Archive for November, 2010

Project Z

Friday, November 26th, 2010

As I triumphantly tweeted on Wednesday, I have finished the final (major) revision of my schizophrenia novel, which most of you know as Strawberry Fields and some of you know as Pain of Glass. Neither of those titles were intended to stick, and I’m happy to announce that with the revision I’ve settled on the final name of The Hollow City; my agent and editor love the title, so it is unlikely to change.

Tor is buying The Hollow City as we speak, but the contract is not yet final so I don’t have any details to share with you. I can tell you that the book will most likely be published in early 2012, that it is a standalone SF/horror thriller, and that fans of my John Cleaver books will love it. It’s not set in the same world (or least it isn’t overtly set in the same world–there’s nothing preventing the two from coexisting), but it hits the same psychological, urban horror vibe as my first series, and I think you’ll dig it. My German publisher is looking at it as well, and we’re hoping the new revision attracts some attention in my other major markets such as the UK.

This book was very hard to write, for a variety of reasons. The first is that it’s not something I’d ever done before–I wanted to really play around with reality, yet still avoiding the cliches of the schizophrenia subgenre as much as possible. I started by reading a ton of psychology books; not fiction, but textbooks and self-help books and everything I could find that dealt with the diagnosis, treatment, and daily life of schizophrenia. Mental illness tends to get either demonized or glorified in our culture, and I wanted to paint it as realistically as possible–which sounds weird in a book about scary monsters, I know, but I made the effort anyway. My next step was to go back and re-read some of my favorite Philip K. Dick stories, such as A Scanner Darkly, to put myself in the right mindset. The first draft of the book was way too weird; my writing group tended to like the individual chapters, but couldn’t follow the plot or piece together the mystery. I did a major rewrite, overhauling vast portions of the plot, putting many chapters in a different order, and adding in an all-new character, which helped a ton, but the book wasn’t quite there yet. I still needed another revision, but the pieces were coming into place.

Major revisions, I should point out, are fun. It’s cool to take a book, see the big, obvious problems, and rewrite it to fix them. It’s taking a bad book and turning it into a good book, which is easy and kind of exciting. Minor revisions, on the other hand, are very hard: that’s when you take a good book and turn it into a better book. You can’t just run rampant through the story, gobbling up the low-hanging fruit; you have to pay close attention to details, make tiny adjustments, and polish it all to a high gloss. It’s like painting a wall: slapping on a big, solid color with a roller is actually the easiest part, the hard part is going around the edges to touch up the corners and fill in the cracks. My final revision of The Hollow City took as long or longer than writing the book in the first place, and there were times I wanted to just delete the stupid file and never speak of it again. My wife talked me out of it, but boy was I tempted. I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because I’m very pleased with the final product, and I think it more than solved all of the earlier problems. I should offer special thanks here to my German editor, Carsten, with whom I had many conversations about what was wrong and how exactly how to fix it. He was a big help.

And now we begin the whirlwind that shall be known, for now, as Project Z. This is the big deal I’ve mentioned a few times and cannot yet actually talk about, but don’t worry–the publisher is getting their announcement ready, and soon it will all be known. I don’t know what they’re planning as an announcement, so I don’t want to overhype it–it’s not like they’re doing a superbowl commercial or anything, it will pretty much just be an announcement, but there you go. Project Z is a series I’ve thought about a lot, dealing with some themes that I love coming back to, and it’s going to be a ton of fun to write it. The trouble is, I told myself I wouldn’t start it until I finished The Hollow City, and I also told the publisher that I could send them a draft in February, so I’m going to be writing my head off for the next two or three months. I’ve never written a book on spec before (publishing-speak for “sell the book before you’ve actually written it”), so it’s going to be interesting; I sold the John Cleaver sequels after I’d only written the first book, but this is different. And me being me, I’m going to catalog as much of the writing process as I possibly can right here on my blog. This will not be nearly as detailed as the process blogs I wrote for The Mountain of the Lord, because I don’t want to give some of the awesome secrets away, but it will be as detailed as I can make it. I’ve already got a ton of the world-building and outlining finished–that’s how I sold the publisher on it, after all–but my outline needs to be greatly expanded before I can actually start writing prose. Tune in on Monday for a look at my outlining process for the mysterious Project Z.

You can walk right out again as soon as you are in

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

The song “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” is one of the most sociologically fascinating songs I’ve ever heard. I tell you this because one of my kids said something the other day about escaping the horrible drudgery of daily life (I don’t know how horrible their lives can be in second grade, but that doesn’t mean they can’t complain about it), and I started singing the line from “Big Rock Candy Mountain” where they say: “I’m going to stay where they sleep all day / Where they hung the jerk that invented work.” i’ve always found that song to be intensely fascinating, and this brought it back to the forefront of my mind, so now you, dear reader, get to listen to me think out loud about it. That’s what you get for reading my blog, I guess.

For those who don’t know, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” is an American folk song written by hobos, i.e., homeless people who traveled by train during the Great Depression. It was a rough time when food and work were extremely difficult to come by, and sometimes riding the rails and picking up migrant work on a passing farm was the best you could hope for. They kept their spirits up with songs and stories and such, and this song is both: a fanciful description of an idyllic paradise. What makes it interesting is that it’s not just any paradise, it’s an itinerant hobo’s paradise–they describe the world the way they would want it, based on the context of their lives.

Note that the song is often recorded in a kid-friendly version, with most of the references to alcohol removed. There’s no real “correct” version of a folk song, but I prefer the older, hobo-tastic version.

The description begins simply: “In the big rock candy mountain, the land is fair and bright, and the handouts grow on bushes, and you sleep out every night. The boxcars all are empty, and the sun shines every day, on the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees, and the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings, in the big rock candy mountain.” Their ideal world is more or less like ours, full of sunshine and free food and cheerful birdies. Not everyone would get specific enough to mention cigarette trees, but whatever floats your boat. What’s really interesting, though, are the living arrangements: they’re describing their perfect world, where they can have anything they want, and instead of giving themselves homes they give themselves nice weather so they can sleep out in empty boxcars. Instead of imagining a different life, they just imagine the best possible version of the one they already know.

Verse three: “In the big rock candy mountain, the cops have wooden legs, and the bulldogs all have rubber teeth, and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs.” More dreams of free food, this time combined with the incapacitation of authority figures. They can’t imagine a world without cops, and not even a world where the cops don’t chase them, but hey–wouldn’t it be great if the cops had wooden legs so we could always get away? It’s a fascinating kind of humility: they’re not asking for the world, just a break here and there to make the world livable. We get more of the same in verse four: “The brakemen have to tip their hats, and the railroad bulls are blind. There’s a lake of stew, and of whiskey too, you can paddle all around them in a big canoe, in the big rock candy mountain.”

The fifth verse is the one that always gets me, because even as they start to really think big–there’s no work at all in paradise, not even the concept of it–they still can’t imagine an escape from certain problems in their lives: “In the big rock candy mountain the jails are made of tin, and you can walk right out again as soon as you are in. There ain’t no short-handled shovels, no axes, saws, or picks. Oh I long to stay where they sleep all day, where they hung the jerk who invented work, in the big rock candy mountain.” It’s easy for them to imagine an end to all work because they never have jobs anyway–in some ways they’re already living in a world without work, they’re just imagining that it’s awesome instead of depressing. But they can never escape from authority. People force them to do stuff every day of their lives. In concepting the most wonderful place they can imagine, they still think they’re going to get thrown in jail all the time–they don’t get rid of the jails because obviously that’s impossible, they just make them really easy to escape from.

This wonderful mix of dreams and desires says so much about the people who created it: not just the free food but the specific foods they choose; not just the absence of certain problems, but the ongoing presence of so many others. It is a life completely free of responsibility, answering to no one, where they can live the cool parts of the hobo life without being brought down by any of the lame parts.

I love discovering characters like this, in songs and in fiction and everywhere else, because I know that they’re different from me: they have different hopes, different goals, and different values, and that makes them intriguing. I want to spend time with those people and see how they view the world.

Different /= Lesser

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

I travel a lot, and the more I travel the more I become convinced that making fun of people is stupid. I still do it, because sometimes you just can’t help yourself, but I try to only do it when I have the right context. It’s kind of like my post about accents: I talk differently from you because we come from different regions and backgrounds, yet we both assume that the differences come because the other person is dumb or uneducated. It’s my theory that most things in life are like this: When people do things you think are stupid, it’s probably something totally normal where they come from, and they think you’re the stupid one.

Let’s take driving as an example, because over the past two months I’ve had the chance to drive through a ton of different states of the US. Many people think Utah is full of horrible drivers, but this has never been my experience: I can always get where I want to go, in the time I expect it to take, and I rarely ever feel frustrated or endangered by the bad drivers so many people claim to see. Are am I wrong? Are all those other people wrong? I think the truer, more meaningful interpretation is that people in Utah drive the way I expect them to, so I think they drive well; I know how to drive in Utah because I’ve done it all my life. People who come in from out of state (and with two large universities in a relatively small valley, my area has a LOT of people from out of state) don’t have that background, and expect people to drive in a different way, so they think Utah drivers are “bad” when what they really mean is “different from me.”

Consider, for example, California. I drive through there quite a bit when I’m tour, and when I’m visiting friends and family, and every time I do I get frustrated with people who drive in the left lane so I can’t get around them. Don’t these people know how to use the passing lane? They’re such horrible drivers! But the more I drive there, the more I realize that they do know how to use the passing lane, they just use it differently than I do. They’re using it correctly based on their own subculture.

The midwest is another example. As I drove to Columbus a few weeks I noticed something weird when I got to Indiana, and then the trend continued in Ohio: people were tailgating me, and I mean hardcore. They would come up really close behind me, and in Utah that means “I want to go around you,” so I’d pull over to let them by and then…they’d pull over as well, staying really close behind me. This drove me up the wall, and I started to shout about how they were all such horrible drivers and nobody in the Ohio knew how to drive, but then I realized that this was silly–everyone was getting where they needed to go, and no one was crashing into anyone else, so they obviously knew what they were doing, they were just doing it differently than I expected. They have, so to speak, a smaller bubble of personal driving space than I’m accustomed to in Utah. I asked a few friends from Ohio about it, and they said “oh yeah, that’s really common here–if you get in close behind someone you can either draft them and improve your mileage, or you can speed and let the cops pull them over instead.” Once I understood the new rules and customs of Ohio driving, my driving experience improved greatly, and I realized that Ohio drivers are actually very careful and polite–you just have to know what’s going on.

Of course, when I asked a friend from LA about California driving customs, he laughed and said “no, we’re all horrible drivers,” so maybe my theory falls apart.

Now, keep in mind that this theory still has ample room for stupidity: you can’t explain every dumb thing somebody does just by background, because sometimes people do dumb things even within their own context. Utahns have no idea how to use a roundabout, because up until a few years ago we really didn’t have any, and that’s fine; we’ll figure it out eventually. On the other hand, Utahns also don’t have any idea how to use a four-way stop, and there’s really no excuse for that because we’ve had four-way stops forever. There’s no magical local customs you can learn for getting through a Utah four-way stop, it’s just a mess no matter where you’re from.

So I suppose, in the end, my point is that different people are different, and that doesn’t make them bad. Beyond that, I suppose my auxiliary point is the completely non-revolutionary idea that traveling makes you more accepting of other people’s differences, which is a good reason for everyone to travel as much as possible. See how other people live, and realize that despite being different from you they’re completely happy with the way things are, and you’ll start to see the world in a new way. It’s kind of frightening, actually, but ultimately makes the world a much more awesome place.

Red Cliff

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

I’ve been talking up this movie on Twitter, and enough people requested a review that I figured I’d better write one. Let’s start with the disclaimer that I love Chinese historicals–they don’t even have to be kung fu movies, though that’s obviously a huge part of the genre. Other Chinese movies like Raise the Red Lantern and The Last Emperor are stunning even without the martial arts, and they’ve got a soft spot in my heart; I love the culture, the costumes, the colors, the whole bit. So, now you know.

Red Cliff is a war movie–not a kung fu movie, but a war movie–set in the early Three Kingdoms period that will be instantly recognizable to anybody who’s ever played the Dynasty Warriors computer games. The movie is definitely based on the story, though, and not the games, and I make the distinction between war movie and kung fu movie to illustrate the difference: there is plenty of fighting in Red Cliff, but it’s not the “Sauron swings his mace and twenty guys go flying” kind of fights you see in the game, nor is it the acrobatic “show” fighting you see in movies by Jackie Chan or Yuen Wo Ping. The focus is not on the individuals but on the war as a whole, and we see just as many scenes of preparation and strategy as we do of fighting. One of the lead characters, Kongming, is in fact not a fighter at all but a strategist, and his efforts to recruit allies, gather resources, and plan the war behind the scenes are just as vital and compelling as any of the actual battles. An early mention of The Art of War by Sun Tzu lets you know that this movie recognizes the full nature of war: the killing is done by soldiers, but the war as a whole is fought by nobles, advisors, engineers, servants, and more. One of the most compelling scenes shows a woman performing a tea ceremony, and in a movie full of warlords and soldiers and killers she manages to have more individual effect, and a stronger “in your face” moment, than any other character. That said, don’t assume that the movie has no action; this is war, and there’s plenty of opportunity for warriors to ply their trade. The naval assault near is the end was especially thrilling.

The movie begins with the empire falling apart; the bloodthirsty prime minister Cao Cao runs rampant through the land, enforcing not the weak emperor’s will but his own. Beleaguered rebel leader Liu Bei is losing ground every day–he has to split his forces between fending off Cao Cao and protecting huge groups of refugees, and it’s simply too much for his dwindling army to handle alone. His advisor Kongming suggests an alliance with southern leader Sun Quan and his brilliant viceroy Zhou Yu, who have thus far stayed out of the war completely. This, of course, is just the opportunity Cao Cao has been looking for: if Sun Quan joins the rebels he will have a legal excuse to destroy him, leaving Cao Cao the only military power left in the empire, perfectly poised to usurp the throne itself. Thus the war is begun, centered on Zhou Yu’s southern fortress of Red Cliff on the banks of the Yangtze river.

The movie was originally release in two parts, each a massive epic well over two hours. They were cut and condensed into a single version of about three hours, which is the version I watched; the full version looks like it fills in some motivational holes, but I was happy with the version I watched (especially since I could stream it over Netflix; the two-part version is available on disk only, which would have taken me well over a week to watch when you add in the shipping time). The movies are directed by John Woo, back in top form after some goof-ups like Mission Impossible 2, and he shows himself more than capable of handling a massive historical epic. I’d love to see some more from him, especially if he wants to continue the Three Kingdoms storyline. The actors were also excellent, especially Takeshi Kaneshiro (one of the two leads from House of Flying Daggers) and Tony Leung (best known to Americans as Broken Sword from Jet Li’s movie Hero).

If you love Chinese cinema like I do, well, you’ve probably already seen this. If you like it a little, or if you like historical epics like Braveheart or Gladiator, Red Cliff will more than satisfy.

Hey guys, remember me?

Monday, November 15th, 2010

So. When I went on tour for IANASK in the Spring, I wanted to maintain my blog as regularly as possible, but Internet access was so sketchy and intermittent that I was rarely able to post anything. That’s half the reason I bought an iPad, so I could be sure to have constant access through 3G when I went on my Mr. Monster tour in the Fall. Alas, it turns out that Internet is not the only obstacle to travel blogging–there’s also the fact that traveling wears me out, physically and mentally, so that when I finally have a chance to sit down in an airport or hotel room I have literally nothing to say. I hate saying things when I have nothing to say–that’s why my blog posts, when they appear, tend to be so long, because if I’m going to post anything I may as well post something substantial. So my brain was fried, and I didn’t blog for the whole length of my tour, and the kicker is that instead of three weeks like in the Spring my Fall tour was a full 6 weeks long. This made it even harder to get back into the blog because the longer I went with nothing, the more convinced I became that when I finally did post something, it needed to be the best post I could possibly write in order to make up for all the lost time. Finally, this weekend, we apparently rolled over into “the best post I can write right now is the post explaining why I haven’t written anything” territory, and that’s easy, so here I am. Now that the ice is re-broken, expect posts to be as daily as I can make them.

The good news is that even though blog posts were too daunting for my tour-fried brain, 140-character twitter posts were well within my capacity, so I was able to stay connected with the world that way. If you don’t follow me on twitter (or on facebook, which mirrors all my twitter posts), please do, as it’s often the best way to stay in touch with where I am and what I’m doing. I heard from a ton of people who missed my midwest tour, and that’s my own fault for not blogging about it, but I did give all the info on twitter and facebook. My twitter name is @johncleaver, and my facebook is just Dan Wells. Search for the one who’s a horror author. I pretty much automatically friend everybody who asks.

Now that I’m back, you may be wondering what I’m up to. There’s four major things to announce:

1. Mr. Monster was a big hit in the US, selling even better than IANASK did. I don’t really track my sales numbers, the way some authors do, so I track my monetary success by the reaction I get from Tom Doherty, owner and big enchilada at Tor. Before IANASK came out he had no idea who I was; after it came out he stopped and said hi in the halls of the Flatiron building. Now that Mr. Monster’s out I saw him at World Fantasy, said hi, and he smiled and said, “selling more and more with every book, huh?” He had to read my nametag because he didn’t know my face, but he totally knew my name and associated it mentally with good sales. I declare that to be: success.

2. Tor is buying my schizophrenia book, which most of you know by the name Strawberry Fields. Piper in Germany is also buying it. I’m finishing up a final content edit, and then it will go in for copy edits and such. I expect it to release sometime in 2012, but if we’re really lucky they’ll push it into late 2011.

3. My western horror novella, The Mountain of the Lord, was accepted by the anthology I wrote it for, Mormons & Monsters. The anthology won’t be available until sometime in late 2011, but it’s looking like it’s going to be very cool, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

4. I have signed a deal for a new series, but I’m not allowed to talk about it yet. Which is to say that I’ve mentioned it to a couple of you that I met on tour, but the official announcement is pending so we all need to keep it under our hats for now. It’s going to be very cool and exciting, but the deadline for the first book is CRAZY QUICK. As soon as I get Strawberry Fields wrapped up, I’ll be doing this new mysterious project non-stop for the next three months. And yes, this is one of the projects I mentioned in the last State of the Danion address, but I forget which letter. Y, maybe?