Monday, June 30, 2008

Monday Morning Stoned Blogger

Up early this morning to help Lana get her car to the shop. Her air conditioner isn’t working, which is almost life threatening in southern Louisiana during June/July. I thought I might as well get my blogging done early, but alas the internet is running very slowly for me this morning.

I spent a good part of yesterday reading stuff from folks right here in blog land, and I have to say we have some amazing talents at work right next to us. First I read “Corpse Candles,” the new Lillie St. Claire tale by Bernita Harris, which you can find in the collection Weirdly II. Bernita’s story is the only one I’ve read so far, but it was excellent. Some lovely writing, as I always expect and always get from Bernita. This is what I meant in my post yesterday about pining for some beautiful prose. The story is not sacrificed, but there is that little extra that sings.

Next I read some virtually impossible to get graphic novels from Steve Malley. Full Throttle Steve, that is. Wow these were good. The first was Templar, a story of modern day “Knights Templar,” featuring a kick ass heroine named Maddie Sinclair. This should be widely available and I don’t know why it isn’t. Then I read Serina by Steve, which is set in New Orleans. This isn’t an action story. It’s a story about relationships, but the pacing and dialogue were so outstanding that I turned the pages to the finish far too quickly. This one I’ll probably reread at a slower pace later. However, Steve (and I’m looking directly at you out of my computer screen now), talk about leaving a guy “hanging” with the end of volume 2. I sure would love to know what happens in that volume 3 that you say you might never write. Great characters.

That's, that's all, folks.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Back on Track

I solved my problem with Wraith of Talera and am back on track. I realized that I’d started too “late” in the story and needed a new chapter 1 that takes place before the original chapter 1. I had the idea for the scene already in my head so it practically wrote itself. Today I’m going to go through the rest of the completed chapters and tweak here and there to fit the new stuff I’ve added. That should be pretty easy.

I have a question that mainly is directed at those who’ve read Swords of Talera. In that book, primarily as an homage to previous Sword & Planet writers, I put in fictional “footnotes.” These were little tidbits of information that were separated from the text like regular footnotes. So far, I’ve heard from one reader who thought these were actually pretty awkward. I used fewer “footnotes” across the three books and am trying to decide whether to include them in this new book. I certainly don’t have to do so. Did anyone else find them troublesome at all?

Another thing I’m doing, which I always figured I’d do if the series ran more than three books, is I’m leaving out the introduction where “Charles Allen Gramlich” comments on his meetings with Ruenn Maclang. I used this as a frame for the first trilogy but I think it’s served its purpose. So in the new book we kick right in with Ruenn from page one, although I do have a “What Has Gone Before” piece of two paragraphs telling the reader basically where this book is starting from.

I’m reading an excellent book by Joe Lansdale called Rumble Tumble. For those of you who know something about Lansdale, it’s one of his Hap and Leonard stories, which are straight suspense tales without any overtly fantastic elements. This is one of the better ‘uns in that series.

I also read my first ever Raymond Carver story, “Feathers,” and I have to say I didn’t care for it. The dialogue rang false to me, though perhaps I’ve just never met folks like these. I thought the reaction of the characters to a peacock was all out of proportion to the fact of the bird itself. And nothing really happened. Such stories are always more about subtext than surface text but the subtext here wasn’t really that interesting to me. The style is very simple and unadorned, which I’m sure is intentional, but man it makes me pine for the beautiful prose of someone like James Lee Burke or Cormac McCarthy. I know there are some folks who really love Carver so it’s more likely me that’s the issue. Just not my horn of ale. But I will reserve full judgment until I’ve finished the story collection I’ve started, called Cathedral.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Books Versus Movies

Stewart Sternberg had a good post today about movies versus the books that were the basis for them. I thought I’d riff off of it. First let me share my bias. Books are almost always better than movies. And I mean almost always. Stewart mentioned how good the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies were, and how good Silence of the Lambs was with Anthony Hopkins, and he’s absolutely right. They were good, but they still couldn’t touch the books. For me.

I may lose some folks here but this is the way I honestly feel. A good book always beats a good movie. There are no exceptions to this rule. In fact, a decent book generally beats a good movie. Movies have only one advantage over books that I can see. They provide the visuals rather than requiring the viewer to generate them. Personally, I often find this actually to be a weakness. For example, the movie Ghost Story was disappointing because I’d read the book first and the visuals of the movie were so weak in comparison to what I saw in my head. I probably would have liked that movie better if I hadn’t read the book first.

On the other hand, books have the advantage with characterization, mood, emotional involvement, and pretty much everything else. As an analogy, movies are a sugary snack. They temporarily distract your hunger but they don’t satisfy like an actual meal.

Here’s some of my judgments. Who disagrees?

Books that are better than movies:

Silence of the Lambs: Good as a movie, great as a book.
Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Good as movies, tremendous as books.
Dracula: Great as a book, adequate as a movie (the most recent one).
Frankenstein: Wonderful as a book, terrible as a movie.
Congo: Good as a book, very weak as a movie.
Sphere: Good as a book, weak as a movie.
Salem’s Lot: Book is tremendous, movie is decent.
Misery: Tremendous book, good movie.
The Dark Half: Very strong book, adequate movie.
The Mist: Great novella, strong movie.
The Andromeda Strain: Great book, adequate movie (the original)
The Shining: Great book, decent movie.
Pet Semetary: Great book, very weak movie.
Ghost Story: Tremendous book, barely adequate movie.
Red Dragon: Tremendous book, decent movie.
Dune: Tremendous book, bad movie.
2001: Great book, boring movie (except for the ape part at the start)
The Hunt for Red October: The book is better but the movie is good.
First Blood: Much, much better as a book, although the movie was OK.
Marathon Man: Better as a book but not by much.
Watchers: Tremendously better as a book.
Phantoms: So much better as a book that there’s no comparison.
War of the Worlds: Book is much better; movie is pretty decent.
Journey to the Center of the Earth: Book is so much better.
20,000 Leagues under the Sea: Book better.
Treasure Island: Book is much better but the movie is pretty good.
The Man in the Iron Mask: Far better as a book.
The Three Musketeers: This one is a toss up. I liked both.
Robinson Crusoe: Much better as a book.
Swiss Family Robinson: Better as a book but the movie was fun.
The Land that Time Forgot: Book is wonderful, movie is OK.
Fight Club: Better as a book but very good as a movie too.
The Old Man and the Sea: Tremendously better as a book.
Cannery Row: Better as a book but pretty damn close as a movie.
Ice Station Zebra: Extremely good book, almost as good a movie.
The Wolfen: So much better as a book.
The Dark: A much better book but interesting as a movie.
Black Sunday: Much better as a book. Pretty bad movie.
The Black Stallion: Much better as a book.
In the Name of the Rose: Very good book, pretty good movie.
The Haunting of Hill House: So, so, much better book. Movie sucks.
Deliverance: Better as a book but pretty good as a movie.
Prophecy: Bad as a book and a movie, but slightly better as a book.
Day of the Triffids: Much, much better as a book.
Lord of the Flies: Much better as a book but decent as a movie.
Fahrenheit 451: Good as a book and a movie but a better book.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Good movie, great book.
Eaters of the Dead: Better as a book but only slightly. As The 13th Warrior it was an extremely good film, one of my favorites of all time.

Movies that are better than books:

The Exorcist: Very good as a movie and only decent as a book.
Jaws: Pretty decent as a book but better as a movie.

Blade Runner: This is a close decision but I think the movie was slightly better than the book, which is entitled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” I actually go back and forth on this one. It's very close.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Slightly better as a movie, and I mean the original and first remake.

The Handmaid’s Tale: I didn’t care for either that much but maybe the movie was a touch better.

The Dead Zone: Both book and movie were weak but I’d say it was somewhat better as a movie. There were fewer boring parts.

The Stand: Not terribly good as a book or as a movie. Better as a movie because it’s shorter.

Jurassic Park: I thought the movie was actually better than the book although I enjoyed both.

The Wizard of Oz: The movie is tremendously better than the book, which is horribly written.

The Outlaw Josey Wales: The movie is so, so much better than the book.

So what do you think? Tell me where I’m all wet. Are there advantages of movies over books that I've missed?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Starting Over, Or So It Seems

I finally tried Monday to get started back on Wraith of Talera, and I realized that the layoff while I was in Cross Plains, and then taking the next few days off to do some other writing I had deadlines for, had brought me to a dead standstill on the book. In fact, reading over it I thought to myself, “man this sucks.” That’s probably not a completely accurate feeling, but I need to really hit it hard tomorrow and try to get back into the mood. Maybe I need to conceptualize the story a bit better. Layoffs are just killers for me, and take so long to recover from. Anyone else find the same thing?

Another of my pet peeves has raised its weary old head again, as well. A heroic fantasy story with an effeminate male villain was criticized. The person doing the criticizing assumed immediately that the villain was homosexual, even though it never said so in the story. The point that bothers me is that, so what if the villain was homosexual? You can’t have a homosexual villain? That’s ridiculous! Does every villain have to be a white, heterosexual male? I can see that it might be an issue if every villain was drawn as homosexual, or as black, or as freaking Irish for that matter. But it’s going to get pretty “vanilla” if you can’t occasionally have a villain of some non-white, non-male, non-hetero persuasion. The truth is that villains come in all flavors, and writers should be allowed to work with that variety.

Don’t forget that Book Roast is still going on. It’s been great fun so far, and I won Bernita Harris’s book.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Ten Year Meme

Lisa over at Eudaemonia tagged me for a meme, and since I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about today anyway, I think I’ll do it.

What were you doing 10 years ago?
Because even in 1998 I was keeping a journal I know exactly what I was doing on this date 10 years ago. I had just gotten back the week before from Howard Days in Cross Plains, and I was getting ready to teach summer school. Here are the entries right around this time:

June 19--Friday--June 21--Sunday. Taking time off or working on school stuff. Mary is sick again. She got exposed to thick fumes from a burning cardboard box that was filled with plastic bags of peanuts at the Zephyr's game Friday night. She had to go to the emergency room. We brought her back home but she is still feeling bad.

June 22--Monday. School work. Syllabi and stuff for summer school.

June 23--Tuesday. Mary still really sick. Spent most of the afternoon at the doctor's office.

June 24--Wednesday. Took Mary to the hospital and checked her in. Josh went along. She just wasn't getting better.

June 25--Thursday. Mary still in the hospital. Wrote a letter of Recommendation for an old student. Did some stuff for the IRB. I got a letter from Warrior Poets. They're accepting "A Flock of Swords" but are asking for a minor rewrite to change a plot point. It's a good request. Wrote them a letter back to say I'd do it and mail the completed piece to them in two weeks.

June 26--Friday. No writing. Went to school for summer school preregistration and took Josh with me. Brought Mary home from the hospital in the evening.

June 27--Saturday. Josh's birthday. We had a little party in the morning and I took him to Celebration Station in the evening. We had a good time.

Other than this, I was teaching at Xavier and living in a house in Metairie with Mary and Josh. This was the year I started working seriously on Wings of Talera, although I didn’t finish it this year. I also saw a man die from a heart attack right next to me at a gym, and this was the year I got my first street motorcycle, both of which events changed my life.

Five things on your to-do list for today
1. Get my blog post up
2. Check my Google Reader and comment on other blogs.
3. Email Andrew at Babel Con about my panels.
4. Work on Wraith of Talera .
5. Go to my Writer’s Group meeting at Borders in the evening.

What would you do if you were a billionaire?
I’d definitely become a stay at home full-time writer. Well, when I wasn’t traveling. I’d probably start my own small press publishing company. I’d also make sure my family, which is pretty damn big, was taken care of, although for the younger children this would be in the form of trust funds. I’d buy my son, myself, and Lana, new cars, and I’d probably move to an area even more rural than I live in now and buy a bunch of wild land and put my house right in the middle of it. I’d set up a charity foundation, and would take delight in doing secret Santa kinds of things. I’ve always wanted to do that. I’d also invest in alternative fuel research, and put a substantial amount of money into environmental protection.

What are three of your bad habits?
1. I can be lazy even though I give the impression I’m not. (An important skill)
2. I’m occasionally moody.
3. I’ve got a fair amount of OCD.

What are some snacks you enjoy?
1. Beef Jerky
2. Milky Way Midnight
3. Fried Chicken (enjoyed as a meal as well)

What were the last five books you read?

Torlo Hannis of Noomas, by Charles Nuetzel. This is sword and planet fiction, written by a friend of mine, who I’ve mentioned here before. Charles was instrumental in introducing me to Robert Reginald at Borgo, who accepted the three Taleran books. I’m going to read the sequel to this book pretty quickly.

Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool and Breaking Up is Hard to Do by Ed Gorman. These are in his Sam McCain series and were both very enjoyable reads. I’ve already ordered more.

Poems of the Divided Self and The Shadow City, both by Gary William Crawford. These are poetry chapbooks by a friend of mine who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Shadow City consists of a series of related poems that tie neatly together. Both are good works.

What are five jobs you have had?
1. Dish washer for the National Guard at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas.
2. Factory worker at Whirlpool, making refrigerators.
3. Chicken House manager for the Neighbors (Family).
4. Hay hauler.
5. Teacher.

What are five places where you have lived?

I’m not a big traveler.

1. On an Arkansas Farm.
2. Dover, Arkansas, for college.
3. Fayetteville, Arkansas, for Grad School.
4. Metairie, Louisiana.
5. Abita Springs, Louisiana.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Book Roast and Found Poem

Chris Eldin has already done a lot for writers, including me, and now she is starting a Book Roast blog that promises tremendous excitement and fun. Although the opening page is up, I “believe” the program goes live and interactive on June 23 with the work of Bernita Harris, an excellent writer whose talent I’ve been touting for some time. If you love reading, writing and all that jazz, and want to support writers, stop by the Book Roast soon.

My only other piece to this post today will be to run another of Robert E. Howard’s “found poems.” In case you missed my previous comments on this subject, I think that Howard was a great writer precisely because he had so much poetry in his soul that it couldn’t help but bleed through into his prose. To show this, I’ve been for years taking paragraphs of his prose and formatting them as poetry. I don’t add any words to Howard at all, but I generally take out some function words that make the piece work as prose. And I also remove the punctuation. The following is taken from one of Howard’s Kull stories. I took out only “four” words from this piece.


Time strides onward,
We live today; what care we for tomorrow
or yesterday?
The Wheel turns and nations rise and fall;
the world changes and times return to savagery
to rise again through the long age.
Ere Atlantis was, Valusia was,
and ere Valusia was, the Elder Nations were.

Aye, we, too,
trampled the shoulders of lost tribes in our advance.
You, who have come from the green sea hills of Atlantis
to seize the ancient crown of Valusia,
you think my tribe is old,
we who held these lands ere the Valusians came out of the East,
in the days before
there were men in the sea lands.

But men were here
when the Elder Tribes rode out of the waste lands,
and men before men,
tribe before tribe.
The nations pass and are forgotten,
for that is the destiny of man.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cross Plains Return: Part 3

Day 3 of Howard Days began around 9:00 as I made my way to the Howard House and started buying various books, magazines, and T-shirts I’d been eyeing. Since I was flying and traveling light I didn’t pick up as much as I have in the past, but I still got some very nice stuff, including a bunch of Howard specialty items and some books from Angeline Hawkes and Christopher Fulbright. I’ll be posting about some of this material as I read it. I was also briefly interviewed by a group of young filmmakers for a documentary they were producing. In fact, there seemed to be two documentaries being filmed, and both groups were very polite and unobtrusive.

I had lunch with James Reasoner, an ex-REHupan and a fine writer with far too many books to his name to even imagine listing. He and I talked writing for a while and I apologized at one point since I know he is a full-time writer who works for hours ever day at his craft. He just laughed and said he was always happy to talk writing. Me too.

I also chatted at several points with Michael Scott Myers, a Louisiana boy who went out to Hollywood and done good. Michael wrote the critically acclaimed screenplay for The Whole Wide World, which brought Howard to life. The movie is based on a book by Novalyne Price Ellis called One Who Walked Alone. The book is mainly Novalyne’s story of her long-term relationship with Howard. She was the woman who he came closest to marrying, and their breakup, which occurred not long before Howard’s mom entered her final days of illness, certainly helped contribute to the stress Howard was under when he shot himself. Novalyne was one of Michael Scott Myers’ teachers in high school, and if you’ve never seen The Whole Wide World, which stars Vincent D’onofrio as Howard and Renee Zellweger as Novalyne, then treat yourself. It’s truly a fine piece of cinema.

On Saturday for Howard Days, the REHupans and other Howard fans, as well as many locals, are invited out to Caddo Peak Ranch for a barbecue. The owners of the ranch are wonderful hosts and always take a crew of hikers up the Peak, which is named for the Caddo Indians who used to live locally. Howard actually set a story on one of the two Caddo Peaks and spent quite a bit of time on the peaks himself, surveying the land. It was such views that probably gave rise to his creation of the landscapes that filled his tales.

Although I have climbed the peak every year for the past dozen or so, I decided to sit this one out. I had broken one of my ironclad drinking laws the night before and mixed whiskey with my beer. In fact, I had taken to pouring a capful of whiskey “into” my beers. This was a mistake, although one that I did not discover until the next morning.

Saturday turned out to be our earliest night yet. I hit the sack around 2:00 because Chris and I had to get up early the next morning to get back to Dallas and catch our planes. Lana met me at the New Orleans airport late that afternoon. I had a great time, although I surely was tired by the time I made it home. We had some fried chicken that we picked up on the way and I fell quickly after that into bed. It was a sleep without dreams that night. I’d earned it.

I’m sorry for the length of this series. I hope it wasn’t too boring, but I found I had quite a bit of information to impart. My next post will return us to our regularly scheduled blog material, although at Greg’s request, and because others found them interesting, I may post some more of my found poems from Robert E. Howard’s work.

Thanks as always for listening.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cross Plains Return: Part 2

Day 2 of my Cross Plains journey began about 8:00. I normally have a hearty biscuit and gravy breakfast at Jean’s Feed Barn, but I wasn’t terribly hungry so I walked up to the Howard House instead. Some Project Pride folks were setting up and I and another Howard fan pitched in to set up the sign-in pavilion. I won’t tell you how much trouble we had figuring that out. The day’s temperature was already high but a nice breeze made it pretty comfortable.

Chris arrived at the house a bit later and we headed out to find the ruins of Camp Colorado. Howard had a keen interest in history and had written of the camp. Chris and I discovered a high fence with two strands of barbed wire along the top surrounding the place, and there was a house on the site with a freshly mowed lawn. But we didn't see anyone around. As we trod along the fence we found a game trail where animals had been going under the fence so we slipped under as well and took some pictures. (I’ll post those eventually.) Unfortunately, Chris twisted his ankle badly, and though he didn’t let it slow him down much he felt the pain for the rest of our trip.

One of the best things about Howard Days is getting to visit again with old friends that I typically see only once a year. Besides Chris, there was Scott Hall and his wife Kim. Scott is one of the two other “long-hairs” in REHupa. Coincidentally? Or not! We have very similar tastes in music, tastes that run decidedly toward the heavier end of the music spectrum. Scott brought along some new friends, Big Mike Myers, and Jody. Jody and I had some great semi-drunken conversation about evolution and I found he’d read many of the same books I have on the subject.

There was also Rusty Burke, who knows more about Howard than any living man, and Indy Bill Cavalier, the head honcho of REHupa. Bill brought his wife, Cheryl, who is quite a classy individual [although most anyone would look pretty classy next to Bill ;)]

There was Frank Coffman, a fellow academic and expert on Howard’s poetry, and Gary Romeo, a good friend who I can only describe as a liberal contrarian. Rob Roehm represented the California contingent of REHupa, and there was Mark Finn, this year’s guest of honor. Dave Hardy, a recent convert to REHupaism but a long time fan of Howard, brought along his wife and daughter. Mark also brought his wife. Rob brought his parents! Frank just brought a Hummer and booze. Amy Kerr, one of only two female REHupans, was hanging around, as was Angeline Hawkes, our other female member and a writer with a lot of notches under her belt. Angeline and her husband, Christopher Fulbright, who she often collaborates with, are the only married couple who are both members of REHupa. No, they didn’t meet through our august group.

A rather strange coincidence also occurred Friday. A guy came up and handed me a printed copy of web comic called “The Marsh God,” which I had been reading and enjoying, and which I had just commented on in a forum I haunt. The artist for the comic was named Miko and he had actually emailed me just before I left for Cross Plains about his interest in doing an illustration based on the Taleran books. I’d sent him some stuff, and now as I looked up at the guy who was giving me the printed comic I saw “Miko” on his tag. This was his first Howard Days and neither of us had been aware that the other was going to attend. So, it was a bit of “well-met in CP” for the two of us. Miko is a very fine artist and if you get a chance check out his website here.

Friday night at Howard Days there is a banquet put on by Project Pride for visitors and locals alike, and over 100 of us crammed into a small community center for great country fried steak and sweet cherry cobbler. There was also a silent auction of Howard related items, and a dramatic reading of Howard's fiction by Mark Finn. After that, most Howard heads returned to the Howard House for the "Cimmerian Awards,” which are voted on by readers of The Cimmerian Magazine, the most frequently published of the several small magazines that are regularly printed about Howard. I missed all but the tail end of the awards this year, but was glad not to miss what followed, the first annual “Robert E. Howard poetry throw-down,” where fans read their favorite REH poems.

I've argued that much of the secret to Howard’s powerful prose is the poetry that runs like a spine throughout it. To show this, I’ve been working for years on what I call “Found Poems,” where I take a paragraph or two from a Howard short story, remove the punctuation and a few function words, and put the words into poetic format. I read a couple of these, including the one below, and they were well recieved.

Dangerous suppleness
Of a panther
Cold as blue ice
Kite-shaped shield
Like a flash of summer lightning
Like the purr of a hunting tiger
He is mad
None molests him

Other fans read their favorite REH poems, too, and we turned several into drinking “songs,” an act of which I heartily approved and to which I joined in with gusto. Howard wrote a lot of poetry in his private letters to friends, which he had never submitted for potential publication. Toward the tail end of the night some of this poetry made its first appearance to a wider audience; some of it was quite bawdy.

Although everyone who read did an amazing job, the clear winner in my mind was Amy Kerr, who captured the dramatic intonations and the pauses precisely for best effect.

Sleep came sometime between 3:30 and 4:30 this night. I know I was feeling pretty old when I finally climbed into bed. But what a great evening to be a Howard fan.

To be continued:

Monday, June 16, 2008

Cross Plains Return: Part 1

I’m back from Cross Plains, Texas, which was home for Robert E. Howard throughout most of his life. Howard is best known, of course, as the creator of Conan, who in popular culture is often referred to as “the Barbarian.” I think I might take a few blog posts to tell everyone about my journey, and about Howard, who did far more than create Conan. I hope there’ll be a few tidbits here to enthuse the writer types who visit, and, of course, I learn more about Howard and about myself every time I make the journey. It helps sometimes to write those kinds of things down. Plus, there’ll be stories of beer drinking for the Heff’s who visit here.

My trip began very early Thursday morning, June 12, when the incomparable Lana Gramlich dropped me off at the New Orleans airport and I flew out for Dallas. I met Chris Gruber, a REHupan friend of mine who is an expert on Howard’s Boxing stories, in Dallas, and we drove down together. Cross Plains is 170 miles south and west of Dallas, but we didn’t take the direct route. We went through Dark Valley, Texas. We had a reason.

Bob Howard was born in Peaster, Texas, about forty miles from Fort Worth, but his family lived in Dark Valley at that time. The Dark Valley community consisted then of some fifty folks, but when Chris and I went through we found only a closed business, a cemetery, some fenced land upon which cattle and mesquite were being grown, and the creek from which the community got its name. We stopped at the cemetery and then walked out some of the local fields. Apparently, the Howard home in Dark Valley is no longer standing, but it was still a powerful feeling to walk over the land and to look along the rocky creek, which was mostly dry and drowsing in the hot June day.

Howard only lived in Dark Valley during his infancy but he later suggested that the valley had a strong influence on the darkness of his own personality, and he seemed to recall it as a somber and brooding place. I personally doubt that the somberness and darkness was ever in the valley, or that Howard would have remembered it anyway given how young he was when the family moved. When Chris and I passed through we found that Dark Valley is a very shallow depression along the creek, hardly a valley in the usual sense, and it was certainly bright in the sun, although I’ve been along enough country creeks in my day to know that the atmosphere can be somber in the shade where the trees overhang remaining dark pools of stagnant water. No, the darkness that Howard mentioned would much more likely have come from within than from without. I think a lot of writers have a bit of the same darkness.

From Dark Valley we continued on our way into Cross Plains, stopping at a town named Ranger to stock up on beer and ice. Cross plains itself is in the dry county of Callahan. You can’t buy beer or liquor, or officially drink it in the open, but despite this the local police tend to give the REHupan group some leeway as long as we don’t drink in public and make fools of ourselves. We do most of our drinking in the evenings in the courtyard of the 36 West Motel, the only motel in town, or at the open pavilion which has been built right next to the Howard house.

Once we got checked in, Chris and I had a few beers in our room while we talked about Howard’s work. A new beer that I tried was Tona, a product of Nicaragua. My favorite beers are mostly Mexican dark beers, such as Bohemia and Negro Modelo. Tona couldn’t match these two but it went down smoothly, without an aftertaste, and I liked it pretty well. After that we ventured into the courtyard to yak with some other REHupans and various other Howard fans who were staying at the 36 West, and then the group headed for dinner at a local place called Jean’s Feed Barn. We were by far the largest and most boisterous group there, and I know sometimes the locals don’t quite know what to make of the Howard fans, many of them long-haired and tattooed. But many of us have also made good friends among the people of Cross Plains, particularly among the group known as Project Pride, which is the local community group that purchased the Howard House, restored it pretty much as it was in Howard’s Day, and maintains it as a historic site and museum.

The first night ended for me around 3:00 in the morning. In the dark you wonder, what made Robert E. Howard? How did a small town Texas boy learn to write of lost ages and fabled cities? How did he create barbarians and dueling swordsmen and iron man boxers whose exploits still sing for so many readers of today? How much biology was involved? How much experience? Or was it, as Howard sometimes seemed to suggest as possible, the intrusion of past lives into the present? Is there a chance that some of us have lived before, in other times, other bodies? Could that explain certain dreams I’ve had? You’ve gotta wonder.

To Be Continued:

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cross Plains Journey

I’m going to be leaving on a jet plane very early Thursday and will be getting home late Sunday. I probably won’t get to post again or check other folks’ posts until the following Monday. I’ll be in Cross Plains, Texas for the annual Robert E. Howard Days celebration and a meeting with some of my friends from REHupa, the Robert E. Howard United Press Association. That’s a fancy name for a group of amateur ziners who put together a private publication on Howard every two months.

Cross Plains is very small and I’ll be very busy so I doubt I’ll even have a moment to check email. That is assuming I could find a computer available there that was running internet. But I wish everyone in the blogosphere well while I’m absent. I’m sure the internet won’t come to a standstill, and I promise to catch up on everyone’s blogs when I return.

Today is a rather special day for those who remember Robert E. Howard. June 11 is the day that he killed himself. It was back in 1936, a Thursday morning in that year, and he’d just been told that his mother, who was in a coma and dying, was not likely to regain consciousness. Robert went out to his car, in the driveway of the small house in Cross Plains where I’ll be standing in about a day, and shot himself once in the head. He actually didn’t die until hours later, but he never regained consciousness either. His mother, Hester, died the next day and the two were buried at the same time on June 14. His father lived on for quite a few more years, and I always think of him around this time of year as well. Imagine losing your wife to illness and your son to suicide at virtually the same moment.

Robert E. Howard was gifted with a tremendous imagination, but it was hard work that made him a successful author. Not many of the pulp writers of the 1920s and 30s are remembered today. But Howard is far more famous and well known now than he was then. He, along with J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs, transformed the landscape of fantasy. They built what is today my favorite genre.

I mentioned the other day that there are differences between storytellers and writers but that some people combine the two abilities. Of the three, REH, ERB, Tolkien, I believe that Howard combined the two skills the best. Here’s to him.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Well, I’m getting ready to start chapter 4 of what I’m now calling Wraith of Talera, which I decided was more indicative of what was going to happen in the book than “ghost.” I’ve been writing fairly slowly, but making progress. So far I’m at 20 something pages and roughly 8,000 words. A long way to go, for sure, but these books have been running between 70,000 and 75,000 words so it’s not as far away as it might seem. Today while I’m out and about on a bunch of errands I plan to do some plotting. It’s needed, believe me, although I’ve created two new characters that I’m growing fond of, a young man named Munt and a woman warrior named Shai.

So far the chapters are entitled:
Chapter 1. Echoes of War
Chapter 2. No Victory Without Loss
Chapter 3. Of the Dead and the Living
Chapter 4. The Awakening

I don’t plan to run this book, or even large sections of it, on my blog as I write it, but here’s a little flavor. This piece features Jask, who had an important role in Swords of Talera. The “I” in the following is Ruenn Maclang, of course.


Strange as it sounds, a visit from a group of Klar provided a welcome distraction. At the group’s head stalked Jask, my old friend, with his blood-red targe slung over his back and the pommel of a well used broadsword beneath his hand. I strode to meet him and we clasped arms. He smiled, and meant it. Though few of his people either express or seem to truly understand human emotions, Jask was an exception. I did not know why. Nor did I ask. The one time I had mentioned it to him he claimed to be insulted.

“I should renegotiate our agreement,” Jask said. “You failed to deliver on your promises.”

“Oh?” I asked. “What promises were those?”

“You claimed there’d be a fight and then went ahead and had all the fun yourselves. We scarcely got our ships into battle before the krutt-lovers surrendered.”

“I guess we got carried away,” I replied. “But if you’d like there’s still the remainder of the Ubain empire. We could always invade and conquer them.”

He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “Humph. I’ve got enough hassle trying to govern my own people. I’d never want to rule a bunch of troublesome humans. Especially not if there were any more like you among them.”

"There are no more quite like him,” Rannon said as she came up beside me. “Of course, he is from another world.”

“A world where the delicate flower of the Klar race never took root,” I added.

Jask shook his head. “A sad little place where there are no Klar,” he said, before sketching a bow to Rannon. “But you, Milady. Your khi was surely once housed in Klar form.”

“I think you’ve just been insulted,” I said to my wife, grinning. “Maybe I should take this Klar outside and teach him some manners.”

“Oh, ho,” Jask said. “And still I’d not have the fight you promised.”

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Comic Books Part Deux

Once more I ventured into a comic book store. This makes the third time in a month and I’m amazed at myself. I bought Planet Hulk, which collects a dozen or so Hulk issues under one cover. I bought it because of a sword & planet connection. All these issues take place on a planet called Sakaar, where the Hulk is exiled, and it has quite a bit of the old sword & planet feel. Sakaar is ruled largely by a group of red-skinned humanoids who remind one of the red-skinned people of ERB’s Barsoom, but there are also many other races that have been brought there by what is essentially a wormhole.

The Hulk is weakened by passing through the wormhole and is captured, through the use of an “obedience disk,” and sent to a gladiator training school. He makes friends there and ends up fighting first in the arena, and then at the head of a rag-tag army to overthrow an evil emperor known as the Red King. From there the story takes the usual sword & planet route.

There are some good and bad things about the book. First, since it collects a bunch of issues it is a satisfying chunk of reading material. I hate sitting down for a read and finishing in three minutes, and this actually took me a while to get through. Second, the writer(s) also have a pretty good handle on the basic sword & planet concept and created some interesting background characters and an interesting world. Unfortunately, the weakest part of the story was pretty much the Hulk himself. I really liked the first part of the book where a weakened Hulk is, while still formidable, actually challenged by some of the characters he meets and fights. Later, as the Hulk grows stronger and stronger and stronger I just lost interest. When the continental plates are ruptured, the Hulk leaps down into the boiling magma and…restores them. Later, he goes into the vacuum of space without a spacesuit, and then returns to the planet by meteoring into the ground. There’s no challenge to the Hulk left. That means no conflict, only some pretty images. But pretty images do not a story make. As a result, while I enjoyed Planet Hulk at one level, it didn’t scratch my itch for some good old fashioned swashbuckling.

There is one thing I’ve noticed, however, in my few recent trips to the comic stores. And that is the absolute excitement of many comic book fans for these characters and stories. Each time I’ve gone there have been several other folks in the store, all young men (mostly in their twenties), who are talking excitedly and animatedly about this comic story or that. And by “excitedly” I mean with voices raised in passion. There has been no mean-spiritedness to it, only joyous and wild discussion. I thought to myself, it’s not true that men aren’t reading, only that men aren’t reading regular books. And then I thought, what is it that attracts them to comics instead?

The standard views on males and females are that males are more excited by visual stimuli than women, and I have to suspect that this is part of the attraction for young males to the comics. However, I’m wondering why they need to have these visuals ‘given’ to them? When I read a regular novel I’m seeing all kinds of things visually. They’re just in my head.

I also wish I could find a better way, or some way, to connect to these readers. It seems to me that the Taleran books have much in them that a reader of something like Planet Hulk could enjoy. But why aren’t they discovering this? Where is the disconnect? What can I do to bridge the gap? I don’t know.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Storytelling Versus Writing

Writing and storytelling are two different arts, although they sometimes exist in the same person. Robert E. Howard was both. John D. MacDonald was. So was Poul Anderson. So is Dean Koontz.

Other writers can be primarily one or the other. Ray Bradbury – primarily a writer. Edgar Rice Burroughs – primarily a storyteller. James Lee Burke – writer. Louis L’Amour – storyteller. Cormac McCarthy – writer. Stephen King – storyteller.

But every individual in my second group above could pull off both elements even while their greatest strength lay in one. Bradbury told some great stories, although it was his luminescent prose that really drove those stories home. ERB told a whale of a story and didn’t seem all that concerned about his prose, but sometimes his spare descriptions were just simply gorgeous. And he often raised action scenes to the level of art. King’s prose is not what I would consider stand-out writing, but he can web you into a story as well as anyone. Misery was one of the greatest page turners I’ve ever read, despite the fact that I hated when he typed stuff in “all caps.”

The reason why I bring this up here is because I’m frequently asked by newer writers to read and comment on their stuff. I often find that the quality of the prose turned out by such writers is outstanding. They are definitely “writers.” They can turn words into poetry, can sling metaphors with the best of them. The greatest weakness I find is usually in the story.

I can empathize because, when I started out, I was pretty much purely a…writer. I could string pretty words together. I could describe images that others could see. But I wasn’t much of a storyteller. Most of my first few published stories were really vignettes, virtually prose poems. The plot was minimal, with one character and often very little to no dialogue. That does not a story make. I think I’ve gotten better. I’ve worked hard at it. But I know that I’m still no ERB or L’Amour when it comes to storytelling. Of course, I’m no Ray Bradbury for writing either.

To truly become a well-rounded writer, we all need to develop both skills. And, in my opinion, storytelling is considerably harder. Yet, it’s the story more than the prose that keeps most people reading.

So think next time you look at your work in progress. How is the prose? I bet it’s fine. But what about the story? Have you worried so much about the way you fit the words together that you’ve forgotten about the core tale? I’ve made that mistake myself. I’ve got some of those “stories” hanging around here. Well, at least if I run out of toilet paper…

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Why Do You Read That Crap?

I heard a story again the other day that reminded me of many personal experiences. Someone asked another person how anyone could read “that” kind of book. In this case, the book was a romance, but you could easily replace romance with SF, Fantasy, Horror, Westerns, or probably just about any genre book. The questioner continued with something like: “If you’re going to read, why not read non-fiction? Why not try to learn something?”

I used to get angry when people said these kinds of things, particularly when they said them to me. But that was when I was a kid. I don’t get angry anymore, because I just see it as a kind of uninformed provincialism. At the risk of sounding egotistical, I’ve never had anyone ask me that question who had as a big a vocabulary as I have. And despite the fact that I’ve always read and continue to read genre fiction, I managed to get a Ph.D., advance to full professorship in an academic job, and publish plenty of non-fiction myself.

And I didn’t get my vocabulary from reading non-fiction. I got it as a kid reading SF and Fantasy. I didn’t get my ability to “think outside the box” from non-fiction, nor from the classroom. I got it from reading genre fiction. Without my fiction reading habit I don’t believe I’d ever have graduated college, much less gone on. I certainly would never have discovered that the best way to reach students and teach them something is to tell them a “story.” I would never have been able to teach students how to write, a skill that sp many people desperately need.

People can learn in all kinds of ways and from all kinds of activities. And learning is not just a collection of facts. Certainly, having information is important, but being able to translate one’s thoughts and ideas into words is critical. Being able to make sense of the world is critical. Being able to see the world from a variety of perspectives is critical. Fiction teaches these things. It’s important and should not be discouraged.

Let the kids read. Let them read whatever they can get their hands on. Let them open their minds to thoughts that come from places other than their TVs. Let them learn.

You want to know the worst part of it? The person who asked that question in my first paragraph about why folks didn’t read something they could learn from... That person was a librarian. (Certainly not my lovely Lana, of course, who is a librarian herself and an extraordinary one.)

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Series Fiction: Pros and Cons

As I work on the fourth Taleran book, I’m considering again the pros and cons of writing a series. For me, I know that quite a few people seem to have enjoyed the first few books and it’s a nice feeling to know that there are folks looking forward to reading more from me. I’m also finding it a lot of fun to revisit characters and settings that have meant something to me in the past. It’s also a joy to expand the world. No standalone novel could have explored the entire planet and I’m finding myself able to flesh out details that I had to gloss over in previous entries in the series. Plus, it’s a different kind of creativity when you can interweave new material with older material. I don’t quite know how to explain it but it allows you to develop more depth in the basic creation.

On the con side, it’s hard to know how much background material to include in order to orient new readers to the series without boring those who are familiar with earlier books. I’m struggling with this quite a bit right now. Do I need to explain the Taleran calendar again? How about the mechanisms by which the sky ships fly, or the characteristics of the saddle-birds? Do I need to give meanings for every Taleran word again?

Right now, I’m handling this problem by including a short “What Has Gone Before” section, and by having Ruenn give little narrational asides to explain certain situations, although I’m trying to keep these to a minimum and make them very tight so they don’t impede the pace of the story. For the language issue, I’m trying to use the Taleran words in contexts where their meaning is either clear or where it doesn’t really matter if the reader gets the exact meaning as long as they get the “feeling.” I’m toying with including a kind of appendix with the book which would give the meanings of the words and include some cultural elements. This would essentially be selected entries from my Taleran Encyclopedia. I’ve seen Sword and Planet authors do this before, most notably Ken Bulmer in his Dray Prescot series, and it can be kind of fun.

A last “con” about writing a series is, what do you do if you make an error in one of the earlier books? Do you perpetuate that error for the sake of consistency? Do you correct the error in the new book and acknowledge it? Or do you correct the error in the new book and hope no one notices? I’m re-reading the first three Taleran books as I work and have already discovered two such errors. In both Wings and Witch I mentioned that the Taleran dawn comes at the “fourth dhaur.” I realized this time that it should have been the fifth dhaur in order to be consistent with other things I’ve said about the Taleran light/ dark cycle. In Witch I also mentioned that the period of the day called “Mordai” comes at the twenty-first dhaur. Seeing as how I made it clear in Swords that there are only twenty dhaur in a Taleran day this seems a bit of a problem.

I also wonder, of course, how I could have possibly made these errors considering that I read every one of these books over and over and over again before they were published by Borgo.

For both writers and readers out there, what do you find as the pros and cons of a series?