Faking It on the Blue Guitar

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008 | Posted by James Enge

I used to know a responsible person who had a brilliant method of evading responsibility. Whenever you asked him anything, he would say, “What you’re really asking is two things here.” And an exhaustive discussion of his quibble would ensue and, in the end, the matter would merit more thought (but, naturally, no action). He was a kind of genius, if being useless is a category of genius.

For all I know, he’s still alive, but his ghost is hovering over my keyboard tonight, because when I started thinking about realism I realized that, not only is it more than one thing, but you can’t talk about it without talking about reality, which is also more than one thing. My trains of thought tend to derail like this. I start by talking about the distinction between strong and weak verbs, and then I talk about something else first to give a context to that, and pretty soon I’m crawling through the back of my closet trying to sort all my shoelaces in matching piles and my kids are screaming at each other trying to figure out which tranquilizer to load in the dartgun.
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Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: Alphasmart NEO

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

My MVP Award for Writing in 2008 goes to a miniature machine that has made this year one of the most productive of my life:

The Alphasmart NEO

Behold a piece of technology that uses all the miniaturization and power-saving abilities available today to make what is essentially the typewriter of the new era. The Alphasmart NEO writes. And that’s about it. It weighs as much as a 8” x 10” spiral notebook. It runs for seven hundred hours in three AA batteries. It’s a work of genius—I feel like an old west gunslinger when armed with the NEO. Anyplace I go, I can quick-draw and write. Have NEO—Will Travel reads my card. I am absolutely in love with it.

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Monday, December 29th, 2008 | Posted by Judith Berman

I haven’t checked the news yet to see if our internet links to the rest of the world have been fully restored, but over the last few days enough traffic has been re-routed that I’ve been able (among other things) to read the Black Gate blog. I had intended to post today about Garth Nix, as the first in what I hope will be an intermittent series on MR/YA adventure fantasy, but yesterday proved to be the Islamic New Year (it’s determined by astronomical sightings, not by absolute date), and my spouse had the day off, so we all drove up the coast to the northernmost emirate, Ras Al Khaimah. No time, therefore, to write anything that requires fact-checking.

More of RAK in a minute. Reading James Enge’s last post on fantasy and realism led me to further thoughts on the same… for example I don’t think they are the strict dichotomy suggested in that post. Like JE, however, I have always felt that there is nothing remotely realistic about my inner life.

But what about external, intersubjective life? The great Soviet fantasist Andrei Sinyavsky, originally published in this country under his pseudonym Abram Tertz, denounced Soviet Realism in his early screed The Trial Begins. Realism, he wrote, is a literary technique that is no longer adequate to describe reality, because reality is no longer realistic. While I agree with that with regard to the present, I’m not sure that reality has ever been realistic. I had a good friend tell me that she thought I probably wouldn’t be interested in writing science fiction and fantasy after my son was born. I guessed that she meant that I would be forced to grow up and would then take interest in adult things. I often thought about her comment during pregnancy, because it was the most science-fictional experience I had ever had. It’s alive! It’s inside me and growing! It’s going to be a whole separate human being! I mean, what’s more bizarre and fantastic and estranging from the ordinary self than that?

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To crit or not to crit

Sunday, December 28th, 2008 | Posted by Theo

Like many writers in the science fiction and fantasy genre, I have been the beneficiary of advice and constructive criticism from a number of successful authors. In my case, I am in debt to Raymond Feist, Joel Rosenberg, Lois McMaster Bujold, Patricia Wrede, and Bruce Bethke, all of whom assisted me in my literary endeavors to varying degrees.  I am also most grateful to the woman who ran the Compuserve writers’ forum some 18 years ago. Unfortunately, her name escapes me now but I’ve never forgotten her excellent advice: “Stop committing writing!  Just write!”

After publishing a few novels and joining the SFWA, it occurred to me that I would do well to follow the altruistic example of those who had helped me and try to assist other would-be authors hone their talents. So, a few years ago I joined an online writers workshop and participated by writing critiques for about a year. I probably read around sixty or seventy short stories in all, but to little avail despite the workshop’s obvious desire for professional participants. I discovered, to my surprise, that not only did most of the workshop writers not want to hear any constructive criticism of their stories, but more than a few were downright upset at the very notion that their literary efforts might possibly be just a little bit flawed. Actually, as was far too often the case, the utterly unoriginal nature of the stories tended to stand in contrast to the extraordinarily creative approaches to spelling and grammar.

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Living Backwards

Saturday, December 27th, 2008 | Posted by Soyka

What’s curious about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that this meditative (literally, in terms of length — it’s nearly three hours long — and evocative imagery) movie is publicized as based on (though “inspired” might be the better term in that it uses the conceit of a man who ages backwards, from 80 years to newborn and not much else; this is a arguably a case where the movie improves upon the source material) an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story.  Now, pardon my elitist attitude, but I’d be willing to bet that most of the audience not only has not read the story, but may only have heard of Fitzgerald by way of Robert Redford, if that. But it lends the movie a certain legitimacy.  See, the marketing people are saying, this isn’t some light fantasy, it is a legitimate drama based on a legitimate American writer, even if not that many people read him anymore (which is maybe what makes him “legitimate” from some people’s perspective).

No need to apologize.

This is one of those relatively rare cases in which the acting and the special effects are equally engaging and complementary.  While it’s interesting to watch Brad Pitt age backwards (though I could have done without lingering shots of Pitt at his presumable actual age looking cool, perhaps that pandering to a targeted demographic in which my adolescent daughter belongs), Cate Blanchett as Daisy (bonus points if you’ve figured the significance of that name) is a marvel to behold as Benjamin’s bohemian love interest. With the aid of considerable make-up and perhaps some digital tinkering, Pitt plays his role with amused ironic attachment that may be appropriate for a man whose psychological and emotional state is in opposition to his physical being.  However, it is Blanchett’s character that anchors the tale, both through a neat metaphorical framing device involving Hurricane Katrina, and the power of Blanchett’s performance.   (By the way, if you haven’t seen Blanchett portray a young Bob Dylan, run, don’t walk, to your favored video outlet and rent I’m Not There.)

Yeah, it’s a bittersweet love story that will rake in the Brad Pitt fans. More significantly, it’s about the finite grandeur of the human condition.

Well worth seeing in the theater.  Don’t wait for the DVD. Just make sure you hit the rest rooms before the movie starts.

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Put Up Your Dukes, It’s Boxing Day

Friday, December 26th, 2008 | Posted by Bill Ward

So today is Boxing Day, the day when families all over the Commonwealth test their strength, agility, endurance, and familial ties in ceremonial pugilistic displays of bare-knuckle boxing. I had occasion to observe such festivities first hand a few years ago in Canada, where the natives made great sport of punishing one another with fist, elbow, and knee. Though, as a foreigner, I was myself forbidden to participate in the actual act of fighting, I was allowed a rather intimate view of the proceedings. Everything from the breakfast of cold meats and shellfish left over from the Christmas feast of the night before, the rubdown and calisthenics and practice sparing that lasted much of the afternoon, to the brutal bouts themselves and the post fight ablutions and apologetic bandaging. I witnessed brother against brother, father against son, mother against daughter, and not a fair share of grandparents against other elders evaluated as their equals in size and strength. I’ll admit now to my jealousy of the fine display, for the enviable traditions of Boxing Day make for a vigorous, manly holiday; one affirming not only the essential bonds of family, but also the importance of deep tissue massage.

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Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 25th, 2008 | Posted by ScottOden

It’s Christmas morning.  A mantle of crisp white snow blankets hill and dale.  You rise from your bed and patter down the stairs to find . . . what?  What is your fondest Christmas morning memory?

Mine goes back to when I was fourteen years old.  That summer, I’d boldly announced to my parents that I wanted to be a writer.  This pronouncement was met with stony silence.  “But Scott,” my mother said at length, “how will you be able to live on what writers make?  You need a trade to fall back on.”  My dad never said a word.  A member of the Greatest Generation, a veteran of WWII, he simply shook his head and went on about his business.  My oldest brother, a newspaperman, had taken a year off to write the Great American Novel; I heard my father tell one of his brothers that the only thing that boy of his sold that year was a washer and dryer, and that to get money for his rent.  I was adamant about it, though.

I wrote a few horrible stories that fall, typing each one out on an old Smith-Corona, making copies, and sending them out to Weird Tales (George Scithers was at the helm).  I got the stories back, of course, and though I was discouraged I never gave in.  I also never sold a story.  But, my folks must have seen something they approved of in the way I kept at it.  That Christmas, instead of toys or clothes, they gave me a better typewriter and a large box of supplies: paper, ribbons, pens, notebooks, envelopes, notecards . . . everything I would need to keep submitting stories.  I was shocked, frankly.  Though they never spoke a word of encouragement, their actions let me know they were rooting for me.  Even now, with three books under my belt, my mom will still occasionally scold me for not having a trade to fall back on even as she tries to sneak money for postage into my pocket . . .

So, that’s my fondest Christmas morning memory.  What’s yours?

Killer Trees with Icy Fangs Roasting on an Open Fire

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008 | Posted by James Enge

Virginia: Please snap out of it. The world is drenched in things that don’t exist. I could mention the evergreen genre of “what I shoulda told him was…” conversations, or all those stories about “the fish (or the mastodon or the mating prospect) that got away.” But just because it’s fresh in my mind–and seasonal, too–I’d rather discuss the Attack of the Glittering Trees.

A few nights ago an ice storm swept over the Great Black Swamp (where I live). It was kind of a weird storm: there was warmish rain right before the temperature dropped steeply, so the ice was dripping, heavy, weighing down everything with a thick bright glaze. The ice started to rip branches off trees. A heavy one smashed through a skylight in our basement. (I know that sounds weird, but we really do have skylights in our basement.) Another one hammered on the roof of my daughter’s room. One gave a glancing blow to the living room window.

Clearly the shiny trees were angry and were trying to kill us. When my son tells people about it he always starts by saying, “There were three direct assaults on the house itself…”
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Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: Write or Die

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Continuing on with my reviews of high-technology ways to get back to low-technology days of writing, I turn to an application that I don’t use often myself, but which comes with high recommendations from people who need a swift kick in the shins to get them typing:


Write or Die

Write or Die is an online application that, according to its creator Jeff Printy, a.k.a. Dr. Wicked, puts the “Prod” in “Productivity.”

In other words, it makes you write via threats and psychological torture. The tangible threat of immediate punishment is more effective a tool toward productivity than less tangible and more distant rewards, at least for some people.

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Recycling Ancient Religions

Monday, December 22nd, 2008 | Posted by Judith Berman

Yesterday we tried to stream the webcast of the winter solstice sunrise at Newgrange, Ireland, but were hampered by severed cables that rendered the Middle East virtually without internet. (Apparently it was also so cloudy in Ireland that the sun wasn’t visible at dawn, so we didn’t miss much.)

Newgrange is a 5000-year-old neolithic passage tomb built before Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid at Giza. Newgrange features in several stories from (the much later) Irish mythology, including that describing the conception of the great Irish hero Cúchulainn, son of the god Lugh. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the spiral designs carved into its stones and those of the neighboring Knowth tomb have inspired New Age labyrinths to help create “peace and tranquility” and paintings celebrating “sacred space” and “Ireland’s holy places.”

Another British Isles passage grave with a winter-solstice webcam, albeit decidedly less hyped, is Maeshowe in the Orkney Islands. Somewhat more is known about the relatively recent history of Maeshowe because of the Orkneyinga Saga, which describes how Earl Harald and his Vikings looted it in the 12th century, and because of the runic graffiti with which the Vikings subsequently defaced it. Inscriptions such as “Thorni f****d; Helgi carved” support the theory that the Vikings subsequently used it as a trysting spot. It perhaps says something about human nature that this is one of the largest single collections of runic inscriptions to survive.

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