Where You Buy Books

This is not a post where I wax nostalgic for the small independent bookstores of old.  The reason for this is that I didn’t grow up in Boston or New York or Philadelphia (fine cities that they all are), or in any of the other big cities that actually supported independent bookstores back in those days.  I grew up in a medium-sized small town in north Texas, about eighty miles north of where Dallas was back then — these days, it’s urban sprawl almost the whole way, covering what used to be good farmland where you could raise winter wheat and Black Angus cattle, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t go back to Texas any more.  And back then, there was no independent bookstore closer than the Doubleday store in the Northpark Mall.

What we did have, in that small town, was a corner news stand, which is another thing that’s vanished with the passing years.  It sold the local newspaper, and the Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers, and national papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor, and magazines both respectable and raffish, and cigars and cigarettes and chewing gum, and paperback books in wire spinner racks.  Once a month, on the first Monday, the owner would put up the new science fiction and fantasy releases — I know it was the first Monday, because after my best friend and I had been conspicuously haunting and combing over those spinner racks in search of new stuff for several months, the owner told us so.  After that, we made a point of showing up every first Monday like a two-person horde of book-hungry locusts.

I think, in retrospect, that the bookstore owner must himself have been a science fiction fan, or at least a regular reader in the genre, because he stocked all the new releases from all the houses then publishing sf and fantasy, and also stocked all the major sf magazines — F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy, in those days, plus Galaxy‘s kid sibling, If — and the four or five second-tier mags as well.

Later, of course, our town got its own shopping mall, a small one shared with the next town over, but enough to support a B. Dalton’s with a lot more shelf space for paperbacks than the corner news stand (where the sf and fantasy spinner rack had occupied a couple of square feet near the back of the store, right next to the soft-core porn.)   Later still, I left Texas to live in places that actually had small independently-owned specialty bookstores catering to a variety of tastes.

But the wire racks at Triangle News, and the books I found on them — The HobbitA Wizard of Earthsea; The Witches of Karres; Babel-17; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; so many of the works that made me into a reader, and later a writer, of science fiction and fantasy — remain close to my heart.

It’s All in the Search Terms

An actual conversation that took place in the office here, a couple of books back:

My co-author to me: I know that the term “latrine” didn’t come into use until World War I, when the Army got it from the French. What did they call them during the Civil War?

Me: Um. Let me look around and find out.

(Sound of typing, as I Google “US Army sanitary regulations Civil War” and find, in short order, a reference to a text entitled Customs of Service for Non-Commissioned Officers and Soldiers, written in 1864 by a Brigadier-General August Kreutz, which includes a section on camp cleanliness. A little more Googling, and I have the text itself.)

Me: The word was “sinks.”  God, I love research.

I also love the internet.  Back in the olden time, locating an obscure text like that would have required a visit to a university research library and some quality time spent with the card catalog — and while I enjoy roaming at will through the stacks as much as any bibliophile, it’s not something easily done when you live in a small town an hour and fifteen minutes north of the nearest traffic light.

One, Two, Three

The general rule, for position of things in a linear sequence:  The final position is the most emphatic, the initial position is the second-most emphatic, and the middle position is the least emphatic.

In terms of sentence structure, this is why you shouldn’t end a sentence with a weakening word like “though” or “however” (unless you have a specific reason for wanting that particular kind of anticlimactic effect), and why you should arrange your main and subordinate clauses in such a way as to reserve the final position for your most important idea.

In terms of plot structure, it goes a long way toward explaining why the middle of the book is always the hardest part to write.

Chewed and Digested

Books that influenced my life in one way or another (in no particular order):

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
I encountered this book in fifth grade – pulled it off the shelf in the school library because the title intrigued me – and ran head on into symbolism and allegory for the very first time at the Stone Table. I’m immensely grateful, in retrospect, that I didn’t have anybody around to explain things to me, because noticing and figuring out all the connections made the top of my head come off, in a good way: I’d never had any idea, before then, that you could do that sort of thing with a story. For a long time afterward, it felt like this nifty thing about the book that nobody knew but me.

Little Women
Because, of course, I wanted to grow up and be a writer, like Jo March. (Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.)

The Iliad and The Three Musketeers
I think of these as a pair, because I read them both in the sixth grade, in unabridged translations, and  between them they shaped my expectations of great literature . . . I think I was lost to the modern  mainstream at that point. After that, I wanted grand themes, and larger-than-life characters, and panache. I  loved the Odyssey, too, but it didn’t move into my brain and take over large chunks of its processing power for several days after the first reading, the way the Iliad did. Although Odysseus was, in some ways, one of my  first literary crushes – I was then as I am now, a sucker for brainy heroes.

My Life and Hard Times
James Thurber became one of my style gods early on. I think that by the time I graduated from high school I’d already read through most of his available works at least once, and by the time I graduated from college I had whole swathes of it memorized.

Ordeal in Otherwhere
The first science fiction novel I read with the conscious awareness that it was a science fiction novel. After that, I read pretty much all of Andre Norton that I could track down.

The Miracle of Language
This was a paperback edition of a popular book on historical and structural linguistics, and how it came to be in stock on the wire rack in the local newsstand that was all my small Texas hometown had for a bookstore, I’ll never know. But I found it, one summer while I was in high school, and it was my first  introduction to linguistics as a scholarly discipline. If one of the key experiences of adolescence is that moment when you realize that your elders have been lying to you all along about something – well, this book did it for me. I read it, and I realized (with the traditional unforgiving clarity) that all the stuff that they’d been telling me for years in English class about the way the language worked was Wrong, and that yes (cue the light bulbs and fireworks!), some of the insights I’d had all along were Right. I’ve been a language nut ever since.

Dragons, Elves, and Heroes
Lin Carter’s anthology for Ballantine Books of excerpts from the medieval source and analogue material for Tolkien’s works. I read the anthology because I’d read LOTR, but after I read the anthology I became interested in the source materials for their own sake. It was, more even than Tolkien’s work itself, the thing that kicked me in the direction of becoming a medievalist.

In Search of Wonder
Damon Knight’s collection of critical essays about science fiction. I found it in the university library my freshman year, and read it repeatedly. It did more to inform my science fictional literary aesthetic than almost anything else.

A Wizard of Earthsea
I read this one during the summer between high school and college, and (like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, earlier) it made the top of my head come off. None of the others in the sequence ever quite measured up to it, and by the time LeGuin got around to Tehanu I found myself wishing she’d left well enough alone several books back . . . but that first book was a wonder.

Writers’ Tools

Writers need their good tools as much as any other crafts-person.  A few of my favorites:

That slow cooker I mentioned a couple of days ago.  It’s especially useful in hot weather, and on days when I’m so busy and/or so tired that I have only minimal brain space left for stuff like food and cooking.

A good word processor.  And by “good” I mean, “suited to your own preferences and writing habits.”  Also, a good word processor for generating text and a good word processor for formatting text are not necessarily the same program.

A good printer.  It’s not as necessary as it used to be for a working writer’s printer to be a heavy-duty workhorse capable of printing out 600-pages-and-up inside of 12 hours without breaking down or running out of ink — I think it’s been at least half a dozen books now, maybe more, since we turned in anything in hardcopy — but there are still times when you’ll need a printer, and when you do you’ll want one that doesn’t give up on you in mid-crisis.

A good computer, one with enough hard drive space to store your stuff and enough memory to do the things you need to do.

And all the little things — the red pencils, the index cards, the colored highlighters, the nice fountain pens, and so on — that ease a writer’s heart and make the process of composition easier.

What are your favorite or indispensable tools?

The Fanfic Thing

The Guardian (or one of its on-line columnists, at any rate), has discovered the existence of fanfic, and the predictable kerfuffle has ensued.  This moves me to repost here some of my thoughts from the last time this argument came around, which it does every three or four years whether we need it or not.


If you’re a writer, and you don’t like fanfic, either with regard to your own works or in general:

Don’t waste breath and ink and internet connectivity telling fanfic writers that what they do is morally wrong, because they aren’t going to agree with you.

Likewise, don’t bother telling them that it’s illegal, either, because some of them won’t care and others of them won’t agree with you, and these days — because fanfiction in its modern form has been around for several decades now — some of the people in the latter group are in fact lawyers, and will be happy to debate legal theory with you for as long as breath and ink and internet connectivity hold out.

Your best bet is to state plainly that the whole idea of fanfic about your universe and characters really and truly deeply squicks you out, and that you really wish that people wouldn’t do it. This will, oddly enough, stop a lot of people, and will convince at least some of the ones that it doesn’t stop to keep the stuff hidden away where you don’t have to see it. Which is, frankly, about as good an outcome as you can reasonably hope for.

If you’re a fanfic writer:

Don’t waste time you could be spending on writing and reading fic in arguing with vehemently anti-fanfic pro writers. It’s an emotional thing, and you won’t convince them any more than they’ll convince you.

If an otherwise sane and rational writer says he or she doesn’t want fanfic written about his or her work, at least consider not writing it. Or at the very least, don’t go out of your way to write it just because their arguments got your back up, because spite is a lousy reason for writing something. And if the muse is riding you hard and you just can’t stop yourself, at the very very least don’t wave the resulting fic around in places where the writer can’t help but take notice of it.

Also — it’s pretty much never a good idea to send a copy of your fanfic to the author in question. Even if they’re known to be kindly disposed toward the idea of fanfic in general, their reaction to fanfic about their stuff in particular is not to be relied upon — they may find it embarrassing, or may feel obliged to object to it for legal reasons regardless of their actual feelings, or may be concerned that reading someone else’s interpretations of the material will influence them unduly.

Common sense, people.  Exercise it.

On a Summer Day…

On a summer day just after finishing up a long-term project, it’s hard to think of anything substantive to say.

The final push to the deadline is an intense and exhausting thing, but one of the blessings it brings with it is a tightening of focus — stuff that isn’t The Book recedes from the forefront of your awareness so you can concentrate on the project at hand. Then you’re done, and as soon as the immediate post-finish adrenaline high subsides, everything else comes rushing back in.

I find that I’m usually in puppet-with-cut-strings mode for at least twenty-four hours after a deadline push.  At such times, I’m grateful for the slow cooker in the kitchen, which lets me put dinner together in the cool of the morning while I’m still as lively as I’m going to get under the circumstances.  Slow cookers make great writer tools.


Some writers can tell the story straight through in the right order, the first time out of the starting gate.  So far as I can tell, they see the end state of the plot waiting up ahead of them like the finish line, and once they start writing they drive on toward it.

I envy these people, because I am one of the other ones — the writers who see the story bit by bit, one component scene at a time, and not always in the right order.  For us, the finished novel often resembles not the record of a straight race to THE END, but a box full of brightly-colored beads that must be strung together in a way that makes sense.

Figuring out how to do the stringing, though, can be interesting.  Both Word and WordPerfect have Master Document functions that allow a series of files to be chained together into one long document, but when it comes to figuring out the actual order of those files, the user is on his or her own.  More than once in the past, I’ve had to resort to writing one-or-two sentence summaries of the files’ content on 3×5 cards, then physically laying out the cards in different orders and arrangements until I’ve found one that works.

Recently, though, I’ve taken to using Scrivener for my initial draft work, because its functionality emulates in electronic form what I used to do with those 3×5 cards.  It lets me work on individual scenes or chapters, and allows me to move them around and re-order them at will, and then will compile them into a single file for saving in a variety of formats.

(Then I take the large, compiled file over into WordPerfect for final editing and formatting, because they will take away my Reveal Codes window when they pry it from my cold dead fingers.)

Quick and Easy Deadline Dinners #1

Or, what Hamburger Helper wants to be when it grows up.

Pasta with Sweet Sausage and Cream

8 sweet Italian sausages, removed from their casings
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cups of heavy cream
2 tablespoons Cognac, optional
1 pound shell pasta

Place sausages and minced onion in a saucepan and cook over low heat until sausage is lightly browned. Break up the meat with a fork as it cooks, so it is crumbly. Add cream and cook until thickened. Heavy cream will never curdle, so it doesn’t matter if the cream comes to a low boil. It will thicken more quickly. Add cognac. Stir sauce gently through cooked pasta and serve.

This one is about as close to a no-brainer as a recipe can get.  When you’ve got a writing (or editing) job that absolutely has to get finished, plus a family that absolutely has to get fed — and deli-meat sandwiches or takeout Chinese for some reason aren’t in the cards — this dish will come through for you every time.

(Save it for emergencies, though, for your heart’s sake.  It’s not a dish you want to put on the table every day.)

Revision Research Weirdness

Today’s odd job:  Invoking the awesome power of the internet in order to determine whether or not the closed and abandoned 86th Street Station on the commuter train line in to Grand Central could be used to gain access to the street above.

Our editor had queried this, since the stairs leading up from the old platform are covered at street level by secure hatches.

We eventually found a photo reference showing one of the hatches standing open, with the panic bar on the underside clearly visible.  Victory!

(All this, in the service of about three paragraphs whose sole purpose is to get our protagonist from point A to point B without being spotted by the people who are watching for him at all the regular exits.  But here as elsewhere, God is in the details.)