Aug 25

Mustangs

I’ve never owned a Mustang, but the car keeps showing up in my life.

An old flame owned one.  She also owned–at the same time, mind you–an Austin-Healy Mark 3000.  She used the Mustang for road trips but still, having a choice of sweet cars to take anywhere was doubly impressive to me; then again I was only 27.

My ex-wife bought a second car also, a (cherry) maroon Mustang, not long after the divorce.  I assumed that was some kind of ’cause and effect’, though she rarely drove the car, keeping it under wraps in her carport.  (My vehicular response to that turning point in my life was more practical  though I also bought a used Ford–a Taurus station wagon).

And back in 9th grade, my English teacher had each kid in the class write an advertising slogan–I don’t remember the context of the assignment.  My slogan–you guessed it–was one for the Mustang, which I thought was a cool car:

DON’T BE CORRALLED. GET A MUSTANG.

MUSTANG FOR ’65

Now there’s another Mustang in my life.

It’s on the cover of my latest  suspense novel, Two Graves for Michael Furey.  You can’t see much of it besides the red color but it’s there all right, behind the glare of the headlights.

This red Mustang has more than a bit part in the novel.  The car first  appears when Michael Furey is still getting around on a bicycle, sets his sights on buying a wealthy neighbor’s used but cherry Mustang, makes a deal with the owner and begins saving up for it.

Well, seeing as how this is a suspense novel…things happen that you wouldn’t find in a book on a 9th grade reading list.

Speaking of which, the seed for the idea for Two Graves for Michael Furey came when I reread a story you’ll find on many college freshman reading lists.  You English majors out there might recognize the name–Michael Furey–from that particular story.  They even made a movie.  If I remember correctly, Gabriel Byrne was in it, but he’s way too old now to be in the film they’ll make of my novel–hey, you can always dream.  Don’t  be corralled, right?

Okay, one more hint about who wrote that famous story:  he wrote books that were banned; always a fine way to get people to read them.  The guy lived in a time when they did that sort of thing, unlike today.  Mostly.  Which is too bad. Writers these days need all the help they can get to raise their visibility, especially if a…certain suspense novel isn’t one that James Patterson, David Baldacci or Brad Thor would have written.

Anyway, that slogan that I–excuse me, that Michael Furey–thought of?  It’s in the book, of course.  We’re talking about another road trip in Litlandia (my 6th), where anything goes; where mileage is always what you want it to be, and the highways invariably lead back to where you started, regardless of the direction you take.

Jun 20

Taken To The Cleaners

The linen jacket I wore to the college graduation of my son, Brian, got soaked in a memorable downpour that sent both graduates and proud parents scurrying for cover.  I left the jacket in my car afterwards, thinking I’d take it to the cleaners, but didn’t get around to doing that for a few days.  The proprietor told me he could press it but cleaning was another matter; linen that came in damp and rumpled like that couldn’t be effectively cleaned.  Do what you can for it, I told him.

That jacket and I have a history, and always about this time of the year.

Sometime in June sixteen years ago I bought it to go to New York to meet my editor and others at Dutton who had bought a suspense novel of mine, The Piper’s Sons.  If I felt like I was Little Red Riding Hood (in a tan jacket) going to meet the Wolf and his pack, I figured, hey–let’s look spiffy anyway.  I wasn’t the bad guy responsible for what happened; I just wrote the book that achieved notoriety in the media–Publisher’s Weekly and Entertainment Weekly (Uma Thurman was on the cover): “The [literary] auction that never was.”

I’d gotten an agent out of Portland, Oregon, the only one of over fifty I queried who wanted the book.  She loved it.  Because the novel was generating lots of buzz in New York she decided to hold an auction for it.  We declined Dutton’s preempt offer of $250,000.  She suggested I get a fax machine because things would be happening real fast on the appointed day:  five publishing houses had thrown their hats in the ring for the auction.  I was already thinking about which new car I’d get to replace my Nissan Sentra with the bashed-in hood.

Next thing I knew my agent said Dutton had offered $500,000 for The Piper’s Sons.  She faxed me the deal memo.  For two days, wherever I went, I’d suddenly break out in I-can’t-believe-it laughter.  I planned to give my notice at the restaurant I was working at.

Then the earthquake hit–one that blew out my personal seismic meter even more than my divorce months earlier:  there had been no auction.  All five publishers mysteriously withdrew hours before the kick-off.  But my agent, trying to salvage the debacle, told Dutton the AWOL five had made offers.  She didn’t tell me, however, the full scope of her shenanigans, only that she’d pulled a rabbit out of the hat.  Dutton withdrew the offer of $500,000 once it found out there hadn’t been an auction.

My agent suspected collusion–with Dutton the ringleader–to drastically lower the price for the book to one they wanted to pay, having been miffed at the preempt refusal.  But it’s hard to prove collusion–and who had the money to try–especially after the agent has been an idiot.  Even one from Portland should have known that in New York publishing circles everyone knows everyone else’s business.   She was subsequently kicked out of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR).

Dutton reconsidered, offered me a lot less than their preempt, and since no one else now wanted the book…

I kept on waiting tables, bought a linen jacket and found a little consolation in what Ed Stackler, a well-respected, free-lance editor, later wrote to me:  “The Piper’s Sons is worth every penny of $500,000.”

So you might understand why I toyed with the idea of not bothering to go back to the cleaners to retrieve  my linen jacket, save myself the twelve bucks.  These days I rarely need to look spiffy.  There’s certainly no more occasions to meet New York editors–or agents. (I’m done with those gatekeepers.  The Piper’s Sons will be coming out this summer as a indie e-book).  Sure, the jacket’s great in hot, sunny weather but there’s not enough of that in Seattle, and the thing’s lousy in the rain, and gets wrinkled easily if you leave it on the back seat of your car.

Three weeks passed before I finally went back to the cleaners to pick up the pressed jacket.  You really can’t tell it wasn’t cleaned, couldn’t be.  I figure I’ll wear it one last time.  There’s another college graduation next year in the Midwest–my niece’s.

No doubt it will be sunny in Indiana–but you never know.

May 21

Dirty Words

Luck: Why is this a dirty word?  Because anything you need so much and get so rarely deserves to be cursed.**

Timing:  Luck’s shitheel of a cousinSure, Ian Fleming’s and Tom Clancy’s careers were boosted big-time by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan respectively.  But most writers tend to get the equivalent of the reading habit of George Bush–at least I think he had one.

**Deserve:   With the above exception, this  word is so worthless it ought to be expunged from the dictionary.  Just because you wrote a book doesn’t mean recognition and reward is a gimme–which applies to most everything else, too.

Expectation:  See above.  But it’s not a dirty word if, as Lao Tzu recommends, you act without it.

Agent:  Rare is the writer who’s had an agent or two and NOT used a lot of other dirty words to describe them.

Gatekeepers:  A fancy dirty word for agents and acquiring editors who like to claim they act as literary levees, the last defense against the surging flood waters of the River Dreck–when in fact they don’t give a rat’s ass about how well a book is written.  I understand these putzes have mortgages to pay off, but it would be refreshing if they just admitted they were in it to make money as easily as possible, just like the rest of us.

Percentage:  Not as filthy as it used to be, thanks to Amazon’s 70 per cent royalty rate for its Goldilocks zone of price points.  But still damn dirty–as in the percentage of novelists who make their living at writing, whether they’re indie or traditionally published.  Or the percentage of writers agents take on as clients.  Or the percentage of writers Big 5 publishers actually promote.  I still have wistful memories of my last, best percentile:  Reading Comprehension freshman year in high school.

Productivity:  A personal favorite.  Why waste a good word on something you suck at?  Russell Blake doesn’t, just to give one example of steroidal productivity.  Evidently, this author works 14 hours a day and produces 3-4 tough guy thrillers a year, and seems like the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with–if he ever had the time.  Which brings us to another favorite…

Social Networking:  I once went to a workshop on marketing for indie writers.  The featured speaker was doing quite well financially with her books.  I asked what it took her to get there; how many hours every day she spent promoting her books as opposed to actually writing.  The ratio?  7-1.   Now, most writers probably feel like they’re stranded on a deserted island, waving frantically at the distant passing ship, the S.S Readership.  Most writers feel they should do more to spread their gospel, round up that posse, besides just, well, writing.  Which brings us to…

Should:  Elsewhere in life, of course, this word often doesn’t qualify as dirty, even when guilt isn’t the context.  But here, should is dirty enough because it implies doing something I really don’t want to do, even if I could–such a write 14 hours a day, or spend 7 hours of them social networking.  Or:  if you also want to make bank, you should try writing the kind of novels that are currently popular or have a sweet demographic, such as Romance, YA, paranormal, post-apoc, a rip-off of a previous best-seller, or any combination of these.     Naaah.  I’ll stick to my psychological suspense and dark, gritty fantasy…and leave the ninja assassins, co-ed FBI teams, faerie queens, magic and steampunk for others to write about.

My posse of readers may be small but I couldn’t ride without them.

 

 

Apr 17

Got…META?

Thrown a best-seller across the room lately, too disgusted to even finish the book?  Or maybe you did and the best thing you can say about the stinker is that you got it from the library. What crappy writing!  Over-plotted, characters suck, lousy ending…and that deus ex machine halfway through?  Gimme a break.

Say you loved the next novel you read but are puzzled because it seemed somehow more than the sum of its parts.

What can explain a book’s success when all else fails to do so?

Let’s call it…META:  the appeal of a novel beyond its technical quality–or lack thereof.

Now, if you’re a writer convinced that the best-seller you just tossed is a lot worse than your most recent and less-than-successful novel, forget trying to formulate some literary equation or take a workshop to get it.   A book either has META or doesn’t.  A novelist’s first effort–or last–may have it and none of the others.  I suppose timing, luck, and cultural currents can play a part.  But mostly it’s a kind of charisma.

META can be found across the literary spectrum.  A few random examples…

Lee Child’s ‘Jack Reacher’ books have it.  Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has it.    Seen the movies?

Child can’t write for beans but he gives us an uber-competent, Lone Ranger hero guys want to be like, and women want to screw for a glorious weekend they’ll never forget, especially after the move to the suburbs.  Gone Girl offers a woman’s ultimate ‘revenge’ fantasy for every man who dumped her, cheated on her or was otherwise a shitheel.  Who cares if the novel is, as Flynn herself admits, over-plotted, with dueling unreliable first-person narrators, laughable implausibilities and ends with the worst?

Game of Thrones has it.  A lot of people love ringside seats for celebrity viewing, whether it’s the fantasy equivalent of the ‘noble’ 1 per cent, or guys and dolls in Hollywood and Buckingham Palace.

Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption has got major META, and for my money is pretty close to the perfect story.  Who on this earth doesn’t like a story about a decent, innocent man–or at least one who’s paid his dues in prison–pulling a fast-one on assholes and making sure his good buddy is with him at the end of the caper.

Hunger Games?  Duh.  What female between 12 and 20 can resist a story about a beautiful heroine who not only kicks ass but also has two hunks in love with her at the same time?  Never mind that the series gives us a post-apocalypse setting (very popular these days) that makes no sense whatsoever.

Gladiator (okay, no book but I did choke up at the end of the movie), Cold Mountain and The Odyssey have it:  they’re about guys who just wanted to go home.  Who cannot identify strongly with that a few times in their life, if not daily at about 4 p.m.  (Speaking of classics, surely Casablanca is near the top of a list for META movies).

Of course, META can’t always explain the success of a book.  William Landay’s Finding Jacob was a surprise best-seller.  I waited four months for my library copy and…there was no appealing character  in it.  Jacob was a teen killer; his mom and dad the ultimate Little League parents.  Others that don’t have it?  I made the mistake of attempting Middlemarch again, forgetting  it is a darling of college English professors who tend to favor a book in direct proportion to how difficult it is to read.  So George Eliot’s snoozer is probably not a fair example of a META-less novel.  ‘Papa’ Hemingway had a personal charisma (fishing off Cuba, Paris in the Twenties, bullfights in Spain); not so much his novels–for me, anyway.  Dickens was more the opposite.  Melville had neither, but Ahab carried the day in Moby Dick.  I suspect most of us are fascinated by obsessive-compulsives as long as we don’t have to live or work with them.  If there were PB& J sandwiches back in the 19th century, and Ahab liked them as much as Breaking Bad’s Walter White, he’d no doubt neatly cut off the crusts, too.

And my books?

Hey, I’m just hoping none of them ever gets thrown across the room for whatever reason.

Feb 21

Pass on the Cup of Dreams

 

Pass on the Cup of Dreams, the third novel in the Six Kingdoms series, is now out in e-book format and print.  And it has a sidekick:  the first edition of the 55-page Six Kingdoms Codex which contains a new, introductory story plus a glossary and backround to this world of dark fantasy.  You can download it for free from my website, www.brucefergusson.com.

It’s a thank-you to once and future readers who’ve already met or will meet Lukan Barra and Rui Ravenstone; Falca Breks and Amala Damarr; Shar Stakeen and Timberlimbs named Gurrus and Styada.  And Vearus Barra, Saphrax and Lambrey Tallon–nasty fellows who have chips on their shoulders the size of the Colossus of Roak in Lucidor’s capitol city of Draica.

And thanks as well to the folks at Lucky Bat Books–Jeff Posey, Judith Harlan and Louisa Swann–who have helped guide me into another world, that of indie publishing. I am indeed lucky to have found these knowledgeable, warm and responsive professionals.

Pass on the Cup of Dreams represents my return to the Six Kingdoms after a long exile.  The novel picks up the story of Falca and Amala where it ended in The Mace of Souls.  The events occur some years after those in the first book, The Shadow of His Wings; a long enough time for Lukan and Rui’s granddaughter to make a crucial appearance in a place far from her home in Myrcia.   It’s a long way from the gritty, port city of Draica to the Lake of Shallan and its sacred Isle, especially for Amala and a city-bred ditchlicker like Falca, for whom a throne would be a game only if he could steal it, not merely connive to ascend it.  Which, come to think of it…

Those two…such a vaunty pair of lovers, as they say in the Six Kingdoms.  She’s saved his life in one way; he’s saved hers in quite another.  You’ll have to read The Mace of Souls to find out how.   As for their current adventures, Falca might tell you to be careful about what you put in your cup of dreams.    So would Amala.

He’d certainly tell you to watch your step as you walk along the roads the Timberlimbs built between their villages high in the canopy of the Rough Bounds forest wilderness.  It’s a long way down.  He’d tell you to look sharp around the monumental trees there: wild bloodsnares lurk in deep fissures of the bark and can spring out to a surprisingly long distance.  It’s the tentacles, understand.  For that matter, you probably don’t want to play the things, like the bloodsnare consorts do in dens of the cities, to produce an audible narcotic–unless you desire to live fast, live large and die before you’re thirty.  But hey, it’s an option.

Prowling flenx may only be the size of large dogs, but by the time you hear them clicking their head-horns with their claws it’s too late to distract them with treats–though Shar Stakeen and Lambrey Tallon find a grisly solution to the voraciousness of flenx.

And those white rancers?  Only Maldan Hoster would keep one as a pet.

Anyway, that’s only a few of the dangerous critters.  The ones to REALLY watch out for walk on two legs.  Some of them are called Wardens and shaddens.  They happen to be pursuing you for various  reasons and those don’t concern your health and happiness–but of course you don’t know it, until…well…

So enjoy Pass on the Cup of Dreams!

As for the next book in the series, Kraken’s Claw, you’ll have to wait a bit to find out what the High Fates at their Loom Eternal (often cursed; less often thanked in the Six Kingdoms) have in store for some of the friends and foes I’ve mentioned.  Seeing as how the Fates travel every day from their world to mine, they’ve given me their wish-lists.  I do my best to accommodate them.

Mostly.

Jan 17

The New Year’s Day Massacre

We were given only two days’ notice for an all-staff meeting at 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day.  On the busy Eve, in waiters’ stations and at pass-windows, everyone had their take on this mysterious and heartlessly-timed gathering.

Ten hours into the new year we walked into the restaurant–to tables devoid of place-settings, to stacks of packing boxes, to grim managers.

Insurmountable problems with renewing the lease, we were told; a landlord unwilling to pony up any money for a much-needed renovation.  Almost thirty years at its prime downtown Seattle location had taken a toll on the art-deco fixtures and all that mahogany, never mind the moose-head that had never been cleaned.  The waiter who moonlighted as a tattoo artist and had stuffed animals’ heads on the walls of his apartment asked, unsuccessfully, if he could have it.  Maybe our corporate bosses wanted it for the lobby of their headquarters in Texas; who knows.

Call it a requiem or wake–we had one a few days later at an Irish tavern a block away from the darkened restaurant.  Ex-employees–foxhole buddies from long ago–showed up in surprising numbers to commiserate about what happened, why, and who’s going  do what next.  I even sold a book to a cocktail hostess who loves George R. R. Martin’s.  A sympathy-sale?  I’ll take it. Maybe she’ll love my latest and spread the word, and I might never again have to tie a bistro apron around my waist.

For over two decades I wrote by day and worked as a waiter by night–that ‘other’ job most writers need to pay bills.  Undoubtedly, I’m the only graduate of Wesleyan University who’s ever worked at a restaurant for longer than six months, and that includes everyone who majored, like me, in English.

Waiting tables is a social gig, an effective antidote to the literary one, where you’re stuck in a room all by yourself, your only companion being what’s in your head.  The restaurant also allowed me to prioritize what I REALLY wanted to do and had since I was a kid.  Many writers teach, of course, for their other job.  But that’s one you can’t fake; too much at stake in the classroom.  In the restaurant, well, if you serve the wrong dessert, or mistakenly tell a guest her meal comes with orzo instead of mashed potatoes, that’s unfortunate–sorry about that–but you’re not going to lose much sleep over it.

Some writers can rise at 5 a.m. to get in a couple hours at the keyboard before moving on to their nine-to-fiver, but I’m not one of them.  It’s even worse if your other job is similar to writing.  I’m privy to only so many words in any single day, and after that I’m squozed out (like the bar rag).  I discovered this when I was a newspaper reporter.  After a day of writing stories about others I had little left over for mine.

Still, I doubt many people have understood my reasons for spurning a ‘real’ job, the demands of which can suck the life out of any dream if you’re not careful (unless, of course, a ‘real’ job IS your dream).  But I don’t lose any sleep over this, either.

See, I’ve been saving up a lot of words to write about all those years thinking the halibut came with orzo instead of mashed potatoes; and marveling how the salads looked better when the pantry guy was high; and marveling, too, at the restraint one waiter showed when he was head-butted by a drunken Seahawks fan; and trying unsuccessfully to imagine Mr. and Mrs. Clark–regulars who seemed to believe menus were irrelevant–having sex in any position.

It may or may not be a novel, but if it is, consider it served with a side of The Caine Mutiny, garnished with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  There are any number of candidates for equivalent starring roles such as Captain Queeg’s (he of the missing strawberries), and Nurse Ratched’s.  My own?  I’m leaning toward reprising McMurphy, Nurse Ratched’s bête-noir from Cuckoo’s Nest.  Only this time I get to walk out of the asylum with the Chief.

And now that I’m off the U.S.S. Caine–which never was renovated either–I can safely say I know who stole the strawberries.

Hint:  he was at the restaurant’s wake, and he was a waiter for a longer time than I.

Nov 20

How do you know when it’s love?

So it’s finally done, Pass on the Cup of Dreams, the third novel in the Six Kingdoms series, which will be published in early December in e-format and as a POD book by the wonderful folks at Lucky Bat.  Or about the same time my new lucky beard will stop scratching.  As a boyhood fan of the Red Sox (I was at Ted Williams’ last game at Fenway, I swear) I now figure their 2013 Team Amish beards certainly had a part in helping them win the World Series, so maybe one would help with the launch of my longest novel to date.

The beard had nothing to do with the two-month hiatus from the Muselair.  No, the culprit was the additional proofing and line-editing of the 160K word manuscript of Pass on the Cup of Dreams.  I’d thought I was done with squinting for typos.  Which isn’t the same thing as knowing when a book’s finished.  Cleaning up clunky sentences and correcting mistakes isn’t the same as knowing when this character needs more flesh on her bones, or less on his; or that the narrative gets bogged down here, then there; or that the ending sucks–you get the idea.

Gatekeepers of traditional publishing might think that the march of indie publishing has a precedent with Sherman’s as he burned and pillaged his way to the Atlantic during the Civil War.   For a writer, indie publishing has many advantages, but with the whoopee comes the temptation to hustle a book out as fast as you can.

‘Good enough’ is the operative excuse for some otherwise staunch and worthy indie advocates, and one that occasionally comes with a strawman scolding of writers whom they believe regard a book not as a commodity but something precious, a mirror of words to reflect their obvious genius and uniqueness–the Snowflake Syndrome.  Production line writing has its benefits, sure.  The more books you have out there, the fatter your wallet will be.  That’s probably true.  And anyway, quality can be subjective and often goes unrecognized and unrewarded.  Roger that.

Still, a writer has to decide whether he or she wants truckloads of ‘good enough’ books on the market, or fewer books that might keep a reader thinking about the last one a wee bit longer after she’s finished it.  For me, that’s closer to the reason why I write, though I’d love to pay more bills with telling stories.  My hat’s off to those who can produce terrific books in rapid succession.

The key here is busting your butt crafting the thing–not in pursuit of unattainable perfection, but excellence.  If you’ve done that and still wind up with a ‘good enough’ book in the eyes of readers, then so be it.  You’ve done your job the best you can.

Which brings us to:  how do you know where the finish line is?  We’re not talking about spelling mistakes.  How polished does the diamond have to be?

How do you know when it’s love?

In a way, learning to write well is learning to answer this question for yourself.  Beta readers can help if you’re sure you can trust their objectivity.  A content editor, too.  But expert ones are hard to find.  So it’s a good idea to develop your own ability to see if something isn’t working, and why–so you can better judge the merits of others’ solutions to a problem if need be.

After I’ve completed the first of what are usually three or four drafts, I set it aside for a while, then go back and assess.  For me, these are important questions to answer:  does every chapter advance the plot, and/or character development, and ratchet up tension?  Is the beginning far enough along the narrative line; the ending a natural consequence of what’s transpired?  These  are a book’s studs and rafters.   I focus later on other things, such as honing dialogue and making sure description is active and not passive.

What you’ve done has to ‘ping’, and the ability to ‘hear’ that takes time to develop.  Then you have to move on, let it go.  If you have trouble doing that, you’d best give yourself a date when you send your book off to be published.

Call it a graduation date.  Kind of like having kids.  You don’t get to work them over and over until they’re perfect.  After they graduate from high school they’re on their own.

 

Aug 20

World-building

I’ve spent this summer vacationing in the Six Kingdoms.

Let others have their Nantucket, Yellowstone and Saratoga.  I’ve been where kraken rule the seas and Erseiyrs the skies; where whitewash still brightens the walls of magnificent castles; and where you can walk along timbered roads–don’t look down!–that link villages built high in the canopy of forest wilderness.  As for city nightlife, those bloodsnare dens are a kick:  pale musicians playing live, parasitic  creatures like some Scot does the bagpipes–only these Six Kingdoms’ rock stars  don’t live much longer than Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison did.

The vacation was a working vacation, so I went AWOL to Whidbey Island (northwest of Seattle) for five days, with my wife and our year-old dog Olivia.  Lots of beach walks and reading.  No writing, but the book I brought with me, Under the Dome, did remind me of the editing for Pass on the Cup of Dreams that I’d left behind.  Stephen King could have cut out as many pages of his book as mine is long and not missed a beat.

We saw a lot of eagles and rabbits on Whidbey, a further reminder that a good story has to have both (figuratively speaking) in proximity to each other, the closer the better.

Eagle:  Ah, rabbit tenders!  I’m sick of fish.

Bunny:  Uh, oh…

Anyway, back home to Edmonds to finish up the editing for Pass on the Cup of Dreams.  I managed to cut 8,000 words.  The novel, by the way, will be coming out sometime in October.  I’m sure you’ll let me know if I should have found more words to purge.

Editing isn’t nearly as much fun as world-building–one of the delights of writing fiction–whether you’re detailing a place that still exists, imagining one that once did, or never will.  Fantasy is especially pleasurable:  you get to pick and choose your groceries from a supermarket of history and imagination; the only constraints–besides removing the labels–being a reasonable plausibility and consistency.  Yes, those are still necessary even in the ‘what-if’ genres.

The late Richard Matheson (I Am Legend; Twilight Zone episodes and other memorable work) had a favorite quote he kept over his desk:  THAT WHICH YOU THINK BECOMES YOUR WORLD.  He was referring, of course, to his own imagination, which produced some wonderfully unsettling and provocative fiction.  But there’s also probably a cautionary message for the rest of us, and not just writers.

Because everyone builds worlds.  We do it every minute of every hour, dreams included.  Always have.

Somewhere, at some time, someone thought that fire, or a sharpened stone fastened to the end of a stick, could be useful in…several ways.  Or had the thought that there might be a world after death; and if so, wouldn’t the departed want the things that had pleased him or her, gave him status in the one he’d left?  And this:  let’s build a monumental tomb so people will always remember what a terrific and powerful guy he was!   But what if someone deserved no carry-on luggage; in fact had been truly awful?  Here’s a thought:  why not build an after-world where the son-of-a-bitch will damn well get his for what he’s done?

Back to Richard Matheson’s quote, and the hint that our thoughts never remain wholly private.  After all, the steps from the brain to the entrance of the cave are not many.

And  too often we read headlines about worlds of hurt that were built as surely as those of War and Peace, the Statue of Liberty and the Constitution.

We couldn’t have the Pyramids without Sandy Hook–which neither lessens the wonder of one nor the horror of the other.

They just are:  worlds built from the scaffolding of thought.

May 20

Blue Peter

Remember that aptitude test we took early on in high school to find out what we’re good at?  Maybe the test was a help for some, but by then I had a pretty good idea of the direction I was going because of the crocodile behind the sofa.

Years before, my parents surely had no idea that letting their very young  son see Peter Pan would unleash a lurking aptitude.  Seeing Captain Hook’s terror at the lurking crocodile that had long since digested his hand but not the alarm clock–tick-tock, tick-tock–sealed my fate.  I became convinced there was a crocodile behind the sofa near the front door to our house, so I’d take a safer route to go outside and play.  This soon exasperated my father–a WW II Marine veteran of Okinawa–who had to be worried his son was going to grow up to be a scaredy-cat.  One evening he decided enough was enough, took the reptile by the tail and ceremoniously tossed it out the front door.

Problem solved–until I saw Invaders from Mars, in which the Martians implanted mind-control crystals  in the backs of peoples’ necks, part of their plan to conquer the world, one 50s suburb at a time.  Clever movie, billed as the ‘anti-Oz‘, because at the end you were supposed to wonder if it all had been a dream or really happened.  Well, it didn’t matter for me.  I became convinced, just as the boy in the movie did, that my parents had been taken over.  I wouldn’t let my mother come into my room to kiss me good night until she showed me the back of her neck.

By the time I was a teenager, my fascination with what once was, what might have been, what could be, extended well past the usual comic books to UFOs, Atlantis, King Arthur, castle ruins–pretty much anything that needed the propellent of imagination.   A family ‘roots’ vacation to the U.K. added octane to the fuel. (My older sister dumped us to go live in London and get a job in a Carnaby Street boutique, but that’s another story). We visited the old Norman church  where an ancestor had been a deacon–the same church and village mentioned in R.D. Blackmore’s classic Lorna Doone.  Nearby Stonehenge was a mid-summer gimme, so my father and I got up early on the solstice morning to watch the sun rise directly over the heelstone, a nifty trick for the supposedly dumb Neolithic guys who built the place without the help of ancient astronauts.

A BBC crew was already there, filming a kid’s show called Blue Peter–named after a small flag you raise on your boat, to signify that you’re leaving port–the outward bound thing.  There were lots of folks dressed up in white robes, Druidic costumes we were told.  Surely these Brits knew that the Druids had nothing to do with Stonehenge, but hey, a show’s a show, whether you’re in Hollywood or southern England–and we were Yanks getting in the way.  I pleaded to stay and so  my long-suffering father–I’m sure he would have preferred to go back to the George and Dragon Inn and get some sleep–managed to convince the director to let us remain hidden by a huge sarsen stone and watch the BBC Druids parade around the heelstone in a bizarre tribal war-dance as the camera rolled.

So what’s a kid supposed to do with an aptitude for feral imagining that convinces him there’s a crocodile behind the sofa?  Well, the least I could do was thank my father by adapting his inspired problem-solving for a scene in The Shadow of His Wings, the first novel in my Six Kingdoms fantasy series.  Next month, the second–The Mace of Souls–will be reissued as an e-book like the first, also with a new Joe Calkins’ cover.  And what else could the mace of the title be made of but crystal?  Heck, even Martians know that crystal is useful for other things besides setting a table with fancy glasses that ping when you thump them, or building a pyramid beneath the waters of the Caribbean.

The third, newest and longest novel in the series, Pass on the Cup of Dreams, is set for publication in October.  There’s no Stonehenge-like edifice in it–well, not exactly–but there is a double-headed axe some of the characters use. Back when you could actually stick around Stonehenge to watch a kid’s show being filmed, you could see a faint, carved impression of the iconic Mycenean (or Minoan) double-headed axe on one of the standing stones.  Those guys had once been there too, a long way from home, for the copper in the area, if not a solstice parade.

Apr 20

My 1000 acres on Mars

As if the recent Chelyabinsk meteor explosion wasn’t enough to give us a glimmer of the much larger event that wiped out the dinosaurs, now we have Stephen Hawking, the renowned astrophysicist, telling us recently that humans  won’t survive another 1000 years without escaping beyond our ‘fragile’ planet.  Or, as the prescient Tennyson urged in his 19th century poem “Ulysses”:  Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world.

I’d like to credit my parents for realizing this predicament many years ago when, in the clever guise of creative gift-giving, they gave me 1000 acres on Mars AND registered a star in the constellation Taurus to be henceforth known as Mooring, which was the name of the planet in my first novel.  No, really!  I’ve got the proof:  spiffy  paperwork, signatures, deeds, locations, the works.

The star used to be called Taurus BA 5h 31m, at 45sa 25′ 52″ (or something).  The International Star Registry promised that the new name was  registered permanently in its vault in Switzerland (where that novel, by the way, should be kept so no one will ever read it) and also recorded “in folio” at the Library of Congress.

The deed for Martian land comes via the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado, and my homestead is located at 15 degrees 06′ 20″ North and 134 degrees 26′ 42″ West.   And guess what?  That’s on Mons Olympus. Talk about view property!  The deed is signed by David A. Aguilar, Supreme Martian Land Executor.  Before you scoff at his title, just remember that he wouldn’t be the first real estate agent to sell property without having seen it.

Okay, I figure the star thing as a last resort.  It’s a star, after all, and you can’t live on one of those, not even a red dwarf that’s seen better eons.  But with the new name, I have my foot in the door for some sweet Earth-like planet orbiting around MY sun, a terra nova the Kepler probe is sure to find any day now.  Taurus isn’t THAT far by interstsellar standards from the constellation Lyra, where Kepler has just found the most earth-like planets yet discovered.

How to live long enough..to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, before the shit hits the fan? (the last part was mine, not Tennyson’s, just so you know).  I suppose my current 2-day a week fast diet won’t do the trick.  But there’s always freezing the ole bod.  I’m sure there’s some other vault in Switzerland that would accept mine, and I don’t see the Swiss losing their reputation for time-keeping, so they’ll know when to warm me up after we develop interstellar travel.  Actually, maybe I should wait on that, and have them load my six-foot ice cube onto the starship, since it’ll take a while to get to Taurus.

Anyway, we’re already working on designs for starships, with groups like Icarus Interstellar, a research organization dedicated to achieving interstellar flight by  2100.  There’s also the 100-year Starship Initiative, a non-governmental, independent project started with seed money from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Of course, Mars beckons a lot sooner and closer, though I hear it’s colder and drier than it once was, the atmosphere a little stingy.  Still, I already HAVE the land.  I’ve been closely following the latest probe, Curiosity, as it hunts for signs of water and life.  Because there’s a catch to my keeping 1000 acres of prime view property on Mons Olympus.  The deed specifically states that to have and hold the said property, I have to plant at least one tree on it–or the land claim will revert back to original ownership.

Right.

Signs of water–ancient floodplains and rivers–have been found on Mars.  If any remains, it would be great to melt it for drinking water and to sprinkle on the tree in its warm little bubble.  But I don’t have to worry about the tree.  Maybe the Supreme Martian Land Executor didn’t know it at the time when he thought he was pulling a fast one on my folks, but we do now:  the so-called ‘Face on Mars’ ain’t no Martian Sphinx.  If there WERE any Martians at one time, who breathed easily in a better atmosphere as they sipped on Martian cocktails, enjoying the view of distant lakes and rivers from my acres on ‘the Mons’, they’re long gone to somewhere else, perhaps at the urging of someone named Sar-el or Kefkhafu–their version of Stephen Hawking–who told them to get out while the getting was good.

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