Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Acquisitions list

This 15-inch high chunk of elephant just sold for $8,547,979. It's 750 years old, give or take. I wish I had a better picture. But for something so old and fragile, it seems to be in great shape. You can read a bit (not a lot) more here.

It's nice enough, I suppose, but it doesn't really speak to me. What do are the Lewis Chessmen:

Andrew Dunn, creative commons

There 78 of them, mostly carved from walrus ivory some of whale teeth. They're even older than the Virgin: twelfth century, some think. Probably made in Trondheim. But no one's certain. No one's certain, either, about where exactly they were found, or when. They were retrieved (apparently "under mysterious circumstances") from Lewis in or before the nineteenth century.

One of my favourites is the Beserker:

Rob Roy, creative commons licence

Substitute the shield for my First Generation Kindle and that could have been me the other day.

Against the day I make (or steal, or win, or am given--I'm not picky) a billion dollars, this is going on my acquisition list. What's on yours?

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Figuring it out

Continuing yesterday's saga* about turning the manuscript of my latest novel into an ereader-ready file for advance readers...

I was having a hard time figuring out how to make the glossary--a tabular list--appear on my Kindle 1 the way it's supposed to, that is, as a two-column list rather than a pool of word vomit.

I tried everything I could think of. It didn't work.

Then a very kind soul and expert ebook maker**, Catherine M. Wilson, offered to take over for me. I accepted gratefully. And, you know what? It turns out that the glossary thing isn't just me: it's the Kindle. Apparently no one can make this kind of table look good on a First Generation machine. So, hey, I'm not an idiot. (At least not about this. Though I still don't read the instructions...) Here's how it looks now on a Kindle 3:

So now it's done. I have a luscious looking draft of Hild in EPUB, MOBI, and HTML. I am good to go. Which means that now you can stop feeling harassed by my updates and/or stop feeling sorry for me and/or Kelley (depending on your point of view and temperament).

Except, ha!, I've just discovered PressBook in beta, and also signed up for the Vook book-making platform as soon as it goes live. I'm guessing you haven't heard the last of this...

* I forgot to mention that the illustration I used for the temporary cover is a watercolour of Bamburgh Castle by Norman MacKillop who, a few years ago, graciously gave me permission to use the painting in exchange for a donation to his favourite charity. Here's what it looks like in colour:

I love this painting.

** I've also had much input, handy tips, and offers of help from Vonda M. McIntyre, Shana Cohen, and @TinaHolmboe. The world is full of kind and generous people. Thank you, all.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

How to turn your Word document into a Kindle-ready file

My current project is Hild, a massive novel set in the seventh century. For the convenience of advance readers (editors, agent, publicists and so on), I want to turn the manuscript into a nifty ereader-ready file, complete with embedded map, glossary, and genealogy, which I can email to readers for sideloading to their device of choice via USB.

A plain word file is easy. Last year I found a a quick way to turn a Word doc into very sturdy .azw format. (This is Amazon's proprietary format. I use a Kindle, so the first part of this post is all about that; don't worry, I'll get to the other stuff later.) It's not elegant but it works.

Here's how I do it. First of all, because I began my keyboarding life long ago on a typewriter, and sometimes old habits die hard, I do a global search-and-replace to substitute one space for two between sentences. Then I make sure that the paragraphing is right--no line breaks between paragraphs, no extra spacing that might lead to such, etc. Then--and this is important for the quick-and-dirty-zero-coding method--I change my tab indent from .5 to .1. Then I save the Word file (.docx) as a web page (.htm).

I email the .htm file to my Kindle address and Amazon kindly flings it through the ether to land on my Kindle home page. I open it.

Here's how it looks:

Not fancy but eminently readable.

To make an .azw file that I can email as an attachment to others so they can sideload it to their own Kindles, I email the .htm file to my Free Kindle address, and Amazon kindly emails me the .azw file, which I can then forward.

So far, so simple. And very, very fast. (Really. The whole thing takes less than ten minutes.)

The difficulty comes when I try to embed graphics (map, genealogy, nifty end-of-section symbol: ✥) and tables (glossary). It should be simple: embed the pictures in the Word doc, save that as a web page, upload the whole thing. But it isn't. What I get where the big graphics should be (e.g. the map) is picture of a camera and an exclamation point. (The little graphics, i.e. symbol, are just a question mark in a box.) As the Kindle is delicate (and, y'know, mine), I don't throw it at the wall. (Yep, I exaggerated the other day. It's what writers do.)

So then I thought: Okay, you bastard, I'll just upload the graphics as separate files and send a zipped file for readers to upload to their Kindles. Ha, eat that you awkward git! I tried uploading the graphics on their own. I tried it several different ways, using different formats (I won't bore you with the details) and eventually got so cross I was driven to do what I should have done to start with: I read the instructions. (Kelley always laughs at me for not reading instructions. I know I should I just...don't. Call it a moral failing and move on-- Why, yes, that is Kelley in the background chortling mercilessly.)

So, if I'm reading the instructions correctly--which I often don't, which is why I never read the fucking things in the first place--my fastidious First Generation Kindle (yep, it really is that old) not only finds PDFs unclean (which I knew) but also won't touch .gif or .jpg or .png or .bmp or any other picture formats on the planet.

So then I tried all the same methods but this time to Kelley's Kindle, which is a third generation device. Failure.

So then I turned to Calibre. (Calibre is a free and open-source e-book library management system. As part of that management, it converts documents into and between a variety of formats, including EPUB, used by lots of ereaders such as Sony, Kobo, iBooks, and MOBI, which Amazon easily turns into its .azw format.)

Calibre won't import and convert Word documents, so I turned Hild into an RTF file (complete with graphics, tables, etc.) and tried, twice, to import/convert that. For reasons unknown it wouldn't work. Calibre suggested I try converting the document to a webpage first. So I did that. I imported. Converted to MOBI. Added metadata, commentary, a cover. Uploaded to my Amazon account. And, woo-hoo! It worked. At least for the cover and genealogy:

If you click on the picture to make it bigger, you'll see that as well as actually displaying the cover (nope, this is not the final cover; I just made that on Photoshop while waiting for one of my endless trials/conversions/uploads) it now also shows the title and author in the right place.

The genealogy can be zoomed on the Kindle, at which point it flips on its side:

However, the glossary, in tabular form, came out looking as though someone had eaten a dictionary and thrown up on my Kindle. Huh.

The saga will continue tomorrow...

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Happy overindulgence

Last night was one of overindulgence. This one photo encapsulates it: Champagne (Thierry Triolet), Armagnac (Larresingle X.O.), port (Sandeman's, 40 yrs. old), and two delicious red wines (just visible in the background: a haughty old Rioja and, well, ah, I forget what the other one was). It was a celebration dinner for an old friend.

Life is good. But today I'm moving slowly...

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Currently having fun with...

I am currently having fun trying to turn my Hild ms. into something pretty which early readers can read on their Kindle. By 'fun' I mean 'not fun'. By 'pretty' I mean a sturdy and readable .azw document without ugly gaps, spaces, and format errors, and with the embedded loveliness of my map, family tree, and glossary. By 'early readers' I mean experts in their field: historians, publicists, editors, agents and so on. (So, no, sorry, much as I love every single one of you--and I do--you can't have one.)

Some parts of it are working, some are not. I'll tell you all about it on Monday. When I've recovered my temper, Kelley has stopping laughing, and I've retrieved the pieces of my Kindle from the floor...

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Friday, November 25, 2011

The cat who gave thanks

The nieghbourhood cat, whom we call Chow Ciao, but whose new owners have named something like Kira, has been visiting every morning. This was early Thanksgiving morning. Being a cat, she isn't particularly thankful for any of the treats she's had in the last week: bacon, salmon skin, lamb fat, pork leftovers, and chicken. Hey, that's how it is. She is Cat. She deserves treats from all her minions. Plus, it was cold.

This morning dawned even colder--but, miraculously for this time of year in Seattle, dry and bright. Here's a picture of the sun-threaded ravine. The torture tree is finally beginning to lose its leaves. When they're gone, it's officially Winter.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thank you

Without readers, my novels wouldn't exist. Oh, there would be words on a page, but they wouldn't live in hearts and minds--which, for me, is the point. In that sense, Dear Reader, you make my life possible. You fill it with excitement and joy. Thank you for reading. Thank you for dreaming. Thank you for the conversation, the encouragement and, yes, the love.

Thank you.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Some novels I got all the way through this month

Yesterday I listed books I've tried in the last three or four weeks. I'm going to talk briefly about the novels I managed to read all the way through:

Reamde, Neal Stephenson
11/11/63, Stephen King
Santa Olivia, Jacqueline Carey
The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett
The Affair, Lee Child
Island, Thomas Perry
The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan
Haweswater, Sarah Hall

Key word: brief. Which means my remarks may seem to be brusque or careless. After Hild I'm finding it difficult to write at length. My comments will feel more like elevator conversation than the long, rambling beery interludes you're used to here. It might seem as though I'm damning with faint praise; that's not my intent. I'm talking about these books because I think they might be worth your time.

The Stephenson (Reamde) was kind of cool--a geek thriller set in various parts of the world (including the online world) full of fascinating detail about how aspects of MMPORGs (and money, and China, and terrorism, and drug smuggling, etc.) work. Also offering insight (I suspect) into how some corporate sultans of tech think. Very long, though. And the last 20% or so felt a little out of control. Actually, it felt a bit like Return of the King, the movie: too many endings. But the women aren't objects, they're very much subjects (mostly--still lots of tie-them-up-and-threaten-them-sexually scenes, sigh). If you want to spend a week in another world, read this.

The King (11/22/63) was a return to his old style, lacking that particular bitterness which feels like carelessness I've come to associate with his recent work. A few pages in it was clear to me that this was an idea he'd had near the beginning of his career. The afterword confirmed it. Also confirmed in the afterword: the ending is not entirely his. It's a nice ending, but it doesn't sit entirely comfortably. But, damn, I was relieved. Given his recent callousness to his characters, I thought the ending might be horrible. I read on faith. I was well rewarded. I might talk about this one some more another time, when a Certain Someone Who Bakes has finished it and won't be grumpy about spoilers.

The Carey (Santa Olivia) was a blast. Lesbian boxing mutants, woo hoo! It was also peculiarly one-dimensional in places. But, oh, what assured narrative; so lovely to be in competent hands. I knew nothing of this book before I started it and haven't read anything about it since. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that this, like the King, had its genesis at the dawn of the author's career. It has that fresh-new-writer-in-the-world feel to it. Also like the King, I was initially worried about the story trajectory. But, again, it ended well. Perhaps a little too well. It's obvious Carey is writing a sequel, and I feel about that the same way I felt about the Phèdre books: Kushiel's Dart was wonderful, the sequels unnecessary and a dilution of the original premise. But that's just the kind of reader/writer I am. If you can tell the story with one definite spear thrust, then you don't need endless dancing and jabbing. Mileage varies. (I know lots of readers would love to have a sequel to Ammonite...)

The Brackett (The Long Tomorrow) was a reread. A Ruined Earth story, in some ways the American mirror image of Wyndham's The Chrysalids. I'm writing a short essay on this one, so I'll stop there for now.

I think Lee Child's The Affair was the first book I read after finishing Hild. It's pretty much what I expect from a Reacher Novel, with the added bonus of being Reacher's origin story. Reacher never changes. In other words, the perfect book to read when you don't want anything surprising, e.g. while flying.

Island, by Thomas Perry, was a bravura performance, and a delight. Not deep, but a fascinating premise--create land, turn it into a nation state--backed to the hilt by a thoroughly committed author. Good stuff.

Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf was great: chewy, unexpected, sharply written and exactly what the title promises. Sort of. Let me put it this way: a smart protagonist, lots of sex and food and blood, a hint of queerness, some name-brand Scotch, good clothes and a nifty ending. No doubt this one, too, will have a sequel. I might read it.

Hall's Haweswater is a fine novel, a paean to early twentieth-century Cumbria. Hall understands bodies, human and animal, and she understands landscape. Her notions of story and point of view aren't like mine--her perspective shifts about two-thirds of the way through, which I found disorientating--but I can recommend this one if you like the moors of Hardy and Emily Brontë. Given the other works of hers that I've read (The Carhullan Army and one short story) I'm beginning to suspect she has a problem with endings. But she's definitely worth reading.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the US--so discussion of the list of books that didn't work for me will have to wait a few days.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Recently read

I've just finished writing a massive, technically difficult novel and ground my brain into dust trying to make it feel, to the reader, luxuriously, joyously clean and simple. I believe it's a writer's job to be a good host: to welcome the reader, make even the most difficult subject matter and obtuse characters easy to enter.

Sadly, this doesn't seem to be a priority for other writers. Or perhaps they're just not able.

In the last three or four weeks I've downloaded dozens of sample chapters only to become irritated and impatient. In this regard, the Kindle is very frustrating: I can't throw it at the wall. I have to put it down carefully, then throw something else at the wall. Tuh.

I've read one paper book all the way through, my ancient 1961 paperback of Alistair MacLean's Fear is the Key. The object itself is in dreadful shape:

If you look carefully, you'll see the bookworm holes in the cover. Here's how it appears from the inside:

Don't worry. Those worms are long dead. And, just in case, we keep it in a plastic bag. This has the added benefit of keeping the book together. Alas, we've already lost about thirty pages over the years. Not so bad when you consider the thing is nearly as old as I am. But it doesn't matter; I know the story; I've read it often enough.

But it's sad when one is reduced to reading a broken, vermin-riddled, mouldy, fifty year-old paperback.

Of the newer books I've attempted, some are not acceptable because the writing is pitiful. Sometimes the digital design and/or conversion is appalling. Sometimes the premise, story or characters are tedious and/or unbelievable. Sometimes the style is stiff and unconvincing. Sometimes--no, often--they suffer (I suffer) from a combination of the above.

I admit I'm currently a difficult customer, but here's the thing: I don't need a book to be perfect. I do need it to do something interesting and/or do most things competently. Finding books that pass even that low bar hasn't been easy.

Here are some of the books I've actually finished in the last three weeks, all sufficiently engaging to get me through to the end:

Reamde, Neal Stephenson
11/11/63, Stephen King
Santa Olivia, Jacqueline Carey
The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett
The Affair, Lee Child
Island, Thomas Perry
The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan
Haweswater, Sarah Hall

These are books I've read a bit of and might very well read more:

Floating Worlds, Cecelia Holland
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel
Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan
The Stranger's Child, Alan Hollinghurst
The Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje

These books failed me:

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman
The Element of Fire, Martha Wells
Sister Mischief, Laura Goode
How Fiction Works, James Wood
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson

Tomorrow I'll talk about why.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Unexpectedly lost

Today I got unexpectedly lost in a project and forgot about the books blog post I promised you. Oops. Tomorrow is another day.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sneak Peek at Game of Thrones Season 2

Via Deadline Hollywood

The problem with good TV: it takes way too long!

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Five movies: not bad, weird, and appalling

Since I've finally sent Hild on her merry way, I've been consuming entertainment: mostly books and films. And, wow, there's a lot of rubbish out there.

Today I do film. Tomorrow books. I'll start with pretty good, move on to a couple that are head-scratchingly weird, and end with comedy that made me lose all hope for women in this culture.

So. Hanna was enormous fun. Great soundtrack. Great display of female ruthlessness. Wonderful unexpected interlude with the English family and a splendid take on sudden friendship--and possibly more--between two very different girls. With lots of chase scenes, some nifty snow, and bloodiness thrown in. The whole film was surreal, in a good way, though the story arc wobbled alarmingly here and there. Definitely worth seeing. Turn the sound up and the high-pucker-factor left brain off.

Attack the Block was great. The first few minutes were difficult: they didn't pull any punches showing how a young woman is threatened, mugged, and knocked down by a bunch of semi-feral kids. (Youths as my parents might say.) But then we watch the redemption of the redeemable, the come-uppance of the irredeemable, and an uplifting ending that isn't unbelievably happy and tied in a bow. The music is good. And the depiction of class. It's been prettied up a little for the commercial palate of course, but that palate is a European one, not American, so while it pulls a few punches it at least lives in the same neighbourhood as realism. Much of the humour is generated not despite the class consciousness but because of it. I liked this film. It's much more representative of England than all that boring interwar costume drama public television likes so much. Go watch it.

The first half of Limitless was a fairly standard riff on the Flowers for Algernon notion of a drug that makes the user smarter. The protagonist of this one, though, wasn't dim and earnest and likeable, he was a morose, self-absorbed wannabee novelist with no work ethic (no ethics, as far as I could tell) and low self-esteem. Oh, yep, a really lovely personality--but played by Bradley Cooper, so probably meant to be attractive. I'll spare you details of the plot (I use the term loosely) but the second half of the film fails. The story points and pivots are spectacularly stupid: he's meant to be world-challengingly smart and he forgets to pay the mobster back his money? He didn't think to stash emergency supplies of his drug in several places when any meth head, crack addict, alcoholic and stoner would know better? He does the most interesting, paradigm-shaking stuff, i.e. learns to stay smart while weaning himself from the dangerous drug, offstage?? This one's worth watching for about the first third, because the director does a couple of nifty blended multiples-of-the-protagonist shots, and someone (DP, SFX?) does a great job lighting Cooper's eyes when he glows with smarts. But throw the rest away. Life's too short. They missed some wonderful opportunities with this one, storywise and actorwise (they hardly used Abbie Cornish). I would love to rewrite it.

The Advocate is a very odd duck indeed. A 1993 indie production starring Colin Firth, Ian Holm, and Donald Pleasence, it's original title was The Hour of the Pig. And I can believe that. It begins with a donkey being threatened, in all seriousness, with a judicial hanging, and delves deeper into weirdness as it proceeds. It's confusing on more than one level--for example, it calls the fifteenth century the Dark Ages--and strangely lit, but it's oddly endearing. My viewing was interrupted about a third of the way in, but I might pick this one up again. Lots of casual nudity of real-looking bodies (non-plucked and primped and smoothed) is a plus.

And then we come to Bridesmaids. The most important thing I have to say about this one is: it's not funny. It is pathetic, in all senses of the world. I felt pity for main character, pity for all the women, whose notion of a good time, of humour, of relationship is feeling bad about themselves and lying. I managed twenty minutes, without cracking one single smile, never mind laughing out loud, and simply couldn't bear watching another second. These women are sad sacks with low self-esteem and zero self-assertion. They all hate themselves. They hate and fear men. I know I'm not exactly the target audience for this film but watching even the bit I did made me long to wash this culture off and leave. This is a terrible film. It appalled me that women find this kind of thing amusing. I literally don't understand it. And I'm glad.

Tomorrow I'll talk about some books I've read (mostly worth reading). Meanwhile, please recommend a comedy in which the protagonist doesn't hate her or himself. I need a palate cleanser, stat!

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Historical fiction and science fiction

Okay, one's historical and one's fantasy but, eh, close enough for Saturday

Annalee Newnitz has an article on about the "ten major themes and ideas shared by HF and SF." Go take a look.

All then, I think, would fit comfortably under an uber-theme--a fascination with systems, both human and cultural. That is, how things work, and how they play out. Fiction is the great play-test of our imagination: we ask What If...? and let the experiment run. Both HF and SF run the experiment rigorously (the sub-genres not always; their concerns are different). The longer the fiction, the more numerous the parameters.

But, oh, for writers and readers of a certain bent, it's enormous fun. I think that when those of you who have read Ammonite or Slow River read Hild, you'll see that in many ways the concerns of Hild are those of my science fiction novels: how things work, and how my character/s influence the world, or at least their part of it.

Oh, I am so eager to share this book with you! I've no idea how I'll keep my mouth and blog strings shut. Just have to drink more wine and distract myself with luscious women who bake...

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Hild and Cromwell

I've said before how Hild was originally intended to be a single novel. In the writing, that all changed. Yesterday I saw this article in the Guardian about Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall. I'm guessing she knows what I'm talking about:

"Initially I had set out to tell the story of Cromwell's career between Thomas More's death in the summer of 1535 and his own death five years later," Mantel said, speaking to the Guardian about why her view of the structure of the story changed. "I didn't see the project as a trilogy because I thought the difficulties of carrying the backstory into a third novel would be too great. But all my thinking changed in the last month; it shows how hard it is to make predictions about how a novel will evolve.

I certainly know what she means. When I got halfway through Hild, I saw that Hild's life falls naturally into three parts, each with a quite different arc, length, and tone. So I cut the story short (if you can call 200,000 words short), and plan to pick it up in Book Two. This book, tentative title Menewood (though that's bound to change) will be short and brutal, the pivot around which all else turns.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I read this paragraph from the same Guardian article:

"When I came to write about the destruction of Anne Boleyn (a destruction which took place, essentially, over a period of three weeks) the process of writing and the writing itself took on an alarming intensity, and by the time Anne was dead I felt I had passed through a moral ordeal. I can only guess that the effect on the reader will be the same; the events are so brutal that you don't want to take a breath and turn the page, you want to close the book.

I don't know Mantel. But one day I'd like to sit down with her and have a drink. "Oh, and wasn't that realization a bastard? Didn't you just want to kill someone?" "Ha!" she'll say. "But then of course we did. Several someones. Horribly."

It's that willingness to enter the world of your own fiction, with all its surprises and horrors and joys, and to then recreate it for your readers, that makes great novels so vivid. It's the author's willingness to really go there, and to open the door for others, that makes story, place, and people so believable. That believability is what makes other creative artists think, Oh, I want to play there with those people! In other words, it's what TV producers are looking for.

Hilary Mantel just agreed to let HBO turn her novels about Cromwell into a series. I'm excited. And, y'know, thinking about Hild and TV. She, too, was a powerful advisor to kings. She, too, got mixed up in religious change. She, too, had a glittering, matchless mind...

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Big as a battering ram

Until a month ago, I had no idea that Brussels sprouts grew on stalks. I'd only ever seen them loose, or pre-packaged: tiny little cabbages in string bags. Then we had dinner at a friend's house and I spotted this gigantic Jack-and-the-Beanstalk looking thing in her kitchen. What the fuck is that? I said. Brussels sprouts, she said.

It's a bit of a shock to find myself so divorced from the roots (pun unavoidable, unless I think hard, and, y'know, as much as I love and admire every single one of you, a post about Brussels sprouts just isn't worth it) of a vegetable I eat often.

So just in case any of you are labouring under a similar burden of ignorance, here you go:

Yes, it really is three feet long. And heavy. You could use it as a battering ram. Or plant it in a pot, stick a star on top, and put presents under it at Yule. You can thank me when you get over the nightmares.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Novels: the expression of the human condition

Campbell's Soup I (1968), low-res snapshot so it can (hopefully) be considered Fair Use, via Wikipedia

A couple of weeks ago I read the cover article of the Nov/Dec issue of Intelligent Life, "A One-Man Market," by Bryan Appleyard. (It was excerpted in the Economist.) It's about Andy Warhol and the market for his art.

Warhol is now the god of contemporary art… In 2010 his work sold for $313m and accounted for 17% of all contemporary auction sales.

That shocked me. Seventeen percent of all contemporary auction sales. For one man who made it very clear that he regarded art as a commodity.

But that's just a by-the-bye. What really struck me was part of the last paragraph:

... Prompted by Warhol, conceptualism--art driven by ideas rather than sensuous and emotional engagement--has ruled for more than 20 years. It is a machine aesthetic, a desire to make art that is beyond human, and Andy always wanted to be a machine. But, though all art is in constant, self-questioning flux, one thing never changes--the longing to define, synthesise and express the human condition. In the absence of religion, it is art's job to do this...

Read the last two sentences again. This is one of the bases of my philosophy. Art--more particularly, literature--exists not only to entertain* or to soothe**, but to help us understand ourselves, our world, and our place in it.

Literature is what distinguishes us from every species that has gone before. It's what makes it possible for seven billion of us to breathe the same air. Literature is the great sum and sea of human experience, out there heaving serenely in the moonlight, ready for individuals, when it's their time, to paddle out on their voyage of discovery. Sometimes a whole boatload goes at once (a class, a book club). Sometimes the lone traveller comes back and tells her family and friends tall tales (the child retailing horror stories around the campfire). Sometimes he simply hugs the knowledge to himself (the gay teen exploring forbidden territory). But every voyager returns with added experience, a new perspective, a different lens through which to examine the world.

Literature is what keeps us learning about violence without having to kill, about hunger without having to starve, about fear without having to be hunted. Through books we learn strategies for situations we haven't yet encountered. We try on lives we may never get the opportunity to live. We can learn to walk in another's shoes without depriving him of them.

Literature isn't risk-free because books change us. But it can save us from physical harm in the quest for experience. It can save us time. Books provide valuable rehearsal so that when the big moments and grave decisions come we don't screw up as badly as we might otherwise. And we come back from our voyage, we recognise fellow travellers. I've talked about that in this essay I wrote with Kelley: without books, I'm not sure we would be together. I've talked about it in my paean to reading, "Doing it for Pleasure." And I've talked about it in my promise to run my software on your hardware.

I talk about it all the time. Because I believe it. I believe writers are the shamans who map unknown territory so that you don't have to. I believe writers help create the world, not just report it. I don't always do it well, but I'm getting better. And, oh, there are so very many journeys ahead.

* I'm with Pauline Kael on this. "If art isn't entertainment then what is it? Punishment?"
** A familiar novel can be very soothing. For more on this see "Doing it for Pleasure," linked above.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Good author readings

From: Sheila

Just want to say thank you for your piece on author readings. I have done many over the past eight years, but always wonder if I am "doing it right". So with one scheduled for tomorrow and another in two weeks, I went in search of someone else's perspective and found your article. [Author Readings: a guide] Thanks for that.

What I am struggling with is how to connect the audience with the piece I am about to read. My books are collections of short personal essays with the humorous ones getting the best reaction when I read. In the past I sort of said hello and started right into reading. But I am feeling that I need to ease them in with a bit of talk about the subject of the essay I am about to read.
Do you have any tips to offer?

Yes. Ease them in. Say hello, tell them how happy (or not) you are to be there. And why. Tell them what you're going to read. Tell them how long you'll read, and what happens after that. Audiences don't like to be surprised. Give them context: don't be afraid to tell them the mood of what they're about to hear: funny or sad, joyful or grim, frightening or sexy. Audiences love knowing what to expect. (Go read up on the science and marketing of movie trailers: the more you tell and audience about the film, the more likely they are to want to go see it, and--when they are watching it--to enjoy it.) Tell them what to expect. Then give them what you promised.

Here are two examples of my reading--from the same book (And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, my memoir), and on the same evening (a reading at Hugo House). ANWAGTHAP is a book with a serious arc but light moments.

There's a lot of stuff missing, and the poor sound quality makes me sound as though I have a lisp (I really don't), but you can see how I set the context for the first reading: that it's meant to be short and light.

For the second, I signal that although it, too, will be amusing in places, it is more complicated, emotionally: some light bits but serious at its core.

I like to give my audience a notion of the emotional flavour of what I'm about to read. But I work hard to never, ever insist on it. If I read something I think is sexy and people laugh, then it's not the audience that's at fault, but me: the writing, or the delivery, or the context-setting. Blaming the audience is counter-productive.

One of the first readings I went to, long ago, was a standing-room-only performance by Alice Walker. She talked for a while. We laughed. Then she read a poem. At the first line, we (mostly women; lots of people of colour, lots of white people) laughed. She flew into a rage: It was not funny! She lambasted us for at least two minutes.

The thing is, it was funny. She might not have meant it to be funny, but it was, because that's what we were primed for. So we laughed. And then we felt stupid. And racist. And guilty. We (I, certainly) felt resentful.

Here's a tip: you never, ever want to make your buying public feel stupid, resentful, or guilty.

If Walker had simply said, This next poem is about horror and racism, we would have listened differently. We would have been primed.

So set the context, especially the emotional context. Then have fun. (Or feel righteous rage. Or wildly hot. Or a sensawunda.) Just let the audience know what to expect.

I hope that helps.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Blazing happiness

I have been having a truly marvellous few days. Hild is now safely in the hands of editors on either side of the Atlantic (and there's a lovely discussion going on about some secondary characters over on Gemæcca, my research blog). I've had a wonderful response to Hild from one historian who said, among many other heart-warming things, "It's a fantastic story. Your writing style is utterly brilliant. The historical setting is so carefully crafted that I felt like an archaeologist sifting through seventh-century artifacts at the excavation of a Deiran homestead... I think I'm supposed to be looking out for anachronisms and such. Not much chance of that. The world you've created for Hild works perfectly well without my meddling." Ha! This is pretty much a dream come true. One of the (many) things I want from Hild is for experts in early seventh-century Britain to nod and think, Yes, this is how it was. So I'm utterly delighted.

And throughout all this blazing happiness, Seattle blazed with sunshine. I took the picture above on Thursday morning immediately after a very pleasant phone conversation. The sun has gone now, for a little while, and the leaves are turning from gilded bronze to sherbert.

But who needs sunshine when Kelley has baked another luscious carrot-walnut cake?

Life is good. That's all.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Snow White with a sword

Interesting. The Blob mirror talks. Snow White is silent. Thor The huntsman sounds Scottish. And the Wicked Queen has an odd and rather wobbly English accent. The soldiers seem to be made of shatter-prone black glass. The birds are pretty. And the swords. And it's all brightly coloured. Also, the music doesn't suck. But I'd really like to know how they're going to handle Snow White. Armour and a sword is all well and good, but how confident is she? I hope she doesn't do the patented Kristen Stewart sulk. But, eh, so far I'm thinking: yep, I'll go see this. You?

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cultural images of women: blame the Romans

The Romans. Those bastards. It's all their fault:

Research coordinated by Carlos III University in Madrid (UC3M) analyzes the images of women in Roman mosaics and their impact on the collective consciousness of feminine stereotypes. In many cases, the research concludes, the images pointed to the female as the cause of wars and other evils.

Read more at History of the Ancient World.

I'm guessing they didn't have this kind of thing in mind:

Wikimedia Commons

It's from the Villa Romana del Casale, early 4th century. You should go look at the other photos.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Starship Sofa 3

Some of you may remember that Starship Sofa did an audio podcast of my Hugo and Locus Award-nominated novelette, "It Takes Two." They didn't and don't charge listeners. (Listen to it here. It starts at 14:48.) They can do that because every year they solicit donations to keep them going. This year, in service of that goal, they're selling a selection of nifty anthologies. Actually, it's just one anthology, but it comes in a variety of formats.

The anthology's only flaw: I'm not on the cover

The story of mine that included in this collection of fabulousness isn't "It Takes Two," it's "Songs of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese." Here's the full list of contents for the plain text digital edition:


  • “Electric Ladyland” by Matthew Sanborn Smith (Illustrated by Daniel Tozer)
  • “That Blissful Height” by Gregory Frost (Illustrated by Simon Watkins)
  • “Feedback” by Joe Haldeman (Illustrated by Jack Calverley)
  • “In The Harsh Glow of Its Incandescent Beauty” by Mercurio D. Rivera (Illustrated by Timothy Booth)
  • “Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese” by Nicola Griffith (Illustrated by Jerel Dye)
  • “Nimbus” by Peter Watts (Illustrated by Evan Forsch)
  • “Luck” by James Patrick Kelly (Illustrated by Patrick McEvoy)
  • “Where Virtue Lives” by Saladin Ahmed (Illustrated by Ben Greene)
  • “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time” by Catherynne M. Valente (Illustrated by Mike Dubisch)
  • “The Occurrence at Slocombe Priory” by Paul Cornell (Illustrated by Thomas Crielly)
  • “Sunsets and Hamburgers by Gareth L. Powell (Illustrated by Bradley W. Schenck)
  • “Martyrs of The Upshot Knothole” by James Morrow (Illustrated by Brian Thomas Woods)
  • “Newts” by Kevin J. Anderson (Illustrated by Richard Case)
  • “Cold Reading” by Michael Swanwick (Illustrated by Peter Snejbjerg)
  • “Drink For The Thirst To Come” by Lawrence Santoro (Illustrated by Daniele Serra)
  • “In Pacmandu” by Lavie Tidhar (Illustrated by Graeme Neil Reid)
  • “Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders” by Aliette de Bodard (Illustrated by Mark Zug)
  • “World Without End, Amen” by Allen Steele (Illustrated by Brent Holmes)
  • “The Happiest Dead Boy In The World” by Tad Williams (Illustrated by Ben Wootten)
  • “Nothing Ever Happens In Rock City” by Jack McDevitt (Illustrated by Dave Krummenacher)
  • “Halfway People” by Karen Joy Fowler (Illustrated by Patrick McEvoy)
  • “Friction” by Will McIntosh (Illustrated by Jouni Koponen)
  • “Just A Couple of Subversive Alien Warmongers Floating All Alone in the Night” by Adam Troy Castro (Illustrated by Doug Holverson)
  • “News From 2025″ by David Brin (Illustrated by Bradley W. Schench)
  • Joy of The Flicks by Dennis M. Lane
  • Top Ten “Must Read” Time Travel Works by Amy H. Sturgis
  • Comics: what have they done for Us lately? by Frederic Himebaugh
  • Science Fiction Through The Looking Glass: the Ape, the Alien and the Android by Morgan Saletta (Illustrated by Timothy Booth)

This enormously fabulous collection costs only £2.99 for the plain, unvarnished text, available in ePub, Kindle, PDF and so on.

But wait, there's more! So much more: varied paper editions, softcover and hardback, with and without extras. There's the edition with illustrations, that one with author photos (no, not of our sad faces--of our work space), the one with the extra special extras (I include a song--yes, me singing, about being very, very stoned in Amsterdam...), the one that has extras and is signed. And more. Prices range from £2.99 all the way up to the unique (yes, just one), first-off-the-press, with-everything, signed-by-everyone volume for £150.

So click the wee book below. Go buy something.

Buy this book!
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Very nifty book cover

Oooh, this is nifty! Drag your mouse over it:

Sadly, it's Flash, so it won't play on many mobile systems. Sorry. It seems a pity that someone would go to so much trouble to make something on Flash, which has been slowly fading into the west ever since the iPhone launched, and is now Officially Dead.

How easy is it to do something like that in HTML5? That's a real question. I've no idea how this stuff works. But I think it would be cool to have a cover for Hild where the grass ripples, the trees shiver, and the water laps...

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Green Carnation Prize Shortlist 2011

The judges have announced the Green Carnation Prize Shortlist 2011:

  • The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge – Patricia Duncker (Bloomsbury)
  • The Proof of Love – Catherine Hall (Portobello)
  • Red Dust Road – Jackie Kay (Picador)
  • Remembrance of Things I Forgot – Bob Smith (Terrace Books)
  • Ever Fallen in Love – Zoe Strachan (Sandstone Press)
  • The Empty Family – Colm Toibin (Penguin Books)

Half a dozen books, a good mix of novel, short story, and memoir. Four written by women, two by men. But all but one--as far as I can tell--primarily about men (despite the jacket art). The exception is Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road.

When the longlist was announced I downloaded sample chapters from several of them and skimmed, but I haven't read any of the short listed books all the way through. Which is why I'm not absolutely certain of my about-men/about-women ratio. But I've talked often enough about literary prizes and girl cooties. I would love to be horribly wrong about this, especially for an LGBT prize.

ETA: One of the judges this year, Stella Duffy, corrects me in the comments below. Do go read her remarks.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Yesterday, I heard the news about a novel being pulled by its publisher for plagiarism. This morning, I read Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg's article in the Wall Street Journal about the novel in question, a spy novel by Q.R. Markham (a pseudonym of poet Quentin Rowan):

The book is a thriller about an elite CIA agent chasing a shadowy international group of assassins. But Tuesday, publisher Little, Brown & Co. recalled all 6,500 copies of the novel on the grounds that passages were "lifted" from other books. One sharp-eyed observer says he had identified at least 13 novels with similar material.
On the first page of chapter one of "Assassin" is this paragraph: "The boxy, sprawling Munitions Building which sat near the Washington Monument and quietly served as I-Division's base of operations was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular work space."

In the book "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency" by James Bamford is this: "In June 1930, the boxy, sprawling Munitions Building, near the Washington Monument, was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular workspace."

Thirteen passages (at least) of that kind of straight theft is most definitely plagiarism.* I don't see how it could possibly happen unconsciously. There again, until last year, I didn't believe any plagiarism could happen unconsciously. But then I realised I'd done it. This kind of utterly unconscious borrowing is apparently known as cryptomnesia. (Thanks to @BuffySquirrel for the word.)

My borrowing was tiny in comparison--a matter of two images from the same poem--and I caught it long before publication. But it scared me rigid: I imagined just this kind of public crucifixion. I fretted for quite a while.

I relaxed gradually, and thought I'd put the matter to rest. But this case has put me on alert again. I don't much fancy the notion of obsessively plugging successive 10,000 word chunks of Hild into a Google search box, just so I can relax. Does anyone know a more efficient way to check a manuscript?

ETA: I checked out iThenticate, the version of Turnitin for individual authors. It costs $50 per submission. A submission is 25k words. That would end up costing me around $400 for Hild, which I think is ridiculous. I'll keep looking. Sigh.

* It turns out to be way, way more than that. Over at Reluctant Habits, Edward Champion turns up literally dozens of serious steals by Markham/Rowan in the first 35 pages of the book. It's truly mind-boggling.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Apartheid and economics and language

I think I'm getting hopelessly addicted to Time Off. This morning I spent a happy hour reading a wonderful article, 'Apartheid and Economics in Anglo-Saxon England', by Alex Woolf (The Britons in Anglo-Saxon England; N. J. Higham (ed); Boydell & Brewer 2007; 115-129).

It proposes an intriguing solution to the arguments over how/why the English language isn't more 'Celtic'.

I was struck, though, by how closely one passage (about periphrastic phrasing) parallels a passage from my introduction to And Now We Are Going to Have a Party. I've haven't read this article--it was published the same year as ANWAGTHAP (2007): the year after I actually wrote my memoir--but, wow, it's eerie. It also, I admit, makes me feel very, very clever.

Eeriness (and smug chortling) aside, this is a great article. I'll be thinking about it more, and probably talking about it. If you want to be ready for that discussion--if this kind of thing interests you at all--go read the article. It's a free PDF. (Thank you to Dr Woolf for being generous enough to put it up for non-academic-library-enabled readers.)

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Monday, November 7, 2011

A strict regimen of rubbish

I've been taking a couple of days off. I've discovered that doing nothing is a skill I'll have to relearn. I'm finding it difficult to read more than a page or two at a time of anything not non-fictional and related to Hild. The closest I've managed to get is WSJ articles, the Economist, and Archaeology.

This is very sad.

So yesterday I took myself in hand and prescribed a strict regimen of rubbish: chocolate, ham sandwiches, beer, and TV. No erring to the serious, no dipping into the worthy.

I watched an episode of Dexter, followed by Patriot Games and futzed about with Photoshop. And for today I've downloaded Attack the Block. If it were playing around here, I go buy half a ton of popcorn and a pound of Skittles, and park myself in front of Your Highness:

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Recycling in Seattle (not what you think)

I woke up this morning to brilliant sunshine and the smell of brine and fallen apples deliquescing into the frost-crisp grass.

No, the photo is not an apple tree. It's the tree directly outside my office window, taken first thing this morning. It's a neighbour to the north who has an untended apple orchard. The squirrels love it. The raccoons love the squirrels. The coyotes love the raccoons. I love the life and death drama (and the wonderful smell). Ah, recycling in Seattle...

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

I love SF Gateway

I've been busy the last little while, but today the sun is shining and it might be time to go play. So I set aside various projects and before I closed the Intarweb for the day I fossicked about a bit.

One of the sites I checked was SF Gateway, and got a warm fuzzy feeling when I found that I now have two novels on the Top 10 of the Week:

Part of the warm fuzzy wasn't just my books, but seeing Keith Roberts' novel on there, too. I don't think many people in the US know his work, which is a shame. Pavane is an amazing alternate history novel. That and Kiteworld are my favourites by him.

The top ten of the month made me positively nostalgic:

These are all fabulous books. Wow. Now if there were only a few more women on both lists my warmthiness would overflow.

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Friday, November 4, 2011

Married in London

No, not me--at least not yet--but a song from the always-fab Janis Ian.

I've said it before, ad tedium ad nauseum, that full federal marriage equality is coming, and federal marridge very soon. Perhaps I'll talk more about that, again, next week. (Or you could bribe me not to...)

Meanwhile, enjoy Janis. (Thanks, Georgi.)

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Thursday, November 3, 2011


For purposes of consolidation, I've decided to put my Hild maps up at Gemæcca, my research blog. I am very pleased with the final iteration--for now. For publication, of course, and the website, I'll get much more splendid: bigger, better, more. Think colour, and idiosyncratic pictures. Maybe little scenes from the book drawn in Anglo-Saxon carving style. (I'll have to get much better at Photoshop.)

Anyway, go take a look. Let me know what you think, what additions you'd like to see in the final version/s. Because, hey, if you don't ask, you might not get.

Leave comments either at Gemæcca or here. I don't mind. Enjoy.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tech gremlins

On Monday tech gremlins started chewing on random things in our house.

First up: voicemail. The gremlin ate our message and started answering our phone in its weird machine voice. Easy enough to fix.

Yesterday, the gremlin ate TiVo: just munched its way through all our settings and saved video. Fortunately, we're all backed up in the cloud, so we got it all back. But for ten minutes it was heart-stoppingly horrible.

Then this morning, it somehow got into Photoshop. It took me a while to notice. When I was trying to change my Twitter icon (which I've been fooling about with on and off ever since the Anglo-Saxon episode). Twitter kept rejecting my photo, saying I hadn't chosen a file. I had chosen a fucking file. Over and over. Twitter ignored me. I went off to make a cup of tea (better than counting to ten) and realized, Huh, it's a file size issue. And, sure enough, it turns out the gremlin had got into Photoshop, too, and resized an ordinary snapshot to 120 MB.

The photos the gremlin futzed with are these, taken last year:

So, tech gremlin, be advised: I am armed. Don't fuck with me anymore. But if you're just attention-seeking because you're lonely, fear not: I'll introduce you to Clementine.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

LLF: New website and new challenge for you

The Lambda Literary Foundation has a new website design and a new challenge.

LLF is the biggest and best queer lit organisation in the world. It runs the Lambda Literary Awards, and the Emerging Voices writers retreat/workshop (which I taught last year), it champions queer literature in many forms. We need those queer voices because books save lives, and queer books save queer lives.

If ever you've been inclined to donate money to LLF, now's the time:

We have incredible news! Three Bay Area donors have offered the opportunity to match the $25,000 they are extending as a challenge grant to the Lambda Literary Foundation for LLF’s fall fundraiser and membership drive. Through the month of November 2011, Jan Zivic (pledging $10,000), Chuck Forester (pledging $10,000) and Al Baum (pledging $5,000) are challenging you to match their offer. New memberships at the $25 level or higher, as well as any additional donations by current LLF members, will be matched dollar-for-dollar to help raise an unprecedented $50,000 for LLF!
Give during LLF’s $25,000 challenge grant and membership drive and your dollars will go twice as far to champion lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans literature.
Please give generously. Whether you can afford $25, $100 or $1000, you will see your contribution doubled during the challenge grant! Help us to continue our highly respected programs, expand our capacity to serve the entire LGBT literary community, and increase the visibility of our books and writers.
We are deeply grateful to Jan Zivic, Chuck Forester and Al Baum for their generosity. Help us meet their $25,000 challenge by making a donation today.
We sincerely thank you for your support!

Tony Valenzuela
Executive Director

If you give money now, it will be doubled. Please donate--by PayPay, by credit card, by cheque. It's all good.

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