Book Review and Giveaway: Imperium (Nicholas Olivo)

Since purchasing my Kindle, I’ve been consuming a steady diet of books by indie authors (in between heaping helpings of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series). As with traditionally published books, results have been mixed – a couple of turkeys, some serviceable-yet-forgettable first efforts — and then there’s Nicholas Olivo’s Imperium, which made me an instant fan.

I’m not much of an urban fantasy buff by nature. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get into the Harry Dresden series, and have picked up (and put down) a few other titles. Imperium was the first urban fantasy title in a long while that hooked me right away and kept me hooked.

To summarize: the protagonist, Vincent Corinthos, is a secret agent assigned to investigate paranormal threats in Boston. But in the fey world of the Bright Side, Vincent is literally a god, with supernatural powers fueled by the faith of his worshippers. In that realm, he’s nearly omnipotent; in the everyday world, considerably less so.

When a fellow agent goes missing, Vincent teams up with his partner Megan, his (literally) statuesque girlfriend Petra, and Gearstripper, a gremlin obsessed with fast food and video games. As Vincent digs deeper into the mystery of the missing agent, he uncovers a sinister conspiracy, running afoul of undead, plant golems, crystal soldiers, and, of course, the all-time classic: Nazis. Oh, yeah, and he faces down two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Just another day at the office.

I think the best fantasy magic creates a set of rules and then abides by them, and Olivo handles this deftly. Vincent’s powers are dependent on the faith of his otherworldly supplicants, and that faith is a limited resource: when it’s gone, he becomes just another human who’s in way over his head. Even in the realm where he is a god, Vincent runs into problems he can’t just magic away. Imperium also plays on the responsibilities of a god to his worshippers and lays some heavy obligations on Vincent, something I wasn’t expecting, but enjoyed a great deal. I’m a sucker for stories that explore the limits of supernatural powers.

Imperium has a fun and diverse supporting cast. My favorite is the gremlin Gearstripper, who is by turns funny, sinister, and sad. (Olivo tied in the historical origins of the gremlins from World War II, which also scored big points with me.) The only mild disappointment was Vincent’s partner Megan, who, while charming, seemed to mostly get by on sex appeal and the occasional gadget. I’m hoping she gets a little more well-rounded in future volumes.

Imperium reads like a great movie or television show — fast-paced, snappy, and heavy on action. It’s not a terribly introspective book, but that works in its favor. I felt there were a few minor flaws — some of the action sequences came off as perfunctory, certain conflicts ended just a bit too easily, and the sense of place in a few scenes fell a little flat. Overall, though, these are quibbles in what is otherwise a wildly entertaining book.

I Liked the Book So Much, I’m Giving it Away

It’s fairly rare that I finish a book and instantly want more, and Imperium has me eagerly looking forward to the next volume. Imperium leaves a number of threads hanging, and it’s clear that old enemies will return and dark secrets will be revealed.

To spread the word about Imperium — because, if you couldn’t tell, I liked it and think people ought to read it — I’m giving away three Kindle copies! If you want one (and c’mon, free book y’all), here’s how to get it:

1) Leave me a blog comment with your email address (Kindle email if you want) or Twitter name.

2) On December 24th, I’ll randomly pick three names from the comments. I’ll post the winners here, as well as on Twitter (@surlymuse), and send out the books!

That’s it. No need to subscribe, or follow me, or anything like that (although you’re welcome to do so if you like). So drop me a comment and maybe get yourself a free Kindle book for Christmas!

You can also check out Nicholas Olivo’s website or look up Imperium on Amazon.(Not an affiliate link. No kickbacks for me!)

Box Set Recollections

It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.

I imagine every writer has one indelible moment that defined their reading lives — a single book or reading experience that eclipses all the rest and becomes the moment of “that’s when I knew.”

For me, that moment was my twelfth Christmas, when my mom bought me the Foundation Trilogy box set. I hadn’t yet read any Asimov when I unwrapped that gift, but the colorful, evocative Michael Whelan covers fascinated me instantly.

I remember ignoring most of my other gifts and disappearing into the spare bedroom. My grandparents kept that room closed off and unheated year-round, so it was freezing, but I didn’t care. I curled up on the garish purple bedspread, surrounded by my grandmother’s collection of creepy dolls covered in protective plastic, and started plowing my way through the Foundation books.

It took me days to get through them all, of course, but when I finally finished Foundation’s Edge, returning to my own life seemed foreign and almost bland. I lost myself completely in the story, the way only a kid can.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since — the rush of completely immersing yourself in a story, letting the outside world fade into an irrelevant fog. It’s happened a few times since — in my later adolescence, I raced through Dragonlance: Legends in a similar fashion, even shedding a manly tear or two at the end. (It’s easy for my older self to wince and snicker with embarrassment at that, but I still wouldn’t trade that memory for anything.)

I’d love to say that reading Lord of the Rings provided a similar experience, but it didn’t — as a youth, I found Tolkien hard to get through, and only began to appreciate his work later in life. (As a kid, I skipped over everything but Gollum and the end, and didn’t get through The Scouring of the Shire until I was about twenty-five.) I did, however, listen to the Mind’s Eye Theater adaptation of Lord of the Rings on cassette a hundred times or more, and to this day will get very cranky when people lambast its shoddy production values in favor of its presumptuous, snooty cousin, the BBC Radio adaptation.

All in all, though, I can probably count those experiences on the fingers of one hand — the aforementioned trilogies, a handful of Stephen King novels, and a random assortment of fantasy and sci-fi books that I can still pick up today and read straight through without ever putting them down. I still bear a love for the paperback boxed set that borders on the fetishistic — I’ll buy a series just because it comes in a box. The boxed set has gone into full remission these days, mostly replaced by the omnibus, and I miss it dearly.

As life marches on, obligations swell while free time seems to wither, and youthful enthusiasm sometimes gives way to jadedness or cynicism masquerading as wisdom. It becomes harder and harder to get caught up in a good story and ignore the world until it’s over. The lengthy book gives way to the movie or the half-hour sitcom, story delivered up in inoffensive bites, the Wonder Bread of narrative. That’s how it often is with me, anyway. I find reading every day now takes conscious effort in an age of easy, shiny distractions.

Of course, if you’re a writer, there’s a whole other peril to wade through — learn enough about craft and it’s easy to start analyzing every story you read, breaking it down into its component parts, clinically examining its merits and flaws, dissecting rather than digesting. Those childhood blinders are awfully hard to get back on once you’ve taken them off, and flipping the “critic switch” can seem downright irresponsible. Some people rediscovered that joy with the Harry Potter books. I didn’t — but I do sometimes envy those who could.

I often think that the greatest gift I could get these days would be providing that sense of immersion to another reader. If I could, just once, sweep someone away with a story, make them neglect their chores, snub their spouses, maybe even refuse to get out of bed all day, because they just had to find out what happened — well, that would probably be the best Christmas ever.

Do you have a reading memory that’s stayed with you like this? If so, please feel free to drop me a comment and tell me about it.

Why Is Throwing Away Books So Hard?

Oh my, controversial. Photo by pcorreia on Flickr.

Like most writers I know, I have a room full of bookshelves, all of them overflowing. Some have been read. Many haven’t. Most, I consider indispensable. A few, I have resolved to get rid of, but that’s like saying I want to be the world’s first ham-juggling world champ. I can say it all I want.

I have at least two canvas bags full of hardback books in my living room, longing for a new home. The used bookstore doesn’t want them — and in some cases I really can’t blame them for not taking my complete set of Mechwarrior Saga: The Last Thing You’d Ever Want to Be Caught Reading. My friends won’t take them. I could try selling them on the internet, that’s often a losing proposition when BookBargainJackholesDotCom can undercut me by selling for a penny.

So why can’t I just chuck them in the trash?

I’ve certainly thought about it. I’ve also thought about firing them out my window at the kids who ride by on their bicycles, which somehow doesn’t seem any more appealing. I’ve thought about starting a bonfire in the parking lot screaming JESUS IS LORD as I throw some old Star Wars novels into the flames, but I figured the landlord might frown upon that for some picky reason.

Long story short, I’m still stuck with these books. Why am I so averse to tossing them out?

Books Have Sentimental Value

Yes, I am sentimental about books. I’m nostalgic about them, too. I won’t apologize. I’ve had far too many conversations with Kindle fanatics who talk about emotional attachment to books as if it were some kind of disease. Shelf full of books? When you read paper, you murder the world!

Ahem. Sorry. I should really let that go. Anyway, many of the books I own have been deeply formative to me in one fashion or another. Just because I no longer get anything out of a particular volume, that doesn’t mean no one else will. So just tossing a book in the trash feels like I might somehow be cheating someone, somewhere, out of that experience. Is that really likely to happen with this copy of Steve Perry’s The Omega Cage that I can’t unload? I’m guessing not. This is a totally irrational feeling, yet it’s tougher to shake than a rabid howler monkey.

Books Retain Their Utility

Soon to be a major motion picture with Jean-Claude Van Damme, only not really, and thank God for that.

I don’t have this issue with, say, my busted microwave or that free Amazon review copy of From Justin to Kelly some complete asshole in the Seattle office  thought I would enjoy. I’ll fire those at people’s heads all day without a single moral qualm — because their utility has expired. When electronic devices go bad, that’s it. I’m probably not going to hang on to my Kindle when it finally clicks its last, caressing its face like a dead lover and shedding manly tears as I think of those times we spent together reading blog entries on Instapaper. Okay, this is kinda creepy now.

My point is, it takes a lot to destroy a book. A book can take a hell of a beating and still be readable. Thus, the miserly curmudgeon inside me minces with snooty horror when I think of throwing something perfectly good into the trash. I keep expecting my deceased grandmother to rise up like a terrifying undead revenant and tell me about how bad they had it during the Depression. We had a complete set of the Black Stallion novels, and that was ALL, and we were THANKFUL, ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah-nagl ftaghn!

And So, In Conclusion…

Want some books? C’mon, Omega Cage, you know you want it. Going begging. Anybody?

No, but seriously — I’m surely not alone in this, am I? What do you do with your old books? Do you toss them out, give them away, or do they just hang around forever, like unwanted guests who drink all your gin and put ABBA Gold on repeat?

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kindle

If you would have told me two years ago that I’d be a Kindle owner, I’d probably have laughed.

My initial distaste didn’t stem from dead-tree Luddism (although I have been accused of such several times). I was reading e-books on my Palm Zire long before the Kindle came around. I was turned off by screen glare, by clueless pricing schemes, and by idiotic DRM (one online e-book vendor, who shall remain nameless, required you to use your credit card number as your account password — and when your card expired, so did your books. Yeah, that’s a sure-fire path to customer loyalty). By the time the Kindle was released, I felt like I’d already tried e-books on for size and found little appeal.

I also had the misfortune of running into some true Kindle zealots, who, in their enthusiasm for the device, could not wait to tell me what a naive dumbass I was for not taking all my paper books out back and burning them at once. Paper is over. Soon, you won’t have a choice. You’re killing the earth because paper requires cutting down a bunch of trees (not at all like clean, renewable plastic). You say you like cover art, the feel and smell of books? Well, you’re stupid. Aesthetics have no place in the reading experience.

This isn’t humorous hyperbole. People actually said these things. Okay, not the book-burning thing. But people assured me that my preference for paper books was motivated by sheer delusion and a failure to understand just how amazing e-books were.

Even though it shouldn’t have, I let these attitudes bother me, and so I avoided looking into the Kindle because 1) I didn’t want to become one of Those Guys, and 2) I feared having to eat a bit of crow if I got myself a Kindle and ended up enjoying it.

I’m sure you can guess how that ended up. Crow is very tasty and I think it gets a bad rap.

Two things motivated my decision to finally pick up a Kindle. First, the price point. $150 to $200 for an e-reader was, and is, out of my price range. $79 is a lot more affordable, and I’ve built up enough ad-blindness over the years that the “special offers” don’t bother me (although I will be glad when the goddamn Twilight movie leaves theaters, so commercials for it will stop showing up on my reader).

Second, it turned out there were a lot of indie books I wanted to check out which were only available in mobile format. Generally, I can’t read entire novels, or even short stories, directly off a computer screen. Even long blog posts start giving me trouble. My attention span shortens when I’m in front of a web browser, and the longer something is, the greater the chance I’ll abandon it. Over the past month or so, I’ve met a lot of writers, and if I wanted to check out their work, the e-book format was the only viable option.

So I bought one. I like it a lot. I won’t go into technical details here, because I’m sure you can get a better rundown elsewhere. But I will say this. The screen is easy to read, not at all like the glare of a monitor. Navigation is intuitive — I didn’t even read the manual until several hours in. Buying books is ridiculously easy (too easy, in fact, for an impulsive fool like myself). The ability to instantly look up words in the built-in dictionary is awesome.

I loaded my Kindle up with free classics, a handful of indies, and raided the Baen Free Library. I’ve got books until next year, most likely, and that’s assuming I don’t acquire any more books, which of course I will.

Although I do like my Kindle — a lot, actually — there’s no danger of it seducing me away from paper books. I’m still too much of a sucker for gorgeous cover art. I still get a comforting rush from the smell of paper. Practical or not, those things are of value to me, and I won’t apologize for them or give them up as long as I have a choice.

The pricing schemes are still working themselves out — there’s no way I’m going to pay hardback price for an e-book, for example, regardless of how justified the publishers might think it is.

It’s not perfect, but the Kindle is a big leap forward in e-books, and I’m glad I finally realized that.

My 10 Favorite Books on Writing

I realized belatedly that maybe I should have picked a snappier, less self-centered title, like 10 Books On Writing You Must Read in Order to Not Be a Total Asshole, but, whatever, too late now.)

A friend recently asked for my favorite books on the craft of writing. I had originally intended to go through these volumes in detail, one at a time, but nothing else about this blog has gone how I intended, so here’s my short list. I’ll probably have more to say on each of them later. I’ve already talked about Zen in the Art of Writing in detail, so I won’t say more about it here (other than “buy and read it”).

In no particular order, then:

Strunk & White (William Strunk & E.B. White) and Spunk & Bite (Arthur Plotnik)

The former will teach you the most venerable rules of grammar. The latter will teach you how, why, and when you should subvert them. Learn the former before pursuing the latter. I beg you.

On Writing (Stephen King)

Homespun advice from one of the most commercially successful authors of all time, in the easy vernacular that made him so readable. You can’t really go wrong.

Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg)

I keep this book around when I want to feel inspired. Not a lot of technical advice, but cultivates passion and enthusiasm.

Characters and Viewpoint (Orson Scott Card)

I don’t generally enjoy Card’s fiction, and to say I disagree with his politics would be a dire understatement — but this book is really good. If you can swallow giving the guy your money, pick up this volume. It’s still the best book on characters I’ve read.

Techniques of the Selling Writer (Dwight V. Swain)

Written in 1965 and still relevant, this book covers everything from structure and conflict to planning and characterization. It’s jam-packed with great advice.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) (Jack. M. Bickham)

A thin, concise, easy-to-read list of classic fiction gaffes. If you’re a beginning writer, you’ll probably find yourself guilty of more than one. Great bathroom reading.

The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell)

Wry, clever writing advice delivered in a fun new way: through the context of Sun Tzu. This thing is a treasure trove.

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead (Ariel Gore)

It’s a bit of a cliche to describe a book on writing as being written “from the trenches,” but Ariel Gore’s book reads like that. It’s full of hard-nosed advice and scruffy charm. Especially recommended for people thinking about getting into self-publishing.

Mass Effect: Your Fantasy Novel is Too Long (And What to Do About It)
Image by Mightygodking.

And, right on cue from the previous entry:

I’m in the middle of a fantasy novel at the moment (which shall remain nameless because I’m about to heap a lot of unfair judgment on it), and its leisurely pace is painfully reminding me of a common problem with fantasy novels: too many of them take forever to get anywhere. I’m not talking about raw word count here — a book could be fifteen hundred pages long, as long as things move forward. But too often, they don’t.

For example, I’m two hundred pages into this book, and so far we’ve

  • Introduced the characters
  • Talked a little about the world
  • Some characters have made plans
  • They’ve talked about the plans they’ve made
  • They’ve had a nice dinner in which they talk about the plans some more
  • They reflect on the plans they made and the dinner they had

And that’s really about it. Two hundred pages, and I’m still waiting for something really significant to happen. As Mike Nelson said during MST3K’s send-up of The Undead, “I’ve never known more about what isn’t going on.” I understand that we’re still in the first act and all, but on the other hand, I’ve been reading Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber in parallel, and by a mere ninety pages in, Zelazny has covered:

  • A Coronet Blue-style amnesia subplot (now resolved)
  • A journey to other dimensions with about ten times the world-building of the above book
  • Five different individual battles
  • A half-dozen emerging interpersonal conflicts
  • An epic city siege

Now, Nine Princes in Amber was written in 1970, and the fantasy market has changed dramatically since then. Still, I’m struck by how dramatically these books differ in pace and brevity. I recently abandoned another fantasy novel midway through, because people were just puttering around a castle discussing interesting things that might possibly happen someday. I’m not talking about foreshadowing or even raising the story stakes — more like the prose equivalent of window-shopping at the mall.

Part of this, I’m sure, is just the market at work — readers want a lot of bang for their buck, and fantasy series can be a lot like car dealerships: why sell the reader just one book when you can sell them ten books over ten years? (Or, in George Martin’s case, five books over fifteen years. Zing!) Also, a lot of fantasy writers grew up with Tolkien and Jordan and epic doorstops that went on for thousands of pages, and so reflect that scale and ambition in their own work — which is fine. But for crying out loud, writers, if you’re going to write a 900-page novel, make something happen.

David Mamet’s infamous memo to the writers of the Unit sums up the matter succinctly:





Brutally put, in true Mamet style, but pointed.

My favorite note on scene and structure comes from a writer whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, but goes like this: if two characters enter a scene, one or both of them must leave the scene changed somehow. If you have characters show up, discuss some things, and leave the same way they came in, nothing has happened. All the clever dialogue or vivid environmental detail in the world won’t change that. This is hardly a trade secret; it’s basic structure. And yet I see writers, even published writers, forgetting or neglecting it all the time.

So if your prose has a bunch of limp scenes in which people discuss the plans they’re not carrying out, please do your readers a favor. Wade in there and start cutting.

Half-Witted, Stuck-Up, Scruffy-Looking Book Hoarder

TwistAPlotSome people’s reading histories have formidable pedigrees. For example, I have a close friend whose favorite book of all time is Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Another speaks highly of Stephen Jay Gould. Dig through my literary history, and you’ll find nuggets of Melville and Dostoevsky buried under broad strata of Dragonlance.

My earliest reading memories from grade school are dominated by Big Little Books, a squalid literary form rightfully lampooned by James Lileks as a “joyless synthesis” of books and comics. I owned both the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four titles in the Big Little Book series, and re-read both many times. Humorously, the Spider-Man edition I owned had a printing error in which two chapters of the book repeated themselves verbatim, which my young self took as some kind of intentional time-warp that I accepted as canon.

After that came the seminal Choose Your Own Adventure books, and their ill-fated and disreputable cousins, TwistAPlot. Golden Sword of Dragonwalk was my favorite, even though its narrative payoff in both swords and dragons turned out to be woefully lacking. My second favorite was Time Raider, which I only recently learned was written by the God Emperor of Goosebumps himself, R.L. Stine. Time Raider’s central conceit, as I recall, was a time machine that had a lever that read PAST and FUTURE and buttons with increments of tens, hundreds or thousands of years in either direction. Talk about user friendly. I distinctly remember writing the page numbers of these time increments on the back cover, so I could relive the thrill of the same brief story arcs over and over again. Like a lot of kids, I had a really high tolerance for reptition.

As adolescence approached, my reading tastes emerged into the ghetto of movie novelizations, leavened with the occasional sci-fi classic like Dune or the Foundation trilogy. I’d love to tell you that I’ve read Lord of the Rings a dozen times, but I haven’t. Mostly, I read the parts about Gollum and skimmed the vast swaths of history and geographical detail until finally getting serious about it circa 2002. On the other hand, I probably read Dragonlance Legends a dozen times in my eighth-grade year alone (a series I abandoned without remorse when Raistlin Majere’s kid came galumphing along like a spell-slinging Cousin Oliver). But I probably read the novelization to Terminator more than either of those works, because the author went into fetishistic detail about the guns involved and there was an amazing scene where Reese shared a slice of stolen pizza with a stray dog. Oh my god, you guys.

In my defense, there was a reason I read so many movie novelizations. I grew up in a time when cable was mostly a wasteland of crappy B-movies, punctuated with the occasional major motion picture. I once saw a stand-up comic joke about cable in the early Eighties being “Krull and Beastmaster five hundred times apiece,” but that’s not actually a joke. That’s how it really was. My parents didn’t own a VCR until probably 1993, and as a lazy kid with a small allowance and an undying thirst for Star Wars figures, I didn’t have the disposable income to see a lot of movies in the theater. So, to relive my favorite cinema experiences over and over again, I re-read the Star Wars novels like a junkie, little suspecting that there would come a time when there would be such an unholy glut of Star Wars in the popular culture that I’d lose interest in absorbing it. But I digress. The point is, my dog-eared, much-abused copy of the Star Wars novelization, ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, was probably my favorite book in the world for several years following 1977.

High school brought an obsession with the blue-collar horror sensibilities of Stephen King, still the most influential author in my personal lexicon. I used to lug the unwieldy hardback of It to class with me and read it during study hall, to the revulsion of my classmates, who couldn’t believe I would read such a gargantuan doorstop on purpose. (This brings to mind an anecdote from a close friend who, while sitting in a small-town diner reading a paperback, was approached by some patrons whom she thought asked “what are you reading?” What they’d actually asked was “what are you reading for?” Good times.) People often seem surprised when I tell them I nearly flunked out of high school. It wasn’t because I wasn’t bright enough; I was just far more interested in the antics of Pennywise the Clown than my actual studies. This persisted well into college, where I picked up The Brothers Karamazov and Moby Dick on top of the books I was already reading for my classes; at that point, even my professors treated me as if I’d lost my mind.

Still, despite years of relatively voracious reading, I have huge gaps in what are generally considered the genre classics. I never got any further into Herbert’s work than Children of Dune, for example, nor have I ever finished Asimov’s Robot series. I could rarely do more than skim Arthur C. Clarke’s work, as hard sci-fi makes my eyes glaze over almost instantly. I’ve read exactly one Heinlein novel in its entirety (Stranger in a Strange Land), and didn’t get much out of it beyond a B+ book report. Even though I speak very highly of Ray Bradbury’s work on the craft of writing, I’ve never successfully made it through the Martian Chronicles (although I did watch the TV miniseries, and I’m genuinely sorry about that).

I never cared for Narnia. I couldn’t stomach Harry Potter. I recently gave up on George Martin’s magnum opus because I realized that after five books in fifteen years, I just don’t care anymore. (Having the outrageous cheek to criticize Martin probably deserves its own blog post at some point.) I’ve never read the original Grimm’s fairy tales. I have, however, read the Sword of Shannara series. Probably two or three times. I liked the original Hitchhiker’s Guide, but found the third volume in the series kind of flat and pointless. And so on. My favorite authors tend to be slightly more out of the way: James Morrow, A.A. Attanasio, Glen Cook, Matthew Stover, Robert Sheckley, Robert Anton Wilson (whom I recently found out a lot of nerds seem to despise, which I find dismaying).

Splinter of the Mind's EyeSure, these are just my personal tastes, but sometimes they feel like a thousand tiny heresies eroding whatever eventual credibility I might have as a writer, or even a reader. A lot of my favorite authors tend to be obscure, but it’s not even dime-store hipster snobbery at work; I genuinely wish those guys were immensely popular, and it bothers me that they’re not. Having obscure tastes is more irritating than anything. Who likes blathering about their favorite book and getting a blank stare in return? And where do I get off criticizing Douglas Adams, anyway?

So the lesson here is probably that when it comes to matters of sci-fi and fantasy, my opinion is probably not to be trusted. Still, I’m trying. I’m currently plowing my way through Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, for example, and have picked up Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Iain Bank’s Culture series and Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, in the hopes of getting on board with the current genre darlings. I’m not sure that will lead to productive conversations with my book-reading friends at the end, but at least I’ll be able to recommend something that’s in print.

Speaking of which, I wonder if I still have my copy of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye somewhere…

So tell me, reader. What are your genre gaps? Any trashy series that you unabashedly love? Any classics you unreservedly hate? I’d like to know.

Zen in the Art of Bradbury, Or, Buck Rogers Needs Blood to Survive

Whenever someone brings up the subject of Westerns (which is pretty much never), I tell them that my favorite three Westerns are Tombstone, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Unforgiven. I love them not only for their inherent awesomeness, but because collectively, they cover all the Western narrative bases. Where Tombstone is a straightforward, rollicking adventure, Unforgiven offers a bleak, raw deconstruction of our assumptions about the traditional Western hero. I find Josey Wales occupies a nice space in between, rounding out the trinity with a balance of grit, verve, and snappy quotes about rock candy.

I have a similar trio of books on writing. My bookshelf fairly groans with books about writing. I love reading about craft. I love reading about how other writers work; their inspiration, their frustration, their process. Of all of these, three stand out as my personal trinity of essential works: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, for its dry and unsympathetic mechanical advice; Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, for its mix of practical craft advice and fond sentiment; and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, for its infectious and totally unselfconscious passion.

Most writers, I suspect, have a handful of quotes or passages that sum up how they feel about their writing — something that inspires or haunts, possibly even mocks from time to time, like that obnoxious voice that wakes you up in the middle of the night after you’ve just killed twelve hours with a Two and a Half Men marathon and asks, hey, how that novel’s coming?

I have a heap of such passages, hoarded away in my consciousness like stacks of old newspapers in a shut-in’s hovel, but Bradbury’s words tend to haunt me like no other. His book opens with what I consider one of the most concise and cutting essays on a writer’s self-doubt ever written:

Sometimes I am stunned at my capacity as a nine-year-old, to understand my entrapment and escape it. How is it that the boy I was in October, 1929, could, because of the criticism of his fourth-grade schoolmates, tear up his Buck Rogers comic strips and a month later judge all of his friends idiots and rush back to collecting?

Where did that judgment and strength come from? What sort of process did I experience to enable me to say: I am as good as dead. Who is killing me? What do I suffer from? What’s the cure?…

Part of the answer, of course, is in the fact that I was so madly in love with Buck Rogers. I could not see my love, my hero, my life, destroyed… It was like having your best all-round greatest-loving-buddy, pal, center-of-life drown or get shotgun killed. Friends, so killed, cannot be saved from funerals. Buck Rogers, I realized, might know a second life, if I gave it to him. So I breathed in his mouth and lo! he sat up and talked and said, what?

Yell. Jump. Play. Outrun those sons of bitches. They’ll never live the way you live. Go do it.

Bradbury is talking about writing, of course, as much as he is Buck Rogers. Few writers make it through life without a generous helping of friends and family who are ready to inform them that they’re wasting their time. That no one reads, that writing doesn’t pay, that writing isn’t an honest trade or even a respectable hobby. If you’re really lucky, they might smugly quote Ghostbusters at you: “Print is dead.” Surely no one can argue with Egon, the fictional mad genius who once tried to drill a hole in his head, which would have worked if no one had stopped him.

Like Bradbury, we must judge these people idiots if we are to survive — or, to be a bit more charitable, acknowledge that they might mean well, but that their well-intentioned advice must be ruthlessly discarded as the insidious toxin it is. People can be smart, brilliant, and loving, and still give you advice that will lead you down a miserable path. To Bradbury, this was literally a matter of life and death, summed up succinctly in a single, unrelenting maxim: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you… not to write, for many of us, is to die. “

There are many days when I envy Bradbury, not for his talent or his success, but for figuring this out so early in his life. Simply put, my own personal Buck Rogers lay dead for a long time; a withered corpse who would wheeze to brief life a few times a year, only to be felled by the first unkind word or gnawing self-doubt that floated my way. It took decades to gather the mojo necessary to rouse him back to vibrant life and keep him there. Some days he still teeters, like a marionette whose strings are half-cut, and I have to nurture him back to health with some quality time at the keyboard.

And that’s the thing, of course: Buck Rogers can’t make it on his own. Neglected too long, he’ll just wither away again, a harrowed revenant wandering the bleak hills until he drops dead unloved on some blasted Lovecraftian heath. When it comes to our creative selves, love is not enough. We have to keep them fed. Buck Rogers needs blood to survive.

Which brings me to the other Bradbury quote I like to keep close to my heart. It’s a short quote about the necessity of writing, frequently and regularly. Like so ideas in Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury frames it in a breathless imperative:

I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour’s writing is tonic. I’m on my feet, running in circles, and yelling for a clean pair of spats.

While I’m familiar with the delirium Bradbury describes here, I’ve become skilled at ignoring the madness that boils up when the writing urge goes unattended. It’s all too easy to let the insanity dwell there, like a buzzing mosquito in the back of my brain — constantly annoying, but too small to really hurt. There’s probably some sort of belabored, hoary metaphor about malaria I could make here, but I think I’ve done enough damage for one day. Fighting that laziness is vital to keeping Buck Rogers plodding along.

I’ll have a lot more to say about Zen in the Art of Writing in the future, I’m sure — his chapter on “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” is partially responsible for the name of this blog, after all — but that’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say, whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I pick up Bradbury’s little white book and let his wild, unrestrained glee infect me like a joyous malady. Hard-nosed advice and stern essays on craft are all well and good, but sometimes you just need to remember why you love your shambling, undead Buck Rogers.