Monday, May 30, 2016

Lock Up Your Chickens and Podcasts!


Every true reader has a short list of books and stories that can be read over and over again for pleasure. It's pretty rare for a writer to include one of his or her own works on that list. But I have exactly one -- "Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters -- H'ard and Andy Are Come to Town!" Which, through no coincidence at all, was co-written with master fantasist Gregory Frost.

The Philadelphia Writers' Conference has a podcast with Greg and myself which is largely about that very story. If you'd like to hear it, click here.

And it's Memorial Day! So I'm off to a barbecue being thrown by a vet.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Baltimore! City of Magic! City of Light!


As always, I'm on the road again. This time I'm going to Baltimore. I'll be at Balticon, where I'll be teaching a writers' seminar on Saturday. On Sunday, I'm scheduled for a panel, an autograph session, and a reading. If you're there, be sure to say hello.

Above: Mis Hope has figured out that a suitcase means we're going to leave her in the care of the Son for the weekend. So, as always, she is taking action to prevent this from happening by camping out on top of the suitcase. If she's sitting on it, we can't pick it up. And if we can't pick it up, we can't leave.

It's a flawlessly logical line of reasoning. And yet, somehow, it never works.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

My Writing Workshop at Balticon


Years ago, I gave up on one-day teaching gigs because they made me feel like a fraud. I felt like I was not so much teaching the students as talking at them.

So why, you might reasonably ask, am I running a writing seminar at Balticon this Saturday?

Simply because the seminars (and there are a lot of them; and the students have to pay to attend; so I'm guessing it'll be a small group) have a format, designed by Chuck Gannon, that's new to me, and one that sounds like I'll be able to be genuinely useful to the students. Here's roughly how it goes.

The first hour or so is a group discussion. Each student brings several concerns or questions or problems they're having with their writing, and I address them. Then there's a break for lunch with informal discussion of the issues raised. And finally, there's one-on-one discussions with the instructor. Those who want privacy can request that they go last. But since there's nothing inherently shameful about learning to write, this apparently rarely happens.

The usual writers' workshop format consists of intensive line-editing. This works well at Clarion or Clarion West, where there's enough time to get to know the students (particularly since I bully the administration into sending me copies of everything they've written previously, so I can gauge how rapidly they're learning), but not so well in less intensive settings. But this format sounds like it can be of genuine value.

I'm looking forward to finding out.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Writers, Podcasts, and Jailbait in a Rowboat


Sunday, I did a podcast with Gregory Frost for the Philadelphia Writers' Conference. We talked about a number of things of interest to writers, but chiefly about our collaborative story "Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters -- H'ard and Andy Are Come to Town!" Which recently (ahem!) won the Asimov's Readers' Award for best novelette.

I've explained before how the characters of H'ard and Andy were inspired by Howard Waldrop and Andy Duncan -- chiefly by their speech patterns, but also by their sharp intelligence and innate decency. In the interview, I also explained where the third main character of the story came from. Just to set you up, here's her first appearance in the story:
At that moment, a slim girl with a tremendous mass of red hair and freckles to match slid into the booth alongside Andy, locked eyes with H’ard, and said, “I’m not wearing any underwear.”
 “Heaven help us,” Andy said.  “What kind of a way to begin a conversation is that?  No how-dee-do, no ‘Hi, my name is –,’ no big sunny smile that declares as good as words that you hope we might all of us wind up as friends.  No, just a bald declarative sentence that combines a complete ignorance of the social niceties with a distasteful disregard for the importance of personal hygiene.  I don’t know when I’ve ever felt half so offended this early on in an acquaintanceship.”
 H’ard grunted.  “Let’s start over.”  He extended a big hand across the table.  “Name’s H’ard.  My friend’s Andy.  What’s your name, sweetie?”
 The girl took his hand and shook.  “It’s Jezabel.”
 “Oh, it is not,” Andy said.  “Nobody’s going to believe decent Baptist folk gave their daughter any such ridiculous name as that.  I don’t believe it, H’ard here don’t believe it, and I don’t believe you’re fool enough to believe for an instant that we believe it neither.  Your real name is probably Susan or Ellie or Mildred or something sensible like that.”
 The girl turned as red as her freckles.  “It’s Lolly.  And you ain’t no gentleman for forcing me to admit to it.”
 “Pleasure to meet you, Lolly,” H’ard said.  “Now why don’t you tell us just what it is you’re up to, talking to two strangers on no pretense at all.  Not that I object.  But I am curious.”
 “I intend to get the hell out of this nothing-happening town.”
 “Ambition is admirable in a child,” Andy said.  “Only, exactly how is talking with us going to accomplish that?”
 “Gonna hook up with you two.  I’ll let you pop my cherry in return.”
 “What in the name of God’s little green apples are you talking about, girl?  Your lips are moving but listen hard as I might, I don’t hear a single syllable of sense coming out from between them.”
 Lolly scowled.  “I don’t see what’s so difficult to understand.  Y’all got a car and I overheard my father saying that you’re obviously criminals of some sort or other.  We can come to terms.  I’ve got a few heavy petting sessions under my belt and I’m ready to move on to unfettered moral depravity.”
 “Heaven help us,” Andy moaned.  “Could this situation get any worse?”
 H’ard, who had been listening intensely, said, “Tell me something, little darlin’.  What exactly does your daddy do for a living?”
 “He’s the sheriff.”
 “Heaven help us!”

The original for Lolly was a girl somewhere between fourteen and sixteen years old who lived near Williamsburg, Virginia, where I went to college. She had discovered sex and had a thing for older -- but not too much older -- men. Which is to say college students. She was not shy about expressing her ambitions. And, yes, her father really was a sheriff.

One summer, a friend of mine was working props for The Common Glory, and open-air theatrical for tourists, which involved him sitting quietly in a rowboat on Lake Matoaka for over an hour before towing a fake warship into view. One evening, a girl's face popped up out of the water and she said, "Hi. Can I come on board?"

My friend, who at that time was madly in love with a woman who would not have him and thus not even remotely interested in anyone, else said sure, and into the boat she surged -- totally naked, obviously jailbait, and ready for action.

All my male friends at that time were long-haired libertines and it would have made a duck laugh to see the terror she caused among them. The women I knew were certainly amused.

If you're curious about the Philadelphia Writers' Conference, you can find their website here. I'll let you know when the podcast goes live.

Above: Gregory Frost. Photograph by Kyle Cassidy, portraitist of greatness.


Friday, May 20, 2016

Small Lives

I found a cat -- a beautiful thing, black with white boots -- lying dead in the driveway this morning. Probably it was struck by a car and had been looking for sanctuary when its heart gave way.

By the condition of its fur, the cat was well cared for, and I'm sure its owners are desperately looking for it. If they put out signs, I'll call them with the sad news, so they'll know. In the meantime, we buried this stranger in the back yard.

Our yard is very small and we've had several cats over the years. When I dug the hole for the grave, I turned up the skull of Miss Hope's predecessor, Shadowfax. His fate was very different from the stranger's... He died of old age, resting in Marianne's lap. In his day, Shadowfax claimed the entire neighborhood for his own, patrolling it daily, fighting all comers to preserve his territory, occasionally leaving a dead mouse or (in five memorable cases) an eviscerated opossum on the back porch. So he had as good a life as a domestic cat can have.

We let these small creatures into our lives and give our hearts to them. They, in turn, share some fraction of their existence with us and keep the rest hidden away where we will never see it. And in the end, they return from whence they came, into darkness and mystery and the earth.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Writer Plays Hooky


I was recently asked what I would do if I could spend an entire week doing anything but work. I replied, "Sit in a dark room and write."

Writing is not only my avocation, but also my hobby (that's where the monographs on Hope Mirrlees and James Branch Cabell came from) and my recreation.

So today, when I should have been working on the novel but just couldn't face the drudgery, I declared a mental health day, booted up an old story that had hung up on a point of plot years ago, and started to play with it.

I think I've got the problem solved. But that doesn't really matter. Everybody needs a day off now and again.

The story is called "Starlight Express." Here's how it begins...

Flaminio the water carrier lived in the oldest part of the ancient city of Roma among the popolo minuto, the clerks and artisans and laborers and such who could afford no better.  His apartment overlooked the piazza dell’Astrovia, which daytimes was choked with tourists from four planets who came to admire the ruins and revenants of empire.  They coursed through the ancient transmission station, its stone floor thrumming gently underfoot, the magma tap still powering the energy road, even though the stars had shifted in their positions centuries ago and anyone stepping into the projector would be translated into a complex wave front of neutrinos and shot away from the Earth to fall between the stars forever.
Human beings had built such things once. Now they didn’t even know how to turn it off.
On hot nights, Flaminio slept on a pallet on the roof. Sometimes, staring up at the sparkling line of ionization that the energy road sketched through the atmosphere, he followed it in his imagination past Earth's three moons and out to the stars.  He could feel its pull at such times, the sweet yearning tug that led suicides to converge upon it in darkness, furtive shadows slipping silently up the faintly glowing steps like lovers to a tryst.
Flaminio wished then that he had been born long ago when it was possible to ride the starlight express away from the weary old Republic to impossibly distant worlds nestled deep in the galaxy. But in the millennia since civilization had fallen, countless people had ridden the Astrovia off the planet, and not one had ever returned.
Except, maybe, the woman in white. 

And for the rest, you'll have to wait for the story to be finished and then published. Late this year or early next, I'm guessing. 

Though I'm really not in a hurry.

Above: This image comes from, the website for the History Channel. A fun place to wander through. Give it a try.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Lock Up Your Chickens and Readers . . .


The 2016 Asimov's Readers Awards were given out Sunday at a breakfast awards ceremony during SFWA Nebula Conference in Chicago. And the award for Best Novelette went to...

"Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters -- H'ard and Andy Are Come to Town!" by Gregory Frost and (ahem!) me.

One pleasant aspect of writing a collaborative story is that if it wins an award, you only have to be half as modest as if a solo work wins. So I can tell you that I am extremely happy with this honor because I love this story. Greg and I were in complete accord as to what this kind of thing should be like and together we crafted something that suited our shared vision completely.

The story is set in a fantasy version of the dust bowl and features two con men loosely based on Howard Waldrop and Andy Duncan. That's them above. I took that shot and for a month kept showing it to people, saying, "Don't they look like two old-time grifters?" Until finally I realized that my subconscious was trying to tell me there was a story to be written.

To give you an idea of what the story's like, here's a bit of dialogue that comes right after the local sheriff tells our two heroes that he's going to telegraph the State to see if they're wanted for anything. Greg wrote Andy's lines and I wrote H'ard's:

“Well, I don’t mean to be negative, sir, but I’ve got to tell you:  I just simply do not believe in the telegraph, and that’s a fact.  New-fangled nonsense device like that is prone to breaking down exactly when you need it most.  Why, wires get broke and then all the electricity goes astray and flies helter-skelter all over the place, frightening horses and inconveniencing honest citizens.  Fella writes down a two-dollar message and a puff of wind blows the paper right out the window.  In all the confusion nobody even remembers who sent the darn thing or what it said.  No, sir, put not your trust in machines.  One man, one mule, and a leather sack of paper envelopes with a magenta two-cent George Washington stamp and a hand-cancelation on the front does the job best, is what I say.  Takes a little longer but a dozen times more sure.”
 “If you want our particulars,” H’ard said, “just ask.”

Now, either you like that or you don't and I like the entire story quite a bit. But for my money, that riff that Greg came up with is just the best part of the whole damn thing and no amount of reasoning on your part is going to shift me on that.

So thank you, Greg. It was a pleasure working with you.

And we're not the only ones happy today...

There are also those who won the Nebulas. It was a good slate and a good set of winners, both. And there are also our fellow Asimov's Readers' Award winners and our cousin Analog Analytic Laboratory winners. As follow:

Asimov’s Science Fiction
Readers’ Award Winners

Best Novella:               “Inhuman Garbage” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (3/15)
Best Novelette:              “Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters—H’ard and Andy Are  Come to Town!” by Michael Swanwick & Gregory Frost (4-5/15)
Best Short Story:         “Tuesdays” by Suzanne Palmer (3/15)
Best Poem:                  “1,230 Grams of Einstein” by Robert Frazier (6/15)
Best Cover Artist:        Maurizio Manzieri

Analog Science Fiction and Fact
Analytical Laboratory Winners

Best Novella:               “Builders of Leaf Houses” by Catherine Wells (12/15)
Best Novelette:            “Racing to Mars” by Martin L. Shoemaker (9/15)
Best Short Story:         “The Museum of Modern Warfare” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (12/15)
Best Fact Article:         “Challenges of Manned Interstellar Travel: An Overview” by Nick Kanas (5/15)
Best Poem:                  “The Impending Apocalypse Helps Me Maintain Perspective” by Steven Dondlinger (3/15)
Best Cover:                  May 2015 by Donato Giancola