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.