Review: Ursula Vernon’s Nurk

I’ve got a new review up at The Book Book.

Short version: Nurk is a children’s book (the publisher says age range 9-12). But it’s a children’s book in the same way that the Shrek movies are children’s movies. That is, parents who let their children keep this book to themselves are missing out on much subversive fun.

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Art, Meet Life. Life, This Is Art.

You may remember my 10(ish)-year-old story “The Bug,” which I posted here a few weeks ago. In it, the protagonist — home at work with a fever, some kind of bug anyhow — stumbles upon a very strange cable-TV channel. Its name is The Dead Channel; all its programming has to do, somehow, with death. While some of its schedule is devoted to features (talk shows, old movies like The Loved One, and so on), the bulk consists of what our hero thinks of as “deadcasts.”

You’ll be familiar with the format of a deadcast if you’ve ever seen the regular programming of The Weather Channel. A suited announcer, perhaps armed with a pointer, stands before an electronic wall-sized radar or satellite map of the US. The person waves his/her hands over the map, as the map itself is painted over with glowing-green, -yellow, and -red swatches of color representing storms and other conditions.

On The Dead Channel, the maps don’t show stationary fronts, temperature bands, and the like. They show, oh, well… Take the deadcaster named Jack Llongo, for example. He’s obviously new at his job, a little nervous, and keeps muffing his lines, ad-libbing inappropriately, and so on. At one point he’s got a map behind him labeled MORBIDITY INDEX:

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Getting It Out of My System (2)

(Part 1 of this N-part series was here.)

'Skydiving' by amab7 of sxc.hu (click for original)Let’s see, where were we… Oh. Right. I’d just posted excerpts from the Prologue to Crossed Wires, my 1992 mystery, and Chapter 1 from its never-published sequel, Trapdoor. And I said that the differences between those two excerpts sprang from “something” that happened in the roughly one year that elapsed between their two writings — something whose principal result was to relax me.

This isn’t the story of how I came to write Crossed Wires. (A lot of that crosses over into autobiography — not relevant right now.) No, it’s the story of what happened after I wrote it.

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Nouveau Retro: Big Daddy

Brief post today… Worked way later on writing-type stuff than I’d meant to. (So I guess that counts as an excuse, huh?) In any case, this one has decidedly nothing at all to do with writing.

Sometime back in 1991-92, I got a very curious gift from my brother. It was a cassette tape (I later upgraded to CD) of music by a group called “Big Daddy”; the title was Cutting Their Own Groove.

On the front, an antique-looking record player seemed to be playing, was it? yes! an old 45-rpm vinyl record. A rainbow of sparks was shooting from the needle at the end of the tone arm. I flipped the cassette over, curious to see what the playlist might be. As my brother knew, my preferred musical genre at the time was oldies, so maybe…

What was this?!? All the tracks were recent hits! Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” “Graceland,” by Paul Simon…

This was a stupid cover band! What was Mike thinking, sending me this crap?!?

Long story short: a cover band, all right. But a cover band with a difference. A difference which Mike knew would appeal to me.

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Seeing, Not Seeing

From whiskey river (originally published [PDF] in Beloit Poetry Journal, Fall/Winter 2004/2005):

It Wasn’t Death She Saw

But life:
skin dancing with flesh
like silk curtains that swirl in the wind
above her mother’s window

up up   now puff!   and in again

Or breath — is the wind breathing?
She’d been playing in the grass when it happened:
the snake flung
from the mower’s blade, rainbows
of ribbons in the air

rainbows rainbows everywhere, catch a ribbon for your hair

She wrapped the pretty pieces in willow leaves and grass.
When she told her mother what she’d seen —
the way life
leapt out of the snake
just like a ballerina —
her mother beat her,
scrubbed her tongue with salt

but Mama, it was beautiful, like fireflies at night

She learned to hold her body

very still.

(by Kirstin Hotelling Zona: editor, Poetry Radio podcasts)

Not from whiskey river:

The Stare’s Nest by My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

(W.B. Yeats)

Finally, there’s “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night,” by Tom Waits, performed by Madeleine Peyroux (lyrics below):

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Edit to add: And, what the heck, just for comparison here’s Shawn Colvin’s (live) very different but just as enchanting take on the same song — which I just found out about. (Thanks, Jules!)

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(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night

Well you gassed her up
Behind the wheel
With your arm around your sweet one
In your Oldsmobile
Barrelin’ down the boulevard
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night

And you got paid on Friday
And your pockets are jingling
And you see the lights
You get all tinglin’ cause you’re cruising with a six
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night

Then you comb your hair
Shave your face
Trying to wipe out every trace
All the other days
In the week you know that this’ll be the Saturday
You’re reachin’ your peak

Stopping on the red
You’re going on the green
Tonight’ll be like nothing
You’ve ever seen
You’re barreling down the boulevard
Looking for the heart of Saturday night

Tell me is the crack of the poolballs, neon buzzin
Telephone’s ringing; it’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smiling from the corner of her eye
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye

Makes it kind of quiver down in the core
You’re dreaming of them Saturdays that came before
Now you’re stumbling
You’re stumbling onto the heart of Saturday night
Now you’re stumbling
You’re stumbling onto the heart of Saturday night

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Getting It Out of My System (1)

[In a post a few days ago, I started to nose around my “issues” with writing mysteries, thrillers, and the like. This is the perfect time do something I really don’t like to do, much — to lay out the story behind one of my formative experiences as a writer: the publication, in 1992, of my first book. In a couple days, in part 2, I’ll cover how it got to print. In this part, I’ll try to purge myself of some second thoughts about the book itself. And maybe, in the process, I’ll get the damned monkey off my back.]

Crossed Wires didn’t get many really good reviews, a fact which stunned and wounded its author. On the other hand, I learned that even when reviewers found some honest-to-God fatal flaw, they were nearly always generous enough to close their reviews on an “up” note.

I’ve got a folder of Crossed Wires reviews sitting on the desk here, right by my hand. But I’m not (for now) going to quote specifics. Instead, I’m going to talk in generalities — categories of things which bothered reviewers. The complaints were of three kinds (not all equally easy to dismiss):

  1. Complaints about the heroine, Finley’s, depiction as a hearing-impaired person. Surprisingly, these complaints came primarily from individual readers and online communities who were themselves hearing-impaired. The problem was never, He shouldn’t be writing about this stuff. Instead, it was Oh, this isn’t what it’s really like to have a problem hearing… That would never happen with a hearing aid. And so on. While it sort of bugged me, this criticism was the easiest of the three types to ignore — because, of course, Finley’s experiences with deafness and hearing aids had been my own.
  2. Complaints about the lack of mystery to this “mystery”: how easily the reader knew in advance who the killer was, how slow on the uptake were the “good guys” (especially Finley). I’ve got no excuses in this department. (On the other hand, as you’ll see in part 2, I had some professional help in mucking up the storytelling.) Unfortunately, the mystery at the heart of any mystery novel, the suspense in any thriller, is its reason for being; even if I’d eliminated complaints of type 1 (above) and type 2 (below), this one alone would have killed the book’s chances for success. And rightly so.
  3. Complaints about the writing style. While these didn’t come from the majority of reviewers, they probably stung the most. Somewhere here on RAMH recently, or maybe it was a comment on a blog somewhere, I mentioned that I think of myself more as a writer than as a storyteller. Every family member (of course), every friend, every teacher and school newspaper/magazine advisor I’d had through college, every editor with whom I’d ever corresponded on story proposals and so on… they all agreed: “John can write.” That someone — professionals at that, who by definition must appreciate good writing — that they didn’t join the chorus, well, it just flabbergasted me.

It’s this third sort of critique which I want to talk about here. And I’m not going to argue the point, either. I’m going to agree with it.

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Biweekly Algonquin

When I first moved down here in 1993 to be with the woman who would eventually become The Missus, among the things that excited me (as opposed to the things I dreaded) was her writing circle.

At the time, she was enrolled in a graduate creative-writing program. She had met numerous other writers through that program, of course, including two, Andrea and Donna, who would be her best friends for years afterwards. The Donna connection led to Clark, her S.O., who was also a writer (but not in the creative-writing program). Between one thing and another, then, I found myself — previously more or less alone in my writing, save for online friends — abruptly part of a small group whose members both loved writing and liked (eventually loved) one another.

It was an interesting mix. Andrea and Donna were both poets; in addition, Andrea wrote short stories, and Donna also wrote creative non-fiction and litcrit. Clark wrote horror and SF. The Missus, in her eyes, was “just” a fiction writer, but surprised herself (although not the rest of us) by writing killer poetry, too. And I wrote, uh, well, whatever it was — mostly fiction.

Everybody didn’t have something to workshop at each of our biweekly sessions, of course. Whoever was up next would have already distributed the story, poem, or whatever to the other members of the group. So we’d come armed with marked-up printouts — on the last page, always a paragraph or two of summary. The way it worked was that the writer of a given piece would sit there and just listen, not engage in back-and-forth, as all four readers gave their critiques. Then the writer could say whatever was on his/her mind. And then we’d do another writer’s work.

And then we’d have the rest of the evening to “socialize.” In my mind’s eye, although I know for certain that we shared meals on many of these occasions, what I really see is not food — not even drink (which there was always plenty of, too) — but the laughing faces and eyes of those four other people.

The Missus and I were talking about those times the other day — particularly about a debate she’d had with Clark about the movie The Piano. The exact nature of the debate (who took which side, pro or con, and what was the evidence mounted in each camp) isn’t important here. What’s important is the exquisite sense which just talking about it brought back to both of us, a sense of “what a time it was,” as Paul Simon sang. (To which Gus McRae, of Lonesome Dove, would add in the same spirit, “It was sooooome party, wasn’t it?”)

Over the years, other commitments called. A couple new members came in for a while, drifted away. And then things just sort of… evaporated. The Missus and I are still here but others have gone on to their own elsewheres (one of our original group even leaving the world altogether). Maybe this is the way such things always go. I don’t know, ’cause I sure hadn’t had such a thing before — and haven’t since.

Funny how much you can so quickly and profoundly become dependent on others — good others — not just for their help with your profession and craft, but for care and feeding of your soul. Luckily, in The Missus I’m still blessed with those.

But even after… after what is it? nine years? — yes, even now not a day goes by that I don’t see the faces of all four of them in my head: their laughter, their pulsating impatience as they waited for everyone else to finish so they could just explain what they meant, their knitted brows, and yeah, again: their laughter.

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Writing to Deadline

I have always had a weird affinity for the cartoonist Jack Ziegler, whom I first encountered in The New Yorker. He’s not their most prolific contributor — these days, you might find his work once in every three or four issues. Time was, though, when he put in an appearance weekly. And for whatever reason, I found myself drawn (ho ho) to his eccentric view of modern civilization, to the point that I picked up a couple of his anthologies over the years.

His 1978 collection, Hamburger Madness, includes several fine depictions of writers’ dilemmas. The first, the title cartoon, isn’t really about writing per se. But the mind of its protagonist will be familiar to anyone who has been given three months, a month, a week, a few hours to finish a manuscript. Or, of course, has suddenly found himself in the throes of writing passionately, goosed by The Muse:

The second example, though, will really hit home.

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Upsetting the Apple Cart

I’m going to go out on a limb here and…

…no, I’m not going to write a post about posts which begin with long-dead metaphors, posts whose authors should really know better. Though I, or somebody, probably should.

What I am going to say is possibly heretical and, well, possibly something I should keep my mouth shut about, since I care about my putative writing career. But it’s been driving me crazy — a real professional and perhaps even personal dilemma.

One of the first pieces of advice you get from agents, published authors, writing workshops, writers’ guides, and so on, is that you must picture where in the bookstore your book will be shelved. This becomes, then, your genre. Fiction’s got mystery, romance, SF/fantasy, young adult (YA), so on and so forth; and then non-fiction too is all over the map — biography, history, true crime, humor (hey, I didn’t make up these categories!), travel, reference…

(Above all else, the advice goes, if you’re serious about your writing career, avoid the dreaded mid-list/mainstream classification.)

Where will your book come to rest? they all want to know. Where do you belong?

Actually, it’s not such questions per se which are problematical. You do need to have some sense of how to explain your work — especially to potential agents, editors, even casual readers — and providing the genre helps accomplish that, even before you’ve offered details.

Where problems do come in is when you select a genre in advance, before a book is even written — despite your own proclivities.

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Publisher Seeking Authors: The New Frontier

At the Dennis Cass Wants You to Be More Awesome site, in a thread about dispensing with the whole query-an-editor/agent process, member Paul Mikos pointed me to an experiment by publisher HarperCollins UK.

The experiment goes by the name “authonomy” (a cute neologism I’m still trying to make up my mind about). From the authonomy page of Frequently Asked Questions:

authonomy invites unpublished and self published authors to post their manuscripts for visitors to read online. Authors create their own personal page on the site to host their project — and must make at least 10,000 words available for the public to read.

Visitors to authonomy can comment on these submissions — and can personally recommend their favourites to the community. authonomy counts the number of recommendations each book receives, and uses it to rank the books on the site. It also spots which visitors consistently recommend the best books — and uses that info to rank the most influential trend spotters.

We hope the authonomy community will guide publishers straight to the freshest writing talent — and will give passionate and thoughtful readers a real chance to influence what’s on our shelves.

The reason Mikos pointed me to the authonomy site was that I’d earlier commented on the same thread that writers should form online marketplaces to which agents and publishers would come, seeking writing samples.

I suspect I’ll soon be lurking in the authonomy wings for at least a little while, and if so I’ll report back here about the experience.

For now, as I said to Mikos, I’m concerned about the time commitment required to participate fully and fairly. I know about myself that if I posted 10,000 words of my own writing, I couldn’t just sit back and wait to hear reactions to it. I’d want to read at least one to five thousand (or more) words of the contributions of five or more other authors, and I’d want to try maintaining an active involvement in the authonomy forum(s), and, and, and…

But it may also be too tempting to pass up, especially this early in the experiment.

For the record, as I said in an earlier post about blurbs, the whole business of writers trading public responses to one another’s work seems heavy with potential for abuse. I’m still not 100% comfortable with it at authonomy; that the mutual reviewers aren’t compensating one another with cash seems a minor point, since the real coin of an unpublished writer’s career is that of attention. The authonomy FAQ deals with this question, to some extent:

Just like the books market at large, there may be a few flutters and fads at authonomy. And in this day and age, there’s no denying you need to think about actively promoting your book to readers by networking if you want to gather a healthy army of support.

But with thousands of members at the site to impress and some stiff competition, it will take more than schmooze and a winning smile to reach the top. We believe quality of writing and book construction will be the ultimate test to sustained support and success on the site. When your book is assessed by the editorial board or by any visiting agent or publisher, quality of work is by far the most important consideration.

We’ll see!

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