Monday, September 30, 2013

Big Damn Monsters

Indonesian search engine spiders love giant monsters, apparently. Last week, the Singularity and Russians. This week Indonesians and kaiju. I'm curious what next week's spike will be from. There's probably a story in here somewhere.

It's been a while since I've written a story with a younger main character and it's definitely been a while since I've written a female protagonist, so, two birds, one proverbial lithic round throwing device.

When I wrote last week about how I came up with this idea by throwing random words at the wall to see what would stick, the two words in question were "kaiju" and "zombies". My next immediate thought was that if the main character were a kid it would, basically, be the coolest thing in the world to turn into a giant monster. Both of my nieces would give their right arms up to the elbows for that. Hell, if I could pull a magic lever and turn into a giant stompy lizard, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Especially if I got my own theme music.

My immediate thought, though, wasn't the main character. I was still in science-fiction-writer-mode from last week, so I spent more time initially trying to think of how such a transformation would work, what the world would look like, how to make it a zombie plague without it being a zombie plague because seriously, zombies have jumped the shark so damn hard that the shark itself is wondering what the heck happened. They are overplayed like chicken-road jokes or a Vegas lounge singer who refuses to leave the stage. Zombies are only useful these days as punchlines.

After a while, it occurred to me that I'd have to pin this back-story on a character.

One of the main appeals of kaiju, I think, is that they represent something literally larger than life. You see these big fantastic creatures play out the action of the movie against a backdrop which is completely mundane. In fact, without the city skylines at their feet and the tiny buildings being stomped on, without their improvised bludgeoning instruments made of city trams and whatnot, without all of that as context they're just a guy in a rubber suit punching another guy in a rubber suit in the face.

They're the monster movie equivalent of dreaming of castles in the sky. So it became imperative that I'd have to contrast it against something mundane. I'm fairly happy with the results. Way better than my first instinct which was to have it all happen while some faceless guy went out and bought milk from the grocery store.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Story The Thirty-ninth: Kaiju

2200 words, a short piece of YA about wanting something bigger than you already are, giant yetis and skyscraper lunches.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

That One Entry

Status Update:  coffee plentiful with beans so dark I'm somewhat surprised every morning my teeth aren't stained black. I'm playing word soup with my next story, just taking things that sound cool--completely independent of each other--and throwing them against the wall, seeing if the stinking sexy mess sticks or falls apart. Or I get out the fire hose, wash the wall clean and do something completely different, try something else, pretend it never happened. No eye contact!

I've mentioned before that I keep several text files which have nothing in them save for lists of ideas. They're labelled cleverly: "The Big List Of Ideas" and "The Big List Of Status Update Ideas". Clever, am I right?

They contain all sorts of entries. If I have an idea for a story or a blog entry, I'll either add it there, or email it to myself to add later. Sometimes I'll sit down and just blue-sky ideas. Free associate phrases which might, at some point in the future, turn into something interesting. Or at least inspire me to look at it in the cold hard light of morning and say "What the hell was I thinking? I can do better than that."

Every time I sit down to write something new, I'll sift through it. As I write, I'll delete entries. Sometimes I'll add things during breaks in writing. I'll come up for air with a seed of an idea which doesn't belong in what I'm currently doing and think "hey, future-me, write about this awesome nugget of awesome-sauce." Now, here's the key part (yes, Virginia, there is a fucking point here): I'm kinda lazy. Yes, really. So, I tend to add list items to the top or near to the top. It's not really organized in any way as you may be completely unsurprised to find out.

As I pull from these files, I do so from any point of the list. The end result is that less worthy ideas just sort of drift downwards into a stinking heap at the bottom of the file. But they're still my babies, and I still hope they'll grow up to be something awesome eventually.

So I have a ton of these ass-babies, just floating around, clustered at the bottom of my idea-files like citizens of the island of misfit writing. Some of them are JUST plausible enough that I dust them off every week, get their hopes up, then laugh cruelly and throw them back.

The Pack AD, everybody's favorite Vancouver rock band, once mentioned something they call "That One Song." You know, the song they always try to write for a new album, the one which leads them along and then they come to a point and realize, "hey, this song sucks, why do we always try to do this?" And then they forget about it and the cycle begins anew.

Most of the bottom of my list falls into that category. I have a blog post constantly in the works called "A Slowly Drifting Target" about how cultural drift will occasionally bite you in the ass if you don't keep things contemporary. It lurks near the bottom of my status update idea list, just plausible enough to be something I'd write about (maybe I will!), but not really grabby enough for me to fully dress it up.

I'm not even going to talk about the bottom of my story idea list. Near the end, there's an entry which simply reads "coathanger abortions" and then it just goes downhill from there. I'm actually a little afraid to scroll further down, just in case my laptop turns into something resembling the house from "House of Leaves" and tries to eat me.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Singularity, Singularity, Singularity

Apparently, Russian search engine spiders loooove the Singularity, judging from the spike in my site traffic. I should refocus my blog, be all about post-humanity, and watch all the fat rubles roll right in.

Anyway. Fun story; the writing not only went fast, it went very fast. The first 2600 words went down in about an hour and ten minutes--that's 2200 words per hour, which is some sort of record for me, I believe. I originally thought I wasn't giving myself enough time to write this, but fortunately, I had plenty. No idea I was just going to blurt out damn near 3000 words in an hour or two.

They--and I do mean the fictional they instead of anybody in particular. It's like the royal we, dontcha know--always say that writers come in two varieties--those who brain-dump, not going back to edit much, just let a stream of consciousness flow onto paper which they then edit later on. Then there are those people who grind out each sentence carefully and slowly, like a jeweler patiently grinding a diamond into facets. I guess I'm in the former crowd. I never seem to get anything done when I'm writing slow and carefully. It's hard to keep the big picture in mind when I'm mired in sentence-crafting.

On the other hand, when I'm writing fast, I'm never quite sure of the quality of my writing since I'm just dumping whatever passes through my head. I go fast, a lot of words hit the paper and then only when I hit the final period am I quite sure what I've got. Usually it's better than what I think it will be. Sometimes it's horse-pucky. Usually not completely, though.

This one turned out pretty well, I think. It's another story about technology. I've been thinking a bit again about how our constant online presence is sort of making us more awful as people. Mostly because I have a few friends who are terrible about being distracted by their smart phones when hanging out. Partly because of that Louis C K thing that's making the rounds on Facebook.

I actually dusted this one off from partial notes I'd left a few months ago. I can't remember when I'd originally planned this story--some time in late spring, I think--but I abandoned it in favor of something else, probably with talking ponies or bears.

My original concept was going to be a Dancers at the End of Time type of thing where the character would have to deal, under-equipped and far too human, with gods and all sorts of strange things. He would have to make his way through a broken and dysfunctional wasteland filled with shallow dreams and horrific fantasies to rescue a princess who no longer remembers him.

But then my opening paragraph took the premise in a different direction because of my preoccupation with social networking and how alienating it can occasionally be. Weird how that works.

As I worked my way through the technology and its implications, it turned into a strange and lonely--largely benevolent--zombie apocalypse, which, I think, works better as a social statement. I guess. If I were the sort of person who makes those kinds of things. I am, but I'm going to pretend I'm not because I'm all cool and stuff.

So much of science fiction writing is simply coming up with a useful and interesting frame for what-if scenarios, just playing make-believe while your brain works its way through the implications of an issue or a scenario. While I do love me some character-building, sometimes the single-minded focus of high concept science fiction is extremely appealing.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Story The Thirty-eighth: Too Human

2800 words or so, short and sweet. The Singularity, social networking and zombies of a different sort.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Back To School

Status Update:  back to the usual brew instead of the swill you often find when globe-trotting. This is a definite relief. A man can live on Starbucks, but only just barely. No writing has been done this week, since no laptop was brought on vacation with me. Probably going to be another short one this weekend as I get my feet back beneath me.

It's always interesting how early life shapes your adulthood. That feeling you'd get when September rolled around, when you'd step out to the curb in the crisp fall air and wait for the bus, clutching a new backpack full of pencils and paper, crayons and whatever else the parental gods deemed necessary to get you through the day. The air would be filled with electricity as you wondered how your friends had changed, worried about how much more challenging the year's work would be. Whether or not your new pair of sneakers were cool enough to pass inspection or if people would be sufficiently impressed by your Batman Underoos.

That's what it feels like this morning, after a week of vacation. Of course, the primary difference is that summer vacation wasn't seven days long and full of brewery-crawling. In most households, presumably. Details, details.

Still, it's good to be back. That's the value of longish vacations. It's like a reset button for your life or the equivalent of pulling the rugs on a sunny afternoon and beating the dust out of them, letting the wind take care of all the dirt and crud and mustiness. The best vacations are the ones that overstay their welcome a bit. The ones where you get to the last day, hang your hat, give a little sigh and go to bed early, a little excited to get back to the grind.

My vacation-book this time was "The Secret Life Of Pronouns," which was something of a departure. I usually go for fiction of some sort when I'm traveling, something with Heroic Duels Between The Forces Of Good And Evil, wizards, werewolves, bodice-ripping and ribald behavior. Instead, I got a fairly chatty account of a linguistic professor who's devoted his life to statistical analysis of word usage. Interesting, but I never did get the urge to fist-pump or hoot out loud at any of the plot developments. But there's still time yet as I haven't finished it. There's probably a fight scene near the end between a demon and an army of unicorns.

I've only made it to the midway point, so I don't really have enough hooks into it to give it a proper review as of yet. It's one of those books which nestles somewhere between the territories of pop-science, actual-science, language and entertainment, so I'm withholding judgement until I can mull it over for a bit. Sometimes the best parts of books like these aren't the books at all, but the connections you make mentally afterwards as everything sifts together in your head.

I can say, however, that it's making me extremely self conscious of my word choice this morning, which is, I suppose, the point. More on this later as I grind through the rest of the book.

Usually, when I go for nonfiction, I tend to drift towards history, economics/finance or science, instead of the psychology or linguistics end of the reading spectrum. Periodically, I have to shake things up and read something different, because otherwise, what's the point?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Story The Thirty-seventh: Legends

Short on time because I'm heading to the mountains to hang out with family for six glorious high altitude days. When your writing week is short due to a trip to Colorado, there's only thing to do: damn straight, another Wendig flash fiction challenge.

The mission this time was simple: explain this shit.

980 words. We've got Spring-heeled Jack, Bloody Mary, Pecos Bill, and a bunch of parrots.

Download EpubLegends (full text)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Endless Monday

Titles are hard. Maybe not the hardest part of the writing process hard, but definitely way more work than they should be. Sometimes, I just want to cop out and do what the writers of Friends did: just call every piece "The One Where (x)", because that's usually how people refer to stories anyway.

Man, I mentioned Friends in the first (and now second!) paragraphs. That's a high bar to set for this post, compadres.

I have no real strategy for titling my stories. Sometimes it's a pun on the contents, sometimes I just grab a random catchy phrase from the body, sometimes I just half-ass it (It's a story about a killer tree...I am calling it..."The Tree"...). If I spend more than five seconds on coming up with a title, I start to second-guess myself, because titles are actually kind of important when you think about it. It's the first thing people see, you have to use them to refer to the piece itself. You have to choose one that a) doesn't sound stupid when you say it out loud and b) makes people want to actually read the damn thing in the first place. Stress!

Anyhow.

Damn, this was a fun story to write  It reads like it's about something, but I didn't consciously make it that way. I'm not a preachy kind of writer. I don't really sit down with a clearly-worded manifesto and then pound out stories with an articulated moral. But sometimes they happen.

My original idea when I was brainstorming was to simply make a macho story about robots fighting. It was going to be sort of a follow-up to "Roxie Rides The Train", except on the other side of the pond where the big scary German war machines were. Instead, I started thinking about WWI trench warfare, because I'm kinda random. Squirrel!

I'd originally written about two more parts to the story. It was going to involve a lot more time with General Clay after his metamorphosis. It would explore the background of the war, what goes on in factories, how the war effort is supplied and carried out. And then they'd find a surviving village of humans and have to make a decision on what to do with them.

But I decided that the piece was probably better shorter and more self-contained. I'm going to flag the story mentally as good fodder for a book in the future, though, albeit one that's firmly in the category of "nobody's going to read this and any decent agent will have giggle fits contemplating trying to sell it to a publisher".

I really love writing these pithy little concept pieces. At the end of the day, slightly preachy/wordy sci-fi pulp is where I hang my hat.

This week's going to be another piece of flash fiction, probably by Thursday morning, because I'm flying out to Denver for the weekend to hang out with family/do some epic brewery-crawling. So, updates will be scant until Thursday next week.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Story The Thirty-sixth: The Endless Front

Another short-ish one. Trench warfare and robots, useless canned fish and hard decisions.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bad Karma

Status Update: the beans are still plentiful from last week. The coffee is strong and dark, like I like my coffee. Wait, is that how you metaphor? I think that's right, right?

The story is outlined. I have a sufficiently absurd idea. It's about robots. I'm mulling over which voice to use with it, because I could make it absurd, dark, depressing or fairly silly, depending on which mood I'm in when I start writing the thing. This is all assuming I don't drop it and write something with magical crime-fighting ponies instead. It's a distinct possibility.

It's always interesting how the best ideas are sometimes the ones you have to approach sideways, doing your best de Niro impression. "Are you looking at me?" repeated ad nauseum until you get just the right approach. Sometimes you get most of the way through your treatment, look at the result and realize you went down the wrong path. Sometimes you get to the end, not really paying attention to what you did at all and then realize that, overall, you made the right choice and it's not at all one you would've consciously chosen.

I suppose that's what interests me about good musical covers. The best ones are the least faithful ones. For example, Soundgarden's Rusty Cage, done by Johnny Cash. The original, a classic grunge metal song from the early nineties, all flannel and hairspray and sweat and balls. Loud, brash and kicking over trash cans and getting drunk. Johnny Cash flips it on its head, turning it into a whiskey and nails song that smells like eight hundred miles of peregrination and railroad. It's the same song--just flipped--and it still works because it's a great song.

A great idea is like that. It's something you can pull back from, cock your head curiously at and then take it any number of different ways. It sits there in your head and every time you look at it, you see something different. I suspect many artists have one great idea at some seminal point in their career and they spend the rest of their lives chasing it, taking it apart, putting it back together.

Of course, sometimes an idea is just an idea. Most of mine tend to be one-offs, little pieces of what-if. Sometimes I just have some interesting characters I put into a box and shake to see if they'll get into a fight. When I write a story, I'm like an eight-year old with a magnifying glass and my ideas are ants. I'm glad they're fictional because I'd be in real karmic trouble eventually.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Price Partum

Labor Day weekend tends to put me in a nostalgic mood. Something about the dying heat of the summer and memories of preparing for the new school year makes me want to retreat to a comfortable place and read pulp.

This year I went up to Lansing to visit some friends. They introduced me to a great bookstore called Curious Books. It's one of those shops you invariably find in the better college towns, dusty, with crowded shelves piled high with oddments of all sorts. The staff's friendly, the people you see wandering about look like the sorts you could find there just about every week. You walk in, take a deep breath and just settle into it, like a well-worn pair of jeans. I lost a happy hour just browsing through their stock. My friend's wife, who is NOT a bookworm, was about fit to murder us all by the time we managed to escape.

It's one of the cooler bookstores I've been to lately. It reminds me of my favorite place, Snowbound Books* up in Marquette, but it's well out of my beaten path and I don't get a chance to visit there nearly as much as I like. I really need to make more of an effort to explore local book stores, because I'm positive there are places all over, hidden in nooks and crannies all over town, that I've overlooked. I can think of two off the top of my head in Kalamazoo that I occasionally feel sharp pangs of guilt about not visiting as much as I should.

* Holy moly, just found out Snowbound's having a signing for one of my college professors who transitioned over to novel writing as I was taking his class. I think he quit teaching right after I got my report card. Small world--cool to find out he's still around and doing good. Great guy, too, probably one of the most entertaining classes I'd ever had.

What was I talking about? Oh, right. Nostalgia.

One of the great things about Curious Books, is that, besides having a ridiculously large selection of classic pulp paperbacks, they had a huge collection of Ace Doubles.  Doubles were a bit of an odd thing. They'd take two shorter novellas, bundle them back-to-back, often with a glossy advertisement for something like Marlboros separating the two books. Each story would be printed in opposite vertical orientation--you'd get two stories for the price of one, each with their own front cover on either side of the book. Read the book sunny-side up, you've got cowboys on Mars. Read it sunny-side down, you've got a ragtag group of space commandos fighting the Mongol Hordes of the Mega-Khan of Fargas VIII.

I'd often forget I was reading a double, until I finished the first story--You'd finish one, read about how cowboys love smokes, then flip the page and find the ending of the next story upside down. It was great stuff.

One of the things I love about them is how they tended to "showcase" (i.e. they were cheap to obtain and less risky for the publisher) new writers. You'd get stories from people you've never heard of before. They tended to be more over the top, gaudier, unabashedly pulp. People who thought Heinlein in his sillier years was far too restrained. Prose occasionally crossed from purple to ultraviolet. And, because of the limitations of the format--the author only had half of a 250 pg paperback to finish their story, after all--the stories never overstayed their welcome.

Are these stories literary classics? No. Are they great fun? Hell, yes. I mean, really, look at the covers of one of the ones I just picked up:



(Images courtesy of http://www.pandora.ca, who seem to be pretty cool, but a little spendy.)

THEY DROVE THEIR CHARIOTS THROUGH THE DIMENSIONS OF DEATH. Pretty much says everything about my taste in science fiction which needs to be said.

So, yeah. I was in a nostalgic mood when I sat down to write The Right Price.

I've been wanting to write about cryogenics lately, particularly of the frozen-Walt-Disney-head variety (no, this is a different Walt, although I'm tempted a bit to revise his DoD and his memories to fit). I've also been reading about cargo cults and the various odd things which happen when they dissolve. Yes, random, I know.

My tour through pulp-paradise made me think of those old generation ship stories, the ones which were played out already half a century ago. I played around with the idea of telling a story from another viewpoint. Perhaps the shipboard cult had a god of some sort. Maybe the god was more of a horrified bystander than an active player...how would it play out to witness a thing like that, with no context at all?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Story The Thirty-fifth: The Right Price

Two thousand words, this installment. We've got cargo cults, cryogenically-frozen heads, generation ships, and The Price Is Right.

Redacted. :-)