• timons

A friend's work, and a note from an SHU reading

          Some words of full disclosure: Mike James, the author of the poetry collection Nothing But Love (available from Pathwise Press, or by order from Amazon.com) is not just a colleague, but a friend and the publisher of my own chapbook.

          Despite this evidence of possible prejudice, I hope you will believe (and follow) my strong recommendation of this volume.  Mike's spare, rather koanoid style is moving, thoughtful, and capable of great depth.  His drama is found in the everyday, but  the sensibility is not commonplace.

          James's approach is almost always reflection on projection.  Wry humor occasionally makes an appearance.

          Two examples.


from "Appetites"


i like the way

you dip



in honey


as if to say

too much

is never



from "Fairy Tales, Fears and the Gymnastics of Love"


the dark does not scare me

and snakes have never


even one of my dreams


but frogs - even the tiny tree frog -

make me sweat

worse than long distance running


also, I don't like flight attendants


i am not afraid of them

but I don't like them and that

has not been said enough

in poems


          Reading Mike James's work (this is a poet's measure of quality) always cranks the starter on my own poetry engine, as it did again this time.  I had to stop twice on my walk home, after finishing, to jot down poems that had just come to me.


          On the subject of poetry, a related note.  I attended a City of Asylum poetry reading at Seton Hill U on Thursday, and one of the poems pleased me enough to send me looking for it.  The poet, from India, is Meena Kandasamy, and I can tentatively recommend her book, Touch, on the basis of the sample that I heard.  Alas, since it's published in India, I don't yet know how to buy it.  Meanwhile, though, here's a link to "Mulligatawny dreams" online.


CBsI(very slow)P:  student manuscripts

college textbooks (for classes I'm teaching)

Year's Best SF 11, David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, eds.

McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Joseph Mitchell

Iron Council, China Miéville

The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreaa, Burgoyne & Marckwardt (& Swinton)

free fallin

This weekend

Hey kids --

For our common room entertainment, I'm bringing games and DVDs. Can anyone bring a DVD player, or have the know how to link up a computer? I have co-axial cables, if that will help.

thoughtful, sad, blue, bookish, booky
  • las

Context 22 rates increasing tomorrow

The full-weekend registration rate for Context 22 (Columbus, OH the weekend of August 28-30) goes up to $45 tomorrow morning, so you can save $10 by registering this evening.


Lawrence C. Connolly, Gary A. Braunbeck, Diane Turnshek, Tim Esaias, Diana Botsford, and Nebula winner Ellen Klages are all leading writing workshops.

Also, Paula Guran, last year's Editor GoH, will be returning to Context this year and is offering novel package critiques. She is the editor-in-chief of Juno Books, which is an imprint of Pocket Books (a division of Simon & Schuster).

For more information about her critique sessions and the other workshops:


Reading Journal Entry 5: The Last Unicorn

Every once in awhile, you read something that has a timeless quality to it, that you can read when you're 10 and read again when you're 20 and still, it holds its magic.

Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn is one such book.

The Sum-up: The timeless tale of a unicorn who discovers she is the last of her kind on the earth. Yearning for answers, she leaves her lilac wood in search of her people and discovers they have vanished suddenly and without a trace. The world is now a harsh place, for without unicorns there is no magic, no wonder. The last unicorn must endure disbelief, despair, and imprisonment on her journey--events that cause her to question her place in the universe. She is joined on her quest by the bumbling magician Schmendrick who transforms her into a human girl, and Molly Grue, a shrewish woman who once dreamed of magic and wonder. Together, they must defeat the despair that has taken over the lands, and return the unicorns to their rightful place in the world.

The Review: Without hesitation, I rate this one of the best fantasy novels of all time. The Last Unicorn exemplifies all that is best in fantasy--archetypical yet unique characters, morality and ethics, and a quest against impossible odds--and overlays it with a beautiful lyrical narrative.

Beagle's charas, from Schmendrick to Molly Grue to King Haggard to the unicorn herself are all archetypes one might find in any fantasy story. However, while Beagle starts with the archetype, he slowly transforms each chara into something more. Schmendrick labors under a curse of immortality, Molly is truly soft at heart, Haggard yearns for the day when his reign will end, and the unicorn learns the beautiful frailty of a mortal life. IMHO, what makes the true magic here is that the reader is a party to these revelations. As the charas realize they have untapped potential, hidden emotions, so too does the reader. We are truly invested because we are right there with them.

Morality and ethics also play a huge role in The Last Unicorn. Loyalty and faith are rewarded. In helping the unicorn, both Schmendrick and Molly become greater than they once were. Schmendrick is freed of his curse, and Molly's faith in the world is restored. Love is everlasting, more powerful than even death. Prince Lir, who dies defending the unicorn from the Red Bull, is brought back to life by a mere touch of her horn. Through sacrifice, evil is banished forever--let it not be said that these accomplishments come without a price. The unicorn undergoes trial after trial in the harsh world. In the end, she must make the ultimate sacrifice, and give up her mortal life and love. For only by returning to her immortal form can she defeat the Red Bull, free her people, and set the world to rights.
In the end, the good guys win and the bad guys lose, but there is a price.

In keeping with the theme of sacrifice and trial comes my favorite fantasy convention: the quest against impossible oddsFor one unicorn to succeed where all have failed--not only does that immediately raise the stakes, but it immediately invests the reader. It doesn't matter if this exact same story was told a hundred times until we come to the last unicorn, because if the last one fails, then it's all over--in the same way that the destruction of the One Ring was the ultimate defining moment in Middle Earth. If there were ten rings, we'd hardly care. Moreover, Beagle's unicorn is so gentle, so skittish and innocent, that the reader cannot help but feel for her as she tries to make her way in a world that has no use for unicorns.

As for the language, Beagle is a true wordsmith. His descriptions are simple yet vivid. His description of the Red Bull is riveting, engaging; his narration of the unicorn in her splendorous wood nothing short of breathtaking, the final battle--well, I won't spoil it all for you...
This is lyrical writing at its best.

The Skinny: This book is made of awesome. I had to dog-ear the pages I wasn't in love with--all 5 of them.
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Reading Journal Entry 4: The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art

Wow...it's truly the first day of spring here. 70 degrees and gorgeous, picturesque like the old-school images of The Party trekking out on the epic Quest (because, as you know, it NEVER rains in fantasy, right?)

Roger Schlobin's "The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art" doesn't really answer that age-old question of why we never picturing it raining on the heroes, why Aragorn has time to shower and do his hair before the final, climactic battle, and why the heroes are never out of gold when they come to Ye Olde Tavern and Adventure Kickoff Point.

However, if I had to suggest one craft book for every fantasy writer to read, it would be this one. Comprised of a number of essays on fantasy and its conventions, the book is by no means a light read. Come with a highlighter and a bit of patience. I will say that the essays are arranged very well, from more elemental concepts like "What is Fantasy?" all the way up to the importance of ethics, and the secondary world as character not just setting. Oooh....shiny!

I learned something excellent from each essay.
Here are some of the best and most useful quotes. I try to sum up a bit after each...

Preface:"[W]hile fantasy is impossible from one perspective, which could vaguely be labeled as 'realistic,' it must be psychologically valid."
In addition to instilling wonder in your reader, you must also give them a sense that the world works by rules and conventions that are stable and sensible.

The Encounter with Fantasy by Gary Wolfe: "[I]f the fantasy author successfully integrates idea and affect to achieve a primary level of belief in the work, this deeper level of belief will emerge naturally."
Although wonder can be instilled, it must be buoyed by belief to be sustained. Only the believing reader will buy into the idea that fantasy is actually reality.

On the Nature of Fantasy by C.N. Manlove: "As soon as the supernatural becomes possible, we are no longer dealing with fantasy but science fiction.
If a chara in your story shoots a lightning bolt, it's the HOW that matters.
If he speaks an incant, weaves arcane gestures with hand or wand, and the lightning bolt springs from his hand--it's fantasy.
If he clicks a button on the gauntlet he's wearing, and the flux capacitor roars to life and shoots 121 gigawatts--it's sci-fi.

From Fancy to Fantasy: Coleridge and Beyond by W.R. Irwin: Okay, I'm not going to lie, I didn't find this one useful. A lot of jabber about what Coleridge thought about a concept that's clearly outdated. Please, could we just forget that "Kubla Khan" nonsense? Coleridge's best work was, without a doubt, The Christabel. 'nuff said.

The Secondary Worlds of High Fantasy by Zahorsky and Boyer: "The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are now in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from the outside."
Actually, this quote is from Tolkien himself, and it supports the above statement that secondary worlds must have rules and laws that are make sense and are consistent. If you break your own rules, you create nothing but chaos with zero believability.

Ethical Fantasy for Children by Francis Molson: "A more significant...pattern in ethical fantasy than surmounting obstacles in discerning good from evil is facing up to the necessity of choosing between the two and then screwing up the courage to act accordingly.
Edmund has to humble himself to his brothers and sisters in order to fight the White Witch in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" while in "The Black Cauldron," Ellidyr who throws himself into the evil relic and sacrifices himself to save his friends. In choosing good over evil, these children demonstrate their readiness to enter the adult world and accept adult consequences.

Pure and Applied Fantasy by Robert Crossley: "There are 'pure' fantasies of the magical type that are morally charged and deal impressively with issues of individual merit and social justice...[a]nd there are 'applied' fantasies...that are little more than homages to applied science."
Not all fantasies are based on ethics, only the good ones--just kidding! ;]

Heroic Fantasy and Social Reality by Jules Zanger: "Once we accept the denial of the real world implicit in magic that works, or the existence of elves...we find ourselves on otherwise familiar turf: conflict and resolution, psychological characterization, and motivation."
A good secondary world is invisible, yet its presence its deeply felt.

For me, this book was a huge reaffirmation of why I write fantasy. Not only that, but it shed some light on the why of it. My own motives illuminated, I feel a bit like Morgoth with the Silmarils. ;]

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My genre reading reviews

Hey fellow WPFers.

If anyone is interested, here are links to my reviews for my genre readings (in fantasy) for this term:

A Darkness Forged in Fire by Chris Evans: Elves, guns, and colonialism. Not a bad first book.

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson: A satisfying ending to an epic fantasy trilogy.

The Cipher by Diana Pharaoh Francis: Reasonable read. Great opening line. Love the resistance to explaining.

All of the reviews contain spoilers for the books, just so you know. :) timons is my mentor, and he had us pick recent books (published within the last 5 years) to read, if you're wondering why these books.

My thesis novel is kind of a mosh pit between contemporary fantasy and high fantasy, with a little bit of romance thrown in (though I'm probably stripping bits of that out in the rewrite). I tend toward high/epic fantasy in my reading and specifically look for non-earth fantasy worlds that are not stuck in the middle ages (which is specifically why I picked the Chis Evan's book).

Reading Journal Entry 3: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Sum-Up:
Book One of the Arthurian Saga is told from Merlin's POV, and takes the reader from the chara's childhood all the way up to the fateful deal with Uther that leads to Arthur's conception.

The Review: IMHO
First off, I feel as though a book from Merlin's POV is an incredible waste of time. Why, you may ask? Simply because Merlin is not protagonist material. He's a fleeting chara, a force of nature, a plot catalyst. Period. Delving into his POV merely demystifies him, bringing him down to the levels of mortal man. To me, it's like writing a Star Wars book from Darth Vader's POV--"Padme, nooooooo!!!!" You get my point.

Second, and keeping in mind that "The Crystal Cave" was written in 1970, it's no wonder there are pages upon pages of what I've taken to calling "narrative spillage"--endless paragraphs of useless exposition about the trees, the rocks, the squirrels, that pixie in the corner, anything to distract from the story at hand. As I posted on the SHU boards, the overall result of Stewart's endeavor is the feeling that nothing ever happens in the book. There is no action. Every sentence of action is followed by at least 3 paragraphs of useless and rambling narrative.

As I said before, when a guy is kicking your ass, you probably won't have time to notice that "He was tall, young, with light brown hair showing reddish in the torchlight, and an elegant beard fringing his chin. His eyes were blue and looked angry. He was cloakless in the cold. He had a whip in his left hand" (Stewart 139)

An elegant beard? I swear, I wanted to punch her in the face. Maybe then, she'd see my elegant annoyance.

Now don't get me wrong. I like narrative summary. When it's done well. Stewart's dogged efforts at detailing every rock, bush, and stone that Merle-ol-girl passes is downright frustrating. It leaves the reader feeling directionless, like "Man, I'll never get those 10 hours back."

Furthermore, Stewart's over-emphasis on narrative leaves the chara completely lacking in any actual substance. After 400+ pages, I was still like, "Where is the inner conflict?" Merlin never makes any lasting relationships except with his father *yawn!* He never experiences love. Wow, way to defuse THAT interesting conflict. He can't even control his visions. They come and go as they please, and he is merely the vessel, the messenger, God's loofah--whatever. So...no conflict there. There's no religious conflict since Stewart skirts the chara's obvious religious connotations and plays it safe somewhere between Christianity and some unknown *cough--wicca* OTHER religion.

A Ray of Sunshine?
But...just to try to glean SOMETHING out of my agony--this is a very good example of how NOT to write narrative summary.

The Skinny::
All in all, I'm not sure why Stewart wrote this book. My suspicion? To be the first to write a book from Merlin's POV. Like I said, I'll never get those 10 hours back.

Save yourself the trouble and watch "Excalibur."
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Reading Journal Entry 2: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Okay...here it is.

IMHO, there are two things you have to do as a writer.
1. Read "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers"
2. Take it with a grain of salt.

Browne and King keenly narrow down many of the mistakes most writers make in writing fiction--er, no wait, let's try again. Browne and King discern the major transgressions made by fiction writers.

This is just a tiny example of how this book can help transform your writing into a powerful expression of word-smithing. From tried and true rules such as Show Don't Tell and Resist the Urge to Explain to the more elusive ideas of sophistication and voice, Browne and King cover it all. They use concrete examples to illustrate their points, even going as far as to re-write the classics. (Not that re-writing "The Great Gatsby" is all that challenging).

Each chapter covers one major blunder and how to avoid it. In addition, the chapters build upon one another and cover increasingly more difficult concepts. I found the chapter on proportion to be the most helpful. As a writer of epic fantasy, I am always tempted to go off into the wilds of narrative summary for page upon page, without any consideration for my poor reader who just wants the small victory of finishing a chapter. I came away from this chapter realizing that, even though I love epic fantasy, the hundreds of pages of "and then the elves blah blah blah" is always the stuff I skip.

I remember skimming the LOTR trilogy, scanning over the history to get to "the good stuff"--battles with elves and men and giant spiders, huge eagles, dark nasty baddies, riddles and consequences, conflicts in the dark. I probably read only about 100 pages of the entire epic. My bad.

I also found the tips on engaging the reader through direct action, and investing them early-on in your charas through emotion and connection to be invaluable. I definitely recommend this book to everyone who hasn't read it.

And, now a warning: shortly after reading this book, I began to panic. Not only was I making a lot of these mistakes, it seemed that my style and voice were intrinsically linked with these hack errors. OMG! Panic at the disco, right? So, I started re-working EVERYTHING--to the point where my voice got smothered by mechanic technicalities.

And then, my girlfriend (who is just finishing an MFA in 3D art), told me something that was just as invaluable as the book: "Learn the theory, but don't let it turn you into a machine." In other words, when you break the rules, do it deliberately for effect, not because you're a hack writer. Make a conscious decision to stray from the theory because it suits your purpose, and most importantly, be prepared to take the consequences...and the praise.

That is all.
Comments are welcome.

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Reading Journal Entry 1: The Once and Future King

So....I finally finished the epic-ness of T.H White's "The Once and Future King."

I'm not going to lie, I had a really hard time staying focussed during this book. While I found many of the charas interesting and their interactions very worthy of notice, it was difficult slogging through the pages and pages of narrative summary about boar hunting, falconry, and Arthur becoming Woodland Animal of the Week. While I'm glad that the setting was lush, I think White was overdoing it, even for the time.

On the flip side, learning about falconry, heraldry, and the pageantry of Arthur's court was interesting, and I'm wondering if using the book as a bit of reference for these subjects might be a good idea. Then again, since White was a Brit, maybe not unless I want a British influence. As informative as these passages were, I still feel as though they might have been pared down. I found myself drifting away from the primary plot and losing focus.

I found many if the support charas interesting, although King Pellinore and Grummore were a bit too Monty Python for me. I also didn't like the treatment of Robin Hood or Morgan LeFay. I wasn't exactly sure what White was trying to do in using all these charas in the same book. Many of them appear, do nothing, and then disappear. Again, these interactions strayed from the main story.

I enjoyed Arthur much more after he is grown and King, of course. Although his childhood adventures with Merlyn are somewhat humorous. Arthur being a simple, kind person worked very well for me and explained the chara's relative naivete. I also thought the idea of an ugly Lancelotwas excellent! I felt the most deeply for him. To me, he was more of an Everyman. Arthur was more of an icon. His troubles stemmed from the culture of his world and trying to change things on a grand scale, while Lancelot's problems were within. Victories on the battlefield came easy but he lost on the battlefield of his soul more than once.

The treatment of women was passable at best, and I know I have to remember the time in which the book was written. Gwen was the same as she is in every book. Part Queen, part shrew, all stock.

The other thing I found very distracting is the fact that White shifts POV so suddenly in his narratives. All of a sudden, he breaks the fourth wall and starts addressing the reader. Not only that, he references modern times in doing so. For instance, on page 321: "The now vigorous boy might go at his companions harum-scarum, with sword and buckler. If you had been down in one of the old fashioned diving suit which used to be standard i the Royal Navy..."

Needless to say, this technique drove me crazy. I felt that as soon as I was fully submersed in White's world, he kept yanking me out of it.

Still, I think the charas were superb. The dialogue, though limited, was excellent and well done. The conflicts were good and carried the plot's tension, although the ending is disappointing. White builds up to Arthur's conflict with Mordred only to back off at the last second, and say that Arthur "went out to meet his future with a peaceful heart." I'm not sure why falconry deserves 30 some-odd pages, but the main conflict gets one sentence.

All in all, I'd suggest everyone who writes fantasy of any kind read this book because it is a classic of the genre and speaks to our fantasy roots and our great desire to world-build and lean toward purple prose. Also, it shows the difference between such masters as White and Tolkein, who were expected to write pages upon pages of narrative summary and more modern masters like George R.R. Martin who sprinkles backstory into action and intrigue.
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