Friday, September 7, 2007

It Is Live!

At Escape Pod: "Transcendence Express" read by Jack Mangan -- the deadpan himself!

First, I must admit that I didn't listen to podcast at all until a few weeks ago. But because Steve Eley had bought my story, I checked out a few Escape Pod episodes. And when Jack emailed me that he was going to read it, I checked out a few deadpan episodes. I quite enjoyed them, and -- despite the fact that I go to my work on a bike, and have no MP3 player -- they are becoming a weekly habit. I play them during dinner, when I can give them my attention, as I find them too distracting when I am working on something.

Second, listening to Jack reading my story was quite weird. (And not because of the quality of Jack's reading: he did a great job.) Hearing somebody else read your words is a bit uncanny, like a warped mirror reflecting your own images in a slightly distorted way.
I actually read the story to my sister and her friends a few months back in Melbourne on the impromptu birthday party she arranged for me (OK: it was on May 24). There, it went over well, and the fact that some friends did voice a few critical remarks told me they weren't just being friendly to me on my birthday. Reading it aloud yourself is different: then you're in control (or think you are), while listening to someone else reading your stuff is a bit distancing: it is your piece, but its presentation is not in your hand. Also, I caught myself at having the tendency to accept the very good and excellent parts of Jack's reading as normal, and pay too much attention at the parts that I thought could have been done a bit better.

Vanity, vanity: all is vanity...

Third, the story was never intended as a podcast. This might sound like stating the obvious -- and some of you might wonder why I submitted it to Escape Pod in the first place, but that's easy: always let the editor decide -- but I envisioned it as words on a page that stimulate a reader's fantasy. Of course, a reading can also incite a listener's imagination, but it's different.
I think the shifts between the present tense story in Zambia (from David's viewpoint) and the flashbacks in Holland (from Liona's viewpoint) come across better on the page. Also the invented song lyrics stand out more on the page, I believe.

Of course, I might be wrong and it will be very interesting to read the listener's comments on the Escape Pod forum.

In any case, I'm quite chuffed to have a story appear in Escape Pod.

A Long Weekend, part 3: Bachelor Party in Belgium

On Sunday September 2 I wanted to go to the second Threshold gig in 'de Boerderij' (i.e. 'the Farm') in Zoetermeer. That venue has a much better sound than Plato in Helmond, and a better atmosphere.

However, I had other commitments. Patric, one of my best friends, was getting married (again, I'll get to that in the next post), and his friends had organised an impromptu bachelor party on this Sunday. There simply was no way I couldn't go.

So, from about 2.30 in the afternoon onwards, we had a few beers at Café de Unie in Den Bosch. Then the nine of us went to Luik (or Liège as the Flamands will have it) to watch the Belgium football classic Standaard Luik -- Club Brugge.

Patric is a huge fan of our local football team FC Den Bosch, and for a reason that's not really clear to me FC Den Bosch have friendship ties with Standaard Luik. So tickets were arranged -- no small feat as this was a sold out game -- and with a van we went south.

Luik is not a pretty city: my impression, driving through it, was of that of an old industrial mining town whose mainly old buildings looked more like they belonged behind the old Iron Curtain than in modern Europe (on the other hand, the new TGV station was being built, as well). Anyway, I think the picture of the red football stadium (standard de liege) against the smoking chimney background nicely captures my impression.

It was very busy around the stadium and -- this being Belgium -- there were plenty of snackbars where one could get some fast food (more difficult for Patric, who's a vegetarian, and his choices were rather limited). The atmosphere was relatively relaxed (in Holland I suspect the atmosphere would be much more tense with such a game), and we entered the stadium without a problem (after having a few beers in a local bar. And in the van. And in the stadium, as well).

Standard Luik eventually won 2 to 1, in a game that wasn't really exciting, apart from the few minutes in which the goals fell. I'm not a big football fan myself, but according to my friends the atmosphere was a bit too tame ('the stadium should be boiling over during such a match!').

We had more beer, more fun, and eventually went back home to arrive around 2 in the morning which was double fun as most of them had to work the next day (I had taken the week off, luckily).

A Long Weekend, part 2: Threshold in Helmond

On Saturday September 1, the four of us -- my brother and his wife, a good friend and I -- went to see Threshold in Plato, a venue in the Dutch town of Helmond. My brother and I weren't exactly in top form -- the day after the night before -- especially since we aren't in our twenties anymore.

So we were rather a lot less present than normally at a Threshold gig: these guys are old friends (we're one of the few fans from the very beginning), and Petra -- my sister-in-law -- found that amusing, rubbing in it when we tried to be wild without really succeeding (she knows us but all too well).

Anyway, a surprisongly good show. Singer Andrew McDermot, or Mac for short, had left the band shortly before they went on tour, so the band asked one of their old singers to fill in for him at short notice.

Threshold and singers are, to put it mildly, an ongoing challenge. Bass player Jon Jeary -- one of the founding members -- also was their original singer. Jon wrote almost all the lyrics in the beginning, and while he's a great lyricist, he wasn't a great singer. Legend has it that on a gig he fainted while trying to hit a high note on one of the Wounded Land (their debut album) songs: not sure which one exactly, but I believe it was "Surface to Air".

So the band sought a good singer, and found one in Damian Wilson, who eventually sang all the songs on Wounded Land. However, for some reason (which escapes me) Damianwas replaced by Glynn Morgan on the band's second album: Psychedelicatessen. While Damian's voice was especially powerful in the higher regions, Glynn was a more allround singer: covering almost the whole spectrum. Or, as (keyboard player) Richard West later told me: he could hit both the high notes, and still have that grit and bite in his voice in the lower regions. They had tried to make Damian sing more grunting parts, but that only caused him to lose his voice for several days.

So while Glynn Morgan might not reach Damian's highs (although he sometimes came close, as I witnessed on some shows), his voice more than made up for that in the lower regions. However, he wasn't really happy with some of Threshold's complex lyrics (this would be a continuing problem), and -- as (guitar player) Karl Groom told me --he just couldn't (or wouldn't) sing the lyrics of "Part of the Chaos". That song was planned for the second album, but through Glynn's refusal/inability to sing it only appeared on the third album.

As it was, Glynn was a great singer, but not the right personality to stay with Threshold. Bad tongues might say that sometimes he was too stoned to perform 100%, and I'll diplomatically say the truth is somewhere in between. My personal impression: a very good singer with an almost incredible range, but a timid performer (not quite a front man type), and not really interested in the lyrics he was singing (also a recurring problem).

So, after the 'Livedelica' tour, Damian returned to the band to sing the Extinct Instinct album. Because Damian had less problems with the band's lyrics -- still mostly written by Jon Jeary at that time -- "Part of the Chaos" was included on that album (brilliant lyrics, BTW). Then he went on tour with the band, and reportedly freaked out during a gig in Spain. Point is, while Damian was -- and is -- a great singer, he was very timid on stage (Glynn was, too), rather insecure and needed to have his monitors amoed up quite high. This apparently didn't happen on that gig in Spain, and he, rather unexpectedly, became very angry and threw his monitor speakers into the audience. Which basically ended his second stay at Threshold.

So the band needed a new singer again: Jon Jeary was sarcastically referring to it as LSD: 'Lead Singer's Disease'. Andrew McDermott was the next singer. Roughly speaking his voice was somewhere between that of Damian and Glynn: a broad range around the middle, with no extremes in both the high and low ends. He debuted on Clone, whose music was still mostly written with Damian's vocals in mind. But Mac did a great job, and stayed with the band through the next four studio albums: Clone, Hypothetical, Subsurface, and Dead Reckoning.

Another shift took place in that Jon Jeary, up to that time the band's main lyricist, left the band, and keyboard player Richard West took over the role of lyrics writer (and with verve). Mac was a great studio singer, and a very good front man: in contrast with his two predecessors he wasn't shy of crowds, but actively interacted with them. The downside, though, was that Mac also never really connected with the band's (as always almost poetic) lyrics: he forgot half of them on tours, making up for that with pure bravado and crowd participation. And I will honestly admit that my brother and I had some great times when he reacted, often with wit, to our provocative shouts during gigs.

Mac had a great run, but in the end it didn't last. My best guess is that while he was (is) a great singer -- especially in the studio -- he really wasn't 'connected' to Rich West's lyrics, and Threshold's intention in general. I think -- and I don't mean that negatively -- that Mac really wanted to be in a party band, while Threshold's aims are much more serious.

So now Damian is back. Supposedly temporarily, but if I've picked up the signs at the Plato gig correctly, it might be more permanently. To be frank: Damian was a revelation. His singing was still as good as ten years ago, but -- more importantly -- he was on all the time: not a shy singer, but a very active frontman, communicating with the audience, carrying the show. And he sang the 'Mac' songs with verve, which is quite a difficult thing, as these songs were written with Mac's voice in mind. But Damian carried it off, and my brother and I agreed that the only song where he didn't really reach Mac's performance was "Light and Space". But he easily exceeded our expectations in all other regards.

We were very positively surprised, and told Rich (West) so after the show. Unfortunately we didn't have much time to talk, as my brother and his wife had to return home in time because grandmother was babysitting their sons at their home, and wanted to go home relatively in time (not at the crack of dawn). So my brother and I intend to have a longer talk with the band on Friday September 14 at the Biebob in Belgium.

I wanted to go to the band's next show in Zoetermeer, but something got in between, on which more in my next post.

A Long Weekend, part 1: Friday August 31

While one part of the SF community was at Nippon Con in Yokohama, and another part at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, I stayed in The Netherlands. Not that it made my long weekend any less intense.

So here's the report of someone who didn't go (well: I was at both WorldCon and Dragon*Con last year, so I know what I'm missing).

Friday August 31 I went to Anvil who played in the new Dynamo club in Eindhoven, with my brother and various friends.

Both Anvil and the Dynamo club have quite a history in heavy metal circles. From its inception in the very early 80s, Dynamo quickly became the beating heart of the Dutch heavy metal scene. Actually 'Dynamo cafe' was only a part of Eindhoven's 'youth centre' building, which was a five story building. The bar was in the cellar, and the venue (which had a fire safety capacity of 75, but more often than not was filled with 300+ people) was on the ground floor.

Legendaric gigs have taken place there, and indeed Anvil was one of the bands to play there in the early 80s. At that time, Anvil was on the verge of a breakthrough: the band had released three very good albums in quick sucession -- Hard and Heavy, Metal on Metal and Forged in Fire -- and propelled by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (who on their turn were propelled by the Punk movement) they were on the forefront of what later came to be speed metal.

Especially Forged in Fire is still a bit of a forgotten classic, but back in '83 it seemed that Anvil was leading the speed metal pack. Problem was, they didn't follow through, as they didn't release a follow-up to Forged in Fire until 1987. Strength of Steel was too little, too late, as by that time bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, and many others had overtaken them.

In retrospect, I also think they didn't quite have the quality and will to develop of the afore-mentioned bands. Anvil has released 13 albums by now -- the latest one being This Is Thirteen -- but none of the ten albums after Forged in Fire quite captured the energy and grit of the first three. Anvil never improved after that.

My brother remained a staunch fan throughout the years, and if they play in Holland we always try to take a look. So now they were playing in the *new* Dynamo (the old building was demolished, and now Eindhoven has a new 'youth centre', again with a hardrock cafe -- which is in the cellar -- and a venue. Typically, Anvil didn't play in the new venue, which can hold up to 600 people, but in the cellar, for about a hundred mostly old fans. Of which my brother and I were two.

The band has become a trio, and the second guitar player was sorely missed. Also, they tried to promote quite a few new songs from the latest album, while the majority of the audience came for the old classics like "March of the Crabs", "666", "Metal on Metal", "Winged Assassins", "Motormount", and "Mothra", which they all eventually played.

All in all, it was a very nice evening: after the gig there was an 80s metal party where we drunk and partied like we did 24 year ago. Of course, my brother complained that the DJ didn't have enough of the old classics, and the next morning I found out that I really wasn't in my early twenties anymore.

But that day, another gig was planned...

First Acceptance of the May email reading period... a story called "The Ships Like Clouds, Risen from Their Rain" by Jason Sanford.

(The other 17 stories that are held over are still under discussion: both the holiday period and an error during the printing of the premiere Black Static issue slowed things down. Please be patient: we are considering these stories *very* seriously.)

In our correspondence about the story, I mentioned that I thought it would have fitted nicely in Interzone #208: the special sensawunda issue (fiction edited and selected by me). Jason then said he wrote the story inspired by that very issue.

Well, that alone made the issue worthwile, IMHO.

Anyway, more updates on acceptances as we make them.

The Writing Game

This week I have been rather selfish: I tried to ignore most other things and concentrated on writing.

Ever since I joined Interzone my writing productivity dropped from about two stories a month to about two stories a year. So keep that in mind when someone asks you to join a magazine as an editor.

Don't get me wrong: I adore Interzone and greatly enjoy co-editing its fiction. I actually give it priority over my own writing, hence my drop in short story production.

Anyway, this week I rrealised that I've become a much slower writer. This is mainly because I find it near-impossible to shut down the editorial part of me. A couple of years ago I just wrote the story first, relatively fast, and worried about rewriting and polishing later. And while this produced more prose, I'm not sure if it was decent, or even good prose.

Also, I was less self-critical, or didn't have enough experience to be critical enough, most likely both. (Apart from the point that a writer is too close to his/her own story to really look at it objectively. It's extremely hard, almost impossible to avoid: you know what you mean, even if it's expressed poorly, because you know what you intended to say when you wrote it, and even on repeated rereadings this intented -- not apparent -- meaning almost always comes to the fore, masking the poor expression. If I could look with more objectivity to my own writing, the way I do with stories of others, then I'd write much better stories myself.) So I basically wrote first, and thought later (a rough generalisation, mostly true though).

Now I find myself thinking throughout the writing: adding extra details, plot twists, character motivations, and other layers while removing stuff that doesn't work (wrong ideas, poor phrasing, extraneous words, and more) at the same time. A bit like writing, editing and rewriting at the same time, if that makes sense. It slashes my word count down. On the other hand, I think -- Quod Erat Demonstrandum when I send it out -- that the actual prose that stays on the page is better.

At least, I certainly hope so: if I don't improve over time then writing becomes, if not pointless, quite frustrating: I want to be better in the next story, not stay at the same level, or become worse. Of course, the next story may be at the same level, the following one maybe even worse, and only the one after that better: progress often isn't a straight upward curve. As long as the general trend is up I'm fine.

To illustrate with two rough examples: the original version of "Transcendence Express" (written back in 2002) had about 7800 words. The version that got published in HUB #2 (the last print version, unfortunately) has about 4200 words. Between those two versions, it got bounced twelve times, and rewritten several times -- I estimate 5 or 6 times -- in the process, often after editorial comments.

Conversely, "Qubit Conflicts" (written in 2005) originally had about 2800 words, while the published version has about 2100. It received six rejections before Clarkesworld Magazine bought it, and two rewrites (the last one on Nick's instructions).

Of course, I leave it up to the reader to decide which of the two is the better story (I can't give an objective opinion), but it shows the general direction my writing is taking: I'm trying to get it right the first time around. OK, still not quite succeeding, obviously -- as six bounces and two rewrites of which one by editorial decree show -- but heading that way.

(Rejections will always be inevitable, but I try not to be rejected on quality anymore.)

(And I only sold one story at the first try, which was also the very first story I sold. It's been downhill ever since...;-)

Thing is, early in my writing career I tended to be highly enthusiastic about the first draft of a story, not quite critical enough, and subsequently rewrite or polish minimally (if at all). Then send it off to the top markets, getting the inevitable form rejections.

Only after slowly improving, receiving critiques from my fellow online Orbiters, getting a few personal rejects, and getting more serious about rewriting (murder your darlings, indeed) did it slowly dawn on me that I was doing some basic things wrong, to wit:

  1. Don't send your (slightly polished) first draft to the most suitable top market: it will get bounced, and then you've effectively killed that story's chance at that market; so:
  2. Repress the urge to immediately send it out, but put it on hold for at least a month, or more; then:
  3. Look at it with a fresh perspective, and savagely rewrite it; after which you:
  4. Send it to your critique group (if you don't have one, join one: there are plenty), and take *every* comment seriously. Some might be wrong, but these are always less than you think at first. And the ones that hurt the most are most probably the ones that are on the money: overcome the writer's ego and address them;
  5. Then let it rest for another month or so, and re-evaluate it again, and rewrite.
  6. Polish, polish, fine-polish, fine-polish, and make it gleam (you'd be surprised to find how many editors are won over by good prose);
  7. And only then carefully target your market from the top down.
"But this takes so much time!" I hear some of you say. Indeed, this way it can be six months or a year (or longer) from the first draft to the point of actual submission. Let's say a year(*). Still, be patient.

Because getting it bounced repeatedly takes even longer. Compare my two examples:

  • "Transcendence Express" (now available as a podcast on Escape Pod: it wasn't when I wrote this yesterday, so chalk one up for synchronicity) bounced twelve times: time between finished first draft (August 2002) and acceptance (January 2007) was four years and five months;
  • "Qubit Conflicts" bounced six times: time between finished first draft (March 2005) and acceptance (September 2006) was one year and six months;
So those six to twelve 'extra' months for rewriting etc. will most probably be a good investment timewise as it might considerably reduce the time between first submission and acceptance. More importantly, it might make the story land at a much better market.

YMMV, and other disclaimers, but this is my personal experience.

(*) Obvious exceptions are stories written for a specific anthology or theme issue. But even then use as much time as possible before the submission window closes: your story will only improve.