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Monday, July 31, 2006

To re-up, or not to re-up

So I'm sitting here, digging through the pile of month-end bills, and once again I turn up one that I've been shuffling back into the pile for the past few weeks: my SFWA annual dues statement. Do I really want to renew my membership in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America? I keep trying to come up with a compelling reason to do so.

I keep failing.

I first joined SFWA back in the 1980's. Didn't even know the organization existed until I'd already qualified for Active membership, at which time I was insanely flattered to be sought out and actively recruited to join. It was very validating; very gratifying. And truth to tell, it was fun to belong to SFWA back in those days: as a "pro" you got the Directory, which listed everyone else's home address and phone number, the Forum, which contained all the gossipy insider catfights, and most importantly, you got let into all the best private parties at all the big cons.

Which seemed like an important benefit, back when I was drinking heavily.

In time I got recruited to run for a seat on the SFWA Board, which was a mistake. Jim Baen tried to warn me; said that joining the Board would fill my head with stupid ideas that would ruin my career, and from his point of view he was probably right. The one thing my two terms on the Board really did for me was opened my eyes to just how many "name" writers were living on the ragged edge of poverty and dependent on the charity of others on a chronic basis, and how very, very few professional writers were actually making anything even remotely like a living from writing fiction.

A few years after that, I quietly dropped out. Having chaired the Membership Committee through yet another wretched re-examination of the membership rules, I'd taken a vow to quit if they ever reopened the Nebula or Membership rules debates again — and sure enough, they did. The organization can't help it. Every two or three years, they seem compelled to resume arguing over who can join the club and what the rules are for giving out cookies, and I'd had enough of that infantile nonsense. So I quit.

A few years after that, Vox talked me into rejoining. Like many of the things I've let Vox talk me into, it turned out to be a bad idea in the long run. The character and temperment of the organization has not improved any in the intervening years; the Internet has obviated the need for the Directory, and the catfights (which have mostly moved to blogworld) are no longer entertaining. Once upon a time, the Grievance Committee did good work for authors, but those days are long gone. You need to have a dynamic and growing market before the threat to withhold future work carries any weight. As a professional organization, SFWA simply does not make the grade.

But in looking through their web site for the figurative last time, I've just realized that there is one SFWA program I still find worthwhile: the Emergency Medical Fund. This one provides "interest-free loans" (read: grants) to writers who have serious medical problems but no medical insurance, which is an awful lot of them. And now I've suddenly realized that I have a much more useful place to send those dollars than to the general membership fund.

In memory of George Alec Effinger: award-winning genius, friend, and chronic hardship case...

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pirates 2, Parents Zip

It was 100 in the shade last Saturday, so we did the only sane thing possible: went and saw Pirates of The Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest (remember when movies had just one title?) in the most heavily air-conditioned theater we could find. It was great.

The movie was pretty good, too.

If you haven't seen this one yet, forget the hype, or rather your natural reaction to hype, and do so. It's a fun story, highly recommended viewing, and family safe for all but the under-7 crowd. To get right down to it, it's a great "2" movie, in many respects better than the first one in the franchise, and right up there with The Empire Strikes Back.

And that's where I got into trouble. I made that casual observation over dinner, then realized, it is The Empire Strikes Back. It's got all the good stuff from the first one, but it's bigger, longer, louder, and in the end Han Solo is frozen in carbonite, so you just know there's going to be a "3" and (unlike the Matrix) you're actually looking forward to it. It's got Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, R2-D2 and C-3PO; it even has a Yoda, or at least someone who lives in a swamp, dispenses cryptic wisdom in fractured English, and could have been played by Miss Piggy.

By this point, I should add that my casual observation had become a dinner-table game and everyone was jumping in. "Millennium Falcon?" "Check!" "Super Star Destroyer?" "Check!" "Lord Vader?" "Check, and Annakin Skywalker, too!" "Wookie? Is there a wookie in this picture?"

And that's the point when my daughter got up, collected her used dishes, and said with that sort of withering sneer that only college students can voice, "You people are such geeks."

Sorry, hon, but you've got it, too, and someday you will learn to use it as I have. The Geek runs strong in our family.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Things I've Learned in the Past Week

If the french bread is stale enough, attempting to slice it (or more accurately, saw it into toastable slices) will actually result in the breadknife's blade becoming painfully hot to the touch.

A vacation does not meet the legal definition of a vacation if a dog comes along.

It is impossible to drive into the nearest town and use the services of the local internet cafe effectively if you are wondering the whole time what the @(*#&!! dog is doing back at the cabin in your absence.

Black Cat makes small firecrackers called "Little Dynamite" that actually do burn and explode underwater, with a bright flash of light and a marvelously resonant FOOMP! sort of sound. If you toss one in the water after dark and it explodes, every bluegill for 50 yards around will immediately come racing to the scene of the disturbance, saying in bluegillspeak, "Wow! Cool! Light another one!" Do not listen to the fish, as they have no sense whatsoever.

It's amazing how much good and fresh creative work you can do if you give up television and the Internet for a week.

Northern Wisconsin apparently has had a string of mild winters recently, and as a result the whitetailed deer are not merely abundant, but a nuisance. There were many times I not only had to stop the car to avoid hitting them, I darn near had to push them out of the way so that I could continue driving.

A sufficiently inventive 11-year-old can spend an entire week performing Variations on Seville's Witch Doctor ("Oo, ee, oo ah-ah, ping, pang, walla-walla bing bang.") and never get tired of it. However, the child's parents may get a little tired of it...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Running Out of Ideas

Our friend Mark M offers up some superb advice, even as he continues to remind us that Mark Wants a Porsche:
An active and creative mind will never run out of new ideas. However, you have a responsibility to keep your creative mind active if you want the ideas to keep coming.

Try to use all of your ideas all the time. Don't "save" an idea for something better. There will always be new ideas, but if you start "saving" your ideas, instead of challenging yourself to come up with something else new again, you won't keep your mind active, and you will end up out of practice. You'll get yourself out of the habit of having new ideas.

So, even if a new idea doesn't suggest a complete work right away, use it anyway. Make a sketch, write a note, or write a few lines of a song. Maybe it will spark something new, or maybe it will combine with some other idea in an unexpected way.
The only thing I might add is that if you make a practice of saving your ideas, in time you won't be able to turn around because of all the saved ideas crowding in around you.

I speak from sad experience. My filing cabinets are overflowing with half-finished work I'll get back to "some day." As I type this I'm surrounded by 30 years of notebooks, partial ms. in archives boxes, etc., etc. And don't even get me started on the electronic files.

Write. Finish what you start. Saving every idea that crosses through your mind can be a self-defeating behavior.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Brian Jacques on Writing

It must be nice, being rich and enormously successful. From the Redwall site:
Brian Jacques has adapted his lifestyle for writing adventures which take place in a woodland setting. He only writes in the warm months, beginning in early April. Most of his writing is done outdoors, in the corner of his garden, underneath a lilac bush, next to a dwarf apple tree. He weaves his tales on a dilapidated old mechanical typewriter rescued from a shipping office, set on a plastic patio table, in a little space between the angle of his garden wall. In rainy weather, he puts up the patio umbrella, or takes refuge in a specially constructed conservatory.

He begins the creative process at nine o'clock each morning from Tuesday to Friday (Mondays are reserved for answering fan mail.) by setting up the table and typewriter, bringing out a pot of tea and a plate of sandwiches. "Teddy" his White West Highland Terrier keeps him company, sitting under his chair. He averages twelve pages a day, but can manage as many as twenty-five pages when inspiration hits him. It takes about five months to write a book, and about two years for the publisher to bring it into print.
"Paint. That's the magic word. Paint pictures with words. That's the greatest advice I can give anybody. Paint the pictures with words. The picture will appear in the imagination so the person reading it can say, 'I can see that'."

- Brian Jacques

Speaking of painting words with pictures, I particularly liked these words from the 2005 Bulwer-Lytton Awards:
The night resembled nothing so much as the nose of a giant Labrador in excellent health: cold, black, and wet.

- Devery Doleman

But the best one has to be Kari Stiller's winning entry in the "Detective" category. Finding it is left as a challenge to you. Have fun!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The best laid plans of mice...

...and here it is, July already. June turned out to be a ludicrously busy month, and as a result all my carefully prepared plans for "Star Wars month" went by the wayside. Filthy Pro Rule #5: Paying work always takes precedence. Sorry about that.

Things are still not quite back to normal around here, whatever it is that "normal" may be (at least, I've heard rumors that there is such a thing as normal, though I can't recall ever catching a glimpse of it myself), so the bloggerel is going to continue to be somewhat light and erratic for the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you're looking for some very good summer reading, I would like to direct your attention to the thoroughly enjoyable Redwall series by Brian Jacques.

On the face of it, Redwall is medieval fantasy series aimed at pre-teen and early teen readers, with a wonderful Wind in the Willows vibe to it. The larger story concerns the struggle of the peace-loving mice of Redwall Abbey to protect themselves and their various rodentish neighbors against the villainous rats and other barbarians of the animal world, but the books are neither as amoral as Harry Potter, as larded with pseudo-Celtic pagan magickal krappe as most YA fantasies, or as thick with club-you-over-the-head Christian symbolism as C.S. Lewis. In fact, there is no magic here at all, except for a vaguely Arthurian legend in the backstory of a great hero from the past who will someday return in their hour of greatest need.

If your kids have either burned through the Chronicles of Narnia in a weekend or couldn't wade into them in the first place; if they're not old enough for The Lord of the Rings and not cynical enough for The Last Unicorn; if you're looking for books that don't wallow in the usual anti-Christian biases of most YA fantasy -- (Hey, the Monks, Brothers, Friars and Novices of Redwall Abbey actually say grace before dinner and end the prayer with Amen!) -- I highly recommend checking out Redwall.

P.S. And here's the real secret about these books: boys love 'em!