Saturday, September 29, 2007

Matthew Hughes

I've read a number of Matthew Hughes's stories that appeared in F&SF while I had a subscription. He's now holding a contest give-away over at his website, so I thought I'd say a few things about the stories I've read.

His stories and novels are all set in a far-future earth, not quite Dying Earth- or New Sun-era, but immediately before that, what he calls the "penultimate age" of the earth (or was that merely Gordon Van Gelder's description of it in his intro to one of the stories? I forget).

There are two main characters he follows in the stories I've read, Henghis Hapthorn, a private investigator of some sort, and Guth Bandar, a noonaut--more about what that means in a bit. Henghis was central to last year's novel Majestrum and the new novel, The Spiral Labyrinth. Both are on my to-read list, but they haven't made their way to the top. Part of the reason may be that the one Henghis story I recall, "The Meaning of Luff," didn't engage me nearly as much as the Guth Bandar stories. It had its intriguing moments, but I think the other stories had raised my expectations, so I wasn't quite inspired to rush out and read Majestrum. (Even so I nearly bought it last time I had a gift card to the local bookstore--it was one of a handful of books that I ended up choosing two others from.)

But those Bandar stories...the idea of the noosphere is that it's humanity's collective unconscious, and scientists have discovered a way to explore it, experiencing as if physically the archetypes that are common to all humans. Now those who've read the first draft of my Silk Betrayal can probably guess why that would intrigue me anyway--I just think it's a very cool setup that's ripe for a lot of fascinating stories. But if it was simply potential for good stories, then I probably wouldn't be quite as enthusiastic about it--the first one that I read set there, though (and I can't remember it's name, but maybe I'll come back and add it in a bit), added a great story within that great setting. If this sounds interesting, there's one of the Bandar stories on his website: "A Little Learning." A collection of all the Bandar stories will be coming out from Robert J Sawyer Books. Actually the website says "will be published in June 2007," so I'm not sure if it already came out and that hasn't been updated or, what I think it more likely, that the pub date has been pushed back.

The other books--the two Henghis novels I mentioned as well as a collection of short stories involving him have all been published by the inestimable Night Shade Books.

Those who come here regularly know that I don't like firm distinctions between science fiction and fantasy, but I also know that some of you who prefer things labeled as fantasy might be a bit leery about the far future aspect of this. But this is not (or what I've read isn't at least) hard science fiction all caught up in the exact science of how these things work or obsessed with rigorous explanations. I think these are works that will appeal to fantasy fans as well as science fiction fans and all of those like me who freely cross any borders placed in our way. (Hmmm, Writers Without Borders, like Doctors Without Borders...except with words and genres instead of medicine and countries...I like that.)

Update and correction: I just heard from Matthew Hughes, and "The Meaning of Luff" is actually not a Henghis Hapthorn story, but another character, one whose stories, he said, tend to be darker in mood and wouldn't fit well with the Hapthorn stories. So...yeah. I'm feeling a bit sheepish--it's certainly a poor reason for not reading Majestrum now...

Also, I just paged through my copies of F&SF, and the Guth Bandar stories I'd read were "Help Wonted" and "A Herd of Opportunity." And now I'm reading (and enjoying) "A Little Learning."

Friday, September 28, 2007

Writing poetry within a secondary world

As I'm revising Silk Betrayal, I've reached a point in the story where at least three of those who read the earlier draft said I need to include some of the poetry I refer to--the poetry plays a key role, inspiring some of the events that follow, and the consensus was that I was telling readers how powerful the poetry is but not showing it. But that means I have to not only write engaging characters, gripping action, deep layers of meaning, intrigue, obstacles, and everything else good prose has...I have to write poetry. Not just any poetry, poetry that makes a connoisseur sit up and take notice as well as inspire the less educated sectors of the society.

Is there any question why I didn't try that during the first draft? I won't try to recreate the entire epic by any means, but at the least I need a few lines thrown in there to get the feel across. Actually the chapter I'm on now simply has some lyrical poetry from an oppressed religious group, so that's not too bad. But in two chapters or so I'll get to the actual epic, and the POV character marvels at how the different lines interact, how they play with and subvert the traditional structures. Yeah, that'll be tough.

I'm not going for any complete poems, and I don't think any form poetry with a set rhythm or rhyme would fit this culture. In some senses that makes it easier...but good free verse, even just two lines of good free verse, can be as challenging as good poetry in a traditional form. And I don't want to rely too much on the idea that what's there is merely translated--if it's translated, then I'm the translator, and it's equally my job to make the poem convey its meaning in a poetic way as the original poet. I'll fall back on that explanation a bit in my head, but to use it completely as an excuse seems a cop-out.

I grabbed a couple of books of non-Western poetry from the library the other day--I actually took them from the shelf before I even thought of them as inspiration for this. But I didn't find any Indian poetry. I'm sure I can find some translations of Vedic hymns and other religious works online (Sacred Texts, here I come). But if anyone knows of any other Indian poets, whether more ancient or even as recent as the late 19th century, let me know and I'll look into that as well.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A few vacation pics...from Nebraska

Since my comments about Nebraska earlier might be seen as disparaging, I've decided to post a few pictures of an awesome playground we stopped at in Grand Island, NE. They're sort of small, I realize now. Maybe I'll come back and upload a bigger version when I add a few more pictures (of Michigan) later.

SFPA sonnet contest results

Here are the results from the contest. Alas, I didn't place, or even get honorable mention. It was fun though--it had been so long since I played around with a defined form, with set rhythm and rhyme. I notice that each of the winners is more science fiction in theme than fantasy, and mine was more fantasy (if one must make such distinctions), though it looks like one of the honorable mentions might be more fantasy-ish.

1st Place: "One Ship Tall" by Elizabeth Barrette

2nd Place: "Abandoned" by Ann K. Schwader

3rd Place: "The Cyburbs" by Constance Cooper

Congrats to all!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Another review of Nemonymous

There's a review of each of the stories in Nemo 7 on this forum. There's also a review from awhile ago now that I never linked to because it doesn't review all the stories, but it gives a good overview and reviews a handful. For those trying to guess who wrote what, I've been generally pleased with the reviews I've seen so far, but I'll say nothing more on that.

Also note that these stories were recently named Honorable Mentions in Year's Best Fantasy and Horror:

"Mary's Gift, the Stars, and Frank's Pisser,"
"England and Nowhere,"

So congrats to those writers, whether they include me or not. It's quite an honor. (My own reading of the antho is still going slowly because I always overestimate how much I'm going to read when I go to the library, but I have read several of these and enjoyed them--"[title removed to preserve anonymity]" especially.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Observations from our trip

  1. Crossing Nebraska always takes longer than you expect it to. (Well most things do with a child, to be honest, including any "quick" bathroom stops...but especially NE.)
  2. Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" is still just as funny no matter how many times you listen to it, while "The Motorcycle (Significance of the Pickle) Song" was very funny at first years ago but now is only relatively funny when it's been a long time between listens.*
  3. Every state except Indiana seems to have a surplus of orange barrels and must believe that September is the month to use them for closing one lane of a long stretch of highway without any hint of any work getting done. Of course this meant that when one lane of expressway in Indiana really did require closing for a quarter mile (causing a several mile backup), they had no cones and had to rely on police cruisers with flashing lights.
  4. I expected more nostalgia visiting places I haven't been for awhile--instead, despite how much older many kids I'd taught or known had grown and the new buildings all around, more often I was struck that it didn't seem I'd been gone long at all.
  5. Winner of the best-named river goes to the Nishnabotna River in western Iowa.
  6. It's amazing how quickly a barely-potty-trained child learns he can claim he needs to use the potty just because he's sick of his car seat and wants to get out for a few minutes to play.
  7. The woods around Camp Roger remain an incredibly powerful part of something deep in my psyche.
  8. Forget Area 51--alien technologies can be seen crossing Illinois on flatbed semi trailers (actually I think they were a pair of blades for a huge windmill, but alien tech sounds cooler**). And other strange things can be seen on the semis of Nebraska.
  9. The real speed demons seem to be out in force during the day-time--I often had people whipping by me in the mornings, but rarely in the evenings or late at night, though I kept my cruise at the same speed in relation to the speed limit the entire time.
  10. For all the coffee I drank in the trip, I rarely liked the coffee--none of it was as good as what I make at home. Hotel coffee was burnt, and I never seemed to get the amount of coffee right when using other people's coffee makers.
*We also listened to the 2-disc Precious Friend with him and Pete Seeger, and Arlo has two talking songs there--"Celery Consciousness" which is pretty funny, and "Un-Neutron Bomb" which is very funny despite the fact that it references political situations that took place well before I was old enough to pay attention to them. But I'm not familiar with any of the other Arlo Guthrie albums beside that and "Greatest Hits"--does anyone know anything about his more recent albums?

**Actually, the type of windmills on the wind farms we passed are pretty cool themselves.
Robert Jordan

I'm back--still rather exhausted though. That was a lot of driving...especially with a child who had a cold. I didn't think I was as tired anymore this afternoon (we got in yesterday, and I had a good night's sleep to recover), but now it's hitting me again.

I have a tongue-in-cheek post about the trip, but I'll do that later. First I have to acknowledge the death of a writer that was once high in my esteem. While I lost interest in the series sometime in college, back in high school Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series was one of my favorites. One thing I remember striking me at the time was the way he was able to use the multiple viewpoints in different chapters to get readers (or at least me) to really feel like they knew each of the characters and understood how they might react to different things. He was not the first to do this by any means, nor the last (nor possibly the best, though it's been so long that I can't say either way), but it was a revelation to me at the time, one of the first times I remember really paying attention to the way viewpoint affects how a reader reacts to a story.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Heading out

Well, I'd had a great blog post idea that was sure to spark intense discussion among all two of you who read this...but I won't have time to do it now. Perhaps after I get back. We're heading out to Michigan shortly--to see some of our friends we haven't seen since we moved and then across the state to spend a few days with my parents. Maybe even show my son the awe-inspiring sight of Lake Michigan. I probably won't get a chance to blog while we're away, or at least not much. I hope you can survive without the inspiration of my frequent posts...

I'll be back in just over a week.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Poetry Sale!

I'm running around like crazy trying to get stuff packed and organized for our trip--we leave on Friday, but we want to be ready to go as soon as we can on Friday and not have a lot more to arrange--but I wanted to quick pop in and announce that my poem "Gather in the Growing Things" has been accepted by Dragons, Knights & Angels. This was a competition entry (and written specifically for the competition), and though it didn't win, the editors wanted to take it as a standard submissions.

I'll have to add DKA to the list at the right later, and I'll be sure to post here once the poem is live.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Writing progress

Some other writers seem to do a lot more of these current-status-updating posts. I don't seem to have a lot to update of late--I'm trying to really focus on revising and rewriting, both for my novel-length work and for a number of stories. Some have been submitted and now I see they weren't ready, and others haven't gone out yet. Revising is always a struggle for me. I find I have to force myself not to sit down and write new stories. But I know I have a number of stories here that are good...and it's time to take the time necessary to make them great.

At least, that's my hope. I've got a week-long trip coming up, so I think I'll be printing a lot out and doing some serious paper-and-ink rewrites.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Madeline L'Engle

Another author whose work I loved in grade school has died. I don't remember exactly when I read the original Time trilogy, but I loved all three (and much later read Many Waters and enjoyed it too). I memorized the poem that gives the chapter titles in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I just tried to run through it in my mind, and I think I'm missing a few lines, but it should come to me. I bet it was about this same time that I memorized the Fear litany of the Bene Gesserit in Dune...I can remember how that starts, but not the only thing by any means. Apparently L'Engle had a new story about the Murrays published this spring--An Acceptable Time. I think I'll have to check that one out.

She came to my college for a conference...oh, must have been during my first year, so spring of '96. I bet I still have notes on her speech somewhere in our crawlspace. I was afraid I would be disillusioned after seeing her and hearing her speak, but I definitely wasn't.

PS--I think I've remembered the missing lines now. But I'm curious because I know how I say the opening, but does it being "At Tara in this fateful hour" or "At Terra in this fateful hour"? (Tara being a fitting word given the Irish origin, but Terra of course working as well for the entire earth.)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Old Classics and New Stars

Someone on a forum I'm on posted the question of what's more important from a professional standpoint (as opposed to simply reading for pleasure): to be well-read in the classics, or to be well-read in the current state of speculative fiction. I certainly try for both, and I think there's a danger in being well-read in only one of those two options. I've run into writers who are steeped in the pulp-era stories, have read all the classics from that period and most of the lesser known works, but they know nothing of the ways contemporary writers have taken some of those tropes and re-envisioned them. And their writing ends up coming off as pastiche, pleasing to others who love, say, Conan and nothing else, but they don't attract other readers.

And I've certainly known writers who think classic means Feist's work from the early 80s (or whenever it was). (Nothing against Feist, by the way--his books were probably my first after Tolkien, so there's a sentimental fondness there even as I recognize them as not being the type of thing I have any interest in writing.) Their only familiarity with fantasy or speculative fiction is in bloated series, in things that came along after fantasy became codified with strict and silly restrictions and overly influenced by the strictures of gaming. And their work feels shallow, pale.

Some years ago I read an awful book. Absolutely horrid, by a bestselling fantasy author (the only thing of that author I've read). It made me despair about the current state of fantasy and set me on a path of focusing on the classics...or at least the early touchstones of the genre (sometimes I think we overuse that word classic). It's also what inspired me to take my writing much more seriously, but that's a tangent.

I think that served me well, but I also know that I wouldn't be at all the writer I am if I wasn't aware of some of the more recent works--there's some incredibly exciting things being done in the genre today, and often I feel woefully behind when I go over to the FBS forum and see all the books on my to-read list that others discuss (I finally got Valente's In the Night Garden from the library today). But I can't imagine being a speculative writer and not at least being aware, for example, of what a writer like China Mieville does with fantasy (Perdido Street Station was an absolute paradigm shift for me, even if there are other books I think are better). I know it's hard to find time to read when you want to use spare time to write, so I wouldn't say it or anything else is required reading. But better at least be aware of books like that. Skim a chapter at the bookstore, read a few reviews, and pay some attention to discussions about books like these.

And then hop back to Dunsany, LeGuin, Tolkien and Peake now and then too. (Not to even mention the broader field of classics, which contain many that are well worth the time.)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Hurray for bike trailers and craigslist!

I live in one of the greatest cities for biking, with trails and bike lanes all over, one trail even within a couple of blocks of our house. Yet I haven't taken full advantage of them. Last fall already this was striking me as wrong, so I got my bike out (a late 70s Motobecane) and took a few rides before the snow came. But I was always limited by only being able to go when my wife was home with my son during the daytime and we weren't doing anything else that day. Let me assure you that such days were disappointingly rare.

So I'd been looking for a bike trailer ever since (or even before then), but I didn't want a cheap one that would fall apart after a few rides, and I couldn't justify spending the money for a new one of the type I'd really like. So I finally settled on a used one that seemed in good condition a few weeks ago.

But oops--the frame on my old bike is too close to the spokes. Doesn't work. At last found a good and not-outrageously priced bike last night (like the trailer, through craigslist), went to Home Depot this morning to get a different bolt to attach it with and was ready to go.

Then my son said he didn't want to go in the trailer. Grrr. I cajoled him and sweet talked him, and finally he willingly got in, but i just figured we'd go for a short ride around the neighborhood streets just to get him used to it. He kept asking to go farther though, so we ended up with a decent bike ride, and I'm already planning to head out some more over the next few days. My son and I know the nearby trails very well from funning on them with the jogging stroller--now it's time to explore a little farther out. Yay!

Monday, September 03, 2007

"In the Grove of Sickle Grass"

The story is now up at Reflection's Edge, once again with an amazing turn-around time between acceptance and publication. The story is labeled as fantasy/horror, and the teaser reads:
Names are sacred things, dangerous things, a fact which Timn and his cousin know well. And on the day they enter a secret grove to collect a wedding gift, a grove where names can cost you everything, they're careful to guard against such dangers. But the old monkey is watching - and some things simply can't be prepared against.
It's funny that that label jumps out at me. It's accurate--it really is a horror story--but I just never see myself as a horror writer, so at the same time it sort of surprises me. (It's not a horror story in the sense of gore or anything, for what it's worth.) And I'm not at all opposed to psychological-type horror stories. Some of my own stories can be pretty dark. It just seems a bit...odd.

Where did the story come from? Hmm. This was another of the one-hour story prompts from one of my critique groups--I think the prompt involved a ritual of some sort. Something like that anyway. I just went back, and we try to do these every week, though it hasn't been quite that regular lately. Anyway, in March of 06 I did four of those quick writes, and each of them has now been published. If that's not enough incentive to get myself back into the habit and discipline of doing them, then I need a good smack on the head.