Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Done in the actual time of Pangaea

I've been working on my current WIP, In the Land of Pangaea, since November (it was the subject of my unofficial NaNo effort, you may recall).  Yesterday I concluded the first draft for the first and longest section of the book, the part that takes place in the eponymous supercontinent.  I ended up being damn happy with how it developed, which made it easier and easier to write as time went on.

That leaves the second section, which is the shortest, and the third, which is the final (I'm a sucker for three-act structures, which is the basic shape nearly all of my manuscripts have taken, with so far the lone exception being Minor Contracts, which has a general medley of five narrative threads, one of which is a tapestry of different, illustrative voices).  I hope to be done, as I think I've said previously, by the end of February on the complete first draft.  I will certainly let you know how that works.  It's a fantastic feeling, though, knowing that I did exactly what I wanted to do, and am pleased with the results, which ended up turning into a murder mystery, something I've only tackled on occasion.  I blame it on all the John le Carre books I was reading at the time I started writing...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Yoshimi returns? (a blatant plea for artistic collaborators)

I'm currently looking for artistic collaborators on comic book projects.  I'm lousy at making these connections, so I'm making a blatant plea right here.  If you want to humor me, here's your chance.

It's funny, too, because with all my rotten luck breaking into comics, the last missed opportunity ended up providing me with a major plot element for my WIP, In the Land of Pangaea.  Based on a scenario originally envisioned by artist Don Bryan and further developed by me, I tried to keep the project alive (read an aborted effort here) until I totally repurposed it.  That's all well and good, but at the time I really wanted it to remain a comic book.

The couple of Bluewater biography scripts I've had published have only whet my appetite.  I want to do some original work now.  I want to do it badly.  I want to work in the sandboxes of other people, too.  Mainly, I want this creative outlet.

The (main) title of this post references Yoshimi, who's the featured protagonist of The Whole Bloody Affair, the source of another tortured march to publication.  I've been wondering if there was ever going to be another Yoshimi story.  The dramatic arc of her life completed itself before she hit sixteen years old, so I wondered what could possibly justify bringing her back.  And then it struck me.  She doesn't have to be the main character.

So that's how she appears in my initial notes for Boxer, one of the comic book projects I've cooked up and would love to develop with an artistic collaborator, maybe shop around to publishers (because most of them really love not having to do that themselves, the creative team for a project they didn't come up with).  Boxer is my high school drama.  The main character is the eponymous figure, and she's not herself a boxer.  That's her mom.  Her story is about establishing a legacy of her own, which is funny because that contrasts so well with Yoshimi's unexpected return.  There's another character who's the narrator, sort of like how Brian K. Vaughan has cleverly made a star out of the narrator in his Saga.  This narrator also happens to dramatically affect the shape of the whole story, because this is her interpretation, and she sometimes lets her imagination get away with her.  (Yes, somehow all three leads are female.)

If I make a big deal out of my hopes for Boxer out of a half dozen other potential comic book projects, it's because this is the one I'd probably most like to see move forward first.

If you know anyone who could help me with this, let me know.  If you only want to wish me well, thank you for that as well!  Either way, this will be one of my major goals for 2014, just so you know, that along with finding a publisher for Seven Thunders, and maybe one or more of my other manuscripts.  2013 was hopefully the last push for my self-publishing efforts.  We'll see!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

I'm blaming comic books for everything

I'm blaming comic books for everything.

I'm blaming them because they warped my imaginative and creative development.  Ever since my sister got her hands on a copy of Jim Starlin's Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel, the least likely of all possible developments in my youth, I've been chasing comic books ever since.

Death of Captain Marvel remains one of the most awe-inspiring comics I've ever read, completely unlike anything else that has been attempted in the thirty years since its original release.  (Keep in mind my experience with it goes back maybe twenty years, I'm not really sure.)  Frank Miller, Alan Moore, all the Big Dramatic Life-Changing story arcs of the '90s ("Doomsday," "Knightfall," "Emerald Twilight," the Clone Saga), they came from this one comic book.

Marvel's Captain Marvel was not the original.  The original Captain Marvel was for a time one of the most popular superheroes in the world, and then DC decided he resembled Superman far too much, and then he went away, and that caused a great many interesting things to develop.  The '80s were a particularly good breeding ground for the results.  If you've never heard of Miracleman, you're merely one of many people still waiting for that particular result to surface again.  And then there was Death of Captain Marvel.

Marvel's Captain Marvel, then, was not originally such an important part of the DC trademark dispute aftermath.  He wasn't much of anything.  He was so not much of anything that Marvel even allowed him to be almost totally reinvented to a virtual duplicate of the original Captain Marvel, which originally he wasn't (although the British Marvelman definitely was, and that was where Miracleman came from, the first of the postmodern superheroes).  When that didn't work, Marvel decided their Captain Marvel was expendable.  So Jim Starlin got to do whatever he wanted with him.

So he gave him cancer.  And Captain Marvel was allowed to die.  And Death of Captain Marvel was all about his journey toward death.  Thanos, that large-chinned figure you may recall from the end of the Avengers movie, is involved, but as with the best Thanos stories, there is not a lot of typical villainy involved.  There's philosophy, and even poetry, not literally, but lyrically, the way Starlin provided Captain Marvel with the coda he never deserved.  This is comic books at their finest.

And so that was something I chased, probably unconsciously, for years.  I was also going for the more obvious material, which was why Spider-Man was one of my original favorites, why I glommed onto Robin because he was the classic surrogate figure for a young fan, and why Green Lantern originally became a favorite just because he featured my favorite color.

I chased comic books for years, trying to duplicate the Death of Captain Marvel experience.  That's why I ended up being such a big fan of Grant Morrison, because he seems to write in that scope with every story he tells.  I look for those kinds of stories in comic books all the time.

And without realizing it, I started to write like that, too, and read like that completely outside of comic books.  I craved scope.  I craved it like it was the most important thing in all of storytelling.  Truth is, I still believe that.  I absolutely do.  I crave it now because I'm realizing more and more how important it is to me.  I think big, or try to, as a matter of course.  A story has to work on many different levels.  The characters have to be important, and the things happening to them have to be important, too, and there have to be many other characters important to that story.  It has to have scope.  It has to mean something.

In a book, I grow bored if it seems the author tried, very hard, to have scope but failed.  I grow bored if there's no scope to be found at all.  I don't want the simple.  Comic books are many things, but if you always assumed they were simple wish fulfillment fantasies for little boys in a world they otherwise couldn't comprehend, you're wrong.  They're the greatest synthesizers of modern mythology possible.  That's what Superman was from his debut to today.

That's why I prefer the movies that star Superman and Batman, by the way, because they realize this more than those that star the Avengers.  The Avengers have everything they need to understand their scope, but they always back away from it.  I hate that.

Embrace the scope.  Maybe swig it a little.

And so I'm always looking for the books, the movies, the TV shows, the music (hello, Beatles!), and yes, the comic books that try to accomplish this task.  And that's the way I try to write, too.  I think I've realized why I'm always so scared that my dream of becoming a comic book writer will actually come true, because I've spent so much time working on the scope in my prose that I never really developed it in my comic book scripting.  Every time I've tried to work on a comic book script, I've panicked.  I haven't listened to my own instincts.  And every time I write, all I want to do is listen to the story explain its scope to me.

It's something I recognize in the work of new comic book writers.  They panic just like I do.  They try to be too precise.  This is something I get to recognize the more sporadic my reading of comic books becomes.  I read them heavily in the 90s, but it took about half the first decade of the new millennium for me to have a chance to get back into them.  And then I obsessed over them.  I immersed myself in them.  And it was good but maybe I also started taking them for granted.  A few years back, I started pulling away, and this year has been the most sporadic of all my years reading comic books.  And I think this is a good thing.  It gives me greater perspective on them.  It gives me, I guess, a little of the scope on the whole thing that they've been giving me all along.

I blame comic books for everything in a good way...

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The power of imagery

I've just tracked down a poem that's lingered in my memory since I first encountered it a decade ago.

As a college student, I rediscovered poetry as a means of creative expression.  It was something I stumbled into in middle school but quickly left behind.  After a trip to Boston when I was attending Mercyhurst in Erie, PA, I decided I wanted to commemorate the experience in a series of poems, which I abandoned before completion.  But then at the University of Maine I seemed to fall into its poetry scene, by far the most vibrant aspect of the English department.

Much of my college experience took place in the shadow of 9/11.  Yet the scope of the event was illuminated for the first time when Chilean writer Marjorie Agosin visited a class dedicated to modern poetry.  This was the first time I heard of the significance of another 9/11, which resonates for all Chileans who experienced the Pinochet coup of 1973, which dramatically transformed the country and radicalized many of its citizens.  I was appalled when the consensus of the class was that her evoking the Chilean 9/11 was an insult to the American one.  If you can't trust poets to be sensitive, what else is there to believe in?

What stuck with me just as clearly over the years was a poem she'd written about Pinochet that, as with the best of poetry, was centered on the power of imagery.  Here she depicted the casual detachment Pinochet had to the suffering of his countrymen, contrasted with his immaculate white suit.  I tried saving most of the poems from that class, but things become lost over time, and when I wanted to read it again, the poem was nowhere to be seen.

So I began a quest to rediscover it.  This is harder to do with poetry than with just about any other creative medium, and that's a general indictment of society's current appreciation for the form.  But of course I finally succeeded.  For the record, it's called "The President" and can be found in her An Absence of Shadows collection.

Why talk about it at all, why rehash memories that stirred so much conflicting emotion?  Because for me, it speaks to the best quality of the written word, whether in poetry or prose.  In other words, the power of imagery.  Often as writers we're encouraged to "show, not tell," but the result of this advice is more often than not a lot of description that sets a scene, tiny details like the items that fill a room or what exactly someone is supposed to look like.  I find this tiresome.  In some cases, it works, it's actually important to the story.  Mostly, however, it's a chore.

What, then, about the power of imagery, and how poems do it so well, and why "The President" needs to be discussed first in order to make this point?  In film, which is a visual medium, the words of a book are often condensed and altered in order to produce the most striking version of the story possible.  When a play is adapted into a film, the critical reaction usually hinges on how "stagey" it remains, whether the actors look static, trapped in a limited space, or if the production has taken advantage of its new setting.

I know common wisdom is that literature is a culturally superior artform to film, but I'm suggesting that literature can use to learn a lot more from film.  The best films are poetry in motion.  See what I'm getting at?

The best prose, which is to say the best written words of any form (you probably don't think of Beowulf as poetry, but it is, much like Shakespeare), is filled with visual imagery, the capturing of a specific moment, a single scene.  It is a meditation on all the elements that have converged to make the moment happen.  You get a clear image in your mind of what has happened, why it's important, and it has nothing to do with whether you could produce an exact replica of it in a drawing.  It feels more like a memory than an artificial experience.

For me, that's the only kind of writing that truly qualifies as great literature.  The best poems know it.  I don't know that we think of the best literature as having it, too, but it does.  The problem is, young writers are never told this.  They're told to "show, not tell" endlessly, as if that really says anything at all.  It's one of the most common and least beneficial suggestions for creative development.

When an image like Pinochet dressed in white and casually strolling through the chaos that resulted from his actions sticks so clearly in my mind, when I find it impossible to forget it, the cool and precise nature of the poem is only half of the reason why.  It's because Agosin knows better than most writers what she's trying to accomplish.  I'm saying, more writers should try to keep that in mind.  It's not all about having an easy read.  If you want to be a writer at all, I hope you understand that the point isn't to have something readers will consume in one day and forget the next.  It's not about your name being remembered forever.  It's about the imagery.  It's about the material itself becoming unforgettable.  And, if you're lucky, your name will survive as well.  Because you write in order to preserve your perspective on the world.  You're creating a cultural record.  Because of Agosin, I know of the Chilean 9/11, and I'll never forget it because of the man in the white suit, the callous general and president detached from the horrors he's created.

If that's not your goal, why are you even trying?  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

IWSG December 2013

It's time once again for the monthly meeting of the IWSG, in which we discuss ways to pet goats safely, or something like that.

This month my topic is inspiration.  For me, inspiration can and does come from anything.  It's the reason I like what I like, because it inspires me, and why I aggressively (sometimes moreso than other times) pursue new books, movies, TV shows, music, or greatly cherish things I've already discovered, because it all circles back to the foundation for what I do myself.  Quite frankly, I don't see the point of doing something, especially if you're a creative person, if it doesn't help you create.

There's a funny thing I do, however.  Sometimes I avoid things I know I'll find inspiring.  Sometimes I'll avoid them forever because I'll have already gotten what I needed just based on the ideas that come to me because of the general awareness, because the mechanics aren't after all so important.  I know all I need to know, and perhaps knowing more will only spoil it.  And then sometimes I know I'll circle back to that thing eventually, because I fear knowing their content too soon will influence me at the wrong time.  Here I'm thinking, at the moment, very specifically about two comic book series.  The first is Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

It was not a conscious decision at the time.  It was a conscious decision to leave off reading the rest of Jeff Smith's Bone, and that I got back to a few years ago, a journey I completed.  Sometimes it's better to see the whole shape of the thing laid out than watch it develop.  I guess it was the same way with Heroes, which I didn't start watching until its third season.  Maybe that's why I became a far bigger fan than everyone who fled the series at around the same time.  With Sandman, I was maybe too young by a few years to truly appreciating what Gaiman was doing, and by the time it ended I was so far behind I felt overwhelmed, didn't even try to catch up for years.  But I knew something special had been accomplished, something far more complicated than anything I'd enjoyed to that point.  And as I picked away at the edges of that accomplishment, I started to see how much it began to help me along my own creative development, to play by my own rules rather than those established by and apparently for others.

The other comic book was James Robinson's Starman.  This was a more traditional, superhero series.  At the time I was obsessed with Mark Waid's Flash.  In a lot of ways, the two series were pretty similar, steeped heavily in tradition and lineage.  Starman was darker than Flash, however.  It was not very mainstream, either.  Like Sandman, I quickly realized that falling behind in this story was only going to work against me if I tried to just jump into it.  I needed to see the whole shape.  Okay, in Starman's case the shape was not really that important.  But I had to give it time.  Although I still think of my future in comic books looking more like Flash, my prose resembles Starman a lot more.  For something like Starman, waiting for it gives it more resonance, and that resonance becomes a part of the reading experience, like borrowing how the writer originally approached it.

I'm still well off reading the complete runs of either Sandman or Starman, and perhaps it's better that way.  Now I still have something to look forward to.  A lot of times, especially for comic book fans, instant gratification is the rule of the day.  But writers know that patience is a virtue, both in writing and in reading.  Writers should be the most patient readers.  I try to be, anyway.

And besides, it means they're even more there than they would have been, as I continue to draw inspiration from them.  The journey continues.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A NaNo triumph story

Yesterday I crossed the 50,000 mark in the words I've written for my WIP, In the Land of Pangaea.  This is significant because I wrote all the words in November, which is what you need in order to complete the NaNoWriMo challenge.

Since I didn't participate officially, I don't get a nifty winner's button to put here, but I'm still incredibly pleased to be able to report my success.  In all, I spent twelve of the preceding twenty-six days writing, sometimes as "few" as 3,000 words in a day and sometimes as many as 5,000.  My original schedule had me writing for more of those days, and finishing today, in time to devote Thanksgiving and Black Friday to family and the last day of the month to my regular weekends off, but I was informed that today wouldn't be a regular kind of day either, so I had to quickly compensate, which was why there were two 5,000 days and a couple of 4,500s, too.

Although certainly a great push in the overall effort, my plans call for more than a hundred thousand more words, which puts Pangaea at the longest manuscript I've written to date, a different kind of achievement entirely.  I figure if I stay at a fairly good clip I'll be done by February or March, and I will certainly let you know how that goes, but I wont beat myself up.  I said I wouldn't if I didn't hit the NaNo goal, and maybe I wouldn't have, but I don't have to worry about that anymore.

Back in the old days, when I only had the one blog (Scouring Monk), I wrote victory posts after each successful NaNo, explaining how that year's story came to be.  I won't be doing that here, but I figured I'd at least acknowledge the tradition.

I'll be taking a short break from the WIP, probably won't be writing again until Tuesday.  But I'm not worried at all about it.  I've got NaNo behind me.  I've made a good start.  Now I just have to finish it.

Monday, November 25, 2013

More Who than You

This weekend I attended a performance of Seussical.  That's all well and good, because this past summer I completed a script for a Dr. Seuss biography comic.  It was only right that I finally saw the musical version of his legacy.  The real reason I saw it was because my brother, robotic(s) professor at Yarmouth High School Paul Lamson-LaPume, was in the pit playing his trombone.  He's the only one in the family who continued playing his childhood instrument, even though we received absolutely no local notoriety as the Second Genuine, Elastic Family Band.

Anyway, it's a pretty good play, splicing together the most famous elements from Seuss's collected works, centering on Horton the Elephant from his two separate adventures (Horton Hatches the Egg, which is his first appearance, and Horton Hears a Who, the more famous follow-up), with narration from the Cat in the Hat.

What it really got me thinking was how much of Seuss, at least as defined by Seussical, is dedicated to the power of the imagination and independent thought, two attributes I greatly treasure, both in general and as a writer (especially as a writer).

Later, because the whole afternoon and evening was spent with the rest of Paul's family, I got to read Seuss himself to my nephew, including Horton Hears a Who and The Lorax.  The Lorax is a surprisingly forthright social commentary, all about environmentalism (although unlike his successors Seuss stressed the word "UNLESS," which my nephew asked me about, and I waited until we'd finished the story to explain).  For Seuss there was always hope.  Even the dastardly Grinch is as famous for his redemption as his grinchy ways (much like his famous predecessor, Scrooge).

Seuss is known for a lot of things, including his peculiar use of nonsensical words and creations such as Horton, the Lorax, and the Grinch.  But perhaps now I'm beginning to see him as much as a champion for the thing he embodied best, a imaginative outlook on the world around him.  That's the part I most want to embody myself as I work on my own stories.

Monday, November 18, 2013

WIP/NaNo Update

Here we are on the 18th of the month, which happens to be NaNoWriMo, and I've got a WIP, In the Land of Pangaea.  According to a pace I've previously determined, I should be at 28,000 words, roughly, as of yesterday.  But I'm at 20,000.

Previous versions of me would have been in a panic.  Previous versions would be running around as a giant bundle of nerves, the way turkeys would be at this time of year if they realized how delicious they are at least once a year.  But then, because of previous versions of me, I'm behind but am already on my way to catching up.

When I did NaNo in 2004-06, I set a daily goal of 1,667 words per day in order to complete the challenge in November's 30 days (via cold calculation).  Anytime I didn't write on a given day, I knew I had to double that count the next day to catch up.  By the third year I was able to complete the challenge in far fewer than 30 writing sessions.  In the years that followed, I varied the length of my daily writing goals quite a bit, going so far as 10,000 per day in 2011, and then scaling back to 5,000 last year.  This year I intended to do about 3,000, but since I started falling behind I upped it to 4,000 and then to 4,500.  If I keep at this kind of pace on the weekdays I have available to write, I will hit the NaNo goal of 50,000 words in the month before Thanksgiving (and just who is this sadist Chris Baty to have organized the challenge in a month with a major family holiday in the first place???).

I've stated before that I'm not really concerned.  I haven't officially participated in NaNo since 2006.  I have no one watching over my shoulder except myself, and I guess you blogging readers, if you choose to be all judgmental and nasty about it.  But you guys are pretty okay.  You wouldn't do that.

As always, it's not the words but the sentences that increasingly interest me.  I love when a story that I think I know starts to take over.  While I plotted Pangaea fairly intricately two weeks ago, I like it when I discover new little bits of inspiration.  Pangaea has turned out to be an excellent way for me to meditate on other manuscripts I've written, a commentary and summation on those stories that will hopefully make all of them the easier to process, although each of them are completely independent, including Pangaea.

The only tough part remains that I know even after November ends I will still have plenty to write.  Which is also great fun to consider!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Why Neil?

So, why Neil Gaiman?

The short of it was that it was offered me and I was quick to embrace the opportunity.  The long of it, of course I'm a fan.  I didn't mention him in the Ode-athon, but Neil has been a huge inspiration to me.  His depiction of the trickster god Anansi has informed material in Minor Contracts, a manuscript I wrote three years ago, and is a considerable part of In the Land of Pangaea, my WIP.  Anansi was featured in Neil's American Gods and of course the subsequent Anansi Boys, and perhaps it's a sign of my affection for the character that I was never able to understand why people didn't like that one as much as I did.

Plenty of people love Neil's work.  I spent a good portion of this year reading his Sandman, and as I have yet to read the complete series (to say nothing of the new follow-up, Sandman Overture), I anticipate doing more of that in the future.  It's arguably the most literary comic book ever attempted, and the style hugely informed how I approached Modern Ark, a manuscript I wrote four years ago (what's easy to do in a comic book is not so easy to do in a book if you're looking for an actual audience; maybe I just need to identify my Morpheus more clearly?).  Since I didn't read Sandman as it was originally released issue by issue, even though I was actively reading comics during the second half of the series, it's been interesting to play catch-up.

Neil can sometimes be a little intimidating.  And yet I don't think he's hit his full cultural reach yet because I also think he can be underrated by people looking for a little more of the mainstream in his work (a problem that also plagues Grant Morrison).  Sometimes even as we champion artists who can make anything mainstream we limit our ability to find them by asking that they have a certain level of conformity to what already exists.  They see that Neil came from comic books and that's excuse enough to not take him as seriously as they should.

I haven't read enough of his work, Sandman or otherwise, even though I was still in high school when Neil started taking the art of writing books seriously.  That would have been a good time to start, but then I was still fighting my appreciation of Stephen King then, too.  I think Neil has a good amount of King in him, but they approach the same kind of material differently.  For Neil it's about seeing the grand scale on an intimate level, whereas King takes the intimate at a grand scale (which is why he can do horror and things like Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption with equal aplomb).  But they're essentially the same.  They see the hidden mythologies around us and attempt to interpret them.  Clowns are scary, mm-hmm.

On the one hand having this comic biography under my belt means I'm an inch closer to working in comic books the way I always dreamed.  That's the selfish part.  On the other, I'm also an inch closer to Neil creatively.

But only an inch.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fame: Neil Gaiman released!

I seem to be completely out the loop when my Bluewater biography comics are released, but that also means I get to be pleasantly surprised when they are.

That being said, the title and image should explain this one well enough, and I couldn't be more pleased to have been involved in this project.

This is the publisher's official write-up of the comic.

I'm also pleased to report that there's already been comments around the Internet about it, which you can find at The Outhouse and Pop Mythology.

Here's the helpful comiXology listing if you'd like to purchase it digitally, and here's the Comics Flea Market print listing.

That leaves the most recent one, the rhyming Dr. Seuss project that obsessed me for a year.  That one will be truly interesting indeed!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ode-athon recap!

First off, a huge thanks to all the participants!

I wrote about Peter Ackroyd, Douglas Adams, Dave Barry, Roberto Bolano, Jerome Charyn, Fyodor Dostoyevski, Stephen King, David Maine, Herman Melville, Grant Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and Bill Watterson.  And because even that wasn't enough, I also included William Least Heat-Moon, Robert Pirsig, and Quentin Tarantino.

Readers of my other blog had a slightly different version of this recap, where I mentioned reading John le Carre in recent weeks, and if that had been earlier I may well have included him as well!  The thing is, this whole thing was as much about the writers I enjoy reading as the ones who have inspired my creative process, and what le Carre did was exactly that, in a fairly major way, introducing a major new wrinkle to my favorite Space Corps story after Seven Thunders, new character motivation that also helped inform a new part of the story I've been batting around for months.  It was already a story that heavily featured espionage, le Carre's specialty, but after reading three of the author's books I realized what was missing, and hopefully the resulting product will be the better for it.

It's too late to participate officially, but you can still leave your favorite writers in the comments!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

IWSG November 2013

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I was going to write this month's edition about the woes of finding readership for indy literary fiction in the States, but instead chose something more immediate, which would be that most regular of writing challenges, NaNoWriMo.

I participated in NaNo in 2004-2006, successfully completing it each year (and subsequently ended up with my first novel, The Cloak of Shrouded Men).  Since that time I've written novel-length manuscripts around this period, one a year, from 2009 to the present.  I say "to the present" because I have a new WIP, In the Land of Pangaea, and owing to how my year has developed, I waited until this month to begin writing it.

And I had a good mind to bang out at least the required 50,000 words for November.

I've done that several times with the previous manuscripts.  I know, I know, I know I can do it.  And that I can complete whole 100,000+ word stories.

And yet I'm still apprehensive about the whole deal.

My week is kind of screwy.  I've determined that the best days to write are actually the days I work, because I want to leave weekends to other purposes.  The ability to modify the number of words I write in a given day is not a problem.  Thanks to NaNo I learned long ago what I was capable of, and have played around with that to such a degree that it's just not a concern.

And yet, technically I am already behind, and that still leaves me in a kind of panic.

For instance, I've just used the last two days to further develop the outline rather than write the actual story.  This is a good thing (and keeping with the spirit of NaNo, which dictates you leave the whole process inside the month), and harks back to the extensive outlines I did for my Space Corps stories for years (although not, surprisingly the one Space Corps manuscript I've actually written, last year's WIP Seven Thunders).  At the time I was doing those, I wasn't necessarily thinking of them as novels, but I've since realized that I did myself a huge favor in that regard.  And this is the first time I've knowingly done the same for another manuscript.

That much is good.  That much is great!  In fact, I borrowed plenty from the Space Corps outline experience, including my favorite way to tell a story.  I've done the aha! character moments in other manuscripts, but this will be the first time I see it coming.  This will be the first time I haven't left myself with a lot of potential surprises.  I see this as a good thing, because there was plenty of that in the outlining process itself, and all the time I spent developing the literary landscape of Pangaea.

But still.  But still!

I no longer feel the need to prove to myself in any way that I can accomplish the NaNo goal, but it's still there, sentimentally.  If I don't do it this year, I'll feel bad.  Sure, I might get over it, but it just feels right to keep the tradition alive.

So that's what's making me feel insecure this month.

...stupid, stupid NaNo...

Saturday, November 2, 2013


Today begins the Ode-athon!

For the purposes of this occasion, we’re considering our favorite writers, the ones who inspire us, whether merely as readers or even as writers ourselves.  They’re the ones we couldn’t live without, and have treasured for years (unless we just discovered them this year!), reading them religiously, waiting breathlessly for their next release (unless they’re dead), recommending them without reserve to all your friends.

Here’s my list, because I hate to narrow my options:

Peter Ackroyd
I fell in love with instantly when I randomly discovered his then-recent release The Plato Papers at my university bookstore at the start of the millennium.  I’ve since come to appreciate his deep sense of history and his continuing patronage of the arts in various fiction and nonfiction works (although there’s so much of it I shudder at the task of reading all of it!).  Personal favorite: still The Plato Papers, a parable about the vagaries of reputation and the certainties of civilization (where I got the “mouldwarp” from Scouring Monk’s URL).

Douglas Adams
Hardly needs an introduction, but he’s one of the seminal writers I borrowed from grade school classmates and subsequently made my own (Jerry Spinelli is another).  Known best for the Hitchhiker’s, er, “trilogy,” Adams also created holistic detective Dirk Gently, and wrote a number of nonfiction works I still hope to catch upon some day.  Personal favorite: The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, the second Dirk Gently book, which cleverly updates Norse mythology, and seems to have the most depth of any Adams book.

Dave Barry
Fell in love with him thanks to a syndicated humor column he wrote for years, but my appreciation only deepened when he delved into fiction, sometimes on his own but also with Ridley Pearson in the Peter Pan prequel books featuring the Starcatchers.  Of all the writers in my selections, I’ve easily read the most from Dave.  When I use the phrase “would make a great name for a rock band,” that’s a deliberate callback to one of his trademarks.  Personal favorite: Insane City, which the best (and most recent) of his solo works of fiction, although following the same basic pattern of chaotic events following a given set of individuals.

Roberto Bolano
The best pure literary voice I’ve yet discovered, and continually readable as I delve deeper into his catalog, an ongoing process.  Personal favorite: 2666, his most ambitious and accomplished book.

Jerome Charyn
Like an American Peter Ackroyd, Charyn wears his love of culture and history on his sleeve, although he’s decidedly more mischievous about it.  He also has plenty of books I’m still in the early stages of appreciating, but I have yet to be disappointed no matter his risks.  Personal favorite: The Green Lantern (not to be confused with the comic book character), Charyn’s take on Russian literature.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Speaking of Russian literature, as far as I’m concerned this is the master.  Personal favorite: The Brothers Karamazov, an amazing tour-de-force that to my mind eclipses the more acclaimed Crime and Punishment.

Stephen King
Growing up deep in the heart of King territory made it all but mandatory to read him, but I took my time getting around to it, so it was all the more gratifying to discover how much I truly admired him.  However, for everything I’ve read from King so far, I haven’t really touched his horror, which of course is what he’s best known for.  Personal favorite: The Stand, his epic take on post-apocalyptic fiction.

David Maine
Like Ackroyd and Charyn, Maine takes his inspiration from the stories he loves the most, and most of the time they happen to come from the Bible, but he’s also written about classic movie monsters.  Personal favorite: Fallen, based on the biblical story of creation, and the four humans unlucky enough to be there, each of them nursing their own private pain.  This one may be written most eloquently, tracing backward rather than forward and being all the richer for it.

Herman Melville
Everyone knows Moby Dick, and I actually enjoyed it, but I discovered to my delight that there’s plenty of truly excellent material that he wrote after it.  Personal favorite: The Confidence Man, a clever social satire that seems to have been completely forgotten.

Grant Morrison
To my mind the best of the comic book writers, endlessly inventive and immersive in his Byzantine explorations of superhero archetypes both with icons and more obscure figures, while also taking the time to come up with his own myths.  Personal favorite: Joe the Barbarian, which as I think about it more and more is the 21st century equivalent of Alice in Wonderland, and deserves to become a classic of any literary medium in its own right.

Thomas Pynchon
Seems to write almost exclusively in giant literary epics, and that’s perfectly okay with me, since he’s certainly expansive and wildly creative enough to repeatedly accomplish it.  Personal favorite: Mason & Dixon, which will have you reconsidering the earliest days of United States.

J.K. Rowling
Perfectly well-known and hardly needing me to sell more books, but there you are.  I devoured seven Harry Potter adventures, and was pleased to see that her magic exists outside of them.  Personal favorite: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which exploded that whole series into an intensely personal affair.

Salman Rushdie
Bold doesn’t begin to describe the writer who had a fatwa issued against him, but his talent is phenomenal and style as creative as you’re ever likely to find without the need of gimmicks.  Personal favorite: The Satanic Verses (source of said fatwa).  Brave the risk and treasure it for yourself.

Bill Watterson
I couldn’t possibly omit the cartoonist who defined my childhood, whose retirement in 1994 hardly affected his ongoing legacy.  Personal favorite: Calvin & Hobbes (yes, by default but by no means in a limiting way), the great chronicle of the ultimate 20th century nonconformist and his best friend.

Special bonuses!

Not specifically fiction or book writers, the focus on my other entries, but I still wanted to mention them:

William Least Heat-Moon
Best understands the United States because he’s traveled it a number of different ways and always written brilliantly about it.  Personal favorite: PrairyErth,  a “deep map” that saw him explore an entire rural county on foot.

Robert Pirsig
As far as I’m concerned, the definitive 20th century philosopher from the States.  Personal favorite: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Quentin Tarantino
The best screenwriter, knows film better than anyone, is still evolving.  Personal favorite: Kill Bill Volume 2 if we’re talking strictly screenplay.  It’s his most assured, least showy storytelling.

The Ode-athon continues!

11/4 David Walston at Blah Blah Blah Yackity Smackity
11/5 Pat Dilloway at PT Dilloway
11/7 Nigel and Maurice Mitchell at The Geek Twins
11/8 The Armchair Squid at The Armchair Squid
11/9 and back to me at Scouring Monk and Tony Laplume

Want to join the fun?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Zen and the Art of the Catch-22

When I was in college I read a really good essay about writing that included the phrase, "When I read as I ought."  I still remember it for a number of reasons, one of them being the delightful professor, Carla Billiteri, and the other for its distinctive phrasing.

I'll modify it just slightly for today's purpose:

When I write as I ought...

I started by referencing school, and the truth is, as I've been thinking about what I wanted to write today, I didn't have much else positive to say about school.  In fact, there's another phrase that I was mulling: factory of mediocre thought.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I've had a bunch of memorable teachers, but even the best of them always seemed constrained by the invisible chains of mediocrity.  Or rather, to tie in the title I've chosen for these thoughts, Joseph Heller's famous Catch-22, taken from the name of the book where it was first coined.

Catch-22 is the idea is that you lose even when you win.  You just can't escape it.

And how do you end up with a Catch-22 in school?  By always insisting that your students write what you want or expect.  The closest I ever came to breaking from this, the closest I ever came to growing as a writer in school, was from a class taught by Kathleen Ellis.  This was around 9/11.  We were all warrior poets in those days, though.  But at least she had the good sense to have us read the other book eluded to in the title, Robert Pirsig's brilliant Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  The depressing thought was that I was the only student in the class who seemed to get anything from it.

But I guess that's another Catch-22.  You can't force people to read something and expect everyone to love it.

But you can foster better readers, and perhaps better writers, by encouraging them to express their thoughts, no matter what they are.  In fact, have the whole class taught as much by the students as the professor.  Some of my teachers sometimes seemed to get that.  But not enough of them, and never well enough.  And schools in general are all geared toward something far more mundane.  In general, they're factories.

And to say nothing of research papers.  Why are research papers considered so important?  The synthesis of thought should be encouraged from within.  If you want to be a reporter, there might be a different story.  But encourage independent, critical thought above all else.  And don't make it feel like a chore.

The most brilliant orator I ever had in school, by the way, was Welch Everman, who had his students read the most interesting books.  But he was also a little impenetrable.  Because his verbal thoughts were so completely out of the ordinary.  Not to mention the enthusiasm of Randy Howarth.  I had his class too early in the morning.  One of two times I had the privilege of watching Monty Python in school, by the way.  That you always have to appreciate.

What am I really driving at?  When I was reading Roberto Bolano's literary thoughts in Between Parentheses, I was struck all over again with the thought that some nations can have a good sense of their literary scenes.  Smaller ones, like Bolano's native Chile, especially.  That's not the case here in the States.  Not the case at all.  And I think we all suffer because of it.

After suffering through the factories of mundane thought, we're all shuffled into the hodgepodge of luck and ambition known as the adult world.  We're told to make a success of ourselves, and yet we're perhaps more keenly aware than any other country in the world about how fierce the competition is.  Worse than the Chinese.  Worse than Indians.  And those guys worry about occupying the same space at the same time.

It's nuts.  We have no perspective.  Certainly none whatsoever on our literature.  We churn official publications by the hundreds every week.  And the unofficial ones, why they're proliferating faster than rabbits.  And that's not even to cover all of the people who are absolutely convinced that they were meant to be writers.

And what to say of the readers?  I think they're an anemic bunch.

Most of them aren't even good readers.  Bolano spent a lifetime laboring over a comprehensive, categorical appreciation of literature, not only from his own country or region but all over the world.  Most Americans in the States couldn't be bothered looking outside a particular genre, and that's not just readers, but writers as well.

And I find that continually troubling.

And therein lies the crux of this Catch-22.  The products of the factories of mediocre thought are convinced, absolutely convinced that they're entitled to whatever they can dream.  I mean, you've heard the dogma of the American Dream.  That's what it's all about.  And not just in their creative ventures are they're convinced they're unassailable.  Everyone is convinced they're the most clever voice in the world, no matter what they write, and they can usually find more than one eager soul to agree with them.

And most of them are wrong.  Think of it as one of those classrooms.  The whole reason why there are grades at all is because we're a culture obsessed with hierarchies, even though we claim loud and clear that they absolutely don't exist.  The worst and most obvious hierarchies are the ones that claim they don't exist.

But there are grades to prove to someone that at least a select few are better than the rest of them.  And that's what we all believe because the dirty little secret is that it's true.  The problem, the Catch-22, is that the person doing the grading normally skewers on a curve so warped it's an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail.  Because everyone's happier the more simple and stupid something seems.  Even though everyone claims they're always looking for the best.  Catch-22.

When I write as I ought, I am always questioning myself.  I never trust myself.  I don't even trust myself this very moment, as I'm writing this sentence.

When I read as I ought, I'm doing the same thing.  That's the whole idea.

But the Catch-22 is, we're constantly told not to do this, even as everyone claims that they're saying exactly the opposite.

The sorry truth of the world is that it's full of people who are absolutely convinced that everyone will always believe what they're saying, even the people saying whatever it is they're saying, when the reality is that you should rarely believe what you hear, even when you trust the source.  You should not listen to anything you're reading from me right now.  In fact, I know you're not.  It makes everything so much simpler that way.

When I write as I ought, I'm saying things I know people will ignore.

And you can never control the message anyway.  It's not a matter of not trying, but of being aware that you're constantly opening the door to the opposing view, whether you're aware of it or not.

If I could have written like this, if I had been encouraged, in school, I sometimes wonder where I would be today.  I don't know if the education was much different for me, in Lisbon and Erie and Orono, than what they teach in, say, the ivy leagues (where the schools sport fancy ivy, and that's the ridiculous truth of it), if they let students read and write the best things as soon as humanly possible.  I don't begrudge my education, because I like to think I'm doing those things now, perhaps to make up for or at least continue the work of the factories of mediocre thought I knew when I was younger.

Anyway, that's the Catch-22 of it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sending queries

I just sent off a new query for Modern Ark.

This is significant for a number of reasons.  A few years back I went through a long period of sending queries for this manuscript, and didn't get anywhere with it.  I was as frustrated as you can get in this process.

It was the first manuscript I'd done this with, the first book-length story I'd completed after the three NaNos that produced The Cloak of Shrouded Men, a superhero story I had less faith in finding a home for than something that featured vampires.

I completed the first draft of Modern Ark in 2009 (which seems like a lifetime of several lifetimes ago now).  Since that time I'd gotten to think of it as the first of the yearly manuscripts I've managed to complete to date, but it's also a particular baby of mine, no matter how difficult it's been.

It was supposed to be a simple story, and yet it became what remains my most elaborate and complicated one.

And that has made it difficult for me to sometimes think of in the simple ways that are necessary to make it seem attractive to publishers.  If they can't understand it, they will find it all the more difficult for readers to comprehend.  Who wants to look at a book in the store that they don't get on a basic perusal?  Me, I like to choose the books that come with praise I can respect, the careful cultivation of trusted writers.  But that's just not the way most people choose their books.

The first readers are always the ones you have to solicit.  Not the ones who are potentially glomming onto a phenomenon, however big or small.  You need to capture attention with the work itself for those initial readers.  And only so many of them are doing it for the sheer love of reading, of discovery.  Only so many readers approach a book like the most discerning critic.  Here I imagine Anton Ego (so brilliantly voiced by the ever-evolving Peter O'Toole) in Ratatouille.  These people are hard to impress.  These are the readers I imagine as my best audience.

But I can't even begin to imagine facing them if I can't get the thing published.  And so I face rejection with fortification.  I try to understand my own story.  And that's something I've tried to do with Modern Ark for years.

It's perfectly possible to overthink even a complicated plot.  The thing any writer always needs is the ability to see even their own work with clarity.  Especially their own work.

I'm not talking about interpretation.  Interpretation's another bag entirely. 

Clarity is the first mark of inspiration.  It's why you want to write a story in the first place.  Except that story can sometimes evolve into something else as you're writing it.  That happened every other chapter in Modern Ark.  And so I needed to rediscover the clarity of the work, not in broad idealistic strokes but for what it was, what had never changed despite everything that ended up in it.

And so that's how I ended up writing this latest query.  Even if this one also ends up going nowhere, I'm starting to see real progress in this process.

And I'm starting to feel good about Modern Ark again.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Ode-athon is coming

Coming November 2 is my first ever blogfest, the Ode-athon, a celebration of favorite writers.  The target date is a Saturday and the day after NaNoWriMo begins.  For this reason I'm affording participants plenty of wiggle room (and there's always the chance you'll write your post ahead of time anyway), plus the option to wait a few days later.  The Ode-athon officially closes on 11/9, one week later, with a full recap post.

The idea is to write about your favorite writers, one or as many as you want, the authors you've treasured and read the most, who have impacted your reading experience, and you wouldn't bat an eyelash to recommend.

Here's the sign-up:

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Musings of a savage detective

I'm currently reading Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, which is a fictional account of the late author's own literary life experiences.  Bolano died a decade ago this year, but it wasn't until about four years back, with the publication of his masterpiece 2666, that I took notice of him, and the Chilean writer subsequently became my all-time favorite novelist (supplanting Herman Melville, no less).

Bolano spent most of his time as a novelist musing on his own experiences, much as aspiring writers are always told to "write what they know."  He considered himself first and foremost a poet, and it was in this mischievous form that he existed for the events depicted in Savage Detectives, the tenuous heart of a whole movement that never really happened although still accomplished its goal of being honest about itself, which was the whole point.

It's gotten me thinking about a number of things, both about my own experiences in literary communities and how I tend to write my own stories, if I indeed "write what I know."

As far as communities go, I've never quite been a Bolano, but to a certain extent maybe I have, if not quite a charismatic center then certainly the enigmatic figure who drifts in and out of writing circles.  In college I was part of the poetry scene that coalesced around a couple of acquaintances who stumbled into some of the same classes together, which eventually led to the short-lived Hemlock literary journal.  Since I wasn't part of the inner circle of that group, more like the narrator of the opening section of Savage Detectives, I would never be able to give a truly definitive account of those days, but it's still nice to look back on.

The Hemlock experience was something I enjoyed quite a bit, which led to the abortive Dead Letter Quarterly several years later, the product of acquaintances from a comic book site I wrote at for awhile, which led to the more successful Project Mayhem anthology I put together for my budding Mouldwarp Press imprint (if you're interested, you can still consider contributing to a follow-up).

In recent days the idea of a writing community has shifted to blogging buddies such as yourself and even former coworkers.

Part of what's made this such a roundabout experience for me is that I spent all my budding years as a writer not actually writing.  In middle and high school, I developed my tools for world-building rather than writing, I guess believing that knowing a story is the first stage to writing it.  By the time I started writing stories in earnest it took my some time to integrate the world-building, but at least gave me time to work on my storytelling.  I knew I was a writer before I did any serious writing, which is perhaps why I exist much as Bolano did, as a literary romantic, and don't necessarily view it the same way that others of my ilk tend to, as something they do rather than something they are.  I tend to shout at the opposition like Bolano, and this can sometimes make it hard to find kindred souls (people don't generally liked to be shouted at for some reason), whether or not they exist at all.

As far as writing trends go, I'm different from Bolano in that I don't tend toward extrapolations of my own experiences in the same literal sense so much as drawing from elements.  For Modern Ark I imposed my relationship with my sister on a vampire story.  In the current Pangaea plans, I've been modifying characters to be a bit more like Bolano, although the framework remains very much my own.  All my stories are reflections from my perspective and aims for literature.  Where Bolano tended to look at the world from an intimate vantage point, I lean toward expansive, which opens for more fantastical opportunities, although he's a writer who shares my need to represent myself in a more obvious way (once you know it's there) than I find in others, although certainly in some like Melville it's clearly there and adds layers of depth to the storytelling and for me defines what being a true writer is all about.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Kennedy Curse in my hands!

Today I received in the mail my complimentary contributor's copy of The Kennedy Curse, which features my short story, "The Cuban Exile Crisis."

Needless to say, excited!

The most exciting thing for me, as I've said a few times before, is that this marks the first time someone other than myself has published a story from my Space Corps saga.  Space Corps is my sci-fi magnum opus, spanning an entire series of books, starting with a manuscript I completed earlier this year, Seven Thunders, which I will be shopping around starting as soon as I can muster the courage to do so.

The thing about "Cuban Exile Crisis" in particular is that it continues a curious impulse of mine recently to begin fleshing out a part of the saga that I'd previously left more or less alone, being the first human-Danab conflict.  On my Space Corps page over at my writing blog, there are two others already, "Use Both Hands" and "Seventy-One and Counting" (it's also worth noting that both "Who Killed Iron Joe?" and "George Jackman and the Monastery at Burnside" both provide prelude material to Seven Thunders, the latter of which helping to inform elements of the story that I hadn't considered before).  Heroes and incidents from the First Danab War keep popping up in these tales.

I figured in an anthology dedicated to the legacy of the Kennedys there was bound to be room for a future descendant who could find room to contribute.

You can purchase The Kennedy Curse here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Insecure Writer's Support Group October 2013

I've spent a long enough time not participating in this thing, so I figured I'd finally join.  And such good timing!  The IWSG now has its very own site.  It's the brainchild of ninja captain Alex Cavanaugh and meets on the first Wednesday of every month.  As for the purpose?  It's the porpoise, of course.  (He's in the water across from the lighthouse.  He took the picture.)

For my inaugural post, I'm going to talk about clarity.  Recently I've been exchanging thoughts on the film Immortals with A. Lee Martinez on Facebook.  Why I'm talking with Martinez, the author of such books as Divine Misfortune, is because of Pat Dilloway, who has latched onto the author.  Martinez recently saw Immortals presumably for the first time, and thought it was a hot mess.  The film, from visionary director Tarsem (best work: The Fall), was originally released in 2011, and is a more recent version of the sword-and-sandal epic resurrected by Ridley Scott's Gladiator in 2000 and also exemplified by Zack Snyder's 300 from 2007.

Now, even though Gladiator won a Best Picture from the Oscars, most people these days still think of 300 as the definitive modern example of this genre of movies, even though Gerard Butler, the star of the film, is equally considered by most people to be merely a more histrionic version of Russell Crowe, who starred in the Scott picture.  Immortals was Henry Cavill's first big role, but chances are people were thinking then and will still now and for the foreseeable future consider this past summer's Man of Steel (where he played, y'know, Superman) for that distinction.

Immortals is one of many, many films that were released in the wake of 300 to adopt a similar aesthetic presentation.  In fact, most people seem to have assumed the whole reason it was made at all was to capture the very same audience, and perhaps for studio bosses that was exactly the case.  And yet, knowing Tarsem as I do, I could never view it that way.

The film, as Martinez suggests in his vehement and negative opinion, can easily be said to be a hot mess, in one viewing.  Even though I have an abiding love for Tarsem, that's pretty much how I saw it myself the first time.  It was virtually impenetrable, or in other words lacked clarity.  Cavill isn't nearly as striking a presence as Butler is in 300, and he's rarely in a position as Crowe is for the majority of Gladiator to command attention.  The roles are very different.  If anything, Cavill is far more like Sam Worthington in Clash of the Titans, a reluctant hero who has to crawl all the way to the top (besides being a generally heroic and capable kind of guy to begin with).  (Given that few people seem to like the Titans remake, this is not such a great allusion.)

No, the big star of Immortals is Mickey Rourke, who approaches the villain role much as Butler does the hero role in 300.  There's also John Hurt, who has one of the most distinctive voices in film today, who acts as narrator and one of the guises of Zeus, as well as the lovely Freida Pinto in one of her early post-Slumdog Millionaire roles.  (She is was and always will be the best thing about that movie.)  The fourth and fifth leads go to Stephen Dorff and Luke Evans.

The gist of the story is that Rourke is a power mad monarch who wants to declare war on the gods by unleashing their ancient rivals (who just so happen to be...the Titans).  Naturally Zeus isn't too keen to see this happen, so he gently nudges Cavill into position to stop this from happening.  The problem is that in the chaos that follows in the wake of Rourke's maneuvering, Cavill ends up further from his goal than is convenient.  By the time he's ready, it's too late and the big battle at the end of the film has already provoked tragedy, including the deaths of several gods, which finally forces Zeus to break his own vow of noninterference.  It is indeed Cavill who stops Rourke, thus being the hero Zeus thought he could be, but the catastrophe remains.  But then again, the original war between the gods wasn't so great either, and once the Titans, like the kraken, are unleashed there's only so much damage control possible.

The visuals do indeed evoke 300, but there are the telltale signs of Tarsem all around.  (He began his career in music videos, but called greater attention to himself with The Cell, in which Jennifer Lopez traverses a surreal landscape.  In fact, Tarsem is always immersing himself in those.  It's the story he tells every time, and like a great storyteller is always finding new ways to do so.)

As far as clarity goes, however, there's not so much of that going around, at least initially.  For this reason, it can seem unsatisfying and even a gross case of bad filmmaking in general.  In such cases it's easy to extrapolate that the story simply didn't work or was executed poorly, or that characters behaved stupidly.  All these things are the reaction of someone who failed to connect with the presented experience.

So why am I going on and on about this in a post that's supposed to be about my specific writing experience?  Well, for one thing I recently had another look at one particular chapter in my manuscript for Minor Contracts, one of three I have floating in the air.  I was unsatisfied with the way I'd written it.  And I went back to reservations I've had about the opening chapter.  And I started to think, maybe I have to write the whole thing over again.  Generally, I hate even the idea of doing that.  I will sometimes have to start over again, but I've never even thought about doing that with a whole manuscript.  With the Modern Ark  manuscript, I haven't thought about doing that sort of thing too much, because it's a whole house of cards, almost every chapter doing something entirely different.  If I move one piece, the whole thing could collapse, and I've already monkeyed around with the opening chapter of that one several times.  I'm of the idea that what was going through my mind when I wrote the thing in the first place is more than likely the best version.  Anything else is just another version.  If the due diligence was performed in the original conception, you should be fine.

Now, certainly editing is a key thing to consider.  In movies editing can affect everything.  Oliver Stone has four cuts of Alexander (my favorite movie, and another sword-and-sandal epic), for instance.  Studio heads used to chuckle wildly as they hacked apart Orson Welles' work.  With someone like Orson Welles, you change the shape of his work and you most definitely change the whole thing.  (I'm not claiming to be Orson Welles, mind you.)

And I'm just talking about things I've already written.  Twice now in the past month I've already radically altered the course of the next manuscript I'll be writing, In the Land of Pangaea, even thinking of alternate titles (which happens to my stories frequently anyway, even years after I've completed first drafts).  Thinking of those changes and the changes I could make to Minor Contracts doesn't even begin to take into account clarity.

Because I'm always wondering how clear my stories are.  Most of the writers around me strive almost single-mindedly for clarity.  Sometimes I've taken that to patronizingly calling their work simplistic.  And yet most stories are like that.  When it's anything but it's either quickly forgotten or a classic.  (And no, I'm not going to say I write classics.  That's for history to decide.  And here you understand that I'm speaking in the voice of Dr. Sheldon Cooper.  Which reminds me, bears are terrifying.)  

When I'm looking at my own work and not even considering clarity, I can understand why I look at a movie like Immortals differently than A. Lee Martinez.  Clarity is clearly one of his priorities.  Me, I can deal with a little mess.  This isn't to say that I'll accept anything.  There's really is such a thing as a hot mess, when someone's reach has exceeded their grasp.  I don't think that's the case with Immortals.  It would be hard for someone like Tarsem to do that after nailing something as brilliant as The Fall.

So when I look at my own writing, and worry about specific elements or passages, I'm worrying less about how they will ultimately work and more about how they fit into the greater tapestry.  There's got to be a unifying imperative.  In Immortals it was always John Hurt and and my belief in the abilities of Tarsem.  Did I convince myself the movie worked because I wanted it to work?  That will always be the counterargument.

But I don't think so.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Kennedy Curse releases 10/1/13!

The Kennedy Curse, the new anthology from Big Pulp, is scheduled to be released on October 1.  I'm excited, of course, because my story, "The Cuban Exile Crisis," is included.  And even more exited, because it marks the first time a Space Corps story is published by someone other than me.

Of course, it's not just Space Corps, my sprawling space opera epic, that interests me about the story or the anthology, but my long interest in JFK and his whole family, something I picked up from my mother and I've enthusiastically continued.  I'm one of those people who believes in the conspiracy theory, that the events that will be commemorated for their fiftieth anniversary this coming November may not be exactly how history remembers them.

But my story isn't about that.  It's set in the future, actually, and as the title suggests occurs in Cuba, where a descendant has ended up.  She finds herself entangled in another international incident, although this one unlike the other one comes in the midst of a full-blown war the whole world is facing.  In the Space Corps universe this is humanity's introduction to the Danab menace.  The story doesn't worry too much about this war so much as the main character's troubles as she attempts to figure out where she stands and what if anything she can do about it.

And other people contribute other stories, too!  Here's the Amazon link.

The Complete Yoshimi comes to paperback

That would be the cover for The Whole Bloody Affair, a.k.a. The Complete Yoshimi.

Available here in paperback!

For those unfamiliar with Yoshimi and her fictional and well as publishing history, here's a brief recap: The warrior orphan was originally conceived at the behest of a friend's budding publishing label.  They were just getting into the business of releasing novels at the time, and I saw this as an opportunity.  I don't tend to write terrifically straightforward fiction (in other words, I'm more of a literary guy than James Patterson, or in other other words I'm not usually very commercial in the traditional sense).  Yoshimi's story was immediately cast in the vein of things I'd enjoyed, in books and film (and her name taken from a Flaming Lips album), the revenge plot.

The complete story is very similar to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third in that series, while it borrows significantly from Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman's Kill Bill.  The truth isn't always what it seems, and Yoshimi has a lot of people to defeat along the way.  (So, she's also similar to Scott Pilgrim!)

The small publisher folded in the midst of the planning stages for the book's release.  

Earlier this year I started and intended to release each of the book's three volumes separately.  Then a lot of things very rapidly changed for me, and I lost the original schedule.  When things finally settled down again, I had the impulse to release the whole story in a single volume, as I had intended to at the conclusion of the serialization.  And so here we are.

As for the cover, I've pretty much been sticking to the available templates at CreateSpace, and that's true again here.  The color scheme is an homage to the iconic posters for Kill Bill, Vol. 1 while also evoking the red pattern for the second (here it takes the shape of an ominous field of blood).

As to whether or not I'm trying to trick unsuspecting consumers into buying my book by using a phrase closely associated with Kill Bill, well, as far as I figure, Tarantino is in no rush to use it, and it has a nice ring.  Why not?  (Then again, perhaps I'll find out.)

...Of course, it's my fervent wish that this is the very last book I'll ever have to release myself, and I hope I'm going out with a bang.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

CassaStorm brewing...

Today's the release of Alex J. Cavanaugh's CassaStorm!

...Although I suspect that if you're visiting this blog you probably know about it already!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Whole Bloody Affair

Friday night I undertook another marathon session with Amazon's CreateSpace to put together the release of The Whole Bloody Affair, a.k.a. The Complete Yoshimi.

And you can thank Miley Cyrus for that.  You may have heard a thing or two about Miley recently.  I finally had a look at the VMA performance, and it struck me that she wasn't giving a performance so much as having a good time.  Clearly trying really hard to be who she wants to be, and as such she's become a bona fide rock personality, the new Mick Jagger if you will (she's got the moves).

Anyway, and so I've had Yoshimi sitting around since 2011, and earlier this year I released the first volume of her adventures.  I recently completed a move back to Maine, and I had computer files sitting there and I saw Miley twerk, and I thought, why not?  So I put the package together and prepared The Whole Bloody Affair for release.  It's not perfect.  These self-made releases rarely are, and after Miley I guess I kind of decided it was okay.  If I'm going to release something myself, I shouldn't stress so much about that.

So there it is.  Once the book goes through the full release, I'll have a bunch of links, but here's one to start with.  The cover, once you see it, is pretty simple, an homage to one of the inspirations for Yoshimi's story, Kill Bill, which I've been loving for a decade now.

If you want, help me spread the word, or wait for the Amazon and Kindle listings.  Either way, I'm just glad that I've finally gotten the whole bloody thing out there.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Good Readers Make Good Writers (and Updates)

The title of this post pretty much says it all already.

It's my firm belief that a good writer needs to be a good reader.  Being a good reader isn't the ability to read fast or copiously, but rather understand the material, sort of what your teacher used to try and teach you in school with all those ridiculous interpretative essays.  Being a good reader is knowing what a story is about, and how the writer tells it.  It's probably about reading more than one kind of story, even if you have a favorite.

Basically, if you can't do any of that, you probably will never be much of a writer.  Being a good writer while being a good reader isn't aping your favorite material.  If that's your goal, then you will never be a good writer.  Being a good writer is about being inspired, and being a good reader will help you be inspired all over the place.  Being a good reader makes you observant, and not just when reading, but out in the world that is not specifically composed of words.

So that's what I have to say about that.

Recently I told you I would be working on a bunch of stuff, and some of that stuff I actually did finish, and when I said I hoped I would.  I finished the first draft of "Unsafe at Any Speed," and sent that off.  And then I wrote "Outliers - A Deep Space Nine Celebration."

I'm pretty proud of both, but can only show you one of them.  Here's links to "Outliers":

Part 1 (featuring Ben Sisko, Jadzia Dax)
Part 2 (Nog, Rom, Quark)
Part 3 (Miles, Keiko, Bashir, Odo, Kira, Worf)
Part 4 (Dukat, Kai Winn, Garak, Eddington, Kasidy Yates, Weyoun, Tora Ziyal, Female Changeling Damar - it should be noted that even though there are a lot of characters in this one, you should at least pay attention to Dukat and especially, as always, Garak)
Part 5 (Martok, Vic Fontaine)
Part 6 (Zek, Ishka, Ezri Dax, Molly)
Part 7  (Jennifer Sisko, Jake Sisko, Morn)

Enjoy!  Or not!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

My Current Doings

Things I'm currently working on:
  • "Unsafe at Any Speed" - This is a short story for a WWII era anthology that's being spearheaded by Brennon Thompson, started out as a proposal for comic books but has since shifted to at least initially a prose property.  This story takes its title from one of Ralph Nader's famed consumer advocate articles (that for some reason he never talked about while running for president), but features a character I first envisioned while I was in high (possibly middle) school, a youthful speedster who sucks at being a speedster.  I've been working out the whole arc of the story, and that's been fun, as well as started writing it, but for some reason I've known that this isn't one that I should just get over with, which is what I do with the majority of my short fiction.  Thompson's vision is known collectively as The Tarnished Age, and hopefully I'll have more to say about this, even though it's been a thing I've been helping develop for months now.
  • In the Land of Pangaea - Perhaps I've got a problem of the impulse to write too many books, especially considering that I've had a "little" trouble getting them published by someone other than myself (though I'll be working on that with Seven Thunders in the coming days and weeks, submitting it to at least two potential outlets).  The book I'll be starting soon (because I've more or less written a manuscript a year since 2009) is something I hadn't even considered until earlier this year (thus postponing yet again some other stories), but the more I've thought of it the more excited I've been to work on it.  Pangaea is all about a fake pre-history of mankind, a previous era of great achievement that takes place two hundred million years ago (during the Jurassic period), and ties together a lot of obsessions I've had and want to work out in writing (which tends to be what all my stories are about, which I figure should be what every writer does), among them the continent of Africa, Hurricane Katrina, and the trickster god Anansi, who makes a cameo (along with other deities) in Minor Contracts.  And yes, in my mind, part of the whole reason for writing Pangea at all is to help justify both Minor Contracts and the earlier Modern Ark, because one of the other things I hope to accomplish with Pangaea is a further exploration of dragons, and our continuing obsession with them, but outside of a typical fantasy setting.  The story will unite the present and the past, and dragons will be that connection.  The biggest conceptual hurdle of Modern Ark is the fact that the main character is a dragon, although he is also a perfectly normal human being.
  • "Outliers - A Deep Space Nine Celebration" - I've been writing Star Trek fiction for more than a decade now.  For most people, this stuff is known as fan fiction, but for me, it's just another form of my own particular work, that follows its own particular rules, and is not strictly just me mucking around someone else's playground.  Actually, my Star Trek work is a huge part of my formative development as a writer, and I'm particularly grateful to it for that reason.  This story will appear on my writing blog.  Although fun fact!  I've written at least one Star Trek story every year since 1999.  This one won't be this year's first, but it will be one of the few ones to feature the cast of my favorite series, Deep Space Nine, which premiered on TV twenty years ago this year.  "Outliers" will feature each of the signature characters just before we met them, some of them in the very first episode, and many well beyond that point.  Should be fun!  Hopefully this particular one will be done before the end of this month, as will be the first draft of "Unsafe at Any Speed."
  • And yes, there are a bunch of other stories I said I'd be working on this year, and before my laptop developed issues, they were absolutely going to be done.  But life threw some curveballs, and this is what I did with them.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Big Pulp - The Kennedy Curse proofing

I just finished proofing my entry in the upcoming Big Pulp anthology The Kennedy Curse, which includes my story "The Cuban Exile Crisis."  For some reason, the editors capitalized the "p" in my last name.  I'm sure my far more French ancestors did that, and I know my brothers have done retrofitted it back that way themselves (while my sisters both sport married surnames now), but I'm carrying on a tradition here, and have for all my previous published work.  Retaining the exact spelling of "Laplume" proves all the more important to me considering a decade ago I was fully convinced that I would write under a pseudonym.

(This has always been something of a small joke for me, considering "Laplume" translates to, variously, "the feather" or "the pen."  My own name is a pen name!  I like to imagine future generations, should I be lucky enough to be remembered as a writer, just assuming that it's not my real name.  To those prospective fans, I will now reveal my true surname: Firefox.  My name is Tony Firefox.)

Another reason to be particular about my last name is that I come across very few French surnames in the world of books, excepting of course French writers themselves and the occasional Cajun. 

"The Cuban Exile Crisis" has another distinction that I've referenced in the past, in that it will be the first official publication of Space Corps material, "official" in the sense that I didn't release it myself.  Reading through the proof, I'm reminded that I took a very deliberate literary approach to the story, "deliberate" in the sense that it reads like ordinary prose, not exactly the style I normally use.  Even if this is ends up being the only Space Corps story published this way, I think it'll give people a small idea of what the rest of it was about. 

The anthology is centered around the Kennedy clan and its legacy, and so is "Exile Crisis" (the title of course is a pun on JFK's Cuban Missile Crisis), but it also reflects the basic struggle between humans and the alien menace known as the Danab that lies at the heart of the saga.  While approached obliquely, the emphasis on the human toll carries the weight I would expect from an Space Corps story.

I'm excited for this Big Pulp release.  I should be getting my contributor copy sometime this month, and the release is scheduled for September.  I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Writing Seuss (insofar as I can)

A few weeks back I finally wrote the script for a Dr. Seuss bio comic.  This is significant because "finally" can be extrapolated to mean "after about a year."

This was the third of three comic book biography scripts I've written for Bluewater Productions.  Early last year I wrote ones for Neil Gaiman and Mikhail Prokhorov, the latter of which was released last fall.  A few months after sending in those scripts I was asked if I wanted to do one for Seuss as well, and I quickly agreed.

That was the only quick thing about it.  For whatever reason (and I could certainly come up with a lot of excuses), I just didn't get into writing that one the way I'd done the Gaiman and Prokhorov scripts.  Those I was able to do the way I'd done the speculative work from the days when I was a regular on the Digital Webbing message board.  I could write a full (22 page) script in a day or two, without much development time at all.  That's exactly how I did the Gaiman and Prokhorov scripts, research and all.

Yet with Seuss I'd set myself up conceptually.  I didn't just want to write about Seuss, but rather do it in rhyme.  Chances are very good that you've read Seuss yourself.  You know how distinctive his work is.  I didn't want to mimic Seuss so much as evoke him.  There was a great FoxTrot homage to How the Grinch Stole Christmas that I'd read probably within a year of accepting the assignment, and I had also been reading Seuss again during infrequent visits back home in Maine where my nephew lives (he's since become a Big Brother).

This Seuss deal wasn't just an assignment.  I doubt any American who doesn't follow Nets basketball cares much for Mikhail Prokhorov (no offense!), and until his name was brought to my attention I'd never even heard of him.  Gaiman, of course, is a personal favorite, and that's absolutely why I was eager to write that one.  Seuss was different.  Gaiman is talented, but I'm not sure he's larger than life.  The only writers I would compare in terms of personal stature would be Stephen King and Dave Barry.  The key difference with Seuss is that he had a long life and has in fact ceased to be.  There are a lot of things that I got to learn and enjoy about him that I got to translate into the script.

For instance, I inadvertently duplicated one of his own creative experiences in the amount of time it took me to write the biography.  Seuss took a year to write The Cat in the Hat, his version of a more interesting classic primer being perhaps more of a challenge than he originally anticipated.  At this point in his career he'd already written numerous books and all of that followed earlier occupations such as advertising and the military.  The Cat breakthrough was followed in quick succession by The Grinch, arguably his two greatest and most enduring accomplishments.

I don't mean to compare myself to Seuss by any means, but I think I can understand what took him so long and why the way it played out was exactly the way it should have.  That's something anyone can appreciate, whether you work creatively or not.  I ended up pretty satisfied with the script.  What would it have looked like if I'd written it a year earlier?  I'm someone who believes there are specific moments where a specific work finds itself in a specific shape.  I was in a very different place a year ago.  I wouldn't say that my abilities are vastly different today than they were then, but the fact that I kept getting blocked tells me that it wasn't the right moment.  And I don't believe you can force your best writing.  (Although of course years of schooling certainly tried to convince me otherwise.)

Anyway, that was my big recent creative development, and I figured I should write about it here.
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