Friday, July 14, 2006

The Interview Meme

Here's how it works:

1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me."

2. I will respond by asking you five questions. I get to pick the questions.

3. You will update your journal with the answers to the questions.

4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.

5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

I put myself at Greg's mercy, and here's what he asked:

1. Do you ever fear that we're writing fiction mostly for the people who read our blogs and hang out with us at cons?

Some, sure. (They're cool people, though.) With as few short fiction readers as there are in general, and in the genre in particular, it's hard to tell how much attention folks really pay to what we do. Still, I think that the Intranets have been a really good thing for short fiction, 'cause of the accessibility of archives at places like Strange Horizons and the plethora of links pointing folks at good stuff. I hear periodically from readers whom I've never met, and it does seem to be true that for every person who speaks up and says "I liked that," there are ten others paying attention. So I think that the online profile is a huge factor in visibility among people who like the sort of stuff we do.

2. Did you adopt a different persona when you tended bar?

Y'know, I made good money slinging drinks, but I don't think it was because of my personality. I'm bad at being anybody but myself. Which is not to say that myself is not a scintillating fella, but there's a definite art to the schmooze and I never mastered it. It takes an ability to be (or at least fake being) comfortable with just about anyone, and to make them feel comfortable, without actually presuming any real connection. And the truth is that in most situations I'm very shy. I can't be "on" at the drop of a hat. So the folks who sat at a bar hoping to be entertained didn't get what they wanted from me.

That said, when I worked tech support I did adopt another personality in order to relive the soul-crushing boredom. "Cyrus" was much more patient with folks who didn't understand that their computer needed to be turned on in order to connect to the Internet. Sometimes I miss Cyrus.

3. African, Indian, wooly mammoth, columbian mammoth, pygmy . . . Who's your best friend?

I'm partial to African elephants, I have to say, on account of the big ears and the way they fit into their landscape . . . there's something about a family of pachyderms crossing a dry plain, with a cloud of dust kicking up behind them, that is terribly majestic and fragile and wonderful. But don't tell the other elephants, 'cause really I like 'em all.

4. You're dropped in a foreign country, you know nobody, you've lost your wallet, you don't speak the language ... and you're starving. What's the first thing you do?

Man, this is a tough one. I suppose the first thing I'd do is kill one of the local dragons. Not only would this raise my estimation in the eyes of the local inhabitants (except for possibly the dragons), but it'd be something to eat. I'd be sure to take a taste of the dragon's raw blood before cooking up some of his flesh, since everyone knows that dragon's blood gives you the ability to understand bird language. I'd ask the birds where the nearest town was, what their favorite discos were, and who'd pay good money for dragon hide, teeth, bones, etc. Although probably I wouldn't want to sell the entire hide. I'd want to cut out a vest, first, for protection against xenophobic locals. Maybe some pants, too. Although leather pants really tend to cut off my circulation . . . chaps, then. Maybe gloves and a cap, too, if I was cold. Then I'd offer one of the birds a payment of dragon giblets to be my translator. Her name would probably be "Beetle-Chaser" or something like that. We'd head into town, and I'm sure there'd be some sort of difficulty to overcome there. There'd probably be a local sheriff or disco owner or some sort who resented my presence, and a young woman, small child, or fashion designer who needed my aid, so I'd have to spend some time sorting all that out. I consider myself a pacifist, so I'd prefer to talk things out, but for a lot of folks the fighting is sort of ritual. So there'd probably be some kind of battle royale, and things would look bad for me, and then suddenly there'd be an unexpected ally, or perhaps the dragon chaps would come into play in an unexpected way, or maybe Beetle-Chaser would turn the tide in a humorously unintended way. Perhaps there'd be a beetle on the dance floor during the disco contest or something, and in her dogged pursuit of it she would manage to trip up my antagonist's henchmen, thereby evening the fight. (Or dance-off.) Then the fashion designer or young woman or small child would give me some token of their affection--maybe a snazzy pair of boots, or a peck on the cheek, or maybe some mysterious object which is inextricably linked to my destiny--and I would be on my way out of town with my bird friend, my chaps gleaming in the sun, still trying to find my way home.

5. Will there be libraries in 50 years? What will they look like?

We talked about this a lot in my Master's program; at least, we talked about the fact that libraries are in the midst of a huge shift in focus. There are far too many books being published today for any library to collect them all, and some people are operating under the belief that all the information anyone could need is on the Internet. There are three problems with that last assumption. 1) There's plenty of information that isn't on the Internet, and even with things like Google's digital library initiative, it would take decades of concentrated effort to put "everything" at your fingertips. 2) Plenty of what is on the Internet isn't free, and the cost of subscribing to many databases is prohibitive for individuals. 3) There's a lot of BAD information on the Internet, and not all users (particularly young users) are cognizant enough of this to consider the authority of their sources.

For those reasons, and plenty of others--a need for community space being one of the most important--we'll still need libraries in fifty years. Whether we'll still have them will depend on a lot of things; the willingness of the government and the public to fund them, whether current copyright trends continue (extension, consolidation, etc.), and whether, on the other side, libraries can continue to serve as helpful gatekeepers to information on the printed page as well as to the exponentially increasing number of pages on the 'net.

Finally, in the future, libraries will look like a series of tubes.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Support Talebones!

Talebones, in case you've never heard of it, is a lovely little magazine put out by Patrick and Honna Swenson. They've published two of my stories, "The King of Memphis" and "A Whole Man," and they've published a host of other talented folks besides. And they're in trouble:

Dear Family, Friends, Peers, Acquaintances:

Talebones has been a part of our lives for almost 11 years now. We have enjoyed every minute of putting all 33 issues together for our readers. It has truly been a labor of love. Most of the time that labor has cost us money, and now, because the amount of money we can put into the magazine has dwindled and, for whatever reason, subscriptions and renewals have not been as strong as we had hoped over the past year, we figure we may have to close down the magazine.

A couple of days ago, it was actually a final decision. "That's it, there's no way can we keep going." There were tears. A few VIPs we mentioned it to asked us to reconsider. So we took a step back and decided: We will issue renewal notices as usual, but put an extra strong plea in there about this. And then we will send a more detailed email to everyone in our email address book who might have an interest. Based on what renewals come in over the next month, based on the response to this email, we will see if Talebones can continue on past 2006. Issue #33 is already in its final preparation stage. With our decision to make this final stab at keeping things going came the decision to at least have an issue #34, to be published in November of December. We will make a determination then if it is to be the last or not.

If you've subscribed to our magazine before, if you've never subscribed, but maybe sent us stories (or had stories published by us), or have wished us well with our little venture, we hope you'll consider helping out. . . . At this point, even a single issue copy of our upcoming issue #33 will help. (We’ve put the order form/info up on our website early.) We have Paypal ready to go if you'd like to go that route. Or you can send money order or check payable to Talebones to our physical address at 5203 Quincy Ave SE; Auburn, WA 98092. Or you can ignore this, delete this, or, do whatever you like. It won't change the way we feel about ANY of you. We just thought we'd do something we’ve never done in over a decade of publishing the magazine: beg!

That's our sermon. Thanks for your support. Regardless of what happens to the magazine, never fear: Talebones and Fairwood Press will continue to have a presence in the SF world.

Patrick & Honna Swenson
Talebones Magazine
Fairwood Press, Inc

Help them out if you can, folks; you'll be helping yourself to some great stories as well!

Author's Note: "Five Hundred and Forty Doors"

Today is our official Internet launch party for Twenty Epics! In celebration of this beautiful book, with all the kick-ass epic tales (in 10,000 words or less) by lovely and talented writers, we're tossing links around like shuriken and telling the stories of our stories. This is my first piece of fiction writing to show up in an actual bound book, and as you may be able to tell I'm pretty damned excited.

The story behind my contribution, "Five Hundred and Forty Doors," is this:

My mom was born in Evansville, Minnesota, a small town just north of Alexandria. Be warned, if you have any plans to visit the area, that it is overrun with Scandinavians. Evansville was a Norwegian enclave, and the Burros clan, at least down to my mom's generation, are full-blooded Norwegians. (The Swedes lived in the next town over, in Brandon. If you get my mom talking she'll tell you how "those Swedes burned down our church." Long story.) What do you get when you get a lot of Norwegian farming families? You get a lot of Norwegian bachelors. Not, in this case, bachelor farmers--I'm not necessarily clear on what most of my great uncles did for a living. A fair amount of their time seems to have been spent chasing each other around with shotguns. (I exaggerate. Some.) Do you remember Fargo? Some people (not Minnesotans) tried to tell me that the dialect in that movie was exaggerated. Ha. Come and meet the Burroses that still live up in Evansville, and you'll see. Hell, after an hour with them I'll be talking like Jerry Lundegaard.

My great uncles on the Burros side included Uncle George, Uncle Martin, Uncle Sidney, and Uncle Burt. After Grandpa died and Grandma moved into town, she lived up the street from Uncle Burt. He lived in a tiny house that had an old man smell, but we always walked over to visit him when we were in town, because our parents made us and because he was nice and because he always served us blueberries with cream and sugar. Good stuff. Try it sometime.

What does all of this have to do with my story? Well, after many visits and many bowls of blueberries, Uncle Burt died and I grew up. I went to college and majored, eventually, in Scandinavian Studies. I read sagas full of laconic warriors and old, head-trippy poems about the end of the world. I learned that Uncle Burt had been in World War II. And by the time I read that David Moles and Susan Marie Groppi were putting together an oxymoronic anthology of short epics, I was ready to write a story about the Battle of the Bulge, Ragnarok, and brothers with guns, all in a thick Minnesota dialect. I don't know that Burt or his brothers would approve--in my experience the Norwegian Lutheran sensibility sees fantasy as anathema--but I wrote it for them, nonetheless.

To buy Twenty Epics, visit either Amazon or Lulu. If you've already read it, post a rave review! To read more Author's Notes, visit Mr. Moles; he's collecting all the links.


I'm working on my Twenty Epics post (and my responses to Greg's questions, and some other stuff), but this has made me very sad this morning.

Richard Emslie of IUCN's Species Survival Commission told BBC News that a trio of experts systematically scoured 1,200 miles (2,500 kilometers) of habitat in northern Cameroon.

The survey failed to find any sign of the West African black rhino.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

News of the Excellent Variety

I am informed by Deborah Layne, ruler of Wheatland Press, that she and Jay Lake want my story "Manifest Destiny" (which I call my "dead presidents" story--not the currency) for Polyphony 6. Yay! Polyphony is a great anthology series, and from the few others I know are in the TOC so far, I'm in great company. Word is the antho will hit the streets in early November, so save your shekels!

ETA: Sorry about the puppy, there.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

All Is Well

Hey folks; there's been some concern, so let me just say that I was not on this train, although it's on the route I normally take home from work. Took me about two hours to get home, but that I can live with.

If I Had a Firstborn I Might Have to Sell It

Tom Waits on tour. And me so very broke, broke, broke.

Followup: The Clash of Forms

So there was some discussion of that big thinky post, and many of y'all chimed in.

On the Diversity of the Novel Species

David Moles wonders if there isn't more than one sort of novel. "One is what you're talking about, clearly (regardless of genre) in the tradition of the European novel; another, which I've heard argued should be considered a descendant of the (chivalric, gothic, etc.) romance--as if a book could have a purebred pedigree, but never mind--which might be more like what Jay's talking about, just a very long short story." Barth Anderson agrees: "Like Mr. Moles above I've been thinking about masquerades, though more how the typical genre short story with plot points, peaks and valleys, and other rising actions, is really a classic novella (I'm sure others have made this point), the definition of which has more to do with a story structure that necessitates length--and not simply a high word count for the sake of it. 'True' short stories have more in common with poetry, as you beautifully describe above. Effect and aesthetic response may be chosen over the novella's tension and plot. A keyhole view of a larger something. Closure of themes and images may be more important than resolution of plot. And in a short story, these affects can (should?) be achieved with great economy." Jeremy Tolbert goes on to say that "due to its length, there is more taxonomic complexity within the novel family, perhaps, than short stories. I think there is less genetic diversity in the short form than there is in the novel, maybe? Short stories might not be easier to write, but when it comes to certain structural decisions, you're limited more, and people who are paralyzed by too many options like me might find that fact comforting or helpful." This last point made me wonder if the structural limitations of a short story might not explain why it's so much more tempting to experiment in the short form, because rules--perceived or actual--tend to make certain personalities look for ways to break them.

Are Stories Moments, and Novels Continuums?

Haddayr Copley-Woods talks about her own preferences of form: "I think what fascinates me about life in general are these intense, strong moments--which is probably why I'm a short story writer instead of a novelist." Michael Jasper thinks that "not just size-wise, but concept-wise, stories are . . . more about intense life moments, like Haddayr mentioned, versus an entire LIFE, which novels often focus on." I pretty much agree with them both. I think that novels can have those intense, strong moments, but they tend to be diluted by everything else around them. I dislike framing the differences here in terms of value, but there are some things that I think short stories just do better, and one of those is that sort of "mugging" of the reader--the ability to deliver the gut punch and make the escape, leaving the reader to consider the implications. It's true that novels can deliver a similar blow, sometimes with more of an emotional impact, but in most cases it's decontextualized with respect to the reader. I mean that the events are further removed because the rest of the novel provides a sort of reality-cushion, if that makes any sense.

(Haddayr reacted badly to being called a mugger. I meant it in the best way.)

Sarah Prineas agrees. She thinks the difference boils down to character, and she brings examples. "I'm thinking about the early novel, as it was developing in 18th C. England. Its big difference from the 'Romance,' I think, is in its focus on character rather than on, I guess, adventure. So your big 18th C. novels are Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa, Tom Jones and Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison and Joseph Andrews, and (fudging dates a little), Emma and David Copperfield and Jane Eyre. In a big fat novel, you get to know a character really, really well. Take Clarissa, for example. By the time you get to the tragic end of that unabridged bookstop you by god know the woman, and your heart breaks for her. A strand of this kind of novel is still woven through lots of novels today--readers get to know characters very well, and enjoy that relationship. . . . Short stories, on the other hand? How can you get to know somebody, and care about them, in just 5000 words?"

This seems related, to me, to a bit of back-and-forth that Trent Hergenrader and I had on whether "focus" or "scope" were useful ways to distinguish novels from short stories. I liked what he said about scope: "Even novels that are interested in exploring a single idea usually have to do it from a variety of angles and perspectives which accounts for their length." I wasn't as convinced by his photography analogy, though. "I see novels as panoramics, shorts stories as macro photography. Neither is inherently 'better' than the other (even though panoramics take in more scenery) and both require technical skills to do properly." It's an interesting metaphor, but I'm beginning to think that the element of time is what's really at the center of the distinction. Maybe a short story is a photograph of a moment--perhaps a moment of decision, with implications of past and future--and a novel is a moving picture? Which is not to say that I think short stories are static, but that they feel less open-ended, more confined by their edges.

On Turning the Corner, or the Moveable Goal

A Mr. Elf Sternberg says: "I remember reading [Robert] McKee's book on scriptwriting, Story (great book for any writer, btw), and he said that most great stories start with a false desire in the protagonist: Luke wants to get off the planet, then he wants to avenge his stepparents, then he wants to save the galaxy, and then he wants to save his father (while Chewbacca takes on the role of saving the galaxy), and so on."

On a related note, Jed Hartman points to:

1. David Siegel's Two-Goal Structure (later expanded into the Nine-Act Structure) for movies; the idea that somewhere between the halfway point and the end of the story, the protagonist suddenly learns that they've been pursuing the wrong goal.

2. Heinlein's novels; sometime in or after college, I realized that almost every one of Heinlein's adult novels that I'd read contained a total upheaval almost exactly halfway through--a complete change in what the story's about and where it appears to be headed.

I also liked what Jed said about ideas: "I've heard it suggested that a short story may derive from the tensions among two or three basic ideas, while in a novel, there may be more like five or ten ideas. That's obviously a simplification and generalization, but I think there's something to it. In other words, it's not just that a single idea is either a short story idea or a novel idea (though I think there's something to that as well); it's that the number of ideas and ways they interact can be larger in a novel. A short story that starts with too many different ideas may feel cluttered; a novel that starts with too few may feel sparse."

This seems to tie into what Meghan McCarron says about the novel she's working on. "I can't hold it all in my head at once. I can think about the beginning, middle or end, but not about how they all hold together. That's how I think about my stories--that moment they build to, their core. My book has no core, not in the same way. And that makes it harder to control, and harder for maybe teh control-freaky to write." Meghan also notes that "corner-turning is my favorite part of fiction, it's thrilling when something takes a sharp left, and I hope to do that in my book, like, three different times, just b/c I love it. But I turn corners, I think, in my short fiction too. Or at least I try to. So maybe that's not just a novel thing, it's just way more intense in novels."

Which got me thinking about whether the center of a short story, that moment of decision, might be more of a pivot point. In other words, maybe the difference between turning corners in short fiction as opposed to novels may be that in short stories the turn can be that center or core that we're talking about--in the novel it may be an important moment, but ultimately it's one of several, whereas in a story there isn't room to turn a lot of corners.

Sizing Up Narrative

In a response to my initial post on this topic, Jay Lake expands on his original comment on "novel-sized plots" to explain that his distinction was based not on simple length but on structural complexity. "For example, one can characterize flash fiction as emphasizing only a single element of the stereotypical Western story--character in a setting with a problem, attempting multiple solutions with increasing levels of risk and failure, before achieving resolution, followed by reader validation. . . . Moving this model forward, a short short (let's say quantitatively falling between 1,000 and 7,500 words) can expand from the single-element approach of flash to encompass an entire story arc. Typically at this length the arc will not include subplots, feature only a single protagonist, and so forth. . . . Novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words) introduce multiple plot arcs, subplots, strong secondary characters and even multiple protagonists. Digressions begin to appear, alarums and excursions propagate. And so the complexity continues up the scale through novellas (17,500-40,000), short novels (40,000-65,000), novels (65,000-125,000) and long novels (125,000+). . . . The key here is an expanding sense of structure."

On a related note, Lois Tilton puts in a word for the school of hard knocks experience. "You're a writer. You get an idea. First thing you need to do is figure if this is a novel-idea or a short story-idea. It might be both: that is, there might be both a short story and a novel that can be born from this idea, but they can never be the same. . . . Failure to identify what the idea needs to be will lead either to the novel idea crammed into a short story, or the short story idea bloated into a novel - both forms are doomed, both are failures. . . . It is a thing that experience teaches, undergoing both these forms of failure."


Yeah, I don't have any. But the discussion sparked a lot of thinking, which I found useful. I have to confess that I'm not naturally inclined towards this sort of dissection of fiction; I resist too closely examining what I do mainly because I'm superstitious about it, and I fear disenchantment. I'm finding, though, that in order to progress I feel like I need to figure out what I've been doing, and how I can improve upon the process and conception of it. Hopefully this is (at least somewhat) interesting for the rest of y'all as well.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


I loved it and I don't care what you say.

In other news, am going to do a roundup of the discussion that followed that last post; thanks to all who participated. I'll hopefully have something by sometime tomorrow.