2009…Assessment

Annual reassessments are dicey things.  If you have a terrific year, they can sound like bragging, which would be nice for a change.  If you had an absolutely lousy year, they sound like whining, something I do enough of as it is.

On the other hand, they can be autobiographical in instances where the possibility of anyone (including yourself) ever doing an “official” biography is next to nil.  In this instance, honesty is called for, the kind most people rarely indulge in public.  It gives one pause to consider the responsibility latent in such an enterprise.

But, as they say, it’s my blog and I’ll bloody well write what I want.

I don’t have many secrets.  A few, none so dire as to be prosecutable.  But I do have things I don’t wish to share generally.  One, I should get off my chest right now so everyone understands from whence I speak in what follows.  Ever since I was a kid, the one thing I wanted to be was famous.  You keep that secret for the most part for a couple of reasons.  One, it’s pretentious.  Two, if you fail, you look silly.  Three, if you don’t fail, it sort of comes across anyway, so there’s no point in declaring it.

It’s not in itself a worthy goal.  We all know people who are famous for being famous—Paris Hilton comes to mind, although she did try to beef that up with some media choices that, well, anyway there’s Paris Hilton.  I think there were (and are, but at the moment I don’t know who they might be because I frankly don’t pay much attention anymore) people who got famous for something substantial and then continued being famous just because they were famous and never weren’t famous.  Truman Capote comes to mind, unfortunately.  I actually talked to people who had no idea he’d been a writer.  He was just that weird old guy with the hats and the high voice who snorted coke with other famous people at Studio 54.  This is not the sort of fame I wanted.  I wanted fame based on product, on work and effort, on stuff I made.  Photographs, paintings, music, but mainly writing.  I wanted, in fact, the work to be the famous part, with me sort of attached by the fact that it was my work.

In any event, I am not famous.  Not widely.  Known, yes, but not so well known that I can rely on it for anything more than an occasional tip of the hat, as it were, so to speak, you know what I mean.  I can’t take it to the bank, an issue that presses any artist unmercifully from time to time.  You can’t keep making art if you can’t eat, house yourself, pay bills, etc and so forth.  Do we do it for the money?  You bet your ass.  Do we do it because of the money? Not at all.  If that sounds like a paradox, it’s not.  Dr. Johnson said anyone who writes for anything other than money is a fool.  I choose to read that as the act of creating art of any kind has no rational basis, but that human beings are not at base rational creatures, so there is no insult or derogation in being a fool for art.

But to do it publicly and not get paid…well, one should not carry one’s foolishness to the point of starvation.  Dr. Johnson may have considered himself a noble fool as far as that goes.

I have not secured a new book deal.

I have written book reviews, thus far for two venues—my hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and an online mag called the Internet Review of Science Fiction.  The latter is becoming more reliable than the former.  The Post-Dispatch book section continues to shrink and aside from an essay requested of me this October past they’ve more or less stopped running my columns—which means I don’t get paid.  I had a couple month hiccup with IROSF, but they’ve just taken a new review so I hope to be back on track with them on a regular basis.  I need to find a few more paying review venues.

I have sold no short stories.  I wrote (and rewrote, at request) one novella, but that has not been taken yet.  Part of the problem here is that I’ve been in Novel Mode for the better part of nine years and I just can’t seem to find my way back into short story mode.  I have a handful of short pieces from Back Then that still haven’t sold—don’t have a clue what’s wrong with them, if anything, it may just be a matter of taste, and that’s what makes this game so difficult and unreliable.  You can’t do a damn thing about Other People’s Taste.  But I’d like to haul my brain back into short story space eventually, because at one time I think I was fairly good at it.  I’m disappointed that, after a few invitations several years ago, no one has asked me for a story, so maybe I wasn’t all that good.  New anthologies are appearing, but I learn about them after they’ve been filled, so…

I am working on a contemporary murder mystery.  (Still doing the genre jumping thing—since 2005 I have written a new space opera, an alternate history, a historical murder mystery/thriller, and now a contemporary MM, looking for something that will, you know, Sell.)  First draft is done, first rewrite nearly complete (just identified a whole thread that needs major repair, requiring the possible dumping of at least one chapter).  In the hopper?  Well…another big fat space opera that’s maybe tow-thirds done.  The sequel to the alternate history, half completed.  Assorted other projects in sketch form.  Once I finish the current project, I intend to rebuild my office and continue noodling on the alternate history sequel until Something Happens.

There was the possibility of my getting a contract position at a university mentoring undergraduates in putting together submittable novels.  A friend of mine was fairly confident I could get on.  That fell through.  For whatever reason, I didn’t make the cut.  It does solve a problem—the work load appeared to be large, so the time thing regarding my own work would have been a factor.  But that will be a factor if I end up having to get a day job again (which is looking more likely).

So did anything good happen this year?

Sure.  I achieved some personal goals.  I’m still going to a gym, lifting weights.  At age 55 I reached (for the second time) my goal of bench pressing 225 lbs.  It’s an arbitrary goal, yes, but it has represented a psychological barrier to me since I started working out, and I made it.  I go three times a week and do a very full workout and I feel enormously good about that.

I’ve started reading Dickens again.  This is a big deal for me.  I’d read several Dickens novels as a teenager (a few before I entered high school) and had thoroughly burned out on him.  Too much, too soon, or whatever, but I spent decades loathing him—unjustly.  I decided to get over it.  So I acquired a set of the Everyman’s Library edition of all his novels and set about reading them.  It will be fun.

As I said in an earlier post (somewhere) I stepped down as president of the Missouri Center for the Book last April.  I had actually achieved every goal I set for myself with that position.  A lot of it was serendipity and some of it may not even be permanent, but we have a vital organization again (for the time being) and we’re about to select our second state poet laureate.  I turned the reins over into good hands and we’re moving apace with the few necessary things left dangling when I stepped aside.  I’m proud of the work I did.

A very personal, though not private, set of accomplishments sort of garnish the year.  I finished my first historical novel back in March and sent it to my agent.  A departure, sure, but I think I have a solid idea for it and for a potential series.  It was very tiring but I’m proud of the result.  After completing it I attended a conference at Washington University, a symposium on Germaine de Staël.  Germaine figures in Orleans, the alternate history that has now been sitting at a publisher for three years now waiting on a decision.  (It has sat at another house for two years and a third has had it going on a year.  I have likewise experienced a similar hold-up with the last full-blown SF novel I wrote.)  The conference provided me with a number of academic contacts I may use when I get around to the third novel in that trilogy, which will be set back in the 1800s and feature de Staël through most of it.

I’ve also completed the first draft of the contemporary murder mystery.  I’ve been hacking away at it for the last month.  I hope to have a final draft ready for submission by February.  This is my first attempt to write and complete something completely contemporary, completely non SFnal, and so far it feels pretty good.  Given the molasses slow sales progress on my others, I feel the need to expand my horizons.  Who knows, at some point I may be writing Louis L’Amour westerns.

I just learned that one of my book review venues is closing down in February.  The Internet Review of Science Fiction has been running my pieces for over a year now, except for the last two months, but I’ll have a new one in the January issue.  My hometown newspaper seems to have stopped taking my reviews, which were all fantastic fiction anyway, something many newspapers continue to have an odd, uncomfortable reaction to.  So I’m back to looking for another market or two for reviews.

Occasionally, I feel like entropy is having its way with me.  This is a wholly personal, utterly subjective impression, but that doesn’t make it any less troubling.  But then I go to the gym and do what I do and walk out, sweaty and stressed, and can feel good about the fact that at 55 I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.  Perhaps this isn’t important in terms of all the rest of my goals, but it’s personally important to me.

I’ve read some damn fine books this past year.  I just finished Iain M. Banks’ newest, Transition.  I enjoyed it immensely, but it is flawed in a way that none of his other novels have been.  He’s playing with superhero motifs and it feels like a cheat.  Ultimately, I’d have to say it’s a failure, but it is a fascinating exercise.

China Mieville’s The City and the City is just plain impressive.

Cyberbad Days by Ian McDonald is a short story collection set in his future India milieu, which comes from the novel River of Gods, which I have yet to read.  I’m way behind on some of my favorite writers and McDonald is at the top of my always-recommended list.  This collection is wonderful.  I also read Charlie Stross’s Saturn’s Children , which turns a number of classic SF motifs inside-out even while remaining true to its sources.

I also read all three of the available volumes of Kay Kenyon’s new series from PYR, “The Rose and the Entire,” starting with Bright of the SkyA World Too Near and City Without End continue it and there will be a fourth volume this spring.  I was hugely impressed with the world-building.  She veers perilously close to a fantasy plot with destiny and fate and all that nonsense woven in, but never quite gets there, and in the near miss creates a compelling tale.  I’m looking forward to the last book.

A smattering of other recommendations: Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams, Bone Rattler by Eliot Pattison, House of Windows by John Langan, Love In The Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Blindsight by Peter Watts, The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins…

Those are the highlights.  The last reminds me that I’ve paid more than a little attention this past year to the Culture Wars over evolution.  Dawkins, Hitchens, and a handful of others (plus regular reading of P.Z. Meyer’s wonderful blog Pharyngula) serve to remind that the idiots and numbnuts are ever with us and sometimes they can seem so reasonable.  We find ourselves driven to continually defend territory already won, revisit arguments already made, and engage fools for the sake of those who have not yet committed to one side of the debate or the other.  If anything will destroy us it is the ambivalence, indifference, and inattention directed toward a firm grasp of the real and a commitment to the truth that allows for those who want neither truth nor freedom to argue persuasively that the future is one clothed in chains we should willingly don.  To stand pat and simply say repeatedly “You’re wrong” doesn’t work because that is the same tactic the deniers and scientific ostriches use.  But to make the argument work requires that the audience know a few things, and our current state of education in the United States often makes that seem a continually receding goal.

I’m not sure I even want to get into the politics of the past year.  I am ever-so-grateful the Bush administration is gone and I am trying patiently to withhold judgment on Obama, understanding what a mess he has to deal with, but we have a Supreme Court that will be hearing cases this winter on whether the restraints we have placed on Big Money are constitutional and I fear that they will decide corporations really are the same as individuals.  In which case, as they used to say, Katy bar the door, the wolves will be out.  I am not sanguine.

Somewhat more than a year ago, close friends of ours challenged us to Be Happier by a certain date in 2010.  I’m trying to decide if that will happen.  On the plus side, I am no longer working at a day job I came to loathe.  My health has improved as a result.  Donna’s hours at her job decreased, giving us more time together.  I have been writing steadily and I am quite pleased with the work.  We’ve managed to adjust to my lack of income and we’re physically comfortable.

On the minus side?  I’m still waiting for a new book contract.  Without that, I don’t really know what will happen or how I will manage to be content much less happy.

I was told categorically in a job interview that my lack of college makes me unhirable in any academic institution.  Not because I cannot do the work—the job in question which led to the conversation was one I could do practically without any preparation, in photography—but because they could not in good conscience market me to prospective students.  “How can we ask them to pay for a degree their instructor doesn’t have?”  Naturally, I think that is shortsighted and stupid—expertise ought to matter more—but we live in an age of markets and advertising and spin.  Most people I’ve spoken to over the course of the year are impressed by my credentials and abilities, they whistle in admiration, but they won’t hire me.  “What,” they seem to be saying, “would we do with a dancing bear?”

So I’m exploring the possibilities of getting a degree.  There’s a way that it won’t take four years and a big loan.  In the meantime, though, I have little choice but to make my choice of careers work.  Do or die time.  Hence the murder mystery (and, possibly, the western).

So it is, as usual, a mixed bag.  A toss up what will happen in 2010.  When I do this next December I hope to report huge successes and breakthroughs.  But I think it’s safe to say that whatever happens, it won’t be anything expected.

Happy New Year.  Be safe.

New Look

Since I’m in the process of penning a contemporary murder mystery, I thought it might be a good idea to trade in the silver space suit with shoulder flashes and Flash Gordon ray gun for a more up-to-date image.  Last week, Donna and I had some fun doing new photos.  One of them will end up being a new bio image for conventions, interviews, and the like, but I had wanted something with a bit more panache, a bit more attitude, a bit more…

Well, I like this.  I don’t think it would be suitable for Christmas Cards, but it’s kind of fun in the direction I was attempting.

tough-guy-2009.jpg

Real tough guy, eh?  Not really.  But I do like the hat.

Happy New Year, all.

Christmas Card (more or less)

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I don’t care for snow.  It looks great when it’s fresh and thick, makes the trees all pretty, and does wonderful things for mountains, but on city streets, in traffic, or even in front of my house on the sidewalk, requiring shoveling, forget it.  Before getting my driving license I liked it.  Went to Art Hill, played, as a little kid looked forward to building castles, all that good ol’ fashion cool stuff.  I have learned to dislike it.  Especially in my town, where people seem annually to forget how to drive in it.

Besides, I’m not too fond of the cold anymore.

So in lieu of images of snow-clad trips to Grandma’s house, let me offer a warmer scene, something of light and shadow and early morning promise.

morning-over-wetlands.jpg

Once upon a time I had serious intentions toward photography.  This was taken during one of the occasional wanderjahrs I used to take, searching—what’s the phrase?—the “visually arresting.”  A lot of great images are the result of being somewhere unexpected at the right time.

Anyway, here’s my Christmas card via blog for anyone interested.  Wherever you are, whatever is on the ground, may you be warm and comfortable and with good friends and family you love.  Merry Christmas.

Secular Charity

On the chance that you’re like me and don’t really want to hand your money over to a religious organization and trust that the charity work you think you’re paying for won’t be redirected into missionary work, here is a link to a list of secular and atheist charities.

I’m not at all sure if anyone assumes atheists are the functional equivalent of Scrooge at this time of year—assuming anyone thinks about it at all—but it’s nice to be able to point out that, in fact, we’re not.  If you think about it for a minute, atheists ought to be more likely to support charitable work, since we believe that people are all we’ve got.  God, in my view, isn’t going to make anything better for anyone—it will be the hard working and generous guy or gal over there who shell out to help out.  It’s always burned me a bit when I hear individual generosity re-attributed to a deity who, in my view, had nothing to do with the generosity and, if real, has a lot to answer for over the need for charity.

So if anyone is looking for a non-religious venue for giving, there’s a list.

Or you can just find someone who’s having a hard time this year and help them out directly.

Merry Christmas.

(And no, that is not hypocritical—Christmas has been a functionally secular holiday for a very, very long time now and I don’t feel at all hesitant to use the name.  Even if Jesus wasn’t real, a lot of what is attributed to the character is pretty worthwhile.)

I Have Words

This week is all about the new novel, which I began cutting on Monday.  I’m almost through chapter five now and it feels…good.

I don’t know how else to put it, but it flows well.  Yes, there’s fixing needs doing and I’m rewriting swaths of it, but basically it looks okay.  As I hoped when I finished the first draft a week and a half ago, I mainly have to add detail.

So I’ve been working at it most of today.  By hand.  I’m going out tonight, despite the awful wind and cold, to see a friend of mine, Sharon Shinn, speak at a local library.  Depending on the weather tomorrow, the gym in the morning, then more words.

What would I do without words?  Words have dominated my life since I was old enough to talk.  Even when the dominant art of my life was visual, I talked about it (and other things) as much as I did it.

It would be awfully nice to be able to just keep doing this.

A Walk Along the Highway of Life: Morning, 12-5-09

Some people have traditions a bit different.  Today, Saturday, December 5th, 2009, Donna indulged one of hers’ along with me and Coffey.  Highway 40 has been in the process of being rebuilt between Kingshighway and 270 for the last few years.  Fears and fretting about much disruption this was likely to cause proved exaggerated, though it has made for a lot of grumbling.  But the highway department has come in pretty on or before schedule and within budget and Monday, the 7th, it the whole thing is about to reopen for traffic.

So we went down to one part of it this morning to walk the highway.  Tomorrow there’s supposed to be a big to do, lots of people, a party.  Uh uh.  This was for us.  This is a tradition Donna brought with her.  Way way back in our childhoods, Highway 44 was built through South St. Louis and they all walked it before it officially opened.  I remember riding my bike on it once with a couple of buddies but it never registered as something to make a tradition from.  But this is cool.

highway-40-12-5-09.jpg

So here, on a much too cold December morning, is the place-keeper of the memory.  Behind her is the Skinker overpass, which won’t mean much to people who don’t live here, but you can see, partly hidden by trees, a great big Amoco sign.  Now, Amoco doesn’t exist anymore—it was bought up by BP—but that sign is a St. Louis landmark and received special dispensation to remain.  It’s huge.  At night, with the spotlights on it, you could probably navigate a plane by it.  To the right of it is Clayton Ave, to the left, completely hidden, is the Hi-Pointe Theater, our last standalone art movie theater surviving from the heyday of such things.  Far, far to the right is Forest Park and eventually Washington University.  Far, far to the left is Dogtown.  (Don’t ask.  But if you ever saw the film White Palace with Susan Sarandon and James Spader, Dogtown is made famous by being Susan Sarandon’s character’s place of residence.)

Famous, trivia-inspiring stuff.

But it was for us a fun walk.