Beatle albums were recorded. Sad.

This seems vaguely obscene to me, and no matter how cleanly it is done, has to lose a certain je ne sais qua that a band playing together and having fun will create.

There are good reasons for multi-tracking with the whole gang together in the studio or live on stage, not the least of which is the ability to balance the instruments, so the fiddle doesn't overwhelm the guitar, or the drummer drown everybody out; each track's volume and tone can be dialed up or down, to balance things. Still not the same as a totally-organic live performance, but at least all the guys are doing their thing in the same room at the same time.

Because my voice today is a croak, singing into a mike won't be something I want recorded for posterity. I might, however, be able to lay down some guitar tracks, and later, when Mr. Vox returns to his normal state, which is serviceable, if not inspiring, add another track. And it would be a good skill to have,

Of course, I don't feel like practicing the guitar. Maybe I'll go sit in the hot tub and then go back to bed.

Or, maybe, I'll just record that om I was talking about. Yeah. Here you go ...


video

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling

So, famed record producer Phil Spector is going up the river, for killing a woman he picked up in a bar some years ago. Looks like the Wall of Sound is about to become one made of stone ...

Lost Bruce Lee Footage Found

Thanks to Neal Hinerman for this one:


video

Heckler


So I was channel surfing the cable last night late, and came across a documentary, Heckler.

From 2007, the movie was an exploration of hecklers, that is, people who yell out at a performer on-stage. The scope was expanded to include critics, who write reviews, either for traditional news outlets or online, and who offer the same level of rudeness, or worse, in their comments.

Starring Jamie Kennedy, a young man to whom hecklers and critics have not been kind, the documentary is a great mix of rage and sorrow, and ways that various artists -- comedians, actors, singers, moviemakers, deal with the abuse that comes with their professions.

Kennedy, who has been in movies ranging from Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back to the four Scream movies and Son of the Mask, is also a stand-up comic, and he interviews performers, reads bad reviews out loud, and offers his defenses.

His hecklers and critics are largely unrepentant. They say to his face what they shout out from the audience or write on their blogs, and this sometimes painful to watch as he sits and talks to them on-camera.

Comedians like Louie Anderson, Arsenio Hall, and Howie Mandel speak of how it feels to be lambasted. George Lucas offers that there are creators and destroyers, and he prefers to align himself with the former. I loved the singer Jewel, whose retort to a radio interview is wonderful, "And now, here's Jewel, a big-breasted singer from Canada," the DJ leads in. to which she responds, "And you must be that small penis radio guy from South Carolina I've heard so much about," she says. After which her label stopped sending her to radio interviews.

My stance on critics -- often hecklers who write -- fits comfortably with what most of the performers offer. The critics weren't there when the page was blank, and it is better to be the world's worst artist than the world's best critic. I've always liked Liza Minelli's line on The Muppet Show: "Scratch a critic, find an assassin." Roll 'em in corn meal and deep-fat fry 'em, that's my solution ...

(Which is not to say that there aren't mean-spirited performers who sometimes deserve what they get because of what they dish out. You don't really want to be the world's worst artist.
Some humor is simply vile, and if people aren't laughing but cringing, then pointing it out is valid. If a critic, sitting in a theater full of people falling the floor laughing says the movie isn't funny, then he's not in touch with audiences. If they aren't laughing, he can say that.)

I recall a story that Eddie Murphy tells. He got a call from Bill Cosby, who took him to task for doing blue humor. Murphy was upset, so he called Richard Pryor. Pryor said, "Was it funny? Did they laugh?" Murphy said, yeah. "Well, then tell Bill to have a Coke and a smile and go fuck himself."

Carrot-Top, who gets beaucoup abuse, wonders why critics don't understand that it's painful to be eviscerated this way. Howie Mandel, when asked if criticism has ever affected him adversely says, If lying naked in a fetal position in your own feces for two weeks on the floor is considered an adverse effect, then, yeah. Of course, Liberace's famous comment was that he cried all the way to the bank. But still:

The ego that is willing to risk getting up on a stage in front of a bunch of people to be funny is fragile, and the term used when it goes bad is that you die. A lot of comedians are doing what they do out of depression, and one of my favorites, Richard Jeni, who was very funny on stage, up and killed himself one fine morning a couple years back.

Another comedian, Bill Mahr, maybe, allows that developing a thick skin doesn't really work. If you aren't sensitive, you can't really work and audience, you miss what you need for the interaction.

At one point, with comedians discussing how they handle hecklers -- some like it, because then it becomes a battle of wits, and they enjoy the challenge -- one offers that bringing a heckler onstage to try and do better is fun. They show such an instance, and it is wonderful. Hecker starts trying to tell a story, and the comedian in the audience starts razzing him at the perfect moment and absolutely flummoxes the guy.

You can't really argue with critics. Unlike hecklers, they are at a remove, and not telling you where you can see them. You can deal with somebody in reach, though, and they show a couple of instances.

There's the comedian who takes his guitar and bashes a heckler over the head with it. That one horrified me because it ruined a guitar.

There is footage of a football jock on TV, Jim Everett, and the interviewer, trying to be clever, razzes Jim by calling him "Chris," (alluding to Chris Everet, the woman tennis player. After being called "Chris" for a couple times, Jim says, "You call me Chris to my face one more time, you are going to need to take a station break." The interviewer grins, says, "Chris." whereupon Jim stands up, dumps the table on the guy, and grabs him up and shakes him like a rag doll.

I loved it.

One of my favorite bits is a German moviemaker who challenged his worst critics to step into a boxing ring if they had the balls. They then showed highlights of the Uwe Boll vs. The Critics matches, in which he beats the snot out of four guys, two of whom were much bigger. That one I absolutely loved. There's a shot of one of them after it was over, puking up everything he'd eaten since he was four, and I loved that, too. 

In Hollywood, they like the term "heart." As in, "this is a action-thriller, but with heart." Or "this is Fast and Furious, but with heart." By which they mean that there is some emotional content that will touch viewers. Anybody who has ever gotten swatted after working hard to create something where there was nothing before -- music, art, literature, carpentry, whatever -- will likely find something in this documentary that speaks to them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

My Leonard Nimoy Story

Somewhen about 1996, I got a phone call from Marty Greenberg, the world’s premiere science fiction and fantasy anthologist. Marty’s company had the rights to do a novelization of a comic book series called PriMortals. The story idea had come from Leonard Nimoy, with a little help from Isaac Asimov, and while it was originally intended to be part of prose anthology, it wound up at TeknoComics (later BIG Entertainment).

I had done a little work for Marty on another project, and he wondered if I was interested in taking a shot at this one.

The money was so-so, I had projects in progress, my first Star Wars novel had just come out and I was feeling hot; and frankly, I wasn’t all that interested.

Then Marty threw in the sweetener: He would, he said, fly me down to L.A. to meet with Nimoy.

No shit? Really?

Okay, so I admit it, I’m a fanboy. A chance to sit down with an American icon, the guy who was better known to the world as the half-human, half-Vulcan, Spock?

I couldn’t jump on that ship fast enough. I'm in.

So, the meeting was set. We’d have breakfast at a fairly chic hotel in LaLaLand -- me, Nimoy, and a couple of folks from BIG Entertainment.

I flew into town, rented a car, and went to bunk at my collaborator Reaves’s house. Got up on the morning of the breakfast and allowed two hours to travel the ten miles, because on the freeeways in L.A., you never know. A bag blows across the Santa Monica Freeway, and traffic backs up to Redding. Better safe than late.

I got there an hour and forty-five minutes early, of course. I spent the time hiking around the neighborhood, getting the lay of the land, and enjoying the smogless morning amidst the pastel stucco neighborhood.

Fifteen minutes before the scheduled time, I went into the restaurant. The comic book folks showed up, we introduced ourselves.

Nimoy arrived. We shook hands, he sat, and there we were.

Nimoy was dressed in black, had a short beard, and was tired. He hadn’t slept much the night before, he said, he’d been up to all hours writing a play that was destined for Broadway. But, tired or not, he was smiling, affable, and polite to the waiters, whom he knew by name. Always a good sign.

When you meet an icon, there is always a worry: What if the guy turns out to be an utter asshole? You really don’t want that, and happily, Nimoy was polite, funny, enthusiastic, and every bit the mensch I hoped he would be, tired or not.

We talked business, ideas, and the conversation went swimmingly.

I had read Nimoy’s second autobiograpy, I Am Spock, a few months before, and because I knew he was a writer, I asked him if he’d actually written the book or had it ghosted.
(His first autobiography was called I Am Not Spock, by the by.)

I wrote the first thirty thousand words, he said, but I ran into a time-crunch, so the publisher
brought in somebody to help me finish it.

I had guessed as much, since there was an acknowledgement to a writer whose name I knew in the front of the book, but to keep the conversation rolling, I asked him, Oh? Who was that?

His face went blank. He was tired, recall, and I could see he couldn’t bring up her name. So I said, Ah, I see how writers stand in the Hollywood pantheon -- you can’t remember the name of the woman who wrote your autobiography?

He cracked up. Roared, a big, belly laugh, and I grinned, inordinately pleased with myself. I had just made Spock laugh. My stand-up career wasn’t ever going to get any better than that.

We finished the meeting, I went home, cranked on the project. I sent the first draft to Nimoy, he offered suggestions, I incorporated these, and eventually, the book came out. I didn’t figure I’d get a credit on it, but Nimoy insisted, and so it was Leonard Nimoy’s PriMortals: Target Earth, written by Steve Perry. And when you flipped the book over, on the back, there was Nimoy’s smiling face, and I swear, his ears look pointed in that picture ...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Yo, Ho, Ho and a Bottle of Rum

So, the captured ship's captain was rescued off the African coast a few hours ago, three of the four Somali pirates who had him have gone to Davy Jones's locker, and at least some order has been restored. Temporarily.

Probably SEALs, though the U.S. Navy isn't being forthcoming, nor should they.

Happy Easter for one family, for sure.

I saw in the newspaper when this all got rolling -- read those while you can, they seem to be vanishing fast -- that while everybody and his kid sister all know the waters are thick with pirates there off the Horn, nobody is adopting the obvious solution: Arming the hell out of any vessel that plies those seas and giving them leave to chatter the suckers if they get too close.

A firehose against an AK-47 isn't the way I'd want to do the dance. Maybe a couple .50 BMG rifles used for blowing up ordance at a distance could be put to good use.

The reason shippers aren't arming their crews? Liability. What if somebody accidentally shot somebody they weren't supposed to shoot? Or maybe a stray round hit a volatile cargo? Why, that could dangerous! The actuaries shake their heads and figure the risks of a ship being captured and held for ten million in ransom isn't worth it.

Cap'n' Jack Sparrow and Keif must be laughing themselves silly over this one. Guns? Ick!

As opposed to being boarded by pirates blasting away with their machineguns, which obviously is no more dangerous than a walk home from Sunday school, hey?

What is gonna happen when some bright pirate gets the idea to take over a big oil tanker, rig it with explosives, and then sail it to a tourist coast and threaten to blow it up unless somebody gives him real money and not just a piddly ten or fifteen million, hmm? (I was gonna write that novel with George Guthridge, but our agent talked us out of it. Why give the bad guys a blueprint on how to do it?) 

Back to the ships off the Horn. A little training, fifteen or twenty guys with assault rifles sending a hail of jacketed ammo at a small boat trying to get a grappling ladder over the rail? I think it would make the would-be boarders think twice.

Keep the guns locked away unless they were needed, pull them out if hostile company comes to call.

Too simple, huh?

As long as these clowns can do this and make money at it, they are going to keep doing it. If half of 'em get killed every time they try -- and fail -- you think that might discourage them? 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Who's On First?

I told you about my first novel. So, let me tell you about my first short story ...

The first piece of prose fiction I wrote was an assignment for Mrs. Brown's English III class at Central High School. (I don't count the cartoons Steve Scates and I used to exchange in junior high about the adventures of two scuba divers.) That story concerned a scouting party of aliens who landed on the Earth, bent on conquest. Unfortunately for them, the first house they came to belonged to Dracula, who was giving a birthday party for the Wolfman and their friends. The tale didn't have a title, but I could have reasonably justified calling it "Monsters Versus Aliens," predating the animated movie now showing in theaters as I write this by a mere ... forty-five years.

I believe I might have mentioned if before, but here it is again in case I didn't: There's not much new under the sun when it comes to plots.

I was sixteen when I wrote that one. I don't know where I got the idea, but I suspect that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein might have sparked it.

The first story I seriously intended for publication I wrote in 1976, when I was a year short of thirty. I realized that someday-when-I-have-time-I'm-gonna-write wasn't ever going to happen because I'd never have more time, only less. That one, called "Perfect Balance," was an allegorical -- and admittedly somewhat pretentious -- offering about the natures of male and female, yin and yang. I sent it off -- and it promptly began collecting rejections.

For those of you feeling discouraged by rejection, I got three hundred such the first year I was writing. You can't let it grind you down. I believe it was Dean Koontz who said he thought the average writer got about seventy rejections before s/he made a sale, and he was basing that on his own experience. Look at him now.

Having determined at last to have a real go at writing, I began cranking 'em out, one story a week, following Ray Bradbury's advice that such was the way to become a good writer. A shory story a week for twenty years or so, I believe he said, and I was determined to try it. Didn't last that long; I made it through most of one year before I crashed and burned. Bradbury didn't do it, either.

Several months, and sixteen or eighteen stories later, I sold my first one, to Asimov's Magazine. Called "Heal the Sick, Raise the Dead," the title a line from a Johnny Rivers's song, it was about a society in which the dead could be -- temporarily -- brought back to life. What they had to say changed the way the world operated. That sale was on the 22nd of June, 1977. I know, because I had the acceptance letter framed and on my wall for years.

But Asimov's was a quarterly, and it would be almost a year after the sale before the piece would be published -- at which point the magazine had gone bi-monthly, so it was the March-April 1978 issue.

Meanwhile, I sold a story to Galaxy Magazine, "With Clean Hands," about how condemned killers were executed for prime time TV entertainment, and since Galaxy was a monthly 'zine, that story was the first to see publication, in December, 1977.

(My first science fiction convention, the Worldcon in Miami, in September, 1977, I was past fanboy and a pro -- even though neither of the two stories I had sold had been published yet, and both would come out under a pseudonym. Nobody was lined up to get my autograph.)

Eventually that first submission, "Perfect Balance" sold to a Roy Torgeson anthology, Other Worlds I but only after three rewrites, fifteen rejections, and a couple of years.

So, four different short stories, all of which have a claim on "first:" Written, submitted, sold, and published.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Let Me Tell You About My First Novel


Back when I started as a writer, here was a common path in F&SF: You did short stories and then moved up to novels when you had -- supposedly -- an audience. You didn't need an agent for stories you could send to the 'zines, and you only went looking for one when you were ready to commit bookery in the first degree.

A dozen or so sold stories along, I went to a convention and ran into a writer/artist I knew. He had an agent; she had just quit the big agency for whom she worked to go out on her own, and if I was looking for representation, I probably had enough credits -- if I was ready to do novels.

I didn't know if I was or not, but when I got home, I fired off a letter to the lady, listed my credits, and allowed as how I was ready to write a book that I had in mind.

Fine, she said, send me three chapters and an outline.

Well, shit. I didn't have a book in mind. Also, I didn't know from outlines. I had never written anything longer than five or ten thousand words. I could cobble together three chapters, but how would I know what was gonna be in the outline if I didn't know how the book was going to end?

So I hastily sat down and wrote the novel, a kinda SF, kinda fantasy thing called Seek the Magician. It was based largely upon a tarot spread I cast, having learned how to do that. With manuscript for a book in hand, I then wrote an outline, probably ten or twelve pages, based on the draft, bundled it up with the first three chapters, and sent it off.

The agent liked the chapters and outline. Send me the rest, she said. I did. She agreed to represent me.

Hooray! I had an agent.

I went on to my next book, which was a good thing, because after a year or so of trying, she was unable to sell the first one. Fell between two stools, so the rejections went -- too much fantasy for this editor; too much science fiction for that one. It was a long post-apoc world with magic, but there were still satellites that had somehow managed to stay in orbit.

Bad notion at the time. Didn't slot neatly.

Meanwhile, the second book, The Tularemia Gambit, finished about 1980 or so, went in, and eventually, found a home. So while it was the second novel I wrote, it was the first to be published.

The first novel I wrote? Well, it went into a drawer, and I figured it would never see the light of day. Lot of writers have those, the books they learned upon, and some of them leave instructions that if they die suddenly, somebody should burn it.

But until they die, they keep it. Why? Well, as I pointed out in the previous essay, because you never know.

A few years later, I had sold several books, and got as a result, a gig writing a couple of Conan™ novels. Eventually, that turned into five of those, and remembering my first stillborn literary child, I disinterred it, scraped off the mold, and after changing names and doing some relatively small revisions, built one of the Conan novels around it. I estimate I was able to use somewhere around sixty percent of Seek, maybe a bit more, and it not only saved me a lot of work, it fit the part pretty well. Whole chunks of it got transplanted with just the smallest of trims.

Kind of like being an organ donor and having your heart or lungs or eyes live on in a new body.

There's another reason why you never throw anything you write away. It was the first time, but it wasn't the last that I had a spare part when I needed one.

What I Said

Biologists are sometimes divided into sorters or lumpers, which speaks to how they classify things -- kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, as I recall.

Recently, to gather material for a non-fiction book on writing, and one on martial arts, I went through ye olde blogge with the sensibilities of a sorter, and I came up with four main categories of posts over the last few years.

1) Writing
2) Martial Arts
3) Guitar/Music
4) Other

The largest collection is 4) Other, because it takes in all matter of things, ranging from the weather to philosophy to book reviews; from personal matters, medical to moral; politics, family, and sitting nekkid in the snow. Exercise, diet, and funny things on YouTube. The odd short story, previews from upcoming books and those in progress, all like that.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in the single-subject categories, the numbers of posts and words in the remaining three are -- in order, from most to least -- Writing, Martial Arts, and Guitar/Music.

(You know there is a website called The Blackbelt Guitar Academy, don't you? Such a wide world out there ...)

There were enough posts on or about writing -- and I include funny stories about the biz, either literary or LaLaLand, in these -- to fill a fair-sized book. I know this because I did just that and shipped it off to my agent, who seems to think there is enough merit in the notion to pursue it. It's rough, but with some trims and additions, we might actually have a saleable product: No Man But a Blockhead, the working title.

There were not quite as many, but still a goodly number of martial arts posts, and enough to put together a book of those, too, and the result can be purchased here for the bargain rate of U.S. $5, in a convenient PDF. Look over there, to the right, under the title: But What if I Did This?! Enough people have already plunked down their money through PayPal so that I am a hundredaire, and if you haven't gotten your copy, why, here is the perfect time. Go ahead and order, I'll wait .

Dum dee dum, dum, dee, dee, dum dee dum ... You back? Good.

The third category, guitars, is somewhat leaner -- still a fair number of posts, but only fifteen or so thousand words. Partially that's because I don't know all that much about playing the guitar. Partially, it's because many of the posts were vids, of me or others much better at it doing so, and they don't count.

When and if I get enough material in that arena, I'll clump it together into a book, too, and the working title of that will be Woodshedder.

Here's the lesson -- a writing one -- in this. Whatever you write, you hang onto. Never toss anything, because you don't know when it will come in handy.

I started the blog for fun, have offered some stuff I thought was amusing or useful, and had a couple hundred thousand people drop round to have a look.

I knew all along that some day, some of it would almost certainly be ore that I could mine, smelt, and maybe cast into ingots of metal worth something. Perhaps not gold, nor even silver, but copper or zinc can sell for enough to help feed the dogs.

Keep this in mind if you are a writer. Not only is everything grist for your mill, if you write it down, it will keep until such time as you might find a use for it.

(The illo, by the by, will likely be recognized by tai chi players, but for those of you who don't do that dance, the position picture is called "Play guitar ..."

Turnaround


Okay, my movie experience in LaLaLand. The names and places are changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike.

Some years ago, I was approached by a producer who owned movie rights to a comic book. There was a possible deal, but the comic book writer had never written a theatrical script, and would I be interested in collaborating on one -- on spec -- with him?

I was interested.

We met, talked it out, and wrote the script, this writer and I -- call him "Carl" -- got a pretty clean draft, and after some tinkering on it with our producer, the script was sent off to a Big Independent Producer who had made a shitload of movies. Call him "Rich." 

Rich liked the basic premise -- there would, of course, have to be changes -- but the project went forward. Rich pitched it to one of the major studios -- he had an office on their lot, and they had a multiple-picture deal in place.

The studio went for it.

So, Carl and I and our producer -- guy who had the movie rights, call him Billy Bob -- we all flew down to L.A. to meet with Rich and his team -- associate producers, the director, like that.

We all went into a conference room in one of the bungalows. A flunky went out to move our rental car because we had parked it in the wrong place. Evian water in half-gallon bottles was passed out. Rich's little dog ran around under the table and I gave it some of my water.

Rich and the gang had notes. This didn't work, that would cost too much, could we maybe tone this down and pump that up? The usual.

Carl and I nodded and jotted down the suggestions. Yes, we could do that. Of course, that was no problem. Perhaps, though we could discuss this other a bit further?

In the middle of the convivial meeting, Rich had to take a phone call. He did so right at the table. Started out fine, his half of the conversation: Hey, how's it going? Yeah, yeah. 

Then the tone took a hard right turn: What?! What?! You cocksucker! I will rip your fucking lungs out and piss in the hole! You'll be fucking sorry you were ever fucking born, goddammit!

Rich hung up the phone, and his rage vanished like cigarette smoke in a hurricane. He smiled. Where were we?

Carl and I exchanged somewhat awed glances. Holy shit. It's just they show it in the movies ...

The director -- a man who had done several pictures, one of which I even liked -- had little to say. He was British, and at one point, with a straight face, he said: "Can we put some baboons in it?" This line works best with a posh Brit accent, so imagine it thus.

Carl and I looked at each other. Baboons? Baboons? What, I was thinking, so some of your relatives can be in the movie? (If I ever write a book about Hollywood, that is going to be the title: Can We Put Some Baboons in it?)

But of course, I didn't say any of that. Carl and I nodded. Yeah. We could put in a scene at a post-apoc zoo or something. Whatever you need. 

Baboons. Sweet Jesus.

Eventually, the meeting was done, we went home to do the rewrites. We had a lead actor -- a well-known ex-football player who was now a TV sportscaster. They had a location, in Australia. A budget -- not huge, twenty-five million -- and we were almost there.

We did our rewrites. Sent them in. Got nothing back, not even an echo.

What this means in the biz is that they didn't like what we did, and they hired another writer. Oh, well. We'd get a credit, we got paid for our draft, and that was that.

But they didn't like what the new writer did, so they hired yet a third (Carl and I count as one) writer, and after a few weeks, we got a call. Would we like to take another shot at it? Because, they said -- and I swear this is true -- they had hired a new guy, but they didn't think they were going to like what he turned in.

Carl and I were dumbfounded. The failure of logic and all. If you didn't think you were going to like what he turned in before he turned it in, why the fuck did you hire him?!

But we didn't say that, either. 

We did our draft, turned it in, and sat back to see what was what.

What was what was that our lead actor had another picture he was doing, and they didn't want to let him out of that contract to do ours. But okay, they could do some finagling and finesse that. However:

Our lead actor had a day job, and it started in the fall, when the movie shoot was supposed to begin down under, and apparently nobody in the chain of fools had thought about that. A conflict. Oops. 

The lead actor and the director had what is known as pay-or-play deals. Which means that if, for some reason, the movie falls through, or they have to be released from their contract and it's not their fault, they get paid anyway. Nice deal if you can get it.

So they got paid, and the movie went into what is known as turnaround, in which the movie doesn't get made, and generally winds up on a shelf somewhere other than the studio who originally bought it. Not to say that in some distant future it couldn't get made, but the odds are not good. Nobody around here is holding their breathing waiting. 

A year or so later, I had occasion to visit SoCal, and before I left, I called up Carl. I'm going to L.A. I said. Anybody you want me to shoot while I'm there?

Carl said: Yeah. Fire off a gun in any direction -- you're bound to hit somebody worth killing.  

I knew just how he felt.