Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stubbornness

Status update:  about halfway done and advancing at a furious pace. Coffee supplies strong.

Time to return to the world of Bo. This one's going to be about vacations, dinosaurs, rockets and grain alcohol. Somebody's going to get their kicks on a route of some indeterminate number.

The Clone City stories nearly write themselves. They go very, very quickly. I typically bang them out at anywhere from 1000-1400 words per hour, which is higher than my normal writing speed. One thing I occasionally struggle with is conveying just how subversively alien the setting is. It's our world and yet not our world at the same time. It's very mildly post apocalyptic but the world that it's a post apocalyptic version of isn't quite our own. It's not dystopian but it's a stones toss away from a dystopia.

Also, I've set a goal of never using the word "clone" in the fiction itself, which is occasionally troublesome, but which makes sense from the perspective of the narrator. The various clones don't really consider themselves copies of anything, that's just the way it always has been. They don't pop out of vats.

But they're fun stories to write. Bo (pronounced "bah", by the way) is a great character and when I write him, it's almost as if he is, personally, telling me stories. I have notes for at least 4 or 5 more, and the setting is rich enough that I have no doubt more stories will follow those.

Not everything will be that easy, though. I'd be a liar if I said that all writing was.

I'd say that writing is about 90% stubbornness. It's the difference that separates writers from people who can write but don't. Sure, there's millions of people out there who have the skills to write decently and have awesome stories to tell. Only a few will actually commit time every day to writing down something. Most people hit that first rough patch before they realize that, yes, writing is work, just like anything else. Then they quit, telling themselves that they'll come back to it and go watch TV instead.

William Faulkner once said that he only wrote when inspiration hit him. And he was lucky in that inspiration always hit at 9 o'clock every morning.

Much like any habit, you have to make it a priority. You don't get physically fit by waiting to get in the mood to exercise. You have to set aside time regularly, go out and do something. Lift weights. Go for a walk. Jog. You don't get in shape by kicking your ass once every month or two when you're in the mood or when you feel guilty about eating too much Taco Bell the night before. No, you go out and do a little every day, even when it's rainy or you're not feeling great. You don't have to do much on any given day, but the cumulative effect over a long period of time is vast.

Writing is much the same. It gets easier, in many ways, the more of it you do. Set aside time every day for it. When that time hits, you're writing. You hit a rough spell in your story? Pound words down on paper until you get your tailwind again. Short on ideas? Spend that time brainstorming and researching. Work on your outline.

Having said that, I'm a terrible procrastinator.  I tell myself to start writing at 7; I'll start at 8. Once I settle down and go at it, it goes quickly and I have a hard time stopping. Such is life.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Another Monday Morning Post Mortem

Strip Mall was a bit of an odd story to write. Partly because I was forcing myself to deal with space constraints--and not even very harsh ones, I'm just used to rambling along until I collapse from exhaustion--but mostly because there's only one character.

When you have more than one character, you can always draw on some element to push along a stalled story. One guy stops, but  has to react as someone else does something. There's always someone to pick up the slack. Characters are easy ways to drive plot.

With a single character story you don't really have that luxury. You have two things: the narrator and the environment. And that's all you've got. You have to think of other pretexts to drive along the narrative. It could be conquering the environment, or unraveling a mystery. It could simply be getting from point A to point B.

In this case, Strip Mall seems to have turned into a voyage of self-discovery. The world expands every time Richard passes a turning point, pushes his boundaries or reaches an epiphany. I started out with a very narrow character, who makes a living stamping out identikit prefab neighborhoods and the story ends when he's turned himself into more of an artist.

Now that I think about it, I probably should have called it "Richard Expands His Horizons." Dreadful pun, but that's the way the story turned out. I say "turned out" because I tend to write stories from the details up. I don't often think of "themes" or other broad perspective until I'm mostly done. Or at least, not on a conscious level. That's more of a final draft kind of thing.

Mostly, I started with an idea for a Twilight Zone type of story and ran with it: borderline stereotype of a man thrust into surreal situation, then forced to cope. Add infinite junk food as necessary.

Next up: probably another installment of the Clone City stories. I think Bob's on vacation right now.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thursday, January 24, 2013

On Putting Your Ass Out There

Status update:  about two-thirds done, proceeding with verve. Coffee supplies low.

I have two friends. I'm going to fictionalize a little, in the off-chance that one of them Googles around and stumbles upon my blog. They're both awesome people--this is why I call them friends, after all. And before one of you reads this and decides it must be about you, keep in mind I know multiple people that fit the bill, so pat yourself on the back--it's probably the other guy I'm talking about here. You're awesome, you little red fire engine, you.

But I digress.

I have two friends. Let's call them Kim and Randy. Kim likes to home brew. She's a beginner. Her first few beers were everything that a first-time home brew beer is: weak, watery, lots of sediment. Yeasty. Drinkable, but not exactly Guinness, if you know what I'm saying. But she's trying. She puts out another batch every once in a while and it keeps getting better and better. It's still not great, but she's working on it.

Randy doesn't really do much at all. He mostly sits around and watches TV all day. No hobbies worth speaking of. He's a consumer, not a creator. This is fine. Not everyone's going to go out there and weld statues of clowns or take up knitting. Every time he tries one of Kim's brews, he's extremely negative. Not critical...that would imply useful feedback. He's negative with a side order of "why are you bothering?"

Kim's got a bit of an oddball hobby (at least in my social circles). She's not good at it (yet), but she's at least doing something. I've thought about the situation between the two off and on ever since I first noticed it. It points out something about our culture. There's a sort of unspoken narrative that you should always be the best at what you do and if you aren't or, heaven help you, if you're mediocre (or are flat-out awful) you should not try at all.

I suppose that's the thing I dislike about hipsters, although they aren't the ones who originated this attitude and they aren't the only ones who are guilty of it by any means. If you aren't any good at something, you shouldn't even try. You might risk mockery. You aren't even allowed to honestly like things; you have to put up the mental scare quotes by being "ironic." It's a terrible way to go about life, always looking over your shoulder to see if you have crowd approval.

And one of the worst parts about it is that it promotes armchair expertism (a blog I follow calls it "complainypants" syndrome). These experts have never sacked up and tried to create anything themselves because they don't have the nerve to risk sucking at something--but they still have opinions. So they project it onto those that do. If they've never tried, they don't know how good they are. If they don't know how good they are, they can pretend they could still be the best. Writing is easy, they could be a writer. Painting is just putting paint on paper. Photographers, even the best, don't do anything that they couldn't do with their cellphone if they cared. Playing in a rock band is easy work and doesn't require practice at all; it must be inherent or something you're inspired to do. But they haven't bothered yet, and they kind of expect deep down inside that somebody else who is doing it and not doing great should not have even started.

I had a professor once, ages ago, back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. He taught literary criticism. He once told us flat out that, even though he studies poetry and fiction for a living, he could never write because "he would be too hard on himself." Even at the tender age of 23 or 24, I wanted to stand up and shake him. He was extremely literate (obviously), well-read, had done and seen many interesting things. I'm 99% positive that after a brief shake-down period, he could've written some extremely compelling things. But he didn't.

I think he lost his job shortly afterwards because he was embezzling from the English department, but that's neither here nor there.

Why do we always have to rock at everything we do? Who cares. Get off the fucking couch and do something interesting. You don't have to be any good at it.

Don't be a complainypants. Just do something. Go forth and completely suck at your hobbies. If you fail, it's not the end of the world. It builds character.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Morning After

I'm going to come right out and admit it. I killed the kid with the nunchaku off as early as I did because I got sick of typing out "nunchaku." There, I said it.

With that out of the way, your regularly-scheduled post-mortem continues.

Writing scary stories is always a bit of a balancing act. After all, most things that go bump in the night tend to be rather silly if you shine a strong enough light on them. If you go into clinical detail on a zombie, for instance, it becomes familiar and predictable. I think it's pretty safe to say most people these days have their own zombie apocalypse contingency plan. I know five people with a sufficiently large arsenal of weaponry and a fortifiable house and I have them sorted mentally by driving distance and direction. If a zombie outbreak happens, I'm set. Most people are. "Grab the baseball bat, Marge! It's zombie time!"

And that's kind of a problem. Zombies (and many other horror tropes) have been so thoroughly explored, in just about any type of configuration imaginable, that there's nothing surprising or new in them. There's no fear of the unknown because they have been thoroughly detailed. Horror thrives on the unknown. Describing something in detail makes the unknown known, by definition, and it gives people a plan of action.

And that's where the balancing act comes in, because you can go too far off the beaten path, either giving out a bad guy who's so oddball and unfamiliar that none of the readers will be able to identify with it and who will then treat it as pure comedy (Night of the Lepus comes to mind) or, worse, not giving details at all, resulting in something that just feels random and arbitrary. Sure, why not, your ghost is radioactive. Who knows why?

Or even worse than that, you can get something that feels like a terrible imitation of H P Lovecraft without zoning in on the key strengths of Lovecraftian fiction: pile adjectives upon adverbs, then scribble something about how indescribable it all is, then cut and run. I wrote a billion of those stories when I was a kid. They were awful.

Horror requires a much stronger balance of elements than other types of stories because people tend to mentally tune out much more quickly with it than they do with other genres. It's because the pay-off in horror is much more definable. With a standard science fiction tale, if the reader is amused or has something to think about at work the next day, then it's a success. All you really have to shoot for when telling a story like that is "not be boring."

Horror has a more definite goal. It's a box that says "if you open this, you will be frightened." Most readers will open it and if they're not frightened by the one-third point they'll feel a little disappointed and be that much more likely to drift off. If it's something completely daft, they might even feel a little betrayed. They're expecting Dario Argento and instead get someone in a bedsheet yelling "booga booga booga."

So, you tweak elements of the recipe. Do I add more inevitability or more randomness, more mystery or more clinical detail? Do I throw in a dash of trigger points, such as fear of spiders or victimization? Do I play up the human characters, make them more likable, or do I make them real shitheads so the audience cheers when they get eaten?

In the end, all you can do is just make a really cool killer tree, give it something to eat, and then hope for the best.

In other news, my stories are edging towards novella length, according to the internet guidelines on what makes a short story short. I'm going to make an effort to write shorter short fiction, I think.

So! Smaller ideas coming up.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Story The Third: The Tree

Holy smokes, I went to a dark place with this one. It's about bullies, victims and one very hungry killer tree.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mid-week Mayhem

Status update:  halfway done, proceeding with a brisk tailwind. Coffee supplies steady.

Let's talk about ideas for a bit.

Way back when I was a young tadpole, I taught English in college. I was terrible. I hated every minute of it. At the time, I was exactly the wrong personality type for that work and I was definitely too young and inexperienced at writing to be any good as a teacher. But I digress.

One of the things we'd be required to do by the department, along with other unreasonable demands like "show up on time" and "wear pants" was give out a variety of writing assignments. Personal essays, position papers and so on. When we'd get to research papers, I'd always get a big groan out of my students. Half of it was a basic hatred of research and annotation, which I totally understand. The other half was because students were awful at coming up with ideas to write about.

For some reason, about a third of my class would always pick the development of modern photography. Because of this, I can probably recite Eastman Kodak's history better than their own PR flacks can. Of course, since it's mostly knowledge mined from student research papers, it's all probably wrong or have a fetishistic bent on some aspect of their history that students found easier to write about than the parts that actually matter ("George Eastman's dog was named Tony. He also had a cat!"). But I digress again.

I never really got that dread of coming up with ideas. Ideas are easy. What I'd try to teach them (and fail, because seriously, I was a forking awful teacher at that time) was free association. The trick is to sit down with a blank sheet of paper--or your favorite electronic equivalent--turn your brain off and start making a list. Jot down as many words and phrases as you can. Let 'er rip. The more specific and concrete the words, the better. Don't stop to analyze what the words are, don't judge yourself, just go.

I actually keep my ideas saved as a file on my hard drive. It's called something extremely clever like "The Big List Of Ideas." It's full of gems like "hyperspace train station" or "what if cars moved like pogo sticks?" Great stuff, right? I add to it whenever I have a free second or two. Some of the more plausible/doable story seeds I have fleshed out with a few annotations, but that's about it.

If I'm stuck for a story or don't have anything immediately on my mind that I want to write about, I open up that list, pick something and run with it. The one I'm currently using: "What if trees could eat people?"

There you have it, killer trees. Thank you, brain.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Monday Morning Post Mortem

The Truth was a bit of a surprise. I mean, yeah, the beginning started where I was expecting it to and it ended more or less where I expected it to end, but nothing in the middle was quite what I was expecting. In this case, a whole bunch of characters strolled out of my subconscious, slapped me around a bit and then took over the story. Marcel and Ed were both a complete surprise, I have no idea what flickering corner of my subconscious birthed them.

Also, my tentative outline would have resulted in something the length of a novel and not a slim paperback. I'm talking Tolstoy here. Once I twigged onto that, I had to do some outline tweakery to get it back into an appropriate length.

I still have some issues with the story. The ending is a bit contrived--if I were the sort of person who did second drafts, which I am not, I'd foreshadow it a little more in David's monologues. Or make the flying saucer club a little less serious about the prophecy, or give them more time to prepare or make them a little more serious about astronomy. Also, I'm not entirely sure it's clear that everything's taking place in 1984.

Overall, though, I'm happy with it. The bits that I liked most about writing it came out well. The parts I didn't like about writing it aren't that important to the story.

This is what I like about the writing process. Sometimes, you wind up with what you set out to do. Sometimes, your brain just gives you the middle finger and hands you something else altogether. You wind up channeling 10,000 words from, I dunno, the ether, and when someone asks where you get your ideas, all you can do is shrug and blame it on elves.

Looks like I'll have slightly more time to myself this week than last. This is good because I have no idea yet what I'm going to write for the next story. Could be cyberpunk, could be a ghost story. Might be something funny, or tragic or a western or a hard-boiled detective story set on the bottom of the ocean. Or all of that at once.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Story The Second: The Truth Is Probably Not Out There

...and now up, the second story. It's about a flying saucer cult, mullets, flappers, prophecies and communication barriers.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mid-week Madness

Status update: halfway done, one-third of the way actually written. Coffee stores running low.

People always say that the hardest part of the writing process is when you're staring at the blank page, right before you put down the first sentence. I'd have to disagree--it's actually right after you bang out the first paragraph. Before I start, I can imagine the story turning into anything. There's no specific details, it's like seeing that one pretty girl across the aisle of the store--she can be anything because you haven't spoken to her yet.

Yep, she's a race car driving hedge fund entrepreneur who cliff-dives in her spare time and speaks medieval French. Why not? Then you go talk to her and find out she's a normal person just like anybody else. You can feel the possibilities collapsing in an instant. All those things that the story/girl are not and will not be disappear leaving something new. Most of the sparklies go away.

I write that first paragraph and then, invariably, I have to stare at it a bit and think. I have to fall in love with the idea over again. This is the cool part about writing, just getting to the end of the process and looking at what's clawed its way out of your head and having a good laugh about how different it is than what you've planned.

In this case, the story just acquired a heavy metal fan with a mullet, a 90 year old flapper and a guy with a plate in his skull. They were not in my initial outline I banged out on Monday morning; they just happened. Good times.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Post-Mortem The First

"How Bob Lost His B" was a fun story to write. I guess for someone working in the tech industry, a story where a faceless cubicle dweller lives in a nameless city of cubicle-dwellers is rather cathartic. It pretty much wrote itself. In any case, I don't have any shortage of ideas for more stories in this milieu, so you'll probably see more of these as the challenge year wears on.

Next up is a story about a guy who joins a flying saucer cult to find the truth, but winds up with a girlfriend instead. It comes from two sources. The first is "When Prophecy Fails," a fun sociological study about what happens the day after a cult's predictions of world calamity fails. The rest...the rest comes from some books I'd found when I was a kid.

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Being a heavy reader, I would find books wherever I could. I lived far away from the nearest library, so garage sales and thrift shops were my friends. Oftentimes, I'd go through extended dry spells without getting any new books and be forced to reread the ones I had.

I guess some of my neighbors must have been convinced the Truth Was Out There, because I'd find alien contact books and UFO conspiracies fairly frequently hidden amongst the usual pulp sci-fi ("skiffy" as it's sometimes called), fantasy novels, True Stories Of Hardboiled Grit and torrid romances.

The pattern was usually the same. The author would talk of meeting Space Brothers. They'd look like your standard middle-class white men in suits. They'd go to their flying saucer, meet liberated women, travel to Venus or Mars or Jupiter or some made-up planet with a cool name like "Clarion" or what-have-you. They'd meet a Jesus figure who'd give them very vague commandments or life advice. Then they'd go back and appear on radio shows and make wild claims about things they could do or build. I remember one where the guy claimed he could teleport, but only when no one was looking...because there was one evening where he was at home by himself, listening to the radio, and he came to in a ditch five miles out of town. Teleportation!

I ate these up with a spoon. I was a kid who read encyclopedias for fun; this lived in a happy place exactly between that and your typical science fiction novel. As an adult, it's a fun part of Americana. So, that's what the next story's going to be: I dug up a few issues of Fate magazine I had from the 70's, a book by Berlitz about the Bermuda Triangle. Dusted off some contactee stories. Sadly, my favorite book of that type is nowhere to found. I think a Space Brother might have taken it.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Story The First: How Bob Lost His B

This is the first story, for the week of the 6th.  And it's about clones.

But before I continue, some housekeeping matters. At the top of the story linked here, you'll notice I've included some download links. They're zipped so you'll have to extract them, but they contain the story in two popular formats for your convenience. Or you can keep reading below.

I plan on updating three times a week. Sunday will be that week's short story. Monday will be a post-mortem. Thursday will be a mid-week update on my writing. The format and design of the blog will change over the course of this week as I tweak things more to my liking. So, without further kvetching...

Redacted. :-)

Moving In

Welcome to my new blog. My name is Mike. I write in my free time for fun. I work in the field of computers in a mystical land known as Kalamazoo.

This blog is an extension of my News Year's resolution. I am going to write one (1) story per week. If I do not have a new story up every Sunday, I will donate fifty (50) sawbucks to charity for every week that I miss.

If I fail to live up to my workload, this could get a little costly.

I have eclectic tastes and write in most genres. My favorite category is pulp of any sort: science fiction, horror, modern fantasy, but don't be surprised to find anything from historical fiction to velociraptor romance. I'm not kidding about my diversity of tastes.

Why $50? Why not any other amount? Why am I doing this, anyway?

Fifty dollars is a good middling amount, I think. It's big enough that it stings to see it take a walk, but not big enough that I'll blow this whole thing off as a bad cop. There are charities out there that I believe in and I know there are weeks ahead that I'll take off deliberately--for vacation, or for other reasons. This gives me incentive to write and a reason to donate. Win-win.

I'm doing this for a few reasons.

I've always written for fun, but not on a regular basis. And I've found, over the years, my routine falling into a rut. Day in, day out, the same thing, and nothing to show for it at the end of the year other than regular hangovers, good or bad memories and work accomplished.

I love my job and I have a great life, but I need to branch out, do something that has lasting value.

I'd also like to get more practice at short format fiction. My writing has warts, my pacing occasionally does not pace. Sometimes it drifts off and...

Yeah. This blog is basically one big boot up my rear. See you in a few for the first installment...