Inhuman Swill : Page 39
Why is my blog called Inhuman Swill? Because you can unscramble the pieces to make William Shunn.

Barney, frank

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Barney Frank is one of my favorite American politicians. He sounds like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon character but says things in that goofy voice that are more forthright than any other congressman I can think of. Who else would tell off a constituent like this with such obvious disgust?

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Benediction
Yes, the following message is canned, but I hope you'll read it anyway...


Hi!

Bill here. I just entered Ella in the Orvis Cover Dog Photo Contest

Now I need your vote to help me raise critical funds for the Canine Cancer Campaign.

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Strange may not pass by

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As a fan of the band The Negro Problem, I was delighted to pick up the following throwaway tidbit from a New Yorker blog post by John Colapinto:

{Spike] Lee's next excursion into the question of race in America is his filmed version of "Passing Strange," the remarkable musical by [Negro Problem leader] Stew. I watched Lee shooting this production last June, in the Belasco Theatre in New York. The movie will be released, Lee tells me, in late August, at the IFC Center, in Manhattan.  [full post]
I learn from Stew's website that it's also been picked up by PBS for a Great Performances airing in 2010, and possibly will have a theatrical run this fall.

Having missed the run of Passing Strange in New York, I'm glad there are going to be multiple opportunites to see it.

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Our poor dog

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Morning sentinel
Ella's been having a rough time of it lately. Between thunderstorm season and fireworks season, she's been afraid to go outside after dark, and until recently she was starting to balk earlier and earlier in the day. (Yes, balk,, not bark.) We've been working with her very carefully to bring her anxiety level down, and it seems to be working.

I just hope she doesn't start shying away from the dry cleaners. Ella loves running errands in the car, and the dry cleaners is one of her favorite places to go. It's also one of our favorite places to take her, if only because it's one of the few businesses we frequent where we can bring her in with us. Usually Ella and I park in the lot out back, then walk around the corner to the front door. Ella knows where we're going, so she likes to dash ahead—around the corner and in through the glass door, which is usually propped open—while I brace myself so the tug on the leash doesn't dislocate my shoulder.

Okay, it's not really Ella's fault. It's not like she's a bird or something, attracted to her own reflection in glass. The door is usually, like I said, propped open. This afternoon Ella dashed ahead of me, like usual, and I cleared the corner of the building just in time to see her slam full force into the glass. I swear to God, she accordioned like a cartoon character.

She bounced off, shook her head, and seemed to be fine. But even as I was wincing and kneeling to make sure she hadn't broken something, I was wishing I had the whole thing on video.

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Some short Chicago fiction

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My new short story "A Strong Premonition of Death Struck Me This Morning" is now live at the Electric Velocipede blog. I think it was the first piece of fiction I ever wrote that's set in Chicago (though I'm now deep into a novel that's also set here in Chi-town).

Stick around at EV, order more drinks, and remember to tip your servers. I'll be blogging there all week.

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Writing from Starbucks
You may know that John Klima, editor of the award-nominated Electric Velocipede, has taken the month of July off from blogging. Instead, he's solicited posts from a variety of folks, including Jeffrey Ford, Chris Roberson, and EV assistant editor Anne Zanoni so far. We've all submitted material that's been going up bit by bit over the course of the month.

Next week is my week, and things will kick off Monday morning with a brand-new short story, "A Strong Premonition of Death Struck Me This Morning." I hope you'll check in at the Electric Velocipede Blog next week, and if you enjoy what you read that you'll consider grabbing a subscription to the fine print magazine.

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Analog Joe's

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Eight years ago, an old and dear family friend gave Laura and I two $50 gift certificates to Trader Joe's as a wedding present. We were delighted with the gift, having heard rumors of the legendarily magical contents of that high-end grocery chain, but we were somewhat handicapped having no access to an outlet in New York City. (This, children, was back in the days before Trader Joe's came to Manhattan, though I hear tell it's no easier to shop there now than it was before the locations opened.) The gift certificates went into the bottom of a drawer and were, for the most part, forgotten.

Three moves later, with all the jumbling of one's stuff that entails, we live on Chicago's North Side, and Trader Joe's is a frequent shopping destination. In particular, it's about the only place where we buy coffee beans. I make my own Bilmo Blend by grinding together the Trader Joe's House Blend and Trader Joe's Bay Blend in equal proportions. In any event, Laura dug up the gift certificates a few days ago in the course of looking for something else. There was no expiration date, so I took one to our local store this morning and filled my basket.

When I presented my gift certificate at checkout, my cashier was good-naturedly stymied. So was the bagger, who had been working there much longer. "I only know the kind you can swipe," the cashier said. "I don't know what to do with an analog giftcard."

In the end, it took three Trader Joe's employees to figure out how to deal with a gift certificate dated 2001. The nice thing was that they treated it as a challenging puzzle, not an analog annoyance. And I ended up forking over a mere $1.96 for my basket of groceries.

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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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