Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2012

SFGate.com has already posted my list of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2011. So, what books  am I eagerly awaiting in the coming year? Here's a short list, a mix of crime and sff/horror:

1. Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett (January)
Small Beer Press seems to be pushing this one hard, and Jama-Everett is currently local to the Bay Area, so I'm intrigued. A mix of thriller, science fiction and superhero saga, the novel doesn't seem to lend itself to easy description.

2. The Chalk Girl by Carol O'Connell (January)
O'Connell's feral cop Mallory was kicking ass and taking names long before that girl with the dragon tattoo arrived. Glad she's coming back for further adventures after a brief hiatus in the series.

3. The Mirage by Matt Ruff (February)
Ruff's "Set This House in Order" is one of my favorite novels of psychological dissociation, and I like his "Bad Monkeys" quite a lot. His latest sounds mightily ambitious and is set in an alternate Middle East after Christian fundamentalists have flown jetliners into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad. Yikes.

4. The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett (February)
Bennett's "The Company Man" was my most pleasant surprise of 2011. I've described it as similar to an "X-Files" episode written by Clifford Odets. I can't wait to see what he's up to next.

5. Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (March)
Powers never fails to surprise and amuse. Details are unclear, but this new novel seems to be about vampires and painters in the mid-1800s. We'll see.

6. Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (March)
Harkaway's first novel, "The Gone-Away World," was smart and ambitious, but didn't seem to take off in the U.S. as I thought it might. Now he's back with a book about clockmakers, doomsday devices and superspies.

7. Point and Shoot by Duane Swierczynski (March)
The conclusion of Swierczynski's paperback-original Hollywood trilogy. Should be a blast.

8. Poison Flower by Thomas Perry (March)
Perrry is one of the most consistent crime writers in the business, and his Jane Whitefield novels are always good to great.

9. The Wind through the Keyhole by Stephen King (April)
Another chapter in the Dark Tower sequence, this time featuring a tale-within-a-tale. 

10. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009 by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (June-ish)
It's been a long time coming, but the concluding installment of the third series promises to be suitably apocalyptic. 

Monday, December 05, 2011

What I Learned from NaNoWriMo 2011

The big take-away: I SUCK at this.

That may sound unduly harsh, but it's the truth, so I might as well put it out there. And it's nothing to be ashamed of, I guess. It's just that I now have empirical data proving that I'm not the kind of writer who can extrude 50,000 words of fiction in a 30-day period. Especially not a 30-day period that includes: a cross-country family vacation; the preparation of college applications by a stressed-out offspring; a national holiday that encourages, nay, demands time away from the keyboard; three-and-a-half  work weeks filled with International Auto Show goodness; multiple freelance deadlines; a suddenly unpredictable water heater that mocked my limited do-it-yourself skills (it's fixed now); and assorted annoyances and distractions too penny-ante to mention here.

Not to mention the pre-Yuletide funk that arrives with the realization that another year is ending and that, no, you're not going to write that 50,000-word piece of fiction.

Ah, well. It was worth a shot. I did accomplish some useful outlining, fleshed out some characters in my mind, got a handle on the setting. And I did post some nifty writing-related and/or inspirational links that I and others found interesting. Here are most of them, all in one place.

Write a novel in three days, the Michael Moorcock way
Write a novel in two months
Paradigm shifts in publishing
Practical writing tips from 23 "brilliant" authors
Brutal tips for breaking into comics
How to be a sideshow talker
Carny Dog
The Cult of Done Manifesto
Cut your word-count by 10%
Try something new for 30 days
Adventures in self-publishing
Why should anybody care about your novel?
Kurt Vonnegut is told "No, thanks" for early Dresden article
Research a novel the Greg Rucka Way

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why I'm Participating in NaNoWriMo 2011

Being the cynical cuss that I am, I generally look askance at online group activities such as National Novel Writing Month. I mean, c'mon. Who honestly thinks they can write a publishable 50,000-word novel in 30 days? I'm not some precious urban hipster who has the time to don his pork pie hat and clear-lensed horn-rimmed glasses and spend the day noodling around on his Apple Air at the local Starbucks. I'm a writing professional, man!

But I've had a change of heart this year, and I've signed up for NaNoWriMo (*shudder*), as it's known. Why?

1. Whatever I produce will most likely not be 50,000 words long or a novel or publishable. And I'm cool with that.
I'm trying to get over worrying about what kind of writer I'm "supposed" to be and instead just explore what kind of writer I actually am. I know -- how Zen of me. But I can see the value of charging through a first draft, letting the proverbial chips fall where they may, not stressing about where I'm heading but going as far as I can as fast as I can. Even if I only complete 5,000 words, that's more than I've got right now.

And if I do succeed in finishing a real manuscript at some unspecified point in time and I'm sufficiently pleased with it to send it off into the world, it will be published, even if only on the Kindle or the iPad or whatever device the cool kids are using in the future.

2. NaNoWriMo has a better track record than I do.
Number of years NaNoWriMo has been in business = 12
Number of novels I've produced in the past 12 years = 0

3. I have a workable idea for a short book.
What I have in mind isn't particularly innovative or grandiose. But it's intriguing and unusual and fits within the parameters of existing marketing categories. It's not like I'm striving to one-up Nabokov's "Pale Fire" over four consecutive weekends. Gotta have perspective.

4. I want to have some fun.
 Remember what it was like to roll a fresh sheet of 20-pound stock into a vibrating electric typewriter and let your imagination run free while your stubby little sausage-fingers struggled to keep up, so intense was the outpouring of sprightly prose? Yeah, neither do I. But there have been plenty of times when I've enjoyed the creative process, from the grubby mechanics of grammar to the endorphin high of watching plot points snap together with a satisfying 'Snik!' And I want some more of that, please.

5. The world could use a novel entitled "Squidface."
Need I say more?

So there you go, boys and girls, my plan for the month of November. It's not perfect. The month is short already, Thanksgiving is in there somewhere and I've got a kid applying to colleges right now. Whee!

But each day, I'll endeavor to post on Twitter and Facebook links to sites that I'm finding particularly inspirational or germane to the task at hand. You can follow along and imagine what I'm constructing, as well as read enticing synopses and excerpts (one hopes). I'll also post my running word-count, so that you can cheer/jeer as you see fit. Carpe deum. Que sera, sera. And all that.

Happy (*grits teeth*) NaNoWriMo!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mommas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Book Critics

I used to write a lot of fiction. I didn't publish a lot of fiction, but I wrote it. I even finished a horror novel in the late 1980s, one about voudoun in the San Francisco Bay Area. That's right, I was 20 years ahead of the Shambling Dead Curve, all you zombies-come-lately!

Too bad the novel wasn't very good. A couple editors and a handful of agents looked at it and politely passed. They knew what they were doing.

And then a funny thing happened. I started writing lots of book reviews and other non-fiction pieces and got paid for every single one of them. This was on top of my 9-to-5 job as a marketing copywriter, where I wrote in-paper ads, sales collateral and TV and radio spots, plus edited a weekly automotive section.

Then I had kids. The fiction output dwindled down to nothing and finally dried up entirely.

Correlation is not causality.

There are plenty of writers out there who manage to raise a family, work a day job and produce a steady tide of novels and short stories. I guess I just ain't one of them. This used to cause me a fair amount of distress, but not so much anymore.

I've come to the conclusion that the biggest drag on my fiction writing isn't the kids, isn't the day job, isn't the crippling ironies of a godless universe. It's just that, as I've become more confident in my critical abilities, I've become less sure of my talent as a storyteller.

Thanks to a quarter-century of reviewing, I now have a better grasp of what it takes to produce a good book or story. And how much more it takes to be noticed for having published said piece of fiction. I sit amid piles and piles of ARCs and finished books and know that I won't crack the spines of ten percent of them. And they aren't even a tenth of the other unread books stacked in the basement.

The book critic that lives in my own head asks, "Who the hell are you to think about writing  a novel? Do you know how much work that takes? Do you really think you have the chops for it? And if you do publish anything, why do you think anyone would notice?"

I'm making more of an effort these days to shut that guy up. He's become a bore, even to me. In recent months, I've completed a short story and a one-act play.

It's a start. I've got plans for more projects.

The great thing about the web is that there is such an abundance of good advice about storytelling to be found on it, if you know where to look. If you're interested in science fiction, fantasy, horror and fiction in general, you should check out Making Light. It's always worth a look and often features truly invaluable advice, such as this four-item formula for turning story into fiction.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- Sondheim & Co.

My son is currently performing in a youth theater production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical, "Merrily We Roll Along." Parental pride aside, it's a first-rate show, with strong leads, a lively ensemble and a truly excellent orchestra. See it, if you live in the East Bay and have a spare couple of hours. Tickets are available through Brown Bag Tickets.

The real point of this post, however, is to spotlight one of my favorite books about Sondheim in particular and musical theater in general. The second edition of Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Co.," published in 1986, follows the career of the legendary composer/lyricist from "By George," the school musical he wrote with two classmates, through the first steps toward "Into the Woods." It's smart and thorough and dishy, written by an insightful show-biz insider. Zadan began his career as an investigative reporter but served as Director of Theater Projects for Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and co-produced "Sondheim: A Musical Tribute" on Broadway. He also co-produced the original film version of "Footloose." He knows what he's talking about.

"Sondheim & Co." has plenty of anecdotes about "Company," "West Side Story," "Follies" and so on, but it's unusual in that, in addition to the usual chronological account of successes and failures, it also contains chapters on the aspects of professional musical theater that are sometimes overlooked. Zadan details how casting, musical direction, orchestration and poster art each add to or detract from a production as a whole. It's easy to think that a show is only about its songs and libretto, but Zadan expertly punctures that myth.

The book's chapter about "Merrily We Roll Along" is a good case in point. It's a sobering account of how even seasoned professionals like Sondheim, Furth and director Harold Prince can persist in making one mistake after another and ruin what looks like a sure thing. "Merrily" ran only 16 performances in its original Broadway production. Audiences and critics hated the costumes, the scenery, the dancing, the eager-yet-unseasoned cast, the modular score and the way the plot moves in reverse. Zadan methodically recounts how every wrong turn was made.

"Merrily" has been significantly revised since 1981. Even if there probably aren't many people out there who rank it as their favorite Sondheim musical, the score is lovely and clever and the story can be quite affecting in the right hands. (See above.)

Either edition of "Sondheim & Co." is hard to find these days, but copies are well worth hunting down. I wish Zadan would take time out from his big-shot Hollywood producer duties and produce a third edition bringing Sondheim enthusiasts up to date with "Bounce."

One caveat about the second edition: my hardcover copy seems to have been bound with sparrow spit or something. It lasted only one gentle reading before splitting into 200 individual sheets. I plan to keep it no matter what, but it's insanely difficult to browse through.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Off-the-Cuff Review: "Satori" by Don Winslow

As I noted in my last "Books You Oughta Read" post, Trevanian's thriller "Shibumi" is not a novel that cries out for a follow-up. It's been more than 30 years since the book's publication, and the narrative arc of its protagonist, master assassin and Go player Nicholai Hel, ends quite decisively in its denouement.

Now, however, there's "Satori," "based on Trevanian's 'Shibumi'" and written by Don Winslow. Winslow, author of "Savages," "The Dawn Patrol"  and other well-regarded crime novels is not the first name to pop to mind as a natural successor to Trevanian, aka Rodney Whitaker, the film studies professor who wrote "The Eiger Sanction," "The Summer of Katya" and other best-sellers. "Satori" is not a sequel, nor even a prequel, to "Shibumi," but is set within the quarter-century of Hel's life that his creator did not choose to dramatize.

"Satori" opens in 1951, just as Hel is released from the Japanese prison where he has spent three years in near-total isolation after killing his mentor/father-figure (an act of mercy, rather than of malice.) The CIA chooses to spring him with the proviso that he travel to Mao's China and assassinate the Soviet commissioner. Hel takes the assignment, falls in love his beautiful instructor Solange and adopts the identity of a French arms dealer. Once in Beijing, he discovers that his target, Voroshenin, has connections to his own childhood back in Shanghai, which makes the mission slightly more palatable.

The ingenuity of the original "Shibumi" lay in its being simultaneously an edge-of-your-seat thriller and a satirical commentary of the very same thing. It's a difficult mode to master. While taking a much some straight-forward narrative strategy,Winslow does a pretty good job of it. His version of Hel, about 25 years younger than in the main action of "Shibumi," isn't quite as standoffish and world-weary, but there's a good measure of cynical humor at play. Most of the call-backs to the earlier book work well, although the character who will go on to become "The Gnome" in "Shimbumi" oddly has the speech patterns of another supporting character in that novel.

I can't decide how I would feel about "Satori" if I came to it cold. Even without his full back-story, Hel is a fun character, adept as he is at hoda korusa, "the naked kill," and employing his extraordinary "proximity sense" to locate danger in total darkness. In Winslow's hands, "Satori" has good character work, a twisty plot and some excellent scene-setting.

It's clear that more installments of the Hel saga will be forthcoming. For the moment, anyway, I'm along for the ride.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Comics Review -- "iZombie: Dead to the World" by Roberson and Allred

At this point, the living and/or walking dead hold almost no interest for me. Over the past five years, I've received more zombie and vampire novels, comics and pop cultural detritus than I can deal with, and still it keeps coming.

There are a few writers, however, that do I trust to do something interesting with the tired old tropes, and Chris Roberson is one of them. I've enjoyed his science fiction, including the novels "Here, There & Everywhere" and "End of the Century." So, when he comes along with a new DC/Vertigo zombie-starring monthly, my interest is piqued, especially when the art is by Michael Allred, the creator of "Madman."

"iZombie" focuses on Gwen Dylan, a gravedigger who also happens to be a zombie, and her friends: Ellie, a girl-ghost stuck in the Sixties; and Scott, aka "Spot," a "were-terrier." Gwen needs to feed on brains, otherwise she'll become a mindless, shambling husk. The trouble is, after a meal she is overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions of the recently deceased, spurring her to resolve their unfinished business.

There's a very cool "Groovie Ghoulies" vibe about this whole project, and Roberson's dialogue and Allred's art mesh perfectly, creating a welcome balance of humor and horror. Unfortunately, "Dead to the World," which collects only five monthly issues, is mainly set-up. The characters are introduced, including a pair of monster hunters, a pack of female vampires and a resurrected Egyptian mummy. Some plot complications are set in motion, but nothing gets resolved in this initial collection.

Which is fine, given the narrative potential on display here. It's a fun start, and Roberson and Allred have the chops to ferry this story through many more volumes.