I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Friday, December 15, 2006

Bitterwood news

Solaris has started promoting Bitterwood on its website and has a preliminary cover posted here. Of course, while you're there, check out the other upcoming Solaris releases. They certainly look prepared to be an important force in the world of fantastic fiction.

I like the concept of the preliminary cover, and the teaser line "the legend lives." Solaris certainly seems to have their act together when it comes to putting together an attractive package.

In a related note, Bitterwood is now available for pre-order on Amazon. I've known about this for a few days now but was keeping quiet until I felt more prepared to promote the book. I've been told I'll be getting copy edits the first week in January. Hopefully it won't be long after that before I start posting some teaser scenes here.

I haven't felt up to the task of promoting Bitterwood til now. I've had my writing brain turned off for the last few months. After I finished the last draft of Bitterwood back in August and cranked out my Halloween story "Silent As Dust," I immersed myself in house renovation, then moving. Now I suddenly find myself working on several projects at once. I'm writing outlines for two different novels, and trying to decide on a Bitterwood related short story to write for an upcoming Solaris anthology. I'd like to do something with a tatterwing... a dragon who's had his wings slashed in punishment for some crime. But, I'm also attracted to the idea of writing a story about the the dragon king Albekizan, Bitterwood's chief antagonist, in which he's unquestionably the hero of the tale. Albekizan thinks he's the hero of the novel and that Bitterwood is the antagonist. It might be fun to play around with this notion further. Then again, written right into the novel there's a story that is told about how the wizard dragon Vendevorex came to raise a human child. In the book, the story is told through overheard dialogue. It's a fairly dramatic story, though, and could probably stand well on it's own, though it might be a spoiler if people read it before they read the novel.

I'll figure something out. For now, though, it's nice to feel like a writer again. Two months ago, I felt more like a drywall hanger... which isn't a terrible feeling, but, trust me, writing is much easier on the back.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

God Smites My Scanner

I was reading the paper yesterday when an ad caught my eye. The headline of the ad read "Which of the Following Sins Would Most Likely Send a Person to Hell?" The four choices were 1) Murder, 2) Stealing, 3) Adultery, and 4) Homosexuality. You were then invited to engage in free Bible correspondence to discover the answer. The bottom lines of the ad read, "No time limit. Certificate upon completion."

The reason the ad caught my attention was that beside the words "Send a Person to Hell" there was a drawing of a bearded man in a robe that I'm guessing is meant to be God. God in medieval art is frequently portrayed with a stern, serious expression, but this God is drawn with a broad smile. The juxtaposition of words and image implies, to me at least, that God is gleeful at the thought of sending a person to Hell for one of the above sins. He looks like he's laughing at his own joke. "You want to get into Heaven? Well of course, come on... NOT! You're going to Hell! HAHAHAHA!"

It's not so much God as an authority figure as God as a supervillian. Which, I'm doubting was the intent of the ad.

I tore the ad out of the paper and brought it home. I intended to scan it and post it on my blog. I launched my scanner and got the preview image. I hit the scan button... and my scanner died. It's kaput. My computer doesn't even recognize that it's plugged in any more. It seems to have no power to it at all.

When I took the ad off the scanner, I kind of expected a FIFTH ANSWER:

5) Scanning God's image with the intent of mocking him on the internet.

Oh well, when it comes to Hell, in for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. Because, if I understand the Christian theology of my youth, the answer to the checklist in the ad is both "All of the above" and "None of the above." "None of the above" in the two ways. First, you can do all these sins, and worse, then repent and accept Jesus and get your get out of Hell free card. Second, if you don't do any of these sins, but still don't repent and accept Jesus, you're going to Hell anyway. You are born, after all, with original sin. You could slip and hit your head as a toddler and live 80 years in a coma and ZOOP, off to Hell with you when you die. Going to Hell is the default position... it requires an active decision to change that fate.

This all or nothing element of damnation is one reason I'm mystified by conservative Christian stands against certain sins in particular. Homosexuality, for instance. If you talk to conservative Christians who oppose homosexuality, they will tell you that they are just trying to save the fags from Hell. Homosexuality is listed as a sin, after all. But, of course, so is eating pork, and you don't see them running through McDonald's smacking bacon cheeseburgers out of people's hands. And don't get me started about coveting. Coveting is right there on the big ten list of no-no's. Unfortunately, it seems to me, especially during the holidays, that the entire American economy is built on coveting. People want the hottest toys and gadgets so much they get into fist fights in the parking lot. Why aren't conservative Christian's standing in front of Walmart warning people that excessive desire for a material thing is a sin?

I should probably write in and ask the free Bible correspondence people. I'm thinking that certificate would look nice on the wall.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A banjo quilted

I've been playing around with altvista.com's babelfish translator and just tried translating the opening lines of my story Silent as Dust. I randomly chose Portuguese as the language to translate to and from. The results were interesting:

The Company That I remain myself. I am judging a sample of talent in the attic of seven chimneys. We are close to the chimney master, we enter one maze of the boxes, gray with grime. Moonlight through the round window serves as spotlight for ours contestants. First above of it is Dan, a fulled hart dirige with five antlers of the point and startled the look in its glass eyes. Dan sings of the "a rock jailhouse" as if one was ballad blue of the gram, folloied for Binky, a monkey of sock with a banjo quilted. It comes after that the professor To blink, a bear of teddy 65-year-old with an eye and half of its original skin. The professor To blink is to juggler, keeping in high a rammer of crochet, a light bulb broken of washes, and ceramic manger of the decorations of christmas. When all the three articles are in air, grasp an old sphere of bowling and launch it in the cool mixture with one grace that points gain it.

The original, for comparison:

The Company I Keep. I'm judging a talent show in the attic of Seven Chimneys. We're near the master chimney, amidst a maze of boxes, gray with grime. The moonlight through the round window serves as the spotlight for our contestants.
First up is Dan, a stuffed deer head with five point antlers and a startled look in his glass eyes. Dan sings "Jailhouse Rock" as if it were a blue grass ballad, accompanied by Binky, a sock monkey with a quilted banjo.
Next comes Professor Wink, a 65-year-old teddy bear with one eye and half his original fur. Professor Wink is a juggler, keeping aloft a crochet mallet, a broken lava lamp, and the ceramic manger from the Christmas decorations. When all three items are in the air, he grabs an old bowling ball and tosses it into the mix with a cool grace that earns him points.

How did I ever waste the precious hours of my life before the internet?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Long shot Hail Mary

Tonight, I sent my first ever submission to the New Yorker. A few months ago I wrote a story called "Silent as Dust" for the Codexwriters Halloween contest. This was my third time entering the contest. The first two years, I came in second place. In fact, I split second place one year with Tom Pendergrass, so if you are a glass half empty kind of person, I tied for third the first year. So, this year, I was hungry to win. I'm not positive why... it's not like there's money involved. The stories don't get published. (At least, not a guaranteed publication... several contest stories have gone on to sales at various outlets.) But, my short story output has waned over the years. I find, as I've become a better writer, I have a harder and harder time finding stories I can get excited about writing. Ten years ago, any idea I had seemed like a pretty good one. Now, if find I'm much more picky. There are professional writers who can sit down and write a story about just about anything. They could take the headings from the spam in their email boxes and find inspiration. I don't have that kind of drive. So, the Codex contests keep me cranking out short fiction. Of the four contests I've entered, I've sold two of the stories, one of them twice, and have faith that the other two will find a home eventually.

Silent as Dust was my submission this year to the contest. I had a vibe when I submitted it that it would probably win. It turned out to be a landslide. In the aftermath, I had half a dozen people tell me I should submit the story to some prestigious market like the New Yorker or Playboy. And, I figure, what have I got to lose? It turns out the New Yorker takes email submissions. It can't even claim I'm wasting postage.

Still, the New Yorker rejects about a thousand stories for every one they accept. Pretty lousy odds, but better than the lottery. And, I don't exactly write a lot of stories that would fit in the pages of the New Yorker... I'm not positive this one does either, but it's a quirky little ghost story with very subdued supernatural elements. It's a more likely fit than, say, Final Flight of the Blue Bee.

Speaking of Blue Bee, I got my copy of ESLI with the story in Russian. It's utterly bizarre to open a magazine and not even be able to read my own name. I can only recognize my story by the illustration and the copyright containing the Asimov's first publication acknowledgement. I hope it eventually appears online and I can translate it using babelfish.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Talk the Talk

My friend Luc Reid has recently published a book called Talk the Talk. It's a dictionary of subculture terms, examining specific phrases unique to groups such as rock climbers, role play gamers, drug pushers, and homosexuals. It's being pushed by the publisher, Writer's Digest, as a reference book for authors. But, I think it's also going to be of interest to anyone with an interest in slang and obscure cultural references. It's well researched and attractively packaged, and would make a good coffee table book, or, let's be blunt, excellent bathroom reading. Also, I think it would make an excellent gift for a crossword puzzle fanatic, since I bet crossword puzzle editors dig through books like this for fresh clues. Check it out.

Monday, November 13, 2006

I'm moved! For real this time!

I carried in the last boxes from my car tonight. Everything that used to be in my old apartment is now either at my new house or in the dump. Next time I move, I hope I'm in a strong enough financial position to pay someone to do it for me. I sincerely appreciate all the people who've helped me move these last few weeks, but dragging it out over the course of weeks has been exhausting. When you hire pros, they sweep in a box everything in a few hours, whether you want it boxed or not. There's a certain appeal to this.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Gridlock! I hope. Maybe.

It's been ages since I've done a political post. I think there's been one since Laura passed away. I find that my interest in politics has waned during the last year. Part of it has been the unrelenting sameness of the news. During the Clinton administration, I was fired up over what I saw as government abuse of power. Things like the slaughter of children at Waco, the Clinton's pulling the IRS records of their political enemies to dig for dirt, the allegations of government monitoring of international traffic, and the involvement in a war against a country that posed absolutely no threat to us (Bosnia) seemed like the beginning of the end of what we think of as democracy. So, of course, all these practices continued, and were often taken to a whole new level by the Bush administration. Worse, Clinton had faced a hostile congress and actually was unable to pass any huge new spending initiatives like big health care plans. Bush with a friendly congress went out and spent money as if it was just some imaginary number on a government spreadsheet. And, he did it while cutting taxes, more or less. (Tax revenues are actually increasing, so I'm hesitant to call his tax cuts tax cuts. When the government has less money to spend next year than it did the year before, I'll call that a tax cut.) Bush and the Republicans are spending like a typical American consumer... they are living on credit cards, buying a lifestyle they can't afford at present by mortgaging the future.

I don't think the Democrat takeover of congress will signal an end to any of this. But, maybe it will slow it down with gridlock for at least a couple of years. Bush and the Dems can be like squabbling spouses arguing whether or not to use the credit cards for a big screen TV or to send the kids to summer camp. Maybe in the end one of them will end up sleeping on the couch and neither purchase will get made, though I recognise the risk that maybe they'll make nice and buy both.

I confess, though, I have lost most of my interest in politics due to a growing despair that we'll ever see the birth of sensible government. (I won't say a return to... when has our goverment ever been sensible.)

How would I define sensible government? Here are three things I'd like to see government do:

1. STOP KILLING PEOPLE. Seriously, the world just doesn't pose that big of a threat to us. Canada isn't going to invade, Mexico IS invading, but as near as I can tell their takeover mainly involves lawncare and hanging drywall, and the Chinese aren't going to mess with us because they are too busy selling shoes. And how, exactly, was Iraq supposed to invade us? Did they even have a navy? Using our military to try to stop terrorism is a bit like trying to use a sledgehammer to kill a nest of fireants. You can flatten that anthill, and probably kill a lot of ants, but it's not going to solve he problem on anything but a temporary cosmetic measure. And, was it a problem? Yes, terrorists had a big symbolic hit. They hurt a lot of people. But sending our troops out to stop a future attack has killed more American troops than the people who died on 9-11, and cost a lot more economically. Not to get all Christian on you or anything, but there is a certain strategic wisdom, at times, to turning the other cheek. We would have made much more of a blow to the passion of the terrorists if we'd just carried on with life.

2. STOP PORKING US! Okay, I'm a realist. I know that the big money in government is being spent on big projects... Social Security, Medicare, Defense, and paying interest on the debt. The money being set aside as earmarks for local projects is relatively trivial. But trivial adds up in the long run. If we have to spend federal money, we should be spending it on national projects only. Sending money that benifits only one district by building a bridge or a museum or a golf course is a misuse of Federal money. State and local money should finance state and local projects.

3. FLIP HEALTH CARE. Okay, here's why I'm not strictly a libertarian anymore. My close involvement with the health care system during Laura's illness has made me think that, yes, maybe there is a government role to be played here. But, I think that all government schemes I've seen for "universal" health care are awful. I think that any scheme that has the government getting involved in all aspects of health care is doomed to be wasteful. Some will argue that if we cover the costs of the small stuff, the preventive medicine, it will save money in the long run. This is such nonsense. Money isn't the main obstacle to people getting preventive health care. An annual check up, better diet, and excercise cost a couple of hundred bucks. It's not lack of funds that are keeping people away from the doctor, it's American's natural apathy towards their own health, which doesn't have a government solution. So, let's get rid of government plans that concentrate on the small scale spending, and pay attention to catastrophic illnesses.

The details of the plan can be worked out by people with actual facts and figures. But, one approach would be to set an arbitrary number and decide that government would pick up costs beyond that number, no questions asked in the case of life threatening illness. So, the first fifty thousand bucks of a person's illness would be the responsibility of the sicko and the insurance company. Or maybe the first 1oo grand. Or the first ten grand. A second approach would be to scale this number based on the persons income. Major illnesses shouldn't bankrupt people, but it's silly for the government to be picking up the bill for Dick Cheney's heart attacks. Trust me, Cheney can pay for his own health care. My dad, on the other hand, would probably not survive the economic hit of Cheney's health problems. So, maybe the scale should be based on a person's most recent tax return. If you earned $20k last year, the number where the government would step in would be low, maybe $5k. If you were Bill Gates, maybe the goverment wouldn't step in until you were.... well, let's be blunt. If you had a health condition serious enough to risk your wealth at Bill Gates level, the most merciful approach to your health care might be to drag you out behind the shed and hit you with a sledgehammer.

The odds of getting this passed, by the way, are precisely zero. But, thought I'd toss it on the table anyway.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Email working again

My earthlink email account was accidentally deactivated when I switched by cable internet from my old address to my new address. I had a very frustrating experience Thursday trying to reactivate it without success. But, this morning I tried again, got the right person, and had the whole thing taken care of in ten minutes. I was going to post the transcript of the first chat I had with the sucky customer service, but at this point, the good service this morning cancels the bad earthlink karma. I've gotten calls from people wondering why their emails were bouncing. If you were one of the people who tried to email me, try again. I'm back.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Dining Room/Office/Tribute to Dad

The dining room/office was radically transformed with the assistance of my Dad. In one of the white cinder block photos, you'll see a chimney. This is now enclosed by the closet Dad is standing in front of in the photo below. The house had no closets except for the bedrooms, so having a place to stash stuff is immensely helpful. Also, the closet hides the exposed gas line that ran across that corner.

With Cheryl's help, I painted the room red. I wanted a red room because my writers group meets at a place called Fuse in Chapel Hill that has a red room, and I liked the vibe there. The red and orange rooms go well together. Moving from one to the other is a pleasant visual experience. I also think I was pushed toward the bright red and orange scheme of the house by the prison starkness that had been there when all the walls were white cinderblock. Before, the place had an institutional vibe. Now it's very warm and energetic.

The floor was laid by me with the help of Greg, Dona, and Jesse. I don't have photos of the bathroom (I do, but the room is so small I couldn't really get far enough away to photograph things with any kind of context), but Greg deserves recognition for helping me lay real tile in there. The bathroom is actually very nice, despite being smaller than the one in my old apartment. Dad wired me another socket in there... I'm thinking of doing something funky with the lighting eventually, maybe rope lights hidden around the edges of the medicine cabinet that would glow blue. It would feel like I was shaving in the future! Or maybe not.

I've mentioned Dad a couple of times now, but I don't think I can overstate how important he was to this project. He turned out to be a font of knowledge on drywall, wiring, framing, and other stuff. And, he also has proven to always have the right tool for the job at hand. So, hats off to Sidney W. Maxey, Jr., master carpenter, font of wisdom, and terrific father.

Living room transformation

I'm having some frustrations getting my photos to appear in the sequence I want them to on the page for some reason. But, below are before and after photos of the living room. The "after" is the orange wall, the "before" is the white cinterblock. I've put drywall over the cinderblock ot hide the exposed conduits. The old ratty AC unit has been carted off (I'll worry about what to replace it with in May or June). The drywall was painted orange and trimmed in white. The floor was covered with linoleum planks that do a very convincing imitation of wood.

You can't see it much, but Dad built out boxes above both windows that give the room a little extra flare. And, the effect is tough to capture on a camera phone, but the room looks much bigger in orange than it did in white. I was advised to go with orange by Dona, Cheryl, and Becky, and their advice proved worthwhile. My mom, dad, and brother all pitched in and helped with this room. Kudos all around.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Magnetic poem by Laura

I bought Laura's refridgerator from her parents. It had three or four magnetic poems she had composed on the side. I didn't have the heart to take them down, but they were on the side of the fridge next to the stove and that side of the fridge was greasy and spattered. My brother's girlfriend Becky volunteered to clean the fridge on moving day. I told her I didn't have the heart to take down the poetry, but I had taken pictures with my phone, so it was okay if she had to remove it. She didn't... she very sweetly and carefully cleaned all the little gaps around the poetry.

This poem strikes me as particularly representing Laura's take on life:

In case the picture is grainy, the poem reads,

girl you are it
not to ask why
but do life day in & out
& I will trudge and
for you

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

House blahs

I am so exhausted. Drywall is exhausting stuff to work with. It's heavy and dusty and crumbles with the slightest bump on a corner. But, I finally got the last of it on the walls tonight. Now, I'm left with sanding the mudding in the living room and mudding from scratch the dining room. I also have a patch of wall I'm planning to stucco. I did a little test patch the other night on a tiny sliver of wall behind a door. Results were promising. I may wind up using stucco for the bedroom, the last room in the house with exposed cinder block.

With luck, I'll be at a point where I have paint on the walls this Saturday, and fake wood on the floor by Sunday. Then, it's all detail work, and, of course, moving in.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Kitchen before, kitchen after

This is a before and after photo of the kitchen. I took my "before" pictures of the house before I bought it, during the home inspection. Sadly, I thought I had a better picture of the kitchen. The inspector kind of set up shop in there and I never told him to get out. So, I just snapped this one photo.

Basically, before, everything in the kitchen was brown wood and gray floor tile. I've now put black and white vinyl tiles on the floor, painted the walls white and the cabinets and trim black. The only thing I haven't tackled is the countertop, which is a yellowish cream color. Eventually, I'd like to cover it with white tile, but that would mean I'd have to raise the sink up to the level of the tile, and I don't know that I want to deal with that just now.

A big shout out to my friend Cheryl for pitching in and helping me paint and lay tile. She rocks!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

All me, all the time

I'm spending crazy hours at the new house, but making good progress. The paint job in the kitchen is probably the nicest paint job I've ever done in a room. It's also been the most time consuming... and I still have the rest of the house to go! I started putting down the new floor tonight in the kitchen. It says I should only apply it to floors at least 65 degrees warm... so, of course, they are calling for a cold snap tomorrow with a high of only 60. I'll probably press ahead anyway.

Since it will be a while before I put up a long blog post, anyone wanting more of me should check out two recent eruptions of my words upon the internet. First, Mur Lafferty interviewed me for her popular podcast "I Should Be Writing." Check it out here: http://shouldwrite.blogspot.com/

I just found it live ten minutes ago... I haven't listened to it yet. I hope I didn't say anything embarassing. We met and talked over dinner and the conversation was so natural I sort of forgot she had the recorder going.

Next, if you check out the link on the side of the page for Ed Shubert's IGMS blog, you'll find a link that will take you to the latest online edition of Intergalactic Medicine Show, where my story "To Know All Things That Are In The Earth" is now live. I wrote this story for the Codexian Idol contest last February. I think it's the first time I've ever written a story and had it appear in print in the same year. It's also one of the best stories I've written to date in my opinion. Again, this issue of IGMS just went live, so I haven't read any of the other stories, but fellow Codexians are well represented in the table of contents, so I have confidence in the quality of the issue. And, hey, Tim Pratt!

Finally, a few posts back I mentioned taking out the bathroom sink. I am pleased to report that I put a new bathroom sink back in with very little effort. An hour, tops. Now all I need to do is slap some tile down, put up a shower curtain, and I'll actually have a functional bathroom.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Face O' Jesus?

There's a place in the living room where I think a lamp once sat that has left an interesting pattern on the wall. It looks a bit like a human face with long hair. I wonder if I should leave it and open myself up as a pilgrimage site? Of course, it looks about as much like a Star Wars Storm Trooper as it does the face of Jesus, so I'm worried I'd get the house filled with Star Wars geeks.

Manly Moments

So, not to brag or anything, but I felt particularly manly for a moment yesterday as I removed my grungy old bathroom sink using nothing but an adjustable wrench and my own two hands. I stared at the gutted remains as they sat in my dining room with the same sense of satisfaction that cavemen must have felt staring the the spear-riddled corpse of a sabretooth.

Now, I just hope I can have the corresponding feeling of being able to put the new one back in.

Monday, September 25, 2006

New house

I'm a homeowner again! Closed on a house in Hillsborough this afternoon. I'll eventually post some before and after pictures of my remodelling... right now, of course, all I have are the befores.

I'm bushed. I did a marathon cleaning session after the closing. Tomorrow, I start painting. I'm planning on five solid weeks of home improvement. I'll sleep in Novemember, I guess.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Solaris Launch

The Solaris website is finally starting to get some content. I'm especially excited to see the covers and blurbs of some of the books they are launching with. Check them out at:


I have to say I'm very pleased with the covers. Thief with No Shadow is especially eye-catching. It gives me good vibes about the treatment Bitterwood will get. I'm also happy that, of the five covers shown, four of them focus on human faces or forms and only one is the generic SF spaceship. I've long thought that SF could gain a greater readership if the covers focused more on people and less on spacecraft and alien landscapes. Don't get me wrong--I enjoy SF artwork, and think SF scenery in movies is compelling. But, even if a story is set on a spaceship, the story is seldom about that spaceship; it's about the people/lizardbeasts/big bugs living on it. Making spaceships and futuristic buildings the focus of SF covers is akin to marketing romance novels showing the cars and houses of the characters, with no actual glimpse of the people who will be getting together between the covers, double-meaning intended. So, I'm happy to see these early covers being so character-centric.

And, as long as you are checking out the covers, why not also check out the message boards and blog? This could grow into a nice little community. Now's your chance to get in on the ground floor.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Unknown flowers

Left flowers at Laura's grave today. I was driving home, listening to 9-11 remembrances, and suddenly felt the need to run into a store and buy some blossoms. Look, anyone out there reading this who has a loved on who might appreciate a bouquet, step away from the computer and go get them some flowers. Steal them from the neighbors window box if you have to. I've given flowers to Laura more frequently in the last four months than I did in the four years I shared with her, and that's just a very sad thing.

I had no vase, so I just laid them out one by one on the grave. They were a delicate orange flower, with a small blossom, with light brown stripes down their centers. They looked kind of antique... I have no idea what they were. They just appealed to me at the Food Lion flower case. At the grave, I couldn't help but think about how Laura would have known what they were. She knew the names of all the flowers.

Driving home, I had the Mountain Goats on (don't I always?) and "Twin Human Highway Flares" was playing:

on the day that i become so forgetful
that all of this melts away
i will burn all the calendars that counted the years down
to such a worthless day

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Laura Post, Four Months Beyond

And now four months have passed since I last held Laura's hand.

This last weekend, I went to Atlanta to attend Dragon*con. I spent much of my time thinking of her; the first time I went as a guest to the con Laura went with me. This was right before the official launch of Nobody Gets the Girl. Laura wasn't a SF geek, but I think she still had a good time looking at all the costumes. We attended a "Church of the Subgenius" meeting together, and got to meet Danger Woman, a comedic superheroine. It was also a chance to hang out with Kieth Olexa and fellow Phobos novelist Adam Connell. Laura was too sick to go to Dragon*con the second time I attended. The whole time I was at the con that second year, I wanted most of all to just go home and be with Laura. I barely have any memories of the con at all, and this was a year when Harlan Ellison was a guest of honor.

This year, I again found myself wishing I could pick up the phone and call Laura and tell her everything that was happening. I had a good time this year thanks to the presence of a whole bevy of Codexians to hang out with. Still, on the night before I left the con, we were sitting on a couch in the hotel that Laura and I had stayed at, and I was looking at the elevators rising and falling and remembering riding that elevator with her, and I'm hard pressed to think of any point in my life where I've ever felt more alone.

Yet, I don't intend for the tone of this article to be a downer, woe-is-me kind of thing. Because, something happened on my trip to Atlanta that gave me new insight into the entire experience of Laura's death, something that answered a lot of the unanswered questions I had about how she had slipped from this world.

The hotel I stayed in this year was located across the street from the Atlanta science center. They were hosting a traveling show called "Bodies: the Exhibition." You may have heard of exhibits like this. The father of them all was BodyWorks in Germany. A scientist figured out how to "plasticize" a human cadaver, and then used human bodies to make works of art. I went to the Bodies show expecting it to be an art show... instead, it was focused almost exclusively on the science of the body, as befitting a show in a science museum.

Some people may find the notion of looking at flayed human corpses a bit gruesome or morbid. Maybe it is. But, I saw some things in this show that provoked a sense of wonder about the marvelous organisms we spend our time on Earth dwelling inside. One display that really made me feel like I was looking at the world in a new way was of a body where the red-dyed plasticizing agent had been injected throughout the veins of the body. Then, the body had been dipped in acid and disolved, leaving the entire circulatory system intact. What remained was a ghost of blood, the outline of the human form and its organs plainly visible as a tree of thin crimson threads all woven together. The lungs were especially prominent in this work. Laura died from bleeding in her lungs. It's easy to understand how this can happen, looking at such a display.

And, of course, there were the lungs. In another room, there was a female head, throat, and lungs. The lungs were tiny. I had this mental picture of lungs being big things that fill up almost all the space beneath the rib cages. Instead, they are actually small enough to fit in my hands, and kind of squashed up and compressed by all the other organs stuffed into the torso. One thing I never understood as Laura's illness progressed was why such small tumors were killing her. The radiology reports were talking about tumors only millimeters long. Tiny things. Yet, this exhibit made me understand, at last, the scale that these tiny things were operating in. Laura had lost about half of her lung capacity to tumors. It's shocking to see how little this left her with.

Finally, there were the cancers. Lungs, breasts, livers, bones... all ridden with cancer, all preserved forever. As Laura was fighting her disease, I often wished for x-ray vision. I wanted so badly to see what was going on inside her body. Now, I feel like I finally have some insight. I'm torn as to whether I'm happy I didn't see it until afterwards, or whether I might have been more useful to Laura if I'd seen it before she passed away. I couldn't have saved her by seeing these cancer ravaged lungs. But, I might have understood what she was up against better.

A lot of people, when they lose a loved one, are left with the haunting question, "Why?" I don't know that science is all that effective in answering, "Why?" But, science is getting better and better at answering, "How?" I think I know something about how Laura passed away that I didn't four months ago. It helps.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Now, for my longest post yet....

What a blur, these last two weeks. I finished Bitterwood, pushing it up to 116k words. I feel confident in saying that Bitterwood is the most fleshed out work of fiction I've ever created. Nobody Gets the Girl was written with a rather minimalist style. Comic book writing is actually rather terse; having to keep you dialogue into word balloons forces comic writers to be lean and mean. Of course, they have the advantage of art surrounding the word balloons. They don't have to describe a characters, a room, or an action sequence. It's all drawn out for them. With Nobody, I used my prose as a pencil, sketching out a lot of quick outlines and backgrounds, not adding a lot of color, presenting a world composed mostly of shades of grays. Dialogue carries much of the action and reveals most of the characters' thoughts.

Bitterwood, on the otherhand, is a painted novel. It involves races of dragons, in emerald, ruby, and azure hues. The characters in Nobody seldom think about eating; in Bitterwood, primary characters sometimes pause to savor licking the drying blood from beneath their claws. In a world dominated by inhuman creatures, I tried to weave a tapestry of tastes, odors, and textures to bring to life the sensual environment of the dragons.

Perhaps it would be easier to illustrate with examples. The following is the first scene from the first chapter of Bitterwood: (Note: This hasn't been professionally edited yet... any typos or infelicities are entirely my fault.)

The sad little fire gave out more smoke than warmth. The hunter crouched before it, turning a chunk of ash-flecked meat on the flat stone he’d placed amidst the coals. The movement of the stone stirred more smoke. The hunter coughed, and wiped soot from his eyes. He stretched his bony, knotted fingers above the embers, fighting off the chill. He was a thin man, hair shoulder-length and gray, the deep lines of his leathery face forming a permanent frown. He pulled his heavy cloak more tightly around him.

In the tree above him hung the body of a dragon, blood dripping from its mouth.

The creature was a sky-dragon--the smallest of the winged dragon species. Strip away the ten-foot wings and the long tail and a sky-dragon was no bigger than a man, and half again as light. They were known as sky-dragons both for their prowess in flight and their coloring, the pale, perfect blue of a cloudless day. The hunter had killed many sky-dragons over the years. They weren’t particularly dangerous. Despite talons ending in two-inch claws and crocodilian jaws full of saw-like teeth, sky-dragons prided themselves on being civilized. The beasts fancied themselves as artists, poets, and scholars; they considered it beneath their dignity to engage in such menial work as hunting.

The hunter had brought the sky-dragon down with a single arrow, expertly placed on the underside of the jaw, the iron tip coming to rest dead center in the dragon's brain. The beast had fallen from the air like a suddenly dead thing, catching in the crook of a tree. The hunter had climbed the tree and retrieved the leather satchel the dragon had slung over its back. He'd tugged at the beast's body, but found the corpse jammed too tight to budge. Lowering himself even with the beast's head, he'd stared into its glassy, cat-like eyes. Sky-dragon heads always reminded him of goat heads, albeit goats covered in smooth, opalescent scales. With a grunt, he'd cut out the beast’s tongue.

Moments later, he'd built a fire, and now the tongue sizzled on the flat rock at the center, giving the smoke an oily, fishy tinge. To pass the time as the tongue cooked, the hunter searched the contents of the dragon’s satchel. Food, of course. A bottle of wine wrapped in burlap, a loaf of rock hard bread powdered with flour, two apples, some eel jerky. He also discovered a fist-sized crock capped with oily parchment bound on with a string. He punched through the parchment and recoiled at the stench. The crock was filled with strong-smelling horch, a sort of paste that dragons loved that consisted of sardines, olives, and chilies, all ground together then buried in a ceramic jar and fermented. The hunter tossed the jar as far into the woods as his arm could heave it.

Turning his attention once more to the satchel, the hunter found a map, a rolled up blanket of padded green silk, and a small jar of ink. He sniffed the cap, and judged the ink to be made from vinegar and walnut husks. Several quills crafted from the dragon's own feather-scales were in the bag. No wonder the beasts fancied themselves scholars--they were covered with the tools of writing.

The hunter paused to examine a leather-bound book, the linen paper a pristine white, the opening pages covered with sketches and notes about flowers. The drawings were meticulous. Rendered in dark walnut ink, the flowers had a life and beauty. The blossoms swelled on the page seductively enough to tempt bees.

The hunter ripped out the pages and fed them to the crackling fire. The paper writhed as if alive, curling, crumbling into large black leaves that wafted upward with the smoke, the inky designs still faintly visible until they vanished in the dark sky.

The hunter used his knife to retrieve the roasted tongue and sat back against the tree, oblivious to the blood soaking the trunk. As he chewed his meal, he stared at the inkbottle. It stirred memories. Memories for the hunter were never a good thing.

After he finished the tongue, he wiped his fingers on his grungy cloak. He picked up the book, contemplating the blank pages. Opening the ink, he dipped the quill and drew a jagged, uneven line upon the page. He tried again, drawing a circle, the line flowing more evenly this time. Across the top of the page he began to write A B C D E . . . and it all came back to him.

Dipping the quill once more, he turned the page, and wrote in cautious, even letters, “In the beginning.” He stopped, and drew a line through the words. He turned the page, and stared at the fresh parchment, so white. White like an apple blossom. White like a young bride’s skin. He lowered the quill to the page.

Dear Recanna,
I have thought of you often. What I would say if I could see you again. What I should have said those many years ago.
Twenty years. Twenty years since last I heard your voice. Twenty years I’ve been at war, alone.
If only

Here the hunter stopped. If only. These were weak words, regretful. They had no room in his heart. This was not a night to lose himself in memory and melancholy. Tomorrow was an important day. The most honored ritual of the dragons was scheduled, and he had a special, unscripted role to play.

If only.

The hunter closed the cover on those cursed words, and placed the book upon the coals.

Flames licked the edges, dancing before his eyes like ghosts.

Compare this with the opening scene of the first chapter of Nobody Gets the Girl. Again, this is from the unedited version of the original draft, since it's what I had a copy of on this computer. The actual print version varied a bit, but you'll get the gist of the different stylistic approaches, I think:

"Yeah, all my life I've been lucky," Richard said, transitioning from jokes about driving into current event jokes. "Lucky I don't live in DC for one thing. You been following this? The dome?"

There were maybe twelve people in the audience now. A few were still laughing from the last punchline. A handful nodded their heads at the mention of the dome.

"I mean talk about a waste of money," said Richard. "Seventeen billion dollars this thing’s costing. Gonna put a big old dome over the entire city. Climate control year round. There's, what? Two million people living under this thing? Three million? You could buy umbrellas for everybody for a lot less than seventeen billion. Or maybe not, if the Pentagon was in charge of it. Then we'd be buying the XJ-11 combat ready umbrella. Not only rain proof but bullet proof. They'd weigh 45 pounds each."

He wielded the mike-stand like a very heavy umbrella and staggered a few feet across the stage, grunting under its weight. The audience laughed hard. One of the first lessons Richard had learned about stand-up comedy was that he could make anything seem funny if he attached it to a silly walk.

He straightened up and put the mike back into the stand. "Thanks! You've been a great audience! I'm Richard Rogers! I'll be back here next month!"

He bounded from the stage and shook a few hands. He felt wired, buzzing, full of the same manic energy that always hit him after a set. The charge was the same with twelve people in the audience as with a hundred. This is why he'd drive four hours on a weeknight to perform at the Stokesville Ramada's comedy bar open mike.

Making his way through the small crowd, he arrived at the bar.

"Good set," said Billy, the bartender, who was already filling a glass with Richard's usual beer.

"Thanks," said Richard as he took the glass. "Small crowd though."

"Eh," said Billy. "It's raining. Never a big crowd when it's this nasty out."

"Maybe I'll start driving to DC," said Richard. "Not many nasty nights there anymore."

"Thought you didn't like the dome," said Billy.

"Ah, who cares. It’s too weird to get really worked up about. Everyday I watch the news and think, 'They're just making this stuff up.’ They’ve a bunch of ex-comic book writers sitting in the back room cranking out these stories. Probably cheaper than hiring reporters."

Richard grew aware of a presence behind him as he spoke, someone stepping a little too closely into his personal space. He looked over his shoulder. It was a woman. She'd caught his eye a few times when he was on stage. She was tall, good looking, maybe a few years older than him, but very attractive.

"You were good up there," she said, taking the stool next to him. "My name's Rose."

"Thanks," he said. "I'm Richard."

"So what are you doing here on an open mike night?" she asked. "You're better than most of the pro's I've seen in here. You should be paid for this."

"Thanks again," said Richard. "I don't suppose you'd happen to be an agent, would you?"

"No. I'm the district sales rep for Oxford Financial. I travel a lot. When I'm in town I usually come here. Really, I've seen a lot of comedians, and you're very talented."

Richard shrugged. "I've thought about turning pro, but it's not likely to happen."

"Why not?"

"Oh, you know. I didn't really discover I enjoyed doing this until I was already neck deep in something else. I'm a network manager at FirstSouth. I can't afford to quit that and hit the circuits in hope of some big break. For the time being, the Stokesville Ramada's as far as I travel."

"I wish this was as far as I traveled," said Rose. "My counterpart in the Carolina's quit so I'm covering four states now. Yeesh. But it's not all bad. Some parts of life on the road I really like."

"Such as?"

"Meeting new people," said Rose. "I feel more like who I want to be when I'm talking to someone for the first time."

"Hmm," said Richard.

"You must understand," said Rose, lightly touching his arm. "Isn't it like you're a different person when you're on stage? On the road, you can be anyone you want to be."

Richard nodded. "Yeah. I do feel like a different person up there. Only it's not really different. It's like who I really am. It's everywhere else in my life I feel a bit out of place."

She touched his arm again. "So you do understand. Funny people are often the most insightful."

Richard looked at her hand on his arm. He suddenly felt rather warm.

"So," she said. "Do you have a room here?"

"Um," said Richard. "No. Actually I have to work in the morning. I'm driving home tonight."

"In this weather?" she asked. "Wouldn't you rather spend the night in a warm bed than out in that mess?"

Richard moved his left hand closer to her hand on his arm, to make sure she could see his wedding ring. "My wife would be worried," he said.

"Call her and tell you you're staying over because of the weather," said Rose.

"I'd never hear the end of it. You don't know my wife," said Richard.

"And you don't know my husband," said Rose with a sly grin, leaning closer. "Isn't it marvelous we have so much in common?"

She was looking directly into his eyes. Richard had a strong sense of déjà vu. This was a fantasy he'd played in his head many times over, being approached by a beautiful woman after he'd finished a set, a woman who found him sexy based purely on his ten minutes on stage. Now here his fantasy was, in the very attractive flesh. Did he dare pass this up?

He looked down at his wedding ring. Maybe Veronica wouldn't find out. One night, hours from home . . .. He shook his head.

"Sorry," he said. "I really need to be going."

Rose withdrew her arm. "Okay. Drive safe." She sounded a little miffed.

With Nobody, the world is our own modern, familiar world, with a slight comic book SF twist. I don't waste time describing a comedy club or the taste of a beer... I assume that the readers have experienced such things in their own life and can fill in the details.

Aside from the stylistic differences, and the fact that the two novels fit into two completely different genres, there are similarities between the two works that I hope readers of my work will recognize and identify with. In "Nobody," moral issues get muddied rather quickly. It's tough to say for certain who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, or even if the terms "good" and "bad" have any meaning at all. Yet, Nobody isn't a book dominated by people sitting around agonizing about what's right and wrong. It's driven by action and unfolding mysteries and plentiful cliffhangers. Bitterwood, despite the more textured prose, shares (I hope) the same page-turning pace as the protagonists struggle to survive in a world where everyone wants them dead. Once again, there are few easy moral choices. In a novel that boils down to dragons versus humans, it seems like a no-brainer that the humans should have our sympathy. Then again, dragons are just a helluva lot cooler than people, so they're easy to root for as well.

Both Nobody and Bitterwood are carried by protagonists who don't fit well into the label of 'hero." Nobody's Richard Rogers is, well, a nobody, completely overwhelmed by the strange superheroic world into which he's plunged. Bitterwood's protagonist is difficult to even pin down--is it the dragon king Albekizan, who seeks to avenge the murder of his beloved son at the hand of Bitterwood? Or is it Bitterwood, who seeks to avenge the murder of his family by the armies of Albekizan? Or is it Vendevorex, the dragon who, as Albekizan's most trusted advisor, has committed a long string of sinister deeds to help Albekizan grow in power, but now finds himself on the run after opposing Albekizan's latest schemes? Or Jandra, Vendevorex's human apprentice, who has been raised since infancy by Vendevorex and finds herself a permanent outcast, never able to be accepted by dragons as an equal, but also completely unable to connect with her fellow humans, who think of her only as Vendevorex's pet?

Whew! This has turned into a long post. I'll shut up now. More writing news will be revealed in the next few days, however. Also, a big Laura post coming up before the end of this week, I promise.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

On hold....

This blog will return to its sporadic postings soon, I promise. I'm swamped with my Bitterwood rewrites; this weekend is the effective deadline. Everything now is tweaking; but, 114k words are a lot of words to tweak.

My big news is that I'm going to buy a house, unless things go horribly wrong. But, the seller accepted the offer, the inspector has confirmed my initial judgement that the house has no serious flaws, only cosmetic ones, and all the financing is falling into place. Very exciting and terrifying.

A large update will follow after Bitterwood and after Dragoncon, I promise. Maybe even pictures of the house and my new hometown, Hillsborough.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Origins of Ghosts

The yard sale went off today, moving a tremendous amount of Laura's stuff. I had held yard sales here in the past that always had poor attendance, and since it was overcast and rainy today, I expected the sale to be a bust. But, I didn't know the power of Craig's List, where Laura's brother Mike posted the sale. We had people showing up at 7 am, and a steady stream thereafter. Every time I blinked, something I identified with Laura's living space vanished. The jogging trampoline I bought for Veronica... gone. The push mower (the type that works simply by pushing, no motor), gone. The little windup pony that sat in the window above her kitchen sink. The little peg frame thingy that was covered by a thousand tiny metal pins that would hold the shape of your hand or face if you pushed against it. The canopy she erected in her backyard. Her blue dishes. Even a few things I owned before I met Laura... the little red wagon, the big push broom, got pulled up from the back yard by Mike and sold. I could have said something... I suppose, but, really, I was in the mood just to let things go. I gave away my old grill to a Mexican family who asked what I wanted for it. I didn't want money... I just wanted to not have to look at the grill rusting away in the backyard any more.

I want to move. It's just rough living here in Laura's basement without Laura upstairs anymore. I'm not, at heart, a terribly materialistic person. I don't feel like things define a person. Yet, watching these things I associated with Laura hauled off by strangers was very sad. My instincts were to grab each and every item and hold on to it... but, the colder, more rational part of me didn't see the point.

My real memories of Laura will always be just that, memories. If my memory ever fails, I'm not sure what good having a little wind up pony would do me. Still, the window above her sink looks naked without it. Now her paintings are gone as well, and all the little knick nacks, the little personal touches that defined Laura's living space. A few big things remain, but these will be gone in a month.

Suddenly I feel as if I understand the origins of ghosts.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Three Months

I took Simon and Veronica to Laura's grave today. It was a brief visit; very hot, not a lot of time spent sitting around in contemplation. We placed some flowers Laura planted by the grave, and some sea shells we'd collected during our trip to Atlantic Beach. We buried a small black polished stone Veronica had found.

I'm sad that I didn't find any beach glass during the trip to Atlantic Beach. In previous years, Laura and I have walked up and down the shore and collected bits of smooth, sea buffed glass shards. Most are brown, coming from beer bottles, some are clear, some green, and the real treasures are blue. This year, though, despite my best efforts, I couldn't find a single bit of it. There weren't many shells either. The sea was very calm all week, which probably meant not much stuff was getting washed up. Our one trip to Shackleford Banks, an island where we normally find all kinds of good shells and glass, was cut short by a bad storm, complete with waterspout. I feel almost as if I let Laura down, not finding any glass. Maybe if I'd taken the long walk I kept planning, something might have turned up. I had this fantasy of walking all the way to the end of the island, but it never panned out. Laura and I took the long beach walk once, in the dark. We had planned to find a spot to stop and smooch... unfortunately, the sand was crawling with some sort of little biting insect that encouraged us to keep moving. So, this wasn't the first trip where the dream and the actual events didn't mesh up.

Three months out from Laura's death, I find it is possible to go a whole day without thinking about her, but, only barely. I'm no longer reflexively judging restaurants by whether or not they would please her. And, her brother took her car a few weeks ago to sell, so I'm no driving up to the house and seeing her car and thinking, "Oh, Laura's home," the way I did morning after morning in May and June. Whenever I go upstairs, it's harder to remember how much it was the backdrop of my daily life for the last couple of years. I go five, six, seven days at a time without looking inside. It seems like a stranger's house, almost. I feel like I'm invading someone's privacy when I go in.

Next weekend, Laura's family is having a big yard sale to try to reduce the big pile of her stuff that's still lingering. It's amazing what one accumulates over the years. Little by little, her stuff is disappearing. It's a long, slow, fade.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Pirates of the Carribean

I saw "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" last night, and the Pirates of the Carribean sequel today. PotC came highly recommended, but I was disappointed. I didn't remember enough of the first movie to know who all the players were. And, I couldn't figure out why the characters felt loyalty to Captain Jack Sparrow, who betrays them in pretty horrible ways during the course of the film and shows no concern at all about the other characters. So, at the end of the film, when they are all agreeing to journey into Hell to save him, it felt completely arbitrary and unsupported by the movie's events. Finally, the action sequences dragged on way, way too long. I could have chopped this movie by a good hour just by making the fight sequences tighter.

Conversely, MSEG was a movie that had poor word of mouth and bad reviews, and when we went to the theatre, it was empty. But I found it to be a funny movie with some terrific superhero action. The movie was formulaic, yes, but played well within the confines of the formula. The movie also earned my respect by actually making me like the characters. Even the bad guy is easy to identify with. Seriously, if you want a good superhero movie, I think this beats Superman or X-men hands down this summer. I would rank it just below the Spiderman movies. It's even better than Mystery Men, another funny superhero flick.

One annoyance: Early in the movie, the characters are speculating about what the "G" in G-girl stands for, and I don't think that's ever revealed. A casual movie goer probably won't give a hoot, but I formed a theory from her early superhero feats that the "G" stood for gravity. When the whole thing is forgotten about, I felt robbed.

My "G" is for geek, no doubt, for worrying about such a thing....

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Faking It, Fifteen Years Later

On the codex forum, a question about what elements of the writer's craft I possessed from the start. Did I have some inate gift for dialogue, plotting, characters, or style, even from the start?

Alas, I understood almost nothing intuitively and have pretty much had to work at everything. One of my more brutal friends read my first novel fifteen years ago and asked, in his critique, "Have you even read a novel?" My plots meandered; my characters were clichés; my dialogues were duds. Also, I had no idea how to use a semi-colon.

Still, I did have three things going for me:

1. A masochistic streak. Harsh criticism did little to discourage me. Indeed, I cherished the most savage assaults on my skills.

2. A complete ignorance of the financial rewards of writing. I started this game never having met an actual fiction writer, and was under the horrible misconception that it was possible to write one novel then quit your day job. Actually, that is possible... but it's also possible to win the lottery, or have wealthy relatives you've never heard of pass away and leave you their fortunes. By the time I learned the truth about the likely money to be made by fiction writers, it was too late; I was hooked on writing.

3. A lack of any other talent. I can't sing, play an instrument, dance, paint, sculpt, or act. So, in my early years, I drifted toward writing as my claim to some sort of creative ability simply because it seemed like the easiest talent to fake. A decade and a half later, I'm still winging it. I don't think I'm any more talented than I used to be; I simply have a better bag of fakery tricks.

These are the things I think I'm good at faking:

1. Sucking. I've learned to write openings that suck the reader in like a vacuum cleaner nozzle. Once in the grip of the suction, a reader will be pulled along the twists and turns of the plot like a dust clump navigating the vacuum cleaner hose. In the end, the reader inevitably smacks into the inescapable conclusion, as the dust is caught in the bag. So, when people tell me my writing sucks, I smile and say, "Thank you. How kind."

2. Lying authoritatively. My entire career as a science fiction writer is built on the fact that most people know even less than I do about science. So, if I write that Einstein's theory of relativity states that if a spaceship is traveling at 99.9% of the speed of light, then all the crew has to do is jump vigorously forward in order to land in an alternate reality, readers of Analog will roll their eyes, and the editor might, in fact, vomit. But, the vast bulk of the remaining reading public has no idea whether this is true or not, and sooner or later the old school editors who know a thing about science pass away and are replaced by English majors. As long as I don't smirk when I present my "jump drive," enough readers will buy into it that the story can then move along to the stuff readers really care about; i.e. characters killing each other in creative ways, or some sort of odd sex. Sometimes these can be combined.

3. Symmetry. Since I started with a list of three things I had going for me when I started writing, it is aesthetically pleasant to end with three items. So, here is the third item. Fifteen years ago, I might have awkwardly presented only two, or, garishly, gone over the line into four.

And that's it. Everything I know about writing, fifteen years on. I never claimed to be a fast learner.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


When the world crumbles beneath your feet, you may experience a freefall plunge. With any luck, you might fall far enough to enjoy the feeling that you are weightless.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Two months

It's been two months since Laura passed away. I intended to come home tonight and write another article about her, or, more honestly, about me, about my thoughts and feelings on life and death two months later. Alas, I don't know I have anything terribly profound to say.

Not having Laura around sucks. I still view the world through the filter of "would she like this?" I'm house-hunting now. I actually went and looked at a house today. And I kept thinking, walking through the dark, empty rooms, "What would Laura think of this?"

Not much, probably. The house wasn't horrible, but it wasn't great either. My questions about the safety of the neighborhood were answered by the clear evidence of the door having been kicked in at some point in the past, and windows busted in. Still, the house was brick, in better condition than I thought, and had a big bathroom, which is a plus for me. I like bathrooms I don't feel cramped in. It also had hardwood floors throughout. So, from the inside, I could imagine myself living there. From the outside, though, I can hear Laura advising me that if I moved there, she wouldn't come visit me.

My problem is, essentially, I can't afford to buy a house anywhere I'd want to live. Correction: I can't buy a house anywhere I want to live within a reasonable commute of where I work. My budget would by me a quite nice house if I wanted to move an hour or more out of any major city. Up close to the Virginia border, there's a small town called Lillington that has a lot of houses that pop up in the MLS in my price range. It's a lovely old town, where I could get the house of my dreams... and a ninety minute one way commute.

Losing Laura was more than just losing her. I also lost a big part of my direction and purpose in life. I had a clear role when she was around: I was here to make her life a little easier and a little more joyful. Now, I don't know. The big picture stuff is still there: I write. I actually am producing quite a bit of work lately. More and more, I'm seeing the window to success opening. The biggest danger to this is my general all around rootlessness. I don't know where I'm going to be living a year from now, and it bums me out. The place I looked at today... I have a hard time imagining living there for five or six years. It would be purely a transitional home. I could buy it for less than I pay in rent, and make the gamble that two years from now I could sell it at a profit: a risky assumption in today's market, especially if interest rates keep going up.

Not having Laura around to talk over these big decisions makes them a good deal tougher. Laura was a terrific counselor. She'd lived in some pretty horrible conditions. Indeed, she's told me some horror stories that make me thing that the house I looked at today would be luxurious compared to one of the houses she lived in in Boone. I think having lived in poverty gave her a good view of the world. She didn't judge people by their net income. I miss the advice she would have been able to give me on decisions about moving to these marginal neighborhoods.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Grave Visit

I took Simon and Veronica to Laura's grave again today. We left some roses in a vase. Luckily, the vase fit perfectly into a holder that Laura's friend Anke had left there. And, by chance, Anke showed up while we were there with flowers of her own.

I asked Veronica what she would tell her Mom if her Mom was still around. She said she'd tell her that Taylor Hicks won American Idol.

It was actually a more uplifting trip than my previous visits. Anke and I have been discussing headstone designs. I think that if Anke can find the headstone she has in mind, I can talk to her parents and friends and see that enough money is raised to make it come to fruition.

A couple of people have asked me to think of something to put on the headstone. I admit, I'm drawing a blank. There's just too much Laura to capture in twenty five words or less.

I've thought of using the Oscar Wilde quote, "The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death." But, I don't know. Love for Laura wasn't that great a mystery. She was pretty easy to love.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


I believe in alternate universes. Currently, I inhabit one. I’m in the middle of rewriting my novel Bitterwood. I spend a good deal of my waking life oblivious to the physical world where my body is located. My brain has taken residence in writer-space.

The landscape of writer-space changes with each visit. Sometimes I’ve gone there and spent my time weightless, stuck in a tin can on a journey between planets. Other times, writer-space is nearly identical to the world I ordinarily inhabit, but with some strange, dark twist. Creatures with mean eyes and jagged claws live beneath the floorboards of my house in writer-space. In writer-space, comets plunge toward the Earth, the ocean rises to swallow cities, and giants walk among skyscrapers.

Right now, I spend my time in writer-space watching the dragons that live there. These are marvelous beasts, half snake, half bird, with wingspans longer than school busses. I study their toothy grins. I note the way their ruby red, opalescent scales shimmer as wiry muscles coil and bunch beneath them. I watch them lick blood from their dagger-like claws in the aftermath of a hunt. I’ve gotten close enough to one to smell its carnivore breath, hot and humid. I’ve run my fingertips along its hide, hard and smooth and dry. The fine scales of the wings are light and long like feathers. I hold a feather-scale to the light; it’s translucent, with a hollow core. The beast’s serpentine tail twitches at the tip, like the tail of an anxious tiger. I look into its glowing, golden eyes. It stares back, inquisitive, bright, studying me studying it.

I feel quite small next to a dragon. But, that doesn’t stop me from seizing it by the nose and dragging it back home with me.

I am a hunter; a trapper. My job is to capture the beasts that inhabit writer-space and bring them back. I have to put them into the cage of a book, carving out a new habitat where they can survive, or even thrive. I build windows out of words to allow others to glimpse these creatures, so that anyone who wishes can appreciate them the way I do.

The journey back from writer-space is a treacherous one. There are many obstacles to be overcome. I must leap such pitfalls as phone calls and email. I must navigate the swamp of my day job, and swerve around unseen dangers like coming home to discover that a pipe has burst and flooded three rooms. I have to steel myself, drawing on every last ounce of will, to pull myself away from the siren call of computer solitaire.

Then, with the dangers avoided, I’m left with the long, hard slog of simply writing. One key is pressed, then the next, then the next, then the next, hour after hour, day after day. The pages fill slowly. Building a world a letter at a time is as tedious as building a beach by laying down each grain of sand individually. Yet, bit by bit, page by page, the writing gets done. A hundred words become a thousand. A thousand words grow to a chapter. The chapters multiply and grow, and, months later, a book is delivered from writer-space into the real world, pink and raw and still a bit gooey.

Later, I realize I left my wallet back in writer-space. Those damn dragons have my credit cards. But that’s another story.

Monday, June 19, 2006

"To Know All Things That Are In The Earth"

I got an offer from Intergalactic Medicine Show today for my short story "To Know All Things That Are In The Earth." Considering I just wrote the story in February and March, this is a pretty good turnaround. I wrote this story for a contest at Codexwriters. It's the third contest I participated in; the second story I've sold after writing it to fulfill the contest requirements. So, two out of three isn't bad, and I haven't given up on the third story yet. It's called "Echo of the Eye." It's a tough sell because it's not SF or Fantasy, and is actually a very rare story for me, icky-horror. I really don't know if icky-horror is an accurate genre label, but it contains a scene in which roasted eyeballs are devoured, so, ick. Yet, despite the cannibalism, the story is actually not terribly graphic; there's only a teeny bit of blood-splashing, which might hurt it in the gross-out horror market. I have it out now to an anthology called, "Until Somebody Loses an Eye." If they don't buy it, I don't know. The New Yorker?

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Last week I got home and found that a pipe had burst in the ceiling of my apartment. The running water had filled up the plastic casing of my stereo and turned it on, full blast, to Prarie Home Companion. I walked up to the house thinking, "Why am I hearing Garison Kielor?" I'm lucky the house didn't catch fire. Then again, everything was pretty damp. Water from wall to wall.

A week later, the laminate floors are starting to warp, although not in an unsalvagable way. It's fairly mild, so far, and now everything is bone dry, so perhaps all the damage that will be done has been done. By running a dehumidifier and two fans I've got the carpets dry. There is a noticable watermark in the carpet showing the far reaches of the flood... if the water had seeped in a few more feet, you might not be able to tell they were damaged, since the color would be uniform all the way across.

For most of the week, the apartment has had a damp sour odor, not unlike sweaty gym clothes left in a locker for a week. But, either my nose has just stopped noticing the smell, or the fans have finally knocked the last of the stink odor molecules loose.

I find myself grateful for the oddest things. I've been happy all week that the pipes waited until Laura had been gone for a month to fail so catastrophicly. She'd been plagued by plumbing problems for years (or rather, her house had) and dealing with this mess would have been the very last thing she needed. Don't get me wrong; if she'd been given the choice to live another year and deal with replumbing the whole house or dying and avoiding the hassle, I suspect she'd have gladly made the phone call to the plumber. But, still, since she didn't get the choice, at least she avoided this unpleasantness. I won't exactly call it a silver lining to the dark cloud, but maybe it's a white, fluffy cloud in a dark cloud.

In the aftermath of the flood, I ran around picking up everything resting on the floor and moving it to the higher ground of bookshelves, tables, beds. Today, I've been cleaning and sorting. I found an old shopping list from Laura. She'd wanted a veggie loaf (fake meatloaf for vegetarians) from the frozen food section. I had this almost irresistable urge to go out and buy it. I felt very connected to Laura for a moment... more connected than I did when I visited her grave earlier today. I have a hard time looking at the patch of broken ground and feeling that it holds any relevance to Laura's life, or mine.

Speaking of broken ground, I live in Laura's basement, and there are no stairs connecting her house to my apartment. So, we had worn a path into the yard from my front door to her front door. No grass would grow there, even though I put down fresh seed the last two springs. This week, the grass has sprouted, and looks quite handsome, bright green and a few inches tall already.

If I were a writer, I might draw some analogy between the ruts we wear in life, and how new life springs up once we are prevented from walking the same path. It might be a good, symbolic way of illustrating new beginnings, or for making a broad commentary on the ceaseless turning of the vast wheel of life. Alas, I'm no good with words. Maybe someone else can do something with the image.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A warning to all mankind!

So, last night I stopped by the Dollar General and noticed they had two-liter generic soda called "Cloverleaf Cola" that was two bottles for a dollar and I thought, "Hey! How bad can it be?"

As near as I can tell, they flavor it with actual cloverleafs. The closest thing I can compare it to, taste-wise, is wilted celery.

I'm posting this in hopes that the youth of America may learn from my mistakes.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

One month

These photos are from four years ago. We were at my old house in Stokesdale, the Mountain Goat's "All Hail West Texas" was on the stereo, and the warm breeze blew sunshine through the curtains covering the open window. It feels like yesterday.

A month ago on this day, I stood by Laura's hospital bed, holding her hand as she passed away. It feels like a very long time ago.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Souls of Living Wood

I read "Souls of Living Wood" last night, the Eugie Foster story in Modern Magic. I hate singling out stories in anthologies I'm in, out of fear of offending other contributors, but, wow, this was a terrific story. I had high hopes for it, since Eugie was a fellow Phobos award winner. The story exceeded my hopes. It has the most unexpected character I've yet encounted in the anthology, or just about anywhere in a long time--a talking house. Of course, the house can't talk to just anyone, but there's a real estate agent who, without giving away too much of the story, has what I can best describe as the oddest superpower I've ever heard of--the ability to talk to houses, and have the houses talk back. It's ideas like this that draw me to science fiction and fantasy. I'm 42 years old; I've read, I dunno, a zillion stories in my life, and it's rare that I run into concepts that I've never seen before. I'm jaded. Finding an original idea gives me a buzzy, drunken feeling as my thoughts crowd around to examine the newcomer. It gets me excited again about the power of words.

Even better, Eugie takes this original idea and builds a terrific, moving story around it. Sometimes, great ideas get stuck in stories that don't live up to their promise, but Eugie follows through with lovely writing, a captivating plot, and strong performances from the other characters in the story, all of whom come to life with an amazing economy of words. The stories only five pages long--I'm guessing the word count is probably only 2,000 words. Quite an accomplishment.

Friday, June 02, 2006


Laura and I took a couple of great trips together. Very early we took a trip to South of the Border, the east coast headquarters for all things tacky. We had a mutual appreciation of low culture, which was good, considering out budgets made low culture much more accessible than high culture.

But, we did take one killer trip to New York City when my novel Nobody Gets the Girl was released. Phobos Books footed the bill for some train tickets, Orbit actually found reasonably priced rooms in a decent location, and when we got there, expecting to be broke within a day from the legendary high cost of living, we discovered that in the non-tourist parts of the city, prices were pretty much the same as they were in NC. So, we spent four days stuffing outselves with the best food we'd ever eaten in Little Italy and China Town, then walking it off by treking from one side of the island to the other in search of museums and other tourist stuff.

The one regret about the trip was that I was using my digital camera, but when we got home I discovered that somehow all the files had become corrupted. Of the hundred or so photo's I'd snapped, only one was even moderately recognizable--a photo I'd snapped of the two of us in a mirrored building, with a busy street scene behind us. The camera had only saved blue and red pixels, no green, so the color was completely messed up, and it had also only saved every other line of the photo, so the original was full of thin blank lines. Fortunately, I'm pretty good with photoshop, so a few paint filters and a bit of color restoration produced a photo that had a soft, watercolor feel to it, hazy as a memory, but still interesting in the details that emerge as I study it. For instance, is it my imagination or does Laura have exactly the same smile as the Mona Lisa?

So, I only had one hazy, off color record of the trip--until fellow Phobos author and Odyssey grad Matt Rotundo came to the rescue recently with a second photo, this taken in Sandra Schulberg's apartment on Halloween, I think. I've spent the evening in a frustrating trip between three stores tonight in search of a function photo kiosk to print the photos, but have returned home, finally, with pictures in hand. I've never in my life assembled a photo album, but I'm going to put one together now. I wish I'd printed out all these photos while Laura was still around to look at them with me... but, then again, when she was around, I wasn't interested in looking at photos. I could look at her.

I've never been the sort of person to sit around dwelling in memory. Other people I know remember the names of their teachers from elementary school. I can't even remember teachers from High School. And I'm not talking about not remembering their names--I have no memory at all of who I might have encountered back then. The VCR of my mind can only record about ten years before it starts overwriting. I've never had memories I wanted so badly to hang onto before. Hopefully, the photo album will help me overcome forgetfulness circa 2016.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Only 100,000 to go....

I finally got some editorial feedback from Solaris. Luckily, my plan for expanding the novel and their plan meshed well. Since I'd already rewritten the first three chapters, and am working tonight on number four, it would have been rather heartbreaking if they'd said, "Well, we like it, but take out all the dragons." (There was no chance they were going to say this, realistically, but paranoia takes hold in my quieter moments.

They want a finished product of 120,000 words. I'll be close to 20,000 when I finish chapter four. Only 100,000 more to go....

Read some of Modern Magic tonight. Good stuff so far. I'm up to the Eugie Foster story. She's a fellow Phobos winner, so I have high hopes for it.

I feel really scatterbrained tonight. I've got too much on my plate. I need to:
1. Fill out the author/promotional questionaire Solaris sent me. This means, among other things, I probably need a new authors photo. My last professional photos were of me with long hair. Sigh. Laura paid for those for my birthday present. (The sigh is a wistful memory of Laura by the way... not a regret that I have to pay for my own photos this time.) I also need to start a search for a famous author who will plug Bitterwood. I'm thinking of asking Jack McDevitt, since he wrote me a kind letter about Final Flight of the Blue Bee.

2: Is it my imagination, or does my first item entail three things? Questionaire, photo, author quest. I'm skipping to four.

4: The con game. I only attended Trinoccon and Stellarcon last year. But, now that I have a novel to promote, I need to crank up the activity. Dragon*con is the big one--I need to get my application in immediately! Eugie will be there--she edits the "Daily Dragon" for the con. Maybe she and I can do a mutual "Modern Magic" reading. The sad thing about going to Dragon*con is that Laura went there with me a few years back and we had a really good time. We were indoctrinated into the church of the subgenius together. Hail Bob! I have the strangest sentimental memories....

5: and that last item was really two, if you count trying to arrange a reading.

6: Do the rewrite, idiot! Stop blogging!

7: Learn to write more coherent lists. I should go now.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Politics again

It's been a while since I wrote about politics here. Laura and writing have commanded my attention for a month. It's been hard to work up righteous indignation about the news while the news in my own life has been what it's been.

Laura was someone who appreciated that tragedy and triumph tend to come at you all at once. The whole time she was in her steepest decline, or in the immediate aftermath of her death, I couldn't open my mailbox without getting some kind of good news. In the span of a month, I (1) got the contract for Bitterwood (edits of which are going great!), (2) sold my novella Greatshadow to an anthology I didn't technically submit it to, and for a dollar amount larger than what I was expecting, (3) resold my short story "Final Flight of the Blue Bee" to the Russian SF mag ESLI, without ever having submitted to them, either. They contacted me. As my fellow Codexian Eric James Stone observed, in America, you submit to the markets. In Russia, the markets submit to you. What a country! Also during this time, I've gotten fan mail about "Final Flight," always a thrill, and I've finally gotten my contributors copy of "Modern Magic," which is just gorgeous, easily the best looking book I've been in to date. (I hope to soon report on the stories. I have reason to suspect they kick ass.)

But, little by little, politics are seeping back into my awareness. The thing that currently has me annoyed is the proposal to make English the official language of America. The other night, before dinner with Greg, I was standing in front of the restaurant and a man and a woman were standing nearby and I overheard thier conversation. The woman was talking about how it was crazy that immigrants didn't want to learn English, and were forcing banks and doctor's offices to offer thier services bilingually. The guy agreed, and from his comments I got the impression that he was fine with rounding up anyone who couldn't speak English and shooting them. Now, ordinarily, I would get angry at this sort of bigotry, but I was too amused to really get indignant. They were having this conversation while waiting to get a table at a Mexican restaurant. So, let them be racist crackers while standing on the sidewalk--within the hour they would be shelling out their hard earned greenbacks to a restaurant that didn't have a single gringo on staff. And, I suspect the people who run the restaurant--all the way down to the waitstaff--would agree that voting for multiculturism with your money is better than voting for it with your mouth.

I would like to point out that no one has forced banks to provide services in Spanish. This is capitalism at work--immigrants have money. Not competing for their business would be crazy. And, while I'm on the subject of the free market, it seems to me that we shouldn't be afraid of having English and Spanish duke it out head to head in the free market of the culture. If Hollywood starts putting out movies in Spanish and we have to wait around for the English translation, I might feel a tiny bit inconvenienced. But, I don't see that day coming. The fact is, if you live in America, and only speak English, you just aren't going to having any trouble at all functioning. Your bank, your doctor, your grocery store might devote a sliver of their resources to serving Spanish speakers, but you are never going to walk into a bank in North Carolina and be unable to conduct a transaction because of a language barrier. Enshrining this in law speaks to me of a certain cultural insecurity on the part of Americans. A fear that our language isn't all that great, and can't stand up to competition.

Wow, a rant. It's been a while. Perhaps the healing has begun.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sappy Memories

So, I was driving home last night, full of memories of Laura that left me feeling both sad and happy. I then started mentally combining the two words, and realized that the fusion of sad and happy produces sappy. So, I'm going to post some sappy memories. (And, yes, for the linguisticly picky, I know that sappy isn't literally defined as a mixture of sad and happy, and that the word I really should be using is bittersweet. But, if you want to write about bittersweet memories, get your own blog. I'm sticking with sappy.)

Several things triggered the memory. I had gone out to dinner with Greg in Greensboro, and on the way home I was thinking about how I would tell Laura about the restaurant. Because for the last four years, I've had this Laura box in my head where I would put certain bits of news that would be of interest to her... and now I don't know how to empty that box. For instance, at work this week, I've encountered the normal day to day frustrations, stuff I used to come home and vent about for ten minutes when Laura would ask, "How was your day," and I'd answer, "Well, let me tell you." I miss that. But, back to the restaurant: Laura was vegetarian, so anytime I'd go out to eat without her, I'd always check out the vegetarian selections to see if it might be someplace she could eat at. I got all excited last night at La Fiesta when I saw that they had a very large vegetarian menu--this was going to be someplace she would love! My enthusiasm, naturally, was followed by a strong sense of loss, not just of missing Laura, but for a missed opportunity. I loved making Laura happy, to seek and the little pleasures in life she might partake in. I felt like I'd screwed up by not finding this place sooner. It was my job, dammit, to increase her joy. I'd been slack in my duties.

Later, Greg and I drove past a Sonic restaurant. Another memory. Sometime in March, or maybe even the beginning of April, Laura had been feeling sick, but also felt bored, trapped in the house. She didn't have the stamina to get up and walk anywhere. A trip to Target would have been too much for her--she didn't even feel like going out to eat. But I proposed that we could go for a drive in the country, take a look at the flowers blooming. It turned out to be a very lovely afternoon. The Carolina countryside was very cooperative, with fields of purple and yellow blossoms over rolling hills as we drove around Saxapahaw. We passed over a terrific, rocky river. We stopped at a fruit stand--she stayed in the car but I went in and bought her a bottle of mineral water which she enjoyed. Then, on the meandering path home, we discovered a Sonic in Mebane, and Laura lit up. She wanted some of thier cheesy tater tots. Naturally, I got her some. It was the last thing I ever saw her really ravenous for, except maybe pickles.

Ah, yes, pickles. If there was a secret to Laura and me making it as a couple, it was our mutual appreciation of really good dills. Over the years, we've sampled every brand available for sale in North Carolina. Laura had a lot of appetite problems on the various chemos. But, until the end, she would never turn down a pickle. The cruel irony is, pickles have, like, five calories. You can starve to death if you make them the foundation of your diet. I should have known she was closer to the end than I did when, the last day I saw her awake in the hospital, I asked if she wanted me to smuggle her in a pickle, and she turned it down. Now I have a jar of pickles in the fridge and every time I eat one I think about her. So, I think about her a lot.

And, as long as we're on the food theme, I wonder when I will have the courage to go back to Tsing Tao. It was our favorite Chinese restaurant. And, any time I've gone in there alone, the lady who runs the place always asks me where my wife is. I've never corrected her. It always made me happy, that the little Chinese restaurant in the strip mall was a kind of alternate dimension, a separate reality where we were married, and we'd never even heard of cancer, and the hot and sour soup really was hot and sour.

Sappy, yes?