Archive for November, 2017

Iron Hack

November 8, 2017

It probably says something about modern life that the last two conventions I’ve attended have included panels focused around encouraging would-be writers to examine how much writing can be done in a very short period of time.

Twenty Minutes Tick Down!

The panel I was on at MileHiCon took its inspiration from the “Iron Chef” cooking show.  In this case, the three secret ingredients were supplied by the audience moments before the writing started.  They were asked to give us a profession, an item, and a setting, all of which should be included in the story.  Our audience gave us a chef, a ray gun (specifically a toy ray gun), and a lunar colony.

Stace Johnson, the moderator, announced that we would have twenty minutes to write.  So the audience wouldn’t get bored watching us scribble and grimace, they were encouraged to take part as well.  Three of the panelists had some electronic writing device – a laptop or a tablet with keyboard.  I had a notebook and pen.  The fellow to my left did his writing on an unlined hotel notepad with a hotel pen.

Unlike most panels I’ve been on, the format of this one didn’t give me a chance to firmly set in my mind which names went with which panelists, but I want to assure you all four all dove into the challenge with enthusiasm.

Stace Johnson set his timer and we were off!  For your amusement, I’ll transcribe what I wrote in those twenty minutes.  (I’ll leave out the cross-outs and creative spelling.)

Gran Prix was scrambling eggs when Gordon Garb, the sheriff of Lunar West, came racing in, ray guns drawn.

 “Did you see him?”


“Ostrich Al!  He just swiped a load of diamonds from the shipping dock and headed this way.”

“Nope.  Sorry.  What would he have been doing here?

“No idea.  We figure he probably was meeting a confederate.  Anyone here but you?”

“No one.”  Gran Prix placidly pulled his mixer attachment out of the egg froth and extruded his griddle.  Then he poured the eggs onto the surface and started gently turning them with his whisk.

“Sorry for bothering you, Gran,” Sherriff Garb said.  “May I go out back?  Al might have circled around to the loading dock.”

“Sure.  Watch out for the chickens.”

Gran Prix slid the scrambled eggs onto a serving tray, activated the anti-grav boost, and sent it out into the dining room.  Out back he could hear that Gordon Garb hadn’t paid any attention to his warning about the chickens.

On the Moon, chickens ceased being the squat, slightly ridiculous creatures they were on Earth, and became the ferocious aerial warriors they had always imagined themselves as being.  When Sherriff Garb returned, he looked as if the sky – well, at least as if something – had been falling.

Grab Prix was now busy stir-frying chunks of fresh meat.

“Smells good, Gran,” Gordon Garb said as he availed himself of the spray mist washer attachment more usually used for cleaning veggies from the hydroponic gardens.

That’s where time was called, but if I’d had another twenty or thirty minutes, I could have finished the story.  I still might.  I’m happy to say the audience seemed to like my venture, although (and I completely agree) the “win” went to the fellow on my right who had written the tale of an alien chef and his very difficult to please client.  Unlike my piece, he managed to come up with more of an ending.

What was interesting was what the writers chose to seize on.  For me, setting combined with chef were the inspiration.  The ray gun (and an interesting chat I’d had with Eric Flint, Dave Boop, and Jim) gave me the “Wild West” note.  For Stace Johnson “toy ray gun” was the inspiration around which he centered his story.  The fellow to my left completely forgot the ray gun in his original draft, but worked it in at the last minute as he was reading his piece aloud.

So, what did I get out of this other than 250 words of prose?  Well, if I finish this, I’ll have a short story – possibly only a bit of “flash fiction,” but still, better than staring at the wall and brooding.

I also got a window into how the same topic can create wildly different stories.  At least four people from the audience read their selections, and not a single one of the nine pieces read aloud were the same.

I think this activity could be a great way of getting out of a dry spell.  Even if a writer doesn’t have an audience to supply the three ingredients, items like Rory’s Story Cubes which I wrote about a while back, or decks of image cards (which Artist GOH Carrie Ann Baade said she uses in some of her classes) would supply the prompt.  SnackWrites provides free writing exercises that might provide the seeds from which a story could grow.

I also learned how what’s going on in my day-to-day life fills in the gaps.  If I hadn’t had that discussion about Westerns, would I have made my setting Lunar West?  If I hadn’t been on a panel the day before in which chickens came up for discussion, would I have included the chickens?  This exercise was a good reminder that writers need to keep stimulating their imaginations by doing more than just staring at the screen.

On that note, I’m off to do some more stimulating things…  And definitely to do more writing!

FF: Not Quite Killing

November 3, 2017

Last week a killing frost was announced.  When Jim and I returned home from Denver and MileHiCon, we discovered that there had been frost, but not quite killing.  And that a rogue pomegranate evaded being picked…

Persephone In Mythic Mode

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Fairy Tail, manga, volume 12 by Hiro Mashima.

Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin. 

Myth Directions by Robert Asprin.

Fer-de-lance by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  Interesting not only as a story, but to see how the characters of Nero, Archie, Fritz, and Theodore started out before Stout solidified their personalities.

In Progress:

Myth Directions by Robert Asprin.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire.  Audiobook.


Much background reading as I ease myself back into the Firekeeper universe after ten years away.

TT: Men in the Kitchen

November 2, 2017

ALAN: The other night Robin said that one of the reasons she stays with me is because I feed her. I pointed out that feeding her was merely a side effect of feeding me, and she had to admit the justice of that statement. As I’ve proved times without number, when she’s away visiting her mum, I still cook tasty meals for myself. It just so happens that when she’s here, she can share them with me.

Let’s Get Cooking!

JANE: Robin’s comment is interesting.  I’ve been known to say that one of the advantages of being married to Jim is that he can cook.  Now, mind you, I can cook and I enjoy cooking, but I also enjoy living with someone who can and will take over.

ALAN: I am continually surprised by the number of people I know who can’t cook for themselves. I know far too many people who appear to live on nothing but microwave meals and takeaways. Personally speaking, I can imagine nothing worse.

JANE: So how did you learn to cook?  Especially for a man of your generation, cooking isn’t a usual skill.

ALAN: That’s an interesting question. Certainly I didn’t learn as I was growing up. My mum was a traditional English cook who started boiling the vegetables round about the time she put the roast in the oven. Her meals were bland and soggy – typical English fare of that era. She guarded her kitchen fiercely and wouldn’t allow me anywhere near it, so I got no cooking practice at all as a child.

But when I left home and was thrown on my own resources, I had to sink or swim. Cook or starve. Or eat takeaways…

JANE: Jim also didn’t learn to cook from his mother.  He started cooking when he was in college, and then continued after.  I suspect that the fact that he wanted to eat healthy played a part in his acquiring the skill.

Nonetheless, because he was a bachelor when I met him, apparently some of his friends assumed he couldn’t cook.  I recall one woman saying that she hosted regular potlucks (to which Jim was asked to bring salsa or something else he could pick up pre-made) because “This way I can be sure the Jim and Chip get at least one decent meal every week.”

I was quite startled because she had known Jim for ages, but never had gotten beyond this sexist stereotype.

ALAN: Yes, I’ve come across that attitude as well. It seems to be quite common.

JANE: In fact, even now that more men routinely cook, Jim and I still encounter such stereotypes.  We like to grill, and Jim has become very good at it.  However, he never gets the praise he deserves because – at least here in the U.S. – grilling is considered “man cooking.”

What makes us both laugh is that I was the one who taught him how to grill.  He really had no idea how to handle the finer points.

But I went off on a tangent, didn’t I?  Sorry.  You said you didn’t learn to cook from your mother.  How did you learn to cook?  Who were your teachers?

ALAN: Well, as you know, I studied chemistry at university. So I’ve always been very comfortable with the idea of mixing stuff together and applying heat to make interesting things happen. It’s what you do in chemistry labs and it’s what you do in kitchens – in both places you concentrate on making bangs, smells and pretty colours. Hopefully not too many bangs though…

So I just bought recipe books and followed the instructions. What could possibly go wrong?

JANE: Oh, dear…  I can think of lots of things!

ALAN: I may have phrased what I said flippantly, but I really did mean it seriously – the techniques of the laboratory work very well in the kitchen. And vice-versa of course.

To begin with I followed the recipes in my books religiously, but as I got more experienced I relaxed a bit. I digressed and substituted ingredients, experimenting with this and that, learning what things went well together and what things didn’t. So my cookery is largely self-taught. However most people seem to enjoy eating the food I prepare, so perhaps I’m a good teacher…

JANE: What made you decide to start cooking in the first place?

ALAN: Partly the fact that I enjoy eating tasty food, and partly a vague desire to eat healthily. But the main motivation was economic. It’s very expensive to live on takeaways, and it’s comparatively cheap to cook for yourself using fresh ingredients. For example, last night I cooked a large curry which will provide Robin and me with three substantial and tasty meals. The ingredients cost about $25 in total so each meal works out to approximately $4 per person. I don’t think you could get a takeaway meal for that price.

JANE: I agree!

ALAN: But what about you? How did you gain your culinary skills?

JANE: Ah…  There hangs a tale.  How about I tell it next time?

Antelope, Wookie, Buffalo?

November 1, 2017

Last Friday, Jim and I drove up to Denver for MileHiCon.  The weather was lovely and the route over mountains and plains was a festival of wildlife.  I kept singing “Home on the Range” because we saw deer and antelope, and kept hoping for buffalo.

Jason, Me, Carrie, and Eric

We also saw numerous hawks, ravens, magpies, and what I could swear was a black swan.  This last was in flight, but I can’t think what else could have had that profile.

Because I hadn’t been able to promise I would be there early (departure time was predicated on when we would finish giving fluids to our two senior cats), my first official item of programming was the Opening Ceremonies.

I tidied up from travel and came down to find programming coordinator Rose Beetem and her assistant Meg Ward lurking with evil intent.  You see, for its theme the convention was celebrating Star Wars (in honor of the film’s fortieth anniversary), and Rose wanted the toastmaster and guests of honor to help out.

Toastmaster Jason Heller got a quilted vest so he could be Han Solo.  Artist Guest of Honor Carrie Ann Baade was a perfect Princess Leia – even without the hairpiece.  Author Guest of Honor Eric Flint was asked to step in as Yoda – which he did by stretching a Yoda stocking cap over his pork pie hat.  And I was asked to represent Chewbacca – “Because of the wolves” as Rose kept explaining.  I accepted the embroidered stocking cap with slight trepidation, but what the heck…

I actually really like Chewbacca, so why not?  I then channeled Chewie during my opening comments, apparently badly startling the first several rows of attendees.

After opening ceremonies, I had a chance to chat with Carrie Ann Baade.  During a quick preliminary pass through the art show, I’d already decided I liked her art.  By the end of our chat, I was certain I liked her as well.  Her students (she’s a university professor) are very lucky to have her guiding them through the early stages of their creative journey.

Then it was off to the Friday night mixer, during which guests of honor, past and present, are available to sign and chat.  I had some great discussions with various people and finally had a chance to talk with Eric Flint.

Eric Flint had come with very high recommendations from a wide variety of people.  He not only lived up to, he exceeded, those recommendations.  After the signing had ebbed, we ended up staying on to chat with Eric and author Dave Boop about westerns, romances, and the works of James Joyce.  Then, after a quick pass through the con suite, where Bubonicon was hosting  a pizza party, Jim and I toddled off to bed.

The next morning, I was scheduled to be one of the hosts of the morning Kaffeeklatch along with Eric Flint and Carrie Vaughn.  We had a lovely, lively discussion that set the tone for the rest of a very active day.

My next panel was Animal Attraction.  The other panelists shared my enthusiasm for and appreciation of animals, and we had a great discussion.  I learned things about elephants I’d never imagined.  I then took off for a couple of hours to visit with my late father’s best friend, which was simply lovely.

My afternoon (by my own choice) was packed.  I attended the Mass Autographing, during which I continued the patchwork quilt chat I’d been having with Jason Heller about the works of David Bowie.  From there I went to my Hour With.

I gave the audience a choice of me talking, me reading a short story, or me reading from my forthcoming novel, Asphodel.  The audience was split, so I did twenty-five minutes of reading from Asphodel and twenty-five minutes of answering questions.  Again, the questions were great, and I could have spent a lot more time with those folks, but I was off to “Iron Hack.”  I’m going to talk about this panel as part of a blog later on, so I’ll just say I had a lovely time.

From there, we got ourselves some dinner, then opted to get some quiet time so I could prepare for the next day.

Sunday morning we awoke refreshed and, because we’d enjoyed the Kaffeeklatch on Saturday, decided to go back down.  This time the topic began with anime (an enthusiasm of mine and, so it soon became clear, of many people present) and circled around to discussing aspects of writing.  After that, we went down to tour the art show and dealer’s room.  Both were high quality and very nicely run.

Eleven o’clock brought me back in company with Jason, Carrie, and Eric for the Guest of Honor remarks and the announcement of various awards.  The ninety minutes raced by.  Then, after chatting a little with a few participants, Jim and I grabbed a salad from the coffee shop and went to our room to regroup.

At 2:00, I gave a talk about writing endings to a packed room.  From there, I went straight to a panel on comedic fantasy.  This last was really neat because the participants were two fans (who were obviously avid readers) and two writers.  Although all the comments were excellent, I learned a great deal from listening to Laurence McNaughton talk about how he sets up his humorous fantasy novels.

After the panel, Jim and I found ourselves comfortable chairs in the lobby.  There we were lucky enough to be joined by Toastmaster Jason Heller.  All weekend, we’d been having a fragmented chat about the works of David Bowie – triggered, I admit, by my desire to make up for a panel we didn’t get to do at the 2015 Bubonicon.  Now we were able to really get into details. This included me asking Jason about his approach for organizing his forthcoming non-fiction work Strange Stars, which is about the intersection of pop music and science fiction.

From there, we went off to Closing Ceremonies.  Eric Flint had already left to catch his plane, so our little band of stalwart rebels had lost its Yoda.  Nonetheless, we forged on.  The Force was definitely with us.

Later, Jim and I attended the Dead Dog party, during which I found a fellow audiobook enthusiast named Meaghan to chat with.  Monday morning we were back on the road, heading south.  On the way out, we’d seen antelope and deer.  This time we added a very large herd of buffalo to our tally.

So we went home, home across the range!  If I met you at MileHiCon, thanks for making me and Jim feel so welcome.  If not, well, maybe we can talk next year when we hope to be back to help MileHiCon celebrate its 50th anniversary.