in which i make an awkward speech

Okay, I probably should have mentioned this when it was announced. But that was a month ago, back in the middle of April, at the beginning of morel season, so I was busy. And there was something else going on at the time, though I can’t recall what it was. My guess is it was probably bicycle-related.

Anyway, I forgot about it until last week when Ruth Greenberg emailed me. She wanted to let me know she’d received a royalty check for a book we sorta kinda wrote together. That was back in…I don’t know, the distant past. I was in graduate school at the time, so it must have at least twenty years ago. I could do the math and figure out the date, but it doesn’t much matter.

The check was for 94 cents.

I’ve moved at least half a dozen times since the book was published, and I’ve never bothered to let the publisher know my new address. In fact, I think that publisher has been swallowed whole by another publisher–and I’m not even sure who they are. This accounts for why I didn’t get my US$0.94 royalty check.

But that email last week reminded me of another writing thing…which is the thing I referred to in the first paragraph, the thing I probably should have mentioned back in April but obviously didn’t. So I’m going to mention it now.

A short story I wrote–and which was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine last autumn–won an award. Every year various groups hand out various awards for mystery and detective fiction. Most of those are nominated by…well, okay, I admit I don’t know how the nomination process works. Doesn’t matter. I’ve only been nominated once, about a million years ago, for something called a Shamus award. I didn’t win, so I didn’t pay much attention to it (I’m beginning to sense a pattern here). Anyway, nominations are made, a panel of judges read the work, choose the winner, hand out an award. It’s sort of a big deal.

The award I won wasn’t that sort of award. What I won was a Reader’s Award. You know, where readers write in and name their favorite stories of the years. And actually, I didn’t win that award either; I came in third.

When I got the email telling me I’d come in third in a Reader’s Award, I thought, “Hey, that’s nice.” And that was basically it. I mean, I’d already been paid for the story; that was reward enough. But I was asked to submit a 1-2 minute video acceptance speech for the award (which was being held virtually because of the damned pandemic). My response was basically a casual “Sure, why not?” But thinking about an acceptance speech made me actually stop and think about the award itself, and about the readers who’d read the story and voted for it, and about writing.

Let me be clear about this whole writing gig. It’s just something I do. I enjoy the act of writing. I like the process of writing. It entertains me and gives me pleasure. I like the discipline involved. Most of what I write (this blog, for example) I write for an audience of one–me. Writing this blog forces me to put my thoughts in order, which forces me to support whatever crap I’m writing about. I usually spend a LOT more time thinking about stuff than writing about it. For this blog, I like to write quickly and casually, and edit almost nothing.

But sometimes I write short fiction for money. That means writing for other people. It also means writing more carefully. Because a writer’s job is to give a reader a good experience. Not necessarily a pleasant one, or a happy one, but an experience they find worth the investment of time it takes them to read the story.

But here’s the weird thing. Once I finish writing a piece of fiction, I seem to lose all emotional attachment to it. I’ve done what I wanted to do with it, I’ve written the story, and now it’s done. I submit the story to a magazine; they either accept it (and send me a check) or reject it (and send me a rejection letter), but that’s their job. My job is over. Time to do something else. The finished story is old news; it just doesn’t seem very important anymore.

But I had to give an acceptance speech, right? So I had to think about all that stuff. I mean, yes of course I was writing for an audience, but it was a theoretical audience. Not actual people, sitting at home, drinking coffee and letting the cat shed on their sweaters. Suddenly, they’d become very real to me. I mean, the notion that strangers would read something I wrote–that they’d read it and remember it–that they’d care enough about the story to vote for it in an annual contest? That’s just…weird. It made me oddly emotional.

So I made an acceptance video. Okay, that’s a lie. I made like six of them. First, I did a quick practice video just to see if I actually knew HOW to make a video. Set up my chromebook, turned it on, nattered off the top of my head for maybe 90 seconds, then watched it. It was…well, embarrassing.

So I wrote out a short script saying the things I wanted to say–and shot a second video. That taught me to pay attention to the background (as a photographer, you’d think I’d know that). So I started moving things around, re-arranging furniture, shifting stuff around so it wouldn’t appear I was sitting in the basement, where I write in the evenings. I shot a few more videos.

They were fucking painful to watch. I mean, I was trying to present myself as a writer, and I was semi-reading from a script. It all looked unnatural. So in the end, I sent them my practice video–me nattering on, sitting at my basement desk, unrehearsed and stupid, thanking strangers for voting me the third most popular story for this particular magazine last year. But at least it was honest and authentic. So there’s that.

Anyway, here it is, for your entertainment. The whole thing is about 18 minutes long, which is a LOT to watch. I get introduced at about the 5:30 point. My awkward basement practice acceptance video kicks in somewhere around the 7:30 point.

Oh, yeah…the story. Janet Hutchings, the editor, introduces it in a way that makes it sound significant, portentous. When I submitted it, I was at a loss for how to describe it. It’s a detective story, of course, about the rights of street photographers. But yeah, it’s also about racial profiling. And about a missing teen-aged girl. But it’s also about the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, which I happen to think is important to the story. And I don’t know, it’s maybe about some other stuff too. Who knows?

Anyway, I probably should have mentioned this back in April, when it was announced.

the yawning of george r.r. martin

You know George R.R. Martin, right? The writer. The guy who wrote 5/7ths of a very good fantasy fiction series, which was turned into 7/8ths of a pretty good HBO series? Well, it’s being reported that HBO has given him a five-year deal worth “mid-eight figures” to develop other series based on the Game of Thrones universe.

HBO has deep pockets, to be sure–but I’m thinking it’s idiotic to pay him that much coin. I mean, the guy does good work. There are problems with it, of course–the sexism and racism and all that–but the overall dramatic quality of the work is very good. He just doesn’t finish the work. He’s like a master cabinetmaker who designs and creates a beautiful, original kitchen, but doesn’t bother to install the cabinets. They’re just left sitting there on the floor, pretty but incomplete. And as for George R.R. Martin’s GoT universe? At this point, who cares?

Don’t get me wrong. I still remember when a friend told me I should read the original novel, A Game of Thrones. I’d gone through a period where I read some fantasy fiction, but I’d largely gone off of the genre. It all seemed predictable and derivative. This isn’t a verbatim conversation, but it went something like this:

Him: You’ve got to read this book. You’ll love it. It’s unlike anything you’ve read.
Me: Are there elves in it?
Him: No elves.
Me: Dwarves?
Him: No. Well, yes, but not like Dwarf Dwarves. There’s a character who is a dwarf.
Me: But not with a long beard and an innate skill for metallurgy.
Him: Right.
Me: Okay then. What about dragons? Are there dragons?
Him: No. Well, yes, but not like Dragon dragons. Mostly just eggs.
Me: I don’t know.
Him: You’ll love it, trust me.
Me: I don’t know.
Him: You know how when you read a book you pretty much know who the heroes and bad guys are? You pretty much know who’s going to die and who won’t?
Me: Yeah.
Him: Well, that doesn’t apply here.

And hey, he was right. It was unlike anything I’d read, and I did love it. The characters were wildly diverse, mostly complex, but they still managed to be internally consistent. It was clearly fantasy, but the fantasy elements felt grounded. I mean, sure there was magic; you have to expect that in fantasy fiction. But it wasn’t airy fartsy magic–you know, a wizard in a goofy hat holding up a staff and firing off balls of lightning. The magic was magic in the same way menstrual fluid is blood–it was messy, maybe, but basic and honest.

And yeah, there was no way to guess who was going to live or die. Main characters were killed. Not killed in noble, honorable, heroic ways. Killed ugly for stupid reasons. Killed ugly and pointlessly (well, not pointlessly in terms of the narrative, but pointlessly in terms of the story world). They just got killed or maimed, and there it was. Nobody in the story was safe. It was awful and completely glorious. Okay, as the story progressed and the novels got longer and more popular, the main characters became safer. But the precedent had been set, and you were never quite sure if they were really safe.

I had to wait almost a year for the second book in the series to be published. And it was worth the wait. A Clash of Kings was as good as the first novel. We knew at that point it was going to be a trilogy. The third novel, A Storm of Swords, also took about a year and was equally good. By then Martin had decided there’d be six books. That was a tad concerning; six books is a LOT of story. But if Martin could maintain the quality of the work and the novels were published at a reasonable rate, then yay.

We had to wait five years for the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. Five years. Half a decade. Still, it was quite a good novel. But lawdy what a long wait. The only good thing about that long wait was that, just before the fourth novel was published, I had time to re-read the three earlier books so I could remember what had happened.

Then I waited six years for the fifth book. Six years. It only took two years for Magellan to circumnavigate the globe in a goddamn carrack (with a similar body count, by the way). Six years, and by then Martin had decided there’d be maybe seven books in the series. Seven fucking books. Maybe. I bought the book, whatever it was called, and read it, but by that point I’d rather lost my excitement about the story. There were a few characters I was still interested in (Tyrion and Arya, of course), but the story itself had pretty much lost its meaning for me. I sort of recall enjoying the fifth book, but it felt bloated and sluggish, like it had overeaten and just wanted to take a nap.

That was ten years ago, and we’re still waiting for the sixth book. Wait, that’s not true. I’m not waiting for it at all. I no longer care if the sixth or seventh novels ever get published. I watched the HBO series, and for me the story is done. I’m told the series ending may be different from the ending of the novels, but Jeebus on toast, who cares?

Look, George. R.R. Martin gave us three really solid novels, as well as a couple of pretty good ones. That’s no small thing. But he’s let his readers down. He built up their expectations, then failed to meet them. He effectively promised–and continues to repeat that promise–that he’d finish this story. He should either plant his ass in a chair and finish it or just admit that he’s done–that the story is going to remain unfinished. He needs to be honest with the readers, who are rightfully disappointed in him.

We also have a legit reason to be disappointed in HBO. They produced six good seasons of Martin’s story–and one season that was only okay, as well as the massively awful final season. But that’s also partially down to Martin. The HBO series was flawed but mostly solid so long as they had access to the source material–the novels. When they tried to go beyond the novels, even with Martin’s help, the quality of the story suffered.

Maybe the new HBO-Martin projects will be good television. Maybe it’s clever of HBO to buy access to Martin’s story world, but leave Martin himself out of it. Maybe they can produce good work if they decide not to rely on Martin for anything other than ideas. I don’t know.

What I know is this: I don’t much care what George. R.R. Martin is doing now. Or what he promises he’s going to do. I’m grateful for his early work, but that’s it. I don’t care that HBO is preparing more shows based on his story world. I’m grateful for the few good seasons of GoT, and that’s it.

But the promise of more of Martin’s work? Pardon me while I yawn.

biggest exploding heads

I haven’t read Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury; Inside the Trump White House of Fuckwitted Fuckwits OMG You Guys!!! I probably won’t read it. I’ve read the same excerpts most of you have read, and that’s probably enough.

I mean, all the horrible things Wolff says about Comrade Trump? It’s basically stuff many of us already believed. Hell, most of it is stuff we’ve already witnessed. Trump being crude and rude? Every day. Trump being mean and spiteful? Every day. Trump displaying massive ignorance of the world around him? Every damned day. Trump demonstrating a complete lack of interest in…well, just about anything but himself (and, to a lesser extent, Ivanka)? Yes, of course, every day.

Seriously, everybody who’s read the following excerpt has said, “Yep, that’s Trump.”

Here was a man singularly focused on his own needs for instant gratification, be that a hamburger, a segment on Fox & Friends or an Oval Office photo opp. “I want a win. I want a win. Where’s my win?” he would regularly declaim. He was, in words used by almost every member of the senior staff on repeated occasions, “like a child.”

Like a child. A spoiled, pampered, spiteful child. Here’s a true thing: Donald Trump is basically Dudley Dursley in a bloated adult body. You know…Dudley Dursley? Harry Potter’s cousin? The fat, cruel, selfish, violent bully with no feelings whatsoever for others? This guy:

Comrade Trump wants more. More than anybody else. Doesn’t even matter what it is, he wants more. Always more. More and bigger. The biggest. He wants the biggest inauguration crowds, the biggest tax cut, the biggest missiles, the biggest wall, the biggest brain, the biggest generals, the biggest ratings.

Trump, of course, says the book is all lies. He’s threatened to sue Steve Bannon, who apparently is quoted frequently in the book, for violating a non-disclosure agreement AND defamation. Trump has the biggest legal team, but they don’t seem to understand that in order for a statement to be defamatory, it has to be untrue, And if a statement is untrue, then it can’t be a violation of a non-disclosure agreement. This is just another example of how Comrade Trump has put together a team of fuckwits.

What’s most entertaining about this (a year ago, I’d have felt bad for finding any of this entertaining — but significant Trump exposure has made me a tad more cruel) is the fact that so many conservatives are complaining that the book might possibly have a few minor factual details somewhat wrong. They feel the book doesn’t depict Comrade Trump in a very favorable light. They feel the book is perhaps a wee bit biased.

I find that entertaining because those same conservative asshats twenty years writing and promoting similar books about Hillary Clinton. They spent eight years writing and promoting similar books about Barack Obama. Wildly outrageous books full of blatant lies, delusional thinking, and insane conspiracy theories. Now I’m finding it wildly entertaining to read FreeRepublic and see them attempt to reconcile what Bannon says with what Comrade Trump says. A lot of them have decided that Trump and Bannon are in cahoots. Seriously. They’re positing that these two guys are acting, that they’re only appearing to abuse and insult each other. They’re doing this in order to lull snowflake liberals into…something, so that something something, after which there’ll be something and liberal heads will explode. Not too sure what that something is, but the turf will be littered with exploded liberal heads.

Liberal heads exploding — that’s how conservatives measure the value of just about anything. The more liberal head that explode, the better a thing is.

I don’t expect to see conservative heads explode over this. The material is too dense.

the elves all burst into song

A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to re-read The Lord of the Rings this summer. It’s been a long while since I’ve read the books. I first read them when I was eighteen years old and in Basic Training. We weren’t allowed to have any books during Basic (or any other personal belongings, for that matter), but somebody had smuggled in the paperback version of LoTR — and we’d chopped them up into something like chapter-sized chunks, easily hideable. About half of my unit, desperate to read anything, passed around the various chapters, sometimes out of order, and we’d discuss the story over chow or when we were out in the field.

I’ve re-read the books a couple of times since then, and I’ve seen the movies, of course. I’m not quite sure what sparked the decision to re-read them again. Maybe the current enthusiasm for HBO’s version of Game of Thrones (which I haven’t seen, though, again, I’ve read the books). But like I said, it was a whim — and I am weak to the whim.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

I was surprised and delighted to discover LoTR was available as an e-book, and only for something like ten dollars. So I downloaded it (unlike the print versions, all three volumes and all six books are in one large file, which makes it easy.

The first thing I noticed was the deliberate pace of the writing. I don’t think you could accurately describe it as slowly-paced, but the pacing is very deliberately moderated. Tolkien clearly wanted his readers to settle into the story, to get nestled down into his Middle Earth. That sort of pacing would, I suspect, be a hard sell for a publisher these day. I’ve no doubt an awful lot of modern readers would find the pacing off-putting, but I think it suits the story.

I was reading comfortably along, enjoying the gradual increase in tension — the discovery that Bilbo’s ring was the One Ring, the unexplained tardiness of Gandalf, the sale of Bag End to the dreadful Sackville-Bagginses, the arrival of the wonderfully spooky Black Riders. Then Frodo and Sam and Pippin, making their way through the woods, stumble upon a troupe of wandering Elves.

LOTR elvesI’d always remembered this scene with particular fondness. In part, that’s because it’s Sam Gamgee’s very first experience with Elves, and so much is made of his desire to see them. But I suspect I’ve liked this scene in part because when I first read it I was living in a barracks with forty other troops. The tranquility of the scene and the ethereal quality of the encounter was so utterly unlike barracks life. So I was prepared to be charmed. Then I read this:

The Elves all burst into song. Suddenly under the trees a fire sprang up with a red light.

“Come!” the Elves called to the hobbits. “Come! Now is the time for speech and merriment!”

Several things occurred to me at that point. First, Elves can be pretty fucking annoying. I suppose you can excuse the fact that they just start singing en masse, without any warning because…well, Elves. But the tendency to speak in exclamation points is a tad over the top. Actually, when it’s a single Elf speaking it’s not so bad, but as a group they’re awfully exclamatory.

Second, speech and merriment? Okay, they’re Elves — you can’t expect them to say “Let’s hang out, talk, drink a bit, have some fun, whaddaya say?” I get that. But there’s something about the need to announce that it’s time to talk and have fun that sort of mutes the fun of talking. They announce everything, the Elves. “Earlier was the time for walking in green woods! Then came the time for impromptu acapella singing! Now is the time for speech and merriment!”

But as you continue to read the scene, you realize there’s a great deal of speech, but not much merriment at all. What did Frodo and the Elves speak about?

The tidings were mostly sad and ominous: of gathering darkness, the wars of Men, and the flight of the Elves.

That’s awfully merriment-deficient. I’m sure orcs would think that was a hoot, but we’re talking about High Elves here. Maybe they should stick to bursting into song.

Gildor

Gildor

The third thing that occurred to me was this: Tolkien, as a writer, gets away with a lot of shit we wouldn’t tolerate in a modern writer. He gets away with it because he’s Tolkien. He didn’t invent epic fantasy fiction, but he’s the guy who single-handedly revived the genre, and that makes him an unalloyed literary badass. Only a literary badass could write this and get away with it:

The merry voice of Pippin came to him. He was running on the green turf and singing.

If a student of mine wrote that, I’d bitch-slap him ’til Tuesday. The image of a small, furry-footed being larking about on the lawn and singing like Julie Andrews on an alp is singularly ridiculous. Dude, singing and running at the same time? Really?

But because it’s Tolkien, I not only tolerate it, I embrace it. Yes, his writing is creaky and his style is outmoded and archaic. I don’t care. Yes, his dialog is sometimes (well, often) embarrassing. I really don’t care. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien provides me with speech and merriment, so he gets a pass.

“Courage is found in unlikely places,” said Gildor. “Be of good hope! Sleep now!”

I’m almost certainly going to read other books as well this summer. I’ll take occasional short breaks from reading The Lord of the Rings and dip into something without Elves. But LoTR will be the book I read last before turning out the light. I am of good hope! I may burst into song!

But probably not.

joel stein is a dick

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.”

Yeah. That’s Joel Stein in a short (but not short enough) rant called Adults Should Read Adult Books written for the New York Times. Stein says, “I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like… I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read ‘The Hunger Games’ when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.”

It can’t be easy to be such a pompous dick. It must take a great deal of practice, so I’m willing to give Stein some credit for his dedication. And I wouldn’t want to deny him the right to object to any genre of literature; after all, I’ve been known to make the occasional disparaging comment about Romance fiction. But I’d never suggest there’s anything wrong with somebody who chose to read Romance novels. Stein’s absolute rejection of the value of Young Adult fiction isn’t what makes him a dick. That just makes him ignorant.

No, what makes Joel Stein an Olympic caliber dick is that he sets himself up as an arbiter of what is appropriate for adults to read when he has written a soon-to-be-released nonfiction book called (and I’m not making this up) Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity. The book is apparently about Stein’s panic at learning he is about to become the father of a son, and trying to discover what it means to be a ‘man’ by (and really, I’m not making this up at all) briefly engaging in testosterone-driven tasks. He spends three days (3!) in some form of military basic training, he spends a 24 hour shift with the fire department, he goes camping (with…and lawdy, I wish I was making this up…the Boy Scouts), he does some home repairs. In other words, he pays a fleeting visit to what he believes is the world of manhood in the hope that he’ll learn something profound about masculinity.

Then, in this wee little rant, he writes “You can’t take an adult seriously when he’s debating you over why Twilight vampires are O.K. with sunlight.” And that is what makes Joel Stein a dick.

Joel, bunkie, this is where you make your mistake. Men read Young Adult fiction and aren’t embarrassed by it.

words is my business

Words is my business. I know a lot of them, and I enjoy using them. I enjoy seeing and hearing them used. I adore people who use them well.

One of the reasons I adore Meera Lee Sethi (just one of the reasons; there are so many reasons to adore Meera that you’d need an abacus to keep count) is because she’s engaged in the most wonderful and quixotic projects I’ve seen in some time: 366 Days of Words in Science.

This is more than a mere introduction to esoteric words. It’s partly a sort of diary, and partly a collection of philosophical musings, and partly a work or art (each term is accompanied by a photo that in some way illustrates the concept), and partly an act of immense generosity. It’s a delightful combination of intelligence and charm, and every day it offers something new to captivate the curious.

It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be able to use ‘ceratotrichia’ or ‘palpebral’ in casual conversation, even if I can remember them. I’ve no idea how many of these 366 words I’ll actually fold into my vocabulary. But I do know that each day I look forward to another term, another photograph, and another brief peek into Meera’s mind.

So this little blog post is just an aliquot (a measured portion from a larger sample) of my affection for words and for science and for Meera. The level of my actual affection for words, science, and Meera is only measurable on a galactic scale.

summer reading

I’ve spent the early part of the summer re-reading the old adventure novels I loved as a boy. I began with Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini–a novel set during the French Revolution, with one of the best opening lines ever written: He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. Sabatini loved that line so much he used it as his epitaph. He wrote a sequel, Scaramouche the Kingmaker, a decade later–though whether he wrote it because he liked the character or because he needed the cash, I’ve no idea. In any event, it’s a novel that probably should have remained unwritten.

I also read The Prisoner of Zenda, written by Anthony Hope in 1894. It’s an impossibly romantic story, and I mean ‘romantic’ in the old sense of the term. The novel has the most wonderful sociopathic villain, with a perfectly villainous name: Rupert of Hentzau. It also inspired an entire (and, sadly, cheesy) sub-genre of adventure novels in which dissolute or unfortunate members of royalty are temporarily replaced by doppelgangers who manage to save the kingdom. As with Sabatini, Hope wrote a sequel–this one entitled Rupert of Hentzau, featuring that same charming sociopath. The sequel was less successful, though not as painfully bad as Sabatini’s.

Now I’m reading The Four Feathers, the 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason about a young man raised in a British military family who is labeled a coward (the accusation of cowardice is accompanied by a white feather). It takes place in the Sudan during the early 1880s, when the forces of the Mahdi took on the British Empire–one of the first modern clashes between imperialism and religious fanaticism. The protagonist proves his courage by secretly traveling to the Sudan (in disguise, of course–romantic fictional heroes always travel in disguise) and over the course of six years, rescuing his accusers and returning to each of them the white feather. Happily, Mason didn’t write a sequel.