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authonomy invites unpublished and self published authors to post their manuscripts for visitors to read online.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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Short Fiction: Modem Operandi

One thing The Missus has always said about my writing: if it amuses no one else, it amuses me. Personally, I think she exaggerates. It doesn’t all “amuse” me. [wounded sniff] But one story, well, I really enjoyed writing it. And it still makes me grin to re-read.

Like many stories I wrote in the ’90s, “Modem Operandi” was born of a writing exercise. This one had a single simple premise: write a story about an online community whose members are dying. That was it. No length restrictions. No gimmicky bits about the opening and closing sentences. No genre specified.

At the time this exercise was presented to me, I’d just finished the first draft of my first book — a mystery which, as it happened, centered around email and electronic bulletin-board systems (BBSes). And I was feeling a little bit burnt out by the requirement to ensure that readers understand the technology. (Remember, this was the early 1990s: no Web, for one thing; online communication itself was via low-speed analog modems whose throughput was in the range of mere hundreds of bits per second. Email had begun making inroads at some companies, true. But by and large this was still very much terra incognita for my presumptive audience.)

So I decided to have fun with the exercise — just write and enjoy it, on the assumption that I wouldn’t have to explain every freaking thing to readers who at least understood the basics.

“Modem Operandi” was the result: a sort of comic-noir first-person story which (although 10K-ish words in length) took me only a couple days to write.

(By the way, the narrator of this story, one Jack Frame, has left a legacy in Merry-Go-Round: his son Kevin plays a minor but significant role.)

It was always too long to appear in print publications of the time, although I did submit it to a couple. Now, some e-zines might accept it… but the technology is woefully out of date, and honestly, I don’t feel a compelling need to re-write it around the Web, Google, even IRC over BBSes.

As always with these longish “short fiction” pieces, I’ll link from here to an opening excerpt. And there’ll be a link at the foot of that page which allows you to download the whole thing as a PDF.

Anyway: here’s “Modem Operandi.” Enjoy!

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You Can Run but You Can’t Hide

From whiskey river:

All you can do is this: Whatever you experience, whether tangible or intangible, look underneath the experience, like a child looking for a lizard under a stone. You’re not expecting anything to be there, but you’re always wondering if there might be.

(Richard Leviton)

Not from whiskey river:

One of life’s primal situations; the game of hide and seek. Oh, the delicious thrill of hiding while the others come looking for you, the delicious terror of being discovered, but what panic when, after a long search, the others abandon you! You mustn’t hide too well. You mustn’t be too good at the game. The player must never be bigger than the game itself.

(Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories)

And finally, sometimes you can’t help wondering if there might be something under the next stone, too… Cartoon from The Funny Times cartoon archive:

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The Boy, The Boy’s Mother, The Two Trains

His time as a boy had passed many years ago. But, he suspected, he would always and forever be The Boy. His mind would ever run like two trains on two parallel tracks at once, one inside his head and the other outside, the trains always synced up, The Boy always and effortlessly stepping back and forth between the two, roaming the cars, visiting the locomotives, sounding the whistles, liking the way the views from the two trains mirrored each other but were never the same. He recognized his voice in each train, though the voice was different.

So when The Boy’s mother called that Wednesday night, he was both surprised and not surprised to find himself with one foot in each train.

Outwardly, The Boy carried on his half of a thirty-minute conversation as though nothing was unusual. They talked about his mother and stepdad’s annual two-week trip to Maine, to a camp which The Boy and his siblings had never seen, would never see. The drive would be, as always, a long one, over eight hours, and at age seventy-seven his mother could be forgiven (even by his stepdad) for wanting to split the drive across two days. So they talked about the place the two travelers would spend Friday night this year; they talked about the places the two travelers had spent Friday nights on the last few trips north, in the last few years: about how this one had closed, this one had changed hands and was now owned by strangers The Boy’s stepdad didn’t think he wanted to trust, how they’d finally found this new Friday stopping-over place on the Internet and it sounded nice, little cottages, friendly innkeepers.

They talked about the logistical details: how much clothing they’d need to pack, and how much warmer or cooler the weather would always be than The Boy’s mother and stepdad had predicted. They talked about the meals the two campers would have at in the dining hall at the campground, how much fishing The Boy’s stepdad would be able to do, how many books his mother could read and needlework projects she could start, put aside, and sometimes finish in two weeks.

And they talked about things besides the upcoming vacation. They talked about The Boy’s siblings, about his niece and nephews. His mother had finally, after over forty years, announced to her pastor that she would not be teaching confirmation class any longer. What will you be doing with all your free time?, The Boy teased his mother. He knew what the answer would be, in general terms, before she even spoke: Well, I still teach the weekly Bible study, she said, and I think I might go back to visiting people from our church in the hospital, I always liked that.

The Boy was sitting during the conversation on the deck of his home, nearly a thousand miles distant from his mother. The door from the living room to the deck was open a few inches, allowing the cats and the new dog freedom to come and go onto the screened portion where he was sitting. So part of the conversation turned to the new dog, the adjustment to household routines, the psychological turmoil in both the cats’ and the dog’s heads which came from suddenly sharing living quarters with alien species. I can’t wait to get down there to see her, said The Boy’s mother, speaking of the new terrier. She sounds so cute and funny. Yes, said The Boy, she’s all that, and he went on to share some examples: the stuffed squeaking toys, the late-night walks around the darkened neighborhood, the new dog’s pint-sized ferocity as she barked at threats which didn’t exist.

Then as they talked, The Boy suddenly became aware of flashing red lights on the country road which he could see from the deck. He could hear the rising warble of a siren, the way the tree frogs silenced respectfully the way they always did.

His mother heard it, too. Sounds like a fire, she said, the simple observation masking a silent question: You’re safe, aren’t you, son? You and The Missus?

And for a moment The Boy’s mind suddenly lay bare as he watched it, one foot planted in each locomotive. Yeah, he said from the one train, not sure if it’s a fire truck or maybe an ambulance, I can see the lights, and you know how you can hear just about everything going on outside here once it gets late enough.

Meanwhile, The Boy in the other locomotive was thinking back. He was remembering all the times he’d heard his mother’s voice laugh girlishly, as it had when she’d first picked up the phone tonight: excited by the upcoming trip, eager to share the details, happy for yet another easy reason for the two of them to talk. He was remembering the times when he’d heard her voice at the front of a Sunday-school class, when she’d burst out laughing when The Boy caught her saying something mildly devilish, the way she’d said, simply, all those hundreds of times decades ago, Pass your father the salt. He was remembering the way she’d made her voice do just this on a thousand occasions gone by: the surface comment on something of the moment, the undertone which said, I can’t help you anymore, son, are you sure you’re all right?

The Boy’s mind and his eyes clouded over for a split-second as he caught his breath and forced himself to step from one train to the other, although he knew it wouldn’t last (yet last just long enough).

Well, Mom, he heard himself say, I’ve gotta go, I see that the dog’s ready for her walk and I gotta go and I know you and my stepdad have probably got lots of packing to do yet.

Yes, she agreed, yes, we do. There was the familiar (thousand-times-rehearsed) volley of awkward sentence fragments, Have a safe tr—, We’ll have cell phones—, You know I’ll be thinking—, You know I’ll be thinking of—.

Then the pause.

Say hi to The Missus, The Boy’s mother said, you know we love you both.

We love you, too, Mom, The Boy heard himself say, have a good safe fun trip!

And then the goodbyes.

Beneath him, between his outspread feet, the cinders rushed by in the nighttime air. The wheels clacked rhythmically on the rails. The Boy leaned one way and another, never in danger of losing his balance, both savoring and terrified by his suspension, apparently, in mid-air while traveling at high speed to a destination he still couldn’t see. His grip tightened on the door frame to either side. His breath quickened, his throat knotted, vision blurred, as the wind blew past his head. He looked down.

At his feet sat, quietly, a normally hyperactive small dog, looking out at the dark with him, again hearing the tree frogs and the crackle of tree branches and leaves in the wind.

The Boy reached down, skritched the dog behind the ears a couple of times. Then he depressed the Talk button on the telephone, superfluously, the conversation already past. With something verging on a sigh, he stood up and he resumed his journey: back and forth, stepping first aboard one train and then the other.

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The World Has Not Ended, But the Day Is Still Young

Another brief, YouTube-salvaged entry today to work on a review for the Book Book site

Libba Bray (link to her site over there on the right, under the “Je Ne Sais Quoi…” category) is a funny YA author, and an all too infrequent blogger. In her most recent post, she mentions being a physics freak and takes the opportunity to draw our attention to news of the Large Hadron Collider:

Tomorrow [Editor’s Note: i.e., TODAY, Wednesday, 2008-09-10], on the border of France and Switzerland, way underground, The Hadron Super Collider will be turned on, and physicists will search for answers about the universe. What’s out there? What is dark energy? When the Big Bang happened, where did all that matter go, and would it have been such an imposition for it to have sent us a few postcards over the years? Is there a Higgs-Boson (aka “God Particle”) or is that just the name of some disaffected aristocratic particle who drinks too much and lives in a crumbling estate on the edge of the universe? (You know, next to the restaurant. Sigh. Douglas Adams. R.I.P. Did you know Douglas Adams and I share a birthday? You do now. Plenty of time to shop for it, too. Well, for me. Mr. Adams did not leave a forwarding address that I know of. But I digress.)

We were talking super colliders. And what the universe is made of. And why gravity is so weak in our world. And why we’re here. And whether there might be other dimensions and if they have malls and if those malls are more evolved or do they still have a Hot Topic right next to the Jamba Juice.

…There are naysayers who worry that the Hadron Super Collider will create a black hole that will swallow the earth and annihilate every single thing including the cockroaches and Paris Hilton. You know, there are always drawbacks, people. This is science.

To reassure us, though, she also directs our attention to this video, courtesy of the scientific community:

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Partridge-Built Canoes

I was scouting around recently looking for information on the word “gnomic.” It seemed apropos for a comment I wanted to make on somebody else’s blog, and I thought I gnew knew what it meant, but wasn’t 100% positive.

One of the more thorough resources I located on this subject was the “Love to Know 1911” site, which is supposedly (who knows?) based on the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Here’s an abridged version of what it says there about “gnome and gnomic poetry”:

Sententious maxims, put into verse for the better aid of the memory, were known by the Greeks as gnomes, from [the Greek word for] an opinion. A gnome is defined by the Elizabethan critic Henry Peacham (1576?-1643?) as “a saying pertaining to the manners and common practices of men, which declareth, with an apt brevity, what in this our life ought to be done, or not done.” The Gnomic Poets of Greece, who flourished in the 6th century B.C., were those who arranged series of sententious maxims in verse… But the title “gnomic” came to be given to all poetry which dealt in a sententious way with questions of ethics. It was, unquestionably, the source from which moral philosophy was directly developed, and theorists upon life and infinity, such as Pythagoras and Xenophanes, seem to have begun their career as gnomic poets. By the very nature of things, gnomes, in their literary sense, belong exclusively to the dawn of literature; their naivete and their simplicity in moralizing betray it.

Which tends to confirm what Wiktionary tells us about “gnomic” in the informal sense:

(of a saying or aphorism) Mysterious and often incomprehensible yet seemingly wise.

In the event, I didn’t end up using “gnomic” in the comment. It fit, but (per the above) it can be pejorative, and I hate to hurt people’s feelings (or, alternatively, p!ss them off).

And anyway, I’d come across some distractingly interesting examples of Native American gnomic pronouncements. (Who knew?) These are from the eighteen-volume Cambridge History of English and American Literature (Ward & Trent, et al. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–21):

Watch him with his neighbour’s children.
Would you choose a councillor,

Do not stand wishing for the fish in the water,
Go home and make a spear.
(Puget Sound)

And my favorite:

Of an affair which makes a great stir without getting forward the Micmac will say: “It goes like the canoe that the Partridge made.” The point of the comparison is in the fable of the Partridge who, observing that a canoe goes faster when the ends are well rounded, conceived the brilliant idea of a canoe which should be rounded on the sides also. The result was a bowl-shaped structure which went round and round without progress.

Don’t ever let anybody tell you these were primitive people.

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Celebrity Moments (Bogus Edition)

I love finding new, really well-written blogs. But I don’t like using services like StumbleUpon and Technorati et al. to find them. Many of my favorites I came to almost accidentally; someone comments astutely on someone else’s blog, for example, and I follow up the link from the commenter’s name, and lo, there I find a rich verdant pasture of daily commentary and/or howling snarkery, or whatever.

So it was that I landed on The Misssy M Misssives (yes, those are triple S’s), subtitled “Stories from a Besom and Blether.”

In particular, I landed there on a post from May, entitled “David Bowie sold me a raffle ticket”:

…in my life, it appears that I have met quite a few famous people. I thought I’d list some of them for you for a laugh. They are all true.

True. All right then. That’s interesting. And they are funny. (Likewise all the comments, in which visitors listed their own brushes with the notable.)

(Note, though, that not all these celebrities will be familiar, capital-N Names on this side of the Atlantic — or maybe just on this side of 40-some years of age. Like, Christopher Lee? Sure. Even Roland Gift, whose name gave me a little ego puff because I knew who he was before she said so. But “Wet Wet Wet’s Marty Pellow”? Sheesh.)

I’ve got no “celebrity moments” to report at the moment. But I thought it might be entertaining (well, to one of us, anyhow) to riff on the idea of celebrity encounters which never actually happened…

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Leaving the Meter Running

SiteMeter logoRunning After My Hat and many, many other blogging sites use the SiteMeter service to track statistics — not just the number of visits and page views, but where they came from, how long they stayed, and so on. I thought the following news might be of interest to anyone who uses SiteMeter and might have missed the information.

First, SiteMeter is moving to a new platform — probably different hardware, certainly different software — next weekend, September 13th-14th. You can read about the upcoming changes, including the reasons for them and so on, in a couple of entries at the SiteMeter blog. But I thought these items would be of special interest:

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The Touraine Passenger

Flag of former French province of TouraineWriting exercise, short version: Write a story (or poem or essay or what-have-you) (blog entries don’t count, ahem) whose title is “The Touraine Passenger.” The “the” is optional, but the other two words must be used in that order in the title; one or both may, at the author’s discretion, be italicized.

(If you’ve no other ideas for how, even generally, to use the word “Touraine,” er, well, you do know by now that Google can be your friend, right?)

Need more details? Read on.

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