Stuff!

Whew! Long time no update!

Clearly the most crucial detail is the one on the left–Dragonbreath 3: Curse of the Were-Wiener, an epic adventure involving rats, hot dogs, and the return of the potato salad, is in stores now!

It’s received a Kirkus starred review and a Junior Library Guild Selection, and I gotta say, I’m pretty proud of it.

In other news, life continues keepin’ on. I’m running a Taxman II print run, ending October 18th. We have tons of originals for sale over in the Originals section. After several weeks of relatively back-breaking labor, I have turned Kevin’s front yard into a rather winding garden path. Everything else worth knowing, you can probably find in the art or the blog.

Talking Shop

Went out to lunch with my buddy Deb yesterday.  We don’t get together nearly often enough, but it’s always fun to do, because Deb is one of the few commercially published authors I know that is also a great friend of mine AND local enough to have lunch with regularly, and who is willing to talk shop enthusiastically.

There was a thing that went around the writing blogs not that long ago about the difficulty of acquiring good mid-career advice. Part of it is that is just that everybody’s mid-career is weirdly different, and part of it is that the internet is chock-full of  stuff about GETTING published–manuscript preparation and query letter advice and any number of people who will happily read the entrails of your latest rejection letter to try and eke obscure meaning from it*–but it drops off rapidly after that.

(Not that you could say either Deb or I are mid-career–my first large-press book was published three years ago, by which standards I am barely a puppy, and Deb has had three different names, has hit the bestseller list on multiple occasions and you could fit the advances for all seven Dragonbreath books into what she gets for a single paperback. )

I honestly kinda wonder if it’s because many blog writers don’t want to offend their readers. For so many people, publication is the great goal, and it seems almost unkind to say “Yes, yes, I’ve achieved the dream, but this bit still sucks!” The my-diamond-shoes-are-too-tight problem.

And partly, of course, it’s just boring. I suspect that many people think writers get together and seriously discuss the craft of writing. Maybe some do, I dunno, but I’m not one of them. Far as I’m concerned, the actual writing is between you and your keyboard and your god. Deb and I, out at lunch, spend the whole meal discussing our print runs vs. advance vs. earning out, gossiping about who jumped publishers, why they did it, why that may or may not have been a horrible mistake, which publisher’s got the best royalty statements (Answer: Penguin)  what idiots we’ve dealt with lately, obnoxious editor X who seems to believe that writers get paid to do absolutely nothing, how hard it is to find good health insurance, heavens this waiter is cute, stupid people who think that if they can properly manipulate social media, they will somehow become an amazing bestseller, whether talent is enough (it isn’t) or if dumb luck is crucial (it totally is) name dropping at recent conventions, who bought Kirkus, do authors realize that Library Journal and Publishers Weekly are run by a pair of lovely older Jewish ladies, publishing hardcover in romance vs. kid’s comics, and who do we have to blow to get the check around here?

Discussion of the actual CRAFT of writing consists mostly of “Plotting this one is killing me. I’ve done four 1000-piece puzzles.” (Deb’s plotting method involves doing jigsaw puzzles and working it over in her head. Four puzzles is quite dire.) and “Okay, I gotta get home, the book’s not gonna draw itself.”

I don’t think we’re unusual. Every author lounge I’ve been in at a book festival is full of discussion of cats, taxes, how could so-and-so have been such an ass to Peter S. Beagle, is that an open bar? Really? Dude! Swanky! and occasionally “Check out the cover on my new book!” You want to talk about actual writing, go to a workshop.

I imagine this probably holds true for other careers, too.  (Hmm, probably not EMTs. I bet they get together and tell the worst scraping-off-the-pavement stories they can think of…mind you, I could be wrong.)

*Don’t do this. Save yourself the grief. An editor is a human being, generally overworked, almost always pressed for time, and odds are good that they are honestly not putting that much thought into your rejection letter. If they say “It’s just not for us,” all it means is “it’s just not for us.” There is no hidden meaning lurking in the space between sentences. If you keep poring over it, you will not discover the secret code that unlocks the halls of publishing.  I swear.

Blargh.

The IRS sent me a nice note telling me that by the way, they’ve decided I owe them $600 more than I thought I did. Uf da.

Theoretically there’s a whole bunch of book money out there with my name on it, but it keeps not showing up, and I keep digging deeper into my savings to get through. Like…for months and months. And for god’s sake, it’s lots of money to ME, but a drop in the bucket to THEM.

And the whole thing just makes me crabby and discouraged.

Sigh.

Bookmarks, Billy Collins, and two great truths

So I was out at Bookmarks Book Festival in Winston-Salem this morning, which was awesome–if you ever get a chance to visit, or better yet, be an author there, they take excellent care of you, can’t recommend ’em highly enough, had a great time speaking, and hopefully the people who came out to see the Ursula & Her Amazing Rambling Diatribe Show were not terribly disappointed. Great to meet some fans and peeps, glad you all could come out, very glad I did not have swine flu this year!

The highlight for me, however, was a chance to see Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate, speak, and to give you some indication of how much I love Billy Collins, I got up at 6 AM to drive there so as to make his presentation on time. There are few poets I really love, and Collins is the only one who has not been dead for more than a century.

And it was indeed awesome to hear him read his poems, he was a hysterically funny speaker, but the best bit for me was during the Q & A, when he uttered two great truths, one of which I have known for some time, and the other one of which was wonderful and I had not considered in such a light before.

The question asked was “How do you know if a poem is any good or not?”

And the answer, quite unexpected, was to reference another poet, (the name has of course escaped me) who had just written one of his best-known poems, and read it over, and realized that good or not, for better or for worse, it was a poem that only he could have written.

And that’s the important bit.

Well. There ya go, then. I would have been happy with just hearing him read “Hangover” and “Litany” but this particular statement rocked my world and made me laugh because it was so obviously true.  (Of course, as Thomas Huxley supposedly said upon hearing the theory of natural selection, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” Some of the best truths are blatantly obvious once somebody points them out.)

This, I think, can be applied to art or writing or frankly any of the other creative pursuits–perhaps the point is not necessarily that you create the most brilliant work the world has ever seen, but simply that you create the works that only you can create.

Certainly it’s the reason I stopped reading cookie-cutter fantasy…there are so many books that it seems anybody could have written, given Generic Fantasy Template #8 and a can of spray-glitter.  But I’ll still lay out money for hardcovers from any number of writers, flawed  and angry or grim and frustrating as they occasionally are–Sheri Tepper, Robin Hobb, Stephen Grundy, I’m lookin’ in your direction!–because for better or worse, they’re the only ones that can write those books, and you know when you’ve finished who you just read.

I’ve often said that you can only do what you can do–usually when the dog has crapped on the floor and the cat is throwing up and the toilet is overflowing and all of my bras are currently in the dryer and somebody wants to know why I have not done X in my copious spare time–but I had not previously framed it in my head as “and you should only do what you can do.”

And of course this could be a bit of a trap, as one obsesses neurotically about one’s own originality and finding one’s voice and all these sources of creative panic, but then came the follow-up question–“So how do you find that original voice?”

And here is where Collins uttered the second great truth, which is one that I actually knew, because artists say it to each other all the time, and occasionally we even listen to ourselves when we talk.

When we talk about finding ones voice, or pursuing one’s original vision or any of the other obtuse verbage you hang about the question of “What do I sound like?” and “What story am I telling?” and “How do I say this so anyone cares?”, it sounds remarkably self-involved, as if you go into deep meditation and navel gazing and sink a bore-hole into some personal creative well and possibly the serpent Kundalini rises up your spine bearing a small, exquisitely monogrammed invitation from your creative self.

Of course, this is a load of crap.

Originality is not something you get from within. You actually beg, borrow and steal it, generally from other people, frequently motivated by being gnawingly jealous of how much better they are than you.*

If you’re a poet, says Collins, you read all the poets on the shelf and I would extend it to say that if you’re an artist, you look at as much other art as you can cram in your eyeballs and if you’re a writer you read. A lot.

Then you shove every influence into a blender and hit puree.

The point is not that you are the only cook who has ever used these ingredients, it is that nobody has ever combined them quite like you. “What is that?” they say, sampling your stew, “I can’t quite place the flavor…” and of course it’ s the saffron you nicked from Rumi and the splash of brandy from Georgette Heyer and Lovecraft’s cryptic and ill-omened root vegetable and the single perfect quail egg you swiped from one of Basho’s poems. “How original!” they say, right before the laudanum from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle takes effect and then you go through their pockets and drag them out of the room by the heels.

Ahem. That metaphor kinda got away from me there. Still, you get the point. Nobody wastes time genetically engineering their own spices, they find novel ways to combine them. Or they just do it better or richer or stronger or with more heavy cream or Guinness reduction glaze.

…and now I’m hungry, and I just ate. Anyway. Two great truths. And if those don’t work for you, just go read some Billy Collins poetry, and we’ll call it good enough.

 

 
*I didn’t say this was a pretty truth.

Loris in Wonderland

“We’re all mad here,” said the cat. “I’m mad. You’re mad.”

The loris thought that the cat should probably speak for itself, but was too polite to say so. There was an awkward silence.

“And it’s no use saying you don’t want to go among mad people!” said the Cheshire cat, its voice rising hysterically. “You can’t help it!”

The little primate hadn’t planned to say anything of the sort, being of the opinion that it was best not to engage with clearly deranged people.  It folded its paws neatly and waited for the cat to finish, an expression of polite interest on its face.

“Bugger this,” muttered the cat. Its grin had vanished some time ago, and the rest of it followed suit. The lashing tail stuck around longer than the rest, and the loris waited for the angry shadow to melt into the dappled shade of the trees before it continued down the path.

Reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated…

Well, color me behind the times–Kirkus Reviews isn’t dead! They had announced that they were going to die, but apparently somebody bought them and they live to review another day.  (This all happened in February. You can tell I am really up on the latest news. On the other hand, if they find a weird fossil in Paupua New Guinea, I am all over it, so I guess it’s a matter of priorities.)

The survival of Kirkus is important for our purposes because A) we hate to see the demise of great institutions upon which many rely, and B) they gave Curse of the Were-Wiener its first starred review, including phrases like “impossibly droll escapade.” (And they even mentioned the Joseph Campbell joke! I’m so glad I slipped that in…)

Thank you, nice people at Kirkus! I would send you cupcakes, but people would assume I was trying to bribe you, and we don’t want that.

Review comes out July 15th, Were-Wiener is out September 16th, and if I don’t stop writing blog posts and checking Echo Bazaar and do some work, Ghostbreath will never come out at all.

Dreamlands

The Dreamlands are, simultaneously, both the easiest of the otherworlds to get into and one of the hardest.

Heaven is presumably harder to reach, but people tend not to come back, so you don’t get many firsthand reports. Hell, of course, is available at any crossroads or to anyone with a black goat and enthusiasm, and to get into the Dark all that you need to do is be extremely unlucky when you turn out the lights.

Faerie’s borders are rather porous, what with the fairy rings and the mounds and many of the borders stutter back and forth at twilight. Getting out again is the hard bit. Fairies themselves can pass back and forth with ease, but while there are rumored to be openings to the Dreamlands inside the borders of Faerie, the fairies don’t use them much. Fairies are vain, self-centered and above all controlling. Being in situations where they don’t have the upper hand itches at their skin like sandpaper and iron filings. They do not dream themselves, and prefer to be elegant, cool and amused at the bumblings of humans. The mysteries of Dreamland are too much larger, the beauties too strange and shocking, and no fairy anywhere has ever liked to be shown up by their surroundings.

So there is a very small Seelie-Court-in-Exile inside the Dreamlands, but they almost never go home again.

There are also demons in the Dreamlands, who have grown tired of Hell (this is less common than you think.) They are soft-spoken and polite here, and uninterested in souls. They are uglier than fairies, and make better coffee. If one offers to travel with you, accept.

The easiest way to get into the Dreamlands is the usual one that every dreamer knows–to curl up in bed and fall asleep. And dream.

This doesn’t always work. Actually this very rarely works. Not all dreams grant one access to the Dreamlands. Very few of them do. Sleep is a vast ocean, through which dreamers swim alone, and only a few ever wash up on the shores of the Dreamlands. (There are predators in that ocean, but they are fortunately few. Parasites are rather more common. The thing that follows you, and you fight it off and drop rocks on it and hit it with trains and it just won’t die? That’s a fairly common parasite of dreams, rather like a remora. You can kill them permanently with wormwood and salt, or absinthe if you’ve got it. They’re harmless enough, and hardly ever follow anyone back to the waking world.)

Most dreams are only what they appear to be–absurdly intricate mixes of experience and memory, manifestations of anxiety, bits of racial memory. The one where you’re late for class and probably naked? No one needs to go to the Dreamlands for that. The inhabitants are not that interested in seeing humans walk around naked anyway, so it works out better for everybody if you dream that alone in the unlit sea. And some dreams cross all boundaries–practically everyone has the nightmare where their teeth fall out, even species that have only the vaguest anatomical analog to teeth. (Birds dream of their feathers falling out, but it doesn’t seem to be related.)  But it doesn’t happen in the Dreamlands.

But all oceans have shores, and on the shores of this ocean lies a place much more real than sleep. And now and then a dreamer stumbles from the shallows of Sleep and up the wet sands (priests and poets leave no footprints, no one knows why) and into the great grim bulk of dreaming.

Time flows strangely here. So does space. There are places that are always the same, and places that are never the same twice. There are places that human dreamers are drawn to, and places they hardly ever reach. There are cities that are almost (not quite) like cities in the waking world, and landscapes that are almost identical. There is a stretch of desert, a saguaro forest, that is the same, stone by stone, as a place in the Sonoran, and as that stretch is eaten away by developers, the edges of the dream desert cease and become something far more unsettling.

Go up the sands into the city, the one easiest to find. It looks a little like Venice, a little like London, with bits of Kyoto juxtaposed in unsettling ways. There is a stretch of road that is definitely from Shanghai, except that the signs are written in Proto-Indo-European, which you speak fluently now, although you cannot remember it upon waking. The gutters run with rainwater–it has only just stopped raining, it has always only just stopped raining– and the water swirls over stones and old take-out cartons and the backs of bullfrogs.

These are large frogs. They eat mice. The local rats have a truce with them, more or less.

Go south down this street. Step over the puddle at the crossing and the suspicious-eyed frogs. Do not wait for the light. The light has never changed. Birds are nesting in it, a bastardized hybrid of house sparrows and firebirds. They do not immolate, but give off smoke. You can light your cigarettes with them, if you can catch one.

Avoid the alley to your right. It leads to a building with a room full of cages, where the animals inside are starving and have always been starving and it is always your fault. (That dream is real. Did you think it was just yours? There is another room in it, much harder to find, also full of cages. There are frogs in it as well, tiny tree frogs, green as bottle glass. They are breeding. You have not failed them.) The animals are not separable from the cages. They are made of the same stuff as the bars. You will not learn who owns this building. The address on the envelopes lead to a street corner with a statue of the Laughing Buddha. The bills are always paid on time.

Are you still dreaming? Good. Go down the street. It leads a long and winding way. Turn left at the shrine full of coins and bottle caps. Take ten steps, turn back. Follow the street again. It will lead out into the desert now, and the wind that touches you will taste like juniper.

What happens after that is up to you.