Scraps and Leavings: What I’ve Been Working On

Cover: 'Night of the Living Dregs,' by the Dixie Dregs

[Image: album cover for Night of the Living Dregs (1979), by the Dixie Dregs]

For some time, I haven’t talked much at all here — anywhere — about what sorts of things I might have been writing since I finished the putative final draft of Seems to Fit, now a couple of years ago. I haven’t talked about it because it’s hard to classify:

No books, certainly not completed ones [Update: see the note at the foot of this post] — although much of what I’ve been writing has (you might say) potential in a bookwards direction. Instead, I have been sort of puttering around with well over a dozen short projects. A handful of these are complete, more or less; most just stop — some in mid-page. I don’t even remember a few of them: the act of writing, or even where the story was headed. But every one of them contains something, some scrap of verbiage and/or some scene or scrap of dialogue, which I was happy to encounter today, as I set about revisiting (not revising) them.

Here are some samples.

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Skimming Tangentially Against the Agented Universe, and the Scriptwriting One

Nelson Literary Agency: Agent Reads the Slush Pile

[Don’t read too much into this RAMH post’s title.]

Last night, I and 40+ others participated in an interesting webinar called Agent Reads the Slush Pile. It lasted from 8pm Eastern time until close to 10:30. Each of about forty authors submitted the first two pages of a manuscript, including as “identifying” information only the title and genre — i.e., no names. Each of these mini-manuscripts was assigned a random number, which determined the order in which they’d be read. And then the agent… well, the agent read them. Commenting as she went. The idea was to reproduce, aloud, what it was like for an agent to just dive into a batch of unsolicited manuscripts. (And to answer the unspoken question: no, she hadn’t seen any of the submissions in advance.)

How it worked, more precisely: an agent at the agency read the mini-MSS aloud, one at a time, while the lead agent moderated her progress through the reading with little instructions like, “Okay, stop right there for a second…” and “Okay, pick up at the next paragraph.” At each point of interruption or discontinuity she’d point out something like a pattern of word choices or details which were helping (or, more often, hurting) the story at this point. (Considering that it’s the first two pages of a novel, one definitely wants not to include anything like impediments.)

We also had plenty of opportunities to ask questions, which didn’t need to be restricted to the reading/critiques.

I won’t get into details of the critiques. But I will say that it all drove home to me the importance of three precepts, as if you don’t already know these things:

  • Choose your genre well and carefully.
  • Choose the details you include — also both well and carefully.
  • Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

[Read more…]

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Midweek Music Break: Theme-Park Earworms

The Missus and I took a much-needed mini-vacation this past weekend, trekking off to central Florida for (among other things) our first visit to the other theme park in that neighborhood. We love amusement parks and fairs (county, state, you name it), but neither of us is a big roller-coaster fan; most of the rides at our destination park were pure roller coasters, or adaptations of the genre. And if you look through the place’s Web site, you will observe that pretty much all the happy, screaming people in the photos are no more than half our age, and the majority much younger.

Still, we found plenty to do, although we spent only about five or six hours at the park itself (counting a full dinner).

The single activity I spent most of the four days engaged in — other than driving, haha — was reading. It felt almost irresponsible, reading so much. I finished one book I’d been reading for weeks; started and finished another in the next 24 hours; and put a huge dent in a third. I read for hours at a clip. (Of course, it helped that I’d sorta-but-not-quiiiiiite-finished this draft of Seems to Fit a couple days before. The very last chapter still needs work, but even so, my head was largely empty of responsibility to my own story.)

Anyway, headed into the midweek I got thinking about theme- and amusement-park music. Usually — at least to my mind — this music is associated with carousels, merry-go-rounds, whatever-you-call them, and often has that characteristic hurdy-gurdy sound. (The rides’ up-and-down round-and-round rhythms favor short songs played over, and over, and over, and over…) When I was a kid, a carousel appeared on the streets of our own town every now and again in summer, and the single number I remember it playing was (maybe unsurprisingly) “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down.”

Wikipedia says:

[It was] written in 1937 by Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin. It is best known as the theme tune for the Looney Tunes cartoon series produced by Warner Bros. Cartoons, used from 1937 to 1969.

Here’s one Looney Tunes rendition, not the opening-titles instrumental but as sung by an early version of guess-who in “Daffy Duck and Egghead” (1938):

But the cartoon version was (is) waaay too fast to be played by any carousel other than one about to fly apart at its welded seams. The one I remember was paced more like this disturbing version from television’s old Lawrence Welk Show:

(The cartoon version of the song, though, provided me with the title for Merry-Go-Round. The sequel to that, called Merrily We Roll Along, gets its title from the theme song for the Merry Melodies cartoon series — also by Warner Brothers.)

Now it occurs to me that another carousel song was adapted for use in short comedies from the same mid-1930s era: “Listen to the Mockingbird,” the first theme song for The Three Stooges’ films. (They later switched to “Three Blind Mice,” but I’ve never heard a carousel play that one. Maybe the transference works in only one direction.)

At any rate, no matter how much I enjoy theme and amusement parks, especially those in central Florida, I can never dissociate them from this song:

Yeah. That (the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair) was the first place I ever heard it, too — maybe fifteen, twenty years before first re-encountering it at Disney World. What a surprise *cough* that it stayed with me during all that time in between!

In the above clip, the voiceover celebrates how many languages sing the song during the ride. Of course, the more languages in which it’s sung and instruments on which it’s played, the more times the maddening tune must be played, and the more desperate the riders grow to be freed from the little boats they’re trapped in. I like to imagine the Disney crew in their white short-sleeved shirts and ties, brainstorming around a table in a bar in late-1950s Southern California, laughing, growing ever drunker as they call out, “We’ve gotta do it in Sanskrit!” “Wait — Tagalog!” “Don’t forget Urdu!” “Old Norse!” “Pygmy Bantu!”…

I opted here not to use any of the videos which play all of “It’s a Small World.” If you’re a glutton for punishment, you’ve got a lot of them to choose from.

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The Shock of What You Already Know

For one reason or another, while sort of spiraling down the drain toward the end of this draft of Seems to Fit, I’ve been thinking some about Merry-Go-Round.

Don’t fret if you don’t recognize the title Merry-Go-Round. This was the novel I wrote back in 2007-08, and apparently last mentioned here at RAMH in a post about two-and-a-half years ago. In response to a hypothetical question as to its genre, I once offered:

Well, let’s see. It’s sort of a thriller. It’s sort of a near-future or parallel-world kind of story. There’s some funny stuff. And it’s also political. Does that help?

Now that it’s been at arm’s length, so to speak, for a few years, I doubt that it helps… but I still can’t think of a much better way to describe it, not without leaking a whole lot of plot details. You can read its prologue (here) and know a little more — at least maybe get a sense of the sort of world the action takes place: why it’s a “near-future or parallel-world kind of story.”

I don’t know what if anything I’ll ever do with Merry-Go-Round. At the time, it felt to me like a warming-up exercise. Maybe it will someday justify working on some more. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking particularly about a passage from about two-thirds of the way through.

All you really need to know to read the sample yourself is the following (repeated in a text box at the start of the excerpt):

This excerpt from Merry-Go-Round leads into a “big reveal”: what exactly has happened to one Walker Bryce, citizen of an unknown country — not quite the USA? (Of course it’s not the USA. It can’t be the USA, can it? Not with the dome of the Capitol building in the capital city, clad in stark gray steel armor?) All Walker knows is that he’ recently been… kidnapped, hasn’t he? or rescued? after being held… held… a prisoner, was it? Yes, rescued… yet kept in some sort of hospital… And now he’s being escorted out, finally, by a woman he knows only as “Tex.”

Not sure why I’ve been thinking of this passage in particular; it doesn’t have anything to do with Seems to Fit, nor with my work or personal life. I have to say that I do like the depiction of the scene — the details — especially given that they’re mundane, but being regarded by someone who at least believes he has never seen anything like them previously.

Maybe that sense of wonder — the shock of the familiar, the strangeness of the expected and hoped-for — is just a metaphor for what every writer hopes to induce in every reader. Maybe we can’t always (sorry, Herr Kafka) write books to stab our readers’ souls, to wake them up with a blow to the head — or to make them happy, for that matter. But at least we can write sentences and story lines that make them go: Whoa. I’ve never seen that before, have I?

The password for accessing this excerpt is the full name of the character first mentioned there (capitalized just that way, and yes, with the space between first and surname).

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Software I’d Like to See: Fotōpic

Wireframe street/building scene (click to enlarge)

It makes no difference that I’ve been a computer programmer for nearly 30 years now. There are computer programmers and there are computer programmers. If your assignments (actual or potential) don’t require you to use a given technology, chances are you’ll never learn that technology. Meanwhile, the world passes you by in the form of all the folks (generally younger) who can make the technology sing.

Still, it’s nice to fantasize about the sort of project you’d like to work on, someday, if you only knew enough…

In Merry-Go-Round, I did this with a few wholly imaginary (as far as I know) pieces of software. Of these, the one I like the most is called Fotōpic. In the passage which follows, Fotōpic’s general nature is explained, and one character is shown using it.

Background: The character in this passage, Abbie, is on a mission on behalf of an underground/resistance movement which goes by the name of ACME Universal. Her mission: travel by train one night to the (fictional) town of Jessup’s Cut, Maryland, where she will make contact with a man whose description she knows, but whom she has never met.

There’s one problem: Abbie needs to get to Jessup’s Cut, make the contact, and get out of Jessup’s Cut as fast as possible. But she’s never been there, and she can’t go in advance. How’s she going to navigate her way around a town’s building, trees, streets, street lamps, obstacles which a GPS unit or satellite photos won’t help her with?

Here goes. From Merry-Go-Round:

[Read more…]

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Cramming Technologies into an Elevator

My brother the architect once explained to me the key to building things successfully. By building he meant not just framing, erecting walls and roofs and so on, but everything: flooring, painting, pouring foundations, and so on. All of it, he said, had one critical element: edges. How an architect or builder or home handyman handles edges defines his or her success at it. Buildings fall down; patterned wallpaper fails to match up at the seams; bookshelves wobble, and a marble placed on the floor rolls freely from one corner to another.

This doesn’t apply just to physical structures, to edifices. It applies, I think, to just about everything artificial.

One of Merry-Go-Rounds underlying themes is the fragility of technology. Any one piece of equipment or software, even two or three, may work just fine after being tested and tested and tested. The word for this is “robustness”: the more robust a system, the closer it is to that magical (and mythical) state commonly known as fail-safe.

Where problems begin to arise is, yes, along the edges: those conceptual little nooks and crannies where the surfaces of multiple technologies come together.

[Read more…]

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On Writing Long: Edith Wharton

Time change - tastes change - *I've* changed!Back in May — the 26th, to be exact — Steve King’s invaluable and always entertaining Today in Literature newsletter informed us that on that day in 1891, Edith Wharton’s first story was accepted for publication, by Scribner’s Magazine. The story was called “Mrs. Manstey’s View.”

(Yes, by the way: that’s accepted for publication — not actually published. I can’t imagine how Mr. King manages to keep all these dates organized or, for that matter, how he learns of them in the first place.)

I confess, with some embarrassment, that I have never read any of Edith Wharton’s books. (Now that I’ve written that, I guess I should commit to filling that gap in my education.) Yet I do have a few connections with her.

[Read more…]

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Love and Laughter

Yesterday I went into a soapbox-lecture rant, shall we say? (yes, let’s — rants seem to be another thing that’s done a lot), about some of the comments to a recent post on Nathan Bransford’s blog.

At the end of every week, Bransford posts a “This Week in Publishing” entry summing up recent industry news and often alluding to the conversation on his own blog. Yesterday’s “This Week,” naturally, referred to the hypothetical questions he’d posed earlier — and to the answers, answers, answers, answers it elicited. And one of the mini-conversations resulting from the “This Week” post caught my eye.

It took place between someone identifying herself as Thomma Lynn, and someone with the moniker “a paperback writer” (evocative, for those of us Of A Certain Age). In the midst of a lot of hard-eyed appraisals of the harsh realities of art, the harsher realities of business, the naivete of writing newcomers, and the thick skins of writing veterans, Thomma Lynn and a paperback writer suddenly found themselves talking about — of all things — love:

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“What’s Your Book About?”

I hate that question. (I hate a lot of questions, grump that I am.) There’s no easy way to answer it, really — not just me, for Merry-Go-Round, but a lot of other writers, for their books. After you’ve spent months or years ensuring that it would be about something, when somebody asks the question as an icebreaker at a cocktail party it’s hard to say much more than, “Uhhhhhh…”

(Oh, I generally manage to improvise something. A good shortcut is to say something like, “You know [insert book or movie title here]? Well, my book is like that, except [insert exception(s) here].” At the very least, this simplifies the task of changing the subject — because now you’ll be talking about somebody else’s book or movie instead of your own.

But now along comes Wordle. And I think it provides an easy way to answer the question: paste the entire contents of your book into the Wordle form, and hit the Go button. Instant summary. And it’ll keep the questioner busy for hours.

I don’t have the entire Merry-Go-Round manuscript handy. But I do have an early draft of Chapters 8 through 19 here. If you’d read that excerpt when it was current, the following would have made sense (click for larger image; note that the Wordle settings I chose here specified that it would display no more than 1000 words — the default is much smaller, 150 or so):

Wordle version of MGR Chaps. 8-19

Voilá — instant synopsis! (Now if I could only convince an agent to accept this sort of thing instead of a real synopsis…)

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Merry-Go-Round: Prologue

It seems to be the thing to do, these days, to actually just go ahead and post an excerpt of one’s current work-in-progress (“progress” in either the actual writing or in the getting-it-to-market senses).

So then. Here goes…

Prologue

Maroon-proof. Mikey would wonder about that for a long time. It barely sounded like English.

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