Sunday, June 30, 2013

Story The Twenty-sixth: S. M. Wakeman And The Tomb Of The Lost Emperor

Back to the longer short form stuff!

In this installment, commemorating the halfway point of my resolution, we have dinosaurs, Venusian insults, bowler hats, lost empires, mercury and a complete lack of romance.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Nervous Tics, Rituals And Other Touchstones

Status Update: On the new bag at last. Crazy powerful stuff. Blacker than a serial killer's guts, stronger than a marathon runner's jock strap. In other words, just what the doctor ordered. One cup of this stuff, you'll be firing laser beams out of your eyes and yodeling Wagnerian opera.

Got the next outline drafted out. It's going to be another S. M. Wakeman story, I think. It's been too long since I've written about those two (actually, three...four, if you count the ship) idiots. And I wanted to do something in one of my main interest areas for week numero veintiseis: slap-happy off-the-cuff swashbuckling pulp serial. Hell, yeah.

After that, it'll probably either be something unrelated, like a one-off of some sort, or back to Cameron.

But enough of that.

I've been taking a cold eye to my writing process these days. A clinical look, if you will.

It's weird just how many nervous tics and rituals I have to go through to get any sort of writing done. I am completely unable to write if I need to clip my fingernails. I have to have a beverage near at hand, even if my back teeth are already floating. If my back teeth are already floating, I have to do something about that post-haste. Writing beyond a certain point in the evening is hard to do--I'm like a prose Mogwai. You keep me up too late, crazy shit happens. Don't let the crazy shit happen. Is my cell phone ringer turned on? Turn it off! What if that frigging demon box starts making noise when my brain is pumping out awesomeness?! Gah!

I'm basically composed of forty-five percent meat and fifty-five percent nervous tics. At least when writing time rolls around.

Every writer I've spoken to has these little bits of weirdness. One of my professors could not do a thing until her coffee table was squared away just so. Not a single word. Is it procrastination? Is it anal-retentive OCD? Are the muses just really picky?

For me, at least, it's more about removing distractions. When I'm writing, I want to be in a bubble. Not a bubble of silence, but a bubble of "just-so".

Sometimes it's about recreating a moment. That one time when you were 100% on the beam, just a conduit from your subconscious mind venting right onto a steaming piece of paper, when you were writing so quickly, so perfectly, you could hear each word clunk into place. You remember that moment and you want to set up conditions exactly so you can do it again.

To someone looking in from the outside, you probably look pretty weird, sitting there with tin foil wrapped around your head, agonizing that you can't get the right Spice Girls song queued up. And you probably are, but it kind of makes sense from inside your skull. It's not logic, there's no bullet point list of things which must be done. It's like going to bed in the ass-end of January, when it's twenty below outside and you dive into a pile of blankets. You squirm around, making a you-sized hole in your nest, moving with no real organized plans, just instinctively forming a shape which will provide no distractions during your sleep.

Or you're just a weirdo.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Middle Bits

Another week, another chapter or two of Cameron banged out.

I'm happy with the new additions. I got to escalate the InterSec thing, Emma made an appearance and even got some lines, and I think I made Claire much more of a presence. I even managed to advance the plot a bit. I was planning on making the research montage more involved and get actual legwork/talking to parents/relatives stuff in it, but once I started writing, I decided it would be better off as its own chapter. That, and laziness, of course.

The bitch about these "finishing the book" weeks is that no matter how much I tell myself they are, they're not short stories. There's no real beginning or end, it's aaaallll middle. And the middle of a story is the hardest.

Beginnings are easy. Endings are easy.

The stuff that goes between--that's when things get tricky. You have to hold the reader's attention. Things have to happen. Not too quickly, not too slowly. You have to build characterizations, toss in the odd gag to keep things upbeat. And all without going too far off the beam.

With a real short story I finish when the story's finished. Does it have a beginning, a middle and an end? Yes? Does it contain a complete plot progression with a character arc and everything? Yes. Then I'm done. If it takes 3,000 words, that's fine. If it takes 15,000 words, then that's fine, too.

With Cameron, not so much. It's all middle. Just laying down slabs of narrative until I hit the plot milestones. And that's kinda hard.

Anyhow. This week is week number 26 of the challenge...meaning...it's the halfway point! It's mind-blowing that I've made it this far. It would be appropriate for me to do another Bo story, but who knows? The future's wide open.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Story The Twenty-fifth: Nightmare Town, Part Three

Another small chunk of Cameron Webb down. One more installment until the Big Rug-pulling.

Think I'll take a break for a week or two before I pick it up again. I've been itching to write something else and being able to come back to it recharged might be helpful.

In this bit: Men In Black, Hot Pockets and Hazard, Kentucky.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Nostalgia

Status Update: on the last dregs of my current bag of beans, but I've been going through them so quickly they're not dried out yet. Next bag is queued up--it's the ultra dark, stronger-than-He-Man espresso-inspired variety. And the writing is going very well. I'm back up to my normal words per hour rate. The flash fiction had me down to around six or seven hundo per hour. Now I'm back in the mid-thousands again. Is that theme music I'm hearing? I think it is.

I've started reading one of Stephen King's latest books, the one where the main character goes back in time through a magic closet and stops the death of JFK. It's pretty good so far--but this isn't about SK, who I approve of thoroughly.

I'm reading it in hard copy, the dead tree version. And I just realized it's the first paper book I've read in a few months.

If you asked me twenty years ago about this, I probably would have given you the same lines you hear from a lot of people these days or at least you did until everybody decided e-books rock--the book is just as much a product as the words in it. The physical act of turning pages, the smell of the pulp, the must and texture of the pages. It's all part of the reading experience. The click of the e-reader just doesn't compare and machines don't have the right heft and feel to them.

But I've come to a mental place where the words matter far more to me than the format. If it could compare with e-books in terms of ease of use and portability, I would let the author beat-box her story to me. Why not?

People mourn the death of paperbacks, or for that matter anything that was popular when they were younger. The thing is, it's largely nostalgia and nostalgia is a constantly changing target.

I get nostalgic for paperbacks just like anyone else. The peculiar smell of the used book section of thrift shops. Bookstores and libraries and maybe simply paging through a friend's book collection--these are all great things. I will always have paper books around for that reason, but in the end the only thing that matters are the words. No words, you simply have stacks of paper.

I also get nostalgic for dial-up and green CRT displays and low resolution graphics. I get nostalgic about limited access to information and having to rely on whatever your local library might have had for reference sources. I get nostalgic for crappy cars with questionable electronics and build quality and the days when broadcast television was your sole avenue for movies and television shows. I even feel nostalgic for rotary phones.

Nostalgia is fickle. You remember the good parts of life and the bad bits melt away slowly like print in the rain. I am 100% positive most of the things I'm nostalgic about are rubbish, or at least mostly so. If I went back to the days before the Internet, when I was a kid, I would be BORED OUT OF MY SKULL. I mean, good God, I'd probably even have to resort to interacting with actual physically-existing, made-of-meat people for entertainment.

What will we remember about today? You never know, really. Those things that piss you off now are the things you'll probably fondly remember. "Remember back in 2013? Those were the days when we ate real food, instead of great big fistfuls of dirt. And the flies weren't the size of garbage trucks. I miss old format computers which weren't rectally-inserted at birth, too. Yeah, crazy-talk."

Having said that, there are a few things about e-books which bother me at a fundamental level. Having most of your books tied to an account which might die with the collapse of a company is bothersome. Not really being able to lend interesting books to a friend is another one--there's no used market either, which makes it somewhat harder to get word of interesting authors out there. "Yeah, this new woman? She's awesome. You should spend $15 on her book just on my word alone. Please don't think it sucks."

But mostly I like them. The instant gratification factor of being able to pop on to Amazon and have something to read within seconds. It's easy to find stuff that's even technically out of print if you don't mind drifting off the path of legality. The low barrier to entry into the publishing industry so that authors who are new or obscure can more easily find an audience. And much less clutter around my apartment. Eat it, nostalgia.

Monday, June 17, 2013

On Fun-sized Portioning

Another five thousand words down, bringing Cameron up to roughly 30k words and my totals for the year over the 200k mark. Damn!

You know, I think one of the downsides of writing so much flash fiction is that it's impairing my ability to just belt shit out. I spend so much time in flash agonizing over every last word and paragraph it's stopping me from just free-flowing prose onto paper. And that kinda sucks because I have more fun writing this way.

The sort of word by word Tetris-like composition which flash fiction demands is fun, yes, but when actually writing in a longer form, that sort of close eye on detail is definitely a late draft activity. It slows you down if you do it too early in the process. The important thing, initially at least, is to get enough stuff down on paper to give myself something to play with later on when I go back and start the endless cycle of revisions. So, there. My current challenge: write faster, even if it comes out dumb at first glance. But...

It usually doesn't.

I wasn't actually sure some of these scenes would work, but they were fairly necessary to the story. My notes for some of them, in fact, seemed like they'd be rather boring or pointless. I sat down to put the first paragraph and assorted sentences down with a decided lack of enthusiasm, because there's a point in writing a book where you run into the occasional "get plot from point A to point B" scene. They're often necessary, if unexciting. Sometimes three paragraphs of exposition will save you from having to write three or four rather pedestrian chapters. It still feels like your characters are sitting at a bus stop, though, twiddling their thumbs.

Luckily, sometimes you just sit down and pound out words and awesomeness happens. And other times, you start. Then you take a break until something cool comes up out of your brain and you take a different direction. And sometimes the free-form blue sky-ing (shut up, it's a word now that I'm using it) pops out fun details which hadn't occurred to you before.

The explanation as to why Latiangle hangs out in the library, for example, not only hadn't occurred to me before, it also has some implications which will become important later on in the book. It also makes perfect sense within the setting of the novel itself. So! Even if I go back on a later draft and cut that scene (I probably won't), it will have been worth working my way through.

By contrast, I think the park scene has some problems. Some important things happen there, but if I were to do it over again, I'd up the stakes a bit, recast the action so that Claire is doing something which highlights her personality a bit better.

This is one of the worrying things about writing. You read a book, you think an author has all the answers, right from the beginning or even before. But, no. Sometimes it really is seat of the pants. Sometimes the author is just as surprised by a development as someone reading it.

I think if I knew exactly what was going to go on in the rest of any book I'm writing, I'd be less likely to write it. Sure, it's somewhat terrifying to not have a very clear idea of where everything's going, but I'd probably be bored out of my skull if I was just pounding down word by word what my outline had on it.

I usually have a broad idea of what's going to happen. I have a small list of things I want to see, but often I'm just going with what's interesting to me on a short term basis.

This week...I think I'm going to do another block of Cameron. I really, really want to get through this part of the story. I might also redo the park scene to make it more interesting, make Claire more fun.

And then, for story 26 (the halfway point!) I'll probably do something different. Maybe some more clone stuff, maybe another blast of S. M. Wakeman, since it's been a while since I've done anything with those two idiots.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Story The Twenty-fourth: Nightmare Town, Part Two

Another smallish blast of Cameron Webb. Slowly but surely, I'm drifting towards the first climax and things getting a whole lot more weird.

Running a little dry on motivation this weekend, so it's only around 5k words. I need to get back in the long groove again.

This time around, some glimmerings of the main plot, ghostbusters, bad dreams and more about Latiangle and his home.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Doctor, Heal Thyself

Status Update: got a fresh bag; beans are high quality. Had a Moment this morning when I poured my first cup. Since I drink my coffee black, I always regard my first cup with a bit of fear and trepidation. It is the opening salvo of the day--your first cup of joe should be a firm cuff alongside the noggin. This morning's dose was stiff enough to stand a spoon in. I'm surprised it didn't dissolve the bottom of my Shakespearian Insult coffee cup/rocket fuel tank. In other words, success. Story is going well. Part 2 of Nightmare Town is turning into Part 2 of 3. It's the ever-expanding outline of DOOOOOOM. I'm still trying like a dickens to end at a reasonable word count--I want this bad boy to wrap at around 30-35k words when I finish this section. There's going to be a pretty serious cliffhanger at that point.

Chuck Wendig has me thinking again, in that inimitable way he has. His series of posts this week about gender biases in writing has a small corner of the Internet in a tizzy. There has, in fact, been something of a flap.

His posts are, in a nutshell, about how sexism pervades the science fiction/speculative fiction/etc corner of the writing/publishing industry. And he goes on to note how terribly important it is that you be aware of these tendencies, so you can fight them whenever they pop their goblin heads up out of their nasty little subterranean gopher holes. And I completely agree with him. At best, gender bias makes for dreadfully flat writing. At worst it excludes 50% of the human race from your discourse. Unwise!

In my own fashion, I'm not going to be writing anything terribly controversial. I have the rabble-rousing abilities of a bowl of oatmeal.

It does, however, have me thinking about identifying patterns of behavior.

Okay, backing up a bit.

The thing about biases like that is that they are never fully reasoned out. They are the result of a lifetime of learned behavior, both from your actions and those you associate with. They are formed as a result of physical experiences and the language and culture that you immerse yourself in. They are very rarely something that anyone consciously adopts.

These attitudes you pick up are almost never acquired wholesale. You pick up bits and pieces here and there. A bit of language your Uncle Ralph uses (that bastard), an opinion on something seemingly unrelated from your best bud from culinary school who Totally Had That One Thing Happen To Him On A Bus. It all goes in that big hopper you call a brain where it slides down into your subconscious and becomes sausage.

Writing is thinking.

If there is a portion of your thinking that you are not explicitly aware of, your writing will be influenced in some way or another. Being aware of your biases is the least you can do. And you have to always be on your toes.

For example.

When I was a kid, I used to use the word "gypped" a lot. It's a short word, and doesn't have any meanings or connotations beyond getting screwed out of something where I come from. In fact, I would go so far as to say it was my go-to word for those sorts of situations.

But the thing is, in many parts of the world it's a racial slur. It's short for "gypsies", which is a somewhat impolite word for the Romani, who have an undeserved reputation for thieving and low-dealing. "Gypsy" itself isn't much of an insult, but using a derivative of their name for petty thievery is.

And then I got older, the Internet became a thing and I got called out on it by someone who lives where the Romani are common. Back where I came from, gypsies just aren't on the radar. They are as common as elephants or high-grade plutonium. I'd always placed them in the same mental bin that I store dragons and elves. To find out that they do, in fact, exist, as a cultural group and are a people who face constant discrimination was a revelation.

So, I stopped using "gypped" as a verb, at least not without being rather self-aware of it.

Biases like that are very rarely obvious. In fact, the first reaction when it's pointed out is to scoff. It's when you have that reaction, that first "you've got to be kidding" moment--that's when you have to be on guard. Because if it matters enough to someone else to point out something like that to you, then maybe you should hear them out.

Yes, nine of ten times they're going to be full of shit, but it never hurts to stop and reassess your own actions and assumptions. These weird little unspoken assumptions usually make for lazy writing, so it's never a bad thing to call yourself on it.

Even if you think everything through and go ahead with it anyway, maybe you decide that your art will be all about how inferior women are or how the working class is full of thieves and liars or whatever bit of degrading nastiness you decide to wallow in, you should at least be aware of your prejudices, so you can play with or use them. Writing should be about challenging expectations, especially your own.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Post Thunderbird

Well, shit.

As I said, longer short fiction did not happen. The weekend was busier and I was lazier than I was anticipating. But that's cool, because I got to do some more awesome Wendig-inspired flash fiction.

The challenge was to roll twice on a table and get two separate things. Then write a story you could theoretically pitch to a room full of fancy-pants executives as "X" means "Y". Mine? "Die Hard" meets "Neverwhere."

That's...a lot to cram into a thousand words (or so). In the end, I made the main character a cop and that's about as much Die Hard as I crammed into the story. If I were to pitch it to the previously-mentioned bigwigs, I'd just have to lie to them about it, because that's how I roll.

There was much more Neverwhere than Die Hard.

In particular, I took the idea of an underworld where the homeless and other people forgotten by mainstream society fall, becoming invisible to normal folks, and ran with it as far as I could in 1000 words.

The basic idea, and I'm not sure all of this comes through in the story, is that once you encounter someone who's from "the other side", if you get too close you'll get stranded there, too. The only way to get back, even for a second, is to engage in behaviors sufficiently weird and out there to pull you back into mainstream society's notice. Doing weird drugs, waving strange signs, dressing weird, talking to imaginary people, doing odd things. That kind of thing. There'd be a tension between "normal folks" who have jobs and stuff and the crazy homeless folks because on one hand, the homeless folks are acting out because that's how they get out of their weird purgatory and on the other normal folks recognize on some level that they're in danger of being sucked out of their own lives. Commentary, I have it!

Mostly it was just an excuse to get the main character to SMOKE CRACK FOR JUSTICE.

And, like a lot of things I write, I set it in Detroit, because Detroit's a pretty bizarre place.

I can't really defend my love of the place. It's blighted, it's crumbling. It's smelly, gross, dirty, crime-ridden, filled with criminals and lowlifes and it's entirely too close to Canada. You can be raped, robbed, carjacked, lit on fire, mugged, hammered, beaten, panhandled, stabbed and buggered all in one afternoon. And it's awesome.

It's got all these islands of really weird stuff. Great ethnic neighborhoods. Fantastic restaurants where you can only pay in cash and you'll likely be the only outsider who's been there in a month. The people who are there, at least the ones who aren't trying to kill you, are there mostly because they want to be there. If you're polite and friendly and look like you're enjoying yourself, they're usually thrilled that you're not bagging on the place. A lot of the most crowded places in the city have a weirdly small-town vibe you simply won't find anywhere else.

And Hamtramck is the most Detroit of all the Detroit areas. Crazy ethnic makeup. The highest population density in Michigan. Architecture that's subtly weird and unlike just about any place I've ever seen. And it's got Hamtramck Disneyland, which is an acid trip of a place, particularly if you're stumbling back from a bar at ass o'clock in the morning and just randomly bump into it with no warning.

Would I live in Detroit? Hell, no. Do I visit whenever I get the chance and write about it a lot? Yes.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Story The Twenty-third: Disneyland And The Devil's Thunderbird

Thought I was going to do a full story, but the weekend got a whole hell of a lot busier and I got a whole hell of a lot lazier than I was expecting. It happens! I did get a decent start on the next chunk of Cameron Webb, though, so it's likely I'll have that done for next week.

So I did another Wendig flash fiction thing again, which is always fun.

The challenge was to roll a twenty-sider twice and pick two things from a list. Write a story you could pitch to a roomful of people as "X" meets "Y". I got "Die Hard" and "Neverwhere," which was vastly disappointing because it could have been "Planet of the Apes" meets "Pride & Prejudice."

1000-ish words. Hamtramck, hobo wine and black squirrels.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Impostors

Status Update: down to that annoying part of the bag where it looks empty, but no matter how much you shake it, another pot worth of beans falls out. The dregs, folks, the dregs are what I'm talking about. This is especially important because they're drying out and I drink my coffee blacker than a Lambda Lambda Lambda convention at midnight. Dryness ain't your friend here.

Anywho, finishing up Nightmare Town this week. Plotting is done, just have to sit myself down and write the rest of it. This is an issue, because my brain's in a weird place after writing flash fiction, short shorts and vacationing heavily over the last month. I need to tie myself to a chair, slap myself around a bit. Get my internal drill sergeant out, get mean. Or something.

It's hard, though. Writing reminds me of housework at times. You keep putting it off because there's a kid in your subconscious who tells you that all work is bad, that work can't possibly be enjoyable, then you sit down and...guess what, it's fun. Then you wrap up what you set out to do, go do something else and the cycle starts all over again. Screw you, kid.

I've made no bones about the fact that I'm prone to procrastination. The worst part is that I procrastinate with things of no lasting value. Video games, watching TV, dicking around on the internet, alphabetizing my collection of dead Boy Scouts, none of these really matter and aren't even a fraction of a fraction as fulfilling or--face it, fun--as writing is, but involve just as much, if not more, work.

I think part of it is that I'm lazy. Naturally. But there's a not insignificant part that, for lack of anything better to call it, could be labelled as "impostor syndrome". I simply have difficulty recalling at times, particularly the ass end of the day when I'm buried up to my tits in the daily hurly-burly, that I'm actually a reasonably competent writer (shut up, you in the back) and enjoy what I do. It's a massive amount of fun just sitting down and seeing what kind of shit crawls out of my subconscious, what worlds I can build one paragraph at a time.

"Impostor Syndrome", which is not an AMA-recognized term, and is currently ensconced in that slightly grotty zone of overlap between pop-psychology and actual medical practice, is characterized by the inability to recognize your own accomplishments. You tend to hear about this sort of angst amongst professors and doctors and so on. People who've spent a vast amount of time in college and then suddenly find themselves in their actual career, with no mental space to adjust. They walk out in front of the classroom, or a court room, or what have you, not mentally prepared to realize that they're officially grown-ups now and are fully qualified to do what they do.

It's this mental inertia which causes problems.

I think everybody carries a ton of baggage due to decades of daily habit that you have to overcome to do something you want to do. When I was sixteen, I found myself in the position of having to learn to drive. I'd never touched a car, except to get in the bits of it that did not have a steering wheel. I couldn't conceive of myself as being someone who should be entrusted with the right to control a two ton beast on wheels (or, in my case, the family Pontiac) and be able to send it hurtling in any direction I wanted, even the stupid ones. I had a lot of mental inertia to overcome.

I've had similar mental barriers all the time and, in almost every case, they were worth overcoming. There was no way I could imagine myself sitting at the bottom of a lake, staring fish directly in the peepers, but it was worth going through the effort to get my SCUBA license. I couldn't imagine myself lifting heavy weights, being a skinny bastard, but I got over it. In fact, I'd mistaken impostor syndrome for actual fear of activities, which prevented me, for the longest time, from learning to swim or even going to the dentist.

It's worth identifying these stopping points in your psyche, these stubborn little boundaries, and then stepping across them. Even if you find out whatever's on the other side ain't your cup of tea, at least you went and checked.

On a side note, I've noticed a direct correlation between the amount of legitimate story writing I do and the length and rambly-ness (shut up, it's a word now because I've used it as one) of my blog entries. This is a sign that I really, really need to butch the fuck up and get back to the grindstone.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Flash Mortem (Ah Ah, King Of The Impossible)

Writing flash fiction is like packing for a five day vacation on a motor scooter. As much as you want to bring everything with you, you're gonna have to make some decisions. One thing I like about it is how it forces you to look at each paragraph and ask yourself the question "is this the most awesome thing I can write in this space?"

Sometimes you have a paragraph that you really, really like, but you then realize that it's 100 words that don't advance the story at all. So you cut it. If you're lucky, there's something in there that you can lump into another paragraph, but more often than not, it just goes to the cutting room floor.

In this case, I wanted to make a spy thingy set in the 1960's. I had some things I wanted to be in there: it's a flash fiction challenge, so I had to use the random result from Chuck Wendig's random table ("cryomancy", in this case). I wanted it to have nuclear silos and talk about the main character's background a bit. I wanted her to kick ass, explore her psionic ability in interesting ways but have it only be a small facet of what she does. I wanted it to be integral to the Cold War setting.  There were a few other small details I wanted to include, like the sledgehammer next to the safe.

That's a lot to get through in a thousand words. I had to trim four or five paragraphs. In the end, I made it in 1100, which is close enough for lawn darts and nuclear missiles, I guess.

One thing I did miss was gender cues! A commenter on Chuck's blog who, as it turned out, was responding to another post, used the wrong pronoun when referring to my protagonist. Whether or not it was actually directed at my story, it made me reread it with a fresh perspective. I realized that you could either view my nameless character as a sultry femme fatale or a really sassy and effeminate man. I'm surprisingly cool with either reading. The idea of a full novel about a sassy gay Cuban secret agent is pretty awesome.

I had a great deal of fun writing this one. I like things set in the Cold War. You can riff on any number of things: technology, politics, culture, it's all there. This could have been snappier, but I was integrating a lot of details and dealing with a dearth of space. If I were to blow it up into something longer, I think it could be pretty entertaining. The urge to get silly with some of the implications of the setting (Super Cubans Invade Hoboken) would be irresistible.

This week: something longer and back into the groove of writing non-flash-fiction/non-exercises.