Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What I Learned from Bad Writers

Even as a kid I loved telling stories, to myself if not to others. But I first thought of becoming a writer in my late teens (17, 18) and of telling stories on paper for others to read.

Two things persuaded me to try my hand at the author thing. On the positive side, I wanted to tell stories to enthrall others the way I had been enthralled by Louis L’Amour, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and John D. MacDonald. On the less positive side, I figured I could do better, or at least put more effort into it, than some of the writers I was reading. I won’t mention any names, but I was finding books that just didn’t move me. The prose was leaden, the pace stagnant, the characters indistinguishable from the stiffness of new jeans.

In most cases, it appeared that the writers I didn’t like were writing far too fast. They weren’t taking the time and giving the care to their work that being a craftsman required. To me, this became, and remains, the definition of a hack. In later years, however, I realized that I had learned quite a bit from the hacks, mostly, I hope, about the things a writer should not do.

I learned that well-written prose strikes the ear like music, not like the sound of a bell that has lost its clapper. I learned that good characters can’t become chess pieces to be shoved around willy-nilly. I learned that description is boring unless it fires the imagination or sets a mood. I learned that good writing takes time and effort and there is no substitute for either. And while I have not always achieved these things, I have always tried.

How about you? Have you learned anything from bad writers? Or do you think that reading bad prose leads to writing it? What’s your take?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Piece of the Action

The slaughter at the desk is over. For the moment. Slowly, the academic warrior lowers his mighty pen while around him pools of red (ink) lie drying beneath the harsh light. He sighs, stretching cramped muscles, and rubs bloodshot eyes. Before him rests the carnage of the battle, student papers marked and scarred. In his small black book he records the roll call of the grades.

For a moment, a wan smile flickers across his worn visage. He thinks of victory, of peace returned to this war-torn land. But in the distance he knows that more foes gather. He knows that there will be only a brief hiatus before the fighting resumes. And this time the enemy will bring their full power to bear on his pitiful defenses. More finals are coming. And this time his strength is less. This time his reserves are exhausted. He broods upon the rising battle.


And Announcing: The following comes from Christine Eldin, who is going to be having a week's worth of fun for writers and readers on her blog coming up soon. As you can see from the schedule, I'll be involved, as will many other fine writers. Check it out if you get a chance.

Begin Quote:
Dear authors, writers, anonymous editors, and agent hotties,

I would like to invite you to Author's Week for a week of contests and fun and free books! Author's Week will be held on my blog from May 3 through May 9:

Festivities will kick off on Saturday May 3 with an Oldies but Goodies Contest. I will have funny questions about the following authors who have supported my promotions in the past (cool prizes also!!)

Mary Cunningham CURSE OF THE BAYOU
Edna Cabcabin Moran THE SLEEPING GIANT
John Elder Robison LOOK ME IN THE EYE
Patricia Wood LOTTERY

May 5 - May 9 will feature the following authors giving away books and making appearances on my blog. Come chat, make jokes, win prizes!!!

Monday, May 5: Charles Allen Gramlich “Swords of Talera”
Tuesday, May 6: Holly Kennedy "The Silver Compass"
Wednesday, May 7: Daniel Tomasulo "Confessions of a Former Child"
Thursday, May 8: Sandra Cormier "The Space Between"
Friday, May 9: Stacia Kane "Personal Demons"

**If you are able to mention my Author's Week on your blog sometime between now and May 2, please send me an email. I will put your name in a hat and pick a random winner who will receive a nice gift from Dubai.**
End Quote:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Trapped in a Zombie Nightmare

It’s getting close to semester’s end here. And close to graduation. Some seniors are starting to panic; everyone is a little tense, including faculty members who hate this time of year when some students try to make up in a week for a semester of laziness. I had a sudden vision today of being trapped in a zombie movie, but instead of zombies stumbling around after “brains, brains,” it was students scrambling after “grades, grades.” Such students are a lot faster than the typical zombie, too. And they know how to use telephones and email.

I always have to remind myself that most students do what they need to do. Most haven’t waited until the last minute, or they got their shit together anyway. I’ve got many good students. For my Comparative Psych class this year I had students keep journals of observations on the animals they saw. Almost everyone did a good job, and I think some even had fun. Unfortunately, it’s often the problem students who make the biggest impression. And their crazy expectations!

One student handed in their journal this morning, two days late, and by 1:00 had already come to see if I had graded it. Seems you wouldn't want to harass the teacher over a grade for something that you missed the deadline on and are hoping they’ll be kind enough to look at anyway. Another of our 280 or so majors emailed me to see if I had a copy of their “FEP.” That was it, the whole email. It took a couple of exchanges before I learned that they'd sent an FEP page with their resume for a recommendation letter.

Of course, students don’t realize how many other students a teacher will work with. I’ve done at least 30 letters of recommendation in the past two months. I’m not likely to remember every sheet of paper sent to me, especially since I’d done this recommendation in early March. Honestly, though, I see faculty members do the same thing on occasion. I get emails assuming that I'll remember off the top of my head something about a faculty study submitted to my Review Committee months before, as if I’ve only had the one instead of the thirty I average a month.

Well, this post has rambled nowhere, but that’s partly because I’ve been grading, and meeting with committees, and writing letters, and grading, and responding to tearful phone calls, and grading like a banshee, and sleep is only a misty, half remembered dream. Makes me pretty close to a zombie myself. And, yeah, tomorrow I get a truckload of new papers to grade. I likely won’t post again until the weekend, and then won’t post at all the first three days of next week when the grading actually intensifies. I’ll try to get around to some blogs each day—-as a needed break—-but won’t be regular for a bit.

See you on the other side. Unless I get dragged down and eaten. Of course, I might see you anyway in that case. I might show up on your doorstep moaning for "grades, grades." Just shoot me in the head if I do. Don't make me suffer.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Filler Words

I heard about a study this morning conducted in England that says that about 10 percent of all the words we say each day are meaningless filler, such as "you know," "like," "uhmn," etc. I suspect from listening to my students talk that it might be more than that here in the States.

I began to wonder if writers do this less than other folks, in speech that is, and as I'm mentally going through my list of writers I know I'm leaning toward thinking that we do do less of this. If so, and I have no proof, I'd guess it would have to do with language discipline. We train ourselves as writers to be careful with words, to use the right word in the right place, and to "cut the fat," or the filler. It seems possible that this kind of discipline could spill over into our spoken language.

On the other hand, speech is a much lazier form of communication than writing, and we writers can certainly be lazy. Maybe when we're not "on task" but just yammering we are just as filler prone as anyone else.

What say the masses? As writers, are we less filler, greater taste? Or are we just like anyone else? Or is there a job/career that lends itself to less filler in speech? To more filler? I wonder.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fantasy Heroes: Sword and Planet

The Sword and Planet hero lies somewhere between the extremes of Sword and Sorcery and High Fantasy. The archetype is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. The character of Ruenn MacLang from my Taleran books is meant to fall into this general category. Here are the characteristics of this type of hero as I see them.

1. They are bigger than life but not to the extreme of the Sword and Sorcery hero. They are fast and strong but not typically described as being as big or muscular as the Sword and Sorcery hero.

2. They also have an indomitable will to survive and can tolerate great pain and fight through serious wounds.

3. They typically do not face much sorcery. Their enemies are primarily physical enemies, although not always human.

4. They do not like violence and generally crave peace, but they are very good at violence when it is forced upon them.

5. They are much more likely than the Sword and Sorcery hero to enjoy philosophical debates and activities.

6. They are comfortable alone but are not loners. They usually make some good friends and they always have a love interest, who is usually a princess or noble of some type. They are immensely loyal to their friends and families.

7. Far from being an anti-hero, the Sword and Planet hero is always honorable and would typically be considered a gentleman.

8. The goal of the Sword and Planet hero generally lies between the extremes of Sword and Sorcery and High Fantasy. They are never out to enrich themselves, but they also are not as likely to be involved in saving the world. Instead, they must save their families, their loved ones, their home cities and home lands.

Note: In addition to John Carter of Mars, there is Dray Prescot of Kregen, a creation of Kenneth Bulmer, and such characters as Jandar of Callisto by Lin Carter and Harry Thorne of Mars by Otis Adelbert Kline.

BTW, Miladysa has a very nice review of Swords of Talera on her blog. I very much appreciate her kind words. It's always such a pleasure to know that someone enjoyed my work.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fantasy Heroes: High Fantasy

JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the prototypical High Fantasy series, but it’s much harder to describe the “archetypal” hero in this type of fantasy than in Sword and Sorcery. The main reason is that there is more likely to be a group of heroes in this kind of fiction, rather than one, and the heroes are much more varied. I do believe there are some general commonalities, however. These are:

1. The heroes in High Fantasy are closer to real people than in Sword and Sorcery. They often don't have any great strength or unusual fighting abilities. In fact, they often start the story out as rather weak. But they get stronger and they develop skills as they go. Frodo from Tolkien's trilogy is an example here. Stretching the point a bit, so is Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars series.

2. The hero of High Fantasy is seldom a loner. Almost always he or she has companions, and often the companions have some particular skills that the hero needs to help him succeed in his quest. The companions also have weaknesses as well, and the hero must know these and take them into account.

3. High Fantasy heroes are almost always honorable. They are good, upstanding citizens who are trying to cope in tough circumstances. As a correlate of this, many of these heroes would have been happy to stay at home and are forced into adventure by the circumstances of their world. (In Sword and Sorcery the hero wants the adventure.)

4. High Fantasy heroes generally undergo much more character development than do those in Sword and Sorcery. They change more over the course of the story, and this is typically illustrated by their growth in strength and maturity. The Sword and Sorcery hero begins the story already at the full tide of his/her strength. Contrary to what many people think, I don’t believe this reflects an immaturity on the part of the writer of Sword and Sorcery. Rather, I think it reflects that fact that Sword and Sorcery is typically “episodic” while High Fantasy is “epic.” Of course in an epic you have more room to develop characters.

5. High Fantasy heroes also have a goal, but it can be more properly termed a "quest." It is something that is both personal and universal. They are not seeking to enrich themselves but to save the world. This also reflects the more epic scale of this type of story.

So what should I add to this list?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fantasy Heroes: Sword and Sorcery

I thought I might run a short series of posts on the nature of fantasy heroes. My comments will necessarily be rather broad and there may be plenty of exceptions to these rules, but this is my general reading on the subject. Feel free to throw in your two cents, or a buck 0 five if you're a mind to. I begin with Sword and Sorcery.

Conan is the archetypal Sword and Sorcery hero, though in many ways the character Kane from Karl Edward Wagner's books is the most original and powerful of these heroes. The traits of the Sword and Sorcery hero are:

1. They are bigger than life. Almost all physical features are described to the extreme. They are faster, stronger, and more dangerous than real life people. This doesn't mean, though, that they are supernatural or have special powers of any kind. They are like a human who has been honed and honed and honed as a weapon.

2. They have an indomitable will to survive. They can stand immense amounts of pain. They will not give up, even though they may on occasion feel fear or dread. Most of them particularly dislike sorcery. Karl Wagner's Kane is an exception to this; he is a sorcerer.

3. They are quick to resort to violence. They are very good at it and have no qualms about using it.

4. They are quick witted but generally not given to philosophical debate and considerations. Karl Wagner's Kane is, again, an exception. Robert E. Howard's Conan is an exception more often than most casual readers think.

5. They like action and can get bored easily, though they are also capable of predator-like patience when the situation demands it. They usually delight in pleasures of the flesh, such as drink and sex.

6. They are usually loners.

7. They are usually wanderers.

8. They are often at least on the edge of being amoral. They may often be, or have been, criminals, but they do have their own ethics and their own sense of loyalty. Almost all of them are immensely loyal to their friends.

9. They usually have some type of goal to accomplish in a story, but oftentimes that goal is very personal. They want wealth, or revenge, or maybe just some excitement. Power for power's sake seldom interests them, though. Once more, Karl Wagner's Kane is an exception.

Note: In addition to Conan and Kane, other Sword and Sorcery heroes include Druss the Slayer by David Gemmell, Thongor by Lin Carter, and Gath of Baal by James Silke. A particularly notable sword and sorcery hero is Imaro, created by Charles Saunders, which is, as far as I know, the only black hero in this genre. Most of these heroes are male, but a notable exception is Raven, who appeared in a fantasy series by Richard Kirk (whose real name is Robert Holdstock).

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Podcast and a Pub

I received a very nice, and I thought very accurate, review of “Swords of Talera” in a podcast from Dial P for Pulp. The mastermind behind “Dial P” is David Drage, who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland with his wife and son. David is a Pulp fan and advocate with a particular interest in Robert E. Howard. We made contact on one of the online Robert E. Howard fan groups. David really seems to know the genre well, and respect it, and he acknowledged both the traditional qualities of “Swords” and the strengths of how those qualities were portrayed. If you’re interested, the podcast is on “Show # 5,” but if you want the direct link it’s here. It will take a little while to load, or at least it did on my computer. The “Swords” review is about a quarter of the way along the podcast. But there looks like a lot of interesting stuff on the site.

In other news, Strange Worlds of Lunacy has just been released, which contains my story, “Mirthgar.” This is a big collection, with over 50 humorous stories. I haven’t even gotten my contributor copy yet so I haven’t read any of the other stories, although I know a number of the authors. It looks like a good collection. The cover is above. I posted a piece from my story before, but here’s another taste. Remember that a “pale,” which is basically a horrible, lingering fog, has fallen upon the fabled land of Mirthgar.

“Ill omens abounded. A question mark was found crop-circled into a farmer’s lotus field in Mirthdale, while in Mirthhedge an albino Irish setter was born to a pair of bluetick coon hounds. In the very halls of the Queen’s palace, the infamous ghost of King Hornrey the First was seen to slip on an ectoplasmic banana peel and do the splits with an expression of considerable pain. The habitual hilarity had already fled from the people of Mirthgar, and now hope joined hilarity in exile.”

And, BTW, I recieved the following award from Anna-Lys. I really appreciate it since it's something I hope to do in my blog. Thank you!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Wheels of Science

One of the points I'm going to make in my current nonfiction project is that science is self-correcting, although the process is not necessarily fast. Consider the story of the Martian canals. Initially, it appears that an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli observed channels on the Martian surface in 1877 that he referred to as “canali,” which was translated into English as “canals.”

An amateur American astronomer named Percival Lowell became fascinated with the topic and had an observatory built in Arizona through which he studied and mapped Mars. Lowell published a book in 1903 that included detailed maps of Mars, including an elaborate canal system. Lowell suggested that the “canals” were irrigation waterways used by the Martians to bring water from the poles down to the rest of the planet.

The public’s imagination was captured, and two writers who were strongly influenced by the story of the canals were Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury. There was, however, intense disagreement among scientists as to whether the canals existed at all, and, if so, what that existence meant. Some astronomers claimed to see them; others did not. Some thought that they were natural features or mere optical illusions, while others believed them to be genuine evidence of intelligent life on Mars. It wasn’t until humans sent the Mariner probes to Mars that we discovered that the “canals” appeared to be nothing more than optical illusions aided by wishful thinking among some observers.

The scientific story of the Martian canals finally ended in 1971 when Mariner 9 obtained close range photographs of the Martian surface and showed no canals. From 1877 to 1971 is almost 100 years in which the possible existence of canals on Mars remained ambiguous. But in the end, the evidence triumphed. An error was corrected. This is the way science works.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Illuminata, and Other Illuminating Things

Well, the newest Illuminata is out and the relaxed schedule seems to have pumped up the content. I’m talking 26 pages of material about SF, Fantasy, and Horror literature. There’s pieces for writers on “Names in Fiction,” on “Suspension of Disbelief,” and on “Information Overload.” The last one is my “Writer’s Block” column entry and is a large scale expansion on a post I did here on the issues of front loading and back loading of informational material in stories. If you don’t already get the newsletter sent to you, and it’s free, you can download the issue from the link above. Go to the bottom of the page there and select Volume 6, Issue 6.

As an additional note, another of our blog friends is responsible for the piece on “Suspension of Disbelief.” This is a fine essay by our own Rachel, and she also has a book review in the issue. So support her and download a copy.

Finally, I want to thank Bernita for her most wonderful review of Swords of Talera on her blog. Bernita has such a wonderful way with words herself that it was really an honor to have her compliment my prose. And I really appreciated her comment on: "One of the reasons I am fond of sword 'n sorcery is the assertion, without apology, of a certain idealism, of nobility, of qualities such as honour, loyalty, valour and duty." I feel the same way and I'm glad that came through in the book. I'd also like to thank all those who made great comments in response to her post.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Winnas!

*A Drumroll begins slowly and builds toward a crescendo. Charles, in a gold tuxedo complete with gloves, bow tie, top hat, and cane, strides onto the dawn stage. He lifts his hand for quiet and immediately the drum whispers to silence.*

“The Envelope Please,” Charles intones.

*The Lovely Lana, in a matching gold evening gown and delicate silk stockings, slinks onto the stage in six inch stiletto heels, holding a silver and copper tray upon which rests one snowy white envelope.*

*Pausing for a long moment to enjoy the view, Charles is reminded of the contest by a soft clearing of the Lovely Lana’s throat.*

“Oh, yes. The…uhm…contest,” he says.

*He takes the envelope, borrows one of Lana’s heels to slit the top, and then pours into his hand a micro-thin piece of ivory parchment. The drum roll resumes.*

“From a field of twenty-six nominees, the winners are. In the category of, ‘lucky enough to be drawn from a hat by Lana’s own hand.’ In no particular order. Bernita Harris and Shauna Roberts.

*The Drum Roll reaches its crescendo and falls silent while thunderous applause breaks from the packed house.*

“Congratulations to the winners,” Charles says when the wild applause has finally settled down. “Please, Bernita and Shauna, send me your choice of prizes and your address and I’ll get your book in the mail to you post haste. Contact me at: If you need to refresh your memory of the possible prizes, the contest link is here.

*Charles watches Lana slink off the stage and follows post haste himself, twirling his bow tie while fire pots explode behind him and send glittering sparkles high into the air.*

*The rest is history.*

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

File Under Weird

I heard this on the radio this morning, and the disk jockey, who is normally reliable, swore it was true. A 54 year old man needed a heart transplant and got one from a 33 year old man who had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. After about a year, the transplant fellow was feeling so grateful for his new lease on life that he contacted the suicide's widow to tell her how much the heart had meant for him. The two became friends and after a while began dating and eventually married. All went well for a few more years until the man began to get very depressed. He then killed himself by shooting himself in the head.

Think it's bad because your relationship history involves repeated breakups? Hey, it could be worse. How would you like to be this woman?

In other news, my contest is over. I had almost 30 entries and will do the drawing tonight or tomorrow and announce the winners here. Everybody who posted a title, unless they specifically stated otherwise, will be entered in the contest. There were some great titles, and a few that are already on my list of favorites, like "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and "Repent Harlequin, said the Tick Tock Man." Congratulations to all who entered.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

A Few Updates

Just a couple more days to enter my contest if you're of a mind to. The deadline is midnight Sunday, April 6. I'll do the drawing sometime next week and announce the two winners here.

I didn't make it around to blogs yesterday. I spent the whole day, from 7:00 in the morning until 7:00 at night at am OHRP conference. OHRP stands for Office for Human Research Protections. This is one of the major government agencies that overseas human research in the United States to make sure that it meets ethical standards. How did I end up at such a conference, you may ask. It's because, at Xavier University where I teach, I'm also chairperson of the IRB (Internal Review Board), which is often known as the Human Subjects Committee. We are sort of the OHRP of Xavier and oversee all the human research there.

Although I generally don't care a lot for conferences where you spend your day sitting, sitting, sitting, taking notes, there was a fair amount of interesting stuff at this one. And it was stuff I needed to know and my committee needs to know. Plus, I had to present on problems and solutions to the difficulties that IRBs at small universities experience. The presentation went well, despite the fact that I'd been rather dreading it.

Anyway, I'm back today, just in time to get notice that "Love in the Time of Cybersex" has been rejected once again. And this could be the ultimate indignity. The story was rejected from a magazine that was publishing an "all rejects" issue, all stories that had been rejected before by other magazines. Ouch! Well, it was actually outside their word count so I can console myself with that as the reason for the rejection. I'm not giving up on this tale, though. Each rejection makes me believe in it more. (Talk about irrational thinking!)

PS: If you haven't had a chance to read and vote for my wife's (Lana) hilarious drinking story yet, time is running out. You need to vote today, and she's in a neck n neck race for the championship. The link is HERE. Check it out!

And now, off to visit blogs and comment on the comments made on my recent post.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Sheer Creation

Writing is the closest we humans can get to experiencing an act that we usually associate with God. That is, sheer creation. It is certainly the most enjoyable part of writing for me, and is one reason why I’m particularly drawn to fantasy. No genre allows, nay demands, so much creation.

You may create characters and events in historical fiction, but the world itself is precisely successful to the degree that it evokes a world that really existed. You don’t “create” 1870 London, for example. You recreate it. You don’t, in horror, create the haunted malls and the lonely highways as much as you “adapt” them from actual experiences you yourself have had. In science fiction, the sun is the real sun, Mars is the real Mars. Of course, there is creation all through any type of fiction, but with real-world based fiction there are limits, for example, to what can you do with plants and animals.

I don’t mean to imply that there are no limits in fantasy. The fantasy world has to make sense and has to evoke a sense of realism, but the limits are broader. I’m reminded of what Morpheus said to Neo in The Matrix. It was something like: “Some of these rules can be bent. Others can be broken.” Well, you can bend and break more rules in fantasy than in any other genre, and that sheer imaginative act feels so powerful. At least to me.

I remember how much absolute joy I felt in writing Swords of Talera, and a lot of it was the first creation of the world itself. Even before I started writing “Swords,” I started creating the world, and I kept all that information in what I called, perhaps a bit melodramatically, my Taleran Encyclopedia. I’ll end this post with a few entries from that file.

Kahurra: a plant that may produce a kind of natural steroid. It is used by gladiators and often by assassins. It increases strength and aggressiveness but sometimes creates violent, uncontrollable rages.

Tris: Also called candle-bugs. Small, light giving insects. They live in many underground places, such as sewers. They are smaller than a lightning bug but their light is pretty much constant, only occasionally dimming or brightening slightly. They are also flightless and move in large masses. They give off a turquoise light.

Moons: Talera has four large moons. They do not wax or wane but always present their full face and the same face to the planet’s surface. They are, in order of appearance:

1. Nimeru – The smallest. It’s name means “The Dreamer.” It rises at dusk. It has a delicate blue color. In some cultures, Nimeru is the goddess of love, and in others the god or goddess of poetry.

2. Sieona – A little larger, and turquoise in color. It’s name means “The Storm Queen,” and many legends are told about its power to evoke storms. It rises at what would be about 10:00 on Earth.

3. Tisiminna – Golden in color, and larger still. The name means “The Beauty.” There are two smaller orbs that circle Tisiminna and these are sometimes called the “lovers” or the “courtiers.” There are whole story cycles about the relationship between the “beauty” and her “courtiers.” It rises at midnight.

4. Rath – The largest of the four moons, and red in color. Like Mars, it is often associated with war and battle and is called “The Warrior.” It rises at about 2:00 earth time.

Man, I love creating moons. How about you, what kind of creation do you love?

PS, don't forget that there are still a few more days, until April 6, to enter my contest