Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Magpies and Cultural Rot. But in A Good Way

This is the kind of stuff you learn when you’re writing a fantasy novel about magpies.

First, people in England and Scotland are really, really suspicious about them. Or at least those who are the type to get suspicious over things.

When you see a magpie or magpies, better count the number – and then recite the poem to see what the number of magpies foretells:

One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a story that remains untold
Eight for heaven
Nine for Hell
And ten for the Devil’s own self.

(There seem to be several variations if Wikipedia is to be believed; for my purposes, I think the one featured here is the most fitting. And since I’m a fantasy author, I can pick the one that fits me best. Neener neener.)

(Peter Max-like art and British cultural rot* brings us this. Eeeeouggghhhh.)

Which led me into this. More evidence that, culturally, the 1960s and 70s were NOT kind to ANYONE on the entire planet. (Also, bear in mind this is a childrens’ program. But enough of that particular rabbit hole.)

Segue: Could I indeed write a science fiction novel set in the 1970s in which aliens bent on destroying the planet arrive and are so shocked and appalled by the poor taste of the 1970s that they leave without destroying anything, figuring the whole planet is just going to rot away by itself? Kind of taking the idea that Indian Love Call=Death to Martians from Mars Attacks! but more better?

So. Lots of stuff to play around with here as I revise (yet again) Doleful Creatures. Certainly, one for sorrow fits Jarrod, bereft and alone, as he is through a good portion of the book. And if I’m remembering right, he and Rebekah have six nestlings – bringing them, at least to heaven – until things invariably go south and leave him in his sorrow.

And that seven line. Well, that’s something fun to play with as well.

And the Devil’s Own Self – now there’s another fun nickname, and a lot more fun to say than Holstein Pheasant. It’s got to be the one said when the sayer really wants to be nasty, so I’m not going to overuse it.

And there’s also this: In a research abstract by Susan Fitzpatrick and Peter Price in which they reveal their study that magpies tend to pair up based on tail quality – those with prettier/longer/undamaged tails tend to mate up, while those with scragglier tails tend to do the same. If I’m reading their research properly, those with the most intact tails more successfully mated as well.

And this is where the good writer decides to lay off research for a while, lest the novel he’s working on descend into magpie ephemera.

Obviously, though, much more usable stuff in the former (sans Peter Max) than the latter.

*Note to any Brits out there reading this. I KNOW the United States has produced its own share of cultural rot on a truly massive scale. You have to agree, though, that pound for pound, the rot you produce usually led to the rot we produce. And your rote is specifically unique to your country. Just see what British television has done to the novels of Terry Pratchett.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


I have a beta reader for Doleful Creatures who has no idea what she’s done.

When she finished reading the book, she said she wanted more hope for Jarrod and Aloysius, my two main characters. And that the beginning needed more of the “magic” of the ending.

So that’s what I’m doing.

And it’s doing wonders.

I hope I’m doing it with character – helping the reader to get to know the characters better as the hope and the magic arrive. That’s my goal, anyway. And it’s coming through simple means: Familial scenes, a tiny bit of philosophy, and the introduction of at least one other character. Plus more definition for what happened in the past, and how it’s driving the future – bits that were missing through thirteen revisions of the novel.

I hope I’m doing what director Peter Weir says he did (and I believe he accomplished it) when he was working on “The Truman Show”:

[The script by Andrew Nicol] was kind of perfect for what it was, but it wasn’t right for me. It’s an odd thing, and the only time I’ve ever had something that I did admire, but wanted to change, if I did it. And that fundamentally came down to one major sticking point for me. For me, Andrew’s draft was like a brilliant speculative science fiction. If I looked at it as a movie, it had to be light where he had it dark. I wanted to make it real, not science fiction. I wanted to make it just the near future, if you like, which it turned out to be.

Not that Doleful Creatures is the near future – but it is an alternative look at a philosophical reality. I hope by adding hope and magic that I can bring that philosophical reality out of the fringe of the book and to the fore.

Editing note: Editing today was hard. I had to cut about 300 words. They had to go. And it hurt to cut them because they were part of the original novel. But they no longer fit. They had to go.

Monday, April 11, 2016

C’eci N’est Pas Une Election

Honestly, I don’t know who’s what or why any more.

When I hear the Republicans complaining about the “librul” media – and hear the progressive Democrats complain about the “establishment” or “corporate” media, I don’t know who’s nuttier.
Then there are the snarkers who talk about the “slipstream” media – saying, I assume, that media merely follows what’s happening rather than anticipating what’s happening; getting caught up in doing stories on what the other guy is doing rather than anything else (I suppose the Kardashians have something to do with this).

I don’t know who’s nuttier.

As far as I can tell, these pejoratives come into play when viewing media that should actually be labeled “Stuff That Doesn’t Fit My Preconceived Notion of the World.”

It was said best on “The Newsroom”:

MacKenzie McHale: Yes, people choose the news they want now, but – 

Will McAvoy: People choose the facts they want now!

And that goes for everyone on the political spectrum, from the ultraconservatives to the progressive democrats. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

I do know the narrative being spun is that (accurately) the Republicans are headed toward a contested convention.

I do know that the narrative being spun is that (inaccurately) the Democrats are headed toward a Hillary Clinton nomination.

Posit: Republicans in turmoil. Democrats the calm center.

We’ll see. Because if anyone thinks either convention is going to be a piece of cake, well, I hope for your sake it’s not poop-flavored.

We all pick the facts we want. That leads us to pick the news we want. And that leads us to lash out irrationally, just like that joker does in Forrest Gump when he’s caught physically abusing Jenny but blames the abuse on that “rat Nixon”. Because Nixon was RIGHT THERE, making him beat on his girlfriend.

And if we’re not a dingo like this guy, we’re like this guy (in bold, once the parades have stopped):

Forrest Gump: [voice over] Anyway, like I was saying, I had a lot of company. My Mama always said you got to put the past behind you before you can move on. And I think that’s what my running was all about. I had run for three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours.

[Forrest stops running and the group running behind him stops waiting expectantly]

Young Man: Quiet. Quiet. He’s going to say something. 

[Forrest pauses for a moment before speaking]

Forrest Gump: I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.

[Forrest turns and the group parts for Forrest as he walks down the middle of the road] 

Young Man: Now what are we supposed to do? 

Forrest Gump: [voice over] And just like that, my runnin’ days was over. So I went home to Alabama.

We’re all that idiot. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

I, for one, personally hope there is a meeting of the Pentaverate or the Illuminati occurring at that chalet in Colorado called “The Meadows” because otherwise we have to settle with the fact that we’re in charge of this mess and we could change it but we’re too busy ranting on blogs or taking selfies or manufacturing tinfoil hats to do anything about it.

So what do we do?

We think. We read. We learn. We look critically at people who say they’re fomenting a revolution or making America great again. We reconsider the fact that people running for public office are not the best qualified to actually hold office once they’ve got it. And realize that there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about all that – so we figure out what we can do with ourselves.

Or something like that.

But I’m selling something. Because if you agree with the Addams Family motto (We Gladly Feast on those who would Destroy Us) you may as well read and believe Ayn Rand.

Hurts, doesn’t it? It’s that old thing: The right message from the wrong people.

Traveling heavy or light, folks? That's the question.

Skyscrapers on Saturn's Rings

New images from the Cassini probe exploring the Saturn system, show something pretty amazing:

Look at those structures. Miles high, probably. What could cause them? Probably some perturbation from one of Saturn's moons, But how? We've seen scallops in rings (see below) but what in the world is this?

We live in an astounding universe, and understand so little about our own solar system.

Friday, April 8, 2016


Writing, to most people, seems like an insurmountably impossible task (I’ll admit it feels like that sometimes to me, Mister on the Fourteenth Edit of His Novel). And it’s easy for me, a person who has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, to forget that. And in forgetting that, I’m failing my students.

Today, for example. I’m reading a piece at Newsweek.com,  a piece I feel could model the 1,000- to 1,500-page research proposal my Foundations English 101 students do at Brigham Young University- Idaho. It’s a wonderful piece, well-researched and brimming with the pathos, ethos, and logos I look for in my students’ writing.

It’s also an impossible example for even the best students to replicate.

I’m shooting them – and me – in the foot even thinking it’s a good example to share.

But it’s a great example. Just not reproduceable at their level of writing experience.

Do I have to set the bar lower? No, I do not. But the examples I provide could certainly be more doable.

I mean, look at this piece. It’s a wonderful bit of researched journalism, and fits in nicely as a research proposal (though it doesn't offer a solution; no paper is perfect).

But for my novice writers, reproducing it is not doable. My students, most of them novice writers, do not have the time nor the experience to do this kind of writing. So in sharing it as an example, I'm doing them a disservice.

I use this – and many like it – as examples to my students. And the bar is set: Research a topic and find real people who are experiencing the problem you’re researching. Show how a solution you propose could help solve that problem and help those people.

That bar can be kept at that level but I can provide examples that are more doable to my students than Zoe Schlanger’s 4,700-word article, good as it is. I would be challenged to reproduce Schlanger’s article, and that’s after ten years as a newspaper journalist. I can’t throw out examples like that to my students and expect them to look at it and say, “Hey, that’s something I could do.” And maybe they could. After many years of experience. But not with a two –week turnaround for a basic English composition course.

So I’m off in search of “doable” examples.