World Fantasy Convention!

Well, it’s official; I’ve paid my money and everything. I’m going to this year’s World Fantasy convention, and I’m not at all sure how to prepare. It’s the sort of event I should have been attending for years now, and being able to do stuff like this is a fortunate side-effect of living in North America.

On that subject, aren’t these things supposed to have wacky names that end in ‘con’?

So what is this convention? As far as I can tell, it’s an event where boatloads of writers and publishers and agents and other industry folk gather for three days of… stuff. Elbow-rubbing. Looking for deals. Writers trying to get published, publishers trying to find writers that don’t suck. Panel discussions and whatnot. A few key people who are paid to come and encourage the masses. Others who have come simply for the love of the genre.

If all that sounds pretty vague, it’s because I’ve never been part of one of these things before. It’s an important part of my chosen profession, however, and contacts I make at this thing could turn my career. Or not. Or maybe I’ll make an impression with someone that pays off years from now. You never know.

I do know it pays to be prepared. To have things to hand to publishers and agents that they will love, things that at a glance will tell them that they are just dying to read my novel. “Stop the presses!” they will shout into mobile phones, “we have to rearrange the 2010 catalog!”

Another opportunity I have is to impress people in person in ways that anonymous submissions never can. I can talk to important people and leave them thinking “That guy’s an intelligent, articulate guy with a refreshing vision of the fantasy novel.” This will simultaneously be the easiest and most difficult thing for me to do. Once I get into a conversation with the right people, I’m sure I’ll do well. (I’ve been lying awake at night devising my elevator pitch.) The thing is, I’m really, really bad at getting into those conversations in the first place. I’ve been to other industry conventions and utterly bombed at networking (even at the conference about networks).

So, anyone out there have any suggestions? Both for specifics that I should take with me and for the more general hob-bobbing? Any help will be greatly appreciated!

Programming Note

I’ve put in a new anti-spam layer in the comments. It’s supposed to nip spam in the bud before it even reaches the spam-catcher I already have in place. Almost no spam has been getting through to your eyes, but behind the scenes the comments have been building up, and this should simplify administration of the site. In addition the new spam layer helps prevent robots from scraping email addresses off the site and other antisocial behavior (not that I will depend on that stuff). The name of the Plugin is “Bad Behavior”, for those who might want to try it out.

The system uses a variety of techniques that are supposed to be completely invisible to you, but please let me know if you have any trouble leaving comments. My email address is addy

Lite Brite

Last night as my sweetie and I were sharing a big salad and watching TV, she turned to me and said, “We should do Lite Brite!” I readily agreed. I had never seen an actual Lite Brite in action.

You remember Lite Brite, don’t you? It is a backlit frame into which you can stick translucent plastic pegs. The colored pegs glow merrily. Lite Brite! You can paint with light! the jingle went (approximately).

I had given the Lite Brite a lot of thought back when I was roughly four years old, and occasionally thereafter. I only remember little bits and pieces of the kids’ program Captain Kangaroo, but I remember the Lite Brite ads that supported the good Captain and his loyal sidekick, Mr. Greenjeans. I remember the ads very well, because it was one of the earliest engineering challenges I ever tackled. How the heck did the dang thing WORK?

Lite Brite Masterpiece: Ducks

Lite Brite Masterpiece: Ducks

In the ads, the pegs are pushed into a black surface and light up. Sweet! obviously there is something backlit and when a peg is pushed in it glows. At first I tried to come up with a system where pegs could be placed anywhere, and stay in place. And then came the real engineering challenge: making the holes close back up when the peg was removed. This last feature was obvious—otherwise the toy would not be reusable, and the smallest mistake meant you ruined everything.

After more careful observation, I saw that the pegs were always in a grid pattern on the board. So, I realized, there was a grid of holes that the pegs could be punched into. With that knowledge, I imagined a system with little spring-loaded doors for each hole. Push the peg in, the flap opens and light comes through. Pull it out, and the flap closes. I watched the ads closely for any sign of the doors. There was none. The black surface seemed completely uniform. Perplexing. Over the years I mentally fiddled with different designs for the Lite Brite doors that would not be prone to light leaks.

Fast-forward forty years, when I came to live with someone who owns an honest-to-God Lite Brite. At last the Engineering mystery would be resolved.

The answer: black paper. No doors, no flaps, no self-repairing gelatinous layers. You mount opaque paper over the grid and punch holes in it with the pegs. There is no undo. The black papers that come with the LIte Brite have little letters printed on them, for color-by-numbers fun. And really, can you imagine how long the delicate little mechanisms I had been imagining since my very first days of TV watching would have lasted? In my gut I knew that there had to be a simpler answer, but I never let go of my assumption that you could take the pegs back out again.

We sat on the floor, my sweetie and I, taking turns punching in the little pegs (I had trouble differentiating the pink and orange ones before punching them in), and had a good ol’ time. When we were done we kept the Lite Brite plugged in to bask in the glory of our masterpiece. And it was good.

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The God of Small Things

I picked up The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy off the shelf at a thrift store. “Winner of the Booker Prize,” The cover said in tastefully-restrained block capitals. Winning a major literary award is often a good sign but not always. Sometimes I think an Emporer’s New Clothes Effect takes hold and the judges are ashamed to admit that the opaque prose left them baffled, so they give a prize to a mixed-up jumble of words. Not so in this case. This was a good story written with a clear if creative voice.

Near the beginning of the book (but not the beginning of the story) we are at the funeral of Little Sophie Mol, Loved from the Beginning. Something has happened, something Horrible, but even though it is only days past it has become Something No One Talks About. When Ammu, mother of two-egg twins, goes to the police station and says, “I killed him,” even the police do not want to talk about what happened anymore.

The language the author uses is playful, coining words and bending others to reflect the Indian ears that hear them. The language provides rays of light even when things are dark. In a way the whole book is a Muddled Ramble, a story that builds not through time but through the growth of the words themselves.

The story moves about in time, simultaneously tip-toeing up to the Horrible Events and drifting away through the aftermath. Before, we pass through the trip by the family to pick up Sophie Mol at the airport (cousin of the two-egg twins, Loved from the Beginning) and the events of that trip that set in motion the final run to the Horrible Events. After, we see a home with no life in it, the occupants slowly decaying or leaving, slowly dying. The family business long dead, the Bar Nowl that lived in the rafters of the pickle factory now just a pile of bones in an unused vat. Even the river, once powerful, is dead and sluggish. All that’s left is a pair of two-egg twins, one mute, separated for twenty years.

a) Anything can happen to Anyone.
b) It’s best to be prepared.

What ties all the threads of the narrative together, what really defines the flow of the story, are words. Special words, coined capriciously, that, as the story progresses, take on greater and greater weight, until some of them are almost breaking under the freight they must carry. Later. Lay. Ter. Only when the words are ready can the Horrible Events be told. And after the Horrible Events, there’s only one thing left to tell, one thing that had the power to drive all the rest.

This is the sort of writing that is both humbling and motivating, the sort of story I aspire to write—if I had the courage to really let go. Read this book; you won’t be sorry.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

A Perfect Match?

I am complimented on my dialog now and then, and that makes me feel good. However, I am constantly reminding myself to be more descriptive of the surroundings. Often I’ll put characters in an off-the-shelf setting and let the reader fill in the details. Lazy, and plenty of missed opportunities. (“Furniture”, on the other hand, is all about the settings. One of the reasons I like it so much.)

Yesterday I spent some time looking for writing contests with minimal or no reading fees which may fit things I’ve already written. There are a lot of writing contests out there, but almost all of them smell much more literary than most of the stories I’ve written. (Maybe this makes up for the relative scarcity of markets that consistently pay good rates for the literary genre.)

While I was poking around I found this contest, which in part reads:

The Rules: Compose a short story entirely of dialogue. You may use as many characters as you want. Your entry must be under 3000 words. Your entry does not have to follow standard rules for writing dialogue. Your entry cannot use any narration (this includes tag lines such as he said, she said, etc.). These are the only rules. Manipulate them however you see fit.

Interesting! While I don’t have a story that fits that (and in fact I just went back and added a great deal of descriptive text to a story that had some nearly all-dialog scenes), this seems like a contest that might play to my strengths. Like I have the bandwidth to take on another story right now…

A Typical Night at Home

My sweetie and I kicking back after a hard day's work

My sweetie and me, kicking back after a hard day's work

There’s nothing like putting one’s feet up after a long day counting your gold and precious gems.

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Proof my Sweetie Loves Me

“How’s the writing going?” People often ask me. “Not bad,” I answer, “but the selling isn’t going so well.” The problem is that I would much rather spend time writing a new story than trying to get someone to pay for a story I’ve already written. What I needed, I decided, was a way to keep track of where each story had been submitted and where next it should go. I had a partial implementation of that in place, but I thought maybe if there was something available at a glance right up there on the wall I’d do a better job keeping up.

Lo and behold! A precise measure of my slacking.

Lo and behold! A precise measure of my slacking.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a story that starts out with several separate threads that converge. Getting the timing right between the different bits has been a challenge, even with software that lets me rearrange bits easily. I thought to do color-coded post-its that I could rearrange, but first I needed to go out and buy the damn sticky notes. My sweetie was also dubious about the glue marks the sticky notes would leave all over the walls. She suggested a bulletin board.

Naturally I did nothing about these ideas, but last week I went to a friend’s house to mix beer and heavy machinery. When I got back the wall over my desk was adorned with two new features, already mounted on the wall and awaiting my pleasure. What a great surprise! The bulletin board is closer to my desk, as is fitting for its more interactive purpose while I write, while I only have to glance up and to my left to see how I’m progressing with submissions for my current short stories.

Act One of Dark War. This will get a lot messier.

Act One of Dark War. This will get a lot messier.

As far as the whiteboard goes, the stories listed cover everything from humorous flash horror to non-fiction, but most of the stories will fit at several of the markets listed across the top. Red X’s are rejections. Blue boxes are the markets to submit a story to next. Green dates indicate when I should hear back about a submitted story. As you can see, at this time only two of the eight stories are out there being read, with another awaiting a trip to the post office and another waiting for the reading period at the magazine. That’s two and two halves more than a week ago, so I have to say the system is succeeding so far.

On the bulletin board I have act one of Dark War. The threads are color-coded, and scenes that involve two threads are taped together with the significance to each thread spelled out separately. I will be finishing Dark War up as quickly as possible so I can spend the rest of the time before the World Fantasy Convention getting ready to sell The Monster Within. In the next day or two I’ll be compressing Act One up at the top of the board to make room for Act 2. Considering I’ve already written this damn thing twice, there sure is a lot of work to do.

But however much work there is to do, I have someone at my back who knows the best way to spur me on to greatness is to help me get the tools together to do my job well. That means a lot to me.

An Odd Little Grammar Thing

I was reading a blog for Web designers this morning and I came across this little gem:

… there will be no performance affection due to…

which was intended to mean “… performance will not be affected by…” My handy dictionary labels the above use of affection as archaic (I was surprised it even got that much respect), and I wouldn’t use it in any sort of serious writing.

The thing is, I like it. It’s one of those things that, on a special occasion, I might want to pull out and use. (You have to admit, it’s pretty funny.) In my book it’s perfectly all right to break the rules of grammar if you do it on purpose. So remember when you read my occasional bad-grammar rant, or the rant of any other hard-ass, that rules are made to be broken—but when you break them, know why. Even the hard-asses will smile if you do it well.

Rock Stacking and Balancing

I have in the past posted several episodes with photos of what I called “Rock Stacks.” It turns out that most of them were not stacks at all. What I have been doing all along is Rock Balancing.

I discovered this while checking the Search Engine hits that brought people to my blog. Occasionally “Rock Stacking” generates a hit. I decided the check some of the other matches, and came upon this page, which discusses the difference. The same search linked to an episode here at Muddled Ramblings called The Man is Keeping Me Down.

I’m not unhappy about being wrong. I have long tried to differentiate my delicate and transient works from the cairns and other piles that the kids are doing these days. I like their stacks, but the goals of the two crafts are different. Stacks are very much about the setting, and as you can see if you follow the above link, there are some pretty nice ones. From now on, therefore, I will adopt the correct nomenclature.

I do have one thing in common with the stackers, however. Most rock balancers create spires with three rocks, while I’m rarely content with that. Three rocks is relatively simple: base, left hand, and right hand – fiddle and nudge until everything is stable. It’s the rock you put on top of that mess (or if you use rocks too big to manipulate with only one hand) that really makes the thing. As a result many of my favorite efforts have come out something of a hybrid between stacking and balancing. Ultimately, however, it is the impossible-seeming, gravity-defying balance that I like the most.

An incomplete spire, but the tiny contact zones are lost in the background jumble.

An incomplete spire, but the tiny contact zones that make it interesting are lost in the background jumble.

While I’m on the subject of rock balancing, while on the cruise my partners in crime and I did some pretty sweet balancing of whatever items were handy. Naturally some of the items were glass, which makes the result more interesting and also makes the crew of the boat more nervous. Add in waves and you have yourself a party! I don’t have any pictures of the results (I was busy stacking balancing after all, and one of the stacks balances(?) included my camera), but others took pics. I’d love to link to those pictures here, if people will send URL’s.

Also on the boat was a guy who is way into 3D photography. He showed me how ridiculously simple it is to take 3D shots (the hard part is viewing them). One of the key things about 3D is that it really helps separate the subject from the background. Many of my old rock stack balance spire photos suffer from the rocks being exactly the same color and texture as the background. Boy, 3D would make those pictures better. If you poke around at Rock on, Rock ON! you will see some really good balancing (better than I have pulled off to date), including one 3D shot.

Next time…

Watch out, man. I know a ninja!

David is a nice guy and all, but the dude is a ninja. He’s heading to Japan shortly to demonstrate his true ninjosity. Wish him luck!

Edited to reflect facts: As I understand it now, David is going to compete first in Los Angeles to qualify to go back to Japan. All the more reason to wish him luck!

Programming Note: Polls!

I was trying to decide how to spell a word I coined while talking about the preposterometer, and I decided to turn to you, the viewing audience, to get your thoughts on the matter. That required that I finally get polls working.

In fact, there are two polls going on right now, one about spelling and one about how the polls themselves should operate. The widget instructions indicated that I’d be able to show both at once, but the setting just doesn’t seem to be there. Instead, you get one or the other randomly.

While I had the hood up I made the sidebar headers stronger, to help people sort through the long list of stuff over there. It’s definitely more useful, but somehow it doesn’t seem right to me yet. Also, I set up so I can highlight parts of the sidebar with new stuff going on (the current color will not be my final choice, I think). Let me know what you think about any of the changes!

The Remains of the Night

‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.
‘Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice; ‘but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!

– Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

Dreams can be complex and confusing things, not bound by the rules of logic or waking life. When I wake up slowly from a dream-filled sleep the transition can be gradual, as the elements of the vision scatter and fade before the onslaught of rational thought that (usually) marks my waking hours. Sometimes, however, there remains a last vestige, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Like a grin without a cat, it can certainly be an odd scrap of thought.

Take yesterday morning, for instance. I rose out of grand and extended dreams, up through layers of consciousness into the waking world, shedding the bizarre until only a single phrase remained:

“Single-use macaroni.”

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The Preposterometer

Suspension of disbelief is an important part of fiction. As fiction, a story is inherently unreal, and the reader knows it. Yet the reader is willing to pretend for a while that the events in the story could or even did happen. Readers become like the Thurmians in Galaxy Quest — treating the story as if it were a historical document.

Yet some stories make that nearly impossible to do. They cross the line from incredible to preposterous, and the story is broken. Enter the Preposterometer, a tool for rating just how far credulity must be bent to stay in the novel.

The rules for the preposterometer are not simple. For instance, some genres of literature have long-accepted preposterous ideas that the reading community has decided to overlook. In Science Fiction, a writer can travel faster than light and ignore the relativistic consequences. Physically, that’s preposterous, and to base an entire novel on it would break everything if the reader insisted that science fiction conform to science. But faster-than-light travel is fun, and everyone does it, and so we have culturally pushed that problem way down on the preposterometer scale. For science fiction, the preposterous is acceptable as long as it’s consistent.

Every genre, even literary fiction, has it’s culturally-acceptable preposterosities. Literary Fiction has the exquisite coincidence and the inexplicable connections between people (I just made those terms up). I was about to say that the only preposterosity that is unforgivable across genres is human nature – people still have to behave like people. Even aliens have to behave like people most of the time. In my poor, negelected novel The Monster Within the part that recieved the most critical feedback was when two characters who did not get off to a good start together became friends rather abruptly. Magic? Sure, no problem, but don’t let Hunter be such a pushover. It wasn’t realistic.

Romance novels might be the exception to that. There is a specially-modified range of human responses that only applies in Romance-world, where (for instance) sex with the right woman can transform a rogue into a protector. Preposterous? Of course. Acceptable? Absolutely.

So, then, when measuring a story on the preposterometer, context matters. Internal consistency matters. How the preposterous event is set up matters a great deal.

A little preposterosity (such a better word than ‘preposterousness’, though I’m still debating the spelling with myself) is good for a story. We have a word for stories where nothing unusual or amazing happens. We call them ‘boring’, or perhaps ‘blog entries’. So as we undertake to rank stories on the preposterometer, we must recognize that scoring a zero is at least as bad as scoring a ten. Somewhere in the middle is a happy, believable-yet-enjoyable range of preposterosity that turns a story into a good yarn.

It’s also worth noting that humor and satire are almost expected to push the preposterometer into the red. That’s why we have the phrase “so bad it’s funny.” So-called serious stories that over-preposterate wind up as humor quite by accident. (Not always — sometimes they’re just bad.) I’ve been thinking about my story Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy, and I don’t think it’s preposterous enough yet. When you’re parodying an inherently preposterous genre, you really have to pull out all the stops.

preposterometer

Here is a rough sketch of the preposterometer, but it’s not in a useful form yet. What’s lacking is a benchmark for the various levels. (Do we need a separate benchmark for each genre?) While I have plenty of ideas for the middle- and upper-preposterous benchmarks, I couldn’t come up with examples off the top of my head for the low-preposterosity examples. I’ll keep working on fleshing out the scale, but any suggestions you have would be welcome. Spread the word! Together we can quantify this elusive metric.

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Need a Little Background for a Story

I’m writing an eclipse-inspired very short story, and I need a city in Mexico. The requirements are:

  1. Good view of the 1991 total eclipse (long totality and had good weather that day)
  2. Populous enough to have bad neighborhoods (bonus: name the neighborhood!)
  3. Bonus: humid enough to have lots of insects

It’s a silly little piece, but I like to get my facts straight. Currently I have it in Cabo San Lucas, but a larger city would be preferable, as long as the first two criteria above are met.

Thanks in advance!

Figuring out WordPress Roles

A couple of regulars have wished out loud that they could edit their own comments. “No problem,” thought I, “I will create accounts so they can log in. Once the system knows who they are, I’m sure it will allow them to edit their own stuff.

Not so fast. Apparently the ability to edit one’s own comments is tied to the ability to create new posts as well. I’m writing this post as Jerry II, a new user on this blog with the exalted role of ‘Contributor’. It’s possible to mix and match exactly which capabilities a user has (with the help of a WordPress plugin), but the same capability, edit_post, is ties to editing one’s own comments and to writing new post content.

It’s not a total disaster; I can’t publish the episode I’m writing. It will go into a pile to await the approval of the administrator, so no unauthorized content will reach your tender retinas. It’s just extra complexity for other users who don’t want it.

Oh, well, they’re smart people. I’m sure they can overcome this.