First Impressions and Timing Issues

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It matters a lot, sometimes, what age you are when you first read a particular book.  Most of the time, though, the bit that matters isn’t whether or not you’re old enough for it.  Those of us who are members of the siblinghood of compulsive readers spend a lot of our early years reading books that are, according to the gatekeepers, “too old” for us, and most of us benefit from the mental stretching exercises involved.

I do think, though, that it’s possible to come to some books too late.  Once you’ve acquired the taste for deconstruction, for examining the underpinnings of a work – teasing out its buried contradictions and unexamined assumptions, and speculating on the untold stories and the differing viewpoints of secondary and minor characters – it’s hard to look at a book with the open and receptive eye of a new reader.  Texts instead become things to be approached with suspicion, lest they pull the wool over our eyes or trip us up when we’re not looking, and a suspicious approach is no way to make friends.

The books that are destined to become our lifelong friends, I believe, are the ones we encounter when we’re old enough as readers to understand what’s going on in the text, but before we’ve had the chance to become cynical about it.  Consider, for example, The Count of Monte Cristo.  On second or third reading, even a young reader can see that Edmond Dantès is, frankly, kind of a dick†, that there’s something more than a little bit skeevy about his relationship with Haidee, and that his first love Mercédès gets handed a raw deal by fate, Edmond, and the writer, all three.‡  But if the reader’s had a chance to first take the story straight  – the escape from the Chateau d’If! the mysterious stranger! (and the other mysterious stranger, and the other mysterious stranger – really, the plot is absolutely infested with mysterious strangers!) the villains, so villainous, and so aptly punished by their own base natures and continuing villainy! – then subsequent, more critical, readings lose much of their power to tarnish the effect of the work.


He’d have to be, to spend so much time and money on getting even when he could have taken the treasure of Monte Cristo and spent the rest of his life having a good time anywhere he wanted. I’m just saying.

Really – what was she supposed to do when her betrothed got hauled off and thrown into prison as a Bonapartist conspirator on her wedding day?  Starve to death genteelly while pining for his return? Take up a career as a streetwalker?  Nobody told her that the fallback boyfriend she ended up settling for had actually masterminded the whole frame-up.

A Source of Amusement and Some Good Advice

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I first encountered Wolcott Gibbs’s “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles” in James Thurber’s The Years With Ross, Thurber’s memoir of the early days of the New Yorker magazine.

In many ways, it’s a relic of its moment in time (1937, to be precise); it was an internal memo, intended to bring new fiction editors up to speed on the magazine’s general style and tone.  Unlike most such documents, though, it’s fun to read.  A few samples:

Our writers are full of clichés, just as old barns are full of bats. There s obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a cliché undoubtedly is one, and had better be removed.


Mr. Weekes said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn’t believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. “A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel.” Sometimes they’re necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr. Weekes suffers and quite rightly.


Among other things, The New Yorker is often accused of a patronizing attitude. Our authors are especially fond of referring to all foreigners as “little” and writing about them, as Mr. Maxwell says, as if they were mantel ornaments. It is very important to keep the amused and Godlike tone out of pieces.


The piece is available in its entirety here, and I highly recommend it.

Me and Walt Whitman and Alfred Noyes

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“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d….”

Come down to Kew in lilac-time . . . .”

Lilac

Walt Whitman lived somewhat south of here, and his lilacs bloomed in April, the same month that Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter, and that four years afterward saw the end of war and the funeral procession of an assassinated president:

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d
women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces
and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices
rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around
the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs — where
amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

American lilacs, at least of the poetic variety, have carried that freight of connotation ever since. British lilacs, on the other hand, lead a more upbeat poetic life:

Go down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
  Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
  Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
The cherry-trees are seas of bloom and soft perfume and sweet perfume,
  The cherry-trees are seas of bloom (and oh, so near to London!)
And there they say, when dawn is high and all the world’s a blaze of sky
  The cuckoo, though he’s very shy, will sing a song for London.
The nightingale is rather rare and yet they say you’ll hear him there
  At Kew, at Kew in lilac-time (and oh, so near to London!)
The linnet and the throstle, too, and after dark the long halloo
  And golden-eyed tu-whit, tu-whoo of owls that ogle London.
For Noah hardly knew a bird of any kind that isn’t heard
  At Kew, at Kew in lilac-time (and oh, so near to London!)
And when the rose begins to pout and all the chestnut spires are out
  You’ll hear the rest without a doubt, all chorusing for London:–
Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
  Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
  Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)

The lilacs in the yard next door are blooming as intensely and fragrantly as any of Alfred Noyes’s, as are the ones in front of half the other houses in town, not to mention the ones by the Congregational Church and the Civil War Memorial. Which comes back around to Whitman again, and the funeral train heading west from Washington to Springfield.

More items of cultural metaphor taking up space in my local reality.

A Note for Those Contemplating the Acquisition, at Some Point, of an Older House

Make certain that whatever else about it may or may not have been upgraded in the past twenty or thirty years, the plumbing is up to date. And by “the plumbing” I mean all of it, and not just the visible bits.

Our house was previously the property of a couple who had bought it and intended to renovate, but who grew tired of either the project or each other before completing the job. The downstairs bathroom was one of the bits they’d been leaving for later. I can understand why; bathroom renovations are expensive under the best of circumstances, and the downstairs bathroom in this house is jammed into an exceedingly awkward spot, having clearly been installed sometime in the early portion of the last century as a kind of afterthought. Any subsequent upgrades were done on an as-needed basis, rather than according to any master plan, which is why some parts of the household plumbing are copper, some are PVC plastic, and at least one of the waste outflow pipes is still the original lead.

So we’ve been dealing with wonky downstairs plumbing for over two decades now, because we’ve never had the kind of loose change floating around that a full-dress bathroom renovation would require — never mind the ups and downs of the freelance life, raising four kids and putting them all through college is an expensive hobby for anyone — but renovating the downstairs bathroom is definitely one of the items on my Hollywood Can Buy Our Books Any Time It Wants To list.†

(Why did we buy this house, if it had such a problem? Well, because we were looking for a house big enough to raise four children in, that a pair of freelancers could afford‡ with the aid of a VA loan, and our other choices were the one over in Jefferson with the extra bedroom space being an unfinished attic, and the one up in Pittsburg that was heated by three wood stoves, and the one down in Whitefield that had a wet basement, and the one over to Berlin that was, well, over to Berlin, and I didn’t want to live in a town where every street corner gave you a good view of the paper mill.)

Obligatory writing reference!

And another!

Once Again, Robert Frost Was Right About New England

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“Nature’s first green is gold….”

In other words, the trees have finally leafed out.

When I was a cheerful young undergrad going to school in Arkansas, I thought that mud-time was something that Frost made up for poetic purposes; likewise, the birches bending “to left and right/Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” Then I moved up here, and realized that he’d been making his poetry out of sober observation all along.

As do we all, even if we’re writing stories set in worlds completely of our own imagining.

I Haven’t Vanished From the Internet

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I did, however, sprain my wrist a while back, which put a crimp in my keyboarding for a while there.

By way of apology, have a recipe, with bonus family anecdote:

Jake’s Mother’s Teacakes

1/2 cup shortening (probably lard, originally; latterly, Crisco)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
2 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla

Cream shortening and sugar.  Add egg.
Beat thoroughly.
Sift flour and baking powder together.
Add dry ingredients alternately with milk.
Add vanilla.
Chill, roll, and cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter.
Bake on greased sheet in a quick oven (350-375 F) about 5 to 8
minutes – the time varies according to the thickness of the cookies.  Until the edges start to brown, anyway.

The “Jake” in question was my great-uncle on my father’s side, making his mother my . . . great-great-aunt?  Something like that.  Anyway, when my father was growing up, he used to walk over to her house, with his dog following along after him, and she would make these cookies for him, and the dog would get some, too.

Then my father graduated from high school and went off to college, leaving his dog behind.  The dog, for his part, continued going over to Jake’s mother’s house . . .

. . . and Jake’s mom would bake these cookies for the dog.

They’re a not overly sweet cookie that keeps well, and dunks nicely in tea or coffee or milk.

A Reminder: Four More Days

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Just a quick note to let everyone know that my springtime seasonal sale expires at midnight this coming Sunday the 23rd.

Buy a line-edit and critique for a writer friend, or for yourself; you needn’t use the gift right away, but can claim it whenever you desire.

For a Few Days More

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In honor of the upcoming (for those who celebrate it) Easter holiday, and because the cold winter just now passing away kept me from starting my customary spring sale in a more timely fashion, I’m taking this opportunity to extend the seasonal special until April 23rd – or Low Sunday, as it’s called in the liturgical traditions.  (It’s traditionally the choir’s day off after the intensity of Holy Week, or at least such was the case back when I was a grad student at UPenn and singing in the church choir at St. Mary’s, Hamilton Village – which was also the church I was married in, and I was pleased to see, when I Googled it, that the parish is still going strong and is still active in social justice work after all these years.)

As usual, the seasonal special gets your standard-weight novel (or that of a friend) a line-edit and critique for $1000 instead of the customary $1500, and the purchase can be redeemed either now or later, as the recipient pleases.

Tales from the Before Time: Finding Fandom

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The internet, as usual, has changed everything.

These days, any young sf/fantasy reader or watcher with access to a computer can connect with other likeminded souls in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.  They may not be able to meet up face-to-face, but that’s not necessary, and wasn’t necessary even in the olden days.  It’s enough, most of the time, just to know that there’s somebody else like you out there.

Back before the internet, things were harder.  If you lived anywhere other than a major city, your chances of encountering another reader who shared your particular obsession were low.  (I was fortunate; my best friend in high school also read sf, and the local news and magazine shop owner must have been a fan as well, because the shop carried all the new paperback releases and all of the major sf magazines, as well as some of the second-tier sf mags.)  As a result, a young fan’s reaction upon encountering a large, organized (for fannish values of “organization”, which is to say, not very) fan group, or a science fiction convention, was often something along the lines of “My people!  My people!  I’ve found you at last!”

A note:  It’s also necessary to understand that this era came not just before the internet, but before the Geek Ascendancy.  People who liked sf and fantasy and computers and techy/sciency stuff in general were pretty much universally regarded as weirdo loners, rather than as weirdo loners any one of whom might possibly have a greater net worth than the entire city of Chicago.

When a collection of weirdo loners (and yes – I, too, was a weirdo loner) come together and discover that they are not alone in their weirdo-hood after all, the community that is created has both good and bad features, and a lot of those features are connected like good and evil twins.  The fandom of those days, to give just one example, was tolerant of all sorts of social awkwardness and nonconformity (because we were entirely too aware, most of us, of our own flaws in that regard); the flip side of that virtue, unfortunately, was a willingness to put up with just about any bad behavior short of running away with the cash box.

Post-internet fandom is . . . well, it’s different, in ways that as a pre-internet fan I’m not entirely capable of understanding.  But the old pre-internet fandom is still around, and still inhabiting a lot of the same virtual and actual spaces as post-internet fandom, and the places where they rub up against each other sometimes chafe.

I’m not sure what can be done about this problem, or even sure that it is a problem of the needs-something-done-about-it variety.  The best we can do, I guess, is be kind to each other, and remember that we all love the same thing even if we don’t necessarily do it in all the same ways.

Springtime Seasonal Special

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It’s time again for my traditional springtime special offer:

Sample Spring Gift Certificate2017

Yes.  From today through the 16th of April, my usual rate of $1500 for a line-edit and critique on a typical 80,000-100,00 word novel drops to $1000 (or $1030 for PayPal, to cover the fees for a non-personal transaction; using Google Wallet, if you’re set up for it, avoids this problem and is faster as well.)  You can purchase a springtime gift for a writer friend, or for yourself, and redeem it at any time between right now and whenever.

(If you’ve got a 100,000+ word doorstop of a manuscript, and still want to take advantage of the season, contact me and we can work out an appropriate discounted price for a longer work.)