The Ballet Giselle — Inspiration for “At the Center of the World”

It was this clip from the ballet Giselle (ostensibly about a dead woman dancing with her lover) that was the inspiration for my hard science fiction story “At the Center of the World” which was published by New Myths Magazine in their #16 issue. As you might expect, one of the main characters in my story is also named Giselle.

The end of the clip where she walks across the stage after him en pointe is haunting to me. I wanted to capture that same haunting grace and delicate power in the story, and a few readers have intimated they think I did.

I did a lot of research for that story and found the entire ballet world fascinating. All I knew about it before then was The Nutcracker and the paintings of Degas and his petite rats.  As I did more research I became deeply interested in the physical requirements and mental preparation that goes into these performances. As a writer interested in the human condition, I found that world fascinating. Suddenly there was huge story potential. Just researching the structural engineering and integrity of the shoes themselves was eye-opening on so many levels.

Here’s the clip from YouTube that inspired the story:

Does Marwood Kiss Her…or Not?

So in the Haxan novel Marwood kisses his horse before he rides into the sunset.

What. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to happen in a western?

I guess I better go back and fix that part.

(Hee. I’m just teasing. He kisses Magra Snowberry.)

Thank you, Gemma

I Sold My Haxan Novel!

OMG! ChiZine Publications wants to publish my Haxan novel! They are thinking about a release date in late 2013 or early 2014. Gemma Files, who writes for CZP, approached them and let them know I had a dark fantasy western they might be interested in. They requested to see it and liked it and now they want to publish it!

This culminates a somewhat long and frustrating year on the writing front for me. I haven’t been exceptionally satisfied with what I have accomplished on the writing front. Although, to be fair, I have no reason to complain, because I’ve sold a few really good pieces. But this is the icing on the cake. I have been working in the Haxan mythos and angling for a move like this for some time.

I am very blessed I have people like Gemma, and Mary-Grace Ellington, and Melissa Lendhardt and other good writers who believe in me and support me, and have always believed in and supported Haxan. It means a lot, more than they can ever know.

Haxan is going to be a novel!   Woot!


Buffalo in Caprock Canyon — Beyond Awesome

One of the best things about camping in Caprock Canyon are the buffalo.

As a western writer (and just a writer in general and a human being enamored with history and culture) I love seeing these majestic animals. I think one of the biggest surprises is how small they are. Yes, small — compared to what I thought they would be. We have come to think of these creatures as large, gigantic animals. Now don’t get me wrong. They’re pretty good size. I’m just saying my expectations were that they were HUGE and they’re not. Then again, when you think about it, they are plains animals. That’s a pretty rugged ecosystem right there. You need a balance between size to maintain warmth (the heavy coat helps there) and ability to retain water.

Okay, it’s not like they’re just cows, however. They are buffalo. When you see them you know exactly what you are looking at.

I must be fair, however. They did have some bulls penned up. Those monsters were big. Then again they are full grown bulls. But I love watching these animals. I would have liked to followed them around all day with binoculars and watch them as they interact with one another and their environment.

One of the coolest things that happened while I was camping there? In the morning, while the world was still and the sun was edging up over the prairie and canyon rims, you could hear the buffalo moo and rumble (they make a deep guttural rumble in their throat or chest) and the noise carry through the air. It was probably the most mystical alarm clock I have ever awakened to. I almost get goose bumps now thinking about it.

Big Haxan News on the Horizon

I hope to have some good news on the publishing front regarding Haxan. Please stay tuned and keep your fingers crossed. Thanks, guys.

Haxan, where the Old West meets Hell

Science Fiction Used To Be Fun. It Can Be Again.

Now that I’ve moved from LJ to WordPress I will, from time to time, reprint old essays of mine that appeared earlier so new readers can sample them. This was posted in my old LJ on July 28, 2010. I think it’s still relevant today. Then again, as far as I am concerned, anything that pisses off the literary dinosaurs is relevant.

My friend [info]bondo_ba (and if you’re not reading his blog you should be) has a post about SF in the noughties and commented on the pretentiousness of SF, specifically the kinds of stories Dozois tends to select for his “Best of” anthology. I tend to agree with most of what [info]bondo_ba said even though I am an unabashed fan of New Wave SF.  Anyway, I posted a reply at the blog, but wanted to reprint it here because A.) I believe SF is in trouble, (I know, you’ve heard that one before) and B.) Something needs to be done about it, and C.) Maybe we’re here because SF is too successful?

Anyway, here is what [info]bondo_ba said:

“He (Dozois) has a tendency towards selecting overly pretentious work, and has been one of the driving forces behind the fact that SF literature is growing ever more literary – and ever more distant from the fans.”

My reply:

“Bingo. SF writers keep wondering why SF is “graying” and not finding new fans. This is the reason. When you write down to a person they might get the idea you think they are a POS. So it’s natural they will turn away from the genre altogether.

“The New Wave was necessary, imo, in that it brought SF out of its cartoonish “rockets and bug-eyed monsters” phase that dominated in the 30s, 40s and 50s. It also demanded a much higher literary quality. Unfortunately, with that higher expectation came too much hubris and pretentiousness on the part of some writers — which in effect, and over time, drove away fans who remembered SF for what it used to be: Fun.

“The SF writers themselves also forgot what SF was supposed to be about, and only concentrated on the literary aspects of the story. The results of which you have pointed out here.

“It’s a real shame. I believe SF can continue to grow, but it’s got to get over this “We have to make the literati like us so our work will be validated” phase. The literati and those who toil in the Ivory Towers will NEVER like or appreciate SF in any form it takes. That’s not how they roll. And the sooner SF writers understand that then they can get back to writing stories that will bring in fans, rather than push them away.”
……………..

Now that I’ve had time to think about this some more ([info]mmerriam hinted on Facebook he might have something to say about this topic as well, and I await his comments with eagerness, and, yeah, he’s another writer whose blog you should be reading) I am wondering if SF hasn’t become a victim of its own success? I mean, let’s face it, we won the genre wars. We won. SF is prevalent in everything from commercials to movies to books to, well, you just about name it and our influence is there.

We won.  No other genre can claim as big a turf in the public consciousness as we do.  Plus, SF was never about prognostication, it was all about getting the public ready for the future.

And we have arrived. We’re there. The trip is over. The future is here, folks. So maybe all that’s left is the genre’s own momentum? Dunno. I hope not. I hope there are new literary frontiers waiting to be opened. SF sets itself up perfectly to do that, but we haven’t seen much evidence of that work going on lately. There has been window dressing. Steampunk leaps to mind.  But I maintain that’s not a movement but a literary ornament. Don’t get me wrong. I actually like Steampunk (up to a point) but it hasn’t shifted the terrain the way New Wave and Cyberpunk have.

Meh. I’m probably way off base about all of this. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I am damn certain of one thing. You cannot walk down the SF aisle of a bookstore nowadays without experiencing an overwhelming sense of WTF?

Science fiction used to be fun. It did. I know this is true because I remember it.* It’s not fun anymore and maybe that’s because, like I said, we are victims of our own successes.

But we don’t have to give up. We can still be successful. And you can do that by bringing in new readers (along with readers who dropped out a long time ago) by making SF fun again.

Fun. Not opaque and stultifying in some vain attempt to impress people who will never be impressed with us under any circumstances you can name.**

…………….
*Please, don’t give me the “Science fiction is twelve” argument. I’ve been reading and writing this crap long enough to know good SF when I see it whether I was twelve, or fifty.

**Remember, these are the same people who think Brave New World is the speculative fiction giant of the literary world. And they only do that because they refuse to believe BNW is science fiction. That’s how out of touch they are.

The Western Online Goes Camping!

Caprock Canyon, September 2011. If you want a coffee mug from The Western Online just visit their merchandise store.

You can also get a coffee mug or merchandise from The Western Online....

Deadwood: How a Non-Western Television Series Challenged Myth and Stereotype

The Western Online has published my review of the HBO series Deadwood. I take a critical look at the show, its impact on our genre, and how it helped shape, and ultimately challenge, the collective consciousness of American culture.

I hope you like it. You can find the essay/review here:

Deadwood: How a Non-Western Television Series Challenged Myth and Stereotype

Back Home

I am back from camping in Caprock Canyon. It was a lot of fun and very beneficial.

I will have more to say about it later.

BRB

I’m headed to Caprock Canyon tomorrow for for nights and five days to write, read, and relax. I won’t be posting here in that interim, but you can catch me on Twitter assuming I have cell service. (Not always reliable way out where I’ll be.)

I should have written a post or two and auto-scheduled it to appear while I’m gone, but I didn’t have time. Sorry about that. I’ll let you know how the camping trip went after I get back. My main goal is to finish this new Haxan story come what may while I’m camping. I always find being in touch with nature like that (camping, alone and thoughtful) to be conducive to writing. So I’m looking forward to this trip and seeing what I can process mentally and artistically out of it.

I’ll miss you guys. See you when I get back. :)

Where I am with Writing (update)

One of the things that bothers me is my current lack of output. This year got off to a rough start when I came in with very little to almost non-existent desire to A.) write, and B.) further my career.

Some of those feelings have ameliorated. I’m more in line now with the desire and interest to start pushing myself to write again. I wonder if a lot of this wasn’t due to the white hot intensity I maintained over the last decade or so. I won’t say it’s not nice to be more relaxed when it comes to writing, but it is so different from what I am used to.

Not that this year has been a bust. I still have a novel being considered, have sold and had published many stories and articles, began my old time radio Internet station Theater 13 Radio which took off like a rocket, and am slowly making progress with Argo Navis Publishing which will be used to publish my backlog of novels, short stories, collections and *crosses fingers* podcasts. And on top of all that I am in the planning stages of getting someone to revamp my professional website.

So it’s not like I haven’t been busy with writing stuff. And don’t even get me started on the constant networking, keeping up with other writers and the market and the business and have you seen my to-be-read pile of books lately? And do you even realize what a time sink Twitter and Facebook are? Sheesh, haha. I don’t even play Farmville. And then there are the conventions (admittedly only one or two) I attend every year to meet more writers, editors, publishers. You know, doing writer things.

So. Yeah. I am busy. I’m not able to sit around on my butt all day long just thinking. (Although thinking is probably 85% of professional writing, the rest is just donkey work, tbh.)

*takes a deep breath* Having said all that, this is why I am sort of looking forward to going to Caprock Canyon and do some tent camping. Meanwhile, I will finish a new Haxan story and kind of hope that jump starts my desire to go into writing again whole hog.

Well, wait. I guess I should explain something about this profession first. Yes, you can go into it whole hog, but if you’ve been doing it for as long as I have you realize what is doable and what is not. So I don’t mean go scattershot, but focus my attention on projects and get them done. By doing that, by accomplishing that, I hope to push my career even farther.

Writing is all about what have you done lately. Even with all that stuff I listed that I am doing (and have done) it’s not much. An editor will look at that and say, “How nice. Got a finished story for me to look at?”

It’s non-stop, writing. I knew that going in and I’m okay with that. I just don’t like feeling that I may be falling behind the curve now and then even though I am trying to take steps to keep up with the changes in the profession.

I don’t like to lose. I don’t like to fail. That kind of thinking is the death-watch beetle of the writing soul. That’s what I have to face. That’s what I have to overcome.

Caprock Canyon

I am headed to Caprock Canyon this weekend after work. I think I will leave Sunday and come back around Thursday. I like the desolation of Caprock plus they have buffalo so how could anyone not want to go? Of course there’s a burn ban but I don’t plan on a camp fire. I have a small electric skillet and a water boiler I use for coffee anyway, so I’ll be good.

I’ve been before earlier this summer. The weather was brutal. It should be a little more comfortable now, but it’s pretty isolated nevertheless. I also plan to use the alone time to finish my new Haxan story, do some reading, and just decompress. I also hope to check out some of the trails.

View from a hiking trail in Caprock Canyon

The last time I went there was evidence of how the canyon suffered from a past fire. Some of the mesquite trees were blackened with soft green shoots sprouting from the blackened branches. I also saw the same for the cactus plants. So I’m eager to see how much more they bounced back since I’ve been there.

Another thing about the site, there is a LOT of wildlife, not to mention the deep black night sky and the stars glittering like sugar jewels. Not that the night sky will be all that great since there’s a full moon when I’m going, haha. Got to watch for werewolves? I saw skunks last time. Wereskunks?

See you guys on the flip side!

The Civil War: A Narrative (Vol. 1) by Shelby Foote

The Civil War is not my favorite conflict to read about. I save WWI for that honor, and horror. Nor does the Civil War contain my favorite battle to study. The Battle of the Atlantic from WWII interests me most, although I admit Shiloh is a solid #2.

Therefore, though this war is not my favorite to study or read about, I must admit the sheer beauty of Shelby Foote’s writing, and his mastery of language and narrative, brought this war alive to me in ways I never thought possible.

Foote is probably best known for his contribution to Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary which aired a couple of decades ago on PBS. Fewer people know he penned (literally — he used a dip pen on the philosophy he didn’t want anything mechanical between him and the paper) a three volume, one million-word, narrative about the Civil War and its battles.

Good writing always carries me forward through any book, no matter what the subject or genre. There’s a lot of good writing in this first volume. Foote makes the men and women of that time real. He helps us understand the thought processes and political decisions behind the principals not by viewing their lives through the lens of modern times, but by viewing their lives and challenges they faced through the philosophies and beliefs that governed populations at the time. This is a history that lives up to the breadth and scope of a national tragedy, showing it as a life-changing event for everyone who was involved in any capacity. It simply is one of the best history books I’ve ever read on any subject, ever.

Now that I’ve finished Volume 1 I am eager to begin the second. I have a few other things I have to finish reading first, but then I will start with unrestrained eagerness.

I think you should give this a peek. It is very well written and one of the best things I have read all year, aside from Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo.

I Will Sail My Ship Alone

Science fiction grew up in the New Wave era. That’s when editors and writers began to push the genre past its pulpish roots and demand better writing, better stories, better literature overall. Readers responded. SF literature will never return to its past of Flash Gordon rockets and bug-eyed monsters in anything other than nostalgic retrospective, or self-parody. And that’s a good thing.

Science fiction grew up. Took it a while, but it did. Mystery has long been mature since Poe. Horror was born mature. Even romance, sometimes nailed for its frivolity, is/was a mature and serious genre.

Not so westerns. I see a lot of bad elements in this genre, a genre I currently work in and love.  It’s like myth and stereotype are considered the norm. Way too many writers seem to be okay with that.

That really bothers me.

I’m not talking about the writing itself. There is bad writing in every genre. I’m talking about the perpetuation of myth and hoary stereotype as the foundation for the genre itself.  That bothers me because it’s a sign of laziness from the writers and no expectation of anything other than sameness on the part of the reader.

Yeah. That’s upsetting to me. These are people who view Matt Dillon and Kitty Russell as iconic, Americanized and Anglo-perfected figures, instead of the flawed characters John Meston intended them to be: A violent psychopath aborning and a two-dollar ragged-out whore with no future. Two lost people marking time with each other as the land and culture change irrevocably around them. That’s what Gunsmoke was about, envisioned by its creator, John Meston. He went out of his way to challenge every stereotype and myth perpetuated by people like Howard Hawkes and John Ford, along with cartoonish icons like Roy Rogers, the Cisco Kid, Tom Mix, and the LI will sail my ship alone.one Ranger. Kid stuff. Maudlin melodrama. Popcorn.

That took real courage on Meston’s part, his desire to bring a level of adult power to the western genre. I respect that. I respect anyone who is willing to buck the system and challenge trends and expectations.

There are good  writers out there working right now to change the genre. Ed Gorman. Loren D. Estleman. Matt Braun to some extent, though he can be iffy. In the weird west category Jennifer Brozek comes directly to mind as one of my contemporaries. But these people are/were good writers to begin with, so it’s no surprise they write westerns that don’t depend on hoary myth as a backdrop, or mawkishness as a foundation.

As a reader I personally enjoy stories that challenge perception and expectation. Stories that elevate the reader’s experience and broadens their emotional horizon always have my respect. All good stories do that on some level. All good writers do that. Popcorn is fun to munch on, but it’s not good for long term sustenance.

I think the one medium where westerns have gone a long way in growing up are, surprisingly, the movies. There are still western cartoons being produced, or aspects of western cartoons. But there have been many fine adult western movies that push the envelope. I see many more examples of that in movies than I do in current literature.

It’s a shame. I don’t know why western literature can’t seem to grow out of its juvenile past. But I refuse to write pulp, or myth, or stereotype. I know it’s the accepted norm in a lot of western literature.  But I will sail my ship alone.

Destination Future Interview: “Rubber Monkeys”

Mary-Grace Ellington interviewed me about my story “Rubber Monkeys” in the anthology Destination: Future published by Hadley Rille Press. Here’s the link and I hope you give it a peek. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it gave me an opportunity to think about the story in a deeper way, which is always a good exercise. :)

Destination: Future Interview

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy — a Review

“You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow.” –Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West might be one of the top five novels of Modern American literature.

I say “might be” because it is probably too soon to make that judgment even though the novel was published in 1985. Moby-Dick did not gain dominance over American literature until after WWII and it was first published in 1851 to mediocre reviews and multiple head-scratching.

Sometimes it takes decades for an American novel to assume its rightful place in the rarefied pantheon of Great American Novels. I know some critics have placed McCarthy’s work there. Personally, I think it is safe to say Blood Meridian is not deserving of that distinction…not yet. But one day it could be, and probably should be.

Nevertheless, Blood Meridian is, without doubt, a definitive western of lasting power. It is, by any metric, a masterpiece of emotion, raw moment, and language:

“When the dogs announced them the sun was already down and the western land red and smoking and they rode singlefile in cameo detailed by the winey light with their dark sides to the river.”

Blood Meridian tells the story of the Glanton Gang (historically accurate) working the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s who murder Native Americans for their scalps. (This was actually quite a lucrative business.) Already animalistic the gang starts scalping anyone who falls across their path and sells the scalps for gold. The novel deconstructs myths and Hollywood-inspired tropes promulgated upon an unsuspecting public.  I say “unsuspecting” because many readers (and, sadly, some writers of the genre) have been nurtured and pampered through the bubblegum influence of pulp magazines, Saturday morning television, and cartoonish movie serials.

This dangerously simplistic notion the Old West was one thing explicit, when we have solid historical proof it was quite another, has taken deep root throughout our Western Culture. Many western writers toil in the overarching shadow of this awful growth and its pervasive, debilitating influence. This becomes evident in the now-infamous line of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence when a newspaperman sagely opines if the legend becomes fact, one should by necessity be forced to print the legend. Thus, the power of myth, and its ability to sometimes usurp and weaken historical evidence.

Blood Meridian breaks those barriers down with grim remorse. At its core are philosophical elements of Gnosticism and Nihilism. However, the violence on every page is in no way symbolic or meaningful. McCarthy doesn’t use violence for shock effect or to elevate character description. Nor does he use it as a cheap literary device to move his readers. In his novels, and Blood Meridian in particular, violence exists for one reason: because man exists.  Only once in the entire novel does a character allow himself to wonder if there is any other being in the universe more terrible than Man. The answer is quite clear: there is not. We are alone on that red plain.

From the pronouncement “war is god” to the line “If god meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?” the terrifying and enigmatic antagonist, Judge Holden, moves with unadulterated power through the entire novel. The Gnostic influences are evident both in his philosophy and his determination to judge not only the men around him but the very world itself. This dovetails with the grim actions of the gang and how they interact and shape the Texas-Mexican border through their own violent actions. It is an amazing novel.

I can’t promise you will like Blood Meridian. One suspects many readers will be turned off by the unremitting (almost uncaring) violence and the cold, enigmatic ending. We have been conditioned to believe violence must mean something, that it must have cause and thereby fit neatly within our dualistic universe. Books, movies and television have conditioned us to believe the world must be righted if canted over, and all will be wrapped in a neat, pretty bow before the credits roll. That simply doesn’t happen in this novel. Because, as Judge Holden argues via his very actions, violence just is.

I definitely recommend this novel. And, if you write westerns of any type, you would do well to read this American masterpiece and perhaps learn something from it about the western genre, and maybe even yourself. It’s that powerful.

“In One Stride Comes the Dark” is the anchor story in a new anthology

My new Haxan story “In One Stride Comes the Dark” is now available in the anthology Beast Within 2: Predator and Prey from Graveside Books. I am really excited about this because I appear with some very good writers, and got to work with a fantastic editor, Jennifer Brozek. But, also, my Haxan story is the anchor story of the whole anthology!

I mean, really, how awesome is that? I am very flattered by the recognition. Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s the link to Graveside Books. The anthology is also available at other places like Amazon. Thanks!

I got a new guitar!

Last weekend I bought a brand new classical guitar. It’s an Orpheus Valley Sofia handmade by Kremona, a small company in Bulgaria. Yes, you heard me right, Bulgaria. Kremona makes some beautiful instruments and I’ve got one!

I’ve been practicing and playing with it. Wow. The sound is fantastic with deep and tonal quality. It’s a true classical quitar so the strings are a little farther apart for the intricate fingerwork that style demands. It has a cedar top, mahogany bridge, bone nut and Savarez strings. It’s magnificent and I think I’m in love. The rosette around the sound hole is simply gorgeous, too.

I just love it. Here’s an Internet pic. Maybe someday I’ll take one myself with my camera when I’m not so lazy.

On Book Cover Design

Now that I’ve decided to self-publish my back log I took the advice from friends and went through my books looking at covers, etc. I made some notes about it. I’m sure this is all stuff you guys already know, but it helps me to get it straight in my mind and process it. So here are the notes I made as I went through my library. They are only general impressions and not meant to be inclusive.

……………………….

Cover Ideas: What works, what I like, what catches the eye.

Sacajawea — obvious historical romance cover.

Anthologies have “broad” covers, non-specific, but speak to content.

Non-fiction — historical B&W photographs or maybe illustrations. Covers can be thematic like the McMurtry novels. Series have a specific look that ties the individual stories into a whole, making everything immediately recognizable. Covers often reflect some element about the title (or genre) of a story.

Titles should be easy to read — dark on light background or light on dark. Dynamic (action) covers are really hard to do, I think, but are often seen in some specific genres like fantasy.

A series has a tag-line to let reader know what line the story belongs to: A Haxan Story, Matt Helm, J.B. Thriller, etc. Immediately recognizable and gives reader cue to buy the story, if he likes the series and knows he doesn’t have it. Quiller is another series.

My series stories: Haxan, Sugawara, Mama Luiz, etc.

“First Time in Paperback” (or print)

Genre novels have a script, format or art specific to them, for the most part.

SF — spaceships. Fantasy — dragons.

………………………

I found this exercise helpful. It made me see some generalities I might be able to use later on. The problem with generalities, though, is they can so easily fall into cliche, so I really want to avoid that. Next I will study layout and arrangement of elements on the covers.

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