Sunday, December 21, 2014

Shopping Malls And Hookers

And I'm back again. Briefly. Before I take off for the final leg of Operation: Get The F Out Of Kalamazoo.

This first leg of Operation: GTFOOK was a one week visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to visit a very old friend who I haven't seen in eighteen years.  The friend in question, who shall henceforth be known via his codename "Tim," was someone I'd met through a mutual interest in martial arts back in college. Ever since we reconnected on Facebook a few years back this visit has been in the works, but it wasn't until now that the logistics made sense.

It was my first time out of the country since I was in the low single digits, age-wise. I expected to be a great deal more lost than I was.

Kuala Lumpur is a strangely approachable town. As is the case in SE Asia, most of the city speaks very good English. All signs are in the roman alphabet. Even if you don't know, exactly, what something means, you can pronounce it. Oftentimes you pick up new words from context ("Tandas" equals "bathroom," for example) .

Everything you need to get by on a daily basis is clearly labeled and within walking distance. Credit cards work fine. Cash exchange shops abound. The public transport system is logical, cheap and easy to use. The few times I needed help, I could just grab someone official-looking and ask them for it. The locals are friendly. The city, at least in the parts where tourists hang out, is very safe.

Once you get past the airplane ticket, everything's extraordinarily inexpensive. Hotels are cheap. Food? You can get a heaping plate of the best food you've ever had for two or three bucks. About the only thing that isn't cheap is alcohol, thanks to the Muslim tilt of the local political system. But that just brings booze prices up to an American ballpark figure.

Everything's weirdly affordable.

The place is not really what I expected. I was expecting a tropical version of Bladerunner's Chinatown, I guess. Blazing hot, jungle everywhere, all communication in an impenetrable patois of southeast Asian languages. Neon signs in kanji and hieroglyphics. Maybe I'd have to fight monkeys for food, or sword-fight pirates. I don't know. I really had no frame of reference.

Instead, the city reminded me of Grand Rapids except a hundred times larger, more sprawling and filled with ridiculous shopping malls, palm trees and a nigh-mythical level of tropical humidity. And hookers. That's a story for another day, I guess. No, I didn't retain any hookers. Damn it, folks, that's how rumors get started. Anyway.

Shopping malls?

That's right. Shopping malls. You can't throw a rock in Kuala Lumpur without hitting one. They come in all sizes, ranging from large by American standards to "Holy shit, I just stumbled into a pocket universe."

Think I'm kidding? Check out this Google image search. Some of the places were so huge they reminded me of that final scene in Close Encounters when Richard Dreyfuss is inside the alien ship and he looks up, seeing rank upon rank of observation decks until perspective closes them to a point far above him.

Again, not what I was expecting. I asked my buddy Tim about it.

It turns out that back in the 80s and earlier, there wasn't really a whole lot to do around those parts. People would fish or hang out in local parks. There was a mall or two, but they weren't extraordinarily large.

Then something happened. Right around the time in the early 90s when mall culture began to die in America, it hopped the ocean.

It was a perfect fit. As it turns out, nobody likes to do much outdoor shopping in a tropical country. Even if you grew up there, being out in that weather is rather miserable. Malaysia, at the best of times, averages around the high 80's to low 90's, with physics-defying levels of humidity. It's the sort of place you define temperature by the number of t-shirts you go through in a day, where it's perfectly normal to take three or four showers by suppertime.

When the locals found out you could build a place where everything you could ever want can take place inside one enormous air-conditioned building? Where it's not only okay to just wander around slowly, at your own pace, just enjoying the sights and the people watching, that it's expected to do so? You can just hang out, be cool, peregrinate and graze, without having to pay a single thin red cent for the privilege? Heaven.

Mall culture is alive and well in Malaysia. And nobody does them better.

Mall businesses run the usual gamut: clothing stores, fast food chains, cinemas, comic book shops and so on. You'll find businesses that no longer exist in America, because apparently Malaysia is where franchises go to die. I haven't seen a Baskin Robbins in Michigan in over thirty years, but you can't go thirty feet without tripping over one in an average Malaysian mall.

Even a mid-sized Malaysian mall will usually have a food court, containing some of the best food around. Some of the food courts, like the one in the bottom level of the Lot 10 mall, are regionally famous.

Malls in KL are brimming with oddities. There was one where you could take an escalator up eighteen flights of stairs, a place so tall it had safety nets halfway down the atriums. It had an indoor amusement park. Another place had an ice rink on the bottom floor, complete with Zamboni. Apparently a local hockey club practices there.

Another place had an indoor track and a basketball court two levels from the top. I believe it had two fitness centers who shared them. You could shoot hoops, run a few laps, get buff and then buy cheap elecronics, score some junk food and buy a suit, get a haircut and take a nap, all without leaving the building.

Another place I wandered through was large and opaque, labyrinthine and cavernous. It took me an hour to walk from one end to the other and scenery would subtly alter as I drifted along. As I passed, low ceilings turned into high. Cinemas appeared. Sometimes I'd be in a bamboo garden filled with Chinese lanterns, and in other places, I'd be in a crystalline place with chandeliers hanging from the ceilings.

At one far end, I wandered eight floors up to find there was a garden and a parking lot on the roof, because why the hell not? I texted Tim at one point while exploring, asking him if the mall was being procedurally generated, like one of those rogue-like video games where the maps would assemble themselves off-screen from a jigsaw puzzle collection of randomized components.

Even when you don't want to go to a mall, you wind up having to go to one anyway, because that's where all the stores and restaurants are. Sometimes it's more efficient to cut through one, because they are sprawling, huge, air-conditioned and often will save you from having to cross a street. Pedestrians do not have right of way in Malaysia, so if it comes down to a comfortable walk through the local equivalent of a Sears to avoid potentially being run down by a bus, then sign me the hell up. Or you'd simple cut through one because if you have a choice between slogging down a half mile of sidewalk in damp tropical humidity or going the same distance in air-conditioned comfort and still wind up in the same place, you make the obvious choice.

And they are all crowded, filled with shoppers, loafers, children, old people, foreigners, locals and what have you. Even more so in December, because apparently Malaysia goes completely insane around Christmas time.

Seriously:


For a country composed of only around 10% practicing Christians, it was a little surprising just how nuts the Christmas decorations were. After a while, I began to not be surprised when I'd round a corner and find myself in a faithfully-recreated snowy pine forest filled with animatronic elves with "White Christmas" blasting over loudspeakers. Even the smallest shop would have Christmas lights up, musak Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer playing on the radio. To get down the street, sometimes you'd have to dodge around small clusters of pretty girls dressed up like elves. Santa hats abounded.

It was surreal. I don't think I've seen anything like it anywhere in America. Even Frankenmuth isn't this nuts.

Other than that, I did the usual touristy stuff. Climbed tall buildings. Saw some jungle. Visited some big damn caves. Gawked at things. Figured out the rail system.

Tim drove me around the city, showed me stuff off the usual tourist circuits. We did strange restaurants, visited stores only locals go to. We ate a lot, went to a night market of colossal proportions, the Asian equivalent of a county fair, except without rides and carnies and with much better junk food.

It was fun. It's probably going to be several months before I digest all my experiences. I figure I've got a few dozen blog entries just from that one week, so expect more in this vein.

And now I'm going to disappear for another week. Heading out on the second leg of Operation: GTFOOK before the New Year and my next job.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Shits, Fucks and Damnation

One of the great things about having a blog is you get some fairly involved traffic analysis tools.

That's not really where I was expecting that sentence to end up. "One of the great things about having a blog is" should end with "all the nubile groupies" or "the millions of dollars in yearly advertising revenue." Or maybe "international fame and an eighteen inch dong." "Having a yacht and a winning smile." Or something like that.

But really, the analytics point out occasionally amusing things. People finding your blog by punching the words "moment of shit" into Google. Or finding out that your blog is mostly hit by drunks at three in the morning who type "things to do with donkeys" into Lycos and are satisfied with the fourth result down the page (you).

In my case, I have an extremely low-traffic blog, as random writing/life-style related blogs tend to be. I'm not writing about sweet tips about raising babies, leaking corporate mysteries, or posting pictures of naked koalas or anything like that. I'm pretty cool with not making many waves across the vast ocean of the Internet. I'm doing this mostly for accountability with my various writing-based resolutions, a little bit of practice and, possibly, a smidgen of narcissism. Mostly I just like blogging for the sake of blogging.

Because my site has such a low amount of traffic, blips in the numbers show up pretty clearly. When the usual number of hits on any given entry range from 0 to 5 per month, mostly from Ukrainian search-engine crawlers, any unusually large amount of traffic tends to stick out, like a death metal front man at a Mormon picnic.

Not counting flash fiction and stuff I deliberately cross-post across multiple sites, things fall into two general categories: posts with profane titles and posts without.

If I throw a shit or a fuck into the title, traffic is (relatively) high. If not, crickets. My story about the UP's only strip club? Crickets. The post entitled "The Power Of Not Giving A Shit"? High.

I suppose this is the part where I'm supposed to bemoan how debased society is. How crudities have replaced habitual formality. Think back to the Golden Days, when I could slide on my monocle and silk gloves, tip my chapeau to the man at the door and go about my daily peregrinations instead of the way it is now, in modern times, where I am required by law to bathe in a fountain of shit fortnightly.

Nope.

Mostly it makes me want to come up with a constructed language, like Esperanto, made to communicate basic ideas and needs but in a way that causes search bots to flip the fuck out.

It would be a great deal like how they handled jive in Airplane.

Since there's probably a hundred different ways to use the word "fuck" in a sentence, I have high hopes of this working out.

Vulgarities are weirdly flexible things. You can yell across the factory floor: "Fuck! Fucking tell that fucker that this fucker's fucked," and it will make perfect sense to a native speaker.

I have no doubt I can make a language explicitly fine-tuned for swearing, but flexible enough you could use it to engineer a skyscraper. It would probably be a great deal like Cantonese, in those respects. Cantonese is to "words that mean shit" as Eskimo-Aleut is to "words for snow."*

There's a fine science behind cursing and there is a rhythmic pattern to vulgarity that would mesh well with search engine optimizations. Moreover, it would just be a hell of a lot of fun to come up with. It could be a pastiche of all the swear words in the world, from all the more interesting languages.

Anyway.

Going to disappear for a week or two so this will be the last update for a while. Writing is going well enough, but not much of it will get done for the rest of the year, since I'm going to be getting some traveling out of my system--some international, some not. Access to wi-fi will be spotty. Inclination to do responsible things will also be spotty.

Words:  601, 531, 627, 1200, 729, 750 and 647.

* As a dude who has a background in anthropology, I need to add this footnote to the effect that this is probably a myth.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

On Not Blathering

I was digging through the ass end of my Facebook friends list the other day.

I have a tendency to friend people and then unfollow them after a while. It keeps my Facebook status updates clean and relatively clear of drama. You get three strikes as a FB friend. If you post too many game invites, too much political shit (from any part of the spectrum), too many image memes--particularly of the fitness variety--too much drama, fight-picking, whatever, you get unfollowed. I won't unfriend you, but I don't want to see that shit when I do my regular Facebook check. It's annoying to scroll through.

It tends to drown out the stuff I do want to see: pretty girls, kittens, weird news and updates from my friends who are actually doing interesting things or have interesting things to say.

I'd say about two-thirds of my friends list is unfollowed at any given time. If that's what it takes to filter out constant baby photos and awful motivational memes, I'll do it.

Every once in a while I think of someone and I'll check their page, see what they're up to. If the majority of their updates don't tick one or more of the five hundred or so things that piss me off, I'll re-follow them.

Some time ago, I'd friended this one guy whose updates seem to fall into one of two patterns: constant family-raising shit and rambling philosophical posts about nothing in particular.

Good guy, fine to hang out with, has roughly the same tastes in beer and television as I do, but definitely in the periphery of my social circles, so into the dust bin he went along with the obscure family relations I'm obligated to follow even if I don't know, exactly, where in the family tree they fall, people I used to know back in high school, but only care about a little now, friends of friends and so on. Basically, it's the junk drawer of my social network where I keep the human equivalent of mismatched socks, power chargers for devices which no longer exist, strange screws and widgets and cables and so on.

Reading through the last few status updates he posted reminded me why I'd unsubscribed in the first place.

Every one of his posts runs into the multiple paragraph range and can be summarized as "pseudo-philosophical meandering." Bloviation. Just acres and acres of verbiage, each entry easily summarized into a very short sentence. Pseudo-deep: "people like people", "grief sucks", "people are different", "be nice to each other", and so on.

It's like suddenly finding an entire wall of awful high school commencement speeches. Stultifyingly boring. Dull.

I was originally planning on dwelling more on his posts and why they bother me, but frankly I'm more guilty of bloviation than just about anybody else on this planet. I probably deserve an award of some sort for wasting vertical footage pointlessly. I have too many posts on this blog, I think, that aren't strictly about anything in particular. This one included, I guess.

It made me think, though. I see this sort of thing a lot. Do it too much myself. Spend thousands of words writing something which can be summed up in much shorter form, as if adding more to the word count will make a simple concept deeper, simply by added poundage.

The contrast between that kind of writing and that Dashiell Hammett book I'm finishing up is startling. The Hammett book was written in the golden days of the pulps. Short, brutally terse, just the bare minimum of words to get an exciting story across. No padding. You don't see a single chapter, paragraph, sentence or word there that isn't doing something, dragging the story forward by its fingernails. There's not a single description of a place or person longer than three words.

I'm not kidding. He summarized a fast drive over a very poorly paved road as "we took turns sitting in each others' laps." Great writing.

I think one of the biggest dangers of electronic media is the tendency to just fire hose thoughts out there.

Terseness is something of a lost art. Back in the old days, before the digital interwebs, you were paid by the word and had to find physical space on actual, honest-to-God paper. If you ran over, there simply wasn't room for you. Literally. Unless they used microscopic type, your shit would run off the end of the page.

Editors had to be fierce because they had no other choice. Space was limited, after all. If you didn't keep to the limit you were given, they would slash you down to your ankles with the editing razor and make you fit in the available space, by God, even if the results didn't strictly make sense to the reader. Or they simply would refuse to run your piece until you made it shorter.

These days, things can be as long as they need to be. This post? Could go twenty thousand words, no problem. Nothing will break if I go longer than that. I could copy and paste War and Peace here in its entirety and it would display just fine.

Nothing except reader attention span, which is still a limited resource. Maybe even more than it used to be back in Hammett's day.

TL; DR. So it's something of a wake-up call, I guess. A big strong dose of "get to the point." Which I need--even though there's no limit to what you can write anymore, no limit to how long you can go, there is definitely a limit to reader attention span.

I'm always a little hesitant to go negative in my updates. I don't like to dwell on things that bother me, complain about things I dislike in writing, bitch about people. I'd rather be constructive. But sometimes it's worth it as an exercise to look closely at something that pisses you off and figure out why it pisses you off.

Reading my friend's updates makes me want to edit my own writing more strongly. I see a lot of my own weaknesses in those pointless blatherings, which is why it bothers me to read them.

When I write, sometimes I don't know exactly what I'm going to say ahead of time. I have no idea what path I need to explore when I'm making the arguments I make. I get there when I get there.

But I just wrote what I wrote. I don't want to throw any of that shit away. It came from my brain, so it's something like a child to me.

There's a reason my writing teachers used to call the editing phase "killing the babies." Sometimes you have to throw out stuff that sounds awesome simply because it's a waste of the reader's time. It might even be stuff that you think really works, maybe some of the best writing you ever did. Or maybe it's just crap, but you like the way the words sound when you read it to yourself. In the end, though, it's all about the poor bastards who have to read your shit. You have to get to the point and, the more efficiently you do so, the better.

And of course, I just wrote a 1200+ word post to the effect of "get to the point as quickly as possible." Story of my life, really.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Strange Fame

And I'm back from vacation...for about a week. Then I disappear for TWO weeks, even more so than this last stretch. I am not actually fleeing the country for unnamed horrible crimes. Just taking some long overdue and highly extended vacation, visiting friends and so on and so forth. Next year (which ain't that far away) will be more normal and I'll settle back into my usual sordid routine.

It's a strange thing to see the things you're highly ranked in Google for.

Star Trek, yes. I see myself ranked with Trek quite a bit because of that rpg I wrote a ways back.

Various fitness and gaming forums, okay. That also makes sense.

The major hit for this blog?

"Moment of shit."

What a thing to be "heavily"* linked for. I'm in the top three results currently, probably because it's not a heavily searched term, probably because of this awesome site right here.

Makes you wonder what other writing market terms could be gamed, giving me the SEO chops to stay on top. I could probably completely own head-hopping or anacoluthon. Negative capability probably already has its own embedded and fiercely defended corners of the market. I am reasonably sure I could snap up engfish.

Just imagine the marketing possibilities. Advertisers would pay upwards of one or two dollars a year for the high-spending wanna-be writers market.

Or maybe not.

I'd nearly forgotten about that post, actually. It's still one of my favorite industry terms. I can't imagine what kind of grind writing for a multi-season by-the-numbers sitcom must be, what sort of dread you'd face sitting in front of each blank screenplay, knowing you'd have to pound out twenty-two pages of rote humor and drama each week. It's one thing working on a show with a great dynamic, like a Seinfeld or a Friends. Imagine the dull existential horror of writing deep-run episodes for something truly insipid, like Just The Ten Of Us or Small Wonder where you could probably change character names mid-episode and no one, not even the actors would notice or care.

Actually, I take that back. Small Wonder would have been, with a sufficient amount of pharmaceutical products in your bloodstream, rather hilarious to write for, in a surreal way.

No totals to report, obviously. Spent a week up north in the frozen wastelands of the Upper Peninsula, six miles away from everybody's favorite strip-club-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, studiously doing nothing much except helping out with various chores, reading and eating.

Heavily featured on the reading list has been pulp detective novels, specifically Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.  I'm a little in awe of it. It's fast-paced, to a point where it feels like the story is being flung at you from a machine gun. The writing is tense, terse and very funny. No spare words, no wasted verbiage. Any plot you need to know is fed you quickly and efficiently, via brutally effective dialogue. I can see why Hammett's considered a classic in the genre.

I can also see his Pinkerton service background as well, particularly in the echoes of MacParland that show up whenever he mentions his boss.

Fun stuff, in other words.

* For this blog.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Justice

And the sum total of this week's output is almost exactly fuck-all.

Given what I know about next month's plans, next month is probably going to be largely fuck-all as well.

In this case, jury duty ate most of the week. Jury duty, work stuff and vacation planning.

Unlike most of my friends, associates, coworkers, people I randomly poll on the streets, whatever, I'm a big fan of jury duty. So long as you don't get roped into a trial for something tragic, like a rape or a murder, it's  good people-watching. You get a ring-side seat into the messed-up decisions other people make. It's not only high comedy, it's a good dose of perspective. Once you sit through a single meth trial, all the shit that's happening in your life doesn't seem so bad in comparison.

On top of that you get to take a few days off from work. The courthouse in Kalamazoo has great coffee, very comfortable couches, television, wi-fi and the people who work there are all pretty entertaining. It's downtown so you can eat out during lunch at a wide variety not-very-bad places. The other jurors tend to be fun to chat with. And you even get paid a little for it. Score!

The trial this week was my second. It wasn't nearly as fun as the first, but only because the people involved weren't quite as colorful.

My first trial, which happened a few years back, was a meth case, which makes for the best people-watching and stories. Some guy got pulled over by a cop with his under-aged girlfriend and his even-more-under-aged ex-girlfriend. All three of them gave the cop different fake names for the driver. In the back of the car, he had something like thirty or forty boxes of Sudafed, plastic tubing, empty two-liter bottles of pop, tin foil, an entire container of Morton's salt and other meth-mining paraphernalia. During the trial, his junkie dad was in the audience making loud Jerry Springer-style comments.

The trial took a day and a half. We drank the courthouse out of coffee. Got up early, stayed there late. One of the potential jurors during the selection process got disqualified by the prosecution because he flat-out told them that he didn't think meth was addictive and he used it all the time.

A detective taught us how to cook meth. Afterwards, we hung out with the prosecutor, the judge and the defense attorney and we all made fun of the idiot on trial. The trial was one of those package deals, a regular three-ring circus of people being brought up on criminal charges, all mostly simultaneously. His father was caught destroying a meth lab while the police kicked in his door, for example.

The verdict was guilty. The few remaining hold-outs on the jury panel (there's always a few contrarians) felt a bit better about returning the guilty verdict once they found out about the other people on trial and more of the back story behind it all, which was the usual meth-related redneck cluster-fuck.

It was pretty great.

This time around wasn't quite as silly.

Two neighbors got into a scuffle. One of them allegedly made a threat with a baseball bat. The other one called the cops. Charge: aggravated assault. Under the law, assault is not only just physical contact, but creating a threatening enough situation that the victim is afraid they'll get injured or killed.

The two neighbors have history going back a few years. They used to be drinking buddies, would go to the races together, but recently had a falling out over an unspecified event, or a series of unspecified events.

We got the impression that the accused neighbor was something of the neighborhood bad egg. Thirty-something guy, rail thin, probably alcoholic, regularly stayed with his father who owns the house.

The accused neighbor was in the habit of taking his rather friendly white lab out for bike rides around the neighborhood. The dog would pull him along. The morning of the altercation, some of the neighbors complained he was drunkenly threatening their kids with said baseball bat. But the cop gave the impression that it was just kids being kids and responding to the tension and that the accused neighbor is actually usually reasonably friendly and polite, albeit somewhat "acerbic."

The cop had a hard time keeping a straight face during the proceedings, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say there's probably been quite a bit of catty back and forth between the two parties. He also called the judge "Babs" on the way out.

Later on during the day of the incident, the accused complained about the builders working on his neighbor's house blasting their music and being obnoxious. There was some back and forth. According to the accuser, his neighbor came out with a pipe or bat and started banging on his own truck, loudly. Told him he was going to "kick his ass" and kill him. The accuser called the cops, afraid for his life. Allegedly.

But.

The accused neighbor had really dodgy security camera footage from a system he'd installed at his dad's house (where he was staying). We got to watch that; we also met his dad who was...colorful, to say the least. Old crotchety man, garrulous, collects motorcycles. Direct quote to the defense attorney: "I was watching TV at the time, in my underwear. I'm in my underwear a lot at home." His testimony involved a description of his flower bed, used the phrase "get off my lawn" repeatedly.  Judge had a hard time keeping a straight face during his testimony.

During the security footage, you could see the defendant wandering around, sometimes with the bat, sometimes not, getting increasingly drunk as the day wore on. I wish I could have kept a copy, dubbed it with Yakkety Sax.

Verdict: not guilty. We're pretty sure he actually did threaten his ex-friend with a bat, it just didn't seem that serious from the footage. His neighbor was most likely playing up the threat to fuck with him. The neighbor claimed he pounded the truck hard for several seconds while screaming death threats. From the footage, he actually just tapped the bumper lightly, twice, yelled something very brief, swayed drunkenly, and then put his mower away. No audio.

It's one of those situations where we stopped halfway through deliberations and were like "Uh, HOW much taxpayer money is being spent on this?"

We were all in favor of returning a verdict of "grow the fuck up, the both of you", but the court wouldn't let us.

Totals: not gonna bother here. 0. Zero's a good guestimate.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Chiseling

My writing is falling into a predictable pattern.

Sit down, open up the file containing the latest chapter of the book. Read what I'd written two days ago. Quail. Can I match that? Hell, I'm not even sure I can set down words today, let alone words that form sentences and paragraphs and mean things in pleasing ways.

I look at the outline, what I've got planned. Nope, this is gonna be way too hard for me.

Then I scroll back to what I wrote yesterday. And I fix it. I flesh it out, taking the skeleton and adding meat and muscle, sinew and organs. I note patterns in the text. Reinforce them. Fix flow problems, add description where it's needed. Rewrite things that don't work. Take jokes that do work, make them better. Add dialogue. Identify slow places and add jokes or interesting detail.

That sort of waffling sense of existential despair? That feeling when I see the whole and it's too large for me to do anything with? Where do I even begin? That disappears as I dive into the beginning of the text and start grinding through it all word by word. I get focused.

And then I get to today's writing and I begin to add on to the story. It's awful. Just completely fucking awful. I get to the end, read what I've got and think "this is workable, but it's not as good as what I wrote yesterday."

I hit the final period, update my totals, save, exit and then move on with the rest of the day.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

I think that's what I like most about writing, that sense of chiseling, chiseling, chiseling away at something rough and raw, finding patterns in the swirling chaos of your subconscious and stitching it all together to make tiny worlds. It feels like sculpting or putting together a jig saw puzzle. Maybe whittling something out of a block of sometimes-not-very-high-grade wood.

It's been an odd week, writing-wise, because of reasons. And, if said things pan out the way I hope, the next month or two will also be spotty vis-a-vis updates and book progress. How's that for vague? I got vague like whoa. But this is the good kind of vague. The next few months are going to be fun.

The vagueness is mostly because I try to keep something of a disconnect between this blog, my writing and my personal life. It's always somewhat surprising when someone's dirty (or clean) laundry is a top Google result for certain keywords, and I don't really want that. I wouldn't really want this blog to be a top Google search result for "felony conviction for sex with alpacas" or something like that (I was framed!).

In other news, I had an ah-hah moment while wrapping  up the first chapter. I was front-loading the story with random clues, some real, some not. I improvised a bit and it occurred to me do something with, uh, dimensional geometry and alien cellphones. Said clue required a bit of outline-tweaking. Totally worth it, though.

Totals:  592, two days off because of reasons, 1330, 731, 686 and 516.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Strip Club Next Door

I've been reading a lot of random nonfiction lately, because that is what I do. I try not to let my book habits fall into any sort of predictable pattern. If I read science fiction last, I'll follow it up with some Raymond Chandler. If I just finished reading some Raymond Chandler, then I'll crack open a book on 18th century Hungarian cabinet-making.

You never know what might be useful knowledge, or at least way more interesting than you might have expected at the beginning. For example, I just finished a great biography of Harry Blackstone Sr. Laugh out loud funny in parts. Throws a spotlight on a little-known facet of early 20th century history. Highly recommended, if you can find a copy.

People tend to limit themselves unnecessarily with their reading. I know aspiring fantasy writers who have never read a book outside their genre their entire lives. Don't be that guy. The wider you read, the more arrows in your quiver. So to speak.

The biggest downside of reading nonfiction is that it makes me want to write nonfiction.

Everybody's got a book they want to write that they know, deep down inside, is probably outside their skill or comfort level. One of my professors back in college had a student who took up stripping for his class, just to have something to write about. When he spoke about her, he'd get a somewhat wistful look in his eye. I had the impression he had a few similar stories he wished he'd had the same guts to pursue. Either that or she was really hot and he wanted to see her naked. Either/or.

In my case, the book I wish I could write is also about a strip club.

I'm fairly sure I've mentioned this before, but I come from the middle of nowhere: smack-dab dead center in the middle of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Even in the 21st century, it's pretty much howling wasteland. They put maximum security prisons there because, on the odd chance an inmate escapes, there's nowhere much for them to go. Every once in a while, a serial baby-puncher will escape. Invariably they find them two weeks later half-frozen, covered in mosquito bites, starving, cowering in a swamp somewhere near Baraga.

There's a lot of wilderness up there, way more than it looks like on any map. It's the sort of place where towns are small and infrequent enough that nobody thinks twice about driving forty-five minutes either way to get groceries.

I grew up in this tiny little town called McFarland. It's barely a spot on the map, small enough that on Google Maps, you have to zoom in a ways to even see it.

It started its life back in the 19th century as a piss-stop for one of the railroads. There was a place to grab food, maybe a loading spot for the lumbermen, and that was it. Eventually it got big enough to warrant a small town hall, maybe a bar, a grocery store/gas station, a one-room schoolhouse (part-time and only up to the sixth grade), a post office and that's about it. Even at its biggest, it was a blink-and-miss-it kind of affair.

For much of its existence, it was one of those towns you defined more by the number of people living in a certain radius around a given landmark than something with set boundaries. When I lived there, there were maybe fifty people living in a thousand foot radius of the bar.

Ah yes, the bar.

McFarland has the only strip club in the Upper Peninsula. At least that I'm aware of.

It's called Big Bon's. They have a website, believe it or not.

And this is where the book I wish I could write begins.

The history of Big Bon's, like most small-town businesses, is largely undocumented. Compound this fact with the matter that it's the local den of iniquity and considered to be an eyesore and you could understand why most of the locals don't really talk about it, nor does it get written about much in the local newspapers. You are unlikely to find a segment on the local news and they don't run commercials.

If I were to write said book, I'd have to track down survivors to piece together the history. While the place is still in business under new owners, Big Bon passed away a few years back and the customers with the best stories, no doubt, aren't getting any younger.

Near as I can tell, it was founded back in the seventies or early eighties by Bonnie K. "Big Bon" Storti herself, a larger than life character who would seem more at ease in an Elmore Leonard novel than in any sort of realistic universe.

It's the kind of place where you have to stop every once in a while when talking about it to outsiders and say "I swear I'm not making any of this up."

The business started out as an actual bar with a liquor license. They also had a kitchen in back, which gave it the odd distinction of being the only place locally one could acquire pizza if you had the need and you were too snowed in to make it to Gwinn.

Every once in a while, one of the locals would send a kid or two over to pick one up. They'd have to wait outside, though. Eventually one of the dancers would bring the pizza out to them.

Bon's biggest trade is hunters. She'd open when hunting season opened, close when hunting season closed. She wintered down south, somewhere in Florida, and was in the habit of pranking people with death notices. I think she died roughly twice a year for fifteen years until she actually did die back in 2011 at the age of 62. I think it was a few days before everybody made up their minds she was actually dead.

Eventually they lost the liquor license and officially became a tea house. I swear I'm not making this up.

They'd bus in strippers from down state every year and there were constant allegations of prostitution. According to one of the neighbors, they pulled out six or seven beds from the tiny upstairs room while the new owners were remodeling. Whether or not that's factual, I can't tell you for sure.

From the outside, the place looks like a ramshackle hunting cabin. Up until about ten years ago, it was unpainted. It looked liked the sort of place Jed Clampett would be at home in. For most of the year, whether they were open or not, they'd advertise jello wrestling competitions with the sort of tacky internally-lit freestanding sign you often see in front of smaller churches. Sometimes they'd branch out, wrestle in different substances, like oil or pudding, but jello was the most popular.

Ten years ago, Bon had the place painted a color which can only be described as "bright fucking pink" to stick a thumb in the locals' eyes. I have a feeling her opinions about the local town gossips would have been worth listening to.

This is a place you could probably write several books about. When I travel, it seems no matter how far I go, eventually I meet someone who has seen or heard of Big Bon's. If I went to Nepal, climbed Mount Everest, I'd probably find a grizzled old British explorer who would say "Big Bon's? Is she still letting people sign her boobs? I did a rum shot off her breasts one evening back in '84."

When giving out directions to my parents' house, it's the landmark we tell them to watch out for: "Drive north until you see the big pink titty bar. Then turn."

I think the place has stories like North Dakota has rocks. But could I write it? I doubt it. I'm not that social and my interviewing skills are roughly on par with my singing ability.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Postcrastination

Procrastination is a hell of a thing, and not really logical at all.

Case in point: yesterday.

Woke up not in the mood to write. It's November, after all. November comes with a not inconsiderable amount of depression baked right into its bones, at least in these latitudes. The leaves have fallen, leaving wooden skeletons everywhere. The weather settles into a dogged pattern: gray clouds set low in the sky, cold drizzle, cheerless gusts of wind. The days are short; the nights are long. It's cold, but not really in the festive way winter can be during a cold snap. November's an in-between month, the equivalent of being stuck in line at the DMV. Everything fun and interesting is happening elsewhere.

It's not like March or April. They have similar weather, at least on paper, but you can look forward to summer, at least. It's getting nicer every day.

November? Nothing to look forward to except for four or five months of blizzards, cabin fever and only one or two holidays to act as speed bumps along the way. Being able to make snow angels soon is a poor consolation.

I had no enthusiasm yesterday morning for anything except sitting around and brooding. Writing was the farthest thing from my mind. When I thought about the book, I couldn't see myself doing more than tapping a few letters on the keyboard, frowning and then going to see if Netflix had anything compelling to watch.

Instead, I reread what I had so far and wrote over a thousand words. More importantly, I did some serious rewriting on the less compelling parts and everything sort of fell into place.

Procrastination is more about inertia for me. That initial feeling of "don't wanna" (there's probably a German word for that, and it's most likely eighteen syllables long)...anyway, that initial hesitation, that feeling of angst...it really has no relationship to actual writing, or what might potentially get done in a writing session.

Half the struggle in writing is simply getting yourself to sit down in the first place. The old saying, eighty percent of success is just showing up, is a truism. You can't win if you're not there.

One of the things that I always found surprising when hiring people, even during the dog days of the last few market crashes, was how many simply didn't show up for the interview. We'd get a few dozen resumes. Call in ten people. Maybe two or three would actually show up.

You have to wonder what happened. Maybe they found another job without cluing us in, maybe they chickened out. Maybe they had family emergencies. There was a rash grandmothers dying somewhere in Southwest Michigan, possibly. Maybe their car broke down.

Maybe most people are kind of flaky and procrastinate too much.

Anyway. I make my best progress writing when I make a commitment to sit my ass in the chair every day, more or less at the same time, and pound out words.

In other news, a friend pointed out this video last night:


It's pretty quality.

As a dude who has a Master's degree in English, I'm actually a big fan of the Oxford comma. Also, I am perpetually surprised to find out that Vampire Weekend isn't a teen-oriented emo hard rock group. I mean, it's got vampires in the title, for God's sake.



Totals: 500, 1039, 1118, 556, 528, 1047 and 561.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Mr. Exposition

Unexpected occurrence in writing my second book, numero dos: exposition.

Not something I'd thought about, really. I've had dozens of abandoned projects, all fresh starts. Having to fill in a reader with something they may or may not already know is a new thing I have to deal with. One of the downsides of always burning things down and starting completely from scratch is that you never have to worry about completion or, heaven forbid, continuing onwards. I suspect this is one of the many reasons why my last book went way off-topic in Act II--I'm simply not used to that middle stretch where you have to keep going after the initial sprint.

Even though the new book is the sequel to my short story, Spirals and Triangles, I have to assume that some or almost all of the readers will be unfamiliar with the setting and the characters. I also have to accommodate for the fact that some of them (and by "some" I mean "probably just me") will have already read the short story.

So I get to do exposition, a lot of it, during the opening chapter or two.

I have to wonder how experienced authors, ones who have dozens of books out, some of which are in series form, deal with the tedium. Someone like Charles Stross or maybe a Charlaine Harris, or whoever, who don't always have the luxury of readers who pick up a book at the beginning of the series, deal. It's a given that in, say, mass market fantasy, that you don't just jump in halfway through. Nobody expects exposition from the middle volume of the Wheel of Time. But something like the Laundry novels where they're deliberately written so you can jump in anywhere, but which are still sequential?

That's gotta to be annoying after the fifth or six one.

I get to explain all over again what the deal is with, say, the Llerg. There's a certain level of angst there, because I go back, reference the first story, see how awesome the first description was. I'm tempted to just copy and paste the text and hope nobody will notice.

But that's lazy. More importantly, it denies me the chance to try to one-up myself.

Still, there's only so many ways to describe something before you begin to feel like a long-term couple trying to revive their sex life. "Can I talk about Llerg...in the kitchen? What if I talk about Llerg...in a French maid outfit? Ooh la la."

It's going well, though. I'm starting to get the chemistry between the characters back. With a full novel ahead of me, I can really explore the setting quite a bit more than I could in a six thousand word story. There's some fun places I want to go with it. I'm in that honeymoon stage where I'm constantly jotting down gags to put in.

There's a particularly awesome one involving chalk outlines that I came up with last night while hanging out with friends. Since I don't really talk about my writing anywhere except here, I didn't bother to tell them why I suddenly cackled and then tapped something into my phone.

They're probably used to it. As someone who writes all the time, I have voices in my head and I do answer them occasionally.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Accidents

And I am now definitely in the home stretch on the outline.

I actually created another outline just for the behind the scenes stuff. Not as something to adhere to strictly, not quite. More just to get a feel for what's going on when the main characters aren't around.

As I touched on earlier this week, when I was telling that really dreadful story about my cousin slitting a cab driver's throat over pocket change, I think a lot of the meat in a story like this is in the fact that villains don't always have a great master plan. They make mistakes just like anybody else. It's just that those mistakes tend to get people killed and/or ruin lives. Part of the fun of a mystery novel is all the random chaos in the crime scene which the detective has to reconstruct.

Why the hell was Parson Smith calling that morning, when everybody else says he was on the other side of town? What caused the clock to freeze up ten minutes after midnight? And why is Alfonso, the Smith family's pet alpaca, so traumatized?

Back when I was in college, I had a great class. It was forensic anthropology, taught by Dr. Tal Simmons, who has apparently been getting into all sorts of globe-trotting adventures since that time, according to Google, like some kind of really short, bone-obsessed Indiana Jones. Seriously, she's not quite five feet tall but packs more badass per inch than just about anybody else I've ever met. It was a hard class, but challenging in all the right ways. I think of all the anthro classes I've had, hers was in the top three. Just a hell of a lot of fun and weirdly informative even to this day.

The final project of the class involved a graduate student dumping a bag of random bones and shit on our table with one single commandment: find out, as much as possible, who the hell this was and what happened.

We had to go through all the detritus, sort it all out, rearrange the random debris as much as possible into a skeleton and then estimate age, probable race, gender, cause of death and so on.

In our case, it was a sixteen year old boy, probably African American, who had been stabbed six or seven times with a very long blade, hard enough to enter the back and then exit through the front on several of the blows. He had been decapitated, partially dismembered, and then left in a dumpster. And, for no reason that we could tell, a juvenile bear paw had been thrown in for good measure.

The bear paw was the big monkey wrench in the reconstruction. Bear paws, to an inexperienced group of students like us, were similar enough to human hands that we didn't immediately twig to what happened. After all, the killer had not been polite enough to leave a note telling us he'd removed his victim's hands and buried them elsewhere (or ate them for all we knew).

We had to go by what we had. The bear paw was a strange detail. The cub was still going through its various juvenile growth spurts but...was about three times bigger than what the human equivalent should have been at that age.

We had a choice. Either we were dealing with some kind of fucking mutant with enormous hands or there was something else going on.

Unraveling that something else and then trying to reconstruct the road that led there is what makes mystery writing so much fun.

Right now, I'm touching up the timeline. Figuring out what sorts of things the bad guy would do when he panics. What deals he makes. Who he talks to and where. Where he is when the major things happen. It makes a big difference. Already, I can feel the earlier bits of the book fill in in unexpected ways.

There are going to be a couple of gags early on that I pretty much have to make, for example, that I didn't realize I'd have to do until I wrote that second outline. They're pretty minor, but they'll make a lot more sense once you get to the end of the story.

I am definitely running out of outline to write. I'm hitting that point where I'm on the verge of over-preparing. I'm getting that "fuck you, common sense, let's get started here" itch.

So I'm doing that this week, probably, after another day making sure everything makes sense.

Totals: 1094, 500, 500, 562, 500, 500, and 719. I'm just using 500 as a placeholder on outlining days to show that I've done enough work to hit my daily goal, but it's of a weirdly crunchy yet important variety compared to the relatively small number of words.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sketches

I've been spending the entire week outlining.

Good lord, it's hard work. And it's the most frustrating variety of it, too, where you can only do about twenty minutes of useful work at a time before needing a break. Spend too much time on outlining, then you're over-preparing. Spend too little time and then there's a gap in the skeleton of your story.

I take twenty minutes, then take a break. I do another twenty, then take another break.

It's frustrating, yes, but key.

I'm trying to keep this story as tight as possible and, unfortunately, that means an outline. A very firmly defined one, at at that.

There's always a bit of tight-rope walking involved with doing one. I make it too detailed, I'm sick of the story before I even get started. I sit down feeling I've already eaten that meal. If I begin with an outline that's too poorly defined, then I'm pantsing, and I don't generally do so well with that, at least over the long term.

The difference between this outline and any of the others I've done before is that it's becoming very end-heavy. I have a direction I want the book to go and I need to set it up properly. Beginnings are easy for me. I can write the first third of any book you care to name, almost in one sitting. Endings? Endings aren't that bad, either. It's the middle third that always kills me.

This time around, I'm spending a lot of time on the end before I get there, so I don't spend the middle third lost in the woods.

Outlines are essential to working on broad story ideas. They're pretty much the only way I can keep an entire story in my head at once.

Short stories, for example, are easy to keep track of. You can read one in a single sitting. Spread the pages out all around you, even with annotations. You can see a short story all at once. A book? Especially a genre one with tons of strange details?

Good luck.

An outline is a map. It omits all the details you don't really need to know at the moment. All the strange close-up stuff goes away. It abstracts everything down to just the stuff you need to think about at that moment, summarizing everything down to a level you can hold at arm's length, give a few shakes to and then see whether or not the broad structure works.

People tend to think of them as these strictly formal constructions like they learned in high school: section headers with capital letters, with subheaders labelled with upper case Roman numerals, everything nested neatly in order.

Nope. At least they don't have to.

Outlines are for your benefit. Do them however the hell you want. I've done outlines for stories and articles in crayon on sheets of printer paper, where I expressed all the concepts with stick figures and cartoon cats. I've had two separate but equally-important outlines for the same story, but focusing on different details. And followed them both while writing.

Sometimes if I get stuck at a certain point, I'll bust out a notebook and just doodle where the story's going until everything makes sense again.

It's not like you're publishing that bastard. Get as sloppy and weird as you need to.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Decisions

...and I've decided on a motive: hybrid!

Specifically, I wrote three motives for the murder: sort of an intellectual one, which had to do with family history and such, another motive rising from flat-out weasel-ish greed, and the last one, misguided altruism.

And they all work, kinda. Greed the most of all, which is why I'm going with that for the primary motive.

Thing is, people rarely do things--particularly bad things--for just one reason. Sure, there's the gut motivation, the one that kicks you into action. The reason you got out of bed that morning to do that awful thing in the first place, the reason that overcame your moment of inertia. Anger, greed, lust, all the big hitters of villainy, yes. There's that.

Then there's what you've been telling yourself ever since you did it. People tell themselves all sorts of stories to justify their own actions. These are the stories you make up so you can sleep at night, hopefully so that one shitty thing you did that you can't stop thinking about doesn't seem quite so awful. That's important to know, too. This is also the story you might give to a friend or a reporter when explaining your deeds. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. This is more than an alibi because you're not, specifically, denying the crime. You're recontextualizing it so that you can be the hero of your story.

And then there's the story you tell close friends or business partners. It's usually somewhere between the first two on the scale of awfulness. It's within sight of the black heart, but not quite there yet.

Since I can't really talk about how the book's going to wind up--for two good reasons: a) I haven't written it yet and b) I don't really want to have the final chapter show up on a basic Google search--I'll go with a real life example.

I have a half-cousin who's serving a life sentence for slitting a cab driver's throat over $16. The more I read about it--the victim, the circumstances, what my cousin's life must have been like to lead him to do such a thing--the worse I feel. It's truly awful on many levels, just an epic multilayered shit sandwich which tastes worse the more you bite.

That particular branch of the family is, to put it charitably, the black sheep of our family tree. We've mostly cut them out of the loop, on the general theory that the less toxic the people you hang out with, the better your life will be. Objectively speaking, it was probably the best decision we've made as a family over the years.

Almost that entire branch of the family has spent time in jail. Two of them are serving life sentences; the others have been in and out of prison their entire lives. They tend to gravitate towards unglamorous crime: it's not uncommon for people from that branch of my family to get fired from, say, Shopko, for shoplifting from their own employers. They'd fit in well on the set of Justified.

The kid who wound up in jail was so out of control they'd kicked him out on the streets while he was still in his late teens. He's probably the most common type of career criminal: zero impulse control, chip on his shoulder. He came from a fairly broken household and probably had some basic learning disabilities which were never addressed properly thrown into the mix. But most people would simply call him stupid. One of his previous arrests, for example, was for knocking over a food truck with the help of his girlfriend. The food truck was parked in front of a police station.

He dropped off the family radar for a few years and it came to light that he'd become homeless. Someone like him, with his history, can't really hold down a job. He's not terribly employable, he's got a short fuse, and if he does get employed that itch he's had in his head since he was a kid wouldn't let him hold it for very long. I'm guessing he supplemented his income with petty theft and muggings, maybe drugs and other minor crime, but I don't really know for sure. It's reasonable, though.

Late one night in some state out west, he and two of his friends called a cab. The cab driver, a Vietnam veteran in his late fifties with a wife and several kids, answered the call. There was a scuffle, words were probably exchanged, and the cab driver was killed.

I doubt my cousin started out that evening planning to murder anyone. He'd been homeless for some time. He'd burnt every bridge he'd ever had access to. I'm guessing plan A was to get enough cash to pay for food and maybe a cheap hotel room somewhere to get some real sleep, get clean maybe, maybe even buy some booze or drugs. When you're that low on the Maslow pyramid of needs, your goals tend to be pretty basic.

At its core, his primary motive was mostly desperation. He needed money to live and he was going to get some. When the cab driver resisted or perhaps protested that he didn't carry much on him, he panicked, probably with the help of his friends who were goading him and each other on. There was probably a point early on when they could have talked each other out of it, but the tipping point was reached and someone, probably my cousin, decided to finish it.

Having people with you in such a situation is hardly ever helpful. Someone panics, the rest go as well. People start stupid and get stupider with numbers.

One of the depressing things about contrasting crime fiction with reality is that real motives for such things tend to be squalid and sordid, even more so than the norm for, say, noir. No matter what the criminal tells himself, the real motive is usually greed, desperation, fear or anger, mixed with a good dose of panic and sociopathy.

The story he most likely tells other people is the timeless narrative that life is a hard row and mistakes were made. I don't plan to talk to him any time soon, but I'm going to say that he'd probably tell you that one of his friends panicked, killed the cab driver and he took the blame for it. He's going to tell you how hard life is on the streets and you have to make hard decisions sometimes.

One of the many strange things about modern life in prison is that the prison system has its own version of Facebook. Prisoners have a profile page, you can message them, they post selfies, or pictures of their own artwork, everything anybody does on real social media they can do there, except with worse haircuts. It's less cool than Facebook, if that's believable: more like a version of Myspace circa 2005, preserved like a Jurassic mosquito in amber.

On his page he talks about how he gives great advice because he's screwed up his own life in every way imaginable. He's had plenty of time to reflect and to find God. There's nothing about what landed him in jail this time, but there are a ton of generic platitudes and quotes from the Bible.

If you were closer friends, he might tell you a more detailed version. Maybe they figured there was money in that cab. Maybe alcohol was a factor. One of them made a joke about how it was like ordering a pizza. You'd make the phone call and your next paycheck would show up. I'm guessing that detailed version wouldn't be as noble as the public story, but would be less degrading to tell than the real story, the one that hurts to think about at night.

It would make the worst detective story in the history of mankind. Given what I know about my cousin's modus operandi, he probably did it in front of a local gun shop during a police convention in broad daylight, with loudspeakers blaring "A CRIME IS IN PROGRESS."

But it does illustrate something that a lot of writers tend to forget, that motivation is only a small part of what makes a villain tick. There's also background and history and accidents that complicate things which the investigator must uncover. If they killed Mrs. Renfro, then why did they also steal the garbage can and the cat? Those things are all part of the unraveling process.

Totals:  531, 512, 557, 1141, 580, 547, and 1403.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mysteries

And I'm back after a week in the Upper Peninsula, experiencing fall colors, decompressing and hanging out with the folks. I've had adventures, seen things that would make a billy goat puke, star ships exploding off the Belt of Orion, etc. Same old, same old. Lots of driving around, saw a littoral attack ship get launched in Menominee, ate a lot of good food, experienced nature, transcended my mortal frame and became a pure elemental being of thought and power. Well, some of that list, at least.

I've chosen the Spirals and Triangles story to blow up into a book. Entirely new plot, natch.

The first thing I did when I chose it was to sit down and reread S&T. Holy crap, I'd forgotten how fun that story was. It's actually rather intimidating to think about: can I do that for an ENTIRE BOOK? I mean, holding that voice and pace, keeping the characters awesome for a couple hundred pages. Keeping all the details of the setting straight (it's set in my Down & Out universe, after all, which is full of Weird Shit). Jesus.

I tend to think of things I've previously written as being written by a completely different person, an entirely different version of me which no longer exists. When I read something I've written before, I get psyched out by it pretty easily, particularly when I'm staring at a blank sheet of paper that doesn't even have a title yet and only the barest sketches of a plot.

I have queasy visions of science fiction writers who let their series go to seed, turning them into pale mockeries of the first book. I don't want to do that. If I took the time to make an interesting character, I don't want to betray them with crap writing.

I forget that I've always felt this way reading old stuff. Instead, it feels like I'm reading a story from someone who writes way better than I do, in the same field that I do, who's competing with me. Selective amnesia. Ugh, brains are a wonderful thing, folks.

In this case, the story works because it strikes a balance between comedy and world-weariness. There's a sort of off-kilter world out there tempered by the relationship between the Llerg and his adopted niece, Neah, which works really well, I think. It's also pretty funny in parts. And I've set myself the task of doing this for at least 60,000 words. Good lord, what did I talk myself into doing?

So I'm putting a hell of a lot work into figuring out the plot in advance. I want to make sure it hangs together well, there aren't any dead chapters, everything's paced smoothly and it all makes sense. I figure it's going to be another few days before I even consider actually starting the first chapter.

Both luckily and unluckily, it's a detective story.

Detective stories follow a pretty well-defined structure and formula. This makes them both easier and harder to write.

When I write them, I usually go about it a lot more backwards than I do more traditional stories.

Start with the goriest, most inexplicable killing you can think of. Something that would have the cops arriving on scene hurl immediately. I mean, yeah, you can make a crime novel out of accounting fraud, but that doesn't sell newspapers, kids.

Once you have that, skip to the end of the story. Sketch out the big reveal when the main character figures it all out. Figure out the prime motive, the means, who did it. All the sordid details, the why's and the hows. Write it up, if you have to, like you would the Wikipedia entry on that character detailing their life. Then work backwards from there.

Act I, II, III, etc. The big twists and turns, the red herrings. The other suspects who may or may not be involved. They all have their own agendas and alibis, the reason why your main character would finger them and also, eventually, absolve them. Figure out which one's going to go missing or die during the investigation. Maybe add another who shows up out of the blue a few chapters in, throwing the investigation out of whack.

This isn't a genre that thrives heavily on pantsing, unless you're a natural genius at figuring out crimes. I'm not. Hell, Agatha Christie, while fun to read (Poirot is the man!), gives me a throbbing headache. I don't think I've ever figured out a detective story before the end. Not even once. I'm an idiot.

Luckily, you can be an idiot as an author--you know all the answers, after all.

Also comforting is that, as a science fiction author, you get an automatic pass. The pure detective fiction readership is generally pretty unforgiving: they're better read than you, they're smarter than you and they're generally going to be at least two chapters ahead of you at all times. So you have to be pretty careful. They'll pick up on all the lazy thinking and cliches and run you through the wash for it.

Genre detective fiction? Not so much. In a world where octopi live in fifteen dimensions and lawnmowers are powered by dying stars, the reader will often not rake you over the coals if you skip a step or two while grinding through some deductive reasoning. They might not even notice that you fucked up how fingerprinting works because they're too busy thinking about robots. It's cool that way. It's not an unlimited pass, but you get a bit of wiggle room.

So I've been grinding through that. Twelve chapters, sixty thousand words. During this week, I'm not only outlining, I'm also coming up with three or four different motives for the bad guy to have. At the end, I'll pick the most interesting one and structure the novel about that.

The first motive I came up with was a bit too intellectual. The next write-up is going to be slimy and more greedy. I might go with a cynical take on altruism gone wrong. Or have a bit of fun with some cliches. Who knows.

This comes down to a topic I've touched on before a few times. Namely, that you should never immediately go with the first idea you have. The first idea is usually either crap or at the very least, monumentally uninspired. Maybe it has an interesting seed, but that's all it usually has. Interrogate your ideas like you would interrogate a particularly sleazy crime suspect. Prod them, slap them around, give them the fifth degree.

This is going to be pretty fun. Also, I think it will go a lot faster. With only twelve chapters I have a lot less room to work with. I also tend to do a lot better when writing under tight restrictions.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Uncloned

But enough about beards.

Finished up the Clone story. It took quite a bit longer than I thought it would. On the face of it, it's a dreadfully simple story. Pretty much goes from point A to point B with lots of action in between, barely any characterization, some fun set pieces and then the obligatory cliffhanger ending. Not much meat there, sadly.

But stories tend to have an innate length. When you conceive of one, you can't just take a thousand word story and turn it into ten thousand. It's also very hard to take a four thousand word story and make it a piece of flash fiction. At least that's my difficulty: once I start a story, it becomes the length that it becomes.

This was a six-er, or thereabouts. When I picked it back up, I was only one or two thousand words in, so that's a fair amount of verbiage to get through in a week, at least so long as you don't want to turn into a crazy mumbling hermit. I'd naively forgotten that a story determines  its own length. All you can do is hang on for the ride.

The biggest problem I had with the thing was the verb tenses. You'd think I'd have a handle on such things by now, but I'd just spent over a year writing present tense. The Clone stories are in past tense because the narrator is telling a story to someone else, years after the fact. I constantly had to go back and clean out landmines, rewrite paragraphs and so on.

This is exactly one of the silly things that you have to deal with that you never see in the media. You'd never hear about, say, Faulkner, complaining about paragraph breaks or trying to figure out why the hell his typewriter keeps screwing up the margins.

In the media, writers are all about finding their internal inspiration, or having to sit on a beach somewhere, dipping cake in tea and letting their memories flood back. The popular media gets a lot wrong about the writing process, I'm discovering. Barely enough at all about beards either, I'm afraid.

Taking another week off from the writing. Heading up into the howling wilderness of the Upper Peninsula to, hopefully, see some fall colors, visit the parents, wander around a bit, decompress even more and so on and so forth. I should be back early next week and I'll most likely start writing the next book, then. Hopefully I'll even make up my mind which one I want to do by then.

Whichever I choose, I think it's going to go a lot quicker. I have a better grasp of what the traps are, what to look out for ahead of time in terms of outlining and plotting, and being extremely vigilant about plot cohesiveness and momentum.

One thing I know, for example, is to shoot low on the word count because I'm completely and utterly incapable of keeping to a word limit. I aim for 80, I hit 120 instead. So, I'm aiming for 60, on the general theory I'll overshoot to around 80. Let's see how that goes.

Totals: 760, 1010, 637, 593, 1227, 960, and 531.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Beardly Pause And Clonage

Beards are a perfect allegory for life.

They go through phases, much like the Sphinx's riddle about mankind ("What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?").

A beard starts out manly and rugged when it's still early enough you can convince everyone it's five o'clock shadow. You look like Indiana Jones, or maybe Crockett from Miami Vice. Your stubble says "I shave, but I haven't recently since I've been too busy going out, fist-fighting nazis and punching drug dealers in the damn face. I've got too many things to do right now to deal with grooming. But I'll get back to it." It's cool. Everybody respects a good five o'clock shadow.

During the final phase of the life of the beard, it is majestic and untamed. Your beardly beardiness is like something elemental, like a hairy man-beast who clambered down from the howling wilderness of the Canadian Yukon to plant its flag in your motherfucking territory. It makes you more than a man, much like Batman's mask.

Everybody respects a good beard. Except for THOSE people. Don't be one of THOSE people.

And then there's the in-between phase.

Not enough beard to be a beard. Too gnarly to be a five o'clock shadow.

You spend several weeks looking like a crazy homeless person. Every person of the female variety you associate with (and some of the dudes) gets a little twitch in their right eye-lid looking at you, because every instinct down to the fibrous core of their being is telling them to wrestle you down and abort the patchy abomination that's now growing in on your face. Give it a mercy killing. Stop it before it destroys us all.

Your neo-beard makes you, in the immortal words of Garfield, look like you ate a box of Milk Duds and then kissed a cat.

Even when you trim it, keep it as neat as possible, you feel like you'd be more at home, visually, hanging out around a trash can fire and maybe sucking down Arrow vodka straight from the bottle.

In other words, I temporarily gave up. I have something this afternoon that I really need to not look like a weirdo at, so I had to shave it off. I might go back to growing it afterwards, though. Hopefully, if it DOES come in, it'll be done by the time I need to start looking like I give a hoot about personal hygiene again.

And lo, the cherubs of St. Bernie, patron saint of beards, wept and gnashed their teeth. Or perhaps plucked at their beards. I will have to commit penitence: say "hail Bernie" a hundred times over a rosary or something.

Kind of sad, really. It was coming in strong enough that I could stroke it when I pondered something perplexing. But not strong enough that trimming it made it looked like I actually engaged in grooming activity of some sort.

I'm STILL working on that Clone story. Hopefully, I'm at the climax. Bo just keeps having things to tell me, though. He's like a house guest which refuses to leave, even though it's well past midnight and you've been theatrically yawning for a half hour. He's a welcome one, though, so you don't want to just physically push him out the door. Instead you're just prompting him with things like "Oh, really?" and "That's great, man." All hoping he gets to the point, picks up his hat, nods politely and steps out for the night.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Beardly Activity

I've been thinking about buying a jean jacket lately.

The problem is I've also decided, for the first time ever, to see if I can grow a beard. I've always told people that I'm genetically incapable of growing significant facial hair, in much the same way that trees are genetically incapable of growing legs and becoming champion breakdancers, but in all honesty, I've never tried.

So I'm going to attempt to get all beardy. If the geometry of my facial hair approximates my dad's, this will be a futile and hilarious failure. His beard always comes in patchy and ragged, the sort of beard that other beards assign to a leper colony so they don't have to look at it.

Other members of the extended family have glorious beards and I hope mine takes after them. Again, no idea what my face will turn into. I may grow tentacles on my chin, which I will use to devour the unfaithful as the stars align and Elder Gods walk the Earth again. Who knows what blasphemous secrets my attempt at growing facial hair will reveal?

But the beard does make other fashion choices problematic. I've always had a love for three unfortunate fashion items. You can tell I'm a writer because if I'm going to make a list, I'm going to put three things in it, no more, no less. But in this case, the number of items is genuine and not at all related to mild writerly-OCD:

1. The aforementioned jean jacket. Without the beard, people will assume I have poor taste or that I'm from Canada. With the beard? Hipster. I'll probably have to wander around, telling people about my vinyl collection and how my favorite band--who you've never heard of--only releases on cassette these days.

2. Flannel. I love flannel. It's been long enough I can wear it now without being accused of being a grunge rocker but wearing flannel when you have a beard? Suddenly you're a lumberjack.

3. Trench coats. There's no way to defend these things, beard or non-beard. If you have a beard and you wear a trench coat, you'll look like the sort of guy who should also be wearing a fedora and larping Vampire: the Masquerade. But they're really practical and completely awesome in winter. They let you sit down in your car without getting your butt wet from any snow that's slipped in.

This is what it must be like to grow old.

I can see the path before me and it is greased with compromises.

I concede on the beard.

Then I decide that I don't care what people think about my denim jacket.

And then I decide to only wear really comfortable pants.

Next thing I know, I'm that old dude wearing suspenders and a bow tie, because gosh darn it, bow ties were really great back when Boxcar Willie was the up-and-coming feller on the honky-tonk circuit.

Actually, that sounds pretty awesome.

Been cranking out that Clone story, at a pretty solid clip. About 800 words per day. I figure I'm about halfway done. Then, the next book.

Totals: 527, 664, 849, 859, 709, 795 and 531.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Attachments

It's strange how attached you get to fictional characters you've created.

Ever since I stranded Bo in the depths of the sewers beneath TacoPlace, I've felt strangely guilty, like I'd left the baby sitting on top of the car before driving off.

I mean, yes, no measurable time passes in a fictional world which I create, but it galls me to leave a story half-done.

Back when I was younger, I had a real problem with starting and not finishing writing projects. I'd write the first couple pages of a story and then abandon it. Or I'd write the middle scene of an action sequence, or I'd build up the background to a novel and then I would just leave it hanging there. Or--and this is where I put my nerd hat on for realz--I'd start writing a role playing game, usually some kind of fantasy heartbreaker  (and one or two science fiction heartbreakers), get the statistics down, get some interesting systems in place, a skill or a class list, daydream for a while about how awesome it would be to get this all done...and then I'd move on to the next shiny.

I think I wrote a thousand imaginary books and ten thousand potential stories, but never finished any.

Writing has a bit of ebb and flow to it. There's a honeymoon period which disappears fast when it turns into real work. Then it gets better. Then it gets worse. But if you make a habit of pushing through to the last hard part, awesome things happen.

Heinlein once said that the first rule of writing was to write every day. The second rule was to finish what you write. I forget what any of the later rules were. Probably "don't forget the later rules."

But finishing what you write is very important. More important than writing every day, I think. Writing every day keeps your pen sharp. Finishing what you write is what makes you a writer.

Like I said, I never really completed projects when I was younger.

The turning point for me happened about five or six years ago. Maybe longer than that. I don't really want to look up the exact number because it feels like yesterday and finding out the exact timeline might be kind of depressing, like doing the math at the end of a bag of Oreos and realizing you've just eaten the equivalent of three or four happy meals and you're still hungry.

Like I implied before, I've had a life-long fascination for RPG's. The combination of game and simulation, the interplay of make-believe and hard rules, social elements colliding with math is a heady one for me. I started out playing D&D, flirted with HERO and Shadowrun, the old Whitewolf Storyteller games, and others. Like a lot of gamers, I made my own homebrew material and game systems.

I abandoned a lot of projects. Fantasy games about space pirates, games which were completely indistinguishable from AD&D except this one gets parrying and shield use right, man, games about mutants and psychic abilities, games where you play gods and have to acquire followers. Billions of permutations. And I abandoned almost all of them.

For a while, Dungeon magazine had this feature where every issue they'd feature a mini-game based on Wizards of the Coast's new d20 system. The mini-games were great. Instead of just bashing orcs and dwarves and playing in a fakey version of Tolkien's universe, there'd be games where you could play mutants scavenging through postapocalyptia, you could be a wanna-be John Carter fighting his way through the jungles of Jupiter. Another dealt with giant anime robots and who wouldn't want to play that? Trippy stuff, and all done in twenty pages each.

I got the itch one day, probably in early spring. Read one of them and thought "Hey, I could do that." Twenty pages wasn't much.

So I made a little Star Trek game for the d20 Modern system. And I decided I was actually going to finish the damn thing. And I did. I outlined every thing a Star Trek game should have. Figured out the tone I wanted to hit and plowed through it, come hell or high water, no matter what my mood that day was. I finished it.

Eventually, it went through several iterations, acquired a different game system, and became "Where No Man Has Gone Before 2." For a silly homebrew game, it's been weirdly successful. Not monetarily or anything like that, but it's nice knowing that a ton of people have played it and had fun. I once read a play report of some cool German guys getting together in a pub and playing it over beer. A very nice Canadian guy made miniatures and other cool art for it. And so on.

Once you finish one big thing like that, others become easier. You know you can do it and, even more so, you know it's worthwhile.

So now I'm finishing up that clone story because leaving it at a cliffhanger has been bugging me. Don't worry, Bo, I'll get you out of that awful place yet.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

New Beginnings

...and I've done the last 500 word write-up. This one is about Spirals & Triangles, the detective story about a sentient coral reef, his adopted telepathic niece, and an extreme sports outpost at the edge of a particularly dangerous sector of space. Sexbots, clones, melting alien faces, abandoned battle fleets and the trash heap of the universe may also feature.

I'd forgotten how awesome the characters in that story were and the chemistry between Llerg and Neah. Great fun. Also, it's in the same universe as the Down & Out stories, and that's always pretty great.

At this point, I'm leaning towards doing this one, because it seems like the most fun, although the diesel punk one is still a strong contender. I'll see how I feel tomorrow morning after I've had a chance to sleep on it.

Good times.

I've suddenly acquired a heck of a lot more free time recently, so I'm tempted to up the limit in the writing challenge from 500 to 1000 words, at least once I get to the point when I start writing this next book, whatever it is, instead of the outline/background stuff.

Hopefully, at this rate, I'll be able to crank it out in about two or three months, instead of the thirteen *cough* eighteen or so it took for me to do my last one.

Before I get balls-deep into the writing, though, I might do a short story or two, since it's been awhile.

Also, I need to allow a chance for ideas to simmer deep down in my gut. That's the thing about writing. That first idea, that moment of fist-shaking hell-yeah inspiration? That's...usually crap. The second idea you get isn't so good either. The third? Third ideas are usually a bit better.

The reason for this is, that first idea you get? That's a conditioned response from all the media you've seen and people you've spoken to. It's not bad, occasionally, but if it's a off-the-cuff response for you, it's probably an off-the-cuff response for a lot of people. It's why when you're in a writing class, you tend to see the same stories. Over. And over. And over.

A good idea grows through negotiation. You pull it out, stare at it and then you ask it uncomfortable questions. Turn it upside down. Spank it a little.

One author once said a great way to upturn conventional wisdom is to find the thing you least want to happen--the most shocking thing you can do, throw caution to the wind type stuff--and ask why you shouldn't do it. At the very least, taking the notion seriously and saying "why not?" and "how about this?" will be illuminating.

Get silly, get weird, get argumentative, be a mean bastard. All steps in the brainstorming process. And to get that with the book I'm writing, I'm going to have to let it simmer for a bit. Maximize the amount of "ah ha! Eureka!" moments when I'm doing something else.

Not stellar progress here because I've got a lot on my mind and I'm still brainstorming a good direction for the next book.

Totals:  545, 552, 536, 786, 601, 529 and 523.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Novelty

The theme for this week is "What the fuck am I going to write next?"

Each day this week, I've been writing out a quick five hundred word summary about a different potential book: one-sentence pitch, basic plot, setting, themes/conflicts, that kind of thing. And then I just do a brain-dump on the topic for the rest of the duration. Interesting set pieces. Things I might have to or could deal with during the course of the book. Considerations I'll need to ponder before I start writing. And so on. But the idea is to have a one-page treatment of the book when I'm done. One different treatment per day, until I have four or five possible books to write.

Once I get enough, I'll read them over in the cold light of some objective morning and decide which one to do next. Maybe I'll just throw a dart at the pile or print them all out and throw them down a flight of stairs, see which one goes the farthest. Feed them to a dog and see which one passes through his digestive track in the most complete state.

It's actually pretty fun: you get to pretend you're writing novels without actually have to do any of the real work. Until you realize that, yes, you're really going to have to do the work once you've made up your mind. Crap.

I've got three so far and plan on doing another one or two before I make the call. The first one's a pulpy diesel-punk take on the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, another's a light comedy about people who have to deal with living in a world full of superheroes. The last one proposes blowing my clone stories up into a book.

I'm thinking my next write-up tomorrow morning will be my Upper Peninsula paranormal investigation detective series (based on the Argyle story for anyone who's paying attention). Who knows what number five will be, or if the fifth will even be necessary. Maybe something completely new, maybe blow up that weird Lovecraftian/Dark Tower-ish cowboy thing I wrote last year.

Each one would be challenging to write for different reasons.

The diesel-punk story is fast-moving, action-filled and has all the plot points necessary to be a tight and fast write...but it's in a very strong voice (think Lori Petty from Tank Girl). As I recall from the test story, after about five thousand words, I started to speak like the main character all the time, if I didn't stop myself.

There's also a great deal of crunch: social commentary, class stratification, weird technology and alt-history, resistance movements and playing with expectations, a rather unreliable narrator. Lots of things to dig into.

The superhero story will be hard to write because a) I have to keep up the comedy for an entire book and b) multiple POV hell. It's going to be a twisty little bastard to write, almost Dirk Gently-ish, but should be fun.

The third is a full novel based on my clone stories. The stories pretty much write themselves and I think the book will be no different. The main issue here is that the setting material is so damn dense and hard to keep track of: it's like an entire world made of tongue twisters. There's a logic which lies beneath all the jokey Office Space-gone-wrong stuff and it's a little tricky keeping it all straight in your head.

Finally the UP book: it's a mystery/detective novel, much like the story it's based on, and each character has a very distinct voice. The fictional world it's set in is slightly different than the real world, so that's an additional angle to keep track of--situating all the made-up stuff amongst all the real parts of the UP. That's actually part of the fun--the true things are always harder to believe than the things I make up.

On top of that, I have to treat the area with respect because, well, I do have to visit there every once in awhile and I'd rather not have anyone key my car while up north. But it was a fun story and I have no doubt that the book would be a blast to write, too.

So there's that. Brainstorming on WHAT to write this week. Then I make my choice next week and start making sausage again. Keeping up the 500 word per day thing is going to be key in getting this next bad boy out in a reasonable time frame. I'm hoping I'll be writing it fast enough that it doesn't go off the rails like the last book almost did.

Have I mentioned before that novel-writing is hard? It's hard.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Finished!

And we're done. The rough draft of the book lies finished, at about 107,000 words.

It is seriously time to think about something else. Anything else.

It feels like a bit of an anticlimax, like wrapping up a race to find no one at the end, just your car and maybe a ticket on the windshield. But it's done.

I'm going to set it aside now, for a few months or whenever, let it lie fallow. Or just take the traditional advice and go bury it in the backyard. Whatever: milestones are cool. Feels good to have at least one book under my belt, even if it's one I might not bother trying to publish.

The theme for this week, mostly likely: brainstorming and outlining/plotting for my next book., I have yet to decide what, exactly, it's going to be. The only criteria is that it NOT be crime-fighting kids or modern fantasy.

Today's totals: 670, 917, 605, 906, 1226, and 1345.

Bonus statistics: first story, written back in March last year. Time spent between the first story and now: 18 months.

Total time spent working on the book, counting the other stories, but taking out the months I took off during the one-year one-story-per-week challenge: 13 months. Not bad for something I only do at ass-crack o'clock in the morning and during odd points of time on the weekends.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wrapping Up

And here we go, the final 7 days of my 100 Day Write More Than 500 Words Every Damn Day Unless I've Got A Real Good Excuse Challenge:

534, 539, 687, 797, 845, 670, and 520.

Average amount of words per day: 727. Median: 694.

Good to see the average and the median matching up. My blog entries tend to skew the totals a bit, since I tend to, uh, ramble on quite a bit.

Next up? Same old thing. Archived the old spreadsheet and started up another 100 days. It seems to work for me. Even though I think of it as a challenge, it's more of an accountability thing. Kind of like that Seinfeld don't-break-the-chain thing you hear lifehacker types rattle on about every once in a while.

For some reason, adding that number next to today's date is more important than actually sitting down and getting the writing done. I feel real stress when I can't make a given day's entry. Weird how that works. It's not like I'm being graded or anything.

My daily totals are pretty long this time around. I'm not sure if it's the fact that I spent a week recharging, or if it's that I'm really close to the end of my book or if it's simply what I'm writing: action sequences tend to go fast and there's a lot of action where I am right now. Book-wise, that is. Not in my real life.

But they're trending pretty large for the moment. I suspect this will go back down when I start the next book. Outlining and brainstorming aren't tremendously formal, so there's nothing really limiting my writing speed, but it's pretty hard to wrack up large word counts on them while still remaining productive.

Looking back over the totals for the last hundred days, I can actually remember some of the sessions (I occasionally leave notes next to the numbers).

Weird how mood and your actual ability to write aren't related. I've had days where I've drug myself kicking and screaming into a writing session, started ten minutes later than usual. Maybe I'm sick, maybe I didn't get very good sleep. And...I crank out a cool thousand awesome words with no problem at all and find myself not wanting to stop. I start late, no idea what I'm going to put down other than the bare minimum of what's next on the outline and...magic happens.

Other days I'm full of energy and ready to go. Fire shooting out of my nostrils. The righteous fist of God clenched down tight upon my medulla oblongata. I'm having full-on prophetic visions of all the incredible things my characters are doing. Words are trickling out of my ears. I sit down...and barely squeeze out a mere 500 words of sheer crap. I can hear a palpable whiffing noise coming from the keyboard. It's awful. I come in the next day, laugh contemptuously, delete half of it and then rewrite the rest.

If I were ten percent more of a math nerd, I'd actually track the perceived quality of work versus word length versus level of procrastination/perceived enthusiasm. It would come out looking a bit like one of those biorhythm charts you used to see a lot of back in the 80's: colored sine waves which don't mean diddly squat. But I could probably pull out a lot of spurious correlated facts (like how the price of bananas in Madagascar are linked to the global stock market). Maybe correlate my daily writing ability with the number of times people on Twitter say the word "armadillo."

Anyway.

Progress is great. Back on track. The simple fact that I had a week off and now I'm drinking awesome coffee again is doing wonders for my energy levels. Onward and downward.