Archive for October, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 9)

October 31, 2007

(Originally PostedWednesday, October 17, 2007)

Diagram 9. Will has reached Babel and I’m graphing out the Train Hall scene. Left to right, it reads:

Train hall

Room 102





3-card Monte JOY!

Hanging Gardens


Train Hall


What’s missing at this point is the entire section of the novel which was later published in altered form (see A Nettlesome Term That Has Long Outlived Its Welcome) as “Lord Weary’s Empire.” Since “Lord Weary’s Empire ” — which will eventually take place between the Bar and the 3-card Monte scenes — was short-listed on the Hugo ballot as a novella, you can see that there’s a lot that has to be established before the novel can get where it’s going.

You can also get a rough idea of how much of the novel was made up as I was writing it.

So what does the Train Hall look like? Here’s the passage:

The walls and pillars of the great hall at Nineveh Station were of snow-white marble, according to a tourist brochure that had passed through so many hands on the train that it was falling apart by the time Will saw it. “Seven pillars on either side bear up the shadowy vault of the roof; the roof-tree and the beams are of gold, curiously carved, the roof itself of mother-of-pearl,” it said, and also, “The benches that run from end to end of the lofty chamber are of cedar, inlaid with coral and ivory . . . The floor of the chamber is tessellated, of marble and green tourmaline, and on every square of tourmaline is carven the image of a fish: as the dolphin, the conger, the oroborus, the salmon, the ichthyocentaur, the kraken, and other wonders of the deep. Hangings of tapestry are . . . worked with flowers, snake’s-head, snapdragon, dragon-mouth and their kind; and on the dado below the windows are sculptures of birds and beasts and creeping things.”

Can you spot where the quotation came from? Here’s a hint: It’s a classic work of hard fantasy.


Peter S. Beagle Wins Small Press Award!

October 30, 2007
  • (Originally Posted Monday, October 15, 2007)

    The first-ever WSFA Small Press Award winner was announced Saturday at Capclave, in Rockville, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. (The Washington Science Fiction Association runs Capclave, which replaced Disclave, one of the older and better American regional conventions, after an incident in 1997 involving the sprinkler system and a New York City cop who was into bondage. It’s a long story.) The winning story was “El Regalo” by Peter S. Beagle, from his Tachyon collection The Line Between.

    Accepting the award for Peter Beagle was . . . me.

    You can imagine how delighted I was. Peter S. Beagle is an important figure in modern fantasy and a personal hero of mine. I was a teenager when I discovered The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place, and realized that major fantasy work was being written by somebody who was still alive. (Okay, Tolkien was still alive back then too. But even then we all knew we were going to have to wait until he was dead for his next book.) And of course I thought: If he can do it, then why not me? It was a major goad to my ambitions.

    Here’s the speech I was given to read:

    My notion of a literary award generally involves first-class flights, lavish financial compensations, incredibly costly dinners, and four-star hotel accommodations complete with hot and cold-running groupies. The way I look at it, if it’s good enough for Harlan, it’s good enough for me. But I gladly make an exception in this case, because (and I know this is a cliche), far more than the mighty international conglomerate, it is the small press, the minuscule press, that remains, and will surely remain, the life force behind what we here create.

    The saying, Freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one, is perfectly true; there is a reason that – even in the age of the Internet – dictatorships, juntas and fascist mobs still physically destroy every printing facility they can reach. In the end, as I’m happy to say, and as every jefe maximo knows, literature and literacy itself are always the enemy. And yet, somehow – call it samizdat, or anything else you like – the small press survives; the smudgy mimeograph, the battered copier, always rises again from the bloody shambles. Always, at whatever cost. Always.

    Therefore I am grateful for this award, and will treasure it for everything it represents. Later for the Pulitzer, or the National Book Award. This will do me fine.

    The audience, I should note, laughed at all the right places and none of the wrong ones, and gave the great man a thunderous standing ovation at the end.

Infinitely Collectable Books

October 29, 2007

(Originally Posted Friday, October 12, 2007)

They exist!

I’ve just received my copies of the extremely rare limited edition hardcovers of my latest book, What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? James Branch Cabell in the Twentieth Century. They look good, don’t they?

For those who came in late, the text is my rather long (18,000 words, roughly) essay summing up JBC’s life and career and passing judgment on every book (somewhere around fifty) in his literary oeuvre. It took me over thirty years to do it, but I tracked down and read every single one.

Henry Wessells has made of this a slim and elegant book, available in trade paperback in an edition of 200. The hardcover, however, is limited to seventeen copies — signed by myself, the introducer Barry Humphries (best known as Dame Edna Everage), and James Branch Cabell himself. The full explanation was made in an earlier blog entry here.

So, given that Henry surely kept two copies for himself and gave another two to Barry Humphries (himself an avid rare book collector), that means that there are only eleven copies theoretically available to the public. But of course Henry has other friends, and since he’s a rare book dealer, many of those friends are collectors. So I’m guessing they’re all spoken for already.

And I’ve got two of them! Which means that it’s a particular pity about the coffee rings. And the fact that I seem to have misplaced one. I think I may have accidentally kicked it under the couch.

Diagramming Babel (Part 8)

October 28, 2007

(Originally Posted Wednesday, October 10, 2007)

Diagram 8. You may have noticed that I’ve been hesitating at the liminal point where Will enters Babel for the first time, plotting out the section to come in greater and greater detail. That’s because the novel wasn’t working. It was stalled, and I was trying to find out where the problem was.

From Right to Left:

When the shopkeeper saw what they were doing, he came out and gave them half their money back.


2 dragons

Hanging Gardens — ill at ease sees Alcyone

3-card Monte

HERE “Everyone knew what to do”



Bulls & Lancers

“a scale for weighing your heart”



Insecurity leading to a brief acceptance of Babel


The shopkeeper incidentwas dropped entirely. It was part of the “2 dragons” scene which by now I had realized was the problem. I needed the dragons. They didn’t work. It took me a long time to resolve that one.

Alcyone finally has a name! She’s no longer just “woman.” Now her rather extraordinary personality can begin to develop.

“Everyone knew what to do” was shorthand for a passage I needed to insert early in Will’s career in Babel, establishing how it feels to be new and alone and friendless in a strange city. Everybody else has a place there. They all fit in. Everybody knows what to do except for you. Man, I have been there.

The Bulls and the Lancers are separate though connected incidents. I identify them as an “initiation” not literally but figuratively. By the time Will’s escaped them (which comes sometime after he thinks he’s escaped them), he’s a creature of Babel, a true urbanite.

“a scale for weighing your heart” is a lovely image. That scene never got written, and now I don’t know what it would have been.

The Irrepressible Jason Van Hollander

October 27, 2007

(Originally Posted Monday, October 8, 2007)

Earlier this summer I dropped in on artist extraordinaire Jason Van Hollander. While we were sitting on his porch talking, he snapped a few pictures of me with a printed cloth hanging behind my head. A day or two later, he emailed me the above rendition of myself as a triune deity.

Don’t you wish you had friends like Jason?

scratches in the sand

October 26, 2007

(Originally Posted Friday, October 5, 2007)

once a year i go down to the ocean and sit by the sand for a week
when i arrive i am quivering with the need to write
in the sand with a twig or a shard of shell i write

this is the way the world ends
not with a whimper but with the sigh of oxygen pumps

the ocean comes in and erases it

only three of us saw it coming
the fourth died instantly

the ocean comes in and erases it

there are fourteen silent ways to kill robert heinlein
and thirteen of them dont work

the ocean comes in and erases it

and so it goes
every day the urge lessens
by sunday morning last i sit by the ocean
and don’t even want to write

this is why this post is so short

well, and hoping you are the same


October 25, 2007

(Originally Posted Wednesday, October 3, 2007)

(I’m still on vacation, and since I forgot to bring along the disk I burned of appropriate photos and scans, I won’t be posting the latest installment of “Diagramming Babel.” Instead, the following:)

At any given time, I have roughly forty pieces of fiction that I’m working on. Some of them, alas, will never be finished. Others will take years or decades to reach completion. The number of stories seems to baffle some of my writer friends, who suspect (I suspect) that I’m plumping them out with fragments and half-formed thoughts. Not so. The truth is that I start a new story at least once a week. Whenever I get a notion, I’ll write the first page or so — like those term papers back in college whose topic you didn’t decide until the first five hundred words were written — just to see if it has some traction. And these I don’t count until I’m sure they’re alive and I’ve got some idea of what they’re going to be.

Here’s one I began yesterday:


THE WORLD-TREE was cut down long ages ago, and so the Wyrld was separated from all her sisters in the sky. Once upon a time you might climb the trunk of Ongysdrail, filling your canteen with the dew that gathered on its leaves in the morning and living off dried strips of the meat of the giant squirrels which a bold and determined hunting party could corner and kill, and reach Mars in a week or Pluto in a month or the planets attached to distant stars within a lifetime.

No more.

What little remains of that legendary tree was neglected and ignored for nobody knows how many ages until an army of dwarves in the employ of one whose name is now forgotten took adze and ax to it and carved the many-turreted and profusely gabled tavern that is sometimes known as the Inn at the End of the Wyrld and other times as the Stump.

I rode my Harley there last Friday and . . .

So there it is. I haven’t made my mind up about it yet. There’s stuff there. But is there enough stuff to justify the long and arduous process of turning it into a story? Time . . . as our beloved news anchors like to say . . . will tell.

Lazy Days and Concrete Ships

October 24, 2007

(Originally Posted Monday, October 1, 2007)

I’m on vacation, staying at a little house in Cape May Point, New Jersey, just a quarter-mile down the beach from the ruins of the “Atlantus” (right).

The Atlantus was a prototype cement-hulled ship, built during WWII when the military was beginning to worry they might not be able to get enough iron to build all the ships they needed. Alas, it never sailed. It was being towed through Delaware Bay when a storm came up and it sank, just off of Sunset Beach.

Nobody knows how effective a cement hulled ship might have proved. The war ended before another could be built, and suddenly the Navy had more ships than they needed.

And the connection to my writing? In Stations of the Tide, the ship that was covered with (if I remember correctly) migrating orchid crabs in the middle of the forest — an image, incidentally that I lifted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude — was named the Atlantus.

So there’s the reason for the funny spelling and further proof, if any were needed, that everything a writer does is research and therefore ought to be tax-deductible.

Not that I’m fool enough to try that.

My War With the Term “Fix-Up”

October 23, 2007

(Originally Posted Friday, September 28, 2007)

Let me, as Henry James used to say, be brief:

I have decided that the critical term “fix-up” needs to be obliterated. What was once a modest descriptive for a very specific type of novel has long since metastasized, swelling to many times its original meaning and in the process doing a great deal of harm to many works of fiction that did not deserve to be so mistreated.

No more.

If you’re curious about my reasoning, what does and does not properly constitute a fix-up, and what conceivable harm an innocuous little compound noun can do, you can read about it in A Nettlesome Term That Has Long Outlived Its Welcome. To sweeten the pot, I’ve thrown in two brand-new and original flash fictions, both in collaboration with writers more famous than myself.

Oh, and forewarned is forearmed: The essay is nine thousand words long.

Diagramming Babel (Part 7)

October 22, 2007

(Originally Posted Wednesday, September 26, 2007)

Diagram 7. I’ve finally gotten Will out of the subway system and into Babel’s aboveground society. Not very high up, mind you. He’s just another immigrant, trying to hustle his way into the Babylonian Dream. And, briefly, the writing pauses, while I try to figure out how to make it work again.

The text reads, top to bottom:




Fox Nat Esme

Political Police



Start Lowly:

The Lower East Side

Half the day was spent running a 3-card Monte scam. The other half he was let out on his own to learn the basics of the city
[and city life]

He learned in . . . etc.
He learned that without money all the city was closed to him


The fox is off to the side and circled, because she hasn’t made an appearance yet (save in a story that Nat told on the train).

Note that “les poulettes” — the Political Police — have reappeared, and that once again I had to black out a name to preserve a secret. Also that Alcyone still doesn’t have a name and is simply represented by a female sign, which is also circled and to the side, indicating that while she’s doing something relevant to the plot she doesn’t make an actual appearance yet.

I began Will in the Lower East Side because Babel is in some sense “really” New York City, and traditionally that’s where immigrants started out from.

Down at the bottom, Will and Nat are running a three-card Monte scam. The “he learned” jotting eventually became the following paragraph:

He had learned a great deal in the past twelve months. Not just the petty scams and cons by which he and Nat scrounged a living, but the ways of the city as well. He’d learned that in Babel “What the fuck do you want?” meant “Hello,” that “I’m going to have to run you in” meant “Give me ten dollars and I’ll look the other way,” and that “I love you” meant “Take off your trousers and lie down on the bed so I can grab your wallet and run.”

Which looks simple, but until I was able to formulate it, I wasn’t able to move beyond those few opening pages. Will had to learn the basics of Babel, and so did I.