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(Here is the second blog that the late M.M. Bennetts consented to write for me, from October 2011. She was a piano prodigy, so she knew this subject backward and forward)

British historical fiction author and noted literary savant M.M. Bennetts has kindly agreed to a sharing of a blog post about music and writing.

MM bench

Playing the language…

I thought I’d talk about music for a moment…

It’s something I know a bit about since for most of my young years that’s where I was headed.  Actually, that’s where I was headed for longer than that.  Music.

But first I’m going to say something which most musicians know but which many others don’t really like as a concept.  It’s this:  genius is very rare.  Very, very rare.  So is virtuosity.

And even if you are one of those very rare few–a Daniel Barenboim or a Lang Lang, a Joshua Bell or a Yo Yo Ma…well, there is always what Maestro Barenboim will tell you, virtuoso performance comes down to about 10% talent and 90% hard work.

And that’s the way it is.  That’s the reality musicians accept.

There are, from the off, the years of learning the necessary technique.  In my case, the hours spent on Czerny’s exercises for the keyboard.  These teach and build on the skills a pianist needs until they become almost a part of that individual’s identity, as natural to them as using a knife and fork.

Alongside these, one is always learning new music–eventually becoming acquainted with the great composers and their more difficult compositions, and building a foundation of these works, expanding one’s repertoire to include sonatas, nocturnes and fantasias.

Then there are the competitions–and these are great opportunities, great platforms from which to launch a career as a soloist, for example.  But here’s a thing that should be remembered–before they even think about entering one of these, that musician will already be in top form.  He or she will have been working, playing, practising, learning for years.

Anyway.  A list of the required performance pieces is published probably three to six months before the competition itself.  With any luck, some if not all of the required works will be in the musician’s repertoire already.  Those unknown must, of course, be learned and mastered before the competition.

And that learning curve isn’t just about memorising the notes, the markings, and playing it until it’s a part of one’s physicality…there will be all the practice hours once the music is learned, the hours and days of devoted work before the performance.  Because everything has to be perfect.  Not just the middle bits, or the slow bits…it all has to flow effortlessly.

In many ways, it’s a bit like learning to ride a horse.  They say a rider only starts to learn truly to ride once they’ve been riding for somewhere between two and four years–before that, the rider is too focused on ‘staying on the horse’ to learn anything.

But back to music.

There’s the memorisation as well.  As a skill, it’s something one works hard at as a child–particularly for that first or second recital.  But some time after that, it becomes incidental; it happens naturally through the frequent playing of the music.  And once memorised, the music becomes like a part of one’s skin–there are sonatas by Beethoven and nocturnes by Chopin that I’ve been playing since adolescence.  They’re there, permanently imprinted upon the cheek of my memory, woven into my my muscles, even into the shape of my hands and the reach of my fingers.

I can sit at the piano and play them anytime.  I don’t need the score.  I can’t not play them.

Anyway, there you are.  As a musician, it’s a lifetime of practice, every day and for hours a day.  That’s what you expect–the work on the trills, the arpeggios, the fingering and flexibility–and that’s even if you are a prodigy.  But that’s how you learn to play music.  Real music.  The good stuff.

And always you go on learning.  Taking lessons.  Listening with one ear laid against the sounding board to discover whether those pianissimos are soft, are quiet enough…do they brush the heart with tenderness?

You go on re-examining the scores you know, certain that you will find something in Beethoven’s markings or Bach’s polyphony that will give you a far greater and deeper understanding of that work than you ever had before…

All of that, and then there’s performance.  And performance requires an even greater dedication and focus to the particular music on the programme…

(I can tell you too that an accompanist often practises twice as hard; first by himself or herself, then all of it all over again with the other performer.)

So why, I have to ask, why do writers and novelists these days believe their art is different?  Why do they imagine they don’t have to practise this art?  Learn its skills and techniques and how to use its ornaments?  And practise?  Practise until the bastardy bits are smooth–learn and practise the linguistic equivalent of the trills and cadenzi, the thirds and triplets, the sevens against sixes?

Because imagine what kind of books would be written if writers would only learn to play the language the way a musician learns to play Debussy…and Mozart…and Brahms…

Imagine that!

How great would that be?

Because there is no instant gratification in music, no “I want it now”.  Not even for virtuosi.  So why do we think writing is different?  Or that the art of using the language, of writing a novel doesn’t matter?

And that concept of prodigy or genius I mentioned earlier?  As I say, there are and have always been very few of them about.  Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt van Rijn, JMW Turner, Tallis, Monteverdi, the Gabrielis, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schubert, Brahms, Einstein, Shakespeare, Donne, probably Stoppard…

But here’s a thing all of them have in common–with the exception of one.  They all rewrote and repainted and resketched and reworked.  All of them.

Beethoven’s scores are always recognisable for the amount of crossing out he did.  Rewriting and reworking passages until he knew they were perfect.  Hamlet went through many, many changes and edits over the years–quite probably some of them the result of the playwright sitting listening to the actors and thinking, “Eugh!  That doesn’t work!”

Only Mozart didn’t rewrite much–but then, the poor chap was writing so fast, the melodies and notes just falling out of him like breath from his lungs, I doubt he had much chance.  (Though I fancy there are those who feel he could do with a good edit now and again.)

But imagine if writers and novelists had the humility of Beethoven.  Or Brahms–he famously burnt everything he’d composed before the age of 40 because he deemed it “not good enough”.

For that library, I should need to live to be a thousand so that I had time to read all those wonderful, wonderful books.

M.M Bennetts, a former long-time critic with the Christian Science Monitor, was the author of the Napoleonic-history novels May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Click on the author’s name to visit the splendidly-educational website.

 

 

BLOW OUT YOUR CANDLES, CHUFFWORTHY…

I lost my twin sister last week.

Well, near as. I lost someone I never even met in person. Yes, an Internet friend.

Seriously.

The agony is no less for that. Rather more, in fact. I’m crying as I type this, eight days after hearing the news. Weeping has been a daily occurrence, the most tears I’ve ever shed in my 56 years. I have no precedent or frame of reference for this, having cried maybe once in the past quarter-century. Flat affect comes with my Asperger Syndrome. Normally I express only frustrated anger, occasional giddiness, or snark. Not this. Never this.

My soul rings with a thud, like a cracked bell. Yet the hollow misery reverberates inside me, unseen yet tenacious. Can cobwebs hang inside one, mournful and musty?

Historical novelist, piano prodigy, equine master, Christian Science Monitor book reviewer, and savage wit M.M. Bennetts succumbed to cancer August 25, bloody but unbowed after nearly a decade battling her foe. She went to sleep at home and never awoke. May we all be granted that.

We ‘met’ on a HarperCollins site for budding writers. In her case this was wildly inappropriate, having written for the Monitor for twenty years. But neither of us had ever published a novel and this site offered a professional forum to discover and publish new talent. It was one of those places where authors post snippets for review and the community’s votes push the best books up the ranks. She was consistently near the top, a bit above me, and her reviews were much sought after for their perspicacity and charm. After receiving her warm appreciation for my book, I began chatting with her on that site a bit. Her brilliance, erudition, charm, and whip-crack wit were evident even in those brief exchanges.

Here’s the thing, though: we all thought she was a middle-aged man. A tweedy British professor, perhaps.

With deliberate glee she cultivated that mystery. Her writing always gave off a hearty Old World ‘Edwardian-professor-with-a-glass-of-port’ aura. One imagined her at Oxford with the Inklings. Later she told me that women weren’t taken as seriously as men in historical fiction and she wished to be judged on her work rather than her chromosomes. It worked like the proverbial charm. Her stunningly-researched novel of Napoleonic espionage and romance, May 1812, rose to the top of the pile and won an evaluation from HarperCollins. To their shame, they passed.

The following summer, my novel having been published almost simultaneously with hers (both by small presses), I sought her out on Facebook in order to send her a signed copy of the book, in gratitude for her having championed it. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that she was not a crusty old professor after all. But she was British, after a fashion, living in Hampshire, England.

And thus began a spectacular four years.

We exchanged over 1,800 (!) private Facebook messages. Copied onto a MS Word document, they amount to more than 57,000 words, 375 pages. There are many more, but alas, my archive only goes back to mid-2011. That missing 14 months would no doubt make the total 2,500 messages, 80,000 words, and 500 pages.

That’s the length of a novel.

And we wrote another novel’s worth posting on our Timelines and hijacking other people’s threads (we were notorious and shameless about that). Not to mention all of the e-mails, Skypes, and the hour-long trans-Atlantic phone calls where she’d her lose her acquired English accent and revert back to some of the Chicago twang of her birth. On occasion I would even get a word in edgewise amidst her auctioneer-paced speech. There were birthday and Christmas presents, and other gifts ‘just because.’

How on Earth did we manage to also write six long novels between us in that time?

Though she went by Melissa (her middle name), or Em, or just plain Bennetts, I called her Chuffworthy. Once she’d received a glowing review and pronounced herself ‘chuffed’ (highly pleased) and that the review was ‘chuffworthy.’ After that I called her that almost exclusively. Well, that and ‘Missy-Sahib’, which she once insisted on in a fit of snark.

This all was why my spouse Janet would refer to her as ‘your Facebook wife.’

Though ‘Facebook sister separated-at-birth’ would be more accurate. The parallels in our lives were striking. We were both from Illinois, the same age (she was 8 months older), artistic prodigies, geniuses (a cause of as much sadness as joy for us, at times).  Neither of us was able to do even simple math (did I mention we were supposedly geniuses?), married people we barely knew after a brief correspondence, our spouses trained and talented artists.

Chuffworthy and I were both writers of history-based fiction (our debut novels were published only a few weeks apart, as were their sequels). Neither of us published a novel until we were past 50, books with characters who were women pretending to be men. Each of us mixed rarefied learning with profane language and downright silliness. Committed riders (she on horses, me on bikes), we were both raging Anglophiles. She took hers to the top level, though, by going completely native and living the last half of her life in England as a committed Royalist.

We had two dogs each and mourned the loss of our elderly pooches. We had similar psychological issues, my Asperger’s and her raging claustrophobia. She told me she’d climbed out of a window and hid in a stable to avoid signing books for a crowd; my reaction to mobs is little better. Both had toxic issues with a parent. She was even my wife’s height and I was her husband’s height.

I dedicated books to her and her daughters, made characters of her and them (she’s Victoria Sponge, pianist/spy and witty swordswoman against Napoleon in Jasper’s Magick Corset). We would all gab on the phone when I called, especially Sylvie, who once bent my ear for nearly an hour.

Our conversations almost instantly evolved from polite author chat to warm intimacy. She would send me long rants about deeply-personal things she apparently wasn’t sharing with anyone else. Family issues, psychological concerns, health demons. What she did not tell me, until recently, was how dreadfully ill she was. Above all, Chuffworthy wanted to avoid pity and being identified as just a disease. That made the shock all the more poignant, my hoping that she might beat the thing while she knew of its hopelessness.

On the phone I would say three sentences in an hour because she’d be off on a tear about some idiot of a historical fiction author who didn’t know the first thing about her era. And one didn’t dare get her started on Napoleon Bonaparte. To hear her tell it he was still leading armies and causing trouble. Her last word to me was, in fact, ‘Napoleon.’

Most adorable of all was when something went particularly well: a great day of writing, a fine review, some particularly welcome bit of news from me. Then she would say, “Doing a wulie-wulie dance here!” And she would express laughter online with a simple ‘Ha-ha-ha!’ In fact, that was the inscription she put above her signature when she sent me her first book.

She was the one real friend who would behave this way in my 56 years of existence. I don’t have friends like that. I have theatre buddies, acquaintances, and a wife. It’s not the same. That’s not to denigrate any of them, especially my long-suffering wife, so patient through all of it. This was so …different from any of that. I don’t know why, it just was. We clicked. Soul-mates, to use a term she would doubtless roll her eyes at.

So close were we that she eventually confessed to darkness. I mourned for her as she told me of sad things that few knew of. Though awash in more talent, humor, and love than most, she also had endured more outrages than the average person, though she never let any of that out in public.  I found myself wishing I could inflict enraged justice on all of those who had harmed this gentle brilliant soul. Even more, I wished I could fold her in my arms and squeeze the sadness out of her.

Alas, it was never to be. Before I could get the 8,000 miles to her, the cancer finally invaded her spectacular brain and took her away in a matter of weeks. The worst thing that could have happened to her, the ruination of what made her special.

My poor little spark, could you not stay, just a little?

So, yes…I’m a wreck right now. Foundered on a shoal of unfairness and cruel illness. In fact, I’m crying yet again. I recall the end of the film The Dresser. When the old actor passes away his long-time aide sobs into a puddle in a corner, wailing in explanatory rage, “I had a friend!”

It’s like that.

And I know this is coming across as selfish ‘me-me-me.’ Hell, I’m not the one who’s dead, after all. And her poor children are enduring a more profound loss, God knows. Certainly I will be thought pathological by some, mourning to the point of insanity someone I never physically spent a moment’s time with. Yet our friendship was as real as any other. Maybe more so. We were uncomplicated by personal quirks, romance, flushing hormones, or those little annoying habits and invasions of personal space that can sully so-called ‘real’ relationships. Chuffworthy and I bathed in as much honest intimacy as any pair of humans you can name. That was a first for me. Possibly never to happen again. Certainly never as deeply.

And eventually I’ll channel all of this into speaking more cheerfully of her here, into writing another cross-dressing heroine novel in her honor, into spoiling Sylvie long-distance, into getting the family to agree to publish Chuffworthy’s magical blog essays as a book. We are already hard at work founding a writing contest in her name. I shall even wiggle a wulie-wulie dance for her. Most definitely I shall be making myself obnoxious forcing the world ad nauseam to learn of her, to remember her, to value her. But not today.

Today I fully understand why Cher’s character in the film Mask destroyed her house in a rage when she lost her son, despite knowing all along that it was coming. Despite knowing that Chuffworthy will hurt no more, be abused no more, suffer betrayal no more. It is we who have been betrayed…of her light, of her talent, of her love. Because cosmic irony is the worst thing we experience.

At the end of The Glass Menagerie Tom recalls his doomed sister Laura, a fragile thing who could not cope with the world. He tells her in his reverie that he has desperately tried to forget her but every little thing reminds him of her. “I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!”

Though stronger than Laura by far, more able to oppose all of the monsters that assailed her save the last, I can only echo (in paraphrase) the gentle but heart-rending final line.

‘Blow out your candles, Chuffworthy… and so, goodbye.’

 

Moving memorial by her daughter Parnel

www.mmbennetts.com (her marvelously-written blog)

May 1812 coverMay 1812 (her first novel)

 

Of Honest Fame coverOf Honest Fame (her second and, alas, final book)

April 7, 2013

Gail Brolly2 small

Anomaly-Con 3

Gail Carriger tried to break my elbow. Carrie Vaughn kicked a high school girl. I gave a fashion design workshop while under the influence of 94-proof alcohol.

Yeah, Denver’s Anomaly-Con 3 was a good convention for yours truly.

To be fair, the first two of those were a photo op and a slow-motion Bartitsu demo. But the third absolutely occurred as written. I should’ve been wise enough to actually claim a booth in the bar instead of standing out where the convention director could see me when an emergency arose. Then again, Gail and Carrie had a booth and that didn’t save Gail from having to sit on a 10 pm (really) writing panel. That NYT-bestselling author label serves as no protection when duty calls at a Colorado Steampunk gathering.

My wife Janet and I have presented workshops and sat on panels at all three Anomaly-Cons. I teach the Victorian/Edwardian mixed martial art of Bartitsu and she’s one of the pre-eminent costume designers in the state. When not belaboring my partners with walking sticks I also join in on writers’ panels. This time I had Author Free-for-All, Plot in an Hour: The Audience Generates a Story, and NANOWRIMO for Beginners. Janet got to teach Victorian Fashion Disasters, Victorian Influences in Modern Fashion, and Corsetry 101. Then we both were ‘volunteered’ to explain Men’s Victorian Accessories at 9 p.m. after communing with the great white god Tanqueray. I’ll go into detail about my experiences as I progress through the three days of the con.

Friday

We just had time to check-in and wander around like reanimated corpses, searching for the

rooms we’d be using later, before Janet sauntered off to teach her first class. I grabbed Carrie Vaughn for a breathtakingly-brief initiation into the mysteries of Bartitsu. Though she’d done plenty of fencing, this discipline (stick fighting, boxing, wrestling, savate, and jiujutsu) was utterly new to her. Throughout her 15 minutes of whirlwind training all I could think of was the possible ignominy of damaging a famous author. Luckily she had the patience and serenity of a saintly Zen master. Since she was wearing trousers and a frock coat, we had her portray the murderous thug (hilarious if you know Carrie at all), which meant that all she really had to do was react when struck/punched/kicked/joint-locked by me. Since it was ‘underwater tai chi speed’ for the purposes of audience clarity, actual injury was unlikely.

At 8 pm we presented the class in a tiny and stiflingly-hot room where our available space was about the size of a Smart car. The suspended ceiling snagged at our sticks and the expensive laptop projector was in dangerous proximity. Amber Marshall, my other volunteer presenter, provided the audience with quite a bit of information as she had extensive experience. That left me free to intimately manhandle poor Carrie to the point of necessitating a shotgun marriage if we’d been in Kentucky. Through it all she retained her composed demeanor, even when I twisted her neck and pretended to be Sherlock Holmes tossing Professor Moriarty off of Reichenbach Falls. The perfect way to observe Good Friday, right?

Following the successful and hospitalization-free conclusion of the first Bartitsu class, I hastened downstairs to collar Gail Carriger. She’d promised to help us with our Saturday class but had had to bow out when she’d been overbooked by the Anomaly-Con godlings. But I extracted a promise of a posed photo before the convention ended.

Saturday

This was my big day. Bartitsu again, in the morning this time, followed by several panels.

The martial arts demo was well-attended and enjoyed by all. We had more help this time; in fact,

I had an embarrassment of riches by having four assistants, three of them the most highly-trained Bartitsu practitioners in Colorado. Carrie gamely waded into the fray again, this time in a dress. She got to be an innocent lady of means, defending herself against a ruffian by employing her parasol. Here was where she kicked a high school girl, who was attacking her in a choreographed sequence. No bruises.

The same couldn’t be said of my engagement with Josh, my primary demonstration partner at these events. Though he had shin guards and a heavy arm pad in addition to his foam-covered walking stick, I still inadvertently savaged him in several areas. Though it decisively proved to the audience that the techniques assuredly did work as advertised, I expect he’d rather have not given so graphic evidence of that.

After lunch I had my first panel, where nearly every author invited to the Con sat in a line in the Main Events room. Moderator David Boop then asked a series of questions which every one of us would answer in 30 seconds or less. The responses varied from serious to smart-assed. I leave it to your keen insight to determine which mine tended to be. This was the only event I’ve ever attended that employed this format. Generally one only sees the other authors if they’re on your panel or are sitting at a signing table. My highlights included confessing that I break very rule I give my creative writing students and Gail Carriger looking askance at me as she proclaimed that ‘pantsers’ are usually guilty of writing over-long books.

Next was Plot in an Hour: the Audience Generates a Story, precisely represented by its title.  Four of us scribblers coordinated the effort, with the audience calling out suggestions with the obsessed fury of the Chicago Stock Exchange. What we ended up with, in all seriousness, was a futuristic Steampunk dystopian erotic murder mystery featuring bisexual sex-toy automatons and sentient steam demons. Now that’s entertainment!

Hard on the heels of that came NANOWRIMO for Beginners, with three of us who had fought the write-50,000-words-in-a-month dragon and lived to tell the tale. I’ve succeeded in accomplishing this feat officially twice during the dedicated November time slot, plus I’ve managed it other times on my own simply due to the white heat of creation. Although we went into the panel wondering if we could even fill fifteen minutes, we ended up with a spirited discussion of good writing practices that exceeded the bounds of merely spewing a gazillion words in thirty days.

Due to my having the good sense to marry a fashion/costume designer (she’s won the Denver Starfest contest), I was deemed worthy to serve as one of the four judges for Anomaly-Con’s costume smackdown. Along with my wife and two others, one an organizer for the World Costume Convention, I scored a parade of Steampunky folk in two categories: entirely store-bought costumes and self-constructed. I’ve done this the past two Cons, so it’s probably a tradition now.

And that wrapped up my Saturday. Heigh-ho, then! Off to the hotel bar. Let the authentic Victorian revelry begin with a gin and tonic. Which, naturally, was when we encountered Kronda and her ominous inquiry of “What are you doing right now?” After only the one drink, split two ways, and with a whole twenty minutes’ warning, we raced back to our room to gather every male fashion accessory we could lay our hands on: puff ties, cravats, watches and fobs, suspenders, spats, bowler hat, topper, and so on. Through the miracle of my wife’s genius and actually having a highly-participatory audience at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night we managed to fill the whole hour and escape unscathed.

Sunday

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a convention possessed of an Easter Sunday morning must be in want of a martial arts demonstration. To our utter amazement we had twenty people present and awake for our third Bartitsu workshop in 38 hours. What we didn’t have was an instructor who could get through the hour without collapsing from middle-aged exhaustion. So after muddling through half of that time showing the assembled multitude how to elegantly pummel, kick, grapple, and taunt the foe into submission, we showed them a video explaining the historical and literary roots of the discipline. That actually was well-received and we might have done that for Friday’s class if not for technical difficulties. For next year’s Anomaly-Con we hope to give video background on Day 1, a thorough demonstration, including group fighting, on Day 2, and audience participation on Day 3. Live and learn.

Which brings us to the final event of our weekend, the Grand Tea. Despite being an invited guest author, like the previous years, I was held up at the door as an imposter by a frazzled staff at their wits’ ends from organizing and running a complex three-day affair for over 1,000 guests. Eventually my worthiness was recognized and in I went, where my wife waited in her splendid bustle. We munched on the requisite tiny sandwiches, biscuits, cheese, chocolate, and of course, tea. A live ensemble regaled us with songs appropriate for the occasion. After an hour the guest of honor, Gail Carriger, replaced the musicians and we took her into the hall to keep her promise to pose for a Bartitsu photo. This is how the image of her yanking on my wrist with the crook of an umbrella while bearing down on my elbow joint came to be. For a few minutes after that she chatted pleasantly with my wife and me before the tea ended, all but predicting that she would be stranded in the Denver airport. She later proved to have been prescient on that point.

If you ever have an opportunity to attend Anomaly-Con, please make the effort. It is run by writers, for writers, which can’t be said for most other conventions. They keep it large enough to attract top talent and small enough that you don’t leave with footprints all over your back. The panels are lively and informative, the large events worth sitting in a crowd for, and the celebrities are warm and welcoming.

But I think Kronda still owes me a drink.

December 25, 2012

(a Christmas story of mine, published in the 2009 anthology Broken Links, Mended Lives)

Lonely Crutch

Found amongst the effects of Timothy Cratchit, Esq., 1868

     Old Marley is dead. Dead as a doornail. That’s what Papa tells me. Full seven years gone. But he must mean some other Marley, not the one whose name is on that awful Mr. Scrooge’s warehouse door. That Marley is surely alive…well, in a manner of speaking.

I think I saw him yester night.

My lame leg pained me, so I crawled out of the crowded bed as quiet as I could. Whenever my brothers see me up, massaging the withered thigh, they always lose their own sleep trying to give me comfort. Glad as I am for their help, it heartaches me when they spend their rest on a lost cause. But we had all been up late, helping Mama decorating the house, and they snored soundly. No doubt they dreamed of another poor but loving Cratchit Christmas in only two days time.

I rubbed the liniment into the dying flesh as if it might do some good. The stinky medicine isn’t half so useful as the kneading that works it into my leg. Papa works hard at the counting house to pay for it, though, so I make a show of applying it. They all smell it on me and it makes the family feel better about my condition. Poor things, thinking they know the truth…thinking there’s any real hope.

If they could feel the weakness spread, feel the mortality creep upward like a hunting spider, their hope would perish. Mine did so long ago. But I keep my knowledge from them, to breathe life onto that remaining spark which they all huddle about, as if it could warm their souls. When I place my tiny trembling hands together to pray, that is what I ask for. Not more years for me, but more hope for them.

Those thoughts occupied my mind while I tended to that runt of a leg. Since staring at it had never made it feel better in my ten years on the troubled earth, I looked out the half-frosted window instead. Round and white, like a ripe cheese, the moon peered back at me…and winked.

The noise of the liniment bottle clattering onto the wooden floor would have startled my brothers awake on any other night. I snatched at my rude crutch and hobbled away from the stool I’d been perched upon, wedging into the corner of the small room. My tongue dried up like an old raisin and wouldn’t make a sound, try as it might. Scared as I was, though, I still didn’t take my eyes from the window, or from the face that looked in at it.

For it was a face, of course. Not the moon at all. A countenance as pale as a sad suicide hauled from the Thames, and as transparent as the window of a butcher shop. Hair thin and uncombed, nose long, broad, and flat. Its mouth tight, red, and straight, looking like a wound made by a fiend’s blade. No ears were visible, due to a white kerchief tied beneath the long jaw and knotted atop the head. Just the sort of cloth that undertakers wind about the faces of the dead to keep their slack mouths from falling open during the funeral.

At first I thought it a madman, escaped from Bedlam. Or perhaps one of those awful child-snatchers that teacher always warned us of. I feared that poor Papa would find my lonely crutch

in that corner in the morning, the sole remnant of unlucky Tiny Tim. When that corpse-face pushed its way through the window and into my room, terror wrapped round my thumping heart like a black adder, threatening to squeeze it dead. But as its whole body came into view, my horror gave way to a child’s amazement and curiosity.

For the thing did not open the window, nor break it. No, the ghostly figure simply pushed through the bricks as if stepping through a waterfall.

I wanted to cry out to my brothers to wake and see this wonderful sight. As if anticipating my desire, the apparition put a bony finger to its horrid lips, quelling the wish in an instant. It gave no sign of intending foul play upon my person. In fact, the thing made no move toward me at all, but rather merely stood on the scrap of carpet next to the bed. Floated, rather, for its booted feet did not quite touch the floor. Far from seeming a spirit bent on mayhem, this ghost—for it could only be such—gave the impression that it desired my help, somehow.

Taking the opportunity to survey its whole form, I first made note that it lacked all substance. Looking through it required no effort at all. My visitor might have been made of a bit of fog. Tall and thin, he wore old clothes, from the time of the last King George. A tailed jacket, waistcoat, tight trousers, and tall tasseled boots. His long hair tied back in a pigtail made him look a bit like the Chinamen I sometimes saw when bobbing about London on Papa’s shoulder. Now I noticed that his spectacles had been pushed up onto his forehead, just as a forgetful accountant might do while hard at work.

No counting-house clerk, though, ever sported the terrible jewelry that this one wore. An enormous iron chain, links a hand’s-breadth across, wrapped around his middle like some sort of hellish ivy. Locked fast to his frame with a padlock that might have restrained an ox, this vine’s leaves were heavy cash boxes, giant brass keys, leather money bags, great wooden-bound ledgers…all the tools of the usurer’s trade. My visitor’s legs trembled under the strain of so much awful weight.

Putting aside my fear, I asked the ghost, “Is it so heavy?”

His sigh filled the room, like the death rattle of a dying soul. Loud as it was, my brothers did not stir. “My burden of sin…could crush mighty Atlas himself.” The voice I heard sounded low and dusty, like a desert tomb.

“This is your penance, then?” I whispered, fearful to offend.

“Aye, lad. A lifetime I spent forging these, and for many lifetimes shall I carry them.”

I pitied him, no matter my fright, and pitied all else who might be bound for the same fate.

“You are a spirit, sir?”

The swaddled head nodded. “That I am. The shade of Jacob Marley, neither truly living nor wholly dead. Doomed to walk the earth for an undetermined span, until my lesson is learned.”

With thoughts of the harsh lessons my own schoolmaster gave me by way of his stout stick, I asked, “What lesson is that? And what course of instruction brings you to my poor bedroom?”

My hair stood up like the needles of a porcupine when the ghost let out such a mournful wail as the miserable damned of Dante might screech. Still my brothers snored, unheeding. “The soul of every man and woman must journey abroad in life, embracing that of his fellows, adding to their happiness and sharing in their suffering. Those who choose the selfish path must sojourn after their passing, laden down with their wretched sins, witnessing what they did not do.”  My spirit guest let out a whisper of a smile. “Thus am I arrived, my young Cratchit. The goodness of this house shines out, even amidst London’s depravity. Shining souls abide here.”

Choosing not to point out how I had dropped a mouse down my sister’s shift only the day before, I reacted to something he’d said earlier. “Jacob Marley? Would you be the late partner of Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, he that employs my good father?”

Again the spectre sighed, as if reliving a lifetime of sorrow in an instant. “The same. To my shame, I abetted that wretched man in the smithing of his own dreadful chains.” He picked absently at the padlock on his waist. “And my own.”

“Mr. Scrooge shall follow you in this state, then? When he passes?”

“That he shall. And his burden was heavier than this many a year ago.” Marley closed his cheerless eyes for a moment. “I shudder to think how unbearable it must be now.”

I thought of how Scrooge treated Papa and everyone else he dealt with. “Surely you cannot mourn his fate, him being such a sour spiteful man.”

“In life I cared naught for the condition of any man’s soul, particularly Scrooge’s. Heaven knows I paid no heed to my own situation.” The phantom shook its head. “But my seven years journey amongst mankind, as unseen as I had been unseeing, has been a tonic to me.” Marley sat on the edge of my rude bed, inches from Peter’s blissful sleeping face. My brother took no notice. “I visit him often, you know. Scrooge. He has no more knowledge of my presence than this fine young lad does. I have hoped all this time that Ebenezer would come to purity of his own accord. Alas…”

While he spoke I retrieved the liniment bottle and resumed treating my leg. It did no more good than it had before, but the habit lay ingrained in me. The spirit eyed my leg, then stared at my face a long while as if he planned to draw it. After a few moments of that he continued.

“Scrooge used to be good, you know,” Marley said. “He cared for his fellow man when young. I have spoken to those who knew him then, who are shades now. All are as sad as I at his fall.”

Then the spectral remains of Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner told me a long tragic tale

of poverty, parental drunkenness, abandonment, loneliness, and loss. Of a friendless boy and an absent father. Of a love gone stale. Of a man who grew so fearful of the world, so afraid of being defeated by it yet again, that he tried to hold it at bay with an acid tongue and a grasping hand. Of a man of so little mirth that he might have welcomed death, save for the dread of what terrors lay in that undiscovered country.

I wiped away a tear for poor Ebenezer Scrooge. A tear, for that miser! I wept for what might have been, and for what a sad waste he had become. Looking at Marley’s fearsome links, I shuddered to think about what a mighty millstone Scrooge would wear. Might it drag the poor soul straight to perdition, to drown in the lake of fire?

“Yes,” Marley’s ghost agreed, as if reading my every thought like a news sheet, “it is too terrible to contemplate, even for him. But what is to be done?”

“Speak to him as you have to me,” I suggested with a hiss, rubbing my shrunken limb harder as a spasm of pain tore up it. “Make him see his fate.”

“To what end? Scrooge never attended me when I lived. Never even visited me as I lay dying of consumption. I coughed my life out quite alone. And these last seven years his heart has shrunk to a cinder.”

“Other spirits, then. You say you talked with ghosts who knew him. What if many spirits conspired to force the truth upon his mind?”

Marley paused to think, some unfelt otherworldly breeze stirring his wisps of hair. “A possibility. Perchance it would work. We could actually take him back, relive the choices he made. But gaining such cooperation comes at a cost, young Cratchit.”

“Cost?” The sick pain chewed its way into my bowels now.

“To unmake such securely welded links as Scrooge has made…that requires a sacrifice,” the apparition said, seeming to peer into the core of my being. I would have sworn that he tasted my suffering, though I struggled to conceal it. “A pure soul must give of itself.”

I caught my breath at that. Despite all that doctors could do, and my family could believe, despite every prayer and every wish, I knew that my tiny body would give up its own ghost soon. Perhaps in the next year all that would be left of me would be my lonely crutch in the corner, next to the hearth. That and an empty place in poor Papa’s heart. What would be the great loss in my leaving this vale of tears a wee bit earlier than planned? I, for one, would welcome the relief. As if to accent my choice, a sobbing agony whipped up my spine. This time I could not hide it.

“Such suffering,” Marley sighed, in a low mournful voice. It sounded like he was recalling every instant of his last seven years.

“Take me,” I blurted, trying to keep from waking my brothers. “My life for Scrooge’s redemption.”

The phantom’s face fell. “Life…is not enough.”

Now my features collapsed. “Not enough? What else could I give? Spirit, I give it to you, to

Scrooge. Accept it. Now.” More torture twisted through me. “Please!”

“I wish I could, brave soul. But death cannot buy this gift. It is too easy.”

My eyebrows shot up, both from the pain and the astonishment. “Easy? Death is easy?”

“Yes, compared with living…” Marley hesitated. Through him I could see the first rosy hint of dawn through the dirty ice on my windowpane. “…as you are now.” I could barely hear the whisper he made.

I grasped his meaning immediately, young as I was. “For Scrooge to redeem himself, I shall not die? May not die?”

The shade nodded, turning a bit to peer out the window.

“For how long?” A spike of fearful woe stabbed my side, not far from my thumping heart.

“As many years as Scrooge has left to him.”

Bending nearly double, I demanded through clenched teeth, “How many?”

Now Marley’s back faced me, his voice no louder than a thought. “Five-and-twenty.”

The liniment jar exploded. My agonized hands had clamped down on it with that much force. Both palms suffered cuts. Drops of blood spotted my bare feet. That pain in my side grew worse. Only one thing made it all bearable.

Papa’s suffering would diminish.

If Scrooge’s soul were to be cleansed, it would start at the counting-house. Fewer hours, better salary, more coal in his furnace. A kind word now and then. Perhaps a promotion, a partnership. I saw Mama smiling, my brothers and sisters skipping for joy. Those lines of worry in Papa’s face diminished. Presents overflowed at the base of an enormous Christmas tree.

So much love…from a simple bargain. A business arrangement. Interest accrues. Scrooge would approve.

The thought flashed through my pain-addled brain: Spirit, into your hands I commend…my father.  At the time I thought it quite clever, considering.

At that moment full dawn broke through my frosted window. All my pain vanished like fog in a stiff breeze. So did Marley’s ghost. A last phrase touched my ear, in that dry voice. “No one may know of our bargain. Remember me.”

I hopped about on the cold floor, trying to avoid the broken glass. Just out of reach lay my poor little crutch, all alone in the corner. If my lonely bargain held, Papa would have to buy a taller one. Perhaps by then Mr. Scrooge would be paying him what he was worth. All I knew was that I did not dare reveal my secret. The rest is silence.

September 26, 2012

M.M. Bennetts tagged me in this round-robin blogging exercise. Since she must be obeyed, here is my contribution.

Ten Interview Questions for ‘The Next Big Thing’

1.) What is the title of your book?

      Paragon of the Eccentric

 

2.) Where did the idea come from for the book?

From reading H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. As a former U.S. Army infantry officer, it occurred to me that no invasion takes place in a vacuum, nor does it happen on a whim. Laborious preparation is required. Think about the circumstances of that book’s plot. In the first sentence Wells says that the Martians had been observing Earth for a long time. How, exactly? Mere telescopic surveying, no matter how advanced, would have revealed little. It certainly couldn’t have provided them with useful intelligence about human defensive capabilities. So I imagined how they might obtain such information, and how they might pave their army’s path to an easier victory.

The Martians send small versions of Wells’ invasion cylinders to remote spots on Earth decades ahead of the war, using precious gems to seduce whoever finds them into embracing the Martian cause and thus avoid annihilation when the aliens arrive. In addition to the bribe, each cylinder contains pictograph instructions for actions to undertake (such as the assassination of leading scientists and inventors such as Edison), questions to be answered via spying or simple research, or diagrams of bits of Martian technology to be constructed to aid the Quislings in their missions. Replies are sent by a giant cannon on a volcanic island in the Pacific which launches cylinders to Mars during thunderstorms. Simple emergency messages are created by arranging giant ships in the ocean in pre-arranged patterns, like naval flag signals, and are read b y advanced Martian telescopes. Over time the Martians and treacherous Earthlings learn one another’s languages, making communication easier.

This arrangement has obvious drawbacks, so things do not go smoothly. Messages fall into government and criminal hands. Some of the alien technology escapes into the wider world and results in changes to history. By 1887, when the book is set, airships are in common use but electricity and telephones are not. DNA science is very-advanced. Technology has enabled the Confederacy to win independence in the Civil War. Pollution in major cities like London is so bad due to the rapid spread of industrialization that gas masks are ubiquitous. An international criminal gang has infiltrated the traitors’ organization and is stealing Martian devices for its own profit. This band plays both sides of the invasion conspiracy.

Against all of this I have imagined unlikely defenders: a small group of government operatives whose ‘day jobs’ are as West End actors, music hall entertainers, and Aesthete authors headquartered at the Eccentric Club (a real place to this day). Protagonist Montague Paragon is a Zulu War veteran who lost a leg at Isandlwana. He suffers from a double dose of PTSD from that experience and his earlier trauma of being a sexually-abused boy in miserable Yorkshire poverty. Paragon has recently arrived from the Far East, having traveled the world studying mystic faiths and martial arts, on the move because he is being pursued by assassins for unclear reasons. His partners are Oscar Wilde (yes, that Oscar Wilde) and male impersonator Vesta Tilley (a real person, famous as a music hall singer for decades), along with their boss, the florid Phoenix Dardanelles, a theatrical producer/director. Aiding them are Queue, the lovely combat/weapons trainer; Mervyn, Paragon’s combat-ready automaton and valet; and Lady Ambergris Moura, a shady woman of great beauty and charm (and sporting tentacles in her thighs), but possibly a double-agent.

3.) Under what genre does your book fall?

Steampunk (Victorian science fiction). Alternative history. Some James Bond/007 (and Lord Peter Wimsey) parody.

4.) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I don’t normally think in those terms when writing, but here are a few ideas.

Paragon: Perhaps a chiseled Jude Law type, as in the recent Sherlock Holmes films. He’s a matinee idol but has a lot of PTSD from war and child abuse. His looks need to belie his inner demons.

Wilde: Stephen Fry, of course.

Tilley: This one is tough. She has to be an attractive woman and believable young man. Rachel Stirling might work, since she did the same sort of thing in Tipping the Velvet.

Dardanelles: He is the only character for which I had an actor in mind while writing — Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon, though with a posh British accent.

Lady Moura: She was literally bred in a laboratory to be attractive to men, so we’d have to go crazy here. I see Gene Tierney in Laura, though with darker skin.

Dr. Moreau: Donald Sutherland. Accept no substitutes.

Arthur Moore: the Moriarty/Bloefeld of the novel. He’s smooth, blonde, and scary. So Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, with an Irish/American voice.

Mervyn: The voice of George Sanders.

Queue: Maggie Q.

5.) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Paragon of the Eccentric is a tongue-in-cheek Steampunk prequel to War of the Worlds, where human turncoats are preparing the invasion with the aid of Martian technology and all that stands in their way is a team of actors/writers who happen to be secret agents for Her Majesty’s government.

6.) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

This book is sitting on an editor’s desk at Tor in New York as we speak, waiting for its turn at fame or failure. Hugo-nominee Moshe Feder requested it after a pitch session at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Denver last fall. He claimed to be ‘viscerally excited’ by the concept, which was nice to hear. We’ll see if that translates into a contract, which would viscerally excite me.  

7.) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  And give us the beginning of the book.

I started it in June of 2010 and finished in March of 2011. But that time included final edits on Jasper’s Foul Tongue, as well. By participating in National Novel Writing Month I banged out 50,000 words in November.

 

When a Whitechapel whore waves her tentacles at you, attention must be paid.

Normally he would have passed on by, of course. It would not be wise to permit her to lure him in with her soft words and softer eyes. Before he knew it he would find himself reeled in like a foolish trout. Yanked from his element and skinned. Boned, possibly, if her pimp lurked in the alley and was more than usually desperate. Best to just tip one’s hat, lower the eyes, and keep on walking. Particularly this time of night, in such a foul area of east London.

Tentacles, though. Not your everyday dollymop, this one.

He slowed, turned. The gears in his right leg had just been serviced, but he could still hear them whirring. Most people could not, but then most people had not spent years being hunted across the globe. It had honed his senses, that. And an excellent thing, too, because his pricked ears detected tiny gasps coming from the murky doorway behind the whore. Some fellow’s trying to mask his breathing. But this bloody yellow fog is playing the devil with his lungs. He snorts like an animal.

8.) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

A bit of Gail Carriger Parasol Protectorate, Cherie Priest’s The Inexplicables, and Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine, with some of Dorothy Sayers’ tone thrown in.

9.)  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My wife Janet wanted to read some quality Steampunk. 

Actually, she was attracted to the design elements of the genre first, then we both started researching and reading the literature. Since I was already writing Victorian fantasy, this was an easy next step.

10.)  What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Tentacled sex scenes.

Bartitsu fights.

Dogfights between autogyros and ornithopters.

Tentacled sex scenes.

The Elephant Man.

Mr. Hyde. John Carter. Fu Manchu’s daughter.

Tentacled sex scenes.

 

Thanks to M.M. Bennetts for tagging me with this. And to pay it forward, I’m tagging Gev Sweeney, Cheri Lasota, Patrick Barrett, Maria Kuroshchepova, and Craig Murray.

December 18, 2011

My most-successful Christmas story, published a couple of times. Newly-edited and hopefully improved.

Winterlesson

“Is he going to be all right?” the wan woman asked, biting her lower lip.

Joshua Paxon shrugged and kept working on his patient’s bleeding head. “I don’t know,” he sighed. With a hand cracked from cold and hard work he pulled the blanket up to the sleeping stranger’s bearded chin.

His wife’s brow furrowed. “Are you still going out?”

“Have to.” Paxon started pulling on his insulated boots. “Did you find any ID on him?”

She still held the old man’s scorched parka. “No. Not a thing in his pockets except a piece of a cookie. Oatmeal raisin.” Shuffling her feet, she returned to her earlier plea. “Listen, why don’t you wait until morning? It’s Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake.”

“I’m sorry, hon’. But if that was a plane crash we heard, there may be more people hurt. Maybe some who couldn’t crawl away like he did.”

Mrs. Paxon touched her husband’s worn face and smiled a little. “You’re right,” she whispered. “Let’s go.”

He looked up, less surprised than she no doubt expected. “Riding shotgun, hmm? Who’ll watch our patient?”

Mary squirmed into her blaze-orange jumpsuit. “He’ll be out for hours. Others may freeze to death by then. Besides, those big fumble-fingers of yours won’t be much good if we have to do some serious first aid.”

Josh stood and gave her a peck on her thin warm lips. “If this turns out to be nothing, I’ll bring you back here and show you who has fumble-fingers.”

A corner of her mouth turned up. “Oh, so we’re playing doctor either way, huh?”

They were bundled up now. Josh had their big medical kit in one hand and a Maglite in the other. His wife grabbed blankets and an Army surplus five-gallon water can.

“Well, here we go,” Paxon announced, heading for the cabin door.

“Wait, Joshua. You must take me with you.”

Paxon turned back to ask Mary what she was talking about. Then it struck him that it hadn’t been her voice he’d heard.

Wobbly but upright, the pudgy old man struggled into the burnt and torn parka. At the same time he pushed wide feet into what was left of his old black boots. Despite the head injury, his blue eyes glittered with a clear fire. When he moved, tiny pale flames seemed to crawl through his white hair and beard.

“Mister,” cried the alarmed Paxon,” you really shouldn’t be out of bed.”

With a tiny benign smile the stranger stared back at him. “No, we must hurry to the crash site,” he insisted pleasant but firm. His voice sounded like dozens of crystal bells set to ancient music.

Josh’s will melted and flowed out of him like spring snow from a roof. He found himself following the odd little fellow outside as if he were being led on an invisible leash. Mary stayed at his elbow, a bemused smile on her face more often seen on small children at magic shows. A moment later they were sledding north through the Alaskan night behind the couple’s eight yelping dogs. A shame-faced moon peeped above the hazy horizon, throwing long shadows which reached for them across the snowfield like demons’ talons.

Paxon kept trying to ask the stranger questions, such as how he’d known his name when he’d been unconscious ever since they’d found him. But every time the opened his mouth, the desire to know left him, as if the question itself were being nudged from his mind. Mary, tucked into the sled behind their visitor, kept gazing at him as if she were seeing a shooting star.

Twenty minutes of peaceful sledding ended as the darkness was ripped apart by cruel lights and a harsh command to identify themselves. Paxon’s dogs snarled and snapped at a pair of huge helmeted figures which blocked their way, brandishing assault weapons. Both soldiers were too young and too scared. Beyond the men Paxon could make out some sort of commotion of men and metal.

From under the rugs in the sled came that marvelous sound of melodious bells. “We’re friends, son. We have business here. Stand aside, please.”

To Paxon’s wonder, both sentries moved away and waved them forward. Paxon urged the dogs along again. No one challenged them again as they glided into a substantial clearing. Burnt and broken trees surrounded it. Stopping the rig at a rope barrier, Paxon and Mary stared in horrified amazement.

Several olive-green trucks were parked at the edge of the open space, banks of lights in their beds pouring harsh illumination into the cordoned-off area. Behind them sat half a dozen helicopters — mostly Blackhawks, but also a pair of fearsome Apaches. At least a hundred shivering infantrymen, their breaths clouding the icy air, crowded against the ropes. They were murmuring, shaking their heads, and pointing at the clearing. Inside the barrier a clump of dazed officers gathered around a piece of still-steaming wreckage. Although it lay shattered, and scarred by fire, Paxon could still recognize it. He felt Mary’s sharp intake of breath beside him as she also saw it for what it was.

A large red sleigh.

Scattered all around it were countless toys: dump trucks, dolls, chemistry sets, football helmets, books…all the trappings of childhood dreams. It saddened Joshua, of course, to see so much potential happiness lying in ruins. But they were just things. Replaceable things. But their loss was not what truly horrified him about the awful scene.

No, it was the eight dead reindeer that made his flesh crawl.

They lay in twisted, broken lumps, silver antlers shattered from when they’d ploughed into the frozen ground. Once-glittering golden harness was now dulled by snow and mud… and blood. No glee rang from the grim, silent bells now. Paxon shook his head in disbelief. He blinked as he tried to absorb the scene. While Mary’s trembling arm slid into his and clutched him, he tried to remember the names of the reindeer. When he’d got as far as ‘Cupid’ he dared to look over at the old man he’d rescued.

Tears were frozen on both their cheeks.

Stepping across the ropes, the stranger limped toward the corpse of the sleigh. No one moved to stop him. He halted near one of the dead deer and stroked its cold, still flank. Now he looked very old, indeed–as ancient as all fear and grief. With a sigh he stooped to thrust his stiff hand at what looked like a bloodstain in the snow. When he brought his trembling hand back up, Josh felt Mary clutch him with a tiny gasp.

A red velvet cap, trimmed in ermine.

A wail of frustrated rage rose from the clearing, a keening cry that drove Paxon to his knees in empathy. Mary fell with him. All of the American soldiers seemed to be frozen to the ground where they stood, powerless to do anything but watch. Their leaders turned toward the tortured sound but made no other move.

To Joshua they all looked ashamed…the same feeling that choked him. Slow as a sniper taking aim the snow-haired man turned a complete circle, meeting the eyes of every one of them…at least, those who weren’t staring at their boots. No sound could be heard but the crumping of his boots in the snow.

He glared at the officers now, the wound on his head livid. It was as if he were daring them to try to explain away their crime. No one seemed up to the challenge. After a long shamed moment the bulk of the huddle turned their eyes to gaze toward one man in particular…the unlucky one with the black stars on his helmet.

“We…We thought it was…an incoming missile,” he whispered, voice weak as the midnight sun. “That was its radar signature.” With effort the general managed to meet the old man’s cold stare for a quivering instant. “We had to shoot it down.” Then his eyes fell to the bloody snow.

A snort of contempt greeted this. Frozen tears shattered from his cheeks as the stranger cried, “When will you learn?!” He received mortified silence in answer. “Tell me! Is this going to go on forever, this madness?” His voice broke a little. “Have you learned nothing from me at all?”

Shaking his head, he turned away from them with a growl of disgust. He held his hands out. All of the trembling that had been there before had gone. Ancient crystalline magic leapt from them and swirled round the clearing in a blue-white rush. Paxon and Mary squinted at the overwhelming lovely light. They gasped to hear the sound of a billion children smiling. Josh felt certain he smelled brownies baking. He turned away from the agonizing goodness to look at his wife. Mary was still staring at their former patient. In her wide eyes he saw an enchanted three year-old. It had his face.

With a sound of sadness leaving a sickroom the magic returned to the old man. Paxon turned back toward him, blinking. He caught his breath. Every lamp in the trucks had been blown out, but he could still see everything in the clearing as if it were noon. That beloved and impossible sleigh stood whole and full of toys once more, proud lively reindeer dancing in their glittering harness, impatient to take flight again. Just then the thin clouds danced aside. Antlers caught the sudden moonlight like gemstones in a chandelier. Their master’s broad forehead now looked as clear and unwounded as new-fallen snow. His parka was a shining new crimson and his boots gleamed as if waxed. He hopped onto the sleigh, nimble as a boy, and grabbed the reins.

“I don’t bring you toys, my children,” he said in a clear young voice. “I bring you love.” He smiled, the unspoken words in it sad and tired. “May you someday learn to accept the gift.”

Slow and silent as a goodnight kiss, the sleigh rose from the ground. Mary’s hand slid into Joshua’s. She held a warm oatmeal raisin cookie out to him. Her husband raised an eyebrow, but she just smiled and shrugged. Nickolas winked at them, then let out a laugh that they felt, oven-warm, on their chilled faces. His frisky reindeer shook their heads and pulled him aloft. Long after they were out of sight, Joshua and Mary could still feel the harness bells laughing.

November 14, 2011

One does begin to wonder at the choice of this word…

Why on Earth Do We Call It a Book ‘Release’?

I’m lounging here between the first revision of my current novel and the even-more-onerous second go at fixing it, wondering why we refer to the initial distribution of a book as a ‘release’. Few of the word’s multifarious meanings reflect well on attaching it to the result of one’s blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

We release prisoners, of course, those poor benighted souls who have scorched society. All too often we have reason to regret doing so, the recidivism rate being tragically high. Some 60% of U.S. criminals return to crime upon their release. That’s the overall rate. The percentage of those convicted of larceny is around 75%.

Hmmm. Given how awful Amazon’s catalog of fiction offerings is, this may be an all-too-accurate use of the word.

We release psychopaths from jail at a rate 2 ½ times that of other prisoners. Sadly, their poor perverse brains enable them to create a fictional personality which thrusts them onto an unsuspecting world when they should remain enwalled for the good of the public.

Ooh. Still not looking good for our term. Though it does explain how some authors I have been on panels with managed to get a contract.

We release the hounds, to pursue terrified prey and savagely tear it to bloody bits.

Yikes! This explains all of those proof marks on my manuscript. Things are growing ever bleaker.

Employers give unnecessary workers their release, forcing them to beg for attention and income from an uncaring public.

Horrors! Think of all the laid-off novels staggering aimlessly about, chanting “We are the 99% that were self-published!”

And there is always sexual release, that messy and undignified result of giving yourself heart and soul to the object of your desire. Occasionally this results, months later, in an equally messy and undignified birth, where the yowling offspring is clasped to the parental bosom with no thought given to its funny appearance or awkward creation.

Ah! So there we have it. The media gods do know their business. Release it most certainly is, then. Feel free to have a release as often as you can manage it!

October 4, 2011

British historical fiction author and noted literary savant M.M. Bennetts has kindly agreed to a sharing of a September 2 blog post about music and writing.

Playing the language…

I thought I’d talk about music for a moment…

It’s something I know a bit about since for most of my young years that’s where I was headed.  Actually, that’s where I was headed for longer than that.  Music.

But first I’m going to say something which most musicians know but which many others don’t really like as a concept.  It’s this:  genius is very rare.  Very, very rare.  So is virtuosity.

And even if you are one of those very rare few–a Daniel Barenboim or a Lang Lang, a Joshua Bell or a Yo Yo Ma…well, there is always what Maestro Barenboim will tell you, virtuoso performance comes down to about 10% talent and 90% hard work.

And that’s the way it is.  That’s the reality musicians accept.

There are, from the off, the years of learning the necessary technique.  In my case, the hours spent on Czerny’s exercises for the keyboard.  These teach and build on the skills a pianist needs until they become almost a part of that individual’s identity, as natural to them as using a knife and fork.

Alongside these, one is always learning new music–eventually becoming acquainted with the great composers and their more difficult compositions, and building a foundation of these works, expanding one’s repertoire to include sonatas, nocturnes and fantasias.

Then there are the competitions–and these are great opportunities, great platforms from which to launch a career as a soloist, for example.  But here’s a thing that should be remembered–before they even think about entering one of these, that musician will already be in top form.  He or she will have been working, playing, practising, learning for years.

Anyway.  A list of the required performance pieces is published probably three to six months before the competition itself.  With any luck, some if not all of the required works will be in the musician’s repertoire already.  Those unknown must, of course, be learned and mastered before the competition.

And that learning curve isn’t just about memorising the notes, the markings, and playing it until it’s a part of one’s physicality…there will be all the practice hours once the music is learned, the hours and days of devoted work before the performance.  Because everything has to be perfect.  Not just the middle bits, or the slow bits…it all has to flow effortlessly.

In many ways, it’s a bit like learning to ride a horse.  They say a rider only starts to learn truly to ride once they’ve been riding for somewhere between two and four years–before that, the rider is too focused on ‘staying on the horse’ to learn anything.

But back to music.

There’s the memorisation as well.  As a skill, it’s something one works hard at as a child–particularly for that first or second recital.  But some time after that, it becomes incidental; it happens naturally through the frequent playing of the music.  And once memorised, the music becomes like a part of one’s skin–there are sonatas by Beethoven and nocturnes by Chopin that I’ve been playing since adolescence.  They’re there, permanently imprinted upon the cheek of my memory, woven into my my muscles, even into the shape of my hands and the reach of my fingers.

I can sit at the piano and play them anytime.  I don’t need the score.  I can’t not play them.

Anyway, there you are.  As a musician, it’s a lifetime of practice, every day and for hours a day.  That’s what you expect–the work on the trills, the arpeggios, the fingering and flexibility–and that’s even if you are a prodigy.  But that’s how you learn to play music.  Real music.  The good stuff.

And always you go on learning.  Taking lessons.  Listening with one ear laid against the sounding board to discover whether those pianissimos are soft, are quiet enough…do they brush the heart with tenderness?

You go on re-examining the scores you know, certain that you will find something in Beethoven’s markings or Bach’s polyphony that will give you a far greater and deeper understanding of that work than you ever had before…

All of that, and then there’s performance.  And performance requires an even greater dedication and focus to the particular music on the programme…

(I can tell you too that an accompanist often practises twice as hard; first by himself or herself, then all of it all over again with the other performer.)

So why, I have to ask, why do writers and novelists these days believe their art is different?  Why do they imagine they don’t have to practise this art?  Learn its skills and techniques and how to use its ornaments?  And practise?  Practise until the bastardy bits are smooth–learn and practise the linguistic equivalent of the trills and cadenzi, the thirds and triplets, the sevens against sixes?

Because imagine what kind of books would be written if writers would only learn to play the language the way a musician learns to play Debussy…and Mozart…and Brahms…

Imagine that!

How great would that be?

Because there is no instant gratification in music, no “I want it now”.  Not even for virtuosi.  So why do we think writing is different?  Or that the art of using the language, of writing a novel doesn’t matter?

And that concept of prodigy or genius I mentioned earlier?  As I say, there are and have always been very few of them about.  Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt van Rijn, JMW Turner, Tallis, Monteverdi, the Gabrielis, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schubert, Brahms, Einstein, Shakespeare, Donne, probably Stoppard…

But here’s a thing all of them have in common–with the exception of one.  They all rewrote and repainted and resketched and reworked.  All of them.

Beethoven’s scores are always recognisable for the amount of crossing out he did.  Rewriting and reworking passages until he knew they were perfect.  Hamlet went through many, many changes and edits over the years–quite probably some of them the result of the playwright sitting listening to the actors and thinking, “Eugh!  That doesn’t work!”

Only Mozart didn’t rewrite much–but then, the poor chap was writing so fast, the melodies and notes just falling out of him like breath from his lungs, I doubt he had much chance.  (Though I fancy there are those who feel he could do with a good edit now and again.)

But imagine if writers and novelists had the humility of Beethoven.  Or Brahms–he famously burnt everything he’d composed before the age of 40 because he deemed it “not good enough”.

For that library, I should need to live to be a thousand so that I had time to read all those wonderful, wonderful books.

M.M Bennetts, a former long-time critic with the Christian Science Monitor, is the author of the Napoleonic-history novels May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Click on the author’s name to visit the splendidly-educational website.

 

 

(Today’s guest-author is Betsy Dornbusch, who offers us wise words, as always)

Betsy Dornbusch
(writing as Ainsley)

I’m a writer and an editor by trade and profession; in my personal life I’m a wife and mom. My life is a busker act, replete with a new book to promote, a slush pile, mountains to ride, lakes to play on, two active kids, a world-traveling husband who runs his own consulting firm, a bathroom under construction, a looming short story deadline, two (!) novels in different stages of revising, a WIP to brainstorm and write in the next six weeks, a magazine issue coming out at the end of August, a finished fantasy novel languishing on my hard drive, and a dog that doesn’t get walked anything like enough. Thank God for the crawdads, is all I’ve got to say, which have kept my kids busy down at the pond near our house for most of the summer.

Okay, I just reread that.

“Now don’t freak out, Jerry.”

“I’M FREAKING OUT. THIS IS ME, FREAKING OUT!”*

It’s always been the rare writer (among the many numbers of us) who could release a book every year, or two, or more, and keep their name and sales current. That’s even rarer now as publishing houses do little to market anyone but their top sellers. The market has become more like digging for gold than ever before; sometimes it’s the free project that gives us the most publicity or sales. For instance, a surprising lot of people know my name because of a little story I wrote for a now defunct magazine. I earned a t-shirt for my trouble. (Disclaimer: The story has since been republished in the anthology Deadly By The Dozen and is earning me decent royalties each quarter.)

Now, since I’m facing six months without a book release, I’d like write and release another book in that time. My publisher has proved they can release a book in four months; with any luck, and some speed writing on my part, I can have something out in November or December. I’ve learned my lesson there, though. I need to juggle projects on my end more effectively.

Why the pressure? Never before has a writer’s job been more focused on writing. Writing grows exponentially. An example: when people buy your book (or mine—please buy mine!) on, say, Amazon, there will suggestions listed under “people who bought this book also bought…”

You want those books to be all yours.

There’s no way to achieve that without completing a number of projects. If you want to make money quickly, it’s best to write quickly. Oh, and to write well. But the world is not just Amazon. It’s as big as the Internet. So, as a friend recently told me, when I do a blog tour, even stopping at blogs that don’t have a ton of hits, it might not get me instant readers. But it does fill up the Googles with legitimate hits under my name. Anyone who Googles me will see that I’m a busy bee.

Because I’m a writer. Obviously.

A final note: being a writer of erotica, among other genres, it occurs to me that juggling is a good sex word. I’ll just let you run with that one on your own.

*http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZwnSrAvfrI

Visit Sex Scenes at Starbucks to find out more about LOST PRINCE, read an excerpt, and learn about the author. http://betsydornbusch.com

Buy the book at http://whiskeycreekpress.com or for your Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Prince-Salt-Road-ebook/dp/B005AL3U24/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1310658843&sr=8-1

The only thing that’s kept Alaric, the so-called Lost Prince of Calixte, from giving into his grief over his beloved homeworld is the thought of revenge against the man who betrayed his people. But he couldn’t be more wrong about Haydn, who actually saved two thousand Calixten soldiers from certain death and secreted them on an inhospitable planet. There, they’ve launched a fledgling rebellion against the Coalition that rules six galaxies, including the lucrative Salt Road. They only need their prince to lead them.

Alaric needs a pilot to get him to his soldiers, someone too desperate to betray him. Katriel, a hotshot deserter pilot enslaved to Haydn by debt, is perfect for the job. But neither Katriel nor Alaric realize how the battle over Calixte binds them closer than blood, and when they find out, their collision will send shockwaves through the universe.

Bio:

In 2010 Whiskey Creek Torrid published three of Betsy Dornbusch’s erotic romances under the pseudonym Ainsley, most recently the first of her erotic space opera series, The Salt Road Saga. SENTINEL: ARCHIVE OF FIRE, the first book of her urban fantasy series featuring demons rebelling against Asmodai, King of Hell, will also be released in January 2012 from Whiskey Creek Press, under her own name.

Her short fiction has appeared in print and online venues such as Thuglit, Sinister Tales, Big Pulp, Spinetingler, and the anthology DEADLY BY THE DOZEN. She’s been an editor with the ezine Electric Spec for five years and regularly speaks at fan conventions and writers’ conferences. She’s also the sole proprietor of Sex Scenes at Starbucks (http://betsydornbusch.com) where you can believe most of what she writes. In her free time, she snowboards and air jams at punk rock concerts.

________

5/4/2011

I Used to Write

A thoughtful piece from Coloradoan Jim Porter. Technical writing is part of his daily grind, but…

I used to write.

Of course, in this day of texting and FB and all, we ALL write, right? No. I mean I used to write fiction, when I was much younger. Prose, short stories, poetry. I still take a hit of that drug once in a great while. Mostly, now, I write technical documents and related materials. Dry, factual, declarative – no intrigue, no twists, no convolutions, no soul.

I know writers – people who write for a living (although most have a day job, too). I’ve read writers who wrote about writing (which seems like self-indulgent psychic masturbation, but we’ll allow it). For good writers, it seems, writing is an obsession, a need, a drive — a drug that never satisfies, but always creates a need for more. Actually, bad writers suffer this too, but don’t get the occasional high of praise.

Writing is a creative art – even the dry technical stuff I do. And like most creations, the artist is never quite satisfied with the results. The work is never quite finished. In the technical world, full of deadlines and demands to cut corners, I’ve learned to be satisfied with “good enough” – the facts are there, they are mostly clear, I’ve made my point, let’s move on. I have to shield my soul every time I make that compromise. Maybe that’s why I act — maybe that’s why I know so many computer IT people who act — we need SOME artistic outlet to repair the bruising our souls take on the job.

Some types of artist get to finish their work. Sculptors. People who create mosaics from tiles. Costumers. People who work with physical things — there is often a sense that an item is finished, more or less. A writer gets no such satisfaction. “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,  moves on:…” – bullshit. Especially when writers these days write on computers – revisions are so easy to make, and so the obsession to revise gets worse. The writer is never finished. Deadlines and outside forces may coerce the writer to stop, but the writing continues, gnawing at the mind and soul.

And yet — someday, I want to put aside my technical writing, and take up the obsession again…

________
3/12/011

(This is a re-post of a guest blog I recently wrote for Piotr Mierzejewski in New Zealand at http://www.piotr-runawaythoughts.blogspot.com)

Let Us Sit Upon the Ground and Tell ad Tales of the Death of Research…

“I never do research. I’m a creative artist, damn it!”

“All of that tedious mucking about in old books and libraries gets in the way of the real writing.”

“Nobody cares about the details, anyhow. They just want a good story.”

Hogwash…

This is akin to a supernumerary actor claiming that he may safely attend to his nasal hygiene during the St. Crispin’s Day speech because everyone will be looking at Henry. Oh, no, my friend. Take it from a veteran of over 100 theatrical productions in the U.S. and Europe: at any given time at least one pair of eyes will be lingering over that index finger of yours as it assiduously plunges up somewhere near your brain.

The same holds true for the most seemingly-irrelevant detail of your story.  Someone, somewhere, is bound to notice that you placed Moose Jaw in Alberta instead of in Saskatchewan. Result: “That completely ruined the novel for me. I simply could not concentrate after such a glaring error. Lloydminster I could forgive. After all, it straddles the provincial boundary. But the iconic Moose Jaw? I mean, doesn’t that writer know how to use Wikipedia?”

All of the authorial howling in the world cannot change this. You have guaranteed that this particular reader (your customer, let us remember) did not receive satisfaction. And with word-of-mouth being the single greatest driver of sales, that can be inconvenient if not disastrous.

But that isn’t the most important reason for undertaking careful research. Of greater value is that knowledge, deep knowledge, improves your writing. Superficiality in prose fiction is akin to what is called “generalized emotion” in acting. If I play a generic feeling of fear onstage in Hamlet, that may please a few of the groundlings, but it will be unlikely to bring along the bulk of your audience as I try to lead them to that dark place where catharsis lurks. No, to create a truly empathetic response I must make their hair stand up “like the quills of the fretful porpentine”.

That would require, besides a thorough reading of the play (even the parts in which Hamlet does not appear), a grounding in the psychology of a pampered young man who has lost his beloved father. I must interview those who have been in such a situation, consult psychiatric professionals, read up on the history of the Danish court and the complex dynamics of monarchical families. Also requisite would be an understanding of the honest belief in ghosts which was so prevalent in Shakespeare’s time and how that might inform the prince’s reactions. Armed with such details, I could create a Hamlet who is a living, breathing particular person. Not a type of Renaissance Danish prince but rather a unique and quite specific and nuanced individual.

So it goes with fiction. Every iota of honest information gleaned links to innumerable others in a complicated mesh which will catch the conscience of, if not the king, your reader. It matters little that most of your patrons may not appreciate a particular geographical or historical detail. What is important is that your characters, atmosphere, and plot will be enriched from your having immersed yourself in the world of your story. And, as I can attest, the mere act of research will undoubtedly spin you off in unexpected and rewarding directions which you might never have discovered without “all of that tedious mucking about in old books and libraries.” In that sense your preparation is truly a creative act.

So dive into your research. It is akin to loading and priming your dueling pistol. While the artistry is in the aiming and the courageous facing of the foe, all would be for naught without powder and ball already being in place.

_________
12/14/2010

Sure, it’s too darned long, but the swordfight is good.      😉

________
12/13/2010
Fantasy author N.R. Williams has kindly consented to guest-star here today with  a detailed article on books that should be on all writers’ shelves.
 
Her own blog site is: http://nrwilliams.blogspot.com/   
 
Please feel free top add your own suggestions in the Comments section.
 
Better still, e-mail me and volunteer to be a guest author here.

 

Three Books Every Writer Should Own 

Book 1: The Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition by Christopher Vogler.

As I think about my author’s journey there are many books that I have read about the craft of writing. But there are three that stand out.

I believe this book to be essential regardless of the type of writing that you do because it explains the process so well. Vogler uses movies that most of us have seen as examples, an immediate visual reference. (Star Wars, Titanic, The Lion King, Pulp Fiction and more.) Within its pages you will discover how to map the journey, utilizing myth, story and psychology. You will learn how to diagnose the story to solve problems and how to proceed in your developing story idea.

In the next chapter you will read about archetypes, from the Hero and Villain to the Mentor and Trickster and more and their roles in the journey of your story. Specifically, seven character types.

Next, Vogler details the stages of the journey, a more detailed explanation and finally looking back on the journey. He gives examples of models that you can use to craft the story, delayed crisis is one and character arch is included plus more. In addition, he will give you specific exercises that you can do to really learn how these techniques work to analyze books and movies and to apply to your writing. All in all a book you will refer to time and again as you write.

The 3rd edition, The Writers Journey, Mythic Structure is now available at amazon.com

Book 2: 45 Master Characters, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

Having trouble with your characters personality, motivation, alter ego, or just plain stuck in a rut about which character is the hero and which is the mentor? Check out this next title.

This is just a laugh out loud book with both the villain and hero, female and male personality type and motivation listed. Why is it laugh out loud? Because you will say, this is just like so and so. Then after a good laugh you will have the resources available to sit down and craft the intricate character you’ve always imagined but couldn’t quite figure out how to describe and motivate on the page. But Schmidt doesn’t stop there; in this book you will find the profiles for all your miner characters too. No, not done yet, Schmidt will also explain their journey and how to plot that.

Now you may think if I have the first book why do I need the second book. Because while the first book will masterfully explain the journey your characters will take, and a lot about the characters, this book will give you a more in depth look into the reason your characters do what they do. It’s in the personality. We want three dimensional characters for the villain, the hero and those characters that are essential to their progress. Here you can learn how to intertwine various aspects of multiple personality types to get the unique character you want.

 Book 3: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, 2nd edition, by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Now you’ve got that first draft or maybe the 2nd or 3rd and it needs a good edit. Money is tight, the critique group is taking too long, or you just want to present the very best you can do before you hire that editor or present it to your critique group or both. I recommend the next book.

So, you are trying to convey how angry your character is without saying something stupid like, his temper became so hot he burst into flames, unless he is a magician or a phoenix he wouldn’t be able to do this anyway. But you really want to let the reader know how angry he is so after his heated exchange you say a word to describe his temper instead of the word ‘said.’ No, do not do that. Use description to describe his temper and well chosen words s/he will voice. The explanation for this is well presented by Browne and King in their book.

Another easy mistake we make is telling about why the character is doing what they are doing instead of letting the reader experience the characters motivations and their habits or work ethic (select example and insert) along with the character. This is called Show don’t Tell, Browne and King have included a chapter on it. I think a lot of writers do this especially in their first draft, so learning how to recognize Show don’t Tell will spare you a lot of frustration.

To tag or not to tag; no I’m not talking about the game you played when you were a kid. This means that you tell the reader who is speaking. Or the before mentioned s/he said. There seems to be a lot of opinion out there about this subject. I have heard numerous do this and don’t do that and each varies considerably. In Self-Editing for the Fiction Writers, Browne and King give clear examples of this every problem so you will never be confused again. I’m for that, how about you?

All in all there are twelve chapters on essential aspects to your story:
1. Show and Tell
2. Characterization and Exposition
3. Point of View
4. Proportion
5. Dialogue Mechanics
6. See How it Sounds
7. Interior Monologue
8. Easy Beats
9. Breaking up is Easy to do
10. Once is usually enough
11. Sophistication
12. Voice

Amazon links:

45 Master Characters

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_20?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=45+master+characters&sprefix=45+master+characters

Writers Journey, 2nd Edition

http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Journey-Mythic-Structure-2nd/dp/0941188701/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1292031756&sr=1-4

Self -Editing for Fiction Writers,2nd edition

http://www.amazon.com/Self-Editing-Fiction-Writers-Second-Yourself/dp/0060545690/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1292031816&sr=1-1__________

11/08/2010

Speak the Speech, I Pray You…

Noted historical novelist of all things Napoleonic, M.M. Bennetts has kindly consented to take time out from riding horses across the Hampshire downs to discuss the problem of recreating how people might have spoken long before electronic recording

I’m a perfectionist.  I know, I know, the fastest way to drive yourself crazy.

I’m also a stickler for detail.  Yes, that’s right, the second most direct route to madness.  Particularly if you’re a historian writing historical fiction.

Together these two probably constitute the fastest way to send yourself round the twist, or perhaps the quickest route to total eccentricity.

(No comment from the pit, Kroenung!)

And this peculiar combination of traits has seen me doing everything from riding hell for leather through gale force winds and sheets of rain–terrifying, invigorating, brilliant!–to enable me to write truthfully of an age when horses were the only mode of transportation, to learning to take snuff one-handed, to learning to crack the Napoleonic codes spies used two hundred years ago.  Among other things.

Some of it’s just plain bonkers.  Yes, I do know that.  But all of it necessary so that I can convey as powerfully and dramatically and accurately to the reader what it was to live 200 years ago.  Because I strive above all and at all times to put the reader in the room.

Still, one of the trickier areas of research though is speech.  Because I can and do read their letters, their journals, even their books and speeches, but who talks everyday as they write in letters?  Or diaries?  Better, perhaps, but still not the same as a recording, is it?

So one of the great finds and great delights of my life has been to come upon and read–cover to cover and more than once–a book called The Vulgar Tongue:  Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence by Captain Francis Grose, originally published in 1785.

Imagine, a book full of words like:  Slubber de gullion — a dirty, nasty fellow; Nocky boy — A dull simple fellow; Basting — beating; Spider-shanked — thin-legged; Kinchin — a little child, Kinchin coes, orphan beggar boys educated in thieving…

Go ahead, try rolling them about in your mouth, letting them fall into speech.  An intoxication of language, really.  Sheer absolute joy.

I mean, it’s all too evocative, too atmospheric not to revel in it.  But the use of just a smattering of such slang in the dialogue easily transforms it from modern to, well, a sense of what they must have spoken like.

We can’t be sure, of course.

And we always have the awkwardness of, in my case (I write about Napoleonic Europe), 200 years of history and hind-sight as an obstacle.  But the slang gives us a feeling for the roistering, boisterous, rambling world of London that Jane Austen did not talk about, the world of the military, the Britain that had as yet no police force, the city that hadn’t yet been ripped up by the Victorians for the installation of sewers, and the countryside given over to farming.

Even a simple reading of dictionaries of historical slang give one a sense of their different perception of things, of what mattered to them, what their daily lives encompassed, who they met with and how they perceived their fellows.  It’s an education in itself.   Occasionally shocking, often surprising, always ebullient.

As I say, tremendous fun.

And as for me, well, I’ve learned at least one thing, I can tell you–I am without a doubt a plaguey saucebox and a scapegrace.  Ha ha ha ha.

(If you doubt me, just ask Terry…)

M.M. Bennetts, author of May 1812 and Of Honest Fame, both published by Diiarts 

http://www.mmbennetts.com

Links to Amazon.com pages:

May 1812

__________

10/29/2010

Quality Formatting for Kindle

I don’t normally do testimonials, but this fellow was so accommodating and helpful to us that I thought I should pass his name along.

Brian Schwartz is an expert in preparing manuscripts for electronic submission, particularly for the wonky Kindle format. He fixed the ugly glitches in BRIMSTONE AND LILY and now it looks like it was put on Kindle by a Big 5 publisher. Seriously. And he charges reasonable rates. We met him at Mountains & Plains Booksellers in Denver.

His website is:

http://www.50interviews.com/

_________

10/25/2010

Guest Blogger Andrew Meek

“A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them.”     —Carl Gustav Jung

I write because I find myself in constant battle, both with myself and the world beyond me. I want to understand why people are the way they are – how we all ended up so different. But, honestly, mostly I want to understand myself and my motives. So I invent characters to play out scenarios for me. I have a deep melancholy that has always been there, and I have struggled for decades to try to understand it and why it is always just below the surface of my skin; scratch me and I would bleed Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No.3, better known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. I suffer from BP and have constant mood swings… which some may have noticed by now. And this reflects in my writing. I write about the glory of nature and the universe while writing about the suffering and misery that can be human existence. That it is by our own nature that we seal of our own fate, but also that, our very nature may run deeper than we think – indeed, maybe beyond our understanding. Yet I want to, need to understand it. So I write and by doing so, try to unravel some of this puzzle of just “what” and “who” I am, in order to better understand my fellow travelers.
My work is original – yeah – we all say that I know, but I truly believe it is. In my novel Quintessence (now finished after more than 10 years work) I abandon all pretence at a “straight” structure. In truth it is a beginning, an end, and a beginning. It is told in the first person present, and past, and indeed future. (One of my major themes within it is our concepts of time and space, so I deliberately mess around with these things.) Indeed, the main character,(and this is only giving a small part away), is not even real – as in, is not a physical being, but is something else that is, perhaps, still very much “alive”. Again, another theme. And if I was to sum it up in one sentence? Difficult, very difficult, but it would be this: That each and every moment of our lives we imagine we are inside and experiencing “reality”, but what that is in itself, may not be what we believe it to be… in fact, it most certainly is not: we fabricate our own realities all the time.
So yes, as I have challenged myself, and have been challenged by the sometimes strange and frightening things my own mind has conjured up that brought me to question the very concept of “real”, so I want to channel that and ask questions of my readers through the characters I set before them. Both in this work, and in subsequent work. (After all, it is the biggest subject there is – because it is all that is – the nature of reality, the meaning of life, the secret of the universe.)… I tackle them all within my novel, and will do in subsequent work.
My problem is finding someone who will publish such a difficult read, and a weighty subject and readers who will be willing to go the distance on what is, an unhappy, frightening journey. A journey that is all about deconstruction of what it means to be human, and death, and how it is through death that life finds its real meaning.

ANDREW MEEK is married with one child and lives in the village of Sherburn-in-Elmet in North Yorkshire. He moved there from London 10 years ago to write the book that had been “burning a hole in my head for the previous 5 years.”
Andrew says: “ I have a passionate interest in all areas of science and philosophy, as well as current affairs, music and art. During the past 15 years I have had 3 major mind altering experiences that have shaped the direction of my life and work. After more than 15 years on one project, I am now writing a new novel.”

_________

10/6/2010

Jane Austen Was Right

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single author in possession of a manuscript, must be in want of an agent (or publisher).”

That’s essentially how this writing business is set up. Author-agent-publisher, in that order. There are good reasons for that. I should say, there WERE good reasons for that, until technology overtook circumstances.

Ms. Austen’s titles hint at this. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE almost sums up the writer-agent relationship. The former applies to one’s new-created paper child, the latter to the reflexive attitude of a professional who has suffered through one thousand too-many slush sessions. SENSE AND SENSIBILITY reverses things. The agent is all dispassionate sense, the scribbler all weepy sensibility.

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