Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Last Blog of 2013

Like some novels I’ve read, 2013 started out pretty good, sagged seriously in the middle, then picked up toward the end. Not the greatest year but still better in almost all ways than the years 2010 through 2012, each of which saw major family losses and serious illnesses strike. I’m glad at least the trend for health issues was up.

School was school. No great victories. No great tragedies. I’m glad for that. I do like things on an even keel. Personally, Lana and I continue to be very happy together, although Lana did have some serious back issues for several months that caused us great concern. The worst of that seems to have passed.

In writing, I mentioned before that I wrote about 80,000 professional words, which I’m confident was up from the years 2010-2012. The best thing was the completion of the fourth book in the Talera series, which should be out in 2014. I did not have any books published through Borgo/ Wildside in 2013 and much of that was because I’d decided to focus on some long term projects and some personal self-publishing concepts I had.

In early 2013 I put up the three volumes of the FictionTechniques series, “Creating Suspense,” “Characters Wanted,” and “The Twist Ending.” These actually sold pretty well, although I have not gotten many reviews on them. They also helped earn me a couple of speaking engagements, which is nice.

In the spring I put up MicroWeird: Tiny Tales of the Strange. Despite garnering 4 five star reviews, it did not sell well and ultimately has been my slowest seller of any self-published title. In the fall, though, I put up The Machineries of Mars, which also gained 4 five star reviews but which has far outsold “Micro Weird.” It’s been my best seller since Harvest of War.

The only other publishing related thing I did was putting the Louisiana Inklings anthology into print. I was glad to learn how to do this and may start doing print editions of some of my other self-published work in the days to come.

All in all, a pretty good year that reversed the trends I’d been experiencing in the three years previously. Let’s hope I can keep the momentum going into 2014. And let’s hope that all of us here in the blogosphere have a great 2014 with lots of success. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013 Word Count

For the first time ever, I kept records of how many words I wrote professionally this year. This is not counting blog materials, facebook writings, journal materials, or school related writing (unless it was for publication). I had hoped for at least 100,000 but I fell well short of that. The total came out to be right around 80,000. These 80,000 fall into three major categories: 1) those already published or scheduled for publication, at about 65,000, 2) those which mark progress on long-term projects that are probably a year or more at least away from competition but which I think likely to be published, at about 12,000, and 3) miscellaneous poetry and pieces of stories that may or may not ever be completed or published, at about 1400.

I also realized, however, that a simple word count does not constitute a very good measure of my writing productive for the year. For example, I had an older nonfiction project I worked on where I only added 558 total words. However, this also involved extensive editing on the material that was there, which meant cutting out lots of stuff that was there before. I worked pretty steadily on this project for a couple of months and also did lots of reading for it. The 558 added to my count scarcely touches how much work I put in on this project. There are several projects like this that I’m busy with.

So, all in all, I’m not totally unhappy with my productivity. Quite a bit better than last year I’m sure, even though I didn’t keep a word count in 2012. I don’t know whether I will keep up my counting next year. It seems like a relative waste of time for me since I have many small projects to keep word counts for. If it were just novels it would be a lot easier and less time consuming. It was an interesting experiment, though.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Books that have Stayed with Me, Part 3

Here's the last installment of Books that have Stayed with Me:

9. Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat. I was assigned to read this book in my college biology class and I still remember how irritated I was at the assignment. I read constantly, and always had a TBR pile ready to go. I didn’t want to have to read what someone else thought was good for me. I remember griping and growling about it until I set down with the book and started. Within moments I was laughing uproariously and totally engrossed. I later picked up and read almost everything Mowat has written. This particular tale is about Mowat’s study of Wolves in Canada, but it is nowhere near as dry as that description suggests.

10. The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. Never Cry Wolf got me into reading stories of nature and this is another such tale. But it’s also much more. It’s the story of Matthiessen’s journey into the Himalayas to find the elusive Snow Leopard, but it’s also a spiritual journey and offers great insights into the human condition.  It also has some of the most incredible writing I’ve ever seen. When I want beautiful prose that resonates through me, I often go to this book.

11. Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin. This is also generally considered a classic and had I read it as a youngster I would probably not have liked it. However, since it deals with gay characters I would never have found this book in any high school curriculum in Arkansas in those days. I read the book in my thirties, after having already read and enjoyed a number of other Baldwin books such as The Fire Next Time and Go Tell it on the Mountain. The story is about an American Gay man living in Paris and about his relationship with Giovanni, an Italian fellow. I didn’t continue reading this for the adventure. It’s a character study and has great humanity.  It’s also impressive to me that Baldwin, an urban African American man, could write so well about white characters in France. Of course, Baldwin was gay and had lived in France for many years, but still I found this work well worth my study as a writer.

12. House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday. This book opens with gorgeous prose and is a very fine character study as well. I still pick it up from time to time for the prose. It was also memorable to me as an introduction to a Native American character with depth and a kind of humanity that I did not get from most of the reading of western genre fiction earlier in my life.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Books that have Stayed with Me, Part 2

Here are the next four books on my list of twelve that have stayed with me. One more part to go.

5. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. I could fill up half my list with Bradbury’s work but I’ll limit myself to this one. Chronicles is another collection of short stories that are loosely connected to each other around the theme of colonizing Mars. Bradbury was the master of melancholy. No one else does the haunting beauty of loneliness as well; no one else writes “sad” so wonderfully.

6. Murder in the Wind, by John D. MacDonald. I said I love the archetypal characters created by writers such as REH and ERB, but to me, no one has ever created more ‘realistic’ characters than John D. MacDonald. JDM was outstanding at putting real people on the page, and he told compelling stories about them too. This book has a number of characters thrown together during a hurricane. The interactions are a lesson in how to do characters.

7. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. In high school, I had to read such classics as The Grapes of Wrath, Silas Marner, The Scarlet Letter, and The Metamorphosis. To this day, I still think Silas Marner and The Metamorphosis are two of the worst books ever written in the English language. At least for our modern times. The Grapes of Wrath is actually worthwhile but is way too long for required high school reading. After being forced to read this material in high school, I came to the conclusion that I generally hated the classics, and to this day I struggle to get myself to read such material. Had I not already been in love with reading, High School English class would have destroyed it for me. But all this could have been avoided if they’d just let us read The Old Man and the Sea. It’s short, vivid, full of adventure, full of characters of depth, and introduced me at least to a culture I knew nothing about but found interesting. It was this book, read when I was in my late twenties, that restored my interest in the classics. Most of the classics I’ve read since then wouldn’t have gotten read without this book coming first.

8.  Northwest Smith, by C. L. Moore. I had no idea when I first read these stories that C. L. Moore was a woman. Nor would I have cared. Anyone who can write stories like this will get my attention. Smith is also an archetypal character, but there is far more vulnerability in him than in most of the characters created by REH and ERB. Having something of a melancholy personality anyway, these tales resonated strongly with me. As I grew older and began my own writing, I also wanted to create such characters. They should be bigger than life, but also have that vulnerability as well. 


Monday, December 16, 2013

Books that have Stayed with Me, Part 1

Recently, a meme went around facebook asking people to quickly list ten books that have stayed with them over time. My first thought was, only ten books? How could I possibly do that. Many hundreds of books have stayed with me. However, the guidelines also said not to give it a lot of thought so I just jotted down ten. But, as I usually do when it comes to books, I wanted more, and I wanted to say why certain books have stayed with me. On my blog then, I decided to give an expanded version of my list. And I pushed it to twelve. It might take me a couple of blog posts to get through this, but here, in no particular order, are some of those books.

1. A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This is perhaps the purest “story” I’ve ever read. ERB didn’t waste time justifying things or explaining ‘how’ things happened. He pitched you headlong into adventure and let you sink or swim. I learned to swim, and to this day I find this kind of sword and planet adventure to be my most enjoyable reading experience. Not to mention that this book is a primary influence on much of my writing, particularly the Talera series.

2. To Tame a Land, by Louis L’Amour. Another pure story. This time a western. A youth and his father are crossing the plains with a wagon train when their wagon breaks down. The rest of the train rolls on past, leaving them behind. From this premise, a series of adventures take our youthful character into adulthood. All the boring parts are left out. Ryan Tyler, the character from this book, is my favorite fictional gunfighter.

3. The Sowers of the Thunder, by Robert E. Howard. This is a collection of four short stories by REH, “The Lion of Tiberias,” “The Sowers of the Thunder,” “Lord of Samarcand,” and “The Shadow of the Vulture,” all set against the backdrop of the crusades. I love a good story but I also love good writing. This collection has some simply beautiful poetic writing that ignites my imagination every time I pick it up. In addition, I’m also a fan of archetypal characters and Howard’s crusader tales are the perfect trifecta, from Red Sonya to John Norwald, these characters are bigger than life and cannot be forgotten.

4. Teot’s War, by Heather Gladney. Gladney’s tale is also a fine story, but the writing here is simply exquisite. I often pick this book up just to read her prose. Few stories have so put me “into” a world as this one.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Deep Thoughts on the John

I’m reading The Power of Myth, an extensive interview with Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers. It’s currently my bathroom reading, meaning it’s handy for those daily sit down situations that come with being human. In this morning’s reading, it became clear that Campbell believes that religious books such as the Bible were understood by ancient peoples to be intended as allegory rather than as fact. In other words, to Campbell, these ancient folks were wiser than many people alive today.

That the Bible and other ancient religious texts should be read as allegory and metaphor certainly seems clear to me. And even the most ardent literalists of today do read sections of the Bible in that way. Consider. “You are the salt of the earth,” from Matthew 5:13. Doesn’t everyone read this as metaphor? From this, you may take that I consider an absolutely literal reading of the Bible to be a mistake. It can’t be taken that way.

On the other hand, were ancient peoples wiser than many folks today? Somewhere buried in history are the folks who “first” told these stories. I have always imagined that they knew the tales were not literally true, but they believed them to be symbolically or spiritually true. I cannot rule out two other possibilities, though. First, they may not have believed the stories to be true in any sense, but were only making them up for entertainment value. I’m sure that humans have been telling ‘whoppers’ ever since our race started. However, I’m personally skeptical of this scenario. Second, it’s also possible that the people who first told these tales had hallucinatory or dream experiences that convinced them the stories were literally true. I think this is more likely than the former possibility.  

But what about the people who first “heard” these stories? Did they think the tales were to be understood as allegories, or did they think they were fact? My personal opinion generally disagrees with Campbell, although neither of us has proof of our speculations. I imagine that there were three types of folks in that first audience for these tales. First, there were those who took the tales as literal truth, perhaps given to them by an authority, or because they jibed with what these folks already were thinking to be true. Second, I also suspect that other members of that original audience didn’t buy the tales as literal at all but felt them to have a resonance and deeper meaning. Third, there were probably those who didn’t believe a word they were hearing but didn’t say anything because of the social pressure of those around them. 

In other words, I suspect that first audience was pretty much the same as modern audiences, although the percentages of the three groups may have changed over time. This has been, Deep Thoughts on the John, with Charles Gramlich.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Drear Sky

Drear sky. Wet Earth.
A cold drizzle falls like nails.
The daylight is grey;
The green of the grass is heavy and dull.
Yet there is mystery here.

Goldfinches and chickadees flit in their hundreds
in and out of our bird feeders.
Doves bob for seeds
around the last shards of an old stump.
Cardinals and Blue Jays splash color
through the dark boles of oaks, pines, magnolia.
There is mystery everywhere here.

Leaves rattle downward through air,
stirred by a wind flying over
the quiet cup of our backyard.
Squirrels send up sentinel calls.
They sound like gossip to me.
They sound like mystery.

Dimly I become aware of another sound,
a susurration that is like breathing.
I think it a medley of moving wings,
crackling seeds, scraping claws, clicking beaks,
all set against a backdrop of water
sighing down trees.
The mystery taunts me.

There is meaning in all this.
Though I cannot fathom it.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Narrative Drive

I was reading a bit of literary fiction just recently. It was well written. The characters were interesting. The scene setting was quite good. It was a leisurely read, meaning that I felt in no urgency to get to the next paragraph or page. When I did reach the end I found, no ending. It just stopped. In fact, it stopped at a point where I thought something dramatic was finally going to happen. I just shook my head, put that one down, and picked up Rick Cantelli, P.I., by Bernard Lee Deleo. Our intrepid P.I. is kicking back on the beach with a couple of lady friends when here come three gangsters, including the brother of one he'd just recently killed. "Uh Oh," I thought, and was instantly eagerly reading forward to see what happened next.
The contrast between the two tales was dramatic to me.

The literary fiction was fine. There was nothing wrong with it. It felt a bit like looking out a window and studying the scene there. Sometimes I like looking out the window. On the other hand, the DeLeo tale has the elements of a good "story."  In a story, something happens, then something else happens, and so on, and the things that happen are connected to each other, and they affect characters that you've come to know and love, or, more rarely, hate.

A story involves "narrative drive." At least, a good one does, a compelling one. Narrative drive is about the giving and witholding of information. You give the reader enough information to understand "what" is happening, but you withhold plenty of the "why" information. The "why" information is only slowly revealed, and only at the last possible second that it must be revealed. And, almost every time you reveal some "why" information, it ends up raising still other "whys." It is the need to figure out the answer to the next "why" that creates narrative drive, and this is what keeps the reader glued to the story.

There's no particular reason why literary style fiction can't have narrative drive, and sometimes it does. Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" has it. So does "The Old Man and the Sea." A lot of literary fiction doesn't though, and when I'm looking for something to read it's almost always narrative drive that I'm looking for. I want to get lost in the story to the point where I no longer know I'm reading a story. Most literary fiction simply doesn't do this for me, and most of it is not supposed to. Doesn't make it bad. But for that reason, it's never going to be as important to me as a rollicking good story.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

On the Writing Front

It’s been a busy school year and I haven’t gotten as much writing done as I’d hoped. That is often the case, however, so is nothing new. I managed to finish a sword and sorcery story over Thanksgiving for a project that I’m sworn to secrecy on. It’s going through my writing group for feedback now.

I was badly knocked for a loop by Robert Reginald’s death. I still think about him every day. I’ve been quite busy, though, which has helped me. I did get some positive news. I’d sent Rob the fourth Talera novel before his death. Everything was pretty much up in the air over that but it now looks like the book, called Wraith of Talera, will be published in 2014. I’m actually looking over the galleys now, although this is also the last week of classes, to be followed by final exams, so I’m being pulled in many directions.

Also, “The Machineries of Mars” did better than I’d feared it would. Not as good as I’d hoped, but you gotta grab the positives where you can. I’d actually made a kind of deal with myself, that if “Machineries” didn’t sell better than “Micro Weird” did I’d just hang it up. Good thing, perhaps, I didn’t have to be tested on that commitment. I don’t know if I could really “quit” anymore anyway. I’ve just been banging my head against writing for too long.

Speaking of “The Machineries of Mars,” I picked up a nice review by Keith West over at the Amazing Stories Blog. Keith also reviewed Tom Doolan’s “The Pirates of Themos.” Both of these stories are tied in to the concept of the Lost Empire of Sol. The review is here if you want to check it out.

There is also a review of "Machineries" over at James Reasoner's blog. Thanks much to him for the kind words.

Now to get the last bits of the school semester dealt with and have some time for writing over the Christmas break. That time is already spoken for with a nonfiction project I need to complete. But maybe I can work in some fiction as well.