Friends

Hmm. Forget I said that.

Last night a friend of Lisa’s came over for the evening, which led, in the course of events, to a conversation about how it’s a fairly unusual thing nowadays for me to get to interact with another adult besides my wife.  “It’s almost like I never have any grownup contact whatsoever,” I quipped, eliciting giggles from the ladies.  “It’s almost like I only became an author so I could pretend the grownups I write about are my friends.”

And then I stopped, because suddenly, that felt a bit too honest.

“You know,” Lisa said, “if your characters are meant to be friends … you write a disturbing number of books about Nazis.”

I

The book whose current working title is The Zero Hour
Words yesterday: 2656
Words total: 5945

Time spent writing: 11a.m.-2p.m.; 4.30-5.30
Reason for stopping: family woke up/family got home
Darling: He tried to stammer out a defense–he’d been caught redhanded at something he didn’t know was a crime.
Tyop: She took one of his hands in both of his
Words that boggled Word: redhanded, fräulein, de facto, Zippo
New words today beginning with C: coroner, crevice, commissar

Another United in DC

Us at the stadium

Saturday night, Man United and Barcelona played a rematch of the European Cup Final at the Washington Redskins’ stadium, in Maryland. Since Boy had been having so much fun on his soccer team, we’d bought tickets for the three of us as a birthday present to him.

We went with Jenny and Justin, parents of one of Boy’s friends from preschool, who apparently managed to sneak our camera into their possession at some point during the evening:

Jenny and Justin

Boy had a great time:

Boy

But the game did last till an hour after his bedtime, so it was unsurprising his good humour couldn’t last the whole night:

The three of us

Chicharito concussed himself during training on Tuesday and is out for a week, which is a shame, as he’s the player I was most looking forward to seeing. For Barcelona, Lionel Messi was also out–again, a shame.

But I did get to see the new goalkeeper, David De Gea, and I’m well satisfied with how he played.

The match itself bore a lot of similarities to when United and Barca met in the Final back in May. Barcelona had most of the ball, and played most of the match in United’s half. United’s chances were few and far between, but they took them when they created them. In May, that translated to a 3-1 Barca victory; on Saturday, it gave United a 2-1 win.

The match

The inability to hang onto possession is troubling. If United could just hang onto the ball, and keep play in midfield, they’d have completely shut Barcelona–the best team in the world–down. But more troubling to me, and related, is the lack of creativity. At halftime, with United leading 1-0, Man U had had two shots on goal, and Barcelona had had five. At halftime of the European Cup final, with the score at 1-1, Barca had had five shots on goal, and United had had one.

Both of United’s goals on Saturday were excellently-timed breakaway runs from strikers who had long balls played into their paths. That’s great, but you know what it means United proved completely unable to do? String a series of passes together and construct a steady buildup, culminating in a goal.

United plays celebrate Michael Owen's goal

It’s a pattern now, really, against Barcelona–they’ve dominated the match each of the last four times they’ve played United (Saturday, the final in May, the final in 2009 and the semi-finals in 2008). Two of those have been losses, two wins (though I don’t think Saturday, as a friendly, really counts). And it’s true that you don’t play the best team in the world every week–but United shouldn’t just be aspiring to beat the best team in the world; they should be aspiring to be the best team in the world.

I

SPOILERS!

During its original seven-year run, I devoured Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was seven when it premiered and fourteen when it went off the air. I watched the first broadcast except for two (one in 1988 and one in 1991) that I missed because of trips to England and one (1993) that I missed because we were in the midst of moving from Connecticut to Florida. This was before the Internet, before DVDs and before the Magic of DVRs; seeing every episode of a first-run TV show required dedication.

And with equal dedication, I watched every week’s “next week” trailers. I wanted to see as much of every episode as was available, as soon as it became available.

Until one week, I didn’t.

I don’t remember the reason I missed that week’s trailer. But I do remember the effect it had well enough to tell you exactly what episode it was–“Gambit, Part I”. Not even a particularly remarkable episode, but one of the best experiences television experiences I’d had up till that point. In the episode’s teaser, we learnt that Captain Picard had been killed. Now, obviously, (SPOILER) the programme’s main character hadn’t actually been killed, but beyond that I had no idea how the episode was going to proceed from this revelation.

And when (SPOILER) Commander Riker was captured by the pirate crew that had murdered the captain, and (SPOILER) a member of the pirate crew turned round to reveal that he was actually Captain Picard, I realised I was having an incredible time. I wasn’t waiting for things I’d seen in the trailer; my expectations hadn’t been pointed in certain directions by a foreknowledge of flashes of things to come.

And in that moment, my own personal spoiler policy was born.

Last night, I got in a kerfluffle with my best man on Twitter over spoilers. It got me thinking about the topic, which is a very important one to me. And also, I think, a subtle one–you can’t address it with one-size-fits-all Rules; rather, it needs to be dealt with using moderation and nuance.*

So it’s probably something I’m going to expand on in the near future. But for now I’ll simply solicit opinions, and lay down my own core principle.

The core principle. Every conclusion I reach regarding spoilers is based on one core precept: My own enjoyment of a work of fiction is heightened the less I know about it beforehand. Every point revealed in advance risks the removal of a little piece of the joy of discovery of something new for the first time.

And the solicitation. How does everyone else feel about spoilers? What are your rules of thumb? How do you deal with them to make yourself happy–and to accommodate those around you who have different preferences?

I

*Actually, as a general rule of thumb, I think that’s true of almost everything. It’s very, very rare that I’ve come across issues of contention where a reasonable solution could be find at either extreme; almost always, in my experience, the most workable path is the one down the middle. People who respond to a setback by declaring, “Well, then, from now on I’m going to do the opposite!” annoy me no end. Only the Sith speak in absolutes!

Shanghai
Words yesterday: 1093
Words total: 9291

Time spent writing: Started at noon, finished at 7.30.
Reason for stopping: Saturday–it’s Doctor Who night!
Darling: Harofe struck me as dour towards most of the gentlemen, but as soon as his attention lit upon one of the ladies he brightened, becoming talkative and jolly.
Words that boggled Word: taipans
New words today: grandeur, thickset, Eurasian

The bookshop on my shelves

At Diane’s urging I’ve joined Goodreads, because apparently just being a member of LibraryThing isn’t sufficient. So over the past few days, I’ve been going through the books on my fiction shelves, rating the ones that I’ve read.

There are plenty of books on those shelves that I haven’t read, too. And more and more of them, as I went along, were books that I really want to read. So I’ve decided to get that done.

Below is the list of books I’ve marked as to-read on Goodreads. Some of them I’d already been planning on reading in the near future anyway; others have spent several years on the shelf. (Many have already been read by Lisa.)

These are, keep in mind, just from fiction, and just those that are currently on my bookshelves–I’d guess about forty per cent of my fiction is still in boxes in the shed outside, due to space constraints. And I haven’t started on my history books yet–I could well find a book or ten in there that I decide I’m way more desperate to get started on than any of the fiction.

Have you read any of these? Are you a fan of any of these authors? I’m wide open to suggestions. I plan to start in on the current list as soon as I’ve finished the book I’m reading right now, Castles of Steel, a really engaging history of naval warfare in the First World War.

Duchess of Aquitaine: A Novel of Eleanor by Margaret Ball (France, twelfth century)
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (Britain, Dark Ages)
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (fantasy)
The Courtesan: A Novel by Susan Carroll (Paris, sixteenth century)
The Hornet’s Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War by Jimmy Carter (Georgia, Revolutionary War)
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (Holland, seventeenth century)
The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier (France, sixteenth and twentieth centuries)
Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell (France, Battle of Agincourt)
The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell (England, ninth century)
A Crowning Mercy by Bernard Cornwell (England, English Civil War)
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (Israel, Biblical times)
Hadrian’s Wall by William Dietrich (Roman Britain, fourth century)
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Germany, nineteenth century)
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (London, nineteenth century)
The Two Georges: The Novel of an Alternate America by Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove (alternate history, Revolutionary War POD)
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (Italy, sixteenth century)
Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham (Italy, Punic Wars)
The Last Wife of Henry VIII: A Novel by Carolly Erickson (England, sixteenth century)
The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon’s Bird of Paradise by Carolly Erickson (Revolutionary & Napoleonic France)
The Song of Hannah: A Novel by Eva Etzioni-Halevy (Israel, Biblical times)
Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks (James Bond, 1960s)
A Sudden Country: A Novel by Karen Fisher (American frontier, nineteenth century)
Red Gold by Alan Furst (France, German Occupation)
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (Constantinople, nineteenth century)
The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory (England, sixteenth century)
The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory (England, sixteenth century)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (science fiction)
The Last Boleyn: A Novel by Karen Harper (England, sixteenth century)
Enigma by Robert Harris (Bletchley Park, England, Second World War)
The Ghost: A Novel by Robert Harris (Martha’s Vineyard, present day); apparently being adapted into a film starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan MacGregor
The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert (science fiction)
The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope (Europe, nineteenth century)
Confessions of a Pagan Nun: A Novel by Kate Horsley (Ireland, sixth century)
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard (fantasy)
The Singer’s Crown by Elaine Isaak (fantasy)
The Borgia Bride: A Novel by Jeanne Kalogridis (Italy, sixteenth century)
The Burning Times by Jeanne Kalogridis (France, fourteenth century); Star Trek trivia: Jeanne Kalogridis is JM Dillard, author of The Lost Years and multiple Trek movie novelisations
Alibi by Joseph Kanon (Venice, 1946)
Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay (France, modern day)
Domino by Ross King (London and Venice, eighteenth century)
Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen (England and France, eighteenth century)
Dark Angels by Karleen Koen (England, seventeenth century)
Now Face to Face by Karleen Koen (Virginia, eighteenth century)
Patrick: Son of Ireland by Stephen R. Lawhead (Ireland, fifth century)
The Coffee Trader by David Liss (Amsterdam, seventeenth century)
The Pegasus Secret by Gregg Loomis (France, modern day)
The Floating Book: A Novel of Venice by Michelle Lovric (Venice, fifteenth century)
The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey (science fiction)
Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough (Roman Empire, first century BC)
The Conquerors by André Malraux (Indochina, 1920s)
Percival Keene by Frederick Marryat (Royal Navy, Napoleonic Wars)
Vigil by Robert Masello (United States, modern day)
Mademoiselle Boleyn by Robin Maxwell (France, sixteenth century)
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (Georgia, American Civil War and Reconstruction)
Sister Teresa by Barbara Mujica (Spain, sixteenth century)
The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud by Julia Navarro (the Western World, many centuries)
Empire of Ashes: A Novel of Alexander the Great by Nicholas Nicastro (Eastern Mediterranean, fourth century BC)
The Icon by Neil Olson (Greece, German Occupation/New York, modern day)
My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk (Ottoman Empire, sixteenth century)
The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl (Boston, nineteenth century)
No Graves As Yet by Anne Perry (England, summer 1914)
Ten Thousand Lovers by Edeet Ravel (Israel, 1970s)
Return to the Chateau by Pauline Réage (France, 1960s)
The Book of Shadows by James Reese (France, nineteenth century)
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (Western Front, First World War)
Sword-Singer by Jennifer Roberson (fantasy)
Harem Girl: A Harem Girl’s Diary by M. Saalih (North Africa, twentieth century)
The Eagle’s Conquest by Simon Scarrow (Roman Britain, first century AD)
Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill by Susan Holloway Scott (England, seventeenth century)
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott (Scotland, eighteenth century)
December 6: A Novel by Martin Cruz Smith (Tokyo, 1941)
The Fourth Queen: A Novel by Debbie Taylor (North Africa, eighteenth century)
The Sorority: Merilynn by Tamara Thorne (New England, modern day)
The Sorority: Eve by Tamara Thorne (New England, modern day)
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Russia, Napoleonic Wars)
The Moon Riders by Theresa Tomlinson (the Troad, Homeric times)
In the Hand of Dante: A Novel by Nick Tosches (New York, modern day)
Trinity by Leon Uris (Ireland, nineteenth & twentieth centuries)
Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt (fantasy)
King Kong by Edgar Wallace and Merriam Cooper (South Pacific & United States, 1930s)
The Zero: A Novel by Jess Walter (USA, modern day)
Farthing by Jo Walton (alternate history, Second World War POD)
Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir (England, sixteenth century)
The Once and Future King by TH White (England, Middle Ages)
Shadowplay by Tad Williams (fantasy)

I

.com

Boy was watching TV the other day when an ad for ordering Pillow Pets came on. As far as I know, it’s the first time he’d ever heard of the product. “Dad,” he said, “can I have a Pillow Pet?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because if it’s something we have to order off the TV, it’s probably too expensive.”

“Can I have it for my birthday?” (There has been no mention that he has a birthday coming up, since in three-year-old time, his birthday really isn’t anytime soon–it’s three months yet.)

“We’ll have to see.”

I left the room. A few moments later he came running after me, very excited. “Dad! Dad!”

“Yes?”

“If you’re looking for a Pillow Pet for me, you can find them at Pillow Pets Dot Com!”

This has now turned into a desire to purchase anything whose advert ends with a phone number on a blue background. The other morning I fielded requests both for a novelty coat hanger and for an emery board for cats. When I was asked to justify my refusal on the latter, I said, “Because we don’t have cats.”

“Hmm.” He pondered this for a few moments, then his eyes brightened. “Mum’s friend!”

By whom he meant Lisa’s colleague Josephine. Whose cat(s?) he has met once. Six months ago.

But I do feel the need to stress that he didn’t come asking me if we could get this cat emery board for Josephine’s cat. He came asking if we could get it for us. Then when he was told no, he searched for a justification to buy it anyway, even if it meant we weren’t actually going to use it at all.

I

Thank you

Since last month’s news, I’ve heard from a lot of people, and I’d like to say thank you, to all of you. There have been far too many of you ever to hope to respond individually; you’ve commented on this blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, via email, and in two cases were even kind enough to have shown up at his funeral, despite not having known him and hardly even seeing me since high school graduation. Whether it was just a few words or something longer, I want you all to know–it was very much appreciated.

I

Do you want to know?

When my first sister came along, we knew long before her birth that she was unfortunately not going to be a boy. But when it came time for the second, my parents elected not to find out her sex before birth (which caused a good nine months of resentment between me and the already-arrived sister). They said that knowing Claire’s sex beforehand had taken too much of the anticipation out of birth; it had reduced the ensuing phone calls from an excited, “It’s a girl!” to a much more humdrum, “She’s here.”

When Lisa got pregnant for the first time, I don’t remember what our reasoning was for finding out the sex. But I do remember that we had decided very early on–certainly before she got pregnant, probably before we got married–that we were going to find out. And I very, very clearly remember what it was about our experience that made us do the same thing again with her second pregnancy.

As soon as we knew we were having a boy, he had a personality. He wasn’t a foetus, he was a person. He was someone whose arrival we were planning. He was someone we could have in mind when we were buying toys and furniture for his room. He was someone with a name. And Lisa and I could stop arguing over possible girl names.

We had much the same experience with Lisa’s second pregnancy, even though we were less sure on the sex–the sonographer was reasonably certain she was a girl, but always she seemed to have her legs crossed come exam time. (So not just a girl, but a lady.)

I think we made the right decision, and if we were ever to end up pregnant again, it’s a choice we’d be happy to repeat. But on the other hand, one of my best friends in all the world chose not to find out the sex for either of her pregnancies–and having talked to her about her reasons, that was definitely the right choice for her, too.

So a questions. Did the parents amongst you find out? Do those who aren’t parents have an expectation of what choice they’ll make if it ever presents itself?

I

The history quilt

William IIII think it’s probably apparent to anyone who reads this blog with any regularity how much I love history. That’s an unqualified statement–I love history, not military history or European history or the history of the cultural perception of gender. Sure, there might be some topics I’m less interested in than others–I’ve never had much interest in the precolumbian Americas or subsaharan Africa or the late Cold War, for instance–but as a general rule, any topic in history is something you’ll be able to catch my attention with.

It hasn’t always been that way. I’ve always been interested in history, but my interest hasn’t always been so wide. In fact, though there was a pretty varied range of topics and periods I was interested in, usually my focus in those areas was rather narrow. Seeing I, Claudius for the first time when I was ten or eleven led to a passionate interest in the Julio-Claudian Principate, but not in, say, the age of Caesar that preceded it or the period of the Roman Empire of the Flavian and Good Emperors periods that followed it. Reading Shogun when I was twelve got me fascinated with samurai society, but not in any other areas of Japanese history. The original Red Baron video game captivated me with the history of the First World War fighter aces, but not with any other aspect of the First World War, or with the history of the ensuing Interwar period, or with the history of military aviation in subsequent wars.

It’s not so much that I ever lost that scattered, narrow focus, as that I just kept adding and adding new topics to it. Napoleonic France. Civil government in Nazi Germany. Ptolemaic Alexandria. It just eventually seemed like there weren’t many topics left that weren’t in some way related to something I was already interested in.

What that left me with, when I pictured it in my head, was a lattice, a framework connecting various points of in-depth knowledge. When I tried explaining this to Diane a while back, the metaphor I came up with was that of a patchwork quilt. Some of the patches are filled in rather fully, but there are many that are rather sketchy, blank pieces of cloth, and others that are empty altogether.

The beauty of it is that, every time I start filling in a new patch, I get to attach it to the adjacent patches that are already there. This both makes it much easier to learn the new topic, and results in a deeper, fuller, more satisfying understanding of the old topics. So when, for instance, a few years ago I got really interested in Charlemagne and the Carolingian empire, I already had an understanding of what was going on in the adjacent patches both geographically–the Byzantine Empire to the east, recovering from the era of the Great Arab Conquests, and the petty kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England to the west–and chronologically, with the Western Roman Empire’s barbarian successor states whose unification Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short had essentially completed.

I don’t know where else I can go with this that isn’t going to get more and more specific, other than that the process I’m describing has turned out to be one of the great joys of my life. Not only does every new square let me learn something new that I never knew before, but it also adds some significance to some of the knowledge I already had.

I

Giving lonesome thanks

When we first moved up to Maryland in 2004, the only people we knew within a day’s drive were Nikki and Lee, who were living in Philadelphia at the time. Lee and I had been each other’s groomsmen; Nikki had been one of Lisa’s bridesmaids, and Lisa Nikki’s maid of honour. And now Lee is our son’s godfather.

So it was logical, therefore, that we started spending Thanksgiving at each other’s places. We tried to alternate who visited whom, though we weren’t always able to do that if the presence of family coming up necessitated having dinner at one or the other of our homes.

Last year we continued that, even though we now live a lot further apart than we used to–us in northern Virginia, Nikki and Lee in South Carolina. We still have one entire state we have to drive through to get to each other, but it used to be Delaware; now it’s North Carolina. The big problem arising from this is that Lee works retail, and therefore has to work the day after Thanksgiving every year. Spending Thanksgiving a seven-hour drive from home is therefore not really something he can do, so now it pretty much has to be us going to them.

Only this year, we have a twelve week old baby. Who does not like the car. (Whose dislike of the car was reaffirmed rather vocally when we drove a mile down the road last night to a high school football game.) So we just can’t do it. It’s a shame, but we’ll be spending Thanksgiving at home this year.

Though the good thing about that is that now we don’t need to worry about a turkey. So we’ll be having grilled chicken for Thanksgiving dinner. And as the one who’s done most of our cooking lately, I for one am excited.

I

And now on NaBloPoMo, NaNoWriMo

I would like very much to hear your ramblings on what it is like to see all us NaNos running around now that you are on the other side. Because this is my first time and I’d like to know that I won’t have gone mad by the end or totally failed.

That was from the responses to my solicitation for post ideas (the call for ideas is still open, by the way), from Sabrina. I’m answering now because we’re early in the second week of NaNoWriMo. Right around this point, pretty much everybody (or at least, pretty much all the first-timers) will have dropped out. Many will find a reason to return, of which most will finish their half-novel successfully; but most will just give up.

I did NaNoWriMo once, in 2006. I’m really glad I did it. It was an interesting little exercise, which gave me the first half of Masks and Shadows; and I did, indeed, flag for a day or two around the beginning of the second week. I toyed last year with the idea of doing it again, but in the end I don’t really think I found enough challenge in it the first time that I’d get much benefit from a second go-round.

I think you can divide NaNos into two groups. There’s the people who want to be proper, published novelists, who are Serious About Their Craft (or think they are), and there’s the people who don’t, who just do it for a lark. And I think both groups can take something different from the experience.

For the casual writers? Well, I love anything that gets people writing. Anyone who doesn’t write regularly, who can bang out seventeen hundred words a day for an entire month? That’s awesome. That’s really something to be proud of. And maybe they’ll find they have a real love it, or a real talent (hopefully both, but you know how it is. There are plenty of people who have only one.), and our community will gain a new member.

For the ones who want to be novelists, it’s a bit more complicated. If you write for publication, or if you write to have an actual novel that you have written (which NaNo won’t give you–fifty thousand words? Not a novel.), NaNoWriMo can be a useful tool. But it’s important to remember that just like any other tool, it’s just a tool, something to help you get to your real goal–a novel. Like pre-writing research, or a crit group, or fifty pages of character bios, it’s not an end in itself.

It’s great proving to yourself that you can finish, and it’s a wonderful creative exercise. But I think it’s counterproductive to lose sight of the fact that fifty thousand words is only slightly greater a milestone than forty thousand, and slightly less a milestone than sixty thousand.

As long as we can keep sight of that? I think it’s a great thing to do, and I’m so happy to see you doing it, Sabrina. I wish you, and the Olivers, happy words.

I

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Interested in translation, audio, or movie (oh, yes, please!) rights to my works, please contact my agent via his website at www.zackcompany.com.