Inhuman Swill : June 2009
            

On the Zane Grey Ballroom balcony
I was going to catch up on more of the week at the workshop yesterday, but Michael Jackson died and took Farrah Fawcett and most of the internet with him. You live on earth. You know.

On Tuesday, Brad Beaulieu made us all eggs benedict with crabmeat for breakfast. This was somewhat suspicious, given that he was first on the critique schedule for the day, but I don't think any of us actually changed our comments because of the fantastic food. Most of us joked about it, though.

My first-fifty was the fourth and last to go under the scalpel that day. I got a ton of very helpful feedback. There were elements of the book that I was very happy to hear that people were responding to, I got confirmation that the bits I suspected were big problems really were big problems, and then I heard just oodles of impressions and misimpressions that helped me see where I was setting the wrong expectations, where I was being unclear or vague, or where I was just being silly. Leaving the critique session, my mind was already whirring, working on how best to integrate the feedback I received into the next draft. I was very happy with the way it all went.

From this remove, some of the days begin to blur together, but I think I'm pretty safe in saying that we returned to the balcony at the Zane Grey Ballroom to enjoy beer in the open air at an even greater altitude than that of street-level Flagstaff. That happened almost every night.

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Thoughts on novel workshops

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The process of critiquing partial novels this week and of having a partial novel critiqued this week has made me think a lot about what a workshop is and what it isn't. I've particularly wanted to share those thoughts with the writers who are attending a Blue Heaven–style workshop for the first time, because talking about novel fragments the way we do is a very different thing from what happens in workshops more oriented toward short stories. It's not my style to take anyone aside and put an avuncular arm around their shoulder, and I don't know that that's necessary anyway, but I do want to say my piece.

Your workshop (any workshop, really) is a tool. Your workshop is not a pronouncement from God. Especially when we're doing fragments, you're going to hear suggestions for improving your manuscript that sound absolutely plausible, that are uttered with complete conviction and even vehemence, and that would serve to make the first fifty pages of your novel more involving and exciting and enticing to an editor. But those comments may still be absolutely wrong for the novel you're trying to write.

Your job as a writer is to keep your vision for your novel first and foremost in your mind. Yes, your first fifty pages may not be as involving and exciting as they can be, and they may be setting the wrong expectations for the story that follows. Your job, though, is to measure all those comments against your vision for your novel, and to use them as a guide to telling your story in the best way you possibly can. What the comments tell you are where your novel is failing to create the sort of understanding and response in your readers that you are trying to achieve. They are a calibration tool for letting you know how far you've strayed from the mark you're trying to hit. They amount to a differential guide, not to a bible.

You very well may end up using some or even a lot of the suggestions you get in the workshop. That's okay. But use them only if they bring you closer to achieving your vision. Remember that only you know what that vision is. Use the workshop to help you craft an opening for your book that clearly and immediately sets the stage for the unfolding of that vision.

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Workshop day two

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Our second day of workshopping was much like the first. Four first-fifties were done over the course of the day, with a delicious catered lunch of quesadillas in between. Everyone seems to be settling in and getting more comfortable, though as a result the critiques went longer yesterday than they did on day one.

Afterward a handful of us went shopping for a few things that were lacking in the rooms here, including half-and-half, real coffee beans, toilet paper, and sufficient beer. Then most of us converged once more on the balcony at the Zane Grey Ballroom, where the beer, as I may have mentioned, is ridiculously cheap, at least by the standards I'm used to.

In the late evening, we convened back here for pizza (I'm not sure how, but I exercised unprecedented willpower in making a salad for myself instead), beer (did not abstain at all), and an informal discussion about certain aspects of the publishing industry. I would say more, but what happens at Starry Heaven stays at Starry Heaven. If we decide it should stay at Starry Heaven.

This morning we're all heading over to the house where most of the men are staying, where Brad Beaulieu is making us breakfast. Then we'll stay there for our critique sessions. Today will be the last day of first-fifties, and my book is last. I haven't been very nervous until now, but I'm started to feel it a bit. I probably won't be able to eat a lot of lunch.

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Workshop day one

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Starry Heaven convenes
The first official day of Starry Heaven went very well, I thought. We critiqued the first four of our twelve first-fifties. (For those curious, we spend the first three days looking at the first fifty pages of everyone's novel, on the theory that those pages have to be strong when they go to an editor or agent as a proposal.) Many helpful comments were offered and received, and there was a satisfying and comfortable lack of drama. Everyone here knew at least one other person prior to the workshop convening, and some of us knew a lot of the other participants. It looks to me like everyone is managing to fit in, which is good. (And we were all glad that E.C. Myers, who had the worst travel luck of any of us, finally managed to make it here late Saturday night. It was too bad that he missed dinner, though.)

Lunch yesterday was catered. We had delicious little baked burritos, spicy tomato soup, and chips and salsa. After the afternoon session, a few of us hauled our stacks of stuff still to read down to Macy's and sat around chatting as much as reading for a couple of hours. Then the whole gang convened the Zane Grey Ballroom at the Hotel Weatherford and milled about on the balcony listening to reggae from the festival down the street, and later watching police, fire, and ambulance converge on the crowd. I hope whoever had the emergency down there was okay. Also, we saw a few trucks equipped with snorkels pass by in the street below. (I wish I had one of those for my car in Chicago on Friday. The water in the depression under the Metra tracks at Foster and Ravenswood was well over my axles.)

A highlight for me at the Zane Grey was getting to meet Mike Kelly, our organizer Sarah K. Castle's husband. Mike is James Patrick Kelly's brother, and since I also (entirely coincidentally and unconnected to the science fiction world) know Dan Kelly from Brooklyn, I have now met three of the Kelly brothers. My new goal in life is to collect all four! But quite apart from his Kelly family connections, Mike is a charming and fascinating fellow in his own right, a textbook-writing geologist who also designs interactive museum installations.

Oh, and the Zane Grey also had Lagunitas IPA on draft! $2.75 a pint!

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Sparkly heaven

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In other news, I arrived today in Flagstaff, Arizona, to attend the Starry Heaven novel workshop! I'm here with my poor half-finished novel Technomancers, which I hope my fellow workshoppers give a swift kick in the ass. I was hoping that at 70,000 words I'd be close to finished, but as it turns out I'm only about halfway through the first draft.

But anyway, Brad Beaulieu and I ended up on the same flight from Chicago and rode together in the 90 mph shuttle van from Phoenix. Sarah Kelly picked us up with Gary Shockley and whisked us off to lunch at the Beaver Street Brewpub where we met up with Sarah Prineas, Sandra McDonald, and Greg van Eekhout and Lisa Will. A pitcher of Lumberjack Lager couldn't get to our table soon enough!

Then we checked in at our B&B, where the room Greg and I are sharing pretty much boggled our minds with its palatial dimensions. Blue Heaven will henceforth have a lot to live up to! A trip to the supermarket and our fridge is stocked, although it was pre-stocked with bagels and cream cheese and milk and OJ and coffee and syrup and the cupboard with cereal and pancake mix and stuff when we arrived.

Okay, I'm starting to gush. We hear via Twitter that Eugene Myers is having extreme travel complications, but with luck he'll be with us late this evening. I'm now drinking a Four Peaks 8th Street Ale and signing off. The week begins!

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Cory Doctorow published a smart, exciting political novel for teens last year called Little Brother, as I'm sure you know. Well, the Griffin Theatre Company right here in Chicago has mounted a stage adaptation that's on now. The production runs Thursdays through Sundays until July 19, and I highly recommend you get tickets before they're gone.

I saw a preview of the play last week to review it for Sci Fi Wire, and I think you'll enjoy it. I'm told that the production has even more bells and whistles now than when I saw it.

The production runs at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. You can get tickets either in person at the Athenaeum box office, or from Ticketmaster by phone at 800-982-2787 or online at http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Come any day you can, but if you show up on Thursday, July 9, Cory will be in the audience. I'm just sayin'.

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Amazing race

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Annotated Urban Dare clue sheet
Laura and I had a ton of fun yesterday running Chicago's 2009 Urban Dare race. Urban Dare is a scavenger hunt that takes you all over your city to solve trivia puzzles, collect photographs, and complete a few dares. You're only allowed to travel by foot or on public transportation. You need a phone, a digital camera, and a PDA with internet access—preferably all in one.

We started at noon in Oz Park. A trivia question got things underway. Every two-person team was directed to stand in a certain group depending on their answer to a multiple-choice question: In what year did Chicago's Playboy magazine publish its first issue? Since I, ahem, knew the answer was 1953 (come on, Marilyn Monroe was Miss December), Laura and I were in the first group to get our clue sheets and get started on the race.

We took our clue sheet to a nearby Orange Julius/Dairy Queen combo to have some ice cream and decipher our clues. We had to hit 11 stations throughout the city. For each clue we had to figure out where we were supposed to go, and what the best order would be for hitting them all. Once we had the locations plotted, we decided to tackle them from north to south.

It probably would have been smartest to just hope we would be able to pick up #7 (photo of a Cubs and Twins fan together) somewhere along the way, but we decided to ride up toward Wrigley Field first of all. As it turned out, we found our victims the moment we stepped onto the train. That let us head back to our next challenge without traveling all the way to Wrigley.

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I am easily distracted as a driver or pedestrian by beautiful creatures on the sidewalks. I'm not talking about girls in their summer dresses. I'm talking about dogs. Like the pair of huge, gorgeous English sheepdogs I guy was walking ahead of me yesterday, and which I furtively (and unsuccessfully) tried to snap a picture of. Or the reputed wolf-dog in the neighborhood I've heard reports of, and which Laura met this morning. Paint me jealous!

A few weeks ago, I was driving home from taking my mother to Midway Airport at the end of a week-long visit. I had run a few other errands (which included picking up a special-order copy of [info]ccfinlay's The Patriot Witch from the Book Cellar) when up ahead I saw a young woman walking a stunning medium-sized terrier down the street near Winnemac Park. I slowed the car a little. I didn't spare a glance for the woman. I was just thinking to myself, "Wow, now that's a beautiful dog."

When I got a little closer, I realized it was our twice-a-week dogwalker taking Ella out for her midday stroll. I had to laugh at myself.

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A "Hangover" to relish

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Early last week, Laura and I were lucky enough to win an invitation to a preview screening of the new comedy The Hangover, which opens today. Having been seeing the commercials for weeks already, I was looking forward to the screening. From the little I'd seen, the film looked right up my alley. Laura was more cautious going in, especially when our host Capone (of aintitcool.com) gleefully warned us we were about to see some disturbing images.

I won't beat around the bush. The Hangover may be the funniest movie I've seen in my life. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but both Laura and I—and the rest of the audience—laughed so hard and loud that there was some dialogue we couldn't even hear. We hurt when we left the theater. I haven't laughed that hard at a movie since the first time I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.

The film is very cleverly written and structured. It follows a group of three men (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis) who have taken their soon-to-be-married friend (Justin Bartha) to Las Vegas for an extended bachelor party. The three men wake up in the morning in a trashed hotel suite rife with clues that something big happened the night before, but with no memory of what that was. Oh, yes, and the groom is missing.

The main thrust of the plot details the friends' attempt to reconstruct the night's events and figure out where they lost track of the groom. Along the way, they meet not just a bevy of colorful characters and assorted weirdness, but also a good deal of violence. I'm tempted to drop hints about my favorite scenes—like the taser bit that just keeps getting funnier and funnier and funnier, even when the trailers have spoiled the final punchline—but I will resist the temptation. Given the media blitz that's been going on for weeks, you already know some of those bits, but that's only scratching the surface. You should go in with as clean a slate as possible.

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The mighty Dave Slusher has posted the new episode of his fine Reality Break podcast, an interview series focusing on science fiction and other genre literature. In this eighth episode, he talks to yours truly about writing and podcasting The Accidental Terrorist.

This interview was recorded in 2007 but has not been heard until now. Besides my own book, we talk about memoirs in general, writing after 9/11, my experiences growing up Mormon, and how those all have informed my fiction.

Dave is a terrific interviewer, and while I usually wince when listening to myself, I'm very, very happy with the way this session turned out. I hope you'll have a listen. If you enjoy it, thank Dave!

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

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