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.

—-

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.

—-

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

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

Two Views of a Very Temporary Look

Having never done it before, I was curious what I would look like with just a mustache. The answer:

Strangely like John Goodman!

And of course I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make a genuinely terrible picture of myself, so please to enjoy this, which I call “The Worst Police Booking Photo, Ever”:

Aaaaand now I’m gonna shave this mustache off.

Update, 4pm:

Me (to Krissy, on the phone): Do you want me to wait until you get home to shave it off?

Krissy: No. Shave it off now. And when you’re done, post another picture so I know it’s gone.

There, that’s better.

Aiming for the Market

On his blog, Steven Brust talks about why he doesn’t like being asked for advice on publishing — the answer being that he has his own conflicted relationship to the business of publishing, the fact of which does not necessarily put him in the best of positions to counsel someone else with questions about the commerce side of things.

In the course of things Steven name drops me, noting “John Scalzi, if no one else, provides proof that consciously writing to a market is no hindrance to producing high-quality, entertaining work.” Which is to say that I do something that Steven himself is not terribly comfortable with — essentially, calling my shots in terms of where I’m aiming for in the marketplace, and then swinging to get the ball (or book, in the case) where I called for it go.

Steven’s not wrong. I have and do very consciously look at the marketplace when I’m thinking the books I write. Old Man’s War is the first and most obvious example of this. I wrote it not just because I wanted to write a science fiction novel, but because I wanted to write a science fiction book I could sell — that it, something with enough obvious commercial appeal that a publisher could immediately see the value proposition in publishing the novel and getting it out in the book racks.

OMW, among all the other things it is (and isn’t), is straightforward Heinleinian military science fiction — it’s the science fiction equivalent of classic rock, in other words. It was designed to sell to a publisher, and was designed for that purpose so well that it sold to a publisher without me ever formally submitting it. It was, in other words, a very commercially intentional novel, and it lived up to its intention, for which I am grateful.

In novels and (most) shorter work since, I’ve continued to work in that commercially intentional mode, for several reasons. One, and most obviously, writing is what I do for a living, and I want to write books that sell not just to the people who are already fans (either of the genre or of me), but to other folks as well; the more, the better. Likewise, I think it makes sense to be actively looking at the market — not at what’s hot now (if you can see it, you’ve generally already missed it) but where I think there’s a potential to do interesting things for the future, where they will get noticed. Two, and happily for me, the style of writing in which I am most proficient — clear, transparent prose, snappy dialogue, plot jumping through hoops at a nice clip — is also one that is easy to sell. Three, I not only see the value of such writing, but as a reader I also enjoy it; I’m writing the work I would want to read, in other words.

I do think point three is significant. When I wrote Old Man’s War, I was intentionally addressing what I saw as commercially viable science fiction sub-genre — military science fiction — but I also wrote it on my personal terms, with interplay between characters (including romance and affection), action that was vivid without being gratuitous (or without consequence), and a large portion of humor. I wrote to the market, but I put into the market something I thought was going to be worth reading independent of market positioning — or at least, worth reading to me.

This is where point four (which is really a sub-point of point three) comes into play: in many things, I have reasonably common tastes. I like a good three-minute pop song, I laugh at movies that aren’t good but are good at what they intend to do, I eat a lot of candy and I enjoy a book that puts a value on entertaining me first, everything else as an add on. It’s not the entirety of my tastes, to be sure. But it is a significant portion of my taste, and I don’t feel at all apologetic about it. It helps my aim when it comes to writing things that sell.

(I do think it also was useful that I came to publishing fiction after a decade and a half of professional writing, including writing non-fiction books. It meant that I had a reasonably good understanding of the business end of writing and of freelance work, an unromantic view of writing as a day-to-day job, and that much of the desire for ego gratification that comes with publishing had already been dealt with. This helped with looking at fiction in a practical way from the get-go.)

Which is not to say that my aim is always good, or that people who do not do things as I do are destined to failure. Note that Steven Brust, whose relationship to the business side of publishing is different than mine, is nevertheless a New York Times bestselling author, and there are (I imagine) at least a few authors who write what they want to write, consider the market not at all, and just let other people figure that part out. And, you know what? Good for them. I couldn’t do it. That would drive me crazy. I run the business side of my writing business in a way that I think makes sense for me: With an eye toward the market and commercial prospects. It’s worked pretty well to date.

Today’s Little Bit of Online Wisdom

Originally posted over on Twitter, and posting here for archival purposes.

Redshirts in Korean and Polish

And they are two very different takes on the same book, I would say. Of the Polish one, I’m mildly curious as to how Adam Baldwin got on the cover, not to mention the young lady with the chest plate tattoo; neither of them really seem to be in uniform. I will say that the reviews of the book that I’ve seen in Polish (via Google Translate) pretty much seem to say “okay, that cover, maybe you should ignore that” and that otherwise it’s a good translation of the novel. So, yeah. I’m just going to go with my “the publisher knows their market better than I do” line, here. The Korean cover, on the other hand, I can be unreservedly enthusiastic about, because I think it’s clever and funny and captures a lot of the spirit of the book, and I really like it. And there you have it.

My New York Comic Con/Super Week Schedule

Because I will be in NYC next week! To do things! And stuff!

Tuesday, October 7, 8pm at The Bell House, Brooklyn:

Shipwreck: “Good theatre for bad literature? Marital aid for book nerds? A literary erotic fanfiction competition for the ages? Shipwreck is all of these things. Six Great Writers will destroy one Great Book, one Great (Watchmen) Character at a time, in service of the transcendent and the profane (and also laughs). Marvel as beloved characters are plucked from their worlds and made to do stuff they were never meant to do in places they were never meant to see.”

The authors participating are Naomi Novik, Kevin Avery, Sarah Maclean Kate Leth, Jeffrey Cranor and me, and all of our pieces will be read by Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil Baldwin. This is a ticketed event, and will be hilarious, so, you know. Get tickets.

 

Thursday, October 9, 4pm, Tor Booth, NYCC (#2333):

Signing: I’ll be signing books and helping to give out ARCs of Lock In.

 

Friday, October 10, 1PM, Room 1A21, NYCC: 

Geek Geek Revolution: a no-holds-barred geek culture game show featuring six science fiction/fantasy authors competing for the chance to be TOP GEEK, makes its second appearance at NYCC. Featuring John Scalzi, Rachel Caine, Patrick Rothfuss and others.

 

Friday, October 10, 2pm, Booth #114, NYCC:

Midnight Rises: Meet me and artist Mike Choi as the two of us show off Midnight Rises, our graphic novel that serves as a prequel to the upcoming video game Midnight Star.

 

Friday, October 10, 3:15pm, Table 19, NYCC:

Signing: I’ll be signing more books!

 

Friday, October 10, 8pm, Barnes & Noble Union Square:

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy Family Feud: I play host as science fiction authors compete against fantasy authors, Family Feud style. Yes, that’s me, the genre’s Richard Dawson. With Amber Benson, Peter Brett, Pierce Brown, Richard Kadrey, Caitlin Kittredge, and C.L. Wilson.

See you there!

 

Unlocked Limited Signed Hardcover: Officially Out!

Just a quick note to make you aware that, as the headline says, the Subterranean Press signed, limited hardcover edition of “Unlocked” is now officially out in the world and available for order. This edition features the fantastic artwork above, by Molly Crabapple, my signature, and the general fantastic quality that Subterranean Press gives all of its books. I’m super pleased with the version, but then, when it comes to SubPress, I usually am.

This hardcover is limited to just 1,500 copies, and as I understand it most of those copies were taken in the preorder phase, so this limited edition is now even more limited, as it were. If you want a copy, you should get a move on. You can buy it directly from Subterranean, get it at your favorite online retailer, or check with your local bookstore about special ordering it.

Dual Lock In Reviews in Locus Magazine

Dual, but not dueling, because they are both positive. Whew!

The one by Gary K. Wolfe says that Lock In is “the most enjoyable robot story I’ve read this year — even though it’s not quite about robots,” and notes there are “provocative notions about power, privilege, politics, and even family dynamics that give the novel a surprising and provocative complexity beneath its kinetic and movie-ready exterior.” The one from Adrienne Martini says that Lock In “is the work of a writer who hasn’t lost any of his swagger, yet has grown a little bit smarter about when to show off just how clever he is.”

I’ll take that. I’ll take both!

(Here’s a link to the Locus Magazine Web site. If you’re into science fiction and fantasy, it’s basically the industry’s magazine for news and reviews, and worth checking out. I just today renewed my subscription, as it happens.)

The Big Idea: Gwenda Bond

You’ve heard of Shakespeare in the Park, but Shakespeare at the circus? That may be a new one. But that didn’t stop Gwenda Bond from using one of the bard’s most popular plays as one of the inspirations for her new novel, Girl on a Wire. Now she’s here to talk about how to achieve this precarious balancing act.

GWENDA BOND:

A sixteen-year-old girl walks on a wire high above a city. She balances—easily, then precariously—on the invisible weight of her family history.

*

The girl’s name is Jules. She meets a boy, a gifted trapeze flyer named Remy.

The Big Idea then, for Girl on a Wire, as it presented itself: Romeo and Juliet retold in the modern circus, centered on the latest generation of decades-long competing circus dynasties.

A confession: I can’t stand the romance in Romeo and Juliet. But there’s a reason the story sticks around and (I’d argue over dinner) it’s not the tragic ending. It’s the set-up. Two people with a host of reasons not to fall for each other, with the world exerting its influence telling them they better stay apart, but who can’t or won’t. That is something we understand in an instant. If only it was a story about excavating the family drama and dismantling it, but it can be. It’s all there in the set-up. The mystery is why the families hate each other so much.

Fate and choice; we live our lives crossing our fingers for both, at one time or another. We walk on a wire without a net, what we want always a few steps ahead, or maybe far, far away from where we started. We have to keep moving or we’ll fall.

*

This book started with the flu. New Year’s Eve 2010, as the year rolled over to 2011. I was sick, but we had house guests who didn’t mind my couch moaning and made champagne cocktails (not an actual medical remedy) and—perhaps most importantly—who didn’t mind hanging out on the couch too, watching the entire PBS’ Circus mini-series I’d stockpiled on the DVR, which follows a season of the Big Apple Circus.

Or maybe it started years and years before that, when I was a teen or a pre-teen (actual year hazy, ask again later) and up late watching David Letterman. His guest was a charming high wire walker, Philippe Petit, in what must have been one of his earliest appearances on the show. Of course and undoubtedly, he’s the best known modern wire walker in the world. (Another debate for over dinner, but I’d put Nik Wallenda second.)

It was the first time I’d ever encountered Petit, and he mentioned a book he’d written called On the High Wire. For years, I checked for it in every used bookstore I visited, every library, looked for it online. Never found a copy less than $150. Finally, a half dozen years ago, I realized I could interlibrary loan it. The translation arrived, done by Paul Auster. The book is simple and beautiful, a chronicle of learning to walk the wire. Or is it a host of lessons for making it across the wire of life instead?

Somewhere in the first age of the blog, when I started mine, I had to come up with a one-sentence bio. Without hesitation, I wrote: A writer on the high wire of life.

*

Or maybe it began with my love of the circus and circus stories. I remember a one-ring circus that set up just outside the elementary school where my dad was principal a couple of years in a row. Small, obviously run by a single family. I was only allowed to go inside once, and what I remember most is the smell of sawdust and horses and sweat.

I amassed a collection of circus books, fiction and nonfiction both. But I never thought I’d write one. I didn’t think I had anything new to add. Until the flu.

And I also had a character in search of a story, the glimmer of her born when one of most glamourous people I know mentioned washing her hair with champagne on a lark, because a book suggested it was good for the hair (especially of children!). And I’ve had a thing for classic screwball comedies ever since my introduction to them more than a decade ago.

I wanted to write a girl who might wash her hair in champagne even though her family couldn’t afford it, who might have watched too many old movies with wise-cracking dames. Jules came from that glimmer.

The provenance of some books is difficult to trace, just as some books come easily and some hard. But looking back, it seems impossible that I would never have written this book. Of course I was always going to.

*

So… Girl on a Wire: Sixteen-year-old Jules Maroni is a daredevil wire walker from a legendary circus family who has fallen on hard times, and wants nothing more than to join a new show, the Cirque American, that promises to restore the circus to its former glamour and glory. Her family resists, but she convinces them—only to discover upon her arrival that it’s going to be more complicated than she expected. When objects that supposedly possess unlucky magic begin to appear, Jules must team up with Remy Garcia, a member of the Flying Garcias, the chief rivals of the Amazing Maronis, to find the culprit.

It’s a novel about fate and choice, ambition and ethics, poison and passion, life and death. Which is to say, it’s a novel about the circus. From the moment I started writing it, these characters and their world felt absolutely real to me. Step right up. I hope they will for you too.

—-

Girl on a Wire: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powells

Visit the book page. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Blurb Requests for 2014 and Convention GoH Invites for 2015: Full Up

A quick note for people wanting to request book blurbs from me, or to invite me to be a GoH for a convention in 2015:

I unfortunately have no more time to read for blurbing through the end of the year (on account of a book to finish plus many other commitments). Also, my 2015 convention calendar is full up and I can’t accept any more GoH invites for next year. Thank you for thinking of me, however.

Also, with regard to blurbs, this is a good time to remind people of my blurb policy, specifically the part where it says that I will turn down direct blurb requests from authors. They must be routed through an editor, publicist or publisher. I’m totally serious about this, folks.

Thanks!

Hey, Kids! Let’s Define a Word!

So, recently, I created a word, “shitcanoe,” to describe people who are, well, not good people. As far as I can tell its appearance on Whatever is the first time it’s ever been used as a general noun, although a quick check of Google has a couple of prior references as a gamer handle (strangely not surprising) and an Urban Dictionary definition of “shit canoe” — two words, there — as a chili hot dog, which, you know, ew. So, go me, I’ve invented another word.

But of course, aside from the vivid metaphorical usage of the word, people in the comments wanted to know, if a shitcanoe were a literal thing, what would be: A canoe made of shit, a canoe filled with shit, or a canoe used to traverse a body of shit? Well, I say, let’s put it to a vote!

Remember, this definition will one day go into the Oxford English Dictionary, so give it very serious thought. Thank you.

The Big Idea: Katherine Howe

Aside from anything else, I am just glad there is now, in this world, a book with the title The Penguin Book of Witches, because, really, how cool is that. But editor Katherine Howe has made sure that there is more to the book than just a great title — it’s a book with a point. What’s the point? Howe is here to tell you.

KATHERINE HOWE: 

I think we can all agree that witches are a problem.

Okay, you’re right. Maybe they’re not a problem anymore. Perhaps you think witches are awesome. Perhaps you know a witch or two yourself. Perhaps you are a witch yourself? But if witches today wear their pointy hats with impunity and walk amongst us twirling their wands and trailing cats in their wake in broad daylight, it’s safe to say that it wasn’t always so. Until quite recently, witchcraft was a serious problem indeed. Serious enough that it was against the law. Serious enough that it was punishable by death.

I’ve written about witches for a while, usually in novels like The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Conversion, which came out this past summer. And the fascinating problem with witches is that while we can all agree on what a witch looks like, it’s trickier to figure out where she, as a cultural idea, came from. How do we know what witches do? What makes witches so threatening? Why were we so scared of witches that for hundreds of years, we were willing to hang them by the neck until death?

Generally speaking, a “witch” in the early modern period (so around 1400 to around 1700, depending on who you ask) was a person—most often a woman—who was thought to have traded her soul to the Devil in exchange for certain special privileges. She might have the ability to make cattle fall sick, or maybe she could predict when someone was going to die. She might be able to fly through the night seated on a broomstick, or she might have a special imp “familiar”—like a pet—who would go and do her bidding. Maybe she could even send out her spirit from her body and wreak havoc on her neighbors, or she could make her spirit assume the form of her familiar, stalking about in the night in the shape of a cat. She was threatening, on the one hand, because of this special, volatile power she might wield against the people around her. Even more than that, she was threatening because she was an example of an individual person claiming power that belonged more rightfully with God (or, practically speaking, with the power structures of the church or the king. Kings hate it when you try to have more power than they do).

Some early modern skeptics, like Reginald Scot, wondered if we were missing something in this whole “witch” situation. If witches were so powerful, they asked, why was it that most people tried as witches were actually pretty wretched and miserable? They were usually poor, often destitute, sometimes unstable or argumentative. On average, the typical accused and executed witch was a woman at middle age—from her 40s to her 60s—who was on the outs with her society in one way or another, usually economically, but maybe personality-wise as well. She was a pain. She was irritating. She made people uncomfortable. She was always begging for something. She was a problem, and she needed to be gotten rid of.

The first person accused as a witch during the Salem episode was a classic example of this. Tituba Indian was a slave in the household of Samuel Parris, the minister in Salem Village. She had come to Salem with him after being enslaved on his failed plantation in Barbados. Tituba was accused by Betty, Samuel’s daughter, of trading her soul to the Devil and using the special powers he granted her to send Betty into “fits.” Tituba confessed, though some historians think that Parris beat the confession out of her, and went on to pass the blame to other women in the community who were vulnerable in similar ways: Sarah Good, who was destitute and begged from door to door, and Sarah Osburn, who had married her handyman and stopped going to church. The idea of “witchcraft” in the colonial period had a lot to do with regulating women, forcing them to comply with cultural ideas of how they were supposed to behave.

The pointy-hat image of witchcraft has dominated popular culture for such a long time that it can be difficult to tell where the idea of witchcraft originally came from. That’s where The Penguin Book of Witches comes in. The Penguin Book of Witches wants to bring history back into the picture. It’s a collection of primary sources—that is, actual historical documents—about witchcraft in early modern England and English North America, from the 1500s until the 1700s. It includes not only theological arguments, like Reginald Scot (the skeptic) and King James I (who wrote a whole book on demonology), but also trial transcripts of real-life women accused and executed as witches. Reading these trial transcripts is like watching an episode of Law and Order, made all the more chilling by the fact that everything in these records really happened.

It’s tempting to believe that after nineteen people were hanged at Salem by the state for a crime we now believe to be imaginary, our culture suddenly awoke in a fit of reason and stopped believing in witchcraft. But that’s not what happened. Witchcraft stopped being a crime after 1735, but it continued to lurk in our cultural practices and memory long after it vanished from the books. That’s why The Penguin Book of Witches doesn’t stop with Salem, looking at the various ways that witchcraft persisted as an idea, an anxiety, and even a practice until the dawn of the nineteenth century.

Or, perhaps even the dawn of the twenty-first?

(I won’t tell if you won’t.)

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The Penguin Book of Witches: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Today’s Home Improvements at the Scalzi Compound

While I was on book tour the fan in the air conditioner unit here at the Scalzi Compound snapped and tore up the inside of the unit, pretty much as shrapnel will do, and so it became time to replace the unit with something less fragment-prone. While we were at it, we decided to replace the furnace unit as well, because it like the air conditioner was nearly 20 years old, and it already failed on us once (several years ago, on one of the coldest nights of the year), so why wait for the next invitable failure, likely to come at a time of year where our house would turn into a literal icebox.

So: Here’s the air conditioner unit, soon to be installed. At the moment the AC dudes are down in the basement dealing with the furnace; there’s the occasionally wrenchy noise, followed by the occasional hammering noise, with the occasional “it sounds like a Terminator going after Sarah Connor in my basement but is probably just the furnace being dragged across concrete” noise, just for fun. This all will be a two day operation. Fortunately, it’ll be a lovely couple of days, with no need for either AC or heating. In other words, perfect days to live au naturel. Not so great for, say, the sort of mental concentration one needs for novels in progress, but, eh. It’s only a couple of days.

Subterranean Press Sale Today and Tomorrow

Most of you know that Subterranean Press is the place I go to publish much of my limited and “off-beat” work — they do a great job and have always done very well by me and other authors I know. SubPress is now partnering with Gumroad to sell their ebook titles more directly to readers — an alternative to Amazon and other retailers, with more of the sale price going to publishers (and authors!) than before.

To celebrate, SubPress is running a special two-day sale, in which many ebook titles are significantly reduced in price when they’re bought through Gumroad. It’s a fine way for you to stock up on some excellent SubPress titles and to get an introduction to Gumroad at the same time.

Here’s the SubPress announcement of the sale, with all the additional information you need. Happy browsing!

How My Online Stuff Gets Seen in 2014

About a month ago I talked about how my social media footprint has been changing here in 2014, as Twitter has become the place where a lot of people read me (or is the place from which a lot of people link to me) with Whatever, while still popular and useful (and still my home base online) becoming in many ways supplemental to that. A concrete example of this might be useful, and as it happens, this last week offered up an interesting opportunity to show one, when I fired off a series of tweets which I later collected into a entry here, titled “An Anti-Feminist Walks Into a Bar: A Play in Five Acts.”

This series of tweets got a lot of play on Twitter, on my Web site and also on Tumblr, which in case you live under a social media rock, is a very popular microblogging service. But how much play in each? Here are the numbers, from stats offered by each site, from about 6:30pm ET on September 25, through September 28 at 8:20 ET, which is when I checked.

Twitter: The series of six tweets under discussion had varying viewership, but the most popular of the six, shown above, garnered 123,766 impressions on Twitter, “impressions” defined as the “number of times users saw the tweet on Twitter.”

WordPress: Noting only direct views of the relevant entry itself (i.e, leaving out “front page” views, where people read the entry by visiting the Whatever front page rather than the specific entry page), the entry was viewed 34,172 times, with an additional 6,681 views recorded via RSS, for a total of 40,853 views.

Tumblr: Tumblr user kammartinez decided to post a jpg of my entries, after which it garned 68,885 “notes” which is Tumblr’s way of noting when a Tumblr user’s entry is liked, shared, or commented on.

Combining these three numbers together (which, incidentally, is not necessarily a fantastic idea, as “impressions” are different than “views” which are different than “notes”), we get 233,504 total hits of some relevant sort or another for all or part of this series of tweets, of which only a little over a sixth come from Whatever itself.

Caveats:

1. Already noted I’m mixing and matching;

2. My anecdotal but long time experience tells me WordPress stats underreport (and I’ve already noted I’m underreporting views there anyway by excluding front page views);

3. Twitter’s methodology of what is an “impression” is vague — for example I don’t know if “on Twitter” means Twitter excludes tweets seen on third party clients;

4. I know people are sharing this on other social networks, including Facebook, in the same manner kammartinez shared it on Tumblr, but I have no way to track those.

So despite “233,504” looking like a very specific number, it is in fact a very rough approximation. For one thing, by the time you read this each of the component numbers will have grown by further visits and sharing. For another, experience tells me these sort of stats underrepresent rather than overrepresent, and there’s a lot of similar/relevant data missing. The point here is not to give an exact number of hits/views/impressions/notes/etc but to give a general impression of what my online footprint looks like right now.

And the general impression: My online footprint is widely distributed across several social media channels, of which only a few are under my control. I didn’t prompt or pay kammartinez to gather up my tweets and share them on Tumblr, for example; I don’t even know who kammartinez is. I’m certainly not upset that kammartinez shared the tweets; that’s the nature of tweeting, to be shared (and kammartinez did a fine job of attributing and offering context for the shared material, which is appreciated). But it does bring home the point that at this point in time my work — and there I — get around quite a lot online, in ways I can’t always expect or manage. Whatever remains a fundamental component of that (and will continue to be, for reasons I outlined in my earlier entry).

But while Whatever is my home online, it’s clear my work and I do a lot of wandering around these days. This in itself is neither good nor bad, but it is how my online stuff gets seen here in 2014.