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Friday, November 20, 2020

Stories in music

I was driving to work yesterday, listening to classical music on satellite radio, and I heard Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Lennart Sikkema, Canyon River Tree (165872763), CC BY 3.0]

Pretty cool piece of music, but to me the fifth and final movement is something really special.  It's called "Cloudburst" and is a musical depiction of a thunderstorm in the desert.

And the thought occurred to me that you don't need words to tell a story.  Grofé gives us a picture in sounds -- the approach of the storm, lightning, thunder, wind -- then its subsidence (and just like in a real storm, afterward you can still hear the thunder in the distance as it recedes).

This is a pretty well-known piece of music, and is far from the only one that tells a story using music.  Another famous one is Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre, depicting the devil playing the fiddle and summoning the dead to dance in the cemetery (xylophones for the bones knocking together!).  Listen at the end for the church bells ringing in the distance to signal the sunrise, and the little musical shiver the devil gives when he knows the day is coming -- followed by a sad, mournful solo.  But then, the last few notes seem to promise that he'll be back once night falls again.

Beethoven drew his inspiration from stories as well, and I'm not only thinking of pieces like the Pastoral Symphony.  Check out this amazing performance of his piano solo Rondo a Capriccio: Rage Over a Lost Penny.  (All I can say is that if losing a penny made me come up with tunes like this, I'd be flinging coins all over the place.)

One of my favorite musical depictions is from the incredibly prolific American composer Alan Hovhaness.  His Symphony #50 (he wrote 67 of them, and about 450 other sorts of pieces) is subtitled Mount Saint Helens.  Listen to it -- if that's not a musical version of a volcanic eruption, I don't know what is.

Jean Sibelius wrote a lot of music based upon Finnish folk tales, myths, and legends, but to me none gives as vivid a picture as "Lemminkainen's Return" from the Kalevala Suite.  Lemminkainen is a folk hero, and the piece depicts his triumphant return to his home after a long adventure.  It gallops along, and you can almost see the hero with his long hair flying in the wind, riding his horse through a snowstorm.

One of the funniest pieces in classical music -- once you know the story it's telling -- is Sergei Prokofiev's brilliant Lieutenant Kije Suite.  The story behind it is that during an inspection of a military regiment by the Tsar, he was reviewing the roster and saw that someone had scribbled in the word "Kije" (Russian for "thingamajig"), and mistakenly thought it was the name of a soldier.  No one wanted to correct the Tsar, so they invented a Lieutenant Kije, and waxed rhapsodic about his exploits and bravery.  But they overdid it -- so much that the Tsar asked to meet this exemplary military man.  Cornered, the leaders of the regiment had to invent a heroic death in battle for Kije so the Tsar wouldn't uncover the deception.

I'll end with one of my favorite pieces, the stunning Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky.  It tells of the magical firebird, half bird and half human, who is captured by the heroic Prince Ivan.  She gives him one of her feathers, and tells him he can use it to defeat the evil sorcerer King Katschei.  Katschei keeps his soul hidden in an egg in a casket and thinks he's immortal because of it (shades of J. K. Rowling's horcruxes).  But using the magic of the feather, Ivan forces Katschei and his minions to dance themselves to exhaustion.  He then finds the egg and destroys it, killing Katschei and freeing all of the people he'd magically enslaved -- including the young woman Ivan is in love with.  The end is one of the most joyful, stirring, triumphant pieces of music ever written.

So that's a few of my favorite stories in music.  I hope you enjoyed listening.  What are your favorites?

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Who the hell is Mary Hansard?

I had a very peculiar thing happen to me while working on my work-in-progress, a fall-of-civilization novel called In the Midst of Lions that I swear was not inspired in any way by 2020.  (In fact -- true story -- I first came up with the idea for this book when I was in college.  Which was a lot of years ago.)

I've been kicked into high gear on this by NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month -- a rather daft undertaking that occurs every November, in which authors are challenged to write the first draft of a fifty thousand word novel in thirty days.  This is my eighth time participating, and I've gotten to 50K five of the eight times, which isn't too shabby.

This year I was disinclined to participate.  I have not been writing much, mostly from a combination of depression over the political situation and frustration at how poorly my published novels have been selling lately.  The result has been lousy concentration and focus, and writing only very intermittently, which any good writer will attest is the way to go nowhere fast.

I got my arm twisted, in a friendly and positive way, by my fellow writer, blogger, and Twin Brudda From Anudda Mudda, Andrew Butters, whose blog Potato Chip Math should be on your regular reading list.  Andrew said -- rightly -- that signing up would be a much-needed kick in the ass to my motivation, so with some misgivings I signed up.  Thus far I'm ahead of the game; three days in, the target is 5,000 words, and at the closing bell tonight I had 5,830.

But what I want to tell you about is something that happened yesterday.  The main characters, a bunch of academics who are very used to the easy life, are caught up in a sudden societal collapse.  I'm always interested to think about how perfectly ordinary people would act in extraordinary circumstances; this is kind of the crypto-theme of all my stories, actually.  In any case these four professors from the University of Washington end up having to flee the rioting and violence on foot, crossing the Washington Park Arboretum, a two-hundred-acre garden south of the campus, on their way to a safe haven.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Joe Mabel, Seattle - Arboretum Bridge 01, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Completely unexpectedly -- not only to them, but to me -- they meet someone in the Arboretum.  Here's the scene where they come across her:
Cassandra was the first one to spot her—a woman sitting cross-legged with her back to the trunk of a fir tree, watching them approach with a broad smile on her face.  She was perhaps forty years old, and the most remarkable thing about her appearance was how completely unremarkable she looked.  An oval face, even features, light brown hair in a loose ponytail, neither particularly attractive nor at all unattractive, she was the kind of person you might pass a dozen times a day and never notice.

But here she sat in the Arboretum as the world collapsed around her, apparently unconcerned.

“Oh, hello,” she called out in a pleasant, melodious voice, and waved.

Soren exchanged a puzzled glance with Cassandra, who shrugged.

As they neared, the woman stood, moving a little awkwardly, but with no evident self-consciousness.  Soren jerked to a halt until she raised both hands to show that she was unarmed.  “Don’t be afraid,” she said.  “I mean no harm. In fact, I’ve been waiting for you all.”

When I finished writing this, I said -- and I quote -- "what the fuck just happened?"  She was not part of the original plot.  The idea was that they'd cross the Arboretum, dodging snipers and rioters, and reach their goal safely.  But suddenly there's this... this person, sitting there waiting for them.

Oh, and her name is Mary Hansard.  Don't ask me where that came from.  Her name came along with her character, waltzing into the story from heaven-knows-where.

I know I tend to be a pantser (for non-writers, authors tend to fall into two loose classes: pantsers -- who write by the seat of the pants -- and plotters -- who plan everything out).  But this is ridiculous.  I honestly had no idea this character even existed.  Now I have to figure out (1) who the hell Mary Hansard is, (2) what role she's going to play in the story, and (3) how she knew the four fleeing professors were going to be coming through the Arboretum.

I would love to know where this kind of stuff comes from.  I mean, "my brain" is the prosaic answer, and is technically right, but when this sort of thing happens -- and it's far from the first time -- it feels like it came from outside me, as if the story already existed out there in the aether and I just tapped into it somehow.

I also know enough that when this occurs, it means something is going really right with the story.  When I've had these sudden shifts in course, following them usually leads to somewhere interesting that I wouldn't have otherwise discovered.  But to say that it's a little disorienting is a vast understatement.

So NaNoWriMo continues, and tomorrow I have to get my 1,666 words written to hit my daily goal.  And in those words, I have to parse the role of the mysterious, ordinary-looking Mary Hansard.

Let's hope she continues to talk to me.  Because what she's said so far has gotten me really curious.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Prolix proverbs

When I was in high school -- so, many years ago (how many is left as an exercise for the reader) -- my English teacher, Ms. Reinhardt, gave us a set of puzzles, familiar sayings in unfamiliar guise.  Amazingly enough, I kept my copy all these years, and just ran across it this evening while searching for something else.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Wikimedia Foundation, Puzzly puzzled, CC BY-SA 3.0]

I don't know what their origin is (I don't think she made them up), but wherever they're from, they're fun brain-teasers.  How many of them can you figure out?

1.  A lithoid form, whose onward course
Is shaped by gravitational force
Can scarce enjoy the consolation
Of bryophytic aggregation.
2. To carry haulm of cereal growth
The tylopod is nothing loath;
But just one haulm too many means
That dorsal fracture supervenes.
3.  When, nimbus-free, Sol marches by
Across the circumambient sky,
To graminiferous meads repair --
Your instant task awaits you there!
4.  There is no use in exhortation
To practice equine flagellation,
If vital forces did depart
And still the breath, and cease the heart. 
5.  That unit of the avian tribe
Whose movements one can circumscribe
In manu, as a pair will rate
Subarborially situate.

6.  For none who claims to represent
The Homo species sapient,
Will loiter Einstein's fourth dimension
Or sea's quotidian declension.

7.  Faced with material esculent
As source of liquid nourishment
Avoid excess; 'twill but displease
Of culinary expertise.

8.  Conducting to the watering place
A quadruped of equine race
Is simple; but he may not care
To practice imbibition there.

9.  The coroner observed: "Perpend,
The death of this, our feline friend,
Reflects preoccupation shown
With business other than his own."

10.  If little value his compunctions
Who arrogates clavigerous functions
When once from circumambient pen,
Is snatched its equine denizen.

Have fun!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020


I wrote this about ten years ago, and just ran across it yesterday. Everyone in my family loves wordplay, and I thought this was too much fun not to post it, even though it's old. Enjoy!


slotcanyon (slot'-kan-y'n) verb -- to be the victim of circumstances wherein, despite all appearances to the contrary and one's best efforts, one is thwarted at every turn by someone or something.  Usage, e.g.: "Boy, we certainly got slotcanyoned this time."

So, our family has a new coinage, as you can see from the above, and I think it is as sure to catch on as our last one was ("upholstered," meaning "drunk;" as in, "After the Cornell Men's Hockey team beat Harvard, we all went out to The Rose Bar & Grill and got completely upholstered.")

The origin of our latest addition to the Concise Oxford comes from our recent vacation, camping in the Rocky Mountains.  The cast of characters includes Carol and I, our sons Lucas and Nathan, and Carol's brother Alan and his wife and three kids.

The first day of the trip was deceptively calm.  We flew into Denver without incident, rented a car (a white Mercury Grand Marquis which looked, and handled, like the car owned by your average South Florida grandma, only less sleek).  We went from Denver up into Rocky Mountain National Park, and set up our tents and got our gear ready for a stay of a couple of days.

It became apparent during the first night that our air mattress leaked.  While the younger folk among you may scorn me completely for using an air mattress while camping, allow me to point out that when you are pushing 50 with a short stick, as I am, you will know whereof I speak when I say that sleeping on a bare tent bottom is not a recipe for happiness.  So during that first night, when the air pressure would drop to the point that our hip bones were resting on gravel, I would rouse, and blow into the valve until I hyperventilated (it doesn't take long, at 7,600 feet elevation).  Little sleep was had that night.

The next day, it was off to Estes Park for a replacement.

That was one problem solved, but the following day, as we were packing up the camp to proceed to our next destination, one of our intrepid little band locked the car keys in the trunk.  This generated considerable swearing on my part, which I tried to keep to a minimum around Alan's kids.  Most of the more forceful words had to do with the makers of the Mercury Grand Marquis, who had seemingly not seen fit to place a trunk release button somewhere in the front panel of the car.  We dithered around for some time, weighing options, when Alan decided to take a look in the car (both Lucas and I had searched for twenty minutes each) and found the trunk release in ten seconds flat.  Alan gained some valuable Man Points in that situation, redeemable for prizes in many locations.

So far, none of this really amounts to being slotcanyoned.  The origin of this word came from our experiences in Bryce Canyon National Park, in southern Utah.

Me at Bryce Canyon, before the adventures started and when I was still in a reasonably good mood

We were cabin-camping in the nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park, near a nice couple who were visiting the spot with the wife's 87-year-old grandpa.  Before dinner one evening, we were chatting with them, and the husband mentioned a great hike nearby.

"It's the Willis Creek Slot Canyon," he said.  "It's not far away, a really easy hike -- grandpa did it today."

Grandpa grinned, indicating that he had, indeed, done the hike, as advertised.

We asked directions.  Easy, too, he said.  Just go out of the park by the main road, and six miles up there will be a well-marked turn to the left.  This road had a vaguely Native-American-sounding name that for the life of me I can't remember, but it was something like Skunkamah Road.  Take this turn, and go for another six miles, and the trailhead is right there.  Easy walk into and up the slot canyon, which is spectacular -- and in some places, only six feet wide, with 200-foot high walls.

Sold.  We decided to go there the next day.

The following morning, we piled into the cars, and set out.  Six miles up, we found the turnoff.  And that was the last thing that went right.

Spelunkah Road turned out to be not all that much of a road.  More of a long, shallow groove in the sand, with sagebrush on one side and a steep dropoff on the other, and adorned with potholes you could lose a cow in.  Nathan, the tallest of us, was jounced upwards by the bumps and smacked his head on the ceiling of the car several times.  We crept up and around and down and back up again, finally coming down a hill that descended onto the concrete top of an earthen dam.  The drop onto the top of the dam was abrupt enough that we stopped a few feet before it, completely uncertain as to whether Grandma's Mercury could get there without leaving the bumper behind.

On the other hand, there was a clear trail from the left side of the road, so we figured we'd found the trailhead, and just pulled the car over in a wide, flattish spot, deciding to hike from there.

As we descended from the road, my first thought was, "Man, if Grandpa did this hike, he is one damned spry 87-year-old."  The going wasn't really rough, but it was steep and rocky, and I seriously doubted we were in the right place.  But we kept going doggedly (i.e. stupidly), reaching a shallow creek on the floor of the canyon, and walking for a couple of hours upstream.  No slot canyon appeared, not that I really thought it would.

That evening, we asked Myra, the manager of the cabins, what had happened.

"Oh, that's not Willis Creek, that's Sheep Creek," she said.  Many bad puns about being up Sheep Creek without a paddle ensued.  After the general hilarity died down, she told us that Willis Creek was the next one over, that we had to cross the top of the dam and go to the next descent, and there it would be.

"The road isn't that bad," she said, giving us the hairy eyeball. "I've done it in my Honda Accord."

Feeling my Man Points once again decreasing, I conferred with the others.  Alan and his wife Kathie were both definitely for trying again.  I was reluctant, wondering how I would explain to the rental car agency when I returned Grandma's Mercury to them missing important parts, but I acquiesced.  The slot canyon did sound cool.

So the next morning, we set out again.  We decided that Alan would leave their van on the top of the hill near the dam, and that we'd shuttle everyone up and over the rise in the Mercury.  The jounce down onto the dam was done slowly enough to leave the bumper intact, but the bottom of the car made an alarming scraping noise as we did so.

Carol brought Lucas, Nathan, and I to the next valley bottom, and then went back for the rest.

During the wait for the rest of our band, I struck off upstream.  The slot canyon was supposedly very near the road, according to everyone we'd talked to.  Thinking that the Utah version of "very near" might differ from the New York version, I began to hike.  After a quarter-mile, I gave up, reversed direction, and did the same distance downstream.  No slot canyon.  There were, however, a number of vultures circling, which I didn't think was a good sign.

When I returned, the others were just getting out of the Mercury.  "We're in the wrong place," I said.

Cries of dismay.   The bottom of this valley had another large washout in it, and I put my foot down.  "No way are we crossing that in this car," I said.  "Not only is there the dropoff, the bottom is all soft sand.  We'll get stuck."

More conferring, followed by reluctant acceptance of my assessment.  We reversed course, ferried out the various groups back to the van, and proceeded to drive back up Sporkulah Road to the highway.

It didn't help my Man Point Total at all that we passed a ranger on the way out, who cheerfully told us that the slot canyon trailhead was just over the next rise from where we had stopped.  By this time we were all pissed off enough that we decided to concede the defeat to fate, and move on.

So it was on to Zion National Park.  This was by far the hottest place we visited, and the first night, we were all sweaty and exhausted from a three-hour afternoon hike, so we decided to go out to a restaurant in Springfield, the closest town.  We had just picked out a nice-looking Mexican restaurant when the power went out.  All over town.

"We can't cook anything," the waiter said.  "We're closing.  But the Majestic, a couple of miles up, has a generator, and is staying open."

So we went to the Majestic.  The Majestic did indeed have power, but only two waitstaff, who were harried, flustered, and clearly unprepared to deal with the hordes of people who were now showing up at the only place in town that had electricity, hot food, and air conditioning.  It would be, we were informed, a wait of at least an hour and a half for seats, and god knew how much longer before we'd get food.

"Dammit," Lucas said.  "We've been slotcanyoned again!"  And thus a new verb was born.

But the usefulness of this word wasn't over yet.  Yesterday we left Utah (well, Nevada, actually -- we flew out of Las Vegas) for home.  The flight out of Vegas was delayed because of weather in the midwest, but it looked like we'd have enough time to catch our connecting flight in New York City even so.  The plane got a few miles from New York, and then... went into a holding pattern.

"We're sorry," the pilot said.  "But we're not being allowed to land, because President Obama is passing through the airport, and they've stopped all air traffic until he's gone."  The circling went on for a half-hour, during which time our connecting flight happily departed without us.

"Jesus," Lucas said, clearly impressed.  "We just got slotcanyoned by the leader of the free world."

We finally landed, booked a flight for 9:15 AM the following day, and got a hotel for the night.  We took a shuttle to the Ramada Inn, where Carol had made reservations.

The first odd thing we noticed upon arriving was that the lobby was full of African people in brightly-colored traditional dress, all talking very loudly.  Then the receptionist informed us that the Ramada had no rooms, because there was a convention of African dignitaries.

"But..." Carol began, pointing to the reservation information.

"Nope," the woman said, helpfully.

Then, the fire alarm went off.

We all went outside, followed by the bright, noisy African people.  Soon, two police cars and three fire trucks came up.  Turned out that the African dignitaries had been putting too many people on the elevator, and the motor had overheated and filled the shaft up with smoke, tripping the alarm.

The firemen, in full regalia, carrying picks and axes and hoses and fire extinguishers, pushed their way through the crowds of African people and into the lobby.

"Wow," Nathan said.  "If there was a bright blue giraffe, and a couple of melting clocks on the chairs, this would make a great Surrealist painting."

"I've always known that life was absurd," Lucas observed.  "But I think that ending my day surrounded by African dignitaries and firefighters has to take the prize.  I almost want to go to sleep, so I can have a dream and return to some level of normalcy."

So, we got transferred to another hotel, arriving there at 1 AM.  Slotcanyoned again, was the general consensus, although perhaps since we did get a hotel, and successfully caught our flight home the next morning, we may have been stretching the definition slightly.

Anyhow, here we are, back home in gray, drizzly upstate New York, after a trip that we will long remember.  It did have many wonderful parts that I haven't recorded here, but I think that all things considered, the Hunt for the Invisible Slot Canyon of Spatulah Road is probably the one we'll all remember the longest.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Tandem tantrum

I was just laughing with my son over a writing assignment that went viral a few years ago.  To be up front, I didn't write this, and it may well be apocryphal; I've seen a number of versions of it, with different professors' names, different colleges, and variations in the details of the story.  But whatever its provenance, it's one of the funniest things I've ever read.


[Image is in the Public Domain]

English 44A, SMU

Creative Writing

Professor T. J. Miller, In-class Assignment for Wednesday:

One of you will then write the first paragraph of a short story.  The partner will read the first paragraph and then add another paragraph to the story.  The first person will then add a third paragraph, and so on back and forth.  Remember to reread what has been written each time in order to keep the story coherent.  The story is over when both agree a conclusion has been reached.


At first, Laurie couldn't decide which kind of tea she wanted.  The chamomile, which used to be her favorite for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of Carl, who once said, in happier times, that he liked chamomile.  But she felt she must now, at all costs, keep her mind off Carl.  His possessiveness was suffocating, and if she thought about him too much her asthma started acting up again.  So chamomile was out of the question.

Meanwhile, Advance Sergeant Carl Harris, leader of the attack squadron now in orbit over Skylon 4, had more important things to think about than the neuroses of an air-headed asthmatic bimbo named Laurie with whom he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago.  "A.S. Harris to Geostation 17," he said into his transgalactic communicator.  "Polar orbit established.  No sign of resistance so far..."  But before he could sign off a bluish particle beam flashed out of nowhere and blasted a hole through his ship's cargo bay.  The jolt from the direct hit sent him flying out of his seat and across the cockpit.

He bumped his head and died almost immediately, but not before he felt one last pang of regret for psychically brutalizing the one woman who had ever had feelings for him.  Soon afterwards, Earth stopped its pointless hostilities towards the peaceful farmers of Skylon 4.  "Congress Passes Law Permanently Abolishing War and Space Travel," Laurie read in her newspaper one morning.  The news simultaneously excited her and bored her.  She stared out the window, dreaming of her youth -- when the days had passed unhurriedly and carefree, with no newspapers to read, no television to distract her from her sense of innocent wonder at all the beautiful things around her.  "Why must one lose one's innocence to become a woman?" she pondered wistfully.

Little did she know, but she has less than ten seconds to live.  Thousands of miles above the city, the Anu'udrian mothership launched the first of its lithium fusion missiles.  The dim-witted wimpy peaceniks who pushed the Unilateral Aerospace Disarmament Treaty through Congress had left Earth a defenseless target for the hostile alien empires who were determined to destroy the human race.  Within two hours after the passage of the treaty the Anu'udrian ships were on course for Earth, carrying enough firepower to pulverize the entire planet.  With no one to stop them, they swiftly initiated their diabolical plan.  The lithium fusion missile entered the atmosphere unimpeded.  The President, in his top-secret submarine headquarters on the ocean floor off the coast of Guam, felt the inconceivably massive explosion that vaporized Laurie and 85 million other Americans.  The President slammed his fist on the conference table.  "We can't allow this!  I'm going to veto that treaty!  Let's blow 'em out of the sky!"

This is absurd.  I refuse to continue participating in this mockery of literature.  My writing partner is a violent, chauvinistic, semi-literate adolescent.

Yeah?  Well, you're a self-centered, tedious neurotic whose attempts at writing are the literary equivalent of Valium.



Saturday, March 28, 2020

Poetry reading

A friend of mine and I were discussing poetry a few days ago, and the inevitable question came up: what is your favorite poem?

I'm not a poet myself, so I can't claim any particular expertise, but I know I've always loved e. e. cummings's way of turning simple language on its head to create uniquely surreal beauty; two of my favorites are the sweet, joyous "if everything happens that can't be done" and the short but chilling "me up at does."  Another contender is Elizabeth Bishop's beautiful "The Fish," and I would be remiss not to mention Stevie Smith's brilliant "Our Bog is Dood," which seems to make no sense at all until... suddenly... the message is crystal clear, and devastating.

But if I had to pick one only, it would be Walter de la Mare's "The Listeners," which (because it was written in 1912) I will reproduce here in full:
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
  Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
  Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
  Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
  ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
  No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
  Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
  That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
  To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
  That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
  By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
  Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
  ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
  Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
  That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
  Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
  From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
  And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
  When the plunging hoofs were gone.
What I love about this poem is that it gives you a piece of a story, and leaves you to imagine what the rest might be.  What had the Traveller given his word to do, and to whom, and why?  Who are the listeners, and why didn't they answer?  The whole thing gives me chills every time I read it, because -- as Stephen King pointed out in his masterful analysis of horror fiction Danse Macabre, sometimes it's better for writers of horror to leave the door closed.  Left to their own, readers can conjure up some really scary explanations for what might be behind it.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

So that's my favorite poem, and I hope you'll take the time to check out the links I provided to some other wonderful ones.  Now, let's hear from you: what are some of your favorites?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The long road

I've been writing fiction since I was six.

We were assigned to write a little story, then get up in front of the class and read it.  So I wrote some silly thing about a bird that falls out of his nest and bends his beak askew, and has to get help to straighten it out again (you can tell that Looney Tunes was one of the formative influences on my sense of humor).  But the day we were supposed to read to the class... well, I was terrified.  Shaking in my shoes, knees knocking together, the whole nine yards.  But I got up there and did it...

And everyone laughed.  In the right places.  They applauded at the end.  And I thought:

I want to do this forever.

I kept writing, kept reading, and kept creating.  Through elementary and high school, and into college.  I had two people who were incredible influences -- my high school and college creative writing teachers, Ms. Bev Authement and Dr. Bernice Webb -- who never lost faith in my storytelling ability even though looking back, a lot of what I wrote was pretty cringeworthy.  But the message from both of them was clear: keep writing.  You can do this.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

When I was 19 I completed my first novel-length manuscript.  Speaking of cringeworthy... but I finished it, pounding the whole thing out on an old Royal manual typewriter.  (Yes, I'm that old, falling somewhere between "cuneiform clay tablets" and "word processing software" on the great timetable of history.)  I first started trying to get published when I was around thirty, querying publishers and agents, but like a lot of aspiring writers, got 100% rejections.

Some were courteous and encouraging.  Others, such as the person who simply hand-wrote "NO" in bold print across my query letter and sent it back to me, were not so much.  I received one rejection that took nine months, and another that took -- I kid you not -- nine hours.

Finally, in 2005, I had gotten so discouraged I was on the verge of quitting, not just trying to get published, but writing itself.  By this time writing was such an integral part of me that I couldn't quite imagine what life would be like without it, but the battering-down I was getting from rejection after rejection was just too much for me.

Enter K. D. McCrite.

K. D. belongs to an online writers' group I'm in, and had read an excerpt of a manuscript I'd just completed, a sci-fi thriller called Kill Switch.  And it turned out that she knew the head of a publishing company personally -- in fact, they'd published several of her wonderful books, including her sparklingly witty young adult series The Confessions of April Grace.  She talked to the publisher about my manuscript, and then sent me an email saying, "Get your manuscript to him.  Yesterday.  I'm serious."

Three weeks later, I had a contract in my hand.

Opening that box of books when Kill Switch was published was one of the peak experiences of my life, but was also completely surreal.  It was hard to imagine that my forty-year-long dream of being a published author had finally happened.  Well, I now have thirteen books in print, six more in the publishing queue, and so many ideas bouncing around in my head that it's a wonder my skull doesn't rattle when I shake it.

In the past year, I have come to the conclusion that I don't simply want to be a novelist -- I want to help others who are where I was, trying to keep their feet on the long road leading to becoming an author.  I'd like to give back to the writing community, to lend a hand the way I was helped by people like Ms. Authement, Dr. Webb, and K. D. McCrite.  I'm putting myself out there as a fiction writers' mentor/coach -- I'd love to help writers who are stuck, have writers' block, or maybe even have an idea for a novel but have no idea how to begin.  My business is called Pen & thInk (lots more details at the link), and I'm offering everything from a short, four-week module to a full year for someone who would like to go "zero to novel."  I also have a special program for teenagers who are aspiring authors.

So I encourage you to take a look at my website, and to contact me if you're interested or would like more details.  If you would love to write a novel, what's holding you back?  I can help -- and there's no reason to wait, regardless of where you are or how long you've put it off.  Remember what the brilliant artist Grandma Moses said when asked why she'd waited until she was eighty to start painting: "Well, it was the youngest age I had left."

Contact me if you're interested.  I'd love to hear your stories -- and help you to get them onto the page.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Unexpected depths

First, a bit of shameless self-promotion: my fiction authors' mentorship/coaching business, Pen & Think, is officially open!  If you have a story in you that's just trying to get out on paper, and you don't quite know how to do it, I can help.  I won't clutter up the blog post with all the details, because you can find them on my website -- fill out the "Contact Me" page if you want more information or want to sign up!


A writer friend of mine on social media asked what I thought was a very interesting question: what was the most memorable line you've ever read?  I've read a good many profound books, but the first thing that came to mind was a line not from a book but from a television show.  In the Doctor Who episode "The Face of Evil," the Fourth Doctor remarks, "The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common; they do not alter their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views."

The aptness of that quote these days hardly needs to be pointed out.

But there are many others, in books, television, and movies, quotes that somehow stand out for their unexpected depth (sometimes even in otherwise silly settings; the episode "The Face of Evil" was unremarkable in other respects).  Some only gain their punch from the context -- I'm reminded of Eowyn's defiant "I am no man" in Return of the King, immediately before she stabs the King of the Nazgûl right between the eyeballs, and the heartbreaking line at the end of Vanilla Sky when Sofia Serrano says, "I'll see you in the next life, when we both are cats."  Neither has much significance unless you know the story.

But there are a few true gems that carry their weight even independent of where they're from.  Here are a few of my choices:
  • "Deserves it!  I daresay he does.  Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends." -- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
  • "You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do." -- David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
  • "When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won.  There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall." -- Mohandas Gandhi in Gandhi
  • "There is no greater agony than having an untold story inside you." -- Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." -- Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl
  • "Oh, yes, the past can hurt.  But you can either run from it, or learn from it." -- Rafiki in The Lion King
  • "I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth." -- Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
  • "Get busy living, or get busy dying." -- Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption
  • "Not important?  Blimey.  That's amazing.  You know, in nine hundred years in time and space, I have never met anyone who wasn't important."  -- The Eleventh Doctor, Doctor Who, "A Christmas Carol"
  • "Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back what you have stolen.  For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great...  You have no power over me." -- Sarah in Labyrinth
  • "Live now; make now always the most precious time.  Now will never come again." -- Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Inner Light"
Nota bene: If you can watch "The Inner Light" and not ugly cry at the end of it, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.  That episode has to be one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on television.

So... there are a few of my favorite profound quotes from fiction.  Let's hear about yours!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Book review: The Most Intangible Thing

I'm fortunate enough to have a regular writing partner, and even more fortunate that she's the amazing author and artist Cly Boehs.  Cly, an Oklahoma native with an endless supply of creativity and an ear for lyrical use of language, first hit the shelves with her wonderful novel Back Then, a deft (and at times heartbreaking) portrait of a family trying to make sense of a world changing too fast to keep up.

Her most recent, The Most Intangible Thing, has a different approach.  Each of the stories has a lurking surreality that is reminiscent of the works of Haruki Murakami.  In Cly's stories, like in many of Murakami's, you are invited into a subtly magical realism -- magical not because of what the characters are doing, but because the world they're immersed in exists in that peculiar shadowland between the real and the imagined, where you're not quite certain if what you're seeing has actual substance or is a product of the mind.

And truthfully, how could you tell?  Our fallible sensory apparatus and brain can only deal with the input they get, so how would you deal with a world where Siamese cats seem to truly have nine lives,  where a man defines his life and death with cryptic clues left behind in a coffee shop, where the end of a woman's college experience coincides with an encounter with horses that seem to have borrowed their reality from her mind, where a book club turns to recounting experiences that defy explanation?

In Cly's deft hands, each of these stories draws the reader in, and we believe what the characters are experiencing as readily as we accept Murakami's fractured world with two moons in the incomparable 1Q84.  Each is a vignette into how our stories define our reality -- and how our relationships create the stories we tell.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Happily ever after?

In an online fiction writers' group I belong to, we were discussing how to end chapters and entire stories.  Tie everything up with a neat bow?  Leave loose ends?  End on a cliffhanger?

I suppose we all have preferences, but I like the plot arc, even if a book is part of a series, to have some kind of closure.  My trilogy about the mysterious and terrifying Black-eyed Children, The Boundary Solution (Lines of Sight, Whistling in the Dark, and Fear No Colors), has an overall plot arc for the entire series, but each book wraps up at least a good chunk of what was driving the action, answering a lot of the questions that come up during the course of the story.  But the first two do leave some loose ends -- otherwise, why write a sequel?  (I won't go into a lot of detail because I'd like you to read the books themselves, so sorry for being coy.  I just don't like giving spoilers.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Megamoto85, Black eyes by megamoto85, CC BY-SA 4.0]

What about cliffhangers?  Well, for me, it depends on what you mean.  Those "OMG you can't stop here!" moments can work for a story, or completely piss off the reader, depending on how it's handled.  As an example of the former, consider the end of Tolkien's The Two Towers, the middle of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Remember the final paragraph?
The great doors slammed to.  Boom.  The bars of iron fell into place inside.  Clang.  The gate was shut.  Sam hurled himself against the bolted brazen plates and fell senseless to the ground.  He was out in the darkness.  Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy.
The first time I read that book, I stared at that last sentence, and said, "Wait!  No!  What happened next?"...

... and immediately picked up The Return of the King.  (I have to admit to being pretty damn frustrated when I found out that the final book in the series jumps to what's happening to Pippin and Gandalf in Minas Tirith, and we have to wait until halfway through to find out what became of Frodo and Sam.  I mean, how horrible... leaving them there in the Orc stronghold all that time.  Sheesh.)

But as an incentive to go on, it worked brilliantly.

However, take one of the worst "let's piss off the reader" endings I've ever come across, in William Sleator's book The Duplicate.  (And I am going to give spoilers here... sorry about that, but I need to tell you the end to make a point.)

Now, I'll say up front I love most of Sleator's YA books.  Among the Dolls, House of Stairs, and Interstellar Pig are all absolutely brilliant, combining twisty, unexpected innovation with believable characters and a gripping writing style.  And I thought I'd feel that way about The Duplicate -- until the last line.

What Sleator did, in my opinion, was to create a cliffhanger the story didn't deserve.  The short version of what he did is that the main character, who has accidentally created duplicates of himself (who go on to create more duplicates, with horrifying results), has successfully dealt with all of the various copies -- or so the main characters and the reader think.  So on the last page the protagonist is there, having a celebratory snog-fest with his girlfriend on the sofa, and we think all is well.

"And then the phone rang."

That's the last line of the story.

What the hell does that mean?  Is one of the duplicates still alive, and called to say "neener-neener"?  Are the police calling to talk to him about some of the dubiously legal stuff some of the duplicates did?  Is it his girlfriend's former lover, calling to find out what the hell he thought he was doing, making out with her on the couch?  Is it the PTA calling to see if he'll donate some cookies to their next bake sale?

No way to know.

So that's an undeserved cliffhanger, and one that didn't create a sense of suspense and a desire to know what came next, it created a sense of anger and a desire to hurl the book across the room.  (And no, he never wrote a sequel to it.)

It's not necessary to tie up every last thread.  Life isn't neat and tidy.  But if there's no sense of closure when you shut the back cover of the book, something has gone seriously wrong.

It's a balancing act sometimes, to create an ending that's ragged enough to be realistic and at the same time brings the plot and character arcs to a satisfying conclusion.  I hope I hit that balance most of the time.

Or at least don't piss you off enough to hurl the book across the room.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Character study

A friend asked me a couple of days ago who my favorite characters from books were.

"My own books, or other people's?" I asked.

"How about both?" she replied.

A discussion ensued that I thought would make an interesting blog post, so here are my favorite fictional characters (not including movies & television), starting with the ones from other folk's stories.  In no particular order:
  • Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien.  It's been said, and I think it's the truth, that Sam is the real hero of the story -- not Frodo, not Aragorn, not Gandalf.  Over and over the point is made that it's the simple, sweet things in life that the whole War of the Ring was being fought to preserve and protect, and Sam embodies that, as well as a hefty dose of pure courage and loyalty.
  • Aomame from Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.  An enigmatic woman with a mission that pulls her between compassion and retribution, Aomame lives in the surreal space Murakami creates -- a world that on first glance is just like ours, but only intersects reality at the edges.  Murakami's book is a tour de force, and Aomame is a brilliant, puzzling, fascinating character of the kind only he can bring to life.
  • Hazel from Richard Adams's Watership Down.  If I had to pick one character from fiction who displays the qualities of a true leader, it's Hazel, who leads his intrepid, ragtag band out of one danger and into a greater one, inspiring loyalty from his comrades and in a quiet, understated way bringing out the best in each one of them.  Yes, I know the characters are rabbits.  Doesn't make a difference.  If you haven't read this book, put it on your list.
  • Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  I'm hard-pressed to pick between them, because they're a bit like figure-and-ground, complementary opposites who have come together to save the world.  Aziraphale is the angel with a deep compassion for and understanding of human foibles, and Crowley a demon with a heart of gold he tries (unsuccessfully) to hide.  This is one case where the television adaptation is as wonderful as the book -- Michael Sheen and David Tennant as (respectively) the representatives of heaven and hell are absolutely brilliant.
  • Speaking of Pratchett, Sam Vimes, the head of the police force in Ankh-Morpork and the right hand man of the Lord Patrician of the City, the machiavellian Havelock Vetinari, in a number of Pratchett's wonderful Discworld series.  Vimes is the stalwart, common-sense-ful anchor of the cast of oddballs that make up the rank-and-file of The Watch, Ankh-Morpork's police, and he navigates political intrigue and the odd assassination attempt with a weary, almost-but-not-quite-cynical deftness.
  • Brother William of Baskerville from Umberto Eco's murder mystery The Name of the Rose.  A fourteenth-century monk with a flair for observation, he's a medieval Hercule Poirot without the little Belgian's overinflated ego.  Brother William is faced with the superstition and fear of the time, and always comes back to rationality -- there is a natural, logical cause for everything, and the world is understandable to anyone who is willing to put some effort into learning about it.  Even when monks are mysteriously dying all around him, and the abbot is blaming the Forces of Darkness, Brother William never deviates from his determination to solve the case through reason and hard evidence.
Now, a handful of my own creations:
  • Whenever the question of my favorite character from my stories comes up, the answer is always Callista Lee, the brilliant, eccentric telepath from The Snowe Agency Mysteries (starting with Poison the Well).  Callista is constantly bombarded with others' thoughts, and as a result, shies away from people -- her gift gives her a unique window into the human condition and at the same time pushes her away, leaving her deeply alone.  Her character arc over the entire series is one of my favorite creations.
I always thought that if the Snowe Agency Mysteries were ever made into movies, Tilda Swinton would be perfect as Callista. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, Tilda Swinton (28352184350) (cropped), CC BY-SA 2.0]
  • Doctor Will Daigle, from Whistling in the Dark (the sequel to Lines of Sight, and hitting the shelves next week!).  Will is funny, quick, smart, and profane, but his genial temperament covers a huge heart and a tremendous compassion.  Which is why -- no spoilers -- what he has to do about a third of the way through Whistling in the Dark is one of the most poignant (and difficult!) scenes I've ever written.  I won't tell you more, you'll just have to read it for yourself.
  • Tyler Vaughan from Signal to Noise.  If I had to pick the character whose temperament is most like mine, Tyler would be the odds-on favorite.  A socially awkward biology nerd who'd just as soon spend his time ear-tagging elk in the Cascade Mountains, Tyler finds himself the center of a terrifying mystery -- and is forced into the role of Unlikely Hero completely against his will.
  • The Head Librarian, Archibald Fischer, from Lock & Key.  Fischer (forget he's named Archibald unless you want to be the target of his ire) is the sarcastic, Kurt-Cobain-worshiping, f-bomb-dropping director of the Library of Possibilities, where every possibility for every human on Earth is catalogued and monitored.  The repartee between him and his assistant, the imperturbable Scot Maggie Carmichael, is some of the most fun I've ever had writing.
  • Last, Jennie Trahan from my novella "Convection," in the collection Sights, Signs, and Shadows.  Jennie may seem like an unlikely choice -- from the beginning she's the bitchy, eye-rolling foil to the other characters' attempt to stay alive in a Category Five hurricane.  But she's the character who while I was writing the story grabbed the keyboard from my hand and started telling me about why she was so irascible -- and became one of the most compelling, sympathetic characters in the story.
So there you have it, a smattering of characters from different sources who have really resonated with me for one reason or another.  So let's hear your take on this -- who are your favorite characters from fiction?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The ten best

A friend of mine posted a link to one of those "Ten Best Books Ever Written" things, where someone sets him/herself up as the arbiter of taste for the whole English-speaking world.  I tend to cast a wry eye any time someone says "these are the best ever" in some kind of definitive way.  Yes, there are standards for storytelling and writing mechanics and so on, so there are books that would undoubtedly fail on a variety of levels; but when you start looking at why one book resonates with you, but it leaves someone else completely cold, you're launching into matters of taste, which are not only highly individual, they're not true in any kind of absolute sense.

I get really impatient with people who ridicule people's taste in books, music, and art.  You know what?  If (to grab a particularly apt phrase from the Quakers) it "speaks to your condition," it's good.  Never mind if I don't like it.  You do, and that's that.  If I like Nickelback and your tastes run more to Tchaikovsky, that's just the way it goes.

(Nota bene:  I do not, in fact, like Nickelback.  Put away the damn pitchforks.)

(Nota bene again:  I also do not particularly like Tchaikovsky.  Put away the damn pitchforks.)

Anyway, it's an interesting question as to why different people like different works of whatever.  My favorite painting, for example, is Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

But I would be hard pressed to say why, exactly.  All I know is that it has a deep poignancy for me, so much that when I finally got to see it for real at the Courteauld Gallery in London two years ago, it brought me to tears.

On my other blog, Skeptophilia, I've dealt with the issue of musical taste, in particular how specific music effects people's brains -- resulting in the feeling of chills we get when we hear music that moves us emotionally.  Of course, showing that this happens and showing why a particular person resonates to a particular piece of music are two different things -- and the research into the former isn't getting us any closer to finding the reason for the latter.

That said, I thought it would be interesting to return to the literary, and see if I could come up with my ten favorite books.  I limited it to fiction (although there is non-fiction I love as well; maybe I'll deal with that in another post).  Here's what I came up with, in reverse order:
10. The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin)
9. 1Q84 (Haruki Murakami)
8. Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien)
7. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)
6. Good Omens (Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman)
5. Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman)
4. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
3. Watership Down (Richard Adams)
2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (Haruki Murakami)
1. Foucault's Pendulum (Umberto Eco)
I'm sure if I sit and think longer, I'll go, "Wait, I forgot ______!" and revise the list, but this was my first pass at the task.  These are all books I keep returning to over and over, some of which I first read a long time ago (my first reading of And Then There Were None was when I was twelve, and it hooked me on murder mysteries for life -- and Christie's approach to a whodunnit significantly influenced my own mystery series, The Snowe Agency Mysteries).

So -- those are my top ten.  What are yours?