Thursday, December 31, 2009

It seems this has somehow become my New Year's post.

So there's Coleridge who saddled us with the notion that the ideal reader-writer relationship is achieved by a "willing suspension of disbelief," which idea caught on and we've been stuck with it ever since.

As you can no doubt tell, I don't like the idea and never have. Long before I had any real notion of becoming a storyteller myself I was a dedicated participant on the reader side of the equation, and could never warm up to the concept that a reader will (or even could) temporarily cancel his disbelief mechanisms in order to be drawn into a story to the extent that he could care about characters and events that never happened and never will. It always seemed to miss the mark. But I couldn't pin down what was wrong with it until I stumbled across an essay from JRR Tolkien who posited the more apt idea that readers "create a secondary belief." And I knew instantly, in that unmistakable ping of epiphany, that this was right. This was the essential formula in a successful story, and the proof at last that Coleridge had gotten it wrong.

Why does this matter? Why is it more than just a semantic exercise?

Well, for one thing, the most important thing in fact, a suspension of disbelief, willing or otherwise, is a negation. It's passive. Not an act, but a lack of one. However the creation of secondary belief is active by definition. The partnership between writer and reader is a collaboration in which the reader participates actively and bears much, if not most, of the responsibility of creating the fictional world in which the stories take place. There's nothing passive about it. As one tiny example of the million things a reader will bring to any story: the writer may mention a city in which part of the action will take place, and maybe even describe some of the details, but it is up to the reader to create the fullness of that city in his imagination. Not being able to abide a blank canvas, he fills the streets with people and architecture and a nearly infinite number of details the writer can't fully describe for fear of bogging down the story beyond endurance.

Your readers don't sit at a remove and let the story happen to them. They don't suspend application of consistency, logic and accountability. They participate. They get to work on each page, paragraph, sentence, teaming up with you to create.



Any story in which the reader hasn't actively and enthusiastically participated in the creative process, every step of the way, is an unread story. There's no other option.

In part I mention this in order to get it on the record, to let my colleagues know, in our ongoing discussion about the craft, that anytime they mention the "willing suspension of disbelief," the conversation (whatever the specifics of the conversation might have been) will grind to a halt while we argue the point of suspension versus creation. And I'll win that debate, so why even try? Can we just agree now to suspend the idea of suspension?

Okay, I've been meaning to get to this rant for some time, but deadlines, holiday guests, and other things intervened, as things often will, until now it's become a New Year's Eve post. I suppose that obligates me to tie it in somehow with the new year. Easy enough: In the coming year I plan to write about thirty (or so) comic stories, a couple of short prose stories, and at least one new novel. And each of these stories will fly or fall depending on the willingness of many readers, most of whom I will never meet, to do most of the work, to help create the worlds, the characters, the histories and the events, and every other detail in each and every tale. I'll do what I can to make all that work enjoyable.

Also in the coming year I plan to read a lot of books, including just about everything written by the nine other writers sharing this space with me. In that role I will be a willing and active participant, rolling up my metaphorical sleeves, doing my part in our collaboration to get those stories told. I will not be at a safe remove, negating. Sorry, Mr. Coleridge, but you got it wrong.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The New Haiku Review

is a great book. Big thanks to
Daryl Gregory


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Post Holiday Haiku

The tree is dead now,
its last brown needles swept up.
Christmas is over.

Friday, December 25, 2009

haiku inspiration (thanks, jess!)

christmas with my dog
chewing a dried bull penis
(him, of course. not me.)

happy birthday, baby jebus!

A Christmas haiku...

...for children, and those young at heart, everywhere:

I waited all year
Christmas tree devoid of Wii
Santa, you bastard

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Little Clockwork Christmas Cheer, Mark Finn-Style

Call me old fashioned, or even sentimental. I miss the old days when we all had to contribute a Christmas story. So, since I was feeling festive, I decided to write one. It's all part of the larger project, but I hope for some of you it's a fun thing.

Now, without any further ado, allow me to present...

Sailor Tom Sharkey and the Christmas Savages

I was feeling pretty low in December, 1914. Kate was gone, and I was all alone, and it just wasn’t feeling much like Christmas, what with everything going on. Bar troubles, mob troubles, political troubles, you name it, I had it. Even managed to work up a good-sized gambling debt, betting on the horses. Not a very merry Christmas, I can tell you that.

I mostly kept to myself, but even loners get thirsty, so I spent some time in the bar, sipping whisky and eating pickled eggs. It was no kind of lunch or dinner, but with Kate gone, I didn’t have the energy for much else.

It was in this general state of configuration that Charlie Murphy came walking into the bar, his nose up, his eyes all crinkly, like he was smelling something. Politics, most likely. Murphy was the leader of Tammany Hall, which meant that he controlled the Gas Light District, and it also meant that he controlled me. At least, he thought he did. Or, more appropriately, I thought he didn’t.

Anyway, he comes walking in and gives me that stiff-upper lip look, and holds out a beefy hand, and says, “Tom, how’re you doin’, lad?” He was peering at me over the tops of his eye glasses, and made him look like a scolding Bishop.

“Getting along, Charlie,” I replied. “Buy you a soda?"

“I’ll pass,” he said, his expression unchanged. Teetotaler, he was, and he was a professional at it, to boot. An Irish teetotaler. That’s practically unchristian. “Listen, Tom, I know you’re stretched thin right now, and I’ve got a wee favor to ask that can put you right again.”

There wasn’t much that Charlie Murphy didn’t know, and I resented him keeping tabs on me like he did. Then again, I knew he kept tabs on most of the Irish celebrities in town. Political insurance, he once called it. That and his “wee favors.” I finished my whisky and signaled Prong-Head for another one. “Not another political appearance? Election season is November, Charlie.”

“This one’s different,” Murphy said. “Personal appearance. An orphanage. St. Ignatius’ Home for Wayward Souls,” he smiled, indulgently. “You’ll be the guest of honor. And I’ll pay you fifty bucks.”

“Remember when I used to get a thousand clams, just for walking in the door?” I asked.

“Those days are long gone, Tom. Ye’ve only got your reputation, now. So, what do you say? It’s for the children.”

I just knew he was setting me up for something, and I told him so, and he said, no, he wasn’t, and so I said, what’s the catch, and he said, he’d have some of the boys with me to pass out literature for Tammany Hall, and otherwise all I had to do was hand out presents and make a quick fifty bucks, which didn’t begin to cover my debt, but I told him okay, anyway, because fifty bucks is fifty bucks.

It was only after I said yes that he started piling on the conditions. “So, I’ll bring the Santa Claus suit over to you later today—”

“Belay that,” I said. “Santy Claus? I can’t be no Santy Claus.”

Murphy looked shocked. “Why on Earth not?”

“Just look at me, Charlie. I ain’t got the circumference to pull it off.”

“There’s padding in the suit, Tom,” he explained in that convalescing way of his that always made me want to sock him. “And a beard,” he added, cutting short my next objection. “Don’t worry, Lad. It’s the full package.”

“I still don’t think it’ll work,” I grumbled.

“Well, that’s as may be, but I’ll bet the kids will be so distracted by what we’re bringin’ ‘em that they won’t even notice you’re not the genuine article.” He smiled, and clapped me on the back. “You’re doin’ the Lord’s work,” he said.

“Don’t think so much o’ yourself,” I replied. He let that go and left me to my pickled eggs.

A couple of hours later, one of Murphy’s cronies brought a large package which turned out to be my Santa suit. I tried it on, and after I rolled up the cuffs on the jacket and the pants, I gotta admit, I looked a lot like the Old Gent. “Haw Haw Haw,” I said, and the crony pointed out that it’s actually “Ho Ho Ho.” I told him I can’t laugh like that because I’ll sound stupid and besides, these kids won’t know the difference no how. He gave me a look and was about to say something when a blast from a truck horn told us it was time to make the gig. He handed me an envelope with five tens in it, and I stuck the money down into my boot for safekeeping.

Seamus McInnery was driving the truck, and he give me a big hello when I jumped up into the cab. We talked about boxing as he drove the truck up the narrow streets. The other crony, who introduced himself as Duffy, just sat there and smoked. During a natural pause in the conversation, I remarked, “This is an awfully big truck for a bunch of presents for orphans. What’re you givin’ ‘em, anyay?”

Duffy grinned and Seamus laughed. “Oh, there’s a buncha dolls for the girls and baseball gloves and balls for the boys, but that’s not what’s in the truck,” Duffy said.

“Okay, then, what’s in the truck?”

Duffy started chuckling. “Charlie didn’t tell ‘im,” he said to Seamus.

“No, he didn’t,” Seamus said. Catching my murderous look, he wiped the smile off his face and said, “Tammy.”

“Stop the goddamn truck!” I bellowed.

“Aw, Tom, don’t be like that,” said Seamus. “Think of the children.”

“Yeah, Tom,” said Duffy. “They’re countin’ on an appearance from Santa. You wouldn’t want to disappoint a whole orphanage, now, would you?”

“You put me on the bill with a live tiger!” I hollered. “I don’t play second fiddle to jugglers, because I can’t do it myself, women who sing in real high voices, because it makes my teeth hurt, and any animal bigger than a dog! And Charlie knows that, too! I’ve been shanghaied by politicos! Now, let me out or I’ll cream the insides of this truck with your whisky-soaked brains!”

Duffy started to talk some more but Seamus motioned him quiet and pulled the truck over to a stop in front of a large church. “Okay, Tom, here you go.” He set the brake and opened his door. “Come on out, Sailor Tom Sharkey!”

“Well, finally, Seamus, you’re showing the proper feudal spirit…” I slid out of the truck and jumped to the ground, and landed right in the grip of a stooped-over old priest with glasses so thick I could’ve ice skated on them. “Oh, Tom Sharkey! Bless me, St. Peter, I can die now and go to heaven! It’s really you!”

“Yuh…yuh…” I tried to say something, but the old Hymn Flinger bowled right over me. “When they told me that this year we’d get a visit from St. Nicholas, and not only that, but it was the world-famous Tom Sharkey, I knew my prayers had been answered!” He grabbed my hand in his, and it felt like I was holding an assortment of chopsticks. “Father Gilligan, Mr. Sharkey. And may I say, I’ve been a fan of yours ever since you set foot in San Francisco, lo, these many years back. I listened to all of your fights on the radio and I even waved at you during the St. Patrick’s Day parade after your fight with Jeffries, and son, you looked right at me and waved back!”

I stood dumbfounded in the wake of all these personal revelations. I’ve heard people gush before, and I’ve talked to priests, but this was new to me. Most religious types throw up a crucifix when they see me, boxing being what it is. “It’s nice to meet you, Father,” I said, retrieving my right mauler. “Now, if you’d be so kind as to call me…” That was about as far as I got when an unpleasant thought stole over me. “Say, what’s the name of this church, anyhow?”

“St. Ignatius’ Home for Wayward Souls,” said Father Gilligan, beaming with pride. “And a more spirited and enthusiastic lot of children you’ll never meet!”

I turned in a wrath on Duffy and Seamus, but they just pushed a giant bag of toys into my hands and said, “Come on, Santa. You’re up, first. We’ll bring the tiger out after you. First billing, and all that.” Duffy smiled at me, and I made the instant determination that after this job was over, he’d be the one I punched first, even though Seamus was the one who played that dirty trick on me. “All right, you thick-headed Micks,” I growled, “Get in there and help me distribute this loot.”

“Why, sure thing…Santa,” said Duffy, and then he laughed. Seamus held the door open and I stalked through it with Gilligan following after me, blathering like his life depended on it.

Gilligan led me down a hallway and into a small choir room. “Now, the children are all inside the chapel,” he explained, motioning to the door to the right. “I’ll go around the long way, and come in from the other side. You listen at the door, here, and then I’ll introduce you.”

“Okay, then what?”

“Well, you’ll come out and wish the children a Merry Christmas and maybe say a few things about how they have all been good little boys and girls. You know, be Santa Claus. Then we’ll distribute the presents and you’ll wish every boy and girl Merry Christmas. Can you do that?”

“Merry Christmas,” I repeated. “Yep. Merry Christmas!”

“Good,” said Father Gilligan. He stepped around me and nearly sprinted out the door, looking like a question mark with legs. I checked my hat and my beard in the mirror, and pushed on the padding a little bit, just to make sure I was appropriately jolly. Then I heard through the door, “Say Hello to Father Christmas!”

I looked around. Father Christmas? Was this a variety show? Who the hell was that? I thought I was going on first? The kids were clapping and yelling, but I couldn’t hear the opening act. Then they died down and Father Gilligan said, again. “Father Christmas!”

More clapping and shouting. Then nothing. I leaned in on the door, listening for Father Christmas, but couldn’t hear anything. Maybe it was a deaf-mute show.

“Hello? Santa Claus?” It was Father Gilligan.

“I’m in here!” I bellowed.

“Will you come out and greet the children?” He sounded upset.

“Okay,” I said. I threw open the door and strolled out onto the raised area where Father Gilligan stood. “Haw Haw Haw!” I said.

The children were quiet. They were all looking at me, their eyes wide. Maybe fifty of them in all, some of them real small and a few looking like teenagers. They just stared at me.

“Merry Christmas!” I said.

I couldn’t understand it. No reaction. Weren’t children supposed to love Santa Claus? It was a loveless room I was in, that’s for sure.

“Er, Santa, was there something you wanted to say to the children?” Father Gilligan prompted.

“Oh, yeah. Merry Christmas!”

“Was there anything else?” he said, pointedly.

“Um…Merry Christmas?”

A little kid in the front row, maybe eight or nine, said, out loud, “Last year’s Santa was a lot taller.”

“And fatter,” said the kid next to him.

Now the old Bead-Counter was getting flustered. “Have the children all been GOOD this year?” he asked.

“Merry Christmas!” I said. I could tell he wanted me to say something else, but for the life of me, I didn’t know what. And I couldn’t stop saying “Merry Christmas,” either. It was like being on the Ferris Wheel at Coney Island. It’s fun until you get up to the top, and then you get all woozy, and then you come down, but then you go right back up again.

I could feel my face getting red, and I was two seconds away from tearing these false riggings off, when Seamus and Duffy appeared behind me and said, “Okay, kids, who wants a present from Santa?”

The children all made shuffling motions and began filing dutifully up the stairs to receive their hand outs. Every time I handed the kids their present, I said, “Merry Christmas,” and after a while, the kids were saying it, too. Some of them said it before I said it, and some of them said it at the same time I said it, and some of them just chuckled as they snatched their ill-gotten loot out of my hands. None of them said thank you. A few of them tried to start a ruckus by pulling on my beard, or telling me I wasn’t the real Santa. I threatened that kid with a beating and Father Gilligan pulled him aside when he started crying. The fellows were looking at me like I’d done something wrong, but it wasn’t my fault that the kid couldn’t be civil, was it?

Eventually, we got the presents distributed, and Seamus and Duffy were throwing Tammany Hall buttons and hats out at the kids. Father Gilligan held his hands up for quiet and I took the cue and said, “And so, children, let this be a lesson to ya. Be good and kind and Santa will bring you stuff. But act up and cause a fuss and Santa may just hand you a beating! Merry Christmas!”

Father Gilligan’s mouth was moving, but nothing was coming out. Duffy and Seamus were nowhere to be found. The kids were all looking at me, suspicious-like. What a bunch of ungrateful savages. All dressed up in their orphan clothes, looking at me like I was some sort of monster. Who brought them presents? Me, that’s who.

Finally, Gilligan found his voice. “Let’s thank Santa, children,” he said in that prompting way that grown-ups talk to kids. The little savages started clapping, feebly. I heard that one kid in the front say, “Short and dumb. Some Santa Claus.” I started for him, but Father Gilligan pushed me back into the choir room.

“I’ve an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you change into your regular clothes, and then we’ll introduce you to the children so they will know who you really are? I think…that would explain a lot,” he said.

“Fine by me, Father,” I said. I was tired of playing Santa, anyway.

Gilligan hurried back out into the chapel, and I looked around for my clothes only to remember that I didn’t bring any spare duds with me. Resigned to my fate, I sat down in on a piano stool and took off the hat and beard so I could catch a breeze. Then I heard an eruption the likes of which nearly knocked me off my stool. The kids were going nuts.

I went to the door and opened it a crack. Sure enough, there was Duffy, standing in front of a tiger cage that just barely enclosed Tammy, the official mascot of Tammany Hall. She was just a cub when they got her, maybe a dozen years ago. They took her to all of the rallies and political fund-raisers, and she got pretty used to crowds of people. But that was then. Now she was older, and a lot crankier. But they still kept wheeling her out for public events. They just made sure she was well fed, first.

Well, Duffy was standing there, telling the children all about Tammy, and what kind of tiger she was, and how much she ate, and stuff like that. And, get this, the kids were eating it up! Some days, it doesn’t pay to be me.

Duffy was explaining that Tammy wasn’t feeling too well, but if the kids wanted a closer look, they could form a line and each child could come stand by him and that way they could see Tammy real good. Those kids got into line like they were being horse-whipped, each one pushing and poking someone else, jockeying for position. I watched as, one by one, they approached the spot where Duffy was, turned pale, and then quickly walked away. But they seemed to like it, too. Maybe that’s what was missing in my Santa act; an element of danger.

I was mulling over the prospects of who someone like Santa Claus could fight when I noticed a small girl, one of the little smart arses who questioned my authenticity, was staring at the tiger with a strange little smile on her face. She stepped closer to the cage, and Duffy, thinking she was fleeing the scene, motioned for the next kid to come up. But she didn’t turn and go the way the rest of the children. Instead, she spun and headed for the back of the cage, on the opposite side.

Tammy’s tail was sticking out of the cage bars, flicking to and fro, lazily. She stood there, apart from the rest of the group, staring at it like she was in a trance. “He’s not sick,” she finally pronounced. “He just wants to play.” And so saying, she reached out and grabbed Tammy’s tail with both hands and pulled like she was fishing for marlin.

A few things happened all at once. Gilligan, finally seeing where his young charge was, screamed “No, Mary Alice!” Then Duffy, who saw what Gilligan saw, said a word you’re not supposed to say in church. Tammy, who was just minding her own business, roared and kicked both of her legs backward and pretty much shattered the cage door. The children, upon hearing the roar and the crash, screamed bloody murder as a group, and damned if that didn’t really upset Tammy, who wasn’t used to such goings on. She gave a little jump, and then the top of the cage sorta buckled, and the next thing you know, there was a tiger loose in the church.

Tammy leapt out of the ruined cage and landed in a full stretch that looked an awful lot like she was fixin’ to pounce on the little girl who’d done the tail pulling. Father Gilligan was hollering bloody murder, trying to get Mary Alice to run to the edge of the platform whilst the rest of the kids ran like hell for the doors in the back of the chapel. Mary Alice, in fact, was the only thing in the room not moving. She stood there, eyes locked on Tammy. I could see the muscles in the big cat’s back legs bunching up.

“Aw, hell,” I said, and bolted out of the door onto the stage. I had enough time for one really stupid thing to do, and so just as Tammy’s back legs left the ground, I grabbed her tail with both hands and jerked her back down to the ground, away from the girl. As the cat yowled in pain, I skidded to a stop in front of Mary Alice and kicked her in the direction of Father Gillian. She howled too, but I had my eyes on Tammy and, strangely enough, she had hers on me.

“Santa Claus kicked my bottom!” Mary Alice bellowed. “I just wanted to pet the big kitty!”

That was too much for me. I whipped around and said, “Listen here, you little biscuit-grabbing…”

The children screamed again, and this time, I knew why. I spun back around, but Tammy was in mid-air. I tried to put my guard up, but my arms got tangled up in the floppy Santa suit, and by then, I felt all five hundred pounds of that mangy tiger slam me into the wooden floor like I was a paper doll. My hands were on her throat, holding her head away from my neck, but her front and back claws were just gutting the Santa suit, literally. Stuffing flew everywhere, and I dimly heard the children scream, “The cat’s killing Santa!” I’m still not sure if they were horrified or cheering the cat on. Either way, the padded suit was the only thing that saved my life.

I finally got a leg up under Tammy’s ribcage and kicked her off of me. She tumbled once and then righted herself with a snarl, and I knew I was in for the fight of my life.

“Come on, Tom!” shouted Father Gilligan.

“Get the kids outta here!” I yelled back. “If she’s tangling with me, then she can’t eat any of your little savages.”

“Tom, don’t be stupid!” yelled Seamus. “Duffy’s got a tranquilizer gun. He’s getting it right now!”

“You don’t be stupid!” I said. Tammy was coiling up for another leap at me. “She’s gonna kill us all before that dumb bastard gets back!”

And right then, Tammy pounced, but this time, I was ready for her. I dodged to the left, away from her, but I hadn’t counted on her reach. One set of claws raked across my ribs, and I felt the claret pouring forth, free and generous. The cuts didn’t even hurt, which scared me a little bit. They were razor sharp, and she didn’t even get a solid blow. However, the blow she got was enough to knock me down and she lunged for me. I gave her a mouthful of boot in return, and Tammy stripped it off my leg like a fat man eating chicken. In a second, she’d destroyed the boot, and I took that second to get back on my feet.

Tammy smelt the blood, and she regrouped, licking her lips. I was in trouble. She circled me, slowly, and I tried to keep facing her while holding my cuts together with one hand. That wasn’t going to work real well. One more leap and I was done for. So, I abandoned the defensive posture, which was never my style, anyway, and squared off. Tammy made a hissing sound in her throat. She gathered herself up on her haunches and launched at me like an orange striped cannonball.

I had my fists up and cocked, and I met her in mid-air with a swing that had every ounce of my beef behind it. My whole arm went numb, but I also felt and heard something crack and Tammy gave a most peculiar yowl and dropped to the ground. Damned if I didn’t break her jaw! She writhed and hissed, her back legs kicking out in her pain, and I felt a little sorry for her. I mean, she was just doing what came natural, after all. And would it have been so bad if she’d eaten a couple of the orphans?

Duffy and Seamus ran up around this time, and while Seamus dragged me off the stage and away from the cat, Duffy wept and howled bloody murder that he was gonna kill me. I stood up and told him to bring his lunch, and also that rifle, because he was gonna need it. Then the blood loss sorta got to me, along with all the beer I’d drunk, and I sorta passed out.

And that was pretty much that. They moved me to Father Gilligan’s office and I laid there, bleeding out, until the sawbones arrived and proceeded to stitch me back together again. Duffy and Seamus doped up the tiger and took her to the zoo, where they told them she’d never recover from the broken jaw, on account of the fact that she was pretty old. They put her down, and Duffy cried like a little girl. Naturally, Murphy blamed me for the whole thing, like it was my idea to introduce a tiger to a bunch of feckless orphans. He demanded that I pay for the tiger, and I told him to go pound salt up his ass and pay for my medical bills, instead. And by the way, the boot that Tammy stripped off my leg was the same boot that had my fifty bucks in it, so he owed me that, again. Murphy declined to reply. And that pretty much ended my association, if there ever really was one, with Tammany Hall. What Murphy did to me later, I’m sure had everything to do with me breaking his prize tiger. But that’s another story for another time.

Father Gilligan wrote some very nice things about me the following Sunday, and the whole church prayed for my speedy recovery. I sent him an autographed picture, and he replied by bringing around little Mary Alice, who was suddenly my biggest fan. I showed her my scars, and she showed me the scab on her knee she’d received when she tripped and fell, running out of the church. She thanked me, gave me a hug around the neck, and read to me the card that the kids made. It was a hand-drawn picture of Santa Claus holding a tiger over his head. I kept that in the bar, stuck in the corner of the big mirror, for years. I don’t know if it was a mistake or someone was trying to be clever, but underneath the little drawing on the front was the name, “Santa Tom Sharkey.”

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Iron-Clad Scrooge

I was watching "A Christmas Carol" today, as performed by a bunch of church kids, ranging in age from 4 to 14 -- including my 13-year-old son, who, I have to disclose, was playing Scrooge -- and I was struck by how bullet-proof the narrative structure of this story is.

The setup is clean: Awful man does a couple awful things, and is presented with a warning. Then, the three spirits in three nights (or one night, as Scrooge discovers, as he awakes in time for Christmas) appear, moving the story from past to present to future. Then we arrive at redemption, and Tiny Tim is saved.

You can do almost anything to this story-- rewrite it, re-gender it, transpose it to any time period, animate it in 3-D or shoot it in black and white, play it for laughs or for pathos -- and if you stick to that structure, the story will work.

The audience, like the original Greeks at a Sophocles play, knows the plot. There are no twists, no surprises. To modern day westerners, the tale is better known than any bible story. And it's much more satisfying than the usual Christmas play material. The birth of baby Jesus -- the gathering of the animals, the shepherds, the wise men, and heavenly host -- is essentially static, the opposite of drama. It's why you can do everything you need to do with that story with those "living creche" enactments. But Scrooge's transformation from curmudgeon to Christmas-filled coot is satisfying.

The only thing we expect out of a new version of "A Christmas Carol" is to get to that ending, and along the way to be charmed by minor variations in the presentation, or to be won over by the performance of a Bill Murray or George C. Scott or, say, a gangly young man who looks a lot like you.

As a writer, I'm always on the lookout for these iron-clad structures, to either use them or play against them, in the same way an architect first learns how to build a sturdy house, before messing with the structure to attempt something like Fallingwater (There's another blog post to be written about how it is that some artistic masterpieces are on closer inspection leaky, hard to maintain, and way over budget -- yet are still undeniably masterpieces).

I'm interested to know what narrative structures my fellow Clockworkers most often make use of (the old buff and bluff? The Hail Murray? The Susquehanna Shuffle?) And then I will steal them. Because that's what this season is about, isn't it? The giving, the receiving, the re-gifting? That's the real blessing. Or as Tiny Tim says, Are you gonna finish that turkey leg?

The Clockwork Storybook Christmas Special

I wouldn't normally take it upon myself to link to my blog here, but I'm announcing something rather grand. The members of Clockwork Storybook kindly agreed to help me write a cheesy 1960s Christmas Special guest-starring this august assemblage. Please pop along and see our joint efforts:

In which you'll witness Bill Willingham's song about the Grinch to a Billy Joel tune; Chris Roberson falling down a chimney; and the terrible wrath of Marjorie Liu. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas Has Begun

As a general rule, we aren't going to make this a link blog -- you know, one of those blog's whose basic purpose is to provide links to various cool things to be found out in the wilds of the internet, even though there are admittedly many wonderful things to be found out there. But we have a specific purpose here at the Clockworks among which linking to other cool things has a very low priority. However, there is that thing some bright fellow mentioned once about a foolish consistency having something to do with hobgoblins. Not being a fan of hobgoblins, we don't want to exercise a consistency that wanders into the foolish end of the dial. With that said, I am going to direct your attention, via a link, to something pretty cool.

Christmas has finally and quite officially begun.

How do we know this? Because our very own, and very distinguished, Paul Cornell has started it over on his personal blog, by once again posting the first of his Twelve Blogs of Christmas. Apparently he does this annually, this year being no exception.

Beginning today, the 13th of December, and continuing on until the Night Before Christmas, Paul is posting a new and entertaining, and possibly enlightening, thing every day, each post having something to do with the holiday that is nigh.

Today's offering is a lovely prose story, featuring a famous Doctor some of you might recognize, and with whom Paul has had many a delightful past encounter. In the days to follow you might see some other interesting and surprising guests pop up to entertain you.

Christmas ends in the usual way, with a big flourish on the 25th. But it begins now.

Go here to join in.

And do please have a Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Finding Character(s)

I could be wrong, but let me take a wild guess and state outright that most writers are professional people-watchers. That's the case for me, anyway. Everywhere I go, I'm watching faces, reactions, interactions. It's not a conscious thing. I just do it.

One of the questions I get asked most is "How do you invent your characters?" Or, put another way, "What's your process for creating the men, women, children, and other non-humans who inhabit your books?"

My answer, truly, is that I don't know. I think of circumstances, the person comes to me, and the events of his or her life alters the perception. But, let me state again, I'm a people-watcher. I'm a people-watcher with a dash of empathy -- watching, trying to understand what's going on -- and even if ten minutes later I don't remember what I've seen, it's still in my head, jumbled around. Ending up eventually, I'm sure, on the page.

Take a look, for a moment, at the picture below. I took that just a couple weeks ago, while visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing. See that face? The expression in her eyes? The dot of blood on her tissue? Even her clothes, her jewelry. That's character. That's not an invention. That's real life.

And you want real life in your books, even if they're populated with unicorns and shape-shifters, or men who turn into wolves. You want the characters to be real -- so real they could walk right off the page (into the head of the reader).

Everyone has a different way of approaching character development and creation. Find the process that works for you. But, should you be feeling a bit stagnant, or at your wit's end, take a walk. Go to the mall, or grocery store; or better yet, any place you can sit and watch folks come and go. Look for old portraits on the internet (try Nat Love or these outlaws).

Stare into those eyes. Imagine what's going on. Build a world inside that heart.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


I'm flattered to be a part of this group, but also feel not a little like my name should be at the bottom of the list on the left, down in the steerage/"and puppet show" section.

I'll just have to work harder to prove I belong, I suppose.

To answer Mark's kind leading question...I'm actually between projects, which feels unnatural. The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes is done, more or less, and is being shopped to publishers. My pulp roleplaying game, Strange Tales of the Century, is done and is being gone over by the copyeditor and publisher. But I don't know when either of those will appear.

I've got one project I can't talk about, but it's only a probable project, not a definite one. I'll be doing a scholarly edition of the penny dreadful The Skeleton Horseman for Udolpho Press, but I don't have a firm date for that yet and haven't begun work on it. I've got this steampunk Boxer Rebellion roleplaying game I'd like to write, but I need to figure out how to write it. I've got a kid's book I'm itching to do, but I need an artist. And a publisher mentioned the possibility of a second edition of Fantastic Victoriana.

So I could have a very busy 2010 or...not.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

And then there were 10...

I want to welcome the esteemed and much loved Jess Nevins to the ranks of Clockwork Storybook. Jess is a good friend, an affable drinking companion, and a veritable River Thames of geek arcana. Chris first stumbled across his work annotating Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Like Chris does, he shares his discoveries, and soon we were big fans of Jess, too.

In the New Texas Weird Circle of authors, he quickly established his bona fides by being the guy in the room who knew the answer to even THAT question. And, unlike some of us, could actually be succinct, or failing that, interesting, when answering said question.

Jess, it's great to have you. Is there anything you've got on your plate that you can share with the Tickwits?

The Well of Words and What to Do With It

I do not want to be thrown in a cauldron with the other oathbreakers. I have a feeling that the great One-Eyed god will be less than lenient with me if I reneg on my oath to write a post today. So here goes.

One of the things that confounds me sometimes is that I will, every few weeks or so, find that I simply have nothing in the well where the words usually are. Usually I can just drop the bucket into the well and pull up some words, no big deal. But sometimes the well is dry and I just have to wait for it to fill back up. If you're on a deadline, then I have to find other options. I look for puddles nearby that I can sop up, maybe try to squeeze some words from something else I wrote a while back and discarded.

Ideally, though, I have to wait for the words to pile up a bit before I can start going again. Now here's the question: what can you do to help fill the well with new words? When I can't write, I spend a lot of time reading, which seems to help a bit. It makes sense: some of the words in those books are bound to get shaken loose from the page and fall down into the well. But sometimes even reading seems too hard, too uninspiring. When I can't read, I'll watch a movie, preferably something that I've never seen, something that came out a long time ago and isn't part of the current zeitgeist; the words are always better if they've been aged a bit first. If I can't watch a movie, I'll watch TV. If I can't even watch TV, then I know I'm screwed. Then it just becomes a waiting game. Me and my blank computer screen. Me lying on the couch looking up at the ceiling. Me waiting.

But then, after that waiting, something finally clicks. It's never a conscious thing. Never a "I'm going to get up and write now, by Odin's beard!" Instead, an idea comes into the front of the mind. "What if..." and I get up and run to the keyboard. "What if... What if..." and the words are now spilling up out of the well unbidden.

It's an interesting cycle, and it seems to work for me. The downside, though, is that during the waiting part, I often have thoughts along the lines of, "My career is over." and "I will never have another good idea again, assuming I ever had any to begin with." These are feelings that I'd rather avoid entirely if at all possible.

So I put it to my fellow Clockworkers: what's your pattern? Do you ever end up in that waiting place? If so, do you have ways to get out of it? Do you have ways of avoiding it altogether? How do you keep regular bucketfuls of words coming out of the well?

The Cauldron Problem

Now, I have to tell you that I'm a wee bit worried about one of my fellow Clockwork guys, that man being one Matthew Sturges Esq. You see, Matt was just about this time yesterday, expressing his bafflement and sorrow at the dearth of postings here on the ol' blog as of late. He railed at the slovenly habits of the new Clockworkers, who've hardly posted at all, except to (rather timidly) announce that they exist. And while I fully agree with Matt that the new folks better step up pretty damn quick, I understand that they are a humble lot, still sorting out their place in the grand Tick Tock world. It may take some time for them to feel at home enough here to wade in often and with the unbridled enthusiasm of us old hands.

And truth be told, I suspect Matt was also feeling more than a bit chagrined that he hasn't posted here too often of late.

So what did Matt do?

He boldly swore, by the grand and frosty Beard of Odin, that he would post something here on the blog today.

But he hasn't posted yet, has he? No, he hasn't. In fact he's already making excuses. "You see," says he, "there was this thing with the doorknob on my house. It just fell off and I had to get that fixed. But I'm no handyman, and fixing it took all day, so I don't think I can get to the blog thing today."

And I suspect, after making his promise yesterday, seeing that Chris Roberson had just posted something took quite of bit of the pressure off to post his own post.

But here's the thing, Matt. You swore on Odin's Beard. ON ODIN'S BEARD! Do you know what happens to oath breakers in the viking afterlife? They end up boiling for all time in a big black cauldron, while Garm and the other giant witch dogs come along from time to time and eat them alive. Always boiling, always eaten, but never fully devoured and always fully conscious the entire time.

You don't want that, Matt, do you?

For your own good, get your post on. Don't end up in the oathbreakers cauldron.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pacing and Proportions

Okay, this has been bugging me for months, and I'm hoping that someone here will know the answer.

Since late last year, I've been involved in a long ongoing reading project, reading the classic runs on all of the silver age Marvel Comics titles from start to finish. Early this year I finished reading Lee and Kirby's run on Fantastic Four, then moved on to Lee and Ditko's "Doctor Strange" stories and the Lee-Kirby and Steranko "Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD" stories from Strange Tales. Currently I'm approaching the end of the Lee-Kirby run on The Mighty Thor.

Throughout, whenever I'm reading something drawn (or at least laid-out) by Kirby in his silver age Marvel period, I'm perplexed by a strange bit of layout that he continually uses.

Since the earliest days of silver age Marvel, Kirby typically used a three-tier layout for the majority of the pages. In the early days, there would often be three panels per tier (a nine-panel grid), or even more.

Here's an example from Fantastic Four #1.

As the various series progressed, Kirby broke the stories down into fewer and fewer panels, while keeping the three-tier format as the standard page layout. The most panels you'd typically get on the page by that point was six, all of equal size on three tiers. Here's an example from Fantastic Four #61.

But eventually even six-panel-pages became somewhat rare, with the majority of the pages being five-panels, and almost all of the five-panel pages use that same three-tiered layout, with one of the tiers being a page-width panel (so it would be 2-1-1, 1-2-1, or 1-1-2). Here's an example from The Mighty Thor #136.

(Essentially Kirby was working out a visual syntax for his comics, structures that he could use again and again. When he moved over to DC a few years later, he perfected this to an art, with his "syntax" expanding to include the layout of entire issues, nearly always with two-page spreads on pages 2 and 3, four panel grids, etc. But that's a discussion for another time.)

Okay, so what bugs me about this? Well, note that I said "usually" and "typically." When there are three tiers on a page, Kirby virtually always laid them out so that they were all the same height, each taking up one third of the page from top to bottom.

But when he didn't use a three-tier layout, and instead used a two-tier layout? Then the top tier was virtually always bigger than the bottom.

And this wasn't a late development. He did it for years. Here's an example from Fantastic Four #1 again.

And again from Fantastic Four #61

And once more from The Mighty Thor #136.

As I've said, as time went on Kirby tended to break the story into fewer panels, and the nine-panel grids of the early days were rarely seen in later years. And these three examples certainly show that progression, from a six-panel grid, to a four-panel, to a two-panel. (I'm cheating just a little bit, as the Thor example above actually came out a few months before the later Fantastic Four, but that's just because I'm too lazy to keep hunting for other visual examples.) But look at those proportions from top to bottom. They're almost identical, over the course of five years or more.

So my problem is this: Why did Kirby nearly always use unequal tiers when dividing the page into two tiers, when he used equal tiers when dividing it into three? And why was it always the top tier that was the larger?

Somebody help me please, I've got to know!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I've Got My Christmas Feet On

The Tick Tock Gang (that's us) has a private email list that we kibbitz on, and something Paul sent out today made me think of those Halcyion Days of Yore, when we were doing the online magazine, and every year we'd each contribute a Christmas story for the December issue. I loved doing that. It got me in a Christmas mood (even if my stories trended cynical) and it always made me focus in and think about what is most important to me at this time of year.

Of course, what probably set me on this mental train track was the watching of Robert Zemeckis' version of A Christmas Carol, probably still playing at a GigaPlex near you. Zemeckis chose to make the movie in CGI, and it's the same company/development group that he's been with since The Polar Express. Suffice to say, they have the process down pat by now, and the visuals are nothing short of stunning. Moreover, they are perfectly suited to capturing the magic of the story itself. Zemeckis lifted dialogue and imagry directly from Dickens' classic, which was another refreshing change of pace.

My father-in-law opined after seeing it that he reckoned A Christmas Carol was the most frequently filmed story, ever, and he rattled off for me several versions that I'd never seen or heard of. I was busy making my own list, and quickly came up with five versions that I could remember seeing in my lifetime. Maybe he has a point, at that. Moreover, the vast majority of the film and television versions all manage to stay true to the core of the story (Patrick Stewart's version a few years back was a noteworthy exception as they managed to get a lot more Dickens into the script). I'll give a pass to Scrooged because I love Bill Murray, but again, we see that the core message remains the same.

It's interesting to me that the story is full of magic and wonderment, and it's held up as THE parable for how to act at Christmastime (and of course, we are to take from the story that we should probably act like that all of the time, but hey, give me a break). Christmas, as a holiday, in fact, gets a pass from everyone who would otherwise have nothing to do with magic and mysteries and flying fat men and elves. We not only except it but we accept it as de rigeur; of course there's a Santa Claus, honey; yes, he knows if you've been bad or good; the elves load the sleigh and the reindeer fly. How else would he travel?

This post started in one direction and has gone in another, so I'll try to tie it up like so: for me, Christmas is about family. I like my family and I like getting together with them. We laugh and have a good time and in general really enjoy each other's company. I know that's not everyone's situation, but it's mine, and I'm really grateful for it. But I also like the other aspects of Christmas, too. I like that we're all a little nicer to each other. I like that we all think about things outside of our bubbles, and usually act on them, even if it's just donating a toy to Blue Santa. Christmas really does bring out the best in people.

And all of that stuff with the fat man and the flying sled is pretty cool, too.