Monday, July 29, 2013

Post Match Breakdown

Not bad for something I pulled out of thin air at the last minute. To say the weekend was hectic would have been the understatement of the century. Between being out of commission nearly all last week due to teeth stuff (all better now), a punk rock concert and a beer festival, I would have to say time was tight.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it was another Wendig flash thing, which is always a lot of fun. What can I say, the man loves random tables and so do I. They say the fastest way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but with nerds, it's better to use a handful of dice.

The idea was that you'd pick four random things from a list of ten items and then include them in your story. I used a ten-sided die and rolled for them, because random is my friend. It came up chess piece, leather mask, animal skull and horseshoe. Of those, I decided to center the story around one, a game of chess, and make the others background detail.

To be honest, I kinda cheated with the horseshoe. I threw it in with the crap in the prizefighter's bag as a sort of archetypical list of items, suggesting he represents some sort of abstract notion of human progress, but it really could have been anything from your typical hardware store. A ball-peen hammer, for example.

Anyhow, that sounds way more pretentious than it really is.

This story is for those people who feel the world has really gone off the rails over the last twenty years. I think it's pretty amusing to imagine the fate of the world being driven by some really absurd game, like Candy Land or Parcheesi. It would explain a lot about life.

One of the things I played around with a little was to throw out the red herring that one of the players was a good guy, the other one bad. The reality is that they are both bad, or that both are operating on an arbitrary or alien position of morality.

I've always had the suspicion that if gods were to exist and were not the creations of mankind, their portfolios would be truly alien or beyond comprehension. They wouldn't deal with thunder, or the ocean, or war--gods would operate on conceptual levels which would require abstract mathematics to comprehend and their judgments would seem rather arbitrary and terrifying from a mortal standpoint.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Story The Thirtieth: Fifty Years Of Chess

The blood-god demands more Wendig flash! Heed his thunderous commands!

The challenge involves four random things from a list of ten random things. Write a cool thousand words or so. Try not to die during the process.

One very long game of chess, absurdity bordering on pretentiousness and some geese.

Download EpubFifty Years Of Chess (full text)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

On Stuff Being Pulled Out Of My Head

Status Update: Coffee supplies plentiful. Had a moment of bone-chilling panic when I realized I was nearly out of filters, but I pulled through at the last minute before I had to resort to using small-clothes.

For the most part, I haven't been writing much because I had two and a half* teeth pulled on Monday and I'm still recovering.

* The half a tooth is a coronectomy, where they lop off the crown and leave the roots in your jaw. In my case, it turned out to be a necessary step since random genetics and Mother Nature had colluded in embedding my right lower wisdom tooth so far deep within my jaw it would have required spelunking to remove completely and full removal would have likely resulted in partial facial paralysis and a hole in my right jawbone the size of Mississippi, but with far fewer s's.

Strange process, this. For the most part, I'm fine, free from pain, but I have absolutely no legs. I feel like a sports car with a one gallon tank. Rev the engine, fall asleep. Gas it up, good for another four miles.

So, I'm good for writing, so long as it's in very, very short bursts. Then my recovery-induced narcolepsy kicks in and I'm out. Makes working kind of difficult. Hopefully I'll be over it next week. Until then, it's probably going to be another flash piece, which is fine because they're a hell of a lot of fun to write, but it's not progress, per se.

For the record, when they tell you that they're going to put you under with laughing gas and whatever voodoo sedative they choose, they tell you you're going to be out, mostly, and when you're awake you'll mostly be along for the ride. You'll feel the dentist banging around in your head, tugging on things and kicking up a ruckus, but with very little palpable sensation beyond that. This is all very true.

What they don't tell you ahead of time is that you might actually hallucinate. Which I did. Woke up and saw an oil rig sticking out of my mouth, which then turned into the Death Star Trench Run from Return of the Jedi. I assume my coked-up frontal lobes saw whatever braces and implements they had placed in my mouth and cooked up a fantasy. Or the good doctor actually was drilling for gas without telling me. I'll never know which.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Booze Mortem

Fun story to write. The random seed, if you recall, was from this web site and it spit out "The story starts when your protagonist is told s/he must get married immediately. Another character is an alchemist who just got out of prison."

Random!

I never did get Harry out of prison. By the time I'd realized I'd violated the random seed, I was already nearing the 1,000 word limit. In fact, I wound up going over by 100, but it's close enough for horse shoes and nuclear war.

Anyhow, I had fun writing this. This is the part where you're supposed to say something like "well, it was a fun voice to write for a few hundred words, but I'd never be able to keep it up for longer than that", but frankly, I could probably go on in this fashion for several dozen novels. Hardboiled is probably my favorite of the authorial voices. If I didn't force myself to write other things, pretty much everything I wrote would read like this.

This is a problem because in this type of fiction you're always skirting the line beyond which the cliche monsters dwell. Don't disturb the cliche monsters; they are hoary miserable old grues who will crunch up your bones and then drunk text your parents at two in the morning.

But you can call people "toots" or say things like "now you're cooking with gas" and nobody raises an eyebrow. How cool is that?

A lot of the background in this is a combination of what I've seen of Boardwalk Empire and one of my favorite books on the Prohibition called "Last Call". The main character keeps mentioning mixing--Harry, if he had not had the alchemist's stone, would have made a living taking cheap grain alcohol, or booze of similar grade such as moonshine, and mixing adulterants of various sorts (some healthy, many not) into it to make it more palatable/taste more like real alcohols.

So, the fact that his booze was relatively healthy AND tasted good would have made him rather remarkable.

Should be a bizarre week ahead of me. Teeth-pulling on this end, punk rock concert and beer festival on the other. In that time, I hope to have another bit of flash fiction finished. Who knows.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Story The Twenty-Ninth: The Girl With The Jade Rock

Time for another Wendig flash fiction thing!

The challenge this time around was to go to this site and, whatever random fate gives you, write the damn thing.

1000-ish words. Channeled my not-so-inner Dashiell Hammett. We've got alchemy, booze and Prohibition. Now we're cooking with gas.

Download EpubThe Girl With The Jade Rock (full text)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

On Being Inefficient

Status Update: Unusually fine beans this time around. After last week's Magyar horde, these are as refined as Victorian gentlemen, albeit somewhat less inclined to casual racism. Or maybe they are? I just grind 'em up and stream boiling water through them, damn any sensibilities they may or may not have.

Holy hannah, this week turned stressful. I thought summer was supposed to be fun and easy? And next week, I'm getting multiple teeth pulled, which should be an adventure, followed by a punk rock concert and a beer festival. I see flash fiction in my immediate future and a ton of it.

For some reason, I've been seeing a lot of articles about time management techniques lately. If you've ever wandered by a web site like Lifehacker, you've probably seen your fair share.

Sometimes, they're on the money. I don't think anybody should spend a whole lot of time writing checks to pay bills these days--automatic transfers are faster and less error-prone. If you hate folding t-shirts and there's a short video clip showing you how to do it faster and better, that's great, too. If you could show me how to wash my llama in half the time, I'd be your friend forever. And Sparky would be extremely grateful, to boot.

Tip #4 in these articles always seem to be about speed reading. I think of this as the dark side of efficiency, the willingness to deliberately not stop and smell the roses in order to plow through MORE STUFF in a given span of time.

I've noticed there's always a certain sort of person who takes pride in how fast they can get through a book. I've never quite been sure why this is something to brag about. When I read fiction, I generate a play in my head. It almost happens in real time (unless it's something very wordy and slow, which I'll skim through until cool things begin to happen again). If it's very well written, I like to repeat sentences to myself, doing the things speed readers tell you not to do--I vocalize the sounds, visualizing the flow of words and phrases as a wave in the ocean. I imagine what it would be like if the words were tiny dinosaurs and the punctuation marks fleeing villagers, or I repeat everything to myself until it doesn't have meaning anymore and becomes pure music and rhythm.

When I read nonfiction, I read paragraph by paragraph. If there's an interesting chunk of information, I set the book down and let it bounce around in my head for a while. Sometimes I take notes (usually I don't, because seriously, homework? I'm not in school!). I imagine what other writers would say about what I just read. An efficiency expert would shoot themselves in the face if they watched me read non-fiction because the more interesting it is, often-times the slower I will read it.

Basically, I read in the most inefficient ways possible, on purpose. I could, in theory, speed read everything I open, but it would be missing the point. If a book were empty enough that I'd be tempted to do that, I'd probably just set it down after fifty pages and then read the Wikipedia entry instead.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Blah Mortem

Definitely one of the more boring things I've written in a while and I am including shopping lists here.

Two things working against me here: one, I needed to get the action to where it needs to be at the end of the first third of the novel, and, in this case, the most efficient way was to just do a couple of quick get-you-there scenes, which I mostly loathe writing.

The other thing is the looming specter of the big rewrite. There's a little nub of thought in the back of my head that wonders if anything I write is going to survive it, particularly stuff that I'm slightly bored writing. There's a definite element of "why bother" here because I know I'm just going to print it all out and lay down a thick layer of red ink. I'm guessing it'll be at 40k words or so when I'm finished and I really want to shave it down to around 30. So, who knows. I'm guessing a lot of streamlining is going to happen. It's going to be brutal.

And, of course, there's also that tiny gremlin inside of me that apparently hates to finish products. Fuck you, gremlin.

The next bit, however, should be a lot of fun to write. It's one of those characterization-heavy, action-heavy, surreal-crap-heavy segments that I really enjoy pumping out. In comparison, it's the difference between taking the 70's panel wagon down to the store to buy oranges when you could be bungee jumping off of a burning building, although I do not want to in any way glamorize oranges when I write that. I'm also pretty excited about some of the things I'm going to cover in the next third of the novel...which is why it was taking so long to get past this segment. I just want to get to the cool stuff.

But first, a break. I think I'm going to write more science fiction, probably another over the top shaggy dog story like "Down and Out In The Jungle Of Death", possibly with the same characters.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Story The Twenty-eight: Nightmare Town, Part Four

Another blast of Cameron Webb.

Even though this ISN'T the rest of the first third of the book (one more blast, honest!), it's some pretty significant progress. It's all transitional stuff before the next block, which should be fun to write.

I really don't enjoy writing get-you-from-point-A-to-point-B chapters, but they're occasionally necessary. In fact, the thought of writing this part is what was preventing me from finishing up this section of the book. I tried to keep it fun, but, you know, sometimes you have to do the equivalent of taking the bus to Oklahoma, if that's where your flight to Hawaii is leaving from.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

On Hanging Out With Other Writers, Or: The Value Of Osmosis And Virtual High-Fives

Status Update:  at the ass end of the bag. The beans, now dried out, are stronger. Fiercer. They are the Fremen of cappuccino-inspired beanery, ready to wage war on the vile Baron Harkonnen of my metabolism, which I seriously need because I have a bad case of post-concert crunk from last night's Slash show. Writing has just started for this week.

My plan is to do a quick and dirty point-A-to-point-B job on the rest of what I'd planned for Cameron. Just get from where I am to the Big Rug Pulling, then stick a fork in it for now. Then come back to it later and give it the savage rewriting it sorely needs. For one thing, it's a bit long for the first third of a novel--there's some redundant scenes in it which need to either go or be combined with something else. Second, there's been plot/character developments since I started it which need to be written into the beginning parts. Plot twists, world detail, character development and so on. Also, I simply want to make sure that the first part matches what I have in mind for the second part--I want it to be a mean, green fighting machine before I tackle that bit, because it's going to need to be that to keep part two from falling into chaos.

Anyway.

I've been following other writers' blogs lately.

I used to pish-posh the notion of talking to other writers or hanging out in writer hang-outs because I didn't want to have my ideas "polluted." Yes, I know this is a dick-ish thing to write, but yeah, basically, because I'm a dick. Dick, dick, dick. Have I written that enough? Yes? Too much dick in one paragraph? Good. Dick.

To be fair, I have my reasons.

Back in college, we used to spend a lot of time in workshop. It's still pretty much the standard method of teaching intermediate to advanced writing. It's a great way to get a lot of different opinions on something you're working on, from a wide array of skill levels and backgrounds. You get the professors' input and then your colleagues, who can range from any level of ability from seasoned professional to brilliant amateur to complete fucktard.

It's a valuable experience and if you haven't had to go through it, I recommend it, if only to get used to the feeling of putting your stuff in public view and dealing with the occasional negative feedback.*

* I never get negative feedback because all of my material is completely awesome. Of course.  *cough* YOU IN BACK, SHUT UP.

However.

I've always had a great deal of loathing for committees. There's a fine balancing point between "circle of people whose opinions I trust and find valuable" and "a buncha folk doing my creating for me." The ideal workshop is on the first end of that spectrum. A full-on, grit-your-teeth, sack-up-and-slog-through-it corporate committee where you have to please a billion people and no one at all at the same time is at the latter end of the spectrum.

Think of it like ordering pizza. If you have two people you like and trust and are more or less on your mental wavelength, you can order the crazy pizza which takes chances and satisfies that weird craving you have for anchovies, artichokes and marinara.

If you have ten people, the pizza is going to be plain-jane missionary-position pepperoni and cheese and everybody's only kinda-sorta happy with it at the end.

Writing workshops can be like that. If you don't keep strict control and you try to please everyone, your story comes out looking workshopped. Toothless. All the rough bits smoothed out along with the exciting and fun things. You've (to paraphrase Vonnegut) opened the window and made love to the world and now you've got pneumonia, you stupid bastard.

So, I tend to view writers' communities as like that. Writing is a fairly personal experience to me. Of all the friends I have, only about a third know that I even have an English degree. Of those friends, only two or three know that I write regularly at all, let alone this much. Getting involved with a ton of other people who do what I do is pretty weird and against most of my instincts.

But it's worth fighting those instincts. Reading other writer's thoughts as they write and fight through their various demons is a bit of a revelation. You come to find that other writers are people just like you, that they struggle with the same damn things you do. Even the big bad professionals. It's fun to realize that other people, some of whom you thought were following some Big Damn Plan, are whistling and tap-dancing, just like you are, making it up on the spot.

For example, I was reading Charles Stross' blog the other day. He was talking about writing the Fuller Memorandum in some ridiculous time frame, like 24 days. He was saying that the experience, while not precisely pleasant (he compared it to an attack of cholera), was interesting because he usually had to obsessively read and re-read everything he wrote in a story to make sure everything stayed on track, but he didn't have to do that with this because the writing time was so short he could keep it all in his head.

It struck a note, because I have pretty much the same organizational problem. I constantly have to track back in some stories to fact-check details and I know that I miss stuff. You read completed books and you never realize that the authors of those books struggle with the same crap you do.

So! Talk to other writers! The experience probably won't make you suck more! In fact, somebody's probably already had whatever problem you're having now and it might help you to find out how they fought through it.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Baby-making, Sausage And Unexpected Turns

I'd originally intended this to be a horror story. Alice was going to sit at the book, the words were going to become unmeshed from their pages, they'd attack her and then go hatch eggs in her body. She'd hallucinate as they fed/mated/whatever the hell stray words do when they attack someone. The last thing she was going to see before dying were letters erupting from her skin, like spider eggs hatching from a carcass. They were going to skitter off into the stacks where the books would feed, making disturbing chittering noises. Yeah.

I think we've all had those nights where we were convinced our writing would kill us all, so it hits all the right nightmare-notes.

Anyhow, I got to the point where she was beginning to hallucinate and thought of a less fucked-up but more surreal direction to take the story instead. I like this version a little more since the other was depressing and a little darker than I usually go.

The story's genesis was the hoary old meme about evil books like the Necronomicon, about how some knowledge is so dark and evil it can infect you/make you crazy/inspire you to write pop music/bake cookies/whatever. I thought it'd be more fun to make a book more literally evil/predatory. The ideas would come off the page in physical form and eat you.

Then I started writing about nineteenth-century transcendentalists, thought about how silly they were and it turned into a story about intellectual cross-pollination instead. Obviously.

Either way, I think it works. I got a chance to stretch my dense-prose legs, work in some amusingly silly imagery/borderline puns, talk about economics, write about libraries, which is something I do, apparently, and all in all be a little surreal. All in a day's work.

Next up: depending on available time (going to two separate concerts this week) I might write the final installment of Cameron before the Big Rug-Pulling (which will be followed by redrafting, rethinking and rewriting for reasons which will be very obvious after the BRP). Or another short story.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Story The Twenty-seventh: The Stacks

Two thousand words, lean and mean. The dreariness of 19th century writing, how books are made and Brutalist architecture. This one got kind of weird, but I really like it.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Power Of Not Giving A Shit

Status Update: Coffee supplies strong. Spilled a bit of it on the way back to the Lenovo and it ate a hole through the floor. I had to pause before typing this to wave at my downstairs neighbor, who seemed surprised but happy to see me. Scout's honor.  In other news, resolve is mighty. No story started yet. No idea what I'm gonna write, but something will get written. Probably something on the short side. Maybe flash, maybe not.

Back when I was a kid and fresh out of college, I'd spaced out on an application deadline to get into grad school. As a result, I had to get a series of fairly awful jobs to support myself because, as it turns out, starving kind of sucks. I had no real office skills at the time and lacked the self-confidence to apply for a "real job", so I just took what I could find.

One of the jobs involved warehousing ice cream for a company which handled distribution for a big local grocery chain. Even though it was the hottest summer in recent memory, with temperatures hovering around the three digit mark for weeks on end and endless blasting sunshine from sun-up to sun-down, I had to invest in arctic gear. I'd spend anywhere from 50 to 70 hours a week loading boxes of ice cream into large semi trailers while slogging around in a warehouse which was kept at a near-constant twenty below, except on Sundays, when it dropped to minus thirty. I had two days off per week, unless the job load demanded we cancel one, and they were not contiguous.

It was a terrible job and I was awful at it. I lasted about two months, but at the end of it I had a fat wad of dough in the bank from all the overtime and my body fat was in the single digits due to the job's physical demands.

Needless to say, I was going through a rough patch. I was on my own for the first time in my life, dealing with life in a very low rent neighborhood. When I say I was living across from a crack house, I am not laying a metaphor down here, folks. It was a crack house. As in, a house...where crack...was sold. Yeah.

I was terrible at the job. At first I could barely keep up with the physical labor, even though I was in pretty good shape, due to being something of a gym rat and huge into martial arts at the time. It required a different kind of shape from what I was used to--the ability to be on your feet, hauling weight for hours on end without flagging. It was the difference between a draft horse and a show pony and entirely outside my college-life experience.

But the job required more than that. Even once I got into the right kind of shape, I discovered it demanded a type of thinking which my brain simply was not wired to do. You needed to pack your ice cream packages on the bare minimum of carts, performing--on the fly and under tight deadlines--a form of three-dimensional Tetris which you either had the knack for or you didn't.

I lacked the maturity at the time to realize I could simply quit and find a less stressful job. It took me...well, two months, really...to come to that conclusion. In the meantime, I had constant nightmares. The weekends, split into two one-day blocks, were never short enough to recover, both emotionally and physically. Life sucked, hard.

But I was still an English major, right? I still wrote things. Poetry.  Awful poetry, where I'd try to deal with my anxiety.

I wish I'd saved some of it. It's truly dreadful, Vogonian in its sheer, epic, balls to the stars level of pants.

In later years, I've come to refer to anything I wrote when I was emotionally too close to the subject as "freezer poetry," defined as the sort of rubbish I wrote when I was stressed out of my noggin from my awful freezer-warehouse job.

In lit-nerd circles there is a thing called "negative capability." It's a term coined by John Keats, the British wunderkind who rhapsodized about Grecian urns and shit. It's mostly about being able to step outside of the bonds of what's holding you to the moment and achieving artistic objectivity. If you hang out with enough pretentious people, you'll probably hear it about once a year or so under the right conditions. I call it "the power of not giving a shit."

In order to really write or, for that matter, do any sort of real thinking, you have to be willing to step outside your own brain, see what's in front of you clearly. You have to be able to remove the limits of your context and be willing to not be mired in whatever's holding you down, whether it's your preconceptions of how society relates to the topic at hand or the completely fucking awful day you just had.

The worst writing I've ever done was the sort of writing where I'd bang down words and then fist-pump and give out a loud "hell, yeah." Or, even worse, the antithesis, where I was dealing with awful drek in my life, when I'd attempt to capture the horror of a terrible job and the basic existential despair of missing out on grad-school deadlines.*

* Sarcasm! I've got it! Late-thirties-Mike is vastly amused by early-twenties-Mike's complete lack of perspective on life.

In order to write (or think clearly about) something, I had to develop the ability to not give a shit about it, see all sides as clearly as possible, listen to alternate voices. And if I wasn't ready to do that, I had to build the ability to put it on the back-burner until I was ready. "Not giving a shit" is not "not caring" or being apathetic. It's about being in a mental place where you can see all options before you objectively and outside the moment.

These days, I never use my writing to vent. If I can't abstract a problem down to the point where I view it as a puzzle to be manipulated, then I'm probably too close to it and need to fix my brain before I can write about it.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Right Down To The Wire

That...was cutting it close. I literally finished that story with a half hour to spare until people started showing up for a movie night I'd planned. I almost didn't think I'd make it all, that I'd have to suck it up, call this week a loss and start wracking my brain for the most appropriate group to give that $50 to. Are there any dinosaur protection societies? There should be.

Anywho.

I'm really happy with it, for a first draft.

As usual for first drafts, especially the flavors which run longer than a few thousand words, there's some things I'd want to change. Bits which ran too long, places which need more oomf. I'd like to expand Dr. Beckett into more of a character, give Sam more opportunities to be impetuous. I want more jungle life, dinosaurs and nasty bugs and grotty details of life in the depths of the Venusian forest.

I'd also like to have the Venusians have more of a part in the story--perhaps a named role or two. I'd originally planned the boilerplate Venusian personality to be rather sarcastic. It'd be an entire planet of sarcastic philosophic lizardmen designed from the bottom up to take the piss out of Sam no matter where he went.

Instead this all took a bit of a back seat to things I wasn't expecting to write about, but turned out pretty cool anyway. The silk tunnel, for example, was something of a last minute thing because I didn't want to go the obvious route and have to have Sam hack his way through several miles of ultra-thick jungle. It worked extremely well, and fit, I think, the story/background on several levels.

Overall, fun as always. Turned out to be much more of a "classic" format sci-fi story than the pulp I was originally going for. Closer to Asimov than Lin Carter, I suppose.