Saturday, April 24, 2004

Dangerous things to do with pickles, sparklers, gardens, etc.

I suspect that the problem with anti-terrorism laws is not that they get used against terrorists, but that once they're on the books they can be used against anyone. This gentleman, for example.

Now, when I was younger, I would have nodded sagely, having read the article, and concluded that obviously Ken Olsen had, at some point, made ricin, using a coffee grinder and castor beans, and was interested in bomb-making, therefore he was probably planning to murder someone. But I have now known too many people who had their own areas of odd neepery and just wanted to do things, sometimes things their neighbours would have seen as very peculiar things, to see what happened, or to see if they could; the people you talk to late at night in convention bars who tell you how to make a pickle glow by hooking it up to the mains, or who tell you about the fun they had doing unwise microwave experiments or building a Tesla coil and learning what happens to CDs when you put half a million volts through them, or the time they built a breeder reactor out of common household utensils, in order to get an Eagle Scout badge in Atomic Energy. ("David Hahn taught himself to build a neutron gun. He figured out a way to dupe officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission into providing him with crucial information he needed in his attempt to build a breeder reactor, and then he obtained and purified radioactive elements such as radium and thorium". Luckily for him, he did it in 1993 and not now.) Not to mention making sparkler bombs.

Some people like to grow poison gardens. It doesn't mean they want to poison people.

From the article, it looks like the crime Ken Olsen committed was having made ricin, and The presence of ricin violated federal law, and prosecutors, lacking evidence to charge Olsen with attempted murder, instead charged him with a little-used law intended for terrorists: possession of a biological agent with the intent to use it as a weapon.

I'm not saying that he wasn't planning to kill his wife, by the way, although of course, he wasn't charged with that, and I think that attempted murder is a big accusation to throw around, which you need to be able to back up. I am definitely saying that there are statutes on the books that already existed, if the authorities had wanted to charge him with attempted murder. But charging someone who was obviously not a terrorist under terrorism law is a shoddy use of those laws, and a lesson for the rest of us.


Are you aware that historians have managed to pin down, within reasonable doubt, the club where Aziraphale learned to gavotte? Really. I saw it on the internet.

All of the variant bibles we talk about existed as well, except for the Charing Cross Bible and the Bugger All This Bible. Good Omens is really a very educational book.


When people send you stuff, and you copy it into your journal, are you not tempted to correct the speling mistakes, and grammatical errors?
paul, sheffield, uk

Not particularly -- I'll sometimes quietly fix spelling for people, especially if it would be too distracting otherwise, but mostly I'll just cut and paste.

Dear Neil--
Do you ever look at stuff you wrote when you were a teenager and shudder and think, "Thank god I never tried to get this published?"
The reason why I'm asking is this: I'm sixteen, and I just finished my first novel last October, and my mom wants me to send it out to publishers. She doesn't think anyone will accept it--she used to be a magazine editor and she knows how hard it is to get published-- but she does think that when I'm older and a better writer I might have a chance. So she says I should start making contacts now.
I half want to do it, because I'm afraid if I don't start soon I'm going to lose my nerve. And I half don't, because I don't want to give people a bad first impression. I'm still learning how to write, and I don't want the mistakes I made when I was a kid haunting me later on.
So what would you do? Do you still have a few early unpublished novels skulking in the back of your closet which you hope will never see the light of day?

I've got one children's novel I wrote when I was 21ish that I'd not want published under my name now, but if one of the publishers I'd sent it to in 1982 had wanted to publish it, I'd not feel the urge to go back in a time-machine and murder them to prevent it from happening. There are a couple of short stories in boxes that I'll never ask anyone to publish, and three short stories that were published that I'd probably only allow to be collected in a Complete Short Stories Volume I, when I'm very old, with a note suggesting they're only for completists and curiosity seekers. But I'm not embarassed they were published -- they were important steps on the road to getting to be me, and they were published, and simply being published is the most important tool a writer can have for learning: the moment it's published you see all the flaws you couldn't see when you were writing it, and if you're smart, you'll learn from them.

I've become slightly more sanguine, I suppose: some of the things I wrote when I was in my twenties I couldn't write now -- I'm no longer the person who wrote them, and something that, five years on from having written it, simply embarrassed me, now I can look at and shrug, or smile, or, with the story that'll be in Gothic ("Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves of the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire", I think it's called) I liked it so much when I read it I simply did a second draft, shortened the title, and sent it off to be published.

I suppose what I'm saying is don't second-guess yourself. Send the novel out. Write a cheerful cover letter telling them you're sixteen and you're sure you'll get better, but this is your first novel, and you hope they like it. No-one's going to not want to publish your next novel because they don't like this one. If they see potential, they may want to read your next one more.