Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why I Love Random Wikipedia

Status update:  a bit behind schedule, but not too serious. Coffee supplies holding up well. Outlook optimistic even though the current pot of coffee has somehow replicated the taste of skunky motor oil.

Wikipedia has a feature not too many people know about. It does one thing. It chooses one random article out of its massive database of knowledge.

This is amazing. Try it out!

I've just hit it three times and gotten "Cosmopolitian Television", "University of Virginia", and "Shiro Saito".

It's had this feature for years, maybe even since the beginning. When you stop to think about it, it's pretty remarkable. Wikipedia is a vast collection of human knowledge. It's surpassed the Encyclopedia Britannica as the first place you go when you need to get a handle on a topic. Science fiction fans might recognize it as the modern real-world analog of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's great.

And this link just picks one tidbit at random out of the millions of tidbits floating around in that vast library, with no regard to relevance or completeness or sense.

Whenever I'm stuck for ideas, or I'm in a rut, or just want to do some reading about something, I hit that link a few times. In fact, I have it bookmarked as one of my morning reading links that automatically comes up first thing in a day, along with the usual stuff like xkcd or the news. Is it always awesome? Hell, no. Sometimes you find yourself reading census statistics for some tiny burg in the middle of Missouri. Sometimes you're reading about George Michaels' preferences in loafers. That's part of the charm, though, because the next time you click on it, you might find out about something you didn't know. I wish Google had a similar feature, but it would probably eat my brain.

For example, yesterday it popped up this article on the volvelle. I'd known about them, and who hasn't? But I didn't know they had a name or that their history went quite so far back. Usually when I read an article like this, if there's anything linked I open that up in other tabs so I can follow them up after I get done with the main article. By the time I finish up all those tabs and their tabs and the tabs spawning from those tabs, I'll sometimes have gone pretty far afield.

Writing thrives on random trivia. I think, as a writer, you need to know about a great deal of things. You don't have to be particularly good at it, or knowledgeable, or have those facts at the tip of your tongue at all times, you just need to know it's out there.

Back in the old days, writers would often keep cabinets and folders full of these random tidbits, just little scraps of useful or fun information at hand that they could use if they needed it. I remember reading once that Gardner Fox had devoted an entire room in his house to this sort of stuff. And now, thanks to the Internet, you don't really need to.


Monday, February 25, 2013

The Brutal Science Of Useful Failure

Nocnitsa is, in a word, pants.

Not all the way, not completely awful, but overall I didn't have a whole lot of fun writing it and it shows. There are some parts in the middle that I had fun with and those parts are probably pretty solid, but the verdict is that it's pretty darn mediocre.

It is my shortest story since Bob Lost His B, partly because I was in the mood to write something shorter, partly because some of it kinda sucked and I wanted to exit stage left as quickly as possible. I might go back at some point and do some salvaging because it has several fun ideas that I really want to make work. I loved the legend of the Nocnitsa itself and all of the references to the Polish babysitter and her stories. Those parts were a blast to write about.

I could probably point out several things that are wrong with it, like how there really aren't enough characters, the main character wasn't that compelling, I plotted too tightly so I didn't have room to surprise myself with plot developments--which is half of what makes writing fun for me. I could say the narrative was far too...monolithic, for lack of a better word...but really, what comes down to is that I don't seem to enjoy writing Twilight Zone-style speculative fiction nearly as much as I think I do.

Any of those things, in any proportion, I guess. The ten ton gorilla is simply that it wasn't a fun story to write.

Which brings me to...

THE BRUTAL SCIENCE OF USEFUL FAILURE

I'm actually glad when I fuck something up like this, either in writing or at work or elsewhere in life.

There's this sentiment out there that failure is the end, that if you screw something up you should just give up.  But the truth is that people who are afraid to fail tend to suck at most things and have unsatisfying lives. Boring people never try anything because they're afraid of failing or they try only once and then don't get back on that pony that just kicked their ass. Successful people thrive on failure, see it as an opportunity to improve. Successful people are masochists and kind of enjoy pain and the occasional bit of public humiliation.

An interesting failure is worth a thousand easy wins, in my book. If you don't break something, you can't see how it works. You see, in grotesque detail, how all the parts of a successful version of what you just fucked up fail to fit together. If you fail bad enough, then some of that sticks with you. You smell it in the air when a project is starting to drift off course. Sometimes you learn something from the experience, take something away. Sometimes you don't have to.

Failure is a direct result of experimentation. Sometimes you just have to throw crap at the wall and see what sticks. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn't. You see that some of it worked, you retain those parts. Or you see it as a sign of what you need to work harder at, or avoid doing in the future.

Most things that you'd classify as failures are not, in an objective view. You feel you've failed, but it's all only relative. If you have a crappy workout at the gym, well, at least you went. You screwed up that recipe, but at least the dog's happy now. You write a ghost story that's kinda dumb, but at least you wrote something and there were bits in all the cruft that were kinda cool that you can utilize later on in a better version of the project.

This week, back to something more fun and bizarre.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Story The Eighth: Nocnitsa

A bit of a slog, this one, but short. Polish folklore, sunglasses and Puerto Vallarta.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

By The Numbers

Status update:  putting words on paper. Other than a burst bag of coffee (thank you, Gevalia), supplies good. Time looking good.

A horror story, I'm discovering, is not a good idea unless you flesh it out, start writing, and find yourself yelling at some point in the writing process, "Holy fuck, what the hell is wrong with me?!" You have to tap into parts of your brain that are out of your usual comfort zones.

This one...I have mixed feelings so far, probably because I haven't gotten to the fun stuff yet (more on that later). The outline was promising. As far as initial plotting out goes, it's probably the most fully developed story I've written so far. Everything was pretty much done before I even wrote the first paragraph--the narrative structure, the choices the main character made that led him to the end, the final twist, all of it. More importantly, it was a pretty symmetrical design. I could probably graph it out and hang it my wall. There are very few actual loose threads, just enough call backs from one end of the story to the other to give it consistency. Not much wasted space.

In other words, the outline was pretty promising, but I'm not feeling it so far. Hell, the outline itself gave me nightmares. Maybe I should just post that instead of the full story.

I suspect it's because I'm still on the initial parts of the story, when the setup happens. The fun stuff is usually later, when people expect the walls to drip blood and toads to rain from the sky. You can be excused purple, unrestrained prose, because it's all coming from a narrator who's about to get his face chewed off by some dripping fetid monstrosity from beyond the stars.

Anyway, let's see what happens.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Holy hannah, that story ran long.

You know, I really need to kick my ass into writing shorter stories. Problem is, I keep inventing fun characters and settings and then want to wallow around in them.

In this case, I'd initially decided on this idea as an excuse to practice writing investigative fiction. Not necessarily of the "Major Tom killed Professor Plum in the kitchen with the ink blotter" type stuff, but something more in that direction.

Action's pretty easy, so far as plotting out stories go. Usually you start at point A with a clear sense of direction and continue until your hero's steamrolled over all obstacles and winds up at point B. Then there's a bit of wrap-up, you hit the final period on the page, hit save, and you're good to go.

Detective fiction usually follows a bit more of a predefined structure. There's more layering of plot and interweaving of details going on. Even if it goes off in a blatantly stupid direction (Yetis did it), there's usually a lot more going on behind the scenes, at least vis a vis developing the story.

You have to keep your eye on the ball because you're busy doling out details as you go along and you have to make sure that everything that you wind up with at the end was present at the beginning. So, you're constantly going back, making sure that plot developments later on are prefigured earlier on.

Then there's the whole issue of personal character arcs that you have to take into account. So, fun. In the future, I might write some more pure ones, without the supernatural elements, just because the format's pretty entertaining. Even though I suck at solving and writing forensic problems/logic puzzles, it's still a lot of fun to write.

If I ever get into writing full length novels, having a good handle on this format would be a good thing, I think. I really enjoyed the basic structure--it's much more predefined and pushes you to keep things moving.

And make no bones about it, I was definitely following a template here. I'm pretty shameless about using off -the-shelf storytelling structures. Mostly I use either the plain-jane Three Act Structure or the Lester Dent formula. In this case, I used the spiderweb-covered twelve-bang detective story plot formula that you can get by Googling around without too much difficulty. I just find writing more entertaining when I'm not laying out plot on a macro level. Structures take most of the heartache out of that process.

On a more immediate note, I really need to write shorter stories. So, featuring this week: a shorter story.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Story The Seventh: Argyle, Little Lake, And Parts Further North

The longest one yet, but a barrel of kittens to write. This one's a detective story in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It's about Pabst Blue Ribbon, Yeti's, Finnlanders, trap towns and folklore.

I've had to split it into two parts as it's roughly 13k words.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Going Home

Status update:  about a third done and advancing steadily. Coffee supplies pretty frigging good. A heck of a lot of free time has opened up tonight and this weekend, so I have more time than usual. Since next week may be somewhat hectic, I'm think about getting a head start on the next story, which is probably going to be a horror story of some sort, since I'm getting urges to write another one.

But the one I'm working on now is a sort of weird little detective story, set in the Upper Peninsula where I grew up. I'm fictionalizing the bejeesus out of everything because I don't really want to have any uncomfortable conversations when I get back. I'm thinking of this story already as "The One That Nobody Who Reads It Will Get." It's 50% gumshoe/50% excuse for me to wallow in urban legends and folklore. So, yeah. The gumshoe people will hate it because the detective stuff is a sideline and the people who like fantasy will hate it because there's all this detective crap in the way. Yoopers will just scratch their heads and go back to watching the Packers kick the Lions' butts again.

Me, I don't care. 99% of my audience is myself. If I find myself laughing at something I've written, then I've already reached most of my goals. My best stories--I think--tend to be the ones where I'm not writing to please everybody.

The UP's a pretty odd place, filled with amazing, but extremely eccentric people. It's one of those places that's so cut off, so far off in the backwaters, that it's developed its own unique culture. You could probably write a million books and never scratch the surface.

A lot of the stuff in my story is loosely based on places I grew up near, but a lot of it also comes from my imagination. The fun part is weaving it all in with the real locations and people I know.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mondays

I think the biggest problem I had with writing "Roxie Rides The Train" was keeping a consistent voice. I had to slap myself every few paragraphs and yell "Lori Petty" just to keep on track. I can't imagine what it must be like to write an entire novel (or significant portion thereof) in a dialect of some sort that is not your own. I'd either revert back to my default voice, or worse, get stuck in that mode. I'd hate to finish a dialect story and then realize I couldn't write in anything but fluent redneck or jive anymore.

I wonder if David Mitchell ever woke up at some point near the end of "Cloud Atlas," in a cold sweat, because he couldn't snap out of the Sloosha-speak?

In other news, this story pushes me up to ca 60k words since January 1, counting blog posts. That's an averaged rate of 1400 words per day and the same length as a short novel. While writing Roxie, I peaked at 2000 words per hour at one point.

That's a pretty high rate by any account. Thing is, you think it would result in sloppy writing (okay, you guys in the back, shut the hell up), but I think my strongest writing comes out during those peak writing periods. The days when I'm pounding out 350 words per hour, or worse, writing 900 and then going back and deleting, those are the weak days. Luckily, those are becoming fewer and fewer with practice. I'm getting better at identifying dead ends.

The strongest and fastest writing periods owe themselves to something like this system, although I've been doing this sort of thing ever since grad school (but not realizing that it was even a thing). It just makes sense to come up with the ideas and broad outlines first.

But yeah, the difference between writing with and without a sentence outline like that is night and day. 700 words per hour vs 1500+ for me. I don't even write in complete sentences any more until relatively late in the story process. The cherry on top of the sundae is that it tends to be stronger writing and more fun to do, so win-win, I guess.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Story The Sixth: Roxie Rides The Train

Today's thrilling episode: zeppelins and immigrants, couriers, biodiesel, honey and transforming bicycles powered by stolen Nazi technology.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Rough Seas

Status update:  somewhere between a third and a half done and advancing with great vigor. Coffee supplies still strong.

I was damn burned out after the Polov story. I think it turned out well, but I wasn't super enthusiastic about jumping into the next one. Okay, I really wanted to just take a couple of days off from work and then spend them sleeping and watching TV. The weekend was just that busy and my brain felt kinda fried from all the writing I did in between other obligations.

So, when Tuesday morning rolled around, I was somewhat less than enthusiastic about starting another one, to say the least.

Remember what I said about persistence? I love this story I'm writing now. It's one of those stories that has you grinning like an idiot while you write it. I might even write other ones in this setting, it's so much fun.

Anyway. I don't believe in writer's block. I think what most people call writer's block comes from only a few sources: procrastination or not enough preparation/research. Either it's basic laziness keeping me from putting words down on paper or I haven't thought something through enough or I'm lacking enough information/detail about what I'm writing.

99% of the time if the words aren't flowing, it's one of those things or a variation thereof. I'm not afraid of it because it's just another signpost of things I need to do. More preparation, maybe I'm not comfortable at some level with where a story's going and my subconscious is telling me something about my writing that my conscious mind isn't prepared to hear. Maybe I need to take a nap, or read something for a few minutes to clear my palette. Sometimes I just need to kick my ass into gear or set aside more time to work something through. It's usually just the preparation, though. It's a sign I should step back and just jot down more outline, or free associate a list of cool things the story could include.

People tend to think of ideas being a limited, finite thing. Their mind balks for a bit, they come up with nothing but air and they think the well's gone dry. They panic. But creativity doesn't really work like that. It's work just like anything else. Most of my stuff starts out as the barest skeleton with very little in it and then I go back and layer in the cool stuff. My current story started out as "hey, I want to do a diesel-punk thing." Then I thought about Lester Dent's story-writing formula and how he used the phrase "getting it in the neck" a lot. That was it. Slim pickings, but I put the work into brainstorming a huge pile of phrases and details, picked out the ones that looked the most interesting and wound up with something cool.

So, next update: bike couriers, zeppelins, robots and that weird Chinese shit.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Monday After

This last story really came down to the wire due to several factors:

a) Procrastination. Guilty. I admit it. The only real way I've discovered around this is to slot in more than a few hours per writing session, then set myself tangible and measurable goals: finish part 1 by x day, finish a story by the end of the week, make myself publicly accountable, etc.

b) A poorly-timed hangover. Oops!

c) It was way longer than I was expecting--the longest story I've written this year so far: 11,000 words. That's definitely novella-length. Write four or five of those, and I've got a short novel!

Weird to think of the progress I've made even in the short time I've spent this year on this project. I've totaled 43,000 words, not counting blog posts. With blog posts, it's higher...maybe pushing 50k. That means in little over a month, I've written half a novel and that's with a full-time job and something resembling a social life. Cool.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand.

I have fun writing the Clone City Stories. This one was no exception. It was entertaining coming up with a fictional corporate history and then mashing it into a weird hybrid of a Sword & Sandal/Post Apocalyptic pastiche. Almost writes itself.

There were a few moments, such as when I realized just, exactly, how long it would be and just how little time before my deadline I had left in between social obligations, when I began to doubt my ability to finish it. But it turned out fine. It needs a rewrite or two (much like all of my other stories during this challenge), but I'm otherwise happy.

I think if I had to pick one thing out of the Bo stories I like best (this probably applies towards pulp in general) is that it gives me an excuse to wallow in hammy writing. That's generally a lot of fun. No point in being subtle, subtle is for those pussy genres that don't involve gore, decapitations, sword fights and engaging in pistol duels on the top of biplane wings.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Story The Fifth: When The Polov Rocket Launched

Another long one, the next installment in the Clone City Rampage series. It's about vacations and the perils of grain alcohol. There's also a very large explosion at the end.

Redacted. :-)