Inhuman Swill : Writing


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Thanks to everyone who weighed in yesterday on my version-control questions. I know it may seem like overkill, and I'm prepared to be made fun of, but I finally decided to go with Subversion (a/k/a SVN), which I'm running through Apache 2.2 with SSL on one of my boxes here.

A lot of factors came into play for me. We have several computers at home, and I like to be able to work on whichever one is convenient, which means it's nice to be able to grab the latest copies of drafts and my notes quickly from wherever I am. I need to be able to do this from outside our home network, in case I'm around the corner at the coffee shop, on the road, or over at the Writers Workspace. And since I obstinately continue to work in WordPerfect, I can't rely on solutions like Google Docs that are geared specifically toward Word files. Since I've been using CVS for years, SVN seemed like a natural step up for me, since it's similar but does a lot of things more smartly.

The coolest part of this whole setup, to me, is the SVN client I'm using, TortoiseSVN. This lets you access all the SVN commands from right-click menus directly in Windows Explorer. It also adds layover icons to the file icons so you can see at a glance what files and directories need to be committed. And SVN itself handles tasks like renaming and moving files and directories so much better than CVS, I wonder why I didn't start using it for code a long time ago.

I already use a free dynamic IP address from DynDNS to access my home music server from the outside world, and I'll use that to access my SVN repository from out there as well. The one slightly tricky thing that hung me up for a long time last night was writing a Perl script I could run on my laptop from the outside world to update the "svn" alias in my HOSTS file from an internal IP address to the current value of my network's dynamic external IP. That way I would never have to change the URL through which my laptop attempts to access the SVN repository.

Actually, it wasn't the writing of the script that was difficult so much as trying to figure out how to get it to run under the Administrator account in Windows Vista. Vista provides no simple mechanism for this, and it won't let a script update the HOSTS file unless it runs as Administrator. But this morning I found a power toy that enables this, I've tested external access by logging into our landlady's unsecured wireless network, and now I'm ready for field-testing.

Coffee shop, this afternoon!

Version control

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A technical question for you techie writer types out there. Do you use version-control software to keep a repository of your work? If so, what? What platform do you run it on? What do you like? What don't you? I know CVS pretty well from my programmer days, but I'm not sure that's what I want to use for my writing. Maybe Subversion? SVK? I've just started looking into this, and there are a whole lot of options.

I used to just use the Windows Briefcase to keep my writing in sync between machines, but my new laptop with Vista doesn't seem to implement Briefcase in a way that's entirely compatible with older versions, and anyway it doesn't do squat to keep copies of older drafts around. I'd like to start doing something a little more sophisticated than that.

I'm part of this week's "Mind Meld" over at The question under discussion is: "What's your favorite sub-genre of science fiction and/or fantasy?"

I will have more thoughts to offer on this milestone later, but for now let me just say that my job has ended. Like a wounded deer it kept dragging on, but at long last, finally, my last day working steadily as the senior software developer and architect for (the fine and worthy) BenefitsCheckUp, my employers lo these past six and a half years, came yesterday. This has not quite sunk in yet (probably due to the fact that I'm a little punchy from working every day since mid-June—51 hours Monday to Thursday this week alone—which is also why you haven't seen much of me around these parts lately). I thought the day was never going to come.

Now I'm a full-time writer. (No pressure!) And as such, I'm of course going to procrastinate work on my novel for a three-day blowout with Laura at Lollapalooza. (Thanks, Shana!)


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If you haven't heard already, Paolo Bacigalupi was on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday yesterday discussing his excellent collection from Night Shade Books, Pump Six and Other Stories. Way to go, Paolo!

It was a simple drive twelve miles north this morning to get to Skokie for Algis Budrys's memorial service. Laura was unable to join me so I went alone, and I found when I arrived at the funeral home that there was no one there I knew. Actually, I did meet Ajay's dear wife Edna back in 1985, but I wouldn't have expected her to remember that brief occasion all these years later.

I don't do very well in crowds where I don't know anyone—heck, I can get intimidated in crowds where I do know people—so I sort of slinked around at the back of the room, feeling somewhat like an intruder. Two display tables helped me occupy myself. One was covered with an arrangement of various editions of Ajay's books. The other displayed a selection of interviews with and articles about him, both from print sources and online. On a widescreen television ran a slideshow of photos of Ajay and his family.

The service began not long after I arrived, and I found a seat toward the back. There were fifty or sixty people in attendance, I would estimate, and the number of chairs for everyone was almost exactly right. A pastor spoke for a few minutes about Ajay's greatness as a husband and a father and a writer, and offered a prayer. Then she turned the time over to Ajay's sons.

Algis J. Budrys Jeff shared remembrances and appreciations of Ajay he had gathered from people online over the preceding few days. Among the poignant, funny, and just simply factual snippets he read, I was startled to hear a line I had written in a brief post on Monday. Tim expressed his good fortune at being able to spend many of his adult summers with his parents' house as a home base, and shared an observation an associate at a Renaissance fair had made—that no wonder he seemed so even-keeled, with parents who had always stayed together. Dave recounted the last years and final days of Ajay's life, when despite setback after setback, Ajay had remained cheerful and become even more of a sweet man. All three sons credited their parents with giving them the space to do their own thing—as long as they did something. There was also much talk of Ajay's prowess as a bicycle builder and mechanic—the boys grew up having by far the best bikes around, at a time when 10-speeds were still exotic—and stories like the time he singed his eyebrows off cleaning bike parts with gasoline.

After the boys spoke, Edna offered a few words in tribute to Ajay's humor and wit. She also recounted how, when they were young and living in New Jersey and playing a regular penny-ante poker game with Fred Pohl and others, they would all pay their poker debts to one another first anytime a check for a story arrived in the mail.

Next the pastor opened the service to remembrances from anyone who cared to share them. We heard moving and amusing stories both, from people like the massage therapist who worked with him the last three years of his life, the neighbor who eventually went into politics with Ajay as a close supporter and publicist, the young man to whom Ajay was a surrogate father figure, the director of the Writers of the Future contest who had worked with him for 24 years, the friend who first met Ajay in the '50s in the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the younger cousin whose family were fellow immigrants, and more.

Finally, after some internal wrestling, I stood up. You might not know it if you've heard me speak, but it terrifies me to talk in front of a group unprepared, especially a group of strangers. But none of Ajay's students had spoken up yet, and I thought at least one should. What I said, more or less, was that despite only really knowing Ajay for a few weeks during the summer of 1985, he'd had a profound influence on my early development as a writer, as he no doubt had on thousands of others. I said that what I carried with me was not just the serious lessons about writing that he imparted, but also the demented childlike glee in him that would manifest at the oddest times.

Algis J. Budrys & Damon Knight with water guns I recalled the epic water fights of our Clarion workshop, and Ajay squaring off against Damon Knight with water guns at our final barbecue. What dangerous opponents they were to any who crossed them! And I recounted a scene that is seared into my brain, how when Ajay spied a blue stuffed rabbit that seemed to show up as a Clarion mascot year after year, he got a demonic look in his eye, hissed, "I ... hate ... that ... rabbit!", and proceeded to bite, kick, and bludgeon it into oblivion. "If you knew Ajay at all," I said, "you can imagine what a startling sight it was to see him jumping up and down on that stuffed bunny."

What I learned from this, I said, was to try to remember to keep a spirit of fun about me, even when engaged in work what I consider to be serious work. I managed to get through my two minutes without resorting to a tissue, though it was a close thing.

After a couple of more remembrances, the mourners filed past the open casket one last time—Ajay looked about as good as anyone I've seen in that situation, with a very short, neatly trimmed white beard—before retiring to the parking lot. Edna thanked me for what I had said, which put me at something of a loss for words.

I had to be back home, so I didn't join the procession to the cemetery for the interment, but I trust it was as lovely and bittersweet a ceremony as the service at the funeral home. I will leave it to others to remark on Ajay's importance to the field of science fiction, but I can only remark right now on his importance to my science fiction. I'll never forget him because he was the first person to, with authority, give me serious reason to think I might really be capable of becoming a professional writer. In his curmudgeonly way, he told me I wasn't close to there yet, and he certainly let me know it was going to be a difficult process, with only a small likelihood of flashy rewards, but he let me know I had the potential.

One last thing I will never forget is how, on the last day of Clarion, Ajay brought to me a copy of the souvenir book we students had made with a selection of our stories, and almost shyly asked if I would sign it. Of course, all of us were signing one another's copies, like yearbooks, but there was just something in Ajay's approach to asking that made me feel like a king. I was seventeen, and he was a Golden Age giant, but he made it seem like those designations didn't matter. And they didn't.

I've started scanning some of my photos from Clarion '85, including what I think are some nice ones of Ajay and Edna.

Tapped human side

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Here's an article about Algis Budrys that ran in yesterday's Chicago Tribune:

Tapped human side of science fiction

I'm going to head out to Skokie for the service Saturday morning.

I just heard from Geoff Landis that Algis Budrys passed away this morning. He was one of the great writers, editors, critics, and teachers of science fiction, and as the first week's instructor for my Clarion class in 1985, he certainly had a profound influence on my early development as a writer. I'm very sad to hear this news, especially given that I now live so close to Evanston, Illinois, where he made his home for so long.

I've pulled Rogue Moon down from the shelf and intend to start re-reading it tonight, something I've meant to do for a very long time.

Longtime readers may recall me railing against James Frey and the phenomenon of the invented memoir a couple of years ago. Rather than chilling the memoir marketplace, though, Frey was merely in the vanguard of a veritable explosion of exposed frauds that now includes such "memoirists" as Margaret B. Jones and Misha Defonseca.

The topic of these overly embroidered tales is much on my mind as, again, my memoir makes its way back into the marketplace. I feared two years ago that Frey's escapade would make a memoir more difficult to sell. Now I fear that he didn't make it difficult enough.

Nearly two months ago, Scott Simon on NPR's Weekend Edition delivered an editorial that made me stand up and pump my fist in the air. He made the interesting argument that the phony memoirist cheats in two ways: first, by weaving of his life an epic that never was; and second, by scanting the literary rigor a novel would have demanded. Listen here:

Writing and Truth in Fact and Fiction
by Scott Simon
Speaking as someone who has labored for nearly ten years to produce a book that will hold up on both counts and provoke more than skepticism and cynicism, I can only add my fervent amen.

New sensation

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This just in. New agent loves new draft of Accidental Terrorist. "I've just read the additions/revisions and I have to admit I am elated.... [Y]ou've completely rounded out the long, strange adventure and added a whole new depth to the tale."

This puppy's on its way to editors again. Thank fucking Elohim.

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