Now, I know what you’re thinking. Ian, with your birthday falling on a Saturday this year, and with it being only two weeks until the end of the Premier League season, it must have been great to get to spend all morning and early afternoon watching the football.
Well, no. Saturday was my birthday, and there was indeed lots of Premier League football on, but I didn’t watch any of it. You see, my sister and her husband will be moving into the area this summer, which means they need to go househunting. And since it’s tough to househunt in Northern Virginia from their current location in
America’s wangFlorida, she decided to send me househunting on Saturday morning instead. I figured that’s a small price to pay for unlimited free babysitting anytime I want.
Finding Claire a house around here has also kickstarted our own discussions about buying a house ourselves. Lisa has been saying for years that she wanted to buy a house, but I’d pretty much come to the conclusion that what she really wanted was to complain about how she wants to buy a house. But she insists that’s not true–so we’re about to start looking in earnest. I told her that if we do move, though, we need to replace our standard-def television with an HD model. Not for an improved Media Experience, but because I was looking at the twenty-pound HD TV in our bedroom, and thinking how much easier it would be to move that than it will be the eighty-pound standard-def in the living room. I don’t ever want to have to move that thing again.
So anyway. We spent the morning househunting, then went home so I could receive my birthday presents. Girl got me a pair of Cookie Monster boxer shorts with COOKIE LOVER printed across my arse. Boy got me a Star Wars-themed edition of the board game Trouble that makes R2-D2 sound effects when you pop that bubble-thing that rolls the dice for you. And Lisa got me an HD TV.
Yup. A high-definition television.
And the best part was that it was free because she won it in a raffle. Last weekend, we’d had our conversation about how I want to replace the eighty-pound standard-def TV with an HD model. On Wednesday, Lisa spent all day playing in a golf tournament for work. At the tournament, she got raffle ticked 204, but lost it somewhere. Then one of her colleagues found ticket 200 on the ground, and gave it to her since she’d lost her proper ticket. And ticket 200 won the grand prize, the HD TV. All Lisa’s friends told her she shouldn’t tell me that she didn’t pay for it, as that would make it less special or something, I guess? Whatever–they clearly don’t know either of us at all. It being free makes it way more special than it could have been otherwise.
So then, since I’m a dad and since someone in the household–whether me or anyone else–had received a major piece of electronics as a gift, I spent the next hour hooking it up, before it was time to miss the last Premier League match of the day so that we could go to Boy’s soccer match. Granted, four-a-side U-6 soccer isn’t quite Premier League football, but I suppose you can’t beat a match that has twelve goals in 32 minutes of play. (Literally can’t beat it, as it finished a 6-6 draw.)
Then we headed to Best Buy, to pick up some HDMI cables and a Blu-Ray player. The HD TV has only one composite hookup, meaning, as I reasonably explained to Lisa, that we can’t hook both the Wii and the DVD player up to it at the same time, so we’ve replaced the DVD player with a Blu-Ray player, which we can hook up to the new TV by one of its three HDMI ports.
I got back out to the car with all that stuff and found Lisa asleep in the driver’s seat and Boy asleep behind her, so rather than wake them, I got Girl out of the car and walked with her up the road to the used bookshop. There I discovered that they’ve eliminated their Biography section in favour of an expansion of Romance, and I picked Lisa up a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey (happy birthday to her). Then we headed back to the car.
Where we discovered that Lisa had kept the air conditioning and the radio on the whole time she’d been asleep, so when she tried to start the car, the battery had died completely. Lisa therefore popped the hood and stood next to the car, and, since she’s a woman, within two minutes someone had pulled up next to her asking if we needed a jump. Actually, a startlingly good looking 25-year-old man in a gleaming silver BMW had pulled up next to her and asked if she needed a jump.
So we got the car going again, but we needed to drive around for a while rather than going home. We therefore elected to drive down to Fredericksburg, 35 miles away; that way, we could go to either Sonic or Steak and Shake for dinner. Actually, it was my birthday, so we stopped at both Sonic and Steak and Shake. I also popped into the comic book shop next door to Sonic, as I always do, and looked at their selection of Doctor Who toys and t-shirts. They had some nice stuff, as they always do, and it was exorbitantly priced, as it always is. Particularly hard to resist was the Lego Cyberman playset, which Boy would have loved, but it was $80 for what was maybe a $30 Lego set (and that’s even accounting for the fact that Lego sets generally cost about half again what they’re worth to begin with).
And then we were home, and I was sticking HDMI cables into our new TV to connect it with the cable box and the Blu Ray player. All in all, not the best birthday I’ve ever had, but a lively and eventful one. And one that brought with a new HD television! Followed by the discovery that the new HD television was free! So in the end, I can’t complain.
The-book-currently-under-the-working-title-The-Zero-Hour opens with a murder, and the protagonist is the investigator on the murder case. Now, let me state this right out, it’s not a murder mystery–it’s not about laying out clues so the reader has the opportunity to guess the identity of the killer before the protagonist does, and (SPOILER) after about midway through the book, the investigation into the killer’s identity isn’t even what the story is about anymore. (END SPOILER)
But there’s still something going on that I’ve never really had to confront before, as an author. There are clues laid out as to what’s going on, and those clues have to lead to two different logical conclusions: they have to add up to what is actually going on, but in the meantime, they have to add up to what the protagonist thinks is going.
Now, I know what’s really going on, so there’s a degree to which any difference between the reality and what the protagonist thinks is going on looks like foolishness on his part. But it’s important that it not come off as foolishness to the reader–that the protagonist’s conclusions seem like legitimate, reasonable conclusions based on what he (and the reader) know at the time. (This is less important the deeper into the book we get, as the protagonist’s judgement becomes legitimately clouded by his growing involvement in events–but as more of what’s actually going on becomes known to him, anyway, so there’s less theorising involved.)
So I feel insecure about that element of the book, and it’s compounded by the fact that ties into one of the things I think is a weakness in my writing anyway–that events or arguments that are intended to convince my characters of the need for a given course of action actually are convincing. This is something Lisa will identify for me when she reads my drafts: “Yeah, here, where you think you’ve talked him into it? You … really haven’t.”
So I rely on her to let me know these things. She reads along with me as I write–I’m about four hundred pages into The Zero Hour manuscript, and she’s read up to about page three hundred. And she’s had to put up with me walking into the room while she does so, saying, “So, how’s it going, huh, huh? Keeping your interest, huh, huh?”, which is definitely not at all the way you should be treating your first reader.
Lisa’s had about ten years of training as a first reader, and she’s become really good at it. (I think she’s even better at it because she doesn’t have any aspirations to be a writer of fiction herself.) She can point to specific items on the page that don’t work; or if she can’t identify just what the problem is, she can point to a given passage and say, “Something doesn’t work here”; or, she can make a determination like, “If you want this point in chapter twelve to work, that point back in chapter nine needs to be a more convincing precursor.”
She has a couple of other elements in her reader’s skillset that I really value. She actually points out all these things she notices; I don’t end up coming to her later and saying, “So, this bit here worked for you?” and she responds, “No, not really.” If it didn’t work for her, she circled it and made a note.
She doesn’t get offended if there’s something she thinks should be changed, that ultimately I decide not to change. She knows that having pointed it out means that I’ve gone back and given it another look, and evaluated any alternatives.
And she doesn’t give me prognoses, unless I ask for them–she points out the problems, but she doesn’t decide how I should go about fixing them, unless I actually say to her, “Okay, so what would fix this?”
Hmm. I’d intended to write a post about how I hope this manuscript is making me grow as a writer, because it’s forcing me to confront something I’m insecure about. It’s turned into me extolling Lisa’s virtues as a first reader.
I’m sure, when she reads this back over, she’ll approve.
Words so far: 84,548
Though I’ve taken the weekend off from the manuscript, as it was time to finally sit down and thrash out an ending for the story before proceeding any further.
I’m alone at home this weekend. L took the kids last night and headed out to take them to a weekend in Myrtle Beach with some of the many dozens of Carolinians related to her.
So when I make beefy rice for lunch and dinner today, I’ll be mixing in both corn and peas, because there won’t be anyone around here with a weird hangup about how corn and peas should never be mixed (and I don’t mean either of the kids).
And I can be naked whenever I want for the next three days, which is never, because while it’s unseasonably warm for the first week of February, “unseasonably warm” is about fifty Fahrenheit, which is still too cold for short sleeves, let alone boxer shorts. But it is warm enough to go and sit out on the balcony while I work, and I’ll get to do that undisturbed all day long.
And I can move all the chairs away from the dining room table, roll my Thomas-Jefferson-invented swivel chair up to it and take over the whole table as my desk. Man, it’s glorious.
And most of all, of course, it means I get to spend three days pretending I’m a fulltime writer without any other responsibilities. It’s come just at the right time, too, just when the new manuscript is picking up steam.
I’ll be over in the corner, typing.
The book whose current working title is The Zero Hour
Words yesterday: 1265
Words total: 11,155
Time spent writing: 1pm-3pm, 11.30-12.30
Reason for stopping: Girl’s nap ended; tired
Darling: He thought he saw a curl of contempt briefly twist her lips, but he might have imagined it.
Tyop: hotels, departments stores and corporate officers
Words that boggled Word: doughboys, Russkies, Führer
New words today: hatband, roundel, septic
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.”
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
This weekend we headed down to Williamsburg for MarsCon. I can’t do a pictorial overview like I did for DragonCon, because there’s much less spectacle and therefore fewer pictures. But everyone had a great time. Lisa, I think, liked it especially because it’s such a smaller scale than DragonCon–there were about twelve hundred guests–and therefore she didn’t have to deal with crowds, of which she’s no fan.
We went to a few things we wouldn’t have gone to at DragonCon, like the bellydancing show and the charity auction (both at Boy’s instigation), and really enjoyed ourselves. Girl especially enjoyed herself at the auction–she figured out the game and started raising her hand every time a new bid was called for. And the kids’ programming we went to–a kids’ science activity session and a how-to-draw Star Wars characters session–were small enough that the kids actually got to interact with the presenters.
I was gratified at the profile Doctor Who had around the con. The most common costumes were zombies, because that was this year’s theme, and steampunk, because that’s the trendy fashion nowadays. But once we get into the specific franchise costumes, there were about four or five Star Wars costumes, four or five Star Trek costumes, and at least two dozen Doctor Who costumes. Who was also the only TV/movie franchise to get its own dedicated panel, albeit one that was rather dampened by the one attendee who shouted down anyone who mentioned the programme’s current production era without expressing hatred for Moffatt’s approach to Doctor Who.
So we’ll be heading back again next year–and hopefully we’ll have the sense to book a hotel room when we pre-register for the con, in which case the hotel won’t be sold out by the time we go looking for a room. As it was we stayed two miles up the road from the Holiday Inn where MarsCon was held, and yet somehow there two more Holiday Inns between us and them. Seriously, three Holiday Inns in a two-mile stretch on one road.
You might recall that shortly after I signed my book deal, I was getting crippling stage fright over calling myself a professional author. Last week at Lisa’s birthday party, I found my way around that.
I apparently am pretty fine with responding to “So what do you do?” with, “I’m a writer.” (Though that wasn’t necessarily the case a few months ago.) And what I discovered at the party was that when you give that answer, the very next question is, “What sort of writer?” And that’s when you nonchalantly slip in, “I’m a novelist.”
A bit longer is the conversational chain that ensues when someone asks what we do with our kids during the day.
“I work at home.”
“So they’re home with you! That’s great! What do you do?”
“Oh, I’m a writer.”
Really, the hardest part is not bopping up and down whenever I say it, because the inner squeeing? Still hasn’t stopped.
It’s been a hectic couple of weeks for me. Earthquake one day. The next day, I left on an unexpected trip to England, which then got unexpectedly protracted by two days. I finally did get back, at ten p.m. Tuesday night. Then, at nine a.m. Thursday, we headed out again. First, we spent the morning at Boy’s orientation for kindergarten, meeting his teacher and seeing his classroom.
Then we set out directly for Atlanta, driving eleven hours that afternoon and evening and two hours the following morning, and by ten o’clock Friday we were at Dragon*Con.
This was our second year at the con, and I deliberately set out to make sure that we had a chance to have some experiences this year that we hadn’t had last year. The first of those was getting Boy down there to take a look around. (Last year, he spent the weekend touring Atlanta with his grandparents. We’d planned for him to come down one afternoon, but he never made it. I’m genuinely unsure whether his decidedly non-geek grandparents simply never found the time, or whether they were somehow trying to shield him from the geekery.)
So Friday afternoon I headed back to our hotel in Dunwoody, picked Boy up and headed into the city with him on the subway. He was excited about going, but I was worried that once he got there in amongst the crowds and the cosplayers that he’d freak out.
I needn’t have been concerned–he loved every second of it. To the point of walking right up to Darth Vaders and Godzillas, tapping them to get their attention and asking to have his picture taken with them. (We’d run into an Eleventh Doctor and River Song on the train, so I think that primed him on what to expect.) Star Wars characters, Doctor Who characters, Disney characters–he got excited any time we saw any of them.
Saturday morning, I took him to the DragonCon parade. The crowd in front of us let him through to the front so he could sit on the kerb, and again, he had a great time–especially when a pair of Ghostbusters in the parade mistook him for a poltergeist and attempted to set their trap for him.
Then Lisa took him with her to a Phineas and Ferb panel where, after initially being somewhat shy, he apparently not only started raising his hand to offer his own comments, but eventually refused to put it down, raising his hand for his next question or comment as soon as he had finished his last one. After that, we took him to the lightsabre training for kids programme, where he had a blast learning how to whack other kids with sticks.
(In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t the best panel to take to him to three days before the first day of kindergarten.)
On a trip to Kings Dominion a couple of weeks ago, we got Boy a double-ended lightsabre. I told him I wanted to take a picture of him wielding it, and he so perfectly dropped into character for the photo that I was convinced then that he’d enjoy cosplaying at DragonCon.
We therefore got him a gas mask, and though he wore it around the house all week (really creeping Lisa out by asking, “Are you my mummy?“), he proved entirely unwilling to don it once we got to the con. I think perhaps next year we’ll try him with a costume that doesn’t require covering his face–I don’t know whether he felt like he was missing too much with the gas mask goggles on, or he was simply too aware of the fact that he was in fancy dress, but I do think the facemask was the root of his problem. Friends have suggested he should dress as Harry Potter, but I’m inclined to wait on that until he at least knows who Harry Potter is. Perhaps we’ll see about making him a miniature Doctor costume.
The other thing I wanted to do this DragonCon was sample a more varied array of programming. This largely came about because of the con’s new smartphone app. There’s so much different programming going on all the time at DragonCon that last year, using the huge, unwieldy paper grid, I basically just ended up going to most of the BritTrack panels, with a few big celebrity panels thrown in.
But with the app, I was able to see every panel for a given time in one place (critically, I was also able to see every panel’s description), and I could tag all the different ones that caught my eye. So I ended up at the Star Trek track, the American Sci Fi Media track, the SF/Fantasy Literature track, the Alternate History track and a couple of others.
And it highlighted to me how Dragon is really about a half-dozen cons all coexisting side by side. (Which is, obviously, the secret of its success–it attracts so much enthusiasm because of its huge population.)
Like on Sunday night, when I went to Michael Stackpole’s panel on Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian stories (a panel that convinced me I finally need to crack open that copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian I’ve had for several years). I’d never been to any programming down in the Lit track’s little cave. It turned out to be on the fourth floor down in the Hyatt.
The first floor one enters in the Hyatt has the hotel bar, the street entrance, reception, and the bridges to the Marriott and the food court/subway station, so it’s packed with con-goers and hotel guests and cosplayers. Only the Marriott is busier or louder or more crowded or slower moving. Then you go down a floor, and you’re in a big lobby giving access to another street entrance, to one of the con’s big ballrooms, and to the screening room for the con film festival. So it’s almost as busy as upstairs.
The third floor down has some gaming tables and the comic book Artists’ Alley, so it has some much smaller, dedicated crowds for those two things, plus a bit of overflow from the two floors above.
And then you get down to the bottom floor, where the lit track is, and it’s honestly like stepping into another world. Emptier. Quieter. Much older, with almost no one under forty. And with many fewer cosplayers. From one perspective, it’s a quiet retreat where people are celebrating the roots of where almost everything else at DragonCon comes from. From another, it’s a bunch of people who are actually missing what most of us think of when we think of DragonCon.
Two last good bits I want to make sure to mention. The first was Sylvester McCoy’s panel on Friday morning, where I got to hear Sylvester both play the spoons and do a dramatic reading of Matt Smith’s speech from “The Pandorica Opens”. And the other was at the small Red Dwarf panel on Sunday morning, where the closest thing to a celebrity was the guy who voiced the toaster on the programme (actually, he was only on for three episodes, so it would be more accurate to describe him as the guy who originated the voice of the toaster)–who actually turned out to be one of the funniest, most engaging panelists I’ve ever encountered at a convention.
And in closing, an Ariel cosplayer. These pictures were taken, respectively, Friday night and Saturday night, and I didn’t realise they had been of the same girl until yesterday. Well-played, Ariel. Well-played.
There are, of course, people whose travel horror stories are much worse than what I’ve had to endure. People who were stranded in foreign countries for weeks because of the Icelandic volcano. The people with whom I’m staying now, my aunt and uncle, have been stranded for days in the past in Cuba and Turkey.
I, essentially, have the luxury of being stranded in a first-world, technologically advanced democracy of whose language I am a native speaker. And critically, I have a support network here. I don’t have to worry about finding the funds for somewhere to stay for an extra two nights; I don’t have to worry about it turning out that my aunt and uncle’s house has already been booked up by some of the other stranded tourists suddenly in need of accommodation.
And yet. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a trip where every single element of planning has encountered such sustained, unrelenting disruption. The refusal of the East Coast website to accept my credit card, thereby preventing me from booking train tickets in advance and costing me an extra sixty pounds. The failure of my flight itinerary on the way out here. And now, the cancellation of my flight back–a cancellation, I really do feel, that’s premature and an overreaction. JFK will be perfectly happily receiving flights by seven o’clock tomorrow night.
But my flight won’t be amongst them. I’ve now been rebooked for an itinerary on Tuesday. In addition to getting me home two days late, it also requires me to go through Chicago, added two hours to the time I’ll be spending in the air.
Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact that now L has to find somewhere to stow the children during an additional two work days, I’d be ecstatic at the extra couple of days here. But she does, and that’s pretty stressful.
And it means that I can now go to the League match tomorrow between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. Er, not that I finagled an itinerary change to make that happen.
I’m saddened by the end of Borders. I’m saddened as a lover of books. I’m saddened, as someone who’s going to have my own books on bookshop shelves within a year, that there are now one third fewer major bookshop chains in the United States. I’m saddened as a former Barnes & Noble employee at such a vivid illustration of the decline of the brick and mortar book business–though not surprised, as articles from places like Publishers Weekly had been appearing on our break room wall since at least 2003 about the precipitous state of business at Borders.
My first job in the book trade was with the Borders Group, at one of those Day By Day Calendar Company kiosks you see appearing in malls during the last quarter of every year. (Er, though I don’t know if you’ll see them appearing anymore.)
The Gainesville Borders is where I met Clark Howard.
It’s also where I bought Lisa one of her favourite presents I’ve ever got her, an omnibus edition of Harold and the Purple Crayon.
I swung on by the Livejournal community for Borders employees this morning. Amidst a lot of anger, despondence, and descriptions of atrocious behaviour by customers, I came across one post by an employee who’s putting together a farewell in-store playlist for him and his colleagues to rock out to during whatever days and weeks they have remaining. That sounded like a little fun injected into this whole thing.
So here’s my list:
“The End” by the Doors
“The Final Countdown” by Europe
“There Goes the Neighborhood” by Sheryl Crow
“Yesterday” by the Beatles
“Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac
“Secondhand News” by Fleetwood Mac
“We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister
“My Life” by Billy Joel
“School’s Out” by Alice Cooper
“Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia
“Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin
“Gudbuy T’Jane” by Slade
“Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkin
“Bad Day” by Daniel Powter
“We Gotta Get Out of the This Place” by the Animals
“Bye Bye Bye” by N*Sync
and of course
“Closing Time” by Semisonic
So what do you think? Am I missing any?
By my calculations, New Zealand is supposed to end tomorrow night at midnight, Eastern Daylight Time. By that time, Lisa will be asleep, but I’ll still be awake. If we haven’t heard from New Zealand by 12.30, then we’ll know it’s real. At that point, I’ll wake up Lisa and the kids so that we can be awake for our final sixteen or seventeen hours in an unapocalypsed Virginia. (It’s unclear to me whether this apocalypse that is supposed to roll around the world at 6p.m. local time for twenty-four hours respects Daylight Savings Time or not.)
If we have heard from New Zealand, and we know everything’s fine, then I’m not going to wake up Lisa. Instead, I’m going to call a cab. While I’m waiting for the cab, I’m going to change clothes, and leave all the clothes I’ve been wearing all day in a pile on the floor beside Lisa’s side of the bed. Then I’m going to get the kids up, and leave their pyjamas in their beds. Then the three of us are going to go check into a hotel for the night.