Archive for July, 2009

Strawberry Fields and Other Things

Friday, July 31st, 2009

I made a goal to finish the first draft of Strawberry Fields before I left for WorldCon, and now with my trip looming just two days away I must admit that I’m nowhere near finished. I was doing really well for a while, but I had a lot of other stuff to do and my poor little writing project kept getting pushed farther and farther onto the back burner. It’s now actually behind the stove somewhere, untouched in almost a week and a half, but I promise to get back to it. It’s a fun book, albeit a very strange one, and I’m very excited to see how it turns out.

What other things have been getting in the new book’s way? The old book’s galley, for one thing. I had to take about three days to go through the US galley proof of Serial Killer and make sure that everything was in place and spelled right and blah blah blah. I usually hate doing this, because it feels so much like work (it’s essentially proof-reading), but I’m glad I did because I caught a couple of embarrassing errors and got them changed before the book went to press. Overall, though, the book was remarkably clean and I have nothing but judos to the editors and proofers at Tor. They’ve done a great job, and this is going to be a fantastic book.

One thing we’re still missing is a final cover quote. We have a couple of great ones from F. Paul Wilson and Brandon Sanderson, but we’re hoping to get a quote from Jeff Lindsay (the Dexter guy). If you look at the US cover posted on the site you can see a big weird empty space in the top left corner–arguably the most important area according to graphic design principles, because that’s where your eye goes first. That’s the space where they’re hoping to put a cover quote. So, if any of you have a connection to Jeff Lindsay, let me know; I will make it worth your while.

The other major thing I did in the past little bit was finish the edits on Mr. Monster. We were essentially done, and thought we were ready for the next step, but then in editing Book 3 we realized that Book 2 had a small but vital continuity error. That has now been fixed, and the manuscript has been sent to Tor, Headline (UK), and Piper (Germany) for copyedits and translation and so on. March 2010 is shaping up to be a huge month, seeing the release of Mr. Monster in both the UK and Germany–and I’ll be there for launches and signings and such in both countries. It’s going to be awesome, but it’s going to be a lot of work to get ready in time.

One more random thing before I close: I’m on Twitter now, so you can get pointless updates like this one on an even more regular basis. Please feel free to follow @johncleaver, if your interested.

My Friend the Witch Doctor

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

My son, a handsome young 6-year-old crazy person, has trouble breathing–not all the time, just when he’s really excited, or really scared, or when he’s laughing really hard. Because he is a 6-year-old boy, those kinds of situations come up ALL THE TIME. So last week we decided it was time to get him checked for asthma or something, to see if maybe there was something we could do. My wife made an appointment with her favorite doctor, who also happens to be a magical wizard.

You see, we currently live in Orem, Utah, but we used to live in Logan, Utah, about 2 hours north. While there I worked for a company that was too cheap to provide us with real medical insurance, so they hooked us up with a weird homeopathic doctor who does what’s called Biomeridian Stress Testing. Now, I consider myself a rational man, and as a rational man I feel compelled to accept the idea that non-traditional medicine can be very effective–after all, the idea that modern western medicine has all the answers is not only depressing but provably false, since there are plenty of answers we obviously don’t have. So yes, hooray for homeopathic doctors. But Biomeridian Stress Testing is really weird: they sit you next to a computer, spray your hand with water, and then touch you with an electric probe on each of your hand’s accupressure points. At each one, the computer will measure the mystic levels of whatever crazy thing it measures, how many angels are dancing on it I guess, and it makes a loud sound, and the doctor listens to the tone and nods wisely. You do this on both hands and both feet, and then the doctor looks at the data and casts a magic spell, possibly communicating with her ancestors, and then she knows exactly what’s wrong with you.

We took my son into this place on Monday, sat him down in the chair, and said “he’s been having some trouble breathing.” The doctor did the whole process with the electrodes and the tones and blah blah blah, and then looked at the crazy readout and said “oh, he has night terrors too.”

My wife nodded in surprise. “Yes, how did you know?” Our son has been having night terrors for a couple of years, progressing recently into sleepwalking and similar things.

The doctor continued reading the data. “And I’m guessing he has very little appetite?”

My wife’s eyes went wide. “Yes, he barely eats at all any more.”

“Mmm hmm.” The doctor stared at the data a moment longer. “And I should warn you that if he doesn’t currently have trouble controlling his bowels, he will soon.”

My wife laughed out loud. “All the time. How do you know all this?”

“Because I am a freaky witch doctor,” the doctor didn’t actually say. What she really said was, “your son’s body is being imbalanced by amoeba energy,” which is pretty much the same thing. “We can get rid of the amoebas and neutralize the toxins and scare away the evil spirits with this.” She pulled out some pills and tinctures and did a few more wacky electrode tests to figure out the dose. “Give me a call in two weeks to tell me how it’s going.”

And that’s pretty much why this place is my wife’s favorite doctor’s office: because every time we go there, this is exactly what happens. It’s crazy and weird and makes no sense, and yet they are unerringly accurate and the cures they provide are inevitably effective. Another quick example: I’ve had insomnia since high school, and I’ve never really found an effective solution for it. Five years ago I went to these guys and they gave me a cure that worked so well I stopped taking it a few weeks in–after a lifetime of going to sleep at 2 in the morning, it was actually pretty frightening to get tired at 9:30 pm. I prefer insomnia.

So anyway, my son is taking his pills and drinking his sorcerous elixirs, and we expect him to be right as rain in a couple of weeks. Unless he turns out to be as stubborn as his father, and decides he prefers breathing poorly and screaming at night. I wouldn’t put it past him.

Writing For Charity

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

A few weeks after I get home from WorldCon, on August 29, I’m participating in the “2nd Annual Writing for Charity Event,” which I kind of wish had a cooler name, but there you go. This is a mini-conference put together by a group of Utah authors and illustrators with a focus on children’s books. It’s going to have a lot of local luminaries like Brandon Mull and Shannon Hale, giving specific writing advice in panels and workshops and smaller breakout sessions. Tickets are $45 ($50 at the door), all of which goes to support the Treehouse Children’s Museum, a great non-profit facility that has a strong focus on family literacy. It’s going to be awesome, so if you’re an aspiring writer in the area I strongly encourage you to drop by.

The US Cover Revealed!

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

I know already posted something today, and I should probably wait for tomorrow, but I thought this was too cool to just sit on for no reason.

Behold the US cover:

Not only is this cover awesome, but it might make people think I have legible handwriting. On the actual dustjacket (yes, it will be hardcover) the whole thing will be a matte finish, except for the blood drops which will be embossed and glossy. Awesome.

If you’re going to WorldCon, I will have actual jacket proofs to show off; I don’t have them yet, so I’m afraid I don’t know what the spine and back look like. For all I know they’ll look like an actual spine and back; this is a book about corpses, after all. Whatever it looks like, I’m very excited.

Writing For Charity

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

A few weeks after I get home from WorldCon, on August 29, I’m participating in the “2nd Annual Writing for Charity Event,” which I kind of wish had a cooler name, but there you go. This is a mini-conference put together by a group of Utah authors and illustrators with a focus on children’s books. It’s going to have a lot of local luminaries like Brandon Mull and Shannon Hale, giving specific writing advice in panels and workshops and smaller breakout sessions. Tickets are $45 ($50 at the door), all of which goes to support the Treehouse Children’s Museum, a great non-profit facility that has a strong focus on family literacy. It’s going to be awesome, so if you’re an aspiring writer in the area I strongly encourage you to drop by.

WorldCon: August 6-10 in Montreal

Monday, July 20th, 2009

In two weeks I’ll be flying New York to meet my publisher, and from there I’m headed up to WorldCon in Montreal. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I just got my full schedule; if you’re going to be there, drop by and say hi at any or all of the following panels:

Get Your Writing Kickstart Here
Thursday at 1:00pm
Aliette de Bodard (mod), Dan Wells, Derek Kunsken, Nina Munteanu
This is a standard “intro to writing” panel, which I think will be a lot of fun, and for added excitement it’s being conducted primarily in French. Can I be helpful and clever and charming via a translator? We shall see. All I can tell you for sure is that my brain will hear all the not-English and say “Hey! I speak not-English!” and then start speaking in Spanish. Happens every time.

Don’t Main the Streams?
Thursday at 2:00pm
Cheryl Morgan, Dan Wells (mod), Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Karen Haber
How does the mainstream media report on the world of SF? How is SF perceived, how can it be covered well, and what fandom can do to get its story across? I have no idea why I’m on this one, let alone why I’m the moderator, but I think it’s going to be awesome. If you have any great stories or links about how SF gets screwed (or lauded) in the public eye, let me know.

I for One Welcome our New Zombie Overlords
Friday at 12:30pm
Dan Wells, Heather Urbanski, Steven R. Boyett (mod), Trisha Wooldridge, Tony Pi
“The fast zombie is bereft of poetic subtlety,” said Simon Pegg, star of Shaun of the Dead. So zombies are slow, shambling…and what else? What will the zombie apocalypse really be like? Thank heavens for whoever put me on this one. I don’t know which is scarier, running from zombies or being forced to talk about them entertainingly for an hour and a half, but either way I am up to the challenge.

Writing Excuses Live!
Friday at 2pm
Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Brandon Sanderson, and a cavalcade of awesome surprise guests.
Yeah, baby. An hour and a half of pure awesome. I’d tell you who some of the surprise guests are, but then it wouldn’t be a surprise anymore. I can assure you, however, that this will be the best 90 minutes of the entire convention, hands down. I am currently peeing my pants, that’s how excited I am.

Exploring the Monster Within
Saturday at 4:00pm
Anne Harris (mod), Dan Wells, Sean McMullen, Lauren Beukes
Some Days I Feel Like the Creature From the Black Lagoon: The appeal of identifying with the monster (or alien, or…?). An exploration of alienation, both societal and personal Let’s see: I wrote a book about a teenage serial killer who’s obsessed with death and tries to save the world by murdering monsters and stalking the girl next door. Yes, I imagine I will be on a panel similar to this one at every convention I go to for the next ten years. AND I WILL LOVE THEM ALL.

JOLT Writing… Get Your Writing Kickstart Here
Sunday at 1:oopm
Dan Wells, Elaine Isaak, Jay Lake, Karleen Bradford, Brandon Sanderson
Crash course: Brainstorming, structures, writing… all in 90 minutes. Work on a new story or punch up an old one. This one’s going to be fun; the entire writing process condensed and shot out in rapid fire. There’s no moderator listed, so I’m going to prepare a list of elements and be ready to take over, just in case. Like the other writing panel, this one will be primarily in French.

Media Dan Has Consumed: My Dinner with Andre

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

I was going to call this new feature “Stuff Dan Likes,” and give myself an outlet to recommend books and movies and such, but then I remembered that sometimes I like to talk about things I didn’t like, either to point out the flaws or just to be a jerk, so I decided a non-qualitative name would give me a wider umbrella.

The first entry in the series is a movie I’ve wanted to see for years, and finally got the chance last week: the crazy indie experiment My Dinner with Andre. It’s a movie about two New York theater guys, a playwright and a director, playing themselves, eating dinner and talking. For two hours. That makes it sound boring, but it’s actually one of the most spellbinding movies I’ve ever seen. Gene Siskel used to say that a movie should be at least as interesting, and ideally more interesting, than a documentary of the same actors having lunch; it’s sounds weird, I know, but when you really think about it I think you’ll agree that most movies don’t pass that test. Characters get stripped down to their most basic stereotypes, walking rotely through plots we’ve seen plenty of times before, and without a bit of skin or some car chases or explosions there’s really nothing to hold our attention.

My Dinner with Andre not only demonstrates the Siskel Test in action, but takes it one step further by making the dinner conversation completely and utterly fascinating. We begin with Wallace Shawn (best known as Vizzini from The Princess Bride, but actually a respected playwright and stage actor), looking small and shlubby and talking about his struggles to get by in the big city. He meets Andre Gregory (best known as the guy from My Dinner with Andre, unless you’re a close follower of New York theater, I guess), who is tall and dramatic and a mesmerizing storyteller. He has spent several years traveling the world, getting himself involved in wacky, experimental theater projects (he teaches an acting class in Poland, for example, with very strict guidelines: the students must be experienced actors who want to give up acting, they must play the harp or flute, and they must be non-English speakers so he can’t actually communicate with them. Then they all go live in the woods for a month just to see what happens). Andre goes on and on, weaving tales about his travels and the strange people he met and the life lessons he learned, and you in the audience are captivated: it’s just a guy talking, while another guy nods and sips his soup, but you can’t stop watching.

Andre’s stories would potentially have sustained the whole movie, and it would have been a good movie, but then something happens that makes it great: Wallace disagrees. He blows up (very politely), calling Andre on his bizarre theories of life, insisting that life is about simplicity and comfort, not crazy theater experiments in the Sahara, and suddenly this is not a monologue but a conversation; it has conflict and story and surprising weight. They go back and forth, sometimes arguing, sometimes agreeing with each other, proposing their own theories about what life is, and what makes it good, and what would make it better. Neither of them is right, and neither of them is wrong; it is the conversation itself that matters, the ebb and flow of it, the fact that they are talking to each other deeply and personally about subjects that really matter.

The movie has virtually no plot, and absolutely no narrative, but it has a story: there is conflict and resolution, there is a powerful climax, and there is a touching denouement. In an industry increasingly focused on skin and explosions, here is a movie about the human need for communication and companionship. It will make you think about your own friends, and the conversations you have with them, and it will make you want to have more of them. I can’t remember the last time a movie affected me this deeply.

I am such a Print Geek

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Last night I got to take my family to the Crandall Historical Printing Museum in Provo, one of the best historical printing musuems in the entire world. It’s one of my favorite places to go, and it was fun to see my kids get interested as well, though admittedly their attention didn’t last all the way through the end of the presentation. That’s okay, though: when you can keep a 6-year-old interested in the history of the printing press for any length of time, you have claimed a victory.

The museum starts, of course, with Gutenberg, and includes the most complete and most accurate demonstration of Gutenberg’s process anywhere in the world. First they talk about the difficulties of writing and publishing in the days before printing came along, and why printing was such a big deal; then they show you, step by step, how Gutenberg created all his various molds and bits and whatnot, actually casting a piece of type right in front of you. Then they talk about the ink and the paper, and how the press works, and they put it all together and actually print a page on a replica press. It’s awesome. My 6-year-old was, as I said, too restless to stay after this point, so I took him outside for a while, and instead of running around and screaming, like I thought he would, he stood by the front window and pointed out the tools and described for me, in incredible detail, the entire process he had just seen. That, my friends, is victory for education.

The next room jumps far ahead to Benjamin Franklin, often with an actor dressed up as Franklin, who walks you through his own story of printing almanacs and joke books and the Declaration of Independence. Later rooms cover the Grandin press, the local history of Utah newspapers, and so on, culminating in a live demonstration of a linotype machine. If you’ve never seen a linotype machine, let me tell you: you are missing out. It’s like Rube Goldberg and Dr. Suess got together and built the craziest typewriter they could think of, with ranks of letter molds that slide down tubes and ride little rails, and a reservoir of molten metal that forms enter pieces of movable type at the push of a button. It’s completely awesome, and has to be seen to be believed.

The history of printing is the history of the modern world: it is the tool that has enabled our civilization. If you have any kind of a printing museum near you, I encourage you to go as soon as possible. If you can’t see the presses in action, hunt around for a museum that has one or more pages of the Gutenberg Bible, and go see that instead: specific religious beliefs aside, it is a profound experience to stand in the presence of something that was printed, on a press, long before Columbus ever came to America. For a print geek like me, it’s a downright sacred artifact.

What Should I Do In New York?

Monday, July 13th, 2009

Do not say “Wicked.” I’m telling you now, right up front. We good? Alright then.

My wife and I are going to New York for three days in early August, on our way to WorldCon in Montreal. Some of our time is already filled (we’re going to Tor for a few hours on Monday, and we’re seeing “In The Heights” Tuesday night), but other than that we’ve got some time and we’re looking for recommendations.

Why do I not want anyone to mention Wicked? Because thus far in my planning, 99% of the people who find out I’m going to New York immediately say “go see Wicked!” and I’m so sick of this I cannot even tell you. I like musicals, and I’m excited to see one on Broadway, but seriously: New York is one of the biggest and most interesting cities in the entire world. It’s overflowing with stuff to do and see. If the best thing you can think of for me to do in New York is lock myself in a dark room and watch stuff that I could watch, frankly, anywhere else in the world, I don’t want to hear it. Tell me about your favorite restaurant; recommend your favorite landmark or museum; tell me where to find your favorite bookstore or some other awesome shop. I’m going to be in New York, and I want to see New York.

And by all means: if you actually live in New York, let me know! I’d love to say hi.

A New Writing Group

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

I suppose this might technically count as part of the “Starting From Scratch” series, since it involves the new book, but it isn’t really limited to the new book either. As the title says, I’m starting a new writing group, and I thought it might be interesting to talk about it.

My previous writing group was great, and I really think they helped make the John Cleaver books great, but over time something was becoming clear: my style of fiction, and my thoughts on how a plot should be structured and a story delivered, were very different from a lot of the people in the group. This doesn’t mean that I was wrong, or that they were wrong, just that our styles were different. Our genres were different. We were still able to help each other because they’re a group of very good writers, and when you’re that good it doesn’t really matter how closely your styles match up, but I eventually decided that “still good enough to be worthwhile” was too far removed from “exactly what we need.” By the twentieth time you preface a comment with “I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but…,” you know it’s time for a new writing group.

This is a good time to clarify that the presence of differing opinions is not a bad thing; differing opinions are, in fact, the primary reason for a writing group. But when the basic philosophies behind those opinions are wildly different, and the when the target audiences are incredibly disparate, the disconnect becomes too great. John Scalzi and Toni Morrison are both good writers, but I wouldn’t put them in a writing group together. You want a good balance of “they think differently from me” and “they are who I’m writing for.”

So anyway. I talked to a few other writer friends and discovered, to my delight, that Brandon Sanderson was also ready for a new writing group. Brandon and I started our very first writing group together ten years ago, and we work together well, so we started making plans for a new group. This is where ten years of authorial networking becomes very handy, because we’ve already worked with a lot of local writers and readers and we quickly created a short list of people who we thought would be good fit. Rather selfishly, we did not choose any other professional authors: a writing group is a big time commitment, and reading four five chapter submissions a week would be way too much for our schedules. That’s one of the reasons we asked our friend Ben to join, because he’s a really great commenter who doesn’t write, so we get a bigger feedback bang for a smaller time investment.

On the other hand, we didn’t want to fill our group with pure readers who would never submit; writers give very different feedback than non-writers, plus we’ve learned that you can often learn more by critiquing someone else’s stuff than by listening to critiques of your own. So we wanted more writers than just us. To solve the problem, Brandon suggested a weighted system where we could mix in some aspiring authors who could submit every other week. We approached a few people with the idea and every one of them loved it; they’re not full time writers, so a weekly schedule can be very hard to stay on top of, and this system would give them just the right mix of incentive and breathing room. Plus, you know, they get to be in a writing group with Brandon Sanderson, and I don’t know very many aspiring fantasy authors who wouldn’t jump at that chance.

At the end of the process, we’d built ourselves (we hope) the ideal writing group, tailored to our needs and with an array of handpicked commenters that we think will help make our books the best they can be. There are actually a lot of other, really excellent writers and readers that we wanted to invite and simply didn’t have room for; Utah is, believe it or not, a hotbed of excellent writing talent right now.

I’ve talked about writing groups before, and how helpful they are, and I encourage everyone who can to find or create a group of their own. If nothing else, check out Reading Excuses on TWG, where I host my message board; it’s an online reading group with a lot of activity and some really great minds.