Ice Pick Soup

VeronaTake a time journey to legendary Verona. Meet the Intuinoobs, Bubblers, spies, poets and catacomb crawlers. Return via a premier stage play in Newfoundland and have dinner in Kansas. Briefly step into the night line life of Alexis Mandell.

Short story, fiction, 13K words. Free. PDF format.

Download it here: Ice Pick Soup

Back then it didn’t matter who you were. It only mattered what you wore and how much you could drink on a given Thursday. – Unknown Poet of the period.

The best things in life are short, including people. – Orion Smiley, from the home land.

If you must make a point, never make it so sharp as to puncture yourself. – Verse from a Vin Intuinoob drinking song.

The Ice Pick Soup Saga

Summary of the Collected Works

A Note

Gregor and I have been invited to spend some time in Sogni, near legendary Verona. We will be meeting with the Intuinoobs, Bubblers and a number of other local characters, including catacomb crawlers. We can be contacted at:

Digipoint Locator ID: 395864385109:AA1:4004

using the approved trade craft and beamer protocol. We will also forward updates to this location as appropriate. In the meantime, thank you very much for the past year of fun and friendship.


Big Daddy Conlang Fathers Famous Offspring

KlingonsConlangs begot Artlangs. Science fiction writers and readers know this relationship well, even if they’ve never heard the terms. Constructed languages (conlangs) gave birth to artistic languages (artlangs). In doing so, we all inherited a fresh, fascinating vision of science fiction, mythology and fantasy writing. Artlangs opened up a very different reading experience, one that has immense staying power.

Conlangs and artlangs are a science unto themselves, an intricate study of linguistics. But we needn’t go that far to find their value. For writers, they are creative forms of expression. They are a means to add dimension and authenticity to a story line that’s intended to carry us away to other worlds and other times. They are a powerful writing device.

The Big Daddy, conlangs, has been around for a very long time. Early examples can be found from very different parts of the world across many centuries. The Lingua Ignota, created by Hildegard of Bergen, is dated from the 12th century and meant to express the language of angels. Dante Alighieri chased the perfect Italian vernacular. Kabbalistic scholars tried to hunt down and record the original language of higher beings, much like Hildegard. The list is a long one. These were the original conlangs, never designed for the pure enjoyment of readers. They served other masters.

For our purposes, artlangs are of special interest. Artlangs are not intended to be a functional, useful language. They have no real-world practicality. Instead, they are expressions and reflections of the writer’s art, a way to weave a deeper, more sustainable tale. Artlangs give characters their own special language, a way of communicating that is unique to them. Obviously, this makes the characters even more fascinating, more real to readers. It doesn’t matter that the language is incomplete or that we have little idea about its meaning or complexities. A well-constructed artlang drives us deeper into the characters and makes them come alive on the page.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

The popularity of artlangs began to take hold in the early twentieth century, probably with the publication of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He is considered to be the modern father of using an artlang to enhance his characters and story line. It was J. R. R. Tolkien who formalized the use of artlangs when he created an entire family of interconnected languages for his characters. He was so fond of artlangs that he lectured publicly on the topic. For artlangs, he became the great publicist and the writer to emulate for fantasy, myth and science fiction.

A century later, artlangs are everywhere. They have become a vital part of creating a good myth, strong characters, and lasting memories of fictional story lines. Here are a few other writers who have used artlangs to create enduring stories and engaging characters:

Anthony Burgess, Samuel R. Delany, Suzette Doctolero, Diane Duane, Suzette Haden ElginFrank Herbert, M.A.R. BarkerUrsula K. Le GuinBarry B. LongyearMorioka Hiroyuki, George Orwell, Karen Traviss, Christian Vander, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Jordan and Christopher Paolini.

There’s also a world of artlangs all around us in other forms of entertainment. Consider these: Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings (movies), Stargate SG-1, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Game of Thrones, Avatar, Dune and the Myst series of computer games. The list is enormous. Artlangs are expected, even demanded by readers, viewers and game players.

For any fiction writer, it’s important to remember that artlangs can go a long way to captivate readers. It’s not an easy task to construct an artlang and use it effectively. Artlangs demand consistency, an implication of clear meaning, coherency and a unique tonal quality that sticks with the reader. It’s something that cannot be overused or it will lead to utter confusion. Treat it like salt — a little goes a long way. When it’s done right, there are few techniques more potent than following a character through a story line in his or her own language.

To help with your artlang inspiration, here’s a famous proverb:

bortaS bIr jablu’DI’ reH QaQqu’ nay’

Get it? Its Klingonese, one of the most popular conlang/artlang constructions ever devised. It’s also one of the most complete and, like a living language, it’s still evolving.

Revenge is a dish best served cold,” uttered by Khan Nooien Singh in Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan.


Poe Toaster, Ultimate Fan

Poe Toaster (Life Magazine)Writers love their fans, and for good reason. But no writer has ever been blessed with a devoted fan to equal that of Edgar Allan Poe’s. It was a bizarre yet pleasing relationship that embodied all the elements of mystery and intrigue worthy of Poe himself, and it lasted for more than six decades.

Poe was born on January 19, 1809. Note that date. Sometime in the 1930s, the ultimate Poe fan began a bizarre annual ritual that lasted until 2009. He became known as the Poe Toaster and his legacy continued uninterrupted until the bicentennial celebration of Poe’s birth. Toaster devotees believe that the tradition was actually carried out by two individuals, most likely a father and son. In truth, no one is sure.

Half-full bottle of Cognac left at Edgar Alan ...

Poe’s original grave site lies in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. Each January 19, always in the predawn hours, an individual would stealthily visit Poe’s grave. The ritual was always the same. The Toaster would raise a glass of cognac to honor the writer, carefully place three red roses on the marker, and leave the opened bottle of cognac at the foot of the small monument. He would then disappear into the night, not to be seen again until the following year.

The Toaster was regularly seen by onlookers but his ritual was never interrupted. He was only photographed once. The alleged photo first appeared in Life Magazine, in July 1990. Like everything else about this enigma, the photograph remains controversial. The best description of the Toaster had always been provided by the many onlookers who personally witnessed the ritual, and the published photograph seemed to validate what was already known. The Toaster would invariably be dressed in black with a brimmed hat and scarf to help disguise his features. He would carry a silver-tipped cane. The disguise worked perfectly for decades.

Westminster Burial Ground on Poe's Birthday

Burial Ground on Poe’s Birthday

Although never identified, the Toaster would leave cryptic notes from time to time. A few of these notes offered a hint at the meaning of the ritual, others were so inscrutable as to be useless. In 1993, the Toaster left a message that read, “The torch will be passed,” leading Toaster devotees to conclude that the original Poe visitor had died and passed the ritual on to his “son.” By 1998, Toaster observers concluded that this new visitor was a younger man than the original Toaster. It seemed that the ritual had become inter-generational.

The second Toaster apparently had more than a sense of mystery and humor. In 2001, he left a message that contained the phrase: “The New York Giants. Darkness and decay and the big blue hold dominion over all. The Baltimore Ravens. A thousand injuries they will suffer. Edgar Allan Poe evermore.” That year, in Super Bowl XXXV, the Baltimore Ravens, named after Poe’s most famous poem, were scheduled to meet the New York Giants. It was the first time the Toaster’s messages strayed beyond his fascination with Poe. It wouldn’t be the last.

In 2004, the Toaster wrote: “The sacred memory of Poe and his final resting place is no place for French cognac. With great reluctance but for respect for family tradition the cognac is placed. The memory of Poe shall live evermore!” Toaster interpreters took this as a condemnation of France for her fierce and public resistance against the Iraq war.

Toaster followers only tried to interfere with the ritual on one occasion, in 2006. It was unsuccessful. The other visits were never disrupted even though onlookers would regularly show up at the appointed hour. From time to time, an individual would either claim to be the Toaster or know his identity. They were all hoaxers.

In 2009, the Toaster made his final appearance. He left no message and did not return in subsequent years. Toaster followers see the symmetry in this gesture. The Toaster marked the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth and simply disappeared, forever. Should someone else appear in future years in the guise of the Toaster, he will certainly be declared a hoaxer. It seems that the long-standing ritual has run its course and, true to the life of Poe himself, will always remain a mystery.

Could there have ever been a more devoted fan?

Rule-Breaking Writers Banish Beginnings

Breaking The Rules

The best writers I’ve known tend to break the rules. Many of these rules are pretty silly anyway. Among the wackiest is the idea that the writing process must always start at the beginning of the story.

It’s just not so, Captain Picard.

Some writers do start at the beginning of the story. It’s how they work and it makes their writing life orderly and predictable. Others struggle over where to begin, how to take that first step. They battle and writhe around those first few sentences, the first scene, the opening chapter. They fret and get blocked, worry and strain. Yikes! Where’s the fun in that?

Banish the beginning, I say. Just move on.

No story can ever start at the beginning. There is no beginning. Everything begins somewhere in the middle, some place after the pre-story. Stories don’t end, they just pause. So, why worry about the beginning at all?

Middle Fork trail

Instead, start with an important scene, a place that means something to you and the story. Forget the old rules of linear writing and ordered thinking. Write that important scene, introduce a vital character, offer a little problem or solve a bigger one. Then, write around the core you’ve just created.

In fact, take it further. Create a scene here and there. Make a new character appear, disappear, change shapes, howl moods, blurt out statements, take risks, overcome or be destroyed. Just make a piece of the story and enjoy the art of creation. Worry about fitting that piece into the puzzle later, perhaps much later. If you’re a true writer, the orderliness of the story line will emerge on its own.

If the beginning is where you gag and go dry, you should throw it away, for now. Move on to where your writing heart feels the pull of the story line. Go where your favorite character leads. Disorganize yourself and let the words flow. Don’t stand outside the story, jump into it with both feet.

There are so many rules to break, so many useless ways to stifle your writing heart. To write the beginning of your story first is one of them. It’s an easy rule to ignore. Whoever came up with the idea was probably not a soul-writer anyway. Ignore the advice and enjoy the freedom in your art.

Beginning of the end

Begin where your writing heart leads you. Worry about putting the pieces together when you get a few drafts under your belt, not before. You’ll feel much better about the writing process and your readers will benefit from the unfettered flow of your words.

And that’s the beginning of the story.

Secrets of the Dew Drop Inn: Let’s Get Backwards

Dew Drop Inn Forks WAYou’ve noticed the roadside sign, but have you ever stayed for the night? It’s the Dew Drop Inn and it’s much more than a cheap stopover. It’s not one place, it’s many. This is the sanctuary where writers keep their most valued treasures. You can think of it as a secret society for the pen-and-paper crowd, a storehouse of moldy mind tricks. Here’s one from the vaults.

Suspend your usual habits and your swaggering disbelief. Let’s make some heresy. Let’s break some rules. For now, let’s start at the end and give nothing to the beginning. Don’t worry about the story line, don’t even think about it. Instead, create a character.

When your character begins to take life, the story line will follow. Most everything at the DDI is different, just a little crooked, so none of this should be surprising.

OK? Let’s go.

Choose the character. Animal, vegetable or mineral? Human or not? No detailed qualities for these first few moments. Just make the barest outline of a character.

We’ll go with a human female this time.

Fill in a few blanks, just a quick sketch. Alexis. Small, a bit undernourished. Sandy hair. Pleasing, in a quiet way. Smooth movements, delicate hands. Likes flowing clothes that don’t reveal too much but are clearly feminine. Prefers pale colors, easy on the eye and mind. An ex-expatriate from Lithuania. Multi-lingual. Might be some kind of artist but it’s hard to say. Not physical, more ethereal. Definitely not a spy or weightlifter. Could be a dancer, maybe. Moves like one.

Say some more. She’s living in Italy now. Don’t know why, yet. Small town, rustic, narrow streets. In the South of the country. She likes the weather here, and the anonymity. Is this a hideaway? She walks everywhere, likes to move around. Drawn to street-side shops and carts. Hair is long and a bit curly. Never seen with others. Lives alone. Is always alone.

Scene. Today, she’s sitting outside a cafe. Not the usual scene. This is a junky street, cluttered, but not with people. Nothing opulent here. No tourists. There are tables up and down the street, each with junk for sale. Mostly odd, small items. She’s been moving up and down the strada, fingering through the goodies, saying nothing, buying nothing, apparently thinking about nothing. She’s an odd fit for this scene. Speaks to no one.

Say some more. She is lazily scanning the street, watching people come and go. Everything looks a bit dark. It’s overcast today. It’s late in the afternoon. A little breeze, but comfortable. Her mood is quiet but not sour. She’s not smiling, not frowning, just absorbed in some other place, another time. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Still, it’s not boredom that makes her muse. What’s on her mind?

Action. She hears her name being called from behind. It’s a familiar voice, too familiar. Her back stiffens and she turns toward the voice.

Details, please.


Cut to the story line.

The 1963 Novelist

beat generation

It’s a blessing that the old days are behind us. Back then, writing was strange, life-altering, completely crazy and not very healthy. I think today’s writers have found a better way. Still, it’s fun to remember.

Do not try this silliness at home. Ever.

I’m thinking 1963 or so. Near the end of the Beat Generation. I’m remembering how it all worked, the protocols, the habits and customs for chasing the muse. Looking back, it seems bizarre and downright alien. I’m surprised so many of us survived it.

The protocols were known to most writers, adored by many, but mostly useless to real creativity. They served a purpose unique to that generation and time.

The Beat Generation

Get loaded. Step one was critical. Get stoned, drunk, flocked, strung-out, zipped, flayed, and buzzed. At least one of those was necessary. The great writers, the real inspirations, did several at once. It was a regular ritual. Of course, we all knew we would never die, so why not let it all loose? The point was to unleash the muse so you could a-muse yourself and stun all your writer friends with unanticipated feats of creativity.

Get together. After the zipping came the get-together. There were haunts. Secret places that only writer-artists frequented. Well, there were a few artists on the scene. The rest of us were wannabes. But that didn’t matter. We could talk the talk, walk the walk with the best of them. Coffee houses were primo spots. Similar hangs. Anywhere the muse would gather with intensity. It had to be dark, flooded with cool music, and stand apart from all tourists and normal folk.

Bitch about the world. You had to be dissatisfied to be a real writer. There was no point in being happy about the Universe, except when you were super-duper-loaded, which was considered uncool. Bitch, moan, groan, grumble and mumble. It was the secondary fuel to get your writer friends talking. Since talking didn’t come naturally, the zippy state of mind and the secret haunt would always do the trick, if you could whine effectively. If you didn’t have a stick up your posterior, you just weren’t cool. If you weren’t cool, you weren’t an artist. The key was to be dissatisfied. You could never be an important writer unless everything was wrong.

The Beat Museum on Broadway Street in San Fran...

Get a little higher. Now that everyone was gathered, time to refuel. Whatever it was that got your high going, it was time to do more of it. That usually meant drinking. We weren’t all that experimental back then. That came later, when the hippies took over and gave us all the boot. Forget wine. Go right to the hard, and do it hard. If you used water or ice, you were a wimp. Wimps could never be real writers.

Spew crappy ideas. This was key. Throw out some really stupid writing ideas. The crazier the better. There was a twofold purpose here. First, you didn’t want to give away the real thing, that special story line you knew would change the world. So, you threw out pure doo-doo. Second, it was a special test of artistry. Back then, really dumb ideas could become really popular, overnight. Sometimes they actually weren’t so dumb. Sometimes they were innovative and ground-breaking. So, throw it out there and see who bites. But always keep the really good stuff in your back pocket. This was not yet the Love Generation. It was Beat or get eaten.

Destroy the crappy ideas. You guessed it. Next was the Roman-style death of all ideas. Each one had to be addressed. Each was torn apart, ridiculed, dissected and usually impaled. If the idea wasn’t all that dull, it got the slightest head nod from the group just before it was put to death. That didn’t happen often. It was usually a feeding frenzy. Nothing was spared.


A little more juice. Time for refills, all around. Getting late now. Gotta keep the muse alive and jumping. The desperate group-search for the next extraordinary idea has, once again, fallen on its backside.

Out come the notebooks. Everyone scribbled for a few moments. Nothing was legible but it was vital to scribble, to seal the deal by doing what all important writers were known to do – take notes. Everyone had these little blue notebooks, the kind that could easily slip into a jacket pocket. If you didn’t have one of those, you were an outcast, unclean, never destined to be a successful writer. So they all scribbled. Never show your notebook to anyone. Never.

Weed time. The bold ones go around the corner and smoke. The others order one more from the well. A huge act of defiance out there with the weeders. They were bold, avant-garde, the real deal. Inside, the last round for the rest of us, so go out with mucho gusto. The muse is somewhere else, trying to get sober.

Back to bitching. Just for a few moments.

Getting drowsy.

Getting bored.

Time to go home and write something.

See you tomorrow.

Great Literary Bleemersnarks: Carlos and Don Juan

The Teachings of Don Juan

The recipe is simple but the preparation may take some time. Start with your favorite slices of fraud, hoax, scam or forgery. Mix well with several cups of greed. Garnish it with the essence of a failed self-lobotomy. Simmer until done. Serve while hot. That’s a literary bleemersnark.

Today’s favorite recipe: The entire body of work created by Carlos Cesar Salvador Arana Castaneda, better known to us as Carlos Castaneda. In total, a dozen books in the series. A unique smorgasbord of tasty fable-weaving, wrapped in obvious writing talent, with a likely daily diet of self-delusion. Ironically, this all worked well for nearly everyone involved, including Castaneda’s readers.

When and Where: The series began in California, in 1968, with the publication of The Teachings of Don Juan. Eleven more books would follow, including two published after Castaneda’s death.

The Bleemersnarkee: Not much damage here, unless you believe what publishers like Simon and Schuster tell you. Like Castaneda, the publishing house never failed to classify his work as “nonfiction” despite decades of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Consider this a case of mislabeling, perpetuated at the altar of corporate income. For Castaneda, it was a dream come true. Yes, even wizards can be surprised.

Carlos Castaneda

The Bleemersnarker: Castaneda was born in December 1925, in Peru. He died in April 1998, in Los Angeles. These are the facts, contrary to Castaneda’s changing stories about his birthplace, age, and a layer-cake of other goodies. He was a first-rate writer, as anyone who has read his books can attest. This is especially true of his first three novels.

The Plot: In a nutshell, Castaneda claimed to have received special training in native mysticism from a Yaqui “Man of Knowledge,” who went by the name of Don Juan Matus. His entire collection of books involves the practice and passing on of the sacred knowledge through a variety of characters. His first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, was allegedly the dissertation required for his doctoral candidacy in Anthropology at UCLA. This first book fooled them all, as did his next two. For a time, Castaneda was golden in both anthropological circles and literary ones. Several luminaries drank fully of the Castaneda cocktail, and life was so good.

After a few years, a small enclave of researchers began to look more closely at the body of Castaneda’s work. Their microscopes revealed some very nasty bugs.

The Fallout: In the 1970s, everything started to unravel. A number of articles critical of Castaneda’s work began to appear. Internal inconsistencies were many, time lines didn’t match up with movements, gaps in his work were appearing frequently. In fact, a close look at Castaneda’s first three books proved to unwind the myth that he had created with their publication. For example, when Carlos said he was out in the field dropping peyote and having mystical encounters, library slips showed him back at UCLA researching a wealth of related material. Woops.

Primary among his critics was Richard de Mille, who summarized his findings in Castaneda’s Journey: The Power and the Allegory. There were many other doubters, who also published scathing yet usually well-researched rebuttals. It soon became clear that Castaneda’s work was anything but nonfiction. Nonetheless, the author continued to insist on the authenticity of his work and the reality of his experiences. As criticism reached a crescendo, Castaneda disappeared from public view for long periods but would resurface at rare and convenient moments. He was a master at the dodge, only allowing a few individuals close access. In the last decades of his life, Castaneda had, of course, become a full-blown wizard, just like Don Juan before him. He was also somewhat of a cult leader.

However, all was not the pure pleasure of enlightenment for him or his closest associates. In fact, it all got pretty nasty near the end.

The Reveal: In April 2007, Salon published a lengthy article written by Robert Marshall, The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda. It’s a fascinating, detailed look at Castaneda, his life, his devotees, his cult and, of course, the hoax. Marshall leaves no stone unturned and offers readers a penetrating investigation into the whole affair. The Castaneda story did not end well for some. At least five of his closest followers disappeared. Many others were left holding the bag. As Marshall points out in his article, Castaneda left a very dark legacy in his wake.

Yet, for those of us who read his books, especially the early ones, the fond memories remain. Call it hoax, fiction, or whatever you may, Castaneda could weave a heck of a tale. He created characters that last a lifetime for many readers. Perhaps a little honesty would have been better, but would it have killed any chance at publishing his first book? It’s one of the many enduring mysteries of Carlos Castaneda.