Wednesday, December 3, 2014

IWSG December 2014

The Insecure Writers Support Group released the book it had members help create.  You can read about that here.

I'll use this meeting to wrap-up my year in writing.  Technically I made horrendous progress in my attempt to make people pay me for writing.  I sold virtually no books and publishers were as usual completely uninterested in me and my inadequate attempts to convince them to think otherwise.  I released a book in February and the one person who read it hated it.  I mean hated it.  Can I emphasize that any more?  Hated it!!!

So, as far as my ego went in 2014, it probably has a number of bruises still looking to heal up.

But the thing is, I think this was an incredibly crucial year.  I worked on a number of projects and had some breakthroughs that could very well lead to that golden future I aspire to.  Yay me and all that.  I'm not even just about talking my fiction.  One of the biggest projects of several big projects I tackled this year came at the very start, something I finished after starting a year ago this month, a complete Bible commentary, something I hadn't even intended to do when I decided to finally read the Bible all the way through for the first time.  I'm thinking of releasing that as a book.  If any significant readership materialized for it, I'd probably have to talk myself out of a lot of controversy, but I'm okay with that.  I more than okay.  I'm at a point in my life where I need to start asserting myself.

The Star Wars project was a personal triumph and came with great creative fulfillment, and that's as much as any writer should ever really hope to expect.  I think the more I pushed to finish it before the end of the year the harder I made it for the few readers who cared to continue doing so.  That's okay.  The "comic strip" I'm wrapping up soon went the same way.  Early in the year I had a wealth of support, but it vanished the longer it went on.  But for me, it represents closure, having finally figured out the full shape of a story I've been trying to tell since high school.

I finished writing a very long novel in the early months, and then tackled the start of a very short one in the closing ones.  (Maybe I'll still finish the draft of that one before the end of the year.  It doesn't matter.  Circumstances I won't discuss here drastically affected the shape of the whole year, and my ability to continue writing as I normally would.)

And various insights on old projects as well the conceiving of new projects entirely.

But I should stress that 2014 also walloped me good!  One anthology that would've been the culmination of a writing group filled with people I knew in another lifetime vanished.  Another seems destined, officially, to go nowhere.  The last of three comic book biography scripts has been spinning wheels looking an artist for more than a year now.  I failed completely in a writing contest, not even being selected to enter the voting rounds.  And I know with absolute certainty that if I expect anyone to randomly find my books on their own, much less like them, I can probably sell myself a bridge, too (but don't worry, it's a nice one with historic value and a whole ode dedicated to it by the poet Hart Crane).

Maybe next year I'll have better things to report...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Okay, so the 18,000-words-in-a-day thing is not gonna happen...

I just wrote 12,000 words, the first section of my new WIP, The Pond War, what was supposed to be the grand unofficial NaNoWriMo project where I was gonna burn through the process quicker, relatively, than ever before.

But things change, and I'm happy with that.  I tried writing the beginning of Pond War a few weeks back, and it wasn't feeling right.  I stepped back.  I didn't mean to stand back this far, but it ended up being the right thing.  I found out what was supposed to happen in the story, everything I was wrong about.  These things happen.

I renamed another of my manuscripts during this process.  I've never renamed so many stories as all the manuscripts I've written over the last few years.  What I published as Pale Moonlight earlier this year had a few different names before that, and I was convinced each time I had nailed it.  Holy Men is now known as Metatron, a fundamental shift that also led to some changes within the manuscript itself.  I'm hardly impartial in such matters, but I think that's only made that one stronger.  Pond War is itself not even this WIP's original title.

I've even revised my end wordcount goal, downward.  I did some research and discovered 90,000 is wildly unreasonable for the age group I'm theoretically targeting.  It works.  Maybe I'm getting lazy, but I'd be happy with 50,000, which at least means that if I'm able to unofficially win NaNo again, I'll be done the first draft entirely by the end of the month.  I can be very happy with that.

We'll see.

(Edited to reflect more accurate word totals.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

IWSG November 2014: My Insane NaNoWriMo Approach This Year!

For this month's Insecure Writers Support Group post, like more than a few others I'm actually going to discuss NaNoWriMo a little.

National Novel Writing Month is the insane time of the year when you get to learn exactly what kind of writer you really are by powering through 50,000 words in a thirty-day span.  This was something I officially tackled in 2004-2006, which led to The Cloak of Shrouded Men, my first book , and unofficially been completing while writing various other books starting in 2009, including last year when I started on In the Land of Pangaea, which I wrote about here at the time and apparently that helped inspire Michael Abayomi this year, which is pretty cool.

This year I'm being totally insane.  Back in 2011 I managed to write chapters of The Whole Bloody Affair (also known as the Yoshimi Trilogy) in 10,000-word increments.  The idea, if it is at all possible in reality, is to try and nearly double that, with 18,000 words with each chapter as I tackle The Pond War, my War of 1812 tale that's a mash-up with the Tim Laflamme character originally introduced in Land of Pangaea.  It's my bid at Alice in Wonderland and every other story like it (Peter Pan, Wizard of Oz, etc. etc. etc.), except the fantasy will actually be in the real world and brutal reality through the door to the other side.

Why am I writing, or attempting to write so many words each day?  Because I figured out I could when I needed to write a lot of words last year.  Whole Bloody Affair was training ground.  The more experience I have writing, the more I'm aware of what I'm comfortable writing, and Pond War is something I've been developing, or in other words thinking about, for much of this year.  I'm feeling confident.  Ridiculously overconfident?

We'll see!

Monday, November 3, 2014

The end of the Star Wars Variations

I just wrote the last installment of the 101 Star Wars Variations.

To get the whole thing finished this year, because I'd gotten too far behind in the pace I should have been maintaining all year (in the early months I wrote about a third of what I should have and then half, and then only by May had I figured that out).  By the end of September, I'd determined to ramp up the process, writing one a day until I was finished in time for November, when I hoped to began my next novel, The Pond War (the name it's taken since the last time I mentioned it; also known as The Cement Pond and Belle York previously).

In a way, that forced me to do something I rarely do, which is follow the old writers adage of actually, you know, writing every day.  It was good practice, or so I figured, at the very least, preparing to write another whole book, something I'd previously learned how to do, of course, during NaNoWriMo, which I tackled for the first time ten years ago.

By the end of the Variations, I'd realized something important.  More important than this whole crazy idea (inspired by a comic book based on George Lucas's original draft, The Star Wars, which features familiar names and situations, but most of it severely jumbled up) being a giant compensation for the fact that I'd loved Star Wars my whole life but had never really written stories about it the way I had with Star Trek over the years.  (I'm more than caught up now, thanks!)  This was about realizing what Star Wars truly was for me, how and why I felt the way I did about it.

You see, I'm one of the fans who actually like the prequels.  I think I've realized why.  I never saw the originals any other way than as a trilogy.  By the time Return of the Jedi was released in theaters, I was all of two years old, far too young to have experienced it the way the first generation of fans had, after being part of the 1977 phenomenon that was the theatrical debut of Star Wars, when it didn't have Episode IV or A New Hope attached to its title, much less the 1980 revelation that was The Empire Strikes Back (in which Darth Vader delivered his shocking news to Luke Skywalker some four months before I was born).

I can appreciate how those first fans experienced the original trilogy.  As part of the second generation, the one that actually yearned for more movies and thought they would probably never happen even though the wait was really only sixteen years (chronologically younger than Luke was when the saga began), the originals stood in approximately the same vacuum, except for one key difference: for me the whole story, such as it was at the time, unfolded at the same time.  I never had a chance to consider any one film on its own but rather all three together, inseparable.  It was all one long arc.

For the first generation, I imagine that most of the fun with the first one was that it was exactly what it seems to be, a terrific science fiction experience, something that had never before been accomplished with such precision and skill, bombast, bravado, mystique...Basically everything you could want in a movie.  It was the birth of a whole new era.  Adventures began to dominate films more than ever before, with new purpose, with something to live up to, something to try and improve on (they're still trying, by the way).

For these fans, although they thrilled to the wild invention, it was the experience as a whole they savored.  They admired the individual components, the things that led to more movies, and it was far easier to differentiate, to prefer, to begin having those pesky...expectations.

Those fans are probably the bulk of the audience that ended up hating the prequels so much.  For second generation fans like me, and as you've no doubt heard repeatedly third generation ones, younger viewers, the prequels were easier to stomach.  The thing is, the prequels make perfect sense for the succeeding generations.  They expand on the story, especially because they're prequels, going backward to show how things began, to visualize things we already knew, the biggest one of them all, in fact: how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.

For the later fans, it's easier to look at the full scope of it as a family saga.  We never really dwelt on the pesky inconsistencies of Luke and Leia's relationship, because we already knew what they were, that Leia would end up with Han despite their exceedingly contentious relationship, that Luke's journey was really about the redemption of his father rather than the traditional heroic quest meaning, essentially, that Star Wars wasn't really about the Rebellion against the Empire at all, even though that's what destroying a couple of Death Stars along the way represented.

Writing a series of stories exploring these elements, twisting them and turning them and pushing them to their logical limits, I realized more and more that Star Wars wasn't about the adventure at all, but its characters and how they relate to each other, their importance to each other, whether their last name was Skywalker or not.  I had to write exactly what I knew rather than create some other set of characters and some other random adventures, which is what most writers invariably do with Star Wars fiction and what I once read and then became incredibly weary with, because all of that entirely missed the point.  Star Wars is not random at all.  Treat it that way and you lose all perspective.

That first generation of fans, and who knows maybe even traitors from my own and whoever felt like sympathizing along the way, forgot all that.  They only remembered what they wanted to remember about Star Wars.  The romance, if you will, which ironically is also why they hated so many direct romantic gestures in the prequels, a galaxy that was on the verge of collapse.  They became nitpickers.  Nitpicking only exist when you've already made up your mind to hate something.  You will hear from most of those fans that they prefer, in the end, the dirty reality of the originals.  Do anything else with Star Wars and it ends up seeming like just another period drama.  Star Wars fans don't do period dramas.  That's the whole point, right?  They groove on Yoda admonishing Like about the Force, or Han being sarcastic about it, but they don't actually want to see Jedi running around all over the place, don't want to know the real rather than metaphorical source of their powers.  Anything more complicates things.  They had all the complications they wanted in the originals, thank you.  Been there done that.

Immersing myself in something like that, anyway, got me to write a lot of short works, and maybe even got me to think more about what I write.  They call this stuff fan fiction, but I don't like thinking in such terms.  The characters may be familiar, and even the situations, but it's still me doing all the thinking, figuring out where it's all headed.  It takes different shapes, one more than a hundred of them, actually.  That's what writers do all the time.  They reinterpret the world around them, try to make sense out of it, even when it seems other people have done it and done it better before them.  It's a challenge.

Writers ought to like challenges.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

IWSG October 2014

It's the one-year anniversary of the Insecure Writers Support Group website, and to celebrate the fine folks behind it are putting together a helpful anthology with contributions from members.  We have a choice between three topics: writing, publishing, and marketing.  They're asking that we provide in this month's post our contribution, which topic we've chosen, a title, a bio, and whether or not we give permission to use it.  So:

title: "Woes of the English Bachelor"
topic: publishing
bio: The author has published such books as The Cloak of Shrouded Men, The Whole Bloody Affair, and Pale Moonlight, and can be found blogging at the eponymous Tony Laplume.
permission: yes

There's a subset of would-be world famous writers who had the misfortune of attending college and subsequently becoming English Bachelors.  Now, it's important to note that English Bachelors are not by definition single and alone and did-I-mention-alone, but as far as I can tell from my own experience, this seems to be their natural state.  It's a byproduct of their tendency to read and write and did-I-mention-read-and-write during the hours of the day when they are not sleeping or eating (although skillful English Bachelors can combine sleeping and eating with reading and/or writing with little effort), and when not reading and writing trying to spend the rest of that time in activities that will directly promote these efforts.

When they have done enough reading and writing they have the curious tendency to seek the status of Being Published.  Being Published is a byproduct of having spent their entire lives reading and writing, more natural than even sleeping and eating.  When they discover that the real world is not like the Cozy Cocoon of College (that is also, I might add, located adjacent to the alliterative-friendly Crazy Town) and there are not teems of hapless individuals forced to read and/or publish them, they have two choices: and I don't remember what those are, because I am an English Bachelor, and I've discovered that after the Cozy Cocoon of College, I in fact only had one option after leaving it, which is Crazy Town.

The end result is that they become Insecure Writers, and the byproduct of being an Insecure Writer is finding increasingly orthodox ways of getting published, but not necessarily read, anyway.  These English Bachelors are typically Insecure Writers because they learned all the ways to write that no one outside of their subset actually wants to read.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Finding the story

Letting a story percolate is perhaps one of the most important things a writer can do.  Maybe it's a lesson I've learned on my circuitous journey to what I'll today call (with apologies to Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance) authentic publication, I don't know, but I sometimes sit on stories for years, even decades.

This isn't totally unusual.  A lot of Stephen King's recent output has been work he originally envisioned or tried to tackle early in his career but for one reason or another didn't think he could execute properly at the time.  I don't know if those stories changed for him once he finally wrote them, but that's certainly been the case for me.

The story I was originally going to write about was the final novel (as the complete saga now stands in my outlines) in the Space Corps sequence.  (Mind you, I've only written one of them so far, Seven Thunders, and I happened to get my first rejection for it on my birthday, of all days, a little over a week ago.)  Based off something I'd written that wasn't even originally part of that novel, I realized something that absolutely needed to happen.  As it stands, this element will be the subject of an epilogue.  I love epilogues.  I love flipping the script on something the reader thinks they've previously known pretty well.  I don't believe in one-dimensional characters, for instance.  Someone who's seemed like the villain suddenly turns out to be sympathetic once I've presented their full story.  (Something I developed in my writing during Seven Thunders, and certainly I'm indebted to Lost for fully appreciating as a storytelling technique.)

Then I realized something about what I wanted to do with Belle York, the manuscript I'll be tackling this fall.  As it turns out, I've had to change the title, to The Cement Pond.  Suddenly this has become a much more personal story, a realization I had after a recent viewing of Saving Mr. Banks, the movie about the battle between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney over the making of Mary Poppins.  I'm still working on dotting all the t's in this new vision of the story, but I'm more excited than ever about it.

Finally, I had an epiphany concerning King of the States, a comic book project I developed a few years back, while reading the Salman Rushdie memoir Joseph Anton.  I've been trying to break into comics for years, with mostly miserable luck.  Next year I'll be in the position to spend a little money on artistic collaboration to try and get myself into a position to pitch projects to publishers like Image.  The beauty of States is that it's a long maxi-series split into short arcs, so I can sell it one arc at a time (I realize this approach bit Jack Kirby in the butt when he tackled New Gods) if necessary.  I changed the main character's name, figured out what he ought to be doing, what he did, and what it means for everyone around him.  Suddenly the whole thing seems as vital as I only thought it was originally.

All three are instances of coming up with better versions of stories I thought I already knew, all because I didn't jump on writing them as soon as I came up with the ideas.  I tend to write on spur-of-inspiration, changing the story even as I'm writing it, so this isn't entirely new to me, but having a better idea of what it should be before I begin, I think, is about as good a way to approach a project as there can be.  To have done this with three projects more or less at the same time has certainly made for an interesting couple of weeks.  I'm the kind of writer who thinks most of the art of writing is actually the art of thinking about the story.  The advice of writing every day can help with fundamentals of the form, but I don't know that it necessarily improves the storytelling, unless you're capable of doing both at the same time.  Storytelling, for me, is everything.  You can be an excellent writer, but if your grasp of what you're trying to tell is poor, then you're still, ultimately, failing as a writer.  Some of the worst writing I've read is clearly the result of the writer going full-steam ahead with an idea that was never fleshed out.  They insist on following through with whatever they came up with first when it should have become clear at some point that the story was in fact headed in a different direction.  It's like a writer who thinks description is everything, but they fill a room with nothing but empty space.

Ever realized that about something you were working on?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

IWSG September 2014

It's time once again for everyone to climb about the IWSG ship!  (I doubt anyone will get the reference.  It is probably better that way.)  Click the link this month, because there is exciting Insect Wings Swooping Gracefully information.

I'm sorry, I've just been informed that I've been meeting with the wrong group.  Alas, I will continue all the same!

When I was writing about fan fiction in my last post (not my last Insect Wings post, but the last one I wrote here in general), I kind of glossed over a crucial thing I realized recently:

But before I actually finish that thought, let's rewind a little!

Pocket Books has been publishing Star Trek fiction for years.  At the turn of the millennium it decided to let fans get in on the action with a series of annual Strange New Worlds contests.  I decided I'd like to get in on the action.  Prior to my initial attempt, I'd never written a story outside of a class assignment.  I didn't end up being selected that first year.  I didn't end up being selected the next three times, either (I don't remember if I actually submitted the last one, but go with me anyway).  The second effort remains the most personal of the early stories I wrote.  I'd just begun college, and this was the first time I'd been away from home for an extended period.  I ended up writing about my own experiences about returning home for the first time, using Jake Sisko as a surrogate.  I have no idea if the resulting story was any better than the first effort.  I know my third entry was written very esoterically, and that alone was probably enough to have made it another easy failure, but writing that one helped move me along creatively, and I suppose that was the best I could have gotten from the experience, all considered.

Long story short, I've realized, finally, that these early publishing failures were probably deserved.  The time I lost a chance to write for Top Cow comics (another contest) was probably deserved, too, even though it was another useful learning/creative development experience.  Heck, I would never have learned about Double Steak Day, if I'd won that one.

We tend to consider failures to be, well, failures, and deservedly so, but sometimes (hopefully always) we can take positive things away from them, and maybe even, in time, realize we actually...deserved to fail.  It sucks, but we can't always win.  *cough* Red Sox *cough*  Yeah.  Doesn't mean we always deserve to fail, either.  Sometimes there's just no accounting, except to realize there are a ton of people trying to accomplish the same exact goals, and I guess that idea of being prepared really is relevant to the outcome.  All you can do is try and be the Best Possible You at any given moment.  Maybe that BPY isn't always impressive, even to yourself, but sometimes it really is about the effort.  It's not always what others think of you, but what you think of yourself.  This is not selfish thinking.  An honest person should always be comfortable with themselves, even when rough patches hit.  Trust yourself.  Believe in yourself.  There's always next time.  And in the meantime, enjoy what you're doing.  Do your best.  Strive to improve.  Move along. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Star Wars

Today I finished writing the fiftieth installment of my "101 Star Wars Variations" flash fiction.  In a practical sense, it's a necessary milestone for August, because I hope to finish the suite by the end of the year.  Needless to say, I've still got some catching up to do based on my current pace, no matter how accelerated I've made it recently.

As the title of this project might imply, "Variations" is my look at the saga with alterations ("from a certain point of view"), the story featured in the six films changed here and there, settling on individual characters and how it might be interpreted differently, or outright changed.

Prior to this, I've never really written Star Wars fan fiction.  (Although I've been writing Star Trek fan fiction for years, I've long struggled with the term "fan fiction," being something I tend to interpret negatively; aside from my origins writing unsuccessful submissions for the Pocket Books Strange New Worlds contests, I've always striven to find my own voice in these efforts, which is the secret origin of everything else I've written since.)  I'm deeply steeped in love for Star Wars, a fact of my existence that's about as old as my existence as a whole.

Writing these things has been a new challenge for me.  I've taken the opportunity to stretch my own definition of what I'm like as a writer.  Most of what I write can be considered thought exercise.  Writing straight-out narratives or, you know, scenes, isn't always my top priority.  I tend to immerse myself in the interior lives or narratives of my characters, which ends up taking precedence over whatever they're actually doing.  Taking Star Wars as a framing device is a way of taking a shortcut around these instincts, then.  It allows me to try and be a little more casual.

Which isn't to say I'm not indulging my own instincts, too.  There's plenty to go around.  The song remains the same, but the lyrics, the tune, they're always shifting, and I'm having a great time.  Allowing myself to play in the sandbox has been a real revelation.

Anyway, I'll let you know if I've successfully completed this peculiar saga by the end of the year...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How a very short story came about...

Back in May I decided to take another shot at DL Hammons's WRiTE CLUB.  Turns out my entry wasn't selected to compete.  Fine.  That wasn't ultimately all that important to the 500 word story I wrote for it.

(Read it here.)

"Slightly Fitted" began as a challenge for me to overcome something I'd told Nigel Mitchell in my reaction to one of his 100 word stories.  Every writer has pet peeves.  One of mine is the word "scream."  Except on rare occasions, it's just not a description I care to read much less write.  After leaving a comment to that regard, I guess I started rethinking that.  So I decided to write a scenario where a character heard a scream.

While I was thinking about it, I remembered another piece of micro fiction I'd written over at Sigild, "Facts in the Disappearance of Elmer Haskell."  If you take the time to read it, you'll see how incredibly minimalist it is (and very, very short).  It was just an idea I had that I never really explored, or particularly wanted to.  Except finally I kind of wanted to.  I started thinking about it.  Elmer turned out to have a sister who went searching for him.  I was no longer interested in Elmer himself, or exploring why he disappeared, but the rest of the context.

And it seemed like a great time to once again revisit the Space Corps sandbox.

As my long-suffering readers will probably know, Space Corps is my sci-fi saga.  I'm pinned my whole literary future on the absurd belief that I will get a major publisher interested in it.  Fame and fortune, movies, all of that.  I've developed Space Corps for decades.  I made a focal point of Seven Thunders, and wrote the first full-length Space Corps manuscript a few years ago.  I sent Seven Thunders to a major publisher.  In a little over a month, I will probably get to stop waiting for a response.  It's just more slush pile material to them.  For me, it's everything.  Yeah, I've self-published a good bit of material at this point.  I understand that it's ridiculously common at this point for writers to expect self-published or small press books to be legitimate conclusions to their literary journeys.  But I want more.  Especially for Space Corps.  It's a dream.

"Slightly Fitted" is part of a curious development for Space Corps.  Most of what Space Corps will be was developed years ago.  Refined, sure, over the years, and continually so, but the books in the series I hope one day exist and can be found in any good bookstore (or digital platform) looked like they were all outlined, the story complete.  Until I realized it wasn't.  I had never actually developed the story of how humanity entered the intergalactic community.

As a Star Trek geek, First Contact was a crucial moment.  I adored Enterprise.  I love seeing how things begin.  In more recent times I've been writing snippets of stories like "Slightly Fitted" that have helped shape this beginning to the Space Corps saga.  I snuck one such into The Kennedy Curse, an anthology that for me represents a kind of official literary debut.

Now, Space Corps has primarily become the story of humanity's relationship with the Danab.  I could tell you a lot about the Danab, but suffice to say that they're big nasty aliens and there were two major wars fought between Earth and them.  Seven Thunders pivots around the second.  All these snippets have been shaping the first.

The other thing "Slightly Fitted" explored was the idea of immigrant life.  Writer G. Willow Wilson fascinates me for any number of reasons, but one of them is because she's a woman who converted to Islam.  So there's a little of that in this particular story, too, and the reason why the main character is a little girl.  I could write a lot more about this situation, how it more directly ties in with "Disappearance of Elmer Haskell," for one (which also transforms whatever I used to think I knew about that one).  The book outline I've crafted for the new final Space Corps story doesn't necessarily feature any of these elements, but who knows?

What most interested me about "Slightly Fitted," though, was naming a Danab city.  I loved what I came up with: Gugu Kendi.  "Gugu" as in actress Gugu (goo goo) Mbatha-Raw, who recently starred in Belle but who was also completely adorable in Larry Crowne ("Tis gratis!") and was featured in the short-lived Undercovers.  Since the last book will be saturated in all things Danab, this was a fine way to really start getting a feel for them.

(A city name that includes a word like "goo goo" for big nasty aliens?  To me, intriguing.)

For me, Space Corps is indistinguishable from sci-fi worlds that exist in movies and television, the ones I love (Star Trek, Star Wars).  It's not really something I think about in relation to sci-fi worlds as they exist in other books.  I haven't really read a lot of sci-fi books in that regard.  Seems kind of stupid.  I'm pretty sure I haven't written Seven Thunders in a fashion that's similar to other conceptually similar books (military and/or space opera).  Par for the course with the way I write.  I think I managed to make it more accessible than, say Pale Moonlight.  But what do I know?

Hey, I'm an idiot for my own material.  We all are.  It's so personal to me, though, that I don't think I could self-publish it, the way I've been going.  I don't want it to languish.  I think it sells itself.  Can't get into WRiTE CLUB, but hey (I thought most of the writers from this year were terrible anyway).  Crazy stupid dream.

But they all are.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

IWSG August 2014

The first Wednesday of the month means burritos for every beagle the Insecure Writers Support Group meets once again.

This month's thoughts are basically "The Babylon 5 Dilemma" revisited.  Last time I talked about the seminal J. Michael Straczynski TV series, I wasn't terribly kind to it.  This time will be different.

I've been trying to find things my mom will enjoy watching.  This is not always as easy as it might seem.  As a family we've always been obsessed with Star Wars, so I figured one day that maybe she would like seeing the original Battlestar Galactica film.  It kind of landed with a thud.  I followed that up with In the Beginning, the Babylon 5 movie TNT aired in 1998 as part of the network's push for the show's final season.  It's always been my personal favorite memory of the series.  Surprisingly, my mom liked it too.

The dilemma this time is that I don't really have a lot more B5 to show her.  There are, of course, five seasons of the series, plus the short-lived Crusade spin-off, and a bunch of TV movies (Beginning, as well as the pilot, The Gathering, and River of Souls, Thirdspace, A Call to Arms, The Legend of the Rangers, and Lost Tales).  I have the DVD collection of all the movies except the last two.  I can keep showing her these movies.  I could start buying more of the saga.

Should I?  In the Beginning is pretty unique.  It's self-contained in a lot of ways, a story told from the perspective of Londo Mollari, the draconian (in more ways than one) Centauri who regrets his secret role in the Earth-Minbari War, speaking about it years later as a way to amuse a couple of kids.  It's elegiac, prosaic, probably the best single selling point of the whole experience.

Babylon 5 always suffered from a relatively minuscule budget.  This caused issues with the production I wasn't always able to overcome.  At least two of the actors were of the quality I think would otherwise have been beneath the series under ideal circumstances.  But then, I think Straczynski's famous need to control nearly the entire scripting process severely limited the series.  When he was inspired, such as the scope and the arc of his vision, Joe was close to untouchable.  But he wasn't always keen on the details.  One might say he tended to write in broad strokes.  That's evident in Beginning as well.

But I love Beginning all the same.  I love its subtleties.  I always loved Peter Jurasik (who played Londo; the other real treasure was his nemesis, Andreas Katsulas as G'Kar).  I love how it's written.

At its best, Babylon 5 was everything its fans always said it was, and I guess my mom unexpectedly liking it was a way for me to see it that way for, really, the first time.  We all have experiences like that.  For years we're convinced we hate something, and then all of a sudden we realize we don't.  We might even become big fans.

As a writer, as a writer who specifically fears that his material might never find an audience, this is a special kind of dilemma.  Execution is a hard thing to master.  What works for the writer won't always work for the reader.  It might be an issue of the talent simply not being there.  It might be an issue of the story needing to overcome a general lack of writing talent.  It might be an issue of the talent being something the reader simply can't appreciate for whatever reason.  It could be a combination of all those.  Then again, appreciation might only come as a fluke anyway, so who's to know where it comes from?  Get people to think positively about something, and they'll sell the merits of anything, even stuff that has no merit.  How do you even gauge these things?  One day you don't get it and the next you do.  If it exists, if it continues to exist, there're always possibilities.

I mean, life is hard enough just trying to figure out what you can control.  The things you can't, maybe that's just something writers should worry less about.  So what do you say?  Should I try and get my mom some more of this Babylon 5 material?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Seven Facts About Seven Thunders

Seeing as today is 7-7-14, and that's not going to happen again in my lifetime (probably), I figured I'd take a moment to talk about Seven Thunders again.  Don't worry; by the time you're done reading this one, if you so choose, you'll know what it is if you've forgotten or hadn't heard me talking about it before.

  1. I originally came up with the idea for the book in 1998.
  2. The title is an allusion to the Book of Revelation in the Bible; I replaced the original one with it thanks to fond memories of DC's 1996 ad campaign for Kingdom Come, which drew from the famous biblical apocalypse for inspiration.  There are no real allusions to Revelation other than that, however.  There are seven major characters.  Two of them are brothers, and they are the main characters whose arcs drive the story.
  3. It's not the first story I started working on in the Space Corps saga, but it's always been the most important one.  There are eight additional books currently planned in the saga.  The next book is a prequel and the third is a sequel.  Since these are the earliest stories I began work on, dating back to 1995, I've since found them malleable to reshaping in light of what Seven Thunders became, a process I'm still working on.  The prequel, for instance, now features a conflict of brothers at its heart as well, while the sequel will likely feature one of Seven Thunders' brothers more prominently than it originally did.
  4. It is based on the War of 1812.
  5. I finally started writing it in the fall of 2012, which counting 1998 meant it took fourteen years to percolate.
  6. It features three acts, as many of my manuscripts do, although in this case it's because I originally conceived it as a trilogy of books.  Space saga, three acts.  Seemed appropriate.
  7. There is a British war film from 1957 (alternate title: The Beasts of Marseilles) with the same name.
    via Movie Mail

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

IWSG July 2014

The Insecure Writers Support Group meets on the first Wednesday of every month (except that one).

The book I've been reading, an advance copy of Matthew Thomas's We Are Not Ourselves, has gotten me thinking about the Great American Novel.  I wonder how many writers even still think about such a thing.  I've been trying to figure out why Thomas's book has such incredible hype surrounding it, because it's really not very good, and the only thing I can figure is, because writers in general don't really think about the Great American Novel anymore.

We've become a niche generation.  A hundred years ago this would have been unthinkable.  Of course, a hundred years ago writers were busy laying the foundation for exactly what we've become, but they approached it differently.  They approached the idea of genre as a lens by which to view the real world.  I think we cracked that lens a long time ago.  I think we have no concept that the lens ever existed at all.

So we have generations of writers, especially the current one, where all they think about is storytelling that has no real interest in talking about things that matter.  When someone like Thomas comes along, a new voice (because so many of our esteemed writers are old voices), and he tackles the real world, the literary community gets carried away with itself.  I think that explains Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, too.  Because that's not a very good book, either.  It's the same thing the Academy Awards try to do every year when they award Best Picture, find the movie that speaks to what we're thinking of ourselves now, a commentary that defines our times.

In other words, the whole idea of the Great American Novel.  The idea that we can reach beyond ourselves, our own petty interests, and be expansive, be grand, be great.  Not just write for the sake of writing, but try and say something, express something.

I've stumbled around with this in my own writing.  Pale Moonlight was my first real attempt to tackle it, and so I guess that's another reason I'm especially sensitive about it.  When I wrote In the Land of Pangaea, I embraced the challenge a little more directly.  Some of the projects I have lined up will try to be even more direct about it.

I have no idea what the Great American Novel actually is.  I think it's an ideal, one we hardly recognize even when it happens.  Something like We Are Not Ourselves comes along, and critics fall all over themselves to embrace it, laud it, exaggerate its worth.  Because it's one of the central conceits of being an American, that at our best we write the best.  But it seldom seems to actually happen.

Just something to consider.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On the Docket 2014

  • Holy Men - Another manuscript that has undergone a number of different titles.  This is my Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel story and was originally started Fall 2010.  I've been contemplating self-publishing it in the near future.
  • Book of Doom - A project cobbled together from story fragments I've had for years, including "Tug Rushmore," the book I wanted to write after graduating college.  Was one of two books I considered making my Fall 2014 manuscript.
  • Space Corps Book 2: The Dark Riders - This is the second.  The first book in this series, Seven Thunders, was the manuscript I started Fall 2012.  Dark Riders and Book 3, The Fateful Lightning, are the two oldest outlined concepts in the Space Corps saga, while Seven Thunders was always the showcase centerpiece (and is my latest attempt to win the interest of an actual publisher).  Recently I've been revisiting Riders and Lightning, looking for ways to not only improve them but also make them more similar to what Thunders ultimately became.  That's resulted in somewhat radical character revisions for at least three characters (probably four) though not necessarily anything different in their arcs.  (Context is everything.)
  • In the Land of Pangaea - The Fall 2013 manuscript is sitting in a drawer.  Not figuratively, as most of my manuscripts do, but in an actual drawer because at the moment it exists only in a single print copy that I sometimes dread WILL BE LOST TO AN INEXPLICABLE AND PROBABLY NOT LIKELY (???) DISASTER.  When will this one move forward?  It's anyone's guess (although somewhere within the 21st century would be a better one than others you might suggest).
  • Song Remains the Same - This is something that kind of became a spin-off of Pangaea, specifically the last section (the blatantly autobiographical one).  Features the same set of characters in different permutations and interpretations.  I stopped writing this one about 60% into it, and I kept expecting to continue at some point, but at a certain point, I realized it was actually a good thing to stop when I did.
  • 101 Star Wars Variations - Pretty much the same as the above, but with Star Wars characters instead.  I sketched out the complete list at the start of the year, and hope to have them all written by the end of the year.  If I'd written a mere two a week from the start, I'd be in pretty good shape right now, but I didn't, and so I'll be playing catch-up (although I'm too lazy to do the math, I won't really know or care when I don't have to anymore).  So far this has been great fun.
  • Belle York - This is the Fall 2014 manuscript.  It's an idea my sister gave me.  She's long been a Beauty and the Beast fan, and so it seems natural that her idea was for me to write my version of the story.  The ideas started flooding, and so I was able to fashion it pretty quickly into my own idea.  Like Seven Thunders it's going to return to the War of 1812.  I'll likely be writing more about this one in the months ahead.
  • Foundlings - This is another book I will work on at some point, my version of the JFK/LHO story (if you don't know one of those acronyms off-hand, you certainly know the other).
  • Zooropa - An actual book that brings together a number of disparate concepts (a lot like Book of Doom) that I've been serializing in crude comic strip form all year long, which thanks to having a (series of) notebook(s) where I record all my ideas, I was recently reminded that the conclusion I'd formulated for the comic strips is not the actual ending.  I sometimes dabble in comic writing.  This will hopefully be my first comic novel, which will not completely shame the late Douglas Adams, who was the obvious inspiration for how it all began.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

IWSG June 2014

The Insecure Writers Support Group posts on the first Wednesday of every month (except Smarch).  That is today!

Truthfully, I nearly packed it in.  I mean, I nearly gave up on posting to this blog.  Not because I stopped considering myself to be a writer (that's not gonna change) but because I had drifted away from the point of blogging about my perspective as a writer.  Part of the reason doesn't even have to do with anything I've done here.  Readers over at Scouring Monk may or not realize (or care) that I stopped posting my Zooropa strips there.  I started receiving feedback that didn't seem to realize what I've been doing with them, so I figured people were just tired of it and didn't feel like just saying so (people rarely are that direct on the Internet; we're a very passive aggressive digital community).  So I just took that ball and went home.  Nearly did that here, too, as a result.  I got a comment from one of the Geek Twins (you can't please them all both) concerning something that really didn't have anything to do with him.  I'm only addressing the situation directly because of another situation from earlier this year, also concerning Scouring Monk rather than this blog.  For a good number of months I participated in the Armchair Squid's Cephalopod Coffeehouse virtual book club.  It's a bloghop exactly like IWSG, but with a new linky list every month.  Now, when I periodically say I don't play well with others (such as this whole post), you will know what I mean (in case you didn't already).  Andrew Leon had been adding somewhat related posts onto those lists (several each month) for all that time.  It's not like I never clicked the links.  Each time I checked they weren't actually about books.  Which is what the Cephalopod Coffeehouse is all about.  So I got fed up with that and made a comment over at his blog.  No big deal.  He just deleted it.  But then Squid made an anonymous comment on his blog about playing nice.  I knew it was about me.  I said so.  He made a vague comment in return about hoping I wouldn't stop participating after I suggested maybe that's what I should do.  But I did stop participating.

Now (here you get a new paragraph), lately Andrew has been submitting actual book talk links to the list.  That's fine.  I hadn't really been thinking about it that way, but I guess the whole reason I reacted the way I did was because it was basically Squid's fault for keeping all of Andrew's bad links in the list to begin with.  I tend to start thinking like this.  I assume Squid was fine with Andrew's antics because they actually know each other in real life.  Maybe they don't.  I can't keep all these relationships straight.  I know Squid knows Mock, and that Andrew to me is better known as part of Pat Dilloway's dedicated circle.  I know that Andrew and Squid and Mock are all teachers.  Anyway, I have a history of not agreeing with Andrew's thought process (although bizarrely we sometimes randomly, completely sync up, such as our positive opinion of Saving Mr. Banks), and so that had a huge role to play in why I ended up making a comment about his Cephalopod Coffeehouse habits (at that time).  When I read a blog and don't agree with their thought process, I don't feel like making a contrary comment after all their posts.  I just stop reading them.  No one on the Internet wants to have conversations.  This is a land of histrionics and disagreements.  (And cats.)  Or unconditional support.  Which I can't do.  (This makes me a bad person in some ways.)

All this dirty laundry...This isn't the way the IWSG/A-to-Z Challenge folks (either those who participate in these things or are associated with those who do and/or have) behave toward one another.  I know this.  I'm a rebel with low readership.  I'm talking about any of this because that's my thought process this month.  This is definitely a problem for a writer working on a blog for readers who spend all their time supporting each other without really giving it a second thought.  I give everything a second thought.  And a third thought.  And so on.  I quit Squid's club, and stopped reading his blog entirely, and by the rules of reciprocity, he gave up completely on me, too.  The only person who doesn't follow these rules is Pat Dilloway.  I still can't explain that.  Perhaps you are aware of my other great blogging faux pas from early in the year: giving Pat the silent treatment for a few months after he gave Pale Moonlight a devastating review.  In fact, that's exactly what the subject was from the most recent incident I mentioned at the start of this.  I know Pat's instincts pretty well at this point.  I knew he wouldn't even come close to liking the book.  And so it was not at all surprising that he didn't.  All this time since, I've been trying to explain why it hasn't affected my creative thought process so much as my blogging experience, why I wonder why I should bother.

I blunder all the time.  I can't be the shiny happy blogger.  If that means I have to spend an entire IWSG post talking about matters that sometimes don't have anything to do with actual writing, then so be it.  Because being a writer in this context also means being a blogger.  And being a blogger has become so much more complicated since people actually started reading my material.  I still don't know how that happened.  I don't remember how I stumbled into Alex Cavanaugh.  But then I did the A-to-Z for the first time, and suddenly I had readers, full of expectations, ones I had never even considered before.  I was writing long before I had readers, but suddenly these readers are coming up with comments that aren't all that relevant to what I'm doing.  I just don't get that.  I get that I don't overlap in my thought process with a lot of other people.  I've dealt with that my whole life.  That, apparently, just is not going to change, even in the expanded pool of people available on the Internet.  I get that people in the IWSG are here to support each other no matter what.  But what I'd really like is someone (anyone) who gets what I'm trying to do.

And so every setback is a cause to make me insecure.  So there's that tie-in with the point of this particular club.  When I spend months trying to explain what Pale Moonlight is, even after the Dilloway review, and still get the comment that I should just forget it, I think that's completely beside the point.  Having this blog is all about my perspective.  If it's not, what's the point?  I'm not here to rationalize why someone didn't like my book.  I guess I'm not even here to convince anyone to read my book.  I've found that just doesn't work.  People read books by bloggers they like, not books they like.  (Most of the time, they end up liking those books anyway.  So you see why that whole thing baffled me.)  I can't say things like this without alienating everyone.  You guys are the definition of support.  But only as long as the rules are adhered to.  The people who define those rules, they have the greatest support around.  Everyone loves them.  They're lovable.  I get that.

I kept this ball on the field, but this is to say that I'm going to play by my rules.  The consequences don't really seem to matter.  Bad reputation?  For what?  For being honest?  For calling a spade a spade?  In the best of all possible worlds, Candide is running around experiencing all kinds of shenanigans, and people like honesty.  I don't know.  It doesn't matter.


Friday, May 30, 2014


I really wasn't go to do it.  Long-time readers may recall my ultimately miserable experience with DL Hammons's WRiTE CLUB two years ago.  I vowed I'd never go back.  But things change.  I figured, why not?

The concept, I think, has been improved.  You can read all about it here, including the streamlined selection process.  There will be a finite number of samples in contention.  One of the things I thought had gotten wildly out of control previously was how bloated the whole thing had become.  Good for Hammons.  Bad for people actually trying to participate in the thing.  Technically, the new format doesn't guarantee every submission will even make it into the contest.  If mine doesn't, that's fine.  I'm actually okay with that.

And I will try and play nice once the contest kicks off next month.  (You have until tomorrow to enter, by the way.)  I know I don't always play well with others.  But knowing your weaknesses is the first step to working around them.  Hopefully.  Even making this step is a distinct improvement over my worse instincts, so there's that.

I may or may not keep you updated on how this actually play out.  We'll see.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On the subject of beta readers

Never ever ever ever ever ever use another writer as a beta reader.

Now, let me clarify: a good writer.  A good writer will only be able to give you two kinds of feedback:

  1. It's a work of genius.
  2. It needs work.
If your beta reader/good writer is honest, they will not easily bestow "it's a work of genius" on your work.  A good writer will always have good suggestions for "it needs work;" they are the only suggestions worth considering.  (The problem is, if you take advice from a good writer, you're also opening your work to having a co-written status.)  

A good reader will only be able to tell you that it doesn't generally work; in that instance it's still the writer's prerogative as to what, if anything, needs to change.  That's a reader's job.  To have a reaction.  To experience the material.

All of which is to say, that's my opinion of beta readers.  They're an established element of the writer's repertoire.  Look at any book and you're liable to find a lot of thank-yous in an acknowledgements section.  To me, this is always kind of the unnecessary look behind the curtain.  It's nice that/when a writer can depend on a lot of resources to reach the end of their story, but to my mind, writing is still a solitary achievement.  Writing books, anyway.  It's a completely different story, talking about movies or TV shows or music.  That's why there will always be a stark contrast between books and other entertainment mediums.  That and the fact that it's a completely different experience, almost always demanding far more commitment than others.  But that seems to be changing in our current binge culture.  Still, you know what I mean.

I appreciate the concept of sounding boards.  Writers want to know if what they've been spending so much time on is actually working.  The more nervous writers are already questioning themselves.  They can hardly even finish what they're working on.  The most nervous writers (besides the ones who can't manage to put a single word down) are the ones constantly questioning their stories as they're writing them.  Parallel revision.

But if you must depend on beta readers, know what they are.  Understand that you can't just assume you will get the valuable feedback you're expecting.  Asking other writers is like asking for trouble.  If you're a writer who really does need this support, are you asking others writers you know are better than you, or are you asking those who are of a comparable skill set?  If the latter, are you just assuming that you will improve each other in the process?  Or setting yourself up for further mediocrity?

Because that's what I fear.  I fear that writers who depend on beta readers won't really consider what they're risking.  Maybe it's a matter of what I personally expect from writing.  I have no real interest in writing for the sake of writing.  I want to produce something that has the potential to be remembered, for all the right reasons.  I don't just want to slap a few words together entertainingly, slap my name on it, and get a lot of readers.  I want something good.  Not just something passable.

If you end up with a good writer as your beta reader, are you willing to accept their advice?  Because chances are that good writer will not react to your material the same way a good reader will.  Both can forgive a lot, more than you'd expect.  Reading is inherently a marathon.  It's pointless to expect every word to be perfect.  But the story as a whole should be.  No matter how you approach that.  The reader will forgive more than the writer, though.  The reader will be less demanding.  But the writer will force you to a story that will make good readers.  And perhaps even good writers.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

IWSG May 2014: The Curse of the Writer/Reader II

The Insecure Writers Support Group meets the first Wednesday of every month (unless it's doomsday, in which case we meet under tiny umbrellas because what the heck else are we going to do?), and...guess what day it is?

No, it is not Blernsday.  (The day we play blernsball, naturally.)

I'm going to talk about the Curse of the Writer/Reader, which is to say writers who also happen to be active readers and the blurring of the thought processes between these two modes.  Are they in fact separate at all?

I just don't know.  It's probably easy to assume, because obviously it's the same brain processing both experiences, but what if the way you write is in fact vastly different from the way you read?  As readers, it's easy (or should be) to tell when you're engaged on a critical level.  You know when something is or isn't working for you.  But is it the same when you're writing?  That's the real trick.  I like to think I do.  I do go back and fix and/or totally rewrite some parts of a manuscript, but often I consider the act of altering a story a betrayal of that story.  If I start changing things too much, the whole integrity of it begins to fall apart.  To a certain extent, once you start writing something, it starts to take over.  To go back and question the decisions you began making is in effect putting yourself back in control.  But is that really what you should be doing?

When I change things in editing, it's usually a beginning or ending, to make it better align with what the story became rather than how I originally envisioned it.  The writer in me trusts my instincts.  But what does the reader think?  When I've gone back and read my own material, years after the fact, I've still been pretty satisfied.  The way my memory works, I wouldn't be able to remember every little detail, where it is or sometimes even what it is, so when I've gotten feedback asking me about certain elements, I have to scratch my head a little.  But, especially when I went back and reread the Monorama collection a few months back (and this is not to try and sell you on the book or toot my own horn) but I really was engaged as a reader.  They say we write what we want to read.  (In the case of poor writing, I hate to think of what those people like to read.)  That's what I try to do.  I take bits of inspiration from the stuff I most enjoy, and mix them with my own thoughts.

There's always the chance I'm completely delusional.  I guess the term "beta reader" has come into fashion, but at any rate it's the idea of having test audiences.  I always kind of questioned that phenomenon.  The feedback from these people really is no different from whatever the writer can expect from any audience.  If you depend on these people, you really have to trust their instincts.  And, I assume, doubt your own.  It's one thing to find out you had a blind spot about something, but at a certain're also asking for co-writers, basically.

One of my favorite anecdotes from college was learning T.S. Eliot completely rewrote "The Waste Land" after receiving feedback from Ezra Pound.  First off, "Waste Land" is an acknowledged work of genius.  But to think that Eliot only arrived at it after Pound's observations opens a whole can of worms.  On the one hand, obviously Eliot always had the poem in him.  On the other, the finished work becomes as much Pound's achievement as Eliot's.  The thing that Eliot wrote was basically something else entirely.  It boggles me, it really does, and has haunted me for more than a decade.

Is that the sort of thing all great works require?  For someone else to chisel it, basically, out of the block, like Michelangelo contemplating his next masterpiece?

There are all sorts of cautionary tales of famous writers who, left to their own devices, deliver bloated would-be great new works (Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch comes to mind).  But there's also someone like Herman Melville, who wrote Moby-Dick to considerable apathy after initial great success with far less accomplished material.  Someone who would winnow the tale of Captain Ahab down to something more conventional would be robbing history of one of literature's great achievements.

So that's what I mean by the Curse.  It's a constant struggle for me, and I think it ought to be one for every writer.  It's another sign I don't trust you as one if you don't have these doubts.  Sometimes I'll start writing a story a couple of times before I feel confident that I've discovered the proper entry.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe writing needs a guiding hand, needs a critic outside of one's own head, because maybe the reader really is different from the writer.

Well, maybe.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Curse of the Writer/Reader

So I had a Goodreads Giveaway listing for Pale Moonlight, ended yesterday, and the winner ended up being a college student over in Great Britain, a fact that would have meant less if I hadn't already decided to give the winner, whoever they turned out to be, a copy of The Whole Bloody Affair as well.  Those of you have have read Yoshimi's adventures (Pat Dilloway) know they end in England.  So that means, if Goodreads Giveaway Winner reads The Whole Bloody Affair (much less Pale Moonlight), they will probably know better than anyone how much I screwed up that particular portion.

I was pretty gratified that some 800 people signed up for the giveaway (I didn't mention it here, or the free Kindle listings I had for a number of books yesterday because of reasons that escape me at the moment).  I had it open for more than a month, and I guess as it drew to a close there was a surge of interest, because last I knew the count was more around 300 (and it wasn't that long ago).  In the listing I made sure that all the important things to know about Pale Moonlight were clear, including caveats, so that means either all those people completely ignored them (ooh! free shiny thing!) or decided they were okay with my nonsense.  Now, I'm finally kind of getting over a certain incident (Pat Dilloway, I guess I will go ahead and apologize) involving the book from earlier in the year, but I'm feeling nervous again.  There's no way to know how Goodreads Giveaway Winner will feel about it, much less the possible mixed blessing of receiving another of my books along with it, or if Goodreads Giveaway Winner will even give feedback at all.

Recently I read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which slightly less recently won the Pulitzer.  I wasn't nearly as impressed with it as Pulitzer was, except for the opening act, which other reviewers have actually called on of its weaker elements.  Clearly different readers see different things, have different interests.  But it makes me wonder.  Tartt is a well-respected author, clearly, and one of those lucky writers to have had their talent evident and acknowledged early, so she's been able to live the life we bloggers only think we envy (David Foster Wallace).  Someone like me can come along, read her third book, and wonder if she's really worth the hype, and...all I end up thinking about is my own work.  It's the curse of the writer/reader.

A writer who also actively reads (I can't even begin to imagine what it's like to apparently read exclusively other indy material, which is what other bloggers seem to do, because that would send me into Insecure Overload) may sometimes find themselves in the position of criticizing someone else's work and then realizing, "Hey, who am I to talk?  What if my work is even more questionable?"  Wondering how another writer came to make the decisions they did is especially dicey ground for someone like me who made a thousand questionable decisions in Pale Moonlight, whose influences for believing they were anywhere near appropriate came from comic books rather than other novels.  And maybe for a reason?

I'm currently reading a book (Alif the Unseen) by a comic book writer, G. Willow Wilson, whom I absolutely adore.  And she seems to have made an easy transition between the two mediums.  Before Wilson and Tartt I read an indy book, Daniel Clausen's Ghosts of Nagasaki (honestly, people, some of this explains itself if you look at the bottom of the blog and take note of my Goodreads widget), which made me question my own talents for entirely different reasons.  That book was genius.  Made me a jealous panda.  Here's basically one of my direct competitors making it look like a stroll in the park.  Clausen should win a big prestigious award.

One thing all three have in common is that their narratives streams are pretty...streamlined.  That is not the case in Pale Moonlight.  I'm not bragging.  It never even occurred to me to do that.  Each of these other books allows the reader to fall into someone else's life, no matter what the journey ends up looking like.  My main character disappears for long stretches at a time.  Will my Goodreads Giveaway Winner feel engaged?  I'm irrationally consider them a barometer for the overall chances of reaching a wider audience (or any audience at all).

So I'm pulling out of the writer/reader paradox a little.  I'm not worrying if I think I'm better or worse or just plain writing differently (Wilson still has some pretty darn big ideas rattling around her story, but only occasionally lets it show).  I'm just worrying that I'll be one of those books tossed aside in frustration.  I've done that a few times this year myself.  I hate that feeling.

And what if Goodreads Giveaway Reader is a writer, too???

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

IWSG April 2014

In support of Insecure Writer Support Group, I figured I'd share (briefly) how I'm turning a negative into a positive.  Right this very moment!

I'm certain everyone who knows about this has already forgotten all about it.  Which is fine!  But technically submissions for Mouldwarp Press Presents #2 "Song Remains the Same" ended in December.  And also, the deadline was changed to this December.  But I don't think I'll be getting any submissions.

I'm so sure I've started writing the alternate version myself.  This completely violates the spirit of the thing.  As with a number of extremely small press entities that kind of secretly exist only to publish the work of the founding editor(s) and then expand only if it has to come to that and will start out by doing anthologies, that's what Mouldwarp Press Presents was all about.  And I was very pleased to have a success of Project Mayhem.  But I think people realized that my flimsy version of the Anthology Con was even flimsier than other quasi-publishers.

Not to actually speak ill of those other folks.

Anyway, so I ended up taking the bull by the horn, getting gored, and then started writing instead.  That's what I've been doing the last few weeks, and what I'll be doing for the next few weeks that follow.  It's my Lenten sacrifice, writing every workday (which is also how I finished my last manuscript finally).

So maybe by December I'll have released the resulting work.  It'll be a short book at any rate, with a target of 40,000 words.

Don't judge me.

Okay, you can judge me.  But you will still have to see links on this blog when the thing is released.  So in the end, I still win.  Somehow.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Part About Endings

I just read a good ending, in Jerome Charyn's The Seventh Babe, and so it got me thinking about the subject.  As a writer, this is a particularly compelling subject.  It's about as important as the name of the story, the names of the characters.

The way I ended The Cloak of Shrouded Men, for instance, was crucial to the whole story.  When I originally wrote this one, it was during the course of three successive NaNoWriMos, so it's perhaps more accurate to say that I wrote three endings.  The first, after "Colinaude, the Angry Avenger," came about because I realized the main character was headed in a dark direction.  He kills a man.  Considering the main character is a superhero, this is a fairly significant event for him.  The second, after "Repose of the Eidolon," was less of an ending because by that point I knew I was going to be writing the character again.  That ending was more of a beginning, as the character dons his superhero costume again for the first time since the end of "Angry Avenger."  The whole of the third, "Cotton's War," is one long ending.  Actually, it takes place after the ending, the climactic fight the character must experience in order to complete his experiences in the story.  The fight apparently leaves him at death's door, only for an eleventh hour reveal that he's switched places with someone else, and that he's been comfortably observing the results of his response to killing a man from 'Angry Avenger."  His morality has flipped.  He has decided that the only way to respond to a world that no longer makes sense to him is to reshape the landscape.  It is a little like my version of Watchmen in that sense, except there's no belief that he has won a war so much as completed, well, a story.

That was my first attempt at concluding a novel.  The next one, Pale Moonlight, was a little trickier.  The whole story became a study about ideas.  Everything about it is less a traditional story and more a confrontation with 20th century psychology in the wake of some of the greatest horrors history has ever seen.  It's what happens when the climactic battle becomes more about one side walking away.  Who does that?  So the character who is supposed to walk away dies instead.  Of the three protagonists who confront the villain, one of them symbolizes the effort to understand evil, another the effort to reject, and the third the effort to confront it directly, which is to say contradict it.  This is what a lot of people have been trying to argue recently, that instead of picking a fight you pacify the enemy.  Except I'm ambivalent as to how easy that really is.  So if I'm to write a story about it, I write about what I imagine has to happen in order for it to work.  It's such a convoluted story, I'm sure I won't have any readers for it basically ever.  I guess that's why it had absolutely no traction with publishers.

So I went in a different direction with the next novel, which I'm seriously considering self-publishing this year.  I've previously referred to it as Minor Contracts and its original title, Ecce Homo, but it's now going by Holy Men.  This is the first time I've written a long-form story without having some kind of climactic fight at the end.  Like Pale Moonlight, it's a story of ideas, a much more direct grappling with my religious beliefs.  I knew exactly how this one would end from the moment I started writing it, which was why I named it Ecce Homo originally, Latin for "Behold the man!," which is what Pontius Pilate utters to the crowd after having Jesus scourged.  Except the man in my story isn't Jesus, but Adam, who is pleading with God to give his son Cain a second chance.  Really???  It's a story that needs to be read to be understood, and this is something I knew from the moment I started writing it, so it's actually one of my clearer narratives.  Swear to god!

From there, I wrote The Whole Bloody Affair, which was my version of a young adult novel, following the adventures of warrior orphan Yoshimi.  Since the whole premise of this one involved fighting, I knew the climax definitely involved a fight.  And so I peppered the book with a lot of short fights.  It was originally my idea to have the climax feature another one, because I don't choreograph very well.  I have to think a lot about it.  It's the whole reason the superhero in Cloak of Shrouded Men does very little actual fighting.  So I end up thinking of such moments more as set pieces, the way movies center a lot of their stories around specific moments, usually action scenes.

That's what happens in Seven Thunders, which is the first book I think other people might actually want to read.  I've been foolish enough recently to send it to a publisher.  It's the linchpin to my whole Space Corps saga.  Whatever else I write, this is still what I think will be my legacy.  It took me fifteen years and three prior manuscripts to even attempt writing Seven Thunders.  And it was the same movie that ended up informing the fighting in Whole Bloody Affair that ultimately gave me the shape of it, including the ending.  I'm talking about Warrior, the best MMA movie that will ever be made.  It's the story of two brothers and their father, all of them estranged, all of whom converge back into each other's lives thanks to a tournament.  The brothers end up meeting in the finals.  It's seriously one of the best movies I've ever seen.  Seven Thunders is also a story about brothers.  I knew that whatever else I did in the story, I needed the ending to ring as true emotionally for me as Warrior's did.  I'd dreamed about this ending for so long.  Previously it played out a little like the lightsaber duels of the Star Wars prequels.

Endings aren't always my strong suit.  Half the reason I spent a few years doing micro fiction was so that I had to tackle endings on a regular basis, the beginning so close to the ending that there could be no mistake as to how one met the other.  As a reader, I've developed an instinct for how a story's shape looks.  I happen to be partial to stories that end well, not just begin well.  I hear all this stuff about how a story has to begin well, but that's perhaps the least important part of a story.  I've read plenty of bad beginnings that quickly turn into excellent middles.  But how many excellent endings?

Sometimes, when I want to end a story without having really finished writing it, I simply conclude with the overall effect the events of the story have ended up having. That's what I did with "Lost Convoy" from the Monorama collection.  Last summer my laptop died on me.  It ate the ending of Seven Thunders.  Not the ending, but the coda.  With that one, it was as important to do a proper ending as explain what happened after it.  I guess bringing the lessons of Cloak of Shrouded Men and later efforts full circle.  Luckily my sister helped the computer regurgitate the coda.

With the manuscript I've recently completed, In the Land of Pangaea, there are three separate stories that are nonetheless interrelated, and so once more I needed a coda to bring it all together satisfactorily.  I've also been working on Zooropa all year, which is another way I've been meditating on endings recently.  Zooropa is the title I've given a series of stories I've been working on for about as long as Space Corps.  It encompasses "Leopold's Concentration" and several other stories from Monorama, and several that aren't in it.  When I tackled "Eponymous Monk," a serialized quasi-cartoon strip I recently completed over at Scouring Monk, I knew I still wasn't completing that story.  So when it came to thinking up a theme for this year's A-to-Z Challenge, I determined that it only made sense to use the Zooropa world, which was all I needed to finally reach the conclusion, which will come in the form of "Shooks Run," from an outline I actually completed last year, without realizing where the story would be by this point.  (If you're interested in my A-to-Z, it'll be at the Monk, as always.)
So I will soon have the shape of that whole story completed, including its ending, which may seem to be a little out of left field, the way Cloak of Shrouded Men and Pale Moonlight end.  I'm not regressing, though.  I wonder if I will rewrite the whole Zooropa saga one day.  But for now, it's enough to know I finally have its ending, because that's something that has eluded me for close to two decades.  Which is incredibly frustrating for a writer who has made endings so important to his stories.  But all the sweeter for finally having reached it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Music is the key to 12 Years a Slave

I finally saw 12 Years a Slave, know what?  It isn't even necessarily a movie about slavery.  How about that?  It's more about a person who endured a terrible experience, about anyone who has suffered indignity, repression.  And you know what?  There are three elements to the movie you will need to keep in mind in order to understand it.

The first is that, as I said in the title, the music is the foremost key to understanding it.  Solomon Northrup played the violin.  This fact alone certainly caught my imagination, since I played it myself.  It becomes astonishing, then, that this skill means absolutely nothing to the white men who keep him in slavery, that it doesn't appear to be any indication that he or anyone else of his color may be worth more than their estimation.  There's Paul Dano singing, too.  Dano used to be on the verge of becoming a pretty big deal.  He was one of several breakout stars in Little Miss Sunshine.  He was the other notable star in There Will Be Blood.  And now, if you haven't seen 12 Years, you probably had no idea he was in it until I just mentioned him.  Listening to him sing (if you've seen it you know exactly what I'm talking about), it's a perfect encapsulation of the extreme nature of the cognitive dissonance that certainly Solomon had to endure for the span of his experience, that any of the white men who made it happen had to have, that even Dano's character had to have.  The ability to hold two disparate beliefs together.  That he could sing that song and expect the very people it denigrated to clap along.  As if it meant nothing at all.

Of course, there's also the beginning of the blues as the slaves sing in the fields.  Everyone knows that about slavery.  But it's important to have that as an element, too, especially in a film where you don't truly understand it without hearing how important music is to it, encapsulating the contradictions without beating the audience over the head with it.  There are other elements, elements that don't work as well.  But this understated one, it elevates everything.  It defines everything.

Another element is the extended sequence of Solomon's near-hanging.  Like the music, it is astonishing, the signature image for anyone who has seen the movie.  I have no idea how anything else could be.  He attempts to find footing in the mud.  This lasts for him for hours.  For the viewer, several minutes.  I can't think of another movie moment that's anything like it.  Life goes on around him.  Slave children play in the background, even.  Another slave runs up to give him some water.  The whole thing happens after Dano has finally had enough of this contradiction of a slave, and attempts, of course, to hang him all the way.  Another white man stops him.  But doesn't cut Solomon down.  He leaves him there.  This happens in clear daylight.  It's dusk by the time Solomon is finally cut down.  His feet barely touching the mud the whole time, barely able to keep himself from suffocating.

Finally, there are the three crucial white men.  The first is played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  In my experience, it's a rare performance where Cumberbatch does not entirely rely on his famous baritone.  This has a way of softening him so that his voice matches his face for a change.  Yet he's the master who gives Solomon his violin back.  Saying it'll do them both good.  Does it?  Later, we see Solomon finally smash it.  I'd expected Dano to do it.  The second master is Michael Fassbender.  This character is a fool.  He's supposed to be notorious for breaking slaves.  And yet he's completely pathetic.  At one point he and Solomon come so close to fighting, it's ridiculous.  Fassbender has it in his power to do whatever he likes to Solomon.  He already has him whipped regularly because Solomon doesn't pick cotton to the day's average.  He certainly has his way with the slave portrayed by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o.  Yet it's hard to take him seriously.  That's two masters who are pathetic.  The third white man is Brad Pitt.  He uses a voice very similar to the one his character from Inglourious Basterds speaks with, and I think this is a deliberate choice.  Pitt in the other movie was another Southerner who was up to mischief.  He at some point gained the unexplained slash across the throat that leaves a visible scar.  Sort of like what he would later do to the Nazis.  There's material that explains why he got it, just not in the movie.  It's immaterial.  I choose to believe that it was a reminder of his own prior activities in some positive way.  And so the Pitt in 12 Years relates to the Pitt in Basterds very handily.  That's as much sense as I can make out of that.

There are two other white men worth mentioning.  The first is Paul Giamatti.  Here he's dismissively part of the problem.  In his other role from 2013, he's certainly part of the solution (Saving Mr. Banks).  I just wanted to make note of him.  The one that matters a little more is Garret Dillahunt.  This is an actor I know best from the sitcom Raising Hope, where he plays the father, or I guess the grandfather.  In other words, I know him as a comedic actor.  His character in 12 Years sounds just this side of comedic, and in fact is one of the things that goes horribly wrong for Solomon that comes closest to seeming like a real farce.  (Dillahunt, it might be mentioned, also appeared in No Country For Old Men, another Best Picture winner.)

Why am I writing about the movie here, at my writers blog?  Because it's a unique kind of achievement in storytelling.  I think it's an imperfect movie.  But, it actually benefits from its imperfections.  The three elements I've just listed are about as much as you could need to consider it about as good as anyone said it is.  And yes, it won Best Picture at this year's Oscars, so there are plenty of people who think it's pretty good.

I haven't mentioned the actor who plays Solomon yet.  That would be Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I was excited about this movie initially because I thought it would finally give Ejiofor a chance to claim an undivided spotlight.  Having seen 12 Years, I wonder if he seized the opportunity.  I also wonder if I'm wrong in questioning that.  Like Nyong'o, his best moments aren't really in spoken word.  I like actors who can be expressive outside of dialogue.  The moments where Solomon is processing his experience, those are the ones where Ejiofor truly shines, and I think that was a deliberate choice.  There are scenes where the movie attempts to explain how Solomon could possibly endure becoming a slave, but it's more how he conducts himself, not so much in his attempts to rise above, but when he realizes the depths to which he has been cast.

He becomes a universal figure.  And so I say a movie that everyone has called difficult to watch, a movie about slavery, is also a vicarious experience.  Vicarious because Solomon's experience is more translatable than it might seem.  He is not merely a slave.  He's not really a slave at all.  He endures by cognitive dissonance, keeping his true self hidden, as much as possible, from the perception of those around him.  The music, the near-hanging, the white men who hardly present themselves in their best light, all reflect how Solomon has become an object.  Has become less than human.  An element.  It's one thing to be told from history books how slavery was justified.  How black people were considered, needed to be considered just another piece of property.  When Pitt explains to Fassbender the ludicrous intellectual fallacy he's been living by, it's another understated moment in the movie.  Something that isn't stated in bold letters.  But is clear all the same.  All these things that happen to Solomon happen because like so many black people, he was no longer considered capable of understanding his own circumstances, of existing at the same level as the rest of American society.

As a writer, as someone who writes his thoughts on the craft to other writers, a movie like 12 Years becomes something more than what it seems, too.  For some people, it is a powerful experience.  Something that should have happened years ago.  Or maybe just something that needs to exist but is just too hard to watch.  But watching it, 12 Years becomes a portrait of humanity, flaws and all.  And because of those flaws, it becomes more than what it is, more than it seems.  I don't see a perfect movie.  But I see one that's the better for it.  Its best features are better, and its message more bold because of it.

What kind of lesson is there in that?  As writers, we are constantly told we must strive for perfection.  It seems to me, though, that some writers don't really try.  I don't mean that in a judgmental sense.  It's just not what's important to them.  James Patterson, for example, famously decided he'd rather make money than critical admirers.  I wouldn't describe 12 Years as a movie that was only interested in making money, because it hasn't made a huge amount of that, but in Hollywood terms, critical praise can sometimes be the same as money.  There are movies that are described as Oscar bait.  Critics typically sneer at them.  And in some respects, 12 Years was classic Oscar bait.  And yet, the critics never even stopped to consider that.  They saw it as the slave movie, the one that they'd been waiting years to see happen.  And so they patted themselves on the back to acknowledge it.

When you're told something is supposed to be good, you expect it to be good.  And when you find that it isn't quite as good as suggested, you feel cheated.  But maybe that's not the only way to view it.  Often, when I feel cheated I try to look for redeeming elements.  Those elements don't usually actually redeem what disappointed me.  In this instance, they did.  And they led to these thoughts, all of which will probably leave the impression that I am after all giving 12 Years a glowing endorsement.  In a way I am.  In the only way it means for a writer, I guess I am.  In the sum of its parts, 12 Years is perhaps even more impressive than it was made out to be.  It creates, for me, a whole new dynamic by which to judge things.  As a writer, I can only hope to be capable of something like this.  As a viewer, I've been humbled.  I can only wish I were as strong as Solomon Northrup, to be as brave as the filmmakers who put this movie together, warts and all.

Sometimes we mistake our snap judgments for whatever we ultimately think of something.  When something isn't perfect, that's all we ultimately end up thinking about it.  We stop thinking critically.  I'd much rather, as a writer, be able to find something like 12 Years a Slave, that contradicts my expectations, transcends them.  It inspires me.  And that's what every writer should be looking for.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...