Reminder: I’m in Chicago Next Tuesday, 10/21, at the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park, 6pm

Yes, if you’re in or around the University of Chicago — my alma mater — or, heck, just in the city of Chicago in general, come on down and see me. This is the very last official stop of the Lock In tour, and after this I have no more scheduled public appearances until 2015. So if you want to see me this year, this is the time and the place.

Here are all the details. See you there!

One Song, Two Takes: “Kiteflyer’s Hill”

My pal (and musician and songwriter) Mark Nevin wrote a song called “Kiteflyer’s Hill” for Eddi Reader, with whom he had been in the band Fairground Attraction, for her solo album Angels and Electricity. He’s recently also done a version of it for his own solo album Beautiful Guitars, which will be out in the next week or so. I have the album, and it’s well worth getting if you’re a fan of genuinely lovely songwriting, and why wouldn’t you be.

“Kiteflyer’s Hill” is simply one of my favorite songs ever — it’s beautiful and wistful and gorgeous and captures what it’s like to remember a love of long ago — and I thought it would be fun to share the song done both by Mark and by Eddi, as a way to contrast how two takes of the same song can have an effect on the feel of the thing. I like them both: Mark’s is low-key, comfortable and lived-in, while Eddi’s soars up like, well, a kite, as it would with her matchless set of pipes. I hope you enjoy both.

First Mark’s version:

And now Eddi’s (note: video is slightly out of sync):

The Big Idea: Rajan Khanna

There are many interesting things about Rajan Khanna’s debut novel Falling Sky, but the one that pings my radar is that involves dirigibles, and that (of course!) noted dirigiblist Cory Doctorow plays a key role. Read on to find out how it all connects.

RAJAN KHANNA:

Like most novels, Falling Sky began with a sentence. It was a sentence I had written years ago and filed away, like I do with many of my story ideas. It involved a man, floating in a dirigible, afraid to go down to the ground. At the time I didn’t know why he was afraid, or what possibly lurked beneath him. I just knew he had to descend but didn’t want to. 

In 2008, when I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, I took that sentence with me. I wanted to turn it into a story, but I didn’t know where to take it. It was Paul Park, our first week instructor, who pointed me in the right direction. He said something along the lines of, “It can’t be a fantasy. You don’t want every person in this world in their own balloon.” Up until that moment, I thought I might. But I quickly shifted gears and decided it had to be science fiction and that despite the outlandish premise, I would make it as realistic as possible. 

What the man in the dirigible was afraid of became a pandemic, an apocalyptic disease that shattered modern society. A virus so contagious that it kept people isolated, afraid of being exposed or infected. The victims became, essentially, off the rack zombies (though in my defense it was late night/early morning as I was pulling this together and I was reaching for the low hanging fruit).

The man in the dirigible became Ben Gold, my protagonist, an airship pilot and survivor, staying in the air for as long as he could until his needs, primarily his hunger, sent him down to the ground to risk his life.

I had my initial hook – a post-apocalyptic setting, a rugged anti-hero in an airship, and a host of slavering, zombie-like creatures waiting below him. And while the story needed a lot of work, the setting seemed to generate some interest, enough that several of my classmates, and our instructor for that week, Mary Rosenblum, encouraged me to expand it into a novel. The other overwhelming bit of feedback was to ditch the zombies and make the disease more nuanced. So, when I revised it, instead of being fatal, the disease regressed humans into a savage and bestial state, robbing them of reason, increasing their hunger and aggression.

The third instructor to weigh in on the story was Cory Doctorow, who admirably went back and read the previous week’s stories. He suggested an extra scene where Ben, a lifelong survivor, is confronted with the horrifying lengths some people will go to in order to survive and it calls his choices into question. This would be very useful to me later.

Years went by and the story remained unpublished and a novel was missing from my mental landscape. I kept returning to the idea and bouncing off of it. It just didn’t have any life. Then one day, I found Ben’s voice. I heard it, in my head, in first person, and everything clicked in that moment.

So I had my high concept (post-apocalyptic adventure with airships) and, remembering what Cory helped me realize, I had my central idea — what it means to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. What is the cost of that survival? What does it mean to eke out existence in a shattered world? What lengths would you go to survive? Is there a point where survival by itself isn’t worth it anymore?

In the animal kingdom the basic point of life is often to live long enough to pass your genes on to the next generation. But is that enough for human beings? What about a world where procreation is often a danger because of the risk of infection? And how much of your humanity can you hold onto, and which parts, in the face of losing it to a disease?

Furthermore, is survival really the point at all? If Ben is the face of survival in the book, Miranda, one of the other main characters, is the face of idealism. At the start of the novel, Ben has joined up with Miranda and her group of scientists, helping to provide them with transport and protection. Miranda is trying to find a cure for the virus and believes that one is possible. In fact she risks her life on a regular basis for that purpose. Ben thinks she’s crazy, that her idealism will get her killed (or infected), but in Miranda’s mind, it’s worth it. In her mind risking your life for something more than just survival is the only thing worth doing. Just keeping on is a losing game.

That conflict, between Miranda and Ben’s viewpoints, is at the heart of Falling Sky both in its constructive and destructive variations. Because remember, horrible things can be done in the name of survival, and terrible things can be done in the name of hope and progress, too.

Also, there are airships. Lots and lots of airships. Because airships are cool.

—-

Falling Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Our New Toy

We’ve been having a pretty good year here at the Scalzi Compound, and we decided to go ahead and splurge on something that Krissy has wanted for a while now. And here it is: A big ol’ hot tub that seats six, and a big ol’ gazebo to cover it. And thus we have become Hot Tub People, who will now have to give ourselves over to the hot tub lifestyle, complete with hot tub friends and hot tub parties, and, I don’t know, possibly hot tub sous vide six course meals (note: probably not that last one).

I’ve not a huge hot tub person myself, but you know what, I’m not going to lie: it’s pretty nice to soak in this baby after a long day of, well, whatever it is I do these days. I suppose there are worse things than become Hot Tub People.

No, don’t just invite yourself over. Wait for the invite, people.

Quick Procedural Note re: Comments and Embeds

Recently WordPress changed something on the backend relating to how comments are handled (not just here, but globally) and as a result urls for images now embed in comments. Well, I’m not a fan of that; images have the potential to send things off the rails pretty quickly. I’m talking to WordPress about pulling it from the site (they’ve been very helpful), but in the meantime I’m taking the precaution of sending comments with image urls into moderation. If you post one, it’ll get held up until I approve it. I don’t imagine this will be a problem for the vast majority of you.

Mind you, if you try to post an image that annoys me, it won’t make it out of moderation, and if you keep it up, you’ll find yourself in moderation. But, again, I don’t really expect this will be an issue with most of you. Most of you are lovely people.

The Scalzi Gender

First some tweets, and then some commentary.

There’s something both telling and sad about the sort of dude who literally thinks that a) impugning my masculinity is the worst possible thing they can say about me, b) that it’ll somehow lessen me if they do. On the former, meh. Given the ridiculous ideas that they have regarding masculinity, I’m happy not to meet their definition. On the latter, whatever. They’re idiots. I’m not inclined to care, outside of the opportunities it provides for pointing and laughing.

But I do think it’s useful to publicly mock their stupidity on such subjects, for the amusement and edification of others. I also think it’s particularly useful to mock their definition of masculinity and gender, and their baseline assertion that being male is the apotheosis of the human condition. It’s not; it’s merely one way to be. I’m okay with gender being more than binary; I’m okay with people having a gender other than mine; I’m okay with people shifting their idea of what their gender is over time. Because I don’t think one’s essential value is rooted in gender, and someone else’s gender is nearly always not my business anyway. I am for people being who they are, not who anyone else wants them to be, or demands them to be for their own selfish reasons. I’m for letting the world know that I think such a position is the most correct one to have. I’m for calling out people who try to make difficult for those who don’t conform to their own, usually bigoted, expectations.

Want to declare that because I don’t meet your pointless and stupid definition of “masculinity,” I should identify as another gender entirely? Awesome. I get to create a gender that doesn’t have your jackassedness riddling it front to back. The folks in my gender won’t be focused on being a “real man” or a “real woman” but on being “really me.” My gender will have all the best parties because we can do what we want, free of gender expectations! Because there are no gender expectations! My gender gets to love whoever they want! My gender gets to be whoever they want! My gender doesn’t care what you think my gender should be! My gender rocks. And it doesn’t need you, or care what you think of it.

If only it were as easy for people of every gender to be as free in theirs as I am in mine. Because of course that’s the thing: Even when these idiots declare me “not a real man,” it doesn’t change that I am always seen to be a “real man,” and that I get all the benefits that accrue to me for being biologically male, identifying as a man, and conforming to social standards for what both of those mean. The worst these dudes can do is be mean to me on the Internet. It doesn’t change anything about what I get from the world. And while I can mock them for it and proclaim the new Scalzi Gender in all its awesomeness, let’s just say that I know that it’s easy for me to do so, because in the end society has my back. Not everyone else gets to say the same. We need to be working on that.

The Big Idea: Sophie Littlefield

Uh oh. Now Sophie Littlefield has gone and done it. She has revealed, in her Big Idea piece for her latest novel The Missing Place, what sort of disreputable persons writers truly are! And she does it through a piece of jewelry!

SOPHIE LITTLEFIELD:

I often wear a small charm on a chain around my neck. You’ve seen the sort—a little silver ring inscribed with inspirational snippets like “Faith Friends Family.” Except that mine reads “Lie Cheat Steal.” At first it simply amused me, a secret antidote to the occasional tedium of everyday life, but over the years I have come to realize that it is in fact an apt motto for an author. Lying, of course, is the taproot of fiction; but cheating and stealing are its inevitable outgrowths. The authors I admire are thieves of the telling detail, stealing the look in a lover’s eye or the set of a pugnacious jaw, and the best inveigle their way so deeply and artfully into human interactions that their victims may never know what has been taken from them.

I went to Williston, North Dakota in January, 2013 to do research for THE MISSING PLACE, which is set in an oil boom town. I arrived on a small, trembling prop plane. Rented the only car available: dirty, outfitted with a cracked windshield and someone else’s fast food wrappers, with no snow tires on the eve of a major storm. Stopped at a truck stop for lunch; walked to my table under the gaze of thirty men dressed for hard labor and one harried waitress in a pink flannel shirt and a ponytail. Ate my scrambled eggs, watched and listened, and took notes.

“young guys beards, old guys shave”

“Wrangler Levis no upscale brand”

“truck/sedan 5:1?”

“smell—Aramis/cigarette smoke/rubber?/creosote?/coffee/cleaner, not Windex—industrial?”

“real butter not margarine—melted/re-refrigerated”

“easy listening, Eminem cover (???)”

I hunched over my notebook, not wanting anyone to see what I was doing. There is, for me, a keen sense of shame at being caught spying, because that’s what the early moments of a novel’s creation feel like to me: illicit, invasive, even assaultive. I steal from people—I steal their details, the tiniest pieces of them.

In the movie “Trading Places,” Eddie Murphy explains to Dan Akroyd that he can make a fortune by skimming pennies from financial accounts that contain huge sums of money. It will never be missed, he points out—it’s a virtually victimless crime. Observing people, perhaps, might be viewed the same way: the characters that eventually populate my books were not stolen whole cloth; I can say with confidence that no real person has ever been written into one of my books. But every character is stitched from stolen parts, like scarecrows made from rags of unknown provenance.

Maybe a better analogy is the nests that male bowerbirds, attempting to attract mates, create from anything they can lay their beaks on: leaves and flowers but also bits of cloths and stones and coins and plastic bottle caps and nails and even rifle shells. Anything, in other words, to get the job done—and all of it stolen.

A bird, however, is innocent; a bird simply fulfills its avian purpose, that for which the Creator destined it. An author is different. She is the outlier, possessor of the poisoned gene: normal people interact, attract and repel, but authors cannot leave well enough alone. Conversations overheard become stories germinated. Ordinary people become villains, victims, lovers; subtle clues convince the author they are gifted, misunderstood, endangered, celebrated, feared, doomed.

So I watch and listen and spy; I pilfer and plunder, appropriate and confiscate. You, friend from my past, did that scene between twelve-year-olds not trigger a memory? Or you, from that mortifying OKCupid date when we couldn’t find a single thing to talk about, didn’t you see yourself in the mirror of that fictional hotel room? And you most of all, perhaps, my former spouse, don’t you see yourself in every love story, every breakup and every murder? (I leave you clues, you know; if you read carefully you’ll recognize a shirt I bought you in Chicago or that fender-bender the day after you drove the Camry off the lot.)

A dozen books into my career, I recognize certain facts. One is that you can get away with a lot. Another is that you can get away with almost nothing. The latter refers to the fact that no matter what a critic praises you for, another will excoriate you for the same thing. The former is more interesting: when I take liberties, I’ve learned I’ll rarely be caught, whether it’s a historical inaccuracy or a stolen identity. Perhaps this is because a devoted reader invests the storyteller with her trust at the outset , trading skepticism for full immersion. The more skillfully the author describes, the more easily the reader overlooks the sleight-of-pen. Verisimilitude is more than enough, especially when truth—well, unvarnished truth can be mightily dull, which is why we choose fiction in the first place.

So I scribble on, stealing from you the things you won’t miss—the fake smile that disappeared from your face the second your husband turned away; the muttered threat when you squeezed your child’s arm in Target; that glance you gave the ass of the girl who could be your granddaughter. But also that cheap little cross you wear on a chain that slips over all your tattoos, the little tug you gave your teenaged daughter’s top when she wasn’t looking, the way you weren’t going to let anyone see how those Payless heels were killing your feet as you turned in your job application at the Petco.

All of it, snatched and spirited away and woven together, like the shiny objects in the bowerbird’s nest—to attract you, my dear reader. Like a kleptomaniac, I can’t stop; I’ll keep trying to catch your eye with my stories, to make you wander close. Lying, cheating, stealing: whatever it takes.

—-

The Missing Place: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

My Annual Plug and Appreciation for WordPress VIP

I was traveling on October 8, the official anniversary date, but today works just as well for this:

Hey, I’ve been using WordPress’ VIP service to host Whatever for six years now, and it has been consistently great during all that time: The site never goes down, never buckles under traffic or spikes, and on the very rare occasions when I do have a concern or issue, it’s addressed quickly, efficiently and by people who are awesome and easy to work with. Which is to say WordPress VIP takes the aggravation out of having a site and allows me to focus here on what I do best, which is write.

As I do every year, I unreservedly recommend WordPress VIP for folks hoping to run their sites with minimum possible levels of aggravation. It is the best hosting solution I’ve ever had. Likewise, for those folks who just want a corner of the Web to call their own, I can also recommend the standard WordPress offerings.

And, also once again, thanks to the people at WordPress VIP who have helped Whatever be a rock solid presence on the Web for the last six years. You folks are the best.

#PineapplePizzaGate

So, yeah. This was a bunch of fun.

On Using the “Mute” Button on Twitter

Yesterday I wrote about GamerGate on Twitter quite a bit, which had the effect of flooding my Twitter stream with comments by frothy lads intent on challenging me to single combat via “debate.” In this case (and indeed in most cases), this largely meant running down a cue card full of already-debunked talking points and/or attempting tired rhetorical tricks in an attempt to change the subject. These frothy lads very quickly met the thumpy end of my “mute” button, because no one has time for that.

That said, muting a couple dozen frothy lads on my tweet stream yesterday did give me some time to reflect on why, how and when I use Twitter’s “mute” feature, and about the feature in general. Allow me to share some of those thoughts with you now.

To begin, “mute” is just about the best feature on Twitter. It’s better by a long sight than Twitter’s “block” feature, which among other things makes it abundantly clear to whomever you blocked that you’re not listening to them anymore — which in some cases spurs them into anger and further negative action. “Mute” just… makes them go away. They might still be talking, and might still be thinking that they’re scoring points against you, which to my mind, and in my particular set of circumstances, is fine. I don’t care if idiots type at me until their fingers bleed, imagining they are brilliantly “debating,” or feeling better about their sad little lives by saying mean things about me to their friends, many of whom I have also already muted. I just don’t see why I need to view their ceaseless yammering on my tweet stream. “Mute” hits the spot.

But isn’t that censorship? The answer to this is: Duh, no. As I noted, “mute” doesn’t stop the pointless jabber of these sorts of folks — they’re free to pointlessly jabber until their fingers are worn down to stubs. It just means I don’t have to see it. Freedom of speech, even in its very widest definition, does not contain within that definition an obligation by anyone else to listen. This apparently confuses a lot of the frothy, but of course that’s not my problem, nor should it be anyone else’s.

(I should note, anecdotally, that there is a high correlation between the sort of person I will mute and the sort of person who thinks said muting is censorship. This is not in the least bit surprising to me. For the rest of humanity, this piece I wrote last year on Speech, Conversation, Debate, Engagement and Communication should be useful.)

So: Why do I mute? Mostly, to clear my tweet stream of stupid and/or exasperating comments. Some things I find stupid and/or exasperating: Threats, insults, less than clever snarkiness, insincere/derail-y attempts to “debate” (which is roughly 80% of them), sincere attempts to debate where the other person is clearly ignorant/misinformed on the subject and I have neither the time nor inclination to hold their hand on the subject, particularly on Twitter (nearly all of the rest; there are shining exceptions), people who are clearly trying to goad me into responding (including people who “@” me in conversation they’re having with someone else as a way to bait me), people who try to get someone else with more followers to pick a fight with me (who sometimes will, and who I will often mute for reasons noted above), and otherwise just people who for some reason or another have showed up in my tweet stream and whose nonsense I don’t want to see anymore.

Which seems like it might be a lot of people, but really isn’t, most of the time. Strange as it might seem, most people who communicate with me on Twitter are pleasant and polite — even the ones who might disagree with something I’ve said, and want to tell me so, or have what I judge to be a sincere question, or a point they want to have clarified. Even yesterday, which was a high water mark in Twitter muting, the majority of tweets that featured someone disagreeing with me were still in the stream. Criticism I can take. Stupidity and mendacity, I have less tolerance for.

(You might ask here, who gets to judge when someone is stupid/mendacious/otherwise just a real pain in the ass? Well, obviously, I do, when it comes to my tweet stream. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure these gormless wonders who I have muted think they’re positively stuffed with brains and logic. That’s nice for them. I’m not obliged to agree, engage with them any more than I choose, or otherwise keep company with them.)

Who do I mute? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, nearly all of the ones who display identifying information them are male, young(ish) and anecdotally, appear to be the bog-standard status-anxious straight white sort who toss insults and stupidity in my direction in order to impress… well, whoever they think is impressed by their being a twit on Twitter. This does not surprise me for several reasons, including the fact that my own politics/social points of view trend away from the ones most commonly espoused by the status-anxious young(ish) straight white men who seem determined to be a pain in the ass on Twitter. I rarely find myself muting folks outside that profile, although of course there have been a few. Some people are just jerks, regardless of political/social points of view.

Other factors that I consider with muting: Whether the account follows me or not (the latter are more likely to be flyby jerks and why bother with them), whether the account profile information is filled out (if your profile picture is an egg, you’re more likely to be a sockpuppet/troll account), how many followers they have (the fewer, the more likely to be a sockpuppet/troll account), and so on.

How do I mute? Typically these days through TweetDeck, which my most common interface with Twitter. Tweetdeck will let you mute individual users, which is usually the route I go when I mute, but will also let you mute keywords, which comes in handy from time to time. For example, yesterday, when a number of yammering blowhards “@”-ed a specific user they wanted to join into the fray. I determined that most tweets with that person “@”-ed would likely be useless noise, so I listed that user’s name as a muted keyword, and voila — bulk muting, which saved me a bit of carpal tunnel pain. Tweetdeck also saves your muted accounts and terms globally, so no matter which computer I’m using it on, it remembers who I don’t want to hear from. This is nice.

Tweetdeck’s drawback (compared to Janetter, my previous Twitter client on Desktop and still my client on mobile) is that it doesn’t have timed muting — the ability to mute for a few hours or days rather than on a permanent basis. This means that if you want to unmute someone (and occasionally you might!) you have to remember to go back in and do that manually. I’d love for Tweetdeck to introduce timed muting at some later point.

So that’s some of the philosophy and mechanics of my muting on Twitter. I encourage (nearly) everyone to make use of muting — even if you use it to mute me! — because, honestly, just because you happen to use Twitter with a bunch of yippy dipshits doesn’t mean you’re obliged to listen to their nonsense. Use the mute button and use it well.

My Thoughts This Morning on GamerGate

Actually, the first of these are from last night, in the wake of learning that game developer Brianna Wu was threatened out of her home:

What followed this morning after a whole lot of stupid on my comment threads when I woke up this morning:

A Note on New York Comic Con’s Anti-Harassment Policy

First, you literally cannot miss it — it’s on several human-sized signs right at the entrances to Javits Center (the other side of these signs say “Cosplay is not consent.” Second, the examples are clear and obvious and the policy is not constrained to only the examples — but enough’s there that you get the idea that NYCC is serious about this stuff. Third, it’s clear from the sign that NYCC also has a commitment to implementation and execution of the policy, with a harassment reporting button baked right into its phone app. This is, pretty much, how an anti-harassment policy should be implemented.

And as a result, did the floor of the Javits Center become a politically correct dystopia upon which the blood of innocent The True (and Therefore Male) Geeks was spilled by legions of Social Justice Warriors, who hooted their feminist victory to the rafters? Well, no. The floor of the Javits Center looked pretty much like the floor of any really large media convention — people wandering about, looking at stuff, wearing and/or admiring costumes and generally having a bunch of geeky fun. Which is to say that as far as I could see the policy didn’t stop anyone from enjoying themselves; it simply gave them assurance that they could enjoy themselves, or get the problem dealt with if someone went out of their way to wreck their fun.

It’s well past time that every large convention had an anti-harassment policy that offers specific examples of what forms harassment can take, and yes, I’m talking to you, San Diego Comic-con. New York Comic Con is run by ReedPOP, one of the largest convention organizations in the world; these are people with an acute sense of what their liability issues would be with regard to their anti-harassment policy. The fact that NYCC, which is the same size as SDCC at this point, in terms of attendance, has no problem offering up examples while SDCC continues to take the public position that doing so would somehow tie their hands to address issues of harassment, points out that SDCC’s position is, to put it politely, nonsense.

There is no penalty in letting attendees know some of what you consider inappropriate behavior — indeed it makes them safer because when examples are offered, they don’t have to question whether they have “really” been harassed, and they don’t have to worry whether the convention will agree with them. Information is power, particularly when some asshole is trying to assert their power over you by making you feel unsafe in a place where the whole point is to enjoy yourself with others who share your enthusiasms.

That SDCC (and Comic-Con International, its parent organization) continue to refuse to offer these examples at this point is confounding. I don’t doubt that Comic-Con does not want harassing behavior at its conventions; I don’t doubt that they would try to stop it if they knew of it. But that’s just it: No one knows what Comic-Con International considers harassing behavior. No one knows if it’s a consistent standard; no one knows if it’s always a judgment call on the part of whoever deals with the particular issues; no one knows if a harassment claim being taken seriously is down to one person’s political opinions, mood, or blood sugar level. We just don’t know, because it’s not spelled out. We don’t even know if they know. And that’s no way to run a convention in 2014 and beyond. San Diego needs to expand its anti-harassment policy. Simple as that.

I’m very pleased New York Comic Con, for its part, has decided to be on the forefront of anti-harassment policies. It’s smart, it makes sense, and it makes me, for one, inclined to come to it again. There are other conventions at this point that I can’t say the same about, and that’s too bad for the both of us.

I’m in Cincinnati on Saturday for Books by the Banks

Also known as the Cincinnati USA Book Festival. I’ll be there from 1pm through 4pm, with an author spotlight session at 2pm in rooms 207/208. I’ll read, answer questions, and juggle flaming sticks. Please note that the “juggle flaming sticks” portion will be contingent on fire code, availability of flammable materials, and me learning how to juggle expertly between now and Saturday. But the reading and answering questions parts are solid.

Books by the Banks is free and open to the public — that means you! — and aside from me there will be over 130 other authors, local, national and international, participating. Come on down and see us. It’ll be fun.

The Big Idea: Mike Allen

It’s not just words that inspire writers. Mike Allen tells us about the things, more ocular than verbal, that got him going, in this Big Idea piece about his short story collection, Unseaming.

MIKE ALLEN:

It’s all about the visuals, baby.

I am not and will never be the sort of writer who generates a story because my characters (supposedly) talk to me. I have friends who swear by this method of composition, but frankly, I can’t even fathom how that would work. My stories all come from images, often moving images, like scenes snipped out of context from movies, that stun me with their immediacy. I’m compelled to imagine their history, their implications. And as you might guess from the cover art for my collection, the imagery I’m drawn to tends to derive from the dark side.

Sometimes the inspiring snapshots can simply be things I notice in life, though usually such things must be unusual enough to demand unusual context. Noticing a single shoe left beside the road might cause little more than a momentary mental question mark, but noticing a whole series of forlorn singleton roadside shoes over several days’ time led me to wonder what happened to the missing shoes, and to the humans who owned these permanently separated pairs — which begat my story “Gutter.”

Here’s another real-life snapshot. The first time my wife Anita and I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, a trick of reflected light caught my eye and my imagination — seen from a particular angle, a lighted stained glass church window appeared to be hovering disembodied about twenty feet above the atrium floor. I imagined seeing the same thing in broad daylight in a empty field — and thus arrived my story “The Lead Between the Panes.”

Story-fodder images can come from dreams. When I was a toddler I had a memorable nightmare (at least I assume it was a nightmare, I remember it as if it actually happened) of my beloved, very, very, long-armed Humpty Dumpty doll coming to life in my crib and trying to strangle me. Each time I tossed him out, he righted on all fours and climbed right back in. I don’t remember how the dream ended, but what could I have called my attempt to create a new ending besides “Humpty”?

Music can make me dream up scenes, and as I’m an unabashed, unrepentant, hardcore metalhead (in fact, I’m jamming to Judas Priest as I write this) my music fugues tend to be delightfully twisted. My ultra-apocalyptic story “Let There Be Darkness” is basically my mental music video for the Slayer song “South of Heaven” transcribed into words.

Occasionally these images pop into my head out of nowhere. A few years ago, I tagged along with Anita to a sprawling fabric store set up inside an old schoolhouse. While she shopped, I sat down beside a curious artifact — an RC Cola machine, laid on its face, with all its mechanical guts removed. The owners had filled the shell of this machine almost to the brim with buttons; I could sink my arm into them past the elbow. As I perched there playing with the shiny buttons, a vision came to me — I imagined pulling my arm out to discover that the buttons had attached themselves, and wondered what would happen if I then started to unbutton my own skin. As this visual took hold of me, others rapidly followed, and about 90% of the plot of my Nebula-nominated story “The Button Bin” exploded into my brain right then and there.

There can also be combinations of the above. Even though I had not originally imagined “The Button Bin” as the sort of tale that required a second chapter, I ended up trying to come up with one. (This was a result of an exchange with a movie producer which ultimately lead nowhere in particular, but gave me incentive to revisit the story.) Still, I had no idea how a follow-up would work.

Then, one day, I happened to be listening to “Lux Aeterna.” You’ve heard this composition: it’s the main theme to the movie “Requiem for a Dream,” subsequently repurposed to great effect in the movie trailer for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” I had listened to this piece before without receiving idea encounters of the story kind. But this time, out of the blue, a scene came to me of a man unraveling. And I don’t mean having a mental breakdown. His skin and flesh were spinning off his body the way a broken window shade spins. By the way, this wasn’t producing the burst of blood you might expect. The layers twisting away just revealed more layers, and more, and more, of someone or something clearly human no longer. And from this comforting tableau came my first full-blown novella, “The Quiltmaker,” which is indeed the sequel to “Button Bin.”

Once this sequel existed, the impulse to have the stories paired together in a book naturally followed. Dark fantasy and horror collections have loomed big in my literary life through the years — Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories, Thomas Ligotti’s Grimscribe: His Life and Works, Laird Barron’s The Imago Sequence, Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors. I’ve long had a vague notion of putting out a horror collection of my own, but that notion didn’t become a mission until after “Quiltmaker.”

But there’s another significant way in which imagery generated this book. See, it was originally titled “The Button Bin and Other Horrors,” or variations thereof. Then I got my first look at Danielle Tunstall’s astonishing cover art, and I knew it was perfect, perfect, perfect. And I also knew the original title would never work with that art.

So here’s where my background as a speculative poet came in handy. I started experimenting with one word titles that would fit both my stories and Danielle’s art, until I finally arrived at: “Unseaming? Is that even a word?”

And I checked, and lo and behold, it’s not one in common usage, but a word it is, used most famously by William Shakespeare himself, in just about the same sense that I mean it. Here’s the lines from “Macbeth”:

“Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chaps,

and fix’d his head upon our battlements.” 

It’s all about the visuals, baby.

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Unseaming: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks

Watch the book trailer. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Who Is That Masked Man?

Why, it’s me, who along with Naomi Novik, Kevin Avery, Sarah Maclean, Jeffrey Cranor and Kate Leth (who took the photo), wrote humorous erotic fan fiction of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen for the Shipwreck show that took place this evening in Brooklyn. And when the, uh, smoke cleared, my erotic fanfiction from the point of view of Dr. Malcolm Long was judged the best (or worst, depending) in show. I was naturally demure in victory, “demure” here being defined as “jumping up and down on the stage, hooting like a howler monkey.” Which is the usual definition of the term, yes?

I won, but I’m here to tell you it was a squeaker, since every single story was ridiculously funny and good, and the fact that each was performed by Cecil Baldwin of Welcome to Night Vale just made them all that much better. It was, seriously, fantastically fun.

And what does erotic fan fiction of Watchmen, written by John Scalzi, read like? Well, I’m not entirely ready to offer it up here yet, in part because I’m waiting to see if there will be audio/video from the event, and Baldwin’s delivery really makes the story. I will offer up three phrases from my piece, however, which should give you an idea: “quivering, manly love gate,” “deliciously fleshy proboscis,” and, of course, “moist, willing, tangy orifice.”

Oh, yeah. It’s one of those stories. Trust me, you’re sorry you weren’t there. Unless you were there, in which case you’re glad you were.

View From the Hotel Window, 10/6/14

New York! The Big Apple! The City of Sin! And so on and so forth. I have made it here (in several senses of the term), so I guess I can make it anywhere. So that’s settled. And the hotel room I’m in is very nice, too; it even has a kitchenette with a fridge and a working stove. I may have to bake something. I suspect it is bigger than some of my friends’ apartments. I don’t think I will tell them that.

I’m in town for New York Comic Con and for Super Week, starting with the Shipwreck event this evening and continuing on through Friday. My schedule is here. Some of these events are at NYCC, but some are not, so you’ll have a chance to see me even if you don’t head over to Javits. So I hope to see you!

The Big Idea: M.A. Larson

The word “princess” has certain connotations in our culture, not all of them that great. Author M.A. Larson is here to talk about some of them, and how they relate to his new novel, Pennyroyal Academy.

M.A. LARSON:

I didn’t have a daughter yet when I started on the long path from idea to publication. I didn’t even really have a Big Idea. I was a film and television writer with what was, in hindsight, a pretty Small Idea.

I went around to some of the studios pitching a cartoon series called “Princess Boot Camp.” It was a straightforward parody of princess culture where I intended to juxtapose frilly pink princesses with hardcore military training. I was banking hard on “princess fatigue” to help me sell the show and build an audience. Now that I think about it, “Princess Fatigues” might have been a pretty good title. But I digress…

The show was optioned and developed, but eventually stalled. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the concept. A friend suggested I try writing it as a book. I was intrigued by the idea, so I decided to go back to the original source material – the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm – to do a little princess research. What I discovered led me to something much more interesting, and more profound, than I had anticipated.

In the story “The Six Swans, the princess character has such fierce love and compassion for her brothers that she vows not to speak for six years in an attempt to break the curse that has turned them to swans, and even as she is being led up the gallows to be hung, her devotion to them is so great that she doesn’t utter a word. In another story, “The Golden Bird,” a princess is threatened with death, yet bravely risks her life to expose her evil brothers-in-law to the king. Yes, the princess Briar Rose is described as beautiful, but then she is said to be gentle, virtuous, and clever. Snow-White is so kindhearted that seven burly mineworkers and all the creatures of the forest come to mourn at her glass coffin when she is killed. The princess in “The Two Brothers” is faster than any man or woman in the kingdom. And so on and so forth.

These princesses were being described as clever, brave, athletic, and kind. While it wasn’t true in all the stories (there are some nasty princesses in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, too) on the whole they were far more multi-faceted and interesting than the vapid pinkness I thought of when I heard the word “princess. In modern usage, the P word often seemed to describe a girl who was proud of her laziness, proud to be spoiled and entitled. “Princess, to me, was just an empty word stitched on sweatpants and emblazoned in sequins on the sides of purses. It did not describe the girls I had been reading about.

And that’s when my Big Idea began to emerge. Could I reclaim the word “princess” from the Paris Hiltons of the world? Could I redefine it so that it meant, to my readers, what it had meant to the Brothers Grimm?

Armed with my new Big Idea, I realized I would need to scrap the entire idea of doing a parody. The princesses of Grimm’s Fairy Tales weren’t to be ridiculed; they were to be admired. I began to strip away the spoofiness, and what emerged was a story far more sincere than the one I had started with.

When my characters enlisted at Pennyroyal Academy, they wouldn’t be there as a tool for me to use to skewer princess culture. These girls would study the great princesses of the past, look to them as examples of how to live in harmony with the world, and learn to use the innate kindness and goodness in the traditional definition of a princess to quite literally fight against the forces of cruelty and evil. Graduates of the Academy wouldn’t sit in towers and wait to be rescued. They would fight their way out using their virtue as a weapon. My goal was to re-establish the princess as a paragon of decency and kindness, and I decided to do that by having my princesses battle witches.

Once I had that central conflict – princesses as the only force in the world capable of defending against witches – the only thing left was the hardest thing: sitting down in a chair and pushing keys. I infused my story with traditional fairy tales as much as I could. I aged it up and made it more sophisticated, just like the princesses I was writing about. With each chapter I added to the stack, I always kept my Big Idea in mind. And the next thing I knew I had a manuscript, and then I sold it, and now here I am writing this. And it’s all thanks to that dreaded P word.

I do have a daughter now, and I’m happy she didn’t see the original version of this project. Back then, I viewed princesses as pink and helpless and unworthy. But now that I’ve written Pennyroyal Academy, my definition of what a princess is has changed dramatically. A princess is courageous. She is compassionate. She is kind. She is disciplined. And if my daughter told me she wanted to be a princess when she grew up, well, nothing would make me happier.

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Pennyroyal Academy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.