Friday, November 13, 2009

The The Impotence of Proofreading

..." by Taylor Mali is an amusing poetry read via Youtube, worth 3:31 minutes of your life. (Warning some language, may not be suitable for viewing at work.) Brought to my attention by author Simon Rose, via SF Canada.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Anthem for SF Writers

Mark Shainblum nominates this for science fiction's national anthem:

Pure Speculation

I attended the Pure Speculation conference in Edmonton on the weekend and was pleasantly surprised by how much it has grown. I was especially pleased with the Friday evening entertainment at Happy Harbour, which included an excellent performance by author GoH and professional singer Edward Willett, and a fascinating talk by Rick Green on Prisoner of Gravity series.

me with author/singer Edward Willett. He's only two years younger than I; so why does he still have hair and look so fit? And that voice! The man definitely has stage presence. (Photo by author Barb Baller-Smith, whose book Druids was released at the convention.)

Me with authors Ann Marston, Edward Willett, Aaron Humphrey, and Nicole Luiken (Humphrey) (Photo Barb Baller-Smith)

Awaiting my turn to speak on one of the panels. (Photo by Ron Sannachan)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


We stayed at the Delta in Richmond, which was being renovated in time for the Games in Feb, and a good thing too. Our room was annoyingly tiny and crowded, a sharp contrast to our last Delta room. But no biggie, we just needed a place to crash.

So, some shopping (Lulu Lemon outlet store—I even bought myself a hoodie and a jacket. I hate to admit it, but the brand really is worthy of the hype. There is almost nothing that my wife or daughter tried on that didn’t look fantastic on them. If they’d had kid sizes, I’d have dressed Kasia in it too.) visits with the Vancouver relatives; a day trip out to White Rock (lovey!); Flying Wedge Pizza; a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant; White spot burgers; and Mary took her niece clothes shopping, my brother-in-law being a single dad with no sense of style....

Mary and the kids on our day trip to White Rock

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hope, BC.

We stayed the night at the Lucky Strike Motel. This motel was strongly reminiscent of those I stayed in when as I was a kid, and an important balance for our kids from the four and five star hotels we often end up in traveling for work. (I still remember the first time we had traveled on our own nickel when Tigana was young, and she had folded her four year old arms and contemptuously demanded, “What kind of a dump is this? Where’s the marble? Where are the gold panels? Look, the paint is even chipped here!” And we’d realized that through traveling with us for work, she had become accustomed to a lifestyle that we couldn’t actually sustain. Time to deprogram ‘spoilt kid’ mode!) This time, the kids were fine with the room, especially since we were just spending the night and moving on.

(I made the mandatory jokes about Hope, which while new to the kids, still struck Tigana as pretty lame. And inappropriate, as it later turned out, given that Ryan Jenkins had hung himself in one of Hope’s hotels, his own having run out, about a week later.)

Talking to Strangers

Like all parents of five year olds, we’ve had the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ talk with Kasia. This has not been entirely successful.

Kasia, left to herself, would hug everyone that came into range. We have, with some difficulty, managed to convince her that she should at least ask her intended victim whether they wished to be hugged before actually hugging them. Since this was similar to the well-established and understood rule that she must never pet a dog without first checking with the owner (lest said dog bite her) she has started asking permission first. The problem is, few people feel they can turn down the request for a hug from a five year old without appearing completely cold-hearted, so they often say ‘yes’ even though their body language is screaming ‘No!’.

This is particularly problematic with people in the service industries, who may feel they have to indulge the child lest they loose the goodwill of the parents. So we have recently added the rule that Kasia must first ask us, even before asking the intended huggee, so we may judge whether the individual or circumstances appropriate.

The latter criteria is still a bit hard for Kasia to grasp, however: Once given permission to hug a particular person, she believes she has carte blanc to hug them at will, regardless of what they are currently doing. This can be an issue when relatives, for example, are spotted at a job site, or standing on the edge of a panoramic cliff, or otherwise engaged in some demanding activity and not expecting 22 kgs of child to come hurtling at their knees.

So. We are the first aboard our cruise ship and a nice looking woman is manning the reservations desk, so Kasia asks if she may hug the woman. Mary agrees that it would be okay to ask, because for the moment we are the only ones there, and the woman appears approachable. So Kasia asks, the woman agrees, and the hug proceeds to everyone’s apparent satisfaction.

The woman introduces herself as Maya*, and tells us where she will be working later that evening, and expresses the hope that she will see us then and possibly get another hug. All is good until later that day when Kasia, contrary to the rules, rushes over and hugs another woman without checking with us first. Now, this was not a time or place I would have given Kasia the go ahead, because the waitress in question was clearly very busy – if anything, looking a little tired and harassed – and being tackled at the knees is probably the last thing she needed. But in the event, the waitress burst into a huge grin and hugged Kasia enthusiastically right back. And again later, Kasia spontaneously hugged another waitress without checking with us first. I was about to chastise her for this violation of the rules when I saw Kasia’s surprised distress when the assaulted waitress asked, “What’s your name, sweetie?” I realized that faced with three waitresses of the same nationality, with similar hairdos, and wearing identical uniforms, Kasia had confused the women and honestly thought she’d been given prior permission to hug. It wasn’t until she’d talked to them all a bit more that she was able to keep clear who was which.

And talk with her they did. One of the three, Aba*, was so smitten with Kasia and her hugs that the next day she brought over her roommate to meet Kasia so that the roommate could get a hug. On another occasion, Aba saw us in a restaurant she didn’t work in, but nevertheless came in for her hug. Our waitress of the hour, seeing Aba making a fuss over Kasia, asked if she too could get a hug, and pulled out pictures of her seven year-old daughter. Pretty soon, it seemed as if every crewmember on the ship had heard of Kasia and were asking her if they could get a hug.

This was not, I hasten to clarify, about the ship’s crew humoring a spoilt child’s need for attention. On the contrary, it became increasingly clear that many of the crew desperately needed a good hug. The crew generally sign 10-month contracts, and having been away from their own young families for too long, latched onto Kasia as onto a lifeline. Out came baby pictures, cellphone photos and 30-second videos of sons and daughters, and stories of what it was like being away from family for so long. One waiter talked about how he had left when his wife was pregnant and now had an eight month old he had yet to meet; this one had a seven-year-old who followed her compulsively for the two months she was at home, even into the shower; this one had a ten month old who’d be a toddler by the time she got home; and so on. Heart-breaking war stories, familiar enough for those in the armed forces, but these workers don’t even have the satisfaction of knowing they are making the world safe for Democracy.

Other cruisers, we discovered, often made facile comments such as, “I can hardly stand to be away from my children for the week of the cruise, I couldn’t possibly be away from them for 10 months!”, as if these workers had the choice, or that being away for 10 months out of the year, every year, for the child’s entire childhood doesn’t fundamentally change family dynamics in ways that a week’s absence can’t begin to approximate. It must gall these workers that such sacrifices are demanded of them so that they might serve cruiser’s another round of iced drinks.

Not that I don’t have my own middle class guilt here. When Aba came over to the table where Tigana and I were sitting to say hello and asked where Kasia was, I mumbled something about Kasia being off with her mom on ‘an activity’. “Yeah,” Tigana pipes up, “Mom’s taken Kasia to the spa for a mother-daughter massage session.”

“She’s five, and she’s getting a massage?!”

“She loves massages!” Tigana again volunteers, though this is based entirely on the five-minute demo the spa staff performed on Kasia as part of first day orientation on board ship. (Kasia’s cuteness factor gets her a lot of freebies.) But I could see by Aba’s expression that she was trying to comprehend what it must be like to be so rich that one could afford routine massages for one’s five year-old.

In another conversation, Aba said something about our work being hard too, and Mary said, “It’s not bad really, we only work about 6 hours a week.” Now, I’m pretty sure she meant to say “60 hours a week”, which would be pretty typical for a prof, and considerably less than the 90 expected of crew; or maybe she meant to say that this term she only taught 6 hours a week, and could work out of our home for the other 54 hours, which made sense in context of explaining why ‘rich’ folks like us didn’t have a nanny; but either way, Aba’s expression suggested she was picturing a lifestyle where the driveways are paved with gold....

(On the other hand, we had super next to a businessman and his wife who probably had glided his driveway – they mentioned in passing how their new chihuahua had ruined their $40,000 carpet and how he had jetted down to Argentina for some duck hunting the previous weekend...I deeply resented the extravagance of this glad-handing wastrel, but if he was typical of cruisers, I can’t imagine how galling having to wait on this idiot would be – or how I and my family look any different to the crew serving us....)

But I digress. Aba started showing up with little origami pieces for Kasia. First was a crane, then a kangaroo, folded by her fellow crewmember, Percy*. Kasia, with five year old’s lack of manners, asked for a puppy and a horse, next, which Percy quickly produced, along with a host of others: scorpions, crabs, and so on, all quite marvelous.

And then, to my consternation, Aba showed up with an expensive doll for Kasia, which sang a superb rendition of “You can count on me” when hugged. Kasia was instantly crazy about the doll, but I worried that Aba should not be spending her money on my already spoilt children. But Aba told Mary that although the crew see a new shipload of children every week, Kasia had affected Aba far more than any other child she had encountered. Hopefully, we can stay in touch, and Kasia can send Aba’s child something too...

*[Names changed to protect their privacy.]

Kelowna, BC

Then on to Kelowna. We stayed at the Delta and got a fantastic room, complete with gigantic balcony. Super at Hector's Casa. Breakfast on the balcony. Lunch at great brunch place whose name I've forgotten. And in between paddle boats round the lake, shopping at their Lulu Lemon outlet.

We quite liked Kelowna. Even upon such a cursory examination, it seemed a very artsy community, lots of interesting restaurants, art gallery, bookstore, and relaxed ambiance. And nice views.

I loved the self-satire of this beach sculpture, which suggests a nice artsy orientation on the part of the town fathers.


We stopped for lunch in Revelstoke at the Modern Bakeshop and Cafe and were surprised by another really great meal! You never know what you’re going to get when you stop in smaller towns, because the captive market often means restaurants survive that could not last against city competition; but on the other hand, you often get independents that really represent home cooking at it’s best. The Modern was an example of the latter, only with a hippie twist that suited us very well indeed. Vegetarian and glutton-free options weren’t just after thoughts, as they so often in mainstream cafes, but things you’d actually order just because they tasted fantastic. We grabbed a bunch of their fruit granola bars and comped on those in the car for the next couple of days. Full four stars for this one.

Maple and Banff

Our next stop was Banff.

Kasia explains to her Mom the difference between squirrels and chipmunks as they meet this guy at the top of sulphur mountain.

Mary took the kids up the Sulfur mountain cable-car, a mandatory excursion in their view, but one I skipped to work on my novel. (My knees had been bothering me so paying to limp around a mountain top seemed like a bad idea.) The kids reportedly had a great time, though they’ve done this one repeatedly; and I had a wonderful time writing overlooking the valley forest. There is something about basking in the sun, writing, that significantly improves productivity.

Then checking into the Brewster hotel, quick walking tour of the townsite, hitting the usual kid-friendly shops (e.g., COWS ice cream), plus the Banff Tea Shop.

We ate at the Maple restaurant because a $40 voucher came with our hotel room, but it was one of the few disappointments of the trip. The food, while adequate, was overpriced even with the $40 discount; and the service inflexible to the point of being ridiculous: we couldn’t help but overhear the next table being told all the things that couldn’t be done for their toddlers, the substitutions that couldn’t be accommodated, and the allergies that couldn’t be vouched for. So lots of pretensions towards being a high end restaurant, but neither the service nor food preparation to carry it off. Just the prices.

Lipizzaner Stallions, Magicians, Calgary Dining

Lipizzaner Stallion

Summer vacation started with our taking in Lipizzaner Stallions show in Calgary as a special treat for horse-mad Kasia. In this regard, the show was a bit of a disappointment, as Kasia was clearly bored. Upon reflection, we realized that the finer points of dessage may have been a bit too esoteric for a five year old; or as Mary put it, if you’re of an age where you believe your toy Pegasus can fly and talk, seeing a horse stagger around on it’s hind legs for ten seconds may not seem that impressive.

Lipizzaner Stallion takes a bow

Kasia much preferred the Arabian Nights show we’d seen in Florida the previous summer, in which equally impressive animals were combined with a princess/fairy storyline and a good deal more racing around with acrobats on horseback. So, no reflection on the good work of the Lipizzaner Stallions in keeping alive an important European tradition, but Kasia turned out to be the wrong target audience.

Kasia yawns

The day was by no means a loss, however, as we were staying at the Delta Calgary South, a hotel with one of the finer dinning rooms in Calgary. Enroute to the show, we had enjoyed the lavish Sunday brunch. To give just one example of why I love the place: when I got to the station where the chef carves the roast, he asked how much I wanted, and I jokingly indicated a slice twice the size of my plate. Without so much as a blink, the chef folds it in half, and piles it on my plate. It was if I had ordered the largest prime rib dinner available, even though I’d already piled my plate high with the many other fine offerings from the buffet. This was in such sharp contrast to smorgs in Lethbridge – which either don’t have a carvery station, or else provides slices so thin they’re translucent and so small they get lost under a pickled beet – that I almost felt guilty about the two salmon fillets I had for seconds.
Gluttony aside, I was incredibly impressed with the chef on duty that Sunday. When my eleven year old ordered something at the pasta bar, he treated her like an adult, discussing the finer points of seasoning and taking her odd request completely seriously. When she came back for seconds, he rushed back because he could see the cook who had relieved him at that station had mistaken her intent and was doing her a normal kid’s pasta. That sort of awareness of what is happening throughout the entire buffet line second to second, and attention to detail even when dealing with a very minor customer, wins my undying loyalty.

If that were not enough, the brunch also features Robert Wong, the province’s top magician circulating table to table. I have seen my share of magicians over the years but nobody comes close to this guy, and nothing tops up close and personal for a magic show. My favorite trick is the simple slight of hand of producing a bunch of grapefruit out of a tiny magican's cup in which it could not possibly fit, right in front of our eyes. I have seen him do this trick each time we go, and each time I test my latest theory of how he does it, and he’s still too fast for me. Its so simple yet elegant!

We always end up talking for awhile after, and he was saying how the recession is killing him. He’d originally retained the hotel gig out of sentimentality as it had been his first break years ago, but he’d long since worked his way up to the business conference circuit and was making a good living as a motivational speaker. But come the recession, ‘magician’ is pretty much the first line in the budget you’re going to cut, right? Who needs motivational speakers when the threat of massive layoffs is pretty much sufficient to motivate everyone to want to shine their bosses shoes? My heart really goes out to anyone in the entertainment business, but I have to admire how Robert was able to reposition himself – he’s developed a whole new line of talks for school visits, a lower paying but steadier market. He’s even had some of his routines published in magician journals, and I must say I could see how they could be really effective in motivating students to stay in school and study maths and science.

Thus, the trip started on a fairly high note, built in part around excellent food. Breakfast the next morning, a regular Monday service, was equally gourmet (so much better than other hotels of the same bracket) and the service again beyond anything we’d been expecting. Soooo friendly and efficient, and again taking our kids completely serious as foodies – no crappy kids meals here.

And that became a theme for the trip that followed: this trip became about the food.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tigana and Story Time

Until recently, story time has been very different for Kasia than for Tigana at this age. Tigana loved having books read to her, as does Kasia, but Tigana also insisted on us telling her our own original bedtime stories.

When very young, we told Tigana the standard fairy tales, which would then have to be retold exactly the same way each night, until each story eventually reached saturation and we moved onto the next. Then Mary started a continuing series of stories featuring Peter (a Tom Thumb character) and “the little Girl” (who was of course Tigana). Tigana loved these stories beyond reason, as Mary retold the day’s highlights from the perspective of Peter. Tigana would always ask if she was ‘the little girl’, which Mary would neither confirm nor deny, but the events of ‘the little girl’s’ life strangely mirrored those of Tigana’s.

Then one time I covered off the Peter stories when Mary was away, not realizing that Mary considered them her special thing with Tigana. But the deed done, I was permitted to tell Peter stories when Mary was busy, so that we were soon alternating nights.

It was some time before we realized that we had quite different styles and had evolved the character of Peter in quite different directions. Mary’s Peter was mostly comical, getting himself into silly situations or misunderstandings, like the title character of the Amelia Bedelia books. My Peter stories were more plot driven and about Peter having adventures. Again, I wondered if this reflected a gender difference, or just personal style.

When Tigana was five, we moved to a new home in anticipation of Kasia’s arrival. Following a series of Peter adventures/misadventures over the move, I introduced the new character of Rhubarb, who lived in the Rhubarb plant in our new yard. As Peter and Rhubarb explored the new neighbourhood, they came into contact with a host of new characters who lived by the rules of magic I adopted holus-bolus from Dave Duncan’s A Man of His Word series. Bedtime stories became a 1,500 episode serial, building one to the next, and often ending on a cliffhanger to be resolved the next evening.

Like any B movie serial, much of each episode included stock footage. In our case the nightly prologue was getting Tigana and her companions out her bedroom window (stealing from Dave Duncan’s The Magic Casement) to the Giant’s castle in Cloudland, from whence her nightly adventures began. (Originally, Tigana and Peter had snuck out into the garden, and then out into the neighbourhood, but after the first couple of weeks of sneaking past Mom in the kitchen, the sequence started to lose credibility, and the storyline started to chaff against the confines of the neighbourhood. So I had the giant invite Tigana back to his castle in the clouds, and introduced the magic window to get her there. Once I exhausted the potential of Cloudland, I introduced the new characters of Dr. Who and Romana. Tigana was delighted with these characters -- and the infusion of 25 years of plagiarized episodes, adapted only enough to make Tigana the star of each adventure.

There were two problems with a continuing series of bedtime stories lasted over 1500 different episodes, First, having stolen every story idea I've ever read over the past 45 years, I was worried there for awhile that I might have ruined fantasy for Tigana. I could just see her discovering Dr. Who or Dave Duncan's books, and instead of the pleasure they have given me over the years, quickly discard them on the basis "They're not very original -- I've heard it all a hundred times before!" Fortunately, in the event, Tigana instead has discovered the dozen of new great authors writing for kids her age, and still loves fantasy. (Though lately she is into the preteen reading of novels about dating, most of which make my brain hurt. But that's another post.)

Second, since I wasn’t writing any of this down, I would frequently lose track of some of the characters or occasionally start to repeat a particular storyline. Tigana would immediately interrupt and ask, "Is this like where they went into the castle and found the bomb?" or "Is this like the time the got caught in a time loop?" "Somewhat similar," I would stall, improvising madly, "but in this case the time loop was running in the opposite direction!" or "No, no! No bomb in this one!" and then beat my brain against the bed post trying to come up with some different angle on an overused story steal. Explaining what had happened to the characters I left hanging from a cliff a couple of episodes back and completely forgot about was similarly challenging.

Some days I rose to the challenge magnificently, and would go out from Tigana's bedroom to regal Mary with the evening's story, and bask in her agreement that ''that was a good one!" Other days, not so much. On more than one occasion, I was so tired by the time we got Tigana to bed, that I would actually fall asleep before her... This did not, to the amazement of all, actually keep me from finishing the story. The first time this happened, I came back awake to Tigana saying, "That was terrific Dad, but I didn't quite get the part about the train."

"Train? What train?"

And Tigana recited back to me a whole 10 minutes of story that I had no recollection of telling, and which frankly made no sense within the context of the story I had started out to tell. But dream like, it had all sort of blurred together, and apparently my mouth had kept recounting as I drifted off to sleep. I wasn't entirely sure I believed this was possible until it had happened several times, and had been witnessed by both Tigana and Mary.

I loved telling Tigana bed time stories, and was sad when she finally out grew that nightly ritual in favor of her reading to herself. My only regret was that I never thought to record any of those stories/episodes. In retrospect, there were enough 'good' nights, and enough original material (given Tigana and in the latter years, her sister) were added to the standard fantasy storylines for me to have gotten the rough draft of a novel or story collection out of it. And then I thought maybe I could record my stories to Kasia, and was shocked to discover her complete lack of interest in anything other than the stories she dictated to me....

But then, at five and a half, it's early days yet. Tigana is insistent I don't tell Kasia any of my Dr. Who episodes, since in Tigana's view those belong solely to her, but as I begin linking together the stories of Princess HummingBird and her Pink Pony -- and more significantly -- the newly introduced character of tinyweenie -- there is hope yet that the process will repeat. I hope so.

Kasia's Play and Stories

While sorting through my mom’s stuff, preparatory to putting her condo on the market, I came across a box of my old matchbox cars. This immediately brought back memories of hours of car chases round the border of the front room carpet. Even after 45 years, I still remembered what each car represented – the crooked racecar driver, the target treasure on the moving truck, the ploy of hiding the getaway car in the blue carrier behind the citron, the detective in the silver shadow Rolls-Royce who always figured out each case in the end, the decoy milk truck – the whole set of complicated plotlines that kept me happily engaged for years. I was surprised to find them, having thought I had passed all my toys on to another family’s youngsters decades before when I’d left home, but this particular set had somehow survived the general purge. So, naturally the shoebox of matchbox toys went into the ‘keepers’ pile.

Where it was shortly discovered by my own 5 year old. She opened the box with a ‘Wow, cars! Can I play with them?” I of course consented, especially since they were clearly already too banged up to be considered any sort of collector’s items. What harm could she do?

Momentarily distracted with other sorting duties, it has half an hour or so before I could return to explain what each vehicle represented, how they drove around the ‘roads’ on the carpet, which flowers in the carpet represented cloverleaf interchanges, all the complicated rules it taken me years to work out. And a good thing too as it turned out.

The carpet I grew up with -- "note highway" border strips with flower "interchanges".

When I got back to Kasia, she had all the cars out of the box and lined up next to each other. “These two are sisters,” she said pointing to the two blue cars, “and this is their Mom.” It was vital, she explained to me, that the cars stay in the right position within the line, that the line move forward in unison, because otherwise the family relationships might be disrupted. In a half hour she had worked out an entire family tree of cars, which had nothing to do with highway chases, conspiracies, or shootouts.

So, is this an age-related developmental stage, or is it a gender thing? For her, every doll and stuffy – and apparently toy car – is about “mommy/baby/older sister” relationships.

Kasia’s favorite pastime is ‘playing ponies’, which consists of extensive role plays with her massive collection of horse, unicorn, and Pegasus stuffies, supplemented with a few dog stuffies, the occasional fairy or mermaid, and visits from various Barbies and Kens intruding in the land of magic from the human world. Initially, when Kasia was three or four, plotlines consisted entirely of one or other horse falling from the bed or couch onto the floor and the frantic attempts by various horse family members to rescue these “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” victims. Invariably, once rescued, these careless individuals would again immediately plummet to the exact same spot. The cycle would be repeated for hours of selfplay. Invited to join Kasia playing ponies, we would have to stick strictly to the script: any attempt by one of our characters to, say, warn horse family members to stay way from the edge of the cliff, would elicit outraged tantrums.

Only slowly over the years has this basic plotline been allowed to evolve into the current version, which is that some bad guy (monster/witch/horse trader) intrudes into the valley of horses/land of magic to steal one or more horses and put them in cages from which they must be rescued. Lately, the bad guys are surprised to discover that the horses are magical and can talk/fly. Sometimes this discovery is what motivates the bad guys to try to capture the magic horses; sometimes it is this discovery that allows the horses to escape (e.g., the horses have invisible wings and turn out to be Pegasuses that can then fly away, after pummeling the would be kidnappers).

Mary and I have resisted, without much long-term success, Kasia’s insistence that there be bad guys. Tigana had had no such need to divide the world into good guys and villains, but Kasia insists on it. Most disturbing is her apparent belief that violence is justified against bad guys simply because they are the bad guys, as defined by the very narrow perspective of her tribe. The suggestion that the bad guys are bad because they are violent, and that being violent back makes you a bad guy seems to be a challenging concept to Kasia.

[I blame the early My Little Pony movies, which featured various stereotypical witches and mean spirited villains; in contrast to more recent My Little Pony offerings (such as Minty’s Christmas) which feature intelligent, engaging adventures sans bad guys. We started horse-crazy Kasia on the current My Little Ponies episodes, which were harmless enough, then hunted down the originals for our addicted daughter, not realizing what a corrupting influence they would turn out to be. I hated those early My Little Pony episodes almost as much as Kasia loved them. Fortunately, she now seems to be outgrowing the franchise...]

So, over the last year or so I have been working on introducing more moral ambiguity into Kasia’s play world. First, some of the dolls started objecting to being cast as the bad guys in various games. This was a hoot, because 4-5 year old Kasia saw nothing unusual in a doll arguing its assigned role, and would enter long debates with various ‘actors’ about their roles, their presumed motivation, and whether they were becoming typecast. The point of the exercise was to break down the ‘beauty=good’, ‘ugly=bad guy’ stereotype – and, frankly, to delay the moment when the next pony would fall off a cliff or get captured.

More recently, I have been working on showing the bad guy’s perspective. For example, I had a long series of bedtime stories / role-plays (story time has a tendency to become scripts for playtime, and playtime ‘rules’ tend to restrict the range of options for story time) in which the princess and her pink pony are the subject of persecution by the Wicked Witch of the West. (Borrowing wholesale for bedtime stories falls under ‘fair use’, right?) It slowly emerges, however, that the Wicked Witch has been the victim of a smear campaign, and that she is in fact the aggrieved party here. Although initially intrigued by the moral ambiguity presented, Kasia was clearly disturbed by the introduction of shades of grey, and has recently asked if we could go back to the original stories where it was just the good princess vs. the Wicked Witch....

Kasia's drawing of a pony

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

New Job

See announcement of my new positionwith Five Rivers (moonlighting of course; I'm still a professor for my day job) .

It's been an interesting journey: I started by reading and reviewing Lorina's first novel, Shadow Song, which is a brilliant example of why some great literature has to be self-published (in contrast to most self-publishing, which has been turned down for good reason.) That led to me discussing trends in publishing with Lorina and her role as a rapidly growing micropublisher (see earlier posts). The more we talked, the more I became convinced that she and others like her represent the future of SF publishing, And I've been looking for an oopertunity to get back into SF editing but all the other presses I was looking at kept missing what are for me the obvious trends of where things are going in the future. Lorina Stephens and Five Rivers seem to be positioning themselves at the cutting edge, right where I wanted to be.

I look forward to a long and fascinating association with Five Rivers.

Friday, July 24, 2009

On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing: A memoir of the Craft
By Stephen King 297pp.

Two-thirds of the way through writing my first novel, I felt the need for a little moral support, so ordered a shelf of books on writing from This one happened to be on top of the stack when I went on holidays and needed something for the plane.

The book quite surprised me: the first 94 and last 19 pages are in fact autobiography, which is certainly not what I expected from a book on writing. It's largely a pleasant surprise because this is Stephen King after all, so as autobiographies go, it's pretty slick. And it does rather support his contention that one must write what you are. A central theme of the book, once King gets around to the actual "how to write" section, is that one must "write the truth", by which he means, in part, "write what you know." Thus, the "CV" portion of the book serves as back-story to demonstrate where Stephen King the writer came from; and, perhaps, even to go some distance towards answering that perennial question, "where do you get your ideas?"

There are some quite compelling insights here, including the revelation that "The Shinning" was likely a call for help during his own losing struggles with alcohol and drugs (p. 89). (King subsequently (p.92) directly addresses the Hemingway stereotype of the creative genius as necessarily a drunkard, and makes a compelling case that this is a literary creation without basis in reality: the two conditions are unrelated.)

The actual section on writing is also quite engaging, its only failing King's abhorrence of adverbs, against which he strongly warns the reader. This is of course nonsense, but a fallacy shared by the majority of Americans, so one for which a prolific writer of American fiction may be forgiven. King sets up the strawman of the evil adverb by providing numerous examples of appalling misuse, with which he then attempts to tar an entire part of speech. British authors (and by extension, Canadian writers) being native speakers of English are better equipped to use the adverb correctly. Far worse, in my view, is the inexcusable American habit of dropping the 'ly' from an adverb and pretending it is an adjective.

But that one aberration aside, just about everything else King has to say resonated strongly with me, not only as a writer, but also as an instructor. For example, he devotes quite a few pages to the need to finish a first draft before showing it to anyone else. I have experienced, and frequently observed in colleagues and students, the death of stories or articles critiqued too soon.

Rough drafts are often that, and not everyone can look at one's initial attempts and see the potential it could have once properly revised and polished. It's all too easy for a casual observer to dismiss a rough draft as "not very strong" or complain that the "ideas just doesn't make sense". And often the author will look at what they have so far, see the holes that have just been pointed out to them, and give up. But this misses the point that first drafts are always weak.

This is particularly a problem with my grad students, who constantly compare their own tentative first efforts against the finished product of others' published articles/stories. They don't realize that that published story/article they are using as the standard went through eleven drafts, four colleagues, and an editor to end up like that. The initial draft of those now successfully published pieces might well have been much, much worse than what they currently have on their own screen. But never having seen anyone else writing (writing being largely a solitary act), they often assume that writing comes easily to everyone but them, and that if their first draft is this weak, then they might as well just give up on this story/article.

For King, the secret is putting the completed manuscript away for six months and to work on something else entirely, so that one can return to it with fresh eyes, completing the rewrite from a more detached perspective. I completely agree. But that's not always possible for grad students working against the deadline for thesis completion. Nevertheless, I encourage students to keep moving forward to finish the full first draft all the way through before revising anything, because (a) by the time they get to the end, they will have gained at least a little distance on the earlier chapters, which aids in spotting needed revisions; (b) there is no point revising something to a high polish early on, only to discover that that section has to be fundamentally changed, deleted or replaced when one gets to the end and realizes that's not where they needed to get to in the end; (c) after one has a complete draft and sees how it all kind of hangs together, our egos are better positioned to hear constructive feedback – the project is less fragile than in the early stages when one's ideas are still quite tentative and one's ego vulnerable; (d) pragmatically, one has a better chance of passing with a weak but completed thesis than with the first three brilliantly refined chapters of an incomplete thesis.

Another point on which I largely agree with King is his reservations about writers' workshops. I think these can be invaluable if handled correctly, but too many are as he describes them: too vague feedback on too early drafts:

How valuable are [these daily critiques]? Not very, in my experience, sorry. A lot of them are maddeningly vague. I love the feeling of Peter's story someone might say. It had something...a sense of I don’t know...there's a loving kind of you know...I can't exactly describe it.

Other writing-seminar gemmies include I felt like the tone thing was just kind of you know; The character of Polly seemed pretty much stereotypical; I loved the imagery because I could see what he was talking about more or less perfectly.

And instead of pelting these babbling idiots with their own freshly toasted marshmallows, everyone else sitting around the fire is often nodding and smiling and looking solemnly thoughtful. In too many cases the teachers and writers in residence are nodding, smiling, and looking solemnly thoughtful right along with them. It seems to occur to few of the attendees that if you have a feeling you just can't describe, you might just be, I don't know, kind of like, my sense of it is, maybe in the wrong fucking class.

Ouch! But all too often, uncomfortably close to the mark. I've been in some excellent writer's workshops where the attendees are more articulate and helpful than those depicted by King, or where the facilitator has intervened with probing questions to draw out more specific and therefore more constructive feedback from attendees. But I have grown increasingly skeptical about weekend or week-long retreats that consist of a random selection of aspiring writers, most of whom may not 'get' one's particular genre or style or intention; and where the timeframe between first draft and first reading is too close to be useful.

I think one requires a longer timeframe: Where one has a chance to draft, rewrite a couple of times, put the story away for a month or two, then revise again, and only take the story to the 'focus group' once it's ready to be published, just as a final check. For that, one requires an ongoing writer's circle, a small group of reliable reviewers (writers, editors, trusted readers) who can provide clear, concise, specific advice. A few writers who live in large urban centers may be able to develop a circle of such colleagues that physically meets in someone's home on a regular schedule; but more likely it’s a group of correspondents in other locales to whom one can send the manuscript when it is ready. (And it's a lot easier to dump a correspondent who doesn't work out – you just stop sending them your stuff as often – than it is to fire someone from a circle that meets physically.)

But back to King. I found On Writing an invigorating read because the personal anecdotes provide a context that successfully changes the tone of the book from the didactic of the typical "How to" manual, to a much more involving 'discussion' of the writing life. Although the book cannot directly critique my manuscript, I often find the most useful aspect of writers' workshops is just the validation of the writing life that comes from hanging with others who take writing seriously. Of course, reading On Writing is not really the same as hanging with Stephen King, but then, getting King to accompany me on the plane would have been a lot more expensive, and a lot less convenient, than just ordering the book from Amazon. So a recommended read.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Freelancing Video

Writer Simon Rose pointed out this hilarious and painfully accurate video on what it's like to be a freelance writer/editor/professional. Should be viewed by anyone thinking of 'going consultant' or of hiring one.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hawaii in the Summer

Our balcony at the Waikiki Sheraton -- Mary was able to get the room for $100 a night on Priceline, which has to be the deal of the year

We had only previously been to Hawaii in the winter. When I was growing up, Hawaii is where Edmontonians who could afford it went to escape Winter over Christmas. I never got to go as a kid, but I had always therefore assumed that Hawaii would be more crowded over Christmas holidays than at other times of year, and that Hawaii would be nearly deserted in the summer, because why would you pay all that money to leave Alberta for the two months Canada has decent weather? But of course, that understanding of Hawaii tourism turned out to be completely wrong-headed. Hawaii is way MORE crowded in the summer, filled to capacity with Americans from Texas and Arizona etc escaping the heat. So the experience of Hawaii is a little different in the summer, because the place is filled with American tourists (and a few Australians escaping their winter) rather than Canadians.

Having done Honolulu previously, we were focused primarily on the beach and fine dining this time through. One of Lethbridge's deficits is that there are no really fine restaurants, just chains (though that is slowly improving). So Mary and I in particular were really looking forward to Roy's, one of our favorite restaurants anywhere. We ate there twice, Hulla Grill twice, Duke's once, Keo's (a Thai restaurant -- order the 'Evil Jungle Prince'!), and Eggs and Things once (all highly recommended). We made up the rest of our meals at Planet Hollywood, the Cheeseburger Waikiki and Maui Taccos (which spoils you for any Canadian tacco chain ever again) because sometimes you just have to, you know, eat. Planet Hollywood is only okay chain restaurant food, but really good value for the money if you order the half price appetizers during happy hour or the breakfast. (We didn't get to eat at Le Mar, but we would have needed babysitting and a bigger budget to go there.) Roy's is especially wonderful, and to our amazement, a favorite of the kids' too. They have a great kid's menu, and give the kids the same three course dinning experience as adults, just with more kid-friendly food and prices. Almost worth the trip to Hawaii for Roy's alone.

Mary took the kids to the beach twice without me, giving me two mornings to write. That was great! Sitting on a balcony in Hawaii overlooking the beach and the ocean, is the way to write! An unexpected bonus was that, since I was essentially sitting still for hours keyboarding, a wonderful variety of birds came and sat on the edge of the balcony with me. I've never seen so many different types in a single day. And I made quite a bit of progress on my book. Other days I went with them to the beach, but since I can't swim, and burn at the mere sight of sunlight, Mary was still mostly stuck with supervising kids while I just found some shade and read. (Stephen King's On Writing, about which more in another post.)

The four day trips we planned were the trip to Sea Life Park, where we had the dolphin encounters (see earlier blog entry); the Hawaii Fire Surf Lessons for Tigana and Kasia; a trip to the Dole Plantation: a pleasant afternoon touring the historic plantation and doing the maze; and an afternoon in the Honolulu Zoo.

Tigana surfing well

Tigana surfing well -- but right into Kasia and her instructor! (The instructor had to pull Kasia under the water to keep Tigana's board from hitting her)

both kids going out to the waves

close up of Kasia with her instructor going out

We would highly recommend Hawaii Fire over other surfing lessons, especially when as in our case, kids are involved. Much cheaper lessons are available all along the beach at Waikiki, but the Hawaii Fire folk have two key advantages: one, they take you to a more sheltered, shallower beach which is ideal for learning on (lots of waves but manageable waves); and all the instructors are firemen --so, if you're going to have problems, these are the guys you want to respond.

The Zoo is considered a small one, but we found it highly enjoyable. As Mary pointed out, the entrance fee would have been worth it just to walk through the trees, bushes and flowers between the animal exhibits -- a great botanical garden. And the Zoo is cleverly laid out so that although its footprint in Waikiki is small, it seems quite big and takes a full afternoon to walk through. I was fascinated that even though we were only a few yards from apartment blocks on one side, the beach on the other, we felt completely isolated from the rest of the city; one really did feel as if one were out on the African savannah.

One of my favorites were the hippos, who were not only hugely huge magnificent beasties, but were enjoying themselves hugely playing ball -- no question about it, they were tossing that enormous green sphere around between them.

Kasia's favorites were the Zebras. Kasia is hypnotized by all things pony, and Zebras are apparently close enough to count. Here a zebra rolls in the dust to cool off. (I was tempted to point my hand like a gun and shout bang as it started to go over for a roll, but that probably would have meant years of therapy for Kasia, so I let it go.)

I'd recommend the zoo for anyone looking for a couple of hours away from the beach.

So, overall, a nice quiet vacation -- quiet days at the beach alternated with low key day trips. A great chance to detox from email and the stresses of our day jobs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dolphins Again

Strictly speaking, that's a Walphin that Tigana is dancing with: a dolphin -killer whale cross. But Kasia had so much fun kissing a dolphin on our first trip to Hawaii, we decided that the rest of us should try it.

Back to Hawaii

Following my teaching in Summer Session this June, we took off for vacation in Hawaii. Well, I went to Edmonton to check on my Mom for a couple of days first, and I took the dog with me to confuse the kids. Because we hadn't told the kids they were going to Hawaii, only that they would 'be joining Dad', whom they knew had gone to Edmonton. They understand the need to be in Edmonton to visit family and to attend to all the Estate matters I am still plowing through (even after all this time). Not fun for them, but borne with stoic understanding that the family needed to do this. So Mary picked them up from school on their last day, drove them to the airport in Lethbridge, where they boarded a plane for Calgary, the usual transfer point to Edmonton. Mary had set them up perfectly by telling Tigana that they would drive up, but then giving in to Tigana's asking to fly up instead. (Tigana had used the argument that since I had already driven up earlier in the week, we already had a car in Edmonton, so there was no need for them to endure the six hour car trip. Mary had graciously acceeded to this request, never letting on that it was all a con.) So I flew down to Calgary from Edmonton, and was sitting in the airport Tim Horton's as they got off the plane. Kasia sees me, runs over and hugs me, as Tigana goes, "I thought we would be meeting you in Edmonton?"

Robert: "Ready to start the Grand Adventure of Summer in Edmonton."

Tigana: "Yeah, right."

Robert:" What, you don't want to spend summer in Edmonton?"

Mary: "Kasia, where do you want to go?"

Kasia: "Hawaii!" (This was a safe bet: Kasia always answers 'Hawaii' to questions like 'where would you like to have dinner tonight?' Besides a standing joke, Kasia asks us at least once a week why don't we live in Hawaii. We're having an increasingly difficult time thinking up an answer.)

Mary and I look at each other and shrug. "Okay, why didn't you say so. Let's go to Hawaii."

Tigana: "Whaatt? Youmeanaghghghghghghghghghgyeaahhhwhoooo!"

And so on. So an hour later, three hours after school ends, we're enroute to Hawaii via Vancouver.

Of course, we will be paying for this for the rest of our lives because now every time we take them to Edmonton they're going to be spending the entire trip saying, "Yeah, where are we going really?"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Last Cup of Tea

Now that Mom is over 100, she had become increasingly frail.

She has become so thin, that her skin is essentially transparent, like those "living skeletons" used in biology classes: her bones and blood vessels, and what little muscle mass remains, are all clearly visible. The cell phone photo below doesn't really capture the effect, since it's hard to tell that you're looking through the layer of skin here; but you can maybe get a sense of the skin if you look at the wrinkles, which are like ripples on the surface of a pond; you only see the medium you're looking through when something disrupts the surface. Or look across the top of the fingers, you can sort of see the gleam of a reflection floating just above the bone; that's her skin. I can actually watch the blood flowing through her arteries/veins.

My mother's hands

What makes this particularly disconcerting is that I also had the experience of watching the blood stop flowing. I was, as is my custom when visiting her, holding and stroking mom's hand. This seems to provide her with some comfort. But on one occasion I happened to glance down as my thumb crossed various veins and arteries, and realized that I was cutting off the blood flow in each one in turn. I could actually see the blood stop moving, back up, and the color draining away 'downstream' as the supply was momentarily cut off. And I wasn't pressing hard; the lightest touch imaginable. That left me in a bit of a quandary, pitting psychological support against blood supply.

Then today, I happened to be watching one blood vessel as she crooked her fingers to take the cup handle to drink her soup, and I watched the blood in one of the vessels struggle to climb the 'hill' created by the bend, and not making it: little droplets of blood would climb half way up, like cars on a train, but roll back at the last moment.... It was unnerving. I also noticed dozens of little bruises all over, which I deduce are caused by blood vessel failure. (Quite aside from the fact that I have complete faith in the staff at her nursing home, the location of these bruises are completely wrong as 'grab points' or bed sores, but adjacent to what appears to be the end of a blood vessel.)

Similarly, whereas I used to rub her neck for her whenever I visited, there simply isn't any detectable muscle mass back there for me to message any longer. Looking at her arms and legs, the increasingly number of bruises, and her general frailness, I worry that her time is running out; but listening to her chatting away and laughing at my jokes, I think she she's good for another four years.

Much of what she has to say doesn't really make sense, at least not as part of our consensual reality. It is perfectly consistent and reasonable if one is prepared to accept that my mother, like the hero of Slaughterhouse Five has come loose in time and is moving back and forth through her life; or that there is an afterlife, and it consists largely of visiting with friends and relatives. Whenever I ask what she was doing today, she answers, "Not much of anything today. I was up late visiting with _____ (fill in the blank -- today it was our wonderful neighbours of 30 years ago, the Whitbreads) so decided to just take it easy today." Sometimes this comes across as her remembering some event from years before; more often, these seem to be current visits with those from beyond the veil. It's hard to explain exactly, but the visits sound to me as accurate projections of how people would have interacted had they been all gathered together in the same room, though most of them had never met in this world, at least not as adult contemporaries, being from different generations. Mom is now constantly with her mother, her sister, my brother, and sometimes one or more of her brothers. These are the people she talks with while I'm with her, and to whom she often attempts to pass the cup I have just put into her hands. "Tea Evie?" she'll ask. Significantly, she never sees anyone in this group or as visitors come to call on this group, who are still alive. When she talks about my visits or those of Ron, my other surviving sibling, it is quite clear that she is referring to our visits to her in the nursing home, and not to the group in the Garden (behind her mother's house in 1948), the usual setting for those visiting in the beyond. If mom were just "confused", wouldn't one expect her to mix up the quick and the dead?

One purpose of my visits serve is to get my mom a cup of tea. She likes a cup of tea of an evening, but it is not included in her official nursing home diet, so she only gets it when I'm there. She is supposed to be drinking an 'Ensure' type drink, which they thoughtfully warm for her, and which she seems to quite enjoy; but ultimately, it's not her beloved cup of tea. I realize that the tea fills her up without providing nutrition, but one has to balance nutrition against the psychological value of a really good cup of tea. And I do use one of her protein drinks as the 'cream' substitute, so I do get something into her. This trip, however, I was forced to acknowledge that the logistical issues had become untenable, and it was with great sadness that I realized that this might well be her very last cup.

I'd noticed on my last few trips that Mom was having increasing difficulty with sitting up straight: she now perpetually leans 35 degrees to the left. No amount of pushing her upright seems to help; she immediately re-adjusts to what must seem level to her, and actively resists attempts to help her hold her cup straight, complaining that I'm going to spill the contents to the right, when I manage to hold the cup level for a second. I've heard about people who've had strokes being skewed from the vertical like this, and given that mom is totally blind, she can't even use visual cues to keep herself aligned. This isn't a huge problem for the staff or I spooning in her pureed dinner, and she can usually manage her cup of (usually quite thick) soup by herself, though some days as much lands on her apron-sized bib as in her mouth, dribbling off the left edge of the tilted cup. But tea is a different matter entirely. Mom likes it hot, and being significantly thinner than the soup, her trembling hand and bad angle inevitably send near scalding tea splashing onto, and soaking through, her bib. Doubling the layers of the bibs helps a bit in terms of keeping her from getting burned, but ultimately, the experience is no longer a calming one. She is aware of the tea dribbling off her lips, and her hand feels around for the lake of tea on her lap, and of course it upsets her that she has spilled. Cold drinks present no such problem, being drunk through a straw, but even if I could keep the tea cool enough to drink with a straw, it is not really the full 'tea' experience anymore.

One minor compensation is that I will no longer have to deal with the problem of Aunt Evie. Whenever I would offer Mom a cup of tea, she would inevitably pause half way to her first sip and say, "but you haven't gotten any tea for Evie!" There would follow several minutes of frantic cup chasing as Mom would say, "Here Evie, take my cup!" and reach out to place the cup in Evie's hands, which did not, as it happen, extend into this world. I was generally able to intercept the cup before it crashed to the floor/spilled over Mom's legs, but this would often engender some conflict as Mom would demand to know "what are you playing at?" trying to grab away the cup of tea she was offering her sister. And it became quite clear over the months that while there is a good supply of buns and scones on the other side, it is apparently impossible to get a really good cup of tea. (In this context, the Red Rose ad campaign, "only in Canada, eh?" takes on an entirely new dimension.) I have the strong impression that Evie, although quite happy with 'life' over there, would dearly like a cup of tea and a cigarette. Asking my Mom or I for a cigarette is a lost cause, but she does seem to feel the prospects for a cup of tea worth pursing. I have not yet worked out the theological implications of all this.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Sunburst Short List Announced

The shortlist for the Sunburst Award has been announced, and I was a bit surprised by how few of the finalists I had actually heard of, let alone read. It just goes to show how many Canadian authors are writing SF these days, and how diversified the field has become. Really, very impressive!

Bit disappointed that more of my personal favorites were not short listed, like Lorina Stephen's Shadow Song, which is certainly literary enough for this juried award -- but then, I notice Kenneth Oppel only manages an honorable mention, so if a Governor General's award winner doesn't meet the standard....

I really appreciate how the shortlist was announced. The webpage shows the cover (good way to get a sense of tone for a book, at least sometimes) the cover blurb (let the book speak for itself), a comment from the jury (quick review explaining why it qualified for award), and brief bio identifying the author. All very informative. Certainly get a good overview of which titles would be of interest as readers of the genre; and a good overview of what's out there in Canadian SF these days.

Will have to add all these titles to my wish list....

My heartfelt thanks to the Jury and all those that made the award possible -- obviously a lot of work being done here to highlight Canadian SF, and obviously being very successful!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Expresso Book Machine

Went up to visit my mom this weekend, and stopped into the UofA bookstore to have a look at the Expresso book machine.

The UofA machine is a custom built model one (though you can't see 'em in this photo, it has four printers attached instead of the usual one) was installed Nov. 2007.

Apparently the machine attracted a lot of publicity when it was installed, but living 500 k away in Lethbridge, I hadn't heard of it at the time. Having recently seen the video on the version 2, I sought the machine out and was surprised to find that the UofA had already been using theirs for a couple of years.

I was extremely impressed by both the quality of the books being printed -- they were distinguishable from the regular pocket books or trade paperbacks on the nearby shelves only by the superior crispness of the Expresso's interior printing -- and by the passion of the woman in charge who clearly took pride in her work, and went out of her way to be helpful.

The original version was just kind of dumped in the back of the bookstore, and the operator had to figure it out -- no training provided -- and she also has to do the repairs herself. It's not like having a photocopier where you just phone the service guy. When something breaks that she can't fix herself, they have to fly an engineer up from the factory floor. But the flip side of that need for self-reliance was the complete sense of ownership and commitment to the process-- we talked at some length about how she'd experimented with different types of paper and ink and cover stock to arrive at the perfect combination. And she really does produce a superior product. She showed me a book from the UofA Press, and her copy of the same book, and I literally couldn't tell the difference. Given that many of the smaller presses are opting for cheaper paper and particularly cheap coverstock and bindings, the Expresso product is clearly superior.

The version 2 is smaller, easier to operate, and cheaper. She told me that the Expresso people had spent a lot of time debriefing her about the machine and incorporated a lot of her feedback into the Version 2. So it's the version 2 that's being rolled out as a commercial mass market product.

The sociological implications of this machine are staggering. When it first came out ten years ago, the product was not that great and a lot of people who looked at the first two gigantic clunky machines were not impressed. But the woman at the UofA told me that those were just concept demo models and never intended for commercial use. So there was a lot of talk about publishing on demand (POD) back then, but the legacy publishers sort of pooh poohed it.

But the version at the UofA is a different matter entirely. These books do not look like amateur photocopied knockoffs -- these look like what they are, legitimate books. The day I was there, she was printing off copies of Kim Campbell's autobiography. The legacy publisher that had originally brought the book out isn't interested in warehousing a few thousand copies or processing occasional orders -- the big publishers require big numbers to achieve economies of scale -- but by POD Campbell can keep the book in print and make it available if and when needed. Similarly, profs can self-publish texts for their own courses (publishers aren't interested unless the course or its equivalent is offered across multiple campuses), authors can self-publish, and so on. One budding local SF author had printed 50 copies on the Expresso and taken the book to a bookfair -- where Penguin bought the book and signed the author. Others use the Expresso to print off fifty copies (or just one!) of the family history, or their collection of blog posts, or whatever. The possibilities are endless.

This, I think, changes everything.

For the price of the machine (about $150,00) one could open a bookstore. The only space requirement would be a counter, enough room for the photocopier-sized machine, and a cash register. Personally, I would throw in an expresso coffee machine and half a dozen tables so people could have a latte while they wait, though since it only takes about 10 minutes to print and bind your book, there is a danger that your book would be ready before your coffee. It would be sooo easy to add this to any of the existing coffee shops (Starbucks/second cup/Esquires/etc) in town. No hundreds of feet of bookshelves, no rent, no stock, no stock-taking, no theft, no shopworn books, no sending unsold books back, no remaindering books that you couldn't sell, no being stuck with unsold books. Nothing but a terminal where customers browse through any of the 650,000 titles available online. Or bring in their own flash card with he book they want. So infinitely more selection than existing bookstores; but no waiting four days for delivery from the online stores and no shipping costs. Lower carbon footprint for shipping and wasted paper. Win-win-win.

Just like the ipod effectively eliminated the need for record stores or record companies and individuals can simply record their garage band and upload it to the net; now authors can simply upload their books to the net, and people can download to their Kindle or sony reader -- or PRINT IT OUT AS AN ACTUAL BOOK.

Or to approach the topic from the opposite direction: By sheer coincidence, the other person I talked to on campus this weekend was UofA engineering librarian Randy Reichardt. Randy took me round to look at some recent acquisitions the Uof A library had made related to SF fandom, fanzines from the 1930s and 1940s, SF fandom being a mutual interest of ours. These included copies of many legendary fanzines from that era that I had heard of but never seen. These amateur SF magazines were produced on hectographs (how many of you have ever seen a hectographs? I've only ever seen 1 and I am OLD) and Gesteners (ABDick in the States). The hectograph art had stood up very well over time (unlike ditto which often promptly faded to invisibility). There followed a discussion of our own fanzine years, and the sadness that that era was now over. Modern fans -- with a few rare exceptions -- don't produce fanzines anymore, but instead produce webpages and blogs. These formats are obviously much superior: color is as cheap as black and white; there are no mailing costs; no printing costs; and the audience / print run (potentially) infinitely larger. As wonderful a vehicle for fandom as the internet is, I still miss the old days of the printed zine.

Well...with the Expresso Book Machine, or other POD systems, those days are back again. Only this time, we're talking whole books! It has once again become ridiculously easy to put out your own product. Cost is 7 cents a page, so a hundred page book comes out as $7.00 (same cost for trade paper or pocket book, though you get more words per page in the trade). Add on shipping and handling, and what, $10? Which is what pocketbooks cost these days, and half the price of a trade paperback.

see CBC Sparks radio program on similar trend towards turning blogs posts into newspapers.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Not one of my best moments...

This is wrong on so many levels, but they say confession is good for the soul....

Wednesday I had a couple of teeth on the upper right crowned, only one of them turned out to be past saving, and the dentist had to pull it instead. So getting a tooth pulled isn't great, and the extraction was 'complicated' -- which means it felt like they had to break my upper jaw/skull to get it out, but okay, what's done is done. They sent me home to take Advil and hope for the best.

I have to say, getting massive amounts of Advil in there before the swelling started worked wonders for keeping the tooth pain down to mild background noise, though the bleeding did make me nauseous, and Advil doesn't agree with my stomach all that well. The hole in my upper jaw where the tooth used to be reminded me pretty fast if I forgot to take the next dose on time, or if a stray piece of pasta wandered over to the side of the mouth I wasn't eating on. But four days on, it's not exactly foreground.

Enter my wife's amazing spaghetti sauce. She's trying to keep to foods I can chew easily, right? But her spaghetti sauce is really good so it's no hardship for me or the kids. In fact, I blame her for what happens next.

We have this wicked spaghetti ladle, specially designed to scoop up spaghetti in its wickedly long prongs. And having finished my portion of tonight's spaghetti, and as much of the kids' portion I could sneak off their plates when they were off arguing about something, there was still a little smidgen left in the cooking pot -- which I scooped up on said pronged ladle, and, um, stuck in my mouth.

As I said, not one of my best moments.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


This is pretty interesting: trailer for "Between the Folds".
See also this great 18 minute TED talk on Origami. First rate, worth your time!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The first two chapters of Edward Willett's lastest SF novel, Terra Insegura, are available as a podcast. Willett has the advantage over other authors that as a long-time radio personality (regular science guy stuff on CBC Regina) he is completely comfortable with the podcast format.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

100th Birthday

Sunday, April 5th, was my mother's 100th birthday. It was a small affair, attended only by myself, my wife, and our two daughters. There were several reasons we didn't want to make too big a deal out of it.

First, my mom has good days and bad days, and I didn't much care for the idea of having a lot of people descend on my mom's nursing home if it turned out to be one of the bad days. In the event, she was mostly okay. (The nurse told me that mom hadn't wanted to get out of bed that morning, but that they had coaxed her into her wheel chair because they knew we were coming.) She was awake for most of the two hours we were there, and not in too much pain, and alert and in moderately good spirits, so we could have had more visitors, but you never know.

Mom having a cup of tea as one of the nurses we really like joins us for the celebration.

Tigana, Kasia (just peeking in over Tigana's shoulder), me, and Mary with my Mom on her 100th birthday. Mom is appreciatively cuddling with the extra soft, fuzzy purple blanket we gave her as a birthday present.



Second, we had had a big reception for mom's 90th, when she still lived on her own, and Mary had catered for about 60 people. But when we looked at the invitation list from that birthday, except for a few relatives, there wasn't actually anyone left on it... Mom has managed to outlive all of her friends and contemporaries. The one niece who still lives in Edmonton offered to come, but had to cancel at the last minute as her husband came down with a terrible cold -- and you don't take a bad cough into a nursing home (unless you're looking for an earlier inheritance).

Third, I wasn't sure how big a deal to make of the fact that mom had made it to 100. When we last discussed her age earlier this year, she thought she was about 92. When I told her she was actually 99, she became very depressed, and said "Well, if that's true, then I'm done!" Fortunately, she forgot the conversation, and when I returned the next day, thought she was in her 80s.

One of mom's surviving nieces (a woman Mom considers the daughter she never had) sent a great card. It's almost impossible to find a card that says "Happy 100th", 'cause, let's face it, there's not that large a market. And being blind, mom can't actually read her cards anymore. So they picked a birthday card that played "The Age of Aquarius" (which Mom could hear if not see); and the card read: "On your birthday, free you mind — it's not the age you are it's the age you believe in". Which is way too funny, given my mom's situation!

Most of the time Mom is in her Mother's back garden, having tea with her mother and her sister Evie, with occasional visits from either her brothers Tom and Charlie, or my brother Doug. It's 1948, she's 39, and her father has just passed away. She spends a lot of her time there, which in my view is a perfectly good place to be if the alternative is bedridden, blind, mostly deaf, and bored in a nursing home. The only problem for me is that mom isn't always clear on who I am, since in her world I won't be born for another 3 years; but she does seem to remember my daughters, Tigana and Kasia. I think their having unusual names helps her keep them straight. She hasn't remembered who Mary is since Mom went to the nursing home.

On my last visit up to Edmonton, Mom had started talking about her aunts, Rose, Daisy and Violet, whom she believed were staying with her at her house. As she chatted away about them, I thought, "say, here's a chance to take some notes!" because it is a part of the family genealogy I don't know well. (Mom was the one who kept all our relations straight, with Doug as our backup, but since her memory has failed and Doug is gone, there is no one left to ask who is who.) So I started jotting down some things and asking mom a few questions, hoping to probe a bit, but had to stop when mom mentioned that her dad had recently died (in her world) as the result of being attacked by raccoons. Oops. I'm pretty sure if it had been raccoons, someone would have mentioned that somewhere along the line, so I had to concede that mom's Alzheimer's makes her an unreliable source, and abandon my note-taking.

Her 100th birthday visit was good. She only eats pureed foods now, so we mashed up a piece of birthday cake with some tea (her drink of choice) and she wolfed that down faster than anything I've seen her eat in the last decade. When I commented that I hoped it wouldn't spoil her supper (her not eating enough being an issue) she responded that the birthday cake was a heck of a lot better than supper! (Actually the food in this particular nursing home is better than most; even pureed, Mom usually says how much she enjoys the food. She's just, at 100, not that interested in eating any more.) We gave her an extra soft, cuddly, purple fuzzy blanket for her birthday present, as she is perpetually cold, and she seemed to really like it, refusing to let go of it for the duration. And I got her a cup of tea, the one thing she can never get enough of.

For us, her reaching 100 is great in the sense that she has had a long and largely good life. She was taking care of herself right up to her move to the home two or three years ago; and was mostly lucid up to my brother's passing last year. His daily visits provided the stability she needed to stay anchored in this world, though she had already started to visit with her mom and Evie on a regular basis. But actually being 100 kind of sucks, and it saddens me to see how far her health has declined this year. Still, as long as she is happy visiting relatives, and she is not in too much pain, well and good.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Rejection Letters

Lorina Stephens, author of Shadow Song reviewed here previously, has posted to her blog the rejection letters she received from the mainstream press before turning to self-publishing. I found the letters -- the reasons she was given by various publishers for not publishing her historical cultural fantasy novel -- fascinating, both as someone who read and loved the book, and as an aspiring writer myself. I asked Lorina if I could reprint her column here; my own commentary on the letters follows:

Every writer gets them, those dreaded letters, forms, slips of paper or, more currently, emails that either cryptically or in detail describe why it is their work won't be appearing on that publisher's list.

Given the reviews and success I'm meeting as a self-published author, who grew weary with excuses and the ritual of the publishing world, I thought I'd post five of many rejections I received for my novel, Shadow Song. You may, or may not, find them of interest.

You write well, and you've obviously done homework on the Indian ritual and custom, but it seems to me that the book is too quiet and 'domestic' in its tone to do well for us just now.

Susan Allison
The Berkley Publishing Group
July 26, 1990

Though I liked your storytelling I'm afraid that I was unable to stir the enthusiasm of the powers that be for the Canadian Frontier subject matter.

Brian Thomsen
Senior Editor
Warner Books, Inc.
August 28, 1990

The event you have chosen to focus on is indeed loaded with possibilities however, the novel you have chosen to write about it seems to me to fall right between the genres of adult, almost romantic, fiction and young adult. By that I mean, I regret, that it is neither one nor the other -- it is too coy for adult readers and too violent for the younger readers (although I realized young people are reading and watching things that would probably terrify me."

You are also flying in the face of current sentiment about non-native writers (I am making an assumption about you here that could be quite incorrect) writing about native people. Native readers and writers are becoming both hostile vocal about their portrayal by non-natives and there will be opposition.

Susan Girvan
Editorial Co-ordinator
Macmillan of Canada
October 20, 1990

The premise is very interesting indeed, but the story moves along rather slowly. In view of the fact the sample is around 12,500 words long, yet it includes only the first two paragraphs of the synopsis, it looks to me as if the book is well over 100,000 words. This is not an economically feasible length for a first novel. You might want to think about conflating incidents and varying the emphasis to both shorten the book and speed up the narrative.

Laurel Boone
Acquisitions Editor
Goose Lane Editions
April 8, 1996

The following are the reasons that we found your submission unsuitable:

  • requires a fair amount of editing, which we don't provide to that degree
  • writing in first person does not appear to enhance the protagonist's development
  • not enough fantasy, too conventional
  • characters seem extremely predictable

  • We hope that this does indeed help you to better target your work for the market it is suited for.

    Kimberly Gammon
    Editorial & Sales Manager
    HADES Publications

    Posted by Five Rivers Chapmanry at 4/02/2009 06:20:00 AM


    That first rejection (from Berkley) leaves me banging my head against the wall. "Too quiet and domestic?" What the ???! Because, writing from female point of view is domestic, is it? Three rapes, four murders, and being stalked relentlessly is now considered "too quiet"? I guess Lorina needed to work in a couple more car chases?!

    I sympathize more with the Warner rejection. Thomsen clearly liked the book but couldn't sell Canadian content to an American publisher. That has a very long Canadian tradition -- Lorina is in fine company with that one.

    I get Girvan saying that it crosses too many genre boundaries to be marketable. Never mind that that is one of the big pluses of the book for me as a reader (Lorina's book certainly taught me a thing or two about historical romance -- I promise to stop making disparaging remarks about that genre ever again) the fact remains that publishers today are driven by the marketing department not the editors, so clear market category is a necessity of commercial success, if not artistic integrity. So I understand that they didn't know how to market Shadow Song, but it doesn't make me happy with the state of publishing.

    The comment on cultural appropriation is also understandable, if quite wrong in this instance. I can see a publisher not wanting to put themselves in the middle of a controversy when it has 200 other manuscripts with no such potential baggage. But aside from the fact that controversy is as likely to sell books as not, no one who read this book could accuse it of appropriation because it is clearly written from the point of view of the English heroine, not the natives. I think this comment must come from reading the synopsis rather than the book itself.

    I never heard of Goose Lane Editions, but since when does a Canadian publisher complain a book is 'too slow'? "Moves along slowly" is quintessentially Canadian, and one of the things I loved about this book. You don't get the sensual descriptions, the depth of character, the underlying tension of the relentless pursuit in a fast paced narrative. I am so tired of TV pacing that introduces a problem and solves it within 22 minutes (plus commercials). This book needs all the space it takes, and there isn't a wasted word or a redundant scene anywhere.

    I am more sympathetic to the economic reality that it is harder to justify the risk of a thick book on a new author, but by god, did they READ the book? Some risks are worth taking, and this book definitely will find its audience. I think what they are really saying is that they are too small time to be able to afford it.

    As for Hades Publishing, what can I say? I would have to agree that there are not enough fantasy elements for the book to fit comfortably within their fantasy line, so I would be okay if they had just said that, though again, it must be frustrating for Lorina having a great book nobody is able to market within their little niches -- but the other comments are just completely off the mark. I have to say, this has certainly given me pause about sending them my own manuscript. Some of the books Hades has sent me to review are appallingly bad (too bad for me to actually review) so I just thought they were having trouble finding the great books -- that they were so dismissive of Lorina's manuscript is... troubling.

    Though again, to be fair, the problem may be that they are responding to a synopsis, rather than the book itself. Could anyone sell a synopsis based on Romeo and Juliet? McBeth? The plots are stupid and predictable, if viewed in that light, but the writing...! And while I didn't see Lorina's novel as predictable -- certainly not the ending I expected -- I wonder how any plot synopsis can really do justice to any book, let alone one so based on characterization, sensual description, and spirituality.

    I wish more authors would print their rejection letters. It certainly will help me face my own inevitable rejection letters if I see books as good as Lorina's garnering such comments. But then I and other beginning writers have long been sustained by the stories of great novels which had been repeatedly rejected prior to their ultimate publication to critical acclaim and financial success. Alexei Panshin's first novel, Rites of Passage comes to mind, published by legendary editor Terry Carr as part of the initial round of the Ace Specials in the mid-1960s. After what? 28 rejections? Or was it 43? The details are a bit hazy at this remove, but the point was Panshin had just decided to give up on the novel, shelved it permanently after receiving the latest rejection, when Carr called him up and asked (based on having read a couple of Panshin's short stories while editing a best of collection) 'You don't have a novel kicking around by any chance, do you?"

    I can't imagine what Grade 10 would have been like for me without Panshin's fiction. I wrote my first English paper on a comparison of Rite of Passage with (mandatory Grade 10 novel) To Kill a Mocking Bird. The adventures of Anthony Villiers was 3/4 of the basis of the subculture of the group I hung with in high school. (Okay, admittedly we were total nerds, but come on --Anthony Villiers, people! This was the 60s after all.)

    Anyway, one cannot help but reflect on how many Alexei Panshins out there never got that phone call, never ultimately got published; and whether they would have availed themselves of the print on demand options available to modern authors; and whether we, the readers, could have found them -- the signal -- among all the noise....

    However reassuring it is to realize that one's book can be still worthy, even if repeatedly rejected -it is also necessarily terrifying. What if nobody ever gets it?

    Well, not nobody, I guess. I love my book, even if no one else ever will....