Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 30, 2009 Links and Plugs

Vera Nazarian: *No one* knows how to use Facebook. Most of the time we try to keep it from using *us*.

And check out this short video on 80's Saturday morning cartoons.

Try this out:
Hatter Bones edited by Paul Jessup

Interview: Nathan Ballingrud

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Nathan Ballingrud has published stories in SCIFICTION, The Third Alternative, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Inferno, and The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! I want to start with the basics: why did you decide to write genre fiction?

Unlike most writers in the field, I didn’t really discover this genre until I went to college. I never read Bradbury or Heinlein as a kid. Most of my reading was in a genre of one sort or another – Stephen King and John LeCarre, for example – but the notion that there was a literary tradition of fantastical fiction, and a community devoted to it, was completely new to me. There was a bookstore near UNC-Chapel Hill called Second Foundation, and it just seemed kind of cool, so I went in and browsed. I picked up a book called Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison, and a new world opened up to me. I soon discovered Philip K. Dick, Michael Bishop, and many others. And of course the digest magazines. I’ve always been a geek, and I responded immediately to the trappings of the genre. It wasn’t so much the stories themselves, always, as it was the fact that they had spaceships in them, or robots, or ghosts in the cellar. So the decision to write in the genre wasn’t conscious, really; I was simply settling down in friendly country.

In Jeff Vandermeer's interview, you mentioned selling your short story to F&SF and then ceased writing altogether. What made you finally come back to writing fiction?

Well, when I stopped writing it was because I realized I couldn’t produce the kind of fiction that moved me. I could write a piece of fluff like “She Found Heaven,” and I could use some pretty language, but I couldn’t produce anything with any real substance to it. Stories like Hemingway’s “A Day’s Wait” and Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs” just astonished me with their simple power, and with their beauty, and I knew that that kind of story was way beyond my grasp as a writer. This was mostly due to my lack of life experience. I knew almost nothing about people; in my early twenties I probably had the emotional and social development of a fifteen-year old. I knew immediately that I didn’t want to spend my life writing filler for the digests. I aspired to what those other writers were doing. So I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to submit any more stories for publication until I felt like I could write about real people, and do it in a way that felt meaningful to me.

Publishing was – and still is – a secondary goal for me. My sense of accomplishment is entirely tied to the story itself. Obviously I want to continue to be published, because money is nice and readers are even nicer, but the real joy comes from writing the story, and feeling that I’ve at least come close to achieving my intentions. This is one of the reasons I’m a slow writer. I take some flak for it, but I’ve resolved never to write a story that doesn’t matter to me. It means too much to me to treat it like just another job.

So why did I come back? I guess I just felt ready, eventually. I wish I had a more interesting answer. I was tending bar in New Orleans and I had an idea for a story, and I decided to write it. I wrote two or three very short, very clumsy pieces, which never went anywhere, and then I wrote “You Go Where It Takes You,” which I sold to SCIFICTION and went on to appear in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.

In the same interview, you mention you like writing stories that's different from what's out there. What are story elements/tropes/plots that you feel are overused? Or what kind of material are you reacting to?

What I was reacting to was what I still think of as a distinct lack of engagement with some of the messier aspects of real life. My wife of the time suffered from chronic, debilitating bouts of depression. I didn’t see a lot of that in genre fiction, unless it was being romanticized with some faux-Goth aesthetic. The bar I tended was regularly filled with people who were steering themselves into diminished ends – sometimes lying to themselves about it, sometimes not. New Orleans is one of the most racially diverse cities in the nation, yet the racial tensions on display at the bar were palpable sometimes – not because of anything actually said or done, but because of the host of assumptions we make, and the suspicions we harbor, about each other. I think most of the genre fiction currently being written has a white middle-class aesthetic, and while that is by no means a tapped vein, I feel that such a specificity of focus fosters a cloistered atmosphere, and a stagnation of ideas. Even worse, it tends to create a calcification of perspective, which is fatal to literature. So I wanted to write about the people I knew, who I rarely saw represented. Some of those people were drug addicts, or prostitutes, or homeless, or directionless and scared. Some of them were just people in acute emotional pain.

I acknowledge that there are probably many examples of stories or books in the genre that address these very things. A more accurate way to say it is that I couldn’t find anything that addressed these things in the precise way I wanted to see them addressed. Which is, I suppose, a primary motivator for any writer.

Why did you decide to write short fiction?

Because I thought it would be easier. Silly me.

More seriously, I love the immediate, violent impact a short story can have. Short stories can be much more aggressive, and allows the writer to take a more antagonistic approach with the reader, which can be useful.

What's currently the status of your novel?

This is my first attempt at a novel – at the advanced age of 38 – and I’m still learning its rhythms. Some days I feel like a god, other days I want to turn my back on the English language and move to some crag in Iceland. I hope to have it finished by the end of the year. More than that I’m reluctant to say.

What steps did you take to hone your writing skills?

Only once did I consciously undertake an exercise to improve an element of my writing. At some point it became clear to me that I was writing very bad dialogue, so I’d go to a public place with a notebook and a pen and just transcribe overheard conversations. I paid attention to writers like David Mamet and Richard Price. I now can’t stand to read Mamet’s dialogue (although listening to it can still be a rewarding experience), but I think Price is a genius at it. I wrote “stories” – exercises, really – composed entirely of dialogue. I think I’m pretty good at it, now, but I may be mistaken. Beyond that, any steps taken were unconscious. It probably comes down to little more than trying to write the kind of prose I like to read. I like strong, image-laden prose; I like feeling as though I’m caught in a strong current when I start to read. Lucius Shepard was hugely influential. I love the prose of Tim O’Brien, Catherynne Valente, Graham Greene, Mark Helprin. Karen Russell and John Crowley. I just read damn good writers!

In terms of the craft of writing, what aspect of it are you having most difficulty with?

I’m growing increasingly impatient with the conventions of short stories. You know, things like Chekov’s rule: if a gun is seen over the mantle in Act One it must be fired in Act Three. The notion that every detail must work in service to the plot or the theme, that not a word can be wasted. If these rules are followed too closely, short stories run the risk of becoming little more than clockwork mechanisms; once you know the rules they cease to hold any mystery or surprise to them. Short stories should not be boring or predictable. So a difficulty I’m often faced with is how to subvert expectations, especially those of a savvy reader. I often use genre elements as catalysts for the story, without offering the traditional resolutions a genre reader might expect. While I enjoy doing this quite a bit, I’m afraid that I run the risk of alienating readers, who might feel that if I introduce a werewolf in Act One I’d better bring the damn thing back in Act Three. It’s a balance between trying to please readers and myself at the same time. Since I’m a selfish bastard, usually I just go with pleasing myself.

How did you break into the industry? What were some of the challenges you faced?

I didn’t face any challenges any new writer doesn’t face, unless you count my complete ignorance of the genre. When I was in college I submitted a couple of stories to Ellen Datlow at OMNI, which got form-letter rejections. My break was Clarion, where I met Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who bought my first story. It was a great class – including Jeff VanderMeer, Dale Bailey, Pam Noles, Cory Doctorow, and Felicity Savage – and I built some friendships there that persist to this day. I learned how to self-edit at Clarion, and how to receive criticism, and I can’t overstate how important those qualities are for any writer.

Compared to the time when you short story first got accepted and when you returned to writing, what was the biggest change you noticed about the field?

The biggest change is the internet. It seems to me the community is much more engaged now than it was, and a lot of the mystique of a writer’s life has evaporated (although that may just be a function of my growing up). Everybody has a blog, for better or for worse. There’s a concerted effort to change the face of the genre, to make it more accommodating to women and minorities, which I believe is essential to its survival. The immediacy of communication makes this a sometimes rancorous process, but these are growing pains and probably unavoidable. It’s much, much easier to get a story in print these days, which is a double-edged sword. While I’ve never been one to take very seriously the idea of the “death of the short story,” I believe the internet offers some great new modes of getting stories in front of readers’ eyes. It’s a magnificent tool for writers.

How do you manage to find the time to write, what with your day job and caring for your daughter?

That’s my biggest challenge. Being a single dad – especially of a pre-teen girl – is a strange, vertiginous experience. I’m in constant terror of screwing everything up. It’s a gnawing fear, and it literally keeps me awake some nights. It’s far more important to me to be a good dad than it is for me to be a successful writer – if I never write another word again, there aren’t many people in the world who will know or care; but if I’m a crappy father, I’ll mess up my daughter’s whole life. So the writing takes a back seat. I come home from work, help her with homework, fix dinner for her, and then we just hang out until bedtime. Now that she’s older, she often wants to do things by herself or with friends, so there’s a little free time every now and then. But mostly that free time comes after she’s asleep. I generally stay up until about two in the morning. That’s when I try to get my work done. Usually I have an hour and a half in the mornings after I drop her off at school, too. It’s just a question of squeezing it in where ever I can. Don’t ask me about my personal life, though; I haven’t had one in three years.

If you could turn back time to 1994, what advice would you give yourself then?

I’d tell myself that my instincts were right. I’d tell myself to stop doubting. Sometimes I second-guess myself into a kind of paralysis; I remember many dark nights of the soul back then, trying to decide if I was doing the right thing with my life. It felt fairly radical at the time – stopping writing, moving to New Orleans without a job or a home waiting for me, just trusting myself to work it all out. And it did work out. I’m a much, much better writer now because of it. And if I’d stayed along the traditional path, getting a college degree and a respectable job, I think I’d be in better financial shape but a shabbier spiritual one. I’d know there was something fundamental I was missing.

Here's the geeky portion of the interview. What are your other interests? Comics, board games, RPGs?

All those things, at one time or another. I’m pretty much a geek archetype. I’m a round bearded guy who loves all kinds of games and still reads comic books. I don’t live in my mother’s basement – but the recession is young. My daughter and I like to play board games like Talisman and Last Night on Earth, tile games like Zombies!!!, and card games like Gloom. I’m a big fan of Mike Mignola and would love to write a Hellboy novel (Mike: call me). I think Ex Machina, by Brian K. Vaughn, is the best superhero comic out there and much better than his more popular title, Y: The Last Man. I love Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and Invincible.

Beyond the geeky stuff, though, I love to read history – specifically Medieval history and early American history. I’m a political junkie, hard-left leaning; I voted for Nader in 2000 and still think it was the right thing to do. And I dearly love personal essays. I love them every bit as much as I love fiction, and I want to write my own. I might be prouder of producing a good collection of essays than I would be of producing a good collection of short stories. Might be. Above all, though, I just love to read. It’s by far my favorite thing to do in life.

Do they have any bearing on your writing or is it all leisure?

The geeky stuff doesn’t have too much bearing; certainly not the games. In comics, though, there are narrative lessons to be learned, just as with any storytelling medium, so I suppose there might be some subtle influence somewhere. I really don’t think I could point to a specific instance, though. Except that I did lift the title “North American Lake Monsters” from a throwaway bit of dialogue in Mike Mignola’s B.P.R.D.

The other things – the history, the politics, the essays – impact my writing somewhere on the underground level, where I’m not consciously aware of what’s going on. The same way going to work does. The same way walking down the street does. You throw everything down there and let them ferment, and wait to see what arises.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes. I would advise them to be ambitious. I would advise them to write stories that matter to them. If you’re just writing it because you want to be a writer and you think it’d be cool to be published, do yourself and everyone else a favor and stop. Put down your pen forever, because we’re already choking on meaningless stories. If what you’re saying doesn’t matter to you, don’t say it. Learn the rules of the trade, but then ignore them at will. Do not fall in love with the shorthand of the internet; writing good sentences is a form of exercise like any other, and you should not neglect it. For god’s sake do not restrict your reading to our little genre; believe me, it will show.

Anything else you want to plug?

Sure. I have stories coming out in two anthologies: one is called “The Crevasse,” co-written with Dale Bailey, and it will appear this October in an anthology called Lovecraft Unbound. The other is called “The Way Station,” and will appear sometime next year in an anthology called The Naked City: New Tales of Urban Fantasy. Both of them are edited by Ellen Datlow. You can find others in anthologies already in print: “North American Lake Monsters” in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and “The Monsters of Heaven” in Inferno. I will try not to use the word “monsters” in a title ever again. I promise.

Monday, June 29, 2009

June 29, 2009 Links and Plugs

Check out Matt Staggs' latest podcast, The Rubber Dinosaur Podcast. For his first episode, he interviews *dun dun dun* me!

The wave of "Best Of" anthologies begin...
Year's Best SF 14 edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

Book/Magazine Review: Sybil's Garage No. 6

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

One of writer Damien G. Walter's challenges is that "We need more beautiful magazines" and Sybil's Garage No. 6 easily fits that bill. While not as experimental as McSweeney's, editor Matthew Kressel does a lot of outstanding things with this issue. Aside from the well-designed layout, each story/poem is preceded by a recommended song and this presentation is consistent. There's also what seems like random scribblings by an enigmatic writer at the end of various texts but it all culminates into one meta-narrative that this reviewer found tear-jerking, even if it's just a simple plot and conceit.

On the nonfiction side, this issue features an interview with Paul G. Tremblay on his novel The Little Sleep conducted by Devin Poore. The feature is focused on Tremblay's book and while it's not a speculative fiction title, Poore manages to steer the conversation to a topic that's relevant to genre as well as providing an insightful read.

When it comes to the fiction and the poetry, Sybil's Garage No. 6 is actually quite meaty in the sense that it manages to include a total of 29 stories and poems. I wouldn't identify most of them as particularly memorable, but even in their mediocrity they provide something different from the norm, and there's a distinct flavor and character to the selections. Having said that, here are my top three picks:

"Elan Vital" by K. Tempest Bradford manages to cram a lot in this relatively short piece. While the science fiction aspects and ramifications might appeal to genre readers, what drew me to this story is how Bradford attaches a human component to the narrative and everything else grows out of that. Her protagonist is not only sympathetic but her unique situation could only have been pulled off in the medium of prose. For example, if this were a comic or a TV episode, part of the tension would have been tipped off too early, and a pivotal scene would have lost much of its momentum. But as it is, the chronology is just right, and Bradford crafts a story with emotional resonance.

"Metamorphic Megafauna" by Susannah Mandel is a fun and interactive poem. Much of its charm for me is the central idea it's attempting to convey, and this is probably one of those poems where it'll polarize readers.

"Fulgurite" by Vylar Kaftan is easily my favorite story in the bunch and showcases the strengths of the genre. Much like many of the stories in this issue, one of the strong points is how the author anchors the narrative with character. The plot is fairly simple and follows the typical coming-of-age formula but what makes it stand out is Kaftan's language, at how she employs apt and consistent metaphors. While it's a modern story in terms of setting, it also conjures a fantastical atmosphere which heightens the narrative.

Sybil's Garage No. 6 for me is the genre equivalent to alternative music: it goes against the norm and has a distinct but not so quantifiable personality. In terms of aesthetics, this issue is praise-worthy, and in many ways, it's the sum of its parts rather than the individual stories/poems that makes the magazine stand out.

Book/Magazine Review: The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

Tackling Yoko Ogawa's fiction presents itself with some interesting highlights. What stands out the most for me is that despite writing what is a realist text, Ogawa evokes some of the sensibilities we find in horror and speculative fiction. In all three novellas, Ogawa creates an illusory atmosphere and writes fiction that is actually quite disturbing. The latter isn't accomplished heavy-handed though, and in fact part of the strength of Ogawa is that she narrates the character's actions as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Like most translated Japanese novels, there's a spareness in the text but translator Stephen Snyder manages to utilize concrete words and preserve the lyrical nature of Ogawa's prose--which in my opinion is essential as the author constantly juxtaposes beauty and cruelty, juggling them as if they were opposite sides of a coin.

What's also amazing with Ogawa is how she makes us sympathize with her protagonist, even as we explore the darker side of the human condition. As I said before, the author to a certain point downplays this part in the sense that it's not the dramatic point of the story, but it is a tension that's constant in all three novellas. This balancing act, and that of convincing the reader to remain faithful to the protagonist, is proof of the author's talent.

The literary reader in me highly recommends The Diving Pool: Three Novellas. It's short, concise, and delivers three distinct narratives that will haunt and leave an impression.

Book/Magazine Review: The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

The Little Sleep isn't your typical private investigator novel mainly because Paul Tremblay comes up with the perfect conceit--and handicap--for his protagonist: narcolepsy. It's a clever excuse and thankfully, the author succeeds in making the most out of this condition. For example, the first chapter is this surreal scene where the main character's client approaches him with fingers that aren't her own. What would have been a simple mystery plot-wise becomes this intricate labyrinth as our hero doesn't even know who his employer is, or what exactly it is he's trying to solve.

That's not only Tremblay's ace in the hole and a good chunk of the book is spent on characterization. There are numerous scenes where the protagonist has flashbacks with his deceased father, a relevant scene that deals both with his relationships and the case he's working on. In any other setting, this might feel contrived but in terms of the novel, it fits perfectly.

Another commendable aspect of the book is the conciseness and brevity of the prose. Tremblay preserves a distinct rhythm that's not just easy to digest but conveys all the necessary details.

The Little Sleep is an interesting read and is infused with fantastical sensibilities while still remaining faithful to the tropes of the crime and mystery genre. Even if you're not the type who reads such stories, this is still a welcome treat as Tremblay's prose is accessible and compelling.

Friday, June 26, 2009

June 26, 2009 Links and Plugs

Help out author Tim Pratt.

And while you're at it, help out Apex Magazine as well (someone cast Raise Dead!).

And it's out!

Top 10 Best-Sellers as of 2009/6/21

From USA Today's best-seller list (you can find out their basis here):
  1. Glenn Beck's Common Sense by Glenn Beck
  2. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
  3. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  4. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  5. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  6. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
  7. Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto by Mark R. Levin
  8. The Shack by William P. Young
  9. Knock Out: An FBI Thriller by Catherine Coulter
  10. Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton

Thursday, June 25, 2009

June 25, 2009 Links and Plugs

Sleep less

And the final novel!
The Demon Redcoat by C. C. Finlay

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

June 24, 2009 Links and Plugs

Sleep is for the weak. I am weak. Reading Paul Tremblay's The Little Sleep and aptly dreamed...

Anyway, check out Underland Press's latest wovel, Exit Vector by Simon Drax. Here's the description:

Mori Kim Marr’s personal force-field of drugs and drink has worn thin: she’s a burned-out teenager in a burned-out world, an Earth wracked by wars and rumors of wars, plagues and disasters, the hopelessness of every human heart. Mori couldn’t care less; just bring her the next fix, please. But when an artificial woman from the 19th century and a boy with psionic powers wander into the smoke and squalor of Mori’s favorite watering hole, gore-drenched violence and city-wide destruction erupts, catapulting Mori and her new-found “friends” into the thick of a battle that began long ago, a war that has raged since before the dawn of civilization, a blood-feud fought and overseen by the sole-survivor of an ancient, pre-human race: Trista Ska Shearn, last of the Cantarans. Trista has been waiting 65,000 thousand years for this, the final battle; she has waited millennia for the glum, sallow teenager, Mori Kim Marr. For Mori is . . . the Exit Vector.

And your zen photo of the day:

In Brightest Bleach, in Blackest Blight

No Stain Shall Escape My Sight...




Here's some Delia Sherman love:

Feature: How the eBook Industry Isn't like the Music Industry

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

There's a lot of discussion over eBooks and it's often compared to the music industry. Not that there isn't value in comparing the two, but here are some points in which I find the two to be very different.

1) Replayability - One of the biggest differences between music and fiction is that with the former, you might very well listen to the same song a thousand times in your lifetime, while your favorite book will typically be read a dozen times at the most. Music is quite ubiquitous while a book will either be memorable or it won't.

2) Identical Experience - Save for the hardcore audiophiles or disc jockeys, there's really no difference between a CD of songs and a collection of MP3s. Music aficionados don't claim "MP3's aren't real music!" For most people, whether they're listening to music from a CD or from an mp3 player, the experience is identical (and most likely the latter is more convenient). That's not the case with books though. Aside from the visual element (and why people are trying to create technologies like e-ink), there's also the tactile and olfactory senses to consider. This also leads to a perception problem with eBooks, where books are perceived as being more valuable than their electronic version, or that the current generation find the previous easier to read.

3) Format - In relation to the previous point, one big difference between music and fiction is that the former is united under one big format--mp3. Sure, there are other alternative formats out there (some of which are even superior to mp3) but what's become prevalent and commonplace is mp3. With eBooks, there are tons of formats, and some of them haven't been perfected yet or are difficult to program for. On one end of the spectrum, we have PDFs which are quite flexible but aren't standard in most eBook readers, and on the other end, we have TXT which can be read by nearly any device but lacks most formatting capabilities. This has one of the bigger impacts in the industry, which leads to people preferring one format over the other, and the devices which support them.

4) Microtransactions - A good leveraging tactic of online music stores is that of using microtransactions -- purchasing individual tracks instead of entire albums for a relatively low price. That's not really applicable to eBooks, with the exception applying to poetry collections, anthologies, and short story collections where you might buy individual stories as opposed to the entire book. That's not to say it's being done in the industry right now but they're the exception rather than the norm (nor am I saying that it should be the practice).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 23, 2009 Links and Plugs

Running late--another photo shoot to attend to.

On a more positive note, I got to interview Daryl Gregory.

P.S. Megan Messinger reads my blog!

And if you're dropping by at ReaderCon, you can snag a copy of the new cover of Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone.

And your zen photo of the day (not regular) courtesy of Sean Wallace:

And check out Diana Rowland's novel:

Mark of the Demon by Diana Rowland

Interview: Richard Eoin Nash

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Richard Eoin Nash ran Soft Skull Press, now an imprint of Counterpoint, from 2001 to 2007 and ran the imprint on behalf of Counterpoint until early 2009.

What made you decide to finally decide to leave Soft Skull Press?

We're on the edge of a radical transformation of the process whereby writers are connected with readers, a process that ought to be called publishing, were it not for the fact that we publishers too often fail to actual connect writers with readers (as opposed to ship books to retailers...) The necessary change will be radical, and I thought I should embody that radical change personally!

Currently, what are the projects you plan on pursuing?

In the very short run, lots of consulting and freelancing, as much as possible with , since I am resigning amidst the worst economic downturn in living memory! I don't expect to work solely on my own indefinitely though. I expect wherever I will draw a salary from in 2010 will be a company that didn't exist, or barely existed, in 2008. I also know I'll continue to consult, though, as I want to be as helpful as possible in helping put together the new business models that will allow us to connect writers and readers better than ever before.

With all the experience you've accumulated, what are some of the things that you've learned working as Soft Skull's publisher?

How much I don't [yet] know!! Seriously, I learned that I publish books in order to find out why I published them. Because it wasn't until they were out in the world that I could really understand what they meant. My entire time in publishing was one of significant change—one tweet reporting my departure suggested that it represented the beginning of the end of the first post-Internet period of independent publishing. A bit of an exaggeration obviously but also points to a truth, that I've been contending with significant change from the get-go.

How did you first get involved with the independent publishing scene?

My predecessor at Soft Skull, Sander Hicks, was a playwright also, and I was a theatre director—I directed his plays, and that working relationship bled over into his publishing work. When he took a leave of absence, I offered to help out, and I just fell in love with indie publishing.

What is it's current state now?

Very tough times in the short run, because of how much pressure retailers and wholesalers are putting on publishers. The supply chain is constricting, and the publishers have to absorb all the inventory risk. And independents just don't have the capital...

In your opinion, what steps should publishers take to adapt to all the changes that's happening, everything from eBooks to Amazon to the economy?

Listen to your readers. If you do that, all else will follow. (They will tell you they want great writers, and that you should take care of them, but listen first to the readers—your writers rely on you to do that for them...)

What are the books or who are the authors that currently excite you?

Michael Muhammad Knight, born white Catholic, now a convert to Islam, who is embarked on no less a project that to understand the making of Americans. Immensely ambitious. Zachary Mexico, who will be in the Philippines shortly, who has written a book on the Chinese underground and in so doing has begun the process of helping Westerners grasp who China is going through a lot of the same stuff Europe and North American went through in the 19th & 20th centuries, just much bloody faster! Martin Millar, of course, through whose books I first came to your blog—we've two more reissues this year, and two more next year...

What was the biggest challenge in running a company like Soft Skull?

Cash flow cash flow cash flow. Boring answer I know, but its the truth. And the new business models will need to address that. The new models will have to be much more sustainable, and allow publishers to operate with much lower working capital needs. (Because the emotional pressure of poor working capital/poor cash flow? Is intense. Involves retching with anxiety.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Be part of your community, whatever it is.

Advice for aspiring publishers?

The same! Books are a conversation.

Anything else you want to plug?

David Ohle and Paul Fattaruso. Two writers I tried and failed to break out. Both minor geniuses (and when I say "minor," I consider Beaudelaire to be a "minor" genius.) David's books are Motorman, The Age of Sinatra, and The Pisstown Chaos. Paul's book with us was Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf. Just gorgeous rich reading experiences. Books you'll remember for the rest of your life.

Monday, June 22, 2009

June 22, 2009 Links and Plugs

Ended up working 60+ hours last week for the day job. Oh, and I lost my flash drive, with all my documents and eARCs in the process (I have them backed up but in the unlikely event that they get pirated...). Them flash drives need a self-destruct mechanism.

Oh, and here's a relatively old essay from Vikram Chandra entitled "The Cult of Authenticity" which is apt for most countries (including the Philippines) that uses English. The local literature scene is making the same arguments against texts written in English, at how they're less Filipino because of it.

Here's your zen photo for the day, courtesy of Megan Kurashige:

Sweet Macapuno Strings: Gelatinous Mutant Coconut

P.S. Check out Yvette Tan's book cover.

It's out!
Clockwork Phoenix 2 edited by Mike Allen

Book/Magazine Review: Booklife: Strategies & Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

Perhaps the first question that needs to be addressed is what exactly is Booklife? It's not a guide on how to write fiction (although there will be snippets and sections that address that) nor is it simply a book on how to promote yourself (again, there will also be sections that cover that part). Rather, it's a book that takes a more holistic approach on what it is to be a writer, from the creative process to the less-glamorous but practical concerns of getting yourself out there. Who is the target audience? Writers (and aspiring writers) but anyone who's interested in the publishing industry--or even just old/new media--should find this an insightful read as there are many lessons that are applicable to various occupations although of course, the ones to get the most mileage here are fiction (and not just genre) writers in North America.

In many ways, you can ask for no better author than Jeff VanderMeer to tackle this subject matter. Granted he's not as financially successful as authors like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but I'd imagine that if they had written this book, it wouldn't be as multifaceted or diverse. What VanderMeer brings to the table is his vast experience across various mediums (comics, videos, editing, etc.) and blurring of genre lines (Literary, New Weird, fantasy, media tie-ins, etc.) and resources as other people contribute to the book, most notably on topics they are better qualified to discuss.

The book is divided into three parts: Public Booklife which tackles subjects like promotion, branding and your public persona; Private Booklife which talks more about renewing your creativity, how to react to criticism/rejection, and strategies/tactics on the writing itself; and the Appendices which is more valuable than it sounds as it features interviews, articles related to publishing and writing, and actual samples of a PR plan. This neat division organizes the book's content and sets expectations from the beginning.

When it comes to the content, VanderMeer's writing is concise and brief. Each subject matter is tackled in a set amount of length as to neither overwhelm nor intimidate, at the same time conveying enough information to discuss his points. The author includes personal anecdotes, quotes from books, and the perspective of other authors, even when they might be contradicting himself. When it comes to less flattering examples, VanderMeer keeps the identities of the parties involved anonymous.

One thing I've observed with VanderMeer's writing is that he's not condescending to his readers. On one hand, this ensures that the book wastes little time on unnecessary explanations. On the other hand, this can lead to some confusion, especially when it comes to specific terminologies. One part I got confused is vertical vs. horizontal movement (I don't know what vertical/horizontal movement entails), but there were clues in the context. It also doesn't hurt to be familiar with some of VanderMeer's work as specific examples are enriched by the reader's awareness of the minutae, but a lot of the references work irregardless of what genre you're writing for.

As someone who's been observing VanderMeer's activities for the past year or so, reading Booklife provides another layer of insight. There were sections where I thought "Hey, that was part of a blog entry I read. I never thought it would be part of the book." Other times, the text provides insight into the author's blogging habits and online persona as VanderMeer is living his own advice (or at least trying to) which makes his practice the bext example you could ever ask for.

What's appealing to me is the practical aspects of the book, whether it's advice on how to write a novel in two months, or the inclusion of the PR Plan for VanderMeer's upcoming novel, Finch. We're also in a transition period between old media and new media, and VanderMeer straddles both worlds, giving each its due credit and how authors can leverage them. As a whole, Booklife covers a niche that's otherwise unavailable in other books for writers, and features advice that writers of any level will find useful.

Book/Magazine Review: We Think, Therefore We Are edited by Peter Crowther

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

We Think, Therefore We Are is an anthology on artificial intelligence. A good chunk of the stories cover the typical interpretation of the term (i.e. robots), while others stretch the definition of the concept. Personally, it's interesting to see homages to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics (which was the case in "The Highway Code" by Brian Stableford and "Dragon King of the Eastern Sea" by Chris Roberson) but for the most part, this was a ho-hum book that contains a lot of competently written stories sprinkled with the occasional stand-out piece.

We Think, Therefore We Are opens with a brief but insightful history on artificial intelligence from Paul McAuley. It's a bit outdated--a lot of innovations actually occurred in between the time of the introduction's writing and the actual publication date--but it's a good primer on the subject matter.

When it comes to the fiction selection, I felt most of them were mediocre. There's nothing wrong with their writing, mind you, but they fail to make a strong impression, the type that might challenge its way into a "best of" collection. Which doesn't make this a bad book, but it does impede it from being a priority in anyone's reading list. Still, there are exceptions to the rule, and here are some noteworthy stories:

"The Kamikaze Code" by James Lovegrove is honestly a guilty pleasure as it starts with a plight that fiction writers are aware of. This is actually one of those concept stories with a unified premise and of all the stories in this anthology, I can easily imagine this fitting another theme. Having said that, what makes "The Kamikaze Code" an interesting read for the more common reader is Lovegrove's tone and pace as he delivers a quick narrative using broad-strokes characterization and humor. Admittedly, I found the resolution to be unnecessary (a bit too complex than it needs to be) if you think too much about it but hey, it was a fun read.

"The New Cyberiad" by Paul Di Filippo is a lengthy but funny read as the author includes hijinx of all sorts. On the surface level, it meets the criteria of the anthology as its two main protagonists are robots. The dynamic between the main characters are enjoyable in the Perfect Strangers sort of way and for most readers, that's enough. If you dig deeper though, Di Filippo is quite clever as he references a lot of SF tropes and subverts (i.e. make fun of) them.

"Sweats" by Keith Brooke is one of those stories that immediately strike me as a story appealing to the core SF crowd, the ones looking for a plotty and conceptual story. If that's what you're looking for, "Sweats" delivers and this is the type of fiction that takes the anthology's theme to the next level. The narrative carries with it a certain bravado appropriate for its atmosphere and thankfully veers away from the direction I thought it was headed (the story starts out like a reject from the Stephen Baldwin movie Xchange).

Overall We Think, Therefore We Are isn't bad, and to its credit, has its fair share of gems.

Book/Magazine Review: The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

As a snobbish reader, I have this bias against people successful in other fields who try their hand at writing. Case in point: when I initially saw The Strain at the bookstore, I missed Chuck Hogan's name and thought it was solely a Guillermo Del Toro novel: probably not for me. But listening to Rick Kleffel's interview with del Toro made me reassess my opinion as the latter understands the strengths and limitations of prose.

I must admit, The Strain is very compelling. del Toro and Hogan know how to play up the suspense, making each moment of the book mysterious and new--a commendable feat considering the thousands of novels on vampires. While the new interpretation of vampires might interest science fiction fans--the authors create a believable physiology for the creatures--the real strength of the book is how the authors have a handle on the pacing. There's a lot of shifting point of views, not in the lengthy method George R. R. Martin does in his A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but snippets more akin to trailers: there's enough to tease and give us an appraisal of the situation, but they're short and direct.

Using short, alternating point of views can be tricky but the authors know how to utilize them to maximum effect and without the reader feeling cheated. On one hand, you have scenes where the POV character dies. On the other, you have these colorful characters that are fleshed out and, at the very least, interesting if not sympathetic. And that's really the heart of it. Sure, this is a popcorn novel that's action-packed and not as deep as a James Joyce book, but the characters are complex and very human. The protagonists come alive in the same way Ripley redeems the Alien movies. Add a dose of telling details and voila, you have a winning package.

The Strain is a satisfying read that can't be put down. Del Toro and Hogan are masters of suspense, prose or otherwise, that perpetually makes you wonder what happens next.

Friday, June 19, 2009

June 19, 2009 Links and Plugs

It's a six-day work week for me, and won't be getting much sleep or recreation on Saturday. Another of those 12-hour concerts.

Take it from me, reviewed this book last year and it's great.