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Friday, September 28, 2007

The Friday Challenge

Oh boy, now I understand why really smart people pick celebrity judges for things like this. The entries for the 9/14/07 Friday Challenge were terrific, and the entries for the 9/21/07 Friday Challenge were in some respects even better. rycamor's entry for the Nacireman challenge made me laugh out loud, and I think that in about two more rewrites that one could be a publishable story, but Ben-El's was also great, and I wish WaterBoy hadn't asked to withdraw his entry.
"Plate 3: An astounding representation of the Nacirema Warrior depicted in action on the field of battle. In true martial fashion, the head of the vanquished becomes a prop in some sort of post-battle celebration; a ball in a game of Kick-The-Enemy's-Head-Around, the rules of which are unknown."
Sean also deserves honorable mention for the sun goddess Britspearsikan.

Meanwhile, over on the 9/21 challenge, Ben-El again came through with a superb entry, while Arielle also came up with a good one and Crystal Lake sketched out a synopsis that could probably be turned into a successful novel pitch to Tor.

Decisions, decisions.

I don't want to proclaim any sort of arbitrary limit on how many times in a row you can win, because that would deprive us of the pleasure of reading rycamor's and Ben-El's posts, but on the other hand rycamor still hasn't gotten off his duff and claimed his prize for "The ZULU You Always Wanted to See." So...

Week 1 - 8/31/07: AJW308 (Yes, I got your email, I've just been a bit swamped.)
Week 2 - 9/7/07: rycamor, runner-up DaveD
Week 3 - 9/14/07: Ben-El, runner-up WaterBoy (special kudos to rycamor)
Week 4 - 9/21/07: Arielle, runner-up Crystal Lake (special kudos to Ben-El)

Winners and runners-up, the prize is either a signed copy of Rebel Moon or what's behind Door #2. Rycamor and Ben-El, as two-time overachievers winners you can either claim your prize now, or play for what's behind Door #3.

No, wait, that's ridiculous. Forget I said it. Just pick a danged book, okay?

Meanwhile, this week's Friday Challenge is, as they say in Hollywood, ripped from today's headlines!

Okay, actually it was ripped from a movie review in today's Weekend Life section, but that's almost the same thing. In this review, I learned that not only is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson not as awful in The Game Plan as, say, Vin Diesel was in The Pacifier or Arnold Braunschweiger was in Kindergarten Cop, but that next, he's starring in the remake of Escape from Witch Mountain.

Let that one soak in for a moment. Escape from Witch Mountain. Disney is doing a remake of Escape from Witch Mountain. I already knew Warner Bros. was doing a remake of Logan's Run. I already knew Disney was doing a remake of Tron. But they're already casting the remake of Escape from Witch Mountain.

This got me thinking about totally unnecessary remakes, and strangely enough about the new Bionic Woman (or not so strangely; I meant to write about it this week but with blogspot's issues never got to it, so I guess I'll save that one for Monday), and from that, I made the leap to this week's Friday Challenge: what would be the most unnecessary remake ever?

But that's too open-ended a question, so I cooked it down to this.

The Challenge. You're the staff writer for a very tiny indie film producer. Your partners have just phoned you in a state of great excitement, because they've just locked down the rights to the last un-remade sci-fi classic: The Monolith Monsters. In this 1957 Universal B&W release, long a staple of late-night UHF creature-feature television, a mysterious meteor crashes to earth in the desert Southwest, releasing —

A bunch of black silicon crystals, which grow to roughly the size of the Washington monument and then fall over, squashing everything underneath. Whereupon the shattered fragments start growing all over again. Will nothing stop them?!?!

"Guys" you say to your partners, "that's neat but — er, it's a movie about rocks. Big, dumb, rocks. That fall over."

"Yeah!" one of your partners enthuses. "Can you imagine how totally cool that will look with modern CGI?!"

So that's your challenge. You have one week to come up with a new take on The Monolith Monsters; one that provides an excuse for the human actors to do something interesting in-between getting squashed by big, dumb, rocks; one that provides some scrim of an excuse for remaking this one, beyond the fact that special effects have improved.

And did I mention that the rocks are made of silicon?

The prize, as always, is your choice of a signed copy of Rebel Moon or what's behind Door #2. Ready? Set? Go!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Now this is truly, deeply, weird...

So I get back in from a hard ten-mile cross-country hike with the dog — getting in shape for deer season, you know — and The Mrs hands me this Post-It note with a name and a phone number on it: Michael somebody, from the 504 area code. "This guy called while you were out," she says. "He was really rude and pushy, and said he needed to talk to you right away."

Well, I don't recognize the name, and a quick trip to doesn't return a useful address, but the area code is a long-shot possibility for someone I know. So I think about it for a while, and finally decide that if nothing else, I should call him back and find out what his issue is, if only to head off a follow-up call at a more inconvenient time. So I give the number a call...

It turns out to be the worst cell connection I have ever had. So I try again on a land line, and this time it's still a terrible cell connection, but I hear him well enough to get the gist of it. He's just read Rebel Moon, thinks it's a great book, and wants to talk about it.

People ask me why I have a penchant for large dogs and shotguns. People also ask if it's a good idea to use a pseudonym. The answers to the two questions are interrelated: in the case of the latter, it's an emphatic yes, I wish I had, and in the case of the former, it's because life gets very weird when you're a public figure — even as minor and irrelevant a public figure as I am. There is a small subset of the species who seem to think that just because they've read and liked something you've written, that you're their best friend, and they can phone you whenever they like. Or show up on your doorstep, and expect to be invited in. Or in one particularly memorable case, walk right into your house, under the assumption that you will be delighted to see them and eager to drop everything and talk about writing.

Luckily, that particular incident happened many years ago. I wouldn't try it now. The current Mrs. Brb is the daughter of a Marine Corps combat veteran and career cop, who taught his daughters to apply .357 first and then ask questions. And she is damn good with that .357.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Friday Challenge

Whoa, we got some good ones for last week's challenge. I'm going to have to think a little bit more before deciding, so winners to be announced slightly later. (And if any of you would like to vote for your favorite entry, that would also help me out.)

In the meantime, here's this week's challenge.

It's tonight: Friday, September 21, 2007. You're part of a church group that does volunteer work at a homeless shelter, and your group is taking the 6pm to midnight shift tonight. It's a overflow shelter; the adult men and real psych cases end up somewhere else, and this shelter, in the basement of an old church in a lousy part of town, gets the women with young children and the occasional pre-teen runaway. Your job is to feed them dinner, help the moms take care of the kids, maybe read to the little ones for a bit, maybe watch a Disney video with them, and mainly to get them settled in for a safe night off the streets.

Things are going along as normally as can be, under the circumstances, until one of the other volunteers points out this lone kid who's sitting off in a corner, huddled in a dirty black trenchcoat three sizes too big, and frankly, creeping everybody out. "You're good with kids," someone says. "You try talking to him." So you wander over, checking him out as you go, and the closer you get, the stranger he looks. For one thing, he's wearing these silly green slippers that are just hopelessly wrong for the weather. For another, there seems to be the remains of some sort of green Halloween costume under the trenchcoat. You try to say hi, but he just shakes his head and looks away. And that's when you catch a glimpse of those pointed ears under that greasy, filthy blond hair, and suddenly, it all clicks together.

"Peter?" You say. The kid reacts as if hit with an electric cattle prod. "Peter Pan?" And that's when he turns, and looks you right in the eyes, and starts to open his mouth to speak...

What's his story?

As always, the prize is either a signed copy of Rebel Moon or what's behind Door #2, and you have until next Friday to post your entry. Ready? Go!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Twain's Folly (Part Three)

So Headcrash was released, and instantly hit the bestseller lists — and just as instantly vanished from the bestseller lists, but that's another story — and pretty soon these packages started showing up in my P.O. box. Not a lot of them; certainly not an overwhelming deluge; but a steady stream, just the same. Chapbooks of poetry, short-story collections, full-length novels; all self-published, all sent to me by people hoping I could somehow help them break in to the publishing business, most of them unsolicited, and most of them pretty damned awful.

I've kept a few over the years. One in particular I want to mention is Fallen, by Ben Rowlinson, which was a.) not unsolicited — Ben took the time and trouble to make my acquaintance and ask first, before sending the book, and b.) to the best of my knowledge, never published. It's a shame. It's a really funny and well-written book, and by rights should have been picked up by somebody, but that never happened and I couldn't help him.

Another I've kept all these years is one I won't name, by an author I also won't name, which I've kept because it came with a detailed study guide listing chapter and verse for every Old Testament prophecy the author referenced in the course of his story and suggesting lists of questions for discussion in your Bible study class. Much as you might want to include this sort of thing: don't. It's scary.

In time, I learned the truth of one of the things Vox had told me. He was talking about reviewing computer games, but it's equally applicable to books. "You can always tell the pathetically insecure ones," he said. "They put all their effort into the packaging, trying to impress you with how professional they are. The good ones just send you a burned CD with the title written in magic marker."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Twain's Folly (Part Two)

A great deal has been written about the failure of Webster and Company, not the least by Twain himself. In his autobiography he throws the blame entirely at the feet of his wife's nephew, Charles Webster — the "Webster" of Webster and Co. — with a good deal of splashover onto his nephew's attorney, a fellow by the name of Whitford. He absolves himself with a typical bit of Twainian aw-shucksiness:
"I couldn't understand the contract — I never could understand any contract — and I asked my brother-in-law, General Langdon, a trained business man, to understand it for me. He read it and said it was all right. So we signed it and sealed it."
In truth, Twain was a notoriously bad business man. While he made a fortune from his writing, he also blew a fortune on a series of disastrously bad investments, and in many respects the decision to launch his own publishing company was merely the final nail in the coffin. While Webster and Co. did make a nice profit on Huckleberry Finn, and a huge profit on Ulysses Grant's memoirs, they subsequently completely botched the launch of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and in no time at all Twain was right back to the place where he apparently felt comfortable: complaining about being swindled by his publisher. When Webster and Co. finally went bankrupt in 1894, Twain, at age 58, was broken financially. He made the decision at that point to liquidate the company, indulged in a little legal sleight-of-hand to protect his copyrights and the family home from his creditors, and then launched himself into thirteen-month lecture tour to raise cash. In the next years he wrote two Pudd'nhead Wilson novels, a series of wretched and now largely forgotten Tom Sawyer sequels, and by 1898 had managed pay off all his creditors and reboot his life, although he'd picked up a bitter streak that apparently stayed with him until the end.

Looking at this whole story from a writer's perspective, though, I have to identify this as a clear case of the Polymath's Problem. Webster and Co. was successful — while Twain was running it. But while he was running the business, he was not writing, and when he gave up day-to-day control of the publishing business and went back to writing, that's when things went out of control.

Being a good writer and running a successful business are two very different talents, and both of them are life-consuming. In the end, even Twain had to choose: be one, or be the other.

To be continued...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Twain's Folly (Part One)

Don't forget the current Friday Challenge!

Like poorly refrigerated leftover chicken tetrazzini, one question keeps coming back up. With the commercial publishing world so hard to crack into in the first place and so difficult to survive in in the second, why not self-publish? Most recently, Joe Doakes couched it almost as a challenge:
Why can't you get Headcrash published so I can read it on paper instead of pdf? With computers and software as powerful as they are, aren't there places that will do small runs? I'd pay in advance if that would help.

Thanks for the kind offer, Joe, but as I've said many times before, what matters first and foremost is who controls the rights. In the case of Headcrash, the North American English-language print rights are still controlled by Warner Aspect — or rather, by the company that bought the Aspect line lock, stock, and barrel from Time Warner — and there are complications that prevent my recovering the rights, which we can go into another time.

(As an aside, though: we only sold the print rights to Time Warner. We never sold the electronic display rights to anyone, nor have I released an electronic version myself, so if you've found Headcrash somewhere as a pdf file, I'd appreciate knowing where.)

So in the particular case of Headcrash, I can't self-publish it; at least not without getting sued. But why not self-publish something else: say, Cyberpunk, or a collection of my favorite hot-dish recipes?

Well, in my never-ending quest to understand the publishing business, there are two books to which I keep returning. The first is Maybe You Should Write A Book, by Ralph Daigh, and I'll have more to say about this one later. The second is Mark Twain on Writing and Publishing, which is a collection of articles, essays, and excerpts from Twain's autobiography.

The autobiographical bits are both the most revealing and the hardest to follow, as Twain takes a long and meandering path through his story. But if you collect the pieces and fit them together, in time, the following story emerges:

Twain's first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, was originally published by American News Company, and Twain was well and truly swindled in the deal. He eventually lost over $2,000 out of pocket on the book (in 1869 dollars!), and as a result took his next books, starting with The Innocents Abroad, to the American Publishing Company. Of this experience he later wrote:
"Well, Bliss was dead and I couldn't settled with him for his ten years of swindlings. He has been dead a quarter of a century now. My bitterness against him has faded away and disappeared. I feel only compassion for him and if I could send him a fan I would."
Ergo, in 1884 Twain launched his own publishing house, Webster and Company, for the express purpose of self-publishing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

And this time, instead of merely losing money, the experience nearly killed him.

To be continued

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Friday Challenge

Well, that was a rough week. My First Rule crisis has passed — or at least, has been managed, at least until Monday. In the meantime the winner of last week's Friday Challenge, and the highly sought-after copy of either Rebel Moon or what's behind Door #2, is AJW308, who came up with the completely unexpected innovation of writing and publishing an entire short story in the form of a series of Haloscan comments. Who needs ANALOG when you've got Blogspot?

Honorable Mention goes to DaveD, who came up with an idea that could probably be fluffed out into an entire novel for Tor. I hadn't envisioned awarding anything other than first prizes, so I'm at a loss. If First Prize is a signed copy of Rebel Moon, should Second Place be two copies?

In any event, winners, email me to arrange delivery of your prize or to select one of the alternates.

This week's challenge comes out of a book on pre-Columbian Mesoamerican history that I was reading before things hit the fan. In particular, I was in the midst of a chapter on the Olmecs, when it occurred to me that these were a people who had disappeared more than two thousand years ago, leaving behind no known written records other than the untranslatable Cascajal Block and a few calendars that may actually have been carved centuries later by the Mayans. Even the Olmec name is a suspect; the word "olmec" is actually from the Aztec language, and is simply the name the Aztecs applied to the people who came before them.

Given these simple facts, then, how was it that the authors of the book I was reading were able to provide such detailed descriptions of the meaning and use of so many Olmec figurines and sculptures? For example, this terra-cotta creation, which the authors assured me represented a shaman performing a magical somersault by which he transformed himself into a jaguar?

Or this tubby little spud, which was "probably dressed in male or female costumes" and revered as a household god?

Or this "infant werejaguar" who seems to be getting ready to hurl?

And what about this surly little bugger? Does this really look like the face of a household protective spirit to you?

That's when I got the idea for this week's Friday Challenge. Ready? Here it comes.

It is the year 5029, although you don't know that. By your reckoning it's the year 1872, and you are an eminent archaeologist exploring the ruins left behind by the Nacirema culture. These long-vanished people apparently had no writing, but left behind many artifacts, which years of patient and careful excavation have brought to the light of day once again. Then one day you make an astounding discovery; a Nacirema burial mound, untouched and unlooted after all these millennia! Delving into the mound, carefully logging the exact depth and position of each piece, you find four amazing artifacts, and after months of study, you prepare to publish your findings revealing the religious meaning and ritual use of these objects. Along with your study, you carefully prepare four full-color plates with which you will reveal your discoveries to the world. These plates are:

Plate I

Plate II

Plate III

Plate IV

And now the challenge. What, in your esteemed and highly educated scientific opinion, is of the meaning and use of each of these fascinating Nacirema artifacts?

As always, the prize is either a signed copy of Rebel Moon or what's behind Door #2, and you have until next Friday to post your entry. Ready? Set? Go!

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Friday Challenge

Okay, the winner of last week's Friday Challenge, and the highly coveted copy of Rebel Moon or a book to be named later, is rycamor, for his entry, "The ZULU You Always Wanted to See," which I fear may prove unforgettable no matter how hard I try. Contact me to arrange delivery of your prize or one of the alternate selections.

This week, I have a tougher challenge for you. Saint Teresa of Ávila was a major figure in the Catholic Reformation, and a fascinating character in her own right.

A visionary, a mystic, a writer, and apparently more than a bit of a flagellant, she founded convents and monasteries throughout the Iberian peninsula, and lived a long and influential life. But what we're interested in right now is not her life but her death, which took place on the night of October 4-15, 1582.

No, that's not a typo. In Spanish, Portugese, and Italian history, in the year 1582, the dates of October 5th through October 14th simply do not exist. Now, the official line is that these dates were deleted in order to make the adjustment from the Julian to Gregorian calendars, but as we all know, the official line is almost always a cover-up, or at least an obfuscation.

So that's your challenge this week. What really happened in those ten days? What event or events could possibly have transpired that were so terrible (or ridiculous, or embarassing, or whatever) that the powers that be found it necessary to simply obliterate those days from history? And how was Teresa involved?

The prize, as always, is either a signed copy of Rebel Moon or a book to be named later. Ready? Set? Go!

Catch you Monday,

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 12)

When I first contacted this "Vox" character and arranged to send him a copy of Headcrash, I was only hoping for a good quote we could use in the advertising, or maybe a nice little plug in the Pioneer Press. Well, he gave me a quote all right — and it was hilarious, and we could probably use it today, but in 1995, hilarious or not, it was way too profane to use on a book jacket.

Then he settled down a bit, and gave me a quote my publisher could use.
"I read the 346 pages of HEADCRASH from start to finish, without pause except for the two times I fell off the couch because I was laughing so hard. But this isn't one of those idiotic books that reviewers describe as "a madcap romp," because its underlying subtext is too intelligent. HEADCRASH is a must-read for gamers, cyberpunks, and anyone else with a sense of humor and an interest in technology."
Me, I would have been happy at that, but not Vox. He followed this up by going to his editor and selling him (her?) on the idea of scheduling an unheard-of full page for the book review. The next thing I knew, I had this Pioneer Press photographer on the phone, wanting to set up the photo shoot to go with the article! And then this Vox Day himself was on the phone, wanting to get together in person to talk about writing!

As I was later to learn, this was typical Vox. He never does anything halfway. Once he decides to take action, he does so quickly and with overwhelming energy.

And thus it was that nearly twenty years after my Big Adventure first began, and more than fifteen years after I wrote my first professional short story, in the Dunn Brothers coffee shop on the corner of Snelling and Grand, I finally met Vox Day. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So after all of this build up, then, we're back to the original question: what is Vox Day really like?


Sorry, it's a reflex. After Maverick, I got tired of people asking me what Isaac Asimov was really like, so I took to answering, "Short." If they pushed it, I added. "Lecherous. And when he talks, he sounds just like Jackie Mason." Then, if they still kept pushing it, I'd add, "He's a stereotypical New York City intellectual straight out of Central Casting. Intelligent, articulate, erudite; a socialist, an atheist, and a true believer in the virtues of a planned political economy." Then, if they kept pushing it after that, I'd start talking about how science fiction as we know it today is really the product of a small group of 1930s New York City eugenics advocates and Fabian Socialists who called themselves The Futurians, and who wanted to use SF as a vehicle to "actively work for the realization of the scientific world-state"

But usually by this point people have plugged their ears in order to avoid hearing more heresy, so I rarely get this far.

For a while, I considered Vox to be the Isaac Asimov from the anti-matter universe. He's intelligent; erudite; in person perhaps more articulate, but then I met Asimov when he was pushing 70 and slowing down, not in his 20s and just starting up. Vox is a fast study; once he decides he needs to know something, he dives in and comes up to speed with remarkable rapidity. He has a sharp wit and a quick intellect, which often expresses itself in his tendancy to talk too fast, and his voice is higher pitched and more nasal than you at first expect. Like many people with this collection of character traits, though, the corollary of being brighter than average and a quick learner is that once Vox decides he's researched something enough and takes a position, nothing short of high explosives will budge him again.

Politically, economically, and religiously, he is so far opposite from Asimov as to make it amazing that both men could exist on the same planet.

Actually, Vox isn't really as short as Asimov was, either; he's just shorter than I am. I played a lot of basketball in high school and lettered in cross-country, before my athletic career ended in a dramatic downhill skiing accident that made hamburger out of the cartilage in my right knee. I was a distance runner, from the thin and gangly mold. Vox has a sprinter or hurdler's physique. Tight-knit. Muscular. Powerful. A lot of fast-twitch fibers. Probably like a bullet off the blocks.

Probably keels over and starts barfing at the 1-kilometer mark.

He has the sprinter's personality, too. Impatient. Capable of awsome focus and enormous bursts of energy, for short periods. But if in that period something doesn't really seize hold of his interests, or show promise of producing a worthwhile return fairly soon, his interest tapers off on an exponential curve and he turns to other things, because there are so many other things he could be doing.

He is not an easy guy to be friends with. I believe he knows the meaning of the word "relax," but I don't believe I've ever actually seen him do it. He is one of the most intense people I've ever met; one of the most competitive people I've ever met. If I had some control over his life, I would issue one edict: "Switch to decaf."

He has a sense of humor that is even more cynical and sarcastic than mine, which I didn't think was possible, and yet there is a certain sly playfulness lurking underneath. For example: true story. At Vox and Spacebunny's wedding, music was provided by a string quartet. When Spacebunny came down the aisle, they played something very sweet and traditional; Mendelssohn, I think.

When Vox came down the aisle, the quartet broke into Darth Vader's theme from Star Wars, fortissimo. "DUN DUN DUN, DUN DU-DUN, DUN DU-DUN."

I'm not really as close to Vox as some people seem to think. He's not one of my first-tier friends, and I doubt I'm one of his. Age-wise, I'm closer to his father — and yes, in a totally unrelated coincidence, I actually did wind up working for one of his father's companies for a few years in the late 1990s, but that is definitely a different story. (And no, I have no idea where Vox's father is now. Sorry.)

When I look at Vox, then, I have this curiously bifurcated vision. Through the close-up lens, I see him as a kind of almost nearly friend /slash/ business associate, and sometimes business partner. As a writer, I've been known to refer to him as "my young apprentice," which he seems to tolerate.

Through the distance lens, I see him as this fascinating kid with enormous potential, even though he's now 30-something, married, and the father of a bunch of beautiful children. (He'll be the first to admit that they get their looks from their mother.) Ergo I continue to watch him with a mixture of curiosity and surprise, wondering what he'll do next. He has this almost supernatural self-confidence about him, which people frequently mistake for arrogance, but it's either the real deal or else a facade he's been maintaining flawlessly for twelve years. At times I'm right on the brink of accusing him of being excessively cocky; then I realize that I might well have turned out just like him, if just a few breaks in the past 50 years had fallen differently. And lately, I've come to realize that my earlier thoughts of comparisons to the Young Isaac Asimov were so wrong as to be laughable.

I now believe that Vox is the latest reincarnation of George S. Patton.

In the final analysis then, why do I continue to associate with Vox Day, despite repeated warnings that being associated with "that knuckle-dragging right-wing Neanderthal" will destroy my career? (And as if the tales told in the previous installments in this series have not furnished ample proof that I am fully capable of destroying my own career?)

I guess it's because in this business, you meet a lot of posers — which is hardly surprising, once you accept that the working definition of fiction writer is "paid professional liar." The loud-mouth libertarians who turn out to be dependent on the charity of strangers for their basic needs; the socialist utopians who want to micromanage the world but can't budget their own checkbook a week in advance; the war-porn junkies who wouldn't know which end of a gun to hold; the overweight martial arts masters who can't handle a butter knife without hurting themselves. You meet arch-feminists who want to overthrow all of human biology because they weren't in the popular clique in high school; atheists still angry because mom and dad made them go to church; eugenics advocates who are shocked to be called by their true names and yet remain true believers in the scientific perfectability of mankind. You meet a lot of whining puddles of self-pity who are the victims of their own lives, not actively engaged in living them, and most of all you meet a lot of people whose ability to reason is badly impaired because emotionally, they're still stuck in the 1930s, or at best, in that '30s echo that hit in the 1960s.

And then there's Vox Day.

Do I think he's brilliant? No, but then I reserve the word "brilliant" for people like my old high school buddy and college roomate John Bresina, whose A.I. software is currently crawling around Mars inside Spirit and Opportunity.

Do I think he's always right? Hardly. Sometimes I think he's so wrong I want to pound my head against the wall in frustration — but to his credit, he always has a compelling and well-reasoned rationale for why he believes what he does. We just disagree on initial assumptions.

Do I think he's interesting, thought-provoking, and unlike most people in this field, really engaged in envisioning what the future might really be like, and then shaping his life accordingly?

Except when he talks about fantasy football, yes, always. And someday, I might just write a book about him and his family.

I'll publish it under a pseudonym, of course...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 11)

From time to time, Vox asks me why I still stick with Ashley Grayson. I can sum it up in one word: gratitude. Ashley negotiated my release from the Baen contract. He did something extremely unusual and advanced the money out of his own pocket to buy my freedom. He took a chance on me when no one else in the publishing industry would, and for that, I will always be grateful.

Some things are more important than NPV, ROI, and all those other economist's TLAs.

(Hmm. In hindsight, though, Ashley was able to do all of this because he also represented Christopher Pike, who was at that time one of the hottest YA horror writers on the market, and he'd just closed a big movie deal for Pike. So in a sense, if not for Christopher Pike, Horror Writer, there would be no Vox Day, Christian Fantasy author... Man, causality can just drive you nuts if you spend too much time thinking about it.)

Freedom isn't free, of course. In exchange for Ashley's help in getting out of that contract, I agreed to come up with a commercial project just as fast as possible. We both agreed that Cyberpunk was too damaged and poisoned to be worth pursuing further at that time. We did show it to a few editors who'd been clamoring most loudly for it, but they all kicked it right back with the same comments, which amounted to, "Huh? Where's the cyberspace? Where's the virtual reality? How come this isn't just like a Bill Gibson novel?!"

Next up was a collaboration with Phil Jennings. Ashley wasn't too excited about this one because it was a split deal, Phil having signed with a clear Rule #4 agent, but he was willing to give it his best shot — if we could finish the book. That proved pretty much impossible, though.

Remember how I said that Phil and I had led strangely parallel lives? That was still holding true, as about six months after I got served with my walking papers, Phil's wife booted him out the door and filed for divorce. One of the key differences between us became apparent at this point, though, as Phil had worked to put his wife through medical school, so in the final settlement she got the house and the kids and he got a large enough cash buyout to play full-time writer for a few more years. I, on the other hand, had worked to put my wife through an office technology certification program at one of the local business colleges (by her choice), so in the final settlement, she got the house and the kids, and I got her unpaid tuition loans.

Consequently, Phil was able to devote much more time to this project than I was, and it went wobbly on the tracks almost from the start.

I'll cut this short. The book was full of good ideas, and one of these days I'll have to pick some them up again and reboot the project. But if there was a wrong way to collaborate, we discovered it, and in the end we had to write the whole thing off as an educational experience and walk away — in different directions, with our hands in our pockets, and with both of us promising not to be the first to turn and fire.

In the meantime, Ashley had been keeping his ears open and looking out for other opportunities for me to make good. He sold some short stories and novellas I'd been having trouble selling. He found me a couple of slick-magazine non-fiction gigs. And then, in 1994, he found me The Big Opportunity.

Warner Books, a division of Time Warner, was getting ready to launch a new SF imprint, "Aspect." The editor of Aspect, Betsy Mitchell, was not only ex-Baen and another person on the list of People With Whom He Who Must Not Be Named Will Never Work Again, she'd also decided the time was right for a book that did to cyberpunk what Terry Pratchett had done to fantasy. So if I could move quickly, and get together a partial and an outline...

Well it just so happened that one of those stories I'd been having trouble selling was a little piece of nonsense called "The Last Cyberpunk Story." So, using this story as a springboard, I did something I'd never done before; wrote a reverse outline, in which this story was the last chapter, and then worked my way back through time and figured out everything else that had to happen in order to set up this ending.

The result was Headcrash, and Betsy loved it. The deal was signed in 1994. I jumped immediately into writing the book, and the experience was —

How to put this. Betsy was very much a hands-on editor, but it was a diametrically opposite sort of hands-on. When Betsy saw something that she thought was a problem, she didn't tell me what to change and how to change it; she pointed out the problem and let me find a solution. Sometimes, if I seemed to be stuck, she might suggest some alternatives, but in the end, the decision was mine.

And in the end, I wound up writing an award-winning book.

Then it got better. Headcrash got bumped up to being Aspect's premiere title. It was going to be the first book released in the new line, to be released with much hoopla at Glasgow WorldCon. (So you'd better get your passport in order, eh?) We got a U.K. deal right away, for nearly simultaneous U.S. and U.K. release, which is almost unheard of. We even got a t-shirt...

I didn't make nearly the money off Headcrash that everyone seems to think I did. For one thing, a sizable chunk of my U.S. advance went straight to repaying Ashley the money he'd fronted to buy me out of that contract. For another, the U.K. department of Inland Revenue impounded most of my U.K. advance, and it took me several years to prove to their satisfaction that I was not a British subject and therefore not required to pay U.K. taxes. (And let me tell you, by the time I was done with that ordeal, I was ready to go dump some tea in Boston Harbor! But that, as they say, is another story.)

Never mind all that. In the late summer of 1995, things were looking about as good as they could be. I was remarried (this time to the current Mrs. Brb), living in a house again, the father of a newborn son, gainfully employed, and looking forward to the upcoming launch of my breakout book. There was just one tiny fly in the ointment.

As part of the publicity blitz, Warner had given me a stack of promo copies and instructions to apply them wherever I thought they might do some good. But I'd already had a few run-ins with the St. Paul Pioneer Press's books editor and knew there was no point in sending her a copy, so I was running short of ideas for local promotional opportunities.

And then I took another look at the back page of the Pioneer Press Tech section, and took a closer look at that photo of the weird kid with the mohawk who wrote their Computer Gaming column, and figured, "Oh, what the heck and why not?"

To be continued...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 10)

It turns out Jim Croce was right all along, but I simply wasn't listening:
You don't tug on Superman's cape
you don't spit into the wind
you don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
and you don't mess around with Jim.
There's a truism frequently bandied about by those on the outside desperately yearning to be in: It's not what you know, it's who you know. By the end of my second term on the SFWA Board of Directors I knew pretty much everyone there was to know, but I didn't know one person who could help me.

Gene Wolfe liked Cyberpunk, and sent me a real nice quote that I'll use on the jacket if I someday ever find a real publisher. Ben Bova liked it quite a bit as well and sent me a letter of introduction to use in my pitch package. (He also sent me a signed copy of the book he wrote after his first wife tossed him out the door: The Survival Guide for the Suddenly Single.) I knew literally hundreds of pro writers (and in many cases, knew far more about their precarious personal financial situations that I was really prepared to handle then); had a nodding acquaintance with most of the editors in the field; had access to first-class agents galore.

Nobody wanted to help mediate this dispute, and thereby risk joining the ranks of those already on the list of People With Whom He Who Must Not Be Named Will Never Work Again. Plenty of editors were eager to look at the manuscript after I got my contract situation sorted out. Likewise, plenty of agents were willing to handle me after I resolved my problems. I especially remember one "power-agent" who read my samples, heard my sad story, and then scheduled time for a lovely lunch with me, during which she told me she thought I was a terrific writer with a lot of potential and she would love to represent me — just as soon as I resolved my contract situation, and got two or three bestsellers under my belt.

In the meantime, I sold a few last short stories to Amazing and Aboriginal, but they were both in the throes of going out of business so those stories went nowhere. At one point, sitting alone in my shabby efficiency apartment, I reached such a low point that I even considered taking —

— a ghost-writing job for Byron Preiss, who had a Famous Scientist with a burning desire to see his name on the cover of a novel but no actual time or ability to write it. I even did some work on this book — on spec, no less — but it didn't pan out and I never got paid a nickel.

In the end, three people really pulled me through. First off, the brilliant John Borowicz, who you might remember from back in Part 5, and who, having been tossed out by his first wife a few years before, kindly gave me a place to live for a few weeks, while I found a new job and then the aforementioned shabby apartment. Secondly, the wonderful John Sladek, who, when that new job of mine abruptly up and moved to San Diego, introduced me to a friend of his who was a tech writing manager and had an unadvertised job req about to open up in her department. Thus, like Sladek, I finally and officially became a Tech Writer.

And third, Ashley Grayson — but more about him in a minute.

Speaking of knowing people, Minneapolis in the 1980s and 1990s was a hotbed of fantasy writing, and I knew pretty much all of those people. Gordy Dickson, Pamela Dean, Eleanor Arneson, Kara Dalkey, Curtis Hoffmann, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Steven Brust (Never let Brust talk you into a "friendly" game of cards!), John M. Ford, Joel Rosenberg, Patricia Wrede, Peg Kerr, Kij Johnson... I'm sure I'm forgetting some names. The point is, they were all fantasy writers, and while I knew them all in varying degrees of friendliness, I was never really part of that circle. Part of it was that I was then and remain now simply incapable of writing pseudo-Medieval fantasy. Try as I might, I can never get more than about four pages into a story before my characters start noticing that neither indoor plumbing nor dental hygiene have been invented yet.
As Sir Epididymis squirmed on his rude straw bed and sought warmth in the tattered rags of his old saddle-blanket, he caught a glimpse of the rising harvest moon through the stable window, and once again the vision of that jaundiced, pock-marked orb reminded him of his lost love, fair Princess Gwenrowundelwynne, she of the twelve teeth. Oh, happy the legions of lice who dwelt in the forest of those greasy golden tresses!

His view of beautiful Luna was eclipsed by the short and stubby form of the farmer, who like many of the peasants in North Umborgringlugrand had the gift of understanding the language of the animals.

"Sorry, guv," the farmer said, as he leaned in through the window. "I'll 'ave to ask you to move to the sty. The 'orses are complainin' about 'ow you smell."
Another part of it had a distinctly political component. Being a hunter, a gun owner, an NRA member, a parent (if not a terribly successful one), a Christian (if not a particularly good one), and a suburb dweller, I was already suspect. When I signed the contract with He Who Must Not Be Named, this in some eyes only reinforced the idea that I was some kind of deranged right-wing crypto-fascist military closet-case. When the deal subsequently went pffft!, this was worse: it meant I was an unsuccessful deranged right-wing crypto-fascist military closet case, and several people who I thought were my friends began to distance themselves.

Nonetheless, it was the Minneapolis fantasy crowd that finally came through for me, albeit in an oblique fashion. Kara Dalkey had dumped Curtis Hoffmann and decided to marry John Barnes, and I, being tangentially part of Kara's circle and rather better friends with John, was invited to the wedding. And it was at this wedding that I was introduced to John's agent, Ashley Grayson, who listened to my sad story, and then decided to boldly go where no agent had gone before.

He decided to get involved.

To be continued...

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Labor Day Memory

In honor of the Labor Day holiday, I am taking the weekend off and rerunning a column that first ran on September 4, 2006. In the meantime, don't forget the latest Friday Challenge.


Way back before the dawn of recorded time, my home town had a jobs program for disadvantaged youth that provided minimum-wage entry-level summer jobs in the city parks department. Despite our city's rather alarming poverty stats, though, they could never find enough disadvantaged youth to fill all the budgeted positions, and so every June they'd issue a second frantic call for any high-school-aged guys willing to work in their local neighborhood park, which is how I wound up in the program.

It was, I must admit, a pleasantly stupid way to earn a few bucks over the summer. (This was before the advent of the ubiquitous "Would you like fries with that?" job.) My crew worked outdoors most days, from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., schlepping hoses, watering lawns, picking up litter, moving picnic tables around, and otherwise performing similarly arduous and intellectually demanding tasks.

One morning when we clocked in, though, our foreman told us we had a new challenge. The park had a bandshell, and our job was to assemble the temporary stage risers needed for the concert that night. He drove over to the bandshell -- and I do mean he drove, while we trotted along behind; I don't think I ever saw him set foot outside of that golf cart or without a cigarette in his mouth -- pointed to the backstage door, and told us the riser parts were inside and being a bunch of smart kids, we should be able to figure out how to put it together. Someone asked how long the job should take.

He said, "The union work rules say it takes a full crew four hours to assemble those risers." Then he putt-putted off.

Four hours? Of course we took that as a challenge! We dove into it, figured out how to assemble the thing -- it was no mystery to anyone who'd ever played with Tinkertoys or an Erector Set -- whipped it together in under an hour, and were just smug as could be when our foreman came back to check on our progress.

He took one look at it and said, "You did it wrong. Tear it down and do it over." Somebody protested that there was no possible way we could have put it together wrong, but he repeated, "The union work rules say it takes a full crew four hours to assemble those risers. You obviously did it wrong. Now tear it down and do it over." Then he putted off again.

Okay, maybe, just maybe, we might have missed something. So we disassembled the risers, and then, working carefully and double-checking every step of the instructions, we reassembled them again in about two hours.

When our foreman came back at lunch time to check on us, he was furious. "You dumb @#&$^#s! Didn't you @#($*&ing LISTEN? You did it wrong AGAIN!" Somebody tried to explain to him that we were sure we'd done it right this ti --

"Listen to me! The union work rules say it takes a full crew FOUR hours to assemble those risers! Now you will @*&^ing well TAKE four @#*&ing hours to put those @#*&ing things together or I will @#@(#$*&ing @#(*& your @#^&*$ @#(*&es!"

Oh. Well, when you explain it that way...

Somebody had a Frisbee. We threw that around for a while. Those that smoked, did. Me, I found a trashy pulp novel that somebody had left on top of an electrical box backstage, and read most of it. Along about 2:30 or so, some overachiever decided it was time to get going on the risers again, and we did -- slowly -- such that we were just finishing it up when our foreman came back to check on us at about five minutes before quitting time.

This time when he looked at it, he was smiling. "Good job. I hope you boys learned something today."

As a matter of fact, I believe I did.