Thursday, November 28, 2013

Umlauts

Status Update: Visiting the parental units, so I am at the mercy of their coffee choices. Not bad, just different. I am unaccustomed to having coffee with flavors added that are not coffee-related. It feels unnatural, like rain falling up or dogs wearing tuxedos. Actually, that would be pretty cool. Two thumbs up for dogs in tuxedos.

So, short update today. Not much in the way of writing happening as of yet. When I do begin this week's entry, it will be in a relatively narrow window of time since I'm having my last two wisdom teeth out on Monday morning and I don't have high hopes for my ability to hold two thoughts to rub together in my head for several days afterwards. My main concern after dental surgery is mostly about not drooling too much and forcing myself to eat. 39 years to 39 days in a single morning, folks.

Onwards and downwards.

On the incredibly long drive up, I usually have quite a bit of time to think. It's one of my favorite parts about visiting my parents--besides actually visiting my parents, of course. They are disturbingly awesome in their own peculiar ways and I love them both dearly.

It's an eight hour drive from where I live to where they live. Not only is it over the river and through the woods, it's over quite a few rivers and through about four hundred miles of woods. And several lakes which can easily be spotted from orbit. I'm sure Chris Hadfield went over them at least once while singing Space Oddity. It's a long drive.

I do a lot of thinking during this drive because I usually do it alone and the radio can hold my attention for only so long. During nicer weather, it's a chance to decompress and let my mind drift from the usual fantasies to slow pondering about the state of my life. I can't say I ever come to any major life decisions, but it has more subtle benefits. Think of it as eight hours of meditation and it would be closer to the truth.

One of the many things I thought about on the way up was how I always seem to do my best writing when I'm laboring under restrictions, usually arbitrary as hell and self-imposed.

I think it's because, for most people, having more choices actually gives you fewer choices. There's probably a name out there for this effect. I'm guessing it's a German name. The Germans have awesome names for everything, which probably explains why they're 24.7% more cooler than us and 96.3% more inclined to use umlauts, which are the Cadillacs of punctuation.

When all possibilities are open, the mind quails a bit and retreats to its comfort zones: you see an endless wasteland of choices before you and none of them resolve into a likely course of action. You pick left or you pick right. You go forward or backwards and those are the only of the 360-plus degrees around you you choose and you do it because you have names for those directions.

Even though you have all the options, you have choices arbitrarily built in even if you think you're acting freely and without preconceptions.

That's what I like about arbitrary writing challenges and formulas--it forces you to play by someone else's rules and they are rules which are alien to your own paradigm. Some of them may be arbitrary, but others exist for perfectly good reasons which may or may not be immediately apparent to you: the Three Act Structure, for example, has rising action cooked right in if you follow it correctly.

Of course, it's also fun to go off half-cocked and without a plan and see what your brain serves up. Variety, that's what it's all about.

In contrast to the drive up, where I think about things like this, the drive back down is somewhat less deep. Mostly I just want beer and a hot shower. Have I mentioned it's a long drive?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Putting Greelba To Rest

As mentioned yesterday, this was a random story seed from this site. The story seed was "A fuzzy biologist accidentally destroys a set of mystical objects and gets a fungus." It could just as easily have been "an angry woman becomes the castle and discovers the prince" or "A giant llama loses the world and swallows the ideal significant other."

As I said yesterday, some of the best ideas always come with a bit of disbelief and contempt. Usually, at first blush, they seem stupid, then you do a double-take, maybe laugh. Most of the times, when you see an idea and it doesn't seem somewhat ridiculous and ungainly at first, it's probably not a good idea. It might be serviceable or workable, but no more than that.

For example:

I'm going to write a story about vampires and high schools.

Workable, I guess. Not ridiculous at all, though.

I'm going to write a story about Chinese hopping vampires and how they founded American high schools. It's going to feature a character with a learning-related disability. Dyslexia, maybe.

Better! I'm a little embarrassed to admit that on second read through this post, I copied it into my list of story ideas.

All the hallowed stories started out slightly ridiculous. Who in their right mind would base several thousand pages of fiction on a make-believe world with elves? Tolkien must have been laughed at a lot.

Seven novels about a boy in wizard school? Edward E Smith's epic stories about telepathic space cops?

If you give some random person off your street a one-sentence summary of what you're writing and they mock you, then you're probably on the right path. Because conventional wisdom is horse-pucky, that's why; conventional wisdom is a consensus of millions of peoples' pre-conceived notions. It's an averaged response of barely-or-not-at-all-thought-out opinions. Some of it is logical and true: don't eat the yellow snow, don't stick your tongue on that, don't run with sharp objects. Some of it isn't. Sometimes you have to go perpendicular to it and see what sticks to the wall.

I reiterate now to emphasize a point: holy crap, only five more weeks to go! It doesn't seem like it's been almost a year, but here I am. I've had some lame entries, and this final stretch has been producing a lot of short, off-the-cuff stories instead of longer, better thought out pieces, but I've almost made it.

Still undecided what, exactly, my next resolution will be. It will almost certainly be novel-related, though.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Story The Forty-seventh: Greelba And The Endless Repose

Holy crap, only five more weeks to go!

Another random idea from a random idea generator. The story seed was "A fuzzy biologist accidentally destroys a set of mystical objects and gets a fungus." Spoilers!

Playing around with the generator, I was disappointed I didn't get "A cute cab driver decides to destroy the kingdom with the kingdom." The best ideas always begin with that "WTF" reflex.

Anyway, ca 2500 words. Computers and dying suns, rubies the size of your head and lots and lots of moss.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Bad Dreams

Status Update: back to the routine again. Drinking black coffee, of a darkness and ferocity rivaled only by certain varieties of chemical agents only to be found in the worst sorts of chemlabs. Some day, I'll accidentally add one more ounce of grounds to my coffee machine and that's how zombie apocalypses start, folks.

Why the hell does "apocalypse" even have a plural form? You'd think one would be enough.

Anyhow.

I had a dream recently where I went back to some earlier blog entries and realized that my entry length had increased 300% since the beginning of the year. I felt a bit of chagrin over the fact--is my bloviating achieving some sort of critical density? Yes, I believe it is. Ce la vie.

It was an odd sort of thing to have an anxiety dream about. They always say that you should log your dreams so you can mine them for story ideas. Or sell them online as prophecies to wing-nuts. Either/or, I guess.

In my case, my brain never really serves me a huge variety of bad dreams. They always boil down to the same three things:

1. I'm late for something.
2. Tornadoes.
3. Haunted houses.

Thin pickings, unless I want to start up a new genre of horror stories involving being late for ghost-tornado-school.

When I'm not having anxiety dreams, I'm having Boring Dreams. The sort of dream where you wake up, go through the work day, have a typical night, maybe type some words on the internet while drinking awesome coffee, and then you wake up, only you have to do it in real life.

I had a dream once where I was stuck in a department store because I couldn't make up my mind which set of towels to buy. Plaid or red? Blue stripes or panda print? My brain is, occasionally, a very boring place.

Hell, I used to have anxiety dreams all the time about being naked in public. Then, at some point, I realized that random horrifying public nudity is actually kinda fun in a way and my brain stopped inflicting those dreams on me.

It's fun to think about, really. In writing, whenever you see a dream sequence, it's always a big glowing signpost that Something Meaningful is about to happen, perhaps in a symbolic form. Dreams are culturally ingrained in our collective psyche as a form of portent, messages from the supernatural world of great import. Mythology and religion is rife with examples: oracles and prophets, shamans and such.

When a character has a dream in a story, it's probably a good time to take notes--the author is going to get all poetic and Freudian on us. If it's the sort of story where fantastic things happen, then you're getting a taste of what the rest of the story's going to be about. If it's not, then you're about to get a peek at what's stewing around in the character's subconscious, perhaps get an alternate carnival house of mirrors view of what's going on in the story.

You never really see dreams as they really happen in real life. Pointless meanderings or childish portrayals of fears that the adult waking mind would dismiss out of hand without a second thought if the dreamer were awake and not a captive audience.

I suppose it's a cliche, that use of the dream sequence as a sort of scare quotes around Important-Stuff-We-Don't-Want-To-Come-Right-Out-And-Tell-You-About. But it's a fun one. It's probably why nobody really shies away from it--dreams are fun to talk about and even more fun to write. Unless it's about towels.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Post Move Wrap-up

And I am moved, fully. Astonishing just how popular you become once word gets out you've got a U-haul for the day. My own move went very rapidly because this ain't my first rodeo, so to speak. No cows, for one thing. I've done quite a few moves, enough to know what to plan for, what to avoid. So this one went pretty quickly.

And then I helped a friend haul a piano across town. After that, I snagged a remaining friend and headed out to pick up some furniture my boss was getting rid of. Three very nice pieces, all constructed out of what seemed to be some unearthly alchemical latticework of solid neutronium and depleted elemental heavy-ite. If there is ever going to be a zombie apocalypse, I know which furniture I am going to use to barricade the doors, assuming I can budge them.

As for the story, well. Not much to say, really.

It was a flash piece that I banged out between unboxing and apartment decorating. Just a quick monologue by a salesman from a future where ubiquitous 3d printers had changed the global marketplace. Sort of a nod to Neil Stephenson, I guess. There's some interesting issues, I think, when that kind of tech becomes very common. Designers suddenly find themselves with a lot more work to do. People who make stuff, less. I'd imagine that really complex designs will have some DRM baked right in, so you don't just download your friend's Camaro and print it out. If you did, some fail-safe would kick in and it would call the cops on you.

Good times.

Things are still up in the air, writing-wise, at least until I get a new computer desk to replace the one I tossed during the move (it was pretty old, a pre-fab dealie which did not age gracefully). The kitchen table is reasonably comfortable, but not for more than a half hour or so at a time.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Story The Forty-sixth: We Sell Dreams

Just finished up an extraordinarily busy week of moving, so here's an extraordinarily brief piece of flash fiction. Seven hundred words or so. It's about...3d printers.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Foresight

Status Update: the coffee today's a lighter variety, at least by my standards, which is like saying your bulldozer is light and graceful on its feet, capable of better pirouettes than your typical bulldozer. Not much in the writing department getting done because I'm between apartments at the moment.* In fact, I'm doing the equivalent of a shuttle relay just to get this post posted--I haven't gotten around to switching over my internet yet. It's weirdly refreshing but still a pain in the keister.

* Technically, I have two apartments, since I'm a big fan of forking over the cash to have your leases overlap for a week. It makes moving astonishingly simpler and easier to organize. Plus if you split it over a few days, your friends won't hate you as much for making them carry your endless boxes of books.

I predict flash fiction this week. It's hard to write long when you can't find your writer hat because it's buried beneath a pile of flotsam. It may even be buried beneath some jetsam as well, although I don't recall owning any jetsam to speak of. You never know.

WARNING: TOPICAL COMPARISON BETWEEN WRITING AND MOVING AHEAD

One thing that always amuses me about moving is just how many of your apartment layout decisions seems to be dictated by "I'll just put this here for now" and then forgetting to come back to it. Sometimes for years. You look at the top of your fridge and, in a fit of nonlinear thinking, wonder just why the hell you always keep your cleaning supplies up there, don't have any immediate answers, so you give it a good think and holy shit, you realize you've had it that way for six years because that's where you put it when you moved in. Then you face-palm and put that bottle of Windex on the shelf where you keep all your other cleaning supplies, resulting in about six months of not knowing where the hell the Windex is.

I tend to put something down in a convenient location, perhaps absent-mindedly, and now that it becomes part of my mental landscape, that's where it stays. It just never occurs to me that I can, and probably should, regularly revisit my belongings to see if there's a better place for them.*

* Actually, I do sweep through my apartment every few months with an eye for this sort of thing--now. I just lied like a big damn lying liar to make a point.

Anyway.

Happens all the time to me in writing (see, told you there was a comparison coming up). I'll make a decision because it's easy or the first thing to come to mind when I'm blowing through a first draft and, because the words are there, it's real to me. I don't stop to consider that I can change everything as much as I want. A character might have drifted over the course of fifty pages to become something completely different. Perhaps I need a location to be slightly different. Maybe I really do need to have that gun in the drawer where Andrew's trained war-aardvark (waarvark?) can find it.

I need to be better at realizing that I can change things at any point. It would speed my writing quite a bit, paradoxically, because I wouldn't be so hung up on continuity. I keep outlines, but what I don't realize is that they're more than a road map that I'm writing towards, but also something I can physically manipulate as I write. The furniture can change, so to speak.

Just as importantly, I need to work on getting better at marking off these placeholder bits, the parts where I just said "I'm putting this character here for now" and getting back to them later to make them actually work.

Something to think about, assuming I can figure out which pile of boxes contains my thinking cap.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Monday Morning Haircut

As I mentioned yesterday, I googled a random seed generator, here, and came up with this:
"This is a dark comedy with an undercurrent about exploration and the differences between the classes. The story is about elegant barbers. It takes place in Prague. Cultures colliding plays a major role in this story."
Once my eyes hit the phrase "elegant barbers" I was already writing.

This one was pretty fun. It takes me a lot more time to write good dialogue. I was down to a rate hovering somewhere between 800 and 1200 words per hour on this one, because I have to sound everything out in my head, make sure it's something the character in question would say, ask myself if what was said was something the other characters would feel the need to comment on. Fun, but a little taxing mentally.

As I mentioned yesterday, I pantsed this one, because I wasn't so concerned this time around with plot. My goal, once I sat down on the project long enough to acquire one, was to mostly focus on characterization and efficient description, which is why this one is filled with more oddball metaphors than usual.

The Prague detail in the random seed had some interesting repercussions. It took me to some interesting ends of Google as I found myself having to search for "bad neighborhoods in Prague" or "large Czech companies". It's okay for research to be a little shallow when writing fiction, particularly in rough drafts. You just need enough tidbits to scatter throughout your story to give your writing a veneer of authenticity, like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Even if you feel like a complete phony, the deception can be surprisingly effective. People read the random details and just fill in the rest, assuming you know what the hell you're talking about, even if that's very far from the case. If there's one thing I've learned in my life is that it's okay to be talking out of your ass, as long as you say your complete bullshit with enough authority and gravitas.

Every once in a while you get caught with your pants down--somebody will point out that the Hotel du Palais is actually on the other side of town from where your characters are eating lunch and there's NO WAY they could have made it there in time to see Mrs. Jones get it in the neck from Watson, YOU BIG PHONY. That's okay. That's why you have an extra eyeball or two around to look at your bizniss before you do anything with it.

Anyhow.

228,000 words this year as far as my fiction goes, 295k or so if you count my blog entries. Seven more stories to go. Home stretch! I'm going to try not to fuck it up.

Probably another short one this week. Partly because this late in the game I'm just resting up for next year, which should be novel-tastic--I've got tons of ideas for staying on track with my various novels, it's going to be epic, folks--partly because I want to focus more on exercises and writing drills to strengthen my kung fu. And mostly because I'm moving this week and I'm going to be busy doing moving stuff.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Story The Forty-fifth: The Barbers Of Prague

Ca 3000 words. This was pretty fun--I googled a random seed generator, here, and came up with this:
"This is a dark comedy with an undercurrent about exploration and the differences between the classes. The story is about elegant barbers. It takes place in Prague. Cultures colliding plays a major role in this story."
"Elegant barbers" was all the prompting I needed. Getting to read about Prague to get some details to slot in was a happy bonus.

I decided to pants this one, as in write from the seat of my pants. Plot was mostly a secondary consideration, since I was focusing more on efficient characterization, dialogue and fun metaphors. More on Monday, probably.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Things I've Learned Rolling Cables (That Don't Want To Be Rolled)

Status Update: Plentiful coffee today. I misestimated the amount of coffee I had on hand on the last shopping expedition and I retrieved far too much vis a vis my current supply. If a blizzard were to roll over today, I would emerge from the vast and snowy drifts far too energetically. Starved but over-caffeinated. If I lost a pillow before I went to sleep tonight, I could recline on one of my spare piles of coffee. I would have uncomfortably-wired dreams of happier places, where jittery cows raced across plains strewn with discarded coffee cups, where waterfalls of pure espresso thundered into vast rivers of frothy latte. I need to stop writing this before it becomes a story. Also, now I want espresso.

Not much on the writing front at the moment. This week, I believe, is going to be another short-ish exercise week. Probably shooting for about two thousand words or so, unless my subconscious decides to take me on an adventure, which does, occasionally, happen.

Speaking of adventures, I'm moving some time in the next month or two. It's one of those thoroughly unexciting moves you occasionally engage in when you're a renter: if the place I lived in were a place I owned, this would be about the time I tore everything out and remodeled. Slapped some more paint on the walls, replaced some of the appliances, sending them to the appliance old folks home where they could trade stories about the glory days of the 70's.

I would replace the carpets with carpets that haven't seen quite so much gnarly action. I may put in a special request to go all Office Space on my refrigerator, which has been a thorn in my proverbial side for the last few years, but not thorny enough for me to kick up a ruckus about it, if that makes any sense at all.

But I don't have to, because I'm a renter. It's one of the perks of being a renter, that ability to not have to care about things. You can just drift around and not accumulate worries.

Since I'm fairly happy with the management and location of my complex, I'm simply moving to another apartment of the same general sort and layout as soon as one opens up.

I'm a firm believer in preparing for moves as far in advance as possible. I'm the go-to person in my social circles for moves because I'm usually available, I'm reliable, kind of a softy, and I'm in pretty good shape. I've been involved in some moves which were, to say the least, awful. Snowing sideways. Hundred degree weather. Up five flights of stairs. You name it, I've probably moved someone in it, because a lot of my friends are lousy planners.

My absolute least favorite parts of moves, though, are the ones where you have to move a ton of small, light boxes. I'd rather have to lift four heavy things than four hundred really light things.

So I'm preparing in advance as much as possible. I don't have a move date, yet, so I'm mostly cycling through my apartment, decluttering, reorganizing and generally straightening things out. When I do have a move date, I'll arrange a week of overlap so I have to annoy as few friends as possible with the small stuff. Also, it's just a good idea to get rid of the cruft, strip out all the nonessentials, lighten your existence in general.

As a nerd, it turns out I have a lot of cables. I've tossed a lot, given away more, even taken some into work, if they were of the useful variety. But I still have a ton. It's amazing how much space they take up if you leave them tangled, so I roll them up, tie them off and store them.

Cables tend to each have their own personality. You want to roll them one way and they resist. Sometimes you just have to let them have their own way, roll them the way they want to be rolled and then pack them up. Of course, once they're out of your sight, they instantly unfurl and tie themselves into knots.

It's an interesting mental exercise, because a lot of life is that way. If you try to force some things, it'll just go tits up (as my dad says) and at the end, you'll have just as big of a mess as when you started. If you go mostly with the flow, nudging gently along the way, things work out better.

If you work with the cable, understand why it bends the way it bends, you can achieve a compromise with it, find the point of stability where it'll let you make it neater and you can coil it tightly. Each one's different. Rope bends and loops differently than ethernet cable, which bends and loops differently than headphone wire.

I tend to have a lot of problems I've exacerbated by just brute-forcing them when I should have nudged them along. I suppose packing and uncluttering is a good mental exercise, a field test for all of life's different strategies.

Anyhow. No idea what I'm writing this week. I'll see if I can surprise myself.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Mooning

I think if I had to summarize my writing as succinctly as possibly, I'd say it was a series of lists, separated by commas. I use commas a lot. Maybe too much. My cruise control mode is to bang out phrases until I've gotten from point A to point B without being particularly mindful of things like sentence structure or grammar.

Maybe a likely challenge week is to see if I can get through a thousand words without using a comma. I'm...not sure how pleasant that might be. For me, it would be like getting through a five mile run without tying my shoelaces.

Anyway.

Fun story. I don't give myself the opportunity to write action sequences nearly enough, which is problematic because action sequences are a great way to keep attention on your story if you dole them out wisely. Like all tools, it pays to switch things up to keep the pacing fresh.

Somebody once told me, way back in the days when I had to teach English to put food on the table while I got the bulk of grad school out of the way, that peoples' attention spans tend to test out at roughly ten minutes. If you've been talking ten minutes, you need to change something in the environment. Sit down, move, stand on the desk, do a hand stand, whatever it takes to switch things up. Stories aren't much different. You've got ten sexy minutes before attention fades and if you don't blow something up every few pages, you're gonna lose your readers.

Oddly enough, that's the same advice Roger Corman gives to his screenwriters. The Roger Corman formula is that every ten pages something has to explode, there has to be a killing, or some nubile somebody or other has to get naked. No exceptions. In practice, this means that every ten minutes in his films, there's SOMETHING interesting happening. It's a good habit to get into.

People can be doing just about anything else than reading your book/story/epic poem about the Hungarian throat-singers/play/whatever. You have an obligation to make sure their time is well spent, doubly so if they're paying you for the privilege.

Among The Moons Of Jupiter was a sort of double-exercise. I pulled out a twenty-sided die, because I am nerd enough that I usually have a billion dice within arm's reach, of any flavor you care to name, save for the real oddities (I don't have any d5, d7, d9, d14, d16's or d30's...yet). I rolled for a random book from my library and got a classic pulp from Leigh Brackett.

I used that as a launching point for Chuck Wendig's Zero Fuckery Guide on character creation. I came up with a typical pulp hero. The hook is that he's a pacifist. He's seen so much action that he's come to a place in his life where he simply can't bring himself to kill anyone anymore. Also, the Earth was destroyed at some point, probably by some cartoonishly villainous method like a moon-based death ray laser. No subtlety here, nothing surprising, just an excuse to get into the action as soon as humanly possible. If this were a full length book, it would be the sort you pick up, blow through in an afternoon, and then promptly forget about. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Story The Forty-fourth: Among The Moons Of Jupiter

2200 words, pure John Carter.

When I said I'd pick a book at random from my shelves and write in that style, I meant it. The result? Leigh Brackett's "The Secret Of Sinharat", a wonderful story about the adventures of Eric John Stark on the dying planet of Mars.

So, I riffed on that for a while. Here's the result.

Redacted. :-)

I am very, very, very grateful to my dice for not landing me on stereo instructions, an encyclopedia volume, a sexy vampire novel or Dragonlance. Also, a quick Google tells me that Blaine Gray is a country singer, a fact of which I was unaware. If it amuses you, you can picture my Blaine as the real Blaine, kicking ass in space.