Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Oh, The Tension...






That's the sound of an imaginary clock going slower and sloooower and slooooooooooooower. See, I just heard last night from me editor, Jim Minz: the first box of the US edition of Vellum has arrived at the Del Rey offices and it looks mighty purty. Unfortunately there's a whole Atlantic in the way before I get to see a copy, goddamnit. That's like forever away, man.

And it's my last day at work too -- five hours to go before I'm FREEEEEEE! You know that "week in the jail" thing?






Saturday, March 25, 2006

Ten Things

Ten things I have learned about writing -- a la Elizabeth Bear and Ben Peek. This can also be read as a Stages of Writing thing, as these are largely consecutive "steps", to my mind. So:

1. Don't eat the crayons, even if "purple tastes gooooood". No, really. Put that down; it's not meant for that.*

2. Young talent must be nurtured. A child who has a certain knack for, say, writing stories in English class needs to be taken aside and told it in order to make them realise that they're special, to encourage them and (more importantly) alienate them from the dickwad jocks around, breeding a seething resentment of their low status in the high school pecking order. Compensatory arrogance and narcissistic rage are the powerhouse of the creative impetus.

3. Writing is 100% inspiration and 100% perspiration. It's what you breathe and what you sweat, all of it, equally. It often stinks for that reason, but not devouring shit will usually improve this state of affairs.

4. Flattery is for fuckwits; ruthless critique is the only critique of any value. Workshops can be valuable then, but if a workshop session doesn't make you want to kill someone** it's not worth shit. Even if it does you probably won't listen to the content and rewrite your crappy mood-piece / novel fragment / background summary so it's an actual fucking story. You will however want to a) get your own back on the bastards b) show these fuckers that you really are a genius, so there. In attempting to achieve the first you will hone your critical skills. In attempting to achieve the latter you will apply those skills to your own writing.

5. Learn to kill your darlings. But torture them first. And after you've killed them, strip the meat from their bones, take them apart and build them into one motherfucking huge serial-killer-style shrine. Alternatively, put them back together and reflesh them with muscle and sinew sliced from your own naked body (or neighbourhood pets) and vat-grown in your underground laboratory; raise them from the dead as a glorious army of skeletal warriors, unquestioning servants in your plan for world domination.

6. Shoeboxes full of adolescent scribblings make pretty fire. Should your army of undead sentences rise up against you, ceasing to obey your every whim and becoming instead an unruly mob seeking equal rights and inclusion in every story or novel you try to write, putting all of them -- every last motherfucking one of them -- to the torch will liberate you to start anew, utilising the skills acquired over five-ten years of twiddling and tweaking. As a wise man once said: exterminate all the brutes.

7. There is really only one way to be a writer: start writing, carry on writing, and keep on writing until it's five in the morning. A mix of uppers (e.g coffee) and downers (e.g. cigarettes) can keep you balanced for an indefinite period on the knife-edge between consciousness and complete collapse. This is known as "the Zone". Remember: sleep-deprivation is the poor man's hallucinogen.

8. Bad writers burrow; good writers steel themselves and face the fucking consequences when the monster they've created gets loose and runs amok inside their heads, raping innocent memories and pillaging knowledge, growing in might and violence until the landscape of the mind is all but consumed in chaos. Fear not. Once you have tamed the monster it will be a loyal friend and ally, demanding only the occassional virgin sacrifice. And that's what virgins are for.

9. "Art" is a poncy term for craft combined with flair. What distinguishes the talented writer from the good writer (c.f. Delany) is having the audacity to take on an insanely difficult project and the panache to fail gloriously, shrug it off and start on another even more insanely difficult project. Pretentious writing is only pretentious because it is not ambitious enough. Your detractors will not make this distinction, but what do they know? Bastards.

10. Fuck that shit.

* 1a. This simple childhood rule applies also in adult life to: playing computer Solitaire; browsing the interweb; checking email; surfing for p0rn. If you are doing any of this you are eating the crayons. Stop it now.

** 4a. If the someone that ruthless critique makes you want to kill is yourself then you are not a writer and never will be. You are a delicate flower... to be snipped off and worn as a buttonhole by men of cruel wit and savage passions.

Fucking Microsoft

I just mailed off my rewrite for "The Angel of Gamblers", a short story that'll be appearing in the Eidolon anthology, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Jeremy Byrne (it has a cracking Table of Contents, btw) and to be launched at Conjure in Brisbane at the Easter Weekend (so I'll be having a few drinks in honour of Messrs Strahan and Byrne at Eastercon in Glasgow) . It's a fun wee Gentlemen's Club story (well, I think it's fun) based around a game of Texas Hold 'Em, and it has my very own Evil Monkeys, Jack and Puck (well, they're not so much Evil as reckless and shameless respectively, but they're definitely Monkeys, even if they don't have the tails to prove it)... so anyone who enjoyed the more humourous episodes in Vellum can bide their time between now and Ink with a wee light relief there, if they so wish.

Anyhoo, enough of the shameless self-promotion; what the fuck is it with Track Changes in Word? Huh? Huh? I ask you. I mean, I get the proofing document back with all the edits marked up neatly in red with notes in the margins. Cool. I'm not sure about this Track Changes malarky so, with some suspicion, I set the font to blue, and I start to make my own changes. They all show up neatly in blue with notes in the margins. Hurrah! Bloody brilliant tool this Track Changes, I think. Must use it in future. So I go through it all, tweaking the text here and there. I even catch one major fuck-up with the betting that I'd missed in the umpteen times I went through the story before sending it off (Christ, you know how hard it is trying to keep a poker game in your head with my memory? One of my stock responses is "Was it more than a minute ago?" for crying out loud. In the end I had to deal out the game, chips and all, with props sat round on the floor to represent the five players (a fountain pen, a tube of glitter, a bust of Lenin, a Zippo, and a cocktail shaker, in case you want to know).)

So. OK. It all goes well and I'm left with a story I think is better for the changes and feeling all proud about catching my fuck-up and learning a new skill with Word (yes, I'm a programmer by trade... no, it's not ironic that I'm a complete Luddite with computers... the trick with programming is knowing only what you need to, you see... frees up all that biological ROM for processing power, mate... leastways, that's my story and I'm sticking to it). Anyway... then I open up the doc for one last run through before mailing it off.

And it's gone fucking mental on me. Taken a fucking eppy, as we say here in not-very-politically-correct-Scotland (an eppy being an epileptic fit, for those unfamiliar with the term). The original edits are now purple, with a few staying red just for... oh, the sake of it. My changes are now brown, with a few staying blue just for... oh, the sake it, again. Schickinfrickrazzafrazzinconsarnbastuhd Microsoft, says me. I do manage to ascertain that there are now three "reviewers" recognised by the document, because -- Aha! -- there's a wee drop-down where you can select whether to show their changes or not. It shows "Al Duncan" in red, "j" in blue and "User" in brown.

Expletive deleted.

It almost makes sense. I mean the purple is missing and surely "j" (Jeremy Byrne?) should be red and "Al Duncan" blue, but it has three of the four colours it's seen fit to use so it does seem to bear some relationship to what's going on with the text. It's just the... not-quiteness of that mapping that makes me go, What the fuck?

Oh, and while every other edit I made showed up in the font which the proofing doc had been formatted into, the one last-minute edit I decided to make after this, Word decides to automatically reformat as Courier New. And I can't change it to the document font cause that ain't on my laptop. Feh.

Fucking Microsoft.

Still... one more thing to look forward to Easter for. Plus I only have three more working days next week before I've worked my time at the day-job, and then that's me: a man of leisure -- sorry, letters. Plus I have an agent! It happened a couple of weeks back while I was in the midst of preparations for me mate Phil's stag night, so in between that and heavy religious debate and a stinking cold (partly due to preparations for aforesaid stag night, some of which involved me standing in the freezing cold, pretending to be a dodgy street dealer in, well, squished angel, while long-suffering friend Claire pretended to buy squished angel off me for Turkish lira, and long-suffering friend Mags filmed us both (It's a long and complicated story, but I will say this: if you think it would be a cool idea to make a three-minute pop video version of a friend's novel for showing at their stag night one week hence, because they're the type of mad fucker who does things like (the Hugo-nominated) Lucas Back In Anger and they'd probably appreciate their mates taking on a similarly insane Project, DON'T DO IT! IT'S INSANE!))... so... um... yes... in between all of that I completely forgot to mention it, but I'm now represented by Howard Morhaim, who I've heard nothing but good things about from various sources. See, I told you I had a bad memory.

But, yeah, so really it's all good.

Apart from fucking Microsoft.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Hoorah! I got my first guest spot at a convention! Yes, I shall be propping up the bar by invitation at Mecon Nine, a wee convention taking place in Belfast from the 4th of August to the 7th. Ian McDonald and Ken MacLeod will also be there as guests, amongst others (and with more being arranged hopefully, I understand), which is well cool.

With Eastercon coming up in less than a month, Wiscon in May, Mecon in August, and WFC as a *serious* temptation in November (it might be stretching the budget but at the moment I'm reckoning fuck it; if I have to live on gravel for a few months I can do that; I just gotta make it to Austin), it looks like being a serious convention year. Hell, Fantasycon's looking quite tempting too; with Gaiman and Barker both being there and all, there might be a rather, um, Vellum-friendly audience in attendance ("Angels, you say? Gay angels, you say? Oh really?")

But could my bank balance handle all these cons without the day job? Fuck that; could my liver handle all these cons?

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Another thing that's been keeping me from the blog was the fact that I got a sneak preview of Catherynne M. Valente's Descent, a series of long-form poems dealing with various "Descent-Into-The-Netherworld" legends, which are coming out in separate hardcover limited editions (awwww!) and will subsequently be collected in a paperback edition (yaaaay!). Someone, somewhere, for some strange reason gave the editor the impression that I might be interested in this. I can't think why. (Heh. Thanks, Cheryl!)

Anyhoo, Erzebet Yellowboy at Papaveria got in touch to see if I fancied a sneaky peek at the first in the series, a retelling of the Sumerian story of "The Descent of Inanna" to which, of course, I said YES! LET ME SEE IT NOW! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE! And I can happily say that I can highly recommend it. Valente's version is rich as the earth; you can smell the dirt under the fingernails, taste the rotting leaves in the mouth. And as someone who's pretty familiar with the source text (though not, I hasten to add, in the original all-but-impossible-to-learn Sumerian), I love the way she's balanced faithfulness against her original perspective, making the "right" changes, to my mind, and avoiding the "wrong" ones. She's updated the poetic technique, and "translated" the ancient ritualistic (and highly repetitious) poem into an idiom that makes sense to a modern reader, without trivialising, without exchanging the strange, rotted flavour of the original for too-contemporary banalities. Maybe it's just my own interests and attitudes coming to the fore here, but she seems to me to be doing something similar to what I try to do. Which is to say, a straight word-for-word translation from a text this old can't read the same way to a modern audience as it would to the audience of the day; the context is too different. But retelling these texts as fantasy stories (as has been done with Gilgamesh by various writers, say) often renders them prosaic, loses some of the ritual and rhetorical quality of the text, and can be less than faithful to the mythic strangeness. Anyway, I tend to want to find the balance between those camps when I'm doing some weird-ass palimpsest of Prometheus Bound (for example), and I think this is something Valente's achieved with her Inanna.

If I was a limited edition book collecter type, I'd snap up one of the hardcovers. As it is, I'm sorely tempted, but for the fact that they're really *really* limited and I'm a bit scared to ask how much. I definitely fancy one of the collected paperbacks when it's available though, as I'm keen to see what she does with the other "descents" that she's tackling.

Losts in Translation

One of the interesting things about the process of translation, when you've got a translator who really pushes for the best result possible is that they fire you a bunch of really low-level questions of a sort that never get asked in interviews -- why this word here, why that phrase there -- but which are often really illuminating of the thought processes behind yer novel, and of the subtleties of sense that are dependant on a single word, how difficult that can be to transfer into another language. So I thought it might be interesting to post up this list of questions and answers as a wee insight into that process and into the weird-ass ways us writer-types think, how we (OK, OK, how I) tend to take for granted that this or that reference will be obvious, surely, to anyone and everyone (because aren't we all familiar with the transmission of Sumerian mythology to Greece by way of Phoenicia? No? Oh... right.) Anyway, I haven't posted for a while because I was busy helping organise my mate Phil's stag night, with some essays to write for various places, and with responses I'm working on to various comments, emails and bloggings all kicked off by the recent religious debate (Ben, Guy, Dave -- I will respond shortly, I promise).

So for now, here's some notes on translation. I've no idea if this'll actually be of any interest to anyone who hasn't read the book (or indeed to anyone who has), but it's my blog, bwah ha, ha, etc..

(You know, I'm kinda thinking of doing a story in this format now, a sort of Borgesian metafiction. Hmm...)


[62] „Did he think we wouldn’t gather you as well“: is „you“ plural or singular?


[76] „Everything is broken up, and dances.“ -- The Doors, if I am not mistaken. Could you specify „broken up“?

Yep, it's from American Prayer. I'm not quite sure what you're looking for here in terms of specification, but I take Morrison's line as a description of hallucinatory experience, where your perception of what's around you seems to fall to pieces, to be shattered into... particles of vision, for want of a better term, particles which shimmer and flicker, recombining endlessly. It's a bit transcendental and mystical, I suppose, and hard to describe. But imagine that end scene in The Matrix where Neo "sees the code", sees the corridor with the agents at the end of it, as these dancing streams of green digits. Now imagine that at a higher resolution and in all the colours of the spectrum. Or suppose you make a picture of a face using tiny wee pictures of faces as pixels, only each pixel is being constantly flipped for another which has a general tone close enough that the big picture stays pretty much the same, but just different enough that the effect is one of vitality, of vibrance...

Everything is broken up -- shattered, scattered, fragmented -- and dances.

[80] Some references I did not get or names I could not verify: „Land of Dreams“, „Peter Kern“, „Gate of a Thousand Doors“

"Land of Dreams" is applied to New Mexico because it's full of all these roads and places ascribed strange mystical significance, probably due to the syncretism of Catholic and native mythology in the culture of the region. Peter Kern was a property developer in the 1950s or 1960s as described, who built this bloody weird Gate on the road up to one of his housing developments. It's covered in mystical symbols and looks like some junkyard version of the sort of gates you get leading into Chinatown in various cities. "The Gate of a Thousand Doors" is, as I understand, a Hindu term. I came across it in a weird-ass book called Apocalypse Culture.

[80] „how many thousand klicks“: „klicks“ -- have heard it a thousand times before, but cannot find a translation (and feel stupid about it ;-)

"Klicks" is US Army slang for kilometres, riffing off words like "click" or "tick". A thousand kilometres = a thousand klicks. It's sorta seeped into the hard-boiled vocabulary of stuff like cyberpunk.

[87] „spend last summer hiding out [...], July through May“: is the summer here meant to be during a different time of the year than ours?

The idea is that Thomas actually spent that summer travelling backwards in time -- July >> June >> May.

[94] „Carrion comfort for this guy“: Could you elaborate?

Hmmm. This riffs off the idiom, "cold comfort", meaning "no comfort"; Dan Simmons uses the phrase "carrion comfort" as a title of a book, implying an even higher level of cruelty, callousness. I'm not sure if it originates with Simmons or before him, but I think the phrase deserves its own idiom status.

[94] „Tassili-n-Ajer“: I found „Tassili N’Ajjer“ -- same thing?

Yes. This will probably just be a variant spelling.

[94] „BCE“ ?

Before Common Era. This is common usage with modern academics as a neutral terminology, avoiding the whole Christian-centric terminology of BC as Before Christ.

[95] „looks at you“ ... „look around you“: singular or plural?


[104] „Adonis ... and Adonai Tammuz“: Adonis is familiar, of course, but Adonai? Your own variant?

"Adonai" is the Hebrew for "Lord" (subsituted in for YHWH when reading aloud from the Torah). The story of Tammuz/Dumuzi came to the Greeks via the Phoenicians, who evidently referred to him as Lord -- "Adonai". Add the typical -s ending of Greek and you get "Adonais" or "Adonis".

[104] „Damu, dumu-zi“: ?

"Damu" was an alternative title for Dumuzi. It's a variant of "dumu", which simply means "child". With "zi" meaning "shining", Dumuzi's name actually parses as "shining child" -- dumu-zi.

[104] „nipper of gnostic gospels“: „nipper“?

Literally, it just means a "youngster". The connotations are what's important here, though; "nipper" implies a child who's small enough and quick enough to "nip" -- to dart nimbly to and fro, here and there, like the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist or Shakespeare's Puck. Think impish and spritely, in thought as well as deed, the sort of tricksterish spirit who'd speak in riddles (c.f. the Gospel of Thomas) or be precociously sceptical (c.f. the "doubting Thomas" of the Bible... doubting like a child being told about Santa Claus who knows it's a story).

[104] „kidskin to lambswool“ ?

That's "to" as in "versus"... or as in "A is to B as X is to Y" -- i.e. shortened from "in contrast to" or "in comparison to". So in comparison with Jesus, Thomas is "kidskin [in contrast] to [Jesus's] lambswool".

He's associated with the goat (c.f. Dionysus or the Biblical scapegoat) as a pagan figure while Jesus is associated with the lamb, being referred to in the Bible as the Lamb of God, (wool being all white and pure and soft and all). Thomas is still a "kid" though -- youthful and innocent -- so he's "kidskin" (as in kid gloves which are, like wool, soft and white) rather than goathide (which is all rough and hairy, like).

[104] „Like a kid I have fallen into milk“? A quote? A „kid“ as in „child“ or „young goat“ or ...?

Yep, it's a quote. I picked this up from Robert Graves's The White Goddess. According to Graves it's what the initiates of one of the Greek mystery cults would say in their initiation rituals, as an identification of themselves with the god Dionysus. Primarily it means "young goat" but the metaphoric sense of "kid" as a "child" is a nice ambiguity. It feeds back into the matrix of associations above.

Anyway, the translation to go with would be "kid" = "young goat".

[106] „Pseudapigrahia“: the „a“ in the middle is intentional?

Yes, (strangely enough). The Pseudapigraphia is a real-world text, rather than something I made up, and my sources spell it that way. I did check, wondering if it should be an "e" as in "epigraph".

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

While I'm Pointing...

Those of you who've been following the recent debate on religion here will be pleased to know that Ben's now posted a chunky big response to my "Stain of Sin" entry.

Those of you who've had *enough already* and would rather I went back to blogging my drunken exploits and literary lunacies... well, you'll just have to be patient. It's my blog and I can do what I want with it. Anyhoo, there should be plenty of inebriated japery in the coming months, what with me mate Phil's semi-stag-night and wedding, Eastercon in April, Wiscon in May, and me being free, free, FREE completely as of the end of this month, when my notice at my day-job finally runs its course. Burning the candle at both ends? Fuck it, I say cut the fucker into chunks and dump them all on the goddamn bonfire. Diurnal cycles are for the chimps. We got artificial light, man... pretty pretty fire.

You Know You've Made It When...

... your witterings are taken seriously enough for someone to use you as a blurb! I'm well chuffed-n-puffed, of course, (though deeply sceptical/amused) that anyone in their right mind would take my effusive ravings over the splendours of SHRIEK and treat them as if they had any weight. But, hey, as far as SHRIEK goes, if I can help in any way shape or form to spread the word, fuck it, man, then I'm *really* chuffed-n-puffed. If you're in the UK and haven't already got yer Pan Mac trade paperback... just go and buy it... now.

Of course, if you're in the US and still waiting for the Bantam edition to come out, well, in the meantime, there's always this...

... which I've described elsewhere thusly:

On the surface, City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of short stories set in the fantastic city of Ambergris, stories suffused with sorrow and wry humour, some of them straightforward, others told through various metafictional conceits and devices. On the surface, we have four novellas and an appendix of sundry shorter delights. But apart from the fact that each story is an absolute nugget in its own right, there's much more going on here in the way these tales relate to each other. As the novellas progress, various fake historical glossaries, academic footnotes and art history interpolations are used to make Ambergris far more rounded and real than most fantasy backdrops, building VanderMeer's city of musicians, poets and sinister mushroom-dwellers in the reader's imagination until in the last of the four novellas we are taken right through the looking glass. In an insanely ambitious move reminiscent of Alasdair Gray's Lanark, or a writer such as Borges, fact and fiction are flipped inside-out and the reader is plunged deep into a world all the truer because it is given to us through the artefacts of Ambergris --illustrated chapbooks, monograms, bibliographies, magazine clippings or lunatic's notes. Metafiction can be tricky in its tricksiness, but VanderMeer pulls it off wonderfully. In a way this becomes a novel with the reader himself as the protagonist, a traveller wandering through VanderMeer's strange, dark, literary vision. And, lit with flashes of sheer brilliance, VanderMeer's Ambergris is more than just worth a visit. This is a must-read book, a delightful treat for the fan of fantasy as a genre, for those who enjoy Angela Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or any of the Magic Realists. In the end this book is for anyone who likes their books intelligent, playful, comic, tragic and with a vision just a wee bit skewed from the norm.

Look... if ye need any more persuasion, just go and play around with some of the links here. There's fun to be had for all the family.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Top of the Pops

So SF Sitehas placed VELLUM at #8 in their Top Ten Novels of 2005! One place above Umberto Eco. Heh.