Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Bradbury Project, Week 3: There Is Power In A Union

Here’s how I pitched this one: “…a fantasia folding real figures from American music and the labor movement into a narrative of forbidden technology and political resistance, all framed in the form of an oral history.” In other words: a 5,000 word in-joke for a tiny niche audience, written entirely in dialect to boot. I still can’t understand why it got bounced three times in six weeks.
[tape starts]

—see why you want to put it so close, is all. That’s a cardioid mike. It’s gonna pick up just fine.

INTERVIEWER: [off-mic, unintelligible]

Whyn’t you put on them cans and watch the meters, then? Tell me what I’m about. You rollin on that thing? All right. One, two. A salt pickle tastes fine with ham. Open the crate but don’t break the glass. Add the sum to the product of these three. The ripe taste of cheese improves with age. Sibilance. Sssssssssibilance.

INTERVIEWER: [unintelligible]

That’s what I told you. Shoot, sister, I been a audio engineer since your gran’daddy was in knee pants. Don’t you tell me what I’m about.

INTERVIEWER: [unintelligible]

Well, that was me and Equity. That was his name, Equity Prentiss. You like that? Equity Prentiss, ain’t that the damnedest name? And He shall govern the peoples with equity. Like the Bible. That’s where it come from, or that’s what he told me. Said his daddy wanted to name him Retribution, and it was his mother who talked him down to Equity. He wasn’t Pennsylvania Dutch, but he was one of them. Old Order Mennonite, or something or other. He left his church, though, long fore I meet him. Left his church, left his people. Or they thrown him out. On account of he took up with lectricity. That’s what we had in common.

This is a pretty long story, now. You sure you got enough tape on them reels?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Being an introduction of sorts to this week’s story, which will run in this space tomorrow. With introductions, as with most things, I am of two minds: On the one hand, I firmly believe in letting the meaning of the work speak for itself; on the other, I am a huge fiending nerd for the procedural, and I love to know and talk about where things come from and how they come to be. So for some — though probably not all — of these stories, I imagine I’ll be writing one of these little forewords, the explanatory notes that would go in the collected edition that will never be published. I promise, in any case, to never pull a Harlan Ellison and write an introduction that’s longer than the story itself.

Two huge events happened in the summer of 1969, within weeks of each other — both game-changers, both with seismic impact on culture and industry: the moon shot and Woodstock. Both were first and foremost triumphs of logistics and technology, and as such were natural subjects of speculation for science fiction. For some reason, though, there’s been a lot of SF written about, and for, and in some cases by rocket scientists — but hardly any for audio engineers. The sound systems that (say) Meyer Labs crafted for the Grateful Dead in the 1970s represented a technological leap on a par with anything devised by NASA, but they haven’t been fodder for imaginative extrapolation the way that spacecraft have. And that’s both a shame and an unforgivable oversight. Innovation fuels imagination. And there’s always innovation happening somewhere, often in unfamiliar fields; and there are fresh stories there.

That’s the respectable origin story for tomorrow’s piece. The truth is considerably more stupid: I made this goofy audio mash-up on a whim and wanted to create an in-universe rationale for its existence. So I came up with the idea of a slipstream alt-history story about a big electric rock festival happening in 1937 or so, with a bunch of the American labor movement’s biggest figures on the bill — all of it, an elaborate justification so I could write about Aunt Molly Jackson singing over a Led Zeppelin riff.

 And then I realized that maybe I had something here besides a bizarre conceptual gag, so I kept writing; it took a long time, because somewhere along the line the voice became an essential element of the story. When I realized I could write the riff out of the story altogether, I knew I was on the right track.

I am, as I’ve surely noted elsewhere, horrible with titles. The story started as “Red Dog Black Dog” and stayed that for a long time; it went through a couple of fleeting working titles before I started calling it “There Is Power In A Union.” That’s the title under which it will run in this space, tomorrow, at noon Eastern time. See you then.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Bradbury Project, Week 2: Van Helsing’s Hound

This story was not one that I ever submitted anywhere. It's a slight little thing, which came very quickly; I dictated it into my little digital recorder, pretty much as you read it here, while taking the dog for a long walk.

The killer of vampires put her hand to the door of the caretaker’s shed and, finding the lock broken, drew back to enter. The killer was neither a sun-kissed California cheerleader nor a gothic revenant, but a broad, athletic woman edging into middle age, built like a cage fighter, all in tactical gear. She looked, for want of a better word, professional.

She squared her shoulders like a beat cop responding to a domestic violence call, preparing in her heart for any ugliness imaginable. A high-powered lantern in one hand; and a stout silver crucifix in the other. She shifted the latch with her cross-hand and pushed through the doorway with one hip, flipping the crucifix right-way-up as she went. The killer of vampires was altogether silent as she entered and pulled the barn-style door shut behind her.

The shed was a single room. Windowless — much darker inside than out without the moon, with only two winking red lights in the blackness. The killer of vampires toggled on her lantern; raw white light sprang out like a sword unsheathed, and she heard a gasp. She swept the beam across the room. A desk, a chair, a corkboard. A rack of spades and rakes. A couple of lawnmowers. Electric trimmers, the tally lights on their charging cradles making the red eyes in the dark. And huddled in a corner, half-hidden behind a palette of grass seed, a lone figure, knees to chest, face turned away from the light.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Shakedown and Update

In January, as noted below, I took a lovely phone interview with Khrista Rypl of Studio 360. The idea was that as I wrote my 52 short stories this year I might share my progress with a national radio audience in a five-minute chat every six weeks or so.

Radio, of course, is a narrative medium, and as I talked to Khrista I could sense her trying to find a narrative frame for my Bradbury Project. What made you want to do this? What are you hoping to get out of it?

Now, I’ve written at some length in this space about my goals and motivations for this folly, and they’re admittedly a little… abstract. My main aim is to shake up my process, to jump-start my ideation; to work in different modes; to use deadlines to inspire velocity; to do the thing for its own sake. My goal, when deciding to write 52 short stories, was mostly just to write 52 short stories. Nothing more, nothing less. My end product would be 52 stories in my trunk and some incremental improvement in my writing. 

Explaining all this to Khrista, I began to realize how unsuited for radio this project really was. As I described it, it all seemed so nonlinear, so entirely process-oriented. There was no arc, no milestones along the way. It didn’t build to anything. It was just ticking off weeks on the calendar and piling up stories, one after another. 

When Studio 360 ultimately declined to include me in their ongoing coverage, I was disappointed but ultimately unsurprised. There was no proper language, no frame that could make the Bradbury Project compelling for radio, and that’s Khrista’s job: to make compelling radio. No harm, no foul.

I kept writing stories anyway. Not one a week, by any means — I should have 30+ in the can by now, and I’ve got nowhere near that — but stories. And any stories I wrote would be more than I wrote last year, so I was satisfied with my numbers. I just kept my head down and worked on thinking up ideas; I focused on the process and had not a worry in the world.

Then a funny thing happened; some of the stories, I thought, turned out pretty good.

This surprised me. When I decided on this exercise, quality never even entered into the equation. If I wrote anything good, it would be strictly by accident.

But I made my way through a batch of stories, and I caught myself thinking, I should pitch this somewhere.

And I’ve been doing just that. Over the last few months, I’ve pitched a number of new stories. They’ve all been dinged, so far. So barring a couple that are still outstanding, I’ve decided to retire this batch — most of which have been rejected by multiple markets — and present them here over the next few weeks, so that at least somebody gets a kick out of them.

First one runs tomorrow. See you then.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

In So Many Words

Science fiction … means what we point to when we say it.”
            —Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (1956)

“Many years ago, the science-fiction critic Damon Knight, asked for a definition of SF, responded (I paraphrase): ‘You know what it is when you see it.’ This may be the best definition of film noir, too: You know what it is when you see it.”
            —John Grant, A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference (2013)

“In his famous soliloquy, Hamlet ponders the existential question (I paraphrase): ‘So should I kill myself, or what?’ That, indeed, is the question.”
            —L.M. Parsifal, Hold the Line: Memoirs of a Suicide Hotline Volunteer (2001)

“The cornerstone of the vast edifice of imagination which constitutes Tolkien’s signal achievement is but a single simple sentence, the unassuming declaration upon which all the rest  is founded (I paraphrase): ‘Hobbits live in holes underground.’”
            —Bardine Skop, ed. Readings in Bucolic Fantasy (2012)

“Dickens famously described the atmosphere of the 1780s in A Tale of Two Cities (I paraphrase): ‘It was a time of contradictions.’ Not unlike the Clinton years, in fact: A time of contradictions.”
            —Gregory Fiddlewood, What the Meaning of ‘Is’ Is: Semantics in an Age of Irony (2005)

“Novelist Thomas Pynchon evoked the terrors of the Blitz in the famous opening line of his modernist classic Gravity’s Rainbow (I paraphrase): ‘Ugh, the sound of rockets is just the WORST.’”
            W. Owens-Jingo, World War II in Literature: An Overview (1997)

“George Orwell’s iconic opening to Nineteen Eighty Four sets the action on (I paraphrase) ‘a cold April day, at 1:00 PM sharp.’ A day and a time not unlike the day in 1953 when CIA director Allen Dulles signed the order authorizing the MKUltra program.”
            —Ben Sharples, American Svengali: A History of Government Mind Control (2001)

“Amidst the tide of cynicism that followed the Kennedy assassination, Star Trek retained the idealism of the decade’s first half, as summed up in in the promise of its opening narration (I paraphrase): ‘We will travel to places otherwise never visited, with no fear.’”
            —Abby Grieves, ed. After the Fall of Camelot: Studies in Popular Culture, 1964-1972 (1993)

“Every sport entails its own traditions, deeply ingrained in our cultural character. A trip to the ballyard, for instance, carries with it all the sights, sounds and smells of our national pastime; the ritual count of balls and strikes, the aroma of grilled hot dogs, and the rising of the assembly for the seventh-inning stretch, accompanied by the famous melodic exhortation (I paraphrase): ‘Are you ready for some baseball?!?’ Much the same could be said for football.”
            —Headley Leathers, Pigskin Nation (2011)

“The Borscht Belt comedian Henny Youngman was noted for his one-liners, such as (I paraphrase): ‘Let me make an example of my wife, if you know what I mean.’ Let me plead of the reader the same indulgence.”
            —Richard Tarbuckle, Mrs. Richard Tarbuckle: A Life (2005)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Face Made for Radio

I rashly decided on this cockamamie Bradbury Project a couple of months ago, and regretted it almost immediately as freelance deadlines planted their boots on my neck. That might have been the end of it, had I not been so foolish as to mention it in public — not just here on this blog, where it might have gone unnoticed, but in the comments on the website for the public radio arts program Studio 360.

Studio 360 (which I listen to in podcast form, these days) does an annual series wherein they track the creative New Year's resolutions of four individuals, providing updates throughout the year. I figured I'd add my name and my ambition to the hundreds on their site, and have pangs of fellow-feeling every time I heard an update from one of the chosen four.

Today I got an e-mail:
Hi Jack,
I’m writing you from Studio 360 because we saw your comment on the website and thought your resolution sounded interesting! Would you have time to chat about your idea on the phone tomorrow (Thursday) morning? Let me know if there’s a time that works for you, and a good number to reach you.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Khrista Rypl 
Web Producer

So that is a thing that is definitely maybe happening and there may soon be thousands of public radio fans on my ass, keeping me accountable to do this unbelievably stupid thing I promised to do, and basically I want to set myself on fire right now.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Bradbury Project, Week 1: What Water Wants

Stentz awoke suddenly in the small hours with a foul taste in his mouth and a piss-boner of prodigious urgency. He was busting. He rolled from his bed, kicking aside the clothes he’d left beside it, and shuffled rapidly into the bathroom, clenching hard inside to hold back the flow. Even so, a few drops spilled onto his hand and down his leg before he’d fully fished his dick out of his boxers. “Ah, shit,” he muttered, without thinking; but of course, no, that would have been infinitely worse. He planted his feet—the seat was up, the seat was always up, because, really, what would be the point?—and released the stream, hot and fat and acrid. He shuddered with relief that was almost pleasure.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Bradbury Project: An Introduction

So this was going around the Web a couple of weeks ago: Ray Bradbury Gives 12 Pieces of Advice to Young Writers. Now, I long ago aged out of the “young writer” demographic — though I still feel that I’m a beginner, and if God is good to me I suppose I always shall — but there’s a lot of good stuff here for anyone, at any stage of their career.

I’ve been on a bit of a Bradbury kick since late last year anyway. My annual Halloween reread of Something Wicked This Way Comes (inspiration for this mixtape from the Popdose Conceptual Theater of the Airwaves) was a forcible reminder of his considerable strengths and equally considerable weaknesses. His long slide into right-wing crankdom was sad, but hardly unprecedented; even leaving aside the long screed of Fahrenheit 451, you can discern traces of bitter judgmentalism in those early shockers, where he was apt to insinuate that it was perfectly okay to murder someone if they didn’t love the same books that you loved. The fact remains that as an imaginist, Bradbury is nearly unparalleled; as a stylist, though, he’s a distinctly mixed bag. At its best, his prose has a kind of lucent poetry to it — but when he stumbles, boy howdy! Vague and prolix.

The failings in others that bother us most are the ones that we fear we might share, and the remedy they find (if any) might be the one that we seek. Bradbury is at his best — the power of his ideas is best matched with, but not overwhelmed by, the vividness of his prose — in his short stories. So this piece of advice at the top of the list really jumped out at me:

Begin your writing life ... by cranking out “a hell of a lot of short stories,” as many as one per week. Take a year to do it; [Bradbury] claims that it simply isn’t possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row. 
narrows eyes
hitches up belt

Mister, I’ll take that challenge.

Look. The Honeythief is out in the world now, a feral thing learning to tolerate the company of human beings before I bring it out to society in the months to come; I’m pondering my next long fiction project while keeping busy with contract work and freelance proofreading, and nursing a general unhappiness with the slack tone of my fiction muscle. It’s grown accustomed to the slow lope of a novel; I want to tighten it for the sprint.

So here’s the idea for the exercise: One new short story per week — most likely very short — in this space, for one year or as long as I can manage it. (I’m painfully aware that I barely made it to 100 days on a long-ago attempt at 40x365.) Stakes so low as to be non-existent. I’m not going to write anything that’s purposely terrible, but I’m not gonna lose any sleep sweating the content, either. The important thing is just to do it. It’s about the process, not the product. And if nothing else comes from it, I will have written a bunch of short stories.

I don’t know that Uncle Ray was entirely right. I have a suspicion that it is all too possible to write 52 shitty stories, one after another; but I do believe that you can’t write 52 stories in a row, however awful, without learning a thing or two.

And learning — that’s what being a beginner is all about.