Fellow writer W.J. May is taking the great leap into the wild world of independent publishing. I’m pleased to be part of her cover reveal this weekend. Blogs across our great nation are publishing the new covers for the novels in her YA fantasy series “Chronicles of Kerrigan.” You’ll see here the covers for the first two, “Rae of Hope” and “Dark Nebula.”
“Rae of Hope” was put out by a traditional publishing house, but W.J. decided the best bet for her would be to “republish” the first book herself and then self-publish the next three in the series. I’m excited to see what will happen. Indie publishing couldn’t be hotter right now. Think Kindles. Think ebooks. Think you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a media reference to “Fifty Shades of Gray.”
“Rae of Hope” and “Dark Nebula” are coming out right now in ebook and soon in print.
Here’s W.J.’s description of “Rae of Hope:”
“How hard do you have to shake the family tree to find the truth about the past?
Fifteen year-old Rae Kerrigan never really knew her family’s history. Her mother and father died when she was young and it is only when she accepts a scholarship to the prestigious Guilder Boarding School in England that a mysterious family secret is revealed.
Will the sins of the father be the sins of the daughter?
As Rae struggles with new friends, a new school and a star-struck forbidden love, she must also face the ultimate challenge: receive a tattoo on her sixteenth birthday with specific powers that may bind her to an unspeakable darkness. It’s up to Rae to undo the dark evil in her family’s past and have a ray of hope for her future.”
You can reach W.J. on her website, Facebook, Twitter: @wanitajump and her blog.
Posted in: fantasy, writing
Let’s face it, before the DVD and Amazon, if you had fond yet hazy memories of a four-decade-old TV show, they would stay just that, particularly if the show only lasted a season. I just learned that can be a good thing.
One of my TV touchstone memories was of the 1974-75 series “Kolchak: The Nightstalker.” I can honestly say—though probably should do so with some embarrassment—that watching “Kolchak” was the event that made fourteen-year-old me want to be a newspaper reporter. Not the exploits of Woodward-Bernstein. No way. I wanted to be Karl Kolchak. This reporter in rumpled twill suit and straw hat didn’t pursue the President. Nope. He went after real stories: the vampires, mummies, zombies and aliens haunting Chicago.
Armed with a giant cassette recorder and Instamatic camera, Karl chased the stories believed by no one else, including his hard-bitten (naturally) editor at a third-rate wire service with offices next to the El tracks. (Journalistic footnote: Kolchak’s employer was likely modeled on the late lamented City News Service, though the real one never got near vamps or witches, covering only simple murders and robberies.) To my teenaged mind, here was newspaper reporting. Imagine my disappointment when my first zoning board meeting didn’t turn out to be the zombie board meeting. I wanted Karl’s suit. I wanted his hat. And I never reconciled any of this with the fact the show scared me behind our rec room couch every week. I’d always be the first one running screaming out of the haunted house.
Eager to return to those memories, I bought the series on DVD to watch with my 11 year old. It scared him. Some. Okay, a little. And me not at all. The stories were slow, the frights not frightening and the effects oh so cheesie. Watching the DVD erased my golden memories of the series. Damn the digital world!
But give credit where it’s due. Shows that scare us now, or did recently, owe a huge debt to one-season-wonder “Kolchak.” All the series set in a realistic world but actually about monsters and the paranormal—”The X-Files,” “Fringe,” the whole urban fantasy genre. The one thing I still enjoyed about the series was Daren McGavin’s sharp portrayal of Kolchak. He delivered the cynical reporter lines with real panache. And it was a sweet twist that though he was cynical, he believed in things that go bump in the night. He was Fox Mulder’s great uncle. And I still want that suit.
Posted in: crime, fantasy, journalism, science fiction
The tagline for the TV series “Max Headroom” was, famously, “20 minutes into the future…” This future was cyberpunk, gritty and a battleground dystopia where TV networks would do anything to win ratings. Made in 1987, it lasted just 14 episodes.
Any science fiction writer will tell you the most dangerous story to attempt is the one that depicts the near future. No one’s going to call you on getting the year 3535 wrong. But they will when you predict next week. That’s what makes “Max Headroom” so excellent. The show peered just around the corner in 1987, and still stands up 25 years later. My son and I just finished watching the DVD set. This is one of those SF shows—Firefly is another—that barely lasted a season but is still worth getting and watching.
Everything about “Max Headroom” is 20 minutes into the future. New subliminal ads called blipverts are so dangerous they make viewers blow up. Literally explode. Rakers play a deadly underground sport. Dreams are stolen to create ratings-winning TV shows, killing the dreamers in the process. Thugs kill to harvest organs. So-called “Blanks” use their status as the only people with out computer ID numbers to attack the central computer system. A news package broker sells exclusive access to terrorist attacks. Great ratings to follow. That’s a sample, and all the episodes feature stories that could happen any day now.
“Max Headroom” keeps the medium of TV right in its dark satirical cross-hairs, an achievement for a network show. My favorite episode is the second to last (and the last to air in the U.S. after the show was cancelled). “Lessons” follows the efforts of the network censors to shut down pirated feeds of pay-TV education channels. Schooling is delivered by TV in this future, and if you can’t pay, you don’t get an education. Investigative reporter Edison Carter, the show’s hero along with his computer doppelgänger Max Headroom, discovers the pirating is cover for another plot. Blanks are printing actual paper books for the poor kids to learn from. Edison and Max help them, of course.
Max Headroom, who is an AI version of the ultimate anchorman talking head, tells the audience: “Now, I’m no librarian, in fact, I don’t know what star sign I am. But, as a famous person once said, ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.’ And as I – another more famous person – once said, ‘If you don’t teach them to read, you can fool them whenever you like.’”
I’m certain the episode is homage to the late master Ray Bradbury and his Fahrenheit 451. The show ends with the censors defeated and a little girl reading the opening to “A Tale of Two Cities.” I love a cautionary tale about censors and censorship, particularly one that features an old-fashioned flatbed printing press.
Concludes Max, “Have you any idea how successful censorship is on TV? Don’t know the answer? Hmm. Successful, isn’t it?”
Here in our present, last week was Banned Books Week, the effort by libraries, teachers and writers to call attention to attempts at censoring what we read. It’s still happening now, and will be 20 minutes into the future.
Posted in: science fiction, the future, writing
Finishing “The Paris Review Interviews, Volume II” this week got me thinking about the separation—chasm really—that grew between literary and pop fiction in the middle of the last century. The thoughts bubbled up, in fact, after reading the interview with the late Philip Larkin, giant of 20th Century poetry.
Larkin was asked what he read. “Books I’m sent to review. Otherwise novels I’ve read before. Detective stories: Gladys Mitchell, Michael Innes, Dick Francis.”
Detective stories? So this literary giant—the author of my favorite modern poem, “This Be The Verse”—picked up one of Dick Francis’s racetrack whodunits when he kicked back. He wasn’t the only one from the literary big leagues who liked a mystery. I read once William Faulkner usually had a crime novel on his nightstand.
Aren’t these the kinds of things we crime writers want (need?) to hear? We want to be taken seriously by the literary establishment folks. I’ve heard many a genre writer call for a healing of the rift between literary and popular, so we all can be Dickens. Let’s face it, that’s not going to happen.
You write what you imagine. It’s starts there, always and everywhere, not with a theory or a psychology or an ideology. You don’t chose to be Faulkner or Francis. You can try, of course. And that way lies awful writing.
I went Interneting this afternoon to confirm that Faulkner nightstand anecdote. I couldn’t find it. Instead, I came on something even better in the web archive of the J.D. Williams Library at Ole Miss. Faulkner actually wrote detective fiction, something I didn’t know but probably should have. In 1946, his story “An Error in Chemistry” took second place in a short-story competition run by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The story was then included in “Knight’s Gambit,” a collection of six mysteries featuring lawyer Gavin Stevens published in 1949. That was the very same year Faulkner won another prize—the Nobel for Literature. Can you imagine a Nobel winner ever again putting out a bunch of detective stories right as she or he were jetting off to Stockholm? The gulf between the popular, the accessible, the commercial and the literary, the difficult, the art grows wider every year. (Faulkner also slummed in Hollywood, writing the screenplay for the film of Raymond Chandler’s novel “The Big Sleep.” When do think Thomas Pynchon will be taking a writing gig with Spielberg’s company?)
The Ole Miss library is a little treasure drove on Faulkner and crime. It has on loan from the late author’s own library vintage paperbacks he collected, including books by Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Eric Ambler and Agatha Christie. I imagine Faulkner and Larkin arguing the merits of Rex Stout and Dick Francis. And Chandler barging into the room—with a gun, to follow his own prescription—to tell them in blunt terms how wrong they both are. And why. Would we learn more from that than the deconstructions of the college profs? I don’t know. It would certainly be more fun.
Maybe, that’s my problem. I just want to have fun. No, that’s too glib. I stand by what I said above. I can only write what I imagine. Imagination comes before everything else. It is what produces the stories, and the language I use. It was the same for Larkin and Faulkner and Francis and Stout. It would have been nice to have been born with Faulkner’s imagination. Alas, I was not. I’ll just have to hope one of my stories ends up on the nightstand of Doris Lessing or Tomas Tranströmer.
Yeah, I know. In my dreams. But that’s what it’s about after all. Dreams.
Posted in: crime, writing
Most days, it’s pretty easy to guess what the New York Times will lead on. That’s because most days, it’s the Democrats yelling at the Republicans yelling at the Democrats… Well, you get the point. And if it’s not that, it’s the obvious big economic report of the day or the obvious major unrest in foreign parts or the obvious natural disaster.
But the top story on Thursday, July 5, was none of those. The day before, physicists announced they’d found the Higgs boson, an elusive subatomic particle the existence of which may (or may not) confirm the key theory on how the universe operates. You probably know this by now, as the story got big coverage all over the place (cover of the Economist, etc). Still in all, running it as the lead story — that’s the top story on the righthand side of page 1— made the New York Times look science fictional.
Staff writer Dennis Overby rose to the occasion, pulling out all the stops in writing this oddest of top stories. I’m going to quote a bunch of it, because you almost never read prose like this in the lead story of the Times. To wit:
Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view since last winter, as the first signals of its existence grew until they practically jumped off the chart.
He and others said that it was too soon to know for sure, however, whether the new particle is the one predicted by the Standard Model, the theory that has ruled physics for the last half-century. The particle is predicted to imbue elementary particles with mass. It may be an impostor as yet unknown to physics, perhaps the first of many particles yet to be discovered.
That possibility is particularly exciting to physicists, as it could point the way to new, deeper ideas, beyond the Standard Model, about the nature of reality.
The nature of reality? Wow. And Overby was just getting warmed up. Read on for the rock-show ovation, a rendezvous with destiny, and even what it takes to become a bill in Congress (a faint delicious echo of School House rock):
In Geneva, 1,000 people stood in line all night to get into an auditorium at CERN, where some attendees noted a rock-concert ambience. Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh theorist for whom the boson is named, entered the meeting to a sustained ovation.
Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very much like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry.
According to the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.
Gerald Guralnik, one of the founders of the Higgs theory, said he was glad to be at a physics meeting “where there is applause, like a football game.
Yay applause! Yay Higgs! Yay boson! Yay physics! Yay physicists. Yay the New York Times for delivering surprising writing on a surprising story.
Posted in: journalism, science fiction, the future
I failed to do my job that night. Didn’t even try. I was supposed to be chasing scraps of gossip and bits of deal news that HBO executives might dole out to a neophyte reporter from a C-list trade publication. That was not my excuse for not trying. No, mine was three amazing hours spent talking to the late Ray Bradbury.
I was at something called the television critics tour, an odd little meeting where TV critics from the nation’s newspapers assemble in one place to interview network executives and the stars of upcoming series. The acceleration in coverage of entertainment news, even back in July 1984, meant that beat reporters like me were along in the hopes of the scoops and tidbits that might leak (or be planted).
HBO hosted that warm night in Phoenix. The A-list critics and columnists sat with HBO chief Michael Fuchs and his court of executive vice presidents. This was at a time when Fuchs was being called “The Man Who Ate Hollywood” by Esquire magazine because of his company’s massive spending on movie rights.
A junior publicist led me to a table far from that crowd and sat me next to Bradbury. He was supposed to tub-thump for his new HBO series “Ray Bradbury Theater.” As you know, I was supposed to find a way to track down the scoops being given out several tables away.
Instead, Bradbury and I talked. And talked. We had several glasses of white wine. I fawned. And he was generous, so generous that I didn’t feel like I was fawning, but chatting about something we both loved—story. I don’t remember exact dialogue, but under that clear desert sky we covered Martians and things wicked this way coming and a house destroying itself after its family is itself obliterated by nuclear fire. We talked about his great short story “A Sound of Thunder,” a tale that presages every other change-the-past, change-the-future time travel story. Step on a butterfly hunting dinosaurs and your own present is altered completely.
And, of course, we talked about “Fahrenheit 451.” We had to, for the dystopian novel of firemen burning books was and is my favorite Bradbury story. Read it again. It holds up far better than the bad futures dreamed up by the so-called literary writers—George Orwell’s “1984,” Adolous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Government doesn’t take away books from people; people give up on books as they immerse themselves in interactive soap operas that play on the four walls of their living rooms. (In 2009, Amazon deleted “1984″ from thousands of Kindles because of a rights dispute, so really, we’re almost there.)
The setting that night was even perfect. The Arizona Biltmore was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and could easily have been a building on Bradbury’s Mars. His Martians, like Wright, created structures that fit into their arid world by making use of landscape and light.
Bradbury was wonderful company. That too should have been no surprise to me. The Times quoted him in its obituary: “I have fun with ideas; I play with them. I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring. My goal is to entertain myself and others.”
Entertain me he did. That assignment—ignoring the real assignment—was the best of my varied but not-so-storied journalism career. Some interviews came close. But only close. And many events I reported on would be considered bigger, more important, even more interesting by most anyone else. They are welcome to them. A three-hour conversation in the desert with the master tops them all.
As postscript, I’ll leave you with a link to the obituary the Economist did on Bradbury. It’s great for the form they chose and the stories they touch on.
Posted in: fantasy, movies, science fiction, the future, writing
Here’s an observation on revising a manuscript. I finished a rewrite last week of my crime novel, cutting 20,000 words in the course of a two month front-to-back revision. This was so I could hand the draft—it’s either the fifth, or maybe the seventh; I’ve lost track—off to my agent Dawn Dowdle for her edit. My work on the rewrite was informed by Dawn’s editing guidelines and everything I learned as a student in the Crime Fiction Academy this year.
I next went back to edit my two-page synopsis to see that I needed to change because the book had gone from 91,000 words to 71,000. The answer: nothing. In other words, when I wrote the synopsis six months ago, none of the material I ended up cutting, including one long flashback and an even longer scene in the final third of the book, was worth including in the synopsis. All those words had no impact on the movement of the story. And some part of me already knew it back then.
Next time, I will listen to my synopsis. I could have saved a bunch of work, and the painful banging of my head into my desk.
Posted in: crime, writing
I have not been a good blogger. Here’s my fiction update.
Writing is like erosion. It takes a really long time before it looks like you’ve made any progress. Two weeks ago, I finished a second-draft on the first third of my work-in-progress so I could set that aside and do the fifth (or is it sixth?) draft on my completed crime novel “Last Words.” I need to hand off the manuscript to agent Dawn Dowdle by July 1. Last week, I worked in the critiques and edits from my teacher and fellow students at Crime Fiction Academy—all great suggestions from the past five weeks for improving the first 15 pages
This week, I began my own edit, that is, erosion.
I need to do 300 pages by July 1, so this is going to be the more sudden, violent, landslide sort of erosion.
Posted in: writing
Or is that his dad, Ambassador Spock?
Posted in: journalism, science fiction, the future
Pretentious and preposterous. That’s how this line reads: I’m meeting my agent. It’s not so much name dropping, as noun dropping. Like, did I mention my sports-car repairman stopped by? Hold on, the art dealer is calling. Oh, and I’m meeting my literary agent this afternoon. But I am. I’m going to spend this whole weekend playing at writer. I don’t mean the solitary, banging-your-head-into-the-keyboard part of being the writer. That’s the real part. I’m going to enjoy the public part, where you get to act like a writer.
Journalism taught me long ago you don’t say you have a story until it is for real, in print, ink on newsprint. I found it hard not to take the same stance when defining what I now do. I swallowed the word “writer” when people asked how it is I spend my days. After all, no book. Proof and the pudding and all that. I finally settled on saying, “wannabe writer and stay-at-home dad.” There’s no oversell in that.
But today I am meeting with my agent, Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge Literary Agency. Getting to this point has been a long time coming—a lot of words under the bridge, tens of thousand in fact. I’m still a wannabe, but I’m a wannabe with an agent who also wants me to be. Tomorrow, we head to the Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. We’ll meet some of her other writers, some with actual books out. I’ll check out conferences on publishing and ebooks and marketing and meet authors (the real kind) and walk around the place in my writer pose.
I’ve even brought a special T-shirt. This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. In celebration, Philosophy Football created the Dickens XI shirt, with Dickens characters shown in each of the 11 positions on a soccer team. Too esoteric to put soccer and writing together? Maybe, but the writer pose is all about the eccentric. Anyway, imagine Pickwick anchoring the midfield and Chuzzlewit storming forward at center forward. It’s a mash up and we love those.
In between meeting my agent—said it again—and swanning around the fest, I’m sneaking into a late matinee of “Hunger Games.” I’d planned on the midnight show last night, but the travel logistics didn’t work. My next book is for young adults. I do not have visions of “Hunger Games” or Potterworld dancing in my head. I wish the movie well because I wish writers well. I hope Suzanne Collins becomes a squagillionaire. (Based on the movie theater parking lot outside, I think she’s got a shot.) When stories fascinate, writers have a chance, even the guy playing one for the weekend.
Posted in: fantasy, movies, science fiction, writing