Do a Little Dance

For the first time in a while I have some real writing-relevant news to share. A short story of mine Hostage was chosen by Flame Tree Publishing to be included in their upcoming Gothic Fantasy anthology Time Travel Short Stories.

The anthology is due to be published in July 2017 and will include a mixture of both new and classic time travel themed stories. This means, not only will a story of mine be found in a real book of the paper and binding variety, my writing will be alongside the likes of H.G. Wells and Mark Twain. How cool is that?

As evidence I’m not making all this up, the Flame Tree order page for the book is here. It can also be ordered through Indigo and Amazon. I have no idea how many, if any, Canadian/US stores will have hardcopy books in stock (Flame Tree Publishing is in the UK), but we all do our shopping online nowadays anyway, right (or is that just those of us who avoid taking a toddler to the store)?

This is one of those things that makes the whole writing endeavor seem a little less nuts. A feeling that will surely pass around the time I receive my next rejection. In the meantime, I’ll be dancing in the kitchen–probably the better you know me the harder time you’ll have picturing it, but the dance really happened.

Things to be Avoided

Books written by ‘BIG NAME’ with ‘little name’—cause you know ‘big name’ had little to nothing to do with it. I’ve never not been disappointed;

Clothes with ‘dry clean only’ tags—unnecessary pain in the ass;

Bottled ‘natural spring’ water—fancy way of saying tap water. Only more expensive. Exception: in a foreign country where the local tap water is sketchy. Then, bring on the imported tap water, please;

Squash—the vegetable, not the sport;

Uncomfortable shoes—it doesn’t matter how cute they are;

Vending machine apples—I don’t know, it just seems wrong somehow.

Unexpected Sources

Never know where you’ll stumble upon a good story you haven’t read. Though, I have read a fair amount of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, I’m far from having read them all.

One of the many blogs I follow is Science-Based Medicine—a group of relatively-sane voices in an internet full of nutso. Though Bradbury stories have little to do with medicine or science, of the real-life variety anyway, a recent post of SBM included a link to a PDF of All Summer in a Day. One of Bradbury’s on my unread list.

It gave me something to read while I waited for my eye exam. Unfortunately, short as the story is, I only got halfway through it before they called my name (of course the doctor is on time when I’m actually enjoying the wait). Then they put those dilating drops in my eyes. I tried to finish the story while waiting for the drops to kick in, but the world got fuzzy quickly and looking at my phone screen became like staring into the sun. Appropriate considering the subject of the story, but irritating. I had to wait until I got home to finish it.

Anyway, good story. Glad I came across it in August. It might have been a bit too depressing a read in January.

(Not So) Obscure References

I was reading Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. Most of you know Douglas Adams as the writer of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and other quirky fiction. Last Chance to See, is non-fiction.

Carwardine is a zoologist. Adams is definitely not, but he is—was :(— incredibly intelligent and much better at expressing his thoughts in a digestible way than the average incredibly-intelligent person. The book documents their travels looking for rare and endangered species. While the species still existed, hence the name of the book.

It’s an excellent book. Hilarious, and a little sad given not all the species they saw are still around. I highly recommend it.

Another, and one would think unrelated, book I read sometime before getting around to Last Chance to See was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. First published in 1951, this sci-fi novel has a definite Cold War Era ‘the arms race will end the human race and it must be the Russians fault’ thing going for it. Not a bad read. I don’t recommend it quite as highly, but if 50s sci fi is your thing you’d probably like it. Actually, if 50s sci fi is your thing you probably already have.

What made me laugh, or I should say one of the many things that made me laugh, reading Last Chance to See was the following passage:

“It’s hard for an Englishman to think of something like privet as being an exotic and ferocious life form – my grandmother has neatly trimmed privet bushes lining her front garden – but in Mauritius it behaves like a bunch of marauding triffids.”

I laughed because, had I read these books in the reverse order, the triffids reference would have been totally lost on me. Not sure if it’s my generation, ignorance, or if this reference is really that obscure, but ‘triffids’ is not a term I had picked up through cultural osmosis. I guess reading really does make you smarter.

Note: In case you don’t know, a triffid is a huge plant that has not only learned to walk, but will hunt you down and clobber you. Not even vegans are safe.

The More Things Change…More on Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I wrote a post about Ray Bradbury’s story The Highway. I have since finished reading the collection of short stories it came in, The Illustrated Man (1999), and have a little more to say.

There are some timeless lessons to be learned from Ray Bradbury for wanna-be fiction writers. The way he approaches writing (according to the collection’s intro) rings very true and is excellent advice: writing comes from asking, ‘what if…?’ Then seeing what happens.

However,

Though there is no doubt Ray Bradbury was a creative mind, in many ways ahead of his time I’m sure, and a talented writer, I found it hard to become fully absorbed in most of these stories. Despite his vivid imaginings of the future, he must have been a strong believer in the adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The collection was published in the late 90s, but most of the stories were written and originally published in the late-40s/early-50s timeframe. As I referenced while reviewing The Highway, it shows. There were some basic rules of life, particularly around marriage, that Ray apparently didn’t expect would change even with the advent of rockets and sentient robots.

Take the story Marionettes, Inc. This tale opens with two men discussing the difficulties of their marriages. The protagonist basically hates his wife and always has. The other man claims to love his wife, but he finds her tendency to over express her affection insufferable. Because men are people and women are…women (a premise not explained, but assumed to be understood), rather than consider how to approach their wives to resolves the conflicts, the discussion leads to ethical verses unethical ways to deceive these inconvenient appendages.

How might one sneak out to have drinks with a buddy?

Sleeping powder = unethical.

Clone-like marionette to temporarily replace husband = ethical. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her after all.

Seriously?

The idea that perhaps the man who never loved his wife should never have married her in the first place is briefly discussed and dismissed with reference to family embarrassment that was prevented by the union (appearances are more important than happiness, of course).

The idea of actually talking with one’s spouse about what’s making the marriage unhappy? Not even considered.

Leaving a relationship that has proven miserable for a decade? Parish the thought.

Thinking your wife might be able to tell the difference between you and a robot? Not of great concern.

I can’t decide if the wives have brain damage, or the husbands do.

All that said, Marionettes, Inc. has some good plot twists as well as the kind of ending that draws people to read Ray Bradbury and drives them nuts at the same time (in Ray’s defense, it turns out at least one of the wives may not be so superficial after all). It is a good story and was probably even better to its original audience, in a decade before women were considered fully-actualized human beings. But in a more modern plot, I think there would have to be some kind of black mail, abuse, or mental illness involved to justify such lengths being taken to deceive.

I also don’t think Ray Bradbury was oblivious the impact ‘the times’ had on his writing. In the intro (written in 1997) to the collection, he references the story The Other Foot, in which Colored people (he acknowledges, “that’s what they were called when I wrote The Other Foot in 1949”.) get to Mars before the Whites—what if?

Turns out, he couldn’t sell the story to the pre-civil-rights-movement American market—not because it isn’t a good, well-written story. He wound up giving it to a Paris-based magazine instead.

I’m sure this mark of time is an inevitable part of most writing, and I suspect it is most obvious in science fiction where authors are constantly trying to guess the complete unknown through the lens of our own lives, with no reliable frame of reference. Creative and timeless as any writer tries to be, it seems even the best sci fi will end up with elements that become comical if it persists long enough. Look at Back to the Future. According to its timeline, 2015 is the year of the flying car.

I consider this example proof such miscalculations don’t have to ruin a great story. Back to the Future is still one of the best trilogies ever (in my humble opinion). Even if I’m not watching it while eating a pizza from my food rehydrator, with kids buzzing by my window on hover boards.

As for my own writing, if anyone is reading it far enough into the future to notice my generational fingerprint, I’ll be thrilled. And I don’t need to know what gave me away.

Stories That Stick: The 11:59

You know the stories you read as a kid that stick in your brain forever? You might go years without thinking about them, then some little trigger pops up and suddenly you not only remember the story, but where you were sitting when you read it, or what shirt you were wearing. Since I began writing, these stories slip to the surface of my consciousness more and more easily. One of the strongest recurring story memories for me is The 11:59.

The 11:59 is from a short story collection called The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia C. McKissack (1992). It’s the story of a retired train porter, Lester, who’s telling the young porters the tale of the Death Train that will take them all one day.

“Any porter who hears the whistle of the 11:59 has got exactly twenty-four hours to clear up earthly matters.  He better be ready when the train comes the next night…”

I don’t remember how I got my hands on the book, whether it was from the bookshelf at home or the school library, but I distinctly remember sitting on my bed reading it. I’m not sure what shirt I was wearing, but there was probably a Blue Jays ball cap on my head or somewhere nearby. I also remember that for quite some time afterward (years maybe) I couldn’t help but check my watch if I heard a train whistle after dark, just to make sure it wasn’t 11:59—on at least one occasion, it was. I told myself my watch must be off by a few minutes to stave off a panic attack (and obviously lived to tell about it).

I’m not sure if it was this story that left me with the indelible impression that trains are magic, or if this belief was already there to enhance the chill it gave me (my reading of The Polar Express might have come first), but I still think of The 11:59 when I hear a train after dark. Though, I no longer check my watch. I swear.

Recently, I was compelled to track down The 11:59 (gotta love Google). It was tugging at my memory to the point that I just had to confirm the story was how I remembered it, and not some jumble of other stories mixed together by my all-too-human memory over two decades. Sure enough, the plot was almost exactly how I remembered it.

Reading it again as an adult, I was more aware of the simplicity of the storyline (intended for a young audience) and a typo jumped out at me that I’m sure I would neither have noticed nor cared about when I was ten or eleven. Even reading it in elementary school, I remember finding the story predictable. When Lester hears the 11:59’s whistle, he’s taken over by panic and a mission to accident-proof himself for the next twenty-four hours in hopes he will survive. All the while ignoring the pain in his chest and tingling in his left arm—duh.

But knowing where the roller coaster was going didn’t lessen the thrill of the drops and turns. And years later, the final scenes haven’t lost their magic.

Fuzzy Lines

If it’s completely different from the ‘first’ draft can you still call it the ‘second’ draft? I’ve come to realize when this novel is finished I won’t have a clear answer to the question ‘How many drafts did it take?’ The lines between drafts are already becoming fuzzy.

I’m nowhere near finished the second draft of my novel—of course it’s taking longer than planned—but I can already tell it will be very different from the first. On the bright side, it’s much more coherent thus far. There’s a good chance I’ll let other people see this one so I can get some feedback. Then between the feedback and my own fickle mind it will be interesting to see what draft three looks like.

I’m not entirely surprised by the amount of changes considering how dishevelled the first draft was. It would seem I can’t count on ideas coming to me in any kind of proper order. There have been a few short stories that I’ve written start to finish in an afternoon that remained more or less intact after revisions. Usually though, it seems I have to dump all the piece out of my brain then step back and examine them to find the story’s chronology. This is probably why serial publishing turned out to be a mistake for me. Well, mistake isn’t the right word. It was a learning experience.

Not that I didn’t reread and revise every chapter before publishing, but by the time I got to chapter ten of Dosterra, I already wanted to make serious changes to chapters one through nine. I haven’t discounted the idea of eventually finishing this story, but I think I will have to actually finish it, and rewrite it, then maybe it will be ready to send out to the world. (The novel I’m working on now is an entirely different one.)

This has been the latest musing of a short story writer/wannabe novelist. And yeah, I’m procrastinating. Back to the novel now I swear.