Wednesday, January 31, 2007

We Always Hurt the Ones We Love

Kate posted about how it can be difficult to put characters that you love through pain and suffering. We all know we have to, but I agree that sometimes it's tough, particularly if the character is based closely on someone we know and love in real life. I'd have a very hard time, for example, putting a character through hell who was based on my son. In fact, though, I find it difficult to describe any significant pain for a child in my fiction. I was once asked at a panel at a writing conference if there was any theme I wouldn't touch in horror fiction, and I said I wouldn't torture a child. Someone popped up with, "what if they offered you a lot of money?" That hasn't happened yet, but I'd probably still say no. And the fact is that I don't need to. There are plenty of themes in horror fiction besides the suffering of children. I could write a lifetime without exhausting those themes, so if I chose not to work with a particular theme then neither I nor my readers are missing much.

But no matter what type of character you choose for your fiction, you still have to love them, and you still have to make them hurt. My usual solution for this is to make the characters who suffer the most in my fiction resemble me in some crucial way. I don't seem to have much trouble making a surrogate for myself suffer. Perhaps it's my Catholic upbringing, or my German ancestry (Gramlich means Grief and Sorrow, btw), but I can put a doppleganger for myself through the ringer without much thought or pity. So:

Writer! Hurt thyself!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A killer of a Character

I got a lot of helpful feedback on my character dilemma, which I posted about yesterday. I deliberately withheld one critical piece of information so I could get people's honest response without biasing them. Yes, my main character, Gage, murders someone rather brutally in the first few pages of the book, after making them dig their own grave and beating the shit out of them in the process. However, he does so because the other man molested and murdered Gage's young son. I figured almost everyone would have sympathy/empathy for this man. But my main issue is how soon to reveal the reason why Gage kills the other man. If I do it quickly the reader will have an early reason to sympathize with Gage, but I might get more milage and create more tension if I withhold Gage's reasons for a while. However, I don't want to push the reader too far and risk producing a negative first impression that the reader can't dispel later. I'll prbably write it a couple of different ways in draft form and then make a decision.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Sympathy for a Killer

It's hard for me to read a novel-length work about a main character that I don't like. I want to root for the main hero/protagonist in a book. I want to feel that I'm on the side of right against the side of wrong.

I also find it hard to write a protagonist who I don't like. (C. S. Harris said much the same thing on her blog recently.) Why is this a problem? Because I know that first impressions are as big in novels as they are in real life, and I worry that the protagonist in a piece I'm working on now will make a bad first impression. I like him myself, but I wonder if a reader, not knowing him as I do, would toss the book aside before giving him a chance. You see, he murders someone in the first few pages of the book. He murders them brutally after making them dig their own grave.

I wonder, could you read on about such a character? If so, what would it take to keep you reading? What would it take to make you forgive such a murder? Could you forgive it?

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Sidney Williams has a great post up about his Biblioholism. There are some hilarious lines here, made all the more so because they are true. I know because I've experienced the same thing. Sid is also talking about finally reading a book that he feels he should have gotten to long ago. I know what that's like too, and, in fact, two days ago I started L. Ron Hubbard's Fear, which I've heard much about over the past five years or so. It's certainly interesting so far, and holds my attention. There are plenty that don't.

At the risk of admitting my own poor education, there are a few other books on my shelves that I should have already read but haven't. I hope you all won't think less of me, but, hey, we've been talking about honesty in writing, haven't we? I'm just being honest. Besides, Sid admitted his failure first.

Here's my list:

Tolstoy's War and Peace. All I can say in my defense is, My God, it's huge.

E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros. My God, it's huge.

Lord Dunsayny's The King of Elfland's Daughter. Uhm, I can't even claim that it's all that big.

David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus. It seems sort of big.

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I've been working on this slowly for about two years.

Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer. It's big, and well, kinda old.

There, that's enough for now. I can only take so much embarrassment in one post. So go ahead, leave me as the illiterate slob that I am. I promise, I promise. I'll get to them. I will.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Is it something about writing itself that makes writers doubt themselves? Could it just be the inevitable rejections, the low ratio of reinforcement to punishment? Or is it more that those who are driven to write tend to be self-doubters from within? Kate S, Stewart Sternberg, and Michelle’s Spell all had posts on or around this issue in the last few days.

My guess is the latter, that those of us who have an inner drive to write also have some quirk within us that makes us doubt our abilities. I imagine, of course, that everyone doubts themselves sometimes. But some of us are chronics at it. It’s as if we’re addicted. We just can’t stop. Writing is not the only place I doubt myself, for example. When I was first in graduate school I had a feeling that any day now it would be found out that I just wasn’t bright enough, just not disciplined enough. I doubt myself on my job, on whether I’m doing the best I can for my students. I doubt myself as a father. I doubt whether I’m anything more than an embarrassment to the game of chess.

Why the doubt? Because I’m made that way, and maybe you are too. I think, in large part, this comes from an introverted and introspective personality, and this is why it shows up so frequently in writers. We reflect on things? We question. We study ourselves and those around us, and we know, if we’re honest with ourselves, that we don’t always do what we could or should be doing. We see amazing talents around us, and also colossal failures. And we don’t want to admit that both can exist in the same person. In us.

I think the doubt can make us better writers, as long as we don’t let it destroy us first.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Words of Writerly Wisdom, and a Whine

Here are some words on writing from On Writing Horror that resonated with me.

1. Perhaps to transcend categories others have invented for us, we have to be both dead -- long dead-- and "classics." (Joyce Carol Oates)

2. Yet talent, not excluding genius, may flourish in any genre, provided it is not stigmatized by that deadly label "genre." (JCO)

3. We understand that fiction is a lie to begin with. To ignore the truth inside the lie is to sin against the craft, in general, and one's own work in particular. (Stephen King)

4. If she (meaning his wife) had suggested that you can't buy a loaf of bread or a tube of toothpaste with rejection slips, I would have gone out and found a part-time job. (King, recalling his early days).

Number 4 above brought back a few unpleasant memories. Throughout the early and mid 1990s I did a lot of short stories and a lot of non-fiction. I didn’t make a living at it but I always made some money, sometimes $50, sometimes a few hundred, sometimes a few thousand (for non-fiction). I never took a summer off in those days because my wife always said we needed the money to cover insurance and such. I wrote around the edges: at nights, during Christmas break, on weekends. But in 1998 I spent almost a whole year of spare time writing on the book that was to become Cold in the Light. I passed on non-fiction stuff, barely scribbled a short story or two. I had a goal. And that year I earned $13.50 from writing. I remember when we went to figure our taxes for the year and I told my wife how much I’d made from writing, she burst out with this huge, spontaneous laugh. I can still recall it; it still echoes. As JR suggested on his blog today. Sometimes the hooks are buried deep.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

SF Books for Writers

Yesterday I posted, and got some great commentary, on the five essential novels for Horror writers to read and study. But what about SF? What five SF books would make a study plan for a new SF writer? Below are mine, although I had a harder time coming up with the ones for this list than for the horror list, which might be informative in itself.

1. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1, The Short Stories, various writers. I personally believe that the best work in SF has been produced in the short story, and this volume collects the best of the best. If you were going to write short SF then this volume might be all you’d ever need.

2. The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells. Conflict with alien races is a big part of SF and this is the granddaddy of that “subgenre.”

3. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. To me, SF involves technology, and often projects the invention or further development of current technologies into the future. Verne’s book is a good example of the early use of this trope.

4. Dune, by Frank Herbert. SF projects the human race into the future as well. How will we change and adapt? How will we stay the same? Dune is still one of the best books ever at showing a complex human society’s development on another world.

5. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein. Space opera is still SF to me, even though the science might not necessarily be very accurate. I personally love space opera and think there are some great stories there. This one by Heinlein is an early example but a good one of the space opera field.

I think there is a lot of room for debate with these choices, so tell me where I’m full of it. E. E. Doc Smith could easily be on here for Space Opera, but I was never a big fan of his work. Arguments could certainly be made for Bradbury, and I’d probably agree. And what of Asimov and Clarke? Well, they are represented in the Hall of Fame, at least. Also, I didn’t put any Sword and Planet stuff here, like ERB’s work with John Carter. I don’t think of that stuff as SF, but as fantasy, and I’ll do an equivalent list for fantasy at some point.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Best Horror Novels, for Writers

An article by Robert Weinberg, who I've met btw, in On Writing Horror lists and blurbs the 21 horror novels that every aspiring horror writer should read. There are some obvious ones on here, Frankenstein, Dracula, Rosmary's Baby, The Exorcist. There are also some I didn't expect to see on the list, including Burn, Witch, Burn! by Merritt, and The Ghost Pirates by Hodgson, niether of which I've read. The biggest oversight on the list is Ghost Story by Peter Straub, which is still the scariest book I've ever read.

I’ve seen such lists before, of course. I think Stephen King had one in Danse Macbre. Such lists always get me thinking, which is the fun of them. It seems to me, though, that any list that goes beyond about five books will start to reflect more upon the list writer’s personal reading history than on THE MUST READ books. Think about it this way. You are going to become the official horror writer for NASA, and are going to be sent to a primitive world to introduce the populace to the joys of horror fiction. Space is limited and you are allowed to select five horror novels to take with you as your personal “lesson” library. What do you choose? What should you choose?

Here are my selections:
1. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. THE monster book, and still a good read.

2. Dracula, Bram Stoker. There are a lot of good vampire books out there (and plenty of bad) but this one set up the themes for them all. And many of its scenes still carry a lot of horror today. THE vampire novel.

3. The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty. Rosmary’s Baby got there first, but The Exorcist is still the most powerful vision of the devil that we have. THE devil/demonic book.

4. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson. THE ghost story book, and the second scariest novel I’ve ever read.

5. The Body Snatchers, Jack Finney. THE alien invasion book, and you get paranoia in addition.

And now, because I’m a reader and I know myself, I would personally throw away my watch and billfold, pull the metal buttons off my jeans, and even take the cushions out of my shoes to reduce weight so I could get a sixth book on board. And that would be: Ghost Story, by Peter Straub. It’s not actually a ghost story at all, of course, although the movie made it into one. This one had just about everything.

Anyone else up for a list?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A New Book To Read

Last night before my writing group met I picked up a copy of on writing horror, the revised edition, published by Writer's Digest Books, edited by Mort Castle but basically put together by the Horror Writers Association. I'm a member of HWA, although I had nothing to do with this book. I've barely cracked the book yet but it promises to be interesting. The first essay I read was by a certain Wayne Allen Sallee, a name some of you here might recognize. (He's the fantastic four to Stewart Sternberg's Dr. Doom.)

Here's one of the many things Wayne said that I liked: "No matter 'directions,' categories, genres, subgenres, or whether your terrors are archetype or topical -- your characters must be timeless."

Fortunately, humans have been humans for somewhere between 50,000 and 250,000 years, and we're likely to stay as we are for quite a bit longer, until the genetic modification people get lose, at least. Things change. Technology changes. Humans stay the same. You are human. Knowing yourself is a good way to know a lot about the human condition. But knowing yourself means being brutally honest with yourself. This requires that you do a lot of self-analysis, although it doesn't mean you necessarily have to tell others about your "weirdities." Some things are better left unsaid.

So I ask, all of you here, why do you do the crazy things you do? And don't lie. At least not to yourself.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Unhappy Days

I heard on the radio this morning that today, statistically, is the unhappiest day of the year. I didn't realize until then that there were so many Saints fans in the world. Yes, the Saint's magical season spilled right out of the cauldron yesterday. The Saints outplayed Chicago in the early part of the game, but several horrible calls by the referees stymied the Saints and let Chicago get a couple of field goals. In the second half we came back, but the Bears played a great game in that half, especially the defense, and in the end we couldn't get it done. Drew Brees didn't have his best game, but it was truly a team loss. The offensive line couldn't keep the Bears off of Brees and he seldom had any time to throw. Deuce hardly got to carry the ball, but when you're down from the beginning in the score it makes it hard to establish a running game. And while the defense played heroically along the line in the first half under rough field position conditions, they were unable to get much pressure on Rex Grossman, and they finally wore down in the fourth quarter and the Bears salted it away. Fred Thomas, one of our cornerbacks, will probably get a lot of blame, and he didn't have a great game, but to place the loss at his feet would be an absolute mistake. As I said, it was a team loss. The one highlight for us was Reggie Bush. But for the first time in many a year I believe we will be going into the new season with a new outlook, and with new hope. Go Saints!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Novel in Progress?

Sid posted some interesting notes on color and motif in writing, illustrated by a Ray Bradbury piece, and Steve is keeping up a running commentary on his novel in progress. Both are worthy reads.

I'm thinking ahead toward summer myself, because I'm not going to teach it this year for the first time in a long time, and I plan on working on a novel. Right now I'm kicking around ideas and the one that stands out so far would make a big Sword & Sorcery work, perhaps similar to what David Gemmell had been writing before his death. Below is what might turn out to be a prologue. It's helped crystalize my thinking about the book.

They came through darkness into the light, in rusted armor, astride horses the color of bone. Ancient swords hung about them, at hips and saddles and over ghastly shoulders. Some carried maces, too, or axes upon which the blood of old wars had dried so hard that it had bonded to the steel. In ebon madness they came, up slopes of fire toward the snow-capped mountains of heaven. But the gates were shut against them and only earth was left for them to abide their time.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Myths and Other Truths

Some fiction is absolutely realistic. It shows the world as it is, shows people, precisely as they are. Ernest Hemingway wanted to write this kind of fiction, and I admire and enjoy his work. I think he often succeeded. But I’m not the same kind of writer. I prefer to write, and usually to read, fiction that taps into myth more than realism. Robert E. Howard wrote myth. The late David Gemmell wrote it. I don’t think that either approach is better than the other. I believe that both of them can reveal truth. Myths just reveal a hidden truth, a truth closer to our inner core.

Despite the fact that fiction is built literally out of lies, truth is its ultimate goal. If you achieve that, you will be read.

Friday, January 19, 2007

For the Love of Color

I got quite a few responses on my question about using color in fiction. Black and Red, or as Erik said, "Noir" and "Rouge," were popular colors. I was a bit surprised to see that gray was quite popular, although it makes sense after discussions by H.E. and Wayne. By the way, gray and grey are two different colors to me, or at least different shades. I use grey, with an "e" for the darker shades, where there's more black than white in the mix, and gray with an "a" for when there is more white than black.

Kate S admitted that pink was not uncommon in her romance work, so maybe there's some truth to that old saw, but Sheila posted about how she uses shades of light as descriptors. That might be another item worthy of consideration. Stewart mentioned color as an element of theme, and described Bradbury's excellent use of that technique, and Sid brought up weather as a plot element and descriptor. All in all, a very nice discussion, and I may particularly want to explore the idea of light as a descriptor and of weather in plot a bit more. But now I think it's lunch time. I'm gonna have

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Color of Writing

This probably sounds like a weird question, but do you have a favorite writing color? I mean, is there a color that you use frequently in your fiction? Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Cimmerian, often used “black” in his fantasy and horror fiction. Some say he used it too often, but when you read his stories you don’t really notice the frequency of the word, you notice the mood that the word helps create. Do you have a color that you depend on in your own work? And is it the same as your favorite color in the world?

Black, with all of its synonyms, is probably my favorite color word in writing, although I think I use “dark” more often than “black” itself. I just like the sound of it a little better when it combines with other words. But in real life my favorite color is red and all it’s shades, especially the shades that darken toward maroon.

I certainly use shades of red a lot in my writing as well, partially because I write a lot of horror and adventure fiction and there’s always the color of blood to describe. Of course, words like dark and black and shadow appear in horror fiction a lot as well. In fact, I wonder if the use of color in fiction is genre dependent. Would a writer of ocean adventures use a lot of blue? Does pink actually appear in many romance novels? Is black the color for horror?

Like with many of my posts, I don’t have the answer. Just the question. What do you think?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Writing Groups and Miscellania

Stewart asked about our writing groups over on his blog, and C. S. Harris answered for the group that I'm in with her. Stewart also asked why our group stopped doing critiques, however, and I thought I might give my take on it. Others in the group might have additional views, but from my perspective there were several reasons.

1. One member of our core group was already in another group that did extensive critiques and didn't want to do them in both groups.

2. When our group first started out it was quite a bit larger than six people and only some members were actively and consistently writing. The non-writing members would tend to get the short end of the stick if we did critiques every week.

3. By the time we winnowed down to our core group, most of us felt that our limited time could be better used by discussing the larger details of writing, like characters, plot, etc., than by covering the nuts and bolts and specifics of a single piece.

4. Even though we don't consistently do critiquing, I think we'd all feel comfortable in sharing a piece of our work that we were having particular trouble with. I have several times, and have always got good feedback.


Under miscellania, I rough drafted my next column for The Illuminata yesterday and once more--and even more--I owe a debt to those of you here in the blogosphere. The piece is going to be on characters and discussions online from Sid, Stewart, C.S., Steve and Sphinx Ink were very helpful. Salud!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Update Time

I’ve had a little more non-fiction published. My usual monthly column in The Illuminata is out. This month it’s on “Rest in Peace: Short Story,” which had its genesis right here in the blogosphere, mostly from following up on something that Stewart had posted. For those interested in writing, the newsletter editor, Bret Funk, has also started a series of pieces on the nuts and bolts of writing, starting with “Rules and Grammar: Glorious Tools or Proof that God Hates Writers.” As always, you can download a copy of the newsletter from the website. It’s Volume 5, Issue 5. Bret also runs contests for those of you who might be interested, although his latest contest just closed.

The other publication is in a book called Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard, from Hippocampus Press and edited by Ben Szumskyj. It’s an article called “Robert E. Howard: A State of Mind,” and is a kind of psychological study of Howard. This book actually premiered in November at the World Fantasy Convention, and I understand it sold pretty well. The introduction was written by Michael Moorcock so that’s kind of nice.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Back Cover Blurbs

Do you read the back covers of books you're considering buying? Do such blurbs ever have an impact on your decision to purchase the book? Well, imagine that you were looking at a book called Swords of Talera, a fantasy novel, would the following back cover blurb have any effect on you?


Talera is a world of alien warriors and dangerous beasts, a world of swift and deadly swords raised against incredible odds. For Ruenn Maclang, an Earthman mysteriously transported to Talera, this strange and violent planet is a potentially lethal puzzle. To stay alive, Ruenn must quickly learn the discipline of the sword and the bitter stench of battle. And he must uncover the secrets of Talera, a world very far from natural.

But living isn't the only thing Ruenn has to do. His brother is lost somewhere on Talera, and the woman he loves is slave to the brutal Klar. If he hopes to save them both, Ruenn Maclang will have to risk his honor and his life. He will have to become Warlord of a world, and a greater swordsman than he ever dreamed possible.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Warning, Football

OK, I know this doesn't have anything to do with writing, but one does not live by word alone. The Saints are in the NFC Championship game! Let me repeat, The...New...Orleans...Saints, are IN the NFC Championship game!!! This is unprecedented. It has never happened before in the 40 year history of the organization. We won a playoff game last night by beating the Philadelphia Eagles, doubling our number of playoff wins to "Two." And that win means that we are one of four teams left in contention for this year's Super Bowl. I can't stress enough how this has NEVER happened before.

I've been a Saints fan since moving to the New Orleans area in 1986, and during that time I've suffered through some pretty lousy play. The Saints did have a few years where they won quite a few games, but the playoffs always left us cold and one thing you could always count on from a Saints team was that, when someone needed to step up, they didn't. No one did. For the first time in our history THIS Saints team is different. When they need someone to step up, they get it! Last night we were ahead 27 to 24, driving to run out the clock, when Reggie Bush fumbled and the Eagles recovered. This has happened a hundred times in our past, and always--I mean ALWAYS--the other team would take our gift, drive down and score, and win the game. Last night the Defense stepped up. They held them, forced a punt. And now the Offense had to step up. We needed only one first down to run out the clock. Kiss of death for an old Saints team. But not this year. Deuce McAllister ran three times and he got the first. We got the win.

I am really proud and impressed with our team. I was particularly impressed with Deuce. Although our Offensive line blocked like heroes and opened nice holes, Deuce made a lot of yards after contact and he just, dammit, would not go down when he needed an extra yard, an extra foot, an extra fricking inch. He was certainly MVP in my mind, but the whole team is a credit to the fans this year. This really was a team effort. For example, at one point in the red zone Deuce got the ball and got hit solidly at the five. He should have been stopped, but he wouldn't quit pushing, and then our fullback, Mike Karney, got behind him and begin to push, and lineman carried through, pushing and pulling and dragging the pile. And "they" scored that touchdown from the five.

Tomorrow, I'll take us back to our regularly scheduled writing commentary, but for today. Saints Rule! And I've never said that before.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

How I Discovered That Farts Stink

I mentioned the other day that I can't smell, and so one may wonder how I discovered that there actually is such a thing as smell. Below is the story of how I found out.

It was blizzard-cold that day, with snow and sleet whirling across the fields and through the trees like icy confetti. I can't remember why I was in the pickup with my two brothers, but, being the youngest, I had to sit in the middle with the gear shift between my knees. The outside temperature was within a fingernail of zero.

Then I had a small release of gas, the silent but deadly kind some folks claim. I knew my brothers couldn't have heard it, but within a minute both started gagging and hastily cranked (Yes, cranked in those days) their windows down to douse their heads in the frozen wind outside. One brother muttered something about, "crawled in there and died." The other just gulped at the thick, cold air. Each gave me a glare that could have stripped lead based paint off a wall.

I remember the feeling that came over me then. It had little to do with finally understanding that “smell” was real. No! I was thinking of the times my big brothers had lorded it over me, of how they always stuck me with the dirtiest jobs on the farm and how once they’d hung me upside down in a feed barrel. Now the worm had turned. Now I had the power. And I was gonna use it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Mood in Writing

I feel a little sad today. On the long commute across the lake I started thinking about my father, and of a poem I wrote for him once long after he was dead and I was grown. At the same time they played a couple of sad songs on the radio back to back. Then I started thinking of my own son. He's 19 now and living on his own, and I sure miss seeing him as much as I used to.

That sequence and combination of events sent my mood into a mini-crash. And almost immediately I began to think of how to express my emotions in poetry. That got me to wondering about how important mood is in writing, not the mood of the "piece" you're working on, but your personal mood. I think sometimes it's too important to me, meaning that I don't necessarily write fiction these days unless my mood is right. That's a burgeoning habit that I have to break.

Do you think that when people talk about the "muse" they might really mean "mood?" They can't write unless the muse is with them, but maybe the muse isn't with them because they aren't in the right mood. I know that for myself, I can force, or at least invoke, a mood that fits the piece I'm working on, but it isn't always easy. And sometimes it seems to get harder as I get older.

Damn, maybe I should just write some poetry now and shut up.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Writing For The Senses

I don’t want to forget my periodic writing table so I’m posting it again today. Mostly I’ve been talking about character, Ch. But today I wanted to think about “sensory” writing, writing that you can feel, hear, taste, smell. I believe this falls under the Se element, setting.

Character - Ch
Plot - Pl
Style -St
Setting -Se
Mood - M
Voice - V
Point-of-View - PV
Pacing - Pa
Concept - Co

I like writing that involves all of my senses, but I have a problem, one of those weird things that Stewart Sternberg talks about on occasion. This is a weird thing about me. I have no sense of smell. As far as I can remember I’ve never been able to smell. An interesting thing, however, is that smell is easy to fake. I’ve been known on a walk in the park to stop and smell the roses, and then comment to someone else how wonderfully fresh and sweet they are. I’m always agreed with. Now, when I say stop and smell them I mean, press my nose close, draw in air in a large sniff, and then pause for just a moment before commenting on the delightful odor. It’s all an act, but people have no idea that it is unless I tell them.

In my novel, Cold in the Light, I deliberately created a race of beings for whom smell was more important than it is for humans. The Whoun have names for smells that humans can’t even sense. And I’ve had several people comment on how well I handled the Whoun’s relationship with odors. If so, it’s only because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. When you have a sensory capability you take it for granted. You don’t “investigate” it. You don’t “study” it. But I think if we want to write senses convincingly we need to. We shouldn’t just experience what we see or hear. We should break it down, analyze it. Then it’ll be able to contribute the detail to our setting that brings them to life for our readers.

As for my own missing sense? It’s been the source of quite a bit of humor in my life. Someday I’ll tell you the story of how “I discovered that farts stink.”

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


I gave a ride to a drifter named Blue around 7:30 this morning. In his late forties or early fifties, long, thinning blond hair, pale eyes. He wore an army-green greatcoat and carried a vinyl guitar bag and a gym bag with a hard hat hanging on it. Said he was going to Seattle but I couldn't take him that far. He was standing by the on-ramp to Interstate 12 and told me he'd been at that same ramp for 11 hours waiting for a lift, through a night where we had a good hard frost. I think he'll appear in a story of mine somewhere down the line. Hell, if it had been last week when I was off maybe I would have just taken him to Seattle. I've never been.

Hitchhiking must be a hard way to travel these days, and I'm sure movies like The Hitcher, which has just been remade, don't help. I used to hitchhike home from school all the time as a teenager, until I got a motorcycle. We lived six miles outside of town and during football season practice would make me too late for the bus. The bike I had was a dirt bike, though, with big knobby tires. Try riding that on the highway at 50+. Talk about a jarring experience.

What's the point to this post? Don't really have one. I guess I'm still thinking about characters and about where they come from and how to develop them. Lot more thinking to do there.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Multidimensionality of Character

Sid has pointed out about my "character paradox" post the importance of multidimensionality in a character. Real people have multiple characteristics, whereas characters that are criticised as unrealistic often seem to have only one dimension. Burrough's John Carter of Mars was unfailingly heroic, for example, while the old pulp style villain was unfailingly evil. But "seem to have only one dimension" is a key phrase here. Many of the more pulpish characters that I like are criticized as one dimensional by more literary oriented readers and writers, but they are mistaken because they haven't read the stories closely enough. Take Conan the Cimmerian, the Robert E. Howard creation, for example.

Conan is often described as dumb, but the actual stories by Howard make it clear that Conan was, in fact, quite cunning. He was "naive" in the stories where he was supposed to be young, but well educated, at least in the school of hard knocks, in the stories where he was king. Conan's philosophy of life was relatively simple, in keeping with his roots as a barbarian, but a simple philosophy does not equal stupidity.

Also, Conan is often described as a testosterone driven oaf who treated women as nothing more than objects. It is true that Conan liked women and enjoyed sex, but in the actual Howard stories he did not treat all women alike. He acted differently toward a tavern wench than he did toward a female warrior. He could show respect for a woman or he could treat them indifferently. Whether you approve of his behavior or not, his behavior with women was not one dimensional.

Why do so many people hold the view of Conan that they do? I think because they associate Conan more with the Arnold movies than they do with the Robert E. Howard creation.

I use Conan as example here, but maybe the same could be said of many other pulpish heroes. Maybe the same could be said of the female characters in pulp fiction. Maybe they have more dimensions than most of us believe. Maybe we've judged those characters and the writers who created them too harshly. I wonder.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Character Paradox

In looking over the favorite character lists that some of my blolleagues and myself have been posting over the past week or so an apparent paradox leaps out at me. This is: 1) For a reader, memorable characters are larger than life. They are extremes in one way or another. 2) For a writer, larger than life characters are not realistic, and therefore appear weak.

Is this an actual paradox or am I reading too much into it? If it is a paradox I wonder how to resolve it. Are readers and writers doomed to war with each other on this issue?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Let Me Wake From This Nightmare

Tomorrow! Work! I return!!!!! How can such evil be allowed to stalk this great land of the free? Why can't our government declare a "War on Work?" How could such a sensitive, poetic soul as myself be required to...labor for my bread? What part of lazy don't my employers understand?

Just to point out, returning to work may mean I won't be posting comments as frequently as I've been doing. I'll still keep up my posting here but may not be able to visit and comment as frequently on all the great blogs that I've found over the past few weeks. (Some folks are saying, "Thank...a deity of some sort.")

And now, since this is supposed to be a writing/reading related blog, let's see: My highest recommended novels for 2006 (although not necessarily written in 06) were: The Swords of Night and Day by David Gemmell, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Drive by James Sallis. The best book on writing that I read in 2006 was Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint, although Kate Wilhelm's Storyteller earns an honorable mention. My favorite non-fiction book was Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer, but I also greatly enjoyed Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex and Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch. That’s a lot of good reading for 06. I guess it was a pretty good year after all.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I was talking with a friend tonight who was complaining about being bored with their life. They were telling me how they were in a rut, and how they thought they needed a new hobby, but that they couldn't find anything that really interested them. I tried to be supportive but I was also thinking that, I just don't really understand boredom. Oh, I've been bored, but only when I was at the mercy of others. I'm bored when I'm required to attend a meeting where I know nothing will get done, but nevertheless am expected to contribute. I've been bored at social gatherings, especially if I'm forced to mingle and make small talk with people who can only discuss TV and celebrities. But I'm not sure that I've ever been bored when I'm on my own. There's just too much out there that I'm interested in. Books and writing are a big part of that. I usually read three or four books at a time because I can't wait to finish one before starting another. I've almost always got half a dozen story ideas spinning around in my head at any given moment.

But reading and writing are only part of my cure for boredom. If I had the time I know a dozen video games I'd have fun with. There are at least that many movies I'd enjoy seeing. There's a lot of interesting stuff on the internet, and I'd love to have more time for chess, more time to walk the woods, more time to learn how to cook some interesting dishes. I'd love to get a motorcycle again, or at least a 4-wheeler. I wish I had more time to target shoot. I'd like to learn to fence. I'd love to do more bird watching, learn how to play the drum better, listen to more music. I'd like to learn to read German because I know of some books published in that language that I'd like to read. I wouldn't mind taking some classes, maybe even work on an MFA. That's only a short list. If I have a moment, I've got plenty to fill it. Boredom can't find it's way through all that.

The picture is of part of my deck, by the way. I could spend a good long time just sitting out there and watching the woods, birds, squirrels, insects, etc. Not to mention the occassional Sasquatch.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Shock to the System

Today is my last "weekday" off. Monday starts school again. That means today I have to get started on my syllabi and figure out my schedule of office hours. But it's a beautiful day here, sunny and warm in the aftermath of a bad storm last night. I had lunch on my deck while a couple of hawks serenaded me. Now I'm going to go sit out there and read for a bit, or perhaps have a walk. And after that I'm going to nap on my deck. Work is still miles away. The fresh air and sun beckon. And away I go.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Ups and Downs

Sometimes I forget how weird the writing life can be for one's emotions. Last night I found out that an article I thought was accepted for a book wasn't going to be used after all. The editors had liked my piece originally, but decided to go in a different direction from what they had first solicited from me. I have another market in mind, but they held it for right at a year! Sigh. Then I emailed six poems off to a magazine on January 2nd, and already on the 3rd I got rejections on them all. Sigh! Three of the pieces were ones that I'm particularly proud of. One I spent almost a month working on, and another had been accepted twice by different magazines that folded out from under it. I sent them out again right away, but felt for a bit that maybe there was no use. Sigh!!

Then about two hours ago I got an acceptance on a sort of prose poem short story that I'd submitted to Night To Dawn magazine. I felt good about that, but the experience reminded me of what I already knew and yet seem too often to forget. In a way, writing is like working with severely ill patients. You learn that you can't fall in love with such patients. If you do, your heart will break with theirs, and you'll die a little bit as they die. You give them what you can, what they need, but you have to remember to save yourself.

So, whatever you do, don't get emotionally involved with the submission/publication process. If you do then the highs will never compensate for the lows. Save your passion for the writing itself. Once the writing is done, submit it, but don't invest yourself in its acceptance or rejection. It's not personal. Any more.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Realistic Female Characters?

C. S. Harris brought up an interesting point. Should we perhaps develop two lists of characters, one for those we find sexually appealing and another for those we like as characters in and of themselves. I’ve already put up my “sex appeal” list, so I started thinking. What female characters do I know who, 1) I would like if I knew them as real people without necessarily wanting to sleep with them, and 2) what female characters seem to me the most “realistic.” None of the ones on my CILFS list seem realistic, but there are one’s I’ve read about in fiction who fit both requirements above. Let’s see:

1. Dolores Claiborne, created by Stephen King. I liked Dolores and rooted for her throughout the book, but I never thought of her in a sexual way. I felt, as a male reader, that Dolores was probably a realistic woman.

2. Eleanor Arroway, created by Carl Sagan for Contact. I liked Ellie, as she was referred to throughout, and I can say she was a pretty realistic scientist. I didn’t think of her in a sexual way, however. I’m not clear that she’s a realistic woman. You women will have to tell me.

3. Deborah, created by James Sallis for the Lew Griffin mysteries, especially Ghost of a Flea. Deborah seems realistic to me. She loves Lew but also has her own interests, and although she is happy to share many things with Lew she clearly keeps her own center and is neither over or underwhelmed by Lew. I could be friends with Deborah but never anything more.

4. Clarice Starling, created by Thomas Harris. Clarice seems pretty realistic to me, although you have to remember that I’m a male. I liked her and rooted for her, and though there is probably some mild sexual attraction there she’s sure no Dejah Thoris.

5. Mary Breydon, created by Louis L’Amour for Cherokee Trail. Mary lost everything in the Civil War and came west to make a new life. But her husband is killed and she ends up managing a stage station with her young daughter. Mary was a practical woman but who still has some dreams. She was a good mother and was even beautiful. But I didn’t think of her in a fantasy way.

6. Ellie Sattler, created by Michael Crichton for Jurassic Park. I’m not sure how realistic Ellie Sattler was but I liked her and rooted for her and felt she had a lot going for her without her being particularly attractive to me. Interesting that there are two “Ellies” on my list.

The above six characters are from books, but I found myself struggling to find more. This probably reflects the fact that I haven’t read nearly as many books featuring strong female leads as male leads. Part of that is my own bias, I’m sure, part is due to the genres I typically read, and part may have to do with the fact that even female adventure writers often feature male protagonists. To complete my list, then, I’m going to movies below.

7. Ellen Ripley, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies. (And another “Ellen/Ellie.) Ripley seemed most “realistic” to me in Aliens, but I liked her in Alien as well. By the third film she had lost some of her realism, at least to me. This selection bends my rules because I certainly found Ripley attractive in the first movie. However, it was more of a realistic attraction rather than a fantasy attraction.

8. Sarah Conner, from the first Terminator movie, played by Linda Hamilton. This also breaks my rule because I was very attracted to Sarah in the first movie. She seemed both vulnerable and very realistic in her reactions to the situation. In the second movie, Sarah was much more a kick-ass heroine. She seemed much less real but was still attractive to me, more in a fantasy way.

9. Annie, the character played by Kathy Bates in the movie, Misery. Crazy as she was, I really sort of liked the character. Of course, Kathy Bates makes any character come alive. Was she realistic as a woman? I’m not sure, but she was certainly convincing as a crazed fan.

10. Your Name Here!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


OK, this might sound sexist and immature, but it's meant in good fun. When I was a teenager I enjoyed books that had beautiful female characters because I wanted to imagine such women falling in love with me. I might even have dreamed of making love to such gorgeous ladies. Some of them were perhaps a little scary, too, tough and dangerous enough to make such an activity truly exciting. I don't think I was alone in having such thoughts, and I suspect that most young female readers felt the same way about some of the male characters in the books they read. Now, as a take off on a common term that we hear these days, in poor taste as it is, perhaps I will dare call such female characters “CILFS,” with the “C” pronounced softly like an “S.” That being said, my, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, top ten list of CILFS would be the following:

1. Dejah Thoris, created by Edgar Rice Burroughs: John Carter was too dull for the glorious Dejah. I always thought she’d prefer a little bit more of a bad boy. I mean, a woman who lays eggs! Whoa!

2. Belit, created by Robert E. Howard: A mixture of sexuality and innocence, willful yet fatalistic. And the dance she does for Conan! Heady stuff.

3. Jirel of Joiry, created by C. L. Moore: Jirel would have scared the hell out of me in real life, but that flame-red hair and the so-often torn leathers. Viva La France!

4. Delia of Vallia, created by Ken Bulmer: The delicate beauty of Dejah Thoris; the whip-ass attitude of Jirel of Joiry. Delia had it all. Sometimes she wore a claw.

5. The Lady, created by Glen Cook in his “Black Company” books: Beautiful and evil. An irresistible combination for a young male. You wanted her; you feared her. But you were certainly interested.

6. Nidyis, created by David C. Smith: Another sorceress, and one who clearly enjoyed sex. You just knew that Nidyis was a slut, and you could only hope that she wouldn’t kill you first.

7. Ischade, created by C. J. Cherryh: A witch and a thief. And all her lovers die from her curse. But as they say, what a way to go.

8. The Eternal, created by David Gemmell: A bit like Glen Cook’s “Lady,” but also...well, eternal. We see her as a young woman, intelligent and beautiful, and later as the evil Eternal, but still beautiful, and still, perhaps, capable of love. The love of a good man might just...

9. Mina Harker, created by Bram Stoker: Hey, Dracula knew what he was about when he moved to seduce this innocent beauty. I wanted to protect her; I didn’t think old Jonathan had what it took.

10. (And One from a More Modern Age). Lizette Louvier, created by O’Neil De Noux: OK, so she doesn’t have a lot to do in the series. But she’s sensual, beautiful, and rich. And I think I saw her late one afternoon in Audubon Park.

Is it any accident that most of these female characters, again, were created by men? I doubt it. They aren’t women as women see themselves. They aren’t even women as men see them. They are women as men would like them to be, at least some of the time, and women that men fantasize about. And because I’m male I’m afraid that some of those same things appeal to me. Are female readers really that different? Don’t many of them fantasize just a bit about the male characters they’ve read about? And yet, ask most males and they’ll say those characters aren’t much like real men. But does that really matter when we’re talking fiction? Besides, isn’t it a bit of fun to...dream?

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Year That Was

2006 was not a good year in most ways. In school, we worked straight through from January until Mid-December with very little break, putting in three full semesters in a period that should have had two. We were understaffed after Hurricane Katrina and everyone taught large classes, with overloads and without release time. Many of our friends had been fired.

In addition, both my son and I had bad wrecks. He totaled his car and I totaled my motorcycle. He broke his hand and I cracked some ribs and broke my shoulder in two places. This was actually the second time Josh broke his hand. The second break required only a cast, but the first time required surgery. The second worst moments of my adult life came when I had to sit in the waiting room while my son was under anesthesia.

Unfortunately, the worst moments in my life occurred a little later in this same year. As far as I knew, Josh was spending a night with a friend when Mary woke me from sleep with a phone call around 3:30 in the morning. The police had called her. Josh’s car had been found on Magazine Street in New Orleans, totaled in a collision with a parked car. Josh was nowhere to be found, although several young men had been seen leaving the scene of the accident. I hope none of you ever have to experience such stark terror, a terror compounded when Josh’s cell phone merely rang and rang and rang without an answer.

Josh was OK, except for the hand and a cut on his forehead, but we didn’t find this out until after noon of that day. It’s cliché, perhaps, but some part of me came very close to dying that day. I’m still not sure it survived; I still wake with my teeth grinding.

Fortunately for my sanity, the end of the year showed quite a bit of improvement. Lana and I moved into a new house, in the country, and even though we had a lot of problems initially with the air conditioning, water heater, wash machine, dishwasher, and a thousand more minor issues, by the end of October we had mostly dealt with the problems and could begin to enjoy a much more relaxed life among the trees and critters. Most importantly, Josh seemed to get his life together toward the end of the year and that has cut my stress level by 200 percent. Finally, we had a decent break over Christmas from school and I’ve gotten some of my energy back by catching up on sleep.

I used to look forward to new years and try to make plans. But experience has taught me that life will give me what it wants anyway and that my plans mean little. All I can do is try to work a little, try to rest a little, and love the ones who love me. That’ll have to do.