Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Friday, April 30, 2010

"You Shoulda Met Me Before I Was Famous"

Or so Mother Bennett said when we were in the middle of that bishop thing.

Associated Content ran a piece on Propay vs. the Literary Underworld, quoting my previous blog post extensively. Unfortunately I guess Propay didn't comment, and there's already trolls! Apparently I'm just "bitter" about "being declined" and must've been rejected by Paypal too. Hee.

For the record, in case anyone cares: Propay made it very clear in all our communications that we were turned down because of our content, not because of anything having to do with our business structure or credit, and our site is protected by an SSL certificate. Now, whether Propay has the legal right to reject a customer based on legally-protected content under the First Amendment is for someone smarter than me to say - I'm betting probably they do. But being legal doesn't make it right.

That's why I stated it publicly, so my fellow entrepreneurs can choose with whom they do business. We can't always avoid doing business with companies whose practices make us scream - hello Wal-mart - because in this modern reality, you sometimes have to hold your nose and go with the lowest bidder. But I wanted people to know what's really lurking behind those "legal agreements" in the small print at the bottom of the page that no one reads when they're signing up for a financial service.

Oh, and for the record: We take Paypal. We've used Paypal since day one and have had no problems. I do not use Paypal's Virtual Terminal for credit card processing because it costs $30 a month plus 3.5 percent of our sales and 30 cents a transaction, and that's too high for the small sales volume of the Literary Underworld. I really wish it were cheaper, because it'd be the easiest way.

Signal boosts from authors Sara Harvey, who sent a letter to Propay (unknown if they responded); Angelia Sparrow, whose books are still 10 percent off all week (see what I did there?); Keith DeCandido, who isn't even with LitUnd but supports us; and Facebook support from D.A. Adams, Steven Shrewsbury, Van Allen Plexico and many more.

Along with some hilarious jokes.

As some have pointed out, we made several assumptions. We assume because it's based in Utah that it's run by Mormons; someone dug up that one of their corporate heads is a descendant of Joseph Smith - it may or may not have been a factor.

Others have pointed out that we do carry erotica, so perhaps it was "any sexual content at all" rather than "OMG teh gay" that made them reject us. I don't know, and frankly I don't particularly care. I personally think it was the GLBT content, since a Nicholas Sparks love story was not likely to ping their radar, but whether it was "gays=pornography" or "any sex at all=pornography," I find it equally stupid.

And, as Sara Harvey points out, it's someone else's morality interfering in my livelihood.

Personally, I don't know if it's a Mormon institution or if the Mormon faith (or any faith) had anything to do with our rejection. I do know that they rejected us for our content and no other stated reason, and that is what I find so offensive as a lifelong supporter of the First Amendment in my professional life as a journalist as well as my career as an author.

No, I've not heard anything from them, nor do I intend to contact them again. I do not want my money going to people who would censor me or others based on our legitimate free speech. As of this morning they refunded my fee, which is the only reason I would have to speak to them again.

And we will continue to carry quality fiction on the Literary Underworld, even if it has sex, even if it has gay characters, even if the covers might occasionally offend someone. For as long as we can stay in business, with or without credit cards, we will not censor ourselves just to get by the blue-noses. That's not why we became writers. We're writers by the credo that Stephen King told his children: Fiction is the truth inside the lie. We tell the truth.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Propay: the Internet's Chastity Belt

I cannot recall a recent time when I have been so angry.

As you probably know, I started doing the speculative-fiction convention circuit about six years ago, upon the sale of my first novel. After a few years, I saw how silly it was for each of the authors to get a separate table in the dealer's room just to hawk our own books. It was a waste of space in the convention hall, a waste of time and money for us - you have to sell a metric ton of books to be able to make your costs back when you're solo on a table, and there's no one to back you up when you need a break from shilling your wares.

So I started sharing tables, first with a couple of my close friends who also were doing the circuit, and then bringing in other authors we met at conventions. Soon I began carrying their stock with me on tour, in the hopes that I could drum up a few extra sales for them at shows they couldn't attend. They were horror, science fiction, fantasy… and the occasional paranormal romance. You know, the genre that's burning up the top-ten lists?

Eventually it became an actual business, with commissions reinvested in the next show, the next table. My goal has always been just to keep it self-sustaining, and at that it's been… close. I established a web store so we could supplement our income selling our books to people who might not be able to catch up with us at conventions.

The idea was for small press authors to help each other, to stay alive in an economy where no one is buying books, to keep our work available in a publishing climate where bookstores are failing, chains are refusing small press and signings are harder to schedule.

Almost none of our titles are self-published. They are nearly all from traditional small press, with some published by New York conglomerates. Most are horror, science fiction or fantasy - the sort of books you'll find on the convention circuit.

They are NOT pornography.

And yet, that is what Propay is calling us.

After approximately one zillion requests from readers at conventions and online alike, I decided to look for a way to accept credit cards without having to use Paypal. I researched every service I could find.

Two friends from the convention circuit recommended Propay. Based in Utah, it had been around for five years and specialized in small businesses like mine. Its rates were reasonable and charges were simple to run and transfer. Both of these friends work like I do: they do trade shows or conventions, and supplement with online sales via a self-maintained web store.

I was careful, of course. I purchased an SSL certificate for the site via our hosting service. I checked all the caveats. Then I signed up for Propay. They took my money and gave me an account. "Welcome to Propay!" I announced to our fans via Twitter, Facebook and the mailing list that we were now taking credit cards. Huzzah! I even got my first credit-card order.

A day later, I was informed that due to the "high-risk" nature of my business, my account was being cancelled. They would refund my fee.

I was flabbergasted. What had I done wrong? I got the SSL certificate, which they didn't say I needed but which my separate reading said was a good idea. I sell books. How is that any more "high-risk" than selling yarn or corsets or perfume? What is it their concern if I go out of business?

I checked their list of banned businesses. It seems the "high-risk" part comes from their risk that I'm a scammer. No, I'm not a bail bondsman, a pharmacist (?) or running a pyramid scheme. I'm not doing anything illegal of which I'm aware and while I can't understand why they won't take on software or live-animal vendors, I still don't fit those categories.

Books are not listed as a high-risk category.

I called their customer service line and was put into the voicemail of "Spencer," in their risk department. I waited a day, and then I called Spencer back. He politely told me that he was the one who had personally reviewed my business and flagged it as an unacceptable use. As a pornographic merchant.

I really couldn't believe it. I laughed and said, "We do carry some romance novels, but they're not pornography. They're available at Borders, for heaven's sake."

Spencer told me he would have the rest of the risk assessment team re-evaluate it and get back to me by the end of the day.

I went to look at our site. What could have made them think I was hawking porn? We don't have pop-up ads with scantily-clad women waggling themselves at us - hell, we don't have ads at all. Our featured author this week is Angelia Sparrow, who does write mostly romance novels. Two of her book covers have shirtless men on them.

One has a cartoon couple sitting on a park bench together. Horrors!

I honestly felt they would take a closer look, realize we're not a porn merchant, and authorize my account. I mean, the list is ridiculous. Am I selling mail-order brides? A sexually-based dating service? A topless bar? Of course not. Homosexual content does not pornography make, not even for the Supreme Court.

Later, I got an email from Spencer: "We have reviewed your business again and still find it unsupportable through Propay. We are sorry for the inconvenience and hope you will find another merchant provider that can meet your needs."

Now I'm angry.

I guess I should have applied last week - Steven Shrewsbury was our author spotlight, and his covers have a snarling hell-beast and a swirling red darkness from which a demon will emerge. Perhaps that would have met with Propay's approval. Good thing they didn't see Sara Harvey's "Convent of the Pure"! That cover has a woman in a corset, holding a crossbow! The ghost of her dead lover dances behind her!

Dear Propay: If I were really selling porn, we'd be making a hell of a lot more money.

It is hard enough to be taken seriously as authors of speculative fiction that *gasp* occasionally includes sex in the Age of Sparkly Vampires. We don't carry smut for smut's sake. I carry work that has actual plot, stories and characters and intelligence in a fantastic setting. Books that could be characterized as paranormal romance or even erotica are maybe 13 out of more than 60 titles we carry, about half of which are on the web store.

I'm disappointed beyond words. Propay had an excellent structure, perfect for our needs. It was one $35 annual fee with a percentage taken from each purchase. By contrast, other services were horrifyingly overpriced for a tiny business like mine. Paying $35 a year is reasonable cost of doing business; $30 a month is not, unless our business picks way, way up.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't briefly consider taking down our romance section just for the day. Just to get the account going, get by the blue-noses at Propay. Once we were an established customer, they couldn't then go back and cancel our account. Hold off for a couple of days, then put the romance novels back up.

But that would mean validating their stupid morality play, and I refuse to censor my people to satisfy some bureaucrat in Utah. My authors do not write pornography. They write books of worlds far away and nearby, of the darkest desires of the human heart as well as the scariest creatures the imagination can brew in the shadows. My authors write fantastic books, and it's a pity that more bookstores don't carry them, that for many of them, Amazon and the Literary Underworld are the only places they can sell their stuff.

If Propay doesn't want our business as it is, it's their loss.

But more than taking my business elsewhere, I want to let my fellow entrepreneurs know that apparently Propay considers two men sitting beside each other on a park bench to be pornography. That they refuse to help my customers use credit cards because I might steal their money, because as a "smut peddler" I am clearly untrustworthy.

I am a writer, and yet I don't have words strong enough for this. Hell, maybe we should pick up some porn. It'll help pay the extra cost for processing those credit cards.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Miracle Girl

They say if you fold a thousand cranes, you can make a miracle happen. And we called her Miracle Girl.

Jennie Sutton had cystic fibrosis. Her lungs destroyed themselves from the inside out, and by the time I met her and her mother, Selena Rochlis, she was already on the transplant list. The disease had robbed Jennie of an adult body, so petite and whisper-thin that at first I thought she was maybe 14 years old instead of a young woman in her 20s. Jennie and Selena came to St. Louis to wait for lungs, and after a long, hard wait, they were rewarded with that precious gift.

Jennie's transplant went very well, and for a time, we got a glimpse of a Jennie without disease. She could walk without help, could go out without an oxygen tank. Friends took her to a little town along the Mississippi with famous levee-high pies, and Jennie relished the ability to walk about the town unaided, finally free.

She was going back to college, she told me. Her dream was to work in early childhood education, if her health would allow. Any job allowing her to work with children made her happy.

But Jennie's freedom was short-lived. Last fall, her body began to reject the new lungs, and soon the doctors said there was no way to stop it. Jennie needed new lungs again.

Jennie hesitated at first to go through the process again. But in the end, she decided to fight.

On the one-year anniversary of her transplant, her re-birthday, we gathered to celebrate with Jennie. We had to be quiet when she spoke, because she did not have enough breath to speak over us. She told us she had been accepted back onto the list as a good candidate for a transplant.

That's when we started to fold the cranes.

Drawn from every color and pattern, from origami kits bought at stores to random pieces of paper. Nearly everyone folded the cranes, because we needed a miracle to happen. Jennie was getting weaker every day. My son learned how to fold cranes while joining the assembly line for Jennie, as we waited for lungs.

And waited.

There are 100,000 people on the transplant list and every organ donor could save as many as 50 lives and there still aren't enough.

You do the math.

As long as I've known her, Selena has worn the kelly-green ribbon for organ transplant awareness. She was a mother who had spent much of her life fighting for her daughter's life. The frustration she experienced is something I cannot imagine; knowing that every day, perfectly good lungs were going into the ground and her daughter was left gasping for breath.

Imagine my surprise, as someone who had checked "organ donor" on her license forms since she was seventeen, to turn over my driver's license and discover that I am not actually an organ donor. I never signed the back of the license, you see.

And it turns out you have to do more than that to become an organ donor - you have to discuss it with your family, preferably in writing, and to register with the Illinois Secretary of State. If you haven't done so since the law changed in 2006, you might not be a donor.

In the end, there were 1,008 cranes decorating the waiting room of Barnes-Jewish Hospital's intensive care unit when Jennie Sutton died Sunday night at the age of 25. She died holding her mother's hand and surrounded by her friends and family.

She died waiting for lungs.

Perhaps, as I told my son, the real miracle was that she got a breath of time without this wretched disease. Perhaps the gift she received was the chance to walk by the river, and perchance to dance. Truly, her pain is over now.

But I am angry. I am furious on behalf of Jennie and Selena, because if we all turned over our licenses there would be no need for a list. There would be no need for Selena to watch her daughter gasp away her last breath as we grieved with her. We are not meant to bury our children; there is something innate in the human soul that forbids such a thing.

So I would ask of you this small favor. Turn over your driver's license and sign it. Then make sure your family knows that this is what you want, and go to to sign up. You are not too old or too young, too sick or infirm. They will try just as hard to save you if you are hurt, and they will not push your family into a decision they're not ready to make. If tragedy strikes your family, ensure that it will at least prevent another tragedy from taking place.

Because Jennie Sutton did not have to die.


Ed. note: This is a reprint of a column I wrote in March 2009, published in the Belleville News-Democrat. I do not usually write columns, but the paper made an exception in this instance. I remain grateful for it, because it is an issue on which I feel very strongly.

As I wrote the day the column ran, "It's just not supposed to be this way. It may be that life is simply unfair, and we are all grownups who know this. But there is something fundamentally wrong about it. Part of being a journalist is tilting at windmills, to shout into the rain when something is fundamentally wrong and people need to know about it. It's cheaper than therapy."

Today was the dedication ceremony for Jennie Sutton's tombstone. I was unable to be there, because I'm working this weekend. But my heart and my prayers go with Jennie's family and my friends who were there, and I hope Jennie's spirit knows how much she is loved and missed.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

one for the memory banks

You never realize the perfect times when they're happening. Only once in a while, you get a little glimpse, a hint that this is one for the memory banks.

Kiddo's violin teacher canceled his lesson, which gave me time to run by the store on the way home. No big. The boy went gallivanting about the neighborhood for an hour with his friends, so they can talk about boogers and superheroes, I will never know. I dug weeds out of the garden and cursed the rocks and nasty clay soil that grows nothing but junk weeds despite my best efforts.

Then the boy returned - precisely on time, because he loses bike privileges if he's late - and rode in circles around the parking lot while I finished weeding the flower bed. Then I enjoyed the last of the sunset, sitting in the Adirondack chair as he played soccer with the apartment building's wall.

The music rose in the deepening twilight, and when he looked over at me as Nickelback came on, I raised my hands in the awesome salute and headbanged. He declared that I am too old to be cool, stop trying. Twerp. The air was clear, the sky was beautiful and I wished on the evening star.

He made me laugh as he air-guitared, and pulled two dandelion stems to air-drum along with the music. Once the song was done, I made him go inside to de-grime himself while I put on dinner. I popped my head into the bathroom to tell him to hurry up.

BOY: What's for dinner?
ME: Tuna casserole.
BOY: Bleeech!
ME: Ahem.
BOY: I mean, yum. Yay. Awesome. I'm sorry!

I quietly went away. I quietly filled a glass with ice-cold water. And a moment later, when his attention was elsewhere, I dumped the whole glass over the top of his shower curtain.

"Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaahhhhh! Not cool, Mom! Not cool!"

Yeah, make fun of my cooking again and you'll get worse, boy.

He had three helpings of the tuna casserole while we watched STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.

Now he's in bed and I am about to close up the screen door, because it's finally getting too cool outside to keep the door open. And I find myself wondering what other people do, people who have stressful plate-spinning jobs like mine, who have so many things that take up space in their hearts and minds. After a day like today, I could not imagine coming home to an empty house, with nothing but vapid television and the thoughts in my own head.

Instead I have him, and the way he makes me laugh. He gave me a three-page comic book he drew today at latchkey, titled "Bacon Tales: The Great Escape" following the adventures of several slices of bacon. I cannot make this up.

And when I tucked him into bed tonight, he said, "I love you, Mommy." He might be a little old to still call me Mommy. But I don't care.

Because it occurred to me, sitting on the Adirondack and watching him cavort on the tiny space of grass beside the parking lot that we laughingly call our "lawn," that these are the little spaces in time I have to hold on to for the rest of my life. He will grow up someday and I have to let him go, to be the wonderful young man he's going to be. He's only going to be eleven for this little space in time.

Someday we have to leave behind the wall where I've marked his growth since 2004. It's my dearest hope that he chooses someplace nearby for college, so he'll still come by on Sunday nights to watch something geeky and eat home cooking while he does his laundry. But that's my selfish wish, and wherever he goes, I have to let him go.

So I hold onto those sweet evenings in the twilight, when he still likes me enough to let me see him be silly, when he can still say, "I love you, Mommy" and means it with no affectation or nonsense. We don't have money, we don't have a real yard and he doesn't have most of the things I wanted to give him growing up.

But we have this evening, this little space of perfect. And it's one for the memory banks.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Anatomy of how a scene sucks

I spent this evening's writing time working on a critter attack on a diner.

I needed expositional backstory on the two characters I'm introducing without having a visit from the Exposition Fairy - you know, the moment when the recruiting sergeant reads the soldier's personnel file to him so they can talk about shit both of them already know. Very exciting.

But I'm also limited to my main character's POV. Outside of the interludes, I intend to stay in her head the whole book. So I put her in a surveillance van with her superior officer, and he'll ask her to tell him what she sees. Her observations will be mostly correct, because that's what she does, and we'll learn about these two through her eyes.

Ain't I smart?

Only it doesn't work out that way. Because it's an action scene, and Sara can kibitz all she likes but she's still stuck in the van. The van is never the place to be during an operation - ask any of a hundred flunkies, from CHUCK to SNEAKERS to TRUE LIES, whether it's any fun to be the guy in the van.

The van is removed at a distance. You're part of the action, but you're observing it. We don't really care if the innocent civilian gets skewered, and we don't even care if our operatives make it out alive because we just met them. Sara's observations become annoying: instead of telling us simultaneously that Sara is smart and there's these details we need to know about these two characters, we wonder why our smart, active, kickass heroine is sitting her ass in the van when she should be kicking down the door.

I think the whole scene needs to go back to the drawing board. I need to figure out what I want from this scene, too. We need an action sequence at this point - it's been mostly talking for a while now - but even I was bored with this monster.

I honestly feel I might not struggle so much with every damn word of a book if it were the only thing I had to think about. Work and family and child care and housework and money and business and work again... And yet so many of my fellow writers manage it. Angelia Sparrow has a day job, a husband and four kids. Steve Shrewsbury astounded me last year by declaring that he has written and published more than 700 short stories - and that with a farm, a factory job (until recently) and a family.

I'm longing more and more for that Nantucket cottage, enough so that I wrote it into the goddamn book.

I'm two months behind my self-imposed schedule for this year. So what, right? The problem is that if nobody is waiting for your book, NOBODY IS WAITING FOR YOUR BOOK. You're only as alive as your last project in this business, and I'm now seven months from my last premiere.

I need more hours in the day. Or possibly liquor. Here's hoping your work went better tonight, my friends. I'm going to give it a fresh go tomorrow.

This Is the Game That Never Ends....

...It just goes on and on my friend.

The longest game in baseball history was Chicago vs. Milwaukee in 1984 at eight hours and 6 minutes.

The longest game by innings was Brooklyn vs. Boston in 1920 at 26 innings, but there's an asterisk because they called it a tie when it got dark. 1920, you know. After that it's a tie: the Chicago/Milwaukee game above was 25 innings, as was St. Louis and THE METS in 1974.

In 1971, a game between Oakland and California went 20 innings without a run before Oakland got a hit. In 1968, a Houston-New York game went 24 innings before seeing a run.

So we didn't bust any records Saturday. Except perhaps in snark. But when Kiddo's godfather decides to show us a good time, he doesn't do it by half measures.

Tom Collins is a reporter, New York native, my former partner and godfather to my son. We don't see enough of him, because he lives a whole four hours away, which is no good excuse for either of us. Long ago we arranged for him to come down for the day and we'd all go to a Cardinals game. He brought a friend along: a fellow newsman who works for a radio station in northern Illinois, also named Tom.

Therefore there was much shop talk, AP-bashing and sharing of war stories. You know what journalists are like when they get together. Poor Kiddo. :)

Then the game started. And who knew we'd be signing our lives away?

The Twitter of Deepening Insanity (a.k.a. This is the Game That Never Ends)

2 p.m.
Tom, Kiddo and I are at Busch Stadium. Glorious day, boy in seventh heaven.

3 p.m.
Tom and Boy have a bet. If Mets win, Boy has to wear Tom's Mets jersey. If Cards win, vice versa.

Yes, we are walking around St. Louis with a man in a Mets jersey. I promised his wife I'd keep him safe.

5 p.m.
Bottom of the fifth and no runs. It's like a hockey game without the fighting. *ducks*

Still no runs!

6 p.m.
Has a game ever gone all nine innings without a run? I wonder what the record is.

Holy foul balls, 'Bat'-man. We're in extra innings!

Two on base and Pujols at bat… They walked him. Wuss!

Bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the tenth…

Holy crap. The fielder leapt into the stands to catch the ball. Into the eleventh we go. Tom is extremely unpopular in our stand.

7 p.m.
This is the game that never ends… it just goes on and on my friend…

Bottom of the freaking eleventh inning. Tom will have to pull the plug soon. Kiddo wants to stay. Score, Cards!

Twelfth-inning trivia: Glenn Close threw one of the opening pitches of the Game That Never Ends.

Tom is now rooting for the Cards if only it gets the game over with.

Stop walking Pujols, you wusses!

Now waiting by the entrance as Tom goes to get car. He will retrieve my purse and leave us - his friend has offered a ride. Win already!

8 p.m.
On to the 14th. I will see you again someday, dear friends…

We are settled in for the long haul. Top of the 15th, baby.

On the east ramp, there are a gazillion kids waiting to run the bases. They've been waiting since the seventh inning.

They've waited through nearly eight innings. It's gonna turn into LORD OF THE FLIES any minute now.

9 p.m.

So close! And yet another inning. We're three away from two games for the price of one.

Left at bat: 8 Mets, 18 Cardinals.

You know that cavalry call that ends in "CHARGE!" We are now yelling "SCORE!" Then Tom2 yelled "FREEDOM!"

For those keeping score at home: bottom of the 16th and no runs.

Runner tagged mere steps from home! 17 innings! Stadium, please reopen the food booths before we eat the kids on the east ramp.

There is one food stand still open. We are flocking to it. We haven't eaten in 11 innings.

10 p.m.
Actual record is 1920, 26 innings.

For actual time played, in 21 minutes we have the record.

We vote they send McGuire in to pinch-hit. We'll finally be free!

I have not suffered lo these many years to watch the Mets win.

(This is when the Mets won.)

Meh. Still… FREEDOM!

It took 6 hours 53 minutes and 20 innings to lose to the Mets. :P

Facts and stats about this strange game. Obviously my colleague - whom I could see in the press box from our seat - had nothing else to do during this War & Peace game.

We made jokes about how many relief pitchers and extra players they put in - speculating that they were now busing them in from the AAA club. (They almost had time to make the drive.)

And that bet? Poor Kiddo. Next time we visit his godfather, he has to wear the Mets jersey.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Steamposium Report

Yeah, it's a week late. You want punctuality? I'm a writer, dangit.


I decided in advance that I wasn't going to care about making a profit this time. This one was for the boy, and for Jenny.* We hadn't gotten into the dealers room, so I was dependent on the kindness of non-strangers anyway. The boy was excited beyond measure to stay in a hotel, go to the City Museum and have adventures in costume.

As usual, we didn't get going nearly as quickly as I'd planned. The show had been going for some time when we arrived. My stuff was already set up in the marketplace, which is a brilliant idea: a room with trinkets and products set up like a shop, but you don't have to stay with your table and the show takes a percentage for the charity. Excellent.

That left me free to get settled and feed the boy. I can highly recommend the Clayton Crowne Plaza. The on-site restaurant is not bad and the first I've seen in a hotel with actually reasonable prices. The room is quite comfortable - the bed is the best in any hotel yet. The boy discovered the pool and free (!) video arcade with ancient classics like Frogger, Galaga and Ms. Pac Man. When adults heard about this arcade, their eyes lit up brighter than his.

While the boy wandered into the dance lessons, I went to Nick Valentino's panel and discovered a steampunk movie/literature discussion in progress. I got a lot of ideas and insight from that group, so when they departed to the bar I determined to follow them. But first I got the boy settled in the room with a few cookies and "Princess and the Frog." He was thrilled that they have bathrobes for our use. Bathrobes, Mom!

Then to the cocktail hour, and I ended up outside with the smokers. There was much fun conversation, ranging from steampunk gadgets to zombie comics to the publishing industry. You know. Con talk.

I had a great time. My lungs were complaining by the time I left, but I didn't care. There were a lot of familiar faces, but quite a few new folk - it's not Conflation redux by any stretch.

I called it quits at the positively sane hour of 1 am. I must be getting old.


I think Murphy took over. The boy forgot his medicine, my credit card was missing and the bus didn't come for the first trip to the City Museum. The hotel sent us with a very nice driver who didn't have directions, but we eventually found our way and it's a glorious day.

As I write this part on my iPod, I'm sitting beside the ball pit while the boy makes new friends by throwing things at them. It's surprisingly effective. I left my camera at the hotel, goody. So I'm just killing the next four hours until we go back.

He's having a wonderful time.

Later: spied a t-shirt with a football-helmet logo and the unlovely slogan: I hit your honor student so hard I dropped his GPA. This was a father, a no-neck crewcut whose linebacker build is starting to run to fat. He has a daughter in a soccer jersey and a son who's short and scrawny. This man's story is already in my head.

The City Museum amazes and perplexes me. It is the sort of insanely dangerous place we imagine cannot exist, at least for long, in our litigious age of rounded corners. No system this complex can be completely mapped, much less made absolutely safe. In the circular labyrinth alone, I found one place where teenagers could snog and three more where a young child could fall asleep and not be found for days.

I know that people do get hurt here - I read the news reports about the woman who lost a finger and the boy who had brain damage. But more people get hurt on the highway, or stung by bees in the park.

And then I look at the material used to make this place, the pieces and leftovers of the old city, and I try to imagine how they keep old iron from rusting, the old shoes slides from collapsing, that school bus suspended in midair. 

Perhaps the real wonder of the City Museum is that it is allowed to exist at all. It is perhaps a reminder to all of us, old and young, that we are not so fragile as we like to believe, and adventure still exists when we take the chance.


Upon returning, I checked into the books and discovered, sadly, that none had sold in my absence. We changed quickly - Kiddo's "steampunk" ensemble was a maroon button-down, black slacks and suspenders, and his tuxedo jacket from my mother's wedding that somehow still fits him. (Roh?) He had neglected to pack more than two pair of socks, so I cannot describe the stench around his feet. He's only eleven! Could puberty please slow down a bit?

I wore my Victorian lady outfit - the floor-length black skirt, roses corset with black undershirt, and a black fringed shawl around my shoulders. I must find a black lace shawl to go with that one. What made it steampunk? Um, my only steampunk item is a key necklace I found at Strange Folk Festival last year: a key, surrounded by cogs and ribbons. It works like a choker, which would be noticed if my neck weren't so fat.

Many thanks to the Curious Cat herself, Karen DeGuire, who not only helped me get into the corset (as I was sans flunky this round) but was the original seamstress on both corsets. Her work is strongly recommended.

I was already in pain from the City Museum. The boy had dragged me through the caves, and I swear he chose the most narrow and uncomfortable passages. I duck-walked. I crawled on hands and knees. I scooted on my decidedly large ass. I commando-crawled. On a few uncomfortable occasions, I inchwormed, both on back and on stomach. One would think all this work, combined with little food, would cause me to lose weight. Heh.

First we caught the second half of a Three Pints Gone performance, including a couple of new songs. We both love the 'Pints, and it was great to see them in a more intimate setting than Faire. Then I made him come get pictures taken with me in our Saturday-evening finery. Finally I released him to go play videogames, and I wandered back to the patio.

There was poker, at which I truly suck - before long I had exhausted the pennies we were using for chips and was playing with coffee stirrers, to the general amusement of all (and a serious reevaluation of monetary systems from Karen DeGuire, who was raking in the dough. Ms. Moneybags there is not to be trifled with at the poker table, my friends.)

There was the charity auction, hawking stuff to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. I made a mad dash to the book rack to grab a COLD ONES and toss it in. I stood up front at Alesia's request, and I attempted to drum up the price by offering to sign it any way you want. Then I realized what I said and probably blushed like mad. I meant whatever WORDS you want, but I was informed later of the snickering suggestions in the back row. Y'all are pervs.

Nick Valentino also donated a book - he and I got to chat quite a bit, as he and Jon Klement and I were the only authors at the show. Nick is burning up the circuit with his new book THOMAS RILEY, folks - a steampunk adventure of the Indiana Jones variety, as I hear. We're carrying it at the Literary Underworld, and I personally plan to read it as soon as I finish Keith DeCandido's new book.

Nick has an interesting observation that pretty much any story can be steampunk, if you put the effort into your worldbuilding. (Forgive me if I'm oversimplifying his point; this blog entry's already pretty long.) It got me to thinking, because honestly the thing that turned me off steampunk was the idea that it was too limiting. A Victorian era with modern technology, run on gears and steam. A clothing style that tried to be a subgenre.

But I'm gaining a different perspective, the more I read about it and listening to the people I met at Steamposium. The Victorian era was many things, but it sure wasn't boring. It had a wide variety of fun possibilities, and I'm fascinated by some of the possibilities for adventure and horror. I will definitely have to play around with it once I'm done with the nineteen other things currently on my plate.

I ran away from the scary dancing, because I hadn't attended the formal dance lessons on Friday and I don't dance in front of humans anyway. It's aesthetically displeasing to watch me dance.

During all this, the boy dashed upstairs and changed into his swimsuit so he could paddle around the pool and pretend he wasn't looking at the St. Ignatius girls' volleyball team that was sharing the hotel with us. It's highly amusing to watch him grow up. Eventually he got bored of swimming and changed back into his tux, so he could join us at the patio and watch me lose at poker. Badly.

Finally I stashed him back up in the room, cuddled into his jammies. I retrieved my tarot cards and went back downstairs, where I read tarot for them what wants it. The cards were funky that night, kept tossing weird cards at me in places they shouldn't be. I am the world's worst tarot reader - I have to look everything up in the little booklet because I can't memorize for shit. But it was fun.

At long last I went to bed, muscles aching from the combined abuse of the City Museum and corset. One tired puppy was I.


We luxuriated in sleeping until a shocking 8 a.m. before we got rolling. Breakfast in the hotel restaurant turned out to be toast and yogurt unless we paid for the full buffet, which they didn't tell us until after we'd loaded up on eggs and bacon. I disapproved, but hell with it - boy was hungry.

First we packed out of the room, which as always took longer than you would think, only being there for two days. Then I sent the boy off to the arcade while I stationed myself by the book rack with my laptop. Plaintive eyes. Don't you want to buy my books? Apparently everyone drank too much, because we sold maybe two more books. Meep. What's worse, I had an attack of the stupids and left one of my two white folding tables at the hotel, which I will sadly never see again. I'm really mad at myself for that, because those tables are awesome and not exactly cheap.

Still, we had a wonderful time and the hotel was great. The boy and I escaped a tad early because I promised him a few hours at Six Flags before we headed home. It's always worth the trek out to Eureka so I can see the utter joy and delight in his face as he crests the waves on the rollercoasters. The only thing that comes close is the giant waffle ice cream cone he always manages to wheedle out of me on our way out the gate.

But best of all - and the reason I waited a week to post this, so I could get the total - is that we raised more than $1,100 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, plus the small amount our internet orders raised during Steampunk Week. That, after all, was the point.

And it was fantastic.

* Those who are unaware: my friend Jennie Sutton died last March waiting for a lung transplant, after struggling her whole life with cystic fibrosis. Steamposium was founded to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

The Keyboard Prayer

Our program who art in memory
HELLO be thy name.

Thy operating system come,
thy commands be done,
at the printer as it is on the screen.

Give us this day our daily data,
and forgive us our I/O errors
as we forgive those whose logic circuits are faulty.

Lead us not into frustration
and deliver us from power surges.

For thine is the algorithm,
the application,
and the solution,
looping forever and ever.


(c) Jeffrey Armstrong, 1985

Monday, April 05, 2010

Steampunk Week!

It's STEAMPUNK WEEK at the Literary Underworld!

Our featured title this week is the new addition THOMAS RILEY, a wild steampunk adventure by new LitUnd author Nick Valentino.

Amidst a twenty-year war, weapons designer Thomas Riley is thrust onto the front lines when a risky alchemic experiment goes wrong, embedding a foreign soul into his wily assistant Cynthia Basset. Thomas and Cynthia are forced to join with murderous sky pirates in a deadly race to capture the only man that can undo the botched alchemy: their sworn enemy.

Alexis Hart calls it "fast, furious and full of swashbuckling adventure." Reviews call it a "fantastic journey" and a great place for readers new to steampunk to explore the genre.

Steampunk Week is in honor of the first annual Steamposium convention, here in St. Louis this weekend. This is a nonprofit event, a steampunk gathering that will raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. As many of you may know, a dear friend of mine died last year while waiting for a lung transplant after struggling with cystic fibrosis all her life. Our loss, coupled with the growing interest in steampunk among fandom, inspired the magnificent Alesia Clardy to found the R.O.S.E. Society (Royal Order of Steampunk Enthusiasts) and create Steamposium as a CF fundraiser.

So in honor of our first Steamposium, all steampunk titles are being offered at 10 percent off the usual cover price.

In addition to THOMAS RILEY, Literary Underworld features:

• Sara M. Harvey's astounding CONVENT OF THE PURE, the story of a demon-fighter haunted by the ghost of the lover she failed to save.

• Also from Harvey: the new chapbook ALLEGIANCE TO A DEAD MAN featuring Emperor Norton.

• Angelia Sparrow's HOWL AT THE MISTLETOE, her collection of dark love stories including "Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch," a story of lesbian zombie fighters in a steampunk universe.

• Also from Sparrow: "Cherry Tart," included in the steamy ELLORA'S CAVEMEN: FLAVORS OF ECSTASY III. Follow a disgraced woman traveling to the moon Io in 1896 and falling hard for the outrider Ulysses.

In addition, the Literary Underworld's commission on all titles sold this week will be donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Please visit the Literary Underworld this week and take advantage of Steampunk Week! No coupon necessary. And know your money is going to a good cause.