Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I am rereading Bram Stoker's Dracula, for the first time since the fourth grade, when it drove me, an atheist child of atheists, to sleep with a cross over my bed. (Where did I get the cross? It was a fairly large wooden one, though not large enough to sharpen and shove through a vampire's chest. It was probably my grandmother's.) I figured I would find it turgid and unscary this time around, like Frankenstein. Not so! Check out this detailed ethnography (I have no idea if it's accurate; if not, more props to Stoker for his vivid imagination) at the beginning of the novel. Talk about creating a sense of place:

All day long we seemed to dawdle through a country which was full of beauty of every kind. Sometimes we saw little towns or castles on the top of steep hills such as we see in old missals; sometimes we ran by rivers and streams which seemed from the wide stony margin on each side of them to be subject to great floods. It takes a lot of water, and running strong, to sweep the outside edge of a river clear.

At every station there were groups of people, sometimes crowds, and in all sorts of attire. Some of them were just like the peasants at home or those I saw coming through France and Germany, with short jackets, and round hats, and home-made trousers; but others were very picturesque.

The women looked pretty, except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist. They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other, and most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course there were petticoats under them.

The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who were more barbarian than the rest, with their big cow-boy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts, nearly a foot wide, all studded over with brass nails. They wore high boots, with their trousers tucked into them, and had long black hair and heavy black moustaches. They are very picturesque, but do not look prepossessing. On the stage they would be set down at once as some old Oriental band of brigands. They are, however, I am told, very harmless and rather wanting in natural self-assertion.

It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz, which is a very interesting old place. Being practically on the frontier--for the Borgo Pass leads from it into Bukovina--it has had a very stormy existence, and it certainly shows marks of it. Fifty years ago a series of great fires took place, which made terrible havoc on five separate occasions. At the very beginning of the seventeenth century it underwent a siege of three weeks and lost 13,000 people, the casualties of war proper being assisted by famine and disease.

[Text snagged from Project Gutenberg.]

Friday, July 27, 2007

Dr. May continued

Order a copy of Brian May's book, Bang! A Complete History of the Universe, written with Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott. OK, a new copy is not available on Barnes and Noble at this time. But as of now, there is one used copy for $40. Hmm.

In related news, Brian will submit his PhD thesis in August. He is currently observing at the Galileo telescope on the Canary Islands.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Softball education

Trev and I went to Ohio over the weekend to visit my mom, as well as my friend Dorothy and her family. Dorothy used to play summer league softball when we were kids, and now her daughters do as well. We went to her older daughter Natalie's playoff game, which they lost in extra innings, but she hit a home run. The infields on both teams were pretty tight, with double plays and some nice stretches from the first base players (we are talking about fifth graders here). Confusion occasionally reigned in the outfield. Pitching was erratic--they are learning fast pitch, so there's a windup first, which sometimes sends the ball over the backstop or rolling along the ground like a bowling ball. There was a real umpire who shouted "baaaa..." and "stri...." incomprehensibly. Parents were well behaved overall, perhaps because these are "just girls"; at any rate the main goal seemed to be having fun and improving.

Earlier in the day I asked Dorothy and the girls to teach me how to hit a softball, which I'd never been able to do as a kid. Turns out you start out with your weight on the back leg and shift as you hit, as opposed to standing straight up with your legs locked in an isosceles triangle. It works!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Owning the sun

Yesterday's NYT points out that developments in solar power have lagged behind other "alternative" energies (clean coal! ethanol!) because there's no huge economic constituency behind solar. It's not that the technologies are inherently cumbersome or expensive, but the people who build them, or want them, don't have enough political clout. Not compared to the coal industry and big farma, who own the coal plants, the coal fields, and the corn fields, and stand to make money off any new uses for them. As of yet, no one owns the sun. Will that have to change?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Combining characters

I'm not getting much writing done these past several days, for various reasons that would never have stopped a real writer like Robert Olen Butler or Stephen King. However, thinking about the work I've done recently on my novel made me realize I have my own version of the author-narrator-character merge: ever since I began this novel, I've found myself "skimming off" what should be interesting aspects (occupations, quirks of personality or body) of the main character and creating new characters out of them. Then the main character sort of observes or experiences these interesting characters but does not do much or have these quirks herself. To some extent I've caught this problem in the past and reduced the number of characters accordingly--giving more color and energy to the main characters. But I found I'd done it again just recently, not only depriving my main character, once again, of anything substantial to do, but also throwing a wrench in the plot that didn't need to be there. This tendency might be due to vestigial confusion over first vs. third person point of view, but the larger problem is, I suspect, fear of making the main character in any way controversial. But of course this is exactly what she should be.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Novel situation

I find myself in the surprising position of not hating my novel. I returned to it a few weeks ago, after several months off, and despite some hiccups it has been rolling along. I'm especially gratified that--it *seems*--I can finally bring in this character who was once the main character but whom I had to excise from the entire first half. There are basically two parts to the novel, and the second part was the one I was struggling with for about two years, trying to wrench it out of a failed short story. Now some pieces I wrote much earlier seem to be fitting into place, with some revision, of course. (Shades of Robert Olen Butler's index card process, which didn't really work the way he said, but I get it.) Thank god for third-person omniscient (yes, all narrators are omniscient). Whenever you run out of ideas, just write from a different character's point of view, even that of a totally minor character. As Andrew Altschul said in our God Module seminar, allow the third person narrator to zoom in and out, setting up the range at the very beginning. I gave myself a really wide range with this novel, and it helps tremendously.

On the other hand I now hate most of my short stories. Most are in first person, which I'm off (probably temporarily), and some of the ones I liked previously now seem kinked in some unsolvable way. I'd like to have a few more things to send out for publication, but that well is pretty dry at the moment.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Long Now

From the website:

The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide counterpoint to today's "faster/cheaper" mind set and promote "slower/better" thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

One of their projects is the 10,000 year clock, to be built "monument scale" in the Nevada Desert. It's a truly beautiful, Jules Verne / futuristic object (their design, graphic and industrial, is beautiful). Also they're sponsoring the Rosetta Project, a public-accessible archive of all human languages.

They use a five-digit format for the year (02007) "to solve the deca-millennium bug which will come into effect in about 8,000 years."

You can visit the foundation at Fort Mason in SF, right next to Greens Restaurant. Which is excellent also.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Monday, July 02, 2007

POV switch

For the class I'm taking on point of view we had two assignments for this week and I did both of them wrong. Nevertheless I learned some things. The general idea was to switch the point of view in a story you've written previously. I tried that with my bowling story, only I didn't switch the point of view, but the perspective. I shifted it from first-person present to first-person past, because one thing I picked up last week was the notion of reflection in the first person. How much time has the narrator had to reflect on what has happened? I rather laboriously shifted the story to past and thought I had solved all my problems, because it jumps ahead three months in the end, and I always felt it was awkward to jump from present to present. But now I'm not so sure. The story seems to depend on immediacy, on the narrator not knowing what's happening, or just barely keeping up... I think I'll do what Updike does in the notorious "A & P," which is in first-present, but the author just drops a few hints that he's narrating the story from later point in time (something like, "and now here's the part of the story that my parents think is strange..."). When he jumps ahead at the end to reflect, it's not jarring.