Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Going Stale

Do you ever feel the need to shake things up? To shake yourself up? I've been feeling a bit that way lately. It's not boredom. I don't get bored when left to my own devices. It's more like I'm in a bit of a rut. Particularly in my imagination. I seem to be running the same scenarios over and over in my head, putting myself into the same old scenes. That doesn't bode well for writing a novel.

I’ve had such things happen to me before, usually after too long a period of sustained work that isn’t challenging to my imagination. But I’ve got a plan. Over the next few days I plan to 1) read stuff I don’t usually read, 2) listen to music I haven’t listened to in a while, 3) do some physical exercise, 4) write some stuff I don’t normally write, and 4) play. Let’s hope this knocks the cobwebs out.

How about you? What do you do when you want to recharge or realign? How do you shake yourself up?


Saturday, April 25, 2009

I'm Back, again. For a Bit.

I’m back for the weekend. I’ll be making the blog rounds today. Then the grading starts again on Monday. We’re nearing the end, though. I’m looking forward to a break.

Unfortunately, plagiarism reared its head on some papers. Very, very disappointing. I covered the problem of plagiarism numerous times this semester but not everyone listened. That’s about all I’m going to say about that.

On the positive side, I got a nice surprise in the mail yesterday. It was a neat book entitled Dragons Composed, and it contains a story by me called “Dragon Lost.” The check was nice too.

The book has a great cover, with a kind of an old-timey parchment look. It’s published by Kerlak Publishing, and was assembled by James Ferris. There are 33 stories, some 330 pages. It combines the fantasy and literary genres. These are dragon stories, but unusual ones. My tale features a chess playing dragon but is more surrealism than fantasy. The specifics about the collection are about halfway down on the left side of the screen.

Here’s a taste of my piece: “The dragon came out of a distant rain that spilled like threads of taffy from concrete-gray sky to sober earth. I watched him cross the purple sage toward me, with his gleaming iridescent hide and the triple horns that stabbed from his head like accusing fingers.”

The newest Illuminata was also published. I’ve got a short essay on poetry in it. Click on Volume 7, Issue 2, April 2009 if you’re interested. The link’s at the bottom.

And for another positive, "G" over at Cedar's Mountain has a very nice review of Swords of Talera. Thanks "G!"

And now it’s off to visit my blog friends. I’ve missed you folks.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What I Do For a Living

Some of you are faculty type folks, or have been, and know the kinds of things a college teacher does on a day to day basis, but even among faculty members there is a wide range of duties. We don't all do the same thing. Also, although I've mentioned my job here quite a bit, I've never really taken you through a blow by blow account of my version of academic life. Here's the nutshell version.

Normal faculty load at Xavier is four courses a week with at least three different "preps," meaning different courses. I only teach three courses (3 preps) a week because I have "release" time for a committee I'm the head of. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I have two classes of 50 minutes each. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I have one class that lasts 1 hour and 15 minutes. That's not a lot of hours in the actual classroom, but there are quite a few additional hours involved in preparing for class, going over notes, doing background reading, preparing examples or demonstrations, etc. And there is a lot of time spent grading student papers, although that isn't usually an everyday thing.

Most bigger universities require two classes, 2 preps a week, but they also generally require a greater amount of orginal research productivity. This is where that famous dictum of, "publish or perish" comes in. At big universities, Ohio State, Stanford, Yale, etc, this is the rule and most faculty put a lot of time in on research and correspondingly less time on teaching. At Xavier the rule is more "publish or languish." You have to publish some to get tenure, but you don't necessarily have to publish on a regular basis, and the university is a little more general in what it considers scholarship. Still, unless you publish within your "field" fairly regularly, you are unlikely to receive promotions or merit raises. For me, this means that the nonfiction articles I do on writing and writers do not generally count. Only articles published in psychology count, and preferably articles in peer-reviewed journals on the subject of biological psychology. Peer-reviewed means that experts in the field review submitted articles and judge them acceptable, unacceptable, or in need of revision.

Besides teaching and scholarship, faculty members also must engage in "university service." This means either being chairperson of a department, or, most commonly, serving on university committees. Some committees are so time consuming that faculty actually get some release time from teaching to manage those committees. At Xavier, the Rank and Tenure Committee, which decides on tenure for faculty, is such a committee. I'm also chair of the Human Subjects committee (IRB), and I get a one class teaching reduction because of how time consumming it is.

Today was a pretty typical Monday for me. I got into the office around 8:20, and first responded to emails. There weren't many this morning but sometimes there are a lot. I then made some calls concerning IRB issues to Xavier's research supervisor, and picked up a 70 some odd page IRB proposal from a researcher at Boston College that had been mailed to me. I took 15 minutes to prepare for my first class, at 10:00, in the Psychology of Learning. Sometimes it takes me a lot longer to prepare but the topic for today is one I know very well. Lunch ran between 11:20 and 12:15/12:20 and I came back to prepare for my 1:00 class. This was again lighter than usual because we were getting ready for final exams and most of my class today was reviewing.

I picked up 26 assigned essays from the 1:00 class, which is called Historical and Applied Perspectives, and will grade those as soon as I finish this post. Then I'll start on the IRB proposal. I'm unlikely to finish going through that by the time I leave around 4:30, so I'll be working on that tonight and possibly some tomorrow.

A major difference I see between an academic job and most other jobs I've held (Dishwasher, Librarian Floor Supervisor, Chicken House Manager, Factory Worker) is the "feast or famine aspect. There will be weeks here and there where I'll have little grading to do, no IRB projects to approve, and no committee meetings. Those weeks are nice and it's then that I write most of my nonfiction and fiction. Other weeks are feast, in the sense of having a lot to do in every aspect of my job: reseearch, teaching/grading, and committee work.

I'm entering one of those "feast" times now. I'm getting final papers from my writing class tomorrow, giving a big exam on Wednesday, and giving two big exams next Monday. Just to let you know, I probably won't be posting much on my own blog, or visiting others' blogs after today. I'll be back once most of that grading is done.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Fan Fiction

OK, I’ve been getting an education since I posted my “Ich bin ein Trekker” piece. I knew there was fan fiction out there, and that there was a lot based on Star Trek, although I’ve never read any of the Trek zines where this kind of thing has been typically published. I’ve certainly read professionally published stories by folks who began their writing lives as Trekkers and I’ve always known some of their story lines came from their own fan fiction.

I also knew that other TV shows had their own fan fic, including Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Stargate SG-1, and I found out a few years ago about the beginnings of fan fic in the Harry Potter universe. I was also aware that certain characters, most notably in my experience, Conan the Cimmerian, Tarzan, and Sherlock Holmes had been the subject of many pastiche stories in small fanzines.

There were a number of things I did not know. First, I had no idea of the “extent” of the fan fiction that has been and is being published for all kinds of shows and characters. By Crom, but it is huge! Second, I had no idea that the “vast” majority of fan fic written for TV shows is written by women. It seems to be different where pastiche stories about characters in books are concerned; many of those writers, perhaps most, appear to be men. Third, I had never heard of “Kraith,” which is a whole subgenre of Star Trek Fan fiction set in a related but not quite canonical Trek Universe. It focuses on the Vulcans, and at least one story has Spock administering a sound spanking to Kirk. Fourth, until two days ago I had “never” heard the word slash associated with fan fiction and had no idea what it meant. I had heard, many years ago, that a story or two had been written about Kirk and Spock as gay lovers. It is apparently a LOT more than a couple of stories. (The name “slash” comes from the way in which “Kirk/Spock” is often written when referring to these stories.)

When I first heard about the Kirk/Spock stories I assumed they were written by gay men who were Star Trek or SF fans. Turns out the vast majority of these stories are also written by women, primarily heterosexual women. I have to say that confuses me a bit, although I’ve become aware in the last few years that there is a pretty big market for male on male erotica and that most of it is written by women for women. As a psychologist, I find that rather fascinating, although I can’t quite come up with a theory as to why it occurs. I would welcome input.

As for fan fic, I’d also be interested in hearing from folks who write it as to why they enjoy it. I can certainly understand the enjoyment of taking part in a kind of imaginative game using established characters in an established universe. I’ve imagined myself in the universe of Star Trek myself, although I never had much urge to write those stories down.

I’ve never written fan fic myself, although I once rough drafted a Conan pastiche for the REHupa group that I’m in. I think, in my case, it has most to do with the fact that I really like to have complete control over the creative aspects of writing myself. I don’t want to be constrained by someone else’s imagination, although I’m not above borrowing the good stuff.

Anyway, thanks to those who have helped educate me on fan fic over the last few days, and thanks to Wikipedia for the help in discovering more about Kraith and Slash fiction. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all, and I’m desperately trying not to imagine Kirk over Spock’s knee with his pants down for a spanking.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Book Roast: Cold in the Light

I forgot to mention that the Book Roast is going on all this week. That means a chance to win free books, as well as have some fun answering strange questions and feeling free to make off-the-wall remarks. So check it out.

And, especially, please check it out tomorrow, Thursday, April 16. I’ll be the grillee, or grilled, or whatever it’s called, and there’ll be a chance win a copy of Cold in the Light. Even if you have a copy drop by for a visit. I’ll be popping in and out all day to answer questions and respond to comments, which means most of my blogging tomorrow will be over there.

Chris Eldin and the Book Roast crew have done a wonderful job with this project, and I know it's been a lot of work for them. They grilled Swords of Talera back when it came out so they have also been very, very good to me.

Yeah Book Roast!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ich Bin Ein Trekker

"Trekker!" That's Trekkie to some.

Star Trek, with the original crew, remains one of the very few--perhaps only--TV show that I've seen every episode of, and is certainly the only show I've seen every episode of multiple times. Star Trek: TNG is second. I have exactly two autographed photos of stars on my bookshelves. Both are for Star Trek actors. Over the years I've picked up individual tie-in novels from several TV shows, including Highlander, The Rat Patrol, Alien Nation, and Man from Atlantis. I have one volume of each, and have only read the first two. But I have and have read close to 50 tie-in books for Star Trek Classic alone, including for the animated series, and I just ordered a few more. I have never read a biography or autobiography of an actor. Not one. Except for Star Trek. I've read both Shatner's and Nimoy's biographies about their Star Trek experiences.

In fact, I've just started a Star Trek Mini reading spree. I finished Spock Must Die! by James Blish this weekend and really enjoyed it, and am now happily immersed in Star Trek Lives!, a nonfiction book about the Star Trek phenomenon, which was published in 1975. I have a couple more Trek books ready to go next. You might think it was the upcoming release of the new Star Trek movie that turned on my Star Trek button, and I'm sure that had some influence, but I've experienced such sprees before. Numerous times. I love Star Trek.

Star Trek Lives! has made me ask the question again as to why? Why is Star Trek the only TV show that I am actually a fan, in the sense of fanatic, of? The book talks about the "optimism" that infused the show, about the dynamics between the characters, about the philosophy. I'm sure all those played some role in hooking me. But I frankly am not sure exactly why this show among the many connected so strongly with me. I'm going to give it some thought and get back to you.

In the meantime, Live Long, and Prosper, and tell me why you, too, are a Trekker. And tell me: If you're not a Trekker, why not? Or are you a similar fan of some other show? I don't see how that could be, but I'll try to forgive you anyway!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Movies and the Shaky Cam

I watched a couple of movies this weekend while off for Easter: Lakeview Terrace and Quarantine. Both were sadly flawed. Lakeview Terrace had some interesting characterizations and I thought it had the makings of a pretty good movie, but it was very slow to develop. The model for this kind of urban thriller to me is Pacific Heights, and this one had nowhere near the suspense of that movie, although to be fair it didn't have as clear cut of a bad guy either.

Quarantine's flaws were of a different sort. The premise and setting were interesting, although not terribly original, and there were some cool gory sections, as when a badly injured man tries to walk on a broken leg. The problem was the shaky cam. The premise was that a TV night show crew consisting of a woman reporter and a camerman ride along with a fire crew who are called out to treat a sick woman. Once the firemen and camera crew are inside the building, along with a couple of cops, the feds lock the building down because of the disease, which seems to develop into uncontrollable rage.

Unfortunately, all we see of the events is the "camera eye," (Shaky cam) view. I suspect that someone somewhere thinks the shaky cam adds realism to a movie. The opposite is the case. Whether shaky cam or not, we all know at the beginning of a movie that we're just watching a movie. With the regular camera set up, we only have to suspend our disbelief once, and then we're into the movie. With the shaky cam we are constantly bombarded with the realization that this is only a movie, and, unfortunately, we're only seeing bits and pieces of that movie. In Quarantine, for example, I could not suspend my disbelief over and over as to the fact that a "real person" was supposed to be filming all this, and I could not get past my irritation that at times the movie I paid for consisted of running feet. Had I known it was shaky cam I'd never have rented it.

Just say "no" to shaky cam.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Forgotten Books Friday: Short story

First, I'm sorry I haven't been around visiting blogs much this week. Besides feeling a bit down, I got the rough drafts from my writing class on Tuesday and spent a LOT of time commenting on and correcting those. But here's my post for Forgotten Books Friday for this week. I'll head out to look at blogs after I get this up.

Pattinase has suggested that this week’s Forgotten Book Friday feature a forgotten short story. Since I love me some short stories, I am so happy to take part. And man was it hard to narrow down my choices. There are so many wonderful short stories that I could talk about: The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin, Surface Tension by James Blish, Nightfall by Isaac Asimov, Hangover by John D. MacDonald, The Jaunt by Stephen King, The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke, Riding for the Brand by Louis L’Amour, A Relic of War by Keith Laumer, Valley of the Worm and Worms in the Earth by Robert E. Howard, etc. etc.

But I’ve decided on a story by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury has had so many incredible stories of course, The Veldt, The Fog Horn, The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Small Assassin, The Wind, and many more. But there’s one that I’ve never seen reprinted and almost never see anyone talk about. This is “Frost and Fire,” a longish story from the collection R is for Rocket, which was first published in 1962. I first read this collection sometime back in the sixties and “Frost and Fire” stayed with me for years after, although I forgot the title and the collection it was in. For several years in my late 30s I searched and searched for the story but was unable to remember the title or even who had written it until a friend of mine identified it for me. I believe that friend was Steve Tompkins. I immediately read the story again, and just reread it this week in preparation for this post.

Although it’s in an anthology whose title suggests science fiction stories, and it involves a space ship, “Frost and Fire” is very much a fantasy. Physically and technically it is an impossible tale, but it’s still wonderful for all that.

Imagine a world where humans are born, grow, mate, age, and die in 8 days. It’s a world where the sun kills and the ice at night freezes the very marrow, where for only two hours a day, at dusk and dawn, are people able to leave their caves and run and play and gather food amid the rapidly growing plants.

Imagine though, that in the distance, winking in the early morning sunlight, the people see a ship, the last intact ship from the space fleet that brought them to this nightmare planet. A child named Sim is born into this world. He is born with the racial memory of all his people, and the telepathy that lets them learn quickly what they need to know to survive. A girl named Lyte is born at the same time, and comes to love Sim. And all this happens quickly, quickly, quickly. Because death is only days away.

Sim yearns to reach that ship, although no one has ever survived such an attempt. And Lyte is determined to accompany him. I won’t tell you the ending, but the story is well worth the read if you can find it.

There was a brief revival of interest in this story in the 1980s. In 1983 it became the basis of a short film called Quest, and in 1985 it was adapted as a graphic novel by Klaus Jansen for DC comics. I have not seen the film or read the graphic novel, and didn’t even know that either existed until I started researching this post. I’ll begin looking for that graphic novel, though. “Frost and Fire” is definitely a forgotten story these days, though, and it shouldn’t be. It shows Bradbury at the height of his powers.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


Robert E. Howard fandom has lost two tireless supporters of late. And I’ve lost two friends.

First, Steve Tompkins died March 23rd, although I didn’t find out about it until Friday, April 3rd. Steve was in REHupa with me, the Robert E. Howard foundation. We found out from his brother that he had been admitted into the hospital after a bout with food poisoning, but then had a heart attack, which is what killed him. He had been rallying from the food poisoning when the heart attack occurred. Steve lived in New York City where he worked for The Bank of New York. His parents and three brothers are still living and I know they must miss him terribly.

I only met Steve once in person, in Cross Plains, Texas for Howard Days, but we corresponded many times over the years. Steve was the most erudite person I’ve ever known, with a prodigious memory for literary works and a wonderfully witty style of writing about literature. He single-handedly raised the level of Howard scholarship with his many essays for REHupa, as well as his blog posts and his beautifully researched introductions and/or essays for a number of recent Howard books. He will be missed by many, and I’m one of them.

Then, on Saturday, April 4, I found out that Joan McCowen had died after a year long battle with cancer. Joan was a member of Project Pride, the local Cross Plains group that bought and restored the Robert E. Howard house and turned it into a museum. She always supported Howard's Legacy, and the Howard fans who trooped through Cross Plains every year. Joan was a strong presence every time I went to Cross Plains for Howard days. She was a personable and energetic woman, although in the last year or so she had really been hit hard by her illness. She too will be missed, and everywhere I look in Cross Plains this year there will be a blank spot hiding part of the world.


Friday, April 03, 2009

My Writing Class

I haven't talked about my Writing in Psychology class as much as I thought I might this spring, but I just gave my class an assignment that I hope will turn out interesting.

I told them I wanted them to write a "tip article" directed at a novice writer. In other words, I asked them to write an advice column/essay about writing. Tell someone else what you think is an important thing, or the important thing(s), that someone new to writing should know. I hope this will really make them think about what we've covered so far this semester and about whether it was good advice or not.

I did this last time I taught this class as well, several years ago, and I got some really good pieces. I even edited two of the papers and published them in my Writer's Block column for The Illuminata. Those students were very excited to see their names in print, and those papers deserved to be there once they were given a bit of editing.

I didn't mention this to my current class, but if I get some good articles I might do the same this year. It all depends on what I get. The fact is, writing out one's thoughts remains one of the best ways to truly understand and clarify one's thinking. It also helps you learn the material better. It's why I started writing articles about writing in the first place, so that I could myself understand what was important about the act of writing. And it's why the core of ideas that I first explore here on the blog sometimes get written up more formally later for my column.

I sometimes think I don't really understand anything until I can write about it. How about you?


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A Story about a Story

One book I picked up at garage sale day was The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. I can’t say I’m enjoying it much so far. I’m about 40 pages in, and it’s been very slow.

The main problem is that it’s a story about a story instead of just being a story. Let me explain.

The tale begins with two older newspapermen, both Islanders, and a younger female reporter talking to a mainland reporter. The mainland fellow doesn’t get what he came for, a story about some unsolved mystery, and leaves. The young woman begins to ask whether there are any unsolved mysteries on the island, and the two older men begin to tell her the story of the “Colorado Kid.”

Do you see the problem?

Fiction is already a second hand report. We begin reading with the clear knowledge that we’re being told a story by someone else, the invisible writer. If the writer does his or her job well, we soon forget we’re being told a story and start to live it.

But now, with “Colorado Kid,” I’m being told a story by Stephen King about two guys who are telling a different story to a young woman. It seems like I’m trying to hear the primary story of the “Kid” with a loud conversation going on in the background. So far I’ve not been able to slip inside the story. I’m outside looking in, and I don’t much enjoy it.

Last week I read a tale set in ancient Rome that was told in a “letter” written to someone else. I kept thinking, why not just tell “me” the story, instead of telling someone else and letting me listen in? You could have saved a few hundred words. Now, I can enjoy stories told in letters when the story is “inside” the letters, when it goes back and forth between the letter writers. But this was just “one” letter, explaining everything that happened to one person. Why distance readers further than they already are?

With “Colorado Kid,” at around 35 (its actually 50) pages we read about a couple of young joggers who find a dead body on the beach. Bingo! There’s where the story starts. Show us the joggers, show ‘em seeing the body, approaching the body, realizing it’s a dead man. And I’m with you. I’ve already forgotten the writer. I’m living the tale. Cut out the prelims.

Maybe there are times when the “story about a story” technique is useful, and maybe old Stephen has a plan up his sleeve. I’ll go ahead and read some more, because at least the book is pretty short. But it isn’t a good sign when I pick up the book I’m currently reading, and instead of opening the cover to where I left off, I gaze longingly at my pile of to-be-read books. The “Colorado Kid” cut ahead of a bunch of books on that pile, and so far I’ve regretted that rash decision.