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Book reports


So I finally broke down and downloaded the sampler of the first Twilight book, just to see what all the fuss is about.

So far, I'm not terribly impressed by the writing, though I have been enjoying that the book is set in the PacNW, and that the character has spent the first 10 pages or so complaining about all of the things I love about my distant but still beloved home. I imagine, though, that if I bought the whole book and read it cover-to-cover, I'd discover that Stephenie Meyer is a hell of a storyteller. That's got to be true on some level, or the book wouldn't have grown into such a huge phenomenon.

The truth is, in the first several pages, the writing isn't impressing me, but it's not turning me off, either. It's not perfect, but it doesn't have to be. It's possible to be a great storyteller and an average writer. Actually, that's the point I'm trying to make: work hard on telling great stories first. Beautifully crafted, sparkling writing without a good story is constructed decoration.

In other book news, I've read all five books from the Temeraire series twice in the last month and a half, and I enjoyed them as much the second time as I did the first. Naomi Novik is both a great storyteller and an exemplary writer. It's kind of a weird mix of fantasy and historical (revisionist) fiction. A bit geeked out, for sure (which is definitely a plus, from my perspective) but absolutely delightful.

The first book is called His Majesty's Dragon, and as an added bonus, you can download free copies of it for the Kindle (iPhone app or device) or for any other e-reader you use. You can also get your hands on a free PDF of the whole book, but that's a bit more difficult to wrangle.

Be warned, however, that this is incredibly shrewd marketing, akin to a drug dealer giving you the first hit for free. You'll likely end up buying the other four books in rapid succession.


Fiction, anyone?


Okay, so a very simple question, asked to the very few folks who may still look in on this space once in a while. What, exactly, do I need to do to start spitting out some fiction? I need techniques, challenges, inspiration, ideas, encouragement--even nasty, hard truth.

rest in peace

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It's five months too late, but I just found out that Leslie Harpold, one of the most talented writers I've ever met, is dead.

Even though I hardly knew her, she pushed me in the right direction, right when I needed it.

Back when I was a recent college graduate, with an English degree and nothing in the world to do to make a living, I ended up working for a housing company attached to a local university.

It was a boring job, in a beautiful location. Outside my window, there were blocks of city park, stretching down a lightly sloping hill. In the winter, when it stayed dark until I started work, and when it was dark before I left, I spent a lot of time staring out that window.

I also started to write a lot. It was what I was trained to do, and while I did get to write for work, it was mostly meeting notes and notices to residents of one of the many apartment buildings we managed. It wasn't satisfying, and it wasn't even remotely cathartic. I needed catharsis.

When I was in college, I remember running up against a website called Chunk that didn't seem to do anything. It was just this big colored blob. No links, no text, no nothing, except the word "c h u n k" and color. I remember very clearly wondering, "what the hell is this," and then wandering off elsewhere.

Well, in this new job, sitting and staring out that window, I remembered Chunk. I looked it up and it looked just the same, but there were links there now that led me other places. I know now that I probably just had the wrong browser (remember those days?), but whatever the reason, I suddenly was stumbling around all of these wonderful websites, pages and pages of rich text. I found myself reading all of these sites, and I remember feeling like I knew Alexis, Lance, Derek, Maggy, and Leslie--five people who were connected somehow by this invisible strand of data that ran from link to link, and story to story.

Later on, I found all kinds of other people--people a lot of you probably know, like Jason, Maura, Shauna, Paul, and countless others. This was back when everyone had online journals, and either they were hard coding the HTML, or they built their own dynamic CMS. No blogger, no wordpress, no movabletype, no facebook. These guys were the pioneers.

I loved it. So I got myself a geocities site, I read the design-o-rama (thanks, Lance), and I started writing.

After a little while, I got my gumption up, and I started emailing these folks. Alexis was the first to respond. She threw a link up to my site, and some other folks found me, and I was on the very edges of the same community I loved participating in as a reader. But now I was writing, and a few people were reading. It was heady stuff.

Other folks corresponded with me a bit, too, but there was really only one person back then who took the time to push me in the right direction. It was Leslie Harpold, who published Smug and Hoopla.

I wrote her an email, I guess, and she responded. And I responded to her reply, and so on, until we exchanged IM accounts, and chatted about lots of stuff. She was my first real online friend. Someone I never met in person, though I spent hours chatting with her about everything in the world.

I remember at one point she told me how much she loved Annie Dillard. I told her that Holy the Firm was probably my favorite book of all time, and she told me she'd never read it. So I got the book out and typed it--every word of the first two chapters--in little blocks small enough to make it through the chat engine. She loved it. I remember very clearly what her last note was that evening, as I was leaving work:

"Thanks for sharing that with me. It really was beautiful, and now I'm starting to feel like I really know you."

I built out my personal site a bit more, and at some point created a resume, and Leslie was the first person to critique it (she critiqued the hell out of it, which those of you who knew her will understand). She was always honest with me, which meant that she wasn't always nice. But she also never stopped being supportive.

At some point in the whole process, she gave me her phone number and asked me to call her. I remember her telling me, in that very forward and open-vowelled midwestern-ish voice of hers, that New Yorkers aren't as mean as everyone thinks they are. She told me that everyone in her neighborhood knew her, that they looked out for her, for each other.

This all started somewhere in 1998. In 2000, we worked together a bit, and then I lost touch with her. When she finally got back in touch with me, she was pissed (and rightly so) that the work we had started wasn't finished. I can't even remember how long she was gone, but it was months. I know now that she had surgery of some kind and something had gone horribly wrong.

Whatever the case, whatever happened, our friendship was over. I never did anything more than brush against the edge of her life, but I can tell you that she was one of the most amazing people I've ever known. I wish I'd somehow been able to reconnect with her, but I don't think there was space for me in her world after that. Considering all of the people she knew, I'm glad there was time and space when there was, even for a season.

She was the most private person I know who put everything in the world on the Web. She gave herself away in little pieces, finely crafted, carefully controlled. But for that short season when she took me under her wing, she gave me every bit of encouragement I needed to get on with my life--to stretch for something bigger and better than I had at the time. Jason Kottke said it, but it's true of me, too:

. . . like most people who knew her, she did me a favor I didn't know I needed precisely when I needed it.

Web ramblings

There is a conversation going on right now that demands eavesdropping. Besides which, you've been invited.

The gist of the conversation is this: there are a few "context-sensitive" websites, created by highly visual designers, that are successful if the intentions of the designer are to be original and artistically creative, and unsuccessful if the designer intends to be a cohesive narrator or storyteller.

At least that is what Alexis Massie, as much web critic as talented designer and writer, has to say.

If you head over there, you should know that she is intelligent and thoughtful, careful and insightful. And she is confident.

She's been designing web pages, and thinking about the web as a medium of expression, for some time. And she knows her stuff. But take a look at what she is evaluating and see if you agree with her.

I think that's what she would want, anyway.

What do I think?

Most of the time, I feel like an infant when I'm talking and thinking about the world wide web. I'm so new to it all--barely initiated into the world of personal pages.

I have had little time to take in any reasonable portion of the expanse of information, commercialization, and self-expression out there.

But Alex and Corin's conversation has cracked open the floodgates.

I guess in one sense I've been given a point of reference by their discussion, and what thoughts I've had time and energy to have are becoming more cohesive as they fall into place around and through that reference point.

For now, I have to agree with Alex. At least for the most part. (You'll have to read what she has to say to know what I agree with.)

I think she may not take into account the average web reader's ability to evaluate, understand, and even enjoy complex and tangled information; but in the end, a good story can be complex without confusing the hell out of you.

My love is writing. And good writing is what moves me. is nothing more than an expression of that love. A few ramblings, a story or two, some poetry, and in a corner here or there, a photo album of a camping trip or a wedding.

Nothing here is fancy or brilliant. Everything is as simple and clean as I can make it. Nothing should draw your attention from the writing.

I don't care if the design doesn't dazzle you; but I hope you find something in the writing that affects you.

And though I enjoy sites that are complex and convoluted, I find myself heading back, time and again, to the places where I know I'm going to find a good story, without the hassle of endless clicks and pointless but beautiful decorations.

Don't get me wrong--that hassle is also enjoyable. A different state of mind, a different mood, and a highly artistic site is inspiring.

But in the end, give me a good story.

It would be ridiculous for me to suggest that design is not important. Regardless of the medium, when a writer presents their work, design plays an important role in that presentation.

But when a writer presents work that is important to them, presentation should always be slave to the intentions of that work, and above all, should never detract from it.

Colorado, and the wedding, part the fifth

Here is the last entry in the wedding series. You might want to read the first four entries in this series: here, here , here, and here.

I went to Colorado this weekend, to visit my girlfriend and the mountains.

I was in Buena Vista last winter, when the lakes were frozen over. I skated on one, at the foot one gargantuan peak.

The city was peppered with snow, and the mountains were covered in it.

This last weekend, it was 80 degrees.

Amy and I hiked to Ptarmigan Lake (the upper lake, not the lower ones, though we feared we still had one more lake to find, following the advice of friends, and ended up climbing a couple hundred extra feet for an incredible view from a 12,000 foot saddle) on Saturday. We were supposed to go rock climbing, too, but we didn't get the opportunity.

We did get to cast dry flies for a while, which was great, though neither of us caught anything. I think I scared the buggers away by casting so poorly.

Saturday night, Amy hosted a poetry reading (it was a little on the silly side for her, but she was sensitive and gracious about the "camp" atmosphere, and allowed for the silliness) and semi-talent-show. I sang a couple of songs, for good measure.

On Sunday, we attended camp church, hiked to Cottonwood Lake, ate a couple of barrios from Pancho's, and drove straight to the Colorado Springs airport, where I caught a plane to Salt Lake City (which was a madhouse, and drove me half out of my mind) and then to Portland.

It was a wonderful weekend, all in all, and I am tremendously glad I went. I had an incredible time.

On Sunday, the 5th of July, Dan and I woke up early to drive Joe to the airport. We said our goodbyes to the remnants of Ryan's bachelor party crowd and one girl who managed to tag along for the evening after the wedding.

Then we drove to Heather's mother's house for a brunch. We ate well, laughed a little, enjoyed each other's company, dropped off the tuxedos, and Dan and I left for the train station.

And I rode the train home from Olympia, and then walked home (it's only a mile or so) from the train station.

It was a simple day, a slow one by the time I had finished with it, and though work the next day was difficult after five days of rest, I felt better about it just because I had been in Olympia and in a cabin on the sound for those days.

And today, one week later, I feel the joy of being there a little less intensely, but I am settling into a peace that only comes after important times. There is great potential in this life. I feel it.

Get out!

I've been working on a new short story slowly for several weeks now. The ideas are there, but I haven't had time to sit down and work hard for any extensive amount of time.

Yesterday, my brother and I bought pairs of inline skates at a going out of business sale. They were so cheap!

Then we skated uphill to the Rose Festival Art Festival (wow!), where we couldn't wear skates (due to the glassblowers, I think). So I wandered from booth to booth, from glass to watercolors to photographs, in my bare feet.

But since it was 85 degrees yesterday, I was more than comfortable.

Then, to lunch with my father and two siblings to celebrate Dad on his special day.

And lastly, I skated home, uphill the entire way.

You use different muscles when you rollerblade than when you walk, run, or ride a bike. (Ouch.)

Leslie has a new site of sorts, with wicked twisty turns for the carnival ride lovers out there.

And it is certainly nice to see that Lance is back in the mix.

But for the most part, it has been quiet out there. My theory is that it is directly related to the heat. Sunlight makes you active, but certainly does not encourage long hours in front of a computer.

But I'm all for it. Get out, people!

Speaking of which, if any of you come to Portland sooner or later (that's Oregon), I'd be happy to sit down with you over a cup of coffee (or a soft serve cone) to talk about your recreational options.

This is a wonderous and magical place. It's a miracle I get anything written here at all...

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