Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Pain in the Neck

A little update since the blog has been quiet during convention season. Both 4th Street and Readercon were delights, and I'm greatly looking forward to Otakon this Friday. But travel just got harder.

Five weeks ago I did something bad to my neck. I cannot remember a singular incident, but it was around then that I began experiencing persistent shooting pains down my neck, through my left shoulder, and down my left arm. It seemed like an exacerbation of problems I've had in my shoulder ever since a botched muscle biopsy in my teens. It feels a lot like something sticking your finger in an electrical outlet, at random, every couple of minutes.

About two weeks ago I had a hard exercise session, and really pushed my cardio. Recent meds have caused me to gain a lot of weight, and I wanted to push against it. Instead, something in my neck popped. That was the first time I couldn't feel my left arm anymore.

The arm regained feeling, and I never lost motor control. Since then the shooting pains have randomly started appearing in my right arm to compliment the left. These symmetrical pain is rare enough that I keep trying to pretend that was just one-- okay, just two-- maybe just three times, not a pattern.

I have a doctor's appointment in August, which is the earliest they could take me. But for now, it's a distraction and a worry.

And If I've randomly frowned or grimaced at you lately, please excuse me. I promise that you're not a pain in the neck.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Life Finds a Way: Jurassic Park's Obsession With Bad Parents (Spoilers for the series)

Jurassic Park is a series about absent parents. The dinosaurs are mostly clones - they were created from mishmashes of frogs and mosquito guts. They're built as living entertainment products, and raised to obey in cages. Subconsciously you know all this, and it's part of why you root for them to eat people so many times. But they aren't the only parentless children in this universe.

Consider Jurassic World's most obligatory characters: the kids. Zach and Gray Mitchell are tourists, put upon to survive, with minimal contribution to problem solving. They are a checklist of child tropes, and one obvious check item is their parents' divorce. The Mitchells sent them to the park to have one last positive memory before their impending split. Zach and Gray know it's coming, and it brings the younger to tears. The people that gave them life and are supposed to raise them won't stick it out. The older brother reflects that at least he'll be out to college in a couple years. These kids don't even expect to rely on their parents.

It's no accident that the dino-obsessed kid is named "Gray," while the lead raptor is "Blue." They're the lead colors of the logo, most of the promotional posters, and the color filters over the film. They are the opposite sides of Jurassic World's obsession with children of questionable parents.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Bibliography for 4th Street Fantasy 2015

Below is a bibliography of works discussed across the eleven panels at 4th Street Fantasy this year. It was taken mostly from the whiteboard postings, many of which were written by Tom Whitmore. If anyone has names of other whiteboard scribes, I'd like to include them.

Panel 8, on Playing The Cards You Weren't Dealt, was so author focused that I don't think we have a list for it, but if someone has one, I'd be happy to include it.

I've added author attribution to unattributed books where I could. In some cases only authors were named rather than works. These have been kept just as author names.

Panel 1: Does the Arc of Fantasy Bend Toward Justice
Colin Cotterill
Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover
Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover
A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Jo Walton's The Just City
Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs
K.J. Parker

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"Alligators by Twitter" at The Sockdolager

This week I'm happy to present "Alligators by Twitter," the story of a simple man who'd just like to trend worldwide before he's eaten alive.

The story originally ran at Flash Fiction Online five years ago, but the way we use Twitter has changed since then. The editors helped me update the story a bit, and I think the ending is even funnier now. Thanks to Paul Starr and Alison Wilgus, who have gathered a fine issue for the summer.

On top of that, I'm packing for 4th Street, a convention in Minnesota. I'll be doing my first panel there, discussing self-care for authors. I hope to have a glowing report for you when I get back.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Pain of Special Needs in Mad Max: Fury Road (Some Spoilers)

For this discussion I'm going to use "special needs" to refer to people with an array of physical and mental problems. There is no term I'm wholly comfortable with that collects things so ranging. "Disability" doesn't even cover it for me, and is sometimes more uncomfortable. But know that preference of terminology changes from person to person. This is always easier talking person-to-person, where you can tailor to what makes individuals comfortable.

You probably don't know Nathan Jones. He was a professional wrestler who quit because, at 6'11" (2.1 meters), travel became incredibly painful. He didn't fit in an airplane seat or on any motel mattress, and good luck driving a rental car from town to town with legs that long. He quit WWE in 2003 and went into film. To date, I don't think I've seen him in a film that acknowledged his size could be a problem in life. He tends to play villains, because it's easier for average people to see giants as powerful and dangerous.

He plays Rictus Erectus in Max Mad: Fury Road. He lumbers through the movie with very few lines. When he speaks, it sounds like the character has a learning disorder. That's typical of giant villains.

Since he has no individual agency, always acting in obeisance to his murderous father (Immortan Joe), his only further characterization is a breathing apparatus strapped to his back and plugged to his nose. He chases heroes, overpowering any he gets his hands on because Dad told him to. Late in the movie, a hero finally manages to stab Jones's breathing machine. Jones crumples, possibly suffocating, and my whole theater laughed.

I mean, the whole theater laughed except me. But my lungs are probably what'll kill me, so I'm biased.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

My 2015 Convention Schedule

Since I keep getting questions about where people can find me this year, I'm sharing my convention schedule. I'll be traveling to four cons in four states. This ignores Boskone from February, which was more of a snow day than a convention anyway.

June 26-28
4th Street Fantasy
Minneapolis, Minnesota

July 9-12
Burlington, Massachusetts (no, not Vermont)

July 24-26
Baltimore, Maryland

November 5-8
World Fantasy
Saratoga Springs, New York

Originally I'd intended to hit WorldCon in Washington, but my health isn't up to traveling that far across the country. Some day, West Coast. I'd also love to do a Canadian convention eventually...

If you'll be attending any of these, or in the area, feel free to drop me a line! I'm happy to meet people who are normally states away from me.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Siren Call - #fridayflash

Devenna held the garage shutters open as bombers zipped overhead. Old Man Moa drove their only taxi inside, and idled for half a minute before turning it off. The air raid siren was too loud for Devenna to ask Moa about his passengers; the codger had fit six corpses in his cab, one sitting up front, five others packed into the back with creative use of the footwells.

The siren was too loud to ask Moa what he'd done. A bomb rocked uptown, its voice loud enough to be heard over the siren, and the old cabbie ignored it and began removing the bodies, laying them out on the cracked concrete floor. Devenna could only help him. Together they carried a woman who was missing half her head, but whose wound was wrapped in the yellow blanket Moa wore on winter drives. Comfort covered cruelty.

When all six passengers were laid to rest on the floor, Devenna handed Moa a rag for his face. He had grit and gore stuck in his gray beard, and in the wrinkles of his leathery forehead, yet he cleaned the faces of the dead before his own. Somewhere, another bomb tried to speak up over the siren, and then both voices went silent. Maybe the foreigners had hit the siren's source. Devenna had never thought about where the city kept that sort of thing.

Moa blinked through the window, and the spirals of smoke still rising from uptown. It was like he heard something in the new silence. Devenna strained to listen, and heard the old man wheezing.

To Devenna's disgust, the old man huffed a deep breath and climbed back into his taxi. Devenna stepped in, barring him from closing the door.

Moa rubbed his eyes. "There are more bodies every hour. Foreign monsters won't stop shelling."

"Then leave them." Devenna made an obscene gesture at the city through the garage shutters. "Come hide out in the shop with me. The dead aren't paying you fares."

"They've paid enough. They deserve proper burial."

Devenna grabbed the old man's shirt and shook him. He felt so light, like there were just bones inside his clothes. "Stay. You'll be killed."

Moa narrowed his bloodshot eyes up into Devenna's face. "The meaning of life is not to live forever."

"Life has no meaning!"

"I'm sure yours doesn't."

As though the world punctuated his sentence, the air raid siren resumed. Devenna tried to argue and couldn't hear himself, and Moa jerked the cab door closed. He drove off down Seven, making the left that took you towards uptown.

It was their only cab. The garage was on the outskirts, a lousy target the foreigners might still hit. They could hit anywhere. Devenna remained with the passengers on the concrete floor, regarding the woman who had a stained blanket instead of a face. Either because Moa was wrong or because he could do nothing else, he left her to go out back and begin digging graves.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Guest Post: Peter Newman on Turning The Vagrant from Serial to Novel

Today I'm happy to present to you one of Friday Flash's original stars: Peter Newman. Peter is co-host of the lovely Tea & Jeopardy podcast, and author of The Vagrant, which was just released by Harper Voyager. While I was privileged with early glimpses of the story in its formative days as a serial, it's developed into something very different. Peter is a heck of a writer and has some insights to share from his journey into publishing. -John

The Vagrant turned up one day when I was trying to write some flash fiction. I didn’t really have much of an idea what was going to happen immediately but I went with it. It was slow going, excavating little ideas that were floating around in the darker parts of my brain.

I quickly began to realise that I wasn’t actually writing a piece of flash fiction, I was in fact writing a serial. Part One quickly became Part Two, Part Three… then Part Ten, and onwards. As the episodes went on, various things settled into place, like the fact it was going to be written in the present tense. At first I wrote it in the past tense but found myself drifting in and out by accident. As an inexperienced writer, I took that to mean that I wasn’t very good at writing consistently but I now see that I was trying to find the right way to tell the story and had to experiment for a while before getting comfortable.

Writing the Vagrant each week was a strange experience. I now had the primary character and the world was taking shape. I’d known from early on where the story was going but the path to get there always descended into the mists. I was writing the serial in thousand word chunks but those thousand words often took a long time to find.

It’s worth adding that at this time I had a lot of support from the Friday Flash community, and people took time out to comment on what I was doing. A lot of this was essentially cheerleading (which I needed then and I still need now) but there was also criticism in there too (positive and negative) and I came to cherish those comments.

Twenty five episodes later and I realised that I wasn’t writing a serial either. I was in fact writing a novel.

Transitioning from one to the other was an interesting process. There were some advantages. For example, a serial format keeps things punchy, with lots of cliff clangers and crisis points to keep the reader motivated. However, there were also drawbacks. I had no chapters! And the rhythms of a novel are different. Some scenes had to be reworked and sewn together, others expanded significantly. The other thing I found was that I still had to write slow. I continued writing in thousand word chunks. Any more, and the quality of the work suffered.

But for all of that, the core style didn’t change and the Vagrant carried on the same way he always had.

As I approached the end of the book, I realised that I wasn’t just writing a novel, I was writing a series. I’d always planned The Vagrant to be a stand-alone novel but as I moved into the closing chapters, ideas for a sequel began to blossom. That sequel is written and currently with my editor.

And now find I have ideas for a new book in that world. I very much hope I get the chance to plunge into the mists once again. And if I do, I’ll keep following the Vagrant for as long as he’s happy to lead me.

The point I want to make here is that sometimes (rarely!), you wake up with a story fully formed in your mind, or a killer concept that screams for you to start writing. Sometimes you just get a spark that needs to be followed. And sometimes, if you let it, the story will take care of itself.

with it. It was slow going, excavating little ideas that were floating around in the darker parts of my brain.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Sold Two Stories!

Part of why I've been so quiet for the last couple months is intense writing and editing work. I've had my fingers in so many different projects that I'm not sure how to begin counting them all. But today I'm happy to announce two: I've sold "Bones at the Door" to Fireside Fiction, and a special reprint of "Alligators by Twitter" to The Sockdolager!

"Bones at the Door" is a Horror Comedy about a little girl's relationship with the local flesh-eating monster. It's one of the best structured stories I've ever written, and I have to thank Max Cantor for giving it a thoughtful critique that showed me how to finish it. I can't wait to show it to you all.

"Alligators by Twitter" was my first-ever pro sale, and is the Twitter feed of a man whose house is invaded by suspiciously intelligent alligators. He really wants to trend before he gets eaten. The way we use Twitter has changed since the original publication, and editor Paul Starr helped me update the story just enough that there are some new laughs.

Both publication dates are pending, but I'll be sure to announce when they're available. Hopefully I'll have more good news in the near future. I'm about to dive back into a novel.

One sneak announcement, though: this Wednesday I'll host a guest-post by my old #fridayflash buddy Peter Newman, whose debut novel just came out from Harper Collins! I'm so proud of Peter and look forward to him telling you about The Vagrant.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Daredevil Wishlist

A wonderful thing happened while watching Daredevil. Stuck in bed with bronchitis, too wiped to even sit up and read (my poor copy of Grace of Kings...), the show was exactly what I needed. There's so much worthwhile about it that I actively hoped certain characters from the comics wouldn't show up, and certain stories wouldn't play out, because of how cracking they would be as the focus of later seasons.

And lo, Netflix's Daredevil restrained itself. The season is about the feud of Murdoch and Wilson Fisk, The Lawyer Vs. The Mobster, with a few side characters fleshed out. Mostly side-characters are introduced with unlimited potential: the best buddy Foggy Nelson, Karen Page with a checkered past, the Night Nurse willing to treat heroes without exposing their identities. It's a great season of television as well as a cracking origin story, and at the end I had a wishlist of things for future seasons.

We'll get to that wishlist in a paragraph, but be forewarned: we're about to spoil the crap out of the show. If you like superheroes, you ought to give Daredevil a shot. The list of what could be coming will be waiting when you're ready. But if you're caught up, or if you don't care about spoilers*, let's dig in.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

March Attacks!

I didn't know this picture was being taken.

March escaped a couple weeks ago, and I barely noticed. There was food poisoning, and a wedding to plan (not mine, I was a mere taskmaster). I was so wrapped up in editing thirteen different short stories for submission, and beta reading two novels and an additional three short stories, that if it weren't for #NaNoReMo, I wouldn't have noticed us spilling into April.

Then again, we got snow flurries on Easter. Yesterday when I stepped outside to grill, I saw my breath and the cold flashed my face with dry-burns. So maybe the world doesn't know it's April yet, either.

I've been criminally negligent on #NaNoReMo posts. I'd wanted to run two more about The Color Purple, and one on my disappointment with Siddhartha, but blogs got eaten in the avalanche. Let today serve as a tardy wrap-up.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Color Purple: I can't read it, but I can hear it - #NaNoReMo

A funny thing happened in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. While I have trouble reading it sometimes, I can hear it perfectly.

It's novel written mostly in a dialect of the 1930's U.S. South, adhering to a different grammar than those dominant in modern style guides. Deep as the chapters get, the sentences are largely simple. We start the novel in such dire situations that the simplicity increases the empathy for what our narrator is living through. Consider the opening of the second chapter:

"Dear God,

My mama dead. She die screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me. I'm. I can't move fast enough. By time I git back from the well, the water be warm. By time I git the ray ready the food be cold. By time I git all the children ready for school it be dinner time. He don't say nothing. He set there by the bed holding her hand and cryin, talking about don't leave me, don't go."

Unless you've read a lot of dire fiction lately, that is a situation that begs for interest and empathy. Interest in what killed her mother, and who the "he" at the end is. Her father? Lover? An older brother?

I've read very little fiction written in this dialect. Even now, every couple of pages I'll get micro-pauses, as I rearrange the words and parse them into the way I typically use language. Sometimes I savor her manner of phrasing, but more often I'm trying to wrap my head around this written syntax.

The funny thing? I can hear it just fine.

On an experiment, I picked up the audiobook. I listened for an hour while driving on errands and never had a single micro-pause for comprehension. Part was the skill of the narrator (my copy is actually read by the author herself), but I've heard people speak this way for most of my life. Out loud, in the mouth of a fluent speaker who can use inflections, it's smoother than poetry to my ears.

Returning to the hardcover, much more of the book reads familiar. It feels like elementary school, as I associate things I've heard growing up with things on the page for the first time. My problem is that while I've heard people speak this way, I've seldom read them write their words down. There's a gross pressure in literature to homogenize and cater to style guides. I recall two professors instructing our class that, even though Mark Twain was very good at writing phonetically and in dialect, we should never try it. It was too confusing to readers.

Well it's too confusing because readers never read it. If you're exposed to different approaches to prose, they become more natural to you. It's the same phenomenon that causes so many amateur critics to deride present tense storytelling. I was on their side as a teenager because I read it so rarely that it came across as stilted - its rareness made me read it that way. As I got older and read more, the uncanny quality went away.

It's also why I'm optimistic on the generation growing up now with tweets and text messages. There is some data to suggest they comprehend standard-grammared testing better kids without phones because they've played with language more, and even if they haven't consciously regarded it, it's unconsciously part of them.

Would challenges like reading The Color Purple, Trainspotting, A Clockwork Orange yield similar benefits? 200 pages in, and I think The Color Purple has equal (if not greater) merit to being taught in high schools as Twain's Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. If you're going to test teens with language outside of their box, it's a book as deep as any other in this paragraph. There's so much to chew... But that should come in a later post.

For now, I am a damned glad that I picked this book. Doubly glad I found Walker's audio.

Monday, March 2, 2015

#NaNoReMo - National Novel Reading Month

It's March, which means it's National Novel Reading Month. This is an annual tradition encouraging people to read the classic novels they've been putting off, because everybody has a few. As it is, I have a dozen on my shelf that I've owned for an embarrassingly long time. War and Peace is a personal shame of mine.

Readers define classics for themselves. A Tale of Two Cities and Peter Pan are part of the English canon, but Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are classics of Spy fiction. Ursula K. Leguin's A Wizard of Earthsea is a Speculative Fiction classic. If you perceive a book as a classic that you haven't gotten to yet, that's all that matters.

I've picked two books this year. The first is Alice Walker's The Color Purple, something I've heard about since high school but never sat down with. Walker has a reputation for confronting thorny issues of social hierarchy, and in The Color Purple, targets the life of a young woman in the South in the 1930's. Even the sample chapters ache with insight and historic weight.

It's a shame I overlooked this in school since History class gave me such a scant idea of African American experiences; for all I knew, they sprang into being around the Civil War, then disappeared until the Civil Rights movement. Over the years I picked up the general liberal sensitivity to issues without contextual understanding, and so avoided the enormous gaps in my knowledge. In that way, Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns and watching 12 Years a Slave were necessary kicks in the ass.

If I finish with reasonable time and keep up with other reading, then my second book will be Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. There's a certain hopscotch of cultures involved: I'm an American in 2015 preparing to read a German in 1922 writing his idea of an Indian's spiritual journey around 500 BCE. The filters are part of the appeal.

I bought my copy in 2007, and it's one of the four books I've owned the longest without reading. At my grandfather's funeral, my cousin Palmer said the book changed his life. Even if he's much younger and thus easier to change the life of, he's a smart guy, and I felt deeper shame for not giving the book a shot yet.

If you're going through a classic this month, please comment so I can add your blog, tumblr or Twitter to the master list!

Danielle La Paglia is reading J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan
Sonia Lal will be joining me for Alice Walker's The Color Purple
Ally Atherton
will also be joining me for The Color Purple
Chuck Allen will be joining me for Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha
Helen Howell is reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
David G Shrock is also reading Frankenstein
Katherine Hajer is reading Jane Austen's Persuasion
Charles Ross Dillon is reading Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame 
Cindy Vaskova is reading Algernon Blackwood's The Willows
Dorothy Lang is reading Art Spiegelmann's Maus
Counter est. March 2, 2008