Archives for August 2014

Rumblings in the interior

I have been quiet (here, though noisy in other people’s comboxes) for a few days, because I have had another bout of annoying health.

Last Wednesday night, my usual neck-ache (now definitely diagnosed as ‘severe torticollis’) spawned a headache of the ‘Why is a work gang of little crimson devils driving a railway spike into my right temple?’ variety. I eventually decided that I needed to go to the hospital, but while I was trying to find some way of getting there that did not involve paying $300 for an ambulance, the pain increased to the point where I decided to give in and call 911. While on the phone, I lost the power of speech, except for the ability to scream in pain every time I tried to talk. They sent police, who decided (after I regained the ability to speak) that I was not in pain and had faked the whole thing; and they arrested me under the Mental Health Act (which gives the police powers of detention but not of arrest) and hauled me to the hospital in the local version of the Black Maria.

Once there, I could talk to rational people who did not presume to tell me what was not happening in my head. The loss of speech worried the duty physician (almost as much as it did me), and the upshot was that they CT-scanned my head, told me to take ibuprofen for my neck (I had run out; fixed now), and made me an appointment at the Stroke Prevention Clinic. I had one stroke three years ago; it would not do for me to have another.

The clinic, in turn, ran a battery of diagnostics, and set me up for an echocardiogram (performed today) and a two-day bout with a Holter monitor (now in progress). The echocardiogram revealed that I do actually have a heart, contrary to popular legend. Other results still to come.

In other news, I have managed to spill liquid into my laptop when a bottle of Coke Zero fizzed up on me. The computer still works, but the keyboard is damaged; the 1, Q, and Backspace keys do not work at all. I have plugged in a cheap external keyboard for now, but I am going to have to get the thing repaired. This will knock a day or two out of my working time in the coming week.

I regret to say that I have not accomplished much in the way of work during all this. I hope my 3.6 Loyal Readers (and Allied Benefactors) will forgive me.

WRITING DOWN THE DRAGON: Print edition now on Amazon!

The paperback edition of Writing Down the Dragon is now for sale at, as well as the Amazon stores in the U.K., France,  Germany, and Italy. Thanks to the magic of Kindle Matchbook, if you buy the paperback, you can download a free copy of the Kindle ebook as well. Yes, you can eat your copy and still have it! Cheap at half the price!

The Tao of Prydain

Prydain, of course, is just the Welsh name for Britain; you can find it now on any U.K. passport, though Lloyd Alexander did not live to see that. Thanks to Mr. Alexander, the name has acquired a second meaning: it is also the name of a Secondary World, a parish or precinct of Faërie, which serves as the setting for one of the founding texts of modern fantasy. The Book of Three has, I am told, never been out of print since its appearance almost fifty years ago. This fact alone is enough to make many a modern fantasy writer weep with envy. One could, I suspect, fill a very large bookcase with the fantasy trilogies of which Book One was already out of print by the time Book Three appeared. But Prydain remains, partly because the publishers of children’s books are not afraid of their own shadows, and are not too proud to take the profits of a hardy perennial.

My own acquaintance with the fictional Prydain began when I was ten, and read all five of the original books out of the school library; a couple of years later, I acquired my own copies, which went missing in a house-move many years later. Last year, during the enforced idleness that followed upon my fall down stairs, I was delighted to find a complete set of the paperbacks, no longer virginal but still alluring, on a sky-high shelf at a second-hand bookshop within bowshot of my current home. I adopted them and took them home, and packed my bags for a visit to Prydain, to see if the tales retained their charm for an older and more jaded reader, or if they belonged in the vast category of trash that I only enjoyed because I had not yet learnt to tell my good taste from my bad.

I am pleased to report that the books seem as good as they ever did to me, or better. I understand, now, how Alexander produced some of his effects, and where he got some of the odder ingredients for his confection. I still like the same bits I liked as a boy of ten, and dislike most of the bits that left me cold then; but now I can appreciate the ingenuity of the good parts, and at any rate account for the others. I read the books this time with a curious sort of double vision — one eye in childhood, the other in decrepitude, with a lifetime of parallax between them. This gives me a perspective and depth of field, as it were, that would be hard to get in any other way. [Read more…]

How not to take criticism

Then Victoriana took a little toy harp and began. The noises of the toy harp were so strange that John could not think of them as music at all. Then, when she sang, he had a picture in his mind which was a little like the Island, but he saw at once that it was not the Island. And presently he saw people who looked rather like his father, and the Steward and old Mr. Halfways, dressed up as clowns and doing a stiff sort of dance. Then there was a columbine, and some sort of love-story. But suddenly the whole Island turned into an aspidistra in a pot and the song was over.

‘Priceless,’ said the Clevers.

‘I hope you like it,’ said Gus to John.

‘Well,’ began John doubtfully, for he hardly knew what to say: but he got no further, for at that moment he had a very great surprise. Victoriana had thrown her mask away and walked up to him and slapped him in the face twice, as hard as she could.

‘That’s right,’ said the Clevers, ‘Victoriana has courage. We may not all agree with you, Vikky dear, but we admire your courage.’

‘You may persecute me as much as you like,’ said Victoriana to John. ‘No doubt to see me thus with my back to the wall, wakes the hunting lust in you. You will always follow the cry of the majority. But I will fight to the end. So there,’ and she began to cry.

‘I am extremely sorry,’ said John. ‘But—’

‘And I know it was a good song,’ sobbed Victoriana, ‘because all great singers are persecuted in their lifetime – and I’m per-persecuted – and therefore I must be a great singer.’

—C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

‘The Island’, in this particular allegory, is the particular experience, partly aesthetic and partly religious, that Lewis referred to elsewhere as ‘Joy’. If you want to inspire Joy in your audience, and you fail, I can heartily dis-recommend this method of dealing with it.


WRITING DOWN THE DRAGON now available from the CreateSpace Store

I am pleased to announce that Writing Down the Dragon has passed the final review at CreateSpace. The print edition is now available to order!

This handsome trade paperback (if I do say it myself) is available for $11.99 plus shipping from the CreateSpace e-store:

The book will be available from Amazon stores in the U.S. and Europe within the next week. Readers in other countries (including Canada, alas) should use the link above.

ETA: I discovered a minor formatting glitch in the interior layout. I have resubmitted the interior file, and the book has been temporarily removed from sale while the new file is being reviewed. I apologize to anyone who tried to buy the book today and could not.

ETA(2): And now the review is finished, and the book is once again available. It should be on Amazon proper within a few days.

The proof is in the proof!

This afternoon, quite unexpectedly, I was awoken from a sound nightmare (Fat Yuri of the KGB and his hired assassins were chasing me through the corridors of a large office building, and they were driving a big black limousine down the corridor) to the distinctive but hideous honk of the intercom in my flat. It turned out that the UPS man was at the outside door with a parcel for me; and this turned out to be the short-awaited* proof copies (2 ea.) of the printed edition of Writing Down the Dragon.

I am delighted with the quality of the printing, and the binding seems quite acceptable. The parchment texture in the background looks better in print than it did on the ebook cover, and there are no visible halftone dots anywhere. This, I believe, shows the wisdom of my decision (taken with the help of Sarah Dimento) to use only vector art for my covers, and not dive into the stagnant pool of Photoshopped stock art as so many people have done with their book covers.

I am sitting down to a hearty meal of Papa John’s pizza (to celebrate the occasion) and preparing to read the proof straight through for last-minute errors; also for the novel experience of reading one of my books on paper in a codex binding, as if I were one of the glorious ink-stained hacks of old. I shall be a Retro Hipster for the evening; after which, for my next trick, I shall brilliantine my hair, ride a penny-farthing bicycle up and down the street, and then stab myself brutally but accidentally in the stomach twenty-three times whilst trying to shave with a straight razor.

If I survive these things, and if the final read-through reveals no ‘issues’, I shall make the print edition of Writing Down the Dragon available to the public in the next few days.

ETA: In reading the proof copy straight through, I found one small formatting error and one textual error. (I do not guarantee that there are no others, alas.) I corrected these in the InDesign file and resubmitted to CreateSpace. The review process will have to be repeated at their end, though I do not intend to order fresh proof copies for such tiny changes; I will just use the online proofing function to make sure that the affected pages are correct. This will delay the release of the printed book a day or two longer.


*That is totally a word, dude.

R.I.P., ‘Admiral Halsey’

At about 4:00 this morning, on my way home from a late-night writing session at an all-night diner, my elderly and infirm Mazda Protege5 finally yielded up the ghost. [Read more…]


Stephen J., one of our 3.6 Loyal Readers, has posted a review of The End of Earth and Sky on I reproduce it here without comment, except to say that I am touched and delighted:

It says something about the current state of fantasy that The End of Earth and Sky can be accurately described as a refreshing change from what has become accepted as the modern norm, and that may well be to the story’s ultimate benefit; if it had been published fifteen or twenty years ago it might have gone unfairly overlooked or dismissed as the work of another Tolkien disciple in the vein of Kay, Brooks, McKiernan or Eddings. Instead, thanks to a modern genre field crammed full of the bleakly violent cynicism of Abercrombie, Morgan and Erikson on the one hand and butt-kicking urban fantasy or steampunk heroines on the other, Simon’s short but elegant first novel is like coming unexpectedly upon an oasis in the desert.

Superficially a standard coming-of-age bildungsroman, Simon’s tale of reluctant and not-especially-talented wizard’s apprentice Calin Lowford starts with an unexpected burst of violence and then, startlingly, features no violence at all for almost the entire rest of the story; likewise, the magic that Calin learns is a slow, painful process of question and answer that winds up revealing far more about the world Calin lives in than we realize at first glance. Calin’s mentor Rijeth may be the first “Eccentric Mentor” figure since Gandalf to successfully impress not only the protagonist but the reader with his knowledge, which is critical as they are the two most deeply developed characters in the book; likewise, Simon may be the first writer since Tolkien to deploy his fantastical “elder language” with enough skill and character to convince the reader that the tongue actually exists and could be learned, a vital part of the process of subcreation. Simon’s English prose also displays the same understated elegance as his constructed language, and Calin’s voice (in which the story is told) is an entertainingly wry perspective that does not skimp on admitting the narrator’s flaws and foibles. Finally, Simon has grasped the mythic element of fantasy in a way that many more “realistic” writers like Martin, Rothfuss or Erikson do not, and does not shy away from simply presenting fairy-tale impossibilities of geography with a convincing matter-of-factness that still leaves their elfland glamour intact. He also gives a sense of metaphysical and philosophical depth to his world that blessedly never yields to any temptation of “deconstruction” while still at the same time feeling wholly plausible and human.

While the story’s atypical paucity of traditional action scenes may be held as a flaw by some (though not by this reviewer), a more telling complaint – and really the only serious one in this reviewer’s opinion – is in the development of most of the other characters. However, Simon has what might be called the opposite of the usual problem; it is not that his secondary characters feel bland or unmemorable – every person who appears on stage is drawn with sufficient energy and precision to feel real – but they are most of them interesting enough that they are missed when the action abruptly shifts in the last part of the novel to concentrate on Calin and Rijeth alone. With the book’s cliffhanger ending, the lack of resolution for the rest of the cast is a perceptible gap; we are left wondering what happened to Calin’s father Hallin, or his former coworker Iriel, his friend Håkar, the arrogant noble Gram Loris or even his mentor’s rival Conin Dane, and the prospective wait for the sequel and the answers bids fair to be greatly frustrating.

Notwithstanding this complaint, The End of Earth and Sky may be the first high fantasy since Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry to really capture both the mythic grandeur and the practical intelligence of writers like Tolkien or Lewis, and aficionados of the field will not only enjoy this immensely but find themselves agog for the next volume. (Hint, hint, Mr. Simon.)

But I tell a lie: I do have a comment. The sequel, The Grey Death, is once again in leaf and flower, and I hope to release it not long after my experiment with serial fiction, Where Angels Die. I shall be very busy for the rest of this year, if my health holds up.

Heinlein’s Rules vs. Amazon’s game

While I am tilting at windmills, I am minded to try a joust with that famous contraption called ‘Heinlein’s Rules of Writing’. What moves me to do this, chiefly, is the tub-thumping in favour of those rules performed a while ago by Dean Wesley Smith, who delivers himself of windmills and giants in roughly equal proportions. Someone ought to do the public a service and tilt at them all, and sort them, because it is not always easy at first sight to tell t’other from which. I have neither the time nor the stamina, nor probably the skill, to do them all, but I am willing to pitch in and take on a share of them if others will do the same. Since Mr. Smith is a great devotee of Heinlein’s Rules, and often repeats them with greater force than clarity, it occurs to me that they would be a good place to begin.

My peculiar taxonomy of windmill-tilting is, of course, one of the essential tools of human thought, an age-old distinction as famous as the sun, and has been universally recognized as such ever since I thought of it the other day. One part of the preceding sentence is true. In case it is the last part, I shall recapitulate, so that those of you who are new on the job may know what I am blithering about:

One of the jobs an essayist or a thinker can do is to play Don Quixote and tilt at windmills. Don Quixote did this because he imagined that the windmills were giants, which naturally needed slaying. Nowadays we have a tendency to take ideas as if they were expressions of unalterable natural law — predictable, automatic, and virtually infallible, like windmills; when they may only be expressions of personal opinion — capricious, organic, and mortal, like giants. So we tilt at them; we try to kill them, to see if they can be killed.

So let us sharpen up our lances and see if we can score a hit on Heinlein’s rules. Here they are, as first formulated in a short piece ‘On the Writing of Speculative Fiction’, written in 1947:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you start.

3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.

4. You must put it on the market.

5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

The First Rule is non-negotiable; the only way to get things written is to write them. Frederik Pohl, in The Way the Future Was, tells a lovely-naughty story about a rich and cultured young Italian contessa who wanted to be a writer, and asked him for advice. She had the marketing and the byline all down pat, but whom, she wanted to know, should she hire to do the actual writing? The story is almost, but not quite, too good to be true. If you are William Shatner, or even Newt Gingrich, you can get a publishing contract on the strength of your name, and then hire a ghostwriter to do the heavy lifting. But the heavy lifting has got to be done by someone.

The Second Rule is one of those interesting things, a tautology that is not a truism. If a piece of writing isn’t finished, it can’t be sold; if it has been sold, it is finished as of that moment — with rare exceptions. (The Hobbit provides a good counterexample. The confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum, in its present form, was written ten years after the first edition was published; but it was so great an improvement, and so necessary to the sequel, that it completely ousted the original version from the canon.) But that does not shed as much light on real literature as we might hope.

When Mark Twain wrote The Mysterious Stranger, he hung fire a couple of times in the writing process; the last time, he was about two-thirds of the way through the projected story, and he never touched it again before his death. Yet just as it stands, the work ends at exactly the right place; no other ending could better emphasize its horrible and inhuman unity. Illusion after illusion is stripped away, and then the illusion of reality itself is stripped away: the narrator is left alone for ever with his own solipsism. When the story was published, several years after Twain’s death, hardly anybody knew that the author himself had considered it unfinished. He was finished with it; and it was finished enough to make its point. It is not always obvious even to the writer when he finishes what he started.

Still, there is such a thing as an obviously unfinished story, and cases like Twain’s don’t come along very often. We can accept the second rule as it stands.

The Third Rule is where nearly everyone objects. On the face of it, it looks like a commandment to send out your first drafts and never revise them. This was poor advice in 1947; it was poor advice even in 1939, when the pulps were in their autumnal glory and Heinlein first broke in. [Read more…]

Heartfelt thanks

… to my 3.6 Loyal Readers, and some Generous Lurkers that I never knew I had.

My Tip Jar has been an astounding success. Thanks to the blessed generosity of my readers, I now have enough money to cover my immediate expenses and pay my overdue bills, with several hundred dollars left over to invest in cover art and other needful things for my forthcoming books. I have sent my thanks to each contributor individually; I want to repeat those thanks here, in public, though out of respect for their privacy I shall not name names. Suffice it to say that I have received help from long-time readers and commenters, some of whom I knew only by their online handles till now, some by their real names; and I have had some really astonishing support from friends whose existence I never suspected before. You all do me more honour than I know how to acknowledge or repay.

If there are any of you who still wish to make contributions, I certainly shall not refuse them; but I want you to know that the immediate crisis is past. I thank God for you all, and hope that I shall one day have the good fortune to be able to pay it forward, as they say, to other people in need.

I am looking into various ways of recognizing and rewarding your donations; perhaps by making a piece of my writing, hitherto unpublished, available exclusively to those who have donated through the tip jar. Watch this blog for details as I evolve a working plan.

My health has continued to be spotty. It is my neck injury that troubles me the most; I cannot sleep long without pain, and there are some days when I cannot work at all. But there have been more days than usual when I could work, and I am finding myself in better spirits when I do, thanks to your support. Here are some of the projects I have taken up again, and hope to bring to fruition in the near future:

  • A projected fantasy serial, Where Angels Die. This is the series that I referred to in my letters to Theophilus as ‘the Orchard of Dis-Pear’, for reasons not fully explicable to the public. I am not entirely serious when I describe it as ‘my story about demon-hunting, telepathic brain surgeon Crusaders’, but that description actually bears a pretty fair resemblance to what the stories contain.
  • The long-delayed print editions of Lord Talon’s Revenge and Writing Down the Dragon.
  • Two new collections of essais previously published on this blog. The first is to be called Death Carries a Camcorder; the second is as yet untitled, but will include my piece called ‘Style is the Rocket’.
  • New pieces on Heinlein’s rules of writing, C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism, and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.
  • By popular request, more essays by the ghastly and talented H. Smiggy McStudge. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
  • The Grey Death, the painfully long-awaited second volume of The Eye of the Maker. (I have actually got reasonably finished drafts of the first four books out of the projected eight, but they require a lot of niggling revision for continuity; and of course I have to redraw my maps to make them suitable for reproduction. I hope to have The Grey Death out in time for Christmas; not much earlier, I am sorry to say.)

I shall continue working at these projects as my health allows, thanks to your support and encouragement. I cannot hope to repay the unrepayable with nods and smiles and thank-you notes; all I can do is try my best to provide more of the things you have enjoyed in my work to date. I hope that will be a sufficient equivalent for the honour and grace that you have shown me.