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WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?

July 8th, 2007 6 comments

by Mort Castle

What are you working on now, Mort?

Nothing.

***

There’s a question frequently asked of a writer by editors, other writers, agents, friends, or those casual acquaintance / everyday people who figure they need to direct meaningless chatter your way instead of gassily blathering via Bluetooth to someone even less real than you.

What are you working on now?

After all, you…

1. … just finished proofing galleys on the 37th volume (11,800 pages plus!) in your Interstellar Neo-Military Alternative History Romance Series, HELL’S HOPSCOTCH: WAR CHALLENGES OF THE CROWNED PERIWINKLE AND PLUME;

2. …are done with the final draft of an 8,000 word Gothic short story, “A Gothic Rose for Emily the Goth” which will appear in Martin Greenberg’s anthology HOW DOES YOUR GOTHIC GROW? (DAW BOOKS);

3. …completed the research on buggy whip manufacture in Lutchveldt, Illinois in 1878 (not only were buggy whips produced in this quaintly useless hamlet but also the sockets wherein they were placed) and are now prepared to write the definitive article on the subject for PICAYUNE GAZETTE.

So…

What are you working on now?

History Time: My first novel came out in 1967. My first pro level publication, academic though it was, preceded that by two years. Since then, I’ve edited four books, written 11, edited or produced or packaged a small slew of magazines, comic books, trading cards, published close to 600 “shorter things,” hither, yon, and in Poland…

The day this STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED appears, July 8, I will be 61 years old. Thank you, thank you, a donation in my name may be made to me… Cashiers checks preferred. (Still digressing: old people tend to ramble… Four days earlier, yes, Independence Day, Jane and I marked 36 years of marriage–to each other! We’ll celebrate with ten days in France in August.)

Undigressing: As you can imagine, from back when the Queen Mother was knee high to a crumpet, I’ve been hearing:

What are you working on now?

And I’ve always, always, always had an answer.

There’s the novel about gunfighters: one’s an old whiskeyhead (which was the case for many of ‘em) and the other a former prizefighter who’s missing a hand … The book was called TROUBLESEEKERS; I wrote it about 1981. It didn’t sell. It shouldn’t have.

A comic book: See, we’ll have a Hemingway “tip of the iceberg” approach instead of the over-the-top narration that’s come to be called “comic book story”: it will be subtle … That comic was NIGHT CITY; art by masters Don Kramer and Mark Nelson. Called “perfect comic book stories” by the Hartford-Courant. Nominee for “Best Illustrated Narrative,” International Horror Guild. Didn’t sell 500 copies.

I think my novel THE DEADLY ELECTION, 1976, ought to kick off a series: THE DEADLY SCHOOL BOARD MEETING, THE DEADLY DOORKNOB, THE DEADLY DOGFOOD (Hey, was that last one prophetic or was it?) Series did not happen. Probably just as well.

Jerry Williamson’s asked me for a story for MASQUES. I wrote it…

Mort, what are you working on now?

I’ve got to be working on something. Got to. This brings in the bucks. This earns the rep. I’m going for all of it: Super-quality. Super-commerciality. Super-Stardom.

I’m working on:

Hey, just got a great opportunity to do a Batman©®™ novella with The Catwoman©®™ and all kinds of other licensed©®™ characters…

Time to research Southern Illinois AKA “Little Egypt.” The last man legally hanged in the state went to the gallows in Benton, Illinois, my wife’s home town! Tell me this is material I won’t use in a story. (The story is called “Buckeye Jim in Egypt” and it’s one I’m proud of.)

An anthology of writing by school kids and senior citizens? Yeah, I’d love to make that happen!

Jerry Williamson asked me for a story for MASQUES II. I wrote it. (It’s called “If You Take My Hand, My Son.” Visitors to ELALEPH, the leading science-fiction/fantasy website in South America, voted it the Fourth Best Horror Story of All Time, Mort said, braggingly. You can find it comic bookized in J.N. WILLIAMOSN’S MASQUES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF ELEGANT EVIL; you can hear it, along with Joe Lansdale’s “God of the Razor,” in the Grist Mill’s audio production www. amfmtheater.com)

What are you working on now?

Truth: Before this year, there was never a time in my writing life (and how do you separate that from you life life? You don’t!) when I haven’t had answers aplenty to that inquiry.

It’s how the mind works for a writer, isn’t it?

I’m working on a musical for claymation puppets and once I finish up the “how to” article on varnishing cicadas I want to do a series of related short stories about Tom Sawyer’s sister, Mary…

Sure, the brain is always linking this to that, making the connections, coming up with ideas—and the excitement that propels you to start hammering out the words.

A paperback series based on the concept for a videogame concept that was conceptualized by a nearly literate nephew of Colin Powell? Just titles: To Kill a TweetyBird; The Bite At The End; For Whom the Bell Gongs; The Secret of the Secret…

Jerry Williamson’s asked me for a story for Masques III. Oh, there’ll be a Masques IV. Oh, yeah, Jer, glad to. Cripes, buddy, you and me, we’ve been at this a while, haven’t we… It’s Masques V. Hey, Jer? Jerry?

And then, last February, at a department meeting of the fiction writing faculty at Columbia College (where, I am proud to say, I teach with a whole bunch of teachers—who teach!) I was asked:

Surprise, surprise…

What are you working on now, Mort?

And my answer was, “Nothing.”

And the response of some of my colleagues…

You’re what? You’ve always got something going. What are you working on? Can’t talk because of a contractual issue? Afraid you’ll jinx the project? Accurse the creating?

Come on, man. You’re prolific. “(Prolific = publishing a few things each year for a lotta years!)

Give us tuchus affen tish, the legit goods.

What kind of creative hustle you got going?

So okay, here’s what I am working on:

I’m reading many good books but trying to do it in the way of the thoughtful reader, someone who wants to experience the book as an experience—and not as the reader-writer with an unblinking editorial eye and an always muttering judgmental brain saying, “Yeah, you can use his transitional device to get into your flashback—and how about the way he picks up the pace by…”

I’m going to the Art Institute and looking at Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker without speculating about the old sot’s earlier life, which I plan to incorporate in my novella “Childhood of the Absinthe Drinker.”

I’m listening to the piano solo treatment of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition without trying to visualize the motion picture it should be a soundtrack for—the film I should be writing.

Hey, this evening I’ll go uptown with Jane to “Cruise Night” and look at these old cars and I won’t be concerned if I don’t memorize the 1949 Hudson’s grille so I can use it in the story of…

And you know what? I’m playing a lot of guitar. I’ve got some Gary Davis style stuff down, am getting comfortable with fairly complex jazz progressions, etc. My hands don’t work as nimbly as they used to (if you live in the Midwest, you will get arthritis!), so I’ve had to go for style.

So, Castle, you’re not writing?

I wouldn’t say that. Just the other day, I put together a really fine lesson plan for my “Researching and Writing Historical Fiction” class; I will definitely use it next semester.

I’ve never missed writing my STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED column; don’t plan to.

Let’s say I’m not writing much—now.

There’s a line in that wonderful movie Hard Times, in which Charles Bronson is a tough street / prize fighter. He says, “I’m just filling in the in-betweens.”

I have the not unpleasant feeling these days that I am filling in my in-between. The first 60 years are racked up—and now we’ve hit the drifting / floating spot that precedes the next 60.

Taking a bit of a breather.

Books I might want to write? Stories? Maybe a stage play or two? Comics? A lengthy narrative poem? Some thing for a medium that is only now being invented?

I think they’ll happen.

Indeed, I’m thinking about saying “yes” to a novella that Brian Yount proposed I do. Brian edits Doorways, which is on the way to becoming a really fine magazine—and I’d like to contribute and so, assuming an idea commands, demands, and politely seeks my attention…

But—

What are you working on now, Mort?

I’ve got 903 writing related projects, mini-projects, and tedium tasks I’ve gotta get done before noon so I can take care of the monster sized slate by evening…

I think I’ve outlived those days, days laden with self-inflicted panicked compulsion. (What makes Morton run?) Perhaps in its time that creative drive produced enough work that pleased me and still pleases me, currently bringing on a sense of, if not “That’s good,” then at least “That’s good enough,” so that, when you ask…

What are you working on now?

I can say, “Nothing. Well, nothing much…

—But I’m really into it.”

Mort Castle

STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED – Ambition

May 8th, 2007 3 comments

by Mort Castle

If you wish to succeed as a writer, you have to have ambition. You’ve heard that before. Of course, there are some dissenting voices to be heard:

Ambition is the last refuge of failure.
–Oscar Wilde

It is the constant fault and inseparable evil quality of ambition, that it never looks behind it.
–Seneca

Ambition often puts men upon doing the meanest offices: so climbing is performed in the same posture with creeping.
–Jonathan Swift

It should go without saying, but I am going to say it: a writer has to have talent. Of course, there are different ways to look at talent.

If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent.
–Isaac Newton

Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

As writers, we know that we must strive for originality.

About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.
–Josh Billings

No question, though, if you unite ambition, talent, and originality, why, writer, you can make… ART! You can be an ARTIST!

Fashion is a potency in art, making it hard to judge between the temporary and the lasting.
–E. C. Stedman

The people who make art their business are mostly imposters.
–Pablo Picasso

Well, maybe we don’t want to aim that high. We’ll settle for just entertaining, right?

The only way to amuse some people is to slip and fall on an icy pavement.
–Ed Howe

And let’s not forget, as writers we have the opportunity to teach–and there are many interesting lessons we can provide:

I teach that all men are mad.
–Horace

To be good is noble, but to teach others how to be good is nobler—and less trouble.
–Mark Twain

He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.
–George Bernard Shaw

But no matter how you view it, writing is a great business.

Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.
–Sinclair Lewis

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.
–Jules Renard

Hope you’ve enjoyed these words about words, my words of wisdom for this installment of STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED.

Cleverness is not wisdom.
–Euripides

Oh, yeah? Sez who?
–Mort Castle

DO YOU DO BLURBS?

April 7th, 2007 4 comments

By Mort Castle

The most exciting and moving romantic vampire story since somebody else wrote an exciting and moving romantic vampire story.
Lualu Beeble
Author of the Fabio LaCroix Vampio
series of Moving Romantic Vampire Novels

Page turner plot, characters more multi-dimensional than Sybil, heart stopping suspense, low in trans fat, and providing long lasting spiritual renewal, Joe’s Big Tush is the read of week!

Morg E. Lualu
Author of Chicken Soup for Chickens

Every so often, writers ask me for blurbs: those chockfull of pith quotes that can be slapped on a book’s cover or dust jacket and are guaranteed to boost sales by at least 127%.

(Digression: Either that or they don’t…Hey, I just bought a book because it was blurbed by Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote, “There are many words in this book.” Then again, every so often, I see a blurb on a book and that does make me say, “No thanks; if that yutzo likes it, not my speed.”)

Sometimes I say, “Yes, of course I am happy to write a blurb for your book.” This response is warranted when I’m dealing with a writer whose work I know—and have known—for a goodly length of time. If a Bob Weinberg, Gary Braunbeck, Wayne Allen Sallee, or Liz Massie were to seek a Mort mini-paean of praise for a book, there’d be no question: these writers are bonded. The worst book they could come up with would be a noble failure; the best book… Well, take a look at Ms. Massie’s Wire Mesh Mothers or Mr. Sallee’s The Holy Terror.

Sometimes I say to I. Seeka Blurb… No.

Why the negative?

Oh, that could be because I just plain don’t feel like it. Hey, this fame thing… you get tired of seeing your name everywhere, you know.

Or it could be because I am simply not the right reader for your work. If you’ve read all the Tom Clancy books and you are writing “in the tradition of Tom Clancy” then you probably should ask Tom Clancy for a blurb because Tom Clancy is not my taste—though I recognize his professional word-slinging skill and have no problem with the fans of his work, because one man’s ceiling is another man’s sauna, etc.

Or it could be because… I’ve seen your work and you’re more likely to be one more anonymous name on the roster of a 12 Step Program held in the basement of a Methodist church in Bungee, Wisconsin than on the NY Times Bestsellers list.

Or it could be because… You are a jerk. You have done something bad-jerky that involved me, my friends, the community of decent people, and I am not Buddha enough not to carry a grudge, so, hell yeah… I’ll give you a blurb—if I can be assured it will be on any work of yours published posthumously.

You jerk.

But to most blurb-seekers I say neither yes nor no.

I am the “Maybe Man.”

Certainly I am gratified—hell, flattered—when someone thinks a word of commendation from me might matter.

But I am careful. I do not hand out those commendatory utterances like the new kid at school passing out Valentines on 02/14.

(Digression: Are there authors who do that? Probably not. Nah… I don’t know where the idea might have come from…)

What I say to most people who request a Mort-blurb…

Mort on the Soap Box:

I like to think that when I praise something, it means I am praising it. I like to think that I have earned a reputation for having taste. I like to think that readers think I think.

Therefore…

I will read your book.

If I can honestly say, “I like this,” then I will indeed say that. Publicly. Loudly. And happily.

And, I hope, with more word-élan than you have here.

After all, this guy has been a teacher since the decade Dewey started his Decimal System, and educating means you guide people to what is worth reading.

If I have to say, “No, I am sorry; I cannot laud your endeavor,” then I will also say so. To you. And to no one else.

I owe you that.

And of course, I realize—unlike other egoistic, narcissistic, solipsistic souls—that my opinion is just and only my opinion. I recently said “Sorry, this doesn’t make it” to an author whose book proved to not need a Mort Castle blurb: instead, the publisher used a nice quote from Publisher’s Weekly.

Mort Castle’s latest book is the newest book to be released since his last book.
–Mort Castle
Storytellers Unplugged